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Waiting In The Wings

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Iron Man

 

''Go out and take a break. Have some fun. You're still young and it wouldn't do you any good to stay cooped up in the Sanctum. Go and find someone, do whatever you want. Just be back tomorrow morning and make sure I never hear about what exactly you did.''

Stephen had been surprised at Wong's words, but he'd taken the advice and stepped out, dressing casual for the first time in months. So far, it had been good. He'd dropped in on Christine, visited the hospital, to see how things were going, and just strolled around, his hands shoved in his pockets all the time. The only thing that could have made this better would have been company. Someone his own age, somebody to talk to or spend the night with. But friends were few and far in between, and partners usually preferred steady hands.

"Are you planning on reporting on the lives we saved with the intellicrop division?" His attention reached a small posse of bodyguards, surrounding two women, one dressed in a professional skirt and blouse, with blonde hair and cherry lipstick. The other was... Stephen felt a sense of awe. The other was Toni Stark.

"A year ago, he would have ignored the presence or acted superior to hide his admiration. But a lot could change in a year and his arrogance had been knocked down several pegs. He walked up to the pair, knowing the bodyguards would stop him. "All those breakthroughs- military funding, honey." "Dr Stark," he called her by her proper title and she stopped, focusing on him. Her eyes widened a little as she looked him up and down, before she smiled. "Hi," she said, clearly dismissing the reporter. The built man, who'd had his hand on Stephen's chest, let go at her greeting. "I just wanted to congratulate you on that last award you received," Stephen said. "And the diamond-refracted laser you released some time ago. It's truly a brilliant idea."

Dr Stark's entire demeanor changed: her eyes brightened and her lips quirked in a more genuine way. "Thank you," she said warmly. "It's not often someone is aware of SI's accomplishments apart from weapons, Mr...?" "Dr Stephen Strange," he supplied. "I was a neurosurgeon and I know about it because I spoke at a medical conference recently about it." "Dr Strange, yeah, I think I remember attending one of your talks a couple years ago," she mused. Stephen wondered if she knew anything else about him. The question was answered when her gaze flicked down to his scarred hands. "So what do you now?" She asked and Stephen was grateful she hadn't pointed out his inability to perform surgery any more. "I still write and give speeches, and paid very handsomely for it, Dr Stark, so I'm fine." Dr Stark laughed. "Call me Toni. And aren't we all?" She joked and something about the way she was looking at him gave him pause. The light hit her face just right and Stephen was surprised to see the obvious flirty look in her eyes. She had her head tilted as she looked up at the taller man, her grin sharp and coy and he... He couldn't understand why.

Toni Stark was famous as a player, the gir, who never called a guy back. She could have anyone she wanted, and right now that was him. A year ago, he wouldn't have had trouble believing it. But, now? He wasn't sure, if he should...? But, Wong had said to find someone, hadn't he? Toni giggled. "For a supposed genius, you take too long to think," she informed him. "For a supposed genius, you don't seem to think very often at all," he shot back without thinking. Again, she surprised him by outright laughing. "Touché," she agreed. "It's never bothered me before." "I never lost any sleep over it, either," Stephen agreed. 'Fuck it,' he thought. It was what he wanted and if she wanted it too and didn't have any issues with trembling hands, then, well, he wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Though I am prepared to lose a few hours tonight." Toni grinned again and before he knew it, Stephen was being gently tugged into a car.

The rest of the night passed with small but strong, rough hands gripping his scarred, shaking ones, thin lips pressed against his own, his own mouth working at her collarbone and teasing remarks whispered in giddiness. It was one of the best nights Stephen had had, for more reasons than just the obvious one. He woke up alone, of course, and was politely kicked out by another beautiful red-headed woman, Pepper Potts. But he couldn't lose his satisfied smirk and Wong's words of greeting were, "Judging purely by that expression, you had a good night and I don't want to hear about it."

 

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"As of right now, eight soldiers are dead, three of whom had been the armed escorts for billionaire Antonia Stark. The genius herself has been declared missing, as no body was found, and a search has already been put into effect by the military. Stark's close friend, Colonel James Rhodes, who is also the military liaison for Stark International, is heading the mission."

"You mean," Wong was saying. "To tell me, that you spent that night with TONI STARK, of all people?" Stephen nodded. He felt an odd tightening in his chest at the thought of Toni being hurt. She'd been one of the few people who'd accepted his scars, even if just for a night. Not to mention, Toni had a brilliant mind. Her death would be a great blow to not just the US, but the entire world. Not to mention it would be a cause for celebration for all the terrorist organisations that feared her for her genius and obvious power, political, social and in business. The Ten Rings, the Taliban, just to name a couple, would be all too happy if she were dead.

 

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"Didn't expect to see you here." The voice startled him, even though he'd wanted to hear it. "Favour for a friend," he answered. It was technically true; Christine usually attended these things, but she had a date, so she'd asked Stephen to see to it. But he'd agreed, only because he'd been holding out on the hope that Toni would be there. "Hmm," was the only response he got and he took her in.

She was dressed in a long, bottle green dress, with a thick shrug pulled over it, her lips painted pink, brown hair braided over a shoulder and amber eyes made brighter by the subtle eye-shadow. She looked gorgeous... And nothing like someone who'd been in captivity for three months until a week ago. Stephen knew that look all too well. It was the same one he wore when he didn't want to talk. Or was hiding a secret.

"Aren't you supposed to be laying low?" He wondered and she shrugged. "Supposed to, sure. Fancy a dance?" "Lead the way." She tugged him onto the dance floors and, ignoring the curious glares from the men and women, he pulled her in with a hand on her hip. "That was quite the press conference, by the way," he pointed out. "Very entertaining." She half grimaced. "Entertaining?" "Oh yeah," he grinned. "You were probably too stressed to notice, but everyone's faces were priceless." She grinned back and Stephen took the chance to ask something else. "Why'd you do it?" "Why'd I do what?" "Why did you shut down the weapons manufacturing division of Stark International?"

Toni had shut down completely. Her face was a cold blank mask and her mouth was a straight line. "Why don't we go out for some air and then talk?" She asked, polite, though it was clear he didn't have much choice in the matter. He followed her out to the terrace, feeling that redhead's gaze burn into him.

"Well...?" "You ever feel like you've been flying on top of the world with rose-tinted glasses and then one day you come crashing down and you realize everything that was ever wrong in your life and most of what's wrong in the world was your fault?" Stephen hesitated with his answer. "Not in the way that you did," he finally said.

Toni smiled, a fake media one. "Well, that's what happened to me in a nutshell. So now I'm fixing it." Stephen eyed her in concern. He wasn't a therapist, but he was intuitive enough to know that she hadn't been simply kept in a cell in Afghanistan. "What happened there?" He demanded in a quiet voice, bending down slightly so he could be at her eye-level. "I had my eyes opened," she replied simply and Stephen was abruptly aware of how close they were. He wondered if she had noticed, but before he could do or say anything, a tall woman in a blue silk dress approached them. "Miss Stark," she started, looking worried. It was Miss Potts. "Christine Everhart is downstairs. She says she has some photographs to show you."

 

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"I am Iron Woman."

That was all every news channel was showing and Stephen couldn't quite explain the worry and panic in his chest. Wong meanwhile, was trying to convince him to reveal himself to Toni. "Stark is a powerful person, as well as a smart one, and that's a dangerous combination," he was saying. "She'll find out about us sooner or later and I'd rather it be in a calm situation. Besides, she could be a powerful ally, if the need ever arises." Stephen was tempted to point out that it was doubtful they would every be in any kind of trouble that a mechanic could help them with, but he knew better than that. Machines could be tampered with by magic and spells could be hampered by technology.

Sighing, he dialled a number from the net. "Stark International." "Yes, um," Stephen hated sounding unsure. "I'd like to arrange an appointment with Dr Stark, in personal." "I'm sorry, sir," the cool voice apologized. "But Dr Stark isn't taking any personal meetings right now. If you like, I could arrange something with Miss Potts..." "Tell Dr Stark, it's Stephen Strange calling," he blurted. "Dr Stephen Strange." There was a short silence, then, "Dr Stark will see you today afternoon."

So, now, two hours later, he was sitting in Toni's office, as she typed on a tablet, taking notes with her other hand. She looked up at him in a few minutes, putting away both the notepad and tablet. Gone was the friendly banter of their first encounter and the brief honesty of the second. Now there was nothing but a hard seriousness and caution etched in every line of her face. He'd dressed normal, wanting to start out as easily as possible. "Can we go somewhere more private?" He requested. "This is going to be a rather sensitive discussion." "Jarvis, isolate the room, would you?" She said, instead. Before Stephen could wonder who Jarvis was, the windows and glass panes of the room darkened, until he couldn't see outside any longer. At the same time, there was a voice, "Of course, Ma'am, I have also informed Miss Potts and Mr Hogan of the doctor's visit, in case their presence is required." Oh right, Stark's AI. He'd heard the rumors, but no one knew the actual extent of its intelligence.

Dr Stark was looking at him expectantly. So he began to talk. He told her about his downward spiral after the accident, Pangborn's miraculous recovery, Kamar-Taj, the Ancient One, Mordo, Kaecilius, Dormammu, the Cloak, Wong. He didn't attempt to hide his emotions, his despair and helplessness. He was pouring his heart out, despite his built-in instincts, because somehow he felt this was the only way Dr Stark would actually trust him. She didn't believe him at first, obviously, but once he opened a quick portal to call Levi, who twirled around with her usual flair, she was convinced. Quite easily, in fact.

"So, we're actually pretty similar," she mused, staring at Levi's occasional fluttering movements. "Arrogant geniuses, who were the best in their fields, tragic and humbling accident, life lessons from a wise, bald person who died saving us, an exasperated male best friend who's also our sidekick and an equally exasperated female best friend who tries to keep us in check." "Sounds about right," Stephen agreed. "Though we still are geniuses and the best in our own fields, even if I can't actually prove it anymore." That startled a reluctant laugh out of her. "Alright, Strange," she chuckled, her body relaxing. "Looks like you and I are gonna be his friends." "I hope so, Doctor." "It's Toni," she reminded him, still smiling and Stephen returned it.

Chapter Text

Iron Man 2

 

'Turn on the news and watch the senate hearing- TS'
'Are you watching it?- TS'
'You're not watching, are you?'- TS
'Traitor.- TS'

Stephen had to hold back an honest to goodness giggle as he read through the messages. He was, in fact, watching the senate hearing and, because the camera was mainly focused on Toni, he could see her rapidly typing on her phone, paying next to no attention to the Senator or the CEO of Hammer Industries. He considered replying, but decided against it. Getting on her nerves was fun and watching her get on those pompous idiots' nerves was even more so.

"I still can't believe you know Toni Stark," Christine grumbled. He was at her house, catching up on stuff, and they were watching together. He'd introduced her and Wong to Toni a while back (the latter had fangirled excessively), just after he'd met Pepper and Colonel Rhodes both of whom had had very satisfying reactions to sorcery. He agreed with her sentiment, though. It was exhilarating to have a friend like Toni. Not only could she keep up with all his scientific jargon, sometimes leaving him behind in fact, but she was also just as snarky as him and gave as good as she got, maybe even better.

On-screen, Toni was talking now. She had a smug smile on her face, as she waved her hand at the screens, on which Justin Hammer had been showing a few pictures of the Iron Woman armour, while she simultaneously tapped on her phone, not even glancing at it. Immediately, the images on the screens changed. As the senate and the press went crazy at the videos of Hammer technicians trying to replicate the armour, with Justin rushing to disconnect wires, Toni simply smirked and walked out of the camera's view in her tailored black suit-skirt, Pepper right on her heels.

************

"How much do you know about palladium poisoning?" Stephen frowned at the question. He'd opened a portal into Toni's office in Malibu, which her AI had darkened like it always did when he visited, when he'd received a text from her, asking for help. He hadn't expected this. "That's more to do with the blood and heart, so, not really my area of expertise," he finally said. "I could refer you a cardiologist..." Toni was shaking her head before he finished.

"A friend of mine has been diagnosed with it," she explained. "Got some major trust issues, so she asked me to recommend a doctor I trusted. That's you." Stephen felt honored and pleased at that. But he was going to have to burst her bubble. "I'm glad you trust me, Toni," he told her. "But palladium poisoning doesn't have a cure, which is why it's a mercy it's so rare. 12% toxicity is considered bad." Something passed over Toni's expression, but it was gone before he could pinpoint it. "I know," she nodded. "There's no cure and that's where you come in. Follow me."

She began walking and Stephen followed her out of the office, quickly summoning a temporary glamour over his clothes for the benefit of the staff, something that matched offices. "Where do I come in?" He questioned. "And where are we going?"

Toni led them to her bright orange Audi and as they settled in, she answered, "We're going to run every possible, and maybe some impossible, tests on every existing element in the periodic table." If that wasn't enough to shock Stephen into silence, what she said next definitely was. "We're going to my lab."

Stephen hadn't yet gone to Toni's house (that night didn't count) and he'd never expected to see her lab. He wasn't sure what to expect, but it didn't matter. As Toni led him downstairs, not even giving him the time to appreciate the warm décor, or the grand piano on the foyer, he knew nothing could have prepared him for this.

The room was whitewashed with bright lights without a visible source. Several long tables were placed across the length of the room, two of them diagonally arranged, with some sophisticated looking computers. Holograms hovered over most of those. There was, for some reason, a fire-red racing car, an old model, to the side and random instruments and tools lay around haphazardly, most of which he couldn't even name. The armour was in a corner, safe behind a glass door. This, Stephen realized, was where Toni truly lived.

Three robotic... Things... Wheeled over to them. Two of them crowded around Toni, who patted them indulgently, and the third poked at Stephen, whose Cloak, who had reappeared, swatted it. "These are my bots," Toni explained. "Dum-E, Butterfingers and U." "You named then?" Stephen asked incredulously. Toni raised an eyebrow. "Coming from the guy who named his Cloak 'Levi'," she pointed out. "Besides, these aren't just some remote-controlled science projects. They're AI that I built during MIT. Not very advanced, but enough that they have their own feelings and can communicate through binary. Dum-E," she pointed at the one fiddling around Stephen. "Is the eldest, she likes making smoothies. Butterfingers has a thing for fire-extinguishers, though he's completely useless with them, and U likes to pretend he's responsible."

She pointed to the ceiling. "JARVIS is the youngest, but he's the most advanced. I made him when I was... 19?" The fondness in her voice was obvious, something akin to what Stephen knew he sounded like when he talked to Levi. And she talked about them like they were actually people. Stephen cringed internally when he realized he'd been referring to JARVIS as 'it' in his head.

Toni seemed lost in her thoughts and Stephen absently noticed she was still wearing the high-neck windbreaker. Then she clapped her hands with determination. "Okay, time to set your ID with JARVIS and give you your own security code, so you can just teleport to the house and come in here yourself." "Can't I open a portal directly inside the lab?" Stephen queried with a frown, ignoring the word, 'teleport'. Toni smiled in apology. "Yes, you could," she agreed. "But J insisted on a clearance like everyone else. He didn't even let me give Rhodey and Pepper free passes." "Protective of his creator?" He guessed and she nodded. "It's his primary protocol: Protect Antonia Stark."

************

That was two weeks ago. Almost every day, Stephen would open a portal into the house, sometimes be greeted by Pepper, as she seemed to live there. Then, he'd make his way down to the lab, the 'workshop' as Toni called it, where she'd be waiting for him and they'd begin the day's work. Since Stephen couldn't work with the delicate chemicals, he mostly kept track of their progress and helped with clean-up, occasionally trying, and failing, to keep anything from blowing up.

Today, however, none of that was happening. Instead, Toni was sitting desolately on a stool, while Stephen glared at her. "Take off your shirt, Toni, now." He'd walked in to find her with her head on the tabletop, her breathing slightly laboured. Her jacket had been off, so Stephen noticed the faint line of veins at the edge of her collar and he'd known it for exactly what it was. Palladium poisoning. She'd started at his shocked use of her name and had scrambled to put on the jacket, but Levi had snatched it from her. She'd protested, tried to play it off, but her voice had been strained and Stephen had asked her to cut the crap. The veins seemed to be extended from her chest area and he needed to see what was causing it.

Reluctantly, Toni unbuttoned her shirt (how hadn't he noticed that she always wore T-shirts if she wasn't due for a meeting) and shrugged it off. Stephen nearly fainted. Nestled just below her collarbones was a moderately large circle of some sort of metal, glowing blue light emitting from it. A small portion of it was covered by the top of her bra, but he could see enough of the... Device. The visibility of her veins was stemming from it, growing lighter as it travelled outwards. His brain told him that her blood was growing thinner, specifically in that area, which was why the veins were standing out, but it would spread faster than it otherwise would have, because the source of the poison was so close to her heart. Apart from that, the skin there and over the planes of l her stomach seemed to be littered in scars, some more prominent than others.

"What is that?" He asked, years of medical practice not enough to keep the tremor from his voice. Toni sighed, and pulled out another stool. "You might want to sit down for this."

After a good forty minutes, Stephen found himself stupefied into silence. He hadn't felt this out of sync with reality since his soul had been punched through several dimensions. Across him, Toni was switching out the core of her reactor, before putting on the thick shirt again. She had a bored, disinterested look on her face, like she couldn't care less what he thought or said next. He would have bought the act, but he'd played that game himself too often. What hurt was that in eight months of friendship, she hadn't used that look on him even once till now.

"Let me get this straight," he said, trying not to sound faint. "You were operated on while you were conscious. You had a car battery hooked to your heart to keep away the shrapnel. You were tortured repeatedly for refusing to negotiate. Then you built the arc reactor in a cave, out of scraps, to replace the battery, while weak and malnourished. You built the first Iron Woman suit under the same conditions. And now the thing that's keeping you alive is also killing you." "That sums it up."

A beat passed. Then, "WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING?!" Stephen yelled. Toni jumped. "What? What did I do wrong?" Dear Vishanti, she thought she'd done wrong. "You could have just built them the missile," Stephen grumbled, half-heartedly, because, yeah, what could she have done? "I couldn't do that," Toni disagreed. "I know," he relented. They sat in silence for some time. "What's the toxicity level of your blood?" Toni hesitated and he wondered if she would lie again. "17%." Shit. He almost wished she had lied. "How much was it when you first told me about your 'friend'?" Another short silence. "9%." "Do Pepper and Rhodey..." "No!" She sat up, suddenly adamant. "They can't know, they go through enough shit because of me. Please, please you can't tell them. Stop helping me if that's what you need, but just don't tell them. Please!"

Toni Stark never begged. But she was doing it now and Stephen lost whatever resolve he'd mustered up to inform Pepper. He looked at her, hard and searching. Her eyes were wide and panicked, her teeth digging into her bottom lip, trying to stop it trembling. The veins were still barely visible and at some point Levi had wrapped herself tightly around her shoulders, her velvet corners playing with her brown hair. She looked... Desperate.

Stephen stood up. "Let's start," he announced. Toni looked up at him with trepidation and hope warring on her face. "What?" "We're going to find a cure for you," Stephen growled, though Toni's growing smile made it difficult for him to sound annoyed. "And then, so help me, I am going to kill you myself for putting me through this."

Toni full-on grinned now and stood up. "No need to go that far, surely," she teased. "You could just leave me on a mountain-top for a few minutes instead." "Oh, it's definitely the Everest for you, honey," Stephen grumbled, then prayed she hadn't noticed the term of endearment.

************

This was bad. This was bad. This. Was. Bad.
"You're... CEO?" He asked again. "You don't approve?" Pepper asked, teasing, but with a hint of insecurity. She trusted his opinion and his shock was giving her the impression that he didn't think she'd be good. Behind her, Toni was resolutely studying the flute of champagne in her hands as Levi fluttered around her, occasionally stroking Pepper's arm as well. "It's a great choice," Stephen assured. Pepper gave a delighted smile. "Well, I'll need to go to the office and start searching for a new PA for Toni," she spoke brightly, lightly patting Levi's hem. "You two enjoy your lab time."

But they didn't go down. The instant she disappeared, Stephen turned to the genius with a raised eyebrow instead. Toni rolled her eyes. "I invented that look, it's not going to work on me," she told him. "May I known the reason behind Miss Potts' abrupt appointment as CEO?" He asked in a pleasant voice. "I can't think of anyone better," she affirmed. "She's one of the most trustworthy and capable people I know and she's wasted as my PA. I should have done this long ago." "So why now?" Stephen pressed. "I'm also going to leave Rhodey a suit," she continued, like she hadn't heard him. "He's been hinting that he wants one. But I can't just gift him one, so I'll have to make it look like I don't really want to, but haven't got a choice." "Why are you doing this now?" Stephen repeated, with more force. "You know why." "I want to hear you prove me wrong."

Toni got a pinched look in her face. "I can't do that," she whispered. Silently, she drained her glass and walked to the mini-bar she always kept stocked. Pouring out an unhealthy amount of what looked like expensive scotch, she quietly continued, "It's just in case I... If we don't find a cure. Someone needs to look after the company." Stephen felt a stab of hurt at having his suspicions proved correct. Toni was already halfway through her drink and, as she walked over to sit at the piano, he surmised that she'd started drinking long before he arrived. Judging by how steady she seemed, he would have said she was just on the edge of tipsy. But he knew how good of an actress she was and, once he got close enough to see it, the haziness in her eyes spoke differently.

"Toni," he sighed, not wanting her to hear the pain in his voice. She didn't reply. He wanted to pull her into a hug, a sudden urge to protect her overcoming him. But he refrained, knowing how averse she was to physical contact that wasn't initiated by her. Her fingers were running over the keyboard, like she was trying to find something. Finally, just as Stephen took a seat next to her, she pressed down. A single note rang out, pure and clear. Before it faded, the room was filled with a hauntingly beautiful melody, complicated but with a simple feel to it. Stephen, for all his Wikipedia knowledge of all sorts of music, couldn't recognise the tune. Then, Toni started singing. In Italian, no less, if he wasn't mistaken.

He didn't bother speaking again. At one point, JARVIS, of his own accord, informed him that Toni's blood toxicity was 37%, which caused a silent panic in him. But mostly, he stayed quiet and watched Toni play and sing, her eyes closed, her expression one of peace. But all the while he was wondering, why he had to lose one of the few good things in his life, one of his so few friends.

************

Stephen stepped through the portal into the Malibu mansion and froze. Pepper and Toni's new PA, a man named Clive Baxter, were seated on the couch, both busy on phones, with pens in hand and sharp voices. Luckily, both were facing away him. Awkwardly, he cleared his throat and both turned to look at him. Pepper's eyes widened in panic, then relaxed when she saw his stone-washed jeans and grey button-down, not just a temporary glamour. Good thing Levi had decided to stay behind. "How did you get past security?" Clive demanded sternly. "Who...?" "This is Stephen, Clive, an old friend of Toni's," Pepper interjected. "JARVIS has his clearance." The man eyed him suspiciously for a moment and Stephen felt uncomfortable under the laser-like gaze.

"Where is she?" He finally asked. He got two answers at the same time. "Oh, she doesn't want to be disturbed." "She's in the lab."

Leaving Baxter to glare in shocked annoyance at the red-head, he hurried downstairs, working up to his anger again. But the urge to chew Toni out for her stunt on the race track disappeared when he saw the lab was dark inside. The only light was the faint glow of hologram screens. Suddenly filled with worry, Stephen punched in his code and strode in.

Toni was sitting inside the old car she often tinkered with and was intently watching the screens. "Toni, the government is going to have your head," he started, making his way over to her. "That psychopath with the suit yesterday; that's going to cause a lot of panic and- Toni?" He'd reached her and she turned to gaze up at him. Stephen held back a choke. She looked so much worse than when he'd last seen her. Her skin was grey as ash and the poor lighting did nothing to hide her sunken eyes or the deep, dark shadows beneath them, the cracks at the corners of her mouth, her grey hair limp and dull. As she turned to the screens again, without a word, he could see how much more prominent the veins against her neck were, forming some sort of high-tech crossword puzzle on delicate skin.

"He was Ivan Vanko," she mumbled. "His father was a Russian scientist, worked with Howard. He had a part in the invention of the arc reactor. Tried to sell the tech illegally. Da-Howard exposed him." Stephen could hear what she was saying, but he was mostly focused on the way her lips trembled as she spoke and the weariness in her voice. "Toxicity?" He asked. She began to get out of the car, using the door instead of leaping over the side as usual. She stumbled on the first step and Stephen was quick to catch her. "Easy, easy," he mumbled, half-dragging her to the nearest table, her arm clutching at his shirt, her forehead buried in his shoulder. She collapsed into the chair and pulled out a replacement core from a drawer. Stephen watched as she switched them out, without bothering to lift her T-shirt, and waited for an answer. "59% this morning," she said weakly. He cursed and waited for Toni to get her breath back, as the arc lit up in blue under her T-shirt.

"Clive Baxter is SHIELD, though they don't know that I'm already aware of that." That caught his attention. "What?!" Toni had told him about the infrequent visits from Nick Fury, director of a secret government organisation called SHIELD, founded by Howard Stark and Toni's godmother, Margaret's Carter, or Aunt Peggy, as Toni called her. Toni had scoffed, saying that they were supposed to have been a secret from her, whereas in reality, Toni had known about them since she was eleven, when she'd overhead a conversation between Howard and Margaret. It was the same reaction now, albeit weaker.

"His real name is Clinton Barton, a sniper, though he prefers the more traditional use of a bow and arrow. JARVIS picked it up on his files and showed me. I would have rejected him, but he was already hired, so it would have looked suspicious," she informed. "Usually, they have another agent, Natalià Romanova, to infiltrate high-end companies and investigate them, occasionally sleeping with whoever's got highest authority, to get info. Highest authority doesn't usually belong to a woman, which is why they had to send Clint for me, although I don't think he's planning on seducing me. M'not getting that vibe. I actually like the guy, or the persona he has on right now, don't really know. But..."

She was rambling and Stephen, having heard all that he needed to, braced himself and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. Immediately, she flinched away from his touch and he silently apologized, but it had worked. She relaxed slightly. Stephen, in a bid to distract her, nodded at the grey painted armour suspended nearby. "That for Rhodes?" It was fashioned after the Iron Woman, of course, but with less curves and slightly broader shoulders and torso. "Yeah," she nodded. "Still gotta figure out how to give it to him without actually giving it." Then, she was quiet again. But only for a few moments.

"I'm sorry." Stephen blinked. "For what?" He wondered, genuinely confused. "For involving you in this," she explained. "I know it's going to hurt you a little when I... When it's over, but I just want you to remember that it isn't your fault. You couldn't have done anything." The sorcerer resisted the urge to snap. "Don't talk like that," he said sharply. "It's not going to hurt a 'little', it's going to be a bitch of a pain to deal with, because you're one of the few people I can actually call a friend. Nobody gets me like you do. But that doesn't mean I regret getting involved. I would have been mad if you hadn't told me, so don't go apologizing for that shit."

Toni stared at him blandly. She nodded, but the look in her dark eyes meant she didn't believe a word of what he'd said. He sighed, already regretting the news he was about to give her. "I'm leaving for Kamar-Taj," he said. "I'll be gone for at least two weeks. Mordo has been captured and they want the Protectors of all the Sanctums present for a plethora of rituals and stuff. I'll be completely out of touch, so please stay out of trouble and don't do anything stupid." Toni looked up at the ceiling, her lips moving silently in calculation. "You'll miss my birthday," she mumbled, with a pout that suddenly made her look several years younger. Stephen rolled his eyes. "I'm aware," he says dryly. "You'd better have something for me when you return, Doc." "No birthday gifts for annoying geniuses, genius." "Excuse you, I'll have you know that I'm a very adorable and lovable genius." "Let's agree to disagree."

************

"Stephen, you should come look at this." Stephen turned to follow the harried Asian out of the library. He frowned when Wong handed him a laptop, with several articles she YouTube video open. As Stephen went through them, he felt a growing sense of horror. He cringed throughout the video of Toni drunkenly teaching Clive how to use the repulsor beam in the glove of the Iron Woman armour. Then a grainy, phone-camera video of Iron Woman facing off another armour, which he recognised as the one for Rhodey. As he watched the fight, it was obvious that Iron Woman had been holding back, letting herself fall under the repulsors, just laying back and watching him fly off.

Then the subsequent articles: 'Iron Woman Spotted In Roadside Diner', 'Billionaire Stark Missing After Birthday Fiasco', 'Toni Stark Having Nervous Breakdown?'

Then, after a few days of silence, an appearance at the Stark Expo held in Queens, in the Iron Woman suit no less. The reports were vague and unsure after that, but Stephen knew enough of what Toni had told him to realize what had happened. Hammer must have funded Vanko, who had used his drones to create general terror. Iron Woman and Rhodey in his armour had fought of most of the drones, killing Vanko, while Pepper and Clive- Clint- had Hammer arrested. But what was truly worrying Stephen was that they had found that using the armour speeded up the blood poisoning. And the fool had just battled in it.

Stephen absently summoned a scrying stone. With the flat marble side facing him, he concentrated on Toni's features, her face the last time he'd seen her. He waited until... Nothing. He couldn't see her. "Why isn't it working?" "Your guess is as good as mine," Wong answered. He sounded flippant and unconcerned, but Stephen could hear the underlying worry. He came over and tried as well, but the result was still zilch.

"I'm going to Malibu," Stephen announced. "Meetings be damned, they don't need me here, you can fill in." "You might want to check with the new CEO- Miss Potts, was it- she might know where Stark is," Wong suggested. Stephen nodded and used the stone to check Pepper's location. To his relief, she was in her office in Malibu and alone. Grabbing his sling ring and trying to stay as cool and collected as he always did, he opened a portal and stepped into her office, almost smiling when Pepper's only reaction was just, "It's rude to teleport into other people's offices without knocking."

************

Stephen had never been so flabbergasted in his whole life as he was now, watching Toni saunter around her lab, her hands alternating between drawing up various schematics on her screens and stopping to tinker on a gauntlet held up on a desk. All the while, she was dancing around, jumping up on a cluttered table with her hips swinging in time with the music and singing along, occasionally breaking off to converse with JARVIS. Any other time, Stephen would have marveled at the various tasks her brain was capable of at the same time; several different projects, the armour, dancing, singing. But right now, he needed an explanation.

"JARVIS, turn down the music," he ordered. At the same time, Toni turned to him and smiled widely, bounding off the table to stand in front of him, at which Levi immediately flew off to settle in her shoulders instead. "How'z'it going, Dumbledore?" "What. Is. Going. On?" Stephen made sure to pronounce every word carefully to display his confusion. To his chagrin, Toni grinned. "In a nutshell? Well, first," she began counting off on her fingers. "I got drunk and made a fool of myself at the party, was an asshole to Pep. Rhodey wore a suit and fought me, then flew away with it, luckily, he'd picked the one I'd meant for him. Then I flew away to have some donuts, bumped into Pirate Fury and his two pets, a hawk and a spider. Hawkeye is actually Clint, who apologized for tricking me, and Black Widow is Natalià Romanova, aka Natasha Romanoff, aka Natalie Rushman, aka Ninã Raoult, who was kind enough to stick a needle in my neck, with a detoxin that slowed down the poisoning. Then, they provided me a few video diaries my dad made for me and a few of his old notes he'd left with them. Turns out he was pretty tight with Eye Patch. The old man actually hypothesised a new element, but didn't have the tech to create it. I did, and voilà, Starkanium is a viable and healthy, well, healthier, replacement for palladium."

All of this was said in one breath and when she was finished, Toni had moved back to her gauntlet, a screwdriver between her teeth and a soldering rod in her hand. A few words were standing out to me. "Starkanium?" "Yeah," she growled. "I wanted to call it 'Badassium', but I was outvoted at the IUPAC committee." 'Thank goodness for that,' Stephen thought to himself. He watched her carefully, knowing she was still keeping something from him. But she looked good, he realized, a far cry from two weeks ago. Her hair was in a single plait again, her skin fresh and clear of shadows, her eyes bright. She was moving with the same vigor she'd had before this whole fiasco.

"What else?" He wondered. Toni shot him a wary glance. "The Avengers Initiative, I told you about? Romanoff profiled me," she went on when he nodded confirmation. "'Iron Woman: Yes; Toni Stark: Not recommended.' They're keeping me as a consultant, but not an actual member." Stephen frowned, not liking what she was getting at. "And they actually already have a small mission for me..." "Refuse," Stephen suggested. "You don't belong to them and they haven't kept you as a member, you said." Toni shook her head. "They've told me what I need to do and I agree, it's required. I'm the only one who can pull off a negotiation with General Ross, especially about the Hulk." She didn't offer anymore information and Stephen didn't ask.

Instead, he nodded at the beacon of light on her chest. "May I?" Toni nodded and hopped up on the table and Stephen approached. He hadn't changed into normal clothes before leaving so he pulled off his gloves as Toni pulled off her band T-shirt. Tentatively, Stephen prodded at the small triangle, much more compact and brighter than the previous one. There was also an added energy to it, something that seemed foreign and yet.. similar. Frowning, he focused his sight on the astral level. To his surprise, he couldn't find Toni's aura. Granted, he'd never thought to check her aura before, but that didn't mean it wasn't there. Only he couldn't see it. The reactor, on the other hand, had a bright gold aura, almost orange, at odds with its blue glow he saw by normal sight. It was... Stephen felt another sliver of shock, then tamped it down. He must be mistaken, but if not, it explained why he hadn't been able to find her in the scrying stone. He focused on their dimension again. "So, you're... Cured?" He asked, tentatively, eyeing the absence of the dark, scarring veins on her smooth skin. "Yep," she replied cheerfully, shrugging on her T-shirt again when he stepped away. "Better buckle up, Strange, you're stuck with me for a few decades more." Stephen sighed, relief sweeping through him. It hadn't quite struck him till now, but... Toni was going to be fine. The poison was gone!

Suddenly feeling lighter, he smirked at the genius. "My, my," he mocked. "How am I ever going to survive decades with you, short shack?" Toni stopped in her tracks. "You did not just make a joke about my height," she growled. Something about her indignant expression, coupled with his euphoria, caused Stephen to laugh out loud. Toni joined in and, chuckling, she stepped towards him. "Hey, Stephen," she started. He looked down at her. "Thank you," she said. "It can't have been easy for you, that kind of responsibility. And I'm sorry for lying to you in the beginning." "It's fine," Stephen assured her. "I wish you hadn't lied, too, but I get why you did. You didn't want to seem weak, didn't want me to worry. I get it."

Toni smiled wryly. "If only Rhodey and Pepper took it as well," she commented. "Both are giving me the third degree, right now. Though Rhodey is a bit cooler, since he realized I'd built him a suit." "Does he know you'd gone easy on him at the party?" Stephen interrupted. Toni flashed him an innocent smile. "I don't believe I have any idea what you're talking about," she sniffed. Before he could protest, she did something he never expected. Stepping into his personal space, she wrapped him in a loose embrace. "Thank you," she whispered. Stephen slowly returned the hug, keeping a light hold in case she started feeling uncomfortable with the physical contact. But, in spite of that, Stephen was acutely aware of the proximity of her body, her arms a gentle weight on around his neck, the reactor a comfortable edge on his chest. Then she pulled away with a shy smile and his eyes feel on the blue light again. He would consult with Wong first, he decided, before telling Toni. Right now, he relaxed and watched his friend start dancing again.

Chapter Text

The Avengers

Stephen opened a portal directly into the open top floor/roof of the newly opened Stark Tower in New York to find Pepper looking up at a hologram reading of numbers and charts. She looked perfectly relaxed as she conversed with Toni, who was pouring out drinks. "Hey, Toni," he greeted. "Hey Pep."

"Hi, Stephen, Levi," Toni answered, without looking up.

"Levi isn't here."

"Why?"

"She decided she wanted to stay behind today."

There was a short pause, in which she looked up with a pout. "What the hell are you doing here, then?" Toni demanded and Stephen raised an eyebrow. "You wanted me here," he reminded. "I absolutely did not," she countered.

"The texts on my phone say otherwise."

"All a devious ploy to spend time with the Cloak."

"You two act like an old married couple," Pepper interrupted. "And that's completely above my pay grade. Toni, the levels look like they're holding steady... I think." Toni rolled her eyes and kissed her swiftly on the cheek. "Of course, they are, I was directly involved." "Ma'am, Agent Coulson of SHIELD is on the line," JARVIS spoke up. All three of them stiffened slightly, even Pepper, who had forged a semblance of friendship with the agent, which had been ruined when she found how he'd threatened Toni while she'd been dying. As for the other two, well, Stephen remembered Toni's words all too well.

"I don't want you anywhere near SHIELD," she'd told him. "They've got Bruce Banner, Reed Richards and myself on their radar. I told you they've recovered Captain America from the ice? They've got him on security lockdown, too, only they're calling it 'for safety'. I'd try to get him out myself, but he doesn't like me, or trust me." She'd shuddered, then added, "I don't know what they'll do if they ever find out about you and Kamar-Taj or the Sanctum."

Right now, Toni quickly wiped the trepidation from her face, not wanting Pepper to worry and snarked, "Grow a spine, JARVIS, and tell him I'm out."

"Ma'am, I'm afraid he's insisting."

"Stark, I need to talk to you," came Phil Coulson's voice over the mini-Starkscreen. Toni rolled her eyes and picked it up. "You have reached the life model decoy of Toni Stark," she recited in a monotone and Stephen choked on his champagne, while Pepper hid her snort behind her hand. "Please leave a message."

"Stark, this is urgent."

"Then leave it urgently."

The elevator doors slid open and Toni scowled, jumping up onto her feet. Before she could even start accusing him of breaking and entering, Coulson said, "Clint is in trouble."

Immediately, Toni straightened, her sharp brown eyes narrowed in suspicion. She and Clint had struck up a genuine friendship, in spite of him pretending to be her PA for a nearly a year. And while, Clint wouldn't trick her like this, none of them would put it past the rest of Shield to use their friendship as an incentive.

"Well, I can't see what you would need a consultant for, since-"

"This isn't a consultation," Phil corrected quietly and held out the file. Stephen immediately plucked it from his hands and passed it to Toni, as Pepper inquired, "Is this about the Avengers?" "Which we know nothing about," Stephen put in at Phil's cautious glance. "I thought I didn't even qualify," Toni grumbled, placing the file on the table and scanning it. "Didn't know that either," Stephen continued, enjoying the concealed annoyance on the agent's face.

"Miss Potts, Dr Strange? Got a sec?"

Both Stephen and Pepper hopped off the steps to the elevator and joined Toni as she eyed the moving screens. "Pepper, you're taking the jet to DC tonight."

"Tomorrow."

"I've got homework, a lot of homework."

Pepper sighed and leaned in to kiss Toni's cheek. "Work hard," she whispered, before leaving. Coulson left with her, offering to take her to the airport. Stephen turned to Toni. "Do you want me to go too?" He asked.

"No," Toni murmured and brought forth a screen that showed a glowing blue cube. He waited for her to continue, but she was already lost to the world, her eyes rapidly moving between the various screens and a thick file in her hands with the name "Dr Erik Selvig" on it.

With a fond sigh, Stephen stepped back and watched her concentrate on the task. She was a different person when she was working: serious, focused, driven. It was fascinating to see and, if he was being honest with himself, kind of hot. The black under-suit she was still wearing from when she was in the armour wasn't helping matters. Times like this, Stephen mused, he was glad he was a doctor. It made it easier to overlook and ignore the physical attractiveness of a person.

Stephen opened a small portal and picked a few books from the Sanctum library. The rest of the night was silent, with Toni studying the notes on thermonuclear astrophysics and Stephen poring over texts dating back to when the Ancient One was young. It was a few hours after sunrise that Toni finally broke the silence, stretching out her limbs with a satisfied hum. Stephen watched her from the corner of his eye.

"Finished?" He asked, tired. "You betcha," she replied in a chirpy voice that most definitely did not belong to someone who had stayed up all night. But in nearly three years, he'd watched her work through several days without food or rest, surviving only on coffee. The doctor in Stephen would cringe and want to drug her to sleep, but the scientist in him was fascinated with her work and helped wherever he was within his depth.

"Alright, what's going on then? Or is it too classified for me to know?" He teased as he got up from his seat. "Nothing is too classified for you," Toni laughed, but he could hear the underlying sincerity and started reading the few screens she dragged over to him. After several minutes, he released a long breath. "Norse gods? Really?" He asked weakly, staring at the picture of a tall man with long, dark hair and sharp features. Loki, according to the files.

"Where is he now?"

"Stuttgart, Germany," Toni answered immediately. "He's not done anything yet, so I'll wait for Shield to find him first, before I go in too. Which is probably going to take a few more hours, if they've already started their own facial recognition search."

"Who else are they calling in?" Stephen wondered, eyeing the pictures he didn't recognize. "Captain America," Toni pointed at a tall blond with pleasant congenial features. He wondered if he imagined the note of bitterness and resentment in her voice. Given what he knew about her father, he didn't think so.

"They're trying to persuade Dr Banner; Hulk; good luck with that," she snorted. Then she frowned. "Romanoff is the one bringing him in, she's part of the team, too." "What's up with Barton?"

Toni sighed. "Loki has a fancy jewelled walking stick that's apparently capable of brainwashing people," she grumbled.

For a few minutes, they were silent, each watching the various video footages. Stephen hesitated to ask what was praying on his mind. "Do you think I-?"

"No."

"Toni, the guy is a sorcerer." Stephen knew Toni could handle the god, because he had been sparring with her for months now, in a bid for her to learn how to fight a magic-user. But, still...

"Remember what you taught me about the Infinity Stones?" Toni asked abruptly. "And how keeping two or more of them together was a recipe for disaster?"

Stephen nodded, wondering where she was going with this.

"Well," she started, pulling forward the blue cube he'd noticed earlier. The Tesseract, based on the notes he'd read, dating back to Hydra during WW 2. "This was recovered at the same time as Captain," Toni explained. "Fury had a team of scientists, led by Selvig, examining it. They thought they could use it as a potentially infinite source of self-sufficient energy." She paused, frowned and whispered, "Why Selvig?" Then went on, "You know it's not of Earth? Well, it actually belongs to Asgard and Loki used it to open a portal between here and wherever he was."

Stephen couldn't do that; he needed to have seen the place at least once to open a portal anywhere. Toni picked up a file and flipped to a marked page. "According to his notes, the Cube had a weak emission of gamma rays, which is partly why they need Banner. But," she hesitated again, then changed tack. "Do you remember when you let me run tests on the Stone you have? Time?"

"Considering Wong still gives me the evil eye about it," Stephen snapped a little, recalling how Toni had pleaded and cajoled to let her examine the Eye of Agamotto." "I'd be hard pressed to forget it."

Toni spared him a sly wink, then gestured towards the notes again. "Well, the Cube has a faint energy signature that's identical to the readings from the Eye. Weak, but identical."

"You think it's an Infinity Stone?" Stephen wanted to clarify. "No, because you said they can only be handled by really powerful beings. Selvig doesn't really fit the description," Toni argued. "But it's something similar."

He had to admit it was likely. "Or it could be a casing. The Stone could be inside the Cube, like Time inside the Eye," he suggested. "You did handle that." "Maybe," she agreed.

Something pinged and Toni snapped to attention. "It appears Shield has caught up to Loki, Ma'am," JARVIS announced. An address came up and Toni nodded. "Get the suit ready, J," she ordered. "And pilot Marks 23 and 24 to Shield's hellicarrier. Find Banner's lab there and store it near."

She turned to Stephen, a rare seriousness softening her features. "Stay out of this, Stephen," she implored. "Infinity Stones aside, I don't want you within ten feet of Shield." Stephen nodded reluctantly, already hating his helplessness as JARVIS arranged the armour around her, the signature red and gold flashing in the early morning light.

"Stay safe," he called out. She hovered at the edge and laughed. "Where's the fun in that?"

Stephen wanted to bang his head on something at the flippant response, but she'd already flown off. Instead, he sighed and started preparing a portal to the Sanctum.

"If I may, sir," a British voice spoke up and Stephen looked up at the ceiling, a natural response while talking to JARVIS. "I may be wrong, but I believe, given the time and opportunity, Ma'am may come to feel the same about you."

Stephen quirked an eyebrow in solid confusion. "Um, what?" Was all he could say.

There was a short pause (AI hesitation?). Then, with a note of dry amusement, JARVIS spoke again. "Perhaps, I spoke too soon. Please put it out of your mind, sir."

Shaking his head at the ingenuity that had given birth to a fully sentient AI capable of human emotions, Stephen stepped through his portal.

 

************

 

'Captain America is an asshole.'- TS

'He's hot.'- TS

'But an asshole, nonetheless.'- TS

Stephen wasn't sure if he should laugh or seethe with jealousy. He wasn't sure why he was feeling jealous in the first place. Sure, he felt protective of Toni, anyone who truly knew her did, and he always felt a bit wary and concerned whenever she stumbled through the mansion, drunkenly making out with whoever she'd picked up that night, on the way to the bedroom. But, he realized, she hadn't taken anyone home for nearly a year. And this wasn't concern. This was pure, burning jealousy. He didn't feel too eager to examine the reasons behind that. He didn't want to mess up their friendship the way he and Christine had.

Speaking of Christine, he wondered how she was enjoying London. She'd been called for a conference of surgeons and last time they'd talked, she'd mentioned crushing on some sort of self-proclaimed detective, who was "extremely hot, really talented and looks a lot like you, Stephen!"

His phone buzzed again.

'We got Rock of Ages, btw.'- TS

'I called Rogers "Capsicle". How wise do you think that was?'- TS

'I got knocked down by another Norse god. Thor is helping us, though, don't stress.'- TS

'Bruce Banner is AWESOME. He even called me 'Doctor'. Kinda jumpy, but I'll train him up in no time.'- TS

'He's cute, too. Kinda like a lost puppy.'- TS

'Bruce is my new Science Bro. I think I'll keep him.'- TS.

'I'm thinking of poking him with something sharp, or hot, or electric.'- TS

The last one did it. Stephen began shaking with laughter, inviting annoyed glances from Wong.

 

************

 

"Stephen, where are you?" Toni's voice rang through his phone. Stephen dodged the crowds and ducked into a shop. Looking out at the distant vortex in the sky, directly above Stark Tower, he answered, "I'm on Bleeker Street. Toni, there are civilians here, I'm not leaving them defenceless."

"I'm not asking you to," she assured him. "How discreet can you be?"

A large humanoid creature entered the abandoned shop and Stephen, cradling the phone between his ear and shoulder, summoned thin, golden ropes that bound the alien before suffocating it. "What do you mean?"

"Cap just ordered the police to form a perimeter, but they're not equipped to deal with aliens." She was talking fast, breathlessly. "There's a small gap where the Chitauri are going through and Cap, Widow and Thor are busy enough. Hawkeye is taking care of strays on our tails, but Bleeker Street is in his blind spot. Take care of that and try not to be seen by the team."

Quietly admiring her efficiency in giving commands, Stephen began making his way to where he could hear screams mixed in with threatening snarls. "Please be carefully, though," Toni reminded him.

"Where's the fun in that?" Stephen teased and Toni, recognising her own words, groaned in frustration before cutting the connection.

For almost an hour, he fought with a glamour over himself that hid him from the stray civilians, cursing the fact that he'd dressed casually. The trademark tunic of sorcerers was so much easier to battle in. The Chitauri, as Toni had called them, were large, blue and a bit dumb. Stephen ended up trapping most of them in the Mirror Dimension, before constricting the space and imploding them. Levi, who had appeared at some point, kept tripping them over, causing enough discord for Stephen to finish off the remaining aliens.

When there was a lull in the battle, Stephen looked up, breathing hard and trying to spot Iron Woman. He could see the portal still open above the Tower, alien ships still coming through. There was one ship, much smaller than the others, that was, for some reason, travelling back up towards the portal. A scout ship of some sort, maybe. Somewhere, he heard a phone ring. Puzzled, he quickly realized it was his own phone that had fallen out of his pockets at some point. He picked it up from near an alien carcass and answered it.

"Stephen?"

"Toni, you okay?"

"Stephen, I need you to go to the office in D.C. now," Toni demanded. She was breathing harshly, sounding strained. And scared. "What? Why?" Stephen asked, panting.

"I've been trying to call Pepper, she's not answering. She'll be watching this on the news and freaking out, I need you to check on her."

"Alright, alright. But, Toni, there's something flying back into the wormhole, but I'm too far away to see what it is."

"Yeah, don't worry, I'm taking care of it."

"Do me a favour and try not to go through the thing."

There was a short silence. Then, "Go to Pep," she repeated. "And don't do anything stupid." She disconnected before he could question her meaning and, shrugging it off, he drew a portal into Pepper's office.

"Pepper, are you okay? Toni sent me- Pepper?"

The redhead had been watching the news, but now she was staring at Stephen with something akin to horror in her blue eyes. "Toni," she whimpered.

Something like guilt settled in his stomach. Slowly, Stephen turned to watch the screen. It was live footage of the wormhole, in close up. Iron Woman was... Iron Woman was traveling up to the wormhole, with a nuclear missile strapped to her back. The 'ship' that Stephen had seen... Wasn't a ship, but rather... Toni in her suit... Toni was flying a nuke through the wormhole... Toni was going through the wormhole. Toni was... Gone... Vanished into space.

Behind him, he was dimly aware of Pepper checking her phone and crying, "She called me!" But, as the portal closed, his heart leapt. The suit was coming back down, it made it through. Only... Only it wasn't flying, he realized. It was falling. "Pepper," he called and she turned to watch. Both their hearts were beating furiously as they waited for Toni to take control of the free-fall. But when she was still falling, Stephen felt the need to create a portal in mid-air and grab her. But he couldn't move. And Toni disappeared from the camera's view.

 

****************************************

 

"TONI!" Both Pepper and Stephen called at the same time. Stephen had opened a portal on Bleeker Street and they had run to where they had seen Toni fall. But nobody had been there. Then, Pepper had suggested Stark Tower and Stephen was glad he'd opened the portal on Toni's floor, before running up to the roof, where all the Avengers had been gathered. Stephen wasn't sure whether the burn in his chest was anger or relief. Right now, both would be justified.

Toni looked battered. Her plaited hair had loosened, there was a small amount of blood trickling down her nose and the suit was dented in a way that made him sure he would find a platitude of bruises on her. But she smiled widely when she saw them and gave a sheepish wave. The rest of the team had weapons at the ready, which they lowered warily at Toni's greeting, except Clint, who had put his away as soon as he'd recognised them.

For a long moment, the two sides stared at each other, ignoring both the armoured woman and the half-conscious god in a large crater on the floor.

Pepper was the first to react. Starting forward, she slapped Toni across the face, hard, and glared at her for a good thirty seconds before bursting into tears and smothering her with a hug. "Pep, hey, ow, um, sorry, I'm really sorry, ouch, Pepper, geez, okay, yeah," Toni mumbled, wincing slightly as she attempted to return the hug through the armour. Stephen let them have their moment, even though he was itching with the need to touch her, make sure she was okay. He was aware, on some level, of Captain America's steady gaze on him, brimming with something he couldn't quite name, but was familiar all the same.

"If it's all the same to you, I'll have that drink now." Everybody startled and turned to see Loki struggling to sit up, with a half-hearted attempt to smirk through his pain. He was facing Toni, but his gaze kept flickering towards the large blond with the hammer; Thor. Toni gave a small laugh. "Maybe later, Reindeer Games," she promised.

The tension was broken and everyone relaxed. Stephen stepped closer to Toni, who grimaced and held a hand up. "J?" She questioned. The answer must have come through her earpiece, because she continued. "JARVIS, the spinning rims won't work. Disengage the suit, please."

Immediately, the suit fell to pieces around her feet and without it holding her up, Toni swayed and collapsed. Rogers started towards her, but Stephen caught her first, somehow finding the strength in his weak hands to keep her steady. "You and I are going to have a long talk later," he hissed into her ear. A chuckle escaped her as she leaned on him heavily. "Sure thing."

 

************

 

"I've never seen a person who survives on sheer dumb luck as much as you do," Stephen finally concluded, as Toni finished regaling him with how the Hulk had caught her as she fell and his roar had somehow jolted her heart and the arc reactor to start up again. She smiled wanly in answer and they sat in a comfortable silence for a while, surrounded by the chirps and creaks from the bots.

Stephen didn't want to see it, but he couldn't ignore the residual fear in Toni's eyes. Her panicked voice over the phone as she told him to go to D.C. was still running around his mind. He considered warning her of possible PTSD, but he hesitated. He knew Toni; she would vehemently deny it and shut him out.

"There's something I wanted to ask you."

Stephen started, then waited. Toni bit her lip in consideration. "Before the portal opened, I was in the city first and went to the penthouse to stall Loki," she said. "He tried to use that sceptre on me, but... He tapped the reactor and it didn't work." Stephen thought about the implications and tried to shrug casually. "The metal and energy pulses might have protected you," he ventured. "Maybe," Toni conceded. "But, while we had the sceptre, Bruce and I were scanning it. Stephen, it had the same readings as the Tesseract and the Time Stone."

Stephen fought the urge to face palm. Of all things good and holy, he silently begged. "You think there's a Stone," he said dryly. "Inside the crystal, presumably."

"Still doesn't explain why it didn't work through the reactor," Toni frowned. "I mean, I'm glad, but shouldn't a 'relic from before creation' be powerful enough to bypass some Earth technology, no matter how ridiculously advanced?"

Stephen had a choice: he could tell Toni what he suspected about the device in her chest and cause unavoidable panic, or lie to her for now until he found out more and thus delay the aforementioned panic.

"I think I'll run some tests on the arc again and see if-"

"No!"

Toni squinted at him in suspicion. "Why? What is it?"

"I have a few guesses of my own," he admitted. "Just... Just let me confirm them. Don't pry until then, please." He tried to infuse as much sincerity and firmness as he could in his words. It seemed to work. Toni gazed at him for a long time, but nodded her promise and he breathed in relief. Until she spoke again.

"I kissed Steve, by the way."

Stephen wasn't sure he heard the words right. He blinked at Toni, who was now picking at an invisible speck on her sleeve. "What?" Was the intelligence response he articulated. She glared at him a bit. "I kissed Steve," she repeated forcefully. "On the hellicarrier, right after we figured out Loki's game plan. We were hopeful, 'cause it seemed like we had a chance, and Clint was back and he was right there and he was smiling at me kinda proudly, 'cause technically I'd figured it out and I just..." She petered off and looked up at him from under her lashes, like she was waiting for a reprieve.

Stephen, for his part, felt frozen. For some reason, he couldn't quite compute the fact that Toni had kissed the man she'd resented and cursed for so many years. And he didn't like that fact.

"Anything else?" He prodded, trying to keep his voice from trembling.

Toni was looking at him in concern now, trying to gauge his reaction, but Stephen's poker face was nearly as good as Toni's. "Then he kissed me when they were sure that I was fine and could breathe, just before coming back to the Tower," she added.

Stephen wasn't sure which of the hundred reasons in his head for not liking any part of this conversation was true and how many were just excuses. "So, what now?"

Toni shrugged. "Neither of us said anything about it." Was it his imagination or did she sound upset about that? "Nobody else did either, surprisingly enough. So, we'll just wait and watch, I guess." She focuses on him again, her brown eyes sharp and hard. "You're taking this awfully well," she observed.

Stephen forced a laugh, hoping it didn't sound anything like the crushing jealousy and hurt he felt. Well, at least he had a name to the glare Rogers had directed at him earlier. "I'm not your father, Toni, God forbid. I just worry a little, because I'm your friend." 'Just a friend,' he told himself firmly. Toni gave a small smile in response, before shooing him off to the Sanctum for sleep. Extracting a promise from both her and JARVIS that she would sleep as well, he drew a portal to the main foyer of the Sanctum. Stepping through, he turned back to look at Toni, who was clearing up projects on the table. In spite of the barely-there haunted look in her eyes, the slight painful stiffness to her gait, she looked beautiful to him and Stephen felt a surge of possessiveness. 'She doesn't belong to you,' he tried to tell himself. 'She's not an object and she doesn't owe you anything. One night doesn't mean a thing in the long run. She's. Not. Yours.'

But, he couldn't quite convince himself, so with the reminder to himself that a single kiss (two, whatever) didn't change anything, he closed the portal and turned to greet his waiting companion.

Chapter Text

Iron Man 3

"No, you bloody well cannot make use of the Iron Legion and yes, you're welcome to quote me on that."

"Thor wasn't present on Avengers business. Whatever happened was to do with his world and his villains."

"SI is not going to have a part in the cleanup. Neither will I nor any individual associated with the Stark name."

"I'm sorry, Nick, but I can't interfere with another government's responsibility. If the London government personally ask for my help, I'll gladly give it. Until then, no."

It was one of those days when Toni was hanging around the Sanctum. As was usual on those days, she was juggling between three different phones and two laptops. Stephen had long given up on reading, with the steady stream of words and vitriol, and had taken to practicing his signature. Six years since the accident and his hands still shook like their own personal earthquake. He was almost ready to try and snap the pencil in half when it was plucked away. Stephen looked up in confusion to see Toni standing by him, her eyes fixed on him in reproach and her hand moving across the paper, even as she negotiated business over the phone. Then she gave his hand a brief squeeze, too gentle to hurt, and resumed pacing. He looked down to find what Toni had written. It took him a minute, but he spotted the scrawled, illegitimate signature reading 'Stark' amidst the dozens that read 'Strange'.

Frustration gone, Stephen smiled at the silent assurance, trying not to think about how Toni was the only one who could touch his naked hands, which were always a bit colder than normal, and not incite a flinch.

Toni's voice shifted and he surmised she was taking a personal call. That was confirmed when he paid attention to her words. "Yes, I heard and I'm sorry, Steve, but I'm entirely too busy to fly over to London right now."

At the name 'Steve', Stephen bit back an annoyed growl and tried hard to dispel the foreign yet familiar warmth in his palms. He couldn't think like that; not when Toni was in the room and talking with her boyfriend of almost one year. "Yeah, I'm in New York, just not at the Tower." A short pause. "I'm with Stephen at his place." Another pause, then with a slightly stern note, "I'll talk to you later, Steve."

As soon as he was sure she had kept the phone down, Stephen got up to join her on the couch. Immediately, she rested her head on his shoulder and he struggled not to lean into her small frame. "Something wrong with the Captain?" He asked with faux casualness.

"He doesn't like you," Toni answered, blunt and honest as always. "Thinks you're a shady character, who's hiding something."

"Well, he's not wrong, technically," Stephen conceded. Toni chuckled and they stayed like that for a while, taking in the brief silence in the hectic schedules of their lives. Levi fluttered in from wherever she'd been hiding and wrapped around them both. It was an odd sort of contradiction, Stephen mused. Toni was a force of nature, a powerful hurricane packed in a compact body, unpredictable and constantly moving. But somehow, she had become the only stable point of his life, the one thing he could always count on for support. And, sometimes, it scared him to think that something or someone (namely, Steve Rogers) would convince her that he wasn't worth her time or company.

After several minutes, Toni stirred. "I've got to get back to Malibu," she sighed, getting up. "Need to attend a few board meetings in the next two days." Stephen chuckled at the annoyance colouring her tone. "You could just move to New York," he suggested, with a sly grin. "You've got the Tower."

"What, and leave behind my beloved California?" Toni snorted. "Yeah, not a chance."

"Alright, hold on, I'll draw you a portal." He began to get up

"No!"

He looked at her in confusion and Toni bit her lips. "I've got the car waiting outside," she explained.

"And you can't have someone take it back for you?" Stephen asked doubtfully, his hands prepared to summon the portal.

"Happy's back home and I don't let anyone else touch my babies," Toni answered. She was speaking with her usual flair, but Stephen could see her fingers tapping sporadically against her jeans. "Don't worry, I'll call when I get to the airport."

Before he could protest, she darted forward to press her lips against his cheeks and dashed towards the main doors.

 

************

 

Toni couldn't stop shaking. She could feel her pulse rocketing, pumping a staccato rhythm against her wrists and neck. At JARVIS's insistence, she pulled over into a small alley. Immediately, she realised she couldn't breathe and her hands tore at her jacket. Panting and shivering, she clutched at the arc reactor and squeeze her eyes shut, trying to drive the images away.

"Ma'am, please, focus on my voice as you breathe. You're in New York city, New York. The date is 4th September and the time is 17:46. The temperature is..."

Slowly, the dulcet British tones in her ear brought her back and she focused dull eyes on the steering. "Thanks, J," she gasped and JARVIS stopped for a minute.

"If you would take my advice, Ma'am, this is the fourth panic attack you are experiencing since the first one in the café," he said. "It would be prudent for you to consult a professional. Or at the very least, Dr Strange."

"I'm fine, JARVIS," Toni muttered. "And I can't tell Stephen. Or Rhodey and Pepper. Or Happy. I can't... Can't let them see me like this. So weak. Useless."

"Dr Strange has also suffered from PTSD in the past, he may be able to help with-"

"Exactly, he's had PTSD. After having died a thousand times over. He got over it, didn't he? This is nothing compared to that; I'm freaking out over a wormhole. I can get through this too. I..." Her voice broke. "I don't want him to think I'm weak."

 

************

 

"Here's a little holiday greeting for the Mandarin," Toni said on-screen and Stephen felt anticipation creeping into his chest. "I'm not scared of you. I'm going to find you and then I'm going. To. Finish. You. There's no government. No Pentagon. Just you and me. And on the off chance, you're not a coward..." She broke off, her gaze becoming even more intense. "Here's my home address: 10880, Malibu Point, Malibu. I'll leave the door unlocked."

Stephen felt a deep-seated frustration and anger rising in him. How could anyone be so impulsive and self-destructive? It wasn't humanly possible!

His mind made up, he began drawing a portal into the familiar living room of Toni's mansion. When he saw she was already there, he called out her name before even stepping through, making her turn around to face him. "What the actual fuck were you thinking? Publicly challenging an inter-"

He froze. Something was wrong.

Toni was staring at the fading portal, but her gaze was blank and unfocused. She had backed into the wall and she was shivering, tremors that wracked her whole body. Stephen made a move towards her, his hand impulsively reaching out to hold her, but she flinched further away.

"Doctor, please do stay back and give us a moment," JARVIS spoke up. "Ma'am, please take a deep breath and recall that you are not in space or in your suit or flying through a wormhole. You are in your mansion, in Malibu. The date is 12th September and the time is 09:24. Miss Potts is currently upstairs in her room. Colonel Rhodes is flying missions in Pakistan. Mr Hogan is unconscious in the hospital..."

Stephen watched; hurt and anger warring inside him; as Toni recovered and straightened. She met his eyes with an embarrassment that was covered up by a cool façade of arrogance and calm. "Wasn't expecting to s-"

"You didn't tell me you had anxiety."

The temperature of the room seemed to drop a few degrees as the words left Stephen's mouth. Toni stared back at him for a brief moment, gauging her words. "I wasn't aware I needed to tell you anything," she finally said.

Stephen felt his mouth fall open. "Are you shitting me!" He exclaimed. "You're suffering from panic attacks and based on JARVIS' reaction, this wasn't the first time. He said wormhole, so I'm guessing the portal triggered it. It reminds you of New York, doesn't it? That means this has been going on for almost a year now and you didn't think to tell the one person you know who actually has gone through something like this? Or the man who's probably helped his subordinates deal with it? Or your best friend who practically lives with you? Because knowing you, I can guarantee that you haven't told either Rhodes or Pepper anything too."

By the end of his tirade, he was yelling. Toni, for her part, barely shifted, except raising a single eyebrow. "And how, pray tell, would telling anybody anything have helped me?" She asked, her voice steady with barely contained emotions, though he couldn't tell of what sort. "I need a solution, not empty platitudes."

"I'm not even going to touch that last part, because I know you don't mean it," Stephen snapped. "But as for a solution- I suppose it's too much to hope that you're actually seeing a therapist like you should?"

"I can deal with it!" Toni snarled. "I'm not a child, I don't need to run to a doctor for everything."

"You are," Stephen seethed. "The most idiotic and careless person on this planet."

"And you should stop poking your nose into my life when I didn't ask you to."

They glared daggers at each other, neither willing to back down. Then, the bell rang and Toni closed her eyes in annoyance. "JARVIS, how are we still at ding-dong?" She demanded. "I just threatened a terrorist!"

"My apologies, Ma'am. There's only so much I can do when you announce your precise whereabouts on national television."

Cursing internally, Stephen swallowed. "Toni?" She paused, already on her way to the entrance hall, not even looking at him. "Please don't do anything stupid," he begged. "Anxiety isn't a joke. You can't fight like that; even if you are in the armour."

Toni's face hardened further, but he couldn't tell why. "Feel free to leave," she bit out.

"Feel free to call me when you're ready to listen," Stephen shot back. He waited until Toni had disappeared from his sight, before sighing and creating a portal. The television was still running and he left it on, settling into the couch, trying to push the recent events from his mind for the time being.

Then, forty minutes later, everything changed with the footage of Toni's mansion crumbling into the ocean.

 

************

 

"Stephen!"

Pepper ran over to him as soon as he stepped onto the scene, surveying the damage. He'd scried the scene first and chosen a fairly isolated spot from the people who were working on salvaging the structure. As Pepper reached his side, he stared at the ground, knowing for sure that he was standing right above Toni's lab. Thank God, it was underground and basically a missile-proof bunker.

"Have you heard anything from... From Toni?" Pepper demanded, her voice high and slightly shaky. He could see from her eyes that she'd been crying.

"No," Stephen said, hating himself when Pepper visibly sagged further.

"The fool got us out first," she groaned. "She had JARVIS arrange the armour around me and told me to get Maya and myself out. Once we cleared the structure, JARVIS must have informed her and she summoned it back." Fresh tears spilled. "It wasn't enough," she cried and Stephen, hesitant, gathered her into a hug. It was awkward, but Pepper clutched him like a drowning woman.

"This is Toni we're talking about," Stephen consoled her and himself. "If anyone can get themselves out of impossible situations, it's her. She'll be fine. And you're forgetting JARVIS. If you think that mad AI wouldn't do everything he can to keep Toni safe, you're wrong." He paused a short second, wondering if he could have gotten them all out if he'd been present, if he hadn't left after arguing with her. He knew he could have. "Who's Maya?"

Pepper explained everything that happened before the first missile hit and Stephen agreed with her plan: get Maya and get somewhere safe, then wait for Toni to contact them.

 

************

 

"Hey, Stephen," came the soft, familiar voice through the phone he had pressed to his ear. "I just... Wanted to say I'm sorry. For everything. For not telling you about the anxiety and all. I just... It's not that I didn't trust you, because I trust you with my life, I do-" and how perfect was it, Stephen thought sarcastically, that he couldn't even say it back because this was a voicemail.

"I just didn't want to seem weak. Like I didn't have everything in control. When the truth is, I don't think I'm in control of myself even. I'm always losing myself; either to torture, or palladium poisoning or plain fear. I didn't want you to see that." And God, she just sounded so broken, so helpless, and he couldn't do anything about it.

"I can't tell you where I am. And I'm not coming home right now. The world thinks I'm dead and that'll allow me to get to this Mandarin guy. Just don't worry about me, okay? I've met this kid, he's helping me put a few things together; don't worry, I'm not gonna let anything happen to him. Call Rhodey and tell him everything; he'll be going out of his mind. I've already gotten a message to Pep. Steve might come looking for you, don't tell him anything if he does. I don't want him to start a nationwide search in his panic."

"I gotta go now. I'll see you soon, yeah. Say hi to Levi for me."

The message ended and Stephen curled into the corner of his couch, rapidly dialling Rhodey. When the call was done, with Rhodey fuming and neurotic with worry at the same time, he played the message again. He kept playing it, holding it close, and just listened to Toni's soothing tones. He stayed that way till the next morning.

 

************

 

"Toni?"

Stephen's deep, worried voice was like a balm to Toni's ears and she stayed quiet for a few seconds, letting the sound wash over her, before remembering to answer.

"Yeah, hey." She cleared her throat. "I guess you saw the news?"

"Yes, I just did. I didn't know you could carry eleven people in the suit."

"Technically, I wasn't, I just-"

"Yeah, no, explain later," Stephen cut in. "Are you okay?"

A short silence later, Toni said, "They've got the President," in lieu of actually answering the question. "And Maya's been working for Aldrich, who is the Mandarin. And they've got Pepper."

Stephen's eyes widened. "They took Pepper?! What, as leverage?" That was a stupid idea, indeed. Toni was going to rain hellfire on them. "Do you want me to come?"

"I want you to scry the Cabinet members and anyone else who works close to the Prez," Toni ordered. "There's a mole there. Once you find him, get to whomever you think is trustworthy and powerful enough to detain him, tell him what you know and give him my name. That'll get him to believe you."

A couple minutes later, as Stephen gazed at the scrying stone, he wondered who was powerful enough to detain the Vice President of the United States of America.

 

************

 

'Toni's private airfield. Now.' -JR

The second he read the sombre text from Rhodey, Stephen wasted no time in drawing a portal, the Cloak landing around his shoulders. He came out outside the hangar, only to dash over to where Rhodey was standing by a sleek quinjet, one that was obviously Toni's design, if the subtle red and gold on the wing-tips was any indication. Speaking of which...

"Where's Toni?" He demanded. "Is she okay? Is Pepper?"

"I don't know," was the only answer he got as he boarded.

The nervous silence got to Stephen in a way nothing else did. Rhodey was fidgeting as he sat at the helm, his eyes betraying nothing but pain and doubt. Stephen could only guess what had happened. He was surprised when they landed the jet in the compounds of an oil tanker. But all thoughts flew out as he caught sight of two familiar figures lying on the ground.

Without waiting for the jet to stop moving, Stephen portaled to where they lay and momentarily froze. Pepper and Toni were curled around each other, auburn and mahogany hair tangled together. Toni was covered in cuts and bruises, a particularly nasty one bleeding on her forehead. Pepper was covered in a thin layer of grime and soot, and there was a subtle but vivid orange glow under her skin. Both women had their eyes closed and were mumbling, obviously delirious.

Stephen tried to calm his wildly escalating pulse. He had to focus. They were both obviously injured, but nothing too serious, except maybe a temperature and concussion. First things first, get them out of here. He reached forward to pry them apart, but when his hands touched Pepper, her skin burned, even through his thick tan gloves. Okay, then. "Rhodes, take Toni," he ordered. "Levi, can you...?" He gestured and immediately, the Cloak wrapped herself around Pepper's still form so their skin wouldn't be in contact. Hoping his hands wouldn't prove too much of a hindrance, he gently lifted Pepper into his arms and Rhodey bundled Toni into his. They walked towards the jet together.

 

************

 

There was no answer from inside the room when he knocked, so assuming Toni to be asleep, Stephen opened the door and stepped in, only to freeze at the sight of Steve Rogers frowning down at an irate Stark who had her arms crossed and glowering like she wasn't confined to a hospital bed. Rogers reacted first. "It's good to meet you again," though his tone spoke otherwise. "Mr...?"

"It's 'Doctor'!" Toni snapped, before Stephen could. "Dr Strange." Stephen resorted to glaring at Rogers. He hadn't been fond of him before (read: hate), but after the Project Insight fiasco (which he knew the details of, thanks to Toni), merely two weeks ago, and dumping every piece of SHIELD's database on the net, he had a new level of disregard for the man. Not to mention, he hadn't bothered to check in with him about Toni, or even search for her once, because he'd been too busy making a national renegade of himself and the Black Widow.

"I'll talk with you later, Steve, just leave now, please," Toni said, quietly.

 

Rogers glanced around the room once in defeat. "Call me when you feel up to making some time for me." He got up, without sparing a second look for his girlfriend. Toni, for her part, maintained her composure, but once the door closed, her face fell and Stephen strode to her side immediately, allowing her to turn and hug him as tight as she could without staining her wounds.

He resisted the urge to ask her how she was feeling. It was still odd, seeing her without the arc reactor, it's blue glow a fitting analogy for her heart and soul. He hadn't wanted her to remove it, but without any proper proof of his suspicions, he didn't want to suggest it, especially when he understood why she wanted it gone. Mostly though, he was glad she felt so much stronger now, having proven to herself and the world, that she wasn't dependent on the suit (another thing he'd never forgive Rogers for, planting the thought in her head that she was useless without her armour). She'd even enlisted Banner's help in stabilizing Extremis. All was well. Now if only Stephen could... No, don't think about it.

"I really am sorry."

The shy whisper made him frown down at Toni's crown of hair. "For?"

"For not coming clean about the anxiety and nightmares. I just..." She paused, trying to find the right words. "I thought that maybe if I didn't think about it, it wouldn't be real, except when I slept. And if I didn't sleep, then not even then."

Stephen resisted the desire to sigh. "It's okay," he replied, easy and true. "Just promise you'll tell me next time. Or anyone you're comfortable with."

"I'll start therapy next week," Toni promised. "He works for SHIELD agents frequently, he knows the drill."

They both stayed quiet for several long minutes.

"He didn't even wonder where I was," Toni mumbled into his chest, quite out of the blue. Stephen felt his stomach clench as he weakly defended Rogers. "He was on the run, Toni. I'm sure he was worried out of his mind, but he is a soldier. He's not going to show what's going on in his head and heart." His own heart was beating wildly and he had no doubt Toni could hear it loud and clear.

"Of course," Toni chuckled in self-reproach. "Of all the people I could have gone with, I chose to fall in love with the one person who could hurt me by being themselves."
Stephen tightened his hold on the small, delicately muscular woman in his arms as a broken, half-formed sentence, triggered by her words, flit through his thoughts:

'I love you.'

Chapter Text

Age of Ultron

"So, not that I haven't enjoyed our little raiding parties, but now that they're at an end, you know that charity-slash-business gala I told you I was hosting at the Tower? Why don't you guys show up too, and we'll celebrate in the after-party? I can promise you won't be bored."

Toni was talking at a mile a minute, as per usual, and Steve smiled indulgently at her. "And how do you guarantee that?" He questioned.

 

Toni's lips curved up, somewhere between a smirk and a shy smile. The expression was familiar and Steve's mind supplied him with a memory of the same smile, but on a different face, a different set of lips. He shook it away and focused on his girlfriend. "Well," she drawled. "I may have tracked down and invited some of the soldiers from the Howling Commandos."

A thrill zipped down his spine at the prospect of meeting familiar faces. With a grin, he sidestepped Thor and grabbed Toni around the waist, spinning her around once as he placed a quick kiss on her full lips.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," she laughed and he set her down. "JARVIS, shoot a text to Pepper to update her. And then another to Stephen, he has to come, no excuses."

At the mention of the doctor, Steve frowned. "You're inviting him?" He tried not to sound petulant, but based on the reproachful glare he received, he hadn't succeeded.

"He's one of my best friends, so yes, I'm inviting him."

Steve sighed. He hated being petty, but something about Stephen Strange made every hair on his body stand. The man wasn't who he said he was- a retired neurosurgeon- but Toni was adamant that he was a good person. He tried not to argue, he didn't want her to think he didn't trust her. But the truth was: he didn't. Steve was sure he wasn't alone in thinking that Toni's judgement was slightly screwed and she was, for want of a better word, quite unreliable on anything outside of tech. So it was difficult for him to just take her word for anything. Not to mention her impulsive nature. That, of course, was why he hadn't yet told her the truth... The truth about Bucky.

 

************

 

"It seems, ma'am, that Mr Rogers is not very happy with your decision to invite Dr Strange."

"Yes, I know," Toni answered JARVIS, as she flew the quinjet. She would have worried about somebody overhearing her, but Natasha was busy worrying over Clint and Bruce, while Thor had convinced Steve to compare their individual scores. She didn't bother telling them that she had the highest number of all of them, with the thunder god a close second. "But Stephen is my friend, I'm not leaving him out of this. He'll just have to suck it up," she continued. "And come on, J, it's 'Captain' Rogers. You call Stephen and Bruce 'Doctor'."

There was a short pause, before JARVIS spoke coolly. "Dr Strange and Dr Banner have both earned their titles through years of study and hard work. Mr Rogers, on the other hand, was never promoted past Private. 'Captain' was just an honorary title for the war propaganda."

Toni felt the urge to laugh bubbling up her chest, at the faint note of spite in JARVIS' usually polite voice. "You really don't like him, do you?" She chuckled.

"If I may, ma'am, I cannot understand why you would choose him to bestow your affections on."

"He loves me, J," Toni explained softly. "He sees me for who I am and makes me want to be better."

The AI was silent for some time and Toni tuned in to the others' conversation, sighing at their pitiful attempts to make Bruce feel better. He needed distraction, not empty condolences. "Bruce, I'm calling Helen Cho over. Can I tell her to set up in your lab?"

As she patched through a call to Dr Cho, she thought she heard JARVIS mumble, "But HE doesn't want you to change at all."

 

************

 

Toni had never forced him into anything. Stephen knew that the 'no excuses' tagged on to the text was just teasing. If he felt uncomfortable, he didn't have to come and Toni wouldn't even think to hold it against him. So why, Stephen had to wonder, did he come to the party? He'd known she would be perfectly dressed up and spending the evening alternating between dancing with Rogers (sorry, hanging out with the Avengers) or negotiating with business officials. She wouldn't exactly have time for him.

That was exactly what was happening right now. Toni and Rogers were at the center of the makeshift dance floor. From where Stephen was standing at the bar, Rogers was a terrible dancer, stepping on Toni's toes at least six times in five minutes. But Toni barely noticed; she had a small, soft smile as she looked up at him, the expression mirrored on the blond. Stephen hated himself for the poisonous envy coursing through him, because Toni was HAPPY. In the end, that was what mattered the most, right? That she was happy. Still, he couldn't help the sense of relief he felt when Barton cut in, spinning Toni with a carefree grin.

"It's not going to last."

Stephen nearly lost his grip on his glass at the sudden intrusion. Turning his head, he saw Bruce Banner joining him. He tipped his head slightly in greeting to the man he'd gotten to know through Toni.

"What's not going to last?"

Bruce nodded towards the small group of veteran soldiers, where Rogers and Thor were playing some sort of drinking game. "Steve and Toni. They're not going to last. They're not compatible."

Stephen shifted in discomfort. "They've been dating for almost three years," he pointed out.

"Because they're both scared," Bruce explained. "Steve doesn't want to lose the one connection he has to his past and Toni doesn't want to lose the one person who actually loves her and isn't just using her."

'But he's not the only one,' he wanted to argue. "Still, no reason to think they'd split," he commented weakly instead.

Bruce shook his head. "They're not compatible," he reiterated. "Toni's all about change, about moving forward. She's flexible when she needs to be and steadfast when she needs to stand her ground. Steve? He's living in the past, exactly what Toni never does, and he refuses to be the one to compromise. Opposites attract, but that's more true for metals, not actual humans."

Stephen mulled over the words. It made sense, what Bruce was saying, but Stephen had seen Toni with Rogers, had heard her talk about him. It seemed unlikely to him that that sort of love would just... End. 'Unless, it's not love,' a traitorous thought whispered. 'Unless, it's just desperation and loneliness disguised as love.'

"So, don't worry, you still have a chance."

"WHAT?!" Stephen choked, nearly spitting out his drink.

The doctor turned to him, a wry and amused expression on his face. "Well, you're not exactly subtle," he commented. "You were glaring daggers at Steve while they were dancing. And, really, you look at her like she has the secrets of dark matter, which, as a fellow scientist, I can appreciate."

Stephen resisted the urge to deny it all to hell and back. Instead he took a deep breath to regain his composure. And just in time too as Toni sidled up to them, coming to a stop between him and Bruce.

"Hey, Jolly Green, you dancing or what?" She quipped, jostling his shoulder in a good-natured way.

"No," was the firm answer and Toni got a wicked glint in her eyes.

"Wait till I sic Natasha on you," she told him. "You're dancing with me, Strange," she abruptly declared then, turning to Stephen.

"I don't like dancing," he retorted.

"Nonsense," she waved it away. "You're a great dancer, we've danced before."

"I know I'm good, doesn't mean I enjoy it," he grumbled, but he left his glass and let her tug him along, making a point to ignore Bruce's knowing smile. Instead, he chose to concentrate on Toni, placing one gloved hand on her small waist, the other twining with her fingers. She was smiling at him, but there was a nervousness about her that he hadn't noticed before.

"Problem?" He asked, before he could stop himself. Thankfully, she didn't deflect.

"We got Loki's sceptre," she started, her voice soft. "Banner and I are trying to apply it to the Ultron program that I scrapped a few years ago. The Infinity Stone inside the crystal? I ran scans on it again, more thoroughly. There's an actual entity inside it, something really similar to JARVIS' code, but sorta alien."

"What's the problem?" Stephen asked. "What does the team think?"

"The problem," Toni sighed. "Is that something is missing. We aren't able to run an interface, not even close. And the team..." She hesitated. "It's just Bruce and me, for now."

"You should tell them," he advised her. "You don't want them to find out some other way. And don't worry about the interface." He winked at her playfully. "You're a genius."

"Why, yes, yes I am. Thank you for noticing, Doctor," Toni giggled and Stephen's heart soared. Her gold eyes were sparkling with childlike glee, her lips set in a mischievous smile, her dark hair falling loose down her back, a few strands curling onto her neck. God, he wanted to pull her closer. Even through the silk of her dress, which clung to her shoulders and waist just right, he could feel the heat of her body under his palm. Was it a coincidence that the deep blue colour was a perfect match to the tunic he always wore around the Sanctum and Kamar-Taj? The outrageously high heels she had on brought him to nearly his height. He would barely need to bend and their lips would meet...

It was the sound of a throat clearing that brought him to his senses. Reeling his thoughts back from dangerous territory, he moved away from Toni an imperceptible distance, only to see Rogers standing a few steps away, forced polite smile on his face.

"Mind if I steal my girlfriend back, Dr Strange?" He asked with a cool pleasantness.

Trying not to feel replaced, Stephen dropped his hands and returned the smile with one that was just as fake. "Of course not, Mr Rogers," he answered. "I was leaving, anyhow." Anticipating Toni's pout, he turned back to her. "I have to get back, you know," he reminded her vaguely, knowing she'd understand. Unable to resist, he brushed his lips against the skin of her forehead, before offering a last smile, that hopefully didn't look as lonely as he felt, and turning away. He made sure not to look back at them a last time before leaving.

 

************

 

Stephen woke to the sound of rustling cloth. Levi was flapping about, obviously trying to wake him. "WHAT?!" He hissed, trying to sound menacing while half asleep. Levi made a movement that could only be described as an annoyed huff, before lifting a corner to point at the desk. Seeing that his phone was lit up, he reached for it, seeing the multiple texts he'd received.

'R u busy?'
'The entity came to life by itself. The Stone's fault, I guess. It went rogue.'
'It took the name Ultron.'
'JARVIS is gone. Ultron killed him while trying to get out.'
'Could u cm over?'
'I'm in the lab, everyone's gone to bed.'
'You're probs sleeping. Sorry if I woke u. Go back to sleep. I'm fine.'

Stephen was on his feet and grabbing the sling ring, before he'd completely read through the last text. He opened a portal into Toni's lab at the Tower, the one place where none of the other Avengers were allowed without her explicit permission, except for Bruce and himself. Stepping through, he wasted no time in grabbing her in a fierce hug, her yelp of surprise muffled into his sleep shirt. She quickly relaxed, though, and melted into the hug.

"He's gone," she mumbled. "He could have saved himself, but he used those last seconds to warn me instead."

"He loved you," Stephen consoled her. She started shaking and he tightened his grip on her, holding her as she let herself grieve away from the eyes of her teammates who he knew had never understood or appreciated JARVIS. All the while, he ignored the pricking of tears in his own eyes. JARVIS had been a constant support to him, piping up with random messages on his phone. Sometimes they were regular updates on Toni, sometimes they were complaints about the Avengers, mostly Rogers. Stephen had, at times, suspected the AI knew of his feelings. He certainly shared his disapproval of Rogers. But whatever the case, JARVIS had been a friend.

"I'm going to wake up FRIDAY," Toni finally calmed down enough to say. She pulled away and walked over to the computer, rapidly typing a progression of codes. "She was going to take over the Compound I was building for the Avengers, so JARVIS wouldn't have to take too much load. But I'm going to need her now. She was only meant to be a rudimentary AI, compared to J, I mean, but now... I'm changing her coding, giving her the ability to learn like him."

"Why?" Stephen frowned. "If she's going to be housed at the Compound, she doesn't need to be that advanced."

"But I'm taking her into a fight with me, now," she pointed out. "She needs to be able to learn if she's going to be my co-pilot. So, no, change of plans: she stays with me. I'll write out another one for the Compound."

Toni's hands stopped moving as a progress bar appeared on the screen. "Learning or not, she was still sentient," she murmured, her voice still shaky. "JARVIS was supposed to teach her, kinda like a big brother, you know?" A strangled sob escaped her. "The others don't understand," she said. "They said it made sense for Ultron to kill him because he was the first line of defence. But, he was mine!"

Stephen didn't know what to say. Even as a surgeon, he'd never had to console a patient's family member. The first time someone had died on his table had traumatized him enough that he'd skived off and gotten someone else to inform the family. After that, he'd made a point to never accept a case where he wasn't 100% certain of success. So he tried a different track instead. "You'll be just as good for FRIDAY," he told her. "JARVIS was her brother, but you're still the one who created her. They're as good as your children. She'll love you and you'll teach her to be her own person."

Toni looked up, meeting his gaze, her own eyes suddenly alight with something he couldn't place. She opened her mouth to say something, but the room was filled with a female Irish voice. "Boss?" She sounded confused. "What's going on?"

Toni tapped a few keys and waved a hologram screen at the centre of the lab. A holographic 3-D structure, similar to a human brain, came up. A dark green where JARVIS had been gold.

"Hey, baby girl," she murmured. "What do you know right now, hmm?"

There was a short pause. "My name is FRIDAY, a serving AI; correction: I have been upgraded to a learning AI; designed by Antonia Stark. That's you, boss. My primary protocol is to aid the Avengers at the Avengers Compound... Correction: my new protocol is to aid you."

"The last time I was active was 25 August, 2014, the time of my actual creation. I was aided for a while by you and my predecessor, Just A Rather Very Intelligent System, before I was taken offline until... Boss? Where's JARVIS? Why are you... Sad?"

 

************

 

Toni watched Steve carefully as they quickly changed clothes in the room Laura Barton had given them. He seemed to be deep in thought about something, but she waited until they were both seated on the edge of the mattress before pushing. "Thor tell you where he went?"

He shook his head in response, looking straight ahead.

"Did he tell you when he'll be back?"

Steve sighed. "My teammates don't always tell me things," he grumbled. "Sometimes, neither does my girlfriend."

Toni winced at the not-subtle implication. "Don't put the entire blame on me," she beseeched. "I know I should have told you, but this," she gestured vaguely between them, "Is why I didn't. I knew how you'd react."

"And I would have been right."

"But I didn't know that! That... Thing... Wasn't supposed to come alive on its own. That isn't even what we were trying to do. Bruce and I were just doing research-"

"That would affect the team!" Steve cut in.

"That would END the team!" Toni cried in a whisper, mindful of the thin walls and the children sleeping in the next room. "Isn't that the reason we fight? So we can end the fight? So we can hang up the suits and armours and go home?"

"Every time someone tries to end a war before it begins, innocent people die, Toni," Steve said, his voice low and rough. "Every single time."

"That's not right, Steve," Toni said, wondering how she would explain this. "Wars are avoided every few months when delegates from different countries meet and talk out their problems, negotiate treaties and contracts. If they just ignored each other without trying to talk it out, there would be a World War every other week."

Steve didn't answer, just kept looking away. Toni felt an uncomfortable weight in her stomach. "Ultron said you couldn't live without a war," she murmured. "Tell me that wasn't true, Steve. Tell me he was wrong."

"I'm a soldier," Steve whispered. "Maybe it's selfish of me, but without a war, what use am I?"

Toni's heart went out to the man. Leaning in, she pressed a light kiss to his jaw. "Being useful doesn't equate to being a soldier. Never had, even in the 40's," she breathed into his ear. "And unselfish? There are seven billion people on this planet, Steve; I've met at least half of them. You're still the most giving and the most selfless person I know."

Steve finally turned to look at her, a small smile tugging at his lips.

"I love you," Toni whispered, her stare never wavering from his face. Baby blues sparkling in the low lights, the hint of green clearly visible in the irises, he leaned in to give her a slow, languid kiss.

 

************

 

"But if you put the hammer in an elevator-"

"It still goes up-"

"Elevator's not worthy."

"I'm going to miss these talks of ours," Thor interrupted both of them with a smile.

"You won't if you don't go," Toni pointed out. Thor's smile wavered.

"Do you wish me to stay?"

"Of course!" Toni exclaimed with a frown. "We're friends, right?"

"In my eyes, we're family," Thor chuckled, before growing sombre again. "But I fear, I owe you an apology, Toni. I tend to forget my own strength at times and I should have kept in mind that, in spite of your fighting prowess and your will of Uru, you are still mortal and much more fragile than myself or Steve."

"It's fine, Thor," Toni answered softly. "We all say and do things we don't mean when we're upset or mad."

"That sounds like something my brother would have said once," Thor laughed, a hint of nostalgia colouring his tone at the thought of his dead brother. "You are truly full of surprises."

"Are you sure you can find some answers about those Infinity Stones?" Steve interrupted. "Something that powerful; might not have an explanation."

"I believe everything in the world has an explanation," Thor said wisely, before gesturing towards Toni with his hammer. "Except this one."

Toni started, having been lost in her head for a few seconds, and looked up in time to see Thor step away and spin his hammer. A sharp beam of light rained down around the god, before disappearing.

"There goes my perfectly kept lawn," Toni grumbled and they both started walking towards the ostentatious orange car.

"You sure I can't convince you to stay?" Steve tried. It made him more nervous then he cared to admit that Toni was retiring from the Avengers. She would still be Iron Woman, but only around Manhattan, though she'd assured her presence for pending alien invasions, unlikely though it seemed to Steve.

After Ultron, Steve wasn't so sure he trusted her with technology either anymore.

"I'm sure," Toni affirmed. "Pepper has done a wonderful job with the company, but she wants to concentrate on her relationship too. So, I'm thinking of taking the CEO position back. Once I do that," she gave a small shrug. "Won't have much time to go avenging with you guys."

Steve peered hard at her, trying to catch some lie in her words. "So it's not because I initiated Wanda onto the team?" He tested.

Toni didn't answer for a second. "She hates me, Steve," she explained. "That kind of feelings don't just go away. Natasha only ever put up with me because Clint and I were good friends. Now he's retired. Bruce is in the wind. Sam doesn't know me. And Vision... I keep expecting him to be more like JARVIS and then I feel so hurt when he isn't. Vision doesn't deserve that."

Steve understood why she wanted to leave; though he couldn't even pretend to get her grief over JARVIS. But he still didn't like it. Being away from him and at the Tower would mean being closer to that doctor. Steve could tell when someone didn't like him, and that man downright loathed him. Steve also knew the reason. It was a miracle that Toni hadn't noticed how Strange looked at her, but he was grateful for it. If she did get to know, Steve wasn't sure who she would pick.

But how could he ensure her standing with him? He still needed to find Bucky, but he couldn't very well tell her that the only reason he wanted Wanda so badly on the team, was as a precedent for Bucky. If a former Hydra agent could be an Avenger, then a brainwashed assassin could be too.

There was one option, as Steve saw it. He was hesitant to go through with it, though it had been on his mind for some time now, but it was probably the only way.

"Before you go, since you're intent on leaving," he started, making Toni stop with one hand on her car door and look up at him. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you; might as well do it now."

Toni still looked confused and Steve hoped he hadn't misread her when they'd talked at Clint's farm. Too late to back out now.

Bringing out the ring he'd bought months before, in case of this very moment, Steve knelt down, as Toni's eyes lit up in realization, then widened in disbelief. "Will you marry me, Toni?"

 

************

 

It had been a few days since Toni had retired from the Avengers, calling herself a non-combatant, active duty consultant, and moved to the newly renamed Stark Tower, having taken back the mantle of CEO, much to the unspoken gratitude of Pepper and the tittering of the public. The transition had been smooth, but lengthy, and between press conferences and board meetings, she'd been too busy to meet Stephen. So, when he got a text from her, asking him to drop in, he abandoned his book and opened a portal immediately. Stepping into the lab, it took him a minute to focus on Toni. She was on her seat, her feet propped up on the desk, watching a video. Stephen immediately recognised it as street camera footage of the enhanced vigilante that had been swinging (literally) around Queens, webbing up (again, literally) small-time criminals. Toni had caught wind of him a few months ago and had been trying to figure out who he was.

"So, did you get him yet?" He ventured, summoning another chair and sitting beside her.

Toni nodded glumly. "Peter Parker," she muttered. "15 year old kid at Midtown High, parents died when he was three years old, lives with his aunt May, uncle died a couple months ago, shot by a mugger."

Stephen felt his jaw drop. "15 years old?!" He repeated, flabbergasted. "Jesus, does his aunt know?" Toni shook her head and Stephen ran a hand down his face.

"And if he's anything like either one of his parents," she continued. "Or like his uncle, then there's not much anyone can say or do that'll make him stop."

Stephen frowned, puzzled. "You knew his parents?" He enquired.

Toni sighed. "Yeah, I knew them. Richard Parker was a scientist; could have been a big name, but he chose genetic engineering as his field, that wasn't very well known back then. Mary was an agent of Shield. They were Howard's friends. Younger than both my parents, but old enough that I knew them as Uncle Richie and Aunt Mary. They went undercover when I was at MIT, didn't see them again for years."

She gestured towards another screen. Leaning closer, Stephen could read two extensive files, dossiers on the lives of Richard and Mary Parker.

"I tracked them down after I took over SI," she went on. "They were a big support, whenever I went a little crazy with the partying and stuff in those years. Then they had Peter, pretty late in life, and for heaven knows what reason, they named me godmother."

"Richard's research was dangerous," her voice dropped to a murmur. "They left Peter with Richard's brother and his wife, planning to disappear for a few months. But their plane got hijacked by some goons hired by AIM and they were... They hadn't had time to inform me of their plans, otherwise I could have..."

She sighed. "Peter was three at the time. Technically, I should have gotten him, but I didn't think it was a good idea. It would have made a huge scandal and I didn't want him to have to deal with that. I met with Ben and May. We agreed it was best that I stay out of Peter's life for as long as necessary. I kept in touch with them, of course, and I kept track of Peter, too. Figured, if I couldn't meet him, I could still... Keep an eye on him, even if I can't do anything."

"He's really smart," she had a small smile now and Stephen watched her in a daze, transfixed both by her story and the emotions in her voice. "Gets bullied quite a bit, but he's got a smart mouth, deals with it fabulously."

"Are you going to see him?" Stephen probed gently.

Toni hesitated. "Well, someone has to tell May," she muttered, matter-of-factly. "And he's gonna get himself hurt swinging around in those pajamas, he needs a full upgrade. And a way to make sure he's safe."

"But are you going to talk to him?" Stephen pressed. "And I don't mean the vigilante stuff. Are you going to actually talk to him?"

Toni watched the screens with a nostalgic smile. "I'll let May decide that."

They sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. It was completely by accident, really, that Stephen saw it. Toni lifted a hand to run it through her hair and the light sparkled on her hand, catching Stephen's eye. A solitaire diamond on a silver ring. On the third finger of her left hand.

"Stephen?!"

Toni's alarmed voice got through to him and he realized he'd coughed violently in his shock. Ignoring her concerned frown, he grabbed her hand and stared at the jewel, his brain refusing to comprehend what it represented.

"Oh yeah, I probably should have told you about that," Toni mumbled sheepishly.

"You think?" Stephen shot back, trying to sound sarcastic, when really he felt like running from the room.

"I swear I wasn't expecting it," Toni said, suddenly sounding like a giddy child. "But I guess I should have, ya know? I mean, it's STEVE! He must have been thinking about it for months."

Stephen wasn't sure how he could hear her over the fracturing of his own heart, but her words rang loud and clear. He tried to ignore them, instead watching her face, happiness shining from her amber eyes, her mouth set in a bright grin. He suddenly recalled Bruce's certainty that Steve and Toni wouldn't last forever and he was overcome with the urge to scream.

'You were wrong!' He wanted to yell at the mild-mannered doctor. 'He makes her happy and they're going to get married now.'

"Toni?"
She stopped talking immediately, watching him, but the pure joy didn't dim by one iota. He opened his mouth to speak. But there were so many things to say.

'Don't do this, Toni.' 'I love you, please, don't choose him.' 'Don't leave me, please.' 'I can make you happy, I swear it, just give me a chance.'

After half a minute of deliberation, he shut his mind to the pain and chose the least dangerous thing to say: "I'm happy for you, Toni. Congratulations," and watched that smile grow wider at his words.

Chapter Text

'Don't wait for me. I've got to go to the Compound. See u when u get back.'

That was the message she'd sent to Stephen a few hours ago. Now, she wished she'd skived off and gone to see him instead, maybe even go off to Kathmandu with him. Or she could have called Peter over and they'd have worked on anything to do with science. Anything was better than sitting here listening to Ross and pretending she hadn't once aggravated, insulted and completely pissed him off in his favourite pub, before buying the place and having it demolished. There was a nice little town house there now, that she'd kept in Pepper's name.

And now, she had to bear the rest of the team's debating on the best way to react. Wonderful.

"Toni, you're being uncharacteristically non-hyper-verbal," Natasha pointed out in a saccharine sweet tone that made her want to hurl. God, where was Clint when she needed him?

"That's because she's already made up her mind."

The bitter tone had her hackles rising, as she defended the Accords.

"Toni, you chose to stop making weapons. If we sign this, we're giving away our right to choose."

She showed them the photos of Charles Spencer, his mother's accusations ringing loud and true in her ears.

"We've made mistakes, but the safest hands are still our own."

Because if you took away the armour, she was nothing more than a rich, enabled brat who used her money and tech to get things done.

"I have to go."

Nothing more than a murdering, pathetic, worthless excuse of a hu... Wait, what?

"Steve," she called sharply, following him out of the room. No way was she letting him leave her to deal with this alone. Rhodey was only so much help, Pepper was on vacation with Happy and Stephen was on the other side of the world. "You can't go anywhere right now, Steve. I seriously need you here," she said, trying not to slip into an authoritative tone.

"I have to go, Toni," Steve refuted, not quite meeting her eyes. "I'll explain later, just let me go now."

"Steve, no, I-"

He wrenched his elbow from her grasp effortlessly and she watched him walk away. There was a sinking feeling in her stomach, like something drastic was about to happen.

Her phone chimed with a text, prompting her to give herself a shake and check it.

'Aunt Peggy was found dead this morning. She went in her sleep; peaceful and no pain. Funeral's tomorrow afternoon. You're coming, right? Please?'- Sherry.

Toni's hand fell limply at her side. She wouldn't be able to say goodbye.

 

************

 

"What were you THINKING?!" Toni screamed and Sharon winced. "You were on surveillance on Steve for almost TWO YEARS, you were a part of Shield during the Winter Soldier fiasco, how did you think he would react? And you told him you had orders to 'SHOOT ON SIGHT'?!"

Behind her, the TV screen showed recorded footage of two super soldiers, a man in some sort of vibranium suit (T'Challa, apparently, because she didn't already have enough problems) and the German force participating in a highway chase.

Sharon opened her mouth to say something, but Everett beat her to it. "Sharon," he sighed. "The JCTC have those orders, not the German police."

"Well, I didn't realize he would actually go to German," the pretty blonde protested.

Toni groaned. Sharon had kept an eye on Steve from a distance. She didn't know him like Toni did. For all his tactical genius, Steve was really not good with boundaries. Borrowing the Avengers jet for flying over to Germany on a mission that he really wasn't supposed to interfere in would have seemed an obvious option to him.

"That was still classified information, Sharon," Everett said, throwing his hands up in exasperation. "You can't go around telling people what orders you've been given."

At those words, Sharon sagged slightly, hunching in on herself and Toni had an epiphany. "You like him," she stated flatly.

Sharon looked sheepish. "Yeah? I mean, I've always had a tiny crush on him, you know, ever since... Ever since Aunt Peggy used to tell us stories about him."

A sliver of nostalgia passed through each of the three childhood friends at the shared memory.

"I mean, it's Captain America, you know?"

Toni did know. She rubbed the empty spot on her left finger, missing the foreign weight of the diamond. Steve had said he wanted to keep their relationship silent for now and it was one of the few times she'd agreed with him without argument. Telling the public would cause a lot of drama that they didn't need. So she took care to never wear it in public, choosing instead to keep it on a chain around her neck, which was now tucked under layers of clothes. She'd also not told anyone yet, not even Pepper or Harley. Stephen, Rhodey and the rest of the team were the only ones who knew. So she tried to tamp down the insecurity and possessiveness she felt at Sharon's confession of a crush. She just didn't know.

"Annie?"

She looked up at Everett's worried face. "I know you haven't told Rogers about us being friends, but I don't see any reason to hide it. If we show a united front, show them why you trust us without question, it'd be easier to convince them."

Toni shook her head. "We were all too closely involved with Aunt Peggy," she reminded him. "Rubbing it into his face that Pegs had a life of her own without him isn't going to be any help. And he doesn't know I knew her, let alone that I was her goddaughter."

She had to tell him, Toni thought. Steve would never forgive her for keeping secrets again. Researching an alien artefact was one thing; this was personal and Steve deserved to know that he was marrying the goddaughter of his first love.

"Toni," the intercom crackled on Everett's desk. "We're a few minutes out," Rhodey said. "Captain, Wilson, Barnes and King T'challa are in the van."

"Showtime," Sharon muttered. The change in their demeanor was instantaneous and obvious. Sharon and Everett straightened, their features schooled and stern as they became Agent Carter and Deputy Commander Ross. Toni shifted into a confidently arrogant poise, sauntering and nonchalant, even though her expression screamed authority. She became Toni Stark.

The three of them left the office together. Sharon and Ev headed downstairs to greet Cap. Toni headed over to Natasha, sighing as she read the text she'd just received from Secretary Ross. She started typing a message to Vision: 'Keep Wanda inside the Compound. The press are looking for blood. We can't have another incident. Anybody gets hurt, even by accident, Ross will have her head. DON'T LET HER LEAVE.'

Ross wouldn't like it, but Toni would be damned before she let him throw anyone in prison. The Compound would be better for her.

 

************

 

"Steve?"

The tall blond looked up at her, something like hurt swimming in his eyes. Toni sighed, hating the guilt coursing through her. Why did she feel that? Lately, ever since Ultron, she constantly felt misstepped, constantly second guessing herself and berating herself for mistakes that weren't even logical. There was this little whisper in her head that said not to trust, but she couldn't guess who it was talking about.

"Do you realize how badly you've screwed things up?" She questioned as she stepped in, closing the door behind her. Everett could keep Ross away.

"Bucky's alive," Steve pointed out.

"He was never going to be killed," she countered, tossing a filed copy of the Accords and a pen on the table.

Steve fidgeted. "I... I heard they had orders to shoot on sight," he told her.

She had to give him credit for trying to protect her pseudo-cousin. "Agent Carter is part of the JCTC," she sighed. He looked at her in surprise, which turned into guilt, at her knowledge of his source of information. "Her orders weren't the same as the German force."

"Where's Pepper?" He asked, changing the subject abruptly. She let him. "I didn't see her. Is she here?"

Toni leaned back into her seat. "She's on vacation with Happy." Best not mention she was in the same town house where Ross' pub had been. "She's pregnant."

"Really?"

Toni watched Steve perk up, his eyes suddenly shining. The skip of her heart was distracting and she found herself smiling in spite of herself. "Yeah, I told them to take the entire month off. I was going to join her tomorrow."

"You're not now?" Steve looked confused and she leveled a flat look at him. It didn't take him long to understand. "I'm sorry that I made things difficult," he admitted.

"Then help me fix them," Toni pleaded. She leaned forward and took Steve's hand in her own. "Just stand with me on this. Sign those papers and I promise you, these last twelve hours can be made legit. All of you get pardoned immediately, you and Wilson get your equipment back, Barnes gets transferred to an American psych center instead of a Wakandan prison. Because, if you don't," she paused to cup his face, suddenly not caring that anyone could be watching. She needed him to understand she was doing this for all of them. "Then I won't be able to protect you. They'll lock you away in places that are capable of holding super soldiers. That's not a good thing for anybody. The team needs you here, Cap." She swallowed, wondering if she was getting through to him. "Steve, I need you," she whispered.

She waited. She waited for him to agree because while Toni Stark could, and would, legitimise the Accords without Ross' corruption, having Captain America by her side would only make it easier. He just needed to see it.

Steve stood slowly and pulled the Accords towards himself. Toni breathed in relief as he picked up the pen. "I'm not saying it's impossible," he warned, "But there would have to be safeguards."

"Of course, yeah," Toni leaned back again. She couldn't outright tell him that she already had SI lawyers working on them, not when there were so many of Ross' lackeys wandering outside. But she could promise amendments. "Once we put out the PR fire, I can have you and Wanda re-instated..."

Steve's attention snapped to her almost aggressively and Toni wanted to bite her own tongue.

"Wanda? What about her?" He asked sharply.

"Nothing, she's just currently confined to the Compound. Vision's keeping her company." There was zero point in lying. "The UN doesn't-"

"Confined?" Steve exclaimed. "Toni, you've locked her up-"

"It's a hundred acres with a lap pool and a screening room. There's worse ways to protect people-"

"Protection?! This is internment!"

"The US don't grant visas to weapons of mass destruction-"

"She's a kid!"

"Give me a BREAK!" Toni finally snapped and yelled. "Take a second and think, Steve. Signing is the right thing to do." She paused. "If only to stave off something worse."

Toni had never been reminded so forcibly of Howard as when Steve looked at her with an air of cold disappointment. "You keep telling yourself that," he all but growled at her and left.

Toni sighed and hid her exhausted eyes behind her glares.

 

*************

 

Steve was out of options. For one thing, a shoddy psychologist had been the one to trigger the Winter Soldier. They'd been forced to escape and now they probably had more forces on their tail.

Second, there were now five more Winter Soldiers with a man who knew how to trigger them. Steve, Bucky and Sam couldn't take care of them on their own. Clint had refused to come help them. Like Natasha, he'd agreed with the idea of the Accords and had firmly stated that he was retired and "so not interfering in this cluster fuck." Luckily, Sam said he knew a guy, who would also be able to break Wanda out and would need only a few days to find him. But there was no way he could call Toni. Like Sam had said, her hands were tied with by the Accords.

Which brought him to the third problem. There was a good chance Iron Woman might be sent to bring them in, along with Vision, War Machine and Black Widow. Steve had caught sight of Natasha, Sharon and Toni fighting back the Winter Soldier, turn by turn. More specifically, since Sharon was a trained agent and Natasha was... Natasha, he'd mainly focused on Toni.

She'd been without her armour, dressed elegantly as always in a grey Armani, with just a gauntlet over her left hand. But she'd fought the assassin with the same fluid motion of a trained killer. More importantly, she'd blocked a direct hit with her unarmoured hand. Steve had never sparred with her outside the suit, so how was it possible that she was, in fact, capable of holding her own in a melee fight?

Steve knew with a dreading certainty that if Toni decided to kill Bucky while she did have the suit on, they wouldn't stand a chance.

 

************

 

Clint watched the news with a growing sense of anxiety. They seemed mostly accurate, going by what Cap had said over the phone just an hour or so ago. The Winter Soldier had been triggered and he broke out. Cap and Wilson followed him and managed to bring Barnes back. There were now five more assassins. Toni, Vision and Natasha were in support of the Accords. Wanda was being 'held' at the Compound. The Wakandan king had a vibranium cat suit. They might be sent to bring in Barnes. Not to mention, Steve had proposed to Toni only a month and a half ago, so God knew how badly they were faring.

Sometimes, Clint wondered if Nick and Phil had been in their right minds while recruiting the Avengers. He seriously doubted it.

What really worried him, however, was Natasha. He knew why she'd agreed with Toni: if they played nice now, they'd have more influence later on.

But Natasha, no matter what she liked to believe, was human. And she'd become a lot more emotionally recipient since the team had formed. Especially with Steve, she felt a lot more balanced and respected, instead of feared. So, while she was on Toni's side now, if push came to shove, she'd think nothing of switching over to Steve's side, probably smack in the middle of a battle. She wouldn't hesitate.

That meant she'd probably hurt Toni, because if there's one thing the genius couldn't tolerate, it was disloyalty. Betrayal. She'd call Tasha out, and the redhead would react with all the aggressiveness of a cornered animal. Clint couldn't allow that. Toni was to him what Steve was to Natasha.

With a sigh, he picked up the phone and called Toni's private cell. She picked up on the first ring.
"Hello-?"

"Are you alone?" Clint interrupted before she could say his name. "Make sure you are. Don't let anyone near you. Not even Natasha. Make sure she can't see you either; she can lip-read."

There was a surprised silence, followed by a muffled, "I need to take a private call, Nat, could you please go make sure Agent Carter is alright?" Then, "Okay, I'm alone. Clint, what's wrong?"

Clint told her his suspicions, not holding anything back. "She's going to betray you, Tones. It would be perfectly logical to her. Worse still, it'd be logical because of emotional reasons."

Toni sighed. "What would you have me do?" She asked. Clint felt sorry for her when he noted how downright exhausted she sounded. Poor thing somehow always ended up getting blamed by everybody for everything.

"Let me come in-"

"No!" Toni's rebuttal was sharp and swift, but Clint was prepared for it. "You're retired. You've got a fa- a life of your own. I'm not dragging you into this."

"You're not dragging me into anything, I'm volunteering," Clint pointed out. "If I'm there, I might be able to keep Natasha in check. And besides, you're my family too."

That was probably emotional blackmail, saying that last bit. But it was true.

Toni was silent on the other end. "Okay," she relented. "There's an empty field right outside your place where you'd landed us. I can have a quinjet there in an hour, it'll bring you to the Compound. BUT," she went on, when he was about to thank her. "You need to get permission from Laura, first."

For a second, Clint wasn't sure he'd heard right. " Excuse me? What?"

"You heard me." Damn it, now she sounded cheerful. "Explain everything to Laura. If she agrees, then you can come. If not, sit your ass tight right where you are. Tell her to call me herself with her answer."

"Wait a second, you're in touch with my wife? How did you even-?"

"Bye-bye, Clint," Toni called in a sing-song voice and ended the call before he could say a word. Well, at least she seemed to be in a better mood than when she'd picked up.

"Damn you, Stark," he muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"What's wrong?"

Once glance at Laura's innocent face and he knew she'd been listening in.

"How and why are you in touch with Toni Stark?" He demanded.

She shrugged. "She was really good with Cooper and Lila when you brought the team over," she explained and, okay, Clint hadn't known that. "She helped me out with them, fixed the tractor even though I'd just tricked her into meeting Nick Fury... I liked her, we exchanged numbers before you left."

"And, don't think you can hide things from me, Mr Barton," she reprimanded. "You have a penchant for adopting beautiful, broken people who need family and Toni Stark fit the bill, just as much as Natasha did, maybe even more."

Clint grinned at his wife, kissing her soundly. "So, I can go?"

"Yes," Laura laughed. "If there's one thing I know about Toni, it's that she'll make sure you come home safe."

Clint sobered at that. He knew she was right. Toni wouldn't let him get hurt for the same reason she didn't want him to come in the first place.

"But you have to take care of her, too," Laura whispered over his lips. "Natasha should know better than to betray somebody who trusts her. If she doesn't, there's nothing more you can do for her. Right now, Toni needs all the help she can get."

She drew back. "Now hand me the phone. I'll give her a call."

 

*************

 

"I've got all your gear," Sharon said, looking up at Steve. He smiled at her in thanks and Sharon fought the urge to sigh. It was just such a hard concept to accept: Captain America, a criminal. If she hadn't read the casualty reports from Bucharest, she wouldn't have believed it. She was still having trouble with it, to be honest. But she trusted her cousin and Ev, both her best friends for as long as she could remember.

So when Steve's call came with a request to smuggle his shield and the Exo-Wings and Toni, with an oddly guilty look, handed her a tracker and mic, she'd agreed without question. She knew she had probably already hacked into the security footage of this place and was watching the interaction as well.

"Any idea where you're going to go from here?" She asked, half-aware of Barnes and Wilson in the car, half resigned that Steve wasn't going to trust her that far.

To her surprise, he said, "The nearest airport. We've got a guy who's managed to nab a jet for us."

And okay, she had not been expecting it to be that easy. "Right, well, um, be careful," she cautioned awkwardly.

Steve was suddenly looking at her with an intensity she couldn't place. Moving slowly, like he was questioning his own actions, he stepped closer to her and placed a large hand on the side of her face. Sharon couldn't think straight. She wasn't stupid, she knew what he was doing. For two seconds, she considered stepping away, mindful of the camera that she knew the Avengers were watching through. Then the fangirl part of her took over and she let herself kiss him briefly.

"That was..." Steve trailed off and Sharon laughed a little incredulously.

"Late," she completed. It was true. She'd fantasized about Captain America for so long that she'd forgotten the man behind the shield was just Steve Rogers. The kiss has been just that: a kiss.

She drove away, feeling only a little guilty for having kissed a criminal. Mostly, she wanted to groan at the thought of Toni and Everett teasing her to death.

 

************

 

Toni gripped the edge of the table, her knuckles white. She could feel the constricting space in her chest, squeezing her heart like a vice.

"Tones?"

She could hear her own name, but the ability to speak was lost to her.

Sharon didn't know. Sharon. Didn't. Know. But that didn't change the fact that Steve initiated the kiss.

"Annie?"

The childhood nickname had her looking up at Everett, who was watching her with realization. He hadn't known either. But the look on her face must have spoken volumes, not to mention the way she was alternatively glancing at the video feed and her left hand. She could feel everyone's eyes on her, watching her, waiting for her to break down. That wouldn't do.

With a harsh exhale, she straightened, wiping her face clean of emotions. "Everybody suit up," she ordered blandly. "I'll call Leipzig airport and get them to evacuate." She turned to Everett. "Bring Sharon up to date when she returns."

Silence prevailed and nobody moved. Toni shot a glare at Rhodey, who immediately understood she wanted to be alone.

"You have your orders, people," Rhodey snapped. On some level, Toni reflected how she'd forgotten that, active member or not, she was still second in command. "Vision, prepare the jet. Hawkeye, Widow, get what you need. Ross, get His Highness and see if he's willing to come with. Iron Woman..." He paused to look at her, letting his concern shine through. "Come as soon as you're ready, Toni."

In a few minutes, Toni was left alone. She knew she couldn't go into battle like this, with betrayal and pain clouding her thoughts. She couldn't afford distractions and no way was she about to confront Steve in front of everyone. No, she had to deal with this now.

"FRI, if Rhodey asks, tell him I'm in the gym. Prepare MK 47 for deployment and keep it on hold."

"Of course, boss."

Her AI sounded sad, but Toni couldn't focus on that. Not when the chain around her neck was weighing her down like a boulder.

 

************

 

"I'm trying to keep you from tearing the Avengers apart!"

"You did that when you signed."

Rage and hurt locked away in her heart, she forced herself to remember that she couldn't use lethal force. As she charged, she had an errant thought: 'Stephen wouldn't have spared them.'

Chapter Text

"Any way Bruce would be willing to help?" Clint asked. Toni shook her head silently, her eyes never straying from the glass through which they were watching Rhodey, drugged for immediate surgery.

"Bruce is off-planet," she said, her voice still shaking with barely suppressed anger. "Two months after I first found him the signal from the jet disappeared. I went to the site to investigate. They weren't there, but there were markings all over the ground, really similar to when Thor comes and goes."

"Shit," Clint muttered. He was still reeling from Natasha's move: letting Cap and Barnes get away. True, he'd been expecting it, but it was still a shock. At least he'd had the forethought to subdue her on the quinjet, so she wouldn't try to escape after landing. She was in custody with the rest.

"FRIDAY just showed me something." Toni tapped her watch and the holograms popped up. Clint watched with pursed lips as FRIDAY explained how the actual psychologist had been replaced by a member of Sokovian intelligence, and the bomber in Vienna had been dressed up to look like Barnes.

"What now?" Toni sighed, looking up at him in question.

Clint didn't pause too long to consider. "We talk to them, see if Wilson or the new guy can tell us something. Where are they being held anyway?" God, it felt odd saying 'held' in reference to his once teammates.

Toni cringed, like she didn't quite fancy her own answer. "Ross has them in the Raft."

Well, shit.

 

************

 

"You know, when Hank Pym told me to never trust a Stark, I don't think even he expected you to throw your own teammates and a stranger into a place like this."

"First of all, who are you?" Toni shot at him, completely ignoring his affronted expression.

"Second," Clint continued. "We didn't know they'd put you in here, this place is for the crazies. But as far as jail goes, well..." He shrugged. "That's where people who break the laws go. And you guys broke a lot of them."

They stopped in front of Wanda's cell. The brunette looked shell-shocked and unresponsive. If Ross was involved, which he was, she was probably heavily sedated. Both of them held back a shudder at the inhuman treatment when they saw the shock collar around her neck. No wonder Toni had wanted to keep her at the Compound, Clint thought grimly.

Finally, they moved to Sam's cell. The ex-paramilitary turned to face them, his face sporting a burn mark from where Toni had blasted him. "How's Rhodes?" He asked, guilt colouring his voice.

Toni flinched minutely and Clint discreetly placed a hand at the small of her back. "They're transporting him to Columbia Medical, so..." She shook herself and, before Sam could say anything, she took out her phone and tapped a few keys, then looked up at him again. "I've just knocked out the A of their AV," she told him with a hint of smugness, though fake. She proceeded to tell him what they'd learned from Friday, ending with, "Sam, I was wrong. But Cap needs help right now, and you know it."

Sam sighed and told them about the Winter Soldiers in Siberia, while Clint and Toni listened in attentive silence. When he was finished, he looked at her for a long while. "I've told you everything," he started, quietly. "But now you have to promise you'll go alone. As a friend."

Toni paused and smiled bitterly. "Should be easy enough," she bit out. "After all, I was his fiance."

Sam shifted, suddenly looking guilty. "Um... Was?"

"Sharon Carter was following my orders when she arrived to give you your equipment."

Sam paled. "Well... I mean... You know... You know."

Toni turned away without responding and Clint muttered, "Yeah, she knows, Wilson."

They were about to walk out when the one person who Clint had been trying to ignore, suddenly stood up and strode towards the glass of her cell. "Are you going to let us out of here or not, Stark?"

Toni turned towards her reluctantly. "No, Romanoff, I'm not," she said. "You let them go and this is the consequence. I can't do anything about this if I wanted to."

Natasha sneered. "Can't or won't? This is just your goddamn ego speaking again-"

Clint stepped in front of her, cutting off her view of Toni. Natasha faltered immediately.

"Clint-"

"I expected better from you," he cut her off, cold but sad. "I thought you'd changed."

The redhead looked stricken and before she could change his mind, Clint turned on his heel, grabbing Toni's arm on the way and pulling her out with him.

 

************

 

"Now?" Clint asked, taking his eyes away from the control wheel of the jet to face her.

Toni shrugged. "I'm going to Siberia. Cap is gonna need help."

Clint noticed how she was very carefully avoiding saying the name Steve. "Okay, give me the coordinates-"

"No."

"Toni," he sighed, exasperated.

"Rhodey shouldn't wake up alone," she told him. "Pepper and Happy won't arrive till tomorrow evening and Vision is feeling way too guilty to be any support. You have to stay."

"Well, I can't let you go alone!" Clint argued. "Be honest with me, Tones, do you really trust Cap to not-"

"He wouldn't hurt me!" Toni interjected, uncertainty leaking into her voice as she recalled how the fight at the airport had gone. They'd pulled their punches, just as Toni had asked them to. Steve obviously hadn't given his side the same orders.

"He already has hurt you," Clint pointed out. He wasn't just referring to the bruises she was sporting.

Toni forced a smile. "Well, this suit is more than capable of taking care of them."

"The suit is," Clint agreed. "But are you willing to take care of them?"

She didn't answer his question. "FRIDAY will inform you if I need assistance. If she tells you to ready medical assistance, then I need you to call Dr Wu, Dr Christine Palmer and Dr Stephen Strange. You remember him?"

"Yeah," Clint nodded. "Wu knows everything, he's worked with you before. What about Palmer and Strange?"

"Christine is strictly need-to-know only. Stephen knows everything. So tell him the whole truth."

"Everything?"

"Everything."

************

 

Steve eyed the armour in disguised suspicion. "Are you here to arrest us?"

"Well, if I did that," Toni shrugged. "I'd have to arrest myself. I'm kind of going against the Accords by just being here."

Steve felt impalpable relief at the words. Toni had defied the Accords to help him. She saw he was right. They were going to be okay! "It's good to see you, Toni!" He smiled. He stepped forward, intending to kiss her briefly. But the armour stepped back almost reflexively. "Toni?" Steve felt confusion at her gesture, mixed with a bit of guilt. Why would she back away from him? She couldn't possibly know about Sharon, right?

"Now's not the best time, Cap," Toni answered, sounding a little strangled. "We'll talk when we're out of here." Before Steve could protest, her eyes shifted to behind him. "Hey, Manchurian Candidate," she waved. Steve turned to see Bucky still aiming his rifle at her. "We're under a truce here. White flag? You can put that down."

 

************

 

Something dark began to unfurl in Steve's chest as Toni looked up from the computer screen and turned to Bucky. He anticipated her move and caught her elbow just as she stepped forward towards him.

"Toni," he begged and she paused. "It wasn't his fault. He had no choice."

"Did you know?" She asked in a harsh whisper, completely ignoring his words.

Steve hesitated, but a lie was already on the tip of his tongue. "I didn't know it was him-"

"DON'T BULLSHIT ME, ROGERS!" The yelled words echoed around in the small space. "Did. You. Know?" She repeated, low and furious.

Game over, Steve thought to himself grimly and braced himself as he said, "Yes."

Toni turned away, but Steve couldn't bring himself to relax. He stayed tense. But in spite of being ready for it, he failed to block the sudden punch Toni threw. As he struggled to get up (because dang it, metal hurt) (where did Toni learn to punch so hard?), he saw, with growing horror, Toni fighting Bucky. Both of them were sparring recklessly and it would have been a beautiful sight in training. But this was real. This was real and Toni was going to kill Bucky and-

He leapt after her, grabbing the armour in a stranglehold. Stupid move. She wrestled him off easily and blasted the repulsor. Steve brought his shield up immediately, dimly registering that she wasn't firing at full power. Maybe there was still a chance?

"Toni, there's no point to this," he grit out as he ducked under her arm and backed away a bit. "This isn't going to change what happened."

"I don't care." Her voice was hard, cold and brittle and Steve knew there was no hope left. "He killed Jarvis." She fired off another shot and as he rolled to dodge it, she surprised him by lifting in the air and kicking him hard in the face. Steve gasped as he knelt on the ground. He could feel the blood dripping from his lips and teeth. "Final warning," Toni said, her repulsors still aimed at him. "Stay down."

Steve stumbled to his feet, aware of Bucky sneaking right behind Toni. "I could do this all day."

Bucky was suddenly there and then it was almost easy. The two of them were tag-teaming her and no matter how good she was, Toni couldn't fight off two super soldiers at once. They could do this. They could subdue her and-

Something changed. Steve had had her backed into the corner. He was repeatedly hitting the jaw of her mask, where he knew there was a slit that he could break into. If he could tear the mask off, she wouldn't have access to the display over her eyes that always aided her fight.

But then, she caught his fist. She caught his fist and forced it back and he dimly heard her say, "Let's kick his ass." Then it was reversed. Steve felt himself move into a useless defence as Toni landed blow after blow. Bucky, who'd been hanging back, confident that Steve could handle it, joined in again, but by that time Steve was on the floor again and... And...

Steve's mind went blank. Toni, backed into a wall again with Bucky pressing against her chest and shoulders, raised her arm. Steve saw it happening in slow motion. He wanted to yell at Bucky to get away, but too late: Toni fired and Bucky was blown back and his arm- his whole metal arm-was lying ten feet away.

With a furious roar, he pushed off the ground. A monster in him that he didn't even know existed came to life and within seconds, he had Toni pinned to the ground, her helmet torn off and his shield raised.

Toni raised her arms and he prepared to drive the shield into the exposed space above the neck of the armour. But then he caught her eye. She looked resigned. And that made Steve angrier. She didn't deserve to die. She needed to live, so she could feel the gravity of her mistakes. So she could understand how wrong and how selfish and how stupid she'd been. He drove the shield into her chest. The arc reactor flickered.

Silence fell. The only sound was of three people breathing.

Toni was still staring at Steve. Looking at those big, brown doe eyes, Steve felt unexpected remorse. This was Toni. Selfish, narcissistic and temperamental, but still kind, smart and generous. In those long seconds, Steve realized something. He'd been trying to find Peggy in her, but he'd failed. He'd known it was a lost cause within two months of their relationship, but he'd stayed. He'd stayed, because... Because, he'd liked her for real. And then, he'd loved her. He loved HER. And he was realising it too late.

"Steve."

The sound of his name woke him. Swallowing his regret, he lifted off of Toni. He could feel her eyes on him as he helped Bucky up. As he walked away, he waited for her to say something, to have the last word.

"That shield doesn't belong to you. My father made that shield."

Steve let the shield drop without a word. It pained him, but Toni deserved that much.

 

************

 

"Starks are made of iron. Caring too much about too many people is rusting that iron," Howard had growled at her, drunk and angry.

"Love doesn't solve anything, figlia mia," Maria had whispered to her in a drugged haze.

"To have someone's love is both a curse and a blessing, sweetheart. It makes you both stronger and weaker," Jarvis had told her with a smile, as she fell asleep to his hand carding through her hair.

"You care too much, darling. Too much like me. I hope it doesn't destroy you like it almost destroyed me," aunt Peggy had said fondly, albeit sad.

Toni squeezed her eyes shut, trying to keep the memories at bay,, trying to ignore the icy years dripping down either side of her face. They'd been right. All of them. She'd never thought love, of all things, would be the death of her. But then, she'd never thought she'd find love either. Least of all in the form of a man who wasn't even supposed to be alive. A man who'd been everything she couldn't be. A man who, in the end, had turned out to be a lie in himself. And now here she was, because she'd loved the wrong man. Because in the end, after he'd broken every ounce of trust she'd had, she still loved him. Loved him too much to truly fight him lethally.

Steve Rogers. Captain America. Truthful, virtuous and a true patriot. No. Liar, traitor and an international criminal.

Because of one man.

"I know people with none of that worth ten of you."

The memory of the hate-filled voice was enough to bring out a choked sob, her breath turning to mist.

She was going to die here. Of that Toni was sure. She'd defied death so many times. Not this one. The arc reactor was caved in, the suit dead. She would have been able to move it if she hadn't been injured. But her body was broken almost as badly as in Afghanistan. She could feel a stabbing in her chest. Broken ribs. In plural. She'd lost blood. There was probably a crack in her jaw. The arc reactor was digging into her sternum. There were several more broken bones. The cold was setting in too and the metal wasn't helping. Even if she survived, she'd lose her fingers, maybe a few toes.

She didn't want to survive.

The epiphany wasn't a big deal. Her desires had no role to play anymore. FRIDAY (her daughter in ever way that counted, Toni hadn't treated her right, had limited her like she'd never limited JARVIS) was disconnected. Clint (at least, he was safe, she'd kept her promise to Laura, she'd done something right) was the only one who knew where she was and while FRIDAY would have alerted him, there was no way he could get to her in time. Pepper (light of her life, she wasn't joking when she called the redhead that, she was going to be so worried, maybe after she was gone, she wouldn't have to stress anymore) was pregnant (she'd never get to see her second godchild (and Peter, she'd never get to tell him the truth)), Happy (did he know how much he meant to her, how grateful she was to have him?), couldn't leave her. Rhodey (oh, dear God, Rhodey, her brother, her best friend, she'd failed him, she'd gotten him paralyzed) was incapacitated. Vision (she'd been unfair to him too, she'd kept him at arms length for no fault of his) was benched after the airport battle. Stephen (he was going to be so mad at her, she'd promised him she'd never go where he couldn't reach her) was in Kamar-Taj.

Toni was going to die alone. It was what she deserved. After all, she'd failed Yinsen too.

Her body was starting to give up. Darkness was crawling at the edge of her vision as her mind fought to save itself.

Her eyes slipped shut. There was a ringing in her ears, like alarm bells. Fitting.

Did it have to hurt, though? Steve had already betrayed her, lied to her, cheated on her, broken her heart, literally and figuratively. Shouldn't dying be some sort of reprieve?

Well. Maybe after she took her last breath, she'd be at peace. Clearing her mind with the ease of long practice, Toni tried to will her heart into stopping. No point in it beating anymore.

 

************

 

Clint tried to control his breathing. The cold Siberian air didn't make it easy. Toni was barely breathing, her heart was beating sparsely and erratically. The medics were struggling to take her out of the armour and Clint found himself walking forward in slow motion, pressing at the emergency manual release points as FRIDAY instructed in his ear. What he saw under the armour made him choke on his own breath. The metal suit fell away, but the arc reactor, splintered and dark, lay embedded deep in her chest. The under-suit was badly torn by the metal caving in on her and he could see the dark congealed blood all over her stomach and sides. Her fingers were a frosty blue. One look was enough to know that there was no way to save them. There was a long gash over her already bruised forehead. One of the medics was talking about shattered ribs and danger to the lungs. Not to mention what the reactor was doing to her heart. The diagnosis? Toni was dying.

As they carefully- oh, so, so carefully- lifted Toni onto the gurney and began wheeling it towards the quinjet, Clint came to three conclusions:

1.) Laura was going to kill him. If Pepper, waiting back at the Compound, didn't get him first.

2.) Steve Rogers was a worthless man who left his injured teammate, his friend, his fiance behind.

3.) He should have gone with Toni.

 

************

 

Stephen should have known something was wrong. The last text he'd gotten from Toni was telling him to leave without her for Kamar-Taj. After that... Nothing. Stephen always kept his phone switched off in Kamar-Taj. But, Toni, without fail, would remotely hack it and switch it on again. How was it even possible to hack a switched off phone?

So the fact that he hadn't heard from her for two days was... Unsettling.

As his phone came to life, Stephen switched on the news. His voicemail alert chimed just as the screen showed footage of the Avengers battling... Themselves?

Stephen watched closely and realized something had gone very wrong. He'd known about the Accords, thanks to Toni. He'd agreed with her that it was required, a necessity, and that the rest of the team would feel the same, especially Rogers. But they'd been wrong on both counts. The team had split right down the middle, with Romanoff playing turncoat, some guy with shrinking/growing tech on Roger's team and the king of Wakanda on Toni's side. Captain America had fought against the Accords. The battle took place in Leipzig. All the rogues except Rogers and Barnes had been captured and War Machine was injured. Shit. Rhodes.

Trembling more than usual, Stephen opened the voicemail. A semi-familiar voice filtered through.

"Hey, Dr Strange. This is Clint Barton. I was, uh, Toni's PA once. Listen, uh, Toni said to call you if FRIDAY reported trouble and she just did. So... Yeah, so Toni's hurt, apparently. We're on the way to retrieve her right now. If you could just reach the Compound in upstate New York as soon as you can... Okay, that's it. Thanks."

The message hadn't quite finished playing before Stephen opened a portal, not caring in the least who saw him. Levi settling around his shoulders, he stepped through and found himself in the waiting room of the medical facility.

"Stephen!"

He turned in time to catch a two-months pregnant woman in his arms, sobbing and shaking all over.

"She's dying, she's dying and they might not be able to save her! She's... Stephen, what do we do? Toni's DYING!"

Slowly prying himself from her grip, he turned to a passing nurse. "Get me Dr Stark's file, please."

The nurse looked him over once. Then, seemingly deciding she'd seen stranger things while patching up superheroes, she shook her head. "I'm sorry, sir, if you're not authorized-"

"My name is Dr Stephen Strange," he cut her off coldly and watched her eyes widen in recognition. "Colonel Rhodes is recovering from surgery and Miss Potts is ultimately indisposed. In their absence, I am listed as Dr Stark's medical proxy. Get. Me. Her. File."

It worked. Stephen's heart clenched painfully as he read the extensive list of injuries. The arc reactor was risky to remove. They'd managed to set her broken bones, but they were too scared to fix her ribs without jostling the splintered sternum. They'd already amputated seven fingers and three toes. Her already weak heart was in danger of stopping all together. Her body was just too damaged to carry on, to heal without a miracle.

Trembling, Stephen moved to the window, looking into the room where Toni lay hooked up to several machines and fluids. He couldn't see her face, but he had a feeling she would be looking peaceful.

A murderous rage filled him. Rogers. Rogers was the one who did this. He didn't have the full story. But there was no mistaking the inch-and-a-half long crack in the reactor. It perfectly matched a particular vibranium shield that had also been found near her- her body- along with a metal arm.

Then, as fast as the anger came, it went. He was going to lose her, he realized. He was going to lose her more permanently than if she'd gotten married and he wasn't ready. He wasn't ready to lose her.

He suddenly became aware of somebody gently guiding him over to a chair. "Easy, buddy, can't have you collapsing too. Toni needs you now."

Right. Barton. Barton had steady hands on his shoulders as he knelt on the ground in front of his seat.

"Mr Barton," he mumbled softly.

"Just Clint. I'm guessing you're..." He waved a hand around vaguely, gesturing towards his getup. "Special? Not normal?"

He nodded. "Sorcerer Supreme."

"I don't even want to know," Clint muttered.

Dr Wu and Christine stepped out. Clint leapt to his feet nimbly, Happy followed suit. "Well?"

"It's bad news" Wu sighed. "There's nothing more we can do for her without removing the reactor and risking her heart."

Stephen found it was getting difficult to breathe.

"We can try waking her up," Christine continued softly. "We might not be able to, but we could try so that..." So they could say goodbye.

For a few minutes, they all stood in silence. Then an Irish voice spoke up. "If I may, sirs and madams, I believe I have a solution."

 

************

 

It was decided. Extremis 4.0 would bond with the nanites already in Toni's blood to fix the reactor, welding it into her body more permanently. It would work with the weak 3.0 she'd used before to heal her body completely. Hypothetically. The possible side effects were impossible to predict, since she was the first user and it has never been tested before. Pepper's stabilized 2.0 version was too different to compare.

Calculated chances of survival, according to FRIDAY, was 87.3 %. They'd all agreed it was more than enough. It was all prepped and ready to go. Pepper was in the middle of a press conference to alleviate the public's worries. They only had two questions: where was Steve Rogers and, more importantly, where was Toni Stark?

Pepper couldn't tell them everything; she barely knew anything of what happened in that bunker. But there was nothing holding her back from releasing the medical diagnosis, along with the situational evidence found at the scene. It was enough to cause massive outcry.

Cling poured out his guilt and worry to Laura, who consoled him as well as she could over the phone.

Everett and Sharon threw themselves in clean-up, helping Pepper and getting the Barton's and Langs to safety, as per FRIDAY's pre-programmed instructions.

Rhodey was awake and grieving, all the while planning murder.

Happy was boxing, his mind buzzing with anger.

In Queens, Peter Parker felt his stomach drop to his feet as he listened to the news reporter read out Miss Stark's injuries from the medical file released by Miss Potts. He was out of the window and swinging his way towards the costume in full costume before the list was through. May knew he'd left, but she didn't stop him, her own insides twisted with worry.

In Rose Hill, Harley Keener, having watched the exact same news, sneaked out of his house with all his pocket money, leaving a note for his dad, and headed towards the bus station. His mind was running frantic circles with the same thought: Please don't be dead, don't leave me, Miss Stark, please, you promised, you can't die, please, mom, please!

Stephen sat down in a room just below the operating theatre, well aware that the most precious person in his world might never wake up again.

One floor above, Dr Wu injected a small, deceptively harmless vial of fiery orange liquid into Toni's arm, while Dr Palmer injected morphine into her other arm, hoping it would cancel out the pain the serum would put her through, but knowing it was in vain.

A moment passed. And a minute. Then Toni's body spasmed hard and she began to scream.

 

************

 

(WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE I'M BURNING?)