Title: Criminal Mastermind (part 2)
Author: marcicat

Rating: T
Word Count: 20,000

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.’

Chapter 2 covers the second season of IMAA. The phrase “second string super thugs” was lifted directly from the show; it was just too awesome not to use.



HOWARD

"Remind me again why we're in China."  He stared at the cliff face in front of them.

"Because," Gene said, poking distractedly at the rocks.  "Fang wanted to come home, and we had to pace her in the jet to mask her from radar."

Fang, right.  Howard shook his head.  You exposed a dragon to a few centuries of history and popular culture all at once, and who knew what they'd take away?

And of course, it wasn't a great idea to argue with a dragon, period.  So when she'd picked this particular mountain range and demanded they remove the Makluan energy source from it before she'd settle in, well, here they were.  He sighed.  "I think I'm getting too old for these mountain climbing expeditions."

Tony gave him an incredulous look.  "You?  You're the one that spent hours traipsing around the volcano temple.  And the last time you were in the Iron Man armor, you asked if I thought it could feasibly get you to the moon -- still no, by the way, but I'm working on it.”

For a few seconds he thought Tony was going to let it go, distracted by the idea of lunar armor.  But then Gene said, "Are you sure you aren't overreacting to those rumors?"

"Is that what this is about?" Tony asked.  "You have one successful negotiation with Nefaria and suddenly you two are texting buddies?  He's a crime lord, Dad."

Howard sighed again, silently.  Yes, he was worried about the rumors of a new 'major player' showing up in the city.  And yes, he thought it would be easier to address if they were actually there, instead of halfway around the world.  (Besides, they still hadn't figured out how to deactivate the more problematic elements of the rings.  Other than satisfying the dragon, gathering up another one was only going to add to their problems.)

Out loud, he said, "I'm not sure whether you're ignoring it or really haven't noticed, but so are we, Tony.  People come to us instead of the police because we work outside the law.  Yes, we're trying to help people -- our people.  But it's a fine line, and we've already been on both sides of it."

Gene nodded.  Tony just crossed his arms and looked stubborn, but that was typical for him.  He'd think about it later, when he had time to process.  "So, no," Howard said.  "I don't think I'm overreacting.  Someone's recruiting, and it's not us, or Nefaria, and it's not Stane or SHIELD.  So who is it?"

Fang's head swung over the crevice, and Abigail dropped down to join them.  "Debate crime later," she advised.  "Let's just get the ring and get out of here."

Ring number six had an impressive array of booby traps.  ("Maybe it's because we didn't bring any of the other rings," Gene suggested, glaring with great intensity at the temple walls.  "Not that I would have, anyway.")  Not since they'd found solid evidence that the rings were emitting an energy that could influence behavior; an energy that increased exponentially the more rings were in the same place.

"Duck left!" Tony said, and then, "No, right -- sorry!"

(He thought Tony might be having a little too much fun with the temple's defenses.)  Fang was handling the actual guardian, which left him and Gene to work out the test.  Except there didn't seem to be one.  "All of the texts say that every temple has a test," Gene said.  "There has to be one."

"All of the texts also say there are only five rings," Howard said. He gestured at the ring perched innocently on the pedestal.  "And yet..."

"We're definitely missing something."  Gene sounded frustrated.

"We'll figure it out, Gene."  He hesitated, not sure how welcome his words would be.  "When I inherited Stark International from my father, we made weapons.  It wasn't until I had Tony that I realized I could do something else, something better.  The Mandarin's rings don't have to be your destiny.  Whatever you choose, you won't be alone."

Gene glared at the wall. "You don't have to play guidance counselor with me.  I get it, I have friends who care about whether I become a megalomaniacal power-hungry supervillain.  Just say no to brain twisting technology."  He kicked at a pebble and scowled after it.

"Family," Howard insisted.  "You have family that cares about you.  Even if you decide to become a megalomaniacal power-hungry supervillain, we'll still be here for you."

That got a tiny hint of a smile.  "Really?"

"Well, it might make group breakfasts a little awkward, but sure.  We can make the kitchen a 'no rings, no repulsors' zone."

"Are we talking about food?"  Tony -- apparently done playing with the flying attack blades -- retracted the armor’s faceplate and walked over to join them.  "I'm starving."

The ring started glowing at the same time Abigail emerged from the depths of the temple.  "We're good here," she said.  "Fang extends her thanks, and would respectfully like us to go the hell away now."

They all looked at the ring.  Gene turned to meet his eyes and said, "You meant that, right?"

"Every word."

Gene took the ring.  Nothing happened.  Tony gave a loud sigh of relief.  "Excellent.  There's food on the jet, right?"

It wasn't until they were back in the air and nearly home that things started to go wrong.  "Emergency call from Pepper," Tony said, flicking the call to the larger screen.  "And Lin.  And Nefaria, are you kidding me?  And O'Brien -- how did he even get this number?"

There was no way it was a coincidence.  "Put Lin on speaker.  You take Pepper, she talks the fastest.  Gene, you have O'Brien; I'll get a live news feed up and put Nefaria on hold."

He saw Tony wince at Pepper's volume, and then Lin's voice was saying, "The mystery player has made their move.  Both Justin Hammer and Obadiah Stane were abducted within the last hour.  The media's all over it, calling it a terrorist attack.  War Machine and Shrike are looking for them.  Data uploading to you now."

"Hammer?  Really?"  Obadiah, sure, he had more enemies than he could shake a stick at.  But Hammer never went anywhere without a bodyguard or two.  "What about Hammer's bodyguard?"

"Reports say he was alone," Lin said.

Howard shook his head.  "No way.  Find her, figure out what she knows.  Don't let anyone Mandarin up.  We activated the sixth ring."  He looked at Tony and mouthed 'stealth armor?'  Tony gave him a thumbs up and then held up three fingers in a W.  "Put Wei in the stealth armor if you need to," he told Lin.

He switched to his phone.  "Nefaria."

"I had nothing to do with this."

"I didn't say you did."

"A terrorist attack -- ridiculous.  It was an amateur at best.  Do you know who is looking for these two?"

"I'm guessing you're going to tell me."

"Everyone!  The city is crawling with police and FBI.  Every two-bit journalist, villain, and wannabe hero is coming out of the woodwork for this circus.  It needs to end, now."

"Getting a little too close for comfort?" Howard asked.

"As if you don't have secrets best left uncovered.  Howard Stark.”

Well, that was new.  He wondered how Nefaria had figured it out.  And what else he knew.  "Where are they?" he asked.

There was a pause, and then Nefaria said, "I have no idea.  But word is they're being held at a warehouse.  No creativity, these days.  I'm sending you the address."

Howard disconnected the call.  "Lin, did you get all that?"

"We're on our way," she said.

With a minor adjustment to their flight plan, so were they.  "Be careful," he said.  "We'll meet you there."

"No you won't," Tony said.  "I'll go, I have the armor.  You need to get the plane down and get all of our people accounted for.  Rhodey and I will bust heads and get the police pointed in the right direction."

Howard hesitated.  Gene looked as conflicted as he felt, but he said, "We'll be able to do more if we split up."

Tony nodded, armor already locking into place.  "Go," he said.  "I got this."


RHODEY

“Man, I know you’re all about not doing things the normal way, but this is one time I wish you’d made an exception.” He gripped the edge of the hospital bed and swallowed hard. “This is not how we were supposed to be spending your 17th birthday.”

He kept the words quiet — Tony couldn’t hear him anyway, and Whitney and Gene were asleep on the other side of the bed. Howard leaned forward and patted his shoulder. “He’s going to be okay, Rhodey. He’s a fighter; he’ll pull through.”

Rhodey nodded. Of course he was. But Howard hadn’t been in that warehouse. He hadn’t seen Tony take the shot that had been meant for War Machine — hadn’t heard Tony screaming over the comms. The Iron Man armor was gone, blown to pieces while he watched. Tony hadn’t woken up since; Rhodey hadn’t slept.

“You got him here in time. He’s going to be okay,” Howard repeated, and Rhodey wasn’t sure which one of them he was trying to convince.

There was a knock on the door, and his Trish stepped inside, followed by his mom. He leaned into her hug gratefully. “How is he?” she asked.

“Stable,” Howard answered.

Trish was fiddling with the television in the corner. “You’re going to want to see this,” she said. “Stane’s giving a press conference.”

“—stand for these fear-mongering scare tactics. We will not be bullied by these second string super thugs.” Someone from the audience shouted a question. Stane looked directly at the camera and said, “Who’s responsible? I blame Iron Man.”

“What?” Rhodey exclaimed. “We saved your life, you ungrateful—“ His mom raised her eyebrows. “—guy,” he finished weakly.

“Before Iron Man, did we have thieves who could become invisible? Did we have monsters rampaging in the streets? No! Iron Man may have been the first, but he was not the last, and he cannot protect us!” Stane was really selling it, and Rhodey saw a few reporters nodding along.

“Which is why I am announcing a new joint project spearheaded by Stark International and Hammer International, to address the growing need for personal security technology. Not in the hands of a few anonymous vigilantes, but wielded by the trained forces of our very own Strategic Hazard Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division, better known as SHIELD.”

The press conference exploded into a flurry of questions and camera flashes, and Stane was hurried off the podium by an aide. It was Howard’s turn to be outraged. He said, “I can’t believe I just saw that. Stane and Hammer?”

“Shh,” Trish said, but Whitney and Gene were already awake.

“He hates Justin,” Whitney said, yawning, and Howard nodded.

Rhodey had a few more uncomplimentary thoughts on the tip of his tongue, but they were all distracted by a commotion in the hallway. “Sir, you can’t go in there!” someone said. He tensed. A hospital — even a private one — had been an unavoidable risk.

Sure enough, the first thing he saw when the door opened was a uniform. But his mom said, “Virgil. Come in and close the door.”

Oh. Not just any uniform — FBI uniform. Pepper’s dad. Subject of way too many ‘should we tell him or shouldn’t we’ debates. Currently standing with his hands on his hips, taking in the room. It was a lot to take in.

“Well, that’s not exactly what I was expecting,” he said finally. “I assume Pepper is somewhere around here too?”

“Snack run,” Rhodey managed.

“Of course. Well. Gene Khan?” Gene gave a reluctant nod. “I’d like to ask you a few questions about a warehouse explosion. It—“ He cut himself off and looked around the room again. Rhodey could practically see the pieces falling into place. Pepper’s dad shook his head. “Roberta. Do I need to take myself off this investigation?”

His mom said, “Not in the way you think. It’s not as bad as you’re imagining, you know.”

Everyone else was silent. Pepper’s dad took a deep breath. “Really? Because it doesn’t take imagination to see this. Howard Stark — presumed dead. Tony Stark — minor, presumed dead, in the hospital under a false name. Whitney Stane — presumed missing, my god, does your father even know you’re here? Gene Khan — presumed leader of the Tong, Roberta, and he’s old enough to be tried as an adult.”

He left Rhodey out of it, but the disappointed expression was enough. He turned to Trish. “You, I don’t know. I’m not sure whether to be grateful or worried.”

Trish smiled. “I’m Mr. Stark’s personal assistant,” she said. She paused, which Rhodey would swear was just for dramatic effect, and then added, “We actually are the ones running the — entirely legal — restaurant and neighborhood watch group. Gene is still a minor; the paperwork his stepfather filed was falsified so he wouldn’t have to send him to school.”

Pepper’s dad groaned. “I can’t be hearing this,” he said. “Next you’ll be telling me he’s Iron Man.”

Howard coughed, and even Gene’s poker face slipped a little. Rhodey tried really hard not to look at Tony. “I am definitely not Iron Man,” Gene said, and Howard coughed again.

Pepper’s voice echoed down the corridor — Rhodey took a second to cross his fingers and hope that whatever she and Dave were talking about was parent-listening-appropriate. He couldn’t make out any actual words until they were right outside the door. Dave’s voice boomed out, “And that’s when I decided to go back to school for a second degree in environmental engineering.”

Pepper shushed him, and Rhodey breathed a sigh of relief. Too soon, as Dave added, “Gotta be able to keep up with all you hero types, right?”

They stepped inside. “Dad!” Pepper said. Then, “Oh. Hey, Dad.”

It was almost funny to watch her and Dave both try to move so they were blocking the other from view. Dave certainly had the size advantage, but Pepper had speed on her side. Not that her being in front actually blocked her dad’s view of Dave, based on the double take he did. “Hey Pepper,” he said carefully. “Having fun studying with Rhodey?”

“In my defense, all my school books are here. And so is Rhodey.”

“I can see that.”

Pepper, being Pepper, immediately switched topics. “Did you catch the bad guys? Ooh, I hope so. Wait, why are you here? Are there bad guys here? Do we need to evacuate? Should I call — someone?”

Rhodey said, “Your dad thinks Gene is the bad guy.”

“Gene?” Pepper’s voice was pure disbelief.

“Shocking, I know,” Gene said dryly.

Pepper’s dad was clearly reaching the end of his patience. “Someone needs to tell me exactly what’s going on,” he said. “Not you, Pepper. We’ll come back to you.” He pointed at Whitney. “You start.”

Whitney gave him a doubtful look. “Well, all right, but my part starts with brainwave-altering technology.”

Pepper’s dad sighed, and looked around for a chair. “Of course it does.”


TONY

The first he heard about it was when his dad stuck his head in the door of the lab. "Spiderman's on the roof.  Says he wants to talk to Iron Man."

Tony pushed up his welding mask to get a closer look at his dad's face -- it didn't look like he was joking.  "Spiderman never comes this far."

"Well..."  His dad looked away, a sure sign he was about to go for the evade and escape technique.

"You might as well tell me," Tony said.  "You know I'll just ask Pepper later if you don't.  And I've already promised not to armor up to fight for anything short of a global catastrophe."  His heart had been more damaged in the fight against Whiplash than he really wanted to think about.  And it seemed unfair to whine about getting back in the armor when Gene was still benched.

His dad smiled and shook his head.  "I'm still not sure if she's a good influence or a scary one."

"Dad.  Spiderman?"

"He's been around.  Patrolling, I guess you'd call it -- he usually swings through the area a couple times a night, ever since you were hurt."

That was -- probably not good?  "Huh.  Has he talked to anyone?"  They'd tried to track him down ages ago, when they were setting up the sensor grid.  Rumor had it he had a setup of his own, and Tony had hoped they could work together.  But they never even got close enough to toss a note.  The guy was fast.  And cautious.

"Not before tonight.  He showed up a couple minutes ago and hammed it up for the security cameras."  His dad frowned.  "I don't want to put you back in harm's way."

Tony rolled his eyes.  "It's Spiderman, come on, what's he going to do?  Web me to the building?  We'll get Rhodey to suit up in War Machine and run backup; it'll be fine."

"Rhodey's got a history exam this week, he's off the roster.  Rick's getting ready as we speak."

He nodded, but his mind was already working through scenarios.  "What's the plan?" he asked.

"Find out what he knows, what he wants, ask if he'd like to come inside for a sandwich.  Actually, ask if he made the wrist web devices himself -- Bruce was wondering the other day."

Sure he was.  Tony heroically restrained himself from an eye roll until he had the Mark 2 helmet on, and he flew up to the roof minutes later.  "You wanted to see me?" he asked.  He hovered a few inches in the air.  It had already been way too long since he'd been in the armor, and who knew when another mysterious semi-ally would show up for a visit?  Besides, Rick was hovering too (though granted, he was doing it next to the building, several feet out).

Spiderman said, "Yeah.  Maybe without the entourage?  It's, well, part of it's about who you are.  You know, really are."

"I'm Iron Man," he said automatically, and then gave himself a full twenty seconds of quiet panic.

Rick distracted Spiderman by saying, "No, really, it's fine -- you think I don't know who's in there?  Not a whole lot of secrets around here."

"Maybe we should take this inside," Tony said.

Spiderman held up both hands.  "No thanks, guys.  I'm on a strictly rooftops and alleyways regimen.  It's just, uh -- doesn't that get awkward, the hovering thing?"

"Doesn't it get awkward to perch sideways on the wall like that?" Tony said.

Spiderman flipped down in a move that reminded him of T'Challa.  "Point taken."  And then, like he was forcing himself to get the words out, he said, "I was sort of at the warehouse, when you got hurt."

"Sort of?" Tony repeated.  "What, do you moonlight as a villain?"

"No!  I, uh, moonlight as a photographer.  And -- I got a picture of you.  Out of the armor."

Right.  Okay, that was definitely bad.  Spiderman hurried to add, "It was an accident; I already destroyed them.  But, you know -- once you see, you can't unsee.  And it looked like you were pretty banged up."

"You could say that," Tony said, and managed not to put his hand over the arc reactor.  "Is that why you've been patrolling?"

"Yeah.  Pretty much.  I mean, at first I thought maybe I could commiserate with you about all the crap you put up with when a public figure calls you a menace -- sorry about that, by the way -- but it looks like you're doing just fine."

He held up a slightly crumpled sign that said I STAND WITH IRON MAN.  They'd been popping up in local shop windows and car windshields ever since Stane's press conference.  "Seriously, what's your secret?  I had three people try to give me one of these, and that was just tonight."

"Whoa," Rick said, moving in closer.  "Where did you even pull that out of?  Or do I not want to know?"

"It's like a map pocket, or a -- you know what, you probably don't want to know."  Spiderman waved his hands hands around a lot when he talked.  Tony couldn't tell if it was a way to make up for the expressiveness lost by wearing a mask, or if he was trying to distract from something.  Like the fact that it didn't sound like he was using any kind of voice modulation.  At all.  How was his identity still even remotely a secret?

The air crackled, and there was a familiar flash of light by the edge of the roof.  Tony pushed Spiderman to the back of his mind as he watched.  Sure enough, the light solidified into Arthur Parks.  The Living Laser was back.

Tony barely checked himself before calling out his name.  Arthur wasn't so careful.  "Tony!" he exclaimed.  "Boy am I glad to see you!  You are not going to believe what I--"  He caught sight of Spiderman and stopped.  "Oh, hey, you finally got Spiderman to team up?"

Rick laughing over the comm was surprisingly distracting.  "Spiderman just stopped by to say hi," Tony said.  "We haven't exactly gotten to the team up part of the pitch.  Don't worry, though, he already knew the whole secret identity part."

Arthur looked from Tony to Rick to Spiderman, and shook his head.  "I'll get the cliffs notes later," he said.  "Meantime, I'm starving -- I'm still cleared for the kitchen, right?"

Tony laughed.  He'd almost forgotten about that particular password.  He gave the all clear:  "Rosa will be glad to see you."  He added on, "Welcome back -- we missed you," which wasn't part of the password but was definitely true.

Arthur disappeared again, only to show up inside if the noise over his earpiece was any indication.  "Was that the Living Laser?" Spiderman asked.

"Yup," Rick said.

"Are you sure you don't want to come in?" Tony asked.  "We have sandwiches."

Spiderman hesitated.  "I'd like to," he said finally.  "But I have to get back."  He leapt off the roof.

"It's an open invitation," Tony called after him.  "Swing by anytime!"

"Puns, really?" Rick asked.

"Too much?"

"How should I know?  Just because I get along with Hulk, it doesn't make me a recalcitrant superhero wrangler.  Maybe puns are his secret weakness.  Maybe you've scared him away forever.” Rick landed on the roof and gave an exaggerated shrug.  “He kept the sign, though.  The Iron Man one."

"Huh."  He had, hadn't he?


PEPPER

"This is ridiculous."  She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room again.  The music was so loud she'd bet no one heard her anyway.  Tony was hunched over a video game, just like he had been the last six times she'd checked.  Gene was no better -- as far as she could tell he was actually lying there staring at nothing.

It would serve them right if she just left them there.  But then Howard would look disappointed, and Whitney would look smug, and neither of those things were exactly on her wish list.

"Hey," she said, louder.  No reaction.  Time for drastic measures.  She hit the override switch for the music.  Soft piano jazz immediately replaced the eardrum-shattering bass.

"What?  Pepper!"  Tony glared, and Gene sat up and blinked.  (Maybe he'd just been sleeping?  With his eyes open?)

She glared right back.  "Anthony Edward Stark, you are being seriously boring right now.  You too, Gene.  Unless you were sleeping, in which case, that's kind of cool."  She spread her hands out.  "Come on, guys!  Crime to fight, people to help!  Don't you want to hear the daily report?"

Tony tossed his game to the side.  "No thanks.  And for the record, I was multitasking, not being boring."

"What, beating level 72 and sulking at the same time?"

Gene said, "What's the point, Pepper?  We already know what they're going to say.  It's the same thing every day.  A lot of Howard and Banner saying it's still too soon to tell how much of a disaster this is going to be."

Pepper turned her glare on him.  "Geez, dramatic much?  First -- no one is saying this is going to be a disaster except for you.  And maybe that's wishful thinking, but look what we've already accomplished.  Second, it's pretty insulting to the rest of us when the two of you act like armor is the only thing that makes someone a superhero.  You don't need any special powers to do the right thing."

She thought about adding some sort of disparaging name to the end of that sentence, but she figured it would probably detract from the overall message.  "Besides," she said.  "Abigail's back from scouting the helicarrier, and Ghost showed up about a half an hour ago."

That got their attention.  Typical.

Still, they all made it to the meeting, just in time to hear Ghost say, "Well well well, if it isn't the prodigal son himself.  No costumes this time?  I almost feel overdressed."

"We're working on the honor system," Howard said.  "And also the guess that you'd much rather have us around than have Stane and his cronies succeed."  He didn't seem at all concerned that Ghost could now identify all of them.

"Let's hear it, then," Abigail said.  "What, exactly, are they planning?"

Howard exchanged a glance with Dr. Banner.  "Stane wanted the armor -- high tech weapons and a neural interface.  Hammer wanted the Living Laser, a man whose body was permanently altered by exposure to the teleportation device.  And Ross wanted the Hulk -- superior strength, advanced healing, and -- as far as we can tell -- damn near indestructible."

He looked down at his screen and sighed.  "Put those things together, and we think they're trying to create a new kind of super soldier.  Not just armors and pilots, but people physically and mentally merged with technology.  Still person enough to have the processing power of a human brain, but machine enough to be programmable.  And upgradeable."

Dr. Banner said, "It's actually similar in concept to your technology, Ghost."  His tone was mild, but it was Ghost who looked away first.

"Fine.  I'll keep your little club secret," he muttered.  "At least until this is over, one way or another."

"And you'll keep working on the list?" Howard pressed.  "Three names is hardly a success rate to brag about."

Ghost made a hand gesture she was sure had to be profanity in some language or another.  He said, "Yeah, well, you didn't tell me number four was crazy.  He's palling around with a couple of other whackjobs.  I'm working on it."

"This is bad," Abigail said flatly.

"It's not as bad as it sounds," Howard said.  "They have the Mark 1 armor, what's left of it, but not the Laser or Hulk.  It will still take time for them to--"

Abigail shook her head.  "No, you don't understand.  The message Maria sent? About ice?  SHIELD's been searching the Arctic for Captain America's body ever since the end of World War II.  And sometime in the last six months?  They found it.  Captain America is on the helicarrier, frozen, but alive.  They don't need the others, they have the original super soldier right there."

There was an instant buzz of conversation around the room.  Tony dove for a screen, and even Gene and Whitney looked interested.  Pepper was still stuck on the whole 'frozen' part.  "So, now what?" she asked.

"Now?" Howard said, and his face lit up with excitement.  "Now we're going to rescue Captain America."


GENE

The Hammer Multinational building was huge.  And ugly, but it was the hugeness that made it easier to break into.  Also, Hammer had a stupid attraction to immense floor-to-ceiling windows.  They were all several dozen stories above the ground, but if someone happened to be flying by in stealth armor and look inside, well.  No laws being broken there.

"I almost feel bad for him," Abigail said.  She shaded her eyes with her hand and stared up at the building.  They were sitting on a bench in in the tiny park across the street, waiting for the ready signal.

"Why?" Gene asked.  As far as he could tell, Justin Hammer's manipulative arrogance was tempered only by his ignorance.  He treated his own people as commodities, and the general public as expendable.  If he had any redeeming qualities, they were deeply buried.

Abigail shrugged.  "He's an idiot.  I like my opponents to be clever enough to fight back."

Gene preferred for the clever ones to be on his side.  It was how they'd gotten this far.  Trish had convinced O'Brien to mention security concerns relating to Captain America being on the grounded helicarrier.  Hammer's ego and Stane's overwhelming paranoia combined to make Hammer Multinational the perfect alternative -- Hammer could gloat over his acquisition; Stane had plausible deniability if something went horribly wrong.

("Which it probably would, let's face it," Tony had said.  "Defrosting a human being after seventy-something years as a block of ice?  They'd probably melt his brain by accident.")

”Helicarrier team is in position,” Howard's voice said in his ear.  ”You’re good to go.”

Gene checked his phone automatically -- no messages, not that he was expecting any.  Everyone he knew was currently involved in committing a heist and a kidnapping.  Texting would only waste time.

"Let's move," Abigail said.

They walked together towards the loading dock, as a large truck pulled up and parked.  Gene rapped on the side -- the back door slid up, revealing Tony and a nervous-looking Dr. Banner.  "I'm not sure this is such a great idea," Banner said.

"It'll be fine," Tony said.  "Feels good to be out in the world again, right?"

Banner gave him a skeptical look.  "Yes, crime, how I missed it," he said dryly.

"I meant science," Tony said.  He was wearing the armor, but the emphasis came through just fine.  "Captain America!  Cryogenics!  Opportunity of  a lifetime!"

"I already had one of those, thanks."  Banner crouched down by one of the crates in the storage bay and frowned.  "This looks like Wakandan writing."

"That is correct."  The Black Panther dropped from -- the ceiling? -- to land on top of the crate.  "I strongly suggest you step away."

Tony stepped forward instead.  "You're breaking and entering just as much as we are.  Why not work together?"

T'Challa tilted his head to the side and looked carefully from Gene to the Iron Man armor and back again.  "You gave up your responsibility?" he asked.

Definitely heightened senses.  Gene had almost forgotten he'd been in the Iron Man armor last time they'd met.  "We cross train," he said shortly.

"We're going to rescue Captain America," Tony said, practically bouncing in the armor.  "Do you want to come or not?"

T'Challa stood up and crossed his arms.  "My only concern is retrieving this stolen vibranium.  Perhaps if it was Captain Wakanda... Then again, if it was Captain Wakanda, we would not have lost him in the first place."  The smirk was clear in his tone, even hidden behind his mask.

Tony said, "Sure, just like you didn't lose track of all this vibranium.  Oh, wait."

T'Challa snarled, but Tony just took another step forward.  "All I'm saying is we're stronger together than alone.  You reduce the suspicion falling on you for the disappearance of the vibranium if Captain America goes missing at the same time.  And we get some extra backup.  Bruce specifically requested a stress-free trip; we want to do our best to provide it."

"You?"  T'Challa turned to look at Banner, who shrugged.

"You wouldn't like me when I'm angry," he said.

”Helicarrier team just found the shield,” Howard said.  ”What’s the hold up, Cap team?  We're about to find out how much these guys are communicating.”

Gene wasn't sure what made T'Challa change his mind about working together.  Maybe he just decided that it would be good to have people owing him a favor who thought kidnapping Captain America was a manageable Saturday afternoon project.  All he said was, "I will assist you."

Abigail nodded. "Just ran into someone," she reported.  "We should be back on schedule in a minute.”

It took 59 seconds to track the energy expenditure of the stasis unit to a sub basement, and Tony went to work.  "We're going to need to take the whole unit," he said.  They'd expected that, although Gene hadn't actually pictured it being quite so -- unwieldy.

"Impossible," T'Challa scoffed.

"Wanna bet?" Tony said.

Gene and Abigail hooked up the anti-grav discs while Banner monitored life signs.  They made it halfway to the door before the alarms started.  "I deactivated those!" Tony said.

”The helicarrier team just tripped some kind of alarm.”  Howard sounded worried.  His earpiece clicked to a private channel.  “Gene, Tony’s heart monitor is going crazy.  What's going on in there?”

"Alarms here too," Gene told him, checking the hallway.  It wasn't going to stay empty for long.  "We need to go to plan B."

Howard sighed.  The earpiece clicked back to the group channel.  ”Go for plan B,” he said.  ”Rings will be phased on my mark.  Mark.”

"Will you fight your way out?" T'Challa.  He looked like he very much hoped the answer was yes.

"No," Gene said.  "Everyone circle in; one trip only."  He took a deep breath.

He put on his mother's Makluan ring.

He opened his eyes.  It didn't feel like he was being mind-controlled.  "Gene," Tony said.  "Gene!"

"What?"

"Well?" Abigail asked.  "Are we leaving the easy way, or the hard way?"

He could feel the pull of the other rings, muted by the Living Laser holding them on the other side of the world.  He put a hand on the stasis unit and slid the ring's power around the group.  They reappeared in the truck outside the loading dock.

"Oh, thank goodness," Banner said.

"The vibranium," T'Challa started to say, and Gene waved his hand.  The crates with Wakandan writing stacked themselves along the walls.

Tony banged a hand against the divider between the cargo area and the cab, and the engine started up.  "Everyone's here; let's go," he called.

Gene took off the ring.  He felt fine.  But he would, wouldn’t he?  The thought of anything influencing his thoughts like that...  There were times when he wished he'd never heard of the Mandarin or the Makluan rings.

"Uh, guys?" Banner said.  "I think we may have activated a failsafe."

Lights were flashing all over the unit.  "His core temperature is rising," Tony said.  "We need to get him to a --"  He stopped, and exchanged glances with Banner.  "Hospital?  Lab?"

"Lab would be good," Banner said.  "Hospital would be trickier.  I think he's waking up."

Gene spent the next five minutes quietly panicking, while everyone else also panicked, at varying degrees of volume.  Finally, the stasis light dimmed to nothing and Captain America opened his eyes.

"Did we win?"


HOWARD

The party was meant to be a break for everyone -- a chance to spend time together without armor, or rings, or whisper-thin truces.  And, of course, to celebrate Pepper's long awaited 18th birthday.

"I think this is the best birthday meringue I've ever eaten," Pepper said, waving her spoon for emphasis.

"As far as I know, it's the only birthday meringue you've ever eaten," Virgil said dryly.  "But it is good."

Cake, it had been decreed, was a Pepper and Pepper's dad only tradition, and was not to be messed with.  Meringue was a perfectly acceptable alternative.

(Howard reflected yet again that it had been a lucky day when Grady -- aka Unicorn -- declared his love for cooking and switched to culinary feats.  The STOCK UP restaurant was an unexpected success, due largely to his enthusiasm.)

"I have one last present for you," Virgil said.  Howard, who knew what was coming next, edged slightly further away.  "I know that you don't technically need it, but you officially have my permission.  You can start cross training in the armors this weekend."

Pepper shrieked and threw her arms around her dad's neck.  "Thank you thank you thank you!" she said.

It kicked off a round of hugs that everyone seemed happy to spread around.  He sat back and watched.  Tony looked tired, but that wasn't unusual; his latest scans showed his heart was holding steady, at least.  Gene was right next to him, looking equally tired.  He'd thrown himself back into training and researching the rings since the Captain America rescue.

Speaking of Captain America...  Howard scanned the room.  Pepper hugging Trish, Rhodey and Whitney talking with Dave, Arthur and Bruce poking at some bit of tech on on of the tables -- there he was, playing cards with Rick and what looked like half the restaurant’s day staff.

He looked up and caught Howard looking at him.  He waved, so Howard stood up and walked over.  "It's Go Fish," he said, when Howard was close enough to hear him over the chatter.  "Thanks for inviting me.  It's a nice party."

"Ah, thank you.  And you're welcome."  Howard stuck his hands in his pockets.  He always felt a bit at a loss talking with Steve.  Recalcitrant teenagers, he could handle.  Criminal warlords, he could handle.  Earnest and polite young men still surprised by tv remotes?  Not so much.

There was a crash from the kitchen and he tensed, waiting for a shout of 'all clear' that didn't seem to be coming.  He slipped in his earpiece -- Steve gave him a bemused look as people all over the room did the same thing.

Lin was already coordinating a response, her voice steady in his ear.  Rick, Bruce, and Abigail moved out of sight to the lower levels.  Howard stood his ground -- Tony wouldn't think to leave, and Howard wouldn't go without him.

More crashing from the kitchen, and it sounded like crashing with intent.  Steve side-eyed his former card game opponents when they moved to oh-so-casually provide cover on all sides for him and Howard.  "Can I get one of those?" Steve asked, tapping his ear to make it clear what he was talking about.

Howard had been expecting something more along the lines of 'what's happening?' or possibly 'isn't someone going to check on all that noise?'  Before he could switch gears and give a reasonable answer, the kitchen door opened.

Wei came out first, followed by a woman Howard didn't recognize.  It was Virgil who stepped forward.  "Agent Lindberg."

"Agent Potts," she replied stiffly.  Well.  He hadn't been expecting that.

"I haven't seen you in a while," Virgil said.  In his ear, Howard was getting a running stream of information the research team was pulling up about Agent Lindberg -- currently with the FBI, she was supposed to be on an undercover assignment infiltrating Hammer Industries.  None of which explained why she was breaking into their kitchen.

"Why were you in the kitchen?" Virgil said.

"I was just looking," the agent said.

"Justin Hammer's not here," Virgil told her, and she glared at him.

"What happened to maintaining an agent's cover?" she said.

"They all knew already.  As ranking agent on the scene, I made the call.  You're disrupting my daughter's birthday party.  Why were you in the kitchen?"

Agent Lindberg's glare reduced in intensity but didn't actually disappear.  She said, "Justin's crazy, and I still can't figure out how he ended up in charge of Hammer Multinational.  But he had this paranoid idea that the Starks were still alive and conspiring with Stane against him.  Said he figured it out from Maggia rumors about this place.  I told him I'd come have a look so he'd stop whining about it all the time. I never expected to actually find anything."

She waved a hand and looked around the room with undisguised interest, while the researchers announced in his ear that her first name was Sasha, she was working (fake working?) as Hammer's PA, and that she had recently made a call to reschedule a demonstration of potential armor specs.  They should probably look into that.  As for the agent herself, Virgil would no doubt know all the appropriate paperwork for a situation like this.

Steve leaned closer to Howard and said quietly, "Does this sort of thing happen a lot?"

Howard wavered a hand back and forth, then just nodded.  "Pretty much, actually."  He wondered what Captain America would make of it all.

"Huh.  I still want one of those," Steve said.  "But it's not boring, that's for sure."


RHODEY

"Are you sure this is a good idea?"  Rhodey adjusted the camera for what had to be the hundredth time, trying to see what was going on inside.

Tony patted his shoulder. "It's a great idea, come on.  Hammer was already suspicious that Stane was working with someone else behind his back.  It just turns out that someone is Victor von Doom, not us.  We drop a few hints, they all show up in the same place at the same time.  This way we can see Hammer's armor prototype and figure out what Stane and Doom are up to."

The question of whether or not he could bounce a signal off the side mirror of Stane's limo became null and void when one of the walls of the building disintegrated.  "Whoa," Rhodey said.  He leaned back instinctively, even though they were easily three blocks away.  "Should we be worried about that?"

"Uh.  Probably?"  Tony's voice was distracted, probably from trying to check every screen at once.  "Hang on, something's coming out."

Rhodey couldn't see anything, but it sounded enough like a line from a sci-fi horror movie that he clicked on his comm.  "Okay, backup.  Backup would be good."

The dust started to clear, and Doom hovered in the air over the ruined car.  A green light shot out from inside the building and surrounded him, then disappeared.  "Well, that did nothing," Tony muttered.  "Whatever it was.  Doom's using some kind of quantum energy; I can't get a read on it."

The armor -- or what he was assuming was the armor, anyway -- finally emerged onto the street.  Rhodey assumed there were threats being exchanged, but they didn't have any audio bugs close enough.  Doom pointed at the armor and it burst into flame.

He was speechless.  A few seconds later, the armor took off, still burning.  "Was that quantum energy?" he asked.  It looked more like magic, but he wasn't going to say that out loud.

But Tony shook his head.  "No, that was just incredibly stupid design.  My scans showed that the armor was made primarily of titanium -- all Doom had to do was apply enough heat, and it'll burn like that.  You can't put it out with water either."  He sounded worried, and added, "I hope whoever's piloting it is okay."

And on the one hand, Rhodey was glad that Tony was acknowledging how maybe throwing their enemies at each other to see what would happen was a dumb idea.  But on the other hand -- enemies.  And Doom was definitely looking like he was searching for a new target.  "Tony," he said.

"I see it.  Didn't you call for backup ages ago?"

"Backup's arrived," Arthur said, flashing into the space behind them on the roof.  "Sorry for the delay.  We just got all reacquainted-like with the Hulk."

There was a deafening roar, and the Hulk dropped out of the sky next to Doom.  Hulk roared again, and slapped Doom to the ground.  "Yeah," Arthur said.  "Turns out they've met before?  Or the Hulk's just got a really strong opinion about this guy."

"How did he even get here?" Rhodey asked.

Arthur gave the impression of shrugging, though it was hard to tell for sure.  "He jumped."

Oh, of course.  He jumped.  And he was giving Doom a serious challenge out there.  "Is this safe?"  For Dr. Banner, for the city block...

"Hulk's keeping it contained," Tony said, studying the fight.  "But I'm guessing this is just the short term plan?"

Rhodey would swear Arthur glowed a little brighter when he got to explain.  "Hulk is our General Ross bait," he said.  "Doom has diplomatic immunity, but he's still technically supposed to be following SHIELD rules.  Ross was ignoring the fact that he was even in the country, probably on Stane's request.  To go after the Hulk, he'll have to acknowledge Doom as well, and then SHIELD will take him away.  You know, diplomatically and respectfully, or whatever."

There seemed to be an important point missing from that plan.  "What happens to the Hulk?" Rhodey asked.

"He's got practice with this sort of thing," Arthur said.

SHIELD vehicles incoming, ground and air,” Howard announced over the comms.  ”Iron Man, War Machine, get under cover and drop your energy output as much as you can.  Laser, get to the Hulk.”

Arthur flashed out with a wave, and the Hulk roared and leapt, soaring out of sight.  Rhodey and Tony hurried to move inside.  With only their essential systems running, Howard talked them through what was happening.

”SHIELD is on scene now.  Hulk's safely away; Arthur brought him the shape-shifting mask.  It can't influence Bruce because of his previous exposure to gamma radiation.  I told you that already, right?  Oh, now Stane's outside too.  I wonder where he's been hiding.  They're talking.  And now Doom's getting on the helicopter, thank goodness.  That guy gives me the creeps.”

"Thanks, Mr. Stark," Rhodey said.

Tony nodded.  Rhodey knew it had to be frustrating to have the armor and still feel useless, but Tony was holding up well. "Yeah, thanks Dad.  Are we good to come back now?"

”Are you kidding?  I want you back here yesterday.  Do you know Doom's quantum signature looks an awful lot like the Makluan rings?”


TONY

He was training -- well, he was watching Gene train.  Actually, he was mostly working on coding the next dozen levels in his video game, but he was in the training room while he was doing it.

Gene and Whitney were finishing up a round of sparring when the alert sounded.  They scrambled for their shoes while Tony grabbed them a couple bottles of water.  "What is it?" Gene asked.

He was trying to make sense of the chatter over his earpiece.  "Something just blew past all the sensors on level one."  They reports clarified into a single message.  "The hall," he said.  "Ghost is back.  He says -- he needs help."  They took off at a run.

People converged on the hall from all directions.  Most armed, apparently not taking Ghost's words at face value.  Or maybe they were.  "They're coming," Ghost said.

"Who?" Lin asked.

Tony exchanged a shrug with Gene and looked around for his dad.

Ghost pointed at Abigail.  "Your number four and his shadows!  They've been tracking me since Ottawa, outright hunting since I hit the outskirts of the city.  You wanted them; you've got them.  They're your problem now."

"Coulson?" Abigail said.  "Coulson's hunting you?"  The disbelief was clear in her voice.

"Is that so hard to believe, Agent Brand?" said a calm voice.  Tony whipped his head around, and cursed the fact that he hadn't gotten any tall genes.  He couldn't see anything -- he had the sneaking suspicion that the people standing in front of him knew that, and were blocking him from view on purpose.

Ghost actually yelped.  Tony felt the air charge, and Ghost appeared directly behind him.  He said, "Relax, kid, they're not going to let anything happen to you."  Which wasn't exactly reassuring.

The crowd parted slightly, and suddenly he could see the people who'd been chasing Ghost.  There were three of them.   One of them had a seriously tricked out bow and quiver; what was that all about?

"Agent Coulson," Abigail said.  "I -- I didn't mean--"

"It's fine," the guy in the middle said.  He was wearing body armor that looked dangerously bland.  In fact, all three of them looked like they'd just come from a fight, and were headed to another one just as soon as they left.  Tony hoped they hadn't freaked out the neighborhood too much.  Resetting the level one sensors was already going to be enough work without adding 'reassuring the community' on top of it.

"You're the one who sent an assassin after us?" Coulson said.

"Not to kill you," Abigail said, sounding defensive.  Then she put her head up, standing her ground.  "Besides, it was Maria's idea.  She didn't believe you'd gone to track down a potential asset and been blown up in a jet malfunction."

The guy with the bow and arrows smirked, but Coulson perked right up.  "Hill?  Is she here?"

"No.  She's with Fury.  They're not with us.  You've missed a few things."

"I'm sure," Coulson said.

"Where is he?  The assassin."  The woman on Coulson's left suddenly looked even more dangerous, possibly because of the long knife she was holding.  "We have unfinished business."

"This was your plan?" Tony heard Gene hiss at Ghost.  "You couldn't catch them, so you decided you'd piss them off enough that they'd want to kill you?  And then you led them back here?"

"Hey, it worked, didn't it?  The deal didn't say they had to be sunshine and roses."  Ghost's voice was quiet, but not quiet enough.  Coulson and the others honed in on it and they were suddenly a lot closer than Tony was really comfortable with.

"Hiding behind children?" the woman said.  "A new low, even for you."

"He's not hiding, and they're not children."  His dad's voice cut through the crowd, and Tony breathed a sigh of relief.

He was standing in the back, right next to the big chair.  (The chair was a running joke, but it did look impressive.)  "I'm Howard Stark," he said.  Then he crossed his arms.  "And that's my family you're threatening."

Tony was close enough to hear Mr. Medieval Weaponry whisper to Coulson.  "Does he mean family, or, you know -- Family?"

Coulson said, "You're thinking Maggia.  Wrong part of the city for that."  But all three of them took a step back, and the knife disappeared again.

And then his dad proved that he'd picked up Whitney's sense of dramatic timing, because he cleared his throat, and Bruce stepped out of the shadows behind him.  "Hi there."  Coulson's face went blank.  "I'm Dr. Bruce Banner.  But you already knew that, Agent Coulson.  I wish I could say it was good to see you again."

And then Steve stepped up too, and that guy had some serious stage presence.  "And I'm Steve Rogers.  Yes, that one."

Coulson frowned.  "Stand down," he said quietly, and presumably his companions relaxed, but Tony didn't actually see any difference.  Louder, he said, "Obviously we've missed more than I expected.  You were looking for us.  Presumably not to kill us.”

"That's not really our style, no."

He nodded.  "In that case, I'm Phil Coulson.  We could really use a shower, a square meal -- then maybe we can sit down and compare notes."  He looked at Abigail.  "I assume you have some sort of plan."

She smiled.  "Yes sir.  If you're not surprised yet, just wait."

"There's more?"  Bow and arrow guy -- not introduced, way to be secretive, Coulson -- sounded mildly impressed.  Or maybe horrified.

His dad said, “Oh yeah. There’s more.”


PEPPER

"I just don't get it.  I mean, Stane is literally destroying everything Howard worked to build.  Literally!  His old lab in New Jersey is rubble right now."

Pepper's hands ran through the stats check automatically as she talked.  Just because she was okayed for the armors didn't get her out of the other rotations, so she was spending the evening monitoring the sector security checks.  And exchanging the most valuable of all currencies -- gossip.

”I know, Justin's been whining all day.  Just because the Iron Monger is bigger than Titanium Man -- please.  It's a good thing I get to wear sunglasses all the time.  Howard's really okay with it all?”

Sasha's job(s) meant a lot of late nights.  Sometimes she called with information about Hammer's latest progress, or latest ridiculous exploit.  Or just to talk.  It was a win-win, really.  Information exchange was crucial to growth.  And preventing boredom.  

Pepper shrugged, even though Sasha couldn't see her.  "He's like the master of mellow," she said.  "I don't know how he does it.  We had to rescue old Mr. Zimmer in the dead of night!"

”Wait, who's Mr. Zimmer?”

"I guess he used to work with Howard?  He had all these old books and experiments and stuff.  He was living in one of the condemned buildings."

"Wow.  That's pretty harsh.”

"I know, right?  I was all for smashing and vengeance-wreaking, but Howard just offered the guy a cup of coffee and a chat and everyone's all 'let's just let it play out.'  Like maybe Stane will wake up one day and decide that building an enormous killer robot and selling it to half the known universe suddenly isn't his number one goal in life."

"Well, Howard Stark basically reinvented Stark International to get away from weapons and destruction.  Is it really so surprising that he wants to walk his talk?”

Pepper sighed.  "No.  It's just -- sometimes it feels like Stane and Hammer are duking it out to see who can build the most dangerous killing machine, and we're sitting here teaching Cap how to use the internet, and Hulk how to read street signs."

"How's Cap doing, anyway?  Last time I managed a visit you were still working on acceptable modern slang.”  (Justin thought Sasha had her nails done every three weeks.  Which she did, it just didn't actually take two hours.)

"Oh, that's still a work in progress, believe me."  Pepper keyed in a priority call for sector five.  It looked like Mr. Zimmer was settling in just fine, already causing a local brownout.  Spiderman had just been over there, too.  They really needed to get that guy on comms.  Or at least get his phone number.  "But he thinks google is -- and I'm quoting here -- swell."

Sasha said, "I can almost hear him saying that, too.  In all seriousness, though, Howard may have the right idea.  Do you remember the old SI commercials, from when he took over?”

How old did Sasha think she was, anyway?  "Yeah, no, that was definitely before my time."

"Oh wow, I loved those commercials.  'Create to Innovate.'  There was a whole series of them, based on the idea that innovation comes easiest from creation, not destruction.  Justin and Stane already broke their agreement and are back to competing for SHIELD's endorsement.  Maybe the key here isn't getting rid of what they have, but creating something that makes their things obsolete.  Something better.”

It sounded good, but Pepper was well aware that most things sounded good when Sasha said them.  It was why she was a good undercover agent.  Also, Iron Man and War Machine weren't exactly built for arts and crafts.  "That seems kind of simplistic," she said finally.  "And idealistic."

"Ever the idealist, that's Howard Stark,” Sasha answered.  "Look, you need both.  Creation and destruction --you can't have one without the other, but you have to find your own balance.”

Pepper looked up at a knock on the door frame, and Abigail waved.  "Please tell me you're doing something interesting," she said.  "I am one hundred percent done listening to Agent Coulson's domestic squabbles."

"Hi Abigail," she said, for Sasha's benefit.  "You know, typical Friday night stuff.  Talking with Sasha, watching the sector checks."

"Hey Sasha," Abigail said.  She threw herself into a chair and rolled it towards the monitors.  "Ugh.  I understand that there's a convenience factor to having all of us in the same place, but this is not working for me."

”It would make sense to start spreading out,” Sasha agreed.  ”Decentralize.  It might weaken community support in the short term, but long term you're going to need a broader group of allies.  I can't imagine the Starks are planning to stay presumed dead forever.”

Abigail nodded, then shook her head.  "Communication would be an issue.  Not everyone can text as fast as Pepper."

”But the likelihood of needing a rapid centralized response would decrease significantly if you stopped keeping all of your targets in one spot,” Sasha said.

Pepper was pretty sure they could keep going for ages without any input from her at all, but the solution seemed so simple.  It would even solve their Spiderman problem.  "So, we need a dedicated 911 system, just for us.  So you could call for help, or reverse 911 to get information to people quickly."

"You're thinking of a separate system, like SHIELD's radios?"  Abigail leaned in, and Pepper waved her phone at her.

"Hello, welcome to the future.  There's an app for that.  I mean, not yet, actually, but in theory, there could be.  Tony could probably write one on a napkin at dinnertime."

”I like it,” Sasha said.

"Hey, anything that means I get to stop being neighbors with the unholy trio, I'm for it.  You find Stark, I'll bring the napkins."


GENE

Something had to be done.  Tony had stopped listening days ago, and Howard was ignoring the issue -- or pretending to ignore it -- by offering his help to every single person moving out.

"I'm calling a family meeting," Gene announced.  Tony dropped a wrench.  (Gene rolled his eyes.  Why did he even have a wrench?)

"What?"

Howard -- looking like he'd gotten less sleep than Tony, for once, said, "Gene, that's  a wonderful idea.  Lunch?"

"Now is good," Gene answered.  He couldn't guarantee that they wouldn't find some crisis to attend to if it was left until later.  "And I want Whitney to be here.  It's about Stane."

Tony looked like he wanted to drop another wrench, or maybe throw it across the room.  Gene didn't think Howard realized just how personally Tony was taking — everything.  "That's fine with me," Howard said. "Tony?"

"Sure," Tony said shortly.

It was the best he was going to get, and Gene texted Whitney that they were ready.  Based on her immediate arrival, he was relatively certain she'd been lurking right outside the door.  "Gene," she said.  "Tony.  Howard.  Let's be frank.  Obadiah Stane is about to make Stark International the biggest weapons dealer on the planet.  Regardless of your plans to innovate him into obsolescence, the reality is that if the Iron Monger program gets off the ground it's going to cost lives.  A lot of lives."

Gene said, "We want to help."

Howard was already shaking his head.  "Revenge never ends well, Gene.  Believe me.  I've tried."

"Maybe you just needed the right backup," Whitney said.  "We have a plan.  We even ran it by Steve first."

That was actually news to him, but he tried not to look surprised. Howard looked like he was going to object again, but Tony said, “Dad. Stane's going to unleash an army of kill-bots with our name on them all over the world, and they’re based on my designs. If there’s a way to stop them…”

“Three ways,” Whitney said. “That’s how many plans we came up with.” Howard looked surprised.

Gene pressed the advantage. “There are three main options. One — attack the armors themselves. The fact that they require additional remote computing power to operate is a massive weakness. Signals can be interrupted, or corrupted.” (Plan One had been his idea. Whitney called it violent and unnecessary; he wasn’t so sure.)

Howard frowned. “Not exactly a friendly plan. Sounds like a good way to get branded a terrorist.” He looked at Tony, and maybe he understood more than Gene thought, because he added, “As satisfying as it might be.”

“Option two is T’Challa,” Whitney said. “The Iron Mongers are made using a vibranium-adamantium alloy. Although SHIELD successfully negotiated the trade of vibranium, Wakanda never authorized it for use in weapons, only in research and defense. T’Challa has the benefit of an entire country on his side if he calls SHIELD out for breach of contract.”

“Is he even around?” Tony asked.

“He’s on his way to the US as we speak,” Whitney said. “Some of us make time to keep in touch with our friends, Tony.”

Tony flushed. Howard said, “Yes, thank you, Whitney. What’s behind door number 3?”

Gene took a deep breath. This could be the beginning of the end — everything he hadn’t intended that had somehow turned into — this. His brain shied away from the word ‘family,’ but still, family-like. The closest he’d been to one in years, at least. He said, “You could come back from the dead, officially. Stane is still an interim CEO; you could reclaim Stark International and shut down the Monger program from the inside.”

‘You could leave,’ he didn’t say.

Whitney sent an apologetic look his way, and said, “Personally, I like option three. And not just to see the expression on my father’s face when he realizes you’re taking back the company. I’ve been watching him; his behavior is erratic, unbalanced. He needs help, not more power.”

“Hmm,” said Howard, which wasn’t exactly conclusive. “Tony? What do you think?”

Tony leaned forward and put his hands on the table. “This is bigger than us. So. I think we should do all three.” (Gene really had to stop underestimating him.) He flicked up holographic screens as he talked. “T’Challa should go first. Using the vibranium without Wakandan approval is wrong and illegal. He has the best chance to stop production quickly and discredit Stane and Ross at the same time. But maybe we should ask Roberta about the legal stuff to be declared alive. There’s a lot more people to think about now.” He flipped through pictures — Abigail, Rick, Bruce. He said, “Tony and Howard Stark might be able to do more to help them.”

“I’m impressed,” Howard said. “What about option one?”

Tony put up a picture of the Iron Monger armor and threw up his hands. “The transmitter is a disgrace. We can send in an anonymous tip, or something.”

Gene waited while Howard pulled up a screen of his own and skimmed through — something. “It would probably have a significant positive impact on the restaurant revenue,” he said. Gene must have showed his surprise, because Howard looked up and raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t think you could get rid of us that easily, did you? Us Starks never forget our promises. Or our family.”

“He means you’re stuck with us,” Tony said, but he was smiling again, and Gene — finally, carefully — smiled back.


HOWARD

Their plan didn’t exactly go as planned. Of course. T’Challa showed up with an entourage, and suddenly Stane was out of a job — that part went fine. But Ross was like teflon; nothing seemed to stick to him. Trish and Coulson were scrambling to figure out which agent had taken the fall for the vibranium trade and scoop them up.

Also, it turned out it took longer to resurrect yourself than you’d expect. Not to mention the complicated situations of some of their allies. Bruce, Rick, Abigail, Coulson, Dave — all either presumed dead or presumed guilty of various crimes. Add in the FBI agents, the armors, and Captain America, and it was a tangle. Worth it, no question. But messy enough that it took time to sort through all the details. No one was going to get left behind when they did this; Howard Stark wasn’t going to return at the cost of someone else’s freedom.

All of which meant that legally, they were still in limbo. And somehow Hammer had weaseled his way into a hostile takeover while Stark International was reeling from Stane’s departure. Howard took a breath, and made a conscious effort to relax his hands. The kids were counting on him not to lose it. (Which was why he’d sent them all off to explore the underground tunnels, so he could think — brood, sulk, rage — in private.) He was on the fifth round of Bruce’s most foolproof meditation. It wasn’t working.

He sighed, and opened his eyes. Back to work, then. There was a knock on the door. “Come in,” he called.

Trish poked her head in. “You should come see this,” she said.

“Problem?” He automatically checked his phone, but he hadn’t missed any messages.

“I don’t think so.” Trish hesitated, then said, “We’ve ID’d three people who’ve been hanging around the restaurant lately. They’ve all been by individually in the last week, but they showed up all together today, and security tagged them for carrying unknown tech.”

That was a new one. “Where are they now?” he asked.

“Dave and Lin are with them in the birthday party room.” Trish shrugged at his questioning glance. “Dave said he had a weird feeling, so Lin didn’t want to take them any further.”

“How weird are we talking? Reporters? Supervillains? Aliens?”

Trish said, “One of them’s been asking a lot of questions about Iron Man.”

Howard stood up. “Right. I’ll go talk to them. Have Arthur on standby in case we need backup.”

Trish nodded, and they headed for the upper levels. The birthday party room was awash with glittering dragons and vegetables wearing chef’s hats. (Howard secretly loved it, but he couldn’t deny its garishness.) No one in the room seemed surprised to see him — which was, he supposed, surprising all on its own.

“Howard Stark?” One of them moved to stand up, then looked at Lin and sat back down with an awkward wave. “I’m Peter Parker.” He took a deep breath. “I’m also Spiderman.” Which explained the unknown tech, at least. “This is Gwen Stacy and — Darcy.”

“Darcy Lewis. We just met twenty minutes ago, we didn’t get around to last names. It was more of a ‘are you following me?’ ‘no, why, are you following me?’ kind of discussion, but long story short, we all decided to come in together.”

Howard resisted the urge to sigh. It was like they were a magnet for wayward young people. “All right,” he said. “Hello. Nice to meet you. What can we do for you? You need help?” There must be a reason why they’d been hanging around.

“Actually, I just have a message,” Darcy said. “Last week I was still gainfully employed as a SHIELD intern. Maria Hill sends her regards. She also says ‘what are you waiting for, just do it.’ I’m hoping that means something to you?”

Good news, finally. If SHIELD was ready to have their backs, they could skip some of the legal hoops they’d been jumping through. He looked at the other two.

Peter made a face. “We — I — actually, yeah. Help would be good.” He looked up and met Howard’s eyes. “But if you’re going public again and want photos, I could totally do that too.”

Howard looked at Dave, who shrugged. Lin nodded an okay, and Howard clapped his hands together. “Great. Call everyone in; we’ve got an announcement to plan.”

It wasn’t what he would have expected; nothing he could have guessed at a year ago. There were no reporters shouting questions or news vans broadcasting live. Just everyone gathered around their biggest table in the hall, hammering out a press release. Peter was on photography, a steady stream of images uploading to their screens — Tony leaning over Gene’s shoulder, Bruce passing a stack of sandwiches to Rick and Steve, Whitney laughing with Rhodey.

They kept the text simple, and posted it online with a series of candid images attached. Plan B was up and running.


RHODEY

"'Let's go check out the weird energy readings, Rhodey.  It'll be good to get away from the media circus, Rhodey.  You'll have fun.'"

"This isn't fun, Tony!" he yelled.  Of course, Tony couldn't hear him.  No one could hear him, because his armor was currently about as useful as a rock.  Less, maybe, since he couldn't even move to throw himself at this guy, whoever -- or whatever -- he was.

"Computer, activate emergency reserve power."

"Initializing.  Reserve power at less than one percent.”  (And while it was reassuring to get a response at all, that wasn't exactly what he'd been hoping for.)

One percent didn't give him a lot of options, but hopefully it would be enough.  "Broadcast on all available channels," he said.  The time for caution had passed; anything that got the fastest response time would be good.  "Mayday, mayday.  This is War Machine, please assist.  Iron Man is down, armor is non-functional.  Use extreme caution.  I repeat, mayday, mayday, requesting immediate aid."

They'd arrived at the source of the energy readings just in time to see -- something -- take down five SHIELD scout ships and a squad of agents.  It looked human, mostly, but it didn't move like any human he'd ever seen.  And the way it targeted the armors...

War Machine was out of the fight in less than a minute, systems fried.  He had no idea what was happening to Tony, but the fact that he hadn't come to knock on War Machine's faceplate and crack a joke gave him a very bad feeling.

He was also getting a bad feeling from the insistent alerts the armor kept giving.  And from his head, which he vaguely remembered landing on after the armor fritzed out.  "Computer, keep broadcasting last message."  Passing out suddenly seemed like a rising probability.

He woke up to light, and someone's hand on his shoulder.  "Ow," he said.

"You're awake!  How do you feel?  Awful, probably, sorry.  I would totally hug you except that might make you throw up, which would be bad.  Obviously.  Do you think you'll be able to walk in, oh, about fifteen minutes?"

Rhodey squinted at Pepper -- it had to be Pepper -- and tried to work through what she'd said.  "What?"

"Never mind.  How's your head?"

He was pretty sure he didn't want to think about his head at the moment.  He said, "Confused.  What happened?  Where are we?"

Pepper gave a tiny laugh.  "Well, long story, or maybe not so long.  We're on the helicarrier."

"We're what?"  He tried to sit up, decided it was a terrible idea, and settled for glaring.  "You did not just say we're on the helicarrier."

"Crazy, right?  It's, like, two-thirds as awesome as I imagined it."  Pepper waved her hand around to encompass the room, or maybe the whole ship.  Rhodey felt like he'd missed a lot while he'd been unconscious.

"Pepper.  What happened?  Where's Tony?  Where's -- everyone?"  Why was he waking up in a hospital bed on the SHIELD helicarrier?  Why were they even on the helicarrier?

Pepper checked her phone.  "Okay, we should have time.  Basically, SHIELD was trying to recreate the super soldier serum, because Ross is totally obsessed with it, or something.  They came up with something called extremis, which is injectable nanobots."  She made a face.  "Or something.  It's not important.  Well, it is, but not right now.  So this SHIELD agent took the formula and went nuts; that's who kicked your butt out there."

"Is Tony okay?"

"That's -- where it starts to get complicated," Pepper said.  "Your mayday call got a lot of attention.  Howard says good job, by the way."

She took a breath, and Rhodey braced himself.  "So SHIELD showed up at the same time as, well, us.  You missed an epic shoutdown between Howard and Ross, by the way.  Tony was -- in bad shape.  His heart was failing."

Rhodey made another attempt at sitting up, and managed it with only a few stuttering stops along the way.  "And?" He said.  Pepper looked upset, but not upset enough for that to be the end of the story.

"And we took over SHIELD, temporarily.  For their medical facilities.  Coulson helped."  Pepper checked her phone again.  "Ten minutes.  Can you walk?"

He wiggled his fingers and toes.  Everything seemed to be working, but he wasn't looking forward to testing it.  A red light started flashing by the door, then stopped.  "Coulson and Fury are leading the Tong in a takeover of the helicarrier," Pepper explained.  "The project was under Ross' direct supervision; he'll go down for this one for sure."

"Then why are we getting ready to make a run for it?" Rhodey asked.

"Remember when I mentioned extremis?  And your mayday call?  The doctors didn't think Tony was going to make it.  When he woke up, they said armoring up again would kill him.  He didn't take it well."

The door slid open and Tony burst into the room, followed by Gene --looking smug -- and Howard, who just looked relieved.  "Rhodey!" Tony exclaimed.  "You're awake!  How do you feel?"

"Me?  How do you feel?  I thought you were dying."

"I was.  But I'm good now.  Better than good.  Super.  Except that Count Nefaria's attacking, and Fury is seriously irritated that we staged a takeover inside a takeover and grabbed the extremis data."

He figured he must be doing better, because that almost made sense.  "Tony, please tell me you did not inject yourself with the same thing that made someone turn into an insane killing zombie."

"Not exactly?" Tony hedged.  "It's totally safe, I promise.  Dad and Bruce both checked all my coding, twice.  It was the only way to save my heart."

Well.  He didn't look like an insane killing zombie. "You don't look like an insane killing zombie," he said.

"Thanks," Tony said. "Mine was easy, though.  Just tech talking with tech.  Gene's was the hard one."

Gene?  No wonder he looked smug.  Tony Stark had probably been on SHIELD's radar since birth.  The Mandarin?  Not so much.

"It worked?" Pepper asked.

Howard said, "Getting extremis to play nice with the Makluan quantum energy wasn't easy."

"He means yes," Tony said.  Pepper hugged Gene while Tony studied a screen by the door.  "Wei says our window is clear.  They'll make sure everything settles and meet us back home."

There were times when Rhodey really didn't understand his friends.  As he limped down the corridor with Tony on one side and Gene steadying him on the other, he realized -- this wasn't one of them.


TONY

He could see technology — feel it, the same way he could feel his heart beating and his ribcage expanding when he breathed. People kept asking him if it was weird, but it just felt — right. Like it was always who he’d been and extremis just made it manifest.

When something started pinging his brain, though, that felt weird. He put out a call, and tried to guess who was around. Gene and Steve, of course — training. Again. Dad, probably, still messing around with the helicarrier specs. Not Rhodey or Pepper; they were off on some research trip to the library (ha!) to track down more information about the rings.

Sure enough, his dad was the first to show up. “What’s going on?” he asked, heading straight for the refrigerator. He started pouring orange juice without waiting for an answer, and handed the first glass to Bruce as he walked in.

“Thanks,” Bruce said, looking surprised.

Gene and Steve were right behind him. Tony gave up his plan of skipping breakfast when Gene slide a glass of juice in his direction with an intent look. “You need calories,” Steve explained. “Extremis is enough like the serum for that, I bet. You’re pretty much always hungry.”

Tony was momentarily distracted from the brain pinging. It was unusual for Steve to voice any kind of discomfort, even in a sideways sort of way. He looked at Bruce — he was the biosciences genius, couldn’t he fix this? They were starving Captain America! Bruce just nodded, clearly on the same wavelength, so Tony let it go. For the moment.

He said, “I think there’s someone else with extremis in the city. It feels like something’s running a search, or something. Like a network pingback, over and over.”

His dad looked intrigued. “Can you tell where it’s coming from?”

Tony already had a map pulled up over the table. “Yes?” He was having trouble translating the pings into a physical location. “Close to here,” he said, zooming in on one of the lower sectors. “But — up high, somehow.”

“Stark tower is near there,” his dad said.

“Rooftop?” Gene guessed. “I can get us there. Now?”

“I should be able to pinpoint a location better once we’re closer,” Tony said.

There was no need. Gene teleported them to the rooftop platform of the (former) Stark international building, and it was pretty clear they’d found what they were looking for.

“I am Andros,” intoned the — person, presumably — in front of them. “From the year 2099.”

His armor did look seriously futuristic, but wasn’t that one of the key rules of time travel? Not telling people you were from the future? “Sure you are,” Tony said. “And I’m Iron Man, from the year now. Where did you get that tech?”

“I know who you are, Tony Stark. I’m here to carry out your sentence, for crimes committed in the future.”

“My sentence,” Tony repeated. Was this guy for real?

“Of death,” Andros said matter of factly.

Gene immediately stepped between them, rings flaring. “No,” he said.

Bruce held up his hands. “Whoa. Why don’t we all just calm down. I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation for all of this.”

“Actually, I’m with Gene on this one,” his dad said. “I don’t care how far in the future you’re from, it’s still four against one.”

For the first time, Andros seemed to notice the rest of the group. He dropped to the roof and his faceplate disappeared. “Great grandfather? Captain Rogers? What are you —”

Great grandfather? But that would make Andros — Tony shut down that train of thought. It was interesting that he recognized Steve, though. Maybe he really was from the future.

Andros said, “Please wait,” and the faceplate reappeared. They all watched him pace back and forth for a few minutes. Tony considered calling for reinforcements. He couldn’t get a good reading of Andros’ armor, but it was definitely advanced. Enough that they were going to need a plan B if he attacked. Four against one wasn’t going to be enough.

Finally, he came to a stop in front of them. “My apologies,” he said. “It appears I have accidentally jumped into a neighboring universe. Might I interface with this universe’s version of JARVIS to calculate a course correction?”

“JARVIS?” Tony asked.

Gene said, “So you don’t want to kill him anymore? Assuming we believe anything you’re saying.”

Another voice broke in. “Indeed. If I may?” Andros waved a hand, and the voice continued. It sounded like it was coming from his armor.

“I am JARVIS. Scans indicate a local intelligence system. Access to this system would reduce calculation time by twelve percent.”

His HUD was going nuts as the computer tried to figure out what JARVIS was doing. He hadn’t purposefully set out to create an artificial intelligence, but she was a learning system — had to be, to work the armor when the pilot was incapacitated. The potential was there. “You mean the armor computer?” he asked, and Andros nodded. “And you need my permission?” He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

“No,” JARVIS said. “But seeking permission is the accepted norm.” Well, he was honest, at least.

“Not here,” his dad said, which was probably a good idea, even besides the fact that they were technically trespassing.

They reappeared in the great hall, only to find that it wasn’t empty. Ghost looked mildly interested to see them, but Pepper and Rhodey both looked excited. “What are you doing here?” his dad said.

“Homework,” Rhodey said quickly, and Pepper nodded.

“Homework, absolutely,” she agreed. She even picked up a book and waved it.

Everyone looked at Ghost. “Online banking. You have a secure network.”

Tony rolled his eyes behind the anonymity of the armor, and his dad sighed. “Right. This is Andros; he’s from the future in an alternate universe. I can’t quite believe I just said that.”

There was a moment of quiet as everyone seemed to be deciding whether or not he was joking, and Tony shed the armor — he definitely didn’t want to be in it when Andros, or JARVIS, started chatting up the computer. “Do you need access to a terminal?” he asked Andros.

Andros looked at him blankly. “JARVIS doesn’t have hands,” he said.

“For you,” Tony clarified. “Aren’t you going to help?”

“I’m not —“ Andros shook his head. “I’m not a scientist. JARVIS didn’t pick me because I could help with the math.”

Tony didn’t want to hear about how his alternate self had messed up the future, any more than Andros seemed to want to talk about it. Instead, he said, “Did you find anything at the library?”

Pepper waved the book (clearly not homework) again. “Funny that you should mention alternate universes, actually. We think the rings may be able to do that. You know, if you had all of them.”

Andros perked up. “Perhaps that is something I could assist with. You are looking for the final rings of the Mandarin? How many do you currently possess?”

(‘Looking’ was probably overstating things. They didn’t particularly want anyone else to get their hands on the remaining rings, but they’d been a little busy lately.) Gene dropped the armor with a flash, and gave Andros a suspicious look. “Six. What do you know about the Makluan rings?”

“Are you joking?”

Gene stared at him.

“Six rings. You’re not joking.” Andros took a deep breath. “In my time, everyone knows of the Makluan rings. With all ten rings, the Mandarin was one of our most powerful allies. His contributions were — immeasurable. When he fell, the world mourned. In his memory, I offer my aid in locating and retrieving the remaining rings, until JARVIS is ready to continue our mission.”


PEPPER

“And that’s how we got the seventh and eighth rings. But it turns out that may have gotten then attention of Doctor Doom, which no one was really expecting, and now — well, portals!” Pepper waved her hands upwards, but there was really no missing the enormous hole in the sky.

Her dad gave her a look she couldn’t interpret. “Pepper, you know how I feel about you getting caught up in all of this. And now Doom is involved?”

“I know, Dad. Believe me, going after Doom was never a plan. We didn’t even know for sure he had a ring until now. It’s not like we told him to start opening weird apocalypse portals all over the world. But it’s not like we can just ignore this.” She waved at the sky again. It was turning red. Great. “Besides, nearly everyone is benched from the actual confrontation. Even Tony’s dad is staying out of Latveria; it’s just Tony, Gene, and Dr. Banner who went in.”

“Banner?”

Sometimes she forgot that her dad hadn’t been part of things from the beginning. “Yeah, he does the — Hulk thing? And he doesn’t like Doom. Plus he’s the science backup.”

There was that look again “Okay. So we’re hoping two teenagers and a monster can get a magic ring off the hand of a power-mad dictator in his own castle.”

Well, sure, it sounded crazy when he said it like that. “And then use the ring to close the portals. Yes?”

Her dad sighed. “I guess it could be drugs. Or petty larceny. So — while they’re off trying to get the ring, that leaves us here doing… What is it we’re doing?”

She ignored the fact that her dad was as much as admitting he thought what she was doing was awesome, and bit her tongue instead of saying ‘there’s nothing petty about our larceny.’ Some things he didn’t need to know, right? She said, “Portal cleanup. And field testing the new emergency app.”

“From the roof of a banking institution that’s been investigated multiple times for ties to the Maggia,” her dad clarified.

Pepper checked her phone again. So far, so good. “How many times have you told me that response time is critical when you’re trying to coordinate a rapid response? Especially over a big area like this. Eyes on the ground — metaphorically speaking, obviously — can be just as important as weapons. And Nefaria agreed to act as an affiliate during times of emergency in exchange for territory protection,” she added, sending off a text to Lin. “It’s a portal, Dad. Eventually something’s going to come out of it.” Something made all the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and she looked up. “Like that,” she added.

Meteors. Better than aliens with ray guns, at least. Probably. “Meteors,” he said. “And you and I are supposed to stop them?”

She waved her phone at him, as much as she could when she was using it. “Coordinating. We’re just supposed to spot them. He’s going to stop them.”

Hawkeye swung onto the roof with perfect timing. “Hi there,” he said, already drawing on the lowest meteors and sending off arrows two at a time. “Sorry I’m late; had to pick up the latest explosive arrows from your tech team. Meteors — who’d have guessed it, right? Not me, that’s for sure.”

He sounded totally calm, and her dad actually seemed to relax a little. Enough that he didn’t jump when Rick burst onto the roof with an extra quiver in each hand. “Oh, hey,” Hawkeye said. “Thanks.”

“Welcome,” Rick said, hands on his knees. He got his breath back and said, “Arthur’s doing most of the rearmament deliveries, but no one was sure how the arrowheads would react with his powers.”

“How did you get here?” Pepper asked.

“Drove. The Tong and the Maggia are mostly keeping the streets clear for emergency responders.”

The meteors seemed to be letting up. She hoped that was a good sign. “Do you even have a license?” her dad said.

“Dad!”

“What?”

“Heads up,” Hawkeye said. “We’ve got incoming.” Out of the portal came dozens of — glowing orbs. She blinked, and squinted, but it still looked like glowing orbs, flying around. She snapped a picture.

“They’re not attacking,” her dad said.

“Not yet,” Rick muttered. She held her breath — maybe they were good glowing orbs? Or neutral; they could be the Switzerland of orb-land. Her phone flashed an alert.

“They’re hostile,” she said. “Electrical charges in three sectors, now. When they glomp together they get stronger, so that’s bad news.” The orbs closest to them were clumping up even as she spoke.

Hawkeye grabbed his gear. “Everyone inside. This building’s protected against lightning strikes; we’re not.” As soon as they were inside, he pointed at her phone. “Can you contact Coulson on that?”

“He’s got the app like everyone else,” she said.

“I mean a direct line.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Like a phone call? Yes, my phone can do that.”

“Call him. Tell him I said to call in Thor.” He dove out the door and rolled to a crouch at the edge of the roof before she could reply.

“I told you I saw Thor that day!” she exclaimed, as her dad mouthed ‘Thor?’

But Coulson was apparently a popular guy during a Doom-pocalypse, and she was still counting rings when her dad said, “Look!” The orbs were splitting up, spiraling back towards the portal and through.

It wavered, then shrank and shut completely. The sky went back to blue. Hawkeye turned around to look at them and shrugged.

Her dad still looked kind of confused. “That’s good, right?”


GENE

"Does anyone have an extra pen?"  Dave tapped his -- presumably non-working -- pen on the table.

Rhodey handed one across to him without taking his eyes off his textbook.  Finals were coming up, so they were holding an afternoon study session of solidarity.  (Technically, Trish was doing a crossword, and Tony was coding -- something, but apparently it was the thought that counted.)

"Thanks," Dave said.  "And, uh -- does anyone know the population density of Northville, upstate?  I'm off the network."

Tony hmm'd.  “Nineteen people per square mile.”  Everyone stared at him.  "What?  Brain connected to the internet, remember?"

"Still awesome," Pepper said.  "Though you'd think it would mean you'd be faster at texting me back."

Gene held his book higher to hide his smile.  It seemed natural, by that point, to have a kitchen full of people.  Comfortable, even.  Almost.

When the interruption came, it wasn't his earpiece that buzzed, but his phone.  All their phones.  "Emergency app," Tony said.

Trish was fastest, and got her phone in the middle of the table on speaker.  "This is Sasha,” they heard.  "We need to evacuate the Hammer Multinational building. Fast.”

"How fast?" Trish pressed.  Rhodey and Pepper were already scrambling for the armor room.  Tony just stepped back from the table and let the armor come to him.

"Justin created a zombie gas.  He and Fix are battling it out; he's going to release it into the building.”

"Zombie gas?" Tony said.  His voice sounded incredulous even through the armor.

"Believe me, I wish I was joking,” Sasha said.

"How much time do we have?" he asked.  Only the first five rings could be used independently for teleportation -- they could split them up, clear five floors at a time, figure a minute per floor...

"It's not like there's a countdown clock; I don't know!  Five minutes, maybe ten at the outside?”

The building had to be at least sixty stories.  "That's not going to be enough," he said, shaking his head.  "We need a plan B."

"There is no plan B!” Sasha said.

"Someone's broadcasting," Tony said suddenly.  "Live feed."  He pulled up a screen and Gene could see Hammer ranting in front of a column of green gas.

"Sasha?"

"It's not me,” she said.  "Maybe Fix; he could do that from here.”

Tony looked shocked.  "This is -- he's insane.  He'll lose everything over this."

"Which makes you wonder what he's still hiding, that this seems preferable," Gene said.  He still couldn't buy that Hammer was the idiotic sleaze he presented to the world.  He was too lucky by far.  And they still needed a plan B.

"Is all the gas on the top floor?"  Rhodey's voice came through his earpiece, and he repeated the question for Sasha.

It was.  Rhodey laid out a plan.  It might even work.  He handed the first ring, his mother's ring, to Trish.  "Get Sasha, and get out of there," he said.

She slipped the ring on and disappeared in a flash of light.  Rhodey and Pepper skidded into the room, and he took a deep breath.

They appeared in the air over the  Hammer Multinational building.  Over the comm, Trish announced, "We're out, you're clear.”

In theory, what they were going to do was possible.  The Iron Man and Rescue armors would create a force shield completely surrounding the upper level of the building.  The added power to maintain such a large shield would come from the Makluan rings. Totally possible. They had just never actually tried it before.

"War Machine, watch our backs.  I don't want any surprises.  Rescue, are you in position?"

"Ready when you are."

Tony's voice was steady.  "Three, two, one -- mark."  The force shield shimmered into view.  Gene brought his hands up and started feeding energy into it.  It flared brighter, then steadied.

Rhodey said, "I've got the broadcast on my HUD.  Someone just hit the gas release; Hammer's going for the Titanium Man armor."

One of the penthouse windows exploded outwards, and Titanium Man came out firing.  Green gas trailed behind him.

"Okay, I was actually not expecting that," Tony said.

"Really?" Rhodey said.  "Cause Hammer making the worst possible call is pretty much exactly what I was expecting."

Gene pushed as hard as he dared on the extremis interface, but it was like accessing the power through a sieve.  He felt Tony reaching for him.  "I've got it," he snapped.  "Hold the shield."

It didn't have to hold for long.  One of Hammer's own weapons ignited the gas, and the fire raced back to the penthouse.  There was a muffled boom from somewhere inside.  The resulting shockwave knocked Hammer against the force shield -- he bounced backwards with enough momentum to hit the roof of the building.

He didn't get up.  Tony said quietly, "Sensors show no more gas present."

They dropped the shield.  "And Hammer?" Pepper asked.

"I can use extremis to access his armor -- he's alive, but I can't tell if he's..."

"A zombie?" Rhodey asked.

"Yeah."  They all stared at the armor for a few seconds.

"I could call Coulson," Pepper offered.  "See if SHIELD knows what to do with him?"

SHIELD was more than willing to take in a potential zombie.  "I'm pretty sure they want the armor more than they want Hammer," Tony said on a closed channel.

Gene nodded.  "Are you all right with that?"

"I already wiped the operating system," Tony said, tapping his helmet.  "We're good."

It was up to him to reach out, after he'd pushed Tony away earlier, so he put a hand on his shoulder.  "Let's go home?"

Tony sighed, but his whole posture relaxed.  "Yeah," he said.  "Yeah, let's go home."


HOWARD

He expected the kitchen to be empty -- 11 in the morning was usually a good time to sneak a third (fourth) cup of coffee with no one the wiser.  But he could hear laughter even before he could see into the room.

"Howard!" Bruce said.  It was standing room only, with Steve taking up a whole end of the table.

Tony was sitting on one of the counters.  "Here for your coffee?" he asked.

"How do you --?  Never mind."  He waved at the girl next to Steve.  “Gwen — everything working out better now with the grid?” They’d barely heard from her and Peter since they’d gone public. He hoped it was because everything was going fine, but… Well, you couldn't be too careful.

She jumped up and shook his hand.  "Hi Mr. Stark.  Everything’s fine — Whitney invited me. You were right about the diners; Peter’s working on gas stations next.”

Like that explained everything.  He tried to remember what he’d suggested that involved diners.

"She was on a date with Peter, and he had to go 'save the day,'" Whitney said.  She shrugged.  "They were close by; I told her she should come here."

"That's great," he said, trying not to look too excited that Whitney was inviting people to visit. On the other hand, their kitchen wasn’t always the safest place to hang out.

Whitney rolled her eyes like she could tell what he was thinking.  "We took all the same self-defense classes for years.  She's up to speed on everything.”

Abigail gave him a thumbs-up when he looked at her for confirmation.  "Well, welcome," he said.  "Everything?"

"That's what happens when you post your family crime-fighting videos online," Gwen said.

Fair point.  Darcy held up her phone when he looked at her next.  "Also invited.  Text me about free food, I'll be there with bells on."

Bruce cleared his throat.  "I've been experimenting with some different calorie and nutrient-dense foods for the Hulk.  I figured they'd be good for anyone with an enhanced metabolism, though."

"You should try some," Tony suggested.

He looked around.  Gene's poker face was perfect, but no one else could completely hide their reaction.  (Kids these days.)  He took a small bite anyway.  "Is it supposed to taste like grape juice mixed with mud?"

Bruce sighed.  "Well, that's better than some of the descriptions."

"I don't mind it," Steve insisted.

"Round two," Bruce said, pushing a plate towards the middle of the table.  "I can at least promise less grape flavor."

Howard pulled a stool over, and Abigail passed him a pen and a scorecard written on a napkin.  It wasn't until round five that he found one he'd be willing to eat outright, but Tony liked two of them enough to ask for more, and Steve continued to say he liked them all.

"I'll keep working on it," Bruce said, when Gene made a definitive frowney face next to round five on his scorecard.

"Have you tried putting it in a drink instead of food?" Abigail asked.  "We were always drinking powdered mixes on the station."

"I figured it would be easier to convince the Hulk to eat something than figure out a Hulk-sized cup."  Bruce did a sort of half-smile.  "But I'll see what I can do."

"It seems like there's a real need for this stuff," Darcy said, tapping on her phone.

"What, snacks for superheroes?"

"No, but that's a great name.  Seriously, can you imagine the marketing campaign?  'For a Hulk-sized hunger.'  But I was actually thinking more in general.  There must be lots of people out there who don't have the resources to figure this stuff out."

She waved a hand to encompass everyone in the room.  "You know, advice, legal aid, science stuff -- the kind of things you've been getting from your Stark International connections."

"And the Tong," Whitney added.

(There was a surprising amount of overlap, but it was probably best not to emphasize that.)

"There's SHIELD," Abigail said, sounding doubtful.  "But they're pretty military-focused."

"It's — a good idea," Bruce said.  "I'm not sure how feasible it is, but it's a nice thought."

Howard caught Tony's eyes from across the kitchen, and nodded.  Feasible?  Maybe not immediately.  But definitely not impossible.  Time to add another entry to the to-do list.


RHODEY

And then, somehow, they were armoring up and headed back to China. With nine of the rings accounted for, it had been agreed that it would be safest to collect the tenth as well — and what did that even say about their lives, that teleporting across the world to confront a probably-highly-dangerous guardian in order to get a magical artifact was the safe choice?

He was going anyway, of course. It felt good to be back in the War Machine armor, but he couldn’t help wondering how long it would last. He’d mentioned his plans to join the Air Force to Tony once or twice, but it wasn’t like they’d had some big conversation about it. The War Machine armor might have been designed for him first, but he was far from the only qualified pilot. Rick and Trish were in it as much as he was. Heck, Lin could handle all the armors, she just preferred to be on base security. He called the armor his, but he never identified as War Machine like Tony did with Iron Man, or even Pepper with her Rescue armor.

The thing was, it was all going to be public sooner or later. He knew there were meetings about it; his mom talked about it sometimes. He thought they were mostly waiting on Steve — still undecided about his future as Captain America and potential involvement with SHIELD. (Steve was with them, though, decked out in a brand new scale mail designed by Tony in the traditional red, white, and blue. It was pretty clear which side Tony thought he’d come down on, but then, Tony had always had trouble with the idea that someone might not want to be a superhero.)

Everyone except Steve was in armor — he’d been offered a ring, but he said the gauntlets messed up his throw. War Machine, Rescue, and Iron Man stood amongst the six identical Mandarins. Gene had rings six through nine, and they’d divvied up the five that could be used independently. Howard had one, because he’d built the scanner, and Abigail, in case they found another dragon. Whitney, Arthur, and Dave had the remaining three, and he kept losing track of who was who every time they turned a corner.

“Okay, right here,” Howard said suddenly, coming to a stop and gesturing at the wall next to him. They were in the middle of a long, unmarked corridor inside the largest temple they’d seen yet.

“Are you sure?” Gene asked. Rhodey was pretty sure it was Gene, at least; it was the Mandarin who was standing awfully close to Tony to look over Howard’s shoulder.

“Now that the scanner is calibrated, it should be identifying the strongest source of Makluan energy in the temple, other than us. And it says it’s on the other side of that wall.” There were a few seconds of silence, and he tried to think of a way to ask ‘do we have to keep following this maze, or can we just blast through the wall’ that wouldn’t sound like he was stomping all over the Mandarin’s legacy.

Tony and Gene looked at each other, and then Gene shrugged and said, “Stand back.” The wall dissolved under his touch and Rhodey breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The armor really wasn’t built for walking long distances.

They all stepped through into a large open chamber. No ring in sight, but that wasn’t unusual. There was a large — something, like a stone sculpture, in the middle of the room, and he he could feel everyone tensing for a fight as a doorway slid open. A lizard walked out. A nine-foot tall lizard standing upright and displaying some serious muscles. It stared at them.

“Mandarin,” it said finally, eyes settling on Gene. “This is — unprecedented.” Yeah, Rhodey was guessing six Mandarins, three armors, and Captain America weren’t typical visitors. Then again, they hadn’t been expecting a lizard man, so maybe they were even. “No wielder of the rings has ever divided their power in such a way.”

Gene took a step forward, and Tony and Steve shifted slightly behind him. Guarding him, it looked like, and Pepper was right — they were practicing this stuff while he was stuck in school. Gene said, “The world has changed. The tests to activate the rings speak of being worthy — we passed as a group; we stand together. These are the people who make me worthy.”

It sounded good to Rhodey, but the guardian started up some kind of movie projector and started giving them ‘History of the Makluan Rings 101.’ (Turned out the guardian stole the ten rings off a power-hungry Makluan warlord, fled to Earth, then injected alien DNA into a human — the first Mandarin. Weird.)

And it was hard to tell with the armor, but he was pretty sure Gene and Tony didn’t even twitch at the whole ‘your alien DNA inheritance is what makes you able to use all the rings.’ It was Whitney who broke the awkward silence that descended after the history lesson was over. “So what about the ring, then? Are we fighting, or is he keeping it, or what?”

He jumped when Pepper opened a private channel between their armors. News feeds started scrolling across his HUD; he didn’t need to wait for them to translate to see that they were drawing a lot of attention. (Apparently you couldn’t raise an enormous temple out of the ground in China and have no one notice.)

The guardian bowed its head. “You are worthy, Gene Khan. The ring is rightfully yours.”

Gene stayed where he was. “What about the mind control?” he asked. “Not exactly covered in your show and tell.”

“Mind control?” For the first time, the guardian looked startled. “That shouldn’t be possible. Not unless… Unless the Makluan fleet draws near.”

“Is that likely?”

The guardian’s tail twitched. “It is unlikely that the warlord’s fleet would give up their search. If they are near, the activation of each successive ring might have allowed the Makluan mental link to increase.” Rhodey could hear Tony powering up his repulsors, but Gene waved him back. The guardian visibly drooped. “When the first Mandarin gave up the rings, he did so with the understanding that the Makluan would someday find this world. He returned the tenth ring to me for guardianship. My penance, I believed — to hold the ring until such time as I would need to fight for it, or have it taken from me in death.”

“We could — give them back?” Pepper said tentatively. “I mean, it’s been a long time; maybe they’ve changed. You did steal them. Technically. Sorry, Gene.”

“It’s fine,” Gene said.

“Not every race lives as swiftly as you,” the guardian said. “The Makluan have long lives, and longer memories. If it is not the same warlord leading the fleet, it will be one who is closely related. Returning the rings would only make their destruction of this world faster.”

He thought he heard Howard sigh, and Pepper said, “Right. Keeping the rings, got it.”

The guardian held out the ring again, and Gene took it, but didn’t put it on. The guardian said, “I will accompany you, and fight by your side for this planet’s continued existence.”

Rhodey checked the feeds Pepper was still streaming to his armor, and said, “We should maybe speed this up? Looks like the military’s on its way.”

The guardian blinked at him. “This temple is remote.”

“Yeah, not for jets.”

“Jets?”

They moved into a rough circle, and Gene teleported them back outside the temple. He raised his hand, and it disappeared back into the ground. With a flash — and without warning, despite the fact that they kept telling Gene to give them a heads up before trans-continental teleportation — they were back in New York, on the roof.

“You missed a few developments in the last few centuries,” Tony said, while Rhodey tried to convince his stomach that it was totally fine, really.

The guardian looked around, and did another blink-and-tail-twitch combo. “Yes,” it said finally. “I see.”


TONY

“I don’t like this plan.”

Tony sighed. “You’ve said. It’s still the best plan we’ve come up with, which is why we’re doing it.” Honestly, He didn’t like the plan much either. But the Makluan fleet was practically on top of them, and they didn’t have time for Gene to practice with the rings as much as he’d need to face them head on.

Gene drummed his fingers on the table. “So we’re just going to sit around waiting for them to abduct us?”

Well, sure, it sounded like a terrible plan when he put it like that. “We’re the diversion,” Tony reminded him. “Extremis is making it look like all ten rings are right here with us. Meanwhile…” He gestured widely around the hall, where the hum of preparations ebbed and flowed in barely controlled chaos.

“We’re bait,” Gene said. A distraction was probably the most accurate description, but basically, yes. The plan kind of hinged on the Makluans not viewing two puny humans as a real threat.

“Look on the bright side — if they get here fast enough, we won’t have to have an awkward conversation with my dad about our ‘accidental’ extremis link-up.”

They probably shouldn’t have had Gene put on the tenth ring with other people around. Tony had practically tripped over his own feet, and his dad — of course — wanted to know why. He’d fumbled some kind of explanation about a temporary code blip, because they’d never really talked about whether or not they were telling people. Gene nodded, and said, “I don’t think he actually believed that story.”

Tony made a face. He was a terrible liar, especially when it came to his dad. “Yeah. Which is why we’re looking at an awkward conversation at some point.”

“You could just tell him.”

He forced himself to meet Gene’s eyes. He was serious. “We could,” he said. “He just — he worries so much already, you know? Maybe once this is over.”

He could see Gene hesitating, but all he said was, “It’s your call.”

Alarms blared, then cut off as the hall disappeared in a flash of light. He steadied himself against Gene, and blinked spots of his eyes as he tried to look unimpressed. It wasn’t easy. They were on what had to be a Makluan ship, surrounded by guards pointing improbably large guns at them. At least they’d managed to stick together. He didn’t want to imagine Gene facing this on his own.

The guards parted slightly to reveal the — very large, very angry — leader. One of the guards said, “The energy signature is no stronger with them standing in front of us. The rings are not with them.”

The leader roared in frustration. Very loud, too. “Where are the rings?”

“What rings?” Tony said.

“You may think yourselves clever,” the leader said, leaning in close. “But I have waiting this long to retrieve what was stolen from me; a short time longer is irrelevant. I will crush this planet to dust beneath my heel and pluck the rings from its dying embers.”

“Sounds familiar,” Gene muttered, and it was sort of weirdly similar to Xiang’s plans, wasn’t it?

He shrugged. “I guess that’s going to be harder if your scans can’t detect them, huh? I mean, If they’re even still in this dimension.”

The leader roared again and stalked away. Three screens appeared in the air around him, showing various scenes of the city below them. Some kind of flying drones swarmed the skyline, only to be picked off by repulsor blasts, arrows (Hawkeye must have made it back in time, that was good news), and what looked like — Wakandan ships? Had they been expecting the Wakandans?

“This city is positively infested with heroes,” the leader said. “Why is that, do you suppose? Send the next wave.”

Apparently, that also meant ‘take away the prisoners,’ because they were hustled to a cell and then left alone. No guards, but a nasty-looking energy shield and no convenient air ducts or computer ports in sight. “Well?” Gene said.

Tony shook his head. “Extremis can’t even tell we’re on a ship; it can’t read the Makluan tech at all.” It was unnerving, definitely. He hadn’t even realized how much he was using his technological sixth sense until it was suddenly muffled. His Starkpod and Gene’s phone were the only things he could feel at all in their immediate vicinity. “Give me a minute, I’ll see if I can find the satellites.”

Gene shifted between him and the door, and he sat down, closing his eyes to focus on reaching that sense outwards — only to find the satellite network in the exact opposite direction he’d expected. His eyes snapped open. “Unless the ship is upside down, we’re in the atmosphere,” he said.

“How is that possible?” Gene asked. “I thought you said —“

He trailed off, and Tony shrugged again. He knew what he’d said. Apparently magic technology didn’t have to follow the rules? “I liked Makluan tech better when it was on our side,” he said.

Gene raised his eyebrows. “When was that, exactly?”

Which was maybe true. But it was probably good, at least, that they were right above the city. He hoped. Not environmentally speaking. But in terms of infiltration… He felt two earpieces show up at the edge of his awareness, moving quickly, then the static charge of Ghost from the opposite direction. He tapped Gene’s hand three times, and they tried to look casual as they moved back from the doorway.

An arrow hit the control panel seconds later. The whole thing sparked and gave an angry sounding beep, and the energy shield disappeared. They met Hawkeye and Black Widow in the corridor. “You good?” Hawkeye said. “Banner sent us with snacks.”

“We’re fine.” Gene shook his head Hawkeye waved the bars in their direction, but Tony stuck one in his hand anyway. Neither of them were armed; they might as well eat. “Where are we going?” The plan was a little vague in the ‘rescue us from the ship’ phase.

Black Widow was on point, and ignored the question. Hawkeye said, “Meet up with Abigail and Maria. Get the heck out of here. Blow the ship.”

What? A ship big enough and powerful enough to traverse galaxies, and they wanted to blow it up while it was hovering inside Earth’s atmosphere? That would be — a disaster. “What?” he said. “That’s not really the plan, is it? Hawkeye!”


PEPPER

An alien invasion was not how she’d planned to spend her weekend. On the other hand, seeing her dad and Sasha team up with Trish and Lin to get the FBI and Tong working together to clear the streets was awesome. Fury and SHIELD had been relegated to secondary air support, with only grudging acceptance.

“You know what would make this easier?” Rhodey said. “Ten all powerful rings that can reshape reality.”

She would have rolled her eyes, but she was a little busy targeting drones and getting out of the way. (She was totally willing to buy the Team Science argument that the Makluans were there-but-not-there, but it still hurt when one of their drones exploded right next to you.) She said, “They’re a little tied up at the moment trying to save all our lives, remember?”

There was a flash of movement on her left, and she nearly fired before she registered the War Machine armor. “Not for much longer, I hope,” he said, and she took advantage of the fact that he could fire in a 360-degree sweep to take a few seconds of rest. They were managing a decent defense, but only because the drones were targeting them and not spreading out to attack civilians.

“Satellite one is up and running,” Howard announced over the comms. ”Iron Man, do you copy?”

She held her breath until she heard Tony’s voice. ”I’ve got it. Synchronizing to Ghost’s markers now. Tell me we’re not really blowing up the ship.”

”Let’s call it plan C. It took us longer than we would have liked to calibrate the beam. Plan A is incoming.”

She looked down automatically, and Arthur and the guardian appeared on the rooftop below them. She must have blinked, because when she opened her eyes she was somewhere else. She was going to go with the Makluan ship. She and Rhodey were in the center of an open space, surrounded on all sides by what looked like bleachers. They were all full of Makluans, shouting and stomping.

“An arena,” Rhodey said quietly. “This cannot be good.” Another flash of light, and Tony and Gene appeared, along with the four-person rescue team. Arthur and the guardian flashed in right afterwards, and the crowd went crazy. She’d thought they were noisy before, but this was a whole other level.

“Didn’t we just leave this place?” Hawkeye muttered.

One of the Makluans walked out on a raised platform above them, and the crowd quieted. “Your flight was entertaining while it lasted. And now my true quarry leaves the shadows to face me. My son.”

The guardian stepped forward. That was unexpected. “We weren’t expecting that, right?” she whispered. Rhodey shook his head, but Gene nodded. Okay, then.

“He stands before you!” shouted the Makluan above them. “The great betrayer! Never worthy of bearing the rings himself, he stole them as a thief in the night!”

“Be ready,” Howard’s voice murmured over the comm. “This is either going to go very well or very badly.”

Gene stepped up so he was shoulder to shoulder with the guardian. “What have you done, since your inattention lost you the rings?” the guardian said. “Revenge? Have you truly been seeking the rings ever since? We were a great people, once. And now you look at a planet full of potential and your only thought is to destroy it.”

The rings glinted on the guardian’s talons. And then, suddenly, he took five of them off — one by one, he transferred them to Gene. The crowd erupted with noise again, but settled when the guardian began speaking again. “I have not been idle. I have learned. This is the planet that has taught me. These are the people who make me worthy.”

It all seemed like a lot of grandstanding to her, but she supposed that was probably the point, and the audience certainly seemed to be eating it up. (She couldn’t help wondering if it was their tech that was translating, or the Makluans.) The atmosphere felt like it was shifting every so slightly in their favor. The ship lurched.

“What have you done?” the warlord demanded.

“Not me,” the guardian said. “This planet’s technology may be primitive, but it is not ineffective.”

This was not exactly the plan A she remembered. Or maybe she had just blocked out the part where using Howard’s anti-Makluan tech beam amplified through a satellite array might have the unexpected side effect of making the ship break apart into pieces.

The lurching continued, combined with a series of flashing lights and blaring alarms that she was pretty sure were bad news. “We can’t stay here,” the guardian said, and she wasn’t sure if he was talking to them or the audience.

“Are you sure you can do this?” Tony said.

“I’m sure it’s the right thing to do.” A group of Makluans leaped into the arena, and she tensed, but apparently they were the good guys. There were a few seconds of back-slapping and tail swinging as they greeted the guardian like a long-lost friend.

“Quite the entrance,” one of them said. “You have a plan?”

The guardian said, “The humans are using their technology to destabilize the connection between the ship’s true location and this current projection. They will leave and I will stay. When the emergency protocols recall us to the true ship, I will fight my father for leadership rights. I will win, and this planet will be protected.” He turned to Gene.

“Thank you,” Gene said, and they nodded at each other.

“We will meet again,” the guardian replied, which she also didn’t remember being part of the plan, but Gene nodded again.

And then they were back on the ground. Another flash of light, another near-instantaneous transportation. She was getting really sick of that. The ground teams had been trying to keep people off the streets, but when the Makluan ship fizzled and dissolved into an enormous shower of sparkles, it was bound to get a lot of attention. They were swarmed — first by people she recognized (her dad, Lin, Spiderman) — and then more and more by strangers who ventured back outside to see the commotion

“Huh,” she heard Hawkeye say. “I honestly did not think that would work.”

“Really?” Rick slipped in next to her, close enough so their shoulders bumped. “Because that was the one thing I was sure of. Whatever happened, somehow, some way — we’d find a way to make it work.”

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