twentysomething: (tony no)
Title: Wilt Thou Exchange

Fandom: Avengers/Marvel

Pairing: always a girl!Tony Stark/Steve Rogers

Summary: "The first time Steve meets Toni is about a week after he wakes up."

Length: 13,300 wordish (OF 34,000 FUCK ME)

Warnings: YOU GUYS THE LONGEST FIC I'VE EVER WRITTEN IS ABOUT TONY STARK BEING A GIRL AND STEVE STILL FALLING IN LOVE WITH HIM

Notes: Ugh, this has been a labor- not usually of love, either. I don't even need to say that of course I did genderswap, because HI. But what does need to be said are a vast cornucopia of thanks- 34k worth: to [personal profile] rageprufrock, [personal profile] merelyn, [personal profile] thehoyden, [personal profile] amazonziti, [personal profile] mklutz, and [personal profile] aliassmith for TIRELESSLY encouraging me, from aiding and abetting research to 4 am gchat sessions. The biggest thanks of all is due to [personal profile] leupagus for saving me from myself and foolishly agreeing to beta this. The following parts are all written, just being edited, so be patient with me. Title.



When Steve is escorted back to headquarters, the first thing Colonel Fury does is introduce him to Agents Romanoff and Barton. Agent Romanoff is petite and tongue-tyingly beautiful. Agent Barton is solid and silent. They both seem like the kind of people who doesn’t say much other than, “Sir.”

Steve is right about Natasha.

He is wrong about Clint.

Colonel Fury tells Steve that they’re assigned to Steve to help him “acclimate himself to the 21st century” but Steve is pretty sure that’s code for “babysit.” Fury leaves them and they spend roughly twenty seconds staring at each other before Agent Barton breaks the silence.

“I know he doesn’t have a sense of humor, but the director isn’t fucking with us, is he?” he asks Agent Romanoff before turning back to Steve. “You’re Captain America.”

Agent Romanoff shoots Barton a look that clearly says, “You’re an idiot.”

“Captain Rogers, I’m looking forward to working with you. What way would you most be comfortable receiving information about the past 68 years?” she asks, coolly professional.

Steve has to take a deep breath.

“You can’t spring that on him, Jesus, you're like a robot.” Barton chides her. “Sorry, Cap, she’s Russian, she doesn’t get it.” He blinks for a second. “Oh, shit, we have to tell you about the Cold War,” Barton laughs to himself. Steve doesn’t know how to respond to any of that, so he answers Agent Romanoff’s question.

“I’m a visual learner more than anything else. If you’re going to make up some kind of document, please include pictures.” Steve requests. She nods, her mind already seemingly half on the task ahead. “And please call me Steve, ‘Captain Rogers’ is a mouthful.”

Barton nods. “I’m Clint, she’s Natasha. If you have any questions, we’re the people to ask.” Clint offers. Steve bites back a sigh, because all he has are questions.

“Thank you, I realize it’s going to be quite a task.” Steve feels like he’s going to spend the foreseeable future feeling like an idiot.

“You don’t need to thank us,” Natasha says. The look of sympathy that accompanies it is just another thing he’s going to have to get used to.

Natasha faithfully compiles a comprehensive history on something she calls a ‘laptop’ while Clint tries to explain the Internet.

“Are you sure you’re not making this up?” Steve finds himself asking when Clint tells him he can talk to someone on the other side of the world with a computer, with full video, for free.

“If I had, I wouldn’t have to work for SHIELD to pay the bills,” Clint jokes. Steve’s still having trouble with the idea that everyone has more than one color television in their house.

They break for dinner and Steve doesn’t know if he’s absorbed any of it- seemingly all he can remember is that betamaxes were wrong. By the end of the night, Clint has thoroughly confused him and Natasha hands him a large printed document the size of a textbook and a much smaller black-bound booklet. Clint protests that she should have given it to him on an “eye pad”, whatever that is, but Steve shakes his head.

“No, thank you. I can write reminders in the margins if I have questions,” he demurs.

Clint shrugs. “They’re your paper cuts.” he tells Steve. “See you back here in the morning.” Clint is already half out the door.

“Yes,” Steve agrees belatedly. Natasha smiles at him, which is sort of more alarming than her usual neutral expression.

“Don’t feel like you have to read it all tonight. It’s a lot to take in.” She pauses, which Steve finds atypical. She certainly hadn’t hesitated for a moment to correct Clint on any number of things. “The smaller document is somewhat… personal in nature. I didn’t think you would want to ask about them.”

“Thank you, Natasha, that was kind of you.” Steve says. He has no idea what’s in the booklet, but it’s waited this long, it’s not likely to go anywhere now. She smiles gently again.

“Would you like me to take you to your room?” she asks and Steve freezes involuntarily for a moment, thinking of that fake, wrong room.

“Director Fury made alternate arrangements, if you don't mind,” Natasha says smoothly.

“Yes, thank you,” he manages. The room Natasha takes him to is inoffensive, if bland. The lines are sleeker than he’s used to, but things are more or less the same- bed, desk, bathroom.

“I’m four doors to the left. Clint is two doors to the left. Don’t hesitate.” she finally says before leaving Steve with a giant book about the world and a little book about who knows what.

He scrupulously starts in on the history, which starts the day after the crash, but he has to put it down after Roosevelt dies, partially because while he intellectually knows most of the people he knows are dead, he shook the President’s hand and now he’s dead. But more importantly, he can’t help but wonder what Natasha put into that book- what she would think was “personal.”

The book starts out mundane, saying that his apartment is now converted into artists’ lofts- Steve smiles reflexively- but Steve turns the page and it’s a dossier on Peggy Carter, 1919-1998, no spouse on record, no children, and Steve feels like he’s been punched in the gut. He flips the page automatically and the first thing his eyes focus on is:

“No body was ever recovered for Sgt. Barnes. His tombstone is in Arlington National Cemetery, section 38-B.”

Numbly, he turns the page, only to see Howard Stark, 1918-1993, spouse, Maria Stark, also deceased, one child-

Steve closes the book and puts it in one of the empty desk drawers.

There’s an awful hollow feeling somewhere underneath his ribs and Steve thinks he might feel better if he cried, but nothing comes, just more of that same terrible emptiness.

Steve wakes up the next morning and reads about the Atomic Bomb and feels bone tired.

It must show on his face, because rather than trying to explain anything else to him, Clint and Natasha introduce him to a truly staggering number of people, only two of whom really make an impression.

The first is someone who is just introduced to him as “Agent Coulson”- when he asks Clint about it later, Clint says, “I don’t think he has a first name. Or if he does, I don’t have a security clearance high enough to know it.” Coulson gives off the same air of being so competent as to be deadly, which makes Steve wonder if that’s what SHIELD is actually all about.

“It’s an honor,” Coulson says. Steve really wishes people would quit saying that.

“You didn’t say that when you met me,” Clint affects hurt dramatically.

Coulson stares at him. “It wasn’t an honor.” Coulson says. Steve knows it would be inappropriate to laugh, but he almost does anyway. Natasha’s face is completely devoid of all emotion, which Steve is beginning to suspect is her version of laughing. Coulson is called away almost immediately- “It’s Dr. Foster, which probably means New Mexico is on fire. Again.”

The other is a quiet, mild man who introduces himself as Dr. Bruce Banner and he wouldn’t have made an impact at all if Clint hadn’t leaned over the second they were out of earshot and told Steve that Dr. Banner turns into a giant green rage monster if you make him angry. Steve worries that Clint really is making things up, but Natasha confirms it with a quick nod.

Steve is never going to get the hang of the future.

This is confirmed by the way he seems to keep getting lost inside SHIELD HQ. He’s probably making Colonel Fury worry about his brain being scrambled, but the slick glass conference rooms and uniform doors never seem to be where he remembers them. It’s a little baffling, because Steve navigated through Europe with a compass and a prayer once- one building shouldn’t be harder. He thinks it might actually be a lack of landmarks tripping him up, every floor looking the same right out the elevator, the overly unified décor. He might have to start leaving himself bread crumb trails.

It’s not any better the next day- Steve has only made it to Apollo 11- when Coulson comes back with an actual god in tow.

Thor is at once nothing and everything like Steve could have imagined. He’s so loud, so enthusiastic, and so sincere that Steve can’t stop darting sidelong glances at him just to keep checking if he’s real.

Roughly five minutes after they’ve met, Thor asks Steve to pick up his hammer.

“I’ve met none other who could lift Mjolnir, but you seem exceedingly strong, Steven!” Thor booms. Steve can’t lift it, which makes Clint laugh, but Clint’s not offering to try.

“No matter. What weapon do you use?” Thor asks, curious and smiling and Steve suddenly realizes he has no idea if they recovered his shield.

“My shield-“ Steve starts, because out of everything else he’s woken up to find gone, he’s going to insist they put him back in the ice until they find that.

“It’s been in R&D, they’re running some tests on it to see if the cold affected it,” Natasha says, checking something on her cellular phone. Steve breathes a sigh of relief and almost feels silly for it, but well, it’ll be nice to have it back. Thor insists that as soon as Steve gets his shield back, they will spar and see “which warrior emerges victorious!”

Steve, helplessly smiling back, agrees.

***


The first time Steve meets Toni is about a week after he wakes up.

He's pretty sure it's an accident because she literally walks into him. Steve had gotten a “text message” from Clint to show up at the shooting range to re-qualify- which of course led to Steve getting lost. Because Steve is Steve, she bounces off his chest and only sheer reflex leaves Steve with his hand cradling her elbow, stopping her from falling over.

She stops mid-sentence, snorts and grips the slick black cellular phone in her hand more firmly.

"Watch where you're going next time, Ace," she says before breezing past him, pulling her elbow free from Steve's hand and resuming conversation before he even thinks to let it go. She's clearing a path down the hall and Steve can only watch her go, shining black hair and legs from here to past there.

When he turns around, Colonel Fury is staring at him from an open doorway. He looks remarkably like Steve's mother. Well, with an eye patch. Steve open his mouth to ask who she is-

"No," Fury says.

Steve frowns.

"No." Fury repeats. He crooks a finger at Steve, summoning him into the small, nondescript office that is definitely not Colonel Fury’s.

He tells Steve that he’s going to lead a strike team called “the Avengers.”

“Sir?” Steve tries helplessly. “I don’t mean to question orders, but I’m sure there are six years olds out there right now with a better grasp of the geopolitical climate than me. I can hardly use the phone I was issued. I don’t think I’m pre-“

Fury cuts him off like Steve never spoke. “This is a unique team, Steve. You’ve met all of the members already.”

“Clint and Natasha,” Steve guesses, because Colonel Fury would have picked Steve’s detail with the long-term goal of building trust. Both of them were way too valuable to be wasted babysitting Steve otherwise.

“Exactly,” Fury agrees. “I believe you met Dr. Banner and Thor as well.”

Steve stares at Fury. “They’re on the team, too?” Fury smiles because he’s crazy.

“We need a group of people committed to saving the world and I don’t think you need a history briefing to know that the world needs saving a lot.” Fury tells him. Steve feels like someone is playing a really convincing joke on him. “We need a leader with tactical combat experience who knows how to take a bunch of misfits and make them work together. If you know anyone else who can do the job, I am all ears.”

Steve tries to think of anything to say but comes up short.

“Trust us, Cap. We’ll run some training simulations, watch your guys in action. Let me know what you think.”

Steve leaves the meeting feeling like he’s been steamrolled. Natasha is waiting for him outside the door.

“So he told you,” she surmises. Steve sighs.

“The standard. Save the world, no pressure,” Steve jokes, but it comes out more tired than he’d like.

“You were pretty good at it the first time around,” Natasha reassures him. “That’s why you’re the boss.”

“I think you guys have been reading the comics, not my file,” Steve protests, but he lets Natasha lead him away, already thinking about team building when part of your team is a god.

The second time Steve meets Toni, he actually finds out her name.

They’ve stopped trusting Steve’s ability to navigate the building, so Clint takes him to the right conference room. His phone chirps and whatever it says makes him laugh and pat Steve on the shoulder.

"Oh man, Stark is on the warpath. Stay strong, brother." he says and then Clint- well, Steve likes to believe the best of people, but Clint runs away.

Then as he heads in and takes a seat, what Clint said actually starts to sink in and Steve has a moment to wonder if there could be any relation before Toni blows into the room and any question of "could be" is answered as soon as she opens her mouth.

"Look, I know you don't think I have anything better to do with my time than jump rope for you guys, but there's this thing I do where I run a company and invent everything you use from communications to weapons, so," she says and rather than sitting in a chair, she perches on the too-shiny conference table, one long leg over the other.

"Oh, hey, champ," she says, noticing Steve and grinning brightly. "What does he have you do around here? Or are you just decorative, because in which case, I wanna use you and Thor like bookends. Or find out where I can buy you wholesale; I just think matching sets are so nice."

Steve doesn't know how to respond- at all- but he's spared by Colonel Fury walking in the door. He looks like he wants to stab everything and everyone.

"Stark, this is Captain America. I keep him around to fight the enemies of freedom." Fury says, as deadpan as he gets, which is pretty dry. "Captain Rogers, this is Natasha Stark, yes, she's his daughter and if you don't mind, I'm going to enjoy this moment."

Her face is slack with surprise for roughly four seconds before moving on to suspicion, disbelief and then finally a giddy excitement that makes Steve decidedly concerned.

"Get the fuck out," she says on a quiet exhale. "No, you're kidding. I mean, he looks like the poster I certainly didn't have above my bed from age eight to thirteen, but if you've been keeping him from me I'm stopping work on the helicarrier right now. I will set its open hull on fire myself. Hi." She leans in like if she just looks closely enough there will be a maker's mark or something that proclaims him Grade A Captain America. It also means that she's close enough that he can see the darker flecks of brown in her irises and the faint scar high on her sharp cheekbone.

"Uh, hi," Steve tries. "Steve Rogers?" It comes out much more like a question than he'd like.

"Call me Toni," She's hypnotically close and it isn't until he hears a muttered "Motherfucker, I knew this would happen," that he remembers Colonel Fury is still in the room.

Dr. Banner slips quietly into the room and Natasha is next, followed by Clint and Thor. Steve tries to pay attention during the meeting- but he's distracted by the way Toni doesn't even bother to hide the fact that she's staring at him. He resists the urge to fidget, but he can't help rubbing his thumb against outside seam of the too-new khaki of his pants as Colonel Fury tells them that Steve will be leading the team they all agreed to.

Clint and Natasha are unaffected- presumably they’d known what Fury was planning from the start. Dr. Banner merely nods and Thor admits that it “will be strange following the lead of any but my father, but Steven is mighty and noble. I accept!” Steve doesn’t know what to do with the approval of an immortal. Toni raises her eyebrows and opens her mouth, but shuts it again and doesn’t say anything, even when Colonel Fury stares at her like he’s trying to set her on fire with his mind.

Apparently, Toni has a giant robot suit that she fights terrorists with.

Steve doesn't know what to do with that, either.

Howard had invented almost all of the technology they'd taken into battle, but Howard himself had never come with them- the workshop and the battlefield had been two entirely separate domains. Steve doesn't have any problems with the idea of a woman on the front lines- god knows Peggy would have put him down like a dog if he'd suggested anything like that- and if Natasha didn't seem to like him so much, he'd definitely worry about her. But he can't help but look at Toni- in a completely impartial analytical way- and catalog her delicate wrists, the lack of the whipcord strength obvious in Natasha's body that marks her as dangerous- Toni is fit, but Steve can't imagine that she could have any mettle as a soldier.

Then he meets the Iron Woman.

***

The suit looks straight out of Metropolis, all gleaming gold and red and Steve is certainly impressed as he watches Toni put it through its paces, maneuvering through the obstacle courses set up and destroying all the targets in symphony. Steve is chastising himself for judging Toni on appearances- which is promptly when she disobeys orders and crashes and burns through the training exercise.

"You disregarded a direct order," Steve says.

Toni flips up the faceplate. "I knew what I was doing," she argues. "The simulation was wrong."

Steve tries to stare her down. "You would have killed yourself and everyone around you," he points out. Toni rolls her eyes.

"It's just a training exercise, untwist your panties, Cap," she snipes.

Steve prides himself on an even keel, but he's starting to get irritated. "If you don't treat every training exercise like the real thing, there's no point, is there? If you’d done what you did just now, every member of your team would be dead." he pushes.

Toni snorts. "Team. Like we’re a team. I’m just here to bankroll this stupidity. Fury made that clear when he picked you to lead. This is bullshit." She starts walking away, which is unacceptable because he's not done.

"Stark, get back here," he yells and she flips him the bird and flies out.

He grits his teeth and doesn't punch the last target off its base, but barely.

No mettle as a soldier. Steve hates being right.

***


He reports to Fury, as scheduled, that night to express his professional opinion on the team.

"They're all far too used to individual action. It's going to take a while before they start actually working together rather than around each other," Steve sighs. "Overall, though, I think the Avengers Initiative is going to be a viable strike team."

Fury raises the eyebrow above his good eye. "But." he prompts.

Steve takes a deep breath. "Toni Stark," he starts. Fury holds up a hand, reaches into the bottom drawer of his desk and pulls out two glasses and a bottle of scotch.

"Oh, I, uh, can't get drunk," Steve tries only to be pinned by one dark eye.

"Did I offer you one, Captain?" Fury asks, which is evidently rhetorical by the way he pounds both glasses back. Steve spares a second to observe that that kind of thing seems to happen to him a lot. "Now you may continue about Stark."

"I strongly feel that she is a danger to the team dynamic, if not the team itself. We already have the Hulk, we don't need another loose cannon." Steve says, feeling strangely like a tattletale. He felt about the same when he told Mrs. Barnes about the time they snuck into the movies. Fury sighs

"And what would you have me do about that?" Fury finally says.

Steve thinks for a moment.

The next morning, Toni jerks open the door to the "office" he's been granted, which, prior to his occupation, Steve strongly suspects was a janitor's closet. "You benched me?" she demands, slapping the memo down on Steve's desk on top of a sketchy file about a vigilante in the city who can climb walls.

"You wouldn't listen," Steve says, determined to keep his cool today.

The look she gives him is weapons-grade. "Look, Cap," the nickname comes out of her mouth like venom and it's on the tip of his tongue to tell her it's "Captain Rogers" but she barrels on. "It was a great day for America when some ice fishers found you, but while you were in the deep freeze, I was doing just fine on my own, and if you and Fury have a problem with it, this shit isn't going to cut it." She crumples the memo up and throws it at the wastebasket.

"And that kind of childishness is why you're benched until further notice," Steve grits out, resolute. Toni looks like she's about two seconds from taking a swing at him and Steve sort of wishes she'd try. "Go back to the workshop until you've got your head on straight and you're willing to work instead of show off. You can't put anyone in danger there."

For a split second, Steve is convinced she is going to hit him, but instead she does an about-face and slams the door so hard the frame rattles.

Steve takes several deep breaths and picks up her file again, like maybe this time there will be something that will make Toni make sense, buried in somewhere in her college transcripts, the interviews with Vanity Fair, the official report of her kidnapping and escape.

***


He still feels like he hasn't made any headway by the end of the week- with the team or with Toni. She’s been holed up in her workshop, which is buried in the bowels of the SHIELD building, which in turn is probably because Colonel Fury always seems to be mad at her. Despite trying his hardest to get the team to work together, there’s the elephant in the room on everyone’s mind- Toni’s conspicuous absence. Steve doesn’t relish the idea of taking them out into the field any time soon, which is, of course, why they get reports of someone who is most likely Loki causing mayhem in the Meatpacking District. Steve tries to tell Fury that they’re not ready, but there’s simply no one else with a chance of stopping him.

Thor is grim faced and irritable, almost refusing to get in the helicopter.

“Just because you can fly in doesn’t mean you should,” Steve tries. “You need back up.”

“He is my brother,” Thor counters, expression conflicted.

“So let’s go,” Steve says. Thor finally nods and gets in with them.

This small victory aside, the situation rapidly disintegrates into chaos. Loki is on some kind of elevated walkway Natasha calls the Highline that Steve remembers as an elevated train line. For all Loki is supposed to be a master of trickery, the problems he’s causing are more than real. They're in textbook bad form, spread across the walkway and out of sync when Iron Woman shows up.

"Iron Woman, you are not cleared to be here," Steve growls into the headset put into his helmet, struggling with- for all intents and purposes- a giant wolf. Thor is smacking them clear into the Hudson with his hammer.

"You're getting your ass kicked," she retorts, firing repulsors at two of the wolves circling around toward Black Widow's back. "And thanks for the heads up, I had to find out about this from CNN."

"That would be because you're still benched, maybe," Steve shoots back. "Fall back to SHIELD HQ immediately."

"I thought you said I needed training," she says, saccharine sweet.

"Get out of here right now, Iron Woman," Steve says.

"If you guys don't mind putting the domestic on hold for later, I think Thor is about to go apeshit on his brother," Clint says. Steve swears quickly under his breath, glancing over to the part of the Highline that's housing Thor and Loki's sibling squabble.

"On my way," Toni says, already turning toward the action.

"You are leaving. I will deal with you later-" is all Steve manages before he's blindsided by one of the wolves landing heavy and hard on his back- the momentum carrying them both over the crumpled fence to the ground below. Steve had imagined falling would be slower, but in a matter of seconds he hears his head crack on the concrete and everything goes black.

When he comes to, it's in a helicopter and Natasha puts her hand on his shoulder to keep him from getting up.

"Everything's fine. Situation handled." she says and watching the movement of her short red hair in the wind makes Steve feel distinctly nauseous, so he just closes his eyes again.

When he wakes up the second time, it's in the SHIELD infirmary, to harsh whispers.

"Is the situation abundantly clear to you, Miss Stark?" that one has to be Fury; no one else manages that level of angry while still being that monotone.

"They needed help, he didn't-" Tony breaks off mid-sentence. "Yes." Steve has pinpointed where the voices are coming from and the first thing he notices once he opens his eyes is how strange it is to see Toni out of a suit (or the suit), instead in something black and stretchy like Natasha wears, her hair pulled back from her face in a ponytail. She looks younger.

Fury glances over, makes eye contact with Steve, nods and walks out. Steve guesses that must mean he's okay. Toni whips her head around, scrambling off of a neighboring cot as Steve sits up. His head is pounding, but other than that he feels fine.

"Lay back down," she says, hovering over him. "Your brain will explode." She's already pushing him back down and Steve notices her hands are covered in tiny burn marks and her fingernails have a thin ring of grime at the quick, under the shortest nails he's ever seen on a girl. He doesn't know why, but he kind of likes that.

"I'm fine," he shrugs, which is actually the most uncomfortable thing he's done yet. Steve makes a firm note to himself not to do that again for a while.

She just narrows her eyes at him, the effect compounded by the way she folds her arms under her chest and sits on the edge of his bed, presumably the better to stare him down. "So, I'm benched," she offers after a long moment of silence.

Steve chuckles. "That's what I've been trying to tell you," Steve agrees, and apparently all it took was a head injury to find her funny instead of infuriating.

Toni just purses her lips. "I'm uh, notoriously bad at apologizing," she says, picking at the blanket. "And certain people have said I'm a little... slow to take criticism. Even... constructive criticism." She makes a face like the phrase leaves a bad taste in her mouth. Steve just raises an eyebrow, which makes his whole face throb, so he stops quickly.

"But I'll... work on that?" she finally concludes, even though it sounds like a question more than a statement. Steve figures they must have put him on some pretty powerful painkillers to not just keep up with him, but to make him feel a little fuzzy around the edges. He doesn't think he'd normally think that the vaguely repentant and discomfited face Toni is making is pretty cute.

"Apology accepted," Steve says, because that's what he got out of the whole thing anyway.

Toni snorts. "We'll see what you say when they don't have you on horse tranquilizers," she counters. Steve kind of hopes they're not actually horse tranquilizers, but can't really bring himself to care if they are. He's feeling pretty sleepy. "Bruce said you should just try to, well, sleep it off. But take that with a grain of salt, he turned himself into the Jolly Green Giant."

"The Hulk isn't jolly, that's Santa Claus," Steve hears himself say. The last sound he registers before he falls back asleep is Toni's laughter.

***


The next morning he feels completely fine; the only telltale evidence to the contrary is a deep cut above his eyebrow situated in the middle of an extremely ugly-looking bruise. On the bedside table, scrawled in disastrous handwriting on half a sheet of paper (that already had something mechanical drawn on it) is the following message:

If I'm still in your good- or acceptably bad- books, come to the workshop when you wake up.

As an afterthought, scribbled even more hastily is:

and bring coffee

Steve- with the absence of painkillers in his system- still manages to find this weirdly charming. He can't explain it. When he gets to the workshop, coffees in hand, Toni is hunched over something, soldering away with a blowtorch. She’s wearing jeans and a tank top in various states of disrepair- judging by the fact that they're both too big on her, they’re probably borrowed from someone else. Technically, she looks like a mess, her neat-ish ponytail now in a disheveled bun, like she forgot it was up and tried to run her hands through it, and there’s a huge smear of something black across her forehead. But there's a manic grin on her face beneath the goggles, and her comically oversized leather gloves still manage to delicately manipulate the cooling metal.

He'd noticed she was a good looking woman before, but here, five kinds of dirty and swearing cheerfully under her breath like a sailor, a lot of the pieces Steve couldn't parse earlier in her file fall into place. Toni is happy here, in her element. She's gorgeous.

"Oh, thanks," she says, turning off the blowtorch and tugging the goggles up like a headband. She takes both of the coffees and chugs them down, black and scalding. Steve wonders why that keeps happening to him. "So, after your kamikaze dive, it became clear to invested parties that you really do need a helmet. I did a bit of a redesign, because it should be tougher than your skull, and not the other way around."

"I've been told I have a thick head," Steve jokes, but Toni just flicks a glance at the cut and bruise lingering on his forehead.

"Fail safe measure, I guess," but there's finally a hint of a smile on her face. “I called a bunch of people and I yelled until I got some more vibranium.”

Steve frowns, and then winces as the cut pulls strangely. “I thought there wasn’t any more?” he asks.

Toni grins. “Maybe not any more in 1943. Now, I know a guy who knows a guy who is willing to make nice with the Wakandan ambassador, so, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and there is more vibranium.”

She essentially takes him around her workshop and encourages him to try to break things- which is a refreshing change. He remembers those first few days after the serum, trying to renegotiate simple tasks that suddenly required a lot less force, feeling like an oaf and a klutz. It's almost fun to be given free license, to have Toni go, "No, c'mon, really punch it."

“Did they ever make you do all the classic strong man stuff? Bend parking meters, lift benches full of women?” she asks idly, after Steve punches a hole through a sheet of steel.

“Well, not a bench,” Steve says, amazed by the change in her demeanor. She’s more sarcastic than he’s used to, and half of the things she says he doesn’t understand at all, but the antagonism is gone, the sly hostility. He wonders if it’s simply a matter of being in her own territory, by her invitation.

“Hey, hey, what is this?” she demands and Steve is about to profess his ignorance and innocence when he realizes she’s talking to one of the robots in the room. “This is a mess. I didn’t drag your ass across the country for nothing.” It sounds almost as if it’s talking back with a series of metallic whines and squeaks, and she rolls her eyes.

“Excuses, excuses, Dummy.” she gripes, but Steve can hear the fondness in her voice as the robot starts to pick up behind them.

“Do all your robots talk to you?” Steve asks, perching on one of the many counters, carefully pushing aside a pile of debris containing at least four dismembered small electronic devices and a half eaten slice of pizza resting on a magazine.

Toni blinks, caught off guard.

“Well, not talk,” Steve revises, “But you know what I mean.”

Toni glances at the robot she’d been chastising. “I probably spend more time with Dummy and Jarvis than anyone else.” she says. “They’re the only ones who can put up with me.” She shrugs.

“It’s not a hardship for us,” comes a wry British voice from seemingly nowhere and everywhere. Steve jumps, because he didn’t know Toni employed a ghost.

Toni snorts with a hint of a smile. “Steve, meet Jarvis. Jarvis, say hello to Captain America.” Toni addresses the room at large.

“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain Rogers.” Jarvis says and Steve still can’t figure out who or what Jarvis is.

“Uh, you too, Jarvis?” Steve tries, because whoever Jarvis is, he clearly matters to Toni. She just laughs.

“Jarvis is an artificial intelligence. Think of him as the world’s smartest, sweetest computer ghost.” Toni suggests.

“While that is an exceedingly inaccurate description, I believe there was a compliment in there, madam.” Jarvis replies.

Toni chuckles. “Just buttering you up, Jarvis,” she tells him.

“Consider me buttered,” Jarvis sounds faintly amused, and there’s something in that wry cadence that reminds him of Monty and sets Steve strangely at ease. “And shall I take the liberty of ordering dinner for you and Captain Rogers, or will you be making your own arrangements?”

“Subtle, Jarvis.” Toni rolls her eyes. “C’mon, let’s go break into the vending machine on the 7th floor. That one has the most Cheetos.”

Despite Toni’s suggestion, they end up wandering out into Hell’s Kitchen and Toni drags him over to a Vietnamese restaurant and they eat noodles. She tries to teach Steve how to use chopsticks, but she just ends up laughing at him when the waitress brings him a pair jury-rigged with rubber bands and newspaper to do half the work for him.

“Those are for children, I want you to know that,” Toni tells him. “You can punch Hitler, but you can’t use basic cutlery.” There’s an amused smirk on her face but where Steve might have felt like he was being made fun of yesterday, today he just shakes his head with a smile of his own.

“Tell me when you know what the difference is between a salad fork and a dessert fork,” Steve jibes back. Toni gestures wildly, chopsticks still in hand.

“Start on the outside and move inside, everyone learned that from Titanic,” she says. “Well, I learned it from Pretty Woman, but I’m ancient.”

Steve frowns. “How old are you? Or are you still not allowed to ask dames that?” Steve asks. Toni snorts.

“I think you’re not allowed to call them ‘dames,’ actually,” Toni suggests, but waves Steve off when he opens his mouth to apologize. “I’m kidding. I’m 38.” She says it easily, which Steve imagines that if all women looked like she did at that age, they’d have no issue admitting it.

“Oh, yeah, ancient. You’re talking to a 92 year old.” Steve offers. Toni snorts, taking a pull from her beer.

“Please, you’re all of what, 24?” Toni asks. Steve finds himself smiling.

“July 4th, 1920.” he admits. Toni chokes on her beer.

“You’re shitting me,” she says. “You were not born on Independence Day.”

Steve nods. “Go on, I’ve heard all the jokes.” Steve offers.

Toni looks like she’s trying to compose herself, but a grin breaks through, anyway, devolving into full fledged laughter. “Steve Rogers and Ronald Reagan, American heroes,” Toni finally chokes out into her pho.

Steve frowns. “The actor?” he asks, because what does he have to do with America?

Toni’s face lights up with unholy glee. “Oh my god, please tell me I get to tell you about Ronald Reagan,” she begs. “I won’t ask for anything else this year, just tell me I get to tell you about Ronald Reagan.”

Steve shrugs. “I met him, once. Is he still around or something?” Steve asks.

Toni lays her hand over Steve’s and pats it twice. “He was the president, Steve.” she says.

Steve frowns a little deeper.

“Of?” Steve prompts.

Toni snorts. “Of America.”

Steve stares at Toni for a long moment.

“It’s not nice to make things up to confuse me,” Steve says, letting in a hint of reproach, because he thought they’d all gotten this out of the way when Clint finally gone for broke and told him that, in the future, everyone had both sets of genitalia. “And I can just use the Google.”

“Oh, baby, I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. 40th president of these United States.” Toni croons at him.

“God,” Steve mumbles. Ronald Reagan.

“You look so precious when you’re horrified,” Toni chirps, cheerfully stealing the last of the bean sprouts.

When they get back to SHIELD, Coulson is waiting.

“What, was I supposed to check him out? Like a library book?” Toni folds her arms over her chest.

“Ms. Stark, Mr. Richards is here to see you,” Coulson says calmly.

Toni dramatically covers her face with her hands and groans. “Fucking Reed.” she grouses, already taking out her phone and typing furiously, getting to the elevator before she freezes and turns.

“You, me, shop, breaking shit, tomorrow?” Toni asks, jabbing the up button.

Steve has no idea if he’s supposed to be doing anything tomorrow, but he nods anyway.

“Bring coffee!” she yells as she gets on the elevator.

Steve is disproportionately looking forward to it.

Coulson sighs.

***


The next morning, as he’s filling up three mugs of coffee- he’s going to be ready this time- Natasha appears behind him. Steve doesn’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that she can sneak up on him. On the one hand, it says valuable things about her stealth abilities. On the other hand, no one’s been able to sneak up on him since 1943.

“Going back for more?” she asks, eyeing the mugs. Steve is starting to think that the military façade of SHIELD is just a front for gossiping.

“Toni asked me to come down to her workshop, yes,” Steve offers, because his life is an open book, excluding the parts that are classified or redacted.

“What about that part where you guys totally hate each other?” Steve at least heard Clint coming first.

“I never hated Toni,” Steve protests. “I may have been frustrated with her, but I never hated her.”

“Coulson said you got dinner last night,” Natasha says, as a nonsequitor.

Clint whistles. “If she takes you out on two more dates, Cap, you gotta put out,” he says and Steve wonders what it means that he actually likes Toni best, her ability to get under his skin and irritate the living hell out of him aside. It probably just means he doesn’t like everyone else terribly much.

“A gentleman and a lady can be friends without there being anything inappropriate,” Steve tells Clint, trying to keep his tone easy.

“We have to make him watch When Harry Met Sally,” Clint says to Natasha. Natasha ignores him, stares at Steve for a moment, and then takes one of Steve’s three mugs of coffee and disappears down the hall.

“I’m just saying, Cap,” Clint slaps Steve on the back hard and disappears in a different direction, taking another mug. Steve sighs, fills another two mugs- one of them proclaiming “World’s Best Assassin”, which Steve chooses not to think about too closely.

Still holding three mugs of coffee as he takes the elevator down, he thinks about what Clint and Natasha were unsubtly hinting at.

He does think that men and women can be friends without there being any kind of romantic anything. Steve can admit that he thinks Toni is attractive without necessarily being attracted to her. That settled in his mind, he resolves to just ignore them and enjoy this breakthrough in his working relationship with Toni. He thinks they might even be friends, maybe. It’s tentative, but Steve feels cautiously optimistic.

“Oh thank god,” Toni says, waiting immediately outside the elevator doors. “Jarvis said you were coming.” She takes two of the mugs, leaving Steve with the one that has a fake gun for a handle. Toni looks tired and she chugs down both mugs in a repeat of yesterday’s performance and looks so covetously at Steve’s mug that he just sighs and hands it over.

“Were you working all night?” Steve asks, slightly horrified as he realizes she’s wearing yesterday’s clothes and there are bags under her eyes.

“Huh, that didn’t heal as much as I thought it would,” She stares up at the cut and bruise on his forehead. “Although, probably anyone else would be dead, so you’re doing pretty good, I don’t mean to criticize the results.”

The bruise had still been ugly and purple this morning, even if it covered less of his forehead and the cut was tight with scabbing. Steve shrugs. “It doesn’t hurt,” he says.

Toni purses her mouth in thought. “I’ll just have to wait for your next head wound to compare results,” she eventually says.

Steve snorts. “Thanks for the patience,” he teases.

Toni shakes her head. “Actually, if I did this right- and I did- there won’t be any future head wounds to compare to. Try this on,” Toni thrusts something into his hands and it takes him a second to realize it’s a new cowl. It feels cool and smooth, as familiar as the shield, but it’s strangely flexible.

“Did you… make a new vibranium alloy last night?” Steve asks, still turning it over and over in his hands.

“Yeah, don’t worry, it wasn’t as hard as the particle accelerator in the living room, c’mon, just put it on, I want to make sure it fits,” she says, her fingers tapping jittery-fast against her leg. Steve frowns.

“Did you sleep at all?” He’s determined to get an answer.

Toni waves her hand loosely. “Sometimes I don’t sleep, it’s fine, whatever, come on, Steve, you’re killing me.” Toni whines. Steve resolves to make her go to bed in a moment, but curiosity is getting the best of him.

It’s cold for only a few seconds before warming to body temperature, just like the shield, sitting snugly against his skull. “Feels fine,” he offers and judging from Toni’s pleased expression, it must look fine as well.

“Okay, I did some preliminary tests, but we should probably do some other ones. Where’d I put the gun?” Toni is rummaging under her piles of genius debris already.

Steve pulls her back from the counter, wondering why all the women in his life seem to want to shoot him. “You haven’t slept and you just drank three cups of coffee. I don’t want you to think that I’m not grateful or excited to test this out, I just don’t think it’s a good idea for you to try to shoot me in the face right now,” Steve points out.

“Would ‘I’ve done more dangerous things on less sleep’ be a compelling argument for you to reconsider that decision?” she asks, eyes narrowed thoughtfully.

“Extremely no,” Steve answers.

"When I was a kid, I thought you were going to be fun," Toni says accusingly. "You're letting down my inner child."

Steve chuckles. "If I promise to let you shoot me tomorrow, will you go to bed?" Steve tries.

Toni stares at him, and Steve realizes she's actually deciding whether he's trustworthy. "What if I take a nap? Can I shoot you tonight, then?" she says shrewdly.

Steve feels exactly like he's fourteen and minding Mrs. Weissmuller's kids again. "Depends on how long you nap for," Steve says. They stare each other down for what seems like a whole minute before Toni sighs melodramatically.

"This is the most effective bribe since Santa, so you know." Toni grouses as she heads for a cot half shielded by a giant sheet of some metal and three different shirts, like a blanket fort.

"You really want to shoot me that badly?" Steve asks. He means it as a joke, but it comes out more like a question.

Toni pauses for a second, caught off guard as she climbs onto the cot, but then she laughs. "Think of this as me getting out the last of being pissed at you. We can hug it out after I shoot you." she offers.

Steve opens his mouth to respond, but nothing comes.

"Don't worry, I know you were pissed at me too. You can shoot me, after. Just let me put the suit on first." Toni closes her eyes. "Don't shoot me before then."

"I'm not going to shoot you," Steve says, a little horrified.

Toni hums a little, sleepily. "Sure ya are. It'll be fun. Like bonding." Toni murmurs, and then she's out like a light. Steve stares for a moment longer, because he's seen men who could fall asleep anywhere, but it's like a switch was flipped between awake and asleep. He's startled out of his thoughts by an unladylike snore.

"Sweet dreams," Steve says, draping the blanket crumpled at the foot of the bed over Toni, who promptly kicks it off. Steve laughs, quietly, as he leaves. He thinks he hears someone whisper "thank you" and is certain he imagined it when he realizes it was probably Jarvis.

"My pleasure," Steve replies, feeling a little silly, but the lights dim and the door slides open for him courteously.

He's spending a few hours trying to catch up- Ronald Reagan, really- when he already gets an email from Toni.

I'm up come on I slept

Steve shakes his head and carefully types back.

Toni, that was hardly a catnap. Four more hours at least until I give you a gun. Steve.

you are the WORST

Steve snorts but keeps reading about the War on Drugs. Exactly four hours after that, another email alert pings.

I haven’t slept this much since 1982 COMEON

Steve isn’t sure whether it’ll work, but he tries anyway.

“Hey, Jarvis?” he asks quietly, even though he’s in his own room and there’s no one else to see him look like a fool if he’s wrong.

“Yes, Captain Rogers?” Jarvis responds. Steve doesn’t know if he feels vindicated or alarmed.

“Toni slept, right?” he asks.

“Miss Stark slept for a total of seven plus hours, which is roughly 2.4 times her average sleep intake.” Jarvis answers smoothly without a pause. “I would perhaps still not advocate allowing her to shoot you.”

Steve chuckles, but then pauses. “Wait, she only sleeps… three hours a night?” Steve is a little horrified- there are times when you get sleep catch as catch can, but that can’t be healthy.

“Roughly, Captain Rogers.” Jarvis responds and Steve doesn’t think he imagines the disapproval into the artificial voice.

“Huh,” Steve mutters. He doesn’t want to shake the détente he’s reached with Toni, so he’s hesitant to pull the team leader card. But he can’t help but frown, thinking about the slightly manic edge to her exhaustion. Genius and coffee are no replacements for taking care of yourself.

“If you don’t mind, sir, I feel that I should tell you that, if you fail to arrive in what Miss Stark considers a timely manner, she will take it upon herself to find you.” Jarvis offers.

Steve shakes his head. “I’m not exactly surprised to hear that. And don’t call me sir; ‘Steve’ is fine.” He’s not sure how he knows, because it’s not like he has any physical cues to work form, but the moment of silence as Jarvis processes this request seems almost amused.

“I would find myself slightly at a loss to do so, sir. If you don't mind.” Jarvis says, still amused more than apologetic.

“Well, uh, the offer stands, then,” Steve finally comes up with, because what else can you tell an electronic butler when he refuses to call you by your Christian name?

“Indeed, sir. Thank you.” Jarvis opens the door, a tacit reminder that Toni is waiting.

When Steve gets to the workshop- somehow faster than usual, elevators arriving more promptly, moving more quickly- Toni has scattered the contents on the counters into new drifts.

“My gun is very missing, Jarvis,” she says accusingly.

“You cannot imagine that I know where it is, Miss Stark.” Jarvis says and Steve almost laughs at the fake sincerity in his voice. Dummy chirps innocently.

“This is gross insubordination. Just because you have a crush on Steve now doesn’t- oh, hey,” Toni trails off awkwardly.

“Did you sleep well?” Steve asks, the soul of consideration.

Toni scowls at him. “I never should have introduced you two,” she says direly. “He likes you better now and he won’t find my gun for me. I’m not going to miss!” The last is directed skyward, accusingly.

“Didn’t say you would.” Steve tries diplomatically. He glances around the workshop, wondering if SHIELD has a cleaning crew paid highly enough to deal with the mess. He also belatedly notices Toni showered and changed, albeit into an even more disreputable pair of jeans that appear to be more hole than cloth and a tee shirt so thin the glow of the arc reactor is more obvious than the faded “MIT.”

“Do you own anything besides fancy suits and other people’s clothing?” falls out of Steve’s mouth before he can really catch up with it. Toni glances down at herself.

“I think I bought this shi- no, wait, it’s Rhodey’s, too.” Toni says with a shrug. “I just put on whatever’s around.”

“You could return it,” Steve suggests. Toni rolls her eyes.

“Yes, Mom,” she grouses, but goodnaturedly. “Now, since someone is hiding my gun, today's agenda has to be postponed, and don’t suggest the shooting range, I’m not allowed.” Steve is about to ask, even though he’s sure he doesn’t want to know, but Toni breezes on. “I could punch you in the suit,” she proposes. “Get out all those bad feelings. After sleeping on it, it doesn’t seem so necessary, but I’m open to suggestion.”

Steve shakes his head quickly. “We could just shake on it,” he counters, sticking his hand out. Toni sighs, but there’s a hint of a smile in the corner of her mouth.

“Shake on it. Well, then.” She sticks her hand out in return. Only the catch of rough calluses and the force behind it stops her hand from seeming impossibly delicate in his.

“I’ll try to be less of a bitch,” she says solemnly, and before he can protest her word choice or anything else, she goes on: “If you do, too.”

Steve stares at her for a long moment, torn between offense and defense, and instead he just laughs.

“Okay,” he agrees. Toni looks a little surprised, like she hadn’t really expected that, which is okay- God knows Steve didn’t either.

It feels like they’ve overcome some huge hurdle, but Steve finds himself unwilling to push further, and apparently Toni feels the same way. They fall back into the safe pattern of yesterday’s casual experimentation- “breaking shit,” as Toni puts it- a little hesitant, but agreeably. With all of Toni’s enforced sleeping, the day is hardly young and at about 6:30, Toni suddenly remembers she has a cellphone. From the wincing she does as she checks the messages, her fooling around in the workshop with Steve had been in lieu of something important.

"Whoops," she says, typing quickly. "I can get a dress. This'll be fine." Toni pauses and looks at Steve speculatively. Steve resists the urge to hide.

"Do you own a suit?" she asks.

Because what Toni has forgotten is the gala charity event her company is hosting for the rescue workers of New York.

"I don't have a really good track record with these things, okay?" she says, insisting his uniform will be "good, no, great," with the addendum of "the 40s one, it's delicious, you look great in it."

"Now go, we're showering and reconvening in the lobby of HQ in one hour, I have to bully Elie Saab into getting me a dress in fifty minutes." She shoos him out of the workshop before he can protest that she a) didn't ask him and he b) didn't say yes.

"This is for rescue workers," she yells down the hallway at him. "We are being charitable, stop being recalcitrant!"

Steve sighs and reflects that at least no one is asking him to sell war bonds yet.

He takes a shower and combs his hair, even if there's nothing he can do about the cut and the bruise, which has at least faded to an ugly mottled yellow green, in place of the livid purple of a day ago. The uniform fits precisely, as Steve had thought it would, even if he’s uncomfortable with his service jacket out there for anyone to see who knows how to look. He's just glad they didn't include the Medal of Honor.

Steve's done with about twenty minutes to spare, so he wanders into the kitchen to check his full reflection in the stainless steel fridge, because the mirror in his bathroom only goes from about his eyebrows to mid chest.

"Damn, Cap, you clean up nice," Clint says. Bruce raises his eyebrows from the armchair in the sort of communal space they'd claimed as their living room.

"What's the occasion?" he asks.

Steve rolls his eyes. "I got shanghaied into going to some charity thing with Toni?" Steve explains. "I don't really know."

Natasha walks into the kitchen, staring at Steve. "Okay, come here, you look like we beat you," she says.

Steve tactfully neglects to mention that she frequently does beat on him without remorse when they spar, and instead puts himself in her hands.

Which is how Toni, crossing through the kitchen in an impossibly short silk robe and clutching a garment bag, finds Steve getting his makeup done. Bruce is pretending he's not watching and Clint is hovering immediately over Natasha’s shoulder, begging to get his eye poked out by something- a brush, or her finger.

"Yeah, no," Toni just says after staring for a long moment. "I'll be back in five minutes and I swear, if you put mascara on him, I will scratch your eyes out, Romanoff."

"With what? I've seen your nails," Natasha calls back as Toni passes through the living room and disappears into one of the rooms off the living room.

"I will go north of 125th, those things will be made of adamantium," Toni shouts through the door. For some reason, Natasha is grinning.

"You could take her," Clint says loyally.

Natasha snorts. "Of course I could take her," Natasha says, pressing powder carefully against Steve's forehead.

"There, now you don't look so much like she’s been riding you hard and putting you away wet." Clint says brightly.

Steve is horrified by what he’s implying, but he doesn’t manage to say anything, mostly because Natasha's death-giving fingers are still really close to his face. Sure enough, when she lets him go and he looks at his reflection in the refrigerator, there's no sign of the bruise; the cut just looks raised like an old scar.

"Thanks," he tells her, because even if he doesn't get the point, it was a nice thing for her to do. She shrugs. Clint nudges her with his elbow.

"If I let you make me over, do we get to have a slumber party?" he asks.

Natasha stares at him. "What would be the point?" she asks in return, walking out of the kitchen and into the living room.

"That was a sick burn," Toni pronounces solemnly. Steve turns to look and his jaw actually drops.

She's wearing a floor length red gown, glittering even in the industrial lighting of the SHIELD building, coming high up against her throat and just barely brushing the tops of her shoulders. Her dark hair is wavy and messy, but it looks intentional, just like the dark smudging around her eyes. She looks like- well, she looks like a vamp, is what she looks like. When she breezes past him a smooth expanse of back is on display, the dress cut down to there in the back. Steve hasn't seen anyone who looks like that outside of a movie.

"Come on, soldier, Pep is going to kill me if I'm late." Toni says, stopping to let Steve catch up. When he reaches her, he reflexively offers his arm. Toni looks at him curiously for a moment before taking it carefully.

"Have him home by 11!" Clint calls, because nothing keeps Clint down for long, "sick burn" or not.

Bruce, the only person with any normal social manners, or who at least hasn’t indirectly accused Steve of sexual intrigue with a teammate, just says, "Have a good time." Natasha does something complicated with a half twist of her lips and a quirk of an eyebrow that makes Toni sigh and mutter, "whole damn world is against me."

***


They get downstairs- Steve thinks he sees Agent Coulson looking disapproving in the background- and Steve is sort of expecting one of SHIELD’s anonymous black cars, but instead there's a beautiful sleek silver car idling on the curb. Toni grins as a man steps out of the driver’s seat.

"Thanks, Happy, I'll take it from here," she says, slipping around to take his place.

"You got it, Boss," he replies, handing her the keys. When Toni gets behind the wheel, she casually hikes her skirt up to the middle of her thighs.

"Hate driving in dresses," she mutters, putting on her seat belt over the folds of fabric.

Steve resolutely looks out the window and not at her legs. "I could drive," he offers.

Toni snorts, but Steve thinks he can hear affection in it. "Not that I don't trust you with the country and the planet, but I really don't trust you with my car." she says.

Steve can't help but laugh. "I know how to drive," he points out.

Toni favors Steve with a quick, amused look. "Not in New York in 2012." She shakes her head and strokes the steering wheel. "I would never let him have you, baby," Toni coos at the car like a proud mother. "Besides, I'm trying to have today not end in you having a head wound. It's my new thing," she says. "That and wheat grass smoothies. My new things."

Steve frowns. "What on earth is wheat grass?" he asks, his nose involuntarily scrunching up. It doesn't sound appetizing.

"I'll make you one," she promises. "It looks like something out of the bottom of a pool. But it tastes- well, no, it tastes like something out of the bottom of a pool, too. But allegedly, it's good for you, so."

Steve frowns a little more deeply. "Doing things that are good for you is your 'new thing'?" he asks and Toni shrugs.

"I had a somewhat dissolute youth," she says.

"I can't imagine Howard letting that happen," is out of Steve's mouth before he can remember the cryptic note in Natasha's assessment of Toni: "Father issues." Toni's smile is small and fake.

"Well, I would have hated to stop disappointing him," Toni's eyes are fixed on the snarl of traffic in front of them.

Steve tries to think of anything to say that wouldn't be an obvious platitude. "I'm sure he'd appreciate you helping me," Steve finally settles on, after thinking on it for almost too long. He remembers Howard as being critical, but fair, funny and helpful, and always looking forward. He wants to be able to tell Toni she's wrong, that of course Howard was proud of her, that she never disappointed him, but things like that always sound flat coming from someone else.

"You know, he told me a story about you, once." Toni's voice sounds almost detached, but Steve's looking at her face and there's more emotion there than he knows what to do with.

"Yeah?" Steve prompts when it seems like she's not going to continue. She shakes her head.

"I was maybe 7, out of my mind on antibiotics, fever high. I don't think he really thought I could hear him or understand it, just talking to have something to do, probably. But he told me about Captain America, about how he never quit, about how he liked the toughest girl, about how he jumped out of a plane to save his best friend." Toni glances at Steve. "About how you disappeared and he tried to find you for months- years, but he couldn't find ever find you."

Steve hadn't known Howard had looked. He wonders for a second what would have happened if Howard had found him in 1944, in 1945, even. He swallows past the thought.

"It was the first time I can remember him admitting there was something he couldn't do. I thought he was invincible." Toni is still staring straight out the windshield.

"Well, if he had done it, I wouldn't be here with you now, would I?" Steve points out, when the silence is too much for him to stand. The wide smile Toni turns on him is a little frayed around the edges, but there's a core of sincerity in it.

"Well," Toni echoes, a little unsteady sounding. "To failures, then." She seems jittery and unsettled though, and Steve wishes he knew a) how to talk to women, at all, ever, and b) how to fix it.

"And you know," Steve says desperately, fumbling truthfully. "I like you better than him, anyway."

Toni turns to look at him, her eyes startled and a little wild before she starts laughing. "If I'd known all it'd take was a head wound to get you to warm up to me, I would have tried that first," she manages through her laughter. Toni fills the rest of the car ride with a story about someone called "Rhodey" and a concussion incurred followed by something involving a judge and a talent show and something called "pop and locking." It takes Steve most of the story to realize that "Rhodey" is actually Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes, aka War Machine. He tries to reconcile the serious service photo and the perfectly pressed Air Force uniform with someone who could have "no, man, moves like a tortured giraffe. It was the saddest thing I've ever seen, and I've seen Hawkeye."

It also takes him most of the story to realize he's been redirected and there's no tactful way to bring up their previous conversation- and Steve still doesn't even know what he'd say if it came back up.

"Of course, by the time we made it to the doctor, he was fine and he insisted he never had a concussion at all, but if I were him, I'd have taken that excuse. Because otherwise that's what he dances like without a head injury and I would not admit to that," Toni concludes. She shoots Steve a sidelong glance. "He'll want to smother me in my sleep for telling you that story, though. I think he still has Captain America pajamas. Anyway, you'll like him. Rhodey's Eagle Scout project was making a Victory Garden so he could ‘understand the home front mentality.’ And then he gave the produce to a shelter. You're like sweet, virtuous peas in a pod." Toni is carefully avoiding looking at Steve. "Way too nice for me."

Steve frowns. "You talk yourself down a lot," he says, trying to correctly frame what he wants to say. "I wish you'd stop. You're a good person."

Toni nearly gets rear ended when she slams on the brakes suddenly.

"Toni?" Steve asks, worried.

She shakes her head and smoothly rejoins the flow of traffic. "I'm fine, sorry about that." she says, smiling a little, but her fingers are clutched around the steering wheel so hard they're snow white. He's trying to think of what to say and coming up blank.

"Okay," Toni pulls up in from of a classy hotel. "Oh, and before we're in front of a bunch of cameras and someone from Gawker is asking you if I've slept with George Clooney, feel free to say no comment."

"I don't know what Gawker is, but I'm pretty sure it's none of their business," Steve says, as neutrally as he can manage. He thinks it's tacky to ask someone if their date has slept around, which is when he remembers he's just escorting Toni. He's her date, but not... her date. Which actually probably just means the question is even more inappropriate.

"And you're going to meet Pepper, who is probably the most important person in the universe, so, not that I'm doubting you, you're perfect, but make a good impression." Toni says, ignoring Steve's reply as she gets out of the car. Steve kind of feels useless for not getting the door for her- even if Natasha said he didn't have to. Steve had tried to explain that it was just a courtesy thing. He'd open the door for a fella. He just makes a point to do it for ladies. Steve also chooses to focus on this rather than the idea of meeting Pepper. Pepper is the CEO of Stark Industries, but more importantly, one of Toni’s closest friends.

Steve has been the subject of a lot of bright bulb flashes in his day, but he's still not really prepared for the barrage of blue-white light that momentarily blinds him. He can feel Toni's hand insinuating itself in the crook of his elbow and he automatically makes room for her to slip her arm in his. There's a general clamor, asking if they’re more than teammates, and Steve barely has time to scowl when he hears "How's George?" before Toni has whisked them through the doors.

"That wasn't so bad now, was it?" she asks, grinning, in the elevator. As much as Steve knows that the real Toni is a grimy, beautiful mess in a workshop, when the elevator doors open and she leads him out into a crowded room full of strangers, he can't help but be impressed. She poses for pictures, shakes hands, cracks jokes. Steve is a little envious of her easy manner- he'd learned how to press the flesh the hard way. Toni parks him for a second after the hundredth round of "my friend, Captain Rogers, yes, he’s Captain America" with firm instructions to stay where he is, she's getting Pepper.

Steve has just enough time for his palms to get sweaty before Toni comes back with a graceful, faintly amused redhead towed behind her. "Captain Rogers," she says smoothly even as Toni practically shoves them together.

"Miss Potts," Steve swallows nervously. "Everyone at SHIELD has nothing but good things to say about you. It's a pleasure to finally meet you in person." He manages to wipe his palm against his pants before he shakes her hand.

"Likewise," she says and Steve gets the impression she thinks something is funny, but he has no idea what. "Toni talks about you. A lot. In fact, she was just saying-"

"Okay, wow, it's so great you've met! So many people for you talk to!" Toni takes Steve's shoulders and starts steering him away. "And let’s go this way?"

"But we just met," Steve manages as Toni successfully puts two groups of people between them and Pepper.

"Yeah, but you looked thirsty. C'mon, there's an open bar, what's more American than that?" Toni says.

Steve frowns. "If you were worried I was going to embarrass you-" Steve starts as Toni stares at him incredulously.

"Are you joking?" she says. "Seriously?"

Steve adjusts his cuffs. "I know I'm a little difficult to talk with sometimes, I-" Steve starts.

Toni waves a hand around before putting it over his mouth. "Oh my god, I was worried she would embarrass me," Toni explains. "She's known me for 17 years and I've put her through an ocean of shit. Pepper enjoys nothing more than watching me squirm. Embarrassed by you, don't be ridiculous." She takes her hand away and Steve feels silly and stupidly defensive.

"Oh. Well, um," Steve mutters.

Toni rolls her eyes, but she's sort of smiling at him. "Ridiculous," Toni repeats, taking Steve's arm and leading back toward the bar.

"But uh, you know, I can't imagine she could say anything that would make me think less of you," Steve says. Toni stumbles, her hand clutching at his arm, but before he can help steady her, she's got her feet under her again.

"Clearly, you don't know me that well," Toni says, leaning over the bar to signal the bartender. "Yeah, whiskey and- wait, no, just, shit, just soda. Oh, and whatever he wants, what do you want?"

"Soda, that's fine," Steve says, off-hand. "But I think I do know you pretty well." Toni opens her mouth to speak but he just keeps going, probably wrecking all their careful relationship building. "You're so worried you're going to disappoint people that you do anything you can to make sure they don't look past the surface to see how much it matters to you- and how hard you try to do the right thing. Even when you do the wrong thing, it's for the right reasons- even when you're driving me nuts." He thinks about how, even when he benched her, when she saw them with Loki on CNN, her first thought was to get to the team, to help them- to help him.

"Your brain works like nothing I've ever seen, even your father. You've got a hell of a chip on your shoulder, but God knows I had one too. You're a valuable asset and I want to be able to trust you, Toni, to work with you. Can we do that?" The bartender leaves their drinks in the tense silence. He feels like he's always walking on rotten ice in their conversations.

"Okay, Steve. Okay." Toni finally says, her voice unusually low, even for her somewhat deep voice. She takes a deep breath and doesn't quite meet his eyes. "Have you ever not tried to find the good in someone?" Her voice is strange as it tries for levity.

"C'mon, Toni. I wasn't kidding earlier. You've gotta stop talking yourself down," Steve reminds her, seriously.

"Maybe I just like hearing what you like about me," she says, taking a long gulp of the soda. "Everyone else I talk to just yells at me."

Steve shakes his head. "Well, just ask, then," he suggests.

Toni gives him a long inscrutable look. "I'll hold you to that. Okay, c'mon we've done our duty, right? I think I even kissed a baby or something at one point, let's just- can we go?" There's something a little frantic under her expression so Steve just nods.

"Of course." He automatically places his hand on the small of her back, just below the exposed window of pale skin, to guide her out.

The valet is apologetic while they wait for the car- clearly they didn't think that anyone would be leaving that early. While they were inside the temperature must have dropped sharply- Toni shivers and Steve spares a second to think that of course she forgot to bring a coat. Steve shrugs out of his jacket and drapes it over her shoulders. It's absurd on her, like a little girl playing dress-up. Toni blinks at him for a second, as though it didn't even really occur to her that she was cold before tugging it around her.

"Thanks," she says, the dull green making the red fabric at her throat look even brighter. Steve reflects that Toni's not terribly good at taking care of herself- too much coffee, not enough sleep. Too arrogant to think she can burn herself out, too busy thinking about “more important things.” The car finally appears in front of them and Toni slips her arms through the sleeves, shoving them up her forearms.

"Chief," she palms off some crisp bills to the attendant in exchange for the keys. From the look on the man's face as he glances down, it's a lot more than people used to tip in Steve's day.

"C'mon, I want a burger," Toni calls over the car impatiently and Steve can't help but duck a smile into his shoulder as he gets into the car.

They pull up in front of some kind of 24-hour burger place- "the power and glory of New York, White Castle whenever you want it, Steve." He's pretty sure that it's not legal to leave the car on the street like that, but Toni seems unconcerned as she leaves it on the side of 8th avenue.

"It's going to get towed," Steve tells her. Toni laughs, her shoulders already relaxing. She looks more at home wearing an evening gown in a fast food joint than she did surrounded by tuxedos and champagne and Steve thinks that he might never figure her out completely.

She orders an insane amount of food, but before he can protest that even he can't eat that much, the burgers start piling up and they're smaller than his palm. It's a change from the enormous things he sees on tv and in restaurants, certainly.

She takes the whole greasy pile and sets up court, thoughtfully shoving up the sleeves of Steve's jacket first. Steve himself rolls up his shirt sleeves and tucks his tie into his shirt and feels more himself than in a long time- playing hooky and eating junk, Toni flashing a grin at him as she squeezes out packet after packet of ketchup.

"Thank you for bringing me tonight," Steve says, and he doesn't just mean the fundraiser, but he's not sure how to say the rest.

"Honestly, I should always take you instead of Rhodey or Pepper. I don't think they've ever aided and abetted my escape before." she says. "Also, Rhodey has never once let me even touch his uniform." She settles into the jacket like it’s mink.

“Well, if I can, I will,” Steve offers, because Toni’s defenses are made out of amused condescension and imperious disobedience, but there are glaringly obvious holes: her childhood, her father, her reputation. Steve’s done enough accidental damage, seen the frozen, winded look when he hits a tender, unguarded place, and he doesn’t like the idea of people waiting for her in crowds with cameras intentionally angling for it.

“We should get you a tuxedo, then. Actually, we should probably get the whole team respectable clothes, Fury’s bound to make us do something horrible for PR soon.” Toni looks thoughtful. “Maybe I should bring you and Thor next time. That’ll send someone at UsWeekly’s kids to college.”

“As long as I don’t have to sell anything,” Steve says, not sure what the rest of it means.

Toni snorts. “I don't think SHIELD is that crass, but we’ll give them time,” Toni waves a fry in an aimless gesture. “Something good and patriotic. Like the Big Gulp or eagles.”

For all that it claims to be a 24-hour place, they’re essentially shooed out with a curt “if you’re not ordering, you’re walking,” the moment they’re done with all their food. Toni laughs like she thinks it’s the best thing ever. Steve guesses that hardly anywhere throws her out and she likes the novelty, but by the time they’re back in the car she’s already started a steady stream of chatter that Steve finds strangely soothing. Toni never lands on a subject for longer than a second, mercurial. She makes connections that Steve doesn’t understand or can’t know and he should find it overwhelming or frustrating, but he discovers he likes watching her mind go, even if he can’t see the thing that sparks it.

She drives up and takes a lazy loop around the block to drop him off right in front of SHIELD HQ, declining his invitation to come inside.

“Nah, I’m headed to my own digs. Sorry for not seeing you to your door, I’m a bad date.” Toni smiles, toothy and playful and Steve thinks that if this really were a date, he’d probably ask to kiss her right now.

“Uh, no problem,” Steve says. “Thank you.” He almost stumbles getting out of the car but catches himself at the last moment.

“Anytime,” Toni tosses out the window and less than a second after Steve closes the door, she’s speeding down the street like a shot, cutting off taxis left and right. He shakes his head and nods his way in past security, slipping into a waiting elevator.

Steve abruptly realizes Toni’s still wearing his jacket.

He’s not really one for introspection- he prides himself on making informed, well thought out decisions in the first place, not leaving any space for regret or later recriminations. Which makes trying to sort out the tangled mess his thoughts are in even more annoying.

Steve’s come to a couple of conclusions already:

1. He values Toni as a teammate and person.
2. Despite being a certifiable genius, Toni is completely incapable of taking care of herself in a nuts-and-bolts, remembering-to-eat kind of way.
3. He wants to take care of her.
4. Toni interacting with him socially is most likely just an effort to work past their initial animosity and he should definitely stop thinking of those interactions as dates as they are nothing of the kind nor should they be.
5. He really likes Toni.

He thinks Toni’s a person who, if convinced you really like her, goes all in. Her about-face and his own readjustment of attitude have left him turned around, is all. Most days, Steve is probably lucky that he has his head on at all, let alone on straight. Certainly, as a concerned commanding officer and possibly friend, Steve can take an interest in Toni’s well being. Re-resolved to keep all thoughts strictly platonic and professional, Steve steps out of the elevator with a light heart.



<a href="http://twentysomething.dreamwidth.org/26571.html'>PART 2.</a>

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