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Ironsides

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Peggy Carter mourned Steve Rogers, of course she did; she'd loved him, and in his awkward way he'd loved her. But she was a young woman, with a career and the world laid out in front of her, and eventually she moved on. She had other lovers, some she even loved. He was, after a time, the boy she'd lost in the war, and there were millions of women like her.

Howard Stark didn't move on. Steve had been his friend and his project. He searched for him until the day he died. But Howard was not the kind of man who could have just one obsession, so he searched, and he worked, and he made his fortune, and he chased anything in a skirt. He chased Peggy ceaselessly, and she never said yes until one day she saw him in a magazine, a photo taken at some reception, and he looked tired. He was growing old. And she realized she was too -- tired, and growing old, and Howard understood things about her nobody else ever would.

So the next time he came knocking, she said yes.

A little over fifteen months later, Antonia was born.

***

"Are you always going to be this way?" Daddy asks her, when she's five.

Antonia, dangling off the barrel of a cannon Daddy's working on, considers it. "What way?"

"This way. Here, getting underfoot, playing with guns."

She pauses, and then with a toss of curly hair, says, "Probably. A child's personality and inclinations are set by the age of five."

She read that in a book Mommy had and didn't want her to read. Mommy doesn't want Antonia to know that she's worried about her. Antonia's not upset; Mommy will see she doesn't have to worry. (Tony will figure out in about two decades that the book was wrong, anyhow.)

Her father looks down at her, shoves a wrench in his pocket, and says, "Well, then you might as well learn something useful."

Howard is a cold, hard man, and he never once told her that he loved her, never even told her he liked her. The day she left for boarding school was a relief for both of them; Antonia was chafing at home and her father didn't know what to do with her, and as much as her mother loved her and actually said she loved her, she didn't know either.

All that aside, Tony carries many happy memories of the years she spent peering over Daddy's shoulder into the sights of guns, studying his drawings and drafting her own, learning her trade from the master. She remembers that her father called her Princess when he was pleased with her, and Ironsides when she was stubborn and surly.

It's almost like saying he loved her.

***

Tony sleeps with Obadiah when she's sixteen, because it will give her something to hold over him for the rest of his life, and she doesn't trust that fucker, and she was right not to. She's not a virgin, but she lets him think she is.

By the time she's out of college, boys are all over her, and sometimes she takes them to bed, and sometimes she doesn't. The gossip rags don't call her a slut outright, but they pretty much spell it out. And they say it like she should be ashamed of liking sex.

Tony will show them. She'll show the world.

She takes over her father's company when she's twenty one. She sleeps with a lot of boys and some girls, too. She parties, she gets in the papers, she builds machines to destroy her country's enemies (Dad taught her where the line was: you make the guns, but you watch who you sell them to, Princess). When Time Magazine calls her the Queen of Death she corrects them; she's the Merchant of Death.

She hires Pepper, tries to sleep with her, fails, and respects her for saying no, because so few people ever have. Tony is brilliant and chaotic and usually covered in engine grease, and she wishes she were like Pepper sometimes, organized and clean, with nail polish and makeup and well-done hair. But nail polish scratches off when you work with machines, makeup sweats off, and her hair just gets in the way. She keeps it short.

"I wish I looked like you," she says wistfully to Pepper once. She might be drunk.

"Why? You look like Rosie the Riveter," Pepper says, and puts her to bed.

Tony buys a Rosie the Riveter poster and hangs it in her workshop and feels better. JARVIS approves. She gave him the sexiest voice she could think of.

She's published in Popular Mechanics nineteen times. Playboy twice.

Owning it.

***

What Tony knows at the time, when she's kidnapped in Afghanistan, is that they don't rape her. They do torture her until she agrees to work with them. They don't rape her, which frankly she thinks is strange. Not that she wanted it, God knows, but it doesn't fit in with the rest of their actions, and anomalies fascinate Tony.

What she finds out much later is that they weren't paid enough to agree to kill her, and they were going to rape her -- let every man have his turn -- but the leader, Raza, told them she was more useful building weapons.

Tony can't disagree.

Doesn't stop her from blowing the shit out of their camp after she gets free.

(What she finds out much, much later, from Rhodey's confidential hardcopy-only report, is that Raza forbade it in part because he knew her reputation and thought she was diseased. Now she wishes she'd kept the motherfucker alive long enough to torture him back.)

The thing about Yinsen is that he never once treated her like less than the genius she is, and even when he was helping her install the arc reactor between her breasts, he was clinical, impersonal, undesirous. Yinsen died for her and she didn't even fuck him, and that's...that's a new way of seeing things.

She comes back to the States. She shuts down Stark weapons manufacturing. She gets locked out of her own company.

Rosie the Riveter mocks her from her wall; her father's voice echoes in her ears. Princess. Ironsides.

She builds another suit of armor, a flashy Ferrari of a suit where nothing can stop her or hurt her when she's inside it, and she names it Ironsides.

Oh, the adventures she has. Obadiah's revenge comes late, and it comes strong, and it almost kills her; it almost kills Pepper. Antonia's wrath knows no bounds.

Kill her Pepper? Not while Tony breathes.

Afterward, at the press conference, she's supposed to stand up with Rhodey (they slept together twice, early on in their friendship; Rhodey said no after that, and she can dig that, who wants a messed-up chick like her on a full-time basis?) and say that Ironsides is her personal bodyguard. Like she's weak, like she couldn't be a hero, like she isn't the woman she has been for the last few months.

Fuck you, Rhodey, and fuck you too, Coulson.

"I am Ironsides," she says, and all hell breaks loose.

***

Antonia Carter Stark successfully privatizes world peace, and proves it in front of Congress, and for that, a Senator calls her a bitch.

He'll get his. In the meantime, Antonia has a) some parties to attend, b) a blood toxicity level that's creeping steadily up, and c) a sexy racecar to drive.

She has a hell of a story to tell about what happens next, if she cared to, but she isn't going to dignify that sleazebag Justin Hammer by remembering his name.

When she finds her father's hidden message to her, on a filmstrip long since discarded as outtakes, she looks up at him and hears Princess. When she successfully re-discovers a new element, with Dad's help, she plugs it into the arc reactor in her chest and hears Ironsides.

After she defeats Vanko and his Hammer drones, destroying half of the Stark Expo in the process, she and Rhodey have victory sex. One for the Rhodes, she jokes, and Rhodey laughs and kisses her, and says they can never do it again, and Tony agrees.

A reporter asks her what she thinks of the actions of Justin Hammer.

Justin who?

***

Her father still had a team in the arctic looking for Captain America when he died. Obadiah led the company while Antonia was too young to take the reins, and he discontinued the missions, but Tony reinstated them. She doesn't especially care about her father's legacy (don't tell the papers) and she doesn't care about finding Captain America's body, but the teams always have new scientific results and cold-weather testing data to bring back; they're practical, so she continues to fund them.

She funds a lot of things: a support organization for women in the military, two or three feminist advocacy groups, several politicians, a science in schools initiative, a program for gifted kids in LA. Some people sneer at the way she lives her life, even after Afghanistan, but they take her money readily enough. She gives generously to MIT. She invests in small businesses and community initiatives. She builds the first self-sustaining green skyscraper in New York.

None of the right-wing groups calling her a stain on womanhood ever mention that, do they?

She amuses herself having JARVIS kill their investments or foreclose their HQs. Well, a woman has to have a hobby.

It's a Stark team that discovers Captain America buried under the ice, but the military takes it from there, and Tony's okay with that. She's not that interested in the hero, never was; her father told her stories once in a while when he was in the right mood, but who cared about stupid Captain America when she had her mother right there, a real live war hero? Daddy wasn't the only one who taught her how to pull a trigger.

Anyway. She's aware that he's been found, and that he's been brought back alive, but SHIELD can deal with him.

The first time she meets him, in Berlin, she's in the armor. She's also holding about eighteen different kinds of ordinance on Loki, effortlessly, and Loki surrenders with...almost too much ease.

Still, Tony tries not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"Captain," she says to Captain America with a nod.

"Miss Stark," the Captain replies, and someone's going to need to send him to a women's studies class or something.

"What's up with everyone today?" she asks, after they've managed to get Loki back to the Helicarrier. Captain America keeps treating her like a child, Loki sneers a lot but does nothing, and now Coulson is surly and silent.

"Clint Barton's been compromised," Coulson says.

"Compromised?" Tony is stunned. Clint Barton wouldn't turn traitor; the man practically bleeds SHIELD. True, the last time she saw him he was pretending to be a sexy Stark employee from Legal, keeping an eye on her Palladium-inspired downward spiral, but at least that proved where his loyalties lay.

"Loki got to him," Coulson replies tightly.

"Fuck, Coulson -- "

"I'm not interested in discussing it," Coulson tells her, and sends her off to Helicarrier control. Admittedly, once she gets there she's on, showing off, because while she's worried about Barton she has other political problems as well. She's still pissed that Fury dangled the consultant job in front of her like a carrot until shit went down and he needed her. Fury has always said she's unstable but what he meant was she's a bitch and fuck him in his remaining eye for that. So yeah, she's strutting around like she owns the place, putting her genius brain on display, and then she sees him.

Bruce Banner.

Who is not only very attractive but incredibly smart and really dry-funny and she digs on all of that. She wants to take him home and lock him in a lab and keep him as a playmate. She starts working on him immediately. Bruce Banner will be hers, for her R&D division if nothing else.

And she's so distracted by Bruce that she barely pays attention to how Steve's getting more and more aggressive. She dismisses him out of hand or belittles him casually, hardly giving it her full energy. He's one more soldier boy who wants to ignore her or order her around, and Tony hasn't put up with that bullshit since she was five years old. If she wants a man with pecs as glorious as those belonging to Steve Rogers, she can pay for him and he'll do just as she says.

What? He's screaming hot, she's not going to lie to herself about that.

In fact, she is surrounded by hot men. She makes a note and puts a pin in it; more on the hotness of her new colleagues later. Right now, Bruce Banner is sharing his Helicarrier lab with her, and she's not going to waste the recruitment opportunity.

She can tell she's pissing Steve off. She's being a smartass, being rude, being unladylike over and over again every time they interact, but she can't stop herself.

"Just a girl in a suit of armor," Captain America says finally, looming over her, true colors emerging. "Take that away and what are you?"

"Billionaire Genius Society Queen Philanthropist?" she suggests, without a pause.

She goes to turn away, but then turns back. "And I know kung fu," she adds, and cracks two of his ribs.

What? He'll heal super-fast, it's all good.

She hates that when he looks up at her from the floor, there's respect in his eyes. She hates too that all of this, this whole encounter, was orchestrated -- that Loki did this to them, made them overreact and snarl at each other. Later, when she sees the tape of Natasha's interrogation, she'll contemplate how she and Natasha really need to hang out because that woman is masterful.

Steve, though, at least in those early days, he's a tactician and he knows how to land blows that hurt, so she's not giving him any more ammo than necessary. He knows she's Howard Stark's daughter. She doesn't think he knows she's Peggy's daughter too. She's not going to tell him.

He hasn't earned the right to that knowledge, anyway.

***

When Tony flies the nuke out of her own reality and into some alternate space, she calls Pepper, because she wants to die with a friendly voice in her ear. If she can't, at least she can die with her best friend's face on the screen, and secure in the knowledge that they did it. As a team, they won.

She blacks out as she begins to fall, expects to die and because she's a scientist expects no afterlife, no reward or punishment, just darkness. In some ways, she looks forward to the silence.

Instead she wakes up staring into the worried eyes of Captain America, and like a dumbass all she can think to ask is "Did you just kiss me?"

What? Cap's a boy scout, surely he knows CPR.

They go out for shawarma once Loki's secured, trudging through wreckage, weary and silent together. Tony's already taking notes on the damage, assessing where Stark Industries can help, roughing out how much this is all going to cost the insurance companies. When they sit down at the one surviving table in the restaurant, Tony drops down next to Bruce and beams at him and says, "You saved me. I feel like a swooning princess," and Bruce stutters and smiles.

And that's when Tony knows she will never sleep with him, not because he's shy and nerdy or because he's a monster sometimes but because he is too fucking valuable to waste on her libido.

Tony feels very mature about this decision.

She thinks she's even getting along better with Cap, who is mostly quiet while they eat, who offers his hand squarely and looks her in the eye when they meet again a day later to send Thor and Loki home. She thinks they're good, which is why it's bizarre and confusing that he shows up on her doorstep two days later, hat in hand.

Like, literally, he has a hat, a US Army fatigue cap, and he's holding it in his hand.

Pepper, that vicious traitor, lets him into Tony's workshop in the Tower, not warning her that Captain America is in her home with a hat in his hand.

"Hey, Capsicle," she says, still working on a gauntlet while she's wearing it, tightening one of the servos. "What's up? Fury's not here, obviously, and SHIELD is back in the sky, so I can't help much there, but if you need like, a jet pack or a ride up or something I can provide, just gimme twenty seconds here -- "

"I wanted to say I'm sorry," Cap blurts, interrupting.

"And I had some thoughts about the body armor but I'm holding them hostage till you cough up the shield so I can -- what?" she asks, blinking.

"I came to apologize," he says. "This is all new to me, and I'm not used to...to some things that have changed, but that's no excuse. I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

Nothing about being made to do it, nothing about burying the hatchet because they have to work together, nothing but he's sorry.

Tony can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times someone has done this to her, and she wouldn't even need her thumb. And she's not really sure why, because she figured after the battle they were good. She just stares at him, dumbfounded, until he continues.

"I shouldn't have called you a girl," he says, and she can see in the wry tilt of his mouth that Natasha probably gave him some home truths about how well a grown woman takes to that. "Fury said you...you weren't happy with your initial place on the team, and I wasn't aware of that, either."

He's blushing. She made Captain America blush and stutter. God damn, she's good.

"I want to get to know you. You're Howard's kid, you're obviously..." he gestures at the Ironsides gauntlet on her hand. "You're obviously a genius, I'd know that even if half the people who were there when you put me on the floor haven't told me so repeatedly since then. And you did put me down. That's a pretty select group."

"You don't think well of yourself or anything."

"Howard says -- used to say -- "

"It's not bragging if it's true," she says in unison with him, and he grins, and she can't help it. It took guts to come here and apologize and drop her dead father's name in the same conversation, and she can respect a man who'll admit a woman knocked him on his ass.

"Okay, reboot," she says. "Hi. I'm Tony Stark."

"Tony," he says, shaking her hand, heedless of the dirt on it. "I'm Steve Rogers."

"Well, Steve, you want to see Ironsides?" she asks, and Pepper looks uncontrollably smug. Tony makes a mental note to berate her later.

***

Tony takes pride in the diversity of her contacts and her ability to get information, or to gather disparate facts into a coherent whole that she can use. When she starts the repairs on Stark Tower, she creates a company called Initiative Asset Management, and leases eight floors to them in the Tower. Promptly those eight floors begin renovation to suit the needs of the Avengers: seven residences and an office floor for the company.

The purpose of IAM -- ahaha, I AM! -- is to protect the interests of the Avengers, and to that end she transfers her own Ironsides brand-management guys over to the new company. It'll take some of the weight off Coulson's shoulders too, which he can use while he's still recovering from the stab wound. If anything was ever a motivation for Tony to make sure her people had an independent group looking out for them, it's the depth and breadth of Nick Fury's lies about Phil Coulson's death.

Tony is never fooled twice. She will not be emotionally manipulated by SHIELD again.

When the residences are nearly completed, she has the research folks (who track mentions of Avengers activity in the media, and keep dossiers on likely future enemies) locate each of the others for her, and she goes to personally invite them to come under the wing of Stark Tower and IAM. Bruce is first, of course, because he already lives there.

"Bruce!" she sings out, walking into his lab. "Show me some science."

He laughs and points to one of the virtual whiteboards in front of him. "Sciencey enough for you?"

"Hm, your variables are breeding," she says, looking at it, and then turns to him. Bruce is just so much fucking fun. "Everything copacetic?"

"As much as it can be in a universe full of mysteries that require seventeen dimensions of reality to solve," he replies. "What can I do for you?"

"I'm inviting the rest of the Avengers to move in," she says.

"Your bedroom's going to get crowded."

"Punk. I wanted to give you a heads-up. Nobody will have access to your rooms or your lab unless you give it to them, but the penthouse is open to all. I'm off to see Steve after we talk."

"Oh, are you?" he teases, eyebrows lifting, and she nudges him with an elbow.

"We get along now. Well, mostly," she adds, recalling a bickering match they had the last time they assembled. It was a humanitarian thing -- helping fight a wildfire threatening several small southern California towns -- a good second mission because it established the bona-fide good faith of the Avengers. But Steve hadn't been nuts about Tony flying directly into the worst of the flames to get a better read on the fire's likely next direction, and they'd argued about it the entire flight back to New York, soot-stained and smelling like burning leaves, a smell Tony always associated with autumn and California anyway.

"I think it's a good idea," Bruce says. "I'd kind of like to talk Clint into letting me give him some vision exams."

"Good luck with that. Anyway, if I don't come back by dinnertime, assume I annoyed Steve again and went off to get drunk."

"Will do, boss," he says, and she pets his hair and departs for Brooklyn.

She finds Steve at the little boxing gym her researchers told her about, and when she walks in the whole place goes silent. It's full of large, sweaty men fighting heavy bags and each other. As she passes they turn to look at her, a short, slight figure walking confidently through their midst. One of them wolf-whistles quietly as she passes.

"Take a good look, kiddo, it's the closest you'll ever get to a real woman," she shoots back, and he cracks up laughing. Tony's not new to this world.

Steve is in the ring at the back, boxing with a giant of a man, and she waits until they back up off each other before calling, "Watch that glass jaw of yours, Rogers."

"Tony!" he says, dropping his fighting stance and staring at her. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you. May I?" she asks the other dude, who gives her a skeptical look but shrugs and climbs out of the ring. Tony climbs in, picks up a pair of gloves, and pulls them on. Steve gives her a Lady, really? look.

"I come with an invitation," she says, taking a swing. He dodges, but not by much, and comes back at her aggressively. She ducks and then takes a hit to her shoulder -- he's pulling his punches and she'd be pissed but he is a super soldier and could probably snap her in half were he so inclined. Tony's a feminist but she's also a realist.

"Oh yeah?" he asks, as they circle each other.

"Yeah. Stark Tower restoration is nearly complete," she grunts, landing a hit on his stupid washboard abs. It's like punching a wall.

"Your footwork needs attention," Steve informs her.

"My footwork is fine. Anyway, I've built housing into the Tower for the Avengers, and I want you to be the first -- " she breaks off to dance backwards, avoiding a swing, " -- to move in."

He stops, arms dropping. "What?"

She socks him in the jaw and he staggers back.

"Dammit, Tony, stop hitting me when I'm not ready for it!" he snaps. There's laughter from beyond the ring.

"I want you to move in," she repeats as he raises his gloves again.

"If I'm first, the others will follow?" he asks.

"Well, mostly, yes," she agrees.

"You don't have to -- "

"I want to," she interrupts, then stumbles when he whaps her in the side of the head. To his credit, he doesn't apologize. "Keeps you all where I can see you. I thought you knew I was a control freak, Rogers."

"Oh, I did," he answers, waiting for her to recover, but wary now, not letting his guard down. "Is that the only reason?"

"Well, this way we can train together. Assemble faster. It's a good idea all around."

He avoids another right hook. "And it'll annoy Fury?"

"That's just a perk. Mostly it's the control-freak thing."

"Okay, okay, I give," he says, laughing, as they grapple together. He steps back and takes off his gloves, and Tony begins taking hers off too.

"Plus I have people who can help us -- protect our public image, even help invest salaries and make sure legally we're -- "

"Tony," he says. "You had me at your brutally frank assessment of your own ulterior motives."

"Oh," she says, startled. "Well, good, then."

"When's moving day?"

"Whenever you want. I'll have our housing people call you with the details."

"Tony," he says, catching her arm as she starts to climb out of the ring. "Thanks. This is nice of you."

"It's just good sense," she says with a shrug.

"And it's also nice," he repeats.

She grins at him. "You're welcome, Cap. Now go play with the other boys, I have a few more visits to make."

As she leaves, she hears one guy ask, "Wait, holy shit -- Rogers, was that Ironsides?"

She does love to leave an impression.

***

Natasha is next, and she was easy enough to find; she and Tony, emergencies permitting, have a standing lunch date. They talk about work as much as they're able, sometimes about politics, sometimes about Steve's ass and Clint's arms. Natasha says Coulson's hot under the suit, but Tony is dubious.

She likes it. She's tried to bond with Natasha, as the only two women on the team, and she's not sure if she's been successful but at the very least she knows Natasha respects her.

"So," Natasha says, as they finish lunch, "you have something you want to ask me about."

"How do you do that? Are you a mind-reader?" Tony asks. "Because those thoughts I had about Fury are strictly fantasy-area."

"Tony."

"Fine. Stark Tower is open for business again and I want you to move in. I'm moving the whole team in, if I can, and there's a floor set aside for you."

Natasha considers this. "Okay."

"Okay?"

"I live on the Helicarrier. The barracks level smells like feet and if I want to visit the city I have to take a helicopter."

"Oh," Tony digests this. "Well, that was easy."

"Have you asked Cap yet?"

"Yeah, that was oddly easy too."

"Was it," Natasha says neutrally, and before Tony can press she's gathering up her phone and standing. "Week after next, same time?"

"Can we move it to Thursday? I have a board meeting."

"Mm, Thursday I'm leaving for some recon work. Tuesday?"

"I'm on an all-day QA tour of the new Flushing facility. When do you get back from recon?" Tony asks, putting airquotes around the word.

"Probably the Monday after."

"Well, let's move it out to that Wednesday, then," Tony says as they leave. People snap unsubtle cellphone photos of them. "Hey, is all this exposure making problems for your...y'know, recon jobs and stuff?"

Natasha grins and shakes her head, hailing a cab. "Nobody sees me if I don't want to be seen."

"You terrify me," Tony informs her.

"Aw, thank you," Natasha answers, and climbs into a cab.

***

She saved Clint and Coulson for last, mostly because she's known them the longest. Clint was her undercover keeper once, presumably because Fury or Coulson thought she'd find him hot and want to keep him around. They weren't wrong. "Carl Bancroft" was a good-looking man and very obliging, until he stabbed her in the neck with a palliative for the heavy metal poisoning and turned out to be a secret double-triple agent. They haven't ever been on the best of terms because of this, but Tony can admit some of that is her fault.

Clint's also a very hard man to find. There was some trouble getting him into the Initiative, even after the fight with Loki; SHIELD had doubts about his mental state. Admittedly Tony might have agreed with them if Coulson had actually died, but given that he didn't and that Clint was incredibly professional during the fight even though he had to know Coulson was dead by then, Tony had no qualms about fighting SHIELD on this.

It helped that Steve came down on Clint's side. There was something about the way he smiled and assured the brass that Clint was a respected and necessary member of the team, something about the way he insinuated that anyone who didn't have faith in Clint didn't have faith in Captain America, that smoothed the way.

Or maybe they were just all freaked out by the Avengers visiting en masse. When Captain America shows up with Ironsides and Black Widow in tow, you tend to want to agree with whatever they say.

The point is that ever since Loki, Clint's been taking a lot of assignments, so Natasha says. Anywhere and everywhere, back to back, trying to prove himself to SHIELD. He's never been unavailable when the Avengers needed him, but he's been difficult to pin down -- Johannesburg one day, Anchorage the next, Tokyo from Anchorage, and on and on and on.

She finally catches up to him, two days after her lunch with Natasha, in London. When she knocks on his hotel room door, there's a long silence before he opens it. He doesn't look surprised to see her -- presumably the silence was him checking who it was.

"Assembly time?" he asks.

"Nope, private meeting," she replies. "Can I come in?"

He steps back and gestures for her to enter. Inside, three separate laptops are open and running on the little desk by the window, a sniper rifle lies disassembled on the bed, and his bow and quiver are at rest next to the door.

"Nice place," she remarks.

"Suits my needs," he replies flatly. "Op's done, just doing some post-game. What's going on?"

"What's going on is we are occupying Stark Tower," Tony replies, picking up the sight of the rifle and peering through it. "Huh, I've made better. Anyway, yes, Avengers are moving into Stark Tower, and there's a floor with your name on it. Also this weird self-destructive proving-I'm-me thing has to stop."

"Excuse me?"

"When was the last time you were even stateside and not shooting at someone or something?" Tony asks, turning to him, letting the sight fall back to the blankets. "You never call, you never write, I'm beginning to suspect you don't like us."

"I have missions -- "

"You volunteer for missions, and for some reason they let you go on them. It needs to stop. So you're going to come on home after this one, pack up wherever it is you live, and move in. Natasha says the barracks smell like feet and I believe her."

Clint stares at her.

Tony stares back.

Admittedly she blinks first, but hello, he's a sniper.

"You talk to Cap about this yet?" he asks, a little sullen.

"Yep. He's probably moving in as we speak. Natasha too. If you don't move in they're going to think I don't like you, gumdrop, and while I fear you, because you stab people in the neck with needles, I do like you."

"I can't," Clint replies, turning away to check one of the laptops.

"Um, yes you can. Trust me, the view alone is worth it."

"I live with someone."

"No you don't," Tony replies, because her research people would have found out if he did, but more importantly, she knows who he's dating.

"I'm seeing someone. Exclusively. And it's private," he insists. "You have cameras everywhere, retinal scans, not enough exits -- "

"Yeah, no, there's a floor for Coulson, too," she says, and he freezes, still looking at the laptop. "I mean, if he's going to be our SHIELD liaison he should be nearby."

"What's that got to do with anything?"

"Jesus Christ, Clint, it's the twenty-first century and you don't think I saw his expression every time you two were in the same room? Whatever, I sincerely don't care, but if you want it kept private there's no better way to do that than putting your bedroom..." she holds out a hand, then hovers her other one under it, "underneath his."

"Are you screwing with me?" he asks.

"The hell? No, I'm not screwing with you, why would I do that? Bait the Gay is so nineteen-eighty."

He shoves his hands in his pockets. "You asked him yet?"

"No, but if you say yes, he will. Tell me I'm wrong. And to be honest if I were tapping that I'd want to live nearby too," she adds, pointing at his ass. "Come on, Clint, stop doing this, stop trying to prove something, you don't have anything to prove to us. Stop avoiding Coulson, which I can only guess is your secondary motive here, and come home."

Clint is silent, so she plays her ace card.

"I'll build you a gun," she says, and his head snaps up. "Bows and arrows, whatever, you don't need a better bow, you've got yours broken in. But you're a sniper, you like guns too. Come home and I will personally with my own two hands build you the best goddamn gun you have ever fired. They'll write odes to this gun. It'll have a name, like a medieval sword or something."

He straightens and turns to her, crossing his arms.

"You're too fucking good at this," he says finally.

"Yeah, well, I learned how to sell it from my old man," she says, and hands him a business card.

"IAM?" he asks, studying it.

"It's our new support organization. Call them when you're back in New York, they'll hook you up."

She likes to make an exit, so she leaves him there studying the card and heads down to the street where her car is waiting. She has one more stop to make before she flies home.

Peggy used to take Tony to England for a few weeks every summer, "To visit the Old Country" she joked. They'd go shopping in London and they always stopped at this little cafe, where Mom said she and Dad used to meet during the war, away from the military crap and the soldiers.

When she arrives at the address of the cafe, however, it's no longer a cafe. It's a mobile phone store -- ironically, a Stark Mobile store. Tony rubs her face with a hand, sighs, and tells the driver they're done for the day. She steps into an alley, pops the Ironsides briefcase, and lifts off for home.

Well, it's faster than a private jet.

***

And then there's Coulson.

When Tony walks into his office, fresh from London, he leans back in his chair and says, "I try to make a habit of not living where I work."

"Bullshit," Tony replies without missing a beat, because of course he found out what she was up to. "You eat three meals a day here and before Fury set your computer to lock you out after eight hours you used to work eighteen hour days. You already live where you work, you just sleep somewhere else."

A faint smile crosses Coulson's face. "The paperwork's already in. I'm merely voicing a concern. Do you want to do the full sales pitch anyway?"

"Nine thousand channels," Tony announces. "You can watch the Portuguese version of Hoarders seven nights a week."

"I do have other hobbies than reality television," Coulson replies.

"Yeah, Clint's got the floor below yours," Tony says with a leer. Coulson sighs.

"The first time any of you wakes me up at three in the morning because you're all helpless idiots, I'm taking it out on you personally," he says, and that's that.

Look, Tony has housemates!

***

Thor returns in the middle of what was already a torrential storm, and of course he does it in style.

Lightning strikes on Stark Tower aren't anything unusual; all skyscrapers are targets during urban storms, and the Tower's no exception. What is unusual is for lightning to strike the balcony of the floor Tony has been keeping in trust for Thor, terrorizing Clint (who is unexpectedly and adorably scared of thunder) and making everyone else, gathered in the penthouse so that they can mock Clint conveniently while they watch movies, flinch at the nearness of the flash-boom.

Tony, who has spent her life creating flash-booms of one kind or another, is on her feet and heading for the elevators ahead of everyone.

When they reach the balcony that would be Thor's, they find him standing in the rain, beaming, in the middle of a fancy Asgardian landing pattern etched into the concrete deck.

"MY FRIENDS!" he booms, and embraces Bruce wetly. He moves on to Cap and then Clint and Coulson together, and by the time he's heading for Natasha she's procured a towel and tries to smother him with it. She claims she was just giving it to him, but Tony knows better.

"How'd you make it back?" Tony asks, as Thor shakes himself like a dog and then faceplants back into the towel. Nobody wants to ask Hey, how's Loki? and definitely not with Clint in the room.

"The Tesseract required time to calibrate," Thor announces, striding around the apartment, inspecting everything. "When it was prepared, its energy was used to send me back. Heimdall informed me that this was to be my new home. I like it!"

Natasha never went to college and Tony went to MIT when she was fifteen, but the look they share in that moment says one thing: Oh god, we live in a frat house.

Still, it's nice to have Thor back.

(He wanders around without a shirt on a lot. It's very nice to have Thor back.)

***

Tony isn't pretty and put-together like Pepper, or lithe and graceful like Natasha. She used to get tons of boys because she was cute but not hot but rich; cute plus rich equals hot, almost.

Her lack of tits is a boon in the armor, though. Good thing she never got that boob job she was thinking about.

She pulls off put-together decently enough when she's at a function or a fundraiser; she wears a designer dress and gets Pepper to do her makeup, puts on the ruby choker she inherited from her mother and the yellow-diamond earrings her father gave her when she designed her first missile. They feel like a little touch of Ironsides; they're her colors, after all.

She's going to a function tonight, two parts politicians and one part military. SHIELD will probably have a presence. Mostly she's going because she's supporting the campaigns of two of the Senators who are also going. A lot of generals will be there too and while she might not be the Merchant of Death anymore, it pays to keep in touch with the military; she still has contracts with them for non-weapons satellite equipment and medical supplies. Rhodey offered to be her date, but Tony goes stag as a rule. It's a signature thing.

She also shows up late, which means that despite the fact that the Avengers have been living more-or-less incident free in the Tower for four months, they're all already there, and she's touching up her lipstick in the car on the way.

She has a new gold backless dress, gold heels that make her look tall and sexy, and she designed the strapless, backless bra herself. She's not wearing any panties.

"Do I look gorgeous, Happy?" she asks, as they pull up to the restaurant where the party is being held.

"You always look gorgeous, Tony," Happy replies.

"Eyes on the road, Casanova."

"It's hard to tear myself away."

Tony smiles. Happy always makes her feel pretty and never makes a pass at her.

She walks past the paparazzi and the bouncers, past the wallflowers at the bar, and she's about to start hardcore socializing, an aggressive charm offensive, when she sees Natasha in a stunning black dress, Fury in an all-black tuxedo that might actually be leather, she wouldn't put it past him --

And Steve, standing and looking faintly lost like he usually does when he's not in uniform, holding a glass of wine he's not drinking.

His tux is tailored to within an inch of its life -- Steve wouldn't think of that, she senses Coulson's hand in the proceedings -- and it outlines the breadth of his shoulders, the thick muscle of his chest, the length of his legs. Jesus, the man is all leg. She's seen him in less, she's seen him in underwear for his uniform armor fittings the last time she helped them out with that, but --

But he's Cap, and she's Howard's kid. Or they were, but suddenly she sees him looking at her, too, taking in the dress, the diamonds, the ruby.

She's fervently, passionately glad she let Pepper do her nails.

"You three clean up all right," she says, sweeping up to them. "Natasha, is that Gucci?"

"Maybe," Natasha shrugs. Tony knows that fashion bores her.

"Steve, I want the name of your tailor," she adds, and Steve blushes deep, pretty bands of red across his cheeks.

"Don't make trouble," Fury orders.

"Relax, it's a party."

"Exactly."

She holds up a hand, oath-of-office style. "If I promise to be good, can I have Steve?"

"Hey," Steve manages, looking even more confused.

Fury narrows his eyes, but he nods.

"You're the best pirate I know! Come on," she says, and takes Steve's arm, pulling him away. "You don't want to stand around with SHIELD all night, do you?"

"I don't?"

"No, you don't," she says. "You want to come with me and meet the interesting people and look good on my arm."

"Thank you," he says, and by God, he means it. "You look nice too."

"Pepper's fault entirely. She does my makeup for these things."

"You're wearing makeup?"

She laughs. "You mean my lips are ruby red and my eyebrows are dark and arching all the time?"

"Yes -- well, no -- I mean -- "

"It's okay, Steve. I'll take it as a compliment, means Pep did a good job."

He might be about to say something, she doesn't know, but they're interrupted by a three-star general she used to know in the bad old days. Tony makes small talk, introducing Steve (he salutes, what a boy scout) and then politicking her way through the conversation. It's what she does.

After the general it's a reporter who wants a quote about the Avengers, and after that it's a state representative. She does most of the talking and Steve starts to seem more at ease, less worried.

"Having fun?" she asks, as they drift away from her latest victim.

"Yeah, it's all right," he says. "You know, I used to have to go to parties sorta like this when I was selling bonds -- at least this time nobody wants to talk to me."

"I want to talk to you," she answers.

"Well, you're different."

"I try."

There's soft music playing, and people are shuffling towards the dance floor. Tony hates her heels, her feet are aching, but she does like the idea of slow-dancing with the most attractive man at the party. Possibly in existence.

"Come on, Cap, they're playing our song," she says, and starts to drag him forward, but he doesn't move.

"I can't dance -- or, I guess I can, but I don't," he says.

"Why on earth not?" She pulls again. He takes a step.

"I just -- "

"Look, it's just swaying. Come on, please?"

And he follows her, and when they reach the floor she turns fluidly into his arms, so that he doesn't have a choice. It's so perfect: her hand on his shoulder and his hand covering it, his other hand on her waist, her arm looped around him. She's pretty sure he doesn't know she's leading.

"See?" she says. "Nothing to it."

"It's nice," he admits. "I -- "

"What?"

"Nothing. Old memories."

"Come on. I'm in a mood to be regaled with nostalgia."

He exhales. "I had a girl back in the war. We made a date to dance, after everything was over..."

"I'm sorry," she says.

"Don't be. I like this," he answers. He lifts his hand to brush her hair back, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. "You remind me of her. In all the best ways," he adds, when she wrinkles her nose. "She was strong. She tried to shoot me once."

"Well, I did sock you that one time."

"Never gonna let me forget that, are you?"

"Not any time soon. Why'd she shoot you?"

"Tried to. She caught me kissing someone else."

"Cad."

"She kissed me first!"

"Oh, well that's okay then."

He just laughs and puts his hand back over hers, pulls her a little closer.

When the music ends, she hardly notices; they stand there for a minute like idiots, and then he pulls away just enough. She tugs on his arm again, leading him towards the terrace, the fresh night air and a break from the crowd.

"Was that weird?" she asks, as they leave the heat of the restaurant behind.

"No, it was great," he says.

"But a little weird."

"Okay, a little -- " and he breaks off when she kisses him.

After a few seconds he kisses back; it's private out here, dark and shadowed, cold but not too bad, not cold enough that she wants to stop. He inhales and then he tries to take control of it, cups her face, but she pokes him in the ribs and he stops, just kisses her for what feels like forever. He's not by far the best kisser she's ever been with, but definitely top ten for enthusiasm.

He breaks it, rests his forehead against hers, exhales.

"This is unwise," he says.

"Have you met me? I'm like, Madam Unwise," she answers. "And if you bring up the fact that we work together I swear I'll deck you again."

"Not this time, I'm on my guard," he replies, smiles, steps back. "No, I mean -- there's music, it's romantic -- "

"And tomorrow I'm back to greasy Tony Ironsides," she says.

He looks perplexed. "I don't -- "

"No, it's okay, I get it. The dress makes me look like a girl, I always forget that," she sighs, turning away, and he stops her.

"Tony, it's not like that," he insists.

"What is it like then, Steve?"

He swallows. "I uh. This isn't...sudden for me, I just didn't think...I don't know anyone like you, you're pretty much the only woman ever who doesn't confuse me. I don't get nervous around you like...well anyway -- "

"So I'm safe. Awesome."

"Stop! Just stop!" he says, scowling. "I didn't think you were interested in me, and I know you're not interested in relationships, and -- I don't want to be a toy."

She blinks at him.

"Well, you do have action figures," she says.

"Don't remind me," he sighs, and then shakes his head. "Are you hearing me at all, Tony? I fell for you about three days after we met."

"After -- I -- what?" she asks, frowning.

"You remember the day I came to apologize? I just...you were so smart, and so different, so pretty..."

"I was covered in motor oil."

"So?" He smiles at her. "You looked like Rosie the Riveter. Then you showed me Ironsides, and jeez, Tony, do you get how great you are? Honestly, do you just not know?"

"I'm Tony Stark. I know how cool I am," she says, turning away again.

"Do you? You seem to be a little slow to pick up the fact that the dress and the diamonds and stuff don't matter to me. You kissed me. I didn't pick tonight to make embarrassing confessions just because you did your hair."

He's behind her, a hand on her arm, and she can't see his face. She can feel him leaning into her, though, the heat of him, his breath past her ear.

"I don't know which would be worse, not having to deal with it but not working with you, or working with you but wanting you so bad," he says. "Thing is, I'm not content to be a conquest, either way."

They've been teammates for months. She has a very good memory and now it betrays her, throwing up time after time that Cap defended her to Fury, that she saved his life or he saved hers, all the snorts from Natasha whenever Steve paid attention to Tony, all the times she quipped something to him before a debrief or after a meeting and he was just quiet, smiled and said nothing. She's spent a lot of time trying to make him smile. Sometimes, after the hard missions, he was the only one who could make her laugh.

She ruins relationships. She doesn't want to ruin this.

"You're right. We shouldn't," she says, and it's the hardest thing she's ever had to say.

"Okay," he agrees, but he kisses her, the ridge of her ear, before stepping back. "Still friends, right?"

She turns and gives him a smile. "Still friends."

***

Maybe they could have made that work. But the next morning it all goes to hell, so she'll never know.

She wakes to JARVIS informing her she has a guest; staggers out into the kitchen, gropes for coffee, then walks into her living room to find Steve there. She can't tell before coffee but she thinks he's pissed off.

He drops a newspaper on the coffee table in front of her.

It's a tabloid, and they're on the cover; she does look hot in that dress, and Steve still looks amazing in his tux, and they're dancing, and he's smiling at her like she built the world just for him, and the headline reads, "A SECOND CHANCE WITH JUNIOR?"

Fuck.

"Were you going to tell me?" Steve asks, voice tightly controlled. "Was anyone?"

She doesn't belittle him by asking Tell you what? She sips her coffee and tries to bring her brain fully online.

"Were you, Tony? Or were you just going to let me -- I don't even know," he says, frustrated.

"I forgot," she says in a small voice.

"You forgot?"

She looks up at him. "I knew. I decided I was going to keep it from you, spring it on you sometime. Vindictive bitch, I know, but then you apologized and I was all, whoa, apology, and I forgot it even mattered, okay?"

"I asked about her, you know. One of the first things I asked Fury. What happened to Peggy? He said she died. That was all I needed to know, I thought. And now..." he taps the paper. "I find that the newspapers knew before I did that I was slow-dancing with the daughter of the girl I left behind."

"Well, you did say I reminded -- "

"That is so far beyond unfair, Tony."

Tony nods, looking down at her coffee. "I know. Yes, Peggy Carter was my mother, she married my dad, they died, and I'm sorry your girl died and I'm sorry I didn't tell you she was my mom. But I was already Howard's daughter, I'm always gonna be Howard's daughter to you -- "

" -- no, that's not true -- "

"And I wanted you to like me, not Howard's kid and definitely not Peggy's little girl."

Steve runs a hand through his hair. "You should have told me."

"Yes, thank you, we've been over that."

"Don't act like the injured party here, Tony."

"How about you don't play the martyr? She's dead, we're not. You think I don't miss her too? She was my mother. I knew her for seventeen years, which is a lot fucking longer than you did. And when was I supposed to tell you?"

Steve's voice is low and cold. "Well, when I said you reminded me of her, that might have been an appropriate opening. Before you let me make a fool of myself."

She has no answer for that, just looks down at the paper. She's seen pictures of her mother as a young woman; she doesn't take after Peggy, has her dad's nose and eyes and hair.

"Guess this is going to make that whole not-kissing thing a lot easier," she mutters, and Steve leaves. Just turns around and walks out and doesn't even slam the door.

"JARVIS," she says, after a while.

"Yes, Ms. Stark."

"Are there any records pertaining to the time my mom took a shot at Steve Rogers?"

"Accessing military database." A pause. "It appears to be classified."

"Crack it."

"Working." Another pause. "The motivation is unclear, ma'am, but it appears Captain Rogers asked her opinion of his new shield, and she tested the tensile strength by firing multiple times at it with a service revolver. Your father recorded the incident in his research notes on the shield."

"So she didn't actually hit him?"

"No, ma'am."

"Pity." She picks up the paper. "How much would it cost to buy this newspaper and fire everyone who works on it?"

"In absolute terms, or including the PR fallout?"

"Can we buy it and just fire the asshat who put it on page one?"

"Certainly, ma'am. Shall I initiate proceedings?"

Tony sighs. "No. Thank you."

***

She honestly isn't positive how to deal with things after that, because they're still Avengers, still teammates, and Antonia Stark had never been one to let professionalism get in the way of a really big fight.

But she can tell that this is the way Steve's going to play it: absolute professionalism, not even stiff passive-aggressive pretend-professionalism. Every time they encounter each other he's polite and civil, and when they're in the field he's all business. He's going to be a grownup, and it makes her want to yell at him.

She doesn't, because this whole "being a mature adult" thing could actually work.

Being a mature adult lasts her almost two weeks. Then she just can't help it, she cracks a smart remark at him for no real reason other than she thought of it, right in the middle of a debriefing, and there's a moment of real humor in his face before he shuts her down cold.

"Did you break him?" Natasha asks, sounding half like she doesn't care and half like she will totally give Tony a high-five if she says yes. Tony, busy studying her battle-dented helmet and making mental notes about where she'll have to rewire it, ignores the question.

Actually she expects to get lectured all over the place about how she obviously pissed off Cap, and maybe some talks about the photo from the front page and not seducing her coworkers, and she really does think Fury's going to have at least an opinion about this, because Fury has an opinion about everything, usually a loud and profane one.

But Clint and Thor don't seem to notice and Bruce doesn't mention it and Natasha seems like she's on her side if she's on anyone's side, and Fury just eyeballs her. (Eyeballs! Ha! That will never get old.)

So this is the way it'll be for a while, she thinks: Cap will be a pro, she'll be a jerk like she always is, and eventually it will be okay. She's not waiting for him to forgive her; if he was so all-fired worried about his dead ex, he'd have dug a little deeper than "Oh, she died."

She goes to her workshop, drinks a lot of coffee, doesn't sleep, barely eats the food Pepper and Bruce leave for her, works on the armor, works on some other stuff. Coulson slips a pamphlet about eating disorders in with one of the meals, and she wonders if she were a dude if anyone would care, and then she realizes maybe he's making some kind of weird joke, so she tells JARVIS not to revoke his internet privileges after all, just to lock down his Spider Solitaire.

Standard week, really.

But she's coming up to the penthouse at the end of her week-long private tantrum when she hears voices from the kitchen -- not uncommon, her kitchen has somehow become Avengers Central. What is weird is how angry they sound, because Avengers usually fight it all out in sparring. Besides, it sounds like Clint and Steve, who are usually pretty much bros.

Tony can't bear not to know everything, so of course she eavesdrops.

" -- do to her?" Clint is asking, and Steve replies quickly, "Nothing!"

"Seriously though, what did you do?" Clint demands.

"We're having a disagreement about information procedures," Steve says.

"Wait, is that some kind of code for sex?"

"It's none of your business, Clint. The team is functioning, Tony's fine."

Awww, fuck.

"Tony's pissed at you and you're pissed at her and I want to know what you did," Clint insists.

"Why do you assume I did anything?"

"Because Tony's an asshole but she's our asshole and you knew she was an asshole, whereas you're never an asshole, so if she's pissed, you did something."

Tony can't fault that logic.

"Did you sleep with her?"

"I'm not answering that," Steve says. "It's none of your business."

"Did you sleep with her and then dump her?"

"You know, I'd say ask her, but I don't know if she'd tell you the whole truth," Steve replies.

Ouch.

"What the hell does that mean?" Clint asks.

"It means I'm not going to tell you. Back off this."

"Well, just so you know," Clint says, and his voice is sharp and mean, meaner than she's ever heard him be outside of battle, "If you hurt her, we'll kick your ass."

We?

She ducks back into the hallway when she hears angry footsteps, and soon enough Clint and Thor walk past, together, both looking angry. She feels like she should be offended, somehow, but this is all very confusing. She goes back to her lab and tries to ignore it, works on Ironsides until there's a call up for battle.

It's not anything particularly strenuous, just some terrorists with a potentially dirty bomb, but they also have these weird plasma guns that get gunk all over her repulsors and make flying feel like slogging through sand. By the time they're done, Tony's sweating and bruised, but aside from a shallow cut on her cheek Natasha looks cool and fresh as they walk together towards the showers on the Helicarrier.

Which is when Natasha apparently goes nuts too.

Steve's coming out of the men's locker room, heading for debriefing, and Tony is totally fine with a polite nod in the hallway when Natasha turns to her and says, "Go on ahead, I'll catch up."

The look she gives Steve could cut glass. Tony blinks at the two of them -- Steve guilty, Natasha fierce -- and hears, as she walks off, "You just stay out of her way if you want to keep your dick attached."

Holy shit.

She actually thinks after that she should go find Steve and apologize that the rest of the Avengers have gone completely insane, but he avoids her outside of the debriefing (in which she gets yelled at for messing with Coulson's computer, because she wasn't feeling enough shame at the moment). When she goes to try and find him that evening him he's really going to town on a punching bag, so she slips away before he notices she's there --

Right into Bruce, who gives her a smile.

"I was looking for you," he says. "Want to get some coffee?"

And over coffee, Bruce tells her that if she wants to talk, he's here to listen, and if she's having trouble with Steve, maybe he can help, and --

"Oh my God what is in the water around here," Tony interrupts. "Listen, we're in a fight, these things happen, why is everyone busting his balls? Why is everyone assuming he's the dickhead here?"

Bruce looks at her, a little lost.

"First Clint and Thor are all not the honorable virginity of Tony Stark! and then Natasha's threatening to castrate him and now you're like, show me on the doll where he hurt you, Jesus. Everyone knows I'm the designated asshole."

"Yes but..." Bruce looks pained and Tony remembers that she really can't piss Bruce off, she loves it when he hulks out but not while they're having coffee. "Look, I know this is weird, okay, but we care about you. We just want to make sure he didn't hurt you."

"What about if I hurt him?"

He smiles. "Antonia, if your behavior could hurt him, he'd have started acting this way months ago."

She stares at him.

"As you say. You're the designated asshole," he adds. "It's just...in the armor, you're invincible, but not out of it. Not many people could take Cap if he decided to really go at someone."

"Jesus H. Christ. Go to hell, Bruce. Take Clint and Thor with you. I have to go yell at Natasha."

"Being fair, Natasha just really likes you!" Bruce calls after her.

"Bags of dicks," she mutters under her breath.

So now she's pissed at all of the Avengers, and they're all pissed at her, except Steve, who is a total professional.

Great.

***

Coulson finds her on the roof of the Tower a few hours later, way up above the penthouse. She's calculating the precise size a meteorite would have to be to take Manhattan out -- pre-entry and post-entry -- without causing a massive destructive shockwave, so she doesn't hear him approach.

"I'm sorry I yelled at Bruce," she mutters, when he's close enough to sit down next to her.

"Does him good," Coulson replies.

"Are you here to tell me I can talk to you?"

"Nope. I'm here to say thanks for giving me Spider Solitaire back."

"You're welcome. Screw off."

"It's a nice night." He dusts his cuffs unnecessarily. "I hear Steve's not very popular right now."

"No, I guess not."

"You were a shit to him."

She looks at Coulson, surprised.

"I'm just saying. You're right, they should be threatening you, not him. You were a shit to him. I know she's your mother, but she was someone he loved. Now he's in love with her daughter, and that's probably a little traumatic."

"Well, a) he's going to have to deal, b) I'm impressed because I didn't know you even knew the word shit, c) I should have known you'd know all about it, and d) he's not in love with me."

"Sure he is. That's obvious to anyone with an eye."

She looks at him suspiciously. "Was that a Fury joke?"

"I can neither confirm nor deny."

She sighs and rests her head on her folded arms. "Tell you a secret?"

"Odds are I already know it."

"Creepy, Coulson."

"Part of the job, Stark."

"I'm really fucking frightened."

"You're doing an admirable job hiding it."

"Thank you." She pauses. "You think I should apologize?"

"Do you?"

"I don't know. Do people say sorry when they make genuine mistakes, as opposed to calculated attacks? I don't usually say sorry at all, so I'm not really versed in the protocol here."

"I think people say they made a mistake."

"I did that."

"And?"

"And then I made a joke about my mom. God, I made a My Mom joke."

Coulson is silent for a while.

"I say this with all the respect in the world: you are a messed up person," he says finally.

"Tell me something I don't know," Tony says, and is silent until he leaves again.

***

She sulks for another few days -- days when she actively avoids the Avengers, doesn't take Bruce's calls or show up for sparring with Natasha, and ignores the arrow stuck to her door with a message reading "Come to lunch or the Ferrari is next!" from Clint.

Jesus, her life.

Finally, she goes looking for a hat. And then she goes to Steve's floor, carrying the hat, she's going to do this right, and she knocks on his door.

"So, I'm not sorry I didn't tell you, for several reasons," she says when he opens it, and Steve gets this look, what's that look? "First, okay, actually, I am sorry I didn't tell you early on, that was me being pissy because you were a dick. So yes actually that's the sorry part -- hence the hat -- "

"Hat?" he asks, confused.

"Doesn't matter. Anyway. I'm not sorry I didn't tell you later, because she's my mom, Steve. I didn't think about it, so it's not something I did deliberately, so I'm not going to apologize. Or, okay, the important times? Like, when we were dancing. When you said I reminded you of her, I wasn't putting this girl you knew together with my mom because she's my mom but more importantly because we were dancing and you were saying nice things to me and actually meaning them, and it was just...nice. And I was thinking about that. So I made a mistake but I don't think you should be angry at me for that anymore, and in return I promise to torture everyone else with my sheer force of personality until they stop harassing you about whatever it was they think you did to me."

"Um," he says.

"I could start now. I was thinking of going for Thor first, because then if he kills me at least I went quick -- "

"No, that's, they were just...being them," he says. "No torture necessary, don't trouble yourself."

"It's no trouble. It comes naturally."

"I know," he sighs. "Look, you want to come in?"

"Should we do that? Why don't you come out, we'll have a burger or something."

"Look, Tony..." He scrubs at his face. "Okay...yes, I was angry. But above and beyond that, I feel like an idiot because you kissed me and then said we should be friends. I can't put my feelings back in a box like that -- it's going to take me some time to get back to 'friends' and not 'woman I want to buy flowers for.' And in the meantime, I have to lead the team. So no, we can't go for burgers, I need to...not do that yet."

"Could I fuck this up any more than I already have?" she asks.

"I'm sure you'd find a way, you're a genius," he replies, and then adds, because Steve is like the best human being she knows, "This isn't actually your fault. That was a joke."

But it hits her then.

Could she fuck this up any worse if they were, in fact...whatever it was Steve wanted them to be? Could she actually screw up worse if they were dating or sleeping together or if he...uh, gave her his fraternity pin? (Did they do that in the Army? Okay, maybe his captain's bars. Actually that would look kind of cool on that green Armani jacket she has...)

"Tony?" he asks, worriedly.

"I don't want to be friends," she blurts. "I'm just really bad at being anything else with anyone for any length of time. Ask Rhodey. He'll give you nightmares about me."

"You don't...?"

"I want to climb you like a tree and do things to you that you probably haven't even heard of and make you buy me breakfast all the time and go driving with you even when you hate me driving fast and take you to like every party ever so we can dance again and I'm going to screw that all up if I even try, I have before, Jesus..."

Steve is staring at her with a mixture of hope and horror and Tony realizes she's having what might be a slight breakdown. In front of Captain America. Her father is rolling in his grave.

"You dumbass, this is where you kiss me," she adds, and Steve is still frozen in horror, so she shoves him and then grabs his shirt and kisses him.

The door slams shut behind them and Steve stumbles backwards again, keeps stumbling until he hits his couch and sits down hard. She slithers onto his lap and keeps kissing him, doesn't try for anything else, just wants to have like five more minutes of this before they go back to being all fucked up.

He has one hand on her back and the other touching her face gently, and he's murmuring about being sorry, she's not sure what for.

"Is this weird?" she asks finally, leaning back.

"Little bit," he says.

"If my mother gets in the way of us having sex I'm going to have a complex for life," she tells him.

"I'm sure she would want me to be happy," he says quietly. "I've thought a lot about it and I'm sure of that. And I think she'd want you to be happy too, so I'd like to make a try at that. Making you happy."

She leans in and rests her forehead against his shoulder, wearily. "Can we have sex now?"

Steve laughs. "Can I buy you dinner first?"

"Well, if you feel you have to."

"Flowers?"

"I hate flowers," she announces, leaning back again. She does. Most pointless thing on Earth, flowers. Well, except for the Stark intellicrops, but even then, she leaves that to the biologists.

"Shucks." He looks genuinely disappointed.

"Fruit," she says.

"Huh?"

"I like fruit. You could buy me apples or something, that's kind of retro, you'd be into that, right?"

His brow wrinkles. "Courting with fruit?"

"Pears. Guavas. I like mangos, too."

"Yeah, okay," he says, and shifts a little. "So um. Not to stray from the fruit thing, but...dinner? Burgers?"

She huffs, because honestly, they could be having sex right now, but Steve clearly has this whole dinner thing set in his head, so she slides off his lap and stands up. He stands too, and when he does she smiles at him, wide and brilliant like only Tony Stark at her most seductive knows how to smile.

***

Because she is Tony, there have been a million speculative stories about which of the other Avengers she's fucking, including a few that speculated she was fucking all of them. She's too tired of being offended to be offended anymore. It's awful, and insulting, and kind of sexist, it's like the bad manips and actually pretty good drawings of her in a super-sexualized Ironsides that keep cropping up on the internet, but God, she can't spare the energy or time to be bothered anymore.

She and Steve go out for meals all the time, or rather they did before the super-awkward Mom Revelation. So it's not like it's unusual, but it feels weird, feels like more, and for the first time in a long time she's conscious of people looking at them. Probably they're not even looking beyond "Jesus that guy is hot" or "What's up with her hair?" but all the same, she feels...self-conscious. She hasn't been on a date that wasn't an intentional seduction with the goal of one-night-only sex in a long time.

But Tony can multitask, so she's having her little paranoia attack while talking shop with Steve, making him laugh, stealing his fries. She's not sure if he's allowing himself a liberty now or if she just never noticed before, but sometimes when he thinks she isn't paying attention his eyes sweep down over her throat, the curve of her breasts, the dim glow through her shirt of the arc reactor. Her arms, her hands, Steve keeps looking. Lots of men have done that, hungrily, admiringly, covetously, lustfully, but very few of them have looked back up at her face when they were done.

Steve does.

She thinks too about her dad who wanted her to be strong and vicious so she wouldn't have to hide her brilliance, and her mom who wanted her to be happy, Steve's not wrong about that. They raised her to be better than afraid.

She is strong, smart, pretty Antonia Stark. Men want her, women want to be her, probably some men want to be her, and she deserves Steve Rogers.

"I know that look," Steve says.

"What look, what?"

"That's the look you get when you're about to be even more arrogant than usual."

"It's not -- "

" -- bragging if it's true," Steve finishes with her. "Ready to go?"

"I was ready to go before we got here."

Steve flushes.

"This was your stupid idea, Delayed Gratification Man. You're paying," she adds.

***

Tony doesn't want to do the bringing-a-lover-home thing she always does -- take them out on the terrace and stargaze, make romantic small talk. This is Steve, and anyway he'd think she was a weirdo if she tried her normal moves.

Running around the world in a metal suit: not weird. Having an electromagnet powered by Vibranium between her boobs: not weird. Stargazing: weird.

Steve holds her hand in the elevator. Very weird.

Inside, the lights flick on, but this is a two-person party; she makes a little chopping motion at the security camera behind Steve's back, and the light on the camera dims and dies. Good old JARVIS. Steve glances at her, uncertain, she thinks, but that's fine. She tugs him into the living room of the penthouse -- hand-holding is good for that at least -- and shoots him a grin.

"Did I ever show you this?" she asks, pulling him further, down the hall to her private study. She flips open a cabinet in the bookcase, tugging on the handle inside. The shelf trundles out obediently, and --

"Wow," Steve says, eyes wide. "I haven't seen one of those since -- "

"The forties, I guessed," she replies. The record-player is old but not dusty; Tony is nothing if not careful of her tech, even her really old, really boring tech. "You know when they first tried coding digital music, nobody could figure out why it sounded so flat and...well, digital," she continues, rifling through the stack of old records next to the player. Nothing too nostalgic, but not too modern either, she thinks. "They finally figured it out."

"They did?" Steve asks, watching her sort the records.

"Dirt," she says. "That's what they called it. The slide of fingers on the strings, the microscopic grit and dirt in instruments, the minute imperfections. You gotta get a little dirt into the music before it really sounds like music."

She chooses finally, puts the record on, listens to the scratch of empty air before the music. Slow jazz. Steve smiles.

"Wanna dance?" she asks, and this time there's no prevaricating or hesitation; here she is, the mad genius of her age, slow-dancing with Captain America. No tux, no dress, no diamonds -- she's wearing work boots and jeans and a rock band shirt, Steve's in his out-of-uniform uniform of khakis and a button-down.

They make it forty-three seconds before they kiss.

"Are you indulging me?" he asks, after a while.

"I wouldn't want to seem easy," she replies, and then snorts, because even she finds that funny.

"Tony, you are many things. Easy has never been one of them," he replies.

"Cool. Can we have sex now?" she asks, and he laughs into her hair.

"Will you still respect me in the morning?"

"Captain, I will respect the hell out of you. I'll respect you so hard -- "

"Tony!"

She loves to see him blush. She leans back to admire it, and then grabs him by the belt and drags him along, into the bedroom, kicking her boots off at the door. Steve almost collides with her, wraps his arms around her and kisses her again, soft tongue, hesitant, hands curling in the fabric of her shirt at the small of her back.

She hasn't slept with many people since she installed the arc reactor. At first she pretended to, keeping up her image and all, but even then they were few and far between, more so now, and she has a technique for this. It involves getting the other person naked first for two reasons.

One, it's harder to back out when you're fully naked; two, it's more humiliating to back out if you have to gather up all your clothes.

Only one person -- some random lingerie model she picked up at a party -- has ever actually gone through with leaving after seeing the arc reactor. Rather than take this as evidence that the reactor's not that unsettling, she takes it as evidence her logic totally works.

So she's busy trying to get Steve's clothes off, feel him up, kiss him, avoid his attempts to pull her shirt off, and wonder if she has condoms, all at once, when the shock of his hands on her skin just stops her whole brain.

It's not even like it's that hot, just his broad warm palms framing her hips, digging a little under the waistband of her jeans, but it's like a jolt through her. She makes a noise she didn't think humans could make and curls into him, letting him take her weight. His thumbs circle on either side of her navel.

Then, with a tug, he pulls her shirt off in a swift movement. She's so startled she just stands there for a second, the glow of the arc reactor a thin slice of light at the bottom of her vision, half obscured by her bra.

Steve isn't staring like most of them do and he isn't touching like a few of them have. He's skimming his own shirt off -- yes, okay, she knew he was hot, she's seen him without his shirt before, but never quite so up-close and available. And he still isn't staring.

Instead he just dives back in, kissing her. He slides a hand down her ass and she kicks off at the same time he lifts; her legs go around his waist, hands on his shoulders. His skin is smooth under her fingers, and when she rolls her hips, hello soldier.

He makes a bitten-off noise, almost alarmed, but then turns and presses her into the wall. She wriggles, feeling his cock through his pants, enjoying the pleased ache between her legs. One of his hands slides up, cupping around her breast, working against the thin cotton and lace on her bra. She wishes she'd worn a nicer bra. She wishes either his hands weren't quite so big or her tits weren't quite so small.

When he slides a hand under the bra, she twists and squirms to get out of it, and he makes that noise again. She flings it somewhere off to her left, and finds him looking down.

"It's supposed to glow like that," she says.

"Hm?" his tone is absent.

"The reactor. It's just doing what it's supposed to."

"Oh, that. I wasn't..." he draws his other hand up, fingers dancing lightly over her skin, almost tickling. His thumb strokes across her nipple, already hard, and she moans. He looks up at her. "You're so beautiful," he says earnestly. "I really, I like..."

"My boobs?" she asks. He nods, shyly.

"They're perfect," he murmurs, hands a light caress. He bends his head and mouths at her shoulder, then hitches her a little with one hand, sucking kisses down her breast. She grabs onto his hair with both hands and just holds on because while foreplay isn't a lost art, it also isn't a major part of her sex life, usually.

There's not a whole lot she can do, pinned to a wall with his head buried in her cleavage, but she rubs the back of his neck with one hand, strokes his ass with her heel, and talks: that's good, I love your mouth, take all the time you need, please don't stop.

If she could get just a little more leverage, she thinks she could come like this, but the slow burn under her skin is good too. She rocks her hips, experimentally, and he licks his way over her nipple, sucking just to one side of it. Oh god, he's going to kill her like this.

"Baby, come up here, come on," she urges, and he lifts his head, kisses her with a wet mouth.

"Didn't you ever notice," he begins, then kisses her again. "That under-suit you wear -- it's so tight, and you never care, you just strip the suit off and walk around in it...I kept trying not to stare. Everyone else noticed. Clint told me to stop leering."

"At my non-existent breasts?"

He nuzzles against her throat, and his big warm hands come up again. "They feel pretty real to me."

She kisses his temple, his ear, the only bits of him she can reach, while he kisses her and fondles her like they're teenagers.

"What do you want?" he asks breathlessly. "Tell me, tell me what you want."

"Well," she says, leaning into the nuzzle of his face against her jaw, "there's a bed about four feet behind you."

He leans back and lets her down, kisses her as her feet touch the floor. She walks him backwards, working on his pants, not in the slightest resisting the urge to find the hard bulge of his erection and tighten her fingers around it. He grunts and staggers, going awkward for a minute, and then tumbles onto the bed with his hands still down the back of her jeans. She wriggles out of them, gives him a second to take it all in, and then tugs on his pants until he hitches his hips enough for her to pull them down and off, taking his socks with it, strewing the clothes off to the side. Tomorrow morning this place is going to look like a very sexy war zone.

He's hard, flushed a deep red, big -- nice, but not monstrous or anything, and he looks like he doesn't know what to do with his hands.

Okay, maybe he does, because he picks her up like she's nothing and turns, setting her on the bed, sliding over on top of her. His cock bumps against her thigh, and she lets her legs fall just that little bit further apart, but he just kisses down her shoulder, nips at her breast again, brushes past the arc reactor without really seeming to notice, and presses his face to her ribs, to her stomach.

It's like he wants to touch her everywhere, possibly lick her everywhere, she's not sure, but she's not going to object. His mouth moves along her hip, down the line of her thigh, one hand gripping her other as if he needs some kind of anchor. He nips the inside of it gently, and her fingers tighten in his hair.

"Can I?" he asks, and it takes her a second to get that he's asking to go down on her and she waves a hand casually.

"Oh, be my guest," she says, and he laughs and hides his face against her thigh.

"Don't tease me," he says.

"I would never, pretty."

"You would all the time," he replies, and she's about to come up with a smart remark for that when he spreads her open with a hand and just goes for it.

She is not expecting this. She's partied with some professional cunnilinguists in her time, but none of them had the ability to hold their breath for minutes on end. He licks over her, way more unashamed than she'd expected, strong laps of tongue getting her wetter, nuzzling deep. She's so turned on and so curious about why he knows so much about this but then the edge of his tongue pushes against her clit and she groans and forgets about curiosity, she doesn't care, the spike of pleasure rolling up through her is fine, thanks.

That lasts for about ten seconds before he shifts, the hand on her thigh sliding up, and he presses two fingers inside her about the same time he starts to suck on her clit, tongue brushing up against the tip of it. Tony goes a little crazy, bucks against his mouth, babbles about how good it is. Her orgasm makes her twitch and spasm; she can feel her clit jerk against his lips, and he just rides her through it, tongue gentle, until she moans and tugs him away, too sensitive for any more.

He drifts up the bed, leaving a wet smear on her breast, kissing her mouth. She tastes herself on him, slick and a little bitter.

"How in the hell did you learn that?" she asks when she can think again, and he laughs against her lips.

"The stories of my virtue were sanitized for the press," he replies. "Or maybe they honestly didn't know -- none of the Commandos would have talked."

"Mm?" she's dozy on the good body chemicals that come with orgasm, stroking his face.

"Well, uh, not to..." he looks at her warily. "Peggy and I were on the outs, and my unit was in transit, and Bucky said I should...work out some stress..."

"What were his actual words, Steven?" she asks.

He nuzzles her hair. "Rogers, are you TRYING to die a virgin?"

Tony laughs. Steve does too.

"Anyway, he met this French woman, what you might call -- "

"A hooker?"

"I was going to say 'lady of the night'," he says reproachfully. One of his hands is moving, stroking her skin constantly; the other is draped behind her shoulder, her head resting on his arm. "He kind of abandoned me with her, and I said well, I've never done this before, I'd like to know how to make my girl happy. She gave me a pretty good anatomy lesson. It took a while."

"That's a nice story," Tony says, turning, pressing their bodies up flush, her hips trapping his erection between them. He grunts again, like he's taken by surprise, every time.

"You don't mind?" he asks.

"Not if you don't mind the hundreds of ill-advised assignations in my past," she replies, and begins pushing him gently, until he takes the hint and rolls over on his back. She runs an appreciative hand over his chest, down his abs -- she's wanted to touch those forever, actually, even before they were really friends. He has a body she was once more than happy to objectify without reference to the personality inhabiting it. It's not like she's alone; millions of women would kill to be where she is right now.

She draws her fingers up his cock, slicks a thumb through the precum welling up, strokes him gently until she gets a high, desperate whine out of him.

"Easy, I gotcha," she says, and he stretches out a hand to touch her, nods like he's reassuring himself. She rummages in the bedside table, finding a condom with a little cry of triumph (she was beginning to worry) and rips it open. His hands haven't left her for any significant period of time; he's up on an elbow, stroking her hair, and when she suddenly dips her head he makes a surprised little noise -- followed by a louder, stronger oh! as she rolls the condom down his cock with her mouth.

"Take that, French hooker!" she says with a grin at him, and he pulls her over on top of him, hips flush, big hands holding her steady.

"Trust me," he says. "You have nothing to worry about."

"Damn right," she answers, propping herself up with her hands on his chest, drawing her thighs up until she's straddling him, his hard-on a hot pressure against her ass. He moans, softly, eyes drifting shut as he tilts his hips; she doesn't satisfy him with a wriggle, like she could, just kneels up and exhales as she lowers herself down, works herself to get him all the way inside.

She gives a little buck of her hips. She's still feeling sensitive, but this is altogether a different sensation from his mouth. When he responds so beautifully to that -- a breathy groan, a murmured Tony -- she does it again. She's still propped on his chest with one hand and he covers it with his own, like while they were dancing, and that would be sweet, except his other hand his on her breast again, thumb circling her nipple, so it's mostly just crazy hot. She works her hips a little more each time, enjoying the throb and thrust, the noise he makes, the way he begins to push up against her, settling slowly into a rhythm.

When he manages not to tilt his head back and arch, his eyes are open on her; she's panting for breath, head bowed a little, but she can see him watching, see him admiring. It's...honest, more honest than she's used to in sex, scarily honest, and she stutters in her rhythm, lingering right on the edge.

He pushes himself up, a sudden movement that catches her off-guard, pulls her arms around his shoulders and kisses her, hips still rolling, whole body rocking slightly. The new angle presses the root of his cock hard up against her clit. She makes a high, loud sound and comes again, rubbing her body up against his. Steve chokes off a growl and stiffens; bucks, shudders, makes one last thrust, can't seem to keep still even as he comes.

She catches her breath on the realization that she's gripping his arms tight enough to bruise; she eases her hands away, stroking them down his chest. His head is bowed over one of her shoulders, breathing shallow.

"Baby," she murmurs, nuzzling his cheek. "We are gonna have so much fun together."

That gets her a laugh. "Yeah?" he asks, hands sliding up her ribcage, settling warm under her breasts. He lifts her a little, pulling out with a soft, almost pained moan, and like a gentleman takes care of the condom, though his slightly bereft expression tells her more about his lack of experience than he'd probably like. She doesn't laugh, just lets him ease back down onto the bed and kisses his shoulder, curling up around him.

"Have I mentioned that I like you?" he asks, turning onto his side, pulling her close.

"It might have come up," she answers. "God knows why, maybe that last battle we had scrambled your brains."

"No, I don't think that can be it," he replies, all seriousness.

"Some kind of sex pheromone a supervillain dosed you with?"

"Do they have those?" he asks, worried.

"Not that I know of, relax."

His determined look tells her they will probably be revisiting the idea of supervillain-branded sex juice, and monitoring the usual suspects for creation of same, but she supposes now it's her official job to talk him out of ridiculous notions about the future rather than just a hobby.

"I like you because you're a genius, and crazy, and very pretty," he says, though she can tell it costs him something to be so honest. She knows he's not expecting honest in return.

"The first time I saw you, very pretty was mostly all I thought about," she admits.

"You broke two ribs!"

"Cracked, don't be a big baby. It's not that I want you for your body, Steve, that's not it, but man, this body doesn't hurt."

She worries for a second he'll be offended, but there's a proud little smirk on his face. She knows the history; tiny asthmatic Steve got picked to be the first super soldier, and this body was initially the result of drugs, of treatments. But it's still his. She guesses he has every right to take pride in it. Clearly he's kept it in mint condition.

His eyelids are drooping, and his breathing has slowed way down. She burrows into his shoulder, doesn't talk for a while, and can feel the moment he slips over into sleep, her body still pulled up tight against his. She inhales -- sex, sweat, a hint of the medicinal-smelling soap Steve uses -- and lets herself relax a little, too.

Sometimes, after sex, she thinks about...people; about Rhodey, who she probably was a little unfair to, and about girls who giggled and blushed when she made passes but went to bed with her anyway, about the sweet boy at her boarding school when she was fifteen, who kissed her over the robot they were building and was her first. Sometimes, she thinks about Obadiah, who was all hands and guilt, who couldn't make her come, who tried to kill her later. About Pepper, who never slept with her and who was wise, because she adores Pepper but not, not like that. (She'd die for Pep, kill for her, but it's not about sex for them and never really was.) About the guy who thought because she was smaller than him she was easy prey, and who probably still walks with a limp.

Sometimes she thinks about machines, machines she's building or wants to build or has built but could improve. Her beautiful Ironsides armor, so sleek and powerful. Her arc reactor that Steve barely seemed to notice, that he didn't ask about or care about.

Sometimes she thinks about breakfast.

It's a toss-up, really.

But this time, as sometimes happens, she doesn't think about anything. Just enjoys the warm body in the bed with her, already asleep, and closes her eyes, and dreams about computers.

(Computer dreams are the best dreams after sex dreams. Don't judge.)

***

In the morning, Tony wakes subhuman per usual, and it takes her a few seconds of scrabbling in the blankets to realize the reason she can't get out of bed is that there's six-feet-plus of supersoldier sprawled all over her. He's warm and he has huge muscles and he called her pretty and gave her amazing head and she might be having a moment. She'll get over it.

Waking up a guy who spent a lot of time in combat can be tricky. She prods him, then shoves him, then pokes him really hard.

Okay, maybe not that tricky.

Finally she just slides out from under him, finds her panties, wraps herself up in Steve's button-down, and goes to find coffee. Sweet, life-giving coffee.

There's a carafe already brewed, and she says, "Thanks, JARVIS," as she pours herself a cup.

"Always a pleasure, ma'am. Will you require breakfast?"

"In a bit. For two," she adds, sitting down in her Mornings Are Terrible Things chair at one of the big floor-to-ceiling windows. JARVIS has helpfully projected the weather forecast on it.

"Of course," he agrees. "Shall I notify you when Captain Rogers is awake?"

"That'd be good. Any important news?"

"Nothing requiring Avenger attention. Three items requiring attention from Stark Industries."

"Add them to the pile, I'll clear out the backlog later today. Stock?"

"Up two points."

"I was compiling something yesterday -- "

"Ninety-six percent complete, estimated time of completion, four twelve pm. Also, Director Fury called. He sounded...impatient."

She groans. "Okay, patch me through."

Fury picks up on the first ring. "Rogers isn't in his quarters."

"Yeah," she says. "I know that. Do you need him for something?"

"Yes. SHIELD is inches from declaring him AWOL. Is he with you?"

"You know he is, you're probably tracking his phone's GPS."

"The battery died ten minutes ago."

"Then my timing is excellent."

"Stark!" Fury roars.

"Relax, okay? Jesus. He's here, sleeping. God, you think the guy had never gone on a date before."

"Date?" Fury counters.

"I'm sure you're familiar with the concept."

"You and Rogers."

"Believe it or not, I am a woman under all the armor, I understand he has an interest in those." Silence. "What? He took me out for dinner, I took him home. Man eats pussy like he has a degree in it."

She expects a fully enraged reaction to that, but instead there's just more silence.

"Well," Fury says finally, and then pauses. "Goddamn about time."

"Excuse me?"

"This is going to make him much easier to work with. Have him call me when he's available. Good work, Stark," he says, and hangs up before she can launch into an extended dissertation on what the fuck, no really, and also she didn't fuck him to make SHIELD's life easier.

"Captain Rogers is awake, ma'am," JARVIS interrupts her stunned, slightly horrified contemplation of Fury being grateful she slept with Captain America. "He's on his way to the kitchen now."

"Thank you, JARVIS," she says, and about four seconds later Steve appears in the doorway, bedheaded, wearing his khakis from the night before. Stealing his shirt was like, her best idea this week.

"Morning," she says. "There's coffee."

His face lights up. "Morning," he answers, pouring himself a cup even though he's a disgusting morning person and doesn't even really need it. "Sleep well?"

"Yes," she says, and it's weirdly easy. Maybe she didn't have to have Pepper kick all those other people out over the years. Usually the morning after is so awkward, she just avoids it.

He goes to a fruit bowl sitting on the counter, picks up a little clementine orange, and walks over to where she's sitting. She watches as he eases himself down to the floor, leaning his head against her leg, and it takes her breath away for a second. Steve is sitting on the ground, looking up at her, adoring. Antonia Stark has Captain America at her feet and happy to be there.

He opens the orange easily, strips back the peel and offers her a slice.

"Fruit," he says, and she bends and takes it out of his fingers with her tongue. His eyes darken, pupils dilating.

"Got any plans for today?" she asks, chewing. He rests his chin on her thigh.

"Not really. I thought maybe...a movie, later, if you want?" he suggests. "I have sparring practice this morning at ten, so I can't really linger."

"News for you, pretty," she says, and gestures at the window. The display in the corner reads 10:05.

"Oh! No -- " he starts to get up, but her hand in his hair stops him instantly.

"I spoke to Fury, I think you're off the hook."

"You talked to Fury?" He offers her another slice of orange, popping one into his own mouth.

"He was a little worried you'd gone AWOL."

Steve looks guilty.

"Anyway, we have a briefing at eleven, so we should probably shower," Tony continues.

"You don't care about briefings," he points out.

"I'm presenting at this one. New specs on the Ironsides armor. I'm gonna blow something up, it'll be great."

"Well, I wouldn't want to miss that," he says.

They finish the orange in companionable silence and then she stands up, taking his hand when he follows, leading him back to her room, to the shower, under the spray. It's body-temperature, perfect to send little licks of steam up around them as they kiss and touch and take much longer to shower than efficiency requires.

"Do we tell people?" he asks afterwards, shaving unconcernedly with a Gillette For Her razor from a pack in her medicine cabinet.

"Well, I told Fury," she says, rubbing the towel over her short hair, finger-combing it.

"So...it's okay?"

"Well, it's fine by me if you don't mind," she says. "But like...don't announce it in the briefing or anything, okay? Do it in the locker room like a decent person."

He gives her a thoughtful look, face half-shaved. She kisses the clean part.

"You always get really quiet when it's locker-room-talk time, huh?" she asks.

"I don't think it's nice, talking about women that way," he admits. "I know it's the done thing, but even in the army I didn't like it."

"Well, I give you permission to talk about me disrespectfully amongst the men of your tribe," she says with a grin. "I promise Natasha and I will totally be disrespecting you in the women's locker room."

He looks really kind of pleased by that.

***

Actually, after she presents her new Ironsides mods and blows up a SHIELD coffee mug and spends much of the meeting sharing heated looks with Steve that only Fury seems to notice, she figures telling Natasha will be anticlimactic. Steve dragged Thor off to sparring practice, she thinks basically so that he could get locker-room-talk time. Tony's been sparring in the armor with Natasha and Clint combined. Now, Steve and Clint and Thor are all in there talking about her and she's in here with Natasha, so she decides to just let it fall.

"Hey, so I slept with Steve," she says, pulling on her bra.

There's a clatter, and she looks over to see Natasha, half-dressed, staring at her over a dropped hairbrush.

"Come again?" she asks.

"Steve," Tony says. "I slept with him. We're kind of dating, I think."

Natasha just stares at her.

"Actually his tongue is amazing, and he hasn't been out with a woman in a long time, so I'd say you need to take a turn on that train, but if you do I'll cut you," Tony continues.

She isn't expecting Natasha to hug her. She's half-convinced it's an assassination attempt. Still, a hug from Natasha clad only in her bra and workout pants is to be savored.

"I'm glad for you, Tony," Natasha says, and then goes back to dressing, stashing eighteen knives and two garottes about her person.

So that's weird.

Weirder, though, is when she taps into the audio feed recordings in the men's locker room with her phone (oh come on, like you wouldn't if you were her) and hears Steve do basically the exact same socially awkward thing:

"Tony and I slept together last night."

Dead, ringing silence.

"Seriously?" Clint asks.

"Antonia?" Thor asks.

"Do you know another Tony I would be sleeping with?" Steve responds, a little peevishly, she thinks.

"Holy shit, Steve Rogers, look at you," Clint crows. "So? Was it great? I bet it was great."

"Indeed, a tale of your exploits would be welcome," Thor rumbles. What an asshat.

"It was nice," Steve says, sounding like he's blushing. She can tell.

"I hear she knows all kinds of exotic shit," Clint says.

"She seems very experienced," Thor adds.

"I dunno about exotic," Steve says thoughtfully. "I mean, unless...uh...being...you know, on top, is that exotic particularly?"

"No, but it's a great mental image."

"Don't talk about her like that." Aw, Steve. Defending her honor.

"What, I have nothing but respect for Tony," Clint says. "Doesn't mean a man can't dream."

"You like her?"

"Steve, buddy, first, I'm taken. Second, I would never poach on another man's girl. Third, even if I wanted to, she's only got eyes for you. Only ever did, even when she was punching you on the playground," Clint adds. "None of us had half a chance with her."

Tony stops the playback and blanks her phone. She...she wasn't that obvious, was she? It wasn't like she'd known herself, so how could anyone else? Clint was probably using that perfect 20-20 hindsight of his. Of course it might look obvious in retrospect, a growing friendship misread as romantic intentions.

She buys herself a coffee in the Helicarrier cafeteria, thinks about it, waits for Steve to come find her. It occurs to her that happens a lot -- one of them just hangs around until the other finds them.

Huh.

***

Bruce doesn't really do sparring, so much; he actually does do a lot of yoga, so he's still ridiculously strong, but he has minimal hand-to-hand skills and he likes it that way. Tony once asked him, "But what if someday you can't Hulk out?" and he answered, "Then I'll have my life back" which was incredibly depressing and led to them spending an evening working their way through Tony's whiskey collection.

So anyway Bruce wasn't there in the locker room when Steve told the others, and perhaps that's better; Tony wants to tell him personally. Bruce is unusually hard to get a read on most of the time, and Tony's never been sure if he's been nursing a crush on her or not. If he has, at least it's not Steve telling him hey, I'm bonking the woman you're in love with.

Not that Steve would say bonking, but he definitely wouldn't say fucking, so.

That afternoon, she slinks into Bruce's lab and throws herself into one of the wheely lab chairs, sliding across the floor and bumping into Bruce, who appears to be watching water boil.

"Are you making LSD?" she asks, resting her elbows on the counter and joining him in his staring.

"I'm re-creating a failed cancer cure with some interesting properties," he replies, without looking at her. "How're you?"

"Got to talk to you," she says, and Bruce turns his head. "Steve and I are sort of kind of maybe...dating?"

Bruce grins. "You sound so certain."

"Well, it's new. But he told the others, so I thought you should know."

Bruce leans forward and kisses her on the forehead. "Good for you, Ironsides."

"You're not upset?" she asks, genuinely worried, because Bruce is one of her best friends and it's such a relief to have someone to nerd it up about science with her. She'd be really upset if she lost him.

"No," he says. "I love you, but if I had to date you I'd go crazy inside of a week."

She frowns. "Mr. Patience is scared of me, bad sign."

"Steve has a different outlook on you," Bruce says, smiling. "But if he starts hogging you away from me I will challenge him to a duel for your attention and that will go badly for me."

"I promise not to neglect you," she says, beaming back.

"Then go have fun with your toy soldier," he says. "I'll be here boiling dangerous chemicals when you get bored."

Tony laughs and pets his hair like she always does, and is so glad at least one of them is sensible.

***

The newspapers and trashy magazines run stories every few months about the Avengers, speculating about their sex lives and their private behavior: whether Tony's a raging alcoholic, whether Bruce is addicted to downers, whether Captain America's gay. (She's pretty sure not; if he is he's masking it exceptionally well.) There have been articles before about Tony sleeping with her teammates, though only the one that sparked the fight between her and Steve ever touched close to the truth.

It's been two months since they started dating, and Tony has come to terms with the fact that it's dating. She's dating someone. She's settling into it, slowly, less concerned with screwing it up now, less neurotic about how hard she tries to be a good girlfriend. Steve, after all, didn't want a good girlfriend, because if he did, he wouldn't want her. So she just does what she's always done, except now exclusively with Steve, and that seems to work.

But then they're out on a call, and post-battle Tony's doing PR because she and Cap are both good at PR but she actually enjoys it, flirting with the reporters, being outrageous, raising Fury's blood pressure, all the same presenting a good face for the team. Captain America's on one side of the plaza, helping load the baddies into a secure SHIELD truck; Ironsides is on the other side of the plaza, surrounded by reporters. The temptation to let loose with a tiny little repulsor beam is great, but she resists.

And then this man pushes to the front and around the other questions about what just happened, he asks, "Ms. Stark, is it true you're sleeping with Steve Rogers, aka Captain America?"

Like she doesn't know who Steve fucking Rogers is.

She glances over them without moving her head, catches Steve's eye; he looks at her with an expression between fear and resignation, and nods slightly. It's time.

"No," she says, and Steve looks crushed. "I'm dating Steve Rogers. Sleeping with him is just a byproduct of the dating."

The journos go balls-out nuts, clamoring for details, waving microphones and cameras around. Steve gives her a smile that could outshine the sun, and makes his getaway before they notice he's there.

Tony beams, says, "No more questions," puts her helmet on, and blasts off.

The sex is magnificent.

***

They make it to three months. Tony's shocked. They make it to six months and she can tell even Steve is kind of shocked.

(Steve's also a little freaky in bed, though it took a while to tease that out. He likes it when she takes him flying, and when they land, well, if he could actually rip the armor off her, he would.)

Seven and a half months in, someone snaps a picture of her with her helmet off and a bandage taped over one cheek.

She comes out to the kitchen one morning to find Steve in her Mornings Are Terrible Things chair, staring out through the window, looking unhappy. She pours herself some coffee, going to settle into his lap, sweeping the magazine folded on his leg onto the floor, but he catches it. She nuzzles under his chin while he taps it against his thigh, and this is more than just Steve being broody like he sometimes is.

"Something wrong?" she asks. Steve kisses her forehead, tightens his arm around her. Offers her the magazine.

She looks down at it, folded open to the gossip section, and there's the shot of her with the bandage. Steve is tense under her.

ABUSE AMONG THE HEROES? the tagline reads.

"Fury sent it over," Steve breathes, sounding broken. "It hit the stands this morning."

"What kind of bullshit is this?" she asks, skimming the article. "They think you hit me? I got that testing new tech! If you hit me I'd kick your ass!"

"I'd never hit you, Tony," he says.

"Like I don't know that? Well -- " she stops, and grins at him. "If I went all evil and you had to, you would."

"But -- "

"Or like, if the armor got hacked, which let's face it that's never going to happen, but if it did you might have to knock me out."

"I wouldn't -- "

"Or if a mirror-me came through from another universe and she was evil -- "

"Tony!" he almost yells. "Stop coming up with scenarios in which I'd have to hit you!"

"Well, I'd do the same for you," she says reasonably.

"What are we going to do?"

She kisses him, trying to distract him a little. "Exactly what we did when they ran the story about me cheating on you, and the one about Bruce being a crossdresser, and the one where sources very close to you told them you had only six weeks to live. Ignore it and remember that we live more awesome lives than anyone who writes news stories about us ever will."

He presses his face into her shoulder, clearly still upset.

"Easy, kiddo," she soothes, rubbing her fingers in his hair.

"I love you. I wouldn't ever, and nobody should even think I would," he mumbles.

They've said the whole I Love You thing before, during sex or as a joke ("I might have sent Fury the plans I was making for his cybernetic computer eyeball." "Well, that's why I love you, you're so subtle.") but never just flat out love-you-'cause-I-love-you.

"I love you too, baby," she murmurs, and they spend most of the morning there, curled up with each other, while the world speculates.

***

Thirteen months in, People Magazine declares that Tony's pregnant. They're assembling their theory from three facts: she wasn't at the last Avengers battle, she's been seen wearing a baggy shirt, and the last time she and Steve went out for dinner she didn't drink.

There are easy explanations for this: she wasn't at the last battle because she cracked three ribs at the battle before, the baggy shirt is to hide the strapping, and she didn't drink because Steve's really boring about mixing painkillers and wine.

She passes him the magazine because he's down in her workshop, bothering her, and it'll give him something to do. He reads it, sits down across from her where she's adjusting the tension in a greave, and says, "So do we have the baby talk now?"

"The what?" she asks, screwdriver slipping and clattering to the table.

"Where we talk about babies," he says.

"Well, I think they're cute, but they smell bad and they're not really very interesting subjects of conversation. I was one myself once, so I know." She picks up the screwdriver, goes back to work, then pauses. "Or did you mean whether or not we're going to have babies?"

"The latter," he says, half-indulgent, half-nervous.

"Huh. I haven't really thought about it. My biological clock's probably pretty close to its last tick, so if you want to, we should get on it."

He raises an eyebrow. "Just like that?"

"What, like, I assume you want kids."

"But do you?"

"I don't know. I have no real opinion on personal procreation. But clearly it'd be good to find out if your supergenes breed true, and I should probably contribute my genius to the general pool; I wouldn't want to deprive humanity. And frankly if the kid got your looks and my smarts, baby Stark-America would be set for life."

"Stark-Rogers."

"Stark-America's a much better name for a company CEO or a superhero."

"But do you want to?" he presses again.

She thinks about it. Growing a person inside her is a fairly unsettling idea. It would mean she couldn't fight; she gets tossed around in the suit too much. That'd be boring. And she's not nuts about backaches or breast milk.

She wouldn't mind having a kid around, though, a little mop-top with her eyes and Steve's smile. And she's...she's not alone anymore, so even if she and Steve both died saving the world, she can name like ten people she'd trust to be her kid's godparent, and not fuck her kid and then try to kill it like Obie did.

She could teach it to build things, and get it right this time -- not that Mom and Dad didn't get her mostly right, but she could teach little Stark-America about cool machines instead of guns, at least if it wanted to learn about cool machines. If it wanted to be a banker or a ballerina or something she would be all over that, she could nurture the shit out of a kid. She could say she loved it a little more and fear it a little less than her parents did. She could improve on her parents' model. Tony Stark 2.0.

"You can't build us a baby," Steve says worriedly, misreading the gleam in her eye.

"I'd like to have a kid," she decides. "Do I have to actually have it?"

He blinks.

"I mean, can we hire a surrogate? Because labor sounds painful and I'm not that nuts about being pregnant. I could take a shot at building a baby-bot to incubate a fetus, actually, that might be cool. I bet I could clone and rewrite JARVIS as an obstetric prenatal healthcare system."

"I'd be honored to carry your child, ma'am," JARVIS chimes in loyally.

"Just..." Steve starts over. "Just so I'm clear you're not joking, you actually do want to have a baby with me."

"Yes," she says. "I just don't want to bear your child."

"Oh," he says.

"And not for another year or two. Especially if I'm building a baby-bot."

"I'd prefer a person," Steve says faintly.

"Spoilsport. Anyway. I'll freeze up some eggs, you make a deposit, we'll do this thing. Good?"

He looks like he never expected her to agree.

But she's seen the way he is around kids, and seriously, the Stark line should not end with her. It'd be a travesty.

"Okay," he says, a smile breaking over his face.

So they're having a baby! Yay!

In about two years' time, and using someone else's body.

***

A month later, Tony has this really interesting conversation about ring sizes with Bruce, and it's adorable that Steve thinks he's being subtle.

She hacks his bank account (what?) and then the database of the jewelry store where he just made a purchase (no really, what's that face?) and finds the ring he bought for her. She opens up the inventory photograph and just lets it sit there on her computer screen while she simultaneously freaks out and squeaks in glee.

It's perfect, it's gorgeous, a star ruby solitaire in a gold band, it will look amazing with her ruby choker, Steve's going to propose, oh god, she's going to get married, she can't handle this. What if she's only marrying him because he's the only person she's dated for more than six months? What if she breaks his heart because she's an asshole? Is anyone anywhere going to take her seriously if she wears a white dress? She should wear her suit -- no, that's a terrible idea, so cheesy. They should elope to Vegas. She wants to go to the bachelor party, they're always more fun. She wants to flee to Europe and hide.

She wonders if it says something about her that she loves him in a tux so much she'd marry him just to see him in a tux again. No, he'll probably want to wear his Army uniform.

She's marrying a soldier. Her mother warned her about soldiers. She's marrying a guy her mom dated. A guy who, she is sure, Mom would say cheated on her with a French hooker, no matter how "on the outs" they may have been at the time. If he ever cheats on her with a hooker of any nationality she'll stab him somewhere painful. If she had to give up prostitutes when they started dating, so does he.

She gives herself thirty-eight minutes in which to be undignified and afraid and crazy, and at the end of thirty-eight minutes she feels much better. This is why people shouldn't surprise her and should be grateful that she hacks their bank accounts; imagine if she'd poured all that crazy on Steve while he was proposing.

Well, he'd probably have smiled and listened politely until she was done being crazy, that's like half their relationship. But this time she is going to be a total fucking adult about her boyfriend proposing marriage to her.

Actually, no she's not, being a total fucking adult is boring.

Steve says they should go to dinner on Friday night at her favorite Italian place, and she says "Sure! Pass me the copper wire, would you?" and then on Thursday night, while they're lying in bed -- just about to sleep, they didn't even have sex, her life is so weird -- she says, "Hey. We should get married."

"What?" he asks, rolling onto his side.

"We should get married, you and me. We'll fly to Vegas or Niagara Falls or something."

Horror, dismay, and disappointment are battling it out on his face, so she adds, "I realize I didn't buy you a gorgeous ruby engagement ring and book your favorite restaurant or anything -- "

"You -- " he glares, pushing himself up on an elbow. "Did Bruce tell you?"

She laughs, kissing his arm. "No, baby, Bruce did just like you asked and got my ring size. It's not his fault I'm a suspicious harpie."

"You weren't supposed to know! It was supposed to be surprising and romantic!"

"I was very surprised. No, really, I was," she says, sitting up so she can kiss his forehead. "But I also had like, half an hour of total insanity, because I'm congenitally afraid of commitment. And I got through that, so you don't have to deal with it now, which is my gift to you. Just this once. Happy engagement."

"Uh. So...yes?" he asks, confused.

"Yes," she says. "Now gimme my ring, I want my ring, come on."

***

And here's the really freaky, weird thing about all of it:

They get married, and they keep working, and they save the world a whole bunch of times, and they fight sometimes, and people tell lies about them in the press, and they have a kid via surrogate and the kid's first word is "torque!"

And they live happily ever after.

Actually that part doesn't surprise Tony. She's always known she's a princess.

Chapter Text

James Rhodes is Tony's oldest friend. Before Pepper, before Happy, when she was just a kid at MIT, Rhodey took her under his wing and made sure she knew the ropes. When she was tasting real freedom for the first time, he steered her away from gold-diggers and would-be groupies, at least as much as he could, as much as she'd let him. He charmed her mother, this young upright ROTC man, and he was brainy enough that her dad grudgingly accepted his presence.

Rhodey was so ineffably good, even when he went along with her parties and schemes, that she has no idea to this day why he decided to be her friend. Or why he stayed.

***

When Tony thought about having a child, she never actually thought about babies. She thought about a little kid, already walking, gender indeterminate but unimportant; a kid who could talk and learn and who would, naturally, be brilliant and strong. She thought about Steve's blue eyes in her child's face.

But there's so much to consider, now that they've decided it's time. They have to find an appropriate surrogate, for a start, which is immensely difficult and promises more difficulties down the line. They need someone who is unlikely to be endangered -- someone who isn't an Avenger or a SHIELD agent -- and absolutely discreet, because if word got out that the child of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers was gestating, every two-bit bad guy in the world would take notice.

And that raises the question of what they do when the kid arrives. It'll be a target from the moment it's born.

Steve starts working up security plans before they've even found a surrogate.

Tony thinks it's very good of her not to reiterate her suggestion of using an artificial womb monitored by JARVIS. She's quite sure she could build one.

***

When Tony slept with Obadiah she was sixteen, on Christmas break from MIT. She did it for political reasons and she has never been sorry but she hated herself afterward. She called Rhodey, crying, and he didn't even ask her why. He just came down to New York on New Year's Eve and sat with her for hours.

When her parents died shortly after her graduation from MIT, Rhodey got leave from the Air Force Academy (no mean feat) and came to New York. He stood by her while she endured the horrific public funeral and the condolences of a steady stream of creepy politicians, and when it was over they got very drunk together.

***

Steve, for all he's adapted well to the new century, is still very much a product of his upbringing. He has all these questions about the baby, like whether it should have her name or his or hyphenate (thank Christ they dodged the bullet about whether Tony should take his name; even Steve thinks dropping Stark would be stupid). Tony is dead serious about it being Baby Stark-America, but Steve just looks mildly annoyed and brushes it off like she's joking. He'll learn.

He wants to know if she thinks they should raise it in a faith, and if it should be hers or his; when Tony points out that she's an atheist, Steve reminds her that her parents were Protestant and Steve was raised Catholic. Then they have to have an argument about whether he still is Catholic given his shoddy church-attendance record and deep dislike of some of the Mother Church's current policies, and it's very unpleasant for three or four days.

"Raise it Germanic Pagan," Clint suggests, having been witness to the third or fourth iteration of the argument. "Then, instead of praying, it could just go have a nice talk with Thor."

"We're getting child-rearing advice from someone who grew up in a circus," Tony says to Steve. "This is a new low."

Steve sighs. "I'm trying to have a serious discussion about this with you -- "

"Do you think your child is going to hell if it's not baptized?" Natasha asks.

Steve looks at her, startled. "What? No, of course not."

"Then you might as well wait and let it make up its own mind," she replies airily.

"Fine," Steve growls, looking determined. "But it will have godparents."

"OH! Pick me!" Clint raises a hand.

"Not in a trillion years," Tony tells him.

***

Tony and Rhodey never dated, both of them well aware that it was a disaster waiting to happen, but they did sleep together a few times. Her graduation from MIT; his graduation from the Air Force Academy. He was always respectful, to the point of being annoying sometimes, but they had fun together.

One time this girl Tony slept with sold the story to a trashy magazine -- My Gay Night With Tony Stark -- and Tony asked Rhodey, "How come you never did that?"

"It never occurred to me I could get money for it," Rhodey replied, grinning.

***

Pepper is the obvious default choice for a godmother, they both agree. She has a stable job that rarely if ever involves threats to her life. She has plenty of wealth, and Tony trusts her implicitly. Pepper is one of the few people to endure a campaign of seduction by Tony Stark and say "No."

When Tony asks her, Pepper looks pleased and worried at the same time. Which is the problem; she'll be an excellent guardian, should the worst happen, but neither she nor Tony are confident she'd be a good parent.

"Do you have someone you want to ask to be godparent?" Tony says to Steve, once they've established Pepper. She's hoping Steve has thought of someone she hasn't, someone who is both safe and likely to be more parental than Pepper.

"I...don't really know anyone who'd be...appropriate," he says vaguely. "Everyone I know is in a pretty high-risk job."

"What do you think about Rhodey?"

"Colonel Rhodes?"

"Well, yeah. He's not active combat military, and he's a decent guy."

"He's still military, though," Steve says.

"He's trustworthy," Tony replies. Steve looks at her oddly.

"Trust is important to you with this," he says.

"Well, yeah."

"Most people would say 'reliable', rather than 'trustworthy'."

Tony looks at him evenly. "Obadiah Stane was my godfather."

"The man who..."

Tony hasn't told Steve all about Obadiah; there's no reason for him to know everything. But he knows how Obie betrayed Howard's ethos and sold guns to the bad guys. He knows about the time Obie ripped her reactor out of her chest.

"Rhodey is trustworthy," she repeats.

Steve nods. "Rhodey it is, then."

***

They've had fights, horrible fights, her and Rhodey. When she shut down the armaments end of Stark Industries he was livid. Once they patched that up she'd almost immediately started dying of Palladium poisoning. She'd wanted to just give him the Ironsides suit, let him be her successor, that would have made him suspicious. Hence, the blowout at her birthday party. If he stole a suit because she was no longer worthy, well, at least he had the suit and he didn't know she was dying.

Which was a fun conversation.

"You were dying?" Rhodey yelled, standing on the rooftop, his suit still pinging gently as it cooled. They'd just blown Ivan Vanko to hell, and Pepper was nearby, quietly freaking out at being rescued from like a zillion bombs.

"Well, I'm not now!" Tony retorted.

"I swear to God, Tony, sometimes..." he shook his head. "We're not done here," he added, "but you need to get Pepper back and I have to talk to emergency services."

"Rhodey -- "

"Go. Look after Pepper. We'll talk later."

Once she'd gotten Pepper to safety, Tony went looking; she found Rhodey in an abandoned belgian waffle hut on the Stark Expo grounds, trying to get out of the suit without any of the necessary tools. They shouted at each other while she helped him get the suit off, and then shouted some more, and then had "I can't believe you were dying" sex (Rhodey) and "triumphant victory!" sex (Tony) and afterward agreed they should never, ever have sex again.

As last times went, though. Hoo boy. She was going to have very fond memories every time she smelled waffles.

***

Rhodey is in Japan at the moment, doing an intensive study of some innovative new tracking technology, and this isn't a conversation Tony wants to have over the phone. She takes the jet, because Ironsides might be faster but she needs the time to prepare.

She sits at the little desk, looking out at the clouds, and tries to figure out how to ask him. For some reason it's much harder than asking Pepper.

The baby is at fifteen weeks. Their surrogate, Joan, is doing fine; she's Coulson's sister, as unflappable as her brother, completely discreet, and very tolerant. She'd have to be. Steve is fretting constantly that the baby will get his less-than-stellar pre-Serum constitution, or that the Serum will mess things up somehow, and he's only going to be crazier now, Tony can tell.

She looks down at the white envelope on the table. It's a printout of the sonogram. It's going to be a boy.

The minute the doctor said "And there's the penis -- congratulations, it's a boy," Tony just cracked up laughing (seriously, there's the penis, that's comedy gold) but Steve might have had some kind of seizure. She'd like to think he cares as little about boy-or-girl as she does but there's something about guys, even really good ones like Steve. She could see it in his face. A son.

Rhodey is her oldest friend. The one time he cut her off, it hurt about a thousand times worse than she thought it even could.

What if he says no? What if he doesn't actually love her enough to want to look after her child, should she and Steve die? What if he thinks any kid she has will be just as crazy as she is, and doesn't want to go through that again?

***

Tony was three months in a terrorist camp before she got out. She was confident the explosions would draw attention, but she didn't know how long it would take the Army to scramble, or if they would even think to look for her. She was bruised and desolate when she climbed out of the prototype Ironsides suit. Yinsen was dead. The heat was merciless. And the night was very cold.

She survived that night by keeping moving, keeping awake, and it was noon the next day when she finally started to consider that she really might die in the desert. First she thought of her mom, and how if Peggy could survive an entire world war surely her daughter could get herself out of a desert where nobody was shooting at her. Then she started to think about how horrible it would be to die in the desert, and that at least kept her on her feet.

When the helicopters roared over her head, she screamed as loud as she could and waved and hoped, hoped like hell they would see her. She didn't even hope for Rhodey as she dropped to her knees in the sand, but then suddenly he was there, crouching next to her.

"Rhodey," she murmured, leaning into his shoulder.

"Hey, I gotcha," he answered. "Can you stand up?"

"Rhodey, Rhodey -- "

"Antonia, it's me. Come on, Tony, can you stand? 'Cause if not I'm gonna have to carry you and you'll be embarrassed later."

"You pick me up in a bridal carry and it'll be the last thing you do," she said, and he laughed and helped her up. "I'll fight you, asshole."

"Sure you will. Come on," he said, and his hands were so gentle as they helped her into the helicopter, and his voice was sure and calm.

He stayed with her the whole flight back to base. He stuck by her side while medics checked her over and splinted her broken arm, gave her a sedative and left her to change into some scrubs to sleep in. He was the only one there when she took off her shirt, and he stared at the light between her breasts, horrified and fascinated, until he looked up at her face.

"It's keeping me alive," she said quietly. "I'll explain later, I promise."

"I'm looking forward to that," he replied. "For now, get some rest. I have to go make my report."

"Can't you stay?"

"It's fine, you'll be asleep. There are guards outside your room."

"Please don't leave," she begged, the only time Antonia Stark had ever begged for anything. "Rhodey, please."

"There are about a million people up my ass to confirm that you're alive," he said. "I gotta call Pepper, too."

"Call her from here," she said. Humiliation burned through her, but if she was alone in this room right now she'd go insane, she'd lose it. She needed an anchor and Rhodey was the best anchor she could ask for. "Rhodey, please. Don't leave."

He looked at her, then picked up her shirt and helped her into it.

"Sleep. I got a chair and a magazine, I'm good," he told her.

He was still there when she woke up. He didn't leave her side until he delivered her safe into Pepper's hands.

***

Tony had multiple plans for how this conversation might go, but when Rhodey meets her in a quiet booth in the hotel bar in Tokyo, everything flies out the window.

"Steve and I are having a baby," she blurts, and Rhodey looks at her, and looks at the half-drunk scotch at her elbow, and rubs his eyes. "No, it's not like that. We have a surrogate, I'm good."

"You what?" Rhodey asks, hand still over his eyes.

"We're having a baby via surrogate. Fifteen weeks. It's a boy, here," she says, and thrusts the white envelope at him, and then commands, "Be his godfather."

Rhodey lets his hand fall. He looks at the envelope, and then back at her.

"What?" he asks.

"It's a boy, be his godfather, don't freak out," Tony repeats.

Rhodey accepts the envelope and opens it slowly. Tony holds her breath.

"Wow," he says, looking at the sonogram. "That is one hideous baby."

"Rhodey, don't -- "

"I mean, you are having a sincerely ugly child. He's all grainy and low-resolution. I expected better from you, Tony," he says. "Christ, I'm going to be godfather to a VHS videotape."

He looks up at Tony, beaming. Tony narrows her eyes.

"My son is high-definition and high-resolution, it's not my fault you have no taste," she says.

"What is that, 72 DPI?" Rhodey asks, turning the image, tilting his head at it. "This should be in sepia or something."

"He's only fifteen weeks old, there's some compression glitches we're still working out."

"Frankly, I think you half-assed this kid. I mean, most of these things take nine full months of R&D, and you're telling me you've got something worth looking at after only fifteen weeks?"

"I'm sorry, since when has Stark Industries ever been after-deadline on a contract? This is a top-of-the-line model you're looking at, and if you pass on him, believe me, I have reps lining up three-deep to be godfather. You are not the only game in town, sugar lump."

Rhodey cracks first; he starts to laugh, shaking his head, and Tony slouches a little with relief, smiling at him.

"Tony," he says, warm and affectionate. "You were nervous I wouldn't say yes?"

"Bullshit, I knew you couldn't resist that face," Tony points to the sonogram. She may be pointing at the kid's ass, it's hard to tell.

"You were totally scared. Hey, seriously," Rhodey says, catching her eye. "I'm honored, Tony. And I'm thrilled for you guys." He grins, sly and toothy. "You know, James is an awesome name."

"We're naming him Justice Patriot Billionaire Stark-America."

"Yeah, but just think: James Justice Patriot Billionaire Stark-America."

"Funny, asshole."

***

So they end up naming him James. Well, apparently the infamous Bucky was actually a James, too.

James Edward, for Tony's grandfather, and James Edward Stark-Rogers because Steve warned the nurses that under no circumstances were they to listen if Tony told them to list Stark-America on the birth certificate (she tried). Tony has to admit that James Edward is a pretty good name. It beats Pilot Inspektor, anyway, and Steve said absolutely-not when Tony suggested Axl Rose.

It's an awfully big name for such a tiny thing, she thinks, when a nurse puts the baby in her arms for the first time. Steve has already done a spot-check: ten fingers, ten toes, a high birth-weight and a healthy set of lungs are assuaging an awful lot of his fears. Now he's speaking quietly with Joan, making sure she's feeling all right after the birth. Tony is just trying to figure out if what she's feeling is maternal love or deep, all-consuming terror. The baby totally has her nose.

She can hear her mother's voice: Tony, what the bloody hell have you got yourself into this time?

"Hey," she says, as Rhodey slips into the room, Pepper behind him. "For your consideration. Cadet candidate James Stark-Rogers."

Rhodey looks down at the infant.

"Too small," he says. "Throw him back."

"You're all heart, papa bear." Tony grins at Pepper. "Think you can make a CEO out of him, Pep?"

"He's going to have to dress a lot better than that."

"You hear that? Clearly you're useless," Tony says to the little guy.

She can hear the rest of the Avengers making a racket in the hallway, and the three people she trusts the most in the world are in this room. Ah, yep, there it is, right on schedule: the terror is receding, leaving homicidally protective love in its place.

Pepper kisses her cheek; Rhodey pokes her gently in the arm as Steve comes to lean over her shoulder, one hand on her waist.

"It's cool," she tells James. "Your godparents are losers anyway. You can hang out with me and your dad for the next few years."

END

Chapter Text

Written to a Prompt from dignitywhatdignity: For all Tony had been through, she had never in her life felt survivor's guilt until she saw how bad Agent's sister's morning sickness was.

"Is there something I can do?" she asked, wringing her hands as faint noises came from the bathroom.

"It's fine, Antonia, I swear," Joan said with a smile, emerging.

"Yes well, little Justice Patriot Billionaire will owe you a lot when he emerges," Tony declared.

"I promise you, he's going to have to apologize for the actual birth more than the morning sickness," Joan replied. "Just do me one favor."

"Anything," Tony said, clasping her hands in what she felt was an unusually sisterly show of solidarity.

"Do not name your child Justice Patriot Billionaire," Joan said firmly.