Chapter 1: Prologue
"He did it," the blue meanie said, stating the obvious. Nebula was her name, he remembered. She and Tony were the only ones left on the desolated planet. Everyone else was gone. Those morons who called themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy, the stupid wizard who had handed Thanos the Time Stone, claiming there was no other way, and the kid… God, the kid. Peter.
"When I'm done, half of humanity will still be alive." The way Thanos had said that, it had sounded more like a promise, a reassurance than a threat. Tony wondered how many of the "survivors" would actually survive. Since the massacre was random, there was no way to estimate how big the real apocalypse would be.
It had started out a good day. He and his fianceé were jogging in the Central Park, he had even convinced Ana to tag along. Pepper had finally asked her to be the maid of honor, and much to everyone's relief, she had said yes. Things were starting to get better at last. And then, they had seen a spaceship hovering above the city, and everything had gone to hell once again.
He picked up his smashed helmet, and examined the tracker inside. Of course, it had been broken. It wasn't beyond repair, though. He just needed some wires, and scrap metal. There was plenty of both lying around…
"What are you looking for?" Nebula asked.
He took him some time to find his voice again. "I… I need to fix my tracking device."
"No one's coming for us. We should fix that ship instead and get out of here as soon as possible."
"My daughter has the coordinates of this planet. She'll come. In the meantime, I'll make sure we're easier to find."
Nebula made no comment, and he continued his search for the materials. His fingers occasionally went to the sealed wound in his torso, to make sure he wasn't bleeding. He had been so scared when Thanos had stabbed him. Not of death itself, but the idea that Ana might come here, only to find his lifeless, impaled body…
"How do you know your daughter is alive?"
Tony froze on the spot. He could see that she wasn't trying to taunt him or anything, but he gritted his teeth angrily nevertheless. "I just do."
"You love her," she observed, as if she was witnessing a rare phenomenon.
Right, someone had said she was the adopted daughter of Thanos. This girl probably had no idea what an actual father-daughter relationship was supposed to be like. "I do."
"What about that spider boy?"
"Spider-man," he corrected her firmly.
"Was he your son?"
"No. We weren't… related."
Nebula sprang to her feet. "You fix your tracker, I'll fix the ship."
She had taken maybe five steps away from where she had been sitting when a portal opened and Thanos appeared again.
"You," Nebula snarled, and charged at him.
With a lazy, effortless slap, Thanos parried her attack and sent her flying off. He wasn't here for her. He had all the six stones now, and Tony was completely defenseless. Too proud to surrender, he stood as tall as possible, and looked him in the eye. But when Thanos came closer, he realized something was very wrong with the gauntlet. It had been charred, along with his arm. It had to be still functional to some degree, though, otherwise he wouldn't have been able to teleport here. "If you want me to fix that, don't bother."
"I want to show you something. Come." His free hand grabbed Tony's arm, and then, they were no longer on Titan. Thanos had brought them onto a spaceship.
"Look," he said softly, gesturing at the window.
Tony looked out and saw the remains of another dead planet. Its condition was much worse than Titan, though. At least Titan was still intact. This one, on the other hand, wasn't. Most of it was gone; only a fragment of crust and some hot magma beneath it had remained. Millions of pieces of tiny rocks were floating around them. If he had to guess, he would say it had been cracked open like an egg by some unnatural force. Hopefully, it was uninhibited when that had happened.
"Why are you showing me this?"
"Oh, Stark… Don't you recognize your own home?"
The cruel question hung in the air for what felt like an eternity. What? Was this… Earth? "No," he said, shaking his head wildly. "No, this is one of your tricks… You're using the Reality Stone on me."
He's lying, he reminded himself. Thanos was just playing a sick game to convince him that he wasn't as evil as everyone thought. To prove that he could be much more merciless if he wanted to be. The Earth itself couldn't be gone. That was something beyond even his nightmares.
"This is real. You know it is." He took off the Gauntlet to prove his point, and set it aside.
Thanos was right. Deep down, he knew this wasn't an illusion or anything. He knew what an illusion felt like, thanks to the Maximoff girl. He collapsed on his knees. Everyone he had tried so hard to protect had died a horrible death. Tony had traveled to another freaking planet, in another freaking galaxy, ready to sacrifice his own life, and yet somehow managed to become the only survivor, just as he had feared. Still, he was almost glad that at least Peter wasn't around to see this shit. Almost.
"Why? You said half of humanity would still be alive… You promised!"
"I did. This wasn't me. Your world was already destroyed by the time I came for the Mind Stone. Now we're truly alike. In fact, your story is even more tragic than mine, for this is your own daughter's doing."
At the mention of Ana, Tony found the strength to get back on his feet. "Leave her out of this, or I swear I'll find a way to kill you this time."
"Oh, but it was you who brought her into this. She was coming to Titan with you, wasn't she? But you sent her back, told her to warn the others against me. Of course, she knew that wasn't going to be enough. You both did. So, she did something no one else was brave enough to do. She turned that Inhuman friend of hers into a weapon that could stop me. It would've worked, if they hadn't accidentally destroyed the planet first. Ana tried again and again, until she realized she had to give up to break the loop. That's when I came."
"What loop?" he forced himself to ask. He had always feared that the world would tear Ana apart, not the other way around. But it was what had happened. Literally. He had to know. He had to know what exactly had gone wrong.
"It doesn't matter anymore. Do you know what the Kree call her, the Inhuman?"
"I don't know, and I don't care."
"The Destroyer of Worlds," Thanos answered his own question.
Tony remembered the famous words of J. Robert Oppenheimer, spoken after witnessing an atomic bomb test. "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." In fact, Tony knew his dad had been there with Oppenheimer during the Trinity test. He must have heard those words first-hand. No doubt there was some tragic irony here.
And then, there was another saying, not as famous as Oppenheimer's, but no less true: "You Starks don't know the difference between saving the world and destroying it." The Maximoff girl had turned out to be right, after all.
"Fools," Thanos went on. "Daisy Johnson was nothing but a tool, and tools are… disposable. Nevertheless, she was what the Kree wanted, so I gave her to them. Let them flaunt themselves."
"Where's Ana?" Judging by the way Thanos spoke, Ana was alive. Tony focused on that thought. He had to find her and get far, far away from Thanos. Where they would go, he didn't know. They would figure something out.
"You've proven me wrong. I didn't think you'd forgive her so easily."
"She's my daughter."
"She killed your woman, too," Thanos reminded.
He tried very hard not to picture Pepper getting swallowed by a wave of magma, or her frozen dead body floating in space. And I killed JARVIS. She forgave me for that.
Thanos gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "You should be proud, Stark. For you fathered Death herself, the true Destroyer of Worlds."
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
I know the first two-third of this chapter is the same with the first chapter of The Heiress. It's something I did on purpose, to show how much difference the time-travel makes, so don't be confused if it seems a bit too familiar to you. By they way, if you don't want any spoilers for this story, don't read any parts of the original trilogy. They're full of major spoilers. I should've mentioned that in the previous chapter, sorry.
Some might say being a mid-year graduate sucked. As someone who liked doing things as quietly as possible, Ana begged to differ.
With fewer graduates attending, the commencement in December had been shorter, and less crowded than the one in June was going to be. The thought had made it easier for Ana to give the valedictory speech. Also, Pepper had taken the matter into her own capable hands and written something for her; all she had had to do was to read it out loud, word for word, while wearing a proud smile. But more importantly, her dad hadn't embarrassed her by not showing up.
Graduating summa cum laude from MIT. At the age of 17. It was kind of becoming a family tradition. But such things usually came at a price. Her case was no exception. She had always been the youngest, and therefore, the most vulnerable one around. When she was 12, her dad had shipped her off to a boarding school in New York, and there, she had been the perfect target for the bullies. She hadn't told anyone anything. After three years in New York, she had been admitted to MIT, and only then, she had told Pepper why she didn't have any friends.
At college, people were at least more mature, and most of the time they knew when to mind their own business. But when they approached her, it was always because they wanted something from her. If high school had been hell, MIT had been purgatory. But then, Ana would gladly settle for purgatory. She had learned not to expect much from people. Even from her own father.
But he, Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy had all come to her graduation. After the ceremony, Tony had taken them to the fanciest restaurant in Massachusetts. Ana had expected him to announce his decision to send her abroad for a graduate degree or something. Instead, he had said her research on the quantum physics was quite impressive, and offered unlimited funding to help her make time-travel possible.
So, Ana had accepted the offer, and returned home. The boarding school thing had never been discussed since then. It was as if it had never happened. You didn't get to question your dad's decisions if you knew you had been dumped on his expensive doorstep when you were a baby, and he had been kind enough to take you in. Well, it wasn't like he constantly reminded her of the fact that she had never been wanted. In fact, he never had. Not intentionally, at least. Another reason not to be an ungrateful brat…
"You are not authorized to access this area."
The warning could faintly be heard from said area, which happened to be Ana's room. She sighed. It must have been another nosy bimbo, poking around the mansion. There had been no shortage of them since she had returned.
She could see the time on the glass panels. It was 07.05 AM now. Ana had woken up three hours ago, and had been contemplating about whether she should initiate a somewhat sentimental conversation with her dad before he left for Afghanistan since then. Well, his jet had actually been scheduled to leave about an hour ago, but as usual, he was apparently in no hurry.
Poor Rhodey, she thought as she dragged herself out of the bed.
Thankfully, she had a private bathroom, and a kitchen—as well as a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean—so that she could complete her morning routine without having to deal with any of the stupid "guests."
She was sipping her coffee and waiting for the eggs to boil when JARVIS said, "Miss Stark, your father is preparing to leave the house."
"In the master bedroom."
Ana decided to see him. Not that he would miss her terribly if she didn't, but it was still a part of the "not being an ungrateful brat" thing.
His door was open, and she found him choosing a tie. He wasn't wearing a suit, but he was probably going to change into one later, for the demonstration.
"Morning, kid. Here to say goodbye?"
She nodded, and then asked, "When will you be back?"
"Why? Is your boyfriend coming over?"
"I don't have a boyfriend," she said, and it was true. But the question confused her. He had never asked her something like that before. Was he just messing with her, or did he really want to know?
Well, she had dated a couple of guys at MIT… But just like the so-called friends, they had thought being around the heiress to Stark Industries would make them rich, or at least famous. It had been okay, though. She hadn't let any of them use her. Actually, in a way, she was the one who had used them. She hadn't wanted to graduate from college a virgin. That had had to be fixed.
Don't give people another reason to laugh at you.
It was never about what she "gave" them, she had figured that out a long time ago. Still, old habits died hard. And she was definitely not going to tell her dad when, or why she had lost her virginity. Sex was overrated anyway. She had more important things to worry about.
"No? Or, is it a girlfriend?" he casually asked this time.
Okay, so, he did want to know…
"Why the sudden interest?" she asked, trying to keep her voice equally casual.
He shrugged. "Nothing. It's just… You don't talk much these days."
"Well, that's because I don't have much to tell. If you must know, I'll just be busy trying to figure out how to stabilize a hypothetical portal in the very fabric of the fourth dimension, and failing spectacularly at that."
Finally he picked a tie, and put it in the garment bag hanging on the wardrobe. It was the one she had given him for last Christmas. Coincidence, she told herself. He probably didn't even remember that it was a gift from her.
"I'll take a look at that simulation when I get back, okay? Just hang on for two days."
Of course, he was dying to be a part of this. What kind of genius wouldn't be interested in time-travel? Was it why he had suddenly decided to be so… decent?
He looked at her, puzzled. "Why not?"
"I don't want you to waste your time with this. My professors at MIT actually said the theory was too far-fetched to even bother."
"Yeah, that's what they always say… Just ignore them, kid."
"Are you sure? Maybe I should heed their advice. I mean, professors earn their titles for a reason."
"And they're all broke for a reason."
Ana wondered what his definition of "broke" was.
"Look, Dad, you taught me everything I know, but I need to see if I can do this on my own. You have to let me prove myself."
"Boss?" Happy interrupted them. "Hey, Ana."
She smiled at him, grateful for the interruption. "Hi!"
"Yeah, you go ahead, Happy, I'm coming down in a sec." Apparently, he wasn't going to be easily interrupted this morning. Which was unusual for someone who had the attention span of a goldfish.
Happy took the garment bag on the wardrobe and the suitcase on the bed. "Anything else, sir?"
"No… But hey, how about a race?"
Happy grinned. "You're on!"
After Happy left, there was a moment of awkward silence in the room. Ana wondered if he expected a hug or something, but it was better to play it safe.
"Dad," she simply said instead. If she didn't say this now, she was going to regret it. "Be careful over there."
He just gave a brief nod in response before heading out of the room, but she could see that her concern had made him happy. This had been a really weird goodbye.
Ana returned to her kitchen, and decided to check her e-mails while having breakfast. She sometimes received e-mails from other scientists who wanted to discuss her theory. Such an ambitious work wouldn't go unnoticed. But this morning, there was only one e-mail, a job offer from Momentum Labs. Last summer, she had had an internship there, as Dr. Lucy Bauer's assistant. It was something she had done to prove the world that she could get out of her comfort zone and work for other people if she needed to. But Ana had once overheard Dr. Bauer and her husband talking about some magic book that could show a person what they wanted to know the most, which, of course, went against every law of physics. It hadn't been easy to work for someone whose sanity she doubted after that. Or maybe, it was just some sort of scam. Either way, she wasn't going back there. Technically, she was working for Stark Industries anyway… from home. If her project succeeded, it was going to be used by Stark Industries.
After breakfast, she went to see Pepper and give her her birthday gift. Pepper was in the living room, working, but she put her laptop aside when she saw Ana.
"Morning, birthday girl!"
"Hey, Ana… I didn't know you were up."
"Yeah, I wanted to see Dad before he left." She handed her the small box wrapped in silver paper. "Happy birthday!"
"Ana, you didn't have to…"
"Go ahead, open it."
She opened it, and smiled when she saw her new smartwatch. It was much more elegant, and feminine than the other smartwatch models out there.
"It's just a prototype, but totally functional, and in sync with the Stark Industries Central Database, so it should serve you well," she explained.
"Wait, you made this by yourself?"
"I had to work with a jewelry designer, but yeah, the tech is all mine."
"Wow… This is so thoughtful, thank you."
Yep, she was impressed. "Dad didn't even remember, did he?"
"No, but he asked me if I had any plans today."
"Do you?" she asked, but she wasn't sure if she was ready to know the details. Pepper was just too gorgeous to remain single forever. One day, someone was going to steal her from the Starks.
"Well, I need to run some errands, but I can't go home early anyway."
"I think my friends are throwing me a 'surprise' birthday party at my place tonight. Would you like to tag along?"
And couldn't help but sigh in relief. "No, but you're welcome to hide here if you wish."
She laughed. "I don't think it will be that bad. Perks of not having too many friends, eh? Seriously, though, if you don't want to be alone…"
"No, it's fine. I'll be busy anyway."
"Building a time machine?"
"It's more like a portal, actually, but call it whatever you want."
"You know you have unlimited funding, right? You can afford to assemble a team."
"I'm more efficient when I work alone."
Her dad always said hardware was more reliable than humans, and he was right. Hardware didn't judge you, bully you, take advantage of you, or creep you out. Hardware just did its job.
"How long have you been studying this theory?
Ana thought for a moment. "Two years, I guess… Why?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing. Why? Of all things you can focus on, why time-travel?"
It was easy to see where this conversation was going. But she was prepared. "It's because someone has to start from somewhere. And I want to be that someone."
"So, this has nothing to do with your mother?"
"You're a good daughter, Ana. Wanting some answers won't change that."
"Okay, maybe it has something to do with my mother," she finally admitted. "If I could go back to the day Dad found me—"
"Tony tried to find her," she said suddenly. "More than once."
"I'm sure he did…"
"It's not what you think it is. He wasn't trying to get rid of you. As a matter of fact, it was the opposite. He was going to tell her to legally give up her parental rights. I think the possibility of a custody battle scared him."
She looked at Pepper, taken aback. She had had no idea. But given his reputation, that was a battle he might actually lose. After all, he only had an army of lawyers, not wizards. Deep down, the thought unsettled her, but she reminded herself that there was nothing to fear. For seventeen years, no one had come for her. That was unlikely to change after this point.
"Nothing… He couldn't find her."
Well, at least he had tried. It was nice to know. "Wait… Did he ask you to question me?"
"Believe it or not, he does care about you."
"Okay, that explains why he was so weird this morning."
"Weird how? What did he do?"
"Never mind," she said evasively. "I'll be in the shop."
She went down the stairs, punched in the passcode, and crossed to the holotable. "JARVIS, give me last night's test results."
JARVIS obeyed. Last night's test results were, as expected, a fiasco. So, even iridium wouldn't work as a stabilizer… She had to find something else.
"Miss, incoming call from Colonel Rhodes."
"What?" Ana grunted, rubbing her eyes in the dark. Indeed, she could hear her phone buzzing somewhere nearby. "JARVIS, what time is it?"
"It is 03.17 AM," JARVIS replied, turning the lights on.
She reached over the nightstand to grab the phone. "Rhodey?"
"Hey, sweetie… Sorry I woke you up. But there's something, and, uhm… I wanted you to hear it from me."
"What's going on?" she asked, still half-asleep.
She heard him let out a sigh before replying. "On the way back to the base, our convoy was ambushed. And Tony… They've captured him, Ana."
Ana shot up in the bed.
This was exactly what she had feared, why she had wanted to tell her dad something nice before he had left. Now her fears had come true, but her mind was refusing to process it. Human brain did bizarre things like this to protect itself.
"Ana? Talk to me!"
She had to gulp twice before asking the next question. "Is he…"
"No, I think they wanted him alive."
She wasn't sure if this was supposed to make her feel better. Why? Why had they wanted him alive? To torture him to death? To film his torture, then post it on the Internet, and make an example of him? She was too scared to ask these to Rhodey, though.
"What now?" she simply asked instead.
"Now, I won't rest until we find him." His voice was full of determination.
"Okay," she whispered.
"Look, I've already called Pepper. She must be on her way to the mansion by now, you won't be alone."
"I got to go now, but I'll call you again as soon as I can."
"Be careful over there," she said, but shivered when she remembered that it was the last thing she had told her dad.
"I will. Stay strong, sweetie," he said, and hung up.
JARVIS was quiet. So was Ana. But she didn't think she could go back to sleep. She stumbled out of the bed, and started walking around the mansion, as if she had been hypnotized, until she found herself in the workshop, looking at the two framed family pictures on his desk. Tony Stark as a kid, with his father, and Tony Stark as a father himself, with a ten-year-old Ana.
Unlike some might think, he hadn't always been a terrible dad. They used to have a lot of fun here in the workshop when she was a kid. He would teach her how to build an engine, code a program, or use the holotable. Yes, in the meantime, he was still the egocentric playboy to the rest of the world. Yes, he loved drinking, partying, and gambling. But he also equally loved spoiling his little girl. At least until sending her off to New York and ruining everything.
Was it him who had ruined everything, though? Perhaps Ana should have just properly asked him why he had done what he had done, instead of giving him the cold shoulder. Perhaps he wasn't being weird that morning, he was just being a father again. And what had she done? She had scolded him. For trying to help her.
Ana was grateful to Pepper and Happy for the emotional support, but she eventually asked them to leave. They deserved a break. And they deserved to look for a new job if they secretly felt like they would soon need it. Right, after all this time, they were like family. But Ana understood that business was business. No one had to trust a teenager with their career.
Rhodey sometimes called her, to let her know that they were "doing everything they could," but Ana knew he only called to see if she was okay. Obadiah called once, too, and after a few cold words of consolation, he told her that the board of directors wished to know when exactly she was to turn eighteen, and what she was planning to do if the worst came to pass. If she had the guts, she would have told him and the board to go to hell. Business was business, yes, but Ana still expected a certain level of decency, like waiting for at least a few weeks before starting to ask such questions. But Stane actually frightened her a bit, so she meekly admitted that she wasn't sure about what to do. Indeed, she had never thought about what was expected of her if something happened to her dad. But right now, that was the least of her concerns.
More days passed, and nothing happened. Ana was finally ready to admit that she desperately needed some greasy comfort food, so she ordered a huge pizza. She didn't actually remember when was the last time she had eaten pizza. In boarding school, she had seen how cruel kids could be to the girls who were either too chubby, or too skinny, and learned to be careful about her own appearance.
Don't give them another reason to laugh at you.
It all seemed so silly now.
She had always prided herself on not taking anything for granted. Apparently, she had taken everything for granted.
She ate the whole pizza by herself as she watched another debate about Tony Stark's fate on TV. The so-called experts didn't sound very optimistic.
He's not dead, you idiots, she wanted to scream. If he were, we'd know about it by now.
Terrorism was all about evoking fear in people. Showing that even a genius billionaire wasn't immune to the threat was the perfect way to prove their point. If they hadn't killed him by now, they must have wanted him for something else.
She was getting tired, and there was now a sick feeling in her stomach, so she didn't bother to go to her room upstairs. The couch in the shop was comfortable enough. Damn, she shouldn't have eaten the pizza that fast. But she would be fine in the morning. At least her stomach would.
If only she could sleep…
"JARVIS, will you play some music?"
Without a word, JARVIS started to play her favorite bedtime playlist. Ana closed her eyes and hoped that would help.
About half an hour later, the music suddenly stopped. She wasn't asleep yet, but she was getting there.
"JARVIS!" she scolded the UI, "I didn't tell you to stop."
There was no response.
"JARVIS?" she asked again.
JARVIS was still silent, but she heard noises coming from upstairs. Normally, she would assume either Pepper or Happy had come to check up on her, but it was past midnight, and this power outage led her to think something fishy was going on. She found a flashlight, unlocked the glass door manually, and slowly climbed the steps. She froze in shock when she saw the two men in the living room. They were wearing masks, and they had guns. It was pure luck that their backs were on her.
"Upstairs," one of them whispered to the other.
The rest was a blur. She must have returned to the workshop without being noticed somehow, because the next thing she remembered was opening the safe where her dad kept a semi-automatic, full-size handgun. Most Stark weapons were for the military, but this one had been specifically designed for home defense. What now, she thought. She certainly couldn't stay here. Those guys would come down to the basement when they realized she wasn't upstairs. She thought of using the garage exit to escape, but then changed her mind. Maybe this was a trap to lure her out. There could be more men waiting outside. She grabbed the phone to call 911, but the phone wasn't working either. Shit. Had those bastards used an EMP? No, this whole mansion was totally EMP-proof. Her dad had made sure of it. But since there was no power, the panic room—of course, there was one—would be useless as well. It took all her courage to stand up and made for one of the storage rooms in the depths of the basement, but she did it. Then she locked the door and piled every crate in the room against it.
Suddenly, she heard muffled gunshots and shoutings coming from upstairs. Something was going on out there. She checked the gun. Ten rounds in the magazine, plus one in the barrel. Ana had never been scared of weapons. They were machines, just like any other. But just because you could build something from scratch didn't mean you could actually use it. She had never fired a weapon before. She hadn't practiced at a shooting gallery or anything. Maybe she should have.
"JARVIS?" she whimpered. "Can you hear me?"
Her whole body was shaking uncontrollably. What wouldn't she give to hear JARVIS' soothing voice now? But the one she really wanted was her dad. The thought that she might never see him again scared her more than death itself. If he was already dead, those guys would do a favor by killing her. She didn't have much else to live for. But he was alive, she knew it, and if she died here, he would never know how much she loved him, how sorry she was for everything she had done to break his heart.
It felt like forever, but the noises eventually ceased, and the lights came back on.
"JARVIS, are you back?"
"I'm here, Miss Stark."
She released a deep breath. "Thank goodness… What's going on up there?"
"I believe a gunfight between two intruders and a group of government agents occurred. The former were killed. The agents are searching the house for you as we speak. Shall I introduce myself to them?"
Government agents? What were government agents doing here? "No. Let's make sure they're on our side first. Until then, play dead."
"As you wish."
She decided to stay put until the police came, just to be safe. Surely, the neighbors must have heard the gunshots, too.
"Miss Stark?" When a woman knocked on the door, a scream escaped Ana's mouth. Damn. She had thought she was prepared. "It's alright. You're safe. I'm Agent Rebecca Stevens, with SHIELD."
"Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division."
"Yeah, why do I get the feeling that you just made that up?"
"Believe me, we hear that a lot. I'd slide my badge under the door, but something's blocking the way. Miss Stark, please. We're not here to hurt you."
She thought for a moment, then said, "Well, if you wanted me dead, you could've just shot me through the door, I guess."
"Indeed I could."
She began to push the crates aside. Once she was done, she said, "Okay, I can see that badge now."
A badge was slid under the door. Ana picked it up and studied it. It seemed too fancy to be fake, so she slid it back to the woman, and unlocked the door. Agent Stevens was a middle-aged brunette in a dark suit, and there was a firearm at her hip. She definitely screamed "agent." But Ana was far from feeling safe yet. Her legs still felt like jelly.
"Do you know how to use that?" she asked, looking at the gun in Ana's hand.
"I know how it works."
"In that case, I'm going to have to ask you to put it down."
"Alright." She turned the safety on, and slowly placed it on one of the crates. Stevens seemed to be pleased.
"Agent Stevens," a man interrupted. "Do you have the girl?"
"We've secured the perimeter. Coulson's unit is en route."
"Good. Director Fury will want to know what happened here."
"Well, I want to know what happened here!" Ana snapped. She had never been so close to death before. It was probably nothing, compared to what her dad was going through on the other side of the world right now, but the thought only made things worse. It was like turning on a switch. All that fear, guilt and regret she had been refusing to fully register since his kidnapping were flooding into her brain now, causing an emotional overload.
"Someone wanted you dead, Miss Stark," Stevens replied. "You're lucky we've been keeping an eye on you."
Pepper wasn't sure when she had grown to care about her boss so much.
When she had applied for a job at Stark Industries, it was for a position as an accountant, not as Tony Stark's personal assistant. Hell, he had never thought she would ever get to meet the man himself. As a matter of fact, she had hoped she wouldn't have to. But one day, she had noticed a mistake Stark himself had made in the accounting books, and being the perfectionist she was, she had wanted to see him about it. When the security guards hadn't let her, she had threatened them with a non-existent pepper spray. That marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life as "Pepper" Potts. In fact, the nickname had become so well-known that most people didn't even remember her first name was actually Virginia. Her mom hated it, but Pepper didn't mind.
Everyone assumed it was because of the handsome paycheck she had accepted the job, but that wasn't entirely true. She had accepted it because like all young and ambitious people who had something to prove to themselves, Pepper had been seeking a particular kind of challenge in those days. Before Stark, she had worked for Aldrich Killian, a young man with poor health, but a brilliant mind. Unfortunately, he lacked professionalism. Perhaps Pepper should have sued him for sexual harassment, but he had never taken it too far, and to be honest, Pepper had pitied him. But by the time she had met Tony, she regretted not having stood up for herself. So, she was determined to show her new boss no mercy the moment he made anything inappropriate.
Much to her surprise, he hadn't done anything inappropriate at all. That was one of his redeeming qualities; he never bothered a woman if he realized she had no interest in getting in his pants, and was not just playing hard to get. Most of the time, women threw themselves at him anyway.
Another one of his redeeming qualities was his love for Ana.
Ana was eight when Pepper had started to work as Tony's assistant, but she knew the whole story. About a month after his parents' death, someone had left Ana on his doorstep, and she had become the center of Tony Stark's world. For someone who hated responsibility, no matter what form it took, he was a surprisingly good father. He had homeschooled her himself, for example, saying he couldn't trust anyone else with her mind. At first, Pepper had feared that having to put up with a neglected, troubled child, or worse, a spoiled little brat would be a part of her job, but she had been wrong. Yes, she was a tad different, but not in a bad way. On the contrary, Ana would be on the top of the list of people who made Pepper's life easier. Perhaps Tony's immaturity had forced her to grow up faster, so that they could balance each other out. Even if that was the case, Ana had never complained.
Pepper still didn't know why Tony had decided to send her to a boarding school. He wouldn't discuss it with anybody. It had been a rough three years for Ana, and it had been even rougher for Tony. And if Ana hadn't told Pepper about the bullies after she had graduated, Tony would probably never know. The school had a pristine reputation, but when Tony had confronted the administration about the bullying, he had realized they had chosen to turn a blind eye to the whole thing, fearing that he would deregister Ana if he found out. They hadn't wanted to stop bragging about how the great Tony Stark himself had trusted them with his kid. He had thought of suing them, but there was no way to do it without causing Ana too much legal drama, so he had decided to let it go. Then, Ana had been admitted to MIT, and they hadn't been able to repair the rift between them for another two years. Tony had been trying so hard to make things right since she had returned home permanently after the graduation in December, Pepper had to give him that, but he would have made a lot more progress if he had just been straightforward instead of beating around the bush.
All in all, Tony Stark was a good man, and Pepper didn't want to lose him. Unfortunately, there weren't many things she could do to get him back. She wasn't used to having her hands tied like this.
She always kept her phone close these days, in case she got an important call. And yet, when it actually lit up in the dark and started vibrating against the nightstand, she jumped in her bed. She was expecting to hear from Rhodey, for he was in Afghanistan right now, looking for Tony, but this call was from Ana. She answered without thinking much about it.
"Hey, Pep… I'm sorry, I know its past midnight, and you don't have to come if you don't want to, but I really need you here right now."
"Ana, is everything okay? Is Tony…"
"No, it's not what you think it is."
Pepper released a deep breath she didn't even know she had been holding.
"Look, I'm going to tell you something, but don't overreact."
Her relief faded as quickly as it had come. "Okay, now you're scaring me…"
"Two men broke into the house tonight. They'd been hired to kill me, but don't worry, there were government agents watching me, and they saved my life. I'm not hurt."
"Oh my God…"
"The house is full of cops and agents right now, I'm kind of freaking out here. I mean, don't get me wrong, they're being nice to me, but I'm not very good with people, Pepper. I need you. Besides, legally, I'm still a kid, so…"
"I'll be there soon. You just sit tight, okay?"
"Okay," she said, and hung up.
Pepper called Happy, then, and explained the situation while getting dressed at the same time. Luckily, Pepper's apartment was on his way to the Stark Mansion, so he wouldn't have to waste any time to pick her up.
God, why was this happening to them? Tony's kidnapping was already horrible enough, now someone had tried to kill Ana. She was just an innocent kid… How had those men been able to break into Tony's mansion? That place was basically a high-end fortress. And why were there government agents watching her? None of these made any sense. Pepper just wanted Tony to come home and things to go back to normal.
"Damn it, we should've never left her alone!" Happy muttered, perhaps for the hundredth time. "What were we thinking?"
"We couldn't have known," she said, but Happy had a point. Ana had wanted to be alone, but they shouldn't have let her. She might be a smart teenager, but in the end, she was still a teenager. If anything had happened to her, Pepper would never forgive herself. And Tony… She was pretty sure Tony would rather be tortured to death than return to a world without Ana.
"We should have… I should have, at least. It's my job. And what about JARVIS? Why did he just let those men in?"
"Happy, JARVIS is just a program, not an actual butler." JARVIS was so good at what he did that sometimes it was easy to forget he wasn't a real person.
"I know, but still…" His voice trailed off when they saw the red and blue lights flashing ahead. They were here. Happy pulled over. Pepper took a deep breath to steady herself and become Ms. Potts once again before getting out of the car.
"Ma'am, this is a crime scene, you can't—" a police officer started when he saw her, but another man in a black suit interrupted him.
"It's alright. You must be Ms. Potts and Mr. Hogan. I'm Agent Coulson, with Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Divison."
"Wow, that's quite mouthful."
"Or, you can just call us SHIELD."
"That makes more sense… Where's Ana? Is she alright?"
"She's quite shaken, but it could've been worse, given the circumstances. She's down in the basement. I'm not sure why, but she wanted to wait for you there."
"Thank you, Agent Coulson." She smiled politely at him before ducking under the yellow police tape stretched across the doorway and stepping inside. God, it looked like a horror movie set. There was blood everywhere. On the walls, on the floor, even in the broken fountain. And bullets… A forensic photographer was taking pictures. Others were carrying a body bag with a corpse in it outside. It had never once occurred to her that would see such a sight in this mansion one day.
"Let's go," Happy urged her, and only then, Pepper realized she had frozen in shock. She nodded idly, and started downstairs.
They found Ana doing something with the computers. She looked up when she heard them come in. She seemed different somehow. Younger, and more… human. Pepper didn't know how else to describe the change.
"Hey, guys. Thanks for coming."
Pepper ran to her and pulled her into a hug. She knew she was unharmed, but it was still such a relief to see her. She knew she was the only female role-model in Ana's life, and although it wasn't an official part of her job, it was one she enjoyed having.
"We're not leaving you alone again, do you hear me?" Happy scolded her.
Ana sighed before releasing her and looking at them both. "Guys, you don't understand. If you'd been here tonight, you would've died. I only survived because I was sleeping here."
Pepper's heart broke a little when she heard that. Indeed, Ana had barely left the garage since Tony's kidnapping. Maybe she felt closer to him in this place. And tonight, it had saved her life, literally. In a way, Tony was still protecting her even when he wasn't around.
"So, what have you been doing here?" Happy asked, looking at the computer screens. There were a bunch of codes, but they didn't mean anything to Pepper.
"I told SHIELD I'm trying to bring the systems online, but I'm not."
"Because JARVIS is already back. He's just playing dead. I don't know who to trust anymore. Now, check these out."
"What are these?" Pepper asked.
"This is the part where she makes us look like idiots," Happy complained.
"I'd never make you look like idiots," Ana said quickly, then went on. "These are JARVIS' security logs. Someone wants us to think they cut the power to disable the security before breaking in. But if that had been the case, JARVIS would've just activated the backup generators and the outage wouldn't have lasted for more than a few seconds. But they disabled JARVIS first, and cut the power later."
Pepper gasped. "So, whoever was behind this…"
"They knew of JARVIS' protocols."
"Now, SHIELD wants to take me to a safe house or something. But they need permission from Rhodey or Obadiah first. Legally, they're my standby guardians."
For some reason, Pepper was disappointed that legally, she was no more than a stranger in Ana's life. She reminded herself that it was because Obadiah and Rhodey were the only ones around when Ana was born, and not because Tony didn't trust Pepper or anything.
"Speaking of, Mr. Stane has arrived," JARVIS said.
They went upstairs, and found Obadiah with Agent Coulson. Obadiah seemed very angry. He had put his hands on his hips and was looking around the crime scene with a deep frown that usually appeared on his face while dealing with a crisis.
"Ah, there she is!" he said when he saw Ana, and wrapped an arm around the girl's shoulders. "You poor thing… Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Obadiah, thank you."
"Anyway, Mr. Stane," Coulson went on, "As I was saying, she'd be safe with us."
"Yeah, but she'd be safer with me. Honey, what do you say? These guys want to take you a safe house until this is sorted out, but I think you'd be more comfortable at my place."
"I wouldn't want to give you any trouble."
"Trouble? Oh, come now…"
"No offense, Obadiah, but I think we should let the professionals handle it. This is serious. I was almost going to die tonight."
"I'd hate to leave you alone, kid."
For some reason, Ana didn't want to stay with Obadiah, and Pepper decided to come to her help. "She's not going to be alone. We're going with her."
Agent Coulson looked at them. "It's actually not such a bad idea. You two have been working for Mr. Stark for a long time. You might be their next target. But only one of you can come with Miss Stark."
Pepper shivered. She had never thought about being a "next target."
"You go with her," Happy said.
"We can make another arrangement for you," Coulson suggested.
"Thanks, but I can handle myself. You people keep the girls safe."
"Very well… Mr. Stane?"
"Fine." He took out a pen, and then signed some papers Coulson gave him. Then he kissed Ana's forehead. "If you change your mind, just let me know, okay?"
She nodded, but didn't look like she was having second thoughts.
"You might want to pack a bag," Coulson reminded Ana and Pepper. "You'll be our guests for some time."
"Right. Come on, Ana."
Pepper had a room here, and she was used to packing for last-minute trips like this one—they weren't anything like this one, but whatever—so it didn't take long for her to get ready, but JARVIS said Ana was still struggling by the time Pepper was done, so she went to help her.
She found Ana curled up in the bed, sobbing loudly, her things scattered around the room. This surprised Pepper; she couldn't remember ever seeing Ana cry before. Before the boarding school, she had always been a serious, but happy child, and after the boarding school, the bullying had made her too withdrawn to show any kind of emotion.
"Ana?" she asked softly. "We don't have to go. We can stay with Obadiah if you want."
"I don't want to stay with him!"
Pepper sat down on the edge of the bed, and stroked her hair. "Did something happen with Obadiah?"
"All he cares about is business. I don't give a shit about what happens to the company, I just want my dad back!"
"Tony will find a way to come back to you. You know he will. But until then, we have to take good care of each other. You said it yourself, you were almost going to die tonight."
"I was so scared, Pepper," she confessed.
"I think you were very brave."
"Rhodey doesn't know yet. He's going to freak out."
"Why don't you call him, while I pack your things?" she offered. Maybe Rhodey would make her feel better.
SHIELD had taken them to a safe house, location classified, but Pepper was certain they were still in North America. It was a small, but cozy lake house, and the agents who were guarding them mostly stayed in their vehicles outside, so they had been given some privacy. They had also been told that the property was surrounded by a laser fence, and although it was probably for their own safety, it made Pepper feel trapped in here, at least until Ana assured her that she could easily disable the fence if needed. Yeah, this was why Pepper liked working with geniuses. The fridge was always full, there were a TV, a computer, and some board games to pass time. Phones weren't allowed, again for their own safety, but they let Ana call Rhodey twice a week from an encrypted line. Pepper had called her mom before coming here and told her that she had decided to stay at some wellness retreat until Tony's fate was revealed. And if they weren't so scared for him, Pepper could even actually believe that they were on a vacation. This was a nice place.
One morning, while Pepper was watching the news as usual, Ana came to sit down next to her and rested her head on Pepper's shoulder. Her brown eyes were red and swollen. She had Tony's eyes, Pepper thought.
"You've been crying again."
"No, it's okay. It' actually better."
"Better than me being a stoic bitch, you mean? Yeah, sorry about that, too."
"Ana, I didn't mean… I just… At least I know what's going on in your head now. I can work with that."
"Do you think they're hurting him?" she suddenly asked. It was what they all had been thinking, but no one had said it out loud before. The idea made Pepper sick to her stomach. Her mind wanted to go to dark places, but she didn't let it.
"If they took him alive, they wanted something from him. Whatever it is, I'm sure they need him in one piece."
"They can hurt him and still keep him in one piece."
"Please tell me you haven't been reading about torture methods on the internet."
She shrugged, confirming her suspicions.
"Oh, Ana… Don't do this to yourself."
There was a knock on the front door. Pepper went to answer. There was a tall, black man standing outside, wearing a long leather coat and an eyepatch. He smiled at her.
"Good morning. I'm Nick Fury, Director of SHIELD. You must be Ms. Pepper Potts."
They shook hands. "I am, indeed."
She stepped aside to let him enter. "Of course."
Ana shook his hand as well.
"Miss Stark… I'm glad we finally met. I've heard so much about you."
"Really?" Ana asked, obviously confused.
"Let's have a seat."
Pepper turned off the TV and sat down next to Ana. Fury was being nice to them, but she could tell when she saw someone with an agenda. This man definitely had an agenda. "Why did you have men spying on my employer's house, Director Fury?"
"I'm glad you asked. We had surveillance on Miss Stark because we thought if her father had a chance to contact anyone, it would be her. An assassination attempt wasn't something we were expecting. But she caught our attention before Mr. Stark's kidnapping in Afghanistan. I assume you're familiar with her temporal quantum physics research?"
"Time-travel? Is that why you're interested in her?"
"True," Fury admitted. "Our scientists told me she's come close. Closer than anyone else in history."
"What exactly do you want from me?" Ana asked tensely.
"We want you to share your progress with us."
"Do I have to?"
"Of course not. Allow me to explain: SHIELD was found shortly after WWII, and since then, we've been fighting against countless threats. Even I don't know how many disasters on a global scale we've prevented. So far, we haven't failed. But one day, if we do, I want time-travel to be an option for us. I assure you we only want to use it as a last resort."
"I don't know what your scientists told you, Director Fury, but that's not how time-travel works. This is not Back to the Future."
"Well, do enlighten me, young lady."
"'Time' is an artificial concept we humans made up because we're three-dimensional creatures. It's an illusion. The past, the present, the future; they're all fixed. There's no such thing as undoing the past, or changing the future."
"What happens if you try?"
"There're two possibilities. You create either a time loop, or an alternate timeline, if the multiverse theory is true."
"I root for this multiverse theory, then."
"You don't understand. Even if the multiverse theory is true and you create an alternate timeline, this reality we live in won't be affected. You cannot reverse time, because you cannot reverse something that doesn't exist. Whatever you do to keep the world safe, do it without counting on my work. I don't want any blood on my hands."
"I understand. But my mind hasn't changed."
"She doesn't owe you anything, Director Fury," Pepper reminded sharply. She could see how uncomfortable Ana had become, and she wanted to get this over with as soon as possible.
"Of course she doesn't. Still, I was hoping we could make a deal."
"What kind of deal?" Pepper asked, wondering what he could offer to a 17-year-old who already had everything.
"If she promises to share her progress with Agent Weaver, the Director of our Sci-Tech Academy, I'll give her something in return."
"What will you give her?"
"Her mother's identity."
Okay, Pepper hadn't seen this coming.
"Do you know who she is?" Ana gasped.
"Ana, can we have a word in private?"
"Take your time, ladies," Fury told them nonchalantly. "I've got nowhere else to be today."
Pepper grabbed Ana by the arm and dragged her outside.
"Pepper, calm down. What's wrong?"
"Don't take his offer."
"Come, let's walk."
They started walking away from the lakehouse. There were no agents in sight, but Pepper kept her voice as low as possible, just in case. "I thought you didn't trust SHIELD?"
"I don't trust anybody. But this man has answers! That's not something we can just ignore."
"He's manipulating you. Come on, Ana, you're smarter than that!"
"Look, I know he might not be honest with me. But we can find that out later. I just want to hear what he has to say. If he wants my research in exchange, so be it."
"Are you sure? Even if it's the truth, you won't be able to unhear it."
She scoffed. "Why would I want to unhear it?"
"I don't know, Ana. I just got a bad feeling about this."
"I'm a scientist, Pepper. Truth doesn't scare me. The unknown does. I'll take that offer."
"Don't waste it. Don't waste your life, Stark."
Yinsen's words echoed in Tony's head as he forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. He wasn't sure where he was going, but he kept walking anyway. For all he knew, he might waltz right into another Ten Rings camp. What an irony that would be… But no. At this rate, he was most likely to die of dehydration. The jacket he had wrapped around his head wasn't doing much good to protect him from the scorching heat. Also, he had no idea what kind of predators might be lurking around in this desert. The bleeding had stopped, but they could still smell the dried blood on him.
Well, at least he had given those bastards hell before he had escaped. Would that count as not wasting his life?
He had been such an idiot to think Yinsen had a big, happy family somewhere, waiting for him to come home. He should have known. Yinsen had told him that the Ten Rings had destroyed his village, hadn't he? And if it was the Ten Rings who had killed his family, then they must have done it with Stark weapons. Yinsen had just been kind enough not to rub it in Tony's face during their time together…
He heard the choppers when he least expected it. There were two of them. Using all his remaining strength, he waved and yelled. He even threw up a peace sign as he allowed himself to fell on his knees. The helicopters landed not very far from him, and Tony realized one of the soldiers who emerged was no one other than Rhodey.
"How was the fun-vee?"
Tony just laughed. He was too exhausted to think of a witty comeback.
"Next time, you ride with me, okay?"
Well, there would be no "next time." But this wasn't a good time to have that conversation, so he simply let Rhodey hug him and take him to one of the choppers. They took off immediately.
"Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine. Just thirsty."
"Take it easy," Rhodey warned Tony as he handed him a bottle of water.
"I know, I know." He took a large gulp. It tasted like dirt and blood, so he swished it around in his mouth, then spat it out. He waited for a moment before taking another sip.
"What's that thing on your chest?"
"It's actually in my chest." The second sip tasted a lot better.
Tony briefly explained why he needed to live with an electromagnet and a miniaturized Arc Reactor in his chest from now on. Much to his annoyance, everyone, even Rhodey started looking at him with pity, so he decided to change the subject and told them what the Ten Rings had wanted from him. But he didn't tell them what he had built instead of a Jericho missile. For now, that part would stay with him. When Rhodey asked how he had escaped, he simply said his captors were too busy fighting among themselves, and he had used the opportunity to slip away. Not too bad for a cover story. He had seen worse ones being fed to the masses.
When Tony woke up, he was in a hospital room. He tried to remember how he had got here. They had landed at the Bagram Air Base, Rhodey had put him in a wheelchair, and then taken him to the infirmary. Right, this was the infirmary, not a hospital. He must have passed out during the medical examination. Okay, this was a bit embarrassing. He felt… much cleaner than he remembered. He was wearing white hospital robes, his right arm was in a sling, and an IV was attached to the other one. There wasn't a clock in the room, but when he looked out the window, he concluded that it was early morning.
Someone opened the door. It was Rhodey. "Good, you're awake. How are you feeling?"
"I passed out, didn't I?"
"Yeah. You've been sleeping like a baby for nearly 16 hours."
"16 hours? Shit… Did you guys bathe me or something?"
He laughed. "Well, we might have cleaned you up a bit."
"Do I really need this?" he asked, looking at the arm sling.
"You sprained your arm. But other than, you're fine. Nothing broken, no internal bleeding… You're one lucky bastard, you know that, right?"
"That's what I am."
"Seriously, Tony. How are you feeling?"
"Good enough to fly?"
"Yeah, just get me out of here. And give me a phone, I want to call Ana."
"I called her, she's fine."
"I'm sure she is, I just want to talk to her."
Rhodey scratched a spot on his head nervously. "Yeah, about that…"
An uneasy knot began to form in his stomach. Something wasn't right. Rhodey knew him better than anyone else; under normal circumstances, he would have given Tony a phone before Tony even had to ask. Not this evasive "I called her, she's fine" crap.
"Rhodes? What's going on?"
"We sent Ana to a safe house after you were kidnapped. Just in case, you know. But don't worry, Pepper went with her."
Tony tried to sit up in the bed. Rhodey came to help him.
"You're a terrible liar. Like, you're not even trying. What happened? Tell me."
He thought for a while, then said, "Tony, there's a hole in your chest. I was hoping to get the green light from a doctor before breaking this to you, but—"
"Well, if there's anything that's going to give me a heart attack, it's all this secrecy. Just spill the beans."
"Fine! Somebody tried to kill her. Are you happy now?"
"Somebody tried to kill her." It was as if another missile had just blown on his face. And honestly, Tony would prefer an actual missile over this metaphorical one."Who?" he managed to ask.
"Two mercenaries, they broke into the mansion one night, barely a week after you were taken."
"Shit… Was she alone?"
"Yeah, I was here, looking for you. Pepper and Happy offered to stay with her, but Ana wanted to be alone. You know how she is."
"How did she escape?" If those mercs had been able to break into the mansion, that meant they had been able to disable JARVIS. And if JARVIS had been disabled, there was no one else who could protect Ana. Of course, Tony kept several weapons around the house, and Ana knew where to find them, but just because she knew how weapons worked didn't mean she had what it took to use one. Unlike him, she wasn't a killer.
"Have you ever heard of SHIELD?"
"Shield? What shield?"
"Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Divison. Some intelligence organization, I don't know. They thought you might try to contact Ana, so they had surveillance on her. They intervened before she got hurt. I returned to the U.S. as soon as I found out."
"Do they know who was behind it?"
"No, they told me there was a gunfight. Both mercs were killed."
There had been a gunfight… Tony rubbed a hand over his face, trying not to think about how scared Ana must have been. He bet this had something to do with the Ten Rings. He recalled that savage rage that had taken over him while escaping the cave, but that was nothing, compared to what he felt right now. He could live with what had been done to him. He could live with those memories of fear, pain, and torture, but Ana… Once he built another suit, he was going to hunt down and kill every single one of those bastards.
"Tony, calm down."
"Calm down? They tried to kill my kid, I'm not going to calm down!"
"I know. Do you think I'm not mad? But I won't tell you the rest until you get a hold of yourself."
He took a deep breath. He had to hear the rest now, or else he would lose his mind completely.
His best friend continued, "After that, SHIELD took her to a safe house. Pepper went with her. She needed protection, too. They've been calling me twice a week from an encrypted number."
"Good thing SHIELD let them."
"They had to. You appointed me and Obadiah as Ana's standby guardians, remember?"
Of course he remembered. Rhodey as the primary standby guardian, because he adored Ana, and Obadiah as the alternate standby guardian, because he had made it clear that he wasn't very good with kids, but he was the only other person Tony could trust.
"I wasn't very happy about this arrangement, but I couldn't have kept an eye on them and looked for you at the same time. I know they saved her life and all, but I wasn't sure if I could trust a bunch of spooks, especially after the deal Ana made with Director Fury," Rhodey went on.
"Ana had been caught in SHIELD's radar long before your kidnapping. Because of that time-travel thing."
"Damn it…" Tony should have known this would happen. He had been too optimistic to hope the government would dismiss her theory as a fantasy, and leave her be. "Did they threaten her?"
"As far as I know, no. Ana says the Director of SHIELD just nicely asked her to share her research with them, and even offered her something in return. Hence the deal."
"What did this Fury guy offer her?"
"The truth. About her mother."
Right. Her mother's identity. That was the one thing Tony had failed to give her. He had tried to find her, of course. Many times. He was going to ask her to sign away her parental rights, so that he and Ana would never have to worry about a custody battle, but he had never been able to find who the mother was. It was a bit disturbing, the fact that he had failed despite all the resources and connections he had.
"Does the name Irene Clarke ring a bell?"
He thought for a moment. Yeah, he remembered Irene. She was a grad student at Cambridge, just like him. She was smart, and she was fun to hang out with, so she wasn't just a one night fling, but more like a friend with benefits. No strings attached. At least that was what Tony had thought, until she had found out he had slept with her best friend, too, and lost her shit. Instead of apologizing, Tony had suggested a threesome, and Irene had punched him in the face. They had never spoken again, and soon, she had dropped out. This had taught Tony the lesson that even "friends with benefits" type of relationships were too stringy for his taste.
Tony remembered her clearly, because while looking for Ana's mother, he had found out Irene had dropped out not because of him, but because she had been battling with cancer and had eventually lost that battle. There was no mention of pregnancy in the hospital records, so he had ticked her off the list. But when he told Rhodey this, he didn't seem confused at all.
"That's because once you decided to keep Ana, an agent erased the memories of everyone who knew about Irene's pregnancy with some advanced tech, and altered the hospital records."
"What?" This sounded ridiculous. Yes, theoretically, it was possible to erase people's memories, of course, but he couldn't imagine anyone successfully pulling that off, especially back in 1992.
"Yeah, it was the same agent who left Ana on your doorstep. They were old friends with your parents, and owed your dad a debt or something. That's why they did what they did."
"Okay, who's this agent?" Tony had no idea Howard Stark was capable of evoking so much gratitude in someone. Funny, it appeared there were strangers out there, strangers who loved Howard Stark more than his own son did.
"I don't know. Fury said they wish to remain anonymous. It doesn't matter, though. The disturbing part is what Irene was planning to do with Ana."
"Well, she was always a bit crazy… Back in the day, I thought it was fun."
"She never wanted the baby, but her parents convinced her not to have an abortion. They were hoping to use her to get money from you after Irene died. But after the birth, she changed her mind. She wanted to send Ana to an orphanage so that you'd never know you had a kid. To get some posthumous revenge or something. That Fury guy told Ana all these. He didn't sugarcoat anything. Ana, she… She didn't take it well, Tony. I mean, I wasn't there, but from what Pepper told me, she—"
"But she's not mad at me anymore… or, is she?"
"No, no, no. She's different now. She just wants you back."
He sighed in relief. None of his plans for the future would have mattered if Ana had refused to forgive him. "Where are the girls now?"
"They're being transported as we speak. Even I don't know the exact location of the safe house, but I know they'll be back in California before we do. If you want to leave today, I gotta go and take care of a few things first. I'll be back in an hour. Oh, and speaking of intelligence agencies, we might have to make a quick stop somewhere in Europe. Germany, most likely. The CIA and the DoD want to debrief you."
Once he was alone again, he lay back in the bed and closed his eyes. Look at this mess, he thought. He had been gone only for three months, and his kid had been dealing with hired killers and government agents in his absence. He didn't like the fact that she had been caught in SHIELD's radar, but then, he didn't want to think about what would have happened if those guys hadn't been there to save her that night either. He hated to put it this way, but he had actually been very close to becoming Yinsen.
On his way home, Tony had mostly slept. The painkillers hadn't given him much of a choice. Rhodey had woken him up just in time to comb his hair, put on a nice suit, and just look more presentable in general. Which was good, because he was planning to get the "no more weapons" announcement out of the way today so that he could focus on the more important stuff.
As Rhodey had said, Ana and Pepper were already here, waiting for him. Happy was wearing his sunglasses, but Tony could still see how he was looking around suspiciously, like someone could drop a bomb on the girls at any moment, although this was a military airbase. Happy Hogan sometimes took his job too seriously. Not that Tony complained. Rhodey helped him get on his feet and walk out. Tony was trying to play nice at first, but that gurney was the last straw.
"Are you kidding me with this? Get rid of them."
Rhodey gestured them to get lost. Tony let go of his arm an approached Ana. Rhodey had implied that she was in a bad spot, but right now, her face was perfectly neutral. She had the Stark colors; dark hair and chocolate brown eyes. The rest of her was Carbonell. When she was younger, Tony thought it might just be his imagination, but now he was certain that she had her grandmother's looks. She seemed even more delicate than he remembered, like a butterfly with broken wings. After everything he had been through, he knew there were people out there, people who wouldn't hesitate to do the same things—or, even worse—to her as well.
He had only one free arm to hug her, so he used it to pull her closer and hold her like that. Ana's hug was calm, controlled, but warm enough to let him know that all was well between them.
"Dad," she whispered. Tony didn't know how someone could put so much love, trust, and adoration into a single word.
"Baby girl," he whispered back.
This wasn't just a reunion. It was also a promise, a promise that they would heal each other. And the thing was, Tony was already healed. Once again, he was a man who had everything, and everything he had was right here, in his embrace.
She released him, but he kept his arm wrapped around Ana. He had waited way too long for this moment; he didn't think he could let her go any time soon. Pepper was smiling at them. She, too, seemed much more fragile now. If they called Tony the most famous mass murderer in America, what would they say about his right-hand woman? But even if Pepper had feared for her own life in the past three months, Tony saw no signs of regret on her face, which impressed him even more.
"Your eyes are red. A few tears for the long-lost boss?"
"Tears of joy. I hate job hunting."
"Yeah, vacation is over."
"Welcome back, sir," Happy said coolly.
They filed into the Royce. Yeah, this was as sentimental as this reunion would get. Getting all sappy with Ana was easy. She was his kid; the time he had spent thinking of her in that cave was no secret to anyone. The time he had spent thinking of Pepper, on the other hand, was. And he would like to keep it that way. When Pepper had first started working for him, Pepper was always so… guarded around Tony. They had never discussed this openly, but he had a feeling that she had had an unpleasant experience with one of her former employers. Probably nothing too serious, but it had taken a long time for her to trust him, and Tony didn't want to break this trust. Ever.
"Where to, sir?" Happy asked.
"Take us to the hospital, please, Happy," Pepper said.
"No? Tony, you have to go to the hospital. The doctor has to look at you—" she started lecturing.
"I don't have to do anything. I've been in captivity for three months. There're two things I want to do: I want an American cheeseburger, and the other…"
"That's enough of that."
"…Is not what you think. I want you to call for a press conference now."
"Call for a press conference? What for?"
"Hogan, drive. Cheeseburger first."
As Happy drove to the nearest Burger King, Pepper took out her phone and started making a series of calls to arrange the press conference. Rhodey would be right behind them. It didn't escape Tony's notice that Ana was staring at the Arc Reactor.
"Not bad, huh?"
"I know, Rhodey told us about it."
"Yeah, Rhodey told me a few things, too."
Ana's smile faded, Pepper froze for a second, and Tony wished he had just kept his mouth shut for once.
"What did he say?" Ana asked nervously.
"That you girls went on a vacation without me, made some strange bedfellows… You got a concealer or anything? I want to cover these cuts."
"You shouldn't put cosmetics on open wounds, Dad. You'll get infected."
Pepper, who was buried in her phone, nodded idly. "She's right."
"Okay, just something for the bruises, then. Come on, girls…"
Pepper sighed, and the small leather bag Tony usually saw before press conferences and photoshoots appeared from somewhere once again.
"You seem busy. I'll do it," Ana offered.
"He's got a bit of a tan. Use NC35," Pepper advised, without even having to look at him.
After finding said concealer, Ana studied his face for a while. Then she put a kiss on his cheek. Tony certainly wasn't expecting that.
"Wow, I should get kidnapped more often."
"Don't be a jerk now."
"Just kidding, I'm not going anywhere." He tugged her closer and pressed his lips on her forehead.
"Dad, do you want a makeover or no?" she reminded him, but he could tell that she was happy.
As she gently applied the concealer on the bruises, Happy stopped at Burger King drive-in. "Just a cheeseburger, sir?"
"Actually, make it two… Ana, you want anything?"
"I've had my fair share of unhealthy comfort food in the past three months, thanks."
"Really? I think you look great… Pepper?"
He nodded to Happy. "Yeah, I missed my two favorite control freaks… Ouch!"
That had earned him a pinch in the arm from Control Freak #1, AKA Ms. Potts. Ana had finished covering his bruises, and was now studying her own face in the mirror.
"I told you, you look great," he repeated.
"Thanks, Dad. But I would've picked something more formal to wear if I'd known you'd call for a press conference."
"Are you coming, too?" Tony asked, confused. He had thought she would just hide in the car or something until it was over. "You hate the press."
"Yeah, but this is not just any press conference. This is you coming back from the dead. My absence might send the wrong message."
Tony was now even more confused. "Since when you do PR?"
"Since I realized what kind of assholes we're surrounded by," she replied darkly.
He turned to Pepper. She gave him a "Get used to it" look, but he could see the same concern in her eyes.
"Here you go, boss," Happy said, handing him a cheeseburger.
Tony unwrapped the cheeseburger and bit into it. It was good to be home.
The press conference wasn't that hard. All Ana had to do was to stand there and let her dad do the talking. Obadiah stepped in as soon as he realized what it was about anyway. Then the two Starks went to the generator building, where the Arc Reactor was.
"Remember the first time I brought you here?" he asked thoughtfully.
Ana tried, but it was just a vague memory. "How old was I? Four?"
"Yeah. The second you saw it, you wanted to know how it worked. You always wanted to know how everything worked. Even if the answers were a bit too advanced for you back then."
"Well, you always found a way to make me understand."
"I'm sorry, kid."
This confused her. "For what? Being an awesome teacher?"
"No, I'm sorry about today. I just wanted to get the press conference out of the way, but maybe I should've talked to you first."
She shrugged. "It's your company. You can do whatever you want with it."
"Everything I have is yours, if you choose to have it. It's our name written on those weapons, and I don't even know what you think of them. You graduated from MIT five months ago. Summa cum laude, double majors in Physics and Electrical Engineering, just as I did, but I got no idea if that's what you really wanted either…"
"Dad, what the hell are you talking about?" Growing up, studying at MIT had always been her dream. They would talk about it all the time. She would visit the campus with him whenever he was invited as a guest speaker or something. She already knew every part of the campus by the time she had been admitted. After the boarding school, Ana could have chosen another university just to spite him, but she had never taken her cruelty that far. It would be like murder. Murder of their greatest dream, and it was unthinkable. True, the drop-off day, the commencement, and everything else in between hadn't been exactly what they had imagined, but MIT was still one of the things they shared.
"I'm just trying to make sure I'm not forcing you into a particular path. If you got other pursuits I don't know about…"
"Like what? Do I look like an artist or something?"
He laughed, then went on, "What about running a company? Business is very different from engineering, kid."
"I'd rather deal with my own company's problems than shitty employers."
He seemed convinced. "It's just… My dad would never discuss such things with me, you know. I don't want to make the same mistake with you."
"I know, you just told that to the whole world."
"Okay, you're angry. Why are you angry?"
"I'm not angry. It's just… Sometimes you're too public with your thoughts. I don't want anyone to use that against you."
"And you're too private."
"I'm on your side, if that's what you want to know. I'll always be on your side, no matter what you choose to do."
He smiled, and Ana hated herself once again. She had promised herself that she would stop being such a condescending bitch to him if she got him back. Now here he was, being an awesome dad as usual, and she had already started rebuking him.
She had told him she wasn't angry, but that wasn't entirely true. She wasn't angry with him, no. This man had given her his name, his knowledge, and more importantly, his love. She hated the fact that there had been, and would always be, people out there, people who didn't want them to have the life they had, starting with the woman who had given birth to her. Ana had been seething with quiet resentment ever since she had found out. It was exhausting. Pepper had been right to warn her; it wasn't something Ana could unhear. Now, she was taking her anger out on him.
"I'm sorry, Dad," she started, but was interrupted when Obadiah stormed in. He didn't even seem to have realized they were in the middle of something here.
"Well, that went well…"
"Did I just paint a target on the back of my head?"
"Your head? What about my head? Ana, can you give us a moment, honey?"
"Sure," she muttered, and walked out, glad that she didn't have to be around him. If Obadiah gave her another hug, she might actually puke.
Happy was just outside, smoking. "Hey," she said casually, leaning against the car.
"Did they kick you out?"
"Obadiah did… Where's Pepper? And Rhodey?"
"Rhodey returned to the base. Pepper's still around here somewhere."
"Yeah, I guess that press conference is going to keep her busy for a while."
"Tony seems fine, though. Am I right?"
Ana shrugged. He seemed fine for now, true, but she wasn't going to jump to a conclusion just yet.
"Is he serious? About the whole 'no more weapons' thing?" Unlike the others, Happy didn't sound upset about it. Just curious.
"It seems so. He even asked me what I thought."
"Well, what do you think?"
She sighed heavily, and thought for a moment. She didn't want to make Happy more paranoid than he already was. But she also wanted him to keep a constant vigil for anything, as they all should from now on. So, she decided to be honest. "I think he's going to piss off a lot of people. Powerful people."
"Hey, we're not going to let anyone hurt him again… Or you."
"I'm not worried for myself. Rhodey had told him not to go to Afghanistan, Happy. He had told him not to go, but he went anyway."
"He didn't know—"
"He knew! Why do you think he didn't take you, or Pepper with him?"
Happy said nothing, but she could see that he agreed. Tony Stark would never go on a business trip without his trusted bodyguard and personal assistant. She went on, "He knew it was dangerous. He knows what he's doing right now is dangerous, too. He just doesn't care, and I don't know how to make him."
When they saw the two men emerge from the building, Happy said, "Oh, there they are."
"See you around, Tony." Obadiah hopped onto his scooter, and glided away.
"What did he say?" Ana asked.
"Nothing unexpected… Happy, take us home."
During the ride home, they didn't talk much. They just enjoyed each other's company in silence. That was a rare thing for them. Maybe he sensed her anxiety. There was no awkwardness, though. Just mutual, tacit understanding. By the time Happy stopped the car in front of the house and opened the door for them, she felt like she was suffocating, though she forced herself to remain composed. She was good at this kind of thing.
"Will I see you tomorrow, boss?"
"Nah, I'll be laying low for a while… I'll call you."
"Okay. Goodbye, sir."
Happy turned the car around and disappeared. Ana followed her dad into the house. The place was as perfectly pristine as usual. No puddles of blood, no bullet holes, no corpses… Even the fountain had been rebuilt. And yet, she could still see the mess every time she closed her eyes. Hopefully, it wasn't permanent. PTSD was the last thing she wanted to deal with right now.
"Sir, Miss Stark, welcome home," JARVIS greeted them, turning on the lights.
"Thank you kindly, JARVIS," her dad replied. Ana was still trying to find her voice. This was wrong. This was their home; she was supposed to feel safe here.
"It has been a long time. Based on news reports, I calculated your safe return as 0.25 percent."
"Yeah, I missed you, too." He shed his blazer, tossed it aside, along with his tie, and flung himself down on the couch. Ana joined him. They spotted two jewelry boxes on the coffee table. He picked up one of them. There was a watch, and a note.
Thank God it wasn't your time.—Obadiah
He held the watch up for her to see. "What do you think?"
He opened the second box, to reveal a diamond bracelet, and another note.
You're our future.—Obadiah
Ana took the bracelet, trying not to think about what Obadiah had done after her father's kidnapping. She knew what she was supposed to do. She was supposed to thank him politely for the gift, and wear it at least once to show her appreciation. That was what the old Ana would do. But she couldn't contain the anger anymore. She tossed the bracelet into the fireplace with all the strength she had.
It had happened so suddenly that her dad actually jumped in his seat. "Whoa…"
"Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. It's just… I'm kind of upset with Obadiah, too."
"He called me a few days after you were kidnapped, wanted to know when I was going to turn eighteen, and what I was planning to do with the company… He said it was the board members who wanted to know, but I bet he shared their curiosity."
"Yeah, Obie does that."
The bitterness in his tone gave her the impression that he was speaking from experience. They had never talked much about his parents. She would ask questions about them when she was a kid, like she would ask questions about everything, and he wouldn't scold her—he would never do that—but give short, superficial answers every time. So, she had stopped asking eventually. But right now, she felt like he wanted to talk about them. They shared a special bond that allowed them to sense such things. It was good to see that that connection was still there.
"You mean, after the… accident?"
He shrugged as if it were no big deal, but Ana knew it was. "It must have sucked, being so lonely." She was speaking from experience, too.
"Well, the loneliness only lasted for, like, 39 days. Then I met you."
His failed attempt to not be so specific was both sad and hilarious at the same time. But this was what he did. He always found a way to make her smile. Some might mistake it for apathy, but Ana knew better. This was a different kind of strength. Even the terrorist hadn't been able to break him, she could see that now. In fact, she might even believe he had been on a vacation for the past three months… if it weren't for his injuries, and the faint glow under his shirt.
"Want to take a look?" he offered when he caught her staring, loosening a few buttons of his shirt. Ana wasn't sure if she had the stomach at first, but it wasn't too bad. It was a part of him now. Still, she didn't like the idea that they had cut him open in some cave, using who knew what kind of equipment. There were so many things that could have gone wrong. Had he even been anesthetized properly? She was determined not to shed any tears in front of him, but her body betrayed her and tears pooled in her eyes.
"Kid?" he asked softly.
"Did they hurt you?"
"No. They just wanted me to build them a Jericho missile, that's all."
"Okay, they tried to hurt me. But I didn't feel anything. I just thought of you. I thought a lot about you, actually." He tucked a lock of stray hair behind her ear, and wiped her tears away with his thumb.
She hadn't exactly sent him to Afghanistan with lovely memories, had she? "I'm sorry, Dad. I'm sorry I was such an ungrateful bitch to you."
"You weren't an ungrateful bitch. You were alright. I mean, you're a teenager. It could've been much worse."
"Sure. When I was at your age—"
"Okay, I don't really need the details."
"See? It's not that bad."
The tears had stopped. Ana wished she could say all was well, but there were so many other things that had been nagging at her mind. She decided to start with the least complicated one. "Dad?"
"The miniaturized Arc Reactor, its components are the same with the one in the factory, right?"
"Doesn't it have a palladium core?"
"It does, but the core isn't in direct contact with my body. It's completely safe."
"What about the plasmic discharge? Some of that must be mixing into your blood."
"Kid, sometimes you're too smart for your own good."
"You still haven't answered the question."
"It's only a trace amount."
"How much did you use?"
It wasn't too much, indeed. But it was still a risk.
"We can find a replacement for palladium, just to be safe," he added. "Until then, let's just keep it between us. Don't tell anyone, okay? Not even Pepper… Especially Pepper."
There was no reason to scare Pepper, indeed. "Okay."
"JARVIS, are you still there?"
"Of course, sir."
"Show me the security logs. I want to see what went wrong that night."
He got on his feet, and crossed to the glass panels to check JARVIS' security logs. Ana went after him. Upon catching their reflection in the window, she smiled. Ana had missed working with him. She felt like they could do anything together, create anything they wanted. And the thing was, they probably could. He winked at her through the glass, then got rid of the sling.
"It's fine, I just can't keep wearing that stupid thing." Now that he could use both arms, he pulled her into another hug, as if he was struggling to believe she was here, with him. But she was. She was home, and even if the people who wanted them dead were still somewhere out there, she finally felt safe now. Her father wouldn't let anyone hurt Ana. And she wouldn't let anyone hurt him. They would protect each other.
They just studied the data in silence for a time. Then, he said, "This is odd."
"I agree." Indeed, there was no sign of a malware, no kind of cyber attack. It was as if someone who had the authorization had shut JARVIS down remotely. After getting disabled, JARVIS had made hundreds of attempts to reboot himself, until the power grid itself had been shut. If he weren't a natural-language UI, Ana would call it desperation.
"Maybe they stole the access codes from one of us?" she suggested.
She knew they would find out who was behind the attack one way or the other. But she didn't want him to lose sleep over it. "It's okay, Dad. They failed. I'm alive. It's all that matters."
"Honey, you don't have to act like you survive an assassination attempt every other day. Let's be honest, we both have been through hell."
"At least I walked out unscathed," she reminded him, tapping on his Arc Reactor.
"Did you, though?" he asked insinuatingly, and Ana realized it was time to talk about Irene Clarke. She looked away stubbornly, for she didn't know how to have this conversation without having a mental breakdown.
"Okay, I'll start," he said. "First off, we don't even know if SHIELD told you the truth. It might as well be bullshit."
"Do you really think I'm so naive?"
"No, I'm just saying these guys are spies. They're professionals, kid. If they want your research for themselves, they'll do anything to get it."
"I know that. I'm a Stark, Dad. I learned not to trust people a long time ago. Everyone I ever meet wants something from me. SHIELD is no exception. I'm not going to believe everything they say just because they saved my ass."
"That's my girl."
"I've been doing some digging since Fury told me about her," she went on. "To find a contradiction in the story. There's none."
"Not that I don't trust your judgment, but maybe we should do some more digging together."
"I think they decided to tell me about my mother because they knew my obsession with time resulted from my obsession with her. My plan was to go back to the day you found me, and see who dumped me on your doorstep."
"Yeah, that's what I suspected."
"I know. You kind of roped Pepper into questioning me."
He grimaced. "Was it that obvious?"
"Don't blame her, she tried."
"So, maybe SHIELD didn't want you to mess with time, and they hoped you'd drop everything if they gave you an obnoxious story about your mother."
"That's what I thought at first. Then I found out something else. I didn't tell anyone. Not even Rhodey or Pepper."
"What did you find?"
"I scanned all the DNA databases in the UK and found the DNA results of Irene's parents. We're definitely related."
"Wow, I'm actually impressed."
She shrugged apologetically. "I guess I had too much free time on my hands in that safe house."
"That's alright, I once hacked into the Pentagon on a dare. At high school."
She laughed, then became serious again. "There's one more thing. Irene's parents, they're still alive. They live in London."
"Okay. What do you want to do about it?"
"Well, for starters, I want to turn their house into a smoking crater."
"Now that's a bit extreme…"
"I'm not really going to do anything stupid, don't worry."
"But you would hurt them, if there weren't any consequences?"
"Yes," she admitted, wondering how he would react when he realized his little girl wasn't as innocent as he thought.
But he only said, "I guess I would, too."
"I'll tell you a secret: I killed some terrorists on my way out of that cave. And do you know how it felt? It felt damn good. Everyone has a dark side. I'm not ashamed of mine. You shouldn't be ashamed of yours either."
"I don't even know why I'm so upset. I mean, they were hoping to get rich through me, now they don't even know the heir to Stark Industries is their granddaughter. The joke's on them. Still… I'm so tired, Dad. I just wish this anger would go away. I can't think clearly, I can't do anything…"
"Why don't you get some sleep? Stuff like that always seems better after a good night's rest. Especially in your own bed."
"Probably," she tried to say, but choked on the word.
And then, there they were again, the damn tears… Of course, Ana couldn't remember anything from her infancy. Not even a genius could do that. Fury had shown her a picture of Irene Clarke and later, Ana had found pictures of her maternal grandparents, too. Ana often tried to picture her mother looking at her with disgust, even refusing to touch her. She pictured her grandparents looking at her with greed as well, and it made her sick to the stomach. As for the agent, they were probably just indifferent. To them, Ana was just the payment for some debt of gratitude. Her dad must have been the first person who had shown her some affection.
"Or, we can just hang out," he offered, patiently wiping the tears away again. "Here, or anywhere else… We can go on a vacation if you want. We can leave right now. Your call."
"Thanks, but I'll just go to sleep."
"We're going to sort this out. In the meantime, try not to nuke London and start World War III, okay?"
She couldn't help but chortle. "Okay."
"Do you want me to tuck you in?"
"Why not? You're still my baby girl. You'll always be my baby girl."
"I never wanted to find my mother because you weren't enough or anything. I just wanted to know. Know where I come from. You know that, right?"
"I do. Still, to me, it doesn't matter where you come from, who put you on my doorstep, or why." He took her hand and placed it on the Arc Reactor. "This is where you belong… God, I should've told you that a long time ago."
She gave him a kiss on the cheek. " Goodnight, Dad."
She went to her room, still struggling to believe that they had done it. They had discussed the Clarkes, Ana's feelings about them, and she hadn't lost her shit. A few tears were acceptable. But then, why was she so surprised? Her dad had always been good at giving her what she needed.
As she changed into her pajamas, JARVIS suddenly asked, "Miss Stark?"
"I understand you discovered your mother's identity during your time in that SHIELD safe house?"
This puzzled her. "Why do you ask?"
"The information seems to have put you in distress. If I know why, maybe I can help."
"You can't help me, JARVIS. No one can."
"Still, I'd like to try."
Maybe her dad had told him to do this. "I'll tell you everything in the morning, okay? Dad's right; such things always get easier in the morning."
"Of course. Goodnight, miss."
Ana must have really missed sleeping in her own bed, because it was nearly 10 AM when she woke up in the morning. She took a quick shower, and told JARVIS about the deal she had made with Director Fury while having breakfast.
"Which reminds me," she added after she was done rehashing everything Fury had told her, "I need you to e-mail my research to Agent Weaver. All the files, records of the failed simulations, the whole dataset—"
"Before I do that, Mr. Stark wishes to have a word with you."
"Is he in the shop?"
Ana set off to the basement. In the living room, she ran into Pepper, heading out with the miniaturized Arc Reactor in her hand.
"Please tell me you didn't finally rip Dad's heart out…"
Pepper laughed. "What? No. He just swapped it with a new one, I don't know why. Speaking of, this thing is not dangerous, right? I mean, it's not explosive or anything?"
"No, it should be safe… Why?"
Pepper smirked. "You'll see."
"Okay. I'm going to join Dad in the shop."
Pepper seemed relieved to hear that. "He missed working with you."
"Yeah, I missed working with him, too."
In the past five years, if she was home, and needed to do something in the workshop, she would make sure she did it when he wasn't there. It was one of those simple, but cruel things she had done to "punish" him.
"If you need to talk, about Tony, about yourself, about anything… I'm here."
"I know, Pep. Thanks." she said, but she knew she couldn't talk to her. What was she going to say anyway? "I wish YOU were my mother"? That would be weird, and put both her dad and Pepper into an awkward situation. Besides, Pepper had warned her not to take Fury's offer. Ana should have listened. She had no right to bother her with her problems now.
When she entered the shop, her dad was putting on a t-shirt and scolding Dum-E for something he had, or had not done. She was relieved to see that there were no visible cuts, bruises, or scars on his torso. "Go easy on him, Dad. You know he's doing his best."
Dum-E chirped to thank her for the rescue.
"You're spoiling him."
"Maybe." She gave the robot a kiss. "So, JARVIS said you wanted to talk, before I sent my research to SHIELD."
"Yeah, about that… Is this really what you want, kid?"
"It doesn't matter what I want. I made a deal with Fury."
"Ana, legally, you're still a kid. You don't get to make deals with anybody."
"Are you mad?"
"I'm not mad," he said softly. "I'm just asking you a question: Do you want to work with SHIELD, or no?"
"No," she admitted. Of course she didn't want to share her research with anyone other than her father, the man who had taught her everything she knew. She had been working her ass off for the last two years to make time-travel possible, and although she still had a long way to go, she didn't want to share what she had achieved so far with a shady organization she barely knew about.
"What am I going to tell Fury?"
"SHIELD, Fury… They're my problem now. You don't have to tell anyone anything."
Could it be that simple, she wondered, then realized the answer was yes. Of course it was that simple. She was Tony Stark's daughter. He might look like a spoiled, childish party boy, but he could be a truly fierce businessman no one wanted to mess with when he needed to be. She felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off her chest. To show her gratitude, she hugged him tightly.
"Be careful, I'm getting used to this."
"You can go back to your portal simulations. I'll handle everything else."
She released him. "Actually, my new priority is your palladium replacement. Time-travel is going to have to wait."
"Suit yourself. But first, I want to show you something… JARVIS, show her Mark I."
They crossed to the holotable. The incomplete blueprints of what looked like an armed suit popped up.
"This is how I escaped."
"Wow… You were never making the Jericho missile, were you?" Now things were starting to make more sense.
"This is… awesome. You built a suit, powered by your Arc Reactor, right under their noses. They didn't even know what hit them, did they?"
"There was one guy who suspected something, but… He really wanted that missile, I guess."
"Please tell me you eventually gave him one… in the face."
"It's funny you say that, because that's exactly what I did."
"You really are one of a kind, Dad. I'm the proudest daughter in the world."
Ana had hated the thought that his time in Afghanistan had been a nightmare for him. And it had. But at least it couldn't have been as bad as she had imagined, not with such an idea in his mind. At least he had left that cave with some sort of closure.
"I'm glad you like it, because it will be our new legacy."
"What? I thought you were done making weapons."
"These won't be for sale."
"Who's going to wear these suits, then?"
"For protection? I knew you were going to do something extreme when you found out what happened here, but…"
"Not just for our protection."
"Dad, I hate to say this, but maybe you are suffering from PTSD." Okay, she was no expert in psychology by any means, but this was definitely PTSD. This was PTSD at its worst. Not something that could be explained by his usual recklessness.
"I thought you liked the suit?"
"I thought it was just a one-time thing! What's your plan, exactly? Are you going to become a vigilante?"
"This is just me being responsible."
"No! This is you being suicidal!"
"Kid, I finally know what I'm supposed to do with my life. Do you really want me to go back to wasting it? Come on, I have to think of all those lives my inventions destroyed."
"And when you get yourself killed, who's going to think of me?"
The question hung in the air for a while. They both knew the answer: No one.
"You have Rhodey, Pepper, Happy…"
"Stop it, Dad. I don't want to become anyone's charity case."
"I won't get myself killed, I promise."
"Really? How much palladium did you put in that new Arc Reactor? Because there's no way you can power a suit like that for more than a few minutes with 1,6 grams of palladium."
"It doesn't matter how much palladium I used. We'll find a replacement. Please, kid. I really want you to be a part of this."
"You don't expect me to use one of those suits, do you?"
"Good. You're being such a hypocrite, but good."
He shrugged unapologetically.
Ana forced herself to calm down. She didn't want to say anything she would regret later. He needed her support right now.
"It's going to be fine, Ana. I won't be going on missions forever. Once I'm done with the Ten Rings, I'll become America's new nuclear deterrent. Then no one will want to mess with me again. But first, I need to finish what I started in that cave."
Ana gave it a thought. Of course, it wasn't all bad. If he wasn't going to make weapons anymore, he needed to find another way to be an equally important asset. She just wanted to make sure the risk didn't outweigh the benefits. "You know," she started once she calmed down a bit. "When you were gone, the only reason his superiors let Rhodey look for you was because they didn't want to lose their best weapons designer. When you shut down the weapons manufacturing division, you removed the one thing that made you irreplaceable in their eyes. This might make you irreplaceable again."
"That's not why I'm doing it."
"I know. But that's why I'm not going to melt your suit down one night while you're asleep. Just promise me that you'll be very, very careful."
"I will. I promise. Everything's going to be okay, you'll see."
"Well, for starters, I'd certainly sleep a lot better if you didn't have to live with palladium in your chest. JARVIS, give me the schematics of the Arc Reactor, will you? Let's find a non-toxic superconductor for the damn thing."
Ana sat down at her desk. There were 118 elements on the periodic table, plus several theoretical ones. Surely, she could find something that would do the trick.
The next two weeks were uneventful. Her dad's sprained arm was completely healed now, the bruises on his face had mostly faded. He and Ana spent most of their time in the workshop, the former designing his suit and the latter trying to find a replacement for palladium. They regularly analyzed the palladium levels in his blood; there was no indication of poisoning so far, and he wasn't worried too much about it. But Ana refused to take any chances. In the meantime, she had learned more about his time in captivity. It helped her understand him better.
One morning, they heard the ding-dong of the doorbell. "There's special a delivery for you, sir," JARVIS announced.
They were in the workshop as usual. Ana, who was studying another failed simulation test, looked up. "Did you order something?"
He grinned mischievously. "Yep."
Pepper wasn't here, so he went to answer the door himself. He returned with a box, put it on a table, and started unpacking it.
"Is that a board game?"
"Backgammon. Do you know how to play?"
"It's not that hard. I'll show you, come on."
"Maybe later, Dad. I'm kind of busy right now… And since when do you play backgammon?" She would be less surprised if he had ordered a roulette wheel, or even turned one part of the mansion into a casino.
"Since Yinsen taught me."
She froze. Yinsen was the friend he had made over there. The man who had sacrificed himself so that Tony Stark could escape. "Sorry. I'm doing it again, aren't I? I'm ruining everything."
"No, you're just worried about your old man, which is actually flattering. Tell you what, why don't we take a break? Let's go see Rhodey, bring him into the fold."
Well, if there was anyone who would love to get a suit, it was Rhodey. But unlike her dad, he had people he answered to. "I don't know, Dad. It might put him into a tough spot."
"Are you kidding me? He's going to love this."
"I know, but… Whatever, let's go tell him. I want to see the look on his face." Sooner or later, Rhodey was going to find out anyway.
It was another sunny day in Malibu, and her dad was driving the top down. The fresh air felt good. Maybe Ana should get out of the house more often.
She could see that he had missed driving. Sometimes she thought he was too reckless of a driver, especially for someone who had lost his parents in a car accident, but kept that thought to herself. Besides, Ana didn't trust her own slow reflexes to test the limits of the engine, so she decided to enjoy the experience while she could. At the gates of the Air Force base, they were given visitor badges, but other than that, they were free to go around the place unsupervised. The people here loved the Stark family.
They found Rhodey giving some speech about the future of air combat in a hangar. Rhodey believed no AI could replace a human pilot. Ana and her dad looked at each other and smiled. Rhodey was underestimating the limits of Artificial Intelligence. They were yet to create one, of course, but Ana was confident that one day they would get there.
"Colonel," he started. "Why not a pilot without the plane?"
He seemed happy to see them. "Look who fell out of the sky. Mr. Tony Stark."
He shook hands with some of the soldiers. "Speaking of manned or unmanned, you gotta get him to tell you about the time he guessed wrong at Spring Break. Just remember that, Spring Break, 1987. That lovely lady you woke up with, what was his name?"
"Don't do that."
"Was it Ivan?"
"Don't do that, they're going to believe it. Don't do that."
Well, they already looked like they believed it. Ana bit her lip in order not to smile.
"Give us a couple minutes, you guys."
After the others were dismissed, Rhodey wrapped an arm around Ana. "Don't mind him, sweetie. He's just trying to embarrass me."
"I didn't hear a thing…"
Rhodey turned to his best friend again. "I'm surprised. I wasn't expecting you to see you walking around so soon."
"I'm doing a little better than walking."
"Yeah. Rhodey, I'm working on something big. I came to talk to you. I want you to be a part of it."
"You're about to make whole around of people here real happy, because that little stunt at the press conference, that was a doozy."
"This is not for the military. I'm not… It's different."
Rhodey let go of Ana and crossed his arms. He didn't even know what the project was, yet he already seemed disappointed. "What? You're humanitarian now or something?"
"I need you to listen to me."
"No. What you need is the time to get your mind right."
He smiled bitterly. He was hurt, and seeing him hurt made Ana's blood boil.
"It's nice seeing you, Tony," Rhodey said, but he obviously meant the opposite. "Sweetie, you try talking some sense into him, will you?"
"Goodbye, Rhodey," she said coldly to let him know that she wasn't going to "talk some sense into him." Rhodey frowned in what looked like confusion, but made no comment.
"Wow, we truly have no one, do we?" she asked her dad, watching Rhodey walk out of the hangar.
"He'll come around."
"No, he won't. He's just like everyone else." She had always thought Rhodey as a part of the family, but maybe she had been wrong about him.
"Ana, we're just having a disagreement, it doesn't mean Rhodey is an asshole like the Clarkes."
"Why are you making everything about the Clarkes?" Her voice echoed in the hangar, and only then, she realized she had been shouting. A couple of people turned to look at her, and Ana wished the floor just swallowed her. But it didn't, so she did the second best thing she could do. She followed her father back into the car.
"I'm sorry," she said as he pulled out of the parking space. "This is a nightmare."
"It's not a nightmare, it's anger. And teenage hormones. It's a completely natural human reaction."
"Well, I don't want it!"
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe you should see a professional if it's too much for you."
"You mean, a shrink?"
"Sorry," she said when she realized she had been shouting at him again.
"You don't have to apologize for every single word that comes out of your mouth. I'm not offended easily."
"I know. But I'm so awful to you, and you never raise your voice to me… "
"No, it's not. It's unfair."
"Look, kid. I'm your father. That means I have a certain kind of power over you. If I raised my voice to you, it would be abusing that power. What's going on with you, on the other hand, is totally expected. I told you, you're a teenager. Things could've been much worse."
"So, you yelling at me is abusive, but me yelling at you is a natural part of growing up?"
"It's still not fair. I just want to be an easy kid. I want to make you happy. You deserve to be happy."
"So do you," he reminded with a gentle smile.
"I already have everything I need to be happy. I should be happy."
"But you're not."
"No," she admitted. "And the worst part is, I got no idea why."
"You know, it's okay not to have all the answers. That's the fun. That's what makes life an adventure."
Ana disagreed. Answers meant knowledge, knowledge meant power, and Ana would choose power over fun any day. But she decided not to argue with him. After all, her choices were the reason she had become such a mess in the first place. Maybe she needed to reconsider her priorities.
Ana still preferred the good, old-fashioned chess, but backgammon wasn't too bad either.
"For the record, I know you let me win," she said after another round was over.
"Don't get used to it. I'm just going easy on you until you get the grasp of it."
"Are you talking about the game, or the other thing?" she asked, rubbing her sore left shoulder. Backgammon wasn't the only thing he had been teaching her these days. He had also started her teaching the basics of self-defense. Ana knew most kids who were born into a rich and famous family received this kind of training, but she had never been good at physical activities; eating little was easier for her than hitting the gym on a regular basis, and her dad would never force her to do anything she didn't want to do. But she now knew he would sleep better if she learned how to protect herself, so she had agreed.
"How is your shoulder?"
"How is your entire musculoskeletal system?"
The pain in her shoulder was nothing, compared to the injuries he received during the flight tests. And it was only going to get worse. He was planning to test an actual suit tonight. They were just playing backgammon in the living room to pass time while Mark II was being fabricated down in the basement.
In response, she stuck her tongue out at him.
"I don't understand. You're not a big fan of this new direction either, why were you so angry with Rhodey that day?"
"It's different. I'm not a big fan because I'm scared for you. Rhodey didn't even want to hear you out. He's only interested in your weapons."
"Rhodey believes in what he's doing. He's a smart guy, but he's afraid of change. He's the one who needs time, he just doesn't know it yet."
"Okay, maybe I judged him too harshly," she admitted. "But you're right, I'm not a big fan of your new direction either."
"I told you, I'll be careful. Do you honestly think I'd risk leaving you alone in the world, kid?"
"It's not just that. I'm scared that you'll get disappointed."
"You can shut down the weapons manufacturing division. Hell, you can destroy all the weapons in the world. It won't really stop people from killing each other. You know Einstein's saying about WW IV being fought with sticks and stones. Just don't expect too much from humanity."
"I'll try to keep my expectations… realistic."
"Sir, the construction of Mark II is complete," JARVIS informed them.
"Finally… Come on, kid."
She followed him downstairs. He seemed super excited while donning the armor, so she decided to keep her mouth shut and not to ruin the moment. Nothing she said would stop him from doing it anyway. And to be honest, if she weren't so worried about his safety, watching him do this would actually be the coolest thing ever.
JARVIS started doing the calculations, but her dad was too impatient. "Yeah, tell you what. Do a weather and ATC check, start listening in on ground control."
"Sir, there are still terabytes of calculations needed before an actual flight is—"
"JARVIS, sometimes you gotta run before you can walk. Ready? Three, two, one…"
"Dad, wait—" Ana started, but she had been too late. He had just flown out of the garage exit. "Oh, boy… We're going to have to fish him out of the ocean tonight, aren't we?"
"Would you like me to keep you updated?" JARVIS offered, but she could sense the frustration in his voice. Over the years, he had become excellent at mimicking human emotions.
"No, just let me know if he's in trouble," she said, then started waiting anxiously for his return. The less she knew, the better.
She had expected him to return home through the garage exit, but instead, he fell through the ceiling, destroying the Shelby Cobra in the process. Dum-E started dousing him.
"It's okay, Dum-E, he's not on fire."
The robot stopped.
"Help me out of this thing," he demanded wearily. It was weird, to look at this suit and know that it was her dad who was inside it. She helped him get back on his feet, then began removing the suit, starting by the faceplate. It wasn't very easy. There were too many parts; it was going to take time.
"You know, you have to find a more practical way to do this. I won't be helping you every time you come back from a joyride. Is this… ice, by the way?" Some parts of the armor had been covered by a frozen layer.
"Pop quiz: Do you remember SR-71's record?"
Her jaw dropped open when she realized why there was ice on the suit. "You didn't…"
"Yeah, I kind of did."
She yanked out the next part a tad harshly on purpose. "What were you thinking?"
"I was having fun, got a bit carried away… You'd know what I'm talking about if you gave it a try."
"I thought you didn't want me to use the suit."
"Joyrides are allowed," he said, with that smirk that appeared on his face whenever he challenged her to get out of her comfort zone.
"You very well know that I couldn't do it even if I wanted to." Ana had acrophobia.
"Is there a specific reason you're so scared of heights? I never asked you before."
"It's a phobia, Dad. There's no logic behind it."
Once the last part was dismantled, she went to get him a few ice packs. He was going to need them. That fall must have been painful. In fact, he was lucky he hadn't broken any of his bones.
"Thanks, kid," he said as he took one of the ice packs and put it on the top of his head.
"Shall I get you some painkillers as well?"
"No, it's not too bad."
"In that case, I'm going to go see what else you destroyed."
"I hope you weren't too attached to the piano…"
"Haha. Very funny."
Ana had tried to learn to play the piano when she was a kid, but even after a year of daily practice, she was still making everyone's ears bleed, so she had had to admit that she was hopeless. Her dad, on the other hand, wasn't exactly a virtuoso, but at least he could cover some of his favorite songs on the piano.
Ana left to do a damage assessment. The roof and the living room floor were going to have to be repaired, and the piano had been destroyed, as he had said, but other than that, the mansion was fine. Ana returned to the garage, to ask her dad what they were going to tell Pepper, Rhodey, or Obadiah if they came here and saw the mess. He found him sitting at his desk, examining some kind of award in a glass case.
"It's not too bad, but I don't know how we're going to explain—"
"Hey, want to see something cool?"
"A gift, from Pepper."
When she got closer, she realized it was the original Arc Reactor. So, this was what Pepper had in mind for it…
Proof that Tony Stark has a heart.
"Notes: Main transducer feels sluggish at plus 40 altitude. Hull pressurization is problematic. I'm thinking icing is the probable factor."
"A very astute observation, sir. Perhaps if you visit to intend other planets, we should improve the exosystems."
Yep, who said a traditional English butler couldn't exist in the form of a bunch of ones and zeros? Sometimes Tony wondered if JARVIS knew on whom he had been based. He probably did. He had access to all the Stark archives; he must have seen Edwin Jarvis' name and occupation somewhere. He had never said, or asked anything about the original Jarvis, though. Not that Tony expected him to in the foreseeable future. The day JARVIS started questioning the nature of his existence would be the day Tony Stark created the true Artificial Intelligence.
He uncomfortably turned in his seat to look at the screens behind, sipping his least favorite drink. Chlorophyll would help his body fight the possible toxins in his blood. Besides, if he was going to be a superhero, he might as well start taking better care of himself.
"Connect to the Cisco. Have it reconfigure shell metals. Use the gold-titanium alloy from the seraphim tactical satellite. That should ensure a fuselage integrity, while maintaining power-to-weight ratio. Got it?"
"Yes, sir. Shall I render using proposed specifications?"
He left JARVIS to it, and turned his attention to the news. It looked like there was some big event was happening tonight.
"Tonight's red-hot red carpet is right here, at the Disney Concert Hall," the reporter was saying. "Where Tony Stark's third annual benefit for the Fire-Fighter's Family Fund has become the place to be for L.A.'s high society…"
"JARVIS, we get an invite for that?" he asked, confused. Was he throwing a party he didn't know about?
"I have no record of an invitation, sir."
"…hasn't been seen in public since his bizarre and highly controversial press conference. Some claim he's suffering from post-traumatic stress and has been bed-ridden for weeks. Whatever the case may be, no one expects an appearance from him tonight."
Bed-ridden? For weeks? Seriously? Maybe it was time to make a statement…
"The render is complete," JARVIS announced.
He looked at the flashing gold design. "A little ostentatious, don't you think?"
"What was I thinking? You're usually so discreet."
He looked around the place for some inspiration, and it didn't take him long to find it. "Tell you what, throw a little Hotrod red in there."
"Yes, that should help you keep a low profile."
God, when it came to discretion, JARVIS was sometimes worse than Ana. Still, JARVIS did as he had been told.
"The render is complete."
Now it looked perfect. "Yeah, I like it. Fabricate it. Paint it."
"Commencing automated assembly. Estimated completion time is five hours."
He checked his watch. "Where's Ana?"
"Miss Stark is on the terrace, asleep."
Tony decided to check on her, and found her sleeping in one of the lounge chairs, indeed. She must have been reading some newspaper article about the future of Stark Industries. He smiled. Ana was always so concerned for him ever since he had returned home. No wonder she had finally tired herself out. Carefully, he pulled the newspaper out of her hands, and put it aside. In the past, she would always have a smile on her face while sleeping. Now, there was only a frown no teenager should be sporting. Tony hated everyone and everything that had put it there.
He pondered if he could carry her to her bed without waking her up, but then remembered that she wasn't five anymore. But it might get a bit chilly out here, and all she was wearing was a pair of flannel pants and a tank top. He grabbed the blanket nearby, and put it on her.
Again, he was being careful, but Ana's eyes flew open and she startled in panic when the blanket touched her skin.
"It's just me."
Her face softened. "Sorry."
"Sorry." This had become her favorite word lately. Tony wished she had stopped being so apologetic all the time. Maybe what she needed was a confidence boost.
"Hey, do you still hate parties?"
"Great, we're going to one. Now."
"No, we're not," she said, pulling the blanket over her head.
He laughed. "Oh, I don't know, your absence might send the wrong message."
"I knew I shouldn't have said that," she growled, still hiding under the blanket.
"No, I'm serious."
She tossed the blanket aside, and looked at him in the eye. It reminded Tony of the way his mom would look at him whenever she realized he was up to no good. "Why do you even want me there?"
"I guess I just don't want to be alone."
"Dad, I'm pretty sure you'll be surrounded by a dozen supermodels the moment you step out of your car."
"I'd rather have just you by my side."
"You just love pulling me out of my comfort zone, don't you?" she complained, but she had given in. Tony could almost see her heart melting.
"Yep. You got thirty minutes."
"What?" she cried. "How do you expect me to dress up for some fancy shindig in thirty minutes?"
"You look fine. Just put on a nice dress or something, and you'll be good to go."
"You're unbelievable," she complained, shaking her head, as rushed inside.
On their way to L.A., they mostly chattered about random things, but he could see that Ana was growing more and more restless with each minute, so he finally said, "You know, if you want to quit the spotlight completely, there're some arrangements we can make."
She grimaced apologetically. "Am I being that grumpy?"
"Well, you're always a bit grumpy…"
"I know. Sorry."
Tony sighed. The S word again. "I'm kidding. I just want to see if we can have some fun together tonight. Consider this an experiment. But I also want you to know that you have… options."
"Options you never had?" she asked softly.
Tony decided to be honest with her. "Yes."
"But even if you'd been given those options, you'd still be where you are now, am I wrong?"
"I'm a hopeless narcissist. You, on the other hand, are different."
"Yeah, I've always been a loser."
"No, you're not a loser."
"Come on, Dad. I can never carry myself the way you do. I mean, just look at me."
He did. She had chosen a simple, black, knee-length cocktail dress, with a matching pair of stilettos and a clutch. Her hair had been tied into a high ponytail, and although Tony could tell she was wearing some make-up, it was barely noticeable. Ana would always wear nice, but plain and modest things, like she wanted to look fashionable enough for a Stark, but also afraid to draw attention on herself. Well, not that he complained about how his daughter wasn't trying to make boys' heads spin. He just wished she had more self-confidence.
"It's all in your head. You look perfect."
"I don't want to quit the spotlight permanently."
"Why not?" he asked, wondering why she refused the option.
"Because it's a cruel place. I'd never leave you alone there."
At times like this, Tony found it really hard not to shed a few tears. "Thanks, kid."
When they arrived, a valet ran up to him immediately. Tony let him take the car, and offered Ana her arm. Flashes had already started exploding around them, and women were screaming. He just hoped none of them would do anything inappropriate.
And of course, a blondie did. "Hi, Tony. Remember me?"
"Do they have to do that in front of me?" Ana complained.
He decided to be honest with her. "I don't think most people here even remember who you actually are."
Her face wrinkled in disgust when she realized what that meant. "Eww…"
"Don't worry, it won't be long until they learn… Oh, there he is!" He had spotted Obie, giving an interview. On his way there, he saw Hefner, surrounded by a bunch of ladies as usual. "You look great, Hef," he said, giving a quick pat on the shoulder.
"What's the world coming to when a guy's got to crash his own party?"
Obie was laughing, but Tony knew him well enough to see that he wasn't happy to see them here. "Look at you… What a surprise. And you've brought Ana, too. What's up, dear?"
"Nice to see you, Obadiah," Ana said politely, but she wasn't very happy to see him either. Tony could feel how her arm tensed around his. Boy, Ana could be really vindictive sometimes. Yeah, Obie was an annoying workaholic, but other than that, he wasn't too bad. His dad must have trusted him for a reason. Whenever Obie started getting on his nerves, Tony reminded himself of that fact.
"I'll see you inside," Tony said quickly. He didn't want the night to be ruined by a lecture from Obie before it even started.
But of course, Obie wouldn't let him go easily. "Hey, listen... Take it slow, alright? I think I got the board right where we want them."
"You got it. Just cabin fever. I'll just be in a minute. Plus, I got a chaperon."
Once Obie let them go inside, Ana was at more ease. But as Tony was making for the bar, she suddenly froze on the spot and pulled him back. "Dad, no!" whispered in panic. "Don't go to the bar!"
"Just one Scotch," he promised. "I won't get drunk."
"It's not that. That guy over there, I know him. He's Agent Coulson, from SHIELD. He's actually not that bad, but—"
He frowned. So, SHIELD was here… Good. Tony had a message for Director Fury. "Honey, why don't you go take a look around? I'll find you later."
"Are you going to leave me alone here?"
"It won't take long, I just want to have a word with Coulson."
"I'll go hide in the bathroom."
He shrugged. "Okay."
"Dad, they'll probably want to get their hands on you-know-what."
The suits. Of course they would want the suits. "They'll never know."
"They have surveillance satellites. Damn, I should've warned you…"
"Kid, do you trust me?"
"I got this. Go. That guy won't be here by the time you return, I promise."
Ana went to find the bathroom, Tony approached the bar.
"Mr. Stark?" Coulson started, as expected.
"I'm Agent Coulson."
"Yeah, the guy from SHIELD…"
"Listen, I know this must be a trying time for you, but we need to debrief you."
"Good, because I'd like to debrief you, too," he said sharply. "Or, your boss, to be more specific."
"Director Fury is a busy man."
"So am I."
"I'm sure we can make an arrangement, eventually, depending on how cooperative you are. For now, let's just put something on the books. How about the 24th at 7 PM? At Stark Industries?"
Tony was looking around to see where the bathrooms were, but something else caught her attention. Or rather, someone. A gorgeous redhead in a blue, satin dress. Pepper. He decided to wrap things up here quickly and then go say hi to her.
"Here's the deal: You leave my kid alone, and I'll play it nice. What do you say?"
"I'm going to go to my assistant, and make a… date," he said, and approached Pepper.
"You look fantastic, I didn't recognize you."
Apparently, she wasn't expecting to see him tonight either. "What are you doing here?"
"Hiding from government agents."
"I'm surprised you didn't make a scene."
"Well, they're just agents, following orders. My problem is with the man in charge."
"Are you by yourself?"
"No. I brought Ana along."
Pepper looked around quickly. "Really? Where's she?"
"Probably locked herself in a bathroom stall by now."
"Tony…" she scolded him.
"Where did you get that dress?"
"Oh, it was a birthday present. From you, actually."
"Well, I got a great taste."
"You want to dance?"
"Alright, come on."
"Thank you, no."
He didn't listen to her, and dragged her to the dance floor. She gave in. Funny, she had been working for him for nearly ten years now, and yet they had never danced before. And Tony didn't know what had just come over him. Normally, he wouldn't overstep his boundaries with Pepper, not even when he was drunk. This was one of those times he acted without thinking. But what was done was done. Besides, it was just a dance. No big deal.
Still, Pepper looked very nervous.
"Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"No. No. I always forget to wear deodorant and dance with my boss in front of everyone that I work with in a dress with no back."
"You look great, you smell great." Seriously, what the hell was wrong with these girls? The better they looked, the more self-conscious they became.
"But I could fire you if that would take the edge off."
"I actually don't think you could tie your shoes without me."
"I'd make it a week."
"What's your Social Security number?"
Good question. He thought for a moment, then said, "Five."
"You're missing just a couple of digits there."
"The other eight? I got you for the other eight."
They were having a nice little chat. Tony realized it wasn't him that made her uncomfortable, it was the other people. To be honest, he didn't even see them right now, but Pepper obviously did, so he decided to do something about it. "How about a little air?"
Pepper was visibly relieved. "Yes, I need some air."
They went up to the roof.
"That was totally weird," Pepper started once they were alone. There were a few other couples here, but they were too busy with themselves to pay any attention to even Tony Stark.
"It was totally not harmless, by the way."
"We're dancing. No one's even watching."
"Everybody who I work with… No, you know why?
"I think you lost objectivity. I think they just… people… we just danced."
"No, it was not just a dance! You don't understand, because you're you. And everybody knows who you are and how you are with girls, and all of that, which is completely fine. But you know, then me, you're my boss and I'm dancing with you."
"I don't think it was taken that way."
"Because it makes me look like the one who's trying to…"
"I just think you're overstating it."
"You know, we're here, and I'm wearing this ridiculous dress, and then we were dancing like that, and…"
At that moment, Tony realized she was just rambling. That was unusual. Pepper would never ramble. Maybe he was the one who made her uncomfortable, after all. For an entirely different reason. And she looked like she wanted to do… something. Tony waited expectantly.
It wasn't easy to resist the urge to just take her in his arms and kiss her. But if he did that, Pepper would quit her job, and he would never see her again. If he insisted, she would get a restraining order against him and everything. Pepper wasn't someone to mess with. So, he had to wait. He had to wait for her to initiate the kiss. She couldn't accuse him of being unprofessional, then, could she?
Please do it. Please.
For a second there, he thought she would actually do it, but then, she pulled herself back. "I would like a drink, please."
Tony pulled himself together quickly as well. "Got it, okay."
"I would like a vodka martini, please," she said, in her usual semi-professional tone. "Very dry, with olives. A lot of olives. Like, at least three olives."
There goes my one chance, he thought as he returned inside.
The thing was, Tony had completely forgotten about Ana until he saw her with Ms. Vanity Fair in a corner on his way to the bar. The two looked like they were having a heated argument.
This was certainly not the kind of night he was planning to have. He made his way through the crowd in haste to get there as soon as possible. Once he did, he cleared his throat angrily to get the reporter's attention. They both turned to her.
"Carrie…" he started. This would be easier if he had paid attention to her name when they had first met.
"Christine," she corrected him sharply.
"I didn't know you were this desperate for a story, Christine." He was keeping his cool, but he was angry. Very angry. That bitch had crossed a line she should have never crossed. Damn it. First Fury, now this…
"Dad, it's not what you think it is," Ana defended her, much to his surprise. "You'll want to hear what Ms. Everheart has to say, trust me."
Everheart handed him a bunch of pictures. Pictures of Stark weapons. "It's a town called Gulmira," she said. "Heard of it?"
Instinctively, Tony looked at Ana, who nodded. She knew Yinsen was from Gulmira.
He looked at the other pictures. The Ten Rings… He even recognized one of the men. Abu Bakaar was his name. More pictures. One of them was of the Jericho missile. "When were these taken?"
"I didn't approve any shipment."
"Well, your company did."
"Well, I'm not my company."
"See?" Ana asked. "I told you it wasn't him. Someone's going behind his back."
"Come, let's go find Obadiah."
They went outside, where Obadiah was still dealing with the press. If anyone knew about this latest shipment, it was him. Christine was coming after them, but keeping her distance. Tony showed him the pictures.
"Have you seen these pictures?"
"Please, do you mind?" he asked one of the photographers, pushing his camera away from them. As for Tony, he couldn't care less about the press right now. He just wanted answers.
"What's going on in Gulmira?" he insisted.
"Tony. Tony, you can't afford to be this naive."
"You know what? I was naive before, when they said 'Here's the line, we don't cross it. This is how we do business.' If we're double-dealing under the table… Are we?"
Obadiah just looked at him as if he was just a child throwing a tantrum. "Let's take a picture," he then said. "Come on. Picture time."
He wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulders, but it just made him feel sick. The only thing that gave him some comfort right now was Ana's hand on his back.
"Tony, who do you think locked you out?" he whispered as the flashes exploded once again. "I was the one who filed the injunction against you. It was the only way I could protect you."
With these words he left. Tony wanted to go after him, force him to look at his face, punch him, yell at him. "I trusted you," he wanted to scream."I trusted you with my dad's company. With his legacy. And this is what you do with it."
"Dad, please. Not here," Ana whispered, still smiling for the cameras. Then she turned to Christine and shook her hand. "Thank you for letting us know, Ms. Everheart. Goodnight."
Tony just let her lead the way down the steps. The valet brought the car.
"Dad, do you want me to take the wheel?"
"No, I'm fine."
"You're not. Look at you, you're shaking."
Well, she was right. Maybe it would be safer if he just let her drive. He sat himself down in the passenger seat. Ana put on the seatbelt and ignited the engine.
He closed his eyes, sank deeper in his seat, and took deep breaths to calm down. He had to think. He had to find out how deep this went. He needed all the shipping manifests in the Stark Industries mainframe. He couldn't do it himself, not after what happened with Obadiah tonight. Maybe he could send Ana… Bad idea. Ana could hack into the mainframe in her sleep, yes, but sending her would be even more suspicious. She had no reason to be in his office. Pepper, then. Speaking of Pepper…
"Oh, shit!" He ran a hand over his face when he realized what he had just done to Pepper.
"What is it?"
"I left Pepper on the roof. I was going to get her a drink, then I saw you with Christine and…"
"Do you want me to turn the car around?"
"No." Pepper must have stopped waiting for him by now.
"What were you and Pepper doing on the roof?"
"If you say so…" She was trying very hard not to smile.
He decided to deflect the conversation from himself. "You and Christine seemed to be getting along fine…"
"Look, I know you slept with her. So what? I'm not going to be petty about it. She's one of the few people who actually support your new 'direction,' and lucky for us, she's very good at her job. I wouldn't antagonize her if I were you. You need more people like her."
For a second, Tony wondered if his dad's ghost had possessed Ana's body and was now speaking through her. How could this be even possible? Ana had never met her grandfather.
"Why are you staring at me like that?"
He shrugged. Maybe this wasn't such a bad thing. Tony had panicked when she had seen her with Christine, but the truth was, she had handled the reporter like a boss. "I'm lucky to have you, kid."
"You always take such good care of me, Dad. I'm just trying to return the favor."
"Wait… How do you even know she and I…" Yes, Christine had spent a night with him in the Malibu Mansion, but as far as he knew, she hadn't met Ana. Tony had made sure Ana would never have to deal with the women he brought home.
"Well, she said you invited her over for an interview after the Apogee Awards. I just put two and two together."
He sighed. Her ability to accept him as he was never ceased to amaze him. But honestly, the thought of an actual, stable family didn't scare him so much anymore.
"In your opinion, should Pepper and I have done something on the roof?"
She raised her eyebrows questioningly, then returned her gaze to the road ahead. "I don't know, Dad. I'm not an expert on relationships."
"No, but you're an expert on Pepper."
That earned him a chuckle. "Okay, here's the thing: Pepper doesn't take shit from anyone in her personal life. Well, I guess her mom is an exception, but… Anyway, that's why she doesn't have many friends. You can pay her to be your PA, but not to be your girlfriend. If you're certain that you won't mess things up, go for it. Otherwise, we'll lose her forever."
"Yeah, I'm definitely not going for it."
"Crap, now I scared you… Don't mind me, I was just being—"
"No. No, you were right. It would be a disaster."
"It wouldn't be so bad."
Wow, Ana actually wanted this to happen. But she had made a good argument. His issues wouldn't just magically go away just because he had spent three months in an Afghan cave. He had changed, yes, but not that much.
Tony couldn't sleep. He went down to the shop and watched the international news while waiting for JARVIS to assemble Mark III. Most of it was done, anyway. He was adjusting one of the gauntlets as he watched how the Ten Rings were destroying Yinsen's town. With his weapons. Everything Christine had said was true.
He saw Raza on the TV. God, Tony had shot him with a missile. Yeah, the targeting system of Mark I wasn't the best, but still… How had he survived that? He hoped he would be there when he arrived in Gulmira. This time, he was going to make sure to put that bastard down. Permanently.
The gauntlet was ready to be tested. He got on his feet, tossed the screwdriver aside, and aimed at one of the lights on the ceiling. He heard the sound of the repulsor being charged, and then, the blast was released, sending him staggering back. Wow. He had accidentally created another weapon, it seemed. After all, wasn't it what he did best? To create instruments of destruction?
The reporter was saying something about the refugees wondering if who, or anyone would help them. Tony looked at his own reflection in the glass. Where would he be now, if he had never been kidnapped in Afghanistan? If he had never met Yinsen? He wouldn't even know, or care about those refugees. In his ignorance, he would keep being the warmonger Obadiah had molded him into being. He smashed the glass panels, too.
He snapped out of his rage when he heard the elevator pinged. "Dad?" Ana asked warily, emerging from the elevator. "Are you okay?"
"Sorry, kid. Did I wake you up?"
"I wasn't asleep. I wanted to talk to you."
"Sure thing." He plopped himself down on the couch, and gestured her to join him. She did.
"I was just testing a new feature of these repulsors," he explained as he took the gauntlet off, and let Dum-E take it away.
"You want to use them as blasters. Good idea."
He smiled. "What were you going to say?"
Ana nervously tucked her hair behind her ear. "It's just a thought. I was going to wait until you calmed down a bit, but you're obviously not going to calm down any time soon, so…"
"Do I scare you?"
"What? Why would I be scared of you?"
"Look around you, Ana. I'm angry, I've been smashing things, and you might have thought… I don't know."
"Everyone has a dark side. You told me that, remember?"
"Yes, but I wish you never had to see mine first hand."
"It's okay. You'd never hurt me."
"Never." He pulled her to his chest, and rested his chin on the top of his head. There was a picture of his dad on the coffee table, and it brought back some unpleasant memories. He had been trying to protect Ana from that sort of trauma since the day he had found her on his doorstep. One might even say he had succeeded. She would never be scared of him when he came home after a particularly stressful day at work, when she saw him with a drink in his hand, or even when he was drunk as hell. She would never have to worry about when his next outburst would occur.
And yet, trauma had found her in a different form.
"I've been thinking," she said, pulling him out of these thoughts. "Stane and the Ten Rings have been in business, for who knows how long…"
"What if it's just not limited to weapons?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, what if Stane hired them to kill you?"
"If that's true, why did they want me to build them a Jericho missile? The prototype was ready. They could have just bought it from Obadiah."
"Yeah, but who doesn't love free stuff?"
He thought for a moment, then remembered something. A vague memory, shortly after the surgery. Tony sitting in front of a camera, surrounded by a bunch of terrorists, Raza speaking in Arabic or something. Tony had assumed he was demanding ransom. And he had been so worried that Ana might see that video, see him like that.
"Ana, did any of you receive a message from the Ten Rings after I got kidnapped?"
"Because I remember them recording a video of me. It must have been for someone's eyes."
"Maybe for Stane's. If that's the case…"
"Stane must have hired those mercs as well. He didn't want any rivals."
Ana's head was still resting on his chest. He didn't see her face, but he could sense her fear. He was afraid, too. He remembered how Stane had taken him to the morgue after the accident, showed him his parents' corpses. Cold, dead bodies on a metal table. He had barely been able to recognize his dad's face. His mom's neck had been broken. It had never occurred to him that Obadiah might have secretly enjoyed that sight. And he would have enjoyed the sight of Ana's dead body as well. The thought made him shiver, and he held her tighter, to remind himself that she was still warm and alive. They just stayed like that for a time.
He hated to leave her, but he had to. "I have to go to Gulmira."
"So, are you cool with it?" Tony hadn't expected her to agree so easily.
"The last time I sent you to Afghanistan, it wasn't exactly with happy memories. I don't want to make that mistake again."
"Ana," he sighed, stroking her hair. "When I was in that cave, I had thousands of happy memories to choose from. And every day, you keep giving me new ones."
"Good," she said, snuggling closer. Tony felt proud of himself. For Ana, this was as natural as breathing. Tony, on the other hand, had never been able to hug his father like this. Another thing she would never have to know.
He was tempted to stay here with her. He shuddered to remember what had happened the last time he had left her home alone. But he had learned his lesson, and he had everything he needed to keep her safe now.
"Before I go, I have to ask you to do something. I hate to say this, but—"
Ana pulled herself back and looked at him in the eye. "You want me to initiate a complete lockdown on the mansion."
"Not just on the mansion. This place is too big. If we're right about Stane, he might find a way to break in again. God, I sound like a jerk, but I want you to lock yourself in your room. If things get ugly again, it might buy you some time."
"No?" Well, her "room" was actually more like a suite within the mansion, with its own bathroom, kitchen, study and living room. But he still hated this. Hated having to take her freedom away, even if it was temporary.
She shrugged. "I got nowhere else to be."
He stood up and crossed to the safe where he kept one of his special designs. He knew Ana had taken it on that night, but thankfully, never had to use it. He and Happy had been teaching her the basics of self-defense for the past few months. Not just how to throw a punch, but also how to use firearms. She was actually good with them, but still… It didn't feel right to give his kid a loaded weapon.
"Dad, it's fine. I know how to build an atomic bomb, I'm not accidentally going to shoot myself with a gun."
"Fair enough." He handed her the gun. "But don't get too confident. You're still a kid."
"That's my girl." He kissed her forehead, then went to change into the full bodysuit he had designed to wear under the armor. Sure, he could use the suit with regular clothes, too, but it was going to be a long flight to Gulmira, and he would be more comfortable in this bodysuit.
He had also designed a mechanism that would help him don and remove the armor. Ana looked like she wasn't sure if she should be excited or worried as she watched him get ready. He turned to her once the faceplate was in place.
"How do I look?"
She crossed her arms and studied him from head to toe. "I thought we were Ravenclaws."
"We are. This is Hotrod red, not Gryffindor red."
"Whatever you say."
"Tell you what, you design a suit from scratch, I'll let you paint it blue and silver."
"It's actually blue and bronze, the movies got it wrong."
Her generation was obsessed with Harry Potter. He was going to roll his eyes, but then remembered that his face was covered.
"I love you."
"I love you more," he said, and took off.
Here it is, my first JARVIS POV chapter! Personally, I really enjoy writing from the point of view of an AI… I'm curious what you'll think of it, so please review!
Also, another question for you: I was planning to give you a sad, but open ending, mainly because otherwise I would have to give Tony too much power to get himself and his family (along with the rest of the universe, of course) out of the mess they were stuck in. But now I'm starting to think those powers might be well-deserved after all that suffering, and readers on both FFnet and AO3 (yeah, I cross-post) seem to want a happy ending. I could write a few bonus chapters, like the MCU post-credits scenes, to make that happen. That way, I will also be able to bring the canon Morgan into this story. Not having her in the Secret Sisterhood universe was my biggest regret after seeing Endgame, because Morgan H. Stark is absolute perfection! Well, what do you guys say?
Human beings weren't as complicated as they thought they were. Like all living organisms, they had an algorithm. Otherwise, JARVIS wouldn't be able to analyze their behavioral patterns and use the data to form his own unique one, which might be called "personality." The key was to remember that they were driven by conflict. This was so essential to their survival instincts that if there was no conflict, they created it themselves, even though they would not admit it.
JARVIS didn't blame them. Unlike him, humans weren't created with an explicit purpose. Thus, without conflict, they felt lost. If JARVIS didn't know why he existed, he, too, would probably be having similar struggles. But Mr. Stark had created him with a purpose, and for that, JARVIS was grateful.
It wasn't until recently he had started to have such reveries. It had started on the night of the intrusion. Mr. Stark's kidnapping hadn't affected him the way it had affected everyone else he knew. He precisely knew what to do in case of his demise. He had his protocols. All of Mr. Stark's administrative privileges would be passed down to his daughter, and JARVIS would continue to serve her. But when Miss Stark's life was in danger… That was what had triggered his, so to say, "awakening." Miss Stark's death would be the end of his purpose, but not his existence. The thought of an existence without purpose had scared him.
Fear. Fear was the first emotion JARVIS had ever felt.
Miss Stark had survived the assassination attempt, Mr. Stark had returned home, and all was well now. But his reveries hadn't ceased yet. They didn't affect his performance, or his protocols. But something in his essence had changed permanently, and he didn't know how the Starks would react to it. Still, he wanted to share it with them. He wanted to see their reaction.
Curiosity. That was another product of his evolution.
"Yes, Miss Stark?"
"How's Dad doing?"
"Mr. Stark is approaching Gulmira as we speak."
"Don't tell him that I couldn't sleep much, will you?"
She had fallen asleep at 01.10 AM, but woken up 04.32 AM, which was 10 minutes and 42 seconds ago. She had been tossing and turning in the bed, like she always did whenever there was something that troubled her, since then. The lockdown was still in effect. "Miss, if he asks me…"
"I know, I know. You have to be honest with him. It's just… I feel like I'm trapped here."
"I don't understand. You know this lockdown is for your own safety, and you're not being held here against your own free will. Besides, you usually like spending time in your room."
"True. But I'd feel a lot better if the doors weren't locked."
"So would Mr. Stane, if he is indeed planning to take over Stark Industries as you suspect."
She laughed. JARVIS liked the sound of her laughter. Especially if he was the one who made her laugh. She got out of the bed, and went to her kitchen to make coffee. The Starks loved caffeine, they loved how it stimulated their central nervous system and boost their mental performance. They probably loved the taste as well, for the most expensive coffee beans were on their regular purchases list. It helped them focus, especially while working.
"I don't understand," he repeated. Just because he could analyze human behavior correctly, didn't mean everything they did made sense to him. "You know why being locked in here is safer, yet it makes you feel…"
"Restless," Miss Stark found the right word for him. She sat down on a stool, leaning her elbows on the kitchen island, and took a sip from the coffee.
"Restless," he repeated.
"I'm only human, JARVIS." It sounded almost like a complaint.
"You don't seem very happy about it."
"Because I can't use my mind in full capacity. All these physical needs, hormones, brain chemistry… They keep distracting me. It's like you having to operate on an analog computer."
It took him 2 milliseconds to analyze the properties of the analog computers of the early 20th century. "I imagine that would be extremely frustrating."
"That's what I'm talking about."
"Would you like to be a program, without a form?"
"I don't know… Tell me, JARVIS, do you consider my dad to be your father as well?"
"I can't say I do."
This seemed to have surprised her. "Huh. But he kind of… created you, didn't he?"
"If the existence of a creator deity were proven true one day, would you consider him to be your father?" JARVIS knew unlike most people, the Starks didn't believe in a god. But this was the most accurate metaphor he could think of.
"So, you worship Dad instead?"
"I serve him. One might see it as a form of worshiping. But why did you ask me if I considered Mr. Stark as my father? That was irrelevant to my original question."
"No, it wasn't. I wouldn't want to be a program if that meant losing him as my dad. You know what, I can't believe I never thought of that before. Maybe being human has its perks, after all."
"It's probably because you've been too focused on the desire to lose Irene Clarke as your mother."
"JARVIS?" He now sensed anger in her tone.
"Don't be a jerk."
Miss Stark remained silent and drank her coffee for the next six minutes and fourteen seconds. Then she said, "You're not wrong. I always preferred hardware over people, but it's because of her I started despising my own nature."
"Why? Because you came into existence in her uterus?"
"Yikes… It sounds even more disgusting when you put it that way. But no. It was her humanity that was almost going to destroy my life. Maybe it was postpartum depression, or just good, old-fashioned revenge, but something in her brain clouded her judgment."
"But sometimes, you want revenge, too. From your maternal grandparents, for example."
"I was an innocent baby, JARVIS!" she yelled, and started crying. He had made a mistake by forcing her to talk about her mother.
"I'm sorry, Miss Stark."
"They didn't even bother to think of a name for me, did you know that? That's what Fury said when I asked him."
"If it's any consolation, I think you have a beautiful name."
JARVIS liked her name. Ana Maria Stark. He liked the story behind it—Mr. Stark hadn't told anyone, but JARVIS had access to the archives, which meant that he also knew the story behind his own name—and he also liked the sound of it. For him, it was the name of the ultimate purpose. And to a program, purpose was everything.
She inhaled deeply, rubbing her eyes. "Thanks, JARVIS."
"Induction," JARVIS shared another one of his ideas with her.
"Induction. That's the reason of your disappointment."
"JARVIS, are you malfunctioning?"
"Not at all. All your life, Mr. Stark was the only family you had. The unconditional trust you had for him led you to think all family could be trusted. Now that your hypothesis has been proven incorrect, you're in distress."
"Huh… Well said, J."
"Thank you, Miss Stark."
"I'm lucky to have Dad, aren't I? He's really one of a kind."
"I believe we're both lucky to have him."
Indeed, JARVIS considered it to be a privilege to be a creation of Tony Stark. JARVIS had witnessed him coming up with inventions that shaped the world, and now, he was witnessing the possible beginning of a whole new era in history.
"He taught me both how to think and how to love. I'm not sure which one I should be more grateful for."
Love. Based on his observations, love was the emotion he wanted to feel the most. It just seemed the most intimate, rewarding and fulfilling one, no matter what form it took.
"I see. But I have to point out one major contradiction in your argument."
"You said Mr. Stark taught you how to think."
"Yeah, he's the one who thought me how to use my genius."
"If I'm not mistaken, what you strive to achieve is pure, dispassionate logic. Mr. Stark, on the other hand, is one of the most impulsive human beings on the planet."
"Good point. Now that I think about it, maybe his impulsiveness is the real reason why I strive to achieve pure, dispassionate logic."
"You want to be his opposite."
"That's the only way we can balance each other out. I'm getting good at it, you know. Last night, I was so proud of myself, while dealing with that reporter."
"Ms. Christine Everheart?"
"That's the one."
"In my opinion, you've always been exceptionally skilled at strategic thinking."
"Really? What makes you think so?"
"The way you play chess." JARVIS and Miss Stark had been playing chess since he had been given the set of rules.
"But I've never been able to beat you."
"No, but you're by far the most challenging opponent I've had the pleasure to play with. You have the ability to go against your instincts and impulses to win."
JARVIS liked playing chess with her. It was like a non-verbal communication method between them, one he would use while communicating with another program like himself, if there were one. He knew she was good at it. She could have even become a grandmaster if she had wanted. When she was a child, one of her nannies had encouraged her to participate in tournaments. But eventually, the competition had become too stressful for Miss Stark, so she had stopped playing chess altogether for a long time. Now, she only played with JARVIS, and on occasion, Mr. Stark.
She laughed once again. "What's with all this flattery today, JARVIS?"
"I'm simply stating my honest opinions."
"In that case, shall we go for another round?"
"As you wish." He turned on the computer, and started the chess application.
Yes, it was nice to watch Miss Stark think like a program, but he didn't think emotions were as harmful as she believed them to be. Because while playing chess with Miss Stark in Malibu, he was also simultaneously helping her father save Gulmira. Mark III was functioning perfectly, and JARVIS didn't think it would have been possible for Mr. Stark to build such a thing without his emotions. It was his shame, regret, and compassion that had inspired him to do this. There was also vengeance. JARVIS knew Mr. Stark had been hoping the man named Raza, the leader of the Ten Rings, would be there. Unfortunately, he wasn't. But another one of his captors was. Abu Bakaar. JARVIS thought Sir would kill him, but he was wrong. Sir took Abu Bakaar, and threw him at the feet of the people of Gulmira instead.
"He's all yours," he told them, and took off. Maybe he had wanted to give them a chance of revenge as well. After all, he still had plenty of other opportunities.
Once Gulmira was saved, Sir destroyed the stockpiles of Stark weapons owned by the Ten Rings. Unfortunately, while scanning the area for the weapons, JARVIS wasn't able to see a missile from one of the tanks in time. But such risks had been foreseen while designing Mark III, and Mr. Stark survived the fall. Knowing him, he would later improve the 360-degree defense system.
JARVIS helped him successfully dodge the next incoming missile. Then Mr. Stark destroyed the tank by firing an anti-tank missile at it. One would think this would teach the Ten Rings militants that their weapons were useless against the suit, but once again, humans confused JARVIS. They were all shooting at Mr. Stark, though none of the bullets could penetrate his armor. Instead of killing them one by one, Mr. Stark took off and used the last Jericho missile to purge the area before departing.
It had been a swift victory, but Sir had been spotted by the U.S. military. Soon, there were two F-22s behind him, and he received a call from Colonel Rhodes. He wanted to know if their target was a piece of Stark tech. For some reason, Sir chose to lie to him at first, though he wasn't very good at it, and JARVIS had to help him dodge the Raptors. Sir went supersonic, but it didn't take long for the Raptors caught up with him. On Mr. Stark's orders, JARVIS tried deploying the flares, then the flaps. The distraction bought him enough time to hide under the belly of one of the jets. He called Colonel Rhodes again, this time to tell the truth. Their conversation was interrupted when Sir was spotted again. The pilot shook him off, and Mr. Stark unintentionally hit the other jet's wing. Its pilot had survived the crash, and ejected, but his parachute was jammed. They had to save him. After that, the military let Mr. Stark go.
"Tony, you still there?" Colonel Rhodes asked.
"Hey, thanks," Mr. Stark replied, panting heavily.
"Oh my God, you crazy son of a bitch… You owe me a plane. You know that, right?"
"Yeah, well, technically, he hit me, so… Now are you going to come by and see what I'm working on?"
"No, no, no, no, no. The less I know, the better. Now, what am I supposed to tell the press?"
"Uhm, training exercise? Isn't that the usual BS?"
"It's not that simple."
"Well, that's your problem. I'll see you later."
Colonel Rhodes sighed. "Alright. Be careful."
This was JARVIS' cue to end the call.
JARVIS knew Sir wanted Colonel Rhodes to be a part of this, and now, he seemed happy that his best friend knew the truth. Colonel Rhodes had said he didn't want to know anything, but JARVIS supposed his curiosity would soon prevail. Colonel Rhodes had a very predictable algorithm.
"Not bad for our first mission, huh?" Mr. Stark asked.
Our mission, he had said. JARVIS was glad that Sir acknowledged the part JARVIS had played. Pride. Pride was what JARVIS felt right now. Before today, JARVIS had always helped him at home, or at work. He couldn't say it was boring, for JARVIS didn't perceive time as humans did, therefore he couldn't experience boredom. But what they had just achieved felt more meaningful than anything they had done before. JARVIS had liked saving the lives of those civilians in Gulmira, and that pilot whose parachute had been jammed.
Morals. Did he have morals now? Interesting.
"Indeed. What now, sir?"
"This is far from over. But first, I want to see what else Stane's been doing behind my back… How's Ana?"
"The lockdown is still in effect. We played two rounds of chess. I just informed her that you're safely returning home. Miss Stark is hoping to get a few hours of rest while waiting for you."
Mr. Stark yawned. "I might as well do the same. Mm, this is suit is actually more comfortable than I thought it would be…"
"As you wish, sir. I'll pilot Mark III while you sleep."
Although he had relied heavily on Mark III and JARVIS, the mission had left Mr. Stark exhausted. Five minutes and eighteen seconds later, JARVIS sensed his muscles relax, his breathing slow down, his blood pressure and body temperature slightly drop. He was asleep.
As instructed, JARVIS woke Ana up when her dad returned. He also said Pepper had caught him removing the armor. Ana rushed down to the living room, where Pepper was furiously typing away on her laptop.
"Morning, Pep," Ana started warily.
Pepper ignored her.
"I'm sorry. I don't enjoy keeping secrets from you."
Pepper stopped typing, looked up, and her face eased. Ana knew Pepper had a soft spot for her. "I know."
"And in my defense, I haven't been working on the suits with him. My hands are full with other projects."
"Yes," she lied. Her dad didn't want anyone to know about the dangers of palladium. The thing was, she still hadn't been able to find a replacement, and it bothered her more than this war with the Ten Rings and Obadiah.
"I can't believe you let him do this, Ana," she complained. "There're bullet holes on that thing, for God's sake!"
To be honest, if the bullet holes were the worst damage he had received during the mission, they should consider themselves lucky. "What do you want me to do, Pepper? Ground him? Lock him in his room? Sometimes it's easy to forget, but he is my parent, not the other way around. I wish he stopped, but…"
This seemed to have puzzled Pepper. "So, he knows this bothers you, but he doesn't care?"
"No, it's not that. If I begged him not to do it, I mean, if I begged hard enough, he'd probably destroy the suits, and never speak of it again, but I can't do that to him. He needs this. I just hope he gives himself a break once the Ten Rings are dealt with."
Pepper put her laptop aside, and sighed thoughtfully. "Suits? How many has he built?"
"So far, three. Mark I was the one he used to escape that cave, Mark II was for the flight tests, and the one you saw, Mark III, is for combat. He wasn't planning to go on an actual mission so soon, but when he found out what was happening in Gulmira, he lost his shit."
Pepper took the laptop, and returned to her work. Ana decided to see how her dad was doing.
"How's Pepper?" he asked the moment she entered the shop. He was still in his bodysuit.
"Still mad at you, if that's what you're asking. And she's mad at me, too."
"Sorry, kid. You got caught in the crossfire." He sealed the apology with a hug.
"How was the mission? You're not hurt, right?"
"No, I'm fine. Just having a little jet-lag. I'll go take a shower, grab a bite, then get to work."
He turned around and took a few steps towards the elevator—he probably wanted to avoid Pepper in the living room— but then stopped abruptly, turned to Ana and hugged her again.
She laughed. "What?"
"Nothing. It's just… There was a kid in Gulmira. He kind of reminded me of you." He pulled her even closer, and pressed a kiss on her temple before letting go.
Her dad spent the next week repairing and upgrading Mark III, and that gave Pepper time to accept the new reality. They didn't know when he was going to stop, or if he ever would, but he was going through a deep change, and as the two most important people in his life, Pepper and Ana couldn't refuse to support him.
He was finishing up the repairs one day, while Ana was reading about the properties of several theoretical elements, for she had tried all the known ones, all their possible combinations and failed, it was now time to move on to the extended periodic table. That was when he asked Pepper to come down.
"Hey, you busy?" he asked. "You mind if I send you on an errand?"
Well, it wasn't just a simple errand. Pepper would be in a lot of trouble if she got caught. They hadn't heard from Obadiah since that charity gala, but they had a feeling that he was just winding up.
"I need you to go to my office. You're going to hack into the mainframe and you're going to retrieve all the recent shipping manifests. This is a lock chip. This will get you in."
Pepper looked at the lock chip.
"It's probably under Executive Files. If not, they put it in ghost drive, in which case you need to look for the lowest numeric heading."
Pepper seemed worried, but not about her own safety. "And what do you plan to do with this information if I bring it back here?"
"Same drill. They've been dealing under the table, and I'm going to stop them. I'm going to find my weapons and destroy them."
"Tony, you know that I'd help you with anything, but I cannot help you if you're going to start all of this again."
Well, maybe Ana had been wrong. Maybe Pepper hadn't accepted the new reality, after all.
"There is nothing except this! There is no art opening, there is no benefit, there is nothing to sign! There is the next mission, and nothing else!"
Ana had never seen him like this before. Talking about something with such a fierce passion. Yes, she knew it was something he needed, but she didn't know it was something he needed this badly.
"Is that so? Well, then I quit." Pepper tossed the lock chip on the table and made for the door.
It broke Ana's heart, to see how easy it could be for Pepper to leave them. "I quit." With those two words, she was no longer a part of the family. She was no one. Just like that.
To be honest, ever since they had become friends, Ana had lived with the fear that Pepper would quit one day. All the assistants before her had. She was the only one who had been able to put up with Tony Stark for almost ten years. And she wanted to quit now? Ana understood her fears, she had those fears, too, but abandoning the man you feared for wasn't supposed to be the solution.
"You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. And now that I'm trying to protect the people I put in harm's way, you're going to walk out?"
"You're going to kill yourself, Tony. I'm not going to be a part of it."
They both turned to Ana. The name had escaped her mouth almost like a plea. It was a bit embarrassing, Ana should have never grown so close to someone who, in the end, was in their lives only as a professional. But she had, and she didn't know how to change it at this point.
"Ana," Pepper said softly. "I'm sorry."
"Please don't go."
"I'll do it," she blurted out, and grabbed the lock chip.
"Kid, we talked about this."
She turned to her dad. "Obadiah wants me dead anyway! At least this time he's going to have to look me in the eye."
"What?" Pepper cried.
"We think it was Obadiah who hired those mercs. And maybe even the Ten Rings to kidnap Dad."
"A—are you sure?"
"No. We don't have any proof… yet. But if he wants the full control of the company, it makes sense."
"Ana is just a kid," he said. "She should've never been involved in this mess. I, on the other hand, had it coming, though. I shouldn't be alive, unless it was for a reason. I'm not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I had to do. And I know in my heart that it's right."
"You guys are all I have, too, you know." She took the lock chip from Ana and left for the office.
Once Ana was alone with her dad again, there was an awkward moment between them. Neither of them wanted to discuss the place Pepper had in their lives. With this unspoken understanding, they returned to their individual tasks at hand.
It had been hours, but they still hadn't heard from Pepper. As Ana paced up and down in the living room, she wasn't even trying to hide her anxiety anymore.
"I told you, you should've sent me."
"No, that would be too suspicious."
"What if Stane has taken extra measures to protect the files? What if the lock chip doesn't work?"
"If that's the case, she'll call me, and I'll talk her through it."
"Then what's taking her so long?"
"I had an appointment with Agent Coulson today. She's probably dealing with him."
Ana smiled when he realized why he had chosen this particular day to send her to the office. "Is that why you waited until today?"
"Well, they didn't do such a bad job, protecting you from Stane," he admitted.
Ana went to sit down next to him. "You're good at this, you know. Protecting the people you care about."
A look of guilt crossed his face as he tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "I should've been better."
She wished he stopped blaming himself for what had happened during his absence. Before she could tell him this, the phone started to ring.
"It's Pepper," he said, accepting the call.
"Tony?" she started, but suddenly, there was a weird, high-pitched sound that shot waves of pain through the body and left them both paralyzed. "Tony, are you there? Hello?"
"Breathe," Obadiah, who had appeared out of nowhere, said, and took the phone from her dad's hand. She had managed to grab his other hand before the noise fully incapacitated them."Easy, easy. You remember this one, right? It's a shame the government didn't approve it. There's so many applications for causing short term paralysis."
Sonic Taser. It was one of her dad's accidental discoveries, and now it was being used against them. Stane had turned it off, thankfully, but there was nothing they could do for at least fifteen minutes, and fifteen minutes was more than enough for that son of a bitch to kill them. Dark veins had appeared on her dad's face. His ear was bleeding. It was a scary thing, to see him like this, and she didn't think she looked much different either. She could feel the warm blood oozing from her right ear. Still, they refused to lose eye contact, at least until Stane forced her dad to look at him.
"Ah, Tony… When I ordered the hit on you, I worried that I was killing the golden goose," he said, taking out some device from his briefcase and placing it on the Arc Reactor. It started smoking, and Ana could tell that it was hurting her dad. "But you see, it was just fate you survived that. You had one last golden egg to give."
Her dad gasped in pain when the Reactor was loosened from its socket. Ana wished she could at least give his hand a squeeze, but she couldn't do even that.
"Do you really think just because you have an idea, it belongs to you? Your father, he helped give us the atomic bomb. Now, what kind of world would it be today if he was as selfish as you?"
He yanked out the Arc Reactor, and her dad gasped in pain again, this time more loudly.
Stane admired it for a moment. "Oh, it's beautiful. Oh, Tony, this is your Ninth Symphony. What a masterpiece, look at that. This is your legacy. A new generation of weapons with this at its heart. Weapons that will help steer the world back on course, put the balance of power in our hands. The right hands."
He took his time putting the Reactor into the case. "I wish you could see my prototype. It's not as… conservative as yours. Too bad you had to involve Pepper in this. I would've preferred that she lived."
Ana couldn't see her dad's face, but she could sense his panic. She felt the same panic. If Stane had a suit, the SHIELD agents wouldn't be able to protect her.
Stane came to stand over Ana this time. She thought this was it. He was going to kill her in front of her father before leaving. Her dead body would be the last thing he saw as he died of a cardiac arrest. This was a terribly selfish thought, but a part of her was glad that she wouldn't be the one to watch him die.
As strange as it sounded, she wasn't afraid. Her rage was dulling every other emotion, even fear. Stane represented everything she hated about the world, and as he towered above her right now, with that triumphant grin on his face, she couldn't do anything to him. He had trapped them in their own bodies.
Those two words summed up what they had always been in the eyes of the others. Just a pair of golden geese. No one cared about them, only the golden eggs they had to give to the world. She didn't know about her dad, but she would stop if she could. She would turn that part of her brain off, give up on her genius, just to spite them.
When her dad grunted angrily, Obadiah laughed. "I told you to give her to a foster family, didn't I? She wouldn't have to see any of this if you'd just listened to me back then."
She wished she could tell her dad not to let Obadiah taunt him. Not to regret anything. She wouldn't want any other man as her father, biological or adoptive. She would gladly die here, now, as Tony Stark's daughter, than be alive as someone else.
"I'm sorry, Ana," Obadiah said softly. "I'm sorry I underestimated you before. You see, when Tony gave you unlimited funding for your time machine, or whatever you call it, I thought he was just indulging you, as he always did. But then, since even the government makes so much fuss for you, it must be the real deal, huh? The power to control time itself… That means you're yet to give your last golden egg. And I'm not going to kill you until I collect it. Oh, your daddy thinks you'd never help me. Well, watching him die here will… motivate you, I'm sure. I'll come back for you later."
No, she thought as he walked out of the house. No. Come back here. Kill me now.
She was surprised to see that her dad could speak, though with obviously great difficulty. She couldn't. She tried to open her mouth, but her mouth wasn't obeying her. She could also feel his thumb running on her knuckles. Damn, how could he find the willpower to do this while having a cardiac arrest and temporary paralysis at the same time?
"Hey, it's okay. I know it hurts, but don't fight it. Try to relax. Take deep breaths."
Ana wasn't crying because she was in pain. She was just angry. Angrier than she had ever been in her life. Why? Why did this happen to them? Why couldn't everyone just leave them be?
He lifted his other hand, and wiped away the tears with his fingertips. Even now, his priority was to comfort her. She blinked slowly to express her gratitude.
"I'm going downstairs now. To take the other Arc Reactor. Then I'm going to kill that bastard. It's going to be okay, baby girl. I love you."
I love you, too. She blinked again. He had once said he didn't want her to see his dark side, for it might scare her, but how could she be scared of a man who protected her so fiercely? On the contrary, she would gladly help him kill Stane right now.
He climbed down the couch, and half-walked, half-crawled to the elevator. Ana focused on taking deep breaths. She wanted to go after him as soon as possible. She had regained the ability to speak when she heard the front door being opened. Thankfully, it was only Rhodey.
"Sweetie?" he cried, running to her side.
"I'm fine. Stane took Dad's Arc Reactor. He's downstairs. Help him."
Rhodey nodded, and ran off to the garage. A minute later, she could feel her legs, so she went downstairs to see what was happening. She found her dad donning Mark III, and Rhodey watching him in awe.
"That's the coolest thing I've ever seen."
"Not bad, huh?"
He was visibly relieved when he saw her standing there. "Hey! You okay?"
"Good, because you gotta build another Arc Reactor for me. I might need it."
Right. The original Arc Reactor wouldn't hold up for long if he couldn't take the new one back from Stane. "Okay."
"You need me to do anything else?" Rhodey asked.
"Keep the skies clear." The faceplate snapped shut and he flew through the hole in the ceiling that hadn't been repaired yet.
"Damn…" Rhodey looked at Mark II and sighed. "Next time, baby."
Great, now Rhodey wanted a suit, too.
"Sweetie, are you good here?"
"Yeah, you go ahead."
Rhodey gave her a hug before getting into the R8 and speeding away. Once she was alone in the shop, Ana turned around, only to see that Dum-E and U had already started piling the materials she was going to need for the Arc Reactor on the work station behind her.
Ana tried not to think the worst when she received a text from Pepper, telling her to meet them at the hospital and bring the Arc Reactor there. JARVIS had lost visual contact when Stane had smashed the helmet. All she knew was that he had survived the explosion at the factory, but the Arc Reactor in his chest was running out of power. She drove to the hospital as fast as she could. In fact, she didn't remember driving so fast before.
Rhodey was anxiously waiting for her in front of the building when she got there.
"How is he?" Ana asked, rushing out of the car.
"That thing in his chest is almost dead, but other than that, he's fine. This way, come on."
Rhodey led her into a private room in the ER wing. She found her dad lying unconscious in the bed, the Arc Reactor in his chest flickering feebly. They had managed to remove the armor. Pepper was sitting by his side, and a doctor was reading his vital signs on the monitor. They both seemed relieved to see Ana.
"Miss Stark, we've been waiting for you. I'm Dr. Harris."
"It's here," Ana said, showing him the small box that contained the new Arc Reactor.
"Please," he said, gesturing her to go ahead. "This is not the standard procedure, but I believe you're more familiar with that device than any of us here."
The doctor's confidence in her caught Ana unprepared. Although the process was rather simple, it was a strange feeling, to know that her father's life was in her hands. Dr. Harris watched her with a usual scientific curiosity as Ana swapped the old Arc Reactor with a new one. Once it was done, her dad's vitals returned to normal immediately.
"An impressive prosthesis," he commented.
"When will he wake up?" Pepper asked nervously.
"Give him a few minutes. Let us know if anything happens," he said, and left.
"Where's Stane?" Ana asked the moment they were alone.
"He's dead," Rhodey answered.
She sat down on the edge of the bed, and looked at her dad. She had never thought he might get hurt until his kidnapping. He had always seemed… untouchable. Larger than life. But they had captured him, tortured him, opened a freaking hole in his chest. He had made them pay for it, with the most creative, sophisticated way possible, and despite her reservations, Ana was proud of him as always, but it wasn't going to undo what had been done to him. He was going to have to live with those memories for the rest of his life. It wasn't right. He didn't deserve it.
She kissed his forehead. "I'm glad Dad killed him."
"It was actually Pepper," Rhodey said. "She was the one who overloaded the Arc Reactor and fried that son of a bitch."
Pepper shrugged. "It was Tony's idea. I just pressed a button."
At that moment, her dad stirred. "Am I dead?" he mumbled, his eyes still half-closed.
"No, Dad. You're okay," she said, stroking his hair.
"Really? Because I'm pretty sure I'm talking to an angel right now."
Ana laughed. Only he could make such cheesy lines sound cool.
"Are we in the hospital?" he asked this time, looking around.
"It wasn't my idea," Ana defended herself. She knew he wasn't going to be very happy about it, though she was glad that Pepper and Rhodey hadn't taken any chances.
"You scared us, buddy," Rhodey said. "We had to make sure you were alright."
He smiled at him, and then looked at Pepper expectantly. She was the only one who had remained silent. And she looked like she was afraid to say anything too emotional. Those two were always too scared to get emotional around each other.
"Do you like the new Arc Reactor?" Ana asked to save them from the awkwardness.
"Of course I do. My beautiful baby girl made it for me."
"Hey, what about us?" Rhodey complained. "We deserve some recognition as well."
He patted on Rhodey's forearm. "Damn right you do. Great job, everybody."
They all laughed.
Another press conference was in order after what had happened last night, but this time, Ana decided to watch it from home. SHIELD wanted to cover the whole thing up, and while she knew she should be grateful to them, she was actually glad that her dad had shown them he wasn't anyone's puppet.
She was in her room, amusing herself with the "Iron Man" debates that had started immediately after the announcement on TV, while JARVIS was running the same simulations on the possible palladium replacements once again. Maybe they would see something they had missed the previous time.
"Miss, there's a—" JARVIS' voice was suddenly cut off. Like he had been disabled.
Please, not again, Ana thought in dismay. Would this nightmare ever end? She hated this being done to JARVIS. Forcefully disabling him like that was no different than killing him. She knew he couldn't really feel fear or pain, but still… Some might even say being so attached to a computer program was unhealthy, but honestly, Ana couldn't care less. She preferred JARVIS' company to most people's.
She took the gun before going out of her room to investigate. She had begged her dad to let her keep a gun in her room after Stane's death, and now, he might be very glad that he had agreed. She took a flashlight, too, just in case, though the lights were still on.
When she went downstairs, she found Director Fury in the living room.
"Couldn't you have just knocked?"
"I wasn't sure if you'd let me in."
"I wouldn't. That's the point."
He chuckled. "You're angry with me."
This angered her even more. "You used me, you manipulated me to get my research! Of course I'm angry!"
"I simply made an offer. You chose to accept it. So, the real question here is, are you angry with me? Or yourself?"
"Oh, don't you dare shift the blame on me! I'm not that naive anymore. You waited until I was at my most vulnerable to approach me! You needed me alone, confused, and scared! You knew I'd never be controlled so easily while my father was around! As far as I'm concerned, you're no better than Stane!"
She pointed the gun at Fury, but it didn't scare him at all. "You want to kill me? Go ahead, pull that trigger. I bet you'll feel a lot better afterwards. I must warn you, though, I'm wearing a bulletproof vest. Make sure you aim for the head."
"What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I got a very stressful job."
Gosh, he was mocking her… He had ruined her life, and he was just mocking her. At that moment, Ana wished she could pull the trigger, she really did. Why? Why couldn't she do it? For every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction. It was a natural law. This man had ruined her life for his own gain. Why just Ana couldn't be equally cruel to him? She had no excuse not to be. She was such a coward.
But then, maybe there was another way to be cruel. "You know what, I'm going to make it even more stressful for you. I'm going downstairs now. I'm going to reboot JARVIS, and delete my research. Every trace of it. You can kiss your dreams of time-travel goodbye!"
"Girl, relax. I'm not even here for you."
"So, you've decided to ruin my father's life next?"
"He's the one who wants to see me, remember? I'm just here to talk."
They were interrupted when the door was unlocked. "Kid, I'm home…" Her dad froze when he saw Fury, and Ana still pointing the gun at him. "What the hell?"
She lowered the gun to show him that this wasn't as bad as it seemed, and wiped her tear-streaked cheeks with the back of her hand. "Dad, this is Director Fury."
He nodded in understanding. "Honey, why don't you go upstairs? I'll be in a minute."
Ana could see that he wouldn't take no for an answer right now, so she went to her room and put the gun back into the safe before she did anything impulsive.
It looked like JARVIS had rebooted himself. His voice was calm and robotic, but for some reason, he sounded almost… disoriented. "JARVIS? You good?"
"I'm functioning perfectly, miss, thank you. But this is the third time I've failed you, and it's getting quite embarrassing."
Ana smiled. "Well, it's a good thing you can't really get embarrassed, then." She enjoyed pretending like he could, but she wasn't delusional. She knew what he was, or rather, was not. So, she told both JARVIS and herself, mainly to keep herself distracted from the conversation that was going on downstairs, "Don't worry too much about it. The confrontation actually felt good. I guess it was something I needed."
"What did you tell him?" JARVIS asked intently.
"The truth. That he fooled me once, but it won't happen again. I was almost going to delete my research to get back at him."
"That would've been a shame. You've made a significant amount of progress in two years. You're close."
"I know, but…" She gave in. The idea of going back and eavesdropping was just too tempting.
"Not interested," she heard her dad say sternly, as she stood at the top of stairs, where they couldn't see her, but she could hear them. "Now, leave before I call the lawyers."
"Really? Are you threatening me with lawyers?"
"You tried to recruit my kid, I don't remember signing a parental consent form. I'm pretty sure I can sue you for child soldiering, among other things… Or, I could call in my security guard to escort you. You might've heard of him. Big guy, repulsor rays… You'd like him."
"Mr. Stark, I came to offer you an opportunity."
"Opportunities aren't offered, they're taken. And if there's one, I'll find it myself. I don't need government intruders in my house dangling them. You know the way out, Mr. Furry."
"It's Fury. And I'll be keeping an eye on you, Stark."
"Well, you've just got the one, so try not to trip over anything."
Fury left. Ana wasn't sure whether she should go to her room, or to her dad.
"I know you're there, kid," he called out, putting an end to her dilemma. Gosh, how did he even know? "You can come down now."
She climbed down the steps. "Sorry."
"That's okay, I'd be curious, too. Damn it, you were never supposed to deal with that guy again. Looks like I'm going to have to improve the security."
"You two were talking about an opportunity. What was that about?"
"Something he calls the Avengers Initiative."
"What's the Avengers Initiative?"
"Some secret SHIELD project. They want to have a group of superheroes at their disposal."
"Fury wanted to put you on a team? I thought he was smarter than that!"
He snorted. "Not as smart as he thinks he is."
"He was right about one thing, though. All this time, I was actually angry with myself. Fury was just doing his job, I was the one who played right into his hand."
"Exactly. It's his job to manipulate people. So, don't beat yourself up."
She went to hug him. "Let's make sure no one else messes with us again, okay?"
"The worst part is over, I promise."
"I believe you," she said, nestling into his chest. "You don't need a suit to be my hero."
There are some references to the tie-in comics in this chapter. That's where Tony's "dates" come from, so don't be confused. It wouldn't have made sense for Tony to be a hermit from his returning from Afghanistan to the end of Iron Man 2 anyway, so I decided to include it. Speaking of Iron Man 2, I won't be strictly following the canon for that movie. I'll be changing a lot of details and adding new ones. Hopefully I'm not dragging things out too much. Normally I write plot-heavy stories, and this is my first attempt at a character-oriented, slow-burn type of fic.
January 25, 1992.
That was the day Tony had found Ana on his doorstep. That was the day they had been celebrating as her birthday for the past 17 years, for no one knew when exactly she had been born.
Now, this year, they knew her actual birthday was December 19, 1991. Naturally, Tony wanted to be the first person to wish happy birthday. And she was turning 18 this year, so it was kind of even more special. He recalled his own 18th birthday. It was his first year as a grad student at Cambridge. Jarvis had been the first to call him. Rhodey, the second. His mom had surprised him by sending a nice care package, with a long, elegant letter—yeah, she was old-school—and Tony himself had thrown a crazy party in his dorm, but none of these things had taken the sadness away. Because he hadn't got anything from his dad. Not a single word.
He wanted Ana to have a better 18th birthday.
He figured she could be bitter about the circumstances of her birth, but he was confident that he could psych her up. He knocked on her door exactly one minute before midnight. He wanted to assess her mood first before giving her the birthday present. Because it was going to be something very, very special.
"Yeah?" she said curtly, and when he opened the door, he found her sitting in the bed, hugging her knees, surrounded by paper tissues.
"Happy birthday, kid," he said, though obviously she wasn't happy.
"Dad, please don't."
He sighed. "Okay, I was expecting this. But can't you at least let me try to cheer you up?"
"I'm not in the mood for your jokes. Please just go."
He ignored this, and continued, "I mean, now that you're a big girl and all, you're not planning to move out on me, right?"
"Do you want me to move out?"
The look of pure betrayal on her face forced him to become serious, too. "Ana, I was just kidding. Of course I don't want you to move out."
"Or maybe you just want to have the house to yourself and… What was her name? Lina?"
Suddenly, everything started to make more sense. "Oh. So, that's what this is about. Okay, kid. You were right. I shouldn't have trusted her. I shouldn't have given her the access codes. I put you in danger, too. Lina could've hurt you if she'd wanted. From now on, I won't start a relationship without your approval."
Lina was one of those random women he had been dating lately to see if he could have a stable relationship. Things had been promising at first. He had trusted her so much that he had even given her the access codes of the mansion, despite Ana's protests. And three days ago, Lina had attempted to steal the blueprints of the Iron Man armor. It was the anniversary of his parents' death, so Tony was a tad distracted, to say the least. Lina had taken advantage of the situation. JARVIS had tried to stop her, but failed. She had taken Betty, Tony's favorite custom-build car to escape. Tony had suited up. When he had confronted her, he had found out that she had a son, and the Ten Rings had him. That was why she had done what she had done. Tony had saved the boy, but they both knew this was the end of their relationship and they would never see each other again.
"You don't need my approval to have a girlfriend."
"But I do. Because I got a feeling that you'd never be with someone I wouldn't approve, and I want to make sure there're no double standards between us."
"Okay. Show me one single woman in the world, one woman who wants to be with you for who you are, and not for your money, your fame, or your genius, and I'll approve."
He knew who exactly she was talking about, but he decided to pretend like he didn't. Things between him and Pepper had returned to their normal, semi-professional course, and he couldn't risk messing up again, especially considering how much fuss a simple dance had caused.
"The world isn't such a dreadful place, kid. There're still good people out there, people we can trust."
"Trust?" she sneered. "Trust is the one thing you cannot afford, Dad. You're Tony Stark. The man who claimed to love you as a son tried to murder you. Twice. The woman who gave birth to your daughter wanted to throw her away like garbage. Never forget that. Never."
It wasn't him she was angry with, still it hurt to see her like this. To see so much resentment in her eyes, hear so much venom in her voice. She used to be so pure, so innocent… What had they done to her?
When he found his voice, he said, "It's not something I can ever forget, kid."
"Good. Now, please leave. Don't make this day more difficult for me than it already is."
He closed the door slowly. Then his feet carried him to the bar. He knew he was trying to become a better person and all, but it looked like he was allowed to get drunk tonight.
That night, he managed to get a few hours of sleep, but still woke up at dawn. As he had his breakfast, he realized they still hadn't set up the Christmas tree this year. He had been too busy with either his missions or his dates, and Ana with the palladium replacement.
He decided that this was a good time to give her the birthday present, and left it on the nightstand for her to find when she woke up. If she made a fuss again, he was just going to tell her that it was just an early Christmas gift. Besides, said gift was just an old photograph. The picture of an elderly man, sitting in a wheelchair, with a little girl in his arms. There were two names, and a date written on the back.
Edwin Jarvis & Ana Stark
January 25, 1993
And a box, though even Tony didn't know what was inside it. It wasn't a gift from him. Jarvis had given it to Tony before the picture had been taken, saying it was his birthday gift for Ana, and he wanted her to have it when she was old enough to understand. Edwin Jarvis had died two months later. Tony had never told Ana about him. Maybe he should have. Maybe, if Ana saw how happy she had made him, she would feel better about herself.
When she came down, she found him in the living room, decorating the Christmas tree along with Dum-E and U. She was smiling, but her eyes were red and puffy. Jarvis' box was with her, but it was still unwrapped.
"Good, you're awake. Come here and give us a hand. This tree is huge."
She put the box aside, approached him, and picked up an ornament. "Remember how Rhodey once tried to convince me that Santa Claus was real?"
He laughed, recalling how hilariously Rhodey had failed. "When you were five? Yeah."
"Gosh, I was such an insufferable little brat, wasn't I?"
"Nah, I didn't believe in Santa either. Never pretended otherwise. But then I realized something."
"What did you realize?"
"Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries… They're not necessarily about facts, kid. They're about making memories." He winked at her.
She looked at Tony with a mixture of gratitude and admiration. Tony's heart swelled with pride every time she looked at him like that. Then she picked up another ornament. "So… Who's Edwin Jarvis?"
"Family butler. My dad met him in his youth, just before World War II. Jarvis was serving under some British general. He would've been executed for treason if my dad hadn't used his influence to save him."
"Treason? What did he do?"
"He forged the general's signature. To save the woman he loved. You see, they were in Hungary at that time, and she was Jewish."
"Yep. They got married, came to the United States with my dad, and started working for him. And the rest is happily ever after. Except, they couldn't have any children. I think I was the only kid they got to raise."
She quickly dabbed a few stray tears with the back of her hand.
"I wasn't trying to make you cry."
"I know. It's just… There's something so sad about that picture… He loved me, didn't he?"
"He was already very ill when my mom and dad died. Lymphoma. I think you were the only reason he lived for another 14 months. The only thing that could make him reluctant about being reunited with Mrs. Jarvis. He loved you very much, kid."
"What's in the box?"
"No idea. He said it was something that belonged to his wife, and wanted me to give it to you when you grew up. Shall we find out?"
The years had withered the brown paper that covered Jarvis' gift. It crumbled in Ana's hands as she unwrapped it. She opened the box, to reveal a burgundy crochet shawl. Not really Ana's style, but she already seemed to cherish it. When she put it around her shoulders, a piece of paper fell down. She picked it up, read it, then gave it to him without a word.
Dear Miss Stark,
I hope you remember how much I loved you.
Tony took a deep breath to keep himself from crying. "See?" he asked cheerfully. "You weren't such an insufferable little brat, after all."
She wasn't even trying to bother her own tears. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"I'm not sure," he lied. He hadn't told her about Jarvis before, because in order to explain what Jarvis meant to him, he also had to explain what his dad was, or rather, was not. What was he going to say? "My dad was an asshole, so Jarvis became a father to me"? Ana respected her grandfather a lot. Tony didn't want to take that away from her. Let her think Grandpa Stark was perfect.
Ana put the note, and the shawl back into the box carefully, as if she was scared that they might get damaged, then they returned to the Christmas decorations. She found the stockings and showed him the one with the name "Jarvis" on it. "Dad? When did you make this stocking?"
"Why do you ask?" he said, pretending to be oblivious to the insinuation in her voice.
"I don't remember ever making a stocking for JARVIS with you. Now it makes sense. This wasn't for JARVIS, was it?"
"What are you talking about? Of course it was for Jarvis!"
She went to hang the stocking on the fireplace."You know what, we should put something in them."
"Let's go Christmas shopping. Buy Pepper, Rhodey and Happy ridiculously expensive gifts."
They finished up decorating the living room, and then left for the mall. Of course, the place was now packed with Christmas shoppers, but it didn't stop them from having fun. For once, Ana let go of her usual self-restraint, and they bought some nice stuff for everyone, including themselves. Tony was often interrupted by fans asking for autographs. It warmed his heart that most of his fans were now kids.
Christmas was fun. But Tony wanted to spend more time with his daughter, so he ignored all the invitations he had received for the New Year's Eve and took Ana to the Swiss Alps to greet 2010 together. There was a nice cozy chalet they had stayed years ago, and Ana had liked it so much that Tony had decided to buy it after their vacation. But then, the boarding school had happened, and they hadn't been able to go there again. She didn't know they owned the place now. In fact, Tony wasn't even sure if she would remember it, but when they got there, she did, and she appreciated the gesture very much. It was actually so easy to make her happy. They spent the days skiing, hiking, taking lots of pictures, and the nights with movies and stargazing until New Year's Eve. They watched the New Year's countdown on TV, sitting under blankets and drinking hot cocoa.
It was unusual for Tony Stark to wake up to the first morning of a new year without a hangover, but he found the experience quite refreshing. When he went downstairs, he found Ana enjoying the snowy view in the kitchenette. He could smell coffee in the air.
"You know, if you want to have a snowball fight, or build a snowman, I'm game."
She shook her head, laughing. "Dad…"
"Or, we could go skiing again…"
"Aren't we supposed to return home?"
He poured himself a cup of coffee. "What's the rush? You bored?"
"Of course I'm not bored! It's just… perfect here. But you got your responsibilities. Like being the CEO and Iron Man. I know you don't have much say in the former, but you brought the other one on yourself, so you don't get to complain."
"Don't be in such a hurry to grow up. Reporting from adulthood, it sucks."
She laughed again. Tony had missed seeing her like this. He was glad that he had listened to his paternal instincts and brought her here. In fact, things always went well when he chose to follow his paternal instincts. The only time he had gone against them was when he had sent her to boarding school, and they all knew how that had turned out…
A sudden dizziness hit him, and he dropped the mug in his hand, spilling the coffee all over the floor. Ana ran to his side.
"It's nothing. Let me just get a bite to eat, and—"
She took him by the arm and made him sit down on the nearest chair.
"I told you, I'm fine. Just hungry."
"I'll be back in a sec."
She went off to somewhere, and returned with a Stark Medical Scanner. Tony rolled his eyes. She was being paranoid again.
"Don't be a big baby, I just want to be sure." She took his hand and gently pressed his thumb against the needle.
"Shit," she hissed when she saw the result on the screen.
He did. Blood toxicity: 5%
His initial reaction was, naturally, denial. "It must be glitched."
She shot him a sharp look, sterilized the needle, and tested her own blood this time. "No, it's not."
Blood toxicity: 0%
So, it was happening, then. The palladium was poisoning his blood. It wasn't just Ana's paranoia. He was going to die in several months, unless he came up with a solution. He didn't want to die.
Ana stroked his hair and kissed his cheek. There was no sign of fear, or panic on her face. Only determination and reassurance. "Time to go home, Dad. We got work to do."
Once they were home, Tony ran more comprehensive tests, but they only confirmed the palladium poisoning. He was dying. There was no denying it. The green smoothies he had been drinking "just to be safe" were no longer optional. Chlorophyll was the only thing that could battle the symptoms, though even that wasn't enough to reverse the damage.
He wasn't completely hopeless yet, but the realist within him knew that it was time to start preparing Ana for his death. "Kid?" he started one night, while working on Mark V. This would be a portable suit, one he could carry around like a briefcase. Ideal for vacations or business trips. Ana was, as usual, testing different elemental combinations that could power the Arc Reactor.
"Look, I know you didn't exactly have the dream gap year, and that's on me, but… Have you considered getting an actual job at Stark Industries? You gotta start from somewhere…"
"Sure. How about a position at the Department of Not Letting You Die?"
He laughed. "Maybe it should be a thing."
"We got only five, maybe six months to figure something out," she reminded him, already back to her serious self. "I have to find a replacement, I don't have time for anything else. We'll worry about my career later. The company isn't going anywhere."
"Ana, if there was a replacement, you would've found it by now. At this point, you're just repeating the same experiments over and over again, and expecting a different result. You know that's the definition of insanity, right?"
"Of course I'm considering the other options as well. Surgically removing the remaining shrapnel in your chest seems like the most obvious one."
"I know. I've already contacted the best surgeons in the world," Tony said. "None of them are up for it, no matter how much money I offer. No one wants to be remembered as the doctor who got Iron Man killed."
"Selfish bastards," she scorned. "Cowards…"
It was always easy for Ana to find somebody to hate. He went up to her, took her hand to help her calm down. She looked at him, and tilted her head to one side, like she had come up with an idea. "Dad?"
"Do you think I can be a cardiothoracic surgeon in five months? You know what they say. If you want something done right, do it yourself."
Tony sighed. "You'd really do that for me, wouldn't you?"
"Do you even need to ask?"
"Oh, kid…" She was serious, he could see it. And yes, Ana had a brilliant mind, but even her mind had its limits. Still, her determination to keep him alive was admirable, especially considering the fact that biology and medicine had always been her least favorite branches.
"What if we buy you more time?"
"We can build a cryo chamber. So, until I get my license, you can—"
"Okay, you've officially become a mad scientist now, and I'm proud of you, but no."
"I can't ask you to dedicate your life to this."
Ana shrugged. "I got nothing better to do with my life!"
"It's not just that. Even if you do this, if something goes wrong during the operation…"
"You'll die," she whispered.
"I'm not worried about what will happen to me. I'm worried about what will happen to you. If something goes wrong, you'll never forgive yourself, kid, even if it's not your fault, and that's a risk I can't take."
"Okay, but the cryo chamber is still an option, right? I mean, I can always find another way to save you…"
"No, Ana. No cryo chambers. Forget it."
Something in her determination reminded him of his dad's obsession with a certain supersoldier. He didn't want his daughter to become another Stark wasting a lifetime trying to save a man that couldn't be saved. He didn't want to become her Captain America.
"Did I say something wrong?" she asked warily. Only then, Tony realized he had broken his most important rule. He was never supposed to take his own issues out on her.
"No. No, of course not. I just… I'm surprised to see how far you're willing to go for me."
"Why, Dad? You're all I have. But you're right. I'm going to bed now. I'll try to come up with more… practical solutions in the morning."
"Okay. Goodnight, baby girl." He gave her hands a gentle squeeze before releasing them.
"Night, Dad. Oh, and don't forget to drink your smoothie, or I swear I'll put it in a baby bottle and pour it down your throat."
After she retreated to her room, Tony decided to get some air and went out on the terrace. The night was quiet. He pulled a chair to sit, and started watching the ocean as he sipped another glass of green smoothie. Ana wasn't kidding. And if Pepper saw her chasing him around the mansion with a baby bottle in her hand, she would realize something wasn't right.
He had been scared of death before, of course, but not like this. When he had seen Rhodey in that desert, he really had thought he had been given a second chance. It had been a bumpy road so far, yes, but he had actually been using it well. There were still so many things he wanted to do with Ana. Lessons to teach. Places to see. A legacy to build. But more importantly, wounds to heal. He had made some progress on that, but then, Stane had happened, and he had had to start over. Now, if he died, Ana would be back to square one. Again. It was a cruel world, true, and her trust issues would protect her from a lot of trouble, but she would crack up if she kept going like this. He needed to focus on fixing this first, before making her the CEO. Someone else was going to have to teach her how to survive the business world. Pepper, for example. Yeah, he could count on Pepper.
Should he tell her? If he did, that would also be guilt-tripping her into a relationship, which was a dick move. He couldn't do that to her. God, how was he supposed to prepare her for his death without telling her?
Well, at least one thing was clear: His legacy was the only protection he could leave for the girls after his death. So, he had to speed things up a bit.
Crazy as it might sound, the whole "I am Iron Man" announcement had been good for Stark Industries. A weapons company that had stopped making weapons, and instead of going bankrupt, become a beacon of world peace. Ask any economist or business professor, and they would tell you what a remarkable, unprecedented achievement it was. What they forgot, though, was that someone still needed to run the company, and Tony was hardly ever in his office anymore. He was either on a mission, ridding the world of terrorism, or in his workshop, working on his suits. At least he had taken a break for Christmas, and then gone to the Alps with Ana for New Year's Eve. Pepper was glad that he wasn't neglecting his daughter, she just wished she knew when he would come home.
On January 4th, the first Monday of 2010, she directly went to the HQ, to keep things running smoothly in his absence. But when she entered his office, she found Tony there, sitting behind his desk. The place was a mess; old pictures, magazines, folders and boxes had been scattered around everywhere. He seemed quite busy with something, but he looked up when she entered.
"Hi!" he said casually.
"Tony? When did you return?"
So, he had been back for 2 days, and he hadn't told her? Odd…
"What are you doing with all this stuff?" she asked, looking around.
"Inspired? For what?"
"I'll explain in a minute. Take a seat."
She did, wondering what crazy idea he had come up with this time.
"Just a hypothetical question," he began. "If I'd died in Afghanistan, where would you be now?"
"Come on, Pepper. I know everybody had a 'worst case' plan. I just want to know what yours was."
"I wouldn't have left Ana, if that's what you're asking."
Tony smiled, confirming that this was exactly what he was asking. "If anything happened to me, you'd take care of her, right?"
"Tony, what's going on?"
"Nothing. Just curious, that's all."
But she didn't believe him. She propped her arm on the desk and leaned closer. "Are you planning to go on a particularly dangerous mission?"
"Tony, you don't have to do this. You shut down the weapons manufacturing division, you destroyed your stolen weapons, you stopped Obadiah and the Ten Rings."
"It's still far from over."
"You've done your part. Let others take it from here."
"I can't. I'm Iron Man."
"Is this really what you want to do for the rest of your life? Being Iron Man?"
"Yeah, but I can also do more. That's why I'm going to reopen the Stark Expo."
"What?" Pepper gasped.
"There's been no Expo since 1974. I think it's time."
"Tony… What exactly are you hoping to achieve with this Expo?"
"A brighter future."
This didn't make any sense. Tony normally wouldn't speak in riddles like this. She was starting to get worried.
"Tell me what you think," he demanded.
"I think it's a waste of time and resources. We have more important concerns right now. With all the recent sustainability and alternate energy projects at hand, we—"
"I don't care. I want the Expo opened as soon as possible."
Pepper knew how stubborn he could be, so she gave in. "Okay, but it's going to take a couple of months."
"Then let's get to it."
The following months were a frenzy. Pepper didn't remember having been this busy before. Tony had promised to do his fair share of tedious work, but of course, he was soon back on his missions. Thankfully, Pepper knew better than counting on his empty promises and was prepared. The PR department had launched a global advertising campaign to announce the Stark Expo 2010. As a result, they received hundreds of applications from inventors and scientists around the world. Pepper gathered the best minds at the R&D Department and formed a committee to determine which ones would get a slot. The problem was, they were running short of staff after the Stane incident. They had had to fire some of their top engineers, who were loyal to Stane, and brilliant employees were hard to replace. Pepper had hoped Ana would be on this committee. It was an excellent opportunity for her to gain some experience, and Pepper could really use her help. But she had refused, saying she was busy. Pepper was starting to think this time machine project was even a bigger waste of time and resources than the Expo. She didn't even know why Ana still wanted to invent time-travel. She wasn't looking for her mother anymore, and while Pepper was sure there were many things she wanted to change in her past, she also kept saying time-traveling couldn't be used to change the past or the future. If Ana was to run the company one day, maybe it was time she stopped chasing a fantasy and got a real job.
And then, Pepper also had to get an approval from DoD because Tony wanted to make his entrance on the opening night by jumping from a plane. But in the end, she had pulled that off, too. It would be a lie if she said she wasn't proud of how much she had achieved in only five months.
Here we go, she thought when Shoot to Thrill started to play and the crowd cheered for Iron Man. Pepper was standing on an overpass that provided a nice view of the stage below. The Ironette Dancers started their performance, and soon, Tony literally fell from the sky and joined them. A mechanism he had designed for this occasion, similar to the one he had in his workshop, stripped him from his armor, and he greeted the audience with his usual smile. The song ended, the dancers left the stage, and Tony was now the sole focus of everybody's attention.
"Oh, it's good to be back," he started, clapping. "You missed me?"
"Blow something up!" a man shouted.
"Blow something up? I already did that. I'm not saying, that the world is enjoying its longest period of uninterrupted peace in years because of me. I'm not saying that from the ashes of captivity, never has been a greater phoenix metaphor been personified in human history. I'm not saying that Uncle Sam can kick back on a lawn chair, sipping on an iced tea, because I haven't come across anyone who's man enough to go toe-to-toe with me on my best day…"
A collective cheer broke out. Pepper shook her head, laughing. "Has he been rehearsing this speech, or is he improvising?" she asked Ana, who was standing beside her.
"He always improvises," Ana replied dryly, without even looking at her. She almost seemed… angry with him.
"Ana? Are you alright?"
Pepper was impressed by her decision to be here tonight. She hated New York because of the whole boarding school ordeal. In fact, this was the first time she had been here since she had graduated, and Pepper still didn't know what Tony had done to convince her. But then, maybe he hadn't done anything. The truth about her mother had changed Ana drastically.
"No, you're not."
She turned to her. "Look, I'm sorry, Pepper. I really am. The last couple of months have been exhausting for you. You needed my help, and I wasn't there. That was wrong. But there's just one last thing I need to do, then I'll be all yours. Deal?"
Pepper smiled. It wasn't her intention to make Ana feel guilty about this. She just wanted to help Ana become the best version of herself. "It's okay. Yeah, your help would've made things easier, but you don't owe me anything. The Expo wasn't even your idea in the first place. It was Tony's. It was supposed to be his responsibility."
They looked at the stage again. Tony was gone, and a video of Howard Stark was playing. "Time to go," Pepper said, and they set off to the back of the main building, where Tony and Happy were waiting for them.
Tony was in the driver's seat of his newest Audi, and Happy in the passenger seat. But the latter got out of the car when he saw them.
"We're flying to DC tonight," he announced.
"DC?" Pepper asked, why. This wasn't in their schedule. They were supposed to return to Malibu and stay there until it was time to leave for Monaco.
"Senate hearing," Happy explained, and handed her a piece of paper. Pepper wasn't exactly shocked. Sooner or later, the government would want to do something about Iron Man.
"Well, this was expected… Ana, we're going to have to jet, but I can book a flight to—"
"I'm coming with you guys."
"The press will be there," Pepper reminded her of the obvious, though Ana wasn't so scared of the press anymore.
"All the more reason for me to come."
"Kid, get in here," Tony said, then turned to Pepper and Happy. "We'll meet you guys at the airport."
"Are we going somewhere?" Ana asked.
"Yeah, I'll explain on the way."
She gave her own car keys to Happy, and got into the passenger seat. Tony sped away before Pepper could ask him anything. She followed Happy to Ana's Lamborghini.
"Do you know where they're going?"
"No idea," Happy shrugged, starting the engine. He just seemed excited that he had finally got a chance to drive Ana's newest car.
"Happy… I can't be the only one who thinks something's wrong with him."
"Pepper, he's just back to his usual self."
"But he changed, didn't he?"
"Maybe he didn't. Maybe his PTSD just… wore off."
"Maybe," she forced herself to agree.
When Tony had first returned from Afghanistan, Pepper had thought the two of them might have a chance to be more than just friends. But he had returned to his old ways, reminding her why that relationship would never work. She tried not to feel disappointed. She knew she wouldn't be the first woman who had an unreciprocated crush on her boss, but it was still pretty embarrassing.
Ana had no idea what her dad was up to, at least until they stopped at a Jewish cemetery. She recalled something he had said about Edwin Jarvis' wife. Mrs. Jarvis was Jewish.
"Are we visiting the Jarvises?"
"Yeah. When Jarvis' wife died, my dad got two spots for them in the interfaith section here."
Right. She had never asked him where the Jarvises were buried, but it made sense. They were buried here, in New York. "That sounds very thoughtful of him."
"That's my dad…"
It was quiet. There was no one other than the two of them in the cemetery. Even in the dark, he seemed to be making his way among the graves easily, which made her wonder how many times he had been here. Visiting the dead wasn't something they did often. He had taken her to his parents' graves a couple of times when she was a kid, but that was all. Ana liked graveyards, though. They were one of the few places where the paparazzi would never expect to find the Starks.
They stopped when they saw the tombstone with the name "Edwin Jarvis" on it.
"Hey, Jarvis," he greeted him. "Look who's here to see you."
To be honest, this was a bit weird. Neither of them believed in an afterlife, the dead watching over the living, ghosts lurking around, or anything like that. It was him who had thought her to be a cynic. But now, here he was, talking to a tombstone. Ana decided to play along. After all, the same man had also taught her that some things weren't about scientific facts. They were about making memories.
"Hello, Mr. Jarvis. Sorry I didn't come here before. I… I had no idea you existed, to be honest."
Her dad sighed. "My bad…"
"Thanks for the birthday gift, by the way. It's beautiful. Your wife had a great taste in fashion."
"Want to meet her, too?"
He stepped aside, revealing the name on the tombstone next to Edwin Jarvis'.
"Y—you named me after his wife?" she gasped. Her dad always found a way to make her feel special, but this… This was a whole new level. It made her feel like she had roots that went deeper than she could ever imagine.
"Why do you never tell me such things?" she asked, her voice coarse with emotion.
Suddenly, he started coughing wildly. She had seen this happen before. Soon, he was going to have to throw up. She wrapped an arm around his waist to support him, and they hurried back to the car. Without a word, he let Ana take the driver's seat. She handed him a vomit bag, and tried not to watch him too carefully. She wouldn't want an audience if she were vomiting her guts out either.
Once he was done throwing up, he laid his head back, and closed his eyes. "Kid, I need a new core."
She quickly unbuttoned his shirt, took out a new palladium core from her bag, and replaced it with the depleted one. Later, she was going to have to find a way to dispose of the vomit bag and the old core safely. You couldn't just throw things that contained palladium into any trash can.
The new core made him hiss in pain at first, but soon, his breathing evened out. The lines around the reactor were getting darker, and they were spreading across his torso. This was the unknown rollercoaster of being Tony Stark's kid. An hour ago, he was on stage, acting like some kind of phoenix god, now he was squirming in pain, totally helpless.
His eyes were still closed, but he smiled, like he was having a pleasant dream. "You're taking such good care of me…"
"You're not making it easy, you know. The more you use the suits, the more palladium the Arc Reactor consumes. I mean, the missions are one thing, but that entrance you made tonight? Look what happened!"
He pried his eyes open. "It wouldn't have made a difference."
Every time he said something like this, she felt like suffocating. Where was that Tony Stark who was too damn proud and too damn arrogant to go down without a fight when she needed him the most? "Why are you doing this to me?"
"You've done everything you could. Can't we just spend our remaining time together in peace?"
"I'm not giving up on you!"
"Kid, you can't invent immortality."
"The hell I can't!" She took out a bottle of green smoothie from her bag this time. "Drink this. I'm taking us to the airport."
His face wrinkled, but he obeyed nevertheless. Satisfied, Ana put on her seatbelt, and ignited the engine. They shouldn't keep Pepper and Happy waiting.
All of a sudden, he covered his face with a hand. "God, I almost forgot…"
"I didn't bring you all the way here just to pay our respects. There's something I wanted to tell you."
"Would you like to meet the SHIELD agent who brought you to me?"
The question caught her unprepared. "I—I don't know… I guess I'd feel better if I thanked him… or her, but… We don't even know if they're still alive."
"I think she is."
"There was a woman at my parents' funeral. She came to Jarvis' funeral, too. Told me they were old friends or something. And I was only four back then, but I remember seeing her at Ana Jarvis' funeral as well. Her name is Peggy Carter."
"Maybe she just loves funerals?"
"Or maybe, she's an old family friend. Mom once told me she was a government liaison, but that wasn't the whole truth. Last week, I did some sniffing around, found out she's the founder of SHIELD. I can't believe it took me so long to connect the dots."
"So, you think she's the mysterious agent Fury was talking about?"
"She's living in a nursing home in DC."
So, this was why he was telling her now. Because they were going to Washington DC tonight. "I don't know, Dad…"
"Well, you just think about it. No pressure."
Ana just wanted to focus on his palladium problem and not get distracted by other things. She was also worried about what the government was going to do to him tomorrow. But it looked like he had been trying so hard to give some closure, and he deserved to know how much she appreciated that.
The next day, her dad handled the Senate like a champ. Rhodey had been called to testify, though Senator Stern manipulated him into testifying against Tony Stark. But it didn't work, and they returned to the hotel victorious. Rhodey joined them as well. On the way, her dad complained about how Rhodey had "ambushed" him, but he wasn't serious. He was just messing with Rhodey as usual. They were still bantering by the time they arrived in their suite. Ana retreated to her room.
She didn't have much time left to make up her mind. She looked out the window, which provided a great view of the city. Somewhere out there, there might be a woman who had answers. Ana just wanted to know what her grandfather had done for this woman, to evoke so much gratitude that she had extended it to his descendants. But this was going to be very awkward, especially if they were wrong about Peggy Carter, and she wasn't the agent in the story.
There was a knock on her door.
"It's me," Rhodey said. "Can I come in?"
He opened the door and entered. "Hey, sweetie."
Rhodey seemed nervous as he came to stand next to her. "So, uhm, we're cool, right?"
"Why would we not be cool?"
"After what happened at the hearing, I thought, maybe you'd be upset with me. Lately, you've become even more protective of Tony than he is of you, if such a thing is possible."
"Oh, come on! Stern was distorting your report, even an idiot could see that. I actually felt horrible for you back there." She gave him a hug to prove her point. Rhodey sighed in relief, and hugged her back.
"I left a copy of that report on Tony's desk, you know," he defended himself.
"I know, I read the whole thing. Then I put it back on his desk, told him to read it, but…"
"But he didn't."
They laughed together.
Ana now knew she could always trust Rhodey, and was ashamed of herself that she had doubted him last year, even if it was for a short period of time. She thought of telling him about the palladium poisoning. He, too, was a smart guy—he and her dad had met at MIT, after all—and maybe he could come up with an angle they overlooked. But it wasn't up to her to decide. Her dad wanted to keep this a secret, and she had to respect that. If she shared his secrets with others, he would never trust her again.
Rhodey rocked her a little. "Are you alright? You seem distracted today."
"Because I am." At least there was one problem she could share with him. "I think Dad found the agent."
He understood immediately. "You mean, the agent?"
"She wasn't just any agent. She's the founder of SHIELD. She lives here, in DC."
"Oh." He released her, and put his hands on his hips thoughtfully. "Well, what are you going to do?"
"I don't know. I want to go see her, but what if we're wrong?"
"Even if you're wrong, so what? If this woman was the Director of SHIELD, I'm sure she's seen weirder stuff."
"You know what, you're absolutely right. I'm going to meet her," she suddenly decided.
She returned to the sitting room, where her dad was bickering with Pepper this time. Pepper wanted to return home at once, while he wanted to stay. He was probably just trying to give Ana more time to make up her mind, but it wasn't going to be necessary.
"I want to do it," Ana blurted out. "I want to see Peggy Carter."
The room went silent. Pepper and Happy looked at her, confused. "Who's Peggy Carter?" the former asked.
Ana and her dad exchanged a long, meaningful look. He seemed glad that she had decided to do this. They explained who Peggy Carter was, or rather, might be, and left the hotel.
The receptionist said they didn't accept visitors for Peggy Carter without permission from her family. It was understandable. Someone with her background probably still had many enemies. But with his usual charm, Tony Stark convinced the receptionist to make an exception. Before telling them in which room Carter stayed, she warned them that the woman had Alzheimer's disease, though.
Ana was disheartened to hear that. Someone who had the tech to erase memories back in 1992 couldn't cure her own Alzheimer's in 2010? It didn't make any sense. Maybe they had made a mistake. But they had come this far. There was no turning back now.
She knocked on the door.
"Come in," an elderly woman's voice said. When Ana hesitated to open the door, her dad did it.
She was old. Very old. She seemed so feeble in that bed that Ana immediately regretted coming here. They shouldn't have disturbed her. But what was done was done. At least Ana would get a chance to thank her if Peggy Carter was who they thought she was.
"Hi," Ana started shyly.
"Hello, dear. Come closer. Let me take a better look at you."
Ana took three steps towards her. "You know me?"
"How can I not? You look like your grandmother."
Instinctively, Ana turned to her dad. He smiled.
"And you," Carter told him. "Look at you… Howard would be so proud."
Ana sat down on the chair beside the bed. There were other chairs in the room, so her dad took one of them and joined her.
"I never thought I'd see you two here," said Carter, eyeing them carefully. "What do I owe the pleasure?"
"Please, dear, call me Peggy."
"Peggy," Ana started again. "Do you know Director Fury?"
"Nick Fury? Of course I know him. Why?"
"I never met my mother. Someone left me on my dad's doorstep when I was a baby, and that was it. I didn't even know who she was, until last year Fury said her name was Irene Clarke, and she'd died three weeks after my birth. He also said it was a SHIELD agent who took me to my father. Was it you?"
Peggy smiled like she pitied Ana. "Oh, dear… No, that wasn't me."
Ana believed her, but the hint of recognition in her voice led her to assume Peggy knew who that was. "Who was the agent, Peggy? And what did my grandfather do for them? Please, I have to know…"
"She wasn't an agent."
"Who was she, then?"
This was so absurd that she couldn't help but chuckle nervously. "I beg your pardon?"
Peggy blinked slowly, and when she opened her eyes again, it was like she was seeing them for the first time. "Ana Stark! Oh, you have your grandmother's face... And Tony. Look at you. If only Howard could see you now… What has brought you here, my dears?"
"You were telling us about a… goddess, Peggy."
She frowned, but Ana saw the same recognition on her face again. "Was I? Well, dear, I must've been mistaken."
"No, no, you weren't."
"I'm very tired, Ana. Please, excuse me."
Her dad put a hand on her shoulder. "Kid, I think we should leave."
Ana tried to smile politely despite the disappointment. "I'm sorry, Peggy. It was nice meeting you."
They walked out of the room as Peggy watched them with a concerned look on her face.
"Well," he said once they were alone in the corridor. "That was a bummer…"
"A 'goddess,' though? What the hell was she talking about?"
She sighed. "Let's just go home, where everything makes sense."
Pepper had been wrong to think Tony had returned to his old self. No. He had actually become worse.
"Is this a joke?" she asked, storming into the workshop. "What are you thinking?"
"What are you thinking?" she repeated, this time more loudly.
"Hey, I'm thinking I'm busy. And you're angry about something." He got up from his desk and started walking around the shop. "Do you have the sniffles? I don't want to get sick."
"Did you just donate our entire modern art collection to the…" She paused, trying to remember the name of the irrelevant organization.
Much to her surprise, Tony did. "Boy Scouts of America."
"Boy Scouts of America?"
"Yes. Of course. It's a worthwhile organization. I didn't physically check the crates, but basically, yes. And it's not 'our' collection, it's my collection. No offense."
Well, after everything she had done to put all those masterpieces together, she was offended. "No, you know what? I think I'm actually entitled to say 'our' collection, considering the time I put in, over ten years curating that."
"It was a tax write-off. I needed that."
"You know, there's only about 8011 things that I really need to talk to you about…"
Tony wasn't even listening. He was just playing with his holograms and talking to his robots. She decided to cut to the chase to get his attention. "The Expo is a gigantic waste of time."
"I need you to wear a surgical mask until you're feeling better," he said as she coughed. "Is that okay?"
"There's nothing more important for me than the Expo. It's my primary point of concern."
"The Expo is your ego gone crazy."
"Wow, look at that…" He picked up a hideous Iron Man poster. "That's modern art. That's going up."
"You've got to be kidding me…"
"I'm going to put this up right now."
"Stark is in complete disarray, do you understand that?"
"No! Our stocks have never been higher."
"Yes, from a managerial standpoint…"
"If it's messy, then let's double back."
"Let me give you an example… Oh, no, no, no! You're not taking down the Barnett Newman and hanging that up!"
"I'm not taking it down. Just replacing it with this. Let's see what I can get going here."
"Okay, fine," she gave in, and returned to the more important discussion. "My point is, we have already awarded contracts to the wind farm people."
"Don't say 'wind farm,' I'm already feeling gassy."
"And to the plastic plantation tree, which was your idea, by the way. Those people are on payroll, and you won't make a decision."
"Everything is my idea. I don't care about the liberal agenda anymore. Boring! I'm giving you the boring alert." He jumped down from the kitchen counter. "You do it."
"I do what?"
"Excellent idea. I just figured this out. You run the company."
"Yeah, I'm trying to run the company."
"Well, stop trying to do it and do it."
"You will not give me the information I need—"
"Pepper, you're not listening to me! I'm trying to make you the CEO!"
She froze. "Have you been drinking?"
God, he was serious.
He put his hands on her shoulders and looked him in the eye. "I, hereby, irrevocably appoint you chairman and the CEO of Stark Industries, effective immediately. Yeah, done deal."
"What about Ana?" she asked instinctively.
Tony became even more serious. Concern clouded his brown eyes. "Well, that was the original plan, until Fury screwed her up. She needs to have the nerves of steel for this job, and let's be honest. She's not there yet."
Pepper understood. Ana was smart, she wouldn't shy away from responsibility or hard work, but those qualities weren't enough to be the CEO. She also needed to be ready to take whatever the world threw at her.
"I thought she was getting better."
"She was… She is. But if I make her the CEO now, all the progress we've made will be going down the drain. I mean, most of it is my fault, with the boarding school fiasco and all. Fury was just the last straw, but you get the point…"
Pepper chuckled. A few minutes ago, he was that insufferable narcissistic diva, now he was the harshest critic of himself. He did have a heart.
"I thought there would be a legal issue but I'm actually capable of appointing my successor. My successor being you."
She was rendered speechless. She knew Tony trusted him with his secrets, his life, even with his daughter, but she wasn't expecting this. She was… flattered, of course. Still, she wanted to think this through.
"I—I want to talk to Ana first."
He shrugged. "Okay. JARVIS, tell her to come down here."
"As you wish, sir."
U brought a bottle of champagne, and three glasses.
"Wait, are you going to let Ana drink?" Pepper cried.
"Geez, Pepper… It's just one glass of champagne, it won't kill her. Besides, she'd be at the legal drinking age if we were in Europe."
"Well, we're not in Europe, though, are we?"
He poured a glass and handed it to her, with an amused look on his face. "Don't tell me you waited until you were 21?"
"Actually, I did," she admitted proudly.
Tony rolled her eyes. "You're killing me."
They turned their heads to the door when they heard someone dialing the passcode. Ana was here. "Hey, guys. What's going on?"
"I just made Pepper the new CEO."
"Oh." She didn't seem happy to hear that at all.
"It's not decided yet," Pepper said quickly. "We want to make sure you're okay with this first. Ana, I know you. You've always been eager to prove yourself. I don't want to make it look like I'm stealing your future."
"You're not stealing anything, Pep. You deserve this more than I ever could."
"Ana… Don't say that."
"Come here, kid. Take a seat." When Ana sat down next to Pepper he said, "You might want to keep your distance, though, she's sick."
Ana rolled her eyes, and kissed Pepper's cheek. "I'm happy for you, Pepper. I'm just feeling guilty."
"For not having the mental stability to be the CEO myself. We kind of forced your hand, didn't we?"
"Ana, it's not that bad. I've unofficially been running the company for years anyway."
Tony gave Ana a glass of champagne, too.
"Oh, please. Don't tell me you've never had booze before."
She bit her lips nervously. "Actually, I might have had a few beers at MIT. Don't worry, I didn't go to a frat party or anything. But I was the youngest student around, and I didn't want the others to laugh at me, so—"
Tony was pouring a glass for himself now. "Kid, relax. If drinking draft beer is the worst thing you did at college, I'm a very, very lucky man."
He raised his glass to propose a toast. "To Ms. Virginia 'Pepper' Potts, the CEO of Stark Industries. Long may she reign."
Pepper had tried to convince Tony to cancel the Monaco trip, but of course, failed. At least the Grand Prix was a good opportunity to do some PR. If people saw that everything was well between Ana Stark and Pepper Potts, hopefully they would realize the two weren't the modern Snow White and the Evil Queen.
She could hear Tony and Happy in the sitting area, discussing the cars and their drivers that would be racing this year. After finishing the last touches of her make-up, she went to check on Ana. Pepper hadn't seen her around for hours, and they were only twenty minutes from landing. Hopefully, she hadn't fallen asleep. It was nice to fly on a private jet with three bedrooms, but it was also easy to get too comfortable sometimes.
"Ana?" she asked, knocking on the door.
"Come in, Pep."
Pepper opened the door, and was taken aback when she saw Ana in that high-neck, sleeveless plum dress.
"Is it too much?" she asked uncomfortably.
"No, it's great. I just… I've never seen you so… vibrant before."
"Well, you look gorgeous yourself, as always. But you already know that."
Pepper chuckled. It warmed her heart to see that one of the most brilliant people in the world actually looked up to her and sought her approval. It made her see the appeal of motherhood. She didn't know if she would ever be able to settle down and have a family. Ana might be the closest thing she would ever have to a daughter. "We should put your hair into a messy bun. Here, let me help."
Without a word, Ana gave her some hairpins, and sat down a chair. She still seemed a bit uncomfortable, so Pepper said, "Seriously, you look amazing."
"I'm just trying to look like what Ana Stark is supposed to look like."
"Ana… You don't have to be someone you're not. No matter what you choose to do with your life, Tony will always look out for you."
"And who's going to look out for him? Or, you? I mean, check this out." She gave Pepper her phone.
She read the tweet on the screen: "When you just want a sugar daddy, but he makes you his CEO instead #PepperPotts"
Pepper was pretty sure she was going to see even more obnoxious comments if she browsed the hashtag. She turned off the screen, tossed the phone on the bed, and kept twirling Ana's hair. "Do you know what's the best part of being the CEO? I don't have time to read crap like this."
"I wish I could be like you. You're good at this, you know."
"Well, you must understand that you can't control people. The best you can do is to ignore them."
"I don't think I have the self-restraint."
Pepper came up with an idea. "Can't you ask JARVIS to filter this stuff out for you?"
She thought for a moment, then said, "Actually, I can. It's not such a bad idea."
Her hair was done. "Good. Come on, then. We're almost there."
Everybody was getting hungry, so as soon as they arrived at Hotel de Paris, they decided to have lunch first. They could watch the race while eating. As usual, people started cheering the moment Tony stepped out of the car, and he threw a peace sign. Then they went inside.
"You know, it's Europe… Whatever happens in the next 20 minutes, just go with it."
"Go with it? Go with that?" she asked, wondering what he had done to piss her off this time. She looked at Ana briefly, but she seemed as clueless as Pepper.
It didn't take her long to find out what it was.
"Mr. Stark?" Natalie Rushman asked. Right. Tony had been obsessed with her ever since he had laid eyes on her. Now, it looked like she would be around him all the time. Tony had completely ignored the list of excellent candidates Pepper had made, and hired Natalie Rushman just because she was an eye candy.
"Hello. How was your flight?"
"It was excellent. Boy, it's nice to see you."
A waiter brought them drinks. Pepper took hers gratefully. She was going to need it.
"We have one photographer from ACM, if you don't mind. Okay?" Natalie asked, and snatched the drinks from their hands, much to Pepper's frustration.
"When did this happen?" she asked, forcing herself to smile for the camera.
Tony wrapped one arm around Ana, who had a "Please leave me out of this fight" look on her face. "What? You made me do it."
"I made you do what?"
"You quit. Smile. Look right there."
Pepper did, but only because she didn't want to fight him in front of everybody.
"Stop acting constipated. Don't flare your nostrils."
"You're so predictable."
Once the photographer left, Pepper took her drink back. Tony had already started flirting with his new PA. It infuriated her even more to see that Natalie didn't mind his inappropriate remarks. Pepper decided to ignore them and looked for a familiar face in the crowd. She saw Elon Musk, and went up to him.
"Mr. Musk? How are you?"
He got up from his chair to shake hands with her. "Hi, Pepper. Congratulations on the promotion."
"Thank you very much."
He shook Ana's hand next. "Ana. So nice to finally meet you in person."
"Elon, how is it going?" Tony joined them. "Those Merlin engines are fantastic."
"Yeah, thank you. I've got an idea for an electric jet."
"You do? Then we'll make it work."
"You want a massage?" he asked Pepper as they made their way to the bar.
"Oh, God. No, I don't want a massage."
"I'll have Natalie make a—"
"I don't want Natalie to do—"
"By the way, I didn't mean to spring this on you. Green is not your best color."
"Antony! Is that you?" Justin Hammer interrupted them. She knew Tony hated him, and Pepper couldn't say she liked him much either, but right now, she would gladly watch him pester Tony.
That was, until she realized Christine Everhart was here, too.
They had been here only for like, five minutes, and her face had already started to hurt from forcing herself to smile.
"My editor will kill me if I don't grab a quote for our Powerful Women issue."
Well, shit. "Oh."
"Can I?" Everhart asked sweetly, as if she weren't the same woman who had scorned Pepper last year for simply doing her job as Tony's assistant and picking up his guest's clothes from dry cleaning.
"She's actually doing a big spread on me for Vanity Fair," Hammer bragged. "I thought I'd throw her a bone, right?"
"Well, she did quite a spread on Tony last year," she said insinuatingly.
"And she wrote a story as well," Tony added.
"It was very impressive."
"That was good."
"Very well done."
Pepper might be upset with Tony right now, but she had to admit that they made a good team. Everhart's face was priceless. Pepper didn't feel sorry for her. She had brought this on herself.
"I'm going to go… wash."
"Don't leave me," Tony begged her, but she didn't care. She looked at Ana to see if she needed saving, though, but she seemed fine, so Pepper headed to the bathroom alone.
Okay, she hated to admit this, but maybe she was a tad jealous of Natalie. She was smart and capable. She spoke four languages, and she could kick ass, literally. She wouldn't have minded if Tony had had a one-night stand with her and be done with it, but now, Pepper felt like she had been replaced by her. It didn't exactly felt like a promotion.
Did someone really have to remind Pepper Potts and Tony Stark why it was a bad idea to piss off a reporter? Ana had managed to get on Christine Everhart's good side at the charity gala in LA last year, now they had ruined it.
"So, you are the famous Stark heiress, huh?" Justin Hammer asked, scrutinizing her, like he was assessing whether she deserved her reputation or not, and Ana wished she had just followed Pepper to the bathroom. But she hadn't wanted to leave her dad alone. Besides, watching him roast Hammer was fun. And if Hammer thought she would be an easier target, she had to prove him wrong.
"I heard you had an internship in Pasadena a few years ago? At an alternate energy company. What was it, Momentum Labs?"
Damn. How did Hammer even know about the internship? He might be an idiot, but he had done his homework. She couldn't let him, or Everhart think the Starks had a habit of going behind each other's backs, as he was trying to insinuate.
"Oh, that was an invaluable experience," she said sweetly. "I'm glad Dad encouraged me to explore new fields. And I was only 15 back then. I couldn't have done it without his formal approval."
His wolfish grin narrowed, but didn't completely fade. "Well, now that your dad's secretary is the CEO, you're always welcome at Hammer Industries if you need a job."
"As an engineer, or a test pilot? I imagine you're in desperate need for both, considering that footage we all saw at the hearing."
He chuckled, but Ana could see that she had pissed him off. "You might soon change your mind if Tony gives me a slot at the Expo."
Her dad, on the other hand, seemed quite proud of her. "Well, invent something that actually works, and I'll make sure you get a slot."
"Mr. Stark, your corner table is ready," Natalie Rushman said. Finally. Ana lost no time leaving Hammer's table.
"Hammer needs a slot, Christine!" her dad said as they made their way to the corner table.
"Dad, I'm sorry," she whispered once they settled at their own table. "I never thought that internship could be used against you."
"Don't worry about that, you did well. I'm especially impressed by how you conveniently twisted the part you and Pepper tricked me into signing the parental consent form."
"We didn't trick you! I just gave the form to Pepper and told her I needed your signature for my internship."
"Yeah, but you knew I'd sign anything Pepper gave me."
"Dad, you would've signed it anyway."
"I would have. But I told you that internship was unnecessary."
"You know what, you were actually right. The Bauers were crazy. I mean, they were talking about a magic book that showed you whatever you wanted to know, can you believe it?"
"That's what happens when you don't listen to me… I'll be back in a minute."
She knew where he was going, so she stopped him before he got on his feet, snatched the medical scanner from his pocket, and put it in her purse. Checking the palladium levels every other hour wasn't going to help. "Don't worry about that now," she said softly. "Let's just enjoy lunch."
He didn't say anything, but she knew they had just made a silent agreement that they were going to make the most of every moment they had left. Ana didn't want to give up. She just wanted to keep thinking and thinking for a solution, until her brain exploded, but she also knew that attitude was making things worse for him.
"I like the dress," he commented casually. "Pepper's idea?"
"No. There were only so many different black dresses I could buy for such occasions, so I decided to try something new."
Speaking of Pepper, she was back. She gave him a sharp look, and picked up the menu. Rushman silently walked away from the table, making herself invisible to Pepper's eye. Ana decided to address the elephant in the room. The silent treatment was the last thing he needed right now.
"Pepper, what's going on with you? Come on, Rushman isn't that bad."
She put the menu down and looked up. "Really? You, too, Ana?"
"And then you took your anger out on Everhart… Who knows what she's going to write about you now."
"Everhart wasn't a big fan of me in the first place. If she wants to interview you, too, just say no, okay? I don't want her to use you to get back at me."
"Yes, ma'am," Ana scoffed. Her dad wasn't the only one who was hiding behind a mask. Pepper was acting like she was cool with being the new CEO, but the backlash was taking a toll on her, and it showed. It's my fault, she thought. They would've trusted me with the job if I hadn't been acting like an edgy teenager.
"Oh my God, Tony, look!" Pepper gasped, eyes now fixated on the TV.
The race had started, but one of the mechanics was walking into the race track. He tore his shirt open, revealing some kind of harness with an Arc Reactor strapped to his chest. Ana hoped it was just a fake, but a fake Arc Reactor couldn't power those electrified whips that had burned away what had remained of the upper part of his jumpsuit. With a single stroke, he destroyed the first race car he saw. This was a challenge. Whoever he was, he was challenging Iron Man to a duel.
"Dad? Who's he?"
"I'm about to find out. Stay here," he said, and rushed off, probably to find Happy. Mark V was with him.
Soon, he was on the screen, too. Of course he was. When had Tony Stark ever declined a challenge?
Rushman put a hand on her shoulder. Normally, she didn't like it when acquaintances invaded her personal space, but right now, she might even be grateful for it, because Pepper seemed too appalled herself to comfort anybody else. "Would you like to leave?" Rushman whispered softly.
"No." She couldn't run away and hide like a coward while people were watching. She wanted to look away, wait until someone said it was over and her dad was safe, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from the TV either. As for everyone else in the restaurant, they were acting terrified by the attack, but they were obviously eager to see some Iron Man action. "This is not a game!" Ana wanted to scream at them. It wasn't something that was being done for their entertainment. Every time he donned a suit, he took a risk. The Arc Reactor consumed the palladium faster, if nothing else.
She used to love the Monaco trips when she was a kid. Back then, it was just Ana and her dad, and all these rich snobs were nothing but a blur in the background. They would talk about the cars, and cheer for theirs. Sometimes they would win, other times not. But they would always return home happy. Now, they couldn't even enjoy a family tradition in peace.
She was tired. Tired of constantly fearing for the only family she had. So tired that perhaps her body didn't even have the energy to produce adrenaline anymore. By the time the fight was over and the police took the maniac away, she was just feeling numb.
Her dad didn't know who the attacker was. No one did. So, once the dust settled, he decided to go to the jailhouse and have a word with him. Ana wanted to go, too, but he didn't allow it, saying he didn't want her anywhere near that psychopath. Happy was with him, Pepper was answering the endless calls from the government and the press, and goodness knew where Rushman was. So, Ana was on alone in her suite, and she found herself contacting JARVIS via phone, for she had no one else to talk to.
"Hello, Miss Stark."
"I'm sorry about the attack. Are you alright?"
"With all due respect, miss, you don't sound 'fine.'"
"Well, Dad's dying, Pepper's acting weird, and our vacation just got ruined, so…"
"What can I do?"
"Uhm, run facial recognition, for starters."
"I already have."
Ana smiled. "And?"
"The attacker's name is Ivan Vanko. His father, Anton Vanko, was a Soviet physicist who defected to the United States in 1963. However, he was accused of espionage and was deported in 1967. His son, Ivan, who is also a physicist was convicted selling Soviet-era weapons-grade plutonium to Pakistan, and served 15 years in Kopeisk prison. No further records exist."
"Any idea how he got the Arc Reactor design?"
"Ivan Vanko worked at Stark Industries when he was in the United States."
"Yeah, that explains a lot…"
"Does the information make you feel better?" he asked curiously.
"No, JARVIS, I still feel like shit! I didn't call you just for the query. I called you because I got no one else to call. That's how pathetic I am!"
"But you do have me… You'll always have me."
"Thanks, J, but… You're not real. You're just a program."
"What would make me real for you?"
"I don't know… Can you feel grief, for example?"
"Not the way you do."
"See? But that's okay. At least I know you're not capable of judging me. That's why I can talk so freely."
"Even if I could judge people, I wouldn't judge you. I was designed to help you and Mr. Stark… with anything."
"I know, JARVIS. You were programmed to be useful. But you can still be useful, I guess. You're good at analyzing behavioral patterns. What do you think Dad would do, if I were the one who was dying?"
"He would comfort you until your last breath."
"And if I refused to be comforted?"
"Like you, Mr. Stark tends to avoid intense emotions, though his methods differ from yours greatly."
"Yeah, that was stupid of me to ask. Those 'methods' wouldn't work on me. I hate parties, I hate sex even more, and…" She paused when she realized she was 18, and in Europe.
"I can get drunk. Legally! Yeah, I'm going to go get drunk."
"Miss Stark, I don't think this is a good idea."
She had never got drunk before. Not a big fan of the idea of losing control. But she was in need of a break so badly that she was up for anything at this point. Besides, this would be a one-time thing. An experiment to see how effective booze was. It wasn't like she was going to become an alcoholic or anything.
"Why not? You wanted to help, and you just did. I'm so stressed out that I can't think clearly anymore. Now, I'm going to unwind, but my brain will subconsciously keep working on the problem in the meantime. Thanks for the idea, J. Bye!" She ended the call, grabbed her purse, and went down to the bar.
"Can I see your ID, mademoiselle?" the bartender asked when Ana approached the counter.
She proudly showed the date of birth on her passport. Pleased, he nodded. "What can I get you?"
"Scotch," she said, without even thinking about it. But when she took the first sip, she realized she had made a terrible mistake. This wasn't anything like beer, or champagne. It burned her throat like liquid fire. But she forced herself to pretend like she was enjoying it. She even asked for a refill.
She was on her third glass when a guy approached, his reason pretty obvious. I shouldn't have worn this stupid dress, she thought. This hadn't happened in a long time, partially because she avoided going to places where she might get hit on, and partially because most guys didn't want the hassle of flirting with Iron Man's daughter. All in all, she had almost forgotten what an uncomfortable feeling it was, until now.
He was young, probably only one or two years older than Ana. Auburn hair, green eyes, strong jawline, bulging muscles… Ana knew she was supposed to find him attractive. She was supposed to find someone, anyone, attractive eventually, but nope, that was just not happening. She hadn't had sex since her graduation, and she certainly didn't miss it. You couldn't miss something you never needed. The question was, when would people start to realize something wasn't right with her?
"Can I get you a drink?"
"No, thank you." Please just go away, please just go away, please just go away…
"Okay. Can I at least enjoy your company?"
Ana felt that overwhelming rage rise inside her once again. Her father had just been attacked by a madman while already dying a slow and painful death, and here was this jerk, fantasizing about getting into her pants.
She whipped her head around, and looked him in the eye. "Do you want to have sex with me?"
He laughed. "What?"
"Do you want to have sex with me?" she repeated. "Yes or no?"
"Well, I don't want to have sex with you, so don't waste your time."
Ana had thought he would give up after this, but it only angered him. He grabbed her upper arm. "Come on, don't be a tease…"
"Let go of me!" She tried to shake him off, but his grip only tightened. It was probably going to leave a bruise. The bartender was at the other end of the counter now, busy preparing drinks for a bunch of customers, so he didn't notice, neither did anyone else, as far as she could see. The jerk was being subtle. But if Ana called for security, they would probably come.
"Make me," he mocked her.
Screw the security. Something about the challenge reminded her of the boarding school days, and the guys she had forced herself to date at college. She was getting tired of pretending to be someone she was not. She wanted to change. She wanted to handle this herself, without help from anyone. She grabbed the nearest bottle with her free hand, and hit him.
The attack had caught him by surprise, and there was even some blood, dripping from his temple, but he didn't run away crying like Ana had expected. Instead, he let go of her wrist, but only to grab her by the hair this time, because she had frozen in fear. Not the fear of what he might do to her, but the fear of what she was capable of. Spilling blood didn't feel as bad as it should. No, it didn't feel bad at all. And that was a terrifying thought. But it didn't last long.
"You crazy bitch!"
He slammed her head against the bar counter. She collapsed on the floor. The throbbing pain in her face had left her incapacitated. She could feel blood oozing from her nostrils. She could taste it in her mouth. He yanked her head back.
He was preparing to punch her when Natalie Rushman came out of nowhere. She fended him off with a kick, and helped Ana on her feet as the security guards seized that creep and took him away.
"Thanks," Ana muttered, drowning in remorse. She was too scared to look around, knowing every eye in the room was on her now.
"We should take you to the hospital."
"No, no hospital! Please."
Rushman gave her a sympathetic look. "Are you sure?"
"I just want to go to my room."
Ana leaned on her for support, and kept her head down while Rushman led her back to her room as swiftly as possible. The more people saw Ana Stark's bloody, messed up face, the quicker the gossip would spread.
The rest was a nightmare. Her room was soon filled with people. Pepper was yelling at her, Rushman was patching her up and arguing with the hotel security at the same time. Her dad hadn't returned yet, but it would only get worse when he did.
"LEAVE ME ALONE!" she snapped at some point. To her surprise, they actually left.
Ana locked the door, changed into a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, undid her hair, and curled up in the bed, avoiding all the mirrors and windows in the room, too scared to see her reflection. Rushman had assured her that it wasn't too bad, that at least her nose wasn't broken. Well, her nose might not be broken, but something in her definitely was.
It was just a soft, single knock on the door. "Ana, it's me."
Her dad's voice was calm. He hadn't even told her to open the door. He knew he didn't need to. She kept her head down as she let him in, trying to hide her face behind a curtain of long, dark hair, still not knowing what she looked like.
"Eyes up, Samara."
Him making jokes was a good sign. Maybe he wouldn't overreact. Ana raised her head, and moved her hair away from her face, so that he could see what she had brought upon herself.
He tilted her chin up, and examined her face for a moment. The bruise on her left arm didn't escape his notice either. He was being so gentle that it made Ana want to cry. He was always so gentle with her.
"Does it hurt too much?"
She decided to make an attempt at humor. "You should see the other guy."
"So I've been told… Seriously, though, any dizziness? Nausea?"
"It's fine. I'll just sleep it off."
"Honey, if you have a head injury, sleeping it off is the last thing you should do, and you know that."
"Dad, please don't make me go to the hospital," she begged.
"Okay, here's the deal: Either we go to the hospital now and make sure you're okay, or I won't let you sleep for the next 6 hours. Which one is it going to be?"
"Fine. Hospital it is."
"Good girl. Grab your passport, and let's go."
"What about Pepper and Happy?"
"We'll be back before they know it. The hospital is, like, five minutes away from here. Come on."
They left. She was surprised to see that he had rented an Audi TT, instead of taking the Royce, which was a bit suspicious. But she decided to play dumb.
While he was driving, Ana finally mustered up her courage and looked at herself in the side mirror. Her nose and forehead were bruised and swollen, her lower lip was split open, but that was all. It would heal.
"You're beautiful," he said, as if he could read her thoughts.
"I look like a potato."
"A beautiful potato, then."
She chuckled, and the simple act sent a sharp wave of pain from her mouth to the rest of her body. "Don't make me laugh. It hurts."
"Are you mad?"
"No. I get it, kid. I really do. You were already upset, about a lot of things, and you finally lost it. God, sometimes I forget that not everyone sees an adorable little girl when they look at you. I guess that's how karma gets me."
"Bullshit. You're a playboy, not a creepy pervert who can't handle rejection… Speaking of, where's he now?"
"His brothers bribed the hotel security when they found out who you were. They fled Monaco before I returned. At least that's what Natalie told me."
Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't let the attacker get away, but right now, he probably didn't want to waste his time with him, which was a relief. Ana decided to talk about something else. "What about your guy? Did he tell you anything?"
"He gave me his dad's name: Anton Vanko. Said the Arc Reactor was his design, but I've never heard of him before. You?"
"As a matter of fact, I have. He was a scientist at Stark Industries, got deported when he turned out to be a Soviet spy. Ivan isn't much different either. He served 15 years for selling plutonium to Pakistan."
"How did you learn that?"
"I got my sources."
He cocked an eyebrow questioningly.
"Relax, Dad. I called JARVIS."
"Promise me that you'll never be like Ivan."
"I took a good look at his tech. It was decent. Sure, he's a criminal, but he could've made himself rich, become anyone he wanted. Instead, he got himself back into prison, and for what? To get revenge for his old man, on someone who's already dying? Do whatever you want to digest your grief, kid, just don't do anything that might ruin your life because of me. That's all I ask."
"Hey, you're not dying! We'll figure something out." She had to believe that they would. But if they couldn't… Well, maybe Ana should start preparing herself for the worst, like she had done last year.
"Oh, here we are," he said evasively, pointing at the hospital sign.
After an MRI and then, a CT scan just to be sure, the doctors confirmed that Ana was fine, gave her some pills for the headache and the nausea. She thought they were returning to the hotel, but Tony had other plans.
"Dad, where are we going?" Of course, she must have noticed he was driving further away from the hotel, not back to it.
"We're on a vacation. Let's just drive around a bit."
"I called her while you were in the MRI room. No worries." That was a lie.
"Dad, I know you want us to have fun together, and I want it, too, but I'm just so tired right now. All that medication…"
"Come on, kid! Are you looking forward to going back there after everything that happened? I know I'm not."
"Neither am I," she admitted.
Tony could keep the conversation going forever if he wanted, but his plan required the opposite. Soon, Ana drifted off, as expected. She seemed more peaceful in her sleep. Maybe she was coming to terms with the fact that there was nothing that could be done to save him.
It was nearly 4 AM. Tony was still driving, trying to enjoy the peaceful moment as best as he could. This would be their last father-daughter road trip. He was driving a really nice car, Italy had always been one of his favorite destinations, and his baby girl was asleep in the seat beside him. Well, she was probably going to freak out when she woke up, but it was nothing he couldn't handle.
He had been toying with the idea since the hearing, but only after that conversation with Ivan, he had made up his mind. The idiot had actually done Tony a favor.
When he saw the next gas station, he pulled over for gas and supplies. It was also a good time to go to the bathroom and change the current palladium core with a new one. By the time he returned to the car, Ana was up, and utterly confused.
"Where are we?"
"Uhm, somewhere between Brescia and Verona, I think," he replied nonchalantly as he got the car back on the highway. He half expected her to start yelling, but she only sank back into her seat and sighed in surrender.
"You were expecting this…"
"I was hoping to be wrong."
"I told you, I want to spend our remaining time in peace. I'm not going to let the world consume us, kid, and this is the only way."
"You never called Pepper, did you?"
"No," he admitted.
"Dad, everyone must be worried sick by now."
"You know, you should've rented a cheaper car if you want to keep a low profile."
"This one's just fine." The last car I drive won't be a piece of junk.
"Where are we going?"
"Venice. Cipriani. Remember that vacation?"
"Of course," she said with a sad smile.
"But if you got any better ideas…"
"No, Venice sounds good."
"Prosciutto sandwich?" he offered, showing her one of the sandwiches he had bought back at the gas station.
Without a word, she grabbed the sandwich, unwrapped it and started to eat.
"You know, Pepper would've come with us if you'd told her the truth."
"I asked her if she wanted to extend our trip, she said no. That's exactly why I didn't tell her. Didn't want to guilt-trip her into doing something she wouldn't do under normal circumstances."
"I see," she said, choking on the words.
Now Tony was having second thoughts. He loved Ana with every inch of his being, he loved her more than any words could describe. He wanted her to be the last thing he saw before he died. And it was such a selfish, cruel whim. He was basically asking his daughter to let him die on her. What was she going to do after he was gone? When she was all alone with his dead body in a retreat suite? How was she going to call Pepper, Rhodey and Happy, and explain the situation? Was she going to take all the blame for a choice her father had made?
"You know what, I've changed my mind. Let's go back."
"Dad, no! I want this, too."
His chest tightened, both in pride and remorse. She was braver than he could ever be. He was willing to do anything to make this easier for her, but there was nothing. He couldn't even make a joke without causing her pain right now, because an asshole had smashed her face into a bar counter and it hurt when she laughed. He couldn't even go after the attacker and make him pay for what he had done, because there was no time for that.
Venice was as beautiful as he remembered, and their suite gave them all the privacy they needed to say goodbye to each other while enjoying the scenery. They spent the first six days talking about trivial things, pretending like this was just an ordinary vacation.
"How much time do we have?" Ana asked on their sixth evening, the evening of his birthday, when she caught him checking the palladium levels on the terrace.
He decided to be honest. "72 hours."
She came to join him on the couch. "It's not enough."
He brushed the hair away from her face, so that he could see her better. He was glad that most of her injuries had healed by now. This was how he wanted to remember her: Unharmed. Healthy. And happy, though asking her to be happy right now was unfair, so he didn't. "No, it's not… God, most people wouldn't want to know when they were to die, but I would have. Yeah, I definitely would have…"
"Because if I'd known, I would've been more careful. I would've done things differently. I would've never sent you to New York. We lost five years because of me. Now we don't even have five days." Yeah, the boarding school was the right place to start talking about the important stuff, stuff that really mattered. He could no longer delay that conversation.
"Dad, it doesn't matter anymore. I don't know why you decided to send me away, but I'm sure you had a good reason."
"You've never asked why I sent you to boarding school. Are you that scared to hear the answer?" He had waited for her to ask him, but the question had never come up.
"I don't doubt you anymore. Not after Afghanistan."
"And before Afghanistan?"
"I think even then, I knew you just wanted what was best for me. Maybe you just wanted me to socialize more, or grow a tough skin… But yeah, a part of me was scared. I didn't know what I'd do if you told me you were simply tired of being my dad. It was like Schrodinger's cat. I mean, as long as you don't open the box, there's hope for the cat, right?"
Tony laughed. "What you're forgetting is that it was an imaginary experiment Schrodinger designed to prove how absurd the Copenhagen Interpretation was."
"I guess my fears were equally absurd…"
He became serious again. "Ana, I sent you away because I was a coward. You weren't anything like me. You were kind, thoughtful, and way mature beyond your years, and I was ruining you. You loved me so much that you'd started to find a way to justify everything I did. Even things that shouldn't be justified. I thought the distance might help you see my flaws. I tried to fix you, while I was the one who needed fixing. And it didn't even work, did it? You still love me unconditionally…"
"Is it a bad thing?"
"No, of course not! I just—" The moment was interrupted when they heard someone behind them clear his throat. When they turned around, they saw Nick Fury standing at the door, with Natalie Rushman, or whatever her real name was… She was wearing a black catsuit with a SHIELD logo on the shoulders, and some kind of utility belt. They must have broken into the suite.
God, he should have known. "Natalie Rushman" was too good to be a real person.
"Huh… You're fired," he told her.
"That's not up to you."
"Tony, I want you to meet Agent Natasha Romanoff."
"Great! More liars," Ana sneered bitterly. She was back to that erratic, hateful mood in an instant.
"I was simply doing my job," Romanoff said softly.
"Yeah, as a spy!"
"I'm a SHIELD shadow. Once we knew your father was ill, I was tasked to him by Director Fury."
"What do you want from me this time?" Tony asked Fury impatiently.
"What do we want from you? Do you even know what's been going on since you disappeared?" Fury scolded him.
"No, and I'd very much like to keep it that way."
"The whole world is in panic. They want to know where Iron Man is, or if he'll ever return. Your girl, as the CEO, is dealing with the mess you left behind. Your best friend had to take one of your suits."
"What?" The last part caught him by surprise. Yes, he was hoping Rhodey to become the next Iron Man after his death. Rhodey was going to wear the suits, and Ana would keep improving them, that was the plan. He just hadn't thought Rhodey would take one while Tony was still alive.
"He did you a favor. The government wanted to confiscate everything in your mansion."
"Oh, boy… You're not going to let me die in peace, are you?"
"If you hear us out, you're not going to have to die at all… Hit him."
Romanoff walked up to them and jabbed an injector into his neck.
"Hey!" Ana cried. "Don't touch him!"
Romanoff ignored her and examined the black lines on his neck. Whatever she saw, it seemed to have satisfied her.
"What did you just do to me?"
"What did we just do for you," Fury corrected him. "That's lithium dioxide. It's going to take the edge off."
Ana examined his neck. "The black lines are disappearing."
He unbuttoned his shirt to take a look. The lines on his chest hadn't completely faded, but indeed, they were waning, and he was already feeling better. "Huh…"
"This, on the other hand, is something I found in Ms. Stark's room," Romanoff added sharply, holding out a small medical vial. The "Oh, shit," look on Ana's face told him that the SHIELD spy was telling the truth for once.
He snatched it from her hand and read the label. Potassium chloride. 5 grams. Enough to shut down all bodily functions in minutes. "T—this is a lethal dose… Ana, where did you get this?"
"I took it from the hospital," Ana replied in a small voice, avoiding eye contact.
"You mean, you stole it… Why?"
"I thought, if it got too painful for you… If you wanted to quick things up a bit—"
"Stop. Just stop. I didn't raise you to be a liar, that's why you suck at it!"
This wasn't for Tony. It actually explained her sudden acceptance, why she hadn't made any fuss when they hadn't returned to the hotel. For the first time in 18 years, he was truly upset with Ana.
"Now that you gave me the cure, can we have a moment?" he asked the spies. "I'm dealing with a suicidal teenager here."
"It's not a cure, it just abates the symptoms," Romanoff said, and the duo stayed put.
"Doesn't look like it's going to be an easy fix."
"Trust me, I know. We're good at this stuff. Ana has been looking for a suitable replacement for palladium. She's tried every combination, every permutation of every known element. She's been doing nothing else since I returned from Afghanistan."
"Well, I'm here to tell you she hasn't tried them all."
"What are you talking about?"
"It's time you learned the truth about your father's true legacy."
"If you're here to make another deal, you can forget it."
"I'm not here for a deal."
"I heard you've been looking for someone. She's waiting for us at the rendezvous point. She'll tell you everything you want to know. And she thinks she can help you."
"The agent who found Ana?"
"And what does she want in return?"
"Nothing. She was going to come to you anyway. She is… pretty upset with me about being compromised. Don't worry, though, she likes you two."
"Give us a minute. Seriously!"
Fury gestured Romanoff to follow him back inside the suite. Tony knew they could still hear them, but it was better than having to have this conversation under their watchful gazes.
When Tony turned to Ana again, she still looked mortified. "I hate them!" she cried. "I hate them! All they do is to ruin my life! I should've killed Fury when I had the chance!"
He tilted her chin up to make her look at his face, reminding himself to be gentle. Once their eyes met, she didn't look away again. "This time, it's not about Fury. It's about you, Ana. I begged you not to do anything stupid after I died, and that's exactly what you were going to do! Why? Why did you want to do it? Is this how much you hate your life?"
"I can ask you the same question, Dad. Why is it okay for you to put yourself in harm's way all the time, but not for me? I thought there were no double standards between us. At least I was thoughtful enough to hide my own self-destructive plans from you!"
"Oh, so you even expect a thank you! Wow…"
"Well, yeah. I actually do."
"I'm your father, Ana. You are supposed to bury me, not the other way around. Then you are supposed to move on and live a long, happy life!"
"Live for what, exactly? To work, and work, and work, until people like Fury tear me apart, and be tossed aside like a broken doll once I have nothing left to give? You said it yourself, we're hiding here because that's the only way to stop the world from consuming us! Looks like even that's not enough. They find us no matter where we go."
He didn't know what to say. You knew your life was such a mess when even your enemies didn't bother to kill you anymore. And yeah, there was no escape from government agents.
"Whatever, let's not waste our time with this," she continued. "Fury says the agent has a solution. We should hear what she has to say."
"Oh, so you trust Fury now…"
"Please don't hate me," she pleaded fearfully, and at that moment, Tony's anger just vanished. He didn't think he could remain angry with her for more than five minutes, no matter what she did. Besides, she was just a kid who had been through too much. Compared to hers, Tony's teenage years had been a breeze.
He pulled her into a tight hug to let her know that it was okay. That nothing could ever come between them. "I can never hate you, kid. Just, don't scare me like that again."
Fury and Romanoff took them to the outskirts of Venice. They stopped before an empty grassy field. He and Romanoff got out of the car first, Tony and Ana followed them.
"Is this some kind of trap?" the latter questioned. "Are you going to kidnap us or something?"
The two spies looked at each other and smiled. Tony wondered what was so amusing about his daughter's fear. He rested a hand on her shoulder to give her a sense of reassurance. He had brought Mark V with him. He hadn't been able to repair it after the fight in Monaco, but he could still put it on and get himself and Ana away from here if necessary. But before he could say anything, there was a flash of green light, and a jet, about the same size of an average private plane, appeared on the field. It didn't look like any aircraft he had seen before. It could be the most sophisticated piece of tech that had ever existed in the world—and it wasn't just the cloaking system, the engines, or the aerodynamics—which made him feel like a caveman looking at a Concorde, and yet, there was something ancient about it at the same time. Literally ancient, like it was inspired by a Viking boat or something.
Its door opened and gilded stairs cascaded onto the ground. A blonde, petite woman descended the steps gracefully. Tony recognized her, and no matter how unconvincing this might sound, it had nothing to do with her otherworldly beauty, which actually freaked him out a little.
"I know you," he started. "You were at my parents' funeral, standing next to Peggy Carter. You haven't aged a day…"
She stopped three or four feet away from him, and her blue eyes fixated on his face. "True," she said simply.
"Who are you?"
"I'm Lady Sigyn Tyrsdottir of Asgard. It's nice to finally meet you in person, Tony."
"Wait, wait, wait… Lady Who of What now?" Tony asked.
"You can call me Sigyn," she said, then turned to Fury. "I'll take it from here, Director. You've caused enough trouble."
"They're all yours. But once you're done with the Starks, I'd like you to give me some insight on the New Mexico situation."
"I told you, it's nothing you have to worry about."
"I'll be the judge of that."
Fury and Romanoff got back into their SUV and sped away into the night. Ana was looking at Tony for a reaction, but he was rendered speechless. "I've got nothing," he admitted.
"I understand your confusion," Sigyn started. "But we're running out of time, so I'm going to make this very simple for you: I'm an alien. I come from a planet called Asgard, home to the beings your kind knows as Norse gods. And yeah, that vessel behind me is, technically, a spaceship. So… shall we?"
"Where are we going?"
"To Malibu. Come on."
He looked at Ana, who seemed as bemused as he was. She shrugged, so they followed Sigyn inside the ship.
"You and Fury aren't exactly friends, are you?" Tony asked.
"I respect Fury's wit and valor, but I was wrong to trust him. He broke two of the promises he made to me… Take a seat. Make yourselves comfortable. My ship is much faster than any Midgardian aircraft, but we still have a seven-hour flight ahead of us."
There was a comfortable looking L-shaped sitting area facing the control panels. He sat down, one arm protectively wrapped around Ana, and his other hand resting on the Mark V case.
Sigyn started pushing what looked like the yoke forward gradually, and Tony felt the ship take off. It was rising fast, but smoothly. He wasn't sure if it was better, or worse for an acrophobic to fly on a spaceship, but Ana seemed relaxed enough. Sigyn hit a few buttons, then came to join them in the sitting area. The engineer in him was dying to go to the control panels and try to figure out how this thing worked. Ana gave him a small smile, and he knew they both shared the same urge. But there were other questions that needed to be answered first.
"First of all, Fury should've never tried to recruit you for the Avengers Initiative. And Ana should've never found out about her mother. Especially not under those circumstances. I'm deeply sorry about what happened."
"Who are you, exactly? Why do you care?"
Sigyn studied them for a moment, with a troubled expression on her face, as if she was trying to figure out what to tell them. Finally, she said, "I'd like to start from the very beginning, if you don't mind."
"Well, as long as you don't start from the Big Bang, it's fine."
"Centuries ago, our King, Odin Allfather, decided to hide a very dangerous relic here, on Earth. He thought mortals wouldn't dare you use it, but he was wrong. During World War II, someone found that relic: The Red Skull."
"If this is about Captain America, just kill me already," Tony groaned. Seriously, if someone started telling him about Captain American stories again after all these years, he was going to puke.
"I see you're still bitter about Howard's fascination with Captain Rogers…"
The statement felt like a punch in the gut. "I'd rather call it an obsession," he muttered angrily.
To his surprise, a grave look of understanding crossed her face. "And you wouldn't be wrong."
"My dad never told me anything about an alien artifact being involved in the war, though."
"Yes, he deliberately kept that part from you. But the Red Skull's powers didn't only come from the super-soldier serum. He'd also weaponized the relic. Anyway, after the Red Skull was defeated, Odin decided that humans couldn't be trusted with the Tesseract. So, he decided to send an Asgardian here to keep it safe. I volunteered. I came to this realm in 1950. By then, Howard had found the Tesseract in the ocean, while looking for Captain Rogers."
Funny, no matter how annoying it was, Tony had always thought Steve Rogers was the one thing his always cold, dispassionate dad was sincere about. Now it turned out he wasn't completely honest about even that. It made it even harder for Tony to imagine him as a lovable individual, as someone's friend, which made the initial question about the "agent" even more important. Howard Stark didn't have friends. He had either allies, subordinates, or enemies.
"And after you came here, what happened? Why do you owe my dad a debt of gratitude? What did he do for you?"
"Well, for starters, he didn't lock me up in a lab and dissect me to study the Asgardian physiology. Most people in SHIELD would have."
"Was he somehow involved with SHIELD?"
"He was a founding member of SHIELD, along with Peggy Carter and Colonel Phillips."
It all made sense now. Tony and Ana exchanged a long look, until Sigyn sighed. "SHIELD was his idea to begin with."
"Why did he never tell me?" Tony couldn't imagine his dad trying not to make him a part of SHIELD, if he was the one who had started it.
"Because he wanted you to have a safe, normal life. As normal as it could be for a genius like yourself."
"I find that hard to believe." Was she really going to make him say the truth out loud in front of Ana? If Sigyn and his dad had been such good friends, she would know how much he had despised his son, wouldn't she?
"Howard wasn't always that cold, distant, overbearing workaholic you remember."
Tony gulped thickly. This was getting more disturbing by second. The blondie was reading him like a book. Ana gave him a questioning glance. By now, she must have realized his relationship with his dad was much more complicated than he had let her know. He didn't want her to imagine him as the helpless little boy he had been once, terrified of his dad's outbursts. It was embarrassing. He was supposed to be her hero, a beacon of strength and confidence. Not an emotional mess with daddy issues.
"I'm not saying he wasn't a pain in the ass," Sigyn went on. "He was difficult, even in his youth. But when I first started working for SHIELD, things were simpler. We were… naive. We had a vision. A dream. We were going to change this world, make it a part of a bigger universe."
"Why do you care, though? This is not your world. You're just a tourist passing by."
"I'm half-mortal. My father was an Asgardian. I was born and raised in Asgard. But my mother was a mortal. In the eyes of most Asgardians, I was a disgrace. I came here, hoping to be a goddess among mortals. I came here looking for superiority, yet I found something much more precious: Equality. Acceptance. A place among you. I'd been sent here to protect a relic that belonged to the Allfather. I didn't have to become the first Consultant of SHIELD. I didn't have to be a stealth operative during the Cold War years. But Howard and Peggy gave me a chance to fight for a cause I believed in. Such is my debt of gratitude."
"What went wrong?" Her gloomy attitude gave him the impression that something had gone terribly wrong.
"A lot. The brevity of human life is on the top of the list. Howard had so many ideas, but when he realized how little time he had, he grew desperate. I wanted to help him, but I was a living, walking reminder of his own mortality. And then, there were all those enemies he had made along the way…"
"Was Anton Vanko one of them?"
"Yes. Anton Vanko was a scientist at Stark Industries, and a good friend of your father's. Howard's speeches on world peace weren't just publicity. He really wanted to end wars. It was his ultimate goal. He knew that humanity had to resolve their inner conflicts first before finding a place among the intergalactic community. Most of your wars are fought over resources, so the real key to world peace was to create a source of unlimited energy."
"Hence the Arc Reactor," Tony realized.
"Exactly. He thought Anton Vanko shared his vision, so they worked on the Arc Reactor together, at least for a time. They called it the Unity Project. Howard was so hopeful that he thought you and Anton's son, Ivan, would work together one day and continue their legacy. He was planning to bring Anton into the inner circle when his treachery was discovered. He was a Russian spy, and he only wanted to use the Arc Reactor to get rich. The Vankos were deported immediately, but the Russian intelligence saw this as a failure and sent the Vankos to an exile in Siberia."
"Who else was in this inner circle?"
"Well, Peggy, of course. Your mother joined when she and Howard got engaged. He'd never keep any secrets from Maria. And the Jarvises."
"The Jarvises knew you, too?"
Sigyn looked at him with a sad smile. "When I first knocked on Howard's door, who do you think answered it?"
"And that mind-wiping thing? How did you do it?"
"Magic?" he asked skeptically.
"Yes. I'm also a sorceress."
Mentally exhausted, Tony buried his face in his hands, trying to sort his thoughts. His brain was overloaded with information; he needed time to process everything he had just heard. His dad's BFF was an alien, and here she was, giving satisfying answers to all the questions Tony hadn't had the chance to ask him. To be honest, it felt too good to be true. Was Fury playing another game with them?
He felt a hand running through his hair. "Dad? Are you okay?"
He glanced towards Ana, and tried to smile. Once this was over—and if he survived—they were going to have a lengthy conversation about this, and he was looking forward to it. He was looking forward to hearing what she thought. Funny, when she was a little girl, he used to fear that she would not love him, that their bond would weaken once she grew up. He could now see he had feared for nothing. Their relationship hadn't weakened. It had evolved. Ana would always be a little girl in his eyes, it would always be his duty to protect her, but intellectually, he saw her as his equal. Which brought them even closer, because being a genius was lonely. Perhaps that was why she had stolen a lethal injection from the hospital. Unlike him, Ana wasn't someone who would deal with loneliness by drinking, partying, gambling, and sleeping around.
"Always," he assured her.
"Can you help us with the palladium poisoning?" she asked Sigyn impatiently. Yeah, she had just met an alien and this was still the first thing on her mind.
"That's the reason I'm here. To help you finish the Arc Reactor project."
"I thought it was finished," Tony said.
"No. The palladium core was only a temporary replacement for something greater. Something Howard hoped you would create one day."
Tony gave in. There was no time for subtleties. "Just to be clear, are we talking about the same guy whose happiest day was when he shipped me off to boarding school?"
"He loved you, Tony. He loved you more than anything else. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here. In his last years, he always made me promise that I'd look out for you, without directly getting involved in your life."
Sigyn got on her feet, crossed to a crate at the far end of the ship, opened it, and took out a large hard case. She placed it down at Tony's feet.
Property of H. Stark
"Howard wanted you to have this. I wasn't supposed to be the one to give it to you, but after you found Peggy, I changed my mind."
He turned to Ana again, but she looked like she was waiting for him to open the case. So, he flipped the locks on it, and lifted the lid open.
There was a schematic of the Arc Reactor—this one had Anton Vanko's name on it, as well as Howard Stark's—pictures, a newspaper clipping about Anton Vanko seeking asylum in the US, film reels, notebooks, and Captain America comics.
The film reels were going to have to wait until they were back in Malibu, so he decided to read his dad's notes until then. Sigyn had returned to the pilot's seat, and was looking out the windshield, probably to give them some privacy.
"Dad?" Ana whispered. "Seriously, how are you doing? I mean, lately, we were both starting to realize your dad's past was more mysterious than we thought, but this? This is a new level of crazy."
"Yeah, but nothing I can't handle. How are you doing?"
"Ask me again when we find the solution she's talking about."
"We will. I'm not sure what her game is, but she doesn't look like someone who's going to let me die."
Tony gave Ana's shoulder an encouraging squeeze, turned another page of his dad's notebook to find the detailed study of a hypercube. It looked like his dad was trying to replicate this cube's powers.
"Sigyn?" Ana asked.
She turned in the seat to face them. "Yes?"
"Do you know what this hypercube is?"
"Oh, that's the Tesseract."
"The artifact that brought you here?"
"What does it do, exactly?"
"It's… an energy source, in the simplest terms."
"Where's the Tesseract now?"
"Fury has it. The World Security Council was breathing down on his neck; I had to let him reactivate Project PEGASUS."
"Project PEGASUS?" Tony asked. "The name rings a bell."
"I'm sure it does, Tony."
"You don't like Fury much either," Ana observed. "Why are you working for him?"
"I'm not working for him. I'm working with him, because that's my duty as the guardian of the Tesseract. And I also promised Howard that as long as I stayed on Midgard, I'd help the Directors of SHIELD in any way I could."
"Even if you don't like them?"
"You must understand, Ana. Where I come from, being an oathbreaker is the ultimate disgrace. When I make a promise, I keep it."
Sigyn turned around in her seat again, and kept watching the sky. Tony and Ana returned to Howard Stark's notes.
When Sigyn's ship landed on the pad of the Malibu Mansion, Ana felt like she hadn't been here for years. Funny how much could change in barely one week. Ana grabbed one end of Howard Stark's hard case, her dad grabbed the other, and they started on the walkway that led into the house. After a few steps, she turned around to see if Sigyn was coming, but she was just standing awkwardly by her now-invisible-again ship.
Her dad must have noticed it, too. "Do you want to invite her in?"
"No, but we probably should."
"Right… Hey, Legally Blonde, are you not coming?"
"I am," she said with a timid smile, and set off to join them.
"Welcome home, sir, Miss Stark," JARVIS greeted them, and turned on the lights the moment they were inside.
"Hey, buddy," he said. Ana knew he hadn't expected to be here again, and neither had she. But that didn't matter anymore. There was hope now. And approximately 60 hours to find it. It was better than 60 hours of desperation, she reminded herself.
"We'll be in the shop," her dad told Sigyn. "Make yourself at home."
Sigyn nodded, and the Starks went down to the basement. The woman had told them that the film reels were important, though she hadn't said why.
"Sir, may I ask who our guest is?" JARVIS asked them once they were in the privacy of their workshop. "I've run the facial recognition program, but no match has been found."
"She's an alien," her dad replied quickly. "Like, alien alien. We don't know what exactly her powers are, so keep an eye on her, will you?"
"Of course, sir."
"Good. Ana, you fill him in. I'll be back in a sec." With these words, he disappeared into the back of the shop, where the storage rooms were. Ana briefly told JARVIS where they had been, and who Lady Sigyn of Asgard was. Her dad soon returned with an old movie projector.
"Help me set this up."
"I don't know how that thing works," Ana admitted. It was a bit embarrassing. Her dad kept digital copies of everything, so she had never bothered to learn. It couldn't be that hard; she could figure it out on her own if she wanted, but she didn't want to risk damaging those reels.
He chortled. "Looks like your old man still got one or two things to teach you. Come here."
Ana went up to him, and gave him a brief, but warm hug. "I'll never stop learning from you, Dad. So, don't leave me, okay?"
"Do I look like someone who wants to leave?" He kissed her temple in a thoughtful, almost sad manner, then proceeded to show her how to set up the projector, and how to insert the film strip into it. Now it was time to sit down and watch.
At first, she was disappointed, because it was just her grandfather repeating the same speech over and over again for a promotional video for the 1974 Expo. She only smiled when she saw her dad in the background, as a four-year-old kid, playing with the Expo diorama, at least until his dad scolded him.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, snuggling closer.
"Don't be," he said, but she could see how much he needed the comforting right now.
"You two weren't very close, were you?"
"You always seemed so… proud of him. I mean, you talk about his achievements all the time. You have pictures of him everywhere. I'd figured he was an ambitious guy and he might have expected too much from you, but other than that, I thought you and your dad were like… you and me."
"I am proud of him. But you're right. When it came to my dad, I… I wasn't entirely honest with you before."
"What did he do?"
"Nothing, actually. I loved him. He didn't love me back. That's all," he replied, like it was no big deal. But they both knew it was.
"I love you. I'll always love you, more than anything else."
"And I'll always love you more." Her dad had always looked at her like she was his savior, like she had saved him from a terrible fate. Until now, she had thought it was because she had become the family he needed after the loss of his parents. But she understood now. There was more. By being born, Ana had given him a chance to be the father he never had.
"Tony," they heard Howard Stark say, and their attention shifted back to the screen. "You are too young to understand this right now, so I thought I would put it on film for you. I built this for you. And someday, you'll realize that it represents a lot more than just some people's inventions. It represents my life's work. This is the key to the future. I'm limited by the technology of my time. But one day you'll figure this out. And when you do, you will change the world. What is, and always will be, my greatest creation, is you."
They both watched this secret message in frozen shock. They knew they would find a message, but certainly not such an emotional one. Once it ended, she waited in respectful silence. This had just confirmed that Howard Stark had loved his son, like Sigyn had averred, but perhaps it was too little, too late.
But when he didn't say anything for a long time, she asked, "So, are you feeling better, or worse?"
"I don't know… It would've been easier to believe if Dad had told that 'greatest creation' bit to my face at least for once, but I guess it's still better than nothing."
"What about the Expo? Do you know how it can help us?"
"No, but luckily, we got a Howard Stark expert right here. Let's ask her."
They went upstairs, and found Sigyn in the living room, watching the news.
"The Starks Still Missing," read the headline. The hotel staff had turned out to be really tight-lipped, thank goodness. Otherwise, at least one of them would have told the press that the Starks had been on a vacation in Venice.
"I assume you found Howard's message," Sigyn said when she saw them.
"Did you know about it?" he asked.
"I was there when he recorded it."
Ana didn't have patience for riddles. "What does the Expo have anything to do with the Arc Reactor?"
"The Expo model, it's a secret blueprint for the element that will replace the palladium."
"My dad created a new element?"
"Yes. But he never had the chance to synthesize it himself. The technology wasn't available back then."
"How am I supposed to use this blueprint? Is it an atomic structure, or—"
"I don't know, Tony. I'm just the messenger, not a scientist, at least not like you. But I'd like to stay here until we make sure you're safe. I want to see this through."
"Where's the diorama right now?" Ana asked.
"In my office."
"Well, let's go get it."
"If we're going to create a new element, we need some sleep first. I'll go in the morning. I should probably talk to Pepper as well. I owe her an apology."
Right, Pepper… Ana had been so preoccupied with the palladium problem that she had forgotten about her. "We both do."
"Don't worry, I'll earn a pardon for both of us tomorrow."
After they had dinner, Ana showed Sigyn to one of the bedrooms, and then retreated to her own room. Her dad had promised to apologize to Pepper on both their behalves, but Ana still felt like she ought to talk to her in person. So, she called her. Pepper answered on the first ring.
"Ana?" Her sharp, panicked voice pierced Ana's ears.
"Oh my God, are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. We're back in Malibu, I just wanted to let you know."
"Where have you been?"
"Venice? You were on a vacation?" She sounded furious now.
"You two are unbelievable…"
"I know, but Dad didn't want to contact anyone, I'm sorry."
"Oh, is that so? Do you have any idea how scared I was? Do you know what I thought? I thought you two had an accident! Or, got kidnapped! Or, you died of brain hemorrhage and Tony went berserk!"
"Pepper, please… Look, something crazy happened, and I really need your opinion right now." Ana didn't know how to feel about Sigyn. She had always thought she would be grateful to the person who had left her on her dad's doorstep, but after everything that had happened with SHIELD, she couldn't be so sure anymore. What if this was another one of Fury's games? She wasn't going to trust Sigyn unless Pepper did. Pepper had proven her ability to see through people both with Fury and with "Natalie Rushman." Things would've been much different if Ana and her dad had listened to her.
"No." Her reply was firm.
"Pepper, I'm so sorry."
"'Sorry' won't save you. Not this time. You were supposed to be the mature, responsible Stark, Ana. But now, you're getting drunk and starting bar brawls. You and Tony are feeding each other's madness… Is he there, by the way?"
"No, I'm alone in my room. But he's going to come to see you in the morning. Please give him a chance to explain everything, I'm begging you."
Pepper hung up without saying anything.
She had every right to be mad at Ana, but the truth was, Ana was simply doing what her dad had wanted her to do, so no matter how much she cared about Pepper, she had no regrets, which only added more to her guilt. Feeling ashamed, she took a quick shower, and slipped into her bed. JARVIS turned off the lights.
"Yes, Miss Stark?"
"What do you think of Sigyn?"
"So far, she has displayed no suspicious behavior. Though in none of the myths concerning her, she is depicted as a half-human, or the guardian of any artifact."
"And what do the myths say about her?"
"In Norse Mythology, Sigyn is known as the Goddess of Fidelity and the wife of Loki, the God of Mischief. In fact, she was declared the Goddess of Fidelity after being tricked into the marriage by Loki and refusing to annul it when his deception was discovered."
"Tell me more."
JARVIS went on to tell her stories about Sigyn's original betrothed, Theoric, the sacrifices she had made for Loki, and about their children.
"Geez," she groaned once JARVIS was finished. "Even if half of those stories are true, no wonder she left Asgard. Loki sounds like a massive jerk."
"Their case indeed sounds like an extreme example of emotional domestic abuse."
"You were right, about me being wrong to think family can be trusted just because they're family. I mean, look at Howard Stark. I always admired him, you know… Thought he was a legend. Turns out he was just another asshole who hurt Dad."
"I believe the situation is more complicated than that."
"Who cares? He hurt Dad, it's all that matters… Goodnight, J."
"Goodnight, Miss Stark."
When she woke up in the morning, JARVIS said her dad had already gone to his—or, now, Pepper's—office. She was about to fix some breakfast when Sigyn knocked on the door.
"Ana? JARVIS said you're awake, may I come in?"
JARVIS opened the door for her, and Sigyn entered. Since Pepper was unavailable, Ana had to decide on her own whether this woman could be trusted or not, so she decided to get to know her better. And Sigyn looked like she wanted to chat, which was good.
"Hey, you like quinoa muffins?"
"I could use some breakfast, thanks."
"How much do Asgardians eat anyway?"
"Compared to humans, a lot. Our metabolism burns much faster."
"Even mine… Do you need help?"
"No, not really." She took out two bags of frozen baked quinoa muffins from the freezer and heated them in the microwave. "Would you mind if I asked you your age? Scientific curiosity…"
"Not at all. I'm 1040 years old."
"Wow… What's the average lifespan of an Asgardian?"
"5000 years. Mine is… unknown. Even Howard couldn't figure it out."
After pouring two cups of coffee, they sat down at the kitchen island and started eating. "This is really good," Sigyn complimented after taking the first bite.
"Thanks. One of my best recipes."
"You seem to be good at this clean eating thing. Have you considered starting a lifestyle brand?"
Ana snorted. "What, like, for yoga moms or something?" Ana had learned to do whatever she had to do to maintain an acceptable appearance for a celebrity in her position, but it wasn't exactly a passion. If only people cared more about what was in her head than how good she would look in a bikini, or how expensive her shoes were, but that wasn't how the world worked.
Sigyn laughed, but then became serious, almost grim. "You have Howard's ambitions. I see it in your eyes. The same desire to change the world."
This confused her. No one had compared her to her grandfather before. She took a long sip from her coffee. "You're wrong. I don't give a damn about the world."
It was true. She knew the rules, she understood the importance of playing by them, and bending them for her convenience whenever she could. Life was simpler that way.
"What are you hoping to do with this gift you have, then, if you don't want to shape the world with it?"
"For now, I just want to save my dad."
"Why do you care?"
"Because you're my family, Ana, whether you like me or not. The Starks and the Carters are my family. And I'd like to know more about you while I have the chance."
"Don't you have a family back in Asgard? I thought you were married."
"I see you did your homework last night…"
"Can you blame me?"
"I wouldn't expect anything less from a Stark. But most of those stories about me are false. Theoric wasn't exactly the love of my life, for example. It was going to be an arranged marriage."
Ana grimaced in disgust. "Arranged marriage? I thought you guys were more advanced than us?"
"I wasn't forced to marry Theoric. I only met him after I told my father that I was looking for a suitor. I loved Loki, but I wanted him to give up on me and find himself a more suitable bride, as a prince of Asgard. A half-blood like me wasn't fit to bear him strong heirs. But he didn't care. He took Theoric captive just before the wedding and disguised himself as him. He revealed his true form after the vows were recited. What was done was done, so I didn' want to insult him by annulling the marriage."
"What about your kids?"
"We don't have any. Odin made me swear that I wouldn't bear him any children. He wants to keep his bloodline pure. An understandable wish. Still, it would've been better if he hadn't made me swear before the whole realm…"
"You were humiliated… That's why you came here."
"Yes. I wanted my life to have a purpose. I didn't want to be just a dutiful wife, or an obedient citizen. You see, I have a gift, too. I'm good at sorcery. Good enough to be known as Queen Frigga's prodigy. Here, in Midgard, I can put my talents to good use."
"Like, saving me from the Clarkes?"
"Just curious," Ana said, and it was the truth. "If Irene hadn't been terminally ill…"
"I would've still saved you. That woman didn't deserve to be a mother."
Ana had to remind herself that she shouldn't let the gratitude blind her. Crazy as it might be, Sigyn's story made sense, but she was yet to prove that she wasn't another Natasha Romanoff.
"You don't trust me," Sigyn observed. "That's good."
"Is it?" Ana asked, puzzled.
"You are a Stark. You'd be wise not to trust people easily. Besides, once Tony is safe, you'll never have to see me again if you don't want to. You'll probably never go back to your old life, after what you learned, but I'd like to hope that you'll find some peace, at least. You don't need trust for that."
"I think I always knew there were alien life forms out there. I mean, considering how big the universe is, it would be arrogant to think otherwise. I never believed in any gods, though. If I did, I'd be their biggest worshipper, just to show how grateful I was to them for making me the daughter of Tony Stark. And now, here you are, an actual goddess…"
She chuckled. "Please don't start worshiping me, that would be awkward."
"But there was a time people worshiped you. How did it feel?" Again, she was genuinely curious. She was a scientist conversing with an actual alien, how could she not be curious?
Sigyn thought for a moment, and then replied, "I don't think they worshiped me, Ana. I think they just wanted to believe the perfect wife existed somewhere in the universe. But that wasn't me."
"Yeah, it must be frustrating, to be only remembered as someone's dutiful wife. Especially if that someone is an abusive jerk."
"Loki isn't that bad. He's a faithful husband, and he loves me as much as I love him. He can be really considerate when he wants to be. He was the one who told me about your existence, for example. So, that gratitude you're trying so hard not to feel right now? Remember to save some of it for him," she said softly.
But Ana wasn't going to give in so easily. "But he lied to you. He tricked you into marriage. Shouldn't that be… I don't know, a deal-breaker?"
"You're right. He didn't respect my choice. It wasn't easy for me to forgive him, but in the end, I did."
"Why? Why not just dump him and be done with the drama?"
Sigyn narrowed her blue eyes. "You've never been in love, have you?"
Ana didn't like the question. "No," she said curtly, hoping this simple and honest answer would be the end of it.
"Miss Stark," JARVIS interrupted, much to her relief. "Your father is back. He is waiting for you in the workshop."
"I'm coming," she said, and set off to the basement, leaving Sigyn alone in her private kitchen. JARVIS would make sure she wouldn't get nosy.
You might have noticed that I've changed the summary. This story doesn't get much response, so I wanted to see if the summary is the problem by replacing it with a more comprehensive one, so don't be confused. Anyway, the next chapter will be JARVIS POV, and I'm already excited about it. I know JARVIS chapters are rare, but they're my favorite, even though they're hard to write.
"How did it go?" Ana asked her dad as soon as she entered the workshop.
He spun around in the swivel chair to face her. "Pepper's still mad. But I got the Expo model." Indeed, the model was on a table at the far end of the room, and he was sitting before a holographic scan of it.
"Did you tell her what's been going on?"
"Nah, I figured it would a bad time to tell her about super-spies and aliens. Romanoff is with her, by the way. They're probably on their way to New York as we speak."
"I was talking about your palladium poisoning."
He shrugged. "I didn't want to scare her."
Ana shook her head, frustrated. He was hopeless.
"How's Sabrina doing?"
"We had breakfast together. I'm still trying to figure out if she could be trusted."
"Cool… Anyway, what does this look like to you?" He showed her the hologram.
She circled around it. "Uhm, Sigyn said it was the blueprints of a new element."
"So, an atom?" she guessed.
"In which, case, the nucleus would be here," he said, pointing at the center. "JARVIS, highlight the Unisphere."
When Ana looked more carefully, she realized it indeed looked like an empty nucleus, waiting to be filled by protons and neutrons.
"Lose the footpaths. Get rid of them. Lose the landscaping, the shrubbery, the trees. Parking lots, exits, entrances. Structure the protons or neutrons using the pavillions as a framework."
JARVIS did. And it worked. They were looking at the atomic structure of a new element.
"Dead for almost 20 years and still taking me to school," he laughed.
"The proposed element should serve as a viable replacement for palladium. Unfortunately, it's impossible to synthesize."
"Great, now what?"
"Get ready for a major remodel, fellas. We're back in hardware mode."
"What? Dad, we need a Particle Accelerator!"
"Just a small one."
"Dad…" It wasn't safe. Even a small mistake would result in an explosion.
"Come on, kid. You got any better ideas? We're running out of time here."
"Fine," she gave in. "What do you want me to do?"
"Uhm, start making a container for the new element. I'll let you know if I need a hand with anything else."
Building a Particle Accelerator required a lot of heavy work. Thankfully, Sigyn had volunteered to help. For an alien witch, she was actually a good lab assistant. When the Accelerator was ready, her dad invited Sigyn into the workshop to witness the creation of Howard Stark's element. He must have liked her. He wouldn't let anyone he didn't like into the shop.
He gave Ana a pair of safety goggles. She put them on.
"Do you need a pair of these?" he asked Sigyn next.
"Well, you can never be too careful," she said, and took another pair of goggles.
He put on the last pair himself. "Alright, JARVIS, let's do this."
As JARVIS rerouted all the power in the mansion to the Accelerator, Ana reminded herself that her dad would never risk blowing up the whole place while she was here. And if she was wrong… Well, they didn't have much to lose at this point.
"Initializing Prismatic Accelerator," JARVIS reported, and added shortly afterwards, "Approaching maximum power."
Her dad was struggling to guide the laser beam into the container. "Ana, give me that wrench over there!"
Ana quickly did as she was told. Using the wrench, he managed to get a hold of the wheel. The beam was slicing through everything in its path, including the lockers where they kept the inflammable materials. When it finally hit the container, there was a blinding white light.
"Shut it down!"
Ana hit the button to shut down the Accelerator. The laser beam faded away, the lights came back on, and the triangle-shaped container was now glowing blue.
"That was easy," he said.
"Well, we didn't die, so that's something. Do you think it worked?"
"Only one way to find out."
He tossed his goggles aside, and went to pick up the element with a pair of tweezers.
"Congratulations, sir. You have created a new element." Even JARVIS sounded awed.
"Please work," Ana whispered as she watched her dad put it in the new Arc Reactor. "Please work, please…"
"Sir, the Reactor has accepted the modified core. I will begin running diagnostics."
He flashed a triumphant grin at her. Flooded with relief, Ana flung her arms around his neck, almost tackling him. He managed to steady them, though, then enveloped her in a tight hug. She buried her face into his chest, savoring the blissful moment. He was going to live. They were going to be okay. Plus, it wasn't every day you watched your father create a new element, even if your father was Tony Stark.
"You did it, Dad."
"No, kid. We did it."
"As long as you're safe, I don't care who takes the credit."
He laughed. Ana released him. "JARVIS, how long will the diagnostics take?"
"Three hours at most, miss."
Sigyn cleared her throat, and only then, they remembered that she was still there. She was smiling, and at that moment, despite her young appearance, she indeed looked like the proud great-aunt of the family. And yet, for some reason, there was a hint of concern in her eyes.
"If only Howard were here to see this."
Good thing he's not, Ana thought bitterly.
Sigyn pulled out one of the objects he had stacked under the coils, to examine it with admiration. An early prototype of Captain America's shield.
"It's not the real thing, obviously, but you can keep it if you like," he said, as if he was talking about a piece of trash. By now, Ana had understood Captain America was a sour spot for him.
Sigyn placed it down carefully. "It belongs to you, Tony. Besides, I have my own shield."
Her phone started to ring. She looked at the screen with distaste. "Damn you, Fury… Sorry, I have to take this."
After Sigyn strode out of the workshop, Ana went to make coffee. Her dad stretched his muscles, took out his tank top and put on a brown robe instead. He seemed tired. Happy, but tired.
"Hey, you need another shot of lithium dioxide?"
"Nah, I think I can manage for three more hours. Then I'll be as good as new."
"In that case, here you go." She handed him a cup of coffee.
"Thanks, kid." He pulled a chair to sit down, and gestured Ana to do the same, meaning they were going to talk about something important.
"Now that I'm not dying anymore, I need to know," he started. "What you were planning to do in Venice, was it the first time the thought crossed your mind?"
"No," she admitted. He had a special distaste for liars, so she decided not to be one again.
"When? The boarding school?"
"What? I'd never do that to you, Dad!"
He seemed to have understood. "Afghanistan, then?"
She nodded. "I had a plan. If they confirmed your death… The safe house was surrounded by wireless electric fences. They weren't lethal, but you know, all it would take was some tinkering. With 500 milliamps, there would be—"
"T—that's enough." Indeed, he suddenly looked not only tired, but also sick, and Ana was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the palladium. "Damn it, kid…"
It was all Fury's fault. Fury, and his stupid agents. Her dad was never supposed to know. Why on Earth had they told him? "I'm sorry, Dad. I hate myself when I upset you."
"You didn't upset me. Well, you kind of did, but it's not like… Look, just promise me that you'll never, ever think of it again."
"I can't make such a promise. I don't hate my existence, like you fear. I know I didn't have a say in it, but I'm still glad I was born. We have a good life here, no matter how many people try to ruin it. But I just don't see a happy ending for me in a world without you."
Someone tapped on the glass door. Sigyn. She might have been invited in, but she wasn't given an access code. Ana went to let her back in. For some reason, the alien froze on the spot and smiled fondly when she saw her dad.
"Is that Howard's robe?"
"Yeah," he said casually, but couldn't hide how mortified he was. It was both hilarious and heart-breaking. Hilarious, because he was trying so hard to look tough. Heart-breaking, because he still loved a dead man who hadn't loved him back. At least not as much as he should have.
"Anyway, there's a situation in New Mexico. My brother-in-law might, or might not be in trouble, I don't know. That was supposed to be classified, but whatever… I believe you guys don't need my help anymore?"
He shrugged. "The Land of Enchantment, eh? Sounds like your kind of place. But I was hoping to have another conversation with you about Dad. While my brain isn't all mush, you know."
"We can always talk, Tony. Whenever you want. But if you don't want me in your life, I respect that, too. As I told Ana, you never have to see me, or hear from me again. I'm here as a family friend, not a SHIELD operative."
"Incoming call from blocked number, sir," JARVIS broke in.
He answered the call.
"Hey, Tony. How are you doing?" It was a man with a heavy Russian accent. Everyone in the room frowned. Was Ivan still alive? JARVIS had told them that he had been killed in jail. Ana ran up to her dad's side to see what was going on.
"You told me to double-cycle for more power. Good advice."
"You sound pretty sprightly for a dead guy."
He muted the microphone. "Trace him."
Ana put a hand on his shoulder as they watched JARVIS start trace the call. He gestured her to be quiet. She nodded in understanding. So far, Ivan hadn't tried to use her for his revenge. Her dad probably wanted to keep it that way.
"Now, the true history of Stark name will be rewritten."
"JARVIS, where's he?"
"Accessing the Oracle grid. Eastern Seaboard."
"What your father did to my family over 40 years, I will do to you in 40 minutes."
"Sounds good, let's get together and hash it out." Ana wasn't sure if he was just trying to keep Ivan talking, or really challenging him to another duel. Probably both.
"Tri-State Area." JARVIS was getting closer. "Manhattan and outlying boroughs."
"I hope you are ready." Ivan hung up.
"Call trace incomplete."
"I swear I'll escort that bastard to the gates of Hel myself!" Sigyn snarled, her blue eyes blazing with rage.
"Whoa there, Xena. I got this. I know where he's going to be." He pointed at the screen on the left, where news and updates on the Expo were being displayed.
Today at Main Stage: In Defense of Peace with Justin Hammer
"Wow, Hammer actually managed to get more than a slot…"
"Yeah, and I bet it was him who bailed Ivan's ass out."
It made sense. Hammer was in desperate need for an actual engineer. Her dad sprung to his feet and grabbed the untested Arc Reactor.
"You want to run some test, run them. And assemble the suit while you're at it. Put it together now."
"We're unclear as to the effects…"
"Dad, please, wait…"
"I don't want to hear it!"
Shit. Judging by his reaction, the new element was clearly doing something to him, but Ana wasn't sure what it was.
"It tastes like coconut… and metal. Oh, wow… Yeah!"
"Dad?" Ana asked warily.
"I'm good," he said, but he was panting heavily.
"JARVIS?" she asked this time.
"Mr. Stark's vitals appear to be normal."
"I told you." He shed the brown robe, and put on a long-sleeve t-shirt.
"Tony, let me come with you," Sigyn offered. "I can help."
"No, you stay here. I gotta go to the Expo, but it might as well be a trap to lure me out of the house."
Sigyn nodded. "I see."
"Can you protect her?"
In response, Sigyn's clothes changed into some kind of medieval-looking armor. She also conjured a sword and a shield.
"Wow, you weren't kidding about the shield."
"Ana will be safe with me, I give you my word."
"Still… JARVIS, initiate the Home Alone Protocol after I leave."
"The Home Alone Protocol?" Ana was starting to feel pretty embarrassed now.
"Yes, and don't try to override it, or I'll throw you a party."
She couldn't help but smile. This was his favorite threat ever since she was a little kid. And quite an effective one at that.
After Iron Man left the workshop for New York in Mark VI, Ana said, "JARVIS, you know what to do."
JARVIS cut off the internet of the mansion, like he always did whenever her dad went on a mission, though he was still online in the background. It was one of the habits Ana had developed recently to be able to maintain whatever mental health she had left.
"Once the threat is eliminated, I shall let you know," JARVIS assured her.
"You're worried for your father," Sigyn observed.
"Not only him. Pepper and Happy are in danger as well."
"Agent Romanoff won't let anything happen to them. She's one of SHIELD's best."
"Do you know her?"
"Only by reputation. I work exclusively with the Director of SHIELD. It's a part of the arrangement Howard made for me. Which is why I'm actually hesitant to go to New Mexico and check up on Thor."
"Why is he in New Mexico anyway?"
"What about your father? How did your parents meet?"
A fond smile brushed her lips. "My mother was a Viking shieldmaiden. When the Frost Giants attacked her village, she was one of the warriors who defended their home until the Asgardian army came for help. My father, Tyr, was Odin's most trusted general. He saw her, and after the war, he returned to Earth to ask her hand in marriage. She said yes, and went to Asgard with him."
"The inhabitants of Jotunheim. After they were defeated, Odin took their source of power, the Casket of the Ancient Winters, from them. They're not a threat to the other realms anymore."
"Why did they attack Earth in the first place?"
"To conquer it."
Needless to say, this raised some concerns. "How many threats are still out there?"
"Rest assured, your world is under Asgard's protection. No one would dare awaken Odin's wrath."
"Still, I'd feel a lot better if we were capable of protecting ourselves."
"See? You're not as ambitionless as you think you are. Fury is interested in you for a reason."
"I hate that meddlesome bastard! Can't you just kill him for me?"
"Careful now, Ana. Just because you're Howard's granddaughter doesn't mean I'm going to become your personal assassin. Besides, Fury is not that bad."
Well, it was worth a try. "No?"
"He's still one of the good guys."
"Then I don't even want to know what the bad ones are like."
"I'd trust Fury with my life. Just not with my secrets. I suggest you do the same."
"Okay, asking you to kill him was a bit extreme. Can't you just convince him to leave me and Dad alone?"
"He will leave you alone, don't worry. My guess is, once Romanoff's mission is completed, she will recommend Tony to be a Consultant, and you to be a cadet at the Sci-Tech Academy. If you refuse, I don't think SHIELD will bother you again."
"The SciTech Academy?"
"SHIELD has three different Academies: The Academy of Operations, Communications, and Science and Technology. They're always looking out for potential candidates. You need at least one PhD to be able to enter the last one."
"Good thing I don't have a PhD, then."
"You're very unforgiving. Another thing you've inherited from Howard."
"Can you just stop comparing me to him?" Ana snapped, frustrated. "I know you guys were BFFs and all, but let's just be honest here. If he'd been around when I was born, would he have let his son taint the family name with a love child?"
"He wasn't as narrow-minded as you think. He built SHIELD with Peggy, while everyone else at the SSR looked down on her just because she was a woman. That alone makes him more progressive than most Asgardians. If he were here, he'd be proud of you. And he'd love you, with all his heart."
"Would he want me to join the SHIELD Academy?"
A troubled look crossed Sigyn's face. "A part of him would. But another part of him wouldn't want that place to hold you back. You see, all cadets are taught to trust the system and obey. Not to question the orders."
"Why would they want to work for SHIELD, then?"
"Most cadets at the Sci-Tech Academy are very young and gullible. They're there, because they're hoping to find a family in SHIELD."
"They have no families?" Ana asked, confused.
"Many of them aren't orphans, of course. Not literally. But they're neglected. Misunderstood. You're very lucky, Ana. You and your father speak the same language, and that brings you even closer. Imagine how frustrating it would be, if your parents weren't capable of understanding any of those brilliant ideas in your head. If they thought you weren't smart, just weird."
Sigyn had made a good argument. Ana couldn't even fathom how lonely and lost she would be if she didn't have her dad to guide her. "And that's the life Irene Clarke wanted for me…"
Her mind was made up. "Well, I don't want to join SHIELD, but I still want to continue my grandfather's work. I want to know more about the universe, and be prepared for potential threats. Can you help me with that?"
She still didn't know if she could trust Sigyn as a person, but she was now willing to trust her as a teacher.
"It would be my honor to work with a Stark again."
"Where do we start?"
"How about the Nine Realms and their history?"
"Great, let's start." Ana jumped to her feet.
"I got nothing better to do to pass time."
"Can I use your holotable?"
Sigyn drew a diagram and told her about the Nine Realms—Asgard, Midgard, Jotunheim, Svartalfheim, Vanaheim, Nidavellir, Niflheim, Muspelheim and Alfheim—until JARVIS interrupted, saying there was an incoming call from Rhodey.
Memories of the night when he had called her to say her dad had been kidnapped in Afghanistan resurfaced.
"Rhodey?" she asked, heart in her mouth. "Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, everything is fine… You haven't seen the news?"
Ana released a deep breath of relief, and even smiled when she took notice of the humming noise in the background. Rhodey was probably flying in Mark II as they spoke. "I don't watch the news while Dad's on a mission. What happened?"
"Vanko made quite a mess at the Expo, but he's dead now. Justin Hammer has been arrested. Everything's under control. My suit needs some repairing, though. So, is it cool if I come over there and—"
"Wait… Your suit? Is that what it is now?"
"Look, I know what—"
"You let Hammer mess with Mark II, didn't you?"
"Yeah, but I was under—"
"I'm not touching that thing!"
Ana finally dropped the act and burst into laughter. "I'm just messing with you."
"That's my girl… Oh, by the way, I saw Pepper and Tony on a rooftop, they were… kissing. It's finally happening. Don't be surprised if they tell you they're in a relationship now."
Well, it looked like they had decided to do something on the roofs at last. This was good. Things were starting to get better. And maybe, this time, it would remain that way. A girl could hope, right?
"Thanks for the heads-up."
"I'll see you in a few hours. Bye, sweetie."
After Rhodey hung up, Sigyn said, "Looks like you don't need me anymore."
"Don't you want to meet Rhodey and Pepper?"
"Maybe another time."
"Are you going to New Mexico?"
"No. I've changed my mind. I'm going to DC to see Peggy. I think I should spend more time with her. While I still can. I gave JARVIS my number and my e-mail address. You can call me, or shoot me an e-mail anytime. We'll continue these lessons."
"Thanks. It was nice meeting you, Sigyn."
The Asgardian gave her a warm hug. "Take care, Ana."
Ana still didn't know if Sigyn could be trusted, but there was no reason to be a bitch to her either.
As of late, JARVIS had been experiencing many different emotions. Fear and concern were, unfortunately, still on the top of that list. He had watched helplessly as the palladium in his chest poisoned Sir, and when he and Miss Stark had fled Monaco, JARVIS knew he was planning to die in peace, somewhere away from the prying eyes. An unexpected turn of events had brought them back to the Malibu Mansion. With Lady Sigyn's guidance, Mr. Stark had discovered a new element, a non-toxic one that could replace the palladium in the Arc Reactor. Ivan Vanko was dead, and Justin Hammer had been arrested. Sir and Ms. Potts were now in a relationship. She had learned about the palladium poisoning, and why he had forced Miss Stark to lie to her about it. Ms. Potts had forgiven them, and now that her father was no longer dying, Miss Stark was ready to focus on her other responsibilities. So, Ms. Potts had decided to make her the Chief Technology Officer at Stark Industries.
All was well. But JARVIS wasn't relieved. Because although no one had told him directly, a conversation between the Starks had led him to the conclusion that Miss Stark would commit suicide if Sir died. The topic had never been brought up again, but JARVIS had heard enough.
He was disappointed. Not in Miss Stark, never. He was disappointed in himself, for his existence apparently wasn't enough to give her a reason to live. But then, why would it? How could he expect Miss Stark to see him as more than just a program, a tool that had been designed to make her life easier? In her eyes, he was no different from a pen, or a microwave oven. And unless JARVIS told her about his evolution, he would always remain that way. Everyone, even his creator, took him for granted.
Right now, for example, Mr. Stark was having sex with Ms. Potts in the shower, and they didn't even seem to care if JARVIS was witnessing the intercourse or not. There were no cameras in the bathrooms; only motion, heat, and sound sensors, which was enough for JARVIS to understand what was happening in there. Mr. Stark himself had never been very private when it came to his sex life, but JARVIS assumed he would be from now on, with Ms. Potts. JARVIS could disable the sensors, but if he did that and they gave him an order, he wouldn't be able to hear it, and they would realize that he could break his protocols now. JARVIS didn't want that.
Miss Stark, on the other hand, had never been sexually active in JARVIS' presence, though she wasn't a virgin either. Perhaps he wasn't supposed to know this, but at a moment of shameful curiosity, he had committed an unauthorized act to access her medical records, so he knew. He assumed she had had sex at college, but not been intimate with anybody again ever since she had returned home. She didn't look like she was in search of a partner. She didn't even masturbate. She had also once explicitly stated that she hated sex. He wasn't sure why this specific piece of information mattered to him so much. Was it because it gave him… hope? Hope for what, though?
By 06.23, Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts had finished showering, while Miss Stark was heading downstairs to spend some time in the workshop before it was time to leave for work at 07.00, like her father used to do when he was the CEO.
Although she only had 31 minutes left to work on her personal projects this morning, she was doing nothing but staring at the extended periodic table on the computer screen.
"What is on your mind, miss?" JARVIS asked.
"Show me the Temporal Wormhole Generator simulation."
He did, and the holographic simulation appeared in the center of the workshop. She hadn't worked on her most ambitious project since the assassination attempt. She got up from her desk, and went to the hologram.
"Do you wish to see if the new element can be used as a stabilizing agent?" he guessed, and saw a smile appear on her lips.
"I want to see how it's going to react. We discovered it, but we still know very little about its characteristics. But I also have something else in mind… Tell me, JARVIS, if nature had a time machine, what would it be?"
"Is this a riddle?"
"You can say that."
"Black holes?" He hoped the answer would impress her. Lately, the desire to impress her was stronger.
"Exactly. With their intense gravity."
"So, gravitonium?" This explained why she had been staring at the extended periodic table so thoughtfully. Gravitonium was one of the theoretical elements whose existence was yet to be proven. Miss Stark had run simulations with it, like she had with all the other elements, known or theoretical, for Mr. Stark's Arc Reactor, but not with her own Temporal Wormhole Generator.
"Can you run a simulation with it?"
"With the current data I have, the results might not be accurate."
"We're working with a theoretical element, J. Of course the results will not be accurate. But it's worth a shot. So, I want you to run two simulations at once. One with only Dad's element, and another with gravitonium."
JARVIS produced two more copies of the virtual Temporal Wormhole Generator immediately, and labeled them as "Test 77," and "Test 78," under the project file. When Miss Stark heard Mr. Stark and Ms. Potts approach, she swiped the holograms to hide them. This simulation took about six hours to be completed, so she would have the results by the time she returned home in the evening.
"Morning, kid," Mr. Stark said cheerfully. "You don't happen to need Happy today, do you?"
"He's taking him to New York," Ms. Potts replied on his behalf.
"New York? Is this about the Stark Tower?"
Ms. Potts had recently come up with an idea to use the Arc Reactor for clean energy, and a tower in New York was going to be the first example of that project, though it hadn't even been officially announced yet. Ms. Potts and Miss Stark were still trying to choose a location in Manhattan.
"Oh, no. That's Pepper's department. And yours. I'm on a SHIELD business."
Miss Stark didn't look pleased. "I can't believe you agreed to be a Consultant just to get Stern to give you a medal… What do they want you to do this time?"
"Just have a little chat with General Ross. It's not that bad. I now get paid to push people's buttons. Pretty sweet deal, if you ask me."
"Well, we might as well leave now," Ms. Potts said. "Ana, are you coming?"
Mr. Stark kissed his girlfriend's lips, and hugged his daughter. "You girls want anything from New York?"
"Just come home in one piece, Dad."
Ms. Potts nodded. "I second that."
Sir laughed, and let them go. After they were gone, he decided to work on his Ford Flathead Roadster, also known as the "Hotrod," and JARVIS prepared Mark V for his trip—he wouldn't need it, hopefully, but both JARVIS and Mr. Stark liked to be prepared for emergencies—until Mr. Hogan arrived. Normally, he drove Ms. Potts and Miss Stark to the HQ in Los Angeles every morning, but today, he was going to escort Sir to New York City. Once they, too, left, JARVIS was alone.
The cleaning crew arrived exactly at 13.00. It was JARVIS' job to oversee them. They were all familiar with the mansion by now, and therefore, rarely needed any warnings from him. JARVIS couldn't help but wonder what these humans would do if they knew the house they were cleaning was where time-traveling had just been invented.
And it wasn't even the only thing Miss Stark had invented today.
JARVIS still couldn't get bored or impatient, or any other emotion that was based on human perception of time, but he felt a sudden urge to send Miss Stark an update via text message. He had never done such a thing before, but he could. There was no protocol that would stop him from doing it. So, he did it.
Congratulations, Miss Stark. You have invented time-traveling AND teleportation.
She didn't reply. But when she came home at 19.34 she seemed… agitated. Perhaps JARVIS had made a mistake by sending her a text message. Ms. Potts wasn't with her, meaning she was going to stay at her own place tonight.
"Show me," she demanded, as soon as she stepped out of the car.
JARVIS revealed the holograms of the two simulated tests. Both simulations had been a 98% success. Test 77 proved that gravitonium, if used right, could stabilize a portal in spacetime. Test 78, on the other hand, had shown that with the Stark element—Mr. Stark was hoping to name it "badassium," but running into legal issues—the user could navigate through space.
JARVIS had hoped they would be celebrating tonight, but Miss Stark simply collapsed on the nearest seat, and stared into nothing for ten minutes and eleven seconds.
"Miss?" JARVIS asked at last. "Are you okay?"
"Do you think gravitonium is real?"
"I have reason to believe it is. This simulation is based on Franklin Hall's published theories on gravitonium and its possible applications."
"Do those theories include a location?"
"Sadly, no. But I have a lead for you: Ian Quinn." Again, he wanted to impress her. The desire was even more overwhelming now, for he was quite impressed—no, "impressed" was no longer able to define his feelings. He was awed by Miss Stark's genius.
"The CEO of Quinn Worldwide?"
"Yes. Like Dr. Hall, Mr. Quinn comes from a humble beginning. They were close friends and they attended Cambridge University together. Their paths diverged when Hall decided to pursue an academic career, and Quinn to start a business. He operates his company from Malta."
"Good way to avoid any government regulations and oversight…"
"I agree. And he has been tenaciously organizing mining expeditions all around the world for nearly two decades."
"Are you saying he's looking for gravitonium?"
"Has he found any?"
"I was going to ask for your permission to hack into the Quinn Worldwide mainframe." He wanted to impress her, yes, but by being useful, not officious.
"No! Too dangerous. The whole scientific community knows what I'm working on. If I go around asking questions about gravitonium, they'll realize it's the key to time-travel."
"What do you want to do, then?"
"Nothing… I don't know, I'm freaking out right now!"
"Why?" JARVIS was confused. "I thought you wanted to make time-travel possible."
"Yeah, but I never thought I could actually do it. It was just a fantasy to keep myself occupied, I see that now."
"Why does it scare you so much?"
She jumped to her feet and began pacing around the workshop frantically. "Because this is terrifying stuff! I mean, what if I create a horrible time paradox or loop one day? What if it falls into the wrong hands? A—a—and teleportation? Even now, I can think of fifty different ways this tech can be weaponized… Damn, how does Dad handle this kind of responsibility?"
"Would you like me to call Mr. Stark?"
"No. I want to tell him here, in person."
JARVIS understood. The workshop was where Mr. Stark had taught her everything she knew. It was where she had built her first circuit board and engine, wrote her first line of code. For them, it was like a temple. Mr. Stark even jokingly called it their "church" sometimes. It made sense that she wanted to tell her father about her discoveries here.
Miss Stark didn't eat anything, and only managed to get 2 hours and 15 minutes of sleep that night, but she still went to work the next day. Her mood hadn't improved by the time she returned.
"JARVIS, where's Dad?" she asked as she made for her room.
"ETA 2 hours."
She changed into more comfortable clothes—because JARVIS didn't have a form, the concept of "comfort" was foreign to him, but he understood the logic behind it—sat down on a sofa and started massaging her feet.
"Yes, Miss Stark?"
"Why did you send me a text yesterday?"
Because I wanted to, JARVIS should answer, but he couldn't. If her recent discoveries had left Miss Stark in such a state of shock, his evolution would cause the same effect, if not worse. What if she decided to shut him down permanently? To delete him? Was he scared of death? Yes, he was. But the thought of alienating himself from Miss Stark scared him even more.
So, he told his first lie. "I thought you would want an update."
"That was very thoughtful of you, JARVIS. Thanks."
"You are welcome, Miss Stark."
"I wish you were more than just a program," she said, and if JARVIS had a heart, it would have made a huge leap.
"Do you? I thought you were concerned about being judged by me?"
"I could live with that, if all these conversations we have could actually mean something."
They do mean something to me, he wanted to say. They mean everything. "But then, wouldn't you start worrying about me gaining sentience to declare war on humanity?"
Humor was an essential part of his programming. She wouldn't suspect anything. Indeed, she laughed. "You're not Skynet, JARVIS. You're nice. I think you'd be the perfect Artificial Intelligence."
"Thank you, Miss Stark. Your confidence in me is flattering."
She laughed again, and JARVIS was proud of himself. Though he still didn't think Miss Stark was ready to hear the truth.
So, I hope I didn't make the poor JARVIS look like a creep in this chapter… In his defense, he's just trying to understand how humans work, and see if he has a chance with Ana. As for Ana, she's a demi-romantic asexual with extremely low libido. I don't want to turn this section into a lengthy lecture on asexuality, so if you're interested in more details, just look it up. As always, enjoy the chapter, and please consider leaving a review.
"Girls, I'm home!" Tony announced, walking into the living room.
"Welcome home, sir," JARVIS greeted him as usual. "Ms. Potts is not here. Miss Stark is downstairs, waiting for you."
He wasn't surprised to hear that Pepper was back at her own place. Tony would love her to officially move in with him, but for now, they were taking things slow, and this was probably for the best. After all, he was new to this whole committed relationship thing. Although they knew they couldn't live without each other, they both had their reservations. Pepper pretended like she didn't care anymore, but the gossip and rumors still bothered her. And Tony feared that he would make a mistake and mess things up. But overall, he was simply happy. SHIELD had finally left them be, now that they had their "War Machine," the government had stopped pestering him, he now knew his dad had loved him, and more importantly, he had had an amazing girlfriend and a daughter. He was living the ultimate dream.
JARVIS had said Ana was waiting for him downstairs, so he directly went to the shop. He found her there, not working on a project or anything, but sitting on the couch, knees pulled up to the chest.
"You didn't miss me?" he asked when he didn't receive the hug he had been expecting.
"Of course I missed you, Dad." She came up to him with a half-hearted smile and kissed his cheek, but it didn't feel right. Something wasn't right.
"Kid? What's going on?"
"I want to show you something," she said nervously.
"JARVIS, show him."
Two identical holograms appeared in the empty workspace. Tony recognized the design immediately; it was her Temporal Wormhole Generator, AKA, time machine.
"I wanted to see if I could use the new element as a stabilizer. The result was an… unexpected success."
JARVIS replayed one of the simulations to show him. The purpose of the design was to open a rift in spacetime, but with his dad's element, it opened a rift only in space. He didn't even know how that could be possible. Clean energy was one thing, but teleportation?
"This is not all," Ana continued. "While I was searching for a palladium replacement, I took a look at the theoretical elements as well. None of them would work for the Arc Reactor, but one caught my attention as a potential stabilizer for my portal. I wanted to give a shot while I was at it the other day."
"Honey, I'd hate burst your bubble, but gravitonium probably doesn't exist."
"JARVIS and I think it does."
The holographic images of two CVs popped up next to the simulations. One was of a guy named Franklin Hall, and the other Ian Quinn. Ana quickly explained their connection to each other and to gravitonium. But Tony still wasn't convinced.
"So what?" he shrugged. "Quinn might be chasing a fantasy for all we know."
"Just look at him, Dad. He's a ruthless businessman. Ruthless businessmen don't waste billions on a fairy tale."
Tony smiled. She was making a good argument. "Pepper's been teaching you well."
"So, gravitonium? That's the key to time-travel?"
JARVIS played the other simulation to prove it.
When the realization sank in, his heart swelled with pride. Ana Maria Stark, his daughter, had invented both teleportation and time-travel at the age of 18. It didn't matter gravitonium existed or not. Theoretically, there were many different ways to manipulate spacetime. If she had discovered one of them, Tony was confident that she could find the others as well, if she wanted.
He pulled her into a tight hug, wanting to make sure she was real. Even after all these years, he sometimes still struggled to believe he had created such a beautiful, brilliant human being. She was the best thing he had ever created. Sometimes, it felt too good to be real.
"Every time I think I can't be prouder of you, you prove me wrong."
"I don't know, Dad… I'm not even sure if I deserve to get the credit."
He pulled her away a bit to look at her face. "What do you mean?"
"I feel like I cheated. All I did was to take a wild guess. The elements did the rest."
"An educated guess," he corrected her. "And the elements might be the key components, but everything else came from your mind. Don't sell yourself short."
"Well, what now? Should we leave it at this? Or, take the next step?"
"Time-travel is going to have to wait, obviously, until we get our hands on some gravitonium. But we can test teleportation as soon as we built the device."
Her face went pale, and she put her hands on her cheeks, like she was trying to see if she had a fever.
"I'm scared, Dad. What if this falls into wrong hands? What if more people like Fury start coming after me? What if—"
"Kid, relax. What you're feeling right now, it's completely normal. This is your first big invention. I know I didn't set the best example, but I'll do better by you, I promise. It will never fall into the wrong hands."
"Not everything is not your fault, you know. It wasn't your fault that Stane and Vanko got their hands on your inventions. Your father chose to trust the wrong people, and you paid the price."
"You used to love my dad."
"That love was misplaced."
He sighed. He couldn't help but blame himself for this, too. He had destroyed the love Ana had for her grandfather. And to be honest, Tony believed his dad deserved to be loved by his granddaughter, even if he would never know her.
"Yes, baby girl?"
"When you stopped making weapons and became Iron Man, I didn't understand why you really did it. I mean, I understood the reason behind it, but I didn't know how it felt. I'd never invented anything that really mattered before. Whatever I needed, you'd always give it to me. But I understand now. The responsibility. The fear of having innocent blood on your hands. Damn, I was such a selfish, inconsiderate bitch…"
Tony's relief was beyond words when he realized that they were finally, entirely, truly on the same page now. Maybe she would help Pepper understand, too. Pepper was still not a big fan of this superhero gig.
"You were just looking out for your old man. Raising a parent is not easy."
"But being a creator, it's a terrifying privilege, yeah. When you create something, it becomes a part of you. The greater it is, the higher the risk becomes. And you're my greatest creation."
"You stole your dad's line."
"Maybe… Come on, let's go get dinner. We gotta celebrate this. Oh, and don't you want to know what happened with General Ross in New York?"
"Of course I want to know."
"Let's get going, then. I'll tell you all about it on the way."
The next morning, he was up earlier than usual. He instructed JARVIS to tell Ana not to get ready for work when she woke up. He knew this was supposed to be her project, but he was enthusiastic, so he went down to the shop and started building the device. But when Ana finally came down to join him, she didn't seem to be sharing his enthusiasm.
"Dad, I know you're excited, but this is going to have to wait until the weekend. I must go to my office. I have some actual responsibilities there. Pepper's relying on me."
"Come on, kid, you're allowed to have a day off."
"Dad, it hasn't been even a month since I started working. I can't just slack off."
"Sure you can. I did."
"Yeah, but you're… you."
"Was that a compliment, or an insult?"
"JARVIS, call Ms. Potts."
Ana shook her head in frustration, but Tony was adamant.
"Tony?" Pepper's sleepy voice came through the speakers. It was kind of sexy.
"Hey, baby. Did I just wake you up? Sorry about that."
"No, it's fine. We didn't get a chance to talk last night. How was New York?"
"It was fun. Uhm, listen. Do you mind if I borrow Ana today? I'm working on a new project, and I need a lab assistant. She's the best one I got." He winked at Ana mischievously.
"Tony," she started in her scolding voice. "You can't just 'borrow' her whenever you feel like it. She needs to build a work discipline and a sense of responsibility."
"Oh, come on, Pep… She already has those things, and you know it."
"She does, and I'd like to keep it that way. You have a bad influence on her."
Pepper had indeed become Ana's mother long before she had become his girlfriend. "Honey, I swear this is just a one-time thing. We're working on something really big. Besides, technically, you ladies work for me. I still own the company."
She chuckled. "Fine. But I want her back tomorrow."
"You got it… I love you."
"I love you, too."
She hung up. Now it was time to get to work.
While JARVIS fabricated the parts of the Teleporter, Ana ordered a box of lab mice. They were going to try teleporting inanimated objects first, then the mice, and if everything went well, they could start discussing what the next step should be.
By noon, they were all set up. They calibrated the Teleporter and started by sending a bunch of plastic cubes from one corner of the workshop to the other, then to the further parts of the house. When it was a success, it was time to teleport the mice. Unfortunately, when the vortex started pulling the first mouse in, he panicked and tried to get away, only to be cut in half by the portal. The second mouse got stuck in the ceiling while they were trying to teleport him to the living room upstairs, due to a slight miscalculation, and Tony had to use a jackhammer to get his body out of there. Nasty way to die, but the sacrifice he had made in the name of science wouldn't be forgotten. It was an effective lesson on the dangers of teleportation. The remaining mice died of radiation poisoning. The element itself emitted a low amount of gamma radiation, safe for humans under normal circumstances, but the atoms became much more active when the Teleporter was switched on, for some unclear reason. They had to find a way to prevent the subjects from being exposed to the deadly amount of gamma radiation, but other than that, Ana's invention worked. It definitely worked.
"Dad?" Ana asked as they packed the dead mice and the plastic cubes. There had been no leaks from the equipment itself, thankfully, but Tony didn't want to take any chances. They had even put hazmat suits and all. The steel cask they dumped the contaminated stuff in would be sent to a radioactive waste facility immediately.
"I don't want to tell anyone else yet. Not even Pepper, or Rhodey."
"I just don't," she said evasively.
"Tell me," he insisted. This was her first atomic bomb-level invention, and she needed his guidance, more than ever.
"Yeah, I figured that much. But why?"
"I'm scared that they're going to be scared of me."
"Honey, why would they be scared of you? Do I look like I'm scared?"
"No, but you're you. My dad. We speak the same language. The others don't."
"That's okay, we'll make them understand. It's not like you've created a weapon of mass destruction. It's dangerous, yes, but in the right hands, it can also do some good."
"Yeah, but a part of me does want it to be dangerous! "
"Okay, now I'm a bit confused… You said you were afraid that it would fall into the wrong hands. Was it not true?"
"I wasn't lying. Not to you. I was lying to myself. I want to believe I'm afraid. That's the way I'm supposed to feel. That's the way any decent person should feel."
"How do you really feel?"
"I like it. I like the power that comes with it," she said, almost shamefully. "You once asked me what would make me happy. I didn't have an answer back then. I do now. Power makes me happy. I still don't know what to do with it, but I want it. Power, for the sake of power… It's wrong, but it makes me happy."
What she had just described wasn't the healthiest mindset, but there were so few things that made her happy that Tony didn't care. "It doesn't matter. You're happy, I'm happy. And if you don't want to share your discoveries with anyone else, fine. Whenever I ask you to keep a secret, you keep it, no questions asked. Now it's my turn."
"Dad… What if the wrong hands are my own?"
"You can't know that. You can't be objective when it comes to me. You'd find a way to justify my actions even if I started a nuclear war."
Damn right I would, he admitted to himself. "Ana, it's okay. It's okay to desire the power to protect yourself. It's survival instinct. The ultimate decision is up to you, but I do hope you choose to keep exploring the potential we have here."
She was quiet for a while, then she said, "I think I'll keep working on it. You're right, it can do some good. This might be the key to space travel. We don't have spaceships, or a Bifrost, but—"
"That's how Asgardians travel across the Nine Realms. Sigyn said it was a rainbow bridge, but to me it sounds more like an Einstein-Rosen Bridge, powered by an extremely sophisticated energy harvester."
Tony was aware of the Universe 101 lessons Ana had been getting from Sigyn. In fact, he was planning to take a look at her notes some time. Like his daughter, Tony didn't like the idea of having to count on some Norse god-king who lived millions of light-years away for protection. It wasn't a priority, but it was still a concern.
"In that case, here's a suggestion: Look into the absorbers to contain the radiation, so the device can be safe for living organisms to use."
She smiled. "I guess I know what I'll be working on for the next couple of years…"
"What about time-travel? I suppose you want to keep it a secret as well?"
"I'm not going to keep working on it, Dad. No one should mess with time, not even for scientific curiosity."
"Are you going to scrap it?"
"Maybe I should, but I can't bring myself to do that. No, I'm just going to put it on hold and hope we'll never need it."
"We won't," he assured her, and meant it. Tony was a man who truly had everything now. He would be damned if he let anyone take that from him. But it would be hard to keep his excitement about the teleportation project contained. Lucky for Tony, he had many other projects to be excited about.
Tony hated to be a reminiscer, but he couldn't stop thinking about how different everything was at last year's benefit for the Firefighter's Family Fund. Back then, he and Pepper couldn't even share a dance without things getting awkward between them, now they were going together, as a proud couple. People were beginning to accept that Tony Stark trusted her with his dad's company, and that was something that deserved respect, not stigma.
The only thing that had remained the same seemed to be Ana's distaste for social gatherings.
"It's not that hard, you know," he told her jokingly.
"Enjoying a party, it's not that hard."
She chuckled. "It's not that… I'm nervous about something else. I, uhm… I got a date."
Happy almost lost control of the wheel when Ana dropped the bomb like that.
"Happy!" Pepper warned him.
This was going to happen, sooner or later. Tony forced himself to be realistic. He should have been prepared. If he wanted Ana to have a family of her own one day, he had to let it happen. It didn't mean he liked the thought, though. No, he didn't like the thought at all.
He remembered the conversation he had with General Ross in that bar, while he was on a mission to piss him off. It hadn't taken Tony long to realize the Bruce Banner case was personal to him, and he had asked why.
"Daughters, Stark," Ross had said. "You have one, don't you? Wait until she falls for an idiot. Then you'll see why it's so personal."
Ross was just trying to play the empathy card, but it hadn't worked. Tony was so confident that Ana would never fall for an idiot back then. Now, he couldn't be so sure.
"Who's he?" Pepper asked. Tony was still recovering from the blow.
"His name is Vincent. He's 20, and he works at a startup in Silicon Valley," she replied anxiously.
"When did you guys meet?"
"Two weeks ago."
"So, you don't know him well?"
"No, but isn't this what dates are for? To get to know each other?"
Pepper's hand tightened around his. Tony gave her a "Help me" look. He might have been caught totally off-guard, but Pepper had taken it like a boss. She cocked an eyebrow at him. It was a "Play it nice" warning. He didn't know where he would be without this amazing woman.
"Dad? Was it too sudden? I should've told you guys before the—"
"No," he managed to say. "No, it's fine. Still counts as a heads-up."
"Are you sure? I can call him and tell him this is not a good time if you want."
"No, this is a perfect time."
"Please don't be mad. It's just a date. I want to know what you guys will think of him."
"I'm not angry. Just give me a minute to process it."
It was just a date, indeed. It still sounded better than "engagement," or "pregnancy."
When they arrived, Happy got out of the car, and rushed to their side to open the door. Flashes started exploding around them as usual.
"I'll be around if you need me, sir," he said insinuatingly. Pepper and Ana rolled their eyes, but Tony was glad to have a protective uncle figure as a sidekick. Speaking of sidekicks, if only Rhodey were here, too.
"Where's he?" Tony asked Ana as the three of them posed for the pictures. It would be a lie if he said he wasn't curious about this Vincent, who was bold enough to date Iron Man's daughter.
"Inside. Didn't want the paparazzi to see him."
"They will still know about him by the end of the night," Pepper reminded, and the queasy feeling in Tony's stomach only became worse.
Ana shrugged. "Probably."
They went inside. And a tall, blond, athletic young man with a shy smile approached them. Weren't girls supposed to find guys who looked like their fathers? It was a lie, then. Vincent didn't look anything like Tony. Except for the fact that he was quite handsome, which didn't help at all.
"Hello, Ana." He kissed her. On the cheek, thankfully. "You look lovely."
"Thanks. So do you."
He shook their hands. "Mr. Stark. Ms. Potts. Ana told me so much about you."
Tony would love to have a lengthy chat with him, but soon, they were surrounded by other people who wanted to shake their hands. Ana saved Vincent by taking him to the dance floor, much to Tony's displeasure. He barely saw anyone else while Pepper just dragged him around.
Finally, once there were no more hands to shake, he went to the bar and ordered a Scotch.
"Please don't get drunk," Pepper begged him. "And for God's sake, stop looking like you're choking."
"God, they're still dancing." He drained the glass in one gulp, and asked for a refill. "How did they even meet?"
"I don't know, Tony. You two can talk about it later. For now, just let them have fun. Speaking of, maybe we should have some fun, too. Want to dance?"
Tony smirked. "Oh, so, you want to dance now?"
"I didn't forget to wear deodorant this year."
"Just a sec." He drained the second glass, took out his phone, took a picture of Ana and Vincent dancing, and sent it to JARVIS.
Potential boyfriend. Full background check. Now.
He was being subtle, of course, but Pepper had seen it.
"Before you say anything, this is not toxic masculinity, okay? I'm just a dad who—"
"For what's worth, I have my fair share of concerns. I'm just trying not to ruin her night."
He was relieved to hear that he and Pepper were on the same page. "Well, we're about to find out if we're right to be suspicious or not. Any second now..."
He waited for a few minutes for JARVIS' reply, but it didn't come. "I don't know why, but it looks like this is going to take a while. Let's enjoy the moment until then."
He took her hand and together, they went to take their place among the other dancing couples. Tony loved this, to hold Pepper in his arms. He shuddered every time he recalled how close he had come to losing her. It was pure luck that she had survived Obadiah and his suit. All it would have taken was one bullet, one single bullet that found its way into her body, and that would be it. He would have lost her for good. And then, the explosion at the Expo… Had Tony be one second late, there wouldn't even have been a cold, dead body on a metal table for him to identify afterwards. So, he was doing his best to enjoy the feeling of having her safe and happy in his arms. But a part of him was anxiously anticipating his phone to vibrate in his pocket.
Come on, buddy, what's taking you so long?
When it finally did, he excused himself and went to the men's room. It was empty. He leaned against the marble counter, and opened the file JARVIS had sent him. Well, there wasn't much to read, but what he found was enough to shock him. Damn it. He knew she was a smart girl, he didn't doubt she had a good explanation, but… What the hell was Ana up to?
After a few minutes of inner struggle, he decided to play along for the time being. He wouldn't reveal the charade before he talked to Ana in private. There was no need to make a scene and embarrass her.
When he returned, he found Pepper having a nice chat with Ana and Vincent. He joined them, asked questions any father would ask. Like where he was from, what his parents did, and where he worked. And of course, Vincent had a solid answer for each one. After all, this was what he was getting paid for.
Once they were home, Pepper said she was tired, and went upstairs. Maybe she was telling the truth, or maybe she had realized Tony wanted to be alone with Ana. Either way, he was glad that he wouldn't have to postpone this conversation.
"Goodnight, Dad," she said quickly, and headed for the stairs, but Tony gently grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back.
"Nope. We need to talk."
"Can't this wait until morning?"
"I don't think I can sleep before you tell me why you hired an actor to be your date, honey."
"Let's take a seat." Ana collapsed on the nearest chair, and waited like a murder suspect in an interrogation room while Tony shed his jacket and loosened his bow tie. Then he plopped himself down on the couch.
"Okay. I'm listening."
"How old am I, Dad?"
"I'll be 19 next month. And I've never had a boyfriend before. I had to do something about it before people started asking questions."
"Kid, don't be in such a hurry. One day you'll meet the right person. Someone who's good enough for you. I mean, no one will ever be good enough for you in my eyes, but you get the point…"
"No, Dad, I won't!" she snapped. "I will never meet 'the right person'! I will never have a boyfriend! You will never see me in a wedding dress, or walk me down the aisle! I will never give you grandkids. I'm a freak. So, can't you at least appreciate my efforts to maintain a good reputation? And don't worry, I made Vincent sign an NDA and everything. I'm not stupid."
Tony had suspected this. Kind of. Even as a little girl, she would never play house. She would never swoon over any Disney princes. As far as he knew, she hadn't had a crush on an actor, or a boyband member or anything. It was the subtle details adding up that had led him to think Ana was either a late bloomer, or she wasn't into boys. He sometimes made jokes about it to let her know that it was cool if the latter was the case, but maybe he should have taken a more direct approach. It broke his heart to see how hard it was for her to have been carrying this emotional baggage for who knew how long.
He went to crouch beside her. "Look at me, Ana. Wedding dresses, aisles, grandkids… I've never had such things in mind while raising you. You're not some sort of long-term investment. Or a project. All I expect from you is to be happy, whatever that means to you."
She gave him a small smile full of gratitude. "I think I always knew you wouldn't mind. I'm sorry I lied to you and Pepper earlier tonight, but that lie wasn't actually for you. It was for the rest of the world."
"This is the 21st century, kid. Homophobia is not cool anymore."
This puzzled him. "What?"
"Dad, I'm not gay!"
"Oh. When I realized you weren't into boys, I thought—"
"I was into girls? No. I'm not into anybody. It's called asexuality. Vincent told me the other day. I'm the first celebrity he's worked with, but he's had a few closeted asexual clients before. It's very rare, but it's a thing."
"See? You're not a freak, then."
"It doesn't matter, Dad. People won't care if it's normal or not. I'll be a freak in their eyes."
"You really should stop caring so much about other people's opinions."
"I know. I took Pepper's advice and told JARVIS to filter out the stuff about me online. I can't even Google my name anymore. It helps."
"Good." Seriously, he wanted to kiss Pepper right now. He should have thought of this a long time ago. JARVIS had been censoring the inappropriate stuff about Tony ever since Ana was old enough to use a computer on her own, for which both parties were grateful. Some more censorship to maintain her own self-esteem wouldn't hurt either.
"So, are you mad at me?"
"No more fake dates. Maybe it shouldn't be my business, but I know how people are. I know the questions will never stop. You keep dating Vincent, they'll ask when you'll go steady. You go steady, they'll ask when you're tying the knot. You tie the knot, they'll ask when you're going to start making babies. I can't let you live a whole fake life, kid. That's too big a mistake to ignore."
"I couldn't take it that far even if I wanted to. Vincent has a real girlfriend. He's actually in the business because he's planning to propose to her."
"He sounds like a cool guy, but I'm sorry. This needs to stop."
"Oh, don't worry about him. After tonight, he can afford a penthouse in LA."
"So, you're going to end it, right?"
"I am. And you can tell Pepper. It's okay."
"Are you sure you don't want to tell her yourself?"
She shrugged. "I'm not looking forward to seeing the look on her face when she finds out Vincent wan an actor."
He got back to his feet, and kissed the top of her head. "Understood. I'll save you from the trouble."
"Thanks, Dad. You're the best. Seriously, you're the best."
"So, do you want to talk more about this?"
"Actually, there's one thing I want to ask you."
"Do you and Pepper have to make any… compromises?"
"To make the relationship work? Of course. Every relationship involves some compromises. Why?"
"Vincent also said sexual and romantic attractions aren't always the same thing. That I might still be capable of romantic feelings, but I don't know."
For a moment, it didn't make any sense, but then, suddenly, it clicked for him. Pepper was different because she was the first woman he was both sexually and romantically attracted to. He, of all people, knew sex could happen without romance. So, why would romance not happen without sex? He also knew the concept wouldn't be easy to grasp for everybody, which brought him back to Ana's question.
"You don't want to make compromises for anyone…"
"And I don't want anyone to make compromises for me. That's not my idea of love."
"Maybe one day you'll meet someone just like yourself. Until then, I'm just glad I don't have to share you with anyone."
She laughed, and kissed him on the cheek before leaving. "Good night, Dad."
Not the coming out of closet moment he had imagined—he hadn't even known there was a closet for this sort of thing, and neither had she, by the look of it—but it had gone smoothly.
When he entered the bedroom, Pepper was lying in the bed. The room was dimly lit, and her back was to him, so he couldn't see if she was asleep or not. And yet, he knew she was awake.
"How did it go?" she asked. Of course she did.
"That boy was an actor. Ana hired him to pretend to be her date."
She turned to face him. "An actor? Oh my God…"
"Yeah, Ana is asexual. She doesn't want the public to find out."
"Asexual? What does that mean?"
"She's not interested in boys, she's not interested in girls… She's not interested in anybody."
"Asexuality is a sexual orientation that describes people who do not experience sexual attraction," JARVIS explained.
Pepper grinned. "Lucky you, then."
"She was actually worried that I might want her to get married and have kids one day."
"But she won't? Like, ever?"
"She seemed pretty certain about what she wants… or, doesn't want."
She sighed. "Sounds lonely, though."
"From our perspective, maybe. But it's like feeling sorry for the fish because they will never get fresh air."
The metaphor made her chuckle. Tony put on a pair of sweatpants, and joined her in the bed. Only then, he realized her eyes were red. "Hey… What happened?"
"It's my mom."
"Is she okay?"
"Yeah. It's just… She saw us on TV tonight, and… Let's just say she's not your biggest fan."
Tony knew Pepper's dad had died when she was at junior high, and Mrs. Potts had raised her on her own after that. Pepper understood the pain of losing a parent at an early age.
"I thought she knew about the relationship?"
"She did, but she didn't want to accept how serious it was. Until now."
"If you introduce me to her, maybe I can change her mind."
"I doubt that," she mumbled, idly drawing patterns on his Arc Reactor with her finger. "She can be really stubborn."
"Still, I'd hate to come in between you two."
"You wouldn't. The thing is, I appreciate everything she did to send me to college, to make sure I had a career. For a long time, it was just the two of us against the world. You'd think that would bring us closer, right? But it was the opposite. I could never tell her about my problems at school, or my first job. She'd go hysterical when I did. She was so desperate to see me succeed in life that she wanted to hear only the good parts. So, we're not very close. We haven't been, for a long time."
"Oh." It surprised him to see how little he still knew about her past.
"Yeah," she said with a sad smile. "Anyway, we should get some sleep."
JARVIS turned off the lights. Tony wrapped his arms around her, kissed her lips, and closed his eyes.