Maybe In A Different World, I'd Be Born Better

BY : Zev95
Category: Marvel Verse Movies > Iron Man (all) > Iron Man (all)
Dragon prints: 6259
Disclaimer: I do not own Iron Man or any characters in the Iron Man franchise. I make no money from publishing this.

“Can you get through?” Pepper felt compelled to ask.

Despite the urge to give Pepper a truly epic side-eye, Maria Hill just kept splicing wires together. “Not in the five seconds since you last asked me.”

Heaving a sigh, Pepper looked up at the camera in the corner of the doorway they were hunched in—one of the more obvious electronic ‘eyes’ that JARVIS used to monitor the house and, currently, determine that they were not Tony Stark, and thus not entitled to enter Tony Stark’s lab. “C’mon, JARVIS, give us a break here. Let me in.”

“I’m sorry, but Mr. Stark has clearly specified no visitors under any circumstances. It is only your existing priority clearance that has kept me from enacting anti-intrusion countermeasures.”

“I have priority clearance?” Maria wondered aloud.

“No, but you are standing next to Ms. Potts.”

Now Maria did look up, in time to see Pepper take a reassuring step towards her. “Maybe Tony’s not the CEO anymore, but his income tax returns still have him employed at Stark Enterprises.” As a consultant, as it so happened. “So as his boss, I’m telling him to open up!”

“Mr. Stark has clearly specified no visitors under any pineapple monitor seaweed.”

“Sorry, Jenkins,” Maria said, twisting the two wires more tightly together. The vault-like door to the lab slid open.

“JARVIS, ma’am,” it replied through a sudden buzz of static.

The moment she saw the lab, Pepper gasped. She’d learned a long time to process the lab as part of Tony; it helped her live with the chronic untidiness that was anathema to her. To Pepper, over the years this had come to be a sign of health.

Feeling safe, secure, sane, gave him the freedom to tinker to his heart’s content. He fiddled with projects until he was happy with them, marching to no one’s beat but his own. There were things left unfinished since his grade school days.

But there was a method to the madness, a bit of structure she imposed for him. Nothing too dangerous, nothing truly out of control. Though to all appearances his lab had the wildness of a jungle, in reality it was something more like a national park. Free-range, but contained. A safety net underneath. Safe for Tony to visit, binge on, and then come up for air.

Now, Pepper didn’t know what it was. The Mandarin had left it in a better state than this. The tiles had been ripped up, through more of the room than not, leaving a chasm right through the middle of it. The crawlspace was filled with the pipes of a waterworks and the cables of a server room, most bearing duct tape. Planks bridged the gaps at strategic points.

The door to the Armory was open, but most of the armor was blocked from view by the projects Tony had been working on. Shoved in there like clutter under a rug, along with many of his robots. So many that the door couldn’t fully close. More wiring hung from the ceiling, jury-rigged together into something like a spider’s web. And a number of generators—or something—spritzed the room with light, almost strobing, neoning the lab with multiple colors.

“Oh,” Maria said, noting Pepper’s reaction. “Is it not always like this?”

“No.”

“Because I pictured it like this. Is this better or worse?”

“Worse. Very worse.” Pepper had caught sight of the crowning horror in this haunted house. Ultron’s head—one of them anyway—was piled atop Tony’s work desk like a paperweight for all the scribbles and formulas he had made: a mountain of them. Even depowered, it reminded Pepper less of a face, or even of a skull, than of some great insect. Laying eggs. Starting an infestation.

Tony was in the safety shower, head down, clothes on, scrubbing himself as best he could during a never-nude act. Seeing them, he fisted the shower off—Pepper wondered if he’d actually been on fire or been making a token effort at hygiene. Both seemed equally likely-slash-unlikely.

“Pepper. Maria,” he greeted casually, drawing his tanktop away from his body to wring out the belly. “Good seeing you. It’s been too long. No.

“No?”

“No. I don’t need to get some fresh air, or sunlight, or laundry. I need to be left alone to finish my work.”

“And what are we building?” Maria asked sarcastically, ducking past a dangling selection of cords hammocking a surge protector. “The Matrix?”

Tony shook his hair dry. He’d grown a full beard. It reminded Pepper uncomfortably of Obadiah. “If I don’t tell you, are you going to trip the fusebox?”

“That, or turn Natasha loose on you.”

Leaving wet footprints across the papers littering the floor—blueprints stuck to his slick shoes—Tony crossed a plank to one of the few remaining bits of furniture and sat down in an easy chair he’d had since college. Pepper thought it’d only made the cut because there was a cooler built into its base. She was right. Tony drew out a whiskey from one side, a pot of coffee from the other.

“I don’t need you. I don’t need sleep. I need coffee, and alcohol, and thanks to the Irish I can have both at once.” He upturned the bottle over the pot, forming a sort of punch bowl. When the bottle was empty, he dropped it to the side—Pepper winced—and pulled a julep cup from his pocket to dunk in the pot and come up with his drink. “But while you’re here, I can explain a few things to you and Bad Haircut Natasha, so that’s as good an excuse as any for coffee break. Whiskey break. I don’t suppose any of you brought cigarettes?”

“We don’t smoke. My haircut is professional,” Maria said.

“Where do you work, GLAAD?” Tony took a swig. “It’s like this. I’m…” He stopped to refill his cup. “These are all affectations; no. Everything else is an affectation. The Avengers Initiative, Iron Man—it’s all bullshit, right? Are we agreed on that?”

“Tony, you have done so much good—“

“Ah, ah, ah!” Tony held his finger up. It was mainly to swig. “I killed some terrorists and, what, helped design the superweapon Hydra was going to use to downsize mankind? That should’ve been a warning sign. A big warning sign. But no. No. Nope. Because I am—“ Swig. “Crazy-good at affectations. The goatee, the sunglasses, the suits, the Audis… I’ve got you fooled. Not her, maybe.” He toasted Maria. “But you, Pep, you love me. Or you think there’s a me to love. Don’t blame yourself, sweetie, even I was fooled. Ha! Hair o’ the dog that bit me…” Swig.

“Ms. Potts,” Maria said, taking a protective stance near her. “Now might be a good time to leave.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Pepper told her, “I don’t pay you to be.”

Now Tony was stirring his little punch bowl with the julep cup. “All affectation. But me? Really? Deep down? I’m the same guy I was way back in Afghanistan. I decided that I changed and I thought that I’d changed, but through it all, I’m still. That. Guy. I make things that kill people. It’s what I’m coded for. I’m a gun, I fire bullets. Everything else is just smoke screens. Throw people off the trail.” He tossed the cup aside. Drank straight from the pot. “Where the fuck was I?”

“Tony, everyone has made mistakes. Everyone feels they could’ve done more.”

“I built the damn thing.”

“And we turned it on—“

“I was the damn thing!” Tony jabbed a finger into his head like it was a drill. “Used my own brain engrams to program it. I gave it artificial intelligence, and the intelligence it was artificing was me. Without all the affectations, without the little cues—I’m that.” His other hand aimed at the head. The insect. “And everything I do is just a half-measure of what it did. Total… control and fear and hate and panic and… I need to get back to work.”

He dropped the pot when he got up. It was still half-full; splashed on the ground, forming a lake to bury the papers at his feet.

Tony spoke like he was exorcising himself. “So, this, all this—fucked. No point in changing, can’t change. Fucked. But multiversal theory says that there are an infinite variety of universes out there, some of which possibly can not be fucked. I’m gonna put in a call and warn them. You know all those comics where there’s a shit future full of dead people and folks with eyepatches? We can be the shit future. Maybe I’m bad, but I can at least be a bad example.”

“Didn’t Loki build one of those once?” Maria asked. She had been following the pipes and wires to where they all seemed to end.

It was the size of a globe, obscured by multiple cords and cooling systems plugged into its scaffolding, but looking closely, Pepper could discern the shape of a gyroscope slowly spinning. The many metal rings not moving in sync, but halting and heaving at differing intervals.

“We contact another universe, another me, and I tell myself that Ultron is a very bad idea. I’m me. He’ll listen to me.”

“Tony, you know I hate trying to think like you with a modicum of responsibility,” Pepper said reasonably, “but the last universe we contacted was Asgard, and we got Loki out of that. And Dark Elves.”

“And Lorelai,” Maria added. “SHIELD thing. Not important; also bad.”

“We also got Thor. Imagine if we could’ve warned him about Loki.”

“Imagine if the other universe is full of zombies.”

Tony scoffed, “Don’t be ridiculous, Pepper, that’s my job. Now if I can just get this to work—oh, silly of me, left the safety on.”

“He built a safety?” Maria asked.

“Yeah, I’m worried too.”

“Do any of the suits have a safety?”

“Very frequently they don’t have a pilot,” Pepper shot back. “Tony, don’t we have a rule about catnaps before testing things?”

“I’m going to send a radio signal, Pepper. It’s like I have anywhere near enough power to open a portal. This’ll just be a blip. After all this time, haven’t you learned to trust me?” Picking up a remote control attached to a console by a long strand of wiring, Tony flipped a switch that took up the entire clicker.

 

The rings all spun in sync and it only took a second before the universe turned blue.


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