Harley Keener was eleven when Tony Stark crashed into his life, and that was the day he realized he could fix anything. If he could fix an Iron Man suit, fix his bullying problem, and even fix the anxious mess that was Tony Stark, then he was invincible.
He might not have seen Tony again afterwards, but the man left plenty behind: a teched-out garage, his personal number, and a silent offer to become the father-figure Harley needed. Above all though, the most important thing Tony left behind was empowerment.
The first phone call was a month after the Mandarin incident, when Harley just wanted to see if Tony was okay (he was, by the way). They spent an hour talking about the move to New York after Tony’s house in Malibu was destroyed, Tony’s ideas for new projects and improvements, Harley’s grades at school, and the Mark V potato gun. After that first call, they began to keep in touch somewhat regularly. They tried to call every week, but Iron Man was a superhero busy saving the world, and Harley was a teenager who forgot his responsibilities sometimes.
When they did have time to talk, it would usually be past midnight when Tony couldn’t sleep and Harley didn’t want to. They’d chat for hours about anything and everything. Tony talked about the Avengers and the superhero things they did, Steve Rogers, whom he never saw eye-to-eye with, and when he bought an engagement ring for Pepper, Harley was the first person to know. He had gotten good at reading between the lines, picking out Tony’s insecurities and anxieties from the narcissistic humor.
In return, Harley talked about growing up. He told Tony about his projects that never seemed to stop growing, about fixing things “just like The Mechanic.” He talked about E.J., the bully that wasn’t really a bully anymore, now downgraded to an annoyance.
When Harley was fourteen, he came out for the first time, whispered to Tony Stark that he was gay. Tony had just said, “Cool, kid,” then asked him about biology.
Harley told Tony about his family; hazy memories of a father who left and a bitterness that would never fade, and Mama, who shouldn’t have time to take care of her children, but found some anyway between working, sleeping and eating (Harley didn’t think she did much of the latter two). He also told Tony about Abbie, his younger sister whom he had taken care of since his father left. It wasn’t really fair of Mama to leave a six-year-old as the primary caretaker of an infant, but life wasn’t fair. Harley packed her lunches, walked her to school before running to his own a few blocks away, told her bedtime stories, and kept the light on in their shared bedroom because she was scared of the dark.
Then, when Harley was fifteen, Abbie got sick. Biology wasn’t Harley’s best subject (he preferred physics, math, and sometimes chemistry), so he didn’t really understand what the doctor said about Abbie’s condition. One familiar word resonated deep inside Harley, though, and he latched onto it in dread.
Harley knew what lupus meant: a lifetime of pain, medical bills, and medicine they couldn’t afford. When they took Abbie in for more testing, Harley ran the two miles from the hospital to their house, ignoring Mama’s desperate pleas for him to stay because she couldn’t do this alone. He went straight to the garage and fixed things, anything he could find; Harley just needed to fix. He might not be able to fix Abbie, but at least he could fix their leaky faucet.
Just like Harley expected, they couldn’t pay for Abbie’s medical bills, tests, and the medicine she desperately needed, so he started working.
Abbie needed a caretaker and Mama still never had time, even for her broken little girl. Despite all the hours she worked, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills, so Harley opened up his garage to the public. He called it The Mechanic’s Shed, an homage to the father figure he never really talked to anymore. They called each other once a month, maybe. Once, Tony offered to help them out and send money, get them a better insurance plan. Harley wanted to accept, he really did, but he was a bullheaded teenager whose new business was booming, and he wanted to be the one to fix the wretchedness of their lives.
An easy solution presented itself one day while he was working in the Shed.
“You look like you could blow off some steam” they told him, and they were right. That stupid vacuum cleaner was disgusting and clogged. He spent hours poking around in the built up dirt and hairballs and still couldn’t figure out what was wrong underneath all the grime. Throwing down his tools, Harley followed them to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Rose Hill where they taught him how to fight.
At sixteen, Harley won his first fight after training for three hard months at the fight club. He held the stacks of bills, counted them again and again until the numbers blurred in his brain: $15,000. It was more money than they’d ever had, and it paid off the rest of their mortgage. The family might go bankrupt at any given moment, but at least they owned a house - a guaranteed roof over their heads.
The calls with Tony stopped at some point, and Harley didn’t have the time to miss them. He went to school, suffered through classes, and fell asleep during calculus. His grades were suffering, but as long as he didn’t fail, Harley was fine with that. He didn’t need college anyway. It was expensive and a needless financial strain. After school, Harley would work at the Shed, fixing the things people brought in for him until the sun set. Then he would fight. He trained hard and punched harder, and the money it brought in gave them more financial security than they had in years. Mama stopped working long hours and could care for her little girl because Harley fought to support them, to give them the life they deserved.
After graduating high school, Harley threw himself into work. The Mechanic Jr. by day, and a fight club champion by night. He wasn’t a superhero with a secret identity, but he sure felt a lot like one. The idea was exhilarating.
Once upon a time, all Harley wanted was to get out of Rose Hill, follow Tony’s footsteps by attending MIT, and make a good, honest life for himself. This dream was all but forgotten when Harly stood triumphant in the middle of an illegal boxing ring. For once, life was good for Harley Keener.
Then, Abbie died.
The doctors said she had an infection caused by the medicine she took. Harley wasn’t really listening; he was too busy shattering.
He stopped working, stopped fighting, stopped eating and sleeping. All he did was curl up in Abbie’s bed and lie there with his eyes open, thinking about the sister he didn’t get to know. In the past couple of years, Harley hadn’t been home very much, so the Abbie he still remembered vividly was eight, not thirteen. Harley remembered the heat of summer, shoplifting to bring home a tub of vanilla ice cream. At the time, Abbie’s eyes lit up in delight, and Harley committed it to memory. Now, that moment in time was the only memory he had of his sister.
Harley punched the wall, glaring at the hole his fist left. There was a hole inside of him too, punched in by his father’s abandonment, his mother’s depression, his sister’s death. He was so, so alone.
Then, Tony Stark called him. “Hey, kid. I haven’t heard from you in a while.”
The call lasted three hours, and the first half-hour was Harley sobbing as he listened to Tony’s unsteady breathing on the other end. He thought he could hear Cyndi Lauper playing faintly in the background. Then, like a dam bursting, he told Tony everything that happened in the past two years, while the other man listened quietly. By the time he hung up, Harley felt lighter. Maybe it would never get better, maybe he would always be a miserable wreck, but he didn’t feel alone anymore, and it made all the difference in the world.
Tony texted him an address for somewhere in New York. “Come when you’re ready. Open invitation.” Harley left the next day. He woke with the sun and kissed his Mama goodbye, drove ten hours straight in the 1969 Ford Mustang Tony restored all those years ago. Harley was getting the hell out of Tennessee.
Instead of a glittering, glass monstrosity towering over Manhattan, like he expected, Harley was faced with a serene cabin overlooking Lake Erie. He thought it would remind him of Rose Hill, too similar to the place he just escaped from to be comfortable, but it didn’t. It felt safe, and for the first time in years, Harley felt like he could breathe.
Tony was expecting him, even though Harley forgot to call and say he was coming. The man was waiting on the porch when he parked the car. Neither of them really did hugs, but they embraced anyway, and Harley felt the last of his despair slip away. There was still an ache that lingered, but it was manageable, at least.
That night, he met Pepper, Tony’s wife, who hugged him and set out an extra dinner plate. He met Morgan, Tony’s baby daughter. Harley thought he was all cried out, but rocking the little girl in his arms as Tony and Pepper did the dishes was enough to make him blink back tears. One escaped, fell onto her forehead and glistened sadly. He brushed it away, kissed the spot where it landed, vowing to protect her, to succeed with Morgan where he failed with Abbie.
It was a sleepless night for Harley, so he climbed a tree in the yard and watched silently over the house. When the sun rose, he clambered back down and went into the house, his house now too. A dirty plate in the sink and a half-full pot of coffee showed Tony was already awake, but the man was nowhere to be found. However, Harley did find a toolbox and stack of wood in his room when he entered, the only explanation being a blank card signed “The Mechanic.” Harley smiled, and it felt weird on his tear-stained face.
He took the tools, wood, and a mug of coffee outside, where he built something new. After years of only fixing broken things, construction felt glorious. By the time Pepper called him inside for dinner, he had the framework for a treehouse set up.
Two peaceful weeks Harley spent at the cabin, working on his treehouse, drinking coffee with Tony, cooking dinner with Pepper, and taking care of Morgan. The Stark family helped fill the hole that Rose Hill had left. Although it wasn’t quite the same, it was definitely more than okay, and that was all Harley needed.
Then, Tony had to ruin it by telling Harley about Peter Parker, Tony’s intern and, apparently, a superhero to boot. He, like Harley, just graduated from high school, but Peter attended a fancy science and technology school on scholarship. Peter just got home from Europe, a three-week trip he had taken with his friends, and was spending a week in Queens with his aunt before spending the rest of his summer in the cabin. On top of all this, he was going to MIT in the fall. If Harley was jealous of the proud glint in Tony's eyes as he talked about Peter, he did his best to hide it.
In late July, Peter pulled up to the cabin in a sleek black car driven by the Starks’ bodyguard, Happy. Harley watched from his tree in the backyard, but turned back to work with a bitter taste in his mouth as Peter disappeared into the cabin. He was trying to figure out how to get the treehouse from the ground into the tree and where it would be the most stable. Engrossed in his work, he didn’t hear the back door slam open with a crash.
“Hey, I’m Peter.” The words startled Harley so much that he fell out of the tree, landed on his back, and got the air knocked out of his lungs. The other boy panicked. “Oh, my God! I’m so sorry, I thought you heard me come out of the house, and I didn’t even think about the fact that you were in a tree. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Is there anything I can do to help you?”
Harley grit his teeth and closed his eyes, blocking out Peter’s chatter as he caught his breath. When he could breathe again, he pushed himself to his feet with a groan, used to the pain. The impact equivalent to getting slammed to the ground in a fight.
“I’m fine,” he spat out as Peter watched him, expression mirroring a kicked puppy. The look only intensified at Harley’s tone.
“I’m so sorry, man. Can I get a do-over?” The boy stuck his hand out with an expectant face. “Hey, I’m Peter Parker.”
“Harley Keener.” Without another word, he brushed past Peter and walked towards the house. He was done working for the day and he wanted to clean up before dinner, trying to ignore Peter’s stricken face as he grabbed clean clothes from his room and stomped towards the bathroom. He was a little mad that Peter scared him out of the tree, a little embarrassed about falling in front of the other boy, and more than a little jealous of Tony’s young, genius replacement.
When Tony had told him about Peter Parker, Harley imagined that he would be a lot of different things. He didn’t expect him to be so...perfect.
It made Harley’s blood boil.
Tony was lingering in the hallway when he stepped out of the bathroom. “Peter is going to be staying in your room. We put the spare bed in there already. You’re good with that?”
Harley couldn’t do anything but agree. Was he supposed to make Tony’s favorite boy sleep on the couch? Of course not. He bit back a scathing comment and nodded. The delighted look on Tony’s face almost made it worth it.
Harley kept quiet throughout dinner. Pepper and Tony were clearly thrilled to have the other boy there, and even Morgan got caught up in the excitement. “Pete!” she shrieked, clapping her hands, and the boy looked thrilled.
Of course, Harley was not at all jealous that Morgan could say Peter’s name. His name was just more sophisticated than Peter’s, that was why. He was also not at all petty, not one bit.
Peter was already in Harley’s bedroom when he walked in after washing the dishes with Pepper. He was lying on his bed and looked up from his phone when Harley entered.
“I know you don’t like me,” Peter stated once Harley had sat on his bed.
“Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out,” he spat back, pulling his shirt off. New York might not be as hot as Tennessee, but it was still too darn hot in the summer.
Peter continued without missing a beat. “And I don’t like you either.”
“You ain’t the first person to tell me that, I doubt you’ll be the last.”
“You’re an asshole, Keener, did you know that?”
Harley smirked. “Only for you, Parker.”
Peter sighed impatiently, so Harley rolled onto his side to face the other boy. “Look, I’m only here for thirty days, starting tomorrow, until I have to go to Boston. Then, I’ll be out of your hair. Think we can be civil?”
Only thirty days? Harley shrugged. “Sure. Challenge accepted.”
Peter smiled, a soft, nervous smile that lit up his face. He held out his hand, like a dork, and like a dork, Harley shook it. “What should we call it?”
“Call what? The challenge?”
“Well, yeah.” Peter’s face reddened, but he refused to look away from Harley.
He had to admire the kid’s boldness. “You’re a piece of work, Parker.”
“Only for you,” he shot back, but Harley watched the redness creep towards his neck.
“I was thinking something along the lines of the Thirty Days Challenge.”
Harley considered it for a moment before shaking his head. “Too basic, too broad.”
Peter pouted, and Harley hated that he thought it was adorable. “Well, what do you suggest then?”
“The Thirty Days of You and Me Challenge.”