The Writer They Call Tay (awanderingbard) wrote,
The Writer They Call Tay

MCU: Sincerity and Strawberries

Title: Sincerity and Strawberries
Characters: Howard Stark, Maria Stark, Tony Stark, Edwin Jarvis, random au pair
Rating: PG-13
Warnings/Triggers: swearing and innuendo, a bit of sadness
Spoilers: None
Pairings: Howard/Maria, references to Jarvis/Anna
Word Count 8,369
Summary: Howard's plans for the night are derailed when Maria has to go away, leaving him with Tony, a broken robot, and a whole lot of reports to read.
Author's notes: Man, this one went 'fwoosh!' on me and blew right up. I started with one very small idea, and then...I couldn't stop writing. Kind of a go at Howard's narration voice in an non-daemon setting, and his experiences with fatherhood in Tony's early years.

A mix of fluff and a bit of sadness, mostly stemming from knowledge we have of the future than the content of the story.

Tony is ~2 years old here.

“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

Howard had to admit that, with all the terrors and annoyances and worry that came with parenthood, there was a solid amount of joys, too, and one of them was the utter delight Tony had when Howard walked through the door. Even in a house the size of the one they lived in, Tony always seemed to be right there to say hello when he entered the foyer. At the end of a long day of bullshit at Stark Industries, or, in this case, three days of bullshit in Washington, it was nice to have something as sincere as Tony being happy to see him.

“Hey-hello,” Tony said, as he wrapped his arms around Howard's leg after having carefully climbed down the stairs to him.

“Hey, kid,” Howard said. He took his hat off and plunked it down on Tony's head. “What's new?”

Tony reached up to grab the hat, laughing as though this was the most hilarious thing that he'd ever seen, and tilted his head back, trying to see underneath the brim.

“Darby!” he greeted Jarvis, as he entered with Howard's luggage. Tony disengaged from Howard and galloped to attack him instead. “Hello to you!”

“Who's this?” Jarvis said. “I'm not sure we've met. You seem rather short for Mr. Stark. What's that on your head?”

“Hat,” Tony said, lifting it up and showing off his face. “It's Tony!”

“Oh, yes, now I recognize you,” Jarvis said. “You gave me quite a fright there, Master Tony.”

Tony giggled, putting the hat down on his head again and running around the foyer blind with his hands held out in front of him.

“That is very dangerous, stop that at once,” Jarvis scolded.

“No!” Tony said, and kept running.

Howard managed to muffle most of his laughter, which was directed more at the utter resignation in Jarvis' face than Tony's defiance. In a brief furrow of his brow, Jarvis managed to convey thirty years of trying to stop a Stark from doing something and failing at it. Tony acquiring the word 'no' seemed to have been a bleak day in Jarvis' life. Howard intercepted Tony and swung him up over his shoulder, making Tony shriek in delight.

Jarvis went upstairs with the luggage, taking one staircase as Maria descended on the other. They called out greetings to one another across the gap.

“Hello,” Maria said, dodging Tony's kicking feet to kiss Howard. “How was...whatever it was that you were doing, I didn't actually understand?”

“I was there for three days, I'm not sure I understand,” Howard said. “I talked, they talked, I talked some more. I smiled, they accused me of being flippant, I looked serious, they accused me of being standoffish. I bought a lot of dinners, I talked to a lot of pricks, and long story short, I bypassed six months of red tape and the world is a better place.”

“Oh good, I'm glad,” Maria said. “I think. Is the plane still fueled, or do I need to call in another one?”

“Why do you need a plane?” Howard asked.

Tony was squirming, so he put him back on the floor, and Tony put his face in Maria's skirt.

“I'm going to L.A,” Maria replied.

“But...I just got home,” Howard said.

“Yes, I know, I waited for you to do that and now I'm going to go,” Maria said.

“What's in L.A?” Howard asked.

“Business,” Maria said. “There's some sort of issue with the malaria vaccine, I need to go to Stark Pharma and figure it out.”

“Can't someone else do it?”
“Not as well as I can do it.”
“And you have to go? You can't do it over the phone?”
“No, the vaccine is unstable, it's...the proteins's hard to explain, but if I just bash around in the dark I'm going to lose weeks—months of work and have to start again.”
“But I haven't even seen you for more than a minute.”
“You can take me to the airfield.”
“I don't want to take you to the airfield. Can't you go tomorrow, at least?”
“No, I need to go now.”
“But, for God's sake, Maria, I've been gone for three days, you're just going to walk out as soon as I come in? Maybe I'd like to spend some time with my wife. It can't be that important.”

Maria set her head in the way that Howard knew meant he'd stumbled into trouble.

“I am going to say, very gently and kindly, that you are being hypocritical, and I'm going to give you a pointed look,” she narrowed her eyes slightly, “and let you think about how you'd like to respond.”

Howard managed to get his temper in check before he said something even more stupid. He'd like to sit and talk to her and make love to her and look at her for awhile, but he knew that, if the roles were reversed, he'd think very little of walking out as soon as she got home, which did make him a hypocritical asshole. If he'd wanted a wife who would be waiting with his slippers when he came in, he shouldn't have married Maria Carrera. She had no notions of bringing slippers for anyone, and that was sometimes as attractive as it was inexplicably infuriating to him. Even as he found the idea of her being the only person smart enough to save a crucial vaccine sexy as hell.

“I don't want you to go,” he said, unable to resist pouting slightly.

She smiled and put her hands on his cheeks. “It's important to me. I would rather be here, too, but you understand why I need to go.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Howard said. “Are you taking Tony with you?”

“No, I won't be able to look after him there, it's best if he's here,” she said.

“Who's going to look after him here?” Howard said.

She slapped his cheek lightly. “You could try,” she said. “Angélique says she's happy to extend her childcare hours provided you can give her a few hours off tomorrow evening to go the theater. And Anna says she'll take him during those few hours, if you're called away. And I'm sure Jarvis will lend a hand.”

“Where are you staying?” Howard said.
“The penthouse.”
“The penthouse isn't open.”
“I've called to have it opened.”
“There's no staff.”
“I don't need staff. I probably won't be there that much, anyway.”

Howard sighed. “How long will you be gone for?”

“As short a time as I can possibly manage,” she said. She leaned forward and kissed him.

“Make sure you get Melendez on your security detail, don't go roaming around by yourself,” he said. “And ask Lao to drive you.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Stark,” Maria said, smartly. “I will be extremely safe, I promise. You never answered me about the plane.”

“There's not enough fuel to get you to L.A, but it won't take long to top it off,” Howard said. “I told Jenkins to go home, though.”

“I've called Costa,” Maria said. “He's happy for a few days in Hollywood, he'll fly me there and back.”

Howard couldn't think of any other reason for her not to go. He wondered what it was about Maria that made her so able to cut through all of his bullshit and circumvent him. He could convince anyone to do anything, but not her. Which was kind of infuriating-but-sexy, too.

Maria knelt down to scoop up Tony, who had been playing with Howard's hat while this argument had gone on. She bounced him and put her face to his and whispered to him, making him giggle.

“Jarvis!” Howard bellowed up the stairs.

Jarvis came striding out to the gallery.

“Mrs. Stark is going to L.A, can you take her to the airfield?” Howard said.

“Of course,” Jarvis said, not missing a beat. “Do you need anything packed, Mrs. Stark?”

“I have a bag, it's in my room,” Maria said.

“I'll get it for you,” Jarvis said. “And Master Tony?”

“Master Tony is staying here,” Maria said.

There was a microsecond of 'oh dear' in Jarvis' face before he smiled, nodded, and went to get the bag.

“Maybe we should go on vacation,” Howard said, turning back to Maria. “We could go to Italy.”

“Vacations never work very well,” Maria said. “You always say if you wanted to be badgered by phone calls and emergencies in wherever we are, you would have opened a branch of Stark Industries there.”

“Okay, maybe not a vacation, maybe...a mini one, where we just stay home for a day and hang out in bed and eat strawberries,” Howard said.

“I think what you're referring to is called a day off,” Maria said.

“Oh, yeah,” Howard said. “Yeah. I've heard of that. We should have a day off. Maybe two. Or four.”

“That's a lot of strawberries,” Maria said.

“It's a lot of time in bed, too,” Howard said, waggling his eyebrows.

Maria waggled back. “I will definitely discuss it when I get back,” she said.

“Looking forward to it,” Howard said.

“Now,” Maria said to Tony. “Mommy has to go away for a little bit. But first we're going to have a little snuggle, and then I'm going to say 'goodbye, Tony', and you're going to stay with Angélique and Daddy and Jarvis and Anna, and they're going to keep you nice and safe and snug until I get back. And when I get back, I'm going to cover you with little kisses.” She pecked all over his face, making him giggle as he tried to shield it with his hands. “And I always come back, don't I? Because I love you so much.”

“I love you!” Tony said.

Jarvis came back down with Maria's bag, and the moment Tony saw that, he put two and two together and all hell broke loose. Maria winced as Tony's face screwed up and flushed red. Within seconds he was whimpering, and then he was wailing.

“I know it's very sad when Mommy leaves, but I'm going to come back as soon as I can,” Maria said.

She put him down on the floor and took his hand to walk with him to the door as Jarvis sprinted out ahead with Maria's bag, because he was a coward.

Maria crouched down at the door, and took Tony by the shoulders. “Okay, Tony, Mommy's going to go now,” she said, with a calm smile. “And I'm going to give you a hug to keep for me, and when I come home you can give it back.”

She wrapped Tony's wailing form up and hugged him to her chest, and Howard could see how hard this was for her, and he was able to snap out of his own discontentment for a moment to remember other people had feelings, too.

“Come on, Tony,” Howard said, going over and reaching for his hand. “Say goodbye to Mommy, we're going to...have lots of fun.”

Tony pulled his hand away and stomped his feet. “No! Not go!” he said. “Stay with Tony!”

Maria kept up her calm smile. “I want to, but I have to go,” she said. She kissed his forehead. “You be a good boy for Daddy. I love you very much. Goodbye, Tony.” She straightened up and pecked Howard on the cheek. “I love you very much, too.”

“Back atcha,” Howard said. “Go make some scientific breakthroughs, or I'm going to be very bitter.”

Maria's smile was a little more genuine. “I promise I'll cure something while I'm away,” she said.

She left and Howard stopped Tony from running after her, picking him up before he left the house. The wailing right next to his ear was louder than an explosion, and he felt like he had to shout over it.

“Wave goodbye,” he yelled, offering his own wave after Maria.

“No!” Tony said. “Don't want!”

“Yeah, kid,” Howard said, with a sigh. “Me either.”

Howard handed Tony off to Angélique to get him calmed down. She was the au pair, who was in New York for six months as part of a grand world tour of au pairing she was doing, which was a thing that they didn't really do in America, but seemed to have become quite popular in Europe after the War. She was a nice kid, about twenty-one and sweet, and probably the kind of girl who he would have found very appealing at one point, but these days he liked to look, but kept his touching restricted to Maria only. Angélique was great with Tony, and he was learning some French from her, and she was very easy-going about when she was on duty and when she wasn't. Which Maria liked, because nannies could cling to Tony like their entire existence was rendered moot if Maria decided to take him to the park, and it was almost a constant battle between them and Maria about who knew Tony best or how he should be raised.

“I just want some help, I don't want another mother!” Maria had said, after the last nanny had quit over 'significant differences in opinions'.

And Angélique was a good help and had no interest in being another mother, so it was all going well.

Except right now, when Howard could still hear Tony screaming after she'd taken him upstairs to play.

Howard was grumpy as hell, and stomped into his office only to find a huge stack of reports to go over, which made him even grumpier. He poured himself a drink, and flopped down at his desk, and glared at the reports. He hated reports.

He took the cover page off the first one and folded it into a paper airplane as he read the 5,000 words that it took to explain that they tried to do something and it didn't work, so they were trying something else now. He tossed the airplane over to the garbage, and awarded himself ten points when it went in. He initialed the report, put it in the outbox and picked up the next report. He folded a different airplane model as he read about how they'd tried to do something and it had worked, but no one was sure why, so they recommended not marketing the product until they knew. That took at least 12,000 words to convey and Howard's airplane missed the garbage.

When he was at 50 points out of a possible 70, Jarvis knocked and stuck his head in.

“Pardon me, sir, but Cook would like to know if you'll be dining in the dining room this evening,” he said.

“No, we can all eat on trays,” Howard said. “Tony can eat with Angélique. I'm in a bad mood; I'll just get waspish if we all eat together, and I'll probably snap at him and make him upset.”

“Very good, sir,” Jarvis said. “I'll bring in your tray in here when it's ready?”

“I can get it,” Howard said. “Go home and see your wife, you've been away for three days. One of us should get some snuggling in.”

“I have to polish the silverware,” Jarvis said.

“You can do a little of that too, if you want, she's your wife,” Howard said, with a grin.

Jarvis gave him a pointed look. “That was not a euphemism,” he said, primly.

“I'm pretty sure the silverware will keep,” Howard said. “Do we even need it this week? We'll use the crappy silverware. I won't tell the Butler's Union.”

“I wanted to polish it before we left, and it will just be easier for me to polish it than not polish it and have it on my brain that I haven't polished it,” Jarvis tried to explain. “I've been very anxious about it already.”

“Just don't make your wife a golf widow over silverware,” Howard said. “Go home and eat some goulash and come back.”

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said.

“Did Maria get off okay?” Howard asked.

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. “I saw her onto the plane, and take off was clean. She was somewhat upset when we left, due to Master Tony's strop, but she was fine by the time we reached the airfield.”

“Thanks,” Howard said. “When you get a minute, can you call Polanksi's in L.A and have them send a bouquet to her office? I'd like it to be there before she gets in, but it's a long flight, so no immediate rush.”

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. “Any particular type of flowers?”

“Just something...cheerful,” Howard said. “Lilies and tulips, those are her favorites. I just want something to cheer her up if it's bad news, and let her know I'm thinking about her. Nothing too over-the-top, though. Not like I'm trying really hard.”

“I understand,” Jarvis said. “I'll do that before I start with the silverware.”

“Thanks,” Howard said.

Jarvis bowed about of the room, and Howard returned to his reports and airplanes. Cook brought in the tray of food half an hour later. He took a break from his reports to eat, and then returned to them.

70 points out of 190 was the airplane score when he heard little feet in the hallway, being pursued by big feet. He didn't take much note of it; Tony had spent most of his days since he'd learned how to walk with someone chasing after him. It wasn't until he arrived in the doorway of Howard's office with his face bright red that Howard realized something was up. Surely he wasn't still upset about Maria?

Angélique tumbled in after him, murmuring French apologies and trying to pull Tony back. Tony escaped her grasp and ran over to Howard, tugging urgently on his sleeve.

“Daddy, broked!” he said, holding up a smashed toy in his hands. “Help make it better!”

“I'm very sorry, Monsieur Stark,” Angélique said. “He was playing on the gallery and his toy fell through the railings to the floor below. He's very upset.”

Howard could see that he was very upset. Not the kind of upset he got when he didn't get his way or he was overtired or wasn't feeling well—or when Maria left—, but a genuine, heartbroken upset.

“Him fall down hurt,” Tony said, pushing the toy into Howard's lap. “Build it better.”

When Tony had started being active enough to get bumps and bruises, Howard always referred to the treatment of them as 'repairing' Tony, and 'building it better so it doesn't hurt anymore', as a way to sort of downplay the injury. And that had worked; Tony felt better as soon as Howard or Maria gave him 'new' parts. But now, Tony tended to refer to anything that was hurt or damaged as 'broken' and asked for it to be 'built better' again.

Howard picked up the toy to see the damage. It was Tony's favorite one, a little robot that waddled along and moved its arms around. The fifteen foot fall onto marble flooring had done a number on it. Its wires were all exposed, some of them disconnected. The plastic was cracked in a number of places. One arm and one leg had come off, and were also cracked. The light bulbs in its eyes were shattered.

Howard's first instinct was to toss it, and send the au pair out to buy a new one. It's not like they couldn't afford it. Two things stopped him. One was that his in-laws had given it to Tony, and his in-laws weren't exactly rich. Howard could remember how much his own parents had to scrimp and save anytime they got him something nice, and it felt like it would be a really dick move to go out and buy a new one, when Antonio and Isabella had probably put aside some money to buy it for Tony. They felt inadequate enough already.

The second thing that stopped him was how absolutely gutted Tony was. Replacing it with a new one just wasn't going to cover the damage. Only heroic, life-saving measures.

“It's Tony's,” Tony said, pawing at Howard's leg. He placed his Fisher-Price hammer that he liked to carry in his overall pocket into Howard's hand. “Build, build, build! You can fix.”

God, that was fucking heart wrenching.

“Okay, kid,” Howard said. “Okay, I'll try. But you have to calm down, okay? Starks don't cry when bad things happen, they do something to fix it.” He stood up. “I'll have to go to the workshop to get some tools. You stay with Angélique.”

Tony toddled after him, not staying with Angélique at all, but avoiding her altogether. He ran after Howard down the hall, and when Howard's strides outpaced him too much, Tony stopped in the middle of the foyer and began to shriek so loudly that Howard got another two steps in when he realized this wasn't tenable, and came back.

Tony threw his arms around Howard's legs. “Hadajusdafar!” he said through his sobs, and Howard couldn't parse it to save his life. His mush-mouth was hard enough at the best of times, but when he was hysterical, it was just gibberish.

“Hey, hey,” Howard said, crouching down in front of Tony. “Shhh. It's fine. I'm going to fix him, Tony. I just need my special tools to do it. I promise I'll be back. Stop that.”

Jarvis came running at full tilt into the foyer and slid to a stop, carrying a ladle in his hand and polishing rag in the other.

“Oh!” he said, relieved. “Master Tony sounded extremely distressed, I thought he was lying in a pool of blood somewhere. What's happened?”

Tony turned to Jarvis. “Sallbawahkorandbis,” he said, with a sniff. “Sabadisbak.”

“Oh, dear,” Jarvis said. “I'm very sorry to hear that. Was it a bad fall?” He looked to Howard. “Will you be able to fix him? Should I go and get another?”

Howard was astonished that Jarvis could make sense of Tony's wails. “I'm gonna try to fix it, but he won't let me get my tools,” he explained.

Jarvis crouched down by Tony. “I'm sure your father will make the appropriate repairs, Master Tony, I shouldn't fuss,” he said. “I've never known him not to be able to fix something that's broken.”

Tony sniffed and gave a shuddering breath, and wiped his eyes. “Daddy build him better for Tony,” he said, with complete blind faith that made Howard feel all fuzzy.

“Yes, that's exactly right,” Jarvis said. He gave Tony a boop on the nose with his finger and smiled.

“You go back to my office,” Howard said, now that Tony was a little bit calmer. “And I'll be there soon, I promise.”

“Come To-nee,” Angélique said, reaching for his hand. “You come with me, and we wait for your papa, yes?”

Tony consented to be led away. Howard and Jarvis both straightened up.

“You know what he's saying when he's like that?” Howard asked.

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. “He sounds precisely like you when you've had too much to drink. I've become very fluent in that particular dialect over the years. There is surprisingly little difference between an intoxicated man and a two year old child. Not just in clarity of speech, either.”

“You should write a book,” Howard said.

“Yes,” Jarvis said, his eyes going unfocussed as though reliving past horrors. “I sometimes fear I should. Will you be able to repair it?”

“I hope so,” Howard said. “If I can't, it's going to be a fun time until Maria gets back. What's its name, again? I can never remember. Is it Dan?”

“Sam,” Jarvis said. “I believe. It sounds rather like Dan when he says it, but I think it's actually Sam.”

“Okay, well pray for Sam,” Howard said.

“I'll ask Anna to recite the Mi Sheberakh,” Jarvis said, with a smirk.

When Howard came back with his tools, Tony was sitting on his desk, next to Sam. He had his little box of plastic tools, the full set to which the hammer belonged, and was apparently ready to assist. Which was kind of adorable.

“Okay, kid, let's see what we're up against,” Howard said. “Angie, why don't you take a break?”

Angélique agreed, and wandered off to do whatever it was she did when she wasn't au pairing. Which, because she was French, Howard assumed was smoking and being smug.

Howard took a seat at his desk.

“Tools!” Tony said, pointing to Howard's screwdriver kit. “It's Daddy's.” He picked up his plastic screwdriver. “It's Tony's.”

“That's right,” Howard said. They had tried to establish very early on what things were acceptable for Tony to play with and what could not be touched under any circumstances. “Those are yours. What's that one called?”

“Dadiber,” Tony said, making little twisty motions with it in the air.

“Got it in one,” Howard said. He took out his smallest screwdriver and carefully removed Sam's chest piece to get access to the wires. “Hey, this doesn't look too bad, I think we can handle this.”

“I help,” Tony said, handing Howard his screwdriver toy.

“No, I don't need that one, you keep it,” Howard said. He picked up a pair of needle nose pliers and Tony grabbed his toy pliers. “Which one's that, kid? What's that called?”

“Wenk,” Tony said.

“Those are pliers,” Howard corrected. “We use those to grab things. Like this...” He grabbed the end of a disconnected wire and wrapped it back around the battery terminal. “Do you know how batteries work, Tony? There's a special chemical reaction in it, and it makes a bunch of electrons, and they build up at the anode—that's this one—and they want to get out, but the electrolyte inside the battery stops them. And when we put a wire on the cathode—that's this one—and the anode, and connect them, they can get out and all the electrons go 'fwooosh!' through the wires and make electricity. But if we just let them do that, it would make the battery tired really fast, so we have to put a load like a light bulb or a motor on it to slow it down.”

“Fwoosh!” Tony said, making the same gesture as Howard had.

“Yeah, fwoosh,” Howard said. “Isn't that swell? And you can make big batteries or little batteries, and they can power big things or little things. But they aren't very long-lasting, so we're trying to come up with more self-sustaining power sources. But it's fine for a little robot like Sam, he doesn't need a lot of energy.”

Tony blinked with interest. Howard had found the best venue for bonding with Tony was when Howard was building something. Right from when he was still a baby, Howard used to bring him down to the workshop in his Moses basket when his colicky crying had worn Maria down to a frazzle and she needed a break for her sanity. Howard swore that the sound of hammering made Tony less fussy. He'd put him in a play-pen when he grew out of the basket, but once he'd hit nine months and started walking around, the play pen wasn't tenable any more. Howard didn't bring him down there as often. It was too hard to keep an eye on him and work at the same time.

“There, that's the wires back where they need to be,” Howard said. He put the chest piece back in place, and opened the head piece.

Tony grabbed Howard's ear with his pliers. “Ear!” he said.

Howard winced and pulled his head away. “Do not do that,” he said. “You never bother someone who's working with tools. That's dangerous.” He held up a hand to show Tony the scars on it. “Where do you think that came from?”

“Bears,” Tony said, solemnly.

Howard chuckled. That bit of Tony Logic was Maria's fault. Tony had recently wondered about the big burn scar she had on her hand, and for some reason she'd told him it was from wrestling a bear, and Howard had joined in to show off his scars that he'd got from 'bear wrestling', and the two of them had ended up jointly concocting a thrilling bear fighting story. Tony had loved it, and apparently taken it to heart.

“Actually it was a dancer with great legs who didn't know you shouldn't try to tickle a man with a moto-tool in his hand,” Howard said. “And that's why I don't let women without qualifications in my lab any more. Women are dangerous, Tony, remember that.”

Tony was now grabbing his toes with the pliers, and Howard doubted he'd taken any of the lesson in.

“It's Tony's foot,” Tony said, proudly.

“It sure is,” Howard said.

“Toes,” Tony added. “And knees.”

“Yep,” Howard said.

“Tony is smart,” Tony said.

Howard laughed. “No surprises there,” he said. “You got good genes.”

He fitted in new light bulbs in Sam's eyes, and put Sam's face back on. “All right, that's all his insides, now we have to repair those cracks.”

He pulled on some latex gloves and got the epoxy syringes out. Tony looked puzzled as he searched in his toy toolbox and couldn't find something to match.

“It's Tony's?” he asked, pointing to the syringes.

“No, it's Daddy's,” Howard said. “This is the non-toxic version, but you can't have it. This is just for me to use, and I'm using my gloves to be safe.” Howard started filling up the cracks with epoxy. “I made this for medical use, but it didn't work. I thought maybe we could glue wounds closed in the field, but the formula couldn't bond with the skin well-enough. But it works well on plastic, which is why you should always keep what you make around. You can make good things out of bad ideas.”

He filled in all the cracks, and gently squeezed them closed until they were barely visible, then left it to set, which would take a few minutes. Sam was looking like himself again, missing limbs aside. Tony picked out his toy saw from the box, and tried to saw through Howard's desk as they waited. Once the epoxy was set, Howard sanded off the extra that had squeezed through the cracks. Tony sanded the desk with his plastic sandpaper block. Howard reattached the arm and leg, and Sam looked as good as new.

“I need your help for this last part,” Howard said. “Can you get your hammer?”

Tony dutifully picked it up. “Danner,” he said.

“Good job,” Howard said. “Why don't you give him a bit of a tap and then he'll be all fixed. Tap him on the head.”

Tony gave Sam a gentle pat with the hammer, and Howard hit the switch. Sam's eyes lit up and his arms and legs started whirring. Tony threw his arms up with excitement.

“All better!” he said, happily. “I help.”

“Yep, you and me make a good team,” Howard agreed. “Stark and Stark Incorporated.”

He turned Sam off again and handed him to Tony, who hugged him to his chest, and made an attempt to leap from the desk, but Howard stopped him and swung him safely down.

“Now, be careful with him,” Howard said. “That's a good lesson about looking after your things. You should—oh.”

Tony had wrapped his arms around Howard's leg and pressed his head to Howard's thigh. Howard gave his head a pat and ruffled his hair.

“Well, that was my good deed for the day,” Howard said. “Let's go find Angélique, huh?”

Howard delivered Tony back to Angélique, who was indeed smoking, but he couldn't tell if she was being smug or not. His desk was a mess and he swept everything he didn't need into Tony's tool box and put it aside to go back to the pile of reports. He had them cleared in a couple of hours, finishing with more airplanes than the Battle of Britain, and a crick in his neck. He had another drink in celebration, and moved down to the workshop to get started on some of the things he would have been doing if he hadn't been in Washington kissing ass.

There seemed to be less and less time to do hands-on work than when he'd started the business. The more successful he became, the more he had to delegate, and then S.H.I.E.L.D ate up another huge chunk of his life. He didn't mind the work; it was good work. He just sometimes missed getting his hands dirty and sitting on his own all day with no one bothering him about legal issues or new threats to the world or 10,000 word reports on how they were thinking it might be best to paint it blue and not green.

Building and experimenting and drawing gave him a kind of inner peace he didn't get from other things, and he wondered if his increasing lack of time in doing it accounted for his increasingly bad temper and stress. The only other time he felt zen like that was sometimes when he was with Maria, and that was when he knew he was going to marry her, when he realized that he could be that still and unhurried because she was there, instead of thinking about the next machine or the next meeting or the next woman. He didn't have enough time for her anymore, either, or Tony. But at least with Tony he knew that, if he wasn't there, there were others who would keep him safe and love him and care for him until Howard could get back. And he could see Maria at work, even if it was just five minutes for coffee, or half an hour for lunch, or a really heavy petting session in his office bathroom. Although, that last one was, apparently, 'unprofessional', so it didn't happen as often as he'd like.

It was all such a balancing act that toppled more than it ever balanced, and he felt relieved when he could, without guilt, sit in a dark workshop in his house and do something fun.

He was experimenting with Kevlar, as he was certain there were better things they could be doing with it than making racing tires. He had on ear protection for the gun he was shooting at it, which meant he didn't hear Jarvis come down the stairs. Jarvis had probably been waffling for a good few minutes on how to get his attention without Howard shooting him before Howard noticed the little dancing 'hey there' movements he was making near the stairwell.

Howard turned and Jarvis' hands came up in a surrender move.

“It's been 30 years, I haven't shot you yet,” Howard said, moving the ear muffs to his neck.

“Yes, and 'yet' is very much the key word, sir,” Jarvis replied. He lowered his hands cautiously. “Mrs. Stark is on the phone.”

“Okay, thanks,” Howard said. He put the safety on the gun and set it down carefully, then headed for the phone on the wall.

“I'm going to retire for the evening, if that's all right?” Jarvis asked.

“Sure,” Howard said. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Jarvis said, with a brief bow of his head.

Howard picked up the phone. “Hey, babe,” he said.

“Oh, there you are!” Maria replied. “It's been five minutes, I couldn't think where in the house that Jarvis could have picked up the phone that it would have taken him that long to get to you.”

“He thought I was going to shoot him,” Howard said.

“Why, what did he do?” Maria asked.

“Nothing,” Howard said, with a laugh. “I was just shooting at some body armor, he couldn't get my attention. What's up? Is malaria still unpreventable?”

“I'm afraid so,” Maria said, glumly. “I have no idea what went wrong, but the proteins are completely unstable. At least thirty of the samples are toast, I've got about two that are maybe viable, and one that's iffy. They're in the centrifuge, thinking about what they've done.”

“I'm sorry,” Howard said, sincerely. “I know how hard you worked on that, babe. I'm sure you'll get it next time.”

“I thought I had it this time,” Maria said. “And more people are going to get sick because it's not working.”

“Ria, you can't take responsibility for that,” Howard said. “It's not your fault.”

“It is, because obviously I've done something wrong,” Maria said. “We were almost in trials!”

“And you'll get there,” Howard said. “It'll just take some time. Remember the MMR vaccine. How many kids have you saved because you managed to work out how to improve the effectiveness of the dose?”

“Don't try to make me feel better, I'm wallowing in self-pity and frustration,” Maria said.

Howard smiled into the phone. “Okay, no comfort from me,” he said. “Get your hot ass back in there and do some work.”

“Yes, sir,” Maria said. “Anyway, I thought I'd take the downtime out to call you and let you know I got here safe. And I saw my flowers. They're lovely, thank you.”

“No problem,” Howard said. “Kind of an apology for being a jerk, earlier.”

“Apology accepted,” Maria said.

“I wasn't trying to undermine your work,” Howard added.

“I know,” Maria said. “Your feelings were valid, you just expressed them wrong. Subject dropped. How's Tony? Did he get to bed okay?”

“Uhhh...” Howard said, with a wince.

“Howard Stark, please tell me you at least said goodnight to him!” Maria said.

“Uhhh...” Howard said.

He explained that he hadn't, but quickly went on to highlight the actual, good parenting he'd done earlier in the evening, and she was pleased about that.

“That's a good lesson for Tony to learn,” she said. “Or rather, not learn. He didn't learn that you can just buy new things to replace the ones you love. I'm proud of you for taking the time to fix it for him.”

Howard liked when she was proud of him.

He went upstairs around midnight, navigating by the lights Jarvis had left on in strategic places, turning them off as he passed them. Jarvis had also laid out his pajamas for him, something Howard had initially found creepy when Jarvis first began to work for him, but now found kind of a comforting thing. He put them on and had a nightcap, and got into bed, flipping through a magazine until he felt tired. He checked to make sure the alarm was set, and went to sleep.

He was awoken, not by the alarm, but by a gentle pat to his face.

“Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.”

Howard opened his eyes. “What? What's...what?”

“It's Tony,” Tony said. “Morning time.”

Howard squinted at the clock. It was 4:30AM. “No, it's not morning time,” he said. “It's too early. Go back to bed. How did you get out of your room?”

Tony threw his frog toy on the bed, and tried to climb up. “Help, I'm small,” he said.

“Tony, go back to bed,” Howard said. “It's too early to be awake. Go back to sleep.”

Tony fell down as he tried to jump, and landed on his ass. He got back to his feet and tried again. Howard sighed, and yanked him by his pajamas onto the bed. Tony picked up his frog and crawled around to Maria's side.

“No Mommy,” he said, sadly.

“Lie down and be quiet,” Howard said. “Daddy needs to sleep.”

Tony bounced on the bed a few times. Howard closed his eyes. He fell back asleep, and awoke when the alarm went off, to find Tony sprawled across the bed, his thumb in his mouth, and his frog under his arm. Despite the king-sized bed, Howard had been pushed almost to the end of it and was wedged up against the nightstand. Not an uncommon place; Maria often rolled him to the edge, too, amongst the other crazy things she did like sleep talk and sleepwalk. He bumped his shoulder as he tried to extract himself, and knocked the alarm onto the floor. It bounced and rolled away, still screaming. Tony awoke with a start and looked fearfully at the clock on the floor.

“No, no, no!” Howard said, as Tony's face crumpled. “No, Tony, it's fine, it's just the alarm...” He reached for it, but couldn't get it. “Fu—dge.”

He pulled himself out from the trough he was wedged in, and threw his front half off the bed, walking with his hands out enough to grab the alarm clock, and turned it off, walking back in and sitting up again. Tony made little whimpering noises.

“Look, it's just a machine,” Howard said. He held it out to Tony. “See? It's a little hammer making a lot of noise.” He flicked his finger against the bell to make a ding.

“Danner?” Tony asked, his whimpering paused for a moment.

Howard dove in with knowledge to keep him from crying. “Yeah, it's a hammer, and it hits the little bells and makes noise,” he said. “I told it last night what time I wanted it to wake up, and that made a little spring inside coil up tight, and a little pin held it place. Then when the hour on the escapement wheel hit, the pin released and the spring went 'foosh' and the hammer started hammering. Pretty neat, huh? Machines are great. They aren't scary.”

Tony took the clock to examine it closer. “It's Tony's,” he decided, showing the clock to Froggy. “It's for me.”

“No, I need that,” Howard said. “I need to be on time. Being late for things isn't professional. But you can keep it for now. I'm awake. Jarvis should be here any second to make sure of it.”

Jarvis came hurrying into the room. “Sir, Master Tony is—” he began. “Here. I'm sorry, I thought he'd escaped his room again.”

“Darby, danner!” Tony said, showing off the clock to Jarvis.

“Yes, that's very interesting Master Tony,” Jarvis said, distractedly. “Did you get him up, sir?”

“Nope, he got me up,” Howard replied. “And I'd like to know how. How did you get out of your room, Tony? Come on, you might as well show me.”

He took Tony and Froggy back to their room. Howard had had to install a sort of barn door system after Tony learned to walk and open doors, because one very tiny human was hard to find in a house full of a hundred rooms. Especially in the middle of the night, in the dark. That only happened once, and everyone involved with the search agreed it would never happen again. Howard made a door that had separate top and bottom sections, so the top could be open and the bottom securely latched. Maria was always afraid the baby monitor was going to fail, but Howard had built it, so obviously it wouldn't. Still, he let her sleep with their door open, and have Tony's door open at the top. Tony couldn't get out, but they could hear him if he made noise.

The bottom section was wide open.

“Perhaps Miss Delacroix failed to latch it properly,” Jarvis suggested.

“Maybe,” Howard said, not really buying it. “Let's find out.”

He put Tony in the room, and closed and latched the door, then walked away.

“Sir,” Jarvis objected.

“Come on,” Howard said. “He's not going to do it while we're watching.”

He went to the dumbwaiter and opened it, getting his cup of coffee off the tray inside, and leaning against the wall where he could see Tony's room.

“Daddy!” Tony called, a few times. Then, “Darby?”

Jarvis fretted quietly, but Howard kept him from responding. After a few minutes, there was a soft scraping noise, and Froggy sailed over the door to the floor. Then Tony's little blond head appeared over the top of the door, followed by his upper half, balancing precariously. Howard stopped Jarvis from going to the rescue. Tony reached for the latch, but his arms weren't long enough. They were, however, long enough if he had a crayon in his hand, which he did. He tapped at the latch until he hit in the right spot, and it sprung open. There was another scraping sound, and then the door opened and Tony toddled out, bending to pick up Froggy.

“Does your mother know you can do that, or did you save that up for me?” Howard asked him. “That's damned clever, kid.”

“But extremely bad form,” Jarvis said. “That was a naughty thing to do, Master Tony.”

“Yeah, that too,” Howard said, quickly. “But, clever. At least I know if you're ever held captive, you can get yourself out. Guess I'm going to have to figure out a new system.”

Howard went back to Tony's room looking around for what it was that had made the scraping noise. There was a little stool next to the door, the one that went with Tony's play table. It would be high enough to boost him up over the door.

Yep. Damned clever.

Howard had his breakfast in bed as usual, Jarvis bringing the tray from the dumbwaiter in for him. He read the newspaper, with Tony, who placed himself in the crook of Howard's elbow and turned his head back and forth as though he was reading the articles too.

“So, what do think?” Howard asked, as they hit the business section. “Quarterly earnings report comes out next week, do you think we're going to surprise or disappoint? Lots of speculation here. Good picture of me, though. Got my good side.”

Tony patted Howard's face on the paper. “Silly,” he said.

“I am not silly,” Howard objected. “I'm handsome.”

“Silly!” Tony yelled.

“Maybe a bit silly,” Howard conceded.

He went to wash and shave. Tony chased Jarvis around the bedroom as Jarvis got Howard's clothes chosen and laid out. He hid behind Jarvis' legs, and under the bed and behind the curtains. Jarvis pretended not to be able to find him and wondered where he'd gone to as Tony giggled, hiding in plain sight and popping out with an 'it's Tony!'. Jarvis would respond with shock and awe, and then Tony would hide again. Jarvis was good with Tony, a natural at it in a way Howard didn't think he'd ever be, even with practice. He had to work hard at it, where as it seemed like Jarvis just knew what to do. Howard had hoped it would get easier over time, but it didn't. It was still work. Not bad work, necessarily, but Howard didn’t know if being a dad was supposed to be something you had to make a concerted effort to do, or if it was supposed to be innate.

Tony climbed into the window seat and commented on an airplane going by as Howard got dressed.

“It's Daddy's?” Tony asked, pointing. “You fly?”

“No, that's not one of mine,” Howard said. “I'm here, I can't be flying.”

“I like fly,” Tony said.

“Yeah, me too,” Howard said.

“Daddy flies high up,” Tony said, stretching his arms to show the height. “Fvroom, vroom. Buttons! He push and up in the air!”

He leaped off the window seat, making airplane arms and noises, and ran around the room as Jarvis dodged around him to get Howard's clothes for him. Tony continued his flight up onto the bed, and leaped again just before Howard was going to tell him to be careful. Howard reacted like a shot, was two strides over to the bed and had him in his arms just before he went face-first into the floor, all without thinking about it.

Turns out, there were somethings about fatherhood that were innate, after all.

Angélique was up to take Tony off Howard's hands by the time he was ready to head off to work. She brought Tony down to the foyer to say goodbye.

“Briefcase,” Tony said, trying to lift it up. “Don't forget!”

He must have picked that up from Maria, who, despite not bringing slippers at the end of the day, often handed him his briefcase at the start of it.

“Thanks, kid,” Howard said.

The phone rang, and Jarvis hurried to answer it.

“Stark Residence, Edwin Jarvis speaking,” he said. He listened for a moment. “Yes, ma'am. Yes, ma'am. Would you like to—all right, ma'am. Yes, goodbye.” He hung up the phone. “Mrs Stark wishes to inform you that she is a genius, brilliant, and wonderful, and will be home tomorrow, and suggests the procurement of strawberries would be a good idea.”

Something good must have happened with the vaccine.

“All right, well, definitely get some strawberries today, Jarvis,” Howard said, trying not to grin too much.

“Yes, sir,” Jarvis said. He came to shrug Howard into his coat and handed him his hat, then slipped out to bring the car around.

Howard looked down to Tony. “All right, well, I'm off to be very important,” he said.

“Okay,” Tony said. “Bye-bye!”

Tony was never as upset about Howard going as he was about Maria, which Howard wasn't sure if he found offensive or not. Howard didn't blame him, really. He'd rather be with Maria than himself a lot of the time, too.

Howard got into the backseat of the car, and took a sip of the coffee Jarvis handed to him, his third cup of the morning. He needed a lot of coffee to run a company. He glanced up as the car pulled away, and saw that Tony was on the porch, waving at him. The windows of the car were tinted, so Howard didn't bother to wave back, but it was a nice way to start off the day. Even if 90% of his life revolved around bullshit, there was some sincerity to start off his day and some when he got home. And maybe some strawberries, too. Sincerity and strawberries was a pretty good deal. Probably more than a man like him deserved.

He took out some paper and a pencil, and started working on a new door for Tony's room.
Tags: elements: kid!fic, fandom: captain america, fandom: iron man, fandom: mcu, length: oneshot

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