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Antonia Stark is Bad at names

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“You can’t kill him,” Coulson said. “Even if you make it look like a meteorite struck him.”

Toni was experiencing the sort of white hot fury that should have curled her hair. Her eyes were hard and her jaw was set and her frame was carefully pretending to be relaxed, in the same position it had been for the last three minutes.

Why had she not told Computer to put a minute delay on the news? Why? Why hadn’t she built a program to protect herself from... such... stupid...

The thing about remote controls is that they had a nice, feel to them. She didn’t need this one, because she could tell Computer what she needed, or wanted, but it made other people in her house uncomfortable bossing around an electronic servant so she kept it.

Right now she was glad she had. it was good and heavy and cracked the screen, putting ugly spiderwebbing over the man’s ugly face. Didn’t drown out his ugly words.

-”I’m just saying that if Antonia Stark had been brought up properly god fearing, little more humility she would never have been a target in the first place,” and the man kept digging his grave. Her current calculations had his grave at about fifty feet wide, thirty feet deep, and still on fire the next day. “It was a lesson to all the little girls out there that holding Antonia up as a role model-”

“Computer, turn off the tv,” Coulson said. Man had never gotten used to the idea of the AI being called Compy, Toni knew that, but... ‘Computer’? This wasn’t Star Trek.

Toni glared at the agent, not because she was actually upset at him but because she was upset, period, and he was a good target. He didn’t generally care, for starters. A little like hitting pudding. She didn’t feel like pudding, she wanted a target that’d... fight back. Or bleed.

“I really dislike this tendency they have to use my first name. Like we’re friends,” she said, her lips a white line. “And little girls shouldn’t use me as a role model because I drink too much, and that is the only reason. I am otherwise a fantastic end goal for their lives.”

Coulson shook his head, but very slightly. “Certainly a better goal than head of a small but loud church that advocates the return to an imaginary artificial time in the past, mired in delusion and shouting denials of their own shriveling influences.”

“That was lovely. This is why I let you loiter here, Coulson,” Toni said, feeling better. Only a little but... “How do I counteract that bastard?”

“I’ll put our P.R. people in touch with Sol,” Coulson said. “They’ll brainstorm out something subtle. You can’t just go on the news and invite him to bite you this time.”

“It shut him up, didn’t it?” Toni said. “I mean, he shut the hell up, didn’t he?”

“The armor didn’t have anything to do with it, of course,” Coulson said. “or the car you were holding above your head.”

“It was all about tone of voice,” Toni assured him.

“Which your suit was broadcasting through the PA system.”

“Tone and reach of voice. I could slap some big white wings on one of the older suits and have a nice little come to jesus talk with the congregation?” And that was just to see Coulson wince. “Anyway that’s not why you’re here. You’re here for the keys,” she smiled. “Let’s go for a test drive.”
**

“So we won’t be doing a convertible anytime soon,” Toni said, hands on the dashboard. “The energy drain for a shield that lets air through but not too much air? Too much. Faster this way anyway. you look like you’re having fun.”

“I like flying,” Coulson said.

“Oh, a personal fact about you. Be careful, I might see you as a person.”

“That’s unlikely,” Coulson said.

“That’s true,” Toni said, laughing. “That’s very true.”

The car skimmed the waves, then up, again.

Car was... probably not the right word but she called it a car, so, car it was.

Coulson decided to have someone else brainstorm a few names maybe Barton. Barton was sort of... alright... at naming things. Granted, he tended to just give things girl names but that least he didn’t name his bow ‘Bow’ or ‘Twang’ or ‘recurve’ or ‘this one’. Toni on the other hand actually had an low quality AI in a robotic arm with ‘Oy!’ written on the side. It answered to it.

This had always offended Coulson. Not the ‘Oy!’, just the way her brilliance tapered off so dramatically when it came to names. Maybe he’d type her up a list of words in categories. Flying things can be called these names, or just a big book of dangerous animals.

Car, even if she slapped a two point oh on it, was not what you called the first commercially available flying car.

He banked it off nothing. “Why does it tilt?”

“So you feel like you’re going faster,” Toni said. “And it’s more comfortable that way. The way the engine works it could do a one eighty turn in place but that’s sort of uncomfortable at a cool three hundred miles per hour, for most people.”

“That’s the top speed?”

“Two hundred is the top speed for the models we’ll make available,” Toni said. “That’s the plan, at least. this one goes fast because it’s for the dear, deaaar director, after all. Maybe I should black out one headlight? Compensators kick in on turns to lower g forces.”

“I’m sure that he’ll be more than pleased to give it his own paint job,” Coulson said.

“Any color he wants as long as it’s black.”

“So that wasn’t a red and gold one?”

“That one is mine. He’s getting serial number aughIt aught aught one, isn’t he? Mine’s a prototype. Doesn’t count,’ she said.

“Roc.”

“Huh?”

“It’s a big flying bird.”

“... you think i should name it Rock.”

“No K.”

“How do you know how I was spelling it?”

Coulson smiled. “Or a griffin, since it’s a hybrid?”

Toni snorted, shook her head. “I get it, you won’t let me name it, that’s fine. I mean, it’s only my baby, after all, I only took year to build the ficker, why should I name it?”

“Boom baby boom bunker buster.”

“It was a legitimate name!”

“I will find you some possible names.”

“I will pretend to read them and then pick whichever one my finger lands on.”

“Thank you very much, Miss Stark.”

“You are actually allowed to call me Toni.”

“I know, Miss Stark.”
************

Toni liked Thor. Once they’d established a few simple boundaries involving Thor not touching her things, and Toni not trying to scrape bits off his hammer, she’d found in Thor an invaluable thing.

The perfect drinking buddy. Even on the now-rare occasion that Toni got blackout drunk, Thor was usually soberish enough to carry her home.
It was brilliant.

Tonight was particularly good because one, she was getting to explain lesbians to Thor, and lesbians were some of her favorite things, ever, period.
And two, she was getting to test the new blood filtration device hooked into the veins in the stump of her arm. It was a bit of a weird feeling but...

But she was three massive rum drinks in, and still explaining lesbians animatedly.

“But how,” Thor said, for the fiftieth time. “How does it... work, Antonia?”

He was the only one that called her that, but it was a little better that what Phil got.

“That’s lesbo magic, but I’m well versed in all debauchery. A magician, really,” Toni gave the waitress her best shit eating grin. “I’ll need a volunteer from the audience. And...” she thought about it. “Some whipped cream. And a cherry.”
**

Three days after that Toni was sniggering and explaining what had happened to Jane’s cute little assistant. She rather liked Jane’s cute little assistant, Jane’s cute little assistant was like a some sort of hipster goddess of unimpressed, while at the same time keeping an almost...

Ah, an almost Coulson like calm about herself. Apparently having a god land in front of your car knocked out the normal human reactions to weird for a while and Darcy’s reactions to things were less “Holy fucking shit” and “Huh. I wonder what that is... I’ll ask twitter.”

“Is Jane going to do one of those terribly clichéd, keep your paws off my man things?” Toni asked, nose wrinkling.

“Look, whatever you did with...” Darcy waved a hand. “She does trust Thor, and even if her knee jerk reaction had been to call you a hussy or whatever I don’t actually put up with that, and besides, whatever you were showing him with the waitress and the cherry and the fingers and so forth was apparently a goddamn education and she’s been perky the last day or so.”

Toni grinned. “Tell her to think of me when she’s enjoying the fruits of my lectures?”

“I don’t think she can think at all when she’s enjoying your fruit, it’s why she’s so damn happy. I mean some of her higher functions shut down next to Thor anyway, so it works out.”

Toni shrugged and clinked her coffee mug to Darcy’s. “But that’s not why you came.”

“Yeah. No, well, it was part of it,” Darcy said. “You made a sort of off the cuff job offer-”

“Sol’s got the paperwork,” Toni said, waving a hand. “Whenever you’re done with school. And I don’t mean completed I just mean done with.”

“And what will I do?”

“Honestly a lot of it’ll be stable but boring,” Toni said. “Mostly you’ll do what I say, or what Sol says, or what Coulson says. You’ll be a well paid gopher who gets to carry a weapon, and once you get the Shield background check approval and some other hoops they’ll want you to hop on through, you’ll get to help herd Avengers,” she grinned. “Don’t try to look thoughtful at me, you didn’t run screaming in New Mexico you’ll take the job now.”

“I wasn’t thinking about the job,” Darcy said. “Course I’ll take that. I was thinking about Avenger herding, and how literal that’s likely to be? Also, trying to remember who’s single.”

“If you get em all there’s probably a special club jacket involved. Anyway, when you talk to Sol tell him to tell Fury I’m putting you on my expense account for Avengers business,” Toni said happily. “Maybe it’ll make that vein in his skull throb some more.”
*************

 

Toni rather liked Thor, as has been stated, but their relationship was based on drinking and shouting ‘I say Thee Nay!’ and punching things very hard. Swaggering,
None of this included discussing family.

And after meeting Thor, researching Norse myth seemed.. Rude, somehow? Also, parts of it were apparently wrong, and she didn’t want to sit down with Thor and talk about the correct and incorrect pieces anymore than she wanted to sit down with a history book and talk about what parts of the war were accurately reported according to her father.
She was rethinking this stance now. Frost giants were, to put it nicely, assholes, and whatever the fuck the chest of cold was could fuck right off.

It was August. August.. Her suit was going full bore to keep its internal temperature at 70 at the extremities and that was absurd. God damn absurd.

“Someone want to tell me who left the freezer door open and who I have to hit to shut it?”

“It is a opening to the heart of the realm of the frost giants!” Thor said.

“Awwwesome. Now tell me something I can fucking use.”

“Prechance it can only be closed from the other side?”

“Naturally!” Toni said, changing directions in the air. “Computer, redirect the satalittle for a minute and find me the coldest fucking spot in the city. And dispatch one of the deep space suits. Oh, and a heavy hitter. Is the new hulkbuster done? Ship it. Load it up with fucking everything.”

“Already loaded, Ms. Stark,” said Computer in her ear. “Message from Shield, incoming.”

“Stark what the hell are you doing?” And that was Fury’s voice.

“Stopping this fight!”

 

“Get back there!” Fury yelled.

“You’re breaking up, Fury,” she said. “Computer drop the call.”

It’d probably hadn’t dropped the call before Fury heard her say that but. Whatever.

Now it was so cold she was shivering. “Hey, Thor. Twenty words or less, how do you shut an ice door?”

“With fire, usually?”

Toni took a breath of almost warm air.

And held it.

Because she had multiple suits, she’d sat down and worked out how to change from one to the other quickly.

In the air.

While falling.

What she couldn’t do was avoid freezing her lungs if she pulled in a breath of fuck you artic air. Hence the holding of breath as she dropped,, arms out.

There were not a lot of things that Toni trusted.

Her engineering was on a short list.

The suit she’d been wearing had been her basic red and gold tried and true design, and she was proud of the fact it had not yet iced all the way over and killed her in spite of the fact it was currently sort of pink looking with ice.

She shut her eyes. felt her eyelashes freeze together then the warmer suit, the one with more oxygen and air scrubbers and a good heater, dammit.

It was like landing in hot water. It made her SKIN sting and ache.

And then hiss of pressurization.

“All systems are online and at one hundred percent, hulkbuster unit arriving in ten, nine,” Computer said as her heads up display flickered and changed. Showed the primary suit leaving in a hurry, and the bigger, slower unit closing in.

She hung on the air a fragile second before dropping again, into the bigger suit. She could operate the hulkbuster armor in her underwear if she wanted too but she liked being able to burst out of it like a pissed off hornet in a fight.

Anyway, the heaters were better in the Space Suit.

God she did need to work on her names.

“Shield is attempting to establish a new radio link,” Computer said.

“Turn up the heater,” Toni said, and the huge weight of the armor went through the shining white doorway. “And tell Sol to cancel everything if I die.”

 

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

Fury cursed.

Just once.

“Since when is Stark Suicidal?” He yelled.

“She’s not. She’s just reckless,” Coulson said. “Thor will be here in ten minutes, approximately. With any luck he can retrieve her.”

“It pains me to say this but I am starting to share her general frustration with magic, Coulson.”

“I’ll make it a point not to tell her when she’s retrieved from Neverland, sir.”

“If she drags back a battalion of lost boys," Fury said. "They are your responsibility."

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

 

Toni groaned.

Okay so.. Next time you were inside a shimmering passageway pouring absolutely almost zero into your world...

You should go all the way through it before detonating forty six grenades.

“Fuckityfuckfuck, fuckityfuckfuck, santa’s on his way,” she muttered. “Computer tell me you’re online?”

“Yes, Ms. Stark.”

“Am I online?”

“Yes. Outside temperatures, eight five degrees.”

“Should have brought my swimsuit then,” Toni murmured, getting up.

And frowning. “Computer?”

“Yes?”

“I appear to be standing next to a wall, Computer.”

“Yes. Scanners indicate that it stretches indefinitely in either direction, Ms. Stark.”

“It appears to be part of a large, fuck off snake, Computer. It is breathing, Computer. I do not like this.”

She prodded the thing with one huge metal finger, watches the muscles twitch on her display.

“I can replace the serpent with something more pleasant,” said Computer.

“I’ll still know,” she murmured, and poked again. “Does it look poisonous? From the scales?”

“Unable to access databanks. No network connection available.”

“God dammit.” She hit it.

The earth shook and she took to the air, hovering and waiting for it to settle.

Then she sighed. It was. Foresty and there was a big snake and where there were big snakes...

Well there was usually bad acid, but she decided it looked like the scales were oriented that way, so she turned and started traveling along the snake towards what she hoped was its snakey face.

The huge iron loops that seemed to staple the body to the ground was sort of reassuring, really. It also made the head seem like a not terrible idea. Maybe there were people?

She started to travel alone the giant snake body, musing on the pros and cons of living at either end of the thing. The tail end got snake shit, was that even a good fertilizer? What sort of people lived by the head? Maybe they fed the head cattle and traded with the tail dwellers for grains? What sort of economy did giant snake world have?

Maybe they just worshipped it? Oh, fuck, wait if this was Thor’s territory there were going to be elves, hobbits or those weird Japanese little bastards with the bowls of water on their heads and the anal fixation.

Or maybe the head went into those caves. Toni landed and walked along, heads up switching to infrared.

No, she wasn’t a fan of caves, starting with the obvious bad memories and going down the line to the logical fact that caves were worse than labyrinths, but well, these caves seemed deserted. Besides, Thesus made it out with a ball of string. Toni had a giant fuck off snake. No gps, because apparently this wasn’t her planet so there weren’t any satellites, but Computers was building a map using the various camera’s.
Hulk-buster armor had a lot of back-up and redundant systems, and Computer was turning them all on for extra processing power.

“You think they harvest meat from it?” She asked, but Computer was good at determining rhetorical questions and not responding to them. “Make sure you store these runes in a separate file so I can make Thor read them later. And take down a memo.. Actually study mythology.”

“Memo taken, Ms. Stark.”

“Underlined. Make it important.”

“Understood.”

“Also, x-ray vision.”

“Use of radioactive materials for enhanced visual spectrum was specifically outlined in the Avengers Initiative bill.”

“You have room for that, but I don’t carry along my asgardian to english dictionary wherever I go? Boo. I say thee boo,” Toni grumble. put out a heavy gauntleted hand and touched the scales.

Maybe it shed sometimes? Think of the belts.

The writing on the way was getting bigger but she ignored it. If they didn’t want dimension hopping going the wrong way down snake street they should have gone with large and simple pictograms.

And Arrow and a snake head would be nice, for example.

Right around the time she was regretting not thinking to pack a leg of the hulkbuster with snacks and toilet paper was when she found the head.

It was Big, yes, and it was biting it’s own tail, which answered at least a few of her questions.

Chains wrapped it, locking its jaws in place. If it bit down enough to slide free, it would poison itself.

It seemed to be asleep.

It was sort of beautiful, really. Gold and yellow, with ridges over the shut eyes.

And it was bleeding something thick and yellow and probably magically poisonous as fuck. A droplet the size of her fist slide down a long curved fang and dripped into a funnel. The funnel directed the poison down a long, spiral tube.

The tube went down a pit, and the normal spectrum gave her nothing but inky blackness when she leaned over, looked down.

Infared, however...

There was warmth down there.

“Well, shit, I’ve come this far,” she muttered. But the hulkbuster was too big to fit under the snakes head and into the pit, she she sighed and opened it up. Stepped out and did a controlled drop.

Then heard the guttural cry of pain, twisted in the air and shot down in a hurry.

**********

 

The thick alloy of of the shin guard of the hulkbuster unit was corroding rapidly. Toni gave ti another fifteen minutes before it was pouring poison back into the man’s eyes.

That was fine. She had two shin guards, and she could fly up and grab other pieces of armor while she looked at the locks.

Loki watched her, or tried too while his retina’s grew back. She wondered if that was normal or part of the punishment, somehow. Prometheus all over again. This was a dispute between gods, or things close enough to gods, that mere mortal should probably stay out of the way.

Yes. That wasn’t happening.

“You’re not demanding a reward?” the man rasped.

“If anyone asks, you freed yourself, how’s that for a reward?” Toni said. “I’m not up on my Norse myths, and I don’t know what you did to piss everyone off, but if you’re not evil enough to execute you don’t deserve this, either.”

“Maybe I can’t be killed.”

“Then you can just be chained to a rock minus the torture,” Toni snapped. “Now, shut up will you this part looks tricky.”

“I can tell you how to do it,” Loki offered. “I’ve gotten free before. Someone always brings me back eventually.”

“Why don’t you just kill the snake?”

“It’s my child.”

Toni paused. Sighed. “this is why I hate magic. That sentence right there shouldn't make any sense. At all. But you’re a god and it’s magic so sure, why not. Who’s the mommy?”

“Ah, me again.”

“Of course it is,” Toni said, snorting.

“Also a wolf and a horse. But I didn’t carry the wolf.”

Toni’s stomach hurt just thinking about something the size of a foal. She shook her head to dismiss the image and the first chain loosened.

“You’re really not going to ask what I’ve done?” Loki repeated.

“You can tell me if you want too,” Toni said. “And if it’s really terrible I’ll just tell Thor you’re free again once i get back, as long as he promises to leave out the poison next time.”

Loki was silent. “You know Thor, but not me?” he said and Toni thought it sounded nearly plaintive.

“He didn’t mention you,” Toni said. Then. “Sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Exboyfriend?”

Loki made an ugly, ugly noise and it took Toni a moment to realize he was laughing. It’d started out with a snort. “My goodness, my little midgardian friend you really know nothing about Norse myths at all, do you?” he said, still wheezing.

“Just because you gods are so damn tall,” Toni said. “And no, it’s not taught in school much. Which seems like a shame since I’ve yet to meet Hermes.”

“You don’t want to meet that guy he’s an asshole.”

“Why don’t you talk with all the thee’s and thous?”

“Because unlike Thor I didn’t hermit away for a thousand years,” Loki said. “When I escape from here I go to the other realms, and sometimes that means Midgard. One of the last times I was there I introduced Wallis and Edward, but before I could enjoy any of that mess I went to Jottenheim and got ambushed back to here.”

“Wallis and....” Toni shook her head. “You tell me how that started, I’ll tell you how it ended. Don’t remember seeing anyone that looked like you in the history books, though.”

“Some of my magic is illusionary, I can really look like whatever I want. you’re looking dubious.”

“This is a full face mask.”

“I have had a very long time to get good at facial expressions,” Loki said.

Toni chuckled. “Yes, well, there’s your foot free.”

Loki groaned and pulled that leg up, stretched it out. “That feels really, really good. I mean that. It’s wonderful. It’s been almost twenty years since I’ve been able to do that.”

“What’d you cock up last time?”

“Some city called Los Angeles,” he said. “They were heading for riots anyway, I just made sure the match hit the fumes.”

“Did you trigger the beating?” Toni asked, working on his wrist next. If she could get a hand free, he could use it to help, or something.

“Not at all. I made sure it was recorded,” Loki said, smugly. “Tell me about camera’s, are they everywhere now?”

“I’ve got fifteen on this suit, and another twenty seven on the big unit upstairs,” she said, pointing.

The second lock clunked off easier.

“I’m really amazed you’re working those out at all,” Loki said rotating his wrist. He couldn’t quite reach anything though so she started on lock number three. “Such a clever mortal.”

“My name is Toni, and you don’t have to flatter me but feel free to keep it up.”

“Ah, but how much flattery to get you to scratch my side for me?”

“See, now, for that I might actually like a reward,” Toni said.

“I could buy you a drink, afterwards?”

“You’re not really my type,” Toni said. “To clarify, I’ll take that drink but I thought I should say that in advance in case you were thinking of falling for your handsome rescuer.”

“I prefer my women beautiful, and my men handsome,” Loki said. “And you’ve got a full face mask on and oh, thank you so much,” and his hand was free now and damn near clawing at his skin. The heavy green fabric bunched under him and he cursed a little. “Ahh, dammit this is making it worse.”

“Oh, stop being a baby for five minutes. I have to go get something else to keep the poison out of your eyes,” Toni said, sighing and going back up the tunnel.

Except he was already there when she slipped out past the Serpent's head again. “Scratch motivated you, huh?”

He had his shirt halfway up on one side and was leaving red raised lines on pale skin. “I told you I’ve gotten myself free from that before,” he said. Smiling at her and leaning on the serpents side.. “The first lock is always the hardest.”

She nodded and climbed back into the hulk busters torso. “Hey, I know I said I didn’t want a reward but can you point me back to midgard?”

“I can take you there myself,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”

“Except I live in New York-”

“Oh, lovely city,” he said, waving a hand. A door was opening, but he glanced at the bulk of the armor and waved his hand again to expand it.

“And Thor is there, and I don’t really want to get into an argument with him about why chaining family members to rocks in caves is just unhealthy. How long were you supposed to stay in there?”

“Until the end of the world when the snake breaks free and all the races wage war on each other,” Loki said.

“... Yeah sure makes sense, leave you there till you’re good and piss off then free you at the end...” Toni said. “Ah, that’ll be my stop,” she added. “Take care of yourself, I don’t know how I got here exactly so I don’t think I’ll be able to get back if I try.”

“I’ll be by later for the drink, Toni.”

****

 

Toni went home without explaining anything to anyone. “I got there, I shut the door, I got back. Ta-dah, what part of genius do you not understand?” Because Shield really didn’t need the headache of explaining to those asgardian assholes why she’d sprung their prisoner.

Right now she was having a glass of wine and reading her way through a pile of Norse Mythology. As far as she could tell, Loki’d been imprisoned and tortured for some sort of prank involving mistletoe going really horribly wrong, except the myths said he’d killed Baldur, and Toni was certain that Thor had mentioned that name, and not in a ‘he will be missed’ tone so much as ‘Baldur informs me that I have to return to Asgard for the Odinsleep’ which meant however bad the prank had turned, not one had actually died.

Maybe something more serious hadn’t made it to the myths. Huh.

And anyway, this paper was less ‘Myths for kids, volume four, the vikings’ and more ‘a in depth dissertation on the churches subversion of local belief and custom’.

It was about thirty pages but to Toni it seemed like it could be summed up like so; Loki was more like Coyote and Hermes than he was like Lucifer. It had just been easy to typecast him into the Judas/betrayer/evil bastard role because apparently ice giants didn’t make a good enough villain.

Computer chimed. She tapped the edge of her reader and spoke into the microphone.

“Hello Loki,” she said. “Thought you’d appear.”

She’d set the camera’s to scan every single wavelength, after all. Just in case.

“Well, I did want to say thank you properly,” and it was the wrong voice. Loki’s voice had been.. Strained then conversational. Nice enough?

This was blackberry jam and honey in a crushed velvet bag. It had a tone to it that said sex. it wasn’t specific about when, where how or with who, but it said sex just the same.

Toni looked up.

Toni boggled.

She didn’t boggle often, it generally took a lot to impress her and boggling was beyond that. The thousand mile snake had been impressive, but she hadn’t boggled at it.

Loki demanded a good boggle though. Then a twice over because the once over might have missed something.

Loki was.. Taller, but that was because of the heels. Curved hips, and very full breasts. the features that had been sharper when male came across as sculptural now, with the full red lips and good god the hair went to his.. her? Her. Very, very female right now, certainly presenting as one, was that even the right term? Ass in a cascade.

“According to all the magazines you’ve actually got a thing for redheads,” Loki went on. “But I thought you might like to see this side of me.”

The third over caught details like clothes. Green and gold and black again, big swooping golden horns.

Toni bit her tongue to kill that ‘feeling horny’ joke because she was better than that and also her voice might warble. She swallowed and coughed instead, which wasn’t a whole lot smoother, and held up her wine glass. “I’ve been researching you. Apparently you aren’t satan.”

“Good because, you know, I was worried,” Loki said, sitting down on the arm of the couch and crossing her legs. There was a silken sound and Toni knew without looking the shirt was slit to the hip.

She looked anyway because. Umm yes. “I’m actually a bit morally opposed to sex as a reward.”

“Oh, this isn’t a reward. This is a reward,” she held out the bottle. “And a thank you. This,” she gestured at herself. “Is because you’re a mortal who can crack a lock made by dwarves, who doesn't ask for favors from the gods.”

“I ask for favors from Thor,” Toni said, because it was always somewhat important to be precise if you were proving your point.

“Yes but not as payment,” Loki said. “There’s a distinction that I feel is important, in that.”

And then she was sliding down the end of the couch, legs across Toni’s lap. Arm around her shoulders.

“Just like there’s a distinction between Illusion, and what I really am. This is what I really am, except when I’m not male or female, I can simply change it. Red hair, however, would be an illusion.”

“So the.. Thing with the horse?”

“This form and a lot of illusion.”

“Ah,” Toni said, then smiled as all the voices that were against his got out voted by legs. They were replaced with, I’ve never slept with anyone considered a god before, and legs. “Well, then, let’s toast to distinctions. And whatever is in that bottle.”

“Eight hundred year old mead,” Loki said, producing two glasses from somewhere. “They’ll never miss it.”

It tasted the way Loki’s voice sounded, and was probably, Toni decided, magical.

She also decided she didn’t care. It wasn’t a matter of trust, you didn’t trust trickster gods, that was the point of a good trickster god, it was a matter of... Humor? Timing? There wasn’t much amusement in killing her, Toni decided. But there might be some in sex.

Besides. Twenty years chained to a rock, and now Loki was free of course sex was on the short list of things to do. Toni tended to have the same reaction after twenty minutes in a meeting.

She finished the glass of mead off because she didn't think she was going to be getting back to it anytime soon, and leaned in. Then chuckled. "You need to take the horns off. it's killing me not to make jokes."

"I think I'll keep them. You'll need something to hold onto." Loki said with a smile, hand starting on the button's of Toni's shirt. Sliding it in.

"Oh, sure go ahead don't ask or anything," Toni said but the mead made it hard to get too heated about it.

Loki pulled her hand back, up touched her cheek. "May I, my clever mortal?"

"Sure knock yourself out. See how easy it was to ask?" Toni asked, kissing those lips. Loki tasted like honey soaked sunsets.

"Oh, so you don't ask?"

"Not when dealing with gods," Toni said. "You can stop me. I can't stop you."

"I doubt that."

"It'd be tricky."

"Oh, but you're clever," Loki said. "You're a clever little thing, I doubt you're vulnerable here."

"Hmm, flattery again. I approve," Toni said, leaning her head back. Reaching a hand up and gripping the curved golden horn. It was cool and solid feeling. She smiled, in part because of the lips on her neck and the hand pushing into her bra, cupping a breast.

Loki's skirt must have been designed to make it easy for a hand to slide up under it. It was Toni's left hand, so she couldn't enjoy it properly but that didn't mean that Loki's leg needed to go unmolested.

They were listing to the side, now, and Toni couldn't see a flaw in the plan that ended with her on her back, at the moment. Tilting her head, licking the corner of Loki's lips until a clever and alcoholic tongue was stroking inside her mouth, sucking.

It was funny. She felt, warm and languid but not dizzy. Magical booze. She was a believer. "We need to go to the bedroom."

"Couch not good enough?"

"Couch not big enough," Toni said, against Loki's mouth. "Or we can get to the floor." Finding a.. Catch? And... "And anyway I need both hands to work out the locks on your dress."

Loki laughed and stood up. She had strappy black sandals and Toni straightened out on the bed and put her hand on Loki's leg, slide it up to feel all that oh-hell perfect skin. Toni laughed at the lack of underwear, but stood up with skirt bunched around her wrist, arm around Loki's neck. "I ever tell you I've got this thing about the tall ones?" she said, leaning up and in. Pressing with her fingers wanting to feel any sort of reaction.

 

She got one. Loki wasn't shaved but sparse was a good word, so was wet and soft and a twist of Toni's fingers penetrated the trickster goddess to the second knuckle with strangled sounds all round.

"Tell me all, hah, about your things," Loki said, biting her lower lip.

Toni dragged her fingers out, dragged herself away, almost dancing backwards now, taking the single step without looking. or tripping. Shrugging the shirt off, the bra next and beaming because Loki's dress was sliding off like snake skin.

The horns were still there and ridiculous and Toni suddenly loved the pure absurdity of something like that in a fight. You would have to be a god, to wear that, or you'd die.

She wanted to grab them and hang off them and use them to steer Loki's clever fucking mouth. that was probably rude, she wasn't sure of the etiquette of vaguely ceremonial war helms.

There was etiquette for hot women wearing nothing but their shoes, though and that involved pulling them closer, hand on a smooth swell of hip, like a tango or a waltz. Loki had hard green eyes, like the poison that had been dripped into them, like broken glass with fine gold lace.

Toni only made herself let go to step out of her slacks, possibly breaking the top button. "I need to change arms," she said. "There's nerve impulses at the point of orgasm that can make some of the features got a little haywire."

"So if you fire off a rocket I'll know I was doing it right?" Loki asked, and when Toni turned away it was to find arms wrapped around her waist.

"I assume you'd get better but it might still break a bone," Toni said, and swapping out the arms was easier without a hand sliding down the front of her panties, without breasts at her shoulder blades without a nipple getting pinched and rolled. "Ahh."

Easier but not as much fun.

She felt the arm snap properly into place then turned and clutched and twisted and got Loki onto the bed, onto her back.

The backwards sweep of the horns meant a pillow got demolished. Toni laughed, because it sent down feathers everywhere, moved to straddle Loki's legs and mouth at a breast. Laughed again as she had to sit up, back pull a feather out of her mouth.

Loki laughed, and blew a thin stream of air up too catch a whirling bit of white, sending it higher.

"Hope those weren't your favorites."

"Not a thing in here I can't replace or rebuild," Toni said, and when Loki's leg pressed up, she pressed down, rocking. Kissing her, sucking at that clever tongue. "Any sort of inter species std we should worry about?"

"No vermin on you, none on me, one of the benefits of being a hybrid, and, you know, magical."

"After we're worn each other out you and I? Are going through the biiig book of myths together," Toni said, rocking back and down again, elbow down on the piles of down, fingers tangled in silken hair, reaching down between them. Kissing at Loki's shoulder and squeezing a breast, fingertips tracing the nearly red aureole.

"If you still have the breath left to ask," Loki purred, arching her back, hands sliding down Toni's back, pushing under the black satin panties to squeeze Toni's ass. Then a twist and Toni was looking up at waterfall of curly, silken midnight and gleaming gold horns with the ragged remains of the pillow cases.

Toni tangled her fingers into it, gasping and pulling down another kiss. Other hand going up,, gripping curved metal. "Handlebars," Toni said, giving them a tug.

They seemed very stable. Extremely so. Loki smiled at her, and shook her head a little. Not to shake Toni's hand off, just enough to show how damn strong her neck was.

"Heh.. Vroom," Toni said, tugging.

Loki licked down her collar bone, letting herself only loosely be guided.

Toni figured she got a kick out of pretending to be under someone else's control. It was a very trickster thing to do. Toni didn't care, she'd heard of and played along with weirder kinks than this. This was just fine by her.

"I feel like I should know a proper salutation to have on file, to yell out later, other than 'oh god'."

"Oh god," Loki said, licking the peak of a breast then nipping it. "Is acceptable. I personally focus more on volume."

Loki moved like a predator, skin dragging over Toni's, moving side to side, mouth dragging down. Moving like a snake.

Maybe the horns were a concession. Here, hold onto these and you'll feel like you're in control of this. Hell, maybe this was a reward of some sort but it was wrapped up with genuine lust, or at Least Toni could tell herself that. Maybe gods didn't like owing mortals favors.

Hot wet tongue against silk, now and Toni gave up the internal debate to spread her legs and keen. This really was a nice way to find religion.

She dug her heels into the bed and lifted her hips while Loki undressed her the rest of the way with her teeth.

Dragged white enamel over a hip bone. "What are your feelings on biting?"

"Marks acceptable, bruises and blood, no," Toni said. Shifting a leg to rub at Loki's ribs.

"I'll kept that in mind," Loki said, and then she was putting that tongue to use. Sucking and lapping at Toni's clit, clever damn fingers driving in.

Toni arched, her leg hooking over a shoulder. Could gods breath through their skin? The goddess certainly didn't seem to need to come up for air, and this was a fact that should be mentioned more often in religious texts.

"Fuu-" Toni gasped out. "Fuu, Fuck!" And she wasn't jerking the horns, anymore she was hanging onto them because they were rock solid, and the way those fingers were curved defied description so Toni went with a second orgasm so close to the first it felt like getting hit with one steady bolt of lightning.

Toni had to shove at the horns to get Loki to stop. Some switch in her body making it go from pleasurable to numb. If Loki didn't stop now, Toni knew she'd just stay numb and to hell with that.

Loki took a hint well, nuzzling Toni's thigh and peppering it with kisses.

"Ms. Stark."

"Nnnygh," Toni said.

"Ms. Stark."

"Fuck you, Computer," Toni said without moving, arms sprawled out to the sides. "Didn't I program you to leave me alone during sex?"

"The house talks?" Loki said, looking up. "Fascinating."

"Oh, yes, it's very nice. When it's butting out. What the hell is it, Computer?"

"Shield has been calling. Would you like to heard the messages?"

"Are they on fire? Is anyone actually dead? Or is it just Fury sweating out semen from having everything down there clenched so hard?"

"Unable to determine this, Ms Sta-"

"Mute on until someone is dying! And if it's not anyone I can actually save, I don't give a damn!" Toni yelled and if she had pillows left she would have thrown one. She sat up, instead. looked at Loki.

Loki's chin was wet, and the line of her spine was a wave best expressed with the sort of equations measured the way sound traveled. There is a reason that people with physics as their primary major do not minor in poetry. "Nnyuh," Toni managed.

Coordination came back to her limbs awkwardly as she twisted to get to a position to touch enough of the goddess to return the favor. To touch and kiss, at the very least. "Got another reason for swapping arms," she said, smiling.

"Oh?" Loki said eyebrow arching elegantly.

"Oh yes, I was inspired by the cures for female hysteria," Toni said, with a lazy sort of nod.

Loki laughed and shifted back, sitting up on her knees. Even sitting still she looked like a pin up, like she'd been built to be painted on the side of a B-52, smiling while parts of the world blew up, burned and crackled. "I was proud of that," she said, twisting a lock of hair around her finger.

"You're taking credit for female hysteria?"

"I'm taking credit for stodgy doctors getting their patients off harder than they bothered to please their wives," Loki said. "Show me?"

And the near silent hum of Toni's fingers, Loki was still smiling but she wasn't laughing. Shifting maybe. Interested, maybe, lips parted, eyes darkening dramatically.

God thing, maybe, actual pigmentation control in the iris. Toni cupped her face, dragged both hands down either side. Rubbing down Loki's arms, cupping those breasts. Keeping that small buffer of space between them so her hands had room to explore, so that when Toni's eyes dropped down she could see everything properly.

Loki moved, not a dance, but alternating pressing into one palm, then the other, dragging nails down Toni's arms. Funny they seemed longer now than they had when they'd been artfully fucking away. More god things? Or they were softer when wet. Toni didn't care. She cared about the way Loki gasped into her mouth when vibrating fingers were tugging at rosy nipples.

Really, it was borderline annoying how everything about Loki demanded overly flowery prose.

Then Toni had a goddess writhing on her fingers, and was pulling her flush with her other arm, kissing her, feeling nails dig into her back.

Kissing her neck, kissing her face, chuckling in Loki's ear. Cooing, really. Didn't bother with flattery or compliments because that would be like telling the stars they were numerous, or the ocean it was vast.

Toni didn't have any sort of scale to determine was 'doing good' was with a goddess, but every flat piece of glass and the flat screens all shattering at once seemed like she was doing okay.

Loki certainly went limp, afterwards.

 

****

"We're getting reports of..."

Coulson frowned at the young agent, but the man was either stupid or had nerves of steel because he didn't notice.

"Broken glass at Stark Tower," the man said. He looked up, and wilted slightly because Coulson seemed to be a lot closer now than he had been before. "... Sir?"

Also Coulson was giving him a funny look.

Coulson snorted, very quietly, glanced at the screen, gave the man a look that said 'I am now choosing to remember your name, Agent Jones, and this is not a good thing. it is not good thing at ALL', and then turned a heel and left.

It was never any good to call Toni directly, you just got the course and the Computer had a well scripted attitude. Coulson called Sol instead.

"What, she did what?" Sol asked, and from the background noise he was out. Possibly shopping.

"Some sort of explosion. I take it that you're not there?"

"She came home with a stack of books, told me to take the night off," Sol said. "She looked serious I thought I'd have at least four hours before she got bored with them."

"What books?"

"I don't know, but she got them from. Hold on I can look that up, actually it looked like she'd just wiped out a shelf at Barnes and Nobles," Sol said.

Coulson sighed and turned his head towards the city. Toni had complained about moving to the east coast, and then when she'd gotten here she'd taken over the top ten stories of the building with her name on the side. He could almost see them from here. He frowned. He was going to have to go over there, wasn't he? Just to make sure she hadn't set her head on fire, just to remind here that, yes, they did pay attention...

"Nothing worrysome?" Sol said. "Myths. She got a lot of book on Norse myths. She's not big on asking people about their families."

Coulson considered that. "Alright, then."

He'd speak to Thor, as breifly as possible and then go over there himself.

It would have been a better plan if Thor hadn't wanted to come along as well and ensure his 'fellow warrior' was alright.

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

Tony had put a shirt back on. And panties. Mostly because shoes without underwear or pants felt... Wrong. And there was glass everywhere.

 

She opened a kitchen cabinet, looked at the piles of broken glass there, and shut it.

The mugs were okay, at least. And she didn't have antiques, not really.

Coffee pot was broken. Sol'd complain. She shrugged and filled two mugs with mead, handing one to Loki.

The horns had finally come off, been set on the coffee table. She'd put shoes on, too, but hadn't bothered with anything else.

Toni was finding it hard to care. Or think much. "Oh, good, nothing shattered in the fridge," she said, mostly to herself, retrieving a block of cheese and then locating cracked.

Haute cuisine was not her thing. really she should just order out if there was one perk to this city it was that almost everyone delivered.

Loki made a soft sigh and sat on the counter, tearing into a loaf of bread with enthusiasm and looking out the now VERY open windows.

"So your list of priorities was, mead, then sex then food?"

"I ate on the way," Loki said. "Technically, I ate while I looked for you, and looked up a little more about you. But it takes a while to shake off a twenty year fast."

Toni nodded, remember not being ABLE to drink enough clear, cold water, until it had made her shaky and cold and sick, and they'd given her an I.V. and a cup of ice chips.

And nothing had tasted as good as that first terrible cheap burger, greasy fries.

"Makes sense to me,' she said, smiling.

Standing at the counter with her hip to Loki's knee, eatting cheesy crackers. "Do you break everything every time you come?" She asked, admiring the shimmer of shattered glass on her carpet.

"Mm, almost never it'd just.. been a while," Loki said. "Did the answer affect if I was invited back?"

"Oh, my door is open to you," Toni said. "Swing by anytime, I doubt I can stop you and right now I can't think of a reason why I'd want too."

"Liar."

"Fine, I can think of reasons why letting a trickster god run around my home is a bad idea," Toni said stepping back, hands up. Glass crunched underfoot. "But I'm paranoid. Having someone you've known all your life try to have you killed will do that to you. I can think of reasons why letting Sol run around my house isn't brilliant, but the day I fire him to feel safer is the day I lock myself into my Iron suit and eat through a straw the
rest of my life." Toni shrugged. "Would you prefer that, right now, the idea of you occasionally swinging by in that shape just so I can look at you has a lot of appeal?"

"Now who's handing out flattery?"

"Like you don't know how attractive that shape is," Toni said. She had another cracker. "Computer, you okay?"

"Four messages, Ms. Stark."

"Not my question," Toni said, and Loki looked amused. The back of a heel hooked the back of Toni's thigh and she leaned against her guest. Turned her head to kiss that soft skin again. "Are you functional, Computer?"

"All system's operational," Computer said. Loki leaned over and down to smile against Toni's forehead.

"Start placing orders for new windows," Toni said. "And whatever else is broken."

"Four messages Ms. Stark."

Toni hooked her arm around Loki's waist, tilted her face up for a kiss. "Anything important, Computer? And again, if no one's dying, it's not important."

There was no answer, so Toni smiled and nipped Loki's lower lip. Now she tasted like bread. Mm. Yes. Food. Good hosts fed their guests, right? Yes.

There was a chime. Toni frowned.

Loki sighed. "That's you're unwelcome visitor chime, isn't it?"

"You didn't blow my doors off," Toni said, frowning. "Shit, means someone that can fly. How bad was you break up with your brother again?"

"I was never sleeping with Thor," Loki said. "Why do you think that?"

"Greek myths, they're sort of.. Incesty? Anyway you're not actually related by blood, with by the greek myth standards...." Toni waved a hand. "I mean Castor and Pollux had the same mother. Plus. you know, Sleipnir."

"I wasn't raised with that stallion," Loki said, but she smiled and stole a kiss.

"I'll go say hi if you want to slip-" Toni started to offer but...

 

"Son of Col, we must be wary! I know this helm!" Thor's voice boomed. If there'd been any glass left it would have rattled.

Toni rolled her eyes so hard they nearly kept going and spilled out her ear. "I'm going to go talk to them anyway," she said. Or started to say, except Thor had decided to check the kitchen first.

"Loki! Drop that deceitful form and unhand my fellow warrior!" Thor yelled.

"Oh, shut uuppppp," Toni said, seeing he chances at a second round het shouted away. She pushed off from the counter, turned and marched towards Thor. "Stop shouting at my guest!"

"I do not know what magics you have worked upon Antonia, but I insist that you release her at once!" Thor said, ignoring Toni. "This is not a matter for Mortals to be involved in!"

"I didn't involve her, she did," Loki said with a purr and a flick of her hair that turned Thor red.

It didn't do anything to Coulson though. Toni wondered if he was gay or asexual. Had to be one of the two, right? Thor was having a hard time not staring and it seemed to be distressing him.

"You are being rude to my guest," Toni repeated. "This is my home, Thor and I don't like it when people other than me are rude to my guests."

"Ms. Stark," Coulson cut in, hand coming up, not quite raising it like a grade schooler, just, motion to get her attention while he holstered his gun. "What happened to the windows?"

"I'm just that good," Toni said, grinning.

"I get over stimulated easily when I'm fresh out of confinement," Loki said, mouth curving into a smile. "Toni is a generous... Host."

"Verily, Antonia is a generous person with her banquets I fail to see how this applies to the current situation," Thor said.

"Really, Ms. Stark?" Coulson said, with a sigh and a shake of his head, looking down and turning away.

Toni caught the small smirk on his face thought. Not a robot then.

"Wait," Thor said, brow furrowing. Looking back and forth between Toni and Loki.

"Oh, me oh my," Loki said. "You can see the watermill going, can't you?"

"I'm gonna give you a hint, Thor," Toni said. "Whipped cream and cherries."

"Oh, do you have any?" Loki said, perking up.

"Try the fridge over by the bar?" Toni said while Thor had a crisis.

It was quite a good crisis, as facial expressions went. Toni made a note to replay the tapes later if the camera's were getting this.

"But, he is my brother!" Thor managed about the same time Toni'd mixed up some grenadine and cherries into the coffee cups of mead, topped with whipped cream.

Coulson was trying to calm him down. His expression suggested he wasn't paid enough for this, but Toni thought that might just be the way his face looked. He gave Toni a pained expression, then walked over to Loki. "Would you mind terribly switching genders? I think your breasts are distressing him."

"Oh, c'mon," Toni said. "What could be distressing about them? They're perfect."

Loki's shoulders rolled back, and she arched an eyebrow at Coulson.

"They are distressing your brother, Miss Trickster. If you are more comfortable in that shape, then I would like to request that you cover at least enough of yourself to stop Thor from muttering to himself," Coulson said. "I can loan you my jacket, if you need one."

"Oh, god, yes if you have to cover them up use a suit jacket," Toni said. "That's a good look. that's my favorite look."

Loki held her hands up and...

Gestured.

Toni made a sad sound. "Coulson, you just scared the boobs away, and that makes me disappointed." Not that Loki as a male was unattactive, exactly but... There were no curing hips and... He was just male and Toni looked him over and sighed.

Still no reaction from Coulson. He was dead inside, Toni decided. Watched so much porn he was no longer capable of being aroused by real people. Poor bastard.

'buy Coulson real doll harem' she scribbled on a coaster, leaning on the bar. Loki was doing something but she didn't really car anymore, because he was doing it with narrow hips and a flat chest.

Not a terrible ass, though.

Thor was arguing with Loki now. Apparently talking with his naked brother was easier to deal with than arguing with his naked sister.

Something about upsetting father, Loki's tendency to do things for the sake of doing them, and then... A sound like torn silk singing, and they were gone.

Toni sighed. "First you scare off the breasts, then the man capable of returning the breasts. Coulson why do I keep you again?"

"Can we just, discuss the even that led up to the release of Loki?" Coulson said.

"Ohhh. like a... debriefing?"

"A debriefing is a nice, structured thing," Coulson said. "they are useful, and I don't expect to ever manage to debrief you. Right now, though I'd be happy to have one of your famous story time sessions."

Toni smiled.

"And the last of whatever is in that bottle you were given."

Toni stopped smiling. And shrugged. "Fine. Can I just give you the tapes? I'll just give you the tapes and you can take the last few swallows of my god-booze. I'll give you the tape. Computer! All the footage from where ever I went after I went through the stupid ice door, up to the point we entered the bedroom. In fact, everything but the bedroom footage, thanks." She gave Coulson a wink. "Shield can buy its own porn."

*******

 

It took four days to get all the glass replaced. Loki swung by, at the end of the week.

 

Well, Toni assumed he'd swung by. There was a new bottle in her kitchen, certainly, of that wonderful damn mead.

She wondered what deal had been struck or if he'd simply talked his way out of it. Maybe he was on the run.

It didn't matter. She'd looked Thor in the eye and told him to get the hell over it, and if he had any other sentient beings tied up being tortured indefinitely he outta go off them now because she would pull the chord on the plug at the bottom of the sea before she let something like that continue.

Thor hadn't talked to her since but she'd kept herself busy.

Mostly trying to work out that dimensional hopping trick, because daaamn that was useful.

It was probably magic though. Dammit.

Magic had to be the most frustrating damn thing in the universe. What had Thor said? Where he was from magic and tech were one and the same?

Toni called bullshit. If it was tech it was tech so old no one knew how to use it anymore, they were just... Cavemen with ipods and that was barely better than being a cargo cult.

She rubbed the back of her neck. Gods and monsters and magic. It was seriously unfair.

Oh well. At least she'd made it with a god and could cross that one off her list. She hadn't even known 'bang a god' was on her list but it was getting inked in now.

**********

 

Coulson woke up with a heavy, heavy weight on his heart.

Technically on his lungs as well.

It would be more accurate to say that he woke up because of a heavy weight that settled on his back, right at the shoulder blades.

The air being forced out of him made a wuffing sort of noise, but he didn't otherwise protest.

You needed air to protest. You needed air for a lot of things, but he was getting enough he didn't think he'd die immediately.

You needed air to sigh, and he didn't sigh, just thought about the contents of his fridge. french toast was east. Yes. That.

he stretched his hand out, slowly, carefully, and felt his fingers curl around the hard, cold plastic.

He didn't need to see it to dial. Or send the message.

>

And somewhere, he knew, Fury would sigh but, on the other hand, he was getting more free time this way.

If you could call it free.

**********

 

"I'm just not forgiving him," Toni said. "I mean, I'm just not."

"I really don't think that he did it on purpose."

"I'm certain he did," Toni said. "Damn robot!" She set her glass down with a slam and turned, fell backwards onto the couch,, arms crossing.

"Coulson's not a robot," Darcy said, patiently.

"How would you know?"

Darcy smiled.

"I don't believe you," Toni said, twisting, eyes narrowing.

"Not me personally, but I have a good source."

Toni glared a moment longer. "I think you're bluffing."

"I thought you didn't approve of sex as a prize anyway?" Darcy said. "I've heard your drunken princess rant, remember?"

"I don't think it's a prize! I don't think that I deserve to have access to the perfect breasts just because I freed their owner! I'm not trying to sound like that!" Toni said. "But... I... oh, shut up. You didn't get to touch them. I didn't think I owned them but I was hoping to play with them a few more times, and I didn't expect Coulson of all people to distract the keeper of the breasts like that. He doesn't even appreciate them! Damn robot!"

 

Darcy was sniggering behind her laptop now, shoulders shaking.

"Oh, don't even try to tell me he's not, alright?" Toni sighed.

"Where did you spot them today?"

"She was wearing a dress made out of the wet dreams of a million Jessica Rabbit fans, causing fender benders on the morning news," Toni said. "How can he not react to that?"

"There's a whole range of sexualities that don't care about tits, you know. Maybe he's got a furry fetish? A gay one. And before you say no one's that gay, let me remind you that you haven't tried to climb Thor yet and speaking as a girl who can appreciate what a pile of sex he is, I didn't think anyone could be that lesbo till I met you, alright?"

"That's... About as fair as I expect from you," Toni said. "Just let me mourn the loss of the breasts?"

"Don't forget her ass. The ass had stopping power too."

Toni made a sad little noise.

*********

Toni was aware she was difficult to work with.

She didn't console herself about this because she didn't see the reason to.

People who told her she was hard to work with often got this retort-

"At least I'm not Reed Fucking Richards."

And anyone who had worked with him would pause and agree.

Even Coulson, lord of the breast thieves, have been a little more diplomatically silent than normal in a way that Toni privately felt would have been a quick look around then a nod in anyone else. You know, anyone else that wasn't a robot.

He's really not a robot, Loki had told her, I checked. With a stick. He bruises.

Toni had ungenerously suggested anal probing but Loki had gotten all quite and thoughtful and really, Toni had regretted it.

Damn. not she was thinking of anal probing and Loki's fantastic hips and she'd have to tune back in and pretend she knew what the FUCK Richards was talking about.

I'm goddamn brilliant, she thought, to herself, looking at the cycling numbers. And I get like. half of this.

On the plus side, why he might work out he needed a positron beam bounced off the graviton particle dish or whatever, he wasn't that great at actually building the pieces. And he didn't have a practical thought in his damn head.

Okay, Toni made things like unmanned drones with blenders in them because who wanted to go alll the way from the pool to the kitchen for a goddamn daiquiri, but she was AWARE of the fact that an unmanned drone that followed voice orders would be bad in the wrong hands. That was why it only followed HER orders. Or Computer. It was more or less controlled by Computer. It was awesome.

Reed Richards would make a voice controlled drone with a fucking laser on it, and he'd forget to install firewalls, and Doom would take it over, and the fucking thing would not Reed out and Toni's have to go shoot it and Reed'd BITCH because he didn't take notes when he made shit up.

Oh well. Fuck that guy. Toni could read the emails to deal with him. She put up with him in person because of a personal project of hers.

"Suuuue," Toni crooned, leaned way, way over. Reed's wasn't paying attention anymore. Prick tended to treat her like a grad student or something. "Sue, my darling, beautiful, underappreciated princess of medical sciiiience..."

"I'm not running away with you," Sue said, not looking up from her pages of notes. "Even if you build a castle."

"You do know that it'd have a full lab for you?" Toni said, sighing. "And I'd spend at least half my time in there paying attention to you, you neglected flower."

"Sue outgrew that phase in college, Toni, you should consider it," Reed said without looking up.

"Oh, talk condescending to me that'll cure me of my dykish ways," Toni said. Bile tried to rise but frankly Reed wasn't worth it. Anyway whenever he opened his mouth and said shit like that Sue and Johnny both looked pained. "Hey tell me how it's an evolutionary dead end again, that's my favorite speech, asshole. Then explain to me how you manage a seven year engagement, Richards. Is it mind control?"

"I've checked," Johnny said, frowning at his own tiny screen where he was undoubtedly being told the princess was in another castle. he didn't really DO anything, as far as Toni could tell, at least not in the lab, but he hung around because Reed was the sort to forget to call when something blew up.

"Yeah but... You're way of checking is sort of... Low tech?"

"But effective. You just give Reed a big enough problem and then go turn off anything that's not clearly labeled," Johnny said, looking up with a bright smile.

Toni shrugged. That was probably about the only way, really. "Unless it's brain washing. or blackmail."

"What could he blackmail her with that's worse than marrying him? I've got no shame, she's a good girl," Johnny shrugged.

"I could fix that," Toni muttered. "Reed, are you even looking at the readings?"

"They're fascinating but incomplete."

Toni rolled her eyes. "The sensors you use to monitor fly farts in other dimensions take up three floors of your building, Reed I can't exactly fit that shit in a lunchbox and weld it to my head. I scanned every frequency I had, and the hulkbuster's not built for exploration. it's built for busting hulks."

"Do you call your toaster the toast buster?" Johnny asked, grinning and starting to hum. "If your toast is paaale, and it don't look good..."

"Whatever, flamer." Johnny was the other reason Toni came. He was a littttle bit of a prick but compared to the towering cock of Reed he was downright fluffy and sweet. Also, Toni had twenty bucks on 'twink' but Johnny loved himself first, and flying second and anything that would have fucked that up he would have ignored.

It was a working theory anyway.

Johnny flipped her off. "That's what I get for rooting for you."

Toni grinned. "You rather have me as a sister in law, cause I'm cooler."

"The coolest. Plus I'd get throw the Stag party," Johnny said.

"You absolutely would," Toni said. "I ever need a nice slice of bacchanal I'll totally give you a blank check."

**********

 

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

The day she met Captain Liberty was not a good day.

 

It was a bad day for a variety of reasons, starting with falling asleep in her workshop and having bad dreams involving the cold floor. Waking up stiff didn’t help either. Also, glue in her hair, because her workshop bandanna had fallen off she she’d have to go get it trimmed because apparently when you were worth several billion you weren’t allowed to cut your own hair.

Anymore.

She’d protested this once as a sign of the patriarchy and Sol had said that fighting the status quo was fine if that was the reason, but she was just being goddamn lazy, and the hairdresser would be coming here.

She chopped the paint part out anyway, at least the bit hear the ends, and got most of it out by the time the ambiguously gendered flaming queer of a hairdresser showed up. Toni honestly wasn’t certain what to make of the... Person.

Her first reaction had been transitional, but from what to where, and since they said their name was Artist...

Toni had heard that and decided that she’d already wasted enough brain matter on the fact the person had both a fine layer of stubble and some sort of corset like shirt. Artist did house calls and damn fine haircuts and that meant that she could look sleek for this meeting with Fury.

She was on the roof helipad, when the car flew in for the landing. Toni smiled, cocked her hip. Maybe he needed a tune up?

“Did you scratch my car, Coulson?” She asked, over the tapering hum of the and Fury was hopping out, followed by some other agent she didn’t know and some woman in a shield t-shirt. “Is it casual friday?” Good god, the woman was staggeringly.. Staggering. Built and blonde and in need of a bra that cradled her assets instead of flattening them. “Who’s the fresh meat?”

“I’m not that fresh,” the woman said, rubbing her neck.

“Antonia Stark, let me be the first to introduce you to Stephanie Rogers.”

“Aww, you got your clone machine working finally?” Toni said, forcing that smile to stay on her face, ignoring the outstretched hand. It wasn’t a clone. she knew that. if it was a clone they’d give it a different name, and they wouldn’t introduce them quietly, in Toni’s home.

“Your father always theorized that she’d survive the cold if she survived the impact,” Fury said.

‘She’ was putting her hand back in her pocket, looking around.

“That’s nice, and you’re....” Toni’s brain kicked back into gear. “Armor upgrades, lost the shield, need a new one? Could have just sent me her measurements.”

“Actually, Stark,” Fury began, but Stephanie was talking again.

“I wanted to meet my team mates,” she said. “I understand we’ll be working together in the future?”

Toni just smiled, in a way she knew was off putting. Her hackles were up but she’d burned through enough therapists to know there was probably a reason she felt like she was chewing on batteries.

Oh yes. Her father’s letters.

She made herself breathe, turning sharply. “I’ll have her back by curfew then, Coulson can chaperone, make sure I don’t get your golden girl sticky.”

Oh, yes, Captain Liberty was a real hero, wasn’t she? Hello insecurities, how nice of you to come and play. Self aware didn’t always fix shit. Toni didn’t look over her shoulder to see if they were following or not. Maybe they wouldn’t.

Maybe they’d get back in the car she’d personally built and fuck right off.

But she heard, footsteps behind her and the hum of the car taking off so someone was staying. She looked in the reflection of some large, dull piece of modern art that Sol had installed and counted two silhouettes.

“Computer! Say hello to Captain Liberty, add her to the system.” Not the same as giving her clearance. Toni walked to the bar and started filling glasses with ice, three in row.

Pausing in kneel and find the ginger ale for Coulson. He was on the job, and it was a waste of scotch to let him stand there holding a glass of diluting spirits. Damn waste of spirits, too.

“Hello,” the computer said. “How would you like to be addressed, Captain Liberty also known as Stephanie Rogers, Formerly known as Captain Liberty?”

“Ah, I suppose Rogers will do?” she said.

“How twee,” Toni muttered. Scotch Scotch ginger ale. She slide the carbonated one down the bar hard without looking and when she didn’t hear a crash figured he’d caught it. He always caught it.

Hands flat on the bar, looking at Stephanie, then sliding the drink over. “It won’t do anything but you can enjoy the taste, right Stephers?”

“Yes,” and she took it and sipped without looking away.

“Are you done checking for familiar facial features yet?” Toni said, arching an eyebrow.

That worked. The golden girl looked away then, eyes drinking in the house instead of the hostess. “You know I was at the fair, when Stark Industries showed its' first flying car. But it set fire to part of the stage.”

“My cars don’t do that,” Toni said, stiffly.

“It was nice to wake up too, that’s all,” she said, with a smile.

Toni watched her eyes, then set her drink down. She’d worn her nice suit, because you wore nice suits to talk to fury even if they were the rumpled ones, and she undid the tie. Lips curving into her smirk. “You keep looking at the glow.”

“I don’t see a glow.”

“You keep checking though.” Crisp pearl buttons until gleaming steel and blue light were visible. She moved the small bead that controlled the aperture, shuttered it open, then shut, open again.

“You made the dimmer switch manual?”

“It was a personal preference,” Toni said, snapping it shut. Buttoning her shirt back up, chin out, little bit up. Body language saying ‘C’mon, hit me’, she knew and she probably didn’t actually want to get hit by America’s perfect soldier but... Still.

“I like it,” Stephanie said. “It’s something you can touch instead of.. The buttons that are on everything else.”

“So how long have you been back in commission?”

“About two weeks,” Stephanie said, smiling warmly. “Coulson and the other agents have been explaining things to me as quickly as they can,-”

Toni’s head was already whipping around. “Coulson!”

Coulson gave her a faint smile. “Yes Miss Stark?”

 

“You knew! And you didn’t mention it!”

“Direct orders not too, Miss Stark,” he said.

Toni glared and felt unaccountably betrayed, lips forming a white line.

“He helped talk Fury into letting me come here today,” Stephanie said, in an attempt to defuse the situation.

Toni wanted, badly, to throw a tantrum. She didn’t, because they never got you anything, but she wanted too. She finished her drink, instead and chewed on the ice. “Coulson, make yourself useful and work some sort of culinary magic while I give the golden girl the tour.” The glass went into the sink for someone else to deal with, and she managed to stalk instead of storm her way across the room and down the stairs.

 

Stephanie gave Coulson a look.

“You cook?”

“Yes, actually, but she doesn't know that. She means order take out,” he said, pulling his phone out.

Stephanie reached out, touched his wrist. “Actually, nows’ a good time to tell her. Can you make scrambled eggs? It’ll confuse her when she comes back up, at least.”

“I’m going to save that for a special occasion,” he said. “But it’s a wise idea.”

********

 

The art of the quick change was one that Toni had mastered yeeears ago, back in her extra insane teen years.

Getting out of her tailored threads and into the sleek grey of the insulating undersuit was something she was really very good at, thank you.

It warmed a moment as the fabric interfaced with the arc reactor, then tightened. Easier than struggling into something wetsuit tight.

“What... is that?”

Toni turned her head. “It’s not as if the suit fits over anything bulky,” she said. “I designed it so that I wouldn’t need any sort of special undersuit, if I was in a hurry.” She peeled the thick silicone sleeve off her left arm, exposed the metallic sub structure. Glanced up. “Oh, no one warned you about this?” She said, thrusting her arm out for inspection. “Was the whole amputee thing not covered?”

Stephanie didn’t shy away, just reached out and caught Toni’s wrist. “Not exactly,” she said. “Why...” She paused. “You’re basically an engineer at heart. Why a hand and not a wrench or a soldering iron?”

Toni blinked. “It also solders,” she said.

“It’s very pretty,” Stepanie said, touching the circle on the palm. It made the fingers curl in. “Can you feel that?”

Toni wriggled the fingers of it. “There’s some nerve feedback, but it’s not phantom limb. It triggers nerves in the stump,” she said. “It’s actually powered separately from the arc reactor but it can power my heart in an emergency and...” She trailed off, because the woman had let go of the metallic wrist to flick the lever that opened up the iris of the arc reactor again. She blinked, then stepped back, hands up and protective. “Don’t do that. I don’t like to be touched without permission.”

“I’m sorry,” Stephanie said, tone serious and not nearly as condescending as it could have been. “It won’t happen again.”

“Good.”

Silence a moment, before princess fucking liberty was looking away.

Toni took the opportunity to move backwards, standing on the worn down patch of floor that marked the center of the suit assembly device.

Even without the helmet on she could breathe better in the suit. The heads up was separate from the helmet and Computer was helpfully popping up suggestions for how to leave the room quickly by highlighting things in yellow.

“So you keep the big guns in the left arm then?”

Toni blinked. “Yes,” she said. “In a manner of speaking. Did they tell you what to try to talk me into making?”

“Nothing.”

“What?”

“I asked to meet you. I don’t expect you to make me a suit of armor but I’m glad I get to see you in that,” Stephanie said. “That's amazing. And you can fly? They said it looked a little medieval but it’s just in these sort of, rondels, isn’t it?” She was circling now, eyes bright and focused. “It’s beautiful.”

“Form follows function,” Toni said. Then, stiffly. “Thank you.”

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

 

Stephanie prodded at it.

“I..” She frowned. “Is it a joke food?”

“It’s sushi,” Coulson said. “No one told me what to order.”

Toni didn’t talk, she was popping slices of toro into her mouth and trying not to smirk too much.

“There’s rice,” Coulson offered.

“I can see the rice. it’s stuck to the raw fish, with some of this black stuff,” Steph said. “The.. Seaweed. Weeds and raw fish, Coulson. Arn’t you supposed to be protecting me from culture like this?”

“You mean the Japanese culture?” he asked, expertly loading his plate up with...

“I mean, like, bacterial culture and.. What is the yellow stuff?” She poked at one with a chopstick. Just one chopstick, and she held it with thumb and forefinger.

“Sweet scrambled eggs,” Coulson said. “More or less.”

“And it’s cooked?”

Toni sighed. “Is that why you got forty of them?”

“I got ten,” Coulson said. “And yes.”

“I’ve eaten... Stranger,” Stephanie said, squaring her shoulders up, a little and picking up the one with the wobbly yellow yolk on it, nesting on the red roe.

“You’re looking at it like you think it’ll bite back,” Toni said, grinning. “What are you telling yourself to get all mentally ready, there, Stephers?”

“I’m listing all the things I ever had to eat to avoid starving,” STephanie said.

‘This you should actually chew and taste,” Toni suggested, refilling her sake glass. Or, more accurately, filling her tumbler with sake, because sake glasses were tiny. Steph was drinking to be polite, but it felt a lot like drinking alone. Probably because the golden girl would be resolutely sober for all eternity. How depressing. Toni had another sip on the woman’s behalf.

A long silent, chewing.

Then she was reaching out to stab another.

Coulson smiled. “And of course there’s a cooked pork cutlet dish in the bag.”

“For someone who’s supposed to protect her from culture and, I dunno, me I guess, you’re kinda a magnificent bastard,” Toni said. She dragged a napkin over with her chopsticks and started to doodle onto it. Well, she wrote ‘huge tracts of land’ onto it first, then started to doodle.

“She doesn’t need protecting from you,” Coulson said, watching with mild dismay as his tamago’s were pilfered.

“Mm, good thing there’s no defense ‘gainst me,” Toni said, cheerfully. She was, she realized, a bit drunker than she’d planned but oh well she’s waited until she was out of the suit and into work clothes. Real work clothes, a greasy old coverall that she’d half shrugged off, and a battered black shirt that would have let the light out if she didn’t have it set to ‘pinprick glow’. “I am become destroy of.. Golden girls, I guess. But you’re
gonna need protection from other things, cause I bet you wouldn’t know a pulsy gamma beam from a glow stick but that’ll be fine. because I do.”

“Wouldn’t know a glow stick from a glow stick,” Stephanie said. “Though it sounds like it’s fairly self explanatory?”

“Maaaaaybe I can add something to tell you the difference between polo’s and pulses,” Toni said, but she wasn’t really talking to anyone but her napkin now.

“What are you doing there?” Stephanie asked, leaning over. “What about land?”

Toni waved a hand dismissively, then grabbed the napkin and got up, swaying far too much. “Back to the workroom when you’re done, measurements, have to.. Yeah band and shoulders and hip and waist ratio shit and everything you’re wearing now is stupid.”

Stephanie watched her, then looked at Coulson. “How does she not hurt herself? Is this normal?”

Coulson breathed out. “We’ll have that talk later,” he said. “Take dinner down with you, I’ve had enough and she won’t eat again until her project's done or her assistant comes back and forces a smoothie into her.”

“Oh, those, milkshake things.”

“More or less.”

**********

 

It was always strange to get drunk, start something and not finish until you’d both sobered up and gone through the hangover.

Usually around the mild headache time the design got revamped as tendrils of common sense kicked in. There wasn’t ANY reason for a diamond shaped window over the tits, so she redesigned that, tossing the boob window into the ‘shit that should probably end up in porn’ file.

She wasn’t entirely sure when Stephanie’d left, though Toni did know that she’d brought down most of the sushi, all of the rice, and a double order of tonkatsu, because she remembered the smell and watching the woman polish off enough food for three like it was a midnight snack. All those calories, right to energy. Perfect biological machine.

She’s measured and weights and now had this.. List of measurements. And notes...

Huh.

She skimmed it and let her memory and her usual system translate what she was looking at. Okay, so, for about an hour, that was honestly hazy, she’d been feeling up Captain Liberty.

Well, not a deliberate groping but she had an awful lot of chest waist thigh measurements here. “Computer, did I already tell you to build me up a CAD model of her based off surveillance?”

“Already built,” said the house.

“Good boy,” she said, looking at screens as it popped up.

The first draft was always rubbish, she thought, looking at the preliminaries. The woman had fought machine guns with a shield, she didn’t need a head mounted rail gun even if it was sort of bad-ass.

“Sol’s here?”

“Mr. Shaker is in the kitchen, preparing a beverage.”

“Tell him to cancel everything for today and go easy on the wheat grass, I’m not a cow.”

“Of course.”

Toni drank her breakfast and went back to work.

******

SQUID

*******

 

"I'm going to die, computer."

There wasn't an answer.

That was a pity. She would have liked something to lie to her.

Outside the lights were fading rapidly. Light filtering though the ocean to turn blue, then purple, fading to black.

The lights of the suit just showed particles floating by.

It was jammed up, there was no way to repair if from the inside, and she was sinking like a stone.

Pressure... Asphyxiation. Who knew what'd be the final damn straw.

"Shouldn't have dismissed the idea of a suicide option," she said, giving up. She stopped kicking, at least. "I always thought I'd die fighting, or maybe in a sudden bloody streak after being outgunned or maybe shot to death by a wingnut in the street but... I didn't think I've have to think about it. Shit. is my will in order?"

Maybe she'd see a sperm whale and get onto it's tail or something. Oh, look, denial.

Toni didn't think she had time to do all seven stages of grief.

The suit could take a looooot of pressure. "Record? Playback? Reboot? What systems do I have?"

A little red light.

"Oh, good, my final moment can be recorded. Someone edit out the crying and I just I'll try to sound insightful for an hour," Toni said. Exhaled. "Guess I'll just go down the list... We fished Rogers out sooner or later someone will hear this. I guess. I'll start with.. Fury. Nick Fury.. I just want you to know.. you can't have any of my things, you one eyed sonnofabitch!"

She left the company to Sol, because.. Who else? She left the building to Banner, enough money to let the poor guy afford lawyers to avoid jail time. He had to keep paying Darcy thought and Toni felt like calling it a wedding present except she really had no idea of how the four way dynamics worked, so she speculated idly.

Enough power to stay pressurized, hell maybe she'd freeze to death.

Enough power to run the vibrator she'd installed in the crotch while drunk? Maybe. Well it was one way to die? She really wasn't feeling it though.

Who else? Fuck. Who else mattered in her life?

"Reed Richards is not to have any of my things either. They are my things. you are to build an big wooden boat and anything Reed Richards attempts to save will be put on the boat and set on fire. make Thor help. Sue is to get my vibrator collection, so that she can appreciate what she'd missed turning me down. Johnny Storm, you may have two of my cars. Any two. You get first dibs. Coulson, you nerd, you can go and tell Sol I said this, go and dig through the art, there's probably some stuff you'd like, take.. Take ten. Or whatever you can fit in your apartment. I don't care what you take as long as you want it for you. No taking all the expensive things. Even if you did steal the perfect breasts."

"I want statues. And a parade. I want..." Toni shut her eyes. "I'm not... " She opened them. Tiny flicks of white, floating. "I'm not ready. I'll never be ready I don't want to see... I... ... I'm hallucinating out of panic because there's a man in a speedo here and he seeeeems to want to talk..."

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

"There's got to be a way," Stephanie said. "That suit of hers, can't it keep her alive? I mean, we're not just giving up. We can't just give up. no one ever gave up on ME," her mouth made a thin line. The fact her body was just as valuable dead as alive was.. not something she chose to dwell on.

The suit would still be valuable even with the occupant dead.

She didn't dwell on that, either.

She took a breath, slowly. "We are not giving up yet."

"She's got oxygen for twenty hours, more if there's scrubbers installed," crackled the speaker. Sol had gone straight to the workshop and was walking to Computer. "I know the suit was tested for very low pressure. Depending on drift she might last the whole twenty, or the suit might be caved in on her by now we've got no way of knowing. I'm sorry. Some of this data's still behind a firewall."

"Well, get behind the wall of fire then, Do you require my assistance?" Thor said, and someone sighed and took his arm and walked him off to one side to try to explain it. Probably with small words.

"Then put up a clock," Stephanie said. "How much time do we have to get to the bottom of the ocean, up on the wall."

"A deadline," Natasha said, voice bone dry.

"A life line," Stephanie said. "We're not giving up."

"No one's giving up," Fury said. "But there might be a complication."

 

*********

 

"She's probably already dead," Richards was saying, but he was saying it while working so no one shot him.

Coulson considered it for a moment anyway, but only allowed himself the indulgence because it'd just bounce off. "Then you should think of it as a high priority recovery mission. The arc reactor can power the suit if Stark is alive or not, and she never disclosed the exact level of ordinance she packed into it."

"Come on, Reed, if anyone's gonna build a suit that can incidentally withstand the entire weight of the ocean after punching out a hulkified goldfish, it's gonna be Toni," Johnny said. "And if she survived the fall to the bottom, Namor's gonna find her."

"The odd's of that," Reed said, dismissively. "Are a million to one."

"The odds if it not happening are a million to one," Johnny said. "It's Namor the man's an ass, but she's on his turf now. He's more archaic than you are about sexuality and c'mon, he tried to fight you for Sue. Toni's not even attached, and much hotter."

Sue ignored her brother, because that's what brothers were for.

"Couldn't you just go down there, Sue? make a force field?" Johnny asked.

"I don't think so," she said. "All the way down and all the way back'd be... I don't think I can do it."

"Don't risk yourself," Reed said, waving a hand. "Not unless we can confirm she's alive, and, really, even then."

There was silence, for a long moment.

"Reed," Sue started, sounding exasperated and strangely fond.

"There has to be a way for you to tell Sue she's important without saying someone else isn't," Johnny said, patiently. "How do you ever get grants with that attitude?"

"Agent, I think I can have something ready for you in-" Reed started, then frowned. "Where did he go?"

Coulson had vanished.

********

"Why am I here?' Stephanie said, forehead to the glass, watching the green world go by outside.

It was going by rather quickly. There was certainly a lot to be said for flying cars, and Coulson didn't seem to think there was any point in sedate driving when you were 'alone on the road'.

Every now and then a little screen would turn red, and it'd smoothly swerve to try to avoid sparrows.

Try was important. Tiny brown feathers were stuck to the edge of a windsheild wiper that was designed for high speeds.

"Three reasons," Coulson said. "One, everyone likes you."

"How is that a reason?"

"Because we're going to see the mutants, and the X-men and shield have had friction in their dealings in the past," Coulson said. "Two, the serum may have augmented your dna to the point where you register as a mutant to their perimeter defenses, and that would make things faster."

It was a catch twenty two, there. The Xmen didn't like it if shield sent Agents that were either low ranking, or black box trained to resist telepathy, because it was a lack of respect and a sign of mistrust, and Shield would eat glass before they let a high ranking agent with important secrets within a thousand miles of Xavier.

"You can't actually get above level four clearance without black box training," he added, in a conversational tone. "You'll be receiving yours, soon, but for now your lack of training will also help them warm to me."

"Black box training?"

"It's not as terrible as it sounds," Coulson said. "Takes about a week. High level telepaths like Xavier can still force their way into black boxed memories but it's impossible to do it without your knowledge of the intrusion."

"The third reason?"

Coulson smiled. "You'll understand when we get there."

*********

There are huge sections of the underwater palace with air, but it is pressurized air.

Toni was just glad that her filters are working. And that the thick, heavy, sticky tar like substance is sticking to her, hiding all of the gleams of metal.

"Record," she said, and the light flicked over. "Okay, so I've decided that Stark Industries new goal is to pollute the oceans until it's safer to drink sewage. I want to be able to throw matches at the sea and watch it burn, you hear me? Fuck this oversized puddle and it's stupid fucking king."

at least the other weren't as frightening strong as Namor, she thought, looking at the dents in her armor.

Some guys just didn't get the whole 'no' thing, and while Toni didn't hate the idea of being royalty, she didn't want to do with without a queen of her own, thanks.

"I mean this, I want to sink crates of trash that'll dissolve and litter the fuck out of this fuckers private adobe, you got it? I hate him. If I get out of this shit alive, I'm going to take every stinking rotten radioactive rock on the planet and sink them into his FUCKING living room."

******

Stephanie hadn't thought there was such thing as circumstances that would allow her to be distracted from a fellow soldier who needed rescuing.

And Toni was a solider even if her biggest wars were against herself, but she'd seen battle and she'd fought with comrades and that was enough for Stephanie even if the title chafed.

And really, Stephanie wasn't distracted entirely. There was a moment of shock, seeing that outline through the gate while Coulson glared at a sign that seemed to blur when she looked at it, and then she was cupping her hands to her mouth, making a trumpet of them.

"James, you son of a bitch!" she yelled. "Get your short hairy arse over here and let us in!"

****

This room is round.

Everyone has different rooms. Some people have their childhood home, some have just the bedroom. Some have tiny spaces carved into the rubble, the pages of their life crushed, the volumes scattered.

This is a round room with an arched ceiling. it's not a church, except in the way that all libraries are churches to knowledge, but it has some of the architectural quality's of an old cathedral. It is stone and it is silent, and the large windows are filled with stained glass portraits of important people.

Important to the owner of this room, at least. Charles stared at them. The Captain Liberty one was different. He shut his eyes a moment. Yes, it had been both of the Captain before, Liberty and America, but he supposed with her recent resurrection it made sense that the brass plate under the image had been polished up, and that it now read 'Stephanie Rogers'.

Phil hadn't let go of his boyhood crush entirely, after all. It was still endearing.

Xavier took a moment to look at the other portraits. Iron was there, and Toni was separate from her suited persona, 'Tasha', labeled in gold, had only one window, but Banner and Hulk were separate. Hawkeye and Barton were frozen in the act of shooting arrows at each other, same glasses same smile. Fury. Thor's window was a whirl of red cape and silver hammer.

"Who is Darcy?" he asked, politely. Pausing in front of the first of the two new windows, the one with smiling red lips and dark glasses, artful lighting carved into the frame. She had equal footing with the other portraits, but the man was meticulous about that, about, equal space, equal worth.

Phil was in the center of the room, flipping through a book. Charles didn't have to look to know that there were only five books in this library that he could read. The rest were filled with jet black pages. Not blurred letters, perfect crisp black boxes. Trying to peel the black off shattered every window, and Charles knew this from past experience.

"She was an asset, on a mission and she is now in Starks employ. She's taking black box training now, to increase her clearance. She is, invaluable in dealing with Stark. "

"And this one?"

"Thor's sibling."

"Forgive my Norse mythology being rusty?" This plate was tarnished, which was... What? Disapproval? Annoyance? The rest, while not the mirror finish of Rogers, were at least clean.

Once, only once, he had seen this agent at the Capitol, favoring one side. And Charles had stepped into his mind, and the major players of his life had been statues, with drawn weapons, one plinth empty, it's occupant caved from red marble on the floor.

It hadn't had a plate at all, but even that had been clean. Charles had left without making himself distinctly known but the Agent had been watching him the rest of the day anyway.

The plate polished itself. 'Loki'.

"Ah, it's not that rusty," Charles said. "The trickster."

"She is an unknown entity," Phil said. "And not the reason I'm here."

"Your friend is quiet upsetting Logan, though she dosen't seem to mean too."

"I assume you're in her mind as well?"

"Just peering in the windows," Charles said. "Logan's mind is a closed.... There's no black boxes just piles of ash, and I'm making sure that he's not going to attack her."

"That would be good," Phil said. "We have reason to believe that they may have meet previously."

"But that's not why you came," Charles said. His shoes clicked on the dark aubergine carpet while he walked, because he saw no reason to think of himself as wheelchair bound. He picked up a thin volume from the small table, and flipped it open. "... your plan is.. Less elegant than I'm used to from you?" He said, finally. "This is drawn in purple crayon. Metaphorically speaking."

"Kludge appeal," Phil said. "Not everything needs to be complicated. Will your student help or not? It may be dangerous and there would be no way too retrieve him if the cord snapped."

"But Shield would owe us a favor?"

"I would owe you a favor," Phil said. "And Stark shows gratitude in expensive ways, thought I understand that's not appealing to you."

"I'm speaking to Piotr now," Charles said. "I hope you brought enough fishing line, Phil."

******

 

 

"How do you know that name?" Logan asked, staring, because nothing about this woman was triggering anything.

"Because it's..." She started, then trailed off, face falling. "I must be mistaken," she said, finally. "You're the spitting image of someone I used to know but it's... I apologize for calling you short."

'Even if you are' hung in the air but he let it go. he noticed she didn't apologize for hairy. "You're Stephanie Rogers," Logan said. "Did we really used to know each other?"

She hesitated. "It wasn't something that I'd think you'd forget if that was you?" she said. "But James Howlett and I chased a traitor with a suitcase filled with research notes across Italy in forty one, when he buggered out of a hydra base." Thank god Hydra hadn't been on speaking terms with the third reich by then, she thought, not for the first time. "You must be his son? I..." Her smile faltered. "Shield's looked up everyone I've thought to ask about but he was in his thirties and smoked like a factory, big cigars whenever he could, I didn't think to ask if he was alive."

Coulson seemed to tune back in. "It's the same person," he said, making Logan's head turn, eyes narrow. "We'd had suspicious but without photographs or more detailed firsthand accounts it wasn't possible to confirm, thank you for that, Rogers."

Logan looked annoyed.

"Now that we've had proper confirmation, you can of course request any additional information we may have on file regarding James Howlett," Coulson pushed on. "The files are extremely incomplete, however."

"Did you just come to confirm that, suit?" Logan said, snappish. Producing a cigar. Glaring when Coulson held out a lighter. "You don't smoke," he stated, nose wrinkling.

"No, but it's never a bad idea to have a lighter on you. And confirming that you are, in fact, the James Howlett in out files was a bonus," Coulson said. "Two birds, one stone."

"And what was the other bird?"

"Colossus. We have a asset at the bottom of the Atlantic that needs to be retrieved," Coulson said.

"Wait, so it is you, James, but you don't remember any of it?" Stephanie asked, frowning.

"No, I don't," he said. "Glad to hear I was on the right side."

"Ah. Would you like to hear the rest?" She offered with a smile.

"It's more than you'll find in the files," Coulson added. "And the car seats four while we wait for Piotr, thought it's not capable of flight with the additional weight of his secondary form. No smoking inside the vehicle."

Technically five, Phil. Unless I'm intruding.

Glad to have you along, Coulson thought, shutting his eyes, focusing the words. He was out of practice at this but it fell into the same category as any other language. Stumble through a few sentences and then you remember how to think in it. I don't suppose you could check and see if Stark is still alive, while you're feeling helpful?

Would you like to know the one species on this planet more paranoid than homo erectus, or homo superior?

Aquatis? Coulson opened his eyes, refocused on driving. Plus Stark did bother to go to a few of the black box training sessions. That can't be helping. Namor's people have defenses against you?

There's also an issue with the naturally occurring fields created by some undersea vents. How have you been?

And since Stephanie was using this opportunity with Piotr to brush up on her Russian in between telling Logan about what he did in the war with her, Phil smiled, slightly to himself, started the car, and told Charles about it.

********

In a more dramatic world, it would have been a last minute rescue.

Piotr would have had to creep and search, the radio that the agent handed him would have failed, the led's would have given out, the beacon would have been crushed, the line would have snapped.

They'd parked the car at the marina, for about five minutes, and the agent had tossed the keys to someone else, in a different suit, and then they'd gotten into a quinjet, a modified one, and it had floated on the surface a moment, before pressurized gas had inflated some large pontoons.

Someone had even packed a couple of coolers. Logan was sitting at the edge of the bay, watching the long cord vanishing down into the water, and sipping his beer.

The suit was up in the cockpit, probably napping, and Stephanie was dangling a foot in the water, peering down.

"So, Stark, huh?"

"She sank like a stone," Stephanie said. "Here, I suppose. Close? Coulson said something about currents?"

"No, I mean.. Stark, huh?"

"Huh?"

Logan snorted. "You're worried."

"It's a long way down," Stephanie said. "She's saved my life. She's my team mate."

"And that's it?"

"What else do you think you smell, you nosey bastard?" She asked, then paused. "Sorry."

"You were pretty familiar with James?"

"Yeah," she said. "Weird to talk about you like you're not here but I guess James isn't here?"

"Then you know I've got a nose on me, so when I say 'Stark, huh?' what I mean is, since when are you a carpet muncher?"

Stephanie gave him a long look, then stood up.

Logan didn't bother to follow her. She hadn't smelled offended.

Anyway, he could hear her.

"Coulson?"

"Hm?"

"What's a carpet muncher? Should I be offended?"

Hmm. Maybe he should have followed. It sounded like the suit had swallowed his tongue.

**********

"Pretty sure this is disrespectful," Bruce said, thoughtfully.

"Shhhh," Darcy said. She didn't seem worried, but, then again... Maybe she just had more faith in Toni than most people. Darcy hadn't been worried when her boss has flown into the heart of winter, either.

"You asked the computer to tap into the quinjet's audio to see if the cord shield took is holding and working," Bruce said. "That's understandable. But now this is..."

"Computer, are you recording this? Clint and Tash'll never forgive us if we don't show them the expression on Coulson's face." Darcy said.

"Recording."

"You're very entertained for someone who's boss might be dead," Bruce said.

"Toni'll love this too, look at Coulson's eye twitch."

"Toni will want to know why you weren't putting ashes in your hair and bawling," Bruce said. "Anyway, you won't tell her."

"I won't?"

"No, because you're going to think about what that one," he pointed at the screen. "Logan? Said. And you'll decide you rather watch the trainwreck."

"Oooooh," Darcy nodded. "Okay. We show Clint and Tash, and we don't show Toni."

*******

There should have been a battle, one that clawed it's marks onto the seafloor, one that drew blood, one that made the ocean boil.

But Toni had found what passed for a museum, or maybe an armory, and she had spent an embarrassing moment near orgasm at the sights of the chipped, faded swastika on the side of the aged grey metal because, sweet necessity, yes, yes yes this was just what she needed.

She had wondered if it'd gone down here, or been dragged. It didn't matter, not really. What mattered was humans during war were bug-fuck crazy and if she was lucky, this one had a missile or two left.

If she was unlucky it'd be filled with goddamn art and stolen gold and teeth. It was probably insulated with hair, anyway.

Toni had gone into the thing, found it blissfully free of anything she'd had felt bad totaling, and had been writing it to blow when the light on her HUD blinked.

"ame is Piotr Nikolaievitch Rasputin, he is here to help. Please focus on the transmission and go to him, he is here to assist you,-" Came the clipped transmission. Staticy.

Repeating.

"-tonia Rogers Stark, please transmit on this frequency so that Colossus can locate you and assist you in your ascent," Toni listened carefully to the message, until it started up again. It had the right phrases in it.

And ten minutes later she was inviting a eight foot tall polished steel man into her submarine. Small pockets were even filled with air, At least with air he could talk, though he assured her he didn't need to breath.

And then it was a long.. Dull, controlled ascent. Sitting in a loop of durable cord, mostly in a strangers lap because he was heavier and was going to be the lowest point not matter what. Like a rope swing for lovers, the sort of thing you'd expect to see hanging from an oak tree by the old watering hole. Half an hour up and she could turn her head and watch the glowing trails of old, old munitions erupt from the submarine and
then detonate

"Warms your heart," Toni said, not that anyone could hear it. "Down to the cockles."

Piotr had a note pad, the plastic sort that divers used, and a pen. 'That was planned?'

Toni nodded, took the pad and drew a happy face. 'It. Was. Earned.' she said.

'Enough air for the ascent?'

'Yes' and Toni pointed at the smiley face again. 'Or maybe not. Won't know till you use a can opener on me, will you?'

**********

 

Clint could watch the tape forever.

Not the whole thing, because once the boss man got his footing he was, as always, very level headed in his explanations of slang terms to Cap' Rogers.

Just those first few seconds thought, seeing Coulson with no footing at all floundering a minute to be certain he'd heard what she'd said correctly. It was extra sweet because the man clearly hadn't been paying attention to the conversation behind him, which was either out of character or he was talking to his ex again.

And if he was talking to that bald idiot, Coulson deserved to get caught off guard.

Clint rewound it, smiling stupidly at his phone. Yeah, those first few seconds of warring expression were the best. Darcy liked the whole thing, but she was probably amused by the serious, straight a student expression on the Captain's face, all but taking notes on things like 'Femme' and 'Lipstick lesbian'.

"If expressions were audible," Clint said, cheerfully, nudging Tasha. "I'd make that face right there my ringtone."

"You are going to wear out the buttons on that," she said. "And that's a Shield Issued phone. They see everything you do on there."

"Yup," Clint said. "It's not porn, I'm not discussing state secrets, it's just Toni's hacked feed of Shields surveillance. C'mon don't they know she has that?"

Restarting it, again.

"How many times have you watched it?"

"It's like finding tits in a Disney movie, Natasha. You wouldn't understand," Clint said. "I've never seen him thrown that hard before, have you?"

"Yes," she said, thoughtfully.

"When?" Clint's whole face lit up. "Is it on tape?"

"Mmm, no, I don't think I'll tell you today. Maybe someday."

"Taasssshaa," he gave half an attempt at a pout, and then started it again. "Think it was just cause he was chatting with baldy McMindfuck, or is it the fanboy boner he's got for Liberty?"

"I would not care to speculate."

"I bet he had the bed sheets," Clint said. "Or the posters. There's like a million guys his age that got puberty knocked into them by the Dynamic duo of Liberty and America. Didn't the porno come out in the early eighties?""

"I don't think he watches porn," Natasha said.

"Yeah, probably makes the circuits burn out."

"He's not a robot," Natasha said.

"No, but I bet he thinks he is, like a stress response," Clint said, chipper as pop rocks. "Like he got hit on the head and decided he was a robot to deal with the stress and Fury never corrected him because Fury's an asshole."

"Everything about that sentence makes me doubt your sanity," she said, shaking her head. "Except the last bit, Fury is a fan of using disabilities to his advantage. Oh, hell if you're going to keep watching it put headphones in."

"For you I'll mute it," Clint said. "It's all about the boss man's face, anyway. Think this is high enough resolution to make a poster?"

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

Fury exhaled.

Good, they'd retrieved Stark, with the added bonus of making Stephanie Roger's friends with a few of the Xmen, confirming an identification, and testing out some experimental line.

A good day. More or less. Alright, Toni had... Unilaterally bombed Atlantis and that was going to become a problem at some point in the future but it was a burning bridge he'd deal with later.

Possibly a soggy bridge. It was possible he hadn't gotten enough sleep. He could always tell when he needed sleep because his metaphors got ridiculous.

It was probable. It was a fact.

Fury didn't sleep when he didn't know where all the Avengers were. He did a headcount, before he went to sleep.

Sometimes he skipped Natasha, unless she had missed too many check ins, and then he'd stay up for her too.

Stark was a pain, but she was his damn pain, and he could sleep better knowing she was probably designing anti-Namor weaponry.

He could sleep much better, knowing that, actually.

*******

"I thought you weren't a fan of the nuclear deterrent," Banner said, watching Toni dip something carefully into acid, then into cloudy white water. It was so polished it shined, now.

"This isn't nuclear," Toni said. "that would pollute the water and kill fish and no, that would be bad, this isn't nuclear this is just... In case."

"Your suit already managed at these depths."

"I want it to do more than manage," Toni said, smiling like a sphinx. The proper greek sort that ate whoever couldn't prove themselves to be clever, or at least entertaining. Banner felt it was.. Rather apt.

 

*******

It was inevitable that Fury would get fed up with what was generally referred to as the god dilemma by people in Shield with more wit than self preservation.

Coulson was not invaluable.

Fury was good at assigning values to people. It was cold, and it was calculating, and it was part of what made him good at his job.

Keeping Loki from serious mischief was a valuable task, yes but so was herding super heroes and the egos attached.

And Loki could be handed off to anyone that could hold the gods attention.

Or, a lazer pointer.

"So I'm a lazer pointer," Barton said. "For a god. With a short attention span."

Ah, apparently Fury was tired enough to say his weird metaphors out loud. Not a great sign.

"Yes, Agent, that's exactly what you are," Fury said. "Now go give Coulson enough free time to deal with Stephanie and the X-men."

"Ugh, that bald fuck-" Barton started, head rolling back.

Fury glared.

"That.. Bald.. Assest?" Barton tried. Smiled. "Fine. I'll go play dancing piece of string."

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

 

Water made it tricky.

Toni didn't think it'd be an insurmountable issue, really. Costly maybe. But between getting stuck at the bottom of the ocean herself, and looking up what it cost to spend seventy years trolling for frozen weaponized humans?

Might as well built the perfect beacon now. Might as well built too, just in case Stephanie got lost.

Toni'd had a suit to protect her from that grabby handed bastard, Stephanie... Didn't.

It'd be important to get there fast, Toni thought, firmly. Before anything happened. before Stephanie got lost again, doing something stupid and reckless. The last thing this stupid project of Fury's needed was someone stupid and reckless.

Had to be smaller, then, Toni could build one into her suit inside and hour, needed one smaller for Stephanie.

Soooo it'd be another sleepless night.

 

******

It shouldn't have been a real surprise.

Well, parts of it were a bit surprising.

Being the good son meant that Thor should, theoretically, be dragging his sibling back to the rock, or at least back to Odin.

Being the good brother meant that he'd listened to Toni's snarling about caves and torture and gone and talked to his brother (after first politely asking that she go back to being his brother), and pulled him into an embrace, then promised that he would not be the one to tell Odin.

Loki was good at hiding from prying eyes on high, after all. He kissed Thor's cheek and patted his shoulder and thanked him.

Then shrouded himself from prying eyes so well that Shields camera's usually only picked up the heat signature.

 

******

 

“Look, if you’re going to refuse the tech to fly your own ass around, you don’t get to expect me to catch you every time you do something stupid like that!” Toni was yelling and she knew she was yelling, but the suit wasn’t broadcasting it the way it sounded to her.

 

“It’s worked so far?” Captain Liberty had her helmet off. She still wore fabrics, for crying out loud. Okay, they were fire retardant kevlar weaves and they were over some of the best, lightest armor that Toni could produce, but that was still a fabric cowl draped from the back of her neck, and with her face exposed there was soot smeared like lipstick. “I knew you saw me go over.”

“No you didn’t! That bastard’s EMP shorted out my systems for a minute! I saw you go over through the eye slits, because of blind luck!”

“And you call me reckless?”

“What does that mean?”

“It means your suit was still booting up when you went over after me,” the Captain said, smiling wide and showing red tinged teeth. Red on her lips that wasn’t matte lipstick. “So thank you.”

Toni glared. “If one of us doesn’t come back, it can’t be you,” she said, instead. “I’d never hear the end of it, do you understand? So don’t do shit like that, Rogers.”

Stephanie leaned back, smoothing hair off her forehead. It stuck down with sweat and grease. “They’d be just as mad at me for losing you, Stark,” she said, finally. “How’s your head?”

“My head is very well protected. My neck is killing me,” Toni said. “And then there’s this huge pain in my ass but I think I’ll be free of that for a while when I’m off this damn plane. Which, thank you, is going to be now I’m flying myself home.”

“For Fuck’s sake Toni can you please let the Shield Medic’s check you over first?” Hawkeye asked, leaning sideways in the cockpit to turn and look at them.

“For Fuck’s sake, Barton, just open the hatch,” Toni said, standing up. “Send them over to check pupil dilation later. I want fresh air and now.”

She glared at Stephanie from the privacy of her helmet, and frowned.

Leaned forward and in. “There’s wear here,” she said, prodding where the kevlar looked thinner on her forearm. “From the shield straps. I’ll fix that tomorrow, bring everything over.”

“If you see the medic-”

“I’m not-”

“I mean, if you let the medic see you. In your house, alright? I’ll see you tomorrow, Toni. Fly safe.”

***********

 

Toni DID fix the friction issue, it only took two hours, after all

And then she found herself in the storage unit, digging through her father’s notes.

He’d taken a shit ton of them, They could rebuild everything but the formula for the Super Soldier Serum perfectly, it was just that damn other scientist that had taken shit notes.

She flipped through to the part where Stephanie first showed up.

-Steph Rogers, called ‘Bean’ by Corporal Barnes, has proven quite talented as an assistant in spite of her lack of formal scientific training. She will be wasted as a mere nurse, going to see if Carter can work something out.

Flipped a dozen more pages to,

'-She’s either brave or stupid but there’s too much brass coming tomorrow not to be sure. Talked to Erskine, he’s in agreement'.
Halfway down the page in a different colored ink was ‘Success’ underlines multiple times, and ‘Note: Body weight to serum ratio wrong, took twice as much. because female? Just enough for tomorrow’s ‘official’ test, will have to synthesis more after Corporal Barnes’ Conversion’

Then it was pages and pages of what a success it’d been, and Toni could, if she wanted to, cross reference it with his journal where he wrote out his frankly sexist thoughts about the morality of putting this burden on the weaker sex.

The only redeeming feature about those thoughts were that he didn’t believe them by the end of it.

Then Erskine had died, and there were notes about that, and how the formula may have died with him and it shifted to notes on armor and flight.

She didn’t go get the journals, but she knew what was in them. How did the last page go again?

I believe, if worded properly, she’ll consent to marry me. I have to believe this because i don’t want to live without her. That had been the entry a week before Captain Liberty had been lost to the world.

And the last page in that journal, which he’d left half blank, right UNDER the sketch of the ring he’d probably made himself... Stephanie Rogers is currently MIA.

Toni wondered if he’d ever managed to ask her. He was pretty.. Consistent with the journals, she felt like a ‘she said yes’ would have been in there.

She put the notes away. Got up.

Thought about the journals, again, it’d been a long, long time since she read them, but...

Decided not to. It’d been bad enough the first time, being thirteen and knowing that your existence hinged on someone else's death. If Stephanie Rogers hadn’t ‘died’ in the Forties, Toni was under no illusions that she’d even exist.

Well okay she might exist but she’d probably be taller. And blonde. And... Not Toni Stark, some other name. And she’d be older now, with sisters and brothers because it SOUNDED like Howard had wanted a covey or a litter.

She might not have been an only child.

Toni vered hard from melancholy lane. She was a fucking super genius and any tweaking to her genetics might endanger that, so fuck that, she was going to go... Design something. Water filtration, yes, good, there was always a need for clean water, she’d do that.
\
Something worthwhile.

***********

 

“Darcy....”

“Um, so I can explain,” Darcy said, both smiling and biting her lip.

“Can you? Can you really?” Toni said. “What is there to explain, exactly?”

“I.. Um... Tripped and fell on him.”

Toni tilted her head. “You fell on him... Against the side of my ratrod?”

“Yes. exactly. See, you just missed him but Dr. Doom showed up and.. um,”

Barton added something but considering his position it was a little muffled.

“Yes! What he said. Dr. Doom showed up and ruined gravity, so we fell sideways and... There. Umm...”

Toni pulled up a stool and sat down, arms crossed. “You started this magnificent bullshit parade, you get to finish it.”

“Then he threw scorpions at us and left,” Darcy said. “And, um, Barton’s hands had been... Hot glued to my ass so.... you know, if they sting you next to your heart it’s all over and he was helpfully using his teeth-”

“I’m a helpful person,” Barton added.

“You’re a helpful person with metal brads all over your belt, and you’re scratching the fuck out of my car,” Toni said. “You don’t get to talk right now, you just shut up and... Hey! That doesn’t mean go back to what you were doing!”

“I was enjoying what I was doing,” Barton muttered, lipping at Darcy’s neck. He looked a little drunk. They both did.

“This is why I don’t host parties,” Toni muttered. “Is that really the best story you could come up with? There are guest rooms upstairs! They are stocked for sex! Why are you down here?”

“Ah, well. Um...” Darcy grinned. “You’ve got the best toys?”

Toni accepted this to be true. “And... Why didn’t you lock the door?”

Barton’s grin was beyond shit eating. “We were going too? After Doom left, but, well, we didn’t want to lock anyone out.”

Toni blinked. “Who are you waiting for?” She demanded. “My workshop is not for orgies that I’ve not been invited to!”

“Well you’re not, not invited?” Darcy said and Barton snickered. “I mean technically, but three’s not an orgy right?”

Darcy shifted and Toni noticed that the woman’s panties were around one ankle.

Toni sighed. “You are hand buffing that car tomorrow, Barton or I will not build you that flying motorcycle. Who are you waiting for? You know what? Don’t tell me, I’ll watch the playback later.”

“Send us a copy?” Darcy yelled after her. “And where’s the camera? I want it to get my good side!”

She couldn’t quite hear the exact words but it sounded like Barton was telling her that, no, she couldn’t update her status.

Toni passed Banner on the stairs, looking flustered. She stopped him.

“Ah, yes?” he said, smiling nervously.

“If you Hulk out during sex I will absolutely throttle you,” she said, frowning. “All of my favorite cars are down there. Also Darcy.” She jabbed him in his chest. “No. Green. Cock.”

“Um, well—” he started.

She shook her head and took the stairs two at a time to get away, and headed to the roof with a bottle of tequila. “Computer, give me a head count on my garage?”

“Currently there are four people in your garage,” said the speaker on the wall. Of course she had her roof wired to be Computer’s extended eyes, thanks.

Toni paused. “Wait, four?”

“Barton, Lewis, Banner and Romanov.”

Toni hesitated, head turning a little. “Really? Natasha too? Damn I miss college.”

“I thought you were out of college by the time you were sixteen?” asked Steph from where she’d been fucking lurking-

No, Toni told herself. Not lurking. Probably sitting out here on the roof pining for the fjords, contemplating the awesome responsibility of being adored by millions.

“I was,” she said. “But I had fun while I was there,” she added. Shaking her head, getting her hair back out of her face. “And I never had to scuff up the paint job on a goddamn work of art to do it.”

“You’ve wrecked cars before.”

“They’re my cars, I’m allowed to wreck them, that’s the perk of ownership.”

“Can’t you just tell them to get out of your garage?”

Toni sighed. “Do I need to give you a sex talk? Anyway it’s rude to butt into a four way, particularly a four way that might include the Hulk if you annoy him.”

Stephanie’s mouth opened, then shut. “I.. Suppose that the adrenaline might trigger the change?”

Toni wondered if Darcy was betting FOR or AGAINST that.

“Anyway, I already got my official sex talk on all the wonderful deviancies of human sexuality,” Stephanie said.

“What luckless Shield agent drew that short straw?” Toni said, snorting and working the cork out of the bottle. Damn, she hadn’t grabbed a lime.

“Ah... Your father.”

Toni felt her mouth twist and had to force it into a smile that was probably as sweet as salt. “Oh, how lovely,” she took a long swallow.

Ugh, she hated the initial burn of tequila, but the flavor that kicked in after was just so damn good. Plus the warmth sinking and settling into her belly.

“Was that before or after he proposed?” she said, darkly. She regretted it, the moment she said it, because the light up here was good enough she could watch every single expression dance across Stephanie's face. Confusion, understanding. Pain, then...

“You think he was courting me?”

“Antonia Rogers Stark. It’s in my name, I’ve got his journals,” Toni said, making herself put a cork in the bottle if not the conversation. She forced levity into her voice, but had the feeling this was going to be about as graceful as a lead balloon. “I got really lucky when you got yourself frozen, even if you’d shot him down he’d probably have pined forever if you were anything but dead.”

Stephanie was silent.

Toni glowered. “Now, do you mind? I want to sit up here and start calling ex girlfriends.”

Stephanie’s mouth opened again. Shut. She wasn’t wearing the hard red she fought in, the only make-up she seemed to own, and it meant her lips were pinker, softer looking than normal.

Then she was walking away, and Toni was barking orders at Computer to pull up her ‘drunk and horny’ black book pages before declaring it a good night to go flying.

Granted, she had to use the lighter suit and she was drunk enough she just trusted auto pilot but there were a whole lot of ways to escape and being somewhere in the air, breaking altitude records that she’d never tell anyone about, was one of them.

*******

 

“I’m starting to wonder if I should have my father recreamated,” Toni said. “We scattered him into the goddamn ocean but there’s little caches of his ashes everywhere he felt had a part of his spirit, and there’s like half a gram of him in the workroom... Maybe I should gather up all the little bits of dear old dad and torch them again.” She put the glass down in front of Stephanie, who looked at her with a muddled, tired expression.

 

“Huh?”

“Since no one’s staying dead these days. Goddamn zombies, the lot of you, First you, the amazing human fish stick, and now Bucky Barnes himself. In the flesh. Mostly flesh. Bits of him looked shiny. My point is, Howard Stark is the logical next choice for resurrection,” Toni said, sitting. Wincing. “You know, I’ve gotten my ass kicked before but I’ve never actually had a bruise on it quite this bad.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s just tea,” Toni said. “I’m about to go yank on Thor’s hair till he brings back some of that mead, though, that seemed to actually affect you.”

“I... had never been that sick before,” Stephanie said. “I’d rather not.”

“Have you talked to him?”

She shook her head. “Not yet. Not since he... Surrendered.” She rubbed her neck, head down.

“Fuck.”

“Huh?”

“The word you’re looking for is fuck. It’s fucked up. He’s fucked up, and you’re going to be all fucked up too.”

“Ah,” Steph gave a faint smile. “Fuck. What should I do, Toni?”

“I don’t know, go talk to him?” Toni said. “He’s your partner, after all.”

“He was,” Stephanie said.

But he’d held a gun to her head not twelve hours ago, swearing in Russian, half mad, cornered. Dangerous cold war relic. The Winter Soldier. Around since the sixties, meta-human cold war relic and...

“Can’t believe no one ever realized it before,” Toni said. “But his face doesn't even look the same.”

“Fuck,” Stephanie repeated. “What a useful word.”

“So here’s what I’ve built for you, that I haven’t given you yet,” Toni said, leaning back on the uncomfortable hospital chair. You’d think Shield’s private little wing of healing would have a nicer waiting room but apparently it was bad luck for your loved ones to be comfortable. “It’s a beacon.”

“A beacon?”

 

"In case you get lost again. This one’ll only turn on if you turn it on, or if you don’t push the button once a week, so it’s only if you’re really screwed,” Toni said. “But it’ll broadcast on every frequency I could find. Nice and loud. The enemy’ll hear you too but it won’t matter cause I’ll get there first.” She held up her fist. “It’s about this big, but I’m making it smaller.”

Stephanie stared at her. “And... How long have you been working on it?”

“About three weeks,” Toni said. “Look, it was something to do and I don’t feel like dredging the whole damn Atlantic next time you take that right turn at Albuquerque.”

“Huh.” She had her chin in the palm of her hand. “Toni, may I touch you?”

“Strange question.”

“First time we met, you told me to ask permission.”

“That clause was waived after the third time you saved my life without asking.”

“You were in the suit then, I wasn’t really touching you,” Stephanie said.

“Fine, whatever. You want to hug it out? I’m a shitty shoulder to cry on. You should talk to Darcy or maybe Coulson, I bet he’s a hugger deep down inside and--”

And Toni trailed off because Stephanie's eyes were filling up the whole universe, and the hand on her neck was big and warm. Forehead to forehead, turning in her seat.

“Hi there,” Toni said, because her mouth could still move, even if everything else had seized up, had frozen in place, and she could... not... Move her body for the life of her.

“I’m not any good at flirting,” Stephanie said. “I try, but I usually just come across as polite. But I’m better at it than you.”

“You’ve never seen me flirt,” Toni said.

“It’s like the Stark family mating dance is to keep people at arm's lengths and throw gifts at them with backhanded compliments,” Stephanie said. “I... I want to kiss you, but I won’t right now because you look sort of stunned. I guess your father forgot to mention a few things?” Her thumb moved, stroked the fine hairs at the nape of Toni’s neck and triggered a wave of gooseflesh.”I’m going to go find Coulson, and get him to let
me in to see Bucky, but... After. We’re having a talk, alright? It might not be tomorrow, or the day after, but I’m planning on courting you.”

And Toni believed it, because the woman’s jaw was set, and even with a bruise on one cheek, even fight filthy and exhausted, she didn’t sound like she was stating a possibility: she sounded like she was reading the future, having a Delphi moment.

“I...” Toni managed, but that was all because Stephanie was standing back up, and limping down the hall.

*******

 

Stephanie was by his bed when he came to.

She hadn’t changed out of the red white and blue uniform she’d inherited from him, she didn’t know if that would help him recognize her or make it worse.

He looked... Like hell. Like a memory gone wrong.

She probably didn’t look better, but that...

“Hey, Bucky,” she said, when his eyes started to focus. “Welcome home.”

“Though you were dead, Bean.”

“Yeah. Well. It didn’t take. You died too.”

“Head hurts.”

“Toni may have hit you really hard in the head to break the control device in your skull. Ah, yeah, no, don’t try to... I’ll show you the x-rays.”

Bucky’s eyes were clouded and he looked feverish. “Did I hurt you, Bean?”

“Could have done that all day.”

“Liar.”

Stephanie pulled up a chair and took his hand. “Next time you decide to fall to your death, then not die, tell me,” she said, softly.

“I’ll try,” he said, and shut his eyes.

*********

 

There was a thudding noise.

Then footsteps.

The rustling of paper.

Then a thud, again, and pacing.

Darcy leaned on the wall next to Sol. “Soooo?”

“Dammed if I know. She’s not drinking, so it must not be good news; she’s not working, so it must not be bad news?” Sol shook his head. “Every now and then she screams?”

Darcy opened the door.

And nearly got hit by a flying book.

She shut it.

“She says go away,” she said. “C’mon, let’s go get cocktails,” she added, scooping the book up on the way out the door.

“You can’t take that!” Sol hissed.

“Sure I can,” she said. “She’s throwing a bunch of them around, was cursing and picking up another one, and she’s got headphones in. We’ve got at least an hour.”

********

 

Mercutio.

That was what Toni kept coming back too.

Mercutio, and subtext and...

When she was ten, she’d read Romeo and Juliet with a tutor because she’d been too much for any teacher to handle in a regular classroom setting, and she thought it was...

Well, she’d been indifferent. And then... Some time later, she’d lost her virginity by then, and all the various SHADES of virginity you could have, and been dating an English lit major named... Something... What’s-her-face. And What’s-her-face had insisted they go to some huge, garish pride parade and there’d been an all-male performance of Romeo and Juliet, and without changing a single WORD of it...

Mercutio had transformed from jovial friend into tragic, passionate creature consumed and defined by unrequited love for his best friend, who was himself too distracted with Juliet to notice what he had right in front of him.

And it’d been a sort of revelation, seeing it like that, the subtext brought to the forefront.

It was not as staggering a revelation as reading her father's journals again, twenty years later. How the HELL had stupid little thirteen year old Antonia MISSED this?

It wasn’t just Stephanie he didn’t stop mentioning, it was Peggy Carter, too and they were ALWAYS mentioned within sentences of each other and.. And.. Oh GOD he compared her to Sapphos and her past, young, stupid self needed a kick in the ass for not picking up on anything.

‘A bond beyond sisters’ IN-fuckign-DEED.

She had to reread the last journal twice, staring at the ring he’d sketched out. “God dammit,” she muttered.

When she’d been young, and stupid she’d been hit too hard by the knowledge that her mother had been the runner up, second choice, the safety school, that she hadn’t really looked AT it. She was looking at it now, though. ‘P. sapphire’ what.. pink? No, what was the gay color in the forties before the queers stole the rainbow? Lilac? “Dammit dad,” she said, putting her face in her hands. Sweaty palm and artificially warmed silicone
against her forehead. “If you were not already dead I would fucking kill you.” She said.

Then groaned. Oh, GOD the first thing she’d done when she’d met Steph was yank her shirt open and put her rack on display. Oh GOD, Steph hadn’t been looking at or for the glow of the arc reactor at ALL.

“Oh god,” Toni whimpered. She usually had such good gaydar! Well, shit, good enough to tell when her tits were being stared at by someone of moderate-to-high attractiveness, but she’d been...

Distracted by her dad’s ex coming back from the dead, only apparently her father was Mercutio in this fucked up story.

Then she’d put herself into that skin tight undersuit and spent half the night in that, and the other half wearing nothing but a black t-shirt from the waist up, no bra, sheer fabric... Goddamit!

She stared at the ornate ring, with its central diamond and its flanking, apparently purple gems.

Then threw the book.

Then went and picked it up and went back to the chair.

Then closed it in her lap and screamed again, kicking the coffee table.

“Computer!”

“Yes, Miss Stark?”

“Look up what lesbian courtship entailed in the 1940’s!” Toni said. “And... And book me a flight to... somewhere with a beach and good weather right now, and... And hold all my calls, and.. And... And book a flight for Darcy too, she’d good at keeping my glass very full.”

“Yes, Miss Stark.”

“And don’t tell Sol where I’m going!”

“Of course.”

“Or Rhodey!”

“Of course.”

“Or Coulson!”

“Yes.”

“In fact, don’t tell me, just... you know what? Program it into the suit, I’ll take it on auto pilot,” Toni said. “I’ll take the exo suit and the fast one and I’ll just sleep on the way. Get Darcy a ticket anyway, tell her to pack my bags for me.”

“Flight for Ms. Lewis is arranged,” Computer said calmly. “Destination programed into your suits, hotel has been notified, your suite will be clean upon arrival. Ms. Lewis will be in the adjoining room, she has been notified and inquires if she is allowed to bring company.”

“Book her room for two weeks, and take care of the travel plans of whoever she wants to fly down, but I don’t want them getting there for at least four days,” Toni said.

*********

 

“Darcy, why do you have this?” Clint said, brow furrowing. “Why do you have a journal?”

“Shut up and help me pack, I’m going to get some sun.”

“You’re pasty, you’re gonna burn,” he said. “I might enjoy rubbing in the aloe vera, but you’re just gonna be in pain.”

“Will you and Tasha have sex where I can watch?”

“I doubt we’ll all be able go, but if she goes with me, yeah, course and— Is this Howard Stark’s? Did you steal this?” Barton yelped. Dropped it. “I’ve never seen it or you before in my life. Where did you get it?”

“She’s been reading them all night and yelling,” Darcy said. “I had to know!”

“Return it!”

“I will... When I get to...” She looked at her phone. “Bora Bora. Sweeeeeet.”

“You are going to be such a sexy shade of blister,” Barton said, shaking his head.

“Oh, shut up, I’ll buy sunblock when I get there,” Darcy said, waving dismissively at him.

He caught her hand and wrote ‘SPF 50’ in nice big red letters. “You’re going to shuck your skin like a snake,” he said. “Oh well, Toni can fill you in on the shit that went down today with Stephanie anyway.”

“Oh, shit went down?” She looked at the clock, and kissed him. “I’ll call you when I land, and you can tell me about the shit, and I’ll tell you about this .”

“That’ll have to do,” he said, taking one of the over-stuffed suitcases. “I’ll help you load the cab.”

 

***********

 

 

Toni had calmed down by the time she got there, which was good because Darcy handed back the journal with a grin best described as shit-eating.

Toni glowered at her.

“Well?” Darcy said. “What about this has your hiding in Bora Bora?”

“... Do you want to go get us our drinks or not?”

“I need a new swimsuit, too.”

“I leave the shopping to you. Not shopping is genuinely why I have people like you, Darcy,” Toni said.

“Red and gold bikini it is?”

“Boy shorts, black, don't even,” Toni said.

“Can’t we just find a nude beach?” Darcy said.

“No,” Toni said. “And I don’t want to get tan. Everytime my skin tone changes I have to get a new silicon sleeve for my arm.”

“Yeah. Is that a different arm?”

“What?” Toni blinked, then nodded. Most people didn’t notice, but this was a slightly different hand design. Thinner pseudo flesh over thicker metallic phalanges..

“The vacation arm?”

Toni nodded again. Yes, actually. And the jill-off arm because thicker fingers could hold tiny motors that hummed very, very quietly. “Go forth and spend, my little minion, and maybe if you get me drunk enough I’ll explain why we’re here in secret.”

Darcy nodded.

Toni watched her walk away and relaxed a little. Darcy might pester as to the why, but Darcy wouldn’t try to drag her home early. Hell, maybe she could be bribed into dealing with Sol, since the man would be annoyed and concerned and...

No, Darcy had probably been the right call.

Probably.

Well, it was a decision Toni’d defend, at least.

Anyway, no one’d need her for a few weeks anyway. Not that she’d be gone that long but, everyone’d be busy and isn’t that why they had Rhody? So that War Machine could go and enjoy the hero game while Toni metaphorically painted her toenails.

She bought a pair of sunglasses herself, though.

********

 

Two days later and Toni was boooored. There was a reason she didn’t take vacations: she just ended up really extra drunk and recording memos to herself about how she reaaally needed to stop trying to take vacations.

She decided to cook out here on the boringly pristine beach for another few hours until she was tired enough to sleep in the suit for the ride home. Darcy could have the rest of the week to herself and whoever else she felt like inviting.

Toni had laid on a thick spray coat of sunblock and was imitating a roadkill lizard when someone’s shadow fell over her.

She made a displeased down and didn’t bother to open her eyes. “You are blocking my sun.”

“Good,” Stephanie said, and there was a crunch as a large umbrella was stabbed into the sand.

Toni knew what that sound was because her eyes had flown open.

Tennis shoes, jeans. At least Darcy hadn’t purchased Stephanie a swimsuit while she sold Toni on out.

“Darcy’s fired.”

“She didn’t tell me, Clint did,” Steph said. “Can I sit?”

“He’s fired too,” Toni said. “It’s not like I can stop you.” She turned her head enough to look up as the woman sat down. “I needed space.”

“I’m just glad you didn’t go to actual space,” Steph said. “It was hard enough getting here, really.”

“I thought you needed space, too,” Toni said, getting up on her elbows but not rolling over yet. Now that she was, you know, paying attention, she could watch those bright blue eyes flick over the line of her back, and Toni felt a lot less dressed than she normally did in a swimsuit. “Shouldn’t you be at Bucky’s side?”

“I’m not here long,” Steph said. “I’m flying back in an hour, or so. That wasn’t the point.”

“And the point was?”

“I wanted you to know that I’d follow you.”

Toni put her face back into the towel, and groaned. “That was terrible. Terrible courting. Go back and try again.”

“Oh, shut up, I’ll work out how to say it in a minute,” Steph said, laughing. “And I’m still better at courtship than you.”

“No, no you aren’t, because I wasn’t courting you!”

“No?”

“No!”

“So you treat me exactly the same way you treat Natasha then? Clint? Darcy?”

“I didn’t say that. What the hell made you decide to throw that at me then?”

“What made you decide to tell me about the beacon then?”

“You had that... Like you were thinking it would have been better if you’d died instead of Bucky and were the one who knew Russian now.”

“Mm. Close but not exactly. Anyway, the why doesn't matter, I’m courting you now. At least I’m going to try.”

“Do I get a say in this?”

“Yes and no? I’m going to keep trying even if you shoot me down. I like you. I’m pretty certain you like me.”

Toni could feel the spot between her eyebrows scrunching up, and she wasn’t going to answer that. She was not eleven, this was not a passed note with ‘check yes or no’ on it.

When she looked over again, Stephanie was on her back, stretched out, hands behind her head in the sand. Gritty messy, she thought. “You’re certainly not invited on my towel covered with sand,” she said, curling to her side, back to the other woman.

“Well you’re not supposed to share towels on the first date, are you?”

“This isn’t a date this is a... parlay, at best. A negotiation.”

“It’s a really pretty day.”

“Did I already mention how fired Darcy is?”

“I’d have found you eventually,” Stephanie said. “You’ve got a bunch of fan sites that talk about spotting the suits and someone took a picture of you in the bar last night.”

“Stalker.”

“You were the one that told me if I went outside it was my own fault for ending up on a magazine cover,” she said. “Though Darcy did tell me what beach to find you on. Look, if you fire her I think Coulson’ll hire her so it’s not that serious a threat. Can I touch you?”

“Did we already have this talk?” Toni said.

“You might have changed your mind.”

“You have permission to touch currently visible skin,” Toni said, and even on her side she shifted to square up her shoulders.

“Uhn... You.. have a lot of currently visible skin,” Stephanie said, her voice vaguely strangled, but then she was sitting up and brushing the fine white sand off her hands.

“Aren’t you glad I didn’t go to Aspen?” Toni said, arms crossing. Then she was shutting up again because there was a warm calloused hand settling over her fingers.

“Can you roll over and look at me, please, Toni?”

Her goal had been to make it sexy, or at least sensual but she knew it was more of a flop. Less mermaid, more trout. She frowned up, past blue eyes and blonde hair and tiny freckles to orange and purple canvas. “That’s a hideous umbrella. I don’t know if I want to be wooed under anything that tacky.”

“Design a better one then.”

“I might,” Toni said, ignoring as best she could the way fingers were entwining with hers. “An official Stark Industries wooing umbrella. Might be a big seller. You can do better.”

“I could have done better, but it would have taken too long.”

“I mean me.” Toni said, speaking slowly in case this boosted comprehension.

“Oh,” she thought about that. “I really think you’re wrong there, then.”

“Then you’re an idiot.”

“I’m really not,” Stephanie said. She pulled Toni’s hand up and kissed the knuckles. “But you know that. Don’t get too sunburned, alright?”

“You’re leaving?” Toni said.

“Bucky needs me. I think... You might need me, too, but the difference is that you can go back to New York, and he can’t come here,” Stephanie said. “Also, you need to stop sulking in Bora Bora.” She let go of Toni’s hand. “I need you there, not here.”

“Most courtships don’t include a veiled ‘grow up’ in them,” Toni said, hand dropping to drum on her belly.

“If this was most courtships you’d be bored by now. You’re too smart for anything too easy,” she added. “So get off your ass, and go home, Toni.”

Toni stared at her. Then shook her head. “You look tired,” she said, finally. “Go home and get some sleep, I’ll be there in the morning we’ll... Talk, okay?” That was reasonable, right? Sure it was.

Except Stephanie was shaking her head. “Not good enough, Toni. Tonight,” she said. “Or I rescind the offer.”

Toni’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“You’re the sort to walk away, not the sort to let anyone else do it to you,” Stephanie said, standing up, and taking the umbrella. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

Toni stared at the amazon of a woman’s haunches as she left for a good thirty seconds before she found her voice.“Our first date is going to be our first fight!” She bellowed.

Stephanie didn’t turn around, but a thumbs up fist stuck out from behind the garish circle for a moment.

Toni glowered and got up, abandoning the towel and shaking the sarong out once before tying it around her waist and... Shit. Going back to her room to throw things into bags for Darcy to haul home for her.

Then finding out who’d give Stephanie the big book of Antonia Cheat Codes and smothering them in their sleep with rocks.

 

********

 

“Ahha, Don’t yell at me, it makes my skin hurt,” Darcy said, hands up.

It would have be a placating position if she didn’t have her hands up because she’d somehow sunburned her armpits. She was wearing a dark blue, shapeless, wet swimsuit cover up and nothing else, because she’d found the nude beaches and hadn’t waited ten minutes after applying sunscreen to take a swim.

She looked like a tragically parboiled tomato. With blush on.

Toni wasn’t generally sympathetic, but... “What did you do, fall asleep in the downward dog position?”

“Might as well have. Did you know the parts of your butt that touch themselves can get sunburned?”

Toni sighed. “Go get in the tub, lukewarm water. Float there for a while and start drinking just before you get out,” she suggested. “You’re fired.”

“That’s not much of a thank you,” Darcy said.

“I told you not to tell anyone where I was going!”

“I only told Banner about the travel arrangements because I had to cancel a date. She was just going from hotel to hotel when she spotted me heading back in, alright?” Darcy said, still holding herself in what looked like an aborted jumping jack position. “I figured the faster she found you the fewer camera phone videos there’d be of your beachfront make-out or whatever happened.”

“There was no beachfront make-out.”

“Should have been,” Darcy exhaled, then stepped into the tub clothes and all, used her feet to kick the taps on. “Oh, the cold feels good.”

“You’re going to catch hypothermia and die. You're going to deserve it.”

“I didn’t think you caught hypothermia so much as.. Entered the state of being hypothermic?”

“Don’t argue physics with me,” Toni snapped.

“Wanna talk about it?”

Toni frowned and started to pack her own bags. Glared at the dark shape in the corner of the room. “You’re using my suit as a drying rack for your bras?”

“Maaaybe?”

Toni called room-service and asked for a dozen bottles of aloe vera.

Then went and stared at her soggy assistant. “Did you expect beachfront make-outs? Why?”

“I have eyes,” Darcy said. “She’s over all the time. It’s not because she can’t make more friends, I mean she’s about the friendliest person ever, and she’s choosing to spend time with you. Duh.”

“How about when you’re trash-talking the boss’s social skills you leave out the ‘duh’ at the end.”

“You fired me.”

“Haven’t filed the paperwork yet,” Toni said. Turned the hot water up a little. “You parboiled twit. It’s SPF eighty. You only had to wait five minutes.”

“The water was sooo pretty. Also I had breakfast with you. In a bar. Don’t let me do that.”

“Your liver is your responsibility,” Toni said. “Going home now.”

***********

 

“I stand by the decision, sir,” Coulson said. “Stark has doubled her output of useful designs, she’s been much more civil towards Sheild in general, and hadn’t thrown her glass at the screen in four months.”

“Because she put a delay on the feed and it switches to Duck Soup for certain keywords,” Fury said. “That’s what you told me.”

“I may be listing things that were not caused by introducing them, but it’s still stabilizing.”

“A stable Stark is one thing, an unstable Stephanie Rogers is something else,” Fury said.

Coulson smiled. “Still standing by it, sir.”

“And you think it’s a display of stability that she left the bedside of her grievously wounded partner to go retrieve Stark, who was taking what I felt was a well-timed bender in the Bahama’s?”

“South Pacific, actually. Also, we can’t figure out the tech that they put into Barnes, sir. Banner can just about work out the genetic augmentation, but the devices in Barnes’ spine need a different type of expert, and ours was on a bender in Bora Bora.”

Fury snorted and stared out the window. “How much of it was conditioning, and how much was the implants we’ve already pulled out?”

“We don’t know yet, sir,” Coulson said. “We don’t know if he’ll ever be cleared for any sort of sensitive data, or even able to live a civilian life without constant supervision.”

“Has that been explained to Rogers?”

“I will explain it personally when she returns,” Coulson said. “But right now, Stark is beating her back by a good two hours.”

“Go brace for impact then,” Fury said.

***

 

Stephanie hadn’t know if that... Stunt would work. She really hadn’t. Walking away on the beach looking far more confident than she felt hadn’t actually been easy at all, since she was already regretting saying anything in the first place but... Well.

Shoot. She’d been tired and aching and numb from the revelations of the day, and then Toni had just casually tossed out another upgrade of a gift that might as well have said ‘I care about your safety’ on the side in phosphorus, and Stephanie had opened her mouth.

Loose lips sank ships.

“You really don’t have to worry,” Coulson said, walking with her down the long linoleum-lined passage to the high-security recovery wing. “Whatever you told her worked, she’s actually examining the x-rays now, and once you’ve talked to Barnes she can start asking about the actual—”

“Goddamit, if you don’t get back on that table and lie still so help me god I will end you!” roared a voice from down the hallway. “Then I stall study the remains at my fucking leisure!”

Stephanie blinked and started to run, because the Iron suits had a very distinctive sound to the amps, and they projected a long way away. Helped a lot in a fight, directing civilians.

“Now stay STILL!”

The door was locked, but she could get into the viewing room to grab someone that could open the door and...

And Toni was fully suited up, had Bucky in a head lock, left hand replaced with something that had a lot of sharp bits on it. Bucky was fighting back in spite of the fact his legs were hanging limply.

“Stay the hell still!” The volume made the glass vibrate in place.

And then she was standing back, examining something that she’d apparently just yanked out of his skull while he staggered back and forth.

She put out her other hand and gave him a shove and he fell onto his bed. “Twitching stopped?” she was asking distractedly.

Stephanie hit the glass, but it was double insulated. Coulson was catching up in the hall, she grabbed his arm and dragged him to the big, steel door. “Open it!”

“I... Yes?” Barnes was saying, and he sounded shaky.

“Good,” Toni said.

The door slid open and Steph walked in and...

Just waited.

Toni barely looked over, but that was probably just the helmet. Worse than sunglasses, Steph thought. No cues at all. “Coulson, your doctors are idiots.”

“They thought that one regulated breathing,” Coulson said. “At least, I think that’s what you pulled out.”

Toni snorted and tossed it to him. “Give it to someone that knows their way around a brain, and get me those scan files. This is absurd. I take two lousy days off! Two!”

And then she was walking past Stephanie, armored boots clanging. “Get it through the moron’s poorly augmented head that the best way for him to upgrade from radio controlled jackass to self-controlled jackass is to do as I say the first time, golden girl.”

Stephanie watched her leave, then turned her head back to Bucky.

“She seems nice,” he wheezed, then laughed.

“She’ll grow on you,” Stephanie agreed, breathing out and picking the chair back up from the floor.

*******

 

“I’m thinking maybe a case of vodka,” Toni said.

“Oh, two cases, c’mon.”

“Maybe one, and a half,” Toni said, shaking her head. “But whatever they gave those cut rate german scientists was too much, did they install this shit with a dirty spoon and a pewter fork or what? There is encapsulated rust in here. It’s goddamn gross.”

“You’re not even a medical doctor, stop poking around in my spine,” Barnes said.

“I’m not poking anything, the medical doctor’s the one moving the camera around in there, you whiny baby,” Toni said. “I don’t even like squishy parts.” She’d just had to get better at them when she’d built a better prosthesis.

Still, he’d better hope the thing was just impairing his nerves ability to send signals as opposed to severing them, because while she could probably jury rig something to make him walk... Well.

She’d done her best for her own hand, and was always tweaking it, but she’d never recommend it over her right hand.

Toni sighed. “If you give me an hour with him opened up, I can get the parts off,” she said, finally. “And I can have some coral carved up to replace the bone that we know is missing but we might have to wing more on the fly.”

“You make it sound like you’re carving a turkey,” he said. “Think I’ll had feeling in my legs again?”

“I’m going to be looking at your unprotected spinal nerve, and I’m not a medical doctor. You’ll probably be lucky to wake up at all but at least with me you get hope,” Toni said. “Seriously, they must have scraped the bottom of the barrel when they found the guy to stick this in you.”

“Hell of a bedside manner there,” he said.

“Unlike our other living relic you’ve actually seen the last twenty years. Have I ever, ever done anything in the news that indicated it sugar coated things?”

“I actually remember seeing your interview with Diane Walter,” Bucky said. “But it was.. Filtered with the evils of capitalism.”

“I deserved it because I’m rich?” Toni considered. “That’s actually better than some of the other reasons I’ve been told I deserved it. Certainly it could be argued that it happened because I was rich, and because I had rich enemies.”

“I liked the part where you put your fist through the wall.”

“It was truly the highlight of my public meltdowns,” Toni agreed brittly. “Then I told her if she treated me like a victim I’d feed her her teeth. Yes.”

“That was edited out of the interview.”

“I think,” Toni said, switching gears. “That at least half of your current inability to move your legs are these parts here. It looks like you’re supposed to, well, self destruct if you’re too badly compromised which is such a dick move. Right?”

The medical doctor blinked, because other than Toni’s barked ‘well, fire up the show already’ half an hour ago no one had talked to him and he’d honestly been thinking about what was on tv. But he WAS a good doctor. “Huh? Ah, well, we can’t see if there’s damage with everything in the way. You might have nerve pinching and all sorts of other damage causing the same signal disruption? Spines are tricky things.”

“Hey, you got a lot of mileage out of something that looked like a snake someone whacked on the rocks several dozen times,” Toni said. “I can get all the metal out of you,, or most of it, I can get out the twitchy tech parts, and I can probably, in a month, get you replacement parts that’ll do some of the same things that these things do but minus the whole kill for Mother Russia angle.” She leaned her head to one side. “Eh. We’ll
know more when we know more.”

“Do you want to just go ahead and add ‘it’s not my spine’ to the end of that?”

“I felt it was implied,” Toni said, with a shrug. “Don’t look so dour if your legs are a wash I’ll work out some way for you to be more or less mobile.”

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

 

“Toni, you haven’t slept since you go back,” Sol was saying. “Please get some rest before you terrorize the board again? And put that thing away it’s gross.”

“It is not gross, it is beautiful,” Toni said, prodding what looked like half a spinal column. “it’s like if monkeys accidently threw enough poop to make an adobe house. With a fire place. They had to have been winging half of this the tech wasn’t there. Or it was and those cold war bastards set it on fire.”

“I thought you were fairly disparaging of it?”

“I was! It’s not the best materials for the job, whoever put it in wasn’t medical at all, it’s amazing that the poor bastards didn’t swell up with pus and suffocate from a collapsed lung but... This part right here? fantastic. Stealing it. All this is mine now.”

“You sound about to break into song.”

“There’s not good songs about reaping the spoils of battles won, or how pleased I am to have this shiny new toy. There should be though. Make a note that I will fund the next broadway play that includes a song suitable for this situation, even if it’s the villain song.”

“I will not make a note like that,” Sol said. “Since funded that porn companies parody of you, you gave me permission to veto your attempts at culturally enriching the world.”

“It’s broadway! It’s automatically enriching!” Toni said, tapping something.

A glowing version of the spine hung in the air and she swatted at it, blew it up and rotated it. “Oh, you pretty pretty thing, you are such a pretty thing, Spiney,” she cooed. “Mr. Shaker, go and line up some espresso shots. Then drink them yourself it’s going to be a long night.”

“You can not name it Spiney!” Sol said over a shoulder.

“You have ten minutes to think of something better!”

Sol made it back in nine minutes. “The three S.”

“Huh?” Toni looked up, pushing the welding goggles back on her head. “Like... Sssss?”

“No not a hiss. The S three, or the three S. Stark Spinal Support. Three S’s.”

“Tssss,” Toni said, under her breath. “Fine. I’ll have my half of the patent paperwork ready in an hour. Give or take. And it’s not just support, you know.”

“And the Iron suits have less than five percent iron in them, what’s your point?”

“Touche...” Toni said, then, under her breath again. “Tsssppiiiney.”

“I’ll just do a search and replace on the paperwork then,” Sol said, shaking his head.

“Don’t we make a lot of things that are just multiple letters? I don’t want people thinking I’m predictable,” Toni said.

Sol didn’t answer.

“I heard that.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinking ‘I wish’ really loudly,” Toni said, and this time she did hear the sigh but it was faint and fading.

Toni went back to work, gleefully. They had gone with a sort of, hard plastic protector in Bucky’s back just to protect things, see if he had feeling. Either way, she got to redesign the lumbar devices he’d already had, if she could fix them in time. so there were reasons for the rush beyond.. new toy.

She was just finishing the preliminary ‘what it is, what it does’ to send to Sol when the workroom door opened. “Brilliant timing, sending you the paperwork now, you can sit there and insult my descriptions while I ignore you and-”

“Sol let me in,” Stephanie said. “Bucky’s sleeping but he’s stable now. Thank you.”

“All I did was yank off all the after-market crap,” Toni said, awkwardly.

“Do you always skip sleep when you’re avoiding someone? Sol asked me to get you to rest.”

“No, when I’m avoiding someone I avoid them,” Toni said. “This bout of mania is brought to you by the letter O, for obsession and the number twenty, as in, twenty of his vertebrae have been rebuilt. Also he’s in a clean room now but the longer we leave him ready for more surgery, the greater the risk of infection, and infection is a bitch."

"Is that what they put into him?"

Toni nodded.

"Sol said you were excited."

"Flowers grow in shit. I don't have to like the shit to like the flowers, alright? It's nice work, I'm hoing to do better. I'm going to make him better," she paused, then added. "At least from an engineering standpoint. He's probably kinda fucked in the head, and aside from the sort of obvious, he'll feel better if he can walk and feed himself and isn't helpless or treated like he's helpless, that's someone else's problem. Shields. Hey, maybe
he'll beat my record for 'most shrinks burned through in a three month period'," she turned back to the glowing, floating construct. "Are you going to try to make me go to bed, now?"

"No. I rather watch you work."

Toni smiled, pausing the rotation of the third cervical vertebrae. "Flatterer."

"I am going to go get you something to eat though," Stephanie said.

"Is that part of the courtship?"

"I wouldn't normally dream of trying to court you while you're working," Stephanie said. "But since you seem to always be working, I might have to try."

Toni felt her cheek turn red, but didn't turn around or stop pulling the model apart with careful prods and gestures, looking at the circuitry inside.

She had a l'esprit de l'escalier moment when she heard the door closing. Dammit. The right thing to say would have been 'You'd have to be dreaming too distract me from this', but she couldn't very well shout that and come across as off the cuff. Dammit.

She set her jaw and started redesigning the human spine.

*********

 

 

Stephanie brought her a milkshake, had the difference between a milkshake and a smoothie explained, and then watched Toni proceed to forget to do anything but breathe and work for twenty more hours.

It wasn't a silent twenty hours. She didn't forget her tools were there, and she yelled at Dumm-e and Oy to bring her things, then got annoyed and got them herself. She argued with Computer about tensile strength, called up experts and yelled at them for data....

Then Toni was finally sitting and waiting for the machining process to finish so she could acid dip them, test them, Run one more simulation.

"Now would be a good time for a nap."

"And miss seeing them when they're finished?" Toni said. "No, not a chance. Anyway some of the micro circuitry need one last going over and then..." she yawned. "You had to say nap, didn't you? Look, if I get.... I need to finish this, I can hand it off to a real doctor for insertion, alright. It'll be an absurdly long procedure which will have him flat on his back for weeks, and it'll all be, squishy parts and medical jibberish and I can
take a rest and finish off a car. Don't you need to go sleep?"

"I took a three hour nap. I woke up with a blanket around my shoulders."

"Oh. yeah. Oy did that. Good job Oy, you may live another day," Toni said. "Still, don't you need more than three hours?"

"Yeah, three's not a lot but I'm three hours ahead of you, right now."

Toni nodded. "Point taken."

Stephanie picked the blanket up and flicked it out, around Toni's shoulders. "So you're refusing to sleep?" she settled her hands on Toni's shoulders, facing her. "How long until the machines are done?"

"I... Ah, maybe... Computer?"

"Thirty-eight minutes."

"What it said," Toni said. "So whatever you've got planned with my time you'd better get on with. If it speed thing along you've got blanket permission for the next hour."

"Is that permission to touch you through the blanket, on the blanket, or do you mean you'd like me to shut up and kiss you now?" Stephanie said, smiling. Leaning in. "Because I want to be very certain."

Toni glared up at her. "Listen here, Golden girl I refuse to believe you need it spelled out for you, and if you're going to pretend to be that thick I'm not putting up with it," she said, pointing a finger up at the ceiling then prodding Stephanie in the chest. "You are burning daylight."

It wasn't a very dignified sound, Stephanie knew. More of a snort than a laugh, but she wrapped her arms around Toni and lifted her up in a tight hug. "You're a mess," she managed, turning her head and finding an ear to kiss, which was probably a terrible place for a first kiss but seemed to fit the moment. "You're an utter mess, can't you just let me kiss you in a proper romantic fashion?"

"If you want that, go somewhere else," Toni said, but there wasn't much bite in it. "I don't swoon, I hate roses and romance happens to other people." But her arm was squirming, squirming up and hooking Stephanie's neck instead of pushing away. And she was leaning her head away, but otherwise pressing closer, and that just made it easier to lip at her ear. Stephanie bit her earlobe very gently. "Ahh, still not swooning," she said,
and not her other arm was around Stephanies waist and squeezing and Stephanie could feel something like a tremble. "But don't stop either, okay?"

And there was an almost pleading note in her voice there that hit Stephanie like a brick to the head.

Made her breathe in, arms tighten, taking Toni's feet of the ground.

And then Stephanie walking her to the nearest tabletop, because she was beautiful, and short and needed to be standing on a box or something. "How about you design yourself some platforms? Or do you want me to sweep you off your feet every time?"

"It's not like your arms will get tired," Toni said, shifting on the table top, blanket falling off her shoulders. Creating space between them but Stephanie just leaned her head in, lips against Toni's cheek.

"Did I already tell you, how much I like these modern fashions?" Stephanie asked, hands smoothing down Toni's back, over the slick grey fabric.

"This isn't fashion, this is utility," Toni said, turning her head.

She tasted a little bit like vanilla, Stephanie thought. Like melted vanilla milkshake and exhaustion, like fresh water after a mountain of salt. She felt warm and ...

Tongue on her lower lip had Stephanie opening her mouth, letting Toni take control.

Hell, take control of the kiss. Stephanie's hands were flattening, squeezing. Feeling the play of muscles and skin under the sleek grey. Gripping greedily and feeling Toni arch and react honestly.

Stephanie's fingertips searched for a zipper or a seam or any way to feel skin against her palms but the grey suit was both the most and least modest thing Stephanie had ever seen in person. Next to toe, covered, and nothing actually hidden, not really. "This," she managed, against those greedy lips. "This.. Thing.. you are wearing.. It's like you're under glass."

Now it was Toni's turn to give a slightly strangled laugh. "You can't squeeze someone's ass through glass," she said, nipping at Stephanie's lower lip, then hesitating. "Do you like that?"

"Do it again, I'll decide?" Stephanie then chuckled. "It's better than glass but not by much. probably for the best, you've got, what, thirty minutes before duty calls again?"

"You would be amazed at what I can get done in thirty minutes," Toni said, and she was tipping her chin up, the way she always did when she felt she was being challenged. Strong, digging her heels in and ready for a fight.

Stephanie touched her cheek, brushed her hair back, behind one ear, thumbing the shell. "I'm gonna be around a lot longer than thirty minutes," she said, and she meant it lightly.

"Tch," Toni made a sound, almost dismissive, and looked away. But she turned into Stephanie's hand, and then she was leaning forward, head to Stephanie's shoulder. Fingers threading into short and curly blonde hair. "You'd better."

Possessive, Stephanie thought. In every way but verbal. She tucked her own head down and kissed behind Toni's ear. "Let's just run out the clock like this then," she said.

Toni was silent a moment, then moved a little, just enough that she could hook her ankle to the back of Stephanie’s thigh. “Alright,” she said, and her heel was rubbing behind Stephanie’s knee. Matching the way her thumb was rubbing behind Stephanie’s ear. “You can deliver the spine, when it’s ready,” she went on. “I promise I’ll get sleep but you’ll want to tell him about the procedure and,” she shifted her head. Almost a nuzzle.
“And you can make sure it all goes smoothly, and I’ll be here waiting for the report. I want to know how it goes.”

“I can do that,” Stephanie said. Rubbing down Toni’s spine again. Then up to cup the back of her head. Toni’s hair was fine, slippery. Tilting her head back.

Toni was watching her, and Stephanie wondered what she was seeing. Judging by the grove between her eyebrows and the tension at the sides of her mouth, something frightening. Stephanie smiled for her, and leaned in. Didn’t give Toni the option of pulling away, and resigned herself to a lot of that.

Not that keeping someone close was any great hardship. Not someone who tasted like this, and had a wit that danced around almost on its own.

“It’ll be alright,” Stephanie said. “This? Will be alright.”

“I bet you tell that to all the girls,” Toni said.

“I do,” Stephanie said. “And sometimes I turn out to be really wrong, but I’ve never set out to fail yet, and that’s about all I can promise. My best.” And that made those eyes widen, spine stiffen.

This time it was Stephanie’s jaw that set, shoulders that squared as she leaned in and pressed her lips to Toni’s with a sigh.

*******

 

They gleamed like pearls, each one carefully labeled.

Toni’s lips were red, and her hair was mussed, but as soon as the Computer had announced that the spinal part were done they’d untangled and she’d finished what she meant to do. And now she was boxing up each vertebra into a hard case, and handing it to Stephanie. “I can’t promise anything,” she said. “Except better odds than anyone else can give him.

"I know to be ready for the worse," Stephanie said. "Thank you so much."

Toni shrugged and nudged her empty glass, before snapping her fingers at an automated arm in the universal code for 'I want things clean without putting any real effort into it', and the arm went to work.

"Full report as soon as he's stable or dead," she said, instead. "Tell him to sack up and get well since I'm taking his excuses away."

"I'll see you when you've had some rest, Toni," Stephanie said. "Go to sleep."

Toni walked her out of the workshop then pointedly headed towards her bedroom. "Computer, you heard the golden girl bring up the playlist of sleeping songs," she said. "And start the shower. Get it scalding hot."

****

"Eeeeee!"

"You sound like a dolphin, Darcy," Clint said, patiently.

"You sound like a smug jerk, Hawky!" She protested.

"Stay still, it's almost off," he said.

"The itchy is almost worse than the pain!"

"Hey check it out, Tasha, this one's big enough to frame!"

"That, is disgusting," Natasha shook her head. "No. Ew."

"This makes you squeamish? I once saw you feed a body into a tank of pirahnas because he'd swallowed a key."

"Everyone is allowed a limit, and saving big flakes of dead skin is mine."

"I could write 'I told you so' on it," Clint said. "Because I did. I told her so. Didn't I tell you so Darcy?"

"How long are you going to be a jerk about this?" Darcy muttered into the pillow.

Clint let a large flake drift gently to the floor. "Until the last. Petal. Falls." he said, cheerfully.

Darcy grumbled.

**

 

Toni shut her eyes and tried not to fall asleep standing up in the shower.

She hated this feeling. there was never any, pleasure after a job or project was finished just a black, hollow few minutes before the next thing came along. Honestly, she'd take a pill for it if she didn't think it'd dull her ability to create in the first place.

Sleep. She needed deep, dreamless sleep and another few hours before she thought about the fact that

Stephanie had more or less declared that they were in a relationship now. thinking about that would start a worry cycle that would either result in nightmares or a pure and total lack of sleep.

Stephanie would probably... Give her a look and be worried and concerned if she came back and Toni hadn't slept at all, and that right there, that was it, wasn't it? Someone would be worried, and Toni didn't want Stephanie to worry about the stupid things Toni did on such a regular basis they were more or less part of the routine.

Stephanie worried about everyone, though, so it was just an extension of that. Nothing special.

Toni thought that one of her many therapists might have had something to say about this line of thought, but fuck them, she was too tired to work out what it might be. Scotch and self attention, that'd work like a sleeping pill. Yes.

She turned off the water before she drowned in thought, toweled off until she was raw and pink.

Didn't even taste the scotch going down but it landed on a whole lot of nothing and spread out in a warm haze fairly quickly while she swapped out arm and slunk onto her bed.

Stretched out, flopped to her back. Tired, bone tired, and worm and head still.. Buzzing.

Then she was rotating her left wrist, and it was buzzing too. A barely audible hum, dampeners around the elbow making it just sounds until she was dragging fingers along a hipbone.

It was still utter bullshit that they kept telling her this wasn't marketable. Maybe in the next year she'd force a roll out. Give a few hundred humming hands to returning veterans.

Other hand stroking up her belly, cupping a breast idly before moving on. Caressing her own throat. Her earlobe where Stephanie's teeth had...

Oh, that worked, that put a twist deep in her belly now, didn't it? Teeth, strong shoulders. The way Stephanie was big enough to wrap her up and... Just.

Toni chewed on her lip. Worried it. Thought about blonde eyelashes. It wasn't even that Stephanie was physically her type, not that Toni had ever been very picky, it was just... Golden girl. Super human, and... Too much for Toni to deal with.

But it was still warm pink lips and white teeth that went ting when Stephanie smiled that Toni was picturing against her neck, and it was clever, calloused fingers dragging down her belly while she curled to her side.

The vibrations got more intense the more she crooked her fingers, and right now they were nearly straight, teasing into herself.

How much of it would be gentle, and how much would be that commanding, trust me I'm a hero tone of voice?

Toni made a frustrated groan and rolled, face first into the pillow, up on her knees, pushing her fingers into herself. No, no more stupid fantasy rose petal whatever she was going to get herself off, and now and go the fuck to sleep.

Planting a shoulder into the mattress, arching her back so she could curl her fingers in, further. She couldn't feel herself wet against them, the much feedback was impossible but she could sure as hell feel her middle and ring finger curving in, the way her palm shook so hard it was barely necessary to apply stimulation directly to her clit.

She dragged her fingers out, slick, enough to do it anyway, to press on either side of those inner labia and slide up and...

Breathe or you'll black out, she told herself, gasping in raw against the damp pillowcase then biting it because it was that or her inner lip.

She told herself it was impatience that had her shaking so hard so fast, that she was tired. Nothing to do with imaginary kisses down her spine.

She cussed when she came, jerking her hand away like it was hot and slamming her hips flush to the covers. Balled fist turning off the hum then slamming onto the side table with a rattle. "Hnngh."

She started to feel cold, and grabbed the edge of the cover. Didn't bother getting under it, just rolled onto a cleaner, drier pillow like a taquito. "Computer, lights. Use the suits to kill anyone that tries to wake me up," she ordered.

**********

 

 

"Bean," and it was groggy, but his eyes weren't even open yet. They had more things keeping him still than they'd had when they thought he was a danger to others.

Stephanie touched the back of his wrist. "Hey there, don't try to move. I mean, you won't be able to they did some sort of.. Temporary paralysis thing to you but..." she gave a bitter laugh. "Want to hear the good news?"

"The bitchy little not-a-medical doctor worked a miracle?"

"Oh, she did, but.. I mean. They say that it's a good thing that you didn't get a full dose of the serum. It took a... They had to give you thirty times the normal dose of anesthesia to keep you under."

"Huh."

"Yeah. Kept running people out to get more when your brain did. Things. I don't know I don't understand all of it. It'd been a long few days."

"Better me than you."

"Don't say that."

"Maybe it's not... Record but I remember when you broke your wrist, Bean. Nothing made it hurt less, I remember thinking... Fuck... Can't let her get shot," Bucky said between breaths, slowly.

"You remember that?" Stephanie said, smiling.

"I think.. That I remember it all, Bean but..." he trailed off. "There's a tube in my mouth."

"Feeding tube."

"Lot of effort, for a traitor."

"Don't talk like that."

She folded her arms on the edge of his bed, leaning forward to put her head down. "Shut up, Bucky, no one needs you being theatrical. The stage did not lose a legend when you enlisted."

"Being honest."

"You're just being a sponge brained... " Stephanie shook her head. Huffed out a tired sigh when his hand shifted, just enough that his knuckles were against her cheek. "Soft headed dumb cluck."

His wrist was strapped down, again at the forearm. The touch at her temple was about all he could manage. “Careful, can’t have the sweetheart of the Forties learn to swear.”

“Fuck,” she put her hand on his, again. Laughed weakly. “I’m learning.”

“I’ve got some good Russian ones, now. I’ll share with you,” he said. “I hadn’t gotten a chance to ask, yet but was that Natasha Romonov?”

“Yes. She worked with you?” Stephanie frowned, one of those little monitors was starting to blink orange. “Bucky do you feel okay?”

“Which side is she on now?” he said. “I.. can’t remember?”

“Ours. She’s on ours. So they say. Bucky are you trying to move they told you not to do that?”

“With the allies. It’s good. That’s.. Good put those...”

Stephanie felt ice drop down her spine.

“Put those krauts on the run. Bet the howlers’ll like having...”

“Bucky, Bucky that wars over we’re out of that one,” she said. “Bucky, Bucky look at me and...”

And she knew what a seizure looked like except it was just his eyes, the rest of his body immobile.

She screamed for the doctors.

Then had to be pulled from the room.

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

 

“There shouldn’t be any lasting side effects as a direct result of the seizure,” Banner said, finally, looking up from the screen at the concerned and hovering super soldier.

“What about everything else?”

“Well, it’s not as if having your spine replaced is a recognized procedure,” Banner said. “Look, he’s got... If he’s gonna make it, he’ll make it here.”

“This is my fault,” Stephanie said. “I hit him too hard and..”

“Technically Toni’s the one that punched him in the back of the head. you know. While he was pointing a gun at your face,” Bruce said slightly hesitantly. “From what I’ve been told. Natasha said you were being.. you were taking a big risk.”

“I had to know if he was in there,” Stephanie said.

Maybe it had been stupid but she’d.. Recognized him.

She’d had him on the ropes and recognized him and she’d stopped fighting. She remembered Toni screaming at her to get her shield up was she stupid?

“And he was. He hesitated. If he hadn’t I’d be dead.”

“He’d be dead too,” Banner said. “Toni lost it.”

“I know,” Stephanie said. “I saw.”

She sat and laced her fingers together, elbows on the desk.

“You want me to explain the red and wobbly half again?” Banner asked finally. Since she was not leaving.

She said nothing, just glanced at him.

“I’ll explain the red and wobbly bits again,” Banner said with a sigh. “The machines are synthesizing more antibiotics anyway. And some anti inflammatories.”

 

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

 

Toni woke up feeling like hell.

Well. no.

Not even hell

Just like ash.

Another shower, a real breakfast.

No improvement.

she needed another project, she decided, as her mind slowly started to twist back into gear. She glanced at a clock, and sighed. She looked at them when she got up, yes but... “Computer. How long was I asleep?”

“Twenty two hours.”

“.. Did I get up at some point?”

“Twice to use the facilities, Ms. Stark, and have some water and scotch.”

Toni frowned at her eggs. they were sort of scrambled. Huh. She’d been trying for poached. Explained the runnyness. “Sounds like me,” she said, aplying hot sauce until edible. “There is a lack of personal assistant, computer. Where is Mr. Shaker and his horrible smoothie?”

“He went home, Ms. Stark.”

She looked at the eggsa long, slow while. The whites quivered and the yolk was a bareful, hard staring eye splashed with red. “I don’t have to put up with this,” she said, scowling. “I’m rich.”

“Shall I call ahead to Voodoo doughnuts?”

“You do that. I’ll go get dressed,” Toni said with a yawn. They were sort of used to her dropping by, at this point. It was the only time she carried cash in the suit, but maybe today she’d actually drive. “Bacon maples! And the gaybars. Lots of the gay bars. Tell them I’ll take them all I’ll bring them into work; that’s a sort of thing people do, right?”

The decision to wear a suit made out of, well, fabric was just because it breathed, she told herself. Nothing to do with not being under glass again. Not a thing. It was just a nice day.

She bought twelve boxes crammed with doughnuts, probably pissed off everyone who’d been in line but she’d given the cashier a tip so as long as they didn’t stop tolerating her need for maple bacon heart attack fried dough she didn’t really care.

 

By the time she made it to the nest of cubicles she’d unloaded most of the boxes. Darcy’d helpfully made some of them vanish.

“You look like a plague victim,” Toni told her. “Like a.. What’s that condition?”

“Vitilgo,” Darcy said.

“No, no, the other one. Leprosy,” Toni said, reaching out and grabbing the edge of a flake. Not one off Darcy’s arm, one off the desk. “They do not pay the cleaners here enough.”

“Are you kidding? The same firm does the cleaning for here, the Baxter building, and your house, Toni, they make baaaaank. Tt’s the only janitorial firm that head hunts ex-military, what did you think a five hundred dollar toilet seat got you?”

“In my house? A warm place to shit and a little tube thing that hoses you off after? Warm air dry?” Toni looked around. “What do you do here, exactly?”

“When Coulson makes a call, and says it’s dealt with I’m the one making twenty other calls,” Darcy said. “Same with Shaker. I am the man behind the curtain. Pay no attention to me.”

“Remind me to get you a phone with a DNA scanner on it.”

“Why?” Darcy said. She peeled a patch of her skin off. “When you could just glue this to it,” she said, waving it like a tiny flag.

“You are disgusting and fantastic and I take full credit for everything you will achieve in life,” Toni said, proud as punch. “You look like you’ve got lice. You burned your scalp too?”

“Can we stop talking about my burgeoning melanoma? Don’t you need me tell you where Banner is? He wanted to call you earlier but the house said you were sleeping and he didn’t want to wake you.”

“What’s he want?”

“Umm. scientific mumbo jumbo.” Darcy said. “Your latest project’s having. Issues.”

“My..” Toni stopped. “Shit. What’s wrong with him?”

“Not a doctor, or a nurse,” Darcy said. “He just said he’d like your input, but that it wasn’t any sort of flaw in your design.”

“Shiiit, Darcy, lead with that!” Toni groaned, tucking the boxes under her arm and heading towards the hospital wing. She worked out a bacon bar and stuck it in her mouth, it was probably her third of the day.

 

She made it halfway before hesitating. Wait, shit, Stephanie was probably still here and stressed out and would need emotional support or something Shit.

Toni stopped in the middle of the hallway, and took a breath.

Nearly choked, because that had been a deep breath while chewing crunchy bacon.

Hacking and coughing, she sat down. Fuck, fuck.

 

At least nearly dying from bacon put things into perspective. In a way. Starting with the fact that, no, Toni you did not just nearly die. Followed by. You will not be expected to do much emotional support, probably. If you’re lucky.

Besides, she told herself. She hadn’t come to check on the golden girl. No. Course not. She was here to check on Bucky’s spine and lie to herself. However much it took.

She managed to keep lying to herself about why she was there until she was actually sitting next to Stephanie in the waiting room, shaking the box under her nose. “Hey, here. have a few of these, they’ll cheer you up.” she recommended.

Stephanie didn’t look up, but she did open the box. “Bacon? And.. Purple?”

“The purple ones are grape. They’re acquired tastes, but the bacon one’s are wonderful. I actually invested in the company just to get them to open a branch within a hundred miles, but try one, tell me they’re not worth it.”

Stephanie took one and looked at it. “I’m... Not that hungry.”

“Uh-huh. When did you eat last? Don’t you have super metabolism to worry about? Bet you haven’t slept either that’s sort of hopeless of you,” Toni rambled. She jiggled the box again. “You’ll love it. Really. They won’t worry your worries away but you can at least worry with a full belly?”

Stephanie took one. “Banner said it wasn’t your implants, it was just from getting hit in the head. Sort of a thing.”

“So not my tech but still my fault,” Toni said, and she probably didn’t sound brittle. No, that crunching noise was bacon, Stephanie’d made half the thing vanish.

“He probably was going to pull the trigger,” Stephanie said. “I’m not going to be mad at you for saving my life.”

“I’m still annoyed it needed saving,” Toni muttered. “If it was possible for me to have a heart attack, I’d have had one when you held out the shield.”

“This is really good.”

“I told you,” Toni said, standing up. Setting down the box and grabbing another for herself. “I’m going to go talk to Banner. Eat those then get some rest.”

She had to stop, because Stephanie had caught her wrist. “Thank you, Toni.”

Toni pulled her hand away, pulling harder than she mean too. “Wait till I actually achieve something,” she said, rubbing her wrist and not looking back.

 

**********

Five more days passed.

Being there for the seizure hadn’t been good.

This wasn’t as bad.

His leg was twitching.

But he was doing it himself.

Stephanie exhaled. “Stop that.”

“But I can feel my foot.”

“Stop that anyway,” Stephanie said. “There. Just. do what the doctors say.”

“There used to be rules about.. Hanging unhealthy men but this is sort of extreme.”

“You’re not getting off that easy,” and Fury’s voice was not soft, or gentle but it was funny. Spend enough time in the army and a voice like that, someone that certain? Was reassuring. “Rogers, I need to explain to Barnes here the strings attracted to his new spine.”

She nodded, and started to stand.

“More mind control?” Bucky asked, and she paused in the door. “Electrodes in my shiny new spine?”

“We’re Shield,” Fury said, gesturing at her, then the door. “We won’t be needing that.”

Coulson was in the hallway.

“Did I remember to thank you for the advice?” Stephanie asked.

“Thank you for taking it. Just don’t tell her you learned that trick from me.”

“For all the advice,” she said. “he’s out of the woods?”

“Physically. You haven’t slept in a week.”

“Catnapped twice?” she said.

“You’re worse than Stark.”

“I’m designed to go longer than her?” Stephanie said.

“In the event that we need Captain Liberty, it’d be nice to know she’s well rested.”

“There... Look get me a cot. Or a spare room.”

“End of the hall, take a right, third door on the left.”

Stephanie looked at the shut door a moment, then nodded.

Followed the directions but stopped on the second door from the left. She glanced inside, and spared a thought to call Coulson a clever bastard.

 

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

 

Coulson would, later politely correct Stephanie. Since she hadn’t meant bastard so much as... Magnificent. Or possibly a facilitator.

 

 

************
The rap on the door jerked Toni, with a flurry of motion that included tearing her face up off the printed page, and kicking outwards. Someone was waking her up, and she was terrible at morning, and everyone knew that, so whoever was waking her up had a good reason.

Yes. Sound logic.

Bucky must had relapsed or... “Gyuaat’s going on?” She managed, hands on the mattress. Her right hand was numb, she’d pulled her arms tight under herself to stay warm. Stupid cold hospitals. Stupid jacket, over there on a hook. “Shit did he crash again I thought Banner had him stable I mean,” and a hand cut her off, waving.

“No, no,” and that was Stephanie's voice, tired sounding. “No it’s nothing you have to worry about it.”

“Shit did he die?”

“No, well, depends. Is Fury likely to kill him?”

“If he does I will raise bloody hell,” Toni said, frowning. “All other considerations aside I’ve spent a rather large amount of daylight helping patch him back up.” Then her scowl was breaking in half as a yawn tore free. She shook out her right hand to get feeling into it. “So if that’s not the emergency what it?” She rubbed at her face.

“You’ve got... words on your face,” Stephanie said.

“Passing out in a book about erectile dysfunction and spinal cord injury will do that too you,” Toni murmured.

“A book on... Oh,” Stephanie rubbed the back of her neck. “It says...”

“Let me guess,” Toni said, glancing down at the page. “Sdeen lauxes sih rof tneiciffus noitcere na niatniam ro eveihca, am I right?”

“It’s actually all blurry now, and it looks like it says ‘Forth Niania,” Stephanie said, but she was smiling. “Nice pronunciation.”

“So there was no reason to wake me up?”

“You looked cold, and miserable? Why don’t you just go home?”

Toni thought about that. There were a lot of reasons why she should go home and sleep there in her bed. There were a few reasons why she hadn’t. “Well, to start with, Captain Spinal Tap down the hall had a crapton of seizures and no one called me, so, there’s that.”

“And to finish with?”

You’re here, Toni didn’t say. “How’ve you been sleeping?” She asked instead, stepping out of the bed, stretching. Her tie was in her pocket, and her shirt was rumpled, top three buttons undone.

“I’m actually looking for a place to sleep right now,” Stephanie said. “Coulson directed me here I think he approves of the wooing.”

“Oh,” Toni said, and shook her head. “No. No I reject it. I don’t have my wooing hand on, this is not a good... I’ve got half a book on my face and the wrong arm hooked up, Stephanie try again tomorrow.”

“I’m not going too.. Well, you see the thing about courtship is that it’s ongoing, so I’m still going to court you but right now I just want to get you to get out of your shoes and lie down under the covers with a pillow made out of cotton. What makes a hand a wooing hand? Do you swap them out?”

“A wooing hand... Has..” Toni stalled. Then wasn’t sure what to say. She wasn’t used to stalling out mid sentence, and was tired but not that tired, and she was sober, but somehow saying ‘I use a different hand for sex because the strength is a lot lower to prevent accidental injuries also it vibrates so hard I can use it to mix paint’ just wasn’t coming OUT. “It’s gentler,” she said, going with a partial truth. “If I’m, distracted I can’t
accidentally put it into locked grip mode and hurt anyone.”

“Oh, that’s clever. You made a separate hand just for that?”

“I’ve got another with a repulsor in the wrist that could punch a hole right through most people’s bellies,” Toni said. “There’s dangerous and sexy, and dangerous and stupid.”

“I was starting to wonder if you knew the difference.”

“I’m not reckless with other people,” Toni said, stiffly. Sitting down and crossing a leg to pull her shoe off, then the other. Tossed them to one side, black patent leather clattering.

“Just with yourself,” Stephanie said.

"You know what? Unless you wanted to tell me a bedtime story and tuck me if, I think you asked me to go back to sleep? How about you let me do that?”

“I think if you want to hear the story of the Stubborn Princess that rescued herself and the Soilder that courted her, you’d have to ask nice,” Stephanie said, sighing. “Just try to sleep well, alright Toni?”

It wasn’t a defeated sigh, it was just tired.

“Yeah I can,” Toni heard herself start. Then she heard herself stop.

Then she felt herself moving, which was weird because she hadn’t really planned that. it wasn’t even a case of doing something as you thought of it, it was simple action.

Hand out to catch Stephanie’s arm, stopping just before contact as she got control of herself.

It gave her a minute to think, or at least come to a conclusion that wasn’t some knee jerk response to being walked away from. She was going to have to think about that later, she knew, because... Seriously... Was it that clear of a pattern?

She didn’t quite get Stephanie’s arm, just a handful of her sleeve. “Wait, you know what?”

Stephanie turned her head. “No, but you can tell me?”

“I’m not a bedtime story sort of person but I am a fan of body-heat,” Toni said, half turning and tipping her head towards the bed. “It’s far too cramped for anything athletic, and this really is the wrong arm, but they have the air condition set to arctic storm for some reason, and I’d like to keep feeling in my toes.”

“So you want me to stay for my body then?” But Stephanie was smiling when she said it.

“Body heat. Yes. I want you... to stay. I want you to stay If you would,” Toni wasn’t smiling because Toni was measuring the distance to the door in her head, and she was glad that her hand held cotton not flesh because her fingers were white with pressure.

She made herself let go and step backwards. Stepping backwards was pretty easy it was not looking away that was hard, but she had no idea what Stephanie was even looking for but that was a damn searching look and it’d be cowardly to look away.

And coward was not a name that Toni or any other Stark had ever let themselves get saddled with, dammit.

Stephanie was tall but it wasn’t like climbing a mountain so much as stretching up to get the jar off the top shelf. Catching her face, the back of her neck and pulling her down while Toni stretched up. “Goddamit, you are tall,” Toni said before their lips met.

Stephanie smiled, arms around Toni’s waist, lifting her up in a hug. “There?” Even if it was a bit muffled.

Toni hummed out a ‘yes’ against teeth and tongue but wasn’t sure herself if it was a ‘yes better’ or ‘yes please more of this’. Probably that last one. This was nice. Stephanie was licking her lower lip and it was soft and wet and sweet and Toni sighed.

Then whined in the back of her throat because Stephanie was stepping back. “Door’s still open,” Stephanie said, turning and shutting it.

“Get the lights,” Toni said, pushing her hair back from her face, then “While you’re there.”

“Then it’ll be dark,” Stephanie said, but she flicked the switch. Then chuckled and held her hand up.

Pale blue light, bright enough to read by. Stephanie turned. “But I can’t see your face as well?”

“You can’t get a good look at someone while you’re kissing them.”

“Depends on where you’re kissing them.”

“Nnn, you tease from the thirties, you look like you’re going to nap van winkle for another seventy years don’t talk to me about all the places you’ve kissed,” Toni said, turning away. “That’s just. Cruel.”

“Did you take your shirt off or is it just open?”

“Find out?” Toni said, softer than she meant too.

“Now who's teasing?”

But there were warm hands on her, yes, bare shoulders. Warm lips at the edge of her ear. “Nn. Bed?” Toni asked, but she was already pulling sheets back, climbing up into the narrow thing and turning because Stephanie was climbing in with her now and pulling the sheets up. Toni thumbed the iris shut with a bit of regret. Close quarters would block it anyway but... Still.

Stephanie didn’t kiss her again, just pulled her in. Toni felt a leg hook hers, and put her face into Stephanie's collarbone.

Shivered because her thigh was almost but not quite pressed up in between Stephanie's and it’d be really easy to just, press and rock.

Toni didn’t though, because... Sleep. Stephanie’d probably fall asleep in the middle.

“You need a bath,” Toni said. “Or a proper shower. I volunteer my services. ”

“Maybe,” Stephanie said. “If you’re very quiet, I’ll think about it when I wake up.”

Toni fell silent and still. Stephanie’s arms were around her, fingers just, touching her hair and if Toni listened...

Toni listened to the passing of people in the hallway. To the hum of a big building.

To the way Stephanie’s breathing slowed down, body relaxing.

How the hell do you trust anyone like that? Toni thought, trying to remember the last time she spent the night with someone minus sex and scotch. Oh, god, what if she couldn’t fall asleep like this?

What if she spent the whole night staring into the darkness that was Stephanie Rogers’ goddamn perfect shoulder in a dirty t-shirt and...

She was still worrying about it when she fell asleep.

 

 

~Fin for now~

 

 

http://voodoodoughnut.com/menu.php (for refrence)

 

Stark, any Stark, tends not to respect the people Stark sleeps with. Not because they're women, or men, that are easy, not because Stark has an issue with 'sluts', but because Stark doesn't respect anyone with the bad taste to sleep with him/Her.