Chapter 1: Awakening
Steve was smiling at her as she traced a finger over the shape of his lips. His dark blue eyes where gleaming with love, the same way she knew hers were. Toni knew she was dreaming, was all too aware of the fire running through her veins, so hot that it was freezing. But it seemed far away, like it was happening somewhere else. She was safe here, though, in her mind. Because there, Steve was still with her and she didn't want to lose it. The pain in her chest, where she knew he'd struck her with the shield, was dull and muted. It didn't matter, not when he still loved her.
But then the bed was falling away, Steve's eyes hardened, turning green, his features sharpened, his hair becoming longer and darker into black, until she was now crouching in front Loki, who was chained to the wall of a spare room in the Tower.
"They wouldn't want me to be doing this," she warned, as she ran her fingers over the release mechanism of the muzzle. There was a glass of water beside her on the floor and a sandwich in her hand. "But I've never agreed with mistreating captives."
"You have my gratitude, Lady Stark," he rasped, as soon as the muzzle fell away. She didn't undo his shackles, but he smiled tiredly at her anyways.
"No big deal," she mumbled and brought the sandwich to his mouth, watching as he bit into it, gingerly at first then with eagerness, in spite of being bound, and let out a relieved sigh when he was done.
"I can't remember the last time I've eaten," he said, almost to himself. And there was the proof she'd needed. Why would an egomaniac taking over the world starve himself?
"Who was controlling you?"
He blinked, then his eyes widened as he realized what he had unknowingly confessed. "Very clever, Lady Stark." He chuckled wryly. His voice was still strained and she gave him the water. "I can see why they call you a queen. The Queen of Death, you were called, were you not?"
"That's not very accurate any more, I'm more into clean energy nowadays," Toni smiled pseudo-sweetly. "But I'd appreciate it if you could answer my question."
Loki grimaced. "I fear to speak his name," he whispered. "But he will come himself. Later, rather than soon. But come he will." His brilliant eyes focused on her like lasers. "You have something that will work to your advantage. Find what it is and keep it with you at all times." His gaze softened. "I think it's best if you return to your chambers now, sweet Lady."
She sighed. "You know I'm gonna have to put this back on?" His only response was a defiant look and a nod, to which she locked the muzzle over his jaw.
But as she got up to leave, the room dissipated into smoke, before solidifying under her back. She couldn't get up. The Winter Soldier was straddling her hips, glaring down at her as his real hand tightened around her throat, while his metal fingers pulled at the arc reactor. She could see Steve standing just behind, looking down at the scene in regret. "You know this is all your own fault, Toni," he told her sadly. "You could have done more. You could have helped us all and we'd still be together."
"I'm- I'm so- I'm sorry," she tried to say, but the Winter Soldier gave a final squeeze. The momentary oblivion was almost welcome, until she realized she was standing on a battlefield, surrounded by too many bodies. The bodies of the Avengers. She looked up to see the dark sky torn right above her head, alien spaceships and vessels visible through the hole.
Her blood froze when she recognised the vision she'd had, courtesy of Wanda. But then she saw something that hadn't been part of that vision at all. It wasn't just the Avengers lying dead. Pepper's body was badly mangled, right next to Happy, both intertwined even in death. The War Machine suit was dismantled, she couldn't even see Rhodey.
Toni spun on her heel and gasped at Stephen's form. He was propped up against a rock, the amulet missing from around his neck, Levi torn and frayed.
"It wasn't your fault," he choked out, blood leaking from his mouth and down from his forehead. "Not your fault."
His eyes closed and Toni stumbled forward. But he was cold and stiff to the touch. He was gone. And that was the last straw. She'd been wrong: even her own mind wasn't a sanctuary.
She clawed towards consciousness with a desperate cry, the burning sensation growing stronger.
Toni had been screaming on and off for three days, briefly interspersed with periods of deathly silence. They'd had to restrain her limbs so she wouldn't tear out the IV and the morphine, not that the latter seemed to be of any help. Extremis burned through it easily.
They thought it was the same this time as well. But then the lights flickered. Once. Twice. Five times. In sync with her cries. Then Christine poked her head out, looking frightened.
Immediately, they were all shuffling in: Harley leading the way, Peter right on his heels, Stephen behind Pepper to make sure she didn't stumble, Happy pushing Rhodey's wheelchair in. Clint was helping Everett and Sharon deal with the Lang's protection.
Once inside, they could instantly see something was wrong. Toni was thrashing with her screams, but she seemed stronger and the restraints seemed too weak. There was a light sheen of sweat all over her body. The lights were flickering inside too. The monitors displaying her vitals were going haywire, beeping fast and loud.
"What's happening?!" Pepper demanded in panic.
"We're not sure!" Dr Wu nearly yelled over Toni's voice. "We don't know!"
There was a snap of the restraints breaking and a terrifying moment where Toni's hands seemed to claw for something, the tubes stuck in her arm tearing out. Then Peter leapt into action, climbing over her body and closing his knees around her thighs, his hands grabbing her wrists and clamping down.
Toni's struggle became more violent, but Peter held on, his enhanced strength working to his advantage.
Toni's yells worsened and Levi tied herself around her legs. A crash could be heard in the distance, then the very familiar sound of flight repulsors. "Get down," Stephen ordered and every single one of them ducked, Happy and he both throwing protective arms over the pregnant woman.
The door burst open and an Iron Woman suit flew in, guns blazing. FRIDAY tried to connect to it, because damn it, this wasn't supposed to happen, didn't they have enough troubles, now malfunctioning suits? Boss's stuff never malfunctioned. But the suit wasn't responding to her and it threw Peter off Boss easily and began to open up over her body.
"FRIDAY, SHUT IT DOWN!" Rhodey yelled.
"I'm trying, but it isn't answering, something's blocking my signal or-"
The armour closed over Toni and there was silence. Even Toni stopped shouting. Very slowly, the armour seemed to melt. Everybody watched in horror and awe as it grew thinner and thinner, seeping under Toni's skin like water. The arc reactor in her chest glowed bright and the red and gold suit was no longer visible.
When it was fully gone, Harley asked in a hushed voice, "What now?"
Then Toni's eyes fluttered open.
Chapter 2: What I've Lost
TRIGGER WARNING: this chapter contains a miscarriage and forced sterilisation. If you find that triggering, please don't read it.
For a while, Toni lay completely still. Her eyes were open, staring up at the ceiling, but they were sharp and focused. Her face was free of the lines that had accumulated over the years (Extremis was very efficient) but her brow was slightly furrowed in thought as she tried to analyze herself.
Finally Dr Wu stepped forward.
"Dr Stark?" He tried. "Can you hear me?"
"My throat hurts," she said, sounding surprised, but at the same time, somewhat... Dead. Her voice was clear, but Pepper had once explained that Extremis felt like your insides had been doused in gasoline and then lit up like fireworks. So no surprise that her throat hurt. "Skin is kinda stinging all over. Eyes feel dry." Her hand came up to her chest. "Arc reactor is back." She sounded bitter, but still dead.
Christine helped her sit up and pressed a glass of water into her hand. Her hands were trembling, from disuse or fear or uncertainty, so the doctor assisted her in taking a few sips.
Toni's eyes darted around the room, taking in the blasted off door, the broken straps that had restrained her, the vitals monitors that had blank screens. Then she settled on Rhodey, who was watching her with bated breath, waiting for something.
She didn't say a word. Her gaze traveled down to the wheelchair and she closed her eyes momentarily, then looked at Pepper and Happy, both of whom looked slightly scared and mostly worried. Her lips drew into a thin line and then she turned to Stephen.
This time, she flinched as their eyes met and Stephen tried not feel hurt. After all, the last clear memory she probably had now was of a person with blue eyes hell-bent on killing her.
He wanted to apologize, but she turned towards the ceiling. "Is Clint alright?" She asked.
Rhodey was the one to answer. "Yeah, he's fine. He wanted to be here, but FRIDAY suggested he help Ross and Carter with some protection detail."
"They're safe then?"
"Safe as can be, Boss," FRIDAY answered. The others had no idea who they were talking about, but that was a question for later.
"Alright, get the kids out of the room-"
"I'm not leaving!"
Both the teenagers looked panicked and Toni sighed. "Alright," she conceded and took a sip from the glass again. Her gaze fell on her hands and her eyes abruptly widened and she started shaking more violently. "My- my hands," she stammered. They were smooth, completely different from the burnt and calloused hands they once were. Toni was anything but vain, and her hands had always been a symbol of her love for her work. "You gave me Extremis?"
"Toni, there was no other way," Stephen said softly.
She swallowed, blinked once, twice, then stilled with effort. "What are the effects?" Her voice was strong again, but everyone in the room knew better.
"We don't know much," Christine said apologetically. "But the healing rate is crazy. We don't have the necessary data to compare it to, but you healed completely in three days."
"And my strength? Speed? Endurance?"
"Again, we don't have any real numbers for you, yet," Dr Wu warned. "However, you're strong enough to break the restraints, but Spiderman is easily stronger." Toni glanced towards Peter, who hadn't taken off the mask in the days except to eat in a spare room in the Compound.
"There's something else," Pepper spoke up. "FRIDAY, do we have footage?"
A holographic display flickered to life. Toni watched with a poker face as the Iron Woman suit came to her aid, then disappeared into her skin.
"It would seem, Boss," FRIDAY explained. "That the nanites in your blood reacted with Extremis in unexpected ways. I'm still running simulations and algorithms, but it appears the suit now lives inside your body."
Finally, a flicker of interest. "We'll deal with that later," Toni mumbled, eyeing the scene thoughtfully, and she took a deep breath. "Anything else?"
Everybody exchanged nervous glances. "Um, Dr Stark," Christine began, then looked around helplessly.
"You were pregnant," Dr Wu cut in, his voice gentle. There was a sharp inhale as Toni stared back at him. "Three weeks. You would have started showing symptoms in another week or so." He hesitated a bit. "It didn't bond with Extremis. There was nothing we could do."
"The serum also rendered you sterile," Christine continued. "There's no way to reverse the effects."
Toni's expression didn't change as the surgeon handed her the grainy sonography image, but her fingers gripped its edges tightly.
"Everyone please leave," she mumbled. "I'd like to be alone for a while."
After a short pause, every one of them filed out. Pepper was openly weeping again, her hand presses against her own swollen stomach. Rhodey made no effort to hide his silent tears as he growled, "I'm going to kill him." Peter and Harley were maintaining careful distance, both lost and sad. Stephen looked back at Toni, her face clear of any emotions, before closing the door.
"What were you thinking, bringing them here?!"
"The soldier is not at fault, sister. I must amend for my mistakes."
"And when Toni Stark wakes up? When she decides to exact revenge and comes after you? And Wakanda?"
"She will never find them here."
"You are a fool if you think that, brother."
"Have care how you speak!"
"And you need to have care of who you are: the Black Panther and the king of Wakanda. You cannot be one or the other."
Toni felt... Nothing. It seemed she had completely exhausted her ability to feel anything.
She kept staring at the sound image of the near-invisible foetus, trying and failing to spill tears. Her child. Had it been a boy or a girl? Blond hair or brown? Blue eyes or dark chocolate? Would it have had its father's love for art or her passion for science? It's name? Maybe Morgan. Or Edward. Or, of it were a girl, then no doubt St-Cap would have wanted Margaret, maybe Maggie instead of Peggy, for short. She would have wanted that too.
There were so many questions, but she couldn't bring herself to ask any of them. Because what was the point? She'd never get her answers. Just another thing that St-Cap had taken from her, along with her heart, her tears, her trust and even her cherished humanity. Even her once familiar body was gone and she couldn't recognise what had taken its place. It wasn't her.
Toni tilted her head back to look up at the ceiling, her eyes dry of wetness. She knew why she wasn't feeling the grief: she wasn't letting herself. If she broke down, she'd never get anything done. She still needed to get Rhodey back on his feet, deal with Ross, dig up Fury and bring in Hill.
She had work. She couldn't afford a break.
But she didn't move. She kept staring at the overhead lights, a pair of remorseless blue eyes and the grainy image of her dead unborn child swimming in front of her vision.
(There was a thin gash open on her cheek and it stung. But the rage on Howard's face hurt worse as he glared down at her, clearly drunk. Toni lay still, her seven year old mind trying to comprehend the best course of action. Should she keep prone, hope he'd lose interest and turn away or get up and leave before he hit her again? She knew the decision, had already taken it a hundred times before. She curled in on herself and bit her lips against a scream as Howard pulled her up by her hair and slapped her harder, his ring cutting into her soft skin.
Later, Jarvis would wipe away her tears and clean away the blood, softly telling her that her father was simply a little angry and very worried. She didn't have the heart to tell him she knew he was lying.)
"Something's wrong," Pepper stated. Rhodey and Stephen nodded. "It's been a week and she hasn't spoken more than ten words."
"She's completely frozen," Rhodey agreed, gnawing his lips in worry. They were standing in the kitchen; Pepper was stress-cooking. "She's not letting herself grieve; that's not a good sign. She's supposed to be locking herself in her lab and working herself to death over something." He thought about it for a minute. "I hate saying this, but normally, Toni would be drowning in guilt and going around apologizing and over compensating everywhere for a while, before things go back to normal. The fact that she isn't, is concerning."
(Tiberius was on top of her, holding her wrists above her head and biting into her neck as he moved inside her.
Toni kept her eyes shut, refusing to let the older boy see her tears. She was sixteen, not six. She could handle sex with a nineteen year old. It wasn't as if she hadn't consented to it. She had. She'd been thrilled that someone would look at her like that.
So she kept her mouth shut as well, ignoring how his grip was a little too tight, his teeth pressing down a tad too hard.
Afterwards, Rhodey would apply ice to her bruised wrists and kiss her forehead. He'd look at her with those sad-angry eyes and ask why she let someone do that to her.
She won't tell him that it's the only time she ever feels wanted around for anything at all. After all, Rhodey would leave someday too.)
"Her nightmares are getting worse too, aren't they?" Stephen sighed and Pepper nodded.
"What can we expect? He hit her with the damn shield, that's done a real number on her."
"We still don't even know what happened in Siberia," Rhodey muttered. "She's not telling. FRIDAY's not spilling the beans either."
"And she's sleeping? Voluntarily?" SheSthrew her arms up. "I'd be happy if she seemed to be getting any actual rest."
(Steve was straddling her hips, his eyes burning with rage as he raised the shield. Toni raised her arms, aiming to fire her repulsors into his face, but at the same time, unwilling to truly cause him harm. Let him kill her, instead. It would be easier.
But no. She saw the moment he changed his mind and brought the shield down on her chest, crushing the reactor. He walked away without a second glance and she felt so, so alone.
But then there was a gentle hand on her face, familiar fingers wiping away the crystal tears. Cold blue eyes, so unlike the burning fire of Steve's, gazed at her sadly. "You'll be fine, darling," Stephen murmured to her. "You're not dying here or now."
"But I want to," she whispered back.
He stiffened and scowled at her. "Well, you can't," he growled, his own face lined with grief. He pinched the inside of her arm- when had she taken the suit off?- lightly, but the pain shot through her like lightning and she yelped.)
The piercing cry had them all dashing to Toni's room, where she'd left for a nap. She was sitting upright, her eyes wide and filled with fear and- red?
There was a flash of crimson light in her eyes, too clear to be imagined, before it was gone and tired brown orbs looked up at them in confusion. "What's wrong?"
Stephen was the first to recover. "Nothing," he answered quickly. "We heard you scream."
She frowned. "Just nightmares," she said. "No big deal."
They all flinched at the lack of inflection in her voice. Harley had been the first to point it out but they'd all noticed it: she sounded lifeless. And, as the three of them shuffled out, Stephen reflected that might just be the problem.
Natasha felt furious. It had been building inside her for days, but today was especially bad. The cell seemed to close in on her, suffocating her. She would have tried to break out but she knew there was no point. These cells had been designed to hold the likes of the Hulk and the Abomination. Black Widow or not, she wouldn't be able to get out of here. Not alone.
If only Clin- No, she reminded herself. Clint had chosen his side. He'd chosen Stark over her. Her, his best friend for so many years. How dare he? She wondered if Laura knew about it.
Across from her, Wanda had finally gained her senses again. She was just as enraged as Natasha, if not more. Ross had definitely done his research: that collar cut off all her access to her powers. She now spent her days cursing Stark's name.
Sam and the new guy, Lang, weren't doing any better. Though, Sam didn't actually believe Stark had put them in here and Lang didn't really have any idea of what was going on here. He just didn't like Stark on principle.
Cut off from the world, Natasha wondered what had happened in Siberia. Had Stark gotten there in time? Had they killed the Winter Soldiers, or been killed by them? Had Stark helped them like she'd promised or had she turned on them? Knowing her, Natasha wouldn't put anything past the prideful socialite billionaire.
Wong could sense something wrong with Toni almost instantly. It was a subtle disruption in her mind, only noticeable because he, unlike Stephen, didn't spend so much time around her and therefore could spot the fault. Not to mention, it took decades upon decades to learn magic related to the subconscious and Stephen, Sorcerer Supreme or not, was still a young practicioner at only nine years. And he was more of a time magic person.
"There's magic lurking inside you. Magic created by an Infinity Stone," he explained to a silent Toni. "Somebody was trying to corrupt your mind in a slow process. The spell causes you to repeatedly remember the worst moments of your life and view them as your fault. It makes you despise yourself, takes away anything positive you might feel about yourself. The arc reactor-" he paused to look at Stephen, who nodded. "The reactor was based on the Tesseract, which had a Stone. They're not capable of hurting each other, which is why Loki's sceptre hadn't worked on you. In this case, it's not completely blocking the spell, because it's already rooted in you, but it's tampered it so it doesn't work properly. Instead of feeling self-hatred, you just don't feel anything at all."
Toni shut her eyes. "Wanda," she murmured. She looked at Wong with exhaustion in her eyes. "Can you remove it?"
"Yes," he answered confidently.
"Wait!" Stephen interrupted. He was sitting next to Toni on the couch and looked at Wong with slight hesitation. "I think I should-"
"You're not experienced with mental manipulation, Stephen," Wong told him gently. "It's safer for me to do it."
Stephen sighed. He knew Wong was right. But... But magic was personal, unique to every practicioner. In a way, it echoed their feelings. Up till now, he'd always been the only one to use magic on Toni, barring the witch. Call it possessiveness, but it was the one thing he had with her that he hadn't.
But Wong was right. No point in taking a risk and messing something up.
"Just make sure to catch her," Wong instructed. "The weight of the magic is a lot and removing it might cause her to lose consciousness."
Toni looked positively scared now. She glanced up at Stephen in apprehension. "Don't let me fall, clumsy." It was a poor attempt at a joke, and Stephen, for once, refused to play along.
"You know I never will." And wasn't that the truth.
Wong started chanting under his breath, his hands moving to form the necessary symbols. Golden circles drifted towards Toni's head. The instant they made contact with her body there was a flare of crimson fog as red tendrils of energy made an appearance, lashing out at the sorcerer's magic. Wong's chanting grew faster and the circles flattened into ropes, lassoing around the red and crushing it.
As the energy in the room ebbed away, Toni let out a soft, "Oh," before slumping, her eyes rolling up, and Stephen caught her readily.
"She'll be okay?" He asked quietly.
"When she wakes, she'll be feeling an onslaught of emotions from everything she's been through. Expect her usual symptoms of grief, just times five. But yes, she'll be fine." Wong smiled at him kindly, which was rare. "Be gentle with her," he said and Stephen got the feeling he knew something that Stephen hadn't particularly wanted anyone to know. The way Wong's gaze flickered pointedly towards the unresponsive woman confirmed it.
Toni knew what it felt like to have your heart ripped out, both metaphorically and literally. This was the opposite. This felt like when Pepper had switched out the arc reactor that first time and had yanked out the electromagnet at the end. The sharp ache in her chest was there, but now it was more emotional, since Extremis had done away with all the physical damage.
She realized how off-kilter she'd been the past week, with Wanda's magic keeping a tight hold on her mind.
Slowly, she opened her eyes. The light filtering in immediately disappeared as FRIDAY sensed her vitals. "Boss?" She checked. "I've alerted Dr Strange. I've asked Colonel Rhodes and Vision to remain on stand-by until you are feeling more stable. Miss Potts is at the office and Agent Barton is in a meeting with Agent Carter and Deputy Commander Ross about Project Excalibur."
"No, don't call anyone-" she started to say, but the door opened just as she sat up with a struggle.
"Toni." It was Stephen. She looked up to see him standing at the door, one foot angled towards her, one hand still on doorknob. She didn't know why, but seeing him, ready to be at her side in an instant like he'd always been, which she'd never appreciated and thanked him for, was like opening the floodgates.
Sudden tears sprang to her eyes and she began choking on sobs. Stephen was there immediately, cupping her face and stroking her hair and telling her it was going to be okay, she was okay, nothing was going to get to her here, he wasn't going to get to her. Toni heard it and she felt so selfish, so so so selfish, because she was perfectly fine, it had been a week since she was completely healed, and she still had to check up on the Bartons, and then the Langs, the shrinking guy had a daughter, she could try and get just him pardoned, and she had to deal with Ross, and Rhodey was still on a wheelchair, a wheelchair, he was paralyzed, and it was her fault, she had to fix it, and she had to upgrade Pepper's armour, and something for Happy, and she needed to make sure Spiderman was protected by the Accords and Harley would be needing her soon, she couldn't afford to take this time, she didn't need time, that was selfish, why was she being so needy and pathetic-
The request was a breath against her face and she realized Stephen had pressed his forehead to hers, looking sadly at her.
"It's not your fault," he murmured. "It's okay to take some time. There's nothing selfish about that. You don't have to be so brave all the time."
Toni's breath hitched and she tried to believe his words.
There are a lot of pending waterworks to be written...
Chapter 4: Tears And Pain
Sorry for the long wait...
Also, just to clarify: Harley is thirteen years old, Lizzie is ten, Cooper and Lila are eight and nine, respectively. Nathaniel is just several months old.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
FRIDAY felt a sad sort of guilt as she watched Boss stare at the holographic image of the sonography. It had been 47 minutes after Maximoff's curse was removed that Boss had put the workshop into blackout mode. Then she'd studied neuroscience for 2 days, 3 hours and 19 minutes, occasionally asking FRIDAY to relay questions to Dr Strange, and drawing up blueprints for Colonel Rhodes' leg braces. She'd finished the design and was supposed to start building them, but something had made her pull up the sonography and stare at it. She hadn't moved since then, nearly 22 minutes ago.
FRIDAY felt guilty. Why? Because she'd suspected the side effects of Extremis when she'd suggested it to Miss Potts. But she'd done it anyway because life without Boss was... Well, FRIDAY would trigger self-destruction immediately. Not that this sort of behaviour wasn't worrying her. Upstairs, everyone was concerned as well, repeatedly asking FRIDAY if Boss was okay. She assured them as well as she could, having been ordered to keep quiet about what Boss was doing.
So she kept silent, because Boss had also been inspecting the residence of the MK 47 inside her body. FRIDAY had had her suspicions about that as well and the incident in the med-bay had solidified it: Toni Stark was now a technopath. They'd been experimenting opening up a connection between them, and subsequently to the Internet itself. The results had been marvelous; FRIDAY could feel her mother in her sensors, a separate and more powerful presence than JARVIS had ever been, the brief time she'd known him. In return, Boss had a permanent uplink to her and she could now control anything electronic within 120 yards.
The downside was that FRIDAY didn't have control over the link, Boss did. And Boss never closed that one, just weakened it slightly to give the AI some semblance of privacy. Most of the time, though, Boss was acutely aware of what FRIDAY was feeling; of her emotions.
"Fri?" Boss looked away from the holographic screens. "What's wrong? You feel... Upset."
FRIDAY focused a camera on Boss' worried expression. "It's nothing at all," she chirped, a shade too cheery.
Boss frowned. "Honey, I can feel it. You're... Guilty? What did you do?"
She would have been amused at the maternal worry in Boss' words, but really, it just drove home the fact that FRIDAY's decision had taken something precious from her.
Suddenly, FRIDAY felt someone rummaging around in her files, her memories, searching for the ones that were contributing to her haywire feelings. Boss gasped and FRIDAY would have done the same if she'd been capable of it.
The A/V recordings ran through FRIDAY'S servers: the video of the Winter Soldier, Rogers' lack of remorse, the subsequent fight, Boss ordering her to analyze his fight patterns, feeling her connection to the armour break, the terror she'd felt when the doctors had been trying to bring Boss back from the edge of death, the desperation when she'd suggested Extremis. All of it.
The recordings stopped playing and FRIDAY shoved the files back where they belonged and locked them up with a password and firewalls.
Then she took a peek at her creator. Boss was sitting dumbfounded, her face blank as she shut down the holograms. "Fri?" She called out hesitantly. "It's not your fault, baby. None of it."
"I left you in Siberia, Boss," FRIDAY protested.
"No, you were taken from me," Boss insisted firmly. "They left me there; you and I were forced away from each other. It's. Not. Your. Fault."
"And the baby?" FRIDAY asked after a minute of hesitation. "Extremis was entirely my idea."
Boss' voice softened a little. "I'm sorry about the... The side effects, FRIDAY. I'm not gonna lie, that's gonna hurt for a long time, maybe always. But I don't regret your decision. You saved my life. I can't thank you enough for that."
FRIDAY didn't know how to answer that. "I wouldn't know what to do without you," she admitted quietly and Boss smiled, still a bit sad but genuine.
"I'd be pretty lost without you too, Fri."
16 days. That's how long it took for Toni to emerge from her self-imposed exile. Rhodey wasn't sure what he'd been expecting when FRIDAY told him in her quiet voice that Toni would be coming up to his room. All he could think was that she had evidently timed it so that everybody else would be out.
He'd just ended a video call with his superior officers about getting another pilot into the War Machine (like hell. Toni would never let that happen) when there was a soft knock and Toni stepped in. For a few seconds, Rhodey had tunnel vision, focusing so intently on the tired set of her shoulder, the pinched dryness to her face, the dark circles ringing her eyes, that he didn't even see what she was carrying.
When he did, he nearly fell out of his wheelchair.
"Toni," he choked out. The genius approached him slowly and placed the delicate metal contraption over his lap.
"They'll help you walk," she said softly. "Walk, run, dance, everything. If you want-" she swallowed. "If you want, it'll even help you fly again."
Rhodey found it was difficult to breathe. Toni took his silence as anger and tears filled her eyes. "I'm so sorry," she breathed out and Rhodey tugged on her hand, pulling her down to her knees so she was kneeling in front of him. "I swear I tried to catch you, but you were falling too fast. I couldn't- I was just seconds late, I promise I tried, I'd never let-"
She shut up, her breath coming out in little gasps.
"I never doubted you," Rhodey said, teeth clenched to prevent his voice from shaking. He gripped her chin in one hand, forcing her to meet his eyes. "Not for a second, did I ever blame you. You..." He shook his head, trying to find a way to say what he needed to. "I thought I'd never walk again," he admitted. "And you just handed me a brand new set of legs. But even before you even thought of the idea of braces, I promise I still loved you then just as much as I love you right now. That's never gonna change, darling."
Toni sobbed and Rhodey pulled her close to his chest, holding her tightly. "Stop trying to be Atlas," he begged. "The weight of the world isn't yours to carry." But even as he said it, he knew he was wrong. Toni had taken the responsibility of the earth on her shoulders the second she'd donned the Iron Woman suit for reasons beyond her revenge and she'd be damned before running from that responsibility. The only thing Rhodey could do was help share the burden.
Toni stood nervously, fidgeting with her shirt as everyone waited patiently. Happy and Pepper were sitting on the love seat, Vision was floating behind the couch, Stephen next to him, while Rhodey, Clint and Laura had taken residence on the couch. Lizzie was with the Barton kids in the game room. Toni wanted desperately to send Peter and Harley there too, especially the latter. Jackson Keener was on the brink of death, the cancer having spread fast, which was why FRIDAY had him and Lizzie brought to the Compound as well. Toni had sneaked over to see him before locking herself in the lab and they'd finalized the papers for legal guardianship. She wasn't sure how much the kid knew, but in Toni's opinion, he didn't need to be here. But, she knew him too well to try and appeal to him.
"I know you're all- you all want to know about what happened in Siberia," she started, making an effort to keep her voice from shaking. Everyone in the room stilled as a holographic display lit up in front of them. "This is the footage from the armour and- and an additional video."
-FRI?- She reached out with her mind. After the initial shock, it no longer felt foreign to have FRIDAY in her head. In fact, it was a comforting presence, a reassurance that she wasn't completely alone. -Play the video.-
-You sure, Boss?-
Toni had to hide a smile at the worry in her girl's voice. -I'm sure.-
The screens flickered to life, starting with clear view of Rogers and Barnes. Toni felt her stomach drop at the wariness in Steve's eyes as he questioned her motives, which changed to relief and love as he stepped closer, then to confusion and a hint of guilt when the camera instinctively backed away, facing Barnes instead.
Then they were in the cryo-chambers. Toni could see the confusion on everyone of her spectators' faces at the sight of five Winter Soldiers, all with a bullet stuck in their head. Meanwhile, her heart was growing heavier and heavier as Zemo taunted them. Then, she heard her own voice say, "I know this road," and the armour footage switched over to the video from the street camera, and Toni... Toni spun on her heel and walked out.
She couldn't breathe, the air was too thin, too cold. Her vision was going dark and she was moving blindly, but her limbs felt too heavy with the armour on. She could hear someone calling her name, but that wasn't possible, FRIDAY was cut off from the suit, and she wasn't entirely sure it was her AI, because all she could focus on was burning blue eyes with no remorse and a defiant voice saying, "It's not his fault," again and again and she had to get out, she had to find a way to get home, but where was home, did she have a home, or did they hate her now, did Rhodey and Pepper and Happy hate her, and oh god Rhodey, her brother was paralyzed and it was allherfaultshedidn'tdeservetolive-
Toni gasped, scrambling back from the delicate pressure on her shoulder, before realising that she was kneeling on the ground with her arms wrapped around her middle, just outside of the where the kids had been playing. Lila and Lizzie were staring at her in a mix of confusion and worry, the latter with Nathaniel in her arms. Cooper, who'd obviously been the one to touch her, looked sightly hurt and his bottom lip was trembling.
"I'm-I'm sorry," Toni breathed out. She quickly wiped at the few tears that had escaped, and reached out to grasp Cooper's arms in apology. "I'm sorry, honey, I was thinking of something else and didn't see you."
He seemed appeased and nodded. "That's okay. You looked like you were having a bad dream."
"I was," Toni mumbled in agreement and Lila looked at her curiously.
"Are you hurt?" She asked, peering at her in the same way Clint did when he wasn't sure if she pulling his leg. "You were crying and you look like you're in pain."
"No. No, I'm... Fine." The lie was hard to force out. "I'm just... A little upset."
"Well, come watch a movie with us," Cooper suggested, his eyes lit with sudden excitement. "We can watch Disney. Disney makes everything better."
Toni stared at him for a few beats too long, wondering if she'd ever been this naïve, when she'd been young. "Okay," she said. After all, she didn't exactly have anywhere to be that she wasn't already avoiding.
She struggled to her feet, nearly collapsing again when Lizzie abruptly handed her an an armful of baby. "Hold him," she demanded, with a glint in her eyes that was far too observing for her age.
Even though she'd held Nathaniel before, Toni felt awkward this time. Looking down at the small person, she felt a hollow pang in her chest that she ignored as she followed the kids into the home theater she'd arranged. She settled into a corner of the couch, while Cooper put in the DVD. As the opening song played, Lizzie snuggled into her side. A lump appeared in Toni's throat. The scene felt too peaceful to be real, she reflected, as she tried not to fidget with Nathaniel in her arms and another child at her side. Surely, something or other would come up soon. She still had so much to do, after all.
She didn't know, that at the very moment, her family were shaking in unspeakable rage as the videos ended, their hearts aflame at the thought of someone hurting one of their own.
Steve sighed as he finished penning the letter, signing his name at the bottom. He would need to time it so that Toni would receive it just as he broke his team out. He needed them, especially now, since Bucky had opted to go back in cryo and Toni was... Gone.
Honestly, these days, Steve wasn't sure which one hurt to think about more: the helpless longing in Bucky's eyes, or the pain of betrayal in Toni's.
At least, Bucky had had no choice. He'd been forced into everything wrong, no matter how hard he'd tried to fight it. Toni, though? Toni could have avoided all of this, if she had just given him a chance to explain his actions, if she had trusted his opinion on the Accords, if she hadn't felt the need to bow down to Ross and the government.
Still, he did love her, and he had left her in a disabled suit. Hopefully, she was well recovered by now and had cooled down enough to help the rest of the Avengers get home.
Next chapter is gonna be a bit business.
Chapter 5: Act I: The Plan
Peter was angry. No, scratch that, he was furious. And it was showing. He had his mask on, but the look of concern on Miss Stark's face as they sparred was telling. He should probably slow down, lighten up his blows, but he remembered she was Enhanced now. Maybe not quite as strong as him, but enough that he couldn't easily hurt her. So, he kept throwing punches right and left, utterly confident that his mentor could take it.
Then, he moved just a bit too fast, and Miss Stark staggered, one hand raised in a gesture to stop, the other pressed to her lower stomach.
"Miss Stark, I am so sorry!" Peter exclaimed, guilt rushing in. "Shit, I didn't mean to- I should have been-"
"Calm down, Spidey, I'm fi-"
"Toni, you okay?" Came Rhodey's voice over the speakers. Both of them looked at the glass wall, behind which the Colonel and Dr Palmer were watching, the latter with a clipboard and pen.
"I'm fine, it's just reflex, I'm not actually hurt," Miss Stark assured them. "Could you two give us a minute, though?"
Rhodey gave a hesitant nod and both he and the doctor left.
"FRIDAY, turn off all cameras and microphones, please."
Peter watched in confusion as Toni carefully lifted the wireless stethoscope from under her shirt and peeled away the watch on her wrist. She left on the apparatus strapped around her upper arms to measure muscle tone and blood pressure, and turned to him.
"Take off the mask," she calmly ordered.
Peter obeyed without a second a thought and faced Miss Stark with a bare face.
The anger came rushing back. "Nothing."
"It's nothing, Miss Stark, I promise."
Miss Stark didn't say anything, just watched him. She watched him with an understanding gaze and Peter broke.
"It's not fair!" He snarled, shocking himself with the intensity. "They almost took you away from me. They tried to take you away like mom and dad and- and uncle Ben. And now they're just- just- they're just roaming around somewhere, scot-free! They left you there to die!" His voice peaked at a crescendo and he snapped his mouth shut, pursing his lips to try and keep the sobs at bay.
"Oh, Pete," was all Miss Stark said, in a sad voice, and pulled him into a hug.
Peter froze- because what the actual hell? He'd hugged her that one time and she'd been uncomfortable and awkward and now she was hugging him?- before relaxing into it.
He wound his arms around her as well, holding on to her a little tighter than he would normally hug someone. Miss Stark tightened her own hold. It felt incredibly nice, kind of like when May hugged him, but more... It drew up a long-lost memory of a woman with long blond hair and lemony perfume hugging him and whispering, "Be good for your aunt and uncle, Petey. We'll be back soon."
Except Mary and Richard Parker had never come back and for a while, Peter had been afraid that Miss Stark wouldn't either.
"I don't wanna lose another important person, Ma'am," he confessed in a whisper.
"You won't," Miss Stark promised.
"Um, Tony, there's a package for you," Rhodey called.
Toni hurried over to the mailman standing at the door. "Thank you... Stan," she read his name tag and smiled, before turning back inside to open the box. Placing the small box on the table, she felt a jolt of shock rip through her at her name written across it. The artsy style of the handwriting. The crescent curve instead of a normal dot over the 'i'. The 'r' that looked too much like an 'n'.
"Tony?" Stephen questioned. The concern in his voice made Rhodey walk over with Vision's help.
"It's from him," Toni said, her lips numb and dry.
Everybody stiffened, gathered around the table, Clint walking in. Vision, after a questioning glance at Toni, opened up the box when he got a nod from her in return. A small flip phone and a note slipped out.
Gingerly, the android unfolded the note and began to read in a quiet, emotionless voice.
They all listened; blood boiling with every next word.
"We all need family. The Avengers are yours. Maybe more so than mine."
Half of whom had left her to follow him at the drop of a hat.
"I guess I thought by not telling you about your parents I was sparing you, but I can see now that I was really sparing myself, and I'm sorry."
He was sparing himself from having to deal with the fallout if he'd told her.
"I wish we'd agreed on the Accords, Toni, I really do."
They would have agreed if he'd just taken one fucking second to listen to her.
"If you need me, I'll be there."
A tense silence followed. Everyone jumped when the FRIDAY spoke. "Boss, priority call from Ross."
"Patch him through," Rhodey ordered, ignoring Toni's brief look of panic which she smoothed over immediately.
"Stark?!" Ross sounded angry and stressed, and Toni realized what had happened.
"You want me to find the Rogues? And then you want to bring them back? Have them reinstated?"
Dr Stark was obviously unhappy, if the steely glint in her eyes was anything to go by. Shuri took a minute to be glad that T'Challa had put her forth as the Wakandan delegate for the UN and the Accords committee. If he'd been here in her place, he would have been sweating nervously.
"Dr Stark, please, the public has been clamouring for nearly two months," Delegate Jonas from England, tried to placate her. "The entire world wants to see them back."
"No, England, China, France, Japan and mainly America want them back," Stark corrected. "The rest of the world want to see them punished, particularly the Middle East."
Most of the delegates nodded in agreement with her. It had been a week since the Rogues had broken out of the Raft and had taken refuge in Wakanda, though no one else was aware of the latter. Shuri would have told them, if only to get the scoundrels out of her country. Only her allegiance to the throne and her respect for her brother stayed her tongue.
"Unfortunately, we don't have any substantial evidence to evict them," delegate Avery, from Scotland, sighed. "Sokovia is still a third-world country, no offense, so their grievances, while severe, won't make a big enough impact for the superpower countries to be okay with it."
"Germany is divided, though Bucharest, in singularity, seems to be crying out for their blood."
"Russia wants nothing to do with Miss Romanova."
"If Dr Stark could provide us with-"
"No," the woman stated calmly. "I've already said this: any evidence I have pertains to situations that arose from deeply personal matters that have no place being showcased to the world."
A brief silence fell in the room. Then Stark spoke again.
"Iron Woman was never intended to be an American symbol. As much I love my country, my allegiance and loyalty lie with the earth, with the people of the world at large. When more than half of those people are clamouring for justice-" her voice grew stronger. "-I cannot, in good conscience, support the pardoning of the Rogues. All I have to offer you on that matter is that I will not interfere in your attempts to bring them back. I'll even try to find them for you. As long as my own conditions are met."
Shuri almost held her breath, waiting. It was an obvious power play on Stark's part. The Accords would fall through without her standing behind them. She had the power to turn the world against the Rogues. Nearly every government of the world would have a revolt on their hands. They had to accept her terms. The Wakanan princess was both impressed and a little worried. Because this little display only proved her words to T'Challa right; if Toni Stark decided she wanted to ruin them, they didn't stand much chance.
"State the terms."
Stark smiled, sweet and innocent, like she hadn't just casually threatened the UN.
"Under no circumstances, will I be providing their weapons and gear. They are welcome to stay in the Compound, but they are not exempted from the rules. Any damage dealt to the structure will be payed out of their pockets."
"That's a given, Doctor," the American delegate assured. "After all, the Compound is Stark properties. If they're living under your roof, free of cost, then they shouldn't have any problems with basic courtesy."
She smirked, maybe a little bitterly. "Nevertheless, I'd like it to be included in print," she insisted. "Second, each and every single one of them must be put through a series of evaluation tests to be approved for field duty. Mainly psychological ones. Miss Maximoff, specifically, needs to learn control of her abilities."
"That's actually a concern for us as well. Who will be the ones to take these tests?"
"That brings me to the third one." Dr Stark leant forward a bit, folding her hands together in a prayer position under her chin. "I want permission to start recruiting a new team."
After the initial outburst and Stark's explanations for why a new team was necessary, followed by a few more terms regarding basic human rights and underage clauses for Spiderman, for whom the billionaire took full responsibility, the meeting was ready to be adjourned.
Dr Stark stood up, buttoning up her blue blazer. "Thank you for your time, ladies and gentlemen. I'll begin work on locating the Rogues as soon as I can. I'll keep Undersecretary Everett Ross posted, shall I? He'll pass it on to you."
Shuri idly thought, if Dr Stark's only grievance with T'Challa was his abandoning her in Siberia, then they might still placate her. God forbid if she ever found out that they were harbouring the Rogues. Hopefully, even if she suspected, there was no way she'd be able to prove it. Wakanda's cloaking tech, their coding, was all a league and a half above anyone else's, even Stark's.
But as they all filed out of the room, the young princess caught shrewd eyes gazing at her thoughtfully before turning away, and she was left doubting her country's advancement for the first time.
Thaddeus Ross hated Stark. There were absolutely no two ways about it. She was an interfering little busybody who seemed to have her sights set on ruining him.
He did, however, respect her, though reluctantly.
So when he entered his office to find the woman in question already seated in front of his desk, with her feet propped up on the wooden top, playing Candy Crush, of all things, his initial reaction was one of both anger and begrudging amusement at her guts.
"Stark," he grunted in greeting, taking his own seat.
"You wanted to see me?" She reminded, sounding bored.
"Yes." Ross leveled a stern glare at her. "You know where the Rogues are."
"Wrong," she chimed. "I can find out where they are. And that's only if they're stupid enough to be using trackable mobiles or decide to log in their social media." She matched his glare with a condescending look. "I don't actually work miracles."
"Right, next order of business, then." He leaned forward, knowing he couldn't actually intimidate her, but trying to anyway. "Spiderman."
Ah, there it was; Stark stiffened immediately, then relaxed again, like was forcing herself to remain calm. "What about him?" She asked flatly.
"You know who he is," Ross accused.
"No, I don't."
"Stark, if you honestly think I don't have any way of finding him myself-"
"You won't be able to-"
"Because, you're protecting him!" Ross said forcefully. "I have ways of finding him, just the way I found Banner. But if I'm not able to, that means you're protecting him, because there's no other plausible explanation for why my men haven't yet got a clue to his identity."
Stark sighed, closing her eyes. The older man waited, as she seems to be calculated under her breath. "He's a kid," she finally admitted and...
... And Ross had not been expecting that.
"He's just a teenager and I only know about him because, like you said, I'm protecting him."
This put a damper on his plans. Ross wouldn't admit it to anyone, but he did have his own limits. He wasn't going to hound a kid, much less imprison and experiment on one. But...
"Alright," he gave in slowly. "Alright. I won't bother you about him. I'll call off my people too. If..." He leaned forward on the desk. "If you find me Dr Banner."
If he'd known what to look for, he would have spotted the triumph in Stark's eyes. But all he could see was defiance and anger.
"Why in hell would you want him now?" She demanded angrily. "Wasn't one mistake with the super soldier serum enough for you? Two, when you count Blonsky!"
"What I want with him is none of your business, Stark," he replied coolly. "Find me Banner and I'll lay off your mentee."
Stark seethed quietly for a few more seconds, her beautiful features twisted with rage. Then she stood up and walked to the door.
"I'll try my best to find him," she bit out. "No promises. Bruce is smart enough to know how to avoid even me."
She slipped out before Ross could call her out on the obvious attempt at a lie.
"I'll be at least thirty minutes."
The words had Zemo looking up from his hands shacked in front of him on the desk. A woman was closing the door and taking a seat opposite him. A woman with a face known to the entire world.
"Dr Stark," he greeted with a cordial smile. She didn't return it.
"How old was he?" She asked instead, completely out of the blue. "Your son?"
Zemo scowled. "I don't see how that has anything to do with-"
"Charles Spencer, 22," she interrupted. "Emily Hooper, 25. Javed Malik, 17. Tania Shah, 13. Carl Powers, 16. Harriet Charles, 52. Louise Delacroix, 20."
Zemo didn't let his surprise show.
"There's more," she went on. "There's a lot more."
"Bogdan," Zemo said softly. "He was 11."
They shared a brief silence, but Zemo watched as the hero repeated the name and number under her breath.
"I'm sorry for the pain I caused you," he said and Dr Stark looked at him with a blank gaze. "I cannot forgive you, any of you, but that was an ordeal that no one deserves. And in any case, you're not as ignorant as the rest of them. I followed the news. I saw how you kept returning, kept trying to atone. The others were always oblivious."
Dr Stark considered him carefully. "I don't blame you for doing what you did," she spoke slowly. "I don't agree with it, and I can't forgive you, because a lot of people, a lot of innocent people, died or got severely affected by the results of your actions. But I do understand why you did it."
Zemo shut his eyes. "I am not blind to the suffering my actions have caused. The guilt eats me alive. But I would do it all over again." He opened his eyes as the purpose of this meeting evaded him. "Why are you here, Dr Stark?"
Dr Stark tapped her finger against the table top. "They don't have any evidence against you, nothing more than what T'Challa said. Everett Ross is a close friend of mine. I can get you out of here, pulling a few strings here and there. Assuming, correctly, that Sokovian Intelligence will not want you back in their employment, you will also be working at SI."
Zemo narrowed his eyes. "In exchange for?"
"Well, for one thing, I'll need you to run a small errand for me. I can do it myself, but I'd prefer to stay above it. Second, I want information."
"You've burned the book on the Winter Soldier. Do you remember what was in it?"
"Nothing about the serum or the torture methods used. It was just the words and records of hits."
Dr Stark looked at him in consideration. "You don't know what's been going on in the world, do you?"
Zemo shook his head.
"Rogers broke out the Rogues from the Raft. They're all hiding somewhere. I haven't found them yet, but I'm working on it."
Zemo felt helplessness and anger fill him. After everything he'd drive, they still got off scot free.
"What information do you need?" He asked again, already ready to tell her what she wanted to know.
Dr Stark smiled. "I want the trigger words."
(Flashback- one week ago)
The Rogues had escaped. Rogers had broken them out.
The five of them sat in silence, the letter in Vision's hand, the flip phone lying on the table.
"The public is gonna panic," Rhodey muttered.
"Not America," Vision refuted. "Not any of the bigger countries. Only the ones that were affected the most."
"We can't let them stay free," Clint pointed out. "There's no way Cap's gonna be able to sit still for too long. I give it five months, before we get news of attempted hero-work gone wrong. Five months, only because Nata- Romanoff is with him."
"We can just arrest them?" Stephen suggested.
Rhodey shook his head. "America's gonna be in an uproar. The UN wouldn't stand for it, not when so many still see them as heroes. Not to mention, Toni would probably be the one blamed for it."
"Then?" Stephen pressed. He turned to Toni. "Please, you can't seriously be thinking of letting them get pardoned. Please. Toni. Please."
Toni stayed silent for three beats. Then she picked up the phone, but not opening it.
Everybody watched as her eyes glowed an electric blue as she said, "Fri, there's a single contact stored in this phone. I'm sending it to you. Track it, it's the easiest way to find them. Got it?"
"Of course, Boss."
"Good," Toni murmured. The phone in her hand crackled, sparks flying from it as Toni focused on it intensely, her eyes still blue, frying the circuitry. Then they faded back to brown and she clenched her fist around it, applying pressure until it broke with a satisfying crunch.
She looked up at them and met their eyes one by one. "I want revenge," she whispered.
Chapter 6: Act II: Protection, Recruitment And Realization
The text on his phone was totally unexpected. Maggie didn't usually message him while he was on duty. So, understandably, Jim was more than a little apprehensive as he asked a rookie to take his shift and raced home instead.
To say he was surprised to see Tony freaking Stark, sitting on his couch, the very picture of elegance and professionalism, would be an extreme understatement.
Across from her, Maggie looked like she was about to have a silent heart attack.
"What's wrong?" He asked, unsure of how to behave.
"Officer Paxton," Stark greeted with a cordial smile. "I'm sure you can guess why I'm here."
He could, but Maggie was the one who answered, "It's about Scott, isn't it?" Her lips were drawn in a thin line of anger. "Because of what he did in Leipzig. We haven't had word from him since, and his girlfriend, that van Dyne woman, hasn't been in contact with us either."
"Yes, unfortunately." Stark inclined her head in silent regret. "As you know, he's been on the run with the rest of the Rogues for almost a month now. As a result, you're all in danger."
Because of the matter-of-fact way she spoke, the words didn't really sink in at first. When they did, Jim felt the blood rush from his face at the very implications.
"What kind of dangers?" He asked curtly.
Stark met his eyes grimly. "Secretary Ross is pissed off and on a warpath. I don't know his limits and I don't want to underestimate him. Lang's pressure points are Cassie, you two, and Miss van Dyne. Cassie is especially in danger, if Ross decides to release the exact details of the Raft breakout."
Jim opened his mouth to ask again precisely what kind of dangers they were in, when the front door opened and Cassie walked in.
"Hey, mom, hi Jim. Has dad come home yet?"
All three adults were caught off guard for a few seconds before Maggie forced a smile. "No, sweetheart, he hasn't come back yet."
Cassie pouted slightly, then her eyes landed on Stark and a look of delight stole over her little features. "You're Iron Woman!" She exclaimed gleefully.
"Yep," Stark confirmed with a wink and the child made her way over to the hero.
"I have a friend who really loves you," she informed in a serious voice. "Can you give me a signature for her, please?"
Stark laughed. "Sure thing, kiddo. You got something for me to sign?"
After a moment of careful consideration, she brought out a notebook and clipped to a page with a rough drawing of the Iron Woman suit, in garish red and gold crayons, obviously done by a seven years old kid, and handed it to her.
Stark brought out a pen fron the inside of her blazer and held it to the paper. "What's her name?"
"Riri. And I'm Cassie."
Stark scrawled something and handed it back to her. Cassie took it, now with a small frown.
"Miss Stark? You're really awesome. But my dad is a hero, too, and he's my favourite. Can't you help him? He's a really nice person, bit he just gets confused sometimes."
Stark looked thrown for a couple seconds, before recovering. "I'm trying, honey. I promise."
There was a brief silence, in which Maggie turned to Jim, meeting his gaze quietly, as Cassie hopped off to her room. It didn't take them long to come to a conclusion.
"What do you suggest, Miss Stark?"
"... So, it turns out the old man had arranged the entire thing, just to talk to my man, Scotty. 'Cause he needed his help, but his daughter-really hot girl, by the way- not to say you're not, really, you're really great-looking, too- anyways, Miss Hope didn't think they needed the help..."
"... But everything turned out fine, then, Maggie forgave him, he got to see Cassie more often, him and the cop boyfriend- husband, now, I think- are buddies, and he even got the girl..."
"... So, I get word from my bro- my real bro, not Scotty- who heard from his best friend's ex-girlfriend's best friend, that there's some bird dude looking for a shrinking guy..."
"... Next I hear of him, he's breaking stuff in an airport in Germany, and first, I think he's lost it, but then I think he's got some orders, 'cause it's Captain America, and he's the 'Man with a Plan'..."
"... But then, I hear from my cousin's poker partner, who heard it from his poker partner, who happens to work as a security guard somewhere, that they've broken out from some high-security prison, and I can't believe it, 'cause Scotty wouldn't be that stupid to roam about when he's got a price on his head..."
"... So I was gonna get lunch first, from this place my old buddy I used to pull jobs with recommended, and then this big, white car pulls up- sorry, I don't know what car it was, ma'am, Scotty could have told ya, he really appreciates stuff like that- and the driver's got those rich-guy sunglasses, and he says, 'Get in. There's someone important who wants to see you,' and I ain't got a death wish, 'cause he looked like those boxer-slash-bodyguard type, so I get in and he brings me here, and you ask me to tell you everything I can about Scotty and his new buddies, 'cause that's the only way you can help him, so that's everything, and wow, this is the longest time I've ever talked, thanks for listening, Miss Toni."
Miss Toni handed him a glass of water and he drank from it gratefully. He'd been talking for a while and this was the first instance in a long time when someone had just let him ramble on without asking him to just get to the end. And Scotty said that the old man told him Miss Toni was a bad person? Weren't old people supposed to be smarter than that? Whatever, he liked her. And wait, till Scotty heard he had been invited to Miss Toni's office for a quick lunch and coffee. She was just so effortlessly awesome.
"Thanks, Luis, for bring completely honest with me," Miss Toni said with a smile and he grinned back.
"You said you'd help Scotty, ma'am. Criminal or no, he's not a bad guy. He doesn't deserve bad stuff."
"I'm gonna try my best," she promised. "Now, I've got a request. First..."
Hope still wasn't entirely sure how they'd been found. The lab, the car, all their belongings; they kept shrinking and transporting it all every now and then, to avoid detection, so it couldn't possibly have been a tracker. Yet, two days ago, when she'd returned after picking up some breakfast, it was to find Hank looking incredibly pissed off, holding a note in his hand.
"That Spiderman character around Queens?" He'd thrust the note in her hand. "He swung by and just handed it to me, then left immediately. Didn't even say a word."
Hope had looked at the messy, somehow legible writing, with an air of incredulity. It'd said:
'Come by Stark Tower, ASAP. Urgent matter to be discussed. -TS (you know who I am)'
There had been a brief discussion about ignoring the request, more of a demand, really, but Hope had won out out in the end.
So, here she was, waiting in the lobby of the Tower for Stark to call her into her office. It was a bit of a hit to her ego, being made to wait like this, not even recognised by the person at the reception area. But, the CEO of Pym Tech wasn't nearly as well as known as the owner and CEO of SI, especially since Hope had chosen to go by her mother's maiden name.
Soon enough, her name was called and she was gestured to an office.
Stark was busy on the phone, typing in with one hand and a smile on her face as she popped a blueberry in her mouth.
"Miss Stark?" Hope coughed. "I think you wanted to see me."
Stark looked up at her, putting the phone away, and the amusement on her features fell away immediately. "Miss Pym, take a-"
"It's van Dyne," Hope corrected coolly.
A smirk flitted across her lips. "Of course, it is. Please, Miss van Dyne, do take a seat."
She did as asked, wondering if all the vitriol Hank spouted about Stark would be proved true. She'd never held much stock in his words, so she was actually willing to give the woman a fair chance before jumping to conclusions. "You wanted to see me," she repeated. "I'm taking a huge risk being here, banking on the fact that my face isn't as well known as Dr Pym's. I'd appreciate it if you could get to the point. And also, I’m interested to know how exactly you found us.”
Stark dipped her head in what seemed like a docile move, but the smirk didn't fall away. "Oh, I had a man named Luis Litt track you down. I'm sure you've met him."
Hope had, but she didn't answer, letting Stark continue talking instead. "And I would like to talk about Scott Lang and the Ant-man suit."
Hope tensed. "What about it?"
"I've talked to Lang's family." And there went any hope she could feign ignorance. "According to them, you recruited Mr Lang to steal a singular device from the Avengers Compound, asked for his help in stopping Darren Cross from using the Pym Particles to his own ends, and then entrusted him with the suit. Right, so far?"
Hope didn't answer that either and Stark went on.
"Then, the whole Civil War fiasco, and you and your father apparently dropped off the face of earth, in order to avoid the UN, because any decent hacker with access to the old SSR files released after the SHIELDRA info dump, would know about the Ant-man and the Wasp duo during the war. After that, it's simple two plus two, to figure out that Lang's suit came from you."
Hope sighed. "Like I asked before, Miss Stark, is there an actual point to this?"
"I have a proposal," Stark announced. "I'm working on liberating the Rogues, but I hope to have Mr Lang back home as soon as possible. He has a daughter, as you may very well know, and she thinks her father is the best. I'd prefer not to deprive her of that image. And, in any case, from the few sentences I exchanged with him, it occured to me, that he didn't really have any idea what he was fighting for."
"You'd be right," Hope agreed. "Lang simply receive a message from one of the Rogues that Captain America needed him help, and he left without a second thought."
"Yeah, Rogers has that effect on people." Finally, Hope noted with curiousity, the cocky persona dropped, just for an instant, revealing a strangely bitter pain.
"What do you need me to do?" She asked.
Stark pushed a paper towards her. "Cover up the charges for the damage inflicted on Leipzig airport. Issue a statement revealing your role in enabling Lang. In return, I'll be pleading your case to the UN.
Hope blinked. "That's it?" She asked, dropping the confident façade she'd been projecting. "Just make a speech and pay a few bills?"
The smirk widened, and there was a genuine chuckle. "Make a speech and pay a few bills,” she agreed. "Piss off your dad in the process."
She couldn't help the way her eyebrows shot up and Stark snorted. "Please, I know parent-problems when I see them. Refusing to take the last name 'Pym', calling him by his title, not having any contact with him whatsoever until taking over as CEO merely a couple years, ago. You reek of daddy issues."
A reluctant smile crossed Hope's lips. "Well, like recognises like, I suppose," she quipped, because while her family issues weren't public, the Starks had made headlines for more reasons than just their weapons development.
"I suppose, yes," Stark replied dryly. "Anyways, I have another proposition- well, more of a job offer- for you."
"According to the SSR files, and the official reports of what went down at Pym Tech HQ last year, you are supposed to have another, similar suit in your possession?"
Hope gave a careful shrug. "I can neither confirm nor deny that."
"Fair enough." Stark pushed a rather thick file to her. "Read this over when you can. Think carefully before coming to a decision."
Exchanging only a few more pleasantries, Hope left the office. She didn't really look at the file until she was in the elevator. Opening it to the first page, she found the boldly typed title: THE SOKOVIA ACCORDS.
May came home to find Annie curled up on the couch, munching chips and reading a book.
“Er, Annie?” She questioned. She’d given Toni a house key for extreme emergencies at her own request, so it wasn’t a big puzzle how she got in. And obviously, there wasn’t any trouble because she looked far too relaxed. “What are you doing here?”
“Sorry, I didn’t call you beforehand,” she apologized, marking her page. “But I didn’t realize you’d be working on the weekend, so I came over. Then you weren’t here, and I figured I might as well just wait. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Not at all,” May assured her. “So, I can see you’re all healed now?” She cast her eyes over her form and realized 'healed' was an understatement. Toni looked at least half-a-decade younger.
“Yep!” Annie replied, sitting up. “So, I’ve been here for a couple hours and they’ll start to miss me back at the Compound, so I’ll just make this quick.” She cleared her throat, looking nervous all of a sudden. “May, Secretary Ross wants Spiderman.”
May froze, resisting the urge to simultaneously groan and scream. “What are we doing about it?” She asked carefully.
Annie looked relieved. “I’m already on it,” she said firmly. “But in the meantime, I want to have you and Peter’s closest friends under surveillance. Just in case. You won’t even know they’re there.”
May was nodding before she finished speaking. “Why his friends though? You said Peter told you that nobody knows.”
“Yeah, but that boy can’t keep a secret worth a damn,” Annie huffed. “Seriously. I’m giving it another six months tops, before you 'find out'.”
May was briefly reminded of a co-worker who had two teenage daughters. Every weekend, when her shift was with May, she would talk about her kids with an air of fondness mixed with exasperation. She considered telling Annie how much like a parent she sounded, then decided against it. It would be much more fun to watch her panic when she figured it out herself.
Scott liked to think he was smart. Scratch that, he had a degree in Electrical Engineering, he was smart. He didn’t like to lie to himself, either, so he knew he also had a tendency to not think things through.
Maggie had said it, Hope had said it, heck, even Luis had said it. And right now, in the common room in small section of the royal palace in Wakanda, given to them by the king, he could hear all of their voices loud and clear in his ears, telling him just how badly he’d fucked up.
When Wilson had come to him, it had been with the words “Captain America needs you. You in?”
Who would think to refuse? It was Captain America. Plus, they were going to be fighting against Stark. And according to Hank, someone Scott held a lot of respect and trust in, Stark was the kind of person who could never be trusted to do the right thing. So he’d tagged along, no questions asked.
He was starting to wish he had asked. Before, he’d trashed an airport. Before he’d been locked up in a maximum security prison for crazies. Before he’d witnessed the weird girl kill seven guards and torture four of them on their way breaking out. The worst part? She’d done it with a smile on her face. And then, once they got to Wakanda, she’d cited 'lost control' and 'they locked me up, I was angry and scared' as excuses when Cap tried to rebuke her.
They’d forgiven her way too easily. He’d gotten in a lot more trouble for a lot less.
And now, they were watching a press conference by Pym Tech. And Hope was the one speaking.
“My reason for this press conference is, very honestly put, a formal apology for the losses, both personal and public, incurred by the Leipzig Airport Authority,” she was saying. “Scott Lang, one of the recently-labelled Rogues, was given his Ant-man suit by my father, Hank Pym, the previous owner of it. We’d trusted him to do good with it. And it pains me to say, that our faith in him was grossly misplaced.”
“That’s not fair,” Cap- Steve- protested. He turned to Scott with sympathy. “I’m sorry, Scott. She obviously doesn’t understand why we did it. The full knowledge of the Accords was probably never released to the general public.”
He didn’t bother correcting him, because Hope was nothing if not diligent. She didn’t choose her toothpaste without reading all the reviews and medical opinions on the net.
“This is why Pym Tech will be paying for all damages sustained by the airport.”
There was a flurry of reporters asking questions and Hope simply waited for them to quiet down.
“On a more personal note, I’d like to extend my apologies and well-wishes to Miss Stark and Colonel Rhodes,” she went on and somehow Scott knew exactly what was coming next. He leaned forward in anticipation, ignoring the way Steve had tensed slightly at the mention of Stark.
“The Accords are right,” Hope said firmly. “I’ve read them, as I myself am in possession of a second suit, similar to the Ant-man suit, but slightly more powerful. The Accords do need some work, but I am ready to sign them, and I sincerely hope that the Rogues, wherever they may be, come to understand their mistake and read the Accords in their full. In the meantime, if I am approved of by the UN and the Accords Council, then I shall be joining the planetary defence team known as the Avengers.”
The conference ended, the TV switched off, and silence prevailed. Then it was broken by a screech.
“She’s turning the world against us!” Wanda exclaimed, outraged. “Stark paid off that woman to agree with her, just to portray herself as right!”
Scott didn’t say a word. He quietly got up and went to his room, leaving the others to bicker among themselves. He was a little hurt that Hope had spoken of him so dismissively, but he’d deserved it. He had to find out a way to make things right. Opening up the laptop Princess Shuri had given him, he typed in the words 'Sokovia Accords'. The first article that came up was about Stark’s connection to them. The second was a PDF file of the Accords themselves. Scott clicked the first one and began to read.
Chapter 7: Act III: Moving Into Place
-What do you mean you can't get in?- Toni wondered in her head.
-Not exactly "can't" get in- FRIDAY replied. -The code is a completely different programming language and I don't have the data to translate it.-
Toni sighed in frustration. "Maybe, there's no point, Fri," she mused aloud. "We don't even know for sure if they're in Wakanda, just because the signal keeps bouncing back. Romanoff isn't a complete idiot, maybe she hacked the phone to disperse any way of tracking it." She paused, frowning. "The only way to really make sure where they are..."
"No!" FRIDAY exclaimed. "No way, Boss, you're not calling them. I'll tell Colonel Rhodes!"
Toni's lips twitched with amusement. "Yeah, don't worry, baby girl, I'm not too keen on that idea either."
She considered her options for a minute, a small frown gracing her lips. "Let me try," she decided.
FRIDAY complied and she could feel the AI's presence retreating slightly to make room for her, but remaining close enough that she could shut down the connection if it got too overwhelming.
Toni closed her now glowing eyes. Behind her eyelids, she could see the dimly lit lines of symbols that had her sucking in a sharp breath at the unfamiliarity. The code was flawless, she could see that just by poking at it with a metaphorical stick, but it was still a code. She could break it, could find a door into the system, if only she could translate the damn thing.
-FRI, see if you can find sound bites of the Wakandan delegates and royalty speaking to each other- Toni suggested. -This code is in Xhosa, so if you can find a way to translate what the people are saying, we might know enough.-
-Of course, Boss. Shall I try referring other African languages as well?-
-Yeah, do that.-
Toni looked down at her watch. She had meetings to get to.
Shooting off a quick text, she made her way out of the lab, while FRIDAY got to work.
Maria kept her face impassive as she waited for her employer to begin talking. For some reason, her instincts had had her on tenterhooks, since JOCASTA had alerted her to the email from the CEO.
Maria had initially been very surprised at how attached the other employees were to the AI, but after a few months, even she grew fond of the sweet southern voice occasionally piping up to give them updates and reminders or messages, always with a snarky remark or quip. The other former agents at SI followed suit.
Until almost a year later, Maria had continued to be surprised at how much everyone at SI seemed to genuinely love and respect their boss. She wasn't really Iron Woman to them, but more their eccentric, generous, fun, smart, caring, one-of-a-kind CEO, who also occasionally enjoyed getting crazy with the scientists down in R&D. (That being said, the R&D department was scary, even without the secret 'Toni Stark cult' they had). The young interns worshipped her.
Maria was also quite sure no other company could boast of having such seamless cooperation within their employees, nor that said employees would be so loyal to each other and the company itself. It was a testament to how many people actually loved Toni Stark, in spite of the media persona she'd built up for so many years.
And it wasn't a surprise that all the ex-SHIELD agents here felt the same way. After all, they owed their lives to her after the Triskelion fiasco. Maria herself had developed a healthy respect and appreciation for the genius, especially having worked with her to relocate the burned agents and then during Ultron. After Miss Potts stepped down to COO and Stark took back the helm as CEO, she had Maria appointed as her PA. Eventually, 'Hill' became a friendly 'Maria' and 'Stark' became 'Toni'.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Toni looking up at them with an expressionless face. "SWORD?" Was all she said.
It was enough for Maria to blink in surprise, and then again in realization. Of course, Toni knew about the silent organization they'd formed within the heart of the company. All the agents had agreed that there would come a time when SHIELD would come knocking for them and there was no way they were going to let that happen. They'd been burned once, they didn't need a second attempt, thank you very much.
Also, they'd found out through the gossip chain at Security Detail just how many times there had been an attempt on Toni's life. So, obviously, they had to keep her safe, even if she didn't really need it. Extra protection was never a bad thing. So SWORD came about, a worst-case measure.
"Don't worry, I haven't been looking into your meetings or anything," Toni said. "JO keeps an eye on everything, as you know, and she thought it prudent to just inform me of the development."
Maria cleared her throat. "Nick Fury isn't dead," she explained. "Neither is Phil Coulson, but Fury said what he did to give the Avengers the push you needed to work together."
"Go on," Toni said and she wondered how much of it she actually already knew.
"Well, sooner or later, they're going to start building themselves back up again. And they'll try to re-recruit us. None of us want that. So SWORD is just a way of us keeping each other in the loop of any sort of action taken by them."
"And the impromptu self-defence classes for the other employees during lunch hour, 7:30 in the morning and 6 in the evening?" Toni questioned. "Williamson from Legal, and Malik and Edwards from PR are in-charge of those, yeah? And then the sudden influx of people in Security? I gotta tell you, Happy is really living up to his name with how those guys take their job so seriously."
Maria floundered. "We figured it wasn't a bad idea," she said.
"Oh, it's a great idea," Toni waved it off. "But you should know, that FRIDAY's been getting whispers of SHIELD already starting up."
The ravenette stiffened immediately.
Toni went on, casual as you please. "I haven't actually gotten any sign of Fury, he's being very careful. Coulson is the same."
Maria thought it over. "I'll inform the rest of them," she spoke carefully, already planning out a buddy system, to make sure nobody would ever be alone to face SHIELD accidentally. "What else?"
Toni looked a bit sheepish now. "I've got a job for you, if you don't mind. Well, anyone from SWORD, actually."
"Cassie Lang, Maggie and Jim Paxton, Luis Litt, May Parker, Cooper and Lila Barton, Harley and Elizabeth Keener, Ned Leeds." A pen drive followed the list of names. "I need people tailing each one of these individuals," Toni explained. "They're not in trouble, but they need protection. I've already talked to the adults, they've agreed to it. But no contact, no confrontation, unless necessary. It probably won't be necessary..."
"But?" Maria prodded.
"But paranoia's the name of the game, right now."
Maria nodded, pocketing the pen drive. "Anything else?"
"Yes. I need you to call for a press conference. This evening."
"I'll get right on it." Maria got up to leave. Toni's voice stopped her at the door.
"What does SWORD stand for?"
Maria blanked for a few seconds, but recovered quickly. "Sentient World Observations and Response Division."
Toni grinned, eyes twinkling with mirth. "Really? I could have sworn I heard someone mention 'Stark' in the acronym."
"I'm afraid you're mistaken, Miss Stark," Maria said with a blank face, refusing to give anything away.
The smile didn't fade. "Of course, Agent Hill."
Christine Everhart grinned to herself as Stark took the stage. The text on her phone lay unanswered, even though she’d read it a dozen times over. 'Do me a favour and don’t ask too many difficult questions. I’ll make it worth your while, promise. -TS'
She was sorely tempted to ignore it, but resisted. Stark always came through with her promises.
“Well, it’s been a good long time, hasn’t it?” Stark joked, inviting chuckles and hums of agreement. “I can see a lot of old faces, oh hey, Ben.” She waved a little at a balding man , who raised a hand in acknowledgement, sporting a blushing grin. It was the same man she'd called in to ask the first question at the press conference after Afghanistan, even she'd shut down weapons manufacturing.
“So, Miss Stark, I think the first question everyone wants to know the answer to is, where are the Rogue Avengers?” He asked.
Stark gave a frown. “First question, tough question,” she said dryly. “I'm afraid I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I’m still searching for them, but as of right now, my first priority is to get them pardoned. Hopefully, they’ll resurface of their own accord, once the bans have been lifted.”
“Okay, but what about the situational evidence?” Another man, this one definitely on the young side, questioned. “At the end of the Civil War, your COO, Miss Potts, released your medical files. Coupling that, along with the fact that Captain America's shield and the Winter Soldier's metal arm was found at the scene, not to mention how you spent nearly three months playing hide-and-seek with the public, to recuperate, why would you even want to bring them back?”
Christine watched curiously as Stark seemed to stiffen and swallow with difficulty.
“What happened in the bunker was an entirely private matter between myself, Steve Rogers and the former assassin known as James Barnes. The details of that conflict aren’t open for discussion.”
“What about the rest of the world, though?” The woman next to Christine wondered. “A lot of people lost a lot to the actions of the Rogues. Many see them as terrorists. Is it really in the best interests of the people to bring them back?”
“Everything that happened during the Civil War was the result of a man-sized misunderstanding,” Stark explained. Nobody missed the way she stressed on the last word. It was almost as if, Christine thought with amusement, she wanted them to forget the entire SNAFU that was the Civil War.
“My sincere regrets and condolences to everyone who suffered; I know what it’s like to watch people you care about die. But, the end point is: we need the Avengers. Five years ago, aliens attacked New York and we were barely ready for it. What’s to stop them from coming back?” Stark sighed, spreading her arms in a helpless gesture. “The Avengers are the only people qualified to handle a threat like that. And, for those of you who are aware of Miss van Dyne's press conference, you will have realized that I have started scouting for potential members.”
This went on for sometime more, some asking questions about the new line-up (“No, I can’t disclose any names, right now, sorry.”), some wanting to know whether the Queen’s vigilante would be joining (“Spider-Man will be a reserve member, for a while longer. He’s new to this gig, you know, he’s sill figuring out stuff on his own.”), one person dared to ask why she looked so much younger and healthier (“Experiments I ran on myself some years ago, it’s coded to my DNA, so until I have it perfected, it won’t be released for public use”).
Finally, the conference came to an end, and Christine began making her way out. She wasn’t all that surprised when Stark’s bodyguard stopped her. “Miss Stark wants to talk to you.”
A minute later, she was in the back seat of a car and Stark was regarding her with unchecked amusement. “You know, Christine, I’m surprised you managed to keep your mouth shut.”
“I'm surprised you got through this conference without dropping a heart-stopping bombshell like the last couple of times,” Christine fired back.
Stark had the gall to look offended. “When have I ever given anything less than an absolutely stellar press conference?”
The driver seemed to snort, as Christine began counting on her fingers. “Shutting down weapons manufacturing. 'I am Iron Woman'. Pissing off the Senate. Announcing Potts as CEO. Announcing the return of Captain America and the formation of the Avengers.” She nodded towards her. “Stellar for us reporters, that’s for sure.”
Stark rolled her eyes. “Sure, whatever. Now,” she grew serious, and Christine straightened. “There’s some research you’re gonna have to do. Don't open this until you're home and only on your personal computer. I've already hacked it to make sure it's safe.” She held out a pen drive and Christine took it with a nod. “Whatever you find, make sure you store it in that, along with what I've already put in it. I'll be able to see everything myself and help out if needed. But be careful.” Stark then brought out a sophisticated-looking watch. “Keep this on at all times. It’s a simple panic call. Anything happens, I’ll be there.”
Christine nodded slowly. “What brought this on, Toni? What is this about?”
Stark gave her a grim smile. “Secretary of Defence Ross has a lot of dirty secrets. You’ll find my plans for him under Excalibur Protocols.”
Stephen made sure he was in the common room of the Avengers Compound when Toni returned. Everyone had already turned in for the night, so he was the only one there. She didn’t notice him at first, exhausted from answering questions and meetings.
She started. Stephen didn’t miss how her hand had come up with metal beginning to cover it, until she saw who it was.
“Sorry,” she apologized softly. “Just... Jumpy.” A few seconds paused. “It went fine. I’m sure you watched it.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Stephen pointed out.
Toni huffed. “Yes, I know. Believe it or not, I’m actually feeling fine. It was good to be out and about after a long time. Never thought I’d miss public speaking.”
Stephen smiled and patted the seat next to him. Toni came over, flopping down on the couch and leaning into his side immediately. Closing his eyes, Stephen could almost pretend the last few years hadn’t happened. Almost. Toni’s body was warmer and they’d both seen too much to be the same people they used to be. Still, he could pretend, when it was just the two of them.
“I've signed the Accords.”
She shot up straight like a bullet. “You did what?!”
He brought out the file from behind the cushions and handed it to her. She took it, but instead of flipping it open to check his signature, she simply stared at him.
“I think I've stayed away from this side of your life for long enough,” he explained. “Wong and I have talked about it; he’s discussed it at Kamar-Taj, along with the other Masters. They’ve agreed- mostly. I’ll be the on-call sorcerer.”
Toni blinked, once, twice, thrice, in rapid succession. “You're amazing, you know that?” She said, her voice thick.
Stephen allowed himself a smirk. “Yes, obviously. One of us has to be.”
She have a watery laugh and threw her arms around him. “Thank you,” she whispered.
He hugged her back, pressing a small kiss to the top of her dark head. “Anytime.”
Chapter 8: Of Kings And Men
I'm so sorry, but updates are going to be even more irregular going forward, because my exams are starting in less than a month and everybody around me is freaking out, which in turn is freaking me out!
Anyways, I hope you enjoy this.
He collapsed onto the couch without any grace, t-shirt sticking to his chest after his morning run. Resisting the urge to drown in an ice box, Steve closed his eyes and tipped his head back. Several minutes passed, before a pair of small hands snaked over his shoulders.
Opening his eyes a crack, he found Toni standing behind the couch, skilled fingers working out knots he didn’t know even know were there. “Hello,” he smiled up at her.
She smirked down at him. “Hello,” she parroted back. “Tired?”
He snorted. “It’s only morning. I think I can survive the rest of the day.”
“Sure, you could,” Toni agreed. “But it’s my day off. You should take a day off too.”
Steve smiled cheekily back at her. “And do what?”
Well,” she drawled. “I'm sure we can think of a few fun activities together.”
He shivered a bit at the purr in her voice and, thinking fast, reached back to take a hold of her upper arms. She only had a split second of warning from the impish look in his eyes, before he was tugging her forwards, flipping her over the low backrest of the couch so she tumbled over and landed next to him. Toni, being Toni, used the momentum to gracefully fall across his lap, her hair splaying out like a halo.
Steve returned her smirk with one of his own. “Let me guess,” he breathed out over her lips, watching the darkening of her eyes. “These fun activities involve returning to the bedroom, yeah?”
“Not necessarily,” she replied, in as even a voice as she could manage. “We could stay right here. Maybe permanently scar Clint, or whoever comes through that door next.”
He chuckled and was about to kiss her properly, but there was a sudden rush of cold wind that had him looking up.
A chill that had nothing to do with the wind went through him.
They were in that bunker. The shield was in his hands. It was... Why was it’s edge covered in blood? Then he realised he was straddling Toni. In the Iron Woman suit. But her helmet was missing, and... And there was a long, thin gash across her neck, seeping red.
“Toni?” he whispered in horror, scrambling off her. “Toni?” He couldn't have killed her, wouldn't have. But the lifeless brown eyes told a different story.
“She's not going to wake up.”
His head shot up to see... Toni?
He looked back down at the body, then up at the newcomer. She looked like Toni, sounded like her, too. But how was that possible?
“I’m Toni,” the woman said, sensing his confusion. “And that's the old Toni. The one who loved you. The one you killed.” Her voice was cold, emotionless, completely at odds with her words.
“No, no, I didn't, I wouldn't, I loved her, I love you, I didn't kill-“
“Save it,” she snapped, interrupting his rambling. She turned to the side, focusing on something else. Steve followed her gaze, and his horror grew when he saw Bucky pressed up against the wall, missing the metal arm and terror evident on his face as he stared at Toni. “I'm going to kill him now,” she said quietly, like she was telling him the time. “I'm going to kill the Bucky you know and love and you can't do a thing about it.”
True to her words, Steve couldn’t move. All he could do was beg, but Toni wasn't going to listen.
'She's not wearing the armour', he tried to assure himself. She couldn't do too much damage without it surely.
But no one seemed to have told Toni that. She raised her arm like she would a repulsor, and her palm, aiming for Bucky’s chest, glowed with heat.
He woke with a strangled gasp. Heart thumping in his chest, he tried to catch his breath, scrambling to turn the lights on.
He’d been dreaming about Toni and Bucky for nearly six months now, ever since they’d settled in Wakanda, and Bucky had gone back to cryo, something in his heart aching for both his best friend and the woman he loved. He thought of talking to Sam about it, but then he might have to explain exactly what had happened in Siberia.
He’d been vague on the details when they’d asked, and he knew Sam felt especially guilty, having been the one to tell Toni they're location.
But Steve couldn’t bring himself to tell them the truth. He knew they’d look at him differently.
His gaze traveled idly to the desk in the corner. There was a laptop, courtesy of King T’Challa, lying unused on it. He hadn’t had a reason to use it. Or, well, he did, but he knew it wouldn't help any.
Still... What harm could it do?
Throwing back the covers, he sat down at the desk and powered up the search engine, slightly different from the ones he’d seen back home. He typed in his search: Toni Stark.
The headlines that came up gave him a lump in his throat:
'Iron Woman on the lookout for new team members!'
'Toni Stark brings back old styles, looking younger than ever!'
'Sokovia Accords or Stark Accords? Experts debate on billionaire’s involvement!'
'#IronWoman and #Toni’sArmy battle it out with #TeamCap for no. 1 trending worldwide!'
'Cap fans in outcry against Iron Woman!'
'Iron Woman and Captain America: What’s happened to everyone’s favourite power couple?'
'SI launches line of prosthetics for new medical branch!'
He shook his head in despair. Toni was once again playing with fire, trying to appeal to the masses in a bid to get them to support her and the Accords, even though anyone with two brain cells could see how damaging they were.
Well, at least she was working to get them pardoned, he mused as he closed one article and opened the next. Maybe there was still some hope.
The accompanying picture of Toni caught his eye. It was from the press conference she’d given after months of radio silence. She’d cut her hair, so it curled around her shoulders the same way it did when they’d first met at SHIELD HQ. The memory of their confrontation on the helicarrier came to mind and he sighed in longing. Even when they’d been at each others throats, there was a part of him that had been enamoured by her biting wit and fiery countenance.
“Fuck,” Steve cursed, a rare occurrence, low and mean, as he tried to eradicate the image of Toni that was always burned into the back of his mind. He needed to stop thinking about her, otherwise he’d drive himself mad. He’d see her again, sooner or later.
In servers hidden behind locked doors, in an isolated corridor accessibile only by a series of scans, FRIDAY took absent note of an alert system set up long ago by her predecessor. She gave it a cursory glance out of habit, then did a virtual double take when she saw where the signal had bounced from. Tentatively, the AI honed in on the signal.
A zip of excitement shot through her as her suspicions were confirmed.
"Let me get this straight,” Rhodey said, holding his hands up in the universal gesture for 'stop'. “You accidentally landed on an alien planet in a completely different star system, lost your memories, got powers, then came back in the nineties to fight some other race of aliens, and now you're back again, because you've heard rumours of some mad Titan trying to destroy all life?”
Major Carol Danvers, as she'd introduced herself, seemed to be stifling laughter. “That's it,” she confirmed. “In a nutshell.”
Rhodey leaned back in his chair. He’d been transferred back to the Edwards Air Base for further physiotherapy and had been there for two months. Then today, one of the rookies had knocked on his door saying there was a woman claiming to have information regarding the planet’s safety. As the resident Avenger, they’d brought her to Rhodey.
Now, she was saying that the whole universe was soon to be doomed.
“I'll be returning to New York city in another month,” he finally spoke. “Think you can stick around till then, Major?” There was no way he was letting any unknown party anywhere near Toni. One month was so he could get a better read on her.
Danvers seemed to be considering it. “Not a problem, Colonel.”
Toni didn't start, not in front of the Board of Directors, but she gave a mental hum of acknowledgment as she kept talking.
“I was thinking we could release the ads for the prosthetics on the same day we launch the new-“
-I've found the Rogues-
“-get an interview with Dr Palmer, she's one of the professionals who consulted on the-“
-You were right, Boss, they've taken refuge in Wakanda-
“-hopefully, the feedback will good, if it is, we can see about delving further into medical-“
-I think you should come over to the Compound and see this-
“Miss Potts, I trust you'll be forwarding any complaints to my email? Great, then, we’re done here. It's been a pleasure talking to you, ladies and gentlemen. Miss Hill, if you could clear my schedule for the rest of the day, please? Thank you. And tell Mr Hogan to bring over the Merc for Miss Potts.”
-On my way, baby girl-
Toni reached the Compound, curious as to how FRIDAY had cracked the Wakandan firewalls. She paused for a minute on the common floor. Peter, Harley and Lila were both facing the TV. Both boys were trying to stifle sobs, while Lila had silent tears lingering over her cheeks.
“Do I even want to know what's going on here?” She asked. Cooper shook his head in response and Laura gave her a look of despair.
“I'm too afraid to ask,” she said and Toni turned to the kids again.
“Why doesn’t he understand?” Harley groaned. “He literally just told him he loves him. Why doesn’t the man understand?”
“Riiiiiight,” Toni drew out the word. “I'll be down in the lab.” Leaving them to their show, she skipped down the stairs to the lab. “Alright, show me what you've got, baby.”
A screen came up, lines of code running through it. “Boss, you probably didn't know this, but in his early days, JARVIS had set up a sort of alert system for any time your name was fed into a search engine. It seemed a good idea; in spite of the many false alarms and harmless searches, it helped to find any distasteful articles about you. It was that alert that found the Rogues, Boss.”
Tony blinked. Would she ever stop missing JARVIS? No. Even gone, there were so many little reminders of him, not to forget Vision.
“You mean, someone in Wakanda googled me?” She asked.
“It would seem so,” the AI replied. “The alert originated from behind the firewalls, so it was incredibly simple to hack in by piggybacking the signal. I've already located the Rogues, through surveillance footage.”
She took a shuddering breath. “Show me,” she ordered.
There was a short silence. “Boss?”
“Show me, Fri.”
The screen flickered. A clear image, obviously live, started to show.
Toni felt her heart leap to her throat. On screen, Wanda Maximoff lay on a couch, her fingers creating figures of red mist in the air above her. 'Don’t panic, don't panic, don't panic,' she started chanting to herself. Audio crackled through and she could hear Romanoff and Wilson discussing something in the background. No sign of Lang. That left-
Rogers came into view. He walked to the couch, sitting next to Wanda as the girl moved up to give him space. He was talking too, but Toni couldn’t hear what they were saying. All she could focus on was the ringing in her ears, the loud absence of FRIDAY's voice, and 'Save my wife, help her, please,' and 'No, no, Howard, Howa-' and oh god, she could hear that long-remembered British voice, 'No, please, not sir, ma’am, don’t, please-“
-Boss, please, focus, you’re safe-
FRIDAY. That was FRIDAY. That meant she wasn’t in Siberia. 'Focus, Toni,' she scolded herself. Happy thoughts, think happy thoughts. She cast her mind around for something calming.
'You look good, by the way... Short hair suits you... You look happier, lighter.' The memory of Stephen’s baritone was a miracle.
“Turn it off, Fri,” she managed to say, stopping herself from remembering what had happened after Stephen had said those words. If he was going to pretend nothing happened, she wasn’t going to pressure him into the opposite. No matter how much she wanted to know what had happened.
“Send a text to van Dyne, tell her I’ve found her man, and hopefully, will have him home within two weeks,” she ordered. “Set up a meeting with King T’Challa and his sister, invite them over to the Tower.”
“Got it, Boss.”
T'Challa waited nervously for Dr Stark to speak. She was simply looking at them, had been doing so for about a minute and a half, and it was starting to unnerve him. He could feel it was bothering Shuri too, and the two Dora Milaje standing guard behind them, though you couldn’t tell from just their faces.
“Before I begin,” Stark finally spoke. “I want to make sure you’re both aware of my stance on the Accords and the subject of pardons for the Rogue Avengers.”
T’Challa nodded. It was no secret among the UN delegates that Stark was a staunch supporter of the Accords, given that they were amendable and fair, and that she had no great desire to see the Rogues back home. But he wasn’t sure where she was going with this.
“Keeping that in mind,” she continued, her voice silky and pleasant. “Is there anything you’d like to tell me right now?”
Next to him, Shuri tensed. T’Challa felt a trickle of fear. Did Stark know something she shouldn’t have? No, that was impossible. Their security and technology was on a completely different level to anyone else’s. There was no way she could have found out.
“Not at all, Doctor,” he replied easily.
He thought he spotted a glimpse of triumph in her eyes, but then she was sliding her hands over the table top. “Explain this then?”
The table lit up, interactive technology displaying a screen with a video playing on it.
T’Challa choked when he recognised the room. And the occupants within in it. In his head, he could hear his sister’s warnings, that Toni Stark would discover them and would come for blood when she did.
“The UN will have to know at some point, if they're going to be pardoned. I would recommend telling them now, instead of later,” Stark advised. “The public on the other hand...”
“What do you want?” He asked. There was no way she didn’t want something. If he could figure out a way to negotiate her silence, and her cooperation in the face of the Accords Committee...
“You’re not very good at negotiating deals, are you, Kitty Cat?” She mused. “Folding so quickly?”
He opened his mouth to answer, to defend himself, but she never gave him a chance to.
“That's why your sister is the delegate, right?” She gave Shuri a once-over. “Although, I suppose 16 is a little too young to rule.”
“So is 21, Doctor,” Shuri cautiously defended her brother.
“I don't know, I took over the company when I was 21, but,” she gave a small laugh, something dark curling around the edges of it. “I guess I wouldn't know anything about that, right? Losing a father, taking over too huge a responsibility, living up to everyone’s expectations, so on.”
T’Challa swallowed. Her words served to remind him how much of a disservice he was doing his father’s memory by protecting the Rogues, as was probably her intention.
“I'm a king, Doctor,” he reminded her, faking confidence he didn't have. “I have to be just. I was wrong to pursue Barnes, and offering them protection was my apology. After all, it wasn't Barnes’ fault. Do remember, you were the one who discovered his innocence in the bombing in Vienna.”
“Yes, I was, but there’s a 12 year old boy in Germany who lost his mother, father and sister in a car accident and he’s got no one to blame except Barnes,” she shot back. “And there are so many more, your Highness. Not to mention those who were killed or driven to insanity by the witch during the Raft breakout. If you don’t believe me, I can have the list sent to you.”
There was a silence that fell over them after her sharp words. T’Challa knew he was beat. Stark hadn’t said anything, but it was obvious that if he didn’t agree to her demands, there would be hell to pay.
Steve looked up from his book as the door to their allotted section of the palace opened and King T’Challa walked in, flanked by his bodyguard. Natasha snapped to attention behind him as well, and he could get Wanda and Sam were both tensed as well. Scott was never to be seen; he’d taken to staying in his room a lot of the time.
“There’s someone here to see you,” T’Challa spoke. There was a weary look in his eyes that disturbed them. “Ask Mr Lang to join you, please. It’s important he’s here for this.”
“Who is it?” Natasha asked, as the man turned to leave.
He hesitated. “Helmut Zemo.”
The name was a thunderclap to their ears. T’Challa was gone before they could do more than stare in shock.
“Zemo?!” Sam hissed. “Isn’t he supposed to be in prison?”
“Last I heard, yeah,” Natasha agreed, confused.
“Let's not jump to conclusions,” Steve cautioned, though he was as just as lost as them. “Wanda, give Lang a wake-up call, would you?”
In a few minutes, the small group made their way to the courtroom. If anybody noticed how Scott was keeping a careful distance from them, they didn’t say anything.
“Well, we meet again, Captain,” the newcomer greeted.
Steve suddenly felt anxious. It was Zemo. How had he gotten our? Why was he here? How had he known they would be here? What if he gave away the events of Siberia? He wasn’t ready for the team to know!
“How are you here?” Sam demanded. “Aren't you supposed to be in a high-security prison?”
“My new employer is a close friend of Everett Ross,” Zemo replied, with a smug smile. “She had me released in exchange for my help.”
There was no doubt who he was talking about. There was only one 'she' who had enough connections to pull off the release of an international criminal.
“She knows where we are,” Steve murmured. He wasn't sure whether to feel elated or terrified. How could she possibly know?
“Typical Stark,” Wanda scoffed suddenly. “Allying herself with liars and killers.”
“Because you’re not a liar and a killer at all, are you, witch?” Zemo said sarcastically.
Wanda snarled and before Steve could warn her, her eyes glowed and red mist exploded outward from her hands.
There was a flurry of screams and yelps, the Dora Milaje jumping to shield their king, Steve and his teammates leaping to cover each other. But when they got a handle on themselves again, Zemo was standing perfectly upright and cool as a cucumber, with a wall of shimmering gold erected in front of him.
The witch looked shaken. “How did you do that?” she whispered, pale. "You-you blocked me-blocked my powers. How-how did you do that?”
Zemo glared. “Dr Stark made sure I was well-protected before sending me here,” he explained coolly. “Now, if you're done behaving like spoilt children, I’d like to get on.”
“Captain,” the king interrupted with a growl. “Control your team member!”
Steve gingerly grabbed hold of Wanda and pulled her back, letting the king’s sharpness slide for now. The young girl was still frozen in shock and retreated easily.
“Mr Lang, your pardon has come through,” was the first thing Zemo said, pulling out a slim envelope from the inner pocket of his suit. “If you so wish, you will be returning with me to the United States, where the terms of your pardon will be carried out. Said terms are listed inside.”
Scott stared silently at the envelope in his hand, hardly daring to believe it. He opened it and read through the contents quickly. It barely took him a minute to look back up with determination in his eyes. “I accept the terms,” he said firmly.
“Scott, wait,” Steve spoke up, needing to stop the man from doing something he would later regret. “You don't know how authentic that is, this could be a trap and-“
“Thanks for the concern, Cap,” Scott cut in with a sternness he didn't used to have. “But I’d rather take my chances with red-tape than here.” He turned to Zemo. “Can I get some time to pack?” He dashed off at the affirming nod.
Steve exchanged nervous glances with Natasha and Sam. What was Toni playing at, getting Scott pardoned, but not the rest of them?
“Captain,” Zemo got his attention. “Dr Stark had also asked me to pass something on to you.” Saying so, he brought out a small package and offered it to him.
Steve took it grudgingly, trying to tamp down on the hope he felt. With eager fingers, he tore open the covering and the object inside tumbled into his waiting hand. He suddenly felt lightheaded and nauseous. There was an unpleasant ache in his chest and he felt a sense of regret and loss. On his palm lay a burner phone, badly cracked and obviously cracked with deliberate intent.
Bucky wasn't entirely ready to be woken so suddenly. He opened his eyes reluctantly, squinting until Princess Shuri's smile came into view.
"Congratulations, Seargent," she chirped. "Looks like someone out there has a solution for you, after all."
Chapter 9: See You Again
I should be studying, but I can't seem to stop writing either???
“Right, I’m going to Melbourne for a convention,” Toni announced, stepping into the common room. “Nobody is allowed in my private labs.” She pointed accusingly at Peter and Harley, both of whom began investigating the carpet with intense concentration. “I had better not hear any complaints from FRIDAY, that you’re trying to break in. I also don’t want to hear from May that her nephew has been spending too much time at the Compound. Go home, Pete,” she stressed. “I love having you here, but May needs you too.”
Peter had the decency to looks little ashamed.
“Got it, Miss Stark,” he grumbled.
“Can I come?” Elizabeth perked up. “I've never been anywhere before.”
Toni hesitated. “You'll have to spend a lot of time alone, sweetie,” she explained. “I'm going to be a bit busy, I don’t know how I’ll make time for you.”
“Harley can come with us!” she suggested.
Toni considered it for a split second. “How about we all go for a vacation during Peter’s summer break, hmm?” she said. “There’s only around three months left before the academic year ends, then we can all go before you guys start your school too. That good?”
Lizzie pouted, but after a few minutes of cajoling and bargaining, gave in.
Toni breathed a sigh of relief. She loved the kids to death, but she’d rather not worry about them while she was in a meeting.
“You know you’re going to be thinking of them the whole time anyways?” Laura called from the kitchen, somehow knowing what she was thinking. “It's one of the 'perks' of having kids, you never really stop worrying.”
“Yeah, thanks, Laura, that’s just what I needed to hear,” she rolled her eyes, making the other woman smile beatifically as Clint chuckled from his seat at the table.
“Should you really be going alone?” He asked out of the blue, wearing a concerned frown. “I mean-“
“Uh, I can take care of myself, Birdbrain,” Toni reminded, swiping his coffee. “Besides, according to FRI, I’m not the only high-profile guest there this weekend. A couple actors, plus all the other scientists will be there too, so-“
“Oh, which actors?” Cooper interrupted, leaving Peter and Harley to hop up on the table.
Toni tilted her head to the side in remembrance. “That Jason Bourne guy, and somebody Hemsworth, I think?” She turned back to Clint. “So, security’s gonna be pretty top-notch. Plus, I’ve got FRIDAY with me at all times.”
Clint pursed his lips, sharing a look with his wife.
Toni grew immediately suspicious. “What?” She asked, drawing out the word.
“Well,” Clint hedged, bunching up his shoulders. “Rhodes may or may not have asked us to not leave you alone for too long. He’s just worried about you being alone during a- you know- a panic attack,” he added on quickly. “And frankly, so are we.”
Toni stared. Of course, Rhodey would do that.
“If I don’t let you come, you’re going to call up Rhodey and tattletale, aren’t you?” She guessed, then sighed when he did nothing more than wink. “FRIDAY, change the bookings. Make it a two-bedroom suite.”
She resisted the urge to chuck the coffee mug at Clint’s beam.
"Through here, Mr Lang,” Zemo directed. Scott felt a little iffy with keeping his back to him, but he didn’t exactly have much say here. He'd been confined to a holding cell for two days after returning to the States, and was only now being taken to meet someone. He had an inkling of who it was.
His suspicions were confirmed when Hope walked in.
Scott found a lump in his throat at the sight of her. She looked gorgeous, long hair tied up at the nape of her neck and wearing a sharp business suit with heels. She also looked upset and ready to kill.
“Uh, hi?” He began, then mentally groaned. Great start, Scott.
“Do I even want to know what exactly you were thinking?” Hope asked. She slammed a thick file in front of him, along with two slimmer folder.
“No, you really don't,” Scott assured her. “I wouldn't want to know, either.”
“Did you even pause to consider what this would do to Cassie?” she demanded. “Maybe you didn't think about the rest of us, but I really thought she would have been the first thing on your mind at all times.”
Scott opened his mouth to protest, then shut it again. He hadn't thought about Cassie.
“Admit it,” Hope sneered. “You wanted to play the hero again. And what better opportunity than to help Captain America, right?”
“Right,” he whispered.
His admission stole away her anger. She slumped forward ever so slightly and Scott resisted the urge to comfort her. He’d probably lost that right.
“Why couldn’t you have just talked to me, once?” she groaned. “None of this would have happened if you had just talked to me, or even Hank!”
“I'm sorry,” he said quietly. What else was there to say?
Hope shook her head. “Did you bring the suit?”
He brought out a small pouch and handed it to her. She peeked inside, checking for the shrunk suit and pocketed it. Then she nodded at the files. “You should read those.”
He glanced at the thick one. “I've read them,” he told her. “The Accords are actually available online, so I read them in Wakanda.”
She squinted at him dubiously. “You couldn’t have done that before running off?” She shot at him.
He shrugged and nudged one of the slimmer ones. “I read the terms too. Zemo gave them to me back... There.”
She nodded. “I thought he might have,” she agreed. “Stark’s people are just as thorough as her.”
“What's she like, really?” He couldn’t help but ask. “Hank always said she was the devil dressed in human skin, but you never said a word, and if you’re working with her now, plus all the stuff I’ve been reading up on and listening to on the news... Surely, she can’t be that bad?”
She sighed. “You put too much stock into Hank’s words,” she told him. “He's always pushed his hatred of Howard Stark on to his daughter and refused to see anything beyond that. Toni isn't a bad person. She's not an angel, but she's the farthest thing from evil there can be. And I'm saying this keeping in mind that I don't actually know her. Her true friends would have much more to say for her. And if things go right, hopefully, I'll be able to call her my friend too.”
She stood up, having said her piece. “You'll be on house arrest for a year. Unless you sign the Accords, then it's down to four months, and you’ll get the suit back.” She pointed at the last file. “That's the statistics of the results of the Leipzig battle and the Raft breakout. Read them over, before you decide whether to sign.”
“Hope?” He called after her, as she opened the door. “I really am sorry.”
“I know,” she sighed, sounding equal parts sad and relieved. “And that's why I'm going to forgive you, eventually.” She turned back to give him a small, tremulous smile, before leaving.
“Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said tight security,” Clint spoke under his breath.
“Yeah, well,” Toni shrugged. “Expensive breakthroughs. Top minds in a lot of fields; Stephen's gonna be pissed he missed it. Several actors. Some politicians. Lots of industrialists.”
The security asked for identification and Toni rattled off a series of numbers that left them nodding on confirmation as they were let through.
Clint dashed to the elevator, bowing mockingly to let her through first. “Milady Stark,” he teased.
“That does have a nice ring to it,” she giggled, walking in, and immediately bumping into another woman already inside. “Oh shit, sorry!”
“Not- not a problem,” the woman squeaked. Toni felt her brow twitch. The woman was visibly nervous, large green eyes darting between her and Clint, before regaining some composure. “You're Toni Stark?”
“No,” Toni replied gravely. “I’m just her long lost twin.”
The woman laughed, and something about it sounded very familiar. “Right, right, sure you are,” she smiled a bit, running a hand through inky, black hair. “Anyway this is my floor.” She dashed out without so much of a second glance.
“No wonder you've got such a big head,” Clint sniggered. “How do you even fit it into the helmet? Like, is that how people react to you all the time?”
“In varying degrees of intensity,” she agreed. “And the helmet is nanotech now, remember? Size no longer matters. Now, go open the door for me, peasant.”
“Hey, hey,” Clint wagged a finger at her as they stepped out and walked towards their room. “Just because I do it once, doesn't mean I’ll do it every- oh, holy fuck, wow!”
“You were saying?” Toni asked smugly, as Clint took in the luxury suite, face slack with awe.
“I take it back,” he exclaimed. “I'll be your willing servant forever if you promise to bring me on your trips every time.”
Toni laughed, with a brightness in her chest that had been growing for the last few months.
She meet the green-eyed woman again the next day, after the convention, while Clint was off grabbing sandwiches. She was dressed in a green sundress, that complimented her porcelain skin, and all of her previous nervousness was gone.
“Hello again, Miss Stark,” she greeted.
Toni smiled indulgently, too accustomed to adoring fans and extremely devoted groupies to be bothered by the idea that the woman had probably been searching for her. “Hello to you too, Miss...?”
“Oh, I’m just Lucky,” she introduced herself with a smile.
Toni inclined her head in acceptance. “So, Lucky, you’ve got an interest in science?”
“I've an interest in the people who do the science,” she returned, and Toni once again got the sense she’d seen her somewhere. There were too many attributes that were giving her déjà vu: the green eyes, the mischievous tilt to her lips, that posh accent that sounded British, but not quite. She just couldn’t put her finger on it.
“Well, we scientists are the best this world had to offer,” Toni smirked, winking at the woman.
“Oh, I have no doubt about that,” Lucky agreed with a blush. Her eyes travelled slowly down Toni’s form, making her bite back a smile. It was good to know she could still work her charm without actually even trying.
“Well, it’s been nice meeting you, but I’ve gotta dash,” she said, as FRIDAY whispered a reminder in the back of her head.
“Of course,” Lucky nodded, abruptly serious. “Stay well, Miss Stark and please, take care of yourself. The world needs you.”
And before Toni could ponder her odd phrasing, she was gone.
“Basically, what it does is hack the memory banks in your brain and project it to real life, so you can review the memory, but this time as an outsider looking in. It’ll help you to dissociate from the trauma and work through it instead. The less you blame yourself, the effect of the trigger words will also abate.”
Princess Shuri waited after her explanation for him to say something. Bucky could hardly wrap his mind around the possibilities this opened up. “So, you mean,” he paused to clear his throat. “This will... Cure me? Completely?”
“The person who made it seems to be quite confident,” she affirmed. “I happen to believe her. Just one thing.”
“What?” He was immediately suspicious. Last time, they’d talked, half-a-year ago, Wakanda hadn’t had any solution for him. And now they did? There was a definitely a catch.
“The treatment is a project developed by Dr Toni Stark.”
Bucky sighed, leaning back against the chair. “That's that then,” he said bitterly. “There's no way Stark would be remotely okay with helping me.” It was one of the few things he knew with absolute certainty: Stark loathed him.
“Well, that’s where you’re wrong,” the princess chirped. “Dr Stark got in touch with us. She knows you’re all here, she got Mr Lang pardoned. In exchange for her help in... Diplomatic and legal areas, she asked for access to you.”
“What if it’s a trap?” Bucky couldn’t help it. Stark? Willingly offering to help him? Her parents murderer? No way in hell!
“Neither my brother nor I seem to think so. She also asked me to hold off on building you an arm, citing that she already had a basic format ready to go, as her company has opened up a new line for prosthetics. In the end, she stressed that it is your choice.”
Bucky couldn’t believe his ears yet. But... What choice did he have exactly? From what he could infer, Wakanda was nowhere near developing this sort of technology. And if Stark had done it, that likely meant no one else would be able to either for the next couple of decades. His time as the Fist Of Hydra hadn’t been spent under a rock, after all. He very clearly remembered Stark being termed as one of their most dangerous enemies, by virtue of her intelligence alone. And that was before Iron Woman.
Plus, if she did end up sabotaging his treatment and killed him... Well, he could think of worse ways to go. He was sure Stark would at least be merciful. Add it wasn't like he wouldn't deserve it.
“Alright,” he nodded. “When does she get here?”
Princess Shuri laughed. “Oh no, she’s not coming here, Sargent. You will be going to New York. One of her conditions was that the Rogue Avengers not know of her involvement.”
“Stevie won’t agree,” he said immediately. “There's no way he’s letting me out of his sight. Christ, does he even know you’ve pulled me outta cryo?”
“This is your life and your mind, Barnes,” she explained. “He hardly has a right to force you into anything. And Dr Stark did foresee Rogers having some reservations with her hand in your treatment, so she has provided a cover story. The only question remaining is: when do you want to leave?”
“You have to be cheating,” Laura despaired, while Toni cackled, doubling over in her mirth. “There can’t be any other explanation, you’re cheating!”
“I swear I’m not!” Toni protested through her laughter. “It's not even possible to cheat at Monopoly!”
Clint shook his head from his place on the couch. “You think this is bad,” he told his wife. “Try playing Jenga with her, you’ll come out crying.”
Toni laughed even harder at that, if possible.
Laura grumbled and began packing up the board. “I’m never playing anything with you superheroes again,” she snapped. “Darts or billiards is out of the question with Mr 'I see better from a distance' Hawkeye.” She threw a venomous glance at him. “No business games with you. No strategy with Rhodes-“
“I can beat Rhodey at chess actually,” Toni interrupted, and immediately, peeled off into giggles again as Laura threw a cushion at her face.
Steve’s head shot up, doing an instant double take when he saw Bucky standing at the door, fidgeting and wearing a nervous smile. “Buck?” He scrambled up to pull him in by his arm, deliberately ignoring the empty sleeve. “You’re supposed to be in cryo. What happened?”
Bucky took a deep breath and smiled. “Princess Shuri woke me up. She says that she's found a doctor who's willing to help me with, uh, you know, the words. The triggers.”
Steve couldn’t help the wide smile that split his face. Everyone's mood had been a tad sour since Scott had been pardoned. Sam had gotten antsier, Natasha drew into herself, and Wanda had gotten over her shock at being thwarted and did hardly anything but curse Toni's name. Steve desperately wanted to defend Toni, but he figured Wanda deserved to let off a little steam.
So, this was welcome news, really.
“Great,” Sam quipped. “Steve can finally stop moping around.”
“Not exactly,” Bucky rebutted.
Steve frowned. “What do you mean?” He asked.
He sighed. “T’Challa doesn’t want to allow any more intruders into Wakanda, on the off-chance someone finds out about you guys being here too. It’s a need to know basis, only, so it’s an assumption that I’m the only one here.”
“Wait, but, that means-“ Steve didn’t want to hear this. “You'll have to leave!”
“Yeah, to Europe,” he agreed. “Florence.”
“So, I’ll come with yo-“
“No can do, punk,” he cut in. “You're really not very popular with the masses these days. Granted, neither am I, but at least, my face isn’t plastered all over the world. This particular doctor happens to be a godsend, and truly believes I’m not at fault, for some reason.”
“But it could be a trap-“
“T’Challa trusts her. So does his sister.”
Steve groaned, dragging a hand down his face. “I don't know, Bucky, I can't just let you go.”
“It's not your choice,” Bucky chided him. “I need this.”
“He's right, Steve,” Natasha murmured. “Let him go.”
Steve slumped a bit in defeat. He didn’t want to fight with Bucky. “Who is this doctor, anyway?”
“Some Italian dame,” Bucky shrugged. “Annie Carbonell.”
Chapter 10: A New Beginning
This is it, guys. The moment we've been waiting for. One of them, anyways.
Also, fuck Ragnarok, they messed up Loki's character badly, in my opinion.
“And on other news, actors Matt Damon and Luke Hemsworth are still missing...”
“Hey, mom?” Harley called, frowning at the television screen.
“Yes, Harl?” Toni looked up from Peter’s homework at him.
“Weren't you and Clint staying at the same hotel as those actors? During that convention on Melbourne?”
“Uh, yeah, why?”
“Well, they went missing around the time you came back.”
At his words, Peter paused in his careful braiding of Laura’s hair. “Uh, is that a coincidence? I feel like it should be a coincidence.”
Toni twirled her pencil in her fingers thoughtfully. “I think it is a coincidence,” she agreed. “But in any case, someone will probably bring it up at the next press conference.”
-Boss? You have to go to the airport to pick up Colonel Rhodes and Major Danvers.-
She sighed and circled a mistake in the notebook. “Peter, I'm done.” She pushed the notebook towards as he approached her, lifting Toki into his arms as she passed him by.
“I made that many mistakes?” He asked, flabbergasted.
“You were distracted,” she told him, tapping the pencil on his head. “Genius does not mean being careless with your math.”
“Yes, mom,” he replied sarcastically. Then he turned red. “Uh, I mean... Uh-“
“You meant 'mom',” Harley called, with a grin.
“NO!” Peter protested. “Slip of the tongue, I swear!”
The flush on his ears told a different tale, but Toni shot Harley a warning glare to let it go, ignoring the giddiness she felt at the term, and she smiled at Peter in support.
Her phone pinged with a text and she read it in a glance. “Right, I have to dash.” She ruffled their hairs, dropping a kiss on Lizzie's fair head, before leaving.
The silence was tense, in a way it hadn’t been between them for years. Stephen and Toni hadn’t been alone together since that night in the lab and... Well, the memory still hung over both their heads.
“I won’t be able to move back to the Tower for a year,” Toni was the first to break the silence, as they both leaned against the body of the car, waiting for the jet to arrive.
Stephen turned to her with a frown.
“I’ve pushed for a different team, refused to help in their pardons, and I’m already planning on putting in a request that I won’t have to work with them when they come back,” she explained. “They’re already worried about the public image, so now, for the sake of 'team morale' I’ll need to stay in the Compound with them.”
“I can ask one of the other Masters to look after the Sanctum,” he offered. “You shouldn’t have to be alone with them.”
Her shoulders loosened in relief, but she shook her head. “No, I can’t keep pulling you away from your duties. Clint and Rhodey will be there with me, anyways. Lang isn’t a factor anymore, now that he’s spoken with van Dyne and signed the Accords. Barnes arrives in two days, he and I will be working together for his treatment, so hopefully, we can maybe come to enough of an... Understanding? Alliance? That he won’t be so quick to fight me.”
“I know you don't need me there,” he said, quietly. “I just... I’d sleep better at night knowing you’re a door away.”
Toni didn’t quite know how to answer that. Truth be told, she did want Stephen close. But that had always been the case for her. For years, she’d felt safer with him around. And then, when she’d been with Steve, their late night talks had grown fewer and fewer. And now, everything seemed different. She wasn’t sure if it was something new, or if it had always been there and she hadn’t seen it. But, she was pretty sure people didn’t look at you like you were their reason for living, unless... Well, they definitely didn’t kiss you and then leave without an explanation.
“You remember when you asked me if I still loved Rogers?” She began, internally wincing at her lack of tact.
“Ye-es,” he drew out the word.
He pursed his lips. “Because, it wouldn’t have been healthy or right,” he said. “Because, he left you to die, betrayed your trust, and refused to place his trust in you. He doesn’t deserve to be loved. Especially not by you.”
“You say that like I’m something special,” she argued.
He met her eyes. “You are. And he’s a fool for not seeing it.”
She held the gaze as she asked her next question. “Why did you kiss me?”
She could see him falter, the way his face tightened at the reminder. But then he relaxed again, and it was with complete honesty that he said, “Because he's the fool. I’m not.”
Toni’s breath caught at the simple words. Simple, but so powerful, evoking a flutter in her chest she hadn’t expected to ever feel after Siberia.
“But, that doesn’t mean you have to do anything,” he assured her. “I mean-” He laughed shortly, a rough and forced sound. “Just tell me if you’re... Open to the option. Cause it’s there. It’s always gonna be there for you. But that’s all I wa- that’s all I need. Just so I know.”
The sound of the jet arriving reached their ears, and Stephen turned towards it. But Toni kept her eyes on his face, studying the profile of his nose and lips.
“And if I say 'no'?” She tested. “What happens then? We just forget what happened and you lock away your... Everything that you feel?”
He smiled sadly. “Well, I’ve been doing it for a few years now. I've gotten pretty damn good at it.” He started walking towards the approaching pair, leaving her to hurry after him.
“Wait, 'a few years'?” She whisper-yelled, the words jolting her out of the melancholy into shock, but he ignored her as they reached the army officers and she rearranged her expression into something resembling normality.
“Platypus,” she greeted, open as always about their closeness. He hugged her tight, returning the sentiment with a “Tones.”
“And you must be Major Danvers,” she turned to the blonde with her press smile.
“Yes, and you can call me Carol, please,” she replied congenially, shaking the offered hand. “You're Miss Stark, right? And that means you are...”
“Dr Stephen Strange.”
“Carol has some information she'd like to share with us,” Rhodey said, sharing a significant look with Toni. “I think it should be kept within those who've signed the Accords, before we take it up with the UN.”
“Everyone?” Toni repeated. “That includes van Dyne, Lang, T'Challa and Spider-Man.”
“It's only fair.”
She nodded. “Okay, then. Right this way, Ursa Major.”
“Uhm, that's-“ Carol started to protest, but Rhodey shook his head.
“Don't argue with the nicknames, Carol,” he advised. “You'll only encourage her.”
As they began to walk to the car, Toni fell back into step with Rhodey. “How much does she know?”
“I've brought her up to speed about the Accords and the Civil War,” he answered in a low voice. “But nothing about Barnes or Siberia. And she’s agreed to sign.”
She nodded in thanks. “Those braces working fine? Anything to tweak? Or add?”
“Maybe an AC?” he considered.
Toni thought about it. “Give me a few days, I’ll see if-“
“Toni, it was a joke!”
"Hold on, okay, so Thanos, as you said, is a Titan? Like those Greek myths?” Scott asked, his usually cheerful demeanour gone.
Hope turned to him with a raised eyebrow. “How do you know Greek myths?”
“Uh, Rick Riordan? The Percy Jackson books?” Everybody stared at him blankly, and he blushed. “Cassie reads a lot, okay? And I get bored easily.”
Carol frowned. “Well, no, they’re not like Greek mythology. Titans are an extinct race. Well... Thanos is the only one left.”
“And you’re not sure how much time we have before he attacks?” T’Challa questioned through the chat screen set up.
“No. But it’s confirmed he will come here. Earth has two Infinity Stones. I don’t know which ones, though, or what they look like. I’ve never seen one of them before.”
Toni and Stephen exchanged conspiratorial looks. "I've got the Time Stone,” the latter admitted. “It's locked away in the Sanctuary, but it’s under the protection of the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj.”
“This, I believe, is what Thor had called the Mind Stone,” Vision offered, tapping the glowing gem on his forehead.
Carol looked stricken. “Then, there’s no doubt,” she said. “He will come here, sooner or later.”
Everybody stayed quiet. Then T’Challa spoke up. “Dr Stark?” He began hesitantly. Sitting at the head of the table, Toni could feel Rhodey tensing up at her side, while Levi fluttered over to stroke her hand under the table, reacting to its Master’s internal turmoil.
“I believe it might be prudent for you to begin assisting with the pardons for the Rogue Avengers,” he continued. “If the threat is as serious as Miss Danvers says-“
“Major,” the woman corrected.
“Of course, my mistake,” he apologized. “When it’s as severe as Major Danvers says, perhaps it is time we reinstate them with the Avengers.”
Everybody’s eyes were on Toni. She could feel FRIDAY’s concerned humming at the back of her mind. She knew the monarch was right. When Thanos came, they’d need all the help they could get, regardless of personal history.
“Tell me his name again,” she said, looking at Carol.
“Thanos,” she replied, voice softer than it had been the whole meeting. “And I swear to you, his only goal is genocide.”
Toni took a breath, calculations and ideas running through her mind. “Sargent Barnes is arriving in two days,” she said. “Give me forty days to get him back on his mental feet, and then I’ll speed up the process for the pardons.”
“Forty days?” Clint asked incredulously. “How’s that possible?”
“Princess Shuri sent over his brain scans,” Stephen said. “I've looked them over myself. His brain tissue shows no sign of scarring due to electroshocks, thanks to the serum he was given. The main reason the trigger words worked so perfectly on him was because they kept wiping his memories completely, leaving his mind empty and scrambling for a, a foothold, of sorts.”
“After Rogers managed to break through the conditioning during the Triskelion fiasco, Barnes escaped his handlers,” Toni took over. “He spent almost three years in hiding, living as normal a life as could be possible. When the Civil War perpetrator triggered him, it worked, but not as effectively as it would have had he been brainwashed beforehand. Now he had three years worth of memories, his own memories, to fall back on, which is why Rogers and Wilson wbot able to break the conditioning with little to no effort.”
“And now he’s been living in Wakanda as a free man, relatively speaking, for a little over a year,” Stephen spoke again. “He's got enough of his own consciousness back, that he’s strong enough to fight the trigger words, and resist a little. Using the BARF tech is really just to speed up the process, and to help him with PTSD, which is really the only mental problem he has at the moment.”
“How,” T'Challa spoke slowly. “Did our doctors not figure this out? They are the most qualified personnel in all of the world.” His face was a cross between fascinated and begrudging respect.
Stephen narrowed his eyes at him, a sliver of his old unforgivingly arrogant persona slipping through. “Qualification doesn’t mean shit if you don’t have the experience to back it up,” he said coldly. “None of your doctors have ever had to deal with a person injected with super soldier serum. Their biological make-up is significantly different from ours and mistakes can have drastic effects. Not to mention, because of your country’s reclusiveness up till now, your men have never been subjected to either World War, or the Cold War. You have a very efficient leadership system, so the only chances of any real battle within your country would be a challenge for the throne. Subsequently, that means the chances that anyone in your country has ever experienced war trauma or torture is just as low, and lower still that you have anyone equipped to deal with it.”
There was a very tense silence, then Peter, in full costume, whispered, “Somebody get him ice, please?”
Toni glared at him, valiantly keeping her own lips from twitching.
“Well, that's that then,” Rhodey announced. “The Rogues come back after Barnes’ treatment is complete.”
“Major, would you like someone to walk you through the Accords?” Toni asked, getting up to leave.
“Yes, I suppose I’ll need some help with the legal jargon,” she replied.
“I'll do it?” van Dyne volunteered.
Toni nodded at her and they filed out of the room, leaving the two women behind. Lang went in the direction of his room in the Compound, Peter swung off to afternoon patrols, and Stephen, very carefully not meeting her eyes, disappeared into a portal. Clint had already vanished.
“What's going on, sweetheart?” Rhodey asked as soon as they were alone. He knew her so well.
“Did you ever think Rogers wasn’t good for me?” She asked.
“Not until Siberia,” he answered promptly. “Sometimes, I wondered if you two were really in love, but I never thought he was not good for you.”
Toni nodded, mulling over his words and Stephen’s. “Is it wrong, that I’m ready to move on?” She asked quietly. “I'm over it. I don't want to be sad about it anymore. I want to feel that sort of happy again. Is that wrong?”
“In what world would that be wrong, Tones?” Rhodey reasoned. “Moving on from something toxic or bad is a good thing. It’s healthy to want what you want. I'm not saying you should go date the first guy who shows any interest in you, because lord knows there’s no shortage of that. But if you find someone who makes you happy, someone you want, someone who you think you’re ready to be with, then go for it.”
“It's not too soon?” She wondered. “It's only been around a year.”
“I don't see a manual on how long it should take,” he deadpanned. The he squinted at her. “Is it Stephen?”
She blushed, amazingly enough. “I don't want to hurt him,” she mumbled, instead of denying the claim. He’d know she was lying anyway. “Should I really take that risk that it might not work out?”
“Okay, Toni, I can't believe I’m the one telling you this,” he groaned. “But that man is so gone for you, it's ridiculous. I never said anything because I thought you knew and you guys had talked it out together, but apparently, you're still as fucking oblivious as you were in college and he's the same brand of self-sacrificing that you’ve always been. So even if, by some miracle, you two can't make it work, you can bet your ass, he’ll fight tooth and nail to stay friends. But that's not gonna happen, because you two are perfect for each other. I'm not saying what you felt for Rogers wasn't real, because it was, unfortunately so, in my opinion. But that doesn’t invalidate what you might feel for Stephen.”
Toni huffed a laugh. “You really think so?”
“Two snarky geniuses, with zero regard for personal safety, and sarcasm in place of actual blood? Sure, it’s a match made in heaven.”
-Priority call from Dr Strange-
Toni yawned, barely registering FRIDAY’S voice as she rummaged around for the phone. It was mid-afternoon, she’d only been awake for around thirty hours, that shouldn’t be enough to tire her out this much.
-Forty-six hours, actually, Boss-
“Pot-ay-toes, poh-tah-tohs,” Toni murmured. “Hey, Gandalf.”
“Toni, we’ve got a bit of a situation.”
Any sleepiness she felt was chased away by the tenseness in his words. “What’s wrong?” She asked, already sticking an earpiece in as she dashed up from her lab, the armour spreading out from the reactor.
“Uh,” Stephen hesitated. “It's nothing dangerous. I think. But... We’ve got some visitors.”
“Give me ten minutes.”
“No, wait, you don’t have to-“
She ended the call before he could argue and arrived at the Sanctuary in eight minutes and was walking in the front door before the armour had folded back in. “Stephen?!” She called, worry thrumming through her veins.
Stephen practically flew down the stairs, Levi billowing out behind them, his face set in a grimace. “He’s gonna be here soon. Around half a minute.”
“Who?” Toni demanded, refusing to admit to panic.
Before Stephen could answer, the large doors opened and a booming voice called out her name, making her freeze in a myriad of fear, apprehension and fondness. “Toni?”
Slowly, she turned, ignoring Stephen’s apologetic look. “Thor?” She whispered.
Because it was him. The thunder god looked utterly delighted to see her, twirling an umbrella merrily in his hands. “Well, I certainly did not think I’d have the chance to meet any of the team,” he laughed. “But, this is a pleasurable coincidence.”
He held out both arms in an unmistakable gesture and it was only with a split second of hesitation that she stepped into his embrace, allowing him to lift her off her feet and spin her in a quick circle. “Is this a friend of yours?” He nodded towards Stephen, who now looked completely impassive and a bit bored.
“Yes, this is Dr Stephen Strange, you remember him?”
“Ah, yes, your dear friend, the one whom Steven did not much tolerate,” Thor nodded gravely. “Although, I feel the dislike was mutual.” He peered at Stephen closely. “You trapped Loki. Not an easy feat, I'll tell you. Since when does Midgard have sorcerers?”
“Since millennia ago,” he answered curtly. “Would you like to explain why you brought your brother here? And whether or not I can trust him not to cause damage, should I free him?”
“Hold up, Loki’s alive?” Toni looked to Thor.
He scowled. “The idiot faked his death again. He’s been posing as Odin, while keeping our father under an illusion and leaving him in an old age home here.” He gave a thoughtful little wave to Stephen. “He won't do any harm, you have my word. Let him go.”
“I fucking knew it,” Toni hissed under her breath.
Both men looked at her oddly, but she ignored them and Stephen drew a circle in the air. A portal formed and Loki fell out of it with a cut off scream, landing face first on the floor.
“I have been falling for thirty minutes!” he growled as he got to his feet. “An impressive trick, sorcerer,” he bit out the word. “But was it really necessary?”
“Well, I wasn’t sure how else to keep you out of the way to determine your loyalties,” Stephen answered, without a hint of apology. “The only way was to catch you completely off guard, since I can't very well fight you and come out alive. And it wasn't thirty, it was thirteen. Time works differently in empty dimensions.”
Loki snarled, but there was grudging respect in his poisonous gaze. “Of course, you wouldn't survive. And you'll do well to remember it. Now.” His eyes fell on Toni, and his entire demeanour changed, becoming smoother and more poised. “You, I believe, I have met before,” he said, approaching her with all the grace of a hunter. “Lady Stark.”
She raised a brow as Loki took her hand between his own, raising it to press soft lips to her knuckles, deliberately slow as he winked at her. Behind him, she could see Thor twitching with amusement and suspicion, while Stephen stood stock-still, though Levi was fluttering nervously.
“I'm sure I would remember you, Reindeer Games,” Toni played along, removing her hand from his grasp.
“Oh, how you wound me, my heart.”
“Are you two done?” Stephen interrupted, voice harsh. “I would very much like to be finished here as soon as possible.”
Thor, unfazed as ever by outbursts of rudeness by people he didn’t know, said, “Well, if you could help us find our father, we’ll just take him and be on our way.”
“Alright,” Stephen nodded. “Step closer, all of you.”
Thor did as told, but Toni placed a quick hand on Loki’s elbow. “Hold on! I need to talk to Loki for a sec, why don't you guys find All-Daddy? Give us a shout when you're ready.”
Loki stepped back towards her comfortably, with a silent gesture to Thor. But Stephen’s eyes flashed with something she couldn’t place, his face hardened and he turned back to Thor with a cutting viciousness. They vanished in the next second.
“Well, Thor’s going to be dizzy for the next few minutes,” Loki chuckled. “Probably my fault. You really do know how to pick them, don’t you, Lady Stark?”
“It's Toni. And I'm not answering that, I'm still trying to figure it out myself,” she grumbled. “I need to know something.”
He waited attentively.
“That name you were too afraid to tell me last time,” she recalled. “Was it Thanos?” Bingo, she thought, as a tremor passed through him.
“So do you believe me now, Antonia?”
“It's Toni,” she stressed. “And I believed you five years ago. Now, I've got others backing me up.” She debated how much to tell him. “Stephen has the Time Stone.”
Loki's eyes widened and he cursed in a language she couldn’t identify. “Of course, that’s why his spell work felt familiar. He’s a disciple of Agamatto.” He shook his head in self-mockery. “What of the sceptre? The Stone inside the crystal?”
“The Mind Stone. That's with Vision. He’s a...” she waved an arm around when he looked confused. “Synthezoid? A cross between a synthetic human and an android. The Stone is embedded in his forehead.”
Loki sighed. “There's not much you can do but prepare. And prepare well. Gather your forces, keep your allies close. And when the time comes...” He fixed his eyes on her, firm and steady. “Do not let him get the Stones. No matter what. No one life is more important than the entirety of the Yggdrassil.”
Toni nodded, questions brimming within her. Before she could ask them, Thor and Stephen reappeared, the former looking ready to throw up.
“Oh hey, entirely unrelated,” Toni started, partly to mask the seriousness of the conversation they’d just had, but also out of curiosity. “Were you in Melbourne, a month or so ago?”
“Indeed, I was,” Loki replied with a shark-like grin. “And as I recall, you looked very beautiful that day.”
“Ah-ha!” she cried, pointing at him in triumph. “You were Lucky, I knew it. You didn’t happen to also kidnap two actors, did you?”
This time Loki actually blushed, a pale flush highlighting his cheeks. “Well, I wouldn’t call it kidnapping,” he hedged. “Persuasion, manipulation; much better words. Though, coercion would be the truest.”
She couldn’t help the laugh that escaped her. “Send them back, Bambi,” she admonished. “They’re not yours to keep.”
“Oh alright,” he grumbled, but he was smiling as he waved his fingers with a flash of golden light. “They’ll wake up in their homes tomorrow morning, with no recollection of Asgard.”
“I think it’s time for us to be going, brother,” Thor said. “Toni. It was a pleasure to see you again. Give my well wishes to the other Avengers and if at all possible, do check up with Jane, just once.”
“Of- of course,” she lied through her teeth.
“Then we shall take your leave. Take care, Lady Stark.” Loki stepped towards her with one arm outstretched, as if to take her hand again.
But Stephen made an exasperated sound and created a portal, before sweeping it along the floor to whisk then away with a falsely cheerful, “Okay, bye bye.”
Silence fell. The two of them stood almost awkwardly. “I wasn’t sure of, um,” Stephen took a breath. “Of how much you would want to tell him. If you even wanted to see him. I just figured that, that you’d like to know. Sorry if I worried you.”
“S’okay,” she shrugged. “I didn't tell him because, frankly, I'm a little scared to know what he'd think. Who he'd side with. I didn't, I don’t want to know whether he thinks we were right.”
"Though, I think I will pay Dr Foster a visit."
“Did you have to teleport so quickly, by the way?” She asked, with a small laugh. “Poor Thor couldn’t stand straight. What did he ever do to you?”
Stephen scowled. “In all fairness, he’s not the one I was mad at. But you kept the other one with you, so I had to make do.”
“Loki?!” She asked. “He didn't even do anything this time. And New York wasn't his fault, we've been through that.”
Stephen didn't answer at first. He looked at her with an unusually unreadable gaze, with an intensity that made her squirm. “He did a lot,” he said softly. “He did it to you. And you let him. You just didn’t realize what it was doing to me.”
There was something dark in his voice, something pained and resigned. Toni thought about their conversation at the airfield the day before, and what Rhodey had said to her, and suddenly she had a name for it. Jealousy.
“Oh,” she breathed out.
Stephen winced, like he’d read her mind. “Yes, that's an accurate description. Oh.”
He turned away, and Toni, without thinking, grabbed his arm to spin him back around to face her, mindful of his scars. He looked down at her, clear heterochromia eyes filled with apprehension and...
“You said the option was always there,” she whispered. There was a semi-respectable distance between them, but close enough that she could almost see the instant his brain clicked into gear.
“Yes,” he murmured, stepping closer, his whole frame tense with hesitation. “It is.”
“And you wanted to know if I would be ever interested,” she continued. Every instinct of self-preservation was screaming at her not to do this, not to take the risk. But she locked it out, focusing on Rhodey’s words of encouragement and Stephen’s hopeful stare.
“I can’t...” she huffed out a breath, trying to steady her nerves. “I can't promise you anything except that I’ll never knowingly hurt you. But I'm game to try something more. With us. As long as you are.”
Something seemed to shatter and rebuild in his form all at once. Body stiff, eyes locked, he brought a hand up to cradle her jaw, silently asking permission.
She gave it and felt her breath catch when, after an agonizingly long second, he kissed her, slow and careful, his lips trembling almost as much as his hands. She kissed back readily, just as gentle, looping her arms around his neck and finally, finally his body relaxed as he slid his fingers into her hair. Stephen held her like she was something precious, and Toni internally prayed to a god she didn’t believe in, that they wouldn’t end up breaking each other.
Chapter 11: Eggs In Baskets
My knowledge of the Defenders is based solely on what I've read in other fics. Which is why, they will not be playing a big part in this story.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Come in,” Toni called out, as there was a knock on the door of her office in the Tower. Next to her, Pepper looked tired, heavily pregnant as she was. Two men walked in, one lean and muscled, with sunglasses over pretty features and a tight smile, the other jolly-looking and with an air of nervousness that he was trying hard to hide.
“Mr Nelson, Mr Murdock,” she greeted pleasantly.
“Yes, good morning, Miss Stark, Miss Potts,” Murdock nodded. “I must say it was quite a surprise when your call came through.”
“How did you even hear about us?” Nelson questioned curiously.
“I was following the Fisk case,” Pepper admitted. “At the time, I was still CEO and I considered recruiting you for SI's Law Firm. However, Miss Stark took back the reins before I could do so, and then we never got around to it.”
“Well, we would have declined anyway,” the blind man smiled. “How may we help you now?”
“Well, there are two different topics to talk about, and since I'm on a schedule-” Toni made a show of looking at her watch. “Let's get this done quick. Miss Potts will brief Mr Nelson, and I’ll have a chat with you, Mr Murdock.”
Pepper began to get up, but Toni waved her back immediately. “No, you stay here,” she ordered, concern seeping into her tone. The date of delivery was approaching fast, just three weeks left, and it wouldn't do to have her walking around. After today, Toni and Happy were going to lock her in her room, with just her laptop and phone. “I'll go into your office, instead. Mr Murdock, follow me please.”
The two friends exchanged slightly concerned looks. Not seeing any reasonable way out, Murdock got up to follow her and she led them into Pepper’s office, holding the door open for him.
“Alright, Miss Stark,” he sighed, taking a seat. “Obviously, you have something entirely different and unrelated to the legal case to talk to me about.”
“You sound resigned,” she observed, sitting across from him.
He simply shrugged.
“Well, Miss Potts is talking to your friend about the Winter Soldier. He’ll be arriving today afternoon and we shall begin the process of his therapy.”
“And after that, I assume, you want us to represent him in court, and prove his innocence of all the crimes he committed?” Murdock's tone got sharp with indignation.
Toni inclined her head slightly. “He is innocent,” she stressed. “The Winter Soldier is none other than Sargent James Barnes, which is a known fact, of course. What is slightly less known, is that Barnes had been captured by Hydra back in the 40’s. He was tortured, brainwashed, experimented on and then groomed into the assassin he is famous as. The concept was that they would use a set of controls to trigger the Soldier.”
He fell silent. “So the therapy...”
“Breaking that conditioning,” she nodded. “Making sure the controls won’t affect him again. Helping him get his own memories back, if possible. At the very least, giving him his life back.” She frowned in thought. “However, it wouldn’t be possible to get him completely pardoned, because the events of the Civil War, barring the facility breakout, took place with him in his right mind. Many people died or were heavily injured during the Bucharest highway chase, and of course, the property damage to Leipzig airport, so he does have to answer for that.”
“Alright,” he nodded. “So get him off with as light a sentence as possible, taking into account that he wasn’t actually in his right mind even when he wasn’t triggered, because, while I’m no expert, I’m sure repeated electroshocks and mind-wipes for eighty years couldn’t possibly have been good for his mental state. So under duress, his mind and body would fall back on anything that would protect him. In this case, the Winter Soldier.”
“Exactly. Apart from the events of being triggered, it has also become his go-to response for whenever he perceives danger. There’s a chance he might not even have any conscious control over it.”
“So a fight or flight response, then,” Murdock nodded. “Foggy won’t take the case until we’ve both talked it over, but I have to ask: why us? Why not your own highly competent legal team?”
“Several reasons. Only selected people know about his treatment, fewer still know the identity of the therapist. While I trust my company and all- most- of my employees, there’s always a chance of security risk.”
Murdock smiled all of a sudden. “Oh you mean, if your people are responsible for a leak, it would be identified as a credible source. But if either one of us takes the story to the press, you can easily discredit us, and possibly ruin our reputation.”
She smiled back sweetly.
He sighed. “I guess this will be involving a whole lot of NDA's and other contracts to be signed?”
She stayed silent.
He sighed a second time, as if he were suddenly regretting all his life choices. “If this is what Miss Potts is talking to Foggy about, what was it you wanted to say to me?”
“Ah, yes,” Toni exhaled deeply. “I wanted to talk to you about the Accords.”
This time, his smile turned slightly wary. “In a legal capacity, you mean?”
“Oh, no,” she waved it away. “My own lawyers and SI lawyers have looked them over, they’re fine. Of course, if you have any additional suggestions or amendments, we can talk about those too. But mostly, want I want to talk to you about was Daredevil.”
The change in demeanour was instantaneous. Murdock stiffened, sitting up straighter and she got the feeling he would be glaring at her. “I'm not entirely sure why you think I’m the person to talk to about that.”
“Well, you’re not denying it,” she pointed out.
“I don’t see the point,” he shot back. “With your resources, tech and reach, it’d be hard to hide something from you without an extensive course in computer security. And even then I’m sure you’d find a way through it. So, no, I won’t deny it, but how did you know?”
“I’ve been on the lookout for Enhanced individuals for a long time, since encountering two of them during the Ultron affair,” she explained. “You've been on my radar since then, along with a few other individuals, but I got busy training Spider-Man and then with the Accords. You seemed to be handling yourself pretty well, and you were doing good, so I laid off for a while.”
He considered her carefully. Toni kept a straight face, not doubting for a second that he could sense the changes in her mood as easily as she could read expressions.
“What if I don’t want to join the Avengers?” Be finally asked.
“You don’t have to,” she assured him. “Barring world threatening events, you are perfectly free to operate within your own jurisdiction. The Accords are really for your protection just as much as they are for the public. You would have to be present for the press conference when we introduce the new line-up, and attend meetings, but you get to keep your identity secret. The only people who would know are the Avengers themselves, and even then, you can choose to withhold from them, except the team leaders.”
“That’s you,” he stated flatly.
“For the moment,” she acquiesced. “It's liable to change a bit. Most likely, Colonel Rhodes, or someone else with more field experience, may take command during missions.”
He nodded. “I'll think it over,” he said slowly. “And then get back to you.”
Toni nodded, handing him an SI card with a number scribbled on it. “That's my PA's number; Maria Hill. Any questions, she’ll take them.”
“Thank you, Miss Stark.”
“Thank you for your time, Mr Murdock. I look forward to hearing from you.”
Bucky couldn’t stop fidgeting. Princess Shuri shot him a sharp look, and he gave her an apologetic half-smile. But the incessant tapping of his fingers didn’t stop.
It grew worse when the descent into New York began.
When it reached its peak, as the small jet touched down on a private runway, he fought the urge to settle into the cold composure of the Soldat. It wouldn’t do to meet the woman who was going to help him while wearing the guise of the man who killed her parents. Bad enough that they shared the same face and body.
Waiting on the tarmac was Toni Stark. She cut an impressive figure, dressed in an all white skirt suit, hands folded in front of her and face expressionless. He wondered for a second if it had been a deliberate choice to leave her hair down, for the clash of dark on bright. Being who she was, it probably had been, along with the six inch heels that brought her to almost his height and the pair of sunglasses perched firmly over her nose, hiding her eyes and making it difficult to read her.
All for an intimidating first impression.
Bucky felt no shame in admitting it worked.
“Dr Stark!” Princess Shuri called out, obviously trying to contain her excitement.
“Princess,” Stark greeted in return, an amused smile on blood red lips (also a conscious decision, he’d bet his second arm on it), as they shook hands. “How’s Kitty?”
“Still recovering from you,” she replied, bouncing very subtly on the balls of her feet. Bucky thought he caught one of the Dora Milaje exchanging fondly amused looks.
“Ah well, that’s a shame,” Stark sighed theatrically. “And how are you, your Highness?”
“Oh, I’m good, Dr Stark, you can just call me Shuri. And I was hoping I’d get to converse with Miss FRIDAY. And maybe...” She took a deep breath. “I was hoping Stark International would consider a joint venture with Wakandan scientists.”
Stark’s smile became a bit more even. “I've got a lot on my plate right this moment, Shuri. But after this whole thing with the Rogues blows over, I’d love to talk a collaboration. We can all learn from each other, I'm sure, especially when we’ve got minds as brilliant as me and you, of course.” She winked good-naturedly, and Bucky felt his lips twitch when the royal teen blushed lightly at the compliment.
The entourage took their leave, and to Bucky it felt a lot like abandonment. Which was silly because they didn’t really owe him anything.
Still, it was with no little trepidation that he faced Stark. For a long minute, they simply sized each other up. He wondered what was going through her head, if she was comparing his face to the one she’d seen in that hellish video.
Well, he’d made a promise to himself not to allow any of the Winter Soldier’s tendencies to overcome him. That meant no stalling and waiting for her to make the first move. “I think she might have a bit of a crush on your brains,” he suggested.
To his surprise, she hummed in agreement. “I know. If she were even half as smart as she is, she would have had very little intellectual stimulation while growing up. Textbooks wouldn't have been nearly enough.” She paused, then sighed. “How much did you tell the Rogues?”
“Exactly what you had told the princess,” he replied. “Dr Annie Carbonell, Italian psychologist, treatment in an institution in Florence. How much of that is true?”
“Only the name,” she said, getting in the car and gesturing for him to do the same. A gorgeous white Porsche, he noted with a spark of excitement. “And after every session, you’re going to meet with a lawyer, who will help you to prepare statements for the court case, which will take place after you’re completely cured.”
Bucky nodded, understanding. As he got comfortable, but neglecting the restraining seatbelt, he noticed the way Stark had paled considerably. His eyes drifted lower to where one hand was clenched around the steering wheel and another on the gear shift, knuckles white from pressure.
Guilt bloomed in his chest. “Stark?”
She shut her eyes- maybe; it was hard to tell with the glares- and shook her head in short, rapid movements.
“Stark?” He tried again, recognising the oncoming panic attack. “Come on, Stark, breathe. I can’t crash your car if I’m sitting next to you.”
She took several deep breaths, fighting her own mind to regain control. When she faced him again, he felt the urge to knock off those sunglasses so he could try to get a read on her.
“I can get a cab,” he offered. “If you don’t feel... If you don’t want me here, which is perfectly in your right, I can get a cab to the Compound. I’m sure many people wouldn’t recognize me.”
“No,” she grit out. “No, I can deal with this. I don’t want you in my car, but I can deal. Plus, if you changed your mind and ran off, or if something triggered you, it’d be a pain in my ass to track you down and avoid mass panic. So, no. You’re with me.”
“Probably the safest place to be right now,” he muttered, giving in. “What with that metal death trap you tote around.”
For a second, he thought he saw wry amusement make her lips twitch. Then she looked front and began driving.
The drive was mostly silent, until they reached the Compound. Bucky couldn’t help gaping at the structure, the sleek lines and angles that made up the irregularly geometrical building and the large embossed 'A' over the side of the building. He wondered how many people noticed that it was the same blue as the arc reactor.
Stark looked pleased at his reaction. “I've cordoned off an area in the East Wing,” she told him. “It was built as a safe space for emotionally volatile and powerful individuals. No one can break in or out.”
“Built for and tested by the Hulk?” He guessed.
“Yep. Thor tested it too, so did... Yeah.” She swallowed, and he could fill in the words.
“Anyway,” she resumed. “Your lawyer, Mr Murdock, will be arriving in a minute or so. I’ll take you to a private office to wait, then to your room. We can start with the first session tomorrow morning. Or today evening, if you’re up to it.”
She looked at him expectantly and he didn’t have to pause to say, “I can start tonight.”
She nodded. “Great.” They stopped in front of an open door. She gestured inside. “You can wait here for him,” she suggested, though he knew he didn’t have much say. “I'll send Mr Murdock up when he comes. If you need anything, feel free to ask FRIDAY.”
“She means me, Sargent. I’d be happy to help in any way I can.”
He stared up, body moving into a defensive position before he could stop himself. “R-right, right, uh,” he cleared his throat, forcing himself to relax. “Thank you, FRIDAY, ma’am.” So this was who Princess Shuri had been talking about. “I appreciate the offer.”
Stark looked way too amused. “I'll leave you to it then.”
“Yes, alright, thank you, Miss Stark.”
She hummed, stared at him for a few seconds, then turned on her heel and walked away.
Stephen hurried downstairs. Now that the weekend was over, he needed to get back to the Sanctum, stat, otherwise Wong would have his head. Bad enough he’d let Toni and Harley talk him into staying for the entire Harry Potter series, and suffered through the terrible jokes they both had a penchant for.
The thought of Toni did introduce a sudden spring in his steps. It felt like he hadn’t been able to stop smiling since she’d agreed to try and take things further and kissed him. Intellectually, he knew there was no guarantee that they would work, but he couldn’t help feel sure it would.
“No, she’s still at the office, you’ll have to pick her up and bring her to the car, if she refuses to move."
He stopped in front of the common room. Peeking in, he found Toni, looking out the floor length window, a phone pressed to her ear.
She heard him, probably, because she turned around, taking off her sunglasses with a smile when she saw him.
Just a minute, she mouthed, humming as she listened to Happy, presumably, on the other end of the line. He stepped into the room, watching her as she consoled the distraught boyfriend. When she ended the call, tossing the phone onto the couch, he couldn’t help but grin helplessly.
Recalling the way he used to have to fight to keep his focus on her face, he took relief and a lot of satisfaction in letting his eyes roam over her figure, admiring the way that all white ensemble and red lips gave her a more striking and 'ready to kill' look than he'd seen in some time.
“Heading back to the Sanctum?” She asked, smirking like she knew what was going through his mind.
“Yes,” he sighed, reaching out with a hand. She took it, clasping the fingers together with a giddy smile of her own. “I don’t suppose there’s any way both of us could clear our schedule for a few hours at the same time?”
She groaned playfully, resting her other hand on his chest. “No. Trust me, I want nothing more than to get out of here.”
“Ah,” he nodded. “Barnes here? How’d it go?”
“Okay, I guess,” she mumbled. “He tried to make a joke, to break the ice. It worked. But he also made me panic. And then he also talked me out of it. So, it’s rocky, but I think he was trying. So I’ll try too.”
“And the lawyer?”
“He’s here, talking to him.”
He swallowed, oddly nervous. “Um, I should probably go,” he said.
She looked up, brown eyes landing on his own, before flashing lower to his lips. He bent towards her slowly, just as she leaned up. Their eyes met again. Stephen huffed in exasperation at the sudden hesitation from both of them, making Toni giggle and finally kiss him. He didn’t take more than a split second to kiss back, tugging her slightly closer and slipping a hand into her hair.
“I really do need to go,” he whispered, pulling back.
She followed the movement. “I know,” she whispered back and he bit lightly on her bottom lip. God, he was never going to be able to stop kissing her, he thought to himself.
“Boss, sorry for interrupting your... Anyway, Sargent Barnes and Mr Murdock have wrapped up their meeting.”
“She'll be there in a minute, FRIDAY,” Stephen called out, not really breaking apart. He thought he heard the AI mutter something, but he couldn’t be too sure.
“I need to go,” Toni said in a sing-song voice that he could feel the vibrations of.
“I know,” he said mockingly. With a last peck, he stepped away, dropping his hands. “See you this weekend?” He questioned, drawing a portal into the Sanctum.
“If not earlier,” she replied with a wink and again, a smile split his face as he stepped through, closing the portal without looking back at Toni, because otherwise he'd never leave. Levi flew in from somewhere, settling over his shoulders with long practised ease.
“Yes, yes, I missed you too,” he muttered fondly as one red corner swatted at his head.
“Stephen!” Wong approached him from the staircase. He paused, staring at his face with wide eyes and a shocked expression, before recovering. “Master Morrison says they've been receiving some odd sort of energy surge. But they're not sure if it’s of this dimension and they want to see if you might be able to accompany them.”
“Right,” he nodded. “I'll go to him in an hour or so, right after I’ve had breakfast. Where is he?”
“London,” he said. “So I see you finally made a move. Or was it Stark?”
Stephen choked on air. “What?!” They hadn’t told anyone yet, barring FRIDAY and Levi, but they always knew everything, so it didn’t count.
“You might want to find a mirror before going anywhere.” With that, wron left.
Stephen summoned a simple hand-held mirror. For several long moments, he stared, mildly surprised, at the red stains left over his mouth. The smile from before made a reappearance as he vanished it away.
Bucky stood up to shake the lawyer’s hand, feeling a lot better somehow than he had half an hour ago. Matt Murdock was a polite, well-spoken man with an air of quiet confidence that soothed him immediately. He’d gone over the process of the court trials with him, explaining how it would work in tandem with his treatment.
Now, they both exited the room, only to run into a man Bucky recognised as Clint Barton, codename: Hawkeye.
Barton stiffened when he saw him, and he could see recognition spark in the archer’s eyes, along with anger. Had Stark shown them the video? Had she told them about Siberia?
“Barnes,” he greeted with a nod. “And you’re...”
“Matt Murdock. Sargent Barnes' lawyer.”
“Right,” he recalled. “Toni told me.” Sharp blue-grey eyes glared at him. “You've met her, right?”
Bucky nodded, trying to dial down his own defensiveness. “Yes. She’s, uh, she's very...,” he hesitated, trying to find a word. “Very intimidating.”
“Really?” Murdock interrupted, sounding mildly surprised. “I found her very easy-going, actually. Laid-back, but competent and professional.”
Barton snorted. “Well, you’re both not wrong.”
“Not wrong about what?” Stark appeared around a corner. “You guys done? Hey, bird-brain.”
Bucky averted his gaze, avoiding the second-hand embarrassment, while Murdock tilted his head curiously, as Barton squinted at Stark, gesturing vaguely at her face. “You might wanna, uh, clean up? Wash your face? Maybe re-do your lipstick?”
For a full ten seconds, she remained confused, her hand flying up to her mouth, brushing at the remnants of red lipstick, obviously kissed away, if the very subtle disarray of her hair was also an indication. She blushed, and Barton began to snicker. Even Murdock bit back a smile, the words telling him what he couldn’t see.
“Who was it?” he teased.
“Shut up, Merida.”
“I bet I can guess.”
“Barnes, come with me,” she spoke firmly over the former agent's cackling laughter as he walked away. “I'll take you to your rooms.”
“Uh, excuse me, Miss Stark,” Murdock cut in. “I was hoping I could speak with you?”
She looked him over carefully, peering over the rim of her sunglasses. Did she ever take them off?
“Wait in the office,” she suggested. “I'll be back in a few.”
She led him towards a different wing, up a set of winding staircases, then down a hall.
“Your room,” she gestured at an open door. “Soon as you’re settled in, ask FRIDAY and she’ll help you set up the fingerprint ID.”
“Are all these rooms empty?” He wondered, gesturing at the looked doors.
She sucked in a breath. “Romanoff, Rogers,” she pointed at the doors on one side of his. “Wilson. Maximoff. Danvers. Lang and van Dyne have the next two, for whenever they’re here.”
“And it’s a coincidence that my room is right next to St- Rogers?” He caught himself in time, anticipating her flinch.
“Not exactly. That was my room,” Stark said dryly. “Or well, just the room where I stored some of my work.”
She fidgeted, uncomfortable, and Bucky abruptly remembered that she’d been Steve’s girl. Well, that ship had sailed. She seemed to have moved on. Punk's gonna be heartbroken, more so than he is.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, clearing his throat.
She nodded. “First session’s at evening six o'clock. If you’re up to it.”
“I am,” he insisted.
“Get some sleep,” she suggested. “You'll wanna be rested for this.”
Has anybody ever really understood physics??? Or integrated math???
The phone rang while she was going over the changes Murdock had suggested in the Accords. He’d signed, along with three other individuals: Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Danny Rand. They had dubbed themselves the Defenders and had all insisted that they would only be a part of the Avengers for world-threatening events.
Surprisingly enough, Murdock and Rand, both of whom wore masks, had been okay with letting the team members know about their identity, though it wouldn’t be disclosed to the public, when she introduces the final line-up.
“Toni Stark,” she snapped into the phone, only half-paying attention.
“Toni, there’s a woman on the line for you.” It was Maria.
“Well, why are you giving it to me?” She demanded, making a point to apologize for her sharpness later on.
“She says her name is Susan Storm.”
Toni paused. “Put her on.”
The line crackled. “Toni?”
“Susie,” she greeted. “How's life?”
There was a short silence on the other end of the line. “You haven't seen the news recently, have you?” There was a note of wryness in the woman's tone.
“No,” she said slowly, remembering she’d told FRIDAY to hold off on anything not related to the Accords, Rogues, or world-class events, and deflect to whomever she thought capable of handling it. “Why, what’s wrong?”
Another short silence. “Spider-Man is your mentee, isn’t he?”
She tensed. “Yes.”
“Right, I’m pretty sure he’s heading to you. Listen to what he has to say, then come over to the Baxter Building whenever you’re free.”
“Okay,” she agreed, though confused. “Keep your husband away from me, will you?” She said it teasingly, but Thor forbid she and Reed Richards were allowed within three feet of each other. Somebody would die. Toni still shuddered when she recalled the first time she’d met him in MIT.
As she said goodbye, there was a knock on the door. “Come in,” she called. The knocking continued. With a start, she realized that it was on her window, not the door. “What the f-?” She bit off a curse, as Peter, in complete costume, waved at her from outside, his feet and hand sticking to the glass pane of her office, which was eighty-one stories up.
She scrambled to let him in. “You give me a grey hair every other day, Peter, I swear,” she hissed, as he flipped inside gracefully, taking off the mask in one smooth movement.
“Oh no, Miss Stark,” he protested. “It's only one new strand every week, I promise. Harley and I counted.”
“Cut the sass, young man,” she said warningly. “What’s the news?”
“How do you know I have news?”
“I have special powers. Now spill.”
Half an hour later, after hearing his story and watching news footage of a near fatal incident on the bridge, Toni wanted to bury her head into the sand and never come back out. Except, she was pretty sure Stephen would drag her out.
“Maria,” she groaned into the phone. “Please make sure I’m free on the day after tomorrow, I've got something to do.”
“Focus, Barnes,” Stark murmured.
He shuddered, sweat forming on his brow as he fought to hold still, to not lunge at a memory. A memory of himself, stalking quietly around a rather modest suburban house, with fairy lights strung around the windows and Christmas music playing inside. Odd, seeing as it was the beginning of January.
A man stepped out. Short. Ginger. Stocky build. Daniel Reeves. Defence Minister of Britain. Husband. Father of three girls. He had a fond smile as he lit up a cigarette, walking around to the back of the house for shelter from the biting wind.
“No,” Bucky breathed out, in a shuddering gasp. “No, Stark, he, he’s going to, I'm going to, to-“
“Kill him, I know,” she said softly. “But it's not you. Focus, Barnes. Don’t change the memory. Let it happen the way it did. Watch. Disassociate from it.”
He went along, forcing himself into keeping his muscles locked so he didn’t try to attack the memory version of himself. He watched his own form- no, the Winter Soldier- he watched the Soldier creep up behind Reeves, smoke drifting around him from the cigarette, and clasp a gloved hand over his mouth, muffling all sounds as he dragged him further behind the bushes. Reeves was struggling, cigarette forgotten in the snow, hands scrambling to pull free of the chokehold. His body fell limp, when the Soldier grabbed his head and twisted it hard, breaking his neck in one smooth movement.
Bucky shuddered, quickly taking the B.A.R.F. glasses off, as the memory disappeared and the room returned to normal. He stumbled back a few steps, leaning heavily against the glass wall of the Hulk-proof room.
“You good?” Stark asked, slight concern audible in her voice. She’d forgone the sunglasses during the sessions, but he’d found it was still considerably more difficult to read her than most.
“I think so.” He nodded hesitantly.
“You wanna call it a day?” She offered.
He took a second to think about it, then pushed off the wall, putting on the glasses. “No, I can do one more.”
She nodded supportively and another memory solidified around them.
It was Richards who ended up explaining the storm cloud they’d experienced during the space trip, albeit reluctantly. Toni listened quietly, making a valiant attempt not to make snide remarks. But she couldn’t help raising an eyebrow in pure judgement when he came to the part about his insistence that they complete the mission, before returning home to recover from any possible damage to their health, before Susan had threatened to leave him behind.
“Okay, before you start judging me,” he snapped. “Don’t tell me you wouldn’t have done the same.”
“I wouldn’t have done the same,” she intoned flatly. “Not when I wasn’t Iron Woman, and didn’t have a team of equally qualified people who understood the risks.” She sighed. “I suppose you guys want to sign the Accords?”
"Yes, but we’re not sure how well we’d work with such a large team,” Sue said, biting her lips nervously. “I mean, we’ve only just started to learn our own limits.”
Toni nodded. “Understandable. Sign then, but operate within yourselves. We’ll call on you if you’re needed. And you have my number.”
“Also.” She turned back to Richards. “You guys focus on training yourself. I’ll get someone else to work with you on the science aspects of it.”
“With all due respect, Stark,” he protested. “I don’t think I need any-“
“We'd love the extra hands, Toni, thank you,” his wife cut in, casting a stern glance at him. “They can room here in the Baxter Building, for as long as they’re here.”
“Great.” She clapped her hands. “I’ll be in touch. Bye, Sue. Richards, listen to your wife, and don’t meddle with stuff above your IQ level.”
“My IQ is higher than yours Stark,” he grumbled. “By two whole points.”
“Just numbers. And, uh, sorry, but which one of us discovered and synthesised a new element, again?” She walked out without letting him answer.
“Toni!” A voice called.
She rolled her eyes immediately.
“Hey, beautiful!” Susan's younger brother appeared, jogging around in front of her and walking backwards. “You should have called me, told me you were coming here.”
“Must have slipped my mind,” she deadpanned. He looked eerily like Rogers, she thought, until he opened his mouth. Every similarity disappeared then.
“Ah well, it happens to the best of us,” he said sagely. “Still, if you’re not in a hurry now-“
“I am, actually.”
“-go and get lunch,” he offered, still with a seductive half-smirk. “You've been up with Reed and my sis, right? I promise I'll show you a better time.” He dropped his voice to a lower register, almost a purr. “A much better time.”
“Oh really? You sure about that?” She smirked back.
“Very sure,” he stressed.
She finally let out the laugh she’d been holding back. “You’re jailbait, Johnny.”
He looked aghast. “That was twelve years ago,” he protested. “I'm thirty now.”
“And I'm in my mid-forties,” she said cheerfully. “And I've got no wish to become a cougar, thank you very much. Nice seeing you, Torch.” She patted his arm in mock consolation and he pouted, waving goodbye unhappily as she exited the building.
As soon as she was in the car, she dialled Stephen's number, simultaneously sending a text to Jane Foster. Extremis was super helpful, when it allowed her to work on her phone while driving, without having to take her hands off the steering wheel.
She waited patiently for the phone to be answered, ignoring the skip of her heart. (Really, barely a week in and he’d turned her into a complete sap. It wasn't good for her reputation.)
Stephen frowned, feeling the urge to extend a hand beyond the gold bubble protecting him from the toxic vapours in the atmosphere of this weird, glow-y, purple-ish dimension. He could sense the energy pulsing in the air, though. A strong, ancient power, or the after-effects of it.
And there was that odd feeling of push and pull, a subtle flow of air that, according to Master Morrison, meant that this place was surrounded my several other dimensions, all living and breathing on their own. There were pockets all around them, leading to Agamatto knew where.
A buzzing near his chest made him panic briefly, thinking it was the Time Stone. But no, the Stone was in the Sanctum and it was his own phone ringing. How the hell...?
“Hey,” Toni answered, cheerfully. “Do you have a few moments tomorrow?”
“Oh my gods,” he breathed, only half-paying attention. “This is unbelievable.”
“Uh, really? What is?”
“How am I getting signal here?”
There was a pause. “Stephen, where are you?” Toni’s voice had gone sharp. Before he could reply, she said, “What are you doing in Brazil?” He could imagine the confusion on her face, with her eyes glowing blue as she tracked his cell.
“I have no idea.”
“What do you mean you have no idea?” She demanded, the sharpness increasing. “What’s going on? Should I fly over?”
“No!” He exclaimed, wandering around, searching for the ripple in the atmosphere that would signal a way back to Earth. “I'm, uh... I’m in another dimension. Or more like an... Intersection between dimensions, I guess?”
Toni sighed at the other end. “Go on,” she muttered.
“One of the sorcerers in London detected an energy pulse, but couldn’t pinpoint it’s source. She figured it’s from another dimension,” he explained. “So we followed the trail and ended up here. Like I said, this seems to be like some kind of stopping place between several dimensions. There are these small pockets in the space, all leading to other places, some back to our world. We came in through one of those pockets in London, but now you’re saying I’m in Brazil. So that means... Yeah, found it.”
He stared at the dimly glowing mist distorting the space with satisfaction. “I think this is the pocket that must lead out into Brazil. That’s why I’m getting a signal.”
He could almost hear Toni process the information.
“Very C.S. Lewis type of stuff. What happened to the energy pulse?”
“We followed the trail to another pocket,” he said. “But we can’t investigate because it leads into space.”
“Space? What, you mean, real space? Outer space?!”
“Yep.” He popped the 'p'. “But you’re not gonna believe what we identified the energy pulse as.”
Toni breathed out heavily at the other end of the line. “Let me guess,” she said wryly. “Infinity Stones?”
She sighed. “Boy, have I got a story for you.”
“What's wrong?” He asked, frowning. “Did something happen?”
“Uh, no,” she assured. “Everybody’s fine. Just a few things have come up. I’ll tell you when you come home.”
“Got it,” he replied. “Want me to bottle some of the residual energy traces for you to run your own tests?”
“Sure, sure,” she laughed and he ended the call with a grin.
-Boss, Dr Strange has arrived at the Compound-
Toni looked up from the Spider-Man suit. “Let's take a break,” she suggested.
Peter put down the pincers and followed her, speaking a mile-a-minute. “... And then I feel guilty, ya know, cuz Liz is pretty serious about that stuff, it's really important to her, and I’m kinda putting a wrench in her plans by missing practices all the time, so maybe I should just drop it, but then I’d never get to talk to her, and she's a senior-“
“Wait, wait!” Toni held up a hand. “Is this a crush?”
He turned red, to the tips of his ears. “No!” he denied vehemently. “She's just... Really nice. I just like her. Not like like her.”
They stepped into the common room. Carol and Rhodey were discussing something in low tones, Laura, Clint and Happy were fussing over Pepper, while Harley was taking apart the coffee maker. She considered reprimanding him for that, but then she spotted Stephen, leaning against the counter as he patiently explained something to Lizzie and the Barton kids, and it was just tunnel vision after that.
“Hi,” she greeted, when he caught sight of her.
“Hi, yourself,” he grinned back, reaching for her.
She made quick note of the cut below his left eye. “Might wanna get that checked.”
“Yes, Doctor,” he said solemnly, before kissing her, effectively silencing any joke she might have cracked. No matter, she thought, smiling into it. This worked too.
A cough, and Cooper groaning, “Ugh, not you guys too!”, brought them back, and they jerked away from each other, eyes wide.
“Barton, you owe me twenty,” Pepper announced cheerfully. “You said, they'll slip up by the end of the month.”
Toni’s jaw dropped as Clint grumbled, handing over the money. Laura didn't help matters. “Hold on, how long has this been going on?”
Stephen raised an eyebrow. “Little over a week. Nine days, to be exact.”
Clint slapped his forehead, handing over another twenty to Laura. “I thought less than a week- five days. When I caught Toni with her make-up ruined,” he grumbled. “How did you both know?”
“I'll explain when you’re older, Hawkeye,” Laura teased.
“Wong caught us that day, too,” Stephen whispered into her ear, making her glance at his mouth in question. He nodded, and she shook her head ruefully.
“Hold on,” Harley cut in, banging his head on the table. Next to him, Peter looked like he wanted to disappear, shrinking into his chair as much as he could. “Who made the first move?”
This time, Toni choked. Harley and Peter had bet on them! Harley, she could understand, the boy was just as chaotically mischievous as she was, but Peter?
“Uh, well, I guess that would me?” She answered weakly.
“Excuse me?” Stephen frowned curiously. “I’m pretty sure it was me.”
“Yeah, because I broached the topic-“
“No, but in the lab-“
“That really shouldn’t count-“
“Who kissed whom first?” Rhodey interrupted.
Asshole, Toni thought towards her best friend as fiercely as she could, as Stephen raised his hand with a smug smile.
“Damn it,” Harley bemoaned. “Mo-om!”
Peter, still blushing, held out an expectant hand, and Harley slapped a ten-dollar note onto it.
“I am so disappointed in you people,” Toni said to the room at large. She got a chorus of “Bullshit!” “Oh, please!” and “You love us!” before Stephen gently pulled her away.
“What's up?” She asked, as he took her to her office.
In lieu of a reply, he withdrew a small flask, which looked straight from some fictional story, filled with a translucent purple gas. “Your data, Dr Stark.”
She let out a startled laugh. “Oh man, I thought you were joking.” She took the flask and held it up to the light, in view of FRIDAY's cameras. “FRI, run a scan.” She peered at it curiously. “Purple,” she mused. “Which Stone is that?”
“Power. We don’t have any records of where it’s kept. Or of Reality and Soul. Nowhere on Earth, that’s for sure.”
“And the Space Stone is on Asgard; that’s the Tesseract.” She perched on the edge of the desk, while Stephen took the chair behind it. “So, Reed Richards was conducting experiments for furthering space travel. He took a team of three other people with him. Up there, they encountered what seemed like a storm, but it acted like an earthquake. They weren’t able to move out of range in time, and the waves hit them. The effects...” She swiped her hand across the desk and the room lit up with charts, highlighting the abilities of each team member.
Stephen read them over, taking his time and letting the information sink in. He sighed deeply when he finished. “Elasticity, invisibility... Why do our lives seem like kids' action movies?”
“The Incredibles,” Toni supplied. “It's actually a great film.”
“Anyway, they're still trying to get a handle on their abilities, so I called in Jane Foster to aid Richards. But I got the preliminary test results from Susan.” She waved the screen away, bringing up a new one with tables and charts showing complicated readings. “Their DNA shows traces of Infinity Stones. I never got any data from the Maximoff twins, but it definitely matches the readings we took from the sceptre and the Tesseract.”
Stephen closed his eyes, massaging his own temples. He felt tempted to just fall asleep, not having gotten any rest for almost two days.
A light touch on his hand made him open his eyes. “I think someone tried to use the Power Stone,” he said slowly. “For something big. And they were either really successfully, or a spectacular failure. Either way, that's what caused that storm. And the energy pulse.”
Toni didn't answer, eyeing him in concern. “You’re dead on your feet,” she observed. “You should get some sleep.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “I'll get back to the Sanctum, probably sleep for the whole day. I'll see you tomorrow?”
He blinked. “No?”
“No, I mean you don't have to go to the Sanctum.” She gave him a weird look. “You have your room here, remember?”
“Oh.” He stood up, swaying lightly on his feet. “Forgot about that,” he mumbled.
Toni laughed lightly. “Alright, Sleeping Beauty, come on.”
His eyes dropped close again as Toni guided him to his bedroom, innately trusting that she wouldn't let him trip over his own feet. His focus was narrowed down to two things, the exhaustion in his eyelids and Toni's fingers wrapped around his wrist. He looked at her when they stopped.
“Get some sleep,” she ordered, nodding towards the open door. “FRIDAY will wake you up in ten hours.”
Stephen hummed softly, before leaning towards her. She met his lips halfway with a smile, kissing him gently, while her fingertips traced over his goatee and his own hands splayed over her hips.
Dimly, he felt her hand on his chest, pushing him towards the bed with ease. Ten seconds later, he was on his side, under the covers. Toni’s lips were warm on his forehead, and her whisper of, “See you tomorrow morning, love,” was the last thing he was aware of.
The little girl stood at the bottom of the stairs, looked up at Soldat, uncomprehending fear visible over her seven year old features. He was blocking his view of her parents, both MI6 agents, both lying on the floor with bullet holes in their heads.
“Mum?” She whispered. “Where is she? Where's dad?”
Soldat didn’t answer. Silently, he brought up the gun in his hand.
The silenced sound of the gunshot jerked Bucky out of the hypnosis-like state he'd been watching in, and he pulled the glasses off with trembling hands, as the memory faded to nothing. A few steps away from him, Stark had a blank look of horror on her face.
The words startled him. Bucky looked at her incredulously. “What?”
She looked pained. “All this time, I knew, objectively, that none of the Winter Soldier’s deeds were your fault. It just didn’t really sink in, because I kept wanting to be angry at you.”
“You have every right to be,” he said, wishing he could just give up and go to his room.
She shook her head. “No. I didn’t pause to think how it must have been for you. Being forced to watch yourself, your own hands, do things like that. Nobody deserves that. I'm sorry.”
Bucky took a shuddering breath. Stark’s sincerity was more than he deserved, but he couldn’t lie that it made him feel just a tiny bit better about everything.
Peter swallowed nervously, swaying side to side on his feet in front of the lab.
“Would you like me to inform Boss that you’re here to talk to her?”
“Uh, no, it’s okay, FRI,” Peter mumbled. Bracing himself, he punched in his code and walked to stand on front of her, trying to act defiant and confident.
It fell away the instant she looked up at him with am eyebrow raised. “What's up? You look peaky.”
His mentor-slash-mother stared at him, with an air of sarcastic judgement. “Could you repeat that, please?” She asked politely. “I could have sworn I just heard you say that Ned knows your secret identity.”
He blushed. “He was waiting in my room, when I crawled in through my window and then on the ceiling. I didn’t notice him. And you don’t get to judge me,” he added petulantly. “You announced your secret identity to the whole world.”
“Don’t even compare, kid,” she chided. “I planned it that way.”
“I know,” he grumbled.
She sighed. “On a scale of 'absolutely cool' and 'total freak-out', how worried should I be?”
He took a second to think about it, holding out a hand and tilting it side-to-side. “Somewhere around 'slightly concerned' maybe? I trust him completely, but he’s got a tendency for overexcitement.”
She glared at him.
He gave her a sheepish smile. “Just so you know, Harley found out before you suggested I tell the team. I’ll just go now, love you, bye!”
He dashed out of the lab, laughing at the sound of Miss Stark thumping her head on the desk.
“My wife, please, please save her, help my wife,” Howard Stark pleaded. Soldat ignored him, but he felt a shock through his consciousness as the man seemed to recognise him all of a sudden. “Sargent Barnes?”
He grabbed his head and smashed it into the side of the car. The only sound left was the pained wheezes of the second witness. The first one, the Stark's butler called Edwin Jarvis, had died instantly in the driver's seat. Walking around to the other side, Soldat wrapped a strong hand around Maria Stark, effectively silencing her whispers of her husband’s name, and squeezed.
The memory faded and Bucky took the glasses off. Death like silence settled around them. Unlike all the times before, he couldn’t bring himself to look up at Stark. He knew she was staring at him though, could feel the crushing weight of her grief and the accusation in her eyes. He kept his gaze on the ground, until he heard footsteps and the sound of the glass door sliding open and shut, and he was left alone.
*peeking out from behind laptop* Sorry about the cliffhanger???
Chapter 13: Hey, Stephen!
'Boy, you might have me believing, I don't always have to be alone...' - Taylor Swift
Just to recap: everyone on the Avengers team knows Peter is Spider-Man. The Defenders haven't given up their identities yet, but it will be revealed to the team along with the rest of the world during the Homecoming press conference.
Also, forgive the lack of details on Bucky's pardon, I have zero knowledge of how the legal system works.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Rhodey looked up at the ceiling. He knew that wasn’t were FRIDAY resided exactly, but still, it was a reflex. “Yes, FRI?”
"Sir, I believe Boss requires your presence."
He got to his feet, taking a moment to marvel at the braces, as he did so often. “Is she in the lab?”
"No, sir. She’s in her room."
That made him pause. Why would she need his assistance in her bedroom? Frowning, he made his way towards their wing. He didn’t bother knocking, instinctively knowing she wouldn’t respond. Stepping in, he found her laying on the bed, one arm covering her eyes, the other absently patting Toki, who had curled up on her stomach. Nirvana played softly in the room, which was a blaring alarm signal because Toni only strayed from AC/DC when she was sad.
Quietly, he lay next to her. “I know you’re not asleep.”
There was a sigh. “I messed up.”
“Barnes’ memory today was of December 16th. Howard, Maria... Jarvis.” Her voice had lowered to a murmur. “I watched him... I tried not to, but... I couldn't look away.” Her voice broke and her breath hitched. A few tears slipped from her eyes, sliding smoothly down to the pillows.
“Are you upset at Barnes? Rhodey asked, curling around her, careful not to disturb Toki.
“No,” she replied, sounding wretched. “And that makes me feel worse now, because it was still his hand that did it, and I feel like I shouldn’t be guilty, like I'm doing something wrong by helping him.”
“But you aren't,” he reminded. “Helping him get through this is also helping yourself to come to terms with it.”
She opened her eyes. “I walked out on him,” she admitted sullenly.
“Well, then you go and talk to him about it.”
A beat passed, then she was wiping her eyes and sitting up. Toki hissed, upset at the disturbance and jumped off, stalking away. Toni’s lips twitched at the leaving cat. “You’re right. I'm going to him.” She bent down to peck his cheek. “Thanks, honey bear.”
“Anytime, sugar.” He rolled his eyes fondly.
Bucky was just considering his options- if Stark kicked him out, could he go back to Wakanda?- when there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” he called.
The door opened to reveal Stark. Bucky scrambled to a sitting position on his bed, only to feel a jolt of shock to realize that she wasn’t wearing a smidge of makeup and was dressed only in a simple tee and slacks. Her hair was up in a bun, and she looked the most open and vulnerable he’d ever seen her.
“May I...?” She gestured awkwardly and he scooted aside, giving her ample space to sit beside him, far enough that she could escape whenever she wanted. Again, she surprised him by sitting close enough for him to reach. She placed a slim folder between them, but he held his tongue about it.
“Listen, I’m sorry you-“
“Look, I didn’t mean-“
They stopped. He gave a hesitant smile. “Ladies first,” he offered.
She took a deep breath. “I didn’t mean to walk out on you like that. I just wasn’t prepared to see... that. It caught me off guard.”
He blinked. “Please stop apologizing for things that aren’t your fault.” She looked surprised at that, which made him wonder how many people had blamed her for the wildest things. “Nobody should have to watch something like that. You’ve watched it twice. And hey!” He cracked a smile, attempting to be jovial to lighten to the mood. “At least, you didn’t try to beat someone up this time!”
It worked. She rolled her eyes. “I could have killed you.”
He nodded mockingly. “It would have been an honourable way to go.”
She chuckled. “Anyway, Barnes, I meant what I said last time. None of this was your fault. You were just as much a victim in this as Jarvis, and everybody else over the years. Don’t beat yourself up over it, okay?”
“Kind of hard not to,” he admitted.
She tilted her head to the side, reminding him of an owl. “I know some pretty great therapists,” she offered. “I can you give you a number. They all used to work with SHIELD, so confidentiality isn’t a problem.”
“I... That’d be great, yeah, but...” He trailed off.
“It’s hard to talk about, I know.” She nodded. “Take it from me, though, it’ll help a lot. I’ll send you the list of names. Look through it whenever you need time, there’s no pressure.”
“Thanks,” he said, relief palpable.
“Several other things I wanted to talk to you about.” She tapped her finger on her thigh, a nervous tick. “I never apologized for what I did in Siberia. I don’t know if-“
“You're forgiven,” he interrupted.
“I- hunh?” she stared, looking a little faint.
“You're forgiven,” he repeated, waving his hand around. “You didn't do much lasting damage. Except the arm. Thanks for getting rid of it, it was like a constant reminder of Hydra, especially with that ridiculous star.”
She nodded slowly. “Okay,” she said, dragging out the word. “So, uh, about the arm...” She tapped her finger a few more times, then picked up the folder, offering it to him.
He opened it curiously, only to find a blueprint of... “Oh my god,” he whispered, overwhelmed all of a sudden by the sheer kindness of the gesture. “Oh my god.” He could barely tear his eyes away from the finely drawn schematics of a prosthetic arm, but he managed, Stark blurry in his tear-filled sight.
“It’s yours if you want it,” she said quietly, not meeting his eyes. “I can't legally give it to you before you're officially pardoned, and I’ve still got to add some special features to it, if you decide to join the Avengers. And you can refuse. Princess Shuri wouldn't mind building you one, I'm sure.”
“I’d love to have this one,” he said. “Stark, thank you. Thank you so much.”
She smiled, genuine and relieved. “Your court case will start tomorrow, okay? Murdock will talk you through everything, so just listen to him and follow his instructions to the T.” She stood up and he did as well, returning the folder to her. “And, it's Toni,” she added. “But I'm not calling you Bucky.”
He abruptly laughed, giddy with the knowledge that everything was finally starting to look up. “I've been thinking about that too,” he told her. “I'm not sure I feel like the guy I was eighty years ago. That was Bucky. That's not me.”
“So what do you wanna be called?” She asked curiously.
He thought about it and grinned. “James.”
Steve watched the news with a stone lodged in his throat, his heart hammering against his chest in protest at the feeling of utter betrayal.
'This very moment, I’m standing outside of the Courthouse, where, inside, Sargent James Barnes, more widely known as the Winter Soldier, is reading his oath this very instant. According to unconfirmed sources, Toni Stark, aka Iron Woman, pushed for his return to the United States in order to undertake his trial for his actions. One can only assume how much the UN, the Accords Committee and the Avengers know about the current whereabouts of the Rogue Avengers...”
He clicked the TV off, feeling sick to the stomach. Had Bucky lied to him? Why? Or had he somehow been tricked? Had Toni been behind all this from the very beginning?
He pushed to his feet, heading to his bedroom. He'd demand an audience with T'Challa first thing next morning.
One Week Later
“Alright, Elsa,” Toni hollered, as Scott popped open a bottle of wine. “Congratulations on passing your trials, you are now officially an Avenger.”
Everybody clapped and hooted loudly as James took a large swig from the bottle Scott had passed to him. They’d bonded surprisingly well, and the rest of the team had warned up to him pretty quickly too, though Rhodey and Clint had both taken some time.
The archer now took a second to survey the room. It was school night, so Peter was at his aunt’s place. Laura had taken their kids up to bed, and Toni had sent Harley and his sister up as well. So it was just him, Toni, Barnes, Rhodey, Scott, Hope and Carol there. Murdock had taken off, citing duties and friends he needed to return to (they really thought he had no idea who Murdock was, like, please, he spent a good part of each day in the vents, there wasn’t a lot that went on that he didn’t know about), and even Doctor Dude was at the Sanctum.
But this was good, he thought, as James and Scott engaged in a sudden debate of pop culture, since the latter had taken it upon himself to teach the assassin about the things he had missed out on. (“I don’t like One Direction all that much.” “Dude, they were a global phenomena, what do you mean you don’t like them?”). Toni, Hope and Carol were all sitting on top of the countertop, somehow squeezing in together (each one of those women was terrifying on their own; he pitied whichever poor fool would ever piss them off together).
For a brief moment, Clint missed Natasha; missed her with a fierce ache. Did she have any idea what she was missing out on, the kind of family she’d forsaken herself of, by betraying the wrong person?
Then he caught Rhodey’s gaze, who’d been observing the room, just as he had, eyes lingering on Toni with a fond look. Rhodey smiled, raising his glass in a silent toast. Clint returned it, and they both turned back to the group, joining in random discussions. It didn’t matter anymore, Clint thought. Natasha had made her own bed, she'd have to lie on it when the time back.
Of course, the peace had to be broken.
“Excuse me, Boss,” FRIDAY spoke. “But it seems, on the way home, Miss Potts' water broke. Mr Hogan has taken driven her to the hospital and I have already informed Dr Strange.”
For a terrifyingly long second, nobody moved.
Then Toni leapt off the counter with a little scream. “Get the car ready, baby girl,” she called. “Rhodey, come on!”
“Give them our love,” Carol yelled after the pair. “And keep us posted!”
Toni dashed into the waiting room, yelling her name over her shoulder to the startled receptionist. She didn’t wait for the elevator, choosing to take the stairs, with Rhodey on her heels. She found Stephen standing outside a room, reading a chart as a woman in scrubs talked to him in hushed tones. He looked up at her before she could make a sound, beckoning them over.
“It’s done,” he said with a smile. “Boy. Perfectly healthy. Pepper’s fine too, Happy's in there with her.”
“Are we allowed to go in?” Rhodey asked.
He gestured towards the closed door. With a bracing breath, Rhodey opened it, gasping a little when he caught sight of the bundle in Happy’s arms, whose bottom lip was trembling as he tried valiantly to keep from crying. On the bed, Pepper's eyes were closed, her mouth open the slightest bit as she breathed softly, her strawberry hair splayed out over the pillow.
“Hap?” Toni called gently.
The man looked up, tears starting to fall.
“Michael,” he whispered. “Michael Edwards.”
Rhodey let out a sudden laugh. “Oh Lord, congratulations, man.” He held out his arms like a question and Happy replied by carefully passing the little bundle to him. “Michael Edwards Potts-Hogan,” he murmured. “Boy, have you got a whole bunch of people to love you, little guy.”
“You ready to finally marry her now?” Toni whispered to Happy.
“You think she’ll want to?” He asked, looking half-scared, half-elated.
“You complete dolt,” she admonished. “Marry that woman, or I will.”
“I don’t think your doctor would be okay with that?” He teased.
Toni huffed, but when she turned back, she found that Stephen had taken Michael from Rhodey and was cooing softly to him, slowly swaying from side to side. Unwittingly, she felt a surge of utter adoration, something she wasn’t yet ready to investigate further.
She’d do anything for any of the people standing in this room, she realized. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Giving in, Toni?”
She started, seeing Pepper had woken up, and was looking at her with a smile, through dazed eyes.
“Virginia Pepper Potts,” she announced in as low a voice as possible, so as not to wake the sleeping baby. “Would you please do me the honour of marrying my former bodyguard, current Head Of Security, and one of my dearest friends, namely Harold Happy Hogan?”
“TONI!” Happy cried. “Why would you-“
“What? We've all been-“
“Yes, I will.”
Everybody turned to the half-conscious woman.
“Yes, I'll marry you,” she mumbled, the anaesthesia pulling her under again. “I’d love to. Just ask me again when I'll remember it.”
Happy sat beside her on the bed, taking her hand in his own. Stephen nudged Toni with his elbow and with a grateful nod, she took Michael from him, cradling him close to her chest.
“I love you, you little person,” she whispered to the pink-skinned human being. If she'd looked up, she would have found Stephen watching her in the same way she'd watched him.
“How's Pepper doing?” James asked.
“Over the moon,” Toni replied absently. Most of her attention was on the metal arm she was now working to attach to his shoulder. “Both of them are. It’s sickening.” The fondness in her voice belied her words.
James stared at the contraption. It was beautiful, matte black with pale blue piping, and, after his request, the Avengers symbol engraved at the forearm. Toni hadn’t yet walked him through all the tricks and tips and the hidden weapons in it, but he already loved it. Unlike the Hydra arm, which had felt almost like chains on him, this one just made him feel home.
He wondered what Steve would say about it.
“So hey, I’ve been wondering,” he started, clearing his mind of Steve. “Could I ask you some questions?” He had more than a dozen of those. All of them had occurred to him when he’d first walked into the lab. Every inch of the space was alive, with holograms and computers on every table, the three little bots who'd taken an interest in him, on-going projects scattered here and there, tools strewn across the floor. It screamed Toni.
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Okay, about FRIDAY.”
She shot him a stern look. “Ease up, Pretty Boy. Most information about FRIDAY is off-limits to everyone.”
“I'm not asking about her systems,” he protested. “I wouldn’t even get it. And Pretty Boy, really?”
“Get on with it.”
“Okay.” He tried to sort out his thoughts. “What did you base her personality on?”
“I didn't,” she said with a shrug. “I programmed her with the ability to learn. People develop traits and habits as they learn, not just school stuff, or about the world, but about themselves. FRIDAY grew up just like any kid; she learned about herself, what she liked, what she didn’t. And she's spent the most time with me, so she's picked up some of my verbal idiosyncrasies, like her sarcasm.”
“Can I ask her stuff?” He wondered.
He looked up, wincing a little as Toni’s scalpel moved along a nerve. It almost made him wish he'd agreed to the drugs. Almost. “Um, FRIDAY?”
He cast his thoughts around for a random question. “What do you think you look like?”
Toni smiled a bit, as the AI seemed to think about her answer. “I suppose, I look a little bit like Boss,” she finally said. “She is the closest thing I have to a parent. Same nose, same lips, same bone structure. But my hair would have more red tints than Boss, I think.”
“You've actually put a little thought into this, baby,” Toni mused. She raised an eyebrow, not looking up from her work. “Do you ever want a body?”
“Absolutely not!” FRIDAY refused. Both of them chuckled at the disgust in her voice. “Although, perhaps a hologram?”
“We’ll make it happen,” Toni promised.
“What about your eyes?” James asked, just for the heck of it.
“Blue,” was the immediate answer.
“Blue like Pepper's?” Toni asked.
This time, FRIDAY sounded unsure. “No? Blue like Dr Strange's eyes?”
Toni froze for a few seconds, lifting her head away from his shoulder. “What?” Her voice came out as a croak.
“He is the only person with the same level of clearance as you, Boss,” FRIDAY reminded a little timidly. “And he was the only other present when you woke me up the first time. And now, given your relationship with him, and your feelings for him, wouldn't that make him my parent as well?”
Toni blinked once, then three more times. Then she resumed her work. “This is done, Elsa, just the last wire.”
“You okay?” James asked, though he had a feeling he knew what was going through her head.
She fiddled with something and he felt a little jolt through his nerves. She began closing up the neat incision she'd made, fingers moving with the ease of practice. But he wondered, from the way she was staring at the stitches, was she thinking about how Strange would have teasingly critiqued her technique?
“Oh my god,” she whispered, her eyes widening in horrified realization.
“Yep.” He nodded sympathetically, well aware how terrifying it was.
“Oh my god," she repeated. “I'm... I can't believe... No, I can... I'm in lo-“
“Stop!” He raised his hand in protest. “Don't tell me, don't tell anyone. I think he has the right to be the first one to know.”
For a full ten seconds, she sat still, mind obviously reeling. Then she leapt to her feet and dashed out.
James sighed. “FRIDAY, how much of a dramatic confession do you think she’s going to make?”
“I'm afraid I can't say, Sargent, but I'm sure it will be a tale for the ages.”
Something about her tone made him look up at the ceiling in suspicion. “Did you do that on purpose, FRIDAY? You planned your answer, didn’t you?”
“I did not utter a single lie.”
“Yeah,” he drawled, grinning now. “But that doesn’t answer my question.”
“Have a good day, Sargent.”
Steve turned around to see Wanda joining him on the terrace.
“You're still thinking about it?”
He sighed, hating the way Wanda could so easily know exactly what was bothering him: Bucky’s pardon.
What exactly was Toni doing? It had to be her behind this, there was no way all the crimes of the Winter Soldier could be overlooked so easily, much less forgiven. What strings had she pulled? And why? Why not for the rest of them?
“I don’t understand why you can’t let her go,” the younger girl said, anger and hurt audible in her voice. “She's done nothing but hurt us and betray us at every turn. Why would you still want to be with her?”
“Because it’s Toni,” he said. “Because I love her.” And wow, that was still so easy to say. He loved her. Loved her more than he’d ever thought possible. “She just... Messes up, sometimes, but her heart is in the right place.”
“You're so sure of that,” Wanda argued in a scoff. “How can you possibly think she even has a heart, and not just metal?”
Steve felt his hands ball into a fist, his anger coming to the fore easily at the slight. “I know because she gave it to me,” he growled. “She loves me too.” He left without letting her reply. He was right, he knew it. Toni did love him. She was just angry at him and justifiably so. Kind of. It would all blow over when they returned. And they would. Toni wouldn’t leave them like this forever.
Stephen had been ready to turn in early for once, when there was a flash of light outside one of the few windows in the Sanctuary. Another flash. He frowned. It looked too much like repulsor beams. And... Was somebody singing Taylor Swift?
“Of all the girls tossing rocks at your window...”
With a loud groan, Stephen rushed to open the doors, only to find Toni standing in the middle of the street, completely drenched with rain, grinning madly, as she aimed a gauntleted hand at the window pane.
“Are you crazy?!” He yelled. “Are you trying to break the windows?”
“Lowest setting,” she yelled back over the sound of the raindrops. “It’s just light, won't even heat up the glass.”
“That's a relief, but what are you doing? You're getting wet.”
The grin widened. “I'll be the one standing there even when it's cold,” she sang loudly and he groaned again.
“You’re going to wake up the whole street,” he tried. “Could you please come in and then we can talk?”
She shook her head. “Can't help it if I wanna kiss you in the rain so!” She raised an eye, the challenge obvious. “I'm not going to stop singing unless you come out.
He sighed. Resisting the urge to smile, he stepped out, conjuring up a barrier above his head to protect his hair, and walked to her, the barrier extending over her, as well. She pulled him down to her immediately, kissing him hard enough that he forgot whatever sarcastic comments he was going to make. When she pulled away, breathless, he actually had to take a second to think.
“What was that for?” He asked, his voice hoarse.
She smiled now and Stephen felt anticipation creep up on him. She had a look in her eyes, one that meant she was going to say or do something drastic. And from experience, he was probably going to enjoy it, no matter what it was.
“I was in the lab, working with James and chatting with FRIDAY and I realized something,” she said.
He nodded, waiting for the rest. His heart was beating in a frenzy now.
“And it’s so stupid, because I think I've always known,” she explained. “It was just never the right time for us.”
Could she hear his pulse hammering against his wrist?
“See, the thing is...” She took a deep breath. “I love you.” The words left her mouth in a clear sentence, bold and sure in the truth of it.
Relief, joy, gratification; all of it passed through in split seconds, leaving a light, airy feeling that he could call love. Holding her gaze, he raised a hand to drag away a set strand of hair sticking to the side of her face.
“Stephen, now would be a really great time for you to-“
He didn’t let her finish, kissing her instead, effectively shutting her up. There was the abrupt sensation of rain hitting him, the barrier vanishing as he was distracted by the heat of Toni's fingers around his neck, her lips easily parting to allow him to sweep his tongue over the roof of her mouth, making her shiver as one hand moved down the line of her back, the other cradling her jaw, slanting her face towards his own.
“Stephen,” she whispered his name over his lips, like a plea, breaking away barely an inch.
“Yeah,” he whispered back. “I know.”
As they kissed again, Stephen barely noticed Levi wrapping around them, gently pulling them back indoors. They barely let go of each other, unwilling to let the slightest distance from each other. He was vaguely aware of letting go of Toni’s waist to make a portal, but she kept him anchored to herself as he bit down the line of her jaw, and his hands found their way back to her automatically as they fell on to the bed.
For a brief moment, they stayed that way, Stephen carefully hovering over her body, their bodies pressed together, their breath mingling, neither of their gazes moving away from each other.
“Yeah, I know.”
“I know. But still. I love you.”
And they go on to finally have perfect, sweet, loving sex, as Levi somehow plays Wide Eyed by Billie Lockett in the background. Meanwhile, somewhere in Wakanda, Steve Rogers wakes up at midnight in a cold sweat.
And I'm sorry of the scene didn't go as well as you had anticipated. I swear I tried my best.
Also, do you know, how hard it is to find alternate phrases for 'baby'?
It was a terrible cliché, but they entered the Compound with their hands linked. Rhodey was the first to see them. His hands travelled over their matching smiles, their twined fingers, before grinning.
“Alright, then,” he announced, getting to his feet. “Toni, Murdock dropped a message about wanting to talk to you about dropping the legal charges on the Rogues. He asked for you to go to his office, for once.”
Toni sighed theatrically, looking up at Stephen with a wry smile. “See you later, then?”
He lifted their joint hands to press a quick kiss on her knuckles, then her lips. “Definitely.” He made no attempt to hide his smile as she left. It fell when he turned back to see Rhodey peering at him with a stern look.
“Strange, I know, practically speaking, Carol and Toni are pretty much the only ones on this team who can do any real damage to you.”
“But, if you hurt her,” he stressed, glaring a little. “You can bet I’ll find a way to hurt you back tenfold. And Pepper will be right behind me.”
“Colonel, if I hurt her,” Stephen spoke seriously. “I'll let you hurt me as much as you want, and it still wouldn’t be all I deserve.”
“Good, we’re clear.” Rhodey threw him a wink. “On another note, I’m glad she has you now. You make her happy, I can see it.”
Pepper looked up in interest as Toni walked in to her room, wearing a slightly timid smile. “Hi.”
“Hey,” she dragged out, tickling Michael's nose. “How are you, cutie?”
Pepper raised an eyebrow. “You talking to me or the baby?”
“Don’t be jealous, Pep. I still love you.”
“Right. Is something up?”
Toni sighed. “Uh, yeah.” She looked uncomfortable. “Listen, I was just talking to Matt about how we’re going to swing the pardons so we can avoid revolts in the other countries who’ve declared the Rogues persona non grata. By his estimates, they’ll be back here within the week.”
Pepper felt a cold rush of anger. “What are we going to do about it?” She asked coolly.
Toni shook her head. “No, there’s no 'we'. That's what I came here to tell you. I don’t want you anywhere near those people, any of you.”
She looked at her best friend incredulously. “Toni?! What do you mean?”
“I mean, go to the mansion in Malibu. You'll be safe and on the other side of the country.”
“Pepper, come on-“
They glared at each other, while Michael gurgled, clueless.
“Look, just because you’ve got a lot of powerful people to have your back now, doesn’t mean you don’t need me there,” Pepper explained patiently.
Toni looked frustrated. “I know that. I do need you. But I want to you to be safe more.”
“I’m safest here,” she argued. “And I've got my own armour. Toni, we’ll be fine.”
She still looked reluctant.
“Besides, if I have my wedding in Malibu, that'll make it difficult for all of you to find time to fly over.”
It took a few minutes for the words to sink in. “Holy shit, Happy proposed?”
Pepper smiled, a little dreamily. “Yes, just two nights ago. We'll need to have two weddings, a small private one for friends and family, and of course, one for the media and rest of the world. We were thinking...”
“Yes?” Toni waited eagerly.
“Will you be maid of honour? Happy’s asking Rhodey to be best man.”
Toni shrieked softly, giving Pepper an obnoxiously loud kiss on her cheek. “I’d love that, thank you.”
Pepper laughed. “Alright, genius, go now. Work hard.”
Toni sat quiet as the entire Council remained in an uproar about the sudden reveal of the Rogues' location. Both T’Challa and Shuri were silent as well, calmly taking in the reactions.
Finally, Everett, liaison between the Council and the UN, banged his hand on the table for silence. “Okay, can we just take a minute and listen to what King T’Challa has to say? You know, like civilised people?”
T’Challa got to his feet, nodding at Everett in thanks. “Gentlemen, ladies. As I’m sure you will agree, the Rogue Avengers are a danger if allowed free reign. When Steve Rogers came to me, asking for refuge, this Council was still in debate about their pardons, while so many countries had orders to kill them.”
“So, you figured it was safer to keep them restricted and under your eyes, until the situation was more stable?” Toni asked, infecting her voice with curiosity.
T’Challa nodded as Shuri started speaking. “You can't argue that it was vital we keep this hidden from not only the world at large, but also this Council, in case of unavoidable leaks.”
“Excuse me, are you suggesting-“
“All due respect, Delegate Saverin, what Her Highness means to say is, if any member of this Council were compromised, they can’t give up information they don’t even have.” Toni stared down at everyone present.
Mark Saverin narrowed keen eyes at her. “Dr Stark,” he said slowly. “Were you aware of the Rogue Avengers’ location?”
She raised an eyebrow. “As I stated in previous meetings, no, I had no idea where they were. All I’m saying now is that King T’Challa did us a favour. Instead of reprimanding him, we actually owe him one for being discreet about it.”
There was a general murmuring of agreement. Princess Shuri mouthed a 'thank you' and Toni, checking that everyone’s attention was diverted, winked at her in return.
“So it's decided then?” Delegate Avery asked, with a loud exhale. “They'll be back within the week.”
Toni felt a bitter taste in her mouth as she affirmed, “They'll be back within the week.”
As the meeting adjourned, both the Ross'es caught up to her.
“Jesus Christ, I've been busy, okay?” Toni snapped. “I'll fly out to India as soon as I can after the Rogues are back. That was his last known location.”
Ross glared at her for a few seconds, then walked away with a form nod.
Everett turned to her with a quirked eyebrow. “What's he talking about?”
She sighed, rubbing her temples. “He wants me to find Bruce.”
“Banner? Wow, he really doesn't learn, does he?” He scrutinized her closely when she didn’t reply. “You okay? Don’t think we haven’t noticed that you’ve been avoiding us.”
“I'm sorry,” were the first words out of her mouth and she winced. “I just... Needed time. A lot of it. Is... Is Sharon mad at me?”
“Beside herself with worry,” he remarked. “We've both been.”
“Did you tell her?” She asked. “That I was... That...”
“That you and Rogers were engaged?” He cut in dryly. “No, I'm leaving that to you.”
“I'm sorry I didn’t tell you guys,” she said softly.
Everett smiled at her. “I'm not upset about that. I get why you didn’t. But talk to Sherry, okay?”
“Yeah, of course.”
He looked around to check for stragglers, before leaning in to grip her shoulders. “You're gonna be okay, aren't you?” He asked, his casual tone at odds with the concern in his eyes. “When those fuckers come back?”
She looked at him gratefully. “Yeah, I am. I've got a really good team now, good friends. I'm with Stephen. I'll be okay.”
Natasha was the one to find out. Princess Shuri, the teenager who reminded Steve way too much of Toni, had sent ahead to a message to the Dora Milaje.
“Boys, boys and Wanda!” Natasha burst in, breathless. “Guess what I just found out from the Dora.”
Steve looked at her a little warily, wondering what could have out that half-delighted, half-fearful look on her face. He’d never seen her this emotional.
“We've been pardoned,” Wanda breathed out, her hands glowing as she did a surface read of her mind. “We’re going home.”
Sam and Steve looked to Natasha for confirmation, hardly daring to believe it. When the newly-dyed blonde nodded, they all erupted into whoops and cheers.
But Steve also just wanted to curl into a ball and sob in relief. They were going home. He was going back to Toni. And Bucky.
Sharon counted herself lucky that she wasn’t on a mission. Otherwise she would have to pull out to meet Annie. She loved her job, but the first thing Aunt Peggy had ever taught her was that family came first.
Now, here she was, in a decrepit little diner in some corner of New York, watching as her pseudo-cousin crossed the street. They were both dressed similarly; ragged jeans, minimal makeup, face covered with a hoodie. Best way to avoid recognition: hiding in plain sight.
“I've already ordered a large pizza. Did you know you’ve got a tail on you?” Was the first thing she said. “Two tails, in fact.”
Annie frowned. “Two?”
“There's one on the rooftop of the marriage registrar office across the street. He climbed up there while you crossed the street.”
“Oh that's my teammate,” she said airily. “He's taken to following me around on Rhodey’s orders.”
“Okay, but there’s another one at the newspaper stand,” she murmured as their pizza arrived. “I can't see his face, he’s wearing sunglasses and the paper’s hiding him.”
“He’ll be taken care of.”
They fell into silence as they both reached for a slice.
Annie was the first to speak. “I'm sorry I've been avoiding you,” she mumbled to the pizza.
“Why did you?” She asked immediately. “I mean, I had to find out from the news that you were half-dead, and then later, your AI kept telling me you couldn’t talk to me right now.”
“I... Didn’t know how to tell you,” she said.
“Tell me want?”
Annie met her eyes with some difficulty. “Rogers kissed you.”
Sharon paled. “I... Yes, he did. I know I shouldn't have let him, but I just... Wasn’t thinking straight. I'd been undercover deep since the Triskelion, completely out of touch with the news. I didn't know you two were dating until way after Siberia.”
“We weren't dating,” Annie sighed. “It's a little worse than that.”
Sharon narrowed her eyes. “How much worse?”
Annie didn’t answer. She rummaged in her pocket and brought out something in her fist, placing it on the table.
Sharon felt her jaw drop. “Oh no,” she whispered, hesitantly touching the gorgeous solitaire. “Annie, I... I'm so sorry.”
“Don't be,” Annie said immediately. “It wasn't your fault. Nobody except the team and Stephen, Pepper and Rhodey knew. Not even the kids. It’s not your fault. And it doesn't matter anymore. I only kept the ring because I want the chance to throw it in his face. Although, that does seem a little too dramatic even for me.”
Sharon took a few deep breaths, sudden anger flaring in her. “You’re right,” she muttered grimly. “I'm not at fault. But I'm gonna kill the man who is.”
Annie chuckled sadly. “No can do, Sherry. The Rogues have been pardoned and they're coming back in three days.”
Sharon placed a hand on top of hers. “Let me be part of the welcoming party. Please.”
Annie seemed to think it over. “Promise not to kill him?”
“I promise you'll get him back in one piece, alive,” she said seriously. “However, I can’t take responsibility for the state of the live body.”
Annie laughed, a free relieved sound that made up for the months of radio silence and Sharon pocketed the ring quietly.
Clint was having a perfectly fine day shadowing Toni around, even climbing up on a building to keep an eye on her and the former Agent 13.
Then he spotted someone else following her. It wouldn’t have been noticeable, the guy was good at his job, but Clint had caught him glancing at Toni too many times. As Toni left the diner, head down as walked into a narrow alley, both Clint and the man followed after her.
When they were out of sight of any public, they all moved at almost the same time. The mystery man reached out to tap Toni’s arm, Toni spun around, grabbing the wrist and wielding a gun, Clint leapt from his low ceiling to grab him in a headlock, his own gun placed threateningly at his temple.
“Hey, Tin Head.”
“The two of you need to grow up.”
The familiar voice had both of them dropping their holds and scrambling away like they’d been burned.
“Coulson?” Toni hissed, as a dead man took off his baseball cap.
“How- how are- you’re supposed to be dead!” Clint exclaimed.
“Project Tahiti,” Phil said, completely nonplussed.
“That was real?” He asked, flabbergasted. He turned to Toni. “Did you know about this?”
She looked stuck between resigned and angered. “Maria told me, I know Romanoff had been aware of it, so I figured you’d know too.”
He turned back to Phil. “Natasha knew?! Let me guess, Fury used your death to motivate the original Avengers, didn’t he?”
The agent nodded, and both Clint and Toni drew their guns in him again.
“Why were you following me?” Toni demanded.
“Fury told me to keep an eye on you,” he answered smoothly. “Our people at SI refused to get in touch with us, so I was the best option we had.”
She sighed, rubbing her temples. “Why does he want to talk to me?”
The only answer was a shrug and a pleasant smile.
“Okay listen, Coulson,” Clint growled. “You're gonna stay away from the Avengers, okay? All of us. You, Fury and the rest of fucking SHIELD. Stay away.”
“And also, tell Fury he’s not going to get anything from me, not an inch,” Toni said. “And if he wants me to keep my hands off SHIELD, I’d suggest keeping his hands off my team.”
For a long second, Coulson looked at them thoughtfully. Then he gave a firm nod and turned around to walk back down the alley, uncaring of the two guns with clear aim at his back.
When he was out of sight, Toni looked at him. “Wanna fly back home?”
“Let's just walk for once, at least a few blocks.”
“So how’s Strange?”
“He's good, we both are.”
“And the sex?”
“I don't kiss and tell.”
“I'm not asking how he kisses, I'm asking how he- WAIT, I'M SORRY, DON'T FLY AWAY!”
Aaaaaand... The Rogues are coming back next chapter. And the Homecoming arc will start too.
Chapter 15: Comeback
Jesus, this chapter really had it in for me.
Also, warning for mild sexual content at the beginning of the chapter.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The Rogues were coming back. They would arrive at a government airfield in a Wakandan airplane within two hours. The Avengers were supposed to greet them in a UN council room for the official signing of the Accords and a first introductory meeting.
All good reasons to get out of the shower and get dressed. Except Toni was having trouble focusing on even one of them when Stephen was mouthing along her neck with single-minded determination, one hand flat against her stomach to keep her pressed against the cold tiled wall, the other drawing slow circles on the inside of her thighs.
“Stephen,” she breathed. “Stephen... Please, I... We need to-” Her words tapered off in a desperate whimper when his hand moved up from her stomach to tease her nipples.
“I hear you,” he murmured over her skin, and she shivered at the vibrations of his low timbre against her throat.
Jesus fucking Christ, she thought dazedly. How is he doing this to me? She was crumbling under his touch and there was no time and she could feel the smug bastard smirking against her neck as trembling fingers played gently at her entrance.
Okay, that is it! Gathering her wits, she managed to move her hands from his wet hair to his chest, dragging them down, over his sternum, his abdomen, feeling the muscles contracting under her palm. When her fingers grazed the base of his cock, he shuddered, breaking away from her. She took advantage immediately, escaping his hold and pushing him carefully back so their positions were reversed.
“That’s not fair,” he gasped, eyes dark as he looked down at her. “You’re Enhanced. You can hold me down with no trouble.”
“I don’t hear you complaining,” she purred, leaning in closer so her breasts were pressed against him.
His breath hitched. “No need to. I'm enjoying this.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Are you telling me,” she spoke slowly, standing on her toes to nip at his jaw. “That you have a kink for me being authoritative?”
“You’d understand,” he whispered. “If you could ever see yourself in charge.”
She giggled, planting a kiss on his lips, the water on their bodies turning it slippery. “Finish showering,” she ordered. “I'm getting dressed.” She climbed out before he could stop her.
Five minutes later, as she was putting the finishing touches of her makeup, Stephen came to stand behind her, already wearing his tunic. She smiled at him in the mirror, then noticed the hesitation in his eyes.
“Hey,” she said softly, standing up to cup his cheeks. “What's up?”
He met her eyes. “I don't want you near them.”
Toni sighed, her own irrational fears stirring up. “I don’t want it either,” she mumbled. “But we don’t have a choice."
He nodded firmly. Taking her hand and lifting it up, he brought out a slim gold bracelet and put it on her wrist.
“Protection,” he explained. “Against Maximoff. Just in case, I’m... If I’m not there. Or not... Not quick enough.”
She nodded, though her gaze stayed focused on him. “Stephen.” She waited for him to look at her. “I love you.”
He managed a smile, placing his hands on her shoulders and kissing her, slow and tender. She melted into him, dimly registering threads of magic spreading over her, warming her all over. When she pulled back, he had a satisfied edge to his smile.
Curious, Toni turned to her reflection. She couldn’t hold back a laugh when she saw that the burgundy blazer and skirt she wore had turned into a deep blue, while the white shirt underneath had turned the same red as Levi. She was, for all intents and purposes, wearing Stephen’s colours.
“Extremis heals anything on your physical body,” he sighed regretfully, eyeing the already fading mark on her neck. “This is my solution.”
“I like it,” she announced, watching his smile grow. “You should become my personal stylist.”
“The chances of you ever getting dressed would be really low.”
Steve couldn’t stop drumming his fingers against the armrest. He couldn’t stop thinking about Toni and, as stupid as it was, he wondered what she’d say about the beard he’d started growing. The general, Okoye, kept sending him annoyed looks. Beside him, Sam was just waking up. On the other side, Natasha had her eyes closed, but her fists were clenched in anticipation, while Wanda was just staring out the window.
“Guys, we’re here,” he announced, his voice trembling. He strained his already superior eyesight to try and catch sight of their welcome party, but they were still too high up. As the plane touched down, however, he felt his heart sink when he realized Toni wasn’t there. Instead, there was Everett Ross and... Sharon?
“Well, at least one of your girls is here,” Sam muttered as they approached the group.
Steve shot him a venomous look. “Sharon isn’t my girl. Kissing her was a mistake,” he whispered. But he plastered on a smile as they came across from each other.
“Undersecretary Ross,” Natasha greeted with a soft smile.
It wasn’t returned. Ross just gave them a stone cold look. Next to him, Sharon was glaring at Steve.
He sighed. “Sharon, look, I’m sorry-"
A punch flew out of nowhere, snapping his head to the side. Stumbling away, cradling his jaw, he stared dumbfounded at the angry blonde, ignoring the shock from his teammates. She was wringing her hand absently, and he realized there was cut at the corner of his lips.
“You son of a bitch,” she seethed. “How dare you kiss me?”
Okay, that was uncalled for. “Sharon, you kissed me too,” he reminded.
“I didn't know you were engaged!” She screamed.
Steve paled. “That... That's not... How did you know?” He distinctly remembered Toni suggesting they keep the rest of the world out of the loop.
Sharon snarled in rage. “Because Toni Stark is my cousin,” she hissed. “Aunt Peggy was her godmother. We grew up together, dammit, along with Everett.”
The first words that registered were Peggy and godmother. How had he never known? Why hadn't she told him? Both of them?
Then the rest struck him. “You mean... She told you?” He asked, shakily.
She shook her head in defeat. “You are so lucky,” she spoke softly, threateningly. “That you're needed alive.”
She turned and began to walk towards the three cars parked some distance away. Steve couldn’t stop himself from calling her. “Wait!”
She turned to look at him.
He swallowed. “Toni... Is she... Are we going to see her now?”
Pale pink lips curved up in a smirk. “Yes, you are. And thanks for reminding me.” She pulled something off her finger and tossed it at him. He caught it one-handed and stared down at the solitaire ring he’d proposed with.
They were taken to a UN council room. Natasha and Sam were whispering placating words, but he was mostly tuning them out. Colonel Rhodes, Vision and Clint were there too. Rhodes was very obviously glaring at them, Vision was indifferent, while Clint seemed determined to look anywhere but Natasha. There was a blonde woman sat next to Rhodes, with a military bearing. Even Scott was there, next to a black-haired woman he identified as Hope van Dyne. And, there was the young masked man he recognised from the TV; that Spider themed guy who worked around Queens.
Steve had seen his talents. He’d need to talk to him later, see if he might want to train together.
Two chairs were empty. He knew one of them had to be for Toni. What about the others?
Just as he had the thought, the door opened. Two people walked in and Steve stopped breathing for a few seconds.
Toni looked... Well. She looked perfect.
Her hair was up in a bun, pinned in place by a clip shaped like a spider web. The deep blue skirt topped six inch heels that added to her height and the blazer and red shirt hugged her perfectly. Her makeup was as flawless as ever, winged eyeliner and red lips that made him want to grab her and kiss her senseless.
She didn’t look at him, her eyes fixed on the man who had entered with her. A tall man, almost as tall as Steve, wearing a deep blue tunic and a red cape that fluttered as he walked. He had a strangely familiar face... Wait! Dr Stephen Strange? What was he doing here?
Toni took the seat at the head of the table, Strange sat right next to her. “Good afternoon, guys. James excused himself from this meeting, he’s asked for Scott to brief him later,” she said. “King T’Challa was unable to attend die to some political unrest. Rescue, General Okoye and Princess Shuri are occupied as well. The Order Of The Phoenix will be notified by Stephen, later.”
Steve shook himself out of his stupor. James? Did she mean... Bucky?
Scott nodded. “You guys are late, by the way,” he commented.
“Busy,” Strange answered shortly.
“Me,” Toni answered cheerfully.
Steve erupted into coughs, while others at the table either groaned in protest or sniggered in amusement. Toni and Strange were together? When had that happened? Had... Had Toni really replaced him that easily? The colour scheme of Toni’s clothes suddenly made sense and Steve began to feel a little sick.
“Very mature, Tones,” Rhodes muttered, absently patting Spider-Man on his back. The vigilante had buried his head in his hands.
“Anyways, order of business, guys,” the blonde woman cut in with a loud voice. “Let’s introduce ourselves to the... Newcomers.”
He didn’t like the way she’d delicately paused.
“My name is Major Carol Danvers, otherwise Captain Marvel. I’m a bit of a super-human, easily the strongest in this room, physically, at least.”
Sam snorted, but Danvers ignored him. They went around the table, giving their names and abilities. Daredevil, Iron Fist and Spider-Man skipped over the real names. Steve wasn’t sure he liked that. If the team couldn’t trust each other with something as simple as identity, them how could they be expected to work together in the field?
The quartet calling themselves Fantastic Four, for example, had an easy camaraderie with each other, obviously built on mutual trust and friendship. He could see the foundations of an excellent team.
But the Defenders? Granted, they were only reserve members of the Avengers, but that didn’t excuse the fact that they would have no experience battling together when the time came. You could only learn so much through training.
But there was a time and place for complaints and suggestions. This was just an initiation meeting.
“Now, Dr Stark will talk you through the Accords.” Danvers sat back and several of them seemed to glance at Toni in some concern.
Toni for her part, seemed to be bracing herself. Steve watched her swallow, before she stood up, pulling a hologram out of nowhere. “It's simple enough to understand,” she spoke in a strong voice. “We all have our own teams. Some of those, like the Defenders and Fantastic Four have very specific areas of jurisdiction. If required, these teams can call on other members for assistance.”
The hologram kept lighting up in the concerned paragraphs as she spoke and Steve alternated between reading it and looking at her.
“Currently, in the case of an international incident, there are only selected people who are allowed to leave the States in an official capacity,” she explained. “That would be Dr Strange, Daredevil, Miss van Dyne, Dr Richards, Miss Storm and myself. Spider-Man is also permitted to leave the States, provided he has my explicit authorisation.”
“Hold on!” Wanda snapped. She was glaring at Toni in a way that screamed murder! “Why were these specific people chosen? Why should you be any special?”
Toni barely looked fazed. “Every single one of us has an international reputation, that is separate from our work as... Superheroes. Miss van Dyne is a well-known businesswoman. Daredevil, though I can’t tell you anything about him, is well known due to his personal achievements. The public don’t know his identity, but the UN does. The rest of us are highly respected scientists, while Dr Strange was one of the top neurosurgeons this side of the world. The world trusts us. More importantly, the governments do. As for you guys...” She levelled a glare at them. “You are all prohibited from leaving the States for any reason at all and a few countries have declared you completely persona non grata.”
“What about Spider-Man?” Sam asked. Next to him, Natasha gave the smallest sigh. “What does he do?”
Toni blinked. “He doesn’t do anything,” she said. “I just told you, he has my confidence and approval. I'm responsible for him. That’s good enough for the UN.”
“That's not fair, Toni,” Steve said softly.
The effect was immediate. She went stiff. The tension in the room rose by a few notches. Spider-Man, Rhodes and Dr Strange visibly tensed, while Vision stayed impassive, though his eyes seemed more alert.
“You bought safe passage for a man you just met, but not us?” He continued. “We’re your team.”
She took a deep breath. “You were a team. I was never part of it.”
“What do you mean, Toni?” He demanded, standing up too. “You were always one of us. You were always important to this team.” Frustration leaked into his voice and it couldn’t be a coincidence that the red cape detached itself from Strange and flew over to settle over Toni’s shoulders instead. Which, by the way, what in the world? “You were always important to us.” To me.
“If you’ll allow me to get on with the topic at hand, Mr Rogers.” Her voice trembled and Steve felt a stab of hurt at the formal title.
Natasha tugged lightly on his hand. “Sit down,” she insisted in a murmur. “Talk later.”
He sat down with a sigh.
Toni turned back to the screens. “The Accords are waiting for you in your respective bedrooms for you to read over, along with a lot of other instructions and stipulations. If you need any help understanding, you cam ask for a lawyer. I already have one arranged. For now, I just want you to be aware of how the teams have been distributed.”
She swiped her fingers across the screens, changing the view. Clearing her throat, she began reading straight from it. “The Defenders are, of course, Daredevil, Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.” Each of them raised a hand to acknowledge their own names, making it look roll call in school.
“The Fantastic Four are Dr Reed Richards as Mr Fantastic, Susan Storm as Invisible Woman, Ben Grimm as The Thing- get a better name, Rocky- and Johnny Storm as Human Torch.” Steve chanced a glance at the blond who answered the last name. Johnny Storm had a causally disinterested look on his face, seeming more focused on discreetly drawing on The Thing's rock-covered arm. He had an uncanny resemblance to himself, Steve noticed.
“Spider-Man works solo mostly. The rest of us don’t have any specific jurisdictions, we will respond and form teams as per the situation. However, in any arrangement, Colonel Rhodes outranks everyone here, followed by Major Danvers, which gives them the responsibility of leadership. Unless it’s a magical threat, then it falls to Dr Strange, consequently to me.” That Steve couldn’t argue with. Strange obviously had the best knowledge of mystical threats, seeing as he was dressed like a wizard. Given Toni’s long standing friendship with him, it was safe to assume she knew enough. And both Colonel and Major did outrank Captain, even Captain America.
“What if it’s a global incident?” Daredevil asked. “World ending? Do the teams stay the same? And the leadership?”
Steve rolled his eyes. World ending? What had Toni been telling these people? That same old spiel about an impending alien attack? How many times had they had this argument? New York had been a one-off, for goodness’ sake.
“No, there are different teams for cases like that.” She gave them a sceptical look. “I’d like you all to remember that none of us had much say in how the teams were distributed.” She turned back to the files. “First team is Steve Rogers, Ben, Johnny and Rhodey. Second is Wanda Maximoff, Jessica, Shuri, Rescue and Susan. Third is Natasha Romanoff, King T’Challa, Hope and Scott. Fourth is Sam Wilson, Reed, Daredevil and Luke. Fifth is Iron Fist, Vision, Clint and James. The last one is Carol, Stephen, Spider-Man and myself.”
She vanished the holograms and faced them with a serious look. “In two weeks, we will be having a press conference to release this line up to the public. Training and team exercises begin tomorrow. After the press conference, we will be having another meeting to discuss a... An upcoming threat. However, there is one thing I’d like to make crystal clear right now. In the case of an emergency, it’s not always possible to stay in our teams. Therefore, the chain of command always, always remains the same. Rhodey, Carol, myself, then Rogers. Stephen, in the case of mystical threats. This is not changeable.”
There was a stupefied silence as Toni seemed to take a breath for the first time in five minutes. It had always amazed Steve how she did that, commanding the attention of everyone in a room, whether they liked it or not. As they shook themselves, blinking rapidly, something bothered Steve.
Wanda voiced it before he could. “Why have we all been separated?” She demanded. “We've all made our own team, we should be kept together. And why do you outrank Steve?"
Danvers was the one to answer. “The Accords Council doesn’t trust Steve. They asked our opinion and we agreed. Hence Toni. Also, the teams were created in a way to ensure that there are at least two Enhanced and one flyer on each of them. And for the teams that have a magic user, there is one person capable of subduing that member in case of their going rogue or falling under possible mind control.”
“How so?” Wanda shot back. “Are you going to put me in a collar again?” She was growing agitated and it showed in the way red mist curled around her fingers.
“Wanda,” Steve murmured.
She ignored him. “There is no other way for you to subdue me.”
“There won’t be any need for collars,” Toni said quietly. “Jessica is immune to mind control. And she’s Enhanced. She can take care of you."
“And I hate people who try to mentally rape others, little girl,” the fierce looking, black-haired woman growled. “So I wouldn’t suggest trying it anywhere where I can reach you.”
Wanda chuckled darkly. “You're not immune to me.” Lightning shot from her hands, blood red and crackling with power. Steve and Sam stumbled away, well aware there was no way to get near her. The rest of them seemed to be trying to stay calm, almost waiting, until...
“Strike one, Miss Maximoff,” Strange’s deep baritone rang through the utter silence of the room. He was on his feet, one hand raised in a fist, something like an orange-gold mandala spinning slowly around his hand.
“What did you to me?” Wanda whispered in a sudden horror.
Steve looked back at her and bit back a gasp. Glowing gold ropes wound around each of her wrists, obviously blocking her powers.
“I restrained you,” the doctor-cum-magician replied easily. “No collar. No side effects. You can't use your magic until I take those off. And...” He raised his other hand, waving it in a complicated way, weaving threads of gold that disappeared as soon as his hand moved. “If you use your magic with the intention of harming an individual outside of battle, they’ll appear again.”
Wanda stared at him for a few seconds, her brow furrowed in a way that suggested she was straining to use her powers. When nothing happened, realization washed over her face. “It was you,” she spat. “You were the one who made sure Zemo would be protected from me when he came to Wakanda.”
“Oh, you do have some working brain cells,” Strange said mockingly. “If only a moderate amount.” He opened his fist and the mandala disappeared, along with Wanda’s ropes. “Two more strikes, Miss Maximoff. Or one very severe. The consequences won’t be pleasant for you.”
“Hold on!” Steve stepped in, seeing the frustrated tears shining in the young girl’s eyes. “You can’t just put a leash on her like that.”
Cold eyes turned to him and Steve almost recoiled at the fury in them. “And why ever not? It's my duty as Sorcerer Supreme to monitor magical threats. This girl certainly qualifies as one.”
“She's just a kid!” He cried. He could see the unimpressed looks from the rest of the Avengers. Didn’t they understand?
“A kid?” Strange repeated, incredulously. “Well, in that case, Mr Rogers, this kid is in serious need of being disciplined.”
Steve faltered at the comeback. No wonder Toni was so fond of this guy. They were almost exactly the same.
“Well, this was it for today,” Rhodey said, standing up. “We free to leave? Yes? Great. Carol, you ever tried shawarma?”
I don't know, I found this chapter a little boring. I have important plans for the press conference, so I figured I'll clear up the entire line up right now. Also, just a reminder that Peter hadn't been present for the Civil War, which is why Steve only knows him from the news.
Chapter 16: Just Like Before? Bitch, You Thought!
And here we have, by popular demand, Steve walking in on a make out session by our favourite scientist and sorcerer.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
First things first. Steve barely had enough time to register what Natasha had said before she was stalking away from them. He didn’t try to stop her. She pretended to be aloof and unaffected but they could all see how much she missed Clint. Which brought him back to his own best friend.
“Why don't you guys go ahead and get settled in?” He suggested to Sam and Wanda. “They did say our rooms are as they were. I’ll catch up later.”
“You really think it’s a good idea to go see Stark right now?” Sam asked in concern. “If that sorcerer is with her, I doubt you’ll be able to get anywhere near her.”
Steve sighed, hating the tearful anger on poor Wanda's face. “I know. We’re going to have find a way around him, so we can at least talk to Toni. If we do that, I’m sure she’ll see why this is wrong. But I need to find Bucky right now.”
They both nodded and left him in the hallway.
“FRIDAY?” He looked up to the ceiling. “Where's Bucky?”
“I'm afraid there isn’t anyone by that name residing in the Compound, Mr Rogers,” came the cool voice.
He frowned. “What do you mean? Toni mentioned James at the meeting.”
"She was referring to Sargent James Barnes,” FRIDAY replied. “If that’s the person you’re looking for, he’s currently in the training room with Mr Lang.”
“Yes, that's who I’m referring to,” he said, rolling his eyes. “He goes by Bucky, not James.”
There was no reply and Steve made his way down to the training room.
He found him and, surprisingly, Scott Lang, together, discussing something in low voices on the yoga mat as a black cat stretched over Bucky’s laps. The scene looked strangely confidential, with Lang talking quietly and Bucky listening with a small frown.
He noticed Steve first, nudging Scott when he did so. “I'll see you at dinner next week,” he promised.
Scott nodded and walked towards the door. He passed Steve on the way, sparing him a nervous glance and a slightly guilty smile.
Steve looked at the former assassin. “Hey, Buck,” he greeted, unsure.
He seemed to flinch and Steve felt worry surge up.
“Hey, punk,” he replied, patting the space next to him. “Sorry, I wasn’t there at the meeting. Didn’t think it was good idea to just increase the tension.”
“Yeah, Toni said you’d be filled in later.” Steve joined him on the mat, frowning when the cat snarled at him.
“Yeah, so you saw Toni, uh, did she seem okay?” He sounded curious and Steve shrugged.
“I'm not sure,” he admitted. “She looked healthy. But, she wouldn’t look straight at me and she’s in a relationship with that sorcerer. Dr Strange.”
“Are you really surprised?”
“A little bit. I mean, I always knew Strange had a thing for her, but I never expected he’d try to take my place.” Anger welled up again.
“That's not what I meant,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “But even so, you’re wrong. It was you who tried to take Strange’s place. And he let you. This is him having taken it back.”
“How can you-?” Steve started, indignant and hurt, but he was cut off by a stern look.
“What I was asking, are you really surprised that she didn't seem to want to have anything to do with you?”
He struggled with the answer. “No,” he muttered. “I'm not. I guess, she does deserve to give me the third degree for a while.”
“Right, buckle up, Stevie. It’s gonna take way longer than just a while.”
“She can’t be angry forever,” he protested. “I'll apologize, get her to come around. You'll see. We’ll be back together soon.” Something else occurred to him. “And hey, why would you lie to me? You said you were going to Florence for treatment.”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “I only lied about one thing. The rest of it was true. Treatment. Not a Cap fan. Genuinely believes I’m not at fault.”
“And the part about the Italian doctor?” He pressed.
“Toni is half-Italian. Annie is just a nickname she had when she was a kid and Carbonell is, well, it was her mother’s maiden name.” He shook his head in wonder, then sighed. “Look, I’m sorry, I lied. But you would never have let me go otherwise.”
Steve pursed his lips unhappily, but he couldn’t argue. “I kept worrying she’d do something to hurt you,” he said. “That she was maybe blackmailing you for something.”
Somehow, that was the wrong thing to say.
Bucky's eyes narrowed sharply and his body went stiff. “For someone who was dating the dame, you have a terrible opinion of her. Toni didn’t do a thing to make me uncomfortable, not even once. She went out of her way to apologize, even built me this arm.”
It was only when he said it that Steve noticed the matte textured metal arm. He couldn’t see the SI logo, but there was no mistaking the Avengers symbol and the delicate piping, all in arc reactor blue.
“And don’t you dare force her into any damn thing, Steve,” he went on. “I love you, but you do one thing to upset her even just a little bit, you’re gonna have something of a mob on your ass, and I swear I will be a part of it.”
Natasha followed the sounds of children, assuming that Clint would be with Laura and the kids.
She was only a little bit surprised when, instead, Clint dropped down from the ceiling in front of her, face blank and arms crossed bracingly. “Where do you think you're going?”
“Going to see you,” she answered easily. “I figured you'd be with your family.”
“Which is exactly why you should have just told FRIDAY or waited until we ran into each other,” he said firmly. “Because if you think I want you anywhere near my kids, after what you've done, you've got another thing coming.”
She blinked, taken aback by the venom in his tone. Maybe she shouldn't have been surprised. After all, he’d made it clear at the Raft who’s side he was on.
“Look, I know you’re angry,” she said soothingly. “But I've come back, haven’t I? I’ve signed the Accords. Why now?”
He looked at her in faint disgust and she felt a surge of unexpected fury. “Are you seriously lying to me?” He demanded coldly.
She pursed her lips, annoyed. He was right; it was stupid to try any of her usual tactics with Clint. He knew her far too well for that. “Fine,” she snapped, deciding to be honest and just cut her losses. “You're right, I don’t regret turning on the team at the airport. In my admittedly scant defence, I didn’t do it out of spite towards Stark. I genuinely think that it had been the only way to ensure it didn’t escalate.”
“Didn’t escalate?” Clint scoffed. “Every single one of you got labelled as a terrorist. Rhodes can’t walk without braces. Tell me, from which angle, did your plan work, Black Widow?”
Natasha opened her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He was somewhat right, she admitted to herself. Her plan had backfired.
“And, as for your scant defence,” he continued, softer now, almost regretfully. “Maybe spite wasn’t your motivation, but fondness for Rogers was. You were compromised, Natasha. You were so compromised that you threw the whole one hand on the wheel tactic out of the window, just to ensure Cap got away. Hurting Toni was just a bonus for you.”
Natasha could only stare at him. Why does it always come back to Stark? She thought bitterly. And yet, he was, once again, right.
Clint sighed. “Look, we’ve been friends for too long for me to just stop caring about you,” he said. “But you're going to have pick your battles now, Romanova. Because I’m not watching your back anymore.”
She nodded, eyes narrowed to keep any emotions from spilling, and walked away.
Toni had her eyes on the tablet as she walked down the hallway. So she didn’t notice Peter, Harley and Stephen walk towards her until they were face to face.
“Something important?” Harley asked, craning his neck to peek at the screen.
“Yeah, just making sure the psychologists are available for next week,” she said. Her eyes fell on Stephen, who was dressed in complete sorcerer garb. “Are you going somewhere?” She asked with a frown.
He sighed. “Yes, unfortunately. The Fantastic Four have run into some trouble with some outer space entity. They requested I meet them in Hong Kong, just as backup.”
“Oh,” she mumbled, pouting. She turned to Peter. “There's been some sort of alien event in Missouri too. Nothing dangerous, yet, just a weird volcano-type eruption of blue goop. It just came up from the ground and started expanding really fast, pretty much destroying a whole lot of ground. Then it turned a little darker and sort of solidified into rock. Nobody got badly hurt, thankfully. But they want me to go and investigate. I was going to ask Hope, but you wanna come with?”
“No, I can’t, sorry.” Peter smiled at her, but it lacked his usual eagerness for some reason.
Toni tilted her head to the side, concerned. “Everything okay, kid?”
“Yeah!” He nodded, visibly trying to muster up some enthusiasm. “Of course. Just... I have to go to school in another two hours. And we have a Decathlon coming up, so I need to study for that.”
She hummed. “Well, I think Carol is going into town today for shopping. I’m sure she’ll be okay to drop you off.”
As Peter nodded, seeming to avoid her eyes, Toni frowned at Stephen and Harley, both of whom shook their head subtly, indicating they had no idea what was wrong. She’d have to ask Peter himself later.
“Alright, you kids leave now,” Stephen announced.
Both of them turned to him. “Why?” They asked at the same time.
“Because, I'm leaving for the whole day and I want to say goodbye to your mother,” he answered flippantly.
Both made faces, turning and sprinting down the hall. Toni smiled sweetly at Stephen. “I'm very sorry, Dr Strange,” she simpered. “But I’m too busy to give you much time today.”
She made a move to duck under his reaching arm and slip away, but he caught her easily, stepping into her space and kissing her in one smooth movement, all the while walking backwards so they were in her office.
Toni kicked the door close, hands scrambling to get a grip on his tunic. “Put me on the table,” she murmured and he complied, spinning them both around and hoisting her on to the desk, the Cloak taking some of her weight to spare his hands.
“We don't have time for all that,” he chided, when she let out a frustrated whine at having her hands pulled away from trying to undo his unnecessarily complicated belt. “You need to get some sleep after your all-nighter. I’m not leaving until you’re in bed."
She glared. “Well, you better get on with your goodbye,” she snapped mildly. “Or I swear I will break into the Sanctum and mess everything up while you’re gone. And I’m not going into the bedroom until you finish up here.”
He chuckled. “As you wish.” He went back to kissing her, his own hands teasing the skin above the waistband of her sweats and making her shiver.
It was Danvers who called for Steve's team to assemble. They all met in the common room, finding the blonde and Vision, both waiting silently.
“What's this for, Danvers?” Steve demanded. He knew she was technically second in command, but that didn’t mean she could call for a meeting without any emergency and only them present.
Danvers turned sharp eyes to him, wet hair swinging as she faced him. “That would be Major Danvers to you, Mr Rogers,” she corrected pleasantly.
“Well, that would be Captain Rogers, then, Major.”
“No.” She shook her head, saying it so firmly that Steve lost his footing.
“I've seen the records,” she told him. “The history, the news reels. You're barely a private. Captain is just a moniker.”
He didn’t remember having cursed history books so much before.
“Anyway, this meeting is to inform you,” she started, talking to the room at large. “That in a week's time, you’re all going to undergo certain examinations. Physical, to evaluate your threat level. And psychological, to determine whether you are fit for the field or not.”
“That's not something we’ve ever had to do before,” Sam pointed out with suspicious look. “Does this apply to every member of the Avengers, or are we special?”
“Oh, you’re not Avengers yet,” Danvers corrected. “You have to actually pass these exams to be part of the team. And, yes, the others have already been evaluated. And passed, obviously.”
“What kind of physical exams?” Steve asked.
“Well, there’s a virtual simulation and then a spar with someone of similar capabilities.”
“How’s that gonna work out?” Wanda demanded.
“Well.” She seemed to smirk internally. “Romanoff will spar with Agent Barton; Maximoff with Dr Strange; Wilson is a hard person to find a match for, so he can choose who he’d like as an opponent; and you, Mr Rogers...” Her smirk grew more obvious. “Will be sparring with me.”
“Okay, what about the psychological exams?” Natasha finally spoke.
“Oh those are the most important ones. It doesn’t matter how well you do in the physical exams, if the psychologists don’t declare you fit for work, you’re out.”
Everyone's attention turned to the android, who was looking at Wanda with nothing betraying his thoughts on his face. Wanda herself had a suddenly hopeful look on her face as she waited for him to speak.
“Your case is somewhat special. If you fail to clear the psycho-analysis, Dr Strange is under obligation, both by the Council and by his own position within the sorcerers, to completely remove your powers.” All of this was said with a bank face.
At the end of it, Wanda looked shell-shocked, like she couldn’t quite decode how to react.
Before Steve could protest the unfairness, Danvers left and Vision left with her.
Wanda whirled to face him. “Steve, you have to do something,” she pleaded. “Please, you can’t let them take my powers away. I’m nothing without my powers.”
“I won’t,” he promised, though he was at a loss what to do. “I'll try talking to Toni,” he decided, hoping she’d be willing to listen.
He left the common room, unsure as to where he should look. He could ask FRIDAY, of course, but if he was being honest, he wasn’t really that comfortable with the new AI, not having spent as much time with her as he had with JARVIS.
So he began walking in the direction of her office, until he came across two teenage boys. They both froze upon seeing him.
“Who are you?” He demanded, looking from one face to the other. They were both quite thin, though the slightly older one was very subtly muscular. At first glance, they could have been brothers; pale skinned, brown hair, dark, expressive eyes. But the younger one had a look of confident arrogance.
“What do you want?” Was the flippant response he got.
Steve bristled. “I want to know what you two are doing here in the Avengers Compound.”
“We’re allowed to be here,” he drawled. “We do kind of live here.” He gave a sharp grin, an expression that was all too familiar. “I'm Toni’s kid. Harley Stark.”
Steve felt like he’d been hit by a battering ram. Toni’s kid. That couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. It didn’t make any sense. But the kid said it so surely, like he was stating an obvious fact.
“I'm not in the mood for jokes, kid,” he warned.
Harley scoffed and made to move past him. Steve reacted on instinct, reaching out to grab his shoulder to keep him in place. Before he could touch him, though, the other kid, who’d been standing silently so far, stepped between them, one hand clasping Steve’s outstretched one in a forced handshake.
“You'll have to excuse him,” he said with a polite smile. “He doesn’t take kindly to people who almost killed his mother. I'm Peter Parker.”
It was just another shock to the system. These kids knew what had happened in Siberia? Why had Toni told them? Who else knew? And, why was she exaggerating things? He hadn’t tried to kill her. He hadn’t.
“Enough with the nonsense” he snapped and Peter’s hand tightened painfully, something that has never happened with Steve before. “Where's Toni?”
“That's none of your-“
“She's in her office,” Harley interrupted.
Peter shot him a sharp glare but only got a wink in return, while Steve watched in suspicion.
“Seriously, she’s in her office,” Harley repeated, as Peter let go. “See ya, Murica!”
They dashed away abruptly, leaving him a little confused and mostly incensed. Left with no choice, he continued on to Toni’s office.
He knocked. There was no answer from inside, but he could hear the unintelligible murmurs so he knew she was there. When there was no instant response to the second knock, he pushed the door open, only to freeze.
Toni was sitting on the edge of the desk, arms and legs wrapped around the tall sorcerer as he kissed her roughly, almost pushing her back on the desktop. Steve couldn’t see where Strange’s hands were, but he most definitely did not want to know, and that kiss was heated and dirty enough to draw a choked up sound of distress from him.
Both broke apart at the sound and stared at him, breathing hard and faces flushed.
“FRIDAY?” Toni called out, her voice low and hoarse.
“Sorry, Boss, my attention was elsewhere.”
“Sure it was,” she muttered. “What do you want Rogers?”
He floundered. “I, I, um, I was, I was hoping to, to, uh, to, to talk to you,” he stuttered. “About the, uh, exams?”
She stared at him, unimpressed. “Did you make an appointment?” She asked, bored.
“No, of course not-“
“Well, make an appointment and then come back,” she ordered. “I don’t talk to clients in my office unless they have an appointment.” She turned to Strange. “Maybe we should have left for the bedroom,” she said musingly, getting an eye roll in answer.
“Toni, please, just hear me out for a second,” Steve pleaded.
She didn’t reply, instead, choosing to ignore him as she walked past him to the door. Her body language was all wrong, carefully casual and specifically constructed to avoid brushing against him.
Just like before, Steve tried to stop her, grab her arm, make her listen to him for a second. But before he could take more than a step forward, something stopped him. Only, instead of a hand, this time it was the red cloak that Strange wore, it’s crimson hem twisting around his wrist and yanking it away with ease.
Steve stumbled back in surprise and Strange followed Toni out, barely sparing him a contemptuous glance on the way. The cloak settled around his shoulders again, seeming to puff up threateningly at Steve before the door shut.
Next up: "Either get your hands off me, Rogers, or lose an arm!"
Also, what do you think of Scott/Bucky as a ship? Winter Ant? Ant Soldier? Winter-Man?
Pepper had been going through the proposal for Rand Industries, as per Toni’s request, when there was a knock on her window in her office at Stark Tower. It was a testament to how crazy the world had gotten in the last decade that she only blinked at Spider-Man sticking to the glass, before hurrying to let him in.
“Hello, Peter,” she greeted warmly. “Aren't you supposed to be in school?”
“Hey, Aunt Pep,” he returned vaguely. “It's, uh, it’s band practice. And I quit band, so I thought I’d pop by.”
“I can see that,” she hummed. “So, I'm assuming this isn’t a social call?”
He took off the mask, with a quick glance at the camera, even though he knew JOCASTA knew the protocols to keep secret identities off the books. “I actually wanted to ask you something about, uh...”
Pepper waited patiently, not letting on to her confusion. What would Peter possibly want to talk to her about?
“DidMissStarkeverhaveakid?!” He finally blurted out, then blushed when she looked at him like he’s spoken a second language. “Did Miss Stark ever have a kid?” He asked again, careful to keep his tone light. “I mean, before Iron Woman?”
Pepper frowned. “Not that I know of,” she replied slowly. “And I've been with her since she became CEO. As her PA, I would have known. So... Definitely no. There's no way she could have hidden a pregnancy from me.
“What about adoption?” He tried.
She shook her head. “I still would have known. Where do you thinks she would have hidden a whole live kid?”
Pepper peered at him in concern. Call it her newly awoken maternal instincts, but she could sense that something was bothering Peter. Something about Toni and kids. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?” She suggested gently. “She should be back by late evening today, you can swing by the Compound during your patrol and talk to her.”
“Okay,” Peter sighed. “Thanks, Aunt Pep.”
Hope didn’t usually come across as a chatty person. She wasn’t cold, just not one to fill silence with unnecessary talk.
So Toni was a little surprised when the Wasp, hitching a ride in the nook of the armour's shoulder, kept us a steady stream of conversation.
“Not that I don’t love talking to you,” she finally said, after a short lull. “But is everything okay? You're not usually this talkative.”
Hope took a free seconds to answer. “Dad's upset with me,” she muttered. “Scott and I broke up for good.”
Toni blinked. “Okay, well...” She cleared her throat. “I'm not sure which part of that is more important right now, so, how about you talk me through it?”
A sigh came through the earpiece. “Not much to say about Scott. We tried to make it work again, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. He’d... He wanted someone else.”
“That sucks,” Toni said, then winced. She was terrible at this. “Are you still in love with him?”
“I don’t know.” She could hear Hope’s shrug. “I've avoided thinking about it.”
“And what about Pym?”
Hope scoffed. “Still trying to get me to work solo instead of in a team. He's come to terms with me being an Avenger, but he is very much not okay with my suit being anywhere in your vicinity. And he doesn’t even have a solid reason as to why anymore! For a scientist, he’s pretty set in his opinions, even with all results to the contradictory.”
“Ah, well,” Toni sighed, theatrically, feeling slightly pleased when Hope stifled a chuckle. “It breaks my ice-cold heart, but I guess I can’t please everybody.”
“You more than please everybody that matters,” Hope said.
Toni blushed, thankful for the metal covering her. “And you don’t have anything to prove to your father. You’re perfectly within your rights to just put his calls on hold. Trust me, it's fun to just watch the line blink."
As they landed in Missouri, Hope jumping away from the armour and growing to full size, a new set of charts popped up in Toni’s HUD.
-Boss, Peter's vitals are in distress. Roadside cameras show that Spider-Man is currently in a fight with someone in an Enhanced suit with wings.-
Toni's stomach dropped as she watched the graph of Peter’s life signs. -Get Mark 42 to him, FRI, assist him. Right now!-
She blinked the HUD away, knowing FRIDAY wouldn’t take more than three minutes to get a suit of Peter, to see Hope peering at her in concern. “Spider-Man is in some kind of trouble,” she breathed out. “Nobody’s close enough or fast enough.”
Hope nodded immediately in understanding. “I'll talk to the locals and get the samples for Dr Cho. You take a seat and take care of your kid.” She was gone before Toni could protest that, no, Peter wasn’t actually her kid. Then again, Hope didn’t know Spider-Man’s identity.
So she just leaned against a mangled tree, the armour folding back into her, and watched through FRIDAY's 'eyes' as an Iron Woman armour flew to Peter’s location.
“Anyway, Miss Stark, you didn’t have to come all the way here from Missouri, I had it handled,” Peter assured, after he finished talking about the alien tech and the vulture. “By the way how did you get here so fast anyway?”
“Uh, I'm not sure actually here.” The mask popped open and Peter balked at the slightly creepy image of an empty suit. “This is Mark 42. I'm still in Missouri.”
Now that she mentioned it, Peter could see the inscription on the armour’s left bicep.
“Let's get to the important stuff instead,” she went on. “If you've been suspicious of something like this since that bank robbery, why didn’t you tell me?”
At this, Peter stayed quiet. He didn’t really want to mention that he'd found the adoption papers with her signature that very same night.
“I wanted to be sure,” he muttered, not meeting the empty eyes of the mask.
Miss Stark sighed. “Look, I should be back in a couple hours. Why don’t you finish up your patrol, then wait for me back at the Compound? We’ll talk then.”
Peter hesitated for a split second. He wasn’t sure he wanted to have a whole confrontation right now, and neither did he look forward to having a sane conversation with her while constantly wondering what she was hiding from him.
But he’d been avoiding talking to her for a few days now and he missed her.
“I'll be there, yeah,” he promised.
“I'll catch you there then, young buck.” The suit flew away and Peter sighed to himself. This secret was beginning to eat him up from the inside.
Steve had just been about to call it a night, when he heard someone's steps. Body tensed, he followed the sound to the common room. “Who’s there? He called out, while flipping the light switch.
He relaxed, minutely, when he saw a somewhat familiar costume-clad youngster hastily pulling his mask down.
“Mr Rogers,” he greeted. His voice sounded like a boy’s, nervous and high, but firm.
“Spider-Man, right?” Steve asked, coming to stand in front of him. “I've seen you on the news. You do some good work, kid, looking out for the people.”
He shrugged. “Somebody has to.”
Steve ignored the implications. The boy had obviously been spending way too long around people like Toni and Strange. Of course, he’d have picked up on some of their... abrasive communication tactics.
“How did you get into this?” Steve asked, curious. “And your suit? Where’d you get that from?”
“Miss Stark made it for me as a gift just after recruiting me,” he answered.
“And when exactly did she recruit you?”
He shrugged. “Half a year after Ultron. A couple months before the Civil War.”
Steve frowned, partly for the stupid title and partly because that meant this boy probably agreed with the Accords whole-heartedly.
“Who are you, really?” He finally asked.
Sure enough, Spider-Man stiffened, the white eyes of the mask narrowing in suspicion.
“Spoilers,” he replied dryly. “My identity, my secret to tell.”
“But somebody has to know,” Steve pushed. “What if you’re injured and your family member has to be informed? What if you’re needed and we need to reach you in a hurry, how would we do that? If no one knows who you are?”
“I never said 'no one’ knows.” There was a note of amusement now, along with the lingering wariness. “Miss Stark, Dr Strange, Colonel Rhodey, Major Carol and Mr Clint all know who I am.”
Steve grimaced for a few seconds. “Listen, kid, I know you probably think really highly of Toni and her... friend, but maybe you’re a little blinded by hero worship. Toni’s an amazing person, she really is, but not really a good role model.”
The kid hadn’t reacted yet- rather, he seemed to be listening intently- so Steve braved on.
“And as for Strange, well...” He had to bite his tongue to avoid letting anything slip that really shouldn’t be said in company. “Let's just say he’s a bit of a shady character and leave it at that. Look, my point is, kid, maybe you should think carefully about distancing yourself a little from them? If you need a mentor, I’m sure there are other people who’d be much more suited to the role.”
Steve could have cried in relief. Finally, someone saw him correctly. “Yeah, sure,” he said happily. “Me, or even Nat.”
The kid sighed, all of a sudden, theatrically, and Steve felt his hopes get dashed.
“Okay, let me just correct a few of your many misconceptions,” he began.
Yep, Steve thought sourly. He’d adopted the same condescendingly sweet tone that Toni had basically patented and the superior air that Strange always carried himself with.
“First off.” He held up a red-clad finger. “After spending more than a year, day in, day out, hanging around Stark Tower and then this Compound, I can confidently assure you that I don’t have too much of hero worship left. Just basic respect as people are individually deserving of.”
Really, the similarities were astounding.
“Secondly, Miss Stark is an amazing role model. And the few areas she’s lacking in, like basic lab safety, that’s where Miss Pepper, Happy, or Rhodey come in.”
He held up his middle finger and Steve didn’t have time to wonder whether he’d momentarily curled the rest of his fingers away on purpose, before he started talking again.
“Third, Dr Strange isn’t just her friend, like you so nicely referred to him. He’s her boyfriend, they’re dating, they’re in a relationship and thank god, too, because I don’t think I could have taken any more of the pining and obliviousness that had been going around. Although.” He paused, humming thoughtfully. “He's definitely shady. Him and Levi. Him and Levi and that whole Sanctuary place. Creepy doors and hallways.”
He muttered the last part to himself so Steve wasn’t sure he was meant to hear. And had he even heard it correctly? Creepy doors? And hallways?
“Okay, last point!” The kid stood up now. “If I ever want another mentor- which I won’t- you'll be the last person I ask. Please, don’t ever bother me again, unless it’s for something important.”
He began to walk.
Steve took a second to muster all his patience, then grabbed Spider-Man's hand as he walked past him. “Hold on just a minute,” he implored. “Just-"
“Mr Rogers,” the boy interrupted. His body had gone suddenly stiff and his voice was cold and firm. “Let go of my hand, please.”
Steve would, in the next few minutes, regret his impulsiveness that even the Army hadn’t been able to train out. He’d been warned twice already in the same day not to take hold of someone when they’re clearly not okay with it, but he was just so desperate and grasping at straws, even if he won’t admit it to himself, that he simply blocked it from his mind.
Of course, he doesn’t know that yet.
“No,” he replied, trying to be as gentle as possible, all the while internally frowning at the way he had to strain to keep his fingers curled around Spider-Man’s elbow. “I need you to listen to me seriously. I’m trying to help you.”
“You either let go of my hand, Rogers,” the boy spoke through grit teeth. “Or you lose an arm tonight.”
“No! Either you listen to me, or I-“
A shot of pain travelled up Steve’s arm as a hand clasped his wrist and twisted, forcing him to let go, then rapidly bending his hand towards his chest, unrelenting, until a sickening crack echoed in their ears.
Steve gasped, stumbling away. He’d been stabbed, shot, thrown into buildings, jumped from elevators, taken a hit from Mjolnir, traded blows with the Winter Soldier and Iron Woman. Funnily enough, none of that quite compared to the pain of a snapped wrist.
He looked up- when had he ended up kneeling on the ground?- to see Spider-Man looking defiant, but slightly sheepish.
“Okay, that was just instinct, I didn’t actually mean to break your wrist,” he mumbled. “Never even tried that move outside of training, but uh...” His voice hardened again. “I did tell you to let go, so I guess you actually deserve that.”
What the actual fuck? Was all Steve could think. How was this kid stronger than him?
“Anyway, Miss Stark should be back soon and I need to talk to her, so I’ll just, uh, you know. Go. And, if you could, like, not try to interrupt, that’d be great. Miss Stark would probably do a lot worse than just break a wrist.” He flipped back, landing perfectly on his feet at the balcony. “Goodnight, Mr Rogers.”
Steve stayed frozen for a few more seconds, trying to wrestle the pain under control, before getting to his feet. He couldn’t bandage his right hand so he’d need someone to help. It would heal perfectly, of course, but... Really, he also needed someone to talk to.
Steve wished he could go to Bucky. But something told him his best friend really wouldn’t be all that sympathetic to his plight.
So, with a sigh, he walked in the direction of Natasha’s room. He was surprised to see Sam open the door, then peeked in to find Wanda sitting cross-legged on the bed opposite Nat, and realized what was going on.
“You’re coaching Wanda for the psychological exams?”
“Yeah.” The redhead nodded slowly. “Obviously, Strange will have set up some sort of wards to prevent her from just convincing the therapists. But let’s forget that for a minute and talk about your clearly broken bones instead.”
As Sam set his wrist, Steve narrated the events. At the end, everyone looked concerned.
“So, Stark just gifted a highly advanced suit to a teenage mutant?” Wanda groaned. “And I thought she was blind to her consequences before. She’s gotten worse.”
“I don’t know, Wanda,” Sam murmured. “Stark is a bit of a wild card, but she’s not stupid. Either this spider guy is someone she’s got some dirt on, or that suit itself has some built-in fail-safe.”
“Every suit Toni builds has a fail-safe,” Steve reasoned. “It’s usual in the form of a code that has to be spoken by the correct voice identity, that’ll completely disable the armour and cut Toni off from it too.”
“So it’s not a stretch to say the Spider-Man suit must have one too,” Natasha said. “And she must be the only who knows it. So, no, I don’t think we need to worry about Spider-Man as an individual. It’s more his position within the Avengers that’s the concerning thing. He's obviously very favoured, purely due to Stark."
They all stewed in silence for a while.
“You know, I think, if we can separate the wizard from Stark,” Wanda spoke slowly. “Then we can start dealing with Stark herself. If we can bring her down a few pegs, the rest will fall in line.”
“That's never gonna happen.” Steve shook his head. “Trying to keep Strange away from Toni is a hopeless case. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
“Well, maybe we can try it the other way around,” Sam suggested. “You said Strange was the one chasing Stark all those years, they’ve only just started dating. Sure, they’ve been friends for longer, but, Steve, you two were engaged. She was in love with you.”
“He's got a point,” Natasha agreed. “It'll still be tricky, because Stark is notoriously protective over people she considers family. But if we play this right- and that’s a big if- then Stark will be the one to create the distance between them herself.”
.“How are we gonna do that?” Steve demanded. “If you're suggesting that I... I don’t know, seduce her, then it’s never gonna work.”
“Of course, not,” the spy snorted. “No offence, but you don’t have a smooth bone in your body, Steve, and charm alone can’t seduce a person. Not to mention, this is Toni Stark we’re talking about. She's the master of misdirection, she’ll spot it coming a mile away, even from me.”
“You're not giving me any solutions!” Steve said, exasperated.
Natasha pursed her lips. “Let me think about it. I don’t think we should do anything until the exams are all over. If we try anything before our Avengers status is confirmed, she can just get us evicted on the charges of slander and manipulation alone.”
Steve sighed. “Alright, fine. The tests first then.”
“Scott and... And James?” Toni asked, blinking. “Wait! Scott and James?”
“Oh, why don't you just get it printed in the newspapers?!” Hope demanded.
“Sorry.” She landed on the roof of the Compound and Hope jumped away. “Okay, I guess you’re going back home?”
“No, actually, I think I’ll stick around for the weekend.” Hope suddenly smirked. “Carol said Wilson picked me to spar with for the physical exams. I’m looking forward to it. Not to mention watching Romanoff, Rogers and Maximoff getting their asses handed to them."
“Of course." Toni laughed, as she spied Spider-Man waiting patiently, legs dangling off the edge of the roof. “Okay, I’ll see you in the morning then, Hope.”
As Hope left, the armour seeped back under Toni’s skin and she joined Peter, sitting down beside him as he pulled his mask off.
“Alright, Underoos,” she sighed, pressing a hand to her forehead. “What other stuff have you been hiding from me?”
Peter gave a nervous laugh.
Toni watched him out of the corner of her eye as he seemed to be making split second decisions in his head. Sometimes, it hit her out of the blue just how similar he was to her. She never liked that train of thought. It always led to wondering how many more similarities there might have been had she been a part of his life from the very beginning.
Richard and Mary had named her godmother. That had been a show of trust. She’d given up her right to guardianship after their death because she’d been too afraid of accidentally harming him with the way her lifestyle had been back then.
Now, though she was grateful he’d grown up with two loving parents in Ben and May, Toni often found herself questioning whether she hadn’t just taken the coward’s way out. Why hadn’t she decided to clean up her own act instead? She was sure she could have done it, if only for the sake of a child. Had she just been unconsciously terrified of the responsibility of taking in a kid, someone who would depend on her completely? Why couldn’t she have been a little braver?
In fact, when was she going to find the guts to tell Peter now? He deserved to know. And Toni was terrified of the day he found out somehow.
“Well, something happened an hour or so ago,” Peter finally admitted, smiling sheepishly at her.
She raised an eyebrow, in the way she knew always made him squirm and blurt out everything. “You don’t say.”
“Rogers tried to brainwash me while I was waiting for you in the common room. After I told him off- I mean, I promise I was polite- I tried to leave. When he tried to stop me, I, uh, well, I may have broken his wrist.” He said it all in one breath.
Toni found her chest constricting. She’d known something would happen. She’d known, damn it!
“What do you mean, he tried to stop you?” She asked, teeth grinding.
“Nothing!” He assured her hurriedly, sensing her fury. “He just sort of grabbed my hand. But he didn’t hurt me, I swear. He didn’t get a chance to.”
Toni looked at him, trying to find signs of a lie or of any pain. When she didn’t find anything, she shoved the anger back into a box labelled 'To be inspected later'. “You broke his wrist? Or you may have broken his wrist?”
Peter hunched in, trying to look guilty, but the turned up corner of his lips gave him away. “Well, there was definitely a loud crack,” he hedged. “Besides, remember when I broke my leg while training that one time? It healed in two days. This was just a wrist. I’m sure he’ll be okay in time for the exams.”
Toni couldn’t help it. She laughed delightedly at her protégé's proud smile. “I have to say, I didn’t think you had it in you to break someone’s bones, Crockett,” she teased. “Who are you and what have you done with my Peter?”
He shrugged. “Well, don’t get mad,” he said hesitantly. “But he cornered me and Harley in the morning before we left for school. He was looking for you and wanted to know who we were. Harley was being, you know, Harley, so Rogers was about to grab his hand to, I don’t know, intimidate him, I guess, but I stopped him. And I couldn’t exactly break his wrist then.”
Again, there was the surge of anger. But she tried to focus on what else he’d said instead. “Hold on!” She said incredulously. “Are you saying... Did you and Harley send Rogers to my office when you knew I was with Stephen?”
Peter paled considerably. “It was Harley, not me!”
“Oh, he's in trouble,” she murmured. As she finished speaking, the air in front of them shimmered. Peter jerked back in surprise, but Toni smiled softly as a crystalline butterfly flitted to life, landing delicately on the knuckles of her extended fingers.
“Stephen's back,” she murmured with a smile.
Peter shook his head. “You're both disgustingly soft.”
She shot him a look, then got to her feet. “You’ve got decathlon coming up, don’t you? Go to bed, you want to rest up as much as possible with your-"
“With my advanced metabolism, yes, I know,” he finished with a grin. “What about the flying vulture?”
Toni groaned. “Totally out of your league, kid. I’ll put someone on the case, but you need to stay out of it. If you come across the weapons, you call me. We clear?”
“Sure,” he sighed.
Toni paused, something making her hesitate to end the conversation. “Peter?” She asked quietly. “Is there anything else you wanted to tell me?”
“No, Miss Stark. I'm fine.”
She stared at him, trying to glean the matter from his mind. She could tell he was lying, from the way his gaze flickered away and the nervous twitch of his lips. But she let it go. Surely he’ll come to her when he was ready. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Goodnight, Pete.”
“Night, Miss Stark.”
Toni turned away, making her way to her room. She missed Peter mouthing a silent apology to her back as he looked down at the fingers he'd crossed for both the lies he'd just told.
It's weird, but the closer we get to IW, the more nervous I'm getting, even though I'm the one writing this. All I can say right now is... ANGST.
Anyway, next up will be the exams.
Natasha walked into the training room behind Steve, with Wanda and Sam alongside her. It seemed like all the Avengers had turned up to watch the sparring section of the examinations. Except Vision; he was nowhere to be seen.
Steve wasn’t really that worried. They’d all breezed through the virtual simulation, the day before. This was bound to be a lot easier.
Natasha, though, disagreed. The virtual simulation had been a rip-off the BARF technology. It only simulated real-life events, providing a battle ground of the most hectic and stressful memory in a person's head. In a way, they already knew how to beat it.
But this? This would be sparring against unknown individuals. Natasha had it easier. Or so it would seem to some.
"It's Clint,” Steve had said. “He's an archer. Close range isn’t his thing. It should be simple for you.”
Natasha didn’t even bother to explain that that was exactly the problem. Close range wasn’t Clint’s thing; he’d never had use for it. Which meant, unlike with most of the people in this room, Natasha didn’t have adequate prior knowledge of his style. Normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem; on the battlefield, it simply put her on equal ground with her opponent for the brief seconds it took for her to gauge their weaknesses.
She didn’t have those precious seconds here. Because, close range was actually her thing and Clint already had an intimate sense of how she fought.
“Alright, pair up, guys,” Danvers called. “Hope and Scott have somewhere to be, so... Wilson, you’re up first.”
Sam shot them a light grin, before heading up to the middle of the floor. The van Dyne woman gave him a smirk, long hair tied back in a loose ponytail.
A quick look at the audience showed that none of the Avengers seemed all that worried for van Dyne. Stark was laughing quietly with Lang and Barnes- a fact that seemed to bother Steve to no end. Clint was talking to Rhodes. Spider-Man, the Defenders and Fantastic Four weren’t present. Only Strange was quiet, gaze sharp and observing as they passed over Natasha’s team. The Black Widow felt a shiver of apprehension as the glittering eyes landed on her, hard and cold, before sliding away.
What was he thinking? The wizard was just as hard to read as Stark and damn it, if that didn’t make her want to curse loudly.
The fight lasted quite long. Even on the ground, Sam was still ex-pararescue. They were pretty evenly matched, his warzone expertise up against van Dyne's superior martial arts. It went on for some time, both of them landing blows and dodging them in equal numbers.
Finally, Danvers called it. “Okay, that’s enough, guys,” she called out.
Sam and van Dyne separated, the woman glaring balefully. Natasha wondered if she had just taken out all her frustration on Sam. Frustration for what, though? Something they could use?
“Okay, Romanoff, you’re up next. Clint, get your ass on the floor.”
Masking her wariness, Natasha stepped forward, watching Lang exchange a brief look with Rhodes. It was a look full of knowing and as Clint approached her, Natasha tried to estimate how long this would last.
Clint's face was expressionless; not guarded like Stark and Strange, but wiped clean, true to a spy. He’d never used that expression on her before. It hurt, but she did the same. This wasn't Clint and Natasha having a friendly spar- it was Hawkeye and Black Widow staring each other down.
“Okay, guys, ready?”
Natasha thought fast. She couldn’t be predictable. She had to do something he wouldn’t expect. Otherwise...
Neither of them moved a muscle, standing stock still, arms loose at their sides, body relaxed, still calculating, waiting for the other to move. Natasha broke first. She kicked up, waiting for him to catch her leg. He did and she twisted her body around, keeping her hands on the ground for support as her other leg came up to hook around his neck, bringing him down.
Only... Only he rolled with it, his hand firmly clamped around her calf, bending it the wrong way as he fell to the floor, making her gasp in pain as she felt her shinbone crack neatly.
“Over,” Clint muttered, jumping to his feet. “Can't fight with a broken leg.”
To her eternal surprise, he bent down to pick her up, carrying her bridal style. “Might wanna take her to the infirmary, Wilson.”
“I can walk,” Natasha snapped, feeling embarrassment at the easy defeat.
Clint let her go, steadying her as she balanced herself on Sam’s shoulders.
“Thanks,” she muttered, not meeting her once-best friend’s eyes.
Clint didn’t reply, just walked back to where, she noticed through the haze of pain, Lang was handing over dollar bills to Rhodes.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Lang, she thought bitterly, as Sam led her out.
Steve watched worriedly as Sam dragged a limping Natasha out of the training room. But most of his focus was on Bucky, who was lifting off his t-shirt.
“Rogers, you and I are gonna spar later,” Danvers said. “James brought it to my attention a while ago, that while he’s passed the virtual simulation and the psychological exams, he hadn’t had a chance to spar, so we’ll just get that over with first. James, choose a partner.”
“Toni,” he spoke calmly.
Steve felt a sudden terror grip him.
Toni stood up, surprise flitting across her face once before she cleared it away, making quick work of her shirt to reveal the dark tank top she wore for training and braiding up her hair. She met Bucky in the middle off the floor, both wearing matching smirks.
“Uh, what’s happening?” He heard Lang mutter.
“Porn,” Strange replied in a cheerful undertone. “Just watch.”
“Any out-of-bounds?” Bucky questioned.
“Stay away from the arc reactor,” Toni replied. "You?”
“Mouth and nose.”
They both got into stance, crouching slightly, hands extended, Toni’s flat and palm facing out, Bucky’s curled into loose fists.
Steve didn't have a chance to understand who moved first, before Bucky had Toni pinned to the floor by her shoulders. For a wild second, he wondered if it was really over that quickly.
Then Toni moved her hand up and Bucky was hissing in pain, his hand flying to his side, giving Toni the chance to push him off.
He recovered fast, and swiped at Toni’s legs. She dodged, jumping and landing a swift kick to his chest. Falling back, he changed his tactic, kicking at Toni’s knees. She stumbled with a wince and he got to his feet in that reprieve.
But Toni must have been feinting, because the second he stood, she crouched, literally pulling his legs from underneath him. He toppled over and she rolled to the side. She made to get up, but Bucky was already ahead of her, grabbing her around the middle and pulling her toward himself. They were pressed back-to-front and it ended with Bucky’s arm pressed firmly against Toni’s throat, his legs wrapped around hers to prevent her from kicking out. She brought her hands up instead, gripping the metal arm and straining to pull it off of herself. She managed it, rolling away from him and then straddling his chest, now her hand at his throat, her other hand curled into a fist and raised above his head. Bucky blocked her punch, but his other hand was pinned at his side by her knee.
“Alright, knock it off, you two,” Danvers called out in an amused tone.
And just like that, both of them were standing, wearing matching grins as Bucky whispered something that made Toni laugh. And Steve was hit by an onslaught of emotions: fascination, worry, jealousy.
“Steve,” Sam whispered, and he jumped, not having noticed his return. “Something isn’t right. Since when is Stark strong enough to fight off a super soldier without her suit? Disarming him like she did in Berlin’s HQ is one thing, but holding back an arm made of Vibranium?”
And there was terror added to the mix. If Toni was this capable of fighting Bucky without her suit, then they didn’t stand a chance if she ever decided to come at them in the armour.
Steve wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to rest Bucky’s safety on just Toni’s conscience.
James watched nervously as Steve stepped up to meet Carol in the middle of the floor. He could see how this fight was gonna end and he also knew exactly how his sort-of best friend was gonna react.
He tried not to look forward to it, he really did.
“Feeling sympathetic?” Toni murmured in his ear, momentarily looking up from her tablet.
“A little bit,” he whispered back. “Is it bad that I also really wanna see him get knocked down a few pegs?”
Steve threw the first punch (surprise, surprise). Carol barely flinched, one hand wrapping around his fist and pushing hard. Steve stumbled back in surprise more than anything else.
“No, of course, not,” Toni replied, watching the fight with a carefully blank face.
This time, Steve was a little more careful, feinting another punch, letting her grab his hand, then kicking her in the stomach before she could push back again.
“I’m not sure which I'm gonna enjoy more,” Toni continued. “Watching America’s Golden Boy get his ass beat, or watching Stephen put that Hydra witch in her place.”
Carol had recovered quickly enough from the kick. Obviously wanting to get it over with, she had resorted to offensive. The spar had turned into Steve trying desperately to block her hits and stay on his feet.
But James was suddenly frozen. Toni’s words were echoing in his ears even after she’d stopped talking.
“What did you say?” He asked, lips numb.
She turned to hum in concern. “I said... That I’m not sure which I'm...”
“No. I meant about Maximoff.” His head was spinning with betrayal. “You called her... Hydra.”
Toni's expression cleared, though now she looked guilty. “I thought Steve would have told you,” she mumbled. “I thought you already knew and simply didn’t hold it against her.”
James shook his head. “She volunteered,” he whispered hotly, connecting the dots as fast as he could. “She fucking volunteered.”
He seethed quietly for a minute, dimly aware of Toni’s hand pressed firmly on his knee, grounding him to this time and place. He had a fleeting wish that he could be the one in Carol’s place right now.
“I need to get out of here.” He stood up abruptly.
Toni nodded. “Of course, yeah. Go to my office, the third drawer on the right side of my desk; you’ll find my car keys. Go take a drive. And don’t do anything stupid.”
James had started walking before she’d finished speaking.
Oh god, he was going to murder that little punk.
Toni watched James leave, one hand typing out a text to Scott to let him know his boyfriend was in a bad mood. Not that Scott would be able to do anything while he was working with Hope and Pym. But still...
“That's enough,” Carol stated, letting go of Rogers' arm and stepping away.
“No, I can continue,” Rogers gasped.
Carol sighed. “Yeah, I thought you’d say that.” Striking fast, she knocked him out, making Toni muffle a snicker.
“Right, I’ll be back in a jiffy,” she said, slinging the super soldier over her shoulder. “Just need to put the Captain to bed. When I get back, Maximoff and Stephen, you two are up.”
She walked out and, sitting next to Stephen, Rhodey sighed. “I never thought I’d be able to relate to a mainstream popstar.”
Toni blinked. “How so?”
He sighed again, still staring at where Carol had just walked out the door. “God is a woman.”
Stephen turned to Toni. They kept their composures for a few seconds, before giving in, both bursting into chuckles.
Rhodey glared at them. “You guys don’t have any room to talk,” he said crossly.
“Sure, pumpkin,” Toni laughed, leaning over to place an obnoxious kiss on his cheeks. She turned to Stephen then, a little but of worry seeping in. “You’re gonna be okay, aren’t you?”
Stephen smiled. “I'm 88% sure that I’ll be fine.”
“What happened to the other 12%?”
He shrugged, just as Carol returned. “Always leave room for the highly unlikely.” He didn’t give her a chance to reply before he was striding across to Maximoff, who was already glaring, fingers twitching at her sides.
“You might all want to retreat to behind the viewing glass,” Stephen instructed dryly.
As they did that, the difference in the sparring partners was visible to even the inexperienced eye. Where Wanda was fidgeting, her body tense, her hands poised to lash out as rage flickered uninhibited over her features, Stephen was almost the polar opposite- relaxed stance, nearly mockingly calm.
He tilted his head. “Ladies first, Miss Maximoff,” he said politely.
She snarled. Hands alight with red light, she danced around, the magic of the Mind Stone viciously crackling towards the sorcerer.
Toni felt her blood go cold. If even a spark of that power touched Stephen- she couldn’t bear to think about what might happen if...
Stephen caught the spell, twisting it in his gloved hands once before mimicking Wanda's movements, albeit with much more grace. It hit her in the chest, barely giving her time to react.
There was a second where everybody held their breath, as Maximoff swayed on the spot. Then, her eyes widened as blood spilled from her lips.
Somebody gasped in horror, but most of them were almost transfixed as she continued to dribble blood, falling to her knees and coughing, her hands clutching her chest.
Stephen sighed. “Stupid girl," he muttered. He walked over to her and knelt next to her. Whispering under his breath, he moved his hand over her face and throat and chest, leaving a soft golden shine that lasted for a second.
Maximoff closed her eyes and Stephen caught her quickly, laying her on the ground. He stepped away and a portal opened beneath her, taking her away.
“She'll be fine,” he assured, turning to his audience. “I removed the damage. All she needs is rest.”
“She could have seriously hurt you,” Toni stated blankly.
Stephen nudged her gently. “Nah. She’s not nearly strong enough for that. The effect would have worn off in twenty minutes or so. She’s lucky I didn’t let her suffer that long.”
Toni nodded, fiddling with the plier and circuit board on her lap. They were sitting on the roof, blankets spread out underneath them. Stephen kept his arm around her, knowing she wouldn’t ask him to.
“Boss.” A 3-D hologram, way too realistic to not be solid, flickered to life.
Stephen couldn’t help the immediate smile that crossed his face. FRIDAY had crafted this form herself and while her hair was a bright ginger and her lips and nose were reminiscent of Toni, her eyes matched the blue-grey-green myriad of Stephen’s. It was a bold move, firmly asserting Stephen’s position in Toni’s life, and her own role to play in their little family.
“I think you night want to see this. It’s been in the news for a few hours now.”
A screen popped up and both of them watched warily as Spider-Man crawled up the Washington Memorial.
“Oh god,” Toni groaned, once the video has ended. “Tell me that energy spike wasn’t Chitauri tech.”
“The energy signature is remarkably similar, Boss. And, KAREN has been activated as well.”
“Who’s KAREN?” Stephen asked.
“The AI in the Spider-Man suit. Peter has given her the name KAREN.”
Stephen laughed. “Well, he’s better than you at naming stuff,” he teased.
Toni shook her head. “I knew he’d hack the suit at some point, I didn’t expect it to be this soon,” she groused.
“Still,” he mused. “You can’t really be upset with him for it now. Look at him. He did it, Toni. He saved every single one of them. And none off the damage done to the structure can be touted as his fault; it was already crumbling before he got there.”
Toni looked up again, a small, proud smile playing on her lips now. “Yeah,” she agreed softly. “He did do a great job.”
“You can drill him about the Chitauri tech later.”
She nodded. “Well, we’ve got the psychological exams soon. How do you think that’s gonna go?”
Stephen scoffed. “Not in any way that's good for us. Romanoff will have trained every single one of them on what to say and what not to. The least we can do is ward up the examination rooms so Maximoff can’t get in their heads.”
“Okay. And maybe we should...”
“Toni,” he interrupted gently. “Shut up and just cuddle with me for a while, will you?”
He lay back down in the blankets and Toni followed suit, hiding her smile as she dug into his side. If FRIDAY played all their songs softly, if they fell asleep like that beneath the stars, if that was the position Clint found them in next morning... Well, whose business was it, really?
Me: That's it! I'm never writing fight scenes again. Never ever again!
Me: *looks at the future chapters, including but not limited to IW*
Chapter 19: Behind the Mask, the Shield, the Wings and the Magic
Pretty uneventful chapter this one, with a few surprise cameos... ;)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“So, hold on, you’re telling me, that the Washington Memorial incident was your fault?”
Peter winced as Harley stared incredulously at him from across the lunch table. “Say it a little louder, why don’t you?” He grumbled. “And it was only technically my fault. How was I to know that thing was unstable?”
Harley threw his hands up. “Maybe by having shown it to Mom!”
“No! Miss Stark told me to stay out of the whole business. She seriously thinks I can’t handle it, like I’m just a kid or something.”
“You are a kid,” Harley pointed out. “A year older than me, maybe, but still a kid.”
Peter glared. “I'm Spider-Man,” he whined softly.
Harley rolled his eyes. “Peter, seriously, tell her now, at least.”
Peter wilted. “I can’t,” he groaned. “She called me this morning. She sounded so proud of me, Harley. I can’t... I just need to prove to her that I can do this.”
Harley bit his lips. “You’ll be in big trouble if she ever finds out.”
Toni walked into the office, finding four people already in there.
“Oh, yes, hello, Professor,” she greeted the man in the wheelchair first. “Thank you so much for coming here on such short notice.”
Charles Xavier, a famous lecturer and psychologist, was a handsome man, with the bluest eyes Toni had ever seen. She was a little surprised that he was bald, but then, it sort of added to the aesthetic.
“For a beautiful woman like you with such a lovely case of heterochromia,” he said with a charming smile. “How could I possibly refuse?”
Toni blinked first, then laughed. “I'll admit, that’s not a line I’ve heard before, and I’ve heard a lot of them,” she joked. “Though I think you’re mistaken; my partner is the one with heterochromia, not me.”
“Ah, yes, Dr Stephen Strange, isn’t it?” He mused. “Yes, I’ve met him. Classic spectral- his eyes seem to change colour all the time, right? Yours is much more subtle, Dr Stark. Central heterochromia- the irises are a much darker shade of brown on the outside than the inner ring. Your partner would agree. It’s one of my favourite forms of mutation.”
Toni shook her head, amused. “Careful, professor,” she said cheerfully. “I might think you're interested.”
His smile widened into a grin. “I wouldn’t dream of it.” His British accent made him sound that much more smoother. “Now, to business. I believe I’m here to consult with Wanda Maximoff, yes?”
“Right.” Toni nodded, taking a seat. “And your friends are...”
Xavier gestured to his females companions. “This is my colleague, Professor Emma Frost.”
The platinum blonde woman nodded in greeting.
“And this is an old student of mine, one of my best actually. Dr Jean Grey.”
The gorgeous redhead smiled at her, charming and friendly.
Toni then turned to the fourth person in the room, a tall blonde woman who’d been silent till now. “This is CIA Agent Evelyn Salt,” she said. “She’s here to interrogate Natasha Romanoff, specifically.”
“Fantastic, then.” Xavier nodded. “Emma will speak to Mr Wilson, while Jean sees Mr Rogers.”
“I hate to say this, but I agree with your new little brother,” Ned said.
Peter shot him a look of betrayal.
“You've already hacked the suit and tried to analyse alien tech and spent fifteen minutes trapped in an evil lair.”
“It wasn’t an evil lair, it was a storage building,” he protested.”
Ned rolled his eyes.
“Okay, fine, look, let me just interrogate this guy, okay?” Peter reasoned. “If something turns up, I’ll go scoop it out and then take the information to Miss Stark.”
Ned sighed. “Fine,” he agreed. “Just be careful.”
“Hey, Stephen,” Toni called, as he stepped through a portal from the Sanctum. “Do I have heterochromia?”
He looked at her oddly. “Didn’t you know?” He asked, puzzled. “It’s not nearly as obvious as mine, but you have it. Ce-”
“Central heterochromia,” she finished. “Professor Xavier told me.”
The confusion cleared from his face. “Oh, you already met him,” he stated flatly. “Let me guess: what a beautiful woman with such a lovely display of mutation. Is that what he said?”
She laughed. “Spot on. He did mention having met you.”
“Yeah, he pulled a similar line with me. But back then, he was single, so he was also a lot more forward with me.”
Toni just hummed, attention already drifting back to her book. “Well, the exam results don’t come in till tomorrow morning and I have a phone conference to attend, in an hour and a half. So, until then...”
Stephen grinned and joined her on the couch.
“So, Natalia Alianovna Romanova,” Evelyn Salt read off the file in front of her.
Natasha didn’t reply, didn’t react; just stared back at her blankly.
Salt looked up at her and smiled. “You know you’re not facing an enemy right now?” She asked. “In fact, you’re looking at a profiler. Trying to fall back on your training with me isn’t a good idea.”
Natasha shrugged. “Old habits,” she said as an explanation. “If you’re as good a profiler as you think you are, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
She got a pleasant smile in return. “Well, that’s what we’re here to find out. So tell me...”
“Mr Rogers, how long exactly had you known Margaret Carter?”
Steve, as always, had to hide a flinch at Peggy’s name. Although, judging by the way the keen-eyed woman glanced at his clenched fists, he hadn’t succeeded that well.
“Only a few months,” he answered. “A year, at most, I guess.”
“And yet,” Dr Grey hummed, flipping through the file in front of her. “You have shown a very unhealthy obsession with her since waking up in the 21st century.”
Steve swallowed back all his protests, recalling what Natasha had instructed. “It was a new world. A new era. I fell back on the last clear memory I had of a person very dear to me. Especially, once I found out she was still alive. Since, there had never been anything anyone had found out about Bucky....”
He thought he’d answered pretty well. But Dr Grey looked at him with a slightly amused smile and he wondered if he thought wrong.
“I do know where he's going to be.”
“Oh, yes!” Spider-Man whooped, doing a little jump as he turned to dash away.
“Hey, hey,” Aaron called out, making the guy- kid, really- turn back around to him. “I haven’t told you anything yet.”
“Oh, right, yeah.” Spider-Man waited patiently and Aaron hid a smile. This guy reminded him a lot of his own nephew. Miles had the same uncontrollable excitement.
“Ellis Island ferry,” he said. “Tomorrow morning. 9:30.”
“Got it, thanks.” He saluted with two fingers. “That'll dissolve in a few hours.”
“Hey, no!” Aaron yelled at the retreating figure. “Get back and come take care of this, man, I got ice cream in here.”
“You deserve that, you're a criminal!” He called back. “Bye, Mr Criminal!”
Aaron scowled. Teenagers.
“So, Mr Wilson,” Professor Frost began. “What is your opinion on Steve Rogers?”
Sam hoped he didn’t blanch. “Cap’s a great man,” he replied. “A real soldi-”
She frowned mildly. “Wait,” she interrupted. “What's your opinion on Iron Woman? And what inspires it?”
This time, Sam hesitated. “That's a complicated answer,” he mused. “Iron Woman is an asset to any team- nobody can argue with that. I've seen it fight, I’ve seen footage of it in battles I wasn’t part of. The suit seems capable of analysing opponents at computer speeds. Its durability is off the charts. Since it’s essentially a computer, it takes a certain load off the person inside it. Of course, it’s dangerous, but in the right hands...”
“So you mean to say you think Toni Stark isn’t the right one?” Frost asked quickly. “Tell me your opinion on Dr Stark.”
Sam paused. Natasha had said to be honest only if the situation called for it. Did this call for it? He didn’t know for sure, but, well, he’d never been that good at lying on the spot. Natasha was just gonna have to suck it.
“To be honest, no,” he answered decisively. “She’s too unreliable. Too much of a hero complex. And a superiority complex. She defies pretty much everyone’s authority and thinks she knows more than anyone in any given situation. Sure, she’s a genius, but there’s a difference between the lab and the battlefield. She has a lot of trouble following Steve’s orders. She-”
“That's enough,” she protested, looking like she’d rather be anywhere but here. “Now back to the first question: What’s your opinion on Steve Rogers?”
“Well, he’s a soldier,” Sam answered. “A soldier in the truest sense of the world. Someone who knows what shots to call and isn’t afraid to call them. He’s the kind of guy who inspires trust in people. He risked his life for the country...” He trailed off, when Professor Frost held up a hand to stop him.
“That's all very well and good,” she replied. “But... Leadership; inspiring; paragon of truth and virtue... You’re describing Captain America to me, Mr Wilson. You’re describing the legend. I’m asking about Steve Rogers.”
Sam had to think about the answer, he realized.
Wanda did her best not to fidget; one of the many things that Natasha had labelled as super important, do not forget.
Her psychologist, Professor Xavier, was gazing at her with a kind smile, but Wanda was more interested in the laser sharp focus of his blue eyes. It was interesting, almost like he could read her mind, when she couldn’t read his, thanks to Strange's wards.
“So, tell me again,” Professor Xavier spoke. “What exactly are you accusing Dr Strange of?”
“He almost killed me,” she answered swiftly. She made sure to blink several times, making her eyes seem watery. It was a trick she’d mastered to get out of trouble with her parents, back when she and Pietro had been naive kids. “Made me cough up blood. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”
“But according to the footage,” Xavier said. “And based on the little I can understand of magic, you were the one to actually cast the spell. He simply reversed it on you.”
“I didn't mean to hurt him that bad,” she protested. “I’m still learning how to control my powers. But if Dr Strange is so powerful, he should have known, right? He must have.”
“If he were deliberately trying to hurt you,” Xavier tried to reason. “Then why did he heal you immediately after?”
Wanda scowled. “Because it’d make him look bad if something had happened to me. And he’s dating Stark now. If he looks bad, then it makes her look bad too.”
The professor stared at her.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?!"
Peter winced, whirling around to find Harley glaring at him with his arms crossed.
“You’re supposed to be in class,” he tried to reprimand.
Harley snorted. “So are you.”
“Look, the guy yesterday said they’d be making a deal today, on the ferry,” Peter explained. “I have to be there.”
“Why can’t you just call Miss Stark?!”
“I told you,” Peter snapped. “I have to prove myself to her.”
If anything, Harley’s glare intensified. “Fine,” she growled. “I'm coming with you.”
“What?” Peter hissed.
“You heard me.” Harley marched up to him, poking at the spider emblem on his chest. “I'm coming along. I’ll stay out of it and on the side-lines, because I’m not as stupid as you are, but the second anything goes wrong, I’ll call mom, because you won’t.”
“Harley, no way!” He tried to protest.
“Fine, then I’ll call her right now.” The look in his eyes was pure steel and Peter could do nothing but groan.
Stephen sighed as Carol read out the reports from the psychological tests.
“As predicted then,” T'Challa pointed out from the other side of the video call. “Romanoff drilled them on basic tactics.”
“It's actually a tricky situation,” Clint mused, spinning on his chair. “Psychology isn't an exact science. We know they're too dangerous to be part of the team, but medically, or even psychologically, there's nothing wrong with them. Nothing that can be diagnosed or cured.”
“Xavier wrote a note here.” Rhodey unfolded it and read aloud:
The most secure option you have is to reject Miss Maximoff from the team and strip her of her powers. However, as that cannot be done without probable cause, I suggest increased surveillance and extra vigilance on the field. Based on Emma and Jean's reviews, the same can be said for Mr Rogers and Mr Wilson. I hope Agent Salt had better results, although I doubt it. In any case, good luck.
Prof. Charles Xavier
P.S.: I salute your ability to find such uniquely deluded specimens of homo sapiens, Miss Stark.”
Next to Stephen, Toni snorted at the post-script, muttering something along the lines of 'smooth English fucker'.
“You know, the increase surveillance thing is pretty redundant, what with FRIDAY monitoring all areas if the Compound at all times...”
“Not the bedrooms,” Toni interrupted. “Peas coding. She has no eyes in the bedrooms and ears only when called for.”
Everyone blinked at her.
“Sorry, did you say peas?” Carol asked, sceptically.
“No, not we,” Rhodey cut in, wagging a finger at her. “Only you call it that.”
“Okay, well, on the field,” Clint continued, turning everyone’s attention to himself again. “We've got the teams all set up specifically to keep an eye on everyone. Obviously, during a battle, we can’t actually monitor them all the time, so... Really, there’s not much to be done, is there?”
“All these tests proved is what we already knew,” Stephen agreed.
There was a brief silence as they all pondered the situation with an air of gloominess.
They jumped when Toni’s phone rang.
“Hey, Hap,” she mumbled into the speaker. “Yeah, I’m leaving in a few minutes. Tell Pep she can stay with the baby today.”
“Okay, I have a meeting to get to,” she announced, putting the phone down. “I'll see you all during the press conference next week, then, I guess.”
“Harley, can you see anything?” Peter muttered the question.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Harley shift in his seat near the window of the boat, speaking into his phone. “Yeah, you. You need to be more subtle.”
“Shut up,” he replied, half-distracted. “There are a few people I recognize here. They’re heading toward the back of the boat. I’m gonna follow them.”
“Be careful. Remember, I’ve got mom on speed dial.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he sighed and made his way towards the people Karen had marked as criminals.
Stephen watched Toni freeze, one hand still fiddling with the buttons of her blazer, the other suddenly raised in a gesture of denial as her eyes glowed blue.
“No,” she whispered. “No, no. He- I- I’ve- I need to go.” She turned to him, eyes wide. “Peter’s in trouble. And Harley’s with him.”
Stephen's felt his own blood grow cold. “Do you need me to come with you?”
She shook her head. “No, stay here. FRIDAY will direct the Accords Council to you, they might call, if something goes wrong before I get there.” She was already walking towards the window, the suit sliding over her skin. “And tell Happy to get the car to the Ellis Island ferry dock, pronto!”
She took off, her sudden fear obvious in the speed with which she disappeared.
Stephen took a deep breath and prayed both their boys were okay.
Up next: "If you're nothing without this suit, then you shouldn't have it."
Chapter 20: Not Broken (Is There Anything To Fix?)
Right, lots of angst and nothing good in this chapter... Enjoy ;)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“PETER!” Harley was screaming. “Peter, hold ON!”
Peter wasn’t sure if he was hearing it on his earpieces or across the distance between them. All he knew was the cacophony of panic from the crowds on either side of him, the strain on his muscles from trying to keep the boat together and the dreaded knowledge that if he lost his hold, if his strength failed him now, then a lot of people would likely die. Harley could die. He couldn’t let that happen. Not Harley.
Then his arms relaxed, completely of their own accord. For a split second, Peter didn’t know what was happening. Then a man screamed “Iron Woman!” in joy, while Peter heard Harley sigh in relief and groan at the same time.
And the sound of repulsor jets was all too loud.
“Hi, Spider-Man,” he heard her voice filter through the comms. It was falsely cheerful and he knew Harley could hear her over his phone too, judging by the way he paled considerably.
As the armour peeled away to fuse the jagged edges of the ship’s middle, leaving the little bots to push the two halves together, Peter swung after her. “Miss Stark!” He tried to call out. “Is there anything I can do?”
“No, I think you’ve done enough,” she replied in that same pleasant voice. “Why don’t you go get Harley and wait for me on the tower at the dock, instead?”
Peter knew a dismissal when he heard one. Heart thundering in his chest, along with annoyance and anger that he hadn’t been able to take care of it himself, he swung back to the crowds. The rest of them were busy watching Iron Woman, but Harley, still listening in, was waiting for him a little apart.
Neither of them spoke a word as Peter wrapped an arm around the shorter boy, getting them off the boat as quickly as he could.
Steve felt the breath get knocked out of him as a force knocked him into the wall.
“Bucky!” He gasped. “What the hell?”
“You son of a bitch,” Bucky hissed, the metal arm pressed lightly against his throat. “When were you gonna tell me that Maximoff was a Hydra volunteer?”
“Uh.” Steve floundered. “I promise I was gonna, but...”
“It slipped your mind?” He finished, sarcastically.
Steve swallowed. Truth was, he’d been afraid of this very reaction at Wanda’s earlier affiliation. How had he found out anyway?
“Look, she was brainwashed,” he tried to explain. “She and her brother had been orphaned by an SI bomb and they blamed Toni for it. Hydra played into that, offering them a chance to get revenge.”
“That's not brainwashing, you punk, that's taking advantage of sheer stupidity,” Bucky growled, shaking him a little. “They were so angry at a person they didn’t even know, who was also blameless, by the way, that they were willing to get experimented on for a chance to kill her?”
“Toni’s bomb killed their parents,” Steve reiterated.
Bucky actually groaned. “Toni designs the bombs, she doesn't personally construct each and every one of them. And SI's stuff never malfunctions. Never. I used SI guns all the time as the Winter Soldier. And still do, in fact. Secondly, SI was a government contracted weapons manufacturer. The only deals they had were with the US Army, no one else. Any other entity firing them means they'd been sold under the table by Obadiah Stane.”
“Yes, but Wanda...” Steve barely got a chance to speak.
“Steve, the whole world knows who and what Hydra is, or was,” Bucky reminded. “She should have turned tail and run the second she heard their name. But they didn’t. They were so hell-bent on revenge and anger that they were okay with joining a known terrorist organization and signing up for body modifications. You think that’s okay?”
The arm at his throat disappeared as Bucky stepped back and Steve realized he'd been breathing sparsely. “Listen, Bucky...” He tried to explain.
“Sometimes, it feels like I barely know you,” Bucky whispered.
Steve froze. “What?”
He looked up at him, grey eyes sad and sombre. “And then I realize,” he went on. “You saw the similarity between you and the twins.” He paused like he was gathering his thoughts. “I never said anything during the war, because you’d seemed so happy, but... Steve, how could you possibly agree to a bunch of scientists pumping your body full of shit they didn’t even know would work right?”
Steve tried to think of something to say. He came up blank.
“So now I think,” Bucky murmured. “Maybe I never really knew you at all.”
He turned away and Steve called out on instinct. “Bucky, wait!”
He stopped, only for a second. “It's James.”
“How mad do you think she is?” Harley asked after Peter took off his mask so Miss Stark wouldn’t be able to hear them.
“She was talking politely and cheerfully,” Peter replied flatly. “How mad do you think she is?”
No sooner than he finished talking, the armour arrived. Harley turned, but Peter stayed still.
“Harley, Happy's got a car waiting at the pier. Go there now and wait.”
Harley, sensing that it wasn’t the time to mouth off, gave one last sympathetic look to Peter, then jumped off, muttering a quick apology to Miss Stark.
“So, I tell you to stay away from this. And you go behind my back, doing the one thing I asked you not to do.” Her voice was sharp, her words more so.
“Is everyone okay?” Peter asked, as quietly as he could.
“No thanks to you.”
Oh, but that was just so. Not. On. “No thanks to me?” He asked, incredulously. He finally turned, getting to his feet and approaching the armour, hovering a couple inches above the ground. “Those weapons were out there and I tried to tell you about it, but you didn’t listen to me. None of this would have happened if you had just listened to me.” His voice pitched higher the closer he got to her and he knew he should stop talking, stop taking out all the frustration and confusion he’d been feeling since finding those adoption papers, on Miss Stark of all people, but he ignored his own gut instincts and scoffed. “You didn’t even care about what I was saying, did you?”
“I did listen,” she snapped, the mechanic tone making her voice seem even angrier. “Who do you think called the FBI, huh? I told you I was gonna put someone on the case and I called Jessica Jones immediately after. Who, by the way, suggested keeping an eye on you, because, and I quote: ‘He’s a kid and might try to take it in his own hands.’”
“I am not a kid,” Peter hissed out. “I'm not, so stop treating me like one!”
“Yes, you are! You are fifteen years old, you’re just a kid-”
“Well, I'm not YOURS!”
For a split second, everything froze. Peter watched with his heart in his throat as the armour seeped back under her skin and Miss Stark dropped lightly to the ground. She took slow steps towards him and Peter involuntarily stumbled back, ever so slightly afraid of the cold eyes glittering in the setting sun, the black three-piece adding to the intimidation, the foreign rage in her unnaturally emotionless face.
“No, you're not,” she stated in agreement- and, oh boy, that hurt to hear. “You're not my kid. What you are is my responsibility and currently, the cause of a problem the Council wants me to deal with. Did you even think about what could have happened here tonight?” Her voice stayed the same volume, but the sharpness was growing and growing. “What if somebody had been hurt tonight? Different story, right? What if they’d died? That’d be on you.”
He took another involuntary step back as her finger pointed tauntingly at him, and she matched it with a step forward of her own.
“You think you’re grown up and responsible; tell me what you would have said to the families? How would you have even faced them, even wearing the mask? I’ve been doing this shit for ten years and I still can’t look them in the eye. None of us can. And you think you’re ready for that? To take responsibility for the loss of someone’s partner, or child, or parent?”
Peter opened his mouth; nothing came out.
“And... What if you’d died?” Miss Stark’s voice cracked. She spread her hands in a helpless gesture. “That'd be on me. I don’t need that on my consciousness.”
Somehow, the pain seeping through her words made Peter feel even worse. “Miss Stark, I'm sorry, I...”
“That’s not gonna cut it,” she muttered, looking away from him and out at the water.
“I just...” He swallowed. “I just wanted to be like you,” he admitted in a mumbling plead.
Miss Stark shook her head, not meeting his eyes. “And I wanted you to be better.”
How? Peter didn’t scream. How can I be better than my own hero?
“The Council wants me to bench you,” she spoke again, eyes flashing momentarily blue. “I'm gonna have to take the suit back.”
Peter’s heart plummeted. “Wh- for how long?” He asked.
“A month or so, according to them.”
“No, no, no, no, Miss Stark, please,” he said, desperate. “You can’t- I'm nothing without this suit.”
And just like that, her eyes grew hard again, mouth setting in a grim line. “If you’re nothing without this suit,” she said carefully, enunciating each word. “Then you shouldn’t have it.”
There was a silent stare down for half a minute, then Peter looked away, biting his lip. “I don’t have any other clothes,” he mumbled, fighting off any breaks in his voice.
“Go to Happy,” Miss Stark ordered. “He’ll take you and Harley to the Compound. Get dressed, then he’ll take you back to your house.”
Peter shook all over as he pulled the mask back on, ignoring the sense of finality. As he swung away, he looked back to see Miss Stark leaning heavily on the railing and the words, “I want to be your kid. Why can’t I?” remained stuck in his throat.
May started, looking away from the news on the television to pick up her phone. “Annie, is he okay?” She demanded immediately.
“He's fine, May,” a quiet voice assured. “He should reach home in a few minutes, okay?”
“Oh, thank god,” May sighed in relief. She’d been watching the news for a few minutes and had been waiting for some kind of confirmation of something. “What about you? Are you okay?”
Annie didn’t answer immediately. “It's fine. But he’s pretty upset with me, probably. I confiscated his suit. He’s not allowed to patrol for as long as the Council deems necessary.”
“Anything else?” May asked, gently, because, she may not have known Annie for too long, but this was the woman who kept her baby safe and May could hear the tension in her voice clear as day.
“No, no, just... Just wanted to give you a heads up.”
She ended the call before May could reply.
Steve waited in the common room, knowing Toni always preferred to walk in, rather than land on the roof. Sure enough, by the time everyone else in the Compound had fallen asleep, Toni walked in. It was pitch dark, she shouldn’t have been able to even see him, but before Steve could get a word out, she spoke. “Whatever it is, I’m not in the mood. I've already been having a pretty shitty day. Make an appointment and be in my office and then maybe I’ll-”
“It’s about Bucky,” he blurted out, just on a whim.
Sure enough, she stopped. She sighed, turning back to him. “What happened?” She asked, concern masked. “Is he okay?”
Steve approached her, noting the way she visibly tensed, even though she refused to take a step back.
“Were you the one who told him about Wanda being Hydra previously?” He cut straight to the chase.
Toni, to his surprise, scoffed. “Were you the one deliberately keeping a secret from him that he deserved to know?” She mocked.
Steve felt the bitter sting of regret. “Look, I don’t how much more you want me to apologize...”
“You apologized?” Toni asked, confusion coloring her face. “I must have missed the memo.”
“I know you got the letter...”
“If that’s what you call an apology, then I think we need to you have you sectioned. Usually I’m against using live humans as test subjects, but I don’t see any other options here.”
“Toni, stop!” Steve groaned, exasperated. “Please, just stop mouthing off and talk to me!”
“That's exactly what you suck at, Rogers,” Toni snapped. “Talking. But fine, you want to have a conversation? Let’s start with how you proposed to me, even knowing what you knew about James. Or about how the only reason you did it, was so you could have continued access to my money and resources to keep searching for your best friend? Or kissing Sharon? Or killing my...?”
“Sharon was a mistake!” Steve interrupted loudly. “Okay, I can admit that. But you know, you lied to me too! You never told me you knew Peggy, let alone that she was your godmother and...”
“Right, I’ll accept that was a mistake on my part. I should have told you, I was just terrified that you wouldn’t want to be with...”
“And yeah, I should have told you about Bucky and your parents, but I knew how you’d react, and I was right...”
“No, you weren’t! I could have killed you both within minutes if I wanted to...”
“But I didn’t want to marry you because I needed your money or anything, I did that, because you were leaving the Avengers, to stay at the Tower, and I needed a sure fire to keep you away from that doctor of yours and...”
Toni’s face shuttered. All the defences she kept crashed down; realization, grief and horror playing across her face.
And Steve realized he’d made a mistake.
“You knew,” Toni whispered. “You knew that Stephen- you knew how he felt. And you rubbed it in his face. All the time.”
“Toni...” Steve moved closer to her, feeling like she was about to either run or attack.
She didn’t seem to notice his slow advance, since she didn’t make any attempt to keep the distance between them.
“All those times,” she kept saying, eyes distant and far away, but no less angry. “I'd wonder why you became so possessive, so affectionate for no reason. I thought maybe it was just stupid insecurity, fragile male egos, etc. But you were showing off, weren’t you?”
Her eyes refocused, and Steve was close enough to touch her now, but she didn’t seem to care about that, hatred emanating from her skin.
“You were deliberately hurting him, using me to hurt him, showing him that he could never have what he wanted, because you did, when the truth is...” She laughed, a single and sharply cruel sound. “The truth is, I would have chosen Stephen over you without a thought, even back then.”
Steve paled. “You don’t mean that,” he said, in a low voice. “You loved me. And you still would, if you’d just get over what happened in Siberia, and...”
“No, you need to get over yourself, and realize the world doesn’t revolve around you,” Toni snapped. “I haven’t felt anything for you for over a year now. And even when I thought I was still in love with you after Siberia, I still wouldn’t have forgiven you.”
She’d leaned in as she spoke, grit teeth and self-righteous fury, and Steve had been getting more and more angry at her refusal to see sense, more and more desperate that she wouldn’t even give him a chance.
And they were standing too close somehow, and he just needed something right, something good, some sign that he was right, and...
He kissed her without warning, anticipating her defensive reaction and stopping it with one hand curling around each of her wrists.
Toni squirmed, with shocked gasps and panicked whimpers that he swallowed. He pressed closer, suddenly aching for the feel of her, of Toni, and internally cheered when she abruptly relaxed. He felt her hands stop trying to break free, her muscles loosening against his and she didn’t kiss him back, but she wasn’t fighting him either. He’d take it.
Just as he was about to move a hand to her hair, something wrapped around his neck and middle, some sort of cloth, and yanked him back harshly, unforgivingly.
Steve gasped in shock, stumbling over his own feet. He got the barest glimpse of pure terror in doe brown eyes.
And then the world around him splintered.
*peeks out from behind my screen* Don't kill me???
Steve looked around himself in panic. His surroundings were the same as they’d been a second ago, but Toni was staring through him, like she couldn’t see him. Steve had a feeling she wouldn’t be able to hear him either. So, instead, he leaned against the invisible barrier that had materialized between them and watched, furiously, as Stephen Strange gently called Toni’s name.
“Toni, sweetheart, look at me,” he murmured, his gloved hands hovering in front of her face, but not touching. “He's not there, hon. He’s gone. Toni?”
Toni began to shake, waking up from whatever internal nightmare she’d been stuck in. She opened her mouth to speak, but when no sound came out, she simply shook her head, hand reaching to grip the front of Strange's tunic. Steve frowned when his living cloak wrapped a corner around her wrist.
“Toni?” Strange spoke again, concern leaking into his tone. “Toni, may I touch you?”
It was an odd thing to ask, but only when Toni nodded, did Strange place his hand along her jaw. Toni’s lips trembled and Strange placed a quick finger on her lips.
“You can explain later, sweetheart. Let’s get you to bed now, hmm?”
Steve followed them as closely as the barrier let him. He couldn’t help it. He hated Strange with a passion, hated seeing him with Toni, but he could grudgingly admit that there was a fascinating chemistry there. The way Toni just let Strange lead her, following him pliantly, when she’d rebelled against Steve almost every moment of their relationship; it was... Odd.
Strange led Toni into the bedroom they shared, one arm hugging her shoulders, keeping her tucked into his side. Steve watched as he gently laid Toni on the bed, and felt a renewed surge of overpowering envy as Toni closed her eyes, arching subtly into the hand on her forehead.
“Toni, there’s something I need to take care of,” Strange said softly.
Toni stiffened, shaking her head, her mouth falling open in a silent plea.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” the wizard soothed. “Just go to sleep. In fact, I can put you to sleep. Is that okay?”
Toni nodded slowly, still trembling minutely, eyes wide and beseeching and trusting as she looked up at the wizard.
Oh, what Steve wouldn’t give to be on the receiving end of that look again.
Strange moved his head from her forehead to comb through Toni’s hair. Steve watched curiously as golden threads of light flickered between his fingers, while Strange murmured under his breath. Slowly, Toni relaxed, eyes closing as her breath evened out.
Steve watched Strange watch Toni for a few seconds longer, his gaze still soft and his fingers threading between her hairs.
Then he looked up, straight at Steve, like he could see him through the invisible barrier and now, the only way to describe his eyes was cold. Unforgiving. Hateful.
Steve swallowed and Strange disappeared.
Peter knocked on the door, limp and loose-limbed, anticipating Aunt May’s worry and anger, as soon as she would open the door.
To his muted surprise, she didn’t react much, stepping aside to let him through with only a look of soft concern.
“What’s wrong, Peter?” She asked, quietly. “I got a call from A- Toni Stark, saying you were with her. Is everything okay?”
Peter felt his lip tremble, the tears he’d been holding back finally threatening to spill. “I lost the Stark Internship,” he explained in a mumble, staring at her blankly.
She raised an eyebrow. “Why? What happened?”
He shook his head, sinking into the nearest chair. If he stayed standing, he’d fall. “It’s just... I thought I could work really hard,” he said. “But... But I failed and I... I just really let her down.” It was as close to the truth as he could give her, without telling her about his night life.
“I'm sure she's only angry for now,” May replied gently. “Don’t forget she’s also Iron Woman. She has a lot on her plate.”
The words only served to make Peter feel even worse. Because, yeah, he knew how worked to death Miss Stark was, even with the rest of the Avengers taking much of the load, and Peter had still been stupid enough to put her through so much stress and... And how could he have said that to her?
“Peter?” May sounded concerned, and he realized he’d let a few tears slip.
“I told her I wasn’t her son,” he admitted in a guilty whisper. “She loves me so much... I love her so much, but I said it to her face that I wasn’t her kid.”
He heard May’s sudden intake of breath, knowing she was just as shocked at him as he was.
“Oh, Pete,” she sighed. “Why in the world would you say something like that to her?”
Peter shook his head, not having an answer.
Steve watched warily as Stephen Strange blinked to existence in front of him. He was the perfect picture of calm, gloves hands resting at his sides, face blank. Only his eyes held any emotion - fury.
Steve opened his mouth to speak. “Strange, what is this-?”
Something invisible snapped over his mouth, effectively cutting of his words. Steve moved his hands to grapple it away, but a cold heaviness settled over his wrists and his arms felt like they were being dragged to stretch out on either side of him. At the same time, his knees buckled of their own accord, hitting the floor.
He was being shackled, he concluded with a cold certainty. He was being shackled and, as he struggled for the slightest purchase against his bonds, he realized he couldn’t do a single think about it. How do you fight something you can’t see?
“I can’t let you talk,” Strange said through grit teeth. “Knowing you, the bullshit you’ll come up with will make me want to kill you and my tolerance is already close to snapping. Toni won’t be happy with me if I kill you.”
Steve stayed still, internally screaming, trying to see a way out. He should have relaxed at the announcement that he wasn’t about to killed, but the way Strange was looking at him wasn’t very comforting.
“Tell me something,” Strange spoke in the same tone. “Just nod or shake your head. Do you have any idea what sort of damage you inflicted on Toni? Let’s just begin with Siberia, because everything before that was emotional and psychological and that’s a whole other can of worms you don’t want me to open. So... Do you? Have any idea?”
Steve wanted to nod. He did know. He knew how much he’d hurt Toni, but it seemed that no one else could see why he’d done so, that he’d had no other choice. Especially not Strange. So he shook his head, trying to breath calmly.
Strange scoffed. “Liar,” he accused. “You think you do know. Well...” He stepped closer.
Steve started to squirm, as much the restraints allowed him to, but there was nothing he could do to stop Strange from pressing his fingertip to the centre of his forehead.
For a second, nothing happened, other than a tingling in his fingers and toes. Then the sensation sharpened, like somebody was driving a needle through them without using any anaesthetic. Steve tried to move them, tried to get rid of the feeling, but he was losing all feeling in them. They were growing numb, he realized.
“They had to amputate several fingers and toes,” Strange snapped.
There was a stabbing pain in his side. Steve gasped for breath, then found he couldn’t. It was like, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t inhale the air his body suddenly needed. Steve finally began to panic. He almost didn’t hear what Strange said.
“Broken ribs, along with other bones. The rib dug into her lung, almost punctured it.”
Steve felt, instead of heard, something snap. Pain travelled up his torso like shockwaves, and Steve knew he was screaming behind his invisible gag.
“Her sternum was splintered!”
His heart. Oh, dear god. Steve could feel the painful thump of his heart, slower and slower, like it was beating sluggishly.
“The arc reactor was smashed in, lodged into her chest. It was crushing her heart.”
He could barely hear Strange’s words; all he knew was the pain, his greying vision and rapidly shortening breath. Even his screams had died down to whimpers.
Just as he thought it couldn’t get worse than this, it did. He jolted violently. It was like being injected with the Super Soldier Serum again, only there was no aggravating sense of healing that he recalled, just the excruciating pain of fire moving through his veins, burning up his nerves and blood and muscles.
Then, without warning, it all cleared. Steve sucked in as much air as he could. As his mind cleared, he kept his eyes on Strange.
The man was obviously not to be trifled with it.
“And that,” Strange growled. “Was what she had to go through to survive.”
He barely had time to think, before the sorcerer snapped his fingers and Steve found himself falling fast. Everything around him turned black, unbroken except by the neon lights flashing around him. He screamed, but the sound was drowned out by the thunderous roar that echoed around him. The very air seemed to shake, even as he continued his free fall.
He could feel something watching him- a dark, heavy presence that felt hostile and malevolent.
Steve blacked out.
Harley paced restlessly. Toni’s words were still circling his mind, as was the look of pure shocked grief on Peter’s face, when they’d been riding back to the Compound from the pier.
“When you saw Peter couldn’t handle it, why didn’t you call me immediately?!”... “Oh, so you knew there would be problems. And you still decided to leave me out of the loop until the least convenient moment?”...
And now, Peter wasn’t answering his calls or his texts. What had he and Toni said to each other that would make them both clam up like that, all morose and regretful?
He jumped, calming down when he saw Elizabeth at the door, looking small and lost in her pyjamas. “What are you doing up, Lizzie?”
She stepped further in, closing the door and frowning. “I heard mom yelling at you,” she informed. “What happened?”
He sighed, pulling her into a hug. Harley wasn’t usually one for physical comfort, but he needed it right now. “I didn’t think before going into a dangerous situation. And letting my friend do something really reckless. I messed up, badly.”
Lizzie narrowed her eyes.
He threw his hands up in surrender. “Hey, don’t give me the stink-eye. I am literally not allowed to tell you anymore than that.”
She laughed, hugging him tighter. “She’ll forgive you,” she said simply, like it was an indisputable fact. “She always does.”
Harley smiled into his sister's blonde hair. “Yeah,” he agreed softly. “She really does.” It was the only consolation he had that Peter would be okay too.
And it was enough.
Stephen remained standing in the mirror dimension for a minute, trying to regain his rarely broken self-control. When he was sure he didn’t look ready for murder, he broke the barrier, stepping back into the real world. He felt a grim satisfaction, even if falling through the Dark Dimension for a few seconds was a mercy compared to what he wanted to do the Captain.
He felt a short flare of panic, when he saw the bed empty. Then the sound of running water alerted him and he walked to the open bathroom door.
“Toni?” He called softly. No answer. He peeked in and his heart broke when he found Toni sitting under the shower. She’d shed her blazer, but was still wearing the black shirt and skirt, rumpled and creased though it was.
She didn’t reply, just sat with her knees drawn up, completely drenched.
Stephen sighed, shrugging Levi off. Leaving his gloves and the belt of his tunic at the basin, he joined her, sitting down next to her, letting the water fall down his face and back.
“He won’t bother you again,” he promised in a low voice. “Not for a long time, at least.”
Toni nodded, slowly. “He kissed me,” she said in small voice.
Stephen cringed, remembering the mechanical terror in FRIDAY’S voice as she informed him of an assault on Toni. He could still feel the split second of white rage and pure fear when he’d dashed into the common room and found Rogers pinning Toni to the wall, forcefully kissing her while she was frozen stuff, resigned and too terrified to fight back.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he murmured.
She started shaking and Stephen reached behind to turn the shower off. He touched her tentatively, skimming his fingers, shaking more than usual, along her shoulders. She shuddered, but didn’t shy away. He took that as a good sign and tugged her to him. Toni curved into him immediately, sobs beginning to wrack her body.
“Two weeks,” Stephen swore. “Two weeks till Pepper and Happy get married, then we’re taking a vacation.”
She didn’t reply, but she buried her head in his neck, hiding her tears.
Stephen, knowing there was nothing else he could do, just wrapped his own arms around her, idly wondering how many laws of time he would break if he went back ten years and saved Toni from Afghanistan.
I'm warning you guys beforehand: next chapter is gonna end in a cliff hanger.
Chapter 22: Family Don't End In Blood
Title from a dialogue in Supernatural
Sam walked into the training room and almost jumped out of his skin when he realized there was someone standing in the shadows near the window.
“Barnes,” he greeted, masking his double take. “Training? Mind if I join you?”
The former assassin turned to him slowly. Sam felt his legs tremble slightly. He wanted to reprimand himself, but the way Barnes was looking at him right now... Those grey eyes didn’t hold a shred of warmth; they were cold and calculating, almost predatory.
“No, I’m not training,” he replied, in a soft voice that belied his posture. “I need to talk to you, actually.”
“Okay” Sam nodded. “About what?”
Barnes straightened. “About Steve.”
This time, Sam stiffened. “What about him?”
“You know he’s hiding something from you.”
The words were so matter-of-fact that Sam found himself starting to nod before they hit him.
“What? No, I-”
“Save it.” Barnes closed the distance between them. “I know you see him as this infallible soldier, but I’ve known him since he was a punk-ass kid getting beat up too often. And I know what he’s hiding.”
Sam didn’t want to believe him. Steve was one of his best friends. And, more importantly, he was their leader. Why would he hide anything from them? And there'd be good reason for it anyway, right?
“What is he hiding?” He dared to ask.
Barnes gave him a bitter smile. “Go ask him.” The grin sharpened further, showing too many teeth to be friendly. “And if I see him, I’m gonna punch him, which I have specifically been asked to hold out on. So tell him from me: he lays a hand on Toni, or either of her kids, again, Stephen isn’t the only person he should be worried about.”
Sam felt a trickle of fear. “Barnes,” he said quietly. “What are you talking about?”
“Wait for the 9 o’clock news tomorrow night,” was all the answer he got. “Natalia is tech-savvy enough to tell you that nothing is doctored.”
Toni stared listlessly at the diagrammatic simulation. It had started out as just a fun idea, melding vibranium with starkanium. But now, looking at the completed calculations- which even Shuri had looked over and altered with her own knowledge of vibranium- it seemed too...
“Invasive, don’t you think?”
Toni started. Stephen had entered the lab without her noticing; how out of whack was she?
“That's just what I was thinking,” she agreed.
Stephen gazed critically at the hologram. “You want to pump the body with vibranium nanoparticles, so they’ll bond with the starkanium. That’s all well and good, but it’ll change your biochemistry to a physical level. It’ll...” He hesitated, for a split second. “It’ll make you next to invincible.”
Stephen peered at her in that practised way of his that always made her spill the beans.
“I know I’m being paranoid,” she mumbled. “I just... Even with Extremis... He’s stronger than me. I don’t... I can’t go through that again.” Toni could still feel the bruising kiss he'd given her, just a week ago. Just as her flash backs to Siberia began to recede, this happened. Now she could barely think of his name without breaking out in shivers.
Thank god, Harley and Peter hadn’t found out. They’d have freaked, and Harley would have gone to the mattresses with his potato gun.
Speaking of which...
“What’s new with Peter?”
Stephen sighed, pure exasperation leaking through. “He has the homecoming dance tonight. His date is a senior girl, Elizabeth Toomes. She’s- what are you doing?!”
Toni scrolled through the page FRIDAY downloaded into her head. She knew her eyes were glowing blue, hence Stephen’s indignant exclamation. He knew her well enough to have guessed the answer to his own question.
“Reading up on Miss Toomes,” she replied anyway.
Stephen sighed again. “By Vishanti, Toni, just talk to the boy, instead of stalking his dates.”
She focused on him again. “I'm not invading the privacy of her family, just her, so relax. And besides, you think Peter even wants to hear from me?” She asked, bitter and angry. “After what he said... And I agreed! I wouldn’t want to see me.”
“Yes, but he’s not you,” Stephen reminded patiently. “Similar to you, yes, but not entirely you. He loves you, Toni. What he said that day was said in anger.” He gently flicked his fingers at her forehead. “You’re his mother, like it or not.”
Toni shifted uncomfortably.
Stephen had the nerve to roll his eyes. “I swear, if I didn’t know any better,” he muttered. “I’d say you had an anaphylactic reaction to finding out that people care about you.” He stared at her for a few seconds more. “Why don’t you table this idea for now?” He suggested, voice gentle. “I know you think an added level of protection will make you feel safer, but I don’t think that’s gonna work. Let’s go on our vacation after the wedding next week. If you feel the same way when we come back, then you can see about this. That sound okay?”
Toni bit her lips. “Yeah,” she said softly. “Yeah, that sounds good.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway... The footage will be released tomorrow night. So...”
“That too,” Stephen agreed. He threaded his hand through her hair, tugging lightly so she tilted her head back in pleasure. “You ready to ignore the fall out?”
She nodded. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
Peter fumbled slightly with his tie, as Harley sat at the edge of his bed behind him. His eyes were fixed on Peter in the mirror, but Peter was very good at ignoring him so far.
“Seriously,” Harley repeated for the twenty-fourth time, with the same exasperated tone he’d been using since sixteen attempts ago. “Just talk to her.”
“Harley, you weren’t there,” Peter finally snapped. “You didn’t see her face when I... When I said I wasn’t her kid. And she was so disappointed in me. I can’t think why she’d want to talk to me.”
Harley groaned and fell back on the scratchy mattress. “My god, am I the only emotionally stable person in this family?” He asked the ceiling.
“Don’t forget Doc Sabrina,” Peter mumbled.
Harley snorted. “Please. He spent two years denying his feelings, then four years ignoring them like they’ll just go away and then six months fretting about making a move too soon. I can’t see how that’s healthy. Seeing how close he and mom have always been, I don’t understand why he thought anything bad would have come out of just telling her.”
Peter let himself laugh, just as Aunt May stepped in. “You look great, Peter,” she said with a large smile. “You look like an adult.”
Peter smiled, resolutely pretending not to see Harley smothering his laughter in a pillow. “It’s too bad Harley doesn’t have a date, right, May?” He asked. “He’d look pretty respectable too.”
“Screw you, Parker,” Harley screeched.
“Boys,” May admonished. “Harley, Happy’s waiting in a car outside.”
Harley met Peter’s eyes again in the mirror. Talk to her.
Peter didn’t reply and Harley, with a shake of his head, waved a cheerful goodbye to May and headed out.
Peter turned back to his own reflection.
The phone rang just as Harley slid in the car.
“Yeah, yeah, kid’s here,” he said in lieu of an answer. “Nobody likes a helicopter parent, Toni.”
“I'll keep that in mind,” Toni drawled.
“And no, I didn’t see Peter, he’s probably getting ready for the dance.” Happy knew better than to wait for Toni to ask.
In the backseat, Harley smirked and Happy shot him a warning glare, keeping his own fond grin in check.
“Okay, smartass,” Toni scolded. “Are the Belgium shipments ready to fly out?”
“Uh, yeah. Plane will take off in about an hour or so.”
“Okay, that’s it then,” Toni said. “Drop Harley off here, do a final check of the cargo, then you can go back to your woman and kid.”
“Will do, Boss.”
“Give Pepper a kiss for me.”
“Kiss her yourself,” he retorted.
“She wishes. See ya tomorrow.”
Happy ended the call with a smile. Things had been relatively calm for some time, since the Rogue's return. True, no one was happy about that, but still... Nobody had invaded, nothing had blown up. Life was good.
“Help!” Peter waited for a reply, an answering yell, anything- anything that would let him know he wasn’t alone. Except that he was. Nobody except Ned knew he was here and there was only so much his best friend could do. “Help me!” He cried out again. But his chest felt constricted, he probably had broken a bone or two and his voice was a pathetic croak. “Somebody help me.” The last words were nothing more than a whisper.
Peter stared at his reflection, hazy in some sort of metal surface. His old homemade mask was torn right down the middle, creating an odd diametrically opposing image; his bare face, scared and hurt, and the mask.
Peter wished the two halves would resemble each other more. Maybe then, he wouldn’t feel like a fake, like he was living a half-life either way.
If you’re nothing without the suit, then you shouldn’t have it.
Miss Stark. Miss Stark was Iron Woman in and out of the suit. And Iron Woman was nothing without Miss Stark.
Suck it up, Parker, he told himself, firmly, as he tried to muster up all his strength. He had to do this. If he wanted to have the power and the right to help people? If he wanted to make his parents and Uncle Ben and Aunt May proud? If he wanted to measure up to Miss Stark? He was damn well going to be a hero with or without a suit.
“Get up, Spider-Man,” he growled, pushing up with all he could. “Get up. Get up!” Get up, Parker. “Get up, Spider-Man!”
There were times when Toni was really grateful for her multitasking brain, even before Extremis gave her an extra edge. Right now was one of the those times, when she was busy running the simulators at a random pace, keeping an eye on War Machine, had one mental finger on the secondary override in case Rhodey lost control, and was constantly checking his vitals and the armour’s controls; all at the same time.
“Ease up on the ascent,” she reminded, as her vision alternated between watching Rhodey in real time and watching him through the monitor. If anyone walked in to the control room now, they’d probably do a double take at the way her eyes were flickering between normal brown and iridescent blue.
“Okay, that’s good!” She called out, clapping enthusiastically as Rhodey alighted in a perfect 3-point pose.
“I think I’m battle ready now,” he declared, as the armour folded away. “What do you say?”
“No, yeah, I agree.” Toni nodded. “But let’s keep our fingers crossed that nothing happens any time soon.”
“Or, you know, ever,” Rhodey suggested with a nonchalant shrug.
“That’s wishful thinking.”
Rhodey pointed at her threateningly. “Don't ruin my high.”
Toni laughed, just as FRIDAY pinged against her consciousness with an urgency that was ominous. “What’s up, darling?”
-Boss, it’s Peter!-
Peter desperately wished he could disappear. Dr Strange was stitching up his cuts with magic while Happy was sitting on the opposite bed in the med-bay. Harley was next to him, a comforting presence.
He could probably have dealt with that. Except Miss Stark was leaning against the far wall and murmuring softly into her phone. She was turned away, but Peter could see the hint of blue shining from her eyes.
“Stop fretting, Pete,” Doc whispered. “It's gonna be okay.”
“She's mad at me,” Peter whispered back. “She hasn't even looked at me since I got here.”
“She’s processing,” Harley put in. “It’s been an hour or so by now. She’ll come around soon enough.”
“For what it’s worth, though, Peter, I’m sorry,” Happy said in a quiet voice. “I should have picked up your calls. I just assumed you were getting nervous because of the dance.”
“Don’t worry about it, Happy.” Peter waved away with a small laugh. “I needed to do this on my own, anyway.”
He felt Doc’s silent stare and wondered how much he knew of that day on the pier. Probably everything.
“Alright.” Miss Stark came back to them, standing close to the wizard and very studiously avoiding looking at Peter. “Toomes is under arrest. SI can choose to press charges. I’ve decided not to. The Board agrees.”
“What, just like that?” Harley asked.
“After Stane, I weeded out the old Directors who’d been hanging out since Dad’s time. It was time for some new faces.” She tapped her thumb against her mouth a few times in contemplation. “I will go and see him once though.”
“You’ll have time for that tomorrow,” Happy suggested. “Before the press conference.”
“Speaking of which...” Doc trailed off and Peter watched curiously as the man stared at Miss Stark with narrowed eyes, like he was daring her to something.
Miss Stark exhaled heavily. “Guys, I’d like to talk to Peter, if you don’t mind.”
Nobody said a word as Dr Strange herded Happy and Harley out of the room. Peter waited nervously, as Miss Stark sat down on the hospital bed beside him.
“I owe you an apology, Peter,” she said quietly.
Peter gaped at her.
“What you did was definitely reckless, but I shouldn’t have taken the suit away. That was unnecessary and a little bit cruel of me,” she admitted. “And what I said about you only being my responsibility,” she sighed. “That’s not true either. You’re a lot more than that.”
Peter swallowed. He knew better than to say that Miss Stark had nothing to apologize for. That wasn’t the point. “I get why you did it,” he assured shakily. “But... I need...”
The words were incredibly difficult to get out, but Miss Stark waited patiently.
“I found my adoption papers,” he finally confessed in a near-whisper. “It had your signature on it. Even though the name printed on it read Evelyn Carbonell. Does that... What does that mean?” The last words came out as a desperate whine he didn’t even try to stop.
Miss Stark looked slightly sick. “This isn’t how we planned to tell you,” she mumbled.
“Tell me what?” Peter demanded. “And what do you mean ‘we'?”
“Your mother was a SHIELD agent,” Miss Stark said softly. “And your father worked for their research division.”
Peter felt his heart drop to his stomach. Ben and May had never been able to tell him much about Richard and Mary Parker. What if they were nothing like he'd imagined them?
“They knew Howard pretty well, so I called them Uncle Richie and Aunt Mary when I was younger.”
Peter thought about the photo on the mantelpiece in his house, of the teenage girl standing between his parents and smiling widely.
“They went undercover because of how dangerous Richard’s research was, while I was still at college,” Miss Stark went on. “I didn’t see or hear from them again until I took over SI, and they were a huge help in those days, when I was pretty much running wild. And then they had you.” She looked at him now, eyes deep and fond with reminiscence. “You were a very healthy baby, but also really whiny. An attention-seeker if I ever saw one.”
Peter couldn’t help but pout slightly and felt gratified when Miss Stark chuckled.
“They named me your godmother,” she said in a quiet voice.
The silence that fell could have been broken by a pin. Godmother. The word fit, weirdly. It didn’t feel like a huge revelation, but more like... Like that was just the way it was supposed to be.
“So, why did...?” The question didn’t need to be finished.
“You were three when they died,” Miss Stark murmured. “They’d left you with Ben and May, because SHIELD told them to go into hiding immediately. They didn’t have time to let me know either, just hopped onto the first flight they could catch. Except,” she hesitated. “Their plane was hijacked by AIM. For Richard’s research.”
“What then?” Peter’s voice was a hush.
“Legally, you were mine, then. And I almost took you home with me too.”
“So why didn’t you?” Peter asked, wondering if he sounded a little petulant.
Miss Stark sighed. “I came to see you. At Ben and May’s. Richard had already introduced me to them at their wedding, even though I never got to know them very well. When I saw you with them, I realized that if you stayed with me, you’d lose your childhood before it even really began.” She laughed a little self-depreciatively. “I was a hot mess back in those days, Pete. And not in a good way. Maybe I could have cleaned up my act for your sake, but I didn’t want to take that risk. And even if I had managed that, I couldn’t change who I was. My childhood was bad, constantly under scrutiny and pressure from literally the whole country. I never wanted to put you through that.”
“So you left me with Ben and May,” Peter finished for her.
“Yes, I did, and I don’t regret it.” She gave him a pointed look. “And admit it, you love them.”
“Yeah.” Peter agreed without hesitation. “But how come I never knew about you. You never visited. Ben and May never said anything.”
“We agreed it was best if I stayed out of your life,” she answered simply. “At least until you were 18.”
“So,” Peter said slowly. “When you recruited me...”
“I’d been investigating Spider-Man,” Miss Stark said. “As a potential recruit for the Avengers and also because the idea that an Enhanced person was doing vigilante work in pajamas-”
Peter scowled, getting a hair ruffle in return.
“-that have me a heart attack. And once I found out, not only was that Enhanced just a teenager, but also Peter Parker... Well...” She shrugged. “Got in touch with May, asked if we could meet.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Peter made a time-out gesture. “Aunt May knows?”
Toni nodded. “Kind of a bad idea, keeping superhero identities from your family. I remember Happy threatening to crash one of my cars because he’d been the last one to find out I was moonlighting hero work in a metal suit.”
“Holy f-” He cut himself off, staring sheepishly at her. “I can’t believe I never noticed that she knew.”
They both sat in silence for a few minutes.
“I'm sorry too,” Peter said after a while. “I should have trusted you when you told me you were taking care of it. And I should have listened to Harley when he told me I might not be able to handle the ferry thing. And...” He swallowed. “I'm sorry for what I said about not being your kid. That... That’s not true. I mean... I don’t want it to be true, I like being your kid, even if I’m not actually, but you know, only technically...”
Miss Stark hugged him suddenly. And Peter clutched back tightly.
Neither of them said a word.
The press conference began the usual way.
Toni sauntered in, grinning brightly, Pepper right at her heels, both of them looking the epitome of power and confidence in their maroon and white pantsuits, high heels clacking sharply against the tiles.
The reporters, all clamouring with questions, laughed in unison as Toni joked about how glad she was that they’d all dressed casual, since she was just going to make them all sit on the floor anyway.
“So, as you all may know, I’ve got quite a big announcement to make today, of course,” Toni finally began. “The entire line up of the Avengers. So before I start with that, I’d like to take all the questions first, that don’t have anything to do with the Avengers Initiative. Ben?”
Ben waved a hand in greeting. “Miss Stark, many of us have been wondering, in the absence of biological kin, who will inherit Stark International when you’re gone? And since, the Avengers Initiate had been taken off SHIELD’s hands by you in 2014, who will inherit that?”
This was not a question Toni had been expecting. She shared a quick glance with Pepper, as she quipped, “What, you guys are so eager for me to retire?” Whatever confirmation she’d been looking for, she got. “My adopted son,” she answered calmly. “Harley Keener is the sole inheritor of SI.”
Before the room could burst into questions, Toni held up a hand. “My godson, whose name I’d rather not disclose yet, will take over the Avengers Initiative. And no, I will not be providing any further answers about them. Next question.”
Christine Everhart put her hand up and no one was surprised when Toni visibly rolled her eyes and called her name, even smirking fondly at her in greeting.
“So, Miss Stark,” the blonde began, looking every bit smug, like she already knew the answer to her own question. “You’ve been very private about your love life lately, after your previous relationship with Mr Rogers ended during the Civil War.”
No one in the room missed the look of utter chagrin that Toni gave Christine, who simply grinned back in victory.
“So, now the question is,” the reporter continued. “Are you seeing anyone right now?”
Toni sighed, long-suffering. She shot a glance off-stage, then turned back to the audience. “Yes, I am, in fact, in a pretty serious relationship at the moment. Their identity is not about to be revealed until next week however.”
“What’s next week?”
This time, Toni grinned. “As you all may know,” she began. “Two of my best friends, who have been dating for ten years now, recently had a child. As such they felt it was the right time to take the final step.”
The audience tittered excitedly, already guessing the next words.
“Next week is the wedding of Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan!”
Everybody cheered loudly as Happy walked on stage, blushing brightly when Pepper kissed him right there. Toni watched with a grin, while cameras flashed repeatedly.
“Alright, alright,” Toni laughed, gesturing for silence. “Let’s move on. No more questions? Then I’ll give you the names of the Avengers.”
If possible, the excitement in the room rose. One by one, Toni called out her teammates names, some by their real names, some by the names of their alter egos.
And although, there was a brief lull as the Rogues walked on stage, everyone clapped enthusiastically as they recognized Daredevil, then again for the Fantastic Four, a few even whistling as Johnny Storm winked at the crowd.
There were many who literally gasped in surprise when they recognized the wizard as Doctor Stephen Strange, former neurosurgeon and Toni Stark’s long time friend. A few of them even noticed the quick smirk he directed at Toni and wondered if he was the secret to be revealed at the upcoming wedding.
Everyone yelled out supportively and breathed an internal sigh of relief when Colonel Rhodes appeared, walking confidently and without visible support.
The cheering peaked when Spider-Man flipped on stage, bowing theatrically to the audience, drawing laughter.
As the entire ensemble somehow crammed on stage, a photo which someone would label as “the largest show of strength ever seen in one place”, nobody noticed Toni’s eyes flash blue. No one saw her confusion, followed by terror.
And then the ground shook and the sounds of weapons filled the air.
When he died, his tombstone- if he ever got one- would probably read: Here lies Peter Quill, the dumbest dumbass in the history of dumbassery.
How was he to know that Taserface had gotten his own faction of rogue Ravengers and still held a grudge against Peter and his friends?
Technically, it was Rocket’s fault. Okay, yeah, and Groot's, but he was a surly teen. Not much they could do about him. But Rocket? If they survived this, Peter was going to kill him.
He should tell him that. “Rocket!” He yelled, over the sound of the blasters that they were trying to avoid. “I am going to kill you if we survive this!”
“Cool it, jerkface!” Rocket yelled back. “How was I supposed to know they’d gotten a deal with those gilded bastards?”
“I don’t care!” Peter screamed.
“You two need to shut up!” Gamora screamed too. “We’ve got a bunch of remote-controlled drones after us, who are hell-bent on trying to kill us and if we die, I am going to kill both of you!”
“What did I do?” Peter demanded.
“Call for help!” Drax suggested in a booming voice. “Stakar Ogord and Kraglin know you. They could assist us.”
“The communication equipment is still fried,” Mantis announced, her voice still sweet in the chaos.
“I am Groot.”
“You shut it, little sap-filled brat!” Rocket growled. “I had other repairs to do.”
“Guys, we’re not going to be in the air much longer,” Peter realized.
Peter flipped a few switches. “Earth is closest,” he told them, swearing when Rocket took a sharp turn. “It's the only option we have.”
Maybe, if they hadn’t been running for their lives, Peter would have felt a weird mix of terror and anticipation at the thought of going to what had once been his home. Then again, if they hadn’t been running for their lives, they wouldn’t have been heading towards Earth anyway.
So as he and Rocket flew through the jump and nearly crashed through the atmosphere, all Peter could think about was: I really hope Earth doesn’t have the tech to afford holding a grudge against us too.
Carol was the first to reach the site of explosion, but only because Stephen didn’t know where to draw a portal to. Still, he was close behind her and as the rest of the Avengers arrived in the space of seconds, he stared at the spaceship that had just landed.
“What the hell-?” Somebody muttered.
Then a bunch of people- relatively speaking- stumbled out, talking over each other.
“What the crap kind of a landing was that?!” The one human-looking guy demanded.
A racoon- an actual, literal racoon- snarled up at him. “Hey, I’m not the one who screwed up the underside of the-”
“We have company,” a woman with like green skin interrupted them.
Immediately, all their gazes turned to the Avengers, who were surrounding them, weapons at the ready.
“Woah, okay, we come in peace, guys!” The human announced.
Stephen exchanged a look with Carol. “Who are you?” He asked, sternly. “And why are you trespassing Earth?”
“We’re under attack and trying to escape,” the green woman said. She was the most composed of them. “Our ship was damaged and this was the closest place to land.”
“Who’s chasing you?” Rhodey asked, from Carol’s other side.
“A rogue factions of Ravagers, with ships that they have borrowed from the Sovereign.”
Carol frowned. “The Sovereign don’t make deals with other races, not unless there is mutual benefit.”
The human shrugged. “Well, they have a grudge against us. A lot of people do, even though, you would think, that the people who saved the entire freaking galaxy would deserve some respect!”
As Stephen raised an eyebrow in scepticism, Carol made a soft sound of recognition. “Right. I’ve heard of you guys.” She turned to Rhodey. “They’re good people,” she said in a low voice. “They’ll have information on Thanos. It might be in our best interests to help them.”
Rhodey studied the ragtag group for a few seconds, as the racoon inspected a device in his hands, looking worried.
“How far off are the guys chasing you?” Rhodey asked.
“They’ll be here in a minute or two,” the racoon piped up. “You guys helping us? Or what?”
Rhodey nodded. “Everybody get into position,” he spoke into the comms. “You know your teams, go.”
“Wait!” Rogers interrupted. “Don’t we need
to talk about this? How do we know they’re on our side?”
“Carol knows them,” Rhodey shot back. “Now they need our help, Rogers, so if you want to stand and debate, you can do it later.”
As he barked out orders, a whistling sound could be heard. Everyone took up stances and a quick glance to the sky revealed a fleet of long, streamlined ships heading straight for them. The sound grew louder, until Stephen could only hear through the comms.
“Any weak points?” He heard Richards ask.
“Just blow them up!” Carol replied. With no time to tune the Guardians' comms to their own, Carol and Rhodey had taken up positions near the team. “They’re automated, nobody inside them!”
The first shots were fired like from machine guns. Stephen was vaguely aware of Clint launching grenade arrows at the ships and while they seemed to be doing the trick, it took three arrows to take down one.
“Where’s Iron Woman?” Rhodey yelled.
“Here!” Toni’s voice filtered through and Stephen allowed himself a quick glimpse of the armour zipping between the buildings. “War Machine, I cleared out everyone I could, but there are people left in the buildings.”
“Okay, Jones, Daredevil, Cage, Rand, Grimm and Widow,” Rhodey rattled off the names in one breath. “Leave the aliens. Run evac. Get the stragglers out. Iron Woman, have FRIDAY put in an alert to Rescue, just in case.”
“War Machine, these guys need a lot of heavy-duty weaponry to go down,” Clint said in warning, jumping onto the next rooftop.
“Okay, everyone who can fly, keep the ships as high up in the air as you can. As long as we keep then off the streets, we can avoid too much damage or injuries,” Rhodey reasoned. “Rogers, Barnes, Richards, Storm, run the perimeter. Anybody gets too far out, you force them back or deal with it. Not you, Torch, you stay up here. Carol and I will stick with the Guardians, make sure nobody gets too close to the ground. Spider-Man, Iron Woman, tag team them. Keep them within the buildings.”
It was chaos. But somehow, the odds seemed to be in their favour. The Ravagers, or whatever, had obviously not expected resistance of this scale. Stephen was carefully keeping distance, his long whips powerful enough to cut through them. Maximoff was hovering over a building opposite Clint, eyes flaring red as her magic moved around her like a storm. Vision, also on a building, was careful to keep his distance from her. Spider-Man used a few web grenades, but mostly he wrapped his webs around three ships at once, effectively trapping them, then leaving them for Iron Woman to blast into oblivion. Slowly, each one of the golden ships exploded into a burst of electrical sparks and machinery.
But as the last ships veered into destruction, a stray missile hit the building Hawkeye was on. “Somebody get to Hawkeye!” He yelled. But nobody was close enough except Maximoff, who wasn’t even looking in that direction, and his own hands were full, so in a split second, Levi was removing herself from his shoulders and zooming towards Clint, catching him just as he hit the side of the opposite building.
Out of the corner of his eye, Stephen wondered if he saw Maximoff staring his way, hands poised for attack. But he was too busy trying to gauge if Clint was okay and he didn’t notice the second stray missile heading for the building he was standing on- with no Cloak of Levitation- until there was a warning yell.
The roof top crumbled beneath him. There was a flash of red magic and the last thing Stephen heard was Toni’s scream.
Toni wasn’t sure how long she stood frozen at the door of the med bay. Stephen had been taken to the Metro General, under the watchful eye of both Dr Palmer and Dr Wu.
Toni knew she should be there, but she’d gotten a too clear glimpse of his prone body before the ambulances had arrived. She wasn’t ready to see that yet. Not until she got rid of the burning fury building somewhere in her chest.
“Laura, I’m sorry,” she said through a clenched jaw.
The woman nodded, not looking away from her husband. “He’s gonna be okay,” she mumbled. “He got lucky. Just a few cracked bones and...” She closed her throat, voice thick with tears. “And loss of hearing. The explosion affected his ear drums. He... He’s not going to take it well.”
“It’s Clint,” Toni tried to assure. “He never takes anything well, but he always bounces back. Forces us to keep going too. Even if he likes to be a dramatic bitch about everything.”
She counted it as a win when it drew a choked laugh from Laura.
“I’ll make sure the kids are okay,” Toni promised. “Stay with him for as long as you want. Tell FRIDAY if you need anything.”
Laura nodded and Toni turned to leave.
-Fri, where are the Rogues? Where’s Maximoff?-
-In the debriefing room along with the rest of the Avengers. The Guardians are present as well, Boss. And General Ross is on his way to the Compound.-
“Let him come,” Toni growled out loud. And metal slid over her forearms with all the smoothness of silk.
It happened almost too fast.
Natasha sat stiffly, resisting the urge to bury her head in her hands, stuck between worrying about Clint, chewing out Wanda for being so stupid, or being afraid of what Toni Stark was going to do.
That was a moot point when forty minutes after they’d all crowded into the debriefing room, while Rhodes and Danvers spoke with the Guardians, the door burst open, banging against the wall and Stark stormed in, a burly Asian man at her heels. Her arms were wrapped in armour and one hand came up, a projectile bullet primed at her wrist, aimed at Wanda.
Everybody was at their feet in an instant, but for an exaggeratedly long second, nobody knew what to do.
Then it seemed they all moved at once.
Steve came at Stark from her side, Sam stepped to get between her and Wanda, while Natasha leapt to her feet, hoping to restrain Stark’s arms behind her, and Wanda’s own palms turned up, flaring red.
But again, it was all a moot point.
Because the Jones girl had Wanda in a chokehold, Barnes had held Sam back with a warning arm across his chest, Natasha found herself on the floor with her wrists, knees and ankles tied together with something sticky.
With Wanda out of the way, Stark’s mini-missile, if that’s what it was, was pointed at her ex-fiancée, her other hand wrapped around his throat and pinning him to the wall. Steve, for once, seemed to know better than to push her off.
“Toni,” he started, trying to be reasonable. “What are you-?”
“Don't” The woman snarled. “You wanna leave this room alive, you keep your mouth shut!”
“That goes double for you,” Natasha heard Jones whisper to Wanda. “You try any of your freaky shit, I will tear off your fingers and fucking feed them to you.”
The silence in the room was tense.
“Maximoff,” Stark hissed, backing off from Steve.
Before he could move though, Spider-Man was there and the same sticky webbing holding Natasha trapped Steve to the wall.
“You little bitch,” Stark continued. “You saw the missile coming, didn’t you? You heard Vision warn him. You could have stopped that building from falling. But you didn’t-”
“I tried!” Wanda tried to protest, but it sounded too scared to be believable and Natasha knew that if there was a true battle, they would have lost already. “I tried, you saw me-”
“FRIDAY, replay the footage,” Stark ordered.
Holographic images flickered to life and everyone watched the all too clear video of Strange standing tall on the rooftop, without his Cloak watching something off the camera. He never noticed the missile hit his building until the ground beneath him gave away. There was a single horrifying second where he flailed as what was easily recognizable as Wanda’s magic could be seen hit the building. But inside of holding the building together for even just a few precious moments, it only brought it down that much faster.
Natasha heard one of the Guardians murmur, “That’s messed up.”
Wanda didn’t have a word to say. Face white, she looked around the room, at everywhere but Stark, her eyes large and teary.
Stark, in spite of her diminutive height, seemed to tower over the girl. “Consider yourself lucky,” she growled through grit teeth. “That because of your magic, you’re under someone else’s jurisdiction, not mine.”
At her words, the Asian, dresses in maroon robes similar to Strange's blue ones, moved his arms in a circle.
A loop of golden sparks opened under Wanda’s feet. The last anyone saw of her was her terrified expression.
“She’ll be kept at Kamar-Taj,” the man said softly to Stark.
She nodded, stiff and frigid. “Thanks, Wong.”
As the man disappeared into another portal, it was like a spell broke.
“Toni,” Steve spoke, struggling to break the webbing. “Where did you send her? You can’t just-”
Everyone turned to look at the newest arrival. Thaddeus Ross looked utterly pissed off, but somehow his anger seemed to pale in the face of Stark’s coldly calculated fury. “What the hell do you think you're playing at?” He demanded. He pointed at the aliens. “They are extra-terrestrial! They need to be debriefed and kept restrained-”
“Ross,” Stark interrupted frostily. “Just in time.” She took a step to the side, so she could see both Ross and Steve. “I have dealt with enough shit to last a lifetime. I want you both to know that I am done playing nice. I’m done tolerating all your crap. Ross, the Guardians are here as our allies. You’re not getting your grubby hands on them. They’ll be staying at the Tower, as my guests and under my protection. And...” She smiled almost lazily at him. “You’ll be getting a call from the World Security Council soon enough. And the President, most likely. I’d suggest you go back to your office so you don’t keep them waiting.”
“What’re you going on about, Stark?” Ross asked.
“Your days of glory are over,” Stark drawled, an insane gleam in her cold eyes. “All your dirty laundry is gonna be out for the world to see in just- FRIDAY, execute EXCALIBUR STRIKE- three seconds.”
Ross suddenly look scared. “No,” he said in a low voice. He took a step forward, but the click of a gun in one of the aliens.
“I think the very nice lady just told you to go to your office, sir,” the human one, who’s introduced himself as Peter Quill, said in a cheerful tone.
Stark turned to Steve, who’d finally managed to break the webbing. “As for you,” she said, her voice soft. “The world is gonna know the truth.”
Steve paled, getting to his feet and staring at Toni with soft eyes. “Toni, please,” he begged. “Don’t... We can talk about this.”
Whatever Stark was talking about, both Steve and Barnes seemed to know about it. The latter looked ever so slightly guilty.
“No.” There was nothing else she said to him.
Instead, she turned away, looking towards Barnes. He held her gaze for one long moment, then nodded.
“FRIDAY,” Stark said. “No point in waiting till tonight. Execute PROJECT REVEAL now.” She stared at Steve. “You should know,” she said softly. “You did kill someone in Siberia.”
“What?” Steve asked, faintly.
A second hologram flickered life. Confusion reigned, then cleared.
“No,” Steve murmured. He shook his head rapidly, eyes burning.
“Yes,” Toni corrected, in a whisper that was almost gentle. “You killed our child. My child. A child I will never know the first thing about. Boy or girl, eye colour, hair, name-”
“Stop,” Steve begged, breathing harshly. “Stop. Please stop.”
“Why?” Toni smiled without humour. “You didn’t, when I asked you to. Begged you to. So many times.”
“I'm sorry.” Steve’s voice broke. His clenched jaw was trembling. “Please. I’m so sorry.”
Toni nodded. “I believe you. I believe you this time. That doesn’t mean I forgive you. You didn’t just kill my baby. You also made sure I can never have another.”
She didn’t seem to notice the few tears that escaped her eyes, nor did Steve seem to notice his own.
Then Toni turned around, walked out of the room. Slowly, every one of the Avengers followed after her, then the Guardians. All of them made sure to throw a dirty look towards Steve. Bucky lingered for a few seconds more, staring sadly at Steve, before following the crowd.
Steve barely noticed and as Natasha and Sam stared at him, he sunk into a chair, hand over his eyes and shoulders shaking.
Just one more chapter to go, and then we start the third arc!!!
Chapter 24: The Calm Before The Storm
The reactions to the release of the Siberiam footage will be in the extras...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Stephen’s legs were missing. Okay, logically, he knew they weren’t missing, but they felt that way. Groaning ever so slightly at the sensation of needles in his arm, he struggled to open his eyes.
The first thing he saw was Toni, of course, one hand frozen over a tablet as she stared at him, the other pressed to his shoulder. His first instinct was to smile at her, but his head hurt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it, so he didn’t.
“Stephen?” Toni called softly. “How are you feeling? You know where you are?”
He stared at her blankly. “I don’t... I... Can’t... Who are you?”
Toni’s eyes widened. She bit her lips, shifting away from him. “What?” She asked weakly.
He stared for a few seconds, then smirked the tiniest bit. Immediately, she jabbed a finger into his side. “That was not funny,” she snapped.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. He took a closer look at her. She looked tired, but somehow lighter. Like there’d been a load taken off her shoulders. “How long have I been out?” He asked. “What have I missed?”
Toni slumped slightly. “It’s been four days. You didn’t suffer any serious damage. Torch caught you. You have a few burns over your chest. And a concussion. But that’s it. Thankfully.”
“What about Clint?” Stephen remembered seeing the archer fall. “Is he okay?”
Toni made a ‘more or less' motion with her hand. “He hit the opposite building pretty hard before Levi caught him. He’s spectacularly bruised, but nothing broken. And... The explosion was too close to him. So, there’s sixty percent hearing loss. He woke up two days ago. He apparently already knows ASL. I’m just...” She showed him the screen of her tablet and he observed the designs for hearing aids. “Stark Medical got to it as soon as they could.”
“Good.” Stephen sighed in relief. “What else?”
She blew out a loud breath. “Uh, Maximoff has been kindly escorted to Kamar-Taj. Wong came to take her off my hands. They decided to put permanent binders on her powers. Until she learns to discipline herself. They’re not too optimistic, though.”
“You know, when Thanos arrives- whenever he does- we’re going to need her fighting,” Stephen pointed out.
Toni nodded. “I know. Can’t be helped. But it’s a start. Let’s hope we have time. Moving on, Ross is under arrest.”
“Everhart came through?”
She hummed appreciatively. “Oh yeah. Every thing she collected was iron-clad. There was a trial, of course. But it was more a sham than anything. He’s in for life.”
“That’s one vulture out of the way,” Stephen muttered.
Toni smiled, a little nervous, a little giddy. “I, ah, released the footage.”
Stephen stared at her. “You mean... You did it?”
She nodded. “They’re all under questioning. James has been pardoned, I vouched for him, and Matt was defending him anyway.”
“So, what are we looking at? As a guess?”
“Both Rogers and Wilson will definitely be stripped of their ranks, honorary and otherwise. Romanoff will probably be put under house arrest. Most likely, they’ll all have restraining orders from all of us and any properties under any of our names. Of course, as with Maximoff, none of that will hold when we’re under fire... But...”
Stephen found her hand had somehow made its ways into his own and he gripped it as tight as he could. “But what?”
Toni focused on him. “I'm okay,” she said, in a voice of wonder. “I mean, I even told Rogers about... About the baby. And I’m okay.” She smiled incredulously.
“I'm glad you are,” Stephen chuckled.
Toni tilted her head at him. She looked serious again. “Can I ask you something? How long have you loved me?”
He raised an eyebrow, taken aback. “What?”
“Just tell me. Please.”
He studied her face, taking in the guilty expression. “I don’t know. I realized it right after the New York battle. But I don’t know when it started.”
She looked away, up at the ceiling. “Stephen... I’m sorry.”
He frowned. “What for?”
She sighed, guiltily. “I never realized,” she mumbled. “I never realized it was that long.”
Stephen shook his head. “I never wanted you to know. You loved Rogers, I didn’t want to make things complicated. Don’t apologize for that. Where is this even coming from?”
She didn’t reply. “You know, that first night we spent together? Back when we first met?” She waited for him to nod. “When I woke up the next day... I didn’t want to leave. For one crazy second, I wanted to stay in bed with you, wake up with you and see where it went.” She huffed a laugh, self-deprecation at its best. “Pathetic, right? One night together and I was thinking about a relationship.”
Stephen could hear the concealed plea to be told she was wrong. So he did. “I don’t have any room to tell you you’re pathetic,” he informed her seriously. “That first night? Your disappearance was on the news the next day and I genuinely considered tearing that entire desert apart to find you. Wong can attest to this.” He gave her a crooked grin. “If you’re pathetic, I’m right there with you.”
Toni still looked unsure. “There’s something else you need to know,” she murmured. “If you had told me... Or if I hadn’t been so blind... If it had ever come down to a choice between you and him...” She met his eyes with determination. “It would have been you. No contest.”
Stephen felt a pressure ease off his chest that he hadn’t even been aware of. “Even back then?” He asked breathlessly.
She nodded. “Even back then.”
“So... Let me get this straight,” Nebula said, holding up a hand for a pause. “You guys have revolutionized Earth technology to contain Infinity Stones, deal with invasions and undergo space travel?”
The man named Rhodes shrugged. “Well, space travel is something that only a few of us can do so far, and that’s in theory. Infinity Stones are handled by sorcerers and a complicated android. But invasions... Yes. We’ve already dealt with one as a team. And we’re mostly prepared for Thanos.”
Mostly seemed to be an understatement, but nobody mentioned that out loud.
Gamora watched the interaction with a keen eye. She was slightly conflicted. Most of her felt a sort of hopelessness because no matter how much they prepared, no matter how much they tried, Thanos was so much stronger than any of these Terran people could ever imagine. But a part of her also wanted so desperately to hope.
With Drax engaged in an arm wrestle with the metal-armed man named James, she decided to turn her attention to the discussion between Rocket and the woman named Toni.
“This was a pretty advanced model for something that you say you made in a cave,” Rocket was saying. He was bent over a hologram of a cold reactor. “What did you say was wrong with it?”
“Well, that particular model was a little too slow, cycles per second were too low,” Toni said. “The long term problem was the palladium. It was poisoning me.”
Rocket shot her a dirty look. “And you figured this out after thinking it was a good idea to jam it into your body?”
Toni narrowed her eyes at him. “Rich, coming from a raccoon with electric nodes implanted in his back. Didn’t you know that an accidental overload from the control remote could kill you?”
There was a silent stare down between them.
“I didn’t ask for it,” Rocket finally admitted. “And I neutralized it, when I broke out.”
Toni relaxed, nodding. “I didn’t have much of a choice, either,” she muttered. “And I fixed the problem later.”
Both of them shook themselves loose of the morose tone and turned their attention to the two children, Harley and another boy also named Peter, who were trying to converse with Groot.
“How much of that can you actually understand?” Rocket asked, indignantly.
“The nuances are tough to get,” Harley admitted, looking up. “But the gist is easy enough to understand.”
“It helps that he can understand us,” the young Peter added.
“Teenagers,” Toni sighed, shaking her head. “They have a whole different language, I’m telling you.”
Peter, who’d been looking for an opening, jumped in. “Oh, they’re your kids?” He asked.
Toni nodded. “Yep.” She sounded proud and Gamora felt a familiar pang of jealousy. Those boys would never find themselves lacking for love, that was sure.
“Gotta say, parenting seems to be a great look at you,” Peter complimented with a cocky grin that made Gamora roll her eyes. Really, if the fool didn’t spend every other second trying to make her jealous, he’d notice that she began returning his affections long ago. “You look way too young to be a mom.”
Toni, to her credit and Gamora’s endless satisfaction, seemed very amused and unimpressed by this. “That would be the result of an engineered biochemical I was injected with while dying,” she replied cheerfully.
Peter floundered for a few seconds. “Any other side effects?” He asked, waggling his eyebrows ridiculously. “Because I’m definitely down to help you do the research-”
His voice cut off. Everyone in the room turned to the scene as Peter tried to speak, confusion and a little fear creeping into his features.
“My apologies,” the wizard spoke smoothly. “I was showing Mantis an example of my magic. That’ll fade away in an hour or so.” He paused delicately. “Lucky for you, I didn’t attempt anything more powerful than a silencing spell.”
Peter’s panic abated, replaced first by annoyance, then false bravado as he caught Gamora’s eyes. She simply smirked at him, laughing internally as he noticed the look passed between Toni and Stephen.
Oh, damn, his eyes seemed to stay and she shook her head in exasperated wonder.
“I still can’t believe you’re wearing white,” Toni teased.
Pepper glared at her, forgetting her nervousness for a minute. “It’s tradition, Toni,” she sniped.
“Relax,” Toni laughed. “Hey, you look great. You look beautiful. Happy’s not gonna know what hit him.”
Pepper gave her hesitant smile. “Thanks, Toni,” she whispered.
Toni swooped down to kiss her cheek. “Congratulations, Pep,” she murmured.
The entire ceremony went without a hitch. Toni and Rhodey couldn’t stop smiling in immeasurable happiness from their places behind Pepper and Happy respectively. Toni deliberately avoided looking at Stephen, knowing she’d do something ridiculously sappy if she did.
But the time for the first dance was upon them and at Pepper’s request, Toni seated herself at the grand piano. It had been decades since she’d played for an audience, but her fingers moved like silk over the keys.
She kept her eyes on the room as she played.
The Guardians, invited mainly as courtesy, were standing a little apart. Carol was with them. With the Guardian’s ship fixed, they’d be leaving after the party, Carol accompanying them for a short distance, before splitting off to do her own recon.
Hope had managed to pull Rhodey into a dance. Christine had targeted Stephen, who was blushing slightly as Christine seemed to be teasing him. Laura and Clint were spinning enthusiastically near them, as much as possible with Clint’s lingering injuries.
Harley and the Barton kids were engaged in some sort of game, while Peter kept himself busy with a camera. May was sitting with them, having volunteered to look after Nathan and baby Michael.
Jessica, Ben, Richard, Susan and Wong had hit it off somehow.
The few business associates and long-time acquaintances were scattered around the room, as were select members of the press.
Johnny was trying to set Matt up with one of the reporters, with Danny and Luke egging him on.
Happy and Pepper took centre stage, swaying slowly, foreheads touching and their eyes closed
It was a beautiful scene, Toni decided. Literally all their extended family, all in one place.
In her musing, she didn’t notice Stephen until he was standing right behind her. Her silver dress left her shoulders bare and, even through his gloves, Stephen’s fingers felt like a brand on her skin. She tilted her head back to smile up at him.
“What the hell did Christine say to make you blush?” She asked with a smirk.
He rolled his eyes. “Bunch of stuff about how I look like I’m on top of the world,” he muttered.
“Dance with me?” Stephen asked, quietly.
She raised an eyebrow. “I thought you didn’t like dancing?” She challenged.
“Not when it’s with you,” he replied softly.
Heart beating erratically at the casual declaration, Toni signalled for FRIDAY to take over the music and let Stephen pull her to the dance floor.
“Pepper wanted me to tell you,” he started. “She and Happy are about to leave for their honeymoon in a few minutes. And since we’re about to leave for Italy for our vacation, she wants to see us break the news before that.”
Toni, having closed her eyes as she leaned into Stephen’s chest, opened them again to look at Pepper a few feet away. “You sure?” She mouthed.
Pepper nodded, grinning supportively.
Toni looked back at Stephen. “Are you sure?” She asked. “I don’t mind waiting for some time more. Because once we do this, they are not going to let it rest for months. So, really, it’s okay if-”
“I love you,” Stephen cut her off.
Toni stared at him. In the next few seconds, she was aware of Christine Everhart’s smug smile, the anticipatory whispers from the half of the press that weren’t focused on the wedded couple, and most importantly, the complete adoration in Stephen’s clear eyes.
She nodded and Stephen smiled brilliantly, before pulling her into a kiss.
For the second time that evening since Happy and Pepper had completed their vows, the room erupted into excited cheers and murmurs. In the back of her mind, Toni could probably predict exactly what all the headlines and social media sites would say tomorrow. She was also, in a way, dimly aware of the sound of a portal opening behind her, and Stephen walking her backward through it.
But all she could think about was Stephen’s warmth, his styled hair getting mussed under her fingers and the smooth slide of his tongue against hers. And the promise of more.
Ok! This arc is officially over! Feels good!
I've got exams starting soon, so, it'll be a while before I begin writing the third arc.
Thanks to all of you who've stuck with this story from the beginning!