Stage Left: Running Through the Forest
October 16, 2016
Laura Barton had never considered herself moody. She was a planner. An organizer. A woman who collected data, assessed a situation, made a decision and never lost her temper. She couldn’t, not and stay married to a spy who risked his life and could never tell her about it. Her husband had missed six of the thirteen Thanksgivings since they had been married. Two of three births. One funeral. Five Christmases. Eleven anniversaries. She had breezed through all of that with a calm attitude and the philosophy that what happened would happen, and if she and Clint were anything good for each other or their children it was because they were true to themselves. For Clint, that meant saving the world. It was the same for her, in a different way. She could do what she needed to do in rural obscurity, and it made Clint’s job possible, so she had no issues with it. She liked raising her children, might have home schooled them even under different circumstance, so that was an easy decision. When Clint was home, he was one hundred percent present. He was a good father, a decent farm hand, and an attentive husband. He was her best friend. Her marriage, although unconventional, was a natural setting for her undemanding nature.
The Tower was not.
Laura tapped her foot as she waited for the elevator to rise. Going to New York after the disaster with the Accords and Clint’s incarceration had been an easy decision. Having Clint’s real name blasted all over the news by that idiot, Ross, meant it was only a matter of time before someone looked into that nice Laura Barton on the farm west of town and wondered about her husband who was so athletic for a salesman and always seemed to be missing when big world events were happening. It was Plan H, after all. Plans C through E involved Phil Coulson, whom she had reached out to but he was unavoidably preoccupied. Plan F only came into play if there was a nuclear attack, and plan G wasn’t an option since baby Nathaniel wasn’t old enough for a smallpox vaccination. So, Plan H boiled down to seeking out Natasha’s last known safe base and camping out until Nat or Clint came for her or another plan was enacted.
Natasha’s last safe base was Avengers Tower. Home of Tony Stark. The idiot who had faced off against her husband. Her husband who had been thrown into a military prison and was currently in hiding. Clint had missed Nathaniel’s first birthday. He hadn’t even video chatted. He always called on birthdays.
Laura tried to remind herself of all the reasons she shouldn’t rip off the ear of a billionaire super hero and slap him with it.
He had given her and her children safe refuge when they arrived in New York – before Natasha had come back.
He provided her lab space for horticultural experiments.
He paid for a gymnastics instructor for the kids, and allowed them access to the Avengers gym so they could burn off energy since it wasn’t a smart idea to go outside.
He looked the other way when Natasha set up an encrypted line so Clint could call his family.
He was financing the rebuilding of huge areas of New York – although she was certain there would be some profit from that in some way.
He designed leg braces for Colonel Rhodes.
Pepper Potts seemed to like him. For some reason.
He saved people and killed terrorists.
Nope. Still a jackass.
She had held her tongue when he had taken it upon himself, unasked, to improve the television in her bedroom so that she could have ‘intimate’ video chats with Clint. Every time she turned the damn thing on the lights dimmed and the soundtrack to a seventies porn started playing. She hadn’t said anything when t-shirts for each of her kids had been delivered to the apartment, all emblazoned with “Team Iron Man”. The door to her office still had, in parentheses below her name and title, “Questionable Taste”. The upgrades to her lab equipment and software that came without instructions, the replacement of most of her wardrobe with designer clothes – only in shades of black and purple, the annoying banjo music that played in the elevator whenever she stepped on, the circus posters that kept appearing on the apartment door. All of that she had taken a deep breath and let slide as the childish outbursts of an emotionally stunted and hurting man.
Friday’s voice came over the hidden speakers as the elevator slowed. “Mrs. Barton,” the Irish lilt began softly, “you appear to be somewhat distressed. Perhaps if you provided me with more information I could assist you without-”
“Distress?” Laura bared her teeth at the ceiling. “You haven’t yet seen distressed.” The doors slid open silently and Laura had the thought, deeply buried in the back of her brain, that Tony Stark should never have allowed her access to the upper floors of the Tower. Genius he might be, but he was still an idiot. And a jackass.
“Stark,” she barked out. She knew he was in the penthouse, she had double-checked his location with Friday before she used the private elevator. He could have taken the stairs or used his suit, but she doubted he feared her that much. His mistake.
“You bellowed?” A hand waved from the depths of a white leather couch. Laura pulled back her arm and chucked an Iron Man repulsor over the back of the sofa. She had played Division I softball in college. On a full scholarship. The resulting sound of shocked pain was satisfying. “What the hell, Barton?”
“Really?” She crossed her arms and watched Tony roll off the sofa and onto the floor, holding a sheaf of papers in one hand and gripping the repulsor with the other. She breathed through her nose to try and reign back her fury. “That is what you’re going with? Sure you don’t want to rethink this?”
“No.” He smiled, but it was the fake, toothy smile he used on tv whenever reporters asked him to comment on the status of Captain America. “Do you want to rethink pegging your extremely generous landlord and boss with his own equipment?”
“I’m a consultant, not your employee,” she responded automatically to an old argument, then paused. “Pegging?” She raised an eyebrow.
He winced. “Yeah, I could have workshopped that a bit more. So,” he limped out of the seating area and into the kitchen, “what’s got you all pissy? The other scientists stealing all the good germination fertilizers? Your apartment have a leaky faucet? Hormones?” He hesitated in the act of pulling a smoothie from the refrigerator and leaned out around the door. His face could only be described as horrified. “You aren’t spawning again, are you?”
“No, Stark. Setting aside how sexist that is, I couldn’t possibly be ‘spawning’,” her mouth soured around the word. “Difficult, since I haven’t seen my husband in the flesh in almost eight months. Wonder whose fault that is? Aside from immaculate conception, it’s not really a possibility. So unless you’ve had some sort of late religious epiphany, maybe you should think a little harder on why I might be pissy.”
For all his genius, Tony actually looked puzzled for a full minute. “It’s…the repulsor? You’re mad about that?”
“Yes, Stark. I am mad about that. I am furious that you would give an unsupervised ten year old highly dangerous equipment! What the hell were you thinking?”
“Uh, I was thinking that he is going to have the coolest science project ever, obviously. All the other kids will be smoked out of the competition when they see his presentation on thermodynamics. Yes, Barton, I know.” he nodded regally. “You’re welcome.”
“He is home schooled, Stark. His only competition is his sister.”
“She’s two grades up, he needs the edge.”
“He could have killed himself.”
“Highly unlikely. Third degree burns, at most. “
It was that or launch herself at Tony Stark and literally rip his ear off. Or maybe some other part of his body. Something he actually used that he might miss. She cursed. Loudly. Fluently. Inventively. She cursed his manhood and his parentage. She went on at length in extremely unflattering terms about his size in general and in specific. She questioned his brilliance, his common sense, and his ability to manage basic, involuntary functions. At a certain point she might have started speaking in tongues. She wasn’t entirely sure what she said, but when she finally wound down, her throat was raw, her face hot, and Tony was standing in a puddle of green smoothie, his face gray.
“You think I’d be a bad parent?”
“What?” Laura was stopped cold with confusion, trying to replay her words. Had she said that? Maybe, but what did it matter? Tony didn’t have kids, displayed an extreme aversion to being in the same room with people under legal drinking age, and had more daddy issues than the Playboy Mansion.
“You’re a great mom. Your kids have the worst possibilities before them, but they are smart – not geniuses, obviously – but well-adjusted. They’re…they’re nice, for kids. The girl chats with all the security guards. They love her. Boy Barton helped an old guy who dropped his briefcase in the lobby last week. They call me sir or Mr. Stark. Their dad is a wanted criminal because I – I – and if you can keep two human beings from growing up to be insane narcissistic whiners through all of that, then you’d know, right? And the baby is – well he drools a lot.” Tony’s words were speeding up, the color draining even further from his face. He squashed his hand full of papers against the counter and with the other rubbed at his chest. “You’d know,” he repeated, letting out a laugh. Laura thought he might have been trying to play it off as a joke, but he sounded awful. “You can tell those things, you can see, just by looking, can’t you? You look at me and you can see all the terrible shit I would do to a kid. I’d destroy them, or worse, make them like me and why wouldn’t I? What the hell do I know? Howard-” He made a strangled sound and an abortive turn to leave. His shoes slipped in the spilled smoothie and his hip banged against the cabinets.
“Stark,” Laura began, watching him fight for balance. His back was to her, bent slightly. She could hear him struggling to breathe. “Tony.” With quick strides she crossed the room until she was right behind him and pressed her palm against the middle of his back. He startled, but did not turn.
“Tony,” she said again, softer. She spoke carefully, trying to search out just the right words to soothe a panic attack that had been a complete surprise to her. And perhaps to him too. “I was mad. A lot of what I said isn’t true, or was an exaggeration.”
“Or anatomically impossible,” he murmured.
“Yes,” she chuckled with relief. If he could joke, he couldn’t be too bad off. She pulled her hand back, but didn’t move away. Gradually, he got his breathing under control. “Do you want to be a parent?” Laura bit her lip while she waited for an answer.
“No. Maybe. Yes. I mean, Pepper asked and I said no.” He hesitated, still not turning, “But then I thought about how she does what I want, and she wants this so badly. And I thought I could do this. If that’s what Pepper wants, I should be able to do it.” He let out a harsh laugh, “I had a great example of what not to do, I should just do the opposite of Howard and it will all be fine, right?”
Setting aside the world-altering knowledge that Tony Stark might be planning on reproducing, Laura tried to focus on the fear. She knew fear, she felt it everyday. She saw the nightmares and the guilt and the terror that gripped her husband when he came home from a mission. Clint had been worried too, before Lila was born. Life on the streets and in the circus was not standard training for fatherhood. She could imagine what Tony was going through.
“You just…you just know, Tony.” It was hard to put into words, so she leaned against the counter behind him, staring at the green ooze that was soaking into her shoes. “When I was on the way to the hospital for Lila, I freaked out. I was twenty-three, in debt up to my eyeballs, working on my Master’s and Clint was out of the country. I actually pulled my car over to the side of the road and got out to puke from nerves. I was certain, absolutely certain, that I could not do this. That I had made a terrible mistake and I didn’t know anything about how to raise another human being.” Laura got lost a little bit in the memory.
“What happened?” His soft question surprised her. Tony was not the type of person who was generally interested in the experiences of others.
“Contractions happened,” she answered with a wry smile. “That was scary enough that I got my ass back in the car and drove to the hospital. Fourteen hours later, they handed me this scrawny little red thing. And I knew. I could do this, I would do this. Because I had to. It’s amazing Tony, what you can do if the alternative is unacceptable.”
“So that was it? No more fear? You just knew?” He was scoffing, verging on angry.
“Fuck no.” Laura laughed. Her head fell back and all the tension of the day fell away for a few moments. “I feel completely useless and ninety percent unprepared at least twice a day. I’m sure at least three times a week that I am a failure as a mother and a person. But then they do something – something amazing, Tony. They build a photocell, or write a poem, or help an old man pick up the things he dropped. They smile, and then you just…you just know.”
He straightened, pulling away from her and shuffling the wrinkled papers on the counter. His breathing was even, and his quarter profile was a more normal color. Laura continued, “Is Pepper pregnant?”
“She, we, have some issues there. She wants, I want for her, I want…I’m looking for a specialist.”
“I’m sure you’ll find someone perfect. The best in their field, no doubt.”
“Yeah. Yes. Yes.” He picked up his papers and threw a grin over his shoulder, back to his usual self. “I should get on that. There is a lot to sift through, I won’t let anyone more than fifteen IQ points lower than me work with Pepper. Or, God forbid, someone who went to a state school.” He gave a mock shiver and whispered, “Or Brown.”
“Okay, Stark. Sounds like you have a plan. Just, no more giving my kids stuff without asking me first.” She quickly amended to close any loopholes, “Don’t give them anything worth more than twenty dollars without asking me first.”
He waved her off and began to walk away, leaving sucking green footprints across the floor. “Yeah, whatever. Fine. You’ve got this, right? Thanks loads, Barton. Ta-ta!” He was in the elevator and the doors had closed before his meaning sunk in. Her feet squished in her soaked shoes, a puddle of warming smoothie threatening to stain the marble.
Laura Barton was not a moody person. She was not temperamental, or irritable, or prone to flying off the handle. Tony Stark made her a changed woman.
“Fucking jackass!” she screamed at the empty penthouse.
“Yes, Mrs. Barton,” Friday agreed with a put-upon sigh.