Title: Of Damage Control and Self-Repair Mechanisms
Author: Jedi Buttercup
Disclaimer: The words are mine; the worlds are not.
Summary: Speaking as another party prone to quipping even in the face of certain death, the sudden lack of California-isms from his PA was a red flag for Tony. 3100 words.
Spoilers: POST IRON MAN 3 for the Marvel Movie Universe; post-series for Buffy; no comics
Notes: For Maevebran in Wishlist 2012, for the prompt, "Give me more of Buffy as Tony's PA please. =)" Fitting the new movie into the BJSE 'verse. More to come...?
For days after the extended personal therapy exercise otherwise known as defeating the Mandarin, Tony Stark kept catching glimpses of a short, fit blonde in killer heels out of the corner of his eye. On the fringes of his debriefings: SHIELD had been good enough to take over the house cleanup in Malibu to protect his technology, but had an annoying number of questions they expected answered in return. During the boring legal deliberations: ditto regarding all the paper lines he'd creased, burnt, and origami'd along the course of his crusade, which now all had to be justified. And while he was engrossed in the necessary Extremis-related labwork and procedures: first Pepper's, and then his own. His New York-based personal assistant was always gone by the time he realized she'd even been in the room.
Fair enough, he figured. Someone needed to sign checks and do damage control at SI while he and Pep were both out of commission, and between them she and Pepper's PA probably had their hands full. And it wasn't like the flow of texts and emails had stopped coming, all neatly categorized as Important, Urgent, I'm Copying JARVIS, and Don't Make Me Break Out the Big Guns, same as usual. The tone of the emails had gone distinctly chilly, though, since his house had been blown off the cliff- without so much as a pause, just an increase in the formality of her language. And speaking as another party prone to quipping even in the face of certain death, the sudden lack of California-isms was a red flag for Tony.
On reflection, though, he didn't have to ask how she'd known he wasn't dead; magic, probably, and he really was going to have to figure out how to counter that eventually. And he really couldn't blame her for being pissy with him for not bothering to reply while he was 'missing'; though he was just as glad not to have to face her until things slowed down. He felt no guilt over prioritizing his girlfriend's peace of mind... but Buffy Summers had a disappointed face to rival Cap's.
All in all, their first actual meatspace encounter since he'd left New York for Malibu didn't happen until he finally arrived at the Tower with Dum-E and U. It had been a long trip, and Dum-E especially had been fretful after spending several days underwater unable to fulfill his primary functions or communicate with the other 'bots and JARVIS. So Tony could perhaps be excused for not realizing she was there again until he almost knocked her down exiting the service elevator with the floating pallet he'd commandeered for transport.
Luckily, JARVIS was being extra-conscientious since the issues he'd had after losing a chunk of his server space to the Mandarin's missiles. The pallet braked all on its own with no input from Tony, and he nearly took the leading edge in the gut before he registered something had changed.
"What gives, JARVIS?" he asked, looking up from his Starkphone with a frown. "I thought you said this floor had been cleared- Oh, hello." He blinked at the furious package of energy wrapped in an expensive suit tapping the toe of a designer heel against the floor in front of him, and switched over to brazen deflection mode without a pause.
"Muffy, wasn't it? I'm afraid it's past business hours, and I'm in a committed relationship now. But I have this excellent friend who could use some cheering up, if you'd care to leave your name and number..."
"Tony," Buffy growled in response. But her expression did soften just a touch, a reluctant smile creeping at the corners of her mouth, so he counted the jibe a success. "Don't make this any worse than it already is."
"What 'this'?" he continued with an exaggeratedly innocent expression as he closed the active screen and stowed the phone away in a pocket. "I have no idea what you're talking about. No idea what you're doing there, either..."
"Really?" she bit off, with an eloquently disdainful look she could have copied from Pepper.
"Not there as in in my Tower; I mean there as in standing right in front of us. Speaking of which. Guys. You still okay back there?" He turned to look over his shoulder, unable to resist goading her a little further. "C'mon; we're almost there. You want to see your new crash pad, don't you?"
"Sure, guilt me with your cute little robot babies, why don't you," Buffy retorted, then stepped aside with a click of heels and a generous sweep of arm. "Lead on. But don't think you can have JARVIS lock the door in my face this time; he and I have come to an understanding."
"What have you been up to while I was gone?" he scoffed, eyeing her appraisingly as she trailed him and the pallet down the hall. "Let me guess, you were the one who sent that dunce cap for Dum-E." For once, she didn't have a clipboard, file, or Stark tablet clasped in her hands; instead, she was tapping silver-painted nails against her crossed arms. They caught the light like a set of tiny little blades, just waiting for a taste of anyone unfortunate enough to cross her; what was it with him and deadly female assistants, anyway?
"Actually, I sent it for you after about the third time Pepper said you'd skipped dinner to work in the lab," she sniffed at him. "You were supposed to be on vacation in California. As in, taking time to relax, tinker a little, and 'get your shit together', unquote, while spending more time with the fabulous girlfriend you absolutely do not deserve."
"Not arguing with you there," he said, "but as for the rest of it- check, check, and a few missed dinners do not a downward trend make. C'mon, this is me we're talking about, here."
"Exactly. Which is why I know to translate that to not enough, serious overkill, and so not-negative she was packing her bags after you gave a terrorist the go-ahead to blow up your house." Her lifted eyebrows expressed her opinion of that.
But really, who gave her permission to throw stones, anyway?
"Sounds a little like one of your vacations, then, doesn't it?" he sniffed in reply as he reached the lab where the kids would be staying until their repairs were complete. He tapped a sequence on the glass window next to the door, then paused and echoed his PA's earlier sweeping 'after you' gesture. "By which, of course, I mean that you always show up back at work accompanied by a sharp smile, at least one voicemail from Clint full of creatively foul language, and a fascinating new collection of rapidly healing injuries. JARVIS can always tell, you know, no matter how much time you spend on your makeup."
"Yeah, well, I'm the Slayer," she grumped as the door slid shut behind them. Another sign of her disgruntled mood: she usually wasn't so frank about her superhero identity. "I knew I should have transferred to the California office for awhile."
"Happy would have had a conniption fit," Tony reminded her. His bodyguard liked Buffy well enough as a person, but was as wary of her as he was of Natasha, and having her technically under his authority would have been no good for his blood pressure. Even before recent circumstances had landed him in the hospital.
"And besides, what good would it have done?" he added as he turned to face her again.
What had he done to deserve so many kickass women latching onto him- and then treating him like a particularly wayward child? "Have you ever thought of dyeing your hair red, by the way? No; nevermind, forget I said that. Seriously, Summers, I do remember the entirety of that conversation about your being 'so over' California and how you could run both your jobs so much more efficiently from the Big Apple. And I agreed with you.
"If I thought you could have helped me against the Mandarin, believe me, I'd have called. I might have been angry, and not exactly in what you might have called a rational frame of mind, but I'm not that egocentric. Not anymore, anyway. You'll notice I didn't call SHIELD in, either- the only reason they got involved was because they invited themselves to the house in hopes of keeping my stuff in their grabby hands if I was gone. This guy was a terrorist, not a threat to all human existence, and he aimed himself at me. Even before I knew Killian was the one behind it all, he was still just a human, technologically advanced bad guy, not a demon or an alien or a super-powerful mutant. Yeah, okay, so I might have been a little rash in how I went about dealing with him- but you don't exactly have the moral high ground there either, sweetheart."
"Tony, he blew up your house," Buffy accused him, entirely unimpressed with his defense. "So maybe he wasn't a demon- but that is not the kind of bad guy you hunt alone."
Tony threw his hands wide with a shrug. "And when, exactly, could I have called you in? After JARVIS fished me out of the ocean, I spent most of the next few days rocketing around the country in a failing suit, and unless I somehow missed it, you don't exactly have wings. Well, Miami; I won't lie, I could have used you at the house in Miami. Or Natasha, or even Clint- it was definitely a ninja kind of day. But time was ticking, and the minute I picked up a phone it would have sent up a flare to the bad guys, too... and you know what? I'm actually kind of glad it worked out that way."
"Yeah? And why's that?" Buffy's tone- and eyebrows- projected extreme skepticism.
"Think about the way you identified as 'The Slayer' just now, like it's so much a part of you that you were irked you had to remind me about it. But how many years did you spend wishing you were anything else? That life had never led you down that path? Waking up sweating from nightmares, afraid that you'd doomed everyone you loved just by being who you were?" He'd kind of talked to Rhodey about it already, but it was different for Rhodey; being War Machine or- God forbid- 'Iron Patriot' was an outgrowth of his previous identity as pilot and soldier, not a complete about face.
The words fell like stones between them in the hushed atmosphere of the lab, and all the agitation and accusation seeped out of Buffy's posture as they struck home. The conscious air of femininity she usually wore like a velvet glove fell away then, leaving only the naked blade of her warrior spirit looking back at him out of changeable green eyes.
"Yeah, exactly," he continued. "I know I was kind of a hot mess when I left. You remember what Natasha said in her report about me, all that time ago? I know someone has to have mentioned it to you by now. 'Iron Man, yes; Tony Stark, no.' I've been thinking of myself in separate terms like that pretty much ever since- or maybe even since I first put on the Mark One. Sword and shield- small 's', no acronym- for the soft Tony parts inside, and an excuse not to take things as seriously as I should, even when I wasn't wearing it. But I'm not really two people, any more than you are.
"I am Iron Man, in or out of the suit. And now I know that."
It didn't mean he'd never wear one again- he'd need one for Avengers business, maybe even with the reflective panel scheme the kid had suggested- but he didn't need it any more.
She stared at him for a long moment while he paused for breath, still spearing him with that bare-taloned gaze... then did something he'd never have predicted in a million years. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around him, resting her cheek against his shoulder in a tight hug.
Baffled, he slowly lifted his hands to her shoulders, patting them awkwardly. "Uh, are you okay?"
"Even better: you are," she said, then pulled back, breaking into a smile. Not mocking, or threatening, or even teasing, but empathetic: the rarest of the smiles she occasionally favored him with, and a big part of why he hadn't booted her from his life forthwith the moment she'd revealed her external loyalties, several months ago now. She paid him the rare compliment of treating him like an equal.
It was surpassingly weird for him to have a female friend he never, ever thought of in sexual terms- but this little twenty-something, bubbly blonde who dressed like a trust fund baby, talked like a Valley Girl, and drooled over Legolas' biceps like a groupie actually got it. Which was another reason he'd been glad she'd stayed in New York, actually; he hadn't been able to stand the idea of those eyes turning on him in judgment, when he'd been having an increasingly hard time even looking out the windows of the Tower without hyperventilating. Some things, a man just had to face on his own.
He liked that thought so much that he repeated it aloud for her benefit: "Some things, you just gotta face on your own, you know?"
"And narrate in exacting detail to your science bro afterward?" she replied dryly, patting absently at his chest. "Tony, Tony... Tony...?"
"Hey, he asked how I was doing," he defended himself in mock indignation, grateful that she'd let him back down on the emotional intensity; a little heart-to-heart went a long way. But his splutter faded off into a frown as her expression shifted again, to alarmed and incredulous. "...What?"
"You did take it out," she said, patting his chest one more time in emphasis.
"Uh, yeah. Did you think I was making that part up?" He took a step back, frowning, then unbuttoned his shirt and lifted his tee to show off the bare skin.
"No, I mean, it's one thing to hear it, but..." she said, staring at the place where the arc reactor had been. "And then I saw you, and I thought... you feel the same. Why do you feel the same if it's really gone? I thought all this time it had something to do with the vibranium."
"Feel the same?" he repeated in some confusion, rapping his knuckles demonstratively against his repaired breastbone. "What do you mean? This is 100% Tony now, no metal, no electromagnet."
"But you feel the same," she repeated uselessly, then shook her head and clarified. "To my other senses. Like Steve's shield, or Thor's hammer."
Other...? "You mean your magical senses?" he replied, surprised. "What the hell? Why didn't you ever mention that before? What if it was, what, throwing out interference or something? I knew there had to be a reason all my experiments along those lines kept short-circuiting..."
"That was because you didn't believe in magic, not because it didn't believe in you," Buffy replied, rolling her eyes. "Didn't anything Willow said ever...? Hey. Wait a minute. Experiments? Toooony. You didn't try to upgrade yourself when no one was looking, did you?" She crossed her arms over her chest again in a near-exact copy of the toe-tapping posture she'd greeted him with at the elevator.
"Ah... not with magic? And it sort of depends on what you mean by upgrade?" Tony replied, frowning.
He didn't think there were any components of mysterious origin in the chips he'd injected under the skin of his arms; there was no way they'd trigger her supernatural senses. But that only left one possible explanation: a certain nanotech project he'd been working on for Pepper. Like a metastatic cancer or a virus, Extremis permeated the body on a cellular level; there really wasn't any way to completely remove an infection that extensive, and he hadn't wanted to use her as the primary test subject for his changes. The fact that using it himself had meant the self-repair function eliminated the risks of the surgery to remove the shrapnel around his heart had been enough of a side-benefit that Pepper hadn't even freaked too much when he'd told her what he'd done.
But if The Slayer could sense Extremis... what did that mean? And did it mean she was able to sense Pepper now, too? His backbrain automatically started turning over possible tests and applications, and he reached absently for his Starkphone again.
Buffy stared at him a moment longer, then threw up her hands. "Why do I even bother," she blurted in fond exasperation, then turned and headed for the door. "Tell Pepper I'll be up to see her later!"
"Nice to see you, too!" he called after her, bemusedly.
"Save it for tomorrow, Tony. I'm full up on your crazy for at least the next twelve hours," she called back, the last word cut off abruptly as the door closed behind her.
Tony snorted, then looked around for the nearest chair and sat down, flattening a hand over the newly non-achy portion of his torso, and took a deep, filling breath while he turned things over some more. Just absorbing the way his chest expanded without hurting.
The last few weeks had shown him things he'd never take for granted again; things he still had to learn; and things he doubted he'd ever understand, but could appreciate as he never would've before. It had been a long, strange road since Afghanistan, but for the first time in a long time he didn't wish he could take any of it back. Not if it meant changing any facet of his current existence along with it.
Butterfingers reached into view after a moment, interrupting his musings with a steaming cup of coffee carefully clasped in its metal digits. Tony nodded his thanks as he set his phone down and took it- then smiled as Butterfingers turned to the pallet next, waving its arm hesitantly back and forth over its damaged siblings. He patted the arm absently, and tipped the cup back in memory of Yinsen and the revolutionary scientist that Maya Hansen might have been, in a kinder world.
Then he set it down and got up. He had work to do.
"So J, fill me in while I get these guys situated. How's it coming on 43?"