AN: 2008 film continuity. In the comics Squirrel Girl was introduced meeting Iron Man, and this idea wouldn't leave me alone. Ranger Guides are an upper echelon of the Girl Scouts. All feedback welcome. I own nothing. Enjoy.

Tony Stark scowled at news coverage of very well equipped criminals, using his weapons from what he could see of the damage, turning LA into a war zone. Obadiah apparently had the sense (or more likely, survival instinct) not to make illicit sales domestically, but in the chaos immediately following his death a number of his lackeys in warehousing had decided to try to make one last windfall. Real stand up employees. He and SHIELD caught a good number of them and seized and destroyed at least a ton of merchandise, but some of it got into the wild, and over the last few weeks had been resurfacing, violently.

He watched the thugs thrash the police after robbing the City Deposit Federal Reserve Bank for about five seconds before deciding this was definitely a job for Iron Man, though the momentary flash of a blue uniformed corpse before the station straightened out its tape delay sparked some rather unpleasant flashbacks and very nearly waylaid him at the wet bar before Jarvis urged him on. Iron Man was his opportunity to actually protect people, like he'd spent years saying he was doing as he indiscriminately poured weapons into the world without thought of consequences. And if he was perfectly honest, the warm rush of pride knowing he'd directly done helped others was much more satisfying than demonstrating his own cleverness fulfilling his (former) military clients' latest wet dreams.

Not that he would ever admit that. He didn't need Pepper thinking he was turning into a sap. And Rhodey might decide to be insulted.

He also got to blow stuff up. That was awesome.

Two minutes to get into the armor (which was getting easier, though he'd have to completely redesign the exoskeleton before getting back out was anything but a pain in the ass) and he was jetting his way to LA. Easy. He even managed to ignore most of the destruction as he closed in, once again glad of the ability to hyperfocus: it was very difficult to do this sort of thing if your mind decided to drown itself in disgust. The criminals were fleeing into Griffith Park as he arrived, and the police chasing their van--crudely fitted with Stark Industries armor and bulletproof duraplexi windshields designed to withstand firepower LAPD didn't have--maintained a safe, non-threatening distance. He was sure the remote controlled armor piercing SI-50 HVMG heavy machine gun and short range missile battery on the roof had a lot to do with their caution, too.

He couldn't really blame the officers for backing off almost completely when they saw Iron Man, and even returned a few waves, smirking behind his helmet. He was far better equipped to deal with a half dozen armed robbers who obviously knew how to use military hardware. Yet this was the same city whose mayor and police chief had declared him an "unstable glory hound" (probably true) who would not be granted any cooperation by local law enforcement. The same local law enforcement now sealing off Griffth Park and making no attempts to follow the van that had just crashed one of the gates. Tony's suspicions were confirmed when the SWAT commander raised both arms and all but waved him inside.

Right. At least it was almost eleven at night, so the place was closed. Definitely a no-bystander zone. Which had brought him to the fun part: kick ass.

Well, Tony thought, this is not going at all like I had planned. Mental note: never underestimate crazy people in tricked out vans ever again. Like any sane person, he'd used a low yield mini-missile to take out the mounted weapon pods and repulsor blasts to take out the front wheels before he'd even descended into their range.

Looking back, he probably should've taken it as a warning sign when they didn't immediately stagger out of the van in a blind panic. It took a good fifteen seconds for the rear doors to slide open, and four of them burst out to face him, the other two disappearing into of the forrest, both with duffle bags he assumed to be full of money. Assuring himself he could always track them down later, he set to work on the immediate problem. "Jarvis, deploy shoulder launchers, load piercing tranquilizer darts."

"Confirmed," the clipped, nearly emotionless voice droned as he felt the vibrations of the launchers clicking into place. He stood with arms crossed as they emptied their Stark-built submachine guns into his armor, the sound bullets pinging off the chassis gratifying, muffled and distorted as it was.

Letting himself marvel at the fact all those old Superman cartoons where guys just stood there and emptied bullets onto the hero's invulnerable chest had somehow been right on the money, Tony focused his gaze on each of them and blinked once in turn, signaling Jarvis to mark his targets. Four glowing reticles appeared in his vision, and he sent them crumpling with a whispered "Fire."

He began stalking in the direction the other two had gone, and was just about to order Jarvis to scan for them when a noise like a firecracker going off drew his attention, and he turned just in time for a 40mm grenade to detonate against his chest plate just under the arc reactor, sending him flying into a tree. Even as he reeled from the impact and strained to pull air back into his lungs, Tony forced an arm up and managed to nail the man in the shoulder with a repulsor blast as he slumped against the cracked oak, forcing him to drop the launcher. Still five rounds in that thing. There was something insulting about being trashed with other companies' far less impressive technology, but he forced his ego to the rear. "Jarvis! Where the hell is the other one?" Those duffels were full of weapons. Cash must be in the van. Smooth, Stark. These guys thought they could take on Iron Man, and so far he wasn't doing a great job of disproving them. Little more than luck that kept that grenade away from his arc reactor

"Enemy twenty feet out, sir, and moving closer. He should be coming into your line of sight in twenty seconds, from the left."

Tony smirked. "Thank you, Jarvis. I'm not going to stand around and be blindsided again. Take us up. twenty feet. Nice and slow. Ready another volley of darts."

"Yes, sir." The suit began to ascend, dented chest plate and all, Tony tilting the flight stabilizers in his flattened palms carefully to hover himself over the tree the last man was hiding behind. He rotated and flicked his right wrist as he cleared the top, bringing his repulsor back online and peered down, eyes widening as he recognized the Stark Industries Series Two Directed Electromagnetic Pulse Rifle, complete with the one hundred and twenty pound backpack power unit that made the thing impractical for widespread military use. Obviously, the weight was not a problem for the seven foot behemoth beneath him about to squeeze the trigger.

"Well, go on, then," Tony chuckled. "This suit is electromagnetically sealed." He pushed himself into a dive. That backpack was likely to explode if he blasted it. Best to rip it off.

"Sir, that is not entirely accurate."

Tony blinked behind the visor, paling as he suddenly remembered the gaping, unsealed hole in his chestpiece. "Well, damn."

Tony had no chance to avoid the light-speed blast and found himself hurtling back to the earth with all the grace of a very aerodynamic, very stylish, rock. That grenade had apparently exposed enough of the internals, including a lot of important power couplings and relays, and the pulse had obviously had its merry way with them.

Thank God he'd had the sense to isolate the arc reactor with its own shielding. Definitely one of the more important enhancements in the model he had Pepper install for him. Not the time to think about how surprisingly hot it was to have Miss Potts stick her hand in a giant hole in your chest, Stark. People are trying to kill you, and that's not cool. Concentrate. Dummy's not going to save you this time. Besides, getting himself offed in a Charge of the Light Brigade maneuver for no good reason would have made Pepper and Rhodey very unhappy. He took a deep breath, his body leaning haphazardly against a cracked tree. He couldn't move at all, and from what he could see his HUD was gone and the repulsor/flight stabilizer pods in his palms were dark, but … Please, let me be as clever as I think I am. "Jarvis?"

A long silent moment that made him think he was really and truly screwed, then, in a horribly distorted voice, "Y-yes Mis-mister St-Stark? … Secondary circuits re-calibrated. Are you injured?"

Tony grinned, watching the two remaining robbers have a squabble he couldn't hear without the suit's audio system. It had been difficult (which made it all the more fun, honestly), but he'd figured out a way to theoretically preserve Jarvis' program in the event of an EM burst by connecting his data node directly to the arc reactor interface, along with a few other critical systems, though whether or not the interlinks that connected the AI to the rest of the suit would remain functional he had no way to test in the lab short of irradiating himself while he was in the suit, and at the time that had seemed a step too far.

Obviously not. "No. Well, not that I can tell, but I can't really move enough to check," he said conversationally. "Make a note: Mark IV Iron Man suit will incorporate more durable EM shielding, even if I have to completely redesign the exoskeleton. This is embarrassing. The damage, and make it snappy. I can't imagine Felony Feud will last much longer." Tony squinted his eyes. Without the HUD, he was having trouble seeing the two men clearly, though it was obvious from the way his arm sagged that the one with the grenade launcher had a broken or dislocated shoulder. What the hell are they arguing about? He pushed down a surge of something vaguely and unpleasantly like panic. As long as he was a ragdoll, he was a sitting duck. Two or three of those grenades would be enough to take out the arc reactor that was keeping him alive. Leaving it outside the suit really was a stupid idea, even if it does look cooler, and did save about 100 pounds of material.

"Indeed. The arc reactor is uncompromised. Likewise, shielded critical subsystems: leg and arm servos, air purifier, and emergency exit system are intact, but offline. Attempts to reboot have failed. Too many relays rendered inert. Other systems, including the communications package, are compromised and are nonfunctional. Unfortunately, my connection to the rest of the suit has been damaged. Even the functional systems will be unusable without me to regulate them. ...You have forty-five minutes of air remaining." There was definite tinge of regret in his voice that Tony knew he hadn't programmed in, the kind of verbal inflection that left him choosing to deliberately not ponder the exact level of sophistication of his AI.

Tony groaned in frustration. Running everything via a remote installation of Jarvis--the AI even helped him balance and compensated for the suit's extra weight when he moved--had simplified the design and allowed him to go to prototype fast without having to invent a neural interface he could use to control everything directly. A neural interface, he reminded himself, would make it much easier to EM proof the suit, as Jarvis' control network would be absent. Obviously, he needed to move that forward on the schedule. "So...options? Guess you can't see it, but Big Guy and Overcompensating Grenade Guy are still here, having an animated discussion I can't hear," he said, forcing a jocularity he didn't feel. Part of him wondered why he was bothering putting up a false front with an AI. This couldn't be the end. There was too much left to do. He wasn't into penance, but there was so much he needed to try to fix, and not just as Iron Man. He tried to shake his head and found it distressingly immobile.

"You do have a habit of attracting the worst sort of people, sir. There is a substantial chance they will simply decide to leave. They have a good deal of money and can now brag about rather handily besting Iron Man. You once told me ego alone was sometimes sufficient reason to act."

Tony winced. "Yes, but let's be honest. I was only really talking about me, and I was being an ass." Tony frowned. "And by now Jarvis Prime will have noticed I'm off the grid and sent for help."

"Most certainly. You don't handle lack of supervision well. Miss Potts and Colonel Rhodes have surely already been notified," Jarvis said encouragingly. Never mind that both of them were more than sixty miles from his current position, and unless Rhodey had started keeping a helicopter at his house when Tony wasn't looking, and not bothered to tell him (which would be totally uncool), neither could get here before he ran out of air.

More immediately, the silent argument was over and the misanthropic duo were heading towards him, and away from the van. Damn. Big Guy had abandoned the EMP rifle, but the little one still had the grenade launcher, and was pointing it straight at him. Well, shit, Tony thought, no longer able to deny the fear building in his chest. Maybe he'll miss. Repeatedly. Then, most peculiar thing happened.

His vision was obscured by the darkness and not being able to hear anything certainly didn't help, but Big Guy and Overcompensating Grenade Guy were flailing around, both having dropped their weapons, and hopping from one foot to the other. Their mouths were wide open and … they were screaming, maybe? He would've made a mental note to learn to read lips, but he didn't intend to be in this position again. Ever. There were at least two dozen small, fuzzy things crawling over both of them madly and his eyes were finally adjusting to the darkness and he could just start to make out--"Jarvis, are those … squirrels?"

"I remind you, sir, that my scanning systems are offline. Along with much else. Hence our current predicament." Ah. Sweet, comforting sarcasm. "Squirrels, Mr Stark? What is happening? Perhaps you've hit your head?"

"I'll get back to you on that."

"Very well," Jarvis said, sounding put out. The speakers in his helmet clicked off. Jarvis apparently didn't like being in total sensory isolation. It made him cranky.

And just as quickly it was over. The squirrels, and he could see them clearly now in the moonlight, all leapt away from the men, and ten or so even dragged grenade launcher over to where the EMP rifle fell after the furballs had chewed through the straps on the backpack. Pretty sure disarming homicidal bank robbers isn't a normal rodent trait, but I'm not going to complain. Panic quickly gave way to bemusement, though in the back of his mind he was still very concerned about his air supply. Time flew when you were watching Mother Nature come to your rescue.

Then things got weird.

Big Guy and Overcompensating Grenade Guy had just staggered to their feet and were looking around jerkily. They wore full face masks, so Tony had no idea what their expressions were, but he liked to imagine wild eyed confusion. It would certainly make him feel better to know he wasn't the only one who was completely at a loss.

Just as they finally managed to steady themselves, the largest tree branch over their heads shook slightly, and a … a shape (he was really getting tired of not having his night vision system) dropped to the ground in front of them, landing in a crouch. Immediately his mind began cataloging the details: small, likely female from the long hair, definitely female from the chest, though that was certainly no way to guess age, especially in LA. Thick and fuzzy somethings wrapped around her wrists and waist. Jeans and a loose t-shirt of unknown color. And for good measure, another squirrel perched on her shoulder.

"Huh," Tony mused. "Wasn't expecting that."

He managed to take all this in in about two seconds, and was just getting over his surprise enough to be worried about the thought of a small tree climbing enthusiast (Who's in good with the secret squirrel army? And this has to happen when I know I haven't drank enough to start hallucinating.) tangling with the robbers, especially Big Guy, but she was already moving, diving in front of them and shouting words he couldn't hear as she punched Big Guy in the stomach hard enough to double the man over.

Tony gaped at the improbable display of strength, and felt his jaw try to unhinge itself when the fuzzy thing he'd thought was a belt unwrapped itself into a thick tail at least as long as her torso and slapped Overcompensating Grenade Guy in the face a few times before balling up and crashing into his chin hard enough to send him tumbling to the ground, still. Just as the big guy seemed to get his breath back she grabbed his shoulder and straightened him up enough to slam her fist into his face. He stood there a few moments swaying before she waved at him, which Tony personally thought was an excellent touch, and pushed him over onto his back with two fingers. He didn't move again.

Damn, I wish I had audios. Screw knowing what's going on. That must have sounded hilarious. Know I'd certainly be turning the air blue if I were beaten up by squirrels and a Girl Scout Special Forces commando. His eyes darted around. Irrationally, he half suspected Smokey the Bear to come charging out of the forrest with a shotgun. "You've only got five seconds to get out of my forest before I fire, bastards. Come, Squirrel Sidekick, to the Bear Tank! Away!" Yeah, that'd be sweet.

She regarded both of them, the moonlight hitting the lower half of her face making it obvious it was some sort of olive shade, though Tony was honestly paying more attention to the tail unfurled behind her and twitching rhythmically. Nodding to herself she reached into her pocket and pulled out a baseball sized thimble of some sort of wire, and set about tying them up. She even tied Overcompensating Grenade Guy's feet to Big Guy's hands, which he had to admit was a fairly clever way of saving wire and making sure they wouldn't be able to wander off.

Then she stood and turned to look at him, and Tony noticed the glowing red eyes. He frowned. He wasn't very religious, but usually anything glowing red was a bad sign. Oh, and here she comes. Great. The next minute or so was certainly going to be interesting. So she'll either save me or sacrifice me to her squirrel demon god. Goddess?

The girl padded her way over to him, and as she passed in front of the light of the arc reactor he got a bit better look. Pale, olive tinted skin, long, slightly curly brown hair that looked like it hadn't been cut in months. Black fingerless gloves and dirty fingers. More fur over the wrists and the lower third of the forearms. Worn grey t-shirt that might have been white once, and forest green jeans.


Tony winced at Jarvis' voice. "You know what? I'm not even going to try to explain this. You'll have to see it for yourself. Just, um … stand by."

"Yes, sir. I do look forward to seeing whatever has you so speechless. Miss Potts will certainly regret missing it, as well," Jarvis responded, with just a hint of amusement in his voice. "Sir, I am detecting a short in one of my relays. Commencing shut down to minimize air supply fire hazard. Good luck." Then he was gone with another click. Tony sighed.

The girl came forward and knelt next to his head, most of her body lit by the soft glow of the arc reactor. Even closer now, he could make out brown hatch marks that ran down the middle of her eyelids like a tattoo, and claws extended from the tips of her fingers, though she flexed her hands in a certain way and they retracted. Like a cat's. On closer inspection, her clothes were clean, but ragged, and her pants seemed to be trying to fall off. More importantly, she barely looked over thirteen, which actually made things much easier, as the part of him that had been trying to check her out and figure out if she was worth flirting with (and how to flirt with her, seeing as he couldn't talk) suddenly shut up and hid. Her lips were moving, and from the deepening frown on her face, she was becoming increasingly distressed with his lack of response.

You and me both, kid. Gotta signal her somehow. But suddenly she was leaning so close to his face he could make out dark circles under her eyes, and another thought distracted him. His furry savior--most likely a mutant, the more he thought about it--didn't look very healthy. Her glowing eyes blinked sharply and she smiled before flashing him a thumbs up. She saw me through the ballistic visor? In this light? Red glow must be some sort of night vision. She stood and knelt, reaching for his middle, as though she was going to toss him over her shoulder. His frown sharpened. Strong or not, she couldn't be over 5' 2", and the suit weighed close to eight hundred pounds, not counting his own bulk, hence his current inability to budge without power. Surely she couldn't--but oh, she was straightening up, now, and he was going with her. "Super strength. Right. Why not?"

He hung over her shoulder in a way he was sure had to be uncomfortable for her, because it certainly didn't feel very good to him. In the light of his reactor he could make out her tail wrapped around his abdomen, gripping him tightly and doing a surprisingly good job of holding the armor steady. He didn't have much of a view besides--Well, damn. So there is actually a situation when having a perfect view of a girl's ass is not a good thing. Guess I owe Rhodey a scotch. He sighed as his fuzzy benefactor began carrying him somewhere, likely deeper into the forrest. After a moment she leapt up onto a tree branch (with him in tow, which was even more impressive) and started bouncing through the forrest, one arm wrapped around his legs, from what he could tell by the way he was jostling. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath, deciding not to open them again until it felt like he had been put down and praying to whatever God would still listen to someone like him that he wouldn't end up arrested for indecency with a minor. Pepper would never let him hear the end of it.

Then a guilty little voice in his head whispered that Pepper was probably worried sick about him by now, and he found the unpleasant jostling and planning the new power and control systems for the Mark IV a very diverting distraction.

After about fifteen minutes, Tony finally felt himself dropped unceremoniously onto a flat surface, and decided it was probably safe to open his eyes. Good thing, too: holding them shut was starting to give him a headache. His eyes adjusted--much easier this time, as there was a good bit of light coming from somewhere on his left, but all he could see was a green tarp about six feet above him. He looked to the side as best he could and saw nothing but leaves and some very large branches, big enough for him to walk on, assuming he could move. I was saved by a human squirrel hybrid. Of course it makes sense that I'm in a tree. This is probably her Treehouse of Justice or something. The part of his brain not busy making jokes to distract himself from his increasing claustrophobia (there was nothing fun about being trapped in a completely locked up suit) noted that this tree must have been at least a hundred years old to be so big, which meant they were in one of the more wild parts of the mountain.

From the left, the girl came back into view, looking back and forth between him and a dusty old claw hammer in her right hand and frowning as she chattered, apparently holding an animated conversation with the squirrel on her left shoulder. His eyes widened in genuine horror as he gazed on the blunt instrument of inelegant smashing. Oh, sweet merciful God. No, kid. Find the emergency releases!

Even in the throes of terror he managed to note she had brown eyes when they weren't glowing ominously. The brown hatch marks didn't look anything like tattoos in the light, either. And freckles. Someone spends a lot of time in the sun.

For whatever reason (maybe he was being rewarded for actually making the conscious decision not to be a complete pervert for once), she put the hammer down and started running her hands over every nook and cranny of his helmet. Well, this isn't awkward, he thought with a smirk. At least she should feel the quick-release tabs. Her fingers stopped somewhere near the spot where his jaw joined the rest of his skull, and she grinned, showing off perfectly white teeth (including the two slightly enlarged ones in the front) as he heard a click echo through his skull, and sound returned to the world as she lifted the headpiece off. Tony noted that she was very detail oriented. Those latches were designed to blend in and she'd found them with ease.

"Hi!" she beamed at him, her light, bubbly voice only confirming his earlier guess about her age. "I'm Squirrel Girl. Are you alright, Mr Stark?" Her tail twitched erratically behind her, and he made a note that squirrels apparently mimic epileptic fits when happy.

Squirrel Girl? Well, I suppose it fits. And you recognize me. I'll have to thank my publicist for working so hard to reach the Furry-Girls-in-Trees Demographic. ...That sounds like really weird porn. He raised an eyebrow, smiling a genuine smile; this girl had gotten him out of a very tight spot, after all. Probably saved his life too, but Tony didn't think about that, as it would've meant admitting how close he had come to dying. "I'm fine, thanks to you, Miss." She blushed, and Tony had to admit it was kind of adorable, not that he was really a kid person. "I'd shake your hand, but I'm sort of stuck."

She blinked, and then her eyes widened again. "Oh! Golly. I figured you couldn't move. My little friends said the big guy did something to you. How do I take the rest of it off? I decided to get your helmet off first 'cause I have no idea and figured you'd be able to give me directions. I could have just felt around, but..." her blush intensified and she broke eye contact.

Tony chuckled and had almost started to spout a line about feeling him up before he remembered she probably wasn't even old enough to drive. This was why he hardly ever talked to kids: most of his best lines were useless. "Tell you what. How about we start at the top? Once my arms are free I can do the bottom. The suit's control circuitry is fried, so it's all gotta come off, I'm afraid." She was as red as his gauntlets now. "I am wearing flight suit under this. It would chafe horribly if I didn't."

She giggled, looking relieved. "So I don't need the hammer?"

Seeing as she was was no longer brandishing the thing over his head, Tony had a much easier time forcing down his panic at the thought of it. "No, we definitely won't need that." If she noticed his distaste, she didn't comment, merely setting it somewhere he couldn't see with a smile. He blinked, suddenly remembering that he could move his head now, and looked from side to side, wincing at the stiffness. He'd have to get Pepper to schedule a masseuse for the home office tomorrow morning. Maybe two. Pepper never did take enough time for herself. He looked around.

The tree they were in must have been absolutely gigantic, because the wood platform they were on was at least 200 square feet. There was a picnic table, or rather the top of one with the legs sawed off so it was bout as tall as a Japanese dining table, a cement block with a hotplate connected to one of those roadside hand-crank batteries, and a few coolers. A large black suitcase dominated another corner, and solar powered lamps that looked like they'd come from an Army/Navy surplus lined the edges. Another set of cinderblocks lay behind her with what looked like radio equipment and one of those little portable TVs. A large tacklebox rested near the coolers.

"Nice place you've got. Spend a lot of time camping in the park?" Her smile twitched before she visibly forced it back in place, and he got a funny feeling in his stomach that he didn't really like at all. He clicked what Rhodey called his Fifteen Megaton Grin into place and waggled his eyebrows, deciding to change the subject five seconds ago. "So, my knight in fuzzy armor, would you like to help me with this chest piece?"

She nodded enthusiastically--almost too enthusiastically, part of him thought--and asked where the latches were. "All over," he smiled, "but you'll need to start in the back," he finished, talking as if giving Pepper an order. As she stepped around him to get a better view, her shirt rode up slightly and he could see her hip poking out just a bit too much beneath her pale skin. Once she was fully behind him and reaching her hands under his arms to follow the directions he had begun to give her, Tony allowed himself to frown for a moment before a new concern occurred to him. "Kid, you ever see a movie called Misery?" She did seem to like him, and she had him trapped in her secret tree bunker thing. It was a valid concern.

He could hear her confusion. "No, Mr Stark. Why?"

He smirked. "No reason. Now, you'll find the next latch hidden just under…"

Whether because he had said something to upset her, or because she was simply very focused on what she was doing, Squirrel Girl (he supposed it was at least as inventive as Iron Man) didn't say very much as she peeled him out of the torso components, retreating to her tackle box once he'd begun working on the lower half of the armor, though she had been nice enough to drag him over to sit on the picnic table so he'd be in a better position to disrobe. She'd thrown it open and he'd been shocked to see it was full of nuts, separated by kind, though he couldn't figure out why he'd been so suprised. He'd just started staring at it again when he happened to notice that every little compartment was individually labelled. Squirrels eat nuts. Humans eat nuts. Squirrel-human hybrids obviously eat a lot of them. This is by no means the strangest part of the evening.

After a moment she noticed he was watching and turned to him with an obviously embarrassed frown. "Gosh! I'm sorry. Are you hungry? From the way you're staring at my box, you must be."

Tony just barely managed not to pinch his finger off as he lost his grip on the calf plating he was trying to remove, and jerked his head around to find a completely innocent, sincere expression on her face. Well, if it didn't sound dirty to you, my dear, I'm not going to say anything. "No," he smirked. "Just admiring your nuts. Looks like you take very meticulous care of them." Hell, thatwasn'tevenonpurpose. Maybe this is all some sort of hallucination, after all.

She grinned, eyes full of pride at his … well, he supposed it was a complement. "It's much easier than burying them. Want some?"

Tony shook his head with a smile, as if this was a perfectly normal line of reasoning, and went back to trying to pry his right boot armor off. He'd gotten everything else, which was now piled in an empty corner. Given the night he was having, it only made sense he was having trouble with the compartment where he kept the emergency cell phone. "Of course."

With a sigh he went back to pulling at the final release, and finally felt it give. With a loud crack the armor fell off him in pieces, and he grabbed up the shock resistant phone before he slid them over to join the rest of the sad looking pile. He rotated his stiff ankle, which made a few pops and crackles of its own. He was just about to power up the phone when an impulse stopped him, and he sat it on the table. It felt like he was missing something here. He turned back to his hostess in time to see her smile at him and clap lightly.

"Cool. I was wondering if you'd ever get out of that thing." She blinked. "Is it always that much trouble?"

He shook his head. "No, usually I have a pack of robotic arms to hold me up in the air and rip the pieces off while I flail around and my robot butler and assistant make fun of me."

She gaped at him. "And that's better?"

He shrugged, shoulders protesting the motion. "It's easier. When I designed this suit I cut a few corners I probably shouldn't to get a working prototype faster. This seems to be a night for reminding me why that's never a good idea."

She frowned and moved forward to kneel in front of him, a few walnuts in one hand. "Is that what that backpack gun thing was? An electromagnetic pulse?" He nodded. "Yeah. That was bad. My little friends came and found me and by the time I got there you were laid out and they," she winced and looked away for a moment, and when she spoke again her voice was a whisper, "they were arguing over whether they should try to hold you hostage or k-kill you and take the suit."

Tony frowned, thinking of Obadiah and Raza and a similar argument, and raised a hand to squeeze her shoulder. It felt bonier than he thought it should have, but she did look up at him. "Well, then I suppose it's a good thing you happened to be around," he said brightly, trying to distract her. Talking about killing had obviously made her uncomfortable, but not so much that he thought this was the first time she'd seen that kind of violence. "Then I suppose it was a good thing for me you were out taking a little jog with your friends." The squirrel that never left her shoulder twitched its ears, as if it knew it was being talked about. Tony figured it probably did. She cracked a walnut in her fist and shook the nutmeat into her mouth with a sigh.

"I've started … I get tired, so I can't always patrol the whole park, but I try to cover as much as I can before I crash. I was near the observatory, but I saw you fly in and heard explosions, so I was already heading there when the squirrels found me."

It clicked for Tony. Over the last two months reports of vandalism in the park had been decreasing, and a half dozen or so late night visitors had reported being saved from muggers by a strange girl they never really got a good look at who liked to dress in fur lined clothing and was quite flexible. The muggers and had all steadfastly refused to describe her, almost like they were embarrassed. Of course they were. Who'd want to admit being thrashed by a bunch of squirrels and a 9th grader? He'd not paid much attention to the reports, but they came on often enough while he was watching for mentions of Iron Man that he remembered them. "So, you're the Griffith Park Vigilante, I presume?"

She looked up from where she had laid four large walnuts in a row, and winced. "I like Squirrel Girl better." She shrugged. "I've been trying to chase off the worst of the vandals and gangbangers. I don't really know if it's working or if they've just started coming out more during the day." Tony didn't miss her shiver. "Those two that you were fighting were the most heavily armed people I've ever fought. I'm glad my friends got their weapons way. If they'd been armed that would've been much harder. Dodging bullets isn't much fun." She briefly touched her left shoulder. "At least I'm pretty agile. When I was younger I did gymnastics," she added proudly.

Tony was momentarily distracted from the implication that she had been shot before, or at least grazed, as she clenched her fist and an eight inch long bone spike shot out from a spot just above her wrist. She brought it down hard against the walnuts, cracking them all open, before retracting it again and starting to eat. Well, that's useful. She yawned, and Tony remembered how late it was. Perfect. That gave him an opportunity to broach the topic he'd been curious about for the last half hour. His eyes fell over his phone, but he knew this was a conversation he wouldn't be able to have once he'd called Pepper. Time to be charmingly blunt. "So your parents are cool with you spending the nights watching over the park?"

Her pleasant expression turned upside down and she looked away from him again, and his earlier feeling that this place was just a bit too tricked out came back in full force. "Squirrel Girl?" For the first time it occurred to him she had quite deliberately not told him her real name.

She turned back to him with moist eyes, fighting a scowl. She chittered at the squirrel on her shoulder and he climbed down into her lap and curled up. She started petting him. "You're … you're not going to give up on this until I tell you, are you? Even if I … toss you out of the tree?" The second question was asked with such uncertainty it couldn't even fairly be called a fake threat without insulting all other fake threats. Tony just shook his head, guessing she would use anything he said as an excuse to change the subject. "It's just Mom." The scowl-that-wasn't suddenly was and she sat her little companion in her hair and hugged her knees to her chest, actually managing to look even younger and make Tony even more uncomfortable. "And she stopped caring a while ago," she whispered.

Tony had no trouble summoning a scowl at the sound of the hurt in the girl's voice, but keeping it off his face took much more effort. "Why?" he asked softly, feeling horribly out of his depth. Dammit. Verbal sparring with Pepper that careened in and out of the realm of propriety like a drunk motorcyclist, sarcasm contests with Jarvis, and flirting annoying reporters into submission (including the men) made for a lot of good verbal combat practice, and usually served him well, but this conversation could not possibly be further out of his normal range. Tony Stark didn't do meaningful conversations with runaway teenagers.

Well, you do now. I would suggest coming up with some sort of plan. Since when did his conscience start sounding like Jarvis? He liked it much better when it sounded like Pepper.

"I'm a mutant," she whispered finally, and he pretended to ignore the notes of fear in her voice and the way her whole body shifted as if she were getting ready to spring to her feet and run like hell. Not an effect he usually had on women.

The air was getting a bit too heavy. "Well, sweetheart, I hate to break it to you, but that's kind of obvious. Unless it's just a cover and you're really an alien from the Squirrel Planet here to spearhead an invasion to take the nuts. All the nuts." Her lips didn't even twitch, and she just shook her head. Well, damn.

Tony's relationship with his father had been more like a master-apprentice arrangement than anything familial, but he'd always known he was loved, even if his father had the emotional range of a particularly outgoing hunk of granite. He'd always been there when it counted, right until he died. He had only the vaguest memories of his mother, but knew with certainty she had loved him, too. "So she threw you out because you were a mutant?" he asked, surprised at how disgusted he sounded and wishing for a vodka. He was not equipped for something so far out of his core competencies of "blow it up, buy it, sell it, or awesome it into submission. Then press photos and caviar and loose women, or lately, the entirely confusing and intoxicating process of not-flirting with Pepper." Still he had no intention of leaving the girl that saved his life to fend for herself in the middle of a state park, and even an engineer as brilliant as he didn't try to fix a problem without knowing all the variables.

Lord, he was starting to sound like Reed Richards. In his own head.

"Don't think she's a bad person, Mr Stark. Please. She just doesn't handle this," she swished her tail around, "well." Somehow, he figured he wasn't the only one she was trying to convince. She turned to look at him again and frowned. He wished he were back in the suit in the dark, unable to see the way her eyes glistened. "She always tried to pretend I was normal, and just had a couple birthmarks on my face and deformed feet. I've always been able to talk to squirrels, but Mom always got angry with me when she caught me doing it, so I stopped letting her see. When I was ten fur started growing in, and I got claws and spikes and really strong, but I could hide all that, and as long as I did she was nice enough. The week my tail grew in I was stuck in bed it hurt so bad, and she screamed at me for days like it was my fault and threatened to take me to Mexico to have it cut off if I let anyone see it."

She shuddered. "After that we sort of stopped talking to each other. She liked it better when she didn't have to see me and I … it was just easier. The last few years were … strange." She shook her head violently and wiped at her eyes. "Then it all fell apart. She was out of a date with this guy she had been seeing for a while. She never brought him home without calling and telling me to go to bed first, but she must've forgotten. They burst in and I was in the living room on the couch with my tail out, playing with some of the building squirrels, 'cause who was around to see? Mom flipped, and the guy started screaming and chasing my squirrels around with his umbrella. He almost stabbed Joey," she growled. The squirrel in her lap raised its head, and Tony idly wondered why he hadn't already figured it had a name. "I didn't think about it, and jumped over the couch and decked him. Before I knew what was happening she called 911 and told them there was a dangerous mutant in her home, like I'd broken in or something. It's not like I meant to break his jaw." Tony squeezed her shoulder again, having no idea what else to do. Didn't this sort of thing only happen in bad TV movies?

"I panicked and grabbed my overcoat from the rack and jumped out the window. It was dark so I could hide and I found a bus headed to the park. I held onto the roof," she popped the claws on her fingertips for a moment as if demonstrating how, "and even saw the police cars going to our house pass by. Then I made it here."

Tony was quite impressed with himself for managing a calm voice when disgust and anger and the urge to call Pepper and hand this off to someone else who knew what the hell they were doing were all warring for control of his brain. "So your mother kicked you out of your house--" she shook her head, stroking her squirrel, "apartment," a nod, "and your first thought was to go to Griffith Park?" He stopped himself before chiding her that it was unsafe. Not an hour ago he'd gotten his ass handed to him by homicidal maniacs 'cause he was being sloppy, so he wasn't really in a position to lecture. Come to think of it, he'd probably never be in a position to lecture anybody about inappropriate risks. Ever.

She nodded, visibly calming now that he'd let her change the subject. "Yeah. When I was little one of my babysitters was a Ranger Guide, and sometimes she and her parents would bring me camping here, so I know it really well. The campgrounds have showers, bathrooms, and a washeteria. Nobody notices if I use them after hours. This used to be a ranger station, but somebody set it on fire, so they tore down everything but the platform. I think they left it for picnics, but it's so far off the trails ever uses it. The day after I left, I used the ATM at the observatory to drain my debit card and caught the bus to the Army Surplus store and started buying what I needed to fix it up. It took a few trips and most of the money, but, not bad, right?"

Tony found himself nodding. Everything else aside, she'd done a good job with her camp. Resourceful kid. "Obviously, I'll have to stop disparaging Girl Scouts, if you picked up this much by osmosis." Tony wasn't going to insult her by asking why she hadn't gone to a shelter. Many wouldn't take mutants, and the ones that did were in parts of town he wouldn't enter without the Iron Man armor. And maybe a tank escort. "But still, what's your long term plan? I'm certainly glad you were here, but surely you know you can't live in this tree forever." She winced, and so did he. That came out a lot harsher than he intended. His irritation with the situation was getting the better of him.

"I know, Mr Stark," she said quietly, the arc reactor reflecting in her eyes a sharp contrast to the circles underneath. The squirrel in her hands was glaring at him, unless he was very much mistaken.

When she spoke again she sounded tired, frustrated. "Even though Mom tells me to stay away or she'll call the FBI every time I call, I miss her. I had to stop call a couple weeks ago so I could afford to wash my clothes. I was really running through quarters. Nuts aren't enough food, even for me, and I'll be out of the canned stuff I bought from the surplus store soon. I tried to make it stretch out, but now I'm hungry all the time and my clothes have started falling off." She snorted. "Oops. I figure I've got three weeks before I have to start stealing to stay clean and eat, and I swore I wouldn't do that." She blushed, and smiled shyly. "Not counting the picnic table. I just moved that. ...And cut the legs off. Anyway, that isn't important right now. I know I've gotta figure something new out, but I stayed here this long for a reason."

"Oh?" There were a great many serious things he could say about her mother and eating potted meat that was probably half as old as she was and how your pants starting to fall off was generally a sign that something needed to change five minutes ago. But Tony didn't like rubbing anyone's face in it, except for a very few privileged faces and some very specific values of "it." Ahem. Stay on message here, Stark. "Kid," he said, letting his reflexes slide a smirk into place, "you do realize those commercials aren't being completely literal, right? You're not the only one who can prevent forrest fires. Though I will grant the park hasn't burst into flames in the last two months, unless you count that fireworks show they put on for Labor Day weekend."

She grinned wide enough for him to notice how her front teeth actually came to a neat little point and even giggled a bit, so Tony congratulated himself for easing them past the worst of that … that. "Yeah. I mean, I don't have to pretend to be normal here. I've really had a chance to learn to be me, finally, even if it's kinda sucked. And I've been able to do some good stuff, too. It's nice to know this," her tail curled in front of her, "is really useful for something besides tree climbing and nut cracking," she paused for another yawn. "I've always been taught if you have a gift you should try to use it to help other people. Mom just never saw my mutation as a gift. And … I think it might be … I want to try to do that. It's even a little fun. Well, sometimes. When it's not terrifying."

Tony couldn't help the huge grin that split his face, and much preferred it to the grimace he was able to fight down as she unknowingly rubbed salt in a few open wounds, or the glower from her insinuation that she'd already been in a few tough spots. Then again, Stark, you're already pretty sure she's been shot at. That couldn't have been fun. "Ah. So you want to join the superhero set. Or do you prefer costumed adventurer? … You need a costume." She blinked once. Twice. Her lips twitched into an uncertain, surprised smile. "...What?"

She shrugged, matching his megawatt smirk with a small one that only emphasized how sunken her cheeks were. "I dunno. I'm fourteen and just admitted to wanting to be a vigilante. I kind of expected more of a lecture on how I'm too young to know what I'm getting into and how dangerous it is and all that."

Tony snorted. All excellent points she was already more than likely very familiar with, or would be soon. "My dear, that sounds suspiciously like a lecture on responsibility." He held out a hand. "I'm Tony Stark. I invented the arc reactor. Have you heard of me?"

More giggling. This was getting easier. Or she was getting tired and delirious. Whatever. "So, " she whispered, a strange little smile on her face. "You think I should just go for it?"

Uh oh. Look what you did. Think fast. Now he had to make a decision. This wasn't like the time a dog had followed him home and he'd begged his parents to let him keep it. Okay, no. Actually, this is a a lot like that. Except I've become my parents (Christ!) and I'm … comparing a teenage girl to a dog I set on fire. Twice. ...I miss Splodey. She was homeless, admitted she was about to lose the ability to feed herself without stealing; had limited options for several obvious reasons, one of which was swishing back and forth behind her like a metronome; was smart enough to manage to survive alone in Griffith Park and save his life, and wanted to be a superhero. He was a superhero, had more money than several small European countries combined, and a compound that quite literally had its own postal code with more than enough space. And she's a sweet kid. Why the the hell not?

He smiled winningly. "Not at all, kid," he said brightly, speaking quickly so her face wouldn't have time to fully drop into the huge frown he could already see forming. "According to the Superhero Checklist I clipped out of the the Sunday comics, you need somewhere you can really train and learn your limits, 'cause if you're serious about this the bad guys are going to try to kill you; body armor, preferably in a stylish costume, because they'll try really hard; a safe place to crash 'cause as much fun as it is, trust me, you won't want to be Squirrel Girl all the time, and it'll make it much easier to eventually get you back into school; and a mentor of some sort. I think I can help you out. Honestly, though, you'd be much better off not emulating my behavior, at least until I can hire more lawyers."

"Wh-wha-buh?" she sputtered, and for just a second he swore every hair on her tail stood straight up. Ah. He had her attention. Good. "R-Really?"

Huh. So people's eyes really do bulge when they're--Oh, God. She's about to cry. Plan B! "Actually, no. I frequently crash in the vicinity of teenage superheroes and offer them a room at my opulent mansion, cutting edge equipment, and training, and then cackle and flee into the night after getting their hopes up, but not before stroking my mustache dramatically. It's a little known hobby of mine." He tried for a soft, sincere smile. Difficult, as he generally only spared those for Pepper and as such could get away with leaving in a few undertones of "let's do it in the kitchen." Not exactly a message he needed to be sending now. Well, seeing as she hasn't kicked me in the face yet, I must've pulled it off. "Not saying I want you to be my sidekick, 'cause in my head that always translated as 'decoy,' and there's no reason you shouldn't go for your own brand, but yeah, I'm serious. But that's nothing we should rush into. Right now I'm more concerned with getting you some place warm to sleep and enough food that your clothes start fitting again and back in school, among other things. You've got one up on me; you're starting the superhero thing with your whole life ahead of you. We'll take it slow and make sure you really want to do this." ...And she's crying and nodding. Damn it all, I'm storing vodka in the suit from now on.

And then his vision filled with a flash of brown hair and fur and he was up in the air, twirling? Being twirled? He kicked his legs a few moments, trying to find the ground again, before he realized how stupid he had to look. She'd have to put him down eventually. Either she'd get tired of spinning him around and--squealing?--or he'd throw up on her head. Though as hard as she was squeezing he supposed passing out was a viable third option. Headline: Billionaire superheroics enthusiast Tony Stark killed by overexcited homeless superheroine after offering use of guest bedroom. Incriminating walnut shells found at the scene.

Eventually, his feet found the floor again, and he felt himself being eased back onto the picnic table. The world still spun a bit, but that was nothing he wasn't used to. He looked up at her as she covered her mouth and stepped away from him, eyes wide. "Oh, golly. Um. Oops? You okay?"

He chuckled, waving her off. "So either you just had an irresistible urge to play airplane, or you're interested."

Her hair bounced in time with her swishing tail as she nodded, and for a moment he imagined she'd lift off. "Mr Stark, I--that would be amazing. Thank you. I--" her face fell slightly, as she narrowed her eyes. "Can we do that? From what I heard on the radio since everyone knows you're Iron Man the press kind of lives at your place. Won't they notice if a girl with a tail moves in?"

Tony blinked. He hadn't even thought about the press corps camped out around his estate. They were like really annoying lawn gnomes in his mind. And they would have a field day if they caught wind of him moving an underage runaway mutant into his house. Any chance of having a secret ID, which she arguably needed for her own safety given the magnitude of her mutation, would be shot.

He frowned. He hadn't thought about a lot of things when he'd dropped his Everheart-shutting-up, ego stoking bombshell, and over the last three weeks that was gradually becoming more and more obvious. But up to now it hadn't left him unable to fix something. And it won't. "Ignore the nice jackals for a moment. You wanna try this living with me thing or not?"

She blinked, and nodded. "Yeah. Really, really yeah. But--"

He stood up and started pacing, tossing his phone in his hands. "Then we'll make it happen. I've got underground parking, so I should definitely be able to smuggle you in. We'll set up the sub-basement where The Star is convinced I keep my secret high tech sex dungeon--and before you spontaneously combust with blushing, no, they are very, very wrong. It'll be like your own private bachelorette pad, but I'd rather not be arrested so try to hold off on the sexy parties. You can just stay inside a few days until we work out a cover story and a disguise, and Vanity Fair and the rest can choke on it. I need to throw a few wrenches at them anyway, and not just for your sake." He nodded decisively. "No problem."

She stared at him for a moment like she thought he was crazy, which was long overdue in this conversation, actually, but then smiled, and this time the little point her front teeth made looked just a tad vicious. "Okay."

He grinned. "Great. Now, I figure I've been here something like an hour and fifteen minutes, and Miss Potts and Rhodey and Jarvis are likely going to wring my neck when they see me--well, Pepper and Jim will, Jarvis'll just have some "accidents" with the shower temperature controls or something--and I don't know about you, but I'm getting hungry, so let's get this show on the road. I'll phone Pepper and get us a van or something so we can load up your stuff."

She nodded again, a little less certainly. "And Miss Potts and … Colonel Rhodes, right? They'll be cool with the mutant thing?"

For a split second he was a bit upset that she would think so little of them of all people, but then he reminded himself her own mother had pulled the screeching bigot card on her. He supposed in her place he'd be second guessing everyone, too. "I'm positive," he nodded, absolutely certain he was telling the truth. If they're not, they're not the people I thought they were, and that's a terrifying thought indeed. He blinked. "You know, it occurs to me we've had this whole conversation without me picking up your name. Now, I know you're committed to this secret identity thing, but calling you 'kid' all the time sounds very boring, and Squirrel Girl is catchy, but a mouthful. And you've got me at an advantage here, so…"

"Guess I forgot, in all the excitement." She giggled and stood from where she was clasping her tackle box and held out a hand. On closer inspection he just just make out the tiny that must have extended her claws. "I'm Doreen. Doreen Green. Everybody calls me Dorrie." She scratched the squirrel on her shoulder under the chin. "And this is Joey."

"A pleasure to meet you, Dorrie." Tony nodded at the squirrel, feeling vaguely ridiculous. "Joey. How you doin'?" She snorted. He lifted the phone and tried to turn it on, only to be met with silence. He pressed the power button a few more times before giving up. "Right. Electromagnetic pulse. Well, that's embarrassing. You said there were pay-phones around here. Mind if I borrow a quarter? You know I'm good for it."

Tony held the phone up to his ear, trying not to stare into the blinding reflection of the arc reactor on it's gleaming coin repository door. Who actually takes the time to shine these things? Wouldn't it be more rustic if they didn't?

Ring. Surely Pepper wouldn't take more than one to-- "Pepper Potts speaking." Her flat voice was emotionless, the epitome of almost-robotic professionalism. At 11:45 at night.

Uh oh. She's caffeinated and pissed. He would have liked to think she was just worried for her benevolent boss, but he was a genius, and therefore by definition not stupid. "Pepper!" he started, in his most winsome voice. Hell--"

"Tony! I mean, Mister Stark! Are you alright?" The sound of a deep breath and a man's voice in the background. Rhodey or Happy, he couldn't tell, but they were excited. "Where the hell are you?"

Tony blinked. Crap. That's not right. His first instinct was to play it off: maybe if he joked around she'd realize there was nothing to worry about, and he could tell her about how the suit experienced a total system failure in person. Then again, he had let her farther into the reality of his newest creation than anyone else, and talking to her and ignoring how dangerous it was and what any kind of disappearance might imply would be insulting. So he would do both, of course. "Why, Miss Potts, I've never heard you be quite so direct. Perhaps I'd be late for fewer board meetings if were always so forceful. ...Or perhaps I could be later." He paused, waiting just long enough for the come on to inevitably flop. "I'm fine, Pepper.The suit, on the other hand, is having a night it will surely want to forget. Did the police pick up our trigger happy, financial independence challenged friends?"

Another pause, and for a second he thought he hadn't pulled it off and she was going to rip into him. A fair response, but not a conversation he wanted to have on a public pay phone. "...Yes, they did. What sort of malfunction?" There was that edge of concern again. Sometimes he missed the days when Miss Potts maintained her professional indifference with an almost obsessive zeal. It made things easier.

"I found one of our five missing electromagnetic pulse rifles...which I'll likely have to cajole away from police impound, come to think of it. The arc reactor's fine, but the suit is toast. You'll need to shuffle several of my meetings around, as I'll be beginning work on the Mark IV immediately, but we can talk about it later. Let's just say there's a reason you don't piss off Mother Nature. She sends in her furriest warriors, and some girls have all the nuts." Very amused giggling came from somewhere above him.

"Tony, are you sure you didn't hit your head? This is all very confusing. Even for you."

"I am aware of that, Miss Potts. However, trying to explain what happened tonight over the phone would only waste time. You wouldn't believe me anyway without certain visual aids. Are you still at the house?"

He could almost hear her frowning, and the man-voice-that-was-probably-Rhodey in the background was getting more impatient. "Yes. I had just finished sorting through the night's emails when Jarvis informed me the suit's transponder went offline. I called Colonel Rhodes, and he's just arrived. When you called he was just about to send out an Air Force search team." A satelite-link pause. "It makes him very twitchy when you decide to drop off the map."

Translation: It makes me very nervous when you drop off the map, but it's much easier to blame Rhodey. Score one for Pepper.

"Yes, well, you know how much trouble I have staying inside the lines. ...Though I can promise after the next revision to the suit this particular scenario will be extremely unlikely unless I get caught near a nuclear explosion. Which I wouldn't even mention, but you have no idea how much wood I've got to knock on." More giggles from above, and what might have been Pepper repressing a groan. Sweet. "Now, as much fun as wandering around the woods has been, I'm ready to come home, and I'm sure you and Rhodey and Jarvis want the whole story. Be sure to tell our favorite disembodied voice I'm fine, by the way. If he gets himself into a conniption and burns out any circuits, I'll have to replace them, and I'm not in the mood to root around in someone else's brain right now, even if I built it. ...Bring the Bentley. We'll need the trunk space. Is Rhodey in uniform?" Dorrie should enjoy the Bentley. I wonder if there's anything non-alcoholic in the wetbar.

"Despite the hour, yes, Colonel Rhodes is in uniform," Pepper said, her voice settling into a resigned tone with an undercurrent of I-will-drag-the-truth-from-you-later. He liked that undercurrent; it gave her voice purr that left his stomach quivering. Now he could definitely make out Rhodey protesting weakly in the background.

"That won't do at all. Have him change into something a little less conspicuous, and more suited for heavy lifting. He's welcome to the closet in my workshop. We'll be waiting at the Griffith Park Observatory."

"We, sir?" Pepper asked, confusion once more evident in her voice.

Tony grinned. "Yes, Miss Potts. We. And do try to speed it up. It's getting cold out here, and my arc reactor is attracting all sorts of insects. I should build a bug zapper into this thing."

"Of course, Mr Stark. We'll see you soon." Click.

Translation: Tony, this had better be good, or you'll suddenly find yourself with a string of seven AM meetings with passive aggressive accountants suffering from erectile dysfunction.

Tony hung up the phone and looked up at the branch where Dorrie was perched, one hand's worth of claws digging into the bark for balance while she swatted at mosquitos with her tail. She grinned, large red eyes glowing with amusement. And actual luminescence. That was still very weird. "We're set, kid. Now we just need to lug my suit and your essential stuff up to the observatory. If you don't mind, we'll come back for the rest of it tomorrow."

She nodded. "I know where they keep a pretty big wheelbarrow. I could probably push the pieces of your suit in that."

Tony smirked. "I'll grab your bags and we'll call it even, then. Now let's roll. If Pepper catches me playing bellboy she really will make me get checked for a concussion."

Some little voice in the back of his mind warned him that he had no idea what he was doing, and knew nothing about raising a teenager. He freely admitted he was likely biting off more than he realized, and would probably have to double Pepper's salary as soon as he told her about his plans to daze her enough that she wouldn't try to choke the life out of him, or worse, quit. She deserved the raise, at least, seeing as he had now forced her into managing Iron Man, as well as Tony Stark. He frowned. It was time to admit he'd been a short sighted moron and apologize to she and Rhodey for outing himself. And he would need to make clear to Pepper he didn't expect to just foist Dorrie off on her and be done with it. She had never signed up for three quarters of what he already asked her to do, and this was most certainly his … project? No, that didn't sound right. Mission? No, that sounded worse.

Foster child, or close enough, he realized with a start. Especially considering I'll have to get legal custody, unless she's going to hide in my basement forever, or her mother's gone off her prescription of Crazy Bitch Extract and decides to let her come home. Not likely if she's let her daughter live on the streets for three months. I'll have to deal with that first. ...Somehow. Tony had a feeling several dozen lawyers and perhaps a little blackmail would be necessary.

Then, he felt a stab of panic. I'm in no way qualified to be anyone's foster parent. He took a deep, calming breath, and forced an even calmer smile. Then again, I am a genius. How hard can it be?

For the briefest of moments he swore the thousands of crickets chirping and other background noise in the park sounded like Pepper laughing hysterically at him, but shrugged it off. It was late, and he had landed on his head.