All I Want for Christmas: Shelter
December 27, 2016
“You look nervous.”
“I’m not nervous. Are you nervous? Because you don’t need to be nervous. But it’s okay. If you are. Nervous. But I’m not. Really. Nervous.”
“Do you want to back out? It’s cool if you do. Lots of people do.” She pushed around some tools on the workbench, lining them up carefully.
“Psh. What? Don’t be ridiculous.” Tony needed to make a stand here. He knew that. He looked at the kid and knew that no matter how calm and uncaring she appeared, inside she was dying a little. A lot. Waiting for him to say the right thing. He knew, because that had been him once. A long time ago. Hoping that someone would care, and steeling himself because he knew they wouldn’t. Unfortunately, Tony rarely seemed to know what the right thing to say was.
“I don’t know how to…dad well. Or about…good dading, or whatever. And it isn’t often – never really – that I admit to not knowing something, so take this for the historic event it is, spychanic. I might be…out of my depth here. I…well, I can fucking guarantee I will make mistakes. Like that. Right there. I should say frick, right? Or fudge, or something?”
“How the fuck would I know?” She looked up at him then, really looked, and the worry in her eyes floored him. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I don’t know much about dads either.”
“Oh. Well.” Tony tried to think of something comforting, but it was difficult to be comforting when his own stomach was twisting with the looming weight of responsibility. “What…what do you think a dad should do? I mean, we could come up with a list right? Performance objectives? Metrics? A quarterly achievement review where we could discuss necessary changes or opportunity for growth. That, that could work. I can deal with that. What do you think?”
“Baseball games,” she said softly. There was another long pause, and then she chanced a second look at him. “Or soccer, or something. On tv dads take their kids to baseball games.”
“Oh-kay. I like that. We can do that. Friday, note that down.”
“Of course, Boss.”
“And…we could have a project, or something. Together. So we can talk or whatever and we don’t have to, you know, emote about shit.”
“Communication with ample opportunity for deflection. You are talking my style kid. We can finish the Shelby together, for starters.”
“My friend Abe, his dad doesn’t live with him, but he helps Abe with his math homework, sometimes. And…he offered to get him a hooker, for his thirteenth birthday.
“Um…” Tony vividly recalled his first sexual encounter, and the high priced escort that came with a card from Obie. At the time it had been easily the coolest and most gratifying physical experience of his young life. His therapist had helped him realize there were some very dark undertones to that memory. And not Dark Side of the Moon dark. Manipulative fucking bastard dark. Child predator dark. He did not want to get into that with the kid. Ever. And Pepper would definitely have something to say about it.
Carefully, he answered, “I’m good at math. But, it’s gonna have to be a big no on the hooker. Or gigolo. Or equivalent person. I’ve seen this in movies. Pretty sure I’m supposed to polish a shotgun when dates come to pick you up. Not that I have a shotgun. Would an arc pulsor work? Or maybe a Hulk stun rifle? I think I have one of those lying around somewhere.” He fiddled with his glasses, sliding them off his face and hooking them through the neck of his t-shirt. Trying not to look like he was trying to be casual.
“What…what do you think a good kid does?” All of the tools were in parallel lines, and the kid was pushing her curls behind her ears, only to have them spring out again.
That was an easy question. He ticked off his fingers, “Loves their mom. Doesn’t kill anyone on purpose. Talks to someone if they are considering drugs, suicide, or sex.” He thought for another second. “Or becoming a super hero. That is definitely a parental discussion topic. And definitely not before you are eighteen. No – make that twenty-one. No one should fight Nazis or blow up major cities if they aren’t old enough to drink. Trust me, you’ll want a drink.”
“That’s…that’s it? You don’t want like, good grades or a scholarship to a fancy college or manners or …I don’t know, learning German or something?”
“Uh, grades don’t really measure intelligence that well – and you are ludicrously smart. If you weren’t, I wouldn’t be able to stand talking to you for more than thirty seconds. Plus, you are satisfactory as a mechanic’s assistant. Trainable, which is more than I can say for my infantile robots. And, I don’t know if you know this, but I have more money than God. You don’t need a scholarship since I’m sure Yale could use an international airport. Not that you should go to Yale.” Tony shuddered, “Although it’s better than Brown. I don’t really have manners, so I’ll leave that between you and Pepper. And you already speak a second language, which is cool. And it gives you access to better food than German – have you had Bavarian cuisine? If I never see another heavy sauce it will be too soon.”
“So…” she pulled in a long breath and met his eyes, most of her anxiety smoothed away. In response, Tony felt his own nerves settling. “We’re good?”
“Yeah. I’m good if you are. And, hey, we’ve got Pepper. So if we really fuck, er, fudge,”
“Fuck’s fine,” she interrupted.
“-fuck this up, she’ll straighten us out.”
“Tony. Yeah, Tony’s fine.” He was nodding, finally allowing himself to believe that this might work.
The door to the workshop opened and Darcy Lewis stood there, glaring. “What the hell, Tony? Pepper said she sent you two to get ready, like, an hour ago. The judge is here now to make this official and you look like you slept inside a carburetor.”
“That’s not really,” the kid began hesitantly, but Darcy interrupted.
“Maria, you look adorable. Filthy, but still just cute as a fucking button.” The kid scowled, clearly not liking the comparison. Darcy arched a brow, “Unless you would prefer an image of studied nonchalance? There’s clean clothes on your bed that walk the line between special event and not giving a damn – Darcy approved combo. I recommend washing your face too – but maybe you are going for more of an urban-warfare cosmetic situation. You make that call.”
“Hey,” Tony scowled, “you can’t talk to my kid-person that way.”
“She’s not yours until you sign the papers, Anthony,” Darcy fired back.
“Well, let’s go then.” Tony strode out of the garage, towing his-soon-to-be-daughter behind him. “First lesson about being a Stark, Junior: we set the dress code.”
He had cleared the doorway to the library, where Pepper, the judge, Happy, and Rhodey were waiting before he realized he and Maria were holding hands. It was surprisingly okay. Everyone gathered was staring; Pepper had an indecipherable look on her face. Tony dashed out his signature, handed the pen to the kid, who then handed it off to Pep. The love of Tony’s life was breathing shallowly, but her handwriting was steady.
“Second lesson,” he slung an arm around Maria Aguilar Stark’s shoulders and linked his free hand with Pepper’s, “there’s always a party.” He imagined the hole where his arc reactor had been ached a little less than usual.