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Respite: Taking Out the Trash

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Pepper has Tony Stark's sleeping habits down to a science. She enters the Stark mansion at precisely 6:00 every morning. By precisely 6:02, she can determine: a) did Tony sleep last night, and if so, b) did Tony sleep here last night, and if so, c) did Tony sleep here alone last night? It should be noted that the answer to question c is very rarely affirmative.

This morning, stepping through the doors, she immediately notes the presence of a woman's Asian-style embroidered jacket on the floor of the foyer. She feels almost disappointed; usually, it's not this blatantly obvious. It's almost an insult to her powers of deductive reasoning.

"Good morning, Miss Potts," Jarvis says pleasantly, as is his wont.

"As always," Pepper replies.

Heading toward the staircase, she stops in her tracks and gapes.

The entrance to the basement workshop is open.

Now, this mandates a certain degree of reevaluation. Tony is very, very protective of his toys -- to put it mildly. He's also a careless, unfocused, and frequently inebriated genius. It's not all that bizarre for him to leave the door to his super-secret clubhouse open -- if he's alone in the house. But he never with one of his chickadees about the place. And judging by that woman's jacket strewn so brazenly across the foyer, there is definitely some hot little number upstairs in his bed right now. So what the hell is he doing leaving his favorite secret passageway open for any dumb blonde to stumble through?

It occurs to Pepper that perhaps he is alone, and last night's squeeze simply forgot her jacket when she slipped out. But wasn't Tony at some fancy fundraiser in Las Vegas last night? Assuming he picked this unknown girl up there -- no great stretch of the imagination -- where on earth would she have slipped away to? His private jet's still in the hangar where it landed at just after 2:15 this morning. Pepper checked.

Unless the jacket doesn't actually belong to anyone, and Tony's just fucking with her head, in which case she is going to kick his ass.

Thus bolstered by righteous indignation, coupled by the fact that it is only 6:05am and the idiot teenager at Starbuck's accidentally handed her a decaf, Pepper Potts descends into the workshop.

"Really, Mr. Stark," she says, "I don't see what you could possibly--"

And then she cuts herself off, because the person currently sprawled under the belly of the latest toy (a very shiny red car that Tony spent about twenty minutes enthusiastically describing to her, down to model number and all sorts of mechanical specifications, but which Pepper will only ever think of as "shiny" and "red"), with wrench in hand and a wide variety of other tools scattered about the floor nearby, is not Tony Stark.

In fact, unless Pepper is greatly mistaken, this is the owner of that lovely embroidered jacket.

The girl pokes her head out. "Oh, hey there! Gimme just one second." She ducks back under the car and twists the wrench in a couple of places, then scoots back out again. "Thought that was the problem," she says with an air of great satisfaction. "This is nothin' like the hovercraft my daddy used to fix up, but the parts ain't so different after all."

"How did you get down here?" Pepper demands, aghast.

The girl shrugs. "Had a little chat with your AI system, is all."

"I apologize, Ms. Potts," Jarvis says, somewhat ruefully. "She made a very compelling argument."

"Just explained how I was real handy with a screwdriver and all," the girl adds affably. "Real handy."

"I...see," Pepper says.

The girl grins, bright and friendly. "Oh, I'm so sorry, I just realized, we ain't been introduced." She starts to stick out her hand, then frowns down at it, as though suddenly realizing she's half-covered with oil and engine grease. A light blush colors her cheeks. "And here I ain't half fit for polite company," she mutters. "Anyway, I'm Kaylee. Nice to meet you. Prob'ly shouldn't shake your hand just now, though."

Pepper starts to smile, then catches herself. "Pepper Potts," she says briskly. "Lovely to meet you. Pity there's no time for a chat, but I'm afraid it's time to get you off home. I'll call a car to take you back to...?" She trails off delicately, raising a questioning eyebrow.

"Dunno exactly," Kaylee says amiably, apparently not in the least put off by Pepper's chilly demeanor. "Not sure where I am now, y'see."

Pepper blinks. "Mr. Stark's residence, of course. Malibu."

Kaylee just looks at her blankly.

"...California?"

"Sorry," Kaylee says with a shrug. "I'm not from around here, you might say. Don't seem like we get the luxury of hangin' about any one place for long, these days." There's a shadow behind her eyes, bleak and lost, and then it passes. She plasters on a wide, cheerful grin. "Looks like a real nice place, though."

"Yes, well, I'm sure you got the grand tour," Pepper mutters.

"Didn't mean to offend or anything," Kaylee says hastily. "Sorry to be a bother, I can go now, really. Just lemme tighten up a few bolts first, wouldn't want the engine to fall off next time someone takes her out for a swing." And she ducks back under the car.

Pepper puts her hands on her hips, peering after the girl. "What on earth are you doing down here anyway?"

"Won't be a minute," Kaylee sings out, voice muffled by the machinery. "Don't like leaving a job half finished is all. When I don't have to." After a few more moments, she pulls herself back out again, wiping her arm across her forehead. It leaves a streak of grease, but she doesn't seem to notice. "The way Tony was talking last night, I figured he had to have a workshop stored away down here somewhere. Found it is all."

"But why?"

Kaylee shrugs uncomfortably. Her eyes darken. "Couldn't sleep," she says shortly. "I get...nightmares, sometimes, since -- anyway. Back home, when I get restless and stuff, it helps to find something to tinker with. Her voice softens. "Feels good to be able to actually fix somethin'. Other things...just stay broke, no matter how hard you try."

Her straightforward honesty makes Pepper uncomfortable. She's not supposed to be having this sort of conversation with Tony's one-night stands. "I'm surprised," she remarks dryly, deliberately distancing herself. "I'm sure Mr. Stark would have been more than happy to provide you with something to, ah, 'tinker' with."

Kaylee looks at her blankly for a moment, then bursts out laughing. It's rather disconcerting. "Oh, I'm sorry," she manages between giggles. "I didn't even realize -- but oh, of course that's what you thought!"

Pepper frowns. "What do you mean?"

"Me 'n Tony, we ain't -- I mean, we didn't--" Kaylee flails her hands, giggling. "We was arguin' about mechanics all night, and he finally brought me back here with him to prove a point about something or other, and by then it was real late so he let me crash here. Not that he didn't try," she adds, grinning, "but I already got a boyfriend, and Simon's real understanding an' all, but not that understanding."

Hell has frozen over, it is raining stones, and the earth has flipped on its axis. A woman -- other than Pepper Potts -- has rejected Tony Stark. "You mean you didn't--"

"Like I said, he did make me a certain proposition," Kaylee says with a wink. "I just explained real clearly how I was flattered, really, but it was gonna be in his best interest to take his hands off me if he ever wanted to use 'em again. Also other more important bits." That shadow passes across her face again. "He was just nice to talk to, is all. Nice to spend time with someone without havin' to remember -- well."

Pepper blinks. "So you spent the night--"

"Really, Miss Potts, there is a guest bedroom in this place," Tony says from the stairwell.

Pepper nearly jumps out of her skin, but she recovers quickly. "Well, I know that, of course, but you've never given any indication you're aware of it," she shoots back.

Tony leans decadently against the wall. He's very good at decadent. "Sure I am. That's where Rhodey sleeps when he's had one too many and can't find his way home." He pauses, frowning. "At least, when he doesn't just pass out on the living room floor. Speaking of nothing in particular, what's, um, the girl doing down here?"

"It's Kaylee," Kaylee reminds him, completely unembarrassed. She holds up some sort of engine part gizmo thing and waves it in front of him. "See, I told you it weren't the harmonic balancer! The rocker arm was all busted up and the piston ring--"

"There's nothing wrong with the pistons! Did you even bother opening up the hood? That crank shaft--"

"Look, I know your stuff works different than the engines I'm used to, but you can't ding up the thermal regulator like that and just expect the gears to keep on spinning--"

Pepper shakes her head and physically inserts herself between them and the car. "Mr. Stark, if I might remind you, Obadiah has some Saudi investors coming in at nine and--"

"Yeah, and I'm gonna need a lift back out of here, I think," Kaylee says, giving Pepper a wry smile. "Um, could you just get me to Las Vegas again? I think I can find my way back from there."

"Of course," Pepper says smoothly. "Never let it be said that Stark Enterprises lacks hospitality." She shoots Tony a glare. He grins saucily back at her. "Where do you need to be, Miss, ah, Kaylee?"

"Like I told you before, I'm not exactly sure," Kaylee says, not sounding particularly concerned. "I'll give the captain a call once I'm back in Nevada." She grins. "Forgetting where you've parked your spaceship an' all -- sounds a bits silly, don't it?"

They just look at her for a long moment. Pepper feels a sinking sensation in her stomach, much like that time with Colonel Rhodes' modified F-16 and the secret military base just off Oahu. She hadn't seen Tony for a week after that, and he'd returned with a very wide grin, no trousers, and some rather questionable theories about the many and varied uses of transonic shock waves.

Imminent public relations disaster brewing in three...two...one--

"...spaceship?" Tony says.

"You have a board meeting in forty-seven minutes," Pepper protests weakly, but really, spaceship. She knows she never stood a chance.