Chapter 1: Done Dirt Cheap
Steve is becoming a hermit; a hermit who destroys sandbags.
New York is cacophony personified; noise, color, and anger that never ever sleeps. His SHIELD appointed neighbors talk about things like sensory overload, but the truth is that he could deal with it if only he had a reason. The problem is that he doesn’t.
SHIELD’s New York facility is colorless on the inside; all sloping glass panels, ceilings that stretch high overhead showing the sky in between panels of pale brushed steel, and cold hard floors that shine just like everything else. It was chilling at first, but after the maelstrom outside Steve has learned to find it restful.
… well, comparatively restful he admits looking at the torn punching bag lying across the room where it bleeds sand out onto the floor.
He lets out a breath and goes to pick up the next one from a line of them. In this, SHIELD has been kind to him. No one says anything about the rate at which he goes through the things. They just appear in bulk in the old gym Steve goes to, which he’s pretty sure SHIELD bought out right.
It’s like his USO days all over again. He isn’t a soldier. He’s some kind of elaborate pet.
“I’m sensing some tension.” Fury observes from over by the ring. The man is a ghost. Steve’s ears are better than most and he can never hear it when Fury approaches.
“Maybe.” Steve’s voice is tense. He tries to moderate it, but it’s no good. It’s like an iron band is squeezing his chest and constricting his lungs. His breaths go shallow and there’s never quite enough air. The serum cured his asthma, but his body doesn’t always remember that. “This another intervention?”
“Not exactly.” Fury goes to stand over the bleeding sandbag. “Here to ask a favor, really.” He doesn’t sound like it’s his first choice –nor was it his second or third.
“I’m listening. No promises, but I’m listening.” Steve hangs another bag. There’s not much chance that he’ll get much more of a workout in tonight, but he likes to leave the gym ready for the next guy. If he pulls a muscle hanging a sandbag then it’s gone in the next hour or so, fifteen minutes if he uses a salve. That’s not the case for a regular joe.
“There’s a woman to whom we owe protection.” Fury says, but he’s pacing. “She’s agreed to act as bait for a trap SHIELD is setting, but it means her normal guard cannot be in evidence. We need someone with a specific skill set to act as her bodyguard.”
“My skill set is punching things, sir.” Steve says in a flat tone. “Also absorbing large amounts of damage.”
“That would be the skill set we need, Cap.”
“Then why do you need me? You’ve got an entire agency of soldiers who can do that too.”
Fury glances at him and there’s something glimmering in that single flinty eye. It looks suspiciously like humor. “We’re talking about a matter of scale. The woman is Antonia Stark, CEO of Stark Industries. You’d be replacing Iron Man.”
Stark. Stark? “I know that name, sir.”
“Toni Stark is Howard Stark’s daughter.” Fury says. “You’ve met her… well, briefly anyway.”
“Sir?” Steve wracks his brain. He’s met a lot of people in the past few weeks and has sent most of them away, but he knows all their names… none of them…
“She was on the front steps of SHIELD HQ when you made your break for it.” Fury supplies and that glimmer of amusement is a full-scale smirk now. “You might remember pushing a woman into a crowd of my agents.”
Steve does remember that. In his defense, he’d been running blind and she hadn’t moved to get out of his way. Instead she’d hit him in a full-body tackle to the waist where she clung like a limpet. To say he ‘threw’ her is sort of an exaggeration. Really he’d just been struggling free, but his ears went hot all the same. That was not one of his prouder moments and is in fact one of the ones where he imagines his mother looking down on him from heaven with a rolled up newspaper.
“Normally, I’d say Toni Stark is the last woman on earth who needs protection… but you damaged the medical exoskeleton she uses to walk that day so her movement is somewhat impaired at the moment.” Fury turns to Steve. “I thought you might appreciate a chance to make it right.”
… a medical what?
Later Google turns up 24,200,000 hits on the phrase ‘Toni Stark’ in .23 seconds.
It seems like the woman’s entire life is public record.
Steve stays up until three am reading up on his future charge. He reads about parties that last for weeks and the robots she designed at the age of fourteen that now serve in surgical suites. He reads about her rumored visits to rehab and the Maria Stark Foundation’s endowment for the arts. He reads about genius, tragedy, terror, and triumph.
He reads about Afghanistan, what little there is. He reads about ground breaking mobility tech Toni Stark designed to combat her mysterious paralysis and then made available at-cost and often free to low-income families. He reads about the ‘Iron Man’, her mysterious bodyguard who is really Chris Helmsworth, Sylvester Stallone, Orlando Bloom, or Jean-Claude Van Damme depending on who you ask.
There are entire books written about how Toni Stark is nothing like her father, but Steve looks at a picture taken of her before the infamous kidnapping incident. She’s competing on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and has brought in an entire kick line of Chippendale’s dancers in a flagrant violation of the rules.
The books are wrong. She’s Howard Stark’s daughter right down to her bones.
Steve calls Fury the very next morning to accept the job. In fact, he’ll go on his own even if Fury changes his mind.
There’s something in Toni’s smile; that ‘come at me’ grin he remembers seeing on her father’s face as his flying car grumbles like an upset stomach and crashes to the ground. It’s the first familiar thing he’s seen since waking up.
So Toni Stark has a new bodyguard, whether she wants one or not.
Stark Tower is… well, actually it’s everything he could have predicted: big, impressive, and lit up like the Fourth of July. The Starks do nothing unless they do it on a grand scale.
This shouldn’t feel like coming home, but somehow it does all the same.
A young man is waiting for him in the lobby. He moves through the crowd and people get out of his way. The man is exemplary of everything that is different about the Future. His build is tall, but runs towards lean yet he moves with confidence in a suit that shines in the fluorescent light like steel.
“Captain Rogers.” The man greets him like he just stepped in something. “Ronald Potts. I’m Ms. Stark’s PA.” He pronounces the ‘Miss’ as ‘Mzzzz’. Steve wonders if that is a thing and adds it to the running list of questions to plug into Google he keeps in his head.
Steve holds out his hand all the same and Mr. Potts accepts the handshake with a good firm grip that is surprising given his long slender fingers and narrow wrists. It’s a good handshake, now if only Steve knew why Mr. Potts looked at him like he wanted to summon security.
“If you’ll follow me we’ll need to take the elevator to Ms. Stark’s private lab.” He gestures towards the enormous bank of glass elevators that occupy pride of place in the center of the lobby.
“Of course.” Steve follows his guide into an elevator carriage that no one else attempts to board even though there’s a line and spares a moment to feel terribly underdressed. He’s tidy enough in his jacket with a plaid button up and creased khaki slacks, but the people in Toni’s tower take personal grooming to a whole other level. He watches Mr. Potts in the reflective surface of the elevator door and wonders if maybe he could pull off one of those narrow ties.
Halfway through one level and the next Mr. Potts punches –literally punches the emergency stop button and turns to Steve with eyes the color of ash.
“I will say this one time and one time only.” He growls just loud enough for Steve to hear. “I heard about what happened in Manhattan. Our mutual friend is the only reason I haven’t had you ejected from the building. You have used the only pass you will ever receive from me. If you lay so much as a finger on her then no one will find your body this time around.” He is literally two thirds of Steve’s height and might weigh 150 pounds soaking wet, but he is clearly ready to put his fists up and go a few rounds. You’ve got to respect that.
Steve has been there.
“I came here to apologize.” Steve tells him because there’s no excuse he can really make no matter what the circumstances were. “Pushing women isn’t something I go around doing, but I understand if you don’t believe me. I hope I get a chance to prove that to you.”
Mr. Potts looks him in the eye and comes to a decision around about the time the emergency phone starts ringing. He hits the release button and answers the line, reassuring whoever is on the other end with a few words.
The elevator starts again with a lurch and Mr. Potts turns to Steve. “If you play your cards right then you might get that chance.”
The first thing he hears when they reach the bottom level (which goes under several basements and two garage levels) is this noise that Mr. Potts assures him is music. In fact Mr. Potts cocks his head and smiles. “You’re in luck. She’s playing ACDC. That means she’s in a good mood.”
Whoever ACDC is he’s growling about ‘dirty deeds done dirt cheap’, which Steve can’t find to be anything except ominous.
The elevator lets off into a spacious room with shiny black floors, slate walls, and mirrored ceilings that reflect the floors and create the illusion that they are standing in a vast empty space where the concepts of ‘up’ and ‘down’ are pure conjecture. This, he thinks, is what the future is supposed to look like! This is what he envisioned back in the day when he read Issac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.
For this he can even forgive the music.
“You’re gawping.” Mr. Potts murmurs and elbows him for good measure. It doesn’t help much. Steve is slack-jawed and can’t bring himself to be ashamed of it. “Oh lord, too late.” He groans.
“Okay, Pep? Note that reaction.” A woman’s voice comments from just behind them. “That is the proper reception that my lab should receive.”
Toni Stark is perched on a table when Steve turns around and surrounded by this fantastic constellation of floating lights that surround her like her own private galaxy. She waves a hand in the air and the lights move according to her whim, reforming into lines and diagrams whose purpose he cannot even begin to fathom. “Cut the HoloCAD, JARVIS.” She tells the ceiling. “Our guest is looking a little overwhelmed.”
“Very good, madame.” The ceiling replies and the lights vanish. Steve is kind of sad to see them go. His hands are literally itching for his sketchbook and a composition is taking form in the under-layers of his subconscious.
She drops down to the ground and for a second Steve is confused until his ears detect the faint whirr of gears and servos underneath the rustling fabric of her loose trousers, which turn out to be fairly standard coveralls with the upper half tied around her waist. On top she’s wearing this clingy sleeveless black tank that only barely muffles the light emanating from between her breasts.
Fury’s dossier on Toni had mentioned that she had a —a prosthesis, but he’d imagined it as being more, uh, internal.
His first thought is that he expected her to be taller somehow. The pictures gave him the impression of this figure who is literally larger than life and twice as vibrant, but the woman is in reality kind of on the short side and curvy. The frame of her exoskeleton peeks out of the waist of her trousers. He can see something of the shape of through the fabric of her clothes. The little bit he can see around her middle are graceful and put him in mind of the curves a burmester set, but there’s something unfinished about it. The material is not quite right and her movements are off somehow as she straightens up.
Toni has her father’s thick black hair stuck up in a messy bun with pencils and her mother’s Italian complexion, which means her skin is roughly the same shade as gold. Her features are a bit of a mixed bag with the faint hook in her fine nose and her generous mouth. Her eyes are enormous behind her safety goggles and a rich shade of brown that reminds Steve of the earth after a good rain.
“Captain Rogers, I presume?” There’s a joke in there that he… wait. No.
Steve smiles. “Hey, I actually got that!” Then he winces because Toni Stark knows nothing about his ongoing trials and tribulations with pop culture references. “Uh, I mean…”
“No, no. It’s fine.” She says. “So you’re Captain America. Wow. Feeling more patriotic already here.”
Steve nods and… well. He never was good at verbal tap-dancing. The direct approach is more his style. “I wanted to apologize for… uh, the way we met that first time. I shouldn’t have done that. What I did.” Oh lord, he can’t even say it without feeling like a dog, but Toni just waves a hand like she’s batting something out of the air.
“Don’t be. You got me out of a meeting with Fury.” She says. “I’d go through a lot worse to get out of that. You did me a favor, really.”
“Well, it’s just. He told me that I damaged the thing you use to walk.” Steve persists because he doesn’t feel like he deserves the forgiveness he is apparently receiving.
“Oh, that?” Toni scrunches up her face and it’s really kind of adorable. “Normally you wouldn’t have been able to, super-soldier or no. I was wearing a new prototype that day because my usual ‘going out’ set needs to be rebuilt. Turns out there was a flaw in the left knee joint and your… ah, let’s call it ‘assistance’ revealed it.” She holds up her hands and makes little quotation marks with her fingers. “Like I said, don’t worry. I knew that I was running a risk by using equipment that hadn’t undergone proper stress testing.” She glances over Steve’s shoulder. “You can stop glaring like that, Pepper. Contrary to popular opinion, I do occasionally know what I’m getting myself into. The numbers just didn’t turn out in my favor that time. If I hadn’t run into Rogers here, it would have happened on the stairs instead. Imagine those headlines.”
“We’ll discuss your choice to use untested prostheses instead of the hoverchair later, Toni.” Pepper says, but he seems less tense now. The coiled aggression melts out of his shoulders.
“I still hope you’ll accept my apology, ma’am.” Steve is nothing if not persistent. He’s going to be working with this woman and he’d rather not have this hanging over his head.
Toni looks at him with her head cocked to the side like a small bird. “Fine. I accept your apology, Captain Rogers.” She says and then offers him her hand palm down with the air of a queen conferring a great favor on the masses.
After a few moments thought he takes it and brushes a chaste kiss across her knuckles. One of his handlers spent some time trying to explain the concept of ‘retro’ style, which still kind of eludes him beyond the basic idea that people in the future sometimes like fake old stuff for no readily apparent reason. It’s kind of weird, but this is one bit of courtesy he doesn’t mind and it’s sort of neat anyway. The faint scent of motor oil and some expensive perfume tickle his nose. It’s not an unappealing combination.
Toni is grinning full on and brilliant when he straightens up and Mr. Potts has hidden his eyes from view. His shoulders rise and fall, which is either a sigh or a manfully restrained chuckle at Steve’s expense.
“I’ll be damned. You actually did it.” She crows and tugs on Mr. Pott’s sleeve. “Pep, Pepper, can I keep him? He’s too precious to let out into the big scary world all on his own. I’ll take ever so good care of him. Pleaaaaaaaaaaase?”
“You said that about the tropical fish and what happened to them?” Mr. Potts says like he is Toni’s father instead of Howard.
“They are fat and happy in a tank in your apartment where you spend entirely too much time fussing about their water temperature or if they still like their food.” She answers instantly and without a hint of shame. “Pepper!”
“Exactly.” Mr. Potts says. “I don’t have room for Captain Rogers at my place and I refuse to adopt him once you get bored with the responsibility.”
“If anyone is wondering, I do have my own apartment.” Steve announces to the room in general.
“Shush!” Toni says and takes his elbow so she can lean into him for a conspiratorial whisper. That’s not bad either. He may be in trouble. His mother is already waiting for him at the pearly gates with that newspaper. The last thing he needs is Howard standing next to her with a shotgun. “If you say that, Pep won’t let you stay at my place and my place is awesome. SHIELD claims to have all the best toys, but that’s a lie. I do.” Louder she says, “He’ll be useful! He can… lift the heavy things. I, as you know, do not lift the heavy things.”
“No, Toni. You do not.” Pepper (oh lordy, now Steve’s doing it too) agrees. “You also don’t like things being handed to you, being addressed by people whose existence you object to, signing documents, or people thinking too loud in your presence. Have I covered everything?”
“Those are all completely reasonable personality quirks.” She pokes Steve in the side. “Tell him, Steve.”
“Uh…” The he shrugs. Might as well go with it. “I’m on her side with number two there.” He says thinking of Senator Brandt, his ever-present cigar even at the height of rationing, and the weedy man who followed him everywhere with a pad and pencil.
Pepper shakes his head, but there’s this stubborn smile clinging to his lips and in that smile Steve can read Pepper Potts’ entire indulgent relationship with his employer. There stood a man who would fetch Toni the moon if she casually mentioned it would go with her favorite dress.
Steve was starting to sympathize.
Still, it’s time to focus on the real reason he was sent over. “Actually, ma’am, Director Fury sent me to help with your protection detail. Maybe Iron Man should be here as well since we’ll be working together?” He is 90% sure that Ronald Potts is not Iron Man. For one, Pepper seems to have both hands full with Toni and Iron Man wouldn’t need repulsors if he could turn that withering glare on his enemies.
“Iron Man won’t be in on this one.” Pepper says and he looks about as thrilled by that fact as one might expect. “None of Ms. Starks normal guards will be involved at all. That’s why we need you; you’ll be going undercover.”
“Uh.” Fury hadn’t mentioned that part. Stealth is not Steve’s strong point unless it involves skull-dragging in camouflage through enemy territory.
“Pep’s being mean. I’ll translate.” Toni pats his elbow. “You’re going to pretend to be my new boyfriend for a few days. It’ll give you a reason to be near me at all times and I have a reputation for going through them so no one will pay you much attention. JARVIS?”
The HoloCAD program springs back into full brilliant life and a wall of blank squares flickers into life. The squares fill with snippets of video, photos, and emails. Most of them feature a nondescript man; brown hair, brown eyes, average height, average features…
The rest of them show footage of what Steve can only describe as a thing; an enormous angry green thing.
“This is Doctor Bruce Banner. He was one of the researchers involved in trying to recreate Doctor Erskine’s formula.” Toni taps one of the video clips and stretches it out with both hands. Banner is shaking in the frame. His limbs spasm one by one as his body expands and his skin darkens. His eyes are wide open with the pupils blown into epic proportions as his irises flood with green. “Unfortunately, no one thought to tell his team what it was they were really working with and he chose to test one of the samples on himself.” A muted roar emanates from the clip and the recording dissolves into static. Tony sends it spinning back into place with a flick of her wrist.
“Left alone, Banner is of no threat to anyone. He does not seek conflict and even the Hulk only fights when directly threatened. His instinct is always ‘flight’ over ‘fight’.” Pepper interjects smoothly. “His personality examinations reveal a mild-mannered individual in the truest sense of the phrase. He is not what you would term an alpha male, but he isn’t immune to temper and the current belief is that anything which causes his pulse to spike results in… well.”
“The problem is that the army is after him.” Toni snaps her fingers and the images of Banner are replaced by a meaty individual with a lantern jaw and stars on each shoulder. “Specifically this sociopath: General Ross. He’s formed what they call the ‘Hulkbuster’ task force, which is basically an excuse to run tanks into populated areas to tear shit up. Some 60% of the collateral damage that results from a Hulk sighting can be traced back to his doorstep. That number rises to 80% if you include the things he knocks the Hulk into. His career is on the line and the only thing that’s going to save it is a dead Hulk.”
“Ms. Stark has strong feelings on this subject.” Pepper murmurs as an aside to Steve and, yeah, he’s noticed something to that effect.
“Say what you will about my past in weapons development.” Toni replies, dry as the Sahara. “But most of the weapons I made were designed specifically to keep combat off American soil. American college campuses, in particular ---but more to the point; I’ve recently dusted off my Dad’s research into vita-rays for, well… reasons.” She makes a vague gesture in the direction of her legs. “In Banner’s field vita-rays are known as gamma radiation. My research has generated decent press and some interesting results. Not what really what I was going for, but such is science. Banner contacted me the day before yesterday via an encrypted email. My work is relevant to his interests. Unfortunately it wasn’t encrypted well enough to keep your boss out. Fortunately for Banner, Nick Fury thinks even less of the Hulkbusters than I do and is willing to admit that persecuting the man isn’t the solution. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to squire me around public places that are hard to monitor so that Banner will have an opportunity to signal me. When he does, I will send you away so we can make contact.”
“That… seems incredibly unsafe.” That is one whale of a story and Steve doesn’t even know where to begin explaining just how bad of an idea it is for a paraplegic woman to put herself in the way of a fugitive who turns into a giant rage monster.
“That’s life, baby.” Toni shrugs. “I wasn’t asking for your permission. So are you in? Or are you out?”
There’s really only one answer to that.
So. That is Captain America.
“He is adorable.” Toni decides out loud. “I want to take him with me everywhere I go. This must be how Paris Hilton feels about small dogs. Do you think he’ll fit in a bag, Pepper?”
Pepper shoots her a look over the top of his glasses (and don’t think Toni didn’t notice the fact that Pep didn’t pull out his readers until after Steve left). “Mere words cannot express how glad I am that you didn’t compare Captain America to a purse-mutt while he was still in the room. Also: you’d need a motorized sledge at the very least.” He pauses. “No, you can’t have one.”
Toni ignores her traitorous PA. “Hmmm. JARVIS, put that on my ‘to invent’ list won’t you?”
“At once, madame.” JARVIS intones, completely straitlaced. She loves JARVIS. He has enough understanding of humor to know when not to employ it. Toni would be unbearably smug about his dry wit, but a lot of his personality wrote itself during his creation. She just fed him video footage of examples of proper British butler-hood until things just kind of gelled on their own without being forced. Then, BAM: sentient computer being.
There is a lesson in there somewhere.
“In the meantime, I have a whirlwind romance to plan. Any word from Mister Green?”
Pepper reaches into the folio that is his constant companion and withdraws a glossy postcard from inside. “This arrived in the mail today. There’s no message, but the handwriting matches our available samples for Doctor Banner.”
Toni accepts the card and looks it over. It’s one of those advertising cards you can pick up for free on the counters of coffee shops, yoga studios, and community centers. The front of it is advertising this locovore thing somewhere out in Georgia. She flips it over to the back and reads until something catches her eye. Pepper frowns as she smiles, which means it’s her ‘mad scientist’ grin; better tone that down.
“Looks like we’re headed to peach country, Pep.” She announces. “JARVIS, bring up the Shelli Segal website. I’ma need a sunhat.”
Chapter 2: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
“What light through yonder receiver breaks?”
Steve squints at the phone in his hand and then at the alarm clock on his nightstand. “Toni, it’s four in the morning.” He says because maybe she hasn’t noticed. True, he hasn’t known Toni for very long but he feels this is entirely possible.
“Why do people keep saying that when I call them?” Toni complains. “I’m giving you a heads up. We’re expected for a thing in Georgia. Pack for the weekend and leave the plaid shirt at home. I cannot be held responsible for my actions if I see it again. Here’s a clue: my actions will involve fire.”
Okay, so this is kind of surreal… and yet familiar all the same. “Toni, how much coffee have you had in the past eight hours?”
“I don’t knooooow.” There’s a faint clink of glass on metal over the line and then she says, “All of it?”
“Right.” The apple never does fall far from the crippling caffeine addiction. Steve is on familiar ground now. “How are we getting to Georgia?”
“Private jet.” Is Toni’s instant reply. “I’d make Iron Man take me, but that’s sort of counterproductive this time, so: jet. I am leaving the dancing stewards home this time in deference to your delicate 1940s sensibilities.”
“I appreciate your consideration.” Steve says and does; he remembers Howard’s chorus girls. “When is the jet leaving?”
“When Pepper tells me I have to leave, which is entirely unfair. The point of a private jet is that it goes when I tell it go and I’m never left stranded at the terminal in Hoboken.” Which is actually unassailable logic if you look at it from a certain perspective. He sighs as the last wisps of sleep fade from his head. Well, he’s up now and the serum means that he won’t be sleeping again anytime soon. “Toni, where are you?”
“Penthouse. Workshop. One of those. Definitely still in the tower.”
“All right, stay where you are. I’m going to throw together a bag and then I’m going to come get you, all right?” He keeps his voice calm and patient. “Can you stay where you are for a bit? Until I get there?”
“Probably: no. JARVIS will let you in though. Bye!”
“Toni? Toni!” It’s no good. The line is dead. “I am going to get Fury for this.” Steve tells the ceiling. The ceiling has no comment.
Steve arrives at the base of Stark Tower just as the sun begins to rise.
The door is locked.
“Oh, you have got to be kidding me.” He groans and wonders exactly who Jarvis is and how he will know to let him in. Steve was assuming Jarvis was the security guard, but there doesn’t seem to be one on duty; just cameras and more cameras.
Right around that point his pocket starts to play the national anthem. He pulls it out just as a senior citizen wanders past in janitorial scrubs. The old man pauses as Steve flips his phone open and brightens right up.
“I’ve got one just like it!” He pulls out a little red phone identical to Steve’s black one with its big buttons and black-on-taupe screen. “My grandson got it for me. Can’t deal with those complicated things he and his friends use. Nice to see a young person who doesn’t need all that complicated color-screen and internet email business! You have a good day, son.”
Steve swallows on the lump of embarrassment that’s sprung up in his throat, but the phone is still ringing and he fumbles it up to his ear. “Uh, hello? Yes?”
“Captain Rogers.” Says the neutral voice from Toni’s ceiling with the British accent. “The door is now open for you. I apologize for the delay. I was attempting to track your movements via the GPS unit in your phone, but it does not seem to have one. I was forced to locate you through the traffic camera system. Please, feel free to enter.”
“The traffic what now…” Steve ignores the jibe about his phone because he got the first hint the universe sent him. His phone is underpowered. He gets it. No need to beleaguer the point. “Who are you exactly?”
“I am JARVIS. I oversee Madame’s residence and much of her research.” The voice replies.
“Where are you? Why are you watching me through the cameras?” Was JARVIS some kind of… computer… person? Like one of those, whatchacallims, a hacker?
“Technically, I watch everyone via camera. I am not a human being. I am an artificial intelligence created by Antonia Stark.” The voice pauses. Thoughtful. “To put it in terms that may be more acceptable to you; I am a computer program that has the ability to think and reason as a person does. However, it means that I do not have a physical form such as yours. I interact with the world via the medium of the internet. Cameras become my eyes. Microphones are my ears.”
“Oh.” Well, all right then. Still not the weirdest thing he’s had to deal with since waking up. Might as well go with it. “Where is Toni now? She was still a little loopy when she called me earlier.”
“Ah, yes. Madame is in her main lab. I shut off the percolator in her suite and I believe she went to look for a machine that I cannot control. However she became distracted by one of her projects and is currently at work. I would appreciate it if you could persuade her to return to her bedchamber. My efforts have so far proved futile.”
The doors open for Steve this time and close neatly behind him. JARVIS guides him to the same elevator that Pepper used earlier and he rides it down to the bottom. He knows he’s close when he hears music drifting through the slick metal doors; semi-robotic voices chanting ‘work it hard-er, make it bet-ter, do it fast-er, makes us strong-er…’
“Please avert your eyes, Captain Rogers.” JARVIS suggests. “Madame is making use of the welding kit. The light may cause damage to your eyes. There is protective gear located in the cabinet immediately to your left.”
‘More than ev-er, ho-ur after, o-ur work is nev-er ov-er’ the voices chant and Steve makes the ‘kill it’ motion at the ceiling. Thankfully JARVIS takes the hint and halts the music, which is doing nothing to help this insomniac work-fit of Toni’s.
“Who dares touch the mute button!?” Toni intones from behind her welding mask, but she shuts off the torch and tilts the mask back. She blinks when she spots Steve. Her forehead crinkles in confusion. “What are you doing in here?”
“You called forty minutes ago.” He tells her. “I got worried and you told JARVIS to let me in. There was a little confusion at the door or I’d have been here sooner.”
“JARVIS?” Toni glances up.
“I made an error in making assumptions regarding the capabilities of the good Captain’s mobile device, Madame.” JARVIS explains. “I apologize. I have amended my code so that such an error will not occur again.”
“Error? What kind of error?” Toni shrugs out of her cover-alls and… oh… she’s wearing a pair of silky wine-colored pajama bottoms under it with a matching lacy camisole. Her bare feet peek out from underneath the slouched hem of her pants legs and her toenails are painted brilliant red with gold tips. “Steve, explain to me how you confused the most advanced artificial intelligence on the West Coast!”
… but Steve’s brain isn’t quite responding because he’s just realized that Toni isn’t wearing a brassiere.
“It is a matter of hardware, Madame.” JARVIS to the rescue. Steve is really starting to like that AI. Even if it’s insulting his phone.
“Hardware? Show me.” Toni holds out her hand and Steve hesitates, but she snaps her fingers and makes a ‘give it’ motion with her other hand. So he surrenders his poor phone. “Oh my god, is this a Jitterbug? These are marketed toward geriatrics! Where did you get it? Did Fury give it to you? Shame on him. JARVIS, get me Pep.”
“Oh no, don’t wake…”
…but Toni’s snapped those fingers of hers again and a floating screen appears at her elbow. Pepper’s face is displayed on it and he looks disgustingly well put together for someone who can’t possibly have been to bed yet, except he’s clean shaven and wearing a different suit. What the hell…?
“Pepper. Do you see this?” She holds up the phone like it’s something she found in the couch cushions.
“Toni, where on earth did you get a Jitterbug from?” Pepper is frowning. “Did you steal the janitor’s phone again? Stop that!”
“I did not. It’s Steve’s phone. SHIELD gave it to him.” She says while casually popping off the back to reveal the shiny silver battery. “Hah! And it’s even bugged. Knew it! Dummy. Forceps.” One of the robot arm things brings her a tray of surgical implements and she uses a long pair of needle-nosed tongs to remove a small chip from his phone’s casing. “There’s a mug over there with some coffee dregs in it, Steve. Bring it here and I’ll kill this.”
Steve obeys because… what? He knows what the word ‘bug’ means in a modern context and he works for a spy organization, but… really? They bugged his poor little phone?
Toni dunks the chip in the tar-like sludge in the bottom of her coffee cup and Steve takes it away to flush down the sink before she forgets it’s in there and tries to drink it or something. He doesn’t think she would, but at this point he’s taking no chances.
“OK. Steve, you attached to this thing or can I trash it?” Toni wiggles his phone at him. He shakes his head because it’s tainted now and he’s going to buy a proper phone the first chance he can get. Once he had to re-teach himself trigonometry from half a textbook in order to construct a bridge to get his team across a ravine in Austria. He can figure out a blinking phone.
Only Toni has turned toward’s Pepper’s screen and is rattling off an order. “Requisition a StarkPhone from R&D. Steve here needs a big boy phone and I need him to be able to stay in contact with me while we’re running hither, thither, and yon on this goose chase. This is worth putting him on the corporate plan to me.”
“Consider it done, Toni.” Pepper replies and leans over a little. He waves, having apparently thawed towards Steve. That was good. He didn’t really want Pepper as an enemy. “Hullo there, Steve! I see you got the 4 AM call instead of me. Sorry about that.”
“How are you up already?” Steve asks because he’s still stuck on that point.
“Oh, I’ve been going for a while. I’m on Shanghai time right now.” Pepper says dismissively. “I travel a lot so sometimes I don’t reset my internal clock. Toni keeps no regular hours at all so why bother? Oh, by the way: your flight for Georgia leaves in three hours. I’m counting on you to get Toni to the airport on time. Happy’s already got her luggage so you just need to get her there. It doesn’t matter what condition she’s in, just so long as she’s on the plane when it’s scheduled to take off.”
"That's a lie. I'm pretty sure it's because he's a super-powered alien. His power is competence. That and being a morning person" Toni says with a shudder. “Also: what am I? A sack of potatoes?”
“Not at all, Toni. A sack of potatoes stays where it’s put and causes no trouble whatsoever.” Pepper assures her in a voice like aspartame; so sweet and false. “I should be so lucky.”
Toni actually wakes up to realize she’s been swanning around in her PJs somewhere over North Carolina, which is pretty embarrassing. Damn insomnia. She rubs at her eyes in the jet’s little bathroom and examines her reflection in the mirror. The circles aren’t too bad; a little concealer will make it like they were never there.
Maybe this little adventure with Captain Tall, Blonde, and Wholesome will chase the nightmares out for a little while. Pep is getting worried and Toni doesn’t blame him. She’s a basket case when the sleep starts running thin and lately she’s been acting like she needs to be institutionalized.
“I can do this.” She tells her reflection. This is just a bad patch. She’ll make it through to the other side. She always does.
In the meantime she dresses in her favorite peach silk blouse and white linen trousers. She finished the repairs on her low-profile exoskeleton so she can slip on a pair of golden sandals. Toni goes subtle with the make-up because no one is going to buy her usual smoky eyes and ruby-red lips in this outfit and the point is to look like she’s in the middle of a soft-focus romance. So she lets her hair down and tries to go for ‘messy on purpose’ curls, which are about all she can manage without major stylist intervention. She finishes the outfit with a charming straw hat with hand-painted silk lilies on it and inspects the results in her mirror.
God. She looks like her next stop is a lunch meeting with her mother’s garden club …but Steve sits up straight when she exits the bathroom. How on earth did he wind up with eyes so blue? They’re practically fluorescent and are trained on her.
Okay, maybe she can put up with the genteel society get-up if it means he watches her like that.
Toni is no fool. She knows that, at best, this is going to be brief and bittersweet. There isn’t a lot of room in her life for men who aren’t Pep or Iron Man. Steve is the kind who will want to settle down. She knows the type. They’re fun while they last, but they don’t stick around when it becomes clear that she isn’t about to give up her company, her inventions, or her secrets in order to settle down in the equivalent of Martha’s Vineyard to pop out a horde of babies.
“See something you like?” She murmurs and slides into the seat across from him. He swallows and his adam’s apple actually bobs. It’s beyond precious. He is definitely too good for her, but she’s going to ruin him for some future happy homemaker and she’s going to make him like it.
“Yeah.” Is his surprising reply and Toni feels her cheeks heat up like they haven’t since that one time in boarding school, which never happened.
“Then we’re off to a good start.” Toni says collecting her poise around her. This isn’t a game where she can afford to stumble. Steve is dangerous to her. Oh, but he looks like such fun. It’s a narrow wire she’s chosen to walk, but Toni has never been one to choose the path of least resistance.
She learned early on that it’s also the one of least reward.
Turns out Banner has picked out a weekly farmer’s market as his choice of locales. Steve is skeptical of his choice until he sees the place.
It’s a line of small pavilions in a city park (he’s not entirely sure where they are), but the tents are swamped with people. There are families with dogs and strollers, young people who move in packs, more who are laying on the grass in the sunshine, and what must be every couple in the city. It’s going to be hard enough to keep track of Toni in this and their game plan involves her staying plastered to his side.
He’s a city kid, but he’s familiar with little farmer stalls and open air markets. The futuristic ‘farmer’s market’ take both those things and blends them with a fair. There are stalls upon stalls of fresh vegetables, but there are also local artisans and prepared food there too alongside live musicians and games.
Toni laughs as he stares. He knows they aren’t really there for pleasure, but he can’t quite help himself. There’s a man making real kettle corn in a huge copper basin and he sells it in bags as long as Steve’s torso. Someone else has this machine that churns out miniature fresh donuts by the dozen. It’s almost more fun to watch it go than it is to eat the results.
“I’m gaining weight just watching you go.” Toni teases him as he devours a crepe full of this fantastic stuff made of cocoa and hazelnuts, but then she buys another crepe filled with strawberries dressed in cream and red wine. Some of the cream sticks to the tip of her nose and that’s adorable. He reaches out to wipe it away and licks it off his thumb without thinking about it. Toni blushes with a little smile that she hides under the brim of her hat before he can catch more than a glimpse of it and the sight makes him forget where they are for a few seconds.
He remembers soon enough when Toni leans into him and murmurs into his ear. “We’re being followed. I don’t think its Banner either.” The biggest challenge is to maintain his smile. His hands curve around Toni’s hips without his conscious input. “He’s on my eight. Green ball cap. Cheap jeans. Expensive watch.” Toni smiles up at him from under her hat and it’s her magazine smile. Then she slides a hand around his waist and taps her finger against the small of his back. It’s morse code.
She spells out: G-U-N.
Steve lets his gaze wander lazily across the crowd. He spots their tail almost right away and Toni is right. He’s a bit obvious. Either he’s recent or Steve has really dropped the ball. Given the way the man’s gun prints against his fisherman’s vest, Steve is inclined to think it’s the former. The man is keeping close proximity to him and Toni, but he’s not particularly watching them.
“Army, I think. Not a special operative. I think he’s waiting to make Banner.” He says into Toni’s ear. She bats her eyelashes at him like he was flirting.
“Good luck then.” She says softly. “I’m pretty sure I just saw our friend leave. Let’s keep the watcher occupied for a bit and let him get some distance. I don’t want to see this party get crashed.” She looks out onto the color and laughter, but her smile is a little brittle.
“I’m in.” Steve takes a risk and presses a kiss against the exposed skin of her throat. It’s just part of his cover, but he can’t help but enjoy the way her breath catches and she shivers against him. “Let’s give them a show.”
Pepper books them a suite in the local Hilton. It’s not one of the fancy suites, but rather the kind that’s really two individual rooms that connect by a door in the wall that locks on both sides. It’s a nod in the direction of Steve’s proprieties and Toni is actually grateful for the space. She literally had Banner in her sights before the army jackass showed up.
Banner met her gaze with this fatalistic calm that was good as a shouted accusation. He must have become accustomed to betrayal after all this time.
So Toni did the only thing she could do. She tilted her hat in the direction of the nearest clean exit. Banner almost didn’t leave. The last she saw of him was the back of his grimy jacket as he vanished across a crosswalk.
Poor guy. He looked like a scarecrow and she spent the day swanning around the city with an ornamental blonde on her arm taking in the sights while the army did an abysmal job of tailing her. She and Steve lost their tail twice without even intending to.
There is a knock at the door to Steve’s room. “Wilkommen, bienvenue, c’mon in!” She sings out and Steve sticks his head in.
“What was that?”
“Mel Brooks movie reference.” She tells him. “We’ll watch it later on Netflix. You’ll be so scandalized.”
“Okay.” He opens the door all the way and it turns out he’s in workout gear. Must be what he sleeps in. Yum. “Want to talk about the game plan from here out?”
“Yeah, I swept my room for bugs so it’s better if we talk in here.” She sits on the end of her bed and pats the mattress next to her. “Your virtue is safe with me, I promise.” It is too. For now. There’s been too much walking and the exoskeleton is specifically designed to keep her muscles from atrophying.
Steve comes over to stand in front of her and crosses his arms over his chest. Apparently his willingness to take orders doesn’t extend to a little friendly fraternization. Drat.
“I’ve got a thing in Atlanta tomorrow.”She sighs. It’s a formal affair, which means standing up in a heavy dress and talking about nothing at all for hooooours. “There’s a charity ball and Pepper put me down as attending so I’d have a reason to be in this part of the country. So I won’t be up to much between now and then.” She taps her useless legs for emphasis. “I can’t exactly take my hover chair in there. It’s an admission of weakness. I can send you back home in the jet. Iron Man can pick me up from here since it’s the same old, same old. Banner will have gone to ground. I’ll have to wait for him to feel safe enough to try to contact me again.”
“You shouldn’t be alone right now.” Steve is frowning. He does that a lot when she is talking about perfectly reasonable strategy. Him and Rhodey could be twins; the doom and gloom twins. She’s going to have matching shirts made for them because it’s like they have that expression copyrighted. “The hotel is being watched.”
“I seriously doubt they’re going to follow me into a ballroom, Steve.” She shrugs because it’s no skin off her nose. “But I’ve got a ‘plus one’ available. You wanna keep this weekend going?”
Steve turns a faint shade of pink. “Yeah. I’ll go. I don’t trust the Hulkbusters not to do something dumb.”
Toni opens her mouth, but then closes it. “Okay, fair enough.” She pauses and spares a moment to envision Steve in a tux. Now that is arm candy. She grins. “I hope you brought a tux. It’s black tie.”
“Of course I did.” Steve’s eyes slide to the left as he speaks.
Someone really needs to teach that boy how to lie
“Madame. Captain Rogers has just googled the phrase ‘where can I find a tuxedo at 2 am in Atlanta, GA’.”
“Hah! Knew it. Guide his choice, JARVIS. Fake a website if you have to.”
“Very good, madame.”
Chapter 3: Shoot to Thrill
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Steve is deeply skeptical about balls that don’t seem to involve any actual dancing.
“This is a see-and-be-seen event.” Toni says to him as an aside. “You talk, you network, you show off a little, you use the charitable donation as a tax write-off. It’s the way of certain part of the world.”
The Swordsmans’ Ball (a benefit for cancer research apparently) was being held in a smallish-sized ball room located in the InterContinental Bulkhead that looked out onto the hotel’s private garden. The party was in full swing with people crammed inside. The men were all wearing variants of the same tuxedo that Steve had gotten some poor unfortunate tailor to overnight him. The women however… wow. He’d once thought that Peggy was a knockout in her stunner of a red dress (he still did), but some of the dresses the women here have on leave that garment in the dust (although not the woman inside it.)
Toni is a sensation in this dress that looks like it was spun from pure gold and knowing her it might well have been. It’s cut high in the front and low in the back so that everyone can see the sinuous curve of her spine while the arc reactor stays hidden from view. There’s this clever thing that the seamstress did with costume jewels where Toni has a collar of what appear to be rubies around her throat (they can’t possibly be real… can they?) and they match the ones scattered across her draped skirt.
“I think I’m starting to notice your favorite colors.” Steve says and, wow, Toni blushes. He wonders if it has anything to do with Iron Man. He remembers reading some speculation that the mysterious bodyguard has a closer-than-normal relationship with his employer, but is that really true?
Because… despite the weird stuffy party and the guys with gun, Steve has smiled more in the past two days than he has since he woke up. He can laugh and not see the ghosts of his dead staring back at him with flat black eyes. Sometimes it even feels like they’re laughing with him at the crazy, crazy stuff that the Future has brought… like giant ice sculptures with long snaking tunnels inside them that bartenders run drinks through.
“It’s an ice luge.” Toni pronounces it ‘looge’ and orders two martinis from the ‘mixologist’. The martinis arrive wonderfully cold and a little sweeter than Steve tends to like, but pretty decent all the same. Alcohol doesn’t really do much to him anymore, but he never really drank for the end result.
Toni doesn’t do more than sip at hers and judging by the level of liquid in the glass she hasn’t gotten more than a few drops of it down.
“Are you all right?” He asks.
“Hmmm? Oh, fine.” She flashes him a movie star smile and it’s so different from her usual lopsided grin that Steve is sort of thrown. She spots that too. “I took a strong painkiller earlier.” She explains and the accompanying smile is… better. Softer. More Toni and less the woman he remembers from Google Images who is becoming more and more of an alien. “Can’t mix the pills with booze, but it looks weird if I’m at a party with no drink in my hand. People start wondering what I’m up to and I’m not up to verbal fencing tonight.”
Of course. Toni spent the entire previous day running all over town trying to keep the army occupied and off Banner’s trail. Steve wasn’t even winded, but Toni got paler and paler as the day went on and her smile grew ever more brittle.
Actually, she’s looking a little pale right now.
Steve comes to a decision. “Hey, come here for a second…” Working quickly he guides her over to a quiet corner of the ballroom and swaps their glasses. There are perhaps benefits to being the equivalent of a human garbage disposal in some ways. He knocks back her drink in one go. It doesn’t even burn. How sad is that? “Wait here. I’m going to get something you can have.”
She regrets letting him go almost immediately.
The party is boring and since she can’t let herself drink she doesn’t even have a pleasant buzz to fall back on. Steve is pretty much the most interesting thing in the room, what with his constant wide-eyed wonder about everything.
With him gone she’s lost her shield against the crowd and it’s the old grind of talking through bared teeth about everything except the thing they’re actually talking about, agreeing with people while never promising a single thing, and all the while looking like she’s having a marvelous time. The only mercy she gets from this crowd is that most of them will now come to her rather than making her come to them.
Yes, okay, this is the reason Pep made her go to the party… but really? She has corporate negotiators for this. Her place is the lab or, failing that, teaching assholes like the one at A.I.M. the true meaning of ‘intellectual property’.
Toni spots the men moving through the crowd a little too late to do anything proactive about it. There aren’t a lot of options available to her when she’s stuck in a gown except the manual equivalent of defensive driving until she can find Steve.
Defensive driving is not actually high-speed chases. You don’t lose a tail by driving faster. That just makes you easier to follow in some ways. Instead you drive just slightly under the limit, stop at all the lights except for the ones you run, make meandering turns, drive into parking lots, and just generally make life unbearable until for the guy behind you until he screws up and you’re able to get away before he can extract himself.
So Toni wanders around the ballroom, pausing to talk with some nice high-profile guests that even Ross’s thugs don’t dare accost her in front of (why HELLO there, Mr. Senator, how are you?), ducks around the ornamental trees, and briefly loses them by the band until she turns to what she thought was the ladies room (which is always, always full in an event like this one because lipstick doesn’t refresh itself) and finds herself in the garden.
“Fuck.” She says as dark figures emerge from the shadows to surround her. Toni takes a breath and prepares to scream the whole damn building down when someone comes up behind her and presses a needle against her neck.
“I can put you down before you make a sound.” The man says into her ear. His hand is over her mouth. “If you behave then you get to ride in the van like a big girl. If you make a fuss then you ride in the trunk. Which is it going to be?”
Toni considers her options. She can slow them down if she’s walking under her own power. They’ll move faster if someone has to carry her. JARVIS is already on alert. She just has wait for Steve…
The decision is taken from her as the darkness itself rises up and slams into the line of men in front of her.
“What the f…” Is all her captor gets out before he is swatted (swatted!) away by an enormous green palm.
Oh god. Banner.
“You were supposed to run!” She growls as the Hulk looks down at her. “I was trying to cover for you, you big putz!” Big Green looks down at the finger she is pointing up at him with an expression like ‘Really?’
There is noise coming from the edges of the hotel. Big noises. Tank noises. Hulkbuster noises. There’s a scream from inside the ballroom and the Hulk startles as people start to take notice… either of him or the wall of men in SWAT gear moving through the crowd to converge on Toni’s location.
They don’t look like SHIELD.
“Banner, you’ve got to g…OH!” Toni gasps on the last syllable as the Hulk scoops her up into a surprisingly gentle hold and then it’s like every rollercoaster Toni has ever been on (including the one she designed on a whim for Darien Lake). First you go up-up-up-UP. Then there’s the bit where you hang at the apex of the rail for a second just long enough to realize how HIGH you are and then you’re going DOOOOOOOOooooooooooowwwwn.
So. The Hulk relocates by jumping. Good to know.
Toni catches her breath when the Hulk pauses on the top of a skyscraper. She looks over the green mountain of other-Banner’s shoulder and reaches shamelessly into her cleavage for the utility kit she keeps there. It’s got miniature binoculars in that the government refused to approve for the consumer market because of the potential impact on public privacy. “Hold on a sec, Big Green.” She tells the Hulk and it seems his cognitive function isn’t too impaired by the change because he listens and, more importantly, obeys.
She pops her earpiece in; it is an intensely remodeled Bluetooth headset that Jabra only wishes they could get their mitts on. “JARVIS, hop onto the local police scanner and try to tap into Ross’s radio frequency. Steve is still back there with that nutjob.”
“It is done, madame.” JARVIS says and then pauses. It’s not a good pause. “According to their communications, the Hulkbuster unit is moving to pursue except they are being held up by an unidentified civilian who matches Captain Roger’s description… General Ross is attempting to negotiate with him. I think he’s aware of who the Captain really is. A team is mobilizing to capture him.”
“Shit.” Toni growls. Of course that blowhard would view Steve as army property. When his crash site was finally located with him alive inside of it a quiet, yet intense slapfight between SHIELD and the army followed. The army was of the opinion that Captain America was one of theirs. He went down while on active duty and had never been taken off the rolls as a sign of hope on behalf of the US government. SHIELD maintained that he was a super-human and as such they were better equipped to handle him.
Ironically the bloody media spectacle that Ross had become was one of the factors that tipped the scales in SHIELD’s favor. Getting Cap back for the boys in green would be a major feather in Ross’s cap and Toni wasn’t 100% sure that the brass wouldn’t look the other way in regards to how Ross got him.
“I can’t leave him.” But going back? Same problem. This isn’t a job for Toni Stark. This is a job for Iron Man. “Hey, Big Green.” She wiggles around in the Hulk’s grip, which results in him shifting her into a princess-hold. That is some grade-a damsel in distress bullshit right there, but Toni isn’t really in a position to dictate terms. She points in the direction of the air strip where her jet is waiting. “There is a private airport that way. Can you take me there?”
The Hulk doesn’t speak, although she has evidence that he can. It’s just… maybe it’s hard for him so he doesn’t do it unless he has to. The fluid rolling sound he makes is kind of thoughtful and affirmative at the same time. Then he presses her against his shoulder and they’re off again.
They set down in front of Toni’s jet, which is… okay. Wow. Either the Hulk has psychic abilities or Banner has been watching her the whole damn time. She’s not sure which is more unsettling to her. “Okay, you can put me down, big guy.”
JARVIS opens the less obvious portion of the jet from inside as she approaches. Most people actually do notice that the interior of the private jet is kind of small, but they assume Tony has a hidden bedroom in there or uses the extra space for freight or maybe they get distracted when the stewards start taking their clothes off. That was true once upon a time, but it’s different now. What used to be exactly 67.4% of the cargo hold folds out into a set of semi-intelligent robotic arms (not JARVIS intelligent or even Dummy intelligent, but just smart enough to do up her buttons.)
“Now, don’t freak out, okay? Nothing is going to hurt me right now. I just need to change into something a bit more… practical. Okay?” She says to the Hulk as she unclasps her dress at the neck and lets it fall to the ground. Then she turns her back so she doesn’t have to look at the man… thing… guy over there while she reaches up and plunges her arms into the gauntlets waiting for her. Thank God for stick-on gel boobs otherwise she’d be fundamentally topless right now.
Putting on the suit has a lot in common with gymnastics. Tony uses mostly upper body strength to navigate her way through the armoring-up process because the first thing the suit does is link into her exoskeleton and freeze her legs in preparation for taking over the task of directing her mobility.
Even Pepper thinks she designed the new low-profile frame to fit under skinny pants, but really she created it to free up room in the suit for better databanks and battery reserves. Skinny pants are a secondary concern.
‘Hold on, Steve.’ She thinks as her suit folds around her like the best hug ever and the mask closes over her face hiding Toni Stark away from the world behind the featureless faceplate of the Iron Man. ‘I’m on my way.’
Steve is beginning to think he is not qualified for this whole ‘bodyguard’ deal and he does not want to think about how he’s going to explain it to Fury when the director asks about the circumstances that led to his charge being abducted by an enormous green monster right out of a society function before god and everybody descended upon the party like the four horsemen.
On the other hand, Steve got to take out a SWAT team using a serving tray he swiped from one of the fleeing waiters. That has to earn him some points for style.
… it is entirely possible that Toni is a bad influence on him.
Toni, who is currently at the mercy of the Hulk King Kong-style and probably safer than she’d be if she were still here, will probably kill him when he sees her next if she doesn’t have her bodyguard do it for her. She’s definitely not going to agree to a third date.
As conflicted as he has been about whether or not he wants or even should ask her on that third date the thought still makes something hurt deep inside his chest; the idea that she would look at him with a smile just three shades away from genuine with sympathy shining in her pretty brown eyes as she says, ‘I’m sorry, Steve. I don’t think I’ll be available.’
Steve has been turned down a lot in his life, but none of the rejections ever hurt as badly as one he’s only just imagined. The reality is going to be a million times worse… and he’s going to lose his deposit on this tux.
“Surrender peacefully, Captain Rogers.” General Ross is talking over a megaphone. Steve is surrounded by guys with guns, but the tanks won’t move so long as he’s in the way. He’s hoping he can hold out long enough for SHIELD to mobilize. He got out a call to Coulson before he got too busy to talk and they should be on their way to quell the situation.
(He is placing his faith in Toni’s belief that the Hulk is defensive rather than aggressive. He is praying that the Hulk has no reason to hurt Toni. He is planning to chase them down as soon as he can ensure that Ross won’t be able to cause civilian casualties here. He is never leaving his shield behind ever again no matter how funny it looks.)
“Submit to Army custody, son.” The man insists. “We’re going to win this thing. You want to be on my side.”
This is a speech he’s heard before from better men than Ross. He didn’t believe it then either.
“If I have to run this tank over you to catch that monster, I will do it.” Ross says. “If you are who they tell me you are then you’ll know that the army way is the only way to deal with something like the Hulk. It’s a monster and it needs to die.”
Some of the soldiers try to tackle him from behind and he clobbers them with the tray. Things could be going better.
… the soft whine that lasts for a split second is familiar, oh so familiar, and his body reacts without conscious input from his mind. He is rolling before the shell hits, but there’s no real shelter except for some trees and those explode right along with the soil showering him with lumps of turf and shattered wood. For a few awful terrible wonderful seconds he thinks he’s back in WW2 and this vision of the future was just that; a vision.
Then Ross’s howling over the megaphone breaks through and he knows that it isn’t General Morris waiting for him behind the lines with Peggy. His men aren’t anywhere in evidence. They are dead, dead, dead.
In that second, Steve hates the man on the megaphone more than anything he has ever hated in his entire life (including Hitler) just for who he is not.
Given his druthers, he would have attacked right then and there. Nevermind the guns and tanks. He would have taken Ross down. Only when he tries to move pain shoots up from his leg and he can’t. When he looks he sees why: his right leg is pinned at underneath one of the uprooted trees felled by the artillery. The angle of his shin is wrong, all wrong. It’s clearly broken.
“Oh, hell.” He says and he says it with feeling.
Now would be a great time for the cavalry to show up. Steve hopes to God they do.
There is a thing in Toni’s chest; a horrible patched together piece of machinery that makes Frankenstein’s monster look like one of the Shinkansen bullet trains in comparison.
When she says that people keep thinking it’s the arc reactor she’s talking about, but they’re mistaken and Toni has never quite felt like correcting them because she knows the result will be that emotion she hates more than anything else; pity.
Toni Stark does not need anyone’s damn pity. So why people keep piling it on her is a complete mystery.
Behind the arc reactor is a cold dead thing missing large portions of its right ventricle and posterior vena cava. The repairs that have been done on it are brilliant on a scale that leaves everything Toni has ever invented struggling in the dust. That includes the miniaturized arc reactor powering it. So why is it that she’s the one lauded as the foremost mind in modern science while the only things left of Ho Yinsen in the world are a few academic papers, four books, one scholarship fund, and some smoking rubble?
It’s because the world is not a fair place and Toni hates that.
Sometimes she tries to change that –not because she thinks it’s right. She is not a hero. Steve is a hero. Yinsen was a hero. Toni is an engineer. She knows a flawed system when she sees it, but she can’t stop fighting because she’s already tried casual disregard and look where that ended up.
She used to think that the malfunctioning bit of wet ware people call her heart couldn’t hurt her anymore. It’s suffered too much damage. It should be numb by now, but that isn’t true.
A lance of pure incandescent pain shoots through her chest bypassing the arc reactor all together when she sees one of the tanks swivel it’s canon around to point at Steve. It fires.
“JARVIS.” She says and her voice is cold. Calm. Ruthless. It’s Iron Man’s voice.
“Re-routing all non-essential power to the rear repulsors.” He says equally calm. “Radio chatter indicates the Captain is alive. The shot was intended to incapacitate, not to kill.”
“Almost only counts in horse shoes and hand-grenades, JARVIS.” Toni replies. “Form a firing solution the tanks. If Ross can’t play with his toys responsibly then he isn’t allowed to keep them.”
‘This is it,’ Steve thinks as the soldiers close in on him. He’s been alone since the day he woke up in SHIELD HQ and now it’s finally about to kill him.
Part of him feels it’s about damn time.
Something swoops by overhead in a blur of gold and a deep red that is impossible to pick out against the darkened sky. A series of small popping sounds reach Steve’s ears and they are followed by miniaturized explosions of light and electricity as the sticky EMP bombs Iron Man dropped fry the onboard computer systems in the Hulkbuster tanks.
“Naughty, naughty, Ross.” The voice comes from directly overhead and Steve looks up just in time to see a figure of gold and brilliant red gently land between him and the tanks. “Firing on a civilian? This is a new low and you’ve rolled tanks out onto a college campus.”
“He’s not a civilian!” Ross growls into his megaphone only to find it’s been fried along with everything else within range of the sticky bombs. “You know who he is!”
“The press is just going to see a guy in a tux fending off your goons.” Iron Man says and it’s just so droll. “In fact that’s what I see and I’m not too pleased by it either. He certainly doesn’t look like a Hulk.” The figure turns to Steve. “Are you a Hulk?” He asks in his flat computerized voice.
“Can’t say that I am.” Steve pants out. “Where is Toni? Is she safe?”
“Toni’s fine; pissed as all hell but she’s safe.” Iron Man tells him. “Relax. I know how to do my job.”
“Oh, thank god. I thought…” He shakes his head. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me until you’re safe too. She sent me to get you. I trust you called SHIELD already?”
“They’re on their way.” Steve’s vision is starting to go a little gray around the edges as the adrenaline wears off and his body realizes that it’s suffered damage. “Can you hold them until…”
Iron Man tilts his head back as brilliant spot lights drench the area in pure white light. A voice echoes through the nights. “Put your weapons down! This is an order from the Strategic Homeland Intelligence Enforcement and Logistics Division. Lay down your weapons and put your hands behind your head.”
There is an ugly moment where Ross is sneering at Iron Man before the voice adds, “I mean you, General.” Tiny red dots suddenly swarm onto Ross’s chest clustering around the area where his heart would be.
“They’re going to be waving credentials at each other for a while.” Iron Man says to Steve and lifts the tree trunk off of him with one hand. “SHIELD has cleared me to evacuate you for medical care. Toni is back in New York, but she left the jet behind for your use.”
“My suit can break the sound barrier. The first thing I did was evacuate her otherwise I’d have been here in the nick of time instead of just after it. C’mon, maiden fair. I’ll give you a lift back to the airstrip.”
Later there will be shaky cell-phone footage of Iron Man lifting off with a tall blonde man torn and bleeding in the remains of an Armani Collezioni tuxedo leading to rampant speculation that Iron Man might be gay, which broadens the pool of candidates for his identity considerably. Matt Bomer will be in the lead when Steve stumbles across a link to the article on the Huffington Post website. He will disagree.
Matt Bomer is clearly too narrow in the shoulders to be Iron Man.
More relevant at the moment is the man waiting for Steve in the jet when Iron Man drops him off. He’s wearing nothing except a tattered pair of purple lycra pants that have been stretched out all to hell and are held in place only by dint of a cord tied around his narrow waist.
“Doctor Banner.” Iron Man greets the man. “My friend here took some fire. Can you stabilize him?”
“Not actually that kind of medical doctor.” Bruce Banner says with a wan smile. “However, fortunately for your friend I’ve broadened my horizons over the past few years. Help me get him set up in a chair and I’ll do what I can on the ride back to New York… or wherever it is you plan on dropping me off.”
“The plane will take you wherever you want to go, Doctor Banner.” Iron Man says. “By way of a hospital for Steve here if you choose not to stay with us. Toni will be sad to see you go, but she understands your circumstances.”
“Hmm.” Is Banner’s response as he inspects Steve’s leg. “Ms. Stark is an amazing individual… and this is a broken leg. I don’t suppose that suit of yours can do x-ray scans?”
“As a matter of fact…”
“Well, x-ray your friend and let me see the results.” Banner says. “Because we’re going to need to set this break before anything else and I need to know what we’re dealing with.”
Steve has undergone worse medical care. He’s cauterized his own wounds in frozen mountains using Dum Dum Dougan’s cigar. He’s stitched his flesh together without the use of anesthetic beyond a splash of someone’s homebrewed hooch.
It still doesn’t hurt as much as having his leg set in the belly of a luxury jet with a muddler stick to bite down on while a half-naked man holds him still. Thankfully he passes out and doesn’t wake up until he’s on the couch in Toni’s penthouse with her beautiful face looking down at him.
She’s biting her lip and petting his chest with one worried hand while the other is kind of tangled up in his hair. He’s not entirely sure she knows she’s doing that.
“Hi.” He says groggily and she gives him a watery smile. It’s a pretty smile on a pretty girl and… what was he thinking about before? He can’t remember.
“Hi.” She says. “You had me worried.”
“You worried me first.” Is what he means to say, but somehow it comes out as: “You should let me take you out again. On another date.”
She blinks and bites her lip again. It’s entrancing. “Yeah.” She says at last. “Okay. Anything you want.” Her fingers flex against his scalp and that feels good. If she keeps doing that he’s going to… fall back…
He’s asleep before he can even finish the thought.
Well, would you look at that. 10K in an there's finally some superheroing going on in this superhero fanfic. :)
There is something incredibly strange about the fact that thirty years of unrelenting effort to escape the polished little homemaker that Maria Stark had tried to make Toni into has resulted in Toni standing over the disused stove in her kitchen trying to read the miniscule print and deceptive vocabulary on the back of a box of hot pockets that didn’t follow Pepper when he moved out.
Genius she might be, but even Toni has to look up a definition for ‘L-Cysteine hydrochloride’.
After some cross-checking with JARVIS that revealed several ingredients Toni recognizes from embalming fluid, she scraps the idea of using Steve and Bruce to help clean out her freezer and reluctantly falls back on her long ignored culinary education.
Fortunately for all concerned cooking seems to be like riding a bike; once you learn you never really forget.
Given the state of her fridge though, everybody had better be happy with noodles held together with parmesan, olive oil, and what appear to be leftover duck slices from her last cocktail party. The other option is nuking all of her Lean Cuisines and -as funny as the idea of Steve confronting a microwave dinner is- at 300 calories a pop they aren’t likely to make so much as a dent. Anyway whatever she makes there will need to be plenty of it. Toni can’t think offhand what the caloric impact of hulking out might be, but whatever it is it has to be staggering.
Steve is still conked out on the sofa with his splinted leg propped up on the armrest. There is something inherently valuable about a man who doesn’t know to ask why a lady has upgraded her AI to be capable of full medical scans or why she keeps an EMT response kit in all her bathrooms. Between JARVIS and Doctor Banner, there’s no need to take Steve to the hospital; something for which they are all profoundly grateful.
The water is boiling when Bruce wanders out of the guest suite wrapped up in some of Steve’s clothes, which are laughably huge on him. He blinks at her and adjusts his glasses before wisely saying nothing.
Clearly this man has had a girlfriend in the past.
“Say it.” She tells him with a smile because she’s seen the heart of this man’s darkest side and it rescued a woman out of a garden full of armed thugs when three seconds of silence could have bought its freedom. “I promise you, I won’t take offense.”
“You just don’t strike me as the domestic type.” He looks into the pan where she’s trying to render a little fat out of the ex-hors d'œuvres. He sniffs appreciatively. “That smells really good.”
“Thank my misspent youth from back when my mother was alive to have opinions about ‘bridal training’. I had my own private chef as a tutor for eight months.” Toni says and rolls her eyes. The man pretended to only speak French and smacked the back of her hands with a wooden spoon when she wasn’t performing to spec. Give the man all due props though, he lasted a good eight months even with Toni on a dedicated mission to drive him away or (failing that) kill him in such a way that it could never be traced back to her.
“About what now?” Bruce cocks an eyebrow and it’s kind of refreshing to have a modern male’s perspective after a weekend spent with Steve. She’s actually forgetting what it’s like to open her own doors and push her own seat in.
“Once long ago my manifest destiny was to polish myself into a perfect pearl whose sole purpose in life was to attract the right sort of man to take over my father’s company then go on to bear to him brilliant little sons to carry on his legacy.” Toni laughs at the way Bruce crinkles his nose. “I know, right?”
“That is gruesome.” Bruce agrees. “Is there something I can do?”
“Poke Steve and see if he’s breathing, otherwise: I got this.” Toni waves a silicone spatula in a jaunty little salute.
Bruce leaves to do her bidding and Toni seriously considers getting this man a job. For one: he needs the protection and she wants to protect him. Two: he is a fantastic minion and Toni needs some new ones. The old ones are getting uppity.
Pepper chooses that moment to arrive. He strides out of the elevator with a folio at the ready, but comes to a screeching halt when he spots Toni standing in the kitchen. “Dear sweet God in heaven!” He says and rushes over, visibly checking her for dings and scratches. “What happened? Are you hurt? Is someone dead? Someone is dead. It’s okay, Toni. I will make this okay…”
“Toni, do you need help over there?” Bruce asks and he’s taken off his glasses. He’s watching Pepper with this flat unfriendly gaze that Toni can see the Hulk lurking inside, which leads Pepper to realize that he’s been shaking her.
“Oh god.” Pepper says and lets her go. He straightens himself out, which involves fussing with his tie and brushing nonexistent wisps of hair back out of his eyes. “Dr. Banner, I presume. I apologize for what that looked like. You must understand though. The last time I saw Toni cooking it was to soften the blow when she finally told me she was slowly dying of palladium poisoning. Seeing her… it took me back for a second. Please forgive me. Toni?”
“It’s fine.” Toni says. “We needed food and this was faster than ordering takeout. Bee-tee-double-you: we found Banner.”
“I noticed this.” Pepper says and his voice is indulgent. “The Hulkbuster unit was all over the news and the Governor of Georgia is after Ross’s head. Something about the InterContinental Bulkhead in Atlanta?” He crosses his arms. “Wasn’t that where the Swordsmans’ Ball was being held…?”
“Uh… yeah.” Toni dodges his gaze. “About that.”
“General Ross sent men in after her.” Bruce supplies. “His men don’t really understand subtlety and I was watching them. They went after her in the party and… the other guy decided to help.”
“Hmmmm...” is Pepper’s response as he pulls out his phone. “The governor is going to have to get in line. Excuse me, please.” Then he goes out onto the exterior flight deck where no one has to listen to him destroy a decorated officer’s career with a single call except he stalls out when he spots Steve. “Toni! How the hell did you manage to break Captain America!?”
“There was a tank!” Toni calls out over her shoulder. “Iron Man dealt with it.”
Pepper freezes. “What was Iron Man doing out there?”
“Steve took the abduction personally and General Ross saw an opportunity to swipe Captain America out of Fury’s grubby mitts. I sent Iron Man in to make sure he got out.” She smiles her best smile and Pepper cocks an eyebrow back at her. “Turns out they make a good team. Don’t tell Fury. He needs to be careful of his blood pressure.”
“I thought we agreed that Iron Man was going to stay home.” Pepper isn’t going to let this go. She can tell. “What if he got in the way of the Hulk? No offense Doctor Banner.”
“None taken.” Bruce holds up a hand. “The other guy identified him as a friend. Red is one of the few colors he can see so it worked out well.” Wow, Bruce takes to this lying thing really well; definitely prime minion material. The whole ‘leading mind in biochemistry’ thing doesn’t hurt either. Toni is weak on the wet sciences.
“We’re going to talk about that color-blindness thing later, Bruce. Don’t let me forget, okay?” Toni points at him and Bruce nods.
“I’ll lend you my notes.” He promises.
“You are now my favorite person.” Toni blows him a kiss and he pantomimes catching it and putting it in his pocket. Oh yeah, he’s her new favorite.
“I am not done with this, Toni!” Pepper promises her.
“Yeah, yeah.” Toni waves her spatula and folds some leeks she found in her freezer into the duck-oil-noodle thing taking form on her stove. Where they came from is anyone’s guess, but she needs to stretch the portions a bit if Pepper is going to be eating with them. That scrawny frame of his conceals an appetite like none other except maybe Steve’s.
“Buh!” Steve comes awake with a snort and flails a bit on the couch until he figures out where he is. “Oh… hi, Pepper. When’d you get here?”
“You know for a very brief period of time I considered the idea that you might be a positive influence on Toni.” Pepper says and goes to crouch by Steve to check his pupils and do all those other things Pepper is prone to doing when Toni comes home from a fight. It’s official: Steve has been adopted.
“I don’t know why you thought that.” Steve says. He’s kind of loopy after the horse tranquilizers that Bruce gave him from Tony’s stash, but coming to fast. The data she has on his healing factor implies that they’ll be able to cut the splint off in another few hours so hopefully the pills got him through the worst of it.
“Yeah, me neither.” Pepper agrees. “Hold still, you’ve got some blood in your hairline…”
Toni smiles as Pepper takes over Steve-nursing and Bruce, finding himself displaced, comes over and rummages in the pantry until he finds some only-slightly-wrinkly potatoes. He takes them to the sink and starts to scrub them.
“The other guy goes through simple carbohydrates like nobody’s business.” He tells Toni who nods enthusiastically. That makes perfect sense. The other guy’s boundless energy has to come from somewhere. The law of conservation of energy applies even to the Hulk. Energy can’t come from nothing. She makes a note to tell JARVIS to keep an eye on Bruce’s eating habits. Her minions require more meat on their bones than Bruce currently has.
Pepper is still on the phone ending General Ross when dinner is finally served, but past experience as his girlfriend and chief engineer means that Toni knows to just leave a plate at his elbow so he can take bites of it while he works.
“Madame, Agent Coulson of SHIELD has entered the elevator.” JARVIS says just as Toni sits down to her own meal.
“Well, he’d better not expect me to feed him.” She replies tartly and turns to Bruce. “There’s a balcony in my bedroom; should make for an easy exit if the Other Guy wants to leave. I’ve also got a freight elevator that goes down to my lab and the garage. You’ve got escape routes if you want them.”
Bruce considers it. “I’ll stay.” He says although his knuckles have gone white around his fork.
“We’ll all understand if you have to go.” Toni tries again. She’s been caged before and it’s no fun. “Otherwise… Iron Man can be here in three minutes flat. JARVIS; put Iron Man on alert, would you?”
“Done, madame.” JARVIS replies. The suit is unlocked and ready to go. Three minutes is thirty seconds to make it out onto the flight deck, one minute and forty-five seconds to suit up, and fifteen seconds to apologize to Steve for lying before bringing down the wrath of God and Toni on SHIELD’s head.
Bruce pats her hand. It’s like having a brother and they’ve known each other for like six hours.
“I didn’t realize you were eating.” Coulson says when he arrives. His eyes skip over Bruce with only the barest pause and a little nod of recognition. “Director Fury is curious to know why Mister Potts is trying to take a hit out on General Ross.”
Toni turns to Pepper with both eyebrows raised. He ducks his head. “That is so hot.” She says. “I am reconsidering the break-up, just so you know.”
“The man is a public menace.” Pepper defends himself. “He is doing his damnedest to cause civilian casualties. It’s only luck and the intervention of his target that none have happened yet.”
“I don’t disagree with you.” Coulson says. “Director Fury would prefer, however, that you not send hired muscle into the situation. We will deal with it from our end. Ross was under direct orders to leave Banner alone and my boss doesn’t take it well when people lie directly to his face. He was also ordered to stay far away from Captain Rogers.”
It is probably a good thing Steve is in the shower right now, gleefully washing off now that his bone has knitted.
“You know who I am, then.” Bruce says and Toni can only be in awe of his sheer chutzpah.
“Yes, Doctor Banner. We are.” Coulson replies. “However, considering the fact that you are sitting quietly in Ms. Stark’s penthouse and causing no trouble, I choose not to care. Ms. Stark has made a very compelling case in your favor and as the one who had to sit through her PowerPoint on the subject, I will defer to her wisdom lest she bring it out again. Since that implies that the world will be ending soon I’m sure I’ll have more pressing concerns shortly.”
“I’ll cancel things with my contact.” Pepper promises.
“Thank you.” Coulson nods to him. If she thought he’d take the bait and wouldn’t use it as an opportunity to infiltrate her organization, Toni would try to lure him away from SHIELD in a heartbeat. Pepper needs a playmate. He and Coulson operate on the same cold ruthless wavelength… except Coulson tends more towards somber black suits rather than Pepper’s snappy taste in menswear. They are somber black Dolce & Gabana, but still…“Doctor Banner?”
“Yes?” Bruce says. He’s still on high alert.
“You will not be abducted tonight or any other night by SHIELD.” Coulson says, level and polite yet somehow earnest. “If you are interested in working for us, we always have a need for someone with your experience with gamma radiation. We are capable of keeping the General Rosses of the world at bay if you need protection.”
“Oh no you don’t!” Toni interjects and puts a semi-possessive (okay, totally possessive) hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “I saw him first, Coulson! No poaching. If anyone puts that mind of his under contract it’s going to be me! You do not want to get into a fight with me over acquiring talent. Pro-tip: I always win.”
“I’m almost done with that, by the way.” Pepper mentions offhand. “Speaking of; do you need dental, Doctor? Our records indicate that the serum actually re-grows pulled teeth for Captain Rogers.”
“Uh… no.” Bruce blinks and then shakes himself. “I meant yes. My… the other guy doesn’t do that. At least I don’t think he does. I haven’t tried.”
“See? Hired. Mine now. Bug off, spook. He’s private sector now.” Toni turns to beam at Bruce who looks a little stunned. “We are going to have so much fun.”
“We can also mount a rescue mission any time you like.” Coulson adds and gives Bruce his card right in front of Toni, the jerk. “Just call.”
“I don’t think I will.” Bruce replies. “But thank you anyway.”
Bruce is going to make it hard for anyone to oust him as her favorite.
Toni blows a raspberry at Coulson and thinks about what she has on hand that can feed one woman and an army of three for dessert. Maybe four.
Funny. This whole ‘cooking’ thing is a lot more fun when you have people to feed.
Occasionally Steve has nightmares.
It doesn’t take a lot these days; the sound of cracking ice, screeching feedback on a radio, and pain all do it. He’s also discovered that certain medications will do it too, mainly muscle relaxers. He can feel his unsettled subconscious tossing and turning in the back of his head long before he ever lies down.
Today has been a rough day, physically and emotionally. So it really doesn’t come as a surprise when he wakes up drenched in sweat and confused in Toni’s guest bed.
The penthouse is pitch black when he pads out into the common area. Even Toni is asleep, curled up in the biggest bed Steve has ever seen and is trying not to think about too much with its golden silk sheets and more fancy pillows that Steve even knew existed.
It’s hard to think about that right now, after the dreams he woke up from
… the nightmare is one he’s been having since he woke up.
He’s standing in a nightclub full of light, music, and laughter. It’s jam-packed with people and everyone is happy. Drinking. Dancing.
Everyone except a dark-haired woman who is sitting at a table alone in a brilliant red dress with cap sleeves that flutter when she moves. Steve goes up to her because he knows she’s been waiting for him, but she doesn’t look up when he says her name. She doesn’t blink when he waves a hand in front of her face.
As he’s standing there trying everything he can think of to get her attention short of picking her up and shaking her, the woman looks up at last with shining eyes. For a heartrending second he thinks that she’s finally seen him, but instead she collects her coat and goes to leave.
This is the point where Steve can no longer stand it. He reaches for her shoulder to spin her around and say ‘I’m here! I made it. Peggy, please…’
… but his fingers pass through her shoulder and she is as substantial as mist. Nothing he can do stops her from walking out of the club with tears trickling down her cheeks. When he stands in front of her she walks right through him leaving him behind. Alone.
Usually he wakes up then and goes to the gym to destroy punching bags until Nick Fury or one of his handlers ‘wanders’ in to chat.
This time the dream goes on.
He is standing in the club when a cheer goes up behind him and he turns abruptly furious that his pain is amusing to someone… only it’s not him they’re cheering for.
There is a girl… a woman, really, but she’s so vivacious and full of life that you can’t see the years on her. She’s dressed in a golden dress with no back and there’s a star captured in her chest that burns clear, clean, and brighter than a lighthouse.
She’s perched on the piano while a red haired man with long fingers plays a rollicking rune that she’s singing along to. Her head turns and she gives him a smile that could break Hitler in half.
He takes a step forward. Something in his chest makes a ragged thump, but a shadow crosses his vision. Someone has just walked through him. It’s a man in red and gold armor who the piano girl is smiling for and he lifts her off the piano to lead her onto the dance floor…
This is when Steve jerks awake. Sweat is sluicing off him in sheets and he does not know where he is until he recognizes the ruined tuxedo draped over the back of a chair by his bed.
The psychiatrists pretending to be his neighbors talk about the meaning of dreams a lot, even though he doesn’t talk about his nightmares. He might not have to. The walls are thin in his building and each floor shares the same ventilation system.
It’s not that his dream is hard to interpret. He understands the message his subconscious is trying to send, really he does… but what exactly can he do about it?
Give Steve a Nazi to punch and he’s your guy, but the rest of it… he’s powerless. There are no soldiers to inspire, no fortress he can storm, and no plan of attack against a broken heart. He misses Peggy and Bucky and everyone from the Strategic Science Reserve more than he can possibly say. He’d die for them in a second, but living without them? That wasn’t a sacrifice he’d been prepared to make.
Some superhero he’s supposed to be.
He hears the soft crunch of gravel underneath a metal boot before he sees Iron Man, but the bodyguard isn’t really trying to hide his presence. He walks out onto the deck where Steve is laying flat out on the weird round deck that Toni has installed that overlooks the entire city.
“You’re lucky I came up from downstairs, Cap.” He observes. “You’re laid out on my landing pad.”
“Oh… sorry.” Steve moves to get up but Iron Man shakes his head. “I didn’t realize.”
“No reason you should.” Is his prosaic reply. Steve has learned that Iron Man doesn’t really talk a whole lot beyond orders, threats, and the occasional witty comment. During their time in Atlanta, Iron Man said maybe a handful of words and most of them were directed at General Ross. “Having trouble sleeping?”
“Something like that.” Steve shrugs and is a bit surprised when the armored man lowers himself into a crouch next to him.
“I’ve had nights like those.” Iron Man says. “Anything you want to talk about?”
“Nothing that talking about can fix.” Steve turns his head, choosing to look out onto the sparkling sea of lights that was once his hometown. “It looks so different. The last time I saw Brooklyn was from the backseat of a car on my way to Project Rebirth. A lot has changed.”
“Some of it.” Iron Man agrees. “Not everything. The Brooklyn Bridge hasn’t changed much and there are entire streets in East Manhattan with the same storefronts they had in 1946. The people are still the most aggressive in the country and Lady Liberty still looks out onto the bay keeping an eye out on us all. America is still out there, Cap.”
“Maybe it’s not America I’m missing.” Steve wants to bite his tongue.
“Fair enough.” Iron Man says and then abruptly changes subjects. “Toni says you asked her out. This was before you passed out like a great big girl, of course.”
A little chill chases itself down Steve’s spine. “I did? I don’t remember that…” He swallows on the lump in his throat. At least he doesn’t remember getting rejected. There’s a small mercy, especially if her guy is here to straighten him out. “I guess you aren’t pleased about that.”
“It’s not my concern one way or the other unless you’re planning on hurting her.” Iron Man says. “Then it’s my problem. Toni is a big girl. She makes her own decisions. If she wants to go out with you then all I care about is getting a time and place to set up surveillance.”
That… was not the answer he was expecting. “I thought you and she…”
“Are what? Dating?” Iron Man laughs. It’s a short brutal laugh. Steve can understand why people think it’s Bruce Willis in there. “If everything you heard from the media was true then Toni would be triple-timing me with Pep and Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes. That doesn’t include whichever tv starlet they have her paired up with this week. Last week they were convinced she was in passionate love with Justin Beiber.”
“I don’t know who that is.” Steve confessed.
“Sort of the modern equivalent of Mickey Rooney, except he’s a singer and all his fans are preteen girls.”
“Uh… wow. All right.” Steve frowns. “It’s just. She wears your colors… all the time.”
“Hah! That’s kind of sexist, Cap.” Iron Man snorts. “I love that you think it’s her wearing my colors though. In case you haven’t noticed, Toni is all about the branding. I’m an extension of her will ergo I wear the red and gold. Don’t read more into it than there actually is.” He stands up, making a show of cracking his back. “I got rounds to do. You should get on back to bed.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Steve does feel a bit better. Iron Man isn’t the friendliest guy, but he helped to pull Steve out of his head. The nightmares have settled and he is feeling better. He probably won’t sleep again, but he can catnap until dawn without staring at the ceiling too much.
“Uh… what you said earlier, about me asking Toni out.” How to ask this? “Did she say yes?”
“Yeah, Cap.” Iron Man says as he clomps back into the penthouse. “She said yes.”
Later there is a soft knock at his door and Steve puts his book down. Turns out it’s Toni there.
“I couldn’t sleep.” She says. “Mind if I stay with you tonight?”
“Not at all.” Somebody says and wow that sounds like his voice, but he’d never be that brave or crazy. Only... Toni is stepping into the room... and closing the door behind her.
Nothing happens. Not like that. Steve wouldn’t presume and he doesn’t really think Toni has the exertion in her. Instead they end up tangled together underneath the blankets listening to each other’s breathing as the moon inches across the night sky. At some point Steve falls asleep and he does not dream.
Toni is there when he wakes up. Her face is mashed into his shoulder and, yeah, a thin thread of drool connects her lip to the fabric of his shirt. She’s still pretty.
Her sooty eyelashes flutter as she blinks awake. They look at each other for a bit before she smiles and says “Hi there.”
“Hi.” Steve replies.
He still misses Peggy, but he learned a lesson from her as well. ‘Someday’ will never be ‘today’ unless you make it happen. He never got his chance with Peggy.
He’s not going to make that mistake twice.
So that is the story of how Steve met Toni, but it doesn't stop there. We've still got the mystery of Iron Man's identity hanging over Steve's head and like three more Avengers to go through.
Next up: Candyman