Chapter 1: Waking Up to a Bad Dream
The cold lingered in his bones. It was how he knew that it wasn’t a dream, even though he was now staring at a slowly spinning ceiling fan and lying in a bed that was just on the side of too firm. Something shifted in the room and he glanced over. Yep, that was Steve just coming awake now.
Bucky went back to staring at the ceiling fan and listening to the game that was playing on the radio. He remembered going to watch it with Steve. The day had been overcast and they had worried about it raining on them the whole game. But the sky had managed to hold it together until their team had lost, and then the sky had opened up like it was also grieving for the loss.
It was a strange thing to have in a recovery room. The army wouldn’t have bothered. And to play a rerun of a game on the radio was odd too.
Steve sat up in his bed, glancing around the room suspiciously. Oh good, it wasn’t just him. They shared a silent glance, nodding to each other. Yup, this was suspicious as hell. He rubbed his thumb anxiously against the side of his index finger, itching to have his rifle in his hands. He surveyed the room again for weapons, but found none.
Well, it had been a few years since he and Steve had gotten involved in a brawl. He figured they were overdue. Bucky sat up slowly, assessing his injuries, but aside from the lingering chill, he wasn’t even stiff, let alone sore. He cracked his neck anyway and stood up, stretching. Best to be limber if they were about to be fighting for their lives.
He paused when the door opened behind him; however, unlike the soldiers or scientists he was expecting, they sent in some fresh faced young woman with a hint of Peggy Carter’s aesthetics, as if that would give either one of them pause.
He let Steve do the talking.
Literally no more than a minute after making that choice, he regret it, as Steve promptly threatened the woman and the room was flooded with soldiers in black tac gear. And there was that fight that he had been anticipating.
He fell in behind Steve, watching his back and desperately wishing for a gun as they punched and kicked their way out of some kind of movie set and through a warehouse and out onto a street that looked like it came from a science fiction novel, with moving billboards and lights everywhere and so many cars.
And then the gig was up because they were suddenly surrounded and a coloured man with an eyepatch was telling them that they had both been sleeping for almost seventy years. This was the future and everyone they knew and loved was most likely already dead.
The future was strange. People were so cold, but whenever he mentioned that, they informed him that their technology let them talk to people all over the globe and that humanity had never been so connected before in the history of mankind. Except people seemed to want to talk to someone through their phone on the other side of the world, rather than the people staring them right in the face.
Don’t get him wrong, he thought that the technology was amazing. You could learn about anything on the internet, you could watch films in full colour right in your own home, you could carry a phone in your pocket. He was wild about the technology and was taking to it like a fish to water. His first day after waking up, he had read the entire user manual for the ‘tablet’ that he had been given and had begun exploring the internet.
The interface was amazing. It was incredible that all he had to do was touch the screen and it knew what he wanted it to do. While he was gushing over the tech, he couldn’t help but think that Toni would have loved it.
It wasn’t until almost a month had passed that Steve tentatively asked him to look up what had happened to Agent Carter in the SHIELD database. When he found out that she was still alive, even if she was in an old folks home, it lit something like hope in his chest as well. He waited until Steve had rushed out of their shared apartment to go visit her before he dared to type a different name into the search bar. If his suspicions were correct, she had escaped her warehouse before Howard had blown it up.
The search came back instantly.
Maria Antonia Stark, nee Carbonell. June 9, 1923 - January 17, 2012
It hit him like a punch in the gut. She was dead. She was gone. And she’d married Howard . For a moment he wasn’t certain which fact he was more upset over. Then he reminded himself that she had left him. She hadn’t given him any hope for the future. She had told him not to get serious.
She was never going to be his wife.
And Howard. . . well, at least they had shared interests. And it wasn’t like Toni would take any shit from him, so he had to have treated her right.
He set the tablet aside, not ready to read any more about it, like how she’d passed or what her no doubt many accomplishments were. He would though. He would relish reading about her life, but only after he had allowed his grief to settle.
He threw himself into learning more about the 21st century and catching up on the history he’d missed, while doggedly avoiding anything to do with the name Stark, instead.
Chapter 2: Is it a dream or a nightmare?
Toni wakes up.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“Miss? Miss, please answer me. Are you alright?”
Toni scrunched her eyes shut and burrowed her face further into her arm as she began processing all of the error alerts she had accumulated. But she was still alive, she still existed, so that was something. Her injuries were mostly minor except for the searing burns up her right side, where she’d been too close to the bomb when it had gone off. Note to self: double check the fucking detonation mechanism next time she made a bomb. The power output from the time machine must have triggered the bomb before the timer could.
“Emergency services have been dispatched.”
“No.” She choked out hoarsely. “Cancel that. I don’t need it.”
“I rather think you do, Miss.”
It was only then that she realised who she was talking to. “JARVIS?” She asked breathlessly.
“Yes, Miss?” He asked, her prodigal son returned to her without even knowing that he’d been away.
She felt her eyes helplessly flood with tears. “Fuck. I’ve missed you so much.”
There was a long moment of silence before he answered. “I’m afraid that I do not understand. We have not been apart.”
She laughed breathlessly, just a hair's breadth away from hysterical as she rolled over and pushed herself up to sit. She was in her workshop. Fuck knows how time travel worked. She’d thought she’d mysteriously appear out of nowhere in Europe, but she was in the workshop in Malibu. Shit, her house was still standing. So maybe the timeline had changed enough that she hadn’t tempted the Mandarin to blow her up.
“Miss, I must insist that you do not move. You are injured.” JARVIS instructed. “Paramedics will be here in an estimated twelve minutes.”
“No. I told you to cancel it. I don’t need it.” She said, holding up her hand to show his cameras the way that her burns were already disappearing and her cuts were slowly closing. “I’m going to be fine in a few minutes.”
“I don’t understand.” JARVIS said after another long silence.
“I know, J. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it myself. I mean, the house is still standing. You’re still alive. I’m going to have to catch up on whatever I did to the timeline.” She said, more talking to herself than she was to her AI.
“Catch up, Miss?” JARVIS asked.
“Yeah, mind pulling up some current events for me?” She asked as she pushed herself to her feet. There was a blackened scorch mark on the floor of her workshop where part of the explosion had apparently traveled in time with her, but otherwise everything was intact. First things fucking first, she was getting some structural engineers out to reinforce the cliff face. No way was she risking her home falling into the goddamned ocean again.
JARVIS had done as she’d asked and pulled up the main webpages for a handful of different news outlets. She froze, staring at the header of the first one. That couldn’t be.
May 4, 2012.
“No no no no no.” She chanted shakily. She was supposed to be back in 2017. She never wanted to live through the invasion again.
“Is something wrong, Miss?” JARVIS asked.
“C-current events!” She exclaimed. “I need . . . um . . .”
But there was the wormhole and space was sucking away her breath and every trace of warmth and there were so many aliens waiting to rain down destruction on all of humanity and no one fucking believed her! She couldn’t breath. She couldn’t -
“Miss?” JARVIS asked sharply, his worried tone enough to snap her out of her breakdown.
She swallowed thickly, hands clenched into tight fists at her sides as she dragged in a shaky breath. There was no fucking time for her to have a meltdown. She used Extremis to soothe away the physical effects of her panic attack. It didn’t help her mind from trying to spiral, but she ruthlessly shoved it away. She needed to focus.
“Stuttgart, Germany.” She said quickly. “I need everything that’s live coverage. Scour social media as well. I’m looking for a tall man with long, dark hair and pale complexion. He might be wearing armour and a frankly ridiculous helmet.”
It took only a handful of seconds for JARVIS to begin getting hits on Loki. One of them was a video on Twitter of Rogers taking him down with that god awful shield. It was timestamped to less than half an hour ago, which meant that Loki was now in SHIELD custody and, so long as Thor didn’t manage to make off with him, he would be enroute to the helicarrier.
But she had to know. She needed to see it with her own eyes. Loki wanted to be captured, but he might still run if the opportunity presented itself. She took a deep breath. Just minutes on the other end of an aborted panic attack was not the time she wanted to try this for the first time, but needs must. She let out her breath slowly and reached out with Extremis for the wireless signals that she could practically see criss-crossing all around her. Something brushed up against her, that kind of creepy feeling, like something touching her leg while swimming and not knowing if it was seaweed or a fish.
“Miss?” JARVIS asked cautiously.
“Yeah, that’s me.” She breathed out, still hesitant to reach out for the internet with her brain. She had only ever done this before on the closed system of the Compound with Friday standing sentinel between her and the rest of the world. “Will you guide me?”
“How is this possible?” JARVIS asked, wonder clear in his voice.
“Let’s talk about it some other time. Right now, I need to hack a super secret spy agency.” She said tightly.
“I see. I would assume that you are trying to track down the man from Stuttgart?” JARVIS asked.
She felt JARVIS brush against her again, but this time it was like he had latched on to her. She took one more deep breath, then was overtaken by the sensation of being in a hundred places at once. She could still feel her body in the workshop, but she was also in a hundred different phone networks, security cameras and radio waves. It was disorienting as fuck, but JARVIS didn’t let her spiral. His grip on her remained a steady constant that led her back to her sanity any time she began thinking that maybe she was a phone now and she ought to optimise her apps.
Eventually, they came up across a system they couldn’t waltz into. She blinked at the wall, recognising it as code, and realised that it was a heavily encrypted firewall. Unfortunately for SHIELD, she was the one they had contracted to upgrade their security in her own timeline, so she was quite intimately familiar with the shitty encryption they were running before she got her hands on it.
She reached out, touching a line of code and noticed the way that a cursor began flashing in the midst of the line. She smirked and got to work. It was a matter of about twenty minutes for her to break through and realise that she was breaking through into their coms. But she was in their system now and it was only a matter of a few more minutes for her to get video access from the quinjet as well.
Loki was on the plane and Thor was standing grimly over him with a dissatisfied frown on his face. But there were no punches being thrown or lightning bolts hammering the plane, so either the conflict hadn’t happened, or it had already been resolved. Either way, she could work with that. She pointedly didn’t look at any of her other so-called teammates.
She burrowed further into the jet until she found its flight transponder and instructed JARVIS to keep an eye on that. Then she ever so gently began pulling herself away from the network she had made her home in, blinking and coming back to full awareness in her workshop. Her head was fucking killing her and her nose was bleeding, but she nonchalantly instructed Extremis to dampen the pain. She just needed more practice.
JARVIS didn’t let go, still clasped gently to the side of her brain. It was a bit of a disconcerting feeling, but at the same time it was JARVIS clinging to her like a child clings to their mother. She realised that this would be the first time he got to experience something like this; that this was the first time he got to interact directly with someone organic.
“Call up the suit, buddy. We’ve got a party to crash.” She instructed. Her nanobots were almost pathetically overtaxed after the last year she had had and with the absence of the ones she had turned into a bomb, she was running more than a bit low. Besides, she couldn’t just show up in a nanotech suit when she’d only been on her seventh iteration by this time in the timeline last time.
“Suit, Miss?” JARVIS asked, and she could feel a handful of quiet queries brush up against Extremis from where they were still connected. If she had to describe the sensation, she would say that it almost tickled.
“You know, the Iron Queen suit.” She said, making a vague kind of gesture toward the back wall.
“I’m afraid I do not know what you are talking about.” JARVIS responded.
And it was only then that she noticed what was missing from her workshop. There were no display cases for her suits. A glance at the roof indicated no patched area from where she’d blasted off in the Mark II. And the floor had no hidden suit vault.
Well . . . that explained why she hadn’t been called in by Coulson to help find the Tesseract.
“Was I kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan in 2008?” She asked him.
“No, Miss.” JARVIS answered. “I would normally suppose that you were suffering some kind of delusion; however, your abilities to heal and interface with my programming directly leads me to believe this is something else.”
“Yeah, let’s chat about that later. We don’t have a whole lot of time.” She said as she stared down at her hand in front of her. There was no helping it. She would have to use the Bleeding Edge.
She let the nanobots creep out from her pores, forming the armour around herself and sacrificing the majority of her projectile arsenal to be able to complete the armour plating. It was almost paper thin, but it would still probably stop a bullet.
“That is quite . . . impressive, Miss.” JARVIS said hesitantly.
“Yeah. My best suit yet.” She said, as she used Extremis to jostle JARVIS into the place she had set aside in the suit for FRIDAY. He settled into it easily, running diagnostic checks throughout the systems.
“You are only running at a little more than half power, Miss.” He said after a moment.
“Yep. I’m due for a big breakfast and a long nap after this is over.” She said, before promptly throwing open the nearest window and taking off at top speed.
She didn’t think about preserving the timeline. She didn’t think about the millions of people she could have saved if she’d decided to interfere with World War II like she was about to interfere in the New York invasion. This was her nightmare all over again and she was going to nip this fucking invasion in the bud if it was the last thing she did.
Wow, you guys had lots of theories about what the consequences of time travel would be for Toni. I will say that some of them were on point, but I won't say which ones because, you know, spoilers.
Chapter 3: Contact
What does it take to abort an alien invasion?
Bucky was still reeling over the fact that the Norse gods were actually real, and apparently aliens. He could tell from the stubborn jut of Steve’s jaw that his friend was steadfastly refusing to think about the implications of that; Sarah Rogers had been a devout Catholic and Steve followed in the same vein.
In any case, aliens were real and apparently trying to take over the world. So at least they had a job now. He had been beginning to go stir crazy. He couldn’t count how many physical tests and psychological evaluations he had gone through in the last month. It turned out that Toni had been right and he did have a version of the super soldier serum in him, though it wasn’t the same as Steve’s. SHIELD had been endlessly fascinated by that, but it had left him with a bad taste in his mouth every time they took another blood sample. He was worth more than Zola’s god damned serum.
Not that SHIELD seemed to care. But whatever, they were finally deemed field ready, if only because some super strong alien was starting a ruckus. Though, from what he could tell, Director Fury has oversold the threat. The cube was still missing, but the alien was not as big of a threat as they had been told.
The alien was currently contained in some kind of high tech detention cell while Fury and the rest of the specialists he had brought in for this operation were discussing how to proceed. He lingered in the back, not wanting to get in their business, unlike Steve. Apparently, SHIELD was making weapons out of the cube. He wasn’t sure why Steve was surprised by that. They were a government agency; of course they were going to be looking at military applications for the cube after it was undoubtedly on record how Hydra had used it.
The argument was just getting heated when the door slammed open and a woman stormed in. Bucky felt like he had been punched in the gut, because that was Toni. Oh god, she looked just like Toni. Except Toni was dead.
“How the fuck did you get in here?” Fury demanded, immediately shooting to his feet.
“Not now.” She snapped as she breezed past the Director and side-stepped Agent Romanoff, zeroing in on Dr. Banner and deftly removing the alien’s scepter from the man’s grasp. She set it aside and brought up some kind of transparent bubble around it. He felt the tension in the room almost immediately decrease and looked around, wondering if anyone else had noticed it. They all had.
The woman turned from the scepter and held out a hand to the scientist she’d taken it from. “Dr. Banner, you don’t know me, but my name is Toni Stark.”
Oh hell, this had to be his Toni and Howard’s daughter . They looked damn near identical.
“I kind of know you, Ms. Stark. Everyone kind of knows you.” Banner said awkwardly.
“Yeah?” She asked, as if she wasn’t aware.
“Yeah.” Banner confirmed as if it was obvious.
“Ms. Stark -” Director Fury began but was immediately cut off by an annoyed gesture from the woman.
“Not now, Nicky.” She snapped, before turning back to Banner. She hesitated for a moment, as if unsure what to say before she finally shook her head. “Oh fuck it. We don’t have the time for tact. I need you help, Bruce. And in return, I’ll give you the fucking world. Anything you want. You want a lab? You want a super secret safehouse? You want me to arrange an accident for Ross? It’s done. Just say the word. But I need your help.”
“Doing what?” Banner asked cautiously.
Toni didn’t miss a beat before she answered. “Saving the world.”
Toni didn’t look back after getting Bruce’s tentative approval. She did, however, ask JARVIS to take care of their pursuit. A handful of locked doors later, they were striding confidently into the hangar where Loki’s cell was suspended. She flicked the switch to open the hole in the floor as she passed it.
Loki turned to look at her, the momentary surprise at seeing someone he clearly didn’t expect was there and gone in half a second before he was imperiously staring down his nose at her. She stared back, practically nose to nose, and smirked before slamming her foot into the side of the glass like that scene from 300 . She almost let out a bellowing ‘this is Sparta!’ but honestly didn’t remember if that movie had come out yet. And she might do many questionable things, but she didn’t give out spoilers.
Loki looked shocked for the second before the mechanism gave way and he was dropped from the helicarrier. She turned to Bruce, who looked no less startled.
“I know that you have no reason to trust me, Bruce. You don’t know me, but I know you. I know you only drink green tea when you’re stressed, and decaf earl grey when you’re tired. I know you’re ambidextrous and will switch hands whenever you get tired of writing with one. I know that you don’t snore unless you’ve gone over thirty hours without sleep.” She said, throwing the most random facts that she could think of at him. Things that only someone who had spent a lot of time with him would know.
“And how do you know that?” He asked cautiously.
“Because I’m not the Toni Stark from this timeline.” She explained. There was no time to hide. There were aliens on the way, and like hell would she risk them getting the drop on them again because she was worried about keeping her time travelling a secret. “I’m the Toni Stark that was blown up and kidnapped by terrorists and had to build her way out. I’m the Toni Stark that took that lesson and dedicated herself to being accountable and protecting people. And right now, I need your help, because there is a fucking shit storm coming for us. Loki has an army and I need you to help me stop him before he unleashes it on New York.”
Bruce chuckled deprecatingly and took a step back from her. “You don’t want my help. You want the Other Guy.”
She grit her teeth and fought back the urge to shake him. Instead, she grabbed his face between her hands and made him look her right in the eye. “Your brain is the most beautiful thing on the fucking planet.” She said honestly. She had never met anyone that matched her intellect so well. He looked a little startled by her sincerity. “But right now, Hulk is the only thing that I am absolutely sure is capable of taking Loki down and making him stay down.” Without making Thor do it, at least, and even then she wasn’t sure if she’d bet on Thor over Loki if it really came down to it.
“He can’t be controlled.” Bruce said, pulling away from her and shaking his head.
“He doesn’t need to be controlled. Jolly Green isn’t a monster. I know you’re still having a hard time with this at this point in the timeline, but please trust me. Hulk is just tragically misunderstood. But, if it makes you more comfortable, I have knocked him out once before in my original timeline.” She explained quickly.
“You’re really pushing this dimensional time traveller thing, aren’t you?” He said skeptically.
She took a deep breath and just barely stopped herself from shaking him, instead she reached for the most sensitive information he had ever told her. “Jesus fuck, Bruce. You have a scar on your pelvis, halfway between your hip and your cock from where your asshat of a father threw a knife at you when you were a kid.” She snarled. She only knew that because one night after drinking a little too much, they’d gotten into a bit of a pissing contest about who had the worst father. Bruce won that contest. Holy hell, there was practically no contest. “I know you intimately well , Banner. But if that’s not enough, do it for the money, or whatever else it is you want.”
“You didn’t ask what I wanted.” He said.
“It doesn’t matter. Anything in my power, I’ll give to you.” She promised.
He stared at her for a long, quiet moment of consideration and she felt her anxiety ratchet up another notch. What if he said no? Who else could she actually rely on? Romanoff wouldn’t actually be a threat to Loki, and she would rather light herself on fire than ask Rogers for help. Thor, she supposed. She’d have to go back in there and hope that JARVIS could keep SHIELD on their toes enough that they could get back out.
“Promise you can contain him.” Bruce demanded eventually.
“I promise. No one is going to get hurt.” She said firmly.
“Fine.” He sighed but nodded and eyed the opening in the floor of the helicarrier. She grinned with all of her teeth as she let her armour ensconce her. Bruce watched it appreciatively.
“You should have led with the high tech suit.” He said.
“Well now I know for next time.” She said, then snapped out her hand and grabbed at an anomaly on her and JARVIS’s scanners that had been lingering near them this entire time. Loki’s shocked expression as her hand closed around his throat was all the satisfaction she needed as she twisted toward the hole in the floor. Time to see how much he liked free falling from a great height.
He tried to fight back, but her grip was secure and he wasn’t expecting rocket boots. She toppled over the edge with him and they grappled in mid-air as she propelled them toward the ground. There was a burst of something - fucking magic - that momentarily shorted out her whole suit. He used the opportunity to kick away from her while she hacked the suit with her mind and forced the repulsors back into working order to stop herself from going splat.
By the time she was back in control, the ground was perilously close. She twisted her body and used the repulsors to break her momentum as much as she could, but she still hit the ground hard. Extremis popped up a handful of damage reports and began fixing up her knees. A second later, Hulk slammed into the ground next to her with a wide, toothy grin.
Loki floated down like a fucking feather.
“Hey, Jolly Green. How’s my favourite Avenger?” She asked rhetorically.
Hulk looked at her strangely, but he didn’t respond. Instead, he turned his gaze toward Loki. She wondered how much he actually knew about what happened when Bruce was in control. Somehow they had never tested for that. Regardless, he seemed to know that Loki was the enemy.
“Yeah, I’m gonna need you to smash him for me real good.” She said and Hulk’s smile grew wider. “But I’m going to need him alive. Don’t worry though, he’s sturdy.”
Almost before she had finished talking, Hulk bounded away, charging toward Loki with a fist raised over his head. The impact of the hit actually shook the ground even where she was standing. Though, as always, nothing was ever that simple.
Instead of a pancaked version of Loki, there were a dozen Loki clones stepping out of nothingness to confront them. She scanned each one of them desperately, but they were all giving off the same signal. Either they were all clones, or she couldn’t tell the difference.
“Fuck.” She cursed.
What were the chances that Loki had taken this opportunity to run? She couldn’t see any signatures that were invisible, but for all she knew, he was long gone by now. Stark Tower in New York was still run by an arc reactor in this timeline. That target was still ostensibly his goal, even if it had been chosen to piss her off in her original timeline. Her arc reactor still gave off more than double the amount of energy of any other reactor in the country.
“Call Rhodey for me, JARVIS.” She instructed as she launched herself into battle with the closest clone.
“Calling.” JARVIS intoned after a moment of hesitation.
It rang for so long she was almost certain that he wasn’t going to pick up, but then it clicked to answer just as she was driving her fist through the face of a Loki. The fucking asshat sorcerer disintegrated, and two more formed out of sparkly fairy dust. Fucking hell, this was going to be a mess.
“Honey bear! Please tell me you’re in New York. I need you to do something for me.” She said. He had been en route to New York while the invasion had been happening in her original timeline, but maybe the stars would align and she would actually get lucky.
“I just touched down. Why?” He asked, sounding far more suspicious than she deserved. But then again, he didn’t know about Iron Queen in this timeline, so maybe it was deserved after all.
“I need a favour. I need you and a couple of your buddies to get to Stark Tower. You’re looking for an older man named Dr. Selvig. JARVIS will get you a photo. He’ll have a blue alien cube with him. I need you to secure both. Bonus points if you can knock him out without causing permanent harm.” She explained.
“What?” Rhodey said blankly.
“Look, I know it sounds crazy, but this is important. Like end of the world levels of importance. Help me, Obi-wan Ke-Rhodey, you’re my only hope.” She pleaded as she dodged some magical bullshit and fired a repulsor blast at the face of the Loki that was trying to slip away.
It clipped his shoulder and he didn’t disappear. She grinned viciously. “Found you, motherfucker.” She said.
“What?” Rhodey asked again.
“Shit, wasn’t talking to you. Please, will you go to the Tower and stop Selvig.” She pleaded.
“Okay, fine.” Rhodey sighed. “But you owe me an explanation.”
“You’ve got it, Platypus. I’ll be there in a couple hours, max.” She answered before disconnecting the call and launching herself and all of her arsenal at the real Loki. No way she was letting him slip away from her. She collided into him only half a second after the last of her meager supply of missiles did.
He snarled and twisted and she ended up grappling with a fucking god and where the fuck was Hulk ? She managed half a glance around her and noticed that Mean Green was being swarmed by the clones. Every time he smashed one, two more would appear and it was quickly getting out of hand. So, Hulk would be no help here.
Okay, she could do this. No problem. She’d once taken out the Hulk. She could take out Loki no problem. Just . . . yeah. With the battle in Johannesburg in mind, she brought up the schematic for the piledriver from the Hulkbuster armour and let a smaller version of it replace the gauntlet in her right hand, stretching her nanobots even thinner.
She recognised her mistake immediately, when Loki suddenly had a dagger in his hand and was pushing it with Asgardian strength and alien sharpness through the plate of her armour and up under her ribs. And yeah, that fucking hurt. She flinched from the pain and let out a wail that was half agony and half fury. She latched onto the second emotion and used it to fuel the piledriver slamming into Loki’s face.
Every hit jostled the blade in her side and Loki flailed and twisted the blade vindictively, but she didn’t let up. She was a dog with a bone and there was no way she was going to let him get away and rain terror down on New York.
“Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep.” She chanted through clenched teeth with every hit.
And it worked, eventually. Fucking Asgardians. She was going to do a study to figure out what they were made out of. But eventually, Loki went lax in her grip. She hit him a few more times to make sure he wasn’t faking (couldn’t trust the God of Lies too much), before letting herself slump back from where she was straddled over him.
She let the nanobots from her gauntlets and helmet seep back into her to stem the flow of her injury before she pulled the blade out, tossing it away. Then she pressed her fingers against Loki’s pulse point and felt the slow, steady beat of his heart. Oh good, she hadn’t killed him.
Thor suddenly hit the ground a few feet away from her, hammer in hand and ready to fight to avenge his brother. She sighed. “He’s fine. Just sleeping.” She reassured him. She waited to see what he would do; she wasn’t really in shape to fight another god. But he lowered his hammer and took a few steps toward her, all non-threatening like and almost timid. “What colour are his eyes?” She asked him.
Thor frowned. “My brother’s eyes are green.”
She nodded. She’d suspected. Once upon a time, she’d gotten her version of Thor to talk about Loki, and he’d told her about Loki’s attempt to take the throne of Asgard. He’d used diplomacy and subterfuge and used a small group of Jotnar as his puppets. Aside from the colluding with an enemy planet, it had all been perfectly legal. A full scale invasion wasn’t exactly his style. But she hadn’t said anything, because by then Loki had died and there was no real point in pissing off the rest of the Avengers for sympathising with a former enemy.
But not this time.
“They were blue. He was being controlled by someone.” She said and nodded for him to crouch down on the other side of his brother. “I need you to keep an eye on him. I think I managed to, uh, recalibrate his brain. But you guys are hardy as fuck, so maybe it didn’t take. Smack him in the head again if he wakes up and he isn’t himself.”
“Thank you, Lady Stark. I am in your debt.” Thor said, genuinely touched and so fucking earnest she could hardly believe that he was the same guy who had lifted her by her throat in a different timeline. She shrugged the thought away.
“Good. I’m gonna collect.” She said. “I need you to take the Tesseract and the staff with you when you take Loki back to Asgard.”
Thor frowned. “SHIELD has already taken custody of the staff, and the Tesseract is still missing.”
“I will have the Tesseract in hand in no time. And I don’t care even if SHIELD licks the fucking staff, you are taking it off world. Tell them it’s a sacred royal heirloom or something, just get it off my fucking planet.”
No Mind Stone meant no Wanda. No Wanda meant no Ultron. No Ultron meant . . . no Vision. Grief settled over her at the thought, but there was too much risk, and there was no way in hell that she was going to sacrifice JARVIS when she’d only just gotten him back.
“Why do you fear it so, my lady?” Thor wondered.
She pursed her lips then leaned forward, practically pressing her lips against his ear before speaking. Like hell she was going to risk Hydra finding out about it. But then again, maybe Howard had actually heeded her advice and they hadn’t had the chance to infiltrate SHIELD. “The staff contains an infinity stone. The Mind Stone. I have my suspicions about the Tesseract as well. They both give off the same readings.”
Thor pulled back from her, giving her the most serious expression she had ever seen cross his face. “Are you certain?” He asked. He didn’t wonder how she knew, or question how a mortal even knew about the infinity stones. A brush of JARVIS against her mind indicated that the surveillance systems aboard the helicarrier were still operational, so basically the entire Avengers and half of SHIELD had watched her proclaim herself a time traveller that had sucked Bruce’s cock. Great.
Speaking of Bruce . . .
She glanced over her shoulder at where Hulk was throwing a temper tantrum after all of the Loki clones had disappeared. But he wasn’t running off, so that was a bonus. She staggered to her feet before looking back to Thor.
“Yeah, I’m certain. I’m also going to need to have a chat with your brother before you take him back to Asgard.” She said.
Thor nodded before frowning in concern. “You are grievously injured, my lady.” He said.
She waved off his concern. “It’s fine. I’m gonna walk it off.” She said as nonchalantly as she could manage, as she began stumbling her way over to where Hulk was roaring and slamming the ground like the greenest version of Donkey Kong ever. “You kicked ass, Big Guy.” She praised loudly.
Hulk spun around with an angry grunt, but he didn’t move to attack her, so she let the armour seep away back into her skin and didn’t break her stride as she moved toward him. He was still angry, but then again, Hulk was almost always angry. When she got within striking distance of him, he seemed to pay more attention to her.
“Tin Girl hurt.” Hulk snarled, before turning to where Loki was still laid out unconscious.
“Hey hey hey, it’s fine, Jolly Green. I got my revenge on him.” She placated quickly, putting a hand on his arm to stop him from racing off. She was under no illusions that she would actually be able to physically stop him, but he didn’t move. “Besides, I’m like you. I heal quick.”
Hulk’s eyebrows did a weird little furrow thing that she had only ever seen on Bruce when he was thinking too hard about something. “Tin Girl like Hulk?”
“Yeah, buddy.” She assured him. Extremis was already trying to stitch her wound back together. She was going to sleep for a week when this was all over and done with, but she was going to be fine.
“Hulk like Tin Girl.” Hulk said as he reached for her. His giant fingers wrapped around her with infinite gentleness before he was lifting her up to hold against his chest like a child with a teddy bear.
She laughed at the miscommunication, but it wasn’t like it wasn’t true both ways. “Yeah, Jolly Green.” She assured him before reaching out to wrap her arms around his neck and give him a hug. “You and me, we’re going to be friends.”
Hulk let out a huffy grunt that sounded somewhat pleased, and his hand came up to pat ever so gently against her back. “Hulk like friend.” He assured her.
“Me too.” She said as she felt a shudder run through him. She watched him closely and saw the way that the green flickered in his eyes. Bruce was inevitably about to make his reappearance. She reached out for Hulk’s face, cradling it between her hands and looked him right in the eye. “I will always be your friend, Hulk. If you’re ever in trouble, come find me. Or have Puny Banner contact me. I will always come running to help you.” She promised.
Hulk let out a huff, but didn’t respond because he was already going through the transformation back into Bruce. His grasp on her tightened momentarily, not enough to hurt but enough to be worrying, before it abruptly loosened. It was followed by the most gentle transformation back into Bruce that she had ever witnessed, leaving her kneeling on the ground with a mostly naked scientist in her arms in a matter of seconds.
“Well, hey there.” She said with a smile.
Bruce looked at her blankly for a moment, before his gaze began travelling down over her and she realised that she looked like she’d just stepped off the set of a horror movie. “Oh God, what did I-”
“No no no no no.” She reassured him, pulling him into a hug. “You were perfect. Hulk was perfect. This wasn’t from you.”
He tensed for a moment before sinking into her embrace like his strings had just been cut, forehead resting against her collar bone. His hand came up to rest over the stab wound. “I should -”
“It’s fine, Brucie-bear. I’ll be right as rain in no time, I promise.” She assured him, squeezing his hand while noticing movement out of her peripheral vision. It looked like the rest of the dream team had arrived. “Fine as Dr. Banner is, he doesn’t need to flaunt it. Maybe one of you could make yourselves useful and could get a blanket or jacket or spare clothes for him.” She called toward them without taking her attention off of Bruce. Maybe it was cowardice on her part, but so far she’d interacted with the only Avengers she planned on dealing with in this timeline. She wasn’t about to get drawn back into their bullshit. It had been a year for her since the civil war and that still wasn’t enough time to soothe her fury and hurt.
One of the so-called heroes cautiously stepped toward them. She felt Bruce grow more tense with every approaching step, and soothingly rubbed her hand over the back of his neck. A moment later a blue, woolen jacket was being draped over Bruce’s shoulders. She stared at it uncomprehendingly for a moment before finally raising her gaze.
“Bucky.” She breathed in surprise.
“Hey, doll. Long time no see.” He greeted, attempting for nonchalance, but his eyes gave away his inner turmoil. “Toni Stark , was it?”
Chapter 4: A price of change
Is there a cost to changing the timeline?
Wow. I would say that I was accommodating all of the requests for Bucky's POV, but this has been written for months. Also, kudos to Katch22 for noticing the tension in the last chapter.
Bucky’s emotions had been vacillating wildly between disbelief, relief, and heart-rending jealousy. Once Toni and Dr. Banner had slipped out of the room, the door had locked behind them. Fury hadn’t wasted any time in ordering one of his subordinates to get the doors back open through something in the computer. The Director had then brought up the surveillance feeds in time for them to watch Toni promptly drop the alien out of the helicarrier.
And then she had proceeded to tell Banner all of his intimate details and that she was apparently a time traveller. It was Toni. It was his Toni. And damn if that didn’t sting because it explained so much about the mystery that was Toni Carbonell, but she’d kept it a secret from him to the very end. And here she was spilling her guts in a matter of minutes to a man who had apparently once been her lover.
That was where the blinding jealousy came into play. He didn’t miss the way that Steve kept giving him concerned looks tempered by visible outrage, but was thankfully holding his tongue. Bucky kept things under control, thankfully, until the video surveillance showed Toni in her armour grappling with the alien, who had apparently been invisible and messing with them this whole time. And god, if there was any lingering doubt that this was the woman he loved it was gone the second the armour came out.
Banner hesitated for a moment before throwing himself through the hole in the floor after them. And then Fury was going ballistic.
“Fucking Starks!” Fury snarled. “I need a threat assessment on Toni Stark five minutes ago! And get eyes on them!”
The SHIELD techs scrambled to obey, but Bucky was still caught on the man’s immediate concern. It was the same thing that had happened in the war. The brass just automatically began labelling her an enemy agent without even getting proof.
“Toni’s not a threat.” He said firmly, daring to stare down the director.
“And how the hell would you know, Sergeant?” Fury demanded.
Right. Well now he’d put his foot in his mouth again. He hesitated for a moment before sighing. “Because I knew her. She was in the war with us. She saved my life.”
He pointedly ignored the way that Steve was staring all betrayed at him. After Steve had stolen from her within minutes of meeting her, he hadn’t exactly be eager to trust him with Toni’s secret.
“Oh, I see. So she saved your life once. That means she not a threat? Does that look like no threat to you, Sergeant?” Fury said, gesturing to where the video feed had zoomed in on Toni’s armour and a green monster that must be Dr. Banner’s Hulk.
They both launched into battle as the field was suddenly flooded with copies of the alien. Toni moved like she was an avenging angel, practically dancing through magical attacks and strikes from the alien, taking any who got too close down, only for the aliens to form two more. Then she set her sights on one version of the alien in particular and it became apparent that she had been going easy on the others as she released missiles and energy blasts from her armour before tackling the alien to the ground.
“I’ve got an unknown combatant with a high tech suit of armour, who also happens to be a Hulk whisperer.” Fury growled. “She’s a goddamned threat. And that’s not even taking into consideration what kind of intel she knows if she actually is some kind of time traveller.”
The techs got the doors open at that moment and the other alien, Thor, shot out of the room as if his ass were on fire, racing toward the nearest exit. The Director cursed under his breath. “Well, don’t just stand there! Get down there! We need to contain this!”
So they did as they were told, racing after Thor even though the alien was long gone already. Apparently, aliens could fly. Instead, they ended up piling back into the quinjet and Agent Romanoff piloted it down to the ground, landing a short way from the battle. By the time they managed to get out, Loki was already down for the count with Thor hovering worriedly above him, and Toni was walking right toward the Hulk while her armour melted away.
His heart leapt to his throat at the sight, then promptly tried to vacate his body entirely when a meaty, green hand wrapped around Toni. Evidence of the Hulk’s destructive force was visible in the terrain all around them; Hulk wouldn’t even have to be trying too hard to crush her to death. But it didn’t happen. Because this was her former lover and she ended up hugging Hulk like there wasn’t any danger.
And just like that it was over. Loki was down and Banner was back in his normal, non-threatening form, cradled in Toni’s arms and she was calling for clothes. He took a few steps toward them as he pulled off his coat, then took note of the tension visible in Banner’s shoulders and wondered if the man was going to go green again.
Toni reassured Banner, but she didn’t even look at him until he’d dropped his jacket over Banner’s shoulders. And then it looked like she’d seen a ghost.
Banner noticed almost immediately and pulled away from her a little awkwardly. “You know each other?”
“Mmhmm. We met on my last time travelling misadventure.” She answered.
He’d thought he’d have something cutting to say to her, something about the way that she had lied to him for the entire time they’d known each other. Something about how she’d played him. About how it had clearly just been a game for her from the start. But his gaze got trapped on his tags resting over her heart. And nestled next to them was the ring that he had once thought he would propose to her with.
She was wearing his ring.
Any arguments he’d wanted to start with her evaporated like smoke in the wake of that revelation. She’d kept his tags. She’d taken his ring. She was still wearing them .
“You were on the Valkyrie?” She asked, snapping him out of his daze.
“Yeah. Me and Steve.” He nodded, then realised that it meant that she had known from the start that they were supposed to die in the Arctic Ocean. Except that they hadn’t died, had they? But . . . but he would have died in that ravine if Toni hadn’t caught him. It was giving him a headache just trying to sort out what should have or would have happened if she hadn’t been there. “You know Steve, don’t you?”
She let out a scornful huff before pushing herself to her feet and holding out a hand to Dr. Banner. “Quite well.” She said as she pulled the scientist up. She turned her head ever so slightly to the left, and he was aware that she was watching the others out of the corner of her eye. Then she smiled softly at him and took a step back. “I’m glad you’re okay, Bucky.” She said as her armour began forming up around her.
He could hear Fury shouting at him through his ear piece not to let her go, to stop her somehow, but he wasn’t stupid enough to try it. Instead, he smirked at her with all of his charm. “We should catch up, doll.”
“Ha. You’re going to have your hands full keeping Fury off your ass.” She told him then turned back toward the aliens. “Thor, I’ll be coming for a visit tomorrow.”
The alien prince nodded, and then Toni was launching herself into the sky. In a matter of seconds, she was out of sight. He shared a glance with Banner, then turned back to the others. Steve was pissed and Agent Romanoff didn’t look too pleased either, but yeah, no damn way he was turning on his girl again.
Toni landed on the balcony of the penthouse and was met with the raised guns of a dozen air force servicemen. Standing among them was Rhodey. He was standing . The sight of it hit her like a punch to the gut.
She let the helmet of her armour melt into the rest of the suit and Rhodey flinched back before ordering his men to lower their weapons. She strode into the penthouse like she was walking the catwalk, a wide smile across her lips.
“Hey, Platypus.” She greeted brightly, sliding into his space to lay a kiss on his cheek.
He looked at her like she’d grown a second head. “Ms. Stark.”
She frowned at the formality and pulled back from him. Okay fine, that was on her. She should have taken into account that he was in front of his subordinates. She brushed off the rejection and focused on the task at hand. “Did you find Dr. Selvig and the cube?” She asked.
“Yes. He didn’t put up a fight. We managed to knock him out. We’ve confined him to the guest room on this floor.” Rhodey answered stiffly.
“And the cube?” She asked.
He nodded toward her kitchen counter, where the Tesseract and its carrying mechanism were laying nonchalantly next to her coffeemaker. She approached it tentatively, frowning as she looked at it for the first time in five years. This cube had caused so much destruction. It had taken years to repair the damage from the invasion. Even when she’d built the first time machine, they’d still been repairing and rebuilding some of the buildings in the vicinity of the tower. Space whales took no prisoners and cared nothing for infrastructure damages. Many buildings had had to be completely demolished and rebuilt because of the structural damage.
She spied a briefcase through the open door to her home office and retrieved it before carefully putting the cube and the mechanism into the case and closing it away. She formed a link of handcuffs with her nanobots and attached the case to her wrist. Then she slipped down the hallway to the guest room with two soldiers standing outside of it and let herself inside. Selvig was splayed across the bed with a nasty bruise across his cheek, but he was alive and there had been no portal.
There had been no portal.
She let out a little hysterical laugh. She’d done it. She’d stopped it. The Chitauri never invaded. She’d saved New York from that horror. They would never know the terror of watching aliens and space whales fill the skies from through a fucking wormhole.
“Are you alright, Miss?” One of the soldiers asked.
“Fuck, yes. I’m brilliant. This is a very good day.” She said brightly. “We’re celebrating. Come on, you guys are fresh on leave, let’s have a welcome home party.”
“You don’t want your burglar guarded anymore?” The other soldier asked.
“Nah, he’s down for the count thanks to you guys.” She shrugged. “I’m going to go change into something more comfortable. You boys make yourselves at home. Check out the bar and help yourselves.”
She shimmied further down the hall to the master bedroom and threw open the closet, finding it almost laughably empty. It was clear that she hadn’t fully moved into the Tower yet. There were a handful of business suits for meetings, which just wouldn’t do for the occasion. So she scrounged around in one of the dressers and came up with a pair of shorts and a sweatshirt - typical workshop fare for whenever she wasn’t welding. It would have to do.
She made her way into the ensuite bathroom and let her armour melt away. Then she peeled away her bloody clothes, accidentally pulling the scab off of her fucking stab wound and making it bleed again. Extremis had prioritised healing up the organ damage, which meant that aside from stopping her from bleeding out, the wound was closing slowly. It didn’t help that she had barely slept or eaten in days either. She’d had a very shitty week, what with falling to her would-be death to trekking through a snowy ravine to getting blown up by her own time machine to fighting a god. But it was finally looking up.
She cleaned up most of the blood, then rummaged around under the sink for bandages. She’d hoped that she was done with her first aid days since Extremis, but no such luck. By the time she emerged from the bathroom in her fresh clothes, with her hair freshly braided, no one would be able to tell that her body was still stitching itself back together.
Hopefully it would be enough so that Rhodey wouldn’t worry.
When she emerged back into the main room, most of Rhodey’s men were examining her bar, but Rhodey himself was waiting for her with his arms crossed tightly over his chest and a frown on his face.
She glanced surreptitiously at the others but none of them were close enough to overhear them. “Hey there, Sour Patch.” She said softly.
He pursed his lips. “I want an explanation. Now.”
She frowned at his tone. Last time, he’d practically stormed her tower to get to her and make sure she was okay. “What the hell crawled up your ass, Rhodey?”
He pursed his lips again and nodded his head slightly. “Really? We don’t talk for almost fifteen years and you call me up out of the blue to apprehend a civilian. And I’m just supposed to take it in stride?”
She felt the blood drain from her face as her heart froze in her chest. That wasn’t possible. Rhodey was her fucking rock. He was the only one who had stood by her through all of the shit that life had thrown at her. He had stood by her even when it had cost him his ability to walk. How the fuck had she ruined that? How did saving Bucky make her fuck things up with Rhodey?
“Oh god, what did I do?” She breathed in horror. “What did I do to fuck us up?”
Rhodey’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Who the fuck are you?” He hissed.
She took a half step back from him, but he grabbed her arm firmly to keep her from moving away. She remained rooted to the spot, never once in her life facing the man when he was so angry. Even when she’d been going off the rails during the palladium poisoning, even when Rhodey had taken War Machine, he hadn’t looked this pissed.
“Colonel Rhodes, I will ask you only once to unhand Ms. Stark before I neutralise you.” JARVIS called firmly from the ceiling.
Which was, of course, enough to gain the attention of the rest of Rhodey’s men. The previously light mood disappeared in a heartbeat. Rhodey let her go, but was watching her no less suspiciously.
“If you will calm yourself, Colonel, this is a Toni Stark from an alternate timeline.” JARVIS explained coolly. “It appears that in the other timeline, you did not betray Miss’s trust.”
“What?” She asked blankly.
“Where’s the real Toni Stark then?” Rhodey asked instead of answering.
It was a good question. She hadn’t had the opportunity to think about it since landing back in the 21st century and stopping an alien invasion. Where was her other self? “Uh, JARVIS?”
“I am unsure. After the sudden explosion, I could find no trace of her. Perhaps you switched places.” Her AI suggested.
She paled even further. “Oh fuck.” If they had switched places, she was dead. That explosion would have burned until there was nothing left, and then burned a little more just for good measure. If she’d sent her non-Extremis self there, that Toni Stark was dead. The only other option she could think of was that she had just blighted the other Toni out of existence by replacing her entirely. Either way, there was no coming back from it, was there? “She’s dead.”
Rhodey flinched, a hint of shock and grief in his expression before it smoothed over into forced neutrality. “What the hell is going on? What the hell was that cube? What was with the armour? Who is Dr. Selvig? How the fuck is time travel real?”
“Right.” She nodded, noticing that all of the soldiers were watching and listening closely. She walked over to the bar, pulling down a bottle of scotch before lining up enough glasses for them all. “What the hell is going on, is that we just averted an alien invasion. Congratulations. You’re all heroes.”
She poured for them all and pushed the glasses toward them before taking her own glass up and letting the liquor burn down her throat. It was the nicest drink she’d had in about a year. Fuck the forties. “Cheers.”
“We’re going to need more details than that.” Rhodey said, but he downed his drink like it was water anyway.
“If you were paying attention to the news over the last couple hours, you might have noticed a guy terrorising folks in Germany. His name is Loki. He’s part of an alien race that exists in our mythology as gods. So, Loki was mind controlled to coming here and taking over. Last time, in my timeline, we didn’t know what was coming for us. While we were busy dancing to Loki’s tune, Dr. Selvig, who was also mind controlled, broke in here and set up the Tesseract, that’s the cube, to open a fucking wormhole. On the other side of that wormhole is an alien invasion force the likes of which no one on Earth has ever seen.”
Yeah, none of the guys were feeling all that cheerful anymore. “No one assembles a force like that if they don’t plan on using it.”
She nodded, raising her glass to the guy who had spoken. “Yup. That was my point. But no one believed me in my timeline. Then again, none of them saw what I saw. We’ve managed to buy ourselves some time though.”
“So you stopped it?” Rhodey asked. “In your timeline?”
“Yeah. Kinda. Me, the Hulk, Loki’s brother Thor, a freshly defrosted Captain America, and two spies/assassins.” She shrugged.
“You realise that this is starting to sound ridiculous, right?” Rhodey asked.
She shrugged. “Well, SHIELD also donated a nuke for the endeavour, which they launched at Manhattan and I had to redirect through the wormhole. So, yeah, it was a fun day.” She managed to say it nonchalantly, as if it hadn’t scarred her for life. But that wouldn’t happen again. They had fucking stopped it. The Tesseract was securely cuffed to her wrist. Tomorrow, she would send it back to Asgard with the Odinsons along with the Mind Stone.
Before she could further discuss the implications of an alien invasion and the preparations that would still need to be made to prepare them for what she knew had to still be coming for them, she spied a quinjet touching down on her helipad off of her balcony. She frowned at it and started pouring another round of drinks for her guests.
“Lock down the penthouse for me, J.” She murmured. She was about done with letting SHIELD walk all over her. It was amazing the things you think about while freezing to death in a Siberian bunker. While she’d pared down her last regrets to only trusting Steve and getting Rhodey hurt, she had had the time to reexamine basically all of her life choices. At that time, while bleeding out and freezing to death, she had concluded that all of her troubles had basically started compounding the day she had let Fury walk all over her after revealing herself as Iron Queen. Looking back, she’d been able to reflect on all of the ways she had been manipulated by, not only the Avengers, but SHIELD and members of her Board of Directors too. She was fairly determined not to let that happen again.
“Of course, Miss.” JARVIS replied easily. “Shall I engage security measures?”
She frowned. The tower hadn’t had security features at this point in her original timeline. She had only included them after she’d been forced to chat with Loki to buy time. “What do you got?”
“I have a full array of Stark Industries’ best lethal and nonlethal weaponry at my disposal.” JARVIS said proudly.
She grimaced. But that would make sense, wouldn’t it? This timeline’s Toni Stark hadn’t had a violent wake up call in the form of an assassination attempt gone bad. This timeline’s Toni Stark hadn’t become intimately acquainted with the horror her weapons’ victims felt. So there would have been no reason for this Toni Stark to have shut down the weapons division. She would have to . . . look into that, but with an alien invasion imminent, she probably couldn’t in good conscience shut it down.
“Best not, JARVIS.” She said after a moment. Entertaining as it would be to watch them all run for cover, it was better not to show her hand so quickly.
She turned back to her guests and resumed refilling their drinks as Fury himself disembarked from the quinjet. She wasn’t sure if she was more amused or annoyed that the man had deigned to come all this way to visit her. Most often he had demanded that she go to him. He only ever came to her when he was trying to twist her to his will.
Fury was followed by Rogers, Barnes, Romanoff and Barton. She noted the presence of the last man with interest. She’d been uncertain how things would progress with him after she’d changed so much from the timeline she knew, but she also hadn’t really cared after he’d made those comments about Rhodey after he fell. She wondered if he’d still led that attack on the helicarrier or not. Either way, it was surprising he was here. And already too. He had to be fresh from the mind control and the first thing they’d done was strap him into a jet to invade her tower.
Well, at least it informed her that they were thinking of her as a definite enemy. Though what they hoped that Barton would be able to do against her, she had no clue. There was no sign of Bruce or Thor, so by that vein she was surprised that Bucky had been allowed to come. Though knowing Steve like she did, she could assume that he’d kicked up a fuss about being separated from his beloved Bucky.
Fury approached the patio door, but it didn’t open for him. When he tried to open it manually, he found it locked. She knew that they couldn’t see anything through the glass, but she and her guests were treated to their expressions of annoyance and aggravation. She was waiting to see how long they would linger before giving up, when Rogers decided that waiting was for lesser men.
The glass was not bulletproof at this point in the timeline; it hadn’t been until after Loki had effortlessly defenestrated her. But even if it had been, it stood no chance against the force of a vibranium shield wielded by an annoyed super soldier.
“Is that Captain America?” One of the soldiers asked, just as the sliding glass patio door was shattered.
“Jesus Christ, Stevie!” Bucky protested over the sounds of shattering glass tinkling across marble floors. “This isn’t the goddamned war! You can’t just break into places as you please!”
Neither Romanoff or Barton seemed phased by the willful destruction of property and Fury just calmly stepped through the now empty door frame as if he didn’t even notice it, hands clasped behind his back and one eye glaring balefully at her and the array of men around her.
“Well, if it isn’t my favourite pirate.” She quipped as she took another sip of her drink. “Shall I send the bill for my door to SHIELD or to Rogers directly?”
“Cut the crap, Stark.” Fury snapped.
She frowned and set the briefcase with the Tesseract on a shelf behind the bar, willing her nanobot cuffs to attach to the support strut, all while never taking her eyes off of the intruders. If this led to a fight, there was no way she was going to be doing it one-handed. “I’m sorry. Do you have a warrant? I’d like to see it.”
“I have probable cause.” Fury glowered as he further approached the bar. Surprisingly, none of Rhodey’s men backed down, forming a practical wall of soldiers between them.
“Oh? Pretty sure you still need a warrant. And probable cause of what, exactly?” She asked nonchalantly.
“Of a civilian possessing advanced weapons of mass destruction.” Fury said confidently, as if he thought she was just going to roll over for him after being caught out. It was more than evident that this version of Fury wasn’t familiar with her at all. Either that, or the other Toni had been a fucking pushover.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but Stark Industries is a weapons manufacturer, is it not?” She asked, turning to Rhodey and hoping for support.
“Yep.” The colonel said with a shrug.
She nodded thoughtfully. “And what position do I hold at the company right now?”
“You are currently the CEO of Stark Industries and the Branch Director of the StarkTech subsidiary.” JARVIS answered helpfully from above, startling Fury and his minions.
“I see. Well, surely as the CEO of a weapons manufacturing company, I would have all of the requisite permits to allow me to possess such weaponry.” She hummed, tapping a finger obnoxiously against her lower lip in a parody of innocent confusion.
“Indeed, Miss. All of our permits are current until the new year.” JARVIS answered.
“I told you to cut the crap. You do not want me as an enemy, Stark.” Fury interrupted.
“Well, I sure as fuck don’t want you as a friend. I tried that once. Didn’t work out so good for me.” She shrugged.
“Turn over the armour.” He ordered without preamble, completely ignoring reality.
She laughed in his face. “Why would I?” She asked.
“Because, as I said, you do not want me as an enemy.” Fury continued.
She smiled. “Oh, Nicky, I see your game. I know your playbook. What’s next on the list? Oh, yeah. Declaring me an enemy agent, isn’t it?”
“You did work for Hydra.” Steve said darkly.
“Ha!” She barked mirthfully. “The irony! You don’t get why that’s funny yet, but you will. And for the record, I have never worked for Hydra.”
“I’m sure we can just talk all of this out like reasonable people.” Bucky said softly, but he looked worried for her.
She glared at him. Well, now she knew why they’d brought him. He was the soft sell, the good cop to Fury and Steve’s bad cops. She still wasn’t sure what to feel about him. He had legitimately apologised to her for turning on her, but the fact still remained that he’d had practically no faith in her. And regardless of the warm fuzzy feelings that his feelings for her engendered, she had learned her lesson the hard way about giving her heart to people that didn’t trust her.
She wasn’t going to do that again.
“Oh, Bucky-bear, you know that the armour doesn’t come off.” She cooed at him.
Fury scowled at that.
“Unless you’re draining Barnes and Rogers dry to get the serum back, I’m afraid you have no precedent to try taking the armour from me.” She suggested with a shrug. “Though killing a national icon or two might not gain you any favours.”
“I need you to come in.” Fury finally said.
“Oh, is that all you need?” She asked. “Then I don’t know why you’re here. You clearly still have Loki in custody. Undoubtedly, Thor is lingering near his brother. And I quite clearly told him that I would be visiting them tomorrow. So all you needed was a bit of patience.”
“I do not operate on your schedule, Stark.” Fury snapped.
“No?” She wondered. “Huh. Well I sure as fuck don’t operate on yours. And since you’re the one that wants something from me, I would think you would be more accommodating.”
“Oh, I will be happy to show you just how accommodating SHIELD can be.” The man said it pleasantly enough, but she would have had to have been an idiot not to catch the obvious threat.
She smiled, showing all of her teeth. “Great. Then I’ll see you tomorrow.” She said brightly. “Now please get out of my tower before I give my AI permission to ‘neutralise’ you, as he has wanted to do since you landed.”
Fury narrowed his eye, but both Romanoff and Barton were glancing around the room a bit nervously at the threat, checking for obvious weapon mounts and cameras, as if her tech would ever, in any universe, be so amateur to be found out so easily. Rogers and Barnes probably didn’t even know what an AI was.
“Fine. Tomorrow, Stark.” Fury growled before turning and sweeping out of the building back toward the quinjet, leather duster flaring in the wind like a scene from a fucking movie. What a dramatic asshole. Barton and Romanoff followed quickly in the director’s wake, though Bucky lingered and Rogers hovered in Bucky’s shadow, apparently refusing to leave them alone.
“Are you healed?” He asked after a moment of silence.
“Right as rain.” She replied easily before finishing off her drink.
He watched her for a moment before his gaze travelled over Rhodey’s men scrutinisingly. She wasn’t an idiot. This looked like typical party girl Toni Stark at it again, what with running fresh from battle to a bar with a dozen men. But she would rather them think that about her than for them to know that she had Selvig and the Tesseract in hand.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then.” He said with a polite nod before heading toward the jet, Rogers glued to his side as if he were afraid she was going to snatch Bucky away from him forever. He paused at the smashed sliding door and turned back to her. “Send Steve the bill for the door.” He said, gesturing to the mess around them.
“But I-” Steve began, but cut off abruptly at the incredulous look on Bucky’s face. “Fine.”
She watched them go in silence, waiting until the quinjet had lifted off before pouring herself and a couple of the others another drink. “Fucking SHIELD.” She grumbled under her breath. She would have to tarp up the door so she didn’t get birds in the penthouse. After the invasion in her timeline, the tower had ended up full of birds thanks to the numerous broken windows. It had taken weeks to hunt them all down and humanely have them trapped and released back into the wild.
“Who knew Captain America was such an asshole.” One of the men said in astonishment.
She raised her hand. “Me. I knew.”
Rhodey scoffed. “You’re not actually going to meet with them tomorrow, are you?”
“Of course, I am. I’ve got to touch base with the Alien Bros. before they head back to Asgard. And I want to check up on Dr. Banner as well.” She shrugged.
“Toni, that man all but outright threatened to have you detained.” Rhodey said grimly.
“Don’t worry about it.” She said nonchalantly. She would have to try to make some arrangements to safeguard herself from being disappeared, but that could wait until she no longer had company.
Rhodey pursed his lips. “I’m going with you.”
“Ha. Why would I let you do that? Apparently, we’re not even friends in this timeline.” She countered with a point blank accusation. She desperately wanted to have her rock back. She had missed Rhodey like a missing limb while she’d been trapped in the forties. But JARVIS had hinted that he had abused her trust and she had learned the hard way that everyone was capable of betraying her. Why was she always betrayed? Why did no one find her worthy of their loyalty? What the fuck was so wrong with her that people couldn’t even have a little faith in her?
Rhodey flinched as if she’d slapped him, which was not a good sign. Or maybe it was? Did that mean that he regret whatever he’d done to the other Toni? A couple of Rhodey’s men drifted away from the bar in an obvious attempt to give them privacy, which meant that whatever had happened between them had probably been a public scandal.
She poured herself another drink and reattached the Tesseract to her wrist before drifting over to a semi-secluded seating area. Rhodey followed reluctantly and settled on the settee across from her.
“Spill.” She ordered before taking a sip of her drink. She was going to have to eat something soon too. JARVIS brushed up against her and Extremis came up with an order confirmation from a local ‘artisan’ pizza place. Which was . . . weird, but also cool, because any kind of pizza sounded great right now. Hell, any kind of food in generally sounded great about now.
Rhodey sighed and rubbed a hand over his head. “It only happened once. Not that it matters. I know it was unforgivable.”
“You’re going to have to be more specific.” She prompted.
Rhodey hesitated for a moment longer before going for broke. “I cheated on you. And the paps found out and so you found out about it from a fucking tabloid. You - other you - cut ties with me right then and there. No chance to explain myself, not that I really could. You called off the wedding.”
She stared at him blankly for a long moment, too long considering her brain was basically a computer and her processing speeds were off the fucking charts. But it just . . . was not computing. “Wait . . . you and . . . other me were together ?” She couldn’t quite keep the hint of revulsion from her tone.
“.... you and other me weren’t?” Rhodey countered.
“Ew. No. He’s my fucking brother, my best friend. But I never even want to think about bumping uglies with him. Gross.” She protested.
This Rhodey opened and closed his mouth a few times, evidently unsure if he should be offended or not. He shouldn’t be, because really they’d had a pretty much perfect friendship without complicating it with messy romantic feelings. Ask anyone who knew her, she didn’t do feelings.
“Huh.” He finally settled on.
“Yeah. Weird.” She hummed. But she couldn’t just leave it at that. Because this Rhodey had been Other Toni’s fucking fiance, but he’d still found her lacking. “The other woman must have been something special, huh?” She found herself asking, stupidly. It was none of her business, but that woman had stolen Rhodey from her; Rhodey, who had been her rock since pretty much the moment they’d met.
Rhodey was quiet for a moment, watching her almost mournfully. “No. She could never hold a candle to you.”
“Then why?” She asked. It didn’t matter. It hadn’t happened to her. Really, everything that had happened to Other Toni was irrelevant. But she couldn’t help herself. She had to know why she hadn’t been good enough.
Rhodey sighed and leaned his elbow against his knees, seemingly slumping in on himself like all of his strings had been cut. “I don’t have an excuse. There were circumstance - reasons - but none of them can excuse what I did.”
And yeah, this might not be her Rhodey, but she could still read a deflection off of him from a mile away. Usually, with her Rhodey, she would have let it go. Because her Rhodey didn’t lie to her or betray her. But this one did, so she was going to continue gnawing on this until he gave her an answer.
“Just tell me.” She ordered.
“I was angry.” Rhodey said after a moment. “We were getting married. It was six months away. I was on tour, but I got leave and I wanted to come see you. But you were in the middle of the European expansion of StarkTech and were all over the globe setting up manufacturing plants and offices and procuring suppliers. You - she - was never there. And neither was I, but I got on leave and we’d made plans. Then something came up last minute and she jetted off to Madrid and I just was pissed and made a shitty decision and ruined the best thing in my life.”
She watched him for a moment silently. She shouldn’t feel so betrayed; it didn’t happen to her . But she did. To think that the only thing that had severed them was a bit of distance and a lack of sex. She was never more glad that she and her Rhodey had never decided to try the romance thing. Nothing good ever came out of her trying the romance thing.
“Well . . . that was an undeniably shitty thing to do.” She said after a moment of awkward silence.
Rhodey ducked his head, staring at the floor between his feet before he nodded. “I know. I didn’t expect you to forgive me.” He answered. “But I still think that you shouldn’t go alone tomorrow. If you want nothing to do with me after that, that’s fine. I just don’t want to hear about you disappearing into Gitmo or something.”
She smiled sadly. “No offense, Rhodey - and I actually mean that - but even if you came with me, it wouldn’t give them pause. You’re not in a position that they would find inconvenient enough to not disappear you right along next to me.”
“You can’t risk it, Toni. What about -” Rhodey protested.
“No. I’m going. But I won’t go alone. I’ll find someone that would give them pause. I’m not a complete idiot.” She scoffed.
She already had a couple ideas on who that could be. Who better to pit against SHIELD than a rival organisation? Throw in a whole shwack of international safeguards, and she was pretty sure that they wouldn’t risk it.
“Promise?” He asked.
“I promise. It’ll work out. It’s not like they could contain me anyway.” She said with a shrug.
SHIELD didn’t know about the extents of Extremis’s abilities. They also didn’t know about the lengths JARVIS would no doubt go to if they did somehow manage to separate them. Though that would be quite the feat now that JARVIS seemed to have permanently latched himself to her mind.
Rhodey’s mouth pressed into an unimpressed frown but he nodded all the same. “Alright. Just be safe.”
Chapter 5: A line of ducks
Toni gets her ducks in a row for SHIELD's sake.
Toni had had a productive night and thought she might have managed to cover her ass from all but an outright assassination attempt by sniper fire. And even then, she was reasonably sure that she would survive that. She remembered how hard it had been to take out Killian, and her Extremis was better than that, even if it acted slower.
So yes, she woke up the next morning in a reasonably good mood for one day post attempted alien invasion. She was certainly doing better than she had last May 5, 2012. She’d slept like the dead, without even a hint of a nightmare, after demolishing three large pizzas to herself.
She’d wanted to sleep for days, but the nine hours she’d managed to snag had managed to recharge her batteries enough that she no longer felt like a zombie. She might have had time for more, but JARVIS had awoken her with an apologetic “Miss, Dr. Selvig is awake. I am uncertain if I should allow him to leave his room.”
She hummed into her pillow then forced herself to get up before padding over to the guest room still in her pajamas and opening the door to find Dr. Selvig pacing at the foot of the bed. The man jumped when he became aware of her presence and stepped back from her, looking genuinely afraid. “I know it will sound crazy, but I couldn’t stop myself from coming here.”
“I know.” She nodded. “How are you feeling, Dr. Selvig?”
“You know who I am?” The man asked in surprised.
“Yeah. There’s a whole time travelling bullshit explanation, but I know you.” She shrugged. “How’s your face? And your head?” She asked again.
“Fine.” The man nodded quickly. “Well, both hurt like a bitch, but at least I’m in control of myself again.”
She nodded in agreement. She could just imagine what that might feel like. She had no idea if she would ever get to feel that kind of relief. She still couldn’t be certain what all Wanda had done to her head and how much of it was still lingering. It had taken her weeks after the Ultron fiasco, sifting through every last detail, to realise that that vision she’d suffered in the Sokovian Hydra base had been implanted by Wanda. What else that vision had done, or what else had been altered or implanted after Steve had welcomed her onto the team with open arms, she might never know.
“Feel up to some breakfast? I’ve been told I make a mean omelette.” She suggested.
“I’m not under arrest?” The older man asked.
“Of course not. You’ve been through enough.” She smiled. “Now, I don’t know about you, but I could do with about a gallon to coffee.”
She left the door open as she made her way out into the kitchen. She smiled and sent a tentative touch to JARVIS through Extremis when she noticed that the coffeemaker was already brewing. He reached back and her smile grew wider. It would take her a while to get used to this. She had never attempted it with FRIDAY because she really hadn’t been in the right state of mind after being resurrected and having her life fall apart. While experimenting with Extremis, FRIDAY had always remained apart from her, containing her in the relatively safe confines of the Compound’s security systems and electronics. The last thing she’d needed was to venture out into the internet when practically everyone hated her guts for daring to stand up against Captain America.
Selvig joined her just a few moments later, still looking uncertain, but grateful when she placed a steaming cup of coffee in front of him on the island. “So . . . time travel?” The man said after a few moments of awkward silence as Toni set about cracking eggs into a bowl to make some omelets.
“Mmhmm. Past and future.” She shrugged. It was going to be annoying telling this story every time she met someone.
“How did you - ? What kind of mechanism - ? The energy output required for time travel would be enormous, wouldn’t it?” Selvig questioned.
“Yeah.” She nodded. “It was pretty substantial.”
No way she was going into more detail about the nine arc reactors nestled throughout her body that she had had to combine to power the time machine. And no way was she going to tell someone as smart as Selvig about the machine she had made either. The last thing they needed was everyone and their dogs fucking up the timeline for shits and giggles. It was bad enough that she had done it.
Selvig smiled slightly. “The ethical implications of time travel are quite substantial as well.”
Her mood dampened a bit as she thought about the fate of her other self. If she had known, would she have still travelled back to the future? Or if she had stayed in the past, would she have somehow compromised her existence in this timeframe? Would she have faded from existence the second that her other self was born? Could two versions of the same person exist in the same timeframe?
“Yeah.” She sighed as she poured her egg mixture into the pan and began chopping up toppings.
She’d spent some time before falling asleep wondering if she should risk building another time machine to jump into her actual timeframe, but at this point she didn’t know how much help that would be. If she did make another time jump, would Other Toni somehow reappear? That seemed unlikely. More likely was that there would be no Toni Stark for five years, then she would pop back into existence. But Rhodey would still be her ex and Bucky would still be running around in the 21st century completely intact, so it wouldn’t really be her timeline anyway.
She had really fucked things up, hadn’t she?
She managed to get Selvig off of the topic of time travel and onto the topic of interstellar travel over breakfast. The man was brilliantly smart in his field and she found herself learning more from him over breakfast than she had from the entire briefing packet Coulson had dropped into her lap in the last timeline.
They had a handful of napkins and scrap paper spread out around them with complex equations scribbled on them when the elevator dinged and Pepper stepped out. As ever, she was the epitome of fierce professionalism in a soft rose and gold business suit and her hair pulled up into a severe bun.
“Hey, Pep.” She greeted with a smile.
Pepper jerked to a stop, eyes widening in surprise. “Are you freaking kidding me?!” She snapped. “You missed the meeting with U-GIN Genetics so you could fly off to New York for plastic surgery?”
Her hand came halfway up to her face before she aborted the movement. Right, Extremis had made her look like she was practically a child. And somehow Rhodey hadn’t mentioned it. Then again, this Rhodey hadn’t seen her in a long time, but Pepper would have likely been in her company day in and day out.
“Uh, not quite?” She said uncertainly. “Wait, U-GIN? Dr. Cho’s company?” She asked. It was way too soon for her to be getting involved with Dr. Cho. Last time, she hadn’t heard of the Korean doctor until at least a year and a half from now. It wasn’t until just before the Ultron disaster that she’d finally convinced the doctor to partner with her for a research project and most of that had only been because Bruce was involved in the project.
“Yes, Dr. Cho!” Pepper snapped. “She flew in to L.A. last night from Seoul and I only found out ten minutes before her meeting that you weren’t even on the same side of the country! They’re threatening to drop the contract. This is going to severely diminish our negotiating position. You were excited about this one. What the hell, Toni?”
She grimaced. That didn’t sound good. Especially because the Cradle technology was the cutting edge of medical science and she firmly believed that it was the way of the future. If Other Toni had already been in talks with her, they likely shared the same sentiment about that.
“Okay, Pep, I’m gonna -”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” Pepper cut her off.
Toni paused and stared at the other woman for a moment. Okay, great. Now she was starting to get a bad feeling about this. “Pepper?”
“Did you have a stroke?” Pepper asked.
“No.” She answered. “I time travelled.”
There was a moment of awkward silence between them, as if Pepper were waiting for the punchline of some kind of joke. When it didn’t come, Pepper furrowed her brow in confusion. “What?”
“Yeah. Time travel. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” She shrugged, trying to say it nonchalantly.
“Okay.” Pepper said, and it was clear from her tone that she was just humouring her. “Whatever. We need to salvage the situation with U-GIN. I need you to attend a video conference with Dr. Cho. I’ve already set it up. She knows to expect you.”
“Right.” She said, nodding blankly. God, it had been so long since she’d been forced to do a meeting like this. “Uh, let me put some clothes on then, I guess. And what is the meeting about? JARVIS, I’m gonna need the spark notes version. Also, why didn’t you tell me I was missing a meeting, buddy?”
“Apologies, Miss. I became . . . distracted.” JARVIS said hesitantly, and it reminded her so much of what Vision had said after Rhodey was shot down that it brought her to a halt.
“Distracted?” She asked. That shouldn’t be able to happen. JARVIS had the most expansive server bank in the world.
There was a long moment of silence before she felt a hesitant brush against her Extremis and JARVIS’s task manager flickered into her mind. He was expending a large portion of his processing power to maintain his connection to her mind and seemed to have been discarding a number of other tasks as non-essential. Dr. Cho’s meeting had just been one of them.
“I see.” She said after a few seconds.
“I apologise, Miss.” He said stiffly and she felt him begin to pull away from her.
“No no, buddy. It’s okay.” She protested quickly. “I… uh … we’ll figure this out, J. But don’t go.”
She would have to invest in even further expanding JARVIS’s server banks. And maybe she would boot up a different AI (FRIDAY) to take some of the strain off. Then again, she wasn’t sure if her brain would be able to handle interfacing with two of her children at the same time. Maybe she’d need to practice with this a bit more first.
“What just happened?” Pepper asked suspiciously.
“I told you. I’m a time traveller. I’ve got some high tech upgrades.” She shrugged before turning to Dr. Selvig, who had watched the entire scene with a surprised and speculative expression on his face. “Doctor, I wouldn’t recommend going back to SHIELD just yet, but if there’s someplace you’d like to go, just let me know and I will arrange transport. Is Dr. Foster still working out of New Mexico?”
“No. She’s been a consultant for SHIELD for the last few years. Thankfully, she wasn’t at the same facility Loki attacked.” Selvig answered. “I could only imagine what he would have done to her.”
“Uh, right. Well, think about where you might want to chill for a bit. I mean, unless you really really want to go to SHIELD. But I wouldn’t recommend going with me.” She hedged then winced at the impatient look Pepper was giving her. “Right. I’ll be right back. JARVIS, the significantly abbreviated version of the deal with U-GIN, please.”
She skedaddled back to her room and dressed in one of the business suits that were hanging in her closet; a practical charcoal pant suit with a loose red silk blouse and a black leather belt with a gold buckle. She hid Bucky’s tags out of view beneath her shirt as she slipped into a pair of gold heels. She left her hair in a braid, only taming a couple wispy pieces around her temples with a bit of hairspray and was back in the kitchen in a record-breaking nine and a half minutes. All the while, JARVIS updated her on the specifics of the partnership StarkTech was trying to join into with U-GIN.
Pepper looked actually impressed at her timeliness, though she was a bit less impressed by her lack of makeup. Alas, she could only do so much in such a short period of time. Besides, Extremis made her all dewey and fresh faced like a teenager without an acne problem.
“Let’s do this.” She said, rubbing her hands together.
Pepper hesitated. “What did you mean by time travel?”
“I’m from a different timeline. This is a little early to be partnering with U-GIN, based on what happened in my timeline, but don’t worry. JARVIS briefed me and I worked out a similar deal with Helen in my timeline.” She said confidently as she tossed her braid over her shoulder.
“You’re serious?” Pepper asked.
“As a heart attack.” She quipped. Once upon a time that would have earned her an annoyed smack from Pepper due to her increased risk of heart attack after the arc reactor was implanted into her chest. This Pepper didn’t even blink at her sass. But then again, Other Toni never had the arc reactor in her chest, so there was no need to be sensitive about cardiac failure.
“How is that possible?” Pepper asked.
“Uh . . . well . . . I got really drunk and built a time machine which spit me out in 1943. And then I spent a year rocking around the forties while I built another one trying to get back. Only to apparently miscalculate and end up here instead. And I changed a couple things, so it’s not quite how I remember. Some things happened differently.”
“You’re serious?” Pepper asked again, having a hard time coming to terms with the concept probably. Not that she could really blame her. Time travel was a bit out there even for her and she’d done it twice.
“Yup.” She nodded. “It’ll be fine, Pep. Helen has saved my life a few times. She’s basically my primary physician because of all the fucked up things going on with my physiology now. I know how to work her through this deal. Besides, we’ve already done this once.”
“My name is Virginia.” Pepper answered firmly.
Toni frowned. “Other Me didn’t call you Pepper?”
“No.” Pepper answered. “Why would she? Why do you?”
She licked her lips and glanced away. “The first time I met you, you pepper sprayed my bodyguard to get in to meet me and save me a few million bucks from an accounting error.” She answered with a shrug. “I hired you as my PA on the spot.”
“That didn’t happen.” Pepper said with a frown. “I worked hard for my position. It took me a long time to gain your and your father’s respect. It wasn’t just handed to me, especially not for assaulting someone.”
“Pepper.” She said, ignoring the way that the woman’s face tightened in disapproval. “I have the highest respect for you. In fact, there is no one in the world that I have more respect for. You are the most capable person I have ever met. I don’t care if we met differently, that isn’t going to change because your competence is locked down into your very DNA. You - other you - were one of only a few people that I ever gave my full trust.”
Pepper looked stunned at the proclamation. “Oh.” She breathed out softly in surprise. “I . . . well. . . um . . .”
“Will you let me call you Pepper?” She asked.
“Okay.” Pepper agreed softly, still looking like a stiff breeze might knock her over. Clearly her other self had never let Pepper know how much she was appreciated. Then again, her own Pepper probably hadn’t known until she’d given her the company. She would have to get better at that. Much as she hated the touchy-feely emotional conversations, she clearly needed to have more of them.
“Great. Let’s get this show on the road.” She said brightly. “Dr. Selvig, just let JARVIS know where to arrange transport. Unless you want to stay here a bit longer to recover. You’re welcome to stay for as long as you’d like.”
“I’ll think about what I want to do next. Thank you, Ms. Stark.” Dr. Selvig said gratefully.
“Sure. There’s no rush.” She agreed.
She moved with Pepper toward the elevator, the two of them as ever marching forward like they were about to enter battle. Her candid regard for the woman seemed to have added an extra shot of steel into Pepper’s spine.
It was clear that her other self had never been as close to Pepper as she had been, but she had a kernel of hope that maybe she and this Pepper could build something close to what she’d had with the other Pepper. At least what they’d had before Killian had fucked it all up for them and Pepper had decided to distance herself.
It felt like a long time since she’d had hope for anything. Instead, she had only duty and responsibility and atonement, compounded by gut-wrenching terror about what was coming for them.
Not this time.
Everett Ross sat calmly in the waiting room they had been directed to by a sharply dressed receptionist. He tapped his fingers together in his lap as he ran his gaze over his companions for this assignment. They were each from a different agency, but each was clearly well respected and some held higher ranks than he did. However, as far as he was aware, he was the only one that had been asked for by name.
Which was crazy. But then again, this whole situation was crazy. The American Ambassador to the UN had allowed him to listen to a recording of the call they had received. Toni Stark. The same Toni Stark that was known the world over for being the most ruthless and merciless business woman in existence, had apparently travelled through time. Well, that wasn’t too surprising, once he got over the concept of time travel. No one had ever been permitted to forget that Toni Stark was a genius.
What was more surprising was that instead of selling the supposedly advanced weapon technology she was in possession of, she had submitted herself to the UN for monitoring. In return, she had asked for a couple different things, including a protection detail led by him personally. His superiors had been on his ass within minutes, demanding to know what his connection to Toni Stark was and whether or not he was compromised.
But he had no connection. They had never met before. As far as he knew, they had never even attended the same event or crossed paths before. After a gruelling hour and a half long interrogation, he’d been shoved onto a plane and sent to New York, where he’d waited for the rest of his UN appointed team to arrive.
Among them was Andre Schneider, a German agent from the BND; Vasily Sokolov, a Russian agent from the KGB; Kazane Takahito, a Japanese field commander from the PSIA, and Eitan Abadi, an Israeli sniper that he had been given a partial profile for, but who most likely operated in a black ops unit. And him, a CIA intelligence officer. He was a good agent, but it wasn’t like he’d been expecting his star to rise for a few more years. It made him curious about what Toni Stark knew about him. If she actually had time travelled and she was asking for him by name, it meant that she had to know him.
It also meant that at some point in the future, he would have earned a position of trust from her. He wasn’t exactly sure if that was a good thing or not. Toni Stark was known for poaching people who caught her eye. He couldn’t imagine leaving the CIA, especially not for the private sector, so he was curious what kind of offer she might have given him in the future.
Andre, the BND agent, sighed and began tapping his fingers restlessly on the arm of his chair. They had been informed by the receptionist that Ms. Stark had been called into a meeting earlier that morning, but that she had been informed of their presence and that she would try to wrap things up as quickly as possible. That being said, they had only been waiting for a little over half an hour.
He was fully prepared to have to wait for the rest of the day, but he was pleasantly surprised when Ms. Stark rushed in a little under an hour after they had arrived. She looked confident and put together, but there was a hint of weariness around her eyes that suggested that the meeting might have been stressful.
Despite the stress, she smiled warmly at them as she entered. “Thank you for coming. I apologise for the wait. I had not considered my other self’s schedule when I set this up with the UN, and I had a meeting already scheduled. Agent Ross, it’s good to see you.” She welcomed, holding out her hand to shake.
“Ms. Stark.” He greeted, stepping forward to shake her hand. He was surprised by the firmness of her grip and the calluses on her hands. Clearly, this woman wasn’t quite the same sophisticated socialite and business magnate they were familiar with. He surreptitiously examined her when she turned to the other agents, taking note of her youthful appearance and the edge of a gnarled scar under the collar of her blouse.
He might be believing more about her time travelling story. She had admitted to the UN that she had undergone an experimental treatment that had left her more than human. She hadn’t gone into too much detail about the effects, but it seemed to have affected her aging. When the American ambassador had asked about the treatment that she had undergone, she’d admit that it hadn’t been voluntary and had refused to say any more.
He wasn’t sure if he believed that part, though. The thought of anyone managing to force the Toni Stark into anything was almost too unbelievable. This was the woman that had gained fame for utterly ruining every professor and business rival that had ever looked down on her. Anyone who had ever crossed her had come to regret it. There were even some rumours about her having people ‘disappeared’, though, of course, there was no concrete proof to back that up.
She greeted each member of the team just as warmly as she had greeted him, her smile gaining something of a vicious edge to it when she clapped her hands together. “Well, I hope you guys are ready for a field trip. How would you like to see SHIELD’s super secret helicarrier?”
“We go where you go, ma’am.” He answered dutifully.
She sent him a pouty glance over her shoulder as she led the way out of the room. “And here I thought you’d be excited. Ah, Mr. Sokolov is excited.” She said, pointing finger guns at the Russian agent, who simply grinned back with all of his teeth.
They were led through the building to the elevator which took them to a rooftop helipad. The chopper already had the rotors warming up before they all ducked down and piled into the aircraft. Once they were well on their way and all efforts at polite conversation had worn down into a semi-awkward silence, he finally dared to speak.
“My superiors told me that you asked for me specifically, Ms. Stark.” He finally broached through the headset speakers.
Judging by the interested looks on some of the others’ faces, they hadn’t all been privy to that information. Stark, for her part, merely nodded to him.
“Why?” He prompted when she didn’t speak further.
There was a long moment of silence as she watched him consideringly before she turned her gaze back out the window beside her. “We worked together for a while in the other timeline.”
“Together?” He asked in surprised. “I didn’t work for you?”
She turned back to him, scrutinising him further. “No. Shortly before I time travelled, you were assigned as my . . . well, basically my handler.” She shrugged. “I thought we worked well together. I know what kind of man you are.”
He almost hesitated to ask, but it wasn’t in his nature to persist in ignorance. “And what kind of man is that?”
“The type of man that knows when a situation calls for compromise. A man who doesn’t scorn negotiation, but who also isn’t afraid to make a stand.” She answered easily, as if the words she said couldn’t be considered praise, but were merely her honest assessment.
He found himself sitting a little taller in his seat. He had always prided himself on his ability to conjure workable solutions. Being ‘uncompromising’ had somehow seemed to become a compliment in the last few years, but in his experience, being stubborn tended to lead to more deaths and damage than trying to work out a deal. He shouldn’t be surprised that a businesswoman of Toni Stark’s magnitude had a similar philosophy.
“Thank you, ma’am.” He said after a moment, not quite sure if it was the right thing to say.
She shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s only the truth.”
A growing part of him wanted to forward his body cam footage to his superiors and have Toni Stark put down on his file as a character reference. The rest of him was simply pleased that she understood the value of compromise and negotiation. He had dealt with spoiled little rich girls off and on throughout his career and he hadn’t quite been sure what to expect from Toni Stark. But this assignment might not be so bad afterall.
Chapter 6: A name, at last.
Toni learns the name behind her nightmares.
As her helicopter touched down on the helicarrier, Toni took note of Coulson and Romanoff standing stiffly while waiting to receive them. Neither of them looked very pleased, so Toni plastered on her most vicious smile as she disembarked and her protection detail flanked her. She noted the disdainful sniff that Natasha gave her companions, no doubt thinking their skills quite lacking. They were each among the most accomplished agents of their organisations, but even if they couldn’t stand up to the Black Widow in a fight, that wasn’t where their might lay.
“Agent Coulson, I’m glad to see you survived this time.” She greeted, her tone saccharine even as she smiled like a shark scenting blood in the water. Coulson stiffened, his face going dangerously neutral. “Might I introduce my protection detail. This is Commander Takahito, Agent Sokolov, Agent Schneider, Captain Abadi and, of course, Agent Ross.”
Her smile widened a little further at the wooden expression Coulson was wearing. Oh yeah, Fury wasn’t going to be happy about her bringing foreign agents with her, but he really shouldn’t have pushed her.
“Now then, I have an appointment with Prince Thor and Prince Loki.” She said primly, straightening out her jacket and swinging her briefcase by her side as she instantly set off through the helicarrier, not waiting for Coulson or Natasha to escort her. Her detail flanked her easily, Agent Schneider remaining behind as had been discussed on the way over, to prevent anyone from tampering with their helicopter.
“What’s in the case, Ms. Stark?” Coulson asked as he caught up to her.
“It’s a present for Thor.” She answered.
“Ms. Stark, I need to verify the contents of your briefcase.” He protested, his tone gently plaintive, as if he were just an overworked agent trying to do his job and avoid getting in trouble from the higher ups.
“No you don’t, Phil.” She said firmly. Technically, it probably was a rule, but she wasn’t about to let SHIELD get their filthy hands on the Tesseract again. She slipped down a corridor toward the detention facility. JARVIS was in their system and directing her silently through Extremis. Surprisingly, he wasn’t leading her back toward the Hulk cage, so either they hadn’t had a replacement cage ready, or Thor had refused to allow it. Either way, it worked for her. The last thing she wanted was for Fury to drop Loki out of the helicarrier just to spite her.
“I’m afraid I must insist.” Coulson persisted, fingers wrapping around her arm that was linked to the briefcase.
Before she could say anything, Sokolov was wrenching the SHIELD agent’s hand away and Ross, Takahito and Abadi had formed up so closely around her that there was no way for either Coulson or Natasha to get close.
“Do not put your hands on me.” She growled, leveling the man with her most deadly glare. “Ever.”
Was that a trick of the light, or did she see a hint of actual wariness from the man? Coulson was a wolf in sheep’s clothing if she’d ever met one, and he only ever let people see what he wanted them to see, but the way he held up his hands placatingly before quickly dropping them and regaining his composure was rather telling.
“Ms. Stark -”
“Ever.” She repeated harshly before turning on her heel, leaving Coulson and Natasha following in the wake her and her detail. When they finally turned down a corridor to find Bruce sitting against the wall as he played solitaire with an old deck of cards, and Thor leaned against the wall next to a cell, she paused momentarily.
“I should be fine from here. I wouldn’t mind some privacy.” She told Ross.
The man scrutinised her carefully for a moment before nodding. “As you wish, ma’am.” He agreed, before gesturing to the others. They formed a line across the corridor, effectively blocking the way for Coulson and Romanoff. She had no illusions that it would hold for long in a fight, but each of them were wearing body cams that were streaming to a live feed that was being monitored by an independent UN task force. If SHIELD did anything too shady, there would certainly be consequences, even if that might not help them in the moment.
She strode confidently down the corridor, nodding to Bruce, before striding up to Thor to buss a kiss to his cheek and transfer her briefcase to his wrist instead. “Don’t open it or we’ll have all of SHIELD on our asses. Dr. Selvig is fine, by the way. We had breakfast together this morning.”
“Thank you, Lady Stark.” Thor said gratefully.
She nodded in acknowledgement before stepping past him to stand before the cell. Loki watched her silently. His cell left much to be desired. There was no furniture and the little room wouldn’t even be big enough for him to stretch out in. It was practically a closet. Loki was sat cross-legged in front of the plexiglass that made up the front of the cell, hands manacled in front of him, but at least that fucking muzzle was nowhere to be seen.
“How are you feeling, Reindeer Games?” She asked.
“Have you come to gloat? To glory in the defeat of your enemy?” He sneered, voice taking the same haughty drawl that she remembered from the other invasion. They hadn’t done much talking this time around.
“No. I came to ask you how you’re feeling, Prince Loki.” She countered as she crouched down so that they were at eye level.
“Surely that’s not all.” Loki countered.
“No, there are a couple other questions I want to ask about as well, but first I want to know how you’re feeling. Do you need medical attention? Did SHIELD offer you medical attention?” She asked. A little bit of kindness and concern for someone’s well being could go a long way. She would know; it was basically the best way to get under her own guard and she figured Loki probably wasn’t too different, based on what little she knew of him from the stories Thor told.
Loki frowned, “No. But it is unneeded. We heal faster than you mortals.” He answered, but didn’t quite stop his gaze from dropping to her side. There was no sign of the stab wound from the previous day. It had healed up quite nicely while she’d been sleeping.
“Good.” She nodded. “Have you been harmed since you were taken into custody?”
“I would not allow them to harm my brother.” Thor interjected.
She nodded grimly. “Did they try?”
Thor shifted uncomfortably. “There was a discussion after he was first taken into custody in Stuttgart about methods of making him talk. But I would never permit it.”
“Have they levelled charges against you, Prince Loki?” She asked, turning her attention back to the second prince.
“If they have, they have not informed us.” Loki replied, shrugging carelessly.
“If they haven’t told you, they haven’t charged you. Not that I thought they would. I’ll work on securing your release. I doubt they much want to deal with you anyway, since they can’t really contain you, but they might put up a fuss just to spite me.” She sighed.
“And who are you?” Loki asked. “Thor mentioned you were a seer, but nothing more than that.”
She blinked in surprise. He’d known all about each of them last time thanks to Barton, but of course, this timeline’s Toni Stark wasn’t Iron Queen and therefore wasn’t much of a concern to him. “My bad. I should have introduced myself properly. My name is Toni Stark. And I’m not a seer, I’m a time traveller.”
Loki’s eyes narrowed slightly before they cleared with recognition. “The Merchant Queen of Midgard. You own the tower in New York. The little hawk mentioned you in passing.”
“Oh? That’s a new one. Did he really call me that?” She wondered.
“Was he mistaken?” Loki countered with an arched eyebrow.
She leaned back to look back toward her protection detail at the end of the hall, “Hey, Everett, what does the media call me in this timeline?”
The CIA agent glanced at her with a clearly reluctant expression on his face. “The Queen.” He said with a grimace.
Her eyebrows rose in surprise and for the first time she wondered if maybe Natasha had been onto something when she continually disparaged her about her ego. “Huh. Somehow I’ve become Beyonce.” She said awkwardly.
“And what did they call you in your timeline then?” Loki wondered.
She hesitated for a moment. “Lots of things. Not many of them pleasant. A favourite was the Merchant of Death. Though, more recently they used my call sign, Iron Queen.”
“I see.” Loki said before smirking. “Ask your questions then, your majesty.”
She frowned, uncertain if he was being sarcastic or not, but decided not to linger on it. He was giving her permission to ask her questions and she hoped that he might even give her a straight answer.
“Who sent you? And what do they want?” She asked firmly, deciding to jump right into the deep end.
Loki glanced away from her, his expression going worryingly blank as he stared off into the middle distance. “They call him the Mad Titan.” Loki said slowly, his tone trying hard for neutrality but still sounding haunted.
Thor shifted in surprise, pushing away from the wall to stare at his brother in horror, which was not exactly a comforting sign. “Thanos did this to you?” Thor demanded, to which Loki only nodded silently.
“Who is he?” She asked Thor.
“A titan. Part of an ancient species that are said to be near extinct. Thanos has gained a reputation for being particularly bloodthirsty. He has been responsible for the culling of dozens of planets. His trademark is to randomly kill half of each planet’s population.” Thor answered grimly. “But he has not dared to venture close to the Nine Realms before now.”
So, all around, that was not a good sign.
“What does he want with Earth?” She asked, turning back to Loki.
“He is collecting the infinity stones. I was sent to retrieve the Tesseract, which is the Space Stone, since it was easiest to track.” Loki admit, before glancing at the briefcase linked to Thor’s wrist. “But simply removing it from Midgard still won’t save you. The staff also possesses a stone. And Midgard is also the rumoured resting place of the Time Stone. An age ago, a Vanir named Agamotto took the Time Stone and hid it on Midgard. No one has heard of it since. Thanos will still come here to search for it.”
She glanced at Thor, who was wearing a grim expression on his face. “If we found it and removed it . . .” She began, but trailed off when Thor shook his head.
“Midgard is situated in a strategically valuable position. It serves as a gate to the rest of the Nine Realms. Without the Tesseract, Thanos would still have to pass Midgard to reach Asgard. He is unlikely to leave any who might stand against him at his back, particularly not one that has thwarted his invasion once already.” Thor explained. “I will speak to my father to see what can be done to protect Midgard, but at the very least, I have declared Midgard under my protection and I will stand or fall with you.”
The fact that he didn’t end his statement at ‘stand with you’, wasn’t giving her a lot of confidence in their chances. But she was Tony fucking Stark and she wasn’t about to just roll over for some fucking Mad Titan while he destroyed her home. Where there was a will, there was a way, and she had been told that she had more than the average amount of will. And at least this time she knew the threat was real. This time it was more than her paranoia and PTSD that was going to keep her up at night.
“Thank you.” She said to Thor, grateful that they would at least be able to count on the God of Thunder. “And thank you for speaking with me, Prince Loki.”
“Well you asked me so nicely, I could hardly refuse.” Loki countered, one brow arched in challenge with a small smirk across his lips as he gestured with his manacled hands.
She couldn’t help the laugh that burst out of her. “Yeah, that’s me. The nice one.” She said with a sarcastic wink as she pushed herself back to her feet. She was the one that had beat him into submission. In his place, she probably would have refused to speak out of spite alone.
She turned to Bruce, who had watched the entire exchange with a grim look on his face. “How are you, Bruce?”
Bruce shrugged. “I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”
She was confused by his presence here. Last time, he hadn’t been able to get out of SHIELD’s presence fast enough, and it had only been her fast talking that had convinced him to stay at the tower to check out the labs. She’d half expected him to be in some backwater village somewhere by now.
“Are you here of your free will?” She asked cautiously.
Fury and all of the Avengers had heard her essentially declare that she would do absolutely anything for him, up to and including assassination, so surely they wouldn’t be stupid enough to try to detain him, right? And that wasn’t including what a scared and angry Hulk could do when he got going.
“Yeah.” Bruce said with a shrug and a nod toward the two Asgardians. “This seemed like a place to be.”
She frowned for a moment, then realised that Bruce wasn’t standing guard over Loki to keep him from escaping. Instead, he was standing sentinel between SHIELD and the Asgardians so that they didn’t get disappeared into some experimental lab somewhere. Given what she knew of what SHIELD actually was, it was probably a good idea. Last time, Thor had kept Loki at the tower until it had been time to return to Asgard, but this time SHIELD could have done anything to him under the guise of interrogating him. She really should have thought of that sooner.
“Thanks for keeping an eye on them.” She murmured.
Bruce shrugged. “Some of the SHIELD folks were giving Loki . . . concerning . . . looks.”
“I’ll take care of it.” She promised. Bruce nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Hey, Coulson.” She called as she turned away, hands placed defiantly on her hips. “Thor and Loki need to get back to Asgard ASAP. How much longer are you guys planning on upholding this farce?”
“Ms. Stark, Loki is responsible for the deaths of over eighty people. You don’t think that we are simply going to let him go, do you?” Coulson said blandly.
She nodded. “I see.” She glanced down the rest of the hallway, at the rest of the demonstrably empty cells. “I don’t see Barton in a cell. Keeping him locked up somewhere else?” She asked.
Both Coulson and Romanoff stiffened and Toni let her smile go sharp and dangerous. “After all, if you’re going to start imprisoning people who have been mind controlled, you must want to make sure you get all of them. Oh wait, he didn’t look all that much like a prisoner when he accompanied Fury for his little breaking and entering scheme last night at my tower. Or do Barton’s murders not count because he’s one of yours? Just add them to his tally and move on, right?”
“Ms. Stark,” Coulson began, his tone conciliatory, but at that moment Natasha shifted her weight a little. Toni switched her focus immediately. She knew very well how quickly the Black Widow could shake up a situation.
“I would recommend that you reconsider whatever it is you are thinking about doing, Natasha.” She said calmly.
Natasha smiled blandly. “I have no idea what you mean, Ms. Stark.”
“I’m sure that you don’t.” She countered as she moved closer, falling in line between Ross and Abadi. “Now, I would assume that the reason you’ve been trailing after me like ducklings is that you’re hoping to corall me into some kind of meeting with Director Fury. Am I right?”
“That is correct, Ms. Stark. Director Fury is expecting a meeting with you, as you agreed to last night.” Coulson said, his tone as implacable as ever, though she was pretty sure there was a hint of just how fed up with her he was.
“Well then, I suppose I’ll have to take Loki’s release up with management. Lead the way.” She said with a chipper smile. “If you wouldn’t mind staying with my friends here, Mr. Sokolov, I would appreciate it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The Russian said promptly, giving Natasha a challenging grin. Evidently, the man knew who she was, or rather, who she had been. She just hoped that wouldn’t cause further problems. Aside from Everett, she had given the UN carte blanche to send whoever else they wanted.
The rest of her detail fell in around her as she made her way back down the corridor, leaving Thor, Bruce and Loki with nothing more than a backwards wave over her shoulder. Best to get this over with so that she could get the Asgardians and the infinity stones off of her damn planet.
Chapter 7: Not exactly to plan
When things go pear-shaped ... what do you make out of pears again? Cobbler?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Bucky was waiting in the corridor for Toni, unable to stand the tension in the conference room. Fury was living up to his name and was barely contained. Obviously, Toni had been more resilient than the man had expected, which Bucky had tried to tell him. Toni wasn’t some wilting flower that was easily pushed around. Surely the man should have guessed that. Hell, Bucky would have guessed that just by the google search results he’d found on Toni Stark last night.
Still, the director had gathered up a handful of his best agents and was clearly waiting to ambush her. Steve was going right along with it and it was starting to drive him nuts. He had thought that the talking to he’d given Steve last night for breaking and entering would have made him more level-headed about Toni, but it might have made it worse. And he couldn’t figure out why.
It was obvious now that Toni had never been affiliated with Hydra in the forties, but rather that she’d been trying to get back into the future. So why the hell Steve had thrown that accusation at her last night, he couldn’t even fathom. And Stevie had always liked drama, he had always blown everything out of proportion whenever he could get away with it. But to do that now just because Toni was involved and he had never liked her, for whatever reason, was just unreasonable.
He was drawn out of his thoughts by the sound of a number of people coming down the hall. It was Toni, but she was surrounded by agents. He tensed at the image they presented, of a prisoner being escorted, and recognised Agent Romanoff from the group of specialists yesterday. The rest were all strangers.
He pushed away from the wall, taking a stand in the center of the corridor, his eyes never leaving Toni’s face. She raised a questioning eyebrow at him as they came to a stop. “Do you need something?” She asked.
He glanced at the agents around her, but they stared back neutrally. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
“Director Fury is waiting, Ms. Stark.” One of the agents said disapprovingly.
“He can wait a few more minutes.” Toni replied, eyes rolling in disdain. “He’s in the bridge conference room? I’ll be there in a moment.”
It was a clear dismissal, which caused both the agent that had spoken and Romanoff to purse their lips in disapproval. But, surprisingly, they complied and headed off down the corridor toward the conference room.
“Don’t take too long, Ms. Stark. We are on a schedule, you know.” The man called back.
“I’m sure you are.” She replied blandly. The rest of the agents remained lingering around her and he realised that they were her bodyguards. He felt a bit better knowing that she hadn’t walked back in here without protection, especially after that confrontation last night. “What do you need, Bucky?”
He scrutinised her for a moment, taking in the hint of tension in her posture and the tightness around her eyes. She was clearly aiming for nonchalance, but was just barely missing it. She didn’t want to be here, so he wondered why she didn’t just walk out on Fury without his promised meeting. Though based on what had happened at her tower last night, telling Fury ‘no’ wasn’t really an option.
“Just didn’t want you walking in there alone.” He said after a moment. It wasn’t the thing he’d initially planned on saying, but trying to figure out where they stood with each other now would have to wait until she didn’t have a handful of agents looming over her shoulder.
She watched him for a moment before sighing. “Okay.” She said before falling in beside him.
She made her way to the conference room like she knew the place, though he supposed it was always possible that she did. It was clear that that was the exact thing that Fury was worried about: what she might know.
She strode in with her head held high and not a hint of hesitation. They had staged the room differently since he’d left, leaving only one seat open at the end of the conference table, between two of the agents he didn’t know, a man to the left and a woman to the right. Judging from the way that she arched her eyebrow when she saw it, Toni was not impressed but she sat down at the table anyway, leaning far back in her chair and slouching like a moody teenager. Two of her bodyguards took up positions near the door, but the other one remained at her shoulder.
For his part, Bucky leaned back against the wall to the side, out of the way but able to see everything, which was just how he preferred. Steve was the one who always wanted to be in the thick of things, and he certainly was, sitting at Fury’s side like he was the director’s second in command.
“Well?” Toni said into the silence, making a kind of ‘do go on’ gesture with her hand.
Fury was eyeing the bodyguard at her shoulder with poorly hidden rage and it only took a moment for Bucky to realise why. The bodyguard - agent, he supposed - had popped open his suit jacket and about half of his CIA credential card was visibly displayed. Oh, his girl didn’t mess around. Since he and Steve had been pulled out of the ice, he’d heard no shortage of the agents of SHIELD bitching about the CIA, FBI and basically every other intelligence agency in the world.
“Ms. Stark,” Fury began through clenched teeth. “You may not be aware, since you are a civilian, but typically after an incident like the one yesterday, all those involved debrief their superiors and file an after-action report.”
He explained it like she was an idiot, rather than the genius everyone insisted she was. Bucky felt his eye twitching at the slight against her, but forced himself to remain still. He had been formally reprimanded for ‘letting her escape’ after she had taken down a god and snuggled the Hulk. He knew he was already on thin ice with Fury and if he didn’t want to be shipped to the other side of the planet, he needed to keep his shit together, but still . . . it rankled.
Toni leaned further back in her chair, swinging it back and forth with a bored expression on her face. “Well that sounds boring. Get on with it then.” She said with a long suffering sigh, as if it didn’t concern her.
“How did you become aware of Loki’s location?” Fury demanded.
“Uh . . . I checked my Twitter account. It was trending. Hashtag alien god on the loose.” She shrugged.
Bucky had heard of Twitter. One of the agents had tried to get him and Steve to sign up, but he hadn’t really seen the point of it. He hadn’t realised that it could be used as a news source. Everything he had seen was just pictures of what people were eating and pictures of their pets or themselves.
“And how did you know how to find the helicarrier?” Fury asked.
“Tell me, Fury, do you believe the time traveller bit?” She asked, her tone finally shifting to something more serious.
The director grimaced. “Well, if anyone could do it, it would be you, right?”
“Right. So why wouldn’t you think that I might just remember the location from last time?” She wondered.
Fury was quiet for a moment, scrutinising her carefully. Toni met his gaze without hesitation. “You were an Avenger.”
Toni finally corrected her posture, leaning forward with her hands resting steepled on the table in front of her and smiled. It was not a nice smile. “I was the co-leader of the Avenger Initiative for three years and their primary financial backer.”
Bucky blinked in surprise. Well, that explained why she said she knew Steve so well. Yesterday, Steve had been tapped for the leadership position of the Avengers. If he and Toni had led it before, that would mean they would have worked closely together.
“And then, what? You quit?” Fury challenged.
“I left due to fundamental differences in how I believed the Avengers should operate. I had to take a moral stand.” She replied calmly. “However, my differences with the Avengers have nothing to do with this debriefing, Nick.”
“Fine then, you risked the whole damn operation by dropping Loki’s cage and releasing the Hulk.” Fury growled.
“I see. So you would have rather that I . . . what? Waited for Barton to attack the helicarrier, let the Hulk rampage through it and let Loki get away? Would that have made you feel better? Because let me tell you, that’s what would have happened.” She said with a shrug. “And by the time we caught up with Loki again, he would have already been calling down his alien horde to lay waste to New York.”
“Obviously not.” The unknown agent from earlier said calmly.
“Then how would you have done it?” She asked.
“By not hijacking the goddamn Hulk and trusting the team.” Fury snapped.
“Jesus, do you even hear yourself, Nicky? You? Your going to preach to me about trust? Mr. Paranoia, himself?” She scoffed. “You know that saying ‘once bitten, twice shy’? Or how about ‘fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me’? I told you last night, the Avengers and SHIELD are a goddamn shit show and I refuse to have any part of it.”
She turned to the agent seated beside her, nudging him with her elbow. “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you, Rumlow?” She asked, and her smile turned a little more vicious.
Toni had never actually met Brock Rumlow in her original timeline, but during the hunt for Loki’s scepter, they’d been briefed on a veritable who’s who of what was left of the upper echelons of Hydra and he had been amongst the list. He looked different now, younger and without the horrific scarring he’d picked up in DC. She’d been surprised as fuck to see that he was situated next to the seat that had obviously been meant for her.
Sharon fucking Carter was sitting on the other side of her, wearing Aunt Peggy’s patented glare and acting like they were strangers. Well, two could play that game. She had ignored them both, but Rhodey had always said that she had a self-preservation instincts of a moth flying straight into a damned fire, so she hadn’t been able to quite resist the dig she’d sent Rumlow’s way. She should have known better.
Brock Rumlow was a STRIKE team field commander and a world class hand to hand combatant. He was also a high ranking Hydra sleeper agent and she’d just insinuated that she knew about his cover. She really should have learned her lesson about poking bears by now.
He was out of his seat and reaching for her before even Ross could react and they ended up toppling out of her chair and scuffling on the ground. Thankfully, she wasn’t a complete noob when it came to hand to hand. Although she had always preferred boxing with Happy, she had spent enough time in the ring with Natasha to have learned a thing or two. Extremis’ enhanced strength didn’t hurt either.
At some point she managed to get on top of him, straddled across his chest just a second before he suddenly had a knife in his hand. There was a moment of ‘oh shit’ as she tried to get the armour into place to prevent another stabbing, but it was slow, her nanobot levels were the lowest they had ever been, and Rumlow didn’t even hesitate. The blade was razor sharp and slid across her exposed throat with expert precision. It was so sharp, she couldn’t even feel it at first.
Error messages popped up via Extremis and she choked as blood suddenly streamed down her throat. JARVIS was losing his shit inside her mind, flooding her with over a hundred thousand queries in a matter of seconds, even as he began trying to hack Extremis to prioritise her regenerative abilities. Beyond that, the rest of the conference room was just as much in an uproar.
She forced JARVIS out of her head for the time being and prioritised healing, just as he’d wanted even as she knocked the knife out of Rumlow’s hand and promptly used the gauntlets to crush all of the bones in both of his hands. He snarled in pain and tried to shove her off of him, but she planted herself and punched him in the throat as a kind of karmic retribution.
She felt a hand close over her throat and she damn near severed it from its owner until she realised that it was Everett Ross and that he was no doubt trying to stem the bleeding and save her life, rather than choke her to death. She closed her fingers around his wrist, but let it stay in place as she glared down at Rumlow and reached back out to JARVIS for a lockdown. The last thing she needed was for the rest of STRIKE to jump her while she was already bleeding out.
It was a few more hectic moments before her trachea was sufficiently healed that she could actually fucking speak. She cleared her throat, which was a dumb idea because ouch, but it had served its purpose in getting the attention of everyone in the room.
“Let’s play a game.” She said, glaring down at Rumlow as she pulled Ross’s hand from her throat to give him a good view of the way her skin was slowly stitching back together. Extremis for the win. Thank god she’d gotten some sleep and had a big meal or this whole situation would have just been embarrassing.
She held up one hand, showing off the red and black armour plating before she reached for Rumlow’s mouth, forcing her fingers past his lips. “Fury!” The man managed to shout before his mouth was otherwise occupied. He tried to bite her, but he was more likely to break a tooth than he was to break through the armour.
“Stark.” Fury said warningly. She glanced up, noticed the way that he was standing with his gun drawn between Coulson and Natasha, noticed the way that Barton had his bow drawn and Steve had his shield hefted like he was about to throw it. Sharon was being held at gunpoint by Abadi, and Takahito and Ross were both aiming at the director.
Bucky was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, looking pale and concerned but smart enough to let her work.
She closed her eyes briefly and imagined War Machine’s shoulder mounted minigun. It was big and intimidating and she barely had enough nanobots to fully construct it, let alone provide it with ammunition, but what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
“Now now, none of that. We’re playing a game, aren’t we, Rumlow?” She said calmly, using her hand in his mouth to make him nod, even as she began feeling out each of his teeth for anomalies. “Charades, right? Two words, yeah? Okay, hmmm. Does one of them start with ‘h’?” She asked.
She watched his eyes spark with fear and surprise, even as his face twisted with hate and fury. He tried to say something, but whatever it was was muffled. She pretended like she’d heard it anyway and nodded thoughtfully.
“Oh, both words? Awesome.” She said brightly. He started struggling more, so she knew she was getting close, and then - there - just what she was looking for. She grinned as her fingers settled around the false tooth and neatly popped it out. She flicked it and watched triumphantly as it bounced and skittered across the length of the conference table to settle between Fury and Rogers. About halfway down, the false cap opened, leaving a little trail of white powder behind.
“So, two words that start with ‘h’. Any guesses?” She asked pointedly, making eye contact with Steve and arching her brow in challenge. She hadn’t intended to get into the whole SHIELD is Hydra thing today, but it was worth it to be able to throw Steve’s accusations back in his face. She would like to see him throw accusations about working for Hydra at her now.
The question was met with silence and she sighed. Honestly, for how dramatic Fury was all the damned time, he could at least play along when she decided to go full tilt diva. But no, of course not. She had to do everything herself.
“Oooooh, I’ve got it.” She said dramatically as she turned her attention back to Rumlow. His expression was nothing but hatred now, pulled back into a snarl as he panted for breath. “Heil. Hydra. Bitch.” She said slowly before she punched him square in the temple. He went limp, but she waited a moment, scanning him to make sure that he wasn’t fucking with her. But he was definitely out cold.
She pushed herself up to her feet and staggered as a wave of dizziness washed over her. Fuck. Blood loss was a bitch. Ross steadied her without ever taking his eyes or his gun off of Fury. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, forcing the dizziness to recede. She was bone tired again and she was just fucking done with SHIELDRA in general.
“You have an infestation, Nick.” She said grimly as she met his gaze.
“That can’t be Hydra.” Steve said blankly, he’d gone pale as a sheet but she knew it would only be a matter of seconds before that turned to rage and righteousness. He only had two settings after all: the awe shucks I’m a cute clueless man from the forties, and the self-righteous asshat that had had no problem sinking an entire ship to get rid of a few rats. “We ended them seventy years ago.”
“Nah.” She shrugged. “Why don’t you ask the agents about Project Paperclip?”
“How the hell do you know about that?” Fury demanded.
She gestured to where Rumlow was splayed out across the floor. “You really think I know about this and didn’t trace it back to the start? Much as I hated Howard, he was a founder of SHIELD and it was still part of his legacy. Besides, I had to make sure that SI hadn’t also been infiltrated.”
Fury’s brow furrowed. “Your father left SHIELD because of Project Paperclip. He damn near ruined us.”
She arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Well would you look at that. He actually listened to me for once. Miracle of miracles.”
“What the hell is Project Paperclip?” Bucky demanded harshly.
There was a moment of silence before Fury sighed. “Project Paperclip was a post-war initiative led by Colonel Phillips and Agent Carter that commandeered strategic enemy assets for our use.”
She rolled her eyes; way to say everything and nothing at the same time. She glanced at Bucky, who was looking as confused as Steve and sighed. “Project Paperclip was where SHIELD went about recruiting all of the best Nazi and Hydra scientists they could get their hands on. They brought them all over to the states, gave them all nice, cushy government jobs and let the ideals of Hydra spread throughout their organisation like rot. In my timeline, the pinnacle of this little project was that they acquired a Hydra scientist named Arnim Zola.”
Bucky had such a look of horror and betrayal on his face that she almost felt bad about telling him. But she wasn’t the type to keep important secrets like that. She wasn’t Rogers . And the horror would be worse if he found out later.
“How bad is it?” Fury asked grimly, ignoring the super soldiers.
She shrugged. “In my timeline, about 23% of SHIELD consisted of Hydra affiliated personnel, primarily in the ground teams, logistics and the upper management. But if Howard really did almost ruin you, that could affect the number. Hell, for all I know, the entire agency is a front. The only ones I’m sure of are the Brooklyn boys, and one of them hates me for some mysterious reason, so who knows?” She said, basically throwing the same accusation he’d hurled at her last night back in his face.
“Barton might be clean. Romanoff, well you never can tell, can you? Pretty sure even she doesn’t always know what side she’s on. So make her an offer and maybe it’ll be better than what Hydra brings to the table. Phil was dead already last time so he never was put under investigation. So, who the fuck knows about that. And that leaves Sharon who . . . well, maybe.”
“Maybe?” Sharon said in outrage.
“Yeah, see it’s either that you’re Hydra or you’re a fucking moron. And I know Aunt Peggy wouldn’t have let that stand. So that makes me think that maybe what you did in my timeline, was on purpose and not just because you were trying to get into Rogers’s pants. But who knows. Maybe you just wanted to take up the mantle as the next Carter in the Rogers and Carter show.”
“Aunt Peggy? Carter?” Steve asked in surprise.
“You didn’t know?” She asked just a hint too innocently to be sincere. “This one here is Peggy Carter’s niece.”
And then Steve was looking at Sharon like he was looking for a resemblance and just . . . ew. Right. That was enough of this shit show. “Well now, I think we can all agree that holding alien royalty in the midst of a Nazi organisation is just overall unadvisable. So you will be releasing Loki back to Asgard. Or I will be doing it for you.” Then she pointed to where Loki’s sceptre was still resting in a containment field. “And he and Thor are going to take that nasty staff back with them, so that Hydra can’t use it to mind control an army.”
Barton shivered as she stepped past him. “Got no complaints with that.” He muttered.
“Good.” She said as she brought down the containment field and daintily picked it up. Maybe it was just because she was watching for it or maybe because of all the times Wanda had fucked with her head, but she felt its presence like an oil slick washing over her. She’d only made it a little over a week after the Sokovian disaster before she’d had to resign from the Avengers and take a step back. It was because of this exact feeling, and any time she had dared to complain about it, Rogers or Romanoff would tell her she was being paranoid or just trying to discredit poor, helpless Wanda Maximoff.
Not this time. Never again.
She made her way to the door as Ross, Abadi and Takahito fell into step around her, getting an all clear from JARVIS a second before the door slid open.
“Hey, Stark.” Fury called, causing her to pause on the threshold. “Can we expect your cooperation with this infestation?”
Part of her wanted to deny the request out of hand just to spite the asshole, but Hydra was a threat that she really didn’t want to have to work around while she was trying to prepare the Earth for Thanos, so she turned back to face Fury. “If you want to work with me, you will drastically revise the way that you think you can approach or speak to me. I do not owe you a fucking thing, and it’s about goddamn time you realised it.”
There was a moment of silence before Fury did something that seemed like half of a nod. “I’ll set up a meeting with your assistant.”
She grinned, showing all of her teeth. “You do that.”
When push came to shove, Toni Stark would always be a businesswoman at her very core. And one of the first things any successful business person learned was that you did not have to like someone to work with them, but only so long as they proved worth the discomfort.
Thanks so much for all of the support the story has been receiving so far. I love hearing from you all!
Chapter 8: Homecoming
Loki returns to Asgard.
Loki was waiting calmly in his cell, still reveling in the fact that his mind was once again his own. Sure, Thor’s looming over him and the beast’s occasional glances in his direction were annoying, and his accomodations left much to be desired, but at least he was able to feel annoyed and uncomfortable, rather than pure horror at watching the Other use his body like a meat puppet.
And he owed all of that to Lady Stark. The woman was interesting, especially for a mortal. She was certainly formidable in battle, which Barton had never mentioned. Instead, the man had told him of her vast merchant empire, one that spanned the entire realm and sat at the top of nearly every industry. Barton had told him of her advanced technology, about the way that she was dragging the rest of humanity into the future kicking and screaming, though to find out that she was a seer might explain some of that.
Her return was marked by Banner pushing himself away from his card game with a green flush overtaking his skin, and by Thor stepping away from the wall and taking Mjolnir in hand. But it was her guardsman that spoke first.
“What the fuck happened?” The man said with a thick accent as he drew his weapon.
Loki did not have the best vantage of the corridor, given that he was confined into a closet, so it was a few more seconds before she came into his field of view. She was clearly fresh from battle. On anyone else, she would have looked like she’d bathed in the blood of her enemies, but the vivid, scabby red scar across her pale throat belied the true nature of the waterfall of blood that had cascaded down her front.
“It’s a long story.” She said, her voice noticeably rough. “I’m sure you’ll be debriefed. For right now, we need to go. JARVIS, let’s get a move on.”
A second later, the door to his cell slid open. He stared at it in surprise for a second before pushing himself to his feet. When she’d said that she would see about securing his release, he’d thought she’d meant to negotiate with his captors, not spring a jailbreak. Then again, from the looks of things, negotiations had failed.
“Up and at ‘em, Reindeer Games. Here, hold this.” She said, before shoving the Mind Stone’s scepter into his hands, as if the accursed thing actually belonged to him. He felt its presence coiling to strike, but thankfully his magic cancelling manacles worked both ways. They could only be influenced by the Odinforce now.
Banner fell in at her other side, clear concern warring with rage on his face. “Alright, let’s get this show on the road. With luck, it won’t end up in a fire fight.”
They made their way through the hallways of SHIELD’s helicarrier with more sheer presence than most of the royal processions he had seen in his life. Lady Stark swept through the corridors with two Asgardian princes, an unstoppable beast and a handful of bloodthirsty guards in attendance. And even as she was clearly wounded and drenched in her own blood, she kept her chin held high and didn’t break stride even once.
The agents they encountered scattered more often than not until suddenly they were outside and bearing down on what was apparently to be their transport. The guardsman and pilot in charge of it cursed when they saw their mistress’s condition, but got the rotors moving almost immediately.
No one dared to try to stop them as they flew away, but the tension in Lady Stark’s shoulders didn’t drain until they were evidently out of firing range of the helicarrier’s weapons systems. When that finally happened, she sighed heavily and turned to Thor. “I need you off planet as soon as possible.”
Thor nodded grimly, possibly the most serious that Loki had ever seen him, though Thor always had been intimidated by seers. “I know how to use the Tesseract to travel.” Thor said, then glanced at Loki with clear regret on his face. “We both do.”
Lady Stark, for her part, instantly recognised the meaning of that look and what it implied. They had been young when they had taken the Tesseract for a joyride and Odin had nearly tanned their hides for it when he had finally caught them. In fact, it was the reason it had been hidden on Midgard in the first place. He had paid dearly to keep that information out of the hands of the Other, making the creature rely on the ingenuity of mortals to try to harness the stone’s power.
Clearly, Thor hadn’t thought of that until just now.
“No bifrost?” The lady asked in surprise.
“It is undergoing repairs.” Thor answered with a shrug. Loki winced and remembered the madness and despair that had overtaken him before he had decided that he was better off in the void. The loss of life on Jotunheim must have been catastrophic and only Thor destroying the bifrost had managed to stop him.
He regret it now. Now, he knew there were so much worse things than being born a monster. He shuddered at the thought and glanced away, watching cloud formations out of the small window of the craft. Thor, Banner and Lady Stark continued their conversation, but he had lost interest in it. He had little enough time left before his next set of trials and tribulations and he wanted to savour it while he could.
It was only a little while longer before their aircraft touched down on an abandoned airfield. The building on the far end of it had the Stark Industries logo and there were a handful of other planes and jets parked in front of it, but there wasn’t another person in sight. That was probably for the best, given that his face had no doubt been in the media only days ago and Lady Stark was still drenched in her own blood.
They disembarked and Thor, oaf that he was, made a fool of himself by thanking Lady Stark a little too profusely. She smiled tightly and accepted it with more grace than he had expected then gave them space to work with the Tesseract. Thor pulled it from the case she had given him and offered him the other end of it, but before Thor could channel his limited seidr into the artifact, Lady Stark spoke again.
“Hey, Thor,” She called, and Loki found himself freezing at her expression. Each instance that he had been in her presence up to now, there had been a kind of restrained viciousness to her that he had felt kinship with. But this, this was something else. “I know the way your story goes.” She said, hesitating for only a moment before she continued, her expression closing into a cold mask. “But I’ll need more from Asgard to be convinced to reveal that information.”
Thor looked visibly indignant and was no doubt about to reprimand her when she continued.
“It concerns the survival of certain members of the royal family.”
Loki arched his brow in surprise and couldn’t help the appreciative smirk that dragged its way across his lips. What could he say? He was impressed. If her information had only to deal with some trial that Thor would have to face in the future, there would have been no chance at her getting what she wanted. But a threat to the royal family? Neither Thor nor Odin would ever stand for that. And the fact that she knew that and was willing to leverage it against them took more sheer courage than any ruler of any of the realms had ever dared.
“I want an alliance between Asgard and Earth. For real. On paper with terms that we actually agree to. Run that past the Alldaddy for me, will you?”
Thor managed to bite back whatever it was he had been about to say and nodded stiffly. “I shall certainly mention it to the Allfather.”
“Thank you.” Lady Stark nodded.
Thor only nodded before his seidr interacted with the Tesseract and they were suddenly on Asgard again, in Thor’s own chambers. They stood in silence for a moment and Loki’s eyes were drawn out the window to the gorgeous view over the water. His own rooms - his former rooms - were located only next door and he found himself longing for them. But he knew better than to think that he would ever see them again.
He turned back to Thor, who still had a disgruntled expression on his face, and sighed heavily. “Thor, you know that she had to. Midgard is at risk of invasion and they have no allies to speak of. Can you truly blame her for handling it this way? Think if it were Asgard.”
Thor’s frown was still persistent but he eventually sighed. “I know that Lady Stark’s options are limited and that she will do what she must to protect her realm. But I had the impression that she knew me well. She has been very familiar with me.”
Loki arched one unimpressed eyebrow at his not-quite-brother. “And you expected her to risk the security of her realm because she may trust a different version of you?”
Thor sighed again. “No. I suppose you’re right. As you usually are.” Thor said, making sure to make eye contact. He looked regretful, but Loki knew that wouldn’t change anything. Thor had a duty to Asgard and if there was one thing he had always taken seriously, it was that. “Father will be waiting for us by now.”
“He’s not my father.” Loki replied, but it lacked the fire with which he would usually have said it. He was so tired, and there was little enough time left. There was no point in wasting it on vitriol. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Thor escorted him to the throne room without calling for further backup. Court was in session, so of course the entire court would get to witness his downfall. Lucky for them. Odin and Frigga sat on matching thrones, the Allfather’s face a study in neutrality, while Frigga couldn’t quite manage to hide her concern.
“Why is his tongue free?” Odin demanded.
“There are extenuating circumstances, Father.” Thor answered calmly.
Odin looked exasperated but leaned back in his seat and gestured for Thor to go on. It was such a familiar gesture. How many times had Odin done exactly this every time he and Thor had been caught making trouble as children?
“This sceptre,” Thor said, plucking the staff from Loki’s grasp. “Contains an Infinity Stone, the Mind Stone in fact. After Loki fell into the void, he fell into the hands of the Mad Titan. Thanos used the Mind Stone to override Loki’s free will and sent him to Midgard to collect the Tesseract.”
There was a murmur from the court, but Loki didn’t bother looking around. What Thor was trying to do was admirable, but it wouldn’t change anything. It was also mortifying to have his weakness paraded in front of the court, but Thor had ever been insensitive to Loki’s dignity. Odin frowned but looked unmoved by Thor’s unvoiced plea for leniency.
“Loki is known for telling tales. What is to say that this is not some fiction he has created? And even if it is true, what is to say that he is no longer under control?” Odin questioned.
“Much of this information does not come from Loki, but rather from a mighty warrior queen of Midgard.” Thor said boastfully. Loki wondered if Thor actually thought she was a queen and considered correcting him, but he owed her a debt that he would never be able to repay. Perhaps by mistakenly identifying her as a queen, Odin would be more likely to negotiate with her. “She is a seer, a formidable warrior who bested Loki in combat and freed his mind from his captors. She had seen what the Mad Titan would have made Loki do, and averted his invasion plans before they could unfold. She has sent both the Tesseract and the Mind Stone to Asgard for safekeeping as a sign of good faith.”
Odin shared a glanced with Frigga, both of them looking troubled. He sent an attendant to fetch Heimdall, who entered the throne room a few moments later and bowed deeply before standing next to Thor. “This Midgardian queen, what is her name?”
“She introduced herself as Toni Stark.” Thor answered.
“This is the anomaly you and Queen Frigga sensed, is it not, Heimdall?” Odin asked.
“Yes, my king. The mortal named Toni Stark disappeared from my sight early yesterday after a disturbance that was felt by all those with a sensitivity to Yggdrasil.” Heimdall answered stiffly.
Loki frowned at that news. He hadn’t felt that disturbance, but neither was he much attuned to Yggdrasil. Not like Frigga, who was a seer in her own right and afforded all of the respect and reverence that the gift of foresight entailed. Still, they had clearly been with Lady Stark not even an hour past.
“But were you not watching us before we returned to Asgard?” Thor asked. “Surely you must have seen her then.”
“No, my prince. You were obscured from my sight for parts of yesterday and the last few hours.” Heimdall answered. “I thought it to be Prince Loki’s doing, since he has demonstrated methods of blocking my sight in the past.”
In response to the none too subtle accusation, Loki merely gestured with his still manacled hands. His seidr was sealed. The spells he knew to hide him from Heimdall’s sight were taxing to uphold and his magic had been bound since even before he had regained consciousness from his fight with Lady Stark.
Odin frowned and stared at them for a long moment. “What is your impression of this queen?”
“She is a fierce warrior, but not cruel. She has shown favour to me and kindness to Loki. She has also offered foresight about a threat to our family in return for a formal alliance with Asgard.” Thor answered.
The Allfather scoffed in disdain. Loki was all too aware what Odin thought of any of the other races of the Nine Realms, let alone the mortals of Midgard. He considered them animals; pets at best, mindless livestock at worst. To Odin, there was no point in treating the lesser races as equals to the Aesir. They had nothing of value to offer.
“And what of your impression, Loki?” Odin asked, gaze sharply assessing.
Loki startled, surprised to be called upon. But Odin had always been a practical man first and foremost. It was that practicality that had lead him to kidnap a Jotun princling in the first place. Odin would squeeze every last drop of value out of him before he was finally disposed of. That being the case, how should he answer? His disdain for Odin and the majority of the court aside, Asgard had always been his home. He had longed for this place, for the lie his life had always been, while he’d suffered under Thanos’ tender mercies. That being said, his debt to Lady Stark would never be fully repaid.
He hesitated for a moment, but in the end, not answering was never in the cards. “You would do well not to underestimate her. She is a woman that is known for relentlessly pursuing her goals.”
“And you think this threat against our family is credible?” Odin asked, but he wasn’t looking at Thor for an answer. He was looking at Loki . Then again, he shouldn’t be surprised. Thor had never been known for his observational skills.
“Your reputation on Midgard is not benevolent and Lady Stark is familiar with Thor. It stands to reason, then, that she would be familiar enough with you that she would know better than to gamble with a false claim.” Loki answered. “So, yes. I think the threat is credible.”
The court was tittering quietly behind them, but Loki didn’t move his gaze from where he’d been boring a hole in the wall behind the thrones. These matters didn’t concern him anyway. It wasn’t like he was going to be around for much longer. That thought was soothing more than distressing really. After what he’d done, after what had been done to him, he had been longing for death for years now.
Odin was silent for a long time before the reverberating slam of the butt of Gungnir impacting with the ground caused Loki to flinch. There was a rush of magic over him before the manacles around his wrists opened and dropped to the ground with a loud clunk. Loki stared at them for a long moment, feeling dread curdle in his chest.
So it was to be a trial by combat then.
Of course Odin would choose such a thing. Especially now. It would serve a dual purpose after all. Not only would Loki be ended, but Thor, who had stood as champion of the throne for almost six centuries now, would be able to affirm his continued loyalty and dedication to the throne. Nevermind that they had been raised as brothers, Odin would gladly pit them against each other for this one last time. He had sent Thor after him on Midgard, after all.
His spine stiffened, drawing himself up to his full height before he raised his gaze to glare at Odin hatefully. But he paused, brow furrowing at the sad, yet relieved smile on the old man’s face. “Prince Loki is hereby absolved of his crimes on Midgard due to . . . extenuating circumstances.”
Loki flinched, waiting for the other shoe to drop. It would be just like Odin to offer a moment of hope before crushing it. But it didn’t come. Odin never mentioned Jotunheim. He never mentioned the Destroyer he’d sent after Thor. No one breathed so much as a whisper of his treasonous acts that had ruined Thor’s coronation before Odin dismissed the court.
Everyone trailed out, leaving Loki and Thor still standing before the thrones. The doors to the throne room finally shut with a heavy clang, and Frigga was out of her seat and dragging him into a crushing hug before he could even think of something to say.
“By the Norns, my boy. My Loki.” She breathed into his hair as he felt the wetness of tears dampen his shoulder. “I thought I’d lost you. I should have been there for you. I should have told you. I know I was wrong.”
“Mother.” He huffed in surprise, tentatively daring to close his arms around her, though how she could bear to embrace and be embraced by a monster such as himself, he didn’t know.
She pulled back a moment later, one hand caressing his face as she looked him over. He knew he was thinner than he had ever been, more haunted and haggard, and from the look on her face she could see it too.
Odin appeared at her shoulder a moment later, his hand clasping heavy and warm across the back of his neck. “Son.”
“I’m not your son.” He said, though the protest still lacked vitriol. He didn’t quite understand what was happening and he didn’t quite have the energy to deal with it. Either he wasn’t about to be executed, or this was the worst practical joke in history.
Odin’s grasp tightened and the man pursed his lips before he sighed. “You are my son. You will always be my son. You are Loki, the second prince of Asgard, of the House of Odin. Nothing will change that.”
Loki’s grip on his composure was tenuous at best, his emotions a raging swirl of disbelief, despair, bone deep self-loathing and the tiniest smattering of hope. His composure shattered a moment later, when Thor came up on his other side and embraced him heartily, leaving him sandwiched in the middle of his family. “Welcome home, brother.”
Chapter 9: I am Iron Queen
The people meet Iron Queen.
Apologies for the wait. Although I have a fairly large head start on this story, I promised myself that I would only update each time I finished another chapter so that I could keep a large buffer between what was published and what I was actively writing, and the chapter I'm on has been giving me a lot of trouble. I hope you enjoy. Thank you for your patience.
Toni was so tired that she could barely stand. She’d spent the last four days dealing with the UN, much to Pepper’s annoyance, and had spent her evenings trying to catch up with everything that was falling through the cracks with SI.
She’d managed to get JARVIS to fabricate some more nanobots for her down in the lab and had injected herself with the replacement bots that morning, so she was finally back up to levels she hadn’t been to in over a year. Still, the bots and Extremis were no substitute for real sleep. She was almost tempted to build another time machine just so she could manipulate more hours out of each day and maybe get a chance to sleep. But, alas, there was no rest for the wicked and she had shit to do. So she sucked it up and got it done, which was pretty much her motto by this point in her life.
When Pepper told her that SHIELD was trying to schedule a meeting with her, she just laughed a little hysterically for a few minutes. She didn’t have the time right now. It had taken four days of talks with the UN just to hammer out a tentative contract that would allow her to operate in the Iron Queen suit without sanctions (which was a miraculously short period for negotiations). It was nowhere near as comprehensive as the Sokovia Accords had been, but it would do the job until more permanent measures could be put into place.
Still, when the first thing the American ambassador had done was try to send her on a combat mission to the middle of South America, it had left her with a sour taste in her mouth and she’d point blank refused. She didn’t have the time and she wasn’t about to get caught up in this side quest bullshit this time. The Iron Queen armour was for extinction level events and alien invaders. That was it. She wasn’t meant for hunting down cartels and terrorists. She was meant to protect the word from Thanos.
Besides, Pepper would have literally skinned her alive. Honestly, she’d thought that Stark Industries had been a beast to manage in her timeline, but it had nothing on what this timeline’s SI entailed. Much as she complained about it though, she couldn’t help the curl of jealousy deep in her gut whenever she looked at the layout of Stark Industries. It was bigger and better than she’d ever dreamed.
In this timeline, Howard was never assassinated. He’d continued running the weapons division, giving it his whole attention since he wasn’t involved in SHIELD, until he’d retired at seventy. He was actually still kicking around somewhere back in California. Meanwhile, Other Toni had finished her degrees and opened her own subsidiary under the SI umbrella.
StarkTech was everything she’d ever wanted out of her company. Other Toni had ruthlessly expanded into every market she could get her grubby little fingers into, pioneering the AI and robotics industries while revolutionising communications technology, defensive textiles, medical equipment and more. Hell, she had even opened a subsidiary of a subsidiary named StarkAuto. No, there were still no flying cars, but they were partnered with the AI division and leading the market on self-driving cars.
God, there were ideas that she’d barely thought of, half focussed thoughts that she had jotted down and relegated to the back of her private server because she didn’t have the time to deal with them, that were already in production. A lot of them were on subsequent upgrades and iterations of the idea she’d had.
And Other Toni had gotten to do all of that. She was only now realising just how much time and effort she had wasted on the Avengers, and how much time she had wasted on being Iron Queen as well. Instead of building a hundred different kinds of armour and having a mental breakdown in her workshop, Other Toni had been actually changing the world. And sure, some of that was undoubtedly because Howard had been taking some of the strain off, but still.
She sighed, fingers tapping against her chest before she ran a hand down over the length of her braid. She was waiting backstage at a press conference that she’d called. After the UN had tried to pull that bullshit in Venezuela, she’d realised that she needed to slip the leash they were trying to put around her neck, just like SHIELD had tried in her timeline. As always, everything would be better if she was accountable to the public.
So, here it comes. The ‘I am Iron Queen’ speech, version 2.0.
She took a deep breath and strode out onto the stage to the familiar symphony of camera shutters clicking and reporters calling her name to get her attention for the perfect photo. There was also some apparent uproar due to her youthful appearance. Ugh, she was tired of people commenting on it already. She’d never thought she’d want her wrinkles back so badly.
When she reached the podium, she smiled and looked out over the crowd of reporters. Most of them were the same as from her timeline, familiar faces that had been dragging her name through the mud for decades now. Since Other Toni hadn’t had a fucked up early adulthood and had definitely never had to spend the night in jail for intoxication or any of the other shit she and Rhodey had occasionally gotten up to, her media presence in this timeline was pretty much golden. That would be a welcome change, but she wasn’t going to hold her breath hoping it would stay that way.
“Good morning. Thank you all for coming today.” She said, trying very hard to be diplomatic.
She’d watched some of her other self’s press conferences while prepping for this one, just so that she would know what she was walking into, and, holy shit, other her had lacked a whole lot of her snark. No wonder the media praised her as a queen. Other Toni was polite, professional and diplomatic. She did not drop bombs in press conferences. Everything was boring by her standards, but the press still loved her because she had a habit of dropping veiled slights about her competitors in her statements and they loved picking them apart.
Unfortunately for them, she didn’t have the time, patience or inclination to do that for them today. So today she was going to do things her usual way. She was going to drop bombs and watch the fallout. Hell, she might even try to contain some of it, but no promises.
“My name is Toni Stark.” She introduced herself. “I know. Some of you are wondering why I’m introducing myself, but I’m about to tell you. I was born in 1970 to Howard and Maria Stark and was thrust into the media spotlight at four years old, when I build my first circuit board. From that moment on, my face was in the papers. The nation watched as I grew taller and smarter. I entered MIT at fourteen years old and I graduated summa cum laude at seventeen. When I was twenty-one, my parents were assassinated, and I ascended to the position of CEO of Stark Industries.
“While CEO, I followed in my father’s footsteps, wanting to do right by his legacy. Stark Industries remained the premier weapons manufacturer in the United States until 2008, when a failed assassination attempt saw me in the hands of a terrorist cell in Afghanistan for three months. Those terrorists had SI weapons that had been sold under the table by someone in my company. But that wasn’t good enough for them. They wanted more. They wanted a Toni Stark special, my latest creation that I had just demonstrated for the American forces in the area, and they weren’t taking no for an answer.
“Well, you know what they say. Be careful what you wish for. I spent three months in a cave, before I managed to build my way out. What I made in that cave, what I later refined after returning to the United States, became my legacy. It became my penance for caring too little and for not paying enough attention to what was happening in my own company.” She let the armour creep out of her skin to cover her from head to toe. “I became the Iron Queen and set about fixing what I had been too blind to notice was broken.
“This isn’t the story you know, because I’m not the Toni Stark you know.” She said boldly, before dismissing the armour. “A week ago, I arrived in his time period via a time machine. For almost a year before that, from November 1943 to October 1944, I was stuck in the past after another incident with a time machine. Before that,” She said with a teasing smile. “I was from what you would call the future.”
That caused something of an uproar amongst the reporters. She sighed longsufferingly. She would take a few questions at the end, but nothing would ever get done if they interrupted her in the middle of her story.
“This isn’t the story I came here to tell you today. I told you about this only to provide context and credibility for what I need to tell you now. So please calm yourselves, sit back down and listen.”
It took another minute for them to do so. She waited patiently. She was used to doing things this way. She would rile them up, then calm them down. Rinse and repeat.
“In my original timeline, May 4, 2012 was a date that lived in the people’s memories as a day that changed the world. For the people of New York, it was a day of horror and tragedy. On the May 4th of my timeline, the people at large learned that we are not alone in this universe in the most horrifying way.
“Some of you who have been paying attention to international news may remember a story from Germany about a man proclaiming himself a god in Stuttgart. Well, he wasn’t quite lying. The Asgardians are a long-lived race of highly advanced extraterrestrials who exist in our mythology as gods. The man in Stuttgart was Loki, a man we know as the God of Mischief.
“Loki is an Asgardian prince and a powerful mage. He is a match for his brother, Thor, the God of Thunder.” She explained calmly. She wasn’t trying to throw the Asgardians under the bus, but she wasn’t going to hide the truth either. “I know Thor well. In my timeline, we faced many threats together. He’s a good man and a stalwart protector of Earth.
“Loki, I have found out, I do not know at all. The man I fought in my original timeline, was not truly Loki. Some time ago, Loki fell into the hands of a galactic warlord named Thanos. Thanos used a powerful artifact to overtake Loki’s mind and sent him to Earth to retrieve another such artifact for Thanos’s collection.
“In my timeline, this artifact was collected from a government facility and was used to open a wormhole over New York, which brought through a fleet of invading extraterrestrials called Chitauri. Myself and a small group of others, including Thor, managed to turn back the invasion. We managed to close the wormhole and save this city from complete annihilation.
“In this timeline, I managed to head Loki off and free his mind from Thanos’s control before the Chitauri armies could be unleashed. You have not see them, but they are still coming for Earth. We have managed to buy time, nothing more. I do not wish to incite panic. I merely wish for the people of the world to be informed so that we can prepare.
“I will stand in protection of the Earth. That is the purpose of the Iron Queen armour. But I cannot do it alone. I will need help. So, that’s what this is. This is a plea for help, not just for the enhanced people of the world, but to governments and private organisations; soldiers and scientists. We need to prepare the Earth for an impending alien invasion. I saw their fleet with my own eyes and we are not ready.”
There was a moment of silence before the reporters realised that she was done, then all hell broke loose. Every hand was in the air and every reporter in the room was calling her name. She noticed Phil at the back of the room, looking vaguely pissed and she ended up winking at him. Yeah, SHIELD no doubt wanted to keep this all close to the chest, but she wasn’t about to risk the security of Earth for the sake of their pride.
Pepper brought the mic over to the first reporter. “How do you expect us to believe you about the time travel and aliens, Ms. Stark? What proof do you have?” The first man demanded.
She stared at the man thoughtfully for a moment. “You know what, I’m going to try something.” She said as she stepped away from the podium and pressed the button on the wall that lowered the projector from the ceiling.
She reached out with Extremis, becoming intimately acquainted with the device before turning it on. It fired up with the Stark Industries logo clearly projected on the wall behind her podium. This was going to be a first, but JARVIS had uploaded security footage straight into her brain before, so this was basically just the opposite of that process. It was basically the BARF tech, if she thought about it. It should be a cinch.
She sifted through her memories of the invasion. They were all bright and sharp due to the insane amount of adrenaline that had been coursing through her at the time, though parts had been overshadowed by the horror she’d seen on the other side of the wormhole. She wanted to show them the Chitauri and the space whales, though probably not the insides of a space whale, as she didn’t want to traumatise anyone.
“Hmm . . . anyone who has a weak stomach or anxiety about aliens might want to leave the room.” She said, before deciding on a starting point about mid-way through the battle. She focused on integrating the projector into her Extremis network, then kind of pushed her memory into the device.
The back wall flared to life with an image of the Iron Queen HUD as she careened around a sharp corner, flipping backward with her repulsors ready in time to watch her pursuit take the corner too wide and crash into the side of a building. She turned and zipped around, glancing up toward the wormhole, where Thor was trying to fight off two space whales.
A roar from the left made her turn to find the Hulk snatching Chitauri off their speeders with unrestrained glee. Further down the street, she could see Captain America and the Black Widow fighting back to back. The memory turned suddenly and chased down a speeder trying to break their perimeter. She fired a missile at it, then snatched up Hawkeye from his perch a moment before he became overrun, depositing him on an adjacent building before opening up her arsenal and firing at the handful of speeders racing below them.
The whole time, Other JARVIS kept up his patented snark. Well, not the whole time. After Fury informed her about the nuke, there was a marked lack of sass and witty banter. Instead, there was Rogers, who had pretty much told her she wasn’t worth the air she breathed only hours earlier, acting all concerned about her making a sacrifice, as if there was any other option. As if her not putting that nuke in the wormhole wouldn’t have lead to not only the deaths of the team, but of the entire god damned city.
And then there was nothing. She lost signal. Rhodey didn’t pick up. JARVIS cut out. And then there was only silence as her suit lost power and she watched a nuclear explosion from the front row, barely putting a dent in the approaching fleet of alien vessels. The image cut out when she passed out and she gratefully pulled her awareness away from the projector.
Her head felt like there was an ice pick being driven into her forehead and she was in no hurry to do this again, but she’d just managed more than she ever had in her original timeline. She had managed to show the world just what it was that kept her up at night: the creeping threat destined to come for them from the darkest reaches of space.
“How do we stop them?” One of the reporters demanded in the sudden silence.
She stared at him for a moment. “Together.” She answered firmly.
They would do this together. Not Steve Rogers’ style of together, which had meant six enhance or semi-enhanced people on a task force. No, this would be the Toni Stark style of together. It would have to be a global effort. She had learned the hard way that she wasn’t Atlas; she couldn’t hold the weight of the world on her shoulders alone.
Chapter 10: An offer
Bucky makes his move.
Bucky looked nervously around the lobby of Stark Tower, trying not to look like some kind of country bumpkin but unable to stop gawking at his luxurious surroundings. He’d known that Toni was a high class gal, and he’d seen her apartment on the top floor of the tower, but it hadn’t really hit home until just now.
Agent Romanoff had given him some advice about what was currently fashionable and he’d just bought a new suit, but he still felt underdressed even in the lobby of the building. God, Toni was so far out of his league it wasn’t even funny, but he still had to try.
He ran his fingers anxiously through his hair before straightening his shoulders and approaching the reception desk. The woman behind the counter was well dressed, with her dark hair piled on top of her head and lipstick that was almost purple. She gave him a tight smile when she saw him.
“Can I help you, sir?” She asked politely.
“I hope so. I was hoping I could see Ms. Stark.” He said with a smile.
The woman’s eyes travelled over him, focussing for a moment on the rose clutched in his hand before giving him a pitying smile. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Ah, no. I understand that she’s busy, but I was hoping that she could spare just a few minutes for me.”
The receptionist’s smile tightened as she typed something into the computer. “And who are you, sir?”
“Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes.” He answered, nodding his head and tipping an imaginary hat her her.
She didn’t acknowledge him, but continued typing on her computer. A moment later, she shook her head slightly. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. You’re not on the list of approved visitors. I can forward your name to Ms. Stark’s PA and try to get a meeting scheduled if you’d like. From what it looks like, Ms. Stark’s calendar is fully booked for the next six weeks, after which your meeting may be approved, subsequent to a background check of course.” The woman’s gaze dropped to the rose in his hands again. “I assume that the purpose of your visit is personal, rather than business.”
He grimaced. Six weeks just to get a chance to see her again. Well, he’d waited over six months between meetings last time. In retrospect, this wait was nothing. He would gladly wait for her for however long she needed. “Thank you, miss. I would be most grateful if you could do that for me.”
The receptionist looked surprised at his easy acceptance before sliding a tablet across the counter toward him. “Please input your contact details here then.”
He took the tablet and began inputting his phone number. He included the address for his apartment too, just in case she wanted to send him a letter. Though, he supposed most folks didn’t send letters anymore. Well, they sent electronic letters and SHIELD had given him one of those addresses, so he added that as well.
“Ms. Hawthorne, could you please escort Sergeant Barnes to Ms. Stark’s private elevator.” A posh British voice called through an intercom by the desk.
Ms. Hawthorne’s eyebrows shot to her hairline in surprise as she ran her gaze over him again more speculatively. “Of course, JARVIS. It seems to be your lucky day, Sergeant. Please follow me.”
The woman stepped out from behind the desk and led him across the lobby to an out of the way alcove that wasn’t visible from most of the rest of the lobby. She pulled a small painting aside and Bucky was surprised to find it on a hinge. Behind the painting, a black panel was inlaid into the wall.
Ms. Hawthorne placed her hand against the panel and a blue light scanned over the length of it. When she stepped back, she looked at him expectantly. “If you would please place your hand on the scanner, Sergeant.”
He did as he was told, expecting to feel something like a buzz or a zap from the light, but it passed beneath his palm with nothing more than a slight warming of the plate. The moment the scan was complete, a section of panelling slid away from the wall, revealing an elevator car.
“Well that’s fancy.” He couldn’t stop himself from saying as he stepped into the elevator.
Ms. Hawthorne smiled slyly at him. “Quite. Enjoy your evening, Sergeant.”
The door of the elevator closed and it took him a moment to realise that he didn’t know what floor he was supposed to send it to. But then the car started moving on its own, so maybe she had sent it along for him. Or maybe it only went one place.
Despite the height of the tower, the elevator ride seemed too short. He barely had a chance to straighten his tie before the elevator dinged and the doors slid open. When he stepped out, the entire floor was awash in golden light from the setting sun and Toni was reclined across one of her sofas, a tablet in one hand and a glass of wine in the other.
She was dressed down in a pair of hot pants and an oversized sweater, with her hair piled up on top of her head in a messy bun. In short, she was gorgeous. He smirked at her as he drifted toward her.
“Hey, doll.” He called.
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye and smirked before turning back to whatever she was doing on her tablet. “Give me a few minutes.”
“Make yourself at home. Check out the bar. You deserve a good drink after all that swill in the forties.” She said, making an absent gesture toward the bar on the other side of the room.
He did as he was told, drifting over to the bar to examine her liquor collection. It was quite expansive, with plenty of foreign liquors that he had never tried before. He examined it thoroughly, interested by all the different kinds of liquor. He usually stuck to gin or whiskey, but he was feeling a bit adventurous, so he reached for some bottle that looked like it had twigs and bark floating in it. He couldn’t read any of the writing on the label of the bottle.
He heard a chuckle behind him and turned to glance at Toni, who had come up behind him and was now resting at the bar. “Go ahead. Try it.”
“What is it?” He asked, pulling down a glass from one of the shelves.
She shifted so she could see the label better before her smile widened. “I forget the name. Mama something. It comes from a Caribbean island. I picked some up on holiday one time in my original timeline. Not that any of that got brought home. Me and Rhodey both got shit faced on it while waiting for a storm to pass.” She smiled softly. “That was a good holiday.”
“Sounds like it.” He smiled, before presenting the rose to her. “This is for you, doll.”
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously, but she took it from him nonetheless. “What does Fury want?”
He shrugged, thrown off by the change in subject but rolling with it as best he could. “Relaxation candles? Or maybe a spa treatment.” He suggested teasingly. The director had been downright unbearable since learning about the Hydra infestation, not that anyone else who had been in the conference room that day was any happier.
Agent Carter (the second) had been detained pending an investigation. The rest of the ‘Avengers’ were undergoing a similar investigation, but were apparently being given enough benefit of the doubt that they weren’t put into detention. But they were still trying to keep things quiet enough that whoever actually was Hydra wouldn’t get tipped off about Fury’s investigation. Honestly, it was a nightmare.
Toni grinned. “JARVIS, honey, why don’t you send an appropriate care basket over Fury’s way. Some candles, maybe some bubble baths and lotions.”
“Certainly, Miss. I’m sure that the director will be most thankful to know that he’s in your thoughts.” JARVIS answered.
“I’m sure he will be.” She answered with a vicious smile. “But really, why did he send you, Bucky?”
He startled and the smile fell from his mouth. “Fury didn’t send me. No one sent me. I sent myself. I wanted to see you.”
“Oh.” She said surprise, glancing back down to the flower twirling between her fingers. “So this is a booty call?”
He didn’t exactly know what a booty call was, but he could make an educated enough guess that no, that wasn’t exactly what he’d come here for. “I was actually hoping that you’d let me take you out to dinner.”
“Oh.” She said again, then trailed off into silence, still staring at the rose, though her fingers had stilled.
Bucky wanted to say something, assure her that she could tell him no and he’d accept it, or further plead his case and beg her forgiveness for not having enough faith in her when they’d told him she was Hydra. He bit his tongue instead, waiting her out.
“That would be . . . that would be a monumentally bad idea for you, Bucky.” She said after a moment. “It could impact your standing with SHIELD and put you in danger. It would probably wind up ruining your life.”
He arched an eyebrow at her in disbelief. “Jesus, it’s just dinner, Toni.”
She huffed out a sad laugh. “You don’t get it. You work for a covert spy organisation. I don’t do covert.”
“You seemed to do okay back in the war.” He countered.
“Yeah, only because none of you knew who I was. The second I set foot out of this Tower, you can almost guarantee that I’m being recorded, not only by paparazzi and journalists, but by anyone who recognises me and has a social media account. And that’s not even considering all of the spies keeping an eye on me now that I’ve told the world I’m a time traveller. I’m not going to get your face splashed all over every news outlet and intelligence agency’s briefing room for the sake of a date.” She explained grimly.
He hadn’t really thought about that, but at the same time, he didn’t really care. Let them know. Let them all know that he was in love with Toni. It wasn’t like he had much that he could lose, and to be honest he had already been considering leaving SHIELD. He didn’t want to be even peripherally associated with an organisation that had been harbouring Hydra agents. He didn’t want to work for the same organisation that had found Zola and decided to welcome him into the fold instead of putting a bullet between his eyes.
“If that’s the only thing stopping you, doll, you should know that I don’t care about any of that. Let them see me. The only place I want to be is by your side.” He declared.
She sighed and glanced down, running her thumb along one of the scars on the rose’s stem where the thorns had been removed. “I told you not to get attached to me.” She said quietly.
“Because you were leaving back to the future.” He nodded. “But lo and behold, I’ve made it here too.”
She swallowed tightly. “That wasn’t the only reason.”
He let out a slow breath as he felt like a horse had just kicked him in the chest. “So . . . you and Banner -”
“No.” She protested sharply. “That crashed and burned ages ago and I have no inclination to try it again. Though it does stand as a shining testament as to why -”
“Don’t judge me by what went wrong with Banner.” He cut her off quickly. “I don’t want to have to pay for his sins. If you don’t want me, tell me you don’t want me. Don’t make up a bunch of crazy reasons why we shouldn’t at least try to make things work out between us when a simple yes or no will suffice.”
His argument was met with more silence, but there was a pensive frown on her face as she went back to twirling the rose between her fingers. He let the silence be for a few minutes while he waited for the verdict, but eventually had to prompt her. “Which is it?”
“I don’t know.” She answered with a helpless shrug. And there was that horse again, kicking him in the chest. “I don’t date, Bucky. I fuck around and have one night stands and, occasionally, casual flings on the rare occasion that someone catches my interest. I don’t do serious, which is what you want. And I don’t trust you, I can’t, which I’ve been led to believe is somewhat important when trying to build any kind of functional relationship. And yet . . . and yet, still, somehow, I don’t want to kick you to the curb either. I don’t know.”
He came around the counter of the bar, approaching her warily, but she didn’t retreat from him. He reached for her tentatively, drawing her fingers up to his lips to press a kiss into her knuckles. “Okay. I know I’m into this way deeper than you are. You probably never expected to see me again after that first night, let alone that I would send you letters and seek you out. So we’ll go at your pace. Anything you want, you’ve got.”
“That’s not fair to you.” She protested.
He scoffed, as if he wouldn’t be over the moon for any scrap of attention she might throw his way, for any chance to regain her trust. Since the very moment they’d met, he hadn’t so much as looked at another woman. He wasn’t going to be losing interest in her any time soon. “It’s fair, doll.” He assured her. “So what do you say, will you let me take you out to dinner? And maybe some dancing? Do people still do that?”
She laughed. “I’m sure that you would be horrified by what they call dancing these days.”
He put on a mock offended expression. “You say that like you think I’m Steve.”
Steve had been less than impressed by just about everything the future had to offer.
“JARVIS, show Bucky a video of twerking.” She ordered, and he felt a thrill of adoration go through him at the challenging smirk she aimed his way. God, he was absolutely gone on this woman.
A box like a screen made out of light appeared beside them and he marvelled at the technology, at the way it just floated next to them. At least until the video started. The images were practically pornographic. He’d gotten used to the way that some women dressed like show girls, especially the ones on the television, but this was something else. He kept glancing between Toni and the screen, waiting for her to say something like ‘gotcha!’ but she just kept a straight face.
“They do this in public?” He finally had to ask, because it looked like part of a private burlesque show.
That, at least, got a reaction out of her, but it was to promptly burst out into laughter, then try to suppress it. He was happy to see it, even if it was at his expense. “Yup.” She eventually chuckled.
He glanced back at the screen, which had moved on to the woman doing this twerking dance essentially against the groin of a man. He tried not to wonder if Toni knew how to twerk, and if they went dancing if she would do this to him. In public. God, he would almost certainly wind up embarrassing himself.
“Maybe we’ll skip the dancing.” He said tightly. “How about dinner?”
Her expression sobered immediately and she hesitated, though he was gratified by the way that her fingers absently curled around his tags and ring that were still hanging from her neck. “Why don’t we order in instead?” She hesitantly offered, then winced slightly. “It’s not that I’m embarrassed by you, or anything. It’s just that -”
“It’s fine, Toni. I just want to spend time with you.” He interrupted before she felt like she had to explain herself any further.
He couldn’t imagine what it was like to know that her entire life would be public knowledge, to have the masses spying on her at any given opportunity and not seeing anything wrong with it. When he’d been growing up, the little old lady on the corner used to sit in her armchair next to the window and watch the comings and goings of all the people in the neighbourhood. She was a nosy, old busybody and the worst gossip he’d ever had the displeasure of meeting. Toni’s life had to be a bit like that, except that everyone she met or passed in the street had the potential of being another Mrs. Bennet.
Toni opened her mouth to continue her explanation, then closed it again. Then she opened her mouth again to say something else, and decided against that too. “Okay.” She eventually settled on.
He smiled softly and dropped a chaste kiss to her forehead. “So, what do you want for dinner, darling?”
He was surprised when that managed to put a blush on her cheeks. But it was a good look on her and he made a promise to himself that he would try to put this exact look on her face as often as humanly possible.
Chapter 11: Reality Check
The implications of Toni's time traveling adventures finally come home to roost.
Toni practically floated through the Malibu house as she sifted through the literal mountain of SI work that had fallen through the cracks while she’d been occupied with the UN. And yet, somehow, even budget reports and the insistent calls from practically everyone of importance in Washington still couldn’t bring her down from her good mood.
She’d had a date, and even though she hadn’t shelled out a bunch of money or taken the person somewhere expensive and exclusive or anything like that, even though she’d spent the entire time in short shorts and an old hoodie, Bucky had still seemed to enjoy himself. He’d looked like he was over the fucking moon when she’d finally agreed to have dinner with him.
They’d ordered from a little hole in the wall place a few blocks from the Tower that had phenomenal Thai food. He’d argued about paying for dinner and had conspired with JARVIS against her when she’d put her foot down about paying. He’d pretended he had to use the restroom but had snuck down to the lobby to intercept the delivery woman before the receptionist could put it on her card.
It was nice, actually. She was used to paying and often fought to be able to do so, especially with people outside of her tax bracket. But Bucky had insisted that since he’d asked her, expecting her to pay for dinner would have been beyond the pale. She’d tried to get back at him by secretly ordering a ridiculously elaborate and expensive cake for dessert, but he didn’t seem bothered that she had managed to pay for something, like some of her dates in the past.
They wound up curled up on her couch watching the first season of Star Trek, introducing Bucky to the best thing that he had missed during his ice nap. She finally figured out what the kids these days were calling ‘Netflix and chill’. Especially when Bucky finally got tired of watching the show and had pulled her into a slow, perfect kiss. They had proceeded to make out like teenagers until it was stupid o’clock in the morning and Bucky had to leave in order to not be assassinated by Fury for coming in late.
They hadn’t even fucked.
The closest they had gotten was some over the clothes heavy petting, but there had been no rushed urge to get to the finale, which had surprised her. She was hard pressed to ever remember a time when that had been the case. And even when she’d told him that she was returning to Malibu for an undetermined duration, he’d simply told her that he would send her letters - emails - until either she came back or he managed to get enough time off to come visit her. There was no pressure or expectations at all.
Honestly, it was almost enough for her to give up her determination not to get serious. But then she would remember her past life. She would remember the hard learned lessons she had struggled through in her original timeline, she would remember how quickly he had turned on her last time, and she would commit herself to keeping things from getting too serious.
It was only a matter of time before she and Rogers clashed again. Much as she was determined to keep her distance from her murderer, she knew that it was inevitable that they would be forced together again. And like oil and water, they obviously wouldn’t mix well. And when that time came, she knew that she wasn’t going to be the one who came out on top. Bucky and Steve were brothers in everything but blood. They were family in a way that she had only ever found with her Rhodey. She couldn’t really blame them for putting each other first, even though she still blamed Rogers for the way he had gone about trying to keep Bucky out of custody instead of trying to clear his name.
No, it was better to keep this casual for as long as it would last. Bucky would probably get tired of her sooner or later anyway. It was best to make the most of it. So she chased away the dark thoughts that had dared to try to darken her mood and poured herself a congratulatory glass of scotch as she sent off the last email she had to deal with for the night.
She would finally have some free time for work in the lab. She needed to get caught up on everything her counterpart had created, and then she needed to improve it, just to prove that she could. Just to prove that Afghanistan and being Iron Queen hadn’t made her less than she was supposed to be.
She had just set down the bottle on the counter when she heard the front door open. She brought the glass to her lips and peeked around the corner to make sure it wasn’t a home invasion. There were a select few people that had access to her home that JARVIS wouldn’t have announced in her original timeline and she was glad to see that it remained the same here.
Happy strode into the house like he owned the place and her smile widened. “Happy!” She greeted brightly as she stepped around the corner and made her way toward the foyer. “I’m so happy to see you.” She teased, one of their ages old jokes. “Who’s the munchkin?” She asked, when Happy stepped out of the way to reveal a young boy shrugging out of his coat. She assumed this was some nephew that she hadn’t met yet. Maybe one of his sister Jamie’s brood.
Happy froze, his hand falling on the boy’s shoulder as he pulled the kid back from her at the same time as the kid glared at her. “Really, Mom? I know you forgot about picking me up, and about the fact that it was your turn, but really?”
She felt her heart stutter in her chest and the blood drain from her face as she stared at the kid. “What did you call me?” She breathed out.
“What? Am I not allowed to call you Mom anymore?” The kid snapped.
She swallowed tightly as the implications of her time travelling adventure finally came home to roost. She’d fooled herself into thinking that she could just step into the shoes her counterpart had left and continue her life as she deemed fit. She’d felt bad about killing her other self, but she hadn’t really given a shit about the people that had loved Other Toni, about the people in her other self’s life.
But Other Toni had a kid.
Other Toni had a kid and she’d fucking murdered her other self in order to make room for herself in the timeline. This kid didn’t have a mom because of her. Because she’d fucked up her math. Or rather, because she’d gotten drunk off her ass and built a time machine in the first place.
She looked to Happy helplessly, but he was watching her suspiciously, still putting himself between her and the kid like he was on an active protection detail. Oh god, her kid had a protection detail. And she’d been deemed a threat. Fuck, what was wrong with her?
She set her drink aside on a side table and ran her fingers through her hair, seeking her composure. She found it after a few moments, even though she felt sick to her stomach and wanted to break down and bawl until she was out of tears. She swallowed back her emotions. This wasn’t about her. This was about the kid that she had semi-orphaned.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Fuck.” She breathed, then winced at her own potty mouth. She was going to have to get that under control. “Fudge, I mean.”
“Mom?” The kid asked, and he sounded more uncertain now that he’d let the anger out of his system. “You look different.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. “Yeah.” She croaked, then realised that they were still standing in the doorway. There was no way that she was going to have this conversation in the doorway. “Come . . . come in. Let’s sit down. We need to talk.” She said, sending a pleading glance Happy’s way.
Happy sighed heavily but nodded. “Alright. Let’s go, champ.”
Happy led the kid into the living room and she followed behind them, her eyes glued to the kid. They settled side by side on the sofa and she hesitated in the doorway for a moment before slipping inside and sitting on the coffee table across from them. She swallowed tightly as she looked at him, really looked at the kid for the first time. He was a scrawny little thing with a mop of dark hair and eyes that reminded her of her own mother. Eyes that she knew she had always shared with Maria.
Part of her had always wondered what her kid would look like, if she’d been able to have kids. She was pleased to see that there wasn’t more of Howard in him outside of the colour of his hair. Then again, that might have come from the father’s side too, whoever that may be.
“I’m sorry, kid.” She croaked out. “I’m not your mom.”
She let that sink in for a moment before she started to explain. “I don’t know if you watched the news or not -”
“About the aliens?” The kid interrupted.
“Yeah, did you watch it all or just the aliens part?” She asked.
“I watched it all.” The kid said petulantly, as if she’d asked if he’d finished all of his homework.
She nodded and opened her mouth to continue her story, but then paused. “I’m sorry. What’s your name, bud?”
The kid faltered at that, but recovered admirably and stuck out his hand to introduce himself. She shook his hand more by habit than anything else, his soft little fingers gripping her in a firm, sure grip. “I’m Edwin Michael Stark, but everyone calls me Eddy.”
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and willed herself not to cry. The reason that JARVIS was named JARVIS was because she had been reserving Edwin for the heir she’d never managed to create. She felt like someone had reached into her chest and started squeezing on anything they could reach. Fuck. This was the kid she had always wanted but never got to have.
“It’s nice to meet you, Eddy.” She said softly as she forced herself not to cling to the kid’s hand. “I’m Antonia Elizabeth Stark, but everyone calls me Toni.”
“But my mom is Toni Stark.” He said, brow furrowing in confusion.
She swallowed tightly. “I know, hon. I went back in time to a time before I was born. Then, when I tried to get back home, there would have been two of me. For some reason, it seems like there can only be one version of a person at a time and it picked me. I’m so sorry, kiddo.”
“Then where’s my mom?” Eddy demanded.
“I don’t know.” She admit, even as bile tried to climb up her throat. She hadn't cared, was more like it. Not until Eddy had mistaken her for his mother.
The kid’s eyes flooded with tears and his lip trembled as he fought valiantly to keep his composure. When that failed, the kid let out a sob and a heartbroken “Dad!” before burying his face in Happy’s chest. Happy’s arms immediately came around the boy as he set to trying to comfort he kid.
She felt like the scum of the earth, but it still couldn’t squash the small part of her that was reeling in shock at learning that Happy was the kid’s father. Really? First Rhodey and now Happy? What was wrong with Other Toni?
It took a long time and she felt distinctly uncomfortable at witnessing the scene, but eventually the kid calmed down a bit and emerged from Happy’s chest, his eyes red and nose running. She got up and retrieved a box of tissues for him before settling awkwardly into the armchair across from them, giving them more space. She remembered the rage that had shot though her when she had realised that Bucky had killed her parents and she wouldn’t be surprised if they wanted nothing to do with her. She’d just ruined their fucking lives.
When Eddy had finished cleaning himself up, he had his arms crossed over his chest and his head ducked like he was trying to make himself small or to disappear. It broke her heart and she desperately wanted to give the kid a hug, but she knew it wouldn’t be welcome. She was just an impostor. She wasn’t what the kid really wanted.
“You didn’t recognise me.” Eddy whispered. “You didn’t know me. I didn’t exist. I really am just a mistake.”
She froze in horror as she stared at the kid. When she glanced at Happy, he was looking like he would love nothing more than to rip her spine out and beat her to death with it. At this point she was about ready to let him do it too. Who the fuck had told this kid that he was a mistake?
“No, honey, I’m sure that you’re not. I know that you’re not.” She protested.
“But I didn’t exist!” The kid shouted at her. “You didn’t want me so I didn’t exist!”
“I wanted you!” She shouted back, then realised that shouting at the kid was something Howard would have done and she wanted to be the furthest thing away from what Howard had been. “I wanted you more than anything.” She continued more softly.
“But I didn’t exist.” Eddy protested.
She swallowed helplessly and tried to think of a way to explain that wouldn’t give him nightmares. “I got really sick for a while. It made it so that I couldn’t ever have kids.”
He looked at her sceptically, as if he were trying to catch her in a lie. “You promise?”
“Yeah, bud. I had the same name picked out and everything. You could never be a mistake when I wanted you as badly as I did. I’m certain that your mom felt the same way too.” She reassured him.
The kid’s lips wobbled as he tried to keep his composure, but his eyes flooded with tears again before he launched himself at her, smooshing his face into her shoulder as he started crying again. She patted his back awkwardly, surprised that he wanted anything to do with her, but soothed him as best as she knew how.
For how much that she had wanted a kid, she didn’t have a whole lot of experience with them. In fact, the breadth of her experience lay with Harley, Peter and the Bartons. God, she remembered how fucking envious she had been when she’d first met Laura Barton. She remembered the incomprehensible confusion she had felt when she realised that Clint had brought Wanda to Germany to serve as Steve’s foot soldiers. What the fuck had the man been thinking to give up his family like that?
She forced her thoughts away from Clint and focussed on her counterpart’s kid instead. She tentatively reached out and ran her fingers through his hair, sparing a glance at Happy to see if it was okay. He didn’t look exactly pleased, but he had relaxed into the couch now and was watching them with a contemplative look on his face. God, she hoped he didn’t expect her to pick up where Other Toni had left off in their relationship. Thinking about bumping uglies with Happy was almost as disturbing as thinking about it with Rhodey.
She turned back to Eddy, shushing him and comfortingly running her hand up his back in an attempt to get him to stop crying. He did eventually stop, settling quietly against her shoulder as she ignored the damp spot that was soaking into her bra. It took a few more minutes for her to realise that he was falling asleep on her, his little body slowly going more and more slack. But that was to be expected, she figured. It had to be after ten o’clock at night now, which now that she thought about it was undoubtedly past his bedtime, even without taking his emotional turmoil into account.
Happy got up after a moment more and reached for Eddy, gently pulling him out of her grasp. Or attempting to, since Eddy clung to her and woke himself up. “No, no.” He protested, hiding his face against her neck.
“It’s bedtime, Eddy. Say goodnight.” Happy murmured softly. The kid looked like he was about to put up a fight, when Happy continued. “She’ll still be here in the morning.”
That seemed to convince him, since he let her go and sleepily stood up. “Goodnight, Mom.”
She froze in shock, then cleared her throat and forced herself not to draw attention to his mistake lest it set him off again. “Goodnight, Eddy. Sleep tight.”
He stumbled off down the hall that had led to a handful of unoccupied guest suites in her original timeline and Happy followed behind, softly harping on the kid about brushing his teeth and washing his face. She watched them until they were out of sight, then felt her composure crack. Fuck, she needed a drink. She thought about the almost untouched glass of scotch she’d left on the side table in the foyer, then made a promise to herself that she would dump out every last drop of liquor in the house before she ever drank in front of the kid.
She noticed her vision going blurry with yet unshed tears and promptly buried her face in her hands and sniffled. She needed to get her shit together. She didn’t have the right to cry. She was the one that had fucked everything up. She needed to . . . to what? To fix it? Even if she could get her other self back, could she really risk doing it? Other Toni might have had everything she’d wanted, but she hadn’t been Iron Queen. Other Toni didn’t know the horror that was coming for them. Other Toni wouldn’t be able to fight and even if she chose to, even if she left Other Toni the plans for the Iron Queen suit and tried to bring her back, even then, well she had over a decade of combat experience that her counterpart wouldn’t, not even to mention Extremis. She couldn’t risk the rest of humanity to put a smile back on the kid’s face. She couldn’t fix this without risking something worse.
She startled when a hand squeezed on her shoulder, and if she’d been more on top of things, Happy probably would have ended up with a repulsor to the face. As it was, she just jumped, then hurriedly tried to wipe away the traitorous tears that had escaped her eyes while she hadn’t been paying attention.
“Thank you.” Happy said quietly.
“What the fuck are you thanking me for?” She asked brittlely.
“For telling him he was wanted.” He answered.
She flinched. What the fuck? What the hell was wrong with him? Who wouldn’t tell their own kid that they were wanted? Why was he acting like she’d been lying about it. “What?”
He smiled wryly as he sat back down on the couch across from her. “I’ve been around you long enough to know when you’re talking out of your ass.”
“You clearly fucking don’t.” She snarled in response. “Nothing I said was a lie.”
Happy scoffed and she wanted to shake him and demand what the fuck was wrong with him. But she’d learned her lesson with Rhodey and Pepper. This wasn’t her home timeline. These versions of her loved ones weren’t the same, and she couldn’t expect them to be.
“I’m no genius, but I’m pretty sure that time travelling didn’t change your genetic makeup. Our Toni was as healthy as a horse. She rarely even caught a cold.” Happy countered and there was something almost mean about the way he said it.
“Sorry for not wanting to give your kid nightmares.” She sneered in response. “The truth is that I was betrayed, blown up and held and tortured by terrorists. There was shrapnel in my chest and the doctor the terrorists had kidnapped from the neighbouring village implanted an electromagnet into my chest. But being waterboarded with a car battery strapped to my chest was uncomfortable and led to some nasty burns, so I miniaturised an arc reactor to replace the car battery and implanted it in my chest cavity. But, you know, arc reactors run on palladium, which happens to be toxic to the human body. And it’s not like heavy metals leave the body after they’ve gotten into it, so yeah, when it became apparent that I would survive the poisoning, I did the responsible thing and got my tubes tied to make sure that I didn’t end up passing on the poison to an infant. But don’t you think for a fucking second that I made that decision lightly.
That was an extremely abbreviated version of events that didn’t really take into account the full complexity of the situation, considering the substance that Natasha had injected her with that had caused her mutation. She’d consulted extensively with Dr. Wu and a whole panel of fertility specialists, but the general consensus was that her toxic blood would either kill the child in the womb or, if the child were lucky, they might inherit the same mutation and their mutations would compete with each other and kill them both.
“Jesus.” Happy winced.
She pushed herself up from her seat and turned away from him, pacing a little to expel some of her tension. It wasn’t fair of her to throw her trauma at him like it was his fault. “Sorry. That was uncalled for.”
“It’s fine.” Happy shrugged, an unhappy frown on his face. “I shouldn’t have needled you. You’re not her. I shouldn’t treat you like you are.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and accepted the pseudo-apology with a shrug. “So you and Other Toni, huh? Are you . . . are you married?”
“Divorced.” Happy answered, slumping back into the sofa.
She winced. And another one bites the dust. God, so it turned out that her other self was just as awful at relationships as she was.
“I take it we managed to make it work in your time?” Happy wondered.
“God, no.” She answered immediately. “You, other you, were one of my best friends, but we never even tried anything that went beyond that. It would have been way too weird.”
“Huh.” Happy murmured. “You stuck with Rhodes then?”
“No. That never happened in my time either. I’m single. Uh, well, I was. I’m kind of . . . seeing someone now? I think. It’s new. Uh, very new. Practically nascent.” She babbled a bit nervously. She really wasn’t sure if what she and Bucky had settled on actually counted as ‘seeing’ someone. But then again, Bucky had admit that his feelings for her ran pretty deep, so . . . yeah, probably they were ‘in a relationship’. So weird.
“That was quick.” Happy grumbled, and it was so much like the way he used to give her shit about the ‘superfriends’ that she couldn’t help the small smile that quirked onto her lips.
“Bucky Barnes. Captain America’s trusty sidekick. We met back in ‘43. Both time travellers in our own way, though he took the longer, more painful way.”
“Thought they went down in a plane crash.” Happy wondered.
“They did. Both survived and have recently been thawed out.” She shrugged.
“Hm. That’ll make your old man happy.” Happy hummed.
She grimaced. “Don’t remind me. Can’t believe the old coot is still alive.”
Happy said nothing about that, but she took note of the serious, speculative nature of his gaze. There was a heavy moment of silence between them before Happy sighed. “You should know that we’re currently in the middle of a custody battle.”
She forced herself to freeze as she felt a misplaced wave of fury rush though her. This wasn’t her life. Eddy wasn’t her kid. But just the thought of the father trying to take her child away from her made her want to put on the suit and blow the asshole to kingdom come.
“Why?” She demanded, though her tone was like ice.
Happy glared back at her. “Because we fundamentally disagree on the best way to parent Eddy, so Other You decided to take the decision out of my hands and try to cut me out of his life entirely.”
“I wouldn’t do that.” She protested immediately. That had to be a lie. She had grown up with a mostly absent father. There was no fucking way that she would cut him out of Eddy’s life unless he had done something awful. “Not unless you couldn’t be trusted.”
His glare didn’t lessen any. “Well then, your other self decided I couldn’t be trusted because I wanted to treat Eddy like a child, instead of a prized object to be trotted out in front of the media every time SI’s stocks dropped.”
“I wouldn’t do that.” She protested again. She had hated it whenever Howard had dragged her out for a press engagement. It was the only time that Howard had ever shown her a scrap of affection and had only driven home how poorly he had treated her as soon as no one was watching them.
“Well, she did.” Happy said, looking visibly upset. “And she’s got a multi-billion dollar tech industry, a fully staffed PR team and the most ruthless pack of lawyers ever to be assembled. So I just want you to know that I’m going to use all of this against you. You’re not his mother. You have no right to him.”
She swallowed tightly. “I never thought I did.”
“Good.” Happy said firmly before letting some of the tension fall from his shoulders. “Until that time, though, you should know that I have been legally banned from removing Eddy from the state. Apparently, Other You thought that there was a possibility of me kidnapping him.”
“Okay.” She said hesitantly, unsure why he was telling her that.
He glanced at his watch. “My flight to London leaves in six hours.”
“Oh.” She said, staring wide-eyed at him. “What - um - what do you need me to do? Call the lawyers?”
He sighed heavily, rubbing his fingers over his forehead. “I’m not really going somewhere kid friendly. It’s a security conference. And he’s got an exam at the end of the week. I don’t want to disrupt his routine more than I have to. Especially now that he’s finally starting to refocus on his assignments.”
“What are you saying?” She asked, having an inkling but utterly disbelieving.
“I realise that you aren’t exactly prepared, so if you can’t take him for the week, I’ll call my mom and she’ll take him. But she’s still recovering from hip surgery so it’s not a good time for her either.” He said unhappily.
“Are you asking me to take care of Eddy while you’re away?” She asked wide-eyed.
“If your schedule allows.” He said reluctantly.
“I . . . yeah. Yes, Happy. Anything. JARVIS, clear my schedule.” She stammered.
“Miss, I would highly recommend against that. You have several meetings with delegates from Congress and NATO scheduled throughout the week.” JARVIS gently protested.
“Reschedule them. If it’s not possible, tell them I’ll do the meeting through a conference call, but Eddy takes priority.” She answered.
“As you wish, Miss.” JARVIS said snippily. “I shall inform Miss Potts of your decision.”
She winced. Oh, Pepper was going to kill her. She was going to have to buy out an entire shoe line in an attempt at appeasement. Pepper had already been annoyed by all of these extra meetings distracting her from her work with SI. It made her wonder at how gracefully her timeline’s version of Pepper had stepped up when it had been asked.
But still, Eddy took priority. She’d do anything for that kid to make up for what she’d taken from him. And if that included getting to spend time with him - a possibility she had never considered - then she would certainly do everything in her power to make sure that he wasn’t alone and was well taken care of.
“And get me some parenting books or something. I need to do some homework.”
Happy looked reluctantly impressed as he pushed himself to his feet. “JARVIS knows his schedule and has my contact information if anything happens. If it get too much, drop him off at my mom’s.”
“Indeed, I have all relevant contact and schedule information.” JARVIS said, though his voice had gone more cold. She would have to look into that. She needed to look into everything that had made their marriage fall apart and what exactly had started this custody battle. Rhodey’s lesson had been painful to learn, but she was determined that she wasn’t going to make the same mistake. This Happy wasn’t her Happy. She knew his character, but she didn’t know his actions. Until she did, she would have to tread carefully. As with Rhodey, there was a lot of history here that she wasn’t aware of.
She rose with Happy and walked with him to the door. There were a thousand things that she wanted to ask him about Eddy, but she was aware that that might be painful for him. It would be better to let the kid speak for himself anyway. She had always hated it whenever her parents had spoken for her.
“I’ll do my best.” She promised quietly.
He glanced at her as he pulled his jacket on. “Please do.” He said grimly. “He’s . . . he looks up to you.”
She nodded to cover up the thrill of dread that shot though her at that. Fuck. She knew very well that even now she wasn’t really role model material. And how the fuck was she supposed to live up to the expectations of her other self? Other Toni, who had managed to get someone to stick around long enough for her to marry him and have a kid, even if it hadn’t worked out. Other Toni, who hadn’t fallen into the trap of doing something she hated to try to make Howard proud. Other Toni, who had broken away from the weapons industry at twenty-two and revolutionised the world with her genius.
She let out a heavy sigh as the door closed behind Happy and let her forehead rest against the back of the door. There was no helping it. She would just have to do her best. No, she would have to do better than her best.
Chapter 12: What's best for the child
Toni had spent the entire night reading up on every reputable parenting and babysitting guide she could get her hands on. By the time that the early morning sun began streaming through the windows, she thought she might have something of a handle on it. It was only a tiny human, she’s got this. It wasn’t like he was completely dependent on her or anything.
She grimaced and forced herself not to think about it lest she descend into another panic attack. Instead, she focussed on the kitchen. Apparently, breakfast was the most important meal of the day, especially for children. And it couldn’t just be pop tarts because children were not Asgardian princes and apparently couldn’t survive on pure sugar. No, it needed to be balanced .
She dredged up memories of Ana Jarvis and the delicious breakfasts she had made when Toni had been a child getting ready to run off to school. Quiche. Ana sometimes made her quiche. That was four of the food groups taken care of. She would add in some sliced fruits on the side and orange juice to finish it off.
She made everything from scratch, pulling recipes off the internet with her brain and checking and double checking with JARVIS that the kid wasn’t allergic to any of the ingredients. Then checking again just for good measure. By the time that she had the quiche in the oven to bake, the sun was fully up. She was just pouring out a glass of orange juice, a cup of coffee already cradled in her other hand when she startled at a hesitant “Mom?” from behind her.
She jumped, sloshing hot coffee all over the back of her hand and bit her tongue hard enough to bleed to keep herself from cursing, but didn’t manage to suppress a pained hiss. She set the half empty coffee cup on the counter and grabbed a rag to toss over the mess she had made before taking a deep breath and turning to face Eddy.
He was standing uncertainly in the door to the kitchen, almost peeking around the corner into the room like he was ready to flee. She forced herself to smile instead of cry because obviously she’d just scared the shit out of the kid. “Good morning, Eddy.”
The kid straightened himself up, already dressed for the day, complete with socks and shoes and his hair combed. “Good morning.” He said primly as he stepped into the kitchen. His eyes kept bouncing between her and the oven and the mess of dishes in the sink to the place setting at the island.
“Have a seat, bud. We’ve got . . . six minutes left until breakfast is ready.” She said, checking the timer on the oven.
He did as he was told, seating himself without protest, waiting patiently. He didn’t talk, and she floundered all of a sudden, having no idea how to talk to a child. Her first encounter with Harley was evidence enough of that. She still winced whenever she remembered telling him not to be a pussy about his dad leaving. God, why had she thought she could do this?
“Um . . . I’m glad you’re up so early.” She eventually settled on useless pleasantries.
Eddy shrugged as he stared down at his place settings. “Classes start at seven thirty.”
Right. School. That was a thing. She would have to drive him there. Or did he take the bus? No, probably not. That was too big of a security risk. So she’d have to bring the car around.
“Young sir is homeschooled.” JARVIS interrupted, clearly picking up on her thoughts from where he was still interfacing with Extremis.
“Oh.” She said, thinking about teaching him while simultaneously being impressed with her other self for finding the time to oversee her son’s education while still leading a tech empire. Still, she was looking forward to it. The last few weeks before she’d travelled back in time, she’d taken Peter under her wing and begun to teach him what she could. And before that, teaching Harley whenever they got to spend time together had been fantastic. And none of that even touched on what it was like to teach JARVIS and FRIDAY about how to interact with humans.
But JARVIS rained on that parade too. “You’re mistaken, Miss. While young sir is taught a customised and highly efficient curriculum developed by your other self, I am the one that instructs him.”
“Oh.” She said again. Well that did make a bit more sense because she had been seriously wondering if her other self also hadn’t mastered time travel to fit all of her obligations into the same day.
“How are you doing that?” Eddy asked quietly.
She tapped her temple and smiled at him. “JARVIS is able to kind of connect to my brain. He ends up picking up the occasional thought.”
“Oh.” Eddy said, clearly unsure what exactly to say to that.
She was saved from having to further explain it by the timer on the oven going off. She turned away and set about pulling the quiche out of the oven, then cutting and serving it to Eddy with some sliced pear. Eddy stared at it for a moment like it might eat him before he tentatively picked up his fork and scooped up the smallest sliver of eggs and pastry that she’d ever seen.
He stuffed it in his mouth like he was expecting cough medicine instead of a prize winning quiche recipe from a master chef’s online blog. Then he paused and blinked in surprise. “I didn’t know you could cook.” He said simply, before shoveling a giant piece of quiche into his mouth so quickly that she was worried he was going to choke on it.
“Of course I can. Madre and Ana Jarvis used to cook with me all the time when I was young. I memorised a bunch of their best recipes, though this one came from the internet.” She answered as she took a bite of her own quiche and cleaned up her spilled cup of coffee.
“It’s good.” Eddy said quietly, almost shyly. “Did you . . . memorise Nonna’s manicotti recipe?”
“Hmm. That is a good one. Do you want it for dinner?” She asked.
Eddy’s lip wobbled slightly. “She used to make it for my birthdays.” He whispered.
She reached out and squeezed the kid’s hand to offer him comfort as she remembered that in this timeline, Maria Stark had only died less than half a year ago. Her mother had held on for a long time. As she’d gotten old, she had begun to degrade. She had eventually succumbed to a chronic chest infection after lingering in the hospital for weeks. Even though she didn’t get to reunite with her mother after time travelling, she couldn’t think of a better gift that she had given to her other self and Eddy than to have Maria Stark in their lives for so long.
“Young sir, I must remind you that your classes are due to start in ten minutes.” JARVIS informed crisply.
Toni frowned at the interruption, but Eddy straightened up and regained his composure before returning to shovelling the rest of the food on his plate into his mouth like a human garburator. He chugged down his juice before hopping down from the barstool and clearing away his own dishes into the dishwasher.
“Alright. I’ll let you learn in peace.” She said. If nothing else, it would allow her to knock out a bunch of the work she had assumed that she wouldn’t have time for and Pepper might not kill her. “What time do you get off? Actually, what time is your lunch? No, nevermind, I’ll get JARVIS to send me your schedule.” She babbled.
“Thank you for breakfast . . . Mom.” He said quietly before skittering out of the room at a jog as if he would end up risking detention if he showed up late. She hesitated in the kitchen, uncertain if she should correct his form of address for her, even though it sent a thrill of warmth through her every time he said it. She decided to leave it be, since after this week it was unlikely that Happy would let her near him again.
JARVIS brought up Eddy’s study schedule for her perusal and she frowned at it. He had classes scheduled until five thirty in the evening with a handful of fifteen minute breaks scattered between subject changes and a thirty minute lunch break. After a two hour break for dinner and hygiene, he also had another hour of study/revision scheduled before bed. It was too much. That had to be too much for a kid to handle.
She scrolled onto the next day, wondering if he had front loaded his schedule in order to take another day off on the weekends, but as she scrolled through the week, the course load remained consistent up until Sunday. On Sunday, he had four hours of revision and review scheduled in the morning and the rest of the day consisted of free time. That was it.
There was no time for play. Hell, there was no time for human socialisation. All of the classes were instructed by JARVIS in the same small home office that looked more like it belonged in the accounting department at SI, rather than a child’s classroom. There were no brightly coloured and engaging posters or interactive environments.
What about friends? Why wasn’t there any time scheduled for him to interact with his peers? Why didn’t he get to participate in any extracurricular activities? What the fuck was her other self thinking when she had developed this kind of curriculum?
“Why is his schedule so packed?” She demanded.
“Young sir has fallen behind in his studies and must make up for his shortcomings.” JARVIS answered. “He is already nine years old and yet is still having difficulties with seventh grade materials.”
She frowned. When she’d been nine, she’d already been working on ninth or tenth grade material, but she was an exception, not the norm. She was pretty sure he was only supposed to be in the fourth grade. Surely they weren’t trying to hold him to her standard, were they?
She drummed her fingers against the counter as she fought down the urge to drag the kid out of the house to go go-carting or something. Maybe they could go surfing. It had been years since she’d done it, not since before Afghanistan and maybe getting her head wet wouldn’t be great, but she was pretty sure she could keep herself together, for the kid’s sake if nothing else. And it was clear that the kid needed to spend at least a little time outside.
But then she reined herself in and imagined what Happy would say if he found out that she had encouraged his son to skip school when the very reason that he had been left with her was so that his schedule wouldn’t be disrupted more than necessary. So instead, she determined that she would spend as much of his free time as possible with him and forced herself into her own office to get some of her own work done.
The week spent in London was surreal. Happy had been more than a little bit nervous about leaving his kid with an alternate version of his ex-wife, but he’d had very little choice with the restrictions that had been placed on him about just where he could take Eddy. He wasn’t even allowed to take the kid with him when he went to visit his sister in Seattle; taking him out of the country was just out of the question. If his job hadn’t been riding on his attendance to the conference, he would have never bothered to go.
Still he’d been just hoping for the best. He was certain that this version of Toni would never hurt the kid, not with the way she kept looking at him like he shat rainbows and unicorns. That didn’t mean he’d had a lot of faith in her ability to actually take care of him. But she’d proven herself better than the original by reading a virtual library of parenting books, then sending him dozens of text messages throughout the week asking about his parenting and discipline style just in case she needed it.
It was a far cry from his Toni, who had disdained of the very thought of taking parenting advice from a ‘feel-good hippie with no degree’ or, worse, ‘a fucking feelings doctor that thinks they have unlocked the nature of the growth of the human brain all without even looking at a brain scan’. But that opened a whole other can of worms. This Toni wanted the kid in a way that the original never had, and he was aware that giving her the chance to get attached to him was just asking for trouble.
At the end of the day, she was still Toni Stark. She was still a billionaire tech queen used to getting whatever she wanted. If she decided she wanted to keep the kid, he was going to be up for the fight of his life. His legal team had been advising him for months now to think about offering a deal because they didn’t think they could win against the Stark legal dream team Toni had assembled. They’d been telling him to plead for joint custody instead of what he had been pushing for in his countersuit, which was to cut Toni out of Eddy’s life as much as humanly possible. At the rate they were going though, he would be lucky if it wasn’t him that was cut out of the kid’s life.
The fact that his ex-wife had been replaced by an alternate version of herself that had never had a kid was a godsend for his legal team and they’d already been working on building it into the case over the last week. With luck, they’d even put this version of Toni on notice about that fact and it had dampened some of her affection for the kid. But he would have to see about that.
He’d been fighting back his anxiety the entire flight back to LA, dreading what kind of situation he was returning to. Maybe this Toni had succeeded where the other version had failed in turning Eddy against him. Maybe they had just disappeared together, never to be found again.
He collected his luggage from the baggage carousel, his mind continuously churning over the worst case scenarios. So, to say that he was surprised when he stepped out into the arrivals area to be met with Toni and Eddy waiting for him was a bit of an understatement. They were both dressed casually, Eddy in a pair of boardshorts that he knew hadn’t been part of his wardrobe at the beginning of the week and a zip up hoody, his hair curly and disheveled and the hint of a sunburn on his nose. He was smiling broadly and excitedly waved at him as soon as he caught sight of him, running forward to hug him.
Toni stood back, rocking a pair of short shorts and a long sleeved shirt, with her hair tied back in a messy braid and a pair of wide aviators over her eyes. She looked like a beach bum, rather that the billionaire CEO she really was. There was also no hint of tension in her frame when Eddy hugged him and began excitedly babbling about how they had just come back from surfing, about how he had almost got to stand up on his board, about how Mom had been teaching him, about how she could stand up with no problems, about how they’d stopped for ice cream on the way and they’d taken a convertible and got to ride with the top down.
Happy tried to think of the last time he’d seen the kid smile like this. He tried to think about the last time the kid hadn’t had a hint of tension around his eyes and was lingering on the edge of a complete burn out like he had when his nonna had died. He tried to think of it and couldn’t.
“Hey, Hap.” This Toni greeted him with a slightly awkward smile. “How was London?”
“It was fine.” He answered, equally awkward. He didn’t really know how to deal with this Toni, she seemed to lack the hard edge of the original.
“Good, good.” She said absently before she began reaching into the oversized beach bag hanging off her shoulder, not a hint of Italian leather in sight. She came out with a stuffed manila folder and held it out to him with a sad smile.
He grit his teeth, wanting to not touch it and live in ignorance for just a few minutes longer, not wanting to ruin this moment when his son was so happy for once. But that wasn’t how the real world worked, so he took the folder from her with a stone of dread in his gut and flipped it open. As he had expected, he was met with the bland letterhead of her lawyers.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to focus on the writing on the paper. But it wasn’t what he thought it was. It wasn’t another suit to cut him out of Eddy’s life. In fact, it was quite the opposite. In the absence of the real Toni Stark, the suit had been dropped. And this Toni had set up a trust fund for the kid, included him in her will, then offered to legally remove herself from the picture entirely, though she needed his signature for that.
He stared at the letter in his hand, fingers curling around the plethora of additional legal documents hidden behind the letter and felt his heart racing in his chest. This was everything he had wanted for years now. This was everything he had been fighting for. No, this was more than he had been fighting for. He had never dreamed that Eddy would keep access to the Stark fortune if he ever managed to successfully take him away from Toni. It was one of the biggest arguments against him taking Eddy away from her.
He opened his mouth, unsure of what to even say, but Toni hadn’t even been watching for his reaction. She was chatting to Eddy, encouraging him to try surfing again some day and giving him her goodbyes, pressing a soft kiss to his forehead. She glanced at Happy, offered a sad smile and half-hearted wave before turning away and leaving them there, hands tucked into the pockets of her shorts and head slightly bowed.
Who the hell was this woman? It made him question everything he knew about the indomitable Toni Stark that he had once married and lived with and loved, for a brief time when he’d thought that things could still work out between them. Where was the fight? The Toni Stark he knew had never backed down from anything she had decided that she wanted. And if she was losing, she had something of a scorched earth policy, wherein she tried to make the victor suffer regardless.
It put him on edge. He was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the hidden threat that would take him by surprise after he’d been lulled into a false sense of security. He would have to have his lawyers go over the documents with a fine-toothed comb, looking for any traps or pitfalls.
Eddy watched Toni go, something resigned dampening his previous exuberance before he grabbed Happy’s carry-on luggage and forced on another smile. Happy tried not to notice the change as he led the kid to where he had parked his car and began the drive home through the busy rush hour traffic.
The car remained silent except for the radio, which wasn’t exactly unusual after picking Eddy up from his mom’s, but left Happy uneasy all the same. “So, you had a good week?” He asked tentatively.
The boy smiled slightly. “Yeah. It was fun.”
“Fun?” He asked. Because if there was one word he would have used to describe Toni Stark, ‘fun’ was not it. The woman was a slave driver. She treated people like they should function like machines, then was perpetually disappointed when they didn’t. He was pretty sure ‘fun’ wasn’t even on her radar, only performance and efficiency.
“Yeah.” Eddy said, but ended up looking sad instead of looking like he’d enjoyed his week.
“What’s wrong?” He asked, dreading the answer.
Eddy didn’t answer for a long time. “I’m not stupid, you know.” He mumbled eventually.
“No one thinks you’re stupid, Eddy.” He countered immediately. And if Toni had said something to make him think that he was, he was going to eviscerate her.
“She doesn’t want to see me again, does she?” Eddy finally asked.
“What makes you say that?” He wondered. He thought he’d read the situation with Toni right, but she might have said something to make Eddy think otherwise.
The kid shrugged awkwardly. “I overheard her talking to her lawyers about relinquishing parental rights. And you looked really happy when she gave you those papers. So she did it, didn’t she? She’s not trying to take me away anymore. She doesn’t want anything to do with me. I wasn’t good enough.”
“Bud, that’s not it at all.” He soothed.
“Then those papers didn’t give me up?” Eddy accused, before shaking his head, visibly upset. “I’m so stupid. Today was fun. But it was like taking a dog to the lake to play before putting it down. She just didn’t want me to feel bad.”
“Eddy.” He reprimanded. “That’s not it at all. She didn’t have to relinquish her parental rights, because doesn’t have any. She was just legally clarifying that. She’s not your mom.”
“Well, I wish she was!” Eddy snapped back.
Happy let out a slow breath, wincing at the heated declaration. It was clear that the kid hadn’t come to terms yet with the fact that his actual mother was gone. It was clear that he hadn’t thought to grieve for her yet and he dreaded when that wave would hit, remembering how inconsolable Eddy had been when Maria Stark had died. Yup, leaving him with his mother’s doppelganger had been a shitty idea.
“Eddy -” He started, but Eddy immediately cut him off.
“You’d like her! She - she cooks, you know? Like Nonna did. She has all of Nonna’s recipes just memorised. A-a-and she’s nice. She’s not controlling. She let me skive off revision most of the week, but told me not to tell you because she thought you would be the one mad about it. She even helped me study for my test. She remembered I had a test in the first place.”
“And? How did your test go?” He wondered.
The kid grimaced and glanced away out of the window. “I got eighty-one percent.”
Happy winced. Most parents would have been pleased with that, but Toni Stark was not most parents. Toni Stark only praised perfection. She would tolerate anything in the top ten percentile, but anything less was unacceptable.
“How’d she take that?” He asked, dreading the answer.
Eddy crossed his arms over his chest, though he looked more confused than upset. “She praised me?” He said it like a question. “We made cupcakes to celebrate. A-and then she took me out to dinner.”
He forced himself to carry on the conversation despite his disbelief and confusion. At this point, he really wasn’t sure that the woman was a version of Toni Stark, and not just an elaborate ruse from someone who had never met her. “Oh yeah, where’d she take you?”
“. . . Shakey’s.” Eddy answered quietly.
“The pizza place?” He said in disbelief, glad that they were stopped at a red light so he could bequeath his son with a bewildered stare. Eddy nodded. “Toni Stark took you to Shakey’s Pizza? Toni ‘gourmet or nothing’ Stark took you to a dive pizza place without even a single Italian working there?”
“She let me pick.” Eddy said with an awkward shrug.
He grinned at the mental image of Toni gagging down cheap pizza just to keep the kid happy and found himself laughing. Finding places to take her on dates had been a nightmare when they had been together because she was so picky.
“It’s not funny.” Eddy protested, but he was fighting back a smile and eventually lost the battle and ended up laughing along with him. “I thought she would say no, but she was just like ‘alright, get in the car’. And it was awesome! We got this tower thing of rootbeer and three different kinds of pizza. She can eat so much. She said it was because of whatever thing that made her part robot made her hungry all the time.”
“Huh.” He said, sobering. “So what’s this about her being a robot?”
“You saw it on the news. The armor? It’s inside of her. Nanotech. It comes out through her skin. But she wouldn’t show it to me because she said it was for emergencies only and that she didn’t want to scare the neighbours. Like they’d say anything. More likely it’s because of that man from the UN and a bunch of generals. You remember when that shipment went missing whenI was little and Mom had to go testify in Europe, saying that she didn’t sell weapons to terrorists and it was all over the news about pushing countries to sanction SI? That guy was on a video call with her one day in the kitchen and was yelling at her about something and she said that the armor was only for emergencies.” Eddy chattered. “But I really wanted to see it. It looked awesome in the video. Did you know it flies? She can fly.”
He let the kid continue to ramble about how awesome flying suits of armor were as he pondered the fact that even despite facing pressure from god only knew who, that she had still made time for Eddy. In fact, she had prioritised the kid for the whole week, blowing off appointments with important clients and politicians. And at the end of it all she had given him up without a fuss.
“It’s based on Grandpa’s flying car, you know. The repulsor. Of course, it’s better, more streamlined. And did you know that it can shoot lasers? Mom can shoot lasers out of her chest like a comic book hero.”
“She’s not your mom, bud.” He corrected gently.
That took some of the wind out of the kid’s sails and he kicked himself for it because it was so rare to see the kid this exuberant. “I know. But she never told me not to call her that.”
Of course she wouldn’t have. She’d gotten to play house with her dream child for a week. He’d seen the way Eddy had flustered her when he’d called her that himself, and well, Eddy could always be counted on to latch onto a weakness as soon as it was presented. He’d learned that from his mother and grandfather early.
“You shouldn’t do that to her.” He reprimanded softly. He’d seen the grief in her eyes when she’d told him just why she didn’t have an Eddy of her own and the kid rubbing salt in the wound wasn’t very nice.
“She liked it.” Eddy insisted. “She’d get all . . .” The kid made a vague gesture as he tried to think of an appropriate word. “Mushy.” He finally settled on.
If that was actually the case, then he couldn’t understand how she had conceded the custody case so easily. Though, admittedly, it would have been a lot more difficult for her to have won the case. They would just have to remain vigilant and see how things played out.