You're Living in the Past (It's a New Generation)
- Sinope -
This story is interwoven with bessyboo's amazing podfic, Definitely Not Toni Stark's Voice Diary
. You can follow that link to listen to the whole voice diary at once, or you can read and listen as you go; each segment is embedded as streaming audio, with its transcription below it.
First and foremost, many thanks to bessyboo, who created the original podfic, broke it up and made it streaming, created the stunningly awesome cover art, and provided lots of Toni Stark discussion/feedback/characterization.
Second, thanks to the RBB mods for their patience (RL came down on my head at the last minute, and I'm grateful they were so kind about letting me post late), and to the other RBB authors and artists for creating such lovely works and commiserating with me during the long period of "oh god why do I sign up for fic festivals?"
Finally, thanks to #feelschat for their boundless support, cheerleading, and betaing, and to marmolita in particular for excellent beta help throughout the process. I heart you all.Toni:
Hey, JARVIS, run playback on voice log, subroutine "recent".JARVIS:
What? Oh, right, fucking Fury, what did I—oh. [chuckles] Right. [clears throat] F 6 8 6 1 6 3 6 B U 7 4 6 8 6 9 7 3 C 4 6 7 5 7 2 7 9 K.JARVIS:
Password accepted. Running playback.
They've given him a room without a view. Thirty-second floor, overlooking a brick wall filled with windows whose blinds are always closed. The north-facing window is broad and does not open; he tries not to read too much symbolism into the fact.
They've given him a laptop and a key card. Sharon, the young woman who impersonated a nurse, showed him how to use the key card: slide it through the slot inside the elevator, then push the floor number you want to access. His card lets him into a gym, a small cafeteria, a floor full of offices that include Sharon's office. She explains that his existence is still classified, so they'd prefer he stayed under the radar, but they can get him anything he needs.
She doesn't point out that his key card doesn't let him onto the ground floor. She doesn't need to.
She shows him how to use the laptop: where to turn it on, how to keep it powered, how to slide his finger over the trackpad to change things on the screen. "It's already set up for internet access," she says, without remembering to tell him what or where an internet is. "I need to go now, but I'll check back in with you this evening."
The screen has a picture of something labeled "Internet Explorer," which seems like a good start.
Half an hour later, he's learned the meaning of "internet," "Google," and "Wikipedia." By the time Sharon knocks on his door to escort him to dinner, he's read the obituaries for all the Howling Commandos, reviewed the major world events of the past seventy years, and studied up on the current state of the U.S. military and its global conflicts.
He finds he doesn't have much appetite.
Time stamp 10 41 04 26 2012.Toni:
Double-check beta-voltaic conversion calculations.
By his third morning of his stay with SHIELD, Steve's contemplating asking Sharon if he can meet his parole committee. They've provided for all his needs, yes -- a gym for his body, a computer for his mind, a sketchbook for his hands -- except the need to feel of any use. What's more, the more he learns about the modern world, the less certain he feels that another Captain would do any good.
"We've got a visitor coming today," Sharon tells him over breakfast. (She doesn't escort him to meals any more, but she's still there each time he eats a meal, making him wonder whether they're watching him inside his room or just when he leaves it. Clever, that -- making him feel like his own prison guard.)
"Oh?" he asks, raising an eyebrow, and bites into his toast.
Steve's hand stills. He's read about Toni, of course -- Howard's daughter, and a news-making figure in her own right. "Iron Woman?"
Sharon shoots him the quick, startled look that appears every time he surprises her with his knowledge of the modern world. "Yes, exactly. We know you were close with her father, so she'll almost be a familiar face. Plus, she's the closest thing that America has right now to -- well, someone like you."
"Nice of you to bring her in," Steve nods. Judging by the stories he's read, Toni Stark is no pawn of SHIELD; he's unsure what purpose introducing her has for them. "What time?"
"As soon as we head upstairs," Sharon says. She flashes a quick grin, a rare natural expression. "I think that Director Fury didn't want to give you a chance to be biased by some of the stories about her, but it sounds like we're too late there."
"Trust me, I've learned first-hand not to let newspaper stories dictate the measure of a man. Or, ah, a woman." Steve tries not to blush; seventy years later, and he's still hopeless where women are concerned.
"I got it."
Five minutes later, they're stepping onto a floor that Steve's keycard doesn't access. It's nice here, thick carpets and soft lighting, like a fancy hotel. Sharon catches him taking in the decorations and shakes her head ruefully. "We like to call this the Diplomacy Floor. It's for when we need to meet with people -- government officials, industry leaders, foreign representatives -- who won't be impressed by cubicles. Last time, Toni spent the whole meeting grumbling about the coffee we gave her, so Fury sent her this time to the floor with a real Italian espresso machine."
"Ah." Howard Stark wasn't the type to complain about wartime accommodations, but apparently he got awfully rich after the war (or during it -- there's a whole "Controversy" section on Wikipedia about wartime profiteering). Toni was probably born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Steve supposes.
But then they're stepping into a conference room, and it's occupied by a petite woman leaning back in a leather chair, propping up her legs on the hardwood conference table. One ankle's crossed over the other, showing off a stunning pair of flame-red high-heeled shoes. "Oh my god, you are gorgeous
," she mutters, then kicks her legs off and repositions herself with elbows on the table, leaning forward to reveal a glowing disc framed by an impressive amount of bosom. "Toni Stark, and it is such
a pleasure to meet you. I'd say I'm a fan of your saving-the-world-from-Nazis routine, which I am, but at the moment I'm mostly a fan of those pretty pectorals."
And that's how Steve Rogers meets Toni Stark.
Time stamp 21 03 04 27 2012.Toni:
So, I met Captain America today. That
was interesting. [pause] You know what, I bet he's just used to all those wartime gals just falling all over themselves—[scoffs] probably. [pause] Yeah, 'cause, you—you know what? Yeah, I'm—I'm a girl. Yeah, and let's—let's be honest here, I'm smarter than him. And I'm not afraid to make the first move. And oooh, I have boobs: scary! And, okay, I mean, yeah, maybe that "pretty pectorals" line was a little much, but—[scoffs] whatever, did he have to be such a self-righteous prick about it? God, and "ooh, you're quite a dame"—like, what the fuck does that mean, seriously? [scoffs] God, and then he had to bring Dad into it. Gross. Whatever. Sorry, ladies: Captain America, kind of a douchebag! [scoffs] I'm over it. I'm gonna go take a shower, wash the stink of self-righteousness off.
"So, that went ... well," Sharon says afterwards. She's lying through her teeth, and both of them know it.
Steve looks down at his hands. "You have to know how amazing her father was. One of the greatest men I knew. He'd get these ideas for innovating things, and he'd light up like a firecracker and fly off just as fast to his tool bench. I'm sure," Steve says, even though he isn't, "that some of that passed on to her."
Sharon gives him an odd look then, her eyes distant and soft. "Sometimes children just don't live up to their parents."
Time stamp 21 18 04 27 2012.Toni:
[noise of shower in background] You know, growing up with all those stories about him, like, it really—god. This sounds so fucking—whatever. But, like, it's kind of disappointing that he doesn't, you know, live up to all those great stories that Dad had. Which, you know, [scoffs] but like—you know. I think Dad always wanted a son who was...more like him and less like me. That's what I got out of those stories, anyway. [pause] You know what did live up to the, uh, the stories, though? Those pectorals were pretty great.
When Steve gets back to his room, he's still hearing the echo of Toni's voice in his head. They've got you living here, right? Private room of your own and everything? Because don't get me wrong, this room is comfy, but a body like yours just begs to be experienced first-hand, and Agent here is killing the vibe.
It didn't take much deciphering to figure out that Toni was suggesting a sexual encounter. Between post-show autographs and European brothels, Steve's encountered his share of dames interested in that, though none of them were the kind of lady that regularly made the front page of the Times.
(Until Peggy, it had been easy to turn them down. Easy, because he knew he was broken, in a way that the Serum hadn't fixed.)
Steve looks out his window, catching movement in the corner of his eye, and he watches a cluster of pigeons swoop up past the rows of closed blinds. Peggy had done everything perfectly -- shot like a sniper, punched like a boxer, given orders like a colonel, filled out a dress like a dancer -- because her life walked a tightrope that left no room for weakness.
Toni Stark clothes herself in curves and innuendo and feminine weakness, then strikes with a stiletto of jaded scientific criticism. Steve doesn't think they made women like her in his time.
(Maybe if they had, it would've made things easier.)
Time stamp 21 23 04 27 2012.Toni:
Oh my God, did Dad want to sleep with him too? Gross! No! Ew! [pause] Wait, wait, strike that "too", no, I didn't—I didn't say that, I didn't—I didn't—fuck
The words had practically tumbled out of Steve's mouth, like bullets at the gentlest squeeze of the trigger. Sounds like you've got as much spunk as your old man did.
Her face had hardened at that, cold as her metal namesake. A quick pulse of fear had shot through Steve, that she'd somehow figured out -- but no. Even if she knew somehow, that sort of thing was fine now, the newspapers said. Normal, even if some folks weren't happy about it.
"Spunk." As Steve remembers it, it's only a week since Howard last invited Steve to his workshop to "tinker with his shield" -- a week, and seventy years -- but that had been over a year since their first ... encounter. Steve had blushed and then laughed when Howard suggested it, in his usual brash way; there was no weakness in his voice and no hesitation. As if Howard were unashamed.
He'd realized later that Howard didn't like hesitation in his life; he preferred observation, calculation, and direct action. Steve supposed the looks he'd been giving Howard hadn't been subtle.
Steve had loved Howard the way he loved his Howling Commandos: a love that would lay down his life for them. He loved Howard most when his mask of cynical authority dropped for a few moments, and underneath it, Steve could see a boy who wanted to be the greatest man in the world, but wondered whether he was good enough to deserve it.
(Steve never doubted it.)
The thing that hurts most, if Steve ever manages to accept that everyone is long dead, is that his body forgot its memories during its long sleep. He knows that Peggy had kissed him, hard and urgent, but his lips feel untouched. He remembers that half hour in Howard's workshop last week (last week, and seventy years ago) -- remembers that Howard had ground against Steve's clothed thigh with a restless longing that he never explained, had spilled himself onto Steve's palm and shuddered hungrily when Steve licked his hand clean -- but Steve can't recall the way that Howard had tasted.
Steve takes himself in hand that night and, as usual, does not think of Howard or Peggy or Bucky. He tries thinking of Toni instead, tries to capture the memory of how her lips had curled when she made her offer, and the memory feels muddled and false. Eventually, Steve comes -- the memory of those scarlet high heels, the imagined touch of one milky bare foot caressing the underside of his dick -- and falls into unsatisfying dreams.
Time stamp 08 46 04 28 2012.Toni:
Don't forget, meeting with Rhodey at three. So, show up at four. [pause] Make that four thirty.
Steve asks Sharon, the next day, if he could visit the New York Public Library. She looks at him blankly for a moment. "Oh! You want me to arrange a tour of the city, so you can see the sights?"
He isn't sure whether to stare or to laugh. "I was hoping to read some books, actually." He'll admit to himself that there's some nostalgia there, too -- he and Bucky didn't get up to Midtown much, but Steve always loved visiting the Lion Library -- but mostly he's getting sick of the witticisms and unsubstantiated summaries that seem to characterize information on the Internet.
"Of course you were," she says, her smile fond and a bit patronizing. "Checking out books will be tricky, since we're still working on a legal identity for you, but I'll see about a trip to Barnes and Noble or something. A bookstore," she adds when Steve tilts his head at the name.
"Sure," he smiles. "That sounds great."
Two junior agents knock on his door that afternoon, both male, both starstruck. Dan, the one with thick-rimmed glasses that don't hide the sweep of his eyes over Steve's body, explains that they're here to escort Steve to a bookstore, but "Barnes and Noble is a faceless corporate sell-out staffed by idiots," so they're going to "take the N down to Union Square and show you around the Strand."
Steve can't keep the grin off his face at the sound of directions he knows. "I remember the Strand! So Book Row is still around?"
The agents glance at each other. "I'm pretty sure that the Strand is all that's left, actually," the second one -- Matt -- says, and winces. "First the big chains moved in, and then everyone started buying books online, when they were buying them at all."
"Uh, by 'online,' he means --" Dan begins, and Steve cuts him off.
"Yeah, I got it." The delight of familiarity feels more muted, but he's resolved to enjoy this parole he's been given. "Let's get going, then."
The subway still smells of piss and creaks with human bodies, even if it takes bright yellow cards instead of nickel tokens. So, too, the Strand: books these days gleam with shiny covers and neon titles, but the intent faces of their readers haven't changed.
Steve browses the store at a leisurely pace, flagged by his minders (who are clearly making an effort not to be distracted by the odd rare title). He skims through the fiction section briefly, grabbing a couple of anthologies by names familiar from Astounding Science Fiction
-- Asimov, Heinlein -- but spends most of his time in non-fiction, asking for recommendations but flipping through the books to see if they're worth the price.
In the end, Steve emerges with a couple of books on twentieth-century history and a military history that runs up through America's present conflicts. Thinking of Howard and Toni, he picks up an introduction to modern engineering; at Dan and Matt's suggestion, he adds something about public policy called Freakonomics
, and a book filled with political cartoons called A People's History of American Empire
. ("It's by a Brooklyn kid who grew up in the Great Depression and tried to save the world," Dan says. "You'll love it." Matt shoots him a piercing glare, which Dan blithely ignores.)
Steve returns to SHIELD with a heavy bag and an itch for the feel of pages between his fingers. Fresh books were hard to come by, once he left New York, and the prospect of an evening with nothing to do but read feels like luxury incarnate.
He starts with the cartoon book, because he's curious about the warning behind Matt's glare.
A few hours later, he ends up in the basement gym, hitting a punching bag until he knocks it from its chain. He wonders if America learned a single thing in seventy years.
Time stamp 14 37 04 30 2012.Toni:
Tell Pepper I have decided that black olives are gross, and they should never be on pizza again ever.
Steve gets a knock on his door two days later, right as his stomach's starting to remind him about lunchtime. He opens it to see Toni Stark -- white blouse, form-hugging black slacks, gold high heels -- and a black man with a colonel's rank. Steve straightens into a firm salute, which the man returns. Toni rolls her eyes. "Rhodey, meet your idol. Cap, this is Rhodey. He flies a metal suit that he stole from me, and he's been giddy as a schoolgirl ever since I accidentally mentioned meeting you. I'm sure you'll be bee-eff-effs in no time."
Rhodey's face hardens into a taut I'm-going-to-kill-you-later
smile; Steve likes him already. "It's a genuine honor," Rhodey says.
"You'll get over it," Toni mutters. Steve tries not to let the comment sting; antipathy is better than sexual come-ons, he supposes. "So!" Toni continues, "Fury tells me you're going stir-crazy, and Rhodey's way better than me at the whole military-decorum thing you love, so you're coming to lunch with us. If you want pizza that's better than the crap they serve in the cafeteria, that is."
After two years of Army rations, Steve's not about to call the food here "crap," but he's not going to turn down conversation with someone new, even if it does involve Toni Stark. "Lead the way," he says.
(Toni's keycard lets her onto the ground floor without hesitation. Steve tries not to resent this.)
They take the subway up to Harlem, where Toni ushers Steve to a restaurant called Patsy's Pizzeria, "founded in 1933." The casual way she mentions this, paired with a flicker of eagerness in her eyes, tells Steve that she made an effort to find somewhere familiar, so he doesn't have the heart to tell her that he never spent much time in Italian Harlem before.
"So, Capsicle, how do you like it?" Toni smirks, adding just a hint of innuendo to her voice.
Steve skims his eyes down the long list of toppings; at least most of them are recognizable. "Uh. Pepperoni's pretty good?" At least, it's the better option in the SHIELD cafeteria.
Toni raises both her eyebrows. "Seriously? God, could you be more white-bread? I mean, I know that they probably hadn't invented Hawaiian pizzas in the 40's, but --"
"I never had pizza in the forties," Steve interrupts flatly.
"-- you could at least -- what?" Toni stops talking and looks at him, looking honestly confused. "But. Pizza.
Next thing you'll tell me that you didn't have baseball or apple pie."
"My ma made the world's best apple pie, and I went to every Dodgers game I could afford. I just didn't grow up eating much ... ethnic food, that's all."Sotto voce
, Toni whispers to Rhodey, "Do not
tell him about the Dodgers. I won't be held responsible for Captain America's head exploding." She turns back to Steve cheerfully. "Right then. Pepperoni is vetoed. Rhodey, any better suggestions?"
Rhodey shrugs, clearly adept at steering around the whirlwind that is Toni. "I like black olives, myself. Or plain; nothing wrong with the classics."
"God, you're all fired," Toni sighs dramatically. "Fine, black olive it is."
The conversation starts with some awkward but well-intentioned questions from Rhodey about Steve's wartime experiences, before segueing (inevitably, Steve suspects) to Toni's latest Iron Woman project, something about magnetic bracelets and remote activation. Steve finds himself liking Rhodey -- unhesitating and strategically-minded, he'd probably fit right in with the Howling Commandos -- and he can't help contrasting Rhodey's level-headedness with Toni's tendency to leap recklessly between subjects and ideas. All of Howard's brilliance, Steve thinks, but none of his follow-through.
Their pizza arrives, so hot that the cheese practically drips, and Rhodey demonstrates how to eat it "like a New Yorker," by hand and folded in half. Despite the initial mouth-searing temperature, it's pretty good: tangy tomato, greasy cheese, and mellow olives, all enfolded in soft dough with a hint of char. Steve finishes off two large slices, then pauses to suck the grease and tomato sauce off his fingers, one by one.
He looks up to find Toni watching him as hungrily as if he were the pizza and she hadn't eaten in weeks. "Don't stop the show on my account," she smirks, then tilts her head. "Hey, Rhodey, interested in a three-way? Because I bet he'd look even better sucking on --"
" Rhodey says in a steely tone, then exhales a half sigh. "Captain, I apologize."
"No need," Steve says. "I've gotten used to Miss Stark's disregard for the preferences of the people around her." He hears his voice turn sharp despite himself; he's always hated losing control of his temper, but something about Toni draws out all his fighting instincts.
Toni's face twists, but her voice doesn't waver, not even a little. "What the hell, Captain Morality. If you were so disgusted by the fact that I like sex, you could've told me to stop."
"Please," Steve snaps. "You're happy to humiliate your best friend in front of me, just to get under my skin, so why should I trust you to do anything I ask?" Toni's eyes are blazing now, and she opens her mouth to respond, but Steve cuts her off. "There's nothing wrong with 'liking sex.' God knows your father did, and I never had a problem with it. What disgusts me is someone born with all the privileges that Howard never got, who spends half her energy trying to convince the world that she's some kind of trollop."
"I will not let you make me ashamed of the fact that I get more pussy than you ever will," Toni says, practically shouting. Her hands clench the end of the table, knuckles white.
Silence follows -- not just at their table, but throughout Patsy's. In the quiet that echoes, Steve can hear the click of a camera.
Toni looks down at her half-eaten slice of pizza and pushes the plate away. "I really hate olives," she mutters.
Tasting the bitter aftertaste on his tongue, Steve can't help but agree.
Time stamp 17 55 05 02 2012Toni:
All right. Tonight's the night. I'm going to install the arc reactor for Stark Tower, eee! So, assuming I calculated the beta-voltaic conversion correctly—and let's face it, I'm me, so I did—I estimate a 99% chance of success. There's a .5% of abysmal failure, and .5% chance of minor technical malfunctions that'll cost me a fortune in remedial R&D and wind up being a five-minute fix. But the preliminary tests have all been successful. There's only so much you can do in the NYU swimming pool, though. Also, it's a good chance to test out the rebreather upgrades in the suit, which I've been meaning to anyway, so. Oh, Pep's home! [sound of door opening] Hey Pep!Pepper:
[in background] Hi, Toni.Toni:
Did you pick up my palladium shipment?Pepper:
[in background] Uh, yeah, it's in the warehouse.Toni:
You're the best! She really is the best, you know. This was basically all her idea. Well, okay, technically
it was my idea. But it was inspired by her! Seriously, now that it's legal in New York, one of these days I'm actually going to succeed in convincing her to marry me, and then all of her brilliant ideas will legally be half mine! [maniacal giggle]Pepper:
[shouted in background] I'm still straight, Toni.Toni:
I know, it's one of the tragedies of my life. [mock sigh] Anyway, let's get this sucker lit!
The evening that the New York Times website is headlining updates about the unexpectedly early conversion of Stark Tower to a new clean energy source, Steve closes his laptop and heads down to the gym. He doesn't need to read about Miss Stark's new monument to herself.
The gym's punching bags aren't strong enough for him, but the equipment manager he spoke to said that they were the best they had, "professional strength." In the end, they came to an agreement: Steve would get the punching bags that had grown dingy from the other agents' training. (Wherever it takes place, it's not the empty, yellowed gym that his keycard takes him to, decorated as a falsely nostalgic counterpart to the white room they woke him up in.) He lines up a row of bags on the floor, hooks the first one up, and lets his body remember.
The bag thumps with every punch, and he hears each thump as a syllable: dead
. Bucky, Howard, Peggy, Dum-Dum, Gabe, Jim, every face he ever knew. The sweat-stained bag feels like a metaphor, the way it keeps reverberating with the impacts -- dead
. -- while Steve's knuckles stay fresh. Steve hates this gym with its artificially aged walls, and he hates the computers that serve up knowledge without asking its price, and he hates this world that values slender legs in red stilettos over the red stain of sacrifice.
Steve hates the way that the punching bag's thuds echo off the gym walls and bounce back to him, never penetrating a single other human.
When Nick Fury comes to him, later that night, and asks him to save the world, Steve agrees. Not just because the Tesseract is his responsibility, and not just because he's suffocating in SHIELD's coddling embrace, but because he's met Toni Stark. He's seen the best that this century has to offer, dolled up in impenetrable sunglasses and a lipstick-stained grin, and he knows that this world isn't going to save itself.
Time stamp 21 19 05 02 2012.Toni:
Ugh. Really, Coulson? Thanks a lot, Pepper, geez. This is going to be just like when I pulled all-nighters in college, god. [sigh] Well, if it's gonna be like college—[sound of tinkling ice and pouring drinks] [happy sigh] Aw, yeah, that's the stuff.
Waiting on Steve's kitchen table is a large yellow packet with a button string closure, so familiar that he almost laughs. The three-ring binder tucked within has neatly printed tabs marking sections from "BRUCE BANNER" to "ASGARD." Toni's in there, which doesn't surprise Steve and does annoy him, and the final third of the folder is marked simply as "SCIENCE," with a title page labeling it as "Background Scientific Data on 'Blue Energy' and the Tesseract (Probably Unintelligible Without a PhD or Five)."
Steve would be more annoyed about the unprofessionalism of the labeling (who has SHIELD been hiring, anyway?) if it weren't entirely accurate; he flips through the science section for ten minutes before realizing it would make just as much sense to him if it were written in ancient Mayan.
The other sections are far more accessible. As he reads through each asset's profile, realizing how different this assortment of talented loners is from the trained military men on his old team, he finds himself planning out the best approach for each person. Black Widow (and Hawkeye, if they can get him back) are SHIELD-trained and shouldn't pose much trouble, though they do indicate a preference for solo ops. Banner's recent experiences as a fugitive will have made him skittish, particularly toward any military-affiliated figures, but his history shows a persistent altruism and intellectual drive, if Steve can tap into them. Thor and Loki are wild cards, pure and simple, though the profile does attribute a useful sense of warrior's honor to the former.
Then there's Toni. Steve saves her profile for last, and not just because he wants to avoid seeing a photo of her cocky smile. He reads through the assessment written by Black Widow (whom he's liking more by the minute): "Toni Stark, Not Recommended." He reads the uncensored story of her transformation into Iron Woman, wincing hard when he discovers just how personally she'd been betrayed. Suddenly, the section under Significant Relationships -- other than friendships with her personal assistant, her chauffeur, and Rhodey, she's literally never been in a relationship for longer than two months -- reads less like reckless promiscuity and more like a fear of having someone new to lose.
("Stop being so damned patronizing,"
Peggy's voice says in his head. "She's gotten along this far without having a man to hold her up, and her personal life shouldn't affect how she works with the team."
Steve winces to himself and resolves to treat Toni with the respect he gave Peggy, even if it feels like she only deserves a tenth of it.)
By this point, the faint purple of dawn has begun to infiltrate the courtyard out the window. Steve falls asleep with his cheek on Toni's photo, still empty on ideas for what to do about her.
Time stamp 04 42 05 03 2012.Toni:
[slurred voice] You know, it really is a—it's so sad that Pepper's straight. Like—like, I just, I love her so much, and sometimes I worry that—that I'll never find somebody who cares about me like she does...who also
wants to have sex with me. Life is unfair. [indistinct sad noise] I should've made you a human body, JARVIS. I should get on that. [sigh] [silence]JARVIS:
Should I call Ms. Potts to escort you to bed, ma'am?Toni:
No, no it's okay, JARVIS, I'm fine here—I'm fine. [mumbled] I'm just fine.
Steve has always dreamed on the eve of battle.
Sometimes he dreamed of the coming day. He envisioned everything that could go wrong -- locations compromised, maps forgotten, numbers overwhelmed -- and he awoke resolved to strengthen his contingency plans. Men died in those dreams, sometimes. (The moment that Bucky fell, Steve nearly let go and fell after him -- not out of reckless nihilism, but because Bucky's death meant it was a dream, it had
to be, and all Steve wanted was to hurry up and wake.)
Sometimes he dreamed of a peaceful escape: singing drinking songs with his Howling Commandos in a warm pub, or taking Peggy to the movies, or watching the ocean winds whip through Bucky's hair at Coney Island. Those used to be his favorite dreams. They gave him the hope to get through the grime and gore of warfare, promising a better future.
Tonight, he dreams of Hydra tanks rolling through Central Park. He battles the troops, flushed with adrenaline; at his side, Iron Woman fires pure white energy to counter the enemy's unnatural blue bolts.
They win, somehow, impossibly. Amidst the smoking debris, Iron Woman presses Steve up against the wall of Belvedere Castle. Her exaggerated metal breasts press into his chest uncomfortably. She tilts her head, as if to kiss him, and her helmet vanishes the moment before their lips touch. Steve kisses her for several moments, feeling his hips framed by her steel-armored thighs, before he notices the mustache tickling at his skin. When he pulls away, Iron Woman wears the face of Howard Stark.
Steve wakes up adrenaline-tense, aroused, and aching with loneliness.
Time stamp 11 14 05 03 2012.Toni:
Get more Thermite.
Scant hours after Steve falls asleep, a new SHIELD agent meets him at his door. This one's older than most of the others, his cordial smile so perfect that it's soothing despite Steve's better instincts. "Agent Coulson," the man says, extending his hand. "I'm here to escort you to SHIELD's mobile base."
Steve shakes his hand, while noting that everything about this man exudes a level of competence beyond a mere escort. "I'm looking forward to seeing it."
Coulson brings him up to the rooftop, where an aircraft -- looks like a plane, even though there's no runway here, and it stands to reason that aeronautics made some improvements in 70 years -- waits for them to board. They're the plane's only passengers, which surprises Steve not at all.
As they lift up from the skyscraper, Steve can't keep himself away from the front of the plane, where he watches New York spread itself out below them like nothing he's ever seen, familiar home and overwhelming metropolis all at once. Morning light gleams off the windows of skyscrapers, and bright flickers of advertisements break up the silver-grey of mirrors and steel. "Wow," Steve breathes out softly. The Brooklyn Bridge looks like a toy model.
When Steve glances back, Coulson has a piece of dark glass displaying videos resting in his lap, but his eyes watch Steve. There's something soft and defenseless about them, something utterly unlike the suave Special Agent who'd brought Steve here.
Their eyes meet. Steve thinks he sees a question in Coulson's expression, but he's so uncertain of this century that he doesn't want to presume. In a world where a guy can ask another guy out without risk, does a flicker of the eye imply as much? It's questions like these that Sharon and the Internet can't quite solve. Toni, Steve thinks suddenly, would certainly know the answer, but she'd probably start taking even more liberties as soon as Steve asked.
The silence is pushing into the territory of awkwardness, so Steve looks back down at Coulson's computer. The video it's displaying, of a fire-breathing suit of armor that Steve recognizes from photographs of the Puente Antiguo incident, definitely wasn't on YouTube. "That's the Destroyer, right?" Steve asks.
"Ah, yes," Coulson says after a beat. "Just reviewing the footage we have of some of the team members."
"Mind if I take a look?" Steve asks. "They only gave me a paper packet, and I'd like to see them in action."
Coulson's eyes widen just a hair. "Sure! Sure, absolutely. Do you know how to use one of these?"
Steve gives him a half-smile. "I'm pretty sure I can figure it out." He leans forward, lets his fingertips barely brush against Coulson's as he takes the display, just to gauge a reaction. Coulson starts at the touch, practically jerking back as he offers Steve the seat and moves to the other side of the plane.
Not deliberate signals, then. Steve looks down at the moving pictures in his hands, metal and glass cold under his fingertips, and he focuses back on the puzzle of how to make five solo operatives into a coherent team.
Time stamp 23 08 05 03 2012.Toni:
Repair Mark V, left boot repulsor.
Loki's got Steve down on the ground, radiating with a strength that reminds Steve all too closely of Red Skull. He's looking frantically for a weak point in Loki's defenses, when a blast of loud, cacophonous music erupts from his radio earpiece. A throaty woman's voice sings "I don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation! You're living in the past; it's a new generation.
With a mixture of frustration, resignation, and relief, Steve knows before the first blast of white energy that Iron Woman's on the scene. He doesn't get a good look at her, though, until Loki's down and the Iron Woman suit is bristling with missiles.
She's stunning. Her armor gleams in the precise shades of red and gold as her high-heeled shoes had, and it wraps around her form in curves perfectly suspended between symmetry and sensuality. He wants to run his hands over her armor with an urgency that women's cloth-clad bodies have never inspired.
Steve's glad for the cowl obscuring his blushing cheeks. "Miss Stark," he says politely.
He can't see her expression behind the mask, but he's certain that she's smirking. "Steve. Missed me?"
Time stamp 09 50 05 04 2012.Toni:
So don't invert the thermo-isorotation mid-desaturation, and um, let's adjust the spin ratio by, ah, 2/27ths of a microsecond per unit of gamma radiation. [pause] Hmmm, JARVIS, can you cross-reference all signs of proton exchange greater than 100 per unit?JARVIS:
Certainly. Cross-referencing now.Toni:
Perfect, thanks. God damn, remind me to "upgrade" all SHIELD computers to Internet Explorer. This equipment is a joke; what's with all the shitty StarkTech knock-offs? And, while we're on it, does Fury have an order out to babysit
me?! Seriously, I'm pretty sure those interns aren't actually here to drop off equipment. They're fucking checking up on me every half hour; it's like grad school all over again! "Yes, Stark is going to break the lab equipment with her vagina, yup!" [scoff] Neanderthals. And, speaking of Neanderthals, Thor: what is his deal? Like, I understand, intellectually, that he's basically an alien god. But, oh my god, I'm pretty sure his bicep is larger than my neck, Jesus Christ. And it's not like this little group is short on huge dudes; I mean, Captain Douchebag has some muscles on him, there's no denying that. And if I can get Banner to let the other guy come out and play, [laughs] man, I mean, talk about huge, I've seen the footage of him—Bruce:
[in background] Stark, were you talking to me?Toni:
Oh! Banner! Right. Uh. No, buddy, hey, uhm, [walking away] have you tried reversing the polarity of the—Bruce:
[in background] That never works.
The first time that Toni really reminds Steve of Howard is when he watches her in the lab. She's confident in a way that has nothing to do with showboating or territorialism -- like a fish released into a river, or a bird set loose under open sky. Steve finds himself almost jealous of how easily she interacts with Bruce; she flirts and prods and flatters, but all in a casual way that shouts out I'm safe with you
Watching her in her element, happy and devastatingly competent, makes Steve miss Howard so much it's like a kick to the stomach. He remembers watching Howard with the British scientists who assumed he was more businessman than engineer; Howard had just grinned, improved the efficiency of their current project, and invited Steve over that evening. Up in Howard's London apartment, Howard straddled and rode him, cocky as John Wayne, and said afterward, "I'll bet those sons of bitches don't get to go home to that, anyway.
Steve half-loses himself in the memory, but he jolts back to reality when he hears the zap of an electric prod, followed by Bruce's exclamation. He steps forward, making his presence in the room known, and he's not entirely sure whether the anger in his voice is at Toni jeopardizing their safety, or at her mocking refusal to be the man Steve misses.
Time stamp 11 29 05 04 2012.Toni:
Look into acquiring a freeze-dried blueberry manufacturer; that shit is delicious
Steve and Toni go head-to-head in the lab, simmering with a pale blue anger that pulses cold in Steve's veins.
Loki's men attack.
Steve tries to hold his position, to do what Toni needs him to do, and then he's dangling for one horrible moment from the torn machinery, and the wind at this altitude is as cold as an Alpine pass, and all he can see is Bucky falling, his body growing tinier until it vanished, and --
"Cap, I need the lever,
" Toni's voice says in his ear, and just like that, Steve's back in the present. He pulls himself up, one straining arm at a time, because the past doesn't matter right now. His team needs him here.
The two of them walk back to the bridge together, flushed with adrenaline and success, and Colonel Fury's waiting for them with a set of bloodied trading cards.
Time stamp 14 31 05 04 2012.Toni:
[long period of silence] [quietly] I can't believe. God. [silence] Loki is such a fucking bastard. [silence] I can't—JARVIS, shut it off—
Steve flies over New York for the second time. He sets aside memories of Coulson and his bright, eager eyes; he sets aside memories of other battlegrounds obscured by explosions and the flash of hostile energy beams. Just like every time he's gone into battle, he lets go of his fears and focuses on his objectives.Now I feel at home,
he thinks, and he doesn't understand the thought at first. This isn't his New York; these bizarre creatures aren't his enemies. Even the uniform feels strange against his skin, all synthetic fabric and too-precise seams.
He only understands when they've landed, when they jump out of the Quinjet and straight into a battleground. A beast larger and more terrifying than he could imagine snakes through the skyscrapers, and all he can feel is confidence that yes, they can do this. He's at home because, for the first time since Red Skull's base, people he trusts have his back.
As Steve leaps off a bus, an explosion sends him into a controlled tumble, and he tastes blood, the sweet metallic tang of desperate joy. Coulson said that they needed old-fashioned, and maybe he was right in a way Steve hadn't understood. They needed someone who felt safest when at war.
Time stamp 16 12 05 04 2012.Toni:
[heavy panting] Note to self: look up shawarma! Oh, crap—
Steve discovers that he was absolutely correct in his assessment of Black Widow and Hawkeye. They've clearly fought before as a unit, but they integrate Steve seamlessly, watching each others' backs with full confidence in their teammates' capabilities. Steve appreciates their competence and courage, all the more when Widow's the one smart enough to pull their attention out of the ground battle and back up to the portal.
It's Toni who surprises him: first, when she takes his orders without arguing or grand-standing, focusing 100% of her attention on the fight; second, when she's stunningly capable in battle, dancing between energy bolts without a single waver; and third, most of all, when he realizes that she's belying her own claims of indifference. She's lying down on the damn wire for them all.
"No," he whispers to himself when he sees her disappear through the portal with the bomb. He tells himself it's disbelief. He can't let himself think that it's regret.
Time stamp 17 04 05 04 2012.Toni:
[silence] [quietly] JARVIS, patch me through to the home answering machine.JARVIS:
[silence] You're connected, ma'am.Toni:
Pepper, um. Uh—I'd—I just want you to know that I love you. So
much, more—more than you'll ever know. And I just wanted to tell you. [swallow] I trust the company in your hands. Please...tell Rhodey that [quiet laugh] I love him too, and he's one of the best friends I could've ever asked for. [pause] Tell Bruce that he needs to trust himself, give himself more credit. And—[pause] and tell Steve—[pause] tell Steve that I misjudged him...and you know how often I say that, so. Let him know. [pause] Pepper, you're the best. [silence] [whispered] Oh, god—
Steve shakes his head with disbelief: she's done it -- taken out the bomb, destroyed the aliens -- and she made it back in one piece.
The portal closes right after her, and when it vanishes like an eye blinking shut, it leaves the Iron Woman suit as dark as a blown-out light bulb.
She's not slowing down. Steve knows the speed of a body in free-fall, and this is it. This is it.
Thor flies to her. Hulk leaps at her.
There's nothing that Steve can do.
Time stamp 17 17 05 04 2012.Toni:
Oh my god, I'm alive! [weak laughter]
The sight of Toni jerking awake, eyes panicked at the echo of the Hulk's roar, is the best damn thing that Steve's seen all day. Her eyes dart from the Hulk to Thor, then settle on Steve. "What happened?" A beat. "Please tell me that somebody kissed me. Preferably not the green guy, because I doubt he understands the concept of mouthwash, but I'm not feeling picky about this whole Sleeping Beauty reenactment. Cap? Thor?"
Steve takes a breath and surveys his surroundings. The street's filled with rubble, burning cars, mangled metal beams. Above street level, though, the air is still. He never thought that billowing dust and smoke could look so serene.
"We won," he says.
Then he has to revise his earlier judgment. The best thing he's seen all day is Toni's smile right now: relieved, genuine, and utterly unselfconscious. Toni’s cheekbones are bruised, and her hair's a smoky tangle, and all Steve can think is how much he wouldn't have minded that kiss.
Time stamp 17 18 05 04 2012.Toni:
Oh my god, JARVIS, run every encryption algorithm you have on that last transmission! Shit.
Steve helps Toni onto her feet while she dusts herself off, muttering rapidly about systems checks and power levels and encryption algorithms. "Does anyone know what happened to Loki?" he asks into the comms.
"I've got him up in Stark Tower,
" Black Widow reports back. "He's pretty bruised up from the Hulk, but some backup would be nice.
"On our way," Steve says. He turns to the other two. "Hulk, you head straight on up, keep an eye on him. Thor, Iron Woman, can one of you pick up Hawkeye and head over?"
"Hawkeye is the brave archer, is he not?" Thor asks, and Steve nods. "I would be honored to escort such a distinguished warrior." Thor flings himself upward, hammer first, leaving Steve and Toni looking at each other.
"So, Ken, want to go for a ride?" Toni asks, giving Steve a flirty grin.Ken?
Steve thinks, and files it away in his long mental list of "references to learn." He looks pointedly at Toni's armor: battered, scraped, even charred in places. "You sure you're safe for flight?"
"Nope," Toni says, and she laughs. "But I wasn't sure the first time I went flying, either. C'mon, it'll be fun."
Steve finally agrees, even if it's less for his own sake than because, after seeing Toni's face empty and motionless, he never wants her current smile to go away.
"Feel free to hold on as tight as you want, Cap," Toni says. She wraps one metal arm around Steve's waist, and that's how they leave the field of battle: rocketing up into a blue sky, whooping for joy at the bracing rush of wind on their faces.
It's the exact opposite of falling.
Time stamp 18 49 05 04 2012.Toni:
You know what's delicious? Shawarma.
One thing that Steve will say for Toni's looming monstrosity of a home: it's got a hell of a view. It's well past sundown when they finish their shawarma and return to the Tower, but the view of New York at night dazzles him. The air's clearer than Steve remembers, the lights brighter and more colorful. This city isn't home, not yet, but he reckons it might be someday.
Toni had hustled them all to the Tower for the night through sheer force of personality -- "Avengers sleepover, it'll be great, I've got some jade nail polish that'll look perfect on Big Green
" -- but the others quickly dispersed to their guest rooms. Bruce murmured about time alone, Thor wanted to stay by his brother's Asgardian-magic-enhanced cell, and Natasha and Clint seem to have soldiers' abilities to fight full-throttle to the end, then drop straight into sleep as soon as it's safe.
So that leaves Steve, looking through the shattered emptiness where a panoramic window used to stand, and the melodic clinks of ice as Toni pours herself a drink. He doesn't move when her footsteps approach, nor when she stands beside him in an oversized men's shirt, unbuttoned low enough for her arc reactor to glow unveiled between her breasts. A glance tells him that she's still in heels, but they're plain red mules, the sight bringing him back to stolen nights in French bordellos.
Toni sips her drink. Steve waits a few moments. When she doesn't say anything further, he turns to her. "I can't figure you out," he says at last.
She rolls her eyes. "Try Google. Every detail right there for public consumption. I'm not that complicated."
"You never flirted with Thor."
"Uh. Non sequitur much?"
Steve shakes his head slightly. "Thor's an attractive man. Sure, he's got a girl of his own, but that wouldn't stop you. But you still never flirted with him."
"Most people's 'girls' aren't the world's most brilliant mind in theoretical astrophysics. I do have some
loyalty to my tribe, you know." Toni's eyes glint lasciviously. "A threesome, on the other hand --"
"Not buying it."
"You use flirting as a strategic weapon. And that's fine, you're not the first dame I've met who does, but what I can't figure out is your objective." Silence. "What is it that you actually want, Toni Stark?"
Her smile is thin, taut, like plaster barely clinging to a wall. "I'll let you know when I figure it out. I mean, what am I supposed to get for the girl who has everything?"She's so young,
Steve thinks, then amends, So am I.
"Friends?" he asks.
She raises one eyebrow. "Was that a suggestion or an offer?"
Steve shrugs. "I could use some friends too."
"Friends, hunh," she says, letting a leer color her voice. "Friends with benefits?"
He doesn't recognize the phrase, but it's not hard to guess. "I've only known you for a week, Miss Stark," he says, realizing belatedly that she might think he's flirting back.
"So I guess it's too soon to ask you to move in? Because I have some really fun plans for your suite in the Tower."
Steve can't help but smile, just a bit. "Should I feel honored or scandalized?"
Toni elbows him lightly. "If I can't inspire both at once, then I have definitely lost my touch." Then she pauses for a moment of thought. "Oooh, or I could just go for the harem and invite the other guys too. I mean, I have
to keep Bruce, he's like an adorable puppy who occasionally turns into a giant green, yet still adorable, puppy. And I'm pretty sure that if I leave out the deadly duo, I'll wake up with a garrote around my neck. So that leaves Thor, and I'd be insane to turn down the possibility of watching Mr. Twelve-Pack walk around shirtless in the morning."
This, Steve's finally understanding, is Toni in a nutshell: give unstintingly, then try her damnedest to make it seem like she doesn't care. Deflections on top of deflections. "I was wrong about you," he says at last.
"What, am I even more superficial than you expected?" she says, and there's a note of bitterness underneath the teasing.
"No," Steve says. "You're stronger."You're smarter, too,
he wants to say, but she'd misunderstand. Of course she's smart; she's her father's daughter. What Toni has in u=]-009nexpected abundance is the ability to dance around and hide behind the expectations that everyone reads into her, the smarts to pull the right strings and push the right buttons to get what she wants.
Toni shrugs and gives him a wicked smirk. "Well, you're less of a douchebag than I thought, so we're even." Coming from her, it's practically a declaration of love.
Steve can live with that.
Time stamp 12 31 05 05 2012.Toni:
Did...I really just invite an alien god, two master assassins, a dude who becomes the size of a house when he gets angry, and Captain Douchebag himself to live in my mansion? Really? [pause] Oh god.JARVIS:
End of playback.