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The first time Steve ever saw the elusive Stark heiress was during their annual expo. It had been one of the largest expos in…ever. Of course, much of it had to do with the CEO’s announcement to step down and allow his only daughter to become the new helm. Despite the huge strides for feminine empowerment and gender equality, none of this mattered when the news broke. Steve himself had been sent to the expo with strict instructions to find something vulnerable about this new CEO.

Not that it mattered. Antonia—Toni—Stark was a beautiful swan with the prickly disposition to match. No reporter ever got anything other than a blast of her fierce personality whenever they tried to find her soft underbelly. And yet, her beauty detracted everyone from the bright intelligence in her gaze, the sinewy strength in her limbs, and the graceful yet dangerous stroll she always adapted. Everyone saw the beauty of the swans, but the dangerous beauty of a tiger was hardly ever praised.

Toni Stark is very much a contained tiger with a gold chain tying her to the CEO position.

Strange that nobody other than Steve ever saw the danger in her bright megawatt smiles that showed too much teeth.

And yet, when they collided at the open bar, he had none of those thoughts.


 

“Hey, handsome.” The throaty purr behind Steve’s shoulder almost made him spill the whisky over his rented tuxedo. Which would be a shame, it’s been years since he’s had whiskey that good. “Can I interest you in something?”

Steve turns and promptly chokes on his spit. Standing in front of him in a sleek white pantsuit and muted lipstick is none other than Toni Stark.

“How about an exclusive interview?” he says after his coughs subside. Which, in his humble opinion, was ballsy considering his voice squeaked and his eyes were still tearing.

“Ballsy.” She murmurs with a half-grin. Then she takes a step towards the bar, leaning towards him with open invitation. “Go ahead, give me your best shot.”

Steve gapes at her, half-heartedly remembering that he had prepared notecards just in case this happened. Although, that had been more ambition than any actual planning on his part. Exclusive interviews with reserved heiresses don’t just fall into wishful reporters’ laps.

And yet.  

She quirks an eyebrow at his flummoxed expression. “Well?”

Flustered, he pulls out the cards and puts his phone on recording mode. “Do you mind if I record our questions?”

“Not at all. I’m open to recordings about myself.” She shifts her balance against the bar and winks at him in clear innuendo.

Right, she’s flirting with him.

Wait, what?

Steve clears his throat, tamps down his wayward thoughts, and continues, “Why do you think so many news outlets focus on your gender instead of your many philanthropic achievements?”

Her gaze turns sharp before she gives him another half-grin. “All right, we’re starting off with the heavy stuff.” She looks towards the bartender that had been discreetly hovering in case she needed anything. “Get me a whisky on the rocks.”

He almost opens his mouth to tell her that we could keep this to a fluff piece if she preferred when she looks at him with a glance that quells his doubts.

“Men see me, and they see a pretty face. They think that I should be on a runway modeling lingerie or in a kitchen making meat and potatoes. Men everywhere seem to think that women were made to do things related to them. If a woman is not doing something for a man, then she is worthless. Gender equality has been praised for so long but its nothing more than an empty accolade that men heap on companies that squeeze every potential from women.” She takes a sip of her whiskey without a grimace. “In this world, the fact that I don’t use my body the way men would like or serve men the way they would like makes me an easy target for media. But I don’t care that they use me as a scapegoat for everything wrong when a ‘woman gets uppity’, because that means that as long as they’re focused on me, they can’t harm the reputation of women who can’t fight back with the same zeal as I can. I can keep the media on their toes; everything they publish about me is publicity for my company and there is nothing that can make the board toss me out. Not when I own eighty percent of the shares.”

He stares at her for a long second, aware that this was heartfelt sincerity that she would never share with the big guns that have interviewed her in the past. “I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“Men rarely know how to respond to me.” She says with a saucy grin that absolutely does not make him want to kiss her. “Other than the obvious.”

“Why do you keep opening new non-profits instead of keeping one and lumping everything under that one? Is this for tax benefits?” Steve says, pushing down his desire.

Toni laughs loudly. “Honey, are you even sure you want to interview me? Where’s the twenty questions about my love life?”

Steve frowns at her assumptions. “I don’t work for the big names. I work for myself and an exclusive interview with you would put my online newspaper on the radar. Your love life might work for tabloids, but I want to focus on journalism.”

“All right, big guy.” She says with a smile, obviously humoring him. “I always open new non-profits because every cause that I support should have someone dedicated to it one hundred percent. My money is never going to run out and I should give some of that back to those who need it. I’m mostly just a silent partner, and I’m willing to follow the director’s leadership whenever it comes to my charities.”

“Aren’t you worried that they might use your charity as a front for other activities?” Steve is acutely aware that she could pull away at any moment and wants to hit as many topics as he can before she shuts down. “According to a couple newspapers, your director for the Señora Guadalupe Foundation has been embezzling you for years.”

She smiles, this one nothing more than a grim bearing of teeth. “Ah, there we go. Now you’re talking. Javier Perez graduated with honors from Stanford thanks to a scholarship for low income children. He knows better than any white cis male what type of adversity these kids have to go through for a minimum education. I can’t say that he is incapable of embezzling, but I can say that he has less of a motivation to do so.”

“Are you aware that by hiring LGBTQ+ and PoC you endorse their movement despite never giving any information about your sexual and gender orientation?”

“Over the years, it seems that people forget that I gave all the information I was going to give during one stupid interview when I was still a minor. Nothing has changed.” She downs the rest of her whiskey in one gulp. “I hire people who are efficient and qualified to do their job. The gender they identify with or have sex with, as well as the color of their skin have nothing to do with our hiring process. Now are we done with the interview? Because I’d like to finish this off in bed, naked and sweaty.”

Her slim fingers wrap around his lapels and she slinks forward with unmistakable intent. Before he can do something stupid like kiss her in a very public venue, he swiftly brings up his engagement ring. “I’m engaged.” He blurts out before her lips can touch his. She recoils swiftly and he internally thanks his lucky stars that she doesn’t press the issue. “Peggy and I are getting married in two months.”

“Oh.” Her eyes bore into his, almost confused. To be honest, he had been giving mixed signals for a moment there.

Of course, the ring should have been a dead giveaway. Except they still live in a gendered world where women can’t propose to their male partners and give them a ring.

“I’m flattered though.” He says sincerely. And the worst of it is that he is. He loves Peggy with everything he has but Toni is an extremely attractive woman. He’d have to be dead not to appreciate her.

She flattens the lapels of her blazer in one quick movement before standing straight. “Uh-huh.” Then without another look at Steve, she saunters off.

 

Chapter Text

The second time Steve sees Toni, he is at a gala for one of her multiple charities. Of course, the room is filled with important people: celebrities, reporters, and the like. That said the guest list was very exclusive. Only reporters backed by a reputable publisher were allowed in. So, when Steve received his invitation in the mail, he was quite understandably shocked. Even now surrounded by the rich and powerful, he still can’t quite wrap his head around the fact that he and Peggy were invited in the first place.

Not that he hadn’t become a hot commodity in his own right. After he published his interview and her publicist confirmed it as the real deal, Steve suddenly had several doors open to him. And that’s without considering that his blog took off so high that he finally managed to quit his job. That job filled with idiots who wanted to find a vulnerability in her so they could tear her down.

And all due to one conversation with Toni Stark.

Although, nothing is ever just anything when it comes to her. Despite only managing to make a hairline fracture to her aloof persona, that defense for those who generally can’t fight back made her much more human. Women identify with the misogynistic world she painted with an almost hurtful certainty. After all, who better to speak about the troubles of women than a woman.

So yes, being the one to publish this piece launched his platform into the stratosphere of public knowledge. Fortunately, the rest of his works kept it there. Not that that was a guarantee for anything. So Steve accepted the invitation, rented another expensive looking suit, and finally gave Peggy a reason to dress up. His finances never really gave much opportunity for evening gowns and her heirloom jewelry before. Peggy, of course, never complained but Steve is far from oblivious.

He knows that he can never hope to reach the same financial level as her family’s. But that’s fine, Steve has always valued love and companionship more than money and status.

As his Ma always said, money can’t lighten the sadness in your heart.

Only love can.

With his Ma’s words in mind, Steve mingles with a greater ease. He might not be one of the rich, but he’s got his gorgeous wife at his side and his career is finally taking off in the direction that he wanted. Of course, just as he makes peace with the discomfort of being forced to mingle with those living worlds away from his tax bracket, he spots her.

Objectively, Toni Stark is always gorgeous.

But here, with all stops pulled… She’s breathtaking.

He cranes his head toward the gallery where she’s talking to some stuffy looking old man, obviously dominating the conversation by the looks of her still date and the expression on the elder man. Every inch the powerful heiress, giving no quarter to the expectation placed on her gender. And yet, she eschews the stereotype that as a powerful woman her femininity should go by the wayside. Her gown the color of expensive wine fits her body like a glove, accentuating every curve, and diamonds sparkle at her ears and slender neck. Crimson lips and bold eyeshadow along with insanely high heels tie her look together.

A siren, alluring but dangerous.

Beautiful without measure.

And yet, it isn’t just her physical looks. From an objective standpoint, there are multiple women milling around in the gala who are much more attractive than she. But it’s something about her spirit that makes her outshine those beauties. The way she defends everything with so much fervor. How she gives no quarter, no matter how much pressure she receives. It’s her iron will that makes her shine brighter than the sun, eclipsing every person in the room by her sheer presence.

The moment she walks in a room, attention naturally gravitates to her. And when she speaks, everyone listens. Since her interview with Steve, she always makes sure to talk about those in less fortunate situations—racial minorities, LGBTQ+ issues, women’s troubles, etc. Brilliance and compassion rarely go hand in hand, but as with everything else, Toni is the exception.

It’s ironic that the tabloids try to paint her as some sort of harlot shrew. Because she never bows to society’s expectation that she must try to tear down other women, or anyone in her way, to be number one. She’s always the underdog’s biggest supporter. As for the label of harlot…

Steve has never been one to judge someone over their love life.

Her stupid date has no idea how lucky he is that she chose him. And make no mistake, she chose him. Her eyes might be flinty pieces of amber when she turns to look at the man, but appreciation is clear on her face whenever she sweeps her gaze over her arm candy.

It’s no surprise that they leave early, almost stumbling in their haste to go.

When she’s gone, Steve feels like all the air has left the room and his energy dims. He didn’t exchange words with Toni at all that night. But for some reason Peggy is uncommonly cold to him after they leave the gala.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, his relationship with Peggy was never going to last.

She’s a Senator’s only daughter: part of a family with a genealogy and bank account dating all the way to the Mayflower. It goes without saying that she’s used to finer things than he could offer. Her idea of date night consisted of a restaurant with at least 3 Michelin stars. Going to buy groceries had been such an eye-opener that first week as a married couple. She’d thrown things into their cart without even stopping to see prices, much less look for cheaper alternatives. And that’s without counting that time they went clothes shopping together for the first time.

And yet, he’d been so sure that he loved her.

Steve had loved to simply be with Peggy. Loved sharing moments after work and whenever they had time. She was always so animated, waxing poetry over every little thing that caught her fancy. She went on long winded rants over anything. And fuck, he loved her. He loved waking up next to her. Feeling so damned blessed to hear her soft snores and see her wispy red curls fanning over their pillows. Just the fact that he was the lucky bastard that got to see her wake up each morning used to make him feel so happy.

Those seven months before everything fell apart were absolute perfection.

But after they went to that damned gala, she was convinced of the opposite. In her mind, he was in love with someone that he could never have.

Her accusations made him feel guilty and rightfully so, he’d been staring at Toni for an inordinate amount of time that night. But as he’d told her: Toni is nothing more than a celebrity crush. Toni Stark is someone he admired. Someone that he, and anyone else really, could appreciate from afar. But she is not someone who he could ever have a relationship with. Not someone for whom he would jeopardize his relationship over.

Although Peggy never saw it that way. And in the end, her point of view on the issue became the catalyst for their separation.

Because once Peggy got something in her mind, there is nothing that can make her change it.

And so, their relationship began to crumble.

At first it had been small things: she’d started working longer hours at her office, stopped sending him random texts during the day. Things that at the time had seemed inconsequential until it was obvious that what they had was dying an agonizing death. Unfortunately for Steve, he didn’t get with the program until the day that she never came home.

In his defense, despite knowing that Peggy was disenchanted with their relationship, upset over his so-called crush on Toni, he’d never thought it was that serious. It never crossed his mind that she would kill their fledgling marriage because of it. So when she asked him to stop calling her during work hours, he’d brushed it off as her desire to be a strong empowered woman. Never mind that she’d never had a problem with it before.

And that night that she slept away from home, Steve finally came to abrupt realization that sometime during the last six months, he’d lost Peggy and he had no idea how to get her back.

So he didn’t call her.

He couldn’t, not while he had no idea what to say to her.

Hi Peggy, sorry that I haven’t noticed that you’ve been distancing yourself from me, but could you please come home so I can grovel?

Right, that would fly over well. Probably, in her mind, his dismissal of her uncharacteristic detachment was his agreement to her actions. In fact, she probably thought that he was gearing himself up to take the first step to break things off. He had no idea how to tackle this unforeseen problem, so he opted to wait.

Big mistake. But far from the worst he would make in the following months.

Peggy moved out the following day, while Steve was out interviewing a girl who had won a full ride scholarship for a local college. Before leaving that morning, he’d called her to let her know that he wouldn’t be working from home that day, left her a voicemail when she didn’t pick up. But she didn’t call back, instead she took this information and used it to her advantage in order to avoid him as she went for her things.

When he got back, the sudden absence of Peggy’s effects made everything scarily final. Steve had tried calling her as soon as he realized what she did, but the call went straight to voicemail. It wasn’t until that evening that she called him back to tell him that she wanted to take some time away from him to think things through.

Steve had begged, shamelessly letting her know that he needed her with him.

Their relationship of over six years couldn’t crumble just like that.

But she’d been sure that distance and time was what she needed to get her head on straight regarding their relationship and nothing he said made her change her mind.

So he went with it, stepped back and let her have her space. He worked like a demon, working at least three separate pieces for his newspaper at the same time. All of it to take his mind away from the shamble of his marriage.

In the end though, it had all been for naught. After a month of silence from Peggy’s end, he finally received a call from her.

He remembers that conversation vividly. He’d been ecstatic at her reaching out to him, rushing over his words as he greeted her before she cut him off brusquely.

“Steve, I want a divorce.”

Abruptly, he’d gotten angry, incensed at his life in general. “No.”

“I’ve already started the proceedings. This was just a heads up.”

Then she’d hung up on him and routed all his calls to voicemail. And in no time at all, he’d received the paperwork in the mail.

For several weeks after he received the package that symbolized the end of the best relationship of his life, he’d done nothing.

He’d canceled all of his appointments and interviews he had on his agenda, opting instead to stay home and stare at the papers until the words became nothing but a blur. He’d ignored Nat and Bucky’s calls, even shutting the door on Sam’s face when he’d showed up unannounced at his apartment. It wasn’t until, ironically enough, he’d received an email from Toni’s PR team that he finally felt something other than the huge weight of apathy.

The email had been short and to the point: his work on everything pertaining to Stark Industries had been great for their image and they wanted to make sure that he was rewarded handsomely for any future pieces on them. If he were so inclined to receive further information, they required he get in contact with them via email so that an in-person meeting with their department head can be set up for him.

Steve had stared at that email on his phone for hours, unsure of what prompted a company as big as S.I to reach out to an aspiring journalist like him?

Peggy’s acerbic words over his Toni crush abruptly came to mind.

Your stupid ‘celebrity crush’ is far from impossible. She looks at you and wants, Steve. Even you can’t be that oblivious. She wants you.

Could she have been right?

A sudden laugh bubbled up his throat.

Of course not, that was the stupidest thing that ever occurred to him.

But the email had served a purpose: he’d surfaced from that deep cesspool of misery enough to interact with the world again.

Chapter Text

 A couple of months after Steve accepts the offer from SI’s PR team, he bumps into Toni for the first time. Not that it’s a surprise that it took so long. He’d been told since the beginning that aside from the moments when he got a scheduled interview, Toni would rarely make an appearance near their floor in the tower. Despite living in the tower, her quarters are so closely guarded by her tech that they might as well be in another planet.

Of course, rumor has it that she hardly ever sets foot in her penthouse and instead opts to spend all her waking hours in the lab that everyone swears is under the tower.

So it’s a surprise that Steve manages to bump into the elusive woman right in front of the main elevators outside of the employee’s cafeteria.

Unlike all the other times he’s seen her, she’s far from looking put together. Smudges of eyeliner ring her whiskey colored eyes and traces of red lipstick stain the edges of her lips. Instead of designer labels and dangerous heels, she wears ratty jeans smeared with grease, a faded black t-shirt with a peeling logo of an obscure rock band, and easily the most beat up pair of Chuck Taylor’s. It’s kind of disconcerting to see her looking so vulnerable, while at the same time completely expected. After working on exposition pieces about the multiple philanthropic activities Toni did, he knows that she is much more at ease out of the war paint. It’s just… he’s only ever seen her when she looks every inch the powerful woman.

This vulnerable Toni humanizes her in a way a thousand exposés on her philanthropic activities never could.

It makes her seem…less like a celebrity and more like someone he could get to know.

Her voice brings his attention back to the moment.

“Oh, I’m sorry Steve!” she says with a rueful smile. “I didn’t see you there.”

For some reason, his cheeks burn at her smile. “Don’t worry about it.”

She gives him another smile before gesturing at his coffee. “I hope you like the coffee. Pepper told me that IT lobbied hard to get more coffee makers in the cafeteria.”

“Oh, it’s pretty good.” Steve says earnestly. “I mean, hands down this place has way better stuff than what was offered at the Daily Bugle.”

“That’s a relief. The boss will be glad.” Toni’s eyes crinkle at the corners despite her poker face.

Steve laughs, the sound surprising even himself. “I’m sure you’ll make sure she knows that her efforts aren’t wasted.”

“Perks of having a direct pipeline to the boss.”

“I bet.”

They share a smile, before an awkward silence falls between them.

“So I’ll—”

“I was just—”

Toni looks at Steve exasperated. “Come on Rogers, we can’t get awkward with each other. You’re my best man on the PR front.”

He snorts. “Right, but that’s work, and this is small talk.” Steve grips his coffee cup a little tighter but loosens it when the Styrofoam squeaks.

An indecipherable expression settles on her pretty features. “Isn’t everything work?”

“No?”

Their eyes meet and tension rises.

Unexpectedly, that’s when an out of breath young woman clatters out from the elevator, immediately making a beeline for Toni.

“Toni, oh my god, you shouldn’t be—” She breaks off and turns to face Steve. “Mr. Rogers, nice to see you.”

Before Steve could reply, Toni wraps her arm around the other woman’s waist. “Pep, relax, the board won’t die if I miss a meeting.” She gives Steve a wink before slowly walking the other woman toward the elevator. “You know what, I’ll even email the old coots myself the new specs on my planned tablet.”

And without another word to Steve, they walk into the elevator, Toni talking a mile per minute while Pepper looks increasingly bemused. When the doors close on then, the sudden silence surrounding Steve felt oppressing.

He took a sip from his heretofore forgotten coffee, stubbornly locking that thought away in the back of his mind.

No amount of humanizing can make Toni Stark attainable.

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

Weeks later though, something changes.

Of course, when he wakes up that morning, everything seems the same. He’s in his shitty apartment, with his shitty life still in shambles around him, and don’t forget, he’s late to work, as par the course for a Wednesday morning.

Since the divorce, Tuesday nights are rough on him, well rougher. He misses Peggy every day like a missing limb but, on those nights, it triples. Tuesday nights were the nights that belonged to them. She always left work early and they found something new to try. They’d gone rock climbing, indoor skydiving, bungee jumping... The most memorable had been a cooking class, although not one of their best ideas. They’d gotten kicked out after almost setting the building on fire. Instead of getting angry, Peggy had laughed and said that that story was the one she was going to tell their kids.

So yeah, Tuesday nights were shit.

But Steve, among other things, is resilient. So, he gets his sorry ass up on Wednesdays, contemplates his sad existence as water swirls down the shower drain, gets dressed, and hauls himself to work before he gets dangerously maudlin. He goes in and does his job, like he hadn’t gotten absolutely hammered the night before. He might be late, with his tongue dry as cotton and his head pounding like hell, but he is there, damn it.

He’s still functional.

Of course, having the hangover from hell also means that his reactions aren’t what they should be. And it’s because of this that when he finds himself in the elevator with a very well-dressed Toni, he says the worst possible thing.

“Wow, you look gorgeous.”

Which you know, wouldn’t have been as bad if he hadn’t said that to the CE fucking O of his workplace.

Luckily for him, Toni merely blinks at him owlishly before slowly curving her red lips into a smirk. “Well, hello Steve. You don’t look half-bad yourself.” He stammers out a half-assed apology before she laughs. “Don’t worry so much Rogers, I’m dressed to kill because I have a meeting with the idiots of the board.”

Her hands flatten the lapels of her peach colored blazer in a nervous gesture Steve’s starting to find familiar.

“It’s just, I’m about to make a huge ass decision that will probably make all of them explode and it will be much, much easier if they’re distracted by my ass or thighs to put up a fight.” She picks at her fitted black skirt dejectedly. “I hate using my body like this but it’s for the greater good.”

“Hey,” In a move that surprised even himself, he grabs her hand and forces it into stillness. “I know that you always get a lot of flack from media over your actions but from what I can see, you’ve always made the right choices.”

The look in her eyes is still entirely too vulnerable, but her society mask fixes itself on her face again. By the time the elevator doors open to his department’s floor, that small moment of weakness is gone. He tilts his head at her in goodbye before leaving the elevator, feeling a slight sting of reluctance to leave her.

The rest of the day passes in a blur, that brief interaction with Toni occupying so much of his attention that he makes absolutely no headway on his work. And it isn’t until he’s in bed, half-asleep, that he realizes that he hardly even thought of Peggy.

/-/-/-/-/-/

Despite not having a big role in the department, on most days Steve’s job makes him feel like he is accomplishing something. As the sole member of the PR team allotted to Toni’s and SI’s philanthropic actions, he has the liberty to visit the different charities and events whenever Toni or Pepper go. He spends more time at the work sites: shadowing someone at a charity fundraiser is not really his cup of tea even if he makes his obligatory visit. It’s there that he notices that Toni prefers to work on things as well. At the beginning, he merely shadows her but after only a couple minutes watching her work and interact with others with a genuine desire to be there, he threw himself into the fray as well. And so it begins.

When she flies to Mexico to help rebuild a small town devastated by hurricane season, he’s right beside her with a shovel mixing cement for walls. Then when she goes to distribute food and water to famine-stricken villages in Somalia. And then again in the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters, the ocean cleaning project in Thailand, and soon enough, he spends more time out of the office than in it.

Of course, the rest of the team thinks that he slept his way to the position, although no one ever dared to say it to his face. Not that Steve cares, at least he got the chance to do something for the world. And, the added plus of seeing Toni frequently helps ease the sting of the others’ opinions.

Getting to know her is worth everything.

Thanks to the time they spend together, their relationship slowly morphs from exclusively work related to something resembling a friendship. On their flights back to the US, they always had the opportunity to talk. At first, these had been stilted, much like their first encounter in Stark Tower. But as time goes on, Toni slowly opens up to Steve.

 She talks about growing up with the pressure of not being the boy her father always dreamed of. Of not being the girl that her mother expected her to be, and the expectations placed on her by society ever since it got out that she was a prodigy.

She tells him with blunt honesty how she was shattered when she found out that her godfather Obadiah had used her company to sell weapons to terrorists. And how that spurred her on to cancel the weapons division and focus on healing the world instead.

Steve answers her truth with his own. He grew up sickly, much smaller than the others in his grade and plagued with asthma. Combined with his disregard for bullies and photographic memory, he was the main target for harassment. He’d never gotten a second look from any of the girls at his school, much less any of the guys.

When they talk about their orientation, they share a commiserating eyeroll. Every bi always experiences the bi equals cheater stigma. And so Toni Stark stops being the CE fucking O and slowly morphs into Toni, his friend.

And if he suddenly gets awe-struck just by seeing her smile, well… Steve is also very stubborn.

Chapter Text

Bucky and Steve knew each other far longer than they have been friends. Bucky had been lucky enough to be born first and so could quite confidently pull off the older brother card easily whenever Steve got full of shit. But at first, they had no friendship at all.

They grew up as neighbors, pushed to friendship by two mothers who wanted nothing more than them to get along, and so at first, they hated each other. Steve hated Bucky because he was everything that Steve wasn’t; even as a child, Bucky was good-looking, witty, and worst of all, healthy. For sickly asthmatic Steve, that last fact alone meant intense jealousy.

Of course, that resentment wasn’t exclusively Steve’s. Bucky hated Steve for the fact that his parents loved him. Don’t get me wrong. Winnifred Barnes loved Bucky to pieces, but his father was another story. George Barnes was a drunk and an aggressive one at that.

At first, Bucky used to think that all Dad’s were like that, especially considering that Steve’s dad usually got drunk along with his dad. But then one day, when he and his Ma were over at the Rogers’, he happened to see the older Rogers stumble home in a drunken haze. He had quickly looked at Sara and Steve to see their reactions, but instead of the dread and fear that usually filled his own home when his Dad got home, they were unconcerned. Sara was still chatting happily away with his Ma and Steve was sketching in his notebook.

“Sara?”

Automatically Bucky’s shoulders had tensed, ready to flee when his mother gave him the indication.

“Joseph?” Steve’s mom had gotten up with a frown on her face, but without a sign of fear as she approached her husband. “Look at the state you’re in! Go on up and take a shower, I’ll put a pot on coffee on for you.”

A sheepish smile crossed the older man’s face and he ducked his head as Sara continued to berate him before finally shooing him up the stairs.

“I swear, that man is going to drink himself to an early grave.” Sara said to his Ma with a shake of her head. “So sorry that you had to see that.”

“It’s not a problem, Sara. George sometimes gets like that too.”

Bucky had stared at his Ma in shock. No, his father never got like that. His father got angry, loud and mean when shouting at his mother. His father was aggressive, quick to hit him and his sisters if they crossed paths with him when he got angry. His father was a nasty son of a bitch who despite being a drunk, had nothing in common with Joseph Rogers. And neither did Bucky with Steve.

Or so they both thought.

Things went on in this manner for a long time. Steve hated Bucky every second that he looked like the poster child for a healthy thriving kid. And Bucky hated Steve every second that he had to spend in the Rogers home with his Ma, reminded of just how shitty his life was. And nothing changed until they were ten.

Steve had worked hard on his schoolwork in the hopes that his frequent absences wouldn’t hurt his grades, so he and Bucky were still in the same grade. Of course, their resentment to each other prevented them from spending time outside of the hours that their mothers forced them to. But on the day Steve stood up to his bully, Bucky found that he couldn’t let the punk get the snot punched out him.

So Bucky sighed and stood next to the skinny pain in the ass, defiantly staring down the other kid. Luckily for them, Steve’s bully had been the kind to pick on the loners and seeing as Steve was suddenly backed up by Bucky, he’d left them alone.

But Steve, being the little shit that he was, hated the fact that he’d needed back-up. And so later when he’d spotted a little girl being picked on by a larger kid during recess, he’d butted in.

“Pick on someone your own size.” He’d been ready to throw hands, but the other boy had simply looked at him and laughed.

“Yeah right pipsqueak. Get out of here.”

“No way.” Before he could get another word out, the other kid punched him in the face.

Steve had stumbled to the ground, blood flowing out of nose, but he got back up again. He launched himself at the other boy and they rolled around on the ground exchanging punches. Of course, they attracted the attention of the others and they soon had a ring of kids around them egging them on.

Bucky arrived before the teachers and managed to pry them apart. But before he could drag Steve away, a teacher showed up. She’d taken one look at Steve and sent him straight to the nurse’s office. Unfortunately for Steve, Bucky had volunteered to take him there.

On the way to the nurse, Bucky had been the first to initiate conversation.

“Why’d you take him on?”

“Why do you care?” Steve had responded nasally, one hand pinching his nose to stem the bleeding. “Just because no one picks on you doesn’t mean we’re all so lucky.”

“Yeah well, no one picks on me because I can take care of myself.”

“So can I!”

“Right.” Bucky had looked at Steve doubtfully. Steve’s clothes were covered in dirt, his shirt was speckled with his own blood, and his arms were covered in scratches. “I can see that.

“Look, why did you even bother coming with me?”

“My ma would kill me if she knew I let some kid kill you at school on my watch.”

Steve glared at Bucky. “I’m not some kind of charity case.”

“Never said that, stupid.”

“I’m not stupid, you are.”

Bucky demonstrated a huge amount of restraint for a ten-year-old and didn’t argue. “Actually, I was curious. Why do you stand up to those kids if you know that they’re going to punch the snot out of you?”

“If I wait until I’m healthy to stand up for myself, it’s going to be too late. Everyone will know I’m a big scaredy cat.”

“Nothing wrong with being scared.” Bucky muttered. “Everyone gets scared.”

“Yeah but those kids shouldn’t make anyone feel scared. Much less the small kids like the one that got picked on.” Steve had stared mutinously at Bucky, waiting for him to make fun of him.

But Steve doesn’t know Bucky lives in constant fear, hiding from the shadows of his own father, and so he’s completely surprised when the other boy instead gives him a half-hearted smile. And the rest, as they say, was history.

/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/-/

Of course, having Bucky as his best friend is all good and well until said best friend is calling him at three in the fucking morning.

“What the hell?” Steve answers angrily.

Bucky launches into an unintelligible babble that ends with an exclaimed “Can you believe it?”

“Bucky, it’s three in the morning and unlike some people, I actually have to work for a living.”

“Steve, he said yes!” Steve rolls his eyes before yawning, half-heartedly tuning out Bucky’s happy babbles. He’d told Bucky that he had nothing to worry about, Sam adored his stupid ass. “—and then I finally grew a pair and he said yes!”

“Buck, I swear I’m happy for you, but I have to sleep. I’ll stop by later.”

An indignant snort crackles through the speakers. “Steve you ass, I told you that the whole reason why I geared up for this was because Stark’s foundation finally approved my prosthetic request.”

“And?”

“And I’m going to Stark Tower today to meet with Toni Stark for the final fittings.”

Several seconds of silence tick by as Steve’s sluggish braincells struggle to make a connection. Then it hit him. Alarmed, he suddenly sat up.

“Wait you’re going to be in the Stark Tower?!” An affirmative grunt. “With Toni?”

“Ah so it’s Toni.” Bucky’s cackle reverberated through the tiny speakers. “I told Sam that there was something definitely going on!”

“Back up, you’re going to Stark Tower?”

“Yes, you idiot. I’m going to SI today because I’m going to be fitted with my prosthetic. Chances are I walk out with a brand-spanking new arm.” Bucky’s voice turns sly. “And I also get the added bonus of seeing my bestie around Toni.”

Then with a last cackle, he hangs up.

Steve puts down his phone gingerly.

He and Toni were friends, or so he liked to think. But even he can’t deny that sometimes there was a … spark of something more when they shared eye contact. Add in Bucky’s sarcastic nature and something is bound to explode.

And that something will most likely be Steve’s sanity.

Sleep, unsurprisingly, does not come easily to Steve after that warm thought.

By the time his phone starts chiming his alarm, he’s half-convinced that he should take the day off. It’s only the thought of Bucky’s troubles, and the immense help his prosthetic will be for him, that gets him out of bed. He puts on a pair of sweats, does his quick warm-up routine, and sets off for his morning jog. When he comes back to his apartment, fueled by endorphins and adrenaline, Steve is convinced that the day won’t go so bad.

His optimism follows him through the rest of his morning routine, commute, and dies a fiery death the moment he steps foot in the Tower.

Chapter Text

Today when I woke up, the furthest thought from my mind was that I would see Steve lose his fucking mind. Well, that’s an overstatement. He actually just yelled. Well, more like raised his voice. And it wasn’t at me, it was at his armless bestie Bucky (the fuck kind of name is Bucky anyway?) Barnes.

But I’m getting off topic. And ahead of myself too.

At first, my day started off normal. I greeted the day from the depths of my lab, elbow deep in the workings of a exoskeleton for paraplegics, and with the sunny disposition of a dungeon bat to match. Sometime during mid-morning JARVIS blared a siren from the speakers, almost making me drop my soldering iron on my foot in shock.

“Jarvis, babe, you have got to stop doing that.”

“Sir, you asked for the emergency sirens yesterday specifically.” If an AI snarkiness was an Olympic sport, my baby would take first place. And I would be the proudest momma ever too. “It’s coffee time.”

Coffee? The fuck would I—

Then my two working braincells not focused on the exoskeleton finally clicked. “Steve!”

“Yes, that was also part of the coffee time.”

Quickly I turn off my iron and run around looking for a moderately reflective surface to see if I don’t look like I’ve spent the past 24 hours in my lab. Which to my surprise (not really though), despite everything being stainless steel I only found a fucking spoon to look at myself in.

A fucking spoon.

“Sir, if I may…” Jarvis pops a holographic screen in front of me suddenly. “The cameras can provide a better view than that spoon.”

“So snarky.” I mutter but look at myself in the screen anyway.

The mascara I swiped on yesterday (or was it the day before?) before I went to talk with the board is crusty and I hurriedly wipe it off. There, I look less like Cousin Lurch and more goth punk. I think.

“Also Sir, it would do well to remember that today is—”

“Yeah, yeah I know the VA’s sending one of their veterans over at 10.” I poke my tongue out at one of the blinking cameras in the corner of my lab. “I’m not completely hopeless J.”

Whatever Jarvis mutters is lost on me as I bound out of my lab and head straight to my elevator. It opens as soon as I arrive and closes just as quickly behind me. In seconds I arrive at the employee’s cafeteria floor.

Every morning at 9 o’clock sharp Steve stops at that floor to get his daily caffeine fix. And since I found out that little tidbit, so do I.

Yeah, I know I’m pathetic, but the guy is gorgeous and thoughtful. Sue me.

Today I arrive before him, already at our table that we’d come to designate for our morning talks. Sure he was technically late for work each morning since he always stayed to talk with me for at least half an hour, but since I’m the Big Boss Bitch (lmao) he never got any flack from his department head.

I think. I mean, he’s never told me he’s had any issues.

Anyway, I’m there, drinking coffee from my favorite mug (which incidentally always manages to appear next to the coffee pots each morning) and trying to look like I’m not pathetically waiting on some guy after coming out of a 24-hour engineering binge.

Thankfully, our table gives us perfect visibility of the main entrance, just right for when one of us arrives earlier than the other, and I see the moment Steve walks in. And boy, judging by the throbbing vein on the side of his neck and a jaw clenched so tight it’s honestly a sight, is he in a mood.

Uh-oh.

I wave at him energetically anyway. Maybe if I pretend that everything is hunky dory he’ll calm down and tell me what got him all red and splotchy so early (anything before 2 pm is early ok?). When he sees me, all the red leaves his face and instead he turns paper white.

Well, now that’s interesting.

I don’t say anything until he’s near the table, opting to forgo the chitchat and go straight to the nitty gritty. “So no coffee today?” Okay, almost straight to the nitty gritty.

“Toni, did you know that the VA canceled the prosthetic fitting?”

For a moment, all I do is blink at him. “Okay, talk about unexpected, but I’ll bite. No Steve, J confirmed this morning that it was still on.” Wait, but did he really? I mean, he did say something. Frowning, I pull out my phone from my pocket. “J, babe, what’s the deal with the vet’s prosthetic program?”

“It was canceled ten minutes ago by the director of the Veterans Association, no reasons given except an apology for the late cancellation.” Jarvis says promptly, startling Steve if his sudden jump means anything.

I look at Steve concerned. “How did you know?”

“My best friend was the one chosen to receive the first prosthetic.” Steve’s jaw clenches again. “He lost his arm during our stint in Afghanistan.”

Oh.

“I received an honorable discharge after almost getting killed in an ambush, but Bucky wasn’t so lucky.” He continues as if he hasn’t dropped the biggest fucking bomb ever. “A month after we got back, he got into a situation with Senator Stern after the news broke that he wanted to take away benefits to all able-bodied vets.”

“I remember that, I was the one who posted bail for the dude.” Against my better judgement, my lips curl into a smile. After my own dealings with Stern, I had J scan all news for anything to do with the guy. As soon as I knew that the guy who managed to punch Stern had a million-dollar bail, I ordered my lawyers to get to work. “Your friend is my hero.”

“He got his arm blasted off by a Stark Jericho missile and yet he has zero benefits as a result of that stupid punch he set off on Stern.” All my amusement dies off and I feel a sickening lurch in my midsection. Here it is. “Today my best friend calls me to let me know that he finally fucking proposed to his guy because of the confidence boost the possible prosthetic will give him. And now that son of a bitch cancelled the whole program because of his ego.”

Steve’s baby blue eyes look at me straight in the eye and I feel the immense pressure to do something.

“I’ll finance the program myself then.” Somewhere one of my accountants is screaming my name but fuck it. Seeing Steve look at me like I solved world hunger is worth every single fucking penny this project siphons from my bank account. It’s not like I’m poor. “Hell, give me your friend’s name.”

Looking dazed, he mumbles something out.

“Come on honeybun, you gotta talk louder than that.”

“James Barnes.”

I put my phone on the table and pop out the holographs so that they expand over the table. “J, baby, notify Pep about Barnes Foundation pronto.”

“On it, Sir.”

Steve is saying something but I’m sending off messages to my Finance department and my R&D team so they can whip up something by the end of the day. Pepper will definitely be much more organized about this and will know who else I need to get in touch with so the Barnes Foundation can be christened ASAP. And of course, I have to make Bucky’s arm myself. I pull up my favorite modeling program and start to draw the schematics for the arm when suddenly Steve’s arm punches straight through my hologram and he grabs my hand midair.

“Uh,” I say eloquently. He lets go of my hand, but I still feel the warmth of his hand on mine.

God I’m a mess.

His eyes are warm and full of something that makes my stomach twist in anticipation. “Thank you, Toni.” He looks like he’s about to say something else, but Jarvis interrupts our conversation.

“Sir, Ms. Potts is on the phone.”

“Connect the call, J.”

Pepper’s face appears on my projected screen. She does not look amused. “Toni, what’s this about a new charity?”

“Pepper Potts dearest—”

“Uh-uh, don’t try to sweet talk me. Spill.”

Steve scoots over next to me so that Pepper can see the both of us. “Hi Ms. Potts, it’s actually my fault.” Then he launches into an explanation. Pepper looks surprised but she looks at me with understanding in her eyes. “I hope I’m not causing trouble for any of you, the last thing I would want—”

“Honeybun, trouble is my middle name.” I say, throwing a wink at him. “Hell, anything you want—”

“Toni!” Pepper cuts me off. I pout but she steamrolls over my protests. “Now, I think the best course of action is to get together as soon as possible to get an idea about what we could do with the foundation and of course the foundation’s namesake needs to get involved too. The sooner we do all of this the better.”

Steve looks bewildered, so I take the liberty to respond. “Sure, set up the meeting with the Barnes guy and tell me when I have to show up.” I turn to Steve. “You want to form part of our Core Team?”

“Uh—”

“So that’s four of us. Steve, Barnes, you and me.” I tell Pepper. She gives me the stink eye but says goodbye. “So Steve, now that we’re proud parents of this initiative, you have any ideas for what else this foundation can be for?”

He still looks at me with confusion. “Toni, I still can’t believe that this is happening.” He stares at his hands. “I mean, do you have any idea how much this would mean to vets like Bucky?”

“I owe them so much more than my stupid money can pay.” I say seriously. “I’m responsible for every single person who suffered from Stark weapons. I made the weapons that hurt them; I have to help the survivors. Unfortunately, that isn’t limited to just the civilians.”

“It wasn’t you who sold the weapons to the terrorists that did it.” He takes one of my hands in both of his. “I know you feel like it’s your responsibility, but it’s not. You thought you were doing something for the good of the country, hell, we both did. We have to live with the consequences of our actions but don’t take on more than is your due.”

I scoff. “Yeah, the shit I did? Nothing to do with your enlistment.”

At least he didn’t kill thousands indirectly with his weapons. No, that honor is all mine.

Steve gets a weird look on his face. “You know, I’ve never told you about how I managed to be accepted.” His phone rings and after he checks it, he gets all blotchy again. “I have to take this.”

As he walks towards the doors, I sip at my coffee while putting away my phone. I feel the urge to hack into the army’s database to find out more about Steve but resist. I doubt he’ll appreciate the invasion of his privacy.

Anyway, it can’t be worse than the shit I’ve done.

I stand up abruptly. That reminds me, I have to start the drawings for the new arm I’m going to make for Steve’s bestie.

Humming to myself, I tap my now empty mug with my index finger as I walk towards the exit. When I pass by Steve, I mouth ‘later’ to him. He’s got his concentration face on, a small furrow between his brows, but he gives me a responding nod at least.

Luckily, nobody is waiting for the elevator. Mostly because by now all my employees are in their offices. Or at least they should be.

Once I’m inside the elevator, I tell Jarvis to send me to the penthouse. Something tells me that today I have to look presentable and not like the gremlin from my lab. Once at my floor, I head straight to the shower, shedding my clothes as I go. I set my water as hot as I can stand it, finally giving my sore muscles some rest after being cooped up in the lab for so many hours.

It’s there, standing under the spray of hot water, that I realize my mistake. I’m in too deep with Steve. I care about him.

Despite the heat of the shower, I feel a coldness in my chest.

The only people I can trust are Pepper and Rhodey. Everyone else wants something from me.

Stane, Christine, Hammer… my father.

My chest tightens uncomfortably, my throat suddenly feeling constricted.

“Sir.”

I always make the same mistakes.

When this shit blows up in my face, as always, I’ll have nobody else to blame but myself.

My jaw clenches and I feel my eyes burning.

Steve didn’t ask for my help. Despite being my pseudo friend these past months, he’s never asked for anything from me.

“Sir, your heart rate is becoming elevated.”

Doesn’t change the fact that I’ve lowered my guard around him.

A stab of pain shoots through my chest and I wheeze out a breath, spreading a trembling hand against the tiled wall.

“J—” I barely manage to croak out.

 “I have already alerted Ms. Potts, Sir.”

God, not again.

But as usual, no deities respond. My breaths keep coming faster, my head swimming with doubts and anger directed at myself. I know I’m having a fucking panic attack in my shower like some sort of pathetic moron, but I can’t control the wheezing breaths or the trembling in my limbs.

I claw at the knobs of the shower, struggling to turn off the water and when I do, I collapse on the bench in the stall. At least my money gave me that much. I stare at my shaking hands as I feel the tightness in my throat constrict my breathing even more. My fingers are numb, and I can’t feel my legs, but I can’t seem to corral my spiraling mind.

Like everything else about me: my brilliant mind is defective.

Numbness in my jaw and lips. My hands stiffen into claw-like positions, no longer under my command.

I bet if Steve saw me now, he’d realize that I’m nothing but worthless. Only my money and brain are salvageable about me.

Wheeze, wheeze.

Suddenly, the bathroom door slams open and I hear the click of heels on marble. The glass door of my shower slides back and suddenly Pepper is there.

“Oh Toni.” She toes off her heels and sits next to me, uncaring that my wet skin is wetting her sharp suit. She takes me into her arms, rubbing my fingers softly, unfolding them. “Breathe with me. In, out.”

She repeats the words calmly, patting my hands and back every so often. Slowly, so agonizingly slow, my breaths come easier. Feeling begins to return to my fingers and toes, then slowly to the rest of me.

When I’m finally breathing normally, she pulls away and looks at me solemnly. “Toni, you haven’t had a panic attack in months.”

I avert my gaze. “Yeah, I know.” I should tell her about Steve.

Her gaze turns soft and understanding. “It’s about Steve, right?”

My lips tremble before I can thin them. “Maybe.”

She sighs. “Toni, I did the background check before we hired him on. I knew from the moment you gave him that interview that he meant something to you.”

“He was engaged Pep.” I still remember the shame I felt when he had to put me in my place. “I came onto him and then in my embarrassment, decided to grant him the interview.”

Her sharp eyes tell me that I haven’t fooled her. “All right. Don’t tell me.”

I look at my hands. “I like him. I-I care about him. A lot. That’s why I want to start the charity.”

“Toni,” she leans against me. “I know. You’re such a giver when you start to care. I knew from the moment Jarvis told me.”

“I know, it’s stupid.”

“No.” Pepper grabs my face and stares at me fiercely. “No, it’s not stupid. You are a generous, kind, and impossibly endearing woman that deserves happiness. Maybe it’ll be with Steve, maybe it won’t, but trust me, it is not stupid.”

I let out a slow breath. “Okay, you win this time Pep.” I give her a wan smile. “Now I’m gonna finish my shower because we have a charity to organize.”

Her lips twitch but she gives me a stern glare. “Please nothing outlandish. Your accountants are still in a mutinous state after your sudden decision to start 10 charities a week.” She makes her way out the stall, pausing only to say, “By the way, the meeting won’t start for at least another hour. I have to get changed too.”

Grunting in response, I start my shower back up. Quickly I lather myself up and rinse, not stopping to dwell on my negative thoughts from earlier.

The Starks are made of iron after all.

Chapter Text

I beat Pepper to the conference room where we would have our impromptu meeting for the Barnes Foundation by at least a half minute. I barely have time to sit down when the door bursts open and she stalks inside. She’d changed, now wearing a peach colored pencil skirt and blazer that somehow manages to accentuate her red hair instead of clashing. Her heels are perilously high as always.

I grin at her when she gives me a dry look. “You know I love to emulate your style Pep, but I just can’t seem to put it quite as together as you do.”

She rolls her eyes before taking a seat next to me. “Not the moment Toni. Where’s Barnes and Rogers?”

“Sounds like a comedy duo.” I snicker. “I don’t know. Steve still has at least three more hours to kill before his shift is over. Now Barnes, who knows.”

At that moment the door opens a sliver and Steve’s blue eyes peer through.

I wave at him.

The door opens the rest of the way and he walks inside with a sheepish smile. He rubs a hand over the nape of his neck before looking back at the guy who walks in behind him.

And wow, that guy is really attractive. He isn’t as tall as Steve, but his lean frame more than makes up for it. He wears his chestnut hair in a messy bun, with a couple of wisps framing his face and gorgeous chocolate brown eyes. And, judging by the empty sleeve dangling next to his body, Mr. Handsome is also Bucky Barnes.

Next to me I feel Pepper straighten in her seat. Okay now that was impressive, that hadn’t happened in a long time. Steve seems to find all this as par the course, judging by the smirk on his face.

Yeah, nice try Rogers, I still find you much more attractive than tall, dark, and handsome over there.

“Gonna introduce your buddy to us or are you just going to let us drool in abject admiration?” I quip. Queen of the sass, that’s me.

“Ladies, this is James Buchanan Barnes aka Bucky. Bucky this is Toni Stark and her impressively efficient PA Pepper Potts.” Steve points at us like he could possibly mix up an infamous celebrity and a PA

“Nice to meet you.” Oh nice, the guy hit the genetic lottery: pretty face and sinful voice. His fiancé is such a lucky bastard. “My—Sam said that having the charity named after me is a huge honor. So- uh thanks…”

I offer him a smile as he trails off, adorably unsure. “Sure, no prob. Now would you like me to start the fittings for your arm now or after we talk shop?”

Steve abruptly chokes on his spit. I turn to him with an arched eyebrow. “What? You know I like to move things along. No time for chit chat.”

Bucky chuckles. “Yeah, I can see that.” He ponders his decision for a single moment. “Let’s talk about the foundation first, if you don’t mind.”

I give him a short nod and turn to Pepper. “Take it away Pep.”

She sighs but pulls up projections of figures and lists over the table. “Well, take a seat boys. We’ll be here a while.”

They each take a tentative seat at the other end of the square table.

“Okay, so first we need to have establish a clear objective and that will serve as our mission…” As Pepper launches into a long explanation about the administrative aspects of our fledgling charity, I take the moment to zone out. I trust Pepper implicitly. She always knows how to manage my money and company better than I do.

Hell, she’d make a better CEO than I do.

I ponder over this realization for several minutes before coming to the conclusion that even if I made her CEO, my dad would use the force of his majority to oust her before she could do anything meaningful. Hmmm, but maybe if I made her CFO…

Now that’s a thought.

“Toni!”

I jump in my seat. “I’m awake!”

Steve coughs, stifling something that sounds suspiciously like a chuckle.  I narrow my eyes at him, but Pepper gets my attention before I can say anything.

“We were just talking about how many prosthetics we would be able to commit per year.” I make a face. “Yeah I know that ‘genius isn’t mass-produced’ or something like that but you’re the one who knows the R&D team best. Give me a number.”

“Once they have the primary schematics down and I have a chance to look over them, we should be able to produce 10 of the same high-tech prosthetics and at least 3 different varieties. So that’s around 30, give or take.” I look at them in the eye. “I also want you to understand that this is taking in account per person. If one person is missing three limbs, then that goes into the count. That’s as much as I can offer without compromising on quality.”

Steve looks starstruck.

“You sure you can do as much as 30 prosthetics?” Bucky gave me the stink eye. “Including physical therapy?”

Nice to be valued.

“Yes Mr. I-deep-condition-my-hair, that includes the cost of physical therapy. Not that that even has anything to do with my R&D department.” I give him the stink eye right back. “Now, who’s going to select the candidates from the waiting list?”

Steve finally perks up. “I think that we should hold a vote for each one, once a month. We get together, review cases, and vote. For this to work of course, we need to be uneven, so we need to choose someone to be an independent reviewer for the cases. I know a veteran councilor who would be perfect for the job.”

Bucky’s mouth perks up in a half-grin. “My better half.”

This is starting to sound like a buddy club. Which, despite my near adoration for Steve’s ass, is not my cup of tea.

“Okay, so let me get this straight.” I pin them both with my best imitation of Pepper’s stare down. “There will be three of you on this committee and apparently, the third one will be the foundation’s namesakes honey bunny.”

Steve turns blotchy.

“How about you ladies meet him first and then you can decide. If you’re against it, at least let Sam recommend someone.” Bucky is serious. “I know how it looks but, in all seriousness, Sam is a qualified councilor who has been working with hundreds of vets since he retired. He will have someone who is trustworthy and who has worked with vets before.”

Seems fair.

“All right. But I will put forward a couple of options too.” Pepper says with a warning glare.

God, talk about Queen of the Stink Eye. I aspire to master the art of management like Pepper has.

Under the keen gaze of my wonderfully terrifying PA, the two men stammer their agreements.

“Well then, that takes care of the product development, the mission and statement, the candidate selection, the budget, the charity’s agenda, and leaves us with…” Pepper trails off as she flicks through information on the projection. “Okay, spokesperson. We just need to decide who will be the designated representative for the charity. Now normally that would be Toni but trust me, her schedule is jam-packed.”

I look at Steve and Bucky. Neither would be ideal for the position and to nominate anybody else would mean giving them a lot of responsibility since basically they would be the face of our charity. Anything goes wrong and they would be the first person that the public would go against.

Not that I’m anticipating anything going wrong but…whenever there is money involved, things generally get messy.

“Maybe I should take care of it anyway.” I chew on my upper lip. I mean, I can always push back some of my visits to the charities…

“Nah, I’ve got it.” Bucky sits up in his chair, spine military straight. “This charity has my name on it, and I don’t shirk my duties.”

“Barnes, listen, that’s nice of you to say but the media can be downright nasty.” I warn. “If you have any sort of secrets in your past, they will dig it up and prance it around for their five seconds of glory. Your life will be under constant review. Maybe you won’t reach the same level of celebrity status as I have but trust me, paparazzi will be after you like a thorn in your side.”

A strange look crosses Bucky’s face. “Then the world and I will just become much more acquainted.”

Steve is blotchy again. “You know, Bucky maybe—”

“No, Steve,” Bucky is adamant, but he softens his tone before continuing, “The past may have made me who I am, but the future is much more important. And this charity will do so much good for the vets who have been overlooked by the system.”

 Steve still doesn’t look convinced, but he drops it.

Huh. Now that’s interesting.

“Okay.” I mutter. “Not that this isn’t completely fascinating, but we have to get a move on. I have to take Barnes’ measurements and start making prototypes.”

I get out my chair and haul Bucky out of his.

“Come on, slow poke. Let’s go.”

Pepper splutters something but I just blow her a kiss and pull Bucky behind me into the elevator.

“J—”

“Straight to the lab, Sir?”

Bucky jumps when he hears Jarvis’s voice over the elevator’s speaker.

“Relax Barnes, it’s just my AI.” I frown. “You did sign the NDAs, right?”

Looking spooked, he nods.

“Good, I would hate to sue you if you ever open your mouth about what goes on in my company.” I smile at him. “But I’m sure that will never happen.”


Hours later, I’m focused on the prototype for the newest Stark phone when Jarvis cuts off my music.

“J, what’s going on?”

“Captain Rogers is requesting entry.” The first time I’d heard Jarvis refer to Steve as Captain Rogers, I’d been freaked out. But now I kinda dig it.

Sue me.

“Sure, let him in.”

Despite the door sliding away to give him entrance, Steve wavers in the doorway.

“Come in Steve, don’t mind the mess.” He stares at Dum-E as he walks towards my desk, the robot trailing after him like a puppy. “That’s Dum-E. My firstborn child.”

“Uh.”

I cackle. The look on his face was priceless. “Come on Steve-o, loosen up.”

He flushes. “Sorry, it’s just that I’ve never been down here before. I wasn’t sure if J would give me access to the elevator in the first place.”

Which now that I think about it, I didn’t know either.

“So what’s up?” I say, to cover up my AI’s sudden willingness to allow Steve into my sanctum.

“I just wanted to say thank you.” Steve shuffles his feet, obviously insecure. “It means a lot to Bucky that you chose to help him and others like him out.”

It’s my turn to blush. “Well, I’m rich so…”

He shakes his head adamantly. “No, I think that even if you were an average joe like me, you’d find some way to help out.”

I lean against my desk, clenching my hands behind my back. “You aren’t average Steve.” When things start to get emotional, deflect. Unlike earlier in the day and every other interaction with him, standing here in my lab feels intimate. Especially considering that he’s complimenting me. “But don’t worry, it’s no big deal.”

“No but it is.” His baby blue eyes look at me earnestly and he moves closer. “I think you’re great for doing this. I know that most billionaires are the least inclined to help others but for some reason you’re different.”

I suddenly feel heated, like my perfectly calibrated lab is hot and stuffy. “Uh, no it’s not a big deal. I have so much money it’s insane. I should be drafting better tax policies to send to the Senate instead.”

“Oh Toni,” Steve touches my jaw gently, like I was made of glass. His thumb soothes the edge of my lips, and he stares deep into my eyes. “You’re one of a kind.”

“I—”

“Thank you.” His eyes roam my features before settling on my lips. For a moment, I think…

But he let’s go of me and takes several steps back. “And sorry for touching you.”

“Oh it’s no big deal.” Wincing as my voice cracks, I clear my throat. “I mean, no problem Steve. I mean I did way worse last year when I hit on you.”

And phew thank fucking God he’d said no. My brain is still stuck in the fog of hormones triggered by the crisp, masculine scent of him and that was just because he touched my jaw.

Can you imagine if he fucking kisses me?

“ANYWAY,” I break off, aware I’d been too loud to be nonchalant. “Don’t worry about the charity. It’s the very least I can do after my weapons did the damage.”

He gives me small smile, obviously humoring me. “I have to leave, but can I see you tomorrow for coffee before work?”

Aware that this is the first time that he is willingly choosing to spend time with me, without having to go through the whole convoluted process of discreetly stalking him before he arrives, I only have one answer. “I’ll see what I can do.” Horrified at the look on his face, I blurt out an apology. “I’m kidding! What time?”

“I’ll pick you up.” He looks up at the ceiling. “Jarvis, would you help me locate Toni tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

Steve gives me another smile. “See you tomorrow.”

I blink at him and he nods his head before turning to leave. After he’s gone, I sit on my stool, still processing what just happened. “J, was I dreaming?”

“No Sir, would you like a recording?”

“Not necessary, J.” I scrub at my face with my hands. “Ugh, I hate it when I get like this. I’m supposed to just have flings not emotional attachments.”

“Sir, if I may, that is not the healthiest way to navigate life.” Jarvis’ disapproval is clear. “I believe Captain Rogers is a good man. One that is trustworthy.”

“Yeah,” I smile, remembering the dork. “He is.”

Chapter Text

During Christmas break, Toni’s world shatters. But Steve has no idea until she calls him, sobbing so hard that her words are intelligible.

“Toni,” Steve murmurs with false calm. “Toni, breathe. Slow down. I can’t understand—"

“Steve my parents…my parents are—my parents are dead!” She screams before dissolving into tears again.

A twisting sensation shoots through his stomach.

“I—” Her cries become muffled, as if she tries to cover her mouth to cover the noise. His heart lurches in response. “Toni, honey, I want to be there for you. Tell me where you are.”

Garbled noise crackles from the speaker.

“Toni honey, I can’t understand you. Can you order Jarvis to send me the directions to my phone?” A muffled affirmative hum answers his question. “I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

He hangs up even though his heart clenches at the thought of her crying alone. But Toni’s precious AI is as efficient as always, sending him a message before he hangs up.

Stark Tower penthouse. Take the private elevator.

He’s out of his apartment in a flash, revving his bike down the street in a worried haze. The buildings and street before him blur as he thinks about Toni. The thirty-minute commute seems to pass in the blink of an eye, and he arrives at the gleaming Stark Tower in no time at all.

This year Toni shut down operations since the 18th, allowing all employees to take two weeks of paid leave, causing the normally bustling building to be still and silent as Steve hurries to the elevator.

“Captain Rogers,” The AI is solemn, no witty comments as he greets Steve. “Sir’s parents left this morning to spend Christmas in the Bahamas but suffered a fatal accident on their way to the airport. Sir was notified an hour ago and went to identify their bodies. Apparent cause of the accident was Mr. Stark’s intoxicated state.”

Steve doesn’t comment on the title, not up for an argument, and nods in acknowledgement to Jarvis’ words. The ride goes by in silence; the doors opening without a whisper when he arrives at the penthouse. He steps out hesitantly, unsure of what direction to take.

“Sir’s bedroom is to the right.”

He obligingly goes in that direction without pausing to look at the opulence of Toni’s world. When he arrives to her apparent room, he opens the door and sees her crumpled on the floor against her bed.

Immediately he strides to her side, taking her in his arms without any hesitation.

“Toni, I’m here.” He murmurs against her hair, wishing he could take away her pain.

She twines her arms around him in a tight embrace, sobbing inconsolably. They lay on the floor for hours, Toni’s cries slowly segueing into hiccups. Steve kisses her forehead when she finally succumbs to her exhaustion.

He wishes that he could do something, anything to make her feel better. But he’s also conscious that only time will soothe this wound.


Steve types away on his keyboard, the constant clacking of the keys a soothing rhythm to his ears. He’d started to work on his latest piece for his newspaper. Even though he focused more on Toni’s latest work in Honduras, he’d made the time to interview a mutant with the power to shape-shift.

He wants to show the world that just because the increasingly frequent mutants are something so brilliantly unknown, it doesn’t mean that they are bad. It helps that the girl is a teenager, with the extracurricular activities that would put to shame any kid. She works in soup kitchens on her weekends while maintaining straight A’s in Brearley School, not that he would divulge the latter fact. Given that she’s a minor, he must be careful not to be overly descriptive of her; otherwise she would be easily found. She wants to maintain her identity a secret so in any case, he’d have to respect her choice.

He looks at the hour on the screen, pausing in his work.

6:00 pm

It’s weird that Toni hasn’t contacted him yet.

After her parents’ funerals, they’d started a weekly ritual of meeting up on Fridays. Normally he would be the one to go downstairs into her lab to drag her out of her experiments and work. If left to her own devices, she’d definitely go without sleep for at least 24 hours.

This time though she barges in his office. When he looks up at the sudden noise, he halfheartedly thinks that she’s a hallucination. Considering that the last thing he ate was a banana almost fourteen hours ago, he had solid reason to think so. The illusion lasts only until she opens her mouth.

“Steve, it’s 6 o’clock on a Friday and you’re working!” She says exasperated before throwing herself into one of the plush chairs he keeps.

He chuckles. “Pot, kettle.”

She pouts. “Ugh Steve, you can’t throw my workaholic tendencies in my face like that.” She wags her finger at him. “Bad Steve.”

Resigned, Steve closes the word document and shuts down the computer before stretching in his admittedly comfortable chair. “All right Tones, where are we going today?”

“Well Steve Rogers from Brooklyn,” Toni’s eyes gleam and suddenly Steve is reminded of her crazier plans. “You are about to fly to England with me.”

“Uh, no, I’m not.” He laughs uncomfortably. “I’m fine just going to Domino’s if you aren’t up for alcohol.”

He’d pressured Toni into lowering the amount of alcohol she consumed. That meant that sometimes instead of going to a bar or pub, they go to a restaurant or drive thru instead. Steve avoids thinking that the times they spend in restaurants count as dates.

“No, I have a hankering for haggis and—”

“I’m sorry did you say haggis?”

Toni glares at him halfheartedly. “Okay fine, you got me.” She fidgets in place, before sighing. “I’m going to see my aunt. She has Alzheimer’s.”

He hums sympathetically. “Oh Toni, honey, you know I will never judge you for caring.”

“It still goes against the grain.” She sighs before slumping in the chair unhappily. “I’ve put off this visit for almost five years now. It’s just so hard to see my brilliant aunt be such a pale shadow of herself. She founded an important covert government agency you know.”

“Then we should go. What time does the flight leave?” Toni gives him her best puppy dog stare. Already anticipating the reason, he gives her a chastising look. “Toni we can’t go on a private jet. Think of the environment!”

She throws her head back. “But Steve!”

“No buts!” He turns on his computer again. “I’ll look for available flights right now.”

Rolling her eyes, she turns to a corner of the room. “J, you up?”

“Always Sir.” Jarvis’s voice suddenly crackles through Steve’s computer speakers, startling him. “How may I be of assistance.”

“Find us flights to Heathrow and arrange transportation to my aunt’s retirement home.”

“Very well Sir.”

Steve waits only until he’s sure that Jarvis is finished. “Toni, you installed Jarvis in here too?”

She snickers, only pulling a faux solemn face when she sees that Steve is serious. “Technically, Jarvis is installed in the whole tower. He just doesn’t reply to anybody else but me.”

“Actually Sir—”

“Not the time J.” Toni says, uncharacteristically cutting off her precious AI. “Now, Steve, you have a passport, right? Oops, should have led with that.”

“Toni, I have a passport.” Steve says giving her a look. “I’ve left the country with you before, remember?”

“Oh yeah.” She laughs. “Forgot about that.”

He stands, walking over to her chair. Toni stretches her hand and he takes it, pulling her out of the chair while ignoring the sudden racing of his pulse. Despite being her friend for now well over a year, he still feels that gut wrenching desire around her; it’s just become easier to disguise.

So instead of giving into the impulse of seeing if her lips are truly as soft as they appear, he gives her a smile. “Come on Toni, I have to go pack.”

She trails after him as they make their way out towards the elevator, chattering about her inventions. Most of it sails way over Steve’s head but she always seems content to use him as a sounding board, even if he doesn’t always understand everything.

He’s just happy to be privy to her world.


Steve had given his life to the country once before, and they’d repaid him with PTSD and nightmares for years. If Steve never steps foot on a battlefield, it’ll be too fucking soon. When Toni told him that she wanted to go to Afghanistan because her new foundation had managed to get permits to rebuild a local village devastated by her previous creations, he’d said as much to Toni. But she’d been so excited. Enthusiastic at the prospect of seeing her new foundation hard at work repairing the damages her creations had wrecked, she’d pleaded for him to accompany her. The reminder of her desire to fix her mistakes, begotten by her youthful naivety and the manipulations of Obadiah Stane, curb his excuses.

So they go.

It isn’t until their Humvees are pelted by gunfire that he realizes that he should have listened to his gut instinct.

But by that time, it’s too late. He takes the rifle from the dead soldier next to him and slips back into that mentality that saved him years ago when he led men to die and kill for their country. The weapon is a familiar heavy weight in his hands and it’s enough to make everything around him a blur until it clicks empty.

It’s only then that he realizes that despite the empty clip, he has nothing to worry about. Because her Humvee is in flames and their ambushers are gone.

And so is Tony.