The Mechanic, or: Ten Pounds of Crazy in a Five Pound Sack
December 16, 2016
Tony was pissed. Frustrated, angry, and ready to break. Some. Shit. That was the expected result of spending six hours on the phone and in meetings with Senators. Sweet Jesus, save me from politicians. That thought just made him angrier, and he crossed his arms and kicked at the wall of the elevator. He had hired Darcy to take care of this kind of thing. Well, technically, Stark Industries had hired Darcy, which meant Pepper had hired Darcy, which meant the mouthy little wench actually worked for Pepper – until the paperwork was finalized for the new foundation, not him. Which was why when he had told Darcy that, no, he wouldn’t be attending the day’s stupid meetings, thank you very much, she had promptly told him where he could shove it and rescheduled everything for his Tower. His, dammit, so he couldn’t just refuse to leave the building, and then she went and told Steve and Pepper that he had agreed to attend.
He scrubbed his hands through his hair and scowled at the indistinct reflection of himself in the closed elevator doors. For a moment, one fraction of a second, he saw a similar reflection in a shitty mirror in a cave in Afghanistan. It was gone with a blink and his heartbeat returned to its normal resting rate of one-red-bull-and-a-splash-of-PTSD. Fucking Darcy. Setting up all those meetings and then tattling on him for trying to get out of them. It was like she expected him to shirk responsibility for his own massive fucking mistake. A series of massive fucking mistakes. An avalanche of them. Pftf. He left out a huff.
And then Pepper, dropping by his official, unused office on one of the SI floors of the Tower, looking delectably untouchable in her grey blouse and charcoal pencil skirt. Her shoes made her a good five inches taller than him and he wanted to hate her for looking down her nose expectantly and asking if she should have someone send up an espresso before she went to her own office where real, boring, grown-up work was done. Like he was a recalcitrant boy who needed a bribe to make him behave. It was a cheap bribe too. And Steve, sitting across from him in a reception chair in his own damn office, looking tall and earnest and fucking sincere as if it didn’t bother him at all to listen to jackass politicians who had skewered him, shield and all, on the news. As if he wasn’t amber-waves-of-grain level disappointed in Tony for his huge fucking screw-up with the Accords. With Ultron. With Mandarin and Extremis and Pepper and fucking Stane and the whole goddam military complex. Sitting there and using his take-no-guff-from-you-ma’am voice on the Chairwoman for the Judiciary Subcommittee when that snotty woman from Nebraska, of all completely useless places, had suggested that Tony might be trying to buy legislation. As if Tony hadn’t purchased more expensive things with less thought and hassle. Steve narrowing his eyes like he really wanted to defend Tony. Like it was second nature. Like they were fucking friends. Like Captain Stalwart Defender of Civil Rights wanted to be his friend.
He kicked the elevator doors again, just to hear the put-upon noise that Friday would make. Well, the joke was on them. Darcy could think what she liked, but he hadn’t shirked responsibility and he knew it was all his fault. He knew it, so she could go suck an egg. And Pepper’s plans to admonish him had failed miserably. He didn’t hate that she towered over him in her tight skirt and her narrow stilettos when he remembered – exactly – every time she had worn them and with what and to where and how great her legs always looked in them and the way it made her ass even perkier. He loved espresso, goddammit. And he had wanted some, thank-you-very-much, so it wasn’t a stupid bribe and he didn’t resent her. He fucking loved her.
That internal admission almost brought him down from his righteously awesome and completely deserved fury tantrum. The silent opening of the elevator doors revealed the dark and empty glass of Banner’s lab at the end of the hall, opposite his own brightly lit sanctum, and pushed him back up – cresting a wave of depression.
And Steve. With his all-American steel jaw and ‘no ma’am, I did not hear you correctly as I cannot believe a Senator would ever speak to a genuine hero like Tony Stark that way’. Steve hadn’t fooled him. Tony saw through all that nice bullshit and getting along for the greater good baloney. He knew he wasn’t forgiven. See the aforementioned observation on Darcy and his monumental effort to own his mistakes, because he was totally owning that shit. And Steve knew he was owning it. They both knew that the whole fucking situation was his fault and that there was no reason, no reason what-so-fucking-ever that Steve or Clint or Sam or even that new Ant guy should forgive him. And Jesus, Wanda –
His brain swerved away from that line of thinking, making an inner monologue u-turn so fast his cerebellum nearly got whiplash. No matter how much Steve stood up for him and defended his dumb-ass, completely genius-sounding-at-the-time ideas, Tony knew Steve didn’t forgive him. He couldn’t possibly. Steve didn’t want to be friends. Why would he, anyhow? It wasn’t like they had anything in common. Tony had heard that often enough as a kid. Or maybe not heard – but it was strongly implied. Howard Stark’s fervor for finding Steve Rogers and protecting the legacy of the ‘best of all of us’ was outmatched only by his complete and utter disappointment in his own son. And Tony was fine with that. He enjoyed being a self-centered billionaire genius philanthropist (former) playboy. Steve never did anything fun. Guy hadn’t even managed an actual date since he had left the ice. Tony snorted, glaring at his own shop. Probably never had a real date, not one that Steve’s bestest-most-awesomest-murderer-forever-friend hadn’t set up for him. Tony was way cooler than that. He had toys, dammit.
With a wave of his hand the glass doors to his shop slid open and Tony stalked over to his nearest workstation. He poked at the open hologram design for a miniaturized optical camera lens that was only 20 mils thick. He could do better, but not today. He turned away and strode toward the half-disassembled Shelby Cobra that still needed to be stripped down to the frame. Today wasn’t for making things. It was for breaking things. Like the Accords. And Captain Old Man Pants –
Tony frowned. That one was too easy.
Captain Underpants –
Nope. He had used that one already this morning.
Captain Mama’s Boy –
That was low, even for him. The woman was dead.
“That one sounds kind of badass. If you’re going for that, great, but I think you want something a little more, ya know, ignominious.”
Tony almost yelped at the sudden voice, emanating from somewhere under the Shelby. He didn’t, but he did clutch at his chest a little and try to will his heart down from Loki-in-his-closet-with-aliens to two-red-bulls-and-a-not-so-healthy-splash-of-PTSD. He glared at DUM-E, who was helpfully offering a juice box to whomever was working on his car and reminded himself to reprogram Friday. It was ridiculous that she was miffed about the elevator kicks and so didn’t let him know he had a guest. Interloper. Intruder.
“How much of that did you hear, spychanic, and how did you get in here?” He very deliberately did not ask how much he had said out loud, unwilling to add talking to himself to his list of potential psychic break indicators. He leaned over the engine block. Through the gaping hole where the intercooler and manifold used to be he could see a small, brownish face and too-large protective goggles. The spychanic was clearly a child-type creature. Small, and generally considered to be less dangerous than the fully grown human versions. He refused to be fooled into letting down his guard. “And like you know what ignominious means. You’re like, eight.”
“”Ten,” it, she, corrected as she rolled out from under the car and stood up. “And your implication,” she sneered that word, “that I am an idiot is degrading. Which is a synonym for ignominious, in case you were wondering.” Her face wasn’t actually brownish so much as it was covered in poorly wiped off oil. Her hair, what he could see of it, was tightly curled and mostly shoved under a baseball cap which proclaimed ‘Alliance Sucks’. Tony agreed, but he was pretty sure she wasn’t old enough to have been in on that fiasco of television production criminality.
“It wasn’t so much an implication as an assumption, which you still haven’t proven wrong, by the way. Knowing a few SAT words doesn’t earn you a place at a think tank, okay? Not even one for smallish people. Tell me something useful – ha!” He crowed and pointed a finger at her before she could open her mouth. “See? You can’t. Now who’s an idiot?”
“Whoever decided to drive around with this manifold,” she said dryly. Tony hadn’t known ten-year-olds could do dry. Honestly, he hadn’t known any ten-year-olds. Even when he was ten. She held up the part in one hand and used the other to point out some almost invisible fractures in the casing. Tony hadn’t planned on using the damn thing, he was going to manufacture his own with some new alloys he had been working with, but he hadn’t noticed the damage either.
“Well, what are you going to do about it, smarty-pants?”
Two hours later they were both covered in grease, eating cheeseburgers in the repair pit and debating the merits of chromate conversion coating versus electrolytic passivation while Friday piped the Machine Head album through the shop at a decibel level only slightly unsuitable for still-developing eardrums. That was the AI’s suggestion, not Tony’s or the kid’s. So it caught him by surprise when his impassioned persuasive speech on the importance of cobalt was met with sudden silence broken only by the rhythmic staccato of the very high heels of the very terrifyingly capable Ms. Pepper Potts, CEO and all-around-sexy-lady.
“You’re doing it again,” the kid said around a mouthful of processed meat. “And One: I know who she is, she’s standing right behind you, moron. And B: gross, dude.”
“Apprentice, you are about to be downgraded to spychanic again if you can’t stick to a single ordering system for your lists. And, Ace:” he ticked up his fingers while he spoke, “I knew she was there before you did. Deuce: It is totally not gross. And, Trey: …Uh, give me a second and I’ll think of a third- oh! Cobalt is so making a comeback tour.”
“Deuce,” the kid muttered, “now that’s gross.”
“Tony.” He could feel Pepper’s eyes boring into the back of his head. “Shouldn’t you-” She cut herself off with an abrupt click of her teeth and he wondered if maybe he didn’t turn around she would go away and forget about the kid covered in grease in his shop by the time he went upstairs for supper. That sounded way more suggestive than it should have. Gross indeed. He made a face. There was a huff of laughter and a soft clatter of shoes dropping onto the floor before slim pale feet, the toes painted a livid shade of green, swung over the edge of the pit to nudge against his hip.
“Eins,” she began, “you are thinking out loud again. Zwei: that is only gross if you have a disgusting mind, which you do, but I know you are trying to reign it in. Drei: supper is getting cold upstairs, but I assumed you were missing it on purpose so you wouldn’t have to meet our guest. And, vier: Stark Industries has sunk millions into cobalt contamination clean-up technology, but I would prefer if it didn’t make a comeback, all the same.”
“It’s totally cool, Pep, they use like, a whole different process than they did back in the day. No pollution now.”
Tony held out a fist, the kid deserved it for getting his back on the cobalt thing. She gave him an eyeroll, but didn’t leave him hanging.
“So,” he handed his second cheeseburger, still warm in the wrapper, over to Pepper without looking at her. He wasn’t feeling totally secure about not getting yelled at yet. “You’re on a first name basis with the boss, huh? Angling for a promotion?”
“No way,” the kid crammed several fries into her mouth along with a huge bite of burger and spoke around it. “I ain’t gonna work for the man.” Tony was impressed she didn’t lose any food.
“Technically, she’s the woman – not that gender specific normatives are necessary or encouraged at Stark, but I get that. Gotta let the creative spirit take you where it will. That’s cool. Gives you more time to pursue that personally rewarding but unpaid internship with me.” He could hear the rustle of waxed paper as Pepper opened her burger, and the tension in his shoulders eased. If she was eating slightly suspect fast food with him she couldn’t be too mad.
“Unpaid – dude. That was not what we discussed.”
“Discussions are just theoretical. You need to keep the practical in mind.” He tapped the piece of cardboard he had ripped off of a box of pressured fire suppressant refill capsules. It was covered with his near illegible scrawl in black marker and the kid’s carefully penned cursive amendments. “Check your contract.”
“Knew I should have called my lawyer first.”
“Hey Friday,” he called out, “our guest leave yet or do I need to fake a sudden heart problem to get them gone?”
“Your guest is still at the Tower, Boss. And I would remind you that heart problems are why you are not supposed to consume fried foods.” He stuffed a few french fries into his own mouth. “And red meat only in moderation.” He took a large bite of burger.
“Tony…” Pepper sighed, then let out a small chuckle. “Tony, allow me to introduce you to Maria Aguilar, Darcy’s Little Sister.”
“Thought Darcy was an only child.”
“The mentoring program, not the relationship, dummy.” DUM-E whirred and tried to hand the kid a juice box. “Would you cut that out!” she yelled. “I don’t want a stinking juice.” The robot whirred sadly and backed away.
“At least it’s not a fire extinguisher,” Tony tried to mollify her.
“Well,” Pepper had the Tone of Finality in her voice, and Tony felt the tension creep back into his shoulders. He was eighty percent sure he was going to get yelled at. “I think it’s time to call it a day, Maria. Why don’t you head up to the penthouse and get cleaned up? Friday has the movie we agreed on ready to go as soon as you have showered and changed.”
“Sweet.” She wadded up her food wrappers and made a neat shot into the nearest wastebasket. Soda in hand, she scrambled on top of the wheeled stool she had claimed for her own and crawled out of the pit.
“But we haven’t had dessert yet!” Tony grasped desperately at anything that would keep the child-buffer present and delay the forthcoming ass-chewing. DUM-E perked up and held out the juice box. “Not that, idiot. The other thing! The pudding cups!”
“We have pudding cups upstairs, Tony,” Pepper reminded him gently. “And those chocolates Warren sent over for the stock trade.”
“Nice,” the kid gave U a high five and strolled out of the shop, hitching up her jeans as she walked. Tony turned to watch her go, noting that she had ripped the hems out of both legs, probably from walking on them. The change in position brought him directly in front of Pepper. There was no getting around it. They were going to Talk. And he had done so good lately. Since he and Pepper had gotten back together, there had only been three Talks. Three in six weeks was a personal record.
“So, I was thinking we should expand the service elevator. I mean, the one in here is great, but what if I want to move something really big from the garage up to my shop? What if I need to work on, say, a Hummer? Or a tank. I could see a few situations where I would definitely need to work on a tank.”
“Fine. Okay. I was kind of an ass. I admit it. But he was being way too nice, Pep. It was obvious he was just doing it to needle me. And that Senator with the corn cob up her butt? I didn’t even say half of the things I wanted to! Sure, the meeting got cut a little short, but I hit all the highlights on Darcy’s agenda and even Steve said he didn’t want to meet with her again, although I think he was just messing with me and-”
“Tony.” Her eyes caught his, and he was snared. Rich blue so commanding and loving that it almost hurt him to look. “I don’t care about the meeting.”
“You don’t? I mean, why would you, it was smooth sailing. Nothing worth mentioning at all. I was dynamite. They loved me. Genius, remember?”
“Did you really forget that Maria was coming?”
He hadn’t. Not really. He just…chose not to think about it. And he had been so furious and frustrated and upset.
After the meetings were over, he had just wanted to tear something apart, he hadn’t been thinking about the schedule or Pepper’s little sleepover plan. And then the kid surprised him so much that it had taken a few minutes to figure out that the greasy little stick with a mouth worse than Darcy’s was The Guest and by then he was kind of having fun, not thinking about the Accords and Steve and the Colossal Mistake. Christ on a cracker, I am thinking in caps a lot. And that just made him think about Captain Douchecanoe (the kid’s contribution, she was pretty okay) again so he blurted out,
“I’m scared he won’t want to be friends again. Fuck, that sounds ridiculous. Forget I said anything. Oh, my god. Friday! Wipe that from the record. That does not go anywhere, not your memory banks, not my Hello Kitty diary, not the National Enquirer. Capisce?”
“Tony.” She was still looking at him, and her expression had fallen a little into that sad-Pepper-who-has-needs-but-knows-she-has-to-give-them-up face. Tony hated that face.
“God, Pep.” He pushed himself up on the edge of the pit, one hand on either side of her thighs and trying not to touch her wool skirt with his dirty arms. She met him halfway with a kiss, and when he let himself fall back the tension was gone again. Just gone. Leaving him lax and loose and discombobulated. “I had a reminder set and everything, but I had already met the kid so it didn’t trigger. We were just…having a nice time.”
“You know she isn’t here to be your playmate.”
“And you know this isn’t the kind of decision you get to take back later. I know what I want, Tony, but I won’t do this without you. So if you say no, then it’s a no. And I won’t be mad, I promise. I’ll probably be sad for a while, but that’s okay. We’ll still be okay.”
“You’ve been listening to my therapist again. ’I’m okay, You’re okay’,” he muttered. Tony tucked a loose strand of hair back behind her ear, wishing he could, but refraining from, rubbing his greasy fingers on her cheek. “You’re sure you don’t want to wait on Dr. Vivas – try out all the possibilities?”
“I’m sure. My first appointment was just a couple of weeks ago, and she was pretty clear that everything we have going on reduced the chances enormously, even with her expertise.”
“And if it works?” He held his breath, still not sure how he felt about it, exactly, but certain that Pepper wanted it and he was done holding her back from anything. Even if he didn’t think he deserved it. Even if he didn’t think he should be allowed to be involved. Not with his baggage.
“Then we’ll need to remodel the penthouse to add a bedroom. You’ll like that.” She smiled, and his heart bumped in a pleasantly tingly way against the space where his arc reactor used to be. “Lots of demolition.”
“Then get me a pen and show me where to sign.”
“Tony,” she laughed, “you’ve barely spent an afternoon with her, and now you’re ready to adopt her?”
“I knew I was keeping you after the first five minutes, didn’t I? And I was really hungover then, probably still a little drunk,” he said defensively. “Besides. She knows a manifold from an intake valve, isn’t afraid to get dirty, has Darcy’s sass – maybe more, and you want her. You love her already, Pepper Potts. I can tell when you’ve fallen in love.” Those beautiful blue eyes began to shimmer and Tony leaned up again, a weird crack in his voice that he would swear was dry throat if anyone ever asked. “Who am I to stand in the way of that?”
“You are Iron Man,” she intoned, laughing even as tears fell down her cheeks.
“Semi-retired, we agreed.” He wiped away the wetness with his thumb, leaving a damning trail of black on her skin and not caring. “And who I am is Tony Stark. And I love you. So what you love, I love, that’s proven science.”
“Really?” Her raised eyebrow spoke volumes in skepticism.
“Really,” he confirmed. He hoisted himself up out of the pit, picked up her shoes and stood before offering her a hand. She took it without even looking for a rag to clean him with. “I’m a genius, so I know about these things.” She made a scoffing sound, but walked with him toward the door. “I’m not sure I can call her…” he swallowed, “Maria. Not yet.”
“You can check with her, but I think the two of you can come up with something. She is pretty creative.” Pepper threw him a side eye. “Captain Douchecanoe, really?”