This is How Childhood Neuroses Develop
February 2, 2017
“What ‘cha doin’ there, Tony?”
Tony paused for a fraction of a second and acknowledged to himself that he should have locked down the lab. It was an oversight, one that he regretted, but needed to learn from. His therapist was constantly telling him how important that was: learning from regrets. What was upsetting him? Darcy was in his lab, sounding knowledgeable. Was there anything he could have done to prevent that? Obviously, lock the lab. Could he do that in the future? Yes, in the future, whenever he was attempting to override medical directives, he would batten down the hatches.
And Rhodey said therapy wasn’t helping Tony. Clearly he knew nothing about Tony’s unplumbed depths. They were totally being plumbed. In a healthy, non-sexual way that was both appropriate and consensual. Consensual between Tony and his torn psyche. He had checked. Multiple times. In fact, Tony did a brief inner assessment. Yep, still on board with baby steps to keep him from spiraling downward into an early, watery grave filled with alcohol, high blood pressure, and the nightmares of all of his failures. Reflection complete, he went back to his work.
“Really think that’s the smart play here?”
Oh yeah, definitely should have locked the lab.
He flipped down his welding mask and fired up the plasma torch. “What’s that, Lewis? I can’t hear you over the sound of ultimate freedom over here!” He grinned in satisfaction at the first popping crack on his cast. His arm twinged a little underneath, but it was bearable with the painkillers he was on. This, like so many things that came out of his mostly damaged but still brilliant mind, was an amazing idea. In mere moments he would be loosed from the confining monstrosity Cho had put on his arm and then he would be able to fit into the Iron Man suit. It was already powered up and waiting for him, flight plan ready to go. Just a few more inches to get his wrist free and then –
The torch blew out abruptly. Tony flipped up his mask. “What the fuck, Lewis?” She wouldn’t, but she did, the traitor. That’s what happened when a perfectly okay person started dating Captain Spacious Thighs, they became traitorous. Darcy stood there with one hand on the controls for the torch fuel tank, a frown on her big mouth like he was in trouble. Him! She was the one who had broken into his lab – trespassed! And touched his equipment without permission. His equipment was very sensitive, handling by someone inexperienced could result in catastrophe. Fluids could have been sprayed everywhere if she had turned the wrong way. Amateur. Amateur traitor.
“I’m not a traitor, Tony.” Her eyes rolled. Shit. He thought he had that blurting out thing under control. He made a mental note to discuss it at his next session. Ha. Mental note. “You gave me access to the lab so I could bring you contraband espresso from the lobby cafe – which I only do in exchange for at least ten minutes of your undivided attention on Avengers’ matters. So – not trespassing. And I’m not a traitor, I’m doing exactly what you asked me to do. And I quote: somebody has to tell me these things, Lewis. Somebody has to deny me. That’s you, Lewis. That’s you.”
“I never said that,” Tony grumbled.
“Actually, Boss,” Friday chimed in. She was far too chipper. He was certain he had not made her that chipper. Maybe she was rewriting her own code. Rewriting it to irritate him and plot against him with his enemies. Enemies like Lewis. Traitors of a feather. He scowled as Friday, his own creation, continued, “Ms. Lewis’ recitation was very nearly verbatim, not including expletives. I can replay the recording, if it would be helpful.”
“It would not, and stop being such a know-it-all. Nobody likes that Friday. Especially not me. I’m the only know-it-all allowed in my lab.”
“Really?” Darcy raised an eyebrow, drawing attention to her neatly done makeup and the fact that she was wearing contacts. Tony’s eyes narrowed. She had on a skirt and blouse, no jacket, but heels. Low, sure, nothing like the thrombosis-inducing stilettos Pepper wore, but still, for Darcy to wear heels the President would have to be visiting, or something. Tony recalled their last discussion about the current Administration. Maybe not the President. Someone important. Steve’s mom, maybe. If she were still alive. Or Madeline Albright. This information might be useful to get Darcy out of his lab and him back on schedule. He glanced down at the watch on his non-casted arm. Twenty-three minutes until showtime. Tony needed to get moving. Darcy was still talking. “If that is a new rule, you should post it somewhere. Send out a memo or something. And stop trying to get Jane to visit. She’s terrible.”
Sudden understanding slotted into place for Tony. “This is a delay tactic. You’re delaying me.” He pointed at her with the useless torch and slid off of his stool. “I will not be thwarted, Lewis!” He had to do this. It was important. Essential. This was a defining moment for him, for his future, for the kind of person he was and wanted to be and might become. Tony could not let some stupid cast stand in his way. It was all coalescing for him into a maelstrom of emotion and certainty that made him wonder in a distracted part of his brain, is this how Steve feels all the time? Just? True? Righteous and protective and full of the might of right?
“Of course it is a delay tactic, doofus. You don’t seriously think I’m going to let you hop in that suit, do you? I’m not a moron, Tony.”
“You have a degree in political science,” he pointed out quite rationally. “You paid extra money to get an advanced degree from a liberal arts school.” The significance was clear. He tossed aside the torch and stalked over to his tool chest. What he needed was a saw. Small in diameter. Sharp. Precise. High velocity. Water cooled would be best. Ah-
She slapped his hand away from his target. “That’s right, Tony. I studied human motivations and strategic negotiations. And I am really, really good at it. So why is it that you think you are going to win here?”
“Because I have to!” His shout echoed in the lab and it was like all the tension drained out of him. Tony’s legs folded up as if they had forgotten their purpose. His ass hit the cool tile floor and he stared up at Darcy, pleading, “I have to. Lewis, please, this is…it’s not for me. I know you wouldn’t do this for me, but it’s for her, so come on. Please.” He was hopeless, helpless, and furious with himself for caving so quickly. A year previous and he would have been able to hold it all in for days, weeks, before his shell cracked. Stupid therapy. His heart was beating too quickly, his hand trembled against his thigh.
“No, Tony. You don’t.” Her soft denial was a torch to his tinder.
“Yes. I. Do!” He shoved at the tool chest, but it only rolled slowly away from him. “This is it, this is how things die, Lewis! This is how admiration and hope and, and, and everything gets ruined! I have to be there, I have to prove I can be there or it will all be over and I’ll have failed! I can’t fail at this! I can’t! Not when she needs me!” He tried to get up, but couldn’t get any leverage with the cast from his knuckles to his shoulder and the weird way his heart was struggling to get oxygen to his legs.
“I love you Tony, but you are a real moron sometimes.” Darcy kept going, but Tony was having trouble processing. “She needs you, but not like this. Maria is eleven going on forty-two, she can handle a little teasing at school.” It wasn’t about what she could handle, and Tony was still wondering about Darcy, confused now about too many of the women in his life to give him room to think. Was three too many? Three might be too many. One was more than enough to confuse him at any given time. “And you should have expected it. Didn’t you skip, like – all the grades? What’s taking a freshman level math class in comparison?”
“It’s bullying. The research shows that is detrimental,” he mumbled, still trying to wrap his mind around a reality that seemed new and old at the same time. The world had shifted just enough to throw him off balance.
“Researchers need to pull their heads out of their asses. Maria isn’t being beaten up, she’s being verbally condescended to by a bunch of rich snots that think they can make her cry. Maybe they could, if she were like them. But she’s not. Maria knows what real hardship is like, what pain is. Being told you bought her place at that school does not even register for her, trust me.”
“She cried. Last night. Friday told me.”
“Friday told me too, Tony. And Pepper. And you know what I did? I texted Maria to ask if she wanted ice cream. And we talked. She wasn’t crying because someone made fun of her background, she was crying because puberty is a thing and she’s pissed about it. But she’ll get over it.”
His mind was slowly separating and digesting two very different situations. On the one hand, he may have jumped the gun a tiny bit on the Maria front. Being a dad was new. And really, really hard. Enormously hard. Tony had never had to try much at anything in his life, but this, parenting, responsible-ing? It was running uphill everyday and never seeming to reach the top. It was Sisyphus level hard. He knew Maria was getting shit at school. He had discussed a couple of options with Pepper – talking with the headmaster, setting up a play date of sorts with the kids of parents Pepper knew, taking her to fashion week to pick out a new wardrobe. Pep had nixed that last one. But then Pepper had to go to Beijing for the week and Maria was crying in her room and Tony just felt so helpless. His kid was hurting and he needed to do something about it.
At the same time he was going over Darcy’s words. I love you Tony. He could count on one hand the number of people who had said that to him and meant it. Pepper. That was it. Just her. And now Darcy. Because no matter what names he might call her or how she gave just as good as she got, he knew she meant it. Darcy doesn’t say things she doesn’t mean. It’s one of the things he liked best about her. He saw it the first time he read her thesis, before he even met her. She was not afraid to call Tony out on his mistakes and Steve on his rose-colored glasses and Ross on being a dickwad. And after he met her he knew that Darcy would never have considered writing or saying something if she didn’t believe it wholeheartedly. Wholebrained-ly. It made her the sickeningly sweet perfect match for Captain Truth and the American Way. In the same way, he also knew it wasn’t any sort of sexual or intimate feeling – she had Mr. Showgirl for that. If Darcy loved him, it was because she saw something in him that was worth her emotion.
His chest clenched again, tugging on the thin wire that was still wrapped around his sternum where it had been cracked open more than once. Guilt nearly overwhelmed him. Tony knew, knew bone-deep and with every nerve cluster in his head that he did not deserve Darcy. Just like he didn’t deserve Pepper. Just like he didn’t deserve the opportunity he had with Maria. His therapist said that if he couldn’t convince himself of his worth, then he just needed to try to be the type of person those who loved him would want him to be. Better. Closer to whole.
Not a maniacal, stressed-out, over-protective nutcase who tried to cut off his own cast.
“So you’re saying no to the suit?” He tried to breathe normally. In through the nose, hold, out through the mouth.
Darcy sat down on the floor next to him. The silky sleeve of her green blouse brushed against his bare forearm. “I think Iron Man showing up at Maria’s school to threaten the other students might be a bit of overkill.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Tony could see that. His heart was starting to slow down, and he was realizing that, in his fear of Maria not knowing how how much he cared – what he was willing to do for her, he might have been going too far.
“And in my unlicensed medical opinion, your compound fracture probably needs that cast – just sayin’.”
“Yeah,” he repeated. It was kind of aching, underneath where he had taken the torch to it.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t other possibilities, of course.”
“Yeah. Okay. Wait – what?”
“I mean,” Darcy continued, bumping his shoulder with hers and smiling. “I think we can probably come up with something suitably impressive and shaming to high school freshman without completely humiliating your eleven-year-old daughter.”
“Lewis.” Tony stared at her. Darcy was funny, honest, smart, and absolutely vicious about protecting the people she cared about. She was outspoken and demanding about ideals and principles that she held important. Except for her rather off-putting inclination to soft sciences, Tony wondered if he might have turned out just a little bit more like her if Howard had not been Howard. If Howard had been Monty Lewis, and Maria had been Amy Lewis-Fate, maybe Tony would have been a little more Darcy. But then he would have had fewer interesting nicknames for Captain Perfect Union and more googly eyes for Steve and while Tony could admit the man was sexually appealing the idea of-
“Tony,” Darcy interrupted his train of thought, cheeks red and teeth bared in a face-splitting grin, “while I cannot wait to see Steve’s face when I tell him that, we have a window of opportunity here.” She held out one hand, palm up. “Maria’s super-evil-mathletes.” She held up the other hand, “Boback Ferdowsi and some international eggheads are touring SI a few floors down with PR from us and NASA, and he’s just dying to see Jane’s latest research. I mean, if you are cool with it, I could pick up Maria from school on my way out to the training facility with Mr. Ferdowsi. I know Lila Barton has been wanting to invite Maria to a sleepover, so…”
“Thank you, Darcy,” Tony managed quietly. He even held her gaze for a few moments before he had to look away. Pepper would have been proud. He would tell her about it. So she could be proud. And appreciative of all his emotional growth. He had vocalized gratitude, expressed feelings, and made a new friend. Family. Maybe. Quasi-family. Pseudo-familish person.
“Anything for you, Tony.” She bumped his shoulder again and stood up, offering him a hand. “And please, please, for the love of god, get that internal monologue thing internalized before you say something embarrassing.”
“Why, Lewis,” he smiled, it was a little wobbly still, but it was coming back to him, “that’s part of my charm.”