Now and then, Pepper forgot that Tony wasn’t like other people.
She understood his personality, and had dealt with his moods and impulses for years; she even understood, vaguely, the science behind his genius and the genius behind his science.
But every once in a while Pepper found herself caught up short by a reminder that Tony Stark was to the average American what an atonal symphony was to Disneyland. That is to say alien, and unconnected, prone to receiving blank, disbelieving looks.
He had his face up against the window of the limo, and his intense stare had her feeling uneasy.
“You mean to tell me that people really do just haul their old stuff out onto their lawns and sell it?” he asked in a low, disbelieving voice. “Perfectly good stuff?”
“None of it is perfectly good, Tony,” Pepper fretted, checking their itinerary on her BlackBerry yet again. They were already late for the Exposition, and this little side stop wasn’t helping.
Over in the driveway, Happy was forking over a twenty, and the woman with the Kodak carousel slide projector was nodding and making change, pushing a shoebox full of film bits his way. Happy took the projector and the shoebox, making his way back to the limo with serene patience. He opened the door and handed over the treasures, his voice low. “Here you go Mr. Stark, one slide carousel complete with Mrs. Duncan’s vacation shots for the last fifteen years. She says it’s broken, so she only took two bucks for it. We need to move, sir—we’re blocking her driveway.”
“Good, Happy, thanks,” Tony murmured, his attention now on the brittle and yellowing plastic appliance in his lap. “Two bucks, that’s it?”
“Tony!” Pepper yelped as he dropped the dusty shoebox on her lap and proceeded to examine the slide projector carefully. “I don’t want these!”
“Broken spring on the loader,” Tony diagnosed, fishing in his pocket for a pen. He absently took it apart and used the long ink shaft to prod at the tiny, rusting spring as the limo pulled out and headed towards the on-ramp for the highway. “It would take all of ten minutes to replace, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got one that would fit.”
“That’s wonderful; you can do it LATER,” Pepper told him, setting the shoebox on the floor of the limo and trying to brush the dust from her skirt. “And it will be the thrill of the evening to see the vacation slides of perfect strangers, now won’t it?”
“Could be,” he muttered, lost in the inner workings of the ancient machine. “So that was a garage sale?”
“That was,” Pepper sighed. “A collection of old clothes, broken, useless, worn-out or superfluous junk set out for buyers to paw through. It combines housecleaning and free enterprise and now we need to put our new toy away and get ready for the Expo, Mr. Stark.”
She gently took the slide projector from him and set it next to the shoe box. Tony reluctantly let it go and reassembled the pen as Pepper reached to adjust his tie. “Do they happen a lot?”
“Garage sales,” Tony persisted. “I’m out of the loop, not really having neighbors, you know.”
“Um, yes, usually on Saturdays and Sundays,” Pepper nodded. “Why this big interest?”
“No particular reason,” Tony assured her, his gaze still on the slide projector.
Despite their initial tardiness, the Exposition went off without a hitch and Pepper would have forgotten all about the little pit stop except for two things.
The first was the projector and slides. Tony kept them in his hotel room, and actually did show her several of them, projecting the images on a blank wall of the suite. One of the nights, he’d ordered popcorn from Room Service, and she and Tony had spent a hilarious evening making up back stories for the slides.
“This is Norma and me at the Wisconsin Butter Packing Plant,” Tony drawled in his worst imitation of an old lady while an out-of-focus shot of two grandmothers standing in front of a blurry building. “She hates me to tell the story, but when we got to the vats of whipped, ooohwwweee!”
“Tony, that’s mean!” Pepper protested, even as giggles bubbled out of her. “I bet that Mrs. Duncan’s mother or something.”
“Probably,” he agreed, clicking on a shot of the Grand Canyon. “And here’s where your idiot Uncle Edgar dug up the yard, trying to find that sewer line . . .”
Pepper couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed so hard, because it had been a fun evening—very nearly a date, if you looked at it sideways. Still, once they’d gotten back from the Expo, she assumed the slide projector would find a new home on some shelf down in the garage and the whole incident would be forgotten.
She was right on the first count and wrong on the second.
The garage sale stayed in Tony’s thoughts all through the Expo, and long after he’d repaired the slide projector he’d pondered why such a seemingly ordinary pastime would intrigue him, because on the surface of it, it didn’t seem that it should.
He’d never had to sell anything in his life—at least not because of a lack of space or need of quick cash. Tony Stark had given away anything that was out of date or out of season simply because his philanthropic mother had instilled in him a sense of social obligation to do so. Pepper regularly weeded out his wardrobe and kept his shoes up-to-date; Jarvis was authorized to purchase and update all household appliances from cell phone to walk-in freezer.
Tony understood planned obsolescence; it was one of the fundamentals of manufacturing. Everything on the planet that was created by man had an end life. However, it was fascinating to realize that most people gave up on things well before they needed to.
It created a little personal paradox for him, and by the time Saturday rolled around, he called Pepper bright and early.
“Potts, throw on your shortest shorts and a baseball cap—we’re going to make the rounds,” he told her.
“Nothing in my employment dress code includes shorts, and the rounds of what?” came the annoyed grumble. Tony could tell she was suspicious of any weekend call that didn’t involve bail or Emergency rooms in the first few sentences.
“Garage sales. I’m going to take a look at a few, and I know you’re not about to let me go all by myself, so---”
“Tony—you’re kidding, right?”
“Wrong. I’ve got Jarvis plotting out a nice leisurely route through some nondescript neighborhoods, so hurry up.”
He hung up over her squawk, judging that Pepper would be at the mansion within half an hour, and went to go find a disguise.
When she did show up, Tony was thrilled to see that she was indeed wearing shorts, although they were khaki, and modest compared to the ones of his imagination. She also had on a Lakers sweatshirt and her hair was in a ponytail.
Pepper was also staring at him.
“Too much?” Tony asked, turning around to show off his choice for the day.
“Terrifying,” she admitted and giggled.
Tony sniffed. “Everyone’s a critic.” He’d chosen long black Rastafarian dreads and a rainbow colored knit cap, along with aviator sunglasses. Those combined with jeans and a raggedy Bob Marley tee-shirt effectively hid his familiar features fairly well, Tony was sure. He held out a hand to Pepper. “Keys?”
“You’ve got cars,” Pepper protested, but she was still grinning.
“I have highly recognizable cars that would look very conspicuous at garage sales,” Tony pointed out. “We’re taking your car and I’m driving. You’ve got the Jarvis GPS in yours, right?”
“You installed it yourself,” Pepper reminded him, still clutching the keys. “And you drive like a maniac, Tony. Another ticket and you’ll be this close to losing your license!” She held up a thumb and forefinger only fractionally apart.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Okay, fine. I’ll drive slowly. Let’s go—my research says you’re supposed to get to these things early for the best bargains.”
“Your . . . research?” Pepper echoed, following her employer down the front steps to her Audi. “You’re telling me you’ve done research on garage sales, Tony?”
“Absolutely—the strategies, the psychology, the history—”
“Why?” Pepper demanded, reluctantly handing over her keys and climbing into the passenger side door. “It’s aberrant, even for you, Mr. Stark.”
“Call it research into the American consumer psyche,” Tony cheerfully told her, climbing in and adjusting the steering wheel. “By the way, you have cash, right? Lots of small bills?”
He hated to put the pressure on her, but Tony regretfully knew he could never write a check at a garage sale, much less one under his name, and his wallet currently held nothing smaller than a hundred dollar bill.
Flamboyance and anonymity were incompatible in his lifestyle, alas.
Pepper didn’t want to be intrigued, but found herself glancing at Tony periodically during their drive. He took a southerly route, heading into Santa Monica, through some middle-class neighborhoods. It was still early, and she liked the peaceful feel of suburban life here; the happy sprawl of community.
They pulled up to a cul-de-sac and there were several cars there already; two sales in houses side by side were the big draw. Tony looked through the window. “Ahhh, I see some electronics faintly calling my name. Anything you’re in the market for, Pepper?”
“Books, possibly. We’ll see,” she replied, not willing to admit a sense of anticipation. It had been a long time since she’d done something so free-spirited and mundane.
Something just for the fun of it.
Tony parked, fitting the Audi nicely between a camper and a Camry, then climbed out, surveying the scene. Pepper moved to stand next him, feeling as they were starring in some madcap sitcom. “So.”
“So, so, suck my toe, all the way to Mexico,” Tony chanted under his breath and smirked at her before crossing the street to look at the tables on the driveway. Pepper bit back a laugh at the schoolyard taunt and followed him slowly.
There were three long folding tables lining the driveways, Pepper found herself moving to the one with kitchenware on it, delighted to see familiar tools. She already had several peelers and whisks at home, of course, but the cunning little silver butter knife with the ceramic snowman handle would be perfect for Christmas . . .
“How much is the butter knife?”
“Fifty cents,” came the absent reply from a woman in jeans who was bagging baby clothes and sticking labels on them. “I used to have two, but the other one got broken in the disposal.”
Pepper made a sound of empathy and dug in her pocket for change, handing over two quarters. Tucking her prize away, Pepper scanned the table for anything else, but nothing more appealed to her and she wandered to the next table, where a few boxes of knickknacks sat. She admired the fat green candles with impressed leaves and picked up a crystal bud vase, admiring the etched rose on it.
Pretty, but not needed, she knew.
Carefully Pepper glanced around to see what Tony was up to, and blinked when she couldn’t find him. Alarmed, she took a step and realized he was squatting down to look at a crate full of junked electronics, and was pulling out what appeared to be a bread maker.
She couldn’t help herself and took a quick digital photo of him in full Rasta regalia before slowly making her way to his side. Tony barely glanced her way as he looked at the underside of the appliance.
“Heard the snap; I’m going to have to confiscate that,” he murmured under his breath. Pepper shot him a challenging look but said nothing as he added, “So this thing makes bread? I thought that was a hand job—a by hand job, that is.”
It was fun to see him blush; Tony didn’t do that very often, and Pepper fought a rising giggle as she tapped the bread maker. “Welcome to the twentieth century, Mr. Stark. You might be surprised to know that technology has actually reached the average kitchen,” she whispered as an elderly man came over and nodded to them.
“See you found Shirley’s bread thingie, young fellah. Never worked right after she made that caraway rye. I can let you have it for five bucks.”
Tony was going to say something but Pepper flashed a sweet smile at the man. “Ohhhh. Um, I have three, actually, sir. Would, um, that be okay?”
The man blinked at Pepper for a second, and smiled back. “Ah shoot, I’m a sucker for a Lakers gal! Three it is, and I’ll throw in that old potpourri heater too, if you want it, sweetheart.”
“Oh thank you, that’s so nice of you,” Pepper murmured, tilting her eyes down demurely. Tony watched in fascination as she handed over the money and collected the two appliances before following her back to the car.
“You . . . you schmoozed him!” Tony blurted in admiration. “Utterly!”
“I didn’t . . . schmooze. I just pointed out that I had three dollars.”
“--Along with several others,” Tony grinned. “Oh you’re gooood.”
“I’ve been to a few sales in my time,” Pepper admitted, “And haggling is a time-honored tradition, Mr. Stark.”
“I sense I’m in the presence of a master,” Tony intoned. “I’ll keep my eyes open and see if I can get the hang of it.”
“It’s fun,” Pepper smirked. “Although what we’re going to do with a bread maker is beyond me.”
“I’ll fix it and give it to Platypus,” Tony murmured. “He’s the domestic type. So Jarvis, where to next?”
“2887 Summerset Drive, sir, a mere three miles from here,” the AI intoned. “Loading directions now.”
This sale was more jumbled, with items strewn on blankets laid on the lawn. Pepper winced at the naked, scalped Barbies and well-chewed plastic blocks that lined the edges.
Tony’s eyes widened. “That’s some hard use,” he muttered.
“Loved. The kind term is ‘loved,’” Pepper replied, although she wasn’t entirely convinced herself.
She turned instead to the shoeboxes of paperbacks and thumbed through them, finding a worn hardback copy of Centerburg Tales priced at a dime. She set it aside and found Homer Price a moment later, fighting down a little frisson of happiness at her treasures.
Tony was focused on a model rocket kit, a dangerous gleam coming through his sunglasses.
“How much?” Pepper heard him ask the man with the toddler in his arms.
“I’ll give you two,” Tony replied.
Pepper shot him a disbelieving look as the man gave a chuckle.
“You can do that if you want, buddy, but I’d feel bad taking it. The cone’s crushed, and the cat peed on one corner of the box.”
“How’d the cone get crushed?” Tony asked, and Pepper came over, fishing in her pocket for the money.
The man shifted the baby boy on his hip before replying. “Well . . . Janine—that’s the wife—she put the kid’s Christmas presents under the tree before I finished hanging the lights, and I sorta stepped on it while I was trying to get the last string of flashers up.”
“Bummer,” Tony commiserated. “Can I look at it?”
“Sure,” The man shrugged. “Go ahead.”
Tony lifted the lid of the slightly squashed box, being careful to avoid the yellowed corner and took out the flattened cone, examining it carefully. He picked it up. “I could fix this.”
“Pry it open, get it wide enough to go over a baseball and hit it lightly with a rubber-headed mallet,” Tony replied absently. “Or if you don’t have a baseball, the average doorknob would be about right dimension. This cone’s mostly aluminum, so it’s pretty malleable, as long as you’re gentle with it.”
The man looked interested. “No shit?”
“Got a mallet?”
Two minutes later, the nosecone of the rocket was in reasonable repair and the man with the toddler was grinning. “Hell, that’s great! Hey Charlie!” he yelled.
A ten-year-old bounded out of the house, slamming the screen door. “Yeah?”
This guy just fixed your rocket!”
“Yeah?” this was more enthusiastic, and Pepper watched as Tony carefully pushed the box back across towards the boy.
“Go for it,” Tony murmured. “And don’t put your eye out.”
“Thanks, man. Appreciate it,” the man with the toddler grinned.
Pepper paid for her books and moved to brush her shoulder against Tony’s as they walked back to the car. They got in and she turned to him. “That was really sweet of you.”
He shrugged, grinning for a moment under his disguise. “Hey, who am I to stand between a dad, a kid and a rocket, right?”