Title: Criminal Mastermind
Author: marcicat

Rating: T
Word Count: 16,700

Fandom: Iron Man Armored Adventures AU

Summary: What if Gene kidnapped both Starks from the beginning?

Author’s Note: The working title for this fic was ‘The Criminal Mastermind AU I’ve Always Wanted.’ And then I couldn’t let it go, obviously. Each new file got an all caps section heading, including:

Chapter 1 covers the first season of IMAA. There are no actual kittens in this fic.


He could not, with absolute certainty, say that the explosion wan't his fault.  The timing was -- frustratingly coincidental, if nothing else.  Perhaps he had misjudged when he assumed that "borrowing" the ring from Zheng would be the difficult part.

Gene sighed, confident that no one could hear him over the sound of the alarms. And now the plane was crashing. Wonderful. Stark didn't even have the ring. 'He never takes it off' could take its place next to 'he flies alone;' merely the latest in Zheng's litany of betrayals.

Two prisoners would be significantly more trouble. Perhaps they could be used against each other?  The elder Stark possessed considerable knowledge of the Makluan rings.  But what if that was another lie?

He hardly had the luxury of an extended weighing of his options.  He grabbed both Starks and yanked on the ring's power, dumping them all a -- hopefully -- safe distance from the fireball.  That was when he noticed the blood.



It had been easy to justify at first.  Tony was injured; all of his attention needed to be on his son.  Then the recovery phase -- no point in staging an escape attempt if Tony was going to collapse halfway through.

After six months, though, he had to admit they weren't exactly rushing to get away.  What was the point?  Obadiah had Stark International locked down, and it would take more than coming back from the dead to wrest it back from his grasp.  The safeguards he'd put in place would have to be enough.

Tony was safe, and the Rhodes' were safe, and hadn't he said he wanted Tony to get out of the lab and make some more friends?

Besides, Gene Khan -- for all his bluster and posturing -- was just a kid himself.  It hadn't escaped Howard's notice that Gene could probably use some friends too.  He had a solid core, but he was in a shitty situation. Howard had watched him sleep more than once when Tony was still critical.  Sleep, then shake himself awake with silent tears.

"I'm fine with staying," Tony said, eyes still glued to the screen in front of him.  "If that's what you're thinking about so loudly over there."


"Come on, what else am I gonna do?  Go to school?"  He scoffed, like the very idea was preposterous.

Howard couldn't quite imagine Tony in school, though he'd certainly considered the idea.  "It would be good for you to be around other people," he said, trying to feel out whether they were on the same page.

Tony gestured widely, still without looking away from the screen.  "There's lots of people around here."

"People your own age, Tony.  Who aren't villains in the making," he added.

"I really think Gene is more misunderstood," Tony offered.  (It was possibly true.  Gene wasn't exactly a note-perfect kidnapper.  Howard was pretty sure they were in his private rooms, for one thing, although he hadn't forgotten the very real looking cells they'd been hustled past when they'd arrived.)

"Besides, you wanted to find out more about the rings, right?"

Howard smiled.  "What's that?  You, interested in some ancient artifacts?  Who are you, and what have you done with my son?"

"Ha ha, very funny, Dad.  You saw what he did with just one."

And that was classic Tony.  Explain a fascinating and centuries old cultural mystery -- boring.  Show him unexplained energy readings from an unknown power source -- he'd be up for days running experiments.

Gene chose that moment to stomp into the room, pick up the closest throwable object, and hurl it against the wall.  Howard flinched as the mug shattered; Tony didn't even twitch.  "Zheng is going after the second ring," Gene said.  "He's diverted a train; he plans to crash it into the power generators at Stark Tower."

"What?"  That was -- Howard shook his head, trying to parse all of the things wrong with that sentence.  "That is the worst plan I have ever heard," he said.  "Ever."

"There are hundreds of people in that building," Tony said, which, yes, probably should be their first concern.

Howard was still having trouble with the plan.  "And then what?" he asked.  "Is he going to sift the ring out of the rubble?  Why not just teleport into Obadiah's office, club him over the head, and take it?  It doesn't make any sense."

"It does if Zheng suspects you're here," Gene said grimly.

"Stane's not even there," Tony said, tossing aside the device he'd been fiddling with.  He stood up and clenched his fists.  "He's at the testing grounds, meeting some military bigwig.  Gene -- you have to let me have it."

"It's too dangerous.  And how do you know that, about Stane?"

Tony waved at the device, now lying on a low table.  "Remote login to his admin's computer.  Trish always uses palindromic sequences that start with seven."

"Trish is there?" Howard said.

"It's a handheld video game," Gene said, looking suspiciously between Tony and the device in question.

"It was, yeah.  Did you seriously think I asked for it so I could stack blocks all day?"

Gene's expression said yes, that's exactly what he'd thought, and he crossed his arms in what Howard thought of as his 'I'm in charge' pose.

Tony ignored it, stepping forward.  "Speeding train," he said.  "I can stop it.  You have to let me have the armor.  I know you have it; Stane would have flipped if he'd recovered it."

Howard looked back and forth between them. “The what now?"

Tony stayed locked in his staring contest with Gene, but he said, "I was going to show you, remember -- the day of the crash?  My new invention.  It was on the plane."

Howard said, "Gene, if he can stop the train, it would save hundreds of lives."

"You trust this 'armor'?" Gene said.  "You've never even seen it."

"If Tony built it, it will work."  And if Zheng was willing to invite that level of collateral damage, Howard was willing to unofficially throw his lot in with Gene.  "You and I can get the ring from Zheng and you can confront Obadiah at the testing ground.  I certainly wouldn't mind seeing him get a bit of well-deserved come-uppance."

Gene wavered for another second, then nodded.  "Fine.  But you stay here."  He pointed at Howard.  "I can take Zheng on my own."

After that it was a whirlwind of getting Tony suited up (it was at least three-quarters as impressive as Tony thought it was, which was still pretty damn impressive) and linking up at least rudimentary audio and visual communications.  Gene offered up his phone, and Howard had to bite his tongue to keep from pointing out all the ways that was a stupid idea for a kidnapper.

Tony stopped the train.  "I can't help noticing you're not headed back," Howard said, watching scenery blur past on the tiny screen.

"Stane's militarized the earth movers," Tony said.  "That's what the meeting is about --a demonstration."


"They were supposed to help people, Dad.  Not be turned into weapons and sold to the highest bidder."

Howard covered the microphone and sighed.  Then he said, "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to stop them."

He was pretty sure he didn't breathe the whole time Tony was facing down not one, but three earth movers.  When Gene appeared at the edge of the fight and started taking out joints with a series of energy blasts, he uncrossed his fingers.  It was over quickly after that, until the earth movers were piles of scrap on the ground, and Tony and Gene exchanged a few words that he couldn't hear.

Howard leaned in towards the speaker and announced, "I am definitely not staying behind next time."


It was all over the school --

'Did you see?'

'I heard it was a robot, a mutant, an alien, a military experiment.'

'On the news, they're calling it Iron Man.'

And it was all he could do to bite his tongue and not fling his books on the ground and scream at everyone.  He knew that armor.  He'd seen it once before, on the day his best friend died in a plane crash, and it didn't belong on anyone but Tony Stark.

"I know what you're thinking."

Pepper's voice startled him, and he slammed his locker shut with more force than was probably advisable.  He heard something fall over and hoped it wasn't his Bio project.


"I said, I know what you're thinking.  You're thinking, 'what crazy theory does Pepper have about the new mystery superhero that will ultimately turn out to be true even if we get in a tiny bit of trouble for investigating it'?"

Rhodey sighed.  "One, it is not a superhero," he said.  "Two, I'm still paying for the last time you convinced me to help investigate something.  And three, believe me when I say I've heard all the crazy theories I can handle today."

Pepper seemed completely undaunted.  "Yeah, but you haven't seen this."  She held up a slightly grainy printout.

It took a second for him to realize what he was looking at, and then he grabbed for the picture.  Pepper handed it over.  "I made you a copy.  Interested now?"

The picture showed the armor, surrounded by three giant robots shooting laser beams, at what looked suspiciously like the Stark International testing grounds.  At the edge of the picture was another figure in armor, all in black.

"Isn't this private property?" he asked.  "How did you even get this picture?"

"Well, the FBI is still investigating Obadiah Stane after the plane crash, so they were, you know, surveilling him.  My dad fell asleep at his computer last night looking at the pictures.  I just happened to use my phone to take a picture of the screen."

He supposed that made sense, in a Pepper sort of way.  "What do you need me for, then?"

She pointed at the picture.  "The Iron Man armor is all future tech-y, but the other one is super old school ancient warrior stuff.  You're the only person I know who likes history enough to help me research it."

Rhodey sighed.  It was honest, at least.  "Okay. Meet me in the library after school."

Pepper did a little victory dance right there in the hallway.  "Yes!"

The rest of the day passed in a blur, until he sat down next to Pepper -- she'd set up camp behind an absolutely enormous pile of books -- and she said, "So, I already narrowed it down to Asia, probably China."

"Have you been here all day?" he asked.

"No!  Well, yes, actually.  You seriously didn't notice that I asked to go to the bathroom in English and never came back?"

"Not really?"  He hadn't been paying a whole lot of attention.

Pepper pushed the stack of books further down the table.  "Anyway, I think we should start canvasing Chinatown, and see if anyone acts suspicious when we ask about the armor."

Rhodey gave her a suspicious look.  "You didn't actually want me for my history research skills, did you?" he said.

"Not exactly?  I mean, you're super good at that part, but I also thought it would be good to have some backup?  You know, for the fun part."

This was how he'd ended up halfway to being arrested two months ago.  Pepper's idea of fun didn't always exactly line up with legality.  Or sanity.

"I have strong objections to this plan," he said.

Pepper clapped her hands.  "But you're totally going to help anyway, right?  You're the best, Rhodey."  She grabbed his arm and started leading them out of the library.  "Let's start now."

Pepper managed to charm their way into four antique stores and at least three boutiques he was pretty sure they were too young for, but even her enthusiasm started flagging after two fruitless hours.  They took a breather next to a (out of service) pay phone. "Pepper, we should call it a day.  Come back with fresh eyes tomorrow."

"One more stop," Pepper insisted.  "The next place is practically on our way home anyway."

It sort of was.  "One more," he said.

The store seemed deserted when they walked in.  "Hello?" Pepper called.

Nothing.  He checked the counter for a bell, found a dish of hard candies instead, and was trying to decide between red or green when a voice said, "It's one per customer."

The person who stepped out from the back room didn't look much older than him and Pepper.  "Can I help you with something?" he asked, sounding as if he very much thought the answer was no.

"Hi!" Pepper said.

The door of the shop burst inwards, and masked gunmen filled the room.  "Gene Khan," one of them said.  "You're coming with us."  Rhodey tried to look innocent and uninvolved, but Pepper squeaked when one of the machine guns pointed their way, and why hadn't he thought to text home with an address of where they were headed?  "Bring his friends, too."

They were loaded into a van (of course), and unloaded into a warehouse.  "At least it's not a meat-packing plant," Pepper whispered loudly.

"Shh," he whispered back.  "Don't antagonize them."

Gene -- if that was his name -- stayed silent, but he did pull a small device out of his pocket and start fiddling with it.  It didn't take long before one of the guards snatched it away.

"What is this?" he demanded.

"It's a tracking device."  Gene glared at the guard.  "You think this is the first time I've been kidnapped?"

The guard laughed, and dropped the device on the ground.  It splintered into pieces when he stepped on it.  "Not so smart now, are you?  Count Nefaria doesn't take kindly to being lied to.  Killing the three of you will send an -- appropriate message."

He turned to leave, and the words bubbled up without any conscious thought.  Rhodey said, "Whoa, wait.  Who said anything about killing?"

The guard ignored him.  Gene gave him a condescending look and said, "Relax."

Pepper said, "I personally would find it easier to relax if I hadn't watched our best shot at getting rescued being crushed to death under that guy's boot.  Seriously, what were you thinking?"

"Seriously," Gene repeated.  "It's fine.  Breaking the casing is what activates the beacon."

"Quiet down!" the guard yelled, and Rhodey wondered what they were waiting for.  One time of death was probably as good as another, right?

"I wonder what they're waiting for," Pepper whispered.  "And what kind of a name is Count Nefaria, anyway?"

"It's a Maggia name," Gene muttered, and Pepper's eyes went wide.

"Ooh, that's why your name sounded familiar!  Gene Khan!"

There was a commotion on the other side of the warehouse, and two costumed figures sauntered into view.

Gene shifted slightly, though his expression didn't change.  "Unicorn, Shrike -- the Maggia needs the two of you to take out three unarmed teenagers?"

"Killer Shrike," one of them said.  "It's Killer Shrike.  And the Maggia's not just going to kill you.  We're gonna frame the Iron Man for it.  Once he's got the whole city against him, maybe he'll be a little more receptive to joining forces with Count Nefaria."

"Somehow, I doubt it," Gene said, and that was when the wall blew in, and Iron Man quite literally burst into the room.

Rhodey was too busy ducking and covering to see much of the fight, but he and Pepper managed to get to an exit without too much trouble.  As soon as they were outside, they could hear sirens approaching from all sides.  "Where's Gene?" Pepper asked.

Rhodey looked around, like maybe Pepper had just missed him.  "I thought he was right behind me."

They were ready to go back in looking for him, but the police swarmed around them, and then it was all ambulances and shock blankets and Pepper's dad showing up to yell and hug in equal measures.  Gene showed up maybe half an hour later -- Rhodey caught a glimpse of him being hustled into a car by someone wearing a baseball cap, and that was it.

"Well, that's not suspicious at all," he said.

"Mm," Pepper agreed, staring after the car.  "And awesome.  We can go back and see him tomorrow, right?"


Breakfast -- considered a strictly optional meal in the Stark household -- was now a mandatory daily occurrence.  Things had been awkward ever since the warehouse, though, and Tony gulped down cereal in an attempt to escape to the lab as soon as possible.

His dad set his coffee cup down with a firm click on the counter tiles.  "I think we should have a family meeting."

Tony stopped eating and stared.  Never in a billion years would he have expected to hear those words coming from his dad's mouth.  At least Gene looked equally stunned.  "I -- could leave?" Gene said awkwardly.

His dad smiled.  "Don't be ridiculous.  You're the kidnapper, you should know what we're planning, right?"

Gene looked suspicious.  "Yes?"

"Exactly.  Now, I'm not saying Zheng wasn't bad news, but it seems to me you may have bitten off more than you can handle on your own.  Leading the Tong at the same time you're searching for the remaining rings?"

"I don't need your help," Gene said, and there was an edge to his voice.

"I was thinking more of a mutually beneficial agreement.  You want my help with the rings; I want to stop Obadiah Stane from turning Stark International into a weapons dealer."  He looked back and forth between Tony and Gene.  "And I think you'll agree that both your alter egos could use backup from time to time."

"You want me to become a masked vigilante?" Gene said, disbelief clear on his face.

Tony couldn't agree more.  "You want me to become a masked vigilante?  With him?"

"Why now?" Gene asked.

"I had people I trusted in key positions all over Stark International," his dad said.  "I thought they would be able to keep the company on the path I laid out, away from the weapons business.  I recently found out Stane had them fired, every one of them.  The severance packages alone nearly bankrupt the company, and now he's selling off tech to the highest bidder, including the military, and the Maggia."

He tapped his fingers on the counter and added, "I've been tracking the news.  I have reason to believe that the man who called himself the 'Living Laser' was using an unfinished device I invented and had stored in the Vault.  Only one person other than Tony and myself has access to that room."

Tony dropped his spoon.  "Stane's selling stuff out of the Vault?"  He knew Stane was power hungry, but that was -- "Half the stuff in there we stopped working on because it was too dangerous!  He can't just dump it on the streets; people are going to get killed."

Gene shook his head.  "We need to focus on the rings."

"Look," his dad said.  "I know the rings are your priority.  But people are important too.  If we can stop Stane from arming the Maggia and solidify your position as head of the Tong, that eliminates a potentially huge liability right there.  Which would give us more time to focus on the rings.  Whatever you do now is going to influence hundreds of lives, Gene.  You may not want them, but these people are your responsibility now."

Somehow, Tony had always thought that when his dad gave the 'your employees are your family' talk, it would be addressed to him.  He eyed Gene carefully to gauge how he was taking it.  Gene met his eyes.

"Well?" Gene asked.

Tony shrugged.  "I think you need allies a lot more than you need prisoners."

Gene closed his eyes.  Tony was relatively sure he was counting to ten.  Maybe twenty.  Finally, he said, "All right.  We'll try it your way."

The problem, of course, was that none of them actually knew anything about running a crime-related organization.  "Can't you just -- stop committing crimes?" Tony asked.  "I mean, wouldn't that be the simplest solution?"

"Tony," his dad chided, "Try to show some sensitivity.  There are centuries of cultural heritage involved."

Gene's face screwed up with a truly indescribable expression.  "What?  My cultural heritage isn't crime; why would you think that?  I grew up on a farm."

Tony winced, and tried to hide it, but his dad just rolled right on through the awkward.  "Maybe a nice soup and juice bar, then," he said.  "That could work."

Gene rolled his eyes.  "And who's going to run it?  You?  The Tong?  They're criminals; their skill set is crime."

"Hey, come on," Tony said.  He gestured to his dad.  "Our skill set was being high profile genius inventors.  Now we're pretending to be dead and fighting bad guys.  Maybe they just need an opportunity."

His dad nodded.  "I wouldn't try to force them to stay, but the way the job market is these days, I'm not sure they'll turn this down.  A paycheck's a paycheck; this one would just come with a lower chance of jail time."  Gene was looking a little squirrely, and his dad frowned.  "You are paying them, right?"

Gene looked up at the ceiling.  "Yes?" he said, sounding like he hoped that was the right answer.  "Zheng handled the finances."

His dad tapped on the table.  "Make a note, we'll need to look into that.  It's been a while since I've done accounting, but I'm sure it will come back to me."  Gene still looked doubtful, but handed over a pen.

"We'll still need to keep track of our territory," Gene said.  "Count Nefaria will take advantage of any perceived weakness."

"Dibs on tech," Tony said quickly, and his dad looked up from his notes.

"What?  No, no calling dibs.  I'm older, I call first call."  His dad was smiling, and for a minute it felt just like before, when they would set up ridiculous arguments and bets just for fun.

"You can both help with tech," Gene said.  There was, possibly, the slightest hint of a smile on his face.

Oh, this was going to be fun.  Tony slid off his stool, ready to make a break for the lab, but Gene held up his hand.  "No disappearing," he said (and that was actually a really good idea, maybe some kind of stealth armor).  "This was your idea, you get to help explain it.  Get the armor."


"And you," Gene pointed at his dad.  "You get to test your job market theory on Unicorn and Shrike."

Tony watched Gene hesitate, then put his hand out, palm down.  "And whoever finishes first gets to redecorate the hall."

His dad caught on first, and stepped forward to set his hand on top of Gene's.  "Deal," he said, and then gave Tony a significant look.

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes, because hello, genius -- he got it.  He slapped his hand down on top, and said, "Deal."  Then he said, "You know, I've always wanted to make one of those spinning globe projections."

His dad was already halfway out of the room, but he called back, "So pretentious, Tony!  I think Hammer has one in his lobby!"

(He snuck another look at Gene, and yeah, it was definitely a smile that time.)


Rhodey was definitely hiding something.  With her dad still recovering from whatever it was that put him in the hospital (freak power line accident? no way was that anything but a cover story, and a bad one at that), she'd been trying to let him rest.  Which meant plenty of time to work on Rhodey.

"Sixty-two text messages, Pepper?  Really?"

"I was bored," she said.  "You weren't answering."

Rhodey leaned against his locker.  "I was sleeping.  You know, that thing people do when it's nighttime?"

"Mm, no.  Not ringing a bell.  Have you decided to tell me yet?"


"What?  You know I'm going to find out eventually, right?"

"Why do you even care so much?" Rhodey asked.

She waved a hand in front of his face.  "Are you sure you slept?  Because it's you, and you're my friend, and friends that nearly get arrested together should stick together.  And tell each other things."

He rolled his eyes, then sighed.  "Yeah.  I guess I do need to talk about it."

Thank goodness for handy empty classrooms.  Rhodey sat down on a desk, and she tried not to fidget.  Finally, he said, "Okay, here it is.  Tony Stark made the Iron Man armor."

She could feel her eyes going wide.  "And now Stane's stolen it?  But what about the testing grounds?  And the warehouse?  Ooh, what if it's gone rogue?"

"I don't know," Rhodey said.  "None of it makes sense.  Tony had just barely finished it before the plane crash; no one else even knew about it.  This is -- going to sound crazy, but what if it's Tony in there, somehow, and Stane's controlling him?"

Her mind raced with possibilities. "Yeah, like what if he was hurt during the crash and now he can't leave the armor?  And Stane's setting him up?  You're totally right, by the way, it does sound crazy.  We should break into Stark International and see if we can find anything!"

Rhodey said, "And you think my idea is crazy?  We are definitely not going to break into Stark International.  It's one of the most heavily guarded corporate buildings in the city!"

She was pretty sure that meant he'd thought about breaking in already.  She said, "Okay, but we could totally just go -- you know, check it out.  Look around, that kind of thing.  There's no law against looking.  And maybe it would make you feel better!"

Pepper clasped her hands on front of her and added, "After lunch?  You have a free period, I have a free period...  We could say we're considering an independent study project on local employers; that would just look like we were showing initiative."

"Just to look," Rhodey said.

Which was how they found themselves being stared down by an armed guard (wearing sunglasses indoors -- a world of why?) just a few hours later.  "What are you doing here?" the guard asked.

From behind them, a voice said, "Rhodes.  Pepper."

The guard frowned.  "Are these two with you?"

She turned slightly, and had to blink and look again.  It still looked like Gene Khan, amazing disappearing antiques store employee -- carrying two bags of takeout containers and wearing a hat that said STOCK UP.  He hesitated long enough for her to start worrying, then said, "Yes."  She elbowed Rhodey when it seemed like he was about to speak up.

Gene said, "I thought you were going to wait outside, with the truck."  The unsubtle 'go away' came through loud and clear.

"I had to go to the bathroom," she said.  She leaned closer to the guard and added, "I have a condition."

The guard didn't seem convinced, but it was hard to tell with the sunglasses.  "You have ten minutes," he said.

Gene led them to the elevators and hit the button for the top floor.  There was a long awkward silence.  "So..." she said finally.  "Food service, huh?  What's in the bags?"

He twitched.  "Look, this is how this is going to go.  I'm going to go in, drop these off, and get back in the elevator.  You two are going to stay right next to me the entire time.  Don't wander off, and don't touch anything.  Got it?"  Without waiting for an answer, he said, "What are you even doing here, anyway?"

Rhodey said, "Hey, you helped."

Pepper eyed Gene carefully.  Acting on a hunch,she said, "We're looking for Tony Stark."

Another twitch.  Bigger than the first.

"You know something," she said.  "You should tell us."

Gene sounded completely baffled when he said, "Why?"

Clearly, the friendship argument wasn't going to work on him.  "Because," she said.  "We could help.  Come on, the delivery guy disguise?  Not exactly original."

Gene said, "Oh, please.  One -- I am not in disguise; this is real food from a real restaurant.  And two, what was your plan, exactly?  Loiter around until the guard's back was turned and dash for the stairs?  They're all alarmed, by the way."

The elevator dinged, and the doors opened onto a very quiet, very deserted office.  "Where's Tricia?" Gene asked, and it took her a second to realize he wasn't talking to them.  He rolled his eyes.  "Well, it's about to be a party, then."  He looked at her and Rhodey.  "Don't say anything."

They left the elevator and quickly crossed the expanse of carpeting towards what had to be the CEO's office.  She exchanged a 'what in the world is happening here?' look with Rhodey.

Luckily, stepping into the office did not reveal Obadiah Stane.  (There was a small but not nonexistent chance he might recognize her from an online protest video a few months back.)  It did, however, reveal Tony Stark.  And Howard Stark.  And the Iron Man armor.  And a woman she didn't recognize.  Okay.  That was a thing that was happening.

The woman looked frazzled, but smiled politely at all of them.  "You must be Gene," she said.  "Hello, James."

Next to her, Rhodey waved.  "Hi Tricia," he said.  Then he looked at Tony.  "Man, you better have one heck of an explanation for this."

"Yeah, about that.  I'm not dead, and I'm Iron Man?  Dad, a little help here?"

"We have less than ten minutes before security comes to investigate," Gene said, unpacking the bags.  He slipped around the group to stand next to Tony.

"Sure, leave me facing the music," Howard Stark said.  His expression turned serious.  "Rhodey, it was my idea.  I'm so sorry for everything you and your family must have gone through; I can't imagine what that must have been like."

Rhodey crossed his arms in front of his chest.  "Are you dying?" he asked.

Howard shook his head.  "Not anymore!" Tony called.

"Are you bad guys now?"

"No," Howard said.  "But I understand if you don't believe me.  The circumstances are -- complicated, to say the least."

"What?"  Tony was donning the armor at a breakneck pace, but he paused to look incredulously at his father.  "You're up, by the way.  Five minutes."

"You're welcome to try your hand at explanations, then."

Tony took a deep breath.  "Right, well, basically, the plane really did blow up, and it turns out Stane is totally a bad guy, and is maybe selling tech under the table to all kinds of people, and we're trying to find out who and shut it down.  But today all we were trying to do was get back a digital copy of my dad's journal that he had in the office safe.  So we snuck in using stealth tech when we knew the office would be empty, but then the tech glitched out on us and we called Gene for backup."

"Whoa, now," Howard said, eyes still on whatever he was fixing.  It looked like an mp3 player, actually, but she was guessing portable invisibility device was more likely.  "Your tech glitched.  Mine only shorted out when yours had an energy surge."

"Lies and slander," Tony replied, but he was smiling.  "I'm ignoring you now."

"Three minutes," Gene said.

Tony gave him a look and started talking faster.  "We were already in here when it happened, which was lucky because this is pretty much the only place in the entire building with no cameras, thanks to Stane's paranoia.  But it's not soundproofed and Trish came to investigate, and then you all showed up, and now we're going to sneak out with you while Trish enjoys this awesome soup and smoothie combo meal.  Try the crackers," he added.  "They're really good."

"Unfortunately, the journal isn't here," Howard said, disappearing and then reappearing with a satisfied nod.  "Stane must have cracked the safe and tossed the contents."

"But he didn't," Tricia said, sounding confused.  "Your lawyer was here as soon as the paperwork cleared.  She took everything from the safe."

"Roberta?" Howard asked.

Rhodey chimed in with, "Mom?" (Rhodey's mom was the Stark's lawyer?  How had she not known that?)

"One minute," Gene said.

"We need to go," Howard said.  "Trish, you're  a genius.  Everyone else, we can talk more about this later."

He disappeared again, followed by Tony, and Rhodey stared at the space where they were standing.  "Oh yeah," he said.  "We'll definitely be talking about that."


They ducked through a door and -- hopefully -- out of sight. "Did we have a plan for this?"

Next to him, Howard leaned on his knees, breathing heavily.  He shook his head, then dropped it back against the wall.  He said, "'Let's invite Rhodey and Pepper,' Tony told us.  'You've been there before; it's perfectly safe.'  Remind me never to listen to him if he says something like that again."

It had all gone wrong so quickly -- they'd entered the ruins of the old temple, the rings started glowing, and then they were running for their lives being chased by stone Dreadknights.  "To be fair," Gene said.  "The statuary didn't come to life and try to kill you last time you were here."

They'd gotten separated from the others a few rooms back, and the earpieces weren't working.  "I should have guessed that bringing both the rings here would activate the test.  We need to find Tony and the others," Howard said.

"It's not going to do us any good unless we figure out a way to pass the test," Gene pointed out.

"Five heads have got to be better than two -- it's the test of wisdom, right?  We'll have a better chance together than alone."

He thought Howard really believed that, too.  Gene was -- trying to acclimate to it.  He'd spent years isolating himself from Zheng and his Tong informants.  Now his rooms were full of Starks and Stark equipment and Stark acquaintances, and it was just -- a lot.  Sprinting through an ancient temple with just one Stark, with no one in his ear, was startlingly restful.

(Sometimes, Howard reminded him of his mother.  He would never tell him, but he thought it, once in a while.  He had long since given up the pretense of anyone being where they were due to anything but their own choice.)

He offered, "The temple is probably set up to funnel people to the ring room.  If we keep going forward, we may circle back to it."

Howard nodded, but Gene frowned.  "On the other hand, doesn't it seem strange to you that the Dreadknights haven't caught up to us by now?  They weren't that far behind us."

They checked the hallway -- nothing.  And then both rings, still on their chain around his neck, flared with light, blinding him.  "What--"

"They must have passed the test!" Howard said.  "That's wonderful!"  The ground rumbled beneath them.  "Or maybe not," he amended.

More rumbling, and it was a distinct possibility that the whole place was going to come down around them.  He fumbled the rings off the chain and onto his fingers, shielding Howard as best he could with the Mandarin armor.  "We need to get out of here."

"Not without the others!"

Gene wrapped a gauntleted hand around his shoulder and teleported them both back to the gate.  "I'm going back for them," he said.

"No need," came Tony's voice in his ear, and Gene turned around to see him flying out of the dust cloud, one arm around Pepper and Rhodey clinging to his back.  "We're right here."

"That was awesome," Pepper said, and Tony staggered a little when she started waving a sword around before he'd quite let her go.  (Since when did Pepper have a sword, anyway?)  "We totally passed the test, and I got this sword!"

Ah.  She yelped when he leaned in for a closer look, and the sword split into two pieces.  Side by side, it was obviously a map, most likely indicating the location of the next ring.  "A map," Howard said, sounding thoughtful.

Gene mostly felt irritated.  The Mandarin of legend possessed immense power, and yet he hid the rings behind riddles and trickery?  And then laid out a trail like breadcrumbs to entice them from one to the next?  It felt more like manipulation than mystery.

"Okay," Rhodey said, leaning on Tony.  "Let's never do that again."

Tony retracted the armor's helmet.  "Come on, Rhodey."

Rhodey held up a hand.  "No offense, man, the Iron Man armor is amazing, but I spent the whole time worried about Gene and your dad!  I didn't even remember to grab the book that could have explained everything!"

Gene let the armor disappear when he realized Rhodey was reaching out to shake his hand.  "Next time, we stick together, all right?" Rhodey said.

He looked over at Howard, who smiled.  "You got it," Howard agreed.

Gene reached out and carefully clasped Rhodey's hand.  "Next time," he said.


"I'm sorry, you're seeing what?"

"Space beekeepers, Dad!  They're dressed like beekeepers, and they just shot me into space with some kind of gravity-reversing nanobot cloud!  I had to reboot the system from total shutdown mode as I plummeted towards the Earth!  From space!"

He rubbed his temples, tried to relax some of the tension in his jaw.  It was just one thing after another, wasn't it?

"I've got you back on monitors now.  Tony, are you okay?"

"Yeah -- yeah, I think so.  I think I need to upgrade the padding in the armor, though.  Crash landing is not fun."

"This is my shocked voice," he replied dryly.  "But I was actually talking to Gene.  Say again, Gene -- you're seeing what?"

"It's Stane, or something that looks like him," Gene said quietly.  "He's shooting up the gallery!"

Gene was investigating the Stark International art gallery for clues about the Makluan rings.  His was supposed to be the easy job, while Tony was on patrol -- heck, they were both supposed to be easy jobs.  It was their day off.  "Has he seen you?" Howard asked.  "Can you get away?"

"He definitely saw me, but it was weird, like he didn't even care.  He waved at me.  Anyway, I'm out now, headed back."

"Me too," Tony said.  "Back in five."

"I'll see you both soon," Howard said.  "Be careful."

He stood up, feeling old.  Was this the legacy he was leaving for his son -- hiding and fighting and chasing after legends?  And what about Gene?  He was barely older than Tony, and already had so much weight on his shoulders.

The thoughts were chased out of his head with Trish's arrival.  "Coffee?" she said, holding out a steaming mug.  Two days after the stealth tech incident, she'd shown up at the restaurant, resume in hand, and asked to see the boss.  The day after that, she'd been colluding with Wei in the research room and organizing everyone's schedules.  (Trish, as he'd thought many times before, was a miracle worker of the highest degree.)

She took a sip from her own mug.  "The boys are on their way in; they'll meet us in the library."

Howard said, "I don't know how I fed my caffeine habit without you, Trish."

She smiled.  "I hear Gene brews a mean cup."

That was debatable.  "Regardless -- I'm glad you're here," he said.  "You know I would never -- you could go anywhere."

"You and Tony made Stark International a family," she said.  "And now you're doing it again.  Trust me, there's nowhere else I'd rather be."

Right.  "The library, you said?"

They detoured to pick up snacks, and reached the library in time to see Tony wrap an arm around Gene's shoulder and lean over him to look at one of the screens.  "That's brilliant," he said, and then Gene poked him in the side and he yelped.

"Boys," Howard said, while inwardly he did a tiny dance of victory that Gene had let Tony touch him at all.

"I heard from O'Brien," Trish said when they were all seated.  "The good news is, Stane didn't sell all the tech from the Vault.  The bad news is that he didn't sell it because  someone stole it first."

"And we have no idea who?" Tony asked.

Trish shook her head.  "Stane's behavior is erratic.  He's been trying to contract work with SHIELD and they won't have anything to do with him.  O'Brien said recently he's had several meetings with a General Ross."

Howard frowned.  "The name doesn't sound familiar."

"We're looking into him; nothing yet."

"Rhodey wants to check in," Tony said, holding up his phone.  "He and Pepper just got home."

There was a chime as Tony flipped the call to one of the screens, and Rhodey and Pepper appeared in slightly blue-toned image.  They'd have to work on the color saturation.

"You are never going to believe who showed up at the job fair today," Rhodey said.

Pepper jumped in with, "It was SHIELD.  Which was awesome, but also totally weird at the same time.”

"Since when does SHIELD attend high school job fairs?" Howard wondered out loud.

"I know, right?" Pepper said.  "First they were all 'stay in school,' but they were asking a lot of questions.  They handed out free pens to anyone who would show them their phone and tell them where they got it."

"That's -- weird," Tony said.  "Right?  Everyone else thinks that's weird too, right?"

"It was pretty weird," Rhodey agreed.  "They were definitely looking for something."

Another chime, and everyone looked at Tony.  He held up his hands.  "Not me," he said.

Gene said, "It's from upstairs," and Lin entered the room at a pace that could only be described as 'brisk.'

"Hey Lin,” Rhodey said, and she waved at the screen.  "Gene," she said.  "A woman who says she is Whitney Stane is in the restaurant, asking for you.  What would you like us to do?"

Gene looked surprised, and Howard couldn't blame him.  "Whitney Stane?" Tony said.  "As in, Obadiah Stane's daughter?  What's she doing here?"

"I'll talk to her," Gene said.  "Show her into the meeting room, please."  He tucked his earpiece in and turned to follow Lin out.  "You know her?" he asked, and both Tony and Howard nodded.

"We'll be watching," Howard reassured him, but he was worried.  There weren't a lot of good reasons he could come up for Whitney to be dropping by.

Gene looked calm, though, when he entered the meeting room.  Tony was muttering quietly, and Howard was certain Gene was hearing every word.  "You wanted to see me?" Gene said.

"Oh, I already saw you," Whitney answered.  "Earlier today, at the gallery.  I think you and I have something in common, Gene Khan.  You don't like Obadiah Stane.  I have a vested interest in -- let's say, redirecting his attention.  We could work together."

Gene stared at her.  "He's your father," he said finally.

Tony's fingers were flying over his handheld. Upstairs, Whitney looked unimpressed by Gene's statement.  "Barely," she answered.  "The last time I saw him I had to schedule an appointment just to get in the same room."

"She's the thief," Tony exclaimed suddenly, and Gene twitched a little at the volume.  "She said she saw you, earlier, and you said you saw Obadiah.  She must have the missing tech, from the Vault."

"That's quite the leap, Tony," Howard said.  It made an unfortunate amount of sense, though.  He'd built a mask, once, that would have been able to do that.  The side effects were -- not good.  Not acceptable, and he'd locked the mask away for a reason, dammit.  "If she does... She needs help."

He grabbed for his earpiece and headed out of the library at a jog.  Behind him, he heard Tony say, "Gene?  Dad's on his way to you; I'm pretty sure he's about to do something --"

He missed the last word when he turned the corner.  No matter.  He just had to find a way to convince Whitney to give up the mask, hand over any other tech she might have stockpiled, and not tell anyone he was still alive.  Oh, and figure out how to reverse any effects the mask might have already had on her brainwaves.

Over the earpiece, he heard Gene say, "How would you feel about taking an extended vacation?"

(It wasn't a bad idea, as long as Whitney didn't interpret it as a death threat, which unfortunately Gene's tone did somewhat imply.)  He arrived in time to see Whitney pull a gun out of her purse.  "Whitney!" he said.

She turned the gun on him.  Gene Mandarin-ed up, and he could hear Tony cursing over the earpiece.  Howard put his hands up and sighed.  It was going to be a long afternoon.


"Man, what does a guy have to do around here to see his best friend?"

Tony turned around with a grin.  "Rhodey!"

Rhodey dropped his backpack and put his hands on his hips.  "I'm serious, Tony.  Did I really just get security checked by Killer Shrike?   Shouldn't he be in jail?"

Tony looked shifty.  "Well, we mostly call him Dave, but yeah.  Think of it as a work release program."

Howard walked over and put a hand on Tony's shoulder.  "Rhodey, glad you could make it," he said.  "Where's Pepper?"

"She's quizzing your work-release project on the FBI's most wanted.  You know Pepper."

Tony frowned, but Howard laughed.  "That I do," he said.

"I'm here, I'm coming," Pepper called, rushing into the room.  "Don't leave without me!"

Rhodey couldn't help noticing a conspicuous lack of Gene.  (He tried not to make it obvious, but he felt like he was the only one who remembered that Gene had been the bad guy not so long ago.)  "Can the rings really teleport all of us to Greenland?" he asked.

"Theoretically, yes," Howard said.  "Mass shouldn't be a limiting factor.  But in practice, no -- Gene's going to take us in two groups.  It's still the fastest way to travel."

"It kind of makes me want to throw up every time, though," Tony said.

"Thank you so much for sharing that," Gene said, finally showing up, and carrying an armload of winter parkas.  "You're wearing one of these; it's cold in Greenland.  And eat this."

Gene tossed something small, and Tony caught it one handed.  "What is it?"

"It's ginger.  It should help with the nausea.

Pepper nudged him in the side.  "Aw, that is so --"  She cut herself off when Gene turned to look at them.  "Helpful," she finished.  "Super helpful."

"Ugh, can we go now?"

Rhodey blinked.  He nudged Pepper back.  "Is that Whitney Stane?" he asked.

"Oh good, everyone's here," Howard said.  "Gene?"

Gene was right about one thing, at least -- Greenland was cold.  And it wasn't any warmer inside the temple, although it was certainly creepier.  "I thought this was supposed to be the temple of courage," he said, keeping his hands tucked tightly into his pockets.  (Howard had been very clear on the 'don't touch anything' plan.)  "What's with all the weapons?"

"Don't touch anything," Howard said, in case anyone had possibly missed it the first hundred times.  "Last time the temple collapsed once the test was passed, and we lost the chance to study it.  Tony?"

"Which is why we made these."  Tony pulled a handful of tiny somethings out of his jacket pockets, and they started flying around his head.  "Flying robot cameras," he said.  "They'll be able to scan the whole temple in under an hour, and they'll register everything we could think of to look for -- visual, audio, thermal, infrared, ultraviolet, EMF, quantum.  Anything that's here, we'll know about."

"And... then we activate the test, right?"  Pepper bounced in place a little.  "I've totally been practicing."

"Let's see if we can find out what the test is, before we activate it this time," Howard said, and Gene and Tony were suspiciously silent.

It didn't take long for Howard to wander off to the ring room, muttering over his journal.  Pepper joined an intense-looking huddle between Tony and Gene that sounded like it was mostly about their moms.  (No thank you; he had enough parental issues of his own to worry about, and he was uncomfortably aware that he was the only one in the group whose mom was still very much in the picture.)

Which left him and Whitney, lingering awkwardly near the stone statue they'd tentatively labeled the ring's guardian.  And hey, when in doubt, why not start with the obvious?  "You're Whitney Stane, right?"

She didn't bother looking at him.  "Yes.  And you must be the friend that asks dumb questions."

"I'm Rhodey," he said.  "If you didn't want to be here, why even come?"

That got him an eye roll, but she seemed willing enough to talk.  "Mandatory attendance.  Gene thinks I'm less likely to stage a revolt and steal his minions if I'm never left alone with them.  Which is ridiculous; they're stupidly loyal.  Howard thinks we're going to have a fun group bonding experience."  He could practically hear the air quotes.  "He has yet to realize that not everyone can be lured into the family spirit with science and underground ruins."

That was probably true.  The Starks didn't take a lot of vacations.  "So why are you staying, then?  Last I heard, you were a guest, not a prisoner."

Whitney shrugged.  "Revenge on dear old dad, what else?  Howard thinks that will fade once the brainwave effects are gone, though."  She tugged on the fingers of one of her gloves, looking down.  "It's strange, being told that your thoughts and your feelings aren't actually yours.  That you're someone different than you think you are."

Rhodey had no idea what she was talking about.  He nodded, but she caught him out anyway.  "You have no idea what I'm talking about, do you?"

"No, not at all," he said.

"This test doesn't make any sense," Howard said, wandering back into the entrance room. "Gene, can you bring the ring in here?"

Gene held up the ring as he walked in, and one of Tony's robot recorders was hovering at his shoulder.  Rhodey blinked, and suddenly the guardian was moving and its eyes were glowing and that could not be good.

"Get down," he said to Whitney, but of course there wan't actually anywhere to go, and anyway it wasn't looking at them -- it was looking at Gene.

"Look out!" Tony yelled.  He tackled Gene at the same moment the guardian fired honest-to-god lasers out of its eyes.


"He's not breathing!  The arc reactor's not working!"

Rhodey darted forward to grab the ring off the floor -- the guardian turned to follow him.  No laser eyes yet.  "Pepper! he called, and tossed the ring in her direction.  "Heads up!"

Sure enough, the guardian turned again, following the ring.  "Just give it back," Whitney called.  Pepper tossed the ring back to him -- his call.  Rhodey couldn't bring himself to look at Tony, lying on the ground.  He threw the ring at the guardian.

It grabbed the ring out of the air with surprising speed -- and then kept coming.  "Okay, maybe that wasn't such a good idea," Whitney said.

Pepper dodged a laser beam.  "You think?  What does it want?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Rhodey saw the flash of light that signified the Mandarin armor.  Instead of blasting the guardian, though, Gene turned his back on it.  He held a hand over Tony and sent a bolt of energy into his chest.

Tony gasped, and immediately tried to sit up.  Howard grabbed him into a hug.  Gene's armor disappeared, and Howard drew him in too.

"Uh, guys?" Pepper said.  "You should probably take a look at this."

The guardian was shrinking, kneeling down again.  As he watched, it turned back to stone.  One of its hands was open -- and in it was the ring.

"What?" Whitney said, voice incredulous.  "What was that?"

"The test of courage," Howard said.  "True courage doesn't need to be demonstrated through fighting, but through acknowledging your fear and letting go of it to focus on your real priorities."

(Rhodey thought he sounded pretty sure of himself for someone who'd just minutes ago been saying that the test didn't make sense.)  On the other hand, Tony was alive, the guardian was defeated(?), and the ring was glowing, so they must have passed.

Howard picked up the ring and handed it to Gene.  He said, "I can't say for sure what your mother would have said, looking at you now, but I think she'd be proud of you.  I know I am, of both of you."

He looked around the room.  "All of you," he added, and damn if Rhodey didn't feel a twinge of group bonding after all.


"Confirmed space beekeeper sighting in sector five.  I've got visual on two ships.  They're awfully slow for a group of mechanics, aren't they?  A little kid on a bicycle just rode by down on the street and hit the corner before they did."

Tony swiveled in his chair and didn't bother to hide his smile.  "Yeah, she's one of ours -- pictures uploading now.  Thanks, Dave."

"You really think these guys are going to try to do the deal here?"

"That's what it looks like.  I doubt AIM's too worried about local street politics."  He leaned forward for a closer look at one of the screens.  They'd rigged up the entire area with a sensor grid, but it still couldn't beat eyes on the ground.  "There's a weird energy reading shadowing in under the AIM ships," he said.  "Can you see anything else?"

"There's a sale on kumquats?  Everything looks normal except the beekeepers.  Wait, what’s--“  There was a crash, and the sound of wood splintering. "Backup!  Backup!"

Tony flipped channels.  "Gene, get to Shrike's location; sector five.  Backup call just came in."  He left Gene's line open in one ear when he switched back.  "Dave, Gene's on his way now.  Can you hear me?  Are you okay?"

He hated being the one to stay behind and coordinate, but he'd voted for cross-training like everyone else.  He still felt like he couldn't breathe until he heard Dave's voice.  "The hell was that?  I just got body slammed through a stack of pallets by a guy in a cat outfit."

"I see him," Gene said.  "Are you getting this?"

"I got it," Tony said.

There was a sound that might have been a choked off laugh from Dave.  "You didn't say Gene was coming in the Iron Man armor," he said.

Tony grimaced.  "Yeah, my ankle's still messed up from training today.  I'm totally benched.  Plus Pepper said SHIELD was lurking around on this thing, and you know we live to confuse their surveillance."

"Well, he started by strafing the AIM ships with repulsors, and he just kicked the cat guy in the head.  So yeah, I'd say that doesn't match Iron Man's usual fighting style."

Tony dropped his head into his hands.  "Gene..."

"What?  The last thing we need is AIM to get in a lucky shot.  Besides, either this is the seller, in which case -- bad guy apprehended, or he's tracking the sale for some reason.  In which case, potential ally.  I thought you'd be all for it."

"I wouldn't have kicked him in the head," Tony told him.

"Only because you depend too much on the repulsors."

"That's true," his dad's voice joined in suddenly, and Tony hadn't even realized he was listening.


"You know you do,” his dad said.  "Gene, can you bring him back here?  There's something familiar about that outfit, I just can't put my finger on it."

"We're on our way," Gene said.  

It wasn't long before they were laying the guy out on a table in one of the labs.  (Seriously, how hard had Gene hit him?)  They were just getting started on the familiar argument between 'do we take off the mask and risk losing his trust, or leave it and risk being deceived' when the cat guy woke up.

"If you attempt to remove my mask," he said.  "I will attempt to remove your hands at the wrists.  One of us will fail, and it will not be me."

Threats, really?  Tony opened his mouth before thinking.  "Pretty big talk from the guy who got kicked in the head," he said.

Cat-guy did an improbable backflip shimmy and wound up crouched on the table in an unmistakably threatening pose.  "You are hardly a worthy opponent, or I would challenge you for that slight," he said.

His dad stepped forward.  "Wait, I know that voice.  From Wakanda.  You're the Black Panther, but -- you sound so young.  T'Challa?"

And wow, way to go Dad, because the cat guy just froze.

"I don't know if you remember me," his dad said.  "We met a long time ago, but I'm pretty sure you said those exact words to me."

"Howard Stark," the guy -- Black Panther? -- said.  And then, wonder of wonders, pulled off his mask.  "I mourned your passing," he added.  "I see reports of your death, as well as your son's, were -- exaggerated."

"It's a long story," his dad said.  "Why don't we all sit down -- Tony, don't think I don't notice your lack of crutches over there -- and compare notes."

T'Challa pulled his mask back on.  "I care only about retrieving what was stolen from my people," he said stiffly.  "I neither want nor require your assistance."

Gene crossed his arms, which actually wasn’t that easy to do in the armor, Tony was impressed.  "No," he said.  "That's not how this works.  Your stolen property led AIM to our doorstep."

Tony nodded.  "Which means we work together.  What is it they're after, anyway?"

T'Challa said nothing, but his dad offered, "It must be vibranium.  Wakanda is rich in vibranium deposits; it's what your grandfather was there about, way back when.  It's the only thing that would be important enough for the Wakandan crown prince to leave the country."

"King," T'Challa corrected, and his dad nodded.

"I'm sorry for your loss," he said.  There were a few beats of awkward silence, and then T'Challa took his mask back off and sat down in an actual chair with a small sigh.

"Thank you."  Then he spread his hands and looked at Gene.  Well, at Iron Man.  "I'm listening," he said.

They hammered out a plan -- it wasn't much, but he was pretty sure it didn't have to be.  There was no question that AIM and Magnum would arrange another meet-up.  They key was to find them, get in, and get out again before anyone else -- SHIELD, the FBI, and the Maggia were his top three least wanted -- showed up to make things complicated.

The call came in before he managed to convince his dad that his ankle was feeling much better, really, and he was fine to go out on patrol.  "Sector two," he heard over his earpiece.  "Magnum's on the move."

"Let's get to the control room," his dad said.  "Gene, T'Challa, be careful out there.  You too, Dave."

Turned out the waiting and listening part was easier when you had company, and he only had to remind himself to keep breathing six or seven times.  "How do you do this every time?" he asked.  (After T'Challa had vanished into the night with the recovered vibranium -- he obviously hadn't fully absorbed the idea of teamwork.)

His dad looked serious.  "It's the hardest thing I've ever done," he said.  "And I would do it every day for the rest of my life.  Because I love you, and I trust you, and this is part of who you are."

(He'd forgotten they were still on comms.  They were working on a hug, which was harder than it looked with crutches, when Dave's voice came on the line.)

"Aw, I love you too, Mr. Stark."


“Wait, so SHIELD's had the Living Laser in custody this whole time?  I thought he --"  She made a 'poof' gesture with her fingers, and Rhodey winced.

"I don't know, I thought so too," he said.  "But I guess not?  Or he's back, somehow.  And genius thought it would be a good idea to fly up there and talk to him."

"Fly up there.  To space," Pepper clarified, and Rhodey did the shrug-nod combo that was all too common when it came to explaining 'crazy ideas the Starks came up with.'  She said, "Okay, one -- that's awesome.  Space!  This is why I want  a jetpack.  And two -- massively unfair!  Why are we the only ones who have to go to school?"

Seriously, everyone else got a free pass into the Khan-Stark crime and crime-fighting ring.  (She was still a little unclear on the legal ins and outs of reclaiming centuries-old ancestral heritage from secret hidden temples, and she supposed vigilanteism was, technically, against the law.  But Tong criminal activity had dropped to zero with no visible disruption of Tong-Maggia boundaries, which had the FBI baffled, and it wasn't like they had the resources to handle groups like AIM anyway, and --)

"Pepper!"  Rhodey was trying to get her attention.  "Some of us want to go to school.  Graduate, go to college, any of this ringing a bell?"

She rolled her eyes and tossed her drink in the nearest trash can.  "Speaking of bells."  They were going to be late in about thirty seconds.  Luckily, she could say a lot in thirty seconds.  "Think about it.  Whitney's not in school, Gene's not in school, genius isn't in school -- are you really worried about any of them finding meaningful and rewarding employment?"

"I thought you wanted to work for SHIELD.  You know they require a --"  Rhodey cut himself off as he pushed open the classroom door.  They both froze at the sight of two SHIELD agents talking with their teacher.

"Speaking of SHIELD," she murmured, as her brain was screaming 'run!'

The teacher was all smiles.  "Ah, Miss Potts, Mr. Rhodes.  You've been requested for a special meeting.  You're both excused from class."

She exchanged a glance with Rhodey.  That was bad, right?  Did SHIELD know?  What did they know?  What were they going to do?

It went from bad to worse when they were led into an empty office.  "Sit."

"We'll stand, thanks," Rhodey said.

One of the agents looked at them.  The other one stared straight ahead.  "I'll be brief," said the first one.  "I'm Agent Hill, that's Agent Corbeau.  Take us to the Mandarin."

Pepper blinked.  "What?"

"What, you thought this was going to be about Iron Man?  I'm guessing you already know where he is right now.  So does SHIELD.  So, unfortunately, does General Ross.  He's calling for the destruction of the station -- eliminate the Living Laser and the threat of Iron Man all at once.  No muss, no fuss, no one even needs to know, unless he decides to blame one of them for the loss of the station later on."

That was a surprising amount of information to just toss out there.  Overselling much?  "So you decided to tell two high schoolers about it?"

"Yeah, why tell us all this," Rhodey said.  "And why the Mandarin?"

"SHIELD's orbital station is normally occupied by two agents," Hill said.  "When the Laser took it over, he released one of them back to Earth as a gesture of good faith.  That was Corbeau."  She pointed at the agent next to her.

"There was only one shuttle, meaning the remaining agent has no way off the station.  SHIELD doesn't happen to be on good terms with any teleporters right now.  You two, however--"  She dropped a set of photographs on the desk, just like they were in a cop show or something.  "You know the Mandarin.  You know Iron Man.  You're not in a SHIELD cell.  Take us to the Mandarin now or the last one will change."

Next to her, Rhodey stuck his hands in his pockets.  "Photos can be faked.  And you expect us to believe SHIELD and this General Ross guy authorized you to come threaten a couple of teenagers to get your agent rescued?"

The silent agent shifted nervously, and Pepper narrowed her eyes.  "You're not authorized to be here at all, are you?" she said.

Agent Hill leaned forward and put her hands on the desk.  "Listen up.  The agent on the station is my sister.  General Ross considers her to be an acceptable loss.  I do not.  Threatening minors is the least of what I would do to save her.  Now, the Mandarin."

There was a flash of light, and the office seemed a lot smaller with the addition of the Mandarin and a woman who looked an awful lot like Agent Hill.  "It's done," the Mandarin said.  "She's telling the truth."  That part seemed to be for her and Rhodey's benefit, and how annoying was it that the Mandarin armor made everyone's voice sound identical?  The body language looked like Gene, but she'd been wrong before.

"Where are Iron Man and the Living Laser?" Agent Hill asked.

"Safe," was the Mandarin's answer.  He turned to look at her.  "Where is your phone?"

Pepper fished it out of her pocket and held it up, surprised.  He reached out a gauntleted finger and tapped it.  "Why isn't the emergency signal activated?"

Rhodey said, "Pepper! I turned mine on ages ago."

"I didn't think it was an emergency yet," she said.  This was why they never got to have any fun.

"It could have been," the Mandarin said, and yeah, that was definitely Gene.

"Thank you for the assist," the newest agent said.  "Your doing?" she asked, looking at Agent Hill.

"I couldn't stop Ross,” Hill said, and apparently even Gene could recognize such a blatant 'I need a hug' moment.  He nudged the agent forward until she was within arm's reach of Agent Hill.  Epic hugging ensued, while everyone else pretended not to watch.

Finally, they stepped apart.  "The first thing Iron Man did was take out the cameras," Hill said.  SHIELD has no way of knowing all three of you aren't still up there."

Her sister nodded.  "If I come back in now, I'll be considered compromised at best.  No, SHIELD thinks I'm dead; it should stay that way."

"Abigail," Hill started, and then stopped.

"Maria.  The way things are going -- it's not what we signed on for.  You could come with me.  There's others out there, I know it."

"I'm needed where I am," Hill said.  "There's still work to do.  Where will you -- no, don't tell me."

Pepper looked back and forth between them, astounded.  It was like a real life soap opera spy drama, happening right there in front of her.  Questions bubbled up in her mind, and she bit her tongue to keep them inside.

Gene sighed loudly.  She'd bet he was getting an earful. He said, "You can stay with us.  If you want."


A father, a thief, a spy, and an assassin walked into a room...  There had to be a joke that started like that, right?  Of course, it probably wouldn't take into account Trish, and Whitney, and the rest of the people that decided they just had to be involved with a meeting like this.  At least they'd convinced Tony to stay with Rhodey and Pepper and watch the security feeds.

Also, he got to wear the Mandarin armor, so there was that.  (Abigail had watched Gene hand over the ring and shaken her head when the armor formed.  "This explains so much," she said.  "You don't even know the conniptions SHIELD would have.")

They gathered in the hall, to hear what this 'Ghost' had to tell them.  And to get every scan they could on him while he was standing still and corporeal.  

"Love what you've done with the place," the Ghost said. Howard said nothing, but drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair.  "Look. I'm here purely as a professional courtesy.  No one seems entirely sure whether you all are committing crimes or preventing them.  I like your style."

"And?" Howard asked

"And I was curious.  AIM attempted to hire me to kill Iron Man.  I declined."

He heard Gene mutter something uncomplimentary, but everyone else managed a decent poker face.  Howard promised himself he could freak out later, and said, "More professional courtesy?"

"I make a policy of not killing people who are already dead.  AIM is under the impression that Iron Man is Tony Stark."  There was a beat of silence, and maybe someone twitched the wrong way, or maybe the Ghost could read minds, because he gave a slow whistle.  "Well, I'll be damned.  Guess the job is on after all."

"As you might imagine, we'd prefer for that not to happen," Howard said carefully.

"Oh no, I've heard about this part."  The Ghost put up both hands and took a step back, though he'd guess that was just for show.  "I have no interest in giving up my dastardly ways and joining your merry band."

Whitney smiled, and that was the signal he'd been waiting for.  "In that case," Howard said  "I have a proposition for you.  We'd like to hire you.  Exclusively."

Ghost looked around the room.  "You?  You have someone you want killed?"

This was the tricky part.  "Not exactly.  You're good at finding people, right?"

"I'm the best there is."

Abigail insisted SHIELD agents had been disappearing under suspicious circumstances for months, possibly years.  Only the best, only the ones most loyal to the old guard and the old ideals.  Time to find out if her suspicions were right.  "Good.  I have a list."

Ghost hesitated, and Howard held his breath.  Then: "Exclusivity doesn't come cheap," the Ghost warned.

They had him.  "Funds won't be a problem.  Two million a name, unless you find them alive.  Keep them that way, and it'll be ten million."

"Wonderful.  More presumed dead targets.  Three million per name; I already said I have a policy."

"Done."  It was as simple as that.  "Pleasure doing business with you."

The Ghost took his leave, but it turned out not to be as simple as that after all.  Not even an hour later, Wei ran into the kitchen.  "The Maggia have declared war!" he exclaimed.

Howard stopped with his spoon halfway to his mouth.  (It had been a good night; they were celebrating with ice cream.  Or they had been, at least.)  "Count Nefaria's declaring war?  On us?  Can he do that?"

Gene frowned.  "Yes?"

"Ooh, this is so exciting," Pepper exclaimed, waving her spoon.  "Can I call my dad and stay the night?  I've never been involved in a turf war!"

He sighed.  "Wei, what can you tell us?  Why now?"

"Nefaria claims hiring an assassin is an act of aggression.  He's called up all the Maggia in the city to begin attacks on our territory."

Tony pushed a stool in Wei's direction and he slumped down.  "What are our options?" Whitney asked.  "I mean, obviously there's fighting and negotiating; wouldn't it be better to just call the police and turn him in?"

"It would go against the code," Pepper said.

"There's no code."  Gene rolled his eyes.  "There's just no guarantee the cops could make anything stick.  Arresting him would only increase his anger.  Zheng was like that."

And then he seemed to shrink in on himself, like he hadn't meant to say that, and Tony looked worried, and even Wei was staring at the floor and wringing his hands, and Howard was officially done.  "Right," he said.  "Call Nefaria.  We're fixing this, now."

(And even though they were still hammering out details when the sun rose, Howard hadn't been the CEO of a global powerhouse for nothing.  There would be no war.  His kids would risk themselves a hundred different ways before the week was out, but this -- this he could do for them, and gladly.)


Another day, another death-defying expedition to an ancient hidden temple.  Although actually -- "You know, I kind of think the original Mandarin just phoned it in on this one," he said.

"No kidding," Pepper said, and Whitney nodded.  Seriously, the test of temperance?  It had taken Gene maybe three seconds to figure out how to pass.

"Maybe he thought the volcano would be enough of a challenge," Trish offered.  "It's not like they had helicopters back then."

"Maybe it's just easier because the last ring is so much harder," Pepper said.  She looked extra excited at the idea -- and she had seemed a little disappointed that the fire guardian didn't do much other than appear and announce their worthiness.  (He wasn't sure what she'd been hoping for, but apparently that wasn't it.)

His phone chimed, and he sent off a quick text back to his mom.  "In case my mom asks, we're studying right now," he told Pepper.

"Does she really believe that?" Whitney asked skeptically.  "She probably thinks you're secretly dating."

Rhodey shook his head.  "My mom's got a strict 'no dating anyone you almost got arrested with' rule.  At least not without warning her first."

"Are you ever going to tell us that story?" Dave asked, idly patting one of the mini video-bots.  Pepper had a few buzzing around her too.  Tony swore they weren't self-aware, but it sure seemed like they liked Pepper.  He was pretty sure they'd need to check her bag at the end of the day or they'd wind up going home with her.

The whole group was sitting in the ring chamber, waiting for Howard to be done with the SCIENCE(!) portion of the trip.  Dave's question got all eyes pointed in his direction.  Pepper opened her mouth, but Rhodey glared her down.  "No," he said loudly.  "Never."

"Shhh," Tony said. He pointed to where Gene was dozing, leaned up against Abigail's pack.  "I don't think he's sleeping much at night.  He keeps drifting off lately."

Whitney looked worried.  "I thought he was just tired from your 'study sessions.'"  She didn't stoop to actually making finger quotes, but they were definitely audible.  Trish made a noise that was suspiciously like a laugh, disguised as a cough at the last minute.

"What?  No!  Come on, we're actually studying when we do those.  Not 'studying.'"  Full out and extra exaggerated finger quotes were used, and Rhodey hadn't seen it before, but Tony and Gene?  Sure, it could happen.

"You were holding hands an hour ago," Pepper pointed out.

"That was for the test," Tony insisted.  "To present a united front when we put the coal and the ice in the guardian's beam."

"In case hand holding was an essential component of temperance?" Rhodey asked.

"Exactly!" Tony said.

Whitney still looked worried.  She said, "Tony, I don't want to -- overstep my boundaries.  But as someone who was very recently being mentally influenced by advanced technology...  Has Gene considered whether or not the rings may be affecting his behavior?"

"That's impossible," Tony said, and Whitney just looked at him.  "Okay, not impossible.  Improbable.  Very improbable."

They stared at each other.  Without breaking eye contact --or raising her voice -- Whitney said, "Maybe we could try separating the rings again."

Gene jerked awake, with his hand clenched on the rings hanging around his neck.  "What happened?" he said.  "Is the guardian back?"

"No, everything's fine here," Tony said.  Then he looked back at Whitney and sighed.  "But I think we have a whole new set of questions for the research team."

Before Gene could ask what that meant, and potentially open up whole new levels of 'weird stuff I never thought I'd find myself discussing while hanging out next to a semi-active volcano,' an angry buzzing sound echoed around the room.  "Is that my phone?" he said.

"More like all our phones," Abigail countered.  "Stark.  What did you do?"

The noise stopped as abruptly as it started, and Tony said, "Huh.  That's weird."

"What's weird?  Hey, my signal's gone."  Pepper shook her phone, like that might get it back.

"We might have borrowed a SHIELD satellite to get an exact location for this place," Tony said.  "And then kept using it.  They're -- broadcasting."  He tapped the phone and they could all hear someone talking.

"--can hear me, Abigail, I hope to hell you were right.  The helicarrier is grounded; Fury's out, Ross is in.  This is not how I wanted to go down with the ship, Abby.”  There was a pause, and then, "Banner's target one, but ice won't stop him.  If you can hear me, Abigail, I hope to hell you were right.  The--"

Tony tapped the phone again.  "It's a recorded loop," he said.  "Was that--?"

"My sister," Abigail said.  She took a deep breath.

"I'll get Howard," Gene said.

"I'm here," Howard said, striding back into the room.  "Did you all just hear that?"

There were nods all around, and then Dave asked the question they were all thinking.

"What do we do now?"


They were back in the great hall for the meeting.  It was the only place that would fit everyone who wanted to be there and also had the combination of: enough wireless screens for everyone, yet nothing that could blow up if someone got bored and started poking things (Dave, reigning champion of bad choices).

"There was an enormous surge of energy late this afternoon -- off the scale enormous -- and then nothing."  He pointed at the map (which was holographic and spinning and not pretentious at all, thanks very much, Dad).  "Ghost confirmed that AIM has a facility in that area."

"He could be lying," Whitney said.  She sounded bored, but that probably meant she was actually interested.  They'd long since passed the point where she was required to show up at meetings, and she was still there every time.

Tony said, "If you're asking if I paid him for the information -- yes, I did.  Out of the 'villains we're currently paying not to be villainous slush fund.'  Pepper, are you sure we can't give it a better name?"

Pepper gave him an innocent look.  It was possibly her superpower.  That or talking.  "What could be better?" she asked.  "That's exactly what the fund is.  Besides, you said I could be in charge of naming things until I got my own armor; that was the deal."

He reached a hand up to rub the back of his neck, then dropped it -- Gene kept saying it was his biggest tell.  "Yeah, I remember," he said.

His dad was pretty rock solid on the whole 'no armor without parental approval or an 18th birthday' thing, though.  And Pepper's dad was an FBI agent, and they had a budget item specifically for paying villains.  (To prevent villainy, sure, but it was the principle of the thing.)  Possibly not the best combination.  He was already a vigilante crime-fighter and pretending to be dead; he didn't want to add fugitive from justice to the list.

Rhodey spun the map towards him and said, "So an AIM facility suddenly used a ton of energy and then stopped?  Maybe they blew themselves up."

“Or, it's a trap," Gene said.

His dad was studying the energy readings.  "Tony, these readings don't make any sense.  This amount of energy could power a small city.  The fluctuations look nearly identical to--"

He stopped, and Tony winced.  To the Living Laser, was the end of that sentence.  He'd been hoping his dad would have a way to say it that was more tactful than just blurting it out.  Apparently not.

They both turned to look at Arthur, who...  Actually hadn't noticed, since he was doodling on his screen.  He looked up when the room went silent.  "What?  I didn't hit share all again, did I?"

"No, you're good," Tony said.  "It's just that the energy signature we picked up from AIM is a lot like what you're putting out when you laser up.  It could be they've figured out how to duplicate it, maybe even stabilize it."  Something he and his dad, despite all their work, hadn't managed.  Arthur was still changing, slipping away a little more every few days.

"Or," Gene said, leaning forward.  "It could be a trap."

"I don't think it's a trap," his dad said thoughtfully.

Tony could see the doubtful looks around the table.  He rolled his eyes (behind his screen so his dad couldn't see it).  "No offense, Dad, but you're hardly the strategic genius of the team."  Luckily, the former Tong second in command had stuck around, and she was a strategic genius.  "Lin, what do you think?"

She shrugged.  "It's probably a trap."  Gene nodded, then frowned when she added, "But we should go anyway.  AIM emphasizes logic based on group behavior and observation rather than innovation.  If the trap is for Iron Man, they will be planning for Iron Man and any previously observed allies -- Mandarin, and Killer Shrike.  Not for, say, a team of a dozen individuals all acting independently."

"Yes!" Pepper said, and then, "Wait, I'm one of the dozen, right?"

She was. Tony and Dave, as the most flight capable, were the first in.  They dropped through a suspiciously unguarded air shaft into a suspiciously empty hangar.  “Creepy,” Dave said.

Tony ramped up the power on sensors, only to be practically blinded when the facility lit up around them.  Alarms blared, AIM agents poured out of a dozen doors, and the back wall disappeared.  It revealed a giant floating head.  In a fishbowl.  Okay.

"Yup," Tony said.  "Definitely a trap."

Dave, who was 100% immune to drama after his time with the Maggia, shrugged.  "I take it back; that's way creepier.  And ugly -- is that mean?"

"I am MODOC," the head intoned.  "You are now prisoners of AIM."

Tony double checked that all comm lines were still open and that the countdown to backup was still ticking down on the heads up display.  Then he exchanged a look with Dave, who just shrugged again.  "That's weird, I don't feel like a prisoner," he said.

MODOC hovered a few feet higher.  "You are surrounded and outnumbered.  You cannot hide and you will not run.  All of your knowledge will soon be mine."

The pain was excruciating and completely unexpected.  Dave shouted something, but he couldn't hear it over the armor shrieking a heart rate warning at him.  "I am MODOC," echoed in his head, and really?  Telepathy?  Did they have a plan for that?

"My mental abilities can easily overpower your weak mind."  MODOC's voice was like a sledgehammer.  "You will be used to further AIM's goals, Tony Stark."

He was pretty sure he was on his knees by that point.  He hoped he was, at least, and not curled up in a ball on the floor.  And then the pain stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

"Think again, AIM scum."  Arthur fritzed and popped in the air between them, and Tony shook his head to try to clear it.

"Thanks," he managed.

MODOC recovered quickly.  "Designation: Living Laser.  Status: deceased.  Error.  Threat level: unknown.  Error.  Conclusion: You are unimportant to AIM.  You will be eliminated."

Tony managed to rally enough to repulsor a couple of beekeepers away from Dave.  Arthur laughed.  "I used to think that too, you know, that I wasn't important.  Now I know better."

MODOC made a noise that sounded halfway between frustration and rage.  "Oh, that's right," Arthur said.  "You can't read my mind.  Don't worry; everything's gonna be real clear in about three seconds.

Tony was feeling a little fuzzy on the plan himself at that point, but the lights started flickering at the same time a voice started counting down from one hundred.  Gene Mandarin-ed in directly in front of him and slapped a hand on his chest.  "Present from Howard," he said.  "It's a neural enhancer, it should work with the armor to shield you."

His head did feel clearer. "Thanks," he said again.  "The others?"

"Fine."  They ducked out of the way as MODOC fired some kind of energy beam in their direction.  "I hate being the bait."

The AIM goons seemed to realize the tide had turned, or maybe they were just freaked out by the (fake) countdown, and they scrambled to evacuate.  The whole structure seemed designed to break apart into escape pods, which was -- weird.

MODOC took longer to convince, but they finally got him lined up so all four of them could blast him at once.  It was enough to knock him out of the air and reduce him to speaking only in error messages, and he blasted himself through the wall after the escape pods.

"Uh, guys?"

Oh no.  "Arthur! Are you okay?"

They raced over, and Arthur looked at him with wide eyes.  Energy was arcing around him.  "I -- I'm not sure.  I can't turn it off," he said.  "What's happening?"

The armor readouts were all bad, and he retracted the face plate so he didn't have to see them.  "I don't know," he said.  "Your body is still changing, it's just -- accelerated."

"Am I going to disappear again?  Will I come back?"

"I don't know.  Arthur, I'm so sorry."  He should have had weeks, months even, for them to figure something out.

But Arthur smiled.  "I'm not," he said.  "For once in my life I got to be the hero.  I'll--"

And he was gone.  Dissolved into a cloud of sparkles that slowly faded, and Tony felt tears pricking at his eyes.  He replaced the armor's faceplate.  "We should go," he said, a little unsteadily.

Dave gave a loud sniffle and looked at the ceiling, blinking quickly.  "Oh, for -- come here," Gene said, sounding exasperated.  But he very carefully negotiated a fully armored hug and back pat, first with Dave, then Tony.

There was a squeak from behind them, and they turned around to see Rhodey, Pepper, Whitney, Lin, Abigail, and Wei all watching them.

"Hi," Pepper said.  “What did we miss?”


"Pick up," she muttered.  "Pick up pick up pick up -- yes!"  The line connected.  "Tony!"

"Ah, this is Howard, actually.  Is this Pepper?"

She stopped running and stared at her phone.  Tony never gave his phone to anyone else.  "Where's Tony?"

"He's napping.  He was up all night with Gene trying to figure out what the rings are doing.  Did you need him?"

She heard a crash in the distance and started running again.  "You know when you thought something big was going to happen, and everyone thought you were crazy?  Well, you were right.  Something literally very big is happening."


She tried to catch her breath.  "Here's the weird part.  I think it may be the Hulk."

"The Hulk is an urban legend," Howard said, but it was his distracted voice, so she assumed he was pulling up some kind of surveillance of the area.

"There was a kid," she said, slowing down to a jog.  "The Hulk was chasing him, or something.  They were headed in your direction.  I've got to be blocks behind by now, and I just crossed the line into sector three."

"Huh.  I've got Abigail in sector four; she hasn't seen them yet."

Pepper ducked into an alley and put her hands on her knees.  "Yeah," she said, breathing heavily.  "You may want to tell her to get out of there.  The Hulk's not the only one following the kid -- I was passed by at least a dozen aggressively bland cars on my way here.  A lot of government plates, maybe SHIELD, maybe someone else."

Howard's response was gratifyingly fast.  "Okay, I've sent an alert to everyone.  There's a bakery at the end if the street; Wei's mother owns it, she'll recognize you.  Ask for a half dozen dragon doubles.  She'll get you a to-go box and send you the underground route back to here.  That'll put you in the back warehouse and you can take the elevator from there."

Pepper couldn't believe it.  "You guys have a secret code?  Is this what you do while me and Rhodey are stuck in school?"

"That, and exchange recipes for egg tarts," Howard said dryly.  "Just don't drop the drinks.  One of them is for you."

(So it turned out dragon doubles were some kind of highly caffeinated coffee-based concoction -- though possibly also a secret code?  She was sent on her way with a box of hot cups, a stack of napkins, and an eye roll for "those Stark boys.")

The underground passage part was undeniably cool, though.  Also, the warehouse was full of mysteriously unmarked crates.  Which meant she may or may not have taken a slightly circuitous route to the elevator.

...Which turned out to be completely justified, when she peeked around a row of crates and saw the kid -- the same one who'd bumped into her and started the whole thing.  She said, "Hey!" before she really thought about it, and there was a deep rumble that definitely didn't come from the kid.

She looked up.  And up.  Oh yeah, that was the Hulk.  Very big, and very green, and if she lived through this she was going to give Howard such a hard time for this.  Could this be any more of a security breach?

"Oh, hey," the kid said.  "Hulk, it's okay.  You need to stay calm, all right?"

"Hulk calm," was the low reply.  "Rick hurt."

She looked more closely, and saw the kid's -- Rick's? -- jeans were all ripped at one knee, with blood staining all around the edges.

"Okay, look," Rick said, and she narrowed her eyes at his placating tone.  "We don't want to steal anything, and we don't want to hurt anyone.  We're just passing through, no harm done."

Pepper crossed her arms.  "So pass through, then.  I'm not stopping you."  (She wanted to.  Boy, did she want to.  But it wouldn't work if they didn't want help.)

"We will," Rick said.  "We're just -- waiting.  We're kind of trying to stay under the radar."

Like maybe she hadn't noticed all the people tracking them, or the fact that the Hulk was sitting right there.  "And you're bleeding," she said, which she figured was the nicest way she could call bullshit.

Rick winced, and poked at his knee.  "Yeah.  There's that."

She waved the napkins enticingly in his direction.  He gave a tired-sounding sigh, but nodded.  "Napkins, sure.  That'd -- help.  That'd be good."

Close enough.  "I think I can do a little better than napkins.  Just don't freak out, okay?"  She reached for her phone, redialed the last call.

Tony's voice was frantic.  "Pepper!  Where are you?  Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she said.  "But you may want to check on the cameras in the warehouse, because I'm pretty sure they're not working.  And we're going to need to move the meeting to the hall."

"What?  What are you -- switching to backup feeds -- oh.  Oh.  Pepper, are you sure you're okay?"

She nodded, sure that he'd see it.  "We're all coming in."  She looked back and forth between Rick and the Hulk.  "Any suggestions?" she asked them.

"Help Rick," Hulk said.  "Friends."

"No weapons," Rick said.  "Don't get in his way, don't try to separate us."  He paused, then added, "And if this is a trick, or a trap, know that it won't work, just like none of the others did, and there will be nothing left standing when we leave."

Okay, he was officially her new favorite.  "Deal," she said, and walked over to help him up.

They made it to the hall with a minimum of trouble, though there were maybe a few walls that would need patching, and the drinks were  a total loss.  Everyone was there, because Tony and Howard really didn't grasp the concept of 'hiding' as part of maintaining  a secret identity, and it was apparently contagious.  The surprises just kept coming, though, because Hulk stopped in the doorway and said, "Abby?"

"Hey buddy," Abigail said.  "Good to see you again."

Pepper looked around, met Rhodey's eyes, and gave him a 'what the heck?' look.  He seemed as confused as she was.

Rick said, "Hang on, you're Abby?  I thought Abby worked for SHIELD."

"I did," Abigail said.  "I met Hulk last time SHIELD caught up with the two of you.  He saved my life; I helped him escape.  Got exiled to space for it, wound up here."  She stepped right into the Hulk's space and touched his arm.  "They're friends.  You're safe here."

"Now you've done it," Rick muttered.  The Hulk let out a giant sigh -- and transformed into a guy.  A shirtless, barefoot, scraggly guy.  Whoa.

"Bruce?"  Howard took a step forward and froze.  "Is that you?"


Gene took over.  "Why don't we all sit down," he said.  "We have medical supplies, clothing, and food on the way."

The far door slammed open.  "I know he's down here, so back off or I will sue that ninja costume right off of your--"

Rhodey dropped his head onto the table with a thunk, then stood up slowly.  "Hi Mom," he said.

"James Rhodes," Roberta started.  Then she seemed to register the rest of the people in the room.  "Tony?  Howard?  That's -- impossible.  Whitney Stane?  Bruce?"  She looked back at Rhodey.  "James.  Explain."

Rhodey started talking, with Howard trying awkwardly to interject helpful comments like, "The danger was minimal, really," and, "Of course we wanted to tell you, but there were legalities to consider."  Roberta didn't look impressed.

Pepper edged towards a chair when Bruce headed into the fray.  He was smiling and not green, though, so she wasn't too worried.  Who knew that Rhodey's mom knew the Hulk?  Rick gave her a look she couldn't interpret.  "Is it always like this with you guys?" he asked.

She thought about it.  "Kind of, yeah."

He nodded.  "Okay."  He held out his hand.  "Rick Jones."

"Pepper Potts," she replied, and they shook hands.

"Nice to meet you."


He was never agreeing to meet Pepper and Rhodey after school again.  Kidnapped off a busy street in the middle of the day?  Things like that never happened when he stayed home.  Then again, that was sort of the point.

(It figured, that as soon as they decided not to go after the fifth ring, Zheng showed up to throw a wrench in the works.)  And now they were in Peru.  Gene hated helicopters.

He watched as Zheng held up a hand and utterly failed to make the mountainside move.  Twice.  "How is his possible?  I am the Mandarin!"

"Actually," Gene said.  "You're not.  You don't even have the Mandarin's rings.  You only have one; the rest are fakes."

A ripple of unease ran through the group of mercenaries behind him.  Gene turned to them and smiled.  "Did he promise you there would be gold in the temple?  Treasure?  There isn't.  He lied to you."

"Silence!" Zheng demanded.  "You are a child."

Gene's fists clenched.  "I haven't been a child since you murdered my mother," he said.

Zheng's expression shifted.  "Ah yes, poor orphaned Temugin.  'Gene.'  You're not alone anymore, though.  Or are you?  Did you give the rings to your new friends?  I find it most interesting that no one has shown up to rescue you yet."

He spun Gene's phone between his fingers.  "Not even a single call or text wondering where you are."  He crushed the phone in his gauntleted fist and dropped the pieces on the ground, laughing.

Gene resisted the urge to roll his eyes.  Seriously?  Monologuing and an evil laugh, that was the best he could do?

Zheng turned to the mercenaries.  "Use the explosives; blow the mountain open.  We'll get inside one way or another."

There was a flash of light, and a second Mandarin appeared.  "That would be an environmental disaster.  Hey Gene."

"Mandarin," Gene replied, unable to resist a small smile.

"Everyone else is already inside," the second Mandarin said.  "Dave?"

One of the mercenaries pulled off his helmet and offered a thumbs up.  "Don't worry, boss, we got this."  All the mercenaries trained their weapons on Zheng, who looked shocked.  And -- old.

Gene sighed.  "Zheng, I gave you a chance to leave peacefully when I exiled you from Tong territory.  Instead you betrayed your people and went to Nefaria.  When he didn't believe you, you took to the shadows.  Ever since, you've been spreading your rumors -- that the Mandarin was unbalanced, that the Starks were alive.  And yet the only followers you managed to attract actually work for me."

Zheng clearly wasn't getting it, and Gene thought he must be edging into monologuing territory himself, so he just said, "The power of the Mandarin doesn't come from the rings; it never did.  It comes from people."

"We do still want the real ring back, though."  The second Mandarin darted forward and plucked the ring off Zheng's finger, then tossed it to Gene.  He could hear the chatter as soon as the armor formed around him.

"Nice work, Gene," Howard said, calm as ever.

"Can you open the door now?"  And that was definitely Tony.  "We have a small problem."

He could hear someone in the background yell 'it's coming around again!' And then Rhodey's voice came on, out of breath.  "Big problem.  Huge!"

It clicked into place.  "You activated the test?"

"It activated itself!" Tony said.  "No one was even near the handprint things.  The dragon just -- boom!  Woke up!"

A dragon.  Wonderful.  "Are you sure I should open the door?  We could teleport in."

Howard said, "Well, it turns out Abigail wasn't entirely upfront with us about her abilities.”

Rhodey interrupted.  "Her hair turns green, her hands are on fire, and she can talk with animals!  Open the door!"

Well, okay then. Gene raised his hand.  The mountainside slid away, revealing the largest Makluan temple yet.  A group of people sprinted out of the entrance.  Iron Man was last, flying low.  And behind him -- the entrance shattered as an enormous dragon emerged into the sunlight.

Gene tensed, but it didn't seem interested in attacking.  It circled the valley a few times, then draped itself over the temple and blinked at them.  "It looks like a basking cat," someone said, and he nodded.  It was even twitching its tail back and forth, though every 'back' dislodged a few more pieces of the temple.

"So," he said, and waited for someone to jump in with an explanation.  "Dragon."

Tony retracted the armor and threw himself on the ground, spread eagle.  "Dragon," he repeated.  "I was not expecting that."

Pepper, Howard, and Wei all dropped their Mandarin armor and joined him, pocketing the rings.  Pepper said, "I can't believe I missed all the fun."

"Yeah.  Fun," Rhodey said.  He retracted his faceplate, but the War Machine armor was new.  Gene wasn't sure he was ever planning to take it off.

It was Abigail who finally said, "It was the temple of sacrifice.  Not yours, in this case.  Hers."  She pointed at the dragon.  "She's been stuck here for centuries."

She flexed her hands a few times and the flames disappeared, though the green hair stayed.  "Have you considered the possibility that the original Mandarin may have been a complete tool?"

The thought had crossed his mind, yes.  "Oh, hey, we got the ring, though," Tony said.  "Activated and everything."

He made no move to hand it over, and Gene found he had no desire to take it.  Instead, he stared at the dragon.  "Is she okay?"

Abigail waved her hand around the valley.  "She will be.  She just wanted to be free."

Gene swallowed hard.  "Can you -- can you apologize for me?  And tell her if she ever needs help... well, I don't know what we could do, but we could do something."

The dragon huffed a cloud of dust in their direction, and Abigail smiled.  "Yeah.  I think she knows."

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