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The Wife

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She met Tony Stark when he was strutting through life with a bottle in his hand and a mouth that was too smart for its own good. There wasn’t a media in sight that didn’t showcase his handsome face, his lavish millionaire bachelor lifestyle or the trail of bodies that paved the road for him. She knew exactly what happened to the girls that were taken in by his dashing charm.

“Would you like to grab a drink in my room?”

She shook her head, and Tony-ever the improviser-swept her little sister off her feet instead, not before paying for her taxi home.

It’s the least I can do—” he had said, arms wrapped around her little sister. She tried to protest but her sister’s imploring eyes hushed her words.  She was a young little thing, barely at the cusp of adulthood. But alas-she was an adult and there was nothing that an older sister could do to stop her. Seeing her wrapped around Mr. Stark’s arm—well he did always go for the younger ones. Tony chuckled, “I’ll take care of her, I promise.”

After much inner debate on her part and glares on her sister’s part, she eventually took his generosity and went home, done with the rambunctious party scene. She may have been in her midtwenties, but the party life was way past her, unlike the millionaire that seemed to breathe out drunken chaos and destruction.

In any case, she figured it would be the last time she saw the man—and it would have been, if it wasn’t for her sister’s accident the following morning.

She died on the way to the hospital, still wearing last night’s dress and smelling like Tony’s cologne.

And in just a whisper, she was truly and utterly alone.

---

She saw him, sitting a few yards away from the rest of the funeral-goers. Separate and alone. She went up to him.

“You promised,” she whispered, glancing at the progression of black-clad people.  She didn’t want to look at his eyes.

I’m sorry.” Tony choked out, grief suffocating his voice. She silently reached over, the back of her hand tapping against his.  Forgiveness perhaps, or a silent plea. Tony hesitated before wrapping his hand around hers, fingers interlocking.  His hand was clammy but his grip was strong, as if her hand was the only thing keeping him afloat.

She couldn’t tell if it was for his benefit or her own.

---

Tony was like a tornado, she found out much later. He would come into her life abruptly, make a mess of things and leave just as quickly. He was there when she picked up extra shifts at her work to cover the funeral expenses, during lunch and at the groceries while wearing the most ridiculous disguises that did nothing to blend in. She eventually got fed up of seeing paparazzi circle the coffee corner she had recently worked at and offered him a copy of the keys to her apartment.

Tony looked bewildered, staring at the metal she thrust into his hand like it was a bear trap. “I—”

“Just shut up and come in,” she said, blowing a piece of stray hair from her forehead. “The AC’s broken and I don’t have any food so you better order pizza if you’re hungry. I’m not feeding you.”

They ordered cheeseburgers at the nearest McDonalds instead. 

He came to visit her more often after that. She was there with him when he went from a millionaire to a billionaire, when he tried Korean food for the first time, and when he was dubbed the Merchant of Death by the press.

Their relationship—friendship—whatever it was called, centered around these small meetings. It was always Tony that seeked her out first—one because she had no idea how to contact him and two…she had an inkling that Tony needed to get away sometimes. Step away from his life that she had no understanding of.

She didn’t know when it exactly happened but Tony Stark became a certain fixture in her life.

“Have you thought about doing something else?” Tony asked her one day as she placed a hamburger onto the diner counter. She usually worked the night shift and so the only customers around were an old elderly couple in one of the booths, a bleary eyed college student falling asleep on a plate of fries and a couple of bikers playing football with folded napkins. Well, and a disguised multibillionaire on the counter of course.

“Hmm?” she asked, reaching over to refill his coffee. It was the cheap burnt type that looked and tasted like motor oil. She didn’t understand why Tony liked it so much.

“Do you plan on being a waitress all your life?” Tony asked, taking a bite of the hamburger and moaning inappropriately. He stroked the bun, “I missed you, sweetie.”

“Tony,” she said exasperatingly at his antics.  “You came by yesterday.”

“If you knew what I’ve been through today then you would make juicy sweet hamburger love too. There’s a lot of restraint on my part right now. Trust me. ”

She shrugged. It wasn’t as if she knew what Tony did to run his company. Smart as she was, she wasn’t Tony Stark level of genius and she was just fine with that.

“But I see you dodging, missy,” he said, pointing a fry at her. She swiped it and popped it in her mouth. “Hey!”

She reached over to get another one but Tony wrapped his arms around his dish with a cry. “No swiping!”

She poked at his arm instead. Huh. They were much more muscular than they looked. She poked his arms more, fascinated by the solid feeling. Poke poke poke.

“Okay okay! Stop it, jeeze.” Tony pushed her fingers away, “This has to be harassment. I’m calling HR.”

“Tony I don’t work for you.”

“Why not?” he asked, somehow managing to manipulate the conversation back to his original question.  “I’ve been asking you for 5 years now and I—” he trailed off as unsettling silence hung between the two of them.

5 years was a long time to be alone.

“I don’t want to work in Stark Industries Tony,” she said gently, placing her hands over his not minding the grease on his fingers. “You know that.”

Tony was silent for a moment. “What do you want then?”

“I-“ she pulled her hands away, wanting to fidget with something. She settled for pouring Tony another cup. “I-think I want to go back to school.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling softly at the man in front of her. He was looking at her so intently, as if he was generally worried about what she wanted. She reached over and smoothed the frown lines on his forehead. To think that anyone thought Tony as a callous and thoughtless person was lost on her. Tony Stark had a heart and he wore it in his eyes.  “Stop frowning Tony. You’re almost 40 now, you gotta take care of yourself.”

His face transformed into indignation, “I’ll have you know that I am at the prime of my life, thank you! 35 is not 40.”

She laughed with him, ruffling his carefully gelled hair and swiping another fry.

5 years was a long time alone but she wasn’t alone, was she?

---

They slept together once. He had come to her apartment drunk out of his mind and she was nursing a hot chocolate doused generously with bourbon. He was wearing an Armani suit and she was wearing Sailor Moon PJs and bunny slippers. He took a long look at her and the silence stretched in between them like a rubber band before it snapped and the they were on each other, lips smashing and biting hungrily, desperately.

They didn’t bother taking off their clothes. Tony Stark took her in the middle of the living room, hard and fast. Animalistic. He whispered her name over and over again, face buried in her neck, hips moving with practiced ease. She cried against his chest, arms wrapped around his shoulders in a vice grip, trying desperately to hold on as he ravaged her.

They finished together, crying out into the darkness of the empty apartment. She passed out right on the floor, not bothering to move from her position.

When she woke up the next day, Tony was gone. The only indication that he had been there in the first place was the achy emptiness she felt between her thighs and a check for her tuition to medical school lying innocently on the countertop.

It was the anniversary of her sister’s death and for the first time in a long time, she cried.

Chapter Text

She fell in love with Tony sometime between the 3rd year that she knew him. He had slept over her apartment, claiming he was avoiding someone called “Obie”, whoever that was. He explained more but she usually tuned him out.

His business was his business. It didn’t really matter to her.

What did matter was that Tony was looking particularly frustrated that day so with a click of her tongue, she directed him to her creaky shower.

“Strip,” she said, handing him a fresh towel.

“I’m not that kind of gal,” Tony replied, smirking at her.

She rolled her eyes. “Go Tony. You’ll feel better.”

She turned away, not before seeing the look of gratitude on his face.

She had been painting her toes hot rod red when she heard a shriek from the bathroom. Tony stomped out of the door minutes later, towel hanging haphazardly by his waist and hair filled with soap suds. She took a minute to appreciate his form and vaguely wondered when the man had time to work out.

“It hasn’t been a minute and you’re out of hot water,” he hissed.

She shrugged, “It does that,” and went back to painting.

“You have to fix it,” Tony hissed, sitting on her bed and making it wet.  He peered at her wiggling toes and reached for the gold polish. She swatted his hands away.

“Can’t afford to call anyone to fix it,” she said. Before Tony could retort she replied, “And no you can’t pay for it.”

Tony came by the next day with a tool box the size of her head and eyes filled with vengeance. She raised a single eyebrow at the power drill in his hand. “Really Tony?”

He merely cackled in glee and went to work.

---

She had fallen in love with Tony, she knew, just as sure as she knew that he did not reciprocate her feelings. She—like everyone else—saw the tabloids feature every time Tony stepped out of a gala or a party or some big convention with a beautiful model or two in his arms. She had torn her eyes away every time, stuffing the feelings of anger deep deep deep down her chest.

She had no reason to be angry. She was merely a small fixture, a small cameo in the life of Tony Stark. A side character that he went to for comic relief perhaps, or maybe emotional support that didn’t warrant the main female lead.

A side character with no name, perhaps.

And yet, whenever Tony came to visit her, she couldn’t help but feel like she was the center of his world. The way he placed on his attention on her, the way he seemed to just know what she wanted to say.

He was her whole world, she had realized one morning.

That couldn’t be healthy, she thought.

He knew every inch of her it seemed, but she barely knew anything about his life. His world.

This was clear in her mind when she found out from the news that Tony Stark had been missing for weeks.

Missing. Possibly dead. The headlines swirled like waves in her head. Dead. Terrorists. The thought made her heart hammer against her chest. Night were sleepless with worries about him and she—and she—just wanted to know what was going on.

But no one called. Why would they? For all she knew, no one knew about her friendship with Tony. Why would they contact some nameless girl, a woman nearing her 30s struggling to get a medical degree, about a man like Tony Stark?

She couldn’t concentrate with the thought that Tony could be—no he couldn’t be dead. He promised her burgers when he got back from his Afghanistan trip. He promised.

Tony did break a lot of promises.

She dropped out of medical school that day.

“You’re making a mistake,” an arrogant but nice boy in her class had told her once the news of her drop out made its way around campus. His name was Stephen, she remembered, and he wanted to be a neurosurgeon. She couldn’t remember his last name though—she just knew it was something strange. “I can actually tolerate your presence. You only have a few months until graduation!”

“It definitely is a mistake, “ she said, before packing up her things. But she couldn’t study like this while using the money Tony had given her. A dead man’s money.

She placed whatever money she had left into a savings account. The passcode was Tony’s birthday and she didn’t touch it ever again.

---

She heard Tony has been found 3 months later in a news broadcast playing softly in the background of a stranger’s bedroom.  She stopped moving for a split second, tears threatening to spill from her heavily painted face at the news because Tony was alive thank god thank god, before a large hand slapped her naked ass and reality crashed down at her.

“Getting moving, girl,” the man grunted below her, his nicotine stained hands pawing at her malnourished hips. “I don’t pay you to sit around.”

Her body moved but her mind was elsewhere, absorbing Tony’s face on the news like a starving woman she was.

---

She didn’t hear from him for a long time. It was her fault mostly. She couldn’t afford the rent after a few weeks and she mostly slept at her clients’ places when she could. She didn’t have a cell phone anymore either. It wasn’t really a necessity now and everything she owned was either for her job or for survival.

A lot changed in 3 months.

She had tried getting jobs at first, just as she did before she went back to school. But she kept on getting fired for her lack of concentration and with no place to go she turned to the oldest job in the world. It was a hard job, leaving her with more tears and pain than she started, but it worked to keep her alive, she supposed. She never once thought about the money sitting in Tony’s account.

It was a surprise then, when she found herself face to face with Tony Stark while she was on a job, being an escort for a Mr. Hammer at some fancy gala she couldn’t name.

“Ah Tony! My man!” Mr. Hammer walked toward the man in question and she had no choice to follow.  “Welcome welcome back! So glad to have you back! I must say that I missed you these last few months.”

She kept her head down, not wanting Tony to see her like this. Her messily dyed blond hair ran like a dirty curtain over her face.

“Can’t say the same for you Hammer,” Tony drawled, voice sounding sharper than she remembered it being.  She didn’t dare sneak a peek. “I don’t remember seeing your name in the guest list.”

“Ah well I was so amazed by your announcement the other day that I had to come see you,” Hammer’s grip on her waist tightened and she held back a wince.  “But really Tony, ceasing the weapons division?  Did the terrorists mess with you brain as well as your heart? HAHA!”

She snapped her head up and stared at her client unbelievably. Was this man an idiot?

She looked back at Tony, hoping to see his reaction, but found their gazes lock for the first time in a long time.

His eyes were as beautiful as she remembered.

He whispered her name in surprise and Hammer swept in, “You know her then? Quite pricey I must say but a great ride. She swallows my dick like a bitch in h—”

The fist came out of nowhere. Some socialite screamed in the distance but it didn’t matter because Tony’s arms were around her and it was all so familiar—those arms—but so unfamiliar all the same. She drew in a surprised breath, head spinning because this couldn’t be happening—she couldn’t breathe.

“I got you,” he murmured under his breath and it didn’t make any sense. Why would he be comforting her when he was the one that came from hell and back? “I’ve got you.”

Chaos unfolded around them but with Tony’s arms around her like a shield, she never felt more alive.

---

They talked after that. Tony lead her into his too expensive car, tucked her into the passenger seat and sped off into an unknown direction. The road was dark all around her but she was too focused on absorbing Tony’s face beside her.

He’s healthier now—she realized in a start. The pictures in the exposé about his rescue showed a slim and gaunt man but Tony looked nothing like that. There was a glint in his eye that she couldn’t quite understand—one that wasn’t there before.

He looked familiar but different. She didn’t understand what this made her feel.

“You’re different,” she blurted out, her voice piercing the silence that settled in the car.

Tony winced, before tapping lightly on his chest, “It keeps the shrapnel from entering my heart.”

She startled, eyes flickering over the glowing circle barely visible over his suit. She didn’t even notice it was there. She struggled for words to explain that it wasn’t the chest that was different but the eyes.

“But you have changed too—“he said, his frown lines deeper than she remembered them being. “Part time job?” he quipped, fishing for clues. Her hands clenched on her lap, waiting for the inevitable questioning. The disgust buried deeper into her heart. “I know the paycheck for residency isn’t the best—its residency right? You only had a couple of months of school left last time I checked…”

She wanted to tell him that she dropped out. That she was currently homeless. That she couldn’t bear the stuffiness of the institution when Tony was dying in a dark cave somewhere.  She wanted to tell him that she missed him , that she loved him, that she….

Instead, she said, “Want to grab a cheeseburger?”

She would never forget the grin that he sent her.

---

Someone snapped a picture of the two of them at an dilapidated diner on the outskirts of LA. Tabloids ran the following morning with headlines screaming “TONY STARK WITH MYSTERY WOMAN,” “CRADDLE ROBBING STARK WITH HOT YOUNG FLING” and “WHO IS THE CHEESEBURGER MISTRESS?” Tony chortled at the last one, causing her to fling a plastic spoon at his head.

“It’s pretty funny.”

“It’s NOT,” she said, ignoring her flopping heart. It was best not to think about her feelings when Tony was around. “I sound like Ronald McDonald’s clown sugar baby!”

Tony choked on his chips and she had to quickly perform the Heimlich maneuver.

The paparazzi had a field day.

Chapter Text

Life continued on. Tony offered her a place to stay at his home.

“It’s safer,” he said, rapidly spitting out his reasons like he was trying to win a debate competition. “The paparazzi won’t find you easily this way. And it’s only a matter of time before they find out where you live and then what then? By the way, where do you live? You moved from that apartment I noticed….”

At her silence, Tony started to babble, avoiding eye contact, “And in any case, you’ll have a whole suite to yourself so you don’t need to be around me more than you have to. I’ll mostly be in the lab—doing things and I—”

She silenced him with a soft touch to his cheek. Tony looked at her then, and she could see that he was taken back by the tears that gathered in her eyes. “Thank you Tony.”

Tony swallowed thickly, “Anytime.”

That was 2 weeks ago. She took the suite but she found herself spending more and more time near Tony’s lab, reading in a little corner he set up for her. During the times Tony’s mind was gone from this world, building blueprints of things that she had no comprehension of, she would carefully make appointments for her next clientele. She felt guilty doing this in Tony’s home but she couldn’t depend on him for everything.

It was only temporary after all. She was just here until she got her footing back. Until she could find a way to pay him back for everything he had done for her.

And if Tony didn’t ask her why she disappeared during the nights, she wasn’t too surprised.

In return, she didn’t ask about the bruises that began to blossom over his skin.

---

She woke up slowly, disoriented by the warmth all around her. It felt nice, she though, as she buried her head into the warmth. A comfortably heavy arm wrapped around her waist, an iron bar that protected her from the cold of the lab. She shouldn’t have felt comfortable being caged like this, but she never felt this safe in a long time.

A soft breath tickled the top of her head. She sighed softly, shifting as much as the arm allowed her. There was a soft glow of blue that penetrated her closed eyelids and it took her a while to place why it felt so familiar.

Tony.

She fell back asleep with a smile on her lips.

---

She was taking a long soak in the tub, a variety of thoughts swimming through her brain, when the bathroom door ripped open, breaking whatever trance she was in. Terrified at the sudden intrusion of privacy, she flinched back as Tony ran over to her and pulled her naked body out of the water.

She tried to calm him down but his hands were everywhere, patting her down like he was checking to see if she was alive. Tony mumbled feverishly under his breath, saying “no” over and over again. His eyes were glazed and despite her attempts, he didn’t seem to be seeing her.

He pulled her wet body to his chest, not caring that he was getting wet too. She let him, too shocked to do anything until she noticed that Tony had stopped breathing.

“Breathe Tony, breathe!”

They sat together on the cold tile floor for ages. She felt Tony’s heart, a steady thump thump, through her own body. Her vulnerability at her own nakedness was nothing in comparison to the vulnerability shining in Tony’s eyes as he glanced back at her.

“I thought you were drowning.”

She didn’t ask where this new fear of water came from.

She takes showers from then on.

---

“You’re up late,” Tony commented, leaning against the door frame of her room. The glow of his arc reactor looked brighter under the thin sleeping shirt he had on.

“You had guests,” she replied, typing up some notes on an article about heart disease.

Tony walked in her room and thrust a slice of pizza in her face. “It’s just Obie. He brought some pizza back.”

She made a face and pushed the pizza gently back, “You eat it Tony. I’m not that hungry.”

Tony gasped dramatically, flopping onto her bed, “You’re refusing my advances?”

She snorted, “It’s not the first time.”

Tony grunted, before taking a bite of his pizza.

She swatted him, “No food on the bed.” She tried not to think about how cute he looked.

He groaned, “Not you too. Everyone’s on my ass today.”

She paused, glancing up from her work. Tony had a free arm over his eyes, a pizza slice dangling haphazardly from his lips. Sighing, she pushed her laptop closed and crawled over towards him. She gently pushed his arms back to see his eyes, “What’s wrong, Tony.”

Tony didn’t speak for a moment. She watched his chest rise and fall, the lights casting shadows on the walls.

She didn’t think she’ll ever get used to it.

“Obie wants the arc reactor,” Tony finally said, tapping at his chest mindlessly. “He thinks it’ll be good for the company.”

She pulled the pizza out of Tony’s mouth and placed it on a spare plate by the coffee table. Crawling back on the bed, she rested her head against his chest. Tony’s arms automatically embraced her, bringing her closer. “Do you think it will be good for the company?”

“No.” She could feel his voice vibrated through his chest.

She glanced up at him. Tony stared back. She smiled teasingly, ”See that wasn’t so hard.”

Tony sighed with a whoosh before chuckling softly. She settled back down on his chest as his fingers played with her hair. “You make it sound so easy.”

“Nothing’s easy Tony.”

Tony didn’t reply. She could tell by his steady breathing that he was already asleep.

--

Her fingers brushed against the plaque leaning against one of the computers in Tony’s lab. Tony was welding something in the background, a large piece of gray metal that she knew instinctively will become something amazing in Tony’s hands.

It was Tony after all. Everything he made turned into art, no matter what it was.

“Hey Tony?” she raised her voice, fighting against the loud ACDC music playing in the background. Tony peeled back his head shield and motioned the JARVIS to lower the volume. “What’s up honey?”

Honey. Tony had been calling her pet names ever since they woke up next to each other in the makeshift nest she had created in the lab.

She couldn’t help a smile blossom on her face.

She brought the plaque to his attention, “Who’s Pepper?”

Tony grinned, putting down his equipment and walking towards her, “Oh, she’s my secretary.” She saw the fondness in the way he says Pepper’s name and tried not to get jealous. “She’s been helping me run the business while I “lay low”.” He makes large air quotes with his hand in disgust.

“Have you been laying low?” she mimicked his gesture.

The smirk Tony sent her lifted her heart into her throat. “I don’t need to answer that question.”

“You don’t, “she agreed before gesturing at the plaque in her hand. “And this?”

“Pepper thought it was funny,” he said, taking it from her and reading the frame with a hint of fondness in his eyes. He glanced back up at her and shrugged, “Proof of a heart and all—thought I needed a reminder.”

She scoffed taking the plaque back from him and placing it on the desk, “Well that’s dumb.”

“Oh?”

She shook her head, “Why anyone would need proof that you have a heart is ridiculous. I can see it all around me.” She gestured at the lovingly well-kept equipment and Dummy making a mess in the corner, dunce hat hanging on his head.

She was glad for once, as she saw Tony’s gobsmacked face, that she could make him speechless.

---

“Hey Jarvis?”

“Yes ma’am?”

She had come down to Tony’s lab see if he was feeling alright. He had been favoring his left shoulder for a while, she noticed, and several packs of ice that she liked to use after meeting some of the more…excitable…clients were gone from the fridge.

Not to mention that large hole in the garage ceiling that appeared over one night she was out with another client. Tony had brushed it off, saying some lab accident happened or another.

Tony never kept secrets from her before. And with him suddenly refusing her access to his lab—well she wanted answers.

Tony wasn’t here.

She shook her head, fingers trembling against the computer monitors.  

“Don’t tell Tony I saw this.”

Jarvis didn’t reply. She glanced at the red and gold suit rendering in the background, MARK 3 by the looks of the blueprints on the monitors. Her insides screamed.

“Of course, ma’am.”

---

Someone was carrying her. She shifted a little, moaning in her sleep, and found her face against a cool smooth surface.

Tony.

“Shhh,” Tony whispered, adjusting her closer to his chest. “You fell asleep in the living room.”

“I was waiting for you,” she mumbled, comfortable and drowsy. “You won’t let me in the lab anymore.”

Tony paused, one foot hanging of the steps before he began climbing again. “I’m—I’m working with some dangerous tools. Don’t want my—” he swallows. “I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Silly Tony,” she mumbles, burrowing further into his chest. “You’re the one getting hurt.”

Tony continued walking.

She doesn’t remember the conversation in the morning.

---

“Well hello, little lady,” a tall man said to her, half way between Tony’s lab and the living room. It had been ages since she and Tony had occupied the same space together—he rarely came home as of late. It’s surprising to see this man in front of her now—Tony usually warned her if there were any guests coming by. “Who might you be?”

She stated her name and asked, “Are you Obie?”

The bald man smiled politely, shifting his weight a bit, “It seems that you know a lot about me but I don’t know much about you.”

“Tony talks a lot about you,” she said, tilting her head a bit. Something felt quite odd about this situation but she couldn’t understand what. “You work with him.”

Obadiah bared his teeth when he smiled. He reminded her of a shark. “Yes, I do.” He glanced at her pajamas and her messy hair. “You live here,” he observed.

“I do,” she said, shifting uncomfortably. She suddenly found the hallways, which she always thought were wide and open, much smaller than she remembered.

“He hasn’t told me much about you,” Obadiah said, taking a large step forward. She took a step back, heart quickening.

“He likes to keep me away from company business,” she said, warily. Alarm bells rang insistently in her head and she tried to concentrate on the conversation. She had a feeling somewhere in her self conscious that told her not to reveal any important information, whatever that was.  “He said it was too headache-inducing.”

I know are harassing Tony about bringing the arc reactor to SI. I know you are making him stay out of the news. I know—

“Thanks for the pizza that one time,” she added, unsure how to proceed with the conversation.

Something in Obadiah’s gaze sharpened, and she immediately wondered if she said the wrong thing, “Oh you’re welcome my dear. Although if I had known you were there I would have brought an extra box.”

She shook her head, trying to stop the shuddering sensation at his epithet. “Ah, well maybe next time then. You do come around very frequently—I’m sure I’ll see you again. ”

“Yes… next time,” he was suddenly in her personal space and she could see how tall he was in comparison. She always liked being shorter than Tony—felt safe. But in this situation, she felt like she was being hunted by a large shadow and she wanted to scamper to somewhere else. Something was very wrong. “Now, I’m afraid I have to cut this introduction a little short. I have a meeting to get to.”

“Oh,” she stepped away, trying to get some space in between them. She tried to be nonchalant, “Don’t you have to see Tony?”

“I’ve already had.”

She frowned, eyebrows furrowing as she glanced towards the lab. It was strangely dark—the lights should have still been on if Obie had just come from that direction.  “That’s odd. Usually Tony or Jarvis would have told me he was busy so that I wouldn’t interrupt you.” She glanced back at the man, eyes trailing down his jacket and to the briefcase in his hand that—now that she was looking at it—seemed to have an odd but familiar light leaking out through the hinges…

Her eyes snapped back to Obadiah’s face. She took a shaky step back and tried to school her emotions but it seemed a little too late as she saw his face morph into one of annoyance.

“Ah hell.”

The last thing she saw was a gun pointing straight towards her.

Then she knew no more.

Chapter Text

When she woke up, the first thing she whispered was, “Is Tony alright?”

If the man, his name is Happy, Tony’s voice whispered in her head, thought that it was odd she chose Tony’s health over her own, he didn’t say and merely handed her a glass of water which she took gratefully. “He’s doing fine. Better than you. Speaking of—” Happy reached his hand over and they shook hands. Pain laced through her abdomen, but she did her best to not let it show. “The name’s Happy. It’s finally nice to meet you.”

“You know me?” she asked, gently placing the cup down on the table. She was at a hospital, she realized. Happy was sitting in the visitor’s chair, looking exhausted. He must have spent the night here, although she didn’t understand why he would have.

“Of course. Tony talks nonstop about you,” he said, putting on a gentle smile for her.

“Obie didn’t know.” She tried to ignore how her voice trembled at his name.

“Mr. Stane is dead,” Happy firmly said, “He’s not going to hurt you anymore.”

Her hands shook and she grasped at her bed covers tightly, “What happened? Last I remembered I was—”

Happy took her hands, gently pulling the shredded blanket away.  Grateful, she smiled at him through the pain. She was glad that Tony had someone who was kind enough to lend a hand to a stranger in his life.

Happy filled you in on what happened to Tony and Mr. Stane while she was out. She grasped his hands the entire time as the harrowing story continued. “You were lucky—Dum-E found you, and JARVIS notified emergency services. You lost a lot of blood—” Happy swallowed before continuing.  “They had to take you into surgery right away. But there were some complications and they had to ship you to New York—that’s where we are now. You’d have to ask the docs what they did exactly—they wouldn’t tell me.”

“HIPPA” she said, trying to wrap her head around the fact that she was currently on the other side of the United States.

Happy nodded, “Yeah. But you’ve been here for the last couple of days. Tony had come by—he’s devastated by the way.” He sent her an exasperated look. “He tried to buy a 10 foot teddy bear to place in your hospital—don’t worry I talked him down,” he said at her alarmed look. “He shouted at the nurses and docs at least 5 times in 24 hours—I eventually kicked him out so it’s my fault he’s not here.  I didn’t think you’d be waking up so soon. Tony’ll probably be furious he wasn’t here to see you awake. Made him go to a press conference to debrief. People want to know, you know?”

“Yeah, thank you Happy,” she said after a while, “For being there for him. He must be in so much pain. “

Happy glanced at her in surprise. She didn’t know why he was looking at her like that. She only stated the truth. “You are recovering from a 10 hour surgery, missy. You’re the one in pain.”

She waved him away. “This is nothing. Knowing Tony—he’s probably blaming himself for all of this. I hoped he’s alright dealing with everything. The press. His injuries. Obie.” She shuffled a bit, trying to find a spot that didn’t hurt. It was strangely difficult to do. “And he really loved Obie, Happy.” She glanced up at him, wishing she could do something. “I can’t imagine how much pain he’s in right now.”

Happy was silent, really looking at her. She shifted again, uncomfortable at the scrutiny. She wondered if she said too much and began to apologize, “I’m so—”

“He loves you, you know.”

“—rry, did I say something wrong?” she paused, tilting her head, “Wait what did you say? I didn’t hear it.”

 “Never mind,” Happy said, shaking his head. “Let’s turn on the t.v. I think his announcement is about to start.”

Happy found the remote and turned on the ancient looking contraption to the corner of the room. Tony was standing by the podium, a layer of makeup caked onto his face. He was wearing a nice suit, and she couldn’t help but think how handsome he was.

“…with this laundry list of character defects, all the mistakes I’ve made… largely public.” Tony spoke into the podium, and she had a sudden urge to smack her head against her pillow in second hand embarrassment. 

“The truth is…” Tony paused. For a split second his eyes turned towards the camera and she thought—well she thought he was staring at her—and he said,” I am Iron Man.”

Oh Tony.

---

It was dark. The moonlight slipped through the window to her left, creating a silver line across the foot of her bed. She blinked, wondering what woke her up from her pain induced sleep.

She felt a warm body hesitantly climb on her hospital bed. A soft blue light illuminated Tony’s face.

“You look exhausted Tony,” she whispered, shifting to give him more space. Tony wordlessly wrapped himself around her. “I thought you were back in California.”

“I’m sorry—“he said. She could feel his hands shaking as he ran them through her hair. “I—it’s my fau—"

She rolled her eyes and settled into his arms. “You’re thinking too much Tony. Sleep.”

The nurses found them in the morning, limbs tangled and breathing the same air. They took a picture and sent it to the local press. Anyone who read the news cooed over the headline “IRON MAN PROTECTS INJURED LOVER EVEN IN SLEEP” for months.

---

“Do you know someone named Bruce Banner?”

“Biochemist?” Tony said, fiddling with something on his laptop.

“Yeah, I was reading his research on gamma radiation—do you think it can be used to strengthen myocytes to repair damage done by ischemic forces?”

Tony mulled it over, thinking through her question instead of brushing it off like other people would have done. Tapping rapidly against his laptop in thought, he finally said, “It’s not my area of expertise so I can’t say for sure but—”

“What, can’t add nuclear physicist to genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist?”

Tony shot her a look and continued on, “—but, I think that it is entirely in the realm of possibility. Why don’t you email the guy and chat?”

“You think so?” she said, perking up from her hospital bed. “I don’t really have any experience in research. I don’t want to overstep my boundaries.”

Tony waved his hand, attention already back to the code he was creating in his laptop, “Honey, with a mind like yours there’s no boundaries to overstep. Email him.”

And so she did.

--

 “Dr. Strange,” she said, a wry smile threatening to form on her lips. “What brings you here to post-op suite?”

He was taller than the last time she saw him. Stronger too, by the looks of his biceps.

“I was a consult—” he said, turning toward her chart and flipping to it. “Have you been briefed on what happened?”

“Yes,” she said. The bullet pierced her abdomen and tore a hole into her uterus. They had no choice but to give her an emergency hysterectomy. She was never going to have children, a young OB/GYN intern said to her one morning. She tried her best not to think about it. “But I don’t see how a neurosurgeon such as yourself was consulted about little ol me.

Stephen curled his nose, taking out a stethoscope from his pocket. “You’re insufferable as ever.”

“You enjoy my presence,” she teased, silencing herself as he listened to her heart.

“Normal rate and rhythm,” he muttered before turning to her. “During your accident, you managed to fall backwards and hit your head on some furniture. There was a worry that you may have had a hemorrhage but so far there hasn’t been any signs of it. Do you have any headaches?”

“Only when I have to deal with that—” she pointed at the massive pile of flowers on her desk. All from Tony, that silly man.

Stephen looked annoyed, “Can you cooperate for a minute. I’m trying to do my job.”

“And how is being an intern? Didn’t think that I’d see you so soon—or ever,” she said cheerfully. She rapidly moved her arms before he could ask her, “Rapid alternating movements intact. Sensory is intact.” She made a series of funny faces, “Cranial nerves 3, 4, 5 intact. Want to check my reflexes?”

“Funny—" Stephen said, finishing up the rest of the neurological exam that she started without him.  “Intern year is going fine.”

“Fine he says,” she rolled her eyes. “Last time I checked you were more than fine. You were superstar level—won the ‘most promising intern’ award this year, didn’t you? I saw journal article. Nice goatee by the way, copying someone?”

Stephen shot her a look and she smiled. It was easy to rile him up. Dr. Strange scribbled something on his chart before mumbling, “I’m glad you are doing alright.”

Her hands automatically grazed against the gauze that wrapped around her stomach. She fixed a smile on her face, “I am fine.”

Stephen fumbled for a moment, as if he was struggling to bring up something, before making up his mind, “There is something else I want to talk about. There were some minor abrasions and bruises around your inner thigh. Did Mr. Stane—”

She waved her hands, interrupting him, “Comes with the job, I’m afraid.”

 Stephen looked affronted, “What kind of job—"

“I’m a sex worker, Dr. Strange,” she said nonchalantly. She watched his face morph into shock and then outrage. “Oh, don’t pity me. I’m happy the way I am now.”

“Is that why—is that why you dropped out of school?”

“Partially,” she said, shrugging.  “Thought I needed a change too.”

“So you changed by wasting your intellect and resorting to prostitution?

She whipped her head towards him and glared, “First of all—I did not resort to anything. I chose this job. It’s just like any job Dr. Strange, a means to an end. I want something and I’m working to achieve it. Just like you.”

The young man paused, mulling over what she said before saying, “You are a strange woman.”

“Perhaps,” she said, “But mostly I am stubborn.”

Stephen scoffed, “One has to be stubborn to be in the life of a Stark.”

“Well said, Dr. Strange,” She laughed, glancing back at the presents by her table with mirth in her eyes, “Well said.”

---

Her conversation with Stephen had a hard time leaving her mind. After tossing and turning for a couple of hours at night wishing for some sleep, she finally admitted defeat and brought her laptop to her lap.  The application cycle for medical school was soon, she knew. She must have unconsciously been tracking it, even though she knew she couldn’t afford to go yet. She still had a long ways to go.

But there was an itch in her brain, an ache in her fingers and the next thing she knew it, she had a finished application mocking her on her laptop.

She hesitated, mouse twitching over the “submit” button.  

Sighing in frustration, she shut her laptop down and placed it back on her table.

Insecurity was truly a powerful demon.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

She smiled at her laptop, waving enthusiastically at Tony’s video call.  A couple of days had gone by and the doctors had yet to discharge her, saying that they wanted to “make sure” that she was 100 percent ready to go. Tony was all for it, but she was truthfully experiencing some cabin fever. 

It would have been better if she had Stephen around to tease but he was a busy intern and didn’t really get to visit her as often as she liked.  There was a nice nurse, May—she believed—who liked to talk to her whenever she had the time. She was grateful for the conversation, especially when May talked about her nephew Peter. According to her, Peter was a very smart little boy who got in trouble so often that May didn’t know what to do with him.

She had asked her once, why she was taking care of him instead of her parents but May merely shook her head. She got the picture though and felt a slight kinship with the little boy she had never met.

She knew what it was like to grow up without any parents.

In any case, she was going absolutely insane, so having Tony call her was the highlight of her day.

“How’s my Rapunzel doing?”

She rolled her eyes, “If I’m Rapunzel—who are you?”

Tony puffed up his chest, “I’m Prince Charming of course.”

“He gets blinded by a witch and dumped in a swamp, you know.”

Tony winced, “Ah maybe that’s not the best analogy.”

“Not everyone can be perfect, Iron Man,” she teased him.

“No, Dum-E not here—hey, I didn’t come up with that name,” Tony said, pulling away from the camera view for a bit and doing something off screen. “I’m not on fire don’t—” She heard a fire extinguisher in the background followed by yelp. Tony stumbled back in view, with bits of foam stuck to his hair.

“Nice.”

“Not a word—“he said, before turning around at a large crash. “Listen, honey, can I call you back later?”

She nodded, “Take care of yourself.”

“Will do—FOR THE LAST TIME DUM-E—”

---

The nice thing about having Iron Man as a—friend—was that he could fly from California to New York without much of a hassle. She was truly grateful when Tony showed up to the hospital holding a bag of her donuts from her favorite donut place in LA, a tiny shop with a giant sculpture of a donut plastered on their roof.

He was babbling about something, a Stark Expo of sorts.  She just liked to listen to his voice sometimes, not quite paying attention to what he was saying. It was nice—soothing almost—to hear him talk about what he was passionate about. People didn’t really like letting him talk but she did. 

She blinked as a small body smacked into her legs, causing her to tilt dangerously before Tony held her steady. She had been slowly walking around the hospital floor, but with the IV pole that she was carting around, it was a slow and frustrating process. 

Tony stopped mid-diatribe to yell angrily at whoever dared to hurt her in his presence but paused as he saw a pair of terrified eyes under a shocking bush of brown hair.

“Peter! Where—oh hello miss!” said May as she fast walked through the hallways. She smiled warmly at the young nurse, who snuck a chocolate pudding cup into her tray last night when she was lamenting over the horrible hospital food. “You’re on your feet!”

“I feel like an old woman.”

“A very sexy old woman—” Tony added and she grimaced, feeling her greasy hair leach against her face.

“Tony, I haven’t showered in days.”

“A dirty sexy old woman?”

She snorted and turned to Nurse May, smiling apologetically at her. The young woman grinned at them before saying, “I’m sorry about Peter. I was supposed to take him to school but I got a little side tracked—PETER!” She shook her head, “Sorry I have to go. I’m glad you are recovering!”

“Thanks!” she said as May rushed past her.  Turning to Tony she tried to return to the conversation, “What were you saying?”

“I was making a joke about—”

“Before that,” she sternly said.

“Oh yes, that,” Tony said, “It’s nothing.”

Tony.”

“Alright, jeeze. I was just saying that I’m planning on setting the Stark Expo at Queens. You know so you see it too.”

She paused, turning to Tony in confusion, “What do you mean? I can see it just as well back home.”

Tony smiled slyly, before whipping out a letter from his blazer pocket and handing it to her. Confused, she took it and read the letter addressed to her. “I—what, Tony?”

“I know you were pretty bummed out about Banner not responding to you—he doesn’t know what he’s missing,” Tony said, “Congratulations on getting accepted to med school. Again.”

She clutched the paper tightly to her chest and stared at him incredulously, “Tony I—what did you do?”

Tony waved his hands, “What makes you think I did something?” She shot him a look and he caved, “I may have sent copies of your research proposal to the nearby med schools. And that application you’ve been writing—oh don’t think you can hide any secrets from me; I’ve seen you working on that thing. You want to go back to school.”

She didn’t say anything. It was, after all, the truth. She had been sitting on her finished draft for a while now, too nervous and worried to send it in. After all, she did quit and leave the first time.

“They were impressed—to say the least. Full ride scholarship to finish up your MD as well as acceptance to the Ph.D program. ”

She had to sit down. A full ride? She—she didn’t have to pay? “Tony, I can’t—"

Tony placed a finger over her lips, silencing her. He adjusted the IV pole closer to her body, detangling the wire as he said, “You did good kid. You did everything all on your own and you just needed a push. Now let me help you like you helped me alright?”

Her sigh brushed against his fingers. She was tired to doing things by herself, “Alright.”

---

Her life changed quickly after that. She settled quickly into medical school, getting used to being a student again as if she never left. It was odd being back, because the age gap that was present the first time around only widened in her absence.

“So, new girl,” said a half a decade younger 4th year student. They were undergoing a rotation in Internal Medicine and had only just been dismissed for lunch at 5pm. “What’s your deal?”

She shrugged, shoving a sandwich into her mouth. Searching for some water before she choked, she coughed, “Do you want to know my secret?”

Intrigued, the 4th year came closer. After a dramatic pause, she whispered loudly, “I’m friends with Iron Man.”

Her partner drew back, looking at her incredulously, “You’re crazy.”

Between working 24 hour shifts and getting lost on the New York subway system, she barely had time to talk to Tony, who was busy preparing for the Stark Expo himself. She had to admit that it was lonely not seeing him all the time; she did live with the man before all the craziness occurred.

So seeing his face through one of his video calls were truly a bright gift through her days.

“Tony, how are you? Have you been eating?” she asked, waving at her screen. Tony opened his mouth to answer but she cut him off, “And coffee doesn’t count as a food group.”

 Tony shut his mouth and pouted, “Honey, I’m busy with all this nonsense.” He waved at the screens behind him, flashing millions of designs and plans that only he could understand. “Food is overrated. Science is cool.”

She groaned, “Tony.”

“Fine fine,” he said, grumbling to himself, “I’ll just call for pizza. Hey JARVIS? Can I have the one I like?”

“Certainly, sir, would you like—”

“How about something healthier, JARVIS?” she asked, “A salad perhaps?”

Tony made a face. She laughed and continued, “Tony. You’re what 37 now? When’s the last time you went to a doctor and got your cholesterol checked?”

Looking affronted at the thought of going to a doctor, Tony made a fuss, “I am healthy! Look at these arms.” He flexed, his biceps hardening in front of her eyes.

Her mouth suddenly dried and she swallowed nervously. “Tony.”

“I don’t want some stranger playing with my blood. What if they make a mini-Stark. Can you imagine? Another one of me walking around?” Tony shuddered dramatically, “The horror.”

“The scariest,” she said dryly, “Why don’t you take your own blood then? I’m sure you can whip up a biometric analyzer or something. You can even check your Iron levels.”

“That’s not actually a bad idea,” It was testament to how intrigued Tony was at her idea since he didn’t even acknowledge her bad pun. Turning towards the screen and tapping something on the holographic keyboard on his table, he was already muttering to himself, mind far gone from the conversation.

She smiled, satisfied at her handiwork and said a goodbye that was left unheard.

She left him to it.

---

With the amount of work she already had throughout her day, there was very little time for some of her night-time extracurricular activities. She had been in the process of weaning off from her clients anyhow, seeing them less and less until they eventually forgot about her in the first place.  But much like a chronic smoker returning to a pack of cigarettes, she couldn’t help but take up a job on occasion.

It didn’t surprise her in the least when a bald, nonassuming male walked into her hotel room, looking just like any businessman with a need that couldn’t be ridden of in conventional ways. What she was surprised by was the fact that he was white.

“You don’t look like an African American man named Nick,” she said dryly, observing him for any clues for this bizarre experience.

“Looks can be deceiving,” the man said, tone impossibly drier than her own.

“I was given a photograph.”

“I had makeup on,” he said, body language screaming mild mannerism and politeness. She couldn’t tell exactly why this made her more wary. “In any case, you’re a hard woman to get a hold of, miss,” the man spoke her full name. It was like being doused in ice cold water as she never gave out her last name, preferring to remain as anonymous as she could. “My name is Agent Phil Coulson. I am from Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division.”

“Someone really wanted it to spell out SHIELD,” she pointed out. Agent Coulson shrugged before taking a step forward. She raised her hands, “Don’t take a step closer. If you’ve come to murder me, save me some of my dignity and let me get dressed first.”

Coulson’s eyes flickered to her body, as if it was the first time he noticed her wearing a stars and stripes teddy that left little to the imagination. “I’ve seen Mr. Stark in worse situations.”

Hearing Tony’s name turned a switch in her brain and she was suddenly very aware that she was in a room with an unknown male who claimed he was working for some secret government division. She had been confused, wondering what a government agency would want with her but hearing Tony’s name—even casually like this—from the Agent’s lips made it clear. They knew of their connection.

They wanted something from Tony and she was their way of doing it.

“What do you want with him?” she snapped, sounding much braver than she felt. Why did she always get into these messes?

 “I have a…partnership I would like to discuss with you.”

“A partnership,” she repeated, looking at him incredulously.

“Precisely.”

“Not interested,” she said, inching closer to the nightstand, where she kept the pepper spray she bought at a dollar store.  “Sorry. Please don’t let the door hit your racist ass on your way out.”

The agent smiled encouragingly and she swallowed the need to hiss at him, “Please hear me out. It will be very worthwhile.”

“Not likely,” she muttered. “No offense, Agent, but last time some bald male smiled at me encouragingly, I was shot at.  And unless this teddy is really doing it for you, I am pretty sure that’s a gun in your pocket.”

She wondered if heroes would have blabbered their observations like she had. Probably not. They would have been silent and deadly, dispatching the enemy in a heartbeat. Well, she was no hero and the only defense mechanism she had in the face of danger was babbling—which was surprising news to her.

Agent shrugged, neither confirming or denying, “The partnership is simple. SHIELD would like to employ you as their new Chief Resident after your graduation.” She gaped at him as he continued, “And in return, we would like to get…to put it lightly…continuous information about Tony Stark and his technological advances.”

Well, this had to be the weirdest job offer she had. “You want me to spy on Tony?”

“Precisely.”

“How is this a partnership? Partnership implies gains on both sides!” she shouted. “I don’t want  to work with an agency that doesn’t bother to make a good alibi. I mean come on? Nick Fury? That name sounds like something from a comic book. And in case you didn’t know this—” she hissed at him, which in hindsight probably looked ridiculous given that she was still in a revealing teddy. “You are an average Anglo-Saxon white male!”

“You will be getting a guaranteed job after school, something that cannot be said for the rest of your generation,” Agent said logically, completely ignoring her outburst. “And with your current job, I would think that job security is important, yes?”

It was true. Job security was hard to find now a days, but still this was wrong. She couldn’t betray Tony like this. It wasn’t even a question. “Get out.”

“Are you sure you don’t—”

“Get. OUT,” she shouted, pointing at the door. She ignored her shaking hands and firmly said, “I don’t want to be a part of this secret boyband you have—whatever this is. Don’t contact me again.”

---

Agent Coulson stepped out of the motel room and walked briskly to the elevators at the end of the hall. Briefcase in hand, he looked like any other businessman in New York after a long day of work. Humming tunelessly as he waited for the creaky elevator to stop at his floor, he stepped inside and pressed the first floor button.

A sharp shrill from his phone echoed through the small elevator and he smoothly picked it up and answered it, “This is Coulson.”

The man listened to the other voice on the line before nodding his head, “Yes sir, she passed with flying colors sir. She is all clear.”

The elevator dinged and he stepped outside, past the empty lobby and out of the motel. Stepping towards his car, he glanced up towards the sky, made a sharp hand gesture and entered the driver’s seat.

A couple of feet in the air, another man dressed in black relaxed his grip on the taut string of his bow and collapsed the arrow back into the case strapped to his back. He glanced at the window of his potential target once more before leaping off the building and toward the black car.

A moment later, the two set off back into town. Leaving the young woman with the Captain America teddy completely unaware how close she was from her untimely demise.

---

She wordlessly opened the simple present wrapped in string and gasped at the beautiful necklace. It was made of white gold chain, small and delicate links sparkling against the light of the street lamp. As beautiful as the chain was, her eyes were absorbed by the small pendant it held.

“Tony?” she whispered, fingers brushing against the small arc reactor pendant. It was, to her eyes, an exact replica to what was in Tony’s chest. It held the same outwardly blue color, the color that she associated with Tony and safety. Awed, she held the necklace carefully and shyly glanced up at him.

Tony smiled at her, his emotions genuinely shining through his eyes. She felt her chest soar.

“Happy Birthday, honey.”

Chapter Text

Tony was a busy man. For as long as she knew him, this was true. Water was wet. Captain America and Bucky Barnes had a semi-homoerotic relationship. Tony Stark was a busy man.

And truly, she never had a problem with that before. Before Tony had been kidnapped, the man came and went like a thunderstorm in a way that she was always a bit off-kilter whenever he was around. She never really had much time to miss him before he and his special type of chaos came through. And after his kidnapping, she spent most of the time in his home. They may not have interacted much, but she felt his presence and saw him work whenever she hung out in his lab.

But this time, she was half-way across the country. She had no friends or family around and it was frankly quite lonely.

But she was no stranger to loneliness. It had been plaguing her for most of her adult life anyhow but still—she always had someone. Her sister, and when she passed, Tony.

Sighing to herself, she walked steadily down the streets of New York, expertly dodging the crowds like she had been living here her entire life. It would have been easier, she thought, if Tony called once in a while. But ever since her birthday 5 months ago, the man had been AWOL. He never called her and she was too afraid to call him—she didn’t want to disturb him when he was in a directors meeting or something.

At least, that’s what she kept telling herself. She knew the real reason why she didn’t call.

She didn’t know what she would do if Tony didn’t answer.

Pushing away her thoughts, she quickened her pace. Up ahead, she could see that a crowd of people hovering over a stand. Curious, she stepped closer and smiled as she saw that the stand was selling little Iron Man teddy bears. Impulsively, she bought one and brought the fluffy and soft animal close to her chest.

Patting its head, she took in a large breath and walked away from the noisy stall before pulling out her phone. Her fingers hesitated over Tony’s phone number but with a brave face, she called him and waited.

The phone rang.

He didn’t pick up.

She clutched the bear closer towards her heart, right by her own arc reactor.

---

“Tony!” her voice traveled and blended with the roar of the crowd until it became nothing more than a mass of sound. There were bodies all around her, clawing from all directions, as they made a cage of sweaty limbs that obstructed her view. She shoved frantically, trying to break out but the current was too strong and it was all she could do not to let it sweep her off her feet and get trampled to death.

“Tony!” she shouted again, a single arm stretched out towards the man, but he was walking further and further away from her. Was this some kind of nightmare? “Tony! Tony!”

An elbow shoved her old wound and she choked, coughing as the sea of humans followed the superhero, bringing her closer yet somehow further away from him all the same. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t breathe.

It was the first time she had seen his face in months. He is waving at everyone but her, basking in the attention gained from the opening ceremony of Stark Expo, and she is blinded by the flashing concert lights, the fake gauntlets people are wearing , and the spotlights dangling from the brassieres of the army of skimpily clad dancers circling around the stage. The sea that separated the two of them that once seemed small now seemed too treacherous to attempt at crossing. It was as if she just realized how different Tony’s world was compared to her own.

How cute she was, thinking that she meant anything to this brilliant man. How naïve.

She could barely see him now. She shouted his name once more but he vanished into a dark car.

She let the tide sweep her further into the ocean, not bothering if she drowned.

---

She saw his face splashed on the television screen in the break room. He was in some kind of hearing with the Senator and that was all she knew before she quickly left.

She ate her lunch with May in the cafeteria and somehow got invited over to her home for dinner.

It didn’t bury the hurt completely but laughing at Peter’s obsession with Iron Man helped somewhat. At least, enough so that she tried calling Tony again, only to be sent to voice mail.

Sighing, she stuffed her phone into her jacket and entered another motel in a sketchier part of town. She hoped she’ll be able to get a couple hundred tonight.

---

Tony Stark watched the map on the screen intently, hands grasping tightly around the glass of that dumb algae smoothie. The blue dot blinked steadily, hovering over what looked like a pay-by-hour sleezy motel just off a dust ridden road.

His phone was ringing by on his desk but he didn’t move to pick it up, still transfixed by the blue dot that seemed to be mocking him.  He had given it to her to keep her safe and this—he was not expecting this betrayal.

“Sir, Ma’am is calling.” There was only one person JARVIS called Ma’am. “Shall I pick up?”

“Mute,” he said, and the ringing noise stopped, leaving a silent echo thundering through his ears.

The phone stopped ringing and Tony chugged his smoothie, wincing at the taste. The stinging in his neck subsided somewhat, but by now there was a never-ending ache that throbbed near his pulse point.

“If I may be prudent, may I ask why you have been ignoring Madam’s calls?”

Tony didn’t speak. JARVIS turned silent, as if the artificial voice could somehow tell that his master was in a strange mood.

Like a child hovering in the hallway while his parents fought, JARVIS tentatively suggested, “Sir, have you considered telling Madam about your struggles with the Palladium?

“JARVIS, show me the security camera images.”

“Sir, I’m not quite sure if that is the right—"

Tony snarled, “SHOW me.”

The screen on Tony’s monitor shifted, showing different angles of her. Tony’s heart ached for a moment, not having seen her face in months. He could tell she was exhausted even through the grainy images from the garbage cameras, bruises smudging beneath her eyes. Her hair fell down her neck in a lifeless imitation of the pure vitality it once held.

She hesitated before knocking on the door to a room. A man appeared.

Tony threw his glass into the wall with a shout, shards of glass shattering and scattering across the floor.

“Sir—”

“Is this a joke?” Pepper is suddenly entering his space and Tony wipes his face of emotion because he can’t—“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking—” his eyes flickered over to the image of his—his friend—pushed up against the wall by a stranger and turned back to Pepper with a neutral face, “I’m busy and you’re angry about something…”

---

“H-Hello? Tony?” she asked, heart pounding nervously behind her chest. It was the first time in weeks that her phone had rang and she couldn’t help but hope that it was Tony calling her.

There was a long pause on the other line before a woman’s voice said, “Hello. This is Virginia Potts. I’m work with—”

“I know who you are.” She didn’t want to be rude but the bitter taste of disappointment sat heavy in her tongue. “What do you want?” She winced, regretting her tone right before she said it. Clearing her throat she tried again, “I’m sorry Ms. Potts, I apologize for my tone. I’ve been—well it’s not been a good couple of weeks.”

Pepper spoke carefully, “I understand. I—has he talked to you yet?”

“Tony?” at Pepper’s confirmation, she replied bitterly, “He hasn’t talked to me in a while.”

“Oh,” Pepper replied before sighing, “I don’t know how to exactly word this but, Tony has just appointed me as CEO of Stark Industries.”

Confused as to the nature of Pepper’s call, she tentatively said, “Congratulations.”

“Are you not—are you not angry?”

She frowned, confused, “Why would I be?”

“We—the company—always assumed that this position will go to you.”

“Me?” she asked, genuinely surprised. “Why would he give his company away to someone like me? You’re more than qualified for the role.  You’ve been managing it in the sidelines all this time from what Tony has mentioned. And besides, I’m just his friend.”

Pepper paused over the phone before sighing, “Oh, you poor soul.”

“Excuse me?”

“You really have no idea?”

Getting slightly mad at the condescension in her voice, she snapped, “I have no idea about what you are talking about Ms. Potts. Now if you excuse me, I have class to get to. Will that be all?”

She hung up after an affirmation. Huffing to herself, she shook her head before straightening up. She had a lot of things to do today and she couldn’t let a conversation like this mentally disturb her.

Little did she know that in the other side of the country, the newly appointed CEO stared pityingly at her phone, shaking her head in disbelief.

Smacking her hands to her forehead, Pepper groaned loudly at JARVIS, “I thought I wouldn’t meet another person who had less of emotional intelligence as Tony but I was wrong.

“Indeed, Ms. Potts,” JARVIS said sagely, “Indeed.”

Chapter Text

She was, in all possible ways, stressed out. It was nearing the end of her rotations, which meant that graduation was just around the corner and she had yet to find out what the ever loving fuck she wanted to specialize in. It really had been only a couple of months since she was scrambling through the application process to get into med school and now she was starting to apply to get a residency. She knew she only had a couple of credits left to graduate when she quit all those months ago but holy cow she didn’t realize just how little she had left to finish.

AND, she couldn’t apply until she figured out what she wanted to do.  So that was a bummer. That job offer she got from Agent Racist seemed awfully appealing all of a sudden.

AND, Tony still hadn’t called her. She had seen him on the news on and off, always with another girl on his side, so she knew he wasn’t dying in a ditch somewhere. And she managed to patch up her very rude introduction to Pepper and they kept in touch once in a while. Pepper had been praising the new secretary she hired when they last talked. She tried to pay attention but the business talk went mostly over her head.

But it was Pepper’s accounts about Tony’s life that worried her the most. Tony was acting—odd, Pepper had said, almost more reckless than he had been in a while. She tried asking if there was something Tony was preoccupied by, but Pepper said there wasn’t. 

“He just needs you, I think,” Pepper said over the phone. “You make him less prone to make mistakes.”

She scoffed, “I don’t get Tony to do anything.”

“Can’t you just come back? And tell him to stop?”

“He’s not some dog I can control,” she said, shaking her head.  It was odd how Pepper thought she had any influence on Tony’s behavior. “He’s Tony.”

In any case, she was sure that Pepper was missing something. If only she got to see Tony—then she could see what was wrong!

She thought back to the last time she saw him—a glow of light hauntingly walking further and further from her. She shook her head.

She didn’t understand why Tony was ignoring her calls. And that’s exactly what he was doing—ignoring her. She had thought he was truly busy, but her talks with Pepper proved her wrong. Tony Stark was actively ignoring her and she didn’t know why.

Maybe he was tired of being responsible for her.

He did pay all her hospital bills. She was more indebt to him than she had ever been. She didn’t even know how much her recovery had been but she knew that she never could have afforded it. She must have been a burden to him and that was why he helped her get back to school.  To get rid of her.

She had been such a burden. A reminder of his failures. Defective.

“You’ve ruined my life!” she heard a woman screaming in her ear. “I should have aborted you while I had the chance!”

She shook her head again, brushing the cobwebs away.

There was no use in thinking about it

She’d better go back to work before her attending yelled at her again.

---

Starks are made of Iron.

She slammed her body against the door to the stairwell, climbing the steps two at a time. Visions of a young man drenched with blood flashed in her mind and she struggled to breathe.

Starks are made of Iron.

She couldn’t let anyone see her like this. Her thoughts led her to an abandoned staircase that no one liked to step foot in, deep within the bowels of the hospital.  Legs feeling like jelly, she dropped to her knees with a large crack and crawled to a corner of the staircase.

Starks are made of Iron.

She had been in the emergency room, when a young man was wheeled in with a multiple gun shot wounds. The next thing she knew, she was staring at the barrel of Stane’s gun, and she was falling falling falling. Well hello, little lady. Well hello, little lady. Well hello, little--

She clenched her eyes together, trying to take deep breathes. She needed to pull herself together—but she couldn’t help but see Stane and he was going to kill her and he already killed Tony and….

She tried to ask Tony if he was alright when she was recovering from the hospital. He had just ruffled her hair and shrugged his shoulders.

“Starks are made of Iron,” he said, eyes so so cold. She shivered despite the sun. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”

She ripped her phone out of her pocket and dialed Tony’s number. She needed to speak with him, make sure he was alright. She just wanted to hear his voice. She needed

The phone rang forever.

Actively sobbing, she tried again, whispering to herself, “Tony, Tony please. Pick up, I need yo--.”

“Ma’am?” Someone picked up for the first time in months. She gasped in relief until her mind recognized the soothing English voice on the other end.

“JARVIS?” her voice trembled.

“Yes, ma’am. Is everything alright?” JARVIS sounded worried. “My sensors suggest that you are under distress.”

She wiped her tears, suddenly feeling very silly. Still, she couldn’t help but feel much better after hearing his familiar voice. “I’m fine.” She wished her voice didn’t sound so watery. “I—why did you pick up Tony’s phone?”

“I apologize. This does go against my protocol,” JARVIS sounded slightly chastised, like a child doing something his father told him not to do. “But I must confess that I—that we—” She heard DUM-E and U beep a hello in the background. “wanted to hear your voice.”

A deep fondness spread through her body and the last of her tears dried up.  Her lips twitched. “Wow JARVIS, such a naughty boy. Have you been breaking the rules since I’ve been gone?”

“Undeniably, ma’am.”

Smile back in place, she took a shuttering breath, “Tell me what kind of trouble you’ve been in.”

And so JARVIS did.

---

She didn’t want to wake up this morning. Clenching her eyes to block out the afternoon sun peeking through the blinds, she tried to stop the pang of loneliness that made its way up from inside of her.

She didn’t know what caused it.

She really missed Tony.

---

She stood outside the door of the outpatient clinic, head leaning against the cool exterior of the walls as she took a minute for herself.

Taking in deep breaths, she blinked away her wet eyes and stared at the poster about birth control in front of her. It had a cartoon depiction of a uterus on a bicycle, looking more than happy. Someone pasted googly eyes on it, she realized, making the entire thing look ridiculous.

She sighed and rubbed her eyes, internally wondering when she would get used to giving out bad news.

“I’m sorry-“ she said to the 18 year old girl, who burst into tears.

“Is there—” the girl sniffed, “Is there any other way?”

Clenching her fists, she shook her head, “The cancer—it’s the only way to keep it from going anywhere else. Taking out your uterus will—” she cleared her throat. “is the most safest bet for you.”

“On the bright side—you won’t be having periods anymore.” She tried to smile but it didn’t reach her eyes, “Trust me, I know from experience.”

She shook her head. She shouldn’t have made it personal but she couldn’t help it. Her insides wretched uncomfortably at the thought and her old wound pulsed. Her hand automatically twitched toward her phone, intending to call Tony but she stopped.

She pulled her hand away.

It wasn’t as if he was going to answer anyway.

----

“—a man who calls himself Whiplash attacked the famous Iron Man on a racing track in Monaco. Although injured during the fight, Stark managed to apprehend the villain and—”

She dropped her coffee, boiling liquid spilling across the countertop. Several other med students yelped in surprise, scrambling to prevent the coffee from staining their previous white coats. She couldn’t hear the yelling beyond the ringing in her ears as she watched wide-eyed at the footage of the attack showing on the television in the break room.

“ Tony Stark is currently back home after yesterday’s attack. It is unclear how serious Stark’s injuries was but there has yet to be any sighting of the hero after the confrontation.”

Without a second thought, she scrambled to her things, picking up her personal belongings.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m taking a couple of days off—“she said, picking up her backpack and searching for her wallet. “Cover me.”

“You can’t just leave!” cried someone in the background, “What about—”

She tuned him out, rifling through the amount of cash in her wallet. She had seen her last client a week and a half ago, and there was only a couple hundreds left. She had intended to make it last until graduation, but there were more pressing matters than her own health. It should be enough to get to Cali.

A warm hand brushed against her shoulder. She looked up and saw her partner looking at her worriedly. His eyes flickered back to the t.v. and back at her. Ah, yes. She told him about Tony once. She thought he didn’t believe her. “I’ll make an excuse to Dr. Bash.”

“Thanks,” she whispered, and the hand squeezed before he let her go.

She had a plane to catch.

Chapter Text

It felt weird, she realized, being back in Tony’s house. The large and extravagant building has once been her home, and yet it felt so foreign to her. The last time she had been here, she had been shot.

Shaking her head, she hesitated at the threshold, unsure of herself and why she was there in the first place. She had been so determined on the way here, fretting and worrying about Tony and now that she was here, she didn’t know quite what to say.

“Ma’am?”

She cracked a smile, “Hi JARVIS. May I come in?”

The door slid open and she forced herself through. The entrance was much the same as she remembered, except it seemed to be decorated for some party.

“Sir wanted a large birthday party this year,” JARVIS explained, “Catering will arrive later tonight.”

Ah. She didn’t realize Tony was having a party this year. She thought about the small present she had in her backpack. It seemed dumb in comparison to the extravagance Tony was planning.  “Did he invite a lot of people?”

“It seems he has invited half of Los Angeles County and almost all of Hollywood,” JARVIS said dryly and she shook her head, trying not to feel hurt. It didn’t seem like JARVIS knew Tony didn’t tell her and she didn’t bring it up.

It wasn’t as if Tony was obligated to invite her to his birthday.

She sighed. She was getting sidetracked. This wasn’t the reason why she was here, “Is Tony in today?”

Small blue lights lit a path for her, “He’s in the garage, ma’am,” JARVIS said. “And may I say that I am glad to see you within these halls again.”

“I missed you too,” she smiled fondly. She followed the familiar path, noticing the differences in the décor since her last visit. Many of the paintings were gone, she realized, the ones that were so expensive she always skirted around them.

“Is that A Sunday Afternoon?” she shrieked, arms flailing in surprise.

Tony tilted his head, amused, “Technically it’s ‘ A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte’.” At her glare, he laughed, “But yeah it is. What’s got you so worked up?”

“That painting is worth more than my possessions and my organs combined!”

Tony leered at her, “I don’t know, your brain would fetch at least $100 K, and don’t get me started on your boo—"

She thought about those paintings instead of the impending heart attack under her chest.  It was surreal. She spent months wondering and fretting. She worried Tony was working too hard. She worried that Tony wasn’t taking care of himself. After a few months, her questions transitioned to anger. Why wasn’t Tony answering her calls? What did she do wrong? Months of frustration turned to reluctance. After all, Tony was a busy man. Why should he spend his precious time on her? She was just an insignificant part of her his life. She should have been used to this by now—hell she already knew this. Then why—despite knowing this and going through this time and time again, did she feel so hurt?

Why did she miss him so god damn much?

Well she knew why, of course. But she pushed away those thoughts away, burying her secret in the deepest part of her mind.

It didn’t do to think about the impossible after all.

She reached the garage. The lights were turned low, with the only light coming from a screen projecting from one of Tony’s cars. She admired the technology for a second, awed once again by the intellect and love that shone through each piece Tony crafted.

She knew she was stalling. JARVIS had turned silent upon her arrival but she took comfort in knowing that he was around all the same.  Taking a deep breath, she punched in the code to the lab, surprised that the passcode was still the same. Entering, she cleared her throat and said, “Tony? Can I talk to you?”

She waited for an answer, a surprised look or a glance, but all she got was silence. She glanced at the familiar wall of suits, the computers that were churning out data even when their master wasn’t at work. Everything looked familiar and yet so different. She hesitantly walked towards the car, trying to keep her tone light even though her emotions fluctuated widely, “I saw what happened on the news. I came as soon as I heard.”

His head didn’t budge, still facing the screen. Her lips trembled, but she pressed on, “Ivan Vanko? Is that the guy who attacked you? Did he hurt you? How did he have a su—”

“What are you doing here?” Tony’s voice pierced the air and she winced.

“I—“she took a step towards the side of his car until finally she could see his face. He had a large laceration on the side of his left eye, still oozing with blood, and small bruises sprinkled throughout his face. Despite all of that, it was the eyes that scared her the most. “I—” She swallowed. “I was worried about you.”

His eyes were so so cold.

She bravely  pressed on, “You didn’t call—I was so worried that you were hurt and I couldn’t tell if you were dying somewhere in the hospital or—“if someone tore your heart out again.

Tony didn’t speak. The silence between them, which used to be so peaceful, now felt uncomfortable and she babbled nervously, “And it was just like when you went missing those few months ago and I was—” she paused, suddenly turning angry, “And you didn’t even tell me, your friend! Tony, you need to communicate these things with me, you can’t keep doing these dangerous things—what if you get hurt for real again?”

“That’s rich, coming from you.”

She took a step back, confused by the pure viciousness in his voice. “Tony?”

Tony finally looked at her, but the look was all wrong. She had never seen him this angry. It occurred to her at this moment that the moniker ‘Merchant of Death’ wasn’t given to Tony but made to fit him. Her heart ached in her chest as his lips pulled back in a snarl, “Communicate? Dangerous? Oh please sweetheart,” he spat out the endearment. “You can drop the act now, sugar plum. Communication may not be my strong suit but I have to say it is insulting to hear you lecture me on it.

“I don’t understand—” she said, frowning and unsure.

“Ok then, let’s talk. We can start with your favorite past time.  Tell me honey,” his voice dripping with poison, “How many cocks did you ride to get a ticket over here? 10? 20? Or did you go straight to the source and spread your legs for the pilot?”

Her arms moved without any thought and she slapped him hard, causing his head to whip back. She saw a faint black lines running up Tony’s neck before tears blurred her vision. Without another word, she ran away out of Tony’s lab, brushing past a Black man in uniform.

“Hey! Are you—”

 She ignored him and ran without a destination in mind, only knowing she had to leave the man in the garage, run away as fast as she could. Because these tears weren’t tears of hurt or betrayal but tears of shame because she knew deep within her heart that Tony was absolutely, one hundred percent, right.

---

“Hey Tony?”

“Hmm?” His fingers kept a steady rhythm as it carded over her hair.

“Are you a half empty or a half full type of person?” she asked, eyes fluttering lazily.

Tony’s fingers paused, “It doesn’t really matter does it?”

“Tony,” she huffed, nuzzling her head closer to his fingers.

Chuckling, he continued petting, “It really doesn’t matter, honey. I’ll make it full.” His hands tightened for a fraction of a second. “Whatever it takes.”

She was silent, taking in the implications of his words.

He cleared his throat, “And you?”

She smiled self-deprecatingly, closing her eyes until the only thing she saw was the blue hue shining behind her eyelids.

“I’ll accept it for what it is. Half a cup.”

---

In retrospect, drinking that very cheap $5 vodka she bought at a sketchy looking liquor store was a very bad idea. Groaning past the throbbing migraine, she wobbled out of her taxi and into the parking lot of her favorite donut shop.

After yesterday’s fiasco, she found a relatively cheap motel and got entirely f-ed up. She didn’t remember when she actually fell asleep but she woke up half undressed, lying in a pool of spilled alcohol and feeling very sorry for herself.

Hell, she was never drinking again. She stumbled a bit, squinting at the sun that dared to shine on her. She wished she had some sunglasses, like the ones Tony liked—

She shook her head, putting her thought process into a screeching halt. She didn’t want to think about him. Nope.  All she wanted to think about is those delicious donuts that she had been craving since the last time she had them, which—now that she thought about, was when she was at the hospital and Tony had—

She groaned loudly, falling into a bench just outside the store. Glancing up at the giant donut sculpture, which looked a little worn down since the last time she saw it (were those scorch marks?), she huffed out a large sigh. When did everything turn into this? She closed her eyes, and let her mind wander, feeling sorry for herself, when a dark shadow blocked the shine behind her closed eyelids.

“I must say that you’re not what I expected.”

She cracked open one eye and stared at the man that towered over her. She recognized him in an instant and sighed. Well that was another mystery solved.

“Hello Mr. Fury.”

Fury raised an eyebrow before sliding in the seat bench in front of her, “And how do you know my name?”

She shrugged, “Agent Racist used your face to catfish me.”

“What.”

She waved her hand limply, and wow her hand hurt. She must have slapped Tony hard. She hoped he was alri— “Look, Nick, can I call you Nick?” Fury had an unimpressed expression on his face. She continued, “I’ve had a very very bad night so if you can cut to the chase, I’ll be much obliged.”

Fury stayed silent, glaring at her as if it would someone get her to cooperate. She chose to stare at the beautiful woman sitting on the table in front of them instead. The redhead had a donut and a coffee by her side and seemed to be fully engrossed in her phone.

“Are you going to introduce me to your lackie or should I?” she asked, rubbing her tired eyes. She wondered if Fury had an eye drops, considering his lack of one.

The redhead smoothly sat next to Fury. She glanced at her as if she was categorizing all the ways she could possibly kill her with a donut.

“And how did you know that?” Fury asked, looking way to amused considering that a civilian outed his agent.

She shrugged, “She was eating the donut like a sandwich. Who does that?” She introduced herself to the woman. “But you already knew that right?”

“Yes,” Agent Romanoff said, and wow did her voice sound sultry.  “30 year old female, current medical student and friend of Tony Stark. Graduated from a small liberal arts college as valedictorian with an major in clothing design and biochemistry and given several job offers but declined them all in favor of going into medical school. Threat status: minimal.”

She wasn’t really a friend of Tony anymore was she? At least, after last night—“Wow. Do you know my favorite food as well?”

Agent Romanoff lifted a well-groomed eyebrow, “Strawberries.”

“Touché,” she said, before turning towards the bigger threat. She needed to deflect. Stop thinking about Tony.  “So Nick. What do you want from me? If this is about suit, I’m not going to tell you anything—only because I have no idea how the suit works. If it’s about the job offer, the answer is still no.”

Nick Fury crossed his hands on the table, looking more like an evil villain than the supposed member of a top secret government agency. Really, just thinking about that sentence in her head got her mind to spin. How was this her life again? It was all Tony’s fa—“I have a proposition for you.”

She groaned, “The last time someone said that to me, I was half naked.” Fury remained composed but she saw Agent Romanoff’s lips twitched in amusement. Zeroing in on it, she dramatically leered, hoping to cover her general sense of discomfort with outrageous sexual harassment, “Want to see?

Agent Romanoff turned to Fury, “I can see why he likes her.”

Fury shook his head, glaring at her, “Back to the subject at hand, I have information about Stark that might interest you. Information about this current health.”

She straightened, concern etched in her features, “Tony’s health? What’s wrong with him?”

Fury smirked, as if he had a ace up his sleeve, “He’s dying.”

Time stopped. Fury’s voice echoed in her brain as she struggled to comprehend what her brain was telling her. He’s dying. He’s dying. He’s dying. The fight with Tony seemed miles away and neurons began to fire, connecting clues that she had noticed but didn’t realize until now. The sudden lack of communication. His suspicious interest in the biometric analyzer she suggested to him. Placing her in the furthest medical school as he could. The black lines that crawled like poison up his neck as his eyes blazed at her, shouting hateful words that stabbed her li—

“It’s the Palladium, isn’t it?” she asked with a dangerous calm, the only indication of her emotions showing through her clenched fists. She struggled to maintain her composure, not willing to breakdown in tears in front of these two government agents who probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about Tony. “It’s killing him.”

“Essentially yes,” Fury said, looking at her like a specimen at a Zoo.

“How long?”

“A few weeks or more, give or take, “Fury said. He glanced at Agent Romanoff beside him, and the redhead placed a small syringe on the table. “This is the cure.”

Her hands reached over to pick it up, but Fury was faster and grabbed it out of her reach. He shook it tauntingly, “A proposition.”

She didn’t even stop to think, “Fine. I’ll join your stupid organization.” Desperate, she shouted, “Just…give it to him.” She couldn’t help but feel like she was signing her soul to the devil.

Fury smiled at her like a cat that got the cream, and really wasn’t this turning out exactly like he planned? “Perfect. It seems you have a good head on your shoulders.” He stood up and Agent Romanoff followed suit, “Nice doing business with you.”

“Wait—” she said, standing up as well. “Why me? Why not Pepper or Happy? They’re much more qualified for your agency. I’m not even a genius!”

Fury paused, tilting his head, “You have a special skill set,” he smirked at her confusion, “And I intend to utilize it.”

Pondering what he meant by that, she paused before blurting, “You have to pay for my flight back to New York.”

Fury blinked (or was it a wink?) before nodding, “Done.” Sarcastically, he said, “And is that all ma’am?”

“Actually,” she said, swinging her backpack forward and pulling out the Iron Man teddy bear she bought from New York and pushing it to Agent Romanoff’s chest, “Can you give this to Tony?”

Agent Romanoff stared amusingly at the bear in her arms.

“Tell him Happy Birthday for me.”

---

Natasha Romanoff watched the young woman stagger into a taxi, making sure that she was completely out of range before turning to Director Fury, “Interesting move, sir.”

Fury chuckled, tossing the empty cartridge of lithium oxide in the air. He already had Agent Romanoff administer the dose exactly one hour prior. Tony Stark and that woman had much in common, going to this exact donut place one hour apart from each other. He glanced at the scorch marks on the giant donut sculpture on top of the store, where Stark had been lounging.

That poor girl had traded her life away for something he already did.

“It’s all in the game, Agent Romanoff,” he said, heading towards the SHIELD issued vehicle.

But who was he to muddle a lover’s sacrifice?

Chapter Text

She liked to observe people. It was her favorite past time, she admitted, watching the crowds go by and finding humor in the little odd things people did. She did it as long as she could remember—it’s how she met Tony after all.

 He was strutting through life with a bottle in his hand and a mouth that was too smart for its own good.

In any case, the skills she honed over the years actually came useful when she was at the hospital. Just last week a patient came in with two bilateral lacerations, with the right one being a LOT worse, on his upper forearms and they were trying to find out if he was attacked or if it was self-inflicted. The guy was so psychotic he couldn’t remember his own name, but eventually she noticed that he was left handed. He—

“What would you like, Miss?”

Shaking away her thoughts, she smiled politely at the vendor and said, “One STARkberry Reactor crepe please.”

As she passed over a wad of cash, she felt inherently glad the vendor jumped in when she did. She promised herself she wouldn’t think about work when she wasn’t at work.

And Stark Expo was definitely NOT work.

After wrangling a fancy first class ticket from Fury, she managed to get to New York without much trouble. A couple of days went by since, and she tried her best to move on but it was difficult to say the least. Her mind struggled between worrying about Tony—whether the cure she had traded with Fury was actually helping him and worrying about what Tony would do when he realized exactly what she had done and what he had said to her that day.

She really should have figured it out sooner. Tony turned to self-destruction and pity whenever he thought he was protecting others.  She knew this.

But yet…she let her emotions get ahead of her.

And, well, the fractured wrist that was currently in a splint attested to the fact.

“Here you go, miss,” the vendor passed the crepe over to her normal hand. Powdered sugar rained over her hands in the exchange and she had an urge to lick it away. The blue colored crepe, the same color as Tony’s arc reactor, was delicately covered in a bed of glistening strawberries with whip cream balanced haphazardly on top. Her mouth watered at the sight.

“I just don’t understand! Why are the only flavors strawberry and blueberry?” a teenager decked in a t-shirt emblazoned with Tony’s face lamented as she walked by. She briefly wondered what possessed Tony to commission those shirts in the first place—she snorted every time she saw his flirty smirk on every man, woman and child. “The ice cream shop, the crepe shot, the bakery—they only have strawberry and blueberry! Not even chocolate!”

“Maybe Stark really likes berries,” guessed the other teen, munching on a triple scoop blueberry sundae.

She rolled her eyes, sitting on a park bench painted hot rod red. Strawberry was the best flavor anyhow….

“Do you like strawberries?”

She paused, her sixth coffee cup just below her lips. She placed it back down, and picked up a pencil to scribble some notes down, “Yeah…but why do you ask?” If Palladium was mixed with Mercury, it would probably form an unstable element that wouldn’t have the same electrochemical properties—

Pepper laughed, a professional giggle that made her jealous. How did one giggle professionally? “Tony came by today. He brought over a carton of them but I’m allergic. He must have confused us two!”

The pencil in her hand snapped in two.

She cringed, appetite waning. Pepper had called her yesterday, while she was trying her best to NOT spiral into a deep panic at the fact that she hit Tony when he was dying. And well… the fact that he was dying and didn’t tell her. She breathed deeply in and out in and out.

She knew why Tony did what he did. She understood. She got it.

She wanted to grab him by his shirt and shake him. Don’t you understand how much I care about you, silly stupid dumb man!  You’re not alone—what do I have to do to get that through your thick skull. How dare you mix up Pepper and me—I thought—

“Hey, you! Cool necklace” said a passerby, pointing at her neck. She instinctively grabbed it, covering it from the strangers’ view. “Where did you buy it? I only see arc reactor t-shirts at the stall over there—”

Overwhelmed with a sudden possessiveness, she snarled at him, “It’s MINE.”

She thought about Pepper and Tony and strawberries.

She threw the half-finished crepe in the nearest trashcan.

---

Tony knew he made a mistake. Hell, he made a series of ‘very bad ideas’ within the last few months, fueled by the single most thought that the very instrument that kept him alive was killing him bit by bit.

But there was no way in hell that he was going to let his mistakes kill the one person that mattered to him.

“Pick up!” he muttered, edging his suit to fly faster.  He dodged a series of gunfire from Vanko’s drones with Rhodey’s suit leading the charge.  He flew higher into the sky, hoping that the Vanko’s focus will be on him rather than the hundreds and thousands of people attending the Stark Expo below. He hoped to the technological gods that she wasn’t attending the Expo. He hoped that she still held onto some anger for him—at him—disgust, frustration, whatever it was that would have made her stay at home instead of here. But he had a suspicious inkling that she was at the very heart of all of this because he knew her.

She didn’t hold onto anger easily—that daft woman. The phone went to voice mail, “Damn it! JARVIS pin point her location!”

“On it,” JARVIS set the coordinates on the screen and Tony cursed. He hated being right all the time.

Making a tight screw around the observation tower, Tony weaved in the air, calculations and contingencies forming in his brain. People were screaming below him, and Tony tried his best to avoid any collateral damage.

“Sir, the drones are attacking the attendees!”

Tony made a sharp turn, descending towards the crowds. He spotted a drone walking towards a little kid wearing an Iron Man helmet and landed right by him, blasting the drone before he could fire.

“Nice work, kid,” he muttered, before flying away. Damn it, where was she?

There! Tony dove down again, dodging the rain of bullets and blasting whatever drone he could reach. He could see her know, and Tony let out a sigh of relief because she looked alive. “Why isn’t she running?” he asked as he got closer. The stupid idiot was low to the ground, next to a teen that was lying prone on the ground. “Is she—” he sighed incredulously, realizing that she was currently applying a tourniquet around the leg of the boy who was bleeding profusely.

“It seems that ma’am lacks the same self-preservation as you do, sir.”

“Oh, shush JARVIS,” muttered Tony before skidding to a stop in front of them. The pair stared at him, but his eyes were focused on the her—checking for any life-threatening injuries.  He hesitated, suddenly unsure of what to say. The last time he had talked to her—well, his cheek was still smarting from her slap.

He took a deep breath and stepped forward, flipping his helmet up to show his face. She had stood at his arrival, stepping lightly on her left foot. Was she—?

“I thought you were in Pepper’s office,” he said, saying the first thing that was on his mind.

“I’m sorry?”

“I brought your favorite—strawberries—to Pepper’s office yesterday,” He winced at the reminder of the spectacular fuck-up that was. He continued, trying to explain himself, “I came to apologize but you weren’t there.”

A strange expression flickered on her face. Tony watched, carefully, as her mouth formed a circle and she softly said, “Oh—”

Completely unsure what that meant, Tony babbled, “I wanted to explain myself. You know how I can be world class jerk, bastard, whatever you want. What I said was totally uncalled for—heck you could probably sue me for slander at this point—and you know I tend to run my mouth when I’m angry and I was in a bad place, let me tell you. Anyway I heard from Agent of all people that you were in New York—and then Hammer happened and I—”

She stepped forward, a look on her face that Tony didn’t understand, and said, “I forgive you, Tony.”

“—and I was like, what am I going to do with all these strawberri—wait what?”

Amused, she glanced up at him and smiled, “I’m not repeating myself, Mr. Stark.”

“Don’t call me that—“he whispered, pained as a flash of his old man went through his mind, before saying, “I—Come now, honey, I was a total ass. You can’t forgive me this easily.”

“I can—” she said with a stubborn tilt to her head and god she was perfect, “You can’t tell me what to do.”

His breath stuttered as she wrapped her arm around his armored form, hugging him as tight as she could considering that one was in a cast. Something to ask her about later—he compartmentalized. Tony could smell her shampoo emanating from her hair at this distance, and he just wished he could take his helmet off so he could tuck her head under his chin where she belonged.

“I wish I could hug you properly,” she whispered into his chest before breaking the hug. 

“Why aren’t you angry at me?” he muttered, feeling his heart threatening to burst. He didn’t deserve her forgiveness. “You should be screaming at me. Punching me. I was fully prepared to get on my knees and grovel for your forgiveness.”

“Starks don’t grovel—“she said, bringing her hand towards his exposed face. Her thumb lightly trailed over the bruise that was blooming over cheek. An apologetic look formed on her face, “I’m sorry for hitting you, Tony.”

Tony was flabbergasted. Sputtering, he shouted, “You can’t be serious—”

Before Tony could explain to her as to why her forgiveness was ridiculous and that she shouldn’t be the one to apologize, a voice echoed through his coms. “As nice as this was, seeing you two love birds work it out—” Rhodey said sarcastically. Sounds of gunfire and screaming came from the background. “Two drones are coming in hot—”

Tony reacted, pushing her behind him and firing at the two drones that were heading their way. “We’re going to finish this conversation later,” he said, turning back to her and giving her a look. “Stay out of trouble.”

“No promises,” she said, eyes sparkling at him.

God, she was going to be the death of him.

Tony couldn’t wait.

---

“Um—excuse me—” said the teen, blinking lethargically at the gash on his leg.  Every heart beat caused a gush of dark blood to gush out, like some grotesque chocolate fountain. “I think—I’m bleeding out—”

She turned around, sneaking a last look at Iron Man flying away before cheerfully pressed down on the wound with the Tony Stark t-shirt the boy was wearing earlier, “Strawberry sounds so much better than chocolate now, doesn’t it?”

The teenager merely stared at her in horror.

---

She shrieked, knees wobbling as her feet touched ground. She staggered backwards, struggling to gain her balance after being shot up into the air in Tony’s arms without any warning. Tony threw his sparking helmet away, and she glanced up at his free face for the first time tonight.

“Never—“she panted, trying to stop the wave of nausea from coming up, “do that to me again. I can’t—”

“You can’t? Look at me!”

She shot him a glare, bringing the unbound hand to her face. She could feel it trembling and her emotions swirled with the adrenaline rushing over her. “Thanks for saving my life—“she said instead, trying to calm herself down. Was it just her or was there a ringing sound somewhere? She wheezed, “I appreciate it. But next time—warn me?”

“I think I did ok!” he said, gesturing to the Expo beneath them. She glanced briefly down the side of the rooftop and groaned.

“Everything’s on fire—“she said, shielding her eyes. Pepper was going to kill Tony—and then her.

“I can fix it!”

She glanced incredulously at him. She slowly looked at the burning Expo below them and back to him with a look on her face, “You can’t fix everything Tony.”

“I can try—” he said, stepping closer until his chest plate was flush to her.

“But you don’t have to,” she said, poking a finger at his Reactor. She had a feeling this wasn’t about the Expo anymore. “When will you understand that you aren’t alone? When were you going to tell me that you were dying? When you were dead?”

Tony’s face scrunched up in annoyance, “Did Agent tell you? Because I have it under per—”

She shook her head. Tony paused in the middle of what he was saying before clearing his throat, “I—put your name down on my life insurance.”

“What.”

“When I died—Ow! Woman don’t hit me!”

“You. Can’t. Just. Say. That. And. Not. Expect. To. Get. Hit!” she said, arms reaching out to slap Tony to oblivion.

“Jeeze woman. Once is enough don’t you think?” Tony said, dodging her pitiful attacks before grabbing her wrists with his gauntlets. “Enough! I put you down because I wanted to make sure you’ll be alright when I’m gone.”

“You can’t keep doing this Tony,” she said, frantically. She thought about the bank account under her name with Tony’s money, “You can’t just give me everything.”

“Why not?” Tony said, gently placing her hands down. “I care about you! What’s wrong with making sure that you’re financially stable when I’m not here to take care of you?”

She sputtered, “Because!” She glanced at Tony’s patient look and she struggled to get her words out, “Because you and I both know that this isn’t permanent.”

“Explain.”

She sighed, running her dirty hands through her equally sooth covered hair, “Tony, listen. We’ve been—friends for a very long time. And, truthfully, meeting you was the best moment of my life. But at some point in time we know that you’ll eventually move on!” She stared at the ground, unable to look at his eyes. “Look I’m just a nobody and you are—you are going to change the world Tony! You can’t have someone like me tagging along. I’m only going to bring you down.” Grabbing her courage, she glanced up at him and said, “And…when that time comes—I have to fend for myself. I can’t afford to rely on you for help—because what will happen when you leave? I can’t—”

“Is that why—”

“Yes,” she confessed, tears pooling in her eyes. Damn it. She didn’t want to look so weak in front of him. “Yes Tony! That’s why—God,” she sniffled, feeling so ashamed. “I can’t help it. At first it was a means to an end, you know? Another job. But now there’s a voice in my head that tells me that I’m going to end up on the streets if I don’t start getting money. It’s an addiction. I can’t stop!” She briefly remembered her conversation with Strange and felt a wave of guilt wash over her. What a hypocrite she was—spewing that nonsense. She was in denial then—but she knew herself better now.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Tony asked, sounding pained. “If I knew—”

“I didn’t want to be a burden,” she whispered, taking a step forward. Because that’s what the whole thing came down to, wasn’t it? Tony met her halfway and wrapped his armored suit around her body. She spoke into his chest.

“But you’re not, baby girl,” Tony said, “I—want to take care of you. I’m not leaving you. Heck you can’t pay me to leave.”

She drew in a shuddering breath, wishing that his words were true. “You promise?”

Tony grasped her tighter, “Yes. I promise. I’m sorry about yelling at you.” He pulled back to look at her again, “And I’m sorry for not telling you about—well—my impending death.”

“And I’m sorry for not telling you about my side job,” she said, wiping her tears away. She laughed, her voice watery. “God this is so dumb.”

 “Hey hey. This is good. Communication. We’re making progress here—“Tony said, waving his hands haphazardly. “Listen, there’s something I need to tell you. I lo—”

“Wow, this is weird—“said a voice beside them. She and Tony stepped a respectable distance away from each other as if burned and turned to the voice, only to find Rhodey casually lounging in his suit.

“Oh—um,” she and Tony said, voicing each other’s own excuses.

Rhodey just shook his head, “You don’t have to do that. I heard the whole thing.”

“You should get lost.”

“I was here first— Get a roof.”

Everything was going to be ok.

Chapter Text

The grinding sound of the subway lulled her to a mindnumbing state, welcome considering the situation. She shifted a little, the rough fabric of her graduation gown rubbing against her sensitive skin. She didn’t get much sleep the night prior, too excited at the notion that she was finally going to be an actual board certified physician in a couple of hours.

Her heart sped up just thinking about it.

She would have been freaking out even more, except for the fact that there was a certain someone who was even more terrified by her certain situation that she was.

“Why don’t you like public transport?” she asked this morning, fluttering to get ready. Tony sat on her stool, eating a bagel that was meant to be her breakfast.

“I don’t like sitting where other asses sat.”

“I sat there—“she pointed to the stool, before tearing a piece of the bagel in Tony’s hand.

“You ass is the exception—"

Lips twitching in amusement, she reached over and grabbed Tony’s cold hands. “How are you holding up?”

Tony was stiff, a look of pure disgust permanent etched on his face. He was barely sitting on the subway seat next to her, half-squatting, half-perching on the vibrantly orange plastic seat. He hissed, sending her a glare. “Why did I agree to this again?”

“You wanted show your support in front of my graduating class?” she asked innocently.

“I could have done that—without riding this monstrosity.” Tony hissed, interlocking his fingers between hers without thought. She smiled even as Tony ranted. “I could have gotten Happy to drive us—you met Happy right? He’s cool! We could have pulled up in a nice car and watch all your classmates gag on the pure awesomeness but noooo. You wanted to take the public transport system.” He whispered those words as if a demon would pop out if he said them too loudly.

She giggled, placing her head on Tony’s shoulders. Immediately, he relaxed, accommodating his posture to make it more comfortable for her to rest. She opened her mouth to say something but a large yawn came out of her unexpectedly. He looked at her, “Tired already?”

She tried to reply but another yawn ripped through her. Tony sighed, before grabbing her cap  that was slipping on her lap and said, “Sleep until we get there.”

“You sure you can handle the subway alone?”

Her eyes drifted closed, missing Tony’s affectionate glance.

“I’ll manage.”

---

The Expo was cleaning up nicely. Tony seemed to have hired almost half of the city’s maintenance and construction workers since the attack. The only reason she knew was because she had been helping here and there—Tony had graciously asked her if she could handle overseeing the medical teams that were available for the clean up crew throughout the days. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt while cleaning up his own messes.

The public were half and half about it, Pepper had told her over some coffee one morning. They were both glad about the amount of new jobs that were available due this fiasco but pissed off by the collateral damage that the fire left. Some were angry about the lack of responsibility Tony had shown before all of this went down, while others were—

“They are eating it up,” Pepper teased, pushing the magazine’s headline closer to her side of the table. “Everyone’s wondering who you are.”

The front cover showed a picture of her in her graduation cap and gown, being lifted up in the air by someone that was unmistakably Tony Stark, despite the outrageous disguise he had on. She had a huge smile on her face, her feelings for Tony shining brightly in her happy eyes as she stared warmly at him. The headline read “WHO IS DR. HAMBURGER MISTRESS?” in bold letters like a wanted poster from Western movies.

It was utterly mortifying.

In any case, life was—despite everything—working out quite well. Which, in all honesty, was highly suspicious to her.

“So, which residency did you end up choosing?” Tony asked one day during one of their lunches. Tony was adamant to catch up on the time they had lost and did everything he could to have lunch with her at least once a week. She tried not to think to much into it.

“So about that,” she said, unsure exactly how to phrase her words. “I’m trying out this communication thing we talked about.”

“Yes?”

“I’m working for SHIELD now.”

Tony choked on his gyro and she quickly rushed to his side to perform the Heimlich maneuver.

She had a vague sensation of deja vu.

---

“Did you really pee in your suit?”

“…no comment.”

---

She watched Agent Coulson tap impatiently at the glass doors of the sick bay, grabbing her attention. She had a brief moment where she wondered how long he would wait if she continued to ignore him, but eventually opened the doors to signal him in anyway.

Knowing him, he probably had the access code anyway.

“What do you want,” she asked, not stopping her typing. She was writing a progress note for an agent she saw early this morning with two gun shot wounds courtesy of shooting practice. Apparently it was new trainee season at SHIELD headquarters and that meant a lot of broken legs and broken egos strolled in and out of her office at all hours of the day.

A great learning experience—a colleague, Dr. Feliz or something, snubbed.  

“I had an interesting conversation today—” Coulson said, smiling at her.

She shrugged, “No offense. But what does that have to do with me?”

“Well—it’s just that Mr. Stark,” her head lifted at Tony’s name and Coulson, ever the sneaky one, smiled wider, “who was very vocal about not helping SHIELD out as a consult—“ She snorted, knowing that vocal was a nicer way of calling what Tony said. “Just called to inform me that he would be absolutely delighted to be a consultant.”

Her jaw dropped in surprise. Coulson continued, “And I was wondering—if you had anything to do with that?”

Coulson didn’t even bother hearing her answer before he swept out of the room.

---

“I love you,” she said, mustering all her emotions into the words. “I love you Tony Stark. For as long as I can remember. I love you so much, I can’t even breathe without thinking about you.”

The mirror was silent. Her words felt flat and tasted all wrong as if the affection she poured into those words were not enough.

Communication was important—she knew—and unfortunately, she was absolutely trash with it.

---

She never seen arms this hard before, she thought to herself, as she stitched a deep cut curling around the agent’s bulging biceps. Her mind briefly flashed to Tony’s arms—back when he would wear that black tank top in the lab, the blue light of his arc reactor peaking through…

She shook her head. Inappropriate thoughts like that wasn’t very work inclusive.

“Aand done. How does it feel Agent… Barton?” she asked, briefly glancing down at the patient’s chart to remember his name.

The agent stretched, maneuvering his arms a bit as if he was testing the limitations of her stitches. She had an inkling they would pop by mid afternoon. “Feels good. Thanks doc.”

She nodded, already putting away the supplies. She was ready to get out of there. Tony said that he had something he needed to show her today after work and she had been restless all day…

“Oh, can you please tell Agent Romanoff that she can wait here like a normal person instead of hiding in the ceiling? It’s really hard to concentrate when I have murderous eyes on my back, you know. What do you expect for me to do? Kill you with a needle?”

Agent Barton shrugged, and a few seconds later, a red-headed assassin dropped from the ceiling vent and landed cat like beside him. “I can’t tell her what to do.”

“You took too long, “Agent Romanoff said, to which she merely nodded. Ever since she started working at SHIELD, Agent Romanoff had been strangely invested in testing her observation skills. Just last week, she came into the office feeling strangely off, only to realize that someone had moved her laptop 5 cm to the right.

It was unnerving to say the least.

“I almost killed you—you know,” Agent Barton said casually, sucking on a lollipop he grabbed from a dish of candies she kept in the office.  She dropped the gauze she was packing up, cursing when the sterile cloth rolled around the floor—completely unusable now.

“You can’t just say things like that—” she mustered out, completely done with this entire situation. Did Agent Racist try to kill her? “What’s so special about me that warranted you to kill me. Aren’t you like some special higher up here?”

Barton shrugged, “You could have been a spy.”

“She was a spy.” She glanced at Agent Romanoff accusingly. The redhead didn’t even blink. She tried for humor to mask the steadying increase of panic that was rising, “You know—I charge people for seeing me with that on. My offer still stands, Agent Romanoff” she leered, referring to the cap teddy she had on that day.

Barton turned to Romanoff, “I get it now.”

“I told you—” Romanoff said, lips twitching in amusement.

Totally put out, she pointed at the door, “Get out.”

---

Tony brushed his hands on her shoulder, steadying her as the bustle of the New York crowd almost swept her off her feet. She glanced back at the man gratefully.

“At this rate, I might need to buy a leash on you,” he teased, his hands feeling deliciously warm against her cool skin. Something in her trembled. “To keep you safe.”

“Very funny, Tony,” she said, eyes turning back in front of her. His hand squeezed once before dropping, leaving an unnecessary sense of emptiness.

“I’m a comedian,” Tony replied, keeping step with her as they weaved through the crowd. “In any case—what do you think about my idea?”

“The Tower?” she asked.

“Imagine—“he grasped her wrist and pulled her to the side of street, away from the main highway of bodies. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, he used his other hand sweep at the bustling construction site on the other side of the street. “A huge tower right there—in the middle of Manhattan. A icon of the future of energy. A jewel of the city.”

She could see it in her minds eye. A tower so large that it dwarfed the other sky scrapers in the city, sparkling like a diamond. Tony’s name emblazoned right at the top—an image that screamed that this was Tony’s city, that he was going to march the world into a new millennium of technology.

She swallowed thickly.

“And of course—it’ll be a little taste of home,” Tony whispered into her ear, pulling her closer so that she could hear. Her heart sped. “There will be a whole floor just for you and me. I’ll ship some stuff from Malibu over. It won’t be home but it’ll be close, yeah?”

Speechless, she turned her head to look at Tony only to realize that he was close, very close. She felt a surge of pure affection for the man who noticed that she had been lonely in New York without her saying so, that she missed California. The man who called his house  her home, like it was a defined and obvious thing. And when did she start thinking of the mansion overlooking the ocean her home?

She haven’t had a home in a long time.

Tony glanced at her, eyes filled with something so deep that she was drowning. She was so close that she could count all the freckles that adorned his face, the long lashes that curled so sweetly, and the blue hue that always lit Tony’s face.

A car honked. People cursed. The moment was broken.

The affection, though, lingered.

Chapter Text

When she wasn’t working at SHIELD, she spent some of her free time volunteering at a community hospital in some sketchy part of New York. She liked working there—some the patients were so interesting compared to the traumatic nature of SHIELD’s medical team, and between the two locations she got to see a lot of variety of cases. She even got to write and publish a case study; 38 yo female with a history of multiple hospital visits came into the ED throwing up blood. There were no indications of bleeding anywhere in the GI tract and most of the team were at a lost—until she saw the patient sucking out her own blood through the peripheral IV line.

Factitious disorder, blood letting type.

She had tried to keep her first publication a secret, but Tony somehow got wind and treated her out to dinner at an upscale 2 Michelin star restaurant overlooking Central Park. She even got a phone call from Stephen, of all people.

“So—emergency physician?”

“…you don’t have to be so smug about it, Strange.”

As her career slowly took off, Tony’s only grew. Stark Industries was slowly expanding into communications and clean energy—and Tony was starting this new project about using the arc reactor tech to power up all of Manhattan. Which sounded ridiculous in her eyes—but she knew that if anyone could do it, Tony could.

Tony’s other career was launching as well. Popularity regarding Iron Man was through the roof—so much so that she couldn’t turn without seeing his face plastered over every surface on the streets. There were several movies already depicting the origins of Iron Man—and there was even a musical.

“Personally, I think the actor was spot on,” she said, covering her mouth in pure mirth as they exited the theater and into the busy Time’s Square. “I especially loved the number ‘I Get Slapped a Lot (Reprise).’”

Looking disgruntled, Tony fired back, “I liked the cameo from the Hamburger Mistress. The ketchup in her hair was—pfff—was a nice touch.”

She refused to speak to him all the way home.

And the next thing she knew, one year went racing by.

---

“Why” she yelped, feeling absolutely fed up, “Do you like to sneak up on me like this?”

Agent Coulson smiled secretively before matching his stride with hers. She was on the way to discuss the status of some of the agents she had been working on for the past few months. Lightning burns were no joke. Wicked scar no less—she hoped that whatever SHIELD was up to in the desert of New Mexico, it was staying clear and far away from it.

“So—why are you here? Last I heard, you were doing some secret mission, Secret Agent Man.”

“That’s classified,” Coulson replied and she rolled her eyes.

“Of course it is—“she said. “I heard that you were handling relations with a prisoner. Tell me, was it aliens? My bet’s on aliens.”

Coulson’s face remained impassive, “I cannot confirm or deny that there are aliens.”

She skidded to a halt, “Wait, seriously? I was joking—” she glanced at Coulson’s raised eyebrow and whistled, “Holy smokes. Aliens.”

“Can’t confirm or deny,” Coulson replied, smirking this time. “However, I would be delighted if you could give me the names of the agents who gave you classified information.”

“What so you can ‘erase them’?” she made large air quotes, “No thanks.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, “Coulson said, and she shook her head. “Nothing can be erased.”

She restarted her pace, smiling at him. “Well that’s good for you Coulson. Glad to know that SHIELD isn’t totally a—”

“We blackmail.”

She stopped abruptly before blinking rapidly at Coulson. The agent just smiled.

“You’re scary, you know that?”

“You know—Mr. Stark said the same thing.”

---

The tower was mostly done. The business levels on the first few floors were already hustling with workers—both new and old alike. She moved into the tower’s top floors once that was built and she almost broke down crying when she saw that it looked exactly like her bedroom back at Malibu.

“Hey, hey, no need to cry—” Tony hushed, looking amused. She began bawling again once she saw the Iron Man teddy bear sitting in one of the shelves in the living room—one of the first things people would see when they came in. “Hush—kid. Hush—”

In any case, a semblance of normalcy filled her life. She went to work, was pestered by either Coulson, Romanoff, Barton or all three, came home and watched Tony improve his suits. It was nice.

It was home.

“Don’t forget to sleep, Tony" she said, pulling her purse over her head. She had an urgent call from her supervisor to go to work, saying that Fury—er Director Fury—was requesting her presence. Why the one-eyed pirate wanted to see her specifically was beyond her but she danced to the flute of her paycheck writer. “I left some lasagna in the fridge. Don’t forget to eat the salad.”

“Mmhm.”

“And please try not to test-run anything without me on standby. Remember what happened last time?” she gestured to the pair of crutches that were lying haphazardly on the floor.

“Sure sure honey.”

Rolling her eyes at Tony, who was most definitely too absorbed in the blueprints floating in the air, she spoke, “JARVIS? Watch over him?”

“Of course, ma’am.”

---

The temperature in the room was so cold that she could see her breath catch in surprise. Several nurses, physicians and scientists were bustling around, talking in excited whispers as they gestured wildly at the strange and almost impossible sight before her.

She understood why she was being called.

Beyond the men and women of science that hustled, a group of agents efficiently worked on their assignments—changing her hospital room one piece of furniture at a time. A vase. An old fashioned t.v. Slowly turning the room that she knew like the back of her hand into something unfamiliar that it made her skin crawl.

“I expected you to be in the fray, Doctor,” Nick Fury said, appearing silently behind her. “And yet you are by the sidelines. Why?”

“You’re going about this all wrong,” she said, hands clenching tightly in front of herself. Her eyes didn’t move from the impossible thing.

“It is uncertain what the mental state of the asset is,” Fury said clinically, calculatingly. She wanted to wring his neck. “This has been determined to be the best way to assess it.”

“It’s immoral,” she said, turning to look at him in the eye. “You’re going to lose his trust before you can introduce yourself.”

“Are you giving me orders?

She took a step back, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t dream of it Director. But as this patient’s physician, I have made my assessment. “ She drew herself to her full height. “I have nothing more to say. I’m out of this project.” She pivoted, stuffing her cold hands into her white coat pocket.

“This comes out of your paycheck, doctor,” Fury said as she passed him, knowing exactly what to say to make her to stop. She hesitated, slowly her pace and glanced back at the hospital bed.

Captain America, AKA Steve Rodgers, didn’t move.

She closed her eyes, breath shuttering at the implications of this monumental finding, before smiling grimly at her boss. “You know where to find me when America’s icon punches you in the face.”

---

Her fingers danced across the chest plate of Mark VI, creating visible smudges on the red metal. It was incredible, seeing the advances Tony had made since Mark III, and that was only what she could see on the surface.

“What are you trying to improve upon?”

Tony lifted his head from one of his work benches, lifting his welding mask off his face. He rarely needed to handcraft his suits now a days, having JARVIS calibrate most of the suit for him. But she knew that Tony found some comfort working with his hands. “Better armor—mostly,” Tony said, waving his hands. “Come look.”

She stepped closer, and tilted her head at the skeletonized contraption on the desk, “A bracelet?”

“The suitcase was too clunky—stylish I have to admit but I wanted something more rapid,” He handed the bracelet to her and she held it delicately. “I’m trying for rapid deployment—see this sensor here?” She didn’t see it but nodded anyway, “Well—its supposed to recognize my biometrics and then deploy the suit from a different location and form around me. Boom. Instant armor. Daddy will be back in business.”

“What kind of scenario would you need this tech?” she asked.

Tony frowned, twirling a wrench in his hands, “Let’s say I fall off a building—”

“Don’t even joke about that Tony,” she gripped his wrist.

“Okay okay, jeeze woman you have a tight grip. What have SHIELD been feeding you?”

She gave Tony a look. He grinned at her before saying, “Want to try flying?”

“Nope.”

Pouting, Tony said, “Why not? I’ve got the boots right here. Don’t you want to be bad ass like me?”

A few short moments later, she found herself strapped into a half-finished boosters, wondering how exactly Tony got her to agree on this in the first place.

“You’ll have to maintain your balance!” Tony warned, before shouting to JARVIS. “Use 5%!”

Barely hearing her heart thumping in her chest over the sound of jets of air under her feet, she shrieked as she began to hover a couple of inches in the air. She gritted her teeth, sweat pooling on her forehead as she clenched her abs in an attempt to maintain upright. “I hate you!”

“You’ll thank me later, darling,” Tony shouted past the noise, “Try moving towards me!”

“How????” she shouted, panicked.

“Just move!”

“That’s not very helpful Tony!” she screamed, catching herself from swinging.

Tony walked closer to her, “Hey it’s not like I have a manual or something at the ready!”

“WELL MAYBE YOU SHOULD MAKE ONE!” she screamed before tensing her muscles, causing her to drift closer to Tony’s spot. “Hey! It’s working!”

“I never doubted you,” Tony said. Somehow between her screaming, he had put on his own boots and hovered towards her until he was able to grab her hands. “Fun right?”

Just as she was about to reply that it was NOT fine, her boots sparked and sputtered before all the power went out. Feeling herself fall, she shrieked in fear only for Tony’s arms to wrap around her legs and hips and catch her in midair.

“Got you—” he said, huffing from exertion. He shifted his arms, brining her closer to his chest. She colored as she realized he had caught her bridal style. “I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”

Tony’s eyes were sparkling, absorbing her own without mercy. Her hands trembled and she brought them closer to his face, delicately brushing the hair that fell over his eyes. “I never doubted you—” she echoed.

The two stared at each other, still floating in air. Tony wet his lips. “Hey honey?”

“Hmm?”

Tony grinned, and her heart leapt to her throat until she registered what he said,  “How much weight did you gain? Because my arms are about to give out—hey!”

She huffed, pushing herself off of him and landing on the floor. “Rude.”

---

“Hey JARVIS?”

“Yes, Sir?”

Tony’s face mask smoothly dropped on his face, the interface of his suit coming online, “Tell the missus that I’m coming home late tonight.”

He flew out of the Tower, heading up past the skyscrapers and into the clouds. JARVIS’s voice still sounded clear, “Unless you plan on using that ring you bought for her 6 years ago, I’m afraid that ma’am is not yet your wife.”

Tony rolled his eyes, edging his suit to fly higher. “Technicalities.”

Chapter Text

As tired as she was, her dry eyes could easily tell the difference between trash and a dirty penny lying in the middle of the cross walk. It must have been abandoned there for a long time; the bronze was barely visible beneath the dirt caked onto its surface. Well no matter how dirty it was, money was money and she immediately bent down to grab the penny—not paying attention to the fact that the crosswalk sign had turned red and a large truck with a driver fiddling with his brand new StarkPhone was barreling towards her in neck-crushing speed.

“WATCH OUT!”

There was a large impact noise, followed by a series of small crashes and blaring car horns. Her eyes flickered up in fright, expecting to see the front of a semi speeding towards her but gaped as she came eye-level of Captain America’s crotch. 

“So the serum did change everything,” she mumbled, slightly dazed.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that—” said Steve Rogers, ironically having caught the truck and stopped it from running over her. “Are you alright ma’am?”

She squeaked, standing up as Rogers gently pushed the truck back a few inches. She peeked over his massively wide shoulders to see a pile up of accidents behind the truck that she inevitably caused. “Oh shiiiii—we need to get out of here.”

“I don’t—”

“Talk later, Cap,” she said, grabbing his large (why was everything about him so damn large??) hand and pulling him into the crowd that was already forming by the sidewalk.  She could see their phones out already and she kept her head down, trying to keep the damage to a minimum. She tapped on an earring—one that Tony had gotten her a few months back. “Search and purge?”

“Understood—” JARVIS spoke through her earring.

Turning back to Cap, who was looking adorably confused but also strangely trusting at where she was leading him, she said, “Thanks for saving my life, Captain Rogers.”

“Ah—no problem ma’am,” he said, not making eye contact. She followed his gaze at their intertwined hands and she grimaced, “Sorry Captain. I’m sure that I’m breaking some polite decorum from where you’re from but I needed to get us away from the scene.” She slowed down as the crowd let up, having walked a couple of blocks away from the scene, and let go of his hand, “I’m sure it’s already tough as it is trying to get used to this time. Being harassed by the public is not going to make it easier.”

Rogers nodded, looking solemn and serious. Good god, Tony was going to destroy him.

“Now—” she said, leaning against the brick wall of some shop and trying to look stern, “Why were you following me?”

She relished in the shocked look that flashed in Rogers’s face. “I—I apologize ma’am. I saw what you said to Fury about my err—the circumstances of my awakening—” her mind flashed back to the horrendous vases and frowned. “I recognized you and I just wanted to say my thanks. I—“Rogers looked at her insistently, “I feel like I can trust you.”

Flabbergasted, she blinked rapidly in confusion. The American glory told her that he trusted her. She suddenly felt a heavy weight of thousands of Patriotism metaphorically settle on her shoulders and she grasped the penny still in her hand. She took a few seconds to compose herself and pushed a smile on her face. “Trust shouldn’t be given so easily, you know. You gotta make learn what you can and then trust your own opinions. Trust yourself, first and foremost.”

Suddenly having an idea, she turned to the overgrown puppy of a man, who was still contemplating what she was saying as if she said something wise when she was merely pulling words out of her derrière. Grabbing his hand again, she led him two blocks east, and pushed him past the double doors of the public library and into the history section.

“Oh golly,” Rogers whispered, peering at the hundreds of books lining the shelves. “I didn’t even know books existed anymore!”

“What has Fury been briefing you on?” she asked, amused.

“These electronics—‘tablets’,” he said, picking out a book on the World War II. “I can manage, but nothing beats turning pages.” Rogers turned to her suddenly and smiled widely with such gratification that she had to look away. “Thank you.”

“Stay as long as you want—” she said, turning towards the stairs. “I’ll be at the café.”

Leaving Rogers to his books, she sat down at a secluded table in the corner of the café, pulled up her phone and called Fury’s private cell.

As soon as the phone picked up, she said, “I don’t like being manipulated.”

Fury retaliated, his voice stern as ever. “Are you responsible for the 5 car pile up in the middle of Manhattan today?”

Rolling her eyes, she said, “No.” Firm denial was always the solution. Tony would have been proud. “Anyway, you showed me your plans with the Captain, which in retrospect I don’t have clearance for, and then showed him the tapes. You knew I was going to say no. You wanted him to trust me.”

At Fury’s silence through the other line, she sighed before admitting, “Clever.” Played again, like a fool.

She could practically hear Fury’s smugness through his deadpanned tone, “This is why I keep you around.”

---

It was a nice night for terrifying nightmares that pulled one out of their sleep gasping for breath. Tony groaned, smacking his head against the headrest as he struggled to steady his burning lungs. Flashbacks were a doozy, and they always seemed to come in the quietest of nights. He could remember another type of quiet night—when he was lying in the cave in the darkness, listening to the sounds of light snoring coming from Yi—NOPE NOPE ABORT.

Tony briskly jumped out of his bed, intend on heading towards the lab. He had something he needed to work on, he knew. Something important. He didn’t necessarily know what it was but he.could.make.it.up.if.he.had.to. He shook his head, before changing directions to the bar. He needed a shot of whiskey. Or maybe a pint. F—he’ll just take the whole bottle with him to the lab.

He paused, seeing the soft light emanating from the living room and frowned. What was she doing up at this ungodly hour? She should be in bed. “JARVIS? Had the missus slept yet?”

“Ma’am woke up at around 1AM and has yet to fall back asleep.”

A grown adult should have at least 6 hours of sleep, so why wasn’t she taking her own advice? Fully intending to carry the woman back to her bedroom, he stepped toward the threshold and got a glimpse of her.

She looked anxious. Tony could see the bags under her eyes from this distance. She was working on some project—a financial budget by the looks of the holograms that hovered over her small frame, bathing her in a bluish hue.

“There. You didn’t add the penny I found yesterday into the overall budget.”

“I apologize ma’am, but one cent does not make much difference in the calcul—”

“Run it again.”

Her voice sounded uncharacteristically sharp.

Tony watched her run and rerun the calculations until the streams of daylight broke past the windows. It was getting warmer, but Tony couldn’t figure out why he felt so cold.

---

“Hey, remember Banner?”

She placed a still steaming cup of coffee down on the lab table and brought her own to her lips. “Yeah?” Having Banner ignore her was one of the most embarrassing moments of her academic career.

Tony projected the video he was watching on his phone so that she could see. They both watched the footage that was mostly likely taken illegally from SHIELD archives.

Her ears rang from the roars, “Oh. That’s—”

“So cool!” they both said, mouths splitting in exuberant glee.

---

As much as she didn’t want to miss Tony’s big day, she had a night shift at SHIELD that she couldn’t miss. Bringing clean, free energy via arc reactor tech to all to Manhattan was a life time opportunity, she supposed, but she was confident that it would be waiting for her when she went back home.

Besides Pepper was there to celebrate the occasion, and Tony knew that Pepper would be much more appreciate of the work than she would be.

Speaking of people who didn’t appreciate her work, she had a touch time finding a certain avian predator. Agent Barton had been rescheduling his annual exam for the last few weeks now and she had finally pinpointed him down at this remote SHIELD location, keeping watch on a very top secret project that Fury had personally assigned to him. Which meant that Hawkeye would be forced to be there. Which meant that she was  finally going to check him off her list and get a hefty paycheck in reward.

And she was going to get that paycheck no matter what, even if it meant ignoring the blaring evacuation signals, running the opposite direction from the other agents, and slipping past security into a large room that looked like it came from a scifi movie than real life. A large, glowing blue cube was snuggly placed in the middle of the room, emitting horrendous amounts of radiation from what she could tell.

She shook her head. Whatever that thing was, now was not the time. Searching near the ceiling for a bird shaped human, she eventually spied Barton and made her way over to him, only to quickly hide behind some storage boxes as Fury swept into the room.

“Talk to me, Doctor.”

For a second, she thought the jig was up but Dr. Selvig came towards her periphery, “Director!”

“Is there anything we know for certain?”

“The Tesseract is misbehaving.”

She held her breath as Fury came closer, and she quickly crawled to a further storage box. Feeling out of breath at the twinge she felt in her knees, she missed a part of their conversation. “…radiation. Nothing harmful; low levels of gamma radiation.”

Fury paused before giving Selvig a look, “That can be harmful.” She pictured the large green man destroying half of Harlem and silently agreed. “Where’s Agent Barton?”

Her head snapped up at where she last saw Barton and watched as he quickly slid down a rope and headed towards the Director. She tried not to feel envious at his agility.

“Well I see better from a distance.”

“You see anything that might set this thing off?”

The pair headed up the platform. She noticed that there was a strange electricity in the air, a taste in her mouth that she sometimes would feel right before an upcoming thunderstorm. Her eyes zeroed in on the ominous cube, wondering what the ever-loving F was SHIELD up to. Her eyes flickered back to the agents as  Barton said, “No one’s come or gone.” He turned around before his eyes stared directly at her. She squeaked. “Well, except for Dr. Pipsqueak over there.”

She stood up slowly, knowing when to stop while she was ahead. She waved awkwardly at the two. Barton looked amused but Fury looked—well furious. “Doctor! You’re not cleared to be here! Where’s your handler?”

She stepped closer to them, suddenly feeling like her own mission was the least of anyone’s concern. She opened her mouth to apologize but what came out instead was,  “I have a handler?”

Ignoring her, Barton spoke to Fury, “Coulson’s been looking for her for ages.”

“Coulson’s my handler?” Whaaaaa

Fury spoke to Barton, ignoring her again, “Send her back once this situation is cleared. No contacts?”

“Yes sir. If there’s any tampering sir, its not at this end.”

A shiver ran down her spine at Barton’s words. Fury must have gotten the same gist because his tone suddenly became grave, “At this end?”

Barton glanced at the cube and then back to Fury, “Yeah, the cube. Is a doorway to the other end of space, right?”

“We have a space portal in the middle of our base?” she exclaimed, her brain suddenly piecing the conversation together.

Barton ignored her again, looking concerned, “Doors open from both sides.”

There was an ominous rumble. Barton stepped back, one hand thrown over her form as the cube let out a burst of energy. She felt the hairs on her neck singe.  “Listen for once and hide,” he murmured, pushing her back not to gently. She scattered away from the cube, crouching behind the original storage box a couple of feet from the scientists. They paid her no mind as they scrambled to read the values lighting up on their screens. As curious as she was about the readings, her eyes remained glued at the two men in front of her, terrified at what was to come. A blue beam of light suddenly shot out of the cube, a hue a slightly brighter blue than the one she was used to. She didn’t have time to think about what she was feeling (fear, anxiety, worry, curiosity?) because a large wave of blue energy rushed over them and suddenly, there was a humanoid being crouching at the end of the machine.

She crouched as still as she could, regretting her miser-like obsession with money, as she watched the tactical team carefully go forward. The humanoid creature slowly stood and the first thing her eyes zeroed in on was the glowing spear in his hand.

Fury must have thought the same because he immediately ordered, “Sir! Please put down the spear.”

Well, the next following moments was what she could only describe as a massacre. In a blink of an eye, a team of agents were blasted by the strange blue energy (magic??????). She watched in horror as Barton went down, followed by Fury. An agent landed by her feet and she reached over a trembling hand towards his jugular, searching for a pulse.

There was none.

She clenched her fists but her eyes remained glued on the enemy, muscles tensed to run as soon as she was found. She saw a movement at the corner of her eye and Barton, by some miracle, stood up, only for the alien to tap his spear against Barton’s chest and, she couldn’t believe she was even thinking this, mind-controlling him.

She searched for Fury, who’s face looked gravely impassive. She could tell he was injured from her place and she edged her way closer, intending on assessing the damage. Fury shot her a look, making a quick ‘stop’ gesture, and slowly took the Tesseract and placed it in the storage case lying on the ground. She glanced furtively at the alien, who was busy mind-controlling the other nameless agent who was alive. But she knew that it was only a matter of time before the humanoid space guy took notice of the Tesseract’s absence and Fury needed more time to escape with it.

She was suddenly highly aware that the fate of the world may depend on it.

She had to distract him.

Summoning whatever courage she could muster, she licked her dry lips and managed to wheeze out, “So! Aliens.”

The humanoid man whipped around, spear at the ready. She lifted her hands, indicating her lack of a weapon. She stayed crouched on the ground, not so much out of fear but because her legs had gone asleep for being in the same position for so long. Realizing she wasn’t going to be able to run if she kept in this position for long, she slowly got to her knees and sat on her heels.

She would realize, in retrospect, that it was this particular position that probably saved her life.

“What do we have here?” the man spoke in a English accent. Aliens spoke in an English accent! She thought hysterically.  He crouched down to her level and smiled wickedly at her, “Hello, pet.”

“Hi,” she wheezed, and shuddered when the alien reached out and grabbed her chin.  His thumb gently swept across her cheek and she couldn’t help but feel violated at the breach in personal space. She was suddenly very glad that Tony wasn’t here. “Can I make a request?”

The man tilted his head, contemplating her words before chuckling sinisterly, “What does your heart wish for, young maiden?”

Bristling at the derogatory words, she brushed it aside and blurted out, “Can you—I don’t know—not kill my colleagues? I don’t mind if they’re all on the brink of death, considering I get paid for every hour I spend with my patients, but if they’re dead I earn nothing.”

If anything, the man’s grin widened even further. She almost felt like throwing up. “I like you,” he said in relish before his grin quickly morphed into annoyance. He stood toward the direction of Fury. “Don’t.”

She cursed, her stalling proving fruitless. “I still need that.”

“This doesn’t have to get any messier.”

She tried one last time. “Who are you?”

The man glanced back down at her, and she felt dwarfed in his height. The man reached over and patted her head, eyes focused on the bigger threat in the room. Fury’s face remained impassive. “I am Loki, from Asgard. And I am burdened with glorious purpose.”

If Tony was here, he would have made an innuendo about now, she hilarious thought. She couldn’t tell if she was having an acute psychotic episode or a panic attack. I’m going to ask for a vacation as soon as this was over.

She was so obsessed with her thoughts that she didn’t hear the rest of the conversation until she heard Dr. Selvig say, “The portal is collapsing in on itself. We have maybe 2 more minutes until this goes critical.”

Loki looked unamused, “Well then—”

She closed her eyes and shook like a leaf as Barton shot Fury. Loki began to walk, his mind-controlled agents following after them. She needed to stay calm. She had to check on Fury first, make sure he wasn’t in critical condition. The agent in the corner was hacking—his lung must have perforated. He needed treatment ASAP and—

“Oh—” Loki suddenly said, ordering Barton. “Bring the girl with us.”

She stood up quickly, intending to run away, when the butt of Barton’s gun smacked into her head, rendering her unconscious.

Chapter Text

When she was a little girl, she always fantasized about fainting. As stupid as it sounded, she always associated fainting with being feminine. It was dainty. It was what princesses did.

And being an early boomer, covering her quickly growing body with overlarge sweaters and baggy jeans, she grasped the idea that if she just could faint, it’ll be a sign that she could be feminine.

With all that wishing, she never did faint and the stupid delusions of teenagedom went by without much of a whisper.  So it was strangely ironic that she would be knocked unconscious by not one but two villains in the span of 4 years in her early 30s.

Fuck Stane. And Fuck Barton-Loki for hitting her in the damn head. If she ended up being stuck in an MRI for hours she was going to make sure Fury paid every cent for it.

These were the thoughts that were swirling in her head when she came to. It should have been alarming, considering that 1, she was in a fast moving vehicle without being strapped into anything. Number 2, there was an alien named after a Norse god, who proved to be very much not fictional, sitting right next to her. Number 3, there were bullets that were raining down on them.

She struggled against Loki’s hold but despite how thin he looked, his grip was very strong. She didn’t understand why he didn’t just mind-control her like the others. She didn’t understand him.  Maybe it was some war tactic in space, a spactatic.

She cackled in her head and abruptly stopped, suddenly concerned about her overall mental health. She hoped she wasn’t going insane. Was being in a close proximity to a space entity affecting her brain? Was there some radiation slowly leaking out of him and into her? She had to stop thinking.

Aliens, man.

He wasn’t even paying much attention to her, and she trailed his gaze to see a SHIELD issue van close on their tails, a single hand spraying bullets aimed at Loki’s—and therefore her by proxy—head.

She recognized that hand. She was almost punched by that hand.

“Hill!” She shouted, hissing as a bullet whizzed by her ear. “Fu—stop firing at me!”

Whether Hill could hear her or not, the agent didn’t give any answer and kept shooting. The vehicle swerved sharply, causing her to slam against the side of the truck. She swore.

“Hold still,” Loki commanded, just as Hill’s van slammed against the truck. Loki’s hold on her loosened as he fired his spear-thing at the van. The two vehicles were driving at the same speed—making it look like the cars were connected. She paused, a plan suddenly forming in her head.  “Let the warriors take care of this, maiden.”

That was it. She was so done. “You’re right.” She pulled her hand free, and with reflexes she didn’t know she had, she pulled out a blaster from an old Iron Man gauntlet from her pocket. Slapping it flat on the palm of her hand, she pushed her hand out in front of her. “I’m not a warrior.”  Bracing the hand holding the blaster with her other hand, she shouted just as Loki glanced at her, “but I ain’t a maiden!”

She fired.

---

By the time they managed to get out the collapsed tunnel, backup had arrived. She followed Hill toward the smoking remains of a helicopter, where most of the agents seemed to be stationed. Hill immediately started barking orders, scattering the agents in an orderly fashion, before making a beeline toward the Director who was standing by the helicopter in deep thought.

She didn’t say a single word the entire time.

“Sir,” Hill said, immediately launching into a strategy meeting. She should have been paying attention, but she felt so tired. She felt like she wasn’t quite there, like she was watching her body from some place else. Is this what dissociation felt like?

Several hours past. At least, it felt like several hours to her. The two had transitioned from a civilized discussion to a screaming match—at least what a screaming match would look like if one was a one-eyed secret government agent and his right hand woman. She was falling in an out of consciousness, wishing to be with Tony at the Tower than by the side of the smoking helicopter, the smell of artillery hanging in the air.  She vaguely wondered if she should be helping out, if the rescue team had made it back yet, if that agent with the punctured lung managed to make it out alive…

“Doctor! DOCTOR!”

“Yes?” she asked, startling awake. Her blurry eyes slowly focused on Fury, who was staring at her worriedly?  Wait, that couldn’t be right.

“Are you hurt?” Hill asked. She turned to the Director, “She fired something at Loki—startled him enough for her to escape.” She must have been hallucinating, because Hill’s voice almost sounded proud.

“Stark Tech?”

“An old gauntlet—“she admitted, pulling out the dead machine for Fury to see. She glanced at her hand, which she just realized had a wicked circle shaped burn on her palms. She quickly put it away and cleared her throat, “You can’t have it.”

Fury’s eye twitched, eyebrows lifting as if to say ‘you stupid?’. “Do you know why Loki took you?”

“No clue,” she said, straightening herself up and walking toward Fury. Fury hmmed, turning to Hill and speaking in secret agent code, which consisted of speaking entirely through their eyes.

“Did Loki mention anything about where he was going next?”

“No—” She said. Fury opened his mouth to ask more questions but she wearily pulled out her StarkPhone and tossed it at him. The Director caught it easily and glanced at the screen in confusion. She didn’t have to wait long before Fury turned towards her.

“You tracked him?” Fury said before adding unnecessarily, “With Stark Tech?”

She gestured at the GPS on her phone, hands feeling strangely heavy. The red dot was slowly making its way to Europe from her brief glance. “I’m all for brand loyalty.”

“I doubt a military grade tracking device is part of Stark Industries’ line up,” Fury said dryly.

She shrugged. Man it hurt even to do that. “What can I say? The techies in R&D love me.”

It was true. Tony had been going on a hiring spree to fill up the Tower these last few months but he spent his sweet time with the R&D department.

“It’s my baby! I need to make sure my baby isn’t violated in the ass by creepy pedophiles.”

She dropped her popcorn, “Jesus.”

In any case, the R&D department treated Tony like a God. They had a portrait of him in there, surrounded by generous offerings of hamburgers and various bolts and nuts. They waved to the portrait. They polished the portrait. Hell, she even saw one techie stare at the portrait for a full 2 hours before he suddenly had an epiphany and spent the next 5 days in a brainstorming session that left him in the ICU with severe dehydration. They practically fell to their feet whenever Tony dropped by.

And the most hilarious part of all was that Tony had no f-ing clue that he was the leader of a strange cult following.

But she knew. And she had leverage. Which she used often and as much as possible.

“It looks like he is heading to Germany, sir,” Hill said, pointing the spot out to Fury.

“Keep agents at stand by.” Fury ordered. “I want backup in case things goes south with—” he paused before glancing at her way.

She rolled her eyes, “You bringing in the Avengers then? Is Tony going too?” At Fury’s look, she sighed. “Yes. I know. I know.  Top secret. Classified. Blah blah.“

She straightened, spying the rescue team coming towards the station. It looked like there were several stretchers trailing after them. Guess it was her turn now.

She turned to Fury, about to ask to be dismissed so she could work but the Director, uncharacteristically, complimented, “Well done, Doctor.”

She paused, so surprised that she didn’t know what to say. Knowing that Fury was expecting an answer, she blurted the first thing to pop up her brain. “I want a vacation!”

Fury snorted. Hill looked at him in disbelief. It must have surprised Fury himself, because he immediately scowled and dismissed her. She turned around, hiding her mirth and quickly made her way to the rescue team.

Even if she was bone tired and the world was going to hell, it was nice to know that she could still keep Fury on his toes.

She couldn’t wait to tell Tony.

---

“I heard about what happened from Coulson,” Tony said, concern etched across his face. He was in the suit, she could see, probably flying over to Stuttgart last she heard. Hearing the call like a true super hero. She smiled at the thought, as Tony asked, “Are you alright?”

“I can cross of ‘getting kidnapped’ off my bucket list now,” she said nonchalantly.

“Doesn’t count if it was less than 24 hours,” Tony teased, a smirk rising on his face. She was suddenly overwhelmed with an urge to kiss it. “Word’s on the street is that you blasted him with stolen tech. My tech, no less. Coulson looked like a proud daddy.”

She scrunched her nose, “First of all, ew. Second of all, I didn’t steal it. You were going to throw it away!” She didn’t realize how shiny Tony’s eyes looked from inside the helmet. Why were his eyelashes so damn long? They were very distracting! “It’s public property if it’s trash.”

“Sure thing, trash queen.”

Affronted, she raised her hands out to flip him off when Tony’s eyes honed in on the nasty burn on her hand, “I thought you said you weren’t hurt.”

She quickly pulled her hand away from view, “I said I was alright.” At Tony’s look, she sighed, “It’s fine Tony. It’s just a small burn.”

“It looks more than a small burn,” Tony said, frowning. “Knowing you, you’re treating everyone else but yourself.”

She shrugged, not denying the truth. As soon as the survivors were rescued, she and the rest of the medical team managed to triage and treat those that were hurt during the incident. The agent with the perforated lung was among the survivors, miraculously, and it had escalated to a full blown hemothorax by the time she got to him. Luckily she had managed to stabilize him enough to transport him to the Helicarrier where she did the best she could on him. He was still in critical condition, but there were so many other agents who were in need.

This was the first time in a couple of hours that she managed to get a small break.

“Screw Germany. I’m heading over there.”

“What? No!” she shouted, bringing her phone closer to her face. “Tony—you can’t just come here! You have your mission.”

“My first mission is to make sure you’re safe,” Tony said firmly. “JARVIS change the coordinates—”

She ignored her skipping heart and blurted out, “He touched me!”

Tony’s eyes snapped to her face, “What.”

“Loki! He touched my face and called me pet.” She morphed her face to one that she hoped looked traumatized. Which she was. But as much as she wanted Tony to be by her side, capturing Loki was a priority and she knew that Iron Man was important. Tony was needed. Romanov and Rogers weren’t enough.

She wasn’t above dramatic emotional manipulation when the world was in peril.

“He caressed my face,” she demonstrated, as Tony’s fury rose. She looked at him, “I was so scared.”

Tony’s tone held none of his usual melodramatic undertones when he replied with ice, “I’m going to kill him.”

A burning warmth curled inside her. Tony spoke with certainty. The type of determination that didn’t take ‘impossible’ as an answer. It was a confidence that made normal men tremble. That made her heart plunge.

Her smile was fond, “That’s the Tony Stark I know.”

---

She was more than 24 hours into her shift, saving as many agent’s lives as she could get her hands on. She had been lucky so far, but luck never lasted.

An agent just died a few minutes ago.

She was typing up her note about his care on a spare computer in the helicarrier OR as the MAs prepared the room for the next case. The agent had come in with V-tach and despite her attempts, she couldn’t get his heart to restart.  This wasn’t her first death in her career but that didn’t mean that each failure didn’t hurt.

And with the adrenaline of these last couple of hours finally dying down, pure exhaustion tackled her body like a freight train and she could feel her vision blur with an overwhelming need to sleep.

She blinked her eyes rapidly, peering at the mumbled mess she typed out and cursed. After trying to spell arrythmia 5 different times and failing, she quickly glanced at what she typed previously to see if there were any other errors she was making when she noticed something peculiar.

Rubbing her eyes, she glanced at the monitoring again and noticed that yes, there was another entity correcting her typos for her and editing her grammar.

After looking around to check if anyone else was around her, she whispered, “JARVIS?”

The other entity stopped fixing before scrolling to where she was typing and wrote, “YES MA’AM? I HOPE YOU DON’T MIND MY INTRUSION. I FELT YOU NEEDED SOME ASSISTANCE.”

She laughed, tears suddenly pooling around her eyes. Blinking them away, she deleted JARVIS’s sentence and saved her note for later. If JARVIS was in SHIELD’s system then that meant that Tony must have planted him there.

And considering that Tony can only do that manually…

“Where’s Tony?” she asked JARVIS, logging off on the computer. She quickly grabbed her things and headed out the door before pausing. Knowing Tony, he probably didn’t eat anything. She backtracked to the company fridge and brought out some water bottles before turning to the pantry and pulling out the snack she had been saving.

“He is heading towards the labs, along with Dr. Banner.”

Banner? She quickened her step, feeling a second wind at the thought of seeing Tony and Dr. Banner, and after making a few short cuts, she managed to spot the two men at the end of the hall talking animatedly at each other.

“Tony!”

Tony whipped his head towards her, and a smile nearly tore his lips apart. Theatrically and without any care for the world, Tony whined, “HOOOONNNEEEY! I missed youuuuuu!”

She grinned in response as she got closer. Reaching the pair, she lightly kissed Tony’s cheek in greeting. She whispered, “I missed you too,” against his ear before turning toward his companion.

Dr. Banner was exactly how she expected him to be. The man-turned-hulk was a tad shorter than Tony, sporting a purple shirt that stretched across his surprising bulky physique. How all these scientists were keeping fit was a mystery to her, but hell she did much appreciate it. He had a general nervous air to him, but beneath the jittery affect Dr. Banner was, she could tell, a very kind soul.

She shook his hand, introducing herself. Absorbing his general vibe, she turned to Tony and chastised, “I told you not to go with that introduction.”

Turning back to Dr. Banner, she smiled apologetically, “He practiced that line at least a couple of times in the mirror.” She ignored Tony’s affronted look, “In my defense, I tried to explain that it was rude.”

“It’s fine,” Dr. Banner said in a refreshingly mild manner. “I’m more of an android green but ‘android green rage monster’ doesn’t have the same ring to it, I suppose.”

Mouth opened in surprise, she turned back to Tony who had a similar expression on his face and announced, “I like him.”

Tony, to his credit, snapped out of it and nodded enthusiastically before waving his hands over Banner like he was show girl at a quiz game show. ‘See look at this! Look at this new, shiny thing? Isn’t it great?’ Tony conveyed through his eyebrows.  Banner, to his credit, looked amused in a ‘what am I getting myself into’ sort of way.

“So… word’s on the street that you’re making a tracking device for the scepter.” Before the two could ask where she got that information, she shoved her snack, a pack of dried blueberries, into Tony’s arms and the water bottles in Dr. Banner’s. She ordered, “Eat. And drink water.” She pointed her thumb behind her, “I have to find a patient of mine but call me if you need anything.”

She shook waved at Banner and squeezed Tony’s shoulder once before turning to leave. She paused after a moment and turned around towards Tony with a stern glance, “Eat. I mean it,” before rushing towards the bridge.

---

The two men watched her turn the corner and out of their view. Bruce shifted the water bottles in his arms, feeling slightly bewildered. If there was a personification of a hurricane, it would be her.  Turning to Tony, Bruce said, “Some woman you’ve got.”

“Yeah,” Tony smiled, looking completely love struck in Bruce’s eyes. Bruce felt a pang of longing but he brushed it away.  “Tell me about it.”

---

“Hey, Galaga guy,” Doctor Sharp teased, leaning against the console. “Heard you got called out for playing on the job.”

His blood froze, sweat instantly pouring down his neck as he recognized the terrifying woman at his station. Ever since the doc joined SHIELD, there had been terrifying rumors about the woman—specifically how she had this uncanny ability to just know things about someone and was unafraid to use scare tactics to get a person medical care. They started calling her Sharp within the second week for the very same reason.

People have gone to the point of actively avoiding her but she still tracked them down.

He heard that she trapped Hawkeye in the vents for THREE WHOLE DAYS for missing his annual psych eval.

He heard that she punched Director Fury in the eyeball for not giving her access to Captain Rogers’ medical care.

 “H-hey doc,” he stuttered, “What brings you to my station? I’m not hurt—I’m fine, perfectly healthy.”

“Hmm” she said. Before his brain could catch up, she snapped her hands forward and twisted his arm. He shouted as pain bolted up his forearm.

“Not hurt huh,” Doc smiled at him, eyes twinkling menacingly. At the quick tug, he stood up and followed Sharp—dragged by an iron grip around his non-injured wrist. He glanced around helplessly at his coworkers but everyone had their head down, diligently avoiding eye contact with him and the doctor.

“Beat my high score yet?” she asked, and a shudder went up his spine. She looked back at him and grinned, causing the last of his bravery to shrivel up inside him. “I didn’t think so.”

Chapter Text

By the time she managed to hunt down every single agent who had been affected by the incident, she was physically and mentally exhausted. Her eyes were gritty, her hands were cracked from the numerous applications of hand sanitizer and she was emotionally ready to snap at anyone who was hindering her ability to get her work done so she could get the f out of this flying death trap and go home.

Her job would have been marginally easier, if it wasn’t for the fact that having a giant ego was apparently a job requirement for all SHIELD agents. It was all Fury’s fault, she concluded, as she crossed her arms in a petulant pout. Fury’s only response to her unprofessional behavior was a single eyebrow raise, which did nothing for her threat-wise by this point.

“You can’t forbid me to go in there,” she eventually said, anger bubbling just beneath the surface.  At Fury’s silence, she continued, “I know that he’s a prisoner, but I need to make sure that he is uninjured.”

Fury still looked at her sternly and she rolled her eyes, “Look, I know you are forbidding me even though you know I will go do the opposite of what you want me to do. Which is precisely what you want me to do because apparently you are too socially inept just to ask me.”

Fury spoke, looking bored. “So, you will do it?”

She rolled her eyes again, med kit already in hand, “Of course I am.”

---

Marching towards the Cage with indignation, she roughly dismissed the guards in the room, ignoring their protests. Even if she understood that being in a room with Loki separated only by a glass cage was highly dangerous and maybe suicidal, she was a doctor first and foremost and patient-confidentiality was important, damn it!

Loki, that little shit, was sitting in the center of the cage. He hadn’t moved since she had arrived, but she was under no impression that he didn’t know who and where she was at all times. Curses flying around in her sleep deprived head, she abruptly stopped in front of him and eyed him silently for several minutes.

She hadn’t intended to play a game of ‘let’s see who breaks the silence first,’ as she was merely categorizing the various injuries on him, but it seemed that Loki made the first move regardless. Loki curled forward, slithering toward her until he was sitting cross legged by the glass. His green eyes pierced through her as a slow, dangerous smile appeared on his face.

His voice dripped in other worldliness and sensuality, "I expected that red-haired woman to visit and yet you stand before me."

“I’m sorry,” she said tonelessly, as she reached into her med kit. She didn’t want to play whatever manipulation game he was conducting. She wanted to go home. In Tony’s tower. Preferably with Tony but that never did and never would happen. “I’ll let her know how much you want to see her when I leave.”

Loki purred, knowing exactly what he was implying, “I’d much rather prefer your company.”

She paid him no mind as her eyes roamed. She noticed the several singed spots on his clothing, oozing with blood. She stared at it longer, trying to figure out how deep the burns without asking the alien to take his clothes off.

As if sensing her preoccupation, Loki glanced down at his wounds and said, “I had expected my brother to wound me the most but it was strangely the Man of Iron.”

She struggled to remain impassive, as she pulled out a StarkTech med scanner and checked for his vitals. Her eyes glazed over the numbers on the screen, trying to appear focused, when in actuality she was thinking about a certain someone’s voice.

“I’m going to kill him.”

Tony’s biting tone echoed inside her mind and she smiled fondly. It was truly strange how during any moment of any day, something in her mundane life would trigger a memory about Tony that left a warm feeling in her chest and a lingering ache of longing that washed over her.

“Tell me, my lady,” Loki’s voice would have made any young woman tremble. “What is a woman of your caliber working for a moral man?”

A little confused, she replied, “I am mortal.” She wondered if Tony blasted Loki’s brain too.

She wouldn’t be surprised.

Loki hmmed in response. He reached over, fingers hovering just centimeters off the glass cage. To an outsider, it might have looked like a caress. Scrunching her eyebrows, she glanced from his injuries to his blue eyes. Noticing her attention, he slowly licked his lips before breathing out, “You…intrigue me.”

She tilted her head but didn’t respond. Loki pulled his fingers back, coming even closer to the glass as he could. He was so near that she could see the flashes of blue energy crackling in his irises, masking the emerald green underneath. “Maybe, I can sway your heart.”

Looking up at the heavens in annoyance, she pulled back, packing her materials away. “That is impossible.” Loki was healing at an exceptional rate, quicker than any human. The evidence of Tony’s murder streak would be gone by the next day and as curious as she was, it was not enough to stay at work any longer.

“How so?” Loki asked, his mask of pleasantry shattering and replacing with a snarl.

She stepped away from his, shrugging. “My heart is safe with someone else.”

She stepped out of the room, dismissing him without a sound.

---

She walked into the briefing room just as a familiar, sultry voice teased, “And how is your heart lately?”

She groaned, flicking the finger at Agent Romanoff, before placing the med kit away. “Shut up.” She should have known that Fury would send Agent Romanoff to interrogate Loki. Based on what he was trying to pull while she was there, Loki was going to for a wild ride with red-haired assassin. What she didn’t expect was Romanoff to interrogate her. “Don’t you have something to do with your valuable time than interrogate me?” She busied herself in writing up Loki’s note.

Agent Romanoff silently prowled closer, her footsteps making no noise. “I’m not interrogating you.”

She snorted but didn’t respond. Agent Romanoff rolled her eyes before perching elegantly on the desk in front of her, trapping her with a pair of lengthy assassin legs. “Just tell him you love him already. Everyone thinks you’re his fiancé anyway.”

“Excuse me?” she said, indignantly. She tried to pull away only for the legs to crush her into the chair. “Get off!”

“You’re just going to try and run if I do,” Romanoff pointed out, pulling her closer.

“Can you blame me?” she shouted, straining her neck to look at Romanoff. “And where did you get that idea from?”

She never saw Romanoff look so pityingly at someone before, “He called you honey and threatened Fury with a lawsuit for nearly getting you killed.”

Her heart flopped uncontrollably and she squeaked, “Did he?” At Romanoff’s amused nod, she frowned, trying to get some control of her emotions. “But—he doesn’t even like me that way!”

She must have been exhausted, because she hallucinated an astonished look flash on Romanoff’s face. “Are you blind? Tony likes you—”

“No he doesn’t” she interrupted. “It’s just Tony. Tony’s always been like this—"

Romanoff merely pointed at her neck, looking fairly amused, “He gave you this, right?”

“Yeah—” she said, slightly wary at where the assassin’s words were going.

“Stark gave you his heart. You are literally wearing his heart.” At her flabbergasted face, Romanoff shook her head, “I’m getting too old for this.”

Before she could retort that she was technically older than the assassin, Fury came storming in, his long coat flaring dramatically behind him. He glanced at the scene in front of him, before yelling, “Are you going to sit here gossiping like teenagers or are you going to interrogate a murderer?”

Turning towards her, Fury yelled, “Aren’t you supposed to be on vacation now?”

Scrambling to her feet as Romanoff released her, she saluted sloppily and ran away.

She didn’t need to be told twice.

---

The two agents waited for the doctor to leave. After a brief pause, Director Fury turned to Natasha. “She still doesn’t know?”

“Yup,” Nat said, popping her p’s loudly.

“Damn!” Fury murmured, before handing over a crisp $100 to the agent.

---

Her head was spinning as she ran through the hallways, paying no mind to the other agents around her. Romanoff couldn’t have been right, could she?

She had to see Tony.

Feet screeching to a halt, she made a U turn and ran towards Tony’s lab. Her brief conversation with Romanoff left her feeling frazzled and off-center, but she knew that she just had to see Tony.

Everything would make sense once she did.

Caught up in her thoughts, she didn’t pay attention to where she was going and so consequently smacked into a wall of hulking muscle.

“Oh, I apologize, my lad—IT’S YOU!”

Getting her bearings straight, she glanced up blearily at the owner of the muscles and blinked in surprise. “Oh,” she said, before smiling sheepishly at the other alien, Thor. “Hello.”

“My brother has a fascination with you!”

Yes, it seems like the God of Thunder was a straight-to-the point guy. Which, at this point in her life, she was strangely grateful for.  She stepped back, patting the well-defined pecs again like one would to a nice dog. “He’s not interested in me. He just thinks he can manipulate me into giving him information.”

Thor heaved a sigh, his long locks of hair falling over his face. “My brother has done horrible things to you and your people and I apologize.” His eyes glistened with overbearing sincerity. Jeeze, where did Fury find these people—

Shrugging, she said, “I don’t think he intended to hurt me anyway.” At Thor’s confused look, she explained. “He’s the God of Lies right? A trickster? Or is the mythology on earth not accurate?” Thor nodded once and she continued, thinking that this was not the right time to ask if Loki did, in fact, give birth to a horse. “He has bigger fish to fry than hurting someone like me. If you want to apologize,” she sternly looked at the young god, “apologize to the agents who have to live the rest of their lives with your mark.” Her mind flashed back to the gruesome scars tended to a couple months ago. Shaking her head, she smiled politely, “Sorry to cut this short but I have to go see Tony.” Stepping away, she bowed shortly, not quite sure if that was the protocol for alien royalty, and scurried away.

She was too preoccupied with her own thoughts to hear Thor mutter in awe.

“You are truly benevolent, Lady Stark.”

---

By the time she made her way to Tony’s lab, she was an outright mess. Sliding past the glass doors, she barely acknowledged Dr. Banner as she pounced, “Tony, can I talk to you for a second?”

Unable to hear Tony’s reply beyond the rushing sound in her ears, she took him by the sleeve and pulled him into a storage closet.

“Hey, hey—what’s wro—”

She silently laid her head against his chest, vision blurring with unshed tears. She had wanted to confront him about what Romanoff said, about the necklace she was wearing and the relationship between the two of them. She wanted to tell him that she was tired of ignoring her own feelings for him, that being around him felt like home but that she was greedy and always wanted more. But as soon as she felt the warm blue light of Tony’s arc reactor and the soothing and familiar scent of his cologne, the fears and the stresses of the last couple of days came crashing down on her like a tidal wave.

She felt like she was drowning.

She wrapped her arms around him, unable to vocalize her thoughts but wanting comfort nonetheless. Tony didn’t say a word and merely wrapped his arms around her shoulders, pulling her closer. The talkative billionaire persona that he always played dropped for just a single, painful but wonderful moment as he let her breathe in his arms.

“I—” she didn’t like how her voice shook. “I just need a moment.”

She could feel Tony’s voice on her forehead and she shivered,  “Take all the moments you need.”

She wasn’t clear how long they stood in the small closet space, holding each other as tight as they could. Years could have gone by and she wouldn’t have cared, having her heart, mind and soul content being in Tony’s arms.  

After a moment, she took a deep breath and shifted to look at Tony. “I needed that,” she confessed.

Tony brushed a damp piece of hair away from her face and smiled warmly. “Take your time.”

Shaking her head, guilt settling in as she realized how much of Tony’s precious time she wasted, she stepped back despite her body protesting. “I’m clocking out soon.” She settled for smoothing down his wrinkled shirt, still wanting some form of connection. “Don’t get hurt this time.” She tapped gently at his reactor, earning herself a chuckle from Tony. “I hate to leave you here with the sharks. Maybe I should stay and—”

Tony grabbed her hands, bringing them up towards his face. She held her breath as his lips gently touched the top of her right hand, before doing the same for the other. “Go home darling. Rest, you did good.” At the beginnings of her protest, he shushed her, “Between the team and I, we’ll settle this.”

“Oh, the team huh?” she teased, knowing what Tony’s previous stance about joining Fury’s secret project was.

Tony smirked, “I think we’re calling ourselves the Avengers.”

Her cheeks glowed hot, knowing fully that her hands were still caught firmly in Tony’s grasp. “Well, Mr. Superhero.” She smiled, watching Tony’s eyes dilate in response. “Don’t forget to come home.”

“Of course,” Tony spoke with certainty, “You’ll be there, won’t you?”

Not knowing what to say, she gently pulled her hands away. It was strange that her hands already missed his touch. Like they were supposed to be held by Tony’s larger hands, fingers cradled between one another.

She wanted this.

She needed this.

She wanted to be able to hold Tony’s hands like this without permission, to be able to just know that he would be with her through thick and thin. That she would come back home and he would be there.

He was already her entire world.

But, as selfish as it sounded, she wanted to be his too.

“Hey Tony?”

“Yeah?” Tony’s eyes snapped to her face, seeming to know that she was about to say something important.

“When you come back home, I have something to tell you.” She smiled widely then, feeling a strange sense of serenity at her confession. She reached up to caress his cheek. “So you have to come back, alright?”

Tony’s eyes fluttered close at her touch. “Alright.”

Chapter Text

Although she often envisioned herself trapped between Tony’s legs, she hadn’t thought that particular fantasy would come to fruition anytime soon. And yet, here she was, sitting with her back to the bar, shielded by Tony’s long legs as he casually poured himself a drink in front of a Norse God.

Life was strange that way.

After coming home and passing out on the living room couch, she had been awoken by JARVIS’s voice ringing alarms in her ears. Adrenaline had kicked into the gear, and she only managed to squat behind the bar when the elevator doors pinged and Loki and his goons strolled in.

What played next was a scene straight out of a Jurassic Park movie.  Holding her breath, she was placed in a similar situation to the one she was in a few hours past. Only instead of hiding in a somewhat spacious room with a dozen of highly trained soldiers and 1 badass Director of SHIELD, she was intimately aware that she was by herself, with nothing more than kitchenware to defend herself.

And the fact that Loki had invaded her own home made a shiver of revulsion run up her spine.

But through some miracle, she didn’t have to hide for long as the sounds of boosters firing signaled Tony’s arrival.

“Would you like a drink?” Tony had said, before rounding near the bar. Her frantic eyes met his, and a split second, Tony’s face flashed with horror before a perfect poker face smoothed over. He replied to something Loki said, which was muffled by the ringing in her ears, “No no no, threatening!”

Which brought him to where he was now—leaning against the bar and in extension, her body, while sharing witty banter with the man in green.

“But let’s do a head count—” Tony said, pouring himself a drink. She could see his hands tremble against the glass decanter as he gulped down the whiskey. His hand briefly dropped towards his legs, reaching blindly as he kept his head towards the predator in the room. She grabbed his hands, placing them against her pale cheek and counting the rapid pulse flowing through them. Could he feel how fast she was breathing? She tried to send him whatever comfort she could give and struggled to follow the conversation.

“Not a great plan—“Tony said, tapping her cheek in warning before pulling away. He walked out of the bar, closer to where she supposed Loki was. She felt strangely more exposed now that he was gone.  “When they come—and they will,” something changed in Tony’s tone, turning more threatening.  She was suddenly reminded that this man, the silly man that tried to make her strawberry crepes on the weekends and grinned wider than the sun, was once monikered the Merchant of Death. This was the Tony Stark that staked his claim in the business world at the young age of 21. The man that burned arrogant men with his quick tongue and sly tactics before the suit of armor came to life. “They’ll be after you.”

“I have an army.”

“We have a Hulk,” Tony said confidently, and she shuddered in horror. Awesomeness of Dr. Banner aside, the implications of needing the Hulk—of the fighting an upcoming army of aliens—was downright terrifying. Flashes of previous alien invasion movies she saw passed through her mind.  Feeling more and more upset at the situation unfolding, she felt her stress spiral out of control until she heard a body being thrown to the ground. She couldn’t see what was going on but she could hear Tony’s groans and fearing the worse, she slowly crawled towards the edge of the bar.  She didn’t know how she could help but she had to—

But before she could see, she heard Loki growl, “You will all fall before me!”

“Deploy!”

The elevators on the other side of the room started to whirl, signaling a rapidly descending car. She slapped a hand over her mouth, fearing she’ll scream, when she heard glass shatter and Tony’s voice fading away. A millisecond later, a blur of red and gold burst out from the elevators and towards the windows before the sound of thrusters kicked in from somewhere below. She couldn’t help but let out a whimper of relief as she heard Tony’s voice somewhere on the floor.

“And there’s one other person you pissed off!” There was a beat of silence before Tony replied, “His name was Phil.” She could hear him shoot a blaster and Loki shouted, landing on the floor.  She heard Tony fly into the living room and towards the bar.

“I’m getting you out of here,” he said, voice warped because of the mask. She quickly stood as Tony wrapped his arms around her and took off, flying out of the Tony-shaped hole in the windows and out of the Tower.

“Are you alright?” she screamed, clutching his armor in fear. “Did Loki—”

“I’m fine—” Tony said, flying closer to the ground. Instead of going away from the Tower like she expected him to, he flew back into the lower levels of the Tower instead. “I’m taking you to the labs. They have a lockdown measurements in place. The kids in the R&D should take care of you.” Said ‘kids’ were currently running around in panic, disengaging some security measures to open the door at the deck.

“But—”

Tony’s mask stared into her soul, and she desperately wanted to see his real eyes.  “I mean it. Keep yourself safe. We still have that conversation you promised me.”

Biting her lips, she eventually nodded and allowed him to put her down gently. Pursing her lips, she took one look at him.

“Don’t do anything stupid!”

She imagined Tony smile underneath that mask. “Darling, I’m a genius. There’s not a stupid bone in my body.”

---

After a brief squawking quarrel with the Stark cult, where she tried to wrangle about half a dozen of scientists who were too awed over Tony’s brief appearance to pay attention to whatever injuries they had, she managed to set a few dislocated knees and shoulders without too much of a hassle. But by that time, the initial dopamine rush from seeing their idol fizzed out and she had to deal with the overwhelming panic settling in amongst the crowd.

She had to actually whip out her good old haloperidol and stick one hysterical young man before the others shut up from screaming to high heaven. And by then she had one outrageous headache throbbing at her temples and the wide-eyed look of alarm on everyone’s faces directed at her of all people didn’t do anything to help.

“Great! Now that everyone is done,” she said, addressing the cult with look of irritation. “Does anyone have a phone charger?”

She had forgotten to charge her phone when she went to bed after her shift. She had JARVIS, but considering that this was a end-of-the-world situation, she was technically still on duty and needed to be at the ready in case someone needed her.

“Why should we give her one?” a voice whispered in the crowd. That was Beckett, she thought, the one with the outrageous mullet. “She’s mean.

“Tony likes her—” another whisper said. George, the college drop out, genius who got hired after almost breaching Stark Tower’s security firewall.

“She steals our stuff!” That was Kevin.

She didn’t like Kevin.

Before she could say a nasty response, there was distinct roar and a hole opened up in the sky of Manhatten. She and the scientists watched in horror as thousands of aliens came flying out of the hole like a horde of insects, destroying whatever was in their path.

The screams began to start.

“GIVE ME THE CHARGER!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

---

Strange answered on the first ring.

“What the hell is your boyfriend doing up there?” he snapped, not bothering to ask who it was.

She ignored the misnomer and quickly explained the situation. Now was not the time. “How bad is it?”

“We’re out of beds,” Stephen said, voice growing more and more frustrated. “All physicians are in the ED, but it’s not enough. The nurses are trying to triage but it’s a mess.” He barked orders at someone off the phone and turned back to her. “We’ve been trying to transfer some but the other hospitals aren’t taking anyone right now. We need more physicians.”

She groaned, pulling out her laptop and typing frantically. “I’m going to try and find some help. Keep me posted on the situation.”

“On it,” Stephen said, the usual drawling and teasing tone gone in place of pure business, “How are you going to get help? Every physician in the city are currently occupied. Well, except you.”

Rolling her eyes, she answered, “I have some contacts. Stark does as well. I’m going to try and pull some strings. “

Stephen stayed silent for a moment. She imagined what he looked like at that very moment and felt a pang of worry.

“Stay safe,” she gritted out, fingers rapidly typing out emails.

Stephen scoffed, “With what you’re saying, it seems like you and Stark is at the heart of this. Stay alive. I don’t want all my hard work on your brain to go wasted.”

Stephen hung up before she could answer. Rolling her eyes, she yelled at the Starkists to assist in her search before switching gears.

“Doctor?”

“Hey May, are you alright?” she asked, wincing at the sounds of screaming on the phone. “Are you safe?”

“Thank goodness, I am fine! Honey! It’s the Doctor!” there was a sound of rustling and a male’s voice came on the phone, “Doc! What’s going on! I’m seeing the news on t.v.”

“Ben, are there any aliens around Queens?”

“No,” Ben said and she sighed a breath of relief. “So, aliens? Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. But Ben, I want you and May to stay at home. Lock your doors. Don’t leave unless the aliens are in your neighborhood.”

“I won’t. Wait, Peter don’t—”

“AUNTIE!” young Peter’s voice came on the phone and she couldn’t help a smile from forming. “ARE YOU ALRIGHT? IS EVERYTHING OK? ARE THEY REALLY ALIENS BECAUSE THAT IS SO COOL BUT ALSO TERRIFYING AND IS MR. STARK GOING TO SAVE THE WORLD BECAU—”

“Slow down, kid! Everything’s going to be fine—“she hated lying to Peter but this wasn’t the time to be realistic. Heck aliens were far from realistic right now. “Tony is going to kick alien butt along with his Avengers.”

“Mr. Stark has a team? Cooool!”

Oops. She wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be confidential or not. Shaking her head she said, “Look, Peter. Stay at home alright? Take care of your aunt and uncle. I’m putting you in charge of keeping them safe alright? It’s a lot of responsibility. Think you can handle it?”

“Yep!” Peter’s voice suddenly turned soft, “Be safe, auntie, ok?”

“Will do kid.”

She hung up.

---

There was a large rumble from above them. The ceiling gave an ominous groan as pieces of plaster fell to the ground. The Starkists looked at her in worry, briefly stopping their individual tasks.

That sounded strangely like the Hulk.

“JARVIS. Turn on cams in the living room.”

They all watched as the Hulk swung Loki around like a toy doll before smashing him into the floor. She glanced at Starkists in a brief pause before a loud cheering started.

“ALL HAIL THE HULK!”

She shook her head, briefly wondering if there would be a new picture next to Tony’s alter.

Her lips twitched. She was sure that Tony would get a laugh out of that.

---

Seeing one of the Starkists in tears, she clicked her tongue and swooped in, taking the phone from her trembling hands.

“What seems to be the problem?”

“The problem? The problem is that your secretary wants us to just go to New York and help when we could possibly endanger our lives? And for free? You do understand that we are paramedics, not idiots!”

“Several other volunteer teams have been made from all over the United States,” she said, calmly, smiling encouragingly at the young woman—was her name Lisa? Lidia? Lauren? “I’m sure my team member has already told you this.”

“Well we don’t have the funds to send any of our men over,” the head of the paramedics team in Philadelphia said. “We’re dealing with the opioid crisis over here, as you well know.”

Sighing she shifted a few tabs on the laptop, before entering her bank website.  She would much rather not have this pompous man’s team but the city needed all the help they could get. It has only been a few hours, and according to Stephen, all the hospitals and physicians were barely keeping up with the influx of hurt and injured people.

“I am sure that Sir will be happy to send some financial help to the team,” JARVIS helpfully offered in her ear.

She frowned, not feeling comfortable with using Tony’s money without him having any input. Hmming, she logged into an account that she had promised not to touch all those years ago.

She hovered over it for a moment, hesitation filling her mind.

“Is everything alright?”

Startled, she glanced back at—Lucy—who had cleaned up her tears. Seeing her look, Lucy smiled softly at her. It was strange, seeing one of the Starkists looking at her with something other than begrudging respect. Her eyes traveled past Lucy and to the rest of the scientists. They were all on their own computers, some yelling at the phone and others on their 5th cup of coffee as they tried to manage the hundreds of rescue teams they had managed to call.

Swallowing, she turned back to Lucy and nodded. Clearing her throat, she said to the phone, “Is this enough funds for supplies?” as she transferred a 3rd of the money from the account Tony had set up for her.

There was a beat of silence on the other line before man stuttered, “This is—are you certain?”

“Yes.”

“I—I’ll get a team ready in the next hour! But Doctor—” the man trailed off, sounding awed, “This account—it’s co-authorized under Stark’s name. Who—who are you?”

Huffing, she sighed, rolling her fingers under her eyes. She was frankly done with this conversation.

Taking a leaf from Tony’s book, she poised her finger over the end call button.

“You know who I am.”

She hung up the phone.

---

Hey, kid. There were sounds of rushing air in the background, making the voice message difficult to make out.  I—I don’t think I can keep that promise.

There was a beat of silence. A voice wavered, thick with tears. I’m sorry.

Chapter Text

“If you could choose how you die, how would you go?”

Her pen paused a centimeter off her notebook as she carefully glanced up at Tony’s face. He was looking out the window, fingers rolling over a spare bolt as the only sign of agitation.

She chose her words carefully, “It would depend on the situation, I suppose.”

Tony continued as if she never spoke, “Accidents—those things are messy. There’s nothing glamorous about a car crash.”

Ah.  Was it the 16th already?

“I would go with a bang—something so memorable that everyone would know about it.” He pivoted suddenly, glancing at her with an expression she couldn’t interpret. “How about you?”

She licked her lips, feeling strangely unsure, “I—I guess anything as long as it isn’t falling.” At Tony’s inquisitive look, she shrugged.

“Only those with wings are meant to fly.”

---

 

Her ears started to ring first. It was as if her body was rejecting the message she heard, rerouting her neurologic network to disengage her auditory functions—preventing her from hearing anything more.

I don’t think I can keep that promise.

Time slowed to a pinpoint. Everything suddenly looked crystal clear as her brain worked miles per minute, trying to logically pull apart Tony’s message, trying to understand what was being said between the lines. Her phone fell from her hand somewhere along the way, bouncing to the floor with a large thunk. It didn’t shatter—Tony made it after all.

Her heart, though, did.

 Her limbs moved before her mind caught up to it, and she was already running out of the labs, ignoring the cries of the Starkists she left behind. They were shouting something about the danger of venturing out—but didn’t they understand that something was incredibly wrong?

She needed to understand. “JARVIS! Call Tony!” she took the stairs 3 at a time, mind set in heading towards the living room. She needed to see with her own eyes. She had to be there.

“The line is dead ma’am. I can’t get access to the suit!”

Cursing, she shoved her way to the living room, all the while shouting, “Get me on Avengers comms!”

There was a brief pause before the sounds of heavy breathing and fighting filled her ears.  She instinctively knew who to call. “Captain! What’s going on?”

“Doc?” Captain Roger’s voice seemed perplexed but she had no time for that. Time was of the essence! Why was everyone not understanding. “How did you—”

“I swear to god Cap—where is Tony?”

Her feet skidded against broken glass as she burst into the living room. She ignored Loki’s unconscious form on the ground, the physician inside of her cast aside for Tony—always Tony—and ran past the bar, going up the stairs to access the veranda. Cap’s voice echoed in her head, “There was a missile heading straight for New York. I—”

She cursed again, putting two and two together. Damn it, Tony. He promised he wouldn’t do anything stupid. He promised.

He always did break promises.

“You promised,” she whispered, glancing at the progression of black-clad people.  She didn’t want to look at his eyes.

“I’m sorry.” Tony choked out, grief suffocating his voice.

And damn her, she always forgave him, didn’t she?

She jumped into the veranda, and gasped as she saw hundreds of aliens wrecking destruction upon New York. She could see explosions happening in the distance and the smell. The cams she had been using in the labs to keep track of everything didn’t capture the singe of burning concrete or the abnormal shrieks coming from the aliens all around them. She felt so small then, so easily crushed by one of these monsters and she didn’t have time to wallow.

She could see the strange machine on the other floor, the source of the portal. Romanoff and Selvig were there, thrusting Loki’s scepter into the glowing blue mass. She must have figured out how to get rid of the mind control, she thought mindlessly, focusing on the machine. She followed it up and up, until she could see a small, shiny speck in the distance. Was that--?

“JARVIS, try calling Tony again,” she ordered, squinting her eyes to try and confirm that it was Iron Man flying straight into the portal like a crazy person.

At JARVIS’s negative response, she wailed in panic as she ran towards Tony’s landing pad. She needed a better view—

“TONY!” she shouted as loud as she could, earning the attention of the two SHIELD agents.

“DOCTOR! YOU NEED TO GET OUT OF HE—"

As if shears of fate decided to bestow mercy upon the world, every single alien suddenly dropped. A large flying whale-beast tumbled from the skies, landing on a building and ceasing to move. She clutched Tony’s necklace in bated breath, hoping and praying—

“Close it,” she heard Cap’s voice on the comms, startling her. She had forgotten she was still connected to them. Her mind suddenly shorted, comprehending the words that the Captain spoke. He wasn’t thinking—no, Tony would be back. She opened her mouth, intending to shout a denial when she saw Romanoff thrust the scepter further into the machine until it sparked and the blue light shooting in the sky disappeared like wisp of a nightmare at dawn.

The portal began to close, abnormal lights infolding upon itself like a technicolor blackhole. Her eyes were focused on the opening, afraid to blink as she stared in hopes of seeing Tony fly safely out of the hell gate in the sky.

“Tony, please—” she whispered into the wind, heart hammering against her ribcage. The feeling of pure hopelessness filled her, and she couldn’t help but remember the days when Tony had been kidnapped. She was feeling the same powerlessness she felt then, but it was worse now.

What was the point of being a doctor if she couldn’t save the ones she loved?

“Son of a gun—” Cap murmured in her ear and her head whipped up into the sky. A lone figure fell from the portal and for a split second, she felt a brief fire of elation that fizzed once she got a good look.  She knew instantly that something was wrong.

“JARVIS,” she murmured, heart hammering in her chest. “The suit--?”

“It stopped working ma’am,” JARVIS sounded almost panicked. “I can’t get in control!!!”

“I—JARVIS! The suit!” She ran to the edge of the platform, standing where she watched Tony suit up a million times.

She never thought to stand here before.

“The suit is damaged extensively ma’am! You may be injured if you try to fly with it!”

“Don’t make me say it again JARVIS!” she shouted, as parts and pieces of Tony’s suit attached itself to her body. Two mangled boots fastened to her legs followed by a single gauntlet before a scaffold crisscrossed her body to attach the three pieces to the arc reactor hanging from her neck. The pieces felt awkward on her body, being built for a Tony-sized person, but in that very moment, she didn’t notice it. Thinking back on her first and only flying lesson, she stumbled to a run before jumping off the ledge, putting her entire trust on Tony and JARVIS.

“Only those with wings are meant to fly.”

She wasn’t meant to fly. Not like Tony.

But, just this once, she would try.

---

“Is that Lady Stark on the roof top?”

Steve, who had been watching Stark escape death with a feeling of exacerbation and bregrudging respect, jumped at Thor’s words. Eyes widening, Steve followed Thor’s eyesight to the lone figure standing precariously at the edge. He squinted, unsure of who Thor was referring to because last time he checked, Stark didn’t have a wife—

“Is that Doc?” he asked, concern coloring his voice. “What is she—”

Hawkeye’s voice buzzed on the communication device, “Wait—something’s wrong with Iron Man,” just as Thor suddenly spoke, “He’s not slowing down!”

Steve switched his focus, watching with dread as Stark began to plummet down to Earth. It was nearly impossible for him to have survived but Steve couldn’t help the small inkling of hope deep within his chest.

“Tony! NO!” he heard Doc cry through his device. He had never heard her sound so distraught before and it baffled him until he heard Nat shout, “DOCTOR! YOUR LIFE IS STILL PRECIOUS! TONY WOULDN’T HAVE WANTED—GET AWAY FROM THE ED—CAP! SHE’S JUMPING! ”

Steve’s body began to move towards the direction of the tower as several things clicked into place. Lady Stark was the Doc. Doc was married to Stark. Mrs. Stark just witnessed her husband sacrifice his own life for the safety of this world.

He had seen what a husband’s sacrifice could do to a wife.

His ma never got over his pop’s death. And to this day he felt—no, he knew, his ma could have recovered from the bullet if her soul wanted to survive.

And Doc—er, Mrs. Stark—was one of the few people he implicitly trusted in the future. A woman with a kind soul and even kinder heart.

He couldn’t let that be extinguished. Even by her own hand.

And if he had to choose between Stark and her—it had to be her.

“Thor!” He roared, looking to the man who could fly with plea. “Please!”

The God was already in the air, leaving Steve in the dust.

---

She plummeted to the ground, body twisting in the air from the lack of balance and weight that the suit would have normally provided her. She gasped for breath, eyes never leaving Tony’s fall, as the wind whipped her hair over her face. She wasn’t afraid. She was never meant to fly but she wasn’t afraid.

Suddenly her boots fired and she was off, shooting towards Tony without a second to spare. She didn’t think about how she was going to catch the heavy suit with Tony in it, she wasn’t thinking about how she was risking her life flying with just two boots and a gauntlet, and she wasn’t thinking about the possibility that Tony was already dead. Her mind was blank, her entire focus on Tony plummeting from the sky like a fallen angel. She had to make it. She had to.

Except Tony was falling at a faster rate than she was and her distance was still too far. She flew faster, willing the energy of her arc reactor to power the boosters but she knew there was only a few minutes of power in her necklace at most and time was running out—she wasn’t going to make it.

She was tasting blood in her mouth. Her eyes were blood shot from the constant stream of air but none of that mattered over the stream of despair that was growing bigger and bigger in her gut. Just as she was losing all hope, there was a roar and the Hulk plucked Tony straight from the sky. Her boots sputtered as she skid to a stop, suddenly feeling an overwhelming sense to cry as relief tore through her insides. The Hulk ran into a couple of buildings, using them to stop his momentum before crashing into a bridge.

“Ma’am!”

JARVIS’s voice was the only warning before the blue glow of her arc reactor suddenly smothered, and she was free-falling. Scrambling in the air, she screamed her throat raw as plummeted to the ground for the second time today. Only this time, she didn’t have any determination or trust left. She knew that her luck had run out but she was glad. Tony was saved so what did it matter if she died?  Closing her eyes, she prepared for the worse when she suddenly heard the sounds of a object flying straight for her.

“Lady Stark!” Thor grabbed her in mid air, catching her by the waist with quick precision. The abrupt stop made the air rush out of her lungs and she winced at the whiplash. She immediately grabbed his chest, staring wide eyed at the man who just saved her life.

“Thor! Tony! I need to—”

Giving her an understanding nod, he shot towards earth by his—holy moly he was flying with a HAMMER. What the ever loving f—

She screamed throughout the flight, no doubt bursting the god’s eardrum before Thor gently dropped her to the ground. Feeling a bit dizzy from her time in the sky, she stumbled towards Tony blindly as his tech fell from her body. Thor ran over with steadier gaits, gently flipped him over and ripped the suit’s mask off Tony’s face with his brute strength.

She hesitated. One part of her wanted to look, to see if Tony was alive. But she couldn’t bare the thought of her worse fear being confirmed. What if—

Making up her mind, she lifted her eyes to look. Tony—he

She wailed, “Tony!” and clutched his abnormally still face with trembling hands. He looked so peaceful. If it was a different scenario, she could have pretended he was sleeping. But she knew better. She knew what a dead person looked like. What a man content with the end of his life looked like.

Her heart clenched in pain and she shouted, “Tony you promised! Don’t—”

Captain Rogers brought his ears to Tony’s chest, trying to hear a breath, but she knew without looking that he would hear nothing. Tony’s  lips had already turned blue, cyanosis kicking in. Her training has never taught her how to deal with a man who visited space without the proper protection and she whimpered, tears falling steadily from her eyes. “Tony,” she whispered. His face felt so so cold.  “Please!”

“Doc, I’m so sorr—”

The Hulk suddenly roared, whether from annoyance or grief she didn’t know, and through some miracle Tony jerked, eyes snapping open and taking in a drawn breath.  She gasped in tandem, hope taking place of devastation as Tony’s eyes shifted rapidly taking in the people around him before settling on hers.

“What the hell--?” He lifted his head, “What just happened? Please tell me nobody kissed—umph!”

She kissed him.

She was tired of waiting. Of beating around the bush. Of feeling worthless beside the huge aura of Tony Stark, the Merchant of Death, the Pioneer of Clean Energy, the Iron Man. She didn’t want to be a cameo anymore—she wanted to be a part of his life. To be called when he was missing, to be there when he was in danger.

She wanted to be his and his alone.

His lips were chapped, and hers were no doubt salty with her own tears but suddenly there was nothing in the world but them. A warm feeling spread from her chest to her toes as her lips fluttered against his, nervous but sure of her decision. Tony, whether from shock or disgust, didn’t respond and doubt began to settle in only for them to be dashed as after a moment of hesitation, Tony’s lips moved with hers enthusiastically, drinking her in like a starving man.

His arms pulled against her shirt and brought her close. Her face was in an awkward angle,  the edges of his mask rubbed painfully against her chin and his arc reactor pressed against her chest but it was perfect and he was perfect and thank god he was alive.

She laughed against his lips, pulling away as she remembered that there were other people around them. She looked at Tony, who was looking at her with such awe in his eyes that tears welled up again.

“Are you—” Tony swallowed, looking uncharacteristically lost. “Are you mine now?”

She choked, laughing loudly, eyes sparkling with mirth, and finally finally finally, “Tony, I’ve been yours as long as I’ve known you.” She swooped down to kiss him again, heart jumping at his smile.

Their kiss was years’ worth of tenderness, a long lost familiarity of a time gone by, a flame that had been burning for over a decade.

She didn’t want it to end.

An exacerbated Cap quipped beside her, “Is this how CPR works in the future?”

“I don’t understand—” Thor said from somewhere behind them. “I thought Lady Stark was already—”

“Well hot damn,” she recognized Barton’s voice and she flinched in surprise. Pulling away she saw both Romanoff and Barton jog towards them.  Judging by the lack of animosity between the two, it seemed like Loki’s mind control was gone. Barton smiled cheekily at her before turning to Romanoff, “Pay up!”

Romanoff passed a wad of several bills over to the archer with a disgruntled look on her face. “You couldn’t just wait until after the world-ending crisis was over could you?”

A sour voice groaned somewhere, “Does someone have any pants—”

She turned back to Tony, nuzzling his nose and feeling amused and content. “You have interesting friends.”

Tony’s eyelashes fluttered against her cheek. “They’re not going to be my friends for any longer if they keep bothering us. Kiss me again, darling—”

She obliged him, pecking him on the lips before standing up and helping him disengage his armor. Tony groaned in pain, “Let’s just not come in tomorrow. Let’s just—” he groaned as she accidentally touched a bruise. She cooed, soothing it. “take a day. Have you ever tried shawarma?” At Captain’s smile, Tony babbled, “There’s a shawarma joint about two blocks from here—”

Everything was going to be alright.

---

 They were picking up their things, heading slowly back to the tower to apprehend Loki. It was a mostly quiet track, as each individual struggled to make sense of the crazy situation they had just witnessed.

She and Tony were holding hands.

“Hey—” Tony said suddenly and she glanced at him in worry. “was I hallucinating or did you…fly my suit?”

“No?!??” she squeaked, trying to act innocent. “You were probably hallucinating, Tony. I’m not surprised given that with some states of hypoxia—”

“Yeah, she was flying it!” Agent Barton said with a shit-eating grin. Her glare did nothing to get rid of it. “Looked pretty badass too! She just jumped out of the tower like she had wings!”

She looked at Tony, a bit apprehension on what he was going to say. Tony pursed his lips, thinking something, before turning to her with an identical shit eating grin, “Do you want your own suit?”

“NO!”

Chapter Text

By the time she, Tony and Tony’s team made it to the Tower to apprehend Loki, she was bone tired. The little nap she managed to get on the couch just a couple of hours ago did nothing to replenish the energy she lost in the series of harrowing events that she had undergone in the last few days. The adrenaline had long since worn off now, and her body was doing a fantastic job reminding her that she wasn’t in her 20s anymore.

What a scary thought that was.

Despite all of this, she couldn’t help but smile wryly at Tony beside her, who no doubt was feeling what she was feeling but a hundred times worse. She should check him out for any injures, she mentally noted as Tony slowly dropped her back onto the veranda, before he had a chance to squirrel himself in his lab.

“You’re thinking too loud,” Tony said, flipping his mask up to reveal his face. He pursed his lips comically, and rolling her eyes, she kissed him lightly again. A smile bloomed on Tony’s face and she smiled widely back at him.

God, she would never get used to that kiss.

“Get out of that suit so I can kiss you properly,” she ordered, crossing her arms impatiently. ”We have a lot to talk about—" A decades worth, actually. Relationships were built on a foundation of communication and understanding, and with the tortuous relationship they had, she and Tony needed to talk.

Tony shook his head, eyes gazing behind her. She turned her head, looking at the small movements of the waking Loki that caught Tony’s attention.

“We have to do something first,” he said, before following the rest of the Avengers inside and towards the fallen God. Her eyes followed them, comfortable at the sidelines as the superheroes confronted Loki.

“SHIELD is on their way up,” JARVIS said in her ear, and she smiled fondly.

“Thank you, JARVIS,” she said, leaning against the wall and watching Loki speak. He seemed less intimidating, now that he wasn’t wielding that ridiculous staff. “For everything—”

“Always, ma’am.”

She smiled, turning towards the veranda when something strange flickered in the corner of her eye. The strangeness wasn’t due to the thing—well, person—itself, but due to the fact that she could clearly see the same person on the other side of the room, blabbering to his new teammates.

And yet, this person was hiding just behind the wall. This person looked familiar and foreign at the same time, speckles of greys that hinted of the test of time that weren’t present on her person.

At least, not yet.

With all the nonsense and world-shifting events that had happened in the last few days, the definition of “impossible” had broadened beyond the horizon. And it was probably this notion that allowed her to reach the conclusion that would have been illogical a week ago. Making a rapid (and possibility stupid) decision, she carefully pulled out her earrings, stuffing them in her pocket, and softly walked around the half wall before anyone looked her way.

She paused, debating what to say.  Did she want to be confrontation to this stranger? Or was he here for some nefarious purposes? Mind made up, she took in a large breath, mentally bracing herself for the mind-fuckery she knew was right around the corner and blurted out what she most thought would disorient the person the most.

"So…” she said, leaning against the wall with a haughty expression, “Is it time travel or an alternate universe?"

The yelp that came out of not-Tony’s mouth was undignified and they both knew, judging by the look of horror on Tony’s face. Really why was he looking at her like he was seeing a ghost? She didn’t look that bad after the fight, did she?

Tony’s voice was unfamiliar and familiar at the same time, holding a deeper and more rich cadence when he breathed, “Honey.”

She felt illogically giddy to know that not-Tony, whether from the future of a different universe, still had some relationship with not-her to call her that. She stood back, just taking in the man in front of her as she waited for the inevitable fast-talking.

But it never came.

Not-Tony merely gazed at her, eyes sharper than a hawk, flickering up and down her body like he was categorizing or memorizing everything about her. Seconds ticked by, and the genuine amusement and curiosity she originally felt fizzeled into something more…different. There was a slight chill in the air now, a tension between the them that she hadn’t felt before. Not-Tony wasn’t acting like her Tony, and it was throwing her off.

She took time to really look, past the physical differences that she originally noticed. She found herself drawn to the windows of the soul. Tony’s eyes were always so expressive, so full of life and mirth. It had changed before, she remembered, during that car ride oh so long ago.

“You’re different,” she blurted out, her voice piercing the silence that settled in the car.

Tony winced, before tapping lightly on his chest, “It keeps the shrapnel from entering my heart.”

She startled, eyes flickering over the glowing circle barely visible over his suit. She didn’t even notice it was there. She struggled for words to explain that it wasn’t the chest that was different but the eyes.

That memory seemed almost like a dream, fuzzy around the edges but warm all the same. She had been taken aback by the change in his eyes then, but it was nothing compared to what she saw in not-Tony’s eyes now.

There was something darker in these eyes, a pool of knowledge of things to come.

Tony looked—well, he looked—

Resigned.

Feeling rattled by this conclusion, she forced her lips to smile, putting up a front of humor as a defense mechanism to whatever this was.

Tony would never look this defeated.

It wasn’t in his nature—no matter where he came from.

What happened to you?

“You—” she cleared her throat, feeling more and more uncomfortable at the silence for the first time. Silences with Tony were nice, they felt comfortable and warm. This felt alien.  “You didn’t answer my question.”

She smiled shakily, regretting not alerting the others to this stranger.  What made her decide to talk to this not-Tony by herself? The only connection to JARVIS was in her pockets, and she doubted she could put them on without not-Tony noticing, “Ah, w-what’s wrong Tony?” she tampered down the nervousness in her voice. “I—”

In a blink of an eye, she found herself pushed up against the wall, trapped in between no-Tony’s muscular arms. He was suddenly too close, face just hovering over hers so much so that she could see his eyes darken.

Her heart was in her throat, making it difficult to breathe.

And yet, some deep, darker part of her liked it.

“Both,” not-Tony said suddenly, his eyes never leaving hers.

She found that she couldn’t look away. Her mind felt stuffy, like someone pushed cotton balls through her ears. She struggled to make sense of what Tony was saying. “Both?”

Tony nodded, and she turned her head to the side in an attempt to make some distance. She could feel the heat radiating from his body, making hers overly sensitive to every brush of fabric and every intake of a breath. This not-Tony was dangerous, she hysterically thought, eyes glancing back at him and away repeatedly. He disoriented her. He was making a part that laid dormant for years rear its ugly head back into the sun.

It was passion, she realized, lips parting silently. This tension between them, this sudden thing was pure and filled with longing, all directed at her from a man she knew but also didn’t know. A stranger and a friend. She only ever seen such dark eyes from Tony once, and that was during that whole mishap with Tony dying.

She needed to gain some control. Her eyes flickered toward something glinting to her right, and latched onto it desperately. “W-who’s the lucky lady?” she asked,  cursing at the breathless tone that left her mouth.

Tony’s eyes glanced away (finally) and lifted his left hand. The wedding band glinted in the sunlight. She glanced up at Tony’s face and gasped when his lips suddenly widened to a fond smile. It was such a change from his previous mood that her heart stopped.

“It’s you,” he said, reaching with trembling fingers to her face and cupping her cheek. She held her breath, “It’s always been you.”

She watched him, wide eyed, acting entirely unlike her self.  Tony seemed to notice her flustered state as he chuckled, twisting a tendril of hair around his finger before tucking it behind her ear.  He suddenly came closer, lips hovering just over hers.

“I’m sorry—”

“I-What for?” she whispered.

“Allow an old man some closure.”

Before she could clarify what he meant, not-Tony captured her lips with his, kissing her with a ferocity that made her previous assault earlier in the day seem like child’s play. She gasped in surprise, grabbing Tony’s muscular arms, as he poured his heart through the kiss. Tony deepened the kiss, cradling her head with one hand and snaking his other around her waist. It felt familiar and different (she could sense a pattern, she thought frantically) and there was a maturity in the kiss that spoke experience. This not-Tony seemed to know exactly what made her feel good, hands traveling in places that she didn’t know felt that way.

There was sureness in his movements that suggested he did this a million times before.

It was hot. It was heaven.

And strangely it felt like she was cheating. Like she was getting sneak preview of things to come.

Tony shifted, moving his hands to his own shoulder. His sudden movement brought her back to the present and she pulled back.  Her eyes had closed somewhere in the middle of their kiss, and she forced them open.

She needed to know why he was there. If he was speaking the truth, he was from a different time line as well as a different universe. That was a long trip and getting a kiss could not have been a reason for the life-threatening travel.

She must have read too many scifi books because she blurted out, “You’re not here to kill him are you?” She pointed her finger at him, suddenly feeling indignant. “I just got him!”

Not-Tony stared at her and she felt childish in front of this withered man despite being in her 30s. She colored, feeling embarrassed.

“God, you’re an amazing woman.”

“Honey?” her Tony called from somewhere in the distance. She perked up at the sound, her mood brightening considerably at the familiar sound. Not-Tony stepped back, placing a much needed distance between the two. He had a wry smile on his face, almost wistful in nature but she was too busy thinking about what to say to think too deeply about that.

“Coming!” she shouted, before turning to not-Tony. “You never answered my question.”

Not-Tony crossed his heart dramatically, showing hints of her-Tony, “Promise.”

She nodded, taking his word, before patting his shoulder awkwardly. “Well—” she struggled on what to say before succinctly saying, “Don’t go sacrificing yourself for the world, alright? I barely handled it the first time, so don’t do it again.”

“That—” Tony said, shrugging. “I can’t promise.”

Rolling her eyes, she sighed before turning her back toward the not-Tony. Quickly exiting the little enclave, she spotted Tony waiting patiently for her in front of the elevators. Hurrying forward, she fished out her earrings and placed them back in.

“Where’s your other one?” Tony asked, tugging at the ear without an earring.

She thought about the earring she discreetly placed on not-Tony’s shoulder and smiled.

“I must have lost it somewhere.”

---

“THAT’s Mrs. Stark?” Scott asked incredulously, as he sat patiently in the dark case of the tesseract. Luckily, he didn’t have to witness the painful makeout session between Stark and his young, alternative universe wife-to-be for too long, as Stark had used the kiss as a cover to flick him in position. He hadn’t seen Mrs. Stark in person, having entered the superhero gig long before she had passed, but there was not a single individual in the US that didn’t know of the Merchant of Death and the woman that stood by his side. “She seems—”

“I’d can that sentence if I were you,” Stark muttered through his helmet, mostly likely heading to their next point in the mission.

“She’s here?” Captain America said from somewhere deep inside the Tower. Man, he sounded righteous even with his surprised tone. “Tony, did you do any—”

“That,” Tony said, sounding tense. “Is none of your concern, Cap.”

Scott could practically hear Cap’s worry, “It is if it harms our mission objective. Tony, you know that you can’t do anything to save her. The tesseract—”

Now that Scott thought about it, he never really knew what happened to Mrs. Stark.

But he knew this wasn’t the best time to talk about it.

“Funny. Let me remind you who defied the government of United States to save his best friend?”

There was brief silence on the other end, “That was different, Tony.”

“I’m not going over this again—” Stark said, ending the conversation. Before Captain America could retort, Stark reported, “Alright Cap, I got our scepter in the elevator, just passing the eightieth floor.”

“On it.” Cap said, and Scott readied himself. “Head to the lobby.”

“Alright, I’ll see you there.”

---

Although there was barely any space in the elevator, she was small enough to stand in front of the heavenly brothers but Tony was insistent on her sitting on his lap. Face burning in response, she perched before anyone could tease her.

As soon as she sat, Tony’s arms snaked around her middle, securing her tightly. His hands linked against hers, and the small pressure caused a dull ache to rush up her arm.

“You’re hurt,” Tony said, frowning.  He turned her hand over to see the still singed circular burn in the center of her palm. “What happened?”

“I had to improvise,” she muttered, not liking how every person’s eye was on. Masking the discomfort, she turned her head to glance at Loki behind her and asked, “So…does your magic come from a book or is it natural?”

Loki didn’t dignify her with a response, although it was probably tough considering the wicked looking mask over his face. He instead glared as Thor piped up, trying to explain what he knew about his brother’s magic and probably butchering it horrendously.

She wasn’t paying much attention, unfortunately, too caught up in Loki’s eyes.

Specifically, the fact that it was green.

“I thought your eyes were blue?”

Loki’s glare shifted into a calculating gaze as if she was some puzzle to solve. Thor chuckled loudly from beside him, and she shifted her gaze to him automatically.

“My brother’s eyes have always been green,” Thor said, mirth in his eyes. He elbowed Loki at the waist and Loki made an indignant noise. It reminded her so much of the teasing she and her sister used to do that her heart clenched. “It is his favorite color. One time, he bespelled the AllFather’s beard to turn the exact shade of green whenever he spoke. It was quite a sight to see! Loki was left to be eaten by the vultures for a whole midsummer!”

The rest of the elevators occupants gaped at Thor, who in response replied confused, “What?”

“Remind me not to break the law in Asgard,” she muttered.

“You mean not to get caught,” Agent Romanoff said.

“I for one think that punishment was a great idea,” Barton piped up, eyes both on Loki distrustfully. She reminded herself to check up on him for any lasting damages while under the scepters influence.

Rolling her eyes at their antics, she pressed the button for the seventy-ninth floor.

“You’re not coming with us?” Tony asked, pulling her to his lab more tightly.

She huffed, pushing his hands away, “I have to make sure the Starkis—uh the R&D team is alright.”

“I thought you didn’t like them?” Tony said, reluctantly letting her go and pouting comically at her. A man his age shouldn’t have looked so adorable pouting like that. She kissed it away.

“Eh,” she said, stepping out of the elevator. “They’ve grown on me.”

---

“That is America’s ass,” Captain America said, standing with one hip cocked as he peered at his own unconscious body.

And wow, those were words that she never thought she would think, much less see.

Turning the corner, she kept her movements minimal as she tried not to get caught. She really wasn’t expecting to see him here, having just finished checking up on the Starkists and pleading to them to go home. She knew that Captain Rogers, not-Tony and some man named Scott was collecting the scepter and the tesseract. What for, she had no idea.

She let them go through with it for now. It wasn’t as if she could stop them and alerting the others to their presence would most likely lead to a confusing state of panic, especially with the SHIELD team at guard.

No, it was better that she watched and kept an eye on their mission. She had already learned a lot just by listening in on the comms after all.

The future was very, very strange.

Chapter Text

She was internally wondering if admiring the ass of one’s past unconscious self was considered sexually harassment or not when she came across the Hulk in the stairway.

“HULK HATES THE STAIRS!”

Briefly startled by his sudden appearance, she flattened herself to the wall as the green hulking being stomped down the flight above her.

“Sorry, big guy!” she said as his green eyes stared at her curiously. She peeled herself away from the wall and took a cautious step forward. “I’m not scared of you—just wasn’t expecting you.” She wanted to make it clear that she wasn’t afraid of him—the complete opposite really.

Hulk lips pulled back in a grimace as he pointed his fist upward, “SO MANY STAIRS!”

Holding in a smile of amusement, she patted his giant arm without an ounce of fright, “I did tell Tony he didn’t need to make the Tower so tall, but I think it’s an ego thing.” She didn’t know how much of Dr. Banner was conscious beneath the green flesh, but she was sure that Hulk understood her even if his speech wasn’t as eloquent. “But if it’s any consolation, this is the first floor.”

Hulk pounded his chest, looking entirely angry at the whole situation. It reminded her almost of a tantrum and that made her grin from ear to ear. “Hey Hulk?”

Hulk turned towards her, cocking one ear towards her. She didn’t do anything to hide her smile then, and said sincerely, “Thank you for saving Tony back there. I—I owe you one.” She wasn’t strong enough to save Tony then, but she was grateful that he had someone like Dr. Banner and Hulk by his side.

Hulk scoffed, as if she said something particularly stupid. “ME LIKE STARK.” He jumped the last couple of steps, “ME LIKE YOU TOO.”

Speechless, she instead gestured to the entrance to the first floor. Hulk roared loudly before punching the door like it was made out of marshmallows and stomping into the lobby. She shook her head, getting her bearings before hurryingly following after him.

She doubted that having a Hulk rampage in the Tower’s lobby would help employee morale.

God, she was going to get a huge tongue lashing from Pepper when she comes back.

She could already hear the crowds of people screaming as she exited the staircase. Huffing loudly to herself, she focused her attention on the chaos unfolding, drawn to a small gathering of people down the hallway.

“Stark, stay with us!” she heard someone yell, and her eyes sharpened to Thor crouching over a fallen figure, the flying hammer thing in his hand. Heart suddenly racing as she realized that it was Tony convulsing on the ground, she ran towards the group.

I thought you weren’t going to kill him, she thought, as several things happened at once. Her eyes briefly caught a glowing blue light and she saw the tesseract, of all things, lying innocently on the floor just next to a certain prisoner.

“Wait!” she shouted, just as Loki picked up the cube with both hands. He seemed like the only one who noticed, and gave her a small, emerald wink, before magicking himself out of existence.

“Let me try something, ok? I have no idea if it’s going to work,” she heard Thor yell out. She had forgotten about Tony in all the chaos and she ran towards the group, trying to push past the SHIELD guards surrounding him.  She couldn’t see anything beyond their bodies, and she tried to tell them she was a doctor but no one was paying attention. She heard a small buzzing noise and Thor yelling “Yes!” before she heard Tony’s voice murmur something she couldn’t hear. A wave of relief rolled over her and she stopped her assault on the guards, mentally noting their names to tortur—er do a physical check up on them once everything settled down.

Tony was alright and didn’t need her right now. But she had seen a lone guard lying prone on the ground  and she had to see if he was alive first. Turning towards the man, she crouched down to his level and reached out a hand to check for a pulse. Feeling the life blood bound on his neck, she turned her ear towards his mouth to check for any breathing when she took a good look at his face and realized it was not-Tony.

“We need to stop meeting like this,” she murmured, sweeping his hair off his sweaty forehead just as not-Tony opened his eyes. He looked like he suffered a major blow to the head, based on the slight glassy look to his eyes, and she checked for any signs of brain trauma.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it?” said the stranger—er Scott, she believed, through her coms. 

“Oh, we blew it,” not-Tony sighed, arms falling to the ground.

“Loki took it,” she supplied, causing not-Tony to flinch in surprise. She frowned. He must have had a bigger blow to the head than she originally thought, if he didn’t realize her presence until now. “You were trying to get it right?”

“HOW the HELL does SHE know?” she heard Scott say.

“Now is not the time,” Tony murmured, pushing himself to a seating position and giving her a stern look as if to say that she should have stayed out of it.

She shrugged, “Tony’s right though.” She pushed herself to her feet as Thor began to shout, “LOKI!”

“You need to get out of here before people start to notice,” she said, helping Tony to his feet. She smiled at him once more, “Saving the world again? Do you ever rest? I’d hoped that my future self would be able to wrangle you a little bit better.”

The look Tony sent her was hard to interpret. “I need to go,” he said, before turning away. Squeezing his shoulder once, she stepped away.

“It was nice meeting you,” she supplied, giving an awkward wave.

Not-Tony didn’t look back as he weaved into the crowd. She watched him for a while, before turning towards her Tony instead. She wasn’t entirely offended that not-Tony’s goodbye was so lackluster but she supposed it did make sense. He had already seen this version of her, after all, and he had a better future-her to go home to after his mission was done.

This wasn’t a goodbye. She had a glimpse of the future and he had a reminder of the past. At the end of the day, they both had their respective partners to go back to.

And she would have gone back to check up on her Tony, except she spotted something unusual for the one hundredth time today. Sighing in disbelief and cursing her general, unnatural curiosity, she stepped toward another shifty looking guard and tapped him on the shoulder.

“Judging by the fact that you are holding the cube, you’re not the same Captain Rogers that complemented his own ass earlier.”

Different-Steve glanced at her with a weary smile, pushing his goggles up to show her his face, “I’m the same Steve, Mrs. Stark.”  He placed the tesseract discreetly into the suitcase, locking it tightly and stepping away. “Just an older one.”

“I can see that,” she stated, glancing briefly at the smattering of gray hairs scattered throughout his blond hair. The crow’s feet were more pronounced than she remembered, but she hadn’t gotten a good look behind Cap’s mask during his fight with himself.  “You don’t have to call me that, you know. I’m not Mrs. Stark.”

Oldest-Steve shrugged, his large shoulders barely covered by the SHIELD uniform, “Habit, I suppose.”

She had so many questions about this entire situation, so she settled for one, “I’m assuming you guys won? If you’re returning it?”

Captain grimaced, eyes looking pained before he straightened up and pulled her gently towards the staircase, “Let’s talk somewhere privately.”

Concerned, she let him take her back up the staircase and up a few steps so that their voices couldn’t be heard in the lobby. They walked in silence, her concern elevating for every step they took. It didn’t help that he was refusing to look at her, keeping his head down and his eyes trained on every step they took as if a land mine could be buried under any one of them.

“You’re scaring me Cap,” she voiced, shoulders tensing as if her body was preparing her from some attack. She crossed her arms, “I went through a lot these last few hours so let’s cut to the chase yeah?”

“I’m not Captain anymore,” Ca—Rogers said, pulling the headgear off his head. “I gave up the suit after—” he didn’t finish his sentence, looking as if he had trouble putting his thoughts in order.

“It must have went well if you retired,” she mused.  She tried to push down the growing sense of foreboding by throwing out a shaky smile. “Saved the world again then?”

Roger’s hesitance made her stomach clench painfully. She suddenly didn’t want to hear the answer. He wordlessly lifted his arm and dropped something into the palm of her hand.

It her earring, with a jagged crack straight down the middle.

“We did save the world,” Rogers said, finally lifting his head and meeting her eyes. The sorrow and pure regret reflected in his eyes overwhelmed her and she just knew.

“Tony didn’t make it.”

She swallowed, thinking back to the not-Tony’s face she saw only a few minutes ago. A burst of anger overcame her and she clenched her fists in defiance. How dare Tony die. She was done hoping he kept his promises. No, if there was one thing these last few hours taught her, it was that if she wanted something she had to do it herself.

“Tell me everything.”

----

Rogers did not, in fact, tell her everything. He said something about affecting the time-line, but in her eyes, he already messed it up by coming back to the past in the first place. And didn’t not-Tony say that he was from an alternative universe as well? By stepping back through time, Rogers had created an entirely different universe here than the one he had come from. It was impossible for him to change the future past the course it was already destined to go. There were 3 different Steve Rogers running around at this very moment, for Thor’s sake! And now, there were 2 tesseracts here, unless Loki decided to bounce to a different alternative reality with the cube. 

Rogers, though, was still as stubborn as ever and refused to tell her anything too revealing but she got the general gist. One, there’s going to be another alien invasion—someone named Thanos with a crazy idea to kill half the planet. Two, he used alien rocks to do so. The scepter was probably one, she logically concluded even though Rogers tried to deny it, and the tesseract was probably another.

“He placed the stones on each finger in the gauntlet—”

“So there’s at least 5 stones then?” she blurted out and by Rogers’s horrified expression, she must have been right.

Three, Tony and Rogers had some kind of falling out that made it impossible for all the Avengers to work together in a unifying front against Thanos until it was too late. Rogers was pretty tight lipped about all of this, but she could read between the lines. She didn’t see the two interact much in this current timeline, but she knew that Tony wasn’t the type to follow orders. Having two very strong personalities in a team had to have led to some conflicts in leadership.

And four, most importantly, Tony was going to die in that battle.

“He sacrificed himself,” Rogers said, a far away look in his eyes. He blinked before smiling grimly at her, “He wanted to prove me wrong.”

She didn’t understand what he meant by that, but she didn’t have much energy to decipher it. Her mind was grinding on other stones, making and discarding plans over and over again. She was starting to have a stressed- induced headache, and she clenched her eyes and groaned.

“Are you alright?”

Hysterical chuckles spilled out of her mouth and she sharply looked at Rogers, “I was kidnapped by an alien who attempt to manipulate me by seducing me. I was almost buried alive by a tunnel. I had to touch that god awful bank account and talk to idiots who would rather watch a whole city die than offer medical services without compensation. I watched Tony fall twice.” Angry tears flooded her eyes but she refused to let them fall. She clutched Roger’s shirt, balling the fabric in her fists as she shook him. “And now you’re telling me that sometime in the future, Tony will die and the strongest and most capable people I know couldn’t stop it!”

She gasped for breath, “I’m just a side character! A passing love interest! I can’t do anything to save him.”

Her knees trembled as she lost her strength. She would have fell to the floor if it wasn’t for Rogers quick reflexes, and instead trembled against his hold.

“Listen—” Roger’s soft tone suddenly turned authoritarian, “Listen to me!” Her eyes snapped towards his and she hiccupped in surprise. “Look—you’re not just…you’re important. To Tony, to me, to all of us!” She stared wide-eyed at his exclamation, wondering briefly who us entailed. “All the bad things that happened, I know you would have found some way to get us through it if you were ali—” Rogers snapped his mouth shut, clenching his teeth. He gently lowered her to the ground, propping her against the wall as he crouched to her level. “I—heck I’m just a guy from Brooklyn.” Rogers suddenly looked small, and she briefly had an image of him before the serum, the skinny body she saw in her history books at high school. She had always focused on the differences, just like everyone else, but suddenly she could see the similarities.

“How do you do it?” she whispered.

“How?” Rogers repeated, a grim look on his face. “You stand up, push back. Whatever it takes.”

She scoffed, wiping up the last of her tears, “You’re too perfect, you know that?”

Rogers grinned at her, a little bit of his old self shining through, “A friend of mine once told me he wanted to punch me in my ‘perfect teeth’.”

“Did he?”

“Not quite—” Rogers said, looking off into the distance. A brief look of affection passed through his face. “But he came close.”

---

“There you are!” Tony said, waving at her frantically. Rogers—no Steve—excused himself after their talk, saying that he had the rest of his mission to complete. She saluted him, and watched as he fiddled with something on his wrist before vanishing into nothingness. Considering that she had never seen anything teleport until the last couple of days, she was surprised how normal it seemed. Ah yes, a future Captain America just teleported to another time period using a time machine the size of a watch after giving me a rousing speech for my low self-esteem.

She would cry if she had any tears left at the sure audacity of the situation she was in.

“I was looking all over for you! I had a mild cardiac dysrhythmia and my medic wasn’t there to save me!” Tony whined, practically launching himself into her arms. She laughed, surprising herself. She didn’t realize that after all that she went through, she still had the ability to smile. “Are you going to make it up to me?”

She was going to save Tony’s life, no matter what density had in store for them. Tony was too precious for this world to lose.

“Yeah, I will.”

---

She somehow found herself eating shawarma with the Avengers in a small, destroyed restaurant a few blocks away. By eating, she meant chewing and re-chewing silently as her mind truly processed what had happened the last couple of days.

Judging by the pure exhaustion on everyone’s faces and the silent hush that fell on the table, the others were doing the same.

Tony had fallen asleep on her shoulder, hands still grasping a fork that still had some food stuck to it. He smelled like Axe, probably from his emergency stash that he adamantly denied when she first asked. She was ready to fall asleep herself, but she was awakened by a sudden noise in her ear.

“Cap! Sorry buddy, we got a problem,” not-Tony said.

Another male, Scott, she thought, scoffed, “Yeah, we do.”

There was some squabbling in the background, connection dying before Tony’s voice came back, “You’re repeating yourself, you know that?”

“You’re repeating yourself, you’re repeating yourself, you’re repeating yourself!” Scott said, before there was a large slam of a door being shut, “No. There’s no do-overs. We’re not going anywhere else. We have one particle left, EACH! And how about Mrs. Stark huh? Maybe if you spent less time sticking your tongue down her throat we could have—”

“Son, don’t,” she heard Rogers say at the same time Tony shouted, “Don’t talk about her like that!”

“How did she know about the tesseract then?” Scott asked, sounding reasonably paranoid. “Are you sure she can be trusted?”

“How dare you suggest—”

“He’s right, Tony,” Rogers suddenly said, “How did she know? You didn’t talk to her about it and—”

“I didn’t!”

“—I know,” Rogers emphasized.  “But it doesn’t change the fact that she knew about our plans.”

“Look, I don’t know how she knew! She’s always been perceptive! Maybe she put two and two together! It’s not like she could have planted som—” Tony abruptly stopped talking and there was a soft rustling noise before his voice got crystal clear. “Oh, you clever woman,” he whispered to her directly, probably finding the earring she planted.  A faint shiver ran down her back, and her cheeks warmed. Her eyes darted across the table, mindful that she was in a room with exhausted but highly trained spies who would do anything to embarrass her further if they had a clue.

Tony’s voice echoed in her ear once last time, before the transmission was cut, “I wish I knew how to quit you.”

Figures that Tony’s last words to her would be a movie quote. But she got the message loud and clear.

I love you. He said.

She busted into sobs in the middle of the restaurant, unable to be consoled for hours later.

Chapter Text

“It has been a week since New York City was saved by a group of masked vigilantes known simply as the Avengers, lead by the eccentric billionaire Tony Stark. Already, infrastructure and cleanup has been undergoing and the city has been repairing. Although the overwhelming gratitude has swept the nation over these so called heroes, one question remains. Who are these vigilantes? Do these ‘Avengers’  pose a threat to the new world we now live in? And more importantly, how can we keep this from happening again? This is Ashley Hall reporting from Chanel 7 news….”

---

 tweet-EVN - Fake Tweet

---

Pepper glanced sternly at the R&D engineers, giving out an unimpressed aura. “Who leaked the phone call?”

None of the engineers met her eyes.

---

 tweet-FVN - Fake Tweet

 

---

She threw her hands up in exacerbation, startling Tony from his nap on her lap, “This is ridiculous! I can’t believe they found THAT!”

That referred to an old paparazzi picture from approximately 6 years ago, when she was still working at the old-timey diner in California. Tony, looking very young and dashing as always, was leaning over the countertop, sucking on a milkshake as if it was a cover of a fashion magazine. She, on the other hand, with her frazzled hair behind a greasy hair net, looked absolutely awful.

Tony shoved his face towards her stomach, his laugh vibrating up her torso. “At least they don’t know who you are yet.”

She flicked his forehead, earning her a small and playful glare. “Don’t speak too soon, Tony.”

“I’d rather do something else with my mouth, if you know what I mean—”

There wasn’t much talking after that.

---

“Holla my crew! Welcome to my channel, where I talk about all things celebrity news! This is just in—people just verified that the woman on the leaked phone call is the same woman that has been with Tony Stark in paparazzi pictures that almost date back 10 YEARS! No one knew who she was and called her—get this—‘Hamburger Mistress’! Suddenly that weird character in that musical makes SO much more sense, let me tell you. But 10 YEARS MAN! Instead of calling her mistress—isn’t it time to rename her as wife?”

---

“Um—yeah. So I know the woman. I was saved by her once!” the teenager said, looking nervously at the camera. “She’s a doctor, I think. She traumatized me and I can never eat chocolate again but she was really cool! She inspired me to go into the medical field. I’m applying right now! Thanks Mrs. Stark!”

---

“Hey hoooney?”

“Yes?” she asked, looking up from stirring the spaghetti sauce. Tony was leaning against the kitchen table, an evil smirk firmly attached to his face. She rolled her eyes, “What torture do you have for me today?”

“So I was looking at your laptop—”

“Why.”

Tony waved, “Not important—in any case, I was looking because I needed something and I came across something interesting.

She did not like the growing smug look on his face. “Yessssss?”

Tony pulled out his phone and projected –lord mercy, “I didn’t take you to be an art collector.”

A fan artist rendition of Tony and Bruce intertwined in a steamy embrace stared back at her in full life size dimensions. She shrieked at the scandalous picture she saved, feeling her cheeks grow hot-rod red, as she tried to snatch his phone from his hands, “TONY!”

“If you wanted a threesome I could always get that arranged—I’m sure Bruce wouldn’t mind.” Tony’s cackle reverberated across the kitchen, as ran away from her like a madman. “He’s working in the labs right now—want to go ask him?”

“TOOOONNNNY!”

A few hours later, Bruce came up to the kitchen, exhausted and hungry after a long day’s work. He glanced at the Chinese take-out haphazardly strewn across the dining room table and the hint of a ashy smell floating around the room. “What happened to spaghetti night?”

Tony merely cackled manically, while his rumpled girlfriend did everything in her power to not meet his eyes.

---

She stabbed the child’s arm with the needle with a little more force than necessary, smiling evilly at the teen who was badmouthing her in the hall earlier. She turned around to find an Iron Man band aid for his shoulder, just as her phone began to ring obnoxiously.

“This is Doctor—”

“How’s the vacation life?”

“Busy,” she answered, before she rolled her eyes at the face the teenager made at the band aid. “What? Iron Man not good enough for you?”

“I want Hawkeye!” the teen said, before stomping out of the office, no doubt to complain to his mother  about her lack of bed side manner. A headache that she had managed to treat with buckets of caffeine was coming back with a vengeance.

“That kid has good taste,” Barton replied, chuckling over the phone. “You know, the whole thing about a vacation is that you don’t work.”

“It’s just part time,” she answered, twirling around in her chair before turning on the ancient machine that the administrators called a computer. “Got to pay the bills, and all that.”

Barton snorted, “Do you still pay bills? With Stark around?”

She rolled her eyes, “I had to convince him.”

“Oh I’m sure you did.”

Turning a bit red at Barton’s connotation, she cleared her throat, “So do you have an actual reason to call or are you just calling to annoy me.”

“A bit of both,” Barton said, “Fury’s been on everyone’s ass trying to convince Rogers to stay at base but he’s putting his foot down.”

“What does that have to do with me?” she asked, stopping her typing.

“Fury thinks you can convince him.”

“Me?” she snorted, “What Captain Rogers wants is what Captain Rogers wants. I’m not his keeper.”

“Try telling that to Fury.”

Sighing loudly, she pushed her hair from her face, “I’ll give him a call. See what I can do.”

“Does Stark know that you’re buddy buddy with the embodiment of a perfect American Man?”

“That,” she said, “Is none of your concern.”

“Yeah, well I know something he doesn’t know.”

Raising an eyebrow, she asked, “And what would that be?”

There was a small dramatic silence before Barton chortled, “Do they know you have a Captain America lingerie set?”

“Good bye, Barton.”

She hung up.

---

To be completely honest, she didn’t initially want a vacation despite what she had initially told Fury. She just needed a couple of days to rest and she would have been ready to go back to work—if it wasn’t for the strange people she encountered. So when Fury offered her a couple of months of paid leave, she took the gift without much complaint and used the time to truly think.

The first thing—she thought—was to fix the most important thing.

She rung up Captain Rogers.

“I’m doing fine in Brooklyn ma’am,” Rogers said with an excited tone. “A lot of things changed since I’ve been gone, but it’s nice to have some of my past to hold on to.”

She mindlessly doodled on a piece of paper left on the kitchen counter, “Come by for dinner once in a while? Tony can’t cook to save his life but I can do a mean lasagna when I put some effort into it.”

“I don’t want to be a burd—”

Tony walked into the room, looking a little science drunk. She pushed her cup of coffee towards him and he took it mindlessly—glazed eyes eventually softening into one of gratitude. Rogers was still talking over the phone as Tony mouthed curiously ‘WHO IS THAT?’ over his coffee cup.

IT’S. ROGERS. She tapped in Morse code, causing Tony to mime a gasp and a dead faint. She rolled her eyes.

“It’s fine, come over—” she said, interrupting whatever downward spiral Rogers was going into.

“But Stark and I aren’t—”

Tony motioned towards her phone and she put it on speaker. Tony leaned over, face hovering against hers as he said, “Listen to the lady, Rogers. You don’t want to see her when she’s angry.” At the Captain’s sputtering, Tony continued, “Tomorrow. 8PM. My place. Bring a dessert. See you then.” He hung up the phone abruptly and turned towards her to kiss her cheek. “You’ve gotta give the guy an ultimatum or he’s going to beat around the bush for a century.”

She raised an eyebrow, “How do you know that?”

Tony tossed her a saucy grin that made her bare toes curl against the tiled floor. “Hmmm an engineer never reveals his secrets.”

“I thought the phrase is ‘magician’?” she asked, swinging her legs around Tony’s waist so that he was trapped between her thighs. His hands grabbed the countertop behind her, boxing her in efficiently.

His molten eyes threatened to consume her, “Trust me, I don’t need to be a magician to put a spell on you.”

She tilted her head as Tony pushed his nose to the space between her neck and her shoulders. He busied himself by pressing small kisses up her neck, sinking into the dip between her collarbone and back up again.

She shuddered.

“I just have to do this,” he nipped her skin, causing a small squeak to escape her lips. He hummed, “See?”

Before she could retort, there was a soft ping of the elevator arriving on the floor. She tried to pull away but Tony’s arms shot towards her thighs, keeping them in place.

“Tony—“she whispered just as she heard a familiar groan from the elevator entrance.

Rhodey shouted indignantly at them, “YOU ARE A GROWN ASS MAN.”

Tony chuckled into her neck, causing something in her to clench tightly. He eventually pulled away, turning his neck behind him to shout back at his friend, “THIS IS MY TOWER! I DO WHAT I WANT!”

Life, she knew, was always going to be interesting with Tony around.

Chapter Text

Fan boys, she came to realize, were relentless monsters that had patience and willpower in spades. If they had spent their energies on important things than stalking her every move, she was one hundred percent certain that each and every one of them would have achieved great things.

But for now, all these fan boys—em fan people—she thought, spotting several girls holding signs and screaming wildly from the windows of the Tower’s first floor at the sight of her, were achieving was getting on her nerves.

“They’ve been at it all morning—“whispered Linda, the receptionist on duty for the day. She was a recent new hire after the last receptionist was caught trying to sneak into Tony’s bedroom with a suspicious brown bag filled to the brim with used panties in her hands.  She would have succeeded too, if it wasn’t for the fact that as of these last couple of months, Tony’s bedroom was also hers.

A quick glance at the clock confirmed her suspicions, “It’s almost 3!” she hissed, gesturing wildly to the entrance of the tower. Several disgruntled employees were trying to get through the throng as two imposing security guards tried to crowd control. The two watched as a young, slightly traumatized fellow managed to squeeze through, looking pitifully out of breath. As if knowing he was being watched, his eyes traveled towards them before sending a glare her way and marching off.

She sent a rude gesture back, not that the guy saw it. “I haven’t been able to leave in months!” She clutched her hair in annoyance, breathing deeply to calm herself. Ever since someone leaked her residence at the Tower, it seemed like everyone was trying to get a word out of her. People were acting like she was a celebrity or something, and it was flabbergasting. She didn’t do anything!  Her name was all over the internet, praise and censure thrown about like bones to rabid dogs. Heck, there were fashion magazines that featured several pages about the different outfits she had worn in the various paparazzi pictures throughout the years. And they were absolutely brutal. She stopped reading the comments after a point—there was no use lowering her self esteem any further.

This wasn’t the first time she was in the media, she knew. But the small paparazzi photos and headlines she had made in the newspapers and magazines were just small fry compared to the massive explosion that seemed to happen overnight on the web. She didn’t even know what a Twitter was until that very moment!

Tony, of course, was no help.

“It was bound to happen eventually. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.”

She couldn’t step outside the Tower without getting mauled. The first time she tried it left a visible mark on her psyche and she refused to do it again. Or talk about it.

She had hoped that time would be the answer, but 4 months had gone by since the New York Invasion and things weren’t lightening up.

She turned towards the elevators, hoping that not physically seeing the vultures outside would help her rapidly deteriorating sanity. “JARVIS, take me to Tony?”

“With pleasure, ma’am.” The elevator began to rapidly ascend, a familiar blue hue enveloping her ride. She sighed, one hand massaging her throbbing temples, as she basked in the silence. JARVIS, bless his kind electronic heart, had opted not to play the blasted “elevator music” Tony had programed in every elevator in the Tower.

“If I may interlude—” JARVIS slowly said, volume lowered quite considerably. “I have found through my own research that talking through a problem may often help its resolution.”

She snorted, amused at JARVIS’s attempt at tact.  A stranger may not have known better, but JARVIS was very much like his creator, nosiness included.

But still, JARVIS had hit the target on its mark. She confessed that she had been not quite there these last few months, mind flittering from one task to another with an urgency that she hadn’t felt before.  She had information now, important information that she didn’t know quite what to do with.

She needed help, she came to realize. It’s just she didn’t know exactly who she could ask.

“Thanks for caring JARVIS,” she said instead, forcing her tense shoulders to relax. “But I’m afraid that there isn’t much you can do for me.”

There was a long silence at his end, before JARVIS hesitantly replied, “There has been an influx of psychiatrists that opened their practice in New York following the Chitari invasion.”

Her eyes flickered towards the ceiling. “You think I’m traumatized.”

The silence confirmed her question.

“Have you been discussing this with Tony?” she asked, crossing her arms as incredulity rose inside her. The fact that JARVIS was saying this to her now seemed to suggest that Tony had been talking to the AI for a while.

JARVIS was slow to answer, “Sir has… expressed his worry about your change in behavior.”

She rolled her eyes, “I’m fine!” and immedietably cringed. It sounded petulant even to her own ears.

JARVIS must have heard it as well, because he just said, “I am not doubting it, ma’am,”  as if he was soothing a disgruntled toddler. “It is just that sir has been seeing his own therapist and—”

That was news to her. Tony had a history of not seeking help when he needed (that whole fiasco last year came to mind, black poison etching its way up his neck, the only solution in the grasp of a sketchy one-eyed spy in the middle of a sunny parking lot, smelling like vegetable oil and last night’s tears…)

She shook her head. It didn’t do good for her health to dwell on past times. “That’s not like him,” she said instead.

“I shall show you—” JARVIS said, just as a recording of Tony’s voice echoed through the confined space.

“Is the appointment set?” there was sounds of welding in the background. Tony must have been in his lab at that moment.

“Yes, sir.” JARVIS said. “I would like to congradulate you on your proactivity towards your mental health after many years of denying my own and Miss Pott’s suggestions.”

Tony chuckled softly, “Yeah, yeah, Soak it all up,  JARVIS. This will be the one and only time that happens.”

“If I may, sir, why have you decided to change you mind?”

The sounds of welding stopped. She heard Tony place a heavy object on a surface before clearing his throat, “Ah well, it’s simple JARVIS.”

“How so?”

“She needs me.” There was no doubt who he was referring to. “How am I going to be there for her if I’m not in the right place?”

The recording stopped and a long silence fell in its place. She could hear her heartbeat in her ears and felt her chest clench in regret. She suddenly remembered all the times she was emotionally absent from Tony these last few weeks, mind wandering from place to place. When was the last time she had a nice evening with the man?

She couldn’t remember.

She licked her lips, feeling discombobulated. “Tony said that?” she whispered.

JARVIS confirmed. “We all care about you, ma’am,” he added gently.

A huge sigh left her lips as she passed a hand through her hair. “I need to apologize,” she murmured, pressing her head against the cool dry glass wall. “A-and explain myself.” Except she didn’t understand why she was feeling the way she had been. Her chest felt too tight sometimes, as if there was a vice grip around her heart that made it hard to breathe.

But what could she say? Oh Tony, by the way, I’ve been really stressed lately because your past co-worker told me you died saving the world.

She had a feeling that it wouldn’t go too well.

Straightening up, she smoothed out her clothes before saying, “I have a favor to ask though JARVIS.”

“Anything, ma’am.”

“I’ve been looking for a person, a Dr. Helen Cho. She’s based in South Korea and making interesting strides in regenerative medicine.” Her eyebrows scrunched up in deep thought. “Anyway you can get in touch with her for me?”

She knew that telling anyone about what transpired all those months ago wasn’t an option.

But she had to take a page out of Tony’s book and ask for help when she could.

And she needed as much help as she could.

---

She found Tony amongst the mid-level business floors. She rarely had the necessity to be there, preferring to stay away from the interworkings of Stark Industries, so she found herself lost in between the endless hallways lined with glass and technology. She passed by the same ugly impressionist painting of a tiger playing poker before she heard the loud and bounding sounds of Tony’s CEO voice toward the hallway at her left. She followed his voice, walking quickly past the rows of transparent meeting rooms while she simultaneously tried not to pay attention to the discreet flashes of her picture being taken by the various room occupants.

“Tony!” she called out, spotting him walking out of a meeting room a few paces ahead. She slowed down, realizing that he was in deep discussion with a businessman on his heels. She checked her watch, knowing that Tony’s first and only meeting of the day started at 8 in the morning, and wondered what the topic of discussion was for the meeting to have last this long.

She shouldn’t be bothering him. She should leave. A towering being of self doubt crept up behind her, placing a large hand over her shoulder. She closed her eyes.

But, she thought, straightening spine, she needed Tony. And she needed to explain herself.

Mind made up, she marched towards the pair, just as Tony made eye contact with her and a wide smile spread across his face.  

Gosh, she missed that smile. Was it always that mischevious? And his eyes, were they always that bright?

She berated herself silently. Her mind was too focused on the future to enjoy what was in her present.

But never again.

Before he could say a word, she blurted the first thing that appeared in her head. “Let’s go somewhere.”

Tony’s smile remained firmly in place as he turned toward the other man, “I’m afraid I have to cut this meeting short. I apologize—” He didn’t look sorry at all and in fact looked practically elated at her statement.  “Let’s reschedule,” he said before turning towards her. If she noticed that he didn’t offer any other dates for the appointment, she kept that to herself.

The man beside him turned red, looking enraged, “I’ve been trying to contact you for MONTHS!” She watched, wondering whether she would have to break out her emergency medkit incase the man collapsed from a stroke. “Stark Industries stocks are reaching the negatives. My patent will help change that!”

Tony didn’t pay the man any mind as he strutted towards her. She rolled her eyes at the sight, causing Tony to wink conspiratorially at her. Her heart skipped a beat. “Took you long enough, honey,” he whispered, eyes crinkling at the edges. He looked fondly at her before saying,  “Want to go back to California?”

Her breath caught and the cage in her chest ratteled, “Really?”

“Yeah. Reconstruction is almost finished here and Pepper doesn’t need me hanging around—” Tony said, lips twitching at something he saw on her face. He gently grasped both of hands and brush his lips against her knuckles. “What do you say?” His eyes glittered darkly, “Want to go home?”

Her heart clenched. She hadn’t thought about California in a long time, and just thinking about returning brought an enormous sense of relief rush over her. She was sick of New York. Of seeing the remnants of the invasion reflected amongst the rubble and half-fixed buildings.

 How did Tony know that this was what she needed this whole time?

“This is an important matter!” the man who she had completely forgotten until that moment sputtered out, fists clenching angrily at his briefcase. “Mr. Stark, if I may be frank. I don’t see how wasting your attention on some floozy of the month is in you and your company’s best interest!”

“She is more important,” Tony replied simply, before turning towards her. “Let’s go, darling. You and me. We’ll go pick up some donuts on the way and eat some In and out. Just like old times.”

Tears welled up in her eyes, feeling incrediblly emotional. She ducked her head, not wanting Tony to see.

Except there wasn’t much hiding from Tony, she realized, and he merely bent over to leave a kiss on her forehead. “Go pack and say your goodbyes to that kid you’ve been watching. Don’t—” she looked up in surprise as Tony continued, “look so surpris—oh honey, you’re the light of my life, you know that?”

She blushed, feeling like a teenager rather than a grown up woman that she was. “I’ll go visit the Parkers then.” She wresteled away from Tony, feeling shy. Really it should have been creapy that Tony seemed to know everything about her, but she only felt a deep fondness overcome her.

“Take the Ferrari!” he called out as she scutteled away. A smile burst over her red face in response and she walked faster, heading back toward the elevators.

The last thing she heard of Tony was his sudden cold voice turning to the buisness man they had both neglected.

“Oh, by the way, you’re fired.”

---

She didn’t take the Ferrari. Strangely, no one suspected the driver of the soccer mom van that puttered out of the Tower’s parking lot to be her.

Peter, on the other hand, seemed to recognize her despite of it.

“Nice car—” the kid said, as he scrambled into the passengers seat. “Finally escape the Tower, Auntie?”

“Har har, very funny Peter,” she said, keeping her eyes on the 16 year old driver that was backing up in front of her.  She gave him a quick honk when he failed to see her, “You are growing more and more sassy, you know that? I haven’t seen you in ages and after risking my life, “ she honked again at the car in front of her for almost hitting a pair of teens, “and volunteering to pick you up from this hell hole of a middle school drive way, you treat me like—” she finally turned towards Peter, getting a good look at his face. “WHAT THE—”

“I-I can explain!” Peter said, waving wildly in front of him like a shield. It only seemed the highlight the size of the black eye on his face.

Sighing, she gestured to continue as she edged her car out of the school pick up spot.

Peter drew in a big breath, “PeopleatschoolwerecallingyouawhoreandIdeckedthem.”

Groaning, she wondered if she had any emergency supplies in the car, “Peter, you can’t punch people.”

“But they were insulting you!”

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” she pointed out. “With great power comes great responsibility—”

Groaning loudly, Peter slumped against the seat, “You sound just like Uncle Ben.”

“Boy, who do you think received all of his advice before you?” she said, dryly.

“You got lectures even after you were an adult?”

“Lectures never stop, kid,” she said promptly.

“Ugh—” Peter said dramatically, “That sucks.”

“Tell me about it.”

---

“Bye Auntie! Hope you come visit once in a while!” Peter waved, before running into his home. She leaned against the van, shaking her head at the boundless energy he held.

Had she once been that energetic?

Sighing, she wiped her Neosporin covered fingers on her jeans before reaching for her phone. She had briefly spoken to May and Ben about her travels and they both promised to write. Ben had given her another grand lecture about being true to herself—Peter snickering all the way through—and May had just given her a large hug. She had to admit that she would miss the couple. They weren’t the best of friends, but they had been one steady fixture in her life after Tony and it was hard to say goodbye.

They were good people, those two. She reminded herself to get Steve to check up on them once in a while.

She called up Tony’s phone, about to tell him that she was on her way home, but he didn’t pick up the phone. He must have been busy. Nonpursed, she stuffed it back into her pocket and walked over to the driver’s side. She would probably get home before he noticed his phone so there was no point in calling again…

Revving up the engine, she put on her seatbelt and placed her hand on the gear stick. But just as she was about to shift it into a drive, she felt a sudden, painful pressure against her temples.

“Hello princess—” said a rough stranger, holding a dark gun to her head. “Let’s take a little drive.”

Chapter Text

Life was looking good for Tony Stark. The genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist was also a god-damn superhero that saved the world from an army of aliens. Sure, he had help—but everyone had to admit that he was the coolest one of the group.

The internet polls didn’t lie, after all, and he and Star Spangled Man was running toe to toe in being named the sexiest Avenger. Cap was currently in the lead—but Tony didn’t mind.

He always came up on top in the end.

And yeah, he did have that minor inconvenience of the all-consuming nightmare that plagued him every time he closed his eyes, but he was working on it. Hell, he was talking  to a professional and everything! And sure he panicked sometimes, but he needed it to work.

For her.

It was the main reason why he suggested moving back to California in the first place. Sure, New York would have been easier in the grand scheme of things and Pepper nearly blew a gasket when he casually mentioned he was going to let the newly started branch to fend for itself—but there was a deep satisfaction blooming in his gut to see his woman back at home again.

Lips twitched into a sly grin as he remembered the first night back. It had been so long since she stayed at their place that he made sure he re-introduced her to every room.

And ever piece of furniture too.

But after weeks of unpacking and wandering around their home Tony admitted he was growing a bit restless. The California sunshine was beckoning to him and he knew exactly where to go.

“JARVIS, prepare my Tesla will you? I’m thinking donuts.”

“The usual place, sir?”

Tony grinned ear to ear, “Of course. It’s her favorite after all.” Pivoting on the spot, Tony yelled out, “Hey Hoooooney?”

“Yes, Tony?” his missus’s voice echoed from somewhere downstairs. He bounded towards the stairwell, taking two steps at a time until he spotted the beautiful lady. Without much of a thought, he grabbed her by the waist, swinging her up into the air. Tony reveled in the airy giggles that burst from her mouth. “Put me down Tony!”

“Fly, Iron Woman Fly!” he shouted, dodging her swatting hands as he spun her around once more.

“NOOOO!” she struggled in his hold, causing him to lose his grip. She shrieked as she fell into his chest and he smiled at the cute glare she shot him. “Tony! I told you—no flying!”

He pouted, “But you were so good at it. Come on—do it for daddy.”

His love made a face, opposing the gleeful laughter spilling from his lips, “Oh my god. Tony. Really?

Tony’s grin never left his face as he pitched his voice lower into a purr, “Does my baby girl not want her Daddy to ravish her?”

She clutched his chest, heaving between streams of laughter. Tony watched her face, feeling warm at the sight.

God, he was so lucky to have her.

“Hey—” he said, bringing his face closer to her to brush his nose against hers. Nuzzling for a bit, he pulled away before saying, “I’m feeling caged up in here. Why don’t we go to Randy’s?” He waggled his eyebrows, “It’s been a while since we’ve had them. And you’ve been whining about them for—”

“Ah sweetie,” his woman said, kissing his cheek before he could finish his sentence. She wiggled a bit until he let back on her feet. “Thanks for the offer, but you know I can’t eat donuts! They’re filled with too much sugar!”

Tony paused, thoughts screeching to a sudden halt. What?

“What kind of doctor would I be if I let you and me eat donuts—uh no.” Picking up her laptop, she gave Tony a light nose tap before turning away from him, “If you want to go out—let’s go to that new 4 Michelin Star Restaurant that opened up! I’ve been meaning to try it!” Walking towards the living room without glancing back, she continued, “I’m going to be working on some thing for the next hour or so—see you then?”

“Yeah—“Tony said, casually turning around as well. His fingers spasmed across his jeans as a thoughtful frown settled on his face. “I’ll be in the lab. Working on…things.” He fast walked towards the elevators, not bothering to hear what else was said. His eyes remained focused on her retreating form until the elevator doors slid shut.

---

She had dealt with burns before. Nasty, thermal full thickness burns from a SHIELD weapons test gone wrong came to mind.  The skin had all but melted off the woman’s arm, frying in the sizzling fat underneath it, muscles spasming from experiencing the outside air for the very first time…

Even after she called in the leading split thickness skin graft surgeon in the country to help with reconstructing the scientist’s extremity, the graft didn’t take and she watched without a hint of nausea as thick black necrosis traveled up the site, unable to live without the blood flowing through the vessels welded shut by the flames.

But the burning embers traveling slowly over the very tips of her fingers made her stomach roll.

“A little side effect, I’m afraid,” said the man in front of her, pearly white teeth matching with the stark sterility of the hospital room. It made the unnatural glow of her fingertips more apparent against her skin. “But it fixed you right up. You would have been dead without it.”

SHIELD’s Introduction to Kidnapping forgot to mention that no matter how ready one was, one couldn’t prepare for the sheer bad luck that she began to suspect she had. That the history of feeling like her heart was clenching in her chest was not due to her emotional stress she had recently undergone but in fact warnings of a gastric ulcer ready to perforate. And as all things went, it decided to explode a hole in her stomach, spilling gastric fluids and blood inside her body the moment her kidnapping had begun.

And Killian was right.  She would have died if she didn’t get medical attention.

But hellfire was roaring in her chest.

“A surgeon would have sufficed,” she said, tearing her gaze from the glowing fire in her hands and to her kidnapper. She forced some humor into her voice, “A bit overdoing it, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps,” he said, smiling in a way that seemed he knew something she didn’t. She remembered another white male with a similar face and shuddered. “But I needed you alive. Luckily, for you, I had the means.”

“What do you want?”

Killian’s grin turned sinister and she shrunk back as much as her fatigued body could dare, “I have Christmas plans.” His smile suddenly dropped and he slammed his hands against the side of her knee, “All the pieces have been set but you-“ he lifted her chin in a sharp arch, earning a small cry to escape her lips in pain, “are a confounding variable.”

“And as a fellow person of science, you know what we do about confounding variables,” he said, pulling back and walking towards the door that jailed her. He turned his head around to send her a smirk.

“We remove them.”

---

“Not liking your dessert, my dear?” Tony asked, watching his girlfriend pick out the berries from her fruit parfait.

She smiled apologetically, “Ah...I’m not really a fan of strawberries.”

Tony merely hummed, gaze sharpening over her form.

---

Half-melted slush rained down her face, causing her to jerk backwards in shock. The back of her head smacked painfully against the wall, enhancing the already present disorientation she felt from being abruptly awoken.

“What the hell?” she gasped, shaking her head as ice dripped from her hair.

“You’re welcome,” her personal guard, who she nicknamed The Rock for the bald head and bulging bicep he had, snickered at her discomfort. She was frankly surprised to see her inside her cell—most of the henchmen stuck to judging her behind the bars.

“For what?” she snarled, knowing the answer before the guard replied. She closed her eyes, hoping that the glow emanating from her fingertips would disappear.

“You’ve been given a blessing, you know,” the Rock said, coming closer towards her. His face took on an almost envious disgust as he tapped the prosthetic hand on his left. “One you don’t deserve.”

She shook her head, “I never wanted this.” She lifted her head to glare at the man, “Killian is using you as human time bombs. You’re expendable to him.” No one gave her any information, but she could tell what all of this was about. Why else would you make your own henchmen into supersoldiers that could explode at any given moment? “Whatever his motive is—it’s not for your benefit.”

A punch came flying towards her face but there was nothing she could do to avoid it. Gritting her teeth as pain bloomed against her jaw, she didn’t bother to hide the tears that fell down her cheeks.

“Why don’t you give up?” The Rock said, panting a bit from the exerction. His eyes were wild, a hint of madness brewing deep within. “The boss gave you an opportunity. Help him stabilize the formula and save the millions of veterans like me.” He gestured wildly towards his missing limb. “Aren’t you a doctor? Don’t doctor’s help people?”

A headache formed in between her eyes and she snarled, “Why help people who have already taken it for granted? Do you think physicians like chopping people’s limbs off? It was to save your life—and sure, not saying that finding a way to grow a limb isn’t something that would benefit people like you—but not at the expense of hurting others!”

She continued, her voice increasing in volume, “And if you grow a limb—so what? Are you any different from who you were without one appendage? Yes, accidents happen but people adapt. People change. You aren’t your arm, just as a haircut or a new suit of armor doesn’t change the fundamentals of your entire being. And based on what I am seeing—” she spat a globule of spit at the man, causing him to stumble back in disgust. “I don’t think having a hand will change the fact that your heart is as black as tar.”

The Rock grabbed her hair and pulled up, causing a small whimper to escape her teeth. His disgusting breath wafted close to her ear as he growled, “The company you keep isn’t pure either, darling.”

“Tony is leagues better than you.”

Her head was smashed against the wall, causing black dots to form in her vision. She flinched as the Rock whipped his hands away, anticipating another attack when he instead brought out a smartphone and shoved it towards her face. “You think Stark gives a fuck about you? He doesn’t even know you’re gone!”

It took a while to comprehend the screen in front of her but her eyes focused on the picture of Tony and herself exiting an unknown restaurant. A quick flick of her eyes indicated that the picture was taken last night.

She had been in this place for over a month.

She licked her scabbing lips, trying to keep an air of calm beneath the turmoil that coiled inside her, “Nice tech. Facial mapping—couldn’t have been Killian’s. “ She remembered seeing something similar back at SHIELD. A prototype mask that could project another person’s face on an agent for spying purposes. “Based on the shit you’re carrying and the overall facilities, he’s probably placed all his budget on advancing the formula. So—must be a collab company. Making friends, are you?”

She watched in satisfaction as the henchman’s face paled at the. “What—am I wrong?”

She was strangely disappointed when the only response she got was the sound of the door to her prison slamming shut.

---

“Hello?”

“Helen Cho. This is Tony. Tony Stark. I’m sure you’ve heard of me.”

“I’m afraid I have not, sir.”

“Suuuure—”

“Seriously sir, I do not know who you ar—”

“Anyway, this isn’t about me. Have you seen an American Emergency/Trauma physician around your parts lately? Small, long hair about yay high. Personality the size of Everest.”

“Er…I don’t think so?”

“…I see. Well, I’m uploading my contact information to your personal cell. Call me if you she comes by. Bye—”

“Wait what? My personal—how do you have the access to my—”

Beep beep beep beep.

---

All she wanted at this very moment was a strawberry filled donut from Randy’s. Another thing SHIELD’s class forgot to warn her about was the sense of overwhelming loneliness she was subjected to and how to fix it. The thought of Tony made her belly ache—although lately, she had been feeling more and more cramps. It was probably due to the hunger—or perhaps the whole regeneration of her gastrointestinal system.

She still had a hard time wrapping her head around the whole thing.

Bruce would have figured it out by now, she thought feeling sorry for herself. Tony would have fixed whatever formula this thing was, made a bomb, and busted himself out before dinner. But she had been stuck here, imprisoned, for a whole month!

She was running out of time.

Another cramp rolled through her stomach and she groaned. She briefly entertained the idea of taking Killian’s offer to join his terrorist organization as their personal doctor—but it wasn’t as if she could manipulate her way out of her situation. And there was no way in hell that she was actually joining the man.

Feeling her muscles spasm painfully, she licked her cracked lips before yelling out, “H-hey!” Her voice cracked awkwardly, vocal chords lax with disuse.

After a few repeat shouts, a disgruntled henchman marched towards her little cell. The Rock had stopped visiting her and she morbidly wondered if he ended up getting the serum he wanted.  “What do you want?”

“Bathroom?” she asked, earning her an annoyed sigh. A few moments later, she was being dragged down the hallway towards the toilet led by the chain clipped to the handcuffs surrounding her hands. Tripping to keep herself from falling, she thanked the man before shimming her pants down, no longer uncomfortable in using the toilet in front of a watchful eye. She didn’t know why there was such a heavy security team around her, but she liked to think that Killian was somehow under the impression that she was dangerous.

She almost laughed at that thought. Ha. Her, dangerous?

“Hurry up!” the henchman, Bieber she nicknamed based on the hairstyle he was sporting, “You’re going to cut into my lunch break!”

She grabbed the toilet paper, finishing up when she suddenly paused.

“Did you hear me? I said hurry up—what are you—” Bieber shouted, reaching over as if he was intending on yanking her off the toilet when his eyes followed her gaze. The grunt he let out was filled with pure annoyance, “Great. Another thing I have to worry about. You’re lucky the facility list hasn’t been sent out yet—”

Suddenly, the cramping made sense. The overwhelming hunger for donuts made sense.

But, this can’t be right.

There was dark red blood staining her underwear for the first time in three years.

The thing—the formula….

What did he do to me?

---

Look, Tony wasn’t stupid. The missus didn’t deem it necessary to disclose how she got the gigantic scar running from her pubic bone to her belly button but he knew what that scar meant. He could count the months and days.

So when he noticed tampons on the grocery list JARVIS kept record of to buy in bulk at the end of the month, Tony knew that the evidence he had been complying over the last few weeks were true.

His woman hadn’t had her period in years.

This woman sleeping in his bedroom was an imposter.

He didn’t want to arise any alarm by looking into things but the missus was missing and he needed to do something about it.

In a different world, Tony may have done something reckless like try to find her himself—most likely getting into deep deep trouble. This job needed to be discreet and he admitted that the only other person flashier than Iron Man was the Hulk himself. But he was rational. He had resources.  

He knew the perfect person for the job.

“Hello?”

“I need your help, Miss Rushman.”

Chapter Text

It was hard to believe that this relatively normal looking woman in front of her was the basis for this evil terrorist organization. But try as she might, there was nothing in Maya Hansen’s outward appearance that screamed mad scientist.

And yet, she had seen what this formula did to people. The aftermath. The gore. And she had the ultimate pleasure to feel it first-hand.

The road to hell was built with good intentions and all that. Tony, for example, always seemed to tiptoe along the entrance, seeing how far he could push before he was pulled away.

Hansen, on the other hand, probably didn’t have anyone there to stop her.

“Fascinating. The implications are broader than I initially anticipated,” Hansen said, peering at the CT scan of her pelvis flashing on the computer screen.  She swung her legs against the swirly stool, savoring the lollipop she swiped from a tin Hansen had on her desk as she watched the scientist feverishly type notes.

After her initial panic foray that Bieber had the joy of witnessing, she managed to convince Killian that she was willing to participate in the research. For science purposes only. Surprised as she was that he agreed to let her work with Hansen, she had an inkling it was the look of mania that shined in her eyes as her mind made one single conclusion.

This Extremis formula—whatever it was—regrew organs.

The solution to Tony’s heart condition was in her grasp and it only took a little kidnapping to get there. Did this happen in the alternative universe too? She would never have gotten to this conclusion if she didn’t have the hysterectomy in the first place. Was she destined to get injected with Extremis ever since Stane fired a bullet into her abdomen?

Her head spun with all the possibilities and she shook them away in favor of paying attention to Hansen’s thoughtful murmurs. “It will be hard to tell how the regrowth process occurred without getting a sample of the tissue,” Hansen continued, tapping her chin in deep thought.

“Then take it,” she replied, almost vibrating in her seat from excitement as several possible experiments formed in her mind. “If we reverse engineer the tissue growth process, we can tailor the growth to that specific organ and therefore won’t have to genetically modify the entire human DNA in order to regrow a few limbs.” And hearts. And hypoplastic lungs—if Tony’s occasional shortness of breath was any indication. Which reminded her—maybe when she saw him again, she should run some spirometry exams…

“You misunderstood me,” Hansen said, staring at her as if she was spouting nonsense. She briefly wondered if this is what Tony felt like before Hansen continued, “I would need a much larger sample than just a biopsy.”

“No, you misunderstood me. I am offering you the sample,” she said, rolling her eyes. She waved downward at her pelvis with a bit of Tony’s dramatic flair.  “I’m sure you have some surgeons you’re paying beneath the table. A hysterectomy should be a piece of cake if they managed to graduate.”

“You’re… kidding.” Hansen paused, looking at the serious expression on the doctor’s face. “You’re serious—you do understand that the regrowth of your uterus restored your reproducing capabilities? What kind of person in their right mind would want to give away the organ they just got??”

She didn’t give a verbal answer and just pointed at herself, one eyebrow raised. Hansen sputtered in bewilderment, and she could tell that the woman was itching to understand her decision.  But she didn’t need to explain herself to his woman.

“I can see why Stark likes you.”

She shrugged, “I get that a lot.”

---

Steven Strange didn’t worry about other people. It was a waste of valuable thought and with a brain like his, every second was valuable.

But it has been months since that good for nothing Emergency physician called and he was a bit frustrated. He refused to call her Stark’s wife like the tabloids have monikered because she was more than that arrogant celebrity. Her accomplishments didn’t need to be tarnished by Stark’s name.

He had tried contacting her once, back when her move to California was announced but he had not gotten any reply since. Not that he checked often.

And if his eyes glanced at his phone sitting innocently on his desk every hour or so, there was no real harm in that.

These, and other thoughts ran round and round in his head to the point that he didn’t register the second presence in his office.

But in his defense, this woman was the master of being unnoticed until she wanted to.

“Dr. Strange—” Natasha Romanoff said as she stepped out from the shadows. The only indication of Strange’s surprise was the brief tightening of his fingers against his chair. “You know this woman.”

The object of Strange’s thoughts peered back at him in the photograph clutched in the agent’s hands. His eyes flickered to the woman’s eyes, poker face intact, “Perhaps.”

He recognized her now. She was with the Avengers—monikered after some spider he couldn’t recall.

“When was the last time you had contact with her?”

“A few months ago.”

“Did she say anything to you about going to meet someone or go somewhere?”

“What is this about?” Strange said tersely, although he had a vague idea of where this was heading. The fact that the woman started the interrogation with a statement of confidence rather than a question already said much about what this woman’s personality was like.  “If you are looking for her, check the tabloids. They seem to latch onto her like maggots.”

The woman’s eyebrows lifted at his statement, gaze appraising him. He should have controlled his temper, but he couldn’t help the venom that leaked out of his mouth at the thought of those paparazzi. She must have found him trustworthy despite that as she said, “Mr. Stark and I have reason to believe that our little doctor has been kidnapped and replaced with a fake.”

The thought of the little doctor being kidnapped brought a sharp clench to his gut. The poor physician went through enough already—what were the odds of this happening to her again? Realizing the gravity of the situation, Strange straightening up in his chair, a calculated look settling upon the Avenger.

“What can I do to help?”

---

Tony’s nightmares were getting worse. It was a testament to the wonders of therapy that he was able to recognize that his symptoms and general emotions were getting wilder each night. Nights were filled with waking up soaked in sweat, gasping for breath in the silent air. Meditation wasn’t working and he wasn’t going to even touch the SSRIs he was prescribed in case of overdosing. The alcohol cabinet was under strict lock and key—only accessible by JARVIS himself.

Tony meant it when he said he was going to get better. But this left little option for him to relieve the panic that woke him up at nights—other than in the lab.

Which was why he found himself with 40 suits of various degrees of completion in his lab. MARK 41 was in the blueprint stages now and 42 was just a thought he wrote down on a napkin at breakfast yesterday.

But strangely, Tony didn’t want to work tonight. Instead, he was torturing himself by flipping through the various pictures he had saved of the missus—the true one—over the years.

“Wait—hold up JARVIS. That—” Tony said, chortling at the candid of them together at the entrance of theater. He had his arm around her, who was looking not too thrilled at the Hamburger Mistress actress that was hanging on his other arm. “Remember that musical? She HATED that part.” He shook his head at the memory. “She wouldn’t talk to me for days!”

“Indeed, sir,” JARVIS said, sounding amused for an AI. “Ma’am banished all references to that musical in my databases for months.”

Tony cracked up, laughter bouncing off the walls. “Oh man—that’s amazing.” He wiped a tear, “Save that—yeah no, not that folder THAT one. Yeah—” he smiled widely, “this is going to be a blast.”

“I don’t believe ma’am will have the same sentiment.”

“Oh hush,” Tony said, absentmindedly pulling out a box from his pocket. He had made a habit of carrying it around with him lately. He tossed it into the air before catching it. The ring inside made a small clinking sound as it was shot back up into the air. “You know JARVIS. I was planning on asking her this Christmas.”

JARVIS, the clever AI, knew exactly what he was talking about, “Should I offer my congratulations now?”

“With the way that things are now—“Tony trailed off, giving a knowing look to the AI. He caught the box one last time before stuffing it back into his pocket. “I doubt that it will happen.”

“I believe that Agent Romanoff may be in contact soon—”

“Anything yet?” Tony asked, suddenly looking very serious.

“I am unsure,” JARVIS sounded almost apologetic. “Every listening device you have planted on the agent has been found within 24 hours of her departure.”

“Drat, I would have sworn she wouldn’t find them—” Tony said, twirling around in his chair to face another screen. “SHIELD is getting better at detecting my tech. We need to rectify that.”

“Sir? I would advise sleep.”

Tony briefly glanced at the time glowing in front of him and shrugged, “There’s still some hours before the sun rises. ‘Fatigue is the best pillow’ as my good ol’ Franklin said.”

“I don’t think Benjamin Franklin intended his words to be a deterrent for sleep.”

Tony snorted, already half paying attention to his surroundings. “How would you know? Have you met the man?” Bring up both his audio tech and MARK 41 in front of him, Tony said, “Besides—I don’t know if I should put my trust in a man who was part of a devil worshiping sex cult.”

“In my experience sir, that is the exact type of individual who you model yourself after.”

Tony laughed, “Touché.”

---

Time flew when one was in a frenzied state of experimentation in hopes of saving one’s love while also being held captive by a terrorist organization. There were probably a million different ways of saying that previous sentence in a better and more grammatically correct fashion, but she found that there was a certain zest when she thought it in that way.

In any case, she was rambling. Sometimes, she had an inkling suspicion that she was becoming more crazy as the days went on. Hansen certainly thought so.

‘You know, I was jealous about you—” Hansen said to her one day. “You aren’t anything special. You’re not the smartest or the prettiest and I doubt you have any money.”

The thanks she gave in return was drier than the desert.

“So why—“Hansen asked, facing her. “Did he stay for you when he left me?” At her shrug, Hansen crossed her fingers and placed them on her lap. “But then I understood—it makes much more sense. Crazy attracts crazy after all.”

She didn’t comment at the time, too busy wrapping her head around the fact that Tony had an evil scientist for an ex. It made her wonder whether meeting Tony’s ex at inconvenient times would be a common occurrence.

And speaking of Tony, she hoped to Thor that he wasn’t doing anything…wild to try to find her. There was no doubt in her mind that he was fooled by the stupid tech that Killian had used. No, Tony was way too smart not to notice it.

It seemed that people generally underestimated her boyfriend—Killian included—and that would be his ultimate downfall.

Because no matter what plan Killian had concocted for Christmas, Tony could handle it.

It was his magnetism for explosions and self-sacrificial behavior that worried her the most.

But there was a creeping anxiety that was overwhelming her. A feeling that time was running out. Hansen was gone for days at a time and she didn’t even know the last time Killian came around to ruin her day.

Christmas, it seemed, was just around the corner.

Chapter Text

There was a saying that every Stark employee knew. It was whispered amongst the halls, used as a cautionary piece of advice to the younger interns, a whip used to keep the disgruntled employees in line and a guillotine that kept the higher up’s cautious of every move they make.

Stark men were forged from the flames of Phlegethon.

Their tempers burned just as hot.

The air seemed to sizzle around the CEO, an uncomfortable tension hanging thick above their heads. People scrambled out of his way, flattening their backs against the walls before they were on the opposing side of Tony Stark’s wrath.

Those that were fairly new to the company, the ones that came in before Stark’s kidnapping, froze like caught prey. The younger ones have yet to experience the Tony Stark’s anger. But the more experienced employees knew better, staying silent while their minds whirled with a single thought.

Whoever was on the receiving end of that, they thought, had no idea what was coming.

---

Something was wrong. That much she knew, as she peered down at the data in front of her. A quick peek at the entrance of the lab showed that there was only one guard stationed there.  Security had been lax lately, which only meant that those goons were being shepard off somewhere else. Killian’s plans must have begun which meant that her  time was almost up.

She needed to get out of here.

But how? Spending her eyes peeled and mind sharp during her time captive has only confirmed that she was way in over her head. These guards were military—and she barely knew her way around a punch. No, physical methods weren’t going to help her escape this place.

Not—she thought—that she particularly wanted to leave at the moment. The key to Tony’s heart was in her grasp and she needed to figure it out. Until then—she had been biding her time—trying to come up with a plan that would work when all odds were against her.

She had no strength. She had no means of communication. What limited access to the computer she had was heavily scrutinized—and even if she could somehow hack into the system to send out an alert—she wasn’t smart enough to do it undetected. As soon as she hit enter—she knew—it would be only minutes before someone found out.

Not to mention that she wouldn’t have time to even hack into the system anyhow—considering that a bullet would probably strike her down before her hands could type a “hello world”. Her eyes were drawn to the gun on his side as if my magic, and her heart sped up. Well hello, little lady. Hello little lady. Hello—

“What are you looking at?”

“N-nothing,” she quickly said, flickering her eyes back onto the experiment in front of her. She swallowed her bounding heart, fingers shaking noticeably as she picked up the pipette. Magical spears she could handle, but guns—“Hello princess—” said a rough stranger, holding a dark gun to her head. “Let’s take a little drive.”

She stood up quickly, intending to run away, when the butt of Barton’s gun smacked into her head, rendering her unconscious.

She closed her eyes, willing the images in her head to disappear. Guns.

Why was it always guns? She was suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling of helplessness and she slumped against her chair. It was funny—she realized. She hadn’t felt this…out of control…since her med school days—back when she was so so alone.

“I apologize. This does go against my protocol,” JARVIS sounded slightly chastised, like a child doing something his father told him not to do. “But I must confess that I—that we—” She heard DUM-E and U beep a hello in the background. “wanted to hear your voice.”

But she wasn’t alone then…wasn’t she?

She always had help—even if it came from surprising locations….

A smile bloomed over her face. Surprising locations huh?

She knew just who to call.

---

Queens, New York

Peter was not having a very good day. That Spanish test aside, his email has been buggy all morning, which was a real annoyance considering that he was waiting for a response from Liz about their group project due next week.

It must have been a virus, he thought, because no matter what email he opened, the same message appeared over and over again. It was a stream of nonsense letters and numbers—probably some stupid bot with a defective code. Even he could make better malware than that—not that he ever tried to code anything illegal like that…..

In any case, he had been busy all morning to look at it in detail but he had computer lab next so he was sure he’ll be able to fix it in time.

“Still having trouble with the email?” Ned asked, playing pinball in the computer next to him instead of doing the assignment. He groaned when he lost and craned his neck to look at Peter’s screen. “What’s that mean?”

“I’m trying to find out—” Peter said, fingers flying on his keyboard. “You know—it’s really funny. Because at first I thought this was just a junky piece of code or something but it looks kinda familiar. Like I’ve seen something similar to this before you know? Maybe I saw something similar in that book Auntie gave to me—the one about ciphers and cracking codes—.”

Peter’s eyes widened and he stood up suddenly, earning curious stares from the rest of the students in the classroom.

“Mr. Parker, sit DOWN!”

“I-I have to go!” Peter said, grabbing his backpack from the ground. “Uh- stomach flu. Gonna barf!”

“Peter? What’s going on?” Ned asked. Peter gave him a wide shake before tumbling out of class, sprinting as fast as he could. Ned watched him go with a worried gaze before glancing back at Peter’s screen.

Get widow. Send hlp.

---

Bruce Banner coughed sheepishly as the red-headed agent picked up the pen he dropped at her sudden appearance. He had been engrossed on the data spread he had just finished and didn’t see the assassin announce her presence to the R and D department.

“Ah—thanks Agent Romanoff,” he said, taking the pen back and sticking it into his breast pocket.

The agent smiled, her smoky voice doing funny things to Bruce, “No problem Doc. Was just looking for you.”

“M-me?” he asked, taken aback.

“You—” the agent fully knew what she was doing to poor Bruce. “I figured you’ll be in here with all these nerds.”

“Screw you too!” shouted one of the techs—Kevin, Bruce thought. Sylvia smacked him with her clipboard.  Kevin glared back, murmuring something that sounded like ‘Rushman’ before ducking back to welding something.

The smile turned deadlier, “They don’t like me very much.”

“Why?”

Natasha shrugged, perching herself on an empty stool by his lab bench. “Ah—it’s a long story.  Just as long—I’m sure—as the story behind that.” She pointed her thumb at something behind him.

Bruce knew what the Agent was speaking about before he turned his head. “Ah—like you said, a long story.”

“Well now,” Natasha purred inching closer to Bruce’s personal space. He knew the agent was just teasing him, but he still couldn’t help the jittery nervousness from spreading across his bones. “I’m getting curious. Spill.”

Bruce scratched his head, tilting the center of his gravity away from the assassin, “Stark’s scientists have a large amount of respect for him.” A bit too much if he was honestly speaking, but he didn’t want to overturn that rock.

“That’s old news,” Natasha said, lips spreading widely into a grin, “I already knew about the Stark Shrine. My question is—as you probably guessed—why there is picture of you holding a Hulk toy next to it?”

Bruce sighed, ducking his gaze downwards, “Why must you humiliate me like this?”

Natasha tapped him on the back, laughter etched into her voice, “Because it’s amusing.”

Bruce tried to change the topic, “How’s the investigation going?”

Natasha paused for a moment, the only indication that she recognized what he meant. She feigned ignorance, “I don’t know what you mean?”

Bruce rolled his eyes, turning back to the data he left. His eyes scanned the numbers as he continued, “I may not be a secret government agent but I’m not an idiot.” He typed a few calculations before turning towards Natasha again, “Even I know that woman walking around with Stark isn’t her.”

“How could you tell?”

There was a slight pause before Bruce whispered, “She never once was afraid of me.”

Unlike you. Natasha could hear the unsaid words. There wasn’t much to say because it was the truth. “The Doc was always a kind woman.”

Bruce cracked a smile. “Yeah,” his face turned somber at the thought of the situation Stark’s girl must be in. “She is.”

Before the silence could stretch between them there was a sudden commotion at one of the lab benches. The pair of Avengers glanced at each other, before turning towards the noise.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, pushing himself on his feet and toward the sobbing Sylvia. “Are you alr—”

Bruce’s voice stuttered as he read the headline flashing on the t.v screen, his best friend’s face splattered across it with big bold letters.

Everything turned green.

Chapter Text

“I’ve got the situation under control sir,” Natasha gritted out, gently placing an unconscious, and thankfully not green Bruce onto the only functioning chair in the lab. Several lab techs scurried out from various hiding places, looking more peeved than traumatized. It was as if seeing their colleague turn into a green rage monster was more of an inconvenience than a life threatening experience.

Natasha shook her head. Scientists.

“Control? You call that control?” Fury yelled from the other line. Really, Natasha didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

“Speaking of control—” Natasha said, finding a semi-soft object to prop Bruce’s head with.

He was going to be extremely sore when he woke up.

“What are you going to do about Stark?”

Fury sighed heavily from the other end. Natasha only felt slightly sorry for him. “I’ve got my hands tied right now, agent. All resources are currently heading toward London.”

Nat raised an eyebrow, “Stark might need backup.”

“If the papers are anything to believe—Stark’s too dead to need backup.”

Natasha rolled her eyes, lightly stepping over some smashed erlenmyers and out of the R&D labs.  “You don’t honestly believe Stark’s dead.”

There was a silence on the other end before Fury spoke, “If you believe he needs backup, then why don’t you go?”

Natasha sauntered down the hall and towards the elevators. “Stark will try to kill me if I abandon this mission.”

“Stark? Kill you?”

Natasha pressed the button for the lobby and leaned against the wall as the elevator made it’s descent, “I said ‘try’, sir. In any event—have you been working on my favor?”

“There hasn’t been any progress.”

“Tech like that doesn’t just disappear,” she said, frowning. She shifted the cellphone to her other ear, “The facial masking tech she’s using is SHIELD tech. And I’m certain that she’s not one of our agents—”

Fury snorted on the other line, “If that bad acting, completely obvious, wanna-be honey pot was a SHIELD agent, she would have been demoted to janitor duty.” Natasha shook her head in amusement as Fury continued, “I’ll keep looking into it.  From what I know, Agent 33 was the last agent to be assigned that technology. The fact that our tech is popping up tells me that there must be a mole. And you know how I feel about moles.”

“Pests to obliterate?”

“Exactly.”

---

The thing about real life is that it never stayed in one genre. One minute, she thought she was in a secret agent movie, and the next thing she knew, she was in horror. In the deep, logical recesses of her addled mind, she knew that her plan wouldn’t work. But she had been hanging out with superheroes more on a fairly regular basis. The mindless hope that they carried must have rubbed off on her.

Essentially, she got caught.

And she was paying for it dearly.

“I’ll ask one last time,” shouted henchman 5, spittle spraying over her bruised face. It was a miracle in itself that she could see anything past her swollen eyelids, but she supposed the serum had something to do with it. “Who did you contact?”

She kept her lips sealed, afraid of letting anything slip out. For the first hour of this interrogation, she had talked back as much as she could, sending a sarcastic quip here and there for chuckles. Tony taught her this, but unlike him, she had a limit to how much pain she could tolerate before she cracked.

She was weak. This was only a quarter of what Tony had to endure during his capture. She had been having a wonderful and lax kidnapping season until now. It was funny—she thought tiredly—how much she took her safety for granted these last few weeks. The danger was always there, she knew, but despite the initial body modification she endured, her stay had been quite lackluster. There wasn’t any torture sessions. No bodily harm. No pain.

She had all three this time.

The room spun whenever she blinked, and she swallowed the bile rising up her throat. The henchman grabbed a fist full of hair and pulled, causing her to choke in pain. “You’re choosing to stay silent,” he hissed, lips dangerous close to her ear. His voice caused a sick shiver to roll down her body. “But don’t you know that we can easily find out?” She chose this opportune time to spit the bile back at her guard’s face.

You’re being melodramatic, my dear.

“No one asked you,” she murmured.

“You—BITCH,” the guard shouted, “Why don’t you stop talking to the air and answer my damn question.”

“Clearly, he’s the melodramatic one,” she said instead, eyes flickering towards the darkness.

For once, I agree.

“Fucking crazy,” the guard said, pushing her to the ground, looking disgusted. She automatically braced her fall with her wrists, except her bones couldn’t handle the force in which she fell. She cried out in pain as her scaphoid cracked, the sound echoing loudly in her cell.

The last sound she heard was a loud clunk of a heavy door closing before she lost her balance, tipping headfirst into the floor.

---

Ellen Brandt was having a terrific day. For starters, her boss finally gave the ok for her to shed this stupid persona she had been wearing for the past several months.

Killian wanted her at headquarters ASAP, stating that the initial attack at Malibu was a failure. He needed her, he said, causing a vicious joy to rise into her chest. The rest of his team were imbicles, having failed to kill Stark, and she was the only one capable of bringing Stark to him.

It was a good thing that Ellen convinced Stark that “she” needed to take a small trip to New York without him. Surprisingly, Stark had agreed without much fuss, and Ellen took care to make sure that she was seen around the Tower by several witness.

She wanted everyone to know that she wasn’t anywhere near Malibu when the attacks occurred. , Several people already said that she was lucky that she wasn’t in the house. She must be devastated.

Even Stark’s friend, that show pony James Rhodes, called her that morning.

“Don’t worry kid. He’s going to be fine. You’ll see.”

Ellen almost laughed at his face when he tried to console her, but she managed to turn it into a sob at the last minute. It was hard work being Stark’s girlfriend but really, it was easy for her.

The chit had such a boring personality that a rock could easily impersonate her.

Well Ellen could finally get rid of the mask now. All she had to do was exit the Tower and slip into the getaway car parked just outside. She couldn’t wait to see boss again.

As soon as she stepped into the lobby, she signed in annoyance at the large crowd forming at the entrance. Most were journalists, which made the young preteen fighting to get to the front of the crowd easily spotable.

“Hey! I’m trying to see the Widow. It’s important!” the kid yelled at the security guard. He clutched his backpack towards his chest like a shield as the guard manhandled him. “She’s right there! Just let me—hey Ms. Widow! Ms. Widow!”

Ugh. Fan boys. Ellen took a step back, trying to figure out if she could take the back entrance when she felt her cell phone ring. “Hello?”

“Brandt, you need to get out of there.” The grip on Ellen’s phone tightened as she simultaneously heard the kid shouting.

“Ms. Widow! Ms. Widow! This is about Auntie! She sent me a message—she’s been kidnapped and I know where she is right no—”

“Fuck, are you listening to me? You’ve been compromised!”

Several things happened once. Ellen’s hand twitched, pulling out the handgun strapped to her belt, as she took several quick steps toward the boy. At the sight of the gun, the crowd scattered away, leaving a straight route for her bullet to fly as soon as she lifted her finger.

The boy’s eyes widened, looking like a deer caught in headlights, and Ellen’s lips curled back in a snarl. The sudden anger at this little toddler’s interference in her plan caused the fire to escape her tightly controlled core. She swiped at the kid, pulling him toward her grasp and placing her gun to his temple.

Just as she felt a flash of victory, there was a sudden click of a loaded gun near her, and a rough voice said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

A cold shiver trickled down her spine but Ellen kept her gun steady. “Listen to that sweetie,” she cooed at the boy, causing him to squirm against her hold. She needed to buy some time. There was no way she could win against the Black Widow in a fair fight.

But Ellen was never fair.

 The Black Widow took a step forward, but Ellen backed away, screwing the gun further into the boy’s temple. “Ah ah ah. Take another step and this boy’s adolescent brain will be splattered across the god damn floor!”

Ellen pivoted, placing the boy between herself and the Black Widow. “So tell me sweetie, what’s your name?”

“P—”

“Don’t answer her,” The Black Widow sharply interrupted, causing a small ‘eep’ to escape the boy’s mouth.

Ellen rolled her eyes, taking another step back towards the entrance. She could see a black van waiting at the corner of her eye. She just needed to find a way to get out of this mess.

“A-auntie? What? What’s going on?” P-something said, trembling in her arms.

“Sorry pancake, I’m afraid Auntie has better things to do—“Ellen said, keeping her eyes firmly on the agent. “I suggest you put the gun down, Black Widow. It would be quite a shame if all of these people witnessed Stark’s girlfriend kill an innocent young man!”

Unfortunately, the Black Widow’s aim did not waver, “Who do you work for?”

“That’s a secret~”  she sang, before coldly ordering, “Put the gun down and I’ll let this kid free.”

Before the agent could say anything, the boy in her arms shouted, “No-don’t! Ms. Widow, Auntie—the real one—needs your help! You can’t!—” the boy choked as Ellen squeezed his body further.

The Black Widow sighed, eyes glaring into Ellen’s soul, as she reached down slowly to place the gun in her hand onto the ground. Ellen watched carefully, looking for any sudden tricks that the agent might pull.

Ellen was so distracted on the Black Widow that she didn’t notice her grip on the boy had loosened. The boy suddenly acted, stomping his foot on Ellen’s leg and slamming his elbow against her ribs. Shocked at the sudden attack, Ellen let go of the boy, causing the Black Widow to jump towards her in a sneak attack.

Suddenly on the defense, Ellen fired up her arms and swiped, causing flames to fly towards the agent. The Black Widow dodged away, giving Ellen enough time to sprint towards the exit of the Tower.

Weaving away from a bullet, Ellen headed straight towards the black van. The car door opened, and two arms pulled her in just as another bullet smacked against the car door.

“Fu—book it! Drive now!” Ellen yelled, trying to cool down. The tires screeched against the concrete driveway, the sound mixed in with the yelling going on inside the car.

“Killian is not going to be happy about this—”

Ellen shot him a glare, burning a hole through the upholstery, “No one asked for your opinion Jenkins. Where’s my next assignment?”

“Well-it’s in T—"

---

Rose Hill, Tennessee

–I just stole a poncho from a wooden Indian. I hope, wherever you are, you’re keeping yourself warmer than me.

Chapter Text

The heat was getting unbearable by the hour, leaving her perpetually feeling like she was too big for her skin. Is this what snakes felt like right before they shed their skin, leaving just a shadow of their former selves in their wake?

You are getting metaphorical, my dear.

It was getting easier to ignore, despite the unbearable pain she was in. She just had to think about Tony—it was always about Tony…she wondered what he was up to now—knowing him, he was making a quip about how she hated the warmth of California winters…

I can offer you the reprieve you need. If only you just ask.

Her body’s attempts to cool down didn’t work anymore. Sweat evaporated in a quiet sizzle on her skin, leaving behind a salty residue. She wouldn’t last long now, she reckoned. It took all of her energy to keep the fire at bay and she was barely holding on.

It was better if she died. They had moved on from Peter now, switching to asking for information about Tony. His weapons, his company. She hadn’t said a word to them back.

This wasn’t the first time a big man tried interrogating her for Tony. In their eyes, she was merely a vat of information, a blob of human flesh. She didn’t have a name. She wasn’t a human.

She was Tony’s girl. Or the prisoner. Or hello, little lady, hello little lady, hello little lady.

She sudden feeling of her body getting squeezed into a tiny tunnel overwhelmed her as she sudden thought. What was her name again?

You are making it difficult for yourself.

“SHUT UP,” she shouted, her body trembling at the effort. Another surge of heat rushed over her, searing her flesh before mending it back together again.

She could do this. She could do this.

She had too.

---

“You walked right into this one; I’ve dated hotter chicks then you.”

“Is that all you got?” Ellen asked, pushing through the flames with ease. “Really, after sharing the same bed for months—this is how you repay your wife?” There was an annoying beeping noise coming from the microwave but Ellen payed it no mind. Stark pulled something from the wall—a desperate attempt at getting out of this alive but Ellen was burning now. Oh, she wasn’t angry. She was furious.

“Sweetheart, I’ll only have one wife.” Stark said, stilling for just a single moment.

“And it ain’t you.”

An explosion of fire erupted with a loud roar and Ellen knew no more.

---

The guard was back. At this point, she had lost count to the number of times she had been hit, punched, stabbed or burned. Really, how could she know when her skin healed like brand new after each attempt?

She wondered if she would still survive if she skinned herself alive. Would her skin grow back faster than the blood loss? What if she tore a hole into her chest and ripped out her own lungs? Her uterus came back—why couldn’t other organs. Or would she be slowly dying, gasping for the air that would just swirl inside her chest cavity without any alveoli to go to and expelled without much change other than the warmth it would gain from journeying inside her thorax?

Oh how easily a mutt’s mind fails when holding the power of a god.

“Shut up,” she murmured, before turning her gaze toward the guard that swept into her cell. Was it just her imagination, or did the guard seem angrier than usual?

Anytime darling. Just say the word and I can easily lend you my blessing.

“We found him, you know!”

She sighed, lifting her head towards the guard in annoyance. They couldn’t leave her to slowly fall into madness in peace. “No, I don’t know. You have to use your words, unfortunately. I can’t read your mind.”

“You’re all bark but no bite, princess,” the guard said, leering at her. He grinned in what he hoped was an intimidating facial gesture, but she couldn’t help but notice the gingivitis that marred his mouth. Strange—she would have taught that dental hygiene would have been taken care of by the Extremis by now— “I mean Peter.” Her breath paused at the name. The guard’s grin widened at her response and he leaned forward to grab her by the chin.  “Ring any bells? Well it should because you will be seeing him pretty soon. He is a handsome fella isn’t he. Too bad that his face had to be marred but that’s Ellen for you! He must have been so traumatized seeing his lovely Auntie shoot a gun at him!” Slapping her cheek condescendingly, he laughed, “Hey maybe I can convince Killian to give him to me! I can show him a thing or two about—”

She heard enough. Flicking her eyes at the corner of the cell, just behind the guard holding her chin captive, she glared at the shadows before saying, “Fine.”

“Excuse me?” the guard asked, glancing over his shoulder in the direction of her glare. “What are you looking at?”

She signed, closing her eyes. She didn’t want to—but she had no choice, did she?

“Alright?” she said again, her voice sounding shrill, “I consent. What do you want me to do? Pray on my knees?”

The shadows suddenly shifted and a man in all green stepped out into the light. She could barely make out the outline of his body in the darkness if it wasn’t for the glowing emerald eyes.

“Well then,” Loki, son of Odin, wielder of the Tesseract, said with a sinister grin, “It is about time.”

---

Suddenly, it was too much for Tony. Every thought was rushing into his head. He was without his armor, in the middle of nowhere. JARVIS was malfunctioning, the only help he had was from a 5 year old—or was it a 10 year old?—in any case, oh and his suit was NOT CHARGING.

It was too much. Too much. What was he without the suit? How was he supposed to do anything without it? He wasn’t Iron Man without the god damn Iron armor. How was he going to find this Mandarin? How—how—how—

“What’s questionable about electricity?” Tony blurted out, and it felt like the car was too small for him. The walls were closing in on him and the air was stagnant. He couldn’t breathe—“Alright, it’s my suit and I can’t—I’m not gonna—I don’t wanna—“he was having a panic attack. He logically knew he needed to calm down but there was a roaring in his ears and he couldn’t—he couldn’t “Oh god, not again.”

“—Are you having another attack? And I didn’t even mention New York—”

Tony didn’t even remember what he said next, too concentrated on trying to maintain some sense of control.

“—you’re a mechanic right?”

Tony paused, mind focused on what Harley was trying to tell him, “Right.”

“You said so.”

“Yes I did.”

“Why don’t you just—build something?”

You would have liked him, love. The kid’s got spunk.  One day, when all of this is over and you’re back in my arms—I would love to show him to you.

---

“Clint—”

“You’re stealing a jet,” Clint said, jogging closer to his fellow agent. He had been called up on a different assignment for SHIELD when he spotted one of the jets being mysteriously piloted when there were no scheduled flights. It would have gotten unnoticed—but Clint was trained to see these kinds of things.

Natasha rolled her eyes, “I’m borrowing it.”

“What for?” Clint said, following her up the ramp. He automatically checked the amount of arrows he had left on his back, knowing that there was no way he wouldn’t follow Nat into whatever trouble she was planning.

“The doc—”

“You found her?” Clint had been doing his own investigating once he heard that Tony had entrusted Nat to the job of finding the pipsqueak. But his sources had been running dry and the only thing he found was that it was all related to an organization called AIM. Suddenly bursting with adrenaline, Clint grabbed Nat’s shoulder and squeezed. “Well, what are we waiting for then? Let’s go save her! I’ll fly.”

He hoped in the back of his mind that there was still enough of the Doc to save.

---

She may have been a tad overenthusiastic, she thought to herself, as she watched the facility that was once her prison crumble in a heap of flames. She wanted to burn the place to the ground but she wasn’t a murderer. To her brief surprise, it had been empty—no other soul in sight except for her guard. Said guard laid unconscious by her feet, his clothes smoking, but alive.

“Why didn’t you kill him?” Loki asked, pushing the unconscious man with his foot. She sighed, extinguishing the flames that licked his skin with some concentration.

“I’m not you.”

“Pity—“Loki said. The pair looked quite jarring, between her frail and dirty appearance and his eloquent, black suit. “Then how did you know your attack would work and he wouldn’t regenerate like you?”

“What’s with all these questions?” she shot out, taking a large breath of the smoky, but strangely refreshing breeze. It was the madness, clearly. She shook her head.

“I just want to know how a mutt’s mind works.”

“Stop calling me that—” she said halfheartedly. The guard beneath her feet moaned and shifted to move, only to lose consciousness with a well placed kick to the cranium. “And I knew because his teeth.”

“Fascinating,” Loki breathed, looking like he was studying an interesting insect.

She turned away, eyes staring at the flames climbing higher and higher. In a few hours, there would be no trace of the building, no whisper of the torture she experienced there. People would never know—and if they did, they would forget her face in an instant.

Everything would turn to ash.

Before her thoughts could get too introspective, a large whirling sound pierced through the roar of the flames. The pair glanced to the west, watching as a dark spec flew closer and closer to her area.

“Looks like your rescue party has arrived,” Loki said, taking a step back. “Remember your promise.”

Rolling her eyes, she waved him away. Between one heartbeat and the rest, she was alone.

But then she was not.

“Hey guys,” she smiled weakly at the two familiar faces, sprinting towards her. “Sorry you missed the party.” She took a step forward to greet them, only for her knees to buckle. “It was lit.”

Chapter Text

She couldn’t believe that it was still Christmas. Clutching the shock blanket that Barton placed around her shoulders, she stared at the darkening sky through the jet’s window while her mind tried to comprehend the feelings she had.

She was…bewildered. Yes, bewildered that the last few days she spent in hell were in fact only one day. Guilty that her mind broke so quickly. She was so useless, she thought. Not being able to do anything. Placing herself in this situation. Causing others trouble.

Her self-esteem was at an all time low, she thought, biting her lips hard enough to taste blood.

“Stop that,” Barton said, suddenly by her side and startling her. “You’re going to get more hurt.”

“No I won’t,” she said, feeling her lips mend on its own. She noticed Barton’s eyes widen at this but thankfully he didn’t point it out. She was suddenly overwhelmed with a surge of gratitude and she spoke sincerely, “Thank you for saving me Barton.”

Agent Barton smiled, pushing a greasy tendril of hair away from her sweaty face, “It’s no problem, pip—” She immediately scowled at his nickname, earning her a laugh from him, “And how many times have I told you to call me Clint?”

“Agent Barton—” she stressed, causing him to roll his eyes at her. She unwrapped herself with the blanket, suddenly feeling too hot. “How did you find me? Did my message—”

Barton pointed his thumb at the cockpit, “It was all Nat. She said you sent a little spider to her—whatever that meant.”

A small, tired smile formed on her face, “Ah—he’s alright? No troubles?”

Before Barton could answer, there was a whooshing sound of the cockpit door opening and Romanoff stepped out, “He’s fine.” She missed the sharp look Nat sent to Clint, causing him to shut his mouth closed. “He just gave me your message and I sent him back to his home safely.”

“Good—“she sighed, a large weight on her shoulders lifted. She had been afraid that her meddling would have placed Peter in danger. She didn’t realize how much the guilt was eating her until now.

“ETA is in an hour,” Romanoff said, sauntering towards her and taking a seat in the other aisle facing her.  When she first entered the jet, Barton told her they were going to a safe house of his. A farmland, he said, rubbing his hands in glee.

I bought a new tractor and everything. Laura said it was a bit preemptive, since we haven’t even started planting anything but it was on sale and I—

She didn’t know who Laura was, but anywhere was better than here.

“And Tony—” she asked, finally voicing out her other concern. “You didn’t tell me anything about Tony—is he going to be there?” Why would he? It’s Christmas! The company was probably very busy and he needed to be there. A meeting with the stockholders was coming up right? Why did she even bother to ask that question? She was dumb—she needed to get it together—

Romanoff shared another look with Barton as if they were debating who was going to speak next. Sighing, Barton kneeled next to her so that they were eye-level. “Hey—uh pip. So about Stark—”

He explained. About the explosion. And the disappearance. The missing report and the supposed death. He showed her the footage of the rubble of their—his, it wasn’t hers—Malibu home. The Mandarin. The terrorists attacks. Happy.

“Fuck!” She scrambled to her feet before Barton could say any more, stumbling to the opposite wall of the jet. Her heart slammed against her chest, adrenaline surging again inside her. She briefly wondered if her sympathetic nervous system would burn out after all of this nonsense before shaking her head.

“What are you doing?” Barton and Romanoff asked, alarmed.

Her eyes were wild as her fingers traced the pattern of the bolts in the wall, “This is a Stark plane right?”

Romanoff nodded, taking a step forward in veiled concern “ птенец,” she said. “You need to stay calm.”

“Calm?” she said, whirling around to find the two agents tense behind her. Romanoff’s hands wrapped around her gun holster while Barton’s stance was clearly one ready to fight. She looked down to see her feet smoking and yelped at the glowing, lava footprints she made on the jet’s floor in her haste. “Ah—” she took a deep breath and sighed as her body stopped smoking. “Sorry?”

Romanoff’s hands left her gun slowly, eyes looking far away, “They experimented on you.” There was a strange tone to the agent’s voice that she couldn’t quite understand. Barton’s hands immediately went to Romanoff’s shoulder and squeezed. There was an intimacy there—and looking at it felt like she was intruding on something that she shouldn’t have known. Turning around she returned back to facing the wall, fingers flying over the smooth surface of the wall—searching…

Finding a slight indentation in the wall, she pushed hard, causing the ordinary wall to suddenly glow and transform into a screen.

“JARVIS?” she asked, placing her palm against the screen.

There was a moment’s pause and suddenly a familiar voice rang, “Ma’am? Is that really you?”

“JARVIS!” she cried out in joy, tears appearing in the corner of eyes.

“Well—shit,” Barton whispered beside her at the sudden infiltration of Stark tech in the SHIELD issued jet. “Is this in all the planes?”

Ignoring him, she listened. “We were all concerned over your safety—” JARVIS said, sounding mightily relieved for an AI.

“How’s Tony? Tell me what’s happening.”

JARVIS reported everything that’s been happening. Tennessee. The suit. A child—she had to remember to ask Tony about that. Rhodey. The—

“I’m sorry, did you just say the President of United States?” Barton yelled, as Romanoff cursed in a foreign language before stepping aside. She pulled out her phone and began barking orders at someone on the other side.

She slammed her hand against the screen again, causing Barton to jump. “JARVIS, where’s Tony now.

“He is in a container terminal with Mister Rhodes, in a rescue mission to save President Ellis.”

It was her who cursed this time. Her hands shook as she pushed her hair away from her face. It was one thing to another. Always one thing—“And his suit. The one you said is out of commission.”

“Structural integrity is still in the lower percentile and unable to sustain additional damage.”

“He’s going in there without a suit?” It was Barton this time that spoke. “Is he out of his mind?”

“SHIELD has been made aware—“Romanoff spoke to her left after finishing her call. “Agents are on their way as we speak.”

“It’s going to be too late,” she realized suddenly. She spinned, pinning her gaze at Romanoff. “Take me to him.”

“No.”

“You don’t understand—I need to be within a 100 miles of Tony’s location to activate—” she paused, glancing at the two agent’s faces. She knew it was no use arguing with them. “You’re not going to let me go, are you.”

She stepped backwards until her back hit the wall. The two agents looked at her in concern.

“Now see here, pip—” Barton said, raising his hands in a peaceful manner as if she was some rapid dog. “We need to calm down and assess the situation. You’re just a civilian and you just were freed from captivity. You’re not—”

“You’re crazy—” Romanoff said, cutting to the chase. “It is unclear whether you have been compromised after being kidnapped for so long. For all we know, your reasoning may be flawed. We need to get you to a safe house, where you can meet with some SHIELD physicians who are trained for rehabilitating captives.”

She shook her head, flickering her eyes at where she knew JARVIS’s camera was. She tapped her fingers against the wall rapidly, repeatedly.

She hoped the agents didn’t know Morse code.

But apparently, luck was never on her side, because Barton stepped forward, asking “What does ‘Amandava’ mean?”

Several things happened at once. Romanoff, whether through her days spying at Stark Industries or through her thorough knowledge of avarian vernacular, seemed to recognize the word and jumped toward her. But for once in her life, she had an advantage over the two assassins.

She had JARVIS.

“Have a nice trip, ma’am,” JARVIS mildly said, just as a panel opened up behind her. Barton reached forward, intending to grab her, but gravity pulled her past the panel and sent her flying out of the jet and into the open sky.

---

Rhodey kept his gun pointed in front of him, body tense and ready to shoot at any sign of danger. As versed he was in stealth missions such as this, he couldn’t help feel a sense of trepidation considering that the man watching his six was a civilian.

Even if he was f-ing Iron Man.

“Is your gun up?” he asked, knowing the answer. The sudden appearance of a gun in his peripheral vision almost caused him to roll his eyes.

“Yup—“Tony said, “What do I do?”

“Stay on my six,” he said, feeling like everything right now was a very bad idea. “Cover high and don’t shoot me in the back.”

“Six—” Tony repeated before he could finish his sentence, “High—back. Alright.”

Rhodey couldn’t respond back as a sudden rain of bullets fired at them. He ducked under some steel containers as Tony’s shots missed.

“Nailed it.”

“Yeah, you really killed the glass.”

“Was I aiming for the bulb? You can’t hit a bulb at this distance!”

Rhodey fired at the bulb, causing the lights illuminating them to die, and crouched back against the container. He hoped the look he gave Tony was getting through to him.

Tony babbled something but Rhodey didn’t pay much attention, too focused on checking the number of bullets in his gun.

“—and this may be worse than the time I found out my girlfriend was being impersonated by a fire demon and I—”

“Wait wait wait, HOLD up,” Rhodey said, whipping his head to look at Tony. “Did you just say that your girlfriend was being impersonated?”

“Uh huh.”

“Since when?”

“It’s been a couple of months—give or take,” Tony said sounding way too nonchalant for the bull he was spouting out of his mouth.

Rhodey couldn’t believe his ears. “All this time?”

“Yup!”

“You mean when I called her just a few days ago, it was—”

“Yuuuup.”

“I told her that everything would be ok! I called her kid! I was consoling a spy???????” Rhodey felt his ears turn warm as Tony started laughing at him. He smacked Tony’s head with his unoccupied gun.

“Ow! Injured! I’m an injured man!”

If this mission didn’t kill him, Rhodey was one hundred percent damn sure that he would die by an aneurysm.

---

Free falling was, she thought, was something she would never get used to. She had thought her original stint at flying was bad but even with the alien apocalypse happening, she could at least see.

 But the sun was setting last time she glanced out the jet’s window and now it was pitch dark. She could barely see past her nose, making her feel like she was falling through time and space with no sight of land below her.

She tried to scream, but she struggled to take a breath due to her body’s velocity. It didn’t help that her stress was causing fire to erupt from her body, making her look almost like a comet falling from the heavens to citizens down below.

She had to trust JARVIS, she knew in the back of her mind. JARVIS would take care of her. Seconds ticked by and she clenched her fists, trying to calm down before she burst into flames.  JARVIS. Come on buddy. JARVIS.

She clenched her eyes shut, unsure of how close to the ground she truly was. Her mouth was open, gasping for breath and the scream came out without her intention. “JARVISSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!”

“I must say,” JARVIS suddenly said, voice echoing all around her. She opened her eyes to find herself encased in the Amandava helmet, protected from the biting wind. “I truly dislike Ma’am and Sir’s proclivity for jumping off high objects.”

She laughed, both in exhilaration and relief, as she felt the rest of her body smoothly wrapped by the exoskeleton of the suit, “Took you long enough, J.”

“My apologies—” JARVIS replied, “I am currently running diagnostics of Mark 42.”

“Mark 4—“she gasped, flabbergasted. “How many suits did Tony build since I was gone?”

“Sir has created approximately 40 new suits since Ma’am’s absence.”

Her eyes widened in shock as she glanced over the blueprints flashing past the screen, “This is—Did Tony sleep?

JARVIS’s lack of an answer said everything. She sighed, grimacing at the strange rattling noise her chest made before making her mind up. “Say JARVIS. Do you think—is it that time?”

“…The House Party Protocol, Ma’am?”

She looked at the sky stretched miles and miles beyond her. At this height, she could even see the stars twinkling past her like shooting stars. It reminded her of the times in the Tower, where she and Tony would stand outside the veranda huddling under a single warm blanket. Tony’s arm would be around her waist, a warm hand securely holding her to his side, as they both silently watched the lights in the sky and the city simultaneously.

“It’s strange—“Tony said, voice sounding raw with an emotion she couldn’t quite place. “How something so utterly terrifying could be so beautiful.”

She didn’t know how to answer him and instead buried her face into his chest in response.

 When was the last time she saw the sky?

A sudden, deep yearning for the man spread across her heart and she swallowed. “Take me to Tony.”

“With pleasure.”

---

“If I built you a suit, would you wear it?”

She turned her torso towards Tony, lower body entangled by his long legs, and shot him a dirty look, “Is that why you had been adamantly trying to teach me how to fly?”

Tony looked dramatically affronted. She couldn’t help but feel a warm fondness spread over her body. “Is it a crime to want to keep you safe?” He asked earnestly, his sharp eyes turning misty.

“No,” she whispered in response to a shift in Tony’s mood. Tony raised his hands out, wordlessly asking for a hug. She leaned in, settling into his arms. “I’m sorry.”

Tony said nothing, content in playing with the hair that escaped her messy bun. Her eyes slowly closed, feeling at peace at the petting and felt herself slowly fall asleep.

“So…suit?”

“Hmm?” she mumbled, not hearing what Tony whispered in her ear. “Yeah—sure.”

Tony suddenly cackled, escaping the sofa in a fashion that left her tangled in a heap on the floor. “I’m going to head to the lab! You promised!”

“Wait wha—“her brain caught up with her mouth and she groaned. “ARGH. TOOOONY!”

All she heard was Tony’s cackling for the next couple of hours.

---

Tony was, in all intensive purposes, tired. Emotionally and physically. To be honest, it had been an awful couple of months. Between constantly engaging in psychological warfare with his fake imposter girlfriend to dealing with his attacks after New York, his guilt over Happy’s injuries and this endless scheme Killian concocted that placed not only him but Rhodey in danger was  getting on his last nerve. His suit wasn’t working, which—in all honesty, he was slowly starting to accept. Rhodey was there. Which was a plus in his book.

But as he stared at the legions of AIM goons ready to take him down, Tony wasn’t stupid to realize that no matter how much personal growth he undergone during these last few days, this moment was the final showdown. The last battle. The climax.

He needed his suit. There was no going around it.

“I’d kill for some armor right now,” Rhodey said, voicing his own opinion.

“You’re right,” he said, seeing something in the corner of his eye. It couldn’t…. “We need back up.”

“You know what—“he said, looking towards the night sky. Rhodey followed his gaze.

“Is that—"

“Yup.”

“Are those—” there was a look of incredulous disbelief on Rhodey’s face as the sounds of repulsors got closer and closer to the battle zone. A smirk slowly made it’s way on Tony’s face despite the blood that coagulated on his skin. His heart thumped in his chest, connecting the dots faster than his mind did.

“Yeah,” he breathed.

A legion of suits zoomed past them, encircling the battle field. There were all dressed up in golds and reds, gleaming under the dark night like stars.  A surge of relief echoed through his chest and he thumped Rhodey on the back, “Merry Christmas buddy.”

Rhodey turned towards Tony, “Did you--?”

“Nope.”

“But how?”

Tony pointed and Rhodey followed his gaze to see a lone suit slowly coming towards them. It looked different than the rest, wearing a softer red and brown scheme with gold accents on the rims. The build was smaller, seemingly built for speed rather than heavy artillery. The suit hovered to a stop a few yards ahead of them before tossing something toward the pair. Tony caught the Bluetooth device before plugging it in his ear.

“Welcome back, sir,” JARVIS’s voice said, musically in his ear.

“JARVIS,” Tony said, one eye on the hovering suit. “Target Extremis heat signatures and disable with extreme prejudice.”

“Yes, Sir,” the suits all said except for one. The suit’s helmet suddenly flipped opening, showing off a familiar, but bruised face smiling back at him.

“Kid?” Rhodey asked in recognition, eyes buggy out in shock and disbelief.

“Merry Christmas—” his girlfriend said, eyes sparkling in the moonlight.

She was the most beautiful creature in his entire life.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked, flipping her helmet back on.

Tony stepped forward, engaging the suit’s mechanics with a swish of his hands. He was smiling so hard that it hurt. “She’s right. It’s Christmas.” He raised his arms high in the air, staring at his own creations. “Take ‘em to church.”

--

“Well f—“Clint suddenly said, slapping his phone on his thigh with a groan.

“What’s wrong?” Natasha asked, glancing at the phone screen.

She spied several pictures of small birds before Clint said, “Amandava is a strawberry finch.”

Chapter Text

Things were—good, great?, no—tentatively better than she originally planned. The President was saved. Rhodey got an award and most importantly, she had time to finally talk to Tony about her little experiment during her…time away.

It only took a couple of calls to several well-known surgeons, engineers, and biologists to get her theoretical data into something that could actually work and finally, finally, Tony’s heart procedure went without a hitch.

Do you see this, Steve? She thought to herself, sitting next to Tony’s unconscious form. He hadn’t opened his eyes since he entered the operating room, but there wasn’t a smidge of worry in her mind. Healing took time, after all. I’m one step closer. One thing down.

It was a heady feeling.

Tony recovered slowly, as one would given the massive reconstruction that had to be done of his thorax and abdomen. He was adjusting to the weight that was lifted from his chest but he was still fairly weak.  Tony wasn’t young as he used to be and it was a steady process to regain the strength he had.  She had been worried that Tony would be frustrated, but he never once complained.

“Don’t look so down, dear,” he said, a weak hand on her cheek. She did her best to ignore how his fingertips trembled. “Everything will be fine. And then it’ll be your turn.”

“Mine?”

He raised a single eyebrow, glancing briefly at her clenched, glowing fist. “Did you think I forgot about you?”

She looked away, “I thought there was no way to reverse it.”

Tony mock-gasped, “Now I feel insulted.”

Once he got out of the hospital, Tony spent Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with a physical therapist. Tuesdays and Thursdays were spent seeing Dr. Helen Cho, one of the major researchers that handled his case. Saturdays were boys night out with Rhodey while Sundays were spent tinkering in his lab. But the rest of the time, every hour of every day that he was left to his devices, he spent brainstorming how to fix her.

“The thing is—“Tony said, right hand on the  pen flying across the notebook in front of them while the left kept her balanced on his lap. “It was fairly easy to stabilize the agent— easy being an understatement, of course—but reverse engineering the formula requires a taaad bit more understanding in biochemistry than I currently have.”

“So—”

“So I did some reading—”

Becoming a leading expert in biochemistry in a couple of hours was an impossible feat, and yet Tony managed to figure it out.

Her experimental procedure was planned for next week.

“And thank you, by the way, for listening. But something just about taking it of my chest—out there, in the atmosphere, instead of holding this in! I mean, this is what gets people sick!” Tony watched, amused at the sleeping Dr. Banner in front of him. Dr. Banner looked more tired than usual, dark circles radiating underneath his eyes, clothes disheveled. She briefly wondered when the last time he slept was, before seeing Tony gesture towards her.

She kissed him briefly on the cheek and whispered, “How long has he been asleep?”

“Since I started talking—” Tony said, eyes sparkling. “Figured he needed some sleep—”

“So you decided to regale him in your adventures, knowing fully well that he always ends up falling asleep on you?”

Tony smirked, not bothering to answer. “Evil—” she said, poking him on the nose.

“Evil genius,” he corrected, wrapping his arms around her waist before squeezing.

She giggled quietly, basking in his warmth for a moment before whispering, “You should wake him up though. He has a meeting with the minions in 30 minutes.”

“Right—” Tony said, before turning towards Dr. Banner a bit reluctantly, “ I had no idea you were such a good listener. To be able to—share all my intimate thoughts and experiences with someone, it just cuts the weight of it in half. You know, it’s like a snake swallowing its own tail. Everything comes in full circle.”

She nudged Dr. Banner’s shoe with her foot, causing him the drop his glasses. He startled, but Tony kept talking, “And the fact that you have been able to help me process—”

Banner stammered. Tony asked, “You with me?” and she rolled her eyes at his antics.

“Yeah-yeah, uh I was. We were at—uh—”

“You were actively napping?”

“I-I-I drifted.” Dr. Banner looked so distraught, although she couldn’t tell whether it was from falling asleep or being caught.

“Where did I lose you?”

Banner blinked, eyes darting to the left, “….Elevator in Switzerland.”

“So…” Tony looked upset, but she knew better, “You heard nothing?”

“Tony—” Banner said, looking half distraught, half amused, “How many times do I have to say this—but I’m not that type of doctor!”

---

Dr. Banner waited until he heard the door click softly closed before turning to Tony, “You didn’t ask her.”

Tony groaned, clutching a small box in his hands. The edges of the box looked scuffed, as if it had been fiddled with thousands of times. It looked like Tony had that thing for ages. By god, the man was utterly whipped. “In my defense—I don’t think this was the best time to ask.”

Banner raised an eyebrow, “ No kidding. “ He sunk further into the chair, wishing for an actual nap now that she was gone.

“10/10 for sleep acting—“Tony said, standing up and patting Banner on the shoulder.

“The things I do for you—“Banner mumbled, watching Tony leave the room. Banner settled, eyes closing blearily.

Maybe it was a good time for a nap. Except, oh shoot, he was late for his meeting…

---

She caught herself before she took a tumble to the floor. Her legs barely held her weight half the time ever since the surgery, and adding obstacles to her path was asking for a death wish. Grumbling to herself, she glanced down from her papers to see what her feet tripped over, only to see a single potato.

“Potato?”

Picking it up, she immediately spotted another potato, this time a red one, before finding that there was a trail of potatoes leading towards Tony’s lab like breadcrumbs to a gingerbread house.

Thoroughly puzzled but highly entertained, she slowly picked up the vegetables rolling on the ground until she found herself with an armful. That is, until she saw a potato flying straight towards her head, causing her to duck and immediately drop a dozen of its cousins to the floor.

“Oops! Sorry love!” Tony’s voice came closer. He helped her to her feet before giving her a small kiss.

“What in the wor—“she said, before eyeing the weapon of tubular destruction in Tony’s hand. “Is this for that Harley kid?”

Tony launched into an excited ramble about the potato launcher, listing off numbers and measurements that went completely over her head. He told her about some of Harley’s inputs—they had been keeping in touch over Tony’s personal webcam application—and from what she could tell, the kid truly had a gift for physics.

“—I’m planning on giving him a scholarship—once he’s ready to apply to college. That kid’s going to have no problem getting into MIT, but if those old hogs won’t I’m sure a little persuasion wouldn’t be amiss—“Tony said, rambling onwards. “The board has been hounding me for months now about a donation—you know how it goes—”

She laughed, “ I don’t actually—” she said, before bringing his face close for a light kiss, “But Tony, I think it’s really great how you’re helping this kid out. I would love to meet him one day.”

Tony’s face was blinding, much to her amusement.

---

She marched through the hallways, looking like she was a woman on a mission. Several agents flattened themselves against the wall, parting like the Red Sea. Several whispers followed in her wake, but she ignored them all in favor of kicking the door the Fury’s office open with a loud BANG.

“I’m back, bitc—” she yelled, intending to infuriate the one-eyed Director but stopped to the halt at the dozens of holographic eyes whipping towards her dramatic entrance. “Oh—Hello there.” She struggled to smile through her embarrassment and eyed Fury, who merely raised a single eyebrow at her. “Er—”

“Welcome Doctor,” Fury barked, condescension dripping, “What urgent matter is there to barge into the WORLD SECURITY COUNSIL meeting?”

“Ahaha—“she said, grabbing for the door behind her. “Well—I do have an urgent matter but I’m sure it can wait—” She actually didn’t have an urgent matter. Her original purpose was to somehow convince Fury to reinstate her from her “paid sick leave” so she could go back to work. He had already denied both of her requests and she figured that coming in personally would have helped her cause…

“No please, share it.” Fury was having fun at her expense, she reckoned. His eye glared at her, fully knowing exactly what she came here to do. “I’m sure the Council would love to hear this urgent matter.

Sweating, she looked towards the agents near the door, who she just realized was guarding the entrance. They looked amused, which she didn’t understanding considering that they would probably be fired for letting her through the door. Where did they even train these kids? Was the agency recruitment numbers that low to allow incompetent people to—

“Eh-hem,” Fury cleared his throat, shocking her back to reality. “Doctor? We’re waiting.”

“Ah ha—sorry sir,” she said, smiling a billion watt grin at him before turning to the Council. “I just wanted to let you know that you can pick up your prescription for erectile dysfunction in the pharma—”

“GET OUT.”

“YES SIR!”

---

If someone told her 10 years ago that she would be working in a secret government agency, she would have laughed in their face.

If someone told her 10 years ago that she would be sneaking into said workplace to steal secret information to help a terrorist alien who tried to kill her boyfriend, she would have checked their temperature and then immediately admit them into the nearest psychiatric hospital. Clear case of delusional disorder, maybe underlying schizophrenia. Call collaterals for more information…

In any case, what she was currently doing was insane. Downright crazy.

She paused, stopping in the middle of the hallway with an epiphany.

Maybe she needed to check herself into the hospital.

Must you be so dull?”

“No one asked for your opinion,” she murmured, grasping the access card she swiped from the agents guarding Fury’s office and letting herself in a deserted room.  At least, she hoped it was deserted, the guards were changing shifts now and she had a 10 minute window to get the info and leave.

“How does it feel to know you are betraying your Earth?”

“How does it feel to smashed by the Hulk?” she retorted instead, eyes searching in the darkness. For a secret spy agency, she had to admit that finding the information archives were fairly easy considering that they were all organized in a single room. Although the information she was trying to find wasn’t exactly dangerous but still wasn’t this a tad too obvious? She didn’t have any surveillance training, but who knows what people like Natasha could do in a situation like this.

Maybe I could bring it up to Fury. She thought, pressing a USB into a indistinguishable looking computer and booting it up. But exactly how I’m going to do that without making it suspicious is still up to debate.

“It is strange how a mutt’s mind works.”

She gritted her teeth, fingers flying over the keyboard. One of the first things she did after coming back to Tony was ask him to teach her how to hack. He was strangely willing.

“I just want you to be safe,” he said, unwinding the IV line in his arm to fit more comfortably next to the laptop balancing on his legs. They sat in his hospital room, trying to hack into Stark Industries as practice. “Now come here, darling, and let me teach you how to break the law.”

She wasn’t by any means up to par to Tony’s skills, but with a little help from JARVIS, she knew how to search for a specific thing.

And that specific thing involved the Scepter.

“Why do you keep calling me that?” she asked, eyeing Loki who appeared out of thin air wearing a nicely tailored black suit.

“A mutt is a mutt,” Loki said, looking utterly bored. “Even you can understand that, I’m sure.”

She rolled her eyes, deciding to ignore him in favor of reading the screen. She was already terrified of being caught as it is—she didn’t need the overdramatic alien to distract her.

“It’s not there,” she said, scrolling through the list of dangerous goods being stored in the Playground. She had heard Sitwell mention it before, saying it was some sort of SHIELD bunker used for confiscated goods. 

She quickly retraced its steps. “Looks like it was taken to a different location—” she said, copying and pasting a few pieces of code from the USB. Tony had made the code as a training exercise and she may have pilfered it into the USB for safe keeping. Sorry Tony.

“Why would Sitwell take the scepter to Sokovia?” she murmured to herself, downloading all the information into a small USB and pulling it out its slot.

“Hmmm,” Loki said, peering over her shoulder before a sinister smile appeared on his face. “Well done.”

She scowled, feeling like she was a dog. She glanced at the security cam in the far corner of the room. Loki glanced at her direction before waving his hand nonchalantly before she was ready. Cursing, she quickly stepped out and into the hallway again, seconds before the red light on the camera blinked on.

“You could have waited until I was done—“she hissed, walking quickly as her jelly legs could handle.

“And where’s the fun in that?” Loki whispered in her ear.

“Fun?” she asked, turning the corner and looking straight ahead. She passed by some windows, reflecting just her against the sunlight despite Loki trailing right beside her.  She was immediately reminded of a vampire before she said, “You got what you wanted right? I fulfilled the end of our deal. Now stop bothering me.”

Loki lunged forward and she flinched, taking a step back. He chuckled at her terrified expression, “Well, it does look like you did well. But our little deal,” he took a step forward, crowding her. “Isn’t off until that scepter is in my hands.”

He tugged on her hair almost playfully before stepping away. She took a deep breath, not knowing she had been holding it. “I’ll be seeing you around,” he said before vanishing into thin air.

F-ing hell.

Chapter Text

She munched on her salad with more force than necessary, glaring at the vegetable medley like it personally did her harm. There was a wide 6 feet radius around her that was void of other agents, who apparently would rather eat squished together in the small cafeteria seats than face her wrath. There was nervous whispers around her, while other more tactiturn agents flinched at every movement as if they were looking for any weapons—or in this case needles.

And despite the stifling unrest the cafeteria had, she didn’t notice any of it, preferring to reach deep inside her mind to figure out the tiny problem that was biting her ass.

That problem, of course, was Loki.

See, when she first accepted his deal to locate the Sceptor in exchange for help escaping from the hell hole, she had felt a little bit of guilt. It didn’t come from the fact that she was potentially leading to another terrorist attack, psssh, but the fact that Tony’s hard work would go to waste. It wasn’t her first rodeo at making deals with the devil—insert one-eyed secret agent here—but she didn’t realize how much trouble it would take to locate the damn sorry excuse of a phallic symbol.

Her first piece of information turned out to be a dump. Loki graciously told her that there seemed to be some force field or magic aura or whatever that was preventing him from locating the thing—which meant that she had to find the exact coordinates of the hidden bunker.

Except she couldn’t just give the Earth’s terrorist the location to what she knew was a plethora of highly dangerous objects, now could she? But did she have a choice in the matter?

Why couldn’t she have a normal year for once?

She understood, on some basic level, that if she was caught fraternizing with the enemy she would be feathered and flogged in front of all the crew and forced to walk the plank. Her mind helpfully pulled up an image of Fury with a parrot and a peg leg and snorted.

“So, a little Birdy told me that you’re responsible for the penis enhancing spam we’ve been getting.”

She smirked, looking more like a chipmunk than an evil genius with the cherry tomatoes stuffed in her cheeks. “I didn’t do anything.” Some junior agent must have overheard her statement to Fury the other day, and with good heart, decided to enroll Fury into a new drug trial for erectile dysfunction. Except no one really knew Fury’s email address and said junior agent ended up enrolling the entirety of SHIELD’s payrole into said trial—which was just a fake advertisement in the first place. Agents have been getting emails with pictures. She briefly opened up on to see what the fuss was about—and saw a pump. Luckily, Tony managed to fix up the problem on their end pretty quickly. SHIELD was not too lucky.

Barton swung the chair next to her, sitting on it backwards with an air of a jock in high school. “The poor boys down in tech have been doing all nighters this week trying to fix it. I heard crying once. There were expletives shouted after your name several times.” She glanced over to the agents, some who were staring at their giant cups of coffee as if it gave the answers to life’s questions while others were trying to glare in her direction between their jaw-cracking yawns. All looked like they were going to keel over any minute now. “I saw a picture of you taped to a mannequin with bullet holes in them.”

She frowned, “They need to find a healthier alternative to stress relief than murder.” Once Fury reinstalled her to her post, she should do a quick psych check and prescribe some anxiety medications if she had to…

Barton cocked an eyebrow, “You’re being entirely too calm about the fact that someone’s angry enough to kill you.”

She waved her fork, “Been there, done that.” Finishing up her salad, she turned to Barton, “So, what’s the reason for you visiting me?”

“Ah—right. You were interested in training, right?” Barton said, smiling widely. “Well-I’m free. And as your older senpai agent, I think it’s my duty to teach you the ropes.”

Ever since the surgery, she found herself weak—weaker than she usually was. She knew, from a physicians standpoint, that she should have been getting stronger, healing from the stress, but something was incredibly wrong. It almost felt like her metabolism was in hyperdrive, the cells not recognizing that they didn’t need to produce heat that the Extremis was gone from her body. She needed to build muscle if she was going to sneak around the compound.

“Lead the way, Agent Barton,” she said, standing up slowly but determined.

She was going to get through this. It was just one obstacle in front of her path.

---

“I can’t do this—“she groaned to herself, limping out the SHIELD gym and into the corridor. Barton had left 30 minutes ago saying he had a mission briefing, but not before assigning 5 more laps around the gym. She did 1 before collapsing in a heap of sweaty, spasming muscles, much to her chagrin. She wasn’t the most athletic person in the world before all of this happened, but she was fit. Her mind briefly went to the dark times, where her body was the only means of survival. She didn’t remember being this hard to exercise, but she was a few years older, one organ short, and several surgeries under her belt now.

Catching her breath, she tried to get some semblance of control over her spasming legs—which was difficult to do on a good day now. She managed to cool down on one of the benches, thinking about nothing except the thump thump thump of her heart before venturing out into the SHIELD hallways. But standing was proving to be quite a tiresome task and she just wanted to go home.

But she did come to SHIELD for a reason today.

Turning the corner, she headed straight towards the super secret information bank again, intending on digging deeper into mission ‘Where is the Scepter.’ That is, until she found herself face to face with non-other than Secretary Alexander Pierce.

“Sir!” she stammered in surprise, taking a quick step back before she collided with him. She had only seen him through pictures and promotional videos, but they didn’t quite convey how authoritarian he looked. Hello, little lady, Hello, little lady, Hello—

“Hello, doctor—“he said, smiling cordially and shaking her hand. “I saw you briefly during the Council, and I must say it’s a pleasure to see you in person.”

At least he wasn’t bald, she thought to herself.  “I apologize for barging in there.”

“No need to apologize. I had a good chuckle.” He said, clasping his hands together. “I have to say that it’s not often I get to see Nick look that surprised.”

“Are you good friends with the director?” she asked, considering that they were on first-name business.

Pierce chuckled, “That boy wouldn’t have been a director if it wasn’t for me.” His eyes never looked away from hers. It would have been flattering, to get that much attention from a powerful man, if it wasn’t uncomfortable. “Good things happen to people who impress me. Such as you doctor.”

“Me?”

“Yes—I have seen your work with Captain America—most impressive if I do say so myself. Your insight to his mental state even before meeting him was truly impressive.”

Insight to his mental state? “Are you referring to my refusal to work with the director when St-the Captain was defrosted?”

“Precisely.”

What a strange way to word good morals. She shrugged. “I was just doing what was right, sir.”

“What is right, you say. ”Pierce hummed thoughtfully,  before clasping her on her shoulder. His hand felt uncomfortably warm and she stopped to urge to shrug it off. “Doctor, I have a proposition for you.”

“A proposition—”

“I have a project underwraps. Top secret, only a few, selective agents are aware of the situation. I have been looking for a good doctor and you seem to have the qualifications I need. Would you be interested in joining in?”

She pasued, thinking back on the conversation they had. She hesitantly asked, “By qualifications—you aren’t suggesting a project similar to the situation in which the Captain was in.”

Pierce’s gaze shifted and his grip tightened for a fraction of a second, “My, how perceptive you are.”

“Comes with the job, I’m afraid,” she gritted out, defiantly feeling uncomfortable.

“The answer is yes. It is a very similar job but I cannot say more until you agree. Will you, doctor?”

There were several things swirling in her mind. Whatever this project was—something was amiss. With everything that she went through, her instincts for trouble had sharpened. And something about this situation screamed trouble.

Oh, god, she was sounding like Tony.

“Why me?” she asked hesitantly, fishing for more information. “There were several physicians that were working on the project other than myself—those who actually took care of the logistics in waking the Captain up. Wouldn’t they a better option?”

“I’m afraid that the others were—indisposed.” Pierce said, with a strange intonation. Alarm bells rang in her head. “It seems that you are the only physician available to do the job.”

Look, this was the 3rd time some strange, white man in a suit propositioned to her about some strange project or another. She was sick but she wasn’t stupid. She wasn’t going to get herself kidnapped this time.

“I will help—” she said, shaking Pierce’s hand.

She couldn’t get kidnapped if she went willingly.

---

“Why did I agree to come to this?” she asked, smiling banaly at the flashing lights bursting from the various cameras in the entranceway. The hotel hosting the MariaStark Foundation annual charity ball looked gorgeous as always, not that she could see past the blinding paparazzi. She had always seen the fanfare in the comfort of her bedroom, downing shots whenever someone fainted in Tony’s presence. Back when Tony was in his prime, she had counted 21 shots of tequilla before she woke up the next day with a pounding migraine.

“Because you love me, darling,” Tony said, waving in a random direction before increasing his pace.

She rolled her eyes, “Unfortunately.”

Tony glanced at her in amusement, “Don’t make me pick you up and carry you the rest of the way. I’m sure the cameras would love that.”

She glared, “You wouldn’t dare.”

Before Tony could reply, a screaming teenager broke through the masses, prostrating herself in front of Tony, “HAVE MY BABIES TONY STARK!”

“Oh dear—“she muttered as Tony flashed the fan a grin, causing the kid to topple to the floor in a dead faint. Several guards carried the moaning girl away, and they continued on their way.  “That’s one.”

Tony glanced at her concerned as they reached the entrance of the hotel. “Try not to get too drunk—”

She eyed one of the waiters do a double take, registering Tony’s face, before stumbling and hitting his head against the table. Sighing loudly, she reached over to check for his pulse before waving over another waiter for help. “At this rate, I won’t make it past an hour.”

Tony laughed before pulling her towards the bar.  “I’ll get your two shots.”

She spotted another woman in the corner of her eye fall into the crowd. “Make that three.”