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Every Purpose Under Heaven - Part 5 of 5

Disclaimers and information in the master post.

~~~~~

Nathan, Duke and Audrey sat at the Grey Gull's bar with Tony and listened raptly as he filled them in on the results of his trip to New York.

"An infinite number of Tony Starks," Nathan mused with a slightly teasing smile. "That's a scary thought."

"Not infinite," Tony objected absently.

"Not -? Isn't there an infinite number of universes?" Nathan asked with a frown. "And any subset of infinity is also infinite?"

Duke rolled his eyes. "Really, Nathan?" he said with mock pity.

"I paid attention in math class, Duke," Nathan replied primly.

Tony and Audrey laughed before Tony said, "That's seems to be an accepted theory, but I disagree."

Audrey raised an eyebrow. "Really?" she asked with a smile. "Why?"

"Because the universe hasn't existed forever. It's only been in existence for fourteen billion years, and while the number of possible universes created over fourteen billion years is so huge as to be incomprehensible, it's still a finite number. And if it's finite, then that means there has to be a way to find a specific universe."

Tony paused and took in the three uncomprehending stares directed at him.

He shifted on his barstool and said, "Look, it's all about possibilities. For example, if all possibilities exist, then there must be universes that have never split, or have stopped splitting. Which means there must be people who are completely unique - that is, there are no other versions of them out there in the multiverse. That's where Audrey comes from, I think, from one of those unique universes."

"Say what?" Audrey sputtered.

"I think I'm immune to the Troubles because I come from a universe where Haven doesn't exist. But Audrey always disappears before the Troubles are resolved, and then returns looking exactly the same but...reprogrammed, for lack of a better word. I think it's because she's the only one they can find, and they need to make sure she's protected. Whoever 'they' are."

Duke, Nathan and Audrey stared blankly at him.

"I think I need a drink," Duke said. "Anybody with me?"

"Oh, yeah," Nathan and Audrey said simultaneously and turned back towards the bar.

Tony laughed. "I'll take that drink, too, Duke."

Duke grinned at him as he handed him a glass. "I knew you would," he said, then pulled out two beer for Audrey and Nathan.

Nathan took a long drink of his beer, then asked, "So, how does this - this theory help us?"

Tony shrugged as he sipped his scotch. "Not sure," he admitted. "But I believe there's a technological solution to controlling Haven's problems. Maybe figuring out where Audrey's from will be it."

"And, what? Import a bunch of other Audreys? You know - unique humans?" Duke asked.

"Maybe that's what started the Troubles in the first place," Nathan mused slowly.

The others turned to him with puzzled frowns.

He held up his hands. "I'm just throwing theories out there, just like Tony."

"But - what do you mean?" Audrey asked.

"I mean maybe Haven was settled by people from this unique universe, and that's why we've ended up with the Troubles. The original settlers weren't part of this universe and so we're...reacting to it. Like...having an allergic reaction to cats."

"And Audrey's...what? An antihistamine?" Duke asked incredulously.

"And you're the permanent cure," Nathan snapped. "It's just a theory."

Tony was standing still, his eyes wide, scotch halfway to his mouth.

"It's not a bad theory," he said softly, slowly lowering the glass. "It's like being exposed to diseases you don't have any immunity to, or a harmless animal in one environment that turns out to be completely destructive when introduced into a new one."

He glanced at Nathan. "Not a bad theory at all," he nodded.

Nathan shifted uncomfortably and looked down at his glass.

"But how does that theory help us?" Audrey demanded.

"Well, maybe there needs to be some sort of inoculation," Tony suggested.

"There is," Duke said bitterly. "Me."

"A less extreme form of inoculation," Tony amended. "And there's still somebody else running the show." He nodded at Audrey. "Otherwise, you wouldn't keep returning, time after time."

"Or," Duke said sharply, "these theories are all bullshit and it's just something paranormal that happens around here."

Nathan shrugged. "Well, if everything in the multiverse is possible, then that's equally possible, right, Tony?"

Tony looked pained as he nodded. "Sadly, that's true."

"Are you saying you agree with me, Nathan?" Duke asked, his eyes wide in mock disbelief as he moved out from behind the bar to stand next to him.

"We-ell, I'm saying your theory is as valid as any other we've come up with," Nathan clarified.

"You are agreeing with me!" Duke whooped, slapping his palm on the bar. "Ha! What are the odds of that happening?"

Tony's eyes went wide and he froze in mid-laugh.

"If there's a way to pinpoint the exact universe, then it must be based on some type of mathematical calculation," he whispered almost dreamily.

Nathan, Duke and Audrey knew Tony wasn't speaking to them anymore; he seemed unaware they were even still in the room.

"Maybe - maybe there's some way of identifying the universe by calculating the odds." He suddenly whirled into motion, grabbing Duke by both shoulders and shaking him. "Duke Crocker - you are a genius!"

"Hey - hey - hey! You're not about to kiss me are you?"

Tony laughed. "No, but it's tempting! I need a computer!"

Duke shook his head and with a flourish, waved his hand towards his office at the back of the Grey Gull. Tony rushed into the small room and threw himself onto the chair, muttering to himself as he impatiently waited for the computer to turn on.

For the next five days, Tony barely ate or slept as he worked feverishly in Duke's office. At the end of the last day, he stumbled out, unshaven, unshowered and almost incoherently exhausted. Nathan held his nose and guided Tony back to Nathan's place where he threw the exhausted man into the spare bed where he slept around the clock and into the next morning.

Nathan and Audrey were in the kitchen making breakfast in companionable silence when Tony finally emerged, showered, shaved and looking every inch the self-assured billionaire he was in a different universe. Tony watched as Audrey tested the temperature of Nathan's coffee before handing it to him with a smile. Nathan smiled sweetly back, his eyes soft as he looked at the pretty blonde.

Tony realized with pang he was going to miss these two. Duke, too, he admitted ruefully.

Nathan and Audrey greeted him, and Audrey put a coffee in front of him as he pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter.

He glanced up at the brief knock on the back door, then greeted Duke as he walked into the kitchen.

Duke helped himself to a cup of coffee and settled in beside Tony.

"So, are you gonna tell us what you've been working on the last few days?" Duke asked, his crocodile grin in full force.

"I was deciphering my home address," Tony replied simply.

They stared unblinkingly at him.

"Okay," Nathan acknowledged slowly. "Did you...find it?"

"I think so. Yes."

A huge grin spread across Audrey's face.

"That's wonderful!" she said, then her smile faded. "But do you have a way to get there?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I think do."

"Just like that?" Nathan asked, his brow furrowed.

"Well, it'll take me a few days to build it -"

"Wait a minute," Duke protested, sitting up straight in his chair. "Scientists have been struggling with the concept of parallel universes for decades, and you're telling us that you've spent - what? - a week on the problem, and you not only know how to find a particular universe, you can also build a machine to take you there?"

Nathan and Audrey stared at Duke with raised eyebrows. He glanced at them then away then back again.

"What?" he asked defensively. "I watch PBS."

They shook their heads and turned their attention back to Tony.

"Yes," Tony nodded. "That's exactly what I'm telling you." He smirked. "I told you - I'm Tony Stark. And I'm a genius."

"Well, genius, I hope you're right," Duke sighed, shaking his head. "Because I hate to think what you're going to look like if you're wrong."

"Or where you're going to end up if your calculations are wrong," Audrey added.

"My calculations are never wrong," Tony replied smugly. "I'll end up in the right place; I'll get home. More importantly, I'll end up with the right Pepper."

"Or a reasonable facsimile?" Audrey asked, not unkindly.

Tony stopped, the muscles in his jaw clenching and unclenching.

He swallowed and said, "She'll be my Pepper. The fact that there may be a billion others exactly like her is moot. She'll be my Pepper. The one -" he stopped abruptly, blinking rapidly, not quite meeting Audrey's eyes.

"She'll be the right one," he muttered, and turned his eyes away.

"But I still don't get how you're finding the universe that's yours," Nathan said with a frown.

"The odds," Tony replied.

"Yeah, I got that part," Nathan said, "I just don't get how that helped you."

"I had two problems. The first was building a machine to transport me across universes. Not a huge problem where I come from. Power wasn't an issue, because my dad had created the arc reactor and I made it useable. Designing how to move between universes wasn't an issue, because the theories had been around in my universe for decades. But pinpointing the exact universe you're looking for - that was the second, and biggest problem. Or at least being able to pinpoint the right family of universes, so that even if you missed the exact one, you were still close enough that the people were the same."

"O-kay," Nathan said. "I'm with you so far."

"The key was to identify as many known events as possible, and then calculate the odds of all of those events happening in the same universe."

"But if universes are created at every moment of decision, or possibility, for every single person or thing -" Audrey struggled to find words.

"We're into trillions - more! - universes. But not infinite, like I said before. And by focusing on specific people, and events, you can focus in on a - a - cluster of universes, where all of those events happened in those people's lives. Which means they're the same people, regardless of whether a single person outside of that group lived or died."

"But what if that person was Hitler?" Duke protested.

"You also add in the world events you know, putting in as many details as possible. So - the odds of a universe where this part of Maine is unpopulated, where Hitler rose and fell, where Howard Stark succeeded, where Tony Stark woke up in an Afghan cave attached to a car battery, where Pepper Potts fell in love with that same Tony Stark, where he became part of a group called the Avengers - the more details you can calculate, the lower the odds of all of those events happening in one universe, and therefore the more precise the - the - address, so to speak."

"So," Nathan said slowly, "you can find the neighbourhood, but maybe end up in the wrong house?"

Tony considered the analogy, then nodded. "But the houses are identical in terms of what you need. There may be boards or bricks in different places, somewhere in that house, but your reality is the same."

"Or maybe," Duke said slowly, "if you believe everything is connected, your reality couldn't exist the way it does if all the bricks and boards weren't in the right place."

The others stared at him.

He shrugged. "You know - a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, blah, blah, blah."

The others stared at him in awed silence.

"That, my friend, is an absolutely brilliant theory," Tony breathed.

"Who's the genius now?" Duke asked, and lifted his coffee with a cheeky grin.

~~~~~

Six days later, Tony opened up the doors of Lewis' garage with a grand flourish.

Nathan, Duke and Audrey stepped inside and looked at his grand invention in silence.

"That's it?" Duke finally asked skeptically.

"That's it," Tony nodded.

"It's...a lot smaller than I expected," Nathan said doubtfully.

"It looks like a box," Audrey said brightly.

"A cardboard box," Duke nodded. "Barely big enough for one person. I think Nathan and I would need to crouch, and Dwight wouldn't fit at all!"

Tony stared at them like he couldn't believe his eyes.

"Just...open the door," he sighed.

Audrey cautiously approached the transporter and did as Tony asked. They all crowded around to get a better look.

The interior was a dizzying array of circuitry, flashing lights and buttons with a keyboard and computer screen securely in pride of place. Beside the keyboard was a plug with a shape that looked suspiciously like the arc reactor in Tony's chest.

"What - you know what? I wouldn't understand it anyway," Duke sighed.

"Most of it's for show," Tony said with his own crocodile grin.

Audrey laughed.

"Besides," Tony added, looking around the cluttered garage with a sniff, "I had a lot of spare parts."

Audrey looked around the garage, and shuddered, remembering the nails in Nathan's back. She kissed those scars almost every morning in the shower, wishing her touch could take them away from him, too. She put her hand on Nathan's bare arm and squeezed. He glanced at her, startled. He took in her expression, and he covered her hand with his.

"I didn't feel it," he assured her.

Audrey smiled tightly, and turned her attention back to Tony.

"What's next?" she asked.

~~~~~

Tony sat beside Audrey as they watched Stark cautiously approach Virginia Potts in the busy park. The very fact that Virginia had agreed to meet with Stark at all had been a miracle in itself.

Tony stared hungrily at the beautiful redhead.

He missed her, he thought with sudden, sharp pain. He missed her so much. He missed the sound of her voice - he'd even settle for the sound of her nagging at him to get to his next business meeting so long as it meant she was talking to him. He missed her face when she was trying to be stern and struggling not to give in to her laughter. He missed her scent, her skin, those legs that stretched for miles and which felt like heaven when they were wrapped around him.

Tony groaned softly as Stark awkwardly stuck out his hand for Virginia to shake, and somehow managed to accidentally catch her purse and knock it to the ground, spilling its contents.

Audrey chuckled softly. "Do you think he's nervous?"

Tony shook his head and continued to watch. Stark was crouched now, as was Virginia, and he was scrambling to help her pick everything up, his mouth moving a mile a minute. Tony could only imagine what Stark was babbling out right now, terrified he'd blown his chance to meet the second condition Tony had imposed on him.

Tony idly wondered what he, Tony, would have done if he hadn't figured out a way to find his own universe, or hadn't been able to build a machine to take him there. Stark would have been kept far away from Virginia, he decided. It would have been him, Tony, in the park right now, shaking her hand. He would have smiled, he would have charmed her, overwhelmed her, convinced her to work for him. He would have worked to create a similar connection as the one he had with his Pepper, and he probably would have succeeded. They probably would have even been happy.

But she would never be his Pepper. The Pepper who had seen him at his worst and stayed with him anyway. The Pepper who had put her hand into his chest simply because he'd asked her to, and told her truthfully that she was all he had.

He would never hurt any Virginia "Pepper" Potts by making her a substitute for someone else.

He refocused on the two people in the park.

They'd finally managed to gather everything up and put it back in Virginia's purse. They rose to their feet, Stark still talking rapidly, Virginia staring at him in bemused wonder.

Finally he stuttered to a halt, and shuffled his feet uncomfortably, looking away, is head down, his shoulders hunched defensively.

Tony and Audrey held their breaths as they watched the poised redhead hesitate. Then she nodded, and they saw her lips form the word yes. Stark's head shot up, a shocked look on his face. Virginia stuck out her hand and smiled at Stark, and Tony's heart clenched.

It was the same way Pepper smiled at him.

Stark slowly shook Virginia's hand, his eyes never leaving hers, and Tony relaxed with a soft sigh. He put on his sunglasses and glanced at Audrey.

"Who knows if it'll work out in this universe, but..."

"You had to try."

Tony sniffed and straightened his cuffs. "If there's one thing I know for sure, no matter what universe it is, every Tony Stark needs his Pepper Potts. Perhaps he could be happy with someone else, but that's almost impossible to imagine. Or believe."

Audrey smiled slowly, her expression soft. "You romantic you," she teased gently.

Tony shrugged. "Every Tony Stark needs his Pepper Potts." He paused thoughtfully. "Of course, whether every Pepper Potts deserves to be burdened with her Tony Stark is another question entirely."

He strode purposefully towards the park entrance.

"Let's get back to Haven," he said. "It's almost time for me to go home."

He didn't look back.

~~~~~

On the last night before Tony left Haven, he sat on the deck in the back of Nathan's small house with the people who, over the last six weeks, had become his friends.

"What will we do without you?" Audrey asked him.

"I think you'll survive just fine," Tony assured her. "You've managed it this long."

"Except - except we still don't know how to stop the Troubles!" Audrey protested earnestly. "Does that mean we're destined to fail? I'll still end up leaving Na-Haven and returning in thirty years with a different personality and no memories of my previous time here?"

Nathan blinked rapidly and looked away, staring stoically into the distance while Duke scowled and poured himself another drink.

"You know, it may be it's simply not possible to stop the Troubles," Tony said slowly.

Now he had everyone's attention.

He continued, "The more I think about it, the more I think Nathan's on to something. Not necessarily that the original Havenites were from another universe, although that might have been the case. No, I think it's a real possibility there are two universes which are extremely close to each other here. And they're in orbit, an orbit where they brush each other every thirty years or so, give or take a year or five."

"So...we're doomed to suffer through the Troubles forever?" Nathan demanded incredulously. "We should just give up?"

"Not give up. I think you should learn to embrace the Troubles. Learn about them, how to control them - before they return. Make them work for you, rather than struggling against them. Study them, while they're here."

"But some of the Troubles kill people," Duke objected.

"Because they're treated like deep, dark, shameful secrets and the Troubled person often doesn't even know they're Troubled!" Tony shook his head. "I come from a world where we don't hide the powers of others - we exploit them. Granted, all of our powers were created through technology, either scientific accidents, like the Hulk, or through deliberate inventions, like me, or Captain America."

He ignored Duke's snort of amusement at Steve Rogers' superhero name.

"The point is," Tony said pointedly, "this town needs to stop being ashamed of the Troubles and to stop trying to hide them from future generations. Bring them out into the light, and teach each other what needs to be done before they return. The Rev's followers are so strong because they don't know what the Troubles really are, and they're scared. Educate them. About everything - including Audrey.

"This town also needs to stop acting like nobody knows Audrey when she returns," Tony added. "How about trying to tell her everything as soon as you can? From my perspective, you'll never make any headway if you keep everything a deep, dark secret."

"Good God," Duke blurted, "are you really trying to tell us the truth shall set us free?"

Tony sniffed. "Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is a sure sign of insanity. Maybe it's time to try something different."

"Yeah?" Duke demanded. "And are you going to be around to help us, superhero?"

Tony raised an eyebrow and smirked. "You still don't get it, do you? You don't need me - you already have a whole town full of superheroes!"

~~~~~

The small group was somber as they stood in Lewis' garage outside the transporter.

Tony shook Duke's hand, then pulled him in for a man-hug. They clapped each other on the back.

Then it was Audrey's turn, a hug and even a kiss.

"Thank you," she whispered, tears in her eyes. "For everything."

Tony shrugged. "I didn't do anything," he said. "I'm just glad I was able to help out with some of the Troubles while I was here. Maybe Stark will be able to help you even more, once he gets his feet under him."

Audrey nodded. "He won't be you, though."

"No one else is," Tony agreed smugly then turned to Nathan.

Nathan stood with his hands tucked high under his arms, protecting himself from the world and everything in it. The most sensitive of the bunch, Tony thought, himself included.

Tony held out his hand.

Nathan hesitated, then reached out and grasped it. He bit his lip at the sensation, and Tony pulled him into a man-hug as well.

"Take care of that girl," Tony whispered in Nathan's ear.

"With my life," Nathan vowed.

Tony released him, then took a deep breath and stepped into the machine. With a final glance and a nod good-bye, he closed and locked the door.

He stood in the small space, lit only by the glow of the computer screen and the arc reactor embedded in his chest. With another deep breath he keyed in a sequence on the keyboard, then pressed enter.

And the world went black for Tony Stark.

~~~~~

Epilogue

The first thing Tony noticed was the pain.

Every bone in his body hurt, and every inch of skin felt like it had gone through a cheese grater.

And he was cold.

He could hear voices, but he couldn't quite make out the words. It hurt too much to think and he began to gratefully slide back into the blackness, when -

"Tony! You let me by, or so help me I'll use all the might and influence of Stark Industries to make your life a living hell! Tony! I can see him! I know he's over there! Now let me by!"

He forced his eyes open, wincing and squinting against the bright lights that seemed to be everywhere, his eyes tearing.

He muttered, "Pepper?"

He turned his head, searching like a newborn kitten, his eyes squeezed shut against the glare.

"Pepper?" he muttered again and wondered if he'd simply imagined her voice.

He felt more than saw her fall to her knees beside him. He forced his eyes to open a little wider, and saw her, blurred and swimming through the prisms of his tears, and he blinked, desperately wanting to see her.

"Pepper," he breathed as she grasped his hand and lifted it to her cheek, her lips, her tears scalding his knuckles.

She sniffed out a chuckle and said shakily, "Leave it to you to make an entrance. And naked, no less. The tabloids are going to have a field day." She leaned closer and whispered, "I knew you'd come back to me."

Tony smiled, and stroked his thumb across the back of her hand.

* * * * *





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"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need...fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

"Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little --"

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

"So we can believe the big ones?"

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

-- Susan and Death in Hogfather by Terry Pratchett

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"And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based."

-- Lord Vetinari in Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

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They thought the Library was a dangerous place because of all the magical books, which was true enough, but what made it really one of the most dangerous places there could ever be was the simple fact that it was a library.

-- Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

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As a wizard, it was something that Ponder had only before encountered in acorns: a tiny soundless voice which said, yes, I am but a small, green, simple object - but I dream about forests.

-- Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett

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In the 24th century, there will be no hunger. There will be no greed. And every child will know how to read.

-- Gene Roddenberry, as repeated by Jonathan Frakes in the documentary How William Shatner Changed the World

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We've got two lives, one we're given and the other one we make
And the world won't stop, and actions speak louder
Listen to your heart, and what your heart might say
Everything we got, we got the hard way.

-- Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Hard Way from the album Come On, Come On

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Cause when they own the information, oh
They can bend it all they want.

-- John Mayer, Waiting on the World to Change from the album Continuum

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Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, "I'll try again tomorrow."

-- Mary Anne Radmacher, as seen in Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Tales to Inspire

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I never loved the soldier
Until there was a war.
Or thought about tomorrow
'til my baby hit the floor.
I only talk to God
When somebody's about to die.
I never cherished freedom
Freedom never cries.

-- Five for Fighting, Freedom Never Cries from the album Two Lights

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It may sound absurd: but don't be naive
Even heroes have the right to bleed
I may be disturbed: but won't you concede
Even heroes have the right to dream

-- Five for Fighting, Superman (It's Not Easy) from the album American Town

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Had a dream last night took a time travellin' ride
Back to my childhood where those monsters reside
They snack on innocence and dine on self-esteem
But I like to be in touch with what makes me scream
Vampires, mummies and the Holy Ghost
These are the things that terrify me the most.
No alien, psychopath or MTV host
Scares me like vampires,mummies and the Holy Ghost.

-- Jimmy Buffett, Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost from the album Fruitcakes

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"I want to believe that... the dead are not lost to us. That they speak to us... as part of something greater than us - greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen, to what's speaking, it can give us the power to save ourselves."

-- Fox Mulder, The X-Files from the episode The Truth, pt. 2
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