Chapter One: Everything Old is New Again
Not-Pepper was found in Oklahoma the same day real Pepper disappeared from the Malibu manse. SHIELD personnel was at the scene before Iron Man was, investigating some sort of massive energy reading. It wasn't until they found a woman who looked nearly exactly like Agent Stark's girlfriend that they called him to request the presence of Iron Man. SHIELD didn't play games when it came to unexplained phenomena and the mysterious red-headed woman was subjected to a battery of tests to determine that she was indeed a human being, that her appearance was natural and not the result of technology, magic or surgery and a general assessment of her knowledge base. Meanwhile, the search for the real Virginia Potts got underway.
The woman who appeared in Oklahoma was initially classified as a highly dangerous person. She was a human being, she was naturally nearly the spitting image of Potts and she knew a lot about SHIELD. Most agents of the organization were privy to less information than what she knew. Potts' story was that she had been on the special projects team of a former director and co-founder of SHIELD and had enjoyed unlimited authorization to access what she wished. Despite slight body modifications, she was not the agent type. She was in shape, but far from athletic. More than that, she was expressive. The bland, unreadable trademark of many a high ranking agent was as far from this woman as it was possible to be. She was very easy to read-and the psychic division could back her up on the truth of each statement-and what she was was freaked out.
After three days of poking, prodding and debating whether or not to cut her open, she was turned over to Stark's custody. It was a move designed mostly to placate him, as extremely powerful, extremely agitated men with warsuits were not something that SHIELD could allow. Natalie Rushman spontaneously reappeared in her old job at the Stark Industries legal department, 'Bill Coleman' was in security and so on. In reality, there was soon a SHIELD plant in every corner of Stark's life. The decision to be forthcoming about a handful was a calculated effort to prevent him from looking for more.
When he picked her up in the Bentley, Hogan was behind the wheel and Stark stood outside in a tailored suit and sunglasses, waiting by the car doors as an entire troupe of men in black escorted the woman.
When the woman finally spoke they had been sitting together in the back of the car together for about half an hour. It was the first time anyone in the car had heard Pepper's voice since the incident and the way she sounded so perfect nearly made Tony drop the Scotch he'd been nursing. "Where are we?"
"Sacramento," Tony told her, "It'll be a few more hours before we're home, so get comfortable."
She turned to look out the window and said softly, "I hate California." It was when her head swiveled away that Tony realized the pattern of her freckles was all wrong.
He swirled his glass. "While SHIELD knows how to roll out the welcome wagon, the great state of California does not deserve your wrath."
Tony had chosen to drive home rather than take the jet because close quarters for a long period of time was the only way he was going to be guaranteed to spend any real time with this woman. If she was responsible for-or at least related to-Pepper's disappearance, then the most useful intel would come from her. By shutting her up in the car with him, he was removing any escape route. There had to be something that SHIELD missed when they interrogated her, because the only information that had gotten back to him was a fat lot of nothing. They didn't know anything about how she got here, how to send her back or how to bring back the real Pepper. Natalie, Fury and even Coulson always acted like SHIELD had extensive experience in all of this supernatural mumbo-jumbo, but in truth, they didn't know much more than he did.
"It's got nothing to do with SHIELD," Pepper replied. "I just don't want to be there."
"Too bad." Almost as an afterthought, Tony asked with bland curiosity, "Where're you from?"
"Right now, I live in Oklahoma, but most of my life I've lived in New York. I've spent a little bit of time everywhere, though."
The Pepper that Tony knew had worked for him for just over ten years, so she had to have lived in California for over a decade. He had no idea where she had been before that. Now that the subject of Peppers in other states had been brought up, he found himself a little curious about his girlfriend's life before him. Naturally, the day he wanted to ask her something about herself, something that doesn't reflect on him in anyway, was the day her absence had become so cemented that SHIELD had seen it fit to hand over the doppelganger and call it a day. He drained his Scotch and poured himself another. His liver had been getting quite the workout lately.
The only other organ that had been working so hard was his brain, trying to figure out some way around this. He refused to accept that it was hopeless, but his only starting point was the energy anomaly in Oklahoma and he hadn't even gotten any readings of his own on that. SHIELD was many things and none of those were 'trustworthy,' but Tony was reasonably assured that they had a vested interest in him personally. They had turned over two instruments that recorded data on the anomaly to him, but so far, he hadn't been able to make heads or tails of anything. They had no motivation to withhold other data from him, unless they didn't want him to switch the Peppers back. Which meant one of three possibilities:
The energy was dangerous. It was not out of the realm of consideration that SHIELD knew exactly what the energy was, but that it presented some sort of danger that they prioritized over getting Pepper back. It seemed like the least likely option, because the flux that had already taken place had had absolutely no effects on the environment or the people in the areas where Pepper disappeared or where Not-Pepper was found. She personally had a clean bill of health, so being in the dead center of it all was not harmful, unless the risk was only in continued exposure.
Another possibility was that this Pepper was more useful to SHIELD than his Pepper, who near as he could tell was of no particular value to them. Natalie had passed along that this woman was very informed about the SHIELD of her universe and a lot of what she knew was either directly pertinent here or represented future possibilities. Some things they had been hoping to accomplish had already came to pass in her world, as well as things they had hoped would never happen. If the goal was to get Not-Pepper signed on as an agent, obviously she would have to stay here. To Tony, this didn't mean that his world couldn't have two Peppers while some other world had none.
The final possibility was that they were telling the truth: they didn't know shit and they didn't know where to begin. From where he sat, this one looked the most likely. Nothing that Natalie confided in him pointed otherwise. She knew things, but Tony knew from experience that what they had done to her was not the recruitment process. SHIELD preferred to psychologically map out their candidates, not poke and traumatize them. That was a sure fire way to get this woman to want to be as far from SHIELD as possible.
"You're very calm about all of this," he observed.
"I'm usually on the other end," Pepper told him. "I'm usually the person waiting at home, wringing my hands and going crazy with worry." She sighed and slumped into the seat a little bit. "Being on this side isn't so bad. Nothing's trying to kill me. SHIELD let me go. I want to go home, but it could be worse. I'm the one who insisted it was worth it."
Tony snapped to attention, "What's worth it? What did you do?"
Alarmed at his suddenly intensity, "I didn't mean I...I didn't cause this! I just...sometimes, taking a risk is worth it, right? I decided that's what I wanted. I wasn't going to be the person waiting at home anymore. And this is where it got me. I knew it was going to be risk. I knew it."
Angrily, Tony pressed back into his seat and shuffled his shoulders, for want of anything else to do with himself. "So that's it? We're done? Out with the old, in with the new?"
"Because I don't know if you've noticed this, but SHIELD doesn't know what the hell to do with you."
"And I suppose you do?" Pepper snapped back.
He had been working so, so hard on being good to his Pepper, being honest and forthcoming with her. It didn't come naturally to him. Tony was used to his lone wolf routine and even though Pepper had been in his shadow for so long, had always stood by him and supported him, talking to her about things that mattered was hard. Making a stupid joke or misdirecting her was easier. Letting her in was something he was only recently becoming comfortable with. And maybe that was why even though the pattern of this woman's freckles was all wrong and his knee jerk reaction was to turn on the bravado anyway, he found himself being honest with her. "I don't have a clue."
Her eyes ran over him in an appraisal. The look on her face was familiar to him. It usually meant that he had just done something right. Admitting his own helplessness was never something right in Tony's book, but he had found that he and Pepper kept score in different ways. Maybe she just didn't understand that if he was helpless, that meant she was helpless. He was the scientific genius that everyone counted on to save the world, reign in rampaging Hulks and God knows what else Fury has planned for him.
"Tony Stark," she drawled slowly, dragging out every syllable. "How very unlike you." She grinned.
"I have no idea what you are so happy about."
"I like seeing you off your game. Everyone does. It's a rare treat."
"We've actually never met before," he pointed out, "So."
"So, I know a Tony Stark in my world." Her smile turned crooked. "Maybe that's why I'm not worried."
"You know a Tony Stark in Oklahoma?" He asked skeptically. "Seriously?"
"Seriously. I know, I can't believe it either."
"What the hell's in Oklahoma?"
Pepper shifted, angling herself towards him completely. "You would not believe me if I told you."
"Well, I've got an almost perfect ringer of my, my-of the CEO of my company, so how about you try me." Tony had nearly called her a nearly perfect duplicate of his girlfriend, but the word died before it hit his tongue. He wasn't afraid of or even uncomfortable with the word. He wasn't sure why he chickened out of saying it. Maybe it was just too private to throw out on this new person, regardless of her name or what she looked like.
"Asgard," he repeated.
"Asgard, home of Norse mythology, Asgard," she said, nodding along. She smiles as she blandly says, "You're really good friends with Thor."
"Thor," he repeated.
"Big bearded red-headed guy with a hammer."
"He's blond in real life," Pepper corrected, "You gave him power of attorney, so that's where we went."
"I gave power of attorney to a Norse god living in Oklahoma, whose traditional mythological hair color is not true to life."
"Do you take all of this so well?" Tony asked.
That made Pepper sputter. "Look, I-I'm used to it. How are you taking it? Your SHIELD didn't even know there was a multiverse."
"Thought as much," Tony hissed, the otherwise innocent phrase sounding like a swear on his tongue. "They don't know anything."
"Tony does," Pepper said, laying her hand on his shoulder. Delicately, she removed the glass from his hand and set it in a cup holder on her other side. "My Tony, I mean. He's going to take care of it."
"Your Tony," he intoned. "He the hero type?"
"Yeah," Pepper said softly with a wistful smile, "He is."
The cliffside Malibu mansion of Tony Stark was owned by some movie star. Pepper had never heard of him and he didn't seem all that talented nor put together so she was unsurprised that he had only actually been in a handful of big budget films before his career hit the skids. He bought the mansion from an estate sale some years back when Stark was believed to be dead. When he returned, the actor was prepared to fight for his home, which he really only loved because he was something of a Stark fanboy, but Tony had never shown any interest in regaining the things that he had lost while presumed dead. His personal fortune had been awarded back to him by courts, but of his businesses and possessions, he was unconcerned. Tony Stark was many things, but sentimental was not one of them. He would rather build something brand new and all his own than fight other owners to take back what was once his.
Pepper Potts wished something about this house had been worth keeping to Tony, because calling him and waiting for pick-up was rather nerve wracking. She had no idea what she had gotten into or how. One moment, she was at home with Tony and the next she was in a stranger's living room. The was a softness to Tony's place, a sort of organic roundness. This mansion was industrial, all metal and corners. She didn't know if that was the aesthetic of the actor or of this version of Tony. She didn't even know if this Tony who was coming to get her even knew her. She supposed he must, because getting through to him had been so easy. Her phone didn't work here, it told her she had no coverage. When she told her host that she really needed to get in touch with Tony Stark, he had produced the Avengers Hotline number and his own phone within seconds. She felt silly dialing it and even more silly when it turned out to be a damned answering machine, but once she said her name was Pepper Potts, her identity was verified and she was transfered to the personal phone of the Iron Man.
"Tony," she began, "I'm in Malibu-"
"Already on my way," he'd said, cutting her off. "I'm set to rendezvous with the Fantastic Four in twenty."
Twenty minutes of small talk with a washed up actor later, Pepper came out of the house to see five superheroes on the lawn. Her brain still rebelled against the phrase "superhero," but she didn't have any other terms to describe this strange looking suit of armor and four people in matching blue tights. The woman was the first to reach her, she hugged her and told her that everything was going to be all right. One of the four in tights had some sort of instrument out that he was using to take readings. Iron Man was doing the same, thought his tools were contained within his armor. The two remaining heroes were left to entertain their host, who was completely star-struck himself.
Pepper felt somewhat numb and disoriented as she walked to Tony's side. The woman was talking to the man with the machines now, asking him if the energy he had detected is what they thought it was. He gave the affirmative.
"What is it?" Pepper asked. "What's going on?"
"You traded places," Iron Man said, "with the Pepper Potts of this reality. We think it's some kind of temporal backlash from Kang of Immortus messing with the time-stream."
"What, what does that mean?"
"It's quite fascinating," the other man interrupted. "The theory is that there are an infinite amount of universes in our multi-verse. Each Earth possesses only minor, mostly cosmetic, differences when compared to its counterparts. From world to world, things like how intelligent you are, the people you surround yourself with and what you do are likely to remain the same, though in one world you may be a different gender or have a different hair color."
She swayed. "Oh, God." Iron Man reached out to steady her. "And that's just it, I'm stuck here?"
"Not at all," he answered, "I've got an inter-dimensional transportation device back in New York."
"But it works, right? You can send me home or trade me back or something?"
"It's just," Iron Man added, "there's an infinite number of realities. Finding yours might take a while."
Pepper's first thought was that she could die here. They could work for years and never find her home. They could work for months, get bored and give up. They could work for days, run off to face some new threat and get killed, leaving her stranded here. She had had a month with Tony, not standing behind him unnoticed or supporting him behind the scenes, but really with him. She would likely never see him again. Her entire life had been wrapped up in the world of Tony Stark for over a decade. He'd almost died. Now that he was healthy and the word "future" was starting to mean something big, something scary... Now she was lost. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right.
She didn't collapse. She was not a fainting woman from a bad 60's science fiction film. She wanted to tell this Iron Man that she didn't need him and his strange armor's cold metal arms holding her up. Pepper didn't even cry. She numbly shut down, hearing the people around her talk and discuss her situation, but not really understanding any of it. What could these strangers possibly know of her situation? They acted like it was right, like it made sense. Like it was exactly what they thought it was going to be.
Because there was no sense staying in Malibu, (Iron Man asserted randomly that he was "so over" California), Pepper was ushered into the Fantastic Four's strange plane for the trip to New York City. Iron Man and one of the Four's members, Johnny, they called him, flew along side them. Lots of small talk was made during the flight. It was an out of body experience, almost. But it was enough for her mind to start reasserting itself over her shock and her loss and begin to learn about what she was dealing with.
What she knew from the flight was this: She was not without her advantages. The terms 'alternate reality' and 'multiverse' not had been in her vocabulary yesterday, but they were in the lexicon of this world's Tony Stark. He actually seemed almost uninterested in the prospect of traveling across dimensions. He was kind to her, yes, sympathetic and he offered to get her anything she wanted. He promised to get her home, to switch her back with this world's Pepper Potts, but the multiverse itself was not a surprising or inherently interesting thing. He'd traveled it before and he was confidant he could do it again. Her advantage was his experience. The Tony she knew had been Iron Man for about 7 months. This man had been the Iron Man-he always said 'the' when talking about it in the third person-for seventeen years.
What she knew from going home with Iron Man, for it was taken as fact by all that she should follow him, was this: Pepper didn't like him very much. He was too...something. Inhuman, maybe. His suit poured out of his body as a liquid. Emotionally, mentally, he always seemed very far away from whatever was going on. He had a shallow, surface-level friendliness which she almost mistook for sincerity early on, but his glib jokes hurt. Sometimes, she started to think that her situation didn't really matter to him at all. At other times, his more manic behaviors reminded Pepper of her Tony when he was secretly struggling with palladium poisoning. There is so much about him that is familiar, but the little things that are off seem so much worse because they stand out. He has all of her Tony's genius, all of his ego, all of his arrogance, all of his selfishness and absent-mindedness. But he seemed tired and a little strung out, like his pieces no longer fit together correctly.
And it made sense. Her body couldn't handle the stress of just being around Iron Man for a few months, she didn't find it surprising that his body and more importantly his mental and emotional health couldn't handle it for so many years. If he was the same age as her Tony-and he might not be, but for the moment, she assumed that he was-he couldn't have been older than twenty-two when he was kidnapped. Such a harrowing experience, and his extreme reaction to it, was probably even more damaging when he was young enough to not be entirely confidant or comfortable with his identity. He needed a therapist. Secretly, Pepper thought her boyfriend could use a therapist, too, but this man really, really needed one.
Since she understood that telling someone you just met in a reality you just accidentally traveled to that he needed a shrink was definitely outside of the realm of polite conduct, she wanted to tell him something else. Prior to this experience, she never thought she would want to encourage this sort of behavior, but Pepper wanted to tell Tony to just have a drink, take a load off and relax for a minute. He was always up and going. He was always working. Her Tony was always active, but it was not quite the same. He saved the world three times within her first two months on the world. He traveled back and forth between Oklahoma, where they lived for some reason, and New York City almost daily. He, Reed and two other guys who were both named Hank had built some sort of scanning device that would allow them to be constantly searching the multiverse for her reality.
Tony told Pepper that the other her was the CEO and COO of his new start-up business, Stark Resilient, but since he didn't know her, he couldn't trust her with something so important and assumed those offices himself without any prodding. In addition to everything else, he was in and out of meetings all day. That he was as talented in the boardroom as he was in the workshop was the biggest shock to her system.
The biggest shock was his eyes. He had clear, beautiful blue eyes. He looked exactly like her Tony in every other respect, but those blue eyes did not belong on his face. She got queasy every time they made eye contact.
Pepper also hated the way he knew things about her. Her Tony seriously considered bringing her something she was allergic to as progress because there was some sort of tenuous connection between herself and strawberries in his mind. This man that she just met knew what she was allergic to. He knew what her favorite bands were. He bought her some books to help her pass the time and they were all suited perfectly to her taste. He knew her shoe size. Pepper knew this not because he had something to say about her 'fuck me' heels, but because he bought her some comfortable sneakers. He knew she minored in Greek Philosophy at school and that her favorite philosopher was Socrates-not the real Socrates, but Plato's Socrates. He knew he unnerved her, but either he didn't care to try to stop or he just wasn't capable of it. Pepper suspected the latter because everything came up naturally in conversation, he never went out of his way to impart his Pepper-knowledge. He was just obviously a good friend who paid attention to her in this world.
He had a lot of friends.
The Tony that Pepper had always known at home had three people he trusted: herself, James Rhodes and Obadiah Stane. Stane's betrayal left only two. He was a very social creature, but there was no closeness except for herself and Rhodey. He wanted the limelight and attention and none of that complicated intimacy. He had all these little quirks that he could afford to have because he was wealthy and when you are rich enough, they just call being an asshole "eccentric." He didn't like people to hand things to him. Outside of romance situations, he didn't like to make skin-to-skin contact with other people and when it happened, she needed to be ready with the hand sanitizer. He was charming and charismatic, but not really friendly and he generally didn't give anyone a chance to break through his emotional armor. She was in the inner circle because she worked closely with him for years and had proven herself time and time again to be reliable. Rhodey was there because they had a long history together from their college days. All of Tony's stories were embarrassing for Jim and he tried to keep Tony from telling them, so Pepper didn't know much about their school days. She suspected, however, that Rhodey must have been an extraordinary young man. He had sincerely befriended a wealthy boy who was years younger than himself, was not embarrassed to be outclassed by this strange genius-child and gave no thought to what he personally could gain from being at the right hand of the rich and brilliant.
Even in this world, Rhodey was by Tony's side, a fact which Pepper greatly appreciated. The fact that the two people she knew Tony could really count on seemed to be in his immediate circle in every world was...well, 'touching' wasn't the word. It was more significant than that. Tony also hung out with a severe looking woman with black hair a lot, Maria Hill. She wasn't sure what to make of that relationship. They argued a lot, but they always stuck by each other in the end. Sometimes, he gave her orders and she took them and other times she gave him orders and he took him. She seemed to be employed at Stark Resilient, but she never did any work that Pepper could see. She was just there. Pepper suspected Tony and Maria were either secretly in love with each other or secretly plotting each others' murder. It could really go either way. Maria's best friend was the other Pepper. She didn't know what could have possibly drawn the two of them together. Maybe it was just as simple as being in Tony's immediate sphere and needing another woman around when the time came to roll one's eyes. She felt terrible about it, though, because she didn't know Maria in her own world and she didn't really like this one all that much. She was a military-type and through her Tony, Pepper had met a lot of military brass. They were generally old school generals who had very little respect for women. Maria had very little respect for civilians.
Pepper found herself strangely unsurprised by the presence of Natalie in this world. She came and went as she pleased, clearly having better places to be than the Sooner State. At least, Pepper thought she was Natalie. Everyone called her Natasha and she didn't have that unsettling way of being a blank page like the Natalie she knew. She asked Tony once if he ever thought anything was off about Natasha, and his reply had been: "What? Is she not spying on me? Because if she's not spying on me, then I'm worried."
And then there were the Avengers.
The Earth's Mightiest Heroes. They dressed in even more garish costumes than the Fantastic Four and were every bit as crazy as Tony. But he never went out there to confront God only knew what alone, he always had Rhodey or Maria or an entire squadron of people who were just as preoccupied with the idea that they could save the world as Tony. He wasn't out there in that suit alone. He wasn't a crazed man on a mission that only he could do. He was part of a community of like-minded individuals. It was a community that was, on the whole, accepting of her. As weeks past, Pepper was able to talk on more and more responsibilities and learn more and more about this world. Between his Avengers' duties, the continual monitoring and upgrading of the machine that was searching for her world and running Stark Resilient, something was bound to give. Pepper assisted in whatever arena she could, which was generally the latter two. Supplying Tony and Reed with more information on her world drastically narrowed down their search. Any universe where Tony Stark was female? Irrelevant. A universe where Tony became Iron Man prior to 2008? Irrelevant. A universe where the Hulk appeared prior to 2008? Irrelevant. A universe where Germany won World War II? Irrelevant. Absolutely nothing could be taken for granted.
Pepper also took on as much work for Stark Resilient as she could manage to wrestle away from Tony. This was easy, because he tended to not notice. He had more on his plate than anyone could reasonably expect him to handle and she had nothing on hers. Pepper needed something to do and this was what she was good at. With time, he began to trust her and the tasks she preformed where things he left on her desk, not things she stole from his.
Pepper knew her life in this world had become something recognizable when before heading into a meeting, Tony leaned back and muttered into her ear, "What am I supposed to know about this guy?"
"That's Howard Watch," she muttered back, lips barely moving and a smile plastered on her face. "He is a member of the Senatorial Energy Committee. Very proud of his golf swing."
"Thanks. You're a life saver." Tony walked into the meeting with a boisterous, friendly attitude, asked the man about his golf game and did an extremely admirable job of pretending that he knew what was going on.
After the meeting, Tony's upbeat attitude vanished as quickly as it came. Things had gone well for Stark Resilient inside, but he was tired and annoyed that the entire event had transpired at all. "What the hell was even the point of that?" he groused as they drove back to their home base/office/one hallway of a rundown hotel.
"They think you're trying to replace American dependency on fossil fuel with dependency on you," Pepper primly explained
"That's ridiculous," Tony drawled. Personally, Pepper did not agree at all. It seemed quite accurate from where she sat. "I'm trying to replace global dependency on fossil fuel with dependency on me."
Pepper surprised herself by suddenly thinking it would have been nice to have Maria in the car. As it was, Pepper rolled her eyes alone.
Next: Perception vs. reality vs. alternate realities
Disclaimers: Double dose of disclaimers on this one, true believers! Marvel Movie Studios and Fairview Entertainment, meet Marvel's publishing branch!
Author Notes: This story is being written as a response to the Tony/Pepper kink meme found on LJ. The prompt in question is Movie!Verse Pepper (post IM2) and Comic!Verse Pepper (anytime after Stark: Disassembled) switch places via magic/portal/whatever you can think of, and how they deal with this and more importantly, the Tony in each other's universe. I am thinking at the moment that this will likely be 3 or 4 chapters long, but we'll see.