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Catching Lightning in a Bottle

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“Again?” Tony asked, dropping the precision groover with a dull thud as Pepper’s heels clicked across the floor of the Tower’s workshop in what he’d already determined to be her version of high-fashion annoyed stomping.

“I don’t know why you don’t just have your lawyer or, I don’t know, a former CIA wetworks team handle this.  This time it was, and I swear I am not making this up, a one-armed man who told me that, and I’m quoting, “If Stark wants Stevie to sign something so badly, the---uh, okay, well, I’m not quoting that part, but, basically, you---can drag his ass out of that monstrosity of his and come down here and say it to him in person,” and then slammed the door in my face,” Pepper replied, bristling at the memory. 

Tony winced, mouth flattening into a thin line.  “Ah.  You’ve met Barnes, then.  Still has the same charming personality, I see.”

“Your ex, or soon-to-be-ex or whatever he is, has quite the collection of…of…defenders to say the least,” Pepper agreed, slumping into a chair and tossing the folder of paperwork onto one of Tony’s workstations.  Tony stared at it for a long minute.  This stupid snafu should’ve been over and done with weeks ago.  Hell, this whole thing was supposed to have been over and done with years ago, he thought, rubbing the heel of his hand into his forehead. 

“Last time, it was a redhead yelling at me in Russian,” Pepper continued.  She leaned her head back in the chair, swiveling it a bit back and forth with the toes of her shoes as her fingers dug small circles into her temples.  “I don’t know what she said, but she definitely meant it.  And the time before that, some enormous body-builder with better hair than me telling me this “unworthy task was beneath me.”  Who are these people?” she demanded, throwing her hands up in the air in a gesture of exasperation.

“His friends,” Tony replied.  My friends, too, once, or he’d thought they were.  But that had been a lifetime ago.

“Look,” she began, waving off the question.  “I don’t know why these people are up in arms.  I mean, you both wanted the divorce, right?  You said your father paid him some kind of alimony settlement, so it isn’t like he can claim fraud or anything.  No court is going to let a filing error suddenly give him rights to anything you’ve built, Tony.  Why not just go down there yourself, talk to the guy, explain what happened and be done with this?”

“I don’t want to see him,” Tony said, looking away from her too-direct gaze.  I don’t want to see him.  I don’t want to talk to him.  I don’t want to think about him, and every time I think I might actually be able to do that, there’s a smell or a taste or something just out of the corner of his eye, and he’d end up thinking of that crappy closet of an apartment with the mattress on the floor, a thin, stringy towel tacked up over the window, and a toaster oven with a couple of burners on top making the world’s worst curry and rice, and it would hurt.  Hurt so damn much, because he’d been happy, for once in his miserable life.  Deluded and completely played, sure, but happy, and it was almost worth ignoring the first part for the latter.   Almost.  It shouldn’t still sting this much, but here it was again, years later and Steve Rogers was still fucking up his life.

“Okaaaaaay,” she said after a beat, drawing out the word.  “How is it you were married to this random guy, and I didn’t even know about it until now, anyway?”

“Howard kept it out of the papers,” Tony replied quickly.  “Got some judge friend of his to seal all the records.” One thing they’d ever agreed on, Tony thought dully.  Howard hadn’t wanted anyone to get wind of just how easy a mark his son was, and Tony hadn’t wanted anyone to know exactly how much of a naïve idiot he’d been.

“That wasn’t what I asked,” Pepper pointed out, but didn’t press, just let the question hang there, her expression going strangely soft.  Tony supposed he owed her something of an explanation, considering what she’d been dealing with on his behalf the past couple of weeks.

“It was a long time ago,” Tony finally settled on.  “I was doing my grad work at MIT.  He worked there.  Janitor,” Tony explained.  He hated how his voice sounded, strained and trying too hard not to be. “Cliché, right?” Tony asked around a huff of air.  He didn’t want to talk about this, particularly not this part, the part where everything had seemed so good, and there had been this amazing future in his head that for the first time in his life made him actually look forward to it. 

“Were you…was this about Howard?” Pepper asked carefully.

“Getting back at the old man with a little petty revenge fling?  No.  Good call, but no,” Tony admitted, sucking in a long breath and letting it out slowly before continuing.  He felt a phantom chill run through him, and remembered waking up groggy and cold, stomach churning and completely disoriented to find bright, blue eyes staring back at him in what had seemed like genuine concern at the time. 

“I threw up on him, and he put me in a decontamination shower in the Chem lab,” Tony recalled with a twist of his mouth.  “Your basic love at first sight thing.  Or, I fell in love with him, anyway.  He…he fell in love with my dad’s bank account, as it turned out.  Got paid for his time and left.  I learned a very valuable lesson, or so Howard liked to remind me from time to time.  That’s it.  End of story,” Tony finished with a shrug, aiming for nonchalance and missing by a mile based on Pepper’s sharp look.

“Except, apparently not,” Tony amended, folding his arms behind his head with a grimace.  “Because my lawyers inform me that one of the affidavits in the divorce paperwork had an improper notarization on it and they worry the whole thing might not be valid without going back to court and getting a decree or getting a new one signed.  While there are many parts of myself that I don’t mind seeing on the front page, I have to admit, this is one I’d rather not have played out in public.”

 “I’m sorry, Tony.  I thought—well.  I don’t know what I thought.  I didn’t know.  Look, don’t worry about this.  I’ll get it taken care of, one way or the other.  There’s no reason for you to have to deal with this…this person….again,” she said archly.  Tony’s mouth curled into a smile at that.  Pepper having his back was a given, but it was still nice to hear.

“No.  No, Pep, I shouldn’t have put this on you to begin with.  I wanted to avoid---well, a lot.  Surprise, surprise, I know.  I thought this would be easier.  Us not having to see each other again.  Thought  maybe he—fuck, I don’t know, felt bad or something.  Wishful thinking, clearly.  I wasn’t going to be a petty bastard about this. Bygones and all.  But, hell, if Steve wants to play hardball, fine.  I’ll handle it,” Tony said.  “He’ll sign or he can deal with every lawyer in New York breathing down his neck.”

“Are you sure, Tony?  Really, I don’t mind,” Pepper offered.  “I was just frustrated and…I shouldn’t have said anything.  I know you wouldn’t ask me without a good reason.  Okay, that’s not entirely true, but I shouldn’t have assumed.”

“No.  No, you’re right.  I need to deal with this.  It was a long time ago, and hell, who knows? This might actually be good for me.,” Tony replied tightly, feeling a pit open up where his stomach used to be.  Knowing he needed to deal with it and actually wanting to deal with it were two very different things.  He ran his hands up and down his face, trying to clear his head.  “Like one of those bonfire-of-the-ex things.  Cleansing.  Healing. You’ll see.”  He wasn’t sure which one of them he was trying to convince, but neither of them seemed to be exactly buying it. 

“Okay, Tony.  But, if you need anything…Any. Thing. At. All,” Pepper enunciated sternly.  “You tell me, alright?”

“Of course, Ms. Potts,” Tony said with a nod.   He watched her as she left, then turned back to his workstation once he heard the snick of the door closing behind her. The blue schematics of some now-forgotten project hovered in front him, a scattering of precision welding tools in disarray below the projection.  He pushed the chair back far enough to pull open the long, metal drawer at the base of the desk.  In the back, behind bags of dried blueberries, three months’ worth of Popular Mechanics, and some award he didn’t remember winning, there was a faded, stuffed Marvin the Martian doll just bigger than his hand. 

If he closed his eyes, he could see it.  Jimmy’s Balloon Darts on the Bowery, Tony remembered.   Colorful balloons on a pegboard, with a big sign dangling from the front of the booth warning, No Leaning Over the Table.  The tang of salt and fried food in the air, his stomach still protesting from too much saltwater taffy and too much screaming on the Cyclone, feeling almost lightheaded because this, this moment, was so good, so perfect, full of promise and a future where he got to have this so often that he got used to it. 

In hindsight, it had clearly been destined to fail.  He should’ve seen it coming a mile away, but he’d been young and stupid, and Steve had been…well, Steve had still been everything, then.

“When I asked you to win me something for a honeymoon souvenir, this wasn’t what I had in mind,” Tony grumbled with a frown.

“Reminds me of you.  Always coming up with ideas.  “Where’s the kaboom? There’s supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!’” Steve quoted, shaking the doll at Tony.

“One time, Rogers.  That happened one time,” Tony protested with a grin.  “Give it here, you dork,” Tony said with an exaggerated sigh.  “You being a sickly child gave you some kind of cartoon-quoting superpower that is entirely unfair.”

“I like to think that makes up for all the missed school and time confined to a bed,” Steve nodded agreeably. 

“Hey, there’s one of those photobooth things,” Tony blurted out, grabbing for Steve’s hand.  “What do you say to some truly high class wedding photos?  Look, we even have our choice of backgrounds.  We can pick creepy circus clown, frolicking rainbow ponies or construction vehicles.”

Steve looked side-eyed at Tony.  “Rainbow ponies,” they both said together, then broke out laughing.  “Only if Marvin is in the picture, too, though,” Steve objected, beaming brightly at Tony.

“Naturally.  First family photo and all that,” Tony agreed with a jaunty grin.  “We’re going to look back and laugh at this one day, you know that, right?”

“Tony?  I’m laughing at this right now,” Steve replied as he pulled the curtain to the booth back and let Tony step inside, then waved a hand in front of his face as the smell of candy and urine hit them from the inside of the booth. 

Tony  tugged Steve down next to him on the cramped bench inside the photobooth. That didn’t work, so he stood up and let Steve sit down. He dug two fairly smooth dollar bills out of his wallet and fed them into the machine, then plopped down on Steve’s lap, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively.  “Why, Steven. Not in front of the children,” Tony protested, putting one hand over Marvin’s eyes.  “You know what I mean,” Tony said, looking over at Steve’s profile.  His husband.  God, it still felt so strange to say that.  Howard was going to raise holy hell, but that was tomorrow’s problem.

“I know what you mean, Tony,” Steve said, face falling for a moment.  “I know—I’m sorry.  I know this isn’t what you’re used to.”

“You’re right.  This isn’t what I’m used to,” Tony agreed, watching Steve’s face shutter before he looked away.  “This is so, so much better, Steve.”  The flash caught them then, and Tony held up the stuffed toy, smiling brightly, while Steve struggled with what to do with his arms.  Two of the pictures were Tony looking like a deer in headlights and Steve being all shoulders, but the first was Steve looking down at Tony, expression gone heartbreakingly soft and the last was the two of them laughing, Tony’s head buried against Steve’s chest while he grinned up at the camera, the stupid doll clutched in his hand.