“Tony, Child Protection Services have been trying to get a hold of you all day,” are Pepper’s opening words as she lets herself into the lab, and Tony doesn’t even bother to look up from the armour for Cap that he’s doing some final alterations to (because the guy might be a superhuman, but the armour that SHEILD supplied him with was a joke), and he twists Steve’s arm around a little to get just the right angle.
“I don’t have any illegitimate children out there, and if they’re claiming I do, then I demand a paternity test,” he answers immediately, twisting a bit of wiring to get it into place and then moving onto the next bit, ignoring the disapproving expression he can feel Steve sending him from above.
“Tony, someone could tell me that you had an army of biological children out there, and I would not be surprised in the slightest,” Pepper says dryly, but goes on before Tony has a chance to say anything about that outrageous comment. “But they’re not calling to tell you you’re a father – they’re calling about an orphaned boy.”
“Uh, okay,” he says, reaching blindly for his screwdriver and narrowing his eyes at a screw that’s not sitting right. That’s… unexpected. The CPS thing, he means, not the screw. Screws are notoriously finicky, the little shits. “Uh, sad that the kid’s an orphan, and all, but they’re calling me… why?”
“Well, that’s just it,” Pep says, and the frown is audible in her voice. “His family was killed in a car crash, and when they asked him if there was anyone he could stay with… he gave them your name. He says you know him.”
And that, that is enough to get Tony to look away from his work, because there’s probably a sum total of (and he’s being generous here) fifteen adults that Tony actually knows by name – actually bothers to take the time to remember, as opposed to just forgetting them the moment he’s no longer talking to them and simply relying on Pepper to give him the SparkNotes version of who they are if ever he has to speak to them again – and Tony interacts with a lot more adults than he does children.
“Okaaay,” he says, and thinks that it’s probably some random kid he signed a poster for once who’s hoping to be adopted by Iron Man. “Not likely, but whatever. Who’s the kid?”
Pepper glances back down at her notes.
“Harley Keener,” she says.
Tony falls off his chair.
Thank goodness for supersoldier reflexes, is what Tony would think if his entire brain weren’t currently focussed on what Pepper just said. Or maybe, this is why we shouldn’t perch precariously on the edges of chairs while we’re working.
“Woah,” Steve says sharply, somehow managing to lurch forward in time to catch Tony before he literally face-plants into the floor of his lab. Pepper makes a noise of surprise and starts forward in concern, but Tony barely even registers any of that as he stares up at Pep, stunned.
“Please tell me you did not just say that Harley Keener’s been orphaned,” he says urgently, barely even registering Steve’s hold, hoping against hope that he’s misheard Pepper – that she said someone other than Harley, that –
But Pepper’s looking at him with wide eyes and saying, “Yeah, that’s what it says – I – wait, so you do know him?”
“Shit. Shit,” Tony says, getting his knees under him and scrambling to his feet, not even hearing Pepper’s question. “What – shit, what happened?” he demands urgently, reaching out and snatching the tablet from Pep’s hands, eyes running over the details swiftly – two-car collision; drunk driver; t-boned at an intersection; two casualties; drunk driver walked with minor injuries; fuck, one child hospitalised–
“JARVIS – suit!” Tony yells, dropping the tablet (Pepper catches it, because she’s had years of practice of just catching valuable things Tony’s abruptly lost interest in, but Tony’s not paying any attention and doesn’t even notice) and taking off in the direction of the garage exit, skittering around the tables and chairs and trusting J to get the Suit on him as he moves.
“Might I suggest the quinjet, Sir,” JARVIS says calmly, then pointedly adds, “It has room for passengers.”
Tony skids and changes direction mid-stride, running instead to the lab doors and bolting through before they’re even fully open, and Steve and Pepper are a confused-sounding babble behind him as they rush after him, but he’s barely aware of them until he gets into the elevator and slams the close doors button six times in a row, even though J is already closing them. Pepper and Steve slide in behind him as the doors are closing, both of them making worried faces and babbling worried words that Tony’s not listening to right now, because hospital. The report said hospital. One child hospitalised, what –
He snatches the tablet out of Pepper’s hands again, ignoring her startled yelp and renewed rush of worried words.
Broken arm, it says. Concussion, contusions to torso, possible fractured ribs, lacerations and abrasions to arms and face…
“How long is prep gonna take for the jet?” Tony asks, eyes locked on the list of injuries as the elevator nears the landing pad.
“The jet will be in the air in six minutes, Sir,” JARVIS says, as the elevator pulls to a stop.
Six minutes. Way, way too long. All day, all day, Pepper had said. CPS had been trying to get in touch with Tony all day. And how long had it been before they’d started to call him? They must have been desperate, to even bother trying. All other avenues must have been explored and exhausted first. Tony doubts that any case worker worth their salt is going to be given Tony Stark as a contact by a kid and just believe it. They must have explored other options first. So exactly how long has Harley been sitting in that hospital? Alone, because the kid’s dad isn’t around and his mom and sister are...
However long it’s been, it’s been too long. Adding another six minutes to it is just – that’s not gonna fly. Not to mention that, sure, the jet’s fast, but it’s not fast enough.
“You guys follow with the jet,” Tony says, and there are more words – more worried, confused, noisy babble from Pepper and Steve behind him – but the elevator doors are opening now and Tony’s sliding through them before they’re even open all the way, taking off at a run to the landing pad, where the jet is sitting and humming as it warms up.
Tony runs straight past the jet to the edge of the landing pad and throws himself off the building.
JARVIS catches him with a suit before he’s fallen eight storeys.
Jellico Community Hospital is 24.3 miles and a 38 minute drive from Rose Hill, Tennessee, or 34.7 miles and a 43 minute drive from Campbell County Airport, which is the airport JARVIS says is the closest to JCH.
For an ordinary plane, the flight from New York to Tennessee takes just over two hours, plus more travel time to get from the airport to the hospital; but Tony isn’t in an aeroplane or jet, and he’s certainly not flying at regular speeds or by regular routes, and nor is he going via the airport. All this cuts down on the travel time by a significant amount.
To say that the staff and visitors milling about in the entrance to JCH are somewhat surprised when Iron Man lands – suddenly, heavily, and fifty-two minutes after taking off from the Tower – outside their front doors, and then peels open to reveal a grease-stained Tony Stark would be an understatement.
Their surprise only grows when Stark eels out of the suit before it’s even properly opened, and takes off at a run inside to the elevators, leaving the suit to close itself up behind him and stand there outside the hospital doors, quiet and still like some kind of sentinel.
Tweets are written and photos are uploaded, and there are journalists and news crews grabbing their go-bags and heading out of their offices to make their way to the hospital within fifteen minutes.
Those who are still in the Hospital’s lobby twenty minutes later get another shock when a small jet lands in the taxi bay, folds up its wings, and opens a hatch at one end to allow Captain America and the CEO of Stark Industries to alight in a rush before they both hurry in through the lobby and make their way straight to the elevators. Behind them, the jet unfolds its wings again and gently takes off, apparently un-piloted – and lifts into the air. It flies itself up to the roof of the hospital and vanishes from view.
The first of the reporters arrive fifteen minutes later (the Avengers, later, will be glad that Jellico Community Hospital is so far from everything that it took the journalists so long to get there), set up their mics and cameras, and settle in to wait.
Harley is in Room 464 on the fourth floor (JARVIS hacked the Hospital on the flight over here, and gave Tony not only the room number but the floor plan, too, and the quickest predicted route to Harley’s room, and also all the information on the crash, which was three days ago, Harley’s been an orphan for three days and Tony’s only just learnt about it today), and the elevator ride from the lobby is the longest elevator ride in history.
Ugh, Tony hates hospitals. He always forgets how much he hates them until he’s in one. He doesn’t even know why he hates them so much. It’s not like he’s ever had any kind of traumatic experience at the hands of a hospital, so he doesn’t know why the smell gets under his skin so terribly or why the fact that all hospitals look exactly the same no matter which floor you’re on (or which State, or even country you’re in) rankles so badly.
This floor is exactly like every other hospital floor he’s ever been on, and everyone who notices him stops and stares as he rushes by, scanning room numbers as he goes until he finally spots the one he’s after and skids into the room.
There are people in Harley’s room. A couple of people in nurse’s uniforms, one in a doctor’s coat, and a lady in a slightly ill-fitting business suit, but Tony barely even registers them.
His entire attention is focussed on the young boy (so young, the kid is so young, shit, and he looks so damn small under the harsh fluorescent lights, with all the scratches and cuts all over his face) who’s lying in the hospital bed, arm wrapped in plaster and an expression on his face that Tony would never want to see on anyone, much less a kid; much less this kid, who Tony actually knows and doesn’t actively dislike.
Harley looks up at the noise of Tony entering the room (it was probably really noisy. Tony doesn’t know. He was more concerned with speed over stealth, and he neither knows nor cares how much attention he garnered as he rushed through the hospital), and the kid sucks in an aborted breath and his eyes widen like he’s just been suckerpunched, and he says, “Tony,” and then he throws himself out of his hospital bed.
Tony’s eyes go wide as he lurches forward and catches the kid before he can trip over his own IV line and injure himself further. Somehow, Tony manages to avoid getting hit in the face with a plaster cast, and then he’s kneeling on the floor with an armful of trembling young boy.
“You came,” Harley says into Tony’s shoulder, and the wobble in his voice, the tremor, is real today – not like that day so many months ago with the snow and the stolen car and the faux-heartbroken I’m cold.
“Course I did,” Tony says, and it’s not nearly as much of a scoff as it should be. “What do you think of me, huh?”
And just like that, all of a sudden, the kid’s crying.
His good arm wraps around Tony’s neck and his broken one is between them, the plaster protecting it from being crushed as Harley buries his face in Tony’s neck and sobs.
And Tony – Tony is a lot of things, but emotionally stable is not one of them. He hasn’t cried since he was seven. He didn’t cry at his parent’s funeral. He’d get caught by Howard crying when he was little, and Dad would cuff him around the ear and tell him to stop snivelling, to grow up, that crying was for babies and Howard didn’t want a baby for a son.
(Not the greatest Dad, in hindsight. And quite probably the source of a lot of Tony’s capital-I-Issues, to be honest.)
So of all the things in the world that Tony is in any way qualified to deal with, an orphaned boy suddenly sobbing brokenly into his neck is not one of them.
But he can’t just sit here, frozen with surprise and ineptitude. That’s not how you deal with crying children.
Tony doesn’t know how you do deal with crying children, but he’s, like, 97% sure it’s not by sitting there frozen.
“Uh,” he says, and clumsily wraps his arms around the kid’s shaking frame. How do relatives do this? Is, like, a normal hug ok, or is there some kind of magical I’m-sorry-you’re-in-emotional-agony hug that should be deployed in situations like this? Shit, Tony should have read a manual. Does this kind of situation even have a manual? Someone needs to write a manual.
“Hey, you’re ok,” he says, because that sounds like the kind of thing that someone might say to an upset kid. Except that it’s a total lie and Tony feels like a huge asshole the second he’s said it, because Harley is not ok. Obviously. Aside from the fact that his mom and sister died in a car crash, he’s also scraped and bruised to high hell, and not even counting the cast on his arm, he’s covered in an array of smaller bandages and steri-strips.
So he can’t say you’re ok, or any variant thereof – but he can’t just sit here saying nothing. What is he supposed to say in this situation? You will be ok? How in the hell is that any more truthful than the other lie? The kid’s family just died. It’s gonna be a long time before he’s ok, if ever.
What the hell is Tony supposed to say here? He has exactly no frame of reference for this. When his parents died, Obie clapped him on the shoulder and said bracingly, “Well, there are worse ways to go than in a DOI crash.”
(…Again – not the greatest guy, in hindsight.)
Tony doesn’t even have JARVIS in his ear to give him tips. He is so far out of his depth at the moment, and it’s sort of only hitting him now. But he has to say something.
“I’m here,” he says in the end, because that much, at least, is true. He doesn’t know how much use he’ll be, but he’s here, at least. For whatever that’s worth.
Harley’s one-armed grip tightens and his sobs increase in intensity, and Tony has half a moment to wonder in a panic if that was the wrong thing to say before the two of them abruptly over-balance, and he squawks a little in surprise as he goes over backwards and lands with a thump on his butt, knees bent and legs sprawled to either side, and Harley curled into his chest in a small sobbing ball of misery.
“They’re – they’re dead,” the kid manages between heaving breaths, and Tony feels something in the space where his Arc Reactor used to be twitch in pain.
“I know,” he says, and oh, hey, maybe some of this is instinctive after all, because his arms are tightening around Harley all by themselves, mindful of the boy’s injuries (the words possible fractured ribs flash through his brain). “I’m so sorry, kid.”
He doesn’t know what to say after that, but maybe he doesn’t need to say anything else for the moment? Harley certainly doesn’t seem like he’s interested in saying much else right now – not by the way he curls even closer into Tony, buries his nose into the crook of Tony’s collarbone and keeps right on sobbing, tightening his one working arm even further around Tony’s neck – so maybe it’s ok to sit here in silence for now, on the floor of a hospital room, while the nurses and doctors all stare at them both from the other side of the room.
Yeah, Tony might have forgotten about them?
“Um, hi,” he says, and the assembled hospital staff and the suited-woman all startle slightly, shocked out of their slack-jawed staring.
“Ah, Mr… Stark?” the woman in the business suit says after a moment, sounding like she’s not entirely sure she’s not hallucinating – which, fair, considering the circumstances.
“Yeah,” he says. And then… what. He doesn’t know what to say here either. Geez, he hasn’t been this lost for words since he was a teenager. To be fair, this isn’t exactly how he saw his day going. It’s not like he had time to prepare.
“We… didn’t think you’d come,” the lady in the doc’s coat says, which, again, yeah, Tony can see why they’d think that.
“Well,” he says. “I did.”
“So – you do know Mr Keener after all?” the woman in the suit says, and there’s something in her tone that gets up Tony’s nose a bit, and he can’t put his finger on what it is.
“Yeah, I know Harley,” he confirms, and then gestures with his chin to the kid in question, who’s still clinging onto Tony like an octopus as he tries to expel all the liquid in his body through his eyes. “Obviously.”
“Right,” she says slowly, and then appears to gather herself, drawing her brisk professional attitude back up to shroud her surprise and slight confusion. “Right, well then. We might just – step outside for a bit; give Harley a bit of privacy. We’ll come back in soon.”
And then she shepherds the Doctor and two nurses out into the hall, pulling the door shut behind her, and Tony’s left by himself on the floor of a hospital room with a still-sobbing child in his arms.
Um. So. What does he do now.
This is, wow, yeah, not at all the direction Tony saw his day going in? And now that everything’s settled a little bit and he’s not charging around in a semi-panicked rush (alright, so he was maybe a tad more than slightly panicked) and he actually has a moment to think, he…. finds he doesn’t really want to think. Because what is he doing here? Child Protection Services don’t just call people to ask them around for a cup of coffee and a chat. They’ll have been calling him because Harley needs somewhere to go, someone to look after him. The kid’s an orphan. He’ll need a guardian. He’ll need someone to take him in. That’s what CPS do, that’s what they’re for, they organise guardians for kids who don’t have any.
And, what, they’re hoping for Tony?
They must have been desperate.
Or, well – judging by their stunned surprise at his presence, apparently they weren’t actually expecting him to show, so Tony’s not quite sure what’s going on here? But whatever. They called him. Because who else is there for Harley? His mom is dead, his dad walked out on them all years ago. Tony doesn’t know if they tried the guy and he wasn’t interested, or if they tried the guy but couldn’t find him, but either way, judging by the fact that they ended up calling Tony, it looks like, for whatever reason, the kid’s dad isn’t an option.
And who else is there?
Tony and Harley didn’t exactly go into a lot of detail with their personal lives, back in Tennessee during the whole Mandarin debacle – except for how they sort of did. Because Harley’s mom worked double shifts at the diner, Harley said, and if you’re having to work double shifts at a diner, you probably don’t have the cash to spare for a baby sitter, which isn’t a problem if you’ve got family close by who can look after your kids while you’re at work. But there wasn’t anyone. Because Harley – all of, what, ten? How old is this kid anyway – was the one who looked after his sister. Cooked her dinner. Extorted replacement Dora the Explorer watches out of grounded superheroes.
So obviously there wasn’t family nearby. And that doesn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t family at all – maybe they just lived too far away to offer babysitting services; out of state or something – except that that’s exactly what it means, because no CPS officer worth their salt would bother trying to get in touch with some famous billionaire who has no known ties to the orphan in question if there’s some convenient aunt a couple states over who’s an option instead. If there’s anyone else who’s an option instead.
All of which tells Tony that he’s it. Because he’s not going to kid himself – when it comes to “Who’d be the best guardian,” Tony, if he even made the list at all, would take very last place. Everyone knows that Tony can hardly be trusted to look after himself, much less a child. Which means that if they’re turning to him, there is literally no one else.
Which means that Harley goes with Tony, or he goes into the system.
And, that – holy shit that’s, actually, yeah, nope, too much to think about right now, way too much; too much weight, too much responsibility, too much everything, so Tony’s going to employ his most favourite tactic of ignore the problem until it goes away and just… deal with this later. When some kind of outside force forces him to. Because right now he’s got a still-sobbing child in his arms, and his panic and indecision is going to have to wait, because Harley’s crying into his neck because he’s lost his entire family and he’s just a kid, so he comes first right now – he comes before Tony’s freak out about what he’s going to do or not do.
Tony scoots back until he can lean against the wall, shifts around a bit until he’s as comfortable as he can be whilst sitting on a hard tiled floor, resecures his arms around the kid, and casts his mind to the specs and plans for the new set of Widows Bites he’s planning for Nat and begins to mentally refine them, tweaking this and casting aside that, because work is calming, work is soothing, and work will keep him from panicking about this situation that he’s unexpectedly found himself in.
The minutes roll by, and at some point he starts humming under his breath as he rolls the plans for the Bites around in his head, because he’s always worked best to music and it helps him focus, and Harley’s sobbing slowly starts to taper off, starts to settle, and it’s several long minutes later that the kid sniffs a final time and shifts slightly but stays mostly where he is, curled into Tony’s workshop-stained tee.
“Is that ‘Iron Man?’” the kid asks, somehow sounding incredulous and yet also totally unsurprised, which is an interesting sound when mixed with the stuffy nose and the hoarse throat of someone who’s been crying for the last fifteen minutes.
Tony blinks down at the kid in genuine surprise.
“You know Black Sabbath?” he asks, because nope, he was not expecting that.
“Trust you to be singing ‘Iron Man,’” Harley says, and draws away sniffing and rubbing the back of his hand over his eyes and nose in an attempt to dry his face.
“I was not singing,” Tony says, affronted. “I was humming. There’s a difference. And ‘Iron Man’ is a great song.”
“Whatever,” Harley scoffs, sitting back on his heels, and then shifts, awkward and shy and embarrassed all of a sudden as he looks down at the tiled floor and itches absently at his ear. “Um. Thanks. For – you know. Coming.”
Tony reaches out a hand and scuffs the kid’s hair gently.
“I came as soon as I found out,” he says, because it’s important that Harley knows that – important that Harley doesn’t think that Tony heard but then didn’t bother coming straight away. He doesn’t know how long Harley’s been asking for him, but he knows that CPS were trying to get in touch with him all day (Pepper’s voice saying those words are going to haunt him for years), and he needs Harley to know that he only just found out.
“They weren’t gonna call you,” Harley says, picking gently at the edge of the cast on his arm. “They didn’t believe me, when I said I knew you.”
“Yeah, I’m not surprised,” Tony says. “I’m hardly known for being on first name basis with kids, after all. How’d you convince them to give me a try?”
Harley’s lip curls a little at the edge in a shadow of an amused smirk.
“I promised them that if they called you and you said no, that I’d go wherever they sent me and not complain. But I told them that if they didn’t even try you, that I’d run away from every single place they sent me and try to get to New York by myself. They believed that, at least.”
Tony blinks, and then barks a startled laugh.
“I guess that’s one way of doing it,” he says, and Harley finally looks up to send him a hesitant smile.
There’s a knock at the door, and a second later it opens, revealing the woman in the business suit who Tony now assumes is from CPS, and the woman in the Doctor’s coat.
They’ve been just outside the whole time Harley was crying – Tony’s been aware of one of them checking through the glass in the door every minute or so, keeping an eye on the situation inside the hospital room and waiting for Harley to calm down, and – oh, apparently Steve and Pep arrived at some stage in the last few minutes too, because there they are, entering just behind the Doctor and the CPS lady, expressions of mingled curiosity, confusion, and wariness on their faces.
Harley gasps quietly when he sees Cap, who’s still in the mostly-finished suit Tony was working on before the news about Harley came through.
“Captain America – Mister Rogers, Sir,” he says, attempting to scramble to his feet as quickly as he can with one busted arm and several busted ribs; Tony stands as well and catches a hand under the kid’s elbow, helping him the rest of the way up and holding him steady when he staggers a little sideways.
“Pepper, Cap, this is Harley,” Tony says, waving a hand in introduction and moving his hand from Harley’s elbow to between his shoulder blades. “Harley, this is the light of my life, Pepper; and Mr Spangles himself, Steve.”
Harley looks like he doesn’t know whether to salute, bow, or try to hug Cap, and Tony bites the inside of his cheek to keep from chuckling under his breath.
“Heya, Harley,” Cap says, and the curious-confused-wary expression he’d been sporting when he walked into the room is deliberately smoothed over and replaced by the one Tony calls his Stars-n-Stripes face; the one he wears when he’s meeting and greeting his adoring fans.
“It’s good to meet you,” he says, holding out his hand – Harley reaches back and shakes Captain America’s hand with an awed expression on his face, like he can’t quite believe this is happening.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your family,” Steve says sincerely, sorrow pinching at the corners of his eyes and his mouth, and Tony tries not to wince.
Harley pulls his hand back and takes half a step backwards towards Tony, pressing his lips together in a firm line. He’s trembling, Tony realises. The shoulder-blades under Tony’s hand are quivering as the kid tries to keep himself together. Tony presses his hand more firmly into the kid’s spine, and Harley leans into the touch.
“Yeah,” the kid says hoarsely after a moment, and Steve pulls an apologetic expression and takes a step back.
“Hello Harley,” Pepper says warmly, stepping forwards and holding out her hand expectantly, a pleasant smile curving her lips, and Tony could kiss her, because what Harley needs right now is a distraction, not to be reminded about his family, and meeting and greeting a pretty lady will do for now.
Harley blinks blankly for a moment, apparently only just now registering her presence properly (not surprising; Steve in a Cap-suit tends to be the most eye-catching person in a room), and then the kid says, “Ms Potts!” with a level of enthusiasm that surprises Tony, who blinks down at him in bemusement.
“You’re – wow,” Harley says, reaching out his hand again to shake hers enthusiastically. “You’re – I know all about you, you’re amazing.”
Pepper laughs lightly, charmed.
“Am I?” she asks, and Harley nods at her, eyes huge in his face.
“You’re the CEO of Stark Industries!” he gushes. “I wanna be the CEO of Stark Industries when I grow up.”
Tony barks a surprised laugh.
“Do you just?” he asks, grinning down at Harley, who twists enough that he can send a bright smile up at Tony.
“Well, I mean – obviously I wanna be the Head of R&D first, though,” he says cheekily, and Tony chuckles and takes a swipe at the kid’s hair.
“Obviously,” he parrots, grinning. “Those are some pretty decent career aspirations, kid.”
Harley grins back and shrugs, and Pepper – smiling warmly at the kid’s enthusiasm, if still with an element of confused wariness about the whole situation – says, “By the way, Tony – JARVIS requests that next time you go rushing out of the Tower, at least remember to grab a comm-unit,” and hands over a little grey earpiece.
Tony sure could have used this half an hour ago, while his neck was being weeped into by a distraught child and Tony was wondering about whether there were any manuals for this kinda thing.
“JARVIS, buddy,” Tony greets as he twists the earpiece into place, only for Harley to spin around with an excited expression.
“Can I say hi!” the kid demands, at the same time that JARVIS says, “Sir. I trust you found the correct room with no issues?”
“I did, yeah, ta bud,” Tony answers, and then, “Hang on a tick, the youth wants to say hi,” and he plucks the earpiece back out again and hands it to Harley, who lifts it up to his ear without hesitation.
“JARVIS!” the kid says, enthusiastic. “Did you get all those kinks out yet? How are the cranberries treating you?” which has everyone in the room pulling expressions of baffled confusion aside from Tony, who chuckles. He’d forgotten about that whole thing.
Whatever JARVIS replies with takes a few seconds and then has Harley cracking up into sniggers.
“He totally would have,” the kid giggles in reply. “I’ll give you back now, but you gotta show me the code later. Yeah. Ok, cool – bye!”
Tony takes the earpiece back with great suspicion.
“What were you laughing at,” he says, twisting the earpiece into place.
“Nothing!” Harley chirps with a too-innocent grin, at the same time that JARVIS says in his ear, “Nothing of concern, sir,” and Tony narrows his eyes.
“You two are not allowed to gang up on me,” he says, pointing a finger at Harley, because he doesn’t know what’s going on, but it feels treasonous. “That is not allowed to happen. I will not have insubordination; not from you and not from him.”
“As if you could stop either of us if we wanted to get insubordinate,” Harley says, cackling again, and actually, in hindsight, Tony shouldn’t have said anything, cause now that Tony’s told them not to, the kid is gonna feel duty-bound to gang up with JARVIS and terrorise Tony.
“You,” Tony says, and points again at Harley, “are gonna be a bad influence on my AI, and I am putting it on record here and now that I disapprove.”
There’s a polite cough that has both Harley and Tony looking over at the woman in the business suit, who’s still standing waiting not-very-patiently next to the Doctor.
“Mr Stark,” she says, pleased to finally have his attention as she steps forward and stretches out her hand in greeting.
Tony pulls his own “meeting the people” smile and reaches his own hand out in return, shaking hers briskly.
“My name is Eleanor Hass – I’ve been assigned to Harley’s case. This is Doctor Whitfield – she’s been treating Harley since his admittance here.”
Tony feels his teeth clench a little at the phrasing. Harley’s case. Since his admittance here. It sounds so impersonal. Like the kid’s just a name in a book; one of any number of appointments to be kept in a busy schedule; a faceless duty. Tony keeps his smile fixed in place and doesn’t let his irritation show.
“Ms Hass, Doctor Whitfield,” he returns, reaching to shake Whitfield’s hand too. “Sorry about, uh, well,” he continues, and gestures lamely down at his grease-stained tee and sweats. Really not the best outfit to be meeting and greeting in, but it can’t be helped. “I was working when Pepper told me what happened, and I came straight here.”
“We’ve been trying to get a hold of you since this morning,” Hass says, and there’s something disapproving in her tone.
“Yeah, well, I only heard like an hour and a half ago, so,” Tony says unapologetically, because sure, ok, he wishes he’d gotten here earlier, but he didn’t, and he can’t fix that.
“An hour and a half ago?” Doctor Whitfield pipes up, questioningly. Hass is frowning slightly too. “You got here from New York in an hour and a half?”
“‘Bout an hour, actually,” Tony says, because he’s already been at the hospital for around 30 minutes by now, but that just makes their expressions of confusion and vague disbelief intensify.
“The Suit,” Harley explains with an eyeroll and a longsuffering tone of voice, like he can’t stand having to deal with these idiots. He’s turned around again so he’s facing the rest of the occupants of the room, his back to Tony, and Tony grins and reaches out to ruffle his hair. The kid leans into the affectionate scruff even as he scowls and takes a clearly for-show swipe at Tony’s hand.
“The Suit,” he agrees. “Pep and Cap came in the Quinjet after, which is why they got here later. Quinjet’s fast, but the Suit’s faster.”
“Right,” Hass says. “Well. If you wouldn’t mind, Mr Stark, I’d like to have a word with you in the hall.”
Tony’s about to agree and shepherd Harley back into bed, but then the kid pipes up with, “Why?” and everyone turns to look at him. He shifts a little under the attention, self-conscious, but he bites his lip and then looks stonily at Hass, stubbornness etched on every pane of his face.
“We all know what you want to talk to him about,” the kid says, and Tony can tell how tense he is only by the hand he still has resting against Harley’s shoulder blades. If Tony were to guess, he’d estimate that he himself is feeling just about as tense, because here it comes – this is why he’s here, this is why they called him in the first place (ok, so they called him to prove to Harley that he wouldn’t come, not because they actually thought he was a viable candidate, probably, but whatever, the result’s the same), they need to find a guardian for Harley and Tony is literally it, he’s the only option, and he still has exactly no idea what he’s going to do.
Because what, is he going to leave the kid out in the cold? He already did that once, back in Rose Hill; he’s not about to do it again – and especially not now, not when it’s slightly more than a ten minute walk home that the kid will have to endure if Tony rolls up the windows of his car and drives off into the snow without him again. But what’s the other option? That Harley come with him? Tony has no idea how to be a guardian. The closest he’s come to having kids are his bots, and look how well they’ve all turned out. Dummy’s just as likely to try to feed Tony the foam from a fire-extinguisher and try to put out an electrical fire with a smoothie as he is to do it the other way around. Tony would be a dreadful guardian. He can’t even imagine it.
But he doesn’t even want to imagine the other option.
And the question is coming, and Tony doesn’t know what he’s going to say.
“You want to talk to him about me,” Harley is continuing, completely oblivious to Tony’s
major minor internal panic. “You want to talk to him about me, and whether I can stay with him. You don’t need to talk to him out there to do that.”
“Harley,” Hass says, gently objecting, but Harley interrupts her before she can say anything else.
“Well?” the kid says, spinning to face Tony and staring up at him from underneath his ridiculous mop of hair. “Can I stay with you?”
Tony shouldn’t be caught off-guard by this moment that he’s known was coming since he had a second to think about the situation, but he really, really is.
His jaw works soundlessly for a moment as he tries to work out what the hell to say.
Eye contact is for serious conversations, he suddenly remembers. He remembers Jarvis telling him that when he was a kid. He also remembers his old caretaker getting down to his level whenever he needed to talk to him about something hard – something like the fact that Tony’s parents were sending him off to boarding school, something like the fact that Howard had changed his mind about Tony accompanying him on one of his Arctic look-for-Steve missions, and Tony was going to be left at home after all, something like that Howard wouldn’t be home for Tony’s birthday, even though he’d promised.
Jarvis always knelt down, for those talks. So he was on the same level as Tony. Jarvis never hovered. Never loomed.
Tony sucks in a bracing breath and gets down laboriously to his knees, so that he’s looking up at Harley instead of down at him.
“Ok, I’m gonna preface this by saying that I’m not saying no, ok? Hey,” he says, reaching out to catch Harley’s chin when the kid’s eyes widen in shocked hurt and he goes to look quickly away. Tony holds onto his chin gently yet firmly and waits until Harley reluctantly makes eye-contact with him again. The kid looks braced for rejection, and Tony tries to ignore the twinging in his chest.
“I’m not saying no, ok?” he assures, holding eye-contact and not letting Harley look away. “I’m not. But before I say anything, we’ve got to think this through, ok?”
“What is there to think through?” Harley asks, and he sounds plaintive and stubborn and petulant and worried all at the same time.
“Look, I would love for you to come stay with me,” Tony says, and he’s – surprised to find that that’s totally true. He would. He would really like for Harley to come stay with him. That’s…. a surprise. And yet also somehow… not at all surprising?
Behind Tony, Pepper and Steve are staring with wide eyes and identical looks of rather stunned disbelief, the Doctor is watching with an expressionless face that is successfully hiding whatever she’s actually feeling, and Hass looks like she wants to interrupt, but Tony doesn’t see any of that. Tony keeps his eyes locked on Harley’s, and keeps talking.
“But we have to make sure that coming with me is the best thing for you before anyone agrees to anything,” he finishes, and Harley pouts.
“Why wouldn’t it be the best thing for me?” he demands, and Tony presses his lips together while he considers the best way to go about all this. After a moment, he sighs.
“Can you lot clear off for a few minutes?” he asks, twisting around and looking up at their audience, who all blink back at him, surprised.
“I wanna have a chat with him without a bunch of strangers hovering, can you shoo, please,” he says, when no one goes to leave, and completes the request by making shooing motions towards the door.
“Mr Stark, that really isn’t how – ” Hass starts to say, and Tony huffs and cuts her off.
“Ok fine – Pep, Steve, stay and make sure I don’t…. I dunno, swear in front of the kid or anything. Captain America will keep me from having a bad influence on the impressionable child in the whole ten minutes you’re not here, I promise. But you two – ” he says, pointing to Hass and Whitfield “– you’re looming, and you’re making him nervous. Can you step outside for, like, ten minutes.”
And it’s true; they are making the kid nervous. He’s pretending like he’s unbothered by their presence, but his gaze keeps flickering over to and away from the two professionals like he’s keeping tabs on where they are in the room, and he’s holding his shoulders tense and taught like he’s about to break into a sprint, and Tony doesn’t know if it’s the CPS lady or the doctor that are making Harley anxious, but he knows the kid needs to be thinking as rationally as possible for this conversation, and he won’t be if he’s got half his attention on Hass and Whitfield.
Hass clearly doesn’t want to do as Tony has asked, but Whitfield – with a glance from Tony to Harley and back again – says, “Certainly, Mr Stark. We’ll be right outside when you’re ready for us,” and then gestures politely-yet-expectantly for Hass to precede her across the room and out the door.
“Thank you,” Tony says, and then turns his attention back to Harley to nudge him gently in the back. “Right. You. Back into bed. You’re all wobbly, I don’t trust that you’re not about to keel over.”
“I wouldn’t keel over,” Harley mutters rebelliously, but makes his way back to the crisp white hospital bed without further complaint and sits himself down on the edge, swinging his feet up as Tony follows, pushing the IV stand over to its original spot beside the bed before taking a seat in the plastic chair beside the kid.
Tony completely misses the surprised expression of Doctor Whitfield and the narrow-eyed, assessing gaze of Hass as they watch the interaction, paused in their way crossing the room to the door. Tony’s too busy scowling down at the utterly horrendous chair he’s sitting in. Who the hell designed this chair? Tony’s never sat in anything so uncomfortable in all his life.
After a moment, Whitfield and Hass continue to the exit and step out into the hallway, and Whitfield shuts the door behind them.
“I can go with you, right?” Harley asks the second the door is shut, eyes shining with worry and upset as he stares at Tony, part-hopeful and part-apprehensive.
Pepper and Steve are completely silent at the end of Harley’s bed, watching without a sound.
“I don’t,” Harley continues, and his voice is smaller than Tony’s ever heard it, and he’s blinking rapidly. “I don’t want to go into foster care.”
Understandable. The kid’s lost everything – whatever happens here, whether he goes home with Tony or not, everything will be changing for him. Either he’ll be going to a new home in a new city but with a face he knows, at least, or he’ll be going to a new home in a new suburb with all new faces. Tony knows which option he’d prefer, if it were him.
“I don’t want you to either, kid,” Tony says, because hell, does he not want this kid to go into the system or what. They’ll ruin him.
He’s way too old for adoption to be a likely option – people like to adopt younger children, because they come with fewer issues and they’re cute, whereas a mouthy kid with authoritarian issues who lost his whole family in a car crash is hard work, so why would anyone pick him when they can have an adorably chubby-cheeked three year old instead? – which means it’ll almost certainly be foster care for Harley until he’s 18.
Tony knows that there have to be some kids who make it through the foster care system without incident – who make it through to the other side intact and happy and healthy and adjusted and without any major issues – but Tony thinks that those ones must be few and far between. He’s never heard a happy story of a kid who went into foster care – only tale after tale of kids who ‘fell through the cracks.’
Tony suspects Harley would be one of those kids. Even with Tony looking out for him as he grows up, keeping tabs on him (which obviously he’s going to do, regardless of how this goes), he predicts that Harley will be one of those unlucky bastards who gets ‘overlooked’ by the system as a whole.
Harley was a mouthy, sassy little shit with zero respect for authority before all this happened, and while Tony happens to find that kind of attitude endearing, he thinks he’s probably in the minority who do. Most people would encounter Harley’s pre-crash attitude and find him rude, label him difficult.
And in the wake of this – in the wake of losing his mother and his sister to an idiot with an over-the-limit blood alcohol reading, suddenly and abruptly and through no fault of his own? Tony suspects the kid’s attitude is going to get a hell of a lot worse before it gets better.
Which means that foster carers will get tired of dealing with him, will report back that he’s ‘not fitting in,’ and that ‘he might do better in a different household’ and ‘perhaps moving on is what’s best for him,’ and he’ll be bounced around from home to home until he’s an adult – which, quite aside from the emotional impact of all that – will mean hell for his grades.
Harley’s a smart kid – way smarter than the average, Tony’s fairly sure, but he’d have to have the kid’s IQ independently tested before he made any claims – but even he would struggle with constantly being uprooted from one school to another, and his grades would suffer. And even if he did the absolute best he possibly could, there’s no accounting for poor timing. Leave one school just before they do a gradable assessment, and arrive at the new one just after they’ve done theirs; spend a whole term studying one thing only to arrive at the new school and find that the test is on something else that you’ve barely been introduced to – it would wreak havoc on his overall marks.
And a lack of decent marks means a lack of decent College opportunities. A written testimony and tuition paid in full (which, obviously Tony’s going to pay for him to go to College if the kid chooses to go, whether Harley comes home with him tonight or not) only go so far if your grades throughout high school aren’t up to snuff.
Tony can’t bear the thought of that genius brain not getting the opportunity to go to whatever College he wants to go to, and he won’t get to if his grades aren’t good enough.
He’ll have to go to a Community College. And – that said – Community Colleges are great, they’re fantastic, they provide opportunities for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have them and a lot of them are genuinely good establishments that are well run and give their students a great education ––– but Harley deserves MIT.
He deserves Harvard or Yale or wherever the hell he decides he wants to go. He deserves to go overseas and study at freaking Oxford if that’s what he wants to do. If he decides to go to a Community College, then that’s one thing, but the kid will settle for Community College over Tony’s dead body. But for that to happen he needs the grades. And for the grades to happen he needs to not be bounced from school to school.
Best case scenario is that the kid lands on his feet in some place doesn’t kick him to the curb, some place that he stays until he’s 18 – somewhere that doesn’t shift him on to a new place every few months, somewhere he can settle, somewhere he can call home, instead of just a place to stay – but even if that happens (and it’s a damn big if), Tony doubts that he’d have the same kind of creative and intellectual freedom he had at home, and that he’d have with Tony.
What kind of foster place is likely to have a spare garage that Harley can set up shop in? What kind of foster place would let him, even if they did have a garage free. People have such protective views of children – no, don’t let him play with the screwdriver, he might hurt himself; no don’t leave him unattended for hours to experiment with a few scraps of electronics just to see what he’ll come up with; no, certainly don’t let him build a potato gun, those things are dangerous, they’re weapons, what if he hurt someone.
Even if he landed with the best, most encouraging foster parents, they’re never going to let him have the same level of creative exploration that he had in his converted workshop-garage at home. Which means his growth will be stunted. He’ll be reined in and forced to keep to the limits of his compatriots in school – even if the school or the foster parents realise that he’s gifted and get him into some kind of accelerated program, it still won’t be enough. The kid will be held back, not intentionally, but simply by virtue of not having the creative freedom to explore and expand the limits of his intelligence, by not being able to study at the level he’s truly at, and instead having to settle for whatever his school can offer him.
The Harley who comes out of a foster care system at 18 will not be a patch on the Harley he could have been if he’d been given the opportunities that he should have been given. Opportunities that Tony can offer him.
Tony really, truly, honestly is not the best choice for a guardian – but he might just be a better option than the alternative.
Tony will be a terrible guardian. But with him, Harley will get the opportunity to grow into his intelligence in a way he won’t be able to otherwise.
Tony will be a dreadful guardian, but at least Harley will stay in one place. Go to one elementary school, one high school. Come home to the same place every day, instead of having to get used to somewhere new every few months. He’ll have stability. He’ll be able to put down roots that won’t be torn up.
Tony chews on his lip for a long moment, staring straight back at the kid, considering Harley’s wobbly words, and then he sighs shortly.
Really, it’s not his call to make anyway.
“Are you sure you want to go with me?” he asks, because no, seriously, it’s not Tony’s call and the kid needs to know what he’s thinking of getting himself into. “I have no idea how to look after a kid. I have no idea how to look after myself. I forget to feed myself – Dummy or JARVIS has to remind me if Pepper’s out of town and not around to nag me. You’re an eleven year old kid – you need food, you need… I dunno, sleep and shit.”
“I know when I need to eat,” Harley says. “And I know when I need to sleep, too, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
“I’m allergic to emotions,” Tony says, conveniently forgetting how he dropped everything in an emotion-fuelled panic in order to rush out here to Middle of Nowhere Tennessee, where he hugged a crying kid for the better part of twenty minutes. “You’re a growing kid who’s just been through a trauma – you’re gonna need emotional support. I don’t know how to do that.”
“So I’ll vent my emotions at Captain America when I need to, I’m sure he can handle it,” Harley says, gesturing to Steve, still standing at the end of the bed, who looks startled to be mentioned and also like he has no idea whether to protest or be offended or not.
“I get caught up with work and then I blink and suddenly it’s three days later and I haven’t stepped foot outside of my workshop in seventy-two hours.”
“I’ll come visit you down there.”
“Who’ll look after you while I’m distracted?”
“I think JARVIS will be able to handle it.”
“JARVIS is an AI who lives in the walls of my Tower.”
“And yet, he manages to look after you.”
“I had a shit dad,” Tony says, and this is it, this is his final argument, his final attempt at dissuading the kid from this monumentally bad choice he’s making. Steve twitches in the background at his words and looks sharply at Tony. Pepper’s staring at him too. She knows more than anyone how closed-mouthed Tony is about his issues with Howard Stark, and if Tony were to look, he’d see it writ all over her face how startled she is that he’s talking voluntarily about Howard’s failings as a parent.
Tony steadfastly ignores both of them, and goes on, because Harley needs to know this.
“He was almost never around and whenever he was, he was never happy with anything I did and the only things he knew how to say to me were insults,” he says, never breaking eye contact with Harley. “So I have exactly no idea about what a decent dad is like.”
“I have a shit dad too,” Harley replies with a shrug. “I don’t have a clue what a decent dad is like either.”
Tony’s lips twitch.
“Probably one that sticks around, for starters,” he quips, not giving himself time to think about whether this is tactless or not, and he’s pleased to see Harley respond with a shy smirk himself.
“Yeah, that’s probably a good start,” the kid agrees.
“Well one thing I can promise is that if I ever win at scratchies, it won’t change a damn thing. I’m already filthy rich, I probably won’t even notice if I win the Lucky Cat.”
Harley buries his face in his blanket and giggles.
Tony counts that as the epic win it obviously is.
“So, I can go with you?” the kid asks after a moment, looking back up, and there’s slightly more hope than there is apprehension in his expression this time.
“Are you sure you want to?” Tony asks again, because this actually is serious, what they’re deciding here, and Harley does need to be sure.
There’s a half-second pause where Harley draws the inside of his lip between his teeth and chews on it, and then he nods decisively.
Tony feels… Tony doesn’t know how he feels. Did a building just fall on him, or did gravity suddenly stop working? He can’t work out which one it is. He feels like the first time he flew the suit, and the first time he realised he hadn’t thought about the icing problem. He feels like he’s just seen the rescue chopper on the horizon, and he feels like that split second before he started falling when he knew he was about to crash. He feels elated and terrified, all at the same time.
“Then yeah,” he says, and his lips are kind of grinning without any conscious input from his brain. “You’re coming with me.”
The grin is slow in blooming on Harley’s face, but bloom it does, and then he’s grinning in relief and happiness and ---- and also looking all teary again, what?
“Ugh, are you going to cry on me again?” Tony grumbles, and he hears either Pepper or Steve make a noise of protest from the corner, because that’s probably not how most people would or should speak to an upset child, but whatever, he and Harley have an understanding. Which Harley then proves by giggling wetly and throwing himself at Tony, who finds himself with an armful of crying kid for the second time in as many hours. He’s glad Harley’s bed was already adjusted to be low to the ground. This whole “hugging the bed-bound patient from a shitty, no good, very bad hospital chair” thing would be even less comfortable than it currently is, were the bed any higher.
“How do you even have anything left in there?” he grumbles without heat, as Harley leaks all over him again.
“I’ve had an IV line in my arm since I got here,” Harley replies, muffled, into the fabric of Tony’s shirt, sniffing heavily and scrubbing his face side-to-side a bit. “They’ve been keeping me well hydrated.”
“Are you cleaning your nose on me?” Tony yelps in outraged disgust, trying and failing to squirm away, and Harley giggles wetly again. Tony sighs in defeat. “You are a foul creature of snot and filth, and I have no idea why I’ve agreed to this.”
“Because you adore me,” Harley says.
“Ugh,” Tony scoffs.
“Are you sure?” Harley asks, blinking up at him suddenly.
“Am I sure that I adore you?” Tony asks, looking down at the kid and raising an eyebrow. “No, I’m not sure at all. In fact, I’m certain I don’t. You’ve left snot all over my workshop clothes, and I’ll have you know that while the grease stains may look effortless and carelessly done, they are in fact the result of great care and attention to detail, and Dummy will be devastated that you’ve ruined his artwork.”
“No,” Harley says, snickering damply before abruptly sobering. “Are you sure you want me to come with you? Because – because I could go into foster care, if you’re not. I could do it. I’d be ok.”
A blatant lie, but Tony appreciates the kid trying.
“And leave your genius brain to rot in the hands of subpar high school educators?” Tony demands, affronted. “I think not. Besides. If I said no, then you’d go into foster care and despite what you’re claiming now, you’d hate me for it, and then you and your little genius brain would grow up hating me and you’d go and become a supervillain and you’d try to take over the world, and I’d be sent to deal with you but out of a lingering sense of guilt and responsibility I’d let you win, and the world would fall to your genius but cruel rule and it would be all my fault, because if I’d just said yes today we could have avoided all the drama.”
Harley’s lips twitch.
“Me turning supervillain and successfully taking over the world, and all it classifies as is a drama?” he asks.
“Well, I would have said horror, but that seemed offensive,” Tony returns.
Harley sniffs imperiously.
“I’ll have you know, I would make a very good evil overlord. And my costume would have retro-reflectors.”
“Ok, one? It’s not a costume, it’s a uniform. And two, how do you know mine doesn’t already have retro-reflectors?”
Harley’s face brightens.
“Did you add them?” he asks, delighted.
“Of course I did,” Tony replies. “Told you it was a good idea, didn’t I?”
Harley sits back in his hospital bed, smug.
“Iron Man’s new design is down to me,” he says, and Tony pulls a face.
“Yeah, uh, no – sorry to burst your bubble kid, but there’s way more upgrades to the Suit than just the retroreflectors. I suppose you can have some of the glory. But only because I’m generous.”
Harley perks up a tad.
“How much of the glory?”
“About, let’s say… six percent of the glory.”
“Six percent!” Harley demands, outraged.
“Six-point-four, maybe,” Tony says, debating.
“Excuse me, Tony?” Pepper says suddenly, stepping forward and making herself known for the first time since the CPS woman left the room, and uh oh. She’s smiling that smile that she used to use on Tony’s guests when she’d oh-so-politely pull him out of wild parties and inform him once out of earshot of everyone that he was meant to be at a board meeting twenty minutes ago, and he needs to sober up quicksmart because that’s where he’s going now, right now, yes, right this very instant, I don’t care if you’re still drunk, you're getting in there, now.
She’s smiling that smile at Harley, and Tony has a bad feeling about this.
“Can I borrow you, just for a minute?” she asks brightly, and yeah, bad feeling intensifying. There’s a look in Pepper’s eyes that Tony’s learnt to be wary of, and it’s directed at him right now.
“Sure,” Tony says, standing and disentangling himself from the eight-limbed human while attempting to not pull out any IV lines or assorted hospital paraphernalia. “Don’t go anywhere, champ,” he says, once he’s got Harley settled back against the pillows, and he ruffles the kid’s hair and gets the expected scowl in response, even as the kid, again, leans into the touch. “Pester Cap about Avenging while I’m gone.”
Harley brightens and twists to look at Cap – electing to ignore, apparently, the earlier awkwardness of Cap mentioning Harley’s family.
“I have so many questions I wanna ask you. You were frozen for seventy years,” the kid says, launching straight in with as much tact as he showed Tony in the wake of the whole wormhole incident. Nice to know it’s a universal lack of tact, and not one that only Tony had the pleasure of experiencing. “Do you remember what it was like in the ice? How long were you awake before you froze? Was it, like, instant, or did it take ages? They said you were lying down when they found you, not at the control panel, so you must have been waiting for a few minutes, at least. What was that like? What about – ”
Harley’s voice continues to chatter away, asking insensitive question after insensitive question, and Tony follows Pepper out of the room, snickering as he goes at the poleaxed expression on Cap’s face.
“Ladies,” Pepper says politely once they’re in the corridor, and oh yeah, Hass and Whitfield are out here; Tony had forgotten about them. “I’d just like to speak to Tony for a moment, if you wouldn’t mind. We’ll join you back in Harley’s room in a few minutes?”
“Certainly,” Whitfield says, nodding agreeably and leading the way into Harley’s room without further ado, which gives Hass – who very evidently would not like Pepper and Tony to speak for a moment, and would clearly like to speak to Tony herself, instead of being bossed around like this – little choice but to press her lips together in irritation and follow.
Pepper smiles her most professionally charming smile at them until they’re in the room and the door closes with a gentle click behind them, leaving her and Tony alone in the hallway.
“What the hell are you doing?” she hisses furiously, whirling on Tony the second the door is securely shut.
“Um,” Tony says. “Adopting Harley, maybe? Or. Fostering. I don’t think they let you adopt straight off the bat. There’s like, a trial period. Probably?”
“You’re not fostering or adopting anyone,” Pepper says, and her voice is the sharp, panicked, stern voice she uses when she is really, genuinely worried about the direction Tony’s going in, and Is Not Having It.
“Pep,” he says, low and calm and earnest, and hopefully that will help him get across to her how dead serious he is about this. Because usually when she uses that tone with him it’s because he’s decided to do something stupid – like, oh, that time he tried to buy a skydiving company and was going to become an instructor on weekends – and he usually responds to said tone with the brightly cavalier tone of someone who has all the money in the world and no one to tell him he can’t use it, and so usually the use of that tone is completely justified. But this – this isn’t the time for that tone, and he’s hoping his purposely low and earnest voice will help portray that. Besides – he couldn’t make his voice come out in that usual brightly carefree tone if he wanted to.
This is serious, and he knows it’s serious, and he knows that Pepper thinks he doesn’t get it – is worried that Tony thinks Harley is like a puppy he can keep for a few months and then palm off to someone else when he gets tired of it – but that’s not the case at all. At all.
He knows the seriousness of this, knows that – shit, knows his whole life is about to change, but he just cannot let Harley go into the system if there’s any alternative. And there is an alternative; there is all of one alternative – and Tony is that alternative. He is the only thing standing between Harley and the system, and Tony might not have predicted his day going like this when he woke up this morning, but it has, and this is happening, and he has to convey to Pepper exactly how serious he is about this, because she can and will stand in his way if she thinks he’s treating this even remotely flippantly, and he doesn’t think he’ll get even close to getting to take Harley home if she does that.
“Pep, I know this is out of the blue for you,” he says, still in the low, soothing voice, and he can tell that she’s startled by the tone, startled that he didn’t reply with some kind of glib Of course I am or Why not or Branjolina did it and look how well it worked for them.
“It’s out of the blue for me too, ok,” he goes on. “But I swear to you I am not making this call lightly. I swear this isn’t some… some impulse reaction that I haven’t thought about. I’ve thought about it. It’s, like, the only thing I’ve been thinking about since I got here. I’ve thought about this more than I thought about dropping weapons from SI, actually. I didn’t think about that at all. And I mean – that was still the right call to make, I wouldn’t change that at all, but I’m just pointing out the difference. I didn’t think about that; I just did it. But I’ve thought about this. And I know it’s huge. I do, I know, I get it. And I know it’s not a temporary thing either, he’s not some giant stuffed rabbit I can return to the store after a week or so. It’s a for-good thing, I know, I get it, and I know it’s going to change… everything. But I have to. I can’t not.”
Pepper’s staring at him as though if she looks deeply enough into his eyes she’ll be able to see his thoughts laid neatly out in a way that makes sense. She’s clearly surprised – clearly caught off guard that he’s not taking this lightly, that he’s thought about this. She’s clearly surprised that he’s serious. And she clearly doesn’t know what to do with that.
“Why are you doing this?” she asks after a long moment of silence, trying to understand. “How do you even know him?”
“The Mandarin,” Tony explains. “When AIM bombed the Malibu house and everyone thought I was dead. The last coordinates input into the Suit were to where we thought the Mandarin base was, so while I was out cold and it was flying on autopilot, it started heading there. When it finally lost power we went down and I wound up in Tennessee in the snow. Dragged the Suit with me, broke into a garage, borrowed some tools to try and get the Suit up and running again. It was Harley’s garage.”
“Ok, but – ” Pepper starts, and Tony interrupts before she can finish the question.
“Turns out he’s a very short genius, and he had all kinds of gadgets in his shed. He busted me in there, threatened me with a potato gun, then ended up helping me fix up the Suit and gave me a bunch of supplies. Followed me into town when I went to get some info on a bomb that had gone off there, and then hit an Extremis junkie in the back of the head with a snowball when they showed up and crashed the party.”
Pepper blinks wide eyes.
“He – ” she starts, startled.
“And set off a flashbomb right in the face of one, too, a bit later,” Tony adds. “And then saved the life of the kid who’d been bullying him at school for the past who-knows-how-long. And when I set out for the Mandarin’s coordinates, he stayed with the Suit and made sure it kept charging, helped J get back up and running, made sure everything was ready to go by the time I needed it.”
Pepper’s staring at him with surprise etched on every pane of her face.
“He’s a good kid, Pep,” he says. “And he’s smart, and he’s brave, and he helped me out when I was in a tight spot. And I can’t not repay that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about him?” Pepper asks, and oh, there’s hurt there – masked, but there – and, great, good Job Tony. Well done.
“I… to be honest, I – kind of forgot that I hadn’t?”
Ah, there, that are you serious expression of pure exasperation that’s on Pepper’s face, that is one that Tony’s very familiar with.
“In my defence, there was a lot going on at the time and I was a tad distracted. And by the time I had the chance to send him a lab upgrade I kind of maybe thought I’d already told you about him.”
“You sent him a lab upgrade?” Pepper asks, momentarily derailed, and Tony shrugs a nod.
“Yeah, well. He had a good garage, but. It could be made better. So I made it better.”
Pepper purses her lips and pins him with an unreadable expression.
“I just…” she says, and trails off. She takes a moment to visibly gather her thoughts, and another to structure them into words.
“Tony. This is – ” she says, and gestures helplessly. “This is huge, what you want to do. And – I just. I get that you want to help him. I do – you obviously care a lot about him. But could he, maybe, not be better off going to a foster home that knows how to deal with kids like him? Kids who’ve lost their parents? And you can still look out for him and everything, but. Wouldn’t that be better for him?”
Tony makes a noise that doesn’t quite convey everything he’s feeling and failing to express.
“I don’t– I can’t– ” he says, trying to gather all the tangled thoughts in his brain and force them out of his mouth with something resembling cohesion. “I can’t explain properly. But no. I don’t think it would be better for him. I don’t– look. All I know is that that kid in there can’t go into the system. He can’t, Pep. He doesn’t deserve that. He deserves so much more than that.”
Pepper’s still looking at him like she’s trying to understand but isn’t there yet, and Tony makes a noise in the back of his throat that does a better job than the last one of conveying all of his tangled emotions.
“He’s a smart kid, Pep, and he’s a good one, too,” he says. “And this isn’t some kind of… he helped me so I have to help him back kinda thing – though I guess that plays a part.”
Tony runs a hand through his hair, irritated at his inability to verbalise what’s driving this whole thing.
“I was gonna pay for him to go to College, you know?” he says, changing tack. “Before his mom – well. Before. I’d been speaking to her. I don’t think she believed yet that I was serious, but I was. I don’t know if she told Harley. Probably not. But I was gonna do it. Ask which college he wanted to go to and tell him to apply. He’d’ve got in. Even without the letter of recommendation from me he woulda got in. Probably would have gotten a scholarship, to be honest, but even if he got a full ride I was still gonna pay for anything else that needed paying. Accommodation, food, whatever. Can’t study properly on ramen and baked beans, no matter how much college kids try to.
“And then when he’d gotten his Degree or his Honours or his Masters or his Doctorate, or had gone as far as he wanted to go, I was gonna offer him a spot in R&D. And internships in the summers before that, of course. But I was gonna give him a spot in R&D, if he wanted it.”
Pepper’s staring at Tony with this wide-eyed expression of surprise, like this is a whole new side of Tony that she’s never seen before. Which, fair. Tony didn’t even know he had this side, so. This… this version of himself where he wants desperately the best option possible for a kid he’s not even related to.
“And I know I can still do that now – pull whatever strings I can to get him into the best foster home I can, and keep an eye on him and help him out until he’s done with high school and then help again with whatever College he gets into, but Pep. Pep, that’s the thing. They’ll ruin him. The foster homes or the high schools or both – they’ll chew him up and spit him out and at the end of it he won’t have the marks to get into College, because he’ll have been jumped about from school to school and they won’t let him experiment and they’ll restrict him. And at the end of it all he’ll be disenchanted and angry, and he won’t have the marks to get into whatever College he wants to and he’ll have to settle for some sub-par one instead, and he doesn’t deserve that. Pep, he doesn’t deserve that. He deserves so much more than that, and I can give it to him.”
Pepper’s staring at him with parted lips and an expression Tony can’t decipher.
“I know I’m getting myself in over my head here, Pep,” he says, holding her eyes with his own and trying to convey with his expression alone how sincerely he means all this. “But I really think it’s the best option for him. And I’m willing to get in over my head if it means he gets the best shot.”
And there. That’s… Tony can’t think of anything else to say. He can’t think of any way that will convince Pepper that he knows what he’s doing and that it’s the right choice if what he’s just said doesn’t sway her. And oh, he hopes she’s swayed. He honestly doesn’t know what he’ll do if she continues to disagree with him. If he can’t change her mind.
He stands waiting, tongue flashing out to wet his dry lips, as he waits for what the verdict is.
She looks… she looks a little shellshocked, in the wake of his lengthy declaration. Her lips are parted and her brows are furrowed, linked together by a little wrinkle in the skin between them as she stares at him like she’s trying to peer into his mind and read it.
It’s a long moment before she takes a bracing breath and gestures helplessly.
“Ok,” she says. “Alright.”
Tony doesn’t sag in relief. Except that he totally does.
“So how’s this going to work?” Pepper goes on, before Tony has the chance to say anything. “If you foster him, how’s – I mean. You and me, will I – does he. I mean, he probably won’t even want a foster mom, so I guess that won’t… But can you do it with just one? Will they let you?”
Oh. Shit. Shit. Tony hadn’t even thought of that. At all. Geez, he is such a bad boyfriend. Here he is, planning the adoption of a kid without even checking that his Significant Other is ok with it. What the hell, Tones, he berates himself viciously. Boyfriend of the Year Award will absolutely not be coming your way.
“Shit,” he says, because his brain-to-mouth filter is napping on the job apparently. “I didn’t – shit. I should have. Checked with you first, if you – do you – even… want to be a… mom? Foster mom? Um. Any of the above? Do you even like kids?” They probably should have had this talk long time ago, Tony thinks, and they absolutely should have had it before he told an orphaned kid that yes he could come home with Tony, shit. What the hell is he going to do if Pepper says no, if Pepper doesn’t want a kid around, if Pepper doesn’t want Harley to come home with them?
“Of course I want to be a mom,” says Pepper, which makes Tony’s brain kind of screech to a halt, because – what?
“I would have preferred the chance to get to know the child in question first, of course, before we filled out the paperwork and took someone home,” she adds, rueful and a touch fondly exasperated, “but I’ve always wanted to be a mom.”
“I –” Tony says, and stalls, because no, seriously, what? “I didn’t… know you wanted kids, why – why didn’t you tell me you wanted kids?”
Pepper gives a twitch of her shoulders that’s her elegant version of a shrug.
“Before we were together? Because I was focussing on my career and I figured that children were a minimum of a decade off, and anyway it wasn’t something I needed to disclose,” she explains. “And then once we got together, well. I knew you didn’t want kids, so I didn’t mention it.” There’s a pause. “I thought I knew you didn’t, at least,” she corrects.
“I don’t want kids,” Tony says immediately. He didn’t have a vasectomy at 21 for nothing, after all. He’s never wanted kids. He never will want kids.
Pepper slants a Look at him.
“I don’t,” Tony reiterates, because it’s true. “I want this kid. There’s a difference. But I didn’t – you should have said something.”
“Why?” Pepper asks. “That wouldn’t have been fair. You would have felt guilty that I wanted something you didn’t, and you would have tried to compensate by buying me a puppy every time you felt bad, and next thing we know I would have been running an actual doghouse instead of Stark Industries.”
She’s trying to suffuse some humour into the situation, but Tony’s still stuck on the part where she’s wanted kids this whole time and never mentioned it, and now Tony’s dropping an orphan in her lap without so much as a by your leave.
“Well. We can, maybe,” Tony starts to say, hesitant, because even though the mere thought of either actually fathering children or adopting some makes him break out in a cold sweat, it’s only fair. Pepper wants kids.
Pepper wants kids and Tony’s not going to stand in the way of that if it’s what she wants – he’s never been able to deny her anything, really – but he wasn’t kidding with Harley; he is not going to be a good guardian, but Harley’s a special case. Harley has two choices – a not great one or a worse one, and Tony’s not going to force him to take the worse option just cause Tony has reservations about his ability to see a child safely-ish into adulthood… but the thought of bringing other kids under his dysfunctional wing when instead those kids could go to parents who aren’t Tony Stark and who therefore won’t be horrifically messed up by him sends him into something of a panic.
But he won’t deny Pepper, if this is what she wants. That just wouldn’t be fair of him. He’ll have a panic attack in his workshop later, sure – several, probably – but he won’t deny her.
“How about we see how we go with this one before we start thinking about anything else,” Pepper says with a warm chuckle, as though she can see how much the concept is, wow, majorly freaking him out, and really, what did Tony do to deserve Pepper. She is amazing. Utterly incredible and so much more than Tony deserves.
Tony actually sags with the weight of his relief, and Pepper laughs at him.
“And you ask why I didn’t tell you,” she chuckles.
“Sorry,” Tony says, because it deserves saying. He’s sorry about the surprise Harley, and he’s sorry he’s not really keen on the idea of leaping into having actual kids with Pepper, when she – apparently – wants that. He wouldn’t change the first and he doesn’t think he can change the second, but he’s still sorry for them both.
Pepper smiles and shakes her head.
“It’s fine,” she assures. “I knew going into this with you that kids weren’t on the table, and I was ok with that if it meant I got you. I wanted you more than I wanted children, and I made peace with that a long time ago.”
Honestly. What did Tony do to deserve this woman. Was he, what, the Dalai Lama in a former life?
“Ok,” Tony says, a tad hoarse. “Ok, so we’ll… shelve that conversation for a later date, then. But. Are you – is. Are you good? With this?”
Pepper sucks in a bracing breath and her lips twist into a rueful smile.
“Well, what can I say – life with you certainly never ceases to be surprising,” she says, and then leans in and kisses his cheek. “But yes. If you’re sure, then I’m ok with it. Surprised, absolutely, but you’d think I’d be used to that by now.”
“Pepper,” Tony says, reaching out to place his hands on her cheeks. “You are the most incredible woman on the earth.”
She snorts, unimpressed.
“I’ll remind you of that next time you’re whining at me about a meeting I’m forcing you to attend,” she says, and ducks in close to kiss him softly and swiftly. “You good to go back in?”
Tony nods, and then pauses and catches Pepper by the arm so he can reel her in close.
“Thank you,” he says, sincere, and Pepper’s smile is soft and warm.
“It’s clear he means a lot to you,” she says. “And if we can help a kid who’s just lost everything, well. We should, shouldn’t we.”
“Most amazing woman in the universe,” Tony reiterates, and kisses her swiftly over the top of her fond chuff of laughter.
Pepper pulls away with a smile and then turns and opens the door to Harley’s hospital room and slips inside. Tony takes a breath and follows.
Cap’s expression at their return is the relieved face of someone who has just been saved from answering a question that, knowing Harley, was probably horrifically invasive and insensitive.
“Budge up,” Tony says without hesitation to Harley, because hell if Tony’s gonna sit in that damn hospital chair again, so he pokes the kid in his uninjured arm until he moves sideways on the bed.
He hefts himself up and settles himself up on Harley’s bed with back against the plastic headboard and his feet hanging just off to the edge enough that his shoes aren’t on the sheets (he’s not that bad as to put his dirty feet on hospital blankets, sheesh), and as soon as he’s comfortable, the kid eels back in close again until he’s leaning against Tony’s side, which is. Surprising. But ok. Whatever.
Steve’s blinking in surprise from the other side of the room as he stares at Tony and Harley, which Tony thinks is fair. He’s pretty surprised himself. Maybe he shouldn’t be surprised at the casual contact, not after two separate hug-filled crying jags and an offer to come live with him, but this right here – Harley settled comfortably against Tony’s side while the kid’s not in the middle of an emotional breakdown – it’s… different, and it’s weird. Not bad weird? Just – weird. And surprising. And Tony doesn’t know what to do with his arms.
“So whatchoo lot talk about while Pep and I were gone?” Tony asks, to distract himself from his awkwardness, and he lets one arm settle around Harley’s shoulders and the other he props up along the back of a pillow.
At Tony’s question, Cap flushes with… what, what is that face that he’s pulling, is he – embarrassed? Is that what that face is? Hass and Whitfield have expressions of slight awkwardness and Pepper’s expression is both curious and confused, and it’s clear she too is wondering what they missed while they were out in the hallway.
Tony swivels his head to pin Harley with a narrow-eyed glare, and the kid is sitting there – comfortably slouched against Tony’s side – looking utterly unrepentant.
“What did you do,” Tony says, and it’s less of a question and more of a statement.
Harley juts his chin out a tad.
“Told off Captain America,” the kid answers, and Tony blinks in surprise.
“Told off… uh. Why?” Tony asks after a moment, nonplussed. “Like half an hour ago you were blushing and stammering ‘cause he shook your hand, what the hell did he do since then?”
“Nothing since then,” Harley replies, and sends an unimpressed look at Cap. “But since then I remembered that when some lunatic bombed your house and kidnapped the President, he was nowhere to be found. So I asked why he didn’t help, and he said he was busy.”
Well. Looks like the starstruck awe lasted for Steve about as long as it lasted for Tony. Which is to say, no time at all.
“He was though,” Tony says, and Harley redirects his unimpressed look at Tony.
“You died,” the kid says, as though Tony’s forgotten everything that went down during that whole debacle. “Everyone thought you were dead, the President of the United States was kidnapped, and the only person who came to help was Iron Patriot.”
“War Machine,” Tony corrects absentmindedly, and Harley twists his lips in disagreement. “Shush, my suit, my name, that absurd rebrand will not be mentioned in my presence. But no – seriously, Steve was busy. He was off on some top secret mission that he wasn’t allowed to tell me about but that I know all about anyway, ‘cause I’m irredeemably curious and impossible to restrain. He didn’t get back here until like three days after Rhodes and I managed to save the President from becoming the flambé course in AIM’s dinner menu.”
“Mr Stark,” Hass says, sounding displeased. “You would perhaps like to rethink discussing all this in front of the child?”
“The child’s name is Harley,” Tony says, shooting her a displeased expression of his own. “And he knows all about all this anyway.”
“It was literally all over the news,” Harley says, in a tone that says he’s tired of dealing with this woman. They’ve clearly had some fun times together before Tony got here, for Harley to be so irritated by her so swiftly every time she opens her mouth. “For weeks. I read all the articles. Literally everyone knows all this stuff.”
Hass purses her lips.
“Yes, well,” she says. “Just keep in mind Harley’s age, if you would, and consider what is or isn’t appropriate for his ears.” There’s a slight emphasis on Harley’s name this time, as though she’s trying to prove a point – that she does, in fact, know Harley’s name, and didn’t need Tony to remind her of it, thank you very much.
Tony would very much like to roll his eyes, but he refrains. He kinda still needs this woman onside. Probably.
Harley doesn’t bother holding back his eyeroll.
“Anyway,” the kid says, making his thoughts on Hass’ interruption clear in an annoyed tone of voice that would do teenagers the world over proud. “I don’t see why he couldn’t have left his super secret mission. Iron Man was killed. The President was kidnapped. Captain America might have, you know, come in handy – but no. He was busy.”
“Yeah, but that wasn’t his fault,” Tony says, and if someone had told him a week ago that he would have been ardently defending Steve Rogers to a twelve year old, Tony would have laughed at them. “Fury didn’t tell him. Steve didn’t even know about it all til he got back stateside, and by then it was all done and dusted.”
“Who’s Fury?” Harley asks, eyes narrowing at the new name.
“Cap’s boss,” Tony replies. “And the guy who wishes he were my boss.”
“He does not,” Pepper scoffs. “He’d fire you within a day of hiring you.”
“Hm, true,” Tony says, grinning unrepentantly, because it’s true. “Fury just can’t handle my level of awesome. Anyway. It wasn’t Cap’s fault.”
“Hmm,” Harley says, still sounding displeased and casting a narrow-eyed, considering look at Cap. “Well if he didn’t know, I guess he gets a pass. This time. Though I don’t know why he didn’t just say all that, instead of saying he was busy.”
“If we could get back to the matter at hand?” Whitfield says, gently but pointedly, and Hass jumps on the opportunity.
“Yes, indeed,” she says. “Now, as Harley correctly inferred earlier, we are trying to find somewhere appropriate for him to stay after he leaves the hospital. We did try to contact his father, but were unable to get in touch with him.”
“Yeah well, from what Harley says, the dude walked out six years ago and failed to leave so much an email address, so I’m not surprised you didn’t find him,” Tony says, and his unimpressed opinion of Harley’s dad is clear in his voice.
“Yes,” Hass says, in the reserved tone of someone who is refraining from commenting on another person’s character. “Well. Harley has no extended family, according to our records, so we asked if there was anyone we could contact. He insisted that we call you.”
Insisted. That’s a nice way of saying We wouldn’t have called you at all, except that Harley threatened to run away from every foster home he was put in unless we did.
“Now I’m sorry that you’ve come all this way, Mr Stark,” Hass continues, “and that it’s been a wasted journey, but –”
“Wasted journey?” Tony interrupts, sharp. “Why has it been a wasted journey?”
“Well, as I said,” Hass says, sounding resolute. “We are trying to find somewhere appropriate for him to stay.”
“Still not getting why this has been a wasted journey,” Tony says, wilfully obstinate. If she’s gonna imply that he’s not an appropriate foster carer for Harley, which is obviously where this is going, then he’s gonna damn well make her say it to his face. “I’ve got several spare rooms already set up that he can choose from when we get back to the Tower, I have a fully stocked fridge, and I’ve got a Quinjet on the roof with room for passengers. I’m ready when you are.”
“It takes a bit more than a spare room, a stocked fridge, and a… quinjet to make someone a suitable foster carer,” Hass says, voice brittle.
“I’m sure I can get the rest sorted, too,” Tony says. “You just let me know what I need, and it’ll get done.”
“Mr Stark,” Hass says, irritated. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that someone… well. Someone with… your… lifestyle, and your reputation is an appropriate guardian for a child.”
“What reputation would that be?” Tony asks. “My reputation for charity work, or my reputation for saving the world from an alien invasion?”
“That last one was more of a group effort; I’m not sure if that counts,” Harley says, voice pitched perfectly casually. “The Avengers, you know. They helped.”
“Group achievements go on the CV too, kid,” Tony replies. “But hey if we’re looking for sole activities, I’ve also saved the President’s life.”
“That’s true. And hey – speaking of the Avengers, don’t they all live in the Tower too?” Harley asks, voice innocent but eyes sharp as he stares unblinkingly at Hass. “Steve, don’t you and all the others live there too?”
“We do,” Steve says, looking bewildered by the turn his whole afternoon has taken but resolutely and unquestioningly throwing his weight behind Tony anyway. Good dude, that one. “Harley would be quite safe there, I promise.”
“I was referring more to your… personal reputation,” Hass says, digging her heels in. “Your parties are renown for their wildness, and the list of women who – well.”
“My, Tony, I had no idea you were still hosting wild get togethers and sleep overs,” Pepper says, her voice the sharp biting thing it turns into when some greasy CEO is talking down to her and attempting to con her into signing a dodgy deal. “You and I having been together for, how long now?”
“Nearly three years, sweet pea,” Tony replies. “And look how well it suits me. Monogamy. It’s great for the skin.”
“Nevertheless,” Hass persists, face pinched. “Mr Stark, you run an enormous business– ”
“I run an enormous business,” Pepper interrupts again, still in that utterly polite yet oh so sharp tone. “He’s not the CEO; I am. Tony works almost exclusively from home, developing concepts and prototypes for R&D. He’s rarely required to come into the offices, and when he is, the offices are only twenty floors down from our floor, so he’s never there long anyway.”
“It’s not a question of how often he’s home,” Hass says.
“Then what is it a question of?” Tony asks, bitingly sharp. “Because I always thought that you lot preferred it if a kid went into the care of someone they already know, instead of going to a house full of strangers in a new town. Harley knows me, he trusts me, he wants to come back to the Tower with me – and I want him to as well. So what’s the issue?”
“It takes more than a person being willing, Mr Stark. The person also needs to be an appropriate carer. There are protocols, requirements – and quite frankly, you may have the funds to raise a child, but your lifestyle is a dangerous one, and not one that I’d be willing to subject a vulnerable child to.”
“Harley would be safer in my Tower than he would be anywhere else. The entire Avengers team live there, and they defend strangers with their lives. How much more do you think they’ll protect a kid who lives in the same building as them – a kid that they know. Or – will know, at least. Not to mention – the Tower itself has more defences than I could list. That thing is more secure than a safe buried in the heart of a mountain in the middle of the Alps. I made several upgrades after the whole alien invasion shindig. Someone could fire a nuke at it and it wouldn’t get within two miles of the building.”
“I’m pleased to hear that, Mr Stark, but it still doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate environment to bring a child into,” Hass says, and Tony makes a sound of exasperated irritation.
“Why did you bother asking me if you were just going to tell me I couldn’t take him?” he asks, and Hass purses her lips.
“I didn’t expect you to say yes,” she says, voice frosty.
“Well, I did,” Tony replies, his own voice just as frosty. “I did say yes. So now what.”
“Does anyone want to know what I think of this situation?” Harley announces abruptly, sounding peeved.
They all fall silent and look at him, and he’s glaring stonily at Hass with an expression of intense dislike and irritation.
“I said that if you called Tony and he said no, that I’d go wherever you wanted me to go and not argue,” Harley says, face set in stubborn lines. “And I said if you didn’t call him, then I’d run away from every foster home you put me in and hitchhike my way to New York by myself. Well the same goes for if you call him and he says yes and then you make me go into foster care anyway. You called him. He said yes. I wanna go with him, and he wants me to come with him, so if you make me go into foster care anyway, then I swear I will run away every single day and charm some passing car to take me to New York, and I’ll make my way to the Tower myself. I swear I will.”
Hass glares at him.
“Harley,” she starts to say, stern.
“Door’ll be open when you get there, kid,” Tony interrupts, and Hass turns to pin her glare onto him instead, and he gazes back unrepentantly.
“Well, that seems to be all settled,” Pepper says into the silence, the professionally pleasant voice of someone who has just struck a mutually beneficial deal. “There will be paperwork, of course – I’ll have our lawyers contact you to get all the details for long-term guardianship sorted out. In the meantime, what do you need signed before we can take Harley home? And when is he due to be released?”
That last is directed at Whitfield, who has been watching the argument in silence this whole time, and who now seems to be restraining an entertained smile while Hass steams angrily by her side. Tony likes her.
“Harley is cleared to be discharged today, actually,” she says. “His ribs are wrapped, and there’s not much more that can be done for them aside from the application of rest and time. His arm will need check-ups through the next month and a half to make sure it’s healing properly, and the cast is due to come off in about six weeks. All his other injuries were superficial and have been treated. We just needed to make sure he had a foster home organised before we could release him.”
Hass is shooting her an angry and betrayed expression, but Tony claps his hands together, pleased.
“Fantastic,” he says, and unhooks his arm from around Harley’s shoulder, then scoots to the side of the bed and stands up. “You organise the paperwork, I’ll sign, and we’ll get out of your hair.”
It all moves swiftly after that.
There are discharge papers to be signed and care instructions for Harley’s arm and ribs to be gone through, and follow-up appointments to be scheduled – given privacy concerns and a desire to keep Harley’s name out of the press entirely, Tony manages to organise to privately fly Doctor Whitfield to the Tower for Harley’s check-ups, which is a more lowkey option than either bringing the kid back to this hospital or transferring the treatment to a New York based hospital.
Hass bustles about here and there, making her disapproval of the situation known, but she appears to have conceded that it’s a lost battle. She appears to fully believe Harley, when he says he’ll run away and hitchhike to New York, if necessary. Clever of her. Tony knows for a fact that the kid wasn’t bluffing.
Whitfield snags Tony by the elbow at one point – when Harley’s distracted by an indepth conversation with Pepper about stock prices, of all things – and asks for a quiet word. Tony braces himself for more “you’re an inappropriate guardian for this child” and follows her into the hall.
“I know Ms Hass has concerns,” are Whitfield’s opening words, which does nothing to lower Tony’s guard. “But I don’t,” she follows with in a firm tone, which – what?
That – Tony… wasn’t expecting that.
“I do understand where Ms Hass is coming from,” Whitfield goes on, before Tony can say anything. “After all, I hardly would have guessed this morning that my work shift would end with Tony Stark taking guardianship of an orphaned child! And you’ve had some… colourful press, over the years, so I can see where Ms Hass is coming from. But – I saw how Harley was with you. Mr Stark – Harley’s been here several days, now, and.”
Whitfield pauses, pressing her lips together as she tries to work out how to word what she wants to say, and Tony waits, curious.
“He hasn’t cried once,” she eventually says, and Tony blinks in surprise. “Not since he got here. Not a single tear. Not when he woke up in a strange place with no one he knew beside him, not when we told him about his family. Not when we had to take him to surgery to set and cast his arm. Not in any of the days since. He hasn’t cried. And then you arrived, and just like that – tears.”
“Uh,” Tony says, wincing and also a bit baffled. It’s not like he made the kid cry on purpose. “Sorry?”
“No, no,” Whitfield hastens to say. “It’s a good thing. Frankly, I was starting to seriously worry for him. Sometimes children – well, adults too, really – bury traumatic events and emotions so they don’t have to face them. I was worried that was what Harley was doing, which would have been ultimately worse for him when the reality of his new circumstances hit him. It’s normal to cry after you’ve lost a loved one, and Harley not only lost two at the same time, but he’s such a young child himself. I feared that he wasn’t letting himself acknowledge the loss.
“He’s been… quite hostile, since he got here,” Whitfield continues. “Several of the hospital staff and a couple of specialists have tried to get him to open up since his arrival – help him face the loss, instead of letting him face it alone – but he didn’t want anything to do with any of us. Verbally pushed all of us away – and physically pushed a couple of daring souls who dared to try to touch him. Wouldn’t even accept a hand on his shoulder. And then you walk in the door and he literally throws himself out of his bed to get to you.”
“Gave me a damn heart attack,” Tony grumbles. “Thought he was gonna kill himself on the IV.”
“Yes, he was a bit… enthusiastic. But that’s the point I’m making, Mr Stark. He is clearly comfortable with you – clearly feels safe with you. Safe enough to break down and let himself face his emotions within moments of you coming through the door. Comfortable enough to let you hug him, sit next to him, even ruffle his hair. If one of us had tried that he would have bitten our hands off.
“He did what you asked immediately and without question on several occasions, while the staff here had trouble convincing him to let them change his bandages. Trying to get him to get back into bed when he insisted on getting up and walking around while still dizzy from the anaesthetic was a nightmare, but you told him to go back to bed before he fell over, and he just went. Just like that. Didn’t even complain. And not only that – he's smiled since you got here. Several times. And laughed. I can’t convey to you how different he’s been in the, what – hour since you’re arrival? He’s like a completely different child.”
“Yeah, I uh… picked up that he’s not a huge fan of Hass,” Tony says, because he’s not quite sure how to respond to all of that… other stuff. The touchy feely stuff.
“Yes,” Whitfield says sadly, shoulders drooping a little. “Hass means well, she truly does. But children react differently to trauma and loss, and Harley appears to be the ‘lash out in anger’ kind. It could have been anyone, I think, and Harley would have hated them. The person assigned to organise a new family for a child who’s just lost his? They’re bound to cop a bit of backlash for it. That plus the fact that she didn’t quite take him at his word when he said he knew you, and it didn’t go over well.”
“To be fair, it is a pretty unbelievable statement for a kid to make,” Tony says, and Whitfield smiles.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised than when you came through that door,” she says. “I think Harley was the only one who actually thought you would come.”
The guilt of having inadvertently making Harley wait so long tries to raise it’s head, but Tony squashes it down. It won’t help any, feeling guilty that it took so long before they were able to get in touch with him. He’s here now, and the kid knows that he didn’t delay once he got the message, and that’s what matters.
“Anyway,” Whitfield says, and she’s wrapping up now. “I think you’ll be good for him. You’ve not been here long, but you’ve obviously got his best interests at heart. I think him going with you is the best possible outcome he could have had. Not because you’re ‘Tony Stark: Iron Man,’ but because he trusts you, and you obviously care for him.”
Ordinarily, Tony would make some kind of pithy remark that dismisses the touchy feely topic and redirects the conversation into shallower waters, but Whitfield has gone out of her way to convey her confidence in him after Hass’ completely transparent lack of confidence was made clear, so Tony feels like he should probably reply a bit more seriously than he usually would.
“Thanks,” he says, instead of a light hearted one liner. “I hope it is what’s best for him. I kind of… have no idea what I’m doing.”
It’s not usually the kind of thing he would ever allow himself to say – never convey your weaknesses, to anyone – but the words are out his mouth before he can take them back.
Whitfield smiles gently.
“None of us do,” she assures, and then leans in conspiratorially. “I’ll let you in on a secret. Parents only ever look like we know exactly what we’re doing. In reality? We’re all just as clueless as each other, doing our best and hoping we can get our kids to adulthood without messing them up too badly.”
“That’s…. strangely comforting, actually,” Tony says.
Whitfield smiles at him.
“If you need any assistance, call the hospital and ask for me,” she says. “I’ll be seeing you at Harley’s check ups anyway, but if you need anything – advice, the name of a psychologist for Harley, if you think he’s ready for that, the best kind of wine to drink after your kid has broken his fever – just get in touch.”
“Thank you,” Tony says again, and means it. He doesn’t know if he’ll end up calling her, but he appreciates her offer.
“You’re welcome,” Whitfield replies warmly. “I think you’re pretty much cleared to take him home, now, if you’re ready to go.”
It’s a clear end to the conversation, and Tony smiles at her again before back into the kid’s room to stand next to Harley, who’s chatting amicably with an attentive Pepper and Steve. The kid’s changed out of the hospital gown and into a set of clothes that must have been provided, because they’re far too new-looking to have been the ones he was wearing in the crash. Plus, Tony’s pretty sure they wouldn’t make a kid dress in the same outfit he’d been wearing when he was in a car crash. Maybe Hass organised them, as part of getting Harley ready for discharge from the hospital and into some faceless family’s care.
“You good to go, kid?” he asks, slinging an arm carefully about the kid’s shoulders. Harley leans sideways into him. Tony sees Whitfield hiding a smile out the corner of his eye.
“Yup,” Harley replies without hesitation. “Can we stop at McDonalds on the way to New York?”
“You want me to take the quinjet – an extremely advanced piece of machinery that costs more than most people make in ten years of salary – to a McDonalds,” Tony says flatly, staring down at the kid with an unimpressed eyebrow.
Harley beams up at him.
“Yes,” he says.
Tony holds the stare for a moment longer, and then shrugs carelessly.
“Yeah, we could probably manage that,” he says.
“Yes,” Harley crows, pumping his good fist in celebration, at the same time that Pepper hisses “Tony!”
“What?” he asks, innocent.
“He’s just gotten discharged, I think we should probably feed him something more nutritious than McDonalds,” Pepper says.
“Exactly,” Tony says, as though Pepper’s just proven his point for him. “He’s been in hospital for days, Pep. He’s been dealing with hospital food. Hospital food is disgusting.”
“It really is, Ms Potts,” Harley says, and turns The Eyes on her.
“Don’t think you can charm me, young man, Tony has rendered me completely immune to charm,” Pepper says, crossing her arms and staring down at the kid. “You need some decent food in you, and McDonalds does not fit the bill remotely.”
Tony would argue that point (excuse her, no one is immune to Tony’s charms, thank you very much) but he’s curious to see what the outcome of this mini standoff will be.
Harley says nothing further in defence of his pro-McDonalds argument, and he and Pepper stare at each other for a few long moments.
“I suppose we can get you a snack,” she yields.
“Yes,” Harley says again, while Steve chuckles under his breath and Tony grins hugely, extremely amused.
“Immune to charm, huh?” he asks, charmingly.
“Shut it, you,” Pepper says, but there’s a slight smile playing at the corners of her lips. “Right, are we all set?”
“Almost,” Tony says, and cants his head at the kid. “You lot go on – Harley and I will meet you on the roof in a few.”
Pepper nods and turns to Hass and Whitfield.
“Thank you both so much for all your assistance,” she says, as charming as ever as she guides them towards and then out the door.
“See you in a few,” Steve says, following, and sending a reassuring smile Harvey’s way.
“Don’t crash the plane til we get there, Cap,” Harley replies, and Steve’s face twists as he tries to work out how to reply to that, before he decides to just not, and he slips out the door and closes it firmly behind him.
“So what’s up?” Harley asks, twisting to look up at Tony, and Tony can hear through the layer of cheerful bravado to the worried tone underneath. “You having second thoughts, or what?”
“Are you kidding?” Tony replies. “When I’m getting a free minion out of this deal? I don’t think so, kid. Nah – I just wanted to know, did you want to pick up anything before we head back to New York?”
Harley furrows his eyebrows.
“Uh, yeah,” he says. “We’ve covered this. McDonalds.”
Tony huffs a laugh.
“No,” he says, and then sobers a bit. “I mean from your house. Do you want to get anything from there? Any of your clothes, any – anything?”
Harley’s face had closed off the moment Tony mentioned the kid’s house, and Tony’s pretty sure he has his answer before the kid’s even spoken.
“Are you gonna buy me new clothes if I don’t go there first?” the kid asks, and what kind of question is that.
“Course I’m gonna buy you clothes – I’m not gonna make you wear my hand-me-downs,” Tony scoffs.
“Then no,” Harley says. “I don’t wanna get anything. I don’t wanna go there ever again.”
“Ok,” Tony says easily, having expected that answer. Mentally, he’s making a note to have Jarvis organise for a moving company to come and pack up everything at the Keener’s place. Harley doesn’t want any of the stuff now, sure, but Tony will keep it all in storage for him in case he changes his mind later. Would it be better to keep the property, or sell it? Actually – was it even Mrs Keener’s? Probably not. She was probably renting. So should Tony buy the house? Or is that too much of a ghost, having an empty house just sitting there with no one living in it?
Ugh, whatever, that one can be a problem for tomorrow. Maybe he’ll buy it, and then decide what to do with it. Just to be safe.
“Alright then,” Tony says, and gives Harley a push towards the door. “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
“What do you call it?” Harley asks, as they cross the room.
“Call – what?” he asks.
“The Avengers Tower,” Harley explains, and he’s deliberately not looking at Tony. “When you’ve been away on like a business trip or whatever and you’re going back to the Tower and you tell someone where you’re going. Do you say ‘I’m going to The Avengers Tower,’ or do you just say ‘I’m going to The Tower,’ or what?”
“Oh,” Tony says, pausing with his hand on the door, as he thinks about it for a second. “Uh – home, I guess. I just say I’m going home.”
Harley’s quiet for a moment.
“Can,” he says, and Tony blinks down at him because he’s not used to hearing the kid’s voice be that… meek and insecure. “Can I call it that too?”
Tony drops his hand from the door handle, turns around, and ignores his protesting knees as he gets down to the kid’s level. Eye contact is for serious conversations, Butler Jarvis’ voice says again in his head. Tony feels like he might be taking old J’s advice fairly regularly, in the coming days and weeks. He apologises to his knees in advance.
“Yeah,” Tony says, and then waits for Harley to look up from the floor until he’s making eye contact. “Yeah, Harley. You can call it home.”
The smile from the kid is wobbly around the edges, but genuine, and Tony’s face smiles back without any conscious input from his brain.
“You ready to go home, kid?” he asks, and Harley straightens and then nods.
“Yeah,” the kid says. “Let’s go home.”