The first time Tony Stark heard about Betty Ross, he was nine, and he was going back to boarding school. His dad had heard that General Ross was sending his daughter there, and at the end of the summer Dad said, "Stay away from that Ross kid. All the Rosses are fucking crazy and her father's a prick."
So naturally the first thing Tony did when he got to school was ask around about her, find out where she was sitting (alone) for dinner, and plonk himself down across the table from her. A half a dozen of the least annoying of his hangers-on, who were permitted to follow him around, immediately joined them.
"Hi," Tony said, offering her his orange. "I'm Tony. You're Betty Ross. You're gonna be in my class. My dad said your dad's a prick."
She gave him a suspicious look. "Tony Stark?"
"My dad said to stay away from you, ‘cause you'd corrupt me."
Tony nodded gravely. He understood parents. "Let's be best friends," he said.
"I don't even know you. What's that mean?"
"Well, it means we do study group together and I punch anyone who looks at you funny."
"I can do my own punching."
"Even better. You, in return, will make sure nobody gossips about me. And we share treats from our care packages."
She considered this, then nodded. "M'kay. You want my mashed potatoes?"
They successfully kept their friendship a secret from their parents for years. Tony's parents weren't much interested beyond his academic achievement, and Betty's father was only interested insofar as he wanted to make sure she didn't start dating boys until she was thirty or so. (She barely talked him out of sending her to an all-girls high school.) Only Jarvis knew, and he always tucked an extra packet of cookies into Tony's care packages "for your friends".
At fourteen, Tony came back from the summer holiday feeling very worldly and grown-up; he'd spent most of his vacation in Paris, his voice had broken, and he had at least three facial hairs. Betty came back from the summer holiday with breasts.
They danced around the subject of both of these things for about a month, until they were in the lab late one night, Tony struggling with genetics (the wet sciences were hard and therefore boring to him) while Betty kept trying to couch DNA in mechanical terms he'd understand. He seemed more interested in puberty than in the coursework, until finally she said, in exasperation, "Look at the charts, Tony, not down my shirt!"
"I'm sorry, your boobs are very distracting!" Tony retorted.
"Well, I don't mean for them to be!"
"Intent is irrelevant! I'm doing my best!"
"For God's sake, would it calm you down if we made out for half an hour?" she asked, and then turned scarlet and clapped her hand over her mouth.
Tony's voice cracked. "Well, only if you really want to. I mean, don't make concessions on my account."
Betty, who had nursed a gentle, painless crush on Tony since last term, but who was not about to allow hormones to run away with her, put her hands on her hips.
"Only half an hour," she said. "And nothing below the belt."
"Done," Tony yelped, throwing down his work on the desk, and that was how Betty Ross had her first kiss with the heir to the Stark billions on the ratty back couch of their high school biology lab.
Tony lost his virginity to Betty when he was fifteen, the night before he was supposed to leave for MIT. She was anxious and upset about him going off to college, and he was anxious and upset because she was, and it wasn't exactly a dream come true for either one of them. But she wanted something with him, something more than the occasional date and sneaking around their roommates at boarding school.
He was passing through New York on his way to MIT, and she was with her Dad who was stationed in Bethesda at the time, so she told him she was spending the weekend with friends, caught the train up to the city, and spent the night with him in his hotel room.
After the (in retrospect) somewhat lackluster sex, and the half hour or so of embarrassment following, they lay in the big hotel bed under the fluffy duvet and talked, Tony's hand combing through her hair over and over, her hands warm against his stomach.
"I'm terrified," he admitted wearily. "I wish I was going back to school with you."
"You know you'd just be bored."
"Maybe, but there's something to be said for boredom. Besides, now you'll be bored, and you'll be bored alone."
"Well, my dad's not exactly pushing for me to take the accelerated track. The only good reason for me to go to college is to find a husband."
"Don't start believing that, though."
"Don't worry. Your dad wasn't wrong, you know," she said.
"Dad's a prick."
"Yeah, well, took one to know one," he replied. "I wouldn't be going to MIT if mine weren't so freaked out about me taking over the company."
"It'll be fun," she said. "Don't let those MIT girls rip you up, now."
He kissed her forehead. "After you, they'll be a cake walk."
"I do my best," he said. "Hey, I've got an idea."
"Your dad wants to get you a husband, you should tell him you're marrying me."
She burst out laughing. "You!"
"Right?" he gave her a wide grin. "Imagine if I turned up on your doorstep one day with flowers and a ring."
She covered her face in mock horror. "Dad would shoot you."
"Nah, the army needs Stark weapons too much. I bet he'd chase me off, though."
"You're faster than him, and you probably dodge better."
"Stark!" Tony roared. "What've you done to my little girl!"
Betty laughed until she cried, and when she settled down again, Tony pulled her closer.
"Hey," he said. "If you ever did need a husband, you just yell, I'll show up."
"What if you fall in love?"
"Love's for suckers," he said, and she sighed. It wasn't the first time she'd heard that from him. "Doesn't really exist. How many kids you know have happy parents?"
"I think my parents were in love," she said softly. "I was young, I don't always remember, but...I think they were."
"Then they were an extreme statistical anomaly," Tony replied. "I'm just saying. I like you. You're my friend. If you needed me, nobody else is so important I wouldn't drop them for you, Betts. And I'm going to be disgustingly wealthy some day, so you could do worse. I mean. My parents got married and they don't even like each other."
She reached up and rubbed his face, thumbing along the line of the beard he was growing in. "Tony, that's very sweet. But I'm going to hold out for real love."
"Your funeral," he said with a smile. "Let's get some sleep. I gotta put you on the train back tomorrow before I head up to Cambridge."
They wrote, off and on, though after Tony's parents died Tony didn't write for a long time. Betty had other friends, close friends, especially once she started college, and she watched with sadness as the Tony she knew both grew into a man and totally fell apart. He took over the company, made it very profitable, and was on all the magazine covers -- but she also saw the stories about his drinking, the endless women (and rumored men), the stunts he pulled.
Sometimes, at conferences or parties they were both attending, she saw him in person. That was better; the minute he caught sight of her face his own would light up, and he'd spend the evening at her elbow. She'd long since given up on the crush, but it was nice to be made to feel special by someone she was fond of.
They were twenty-six when her dad actually, finally found out about them. Tony was "being Tony" at her during a military-industrial mixer -- he leaned in, he smiled, he kept her drink fresh, kept one hand on the small of her back -- and from across the room, she suddenly noticed her dad was there.
"Ixnay," she whispered, and Tony raised an eyebrow.
"Boyfriend?" he asked, leaning back slowly.
"Dad," she hissed, and Tony's hand fell away -- not soon enough, however.
"Stark," Dad said, placing himself almost squarely between her and Tony. "Sleazing around as usual, I see."
"You know, I wouldn't let you get away with that, except I know how irrelevant you are to the business I do," Tony said, a vicious edge to his voice. She'd heard him use it on schoolyard bullies and the occasional drunk partygoer; never on her dad.
"At least I'm a real soldier, not a play-actor from the Ivy League," Dad said, as Betty circled around him.
"Oh, I would never claim to be a soldier," Tony purred. "I can't make my knuckles drag properly."
"You pissant little son of a bitch -- "
"Dad!" Betty said, appalled.
"Betty, stay out of this."
"No, Tony's my friend, I won't let you call him names," she said, squaring up her shoulders with Tony's.
"Betts, you don't have to," Tony said in an undertone.
"Shut up," she replied.
Her dad was looking back and forth between them, rage growing in his face.
"When did the two of you get so goddamn cozy?" he asked, jabbing a finger at Tony.
"Maybe if you paid attention to your own child you'd know the answer to that," Tony replied. Dad glowered and loomed, and Tony laughed. "What're you gonna do, Ross, punch me? I'm not afraid of you, old man."
"Are you fucking my daughter?" Ross asked.
"Excuse me?" Tony said incredulously, at the same time as Betty yelled "That's enough, Dad!" and pushed between them, shoving her father backwards. "Leave. Now. Before one of you does something that has actual ramifications for the industry."
"Betts," Tony said. "Hey, it's cool. I was about to blow this place off anyway."
"Running away, Stark?" Dad asked.
"Bored," Tony drawled. Betty saw him walking away, out of the corner of her eye, and gave her father another shove.
"Stay here," she ordered, and went after Tony.
She found him on the front steps, lighting a joint.
"You're impossible," she said. He inhaled and offered it to her. "I get drug tested."
"Shame," he replied. "Sorry about that thing with your dad. Are you gonna be okay?"
"I'll be fine, I know how to handle him. Will you?" she asked. He raised his eyebrows. She pointed at the joint.
"Oh -- fuck, no, I won't drive," he said, laughing. "My driver's on his way."
"Good," she said. He looked -- pained, and like he was trying to hide it. She remembered the little boy who was so frustrated by puberty and DNA and biology, and thought about how now he had a driver -- now he held the world in the palm of his hand and was slowly cracking under the weight of it.
She took the joint out of his mouth and leaned in, kissing him.
"Come home with me tonight?" he asked, when she leaned back. It wouldn't be the first time. Tony was a lot better in bed than he used to be. But -- she couldn't bring herself to blow off her dad completely. That was for teenagers, and they were adults now.
"I can't," she said. "Let's have dinner sometime, okay?"
"Sure," he agreed, smiling mirthlessly. She handed him the joint back, but he tossed it into a puddle as his car pulled up. "Don't let him feed you any shit, Betty."
"Never do," she replied.
The next morning, she found herself assigned to a new project, and met her new lab co-supervisor.
"Hi," he said, and he seemed nice, if a little nebbishy. "I'm Bruce Banner."
Tony, with his usual acumen and tact, sent her a clipping about a year later, of her and Bruce co-presenting at a conference -- or rather, at the party after the conference. Bruce was, she had to admit, looking at her like she was the most amazing thing on the planet.
Looks like holding out was worth it, he wrote in the margin. And then he left her alone, which she understood was his way of approving of Bruce.
When Bruce disappeared, Tony didn't send anything. He just showed up one day, took her for a drive up the coast, and sat on an empty beach with her while she cried, angry and bitter by turns.
"Offer stands," he said, when he brought her home again. "You know all you have to do is yell, Betty. I can't promise love, but I could give you just about anything else you wanted. Who knows. You might be good for me."
"Someday I might take you up on that," she said. "Don't wait around for me, though."
"Never have -- I know your type," he said, and that got a smile out of her; he kissed her forehead and hopped back into his fast car, peeling out just as her dad came rolling up the drive in a jeep.
Betty had met James Rhodes a few times, in the course of her work (and her father's, and Tony's). She liked him, and he was always friendly towards her. It was a good thing, because when Tony went missing, she didn't have to depend on her father to find out what was going on.
She had actually made it a point to befriend Pepper Potts, because she ruled Tony's life, protected his reputation as much as she could, and was additionally a really fun person to have a glass of wine with.
So when Pepper's name came up on her phone, her hand shook as she answered. "Pepper?"
"Betty," Pepper said. "They've found him."
Betty paused, because she knew enough about the military to know which words mattered. She hadn't said They've found his body.
"Alive?" she asked.
There was a sob, and Pepper said, "Yes. I'm calling everyone. You came up top of the contacts list."
"Alive," Betty repeated dumbly.
"He's on a flight home. Rhodey found him."
"Do you want me to be there?"
"No, no I -- I think he'll be a little...I think..." Pepper trailed off.
"Pepper. It's me. I won't be offended. Thank you for calling me," Betty said soothingly.
"Thanks," Pepper said.
"I'd like to see him, when he's ready."
"I'll, um, I'll put it on his calendar," Pepper said, sounding grateful for the chance to be Tony's assistant once again.
"I'm sending flowers," Betty warned.
Pepper laughed damply. "Don't expect a thank-you note."
"I know who I'm dealing with. Go get him."
Betty set up a new google alert for Tony, texted Rhodey a thank you, and ordered a bright blue spray of orchids to be delivered to the Malibu house. She watched him on the news, and when he announced he was closing down weapons manufacturing, she covered her mouth with her hand.
And a few months later, shortly after I Am Iron Man swept the world, she received a first-class plane ticket and a handwritten note.
I'm having a wetware problem. I promise not to look down your shirt.
Tony and Happy met her at the airport, Tony in a pair of huge sunglasses and a suspiciously inconspicuous hat, Happy with a smile and the insistence that he carry her one bag.
"Glad to see you, kiddo," Tony said when they were in the car, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and kissing her temple. "My life's been a little short on pragmatism lately."
"I'll do what I can, but you are a hot heroic mess," she informed him.
"I've been a hot mess since I was nine, you never cared before," he said. She rested her head on his shoulder.
"So what's your wetware problem?" she asked. He balanced a tablet on his knee and tapped it, throwing a hologram up into the air. The Iron Man helmet was outlined there, spinning slowly.
"I need to find a way to raise the interface speed between me and the armor," he said. "I'm working with voice and eye-targeting software right now, but I want more."
"You always want more," she said, studying the eyeslits of the faceplate.
"Yes I do," he agreed, flipping the virtual faceplate up and spinning it to show her the false projected interface on the inside. "Got any ideas?"
"A few," she said. "Take a few weeks at least to try them all out."
"I've got the time if you do."
She thought about the Malibu house, the surf, the sunshine, the way Tony could make life easy and effortless -- and about how she'd lost Bruce and thought she'd lost Tony and how lonely her own lab was sometimes.
"Yeah," she said. "I think I do."
She spent the first few days familiarizing herself with Tony's workshop and setting up a biology lab in a space he'd cleared out for her, working cheerfully and calmly away at the problem of interface speed in her head. Tony was quieter than usual, the lines in his face a little deeper than she remembered, but then they were both in their thirties now, not just adults but leaders in their fields. And anyway, he still managed to fill every space he entered.
They spent dinners out on the patio overlooking the Pacific, catching up, carefully talking around Tony's absence. And around the fact that it had been a long time since they'd spent this much time together without spending it in bed. She wasn't sure if maybe he didn't want to, or maybe he was waiting for her to make the first move. She wasn't sure if the round prosthetic in his chest, faintly visible under his clothes but never alluded to or obviously shown, was making him self-conscious. She wasn't going to be the one to ask what it was or what it meant, despite her curiosity.
About a week and a half into her stay, they hit on a promising lead -- biofeedback monitors in the ankles, wrists, and throat of the suit -- and by the afternoon they were both giddy with preliminary success.
"I know it's always a mistake to celebrate ahead of confirming data," she said, "but I think this is going to work."
"Well, it's just a suit tweak," he replied, standing behind her and studying the preliminary readouts, "but it's an important one to me. I appreciate your work."
"It's nice to have a simple problem, with a finite solution," she said, leaning back in her chair, bumping his stomach with her head. He lifted a hand, brushing it down her cheek from behind.
"Don't have many of those these days," he said absently.
She caught his wrist and tugged his hand down, kissing his knuckles. "Not having the answers is kind of what science is about, Tony."
"Now you know why I went into engineering," he said, but there was a waver in his voice, and the fine hair on his wrist rose where she touched it. She let her mouth linger across the knuckle of his index finger, tongue brushing the skin gently.
"Betts," he said softly. "I'm not -- the same anymore."
"You can't possibly be as bad as you were at fifteen," she said against his skin. He let out a low bark of a laugh.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
She tipped her head back, looking up at him. "Are you saying I can't handle you, Stark?"
His eyes lit with the challenge, and for a second they both hovered on the edge -- then, with an explosive crash, she rose out of her chair and turned and he kicked the chair away and stepped forward, pushing her back against the lab surface. A glass beaker skidded along the table and crashed to the floor ten feet away, but Betty was only barely aware of it. Tony's mouth was on hers, one hand on the back of her neck to hold her steady, the other tugging her thigh forward, pulling her hips against his.
He kept kissing her, deep and thorough, not giving her time to think, and she knew it was deliberate but she didn't care; Tony might not be stable, but there was no safer man in the world to sink down into and trust he'd pull her head back above water when it was over.
She tightened her thighs around his hips, rocking against him, and tugged his band shirt off over his head. She worked her hands under the plain long-sleeved shirt underneath, but she kept them pressed against his belly, which heaved against her fingers. He made a wild, desperate noise, mouth pressed to the line of her throat, and undid her bra with one hand, tugging the straps down with the other.
With a single motion he tugged shirt and bra off together and then surged back in, mouth fixing on one nipple, groaning when she scratched her nails against his scalp. He had a hand on the small of her back, supporting her as he bent her over backwards, undoing the zip on her pants.
"Lemme, lemme -- " he mumbled into her breast, fingers scrambling under her waistband, and she let out a sigh as he touched her, thumb rubbing her clit in long, hard strokes. Another beaker went flying, and a sheet of printouts fluttered to the ground. She came on his fingers, hips bucking, and then let him pull her forward again. They staggered backwards, her arms around his neck, his hands under her ass to keep her against him. She kicked off her shoes and he peeled off her pants, barely hesitating to undo his jeans and shove them down his thighs before hoisting her up and pressing her into the wall. Flailing for purchase, she knocked a pile of petri dishes into a centrifuge, then reached above her for the solid bracket of a high-up shelf.
He rolled his hips, cock sliding hotly against her thigh. She tugged up his shirt in the back, running her fingers over the thick slabs of his lats, the deltoids built up by weeks at the forge in Afghanistan, the deeper dip of his spine, the new shape of a familiar body.
He stiffened, and she thought maybe she'd scratched or bruised him, but only for a second; he let go of her with one hand to tug his shirt back down, then gripped both of her thighs and hitched her against the wall.
"Condom?" he asked, voice a harsh whisper. "I got tested for everything after -- after."
"No," she said, pressing her forehead to his. "Come on, sweetheart, just you and me -- "
She groaned as he slid inside her, fingers digging into her thighs, and held the back of his head, face pressed to her shoulder, as he bucked. Like this, he couldn't get a hand free for long, but he turned his face up to her ear and murmured, "Touch yourself, Betts, get yourself off, I wanna feel you -- "
"You got me?" she asked, sliding a hand down his chest, carefully avoiding the edge outlined by the shirt.
"Got you," he agreed, moving slow but deep now, shuddering on every thrust. She held onto the shelf strut with one hand and slipped her hand between them with the other, knuckles brushing the trail of hair below his bellybutton, stroking herself as he fucked into her. He grunted and nipped at her shoulder, pressing his teeth to the skin.
"Tony," she murmured, around the groans and the thud of their bodies, the spikes of pleasure rising through her. "Tony, look at me. Look at me, sweetie -- "
He raised his head, and the fire in his gaze was new, was terrifying and exhilarating, something too dangerous for the brash child he'd been when they met and too confident for the frightened boy he'd been the first time they'd done this...and too aware, far too aware, for the lost man who'd built weapons and been drunk half the time she'd known him. Their gazes locked and his eyes flew wide at the knowledge in hers, and he came with a drawn out cry, pressing his face back to her shoulder. She threw her head back, pressed hard against her clit, and followed him over the edge, breath knocked clean out of her.
She let go of the shelf bracket slowly, when his fingers began to ease. She'd have bruises, she thought, but it was background to the haze of pleasure glossing everything over, the broken glass and scattered paper and half-destroyed lab. He set her on her feet, looking unsteady himself, and tugged his pants up to his hips. She combed her hair back off her face and caught him toying uncertainly with the hem of his shirt. She put a hand on his, and he glanced at her, still only half-there. His orgasm must have hit him like a train.
"Can I see?" she asked gently. "It's okay if not. But I'd like you to share this with me, if you can."
He cut his eyes away, apparently considering it, then nodded and tugged the shirt up, lifting his arms to hold the hem above --
It was a light, was her first thought; a glowing light in his chest, bracketed by metal, raised maybe a quarter of an inch above the skin.
"I took shrapnel in Afghanistan," he said quietly. "It's an electromagnet, powered by a miniaturized arc reactor."
"It's beautiful," she said. He snorted. "Speaking as a biologist."
"You're standing there naked telling me -- "
"I don't see what nudity has to do with it," she said, but she kissed him and took the shirt in both hands, tugging it down again, then patted his hands, still gripping the hem, and went to find her underwear. He watched while she dressed, an uncertain look on his face.
"There's a lot more work to do before we're solid," she said, straightening what remained of the lab space. "But I think we should take the rest of the day, don't you?"
He nodded. "That sounds, uh, pleasant."
"Good," she said, and kissed him. "Because you get to carry me over all that broken glass."
"Worth it," he said, and swept her up, grunting just a little, thick engineer's boots crunching through the glass as he took her out of the lab and up to the patio, where the sun was setting over the calm, blue ocean.