twentysomething: (Default)
PART 1.

Length: 8,500 wordish this part

Notes: All the stuff I've said earlier is still applicable- I also hope that you guys appreciate that I'm going to work in the morning and stayed up JUST FOR YOU to finish editing this. JUST FOR YOU.




Steve never came home from a date to find his parents waiting up for him- or really, any dates- which is probably why finding Clint and Natasha still up and staring directly at him is so incredibly unnerving. Clint’s in an armchair he must have dragged over to face the elevator, appropriated from the communal living room, Natasha standing next to it.

“Well, that was unexpected,” Clint finally says, as Steve’s heart starts beating again.

“What do you mean?” Steve asks, bewildered. “You’ve been waiting in that chair all night?”

Clint snorts as Natasha steps over to closely peer at Steve. “No, Jarvis told us Toni pulled up three minutes ago, the chair is for the spirit of the thing.” Clint just waves a hand like he does this kind of thing all the time; Steve is still completely baffled.

“What did you think was going to happen?” Steve inquires, as Natasha leans up under his chin. “What are you doing?”

“No evidence of hickeys or any other physical interaction,” Natasha reports, frowning slightly.

What?” Steve and Clint demand in unison, if for completely different reasons.

“I beg your pardon,” Steve says, as frostily as he can manage while he’s certain his ears are bright red. “Miss Stark asked me if I could accompany her to a fundraising event and I agreed, which is all that happened.” Natasha and Clint both raise their eyebrows in perfect synchronization. “And if I have to say anything else about this, or if I hear anything that is not strictly professional, I will be extremely disappointed.” Steve tries, deciding retreat is the better part of valor, after discretion’s spectacular failure. Which is to say, he turns about-face and walks to his room as quickly as he can manage without it looking like he’s running away.

He still hears Clint complain that he owes Bruce twenty bucks now. Steve makes a mental note to get a new team.

***


He takes it back when Thor offers to spar with him in the morning. He loves Thor.

“Well fought, my friend!” Thor bellows cheerfully from where the two of them would be in a stalemate- that is, if Steve snapping Thor’s neck could stop him. Gods, honestly. As it is, they chalk it up as another win for Thor. Steve does appreciate being able to come at someone with everything he has and know that they’ll be fine, if winded.

“You too,” Steve pants out, because while Thor might be able to do this without breaking a sweat, Steve’s shirt is soaked.

“For a mortal, you are a commendable warrior. It is no wonder they tell tales of your prowess still!” Thor disengages from the wrestling hold they’d ended up in and Steve just lays on the mat for a minute.

“Thanks?” Steve tries, sitting up. Thor’s compliments are always sincere, if a little backhanded.

“I am sure your courtship of the Woman of Iron will be a great success!” Thor slaps him hard on the shoulder and Steve skids forward a few inches.

“What?” Steve asks weakly.

Thor frowns. “Am I mistaken? Clinton spoke of it to me this morning. I would want for you the happiness I have found with my lovely Jane, Steven.” Thor looks so painfully earnest that Steve doesn’t have the heart to do anything other than shake his head.

“Toni and I are friends, Thor,” Steve tries.

Thor frowns more deeply. “Naturally. A lover should be a companion as well,” Thor says. Steve takes back that thing about loving Thor.

“I mean we’re just friends. I’m not... courting her,” Steve explains.

Thor looks like someone canceled Christmas. Well, Thor doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but still. “Do you find her unsightly? False or sour?” Thor demands, like Steve is breaking his heart. Thor is actually starting to look a little belligerent and Steve starts waving his hands, forestalling any escalation.

“No, no,” Steve says quickly. “Toni’s beautiful, she’s great.” Thor settles down a little, or at least looks less confrontational.

“I do not understand your hesitance,” Thor says. Steve searches for a way to make Thor understand.

“Well, it’s like- like you and Lady Sif, right? You think she’s pretty swell, but you’re not courting her, right?” Steve crosses his fingers. Thor cocks his head to one side, considering.

“Are you saying you admire Sif, not Toni?” Thor says gently, as if breaking bad news to a child. “For despite your valor, Steven, I must tell you, she would unman you.”

Steve shakes his head and resists the urge to laugh hysterically. “No. I mean, I admire her, but I’m not an admirer.” Steve feels like his entire foot is in his mouth. “But I’m saying how you feel about Sif is how I feel about Toni.”

Thor gives Steve the fish eye, like he just doesn’t believe him. “You know your own mind best,” Thor eventually says, still sounding unconvinced. “But do not allow your mind to overrule your heart.” Thor slaps Steve on the shoulder again and walks out, leaving Steve still sitting on the practice room floor wondering who says stuff like that.

Clint sticks his head around the door frame.

“Stark is looking for you. She said she had your jacket and if you didn’t come get it, she was going to steal it.” Clint beams at Steve. “Are you guys going steady? It’s like the head cheerleader wearing the varsity quarterback’s letterman jacket. Well, if the quarterback lettered in killing Nazis.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “It was cold out. She didn’t have a jacket, so I lent her mine. I would lend you my jacket.” Steve points out calmly. Getting flustered only makes Clint excited.

“Please, she would snatch all the hair out of my head,” Clint says and it’s only then that Steve realizes Clint has essentially directed him to the elevator closest to Toni’s workshop. “You should also tell her that I don’t have any designs on your virtue. Don’t want her to think I’m competition.”

Steve lets the elevator doors closing in Clint’s face be the only response he dignifies that statement with.

***


When he gets down to the workshop, Toni is nowhere in sight, but there’s an enormous floral arrangement on one of the counters.

“Uh, Toni?” Steve calls, and it might be nosy of him, but he can’t help but creep a little closer to the flowers. He panics for a second that it could be Toni’s birthday, but then he remembers her birthday’s not for another four months.

These flowers aren’t red
But violets are blue
I think you're hot
Do you want to screw?


The note is signed with a scrawled JH and Steve is so busy staring at the note in abject horror he doesn’t hear Toni sneak up behind him.

“Hey, good, Clint delivered a message. He’s about as dependable as the weather, but he was here and talking so I made him go get you instead.” Toni hops up on the counter next to the flowers.

“Uh, it’s none of my business, but-“ Steve can’t stop himself. “Who’re the flowers from?”

Toni blinks and looks around and nearly jumps when she sees the arrangement as if she really hadn’t noticed the foot and a half high cluster of orchids. “It must be the first,” Toni mutters, rolling her eyes.

Steve frowns. “What does that have anything to do with it?” he asks.

Toni snorts. “Justin Hammer.” Toni says. When she doesn’t explain any further, Jarvis chimes in.

“Mr. Hammer appears to have a standing order at the florists to be delivered to Miss Stark on the first of every month. His admiration is steadfast.” Jarvis makes “admiration” sound like a four letter word.

“They’re a little, uh,” Steve pauses to figure out how to phrase it delicately. “Well, he comes on a little strong. I mean, lime blossoms.”

Toni snorts again and opens her mouth to say something before breaking off and eyeballing Steve for a moment. “Lime blossoms?” she asks. Steve points out the spiky yellow-green fronds of flowers at the base of the arrangement. She cocks her head to the side, clearly waiting for an explanation.

“They mean, well.” Steve flounders, but Jarvis is a traitor who refuses to step in now. “Fornication.” The word comes out unintentionally quiet and there’s a frozen moment where Toni stares at him- until she bursts into loud, braying laughter.

“Oh my god,” she howls. “That- that is the best thing I’ve heard all week. Jesus!” She points at the fuchsia lobelia.

“Okay, okay, what’s that one?” she demands, grinning hugely.

Steve can’t help but smile back. “Um, lobelia,” he says, adding, when she waves her hand at him impatiently, “They mean malevolence or arrogance.”

Toni collapses into another gale of laughter. “Please tell me they made you learn this for your SHIELD training. Please.” Toni wipes a tear from the corner of her eye with her thumb, smudging her eyeliner carelessly.

Steve shakes his head. “I was sick a lot as a kid. I read through all of my dad’s old books first and when I ran out of those I read my mom’s,” Steve explains. “She loved gardening. Must have stuck in there.”

Toni’s still grinning, a smear of grease just above her mouth and Steve wishes he had a camera, or better yet, a pencil and paper.

“You had a lot of really strong opinions about Little House on the Prairie, didn’t you,” Toni teases.

Steve rolls his eyes. “Everyone read that,” Steve says. He’d been fifteen, had a miserable fever for three days and started the series. He stole a copy of These Happy Golden Years from Estelle, the S in USA, read it on the train from Chicago to Los Angeles and almost cried when Laura had finally gotten engaged to Almanzo.

“Uh huh, sure.” Toni’s mouth is curled into a disbelieving moue. Steve can’t stop smiling back at her.

“Anyway,” Toni singsongs, “Pep is hauling me back to LA in an hour for something. I don’t even know. All I know is that she said if I wasn’t there she was going to staple her PDA to my eyeballs.”

Steve blinks. “Ouch,” he mutters.

Toni shrugs. “Basically. But yeah, this is me, clearing it with my team leader, whatever. If you need me back in New York, I can be back in 48 minutes.” she offers.

“Well, I’ll try to keep the super villains to a minimum,” he jokes. Toni laughs, then smiles slyly.

“Steve, what flowers mean ‘no’?” she asks. Steve thinks back to long afternoons reading quietly, trying not to cough his lungs up.

“Um, striped carnations, I think.” he says.

Toni grins. “Jarvis, could you send a large, large bouquet of striped carnations to Hammer’s office?” Toni asks, sugar sweet. “If at all possible, hire the chorus line off of a show for the afternoon and get them to do a little tap number with it. Something like ‘Never gonna touch your dick/because you’re a prick?’ I’m trusting you to come up with the rest of the lyrics.”

“Immediately, Madam.” Jarvis says. Steve doesn’t think he’s ever heard an electronic disembodied voice sound that smugly pleased before. He’s a little sorry for this guy- just a little.

Toni takes a helicopter off the roof and she isn’t gone two minutes when Steve’s phone buzzes.

pep says i’ve never been on time before she wants to marry you

Steve laughs out loud, startled and amused.

Please tell her that I’m flattered, but that that’s moving awful fast. He slowly picks out the correct capitals and punctuation fastidiously.

i know i know youre not that kind of girl

Darn right.

Steve abruptly realizes that for the foreseeable future, the only person who seems to actively seek out his company is, barring attempts at world domination, on the other side of the country.

“Shoot,” Steve mutters to himself.

***


He ends up in the living room, only to find Bruce already there, watching something with the volume low. Steve can admit to himself that he doesn’t know Bruce very well, but Bruce seems to spend 99% of his time in his laboratory. Well, and unlike their other team member who does that, Steve doesn’t feel like he has to make sure Bruce is eating, sleeping, and not firing handguns.

“You mind some company?” Steve asks.

“Not at all,” Bruce gestures to the other couch.

The premise of the show seems to be people bringing their inherited treasures to a panel of experts to be appraised. The whole thing is strangely soothing- the experts explaining the importance of the pieces and their value, the pleased surprise on people’s faces to know what they really have.

“I usually watch PBS,” Bruce admits on a break. “Commercials can be… stressful for me. Like the misogynistic Dr. Pepper one.”

Steve frowns.

“Um, Tuesday?” Bruce says sheepishly. Bruce had been meditating most of the afternoon, muttering under his breath.

“Oh. No commercials.” Steve agrees.

They’re about 2 and a half episodes in when a guy comes on with a collection of baseball cards.

“Wait- I had that one!” Steve cries out. Bruce pauses the television.

“You had a Honus Wagner card?” Bruce asks incredulously.

Steve nods. “It was my dad’s, he used to collect them and my mother gave them to me when he passed,” Steve explains. “I traded it to Stanley Bukowski in seventh grade.” Steve doesn’t explain that he’d done it in exchange for a four pound roast they’d lived off of for a week, because Stanley’s father was the butcher and Honus Wagner was Stanley’s father’s favorite.

“Gosh, I wonder what it’s worth, d’you mind?” Steve asks, motioning at the television. Bruce hesitates for a just a second, but the show starts up again.

The card on the show is a fake. The expert explains the differences between a real one and a forgery, but gleefully adds that, if it had been real, the card is worth as much as half a million dollars.

Steve stares at the screen for a good minute, even after Bruce solicitously pauses it again.

“That’s a… lot of money,” Steve finally manages.

Bruce smiles kindly. “Think of it this way, Toni spent over a million on a car that won’t even come out for another year,” Bruce suggests.

Steve frowns. “I don’t know if that makes it better, actually.” Steve says, but he does actually feel obscurely settled.

Natasha walks in, slipping on a sleek black leather jacket.

“I’m going to the Met to see the Faberge eggs, anyone else interested?” she asks.

“Nah, I have to get back to the lab,” Bruce declines, turning off the television. “My experiment should have finished running while we were watching, thanks for asking, Natasha.” He nods a goodbye to Steve and heads out of the room.

“Well, since no one’s told me what I should be doing when we’re not trying to stop mass chaos from breaking out on the streets of New York, sure, let’s go.” Steve agrees gratefully.

Natasha chuckles. “I think not causing mass chaos ourselves is the only other thing we’re supposed to do,” she suggests.

Natasha democratically heads for the 42nd Street station; Steve is oddly happy not to slip into one of the many anonymous black cars SHIELD employs. He notices a few people recognizing them, gawking as Steve and Natasha slip in with the evening crush of commuters heading east to Grand Central and transferring. The evening is a little crisp, just enough wind to make Natasha’s bright hair wave around her face. The walk is pleasant, Natasha talking about how her family always quietly claimed some Romanov blood. “Something to be proud of, even if we didn’t have anything else,” she says, watching the crossing sign.

“Did it work?” Steve asks.

Natasha smiles. “It served a purpose.” They cross, nearly getting clipped by an impatient cab. “They called me the 'Imperial Beauty' when I joined the academy in ’96.”

“The academy?” Steve asks, because Natasha couldn’t have been more than a girl in 1996, which Steve thinks is far too young to start training someone to be an acrobatic assassin and spy. Some of that has to show on his face, because she just laughs.

“The ballet academy, Steve.” she explains and Steve feels like an idiot, because he knows he read something about that in her file.

“Right,” Steve says sheepishly. She rolls her eyes at him and ushers him up the stairs.

The exhibit is tucked in the back of the European sculpture and decorative arts section; they cut through medieval art and the sculpture court to find the correct gallery. It’s barely a hallway, the eggs and other pieces almost unnoticeable in the general flow of traffic. They take their time, the small crowd allowing them to get as close as possible, though, to stare at the impossible levels of detail. When they’ve finally looked their fill, Natasha drags him down to the end of the sculpture court toward the windows facing the park. She instantly gets them a table, ordering wine for them both with a look that suggests he humor her and enough small plates to feed an army.

Steve has to admit, it’s a very nice evening. Natasha is a lovely conversationalist; he doesn’t understand why she and Toni dig at each other. He manages to get up the nerve to ask her about it between the cheeses and the cheeses with apples.

“So, you and Toni,” Steve starts.

Natasha snorts. “I will admit, to the outside observer, it may seem like we don’t get along.”

“Do you? Not get along, I mean.” Steve asks.

Natasha smiles warmly. “No. We just like being mean to each other.”

Steve stares at her, but it doesn’t help explain any of it.

“Segue, but I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, well.” She takes a sip of wine. “The supplementary briefing I gave you.”

It takes Steve a moment to figure out what she means. “Oh, um,” he tries. “Right.” He feels a little guilty; he hasn’t dared open the drawer he shoved it in after that first night.

“I’m sorry,” she says after a long awkward moment filled with the suddenly loud conversations of the tables nearby. “I didn’t know how else to tell you.”

Steve shakes his head. “No, you were right, I just-“ Steve’s throat is full of too many things he can’t say- that sometimes he still wakes up a little surprised not to be in 1943, he still misses Bucky like an aching wound when it’s dark and too quiet in his room. He still wishes he’d gotten to dance with Peggy; Howard’s fully-grown daughter might actually be his best friend. “I can’t read it yet.”

Natasha lays a hand over his wrist. “When you’re ready, Cap. Nothing’s going to change.”

Steve almost laughs. “Ancient history.” He can’t quite make his voice light, reassuring. Natasha squeezes lightly.

“They mattered to you, that’s never history.” Natasha is distant and Steve can’t help but wonder who mattered to her and what happened to them. She’s back again in a fraction of a second, smiling and raising her glass. “To the people who matter.”

Steve clinks his glass against hers. He’s grateful that the people he thinks of in that moment aren’t all gone; Steve doesn’t have any more family, but he’s got a team and that’s a place to start.

They take the subway back when Steve has managed to somehow eat all the food, which left him full and tired, staring at the drawer with its little black book in it. He’s almost decides to try again, but he feels oddly at ease. Unwilling to disturb his own peace, he puts himself to bed. Which is probably why the text message alert scares him so badly at 1 something in the morning.

dude I went to NM to drop thor off for spring break and you went on a date with nat stark is going to kill you

His phone says it’s from Clint and before he can respond there’s a new message with a link to a website with pictures of him and Natasha on the subway, in the museum.

We just went to the museum and ate dinner!

congrats youre on people.com

Steve has no idea what anyone is talking about anymore.

The next morning he goes to find Natasha to apologize if he gave her or anyone else the wrong idea, but instead Agent Coulson finds him. He ends up in his office, pouring through incident reports- another thing about the wall-climbing guy, an extremely vague briefing on the work of Henry Pym- with the feeling he’s being punished for something.

you have fun last night? Toni texts him.

Steve groans. Not you too he types quickly.

what you went to the museum you like museums oh shit pep is taking my phone call you la

Steve snorts. At least he’s not the only one in trouble.

***


He’s debating whether he’s allowed to leave his office for lunch when someone knocks on the open door. She’s tiny and curvy and very pretty, giving him an evaluating look that makes him worried about having run his hands through his hair around hour three of incident reports. Steve instinctively scrambles to his feet.

“Whoa, it’s cool, Mr. Darcy, you don’t have to get up for me. So you’re Steve, right, because the only other huge hunky blond guy running around here is Thor and I know him.” she says. There’s not really a question in there, so Steve sticks to the facts.

“Ah, yes, I’m Steve Rogers.” Because his office is still a glorified cupboard, he’s able to extend his hand for her to shake almost immediately.

“Darcy Lewis. I work for Jane- Thor’s Jane, I’m sure he’s mentioned her to you, they can’t shut up about each other.” She shakes his hand in a solid, cheerful grip.

“Anyway,” she goes on, when Steve can’t manage to form a coherent sentence in reply, “Jane is on some kind of Asgardian bender, meeting Thor’s folks- well, the ones she hasn’t already met or you guys have tried to kill- and Coulson said I had to make myself useful or he wasn’t going to pay me. So Clint said that I should ask you if you need any help.”

Steve gets out an “Um.”

“Well, what he really said was what you were super bored and trapped up in here because Fury doesn’t trust other people with you. Which includes Toni, but he’s given up on keeping you two apart. But, yeah, so.” Darcy looks at him expectantly.

“I was just about to get lunch,” Steve finally says feebly.

Darcy grins. “Great, c’mon we can go fight tourists for a table at Shake Shack. I’ve seen the kitchen they keep for you guys and while some people like nutritionally optimized macrobiotic diets or whatever, sometimes you just want unnatural cheese over crinkle cut fries, right?” She keeps up a steady monologue that- thankfully- doesn’t seem to require Steve’s input the couple of blocks over and down to a slick silver façade next to a disreputable looking gentlemen’s club.

“Ugh, they have the worst concretes here, everyone knows the Natural History Museum one is best.” Darcy grouses as they wait in the long line, but still orders her cheese fries and a black and white shake. She makes him order a ton of food- “Your metabolism is like crazy. Do it for all of us.”- but no one makes him get a malted chocolate shake.

They get a table quickly, despite Darcy’s dire predictions. While they’re waiting, Darcy’s phone chimes and she bursts out laughing. Rather than answering, she just slides it over to Steve.

Spider Bite: Black Widow Dumps Cap for Henry Cavill? the headline proclaims. Beneath are a series of pictures of Natasha out for a meal with whoever Henry Cavill is- Darcy has to flick her finger along the screen so it scrolls down to where the text is.

“Well, that’s a gross invasion of her privacy,” Steve mutters. The writer of the article goes on to add:

“With their rather public date at the Stark Industries Rescue Gala, we were hoping that America’s favorite retro golden boy was with America’s favorite genius bad girl- but last night Cap was at the Met having drinks with Widow- who’s clearly got her eye on Cavill’s fortress of solitude. Too bad, Cap. Drinks are on us tonight. (And every night, anytime!)”

“Wait, I’m sorry, that was probably an inappropriate reaction,” Darcy apologizes. “You’re not harboring some kind of awful, wretched crush on Natasha, right? Because that’d end in tears and they totally wouldn't be hers, you know?”

Steve shakes his head. “No- not- no,” Steve says. He doesn’t know what kind of lothario everyone thinks he is, but he’s only ever had one girl agree to go out with him and he stood her up. “But this is her personal life. I don’t see what business it is to anyone else. And can’t a guy have dinner with a friend and coworker without it being on the news?” Steve runs his hand through his hair again, giving up on it today entirely.

“Oh, I forget sometimes you’re from a delightful time where someone like Kim Kardashian wouldn’t exist,” Darcy pats the back of Steve’s hand and makes him get their food when the doohickey buzzes loudly in his hand.

“It’s like this,” She later gestures with a French fry covered in something that Steve would never guess was cheese. “A lot of people live extremely boring and dissatisfying lives. I think it makes them feel better to know that even people who are very attractive and can save the world have weird, confusing love lives and do things like go to the grocery store. You’d think that would go without saying, but.”

“That wouldn’t make me feel better,” Steve protests. Darcy grins.

“That’s because you’re great and really well-adjusted for someone who was frozen in an airplane for 70 years. I think that gives you some kind of special clarity.” she tells him. Steve takes the backhanded compliment. She probably gets it from spending so much time with Thor.

“Well, how’d you get your…” Steve gestures back with a god-fearing ketchup covered fry. “Clarity.”

Darcy shrugs. “After you tase a Norse god, pretty much everything else is whatever.” she says philosophically.

Steve chokes. “You tased Thor?” he asks. She smiles, satisfied-looking.

“I certainly did. One of the first things he insisted upon when he got back and was all god-ified again was to try tasing him again. It was awesome, he said it tickled.” Darcy says. Steve doesn’t know whether to laugh or worry.

“Thor,” Steve eventually says and Darcy nods sagely.

“Thor.” she concurs. There’s a pause where they both sip at their shakes in companionable silence, but it’s extremely short lived.

“So, Clint says you’ve got a thing for Toni, which is super cute,” she says.

Steve sighs. “I really wish people would stop saying that. We’re friends.” Steve feels like it’s the hundredth time he’s had to say it, the words falling out of his mouth by rote. Darcy opens her mouth, pauses and she must think better of it, because what she says is, “Well, I have a thing for Clint. But that’s because he’s kind of an asshole and that gets me hot.”

Steve sputters for a solid five seconds.

“Does he know that?” Steve asks in the end, because it seems like the safest option.

“Well, when we met, I was like ‘nice guns,’ because damn, he’s got really nice arms, man. And he was like ‘nice rack,’ and I think we might be soulmates,” she says.

Steve just stares at her.

“I appreciate people who are straightforward,” she explains.

“In that case, you should probably tell him that, not me,” Steve says carefully.

Darcy grins brightly. “Fair enough! Thanks for the advice, Cap.” Darcy looks extremely pleased with life, which is at least one of them.

When they get back to SHIELD, Agent Coulson is waiting with a printed out sheet with a blurry picture of him and Darcy at Shake Shack, the headline reading, “Cap Finds Solace With Mystery Girl?”

Steve has barely finished reading it when his phone buzzes- one new message from Clint.

JESUS CAP KEEP IT IN YOUR VIRGINAL PANTS

Steve thinks it might be betraying a confidence, but he thinks he’s pretty well justified in sending the response: She spent the entire time talking about you. Since Thor is in Asgard, what are your intentions?

I AM 1 HR OUT FROM NY TRY NOT TO SLEEP WITH ANYONE UNTIL I GET BACK

ESPECIALLY NOT DARCY

BUT BASICALLY NOT ANYONE

Steve thinks he should send in his whole team for psychiatric re-evaluations.

***


The rest of the day is spent in his office, without Darcy, with the firm implication that if he leaves the building, especially in the company of a lady, Agent Coulson will not be responsible for anything. When he can’t stare at paperwork anymore, he gives up and tentatively heads for the living room where- Clint and Darcy are necking on the couch.

Steve clears his throat and pointedly looks away.

“Thanks, Steve, super awesome advice!” Darcy says.

“You should take it yourself!” Clint adds.

“I’m leaving the room right now,” Steve says loudly. He’s planning on avoiding everyone pretty much forever, so he goes to the one place he imagines nobody else dares.

***


Dummy chirps an inquisitive call when he walks in.

“Hello, Captain Rogers,” Jarvis says.

“Hi guys,” Steve says, absently patting Dummy on what he thinks is his head. “Hope it’s okay, needed a place to hide,” Steve explains.

“Miss Stark made it very clear you were always allowed in.” Jarvis tells him.

“Well, I was gonna call her, but I don’t want to interrupt anything important,” Steve finds a chair mostly free of debris, carefully setting the pizza box, wrenches, and swiss army knife aside.

“If you would not mind waiting another half an hour, sir, Miss Stark ought to be free.” Jarvis sounds apologetic.

Steve waves a hand. “No problem.” He glances around at the general chaos left preserved in Toni’s absence. He thinks it looks listless without Toni shoving things aside and restacking.

“If you’d like, I can display news, television, books,” Jarvis sounds a like a nervous hostess.

“Nah, that’s fine. Although, do you know where the nearest art supply store is? If I ever stop being grounded, that is.”

“The most convenient art store is Utrecht Art Supply on 23rd Street between 8th and 7th Avenues, sir.” Jarvis says. “However, in light of your current hesitance to leave the building, there is a set of drafting pencils that Miss Stark has forgotten about, excluding the time she believed them to be chopsticks. They are not ideal, but may tide you over?”

“That’ll be fine, as long as you’re sure she won’t mind,” Steve says, peering around.

“She will not. I believe they are on the central table underneath four quarterly reports and a coffee mug with four popsicle sticks in it. Fresh paper is underneath the far left counter in the box.”

“You’re a pal, Jarvis,” Steve tells him cheerfully, ferreting out the pencils and the paper, exactly where Jarvis said they’d be.

“I endeavor to give satisfaction, sir.” Jarvis says dryly. Steve, once he’s ready to go, doesn’t know where to start.

Dummy chirps at him inquisitively, pivoting around as if to watch.

“Oh, are you volunteering?” Steve asks Dummy. Dummy cheeps at him happily, adjusting this way and that, preening.

“Mind your manners,” Jarvis tells Dummy, like a scolding mother. Dummy coos sadly, but settles down, chastised.

“He’s fine,” Steve says and Dummy brightens visibly. He starts sketching, the abstract shapes coalescing into a face that once he sees it, he can’t unsee it.

“I hate to interrupt you, sir,” Jarvis says, after Steve has completed a few different unfinished portraits. “However, Miss Stark has finished with meetings for the day and you had expressed an interest in speaking with her shortly.”

“Thanks, yeah,” Steve says, reaching for his phone.

“If you would like, I can call for you, sir.” Jarvis offers.

Steve blinks. “Oh, sure.” Steve agrees. The future is crazy, but what can he expect from a robot butler.

Toni picks up on the second ring. “You miss me, huh?” Toni asks, skipping over the normal pleasantries.

“I did,” Steve says, probably too honest, because there’s a long pause- well, long for Toni, anyway, who usually has half a sentence out before you’ve finished yours. “Jarvis is spoiling me.”

“I told him to. You’re stuck there with Robin Hood, she-who-must-not-be-named, the Sulk and Thor. Someone has to look out for you.” She sounds like she’s somewhere with a few people, muffled voices in the background, her heels clicking against the floor.

“Thor doesn’t get a nickname?” Steve asks.

Toni laughs. “Nicknames are for people who aren’t self-explanatory,” she argues. “Nicknaming Thor would be redundant.”

“Do I have a nickname?” Steve asks. Toni snorts.

“Not that I’ll tell you about.” He can hear a car door closing and it’s suddenly much quieter.

“Well, now I’m worried,” Steve teases.

“I didn’t make it up. It was Natasha, she’s mean. Insightful, but mean.” Toni protests.

Steve raises an eyebrow. “You know I asked her, and she says you actually like each other,” Steve says.

“Okay, one, of course she likes me, I’m awesome. I like her just fine when she’s not stabbing me in the neck with drugs. And two, if we ever are not liking each other just fine, you are on my side. So she took you out to the museum.” Steve hears ice clinking in a glass.

“Yes, it was very nice of her to invite me to go with her,” Steve says. “And I don’t understand your relationship, at all.”

“No one does. Least of all me. Just remember, on my side,” Toni reminds him.

“Of course I’m on your side,” Steve promises. “How’d your day go?”

“Ugh, Steve, why would you ask me that, my day was awful, don’t make me relive it. Investors, boring people, the worst. What have you been up to?” Toni demands.

Steve smothers a chuckle. “Well, I watched a show about antiques with Bruce, went to the museum with Natasha, which you knew about anyway. Today Agent Coulson made me do paperwork with the power of his disapproval and I met Jane’s assistant, Darcy.” Steve says, mentally flipping back the hours.

“Got all over the tabloids,” Toni adds in cheerfully.

Steve puts a hand over his face. “I don't know how you deal with it. Why do people care?” Steve asks.

He can almost hear Toni’s answering shrug. “I don’t pay it any attention. I hired someone to do that for me. But congratulations, baby’s first TMZ mention.”

“I don’t know what a TMZ is,” Steve reminds her.

“Gossip thing,” Toni explains. “One step above Perez Hilton, two steps below People.”

“Good grief,” Steve mutters under his breath. “Well, she’s very nice. Also, I think she and Clint have reached an-“ Steve trips over his own mouth. “An understanding, I suppose. I didn’t stick around to ask.”

“So, let me get this straight,” Toni says, amused. “Natasha dumped you for a guy who only plays a superhero, Clint has convinced an attractive, fairly intelligent woman to have sex with him, and the only person sadder than you is Bruce, who is watching Antiques Roadshow with you. Where’s Thor?”

“He’s in Asgard with Jane, meeting his folks,” Steve tells her.

Toni laughs. “Good luck there,” she mutters. “Well, obviously, the place is falling apart without me. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

“I’ll be here,” Steve says. He’s distracted by the way Toni said “home,” it's nice.

Toni has to hang up; she has to go to some kind of party that’s actually secretly work. “And there aren’t any nice captains to rescue me. Rhodey’s taking me, I’ll have to stay to the bitter, boring end. He’s the devil, Steve.”

“Well, try to have a nice night anyway. Give my regards to Colonel Rhodes,” Steve tells her.

“He’s going to cry when he hears you said that. I’m going to say that exactly. ‘Regards,’ Jesus.” Toni sounds exasperated and fond all at the same time. “His head is going to explode when he finally gets to meet you.”

“Any friend of yours is a friend of mine,” Steve says. “I’m sure I’ll like him very much.”

“That’s not what I’m worried about. I’m worried about him trying to kidnap you and marry you in a state where that’s legal. Guy has a serious mancrush on you.”

Steve shakes his head and remembers Toni can’t see him. “Go, don’t keep him waiting.”

“If you keep making me be punctual, a lot of people are going to be very confused,” Toni says. “You’re awful like that.”

“Yeah, yeah, I was having a very nice night with your friends before I called you, I can get this abuse anywhere,” Steve teases.

“Spoiling you,” Toni mutters. There’s a pause that makes Steve think maybe she hung up, but before he can confirm, she says, “Have a good night, Steve.”

“You too, Toni. Talk to you soon.” Steve hears the beep of the phone disconnecting this time. He glances down at the table and realizes he didn’t tell Toni he’d been using her supplies. He debates calling her back, but decides not to bother her with it.

“Jarvis, remind me to apologize to Toni for using her stuff and not telling her,” Steve says.

“I will do so, sir, but it will not be necessary. I don’t believe Miss Stark knows she still owns drafting pencils.” Jarvis tells him.

“All right, if you say so,” Steve accepts, amused. “Say, would you mind giving me a news update?”

“Of course, sir.” One of Toni’s intimidating but intuitive screens flashes to life on one of the few uncovered surfaces in the workshop. Despite spending hours with Toni here, the touch screen is still strange and confusing.

“Might I venture to make an adjustment to the viewing screen, sir?” Jarvis asks, deferential as always.

“Anything you think will help,” Steve agrees. Within a few seconds, the articles all appear like an open newspaper.

“You’re really something, Jarvis,” Steve breathes out, the “pages” flipping as easily as a real paper. He absently flips through CNN and the Times, still more intrigued by Jarvis’ seamless reformatting than most of the articles. It isn’t until he starts in on the Post that something catches his eye.

On “Page Six”, there’s a gossip piece that implies several extremely rude and untrue things about Toni. Citing sources “close” to her, the article runs the gamut from intoxicated at work- Stark Enterprises and SHIELD- to allegations about her personal affairs, spurred on by pictures of her with Pepper’s hand on her arm, Toni with drink in hand. Steve frowns as he looks at the pictures- Toni’s hair is significantly longer than it was when he saw her the preceding night. They’re old pictures.

Steve has just about had it.

“Jarvis, where do you send in letters to the editor requesting a retraction?” he asks.

“I would be happy to find out, sir.” Jarvis says.

To Whom It May Concern:

I would like to request a full retraction of the Page Six article about Toni Stark. As her colleague and friend, I absolutely know the events alleged in the article to be false and specious. Toni Stark is dedicated to the protection and service of humanity, often at great personal risk to herself. She unflinchingly accepts attacks from those who would seek to harm this country and the world; to undergo attack from her fellow citizens is unacceptable. I consider myself lucky to know her and I will not stand to see her reputation be stained by these allegations. Miss Stark’s personal life is just that- her personal business. Those of us privileged to be in her life would appreciate that discretion as well.

Beyond the libelous remarks in this specific article, I have found the press to be unduly and unnecessarily invested in the lives of celebrities and “super heroes” alike. As The Post is certainly not the only publication, print or electronic, to indulge in this invasive and distasteful “news” coverage, I would encourage the entire profession to take a long look at its practices and behavior. Public figures deserve the same respect and privacy as anyone else.

No one asked, however, I felt it was time I spoke my mind about this.

Respectfully and Sincerely,

Cpt. Steven G. Rogers
(Captain America)


Steve trusts Jarvis will direct it along the appropriate channels.

Feeling better already, Steve says good night to Jarvis and Dummy and heads out of the workshop for dinner in the kitchen. Everyone else seems to be off attending to their own social lives, but Steve finds he doesn’t mind the solitude as much as he thought he might.

***


He puts himself to bed fairly early, getting up for an early run with the sun. On his way back after a good circuit through Riverside Park, he stops by the newsstand for a packet of gum- something that has definitely improved in the past seventy years- and idly looks over the papers while waiting for his change.

“Sorry, can I add these?” he asks, picking up one of each. As nice as Jarvis had been about yesterday, it’d probably be easier to grab some actual papers for today’s news. Plus, the feeling of newsprint and the smell of the ink is a comfort in of itself.

It’s early enough still when Steve gets back to SHIELD that the kitchen is empty and only half-lit. He flips on the rest of the lights and grabs the orange juice, taking his time, flipping to the arts section in the Times right away. When Steve finishes with Fashion he switches to The Post.

There on the front page, to the side of the gaudy size 100 font discussing presidential candidates, is a little box proclaiming CAPTAIN AMERICA SPEAKS OUT, SEE PAGE SIX.

He paws through the paper quickly and sure enough, there’s his letter and an apology- if a grudging one. The article veers off into a round of blaming the paparazzi, but Steve thinks that at least they read it and those ugly rumors have been dealt with.

He absently re-reads the letter itself. The exact wording had escaped him almost moments after sending; it’s almost like reading a stranger’s words. He still agrees with everything he said in her defense- people call Toni egotistical and self-centered, even dangerous, but all Steve can see is a person who, when tested, didn’t just survive, but fought back. Toni is more than the sum of the things she creates; the suit is a phenomenal piece of engineering, but Iron Woman is a superhero because of the choices Toni makes. The decision she made to protect people from the bullies and villains of the world didn’t come from her genius, but from her heart and commitment to duty. He can’t believe, no, can’t stand the idea that anyone would want to tear her down, to hurt her because-

“Oh,” Steve breathes out, surprised. He wrote an angry letter to the New York Post defending Toni’s character because he’s in love with her.

***


He spends most of the morning in the gym, absently letting his body move while his mind tries to figure out when it happened- because he can’t deny that it did. Looking back, he can acknowledge how he was drawn to her from the start. Toni’s full attention is powerful and heady- he’d liked that, but it was the little things he’d noticed- her constantly updating everyone’s equipment, that her creative mind was on her teammates, protecting them, boosting them up. The way she clearly loved Dummy and Jarvis; the sound of her laughter. Those were the kind of things that added up to a person Steve could fall in love with all too easily.

As much as it pains him to admit, he didn’t know much about Peggy. What he’d liked about her was her determination, her kindness and her steady support. He’d seen a future with Peggy, for sure, hadn’t thought much past the end of the war other than the idea that maybe he and Peggy would settle down, raise a family, have Bucky over for Sunday dinner. It was an easy, familiar daydream, frequently imagined in foxholes and troop transports across Europe, but the details had always been fuzzy.

Steve has no idea what a future with Toni would be like. He still wants most of those things- a family, someone to come home to, someone to be an absolute partner. He knows none of those things will happen the way he’d thought they would, but he still wants them. Which leaves him with a far more difficult question- what does he do about it? He’d thought of a number of good reasons for them being platonic. More importantly, Steve doesn’t know what he would bring to the table. Sure, he’s Captain America and a nice guy; he cares about her, but he’s literally a relic. There have to be people out there would be a better match for her.

His chest is too tight, leaving him pounding at the punching bag mindlessly. He’s almost punched it off its supports- again- when the insistent ringing of his phone distracts him.

“Hello?” he asks, breathing hard.

“Is this a bad time?” Toni asks after a second’s pause.

Steve nearly drops the phone. “No, it’s uh, fine, I’m just in the gym,” he manages after feeling like he’s unsticking his tongue from the roof of his mouth.

“So, Page Six?” she asks and she sounds amused and so Toni that Steve reflexively smiles.

“I realize it might have been a little crazy,” he apologizes, because suddenly, looking at it from her point of view, Steve must seem crazy.

“More like futile. You sent a demand for retraction? To The Post? That’s like demanding a retraction from a cat.” Steve can hear soft noise in the background, squeaking like maybe she’s sitting back in an old office chair.

“It was a very offensive article,” Steve defends himself. “I can’t believe they said those things.”

Toni huffs. “I can,” she says cheerfully. “Also, really, I’m libel proof. I’m famous enough- maybe infamous- that you can say pretty much anything you want about me.”

“Well, that’s no excuse. And even if it didn’t make you mad, it certainly bothered me,” Steve says.

“You’re a funny guy, Cap,” Toni says. “A letter to the Post. Very old man.”

“I could tell you to get off my lawn,” Steve says, feeling a little put out.

Toni sighs. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I meant to say thank you. You sidetracked me.” she counters. “I also meant to say that I’d be flying back in the evening. That is, unless I end up making a robot version of myself to sit in on the last of the shareholder meetings, in which case I’ll be back in New York by lunch.”

Steve hears a loud cough in the background.

“And that would be Pepper giving that plan the 86. This is why I’m coming back. You would let me build a robot to sit through Coulson’s best practices meetings, right?”

“If I have to go, you have to go,” Steve says staunchly. Best practices meetings are a nightmare. There are no best practices for superheroing. Toni laughs.

“So your objection is not to the robot, but being left behind, gotcha. Two robots, then,” Toni offers. “Catch you later, Steve, Pep is cracking the whip.” Toni hangs up before he can say goodbye. Steve looks down at his phone in some small measure of consternation.

He’s still in love with her.

He figures he’s way out of his depth here- ideally, he’d like to ask someone for advice, but all of his options range from inappropriate to horrifying. He thinks Pepper would actually be probably very good at giving Toni-advice, but he’s only met her once and that could make her feel uncomfortable. Clint is a cad, if in the nicest way possible and the idea of asking either Thor or Natasha is completely terrifying. Steve has read all about Bruce’s last relationship in his profile and it seems distinctly unkind to ask.

Which basically means Steve is falling back on advice from Bucky, most of which was of a well, physical nature, and was probably bad 70 years ago. He sighs and heads out of the gym, but the hydraulic swish of the elevator doors sparks an idea.

He waits until he’s safely in his own room before he clears his throat nervously. “Hey, Jarvis?” he calls out.

“Yes, Captain Rogers?” Jarvis responds immediately. Steve wonders if Jarvis is ever surprised.

“If I wanted to take Toni out, what would you suggest?” Steve asks. He hadn’t been sure what he was going to do until this exact moment- but apparently he’s going to try to date Toni Stark.

“Miss Stark enjoys your company, sir. I suspect any activity you suggest would be fine.” Jarvis tells him. “Although, I might add that taking her to a museum may result in a cessation of affection on your part.” Jarvis adds and Steve busts out in a surprised laugh, imagining Toni- can’t sit still, can’t whisper Toni- in a museum. It’d be almost as bad as taking Thor.

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Jarvis. And well,” Steve takes a breath. “I think it’d take a lot for, you know. The second thing.”

“Indeed, sir.” Jarvis says, understanding Steve perfectly.

“Thanks, Jarvis.” Steve says, already thinking, and he almost misses Jarvis’s soft reply:

“You are absolutely welcome, sir.”

Steve feels a little bit like he’s passed a test.




PART 3.

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