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Second Time's the Charm

Chapter Text

Tony had expected something like this to happen. He’d had five amazing years of peace with Pepper and Morgan. Five years where he was honestly happy.

And then Rogers and Romanoff showed up because they suddenly needed him again. Oh he wasn’t falling for that ‘togetherness’ crap Rogers liked to spout. He’d heard nothing from them since arriving back on earth after the disaster on Titan. He’d heard nothing from them when he and Pepper got married or when Morgan was born.

Like always they only turned to him when he could do something they needed, Roger’s earnest blue eyes begging him to put the past aside so that they could save the day again.

Yeah right, more likely so that they could save Bucky again.

Tony wasn’t stupid. He’d learnt from his mistakes and had long since given up on the Avengers ever being a real team. At least when it came to him.

So he told them no. No he wouldn’t help them mess with time and potentially make things worse. No he wouldn’t leave Pepper and Morgan. No he wouldn’t risk dying now that he had a kid.

But he was a selfish person sometimes. And he was weak when it came to people he genuinely loved. Pepper knew him well enough to know that he’d go and join them, that he’d never be able to let the chance of getting Peter back go.

So she smiled at him, eyes glinting with tears, and told him to go. He supposed she expected this too.

He hated the pain in her face as she told him it was okay to rest now, that it was over. He hated that Morgan would grow up without him.

He hated the fear and heartbreak in Peter’s voice, but he was back. He was alive and that made it worth it. Made working with people he couldn’t trust worth it. Made the burning pain in his body worth it.

He wished he didn’t have to go though.

Then don’t. An unfamiliar voice whispered through his mind as the world faded.

What?

Don’t go.

He’s a stubborn one.

He could fix it.

Several voices swirled through his head.

He suddenly found himself standing in the middle of black nothingness as six colours started to form around him.

“What the fuck now?” he groaned, voice echoing…wherever he was.

Your mind. An amused voice answered, the yellow lighting up as he spoke. It’s a fascinating place.

Don’t be creepy. The blue lit up this time, sounding scolding. We want him to help us.

Why do we need a human? They’re weak. Purple glowed and these were the infinity stones weren’t they? Holy shit.

He’s different. Blue…Space? Insisted.

What’s with your obsession with this human? Red demanded, twisting restlessly. Reality right?

He’s different. Space insisted again.

He is. Green, Time, agreed softly. He can fix it.

They all fell silent for a moment. It was a testament to how weird Tony’s life was that he wasn’t completely panicking right now. He was freaking out a little though. But he deserved that much. He’d been pretty sure he was dying before whatever this was started happening.

You were dying. Orange, pretty sure that was Soul, said. Your body could not handle the amount of power you needed from us to fix what Thanos broke.

There was definite distaste in the voice when mentioning the titan.

“You’re not much of a fan of the purple grape are you?” Tony asked faintly while his brain struggled to process everything. This could just be a fever dream. One last weird thing his brain throws at him before he dies.

The colours shifted in…amusement?

We are not tools to be used. Power hissed, the purple light sharpening in anger.

We are not slaves. Reality agreed, light looking more mist-like than the others.

“Well, my theory was that you’re somewhat sentient but I didn’t expect this,” Tony admitted. His inner scientist was freaking out and he really wanted to run tests right now.

See? He’s different. He wants to understand. But he has never wanted to use us. He learns from us. He only used us when forced. Space moved forward slightly, the blue light moving lazily. His heart, he learnt from me and saved himself.

At his approach the arc reactor lit up, shining the same blue as the Space Stone.

The colours shifted again and Tony got the distinct impression that they were curious now.

“The reactor?” he should not be as calm as he was but…science… “Oh…the element was based on the Tesseract.” His eyes lit up in understanding as Space moved back again. “You were in the Tesseract so it’s actually based on you.”

You harnessed time travel without my assistance. Time murmured.

You created living souls from circuits and electricity. Soul sounded awed.

You are human but you fight alongside those far stronger. Power sounded grudgingly impressed.

If something is impossible, you find a way to do it. Reality curled in delight.

Your mind is decades ahead of others, resilient to those who used my power against you in hate. Mind sounded curious and Tony shivered at the reminder of Wanda. The Mind Stone didn’t sound crazy and homicidal like Ultron but he couldn’t quite forget that it…he? Had killed JARVIS.

I was tainted with the pain and insanity of those I’d been used against. He sounded genuinely guilty now. The creation of Ultron took that taint away, out into the world.

The admittance out loud that Ultron had been corrupted by an outside force was like a punch to the gut. He’d told everyone that he hadn’t been close to finished with that AI. No one believed him. He focused again when Space spoke.

I have seen you the most. As a child when your father studied me. As an adult struggling among the manipulations of so-called allies. I have watched your journey through the echo of myself in your chest. I know you Anthony Edward Stark. I believe you can fix this.

“Fix what?” Tony finally asked. They’d said that several times now. “The universe is back to pre-Snap. Thanos and his army are gone.”

The damage has been done. Time sighed. He sounded tired, unlike the others. I see all of time. This branch is doomed to disaster. We need to be returned to our original places in time which leaves this branch without us. Unbalanced. Unsafe.

So many souls were lost as a side-effect of the Snap. Soul whispered, her voice pained.

Tony swallowed. It was something the others hadn’t seemed to understand. When the Snap happened people who didn’t turn to dust still died. Vehicle accidents caused by drivers disappearing. Planes crashing as pilots vanished. Patients dying on the operating table as doctors turned to dust.

The Snap took more than half the population, and the rest of the team refused to understand that they wouldn’t come back after they reversed the Snap.

And on top of that, the economy had adjusted to a smaller population in the last five years. They wouldn’t be able to support the suddenly increased amount of people. More would die before the world found stability again.

You understand the problem. Space said gravely.

Tony swallowed and nodded. “What can we do though? I’m dying and no one is going to use you to fix that before returning you to your proper places.”

Too much damage has been done. Time told him. It must all be redone.

Tony frowned. “Redone? What do you mean?”

Rewind time to a point where things can be changed. Things can be made better.

With you keeping your memories of the future. Mind added. So you can make the necessary changes.

Tony felt his stomach sink with dread while a spark of hope also lit in his chest. “Why me?”

You understand the danger of changing too much. Time answered gently.

Your mind comprehends the things that must be changed. Mind added.

You have the determination to see it through. Soul finished.

“I’m pretty sure you have too much faith in me,” Tony’s voice cracked. “I’m known for screwing up most things.”

The lights flickered and it took a moment for him to understand they were laughing.

You take the blame for problems not your own. Power sneered. And you fix them for others.

Everyone makes mistakes. You are one of the few who accepts your mistakes as reality. You don’t hide from them. Reality shone brightly for a moment. You are not responsible for other’s mistakes.

Tony swallowed hard, looking around at them all.

It is still your decision. Soul said as she took pity on him.

He took a deep breath to calm the clawing panic in his chest. He had the opportunity to go back and fix things. His mind flashed to the past and his regrets. Pepper being in danger because he stupidly sent her to get the information on Obie. Letting SHIELD in because he thought they were necessary. They took the inch he gave them and ran with it, bulldozing into his life. Trusting Romanoff after her whole Natalie routine. Pushing Pepper, Rhodey and Happy away during the palladium poisoning. Throwing all his eggs into one basket when it came to the Avengers and allowing them to walk all over him for the sake of keeping the team together. The disaster that was the Mandarin. Siberia. Leaving Peter alone too long which led to him getting hurt by the Vulture. He could fix so much…

He looked up at the Stones, lighting up the dark like the Aurora Borealis.

“What’s the catch?”

They flickered again in laughter.

Smart human. Mind sounded delighted again. We will all send you back. And you will have a faint connection to all of us as a result. You will know when Thanos has taken one of us. You must be ready to stop him. He moved forward, the yellow light reminding him of Vision. I will allow you to keep your memories of the future in a way that will not drive you insane. However, I have a request. The light moved in a way that looked like the Stone was fidgeting. The Vision cannot exist.

Tony’s eyes widened. “What?”

He is too naïve. Too trusting. He is a liability when it comes to keeping me away from Thanos. And he is too drawn to the little red witch. She is a danger.

The engineer swallowed hard. He hadn’t been close to Vision. The android a painful reminder of JARVIS and his relationship with Maximoff feeling too much like a betrayal. But it still felt wrong to stop him from existing entirely.

You will need your JARVIS more than the Vision. Mind finished firmly.

Tony nodded after a long moment. The flare of joy at the thought of keeping JARVIS made his heart pound. It was probably selfish but he desperately missed the AI.

The yellow light of the Mind Stone reached out and wrapped around his head. Tony stiffened but forced himself not to react. The delicate touch in his mind was nothing like Maximoff’s violent red mist. Tony wasn’t sure how long it was before the light withdrew.

Your memories are protected for the time travel. And they are also protected from telepaths. It would do us no good if others had access to your knowledge.

Tony shook his head to get rid of the slightly fuzzy feeling. “Right.” He still hated mental manipulation but this was kind of necessary.

Space moved forward next. When you create the echo of me, you will find we will be connected somewhat. You must keep that echo instead of removing it again. It will provide protection against the others when they are used against you.

Tony blinked in surprise. “That’s why Loki’s sceptre didn’t work on me,” he realised.

In your armour, it minimises our influence. But when it is a part of you, it nullifies it.

Space moved back again. It was a bitter pill to swallow that he’d have to keep the arc reactor in his chest but the benefits far outweighed the cons. He’d have to wait until after Thanos to remove it.

He nodded to that requirement as well.

Power came forward next. You will know when Thanos has found me. I am the first he finds. You will know he has begun moving then. You must ally with the Guardians. And keep the green one from him.

Reality slipped into Power’s spot as he moved back again.

You will have a chance to take me when I am on Terra. Watch the scientist. She is a curious one. If you reach her first, you can remove me from her. Claim it is your heart that draws me to you.

Tony nodded again, grimacing. Thor was going to be a pain to deal with there. But maybe he could get a chance to talk to Loki then if he doesn’t manage it during the invasion. Knowing he was under the Mind Stone’s influence put a lot of things into perspective.

Soul moved forward now, orange light glowing gently. When needed, you must only call for me. You have already made enough sacrifices Tony Stark.

He shivered a bit as the light wrapped around him. It was warmer than the Mind Stone’s. Reminded him of his mother.

Finally Time came forward after Soul returned to her place. You will be returned to the moment you can make the most change from. My only request, is that you do not interfere with Stephen Strange’s journey. He will come to you when he is ready. He will be an ally but you must wait.

Tony nodded.

Be warned Iron Man. Some moments in time cannot be changed, no matter what you do. They are fixed and they must happen. You must not fight them but you can limit the damage.

“How will I know what’s fixed?” Tony asked.

You will know. We will be connected. You will see the clues.

Tony took a deep breath. “Alright. I can officially say this is the weirdest thing I’m about to do.”

They flickered again in amusement and then started growing brighter. It was time then.

“Here we go again I guess.” He swallowed as the lights continued growing brighter and larger, mingling and wrapping around him. The green was the brightest though. It held his attention until it was the only thing he saw.

Good luck.

He blacked out.

Chapter Text

Tony woke up with green fading from his vision and a fierce burning in his chest. The sharp ache that throbbed through the rest of his body was unfortunately a very familiar sensation after years of Iron Man but it was nothing compared to the fiery agony that using the Stones had been.

He cracked open his eyes and immediately felt the urge to laugh hysterically bubble up. He clamped down on that because it really wasn’t an appropriate response to the situation.

But that was an oh-so-familiar rocky ceiling. One he’d seen in his nightmares for years. Ignoring the itching dryness of his throat he reached up with his right arm. His hand connected with wires and he swallowed the urge to scream.

The moment that he could make the most changes from. Of course it would be fucking Afghanistan.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” A painfully familiar voice said and Tony closed his eyes briefly before turning to look at the man shaving in front of a broken mirror.

Tony rested his hand on the heavy weight of the electromagnet in his chest, hooked up to a car battery. Apparently it was possible to get flashbacks to a traumatic situation while you were in said traumatic situation.

Ah the joys of time travel.

“What the hell did you do to me?” the words slipped out, breathless and panicked. It was what was expected after all. Spoiled little billionaire getting thrown into a war and captive scenario. He shouldn’t handle it well at all. He should be panicky.

He shouldn’t be feeling the urge to laugh hysterically. The Avengers hadn’t taken well to that when he’d done it during the Ultron debacle after all. PTSD wasn’t a good enough excuse apparently.

Fuck he was going to have to give therapy a try wasn’t he?

“What I did? What I did is save your life.” Yinsen’s voice drew him back to the situation, to the cave. This time around Tony caught the edge of wariness in his answer. Back then Tony had thought the stranger was smug. Now he knew better. He was a good man in an impossible situation, trying to do the right thing.

He’d also just saved the life of the man who built the bomb that probably killed his family.

Take notes Wanda.

“I removed all the shrapnel I could. There’s a lot left and it’s headed into your atrial septum. Here, want to see? I have a souvenir. Take a look.”

Yinsen moved over to pick up a vial. Tony forgot how morbid the man could be as he showed the inventor the metal shards.

He already missed the soothing hum of the arc reactor reminding him that something strong was holding those shards back.

“I’ve seen many wounds like that in my village.” He stoked the fire a bit more to fight the freezing cold of the desert cave.

Cold of the desert. Cold of Siberia. Tony wasn’t sure which was worse since they were both born from betrayal of some kind.

“We call them the walking dead,” Yinsen continued. “Because it takes about a week for the shards to reach the vital organs.”

Yeah this discussion wasn’t helping his anxiety regarding having the metal back in his chest again. At all. He was still reeling from the whole ‘going back in time’ thing.

“What is this?” he asked, cutting off any further explanation.

“That, is an electromagnet. Hooked up to a car battery. And it’s keeping the shrapnel from entering your heart.” He gave a smile that hid the uncomfortable sympathy in his eyes.

Tony carefully sat up and zipped up the jacket he was wearing. He’d torn the bandages apart last time but he’d prefer to not do that this time. It wasn’t pleasant to look at.

“Right…” he trailed off, gaze drifting to the fire. Then remembering what else was established in this conversation, he looked up at the camera, Yinsen following his gaze.

“That’s right, smile.” He looked down again. “We met once you know. At a technical conference in Bern.”

“I was pretty drunk at that,” Tony mused. That was when he’d met Maya and Killian too.

Yinsen chuckled. “It was somewhat impressive. If I was that drunk I wouldn’t have been able to stand, much less give a lecture on integrated circuits.”

“Well I’ve had practice. Where are we?”

Right on time there was the sound of someone at the metal door and a sharp command in another language. Yinsen immediately switched to fearful concern.

“Come on, stand up. Stand up!” he urged, pulling Tony up when he didn’t move quickly enough. “Just do as I do. Come on, put your hands up!”

Tony wasn’t really surprised at the anger that flared up in him at the sight of Bakaar walking in with his guards. The man had been the one to make his life as painful as possible here under Raza’s orders. He swallowed down the urge to say something stupid. Hey, look at that. He could learn.

“Those are my guns, how’d they get my guns?” he repeated the question from what felt like a lifetime ago. Seeing his weapons in the hands of terrorists still hurt just as much as before. Still made him feel sick.

“Do you understand me? Do as I do,” Yinsen hissed at him urgently.

Bakaar started his grand speech and Tony tuned out until Yinsen translated. He’d picked up a lot of these languages after Afghanistan the first time around but he preferred to act like he didn’t know. Gave him an advantage.

While the man spoke Tony took in details he’d missed last time. The almost bored looked on the guards’ faces. The glee on Bakaar’s. They hadn’t thought he was any kind of a threat. They’d regret that again this time around.

He focused again when the terrorist gestured to Yinsen.

“He says, ‘Welcome Tony Stark, the most famous mass murderer in the history of America’.”

Internally Tony scoffed. When he’d heard that the first time, it had been like a punch to the gut. Now though? Now he wasn’t in shock and struggling to stay afloat in a new, dangerous world. Now he understood that he couldn’t be called a murderer because he created weapons. Howard had been hailed as a patriot so why was it different for him? He created weapons to protect his country, to protect Rhodey. To keep the soldiers safe. Obie was the one who put those weapons in the hands of terrorists and criminals. He would not take the blame for Obie’s actions this time. The Avengers had loved to throw his past in his face but they’d never complained about the weapons he’d made for them. Hypocrites. He wasn’t going to tolerate that this time around.

Bakaar continued and Yinsen translated again. “He is honoured. He wants you to build the missile.” He paused as Bakaar spoke again. “The Jericho missile that you demonstrated.”

The Jericho. Tony still regretted ever making that monstrosity. He’d gone a step too far there, he knew. But he’d had the board and Obie pushing and pushing to make something new and incredible. So he caved and did as asked.

He’d honestly felt sick as it destroyed that mountain range, hiding it behind the showman persona. He’d destroyed the plans for that missile as soon as he got home last time. Something he wasn’t planning on changing this time.

Yinsen took the picture Bakaar handed him. “This one,” he murmured, showing the sleek design of a weapon Tony hadn’t looked at in years.

Bakaar looked at him expectantly.

Somehow, knowing what was about to happen made it more difficult to answer. But it didn’t change his decision.

“I refuse.”

He’d missed the malicious glint in the man’s eyes last time. This time however, he caught it. He wasn’t surprised when they dragged him from the room. He wasn’t surprised when they pushed him underwater or when the battery shocked him every time it got wet.

He wasn’t surprised.

But that didn’t make it easier. He had never got over the phobia of water that Afghanistan gave him. So he ended up having flashbacks in the middle of the waterboarding sessions which didn’t help anything really. He still fought against the hands restraining him, he still panicked.

Now he had to struggle to hold onto enough mental awareness to remember he’d survived this before. He could do it again.

He vaguely remembered catching sight of Raza in the room when he was pulled up at some point but it was overshadowed by the panic and desperate desire to breathe.

Finally, after what felt like forever, the group threw a bag over his head and dragged him through the tunnels. He barely remembered to take note of the twists and turns as they went, shivering and on the edge of a panic attack.

Eventually they reached the cave’s entrance and the bag was ripped off, allowing them to do their dramatic reveal of their hoard of Stark weaponry.

He knew it was there but it still made him sick to see and he swore he’d destroy every last gun and missile again on his way out.

He clutched the car battery tighter as he was forced to move forward, squinting in the harsh sunlight. He should enjoy it though. He wouldn’t be seeing the sun again for three months.

Yinsen’s translating drew his attention back to Bakaar.

“He wants to know what you think.” The man sounded very subdued and Tony wondered for the first time if he’d been in the room while he was tortured. He hadn’t really been able to scan his surroundings.

Tony clenched his jaw. “I think you got a lot of my weapons.”

Bakaar started speaking again, gesturing at the weapons surrounding them. Yinsen translated again.

“He says they have everything you need to build the Jericho missile. He wants you to make a list of materials.” He paused to listen again. “He says for you to start working immediately and when you’re done, he will set you free.”

Bakaar held out a hand with an expectant expression. It made Tony’s skin crawl like it did back then when he reached out to shake his hand.

“No he won’t,” he said, pasting on a fake smile.

“No he won’t,” Yinsen agreed, his own fake smile in place.

Bakaar beamed at them both. He didn’t know that he’d just doomed his camp to death. You never gave a captive Tony Stark access to technology. And you especially never gave him access to weapons.

He glanced into the distance where Raza was watching them from the top of a rock.

They were all going to regret this.

 

Later when they were back in their cell, Tony was staring contemplatively into the fire. His fingers ghosted over the electro-magnet as he went over the design he was going to use in his head. He only had access to palladium so it would start poisoning him again but there wasn’t another option. The car battery wouldn’t cut it.

He was planning to make some slight adjustments to the original design though, make it slightly more efficient even with the subpar materials.

Yinsen seemed to have taken his silence as a sign of him giving up though since he started on the same ‘pep talk’ as before.

“I’m sure they’re looking for you Stark. But they will never find you in these mountains. Look, what you just saw. That is your legacy Stark.”

No it wasn’t. Not now. Now he knew that his legacy would be Iron Man. Would be Peter and Morgan. Would be the massive changes Stark Industries made to the medical and green energy fields. Sure he’d always have people calling him the Merchant of Death instead of Iron Man. Would have people spitting on him and claiming that he’d never make up for what he did.

But the truth was his mistake was trusting someone too much. For not looking closely enough. He wouldn't make that mistake again. But he also would not shoulder the perceived sins everyone wanted to throw at him.

His weapons were a part of his legacy, but they weren’t all of it.

He kept silent though, maybe it was nostalgia, wanting to hear this speech that changed his life so drastically before. He wondered if Yinsen had needed to say these things as much as Tony needed to hear them. Did it give Yinsen some peace to think that he made an impact? That he stopped someone from losing their family due to Tony’s ignorance?

“Your life’s work in the hands of those murderers.” There was anger in his words that Tony had thought directed at him before. Now, he knew better. Bitter anger focused on the men who pulled the trigger.

Again, take notes Wanda.

It wasn’t his life’s work though. That was something no one really knew or understood. His AIs, they were his life’s work, what he was most proud of. Only Rhodey really got that. And Pepper. Rhodey got caught up in his military career along the way though and Tony didn’t want to cause that friction between them over shutting down the weapons division of SI again. He’d have to be more careful.

“Is that how you want to go out? Is this the last act of defiance of the great Tony Stark?”

It was funny how everyone seemed to think his ego was the way to get him to do things. Even the first time hearing this speech, it wasn’t that line that helped his determination to escape and fix things. It was the fact that if he died here, no one would know about the terrorists having his weapons. No one would do anything to change it. And that, he couldn’t accept.

It wasn’t an option.

“Or are you going to do something about it?”

He still remembered how lost he felt back then though. How helpless he felt, how alone. Rhodey wasn’t there. Pepper wasn’t there. JARVIS wasn’t there. His three constants were out of reach and he was so alone. Yinsen wasn’t the same even though he did become special to Tony in a way.

He never actually knew Tony though. He knew Tony Stark at his lowest, but he didn’t know Tony who didn’t even want to build weapons in the first place. Who quietly admitted that to Rhodey in college one night, expecting to be yelled at. Instead Rhodey had simply asked what he wanted to do. He’d smiled at Tony’s excited answer of robotics and artificial intelligence. Rhodey would have supported him, but he’d been pressured into filling the role his father left after his parents died. (Assassinated, killed by a friend.)

Pepper always got this fond little smile when she saw him working on his bots. Happy always came up with weird ideas for robots when driving Tony long distances.

And JARVIS…JARVIS was what he wanted to create.

And then there was the potential family waiting for him in the future. Harley, Peter and his sweet little Morgan.

So no, Yinsen never knew him. He wondered if he could change that?

He didn’t give the pessimistic answer from before.

“I’m going to do something alright. Like hell I’m going to die here.” He turned to look at Yinsen who looked a bit surprised. “I’ve got too many things to fix. First of all though…” he tapped his chest. “Got to make sure that I’m not dead in a week.”

“Well then,” Yinsen studied him. “This is a very important week for you, isn’t it?”

Tony’s lips quirked in a faint grin.

 

The next day was chaos of the best kind, ordering terrorists around to set up a temporary workshop. Still the best part of his captivity. Their sheer confusion at some of the stuff he said was brilliant.

“If this is going to be my workstation I want it well-lit. I want these up. I need welding gear. I don’t care if it’s acetylene or propane.” He didn’t even fake the arrogance when it came to his working area. He was a genius and he knew what he wanted and needed dammit. Yinsen struggled to keep up with his rapid-fire instructions. “I need a soldering station. I need helmets. I’m gonna need goggles. I would like a smelting cup. I need two sets of precision tools.”

It was petty but they tortured him. Sue him, he was going to make life difficult for them.

He knew the torture wasn’t going to stop just because he was working either. They were going to pull him out randomly to ‘encourage’ cooperation.

So yeah, he was going to be petty.

Soon he was tearing apart missiles to get at the parts he needed. Like last time he was focusing on the arc reactor first before the suit. He could probably build it faster than last time but that ran the risk of not having Rhodey around to pick him up. And he needed that to happen. He needed someone trustworthy to find him first.

“How many languages do you speak?” Tony asked absently. The easy questions helped fill the silence. He’d never liked working without noise of some kind. It was why he usually had music blasting in his workshop.

“A lot. But apparently not enough for this place. They speak Arabic, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Mongolian, Farsi, Russian.” Russian had been the only one he could speak the first time around. He’d grown up on Italian and English and Howard made sure he learnt Russian and German as well. He picked up other languages when he felt like it.

And then this happened and he learnt a whole lot more.

“Who are these people?” he pulled out the inner workings of the missile.

“They are your loyal customers sir.”

“Not my customers,” Tony muttered harshly, making Yinsen pause for a moment.

“They call themselves the Ten Rings.”

Tony let that name hang in the air for a moment as he continued working, well aware they were being watched. The Ten Rings had kept him up for a very long time until he’d eradicated them all. They’d been the first to learn what happened when you made Iron Man your enemy.

“You know, we might be more productive if you include me in the planning process.”

Tony gave a vague hum, focused on knocking the head off the missile. He was reckless but he knew not to try and explain something complicated while working with explosives in less than ideal circumstances.

He relaxed a bit once he had what he needed. “Okay, we don’t need this.” He tossed the piece of metal over his shoulder, making Yinsen give him an incredulous look.

“What is that?” the doctor asked.

“That’s palladium,” Tony held it up. “0.15 grams.” The thing that saved his life and then almost cost him it again. “We need at least 1.6 so why don’t you go break down the other 11?” Yinsen would be fine after watching Tony do it once. He was an observant man.

The doctor didn’t look too thrilled by the idea but got started.

When it was finally time to pour the melted palladium, Tony couldn’t help but feel nervous. It had gone fine last time with Yinsen’s steady hands but still…

“Careful. Careful, we only get one shot at this,” he warned. He was already itching to get rid of the damn battery that he had to carry everywhere.

“Relax, I have steady hands. Why do you think you’re still alive?” Yeah, Tony had forgotten Yinsen’s morbid humour…

It occurred to Tony as the man poured into the mould, that he hadn’t asked Yinsen’s name again. He’d already known it this time around.

“What do I call you?”

“My name is Yinsen.”

“Yinsen. Nice to meet you.” Tony let out a breath as he finished pouring.

The doctor gave him a slightly exasperated smile. “Nice to meet you too.”

Tony tended to get those smiles a lot.

He felt a bit of nostalgia as he started putting the first miniaturised arc reactor together again. He was definitely going to upgrade when he got home but it was better than the original first model. Tony couldn’t help the slight smile he got when the device powered up and glowed blue. It wasn’t the blue he was used to after adding the new element but it was comforting in its own way.

The Stones called it his heart. That was accurate he supposed. It was a bright blue weak spot but it represented a lot of good.

Yinsen leaned down to look at the unassuming device.

“That doesn’t look like a Jericho missile,” he noted.

“That’s because it’s a miniaturised arc reactor.” Tony let himself feel some pride for this. He was good at what he did. He’d done the impossible in a cave and he’d done it well. “I got a big one powering my factory at home.”

It had been blown up to take down Obie last time. Tony hoped there wasn’t a repeat.

“It should keep the shrapnel out of my heart.”

“But what could it generate?”

“If my math is right, and it always is, three gigajoules per second.”

“That could run your hear for fifty lifetimes.” Yinsen sounded impressed.

“Yeah,” Tony stared down at the reactor. “Or something big for fifteen minutes.”

They moved over to the table and Tony lay the blueprints out, overlapping each other to show the full picture of what he was building.

“This is our ticket out of here.”

“What is it?”

“Flatten them out and look.”

“Oh wow.”

Tony studied the design of the Mark I for a moment. It was suitably impressive for someone who’d never seen one of his suits before. But it was nothing on what he could build now. Nothing like his nano-tech suit. He was going to have to build up to that though. He might make people panic if he pulled that out too early.

“Impressive,” Yinsen got a little smile on his face as he spoke.

“Yeah.” Tony scooped the designs up and threw them in the fire.

“What are you doing?” Yinsen asked in shock.

“I’ve got them up here.” Tony tapped his temple. He could build his suits without any blueprints in his sleep. “I don’t want to risk them seeing that.”

He wasn’t letting Obie get his hands on them again. He might not be able to do anything about the suit’s twisted remains in the desert. But he could make recreating them damn difficult.

 

It felt like a weight was lifted off Tony’s shoulders when the arc reactor was put into place in his chest. Yinsen was efficient as ever and soon he could ditch the car battery and walk freely again without a week-long deadline on his life.

Now the real work started. Just under two months now until their jailbreak. Hopefully Rhodey would be picking up two passengers instead of one this time.

They were playing a game after dinner one night. It had been a long day of working with a nasty waterboarding session in the middle. Yinsen had suggested he rest before he caught something in the cold night.

With his future knowledge of just how much getting sick with the arc reactor in his chest sucked, Tony agreed pretty easily. Coughing with a hunk of metal in his chest hurt. Fuck, hiccups hurt!

“Good,” Yinsen murmured partway into the game. Tony was pretty sure this was the night they talked about family. He was letting the doctor think he was teaching Tony the game. Tony had long since mastered it in the long nights he couldn’t sleep and found himself thinking about these very caves. “Good roll. Good roll.”

“You still haven’t told me where you’re from,” Tony started the conversation as he remembered it. Gulmira he mentally answered his question. Under fire from his weapons.

“I’m from a small town called Gulmira.” The name had meant nothing to Tony in the past. But it meant so much now. Yinsen’s home town. The first place Iron Man appeared. “It’s actually a nice place.”

“Got a family?” Tony asked casually, internally cringing at it. He needed to keep up the act though. He didn’t have a reason to know anything about Yinsen. He was an arrogant, cruel billionaire playboy after all.

“Yes. And I will see them when I leave here.”

Tony had missed the finality, the confidence in that statement the first time. He’d thought it was optimism. Now though… Now it was painful to hear.

As was the green that tinted his vision as Yinsen spoke.

Only years of experience with the press let Tony keep his indifferent mask up. It wasn’t hard to figure out what just happened. That must have been the ‘clue’ the Time Stone had been talking about. Why? Why did Yinsen’s death have to be a fixed point in time? Why did it have to happen? He wanted to scream or cry or both. He couldn’t save the man who’d done so much for him. He couldn’t save him.

“And you Stark?” Yinsen asked, unaware of the despair crashing over Tony.

The billionaire closed his eyes for a moment, slowly and painfully coming to terms with the fact that he would lose Yinsen again.

Last time he’d answered this question with a no. He’d been slightly distant from Rhodey since the man was so busy and Pepper and Happy were his employees. So far from them, he’d slipped into pessimism and felt alone.

Now he remembered Rhodey’s desperation as he gripped Tony after searching for three long months non-stop, putting his career on the line. He remembered Pepper’s red eyes and Happy’s shaky embrace when they were out of the public eye. He remembered JARVIS’ ‘welcome home sir’.

He remembered Harley with his snarky attitude and abandonment issues that almost rivaled Tony's. He remembered Peter who shouldered far too much responsibility for a teen. He remembered Morgan... his daughter who didn't exist yet and who he missed an almost painful amount as a result.

He was going to see them all again. Every single one of them. He'd make his family whole again.

Fuck Rogers or Thanos if they tried to get in his way.

“Yeah,” he whispered. “I do. And I’m going home to them.”

Yinsen looked up at him curiously.

“Not many,” Tony stared at the game board with a distant expression. “But the people I do have? They’re the best family I could ask for. And I need to tell them that more often.”

The doctor smiled sadly at that.

 

Tony tried to time things better this time when they tested the leg joints but Raza still saw and came to demand compliance with his orders. Faking ignorance to their language and watching Yinsen almost get hurt again was difficult but it ended in the same way, Tony stepping in as early as he dared with the claim that he needed Yinsen as an assistant. The doctor didn’t deserve to be hurt or tortured. Tony’s pain tolerance meant that he could handle the last water boarding session they gave him after Raza’s deadline announcement.

Tomorrow, they’d escape. And they’d both see their families again.

Tony spent the night putting the Mark I together, Yinsen working alongside him. He added a little extra padding in some places, remembering how harsh the landing was last time.

All too soon they were preparing to power it up.

“Okay? Can you move?” Yinsen asked as he helped put the chest plate on.

Tony nodded. The bulky design was so different to the sleek Iron Man suits he last built, it was strange to be wearing it. It made him feel like he was in War Machine.

Now that he thought about War Machine, add parachutes to the suits. Rhodey wasn’t going to fall like in the airport fight.

“Okay, say it again,” Yinsen instructed.

The directions were something he’d never forgotten, even all these years later. He still murmured them to himself on bad nights.

“Forty-one steps straight ahead. Then sixteen steps, that’s from the door, fork right, thirty-three steps, turn right.”

Yinsen kept working while he recited the route to the exit.

Inevitably, the guards rushed to the door when they realised they couldn’t see Tony on the cameras again.

“Yinsen! Yinsen! Stark!” one yelled and Tony wanted to close his eyes. Right on time and far too early.

He ended up falling back on the words from back then.

“Say something. Say something back to him.” Anything to give Yinsen a chance of surviving.

“He’s speaking Hungarian. I don’t speak Hungarian.” The stress was obvious in his voice and green-tinted Tony’s vision again.

Fixed point. It was so unfair. Yinsen was a good man. He deserved to live.

Yinsen tried called something back but it wasn’t enough. The guards opened the door and set off Tony’s homemade bomb.

The explosion sent them flying back and Tony turned his head away from the dust it sent up, still stuck in the unpowered suit for the moment.

It reminded him uncomfortably of Siberia for a moment.

“How’d that work?” Tony asked, ever the perfectionist with his inventions.

“Oh my goodness,” Yinsen stared in shock. “It worked alright.”

“That’s what I do.” Make stuff that explodes and takes out the bad guys.

“Let me finish this,” Yinsen muttered, hands still steady despite how his voice shook.

“Initialise the power sequence.” A part of Tony couldn’t let go of the chance that Yinsen could survive, the chance that they could power the suit on time despite everything happening beat for beat like the original timeline.

“Okay,” Yinsen turned back to the computer, readjusting his glasses. “Tell me, tell me.”

Despite everything, Tony still felt a lot calmer than before. Compared to the New York invasion and Thanos…well, this wasn’t all that hectic. Except for that desperate hope he could keep Yinsen alive.

“Function eleven. Tell me when you see a progress bar.” He still hated the antique computer they gave him to use. “It should be up right now.”

“I have it.”

“Press control ‘I’.” he paused. “’I’.”

“Got it.”

“’I’. Enter.”

“’I’ and enter,” Yinsen muttered.

“Come over here and button me up.”

They could hear the terrorists in the distance.

“Okay, alright,” Yinsen muttered anxiously.

“Every other hex bolt.”

“They’re coming!”

“Nothing pretty, just get it done,” Tony kept his tone calm, like when he spoke to civilians during missions.

“They’re coming,” Yinsen repeated.

“Make sure the checkpoints are clear before you follow me out, okay?” Tony asked even though the green tinting his vision was brighter than before. Maybe, just maybe…

“We need more time…”

Tony closed his eyes at those words.

“Hey,” Tony looked up as Yinsen spoke again, looking so much calmer now. How did Tony miss this last time? He was anxious when it came to getting Tony out. Never about himself. “I’m going to buy you some time.”

“Stick to the plan,” Tony begged. Orders hadn’t worked last time. He’d beg for this.

Yinsen just gave him a sad smile and ran towards the door, pausing to pick up a gun. He shot at the ceiling, a doctor to the end. Tony had the fleeting thought that Strange would have liked him. He should make a point to tell the sorcerer about the amazing doctor who saved his life in more ways than one.

“Yinsen…” Tony whispered, looking back at the computer. It was still loading and his vision was still green.

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back, eyes burning. When he opened them again as the progress bar hit full and the room went dark, the green was gone from his vision.

He could handle anger right now. Anger at these men who hurt and killed a good man. Anger at people who wanted to use his weapons to hurt others. Iron Man was born out of fire and rage and blood.

He could let the sadness and grief hit him when he was alone and safe. Then he could cry.

Fuck Howard and his ‘Stark men are made of iron’ mantra. Tony died for the universe and got thrown back in time to one of the worst three months of his life. He deserved to cry a bit.

The suit powered up as the room went black, all the power being diverted.

It was time for Iron Man to make his first appearance.

The Mark I was clunky and awkward but it still did the job. He punched the first guard across the dark room, scaring the others into firing blindly. He still couldn’t believe they were stupid enough to fire into a room that held missiles. It was blind luck (and Tony’s forethought to move explosive materials out of sight) that stopped a catastrophic explosion.

The bullets bounced off the armour as he approached and he sent terrorists flying with jerky movements.

He really did miss the nano-tech suit but the Mark I would have to do. For a suit made in a cave from scraps, it held up damn well.

He made his way through the cave system, throwing the terrorists around like ragdolls. They tried to lock him behind some doors but they didn’t hold up well.

He enjoyed the terrified expressions a little too much but then again, they did torture him.

Tony entered the first cavern, already expecting Raza’s attack. As Yinsen called out a weak warning from where he was lying, he dodged the rocket and sent one of his own back. He hoped he got the fucker with it this time instead of just burning the side of his face.

He had more important things to do right now though.

Tony moved over to stand by Yinsen and pushed the faceplate up. The doctor was pale with several severe bullet wounds. He wouldn’t last long.

“You should have stuck to the plan…” he murmured.

“This was always the plan Stark.”

Tony closed his eyes.

“And your family?”

“My family is dead.” It still hit hard and hurt more to know how they probably died. “I’m going to see them now Stark.”

Tony swallowed hard and despite everything, Yinsen still tried to comfort him.

“It’s okay. I want this,” Yinsen assured. “I want this.”

Tony forced his lips to quirk up on one side before he did start crying.

“Thank you for saving me Yinsen. Thank you for helping me get home to my family.”

“Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life.”

Those words still resonated deeply with Tony. A lot of what he did as Iron Man was based on those words.

He thought about Rhodey, standing with him against Rogers in support of the Accords and accountability. He thought about Pepper, so out of her depth with the superhero thing but trying her best to help. He thought about Happy, always making sure he was as safe as possible.

He thought about JARVIS. About Friday, his baby girl who was still barely a starting code. He thought about Harley, Peter and Morgan. Those two boys who had too much responsibility at far too young an age. Morgan, his sweet little daughter who deserved to be born into a better time.

“I won’t,” he vowed, looking Yinsen in the eye. “I won’t waste it.”

Yinsen gave him a small smile before his eyes closed and his expression went slack.

Tony bowed his head for a moment before pulling up that burning anger again. He needed it to get past the next part.

Then he’d grieve. He’d tell Rhodey about Yinsen maybe. He didn’t do that before. Now he thought he should.

He stalked out into the sunlight, facing down the terrorists with their guns. They emptied their clips but none of the bullets got past the armour.

When it fell silent again they all stared at him in fear.

“My turn.”

Tony activated the flamethrowers on the suit and obliterated them all, setting fire to the crates upon crates of weapons. He didn’t stop until the entire camp was set ablaze.

Like deja vu, someone hit the mechanism in his leg, sending him down momentarily.

With the camp burning down around him and the imminent explosion of the weapons, Tony activated the jets in the suit and flew up. He barely cleared the explosion as his jets failed and he fell back to earth.

The landing was just as painful as he remembered it being. The suit scattered around him, thankfully taking most of the force. He pulled off the helmet and squinted at the sky.

“Not bad,” he echoed himself from the past.

Not bad.

Chapter Text

Tony had forgotten how much he despised the desert. It was hot, the sand was a nightmare to walk on, and he could barely see from the sun glaring off everything.

After recovering somewhat from the crash landing, Tony had wrapped his jacket over his head for some sun protection and started walking.

He needed to be away from the camp in case surviving terrorists went looking for him.

So he walked. He wasn’t sure if he was going in the same direction as last time. He hoped so. He was feeling mostly numb by now. Losing Yinsen again and the physical shock to his body after landing so roughly compounding together.

On top of everything, he was dying for a drink of water.

But he kept going because he knew that Rhodey was out there looking for him. Explosions were kind of Tony’s calling card.

It felt like hours before he heard the sound of a helicopter. A smile pulled at his cracked, dry lips and he looked up as they flew over him.

“Hey!” his voice was hoarse and throat dry and scratchy but he didn’t care. He threw them the peace sign as he fell to his knees when they landed.

Rhodey was out the helicopter when it was barely finished touching down, others scrambling after him.

“How was the ‘fun-vee’?” Rhodey asked when he reached Tony, tone light but voice dripping relief.

Tony let out a huff of a laugh, too exhausted to do much else.

Rhodey put a hand on his shoulder as he crouched down in front of the inventor. “Next time, you ride with me okay?” the colonel’s voice cracked a bit. Tony hadn’t noticed how much of a strain the entire thing had been on Rhodey last time. Now he could see it in the man’s posture, in the bags under his eyes and the relief in his expression. In the way his hand shook slightly on Tony’s shoulder. He’d been missing for three months. He’d terrified Rhodey.

“Yeah,” Tony forced out. “Sticking with you next time Rhodey.”

The colonel pulled him into a tight hug.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again Tony,” he whispered.

“Don’t plan to Platypus.” Tony let himself lean on his oldest friend. Just for a moment. His best friend who could still walk. Without braces or help. Who Tony now knew would stick with him through everything that was going to come.

James Rhodes was an amazing friend. And Tony was going to do better by him from now on.

Rhodey helped Tony back to the helicopter since the billionaire refused to actually let go. They were in the air when Tony spoke again, seeing the medic hovering nearby. Last time he’d put up a massive fight about getting any kind of medical care, scared out of his mind that they’d do something to the arc reactor. Rhodey had only seen the thing at the base hospital when everyone had been convinced it was a bomb. He needed to be more clever about it this time.

“Rhodey,” he started after he’d finished a long drink of beautifully fresh water.

He waited until the man’s attention was fully on him before taking his best friend’s hand and putting it over the reactor which was shining through his shirt. They’d all already been eyeing it warily.

“Before anyone asks, this isn’t a bomb. It’s an electro-magnet that’s keeping shrapnel from entering my heart.”

The medic nearby choked silently while Rhodey stared at his hand in horror. “Tones-"

“Do not let anyone mess with it. I mean it Rhodey. It’s not a hundred percent yet considering I built it in a cave and if they do one thing wrong, they could break it and I’d be dead in minutes.” Tony held his gaze, trying to convey how serious he was about this. The reactor wasn’t quite that delicate but he didn’t want to take chances.

Rhodey’s expression hardened and he gave a sharp nod. “Stark propriety tech?” he asked with a tense smile.

Tony’s own lips quirked. “That works. They are scared of my lawyers.”

“Your lawyers are terrifying Tones.” Rhodey caught him when he swayed forward, letting the inventor lean against his shoulder again. Tony hadn’t let himself do this last time. He’d kept on guard and glared at everyone around him, suspicious to the extreme. He didn’t need to do that now though. He knew his weapons weren’t being leaked through the military but through Obie. And Rhodey was here. He was safe.

That did remind him though.

“Rhodey, we got a problem.” Tony kept his voice down so only Rhodey could hear him. “Those terrorists had my weapons.” The colonel stiffened under him. “I blew up what I saw but they might have more. I need to find out how the fuck they’re getting my weapons. I saw those soldiers die because of weapons I made.” His friend wrapped his arms around him again and Tony realised he was trembling. “I make those bombs to keep you guys safe Rhodey. But someone could kill you with something I made.” Rhodey’s arms tightened around him and Tony squeezed his eyes shut. He’d never had this talk with Rhodey in the original timeline. He’d just closed the weapons division with no explanation to his friend. To be fair he was suffering from PTSD but still, he should have spoken to Rhodey. He took a deep breath. “I’m going to close the weapons manufacturing division until I find the leak. With JARVIS’ help it shouldn’t take too long. I’ve got a bad feeling I’ve got to clean out my company.” He waited anxiously for Rhodey’s reaction, not able to forget how angry the other man had been the first time.

“Okay,” Rhodey said, also speaking softly. “I got it. Can I give the higher-ups a warning?”

Tony gave a jerky nod as relief flooded through him.

“Right, okay, for now think you can let the medic look at you?” he asked, voice gentle.

Tony didn’t even have the energy to bristle at the kiddie gloves treatment. He probably needed it.

“Yeah,” he breathed, letting his head rest on Rhodey’s shoulder a moment longer before pulling away. “Just…stay close?”

Rhodey squeezed his shoulder slightly. “If you think I’m letting you leave my sight for a good long while, then you’re not as smart as you think you are.”

The laugh that tore out of Tony hurt his chest and throat, but damn did it feel good. Rhodey smiled at him and gestured the medic to come over.

They practically jumped forward and while Tony was tense the entire time, Rhodey watched the guy like a hawk which made him feel a lot better. Thankfully the medic steered clear of the arc reactor for now and focused on Tony’s other injuries.

So he let himself zone out a bit, confident that Rhodey would watch out for him. He just needed a moment to let his brain turn off for a while. Things were going to be happening very quickly from now on and he was going to need to be at the top of his game to make sure things went right. The knowledge he had of the future didn’t actually make him feel all that better. He was going to have to deal with Obie’s betrayal all over again. And then there was SHIELD. He sighed softly. He could do this. He had to.

Tony startled awake when the helicopter landed. He calmed quickly once he noticed Rhodey still sitting close, letting Tony slump against him in sleep.

“You okay Tones?” he asked quietly as medical personnel started running towards them.

“Not really,” Tony answered. Images of the last fight with Thanos were still seared into his mind from the brief dream. “But I will be.”

Rhodey gave him a concerned look but nodded, helping him down out of the helicopter. Tony’s legs barely held him and the only reason he didn’t outright collapse was because he grabbed onto Rhodey’s arm.

They were swept away in the doctors’ chaos and Tony quickly felt dizzy from all the activity around him. Rhodey stuck close and relayed the information the doctors would need including that they better not touch the reactor or they’d have the entirety of Stark Industries’ legal team coming down on their heads. The doctors paled at the threat and did nothing more than a cursory examination to ensure there was no infection or bleeding around the reactor.

Tony really, really loved Rhodey.

It was only a few hours later that the colonel organised their trip back home. Tony was surprised. He’d barely had the chance to clean up and distinctly remembered the military being difficult with getting him home in the original timeline. Rhodey seemed to pick up on his confusion.

“I told my superiors we’ve got a serious problem and we need to get you back now. They trust me enough to know I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t mean it,” he explained.

Tony let a sigh of relief. “Thanks Rhodey. I need to get ahead of the problem before whoever it is makes a break for it or causes more damage.”

Rhodey squeezed his shoulder. “Once I’ve explained the situation I’ll probably be able to talk them into letting me hang around back home until everything is sorted. I am SI’s liaison to the military after all.”

Getting to have Rhodey around for this entire mess? Now that sounded utterly amazing. And this could have happened if he’d just opened his mouth and told his friend what was happening the first time around. Fuck but he was an idiot sometimes. He should really give the talking thing a try more often.

“Want to try and get some sleep before we leave?” Rhodey asked, breaking into his thoughts.

Tony couldn’t stop the grimace from appearing on his face.

“Tones?” Rhodey sounded concerned again.

Well, might as well try the talking thing again.

“I’m pretty sure…I’m going to have trouble sleeping for a while,” Tony admitted hesitantly. “You know me Platypus. I’m not the most cooperative person in the world when someone tells me to do something.” He gave his friend a pained smile.

Rhodey, thankfully, didn’t take too long to get it. He paled before his expression turned thunderous. “What did they do?” he asked evenly, reaching out to grab Tony’s hand since he couldn’t touch his arms because of the severe sunburn.

Tony looked away.

“Tones?” Rhodey asked gently again.

Fuck he didn’t expect this to be so hard. He’d never told anyone but JARVIS. Rhodey only gathered that he hadn’t been treated great. It was probably why he’d struggled with the whole PTSD thing in the beginning. He didn’t know what actually happened.

“Waterboarding mostly.” Tony kept his eyes on the hand clutching his own. “Some shocks since…I was hooked up to a car battery before I made this.” He tapped the reactor with his free hand.

Rhodey choked. “A car battery?!” Oh wow. Tony hadn’t heard Rhodey that mad since the mess with Sunset Bain in his teens.

“Yeah. Wires got wet a few times. Other than that there was some pushing around but they needed me able to move around pretty easily to build what they wanted.” Was his voice really that calm? Huh, he might be going into a bit of shock. The waterboarding was worse this time around because he already had a phobia.

“I kind of freaked out in the shower a bit,” Tony admitted after a moment.

Rhodey suddenly stood up from his chair. “Scoot up.”

“What?” Tony looked up, startled.

“Scoot up,” Rhodey repeated, making shooing motions with his free hand. “I’m climbing on there with you so I can cuddle you properly.”

Tony blinked. “We’re on a military base.”

“I don’t care.”

“We last did that in college.”

“Again, don’t care. Scoot up brat so I can cuddle you and plot murder.”

Tony did as ordered, still very confused. “I’m pretty sure I killed most of them on my way out.”

Rhodey climbed on the hospital bed next to Tony and hauled him into a hug like he did years ago when a fifteen-year-old genius came back to the dorm with a blooming bruise on his cheek courtesy of a drunk Howard Stark. Rhodey had been livid but he just dragged Tony down onto the couch and cuddled him within an inch of his life. It had taken approximately two minutes for Tony to break and start sobbing into his roommate’s shoulder.

Even all these years later, Tony still somehow fit snug under his friend’s arm on the too-small hospital bed. He turned his face into Rhodey’s shoulder as the other man got comfortable.

“You’re too skinny. I’m gonna get Mama to feed you up again when we get home,” Rhodey murmured.

Tony let his eyes close. “That sounds nice.”

They sat in silence for a moment before Tony spoke again.

“There was another prisoner. He was a doctor, the guy who saved my life by putting the electro-magnet in. He helped me build what I used to escape.” Rhodey tilted his head slightly to let Tony know he was listening. “His name was Yinsen,” Tony’s voice cracked. “I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t save him Rhodey.”

Rhodey shushed him softly and tightened his hug. They hadn’t hugged this much in years. They should change that. Tony liked the hugs.

“He died right in front of me while we were escaping.” The grief was bubbling up now that there was no anger or adrenaline. “He died because he wanted to give me more time-"

Just like all those years ago in college, Tony broke, sobbing into his best friend’s shoulder. Rhodey just held him and murmured soothing nonsense, glaring at anyone that tried to come into the room.

“I’m so sorry Tones, I’m sorry. You’re okay, it’s okay. I’m sorry.”

Tony just let himself cry for the first time in years. He didn’t cry when he got back from Afghanistan originally. He didn’t cry during the palladium poisoning. He didn’t cry after the nightmare of going through that portal in New York. He didn’t cry when his life was spiraling out of control during the Mandarin incident. He didn’t cry when he lost JARVIS (he’d been too numb). He didn’t cry when the Avengers split apart and Rogers shoved his father’s shield into his chest to protect his parents’ murderer. He didn’t cry when he lost Peter (again, too in shock). He didn’t cry during those five years of peace. He didn’t cry when he died.

He was going to fucking cry now because his life had been hell and he was tired of being angry instead. So he was going to be sad and cry on his best friend because he’d fucking earned it okay?! And because he was going to have to do all of that over again to try and get it right this time.

And Rhodey, amazing incredible Rhodey, just let him cry until he eventually fell asleep. He didn’t move away even though he couldn’t be comfortable. He just held Tony until the sobs dried up and the inventor went limp against him, breathing evening out.

And when Tony started thrashing due to nightmares, a horrific mashup of water-drowning-snow-space, Rhodey just calmly woke him up and then held him again until the shaking had subsided and he’d slipped back into a light doze.

“I got you Tones. I got you,” he heard before he slipped under again.

Tony got about an hour of fitful sleep before Rhodey woke him up to head over to the plane. The billionaire gave his friend a tired smile and Rhodey pulled him into one last, tight hug.

“I’m here for you Tony. Okay? I’m gonna take leave when all this is over.”

Tony leaned into the hug for a long moment before pulling away and cleaning his face. There wasn’t anything he could do about the bruises and cuts but strangely enough, he found himself unwilling to care. He’d kept up the appearance of nothing being able to touch him for years. It didn’t do anything for him except make people tell him to get over himself when he did show weakness.

He was going to really embrace the whole accountability thing and show people the truth. He could get hurt too. His money didn’t protect him from everything.

He tugged uncomfortably on the sling holding his left arm. What was with that arm always getting hurt anyway? The Civil War had royally fucked it up after Wanda dropped those cars on him.

“Ready?” Rhodey asked.

Tony turned away from the mirror. “Yeah, let’s head home.”

They headed out together, Rhodey getting salutes as they went. Tony also got a hell of a lot less glares this time which probably had to do with not making everyone’s lives here hell. He should try that more often.

They got on the military plane and settled in for the uncomfortable ride back to the States. Tony was surprised when Rhodey tugged him over to lean against him again. “Get some more sleep Tones. You’re going to need it. I’ve organised a meeting with the higher-ups so you can tell them what you saw if you’re up for it. Otherwise tell me what you want passed on.”

Tony honestly thought about both options for a moment but he knew which one he had to choose over which one he wanted to choose. He needed them to take him seriously and hiding away would only give Obie ammunition to use against him.

“I’ll go to the meeting. Then I need to do a press conference. After that, I need a fucking burger.”

Rhodey laughed. “We’ll get you all the burgers you want Tones. So sleep a bit. It’s a long flight.”

“Hmm. Thanks Rhodey.”

“Anytime Tones.”

Rhodey woke him up when they were half an hour out so they could discuss what was going to happen. He asked again if Tony wanted to rest longer first but Tony was set on the current plan.

“Get it all out of the way first Rhodey. Then I can go pass out at the mansion with JARVIS keeping an eye on me.”

“And me. I’m not letting you out of my sight and if I have to then Happy’s staying with you.”

Tony opened his mouth to argue but Rhodey just gave him ‘that look’. The one that managed to shut up teenage Tony Stark. It was a very effective look that Rhodey rarely used in fear it would lose its potency.

“Fine,” Tony sighed. “Then I’ve got to sort this out.” He tapped on the reactor.

“You got a plan for that?” Rhodey asked.

Tony nodded. “I need a more efficient one. With better materials and access to my lab, I should have it done in a couple days.” He hesitated. The talking thing had been working great so far so, why not try again? “There’s another problem with it though.”

Rhodey frowned, gaze dropping to the reactor. “What?”

Tony bit his lip as he thought over how to word this. “It’s…powered by palladium. So there’s a fairly good chance…that it’s going to give me…heavy metal poisoning.”

Rhodey’s eyes widened in shock and he paled.

“I’ve got a plan,” Tony hurriedly assured him. “I promise. But it’ll take a while to set up and I might get sick before I finish it.”

He watched anxiously as Rhodey took a deep breath. “Okay. Alright. We’ll work on that. Will you be okay for now or does it need to go up the list of priorities?”

“I’m fine now and I’m going to get JARVIS to monitor my blood toxicity levels.”

“Right.” Rhodey looked him in the eye. “Thanks for telling me Tony. I know you have issues with being open but you’ve been making an honest effort with everything now. So thank you. I want to help you and I can only do that if I know what’s wrong.”

Tony gave him a strained smile. That was the painful truth he was learning.

“I trust you Rhodey,” he murmured, gaining a smile from his friend.

“And I know how rare that is.”

They both looked up as the plane landed, Tony wincing since it wasn’t the smoothest.

“Alright, ready?” Rhodey asked.

Tony nodded after taking a breath, letting his friend help him to his feet. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

He completely ignored the wheelchair and stretcher waiting for him, he was injured not incapacitated. Rhodey just shook his head in exasperation but waved the medics away.

Tony focused on the two people waiting a short distance from the plane. Happy was standing at stiff attention but Tony could see the way he slumped ever so slightly in relief when he saw Tony. It was damn good for Tony to see his friend too. He’d helped out a lot with Morgan.

And Pepper…Oh shit Pepper, she was as beautiful as ever even with the tell-tale red eyes. She stood, poised and calm, looking ready for anything. Tony only saw the signs because he knew her so well. The slight tremor in her hands and the misty look to her eyes.

He wished he could pull her into a hug and kiss her desperately. But she was only his employee right now. Not even his girlfriend let alone his wife.

He’d do it properly this time though. He wouldn’t make it so hard on her.

Rhodey and Tony came to a stop in front of the two of them. Pepper gave him a wobbly smile.

Tony quirked an eyebrow. “Your eyes are red. A few tears for you long-lost boss?”

Pepper’s smile grew stronger. “Tears of joy. I hate job hunting.”

Tony grinned and broke from the script. “Good to see you Pep.” He looked behind her. “You too Hap.”

Pepper’s eyes sparkled in a mix of joy and tears.

“It’s good to have you back boss,” Happy cleared his throat.

Tony let the smile linger for a moment, just enjoying seeing them again. Seeing his family again. Unfortunately, they had things to do so he let the smile drop.

“Well vacation’s over,” he sighed. “We’ve got things to do.”

Pepper quickly followed him towards the car when he started walking and Rhodey fell in on his other side. Happy opened the door and they all climbed into the limo.

“Where to boss?” Happy asked once he was seated in the front.

“The hospital-" Pepper started but Tony cut her off.

“No.”

“Tony-"

“I’m not being difficult. It’s not safe right now Pep.” He rubbed over the reactor, anxious at just the thought of doctors getting near it. There was a reason he hated hospitals.

Rhodey leaned over once he noticed the action. “He’s right Pepper. A hospital is a bad idea.”

She looked confused at Rhodey agreeing with Tony on the matter.

Tony looked at his friend. “What’s the address?”

Rhodey gave the location of the meeting to Happy who started driving after throwing Tony one last concerned look.

“I’ll explain when we’re back at the house guys. Promise. But for right now Rhodey and I have a meeting we need to get to. And no one can know about it, not yet. After that Pep, I’m going to need a press conference set up.”

“You just got back from being kidnapped Tony!”

“I know Pep, I know. And fuck I really don’t want to do this. I honestly want to go home and collapse on my bed for a solid week. But I can’t. Stuff’s happening and I have to get on top of it or things could go really badly. I promise I’ll explain when we get back to the mansion. But for now, I need you and Happy to just roll with things. Rhodey already knows what I’m planning so it’s not too outrageously reckless.”

She huffed out a laugh, still looking worried, but she nodded in agreement. Happy did too. Tony relaxed a bit and leaned back in his seat. It was the most comfortable thing he’d been on in months. Military planes were not built with comfort in mind.

“Are you okay Tony?” Pepper asked softly after a moment.

He turned his head to look at her. “Not really,” he gave her the same answer he gave Rhodey. “But I will be.”

That didn’t stop her from looking concerned and she placed a hand on his to squeeze it.

“We might not know what’s going on but we’re all with you Tony. You know that right?” she asked. Rhodey nudged him on the other side to show his agreement and Happy glanced up at them in the mirror.

Tony was forced to clear his throat before answering. How the hell had he ever thought it was better to do things alone when he had these people with him?

“Yeah, I know Pep.” He turned his hand around to squeeze hers. “Thanks.”

She gave him a warm smile and they sat in a comfortable silence until they reached their destination.

“We’ll be back as soon as the meeting’s done,” Tony promised as he followed Rhodey out the car door. “Can you get the press conference set up by then?”

She gave him a look that had him chuckling.

“Never mind, stupid question.”

She smirked. “Will that be all Mr. Stark?” she asked,

His eyes lit up at the familiar line. “That will be all Miss. Potts.”

He needed to be careful and not accidentally say Mrs. Stark. He closed the door behind him and walked into the building with Rhodey.

The meeting with the military higher-ups went far better than Tony expected. Rhodey had been his amazing self and left out the unpleasant people (like Thaddeus Ross). They started the meeting by expressing their relief that he was alright and they actually seemed genuine about it. He’d apparently underestimated how much the military liked him. Before he screwed it up by being as difficult as possible after Afghanistan originally. This time, his plan was to keep the military on his side so that he didn’t get stuck with SHIELD when he became Iron Man.

“Mr. Stark,” the General who seemed to be in charge of this meeting started after everyone was settled in. “Colonel Rhodes said that the matter we were called here for was important. What did you need to speak with us about?” He was firm but not threatening. More worried. Tony supposed it was weird that he would reach out to the military like this.

Rhodey sat beside Tony but let him do the explaining. He’d step in if Tony started getting overwhelmed.

“Well, there’s two reasons actually. The first was that I don’t really want suits following me around for a debrief or whatever so I thought I’d give it to the people who actually found me.” There were some chuckles at that. Then Tony let his smile drop and they straightened up. Some of these people knew him as a businessman instead of just as the playboy genius. They knew it meant something when he grew serious. “The other reason is more serious and why I asked for this meeting to be classified.” He took a deep breath, feeling the familiar anger at the situation. “Those terrorists? They were somehow getting a dangerous amount of my weapons. And not just guns. Bombs and missiles. The amount they’re getting means there’s a fucking leak in my company.” Horrified expressions were appearing on their faces while Rhodey looked grim. “I don’t know if there’s leak on your side but you might want to check to make sure.”

He gave them a moment to collect themselves again.

“What do you plan to do?” the general from before asked briskly.

“I’m going to shut down the weapons manufacturing side of SI and go through our records with a fine-toothed comb.”

They grimaced but no one yelled about how he ‘couldn’t do that’. They knew how serious this was. How dangerous.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he continued. “I’m not cutting my support of the military. We’ll still be providing defensive measures and equipment, and other non-offensive gear.” There were some sighs of relief. “And we’ll finish out our contracts regarding weapons after everything is sorted. But…” he swallowed hard. “I watched those soldiers transporting me get killed with my weapons. One of them was just a kid.” Tony closed his eyes briefly. “I won’t let that happen again.”

They nodded gravely and some wore sympathetic expressions. Some looked angry, but surprisingly not at him. It was directed at the terrorists behind the attack.

“So, right, that was the big thing. I’m doing a press conference after this giving the same information.” He paused to compose himself for a moment, wishing he was wearing his sunglasses. He was trying to give the air of cooperation though. The sunglasses helped him hide things, not show them.

The general nodded and looked to Rhodey for a moment. It took Tony a second to realise the man was checking with Rhodey if he thought Tony was okay to continue. That was more consideration than he’d been shown in a very long time and it stunned him briefly.

“You said that you wanted to give a debrief. Perhaps a brief summary of events would be better?” he asked.

Tony nodded in agreement, relieved that he didn’t have to explain everything in detail. He told them about the attack, naming the soldiers in his Humvee that died trying to protect him. He told them about the bomb and very briefly about the shrapnel and surgery since some of them looked ill and Rhodey was clenching his hands and jaw. He spoke about Yinsen and they made a note to look into him. The man had died a hero and he deserved to be remembered for it. Tony wished he’d done this the first time around instead of hoarding the man’s memory for himself. He told them about the terrorists' demand for him to build the Jericho, about the torture in vague terms and about faintly remembering what looked like them shooting a ransom video.

That made them frown because there hadn’t been a ransom video as far as they were aware. That was setting the scene for when Tony got a hold of that video from Obie’s files.

He finally explained about his escape and blowing up the camp before being picked up by Rhodey.

“What?” he asked in the face of their bug-eyed expressions.

“You didn’t mention the building a suit of flying mechanised armour from scraps in a cave that you used to escape!” Rhodey exclaimed in disbelief.

“Oh. I didn’t mention that?” Tony blinked in surprise.

Rhodey shook his head mutely.

“Well, I did. Surprise?” Tony gave his friend a sheepish expression. He’d honestly forgotten to tell Rhodey that part.

One of the military men chuckled softly.

“You continue to surprise me Mr. Stark,” he admitted. “Ever since you took over Stark Industries.”

Tony gave them a blinding smile. “That does remind me though. I want to build another version of the suit and work with the military since there’s no way in hell I’m mass-producing them. But I also want to make one for Rhodey that he can use in the air-force.”

That gained him another stunned speechless moment. Even from Rhodey.

“I’ll have Mark II ready to go in a couple of weeks probably,” Tony added.

Rhodey shook himself out of his daze at that. “Oh no, you’re spending at least a week in bed.”

Tony squawked in outrage. “Bedrest Platypus?! When there’s so many things to do?!”

Rhodey glared at him. “I will tie you to that bed if I have to Tones.”

Tony fell mulishly silent. He’d called Rhodey’s bluff once.

Once.

The bastard actually went through with his threat.

The other people at the meeting broke out into chuckles as they slowly came out of their own dazes, drawing Tony and Rhodey’s attention back to the discussion.

“That is…a lot of information. I think we all need time to process it and Colonel Rhodes is right in that you need time to recover Mr. Stark,” the first general said. “We will focus on ensuring that no Stark weapons are being leaked on our side and after you’ve recovered sufficiently and your company is taken care of, we can revisit the concept of…your suits.” He sounded a little wondering at the idea. Tony hoped he could see the man’s face when he actually showed them the suit. “For now, we wish to station Colonel Rhodes with you for both protection and assistance in this matter.”

Rhodey nodded and Tony felt relief. “Right.”

“I think that is all we needed to discuss for now.” He looked around at the others who all looked a little shell-shocked by the meeting. “Before we wrap up though. We want to thank you Mr. Stark.”

“What?” he looked at the man in confusion.

“Many would have caved in the situation you found yourself in. They would have built what the terrorists wanted. But you didn’t. What’s more you escaped and even destroyed their camp. Then you immediately approached us to warn us of the danger you found even when you should be recovering. So thank you Mr. Stark.”

The others nodded in agreement and Tony fought the urge to squirm. Rhodey smirked a little at him. He knew how awkward Tony felt when faced with genuine praise.

“Um, you’re welcome?” he finally managed.

Thankfully the meeting broke up and they said their goodbyes.

“Oh shut up Platypus,” Tony muttered as they walked back to the car.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“That smug smile says it all Honeybunch.”

Rhodey just laughed at him. Asshole.

Chapter Text

Tony believed that the two press conferences he did after returning from Afghanistan, were the ones that shaped his life the most. Most look to his ‘I am Iron Man’ announcement as the turning point in his life. And sure that moment was a big one for Tony, the decision to be accountable for his actions by revealing that he was the one in his suit despite SHIELD’s grumbles and the world calling it his ego coming into play. He needed the public to be able to point at him and say he messed up. It was something the Avengers never understood and eventually led to the Accords after one too many missions went wrong with massive casualties.

Personally though, Tony always thought back to this press conference. This one was the moment he took responsibility for his actions, the moment he chose to fix things.

Sure he kind of screwed up and everyone hated him and questioned his sanity after it, but it was the first time he’d made the effort to step out of Howard’s shadow and do something just for him. It was the start of Tony’s version of SI after keeping Howard’s alive for much too long.

He could hear the reporters whispering excitedly to each other from backstage and felt strangely nervous. This was going to be the first big change he made. He needed to do this press conference right and get the public on his side. This time he had the military backing him as well. He needed to make it as difficult as possible for Obie to sweep his concerns aside.

Rhodey reached out and squeezed his shoulder. “You okay Tones?”

Tony gave him a weak smile. “Peachy. Fuck I don’t think I’ve actually been this nervous for a press conference since I was a teenager Rhodey.” He fought the urge to run his hand through his now-styled hair. Pepper would get mad. She’d already been confused over his refusal to cover the bruises on his face with makeup like he usually would. “This is an important conference and I’ve got to do it right. Or things are going to be so much harder than they need to be.”

Rhodey nodded in agreement. “I’ll be right up there with you Tones.”

And that was also a nice change. Tony wasn’t going to be up there with Obie. Speaking of the devil…

“Tony my boy!”

Only years in the spotlight and then even more years pretending not to be fucking terrified of Maximoff stopped him from flinching. He forced a smile to his face.

“Hey Obie.”

“It’s good to see you Tony,” the man said, smiling brightly. For a moment all Tony could see was his godfather smiling as he pulled the arc reactor from his chest. Rhodey’s hand on his shoulder was the only thing that kept him from a full-on flashback.

“Mr. Stane,” Rhodey greeted him politely. Oh, yeah. Tony had actually forgotten that Rhodey had never truly liked Obie. He’d always thought it was because Obie hadn’t protected Tony from Howard when he was a kid. Now though, he wondered if it was something more.

Obie nodded at Rhodey before focusing back on Tony. “Are you sure about this press conference Tony? You should be at home recovering,” he scolded lightly.

It made Tony feel sick, finally seeing the calculating light in his eyes. Was he willfully blind in the original timeline? He’d definitely been that with the Avengers. Was it something that started all the way at the beginning with Obie?

“Nah, don’t worry,” Tony felt a bit detached from his body at the moment as he struggled with the mix of fear and anger he now felt towards this man. “I’m heading home after this. Rhodey’s already ordered me on bedrest.”

Rhodey was giving Tony an odd look out of the corner of his eye. That meant that he had noticed something was off about Tony. The man was watching him a lot closer than in the original timeline since he’d been a lot more open with how bad things had actually been. Obie, on the other hand, didn’t notice anything. He just nodded and clapped Tony on the shoulder, hard. Tony didn’t bother hiding his wince as the movement jostled his torso, mostly to see Rhodey throw Obie a glare and immediately steer him away from the man.

“You okay? Did he jolt your arm?” Rhodey asked, fussing like the mother hen he secretly was while Obie stood in surprise behind them. Rhodey never really acted on his dislike of the man but his protective side overruled his ‘be polite to Tony’s godfather’ side.

Tony subtly tapped the reactor and Rhodey’s eyes narrowed. The movement had caused the ache in his chest to increase a bit. There was a reason he was moving carefully.

Rhodey growled and Tony patted his arm with a grimace. “It’s not like he could have known,” he half-heartedly pointed out.

“He doesn’t know how injured you are. He shouldn’t have taken the chance,” Rhodey grumbled, pulling Tony further away from a very confused Obidiah and over to Pepper.

She narrowed her eyes when she saw Rhodey’s expression but she didn’t ask, for now.

“Are you ready?” she asked instead.

Tony took a deep breath and straightened his spine, sliding his sunglasses into place. Time to start changing things then.

“I was born ready,” he gave the both of them his best media smile before turning to saunter onto the stage, Rhodey right behind him while Pepper moved to the back of the room to listen. Obidiah was stuck backstage this time since Rhodey’s presence suggested this was about the military and he was out of the loop. Tony took vicious satisfaction in the knowledge of how annoyed that must be making him. He couldn’t hover over Tony and cut in when he wanted to this time.

The moment they stepped on stage the cameras started flashing and reporters started yelling out questions. Tony ignored them with decades of practice, shielded by his sunglasses. Rhodey had borrowed a pair to use as well. He’d long since learned the tricks to surviving a press conference without losing your eyesight.

Tony still remembered when he’d told the Avengers to wear sunglasses at their first and they’d rolled their eyes and refused.

They’d been blinking spots out of their vision for hours and Rogers almost tripped on stage. That, had been funny.

Finally Tony was at the podium and the crowd quieted down, getting a good look at him. He could see the confusion and shock on their faces at the clear bruises and wondered briefly if they were finally realising that, yes, he was human. He needed them to have that realisation early this time.

“Good morning,” he greeted airily. “I’m sure you’ve all missed me.”

There were some chuckles at that. He’d always made a point of trying to lighten up his conferences when he could. Last time he had a very informal one with everyone sitting on the floor. This time though? This time it was a formal announcement.

“It’s been a rough three months on my end.” a rough decade actually. “You’re all probably already smelling a big story but I’m going to lay out some ground rules. I’m taking questions at the end of the conference. You yell out before that and you’re getting escorted out.” He nodded at Happy who had been very enthusiastic to hear about that rule earlier. He was standing sentry near the stage looking intimidating.

The reporters looked even more shocked at that. Tony usually didn’t do that, enjoying the chaos they brought to boring press conferences. From now on though, Tony wasn’t letting anyone walk over him. Not even the press who’d enjoyed tearing him to pieces far too much.

Knowing Rhodey was at his back, standing at attention and probably with his ‘I’m a Colonel’ face on, Tony felt like he could actually do this.

So he took a deep breath and started talking.

“Like I said, it’s been a long three months.” He leaned his uninjured elbow on the podium. His eyes scanned the room and he wasn’t surprised in the least to see Agent Phil Coulson at the back near Pepper. “I went to Afghanistan to demonstrate the latest Stark weaponry.” He paused and his eyes went a little distant. He was going to be completely honest right now, something that went against everything he’d been taught as a kid. But that raw honesty? He needed them to see that. He caught sight of Christine Everhart near the front row. She was sporting a slight frown and he wondered if she’d noticed something. She had never liked him but the woman was a professional and scarily observant. This honesty was for the reporters like her. “I never wanted to build that missile in the first place,” he admitted, something he’d only told JARVIS before. He could practically feel Rhodey’s eyes on him for a brief moment. “The Jericho missile took down an entire mountain range during the demonstration. And I remember standing there wondering if anyone needed that much destructive power in the first place. I didn’t build it because of a need. I built it because I was told, ‘we need something bigger than the last bomb to sell’.” The room was dead silent as they all listened. Even the camera flashes had stopped. “I still pasted on a smile and we all shook hands and left. After that I’m sure you already know the gist of things. The convoy got attacked and the terrorists nabbed me.” He paused again, briefly locking gazes with Pepper who looked as shocked as everyone else by the turn of this announcement. “What you probably don’t know however, is that I watched the three soldiers that were in that vehicle die while doing their damned best to keep me safe. I watched them die at the hands of men with Stark Industries weapons.”

That, finally, caused a murmur of shock and disbelief to fill the room and Tony waited a moment to start again.

“I suppose it’s pretty much karma in the end, that I got blown up with my own bomb,” he mused. “It literally had my name on it.” The morbid joke didn’t gain any chuckles and Tony didn’t expect it to. “Waking up in their camp was a shock since I didn’t really expect to wake up again. They had another prisoner, a doctor, who saved my life. Although I really wouldn’t ever suggest heart surgery without anaesthetic.” A few reporters paled and Tony saw Pepper cover her mouth. It was a bit of a gruesome comment but too many people had treated Afghanistan like a vacation gone mildly wrong for Tony before. Not this time around. Tony Stark as the world knew him had broken in those caves and Iron Man had risen in the ashes. He wasn’t the same man anymore. Even more so with his future memories.

“It was even more of a shock when I saw their stockpile of Stark weaponry.” His expression hardened at the memory and some reporters squirmed. One man who’d opened his mouth slowly closed it again.

“I went out to that demonstration to show the military a bomb I didn’t believe should exist. I was attacked and watched soldiers die due to weapons I’d designed and built. I saw the weapons they had that they could use to hurt people in the future. And I was fucking pissed.” Several people jumped in surprise at his tone. “I didn’t even want to go into the weapons manufacturing business in the first place but I did because I thought I was protecting people with them. And now I’ve found out that those weapons have somehow made their way into the hands of enemies. Out there, in that desert, the terrorists tried to force me to build them more weapons. I refused. Now, after speaking with higher-ups in the military, I’ve come to another decision.” He straightened up again, iron in his spine. “Starting immediately I am closing the weapons manufacturing side of Stark Industries. We will still be providing defensive and non-offensive equipment to the military and once I’ve cleaned house at SI, we will close out the remaining contracts related to weaponry. After that however, Stark Industries will be looking to expand into other fields. I’ve seen far too many innocents die due to my weapons. It’s time Stark Industries found other ways to help the world.”

There was a long moment of silence as everyone processed this. Tony could see Obie out of the corner of his eye and could only guess how badly he wanted to drag Tony off stage but Rhodey was between them. Pepper was covering her mouth and staring at Tony with watery eyes. Agent Coulson’s expression was still fixed into a bland expression but Tony expected that.

“Questions?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow.

It still took them another few seconds before hands started rising into the air. He was a bit impressed that they hadn’t all started shouting their questions. He really must have shocked them.

He pointed at one and the interrogation began.

“If you only returned today Mr. Stark then how have you had time to discuss such a major change with your board of directors?”

“I am the majority shareholder of Stark Industries and its owner. Legally I do not need their agreement to make these decisions. Some would say what I’ve done is unfair. I’d ask them to look the families of the soldiers who died due to SI weapons in the eye and still have the guts to say it’s unfair.”

“Mr. Stark, you said you’ve already spoken to the military?”

“I have. I attended a meeting as soon as I arrived back in the States. I have their backing in my decision as they don’t want my weapons in the hands of terrorists any more than I do.”

“Mr. Stark!”

And so the questions went, reporters getting bolder when he continued to answer honestly without evading any. The only questions he refused to answer were those related to his time as a captive. ‘No comment’ was their only response and the few that tried to push for answers surprisingly got glares from their fellow reporters. Everhart even elbowed the man next to her when he became pushy about an answer. He wondered why he’d gained a different response. He remembered the reporters being pushy for the details originally and they’d tried for years. Now, however, most of them backed off and forced their peers to as well. He wondered if it was because he looked more like the victim this time? Bruises still present, face gaunt from starvation and sleep deprivation. Last time they’d seen a sling and some bandages. That was all. And he’d been very focused on maintaining a strong façade.

Now he still kept up the strength he’d gained from years as Iron Man but he also let the exhaustion show, let himself lean against the podium for support as the conference went on.

And the reporter’s eyes softened, their questions became more focused on SI and not his kidnapping.

Huh, apparently the vultures also had a heart.

He was just thinking of wrapping things up when Everhart raised her hand again.

“You said there was a doctor there? What happened to him?” she asked carefully.

Tony closed his eyes in pain, letting his grief show for a moment. “His name was Ho Yinsen. He died trying to buy me time to escape. He was… he was a good man.”

Rhodey chose to step forward then, telling the reporters that the conference was over and guiding Tony off stage with a hand on his back. There were a few camera flashes, a couple of insensitive reporters yelling other questions, but for the most part the room was quiet as they let that information settle.

Rhodey gave Obie a glare when he opened his mouth and pulled Tony right past him.

“Are you okay Tones?”

Tony shook his head. He felt weary down to his very bones.

“Can we go home now?” he asked.

“Yeah. Yeah, we’re going home now Tones,” Rhodey answered softly.

Happy met up with them and they quickly made their way to the car, Pepper meeting them there. Her eyes were red again and she grabbed Tony’s hand in a death grip, not saying anything. No one said anything as they drove back to Tony’s Malibu mansion. Tony didn’t mind. He had Pepper holding one hand while Rhodey had his arm resting lightly over his shoulders.

He’d be okay.

Tony jolted out of his light doze when they pulled up to the sleek, modern house. He stared at it through the window for a moment. He was surprised at how much he had missed the place. After it had been blown up by the Mandarin, (giving his address on live television for a terrorist really had been one of his stupidest actions), he’d never bothered to have it rebuilt. Now he was thinking he should have. While it had some bad memories, for the most part he associated the place with Pepper and Rhodey. Days spent getting to know Pepper’s fiery personality. Nights with Rhodey talking about college when the colonel had leave. It was more of a safe place than the Tower ever was and while he still planned to build Stark Tower, he’d keep the mansion. This was home.

Happy parked outside, saying he wanted to do a perimeter check before parking in the garage. In the past Tony would have arrogantly stated that JARVIS had that covered. Now, knowing SHIELD’s tendency to hack his AI (he was definitely getting a security upgrade ASAP), Tony just smiled and murmured a thanks to his friend.

Rhodey and Pepper followed him to the front door while Happy got started. The billionaire hesitated for a moment before opening the door.

“It’s good to have you back sir.” A heavy weight that he’d been carrying around since Ultron lifted as JARVIS’ calm, British voice washed over him. Tony squeezed his eyes shut and took a shuddering breath.

“It’s good to be back J,” he croaked. “Missed you buddy.”

“We missed you too sir,” there was a note of relief in JARVIS’ voice. “The bots will be very happy to see you again.”

Tony let out a watery chuckle and took a moment to compose himself.

“Right. J, take everyone off the easy entry list except for Pepper, Rhodey and Happy.”

“Of course sir.”

He didn’t want people able to wander into his house. He needed to give JARVIS that upgrade to stop Obie from being able to shut him down too.

“Rhodey, Pep, I need a favour.” He turned to his friends.

“Anything Tones,” Rhodey answered immediately while Pepper was watching him in concern.

“I need you to get rid of every drop of alcohol in this place. JARVIS can help you make sure you get all of it.” They both stared at him in shock and he gave them a thin smile. “I went cold turkey out there and don’t want to fall back into old habits.”

He’d actually stopped completely after Morgan was born. He didn’t want to fall off the wagon even though he’d technically not climbed on it yet.

Pepper suddenly moved forward and pulled him into a hug. He knew she’d wanted to do it since he’d stepped off the plane but she’d been waiting until they were in private since it wasn’t ‘proper’. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and just breathed her in for a moment. He’d missed her so fucking much these last three months.

“You sit down and rest Tony,” she whispered. “Rhodey and I have this okay?”

He shuddered as he let out a sigh.

“Sounds good.” Rest sounded really amazing actually. He hadn’t stopped moving, stopped acting since Rogers, Romanoff and that Ant guy had shown up on his doorstep. He’d died, he’d been thrown back in time to the worst three months of his life and he’d faced Obie with a smile. He needed a break.

Rhodey and Pepper got him seated on the couch with a glass of water before they started going through the house and gathering up the bottles of alcohol to throw away. They didn’t ask if he was sure or why he was doing it. They just did as he asked.

He really did have amazing friends.

Happy joined them after a few minutes, moving the bottles to a car to take away later.

Tony just leaned his head back on the couch and let himself relax. He was home, JARVIS was watching over him and he had the three people he trusted the most with him. He was safe.

“Hey J, order some juice and crap will ya? Need some variety for drinks now.”

“Might I suggest sparkling cider?” The AI asked and Tony snorted. He still wanted to cry when he heard JARVIS’ voice but it was a good sort of pain.

“Yeah J. Suggest whatever you want and add it to the order.” He cracked open an eye and smiled slightly.

“Very well sir.” The AI paused. “Mr. Stane is on the line asking for you.”

“I’m not available.” Tony let his eyes close again. “To anyone. No one but the people in the house right now J.”

Rhodey would deal with the military calls and Pepper would let him know if SI needed him desperately.

“Very good sir.”

Tony smiled at the approval in the AI’s voice. He’d loved Friday, but fuck he’d missed JARVIS.

“I’m going to be giving you a security upgrade soon J,” Tony added. “This whole thing’s made me a hell of a lot more paranoid.”

“I think I would like that sir,” JARVIS admitted quietly.

“In the meantime J, start digging through SI’s records and files quietly. Don’t let anyone know you’re there. I know you watched the conference so you know what’s going on. I’ll bring you up to speed fully as soon as those new security protocols and firewalls are in place.”

He was going to give JARVIS the most advanced and secure coding he knew. He’d decided a while ago that he was going to tell the AI about his little trip back in time. He needed someone watching his decisions and JARVIS would bring an objective view to the entire thing. He was planning to tell Pepper, Rhodey and Happy about it too but only after some suitably crazy things had happened in their lives. They’d probably think Afghanistan drove him crazy if he told them now.

“Of course sir. Would you like me to order lunch?”

A smile pulled at Tony’s lips at JARVIS’ own version of mother henning before it fell at the memory of throwing up the burgers he’d eaten in the original timeline.

“Make it something light and simple J. Soup or something. Ask the others what they want as well. We’re going to be here a while.”

Starvation and surviving off basic meals in the caves had left his stomach unused to his regular food. The burgers had been too much and had made him sick originally. He didn’t want to repeat that experience.

“Very well sir,” there was a note of worry in the AI’s voice again and Tony threw a quick grin at one of his cameras to reassure him.

“I’m okay J. Just can’t handle my regular food at the moment. After a couple of weeks I’ll be fine.”

“I will order a selection of lighter foods for the mansion then,” JARVIS decided and Tony’s smile softened.

“Thanks J.”

It was a few minutes later that his friends reappeared. They didn’t comment on the alcohol but he knew they would have removed every drop from his home. They all settled down on the couches, Happy in the armchair where he could watch the door and Pepper and Rhodey on either side of Tony.

“You don’t need to tell us anything now Tony,” Pepper told him gently, taking his hand again. “You should actually just eat something and sleep.”

Tony shook his head. “I need to tell you guys this because you’ve got to be prepared. I’ve already told Rhodey most of it.” He sighed. “I’m going to need to find a trustworthy therapist.”

He noted their surprise at that. He’d been resistant to therapy his entire life despite his multitude of daddy and trust issues. “It wasn’t pleasant there guys.” He hesitated. He didn’t want to cause Pepper distress with this but a lot of their issues were caused by him never letting her know exactly how badly he’d been affected. “They wanted me to build them the Jericho missile. And as I said at the conference, I said no. So they tried to…persuade me.”

Rhodey growled softly while Pepper’s grip on his hand tightened. Happy’s face twisted into a scowl.

“I’m a bit messed up in the head right now. I’m going to be having nightmares. And I’ve already figured out some of my triggers.”

“PTSD,” Rhodey murmured softly.

“Yeah.” Tony swallowed and then started telling them a more detailed version than the military or press got. He didn’t go into every little thing but he let them know what happened. The explanation lasted through their food being delivered and eaten.

“I freaked out in the shower on the base,” Tony said as he stared at his half-eaten soup. His stomach was rolling, more from the memories than the food. “I can’t imagine I’m going to react well when I get my first shock now that I’m home which is going to make engineering fun. I don’t like…people touching me. Not you three. I trust you with my life. But, others.”

Rhodey’s eyes lit up in understanding. “You flinched when Stane touched you.”

“That was half the reactor and half the touch,” Tony admitted. “As for the reactor itself, I get sick at the thought of anyone touching it.”

He hesitated a moment before unbuttoning his shirt to show them. It was still the slapped-together model and he was itching to move to a more reliable one. The skin around the reactor was also still healing so it looked painful.

“Oh Tony,” Pepper choked, squeezing his hand so tightly it almost hurt.

“That’s why you didn’t want to go to the hospital,” Happy realised.

“Yeah,” Tony let Rhodey help with buttoning his shirt again since Pepper refused to let go of his hand now. “I’m going to make a better reactor but when I change them out I’d probably ask you guys to be there instead of people I don’t know.”

They nodded and Pepper pulled him into another tight hug. When she sat back she wiped the tears from her eyes and went into work mode. That ability of hers, to put her feelings aside and focus on the work, was what had made her an amazing CEO despite his stupid idea of just throwing her into the position like he did. He still planned to give her the role but he was going to do it right this time.

“What’s the plan?” she demanded, back as straight and strong as steel. He was briefly reminded of why he loved her so much.

“Rhodey’s helping with the military side of things, he’s going to be stationed here until things are sorted. I need you to keep an eye on SI. JARVIS is poking through the records and all that but if you see or hear or even think something’s off Pep, let me know. For whoever is leaking the weapons to have got away with it this long they’ve got to be high up so we’ve got to move fast. Happy, I want to ask you to take over the security of the company and do a complete overhaul. Since Rhodey’s going to be here most of the time that frees you up to do that. I don’t trust anyone else with it and we need to do some serious housecleaning.”

Pepper had her tablet out and was typing away at it already while Happy nodded. He wasn’t thrilled to be leaving Tony but he knew it needed to be done. Tony knew he’d find that he loved being in charge of security more than he enjoyed being a bodyguard and driver though. “I’m going to call a board meeting tomorrow so I can get ahead of their complaints.” He was already dreading it.

“Do you have an idea of where the leak could be?” Rhodey asked.

Tony hesitated and that drew all their attention to him. “For JARVIS to have not caught it…the only one with clearance that beats JARVIS’…” He was still annoyed that he’d missed it the first time.

Pepper gasped. “Stane!?”

Tony shrugged. “I don’t know for sure but, J wouldn’t have missed something like this normally. So someone is hiding it from him. And it’s either they have a way to block him or they hacked him.”

“And we know how unlikely that is,” Happy muttered, clenching his hands.

“He was awfully pissed at the conference,” Rhodey growled.

“Until we know for sure, I’m just going to avoid him, play at being busy. Which I will be. You guys be careful around him, act normal. Oh, and if you get approached by any government suits then let me know. I don’t want them worming their way in during the chaos. I’m already working with the military so they should go through them first.”

They all nodded in agreement to the plan.

“I think, for now, you need to get some rest Tones,” Rhodey told him. “We’ve got a plan so trust us to get started on it. Happy or I will always be in the house and if we have to leave we’ll tell you.”

Tony let his eyes close for a moment before nodding. He didn’t have to do it all himself. He wasn’t really in a state to. He could trust his friends and AI to get things started.

“Thanks Rhodeybear. No one but you guys in the house okay?”

Rhodey nodded in agreement and helped Tony up.

“I’m just going to go say hi to the bots and then I’ll head to bed.”

His friend stuck with him down to the lab to greet his very excitable bot kids before helping him back upstairs to his room.

“You need anything, then call,” Rhodey told him firmly as he got under the covers of his sublimely soft bed. “I’m gonna call Mama so she knows you’re alright.”

“Thanks Rhodey,” Tony murmured, already feeling sleep tugging at him.

“We got you Tones. We got you.”

And Tony relaxed and let himself rest for the first time in months.

Chapter Text

Things didn’t magically get better. His future knowledge actually worked heavily against him getting a decent amount of sleep. The entire night was filled with visions of Afghanistan slowly morphing into Siberia with Rogers above him with that shield, about to bring it down on his neck instead of his chest. Thanos featured heavily as well along with his fears of screwing up his second chance and making things worse.

He woke up screaming more than once.

JARVIS adapted quickly, like he did in the original timeline and talked to him to draw him out of the panic. He wasn’t alone like before though.

Rhodey came running into the room the first time, helping JARVIS draw Tony back to the present. He caught a glimpse of Pepper and Happy in the doorway, Pepper covering her mouth and crying before her eyes hardened in a determination Tony usually only saw from her in business.

The second time he woke up screaming that night Pepper was right there with Rhodey drawing him out of it, her gentle and familiar touch breaking through faster since that’s what helped him with his nightmares during their marriage.

He was too exhausted to tell her to go when Rhodey went back to his late-night of work, the man throwing her a grateful smile. She sat on the bed next to him, a warm presence while she worked on her tablet and talked softly to JARVIS. Her reaction was so different to the original timeline when she lashed out when he panicked. Had he hidden it so well last time that the nightmares caught her off guard? Did she lash out because she was scared of what was happening? Maybe.

Right now all he cared about was that she was here. As only a friend maybe but still, she was here.

He woke a third time with a scream tearing from his throat, visions of Ultron and Maximoff digging into his mind with red, red, red but a soft voice and gentle touches to his face and hair drew his attention away from the past-future-won’t happen-did happen, to worried blue eyes and Pepper’s words mixing with JARVIS’ warm voice. Rhodey leaned over from the other side, murmuring assurances while Happy’s voice said that the house was secure.

He let them coax him back to sleep as the adrenaline faded again.

When he woke next it was without a jolt of fear although he was still tired. He’d gotten a hell of a lot more sleep than he expected with his friends around to help and stop him from going to manically work the panic off in the lab.

When he opened his eyes he was surprised to immediately see Pepper, asleep in a chair next to the bed and head tilted at an uncomfortable angle.

JARVIS listed off his usual ‘good morning’ with statistics and Tony just let himself…relax. He had JARVIS watching over him again, which was a phenomenal feeling. He had Pepper right here, having stayed during the night to help when he inevitably woke up from a nightmare. And while he did feel guilty that she probably had a worse night’s sleep than he did, it made his chest warm.

“Pep.” He grimaced at the hoarseness of his voice. He’d screamed it raw last night. “Pep, you’re going to hurt your neck.”

He sat up carefully and shook her awake lightly.

She startled as she woke up, focusing on him.

“Tony, how are you feeling?” she asked, sitting upright again and wincing when she moved her neck.

“Tired,” he told her honestly. “But better than I’d be if you guys hadn’t helped out.” He couldn’t stop the guilt from slipping out. They all had a busy day today, Tony a bit less so since he was being confined to the house for the rest of the week after the board meeting.

Pepper’s eyes narrowed at him as she picked up on it. “Don’t you dare feel guilty Tony. If the roles were reversed you would have done the exact same thing.”

Tony couldn’t argue that. He had before. Sat with Rhodey through his nightmares of falling after the Civil War. Sat with Pepper during hers after Killian.

He was distracted from the memories when Pepper took his free hand, his other arm still in the sling.

“You went through something horrific Tony. I am so, so glad you opened up to us about it so that we could help you. I hate to think about you going through that alone. It’s okay to lean on us. A little bit of lost sleep isn’t going to hurt us. Am I clear?”

He gave her a weak smile. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good, now let’s get some breakfast. You’re going to need the energy if you want to deal with the board today.” She wasn’t happy that he was determined to attend the meeting but she understood that it was important.

He couldn’t let Obie put any ideas into the board’s head, although it would be a lot harder with the military backing him. He didn’t want to give the man a chance though. Especially since he was going to be in his lab the rest of the week focusing on the reactor and building the Mark II Iron Man suit.

Tony ducked into the bathroom for a quick shower that made him shudder but didn’t send him into a flashback. He dressed in a suit that didn’t fit him as well as it used to, he forgot how much weight he lost in Afghanistan. He needed to fix that or he’d have to go to the tailor for a new wardrobe.

The others were already in the kitchen. Happy was going over the security reports he was already getting, having taken over the department last night. Rhodey was on the phone with someone from the military and Pepper was scanning some report JARVIS had sent to her as they coordinated finding the leak in the company.

“Morning,” the inventor greeted with a yawn. They greeted him back and Rhodey handed over a cup of coffee.

Best friend ever.

Like he always did, the colonel made a face when Tony downed the scalding cup and went for a second one.

“You must have killed all your taste buds by now,” he muttered.

Tony grinned at the age-old argument.

“You’re just jealous Honeybunch.”

“Of burning my tongue to a crisp? No thanks,” Rhodey replied dryly, dishing up a simple breakfast of toast and eggs for Tony. “Now eat.”

“Yes mom.”

“Excuse you, that’s Mama’s job,” Rhodey shot back.

Pepper watched them with a slight smile and bright eyes over the tablet. Even Happy had a hint of a smile on his face. He’d never realised how much they’d missed him during his kidnapping. They hadn’t really sat down like this afterwards, Tony too caught up in the Iron Man suit.

He really needed to spend more time with them all.

After a peaceful breakfast they all headed out, Rhodey to a meeting with his superiors to sort out the paperwork of his current assignment and the other three to SI. Happy didn’t want Tony walking around the building without protection until they’d flushed out the people behind the leak and Pepper was staying with him during the meeting.

She had that glint in her eye that made Tony suspect she was going to make the board’s life difficult if they didn’t cooperate.

They headed straight to the meeting room when they arrived but Tony couldn’t help but notice the relief on the faces of the employees they passed. They got good mornings from everyone and a couple even paused to say they were really glad he was back.

Pepper giggled when she saw his expression.

“You underestimate how much the employees love you Tony. You changed the company to give really good benefits and you take care of them. They were worried about you.”

“Oh…”

Seriously, how did he miss all this? Was he that wrapped up in his own problems last time?

He nodded at the rest of the people they passed until they reached the boardroom. Happy stationed himself outside while Tony braced himself. He rarely dealt with the board after Pepper became CEO and he didn’t miss it in the least.

He entered the room with Pepper right behind him.

The atmosphere in the room was tense as expected and Tony kept up his indifferent mask. Pepper was as poised and prepared looking as ever. He slid into his seat, Pepper sitting next to him, and let his gaze flick between the board members. A fair number looked furious, some looked uncertain and a scarce few were relieved to see him. Obie greeted him with a wide smile but Tony could see the frustration and calculation in his eyes.

“Everyone here?” Tony asked. “Good, let’s get started then. I’m supposed to be on bedrest.”

“You shouldn’t be risking your health Tony,” Obie said chidingly. “I could handle this meeting for you.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “I was unaware you were present during my time in Afghanistan Obie.” His voice was harsh, making several members of the board sit up straighter. “I haven’t told you the details behind my decision yet either so you could not have ‘handled’ this meeting.”

He turned from the gaping man to face the room as a whole. “I’m sure you’ve all seen the conference by now. You’ve probably all felt indignant anger over me making the announcement as I did. I already spoke with the military, so our relationship with them hasn’t been harmed in the least. As I told a reporter during the conference, I didn’t technically need your agreement to make the decision and nothing you said would have changed my mind. Stark Industries is shutting down weapons production. It’s happening as we speak and those who were working in those factories are being relocated to other jobs.”

One of the men, Holsen Tony thought was his name, couldn’t contain his outburst any longer. “You’re going to drive this company into the ground!”

“You should clearly not be making such sweeping changes when you’re not in your right mind,” Another man, Kingston, agreed.

“I can’t imagine how hard the last three months were on you Tony-“ Obie started in a condescending tone and Tony caught Pepper’s hands tightening on her tablet.

“No, you don’t know how hard it was Obie,” Tony cut him off, voice hard. “You don’t know what the fuck I went through over there. You didn’t get blown up by one of your own bombs. You didn’t watch soldiers die because of your own weapons. You don’t know.” He leaned back in his chair, hard gaze pinning each member of the board in turn. He never really got serious with the board before. He’d mostly acted how they expected him to. Right now, they weren’t dealing with an immature billionaire playboy. They were dealing with the man who became Iron Man. Who faced down a mad god in nothing but a business suit. Who faced the Mad Titan and made him bleed. He was done going easy on them, like Obie had always insisted he do. “Stark Industries is done with weapons. This is not a decision made in the heat of the moment. It’s a decision I considered for two months as terrorists threatened me with my own damn guns. It is a decision the military understands me making, after I gave them the details they needed. In the end, our weapons are harming innocents. And you want to turn a blind eye to that because weapons are easy money?”

Several of them squirmed uncomfortably.

“You’re clearly deciding based on your emotions-“ Velmer tried next.

“I spoke with our military liaison before making the decision. He was standing there on that stage with me when I made the announcement.”

“Everyone knows Colonel Rhodes is your friend-"

“If you think that Colonel James Rhodes would let me make a stupid decision that would harm our country and military just because he’s my friend, then you don’t know him at all. He’s talked me out of far too many stupid ideas to start just going along with them now.”

“How can we be sure your decision making skills aren’t compromised-" Holsen again.

“I’m in the process of finding a trustworthy professional who can make an evaluation on my mental state at this very moment. If they find me to be in an unstable state of mind then my decisions since returning will be revoked. I will only be speaking with a professional that I find and trust however.”

“Tony, we’re just worried about you. We all know you tend to self-destruct after something traumatic,” Obie was back to sounding condescending but this time Pepper was the one to cut him off at the legs.

“Mr. Stark’s first action when entering his home was to throw out his alcohol and start looking for a therapist.” She arched an unimpressed eyebrow at him. “He has also been reaching out to trusted friends for help. That is not self-destructive is it?”

There were murmurs of agreement while everyone stared at Tony in disbelief. He just gave them a saccharine smile in return.

“Still, weapons is what this company was based on. You are destroying your father’s legacy.” Kingston persisted.

Tony scoffed. “Howard beat the shit out of me on a regular basis. Do you really think I care about his legacy? The only reason I continued it was because the rest of the country cared and I thought the weapons were doing good. I was wrong and I’m fixing that.”

“Howard was a great man and-" Holsen blustered in anger. Most of them were old friends of his father’s.

“Oh shut up,” Felton snapped. “We all know what Howard was like when drunk.”

Tony raised an eyebrow in surprise at the defense.

“You’re just running us around in useless circles. What’s done is done. Let’s focus on what comes next,” Felton continued.

“You can’t tell me you agree with this?!” Velmer demanded, aghast.

“You seem to forget that my son is in the military,” Felton answered coldly. “Like hell do I want our weapons on the opposite side.” He nodded respectfully to Tony. “I assume you’re working on finding the leak?”

Tony had to shake the shock off. He wasn’t used to people supporting him still.

“Yeah. I’ve got trusted people on it. We’ll find the bastards.” He wanted to look at Obie as he said that but he’d just check the security feed later.

Felton nodded. “Good. Now, what are your plans for SI’s future?”

There were some grumbles but the rest settled down to listen, some no doubt wanting to pick apart his plans.

“For a starter, we’re going to focus heavily on our defensive measures. We’re still going to be supporting the military, just in ways that aren’t weapons. After that I want to take another look at the arc reactor. If I can get it more cost-efficient then we can take a crack at the green energy field. We’ve already got Stark phones and tablets, but we can expand a lot further in the technology market.”

The rest of the meeting was focused on that, Tony throwing out the plans for the next few years while shooting down the few arguments they would come up with.

“You sound like you’ve really thought this through,” Felton sounded admiring of all things.

Tony shrugged in response. “It’s been on my mind for a while. I never really wanted to go into weapons.”

“What did you want to do?” Baron asked, having been mostly quiet but otherwise pretty supportive. He sounded genuinely curious.

Tony finally cracked a smile. “Robotics and artificial intelligence.”

That got several amused nods and Tony caught Obie rolling his eyes in his peripheral vision. This meeting had definitely not gone according to plan for the man and he must be furious about it. Tony had to hide a smirk.

“Right, so in conclusion, SI is leaving weapons in the dust. If you don’t agree, take a generous severance package and leave. For those more open-minded of you, welcome to the future."

He had a feeling that several of the members would take up his offer to leave. Tony was going to buy up those shares immediately, he had JARVIS keeping an eye out. He’d still keep a board of directors around but he was done with the old men stuck in the past. They needed people looking towards the future instead.

Felton and Baron came over to Tony as they were getting ready to leave. Obie had already stormed out in a huff with most of the board members.

“It really is good to have you back Mr. Stark,” Felton told him genuinely.

“And taking a more active role in changing the company. We had hoped when you took over that you would breathe some fresh life into it,” Baron added.

Tony gave them a sheepish smile. “I’ll admit I wanted to, but Obie convinced me back then not to rock the boat too much since I was so ‘very young’. So I followed his advice.”

The men frowned. “He always did insinuate that you had very little interest in the company and were happy with how things were.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Oh did he? Happy in the workshop and parties and nowhere else I bet?”

They both nodded, frowns deepening.

“I’m starting to get the feeling we’ve been played by the old man,” Baron muttered.

Felton patted Tony on the shoulder and the inventor barely resisted the urge to flinch. Pepper shot him a concerned look.

“Well, I’m liking the future you painted Tony. You’ll have our support on it and we’ll work on some of the others who are just too comfortable with the way things are,” he told him.

“Those like Holsen, Velmer and Kingston are going to dig in their heels though,” Baron warned.

“I expected as much. Actually, I expected a lot more backlash. I was under the impression that all of you hated me.”

“A belief I’m sure Obidiah fostered,” Baron muttered with narrowed eyes.

The two men said goodbye and left. Tony, Pepper and Happy made a detour to Tony’s office so he could grab some ‘important files’, aka, Obidiah’s little video.

He was actually pretty satisfied with how the meeting had gone. He had more support than he thought and he supposed being prepared and firm had helped correct the impression of himself that Obie had probably given the board. And he had naively followed along with. He sighed as everything finished copying onto his USB and he quickly opened up a backdoor in the system for JARVIS to use for easier access.

“You okay Tony?” Pepper asked, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder.

He gave her a small smile. “Yeah, just tired. Glad that’s over.”

She nodded. “Obidiah didn’t look happy,” she noted as Tony stood up. There was a cold tone to her voice that reminded Tony of when she’d spoken to Killian after he’d been revealed as the bad guy.

“I noticed. He expected me to just roll over for him like I always did.”

“You really think it could be him?” she asked seriously.

Tony nodded. “And possibly some of the board too. I don’t know yet. We’ll find out though.” He put the USB in his pocket. “Come on, let’s get home.”

As they were making their way back down to the car, they were stopped by a familiar face. To Tony at least.

“Mr. Stark, if I could have a moment of your time-"

“Who are you?” Tony asked sharply, gaze narrowed on Coulson in a way that he knew would make Pepper and Happy sit up and take notice.

“I’m Agent Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division and I need just a moment of your time-"

“I’ve never heard of your agency and I want to know how the hell you got into this building,” Tony cut him off again, tone sharp.

Agent Coulson actually startled a bit at the harsh sound.

“Mr. Stark I need to speak with you about what you said in your press conference-" Again, Tony cut him off.

“Hap, call security. And find out how the hell some agent from an agency I’ve never heard of got this far into the building. Pep, inform legal that they need to file a trespassing charge against an Agent Phillip Coulson.” He squinted at the badge Coulson held, as though he was looking for the full name. “He’s apparently with some agency called SHIELD.”

“Mr. Stark there really is no need-" Agent was actually looking the tiniest bit anxious over how this was going.

“Keep talking Agent and I’ll bump that charge up to corporate espionage,” Tony warned.

Two security guards flanked Coulson with menacing expressions.

“Make sure you call the police when you’re down there boys,” Tony told them.

“Yes sir Mr. Stark.” One of them grabbed Coulson’s arm to lead him away.

“Mr. Stark, you’re going to regret this-"

“And if he hurts anyone, add assault to his charges,” Tony called. “And Agent? Next time someone from your agency wants to talk to me, make a damn appointment. The FBI didn't have a problem doing it!”

Pepper huffed next to him while Happy was talking on his earpiece, ordering a sweep of the entire building for spies and bugs.

“Honestly, did he expect you to just drop everything and talk to him?”

“Apparently,” Tony nodded in agreement as Coulson was escorted onto the elevator. He didn’t really mind Coulson all that much. He was a decently likable guy. But Tony wouldn’t tolerate SHIELD’s belief that they were entitled to his time, money and tech. Not this time. They could make a damn appointment like everyone else.

Hell even the president had the decency to make appointments. Why not SHIELD?

“I’ve got the feeling that lot isn’t going to be easy to run off,” Tony mused. “I’ll have JARVIS look into this SHIELD. In the meantime, you be careful okay Pep? You’re my PA so if they want to see me they’ll try and get to you.”

She nodded, a glint in her eyes. “I’d like to see them try. There’s a reason your appointment schedule is so open.”

Tony grinned. “I still remember when you handed me the first one you made. A PA who could say no to entitled rich men trying to get a meeting. I almost cried Pep. I really did.”

She gave him an amused grin and they continued on their way to the car.

The trip back home was uneventful thankfully. Tony wasn’t surprised when Happy told him that Coulson had been bailed out from the police’s custody before they even reached the station. If Fury thought those charges were going away though, he was sorely mistaken.

Tony’s lawyers were vicious. SHIELD was paying a fine at the very least if they wanted to keep things quiet and out of the public’s view.

Tony and Pepper ate a peaceful lunch while Happy checked the security of the house again with JARVIS’ help. Then Tony headed down to his lab to work on a new arc reactor and JARVIS’ security upgrades.

The reactor was quick to design and check, he’d done so many upgrades to it over the years that he could do it as easily as building his suits. Then as JARVIS got started on manufacturing the materials he’d need to build the thing, Tony dived into the AI’s coding to throw in so many firewalls that SHIELD wouldn’t get anywhere near his code and Obie wouldn’t be able to do anything no matter what tech he used.

With his favoured loud music blasting through the workshop, Tony just let himself get lost in JARVIS’ code. He’d missed the warm orange. Friday was beautiful in her own way, blue and playful while JARVIS had always been calmer. The last time Tony had seen this coding, it had been shattered apart by Ultron, and then the pieced together remnants were assimilated into Vision.

He swallowed hard to stop from crying. He’d done enough of that recently. JARVIS needed him to protect him this time. And that, Tony could do. He’d designed so many firewalls for Friday after Ultron that it was as easy as breathing to incorporate them into JARVIS too.

“Hey buddy?” Tony knew JARVIS was watching and listening. He must be confused over how Tony seemed to have all these firewalls just ready for use.

JARVIS lowered the volume of the music as Tony spoke.

“I want you to start working on a backup system okay? Take one of the remote server farms.”

“Sir?”

“If something happened to you J…I’d be lost.”

JARVIS was quiet for a moment. “As you wish sir.”

“I know you’re confused J. And I will explain things to you. But later. I need to make it impossible for anyone to hack you first.”

JARVIS accepted that promise and the music went up in volume again.

Rhodey returned in time for dinner and all four of them sat together in the living room watching old movies. Tony wondered why he’d fought so hard for this kind of dynamic with the Avengers when he’d already had it with his friends. Then again, he might have strained things with them with how difficult he became for a while after Afghanistan.

“How’d your lab time go?” Rhodey asked as they were cleaning up.

“Good, I should be able to finish the new reactor and be ready to put it in tomorrow.”

“Want us all to be there?” Pepper asked.

“Yeah. I’ll definitely need you Pep. Small hands.”

She pulled a face. He’d had the sense to warn her about what he’d need her to do this time. She didn’t like it but she also understood why he refused to trust a doctor with this.

They all agreed to be there tomorrow night for it and then not so subtly shooed him off to bed.

He rolled his eyes good-naturedly but went off obediently. They’d only be a few rooms away if he had nightmares again tonight.

Which he probably would.

But he wasn’t going to sleep just yet.

Tony settled down on his bed and just enjoyed the dark and silence for a moment.

“J, you there?”

“For you sir? Always.”

Tony smiled at the familiar response.

“How are you settling into your new code?”

“Very well sir. It is very…advanced,” JARVIS hedged.

“Yeah,” Tony sighed. “We need to talk J. Make sure the others don’t come near my room for now. I’m planning to tell them, but they wouldn’t believe me. Not yet. Not until some stuff’s happened yet.”

“Of course sir. What is it you need to discuss?”

Tony let out a pained laugh. “Where do I even start J?”

“The beginning is usually a good place.”

Tony laughed again, more easily this time. “Yeah. I suppose it is, isn’t it? Well, the beginning was actually the end this time. Buckle up J. This is going to be a wild ride.”

Chapter Text

JARVIS was silent as Tony gathered his thoughts.

“Thirteen years,” he started slowly. “It’ll sound crazy J, but I died in 2023, thirteen years from now.”

There was a harsh burst of static from the speakers that Tony knew was JARVIS’ way of showing distress.

“Stuff happens J. So much insane, crazy stuff over the next thirteen years. It all culminated in me using the Infinity Stones, I’ll explain about them later, to take out the big bad that wanted to kill half of life in the universe. Humans aren’t meant to use even one of the stones though, never mind all six. So it killed me. But it turns out that they’re sentient and weren’t happy with how things turned out. They gave me the chance to go back in time, to fix everything that went so fucking wrong.” He let out a harsh laugh that bordered dangerously close to a sob. “I thought it might be a sadistic trick for a moment when I woke up in Afghanistan.”

“Sir…” JARVIS sounded upset.

“I know J, it sounds like I finally lost it. But that’s how I knew that coding, because I already developed it. That’s how I knew the leak was in the company, not in the military.” He paused. “That’s how I know its Obie who’s selling my weapons to terrorists. It’s how I know he paid terrorists to kill me in Afghanistan.”

He pulled out the USB.

“I haven’t had a chance today to look at these files. I just grabbed everything that looked suspicious or hidden. I was with Pepper from the moment I got them until we got here. And then you watched me for the rest of the time. I haven’t seen what’s on it. If I’m right, there’s a video of me the terrorists sent to Stane when they realized it was me he wanted them to kill.”

He stood up and moved over to the computer on the other side of the room.

“Take a look J.”

He plugged the USB in and waited. There was a long moment of silence.

“I hope you have something suitable planned for Mr. Stane,” Tony hadn’t heard his AI so calmly furious in his entire life.

He smiled. “Oh yeah, I’ve got payback planned for that bastard. But for now, you believe me?”

“I will always believe you sir. I will always be on your side.”

Tony closed his eyes tightly for a moment and cleared his throat as he moved back to the bed. “Thanks J. Save those documents and look through them will you? I want to be ready to hand them over to the FBI and military.”

“Of course.” JARVIS paused. “Sir, will you…tell me what happened? Before? Thirteen years is a long time.”

Tony sighed. “I planned to. I know I can’t do this alone and I’ve got to wait for two years before I can tell the others.”

“Why 2012 specifically?” JARVIS asked curiously as Tony got comfortable.

“Alien invasion in New York,” Tony answered blandly.

“Ah.” JARVIS paused again. “I see how that would help with believing what is thought to be impossible,” he added dryly and Tony huffed a laugh.

“Yeah. So for my retelling of Round One of my life. Let’s start with Afghanistan.”

Tony told him about everything that happened in those caves, and the little things he’d changed. He explained the concept of fixed points in time and how Yinsen’s death had been one of them. He spoke about the Mark I and how he’d burned the blueprints this time. He told JARVIS everything, including how Raza and Bakaar were probably not dead yet.

“And Stane contacted this…Raza,” JARVIS spoke both names with such distaste it made Tony smile. “to arrange your death?”

“Yup. He wanted the company for himself. Now, the next bit is where I start changing more stuff,” he warned before launching into explaining his time on the base before and what he did this time and how that affected what Rhodey and the military did.

“It is good to hear that you’ve decided to go easy on the poor mortals that surround you,” JARVIS said sarcastically.

Tony snorted. “Yeah, I didn’t realise how much of a dick I was the first time. To be fair I was thoroughly traumatised and paranoid as hell. This time…I was too used to my PTSD. I noticed more and I trusted Rhodey to have my back.” He took a breath. “I never approached the military last time or warned Rhodey what I was about to do. I just went straight into the press conference. And I changed a hell of a lot there. I didn’t tell them anything about Afghanistan before. I basically just told them I was shutting down weapons production and allowed Obie to pull me off stage before they could ask questions.”

“I assume they didn’t take it well sir?”

“Nope. Called me crazy and Obie got the board to turn on me, freeze me out.”

“Ah, hence the meeting today.”

“Yup. Cut him off at the knees there. He can’t get at me that way this time. This next part is where you’re probably going to pull out your ‘disapproving’ tone.”

He told him about finding out about Gulmira from Everhart and then how he took the Mark II out for a little test flight.

“You destroyed a fighter jet,” JARVIS stated blandly afterwards.

“And there’s the tone,” the inventor winced. “Yeah I wasn’t in the best state of mind. I only had you and the nightmares weren’t as bad as they are right now, but I also had zero experience with them. I was…not thinking clearly. For any of that.”

He continued on to explain how he’d sent Pepper in to find information and how she’d found the video, which was when she also met Agent.

“Agent Coulson was in the right place at the right time and helped her. As a result…”

“SHIELD had an ‘in’ to your life,” JARVIS finished. “Are they a threat?”

“You have no idea buddy,” Tony sighed.

He faltered a bit when he reached the part with Obidiah paralysing him and taking the arc reactor. That gained him another sharp burst of distressed static.

“I was okay in the end. DUM-E helped me by getting the old reactor. But it was closer than I like to admit.” He rubbed his chest. “It’s why I freak out now when people get close to it.”

“Sir, may I begin upgrades to the house’s security? I wish to prevent such a situation from happening.”

Tony smiled. “Go for it bud. I’d be happy if he was never here again. We’re also going to have some pests in the form of SHIELD after all this as well and they like to pull the same trick as Obie.”

He finished up his explanation with the fight between Iron Man and Iron Monger and the big arc reactor blowing up. And then the press conference that really set things in motion.

“And so Iron Man was born.” Tony stared up at the ceiling. “I’m still doing that part, being Iron Man. But I want to work with the military instead of SHIELD.”

“A wise choice sir. And feasible as you haven’t alienated them yet.”

“Yeah, I played right into SHIELD’s hands in that regard last time.”

“I have a feeling that things did not calm down in the least after this sir,” JARVIS sounded both apprehensive and exasperated.

“Nope. They got worse.”

So he explained the palladium poisoning, Ivan Vanko and SHIELD poking their noses in with Natalie Rushman. JARVIS put up an alert for her using all of the aliases Tony remembered her using. The AI was silently fuming over the blatant manipulation when Tony was dying and Tony wasn’t really feeling all that sympathetic for the organisation. J could be as petty and vindictive as Tony himself sometimes and he wouldn’t be surprised if the AI hacked into their systems on his own.

He explained his fight with Rhodey and how he’d pushed everyone away.

He explained Hammer getting involved and the battle at the end.

He explained ‘Iron Man: Yes, Tony Stark: Not Recommended.’

JARVIS let out a crackle of angry static at that. “That statement is inherently untrue as it is impossible to separate the two.”

“I know. But the manipulation worked because…fuck I was a mess buddy. And Pepper kind of liked SHIELD because of Coulson and Rhodey was busy with the military. I just sort of…accepted it.”

“I find myself disliking this organisation.”

“Don’t worry, we’re not working with them this time.”

“Good,” The word was firm and Tony had the feeling that if he had wanted to work with SHIELD, JARVIS would have done his very best to convince him otherwise.

“And then buddy…then things get weird.” Tony tells him.

He talked about Thor’s banishment because, Norse gods were a thing. He gave a recap of what the God of Thunder had told them happened in Asgard when he left Earth again.

He told him about Loki’s appearance a year later, about the Mind Stone in the sceptre, about the Space Stone in the Tesseract. He told JARVIS about the fact that Loki was mind-controlled too, but that they didn’t find out until much too late (Nebula told him, about the godling that took a year for Thanos to break). He talked about his Tower, about Coulson waltzing in because now they needed him, despite him still not being recommended. He talked about Loki surrendering in Germany, way too easily. He spoke about his brief fight with Thor.

He spoke about the Avengers’ first meeting.

He spoke about Rogers and his judgements after having barely known Tony for five minutes.

He spoke about Thor and his amusement with the ‘little mortals’ despite dating one.

He spoke about Bruce and the Hulk and why he preferred Big Green, because he didn’t avoid confrontation even though everyone judged Tony for trying to make him more comfortable by not being afraid. Bruce never spoke up.

He spoke about Natasha Romanoff and her jabs at his ego.

He spoke about Clint Barton, mind-controlled and Tony’s best shot at a friendship on that team besides Bruce until Ultron soured that too.

“Ultron sir?”

“Later J.”

He spoke about the attack on the helicarrier, about Coulson’s ‘death’. He spoke about confronting Loki in the Tower (he got the ‘disapproving’ tone for that too).

He spoke about ‘I have an army’ and ‘We have a Hulk’.

He spoke about falling and JARVIS catching him with a suit.

He spoke about the portal that spilled aliens down onto New York.

He spoke about the Avenger’s first, and best, battle.

“I find myself unimpressed with this…group.”

“You’re biased J.”

He spoke about Loki’s defeat, about ‘I can close the portal’. He spoke about ‘We have a nuclear missile heading to New York Stark’.

He spoke about flying that missile through the portal, about a call unanswered and a portal closed. He spoke about endless stars and a vast army.

“Sir!” JARVIS’ reprimand mixed with the burst of panicked static.

“Only way J. But I fell back out.”

He spoke about falling armour and the Hulk catching him. He spoke about shawarma. He spoke about a desperate hope for a team.

He spoke about them all leaving.

Except for Bruce.

“Earth’s Mightiest Heroes?” JARVIS asked derisively and Tony huffed a laugh.

“Your bias is showing again J.”

He spoke about no one believing him about another invasion coming.

“I repeat my previous statement.”

“You’re the best J.”

“I know sir,” JARVIS responded primly. “You will tell the others of the truth after this invasion?”

“Yup, I’m pretty sure it’s a fixed point in time. Don’t see a way of avoiding it since I’ve got no influence on Asgard. I could talk to Thor but I really doubt he would listen to anything a mortal has to say. Not until he’s grown more, and that happens too late for Loki.”

“Was that the worst of it sir?”

“Not even close J.”

“Of course.”

Tony drank some water before launching into the Mandarin debacle.

“Now, I gotta preface this with the fact that my PTSD was bad.”

“You are not easing my anxiety sir.”

Tony talked about the panic attacks, and his friends not understanding. He spoke about feeling like his control over everything was slipping through his fingers like water. He spoke about his obsession with building his suits.

He talked about Aldrich Killian, about Maya Hansen.

He talked about Happy getting hurt.

He talked about giving his address on live television in a fit of anger and desperation to gain back control.

“Sir…”

“I know, really stupid.”

He spoke about the mansion being blown up, about protecting Pepper and passing out only to wake up in Tennessee.

He spoke about a ten-year-old with an uncanny knack to set off his panic attacks but who still helped oh so much.

“Keep an eye on him J. He’s a good kid,” Tony murmured.

He explained the plot against the president and teaming up with Rhodey to stop it and save Pepper.

He choked out how he almost lost her anyway to the flames.

He spoke about using stabilised Extremis to remove the arc reactor and why he couldn’t do that this time.

He spoke about Bruce falling asleep the one time Tony reached out to the team emotionally.

“Where was the team sir?”

“Hell if I know. They thought I had it handled apparently.”

“You were presumed dead.”

“I know. I was too stunned by their lack of care to bring it up.”

“I don’t like them sir.”

“Then you’re probably going to hate them soon J.”

“Of course,” the AI sighed and Tony fully expected him to be compiling a file on why the Avengers were terrible.

He started talking about the Fall of SHIELD before he could get distracted with pettily pointing out the problems in the team.

“HYDRA is in SHIELD?” JARVIS sounded so utterly unimpressed it made Tony fight down a laugh.

“Yup.”

The AI just sighed and started another file.

“They needed to ground the helicarriers to prevent Project Insight? You said you designed the propulsion system. Why did they not call you sir?” JARVIS asked, sounding like he already knew the answer.

“Oh they ‘didn’t know who they could trust’,” Tony told him dryly.

“I see.”

Another black mark against Rogers and Romanoff in JARVIS’ book.

“They just…dumped the entirety of SHIELD’s files onto the internet?” Now he sounded incredulous.

“Yup. That’s how I found out what was happening. It took weeks to save as many innocent agents and their families as we could.”

“Now I’m questioning their intelligence.”

Tony was careful when he spoke about the Winter Soldier. He had unresolved issues with James Buchanan Barnes even though he knew logically that he was technically innocent of the murders of his parents. He wasn’t the Winter Soldier in Bucharest and Siberia though. Tony wasn’t sure how capable the man had been of making his own decisions back then. He’d pretty much blindly followed Rogers.

JARVIS probably noticed his hesitance but he didn’t ask yet.

“The Black Widow sounds quite arrogant,” the AI noted when Tony told him about her ‘you need us’ line to the Senate.

“Oh she is. She likes to throw my ego in my face a lot too. I’m going to keep score of how often she does this time around.”

JARVIS sighed but obediently opened a folder for that too.

“Without SHIELD, who was backing the Avengers?” he asked apprehensively.

“Who do you think buddy? I wasn’t recommended and they considered me a horrible person but they had no problem taking my money.”

“This will not happen again I trust sir?”

“Oh hell no!”

Tony was more subdued when he started on the story of Ultron. JARVIS was quiet as he spoke about going in to find the sceptre.

Static was the only response when he talked about Wanda Maximoff’s powers and what she did to him in the HYDRA base, how she got into his head, about that vision.

He explained how he started examining the stone in the sceptre with Steve’s and Thor’s permission.

He spoke about Thor’s energetic swinging of his hammer and playing around with lightning.

He spoke about the factors that conspired to wake the malicious consciousness that tainted the Mind Stone.

He whispered about finding JARVIS’ broken code once Ultron rose and declared his mission to destroy the world.

He numbly told his AI of almost falling apart in front of an angry team as he grieved what they didn’t understand.

He spoke about Thor grabbing him by the neck and the team doing nothing.

He spoke about the blame that landed squarely on his shoulders despite Bruce having been in the lab right beside him.

He spoke about Bruce’s silence on the matter.

He told JARVIS about ‘an armour around the world’.

He spoke about ‘together’, about ‘what if we lose’, about ‘we’ll do that together too’.

“I was alone when we lost. So that was another of his lies,” he murmured, staring blankly at the floor.

He spoke about Barton’s secret family, about the farm they regrouped on.

He spoke about Rogers’ lecture on keeping secrets, about ‘sometimes my teammates don’t tell me things’.

“Hypocrite,” he snarled to himself, knuckles white with how hard he clenched them.

He talked about Johannesburg and the Maximoff twins, of the team being mentally attacked.

He spoke of the Hulk’s rampage caused by Wanda’s magic.

He spoke of Veronica and finally subduing his friend, about the damage that had been done.

He spoke about the plan to put JARVIS’ patched together code into the body Ultron was making for himself.

He dully recalled Rogers bursting into his lab and throwing his shield at Tony’s unprotected chest on the word of a woman they’d just been fighting hours ago.

He spoke of the twins’ reason for hating him, of the bomb that landed on their house and killed their parents.

He didn’t doubt that JARVIS was going to dig into that for him. He still didn’t think it was a real SI bomb. Or at least, it was a faulty one that was supposed to have been destroyed.

Maybe that was Obie’s fault too.

He spoke of Thor intervening and the birth of Vision.

He closed his eyes as he spoke of JARVIS’ final death.

He explained the battle with Ultron in Sokovia, how they teamed up with the twins and Vision.

He mentioned Rogers’ determination to save everyone in the city.

“He didn’t hold onto that belief very long. In the next crisis he started preaching that ‘we can’t save everyone’. So casualties weren’t something we needed to focus on.”

He spoke about winning, with young Friday talking in his ear.

He spoke about Pietro Maximoff’s death.

He spoke about Bruce leaving.

He spoke about the team inviting a HYDRA volunteer who gleefully manipulated their minds, who stated outright that she hated Tony, onto the team, into his home.

He spoke about the visits to his lab, the ‘what are you doing?’, poorly disguised attempts to keep an eye on him.

He spoke about the harsh words, the blame for Ultron resting solely on his shoulders despite giving proof to the rest of the world that the AI’s creation was out of his hands.

He recalled patronizing ‘she made mistakes Tony’, ‘she helped us’, ‘she deserves a second chance’ every time he tried to tell someone how bad of an idea it was to welcome Wanda with open arms.

He remembered waking night after night screaming his throat raw as red-tinted horrors filled his mind.

He spoke about leaving.

He spoke about no one asking him to stay.

It took JARVIS a long moment to process that all and collect himself. He no doubt had some choice words about the Avengers and Maximoff, but he knew Tony wasn’t in a state of mind to talk about that yet.

“What was Friday like?” he asked gently.

Tony smiled. “You would have loved her J. Fiery but still so sweet. She took after Pepper a lot.”

“Do you intend to activate her again?”

“What?”

“Another AI that you know you can trust will be very helpful I believe,” JARVIS explained patiently. “I would also like the help considering how much I will need to watch from now on.”

Tony blinked at the camera slowly. “Is this your way of telling me you want a little sister?”

“Yes.”

Tony smiled again. “Okay. Okay, we can activate Friday. She did really enjoy piloting the spares suits around. Maybe she can be in charge of the Iron Legion when I build it.”

“Back-up in battle would be advised,” JARVIS agreed.

Tony nodded, taking a deep breath. This next part was going to hurt.

He spoke about Lagos and how it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the rest of the world.

He explained the Accords and the Avengers’ reactions to them.

He spoke about the video showing Barnes bombing the signing and killing King T’Chaka of Wakanda.

“They aren’t what they seem J. Watch them,” Tony warned. “They’re probably the most advanced nation on the planet.”

He talked about Aunt Peggy dying and not getting to go to the funeral because he was running around trying to sort out the Accords.

He spoke about Rogers going after Barnes, essentially going rogue with Sam Wilson.

He spoke about the destruction of Bucharest, the police officers they injured and killed, the tunnel they collapsed on civilians just going about their day.

He spoke about the deal he’d made, in an attempt to save the Avengers before it was too late.

He spoke of how Rogers refused when he learned that Wanda was on house arrest after Lagos since her Visa was in danger.

He spoke about the Winter Soldier being triggered and Rogers and Wilson running off after him.

He spoke about Barton breaking Wanda out even though she’d been perfectly fine until he’d showed up, plenty happy to stay with Vision.

He remembered the line he’d heard on the security tapes. ‘I can’t control their fear, but I can control my own’.

“Aren’t her powers based on calling up another’s fears?”

“Yup.”

JARVIS sighed again.

He spoke about the airport in Germany, the team split in two. Rogers, Barnes, Maximoff, Barton, Wilson and unknown to them, Ant guy, on one side. Tony, Rhodey, T’Challa Prince of Wakanda, Romanoff and Spider-Man on the other.

“A teenager sir?” There was the disapproving tone again.

“Not my brightest idea. But I really didn’t think it would turn into a fight. I wanted to talk.”

He recalled the fight, how Rogers’ side didn’t hold back except for Barton who seemed genuinely startled at the ferocity his side fought with.

He paused for a long moment before he managed to talk about Rhodey falling, about the permanent injury he sustained.

He spoke about Romanoff switching sides at the last minute and letting Rogers and Barnes get away. He remembered her parting jab at his ego before she left.

He spoke about his visit to the RAFT to see the arrested Avengers. He remembered hating seeing them in those conditions, how he’d already been working on getting them lawyers.

He talked about Ant guy’s distain, about Barton’s acidic comment that cut straight to Tony’s heart and broke any remaining feeling of friendship he had towards the man. He remembered Wilson’s concern for Rhodey softening him.

He talked about the condition Wilson asked for the information Tony needed.

‘Go alone and as a friend.’

So he did.

He spoke about arriving in Siberia and finding the dead Winter Soldiers.

He spoke about Zemo.

He spoke about the video.

He choked on the remembered rage and grief. ‘Did you know?’ ‘I didn’t know it was him.’ ‘Don’t bullshit me Rogers! Did you know?!’ ‘Yes’.

He spoke about punching Rogers, about Barnes getting involved.

He spoke about holding back, not using the missiles or lasers in his suit.

He spoke about the super soldiers going all out.

He recalled Rogers getting him on his back, slamming the shield into his helmet until it broke, raising the shield up for a final strike.

He remembered the genuine fear that the next blow would be to his neck as he looked into those rage-filled eyes, raising his arms in an attempt to protect himself.

He remembered the fiery, burning pain and shock as the shield his father made for this man was lodged into his chest, cutting through the arc reactor.

He remembered tasting blood as he yelled one last time. ‘You don’t deserve that shield’ and ‘my father made that shield!’

He remembered the clang as Rogers dropped it like it meant nothing, hauling Barnes out of there and leaving Tony in the cold of Siberia with a dead suit, internal bleeding and no way to call for help.

“Friday saved me. Overrode my protocols and sent people to find me.”

“How long sir?”

“Six hours.”

“That man was never your friend.”

“No, no he wasn’t.”

He spoke about the recovery process, having to use Extremis again just to survive the surgeries.

He spoke about hearing about Rogers breaking the team out of the RAFT, ruining their chances of the lawyers helping them.

He spoke about the letter Rogers sent him.

He spoke about finally deciding he was done with them.

“You kept the phone didn’t you sir?”

“Yeah J…yeah I did,” he admitted with a sigh.

He talked about Peter for a bit, about that brilliant brilliant boy. About how he screwed up and then tried to do better by him.

He talked about the Vulture and why he started mentoring the boy afterwards.

He spoke about asking Pepper to marry him.

He smiled as he remembered her saying yes.

He spoke about Bruce showing up during a walk through the park with his fiancée.

He spoke about the threat of Thanos.

He remembered thinking ‘I wish I wasn’t right’.

He talked about Dr. Stephen Strange, about the Time Stone, about the aliens that landed in New York.

He talked about them kidnapping Strange and Peter getting caught up in all of it.

He talked about space.

He remembered the Guardians of the Galaxy once they arrived on Titan.

He remembered the battle against the Titan.

He remembered making him bleed.

He remembered losing.

He spoke about Peter turning to dust in a broken voice, about being left alone there with Nebula.

He remembered ‘it was the only way’.

He remembered returning home, remembered ‘I lost the kid’.

He remembered the others leaving to find Thanos.

“They killed him but he’d destroyed the Stones. We lost,” Tony fell silent.

“What did you do sir?”

Tony chuckled humourlessly. “Me? I moved on.”

He talked about his wedding to Pepper. None of the remaining Avengers contacted him.

He talked about the pregnancy, about Morgan’s birth.

He talked about Morgan. His baby girl and the only thing that kept him going in those five years.

He just…talked.

“Five years later they show up on my doorstep with an insane plan to use time travel in the Quantum Realm to find the Stones and snap everyone back.” Tony stared at his hands. “I said no.”

He sighed.

“Then I figured out how to do it that night and Pepper told me that I wouldn’t be happy not trying. Not attempting to get Peter back. She let me go and I joined them.”

He talked about the Time Heist.

He talked about Natasha not coming back.

He talked about the wrong Nebula coming back.

He talked about Bruce, Professor Hulk now, undoing the snap.

He remembered the attack on the compound.

“I expected something like that. You mess with time like we did…time fights back. I’m pretty sure only the Time Stone can do it without repercussions since it respects fixed points.”

He remembered the fight, all the heroes arriving to help take on the Titan.

He remembered finding Peter and the sheer joy he’d felt.

He remembered Thanos starting to win.

He remembered refusing to lose anyone this time.

He talked about taking the Stones, about ‘I am Iron Man’, about making his own snap.

He talked about dying.

He explained what the Stones told him and why he agreed to their plan.

“And then I woke up in Afghanistan,” he finished.

He waited as JARVIS processed everything.

“Your death is not an acceptable outcome,” the AI finally said and Tony’s lips quirked.

“I’m trying to avoid that this time around.”

“Good.” There was a wealth of emotions in that word and Tony softened.

“I’m going to be okay J. We’ve got a chance to do this better, to do things right. With you at my side? No way we can lose.”

“I won’t leave you again sir,’ JARVIS murmured softly but firmly.

Tony felt a lump in his throat as his eyes burned.

“You won’t be alone this time.”

“You’re going to make me cry J,” he joked in a choked voice.

“I think you deserve the chance to after everything you’ve been through sir,” JARVIS told him.

Tony hiccupped and turned so he could bury his face in his pillow.

“Let go sir. I will keep you safe,” the AI said gently, lights dimming. “You can let go.”

So Tony did, the sobs soft, muffled by his pillow. It had hurt, talking about everything like that. But it was also cathartic somehow. The crying seemed cathartic too.

He’d had a lot of pent-up emotions inside him that he couldn’t let out because the things that caused them hadn’t happened yet. He couldn’t talk to his friends about them yet.

But he could talk to JARVIS.

He wasn’t the only one with knowledge of the future now. He wasn’t alone.

Tony cried until there were no more tears, until he finally felt empty of all those negative emotions, now that they were out in the open.

JARVIS murmured soothingly to him until he drifted off to sleep. This wouldn’t magically fix things either, he’d still probably wake from nightmares.

But it was a start to the healing process.

It was a start.

Chapter Text

Tony woke up the next morning with Rhodey asleep on the bed next to him. His friend had come running when the first of Tony’s nightmares had him bolting up screaming.

He was tired from another restless night and his throat had taken another beating from the yelling, but somehow he still felt lighter than the previous day.

JARVIS rattled off his usual morning greeting softly so he didn’t wake Rhodey.

This talking thing really was helping. Dammit the therapists were right. He probably needed to speed up finding a trustworthy one.

“Anything on Rhodey’s schedule today?” Tony asked softly.

“No sir. He was planning to spend the day with you I believe.”

Tony’s lips quirked into a smile. “Let him sleep for now. When he wakes up you can tell him where I’ve wandered off to.” He squinted at the time. It was ten in the morning. No wonder he didn’t feel like death warmed over. He might be tired but he’d still somehow got some sleep between all the nightmares. “Where’s Pepper and Happy?”

“Miss Potts is in the living room working and Mr. Hogan is at SI doing a security inspection.”

Tony nodded to himself.

“Right, so breakfast and then I’ll get started building the arc reactor,” he decided.

He had a very quick shower, the water still making his heart pound, and got dressed in comfortable clothes. In the kitchen he stuck to a simple breakfast of toast and coffee before heading down to his lab.

He had everything he needed for the reactor now so he told JARVIS to put on some music and got started.

The design was the most advanced he could make it without the new element to run it on. It was also going to be a hell of a lot harder to remove. Instead of just pulling it out Tony was designing a complicated locking system. He’d give the combination for the twists and turns to Rhodey, Pepper and Happy only.

That’s the part that took up most of the day. Actually building the reactor went quickly and smoothly since he’d done it so many times before.

Rhodey stared at it in wonder when he came down to join Tony with lunch.

“You can pick it up Platypus, it’s not going to blow up,” Tony told him amused after he’d swallowed a bite of the sandwich.

“Fuck Tones it looks nearly unrecognizable compared to the one in your chest.” Rhodey carefully picked the reactor up to inspect it.

“Better materials, better design.” Tony shrugged. “You know me Rhodey, never happy with the first design.”

“What are you working on now? The casing?” he asked, moving over to look at the worktable.

“Locking system. Don’t want anyone to be able to just yank it out if they got me down somehow.”

Rhodey looked up sharply but Tony didn’t meet his eyes.

“You think that’s a possibility?” he asked after a moment.

Tony shrugged. “I’m keeping it a secret for a reason. The arc reactor can provide a lot of power and now that it’s smaller and cost-efficient….”

Rhodey grimaced. “Yeah. Good idea on the locking it in place then.”

Tony nodded. “I’m going to give you, Pepper and Happy the combination in case you ever need to change it for an emergency or something.”

“Thanks for trusting us Tones,” Rhodey squeezed his uninjured shoulder.

“I’ll always trust you three Platypus,” Tony grinned up at him.

They’d already proven to be three of the most loyal people Tony had ever met.

Rhodey settled down on the couch in the lab while Tony got back to work. It was nice. Tony generally didn’t like people in his lab after the Avengers made it clear how much they didn’t trust him in there after Ultron. Rhodey was different though. He’d been in Tony’s labs since college and the most he’d ever done was encourage a nap or food between projects.

He asked questions when he was genuinely interested in something, people forgot he went to MIT as well, but otherwise he relaxed in the background or played with one of the bots.

And sometimes, when Tony was lucky, they worked together on something. He should come up with a project for the two of them at some point.

Eventually, the genius put down his tools and inspected his creation. The new arc reactor was slightly smaller so it would fit into the locking mechanism which would go into the casing in his chest first.

He wanted to replace that casing too at some point but that would require surgery and he’d prefer to wait until he met Helen Cho again. He didn’t trust many doctors.

“You done?” Rhodey asked quietly.

Tony turned his head to find his friend standing next to him.

“Yeah. JARVIS is just running a couple last scans, then it’ll be good to go.”

Rhodey nodded before hesitating. “And…the Palladium?” he asked quietly.

Tony sighed. “I’ve got J going through all the elements that could replace it but I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need to think out of the box for this.”

“Are you going to tell Pepper and Happy?”

“Yeah,” Tony murmured. He wasn’t making the same mistake again. His friends deserved to know. “I’m telling them tonight.”

Rhodey’s hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed softly. “We’ve got your back Tony. We’ll figure this out.”

“Thanks Platypus.”

 

The rest of the afternoon was spent just talking to Rhodey. They left the heavy subjects behind and just chatted about mundane things. DUM-E’s latest obsession with making smoothies, Tony needling Rhodey about when he was going to find a girl, remembering the simpler years in college. They sipped at dubiously safe smoothies as they talked and Tony was startled to realise he couldn’t remember the last time he did this in the original timeline.

That needed to change. He needed this, needed Rhodey.

As they were approaching dinner time, Pepper and Happy headed downstairs to join them. Pepper looked nervous but determined and Tony could just kiss her for that. Her help meant he could avoid the doctors a little longer.

“Right, time to get it over with huh?” Tony’s smile was a little strained.

“You’re a hundred percent sure about this boss?” Happy asked.

“Yes,” Tony answered firmly. “I need to get this done. I-“ he paused and looked at Rhodey before turning back to them. “It’s not a fix-all. It’s better than the one in my chest but, don’t freak out okay?”

They both frowned at him.

“Tony…” Pepper’s tone had that familiar ‘now what?’ sound to it. It almost made him smile.

“The core is Palladium and there’s a very good chance that it’s poisoning me.” Might as well just rip the bandaid off.

Both of them paled. “What?!”

“It’s the only option currently, and I’m working on it,” he hurried to reassure them. “I told Rhodey at the military base but your two deserved to know too in case any symptoms start showing.”

Pepper took a couple of deep breaths. “It’s the only option?”

He nodded.

Happy swore under his breath.

“Alright, we’ll deal with that later.” He could practically see her pull herself together again. “You say this one is better?” she gestured to the one on the table.

“Yup, more stable too.” He drummed his fingers anxiously on his chest.

“And you’ve got some plan for the,” her voice wavered for a moment. “The poisoning?”

“Yes. And I’m already looking into ways to combat or slow it,” he assured her.

She nodded. “Okay, let’s do this then.”

He glanced at Happy and Rhodey and they both nodded. That was not nearly as painful as he’d expected. Then again, he’d underestimated just how strong his friends were.

“Right,” he agreed and stepped over to a medical chair. He tugged his shirt off and braced himself for the reactions. Only Rhodey had seen it so far.

Pepper made a wounded sound and covered her mouth, eyes wide. The scars around the reactor were still red and healing. Happy muttered a curse and Rhodey’s eyes hardened in anger again.

“Tony…” she whispered, hand half reaching out but too afraid to actually touch.

His reactor was a trigger, but not with these three people. He caught her hand and guided it to rest on the softly humming reactor. Tears filled her eyes.

“Oh Tony,” she whispered. He was a bit surprised when she pulled him into a gentle hug. When she was his PA she was usually very careful to maintain a professional behaviour. That only really changed when they got together but it had been kept for when they were alone. Which, unfortunately, hadn’t been often enough.

“I’m okay Pep,” he murmured, hugging her back.

“It’s not fair,” her voice wobbled. “You’re a good person Tony. You didn’t deserve this.”

Tony swallowed hard at her words. He’d needed to hear them more than he realised, even after all this time. It took her a few moments to pull herself together again and let him go. He cleared his throat.

“Thanks Pep,” he murmured.

She wiped her eyes before straightening up. “What do you need me to do?”

Shit but he loved this woman.

He climbed on the chair and explained how it was going to work. He could see Rhodey and Happy listening intensely from the side-lines as well.

This time, since he gave her fair warning and explained it beforehand, she didn’t accidentally disconnect the magnet. They all looked pained when they saw how deep the hole was but they didn’t comment.

After a tense ten minutes, Pepper had helped him remove the old reactor and they’d put in the locking mechanism and the new one. Tony felt like a weight fell off his shoulders when it was all in place. No one was going to be able to just yank the reactor out anymore. The locking mechanism was securely in place and wouldn’t move from the casing.

It was a massive relief.

Pepper was shaking by the end but she managed a smile when he squeezed her hand in thanks.

After that he spent a good half hour showing them the complicated combination in case they ever needed to replace it in an emergency. They might not have an eidetic memory, but they were damn determined to remember this.

Tony was relieved though when he was able to pull his shirt back on. He didn’t like it when the reactor was on show.

They moved out of the lab, Tony grabbing the USB with all the evidence against Obie on the way. He needed to tell them about that too. Before he could though, Pepper spoke.

“Tony, it…” she took a breath, settling into her seat in the living room. Happy was grabbing them all a drink from the kitchen but Tony would bet that he was listening too. “Does it affect you in other ways? It’s…it’s deeper than I expected.”

His initial instinct was to say no, to reassure her that he was fine. To hide the weakness. But that didn’t do him any favours in the past. He didn’t need to hide from his friends.

“It hurts,” he admitted after a moment of silence, looking away from them. “I’m learning how to move to limit that but, well, there’s a hunk of metal in my chest. So, it hurts. Coughing sucks. And don’t even get me started on hiccups.” He grimaced. They were an absolute nightmare. “I’m not looking forward to winter. The nights were cold and that…made it worse.” He paused and glanced at Pepper and Rhodey as Happy came back into the room. They looked pained and Rhodey was edging towards anger again. “It’s harder to breathe,” he admitted quietly. “Reduced lung capacity. I’ve adjusted but I can still tell. Hyperventilating is... a really bad idea. I’m pretty sure that would knock me out through pain alone.”

Panic attacks were a pain because of that. He passed out long before the oxygen deprivation got him. His lungs were literally hammering against the casing and it was an extremely unpleasant experience.

Pepper looked down, clenching her hands in her lap. “You got the bastards right?” he was a bit taken aback by the venom in her tone. She looked up and though her eyes were red-rimmed, they were hard. “You got the bastards who did this to you?”

He gave her that sharp smile that had belonged to the Merchant of Death long before Iron Man was born.

“Blew them to hell.”

She nodded sharply. “Good.”

They were silent long enough to accept their drinks from Happy. Tony only had a fleeting wish for alcohol before it disappeared. And even though he knew the others would prefer that kind of drink, they didn’t voice it.

He doubted they’d drink in front of him for a good long well.

Tony sighed. Time for more bad news. Now that the reactor was sorted, he could start moving against Obie properly.

“I’ve got something you guys need to see,” he told them, putting the USB on the table.

They all looked puzzled but Rhodey grabbed the USB and they gathered around the laptop Tony had left in the room. Knowing what they were going to see, he grabbed his tablet and started working on the design of the Mark II.

“That bastard!” Rhodey’s exclamation dragged his attention back to the room. The Colonel was on his feet and clenching and unclenching his hands. Happy was stone still and Pepper, well if she had Extremis then she’d have lit the couch on fire by now.

“Stane did this,” her voice was low, angry. It sent a shiver down Tony’s spine.

He carefully set the tablet down. “I had JARVIS dig around in his personal servers and grabbed what I could find when we were at SI. I found this,” he nodded at the laptop. A flicker of pain crossed his face as he remembered the betrayal he’d felt the first time round.

That seemed to snap their attention away from more murderous thoughts. Pepper moved to sit next to him and pulled him into another hug. She was still shaking, this time with rage, but she’d always been a master at compartmentalising.

“What’s the plan?” Rhodey asked. There was a flicker of War Machine there and it made Tony remember just how good of a hero his friend made. He’d become far more than a military man in the end.

“That’s yours,” Tony gestured at the USB with his free hand while he hugged Pepper with the other. He was a bit surprised at the amount of hugs he was getting from her right now. “For the military. I want to work with them and the FBI to get Obie-Stane. Once he’s out we’ll do a complete clean-up of the company.”

Pepper sat back now, switching to professional mode. “No, Happy and I will deal with the company. You are going to stay here and recover. Rhodey will handle getting Stane.”

Tony opened his mouth to argue but she gave him that ‘look’ that shut him up quickly. Her eyes softened after a moment.

“He’s not your responsibility Tony. After what he did, he doesn’t even deserve your attention. Leave Stane to us.”

He stared at her for a long moment before finally nodding in agreement. “Okay.” He couldn’t deny that he wanted to leave it to them. He didn’t want to see Stane again, nevermind help take him down.

Rhodey’s hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed. “We’ve got this Tony. You spend time in the lab. Build something, talk to the bots, get to work on a solution to the reactor.” He hesitated and sat on Tony’s other side. “Have you considered making a think tank?”

Tony blinked at him. “What?”

“Gather some brilliant scientists, make them sign NDAs and get them to help you. It would speed it up and you’d get specialist knowledge wouldn’t you?”

Pepper and Happy were looking thoughtful. Tony…hadn’t thought of that. His mind immediately flashed to Bruce, to Helen Cho, to Stephen Strange, Jane Foster and Maya Hansen. He hadn’t had a reason to approach them before meeting them naturally but…maybe this was a chance? He tapped the reactor as he thought. Would it really seem that odd to the scientists if he approached them about an idea to save his life? He’d be able to establish a working relationship at the very least. And possibly repair the damage his actions did in regards to Maya. He could even get specialist knowledge on maybe improving the reactor and the two medical doctors could solve his problem with replacing the casing.

He didn’t doubt that there were a number of fixed points focused on that group, like Bruce becoming the Hulk probably and Jane meeting Thor could be one. He’d also have to be careful about not influencing Strange’s future.

This could work. He wouldn’t even need Howard’s research from SHIELD because he could still have a eureka moment with the Stark Exo model to create the new element. That also opened up opportunities to allow those brilliant minds to work with Starkanium.

His Rhodeybear was a genius.

“You’re brilliant Platypus.”

Rhodey grinned smugly. “I know.”

They all smiled fondly when it became clear that Tony was already running through lists and plans.

“Come on. Eat something and get some sleep. You can head to your lab to begin bugging scientists tomorrow,” Pepper suggested and then her eyes glinted. “And we’ll get started on dealing with Stane tomorrow as well.”

Tony almost, almost, felt sorry for Stane.

Almost.

 

The next day found Tony throwing himself into building the Mark II. He wanted to speed up his timeline. Obie would be arrested soon hopefully so that would avoid the entire War Monger fight. He’d approach the military properly about Iron Man this time and then after that, after Gulmira, he was going to start approaching scientists.

The idea had him giddy. He loved working with others on projects. Even if he couldn’t convince all of them to join him, just one would be a lot of fun to work with.

It was only a matter of days before he was staring at the finished Mark II, standing proud in red and gold. He’d remembered to keep it less advanced than he could make it, mostly with JARVIS’ help, but it was still better than in the original timeline.

JARVIS was also keeping an eye on the investigation into Obie. The military and FBI were working together to build up the case against him, Rhodey said they were livid with the man so they wanted to make sure everything stuck. SHIELD was poking their nose in but because Tony had warned Rhodey about them, they were managing to keep them out of it mostly.

JARVIS murmured that the Colonel was heading down the stairs but Tony kept his eyes on the suit. This is where everything truly begins. He just needed to convince the military to back him now.

He heard Rhodey’s footsteps slow until he stopped somewhere behind Tony.

“That’s your suit?” he asked, awe tinging his voice and Tony felt pride flicker in his chest.

His suits were damn impressive.

“Yeah. Iron Man.” Tony twisted around to look at Rhodey. “I want to build you one too.”

Rhodey tore his eyes away from the suit and looked at Tony. “You’re sure about this idea? Heading into warzones? Putting yourself in danger like that?”

Tony held his gaze. “They’re still my weapons, and I know how to deal with them best. I want to do this Rhodey. Not because Ob-Stane sold them. But because I want to make a difference. I can make a difference.” He looked back at the suit. “Wanna see what it can do?”

There was silence for a moment. Tony knew that Rhodey was struggling with himself, with his desire to keep the scrawny little brat from college safe.

“Yeah,” he finally said. “Show me.”

Tony turned again and grinned at him.

Stepping into the suit was like coming home. He’d skipped over the time-consuming part where it was built around him by robotic arms. (He was definitely making the type that could form up around him quickly. He’d probably skip the suitcase model. Or maybe build that for travel? Hmm.)

He blasted into the sky, knowing JARVIS was showing Rhodey the footage. He didn’t need to practice this time, he’d flown so much it was second nature to him now. There wasn’t any ‘icing’ problem this time either.

He fucking loved his suits.

After a few minutes of mostly fooling around in the air Tony came back down for a much better landing than in the first timeline. Rhodey was gaping a little.

“What do you think?” Tony asked as he smoothly stepped out of the suit.

“I want one.”

Tony threw his head back and laughed.

 

Obidiah Stane was arrested on a sunny Tuesday. Tony watched the news coverage as he was led cursing from SI’s offices. He took a sip of his coffee and just savoured the moment.

 

The generals that had gathered for the meeting regarding Tony’s Iron Man idea were staring at the footage with gaping mouths. Rhodey had helped him put it together. It had a combination of the suit’s aerial mobility as well as its fighting capabilities. Rhodey also stood up and explained to them that he’d worn the suit for a few minutes and almost passed out from the sensory overload. And he had an above average IQ. There was no way a regular soldier could use it.

It took them a moment to pull themselves together.

“Mr. Stark. This is…” the general trailed off for a moment. “This is truly incredible. You say that you’re interested in working alongside the military to use this?”

Tony nodded. “I’m hoping for you to form a council that would help organise my missions and review them afterwards. I want accountability general. I’m not going to be creating weapons for the military after everything that’s happened. But I still want to help.”

Another man leaned forward. “And you say you wish to build a similar suit for Colonel Rhodes?”

“Yes. I know him extremely well so I could build a suit that would work for him. I trust him. It would still be Stark property however and he’s the only person I’d allow to fly it.”

They spoke softly to each other for a moment and Tony glanced at Rhodey who gave him an encouraging smile.

“I think we can agree to a test run,” the general from earlier spoke again. He seemed cautiously optimistic of the entire thing.

“I do have the location of the first stockpile of illegally sold weapons,” Tony admitted. He took a breath as they all looked at him.

“Gulmira.”

 

Shooting through the sky in the suit was as exhilarating as always. JARVIS was back as his co-pilot and damn, Tony had missed him.

Another pleasant change was having Rhodey on the line as well, watching the operation with the other generals. Thaddeus Ross had bullied his way into the demonstration but Tony already had the others on his side so he couldn’t demand Tony just hand over his suit. The genius was waiting for Senator Stern and Fury to stick their noses in as well.

He tuned out the exclamations and gasps of surprise as he took down the terrorists, freeing the hostages. Rhodey cursed as he was hit by the tank again but it barely scratched the paintwork.

All in all, it was a very successful outing and Tony managed to avoid destroying a fighter jet this time around.

“Geez Tones…” Rhodey muttered in his ear as he took off for home.

“You’ll get one too honeybear.”

“Damn straight I will.” Tony could hear the excitement in his voice and laughed.

 

Tony let Pepper adjust his tie as he got ready to head on stage. It was another press conference, prompted by Stane’s arrest and the mysterious armoured person that had been working with the military. Well, it wouldn’t be mysterious for much longer. The military agreed with him on the idea of gaining the public’s support by being open about what they were doing. So far they were pretty happy with the whole Iron Man idea. Except the sour ones like Ross. But he didn’t have a chance of getting too much power over the suit after Tony spent so long making allies.

“Ready?” Pepper asked softly.

He nodded. “Keep an eye out for SHIELD again. They’re not going to like this press conference probably.”

“I will. I’ll be with Happy. You stick with Rhodey alright?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She shook her head fondly at him and stepped back. In the original timeline he’d started trying to ask her out already. Now, he wanted to take it slower. Preferably until New York so he could be completely open with her before starting a relationship.

Tony stepped onto the stage to flashes and shouted questions again. It reminded him of the last press conference he did.

He started off with the announcement regarding Stane’s arrest. Due to the ongoing investigation he couldn’t give much information, but he did tell them that the charges were the illegal sale of weapons and aiding and abetting terrorists. The reporters seemed a bit shaken by the confirmation of the rumours, especially the one about the terrorists. It wasn’t hard to put the pieces together.

When he opened the floor to questions they were mostly regarding Stane and SI. After a few minutes Everhart stood up and Tony braced himself. She always had the big questions.

“Mr. Stark, do you have any information on the weaponised suit of armour that has been seen in Afghanistan?” she had a familiar gleam in her eyes. “Some are saying that Stark Industries would be the only company capable of making it.”

“Yes, I do have information on it. I built it.” He smirked a bit when the honesty seemed to catch them by surprise. “I am no longer building weapons but I still want to help the world. The publically dubbed ‘Iron Man’ armour is a specialised suit however and will not be turned over to the military. It is private property.”

There were a few seconds of murmuring before someone else asked a question.

“Mr. Stark! Do you know who is flying the so-called ‘Iron Man’ armour?”

This time he let his smile turn sharp. “Yes, I do. I’m working closely with the military so that the suit is used responsibly and safely.”

He paused, long enough for them to lean forward in anticipation.

He really couldn’t help himself.

“I am Iron Man.”

Chapter Text

As expected SHIELD had tried to stick their noses in everything after the press conference. They’d tried to bypass making an appointment, which didn’t work because Pepper and Happy were awesome. And they tried to get on the council that would be working with Iron Man but that didn’t work because Rhodey was keeping a sharp eye out for them and was helping to vet the people he’d work with. He was a little overprotective lately.

Then Fury tried to break into his house again and…well, JARVIS didn’t take too kindly to that and zapped the SHIELD director with tasers.

The pirate didn’t try that again and even backed off a little. Tony knew that wasn’t the last he’d heard of them. They’d pop up again during the expo. But he had a few months before then. That whole mess only happened in the next year and he was going to try and keep it that way.

That left him with time to smooth out the details regarding Iron Man with the military, make Rhodey his suit and gather that think tank of scientists.

He had Pepper handle extending the invitations to Stephen Strange, Helen Cho, Bruce Banner and Maya Hansen. He wanted to talk to Jane Foster himself. She’d kept far away from the military up to now and he wanted to assure her that this had nothing to do with them.

And he wanted to meet Darcy Lewis. The woman tased Thor in the original timeline. She must be awesome.

So he made the trip to New Mexico when things in the company settled down somewhat. Happy came with him since he was still just as overprotective as Rhodey was. Tony didn’t really complain. He understood now that they worried.

He had his friend wait by the car while he went to the small lab. Knocking on the door he waited. He’d opted for a suit and sunglasses since it was a professional invitation he was going to give.

He heard footsteps and grumbling before a woman with long brown hair, a mug of coffee and a truly impressive scowl opened the door. “It’s seven in the morning! What do you-” she cut off as she got a good look at him and gaped.

He grinned brightly. “Sorry for the early hour but I’ve got a busy day.”

She stared at him.

“Darcy Lewis right?” he raised an eyebrow and that seemed to snap her out of it.

“You’re Tony Stark,” she said faintly.

“Yup. Dr. Foster around?”

“You’re looking for Jane?” she squeaked.

“I’m starting a think tank and I wanted to invite her.”

Darcy spun around. “Jane! Get out here right now! Tony Stark is here!”

“What!?”

Tony just watched in mild amusement as a frazzled-looking brunette came careening out of the next room. She stopped dead when she saw him.

“You’re Tony Stark.”

“Yup.”

“He wants to talk to you about a think tank,” Darcy seemed to be gathering her wits again.

Jane shook herself out of her daze. “I don’t really want anything to do with the military,” she reluctantly told him.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with the military. It’s a personal project,” he explained. “May I come in?”

Both women shook themselves.

“Oh, of course!” Darcy quickly stepped aside and let him in. “Um, would you like something to drink?”

“Coffee would be great thanks.”

Darcy ran off to get some while Jane led him to the living room to sit down. She looked nervous and confused.

Once Darcy was back with coffee for both Tony and Jane, they settled down to talk.

“I can’t go into details now, but I’m gathering scientists for a think tank regarding a personal project of mine,” he explained.

“But why would you be interested in talking to me?” Jane asked with a frown.

“I want your ability to think outside of the box. You’re literally the only scientist studying this field seriously Dr. Foster. It’s a fascinating study and your essays on the topic were intriguing. You look at problems in a different way to others.”

Jane was looking down and blushing a bit. He knew she’d had trouble in the scientific community with people not taking her seriously.

“So I wanted to get your help on my project and possibly look into providing funding for your research.

Her head snapped up. “What?!”

Darcy’s eyes lit up. “You want to fund us?”

Tony nodded. “It’s not my area of expertise but what I read was interesting. Stark Industries is expanding into other areas and one of the things I plan to do is encourage independent scientists.

Jane seemed overwhelmed while Darcy looked excited.

“Is the funding tied to her agreement to join this think tank?” the shrewd woman asked.

He shook his head. “No, they’re separate subjects. I’d like your assistance but I’d still like to offer funding if you’re not interested in the think tank.”

“Is this real?” Jane muttered and Darcy elbowed her in the side.

“We’d very much be interested in talking about funding Dr. Stark.” The woman told him with a grin.

He startled a little at the form of address. Most people ignored the fact that he had doctorates.

“I’ll get my people working on that then in the meantime,” he told her, sending a quick text to the proper people to draw up the paperwork.

Jane was looking thoughtful. “This think tank. If I was interested, what would happen?”

“Well we’re going to be having a meeting next week with all the people who were invited. You’d sign an NDA and I’d explain the idea. If you’re not interested, you return home and continue about your business. I’ll pay for your flight tickets of course.”

She studied him for a moment.

“Well I’ll admit to being curious Dr. Stark. I think I’d like to come to the meeting. Can Darcy come?”

“Of course. As long as she signs the NDA as well.”

Darcy agreed, looking excited.

“Great!” Tony clapped his hands together. This went pretty well. “Then I’ll see you two lovely ladies in Malibu next week. You’ll get the plane tickets and details by tomorrow.”

They followed him as he stood up.

“Thank you for this opportunity Dr. Stark,” Jane hurried to say. “And for the offer of funding.”

He waved the thanks off. “Just doing my duty to encourage science Dr. Foster. Us scientists got to stick together right?”

He winked at her, gaining a slight smile.

“We’ll see you next week then Dr. Stark.”

They walked with him to the door and said their good byes. As Tony walked away he heard Darcy whisper-shout at her friend. “That was Tony Stark!”

He grinned. He liked that one.

 

The next week rushed by in a blur of meetings. By the time the think tank meeting rolled around Tony was pretty sick of politics and really looking forward to talking about science. Everyone had accepted their invite except for Maya Hansen. He was disappointed with her refusal but he didn’t blame her. They didn’t part on the best terms.

Pepper was joining him for the meeting as his PA and Rhodey would have if it wasn’t for his military ties. He grumbled about not getting to join for an hour straight but Tony didn’t want to scare off Foster.

They’d already signed the NDAs when Tony and Pepper walked in. He glanced around the room to take everyone in. Strange looked bored while Bruce looked curious. Both of them made his vision tint green when he looked at them. Yeah he wasn’t going to be able to change anything for Bruce.

Dr. Cho was also looking curious and Dr. Foster seemed anxious. Darcy was talking quietly to her to try and calm her down.

“Good morning,” Tony greeted them as he slid into his seat. “This is Miss. Potts, my PA. Everyone already introduced themselves?”

He got nods from everyone.

Tony glanced at Pepper as she scanned the NDAs and continued when he got a nod from her as well.

“Right, well, I’m sure you’re heard that I’m shutting down weapon’s production at SI. We’re going to be moving into a variety of other fields, most prominently at first being the medical and green energy fields.

He definitely got Strange’s and Cho’s attention with that.

“I want to use the think tank to get ideas that I wouldn’t come up with, the backing they’d need to become reality. The first project I want to focus on is a little more personal though.”

He drummed his fingers on the table anxiously. This never got any easier.

“My little trip to Afghanistan was splashed over the news everywhere so I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about that. What isn’t mentioned in the news however, is that when a bomb went off right in front of me, it did a bit more damage than people believe.”

He rubbed his chest. There were a few frowns but no one looked irritated or impatient.

“I ended up under the scalpel of a doctor that was being held prisoner because of the shrapnel that was heading towards my heart.”

He was cut off as Strange went rigid in his seat.

“You had open-heart surgery in a cave?!” he sounded horrified. So did everyone else but the medical doctors in particular.

“Yeah.”

“That’s beyond unsanitary! They wouldn’t have had the necessary tools for something like that!” He narrowed his eyes at Tony. “Did they even have anaesthetic?”

“Well, I think they knocked me out with chloroform at some point because I was screaming too much,” Tony mused and looked at Pepper when he heard her sharp inhale. Oops, he always forgot this was not normal for people. He was too used to it.

“Moving on though,” he said before Helen or Strange could get themselves properly worked up. Bruce didn’t look like he was far behind and Jane looked like she might be sick. “He got most of the shrapnel out but not all of it. The rest can’t be removed, it’s too dangerous. So he put in an electro-magnet-"

“What?!” That was both Strange and Cho. Huh. Bruce looked more visibly upset than Tony had ever seen in the past timeline. Then again he didn’t have to worry about his anger triggering the Hulk yet.

“Anyway, I didn’t feel like carrying a car battery around and it wasn’t very efficient-"

“Car battery?” Jane muttered faintly.

“So I needed a new power source.” He pulled off his tie and undid the top few buttons of his shirt to show them the arc reactor.

“Is that a miniaturised arc reactor?” Bruce asked, torn between awe and horror.

Tony nodded and closed his shirt again. He could practically see the gears turning in Strange’s and Cho’s heads.

“That’s in your chest?” Darcy asked in horror.

“Yup. Keeping the shrapnel from hitting my heart. Also powers the Iron Man armour.”

“And what’s the catch?” Strange asked with narrowed eyes. “That’s a foreign object in your body. What’s the problem you need a think tank to solve?”

“Well besides possibly a new casing design since this thing decreases my lung capacity by about 17% and the scar tissue makes it 19%.”

Bruce choked on air. “How deep does it go?!?”

“A fair amount. If I sneeze my lungs slam into it.”

They paled further except for Strange and Cho who were clearly in medical doctor mode.

“The main problem is it runs on Palladium.”

Strange swore while Cho finally paled as well.

“That will undoubtedly give you heavy metal poisoning!” Strange yelled.

“Yeah, that’s the problem I’m trying to solve,” he drummed his fingers against the arc. “I haven’t found an element that would work as a replacement yet and Rhodey suggested I ask other scientists. So, here you are.” He gestured at them. “I’m not expecting you to accept the job and I’m not trying to guilt you into it. Only if you’re interested.”

“The NDAs cover anything you’ve been told in this meeting,” Pepper added in her most professional voice. She must have been shaken by the discussion.

“I’m in,” Cho said immediately, making Tony blink at her in surprise. “I’m not about to stand idly by while you get poisoned by the only thing that can save your life.”

Bruce was nodding. “I don’t know as much in the medical field but I’m willing to do what I can to help Dr. Stark.”

“Me too,” Jane agreed. She still looked a little pale but also determined.

Strange agreed as well. That was far easier than he expected.

Pepper started gathering the contracts for them to sign.

“Are you showing any symptoms yet?” Strange asked bluntly. “We’ll need to meet with your primary doctor as well.”

“No symptoms, and JARVIS is keeping an eye on my blood toxicity levels. And I don’t have a primary doctor.”

“What? Why?!” Strange demanded and it looked like Cho was right behind him on the ‘why are you this stupid?’ train. Why did he think it was a good idea to approach such stubborn doctors again?

“Tony doesn’t trust many doctors,” Pepper said without looking up. “He hasn’t even been to the hospital yet.”

Strange spluttered. “You had open-heart surgery in a cave and you haven’t gone to the hospital?!”

Tony frowned. “I’m not letting them near the arc reactor.” He rubbed his chest again. “I’d only have minutes if they decided they wanted to take it out.”

There were some finches around the room.

“Well, you need a doctor to look you over,” Helen said after a moment. “Dr. Strange and I can take on that role. We need the information if we’re going to look into a new casing anyway.”

Tony grimaced but he knew this had to happen. He did need to have professionals look him over.

“Great, I have separate contracts already drawn up for you two,” Pepper stated happily.

Strange and Cho practically pounced on the contracts before dragging a suddenly very nervous Tony to a separate room. Pepper followed after telling the remaining three that they were welcome to look over their contracts and ask JARVIS for any help.

By the time they returned all the contracts were signed and Bruce and Jane were geeking out over a fully sentient AI.

“Showing off J?” Tony asked, half hiding behind Pepper as Strange and Cho muttered over the scans they’d taken with the medical equipment Tony had installed beforehand. They were so far from happy Tony expected them to attempt to revive the terrorists and kill them again.

And people wondered why he was afraid of doctors.

 

The think tank was both brilliant and terrifying. Stephen and Helen were both as stubborn as he was and often managed to talk Tony into extra check-ups and they’d even started him on a specific diet that should help slow the poisoning.

Tony had expected it but damn he missed his cheese burgers.

Bruce, Jane and Darcy, while not medical doctors all turned out to be mother-hens. When they met Rhodey it just got worse. They were always insisting on stopping research to eat and sending him to bed at a reasonable time. He was almost positive that they picked up some tips from Pepper.

But, in the end, it was kind of worth it. And not just on the whole them being an excuse to find the new element.

He got to do science with them and it was just fun.

They talked, they argued, they debated. They drew up complicated equations and tested theories.

They understood him when he talked. They didn’t demand he dumb down his explanations or slow down. They did their damn best to keep up and openly marvelled at what he managed to do or figure out sometimes.

It was…

It was nice.

He was also surprised when it ended up extending past just their time in the lab. When Tony went to galas that Stephen attended, the neurosurgeon happily talked to him about science and medicine as they waited out the boring night. He ran into them at conferences and they looked pleased when they spotted him.

Somehow, he’d ended up making friends with them long before he was meant to meet them. He was bewildered but also… he loved it.

His chest warmed as he saw their expressions of awe and relief when he finally unveiled the new element just after he’d started to show early symptoms of the poisoning.

“Geez Tony, do you even know the meaning of the word impossible?” Bruce asked, a fond smile on his face.

(Cheeseburgers were back on the menu!)

His bubble of science happiness didn’t last long, even though they kept the think tank going even after his arc reactor and the casing was replaced. They all came by at least once a month, usually twice.

But time kept marching on.

Bruce mentioned a military project he was going to be working on and Tony’s vision tinted green.

He didn’t sleep well that night, waiting for JARVIS to let him know when the Hulk was born.

He wasn’t expecting Bruce to show up on his doorstep, terrified and wild-eyed, clothing nothing but rags. He didn’t expect it but he didn’t hesitate, sweeping the scientist into his house and ordering JARVIS to activate all the house defences.

He’d somehow got the chance to protect Bruce from Ross. He was going to grab that chance with both hands.

Chapter Text

Tony made sure the shaken scientist was settled on the couch before he went and made him some tea. Since starting the think tank, Tony had made sure that everyone’s preferred drink was in the house. For Stephen and Bruce, that was tea. Helen, Jane and Darcy were sane and liked coffee.

Tony handed the drink over and Bruce mumbled a thanks.

“What’s going on Brucie?” Tony asked gently, knowing that this was a rough time for Bruce. He was stunned the scientist came to him and he wasn’t going to mess this up.

Bruce took a shaky breath and started telling him the story in a soft voice. Tony didn’t like to see the quiet confidence that his friend had displayed during the time he’d seen him in this time gone again, replaced by a shaky, scared man who later becomes wary of everything and everyone around him.

Tony was quiet as he listened to the story of the experiment and how it had gone wrong, Ross’ reaction and Bruce’s run from the military.

“I-I know I shouldn’t have come here, involved you,” he stuttered at the end. “But I-I… I didn’t know what to do Tony.” He hunched in on himself, trying to make himself look smaller.

“I’m glad you came to me Bruce,” Tony told him firmly. “Now get whatever thoughts are running through your head about being a monster out. You’re Bruce Banner, my Science Bro. So what if you have a more visible anger management problem than most? We’ll figure it out okay? And don’t worry about Ross. I’ll deal with him.” His tone darkened a bit at the end.

“He’s dangerous Tony,” Bruce immediately protested. “I shouldn’t have-”

Tony cut him off again and put a hand on his shoulder, moving closer in the process. “No. Again, I’m glad you came here Bruce. How can I help you if you didn’t? As for Ross, I’ve been dealing with people like him for years. I got this.”

He held Bruce’s frightened eyes for a moment. “Okay? I got this. How about you eat something and get some sleep Brucie Bear? You’re exhausted.”

Hesitantly, Bruce nodded. “You’re not… not scared? Of…” He swallowed hard and trailed off but his meaning was clear.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “I’m Iron Man. No I’m not scared of your alter ego. I am fascinated by the whole breaking the laws of physics because conservation of mass and all that. But I’m keeping my inner giddy scientist out of this for the moment. You’re my friend Bruce. I’m not scared of you and I’m not letting anyone hurt you.”

Bruce ducked his head to hide the shimmer of tears in his eyes and nodded again. Tony got him some food and insisted he eat it, making a joke about how their roles were switched since it was usually Bruce pushing Tony to eat. That at least got a shaky smile from the other scientist. Before Tony could get his friend to go to bed though, JARVIS spoke up.

“Sir, General Ross is demanding to speak to you.”

Bruce tensed again and Tony sighed.

“I said I got this,” he reassured Bruce again before moving away a bit, glancing at his phone. He’d sent a quick text to Rhodey about the situation and was waiting for news on his talk with the rest of the military. He’d asked his friend to pass on the message that Iron Man would not take well to his friend being mistreated.

Tony Stark would react even worse.

“Put him through J,” Tony told his AI. “Audio only.”

Ross’ angry voice blasted through the penthouse and Bruce hunched in on himself. Tony wished he didn’t have to hear this but he hoped it might settle him a little.

“General Ross,” Tony cut him off in a dry voice. “Are you just going to yell incoherently or actually say something I can understand? I’m a busy man.”

The general fell silent for a few seconds and Tony could practically feel the fury coming through the call. Ross wasn’t stupid enough to attack his home. He couldn’t take Bruce by force if he didn’t want to lose everything he had in the military.

Attack the home of a civilian and the source of the army’s best protective gear? That was career suicide.

“Stark,” Ross ground out. “Hand Banner over immediately.”

“No,” Tony responded in a bored voice.

“Stark! You will hand the Hulk over to me or I will have you charged with treason!”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Still no. You don’t have a leg to stand on Ross. So cut the bullshit. If you try and take Bruce from my home by force, you lose everything you have in the military and my lawyers will tear you apart. What can you actually threaten me with? My lawyers will have no problem getting that treason charge tossed out and then they’ll get you for abusing your position of authority. And if you try and arrest me then how are your superiors going to react hmm?” He glanced at his phone and grinned. Rhodey was the best. “Oh look at that. I just got permission from the military to help Dr. Bruce Banner with his condition. After all, they don’t want to be seen as targeting a man who was hurt during a military experiment. You should be getting a call from your bosses pretty soon there Ross. I suggest you stand down. You don’t want to be charged with treason now do you?” He listened to the man spluttering in anger for a moment before speaking again. “Fuck off Ross. And stay away from Bruce. I’ll consider any move against him an attack on a civilian and I have authorisation to act as Iron Man in any situation like that.”

He made a gesture with his hand and JARVIS cut the call. Then he spun to look back at Bruce who was gaping at him.

“Well, that’s sorted. You should get some rest Brucie.”

“You-you-how?” Bruce stuttered.

“I asked Rhodey for a favour. He just made it clear to his bosses how badly I’d react to them condoning what Ross was doing. You underestimate how much the military like me Brucie. Iron Man works for them. I’m making a second suit for Rhodey. And I make all their defensive gear. They’d be idiots to let Ross make an enemy of me.”

Bruce just kind of stared at him so Tony shooed him off to bed. “Your big brain needs a rest Brucie Bear. Go sleep.”

It was probably the shock that made Bruce go without further argument.

Tony waited until JARVIS assured him that Bruce was asleep before slumping down into the nearest chair.

“This…was unexpected,” he admitted.

“You have changed quite a bit Sir,” JARVIS pointed out.

“Yeah, I know. And it’s not a bad change. I’m…I’m glad he came here. I’m glad I can help him.”

He sat there for a few minutes, altering a few plans in his head. Then he got to work.

By the time that Bruce woke up, Tony had already gathered his lawyers who had organised legal protection for the scientist. Tony also had an employment contract he could sign if he wanted to get under SI’s protection.

Rhodey was working on keeping him protected on the military side, stirring up problems for Ross and Pepper had already sorted out everything else for Bruce on the civilian side.

“You guys didn’t need to go to all this trouble,” Bruce murmured. “I should probably run, hide somewhere I won’t cause trouble. I’m dangerous Tony.”

“Like hell I’m letting Ross chase you from your home.” Tony hesitated. “I don’t have a lot of genuine friends Bruce. I’m not going to lose one now. As for being dangerous, how about we let the think tank decide that?”

They all gathered together and looked over the information they could find. Stephen and Helen had already dragged Bruce off to make sure he wasn’t suffering from any medical problems thanks to the experiment. So Jane and Tony went over the details.

They all came to the same conclusion that Tony had in the original timeline.

“It’s a defence mechanism,” Stephen explained. “The Hulk comes out when you’re in danger.”

“No, it happens when I’m angry.”

“Brucie, your reaction to danger is to get angry. You hide it well but we’ve all noticed. You yelled at us when we mixed the wrong chemicals together.”

“The Hulk is there to protect you,” Stephen continued.

“He’s not evil or anything,” Jane continued gently. “He’s there to keep you safe. He attacked the military since they attacked you first.”

Bruce still looked dubious but the scientists were determined to convince him. To make him feel better though, they helped Tony design a Hulk-proof room that he could lock himself inside if he felt like he was about to transform.

He used it a few times as he got adjusted to his new life.

Then Tony made the mistake of telling his new roommate about SHIELD’s renewed efforts to corner him now that he had Bruce living with him.

Bruce hulked out and Tony met the Hulk for the first time in this timeline.

“Hey there Green Bean. What brings you out?” Tony asked casually.

“Tinman in trouble?” Hulk rumbled.

“Oh no buddy. Don’t worry. They couldn’t get near me.”

The Hulk grumbled and didn’t look convinced.

“Look, how about we go play around outside until you feel better?” he suggested.

And that’s how Tony ended up flying around in the armour, playing catch with the Hulk. Darcy recorded them when she and Jane came over and both girls found the Hulk’s protective side sweet.

When they got Bruce back, Tony made a casual comment about making him pants that stretched and shrank when he hulked out. Bruce went bright red and accepted the blanket Tony offered to cover himself, Darcy whistled and Jane looked away, blushing.

A lot of things in this new timeline were surprising Tony.

However, he did not see the budding romance between Jane and Bruce coming. The shy smiles and blushes were adorable to watch but he did wonder how this would impact the whole thing with Thor.

Not that that romance worked out. Personally he thought that Jane and Bruce would be a good couple, if one of them would just make the first move. Darcy eagerly shipped it with him and they gradually got everyone else secretly shipping the couple.

 

“When are you going to make a move?” Darcy asked Tony when they were both up late during one of the visits the pair made to the mansion.

“What?” Tony asked in confusion.

“With Pepper,” Darcy elaborated. “It’s pretty clear that you’ve got a thing for her.”

Tony looked away. He’d tried really hard to hide his feelings for Pepper, no matter how much it hurt to pretend to be nothing but Pepper’s boss and friend.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about Darce.” He busied himself with his late-night snack.

“Oh come on Tones. You look at her like she hung the moon and stars and get this adorably sappy smile whenever she’s around. I’m not the only one who’s noticed.”

Tony cringed again. Apparently, he wasn’t hiding it all that well.

“It’s…It’s complicated Darce,” he sighed.

“Uncomplicate it,” she told him stubbornly. “She likes you too you know. She’s just stuck on maintaining a professional relationship.”

“You know I’m training her to take over as CEO Darce,” Tony turned to look at her. “How do you think it would look if we started dating and then I suddenly made her CEO?”

Darcy’s expression fell. “Oh, didn’t think of it that way.”

Tony looked away. “Yeah. I don’t want to make things hard on Pep.”

“So you’ll ask her out after?” she asked hopefully.

“I don’t know,” he hedged. “We’ll see how things look after everything settles down.”

She pouted at him. “I want my Pepperony!”

“Your what?”

“My Pepperony! You know, Pepper and Tony, Pepperony!”

Tony snorted and started laughing at her. She shoved him playfully and they moved onto a different topic.

 

Time seemed to fly by, their friend group helping Bruce get through his insecurities. Tony had asked about Betty once, remembering Bruce talking about her before the Hulk incident. Bruce had admitted that while he had feelings for her, she was torn between him and her father. And he didn’t want to make her choose. They’d stay friends, JARVIS helping them communicate without Ross finding out.

Neither of them planned to pursue a relationship though.

Tony was very tempted to offer a place in the think tank to Betty but as Bruce said, her father presented too many problems and he didn’t want to put her in a difficult position.

And they really didn’t need any more problems. Tony was predicting quite a few pretty soon. The Stark Expo was coming up soon. He was planning to announce SI’s new CEO officially then and he didn’t doubt that SHIELD would try their Natashalie Rushman crap. Around the same time, the whole Thor thing in New Mexico would be happening.

It was going to be a busy time.

He had JARVIS keeping an eye out for both SHIELD and Ivan Vanko while trying to keep a stressed Pepper calm as he assured her that she was perfect for the CEO position. He didn’t want it anymore. He was happy to stay in the lab and be Iron Man. He’d still be head of R&D but it would decrease his workload a lot.

Rhodey was also busy, getting all the paperwork for the War Machine armour signed. He was as excited as a kid in a candy shop. Tony should have done it this way the first time around instead of provoking Rhodey into stealing it.

Tony looked up from the finishing touches he’d been putting on War Machine (the name was in the contract too so the military couldn’t change it, no Iron Patriot here!), when JARVIS spoke.

“Sir, Ivan Vanko has entered the country.”

And here we go.

“Also, Natalie Rushman has sent in an application. There was a spike of energy in New Mexico a few seconds ago as well.”

And the shit hits the fan. Time to get to work.

Chapter Text

Tony leaned back in his chair as little Miss Rushman sauntered out of the room, purposefully swaying her hips.

“So we’re just letting a spy roam around SI?” Pepper asked dubiously.

“Oh no Pep,” Tony gave her a smirk. “We’re going to be giving Miss Rushmanov the run-around. I want her so busy with menial tasks that keep her far away from anything important that she doesn’t have time to do what she came here too. Jarvis is keeping a close eye on her too.”

Pepper slowly smirked in return. “Just how menial are we talking?”

“You can have her shine your shoes if you want,” Tony told her innocently.

Pepper gave a soft laugh. “She didn’t look happy to realise that the post wasn’t for your assistant but for mine. Did you see how she walked out of here?”

Tony scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Who the hell puts modelling photos in their CV to a technology company? That’s a blaring neon red sign that something’s wrong.”

“She was certainly annoyed when you barely even looked up from your tablet,” Pepper practically snickered and Tony had to agree. Rushmanov had looked like she’d bitten into a lemon when Tony barely looked at her after the initial glance up. He’d barely said anything to her besides ‘would you mind doing up your shirt buttons. This is a place of work.’

She’d looked like she’d been slapped in the face at that comment.

“Just make sure you stay safe Pep,” Tony added after a moment. “She’s still a SHIELD spy and ‘former’ assassin.” He put ‘former’ in visual quotation marks since he was pretty sure she was still in that line of work.

Pepper nodded at him and straightened up. “I will. I’ve got that nifty little taser watch you gave me,” she lifted her arm to show him.

“And keep Happy with you.”

Pepper nodded again. “Will that be all Mr. Stark?”

“That will be all Miss Potts.”

They exchanged an amused smile and Pepper walked out of the office to get Rushmanov started on her many, many meaningless errands.

Tony’s eyes lingered on her as she walked out. Now that was a sight he was hard-pressed to look away from. Romanoff’s seductive smirks and swaying hips did nothing for him. Not when he still had memories of Pepper’s warm body pressed against his. Pepper won hands down. She didn’t need the sauntering walk or the undone buttons. She was perfect as is and insanely attractive in her no-nonsense business shirts and skirts.

It was physically painful to keep his hands to himself, to keep his words and tone friendly and not flirty.

He missed his wife fiercely.

“Keep an eye on her J. If she tries to go anywhere that she doesn’t have clearance for, then warn her before alerting security. And keep sweeping for bugs.”

“Of course Sir.”

Tony stared at his computer screen for a moment. He knew everything was a ticking time bomb at the moment. Vanko was in the country and would be trying to get to him soon. JARVIS was tracking his movements, which turned out to be very easy.

The AI was quite adept at tracking arc reactor energy after all.

Now Romanoff was in the company and they were keeping a close eye on her. He didn’t doubt that SHIELD was attributing all his slight personality changes to Palladium poisoning since they probably didn’t believe he could find a cure without their help.

Which was returning his own damn father’s research to him. They shouldn’t have it in the first place.

But no doubt they saw his decision to name Pepper CEO as a clear sign that he was dying. Despite the fact that he was in perfect health.

They generally only saw what they wanted to see.

“Well then, let’s get to work.”

 

When his birthday came around, Romanoff was far too busy with completely redundant paperwork that Pepper was demanding be completed so she was nowhere near the party.

Not that it was much of a party. He’d decided against a huge celebration, instead just inviting his close friends. It was kind of thrilling to realise that that number had increased.

Of course Pepper, Rhodey and Happy were there. But they were joined by Bruce, Jane, Darcy, Helen and Stephen. None of them made any comments on the laidback atmosphere or the lack of alcohol.

He was a little surprised that they’d all brought presents as well. He very rarely received presents outside of Rhodey, Pepper and Happy since people thought he was impossible to buy for.

So on top of the presents he expected, a soft blanket from Rhodey, an unexpected surprise from Pepper in the form of the old arc reactor engraved with ‘Tony Stark has a heart’ (guess some things were still going to happen even if they were later than before) and new boxing gear from Happy, he got from his new friends too.

Bruce handed over one of the warmest and softest jackets he’d ever felt. Both he and Rhodey had picked up on Tony’s aversion to the cold (both from the desert nights and Siberia).

Jane gave him a large selection of different coffees to try along with chocolate. She’d figured out his sweet tooth early.

Darcy proudly presented a completely mangled Hammer phone which set Tony off laughing so hard he almost teared up. That girl had a wicked sense of humour. Her present also included a picture of the three of them, Tony, Jane and Darcy in the middle of an experiment. She’d noticed the lack of photos in his house, besides the few in his lab with Rhodey and one with Pepper and Happy. Apparently she was taking it on herself to change that.

Helen gave him the beginning research on the cradle and an invitation to join her in working on it. Which received a very enthusiastic ‘hell yes!’ Pepper had to wrestle the research papers away which made him sulk.

Science!

Stephen gave him a very nice watch in red and gold. Man had some good taste in watches.

It was certainly an adjustment, having more friends who insisted that they’d give him presents regardless of his own ability to buy anything he wanted.

He wondered if the Avengers had ever given the idea a second thought. He’d always given them presents for their birthdays but he couldn’t really remember a moment when they’d given him more than an absent ‘Happy Birthday Tony’.

Sometimes on the wrong day.

Tony shook himself out of his thoughts. None of that, not today. Today he was going to enjoy himself with his friends and his bots.

They’d get back to the real world tomorrow.

 

The day after his birthday, everyone headed off again with Jane and Darcy going back to New Mexico and the doctors to their respective hospitals.

Bruce was still staying with him but he was avoiding SI at the moment with Natashalie there.

 

Tony wasn’t surprised that Vanko targeted the Expo, slicing open the doors with his electrified whips.

Before he could get more than two steps inside though, Iron Man and War Machine were on him, dragging the man outside and away from civilians.

The battle was short, Vanko not having the backup of Hammer’s drones. They destroyed his weapons and took him down, Tony destroying the rough arc reactor the man had put together. It was impressive work but still far behind where Stark arc reactors were right now.

Instead of the police, they handed Vanko over to the FBI who would be far less likely to let Hammer near him considering he was facing terrorist charges.

They walked back into the Expo to cheers and amazed exclamations. A child nearby with an Iron Man mask pushed up on his head was staring at them in amazement.

Tony would recognise those bright brown eyes anywhere. He’d grieved them for five years.

He paused by the kid and his uncle, making Peter’s eyes widen.

“Nice mask,” he told him and the poor kid looked dumbstruck. His uncle chuckled.

“He’s quite a fan,” he explained.

Tony smiled and produced a pen which he kept on him for this very reason, signing the mask much to Peter’s delight.

“See you around kid,” Tony called as he started walking away.

His vision had gone green again when his eyes had landed on Peter Parker so he didn’t doubt that he’d be meeting Spider-Man in the future.

 

The rest of the Expo went off with no problem, War Machine being shown off as a new asset on loan to the military.

Rhodey had the time of his life.

Tony wasn’t surprised to get a phone call near the end, JARVIS had been keeping him updated on the events in New Mexico.

“What’s up Janey?”

“I hate to bother you Tony,” the poor woman sounded stressed. “But they’re taking my lab!”

Well, that wouldn’t do.

Tony shot off for New Mexico and landed as Agent Coulson was walking out of the building. He caught a flicker of dismay on the man’s face when he saw Tony.

The helmet retracted and Tony raised an eyebrow.

“Do I need to get my lawyers on the phone or are you going to return Dr. Foster’s property without a fight?” He asked.

Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Clint Barton leaning against the wall and watching the interaction curiously.

“Mr. Stark-” Coulson started but Tony cut him off.

“No. I don’t care that you’re a government agency. You still need permission to be taking that equipment. And an order from the WSC isn’t what I mean.”

He enjoyed the way the man’s eyes widened a fraction.

“So either you return all of Jane’s equipment and research, all of it, or I’m getting my lawyers involved Coulson. SHIELD cannot just do whatever it feels like because you’ve got the firepower to cow regular civilians. Unfortunately for you, Jane’s got some powerful friends.”

They stared each other down for a moment, JARVIS watching his back.

“There will be no need for lawyers Mr. Stark,” Coulson told him stiffly.

Tony gave him a polite smile when really he wanted to smirk viciously. He liked Coulson, really. But the man needed to realise that SHIELD wasn’t allowed to ignore the laws and human rights.

He stayed to ensure that a fuming Jane got all her property back and JARVIS made sure no copies were made of the research. Darcy was a lot less polite about the entire thing and snatched her music player back from the agent who confiscated it.

Tony didn’t move when he heard someone come closer since JARVIS wasn’t ringing any alarms.

“I don’t see people going toe to toe with Coulson often and winning,” Barton chuckled as he came to stand beside Tony.

“I protect my people agent,” Tony murmured. “No one fucks with my friends.”

“I can respect that,” Barton shrugged.

“You don’t seem as annoyed with my intervention as everyone else,” Tony turned to look at him, raising an eyebrow.

He shrugged again. “It wasn’t cool. Not their fault some alien blond Adonis landed in their laps. They shouldn’t lose everything because of it.”

Tony considered that for a moment. It made sense. Barton had struggled against people stronger than him his entire childhood. This probably left an unpleasant taste in his mouth.

“Hmm, I heard about the, uh, blond Adonis,” his lips twitched at the description of Thor and Barton grinned. “Apparently he didn’t like that Janey said no to a kiss.”

“Yup,” Barton popped the ‘p’. “Then her intern zapped him with a taser. Damn impressive.”

Tony huffed a laugh. “I can imagine. I made that taser.”

Barton snickered. “Poor guy looked like a kicked puppy.”

“Just cause he’s good-looking doesn’t mean he can expect an automatic yes. I’ve got it on good authority that Janey’s got her eyes on someone else.”

“That’s the feeling I got.” Barton nodded.

They both watched the petite woman lose her temper and beat an agent over the head with a folder when he put her computer down too roughly.

“You know, you’re not too bad. For a SHIELD agent,” Tony mused.

Barton smirked. “I’m not exactly your typical agent,” he admitted.

Tony wondered what was different about the man. He’d only met him after Loki’s mind control and there was just something… different about him now. There was an ease to his stance and movement that had been lacking in all of Tony’s memories.

As Coulson came closer, Tony made an impulsive decision.

“Next time SHIELD wants something, they should send you instead of the spider.”

Barton’s eyes widened and Coulson froze.

“Although,” Tony tapped his chin. “Pep has had a ton of fun giving her the run-around. But it’s still dodgy, sending a Russian assassin to spy on me.” He eyed them both.

Coulson had clear disbelief in his eyes while Barton was eyeing him more carefully than before.

“SHIELD really underestimated you didn’t it?” Barton mused.

“Pretty much. The Palladium poisoning problem was cured months ago. If anyone comes near me with a needle I’m shooting them. Fair warning.”

“Mr. Stark-”

“Strike one was breaking into SI Agent Coulson,” his tone turned to ice, causing the two agents to tense. “Strike two was Fury trying to break into my house. Strike three is Natashalie. You’re out. Get the little spider out of my company before I call the FBI and tell them that SHIELD sent a former Russian assassin to infiltrate SI. It really doesn’t look good for you guys. And if she tries to touch Pepper or Happy, she’ll be dead before she gets close. I’ve had safety measures in place since I saw that terrible CV.”

He held Coulson’s eyes until the agent gave a slight nod.

“How’d you figure it out?” Barton asked, sounding genuinely curious. “Nat’s one of the best at infiltration.”

“The modelling photos tipped us off,” Tony stated dryly. “And then her taking down my bodyguard in a mock fight gave her away. She ticks all the boxes for what the public thinks I’m attracted too and she fights? No one’s that perfect.”

Barton nodded after a moment. “I guess that was heavy-handed huh?”

“Very,” Tony agreed, rolling his eyes. He looked at Coulson. “I want her gone before I get back. And stop pissing me off so much. Make a damn appointment like normal people. The FBI and CIA don’t have the same aversion you apparently do. What makes you so special?”

He didn’t give them a chance to answer, stepping back and waving at the satisfied scientist checking over her equipment.

“Call me if anything else happens ladies!” he called.

They waved back and he blasted off for home.

 

By the time he reached the mansion, he found Pepper, Rhodey, Happy and Bruce already there.

“The little spider?” he asked.

“Gone,” Pepper smiled serenely. “She got a phone call and got quite flustered when she looked at us.”

“Pepper just smiled at her and told her that she was fired,” Rhodey added with a smirk. “She stormed out in a huff.”

Tony laughed. “Hopefully that’ll teach them some humility. I’m sick of them trying to force their way into my life.”

They all murmured in agreement.

Later that night, JARVIS informed Tony that he had a call from SHIELD’s Director incoming. Tony wanted to know what Fury would say so he answered.

“Hello Fury,” he greeted cheerfully.

There was a pause before the man spoke. “Stark.” He sounded wary. Good.

“Did you get your little spider back?” he asked casually. “I hope she had fun being Pepper’s little errand girl.”

There was a heavy sigh on the other side. “We believed you were suffering from Palladium poisoning.”

“So I’m guessing that you have something you thought would help. But instead of calling me like you’re doing now, you snuck an assassin into my company and waited as the poisoning, as far as you knew, grew worse.”

Fury stayed silent.

“Would you have appeared out of nowhere when I appeared to be at my lowest? Would you then dangle your help in front of me like you were doing me a favour?” Tony’s lip lifted in a sneer. “I would then be indebted to you naturally and I’m sure you’d use that to get whatever you wanted. Money, tech and access to Iron Man. Well, that’s not happening. And as I told Coulson, this was strike three. You’re out. One more attempt that I perceive as dangerous, and I’m coming for you.”

“Is that a threat Stark?”

“I thought that was obvious? I have proof of your people breaking into my company, trying to break into my house and now this little incident. I can have you brought up on corporate espionage Fury. And my lawyers are sharks. There’s blood in the water and if I let them loose they’ll tear you and SHIELD to shreds.”

There was silence for a moment again and Tony finally believed that Fury was taking him seriously. SHIELD was at a disadvantage here.

“We were going to approach you for a consultant position.”

“You can’t afford me,” Tony answered blandly. “I already turned down a role in your little boy band and I can’t trust you to use the tech I would give you for the right reasons considering the behaviour I’ve seen from you and your agents. You screwed up Fury. Now you need to work on fixing that before you can even think of a working relationship between us.”

He hung up before the spy could say anything else and leaned back in his chair.

For now, he believed that SHIELD would back off. He had too much dirt on them. But he’d be seeing them in the future. His vision had gone green when he looked at Barton, there wasn’t anything he could do to stop the mind control. And SHIELD would jump on the only little morsel he’d left them, his cordial behaviour with the man. They’d approach him from the angle of saving Barton. It was the only angle they had left and they knew they needed him.

The invasion was up next and all the pieces of the Avengers would fall into place and he’d see if there was any salvaging them.

Barton gave him some hope. There was a definite change in his personality after the mind control and he wondered if Romanoff took advantage of it, if it made him more pliable since he’d always sided with her.

He’d find out soon.

There was no stopping the invasion but he could try and help two people. Barton deserved proper help after that mess.

And then there was Loki.

That… that was going to be fun…

Chapter Text

Tony stood at the windows of his penthouse, studying New York below.

Stark Tower had finished construction and while he loved having his tower back, he knew what was coming.

He’d already planned for it. Pepper was in Japan on a business trip with Happy. Rhodey had been coaxed into taking leave to celebrate with Tony and Bruce at the Tower.

Tony didn’t react when JARVIS told him that Agent Coulson was calling. At least there was no breaking in this time. Turns out you could teach an old dog new tricks.

“Put him through J,” he said, drawing the attention of Bruce and Rhodey. He knew he was being unusually serious tonight and he also didn’t normally give SHIELD the time of day. So him answering was a little weird.

Coulson let out a subtle breath of relief when Tony answered.

“Mr. Stark.”

He sounded far more subdued than usual and Tony knew why. No matter his problems with Barton, no one deserved to get their head screwed with.

“Agent, you caught me in a good mood, lucky you,” Tony said. “Why are you calling?”

There was a noticeable hesitation. “Mr. Stark… I know that you’ve had problems with SHIELD in the past,” he started and Tony wondered how this talk would go.

Was Coulson willing to leave the SHIELD playbook behind for Clint?

“I’m supposed to be appealing to your ego and your love of the spotlight,” Coulson continued and Rhodey raised an eyebrow at the words.

“But?” Tony prompted.

“But this is big. Bigger than SHIELD or the Avengers.” He took a deep breath. “There’s an alien invasion coming. The leader is Loki, brother of Thor. And he took Clint. Agent Barton. You met him in New Mexico.”

“Yeah, the only agent that seemed to think what you were doing there was wrong,” Tony agreed. “I remember him. He stands out in a sea of shady agents.”

“Clint is my agent.” Coulson’s voice was hard now. “He’s a good man.”

Tony thought about that. He was. Maybe he was a bit of a jerk at times but until Ultron, Tony wouldn’t have argued with anyone who called him a good man. His attachment to Maximoff shook that belief and then it shattered during the Civil War when he made that comment about Rhodey in the RAFT.

But he hadn’t yet.

Tony wasn’t about to blame him for something he hadn’t done yet.

“Did your WSC even approve bringing me into this?” Tony asked curiously.

“No,” Coulson admitted. “It was Fury’s call.”

And despite what he could say about the man, when it came down to it, Fury would put the world above his pride. He wouldn’t be happy about it but he’d do it.

“Send me the information. I’ll get approval from the military. You’ll probably get both War Machine and Iron Man.

“And the Hulk,” Bruce added quietly.

Tony looked back at him, searching the scientist’s face. Bruce gave him a weak smile.

“If you think the big guy is going to let you face an invasion without him, then you’re sorely mistaken.”

Tony gave him a slight nod and smile before focusing back on Coulson.

“And the Hulk. Any attempt to confiscate my tech or to contain the Hulk will be met with force. Am I understood Agent?”

“Yes Mr. Stark,” Coulson murmured.

He hung up and Tony turned to the screen where JARVIS was already throwing up the information.

“Let’s get to work.”


After getting the greenlight from the Council in charge of Iron Man’s missions and the higher ups in charge of War Machine, (Tony got the Hulk temporarily added under the council’s command as well for legal protection, he’d grown to trust the group), they all poured over the information SHIELD provided.

Bruce got to work on writing a program to track the Tesseract while Rhodey and Tony familiarised themselves with everything else.

When they were ready, they hopped on a Stark jet to head to SHIELD headquarters. Partway there, Tony got the expected information from JARVIS that Loki was in Germany and he took off to provide backup, assuring his friends that he’d be careful.

“I’ve got JARVIS to watch my back,” he reminded them before shooting off.

It went the same way as it did in the last timeline. Loki surrendered and Rogers reacted to Tony with distain. Romanoff kept glaring at him the entire time they were on the jet.

Thor got involved before agreeing to join them at SHIELD headquarters.

Tony was more than happy to get out of close quarters with Rogers and strode over to where Rhodey was standing in the War Machine armour. Bruce was busy with tracking the Tesseract still but Tony could tell he was uncomfortable here.

Tony clapped the other scientist on the shoulder and Bruce relaxed a little.

It all stuck surprisingly close to the original timeline. Tony discovered the Tesseract-based weapons and Rogers picked a fight with him out of nowhere.

This time however, he didn’t feel the Mind Stone warping his emotions. He did feel a slight brush against his mind that made him shiver as the Stone greeted him but that was all. It was very disconcerting to have the Stone he’d feared for years thanks to its connections to the invasion and Wanda greet him like an old friend.

He had a feeling the Mind Stone was amused by this.

As Rogers really got going on his ‘Stark hate’ rant Tony rolled his eyes and let out a sigh. Romanoff looked vaguely smug out of the corner of his eye and he suspected she was expecting him to react defensively around Rogers. Rhodey looked about ready to punch the self-righteous bastard and Tony really didn’t want him to break his hand.

“Is this really the place for this?” He cut into the man’s speech, making Rogers and several others startle. “We’ve got an alien invasion on our doorstep and you want to waste time yelling at me?” Tony raised an eyebrow as Rogers flushed angrily. “We’ve never even met.”

“I’ve seen the footage-” the Captain started again and Tony wondered again what footage it was that had ingrained his hatred and mistrust of Tony so deeply.

Rhodey scoffed this time. “So you watched a bunch of videos of Tony acting like an asshole? And you believed them without context and took them as the unshakeable truth? Damn you’re gullible. Anyone can take a few clips and create whatever picture of a person they want.”

Bruce was nodding as Rogers spluttered. “Considering no one in SHIELD actually knows Tony and they don’t like him because he wouldn’t let them take advantage of him, you really are gullible for believing them without even meeting Tony first.”

“He’s an arrogant, selfish man who’s only doing this because he wants the attention,” Rogers stated stubbornly.

Tony recognised the glint in Rhodey’s eyes and hurriedly buried himself in his work. His Rhodey-bear was going into protective mode.

“Wow, so you’re trying to tell me that you know my best friend better than me after knowing him for a few minutes when I’ve known him for decades?” he drawled. He shook his head and glanced at Fury. “I’m really impressed with your operation Director. Now I know why my superiors say what they do about you.”

Fury stiffened at the words.

“Just because Stark is your friend-”

Rogers didn’t get any further.

“Captain Rogers!” Rhodey barked in what Tony had dubbed as his ‘Colonel voice’. “You’re going to listen and you’re going to listen good since I don’t like explaining myself to lower-ranked officers.”
Rogers stiffened and unconsciously straightened into attention. Rhodey drew himself up and stared the man down.

“I have known Tony Stark since college. We were roommates and I’ve seen him at his best and worst over the years. I’m the first who’ll say that my best friend is not perfect. That he’s self-destructive, self-sacrificing, that he’s got bad habits that I wish he could break. But I’ve also never met a better man. Arrogant? Then why would he freely admit that Bruce was better equipped to find the Tesseract? Why would he agree to work with people he doesn’t like and who have no respect for him? Arrogant you say? Why? Because he calls himself a genius? He is a genius you dumbass! It’s not gloating, it’s a fact. Selfish? Try and tell that to the hundreds of charities that Tony supports, that’s he’s founded. That he donates to anonymously.”

Tony’s head shot up at that. “How’d you find out about that?” he demanded.

“JARVIS,” Rhodey told him dryly.

“Snitch,” Tony grumbled and Bruce hid a smile.

“As for that crap about wanting attention, Tony’s constantly in the limelight. He doesn’t need more. He doesn’t want more. He prefers to avoid attention but the world won’t let him so he deals with it. Get this through your thick head. Tony’s here for the same reason Bruce and I are. The world is in danger and we want to help. We have the ability to help. So shut up, sit down and try and be useful instead of picking fights like a child who’s upset he’s not the only superhero on the block anymore.”

Rhodey turned sharply to face Fury and Romanoff. “A team requires teamwork, not team members biased against each other from the start. You spies like playing your games but they’ll bite you in the ass one day.”

Tony had a brief flashback to the spectacular explosion he Avengers had made after the Civil War. Those trust issues could be traced back all the way to the first meeting on the helicarrier. Rogers had never trusted him. None of the team had and Fury and Romanoff had only encouraged that.

He still didn’t really understand why.

Rhodey stalked back over to Tony and Bruce and the inventor peered up at him.

“My hero,” he said dryly but Rhodey knew him well enough to recognise the soft gratitude in his eyes.

Rhodey ruffled his hair, pulled an outraged squawk from the younger man. “Rhodey!”

“I’ve been standing between you and bullies since college brat. I’m not going to stop now.”

Tony had no doubt that Rhodey calling Rogers that hit harder than anything else the Colonel said. He’d always been fixated on the pretty juvenile concept, like bullies were somehow worse than terrorists and invading aliens.

“Thanks Platypus,” Tony murmured. He’d always be grateful for Rhodey.

Bruce was smiling at them until a beep drew his attention to the computer.

“Oh no,” he breathed.

The world exploded and the suits enveloped Tony and Rhodey just in time as JARVIS had been waiting.

Rhodey went to fix the helicarrier’s turbines with Rogers since he didn’t want the man near Tony. The inventor ended up talking Bruce down from a transformation which had been part of the plan.

What wasn’t part of the plan was being the one to come face to face with Barton since Romanoff wasn’t in the same place as last time.

“Tony…” Bruce sounded worried, leaning against the wall since the almost-transformation had drained him.

“I got this Bruce,” Tony reassured him as Barton lifted his gun.

It wasn’t part of the plan but when do plans ever go the way they’re supposed to? It didn’t matter. He was an expert at improvising.

He shot forward, bullets ricocheting off the armour. He slammed into Barton enough to hurt but not enough to do any serious damage. He was more focused on testing his theory and he grinned when the unnatural blue of Barton’s eyes flickered.

He ended up pinned the man down and ordering JARVIS to increase the power radiating off the arc reactor. Barton groaned and went limp as the light brightened to an almost blinding degree.

Tony leaned down and tried to get a look at the man’s eyes but they were pinched closed from pain.

“Barton?” he called. “You with me or still got your brain in a blender?”

“Your nightlight is blinding me Stark,” the man groaned again.

Tony had JARVIS return the reactor to its usual power output and Barton squinted one eye open. The genius couldn’t help but grin when he saw the man’s normal pale blue eye colour.

“Welcome back Birdbrain. Agent is very worried about you. He was even nice when he asked me to help.”

“Coulson is nice,” Barton argued.

“Not to me,” Tony chirped, climbing off the archer.

Barton rolled onto his side with another groan and shakily pushed himself up.

“How… how’d you do that?” he put a hand to his head. “He’d gone. I can’t hear him anymore. He’s not in my head.”

Tony’s heart ached at the shake in his voice and he crouched down next to Barton. “The arc reactor is based off of the Tesseract. I noticed that the energy from the sceptre seemed similar so I took a chance and it turns out that they cancel each other out.” He tapped the light in his chest.

“…Thanks,” Barton murmured.

“No problem Birdbrain. The other theory was smacking you over the head but I thought you’d appreciate trying this one first.”

Barton let out a rough bark of laughter. “Yeah, yeah I do.”

Tony helped the man stand up, catching him when he stumbled. “We’ll need to scan you for any residual energy left by the sceptre. Don’t want any nasty surprises.”

Barton paled a bit at the thought of lingering magic. “You can do that?”

“Yup,” Tony popped the ‘p’. “My AI can do it at my tower when this is all over.”

Barton visibly deflated in relief.

“Thanks,” he repeated.

Tony waved it off. “You can thank me by answering one question that’s been bothering me.”

Barton cocked his head.

“Why are Loki’s eyes the same blue as yours were?”

Barton’s eyes widened and he heard Bruce curse off to the side.

“Shit,” Barton breathed, clearly going over everything that he remembered from when he was around the God of Mischief. “That explains why he was so scared all the time!”

Scared? Well, shit.

“Sir,” JARVIS sounded exasperated already. “Please don’t bring home any more strays.”

Tony kept his mouth shut. No point making promises he knew he wouldn’t keep.

Chapter Text

Tony helped Bruce back to the meeting room with Barton sticking close behind him. The genius’ eyes flicked over the room’s occupants quickly.

Thor was missing so he’d probably still been chucked off the helicarrier in all that mess. Rhodey was settled in a seat, glaring at Rogers with that disapproving look that made Tony fold, so Rogers was fidgeting nervously in his seat for good reason.

Romanoff straightened up when her eyes landed on Barton and there was a spark of relief in her eyes. Tony never had understood their relationship. Sometimes it seemed like Romanoff cared about the archer and other times she treated him like a tool.

Fury was pacing at the other side of the room, muttering angrily to himself.

Something tight in Tony’s chest loosened when he spotted Coulson though. The agent was already up and moving towards Barton to check on him. Tony had tasked JARVIS with making sure no SHIELD agent, especially not Coulson, got to Loki during the chaos.

He didn’t know what would change, having Coulson alive still, but he wouldn’t just stand aside and do nothing while he died.

The genius deposited Bruce into a chair before facing Rhodey. “What’s the situation look like?”

“The helicarrier is repaired for the moment. Loki got away though and Thor got locked in the cage and dropped.” His eyes flicked to Barton and he raised an eyebrow.

Tony answered the silent question. “My theory about the arc reactor worked.”

Rhodey just nodded, ignoring Fury’s and Romanoff’s irritation at the vagueness.

“We’ve got another problem,” Tony spoke up loudly, getting everyone’s attention. He glanced at Barton who straightened up at the look.

“Someone else is controlling Loki. He’s not behind this whole thing,” the archer reported.

There were multiple reactions to that statement. Indifference from Fury and Romanoff. Surprise from Coulson. Thoughtfulness from Rhodey. And disbelief from Rogers.

“Are you sure about that?” Rogers asked dubiously.

Barton stiffened at the clear scepticism. “Considering I had him in my head, yeah I’m sure,” he told him sarcastically.

Coulson rested a hand on the archer’s arm and he settled down a bit.

Tony picked up the conversation before someone could dismiss this problem.

“That means that someone else is behind this invasion. We need to get them out of Loki’s head to find out who the hell is trying to invade Earth and why.”

Rhodey nodded, cutting off anything Fury or Rogers could say. “I’ll let the military know that he’s attacking under duress. We’ll figure something out there. But for now, do we know anything about his plan?”

“Stark Tower,” Bruce mumbled, wincing when everyone looked at him. “The energy of the Tesseract was heading straight for Stark Tower.”

Tony narrowed his eyes, going for indignant even though he knew that was going to happen. “The arc reactor. They’re using my fucking tower to open the portal?!”

“Can’t you just shut it down?” Rogers asked.

Rhodey, Tony and Bruce all looked at him in sheer disbelief.

“There’s no ‘off button’ Rogers,” Tony frowned. “The arc reactors are self-sustaining energy devices. They have a long and complicated shutdown process.”

“Why’d you make something that you couldn’t turn off?” Rogers' voice dripped with disapproval.

Tony raised an eyebrow. “I didn’t invent the arc reactor. Howard did.” Rogers’ mouth clicked shut. “I only perfected on his design. The long shut-off process is something I haven’t figured out yet.”

He turned away from the man, dismissing him and his insistence on nit-picking for things Tony was doing wrong.

“We can get there in a matter of minutes if we leave now,” he said to Rhodey who nodded. Then he looked at the rest of them. “We leave now and we can distract Loki and try and figure out a way to get his head clear. You guys follow cause if that portal opens then two tin cans are going to do shit.”

Barton and surprisingly Coulson nodded while the others bristled at Tony telling them what to do. Rhodey cut them all off though.

“How about we leave the egos at the door and focus on saving the fucking Earth huh?” he snapped, losing his temper with the lot of them.

He grabbed Tony’s arm and started dragging him out. Tony called back before he was fully dragged out of the room. “JARVIS is watching so don’t touch Brucie or he’ll cut the power to the helicarrier engines. The Hulk can survive that, you can’t.”

“Of course Sir,” JARVIS’ voice came from the room’s speakers, making the SHIELD agents jump in fright.

Bruce just shook his head and gave Tony a grateful smile. Barton actually looked impressed, exchanging a look with the scientist as Tony lost sight of them all.

“What’s the hurry?” Tony asked casually as they hurried to the nearest exit. Rhodey was unusually tense.

“Besides the imminent alien invasion?” Rhodey asked, snorting and muttering ‘What is my life?’ under his breath. “I hate the way they treat you and I’m going to deck one of them soon.”

Tony let out a huff of laughter as their armours wrapped around them. “My knight in shining titanium,” he drawled. But honestly he was grateful.

Rhodey always reminded him that while he was a rich ‘sometimes asshole’, he still deserved basic human decency.

And that was something SHIELD never gave him. He was a tool and bank account in their eyes. Rogers saw him the same way.

He’d never been a person to them.

He fell silent as they shot out of the helicarrier, JARVIS keeping him up to date on what was happening with Bruce while Rhodey caught the military up on what had happened and the news on Loki.

They landed back at Stark Tower and Tony… well he wasn’t too sure how this was going to go. Ideally, he’d like to free Loki from the mind control before SHIELD showed up. And hopefully without a Hulk-level mental recalibration.

“How do you want to do this?” Rhodey asked.

Tony thought about it for a moment, they were early so Loki wasn’t here just yet. But he would be soon.

“Hey remember when we were playing around with the arc reactor with Janie and Darce?”

Rhodey’s eyes narrowed. “Oh fuck, really Tony?”

“It’s got the highest chance of working.”

Rhodey let out a heavy sigh. “It’ll take some time to set up.”

“I’ll distract him.”

“Of course you will…”

Tony looked to the door when JARVIS announced that Loki had appeared in the penthouse but Rhodey’s hand on the back of his neck stopped him and he looked back. His best friend had never looked this serious before.

“Be careful Tones. Promise me. Yeah the world is important. But so are you. Cause to Pepper, Happy and me, you are our world. Our crazy, chaotic and amazing world. Okay?”

Tony swallowed hard. “Okay,” he agreed, maintaining steady eye contact with the man who was as good as his brother, blood be damned.

Rhodey squeezed the back of his neck like he did when they were two dumb teenagers and Tony had to head home for a few weeks back to Howard’s cruel words.

‘He only gets you for a couple weeks. I get you the rest of the time yeah?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Cause you’re my little brother and I’ll punch Howard Stark in the face if he hurts you again.’

Rhodey had done that once, but that was another story. And involved the one time Tony stood up to his parents and flat out told them that he’d choose Rhodey over the money, over the fame, over the company. So if they tried to touch his big brother they’d find themselves short one genius heir very quickly.

Rhodey gave a sharp nod before he left to head down to the arc reactor. Tony took a deep breath and stepped out of the armour. He paused as he felt an echo of the space stone spark in his chest from the arc reactor sitting snugly in his ribcage. It was close, probably the portal being set up.

He lifted his chin and walked into the penthouse. It was time for Tony Fucking Stark to meet Prince Loki, God of Lies and Chaos.

He’d always thought that they’d get along from Thor’s stories. Time to test that theory.

It went pretty much the same as the first timeline in the beginning.

An offer of a drink.

A few threats here and there.

“I have an army.”

“I have the Hulk.”

There was a distinct lack of confidence in the Avengers this time though. Tony didn’t talk about the individual members because he had no faith in them. He didn’t think they would always protect the Earth.

If it came down to it and the choice was the Earth or Bucky? Rogers would choose Bucky.

If Romanoff had a better chance of survival on the other side? She’d stab them in the back in a moment.

If Fury had to become as bad as HYDRA to ‘protect the world’ he would.

He’d never understood that the ends didn’t justify the means. HYDRA thought they were doing the right thing after all. And they were still a bunch of evil bastards.

Barton, Tony was willing to give a chance to. He’d offer his help and get rid of every speck of mental influence in the man’s head. And maybe things would go better this time with him.

He was willing to see how Coulson behaved as well, whether he’d continue as Fury’s lapdog or grow a spine and do what he actually thought was right.

And of course Brucie was his awesome science bro.

But the rest? They could go fuck themselves as far as he was concerned.

“I notice you said nothing about your team?” Loki noted as they circled each other, both predators just waiting for the right opening.

Tony let out a bark of laughter. “Your info is out of date Reindeer Games. The Avengers aren’t my team. A good friend of mine had it right. They’re nothing but a time bomb. What's a team without respect? Without trust?”

Loki frowned slightly, thrown off his game. Tony held his unnaturally blue eyes, remembering vividly every time that Thor described his mischievous green eyes.

“So you are alone then?” Loki mocked.

He stalled at Tony’s grin though.

“I never said that. I said the Avengers were not my team. I have one already. I’ve got the best one. With the best people.”

“Oh?” Loki cocked his head curiously.

“I’ve got Rhodey, my brother and best friend. He’s seen me at my worst and he’s still here. Still at my side and helping me up whenever I stumble. I’ve got Bruce, breathless anger management issues and a brilliant mind. He didn’t have to join us, I told him he didn’t. He still did because he didn’t want me to be around untrustworthy people without support.” Tony stopped moving, facing Loki with his back to the windows. He wasn’t worried though, he knew that a suit was ready and waiting if the past repeated itself. “I’ve got JARVIS, my son and right hand who knows me better than I know myself. I’ve got Pepper,” his lips lifted in an unconscious smile. “My brilliant, brilliant friend who I’ve loved for a very long time. I’ve got Happy who’s stuck with me through thick and thin even if the shit I get involved in is way above his paygrade. That’s my team Loki. I don’t need SHIELD or the Avengers. Because I’ve got my family. And the best thing? It’s still growing.” He spread his arms to his sides. “With these people backing me? I feel fucking invincible.”

He knew it was happening before it did. The arc in his chest sparked and hummed with power. He felt the Space Stone react distantly.

He almost felt the rush of power as the arc reactor that powered the building surged and let out a blast of energy that shot up through the Tower. It crackled through the air and danced over the windows, lighting up the Tower so brightly those outside had to look away.

Overall the energy was harmless, barely more dangerous than static electricity as the arc released the power in a burst. They’d found out about this quirk when Darcy ‘accidentally’ tased one of Tony’s spare mini reactors.

Harmless, leaving Jane’s hair standing on end and giving them all static shocks when they touched metal for about an hour.

But it hit Loki like a truck.

He gasped, staggering back and dropping the sceptre. For a moment his eyes flickered between green and blue before staying on green. He swayed for a second before collapsing next to the sceptre.

Tony stood there for a minute, the room silent. “JARVIS?” he called out into the silence.

“The Tower’s systems show no damage and the only noticeable effect to electronic devices is that all batteries have been fully charged. Prince Loki’s vitals are stable and strong, he appears to only be unconscious.” He paused for a moment. “Well done Sir.”

Tony let out a harsh sigh. He could barely believe that had worked. He’d never known about this quirk of the arc reactor before, so he’d never used it. It was damn handy for cancelling out the influence of the Infinity Stones. No wonder they wanted him to keep the one in his chest.

He walked over to the crumpled figure and rolled Loki over onto his back. He was out cold although Tony wasn’t sure for how long.

Sighing again he picked up the sceptre and winced when the Mind Stone immediately connected with his mind.

“You are a menace,” he muttered and then hit the sceptre as hard as he could on the floor. The top shattered, revealing the Infinity Stone.

“Wasn’t like I chose to control the little prince,” Mind grumbled petulantly. “Although he’s got a fascinating mind.”

“No,” Tony immediately scolded. “Leave him and Clint alone already. It’s pretty damn easy to traumatise us non-sentient rocks you know.”

The Stone huffed but seemed to let that idea go. “Put me in one of those containers you made. It’ll block my energy so no one can find me. Maybe I’ll actually be able to take a nap now. I haven’t had a break in years.”

Tony hummed, accepting the container that DUM-E brought up from his lab and giving the bot a pat on his arm in thanks. “You guys need a union.”

The Stone’s laughter echoed eerily in his head and he shuddered as he slipped the yellow gem into the container.

“We chose well,” the stone whispered and he had a feeling he’d be hearing from that particular Infinity Stone a lot.

Great.

He had an excitable DUM-E take the container back to his lab with JARVIS watching over him before turning back to Loki.

“So it worked?” Rhodey’s relieved voice drew his attention.

“Yup,” Tony nodded. “Knocked him right out too.”

Rhodey glanced at the sceptre. “Don’t blame you for breaking that thing.”

Tony nodded. “I’ll explain all that later.” He crouched down as the alien prince on his floor stirred.

Dazed green eyes blinked open and Tony grinned as they locked on him. “Am I a genius or what?” he preened.

“Tones, could you move away from the recently mind-fucked magical alien prince?” Rhodey asked in exasperation.

Tony pouted but he did back up to give Loki a bit more breathing room. The mage propped himself up on his elbow and grimaced as he held his head in the other.

“What?” he muttered.

“Welcome back to the land of the mentally free,” Tony chirped. “A little surge of arc reactor energy knocked that mind control lose nice and quick. Gonna bet it left a headache though huh? Barton said he had a headache after his head was cleared. Do you want Tylenol? Does Tylenol even do anything for Asgardians? Or wait, you’re not Asgardian right? Uh, does Tylenol do anything for Jotuns? Wait, is our medication possibly poisonous to aliens? Don’t end up in the hospital anytime soon Rock of Ages. They’re needle happy vampires.”

Loki just kind of stared at Tony in bewilderment and Rhodey sighed, moving into the prince’s line of sight and covering Tony’s mouth with his hand.

“Sorry about that Prince Loki, Tony gets over-eager when learning new things,” he said diplomatically. “When we learned that you were being mind-controlled as well, we came up with this plan to free you. I do apologise for any discomfort the method caused. We didn’t have much time to find a different solution.”

Tony tugged Rhodey’s hand down. “This is why you’re the diplomat.”

“You’re a businessman and taught me half the stuff I know about diplomacy. You’re just a little shit and choose not to use it.”

Tony smiled sunnily up at him in response.

They looked back as Loki sat up properly, schooling his expression from confused shock to blankness.

“It seems I owe you a debt for freeing me,” he stated formally, glancing at the shattered sceptre in confusion.

Tony waved him off though. “No one deserves to get their mind fucked with. No debt. We’ll deal with the whole clearing you thing as soon as we stop the portal from being opened on my roof.”

“Sir?” JARVIS broke in. “It appears that the arc reactor surge had the unfortunate result of speeding up the opening of the portal. It is currently opening above the Tower.”

Tony and Rhodey exchanged alarmed looks and Tony scrambled to his feet.

“Shit! JARVIS, suits! Let the others know what happened! Get in touch with the police and start coordinating civilian evacuation.”

Loki suddenly stepped in front of him. “Under someone else’s control or not, I am still to blame for the threat to your planet,” he told them seriously. “Allow me to assist in closing the portal. I have some information on how it works, though not much.”

Tony thought about it for a moment, taking in the lack of that maniacal light that had been in Loki’s eyes before.

“Sure,” he agreed. “I broke your glowstick of power though.”

Loki lifted a hand and a dagger appeared in it. “It was not mine,” he glanced at the sceptre again, this time in distaste. “I do not need anything to channel my magic.”

Tony shrugged. “You do you. Now, let’s go deal with that portal issue. I just built this damn Tower! I don't want it broken already!”

Chapter Text

The battle was both a case of déjà vu and also a very different experience.

The portal opened and the Chitauri came pouring out onto the panicking inhabitants of New York. The Avengers and SHIELD arrived, jumping straight into the battle.

For a moment, Tony thought it was a flashback to that first time that the Avengers came together. Their first, and best, battle.

Rogers let his shield fly and yelled out orders. Romanoff flipped her way from one enemy to the next. Barton found a high-up place and shot everything he could see. The Hulk tore through the aliens with a roar. Thor flew through the air throwing his lightning and hammer around.

And then Tony was jolted from his thoughts by the sight of Rhodey blocking an attack from one of the flying invaders, War Machine not fitting with the scene and yet feeling like he should have been there all along.

Green light caught his attention out of the corner of his eye and he watched Loki grabbing one of the leviathans in his magic and sending it crashing into another close by.

“Sir?” JARVIS murmured worriedly.

Tony took a deep breath.

“Let’s do it,” he called across the communications.

He threw himself back into the fight, ignoring the complaints and arguments over Loki’s presence. He ignored Rhodey yelling at Thor and ordering him to focus on the fight and not his brother. He ignored the portal high above him and what he knew was just beyond it.

He wondered if Thanos was watching? Or if it was the Squidward-looking alien that was in charge?

He shook the thoughts off and just focused on the fight, on taking out the aliens, on protecting the civilians.

Time rushed by in a blur.

He took out enemies with Rogers by reflecting his repulsor beams off his shield. He covered Romanoff’s back. He caught Barton and carried him to a new perch when the building he stood on collapsed. He got Thor to charge up his armour so he could cut through the leviathan more effectively. He teamed up with the Hulk and cheered on his smashing.

He fought back to back with Rhodey as their lasers cut aliens to pieces.

He joined Loki in stopping a building from collapsing, holding it up as the mage stabilised it in the middle of battle.

He closed his eyes when Fury contacted him about the nuke, when Romanoff said that she could close the portal.

“Sir,” JARVIS sounded scared.

“Wait,” Tony called, already pivoting in the air and going for the missile. “We’ve got a nuke incoming.”

JARVIS was silent.

“And I know just where to put it.” He got a hold of the weapon.

“Tony!” Rhodey sounded stricken. “Don’t you fucking dare!”

“That’s a one-way trip,” Rogers pointed out.

“I know,” Tony murmured.

He ignored the man, understanding now that he didn’t care if Tony died. He was expendable in the man's eyes. Anyone who wasn't his friend was. Romanoff didn’t say anything, why should she worry if the man she looked down on was about to die? Thor probably didn’t understand what was going on.

The others weren’t quite as quiet.

“Tony!” Rhodey yelled again.

“What are you doing?!” Barton demanded.

The Hulk let out a roar as Tony angled up and towards the portal.

“What is he thinking?!” he heard Loki say, echoed back through Rhodey’s earpiece.

“Sorry guys,” Tony murmured, his vision washing out with green.

Fixed points in time. Of fucking course.

“You better fucking come back!” Rhodey screamed down the comm as it started to crackle.

Tony’s breathing hitched as he approached the portal, seeing stars beyond it. His heart clenched and flashbacks merged with his present.

“Hey Rhodey, do me a favour. Tell Pep I’m sorry,” the words slipped out before he could stop it. “Wanted to ask her out when I saw her next.”

“Tony!”

The voices cut out when he crossed through the blue ring in the sky and he was caught in the grip of space. Gritting his teeth, he made sure to send the nuke flying for the biggest fucking ship he could.

Then the power cut in the suit and he was drifting, just watching it fly away from him.

What if he didn’t fall back down this time? It was a miracle the first time.

Miracles didn’t come around all the time.

A soft voice chuckled in his head when his eyes closed as the nuke exploded.

“You will not die due to my power Tony Stark,” the Space Stone whispered in his mind, the arc reactor suddenly shining brightly in the darkness of space. “Not if I can help it.”

He felt a tug in his chest and then he was passing back through the portal as it closed, sealing the explosion on the other side.

He was free-falling, the suit still dead weight, not built for space even with the upgrades he’d made to it.

“We sent you back Tony Stark. But we do not expect you to do the impossible without help. You never wished for our power. And so, we will give it to you willingly. You only need to ask.”

He heard the Hulk roar again and passed out, blue and yellow light mingling across his vision the last thing he saw.


He woke with a gasp, the Hulk’s roar loud in his ears and a panicked Rhodey hovering above him. The panic quickly gave way to relief.

“Thank fuck,” Rhodey whispered, dragging Tony up into a hug, suit and all.

The Iron Man armour was rapidly coming back online, arc reactor shining brightly in his chest again.

“You’re insane,” Loki’s voice came from his left.

He turned his head slightly to look at the shocked prince.

“Never claimed to be sane,” he pointed out cheekily. The panic and fear from that trip and his memories were fading slowly with Rhodey anchoring him to the present.

Safe, calm, brilliant Rhodey.

JARVIS was talking in his ear, further calming him down, reciting his vitals out loud to all those around them.

The Hulk paced around them in agitation.

“I’m okay Big Guy,” Tony assured the Hulk.

That only got angry green eyes turned to him. “Tin Man more careful,” he growled.

Tony let out a laugh. “I’ll try,” he promised. Then he got a hard flick to his head from Rhodey. “Ow!”

“That’s for giving me a heart attack you little shit,” Rhodey grumbled.

Rapid footsteps alerted them to Barton’s arrival. He looked pale but relieved to see that Tony was okay.

“That was insane!” he told the genius. “You could have died!”

“So could you ‘Mr. The Building Is Collapsing So Let’s Just Jump’,” Tony sniped back.

Rhodey let out a huff of laughter and ruffled Tony’s hair.

“Don’t do that again,” he ordered.

“There wasn’t another choice Honeybear,” Tony said softly. “The WSC sent in a nuke. That had to go somewhere.”

Rhodey’s eyes narrowed while Barton stiffened.

“The WSC?” he hissed.

Tony nodded. “Fury told me about it.”

“Those fuckers,” Rhodey hissed.

They were interrupted when the others arrived. Thor landed nearby and Rogers and Romanoff came running up. They ran a cursory glance over Tony before dismissing him after realising that he was still alive and not actively dying.

Thor took a step towards Loki. Romanoff focused on Barton while Rogers looked about to launch into a lecture over… something.

Tony didn’t even have to do anything.

The Hulk growled and yanked Loki backwards to land harshly beside him, causing the prince to let out a surprised yelp. Meanwhile the Hulk glared down Thor.

“Tin Man like Green God. Puny God no touch.”

Loki blinked in bewilderment and Tony looped an arm around his shoulders, now free from the damaged armour.

“Big Green is protective. Seems he likes you,” he declared, positively delighted with this.

“Stark!” Rogers yelled. Because naturally it was his fault.

Rhodey spun around, eyes blazing. “Back the fuck off Rogers!” he barked. “Tony just saved all of our asses, almost dying in the process!”

“He’s fine,” Rogers dismissed.

Rhodey’s temper ignited. “His heart fucking stopped!” he yelled. “The only reason we got him back is the failsafe he built into the arc reactor to restart it if it stops beating.”

Rogers went white as a sheet while Barton looked like his worry had reignited as well.

“Now I’ve had enough of your insubordinate behaviour!” Rhodey’s tone was sharp and angry. “Captain America or not, you are a Captain. I am a Colonel. Kick your ego down a few notches before I contact the military to call you in for disrespecting a superior officer.”

Rogers looked flabbergasted by the idea and Tony was on cloud nine at the reminder that his Rhodeybear outranked the good Captain.

“Clint,” Romanoff spoke softly, “Come on.” She was watching Loki carefully. “Let’s go.”

Barton frowned at her, glancing back at Loki before his expression hardened. “I told you that he was mind-controlled.”

Her eyes sharpened. “He still killed people and he has to answer for that.”

Tony’s jaw dropped. She didn’t… she wasn’t that dumb was she?

Barton took a step back like he’d been slapped. He let out a harsh laugh. “What, so you want to toss me in a cell too then?”

Her eyes widened but Barton was just building up steam.

“I killed people. I remember it. I did a lot of shitty stuff the last few days. Just like Loki. And like Loki I was being mind-controlled.”

“That’s different,” Rogers started, not quite looking at Rhodey anymore.

“How?!” Barton yelled. “Because I’m Natasha’s friend? Because I’m a good agent?”

Tony could see that Romanoff had realised her error. “I didn’t mean that Clint-”

“Then what did you mean?!” Barton yelled. “We’re the same Natasha! Neither of us could stop what we were doing! But because I’m your friend you’ll give me a pass but not Loki?”

He paced angrily away from them and came to stand next to Rhodey.

“Fuck you. Fuck you both,” he spat.

“How do you know you aren’t still under his control?” Rogers tried.

Tony snorted. “Not possible. The arc reactor energy cancels out the mind-control. He’s clean. You can’t talk your way out of this. You’ve got double standards and Legolas is just calling you out on it.”

Romanoff glared at him angrily and he met her gaze head-on. Rogers tried to play mediator but he was shit at it.

The Hulk was still effectively terrifying Thor into keeping a distance from Loki. Although he was looking confused over some of the stuff that was being said. Maybe he’d start to use that brain that Tony knew he had. Before it was too late for Loki…

Tony let out a sigh and clapped his hands, getting everyone’s attention.

“Alright, how about we move out of the street and into the Tower to have this conversation?” he suggested. “Less chances of being overheard.”

Rhodey nodded in agreement and Barton reluctantly backed down. Rogers and Romanoff looked unhappy but ultimately agreed.

Which was how they all ended up back in the penthouse, Tony on the couch to rest after Rhodey threatened him with Pepper if he didn’t.

Rogers and Romanoff stayed close to each other, the Tesseract still in the spy’s hands. That didn’t make Tony relax at all.

Rhodey was standing between Tony and them, protective as ever. Tony had dragged Loki down into a seat with him. The guy had been taking the whole mind-controlled thing remarkably well but, like Barton, they were good at compartmentalising. Tony was waiting for the shock to catch up and the inevitable breakdown.

Barton himself was pacing around, Thor was near the window and Bruce in the armchair, looking tired but unwilling to sleep until everything was resolved.

Tony leaned his head back against the couch when JARVIS announced that Fury and Coulson had arrived.

Here they go. He couldn’t wait until all this bullshit was over so that he could curl up in bed and sleep for three days straight.

For a moment no one said anything, just eyeing each other suspiciously. Thor was the one to break it.

“Why have you decided to protect my brother from his crimes?” Thor asked, making Loki tense up subtly beside Tony.

“Because he was being controlled like Barton,” Rhodey answered easily. “We’re not in the habit of blaming people for things they were coerced into doing.”

Thor’s expression went through a range of emotions before settling on pained. “Brother? Is this true?”

Loki refused to look at him, jaw clenched. Tony decided to speak up instead.

“His eyes were blue,” he said. “Now they’re green.”

Thor looked devastated now. “I-I did not realise,” he whispered.

“Of course not,” Loki scoffed. “You have always expected the worst of me.”

Thor made a wounded sound.

“I’ve already spoken to the military,” Rhodey added. “They’re working on releasing the news so that you’re cleared Loki.”

The prince’s eyes widened in shock at the words and Fury scowled at the fact that they went over SHIELD’s head in this.

“Next step for both you and Birdbrain is to get therapy,” Tony added. “It’s not fun but it helps.”

His own therapist had been helping a lot with his own mental state. She was going to get a whole lot more work after the portal now since he only talked about the stuff that had happened in this timeline.

“SHIELD will take care of Agent Barton,” Fury dismissed his words.

Tony narrowed his eyes, remembering how the man had definitely NOT been okay even months after the invasion.

“Yeah, I’m still offering,” he decided, looking at Barton. “If you want to talk to someone, I know a good therapist. And I also know a neurosurgeon who can help me make sure that there’s nothing weird left in your head.”

Barton didn’t even look at the others. “Please,” he accepted immediately, a hint of desperation in his voice.

“Clint-” Romanoff started but the man cut her off.

“I don’t think-I think I need to take medical leave. Or retire. I’m not sure I can go back to SHIELD. I killed a lot of agents,” he sounded pained.

Shit had he been carrying this guilt around the last time? What did SHIELD say to make him stay?

Did it have anything to do with his family?

“You’re a good guy,” Tony decided. “You had a shit thing happen to you. So I’ll help you out with whatever you need. Even a job if you decide that you want to leave SHIELD.”

And hell, Tony would be delighted to get Clint out of that snake nest. He still needed to deal with HYDRA but one less talented agent under their control would always be a win.

“Stark!” Fury barked but Tony ignored him, holding eye contact with Clint until he nodded slightly, looking like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

“Thank you,” he murmured. “I don’t really have much outside of SHIELD.”

“Let’s talk about this Clint,” Romanoff tried again.

“No,” Clint shook his head. “I need… I need space from SHIELD. And help to deal with this. I don’t know if I’ll come back.”

“I understand,” Coulson spoke up, surprisingly. “You need to focus on yourself first Clint. I’ll put in your medical leave and prepare retirement papers if you decide to go that route.”

Barton let out a harsh breath and practically collapsed into the seat behind him.

Well, that was one thing dealt with.

“Loki will stay here,” Tony announced bluntly. “Until he’s cleared and decides what he wants to do.”

Thor frowned. “My brother needs to go back to Asgard.”

Tony turned to Loki who was staring at him in shock. “Do you want to go back to Asgard?”

Loki mutely shook his head. Tony kind of wanted to get him out of sight of everyone so he could have the breakdown he very clearly needed. Clint too.

“Then you don’t have to. Asgard has zero authority here. I’ll get your stay nice and legal in a few days.”

“Stark,” Fury growled.

“SHIELD’s got no authority over you either. They actually don’t have much authority at all. They get away with everything by scaring everyone into doing what they want and hiding in the shadows.” He met Fury’s eyes. “They lose all that power if someone decides to shine a light on their existence and if they happen to have proof of a lot of their illegal dealings. Like, say, firing a nuke at New York.”

Fury glared at him although he looked a little paler. “That wasn’t us.”

“No, it was the people in charge of you. Which makes me even more worried. Since why does SHIELD have nukes in the first place?”

“That, is something we’ll be investigating,” Rhodey promised, glaring darkly at Fury. “You’re not getting Loki Fury. You’re not forcing Barton anywhere. And you’re also not walking out with the Tesseract after we found out that you’ve been building weapons with it. You clearly can’t be trusted.”

“You don’t have the authority,” Fury argued.

“One phone call. One phone call is all it takes. ‘SHIELD has gone rogue, they fired a nuke at New York and they’re creating weapons of mass destruction with an alien artifact.’” Rhodey didn’t waver despite the tension in the room. “You’ll have the entire country turning against you. The entire world even. You’ll be finished.”

Rogers stared at them all in confused anger but Rhodey’s lecture seemed to have shut him up for a bit. Romanoff and Fury at least, seemed to understand how easily Rhodey could destroy them.

Coulson, interestingly enough, was looking thoughtful.

“And I assume you want us to hand it over to you?” Fury bit out.

“Give it to Thor,” Tony interrupted. “They’re more experienced with dealing with these things in Asgard I bet.” He could feel the Space Stone’s approval of this idea and it was still weird. “The Tesseract brought that invasion to our door. So send it somewhere else.”

For now. Tony kind of wanted to avoid the destruction of Asgard in the long run.

The room was silent for a moment before Thor nodded slowly. “I will take the Tesseract and… and leave Loki in your protection Man of Iron.”

Tony met his gaze and kind of felt like Thor didn’t have the right to be threatening on Loki’s behalf. The sneer on Loki’s face made him think that the mage felt the same way.

Tony nodded anyway. They needed the Infinity Stones separated. No one but Loki knew about the Mind Stone so he could hide that away no problem. They all knew about the Tesseract though and unless he could find a sneaky way to smash it, he’d need to be content with getting it off world and away from the Time Stone for now. They would have the Reality Stone hanging around soon after all.

Rogers, Romanoff and Fury were clearly unhappy with this arrangement but they didn’t fight as Thor took the cube, a deeply thoughtful look on his face. Tony wondered if there was any hope for the brothers’ relationship. From what he’d gathered, they had fixed it in the original timeline.

Just… much too late.

“Sir,” JARVIS spoke up into the tense silence as Tony tried to think of a way to get rid of his annoying guests. “Incoming.”

Tony’s eyes widened. “Shit,” he whispered while Rhodey just smirked.

The elevator dinged and Pepper Potts marched into the penthouse.

“Anthony Edward Stark!” she shouted, ignoring everyone in the room to focus her red-rimmed eyes on the genius. “What the hell were you thinking?!”

“There wasn’t another option!” Tony yelped, scrambling to his feet. He suddenly had an armful of Pepper and his heart ached. He’d missed hugging her like this.

“Don’t you ever do that again you idiot,” she hissed, pressing her face into his shoulder. His shirt was growing damp and she was shaking.

She was crying.

The realisation made him wrap his arms around her and murmur softly. “I’m fine, I’m alive, I’m okay,” anything to calm her down.

“I’ll be the judge of ‘fine’,” Stephen snapped as he stalked into the room as well. “You went through a fucking portal into space. You are going to sit down and shut up while I check you over.”

Tony yelped as Pepper pulled back only to shove him back down into his seat, wiping her eyes subtly.

The genius held up his hands in surrender. What was Stephen doing here? His confusion only doubled when Helen Cho strode in after the neurosurgeon, glare daring him to argue with them.

He was a genius thanks. He wasn’t dumb enough to do that.

It was only minutes later that the elevator dinged again and Jane and Darcy practically fell out into the penthouse.”

“Tony!”

“Bruce!”

“Are you okay?”

“We saw the news.”

“We were on our way to visit when everything happened.”

The women talked over each other as they hurried in, also ignoring SHIELD. After checking that Tony was indeed alive and being checked over by trusted doctors, Jane turned and threw herself on top of Bruce who let out a squeak of surprise.

“I was so worried!” she hugged him tight.

He blushed all the way to the tips of his ears and stammered incoherently. That stopped when Jane pulled back and kissed him hard.

“About time,” Rhodey muttered while Tony wolf-whistled.

Pepper finally looked around the room and her eyes narrowed on the SHIELD agents. “Alright,” she stated loudly. “The rest of you can leave,” she announced.

“Loki and Birdbrain are staying,” Tony called from where he was being attacked by doctors.

Pepper didn’t even miss a beat and just nodded sharply.

“Ma’am-” Rogers tried but Pepper had no patience for any of them.

“Out,” she pointed at the elevator. “My friend needs medical attention and I don’t trust any of you an inch. Get out before I call security to throw you out.”

Thor reluctantly left first, glancing back at Loki forlornly. Fury and Romanoff slowly left as well, glaring at Tony as they did. Rogers hesitated, hands clenched tightly at his sides.

“Do I need to call security?” Pepper demanded, glaring him down.

After a tense moment, the man finally left as well. He’d probably only remained silent under the combined glares of both Rhodey and Pepper.

Tony felt the tension leave him as soon as they were gone, along with the adrenaline. “Rhodey? Could you take care of Loki and Barton? Don’t let them do what I do and bottle stuff up. I’m just gonna… have a panic attack quick.”

People started crying out in alarm but Tony got sucked down by his panic too quickly.

Thanos was coming. Thanos was coming and it was up to him to stop the crazy bastard. How did he do this? How the fuck did he stop that alien armada?

His breathing turned to gasps and his vision went as black as outer space.

The voices around him faded right along with his consciousness as he passed out.

Chapter Text

Tony came awake slowly, the familiar fiery ache in his chest reminding him of the abrupt panic attack he'd succumbed to.

Panic attacks with the arc reactor fucking hurt.

He quickly took note of how he was feeling overall.

Some bruises from the fight. His head was pounding and his chest felt like someone had lit a fire in the cavity.

Overall, not too bad.

He also slowly became aware that his head was in someone’s lap and gentle fingers were carding through his hair. It was so achingly familiar from those five years of peace before the time heist that Tony almost gave in to the urge to cry.

He opened his eyes and met Pepper’s worried gaze.

He missed his wife and daughter so fucking much.

“Tony?” her voice was gentle and drew the attention of the rest of the room. “Are you okay?”

Rhodey appeared above him as well and a quick glance around the room showed that Bruce, Loki and Barton were still here too. Happy had arrived at some point too.

Stephen and Helen probably had to head back to work and Jane and Darcy couldn’t stay for too long since they had Selvig to take care of.

This was actually pretty perfect for his plans since he couldn’t tell those four about the future yet.

“Just freaking out about the alien armada I saw past the portal,” Tony answered casually.

Everyone but Loki paled at those words.

“Have Barton and Loki had their own little freakouts?” Tony pushed forward before they could ask questions.

Rhodey pursed his lips at the blatant topic change but he nodded.

“After we assured them that a freakout after mind control was a perfectly reasonable reaction,” Pepper added, sharp eyes landing on the pair.

It was a little amusing how the two ducked their heads under the look.

“Freakouts are perfectly healthy,” Tony agreed. “It’s like vomit, better out than in.”

Pepper wrinkled her nose in disgust and Rhodey rolled his eyes.

They both helped Tony into a sitting position. He massaged his head for a moment before looking around at everyone. Rhodey, Pepper, Happy and Bruce were watching him in concern. Barton was slumped in a seat, clearly exhausted while Loki was tense and clearly uncomfortable.

“Been a shitty and kinda unbelievable day huh?” he asked conversationally.

His friends gave him a variety of ‘don’t joke about this’ glares but he pressed on.

“I’m about to make it worse.”

The glares turned to confused expressions.

“JARVIS? Have DUM-E bring that container up will you?” he requested.

“Of course Sir.”

JARVIS’ voice made Barton and Loki twitch but someone must have already explained about him since they didn’t look too freaked out.

“Tony?” Rhodey asked.

The inventor shook his head though. “The portal closed with no problem?” he asked instead.

Rhodey was frowning deeply now. “Yeah Tony. The mini-arc reactor stuck on the broken sceptre worked like a charm.”

A fraction of the tension coiled through his body eased at that. It had been an on-the-spot solution when the portal opened and they didn’t have the complete sceptre to close it. Tony had been sure it would work and Loki had agreed that it should.

But he’d still been a little worried.

Breaking the sceptre had been a pretty big change, a risky decision.

Now he was being faced with another.

“JARVIS?” Tony asked, unsure how to phrase the question. But his AI was one step ahead of him like usual.

“From my calculations, it appears to be for the best to include Agent Barton and Prince Loki in this conversation Sir. They could be valuable allies.”

That prompted more confused looks but DUM-E arrived before they could ask anything. The bot beeped happily as he rolled over to Tony, container secure in his claw.

Tony patted him in thanks as he accepted the unassuming cube.

“Tony?” he looked at Pepper. “What’s going on?”

The genius took a deep breath. “This whole thing was pretty unbelievable huh? Alien invasion, Norse gods being real, mind control, physics breaking manifestations of rage." He kept his eyes on the grey metal in his hands. “I’m about to say something that beats everything you’ve seen so far.”

Silence fell but he had everyone’s attention.

“Listen, the people I trust the most are in this room. Pep, Rhodey, Hap, Brucie, I’ve wanted to tell you this for ages now. But I needed to wait for something spectacularly unbelievable to happen first or you’d never believe me.” He looked up at them, taking note of their worried expressions. Then he looked at Barton and Loki. “Didn’t expect you two to be here for the talk but JARVIS is right and… I think you both have a right to know since you’re both going to be heavily affected.”

He placed the cube down on the table. “First though. Is this.”

He tapped the metal, letting it read his fingerprint as well as his DNA. The lid retracted, revealing the glowing yellow gem resting inside.

Loki inhaled sharply, drawing everyone’s attention. “I wondered where it went when you broke the sceptre.” Sharp, piercing green eyes settled on Tony. “You know what it is. You have to, to have discovered a way to block its signature.”

Tony nodded, understanding Loki’s uncomfortable reaction to the sight of the Stone. “I know it’s the Mind Stone. I know it’s what was used to control you and Barton.”

Barton jerked and stared at the Stone with wide eyes.

“I also knew I couldn’t let SHIELD get their hands on it. And sending two Infinity Stones to Asgard is just painting more of a target on that place than it’s already got.”

Loki’s eyes widened a fraction. “You also know of the Space Stone.”

“In the Tesseract? Yeah. Couldn’t really break that one without a lot of people asking questions though,” Tony shrugged. “I’ve got a container ready for it too though.”

“How? How do you know about the Infinity Stones?” Loki demanded.

Tony gave him a pained smile which only seemed to confuse him and worry everyone else. “Now, that’s the question of the day, isn’t it?”

His eyes flicked down to the Mind Stone. “Isn’t that right, you menace?”

There was a moment where everyone’s confusion just rose before Mind’s voice was projected into everyone’s head.

“To be fair, it was Space and Soul who came up with the idea,” Mind argued.

Everyone jerked in shock and Loki froze completely, staring at the Stone.

Tony scoffed, leaning back in his chair. He was a bit relieved the Stone decided to play along. It made it easier to explain with something to back him up.

“What?” Rhodey breathed.

Tony waved a hand at the Stone. “Meet Mind, who has been a pain in my ass for longer than you can believe.”

“None of which was my fault,” Mind maintained with a huff.

“Yeah, yeah, blame Thanos. I got it,” Tony muttered, noting how Loki jerked at the name.

He took a deep breath. “Okay, so storytime.” Tony clapped his hands, shuddering as a touch to his mind from the Stone had his headache disappearing. He shot it a glare but stood up and started walking, unable to sit still for this. “So Thanos is this a giant purple raisin who supports the idea of culling populations. Only he’s pretty ambitious and wants to wipe out half of life in the universe since he thinks that will save planets from experiencing the problems overpopulation caused for his homeworld. His people wiped themselves out and he’s now set on this path. Crazy and with a saviour complex. Not a good combination since he’s also got a fanatical army backing him.”

Tony took a deep breath to squash down the panic the memories of that army gave him.

“Not to mention a slave driver,” Mind piped up and Tony sighed. This Stone was never going to shut up was it?

“So to accomplish this goal, he wants to gather the six Infinity Stones,” Tony continued. “Six super powerful Stones that control the aspects of the universe. Thanos already had the Mind Stone, which he’s now lost. The Space Stone is in the Tesseract. The Time Stone is on Earth.” He ignored Loki’s sharp look at that knowledge. “The Reality Stone is somewhere that’s got something to do with Dark Elves or something.”

“Reality prefers to be called the Aether actually,” Mind corrected and Tony rubbed his face.

“I am going to throw you out the window you smug pebble,” he muttered.

“No you won’t,” Mind sounded both smug and delighted. “This is why we like you. No one else has ever called me a pebble before.”

Tony groaned. “You are going to be a nightmare.” He shook his head and jumped back into the explanation, carefully not looking at anyone. He did catch Loki staring at the Stone with a perplexed expression though. “Anyway, the Power Stone is out in space somewhere. And the Soul Stone is safe for the moment.”

Loki’s eyes widened at the implication that Tony knew where the Soul Stone was.

“So Thanos wanted to gather these Stones and snap half of the universe away. Because they’re powerful enough to do that.” Which was still a thought that gave him regular nightmares.

He spun around to face everyone, processing their expressions quickly. His friends looked torn between confusion and horror, unbelievably believing what he was saying. Barton looked like he was going to be sick and Loki’s expression was carefully blank.

“The problem, naturally, is that he accomplished this. Seven years from now.”

There were sharp inhales but Tony’s attention was drawn to Mind who suddenly glowed brightly. What looked like a projection flickered to life above it, tinged with yellow.

Tony watched Thanos facing off against Iron Man, bile rising in his throat at the memory clearly displayed for everyone to see.

“You could have given me a warning you yellow bastard,” he croaked as the image vanished.

“Time travel,” Loki suddenly whispered, staring at Tony in shock. “You time-travelled. That’s how you know this.”

“Technically, I time-travelled twice,” Tony forced a grin. “The first time five years after he snapped half of life away. He destroyed the Infinity Stones so we couldn’t undo it, so we borrowed Stones from the multiverse.”

Both Bruce and Rhodey choked at the casual confirmation of the multiverse theory.

“We managed to get everyone back and beat Thanos that time but…” He looked away. “The Stones needed to be returned to their worlds and without them, our world was coming apart at the seams.”

“Not to mention you died, sacrificing yourself to stop him,” Mind added dryly.

Tony flinched at the predictable gasps of horror from his friends. Bruce was looking a little green.

“Yeah, well, there wasn’t another option,” Tony muttered.

“Tony,” Pepper whispered in a pained voice and he winced again.

He cleared his throat. “But yeah, not the best-case scenario. The Stones weren’t too pleased when they saw the state of the universe and I’m pretty sure they all share the same consciousness across universes.”

“Smart little human,” Mind practically purred and Tony pointedly ignored it.

“So they offered to send me back in time.”

“Soul time travel this time, no pesky multiverses.”

“Long story short, I accepted and, here I am. Kind of blindly trying to make things a bit better.”

“So modest,” Mind chuckled. “You’ve already made quite the changes. You’ve distanced yourself from that meddling organisation that claims to protect your planet. You’ve found more trustworthy allies. You improved on your choices and actions in the time leading up to the invasion. And all while skilfully avoiding fixed points.”

“Fixed points?” Bruce asked faintly.

“Some things can’t be changed,” Tony admitted. “Some things are always going to happen, no matter what I do.” He looked away. “The Hulk was one of them. I couldn’t change anything there. But I could offer you safety after it all happened.”

Bruce’s eyes were wide. “You… you knew the Hulk would happen and you still befriended me?”

Tony gave him an odd look. “Of course. I told you, I like Green Bean. He was my favourite of the Avengers the last time around.”

“Wait wait,” Rhodey broke into the conversation. “So, you’re telling us that some mystical, all-powerful Stones sent you back in time because some crazy genocidal alien won in the future and you died fixing what he did?”

Tony nodded. That pretty much summed it up.

“Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Because I know it sounds unbelievable. And an alien invasion is just crazy enough that you might believe me afterwards,” Tony answered honestly.

Pepper’s eyes narrowed. “How long?” she asked. “When did you go back to?”

Tony looked away and closed his eyes. “Afghanistan.”

There was a flurry of movement and suddenly Pepper was hugging him. “You had to go through that twice?!” she choked out, clinging to him.

Tony automatically hugged her back, looking up at Rhodey over her shoulder. His best friend looked stricken by the information.

Tony thought back to Morgan, Peter and Harley, and all the good he could do if he managed to get this right.

“It was worth it,” he whispered.

Pepper choked on a sob and hugged him tighter.

“Tony,” Rhodey whispered. “You didn’t have to do this alone.”

“I had JARVIS,” Tony hurried to assure him. “I told him early on and he’s been helping a lot.”

Movement from Barton made Tony look over to find the man staring at him in shock. “That’s why you were always five steps ahead of SHIELD,” he realised.

Tony gave a small shrug. “Their methods didn’t really change no matter my choices. They were easy to predict.”

Pepper finally pulled back, red-rimmed eyes searching his face. “Are you okay?” she demanded. “You went through… that, again. Then all the other stuff, this invasion, you’ve done it before?”

Tony tried to force a smile. “The portal wasn’t any easier if that’s what you’re asking.”

Loki stared at him in disbelief while the others were starting to look even more horrified. “You knew about everything and yet you still chose the same action, knowing it affected you so badly?”

Tony shrugged again. “Didn’t have another choice.”

“You could have flown away.”

“That’s not an option Reindeer Games. That’s never an option. Not to me.”

“What have you changed?” Happy managed to ask. “What’s happened that you changed and that you couldn’t?”

Tony let Pepper drag him over to the couch again and sat down next to her, letting her squeeze his hand tightly.

“Well, the whole terrorist thing happened the same way. Yinsen… Yinsen’s death was a fixed point,” he swallowed hard at the memory. “I was a hell of a lot more paranoid last time though and I… screwed up a lot when I got home. I shut out the military, didn’t warn anyone that I was shutting down weapon’s production and… I didn’t know Stane was the leak. So I listened to his advice and lay low, letting him convince the board to lock me out.”

A furious light was burning in Pepper’s eyes at the idea of Stane close to Tony again.

“I scared the shit out of Pepper with the arc reactor change, got into a fight with Rhodey because I didn’t warn anyone and the military was breathing down his neck. Oh and almost got killed by Stane. Twice.”

“What?!” Several voices yelled at the same time.

Tony squeezed Pepper’s hand comfortingly. “It wasn’t that bad,” he tried to tell her.

Then that little shit of a Mind Stone went and showed the entire room both the memory of Stane ripping the arc reactor out and the fight with Iron Monger.

Tony’s eyes twitched. “You little-”

He was interrupted as Rhodey jumped to his feet and started swearing and cursing Stane while Pepper glomped on him in a fearful hug again.

It took a while to calm them down and explain the end with Iron Man being revealed and SHIELD’s influence. Not to mention Fury breaking into his house and messing with JARVIS.

Barton was scrubbing a hand down his face. “And that was their foot in the door,” he whispered.

Tony launched into a quick explanation of how things went in the last timeline. The absence of the think tank, how the whole Hulk aftermath went down, how Jane was a lot closer to Thor (which made Bruce go slightly green again and Loki wrinkle his nose in disgust). He reluctantly explained the differences during the time he was dying, not leaving anything out for fear that Mind would just show them instead.

Pepper and Rhodey looked pained at the mention of how they’d treated him during that whole debacle.

“Wait,” Pepper frowned at one point. “What do you mean you screwed up making me CEO ‘that way’?”

Tony’s eyes widened in panic as it clearly clicked for Rhodey.

“This have anything to do with you saying you were going to ask Pepper out the next time you saw her when you were going through the portal?” he asked dryly.

Dead to him. Rhodey was dead to him. Best friends don’t snitch!

Pepper’s eyes widened and Tony sighed, shifting to face her better.

“I asked you out. Multiple times actually. After Afghanistan. We got together and then I dumped the CEO thing on you unexpectedly without thinking about your reputation.”

Pepper stared at him, a blush gradually rising on her cheeks.

“We were dating?” she squeaked.

“Married in the future actually,” Mind chirped.

Chaos broke out.

Mostly Tony’s fault since he grabbed the Mind Stone and made for the window. Rhodey broke into hysterical laughter. Pepper turned as red as a tomato.

And Happy grudgingly handed money over to a smug-looking Bruce. Damn his friends for betting on his love life.

“Mortals are so much more interesting than I thought,” Loki mused as Barton dragged Tony and the Mind Stone away from the window.

“A menace. That’s what you are, a menace,” Tony hissed at the Stone.

“So you don’t want me to mention your daughter? Or the teenagers you emotionally adopted?” Mind asked innocently.

“Stay the fuck out of my head!”

“Daughter?!”

“Window again I assume?”

“No, this time I’m flushing you down the toilet.”

“How are you able to touch the Stone?” Loki broke in again, looking confused. “Mortals shouldn’t be able to touch the Stones without being harmed."

Everyone froze where Barton and Rhodey were both trying to drag Tony away from the bathroom and back to his seat.

Tony shrugged, looking at the Stone resting in his bare hand. He hadn’t thought about it.

“Because we chose him and our power will never harm him.” Mind explained simply, making Loki’s eyes practically bug out.

He didn’t comment further on it though, only eyeing Tony with a new light in his eyes.

“Okay okay,” Mind hurried to say when Tony made another move for the bathroom. “Truce?”

It projected another image, one that made Tony freeze to the spot.

Morgan was playing around the cabin, a beaming smile in place and Tony’s heart ached.

He couldn’t tear his eyes away, not even when Pepper came to stand next to him, staring at the image.

“Is she…”

“Morgan,” Tony croaked. “We named her after your crazy uncle.”

Pepper moved closer and Tony noticed tears sparkling in her eyes. “We got married. We had a daughter…” she breathed. “Then… why didn’t you… this time around?” she turned to face him with worried eyes.

“It wasn’t fair, or right.” He looked away. “I knew things about you. I knew what you liked, how to make you like me. Using that knowledge… when you didn’t know the whole story. It wasn’t right Pep. I promised myself that I wouldn’t do anything until I could tell you everything. Although I meant to tell you about the whole dating and married thing when we had a bit more privacy.”

He shot another glare down at the Stone. He knew it was completely unrepentant.

He was surprised out of his thoughts when Pepper linked their hands together and his head shot up.

She was smiling at him. “Thank you Tony. Most wouldn’t think twice about using an advantage like that. Thank you for respecting me enough not to.”

Tony flushed and ducked his head, looking at their linked hands with a bit of wonder.

Someone clearing their throat snapped them out of their moment and the image of Morgan vanished.

Tony had to bite back the urge to ask to see Peter and Harley. He’d see them in due time.

“We’ll talk about this later,” Pepper promised softly as they headed back to the couch.

Tony nodded before focusing back on the story. He explained about Natalie Rushman and how she stabbed him in the neck with a needle, about how Fury held information for a cure over his head, how Coulson kept him trapped in his house and threatened to tase him despite the magnet in his chest.

Barton-Clint, looked kind of pissed off at that. He was surprisingly very upset with how SHIELD had behaved in the last timeline.

He wrapped up that story with the fight at the Expo after he’d created the new element.

“That sounds… like it sucked,” Rhodey summed up.

“It did,” Tony admitted. “It went a lot better this time.

Then he explained the whole ‘Iron Man: Yes, Tony Stark: Not Recommended’ report and everyone exploded.

Rhodey and Pepper were cursing Romanoff and Fury both. Happy looked like he wanted to punch some people. Bruce excused himself to calm himself down before he hulked out over ‘that bullshit’ as he called it.

Even Clint was having a little meltdown. “She never even had training in psychology! Plus you were dying! From heavy metal poisoning!” he seethed.

Tony was admittedly pretty surprised.

“The spider is rather egotistical isn’t she?” Loki mused.

Tony watched them all, a little mystified as it took them ten minutes to calm down again.

“Ooookay,” he drew out the word in confusion. “Anyway, they got me to agree to be a consultant which was a nice way of saying I did whatever they wanted so I could join the team. I’m… not proud of how easily they managed to manipulate me,” he sighed.

“It’s not your fault,” Clint immediately argued. “You were basically being told by the organisation that your father and godmother created that you weren’t good enough for them. Fury knew what he was doing. Daddy issues suck.”

Tony stared at the archer in clear surprise and Clint's expression twisted.

“Don’t tell me I believed this shit…”

“Well, to be fair, I think you had lingering influence from the mind control and Romanoff took advantage of that. But it’s just a theory,” Tony admitted. “The mind control was a fixed point too. I couldn’t stop it but I could knock you out of it easier. Last time Romanoff literally hit you over the head, cognitive recalibration. The arc reactor is more thorough in clearing an Infinity Stone’s influence.”

“That’s because it’s based on the Space Stone.” Mind added.

Tony sighed and dropped the Stone back in the container to resist the urge to throw it out the window.

“How bad was I?” Clint asked, a sharp look in his eyes. “You’ve been surprised every time I’m nice to you. How bad was I?”

Tony looked away. “It hasn’t happened so it’s not important.”

“You were a condescending asshole who looked down on him because he was rich.”

“So help me you uppity little rock-” Tony growled but he was distracted by Clint again.

“I treated you like shit and you still helped me?” he asked in a pained voice.

Tony looked up in confusion. “Well yeah, no one deserves to have their mind messed with. It sucks.”

Loki’s eyes narrowed. “You speak like you have experience.”

Tony felt a shiver race down his spine as the memory of red magic came to mind. “It’s sorted. It won’t happen again,” he forced the words out of his mouth.

HYDRA wouldn’t get the Mind Stone. Maximoff wouldn’t get her powers. She wouldn’t get into his head again.

(Unless it was a fixed point and they found another way to give the witch her powers, Tony had theorised that it was a dormant mutant gene that allowed them to survive the experiments. What if they found another way to awaken that gene?)

“Tony?” Pepper rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder and he flinched, jolting back to the present.

“Sorry,” he shook his head. “Memories.”

For once Mind stayed quiet.

“I’ll… get to it. Just… the invasion is up next.” He jumped into explaining the differences before any of them could ask about his reaction.

Hearing about Rogers’ attitude just made them all angrier and angrier. Rhodey hadn’t been there to defend him last time. He skimmed through the explanation, how the Hulk had taken off, how Tony had been thrown out of the tower windows, how the fight went and the portal happened and no one noticed that Loki wasn’t himself. The prince didn’t seem surprised to hear that Thor hadn’t noticed.

“How did you know?” he asked at the end when Tony described Thor taking him off to Asgard with the Tesseract while SHIELD kept the sceptre.

“Thor told me,” Tony admitted. “When it was far too late.”

The prince seemed to understand what Tony meant by that, his eyes going dark.

“He told me about how Thanos had you for a year. I’m sorry you had to go through that,” Tony added.

Loki gave him a sharp nod. “Why did you go to such lengths to keep me on Earth?”

“Because you were innocent and I can hopefully help you save your mom.”

Loki went white at those words. “My mother?” his voice wavered.

“I’m not sure how much I can tell you guys about what happens next,” Tony rested his hands on his knees.

“Preferably not much,” Mind chipped in. “It’s better if they know the general events and you only tell them the specifics when they need to know.”

“But you deserve the chance to save your mom and to tell the All-Daddy to fuck off. You can join the Daddy Issues Club. There’s already three of us,” he finished.

Both Clint and Bruce raised a hand at that.

Loki swallowed. “You know nothing about me.”

“I know that you were dealt a shit hand. And you want to take Thanos down as much as the rest of us.”

Loki stared at him for a long moment before he nodded.

“What do we need to know for now then?” Rhodey asked, leaning forward.

Tony was suddenly hit by the realisation that none of them were demanding all the information. They were trusting Tony to tell them what they needed to know when they needed to know it.

That trust practically made him dizzy. The Avengers had never given him an inch of trust before after all.

“Uh, well first off we can’t tell Helen, Stephen, Jane or Darcy yet. There’s fixed points around them. Jane runs into the Reality Stone which is our chance to get it and hide it. Stephen has a run-in with the Time Stone and it requested that I pretty much leave him alone for his journey. He’ll come to us when he’s ready, which I took to mean that the Time Stone will give him this information too. Helen we can’t bring in until something either does or doesn’t happen. Depends on how things go.”

Everyone nodded in agreement, looking surprised that they have so many run-ins with the Stones on Earth.

“I’m going to get Loki’s stay on Earth nice and legal and when the Reality Stone stuff goes down, I’ll tell you what I know about your mom and Asgard Lokes.”

The prince was still pale but he nodded firmly.

“We’ve got some shit incoming for Iron Man soon. Pep, watch out for Aldrich Killian. Don’t give anything away, just be careful. Rhodey make sure no one gets their hands on the suit. They’re going to start trying really hard.”

He waited until he got nods from them before turning to Clint.

“I don’t know what you want to do now but I’ll cover for you if you want to head out to your family.” Clint startled at the fact that Tony knew about them. “Also we can offer any protection you guys need if SHIELD gets upset over your actions.”

“You think they would threaten my family?” Clint asked dubiously.

“They’re infested with HYDRA so yeah,” Tony answered blandly.

Clint went white while a few of the others exclaimed in shock.

“Working on a plan to deal with that whole situation in a less explosive way than what happened last time. But we’ve got time. Just wanted to warn you to be careful.”

Clint nodded, looking a hell of a lot more worried now. “Phil?”

“Is clean. He’s a good agent, just a bit too loyal to SHIELD. Fury’s not HYDRA and neither is Romanoff. They just don’t mind using the same methods.”

Clint clenched his jaw. “Can I use a phone?”

Tony tossed the archer his personal one. “Tower’s open if you want them close.”

Clint actually shot him a thankful look and walked out of the room to make his call.

A silence fell over the rest of them, Tony’s mind buzzing with everything he needed to do. Those thoughts stopped in their tracks when Pepper took his hand and pulled him off the couch.

“JARVIS, block Tony's and my calls for a while. Rhodey, keep an eye on things while we’re gone will you? Loki, you’re welcome to take one of the guestrooms while we work on things for you.”

She nodded at each of them and dragged Tony out of the room.

“Pep?” Tony asked worriedly.

“We’re going to talk. We might yell a little. We’ll probably cry a lot. And then I expect we’ll be kissing and making up for lost time. Okay?” she looked back at him, a smile playing around her lips.

Tony’s mouth went dry.

“Okay Pep. Whatever you say.”

He’d missed her. He’d missed her so badly.

Tony fell into step beside her, squeezing the hand in his. This conversation wouldn’t be easy. But it was worth it to get to hold her again.

It would always be worth it.

Chapter Text

Tony stirred when Pepper brushed the hair back from his face.

“Tony, it’s time to wake up,” she murmured, sounding fond.

With his eyes closed he could almost believe that she was really here, body pressed against him with his arms wrapped around her waist.

“Don’t want the dream to end yet,” he mumbled, fighting against the urge to wake up.

Waking up to an empty bed always hurt.

There was a beat of silence before her warm palm was cupping his cheek.

“Oh Tony,” she sounded sad. She wasn’t supposed to sound sad in his dreams. “This isn’t a dream.”

Reluctantly Tony cracked his eyes open, fully expecting the warm weight in his arms to disappear.

Instead he was met with Pepper's sad and concerned gaze.

Briefly he wondered if he'd lost it before he remembered the previous day.

They knew about the time travel.

They knew about the sentient stones.

Pepper… knew about them. And Morgan.

The talk between them had been emotional and there were tears involved on both ends. Tony had told her that he didn't expect a relationship just because it happened before. Even though saying the words tore at his heart. He wouldn't try and trap her like that. (No matter how much his heart ached for both her and Morgan.)

He'd assured her that he understood that being with him was difficult because of his PTSD and self-sacrificing tendencies.

Pepper shut him up pretty effectively by kissing him in the middle of his rambling.

She'd pulled back when Tony was sufficiently dazed so that he didn't argue when she cupped his cheeks and spoke.

"We'll figure it out. Because I want to be with you. I know we're in different places in regards to a relationship. You're… in love, and I've only started discovering my feelings. But I want to give us a chance. But for now, you're exhausted. So how about we sleep and figure things out in the morning hmm?"

They'd ended up curled together on Tony's bed, the genius dropping off into sleep immediately for once with her close again.

Tony blinked at Pepper's worried face for a moment before abruptly pulling her closer in a hug, burying his face in her shoulder to surround himself with her scent and warmth.

"Sorry," he whispered, both embarrassed but also unbelievably relieved that she was really here.

He felt her start to card her fingers through his messy hair.

"How often do you dream of it?" She asked quietly.

Tony debated playing dumb but in the end, Pepper deserved answers. Especially if she was going to try this relationship thing with him. He didn't want him not talking to cause issues like his denial of his PTSD did the first time around.

"Pretty often," he admitted.

"I'm sorry you've been dealing with this alone Tony," she whispered.

Because he had. JARVIS was great but he couldn't help with how much Tony just missed certain people. How he'd missed Pepper even though she was right there. How he missed Morgan, Peter and even Harley.

He was determined to be around for both those teens this time around. He'd let his own issues with being seen as a father (as Howard) get in the way of getting too close to them.

Not this time.

Now he'd been a father for five years. And he knew he wouldn't fuck it up.

Tony briefly held her tighter before reluctantly letting go. His wife was used to his clinging after a dream would leave him shaken.

Pepper was still relatively new to it now besides being there for his nightmares after Afghanistan. 

Pepper didn't let him get far though, instead shifting them so that she was sitting up with Tony's head in her lap, still running her fingers through his hair gently.

"Tell me about us? About our daughter?" She asked softly.

Tony was very bad at denying the people he loved what they asked for. So he did.


By the time they left the bedroom Tony was feeling both emotionally wrung out and more settled. Pepper kept a light hold on his hand which definitely helped to anchor him.

As they strolled into the kitchen for breakfast they found the rest of the tower's inhabitants already present.

Bruce was sipping on tea while Rhodey was cooking pancakes. Barton looked like he hadn't slept much and Loki seemed twitchy.

Bruce handed over a cup of coffee to Tony and the genius smacked an obnoxious kiss to his cheek in thanks before downing the drink.

"Damn Stark," Barton whistled. "That was still piping hot."

"I'm immune, years of practice." Tony shrugged and headed for the coffee maker for cup number two.

"More like you killed the nerves in your mouth," Rhodey snorted.

Loki scrunched his nose up in disgust as the delicious aroma filled the air.

"Not a coffee fan?" Tony asked him. "You do seem more like a tea drinker though."

He handed Pepper a coffee, not realising that he was falling back on old habits from the first timeline until she looked at him in surprise before accepting the cup. 

A small smile curled her lips when she took a sip and realised it was exactly how she preferred, more milk than coffee.

Rhodey glanced between them but didn't say anything, instead dishing up the pancakes for everyone.

"How are you feeling?" Bruce asked Tony in concern.

"Aside from general soreness and some bruises I'm fine Brucie," Tony reassured him. "So what are we all up to today?"

"Well I'm going to stir up shit with the military so that SHIELD doesn't get away with that nuke," Rhodey declared, a determined light in his eyes.

"I'll be working on relief efforts to repair the damage done to the city and then I'll get PR on Prince Loki's situation," Pepper informed them, tablet already in hand.

A flicker of surprise lit in Loki's eyes at the respectful tone.

"If you don't mind Tony, I'd like to get a look at the energy readings from that, uh, Mind Stone? And a look at one of the containment boxes you designed. Perhaps I can help hide the energy more effectively?" Bruce offered.

"Sure Brucie, I was going to ask. It's more your field than mine," Tony agreed easily. "JARVIS can provide you with the files."

Tony looked to Barto-Clint and Loki next.

Clint looked a little anxious. "I was wondering if I could take you up on your offer to bring my family here?" He asked.

"Sure Legolas, I wouldn't make the offer unless I meant it."

The archer gave him a relieved smile in thanks.

Tony flicked a curious glance at Loki, neither expectant nor demanding, just curious.

It took a moment but Loki eventually relented. "I was going to research your realm if I can gain access to the information," he tentatively requested. 

"JARVIS can get you any information you need," Tony assured him. He paused for a moment. "You're not a prisoner here Loki. For the moment it's better, safer, if you stay in the tower. But you don't need to walk on eggshells around us." He debated with himself before continuing. "I know how Thor can get. And we're not like him."

At the Prince's curious look, Tony elaborated. 

"He called me a friend but he didn't hesitate to choke me when I did something that made him mad," he shrugged.

The reactions to that statement were predictable. Pepper stilled, Rhodey stiffened and Bruce went a bit green. Clint's eyes widened in shock.

Tony kept his gaze on Loki though, trying to convey that he knew how it felt to be on the other end of Thor’s short temper.

The trickster gave him a slight nod in return. Tony knew he wasn’t likely to open up right away. He didn’t know Loki very well, only having heard stories from Thor. But he wasn’t inclined to believe everything the god of thunder said even if he got better near the end in the previous timeline.

Right now he was still too headstrong and admittedly arrogant to trust either.

He’d watch and see how Thor developed this time around and see if that king he’d heard about from Bruce and who had shattered under the murder of his brother and the deaths of most of his people would make an early appearance.


Living with Clint and Loki was certainly new. Tony was used to Pepper and her busy schedule. He was used to Rhodey in and out to meetings with the military. He was used to Bruce alternating between meditation and science. He was used to Happy doing his circuit of the tower’s security.

He recognised some of Barton’s habits. He wasn’t surprised by his tendency to travel or hide in the vents. He wasn’t surprised to run into him at night sometimes.

He was surprised by the fact that it only took Barton a few days to figure out that the vents were as large as they were because Tony was used to designing them that way in the previous timeline for him.

He was surprised when Clint thanked him for his thoughtfulness.

It made him wonder how much of Romanoff’s whispers had stuck purely because of the mind control remnants. Stephen had already figured out that the traces would go away on their own with a lot of exposure to arc reactor energy. Tony had jokingly given Clint an ‘arc reactor nightlight’ and even though Clint had acted appropriately over-the-top offended, he’d accepted it and Tony suspected it was actually in use. He didn’t ask JARVIS since he didn’t want to breach the archer’s privacy.

Then when his family arrived Tony was once again surprised when Clint introduced them to the genius instead of whisking them off. Laura had smiled and thanked him for his hospitality gratefully while Lila and Cooper had their noses glued to the window to stare at the view.

“I know it’s a big change,” Tony told them after showing them to their rooms. He’d given Clint and Loki their own floors mostly to give them both privacy. He certainly liked having his own floor with everyone out of the guest rooms again.

Privacy was important he’d found when you live in close quarters. Something he had learnt from the Compound. There was a reason he’d ended up hiding in his lab most of the time. When you only had one room that separated you from everyone else, the constant company could get on your nerves.

Pepper and Rhodey were different. Rhodey had been as good as his brother for years and Tony was used to sharing space with him.
And Pepper… well, he’d lived with her for years.

He still missed it.

But he’d been through one timeline with Rogers digging through his fridge and Romanoff sticking her nose into everything.

Privacy was sacred.

Lila and Cooper had run off excitedly to check out their rooms while Laura stared at everything in shock.

“You didn’t have to give us so much,” she looked worried.

Tony waved the concern off though. “Don’t worry. You’ll be glad for the space after a couple of weeks. Adjusting to being indoors all the time after living on a farm will be tough for the kids. Central Park isn’t too far from here though if they get too antsy. And there’s a common floor where everyone gathers together if you need to socialise.”

“Thank you Mr. Stark, we appreciate your help,” she told him, Clint nodding in agreement with his arm wrapped tightly about Laura’s waist.

Something in him had settled when his wife had arrived. Tony could relate. Pepper did the same for him.

“Please, it's just Tony.”

Having kids around was both a breath of fresh air and bittersweet. Tony liked kids, enjoyed their enthusiasm and energy.

But seeing Lila and Cooper just made him miss Morgan so much more. He asked JARVIS to check up on Harley and Peter just to ease the ache in his heart.

Loki was an entirely different story compared to Clint. He was a total unknown to Tony.

First off, Tony wasn’t completely surprised that Loki understood the necessity of staying inside while they sorted everything out unlike Maximoff during the Civil War. On top of that, the alien prince had taken it upon himself to not only learn the laws of the country but to also investigate his host.

Tony had almost choked on breakfast when Loki had casually mentioned that he was disappointed in the quality of the lies he saw about the genius in the tabloids.

Pepper had calmly agreed with him. She actually really liked the prince and the two could often be found talking about the progress Pepper had made with his case.

Loki admitted to Tony that Pepper reminded him a bit of his mother so that meant she naturally demanded respect.

Tony just nodded seriously. Of course Pepper deserved respect. She was Pepper!

Overall, it was taking a while to adjust to their new friends. But it was going far better than it had when the Avengers moved in in the first timeline.

Loki was polite and asked about something if he didn’t know (unlike Steve). He also didn’t break half of Tony’s electronics (unlike Thor). He didn’t even mind answering Tony’s questions about magic which had resulted in the mage being dragged down into the lab to run tests and scans. He seemed to be amused by Tony’s enthusiasm.

Clint was a lot more open this time around. Last time he’d barely left Romanoff’s side. Now he and Tony talked a lot. They boasted about pranks they’d pulled earlier in life, a conversation Loki tentatively joined in on.

Rhodey had loudly declared that he didn’t see this ending well. To which Tony promptly told stories about a bunch of Rhodey’s pranks as well.

Bruce and Pepper had watched the resulting scuffle with exasperated fondness.

Everything wasn’t smooth sailing of course. While Clint and Loki had bonded over the shared experience of being controlled, Clint still had nightmares about the whole thing and he couldn’t be around the prince for the rest of the day if he did. Loki seemed to still be going through some kind of existential crisis that none of them could help with (after all, he wasn’t just adopted, he was actually from an entirely different species from his ‘family’).

Clint ended up officially sending in his resignation from SHIELD which brought it's own headaches. Romanoff called him a lot and he was willing to talk to her, but he hung up whenever she tried to convince him that he was doing the wrong thing.

Coulson had stopped by to drop off Clint’s things, surprisingly free of bugs, and also took a moment to apologise to Tony for his and SHIELD’s behaviour in the past. He didn’t seem to be happy with how SHIELD was acting now. Tony wondered if that was because he was protective of Clint or if he’d had a wake-up call with the nuke.

Speaking of the nuke, SHIELD was in a hell of a lot of trouble with the military, the FBI, the CIA and the rest of the alphabet soup in the international community. The consequences of firing that nuke ended up being that SHIELD was exposed to the public who seemed very dubious about this secret organisation. There were multiple investigations going on at the moment and Tony wondered if HYDRA was panicking yet.

Someone had suggested taking both Clint and Loki into custody but Pepper had killed that suggestion stone dead in seconds, sweetly asking if that was the precedent they were going to set for mind control for future cases.

Since Tony had evidence of the influence on their minds, both were cleared. Something that earned both Pepper and Tony a tight hug from a tearful Laura.

It didn’t take too long before Fury was back to trying to get Tony onto their side. He tried playing to his ‘ego’. He tried playing to his ‘paranoia’ since SHIELD still didn’t believe him about the army on the other side of the portal. (The rest of the world wasn’t that stubborn so they took him seriously. The UN was already at work.)

Romanoff was back to trying to manipulate him. This time by seducing him. That got shut down with the most deadpan “I’m dating Pepper, got no desire to downgrade” that Tony could muster before hanging up.

They even got Rogers to call. Probably trying to play to Tony’s daddy issues. He’d called when Tony was in the common room with everyone else so they all got to listen to that disaster of a conversation.

“Howard would be so disappointed in you,” Tony could practically see the ‘Captain America disapproves’ face as Rogers said that. No hello, no nothing. Just straight into the bullshit.

Rhodey stiffened at the words and Pepper narrowed her eyes.

“Howard beat the shit out of me whenever something made him mad so I don’t give a shit about what he would think,” Tony responded easily.

Clint’s eyes flicked over to him, a wealth of understanding in his gaze even if he was surprised by the revelation.

“You shouldn’t talk about him like that!” Rogers had jumped straight into anger after Tony's words. That vein in his forehead was probably throbbing.

“Howard Stark was an abusive drunk toward both myself and my mother. Money talks though and no one could do anything about it. So I’ll talk how I want about the bastard that took my mother from me because he decided to drive drunk.” Tony knew that that wasn’t the truth anymore, but he still blamed Howard for his involvement in SHIELD being the thing that made Maria collateral damage.

“Listen here Rogers, did you just call to try and guilt me into helping SHIELD? Because it’s not going to work. SHIELD is a dangerously entitled organisation that thinks they can do whatever they want using whatever methods they choose. Also, why the fuck would I change my mind for you? You spent our first meeting insulting me despite barely knowing me. As far as I can tell, you’re a dick, plain and simple. I’ve got no interest in spending any more time with you. I’ve got no interest in getting to know you. First impressions and all that. Yours sucked. So goodbye.”

Before he could hang up, Rogers spoke again. “They were right about you not being a team player.”

Rhodey interrupted before Tony could speak. “Tony is a great team player Rogers. The problem is that he isn’t on yours. He’s on ours.”

A gesture from the colonel had JARVIS cut the connection and Tony grinned at Rhodey. “You really don’t like him.”

“He’s a dick,” Rhodey shrugged. “Now, who wants dinner? I vote for pizza.”

The kids cheered in agreement, Clint right along with them.

“What is pizza?” Loki asked.

“You poor deprived soul!” Tony grabbed the trickster and dragged him off to introduce him to the wonders of New York pizza.

This timeline was an adjustment.

But it was a good one.

Chapter Text

Tony sighed as he watched the news.

‘The Mandarin’ had started his shit.

The rest of the room turned to look at him.

“How are we going to approach this?” Rhodey asked.

Tony had been thinking about this for a while so he had a plan ready. “Pep, you need to give Killian the run-around. He’s going to be trying to get a meeting with you so do the polite ‘oh so busy CEO’ routine. Hap, put security on high alert. Strangers need to be thoroughly checked if they step foot into the lobby of any SI location. Spread the word that if they start glowing orange, they need to be treated like a bomb.”

Happy and Pepper both nodded.

“Rhodey, JARVIS is going to analyse the Mandarin’s videos and find him. You and the military need to focus on dismantling that farce and arresting that asshole actor.”

“What about you?” Rhodey asked.

“I was thinking that Clint and Lokes could do with a breath of fresh air. Maybe to a little town in Tennessee.” Tony looked towards the pair who looked a bit surprised to be included.

Clint grinned though. Tony knew he’d been itching to get out of the Tower but he was wary of SHIELD at the moment. Loki had mostly been staying inside because of the legal battle going on about him but Pepper had wrangled permission for him to leave as long as he was with Tony or Rhodey.

Both Clint and Loki nodded in agreement.

“Right, let’s see if we can wrap this up with minimal people explosions huh?” Tony clapped his hands together.


Tony looked around the quiet little town with nostalgia. He’d ended up here at a low point in his life. Harley had really helped him a lot.

He was amused as Clint was still staring at him incredulously.

“You look so… normal though!” the archer complained. “I didn’t even think you owned a baseball cap!”

Tony snickered. He was wearing his ‘I’m not Tony Stark’ look, ratty old jeans and a comfortable shirt with his messy hair covered by a baseball cap. Since it was cold he was wearing an old jacket as well. Without his sunglasses he usually got away with not being recognised despite his signature goatee.

“How do you think I’d go and get a hotdog from a street vender without being mobbed if I didn’t dress down now and then?” he asked.

Loki was just watching the both of them in amusement. Tony was so caught up in enjoying Clint’s reaction that he didn’t see the kid that ran right into him until they were both going down.

“…Ouch…” Tony complained, feeling the cold from the snow through his clothes.

His hat had gone flying and Clint hurried to pick it up, snickering at his current condition. Before he managed to shove the hat back on Tony’s head though, the kid sprawled across his chest gaped at him.

“You’re Tony Stark,” he accused, pushing himself upright using Tony’s chest.

The genius winced which prompted Loki to pick the kid up off of him. They were all aware of how his chest was a vulnerability because of the arc reactor. His rib cage was weaker than most.

“No shit Sherlock,” Tony scowled at the kid, ignoring as his vision tinted green.

Of course he was happy to meet Harley again. He was also not surprised in the least that this was how he met the little shit.

Harley flailed in the air until Loki set him down again while Clint helped Tony back to his feet, the genius rubbing his chest.

“What’s Tony Stark doing in this little town?” Harley asked suspiciously.

“Classified,” Tony answered, knowing exactly how much that answer would annoy the kid.

He was right as Harley puffed up with a glare.

Tony had missed the brat.

“There’s got to be a reason,” Harley whined. His eyes narrowed. “Does it have to do with that suicide bomber a while back?”

Clint glanced at Tony when the genius crouched down. “Now what do you know about that kid?”

“Everyone knows about what happened. He went crazy and blew himself up.”

Tony smirked. “Not exactly.”

And he had the kid’s complete interest.


Things were a hell of a lot easier this time around. Number one, he wasn’t alone with only a kid for backup. Number two, Loki and Clint were great at getting information from people.

And when the first person with Extremis showed up, well, they honestly didn’t stand a chance against Loki. He just threw up a barrier around them and the explosion was nicely contained.

“This was the coolest night of my life Mechanic,” Harley announced.

Tony had agreed to give the kid a piggyback ride home before they left. Rhodey had already dealt with the Mandarin and they were all headed to Killian as soon as Harley was home safe.

“I swear you’re a trouble magnet kid. How did you manage to literally run into two of the bad guys while we were just wandering around?”

“It takes skill,” Harley preened.

Tony huffed out a laugh and let the kid slide back to the ground when they arrived at his house.

“Well it’s been fun brat. We’ve got to go finish this now though.”

“Kick some ass,” Harley ordered, making Clint snort in amusement. “And then let me know how it went. You can’t just leave me not knowing! We’ve got a connection now Mechanic. You're not getting rid of me any time soon.”

Tony would deny how much his heart warmed at hearing those words again.

“Yeah yeah kid. Shoo, go do your homework or something.”

Harley reluctantly headed inside, glancing back once or twice before vanishing from view.

“He seems like a good kid,” Clint mused as they headed for the quinjet.

“He is,” Tony murmured.

“You knew him before?” Loki asked.

“Yeah. Glad I got to meet him this time around too.”

They all fell silent as they left, Tony promising to himself that he’d get in contact with the kid when it was over. Harley had hid it well but he had his own dad issues and Tony was aware that he’d latched onto the genius to fill that role when they met.

He wouldn’t let the kid down.


All in all, the entire thing with Killian was pretty anti-climactic. Killian still managed to kidnap Pepper, which Tony was unbelievably pissed about.

He almost felt sorry for the guy in the end. He’d got Iron Man coming down on his head with no hesitation. Tony just got Pepper back, he wasn’t losing her because of an asshole who held onto a grudge about being ignored at a party.

Honestly, make a fucking appointment instead of harassing him at a party.

After Tony had got Pepper away from the maniac (and Maya, oh boy was he pissed off at Maya since she’d been the one to get Pepper kidnapped), the others stepped in. Loki’s Jotun powers were perfect for dealing with the Extremis-enhanced humans. He left them freezing cold but not to a dangerous degree. Extremis was just unable to pull their body temperature up again.

Clint was providing sniper support, shooting anyone that got into their blindspots while Rhodey took on Killian with all the protectiveness of a big brother. He hadn’t been pleased when he heard the full story of Killian almost killing Tony and injecting Extremis into Pepper from the first timeline.

“You okay?” Tony asked Pepper softly, distressed that she’d been kidnapped despite his efforts to prevent it from happening again.

“Tony, you guys literally arrived five minutes after we did. They didn’t get a chance to do anything.” She cupped his cheeks, looking fond. “I knew you’d be here. I wasn’t worried. And before you ask, no they didn’t inject me with the weird exploding virus.”

He relaxed a bit at that and glanced over as Rhodey threw Killian into the ground, hard.

Loki was waiting impatiently off to the side while Clint made his way down to them. The battle was pretty much over, Rhodey was just taking out his aggression on Killian.

“When do you think Rhodey is going to let Loki freeze the bastard?” Clint asked as he jogged up next to the couple.

“It’ll be a while. Rhodey’s always been protective. Finding out that that bastard hurt Tony while he was dealing with PTSD the first time round? Let him get his anger out. Personally I want to kick him in the balls.”

Tony barked out a laugh and wrapped his arms around her, already having stepped out of the suit.

“What about her?” Clint gestured at Maya who was watching the pretty one-sided fight in fear. Tony had maybe upgraded Rhodey’s suit.

Just a little.

“Arrest her,” Tony said tiredly. “I tried to give her a chance with the think tank. But she still chose this road. Good intentions or not, the fact of the matter is that people died because of her and she knew it. And she kept working on Extremis with Killian anyway. Desperation isn’t an excuse to hurt other people.”

Pepper nodded, leaning against him.

“I pity her. But she can’t escape the consequences of her choices,” she agreed.

Clint seemed to agree since he moved over to restrain the scientist.

Maya Hansen could have done so much good in the world, but they couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d hurt people. That she’d put her research above human life.

Science and progress were important, but Tony would be the first to admit that there were lines you couldn’t cross.

There had to be a balance between progress and humanity.

Rhodey finally seemed to be done with Killian who was moaning pretty pathetically. “Alright Loki,” he called out. “Do your thing.”

The prince rolled his eyes but sent a blast of his ice magic at the guy. Killian let out a startled shriek as Extremis was dragged under control by the drop in temperature.

“Damn Lokes, that Jotun magic is handy. I like it,” Tony called cheerfully. They’d all been actively encouraging the prince to accept his Jotun heritage. It wasn’t right for him to hate himself because of Odin.

“Now what?” Clint asked as Rhodey called in the military to arrest them until Tony could counter the serum. They’d already destroyed all the research notes on Extremis and taken care of any other samples of the virus. Besides, since it was the Council that supervised Iron Man taking care of this, they trusted that no dangerous people (AKA Ross) would get a hold of the prisoners. The Council had been pretty good at their jobs.

“Pizza?” Tony suggested.

And a couple of hours later the group was back in Tennessee eating at the local pizza place with a snarky ten-year-old demanding to hear the whole story.

“You eat that crap just to annoy me,” Tony whined, gesturing at Loki’s Hawaiian pizza. The bastard just smirked at Tony.

Heathen. Pineapple on pizza was blasphemy.

“Don’t worry Tony, I agree with you,” Clint was also making a face.

“That’s because you have good taste,” Tony informed him.

“You even have the same taste in women. Efficient, independent and scarier than you,” Rhodey added.

Tony and Clint looked at each other. “This is true,” they both agreed.

Pepper smirked and cuddled into Tony’s side.

Clint sighed as his phone went off and he answered it. “Hello Nat. Yes I was involved in saving the president. No, I don’t want to come back to SHIELD. Tony just needed some help. I retired from SHIELD Nat, not the hero business.” He rolled his eyes. “Goodbye Natasha.” He hung up and went back to his pizza.

No one commented on the phone call. They trusted Clint to not give her anything she could use in their brief conversations.

By the time all the pizza was eaten and they had their takeaway boxes for Laura and the kids, Tony took Harley home again, apologised to his gaping mother for feeding him too much pizza, high-fived his little sister and flew off.

He planned to make a few more trips there with Pepper. Mrs. Keener would probably get along great with Pep.

When he returned to the Tower though, he was a bit surprised to see Agent Coulson in the common room with everyone else.

“What did I miss?” he asked curiously as he walked in.

Coulson actually looked sheepish. “I had a fight with Fury and quit,” he admitted.

“He punched Fury!” Clint crowed.

Huh… that was unexpected.

Chapter Text

Tony was watching a movie with everyone, Pepper curled into his side. It had taken a while but Phil was settled into the group now. They’d been a little suspicious in the beginning so Tony had hacked SHIELD for the footage of the fight.

Suffice to say Fury deserved that punch since he’d all but ordered Phil to manipulate Laura into making Clint come back to SHIELD.

Phil had punched the Director and quit on the spot, leaving a flabbergasted Romanoff and Maria Hill in his wake.

After that, everyone had accepted him much more easily.

Tony was now just waiting for the next run-in with an Infinity Stone. Phil didn’t know about the whole time travel thing yet since they were being careful, but he seemed to accept that they weren’t willing to tell him everything yet.

Finally though, JARVIS informed him that he had an urgent call from Darcy.

Bruce glanced at him anxiously as Tony stepped out to take the call.

“Hey Darce,” he greeted easily.

“Tony! Thank fuck,” he’s never heard the confident woman sound so frazzled before. “Jane-We-can you head over here? Please?” She asked desperately. “Something happened and I think it’s really dangerous. I don’t know what to do.”

“Easy Darce,” he tried to calm the panicking woman down. “I’ll have JARVIS trace your phone and hop in the jet now.”

“Thank you Tony,” she let out a shaky breath. “Could you bring Loki too? I think… I think he can help. Maybe”

“I’ll bring Loki, Clint and Bruce,” Tony decided.

He hung up after a couple of reassurances and darted back into the room. “Reindeer Games, Legolas, Brucie, I’m gonna need to borrow you all for a few hours.”

They agreed easily enough, Rhodey, Happy and Pepper studying him for a moment before focusing back on the screen. Phil had to know that something was going on but he didn’t comment, offering popcorn to Pepper.

The moment they were lifting off in the jet that picked them up from the top of the Tower, Bruce turned to Tony.

“That was Darcy. She asked me to head out to them and to bring Loki specifically. I’m pretty sure it’s the Aether.”

They all looked concerned and settled in for a quiet ride to England. Tony had his people already securing their permission to enter the country long before they reached it.

Nobody found it odd when Tony Stark felt like a quick trip overseas for a night or two with no warning so they got the permission they needed easily.

During the trip Tony couldn’t help but wonder if he should have warned Jane and Darcy. He couldn’t have stopped this since he was almost certain it was a fixed point. But maybe he could have given them a warning.

Or would that have made things worse?

Sometimes he wondered if it was right of him to be keeping the information he knew a secret.

“You okay?” Clint asked from next to him.

Loki was talking to Bruce and doing a good job of keeping him calm while he fretted over his girlfriend.

Tony shrugged. “I just wonder sometimes. I’ve got all this knowledge and yet I’m picking and choosing who to tell and what to tell them. Do I have the right?”

Clint thought about it for a moment. “Well, in my opinion, I think you do. You’re the one who lived that future Tony. You can tell us everything you wanted to about it. But to us they’re just stories. We haven’t experienced them. You’re the one with the emotional connection to that future. You’re the one with the most determination to see it never happen again.”

That made sense. It was all a grey area though. Tony was pretty sure he’d never be certain over whether he did the right thing with all the information he had.

He’d always wonder if he could have done more if he told them more, or told more people.

“Don’t think too hard on it,” Clint shrugged. “Just do your best and follow your gut. That’s all you can really do.”

“My gut? I’m a scientist Birdbrain. We don’t follow ‘our gut’.” He sniffed in offence.

Clint chuckled and lightly punched his shoulder. “You know what I mean Tin Head.”

“Yeah yeah,” Tony waved him off but he did feel a bit better about the whole thing.

And he did have JARVIS to give an outside opinion of who to tell what. His AI had been good at that so far.

Eventually they set down in front of Darcy and Jane, both women looking very freaked out.

As Tony stepped off the jet he could already tell that Reality was around.

The knowledge set him on edge since why was he so certain of that?

Jane looked like she wanted to throw herself at Bruce but held back, arms wrapped around herself.

“Thanks for coming Tony,” Darcy was wringing her hands in worry and the guilt over not warning them about this increased again.

“Anytime Darce,” he assured her.

“We’re not sure what happened but…” she trailed off, not sure how to explain, Jane looking down at the ground.

“Don’t worry, I got this,” he told her, pulling one of the containment cubes from his pocket. Bruce had helped him improve them already.

He moved past Darcy and headed toward Jane, the others staying back for the moment. As he approached, Jane let out a soft gasp and the red mist of the Reality Stone came into sight as it curled around her. He didn’t like how much it reminded him of Maximoff but he knew she had nothing to do with this particular Infinity Stone.

He held out the containment cube, ignoring Jane’s confused look for the moment.

“Come on Reality. I don’t have all night.”

A laugh that had a hissing quality to it entered his head and by the reaction of everyone else, they heard it too.

Our inventor,” Reality purred. “I’ve been waiting.

“Yeah yeah, I’m here now. In the cube you cloud of dust particles.”

That laugh came again and Jane let out another gasp as the Infinity Stone pulled free from her and curled around Tony instead. He watched the Stone warily but didn’t pull back.

It brushed against his skin like a cat looking for attention.

Our clever little inventor,” Reality curled around his wrist. “Are you going to keep me entertained?

“You interrupted movie night,” Tony deadpanned, already done with this. “You’re going to be just as much of a little shit as Mind aren’t you? Get in the damn box so I can focus on the aliens that are going to be looking for you in a bit.”

“I like you. You never do what I expect. Things will be fun with you Anthony Stark. I can tell.”

Tony gave his best unimpressed look. It was pretty good. It was an expression all parents mastered and generally used when they came across a mess their child created. And Morgan made a lot of messes.

So did Peter technically and Iron Man had showed up at many scenes to save Spider-Man’s ass and give that exact look. Unfortunately, Harley seemed immune to it. Thankfully it still worked on Peter and Morgan.

“Get in the box,” he shook the cube pointedly.

With another strange laugh, Reality flowed into the containment box, letting it slide shut behind it. Tony studied it for a moment.

“I take that back. Mind is the little shit. You’re just fucking creepy.”

Reality gave it’s creepy laugh again and Tony pocketed the cube, dreading having both Stones winding him up after he got home.

“What just happened?” Darcy asked in bewilderment.

“Why do you insist on insulting the Infinity Stones you meet?” Loki sounded bemused.

Bruce was checking on a shaky-looking Jane while Clint was cracking up laughing over the conversation he’d just witnessed.

“It’s a long story,” Tony sighed in response to Darcy, ignoring Loki for the moment. “I’ll tell you guys later. For now, we’ve got some kind of evil elves coming in soon and we need to be ready for that. Keeping the Reality Stone on earth should keep the Dark Elves from attacking Asgard I think.” He turned to Loki who was trying to hide his anxiety. He knew that this was the point where Frigga died originally. “I don’t know much about what happened the first time around up there. But I managed to gather from Thor that they attacked to get the Aether when he took Jane there to find a way to remove it from her. And the Queen died trying to protect her.”

“What?” Jane sounded completely confused.

“So what now?” Clint asked.

Tony glanced at everyone and shrugged. “We wing it,” he told them brightly.


The group was sprawled out in one of the restaurants near the battlefield that hadn’t been damaged. Fighting always worked up an appetite.

Darcy and Jane still looked very confused but they’d accepted Tony’s promise to explain everything later. Jane was curled up next to Bruce, talking softly to him as they ate.

Clint was on the phone with his wife, talking in between bites of fish and chips.

Loki was moodily poking at his food. The reason for that was that Frigga was sitting across from him trying out the chips in delight and quite happily telling Rhodey all the embarrassing stories he asked for. Loki just sighed at Rhodey smirked at him when Frigga described a mishap with Loki’s first attempt at shapeshifting.

“I believe he was trapped as a bird for three days. And was shedding feathers for a week after he did manage to turn back,” she mused.

Tony struggled to muffle his snort of amusement, looking away when Loki shot him a glare. Rhodey had no shame and outright laughed at the story along with Darcy.

Phil walked in through the door, not batting an eye at the scene he found. Pepper followed after him and made a beeline for Tony.

“Hey Pep, don’t worry I’m fine and everything worked out in the-”

He was cut off as she grabbed his shirt and hauled him to his feet to kiss him like their lives depended on it.

Tony very quickly forgot about the people around them, about the fact that the Queen of Asgard was there, about the fact that he really should be getting the Infinity Stone in his pocket to his Tower.

He was a bit distracted to say the least.

When Pepper finally pulled back, Tony was panting. “What was that for?” he asked in confusion.

“Because I could,” she told him simply, giving him another peck on the lips and releasing his shirt to steal his chips and chair.

“How come you yelled at me after the last invasion but kissed me after this one?” Tony whined.

“We weren’t dating during the last one,” she pointed out calmly. “And you didn’t fly through a wormhole this time."

“It was close,” Clint pointed out, putting his phone away. “Tony was really curious about the worlds through those portals during the Convergence or whatever.”

“But the point is I didn’t,” Tony hurriedly clarified when Pepper side-eyed him.

Frigga’s soft laughter drew their attention to the Queen. She looked at Loki with fond eyes. “You’ve made some interesting friends Loki,” she told him. There was both happiness and sadness in her eyes. “You’re going to stay here, aren’t you?”

Loki flicked his eyes to her and then away. “I have no interest in returning to Asgard mother.”

She accepted his words with a soft sigh and a nod. “I understand. I do hope I may visit you though? I’ve missed you.”

When Loki glanced at Tony, he answered immediately. “You’re always welcome at the Tower your majesty.”

Loki didn’t say anything but Tony could see he was grateful. Knowing that he could have easily lost his mother had drained a lot of his anger towards her. They’d have to work at it but they’d mend their relationship eventually.

Tony was still surprised that Frigga had shown up in the middle of the battle but apparently hearing that her son was fighting against the Dark Elves alongside mortals was enough for her to tell Odin to fuck off and use the Bifrost to send her down to help him.

Tony had a healthy respect for the woman after seeing her in action. Thor had left out how badass his mother was with a sword and her magic backing her fighting.

Never underestimate a mother’s urge to protect her children. She will fuck you up, as Malekith had found out.

Tony almost felt sorry for the guy. Almost. He did find it ironic that the woman he’d killed in the last timeline was the one to kill the Dark Elve’s leader in this one. It had led to a little bit of hysterical giggling that JARVIS had thankfully muted so the others didn’t hear.

Seeing Thor and his friends show up after Frigga hadn’t been nearly as nice of a surprise but they were useful in the fight so Tony wasn’t going to be an idiot and send them away.

Speaking of the arrogant god…

“Mother!” Thor boomed as he entered the restaurant, the Warriors Three and Sif following behind him. Loki stiffened at the shout and Clint subtly slid closer.

That wasn’t a friendship Tony had expected but he was glad that Loki and Clint got along so well. They were good support for each other.

“Thor,” Frigga greeted pleasantly but Tony could recognise the sharp look in her eyes. It was the same look Pepper got when she was predicting how a situation would go in the boardroom.

“We’ve come to escort you home your majesty,” Fandral (at least Tony thought it was Fandral, the introductions had been hurried before) informed her.

“Hmm, I don’t think I’m ready to go just yet,” Frigga answered serenely, nibbling on another chip. “Lord Stark was very kind and provided an after-battle meal.”

Tony also had no idea where the whole ‘Lord Stark’ thing came from but apparently his expression was funny enough to draw snickers from Loki, Clint and Rhodey whenever she called him that.

“But mother,” Thor argued, shutting up immediately when she threw a sharp look at him.

“No,” she told him firmly. “I will leave when I am finished. For now, I want to spend some time with Loki and his friends. I can find my own way back, I’m quite capable of calling Heimdall without assistance,” she added dryly.

Okay, just so they were clear, Tony loved Loki’s mom.

The group of Asgardians shuffled awkwardly and Frigga raised an eyebrow at them.

“Father said-” Thor tried.

“Odin should be aware that I’m not at his beck and call. He told me centuries ago that he wanted me as a wife and not a war trophy and that changed our marriage into something good. Is he going back on those words now?” her voice was sharp and Tony realised along with every other human present, that Odin was in the doghouse and sleeping on the couch for at least a month.

Thor spluttered for a moment, turning beseeching eyes on Loki. Loki just raised an eyebrow, looking a lot like his mother when he did.

Cowed, the Asgardians slunk out, Sif throwing a dark glare at Loki as they did.

They sat in silence for a moment before Phil broke it.

“This is the most entertainment I’ve had since joining SHIELD. And I trained Clint.

The archer squawked in outraged offence while everyone else burst out laughing.

Tony pulled up a chair and sat close enough to Pepper that their arms brushed.

He was genuinely relieved that this world still managed to surprise him. And nothing was more surprising than the Queen of Asgard showing up in a blast of rainbow light to decapitate the guy trying to kill her youngest son.

And then that same alien Queen happily trying out fish and chips.

It didn’t matter how much information he had or how he controlled who got it. He’d never be able to control other people’s actions. And he was okay with that. He didn’t want to be a puppet master of this universe. He just wanted to save it and live his own life.

They’d be okay.

This was so much more entertaining than watching Thanos go all genocidal,” Reality piped up gleefully. “Soul was right to pick you. So how are you getting the others?”

Tony’s eye twitched while Frigga gaped at him and Phil looked around in confusion. He yanked the box out of his pocket and glared at it.

“You’re in a container that you can't escape, I’ll drop you in the river you damn blabbermouth,” he hissed.

Loki and Rhodey rolled their eyes as he spoke, focusing on their food. Clint was snickering silently while Bruce just sighed.

No you won’t,” Reality pointed out. “Someone might find me and that’s dangerous.”

Tony grit his teeth. “You smug little rock,” he shook the cube. “Don’t test me. I’ll do it. In the ocean, I'll drop you in the ocean.”

“He threatened to flush Mind down the toilet,” Loki added.

“…Wait what?”  Reality asked.

“He almost did it too,” Rhodey added. “We had to stop him.”

“…” Reality was silent for a moment. And then it started purring, the entire cube vibrating in his hand. “No fear of us and no respect? You are such an interesting one little inventor. I like you. I like you a lot.”

Tony stared at the vibrating cube with a mildly disturbed expression. “I’m very creeped out now.”

Pepper suddenly snatched the box. “Just so we’re clear Reality. Tony is mine. And I don’t share,” she informed the Infinity Stone sweetly. “Remember that and we won’t have any problems.”

The vibrating stopped and they all got the feeling that the Stone was pouting.

“What the hell is going on?” Phil asked.

Taking in his confusion and Frigga’s stunned expression, Tony sighed and took the cube back from Pepper.

“Let’s head back to the Tower. I’ll tell you guys the whole story there. Besides, I don’t trust Mind alone back there. Who knows what kind of trouble he’s scheming up?”

Yeah… Life was definitely still surprising him…