Steph was thirty-seven days into the 21st century and she'd gone through seventeen punching bags. She felt bad about it, but only after when the bag was on the floor ten feet away from her and her fists had that dull throb that said she'd gone too far. The omnipresent guards always waved off her efforts to clean up. "It's our pleasure, Captain," a particularly fresh-faced one said after bag fourteen. "You're a real hero. I did a project on you in sixth grade."
Steph tried to smile. It felt like being in the USO again, smiling and winking for war bonds back when she was still Miss America—famous for doing nothing. Famous for sitting around. Famous for what she was, not anything she'd done. Thirty-seven days into the 21st century, and the only time Steph had been outside SHIELD's walls was when she'd woken, panicked, and ran.
And here she was now, sandbag number eighteen on the other side of the room, and her plans for escape interrupted by the skulking figure of Nick Fury. "I think you won," he said.
Steph unwrapped the gauze from her hands. "Did you get my request?"
Fury held up a file folder. "Permission to leave. I've looked it over. You could make a nice, quiet life for yourself out there. Eighty years of back-pay will get you a pretty little house. Is that the plan?"
Fury walked towards her. Steph kept her eye on him. She didn't trust him, and she knew that he knew it as well. He probably liked that. In Steph's time during the war, she'd worked with a lot of intelligence officers, powerful men and women who never told you what they did or where they came from. She'd relied on their information and respected their contribution to the war at great personal risk to themselves, but Steph never felt wholly comfortable around them. She didn't trust people who only showed you the ends and never the means.
He stopped a few feet from her. "Do you think you'd be happy in that kind of life?"
For a moment, she hated him for asking it. But she couldn't. She'd asked herself the same question too many times to judge someone else for wanting to know. "Maybe. I won't know until I try."
Fury chuckled, low and deep. "You wouldn't last a week. I don't care what your head shrinks blabber on about, you weren't meant to sit around and let the world pass you by."
She'd done it for sixty years. She had to be pretty good at it by now. Steph wiped the flour from her hands and crossed her arms. "You’re trying to get me back into the world."
"I'm trying to save it." Something in his voice made her straighten up. Were he a different man, Steph might have said that it was fear. Fury fixed her with a piercing stare. "How would you like to get your hands on your old shield?"
"You found it?" She couldn’t keep the eagerness out of her voice.
He clapped her on the shoulder. "Armory, 1400 hours. We’ve got the whole uniform. Come try it on and we'll see if we can't find you something more interesting than a house in the suburbs."
Back in the USO, Steph had resented a lot of things—the frivolity, the jeering men, the posing, and of course she hated nothing so much as the fact that she was here instead of there. Steph had known she wouldn’t be allowed on the frontlines—she was a super soldier, but she was still a woman, and people held a lot of intractable ideas about where women should be. But she’d thought she could at least be in the warzone. She thought that she could fight. Instead, for those first few months at least, it looked like the closest she’d ever get to the war was when the airmen painted her on the side of a jet.
But as much as she chafed as a performer, Steph couldn’t help but love her outfit. It sure as heck wasn’t a uniform, no ma’am, but despite everything it symbolized and everything it didn’t, putting it on made Steph feel, well, powerful in a very womanly way. In a sense, that was ridiculous. Basically, it was a modified chorus girl outfit. The skirt was short, the top was tight, and the boots were high. And she had never worn anything like it in her entire life. Never had the body for it. Never had the courage either. Steph hadn’t been a wallflower, but she hadn’t been blind either. Looks weren’t her asset and she didn’t want them to be. But looking in the mirror and not just tolerating but liking what she saw? That was nice, Steph wouldn’t deny that.
“Is that the new uniform?” Bucky asked after she pulled him off Hydra’s table.
She slung his arm over her shoulder. “Sure is. You get fitted next week.”
Bucky told her later, when she visited him in the medical after Colonel Phillips dressing down, that that had been the moment he’d known for sure that this beautiful dame was Steph. “You had the same bad sense of humor.”
When Howard set about equipping her new force, Steph asked if there was some way she could keep the uniform basically the same. Howard grinned so wide his mustache nearly popped off. “Help a pretty girl fight Nazis in a miniskirt? Sweetheart, I’m Howard Stark.”
Peggy, however, the person whose opinion Steph valued most, had stayed quiet about the uniform. She had only brought it up once, obliquely, on a night before a raid on a Hydra base in northern Denmark. It was a miserable day of reconnaissance in the forest, in the bitter rain, in the middle of winter, with nothing for them to do but wait for Bucky and Jacques to report. Peggy and Steph played cards while the men huddled together into one mass under a tarp. When Peggy won the eighth hand in a row, Steph whistled and folded. “I don’t care what you say; I still think you’re cheating. No one’s luck is this good.”
“So cynical.” Peggy teased. She took the cards and shuffled. “Come on, another round. If you win, I’ll give you my coat. You must be freezing in that getup.”
“I’m not, really,” Steph said. “After the serum, it takes a lot for the temperature to bother me.”
Peggy eyed Steph from head to toe. “That does explain a lot.” Then the conversation moved on. Peggy told Steph about the pond near her childhood home and how her older sister convinced her that there was a witch that lived at the bottom. Steph told Peggy about watching baseball games in Central Park and how the closest she ever got to playing was being the ump. But later that night, trying to get some sleep before they stormed the base in the morning, Steph turned over the comment in her head, over and over again, until she was sick of the noise in her head. That does explain a lot. That does explain a lot. That does explain a lot.
It was silly, really, Steph knew that. But the quiet judgment in Peggy’s voice stuck like a barb. Steph knew her uniform wasn’t the most practical (though, truly, you don’t know freedom of movement until you’ve done a roundhouse kick in a skirt), but Peggy’s implication was more than that. It was the tone Steph’s mother used to use when she talked about “those kind of women.” It was a tone that, as far as Steph could tell, was used only by women when talking about other women, talking about the kind of women you weren’t supposed to be. Steph had never been on the receiving end of it before, and to hear it slip so easily from Peggy, from someone she respected so much—it hurt. It hurt a lot, and for reasons that Steph knew that she could never tell.
But that didn’t change her mind about the uniform. When the door of the SHIELD armory slid open to reveal it, restored and brighter than ever, Steph felt like crying. More than anything else in this confusing, chaotic, messy, gleaming, complicated time, it felt like a piece of home. It fit like a second skin. And when she walked down the SHIELD’s halls in it, for once she didn’t mind that people stared.
Thirty-seven days into the 21st century and this was the first thing that cheered her up.
Then she met Antonia Stark.
When Fury told her (told her everything, everything, including a dossier the size of the Bible and a pat on the shoulder for encouragement) that Howard’s daughter was on the team as well, Steph didn’t know what to expect. So she expected Howard. Steph wasn’t disappointed. Was. Both, sort of. Tony Stark swaggered like her father, smirked like her father, flirted like her father. She drank and sulked and snapped like her father. But where Howard was the kind of man who flew into enemy territory for a hopeless mission, Steph couldn’t find that nobility underneath Tony’s bluster. She couldn’t reconcile the Iron Maiden—the first superhero of the group, the most respected, the most clout, honored by Congress, adored by the public, the first into a dangerous situation, the last out—with this.
Steph sized this woman up. Stark was an undeniably beautiful woman, and clearly she knew it. Gorgeous women hold themselves a certain way like they expect every door in their path to open and every knee in their proximity to buckle. Tony Stark reminded Steph of nothing so much as a jaguar or another large cat—equal parts graceful and deadly.
Through the thin fabric of her teeshirt glowed the blue light of the arc reactor between the other rather prominent areas of interest in the region. When Steph brought her eyes up from it, Stark smirked at her.
“Well, if it isn’t the Star Spangled Girl fightin’ for the world,” Stark said as way of greeting. Steph had really hoped that everyone had forgotten that song.
“Miss Stark,” Steph said.
Stark raised an eyebrow. “Captain.”
And that was the last bit of civility they had that day.
Ten minutes later, Steph was hard-pressed to think of anyone she had disliked as quickly and as passionately as she disliked Tony Stark. The Red Skull managed to eke ahead, but considering he was a mutated power monger that found the Nazis too conservative in their plans for world domination, that was not much of an accomplishment for Miss Stark.
All Steph had wanted to know was what Stark would do if her suit failed. It was a tactical question, a reasonable concern, and Stark shrugged it off. “The suit won’t fail.”
“But if it does?” Steph pressed.
Stark just swirled her scotch glass. “It won’t.”
She was like a child, playing at heroics in her backyard. As far as Steph could tell, Stark’s superpower was money, and while the Avengers needed that to run, it didn’t need the funder flying beside them into battle.
“What if the Hulk chills the fuck out in the middle of battle?” Stark said with that lazy drawl. Even when she was defending herself, she sounded like she didn’t care. “What if Natasha gets hit by a truck? You’re on a team with a jackass whose power is archery—”
“Thanks,” Barton said.
“You’re welcome, sweetheart, talk to me anytime you want a real weapon—but for some reason, you only seem to be fixated on me. Now, why is that, Captain?” Stark spat the last word like a curse.
Steph wasn’t sure if leading a superteam was what she wanted to do with her life, but she sure as hell wasn’t having that leadership challenged by a spoiled brat. “You’re the only one that has openly pronounced that you have no interest in working with a team, Miss Stark. We don’t need a loose cannon.”
Stark smirked. “Yeah, well, group hugs and trust falls aren’t really my style.”
“And obviously all you care about is style.”
“Out of all of us here, who’s in the miniskirt?”
Steph crossed her arms. “That’s because I can fight in a miniskirt. What I’m asking and you keep evading, is what will you do if your suit breaks during a fight? What is your contingency plan?”
“I guess I’ll just die.” Stark leaned back in her chair and put her hands behind her head. “But what are you going to do, right? Not all of us get to be super soldiers.”
“You can still be a soldier.”
“Why? You aren’t.” Stark lost the apathetic tone. She fixed Steph with dead looking eyes. “You’re a lab experiment at best, Rogers. And it is patently absurd that we are giving any type of leadership someone who predates Betamax.”
“Do you want the job?”
“Yeah. Then I’d fire you all. No offense,” Stark said to the rest of team. They seemed content to sit back and watch. Dr. Banner in particular looked like he wanted nothing more than to stay out of the firing range. “It’s just that I think you’re unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money.”
“None taken,” Romanov said who appeared to be cleaning her nails with a knife.
“You’re a big woman in a suit of armor,” Steph said. “Take that away and what are you?”
“Genius billionaire sex goddess philanthropist,” Tony said instantly. “But take away that serum, and you’re just a kid from Brooklyn.”
Steph balled her fists. “Yes, I am.”
“Ladies.” They all turned. Fury was standing in the doorway scowling at them. It was surprisingly effective with only one eye. Steph was glad she got to miss the full force. “If we could put the pissing match on hold, we can address the reason that I’ve assembled you here.”
Fury pointed up at the aforementioned reason, smirking in his cage. “No need to stop on my account,” the Norse god of mischief said.
Stark and Steph looked back at each other. I’ll deal with you later, their faces said.
Loki (Loki, Steph still needed a minute to digest that she was here to help contain a Norse god with a team that comprised another one) shook his head, face full of false sympathy. “These are the forces you summoned to defeat me, dear brother? How desperate are you that you would call on such lost souls? You can do better.”
Steph glanced at Thor—Thor. Her life was never going to be normal—looming in the corner. His joviality had drained away at the sound of his brother’s voice. “It does not have to be this way, brother.” Even when he spoke quietly, Thor’s voice boomed like thunder. Which made sense.
Loki glowered. “Yes, it does.”
Thor and Loki stared each other down. Barton muttered something that sounded like, “Yes, this will go well.”
Her thoughts exactly.
Steph went to her barracks that night with the intention of telling Fury that there was no way at all that Stark could be on the team. The Avengers had no place for her.
Then Loki escaped Stark’s special super-cage. The petty part of Steph that she wasn’t proud of couldn’t help but feel smug about that. Then Loki threw Stark out a window. Then he tried to conquer the Earth.
Steph felt less smug after that.
The fight was long and bitter and uphill the entire time. They had six people. Loki had an army. Still, it didn’t matter, or rather it didn’t change what they had to do. Loki needed to be stopped. “We have to be prepared to risk everything,” Steph told her team en route to the battle. All joking was gone, all rivalries were gone. Even Stark, bruised and battered, her helmet resting in her lap, listened intently. Steph tried to appear confident, tried to look like the leader she was, even as her gut flopped. She’d never fought with these people before. She had no idea what they were capable of. “Too many good men and women have lost their lives already.” Thor lowered his head as if in prayer. “I won’t lose anymore,” Steph said quietly. “Loki is strong. We’re stronger. But only if we go out there and we fight as a team.” At this she looked at Stark. She met her gaze evenly and stared right back. “We fight together,” Steph said, “or we lose everything. Are you ready to protect our home?”
“If we can’t,” Stark said, “you can be damned sure that we’ll avenge it.”
For the first time Steph and Stark shared a smile. “That’s what I like to hear,” Steph said.
Before that battle, Steph had had such reservations about how she wanted to spend her new life. Afterwards? Her doubts were gone. This was what she was meant to do. What Steph remembered from that last fight—more than Loki’s giant snake monster, more the sore ribs and the way her shield arm burned by the time they were done, even more than the sight of the Hulk smashing a spaceship into another spaceship and then surfing a third spaceship back to Earth that he crashed into said giant snake monster—was the feeling when it was over, when Loki was in a crumpled heap at their feet and his army was scattered, when Steph staggered to her feet and heard what sounded like all of New York City cheering. Her city. It seemed like she’d never be done saving it.
She’d been a superhero before. This was something new. Romanov came out of the rubble as stoic as ever, though Steph had noticed how she’d patted her hair back into place before making her dramatic entrance. Barton kept trying to entice people to chant his name. Banner stood in the center of a crater, looking a little baffled and very shirtless but giddily happy. He caught Steph looking. “In complete control!” he shouted across the square with a grin. This comment either made the time he used one alien like a baseball bat against his squadmates more impressive or more horrifying; Steph settled on impressive and gave him a thumbs up.
Thor, kneeling over his brother, didn’t notice the crowd. He said something to him so soft that even Steph couldn’t hear. Loki cracked open one swollen eye and spat blood in Thor’s face.
Crimson and gold arced over them as the Iron Maiden landed. The armor looked like it had flown to hell and back, but it landed so gracefully that she barely disturbed the dust. You almost forgot that it had flown into the center of Loki’s armada and ripped through their hulls like they were paper.
The helmet turned and Steph saw herself reflected in the eerily still faceplate. “I guess we won,” Stark said, her voice strangely distorted.
Whatever Tony Stark was, Steph decided—and Steph thought Tony Stark was many, many things—Iron Maiden was a hero. Steph smiled to herself. “Yeah,” she said, surveying the city, her city, this place that was undeniably alive when all logic said it shouldn’t be. “I guess we did.”
“Go team,” Stark said.
After they released her from the hospital bay, Steph slunk through the halls of the Helicarrier. She didn’t want to talk to anyone now. The adrenaline of victory was gone, and in its place was a weariness that went down to the bone. Once she found a bed, she felt like she could sleep for another eighty years. She was in the homestretch to her bedroom when she heard a voice that made her flatten herself against the wall.
“Come on, Pep,” Stark said. “Every superhero needs a girl. Who are my enemies going to kidnap if you don’t step up?” Her quiet voice echoed down the metal hallway. Stark sounded about as tired as Steph did, but there was something else in her voice, something missing, like she was too tired to raise her walls of ironic detachment.
“Enticing,” a different woman replied.
“Aren’t you supposed to be nice to me? I’m the wounded hero.”
“Then drag your wounded body to bed. You look horrible.”
“Pfft. Sleep is overrated.”
Steph couldn’t resist. She tiptoed forward and peeked her head around the corner. Stark was leaning against a closed door, her head against the wall. Her eyes were half shut, her arm was in a sling, but she had a lazy smile on her face that Steph had never seen before, not in person, not in any of the hundreds of pictures SHIELD had on record. It was directed at a tall red-headed woman—or rather, Steph realized, a woman of average height wearing heels that made Steph’s feet hurt just to look at them. She must be the infamous Pepper Potts, Steph realized. From the file she’d read on her and the description “the only person alive capable of handling Tony Stark,” Steph expected her to be six foot ten and wield an axe.
Pepper squeezed Stark’s arm. “I saw Captain America save you.”
Steph stifled a laugh when Stark squawked. “Hey, I saved her.” Pepper shot her a look. “After she saved me,” Stark conceded. Steph made a note to study how Pepper kept Stark on a leash. This woman was a genius. “We saved each other. Hawkeye saved Thor, Thor saved Natasha, Natasha saved the Hulk, Hulk saved everyone. It was a circle of reciprocal saving.”
Pepper made a dubious noise. “Next time you see them, thank them,” she said firmly. “Especially Captain Rogers.”
That really wasn’t necessary. Stark thought so as well. “Oh, Pep. Don’t tell me she’s seduced you too?”
“I’m not going to hate her just because you hate her. And if she keeps you safe when you’re intent on acting like an idiot—”
“Hey, Barton jumped out of a plane to shoot an alien in the face with an arrow. My battle strategies were not the worst ones out there.”
“You tried to blow up an enormous mechanical alien snake by flying inside it—”
“Which totally would have worked if the Hulk hadn’t gotten there first so I don’t get why everyone’s so fixated on that.”
Pepper raised her hand. “Stop. Please. I’m losing all sympathy for you in your weakened state and I don’t want to hit an invalid.” She pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “I know this is who you are now. I understand, and I’m proud of you, but I don’t want to lose you, Tony. I really don’t. You’re all I’ve got too, remember?”
Stark shifted from foot to foot. “Yeah. Well,” she said eventually. Seeing Stark uncomfortable was a strange and not entirely satisfying experience. It felt counter to how the world should be. Birds fly, fish swim, Starks strut.
Pepper bumped her shoulder against Stark’s. “And I’m not joking. Thank Captain America. I’m not having you pick a fight with a national icon.”
“Maybe she picked a fight with me.” The bitterness in Stark’s voice unsettled Steph. She hadn’t imagined Stark had cared.
Stark raised her hand. “Whatever. It is what it is. She’s not the first person to dislike me. I’ll deal with it later. After all, I’ll have plenty of time.”
“So you’re going along with Fury’s plan?” Judging by Pepper’s tone, whatever this plan was she clearly didn’t approve.
Stark shrugged and winced. Grabbing her injured shoulder, she said, “Where else are we going to put them?”
“Many, many places come to mind,” Pepper said. When Stark opened her mouth, because Stark was physically incapable of not having the last word, Pepper pressed a finger to her lips. “Not a word. It’s your horrible decision. You can live with the consequences later. Time for bed.” And ignoring Stark’s cries of indignation, she whirled her around and pushed her into the room.
Pepper was right. It was time for bed. Steph could sleep leaning against this wall. So she filled Fury and Stark’s secret plan under mysteries to solve tomorrow along with the strange way Stark’s smile had given Steph butterflies, and the stranger, even more inexplicable guilt that had settled next to them.
When Fury announced that the Avengers would be moving into the luxury penthouse at the top of Stark Tower, Steph felt that she should have been more annoyed. After all, not only did Fury choose where she would live, he chose Stark’s house. But after a week of eating dinner alone in her new SHIELD assigned apartment, Steph found she didn’t mind the forced living situation too much. Her thoughts got too loud at night. Maybe if there were other people there, they would be a bit quieter.
Besides, she thought once she saw the penthouse in question, there was no risk of running into anyone you didn’t want to here. This wasn’t a penthouse. This was a house, and one of the biggest ones Steph had ever been in. The Avengers sans Stark claimed bedrooms with glee like children in a candy store and by the time they were done, there were still half a dozen new rooms they hadn’t even seen.
No wonder Howard and Tony acted the way they did. If you lived in a place like this, you’d think you were untouchable too.
Pepper ambushed Steph in the elevator the evening of the moving in. “Good evening, Captain,” Pepper said smoothly as she stepped between the closing doors and selected her floor. “How are you settling in?”
“It’s a bit intimidating,” Steph said, “but I’m grateful. It’ll be nice to have a central meeting place for the team.”
“Yes, it was quite generous of Ms. Stark, wasn’t it?” Pepper smiled at Steph and it was terrifying. “I know you two didn’t get the best start.”
“We had a disagreement,” Steph said diplomatically. She didn’t talk about people behind their backs. And if she did, it wouldn’t be to their friends.
“Yes,” Pepper agreed. “Because Tony’s an asshole. That’s who she is. But she is not a bad person, Captain Rogers. In fact she tries very hard to be the opposite.” She reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a white slip of paper. “This is the passcode to Tony’s garage in the basement. It’s dark and dirty and it smells like sweat and motor oil, but she’s at home there. If you talk to her there, where she feels most comfortable, I think you two can resolve your conflict.”
Steph took the slip. The handwriting was so neat it looked typed. “Thank you,” she said, mulling over the plan in her head. “I’ll think about it. Where is the garage?”
The elevator doors slide open with a ding into a grey concrete hallway that definitely wasn’t the gym. Pepper held her arm out. “Here,” she said cheerfully. “I do appreciate your willingness to work this situation out.”
Slightly dazed, Steph stepped forward. “Miss Potts,” she started. Pepper smiled as the elevator doors slide shut.
That woman was terrifying.
No time like the present, Steph supposed. The hallway led to a double door that looked like the entrance to a bomb shelter. Steph dutifully entered the code in the keypad. She half-hoped it wouldn’t work. Of course it did.
“Garage”, like “penthouse”, didn’t properly describe what Steph walked into. Garages were cramped, cluttered places, wide enough for one car and a person if you were lucky. This was…this was outside Steph’s vocabulary. The only thing she could think it resembled was that gleaming, buzzing, beeping room where she’d become a super soldier. But even that paled in comparison. This was something out of the most outlandish science fiction novel, a room of chrome and oil, lasers and lights. With pieces of the Iron Maidens littering the room, dangling from the ceiling, propped against the wall; with the small square robot that scooted around Steph’s feet as she danced away; with what looked like a hologram of the Iron Maiden that Stark flicked through with a few lazy movements, Steph suddenly understood what Fury meant when he said Stark was “bleeding edge”.
Stark didn’t look surprised when she saw Steph. Mostly just annoyed. “Well, Jesus, they let any riffraff in here nowadays.” She turned from the hologram to the chest of the Iron Maiden suit on one of the three massive worktables in the room. “Pepper send you down?”
Steph nodded and stepped forward. To her left, what she’d assumed was some kind of art sculpture whirred to life. Its…, well, head was the only word for it, bobbed up and down, giving Steph the horribly unsettling feeling that it was looking at her and wasn’t sure about how it felt about what he saw.
“Down, Dummy,” Stark said distractedly. “She’s not a fire.”
Dummy whirred like it doubted that, but its head drooped. Steph scooted past before it perked up again. “I want to talk to you about our relationship.”
“It’s a bit early for that.” Stark sounded like she was barely paying attention as hand hovered over two identical screwdrivers. She snatched one up. “Let’s enjoy the honeymoon phase before we get down to talks of exclusivity.”
Steph swallowed her annoyance and remembered all those sayings about the high road. “I think we got off on the wrong foot.”
“Do you know what I hate, Cap?” Stark said. “Euphemism.” She popped open a panel that Steph hadn’t even known was there and started tinkering. “It’s just lying, but less interesting. So instead of pussyfooting around and pretending that we had a difference of personalities or whatever bullshit, PC, castrated form of problem solving SHIELD sent you to a training seminar for, just say what actually happened. We don’t like each other because you think that I’m a selfish bitch who’ll fuck over the team given the first opportunity and I think that you’re self-righteous asshole high on your own sense of moral superiority.” Stark gave her a smile Steph could only describe as the facial expression equivalent of “fuck you.” “How close am I? Nine marks out of ten?”
What is your problem?” Steph hissed. “Is everyone else really that pointless to you?
“What’s your problem, Captain? Your ego that fucking fragile that you can’t handle one person not kissing your ass?”
It was irrational and stupid, but Steph was so tired and there was something about Stark’s face that demanded to be punched. She stormed around the counter and grabbed Stark by the shirt. The Avengers were the one thing in this entire damn century that Steph wanted, and this woman had to be in it.
Stark’s eyes went wide. Then they narrowed.
“Congratulations,” Stark said, venom dripping. “Take away the suit and you can beat me up. Was that the answer you were looking for?”
Steph looked at her fists balled in Tony’s shirt, her knuckles turning white. She let go. “I’m sorry,” she said, as her anger recoiled. “That was out of line.”
Stark turned away and tugged her shirt back into place. “What do you want from me, Rogers? An apology that I’m not my father?”
“No, I’m not asking—I don’t want that.” Steph rubbed the back of her neck and wished she was anywhere else. “I want to be able to work with you. And you make yourself hard to like.”
Stark winced at that and pretended she didn’t. She snatched up her welder’s mask, as implacable as the Iron Maiden’s face, and pulled it. “We don’t have to like each other to work together.”
“Well, I’m a big girl, Rogers. Let’s assume you are too. So why don’t we just settle for ignoring each other and see how that goes.”
Steph opened her mouth at which point Dummy decided that she was, in fact, a fire. It took three showers to get the gunk off. The mocking sound of Stark’s laughter lasted a lot longer.
The ugly, churning shame that had replaced clean burn of righteous anger lasted even longer than that. Steph stood in the shower under the hot water that never ran out for a long time. I’m not happy here, she thought, stripping away all the euphemism she’d put up to protect herself from the truth. I’m not happy here, and I don’t belong here, and I don’t like who I’ve become here.
But she was here, and there was no road home. So she’d do her job. By God, she would do her job and do it well because that was all she had ever wanted anyway. If that wasn’t enough to make her happy, that was enough to make her useful. Steph was beginning to wonder if that was the best you could hope for.
For the first month in the Tower, avoidance was the plan. Steph and Stark fought together and lived together, but they never stayed together. If Steph was eating in the kitchen, Stark took her dinner down to the garage. If Stark was in the library, Steph borrowed a book from Natasha. In fact, Stark was hardly there at all. It was hard to believe this had been her home at some point. It wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t good and it wasn’t fun, but they functioned.
Steph had, somewhat naively, assumed that they’d start to tolerate each other more once they were experienced with fighting together. After all, her theory went, it was hard to hate someone the third time they catch you when you’re falling off a skyscraper, or the fifth time they’ve knocked out that enemy behind you. Steph shouldn’t have underestimated herself. It was hard to hate someone you fought with, but not impossible. And neither Tony nor Steph were the type to back to back down from a challenge.
So, no, the inciting incident of Tony and Steph’s move from grudging tolerance to something that could maybe, possibly, if you squinted be considered, a positive relationship was not a bond forged in battle. It was nowhere near that noble. The foundation of Tony and Steph’s relationship laid on seasons one through four of NBC’s Parks and Recreation.
Like most trends in the Avengers Tower that were either extremely good or extremely bad, the team’s addiction to television began with Hawkeye struck by boredom.
“Natasha,” Clint had said as he perched on the arm of the couch she was lying on. Natasha kept her eyes resolutely on her book. “Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Natasha. Nata—”
“Natasha, I’m bored.”
“You are a child.”
“And you love me for my youthful charm.”
She chucked the book at his head at which point Steph stopped pretending she was deaf to the goings-on in the living and popped of the kitchen. “If you want to fight, take it to the sparring room.”
Clint looked hopefully at Natasha. “Forget it,” she said. “I’m reading.”
“Your book is on the other side of the room.”
“Your mother is a diseased whore.”
“You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?” He glanced at Steph and shrugged. “I tried to teach her how to do ‘your momma’ jokes a few years back. I should have known that, like everything she does, she’d take it crazy far.”
In one fluid move, Natasha whipped out a knife and flung it across the room. It hit her book a thump and Natasha reeled it with a rope so thin it was practically invisible. “I play to win, Clint.”
Clint looked at Steph pointedly. “Like I said, crazy far.”
“That book was literally ten feet away from you,” Stark said. She must have come in while Natasha and Clint were talking. “And it was also not your book. Would it have been that hard to walk or do you just like destroying my shit?”
Stark had her hair pulled up in that same messy bun and a sweatshirt with a faded MIT logo that was too large on her. It looked like nothing she was wearing had been bought in the last twenty years. She held a pot of coffee. She’d used to just grab a mug, but apparently this was more practical given how much she drank. Steph was pretty sure that was a recipe for a heart attack by fifty.
Natasha smiled and yanked her knife out. “Destroying your shit.”
“Natasha, as always, you are as frightening as you are arousing,” Stark said mildly. “And this is why no one likes Russians. No respect for other people’s properties.”
“Your mother gave you syphilis,” Natasha said and went back to her reading.
“I’m bored, Tony,” Clint said. “Come spar with me.”
Stark snorted. “Fuck that. Get Rogers to do it. She likes fighting.”
Don’t nag, Steph thought even as she opened her mouth to nag. “You should spar more. It’s an important part of training.”
Stark had many voices, Steph had figured out. She had her Tony voice which she used on robots, Pepper, and James Rhodes, at least when the man wasn’t trying to tell her off. She had her science voice which was about ten times faster than the average speaking voice and used exclusively with Bruce. She had her team voice which, while still (as Clint put it) “just a touch douchey,” was friendly enough. And then she had this voice, tight and cold and plastic, that she reserved especially for Steph.
“Which is why I do train, regularly, according to the schedule you so helpfully tapped to my bedroom door. But I also should finish up the blueprints for mobile hospital because everyone I’ve hired is incompetent. So.” She shrugged a shrug that was half what can you do? and half seriously, what can you do? Just try and make me do anything.
“I’ll pass,” Clint said, either oblivious to the tension or more likely just not caring. “If I wanted to get my ass handed to me with an encouraging smile and a speech about how I can do better, I’d…do something that also fits that description besides sparring with Cap because I’m tired of losing.”
“Your wordplay is unrivaled,” Natasha muttered. “Just watch some TV.”
“One, Natasha, no one asked you, and two, that’s a great idea.” Clint pointed at Steph. “Have you seen the History Channel?”
Steph thought. What television she had seen hadn’t impressive her much. The visuals were impressive, but give her an hour with The Shadow anytime. “Did it have the British man in the blue box?”
“As much as I would love to convince you that Doctor Who is history, no.” Clint grinned at her. “This is great! I’ve always wanted to watch a History Channel documentary with someone who was actually there. There’s about fifty-fifty chance that they’re playing a show on World War Two right now. You like Nazis, right?”
“Well, you like learning about them?”
Clint waved it off. “That’s fine. There’s also a fifty-fifty chance they’re playing a show on ghost hunting.”
They were playing a show on ghost hunting. Steph questioned how this counted as history (ghosts were people from the past, was the best she could come up with), but there was something strangely addicting about watching grown men creep around houses at night, jumping at inaudible noises.
“I really should be doing something productive,” Steph said as the third episode started.
“We all should.” Clint patted her on the knee. “That’s the magic of TV.”
After that, Tony’s giant, startlingly realistic television became the gathering point for the Avengers in their free time. Steph, who felt like she was forever playing the wet blanket even though she didn’t want to, hated it at first. “It’s bright noises and loud sounds. There are better things we could be doing with our time,” she complained to Bruce after a few weeks. Besides Stark who rarely left her underground cave, he seemed like the one standout from the cult of TV.
Bruce shook his head. “I understand, Stephanie, but people need to relax. Trust me,” he said wryly, “I would know.”
She sighed. “All the shows are just so…” She cast about for the right word.
“Stupid?” he offered.
Steph smiled. “Basically.”
“While I admit that I don’t understand why Natasha and Thor have responded so positively to Glee, at least she likes it and that seems pretty rare for her. I mean, just last week, we stopped Loki’s giant wolf from devouring a school bus. We need all the downtime we can get.” He cast her a sidelong look over his coffee cup. “Besides, weren’t you watching a marathon of Style by Jury last night?”
“Yes,” Steph said sadly. “That’s why I know how stupid television can be.”
Bruce’s smiles were rare things. Steph always felt accomplished when she managed to coax one out. “Maybe you should stop letting Clint pick the shows. He doesn’t have the best taste.” Bruce paused. “Um, actually, have you heard of this show called The Wire? It’s just that I’ve got the DVDs for the first season in my room. I thought that maybe…” He made a hand gesture that Steph interpreted as watch it together and discuss it and do good team bonding. Her first reaction was to politely decline—she was, after all, trying to escape the insidious hold TV had over her, not encourage it. But Bruce rarely offered to do anything with the team. Just getting him to join her in the kitchen had taken a few hours of firm politeness.
“Sure,” she said. It was only one episode.
Fifty five minutes later, as the credits rolled on the screen, Bruce turned to her, eager as a puppy. “What did you think?”
“I don’t understand what happened,” she said slowly, “but I think it was amazing.”
Bruce nodded sagely. “That’s The Wire. Um.” He looked at her, hopeful. “Episode two?”
And three and four and five. Steph drew the line at episode six. “No one should sit in the same place for this long.”
“I agree,” Clint said. He’d walked in halfway through episode three and hopped on the couch with a gleeful squeal of “Omar!” “That’s why I do squats and lunges during marathon. That way, I engage both the body and the mind. And it makes my ass adorable.” He winked. “Ladies.”
Steph and Bruce shared a look. “That’s it for today,” she said. “Try and do something useful before bed. We’re meeting with Agents Hill and Coulson tomorrow on the Latveria affair. Let’s pretend we’ve done more in the last week than watch TV.”
“Are you vacating the room of viewing?” Thor’s voice boomed. “Excellent! Natasha! It is time for New Directions!”
“Seriously?” Clint asked Thor. “I thought you were cool.”
Thor guffawed. Steph was not aware that people actually did that. “You must open yourself up to glee, my brother in arms. Come! Stay! One solo from the golden throat of Rachel Barry will wretch your chest open with emotion.”
As Thor attempted to recreate what was apparently a groundbreaking performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Bruce flipped idly through the channels. “Look!” he said suddenly. “It’s Tony.”
Indeed, on the screen, next to the female news anchor (another thing that kept surprising Steph, and not in a bad way—women were everywhere here) was a picture of Tony in CEO mode: white blouse, neat hair, intense makeup. Steph had seen so much of Tony in mad inventor mode lately that she barely looked like the same women in this cleaned up respectable form. “Stark Industries CEO Tony Stark held a press conference today in light of recent allegations that her former CFO Obadiah Stane was involved in black market weapon deals with known terrorist groups, including the multiethnic anti-American Ten Rings, the group responsible for Stark’s attack and five month long capture in 2010. This incident resulted in Stark shutting down her company’s weapon division, the cornerstone of the Stark Empire. Inside sources say that this decision was the source of considerable tension between the partners.
“Stane died in a boating one week after the mysterious mech attack on Stark Industries’ Malibu headquarters where Stark first utilized the Iron Maiden suit. He was unavailable for comment in the week before his death.”
“The Iron Monger?” Steph asked.
Clint nodded. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—Rich white guys are crazy.”
The screen switched to footage of the news conference. “I can tell you,” Stark said, crisp and professional as Steph had ever heard, “that all reports of Obadiah trading with terrorists is, at best, inaccurate reporting and at worst, a deliberate attempt to diminish the reputation of a man who spent his life in the service of defending this country.” Stark’s devil may care attitude was nowhere here. For one, she appeared to be sticking the notecards. More than that though, she looked and sounded frayed as she batted off question after question from the press.
“We are not at liberty at this time to discuss that matter.”
Steph didn’t know Stark was capable of not talking back.
“Ms. Stark!” a woman said. “Vanity Fair.”
Stark sighed. “Yes, Ms. Everheart.”
“If Stane was funding and arming the Ten Rings, do you suspect that he had a hand in your kidnapping?”
“If Obie was funding and arming the Ten Rings, then yes, I would suspect that,” Stark snapped. “But he was not, so I don’t.”
“It is very convenient,” Ms. Everheart persisted. “Before you took over the company, he was acting CEO. In recent years, he’d had a steadily decreasing role in the company while your star rose. Isn’t it possible that he was motivated by jealousy to eliminate you from the competition?”
“There are so many things that are bullshit in what you’ve just said that I’m honestly stumped as to where to begin,” Stark said. She looked so livid that Steph had to remind herself that she was lying. “So let’s start with the fact that Obie was as much a father to me as my own father growing up. Or that he cared about nothing more than the good name of our company. Or that, and I can’t stress this enough, Christine, good people don’t do that, and Obadiah Stane was a good man. So stop projecting your shit on a dead man. This press conference is over.” On the TV, Stark stalked away as the light bulbs flashed and reporters shouted questions at her back. Agent Coulson took the podium.
Bruce switched the channel. “I’m glad the identities of my enemies aren’t classified by the federal government,” he said finally.
“That’s because the Hulk’s enemies are apartment buildings and cars, not secret terrorist funding CFOs,” Clint said. “After all the support that Stane personally pledged to every sector in the defense industry—including SHIELD, by the way, Fury was really happy about that—I’m not surprised we’re trying to martyr him now. People in charge of secret military operations don’t like people knowing when they’ve been made to look like asses. I’m just shocked Coulson and Fury could get her to say all that. Getting her to stay on message at the best of times is like herding cats. Drunk, belligerent cats with rocket boots and five PhDs. I don’t know how they made her suck up her pride and defend that asshole.”
“People you regard as family are not easily abandoned,” Thor said, his voice low and rumbling. “Even when perhaps they should be. We protect their reputations long after they cease to deserve it.” Then he grabbed the remote from Bruce. “Come. It’s time for Regionals.”
It was by luck—good or bad—that Steph was awake when Stark came home later that night. Well, “luck”. Living in the Avengers Towers hadn’t done anything to keep her nightmares at bay. It just gave her more to do when she woke from them.
“Jesus!” Stark said when she flicked on the light and saw Steph on the couch. “Were you sitting here in the dark?”
Steph tried to think of a reasonable lie. “Yes.” Smooth, Rogers. “I was thinking of watching some TV.”
“That’s a big decision. I can see why it would require deep thought.” Stark went to the sidebar that she kept in almost everyone room and picked up the scotch. “Don’t let me stop you.”
“You should get to bed. We’ve got a meeting in the morning.”
Stark slammed her glass down on the bar. “For Christ sake, Rogers.” She rubbed her eyes like she was angry at them. “It has been a fucking long day,” she said like she hadn’t slept in years. “Can you just pretend to not be you until I’m gone?”
Here was the annoying thing about being the leader. You had to lead people. Which was hard enough when you got along with them and they got along with you, but when you disagreed with them? When on a fundamental level, you opposed each other? Tough. You still had to lead. They still had to follow. And when someone you were supposed to take care of was hurting, you had to do something. Hell, that wasn’t even an issue of being a leader. That was the bare minimum for human decency.
So Steph said, for lack of a better option, “You can watch with me.” Stark’s eyebrows shot up. “I haven’t seen this show before, but it’s supposed to be pretty good. Parks and Recreation. Coulson recommended it to me. He was very enthusiastic. And the TV told me that it has all the episodes.” Also, we don’t have to talk.
“Uh,” Stark said, apparently without a script for a civil interaction with her. “Yeah. That’s Jarvis. He does that.”
Steph frowned. “That’s who?”
“Hello, Ms. Rogers,” the ceiling said. Two months ago, this would have surprised her. Now she regarded this fact with a sort of weary resignation. Of course, the ceiling would talk.
“I put him on mute up here when you guys moved in,” Stark said. “I didn’t want you chucking your shield at the speakers or thinking it was a ghost or whatever. But yeah, he’s the one that’s been downloading all of your guys’ TV shows. Including a hundred episodes of What Not to Wear. That was surprising.”
Steph nodded. “That’s Natasha.”
“She said she likes watching people getting judged.”
Stark finished the last dregs of her scotch. “Good god, that woman is terrifying.”
“A lot of the women around here are. If it helps, I saw her and Thor crying at the season finale of Glee.”
I am having a civil conversation with Antonia Stark, Steph thought with wonder as Stark snorted at the image. She knew more improbable things had happened—technically, she was one of them—but it still felt about as strange as Dr. Doom riding a mechanical dragon through the streets of New York. Except that had happened last week. Outlandish comparisons had become a lot harder since Steph joined the Avengers.
“So...this voice,” Steph started.
“Jarvis,” Stark interrupted. “The most advanced AI in the world. Well, like third most advanced, some fucker in China’s got a robot that can paint and Pym’s got his proto-Terminator, but yeah, Jarvis here is probably the least murderous and the most intelligent electronic brain on the planet.”
Steph blinked. “That’s comforting?”
“I assure you,” the ceiling said, “despite Ms. Stark’s rather creative endorsement of my abilities, my only function and desire is to facilitate the lives of the Avengers.” It—he?—had a British accent and an annoyed bite. Did Stark program that in? Who creates a sarcastic artificial intelligence?
Stark would. Of course Stark would.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Jarvis,” Steph said. She didn’t know where to address so she spoke to the ceiling. “You don’t have to stay quiet on my account.
“Thank you, Ms. Rogers,” Jarvis replied smoothly. “I am glad my presence doesn’t disturb you.”
It did. Truthfully, it disturbed her a lot. The idea that she was constantly being watched by a thousand invisible eyes was not a comforting one, and one she hadn’t been able to escape since she got here. But the idea of a silent observer bothered her even more.
“Huh,” Stark said.
Steph cocked her head. “What?”
“It’s nothing. I just thought you’d be worse with him. Thought he’d freak you out.” Stark shrugged.
“I’m not as bad at all this as you think.” She tried to keep the annoyance from her voice. It shouldn’t bother Steph that Stark guessed exactly how Steph would feel.
Stark raised an eyebrow like Steph had no idea how bad Stark thought she was, but she stayed silent. She ran a finger around the rim of her glass. Steph hugged a couch cushion to her chest. Conversation time was over then. She gestured at the TV screen. “So do you want to? Watch?”
Stark waved her off. “Pass.”
The TV flicked on without Steph touching the remote. A list of titles appeared on the screen. Parks and Recreation season one, episode one selected itself. Apparently, this was what Jarvis did when unmuted. Great. Now all the effort was gone from TV watching. Steph looked back at Tony in her crumpled business suit with her empty glass of scotch and the dark circles her eyes. “Are you sure?” Steph asked.
Stark’s eyes flickered to the TV screen then up at the ceiling. “Whatever. How can I resist combined efforts of the two forces treat me like a child?” She stepped over the back of the couch and collapsed in the corner, as far from Steph as she could make herself, cradling her scotch to her chest. She slumped down so low that she could rest it on the relatively flat surface of the arc reactor. “Hope it doesn’t suck.”
“If it does, blame Coulson.”
“I usually do.”
The episode played itself. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t the greatest, but it wasn’t bad. Steph didn’t understand the point of the format—why a fake documentary? Why try and pretend it was real?—but she liked the main character. She didn’t seem as bitter as so many of the characters from this decade were. Everything from this time period seemed like it was afraid of sincerity.
Beside her, Stark curled like a cat with her head on the armrest. She didn’t laugh, not once, but she didn’t make any snide comments either. It was the first time Steph had been with her and experienced extended silence.
Of course, that turned out to be, Steph discovered when the episode was over, because Stark was asleep. It probably doesn’t count as team bounding, Steph thought wryly, if one half of the bond is unconscious. Steph tugged the blanket off the back of the couch and pulled it over Stark. Stark kicked it off. “Is too hot,” she mumbled into the armrest.
Steph grabbed Stark’s kicking feet and pulled off her shoes. “Go to your own bed. You’ll get a horrible crick in that position.”
“It’s not…the worst…” Stark trailed off, asleep midsentence.
“Good night then,” she said. “Sweet dreams and all of that.” Steph’s eyelids sagged. Stark seemed to have the right idea. But Steph’s empty room, her empty bed, held no appeal. She tipped her head back. She’d just shut her eyes for a moment.
When she woke with the first rays of sunshine, Stark was gone and the blanket was draped with care on the couch right next to where Steph had been sleeping. Steph shook her head sleepily. “Tony, you really are an ass,” she muttered but without much rancor as she slid sideways, stretched lengthwise along the couch, and pulled the blanket up over her. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Something shifted after that night. It was nothing profound, nothing that noticeable, but it was there. A slackening of tension. A growing ease in the air. It was as if, having determined that they could be reasonably pleasant to each other once, Tony and Steph felt less pressure to go for each other’s throats. They weren’t friends, but they were polite. Considering that that the two of them had once had a twenty minute fight over breakfast food, that was quite an accomplishment.
“Jesus, when did you two start acting like grown-ass women?” Clint asked one morning when Steph reminded Tony that she had sparring practice this evening and Tony just rolled her eyes. “If you stop switching between passive-aggression and attacking everything that the other person is, what am I supposed to watch for entertainment?”
“Any one of the dozen extremely specific pornos that you had Jarvis download last night?” Tony offered as she prepared her coffee (A frightening, oil black concoction that smelled like ash and nobody else drank. Natasha said she’d once seen Tony use it to strip paint. Thor had tried a cup once and looked at Tony with greater respect afterwards.)
“Hey,” Clint protested, all affronted dignity, “those were for Thor. He wanted to know how Midgardians woo.”
“And I’m sure Jane will be delighted with everything he’s learned from Cockzilla 2.” Tony capped her coffee and grabbed her briefcase. “I’m off to explain to some people why a few million in damages is better than world domination by Hydra. If Fury calls asking for the new jet, tell him to go fuck himself.”
“Sparring practice!” Steph shouted at Tony’s back as she headed to the door.
Clint shook his head. “God, you all are so boring now. This is why no one likes healthy relationships. The entertainment value drops to zero.”
It was two weeks into their new détente before Tony and Steph were alone again. Life conspired to keep them busy. On top of her job as CEO, Tony seemed to singlehandedly design everything Stark Industries manufactured. (Pepper laughed when Steph told her that. “Don’t let Tony fool you with her ‘woe is me, everyone else is incompetent’ attitude,” she said. “She works on all the big stuff that’s too specific to ever reach a mass market. If you need a Helicarrier or a new Hulkbuster suit, Tony’s your girl. If you need her to design a new phone or a toaster, suddenly she’s nowhere to be found.” Whatever was the case, it still intimidated Steph to walk in a SHIELD mobile command office and realize that Tony designed everything in it.) And then on top of that, there was the Maria Stark Foundation. Started by Howard as a tax shelter, according Pepper, Tony had had the bright idea to revamp it after something Tony and Natasha referred to as “The Hammerroids Fuckup.”
“So now whenever Hulk smashes, we pay,” Pepper said. She didn’t sound happy about it, but it kept the Avengers in the public’s good graces even when attempts to apprehend the villains got a little destructive (although Steph doubted that letting the villains win would cost anybody less). The whole team did their duty, as Tony put it, pole dancing for donations. And no one did it as much as Tony.
“Fundraisers are going to be my supervillain origin,” was the first thing Tony said as she came in the television room. “I shouldn’t have to keep reminding people that if the Avengers hadn’t been there that, oh yeah, everyone would have died.” Tony collapsed on the couch with a grunt. Steph glanced at her over the top of her book then did a double take. Her hair was swept up into what must have started its life this evening as an elegant bun. Tony’s always-large eyes looked even wider and darker, a Bette Davis look that Steph hadn’t thought women favored anymore. Her lips were a slash of red, her cheeks were a tint of pink, her shoes were towering pieces of art, and her dress was—tight. Very tight. And flattering. Very flattering.
Intellectually, Steph had known that her teammate was considered something of a sex symbol, but technically so was Hawkeye. Since half of sexual allure seemed to be an aura of mystique, it was hard to remember what was so enthralling about the people you hung out with on a day-to-day basis.
Suddenly, Steph found herself remembering.
“Um,” she said. “You look nice.”
Tony kicked off her shoes and pulled out the pins in her bun. “Pain in the ass. None of those stingy bastards ever walked in four inch heels.” She shook her long black hair out, more wavy than usual from its time up, and looked around. “Where is everyone?”
“It’s four in the morning,” Steph pointed out.
“Fuck, right.” Tony groaned. “God, I’ve got a meeting at seven.” She stretched her long legs and rested them on the coffee table. Steph stared elsewhere very determinedly.
“You should get some sleep.”
“Blarg. Sleeping for three hours is worse than not sleeping at all. Speaking of, why the hell are you up?”
The usual reason. The dream and the fall and the cold, cold waters. Steph held up her book. “Thor recommended it. He said it was a tale of heroes and valor worthy of Valhalla.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “High praise for Harry Potter.”
“It’s good,” Steph said. She ran her thumb along the edge of the page. Tony tipped her head backwards shut her eyes. She looked like a puppet whose strings had snapped. “Although, do you remember that afternoon you were angry with me?”
“You’re gonna have to narrow that down,” Tony murmured, her eyes still closed.
“In the training room. You said that I didn’t trust anyone to contribute to team planning because I always thought I knew best.”
“You also told me to pull my shield out of my ass.”
“Ah. Yeah. Good times.”
As was so often the case with Tony, Steph was torn between annoyance and amusement. In the spirit of moving on, she decided to side with amusement. “Yes. And then you told me, ‘I know this doesn’t mean anything to you now, and that’s fine because I can wait, but Snape kills Dumbledore and Harry is the last Horcrux, dickbag.’”
“Oh.” Tony was silent for a second. “Fuck, I totally did. Uh, sorry? In my defense, though, in my defense, you were acting like a big old bag of dicks.”
Steph could stop herself from chuckling. “You know, some people just don’t know how to apologize.”
“I know, right? It’s a dying art in this classless age.” Tony lifted her head up. “If you’re not sleeping and I’m not sleeping, have you watched anymore of that show?”
It took a second for Steph to make the connection. “No. It didn’t grab me.”
Tony shrugged. “I heard it gets better later. Besides,” she said as Jarvis flicked the TV on, “what else would you do?”
Steph tapped the book cover.
That was their last significant exchange of the evening besides an offhand comment Tony made about how if you combined Tom Haverford and Ron Swanson, you got Howard Stark in his later years, which raised a lot of questions about Howard’s later years that Steph would have to ask sometimes. Mostly, though, they sat in silence, and if it wasn’t wholly comfortable silence, well, that was the advantage of the television. No one expected them to talk anymore.
She wondered when talking with Tony wouldn’t feel like a test. Still, Steph thought with more satisfaction than such a simple accomplishment should warrant, at least she thought she passed it this time.
It became a routine, an unorganized and haphazard routine. At two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock, four, one of them would wander out of their bedrooms and see the other one on the couch. Tony didn’t ask why Steph was up. Steph didn’t ask why Tony was. They just sat on the couch together and pulled up the next episode. It beat sitting alone in the dark.
The fifth time they watched late night television together, Steph had fled her bed after a particularly vivid flashback and found Tony on the couch eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and watching Antiques Roadshow. When Steph flicked on the light, Tony blinked up at her, spoon in her mouth, looking like nothing so much as a startled owl.
“People Magazine once asked me what it was like to live with one of the nation’s most notorious party girls,” Steph said.
Tony swallowed. “Yeah, it’s a rave every night up in here. That’s how the Avengers roll.” She scooted over and Steph took her usual end of the couch. Tony lounged on her side, her toes almost brushing against Steph’s thighs. Steph swallowed too. Tony pointed her spoon at the TV. “That vase is worth a thousand dollars, tops. Probably less.”
Steph studied the vase. “Are you sure? It looks like a nice vase.”
Tony scoffed. “Honey, I’m rich.”
The vase turned out to be worth eight hundred dollars which seemed like a lot to Steph but was an obvious disappointment to the person who’d brought it in. As for Tony, Steph had never seen someone eat peanut butter more smugly. “There’s fruit in the kitchen,” she said. “Apples, oranges, bananas. They’re good for you.”
“Apples taste like wood, oranges are too much work for comparatively little payoff, and I don’t trust foods that come with their own wrappers.”
Steph flipped herself over the top of the couch and walked to the kitchen. “Get me another beer!” Tony called after her. “And I’m loading the next episode of Parks and Rec .” Steph returned, two oranges balanced in one hand, two waters in the other. Tony pouted. “You could have at least ignored my drink order with something that tasted that doesn’t taste like vomit.”
“That’s because you only drink water after you throw up from drinking scotch. It’s amazing you haven’t died of dehydration or scurvy.” She deftly peeled an orange’s rind in one long strand and tossed it to Tony.
“Jesus H. Christ, Steph, is there anything you’re not freakishly good at?”
“I’m pretty bad at appraising vases.” She nodded her head at the screen and got to peeling her own fruit. “Why were you watching that anyway? You made fun of Thor listening to NPR for a week.”
“That’s because the idea of Thor listening to This American Life is hilarious, not out of some private market capitalist hatred for public broadcasting,” Tony said through a mouthful of orange. “Besides,” she swallowed and added, “it’s as far as you can get from what keeps me up.”
Steph had read Tony’s files. She knew as much as SHIELD did (presumably; Steph respected Fury for many things but not his openness) so she had the basic facts of Tony’s stay in Afghanistan. The convoy that was supposed to keep her safe had almost all been killed. She had sustained a chest injury so severe that it took a car battery shoved inside her to keep her alive. She had been captured by terrorists and most likely tortured until she agreed to build the missile. At some point during her captivity, she had learned that Stark weaponry was being used by the terrorists in the area against American troops and Afghani citizens. At some point, she decided to build the Iron Man. At some point, she escaped and wandered the desert alone, after her fellow prisoner, a Dr. Yinsen, got killed in the escape attempt. (The Yinsen scholarship, Steph realized, feeling like an idiot. Provided by the Maria Stark Foundation to students in Iraq and Afghanistan who want to pursue medical training. Of course.)
She’d known all that about Tony, but it had never seemed connected to the flesh and blood woman. Tony was Tony was Tony. The Invincible Iron Maiden was often a pain, but she never seemed damaged. Or Steph had chosen not to think about if she was.
“So yeah. Anyway,” Tony said and shrugged, “episode?”
“Episode,” Steph said because the moment felt like it had passed, because Tony didn’t seem like she wanted to talk about it, because there had always been something about Tony that made Steph say the wrong thing.
A few quiet weeks passed, so quiet in fact that when a man calling himself Doctor Doom attacked New York City with an army of robots designed to look like him, Steph almost felt relieved. There was nothing more stressful than waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I wonder if there was a point where life would stop finding new ways to surprise me,” she asked as the team suited up.
“Nope,” Tony said cheerfully. “But at least life’s not boring anymore.”
“I thought you were a billionaire genius philanthropic sex goddess before all this?” Steph said, pulling on her boots.
Tony locked her helmet into place. “That gets boring too.”
Hawkeye grabbed his bow and jumped on Thor’s back. “Yip yip!”
Thor roared and the two of them took off.
“They’re superheroes,” Black Widow muttered.
“God help us all,” Bruce said. “Go on ahead, guys. We’ll take the jet.”
“Suit yourself, spoilsport,” Iron Maiden said. She turned to Steph and held out her arms. “Come fly with me, Cap.”
Steph grabbed her shield and swung an arm around the suit’s neck. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Only the pretty ones,” Iron Maiden said before they took off like a rocket. Steph blamed that for the twisting feeling in her stomach.
When the battle was over and New York was saved (again), Bruce staggered up to Steph, tying his pants back into place. “That went well,” he said mildly.
Steph remembered how he’d curb stomped two Doombots at the same time before using their bodies to sandwich a third. “Sure did.”
“You and Tony seem close. Closer. Friend-like.”
Steph grimaced as she pulled a defunct Doombot to the closest trash heap. Cleanup was the worst part of any fight. “I think we both mellowed out. We were stressed when we met each other.”
“Yeah.” Bruce shaded her eyes and surveyed the debris. Steph didn’t fall for his fake nonchalance. “She does make herself hard to like, doesn’t she?”
Steph shifted. “She grows on you.”
“Same thing,” Bruce said with a small smile. “Trust me, I went through the same emotional arc with her, I think. She does everything she can to annoy you until one day it’s charming. Of course, it doesn’t work for ninety-nine percent of the population.”
“Must be the sane part.”
Bruce kicked at a fallen Doombot head. “I’m just saying she doesn’t hang out with anyone half as much as she hangs out with you.”
“Really?” Steph asked before she could stop herself.
Bruce nodded. “Listen, Cap…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not the greatest about advice about…things. Anything. But, okay, I think this is the best way for me to say this. There’s this fable of a woman who befriended a tiger.” Steph opened her mouth to say something like what?, but Bruce shook his head. “No, no, bear with me. At first every time she approached, the tiger would roar and bite at her. She learned to stay far enough away that the tiger didn’t think of her as a threat. Then, once she proved that she was trustworthy at that distance, she crept a little closer. The tiger freaked out for a bit, but then it settled down when it saw that she was still no threat. Then she would do it again. Eventually, she was right beside the tiger and it didn’t care. Because the tiger trusted the woman.”
Steph held up her hand. “I think I get it, Bruce.”
“Are you sure? Because I want to stress how skittish this tiger was. And how the woman may not know this because she’s not from around the tiger’s neighborhood, but the tiger has never had that many close, stable relationships.”
“Yes, I got that.”
“And if that woman does something to lose that tiger’s trust, that trust is probably gone forever.”
Steph swallowed. “I got that too.”
“Good,” Bruce said. “Good. Because I think this relationship works well for both of them and I don’t want anyone to get eaten or shot.”
“Think you overextended the metaphor,” Steph said with a smile.
“Really? Damn. Well, I used two Doombots as boxing gloves today. That might have made me overconfident.”
A flash of light like burning gold arced in the sky as Iron Maiden swooped low over their heads. “It happens to the best of us,” Steph said distantly, as she watched her fly.
One night, Tony joined Steph in the living room wearing a tee so tight, Steph knew perfectly well that she had nothing on underneath. It took Tony less than five minutes to catch Steph staring. “Well this is not behavior I expected from Captain America,” she said, sipping her beer.
Steph’s face went scarlet. “I was not—it’s the look, no—only in a professional—just as a team leader—My eye was just eyeballing around and—yes, I was reading your, the design, and the glow of the arc reactor—very interesting. From an artistic point of view.” And then Steph rested her hand against her chin to stop her mouth from moving.
She waited patiently for Tony to stop laughing. She waited for about two minutes. I wonder if Jarvis has a function that would drop me through a hole in the floor and leave me to die. That seems like the best option available to me right now.
“Jesus. Christ. Steph.” Tony couldn’t even look at her without doubling over. “That was the worst thing. The absolute worst thing.”
“Small children, Jesus, literally anybody can lie better than you can.”
“I can lie! I’m no Pinocchio.” Steph crossed her arms. “I just can’t always lie.”
“And my tits compel you to be honest.” Grinning the smuggest grin Steph had ever seen, Tony rested her elbow on the back of the couch and leaned her head against her hand. “That’s got to be the nicest compliment I’ve gotten in a while.”
“I’m sorry,” Steph said. “I didn’t mean to—”
“Glance.” Steph looked for the best way to phrase this. “I was just curious.”
That was not the best way to phrase it.
“No, no, I’m sorry,” Tony said between giggles. “Come on, hey, come on now. Do you need me to explain some things to you? Did the 1940s skip sex ed? Do you close your eyes in the shower? I’m here for you, Cap, I want to help you learn.”
“I was curious,” Steph plowed ahead even though she was blushing so hard it was amazing she wasn’t losing all the blood in her brain, “because you normally have…different proportions.”
“You mean my tits seem smaller?”
“I mean your silhouette seems altered,” Steph said primly.
Tony looked down and tugged the wrinkles out of her tee. Steph pointedly looked away. “What the hell. Let me tell you a secret, Cap. Have you ever seen a picture of my mother?”
Steph blinked at the seeming non sequitur. “I don’t think I ever have. She’s the Maria in the Maria Stark Foundation, right?”
“She’s also probably one of the top five sex symbols of the 21st century. She and Marilyn Monroe were duking it out for awhile. Marilyn got the lead ‘cause she never reached middle age, but even know there are a creepy amount of fansites dedicated to Mom. And you know what? I don’t blame them. I’ve got some weird gay Oedipal complex shoved up its own ass or whatever, but I think Dad was an ass and Mom could have done way better than him because she was so nice and so smart and so hot. And she had one of those body types like that hourglass in The Wizard of Oz when the Wicked Witch tells Dorothy she’s got this much time left to live. It was a dramatic swoop. She never wore a dress that didn’t look like she’d been poured into it.”
Tony had this small smile and a distant look as she talked. Steph found herself mimicking it. “She sounds beautiful.”
“So beautiful. And she was a singer too, like Ella Fitzgerald or Eva Cassidy, that good. When I was little, she used to put me on her hip and dance me around the living room while she sang these old, old blues songs about how God was looking after you or how God was going to strike you down, but either way they were just…” Tony shook herself and she looked like a woman again, not a small child waiting for her mother to come home. “Whatever. Not the point. My point is that around the beginning of puberty, it became very clear that I was never going to look like her. I was pretty much just a femme version of Dad. Less facial hair, but same face underneath. And worst of all, same amount of T and A.” Tony made a chopping motion with her hand. “Flat.”
Steph thought back to her own body pre-serum and smiled. “I can sympathize.”
“It sucks right? Mom kept telling me that I was beautiful just the way I was and it was the inside that counted and if I cared that much, that’s what pushup bras and makeup were for, but it’s easy to tell people that when you regularly make national Hottest Woman lists.”
“Really?” Steph asked.
Tony rolled her eyes. “You want to talk about living in your parent’s shadow. Jesus, if I hadn’t become the Iron Maiden, my obituary would probably read ‘Antonia Stark: Dumber than her father, uglier than her mother.’ Hell, it still might say that if I have the bad luck to die when the company’s stocks are down.”
“I’ll put in a good word for you.”
She grinned. “Legacy saved then. ‘Dead ugly failed businesswoman endorsed by Captain America.’ Anyway.” She looked down, picking at the fabric of the couch. “When I was 17, I was in this car accident. And it was pretty bad. Everything was very touch and go for a few days. Most people assumed I wouldn’t make it, and from what I remember of those days, I assumed it too.”
The car crash that her parents died in. Steph stiffened and Tony shook her head. Not the point of the story, her body language said. Don’t ask.
“I came out okay, but my face was pretty mashed up. The doctor told me that he didn’t know if they could get me to look the way I used to, and, uh.” Tony broke out into an embarrassed grin, “I said, maybe he doesn’t have to try too hard to perfectly replicate anything and if he brought me a few magazines, I’d be happy to point out some new noses and jawlines we could work with.”
“Did you use a life-threatening car accident as an excuse for plastic surgery?” Always that same conundrum with Tony: amused or horrified.
“Oh, and not just the face,” she said excitedly. “Listen, gorgeous, I got the works. I figured, as long as they were poking around my chest—”
“To stop you from dying!”
“Then—” Tony said over Steph’s incredulous voice, “the least they could go was launch me out of the dark and depressing realm of the A cup.”
Steph cradled her face in her heads.
“Are you laughing or crying? Because I need to gauge your reaction to this before I finish this story. I’ve been scarred by Pepper’s look of utter horror.”
“Oh God, Tony.”
“Okay, laughing. I’ll keep going. Now, the premise of breast augmentation surgery is that they put something in there to pad you out. That’s as simple as it gets. And let me tell you, I got a top of the line surgery. People say that I got a boob job, but that’s because they say that about everyone. These tits looked like God Himself had handcrafted them for my chest. But, they were implants so basically they were just really sexy water balloons. So when I got hit in the chest by a shitload of shrapnel—”
“Oh God, Tony.”
“And then I got a car battery shoved in my chest—”
“Oh. God. Tony.”
Tony held her hands up. “They popped. Essentially. Just like sexy, sexy balloons would.” She pulled her tee shirt tight and looked down at her chest. “They look human again, thank Christ, just scarred as fuck under here. The surgeons pretty much had to build them up from scratch, but if I wear this special type of bra, no one can tell. And let me tell you, I wear that motherfucker everywhere.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Steph raised her head. “Your breasts just have really depressing stories attached to them.”
“Jesus, I can’t believe I told you that.” Tony sounded a little stunned. She stuck her finger in Steph’s face. “Don’t you tell a fucking soul, Rogers. I worked hard for my reputation as a raging slut and I would hate to do anything to compromise it.”
Steph mimed locking her lips. “My lips are sealed.” A thought occurred to her? Should she? Well, why not. "And in the interest of fairness,” Steph said, already feeling a little embarrassed, but also not caring, “since you told me a story about your chest. When my body changed after the serum, I wasn’t used to having to, um, strap myself in.” She gestured to the general area she was referring to. “I did my best, and I thought that was going pretty well, until your father came up to me one day with a custom-made bra. Apparently, I was very distracting to the men I worked with.”
“My dad made you a bra?” Tony stared at her in horror.
“Handmade, actually. He said that he’d knew my correct size just from looking,” Steph said.
Tony groaned and fell backward on the couch. “He’s been dead for thirty years and he’s still finding new ways to mortify me.”
“It fit like a dream.”
“I deeply regret losing that bra.”
“Everything is creepy now.”
Steph patted Tony’s knee. “You shouldn’t be so afraid of the human body. Do you need me to explain anything to you? I’m here for you, Tony. I only want to help.” Tony chucked a throw pillow at Steph’s head.
“You are the fucking worst. I can’t believe we have a national monument dedicated to you.” Tony stuck her hands up. Steph grabbed them and pulled Tony upright. When she sat up, her face was only a few inches from Steph’s, close enough that Steph could see the tears in her eyes from laughing, close enough to see the places where Tony’s face was crinkled with joy.
“How come I never noticed before?” Steph asked.
“Like I said, I always wear a bra.”
“But not tonight?”
Tony bit her lip for just a second, the faintest blush on her cheeks. “Whatever, right?” She ducked her head a bit and looked up at Steph through her lashes. “It’s you. I don’t have to worry about what you’ll say.”
Steph opened her mouth to say something, but forgot what she was going to stay. She and Tony just breathed the same air. And it hit her like a needle in the vein or shrapnel to the chest or anything that irreversibly changes you. She was in love with Tony Stark. She was in lust with Tony Stark. And she wanted nothing more at this moment than to push Tony Stark back down on her back and see for herself what the damage was and tell Tony that it was beautiful.
Steph’s hands, still holding Tony’s, tightened.
Tony’s lips parted.
“It’s three in the morning,” Tony said. “Let’s just watch this fucking episode and go the fuck to sleep without any more of our fucking boobs. I just got to know whether or not the government shuts down.”
If you put a gun to Steph’s head, she couldn’t remember what she said to that, but it must have been intelligible and affirmative because the next thing she knew, Tony was back in her corner, and Steph was in hers, and they were so damn far apart it made Steph want to scream.
Once, Steph had believed in love at first sight the same way she believed in time travel and aliens. Theoretically, yes, they were possible and, much to Bucky’s amusement back then, she loved reading about all three. But if they existed, Stephanie Rogers—five foot one, ninety pounds wets, with curves like a ruler and the persistent suspicion that boys were not for her—would not be the one to discover it.
Then Steph met Peggy Carter and the ground shifted under her feet. As far as Steph can tell, it never shifted back.
Peggy was everything Steph was not. More than that, better than that, she was everything Steph wanted to be. She talked like she expected people to listen, she walked like she expected people to move, and by God people did. Steph wasn’t the only one at camp staring up at Peggy with starry-eyed admiration that bordered on worship. Women joined the army in the hopes that they’d come out as Peggy Carter.
But what tipped Steph from earnest but innocent admiration to something deeper—something she didn’t have words for, or maybe she did but none of them were polite—were the swings and dips of Peggy’s body. The slope of her calves. The swoop of her thighs. The area they met. Her scarlet heart-shaped lips. The way they wrapped around familiar words in a strange tongue. Peggy did not scream sex so such as gently murmur in your ear that you’d like what she could do if you were only so lucky.
Seeing Peggy deck a visiting private who disrespected her did a lot of things to Steph’s insides that answered why she’d never found boys that intimidating. They were not the source of her fascination.
She never told anyone—especially never told Peggy. Only Bucky knew, and Bucky guessed. And he never told a soul. If he had lived a hundred years, Steph knew he would never tell a soul. Steph had never liked boys like that, but she knew that, for some unfathomable reason, Bucky had always felt that way about her, even before the serum. Sometimes, she wished she could have loved him back the way he wanted. But she couldn’t so she didn’t and she believed that in time, Bucky would find someone new. He’d help liberate a French girl with big eyes and soft lips and that would solve that.
Things didn’t work out the way Steph had hoped. Not at all.
Steph was not delusional about her life. She was proud of more things than she was ashamed of, and she thought that was accurate. But late at night, exiled in a foreign land, pride wasn’t what kept you up at night. If it wasn’t the nightmares, the entire war on loop in her head, then it was the regrets which echoed and echoed long after Steph had grown tired of their sounds. She should have saved Bucky. She shouldn’t have wasted so much time in the USO. She should have stopped the Red Skull from getting on that plane. She should have knocked Dr. Erskine out of the way of the bullet.
But lately, this one was the regret that knocked about her head at night: She should have kissed Peggy. She should have tried. But every time Peggy’s eyes said “come hither,” Steph ran the other way. If it led to nothing, if it cost her a friendship, if it lost Steph her reputation—looking back, Steph didn’t mind any of that. It wasn’t worth going off to die without ever knowing if she and Peggy were talking about the same kind of dancing.
Here, no one spoke of sex or desire in euphemism unless the euphemism was more vulgar than the bare facts. Here, you could love men or women or both, and while society might not wholly understand, you could walk down the street hand in hand without worrying you’d get arrested. Tony proudly and happily admitted to sleeping with nearly as many women as men (a not insubstantial number that always made Steph feel like she’d been slacking). On TV, women kissed women and men kissed men, and no one she watched with seemed to understand why she was so horrified. They thought she was scandalized. Well, fine, she was scandalized because no matter how much she told her brain that it was fine here, that people didn’t care, she knew that they did and maybe they always would, and when two women did what Steph had spent so long imagined doing, she wanted to shout at them to run, to hide, didn’t they realize that people would know?
Steph didn’t like feeling like a coward, but there you were. She’d punched Hitler in the face two hundred times and flown a plane pointed at death, but she would go to the grave with this secret, her lips stitched shut. And nowadays, she had all the more incentive to keep her mouth shut. Because late at night, when she hoped most dearly that Jarvis really wasn’t watching when she told him not to, it wasn’t Peggy’s face Steph imagined anymore. It wasn’t Peggy’s legs Steph imagined running her hands up or Peggy’s waist that Steph grabbed. In her mind, Steph ran her hands through thick black curly hair and pressed kisses to a scarred chest crisscrossed with metal and light.
And sometimes Steph had to wonder which option scared her more: Tony saying no or Tony saying yes.
If you went through Steph’s trashcan after this revelation, you would not find a list called “Reasons Stephanie Rogers Should Not Date Antonia Stark.” That was because she burned it when she was done. No one could accuse her of indiscretion. (Paranoia, yes, but not indiscretion.)
Before it was ashes, it went as followed:
1) Teammates shouldn’t date other teammates.
But then again who else could keep up with an Avenger? NO.
2) They were about two decades apart in age
well, more like 14 years and at very different points in their lives except Tony acted like a child half of the time and if you want to quibble over numbers, Steph was technically eighty something.
3) Fury would disapprove
4) The news media wouldn’t leave them alone
5) The team might react badly
except those were all external problems, and so they seemed like someone else’s problem. If someone outside the relationship couldn’t handle the relationship, then that was their fault, not Steph or Tony’s.
People would react badly to Captain America being a lesbian. Upon further consideration of this point, and with the understanding that Steph does not say this lightly having been raised to use profanity cautiously if at all, fuck those people and fuck them hard.
7) Neither Tony nor Steph had great track records for relationships, Tony having too many and Steph having none.
But then who better to balance each other out? Maybe?
8) Related to 7, Tony was very experienced at sex. Steph was well-versed in theory, sure, but Tony would expect a higher level of performance than Steph felt she could guarantee.
Though if Tony was willing to teach her…
9) Steph still didn’t understand how to work her Facebook page (or why she would want to). Tony was one of the smartest people on the planet.
But then Tony could do all the technological things for Steph.
10) Steph couldn’t even get through one week without a nightmare, without cold sweats, without waking up and wondering where she was, why she was here, what did she have to do to get back.
And then she would go and find Tony.
11) They came from fundamentally different backgrounds. Steph was a poor girl from Brooklyn. Tony was so rich Steph could not conceive of what that much money would be like. It was hard to think of anything that Steph had had more of than Tony at any point in either of their lives.
(Although here was some: friends, time, happy memories, well thought out decisions, self-esteem, security, purpose, cats. Tony is not fond of cats. They make her sneeze and they act too smug. When she told Steph this, Steph didn’t even find it odd. She just added it to the ever growing list of things she knew about Tony, which she was starting to suspect was longer for Steph than it was for almost anyone else barring Pepper and Rhodey.)
12) Tony was self-destructive, impulsive, brash, rude, inconsiderate, offensive, too reliant on a drink to get through the day, and—lest Steph forget—someone Steph swore to hate only a few months ago.
But she was also brave, intelligent, generous, and good-hearted. She did her best for people who thought she was a slut and a drunk. She spent her time going to meetings and fundraisers that she hated to support the team. She paid for the Avengers to live cost-free and she upgraded their equipment out of her own pocket. Last week, she spent 140 hours in the office because Stark Industries was trying to develop a new way to mass distribute vaccines using the old machines from their weapons factories. She did what she thought was right, not what she thought was easy. She planned to spend the rest of her life making up for her mistakes, and she never seemed to believe that she’d made any progress. She named her robots. She was close friends with her house.
She was a hero.
13) Sex would make sparring practice much less productive.
Needless to say, no decision was made on the matter.
The burning might have been out of spite.
“Come on!” Tony half shouted and half whispered on the other side of the fence. The espionage training in Steph made her wince. “If you hang around there, people will think that we’re breaking in.”
“But we are breaking in!”
“But we don’t want people to think it.”
Steph gritted her teeth and scrambled up and over the chain link fence in seconds. She landed on her feet and rolled behind a tree. “Showoff,” Tony muttered crouching next to her.
“Why don’t you have a key?” Steph whispered.
Tony shrugged. “I’m very rich, Steph. Other people remember practical things for me.”
Steph jerked her chin at the looming mansion. “So what, are you going to pay your way in there?”
Tony had an evil grin. “Better.”
An hour earlier, the night had started legally enough. They’d finished season three of Parks and Recreation a week ago and now they were tearing through it. “Fuck it, this show won me over,” Tony’d said. “I love Leslie Knope. And I don’t know why, she should be annoying as hell, this ball of sunshine, idealistic, ‘the world is better than you think it is’ do-gooder, but goddamn it, she has won me over.”
“Ben isn’t bad either,” Steph had cautiously replied. “I thought he was needlessly rude and cynical, but now I think he’s had some life experiences that affected him deeply. Underneath, he’s got such a good heart.”
“Yeah, they’ve got great chemistry.” Steph’s heart soared. “But Andy and April is where it’s at. I love those fucking idiots.” And crashed. It was like dancing all over again. She wondered if all potential couples communicated in the romantic equivalent of semaphore and smoke signals, or if that was just a gay thing.
Tonight, after they watched they watched the results of Pawnee’s general election (Tony had clutched Steph’s arm so hard that Steph thought she was losing circulation. “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.” “Tony, you know it’s not a real election right?” “Of course, I would never care about an actual local election this much—I’m sorry, Christ, stop hitting me with the pillow, democracy matters, stop distracting me.”) they’d sat back on the couch in what Tony called practically post-coital bliss. “I’m serious, Steph, I have had sex less satisfying than that episode.”
“That thing with Donna—”
“Yes! And Ben? At the end?”
“I wanted to cry. And when Brandanowitz came?”
“Brandanowitz. I forgave him everything for that appearance. And then John Ralphio.” Tony grabbed Steph’s arm which totally wasn’t distracting in a nonplatonic way. “John Ralphio is what I want to be when I grow up.”
“I mean, work for a living?” She scoffed. “Steph, I could be a billionaire in Costa Rica, eating dolphins and hanging out with lady singers.”
“Tony, don’t quote him. This is the worst idea you’ve ever had.”
Tony laughed. “It’s really not. Just think, I could be sitting around looking like a douchey version of that kid from The Social Network right now.”
“Andrew Garfield. How do I know that and you don’t?”
“I have three PhDs and not a lot of space for bullshit. You hang out with Thor and watch art films.” Tony looked down at her hands like she’d forgotten she was touching Steph. She let go instantly.
Steph swallowed her disappointment. “For the last time, The Social Network is not an art film, Tony. You’d like it.”
“Please. I’ve met Zuckerburg. Asshole still owes two million bucks. Jarvis!”
“Always eager to serve, ma’am.” Steph had a theory that Jarvis’s drollness rose equally in relation to Tony’s eagerness.
Tony grinned at Steph and bounced on her heels with excitement. “Play the next episode.”
Tony and Steph glanced at each other, confused. “Please?” Steph offered.
“The manners are appreciated, Captain, but they cannot change my answer,” Jarvis said smoothly. “This episode was the season four finale. Season five hasn’t begun to air yet.”
They sat in silence for a moment. “So? Hack the studio,” Tony asked eventually at the same time Steph said, “We watched an entire season in a week? That’s, what, twenty episodes?”
“Twenty two, Captain. I was very impressed by your persistence.” Steph liked Jarvis’ drollness less when it was directed at her. “And, Ms. Stark, I cannot show you episodes don’t exist yet.”
“They haven’t filmed them?” Tony asked in the same voice a small child would use to ask a vet why they can’t save Fido. “The season ended ages ago.”
“Yes,” Jarvis said. It seemed almost gleeful to deny Tony something. “It ended around the same time that Loki tried to take over the Earth.”
“And destroyed half of Los Angeles,” Steph finished.
“As you can imagine a lot of filming schedules were disrupted.”
Steph was a little afraid that Tony was going to cry. It probably wasn’t going to happen. Maybe. Steph patted her on the back.
“It could be worse, ma’am,” Jarvis said. “Think of poor Natasha and Thor. After what Loki did to their studios, Glee may never come back. That really would be a tragedy, ma’am. The world would lose a beautiful source of music.”
“Stop trying to make me watch Glee, Jarvis. It’s starting to freak me out.” Tony fell back onto the couch, her knees against her chest. “Fuck a duck. I don’t want to go to bed.”
“Indeed,” Steph said. She rested her chin on her hand. “We could always start a book club.”
Steph resolved to get Tony to read more books. “We could spar.”
“I could punch myself in the face and save us both the trouble. Is there some way we can exercise together without you pinning me to a mat?”
Privately, Steph agreed. The pinning was a bit more distracting nowadays. “A walk?”
She expected Tony to turn it down. Tony held very strong views about the outdoors, namely that she didn’t like them. The day she built an air-conditioned supersuit was probably the happiest moment of her life. “Alright,” Tony said. “Let me grab my jacket.”
“What?” Steph gaped.
Tony jumped off the couch and went to the closet. “It’s cold out. I don’t have superhuman temperature control.”
“That’s not why I’m confused.”
“I know. But I like playing stupid sometimes. It’s fun. I see why so many people make it their default state.” Tony tossed Steph her hoodie. “There’s something I want to show you.”
Tony explained on the way as they hurried through the almost empty streets. The autumn weather was slipping into winter, not cold but brisk enough to keep them moving. The mansion was the Stark Mansion, Tony’s childhood home. It had been willed to Tony after her parent’s death. Tony, wanting nothing to do with it, gifted it to Stane. “And once Obie died, I donated it to the city. I thought they could turn it into a museum or a library or something.” The city had opted for or something. In two weeks it was scheduled to be demolished to make way for a parking structure. “I don’t mind,” Tony said so briskly that Steph knew she was lying. “But no reason not to look around before it’s gone.”
Of course, Tony waited until they were there to tell Steph that she wasn’t technically allowed onto the premises.
“So,” Tony said as they leaned against the mansion’s back wall, “if the alarm is on, it’ll got off if we open any of the doors or windows, in which case I will run like the fucking wind and leave you behind to explain why Captain America was performing a B and E.”
“Bitch, I’ve got priors. But it doesn’t matter anyway because even if the alarm is on, this balcony—” Tony pointed to one about ten feet off of the ground above a thicket of bushes, “leads to my old room. And the alarm hasn’t worked on that door since I was twelve.”
“I wonder why.”
“Completely responsible, non-debaucherous reasons, I assure you. So all you have to do is ninja climb up that wall onto the balcony and find something that I can climb up.”
“You’re a horrible influence,” Steph said.
Tony winked. “Don’t lie. You may have the rest of the world tricked, but I know Captain America’s got a secret naughty streak in her stars and stripes.”
“How far we’ve come. I thought I was a stick in the mud.”
“You still will be if you don’t get going.”
Steph grinned and ran up the wall, grabbing the balcony railing and flipping herself over in one fluid move. “Okay,” she called down. “Now you.”
Down on the ground, Tony scowled at her. “You never pull this Wonder Woman, I’m-an-Amazon-and-you’re-not shit when I’m suited up. Find me something to climb up, asshole.”
“Maybe I’ll just explore without you,” Steph called over her shoulder as she eased open the door.
The inside was musty and dark and big. And from the feeling of the place, Steph was willing to bet it was musty and dark and big when people still lived in it. The basic furniture of the bedroom were still there, covered in sheets—bed, desk, wardrobe, side table. Steph peeked at them. They were all in a style older than Steph was. If this was Tony’s room, she hadn’t picked out anything inside it. Tony’s room would look like a rocket ship not a Victorian boarding school.
“In your own time,” Tony’s voiced floated up.
Steph yanked the sheet off the wardrobe, sending a cloud of dust into the air, and stepped out on the balcony. “Here.” She tossed one end over. Tony grabbed it and tugged.
“If you drop me, I swear to God, I’ll turn your shield into a modern art sculpture.”
Tony wrapped her leg around the sheet, grabbed in, and climbed. Despite all her complaints about exercising (Steph suspected sometimes that Tony complained about things just to stay in practice), Tony was fit.She made it to the top without a sweat. Just as she reached for the railing, the sheet creaked and split. Tony had barely begun to gasp and fall when Steph grabbed her hand.
“Damn,” Tony said, dangling from Steph’s hand. “And I was feeling so good about my climbing abilities.”
Steph pulled her up until Tony’s feet were safely on the balcony. Tony let go of Steph and grabbed the railing, leaning back so far that Steph wanted to grab at her again. “Relax,” Tony said at Steph’s look of panic. “I did this all the time when I was a kid.”
“And how long ago was that?”
“First off, ouch. Second off, is that really an insult that you can use considering that your childhood aligns with the Great Drepssion? And third…” Tony leaned back further, held herself on the balcony by her fingertips. Steph couldn’t help herself. She grabbed Tony’s wrists. Tony grinned. “You won’t let me fall.” She leaned back in, until she and Steph were almost flush with each other if it wasn’t for the railing in between. “See?” Tony said quietly. “I trust you.”
Tony’s eyes, her big, beautiful eyes, said, Come hither.
Steph was tired of feeling like a coward.
Kissing was like diving. If you didn’t go in headfirst and without hesitation, you just belly flopped. So before Steph’s rational, traitorous brain kicked in, she slid her hand up Tony’s arms and closed the gap. It felt like Tony gasped against Steph’s mouth and she thought, oh no, oh no, oh no, when Tony’s hand grabbed the back of Steph’s neck and pushed them closer together.
And this, and kissing, and touching, and Tony, it was like breathing, it was like air, it was like everything Steph dreamed except Steph had never imagined the little gasps Tony made, the way Steph’s hands tightened and loosened and tightened again like she couldn’t control herself, the way Tony’s nails scratched the back of her neck. Tony balled her fist in Steph’s hoodie and kissed Steph, tongue and teeth and lips, and all Steph could do is hold on and ride it out because it felt like the only thing she can do is whimper and shake.
She’d kissed before, she’d kissed Bucky and Bucky’s friend who asked nicely and Steph had been curious too once, but she realized now that she’d never been kissed. She’d touched lips and that was fine and that was dandy, but this was something new, this was something brilliant and bright and expansive and she couldn’t believe that it had been in the world this entire time and no one had told her that it was hers to take. She wanted to find all those women who’d been kissing on the TV and shake their hands. Yes, it’s me, I’m sorry, I didn’t understand, I thought we were broken, I thought we were lesser, I thought we were missing out, and now I see that we are so much more than what they said we are.
“Steph,” Tony muttered against her lips and it made her warm from head to toe. “Wait, stop.” And that made her feel less warm, felt like ice water dumped on her head as Tony pulled away, mumbling, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” And it was around the third “I’m sorry” when they both remembered at the same moment that Tony was on the wrong side of the railing ten feet off the ground.
At least the bushes cushioned the fall.
After what was quite possibly the most uncomfortable walk home ever (conversation consisting entirely of “Are you okay?” and “Fine” and silence), Tony vanished to her garage without a backward look. Steph waited in the living room for hours until it was clear she wasn’t coming back.
What was she supposed to say? Really, she didn’t know. She didn’t know if this was normal, she didn’t know if this was common, she didn’t know if this was wrong. Had she forced herself on Tony? Had all the obvious signs pointed to Tony being just a friend, Tony being purely platonic, Tony being horrified and downstairs right now scrubbing Steph from her skin? Steph doubted it. Wanted to doubt it. Knew intellectually that she should doubt it. Steph was inexperienced, not stupid. But it still gnawed, that she may have taken the unspoken no as the unspoken yes.
Steph didn’t sleep that night. She wondered if Tony did. There was no way to tell because Tony wasn’t there the next morning, afternoon, or evening. Or the next. Or the next.
Luckily on the fourth day, Loki attacked with an army of giant bees.
Steph decided not to analyze that sentiment too closely as she suited up. “Avengers Assemble!” she shouted, raising her shield high. She needed the high ground. Iron Maiden was there before Steph called. They’d fought together too long to need to discuss tactics on the fly. She scooped up Steph and dropped her on a nearby rooftop.
“I’ll draw his fire,” Iron Maiden said.
“Be careful!” Steph shouted before she tackled a low flowing bee and mounted it. Below her, the Hulk was ripping out stingers left and right, Hawkeye and Natasha were sniping from the rooftops, Iron Maiden was whizzing about Loki’s head, and Thor going in for the final blow. In spite of everything, Steph felt stupidly proud of her team. Then she jumped off the roof and rode her giant bee into the fray.
It said a lot about Steph’s new life that she didn’t realize how strange that sentence was until the battle was over. Loki had fled after his bees were defeated. (“I guess we swatted him,” Clint said, complete with finger guns. Natasha smacked him.) Thor was as depressed as ever after a fight with his brother, but he chortled with Bruce over a particularly good impression of Loki’s final vow of revenge. Only the Iron Maiden was by herself, the Iron Maiden and Steph, and when she saw Steph walking towards her, she flew off.
Thor stepped away from Bruce and joined her. “Trouble between our shield sisters?”
Steph fastened her shield to her back. “Unfortunately.” She didn’t want to talk. All she wanted to do was find a punching bag and beat it until it broke.
Thor clapped her on the shoulder. That half of her body went numb. “Love’s course is never smooth,” he rumbled. “But if it were, what sweetness would the reward have?”
Steph blinked. “Um, thank you.”
Thor nodded solemnly. “If you need advice in wooing your lady, our fine archer showed me a most instructive film called Cockzilla 2 that finally won me fully my beloved Jane.”
“I’ll pass on that.”
“Whenever you may need it, my Captain, it is yours.”
“I’ll never need it, but thank you for the thought, Thor.”
“The sequel is also excellent.”
“Great for you. Can I get a ride back to the Tower?”
With Thor’s help, Steph made it back in time to catch Tony before she disappeared again. “Wait!” she shouted at Tony’s retreating back. Tony turned, already stripped out of her armor and dressed in a grey at least three sizes too big for her. She looked annoyed. Not ideal. “I just…wanted to talk.”
“About what?” Tony asked tonelessly.
“About, about the mansion.”
“Yeah.” Tony gave a humorless laugh. “Jesus, don’t tell Coulson where the bruises came from. He already thinks I can’t find my ass with two hands.”
“Why are you pretending it didn’t happen?” What was this small voice? Steph didn’t recognize it.
Tony shrugged. “Do you know how many random make out sessions that balcony has seen? What’s one more?”
“Stop it,” Steph said in her Captain America voice. Tony glared but snapped her mouth shut. “Don’t go back to the person you were before.”
“Before what? A TV marathon and a moonlit walk? We’re adults, Steph. Things happen. Forget about it. No one likes a clingy virgin.”
Tony turned away and Steph grabbed her shoulder. Tony looked at her with dead, cold eyes. “Maybe we should go back to the way things were before,” Tony said. “I liked that better.” She wretched her arm free and Steph watched her walk away, down the hall and into the elevator until she was gone without even a glance back and Steph was left standing there, alone.
Except, she realized as she curled her outstretched arm against her chest, she really wasn’t, was she?
Bruce was sitting alone at the kitchen table when Steph ambushed him. “Do you remember the fable you told me?”
“Uhh,” Bruce said, coffee halfway to his mouth.
“Because the woman needs some tiger taming advice.”
Bruce put down his cup and put on his glasses. “Right.”
Steph yanked her mask off and slammed it on the table. “Because the tiger is acting like a real jerk right now, and the woman’s not sure what she did wrong. Unless just trying to get close to the tiger is doing something wrong because God forbid that the tiger form an actual, sincere attachment to someone.”
“Well,” Bruce started.
“Which is ridiculous because clearly that tiger was lonely and needed some help. That tiger should be thanking the woman for being so patient. The woman could have befriended lots of jungle creatures, but she liked the stupid tiger.” At some point she’d started shouting. It was probably at the same point that Bruce started leaning backwards. Steph crossed her arms and huffed a sigh.
“You done?” Bruce asked.
“That’s ominous.” Bruce leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “Am I really the person you want to come to for relationship advice?”
“Well, you’ve managed a long-term relationship with a women while having the handicap of being hunted down by the government and occasionally turning into a giant green rage monster,” Steph said. “My other options are Clint—”
“Ngh,” Bruce said.
“A woman whose code name is ‘The Black Widow’—”
“Also a valid point.”
Bruce held up his hand. “Whoa now, Thor and Dr. Foster have a great relationship.”
“Yes, and I already know too much about it.”
“That’s fair too.” He coughed. “So, um. What happened?”
Steph put her elbows on the table and buried her face in her hands. “I don’t know. The woman inched too close to the tiger and the tiger seemed to be enthusiastically okay about it at first, but then it ran away. Or bit her, I’m not sure what’s the right equivalent in this metaphor.
“We don’t have to continue the metaphor.”
“Yes, we do,” Steph said. “Because I’m deeply uncomfortable right now and this helps.”
“Okay,” he said carefully. “Well, if the tiger reacted badly after seeming to react well, then maybe the tiger overthought what was happening? Then it talked itself out of…petting? Is that the term we want to use?”
Steph rested her head on her hands and stared at him. “How did the tiger overthink?”
“I don’t know. I’m not the tiger.” Steph’s face must have conveyed how not sufficient of an answer that was because Bruce added, “Maybe the tiger is scared of how much it likes the woman? Because a tiger is a tiger and it’s afraid too much petting will lead to it eating the woman.”
“Yes,” Steph said and banged the table, “but getting eaten is the woman’s end goal.”
“Uh.” Bruce frowned. “Sorry, but was that a dirty joke or bad use of euphemism?”
“Both, I think.” Steph batted her hand. “Move on. What if the tiger said some pretty hurtful things to the woman to stop her from getting eaten?”
Bruce winced. “Oh. I got it. You have to remember that even though the tiger looks and acts like a majestic queen of the forest, it is stupid as a pile of rocks.”
Steph snorted. “I think the tiger’s too good at hunting to be an idiot.”
“No, no, trust me. As a fellow tiger, let me tell you that we can be geniuses at hunting deer—”
“Tigers don’t hunt deer.”
“Those are in Africa, I think. Aren’t tigers Asian? Shouldn’t you know this?”
“My advanced studies in gamma radiation didn’t cover the hunting patterns of hypothetical tigers. Can I get back to the point?”
Steph gestured for him to continue.
“Thank you. Even though tigers can be great at hunting whatever it is tigers hunt—screw it, Steph, this is ridiculous. Tony is not good at relationships. Or coping mechanisms. Or maturity.”
Steph put her head down on the table and covered it with her arms. They sat there for awhile, Steph just thinking and breathing, Bruce rubbing her back. When she lifted her head, Bruce looked discretely away as Steph rubbed away her tears. When she was done, back to leaning her head on her hand like it was too heavy to support herself. “I just…” She smiled sadly. “I just want to be with her, Bruce. And she doesn’t want to be with me. What do I do?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “To be honest, Steph, half the time when I’m in trouble, I ask what you would do.”
For a moment, Steph felt so humbled she couldn’t speak. She just nodded and hoped he understood. Bruce, looking more uncomfortable and awkward than anyone else she’d ever seen, smiled and squeezed her shoulder. “So I guess you just have to find out who you respect and do what they do,” he said.
She grabbed his hand and squeezed back. “That’s why I asked you,” she said.
Here was the problem with Bruce’s idea: In her life, she’d known so many brave, kind, good people. But none of them were good at love.
What would her mother do? Spend too long married to the wrong man, waiting for him to change.
What would Bucky do? Pine. He was the best friend she could have ever hoped for, but he was terrible at romantic relationships.
What would Colonel Phillips do? Or Coulson? Or Fury? You couldn’t imagine any of them struggling in their love lives, but you also couldn’t imagine them having a love life.
Clint flitted from girl to boy to girl, Natasha dallied with Clint, Thor was devoted to the first woman he’d seen on Earth, and Bruce, as great as Bruce was, mostly seemed really lucky that Betty was so persistent. (“Oh, I am,” Bruce said when she proposed this theory to him. “Trust me, I am not the reason this relationship endured.”)
And Peggy? Steph would never know.
She had so many people she admired. And they all were essentially useless here.
No. It was a stupid idea. A stupid idea that she couldn’t shake, that she carried around as she went to bed, as she woke and sat in the empty and dark living room, as she ate breakfast next to the Tony-shaped gap. She went through her day and the one after that and the stupid idea stayed put, squatted in the back of her mind and refused to leave until she finally opened her mouth and let out.
“What would Leslie Knope do?” she asked herself.
Leslie who in seasons three and four of Parks and Recreation had liked Ben, and Ben had liked her back. But Chris wouldn’t let them get together because he didn’t believe in interoffice relationships. So they hid and lied and broke up and got back together again. And when the time came and the chips were down, what did Leslie Knope do?
She delayed the completion of Indiana’s smallest park so she could spend more time with the man she loved. She went on trial for ethics to say that she had done nothing wrong. And when it looked like they had lost everything, Leslie owned up to bribing a maintenance worker who’d seen her and Ben kissing at the town funeral of a tiny horse.
Natasha snapped her fingers in front of Steph’s face. “Hey, are you okay? What did you say?”
“Nothing,” Steph said. “I just have to finish Glee later.”
“What?” Thor said. “Why?”
Steph stood and jumped over the back of the couch. “I have to go pretend to be a fictional TV character and convince the woman I love that she’s stupid.”
“Well that makes sense,” Natasha said. “We’re not pausing the show for you.”
“Wouldn’t ask you to,” Steph said as she ran down the hallway. “I don’t really like it.”
“Good luck!” Thor shouted as the elevator doors dinged shut.
Steph hadn’t come down this far since that first ride with Pepper. It seemed longer last time. Now it felt like the elevator was plummeting. She went down nearly a hundred floors in under forty seconds. She staggered out and headed to the door. It was shut. The keypad was dark.
Shoot, what was the passcode?
“Oh, do just go in,” Jarvis said wearily. “She’s been intolerable all week.” And the door clicked open.
Tony glowered at her computer console when Steph walked in. She looked terrible. Greasy hair, pale skin, dark circles under her eyes. That ratty old tee shirt. The oil-stained sweats. She looked like a mad scientist crossed with a car mechanic.
In short, she looked like Tony Stark, and so she looked like the most beautiful woman Steph had ever seen.
“Jarvis is a traitor,” Tony said.
“Jarvis just cares about you.”
Tony laughed humorlessly. “Plenty of people who care about me betray me.”
“Then they didn’t really care about you.”
“And you do, being the implication?”
“Yes.” The small robot Tony used to clean her floors bumped against Steph’s heels. Steph took a step forward. “I care about you more than you care about yourself.” And then, because it was true, “Also, you’re an idiot.”
“That wasn’t the opening I was expecting.”
“You wanted to go back to the way things were. This is me going back to the way things were. You’re an idiot because you like me and for some reason you’re pretending you don’t. I don’t know why. And I don’t care. Whatever it is, it’s not a good reason.”
Tony opened her mouth. “No,” Steph said.
“‘No’ what?” Tony asked, sounding genuinely confused.
“For once you are just going to listen.”
Steph pointed her finger in Tony’s face. “I will walk away right now,” she said firmly. “And I will not come back.”
Tony glanced at Steph’s finger and shut her mouth.
“Thank you. Most likely you think you’re protecting me from your worst parts or some variation on that, which you might think is noble.” Steph shook her head. “It’s not. It’s just offensive. Because in case you’ve forgotten, I’m Captain America. I fought superpowered Nazis and I was dead for sixty years. You, Tony, are the most incredible women I have ever met, but you are not going to be the thing that breaks me.”
Steph stepped back and spread her arms. “So this is your choice,” she said. You can stay down here in your windowless basement surrounded by all the things you built to love you because that’s the only way you can feel safe. Or you can come upstairs and hang out with your team and take the risk that someone outside of yourself can love you.”
Tony stared at her. So did about seven robots. Steph waited. “Am I allowed to speak now?” Tony asked.
“If you must.”
Tony’s shoulders slumped and she looked so very, very tired. “I’m not you, Cap,” she said quietly. “I’m a chronic fuckup in all the ways you can fuck up. I’m old and scarred and I’ve hurt a lot of people. You can do better.”
“Sure,” Steph said. “But I want you.” Tony stared at her, stunned and Steph grinned. “You’re a hero, Tony. A hero. But you can’t do the same thing you’ve always done and wonder why nothing’s different.” Steph backed up, heading to the door. “Make your choice,” she said and left.
And then as an afterthought, Steph popped her head back in. “And if you need more convincing, the second option does involve a lot of sex.” Tony kept staring. Steph nodded and left. She made it all the way inside the elevator before she collapsed in some combination of nervous laughter and adrenaline. She felt light. She felt good.
“Well done, Captain,” Jarvis said as the elevator rose.
Steph leaned back against the elevator wall. “Do you think it worked?”
“Who can say? Ms. Stark is, as you say, an idiot,” Jarvis said. Steph heard a burst of static she swore was a sigh. “But she’s our idiot.”
Steph rested her chin on her knees and smiled. “Damn straight.
“How’d the talk with Tony go?” Clint asked as she walked past on the way back to the living room.
“I don’t know,” Steph said, “but I high-fived myself in the elevator!”
“I have literally never been proud of you,” he said. “But also if Natasha and Thor make you a Gleek, we aren’t friends anymore.”
Steph ran back and threw her arms around him.
“Uh,” he said before he tentatively hugged her back.
It had been a long time since she’d been lonely, Steph realized. If Tony wanted to be an idiot, Steph wouldn’t like it at all. But she’d be fine.
“This is weirdly emotional,” Clint said in her ear.
“Just shut up and hug me.”
At two in the morning, Steph saw the shadow that meant someone was standing outside her door. Twenty minutes later, she heard a knock.
Her knees shook a little as she got out of bed, but her footsteps were steady as she walked to the door. It opened without a sound, and there Tony stood in the same outfit she’d worn six hours ago. She didn’t look confused or skittish or angry now. She just looked tired. “You’re mean,” she said. Her voice was raspy with weariness.
Steph leaned in the doorway and crossed her arms. “So are you.”
“Yeah but you’re mean and right. I think you win.”
“It’s not a competition.”
“You only get to say that when you’re winning.”
Steph crossed her arms to stop herself from reaching out. “Why are you here, Tony?”
Tony looked up from the floor through those thick lashes of hers, and Steph knew that she was never going to be free of this. “Because even if I still have nightmares, I sleep better on nights when I talk to you.”
“Me too,” Steph whispered.
They stood there, quivering on the brink of a threshold.
Well. Steph was never that good at just standing and quivering. “Maybe we should just get to the kissing part,” Steph offered, “and work out the rest in the morning.”
Tony’s shoulders relaxed. “God, I knew there was a reason I liked you, Rogers.”
Steph grabbed her by the sweater and pulled her into the room. Tony kicked the door shut behind her and threw herself at Steph. They fell backwards together onto the bed, Tony pinning Steph to the mattress while Steph tangled her hands in Tony’s hair and pulled her down for a kiss. After a moment, Tony broke away and tore herself out of her hoodie. Steph fumbled with the tie for her pajama pants. Tony pushed her hands away. “Let me,” she said, her fingers flying. Steph raised her hips and Tony pulled her pants off, tossed them behind her without a thought. Her eyes were fixed on Steph’s bare legs. Her hands hovered over her thighs, barely touching, caressing with just her fingertips. “You are so beautiful,” Tony said, awed.
In one quick move, Steph flipped them and straddled Tony’s hips. Tony grinned and pushed herself up on her arms. Steph pressed her forehead to Tony’s. “I’ve never done this before,” she confessed.
Tony pulled her closer and kissed her until Steph’s toes curled and she saw spots. “That’s okay,” Tony said against Steph’s lips. Each word made Steph shiver. “Because I’ve done this a lot.”
A lady doesn’t kiss and tell so Steph would just say this:
It was good.
It was really, really, really, really good.
And Steph was pretty sure that, if fighting crime was what she wanted to do with her days, this was what she wanted to do with her nights.
Steph had pretended to be asleep for twenty minutes when she felt Tony shift away. She got one foot on the floor before Steph rolled over and grabbed her. “For God’s sake, Tony,” she mumbled into her back, pressing kissing to her spine between words. “I will handcuff you to me.”
In the dark, she heard rather than saw Tony’s smile. “Is that a promise?”
“Yes. Now sleep.”
Tony crawled back and curled up on top of Steph. “I can’t. Apparently, you can’t fuck insomnia out of your system.”
Steph buried her face in Tony’s hair. “Me neither,” she admitted. With a laugh, she said, “It’s just a shame that we’re out of new episodes.”
Up near the ceiling came the sound of a district cough. “Actually,” Jarvis began.
Actually, Jarvis had fudged some facts. Actually, Jarvis had thought they were spending entirely too much time lazing about in front of the TV. Actually, Jarvis was tired to hearing Tony’s bad love poetry (“He’s lying,” Tony said quickly) and clearly neither one of them were going to make a move when they could still marathon the baffling misadventures of incompetent humans.
Actually, Jarvis said, season five had premiered early that night.
Which was how they found themselves back on that couch, Steph at one end, Tony at the other, their legs tangled together and the lights dimmed. Steph peeled two oranges. Tony wore Steph’s shirt. And there was not another place in the world, in the wide, wide world, that Steph wanted to be. Why would she? She was home.