"Everything special about you came out of a bottle and the real joke is, they didn't even want in you the first place. You're not just a laboratory experiment, Rogers. You're an accident, a never should have been."
Words stuck with Stephanie Rogers, they always had. She never held what people said against them, not if they apologized or she felt it was said out of anger or hurt in the heat of the moment, but the words always remained with her. She couldn't let things go, not completely. Oh, she would forget the words, move on and then something would happen and there they were, in her head again and there she was brooding over what was said. Bucky said it was obsessive on her part, that it was unhealthy, and Stephanie knew that was true but all the same she couldn't stop it. She considered it her worst trait.
That being so, Natasha Antonia Stark, call me Toni, and her insult stayed with Stephanie, even after they had reached an amicable working relationship. Stephanie didn't blame Toni, she just couldn't forget what she said. Just because it was painfully sharp in its accuracy. She had no idea how much Howard told his daughter about Stephanie and the war but it was apparently enough for her to know Stephanie's powers were a decidedly unwelcome accident.
Not that it was really so surprising, Stephanie knew that herself. It was why, when Kruger set off that bomb, killing Dr. Erskine and his chosen test subject, John Walker, she had tried to convince Howard Stark into the machine. It was chaos, Stephanie could remember that even now and her first instinct was to check on Abraham and John but it was no use, there was nothing she could do for them, they were dead. But the experiment... she ducked and watched as the two soldiers present shot at Kruger, holding him off, keeping him from the serum and Dr. Erskine's work, they still had a chance. At this rate, Kruger would get the serum, he had just killed one soldier and Agent Carter, as Stephanie had come to know her, was trapped in the booth with the upper echelon military. They could be of no help.
Stephanie was a nurse, she'd been one for five years now and for almost that entire time she was enlisted in the United States Army, working alongside Dr. Abraham Erskine. She knew how much this serum meant to Abraham, how he meant for the serum to help all of mankind, first by winning the war then by curing people born into frailty and sickness such as herself. She couldn't allow his work to be destroyed or taken into the hands of the Nazis. Except there was no way to escape with the serum, not with Kruger blocking the exit, but she could keep it from the Nazis by completing the process. By making sure the experiment was complete and the serum was injected into someone prepared to fight for the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately, this left Stephanie with one choice.
"Mr. Stark," said Stephanie, moving to his side where he hid beneath the controls. He looked at her with wide and frightened eyes, his ever present air of arrogance and charm seemingly wiped away. "I need you to get into the machine."
"What?" Howard said incredulously, looking at Stephanie like she was crazy and he decided to say so. "Lady, you're nuts."
"At this rate that Nazi infiltrator will get ahold of the serum and we don't have any way to escape," said Stephanie sternly. "If someone doesn't complete the experiment now, the Nazis will get their hands on Dr. Erskine's work. I won't let that happen."
"So you get in the machine!" exclaimed Howard, ducking lower as another explosion sounded. "This is my equipment and I'm the only person that's got half a chance of running it. Not that I advise it," he said, eyeing the bullet holes and the smoke emerging from consoles around the capsule. "Who knows how much damage it took." Turning to her with a solemn look on his features, he said, "Look, I know you liked your boss and all but going in that machine is suicide."
At that point it was more than obvious Howard wasn't going to cooperate with her. This left Stephanie with a choice she would've never considered, not until the insanity and desperation of this moment, and that was to use the serum on herself. She knew it wasn't what Abraham wanted, she hadn't been his choice. That was John. Sweet, sickly, and utterly kind John who had died before he could truly serve his country but all the same, it was this, destroy it, or let the Nazis have it and the last two weren't an option. And so, Stephanie shot herself with penicillin and got Howard, protesting the entire time, to start the process, strapping herself in and activating the serum injection. Howard had to shove the capsule shut, the controls were so damaged, and as he did, the last thing she saw was his face, declaring her to be crazy and she told him to start the vita-ray.
When the capsule opened she was met with Kruger's gun in her face and Stephanie reacted on instinct. The punch made him fly across the room, hitting the wall with a tremendous crash and when she stepped down from the dais she saw Howard cradling his shoulder, suffering from a bullet wound. Her nursing instincts were like second nature and Stephanie inspected his injury, and he winced as she pulled back the material of his shirt to look at the wound.
Howard grimaced but all the same, he managed to let out a whistle at her. "Damn," he muttered. "You got gorgeous."
"Right," said Stephanie drolly, darting her eyes up and seeing that the other soldiers were finally arriving. Their attempt to take Kruger into custody was fouled by him breaking off his tooth and chewing on a cyanide tablet. Sighing at this, Stephanie turned back to Howard, reaching for some gauze and antiseptic, cleaning the wound as she murmured, "You're going to be fine. You'll just be sore and suffer a loss of mobility for a few months."
"Swell," Howard pronounced. He looked up and noted the figure of Colonel Phillips. "Hey, boss."
Colonel Phillips' shadow fell over them both. As he looked down at Stephanie he snorted then said derisively, "What am I supposed to do with you?"
And that was the real problem. As far as Colonel Phillips and the United States Army was concerned, they had no use for Stephanie Rogers, enlisted nurse turned super woman thanks to Dr. Erskine's serum. They needed a super soldier to win the war against the Nazis and women weren't soldiers. Stephanie knew from the start they wouldn't want her fighting for them and that's why, despite her bashful nature, she allowed herself to be recruited by Senator Brandt. All to soon, being used as a propaganda tool wore on Stephanie's nerves. Dressing up in a silly outfit and flirting with men in the audience to sell war bonds was downright embarrassing and she started to hate herself for it.
Especially when her best friend was out there, fighting the good fight. So she managed to get a meeting with the Superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, Colonel Blanchfield, and begged to be returned to duty. Surely with her years of experience as a nurse and these new abilities she would be of far better use to the war effort on the front lines, helping the soldiers most gravely injured in battle. The Colonel agreed and the next thing Stephanie knew, she was flying to join the 107th. Bucky could only stop and stare, managing to finally say that she got taller, when he saw her.
She returned to her duties, happy to be doing something for the war effort. Though Agent Carter continued to visit her, along with Howard Stark, and with Bucky's help they encouraged her to learn how to fight and shoot. Peggy was far more insistent than Howard whom Stephanie was convinced was only there for the show. Especially because of the way Bucky would narrow his eyes and make him leave whenever he appeared. Bucky had always been so sweet to her, so good, and when their parents died all they truly had was one another. Stephanie knew, even before the serum, before she got tall, blonde, and gorgeous as Howard liked to say, that Bucky felt something for her more than friendship. Stephanie wanted to love him that way, wanted to see him as the dream man he was to so many of the girls back home in Brooklyn but to her he was Bucky. Her best friend and he made her feel safe and loved but it wasn't the kind of love he wanted.
That love, Stephanie suspected with sinking heart, fell towards someone it otherwise shouldn't.
"No," Stephanie muttered aloud, shoving her sketchbook away from her and dropping her charcoal onto the table. She stared at Peggy's face, lovingly detailed on the paper in front of her and squeezed her eyes shut. Pushing herself up and out of her chair, she walked away from her kitchen table and inspected the contents of her refrigerator. "I need a drink."
What she wanted was to get drunk but that was impossible thanks to the serum. Just as impossible as seeing Peggy and Bucky again. Everyone she loved was dead now and Stephanie wondered, other than working for SHIELD, if she had any sort of worth in this new world. Women had come so far and had done so much. Her sessions with Maria Hill to reintegrate her into the modern world had shown her that and Stephanie was so proud but at the same it made her feel lamentably inadequate. Who was she in comparison to those fought so hard and did so much for women's rights? Who earned their place in history with their words and their actions? She was a relic of days long past and Stark was right... these powers were never meant for her. Stephanie wasn't like Natasha or Toni, she wasn't trained to be fantastically lethal and she didn't have god given genius. She was just a girl from Brooklyn who became a nurse because she wanted to save lives and inserted herself into an experiment that was never meant for her.
A never should have been, Stephanie thought it suited her all too well.
Working helps but Stephanie still finds it awkward, trying to find her place amongst SHIELD's operatives. New York is easy enough to adjust to. The city is the same but not and just being able to still walk into the Bridge Cafe somehow helps her feel at home again. She walks the streets and tries to find her New York again. The one she grew up with and loved.
Her apartment in Brooklyn is cozy enough that Stephanie sometimes doesn't want to leave it but leave it she does. Every day she goes into SHIELD for education and for training. Mostly for training. Many of the agents are awkward with her, unable to give her the instruction she wants and needs, and Natasha says it's because she's an idol for so many of them. Stephanie is still hard pressed to believe that. Maybe she fought in the war, maybe she helped bring HYDRA to an end, but she was never a soldier, not really and truly, not like Bucky and the Howling Commandos who helped her so much. That's why she insists that she go through this regimen. Telling Nick Fury if he wants her on this team then she has to earn her place. Now that they've seemingly reached an age where women can be treated the same as men, where they can be soldiers in every sense of the word, Stephanie has no excuse not to be the absolute best.
And so Natasha teaches her hand to hand combat, Clint teaches her sharp shooting, and Maria teaches her technology and infiltration and Stephanie begins to feel she is ready. She's in the gym, settling into a well practiced rhythm with the punching bag, losing herself to the monotony and trying to keep herself from thinking about Peggy and her brown eyes, gleaming with affectionate humor, and Stephanie swallowed hard. "Stop it," she muttered to herself.
"Stephanie?" Maria's familiar voice met her ears. Stephanie paused in her work out, resting her forehead against the punching bag, and tilting her head to look at the other woman. "I thought I'd find you here."
"Lunch," said Stephanie through deep breaths, her brow furrowing as she recalled promising to meet Maria for it. "Sorry," she apologized wryly, pushing back from the punching bag and pulling her hair out of a ponytail. "I lost track of time."
"I can see," said Maria with dryly. "Why don't we meet in the lobby in a half an hour?"
"I'll hit the showers," said Stephanie, moving quickly towards the locker rooms, relieved Maria wasn't irritated with her.
Out of everyone at SHIELD, Maria is the person Stephanie feels the most comfortable with. There was a lack of expectation with Maria and she had been the one to help Stephanie adjust. Who showed her, the best she could, how everything had changed in the world and in her country, and had tried to answer all of Stephanie's unending questions. If Stephanie could call anyone a friend, it would be Maria and she liked to think Maria felt the same about her.
A half an hour later, Stephanie greeted Maria in the lobby. The agent quirked an eyebrow then said, "Hot dogs or burgers?"
"Both," said Stephanie with a grin, walking out of the building and looking down the street. She was pleased to see the Go Burger food truck parked where it had been the day before. After Stephanie ordered two burgers and three kobe beef hot dogs, using her enhanced agility to balance all the food, they settled into their usual routine of walking and talking. It was a tradition they had between them, since the first days of meeting one another. Maria thought the best way to explain the changes society experienced in Stephanie's absence was to show her and so they'd walk through the city and Stephanie would question and Maria would answer. It helped Stephanie tremendously, to see all the changes mixed in with the things that had remained the same, and whenever they shared lunch they continued this habit. "I have to say," Stephanie grinned, tossing a napkin in a trash can and working on her last hot dog, "the street food's gotten a whole lot better."
"Three cheers for culinary progress," said Maria humorously and Stephanie chuckled. "I've noticed you've increased your training regime. You do know you're qualified in ten different forms of combat now?" Stephanie blushed and concentrated on finishing her hot dog, eating much slower than she normally did. "The Director also told me you want to sign up for chemical defense and military intelligence courses?"
Sighing as she finished eating, Stephanie wiped her mouth and said, "I need to do something with my time, Maria." She looked to her friend who had a look of concern on her normally stern features. "I'm not used to sitting around, twiddling my thumbs. Back then, I had the war... I had my work as a nurse... but I don't have that now. Nick won't send me on missions like he does for Natasha and Clint, he says he has more important things in mind for me, and that's all well and good but what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Sit around and look pretty?" Stephanie shook her head. "No," she said with determination, setting her jaw. "I rather do something worthwhile with my time and if that means taking endless military courses so be it."
"Those are things you think you have to do, Stephanie," said Maria knowingly. "What do you want to do?"
Biting on her bottom lip, Stephanie tilted her head back and stared up at the New York City skyline, marveling at how much she recognized and how much was still utterly foreign to her. "I miss caring for people," she said finally and there was a tinge of embarrassment clinging to her voice as she said this. People thought her being a soldier meant she was this great feminist icon, Maria had told her as much the first time they met and even now Stephanie was baffled by it. She considered herself woefully inadequate in combat back then. Sure she had strength and speed and agility but those were things given to her by the serum. They weren't Stephanie Rogers herself. She was a nurse. Someone who wanted to care for others, who wanted to heal the hurts of the world, and she thought that was admirable. She always had, since the days of hearing her mother talk about her work behind combat lines during World War I with the Nurse Corps. But to everyone else in the world, her work as an army nurse for five years wasn't heroic, her eight months as a soldier was. "I'd like to be a nurse again."
"So do it," said Maria simply and when Stephanie looked at her with wide eyes she laughed. "Stephanie, what do you think will happen? That the Director will forbid it? I know he seems tough as nails but trust me, it'll be fine."
"I can't do that," said Stephanie, her throat suddenly going dry, swallowing hard. She never let herself even think being a nurse was a possibility for her again. After all, she had a duty to her country and there were her powers to think of, she couldn't bear the thought of being able to help people in need and not doing anything due to her selfishness. "The team-"
"Isn't always on a mission," interrupted Maria kindly. "You're not on one now, are you? You could very well be taking nursing classes at Columbia or NYU instead of loading up on endless military training, right?"
"I guess that's true," said Stephanie slowly.
"Look," said Maria, a knowing look in her eyes. "Just do me a favor, okay? When we get back to headquarters talk to the Director about it and then make your decision. And one more thing," she said with a smile quirking on her lips, "remember that Stark and Banner both have day jobs and their position on the team has never been in question."
"I'll do that," said Stephanie with a bright smile and for the first time since they woke her, she was looking forward, into the future instead of looking backwards, into the past. And it felt really good to recognize that.
It takes a month for Stephanie to settle into a routine. Despite her protests, wanting to earn things based on her own merit, Fury arranges a meeting for her with the Dean of the School of Nursing at Columbia University and insists on being present. Much to Stephanie's surprise and delight, the Dean is more than willing to work around Stephanie's obvious issues in terms of class attendance due to her work with SHIELD. Of course, she's more than aware this is due to the notoriety, or as Fury called it prestige, of having Captain America as a student at her school and in her program of study.
Once her pride would've kept her from accepting admission but Stephanie knew because of her past, the best thing to do is to take the chances when they're offered to you and prove yourself worthy of what you're given. She slowly finds her place amongst her classmates in the combined BS/MS program for nursing and makes friends with her fellow students. It's a bit of a shock and something of an amusement to find her fans reside among her nursing instructors while her twenty something classmates have only a vague idea of who she is. Which just fine with Stephanie.
Her little one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn starts to become a real home thanks to study sessions with friends and Maria's help when it comes to decorating. Stephanie even acquires few odd knick knacks from Natasha, gifts from when the spy would disappear on this or that mission in some distant part of the world. Once she returned with a rare ceremonial knife from Wakanda that was made with the same metal as Stephanie's shield.
All in all, her life was good.
Then Loki returned and brought Thanos with him, destroying half the city, including Brooklyn and Stephanie's apartment building. If Stephanie considered the first battle with Loki a nightmare then the second with Thanos was hell itself. He cared about nothing but getting that damn cosmic cube and destroying whatever got in his path. In fact, the more they fought back the more he was determined to kill innocents and Stephanie hadn't felt this impotent with rage since the war, when she knew she could fight but was kept from combat because of her gender. Ultimately it was the plan to trick the trickster, turning Loki against his master, and smashing the cosmic cube with all of the Avengers efforts that banished Thanos from their planet.
When the battle is over, Stephanie sits on a pile of rubble and contemplates the mess, wondering how long it would take the city to rebuild this time. Pulling off her helmet, she rests it on her knee and tries to fight the massive headache building behind her eyes. It's only when a shadow falls over her that she notes Toni Stark flying in front of her.
"Captain," said Toni, flipping up her mask and studying the other woman as she landed. "No offense," she drawled, putting one metal hand on her hip with a clang, "but you don't look so hot."
"Mild concussion," Stephanie began, pointing at her head, "cracked ribs," she pointed to her sternum now, "broken ankle," she finished, pointing at her right foot. "My hotness is the least of my concerns at this point."
"Damn," Toni whistled, reminding Stephanie of Howard in the process. "How were you running?"
"Adrenaline," said Stephanie, well aware it had completely abandoned her at the moment. "Honestly though," she sighed, pushing herself up and waving off Toni's offer of assistance. "I should talk to Nick about needing a bed." Before Toni could make a suggestive remark, she said, "Thanos destroyed my apartment building along with most of Brooklyn."
"I'm guessing One-Eyed Willy didn't reveal his master plan to all then," said Toni and when Stephanie stared at her blankly she nodded at the Stark Tower which, miraculously, stood in one piece. Privately, Stephanie thought it was still a gaudy steel monstrosity. "He wants to make the top floors of my tower the Avengers HQ. What with it being the most state of the art and self reliant structure on the planet he figured it might just be a suitable place for the local superheroes to crash."
"You want us to live with you?" said Stephanie skeptically, not buying into this at all.
"Want? No. Will reluctantly allow because Fury disturbs me in a way I still don't fully understand, yes," said Toni quickly, flipping her face mask into place and flying into the air. "So, you know, mi tower su tower, and all that jazz El Capitan." She hovered in the air and Stephanie wondered what she was waiting for when a metal hand extended to her. "Want a lift?" the robotic voice rumbled out of the suit and Stephanie looked at the tower which seemed so very far away and nodded. Toni floated closer to the ground and Stephanie grimaced as the metal arm wound around her waist. "I'll be gentle since it's your first time," Toni snarked and Stephanie rolled her eyes and held on tight.
They landed on the balcony and Toni disengaged the armor, leaving Stephanie silently impressed with how Toni managed to get such a complicated piece of technology removed so quickly. "Jarvis," she called out as they walked into the tower. "You've got Cap's floor ready, right? The one that's not all shiny and modern and convenient?"
"Certainly, madam," Jarvis replied and Stephanie looked up at the ceiling and squinted. "May I say it's an honor to meet you, Captain Rogers? I've found your exploits during the second World War to be extraordinary in both bravery and achievement."
"Thanks?" said Stephanie slowly, trying to figure out who or what she was speaking to.
"Jarvis is an artificial intelligence system I've created," said Toni easily. "Just ask and he'll help you with practically anything. Well," Toni grumped, forming a frown. "That's if he feels up to the task at hand."
"You still haven't forgiven me for not acquiring those tickets when Led Zeppelin reunited at the Ahmet Ertegun Tribute Concert in London, have you?" Jarvis' tone sounded almost rueful now and Stephanie couldn't help but marvel at it.
"Supplanted by triumph, that's what Sasha Frere-Jones said!" Toni declared angrily. She paused in her rant to study Stephanie and her limp as they made their way onto an elevator. "It just occurred to me you said you have a broken ankle. Maybe I should've taken you to a hospital."
"No," said Stephanie, relieved when they arrived at her living space. Toni walked her into her bedroom and Stephanie sat on the bed and absently noted that despite Toni's mocking, it really was just a regular room. It wasn't that she had a problem with technology, in fact she thought she had adapted amazingly well to all the advances with Maria's help, but it was nice... being in a room like this that wasn't filled with all the latest gizmos and gadgets. It was strangely thoughtful on Toni's part. Looking up at Toni who stood in front of her, an expectant look on her features, she said, "I'll be fine. I heal quicker than most people. I just need to wrap it up."
"I know we have a first aid kit in here," said Toni, heading towards the bathroom. "I mean, what superhero dorm isn't complete with a fully stocked bathroom ready to deal with emergencies? Although I did build an infirmary for those purposes too."
"An infirmary?" repeated Stephanie, pleased at the idea of them having access to something of that nature.
"You bet, the whole works, complete with plastic trays filled with jello," drawled Toni, coming back with a first aid kit and handing it to Stephanie. She paused and shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot and somehow, Stephanie was charmed.
"Thank you," said Stephanie, soft and sincere, and Toni blinked in response. "I really do appreciate everything you've done for me." As she said this, Stephanie realized it was the truth. She did appreciate Toni. The other woman was an asset to the team and while she put on an indifferent and carefree exterior, Stephanie was starting to realize beneath it was a complex and caring person. Looking around the room and seeing how thoughtfully it was decorated, filled with familiar furniture from her era, complete with a Westinghouse phonograph in the corner, was more than proof of that. "This is like having a little bit of home," said Stephanie, smiling at Toni. "I know it might seem silly to you but it makes me feel comfortable."
"Yeah, well, I didn't decorate it myself, Jarvis hired a guy," Toni coughed and looked to one side, darting her gaze back as Stephanie removed a knife from a pouch on her belt and cut her boot open. "Aw, jeez, man," she muttered, wincing at the sight of blood, "you're totally one of those stoic war veterans. It's not a line of talk at all, is it?"
"I was in the war, yes," said Stephanie humorously, looking up at Tony with a wry expression. "If it bothers you, you don't have to stay. I've taken care of far worse injuries on my own. I'll be fine, Toni. I promise."
Toni hesitated, still eyeing Stephanie, and then the boot came completely off and there was a slight inhale of breath. Looking up from her inspection, deciding it really wasn't all that bad, Stephanie asked, "Could you bring me two towels? One wet and the other dry? Once I have that, I'll be fine to take care of this alone." Immediately, Toni scrambled for the bathroom and she returned, presenting the towels to Stephanie who smiled at her. "Thanks," she muttered, taking the wet towel and cleaning off her ankle, seeing the blood was the result of shrapnel in her foot and not the broken bone. Stephanie started to dig through the first aid kit, finding it amazingly well stocked, and she wondered if maybe Natasha had a hand in it. She doubted that Toni would have any idea to put all of this in there.
Taking the forceps from the kit, Stephanie leaned down and started to remove the piece of metal and she heard Toni exclaim quickly, "You look like you're doing fine here, Cap, goodbye!" Then there was the sound of a door slam then silence.
Stephanie didn't reply. It hurt too much. Logically, she could have asked Toni to take her to the infirmary and looked for some pain killers. The problem was Stephanie was certain they wouldn't work. She'd worked with Abraham long enough to know how the serum operated, how it enhanced the immune system to such an extent that it filtered absolutely everything out, leaving the human body pure and at its peak. It made it impossible for her to get drunk or for any type of mild altering substances to work on her. The serum made sure her immune system destroyed anything before it could have any sort of effect on her, as a form of protection, and Stephanie knew it would be just the same with pain medication.
So Stephanie gritted her teeth, removed the metal and wrapped her ankle and ribs, relieved to feel the symptoms of the concussion subside. The dizziness and blurred vision had left her and Stephanie felt it safe enough to collapse on her bed and sleep for as long as she was able. Grateful that, for today at least, the battle was over and they had won.
One by one, they move into the tower, and Stephanie finds herself adjusting to her new living situation. It's nice to have other people around and while she doesn't feel comfortable bringing her friends from school to the tower she's becoming closer to her teammates. Running with Clint in the morning, sparring with Natasha in the afternoon, and wiling away the hours late at night in Bruce's lab when she can't sleep. She doesn't see a lot of Toni and Stephanie doesn't think much of it. The tower is hers, after all, and if the other woman wants to avoid them it's her right. After all, she doesn't say a word to Thor about his comings and goings on that rainbow bridge after Jane finally repaired it with her mortal genius as Thor declared.
Although, she's a city girl at heart Stephanie enjoys being outside. New York City during the summer can be oppressive but it's beautiful in the spring and she wants to take full advantage of that. Which is why she takes her book out onto the terrace and settles into one of the chaise lounges, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the cool breeze in her hair. A shadow falls over her and Stephanie wonders absently why Toni never greets her. Instead, she does this, standing and staring and leaves the polite niceties up to Stephanie who, for once, doesn't feel like playing along and continues her assigned reading.
"What are you doing," Toni said this more as a statement than a question, pushing her sunglasses down and studying Stephanie with a discerning gaze. Stephanie looked up irritably and thought to herself that Toni was very much like her father in many ways. He always had a talent for getting under her skin and making her feel like a lesser individual.
"Studying," said Stephanie shortly, focusing back on her book and starting the paragraph again.
"Studying," echoed Toni. "What are we, in high school?" she scoffed, smirking as she leaned against the railing of the terrace, folding her arms across her chest. "Seriously," she drawled, "what is America's sweetheart up to?"
"Studying," Stephanie repeated and knowing that Toni wouldn't leave it at that, she lowered her book. "I'm enrolled at the School of Nursing at Columbia and I have a test coming up, so I really should finish my reading."
"You're not kidding are you," said Toni, looking at Stephanie like she was some otherworldly creature.
"Why would I be kidding," said Stephanie with a sigh and a degree of exasperation. "I was a nurse before the war, I was a nurse during the war, and now I would like to be a nurse after the war. Granted, it's a long time after... which is why I'm in school. I would like to be a registered nurse again and education is necessary."
"But you're Captain America," said Toni and when Stephanie stared at her, she waved her hands for emphasis. "You're the red, white, and bluesuperhero. They'd put you on every box of Wheaties if you'd let them. Why bother with this?"
"There's more than one way to save people, Toni," said Stephanie quietly. She was trying not to get irritated but she had the distinct impression that Toni considered nursing to be a poor choice in career. Like she was wasting her time with it and that was the last thing she wanted to hear considering it had been all Stephanie ever wanted to do. Rising to her feet, she gave the other woman a hard stare and said, "You have your company, your inventions, Natasha and Clint have their work with SHIELD, Bruce has his research, and Thor... well, Thor is a demigod with obligations I can't even imagine. Is everyone except me supposed to have a life outside this team?" Toni blinked at her and started to protest and Stephanie shook her head and said wearily, "Look... I know you didn't mean anything by all this but just leave it alone, okay? The school is working around my schedule and it's something I need to do for myself. I promise it won't interfere with the team."
Stephanie sensed that Toni wanted to say something more to her but she didn't want to hear it. Maybe she was overreacting, being too sensitive, but she hated the feeling she was being judged for her choices. She had gone through that so much back in the war, having to prove herself over and over, to the commandos, to the upper brass, and even to Peggy. Heading back to her floor and going into her bedroom, she stared down at her genetics textbook and put it on the nightstand with a sigh.
You're Captain America.
Things had changed so much since the war. Women could serve in the armed forces, they were doctors, lawyers, and Toni ran her father's company. Stephanie marveled at all the changes and welcomed them but there were times when she felt in all their progress they lost some things. For everything she read about women's liberation and feminism there was an air of condescension towards women who chose to stay home and raise their children. Or women who had jobs deigned traditionally feminine such as nursing or teaching. Clint even said to her, why be a nurse when you could be a doctor?
Because she didn't want to be a doctor, she wanted to be a nurse again. She loved taking care of people, comforting them in their worst moments, and reassuring them that everything would be all right. Doctors couldn't take as much time, at least, not in Stephanie's experience and that's what she wanted. The human connection, the feeling she made a difference on a personal level. In the 1940's she was a nurse who became a soldier and now she was the opposite. People saw her as Captain America and had expectations of her that Stephanie didn't understand.
There was this silent belief in how she should act, look, and just how she should be and she had no idea where it all came from. Stephanie knew from her brief time with Coulson that propaganda merchandise from her time in the USO was highly collectible but that didn't explain it. It was exhausting, in a way, trying to live up to what people expected or taking the time to explain why she wasn't what they thought. Lying back on her bed, she closed her eyes and Peggy's face came into her mind, her eyebrow raised and that imperious look on her face that made Stephanie love her.
"What's this? Feeling sorry for yourself?" Stephanie could practically hear her say. "That won't do, not at all. You're meant for better things than this, Lt. Rogers. Best off proving to them what a woman can really do."
Even Peggy wanted her to be something other than what she was. To be a soldier, to be a symbol, and Stephanie complied because she wanted to fight, she wanted to serve her country, but for Peggy it was something else...
In her darker moments Stephanie wondered if Peggy really loved her or the idea of her. Whatever it was, Peggy was right. There was no use in feeling sorry for herself. It didn't matter what anyone wanted or expected her to be, Stephanie had the chance to start over, to be who she was always meant to be and finally do things her way.
Stephanie had been in the gym, working the punching bag for well over an hour when Natasha stood to the right of her. Keeping her eyes fixed forward, she grinned on seeing the redhead. "You're back," she remarked.
"I'm back," Natasha echoed and she moved her hands from behind her back and Stephanie paused in her workout, breathing heavily and her grin getting wider in expectation. Ever since Natasha visited her apartment in Brooklyn and found it tragically empty and devoid of personality, as she called it, she had been providing Stephanie with odd items purchased on her various SHIELD assignments. Clint confessed it was a thing with Natasha and to just go with it because it was her way of saying she loved you. Like the way a cat leaves a dead bird on your doorstep. Stephanie thought the comparison was just as strange as the gifts Natasha presented her with but all the same it was a tradition Stephanie enjoyed. With her ever present deadpan expression, Natasha revealed a twenty two inch marionette of what appeared to be Buddha. Accepting the gift carefully and inspecting the strings and very elaborate gold clothing, Stephanie looked up when Natasha spoke. "It's from Myanmar. They're big into puppet shows there. Specifically puppet shows about Buddha from the Jataka."
"I love it," said Stephanie, beaming at Natasha and hugging her. The other woman gave her the same light pat on the back that she always did and Stephanie found the quiet way Natasha accepted her demonstrative nature endearing. "Drinks?" she questioned. Although she couldn't get drunk, this was another habit they had formed, Natasha taking her around the city to local bars that hadn't changed in years. It was her way of bringing the old days back to Stephanie. Besides, even if the alcohol didn't effect her Stephanie still liked the taste of it. "I'm buying."
"How could I refuse that offer," said Natasha humorously. "Want to leave in fifteen?"
"You've got it," Stephanie affirmed, her smile getting wider as she kept a delicate hold on the marionette which was really quite impressive in its design. On the way to the elevator, she passed Clint and asked, "What did you get?"
"Wall tapestry of King Rama and the Crown Prince," Clint boasted. He paused to duck his head and squinted at the marionette that Stephanie held in her hands. "Creepy," he decided, rising to his full height. "Mine's way better."
"I'll just envy you in silence then," said Stephanie with a laugh, walking onto the elevator, ignoring Clint's call to face the marionette to the wall so she didn't have nightmares. Arriving at her floor, she placed it on the kitchen table and headed into her bedroom to take a quick shower. Putting on a pair of jeans and a short sleeved white button up shirt when she was finished. After pulling on her socks and brown leather boots, she met Natasha at exactly fifteen minutes and holding up her keys, Stephanie announced, "I'm driving."
"Of course you are," said Natasha, rolling her eyes as they got on the elevator. As they walked into the garage and towards Stephanie's cherry red Indian 841 motorcycle, she said in droll tones, "You know it isn't natural to be in love with a machine. I think even Stark would agree with me on this one."
"Please," said Stephanie, getting on the motorcycle and handing Natasha her helmet, "don't be jealous of her beauty. Not after she's been specially retrofitted for civilian riding."
"At least you haven't named her," said Natasha, getting on behind Stephanie and waiting for her to start it up. When Stephanie did, she wrapped her arms around the blonde and murmured in her ear, "Pete's Tavern."
In a few minutes, with some creative driving that was still in the legal limits, they arrived at 18th street and walked into the bar. Stephanie loved it when they went to places that still existed in the 1940's. It made her feel comfortable and at home in a way that the newer restaurants and bars just couldn't and to be honest, the fancier places in the city made her uneasy. It reminded her of how she could have never set foot in Bloomingdales because it was too nice for her when she was a kid.
Sitting at the bar, Stephanie ordered a beer while Natasha put in an order for a drink a little too elaborate for Stephanie's taste. When Natasha turned to her, Stephanie asked, "How did it go?"
"The Director was pleased," said Natasha, thanking the bartender as their drinks arrived. Stirring the small straw in her drink before she took a sip and formed a pleased expression, she continued, "I got some interesting intel on Doom."
"I still don't get what the guy is doing out of Latveria," said Stephanie.
"Who understands an insane mind?" said Natasha philosophically and Stephanie grinned at her. "What?" Natasha insisted, pointing a finger at the other woman. "I can be just as brooding and introspective as you."
"I'm not brooding, I'm wholesome," Stephanie corrected, thinking of all the magazines that declared her to be America's sweetheart with a grimace and taking a drink of her beer. "You're the femme fatale."
"What's Stark then? The showboat?" Natasha drawled and when Stephanie frowned, she rolled her eyes. "Oh no," she sighed, taking another drink of her cocktail, "what did she do this time?"
"Nothing," said Stephanie and when Natasha looked at her with a supremely skeptical expression, Stephanie laughed and shook her head. "It really was nothing, honestly, Natasha. I overreacted to something she said and I need to apologize."
"You apologize to Stark?" said Natasha with dry humor. "This must be good. Please enlighten me."
"She asked why I'm going to nursing school and I took it the wrong way," said Stephanie, picking at the beer bottle label. It was her bad habit coming to the surface again. Replaying words and moments over and over again in her mind and she had done exactly that during her workout and ultimately she decided Toni hadn't meant anything by what she said. There wasn't an insult lurking her in words, just surprise about what Stephanie was doing, and Stephanie couldn't fault Toni for having a certain idea about her... not when everyone else in the world did the same thing. "I saw it as her looking down on me for what I want to do. Like it's a waste of time compared to..." Stephanie trailed off, not sure how to word it, not wanting to outright say her codename or the team's name in public since thus far they hadn't been recognized.
"Our extracurricular activities?" Natasha suggested, smirking and Stephanie sighed, nodding her head.
"Yeah, that," said Stephanie, shifting on her barstool and picking at the beer label again. "And I don't think she meant it that way at all. It's just that she thinks what everyone else does, that my extracurricular work is more important."
"Why are you sure that's what she meant?" asked Natasha, quiet and curious, and Stephanie looked at Natasha with confusion. "Well," said Natasha simply, stirring her drink and gesturing to the bartender for another. "You can say a lot of things about Toni Stark but you can't say she's easy to understand. Maybe you read her wrong. It's not like you spend a lot of time with her, Stephanie. In fact, I think you have more buddy time with the Director which is a little frightening to be honest."
"I like Nick!" protested Stephanie. "He's teaching me Jiu Jitsu."
"You know it unsettles Clint when you call him that," remarked Natasha, taking a sip of her newly arrived martini. "Nick," she repeated, shaking her head, a smirk tugging at her lips that Stephanie thought made her look impossibly attractive.
"He's a nice man," said Stephanie, thanking the bartender when he gave her another beer.
"I notice you're avoiding the subject of Stark," said Natasha, her tone matter of fact and non-judgmental. "Want to say why?"
Tapping her beer bottle and biting her bottom lip, Stephanie looked at Natasha. "She makes me feel stupid." Natasha blinked at this and looked at Stephanie as if she lost her mind and Stephanie laughed nervously. "I know! It's not her fault she's how she is, talking above everyone's head, well, except for Bruce but he's different. Howard was the same way but not entirely... I just don't like how I become when I'm with her. It's like this feeling that I have to constantly prove myself to her. Show that I'm intelligent and that despite how I got these powers, I do deserve them, and I deserve the position of team leader. That it wasn't something given to me as a symbolic gesture because of what I stand for in the minds of the public."
"Stephanie," said Natasha slowly, looking at her with a good deal of concern. "You've really over thought this, haven't you?"
"Maybe," Stephanie mumbled and she knew she was blushing from the heat on her cheeks. She finished off her second beer and wished not for the first time she could get drunk. "I can obsess on things sometimes."
Natasha was about to reply when a new bartender appeared, a pretty brunette who leaned across the bar, smiling bright and wide at Stephanie as she asked if she needed anything. Stephanie blinked and held up her beer and the woman caressed her hand as she took the beer from her, telling Stephanie her name was Carol and she'd be right back. Swallowing hard and watching as Carol walked away, an obvious sway in her hips, Stephanie was somewhat in awe at the forwardness. While she couldn't be sure, she suspected Carol had been flirting with her and just the fact women could do that with other women, out and in the open, was such a very amazing thing to her. She turned to Natasha who looked supremely amused.
"Yes, she was flirting with you," said Natasha plainly.
"How do you-" Stephanie began only to have Natasha interrupt and say, trust her, Carol was definitely flirting. With that said, the bartender returned, sliding a fresh beer over to Stephanie on a napkin. It was only when she left that Stephanie noted that a phone number was written on the napkin and she blushed even harder. Natasha chuckled and looked triumphant while Stephanie shoved the napkin in her pocket, already deciding she wouldn't call, and drank her beer. When she was done, she coughed and muttered, "I'm still not used to it. Things were more subtle in the 1940's."
"You miss that?" asked Natasha, resting her chin in her hand and studying Stephanie.
"Yes, no, I don't know," Stephanie laughed wryly and looked at Natasha with a rueful expression. "It's going to take awhile for me to get used to it. I could've never imagined things being so open back then." She paused and thought of Peggy and the one brief kiss they had before she went after the Red Skull on that plane. If she hadn't been frozen, if they had that date, it wouldn't be in a place like this, it would've been in one of those secret clubs for certain ladies and men. The kind she heard whispers about but never dared go to but it wasn't like that now. People could openly admit to being that way and most everyone didn't care. Stephanie was bewildered by this but she was happy about it all the same. She had never been one for hiding and back then, if she had been with Peggy they would've had to hide how they felt for each other. Stephanie knew that without a doubt. Stephanie sighed and looked to Natasha and said, "Peggy died before Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed. Even though she was British I'm sure she would've cared and I'm sad she didn't live to see it."
"You don't think she would've rather lived to see you?" asked Natasha gently and Stephanie shrugged, tapping on her beer bottle and pulling back the label. "She never stopped looking for you. Her, Stark, and the Commandos. They kept at it."
"I read the reports," said Stephanie softly. "It makes me happy to know that but she had her own life. She got married to what seems like a wonderful woman and they even had kids. But I can't help wondering about how things might've turned out."
"You shouldn't do that for too long," advised Natasha. "Lingering on what could've been is never good."
"I know," murmured Stephanie, staring at her beer bottle, realizing the truth of Natasha's words but knowing herself and her bad habits all the same. There was what she knew was good for her and there was what she actually did and often times the two things never intersected. Much to Stephanie's dismay.
When they first formed this team, Stephanie didn't think she would consider Bruce Banner a close friend but she did. There was something about Bruce that set Stephanie at ease. It wasn't that he reminded her of Bucky. Their personalities were totally different. Bucky was gregarious and outgoing and Bruce was quiet and introspective but there was the same sweetness, the same care, and Stephanie was drawn to it.
Sleeping was a problem for her and there was only so many whale sounds she could listen to, despite Clint's dogged insistence they were relaxing, and one night she was drawn to Bruce's lab. He was there, as always, his clothes mismatched and his hair a mess and when he looked at Stephanie he beamed and greeted her warmly. That began their time together.
Now whenever she couldn't sleep, she would go down to Bruce's lab, and they would talk about everything under the sun. About science and medicine, about Peggy and Betty, and when she got in a certain mood, Stephanie would get Bruce to teach her handy phrases from all the countries he traveled in. She could successfully ask where the bathroom was in fourteen different languages now and Stephanie figured it would have to come in handy sometime.
"It still amazes me," said Bruce, tapping on those clear floating computers that Toni was so attached to. Stephanie found them off putting, to be honest, and far preferred her laptop with completely visible keys. "Dr. Erskine did so much with so little. Can you imagine what he could've done with the technology we have now?"
Although he had a great many projects, including searching for a cure for his own condition, or at least a way to control it, Bruce often fell back on his own research involving unlocking the secret to Erskine's serum. Stephanie had as much interest in this as he did and when she visited he often returned to this line of work.
"Abraham was a brilliant man," Stephanie acknowledged, a sad smile tugging on her lips. "He would've saved a lot of people if he had lived. I'm sure about that."
"You miss him," Bruce murmured, looking at her with understanding eyes.
"I miss a lot of people," said Stephanie with self-deprecating humor. "I suppose I always will." Hopping off the table she was sitting on, she walked over to Bruce and studied his calculations. "I think the levels of gamma radiation that were involved in the vita-ray dosage was lower than this, Bruce."
"Forty percent?" asked Bruce, frowning thoughtfully and pushing up his wire rim glasses. "That alters what the formula consistency would have to be for the serum to be effective then."
"Have my blood tests told you anything?" asked Stephanie curiously.
"Not enough," said Bruce with a sigh. "Maybe if I ask Toni about digging through her father's old plans..."
As if hearing her name, Toni burst into the lab and they both stared at her with wide eyes. "What?" she demanded, holding her hands up. "I didn't do anything, I swear! I just need a lab monkey with delicate fingers. A Bruce shaped lab monkey to be specific," Toni pointed at him, a look of expectation on her features.
"This Bruce shaped lab monkey is in the middle of must be monitored work," said Bruce humorously, pointing to his hilariously large centrifuge that Stephanie had yet to figure out why it needed to be that size. He lifted an eyebrow and his lips pulled up in a slight smile and said, "Why don't you ask Stephanie? She's got delicate medically trained fingers."
Toni paused, appearing to consider this, then she darted forward and grabbed Stephanie's hand. "You'll do," she declared, dragging Stephanie out of the lab who shot an amused Bruce a look of pure exasperation.
They didn't say a word until they arrived in Toni's workshop and Stephanie was pulled over to a long metal table and presented with a plethora of mechanical components. "Normally I'd do this myself," said Toni quickly, digging through all the parts and pulling out a pair of tweezers and shoving a cylinder in front of Stephanie that was glowing an eerie green color. "But I haven't slept in like forty five hours."
"Fifty seven, madam," Jarvis corrected.
"Toni," said Stephanie, mildly horrified. She had sleeping problems but she had never gone that long without sleep. Even when she was in the war she managed to catch a nap here and there. Usually at Bucky's request. "You need to sleep."
"I totally will but first I want to finish this," said Toni insistently, shoving the cylinder in front of Stephanie. "I just need you to use your not sleep deprived delicate medical hands to use this tweezer and move that piece into that piece." She pointed and stared at Stephanie, obviously waiting for her to comply. "Aww, come on, Cap," she pleaded, slapping her hands together and doing an exaggerated prayer. "I really will sleep once this is done, I promise!"
"You promise," said Stephanie solemnly, eyeing Toni with a doubtful gaze.
"If it helps I'll make Jarvis enforce your wishes," said Toni helpfully, batting her eyelashes at Stephanie who sighed.
"Fine," Stephanie grumbled, "but I'll tuck you in myself if I have to." Toni blinked at this and was strangely silent and Stephanie picked up the tweezers, carefully moving the minuscule components in the cylinder to where Toni instructed. "Is that it?" she asked, looking up at Toni.
"No," said Toni quickly, shaking out of it, and stepping closer to Stephanie. Her breath was warm on Stephanie's skin as she leaned over her. "I need that piece to be replaced with this one right here. When you drop it in, make sure it clicks into place and that piece is locked over it." She turned to Stephanie and their faces were just centimeters apart. "Can you do that?"
"Not a problem," said Stephanie confidently.
Continuing to work, Stephanie vaguely noted Toni hopping onto the table next to her, shoving things out of the way and sending them clattering onto the floor. "Bruce was right," said Toni, "you do have a delicate touch. I never noticed. Not with you sporting the big red leather gloves of kicking ass and taking names."
"My specialty was emergency and critical care nursing," said Stephanie, unable to help smiling at Toni's joke. "You have to be precise and have good concentration in those situations. Especially when you're performing surgery in a war zone."
"How is school going?" asked Toni and her tone was easy, with a genuine curiosity, and Stephanie almost looked up to verify it but she knew from her voice it was truthful. Toni actually wanted to know and with this, she knew what had gone on before, it had been all on her. Maybe Toni did expect things of her just like everyone else did but she was never trying to be superior with her assumptions and it was far past time for Stephanie try and really get to know the other woman.
"Good," said Stephanie, locking the final piece into place, and smiling at Toni. Pushing a lock of hair behind her ear, Stephanie leaned against the table and said, "I'm not as handy as the younger students with the newer technology but I think I'm learning at a fairly quick pace."
"I could help you," Toni offered, "I know a thing or two about picking things up quick."
"Thermonuclear Astrophysics, right?" recalled Stephanie and Toni shrugged. Toni leaned over the table, studying the cylinder and looked at Stephanie with what she could only call a puppy dog expression. "What else?" asked Stephanie dryly.
"This goes here and that goes there," said Toni happily, pointing to the pieces. "And be careful because if you accidentally touch this or that I'm pretty sure we won't exist anymore along with half of Manhattan."
"Fantastic," said Stephanie sardonically.
They were silent for who knows how long when Toni's voice, soft and distant, met Stephanie's ears. "My dad talked about you sometimes," she muttered and Stephanie would've been compelled to look at the other woman if not for the remark about destroying half of Manhattan. "When I was little he told me how long he'd been looking for you and I asked him why he didn't give up and he told me about how you tried to get him to take the serum. He said he lied to you back then, that you could've ran that equipment but he was too scared to go through the process. That he was afraid of what it would do to him. But you weren't and that's why he had to keep looking for you."
"Howard was brave in other ways," said Stephanie quietly, thinking about her old friend, and everything he did for her. "He was one of the few people that always supported me. And I'm sure that wasn't easy for him, considering."
"Considering what?" asked Toni and there was a subtle need there and Stephanie wondered how much Toni really knew about her father. Howard was just as complex as his daughter and from what she could tell he hadn't been the most attentive father. Which made Stephanie sad because she did think he was a good man, despite everything.
"I wanted your father to take the serum because he was a man," said Stephanie simply. "I knew the army wouldn't want a woman to have the abilities the serum granted. They needed a soldier and in those days, soldiers were men. Your father was one of only a handful of people who told the top brass at the army to give me a chance and I'll always be grateful for that."
"You know he testified before Congress in the sixties about you," said Toni. "Verified the leaks in the Army intelligence and provided proof you were in combat during the war. Have you seen the tapes?" When Stephanie shook her head no, Toni gave a laugh and said, "You can tell he's totally pissed about them hiding your existence from the public. My favorite thing is him going on this rant about making you out to be a showgirl when you were America's first super soldier."
"It was different then," said Stephanie quietly. "Women weren't welcome in combat. So they disguised my activities during the war." She was finished now and moved back carefully, as if waiting for them to be killed, but the cylinder glowed and hummed and Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief. She looked at Toni who wore an inscrutable expression. "What?"
"You wouldn't care, would you," said Toni slowly, studying Stephanie with discerning eyes. "If everyone never found out what you did during the war. That you were one of our first real women soldiers and you saved thousands of lives."
"I didn't do it to be famous, Toni," said Stephanie wryly, stepping away from the cylinder, not really wanting to be near it now that her work was seemingly done. "I did it to help people. So, no, it wouldn't have mattered if they had kept it a secret." She tilted her head to one side and said, "Isn't that why you built the armor? To help people?"
"That and to escape from the asshole terrorists who kidnapped and tortured me," said Toni with a snort, hopping off the counter and inspecting the cylinder. After a moment, she lifted her head and offered a wide grin. "You do good work, Cap. I might have to make you my official lab monkey."
"I'm honored," said Stephanie in droll tones, "and you can call me Stephanie, you know."
Toni paused in her inspection of the cylinder and stared at Stephanie, looking at her with wide and impossibly dark eyes, and then her smile grew brighter yet. "Stephanie," she drawled, her voice full of charm, and Stephanie hoped she wasn't blushing.
"You're done now?" asked Stephanie and Toni was tapping at her infernal clear computers.
"If by done you mean have a shit load more work to do then, yeah, I'm totally done," said Toni and when Stephanie stood in front of her with her arms folded over her chest. "Oh, come on, don't pull rank!" she protested. "Not when we're finally on a first name basis and we even did some I knew your dad during the war bonding. It'll bring us back to the days when I made clever insults you didn't understand because you were a frozen popsicle for seventy years."
"You need sleep," Stephanie insisted, moving through the disturbingly clear computer, and squinting as the lines got in her eyes and holding Toni's hands in her own. "You're manic, you have hand tremors, and I'm pretty sure a hell of a headache."
"Captain America just said hell," snorted Toni humorously and Stephanie rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay," she muttered reluctantly. "So what if I do? Will you write me a prescription and call me in the morning?"
"I can give you those sleeping pills I know you already have and tuck you into bed," said Stephanie firmly. "Toni," she said softly. "I know this work is important to you but it will be here waiting. Your health is more important."
"Oh god," Toni said under her breath, allowing Stephanie to lead her out of the workshop, and upstairs. "You're so considerate and nice it's disgusting. How are you people? There has to be a law against it. You aren't born again, are you?"
"I don't know what that means," said Stephanie with a frown, trying to hold back her laughter at Toni's complaints. She was true to her word, she brought Toni to her room, gave her the sleeping pills which were at a surprisingly low dosage, and despite her embarrassment when Toni tried to change in front of her, waited to make sure Toni got into bed. Pausing as she walked out of the room, Stephanie called out, "Jarvis, let me know if she tries to do any work."
"Certainly, Captain Rogers," said Jarvis, sounding downright gleeful, while Toni cursed their existence. And somehow, as she made her way back to Bruce's lab, Stephanie found herself in a much better mood than she had when she left it.
After that night, Stephanie found herself in Toni's workshop more and more often. There was something strangely comfortable about it. The clutter and the cars and that old leather couch and recliner made it almost homey and Stephanie would wander down there when she wanted company. Toni would work and Stephanie would study or sketch and they'd have meandering conversations or sometimes they would just keep each other company in silence.
Stephanie had taken to drawing portraits of Dummy and Toni when they worked and once Toni appeared over her shoulder, studying her own face with an expert eye. "Ten grand easy," she announced after a long moment and Stephanie blinked. It was then that Toni, with a little too much satisfaction, told her that a few years ago her they found her old sketchbook in some garage sale in the midwest. Apparently it auctioned at Christie's for upwards of six figures. Stephanie interrupted Toni before she got a precise figure just because it was a bit terrifying to know someone paid that much for her doodles.
Particularly ones Stephanie didn't think were all that good.
Toni flopped down on the couch next to Stephanie, her leg resting against Stephanie's, her warmth seeping into Stephanie's skin as she drawled that it was a collectible. Forming a sly and mischievous smile as she said she knew for a fact that a pair of her old panties sold for more than that on the sleazy black market of the internet. It was then that Stephanie declared she didn't want to hear anymore and Toni burst into laughter, saying she loved that Stephanie was from the 1940's.
There were still problems sometimes. Like when Toni didn't listen to her orders in a fight or when Stephanie took things that Toni said the wrong way but little by little they began to understand each other better. Toni stopped putting on her arrogant act and Stephanie stopped being so defensive. Stephanie slowly found herself caring about Toni and began to worry about her habit of working on not enough food and sleep. And when Stephanie returned from class late that night she paused in her preparation for dinner. "Jarvis," she said, unable to help looking at the ceiling when she spoke. "Has Toni eaten?"
"I believe she had a peanut butter cup fourteen hours ago," said Jarvis with droll humor.
"That's a no," said Stephanie, sighing and considering her options.
Digging through the pantry and refrigerator, she settled on cooking some whole wheat pasta and topping it with olive oil, feta cheese, and sun dried tomatoes. It was a simple, fast, and healthy meal. All things that Stephanie liked and she knew Toni needed. She mixed it all in a large bowl, putting a large serving spoon inside, and grabbed two plates and forks. Balancing it all in her hands, she headed down to Toni's workshop, thanking Jarvis when he opened the doors as she approached. Walking over to where Toni was working, Stephanie pushed aside a pile of papers and put down the bowl of pasta and the plates. She hopped onto the workstation, serving herself a plate of pasta, eating it in silence while she watched Toni work. Once she started to really spend time with the other woman, Stephanie discovered how absorbed Toni got in her projects, and when she was in one of those mindsets it was best to just leave her be. Eventually she would snap out of it and notice you. Stephanie had to wonder if it was this aspect of Toni's personality that caused her relationships to fail. Certainly it could seem like Toni was actively ignoring you when she got in these moods and that wouldn't be the best thing for a romance.
Finally, Toni looked up from her work, and stared at Stephanie eating pasta and said, "When did you get here?"
"Eleven minutes ago," Stephanie replied, shoving the pasta bowl and a plate towards her. "Eat," she ordered, gesturing with her fork. "I made plenty for the both of us. And don't try telling me no," Stephanie took on a slightly stern tone. "Jarvis told me all you've had to eat in fourteen hours has been a peanut butter cup."
"I think there was a tic-tac in between somewhere too," said Toni, piling the pasta onto the plate, and quickly taking a bite. She soon took several more bites, fast enough Stephanie halfway wondered if she would choke, but when she was done she grinned at Stephanie and slid closer. "You cooked for me," she crooned playfully. "You're like my very own super powered 1950's housewife. It's a completely awesome look, Stephanie," Toni declared, putting more pasta on her plate. "I endorse going with this new image whole heartedly."
"I'd say I was a 1940's housewife since that's something I actually experienced," said Stephanie with mild amusement.
"You're the new Martha Stewart," Toni announced, eating more food. Stephanie sighed, sliding off the workstation and getting sodas from the refrigerator that Toni had on the far side of the workshop. It was part of a small kitchen that Pepper had apparently put in that Toni never used. Although she claimed to have turned on the microwave and oven at some point but Stephanie found herself doubting the truth of that. Toni grinned when Stephanie offered her a can, opening it and drinking half of it in one gulp. "I've decided you have to cook for me always. That way I'll actually eat."
"You do know all I did was boil pasta, add olive oil, cheese, and tomatoes, right?" said Stephanie wryly. "I'm positive you could do that since you have a genius IQ and all."
"And I'm 100% positive that I have a mental block when it comes to cooking," Toni declared, hopping onto the workstation and sitting next to Stephanie. She picked up the bowl of pasta and sat it in her lap but before she started eating out of it she gave Stephanie a puppy dog expression and the blonde rolled her eyes, giving silent permission. Smiling triumphantly and spearing more of the pasta, Toni mumbled around a mouth full of food, "Doesn't matter how smart you are, sometimes you just naturally suck at stuff, and Toni Stark sucks at cooking. But!" she announced, leaning across her workstation and presenting Stephanie with a lightweight blue material. "I don't suck at creating kick ass super strong and super lightweight armor for my favorite super soldier. Go on," Toni encouraged, spearing a sun dried tomato. "Shoot it."
"I'm not shooting a gun in your workshop, Toni," said Stephanie incredulously. "It isn't safe. The bullet would ricochet."
"Safe schmafe," Toni waved her fork at Stephanie. "I want you to see that it works. Besides, it's totally bulletproof down here, right, Jarvis? We're completely in jive with the La Roux song and in the precautionary zone."
"I'm afraid that isn't so, madam," said Jarvis and he did sound rather regretful. "The doors are bulletproof and reinforced with a near impenetrable field but Captain Rogers is correct when she said the bullet would most likely ricochet."
"Traitor!" accused Toni. "Bringing me your logic and rightness when all I want is someone to back me up like a mindless sycophant. Maybe I should hire interns for that." Turning to Stephanie, still holding the bowl of pasta, she pointed at the blue material and said, "How does it feel? I was going for the anti-chain mail effect when I was making it. You know, soft on the skin and light as a feather but don't let that fool you, it's strong stuff. The base compound is vibranium and adamantium. Bruce was right about there being ten different allotropes for adamantium and it wasn't easy to find the right one."
"I don't understand any of what you just said," said Stephanie, studying Toni with amusement. She rubbed the material, surprised at how soft it was and she asked, "This is what you've been doing all week? Working on something for me?"
Shrugging at this, Toni poked at the pasta in the bowl, and said flippantly, "I like your legs."
"What?" asked Stephanie, bursting into laughter at this incongruous statement.
"Sue me," drawled Toni, leaning back on the workstation and flashing Stephanie a flirtatious smile. "I like a pair of long shapely legs and you've got quite a set on you. Problem is though, they're always getting banged up because you're in a skirt. Really, what's a leg admirer supposed to do?"
Shaking her head and not believing for one moment this was done for the sake of Toni's leg admiration, Stephanie smiled softly as she moved closer to the other woman. "Thank you," she murmured and before she knew what she was doing, she kissed Toni's cheek lightly. For once Toni didn't speak. She didn't flirt and she didn't tease, she just sat there, staring at Stephanie with a dumbfounded expression. "Are they meant to be tights?"
"Yeah," Toni said and there was an odd tone to her voice when she first spoke. "Tights, pantyhose, stockings, whatever you call them. I would've rather made you a pair of pants but you seem attached to the skirt." Stephanie blushed at this but didn't argue the point and Toni studied her for a moment then said, "Natasha said that Coulson tried to update your uniform but you said no. She figured it was because you wanted to wear something you were already comfortable with."
"Yes and no," said Stephanie. Toni was silent and somehow that was encouraging and Stephanie thought about this past month, how they had become so much closer, how she somehow went from spending the least amount of time with Toni to the most amount and Stephanie was glad for that. She felt comfortable around Toni in a way that she didn't feel with anyone else because the instant she really gave Toni a chance, Toni gave her one too, she didn't see Stephanie as anyone other than who she was. Not this icon the public had made her into or a soldier with no personality, always stern and serious, or a relic from the past, a 1940's housewife as they were joking about. Still, she recalled having a very similar conversation with Peggy and it hadn't turned well to say the least and Peggy loved her. At least, Stephanie thought she did. "It's silly," she said finally, looking at Toni with embarrassment.
"Silly to you is serious to everyone else," Toni replied and Stephanie laughed at this. "Come on," wheedled Toni, bumping shoulders with Stephanie. "You can tell me. Would it help if I told you one of my deep dark secrets first? I might have been banned from Luxembourg because of an alleged affair with multiple members of the Grand Ducal family."
"Where's Luxembourg?" asked Stephanie with a frown.
"It's in between Belgium and Germany," said Toni easily, "and is slightly larger than Delaware."
"Oh," said Stephanie, still frowning. Then she registered everything that Toni said and she blinked. "Wait, what do you mean you slept with multiple members of the royal family? Grand Ducal is royalty isn't it?"
"They had a party, I got drunk, they're really pretty and speak French, I find French sexy when drunk, what can I say?" Toni drawled, winking at Stephanie. "Anyway!" she proclaimed, clapping her hands together. "Your turn." She nudged Stephanie's leg with her own. "What's silly?"
"I'm thinking that there's more to this story," said Stephanie suspiciously, eyeing Toni who laughed.
"You bet there is but see if I tell you until you give me my answer," said Toni impishly.
"Fine," Stephanie relented and she paused, gathering her thoughts and biting on her bottom lip, wondering where to start. Eventually, she settled on asking, "Have you ever seen a picture of me before the serum?" Toni nodded yes, clearly wondering where this was going and Stephanie chuckled. "I wasn't much to look at then. Since the day I was born, I was ill. I was underweight, plagued with asthma, with the world's worst immune system. I spent more time out of school, sick, than I ever did in it. The serum changed everything and I mean everything," said Stephanie ruefully, gesturing to her long legs and ample breasts. "But that's not what I noticed at first. I was too caught up finally feeling healthy. Being able to breath without any difficulty, having the ability to run and jump, and I had energy for once in my life. I wasn't exhausted after doing small things. Then I was assigned to the USO and put in a silly costume to sell bonds. Men flirted, some nicer than others, and most downright rude, and I noticed the other changes, the more physical ones."
Stephanie huffed at the memory, still irritated by the catcalls and how they made her feel. When she worked her way past those bad memories, she turned to Toni with a fond gaze. "Your father designed my uniform, did you know that?" Toni shook her head no and Stephanie had a far away look as she thought about her old friend. "He was a terrible flirt but somehow, when he gave me this uniform and I tried it on and looked in the mirror, for the first time I felt pretty. Like I was Betty Grable almost but even better because it painted me as a soldier and clearly a female one. It's silly and vain, I know that," Stephanie continued, shrugging her shoulders and smiling at Toni. "It would make so much sense for me to change the uniform but every time I think about it, I flash back to that moment, and I just can't do it. Putting on the uniform that your father designed makes me feel good about myself. Even if it does leave my legs exposed to obvious damage. At least," she chuckled, holding up the blue material, "until you made this."
"Betty Grable?" drawled Toni, her dark eyes sparkling with humor.
Laughing and rolling her eyes, Stephanie replied, "A Betty Grable that could kill Nazis, at least." Hopping off the workstation and feeling strangely light and relieved on having revealed all that to Toni, she remarked, "She was everyone's favorite pin-up during the war so feeling just a little bit like her is pretty good if you ask me."
"Everyone, huh?" said Toni with a smirk. She leaned forward, sitting on the edge of the workstation, and held onto the bottom of Stephanie's shirt, as if to keep her from escaping. "Does that include you?"
Collecting the dishes, Stephanie gently pulled Toni's hand away from her shirt but Toni held on, squeezing her hand softly and there was a question in her eyes, teasing but insistent and Stephanie sighed, feigning exasperation as she knew Toni wouldn't let this drop. "No," Stephanie said with a touch of a humor. "I like brunettes so I had a thing for Ava Gardner."
She was about to walk out of the workshop when Toni's voice, clear as a bell, called out, full of affection, "It wasn't silly at all, Stephanie. That's just you being human and you're the best one of those anyone could find."
"Thank you," was all that Stephanie could say in response. Although it seemed horribly inadequate considering how Toni's words made her feel. Which is why she added, just before she exited completely, leaving Toni to her work that she was once again becoming engrossed in, "I feel the same about you."
And what was truly frightening to Stephanie was that she meant it. They had only really just begun to know one another but Stephanie knew Toni was a good person and she would defend her until her dying day. The strength of this belief was almost overwhelming and that was enough to make her decide, for her own good, to not try and understand why she felt this way.
Running had become Stephanie's favorite part of her exercise regimen. She loved traveling the paths of Central Park and concentrating on her form. It wasn't a time for introspection. Stephanie often lost herself to memories and dark thoughts but it wasn't like that when she ran. There was an almost mesmerizing quality to it as if during the run everything in the world was perfect and as it should be. The complete absence of thought is why Stephanie enjoyed it so much.
And listening to music helped too.
She had just returned from her run in Central Park and as she walked off the elevator, she was met with the sight of Toni in the communal kitchen, preparing a pot of coffee. Toni looked at her with a combination of affection and disbelief. "You know most normal people are waking up at this time," she drawled. "I find your obsession with rising early disturbing."
"What?" asked Stephanie, pulling out one of her earbuds, and blinking at Toni.
"It was nothing, just me saying awesomely clever things, and you not hearing because you were busy listening to," Toni paused to pick up the abandoned earbud and eyed Stephanie drolly, "the Jackson 5."
"What?" said Stephanie again, a little defensive as she pulled her earbud away from Toni. "I like that song."
"Captain America likes I Want You Back," Toni murmured, forming an overdone thoughtful expression. "There's a story there somewhere. I think I could probably sell it to the Daily Bugle, don't you?"
Rolling her eyes and walking over to the refrigerator, Stephanie said, "You're the one who got me the mp3 player."
"Out of your love for Beyonce," said Toni, who was still privately amused by the time she caught Stephanie entranced by the Single Ladies music video. "Although," she remarked, walking over to the coffee maker and pouring herself a cup, "one could argue the Jackson 5 falls into the same category of music if only for Michael's influence on Beyonce. Just like I can relate Michael back to his Motown roots and Diana Ross who you also weirdly love. But!" Toni declared, pointing her cup at Stephanie who was pulling out a container of orange juice. "I don't approve of your thing for Morrissey."
"I told you," said Stephanie with fond exasperation. "I find his music soothing."
"That's no excuse," Toni declared, sitting at the kitchen table as Stephanie put a large glass of orange juice in front of her.
Toni looked up at the blonde in silent question and Stephanie pointed at the glass and said sternly, "Drink it. You need Vitamin C. I bet you haven't slept at all, have you?" She placed an apple next to the orange juice and added, "Eat that too. It'll tide you over until I finish making you a real breakfast."
"I want bacon," said Toni imperiously as she took a bite of the apple. "And pancakes, and scrambled eggs, and toast, and-"
"I'll make all of that if you stop talking right now," said Stephanie wryly and Toni snapped her mouth shut. Shaking her head and pulling out the needed food items from the refrigerator and pantry, she started her work. After a few minutes, she turned to see Toni reading the paper and when Stephanie looked at her, she arched an eyebrow. Somehow, even in such a short span, she found herself missing Toni's nonstop talking. "Fine," she sighed, "I take it back. Please talk."
"Oh, thank god," Toni burst out, putting down the paper. "I don't think I've touched an actual paper in five years. You do know that most people get their information on something called Twitter, don't you?"
Laughing quietly, Stephanie turned back to the pancakes and replied, "I like reading papers." Looking over her shoulder as she flipped the pancakes, she grinned at Toni. "Maybe it's part of my 1940's housewife personality?"
"For the record, you're the best housewife ever," said Toni strongly, taking a drink of her orange juice. "You beat up super powered bad guys, go to school, and make kick ass meals. What else is needed, really?" She leaned back in her chair and it rested on the back two legs as she held onto the edge of the table. "I think Pepper is two seconds away from begging you to adopt me. Or at least share custody with her. Apparently taking care of me is a full time job on top of running my company."
The bacon and pancakes done and the eggs scrambled, Stephanie turned off the oven burners and turned to look at Toni. It was easy to tell that Toni expected her to agree in some manner but Stephanie couldn't. She noticed as she got closer to Toni that the other woman had a bad habit of putting herself down. Some times were more subtle than others but all the same, she didn't like it. Not when Toni did so many wonderful things for so many people. "The only reason that you might need someone to take care of you is because you do too much for other people, Toni," said Stephanie quietly, preparing a breakfast plate and putting it in front of her. "You get caught up in your work and don't take the time to think about yourself, even when it comes to your basic needs like eating and sleeping. That's just part of who you are and really, other than the eating and sleeping more, that doesn't need to change. And the work you get caught up in is usually something so complex that only a handful of people in the world can understand it but ultimately, it's something that benefits everyone. Besides," said Stephanie easily, turning around and fixing her own plate. "I like cooking for you and making you sleep every twenty four hours." Taking a seat with Toni at the kitchen table, Stephanie smiled. "I guess that's just part of who I am."
Toni narrowed her eyes at Stephanie, studying her with a shrewd gaze as she bit her piece of bacon in half. Pointing the rest of it as Stephanie, she announced, "We're going out tonight. Me and you."
"Okay," said Stephanie, laughing at the sudden declaration. "Where?"
"I haven't decided yet," said Toni dismissively, finishing off her bacon and moving onto the scrambled eggs. "But I have decided that you need to be ready to leave at six o'clock sharp."
"Why six?" asked Stephanie curiously and when Toni clamped down on her fork and just stared at her she sighed. "Fine," she muttered, shaking her head and pouring maple syrup over her pancakes. "I'll be there."
Toni's only response was to wear a triumphant and entirely exuberant expression.
An hour before their appointed meeting time, Stephanie was standing in front of her closet, trying to decide what to wear. Toni refused to give her any details about her plans for their night out and Stephanie was stuck because when it came to Toni she didn't know what to expect. This was a woman who looked as good in ripped jeans and a t-shirt as she did in dresses that came off the runways of Paris. Toni seemed to fit in everywhere. From the corner diner to the most exclusive restaurant in uptown and once, Stephanie would've been intimidated by that but now she was just impressed.
The problem was, because of that Stephanie didn't know what to expect or how to dress. In the end, she chose a pair of simple grey pants and a black turtleneck. She studied her reflection in the mirror, frowning as her hair always seemed too wavy for her tastes, until she recognized what she was doing. "This is stupid," Stephanie muttered, getting irritated with herself as she grabbed her black oxfords that Toni had once said were blindingly shiny. "We're friends."
There was no reason for her to act this way. She hadn't when she went out with Bucky and they were far closer. That's what Stephanie told herself as she pulled at her laces and tied her shoes.
Bucky wasn't Toni though.
As much as Stephanie loved him, she didn't have the same feelings for Bucky as she did for Toni. In fact, Stephanie realized with a small amount of panic, this was strikingly similar to her experience with Peggy. She arrives at this conclusion after Toni greets her in a sleeveless red dress that was casual but stunning all the same and Stephanie finds herself speechless.
"Well?" Toni demanded, twirling around in a circle, and making Stephanie swallow hard in the process. "What's the verdict?"
"Red is your color," Stephanie said finally and Toni beamed, hooking her arm in the blonde's.
"Damn straight," said Toni strongly. She inspected Stephanie's outfit and tugged at her sleeve, finally saying with a thoughtful murmur, "I'm continually confused by how you make amazingly clean cut and wholesome a workable and attractive look."
"Thanks, I guess," said Stephanie wryly and Toni grinned widely as they walked into the garage.
Snapping open her purse, Toni jingles a pair of car keys in front of Stephanie. "I figured since it's the two of us, we'd take the Lincoln for a spin," she remarked and Stephanie stared at the 1941 silver Lincoln Continental. She hadn't seen one since the expo she attended with Bucky right before he was shipped out. He had spent the better part of an hour remarking on how he was going to save up to buy one and they'd go out for a real night on the town. "If you're nice, I'll even let you drive her."
"I thought you said I'm always nice," said Stephanie humorously and Toni scoffed as she got into the car.
"You are, obnoxiously so, and it makes me and everyone else who is naturally mean feel inferior," Toni said, putting her keys in the ignition.
"You're not mean," protested Stephanie, frowning at Toni's description of herself. "Don't say that."
"Again, I point out the niceness," drawled Toni and Stephanie continued to frown until Toni sighed and relented. "Fine, I'm not mean, whatever. I'm totally letting you drive her on the way back now, I hope you know that."
"Natasha asked me once why we insist our favorite inanimate objects are women," said Stephanie absently and Toni grinned at her. "I didn't know what to tell her. I just said that they always feel like women."
"They're reliable and awesome so they can't be men," said Toni decisively. "Natasha should know better."
"Where are we going?" asked Stephanie, noting that they appeared to be heading towards the Lower East Side.
"We're going to a movie," said Toni and she looked supremely proud of herself as she parked her car in what Stephanie was certain was an illegal spot. "Don't say it," said Toni severely, pointing at Stephanie as they got out of the car. "Searching for legal parking isn't worth the effort. I'll pay for the ticket or god forbid, we'll take a cab she it gets towed, and I'll let you drive her some other time." When Stephanie shrugged, Toni smiled widely and hooked their arms together. "I heard about classic movie night at the Sunshine and naturally, I thought of my favorite housewife, so here we are," Toni proclaimed.
Stephanie stared up at the marquee and wondered which were the classic movies. Nothing up there was anything that she recognized. Toni walked up to the ticket booth, buying two for The Killers, and Stephanie must have been frowning because she said helpfully, "You're an Ava Gardner fangirl, right? This was one of her biggest movies. Unfortunately for you, it came out during your frozen popsicle phase of existence. I figured you might be into seeing it."
Her reply didn't come immediately, Stephanie was still processing what Toni had done. She knew that to Toni this was just a small thing but it touched Stephanie so much to know the other woman thought of her. After a moment, Stephanie smiled happily and looked at Toni. "I am," she said, and moving on instinct, she took Toni's hand in hers, lacing their fingers together and squeezing her hand gently. "This was really sweet of you, Toni. Thank you for thinking of me."
"I'm taking you to a movie, it's not like I'm giving you my kidney," said Toni in droll tones.
Shaking her head, knowing from their time together that Toni always did her best to downplay her kinder moments, Stephanie swung their hands together, feeling strangely playful. "Since you bought the tickets, I'm paying for snacks," she insisted.
"Fine by me," said Toni easily. "As long as you know popcorn costs more than fifty cents these days."
"I'm aware of price increases," Stephanie grumbled, stepping into the line at the concession stand. "I do buy gas."
"My sympathies," drawled Toni, "that's why my armor partially runs on this," she tapped on her chest, a faint blue glow barely visible underneath the dress. "Free and forever lasting energy, you can't beat that."
"About that," said Stephanie curiously, tilting her head to one side. "What's the difference between the vibranium that holds your reactor and the one used for my shield? Or is it the same thing?"
"Stephanie," Toni said, sounding like a disappointed lecturer from her university. "Do you really want to talk about that when we could be discussing whether or not we should get nachos or vegan cookies?"
"What's a vegan cookie?" asked Stephanie with confusion. "And how is it different than a regular cookie?"
"Oh no, now we have to get some," said Toni enthusiastically. She stepped up to the counter, putting in their order while Stephanie simply pulled out her wallet, ready to pay the bill when Toni finished rattling everything off.
When they have the food, with Stephanie carrying a bulk of it, Toni demands they stop at the popcorn seasoning station and Stephanie stares as she adds a variety of flavors to her bucket. It's only thanks to her enhanced reflexes that Stephanie saves her popcorn from having jalapeno added on top of chocolate marshmallow during Toni's seasoning spree. Finally, they head into the theater and Toni keeps up a running commentary through the previews, making Stephanie very grateful that they chose a secluded portion of the theater, with no one sitting around them.
The movie is the sort that Bucky would've loved. Detective stories were always his favorite and he never failed to try and figure out the murderer before the end. She imagined him doing the same with this movie, positive that he would've known much sooner than she did that Kitty Collins had something to do with the Swede's death. During the movie, Toni insists on eating Stephanie's popcorn, claiming she got the seasonings wrong with her own, and several times their fingers brushed against each other. Every time they did, Stephanie's painfully reminded of the reality of being a twenty six year old virgin.
It was so awkward, like being a teenager again, and if Peggy hadn't made things clear then certainly this did. She wished she had more experience though. Something besides those experimental and awkward kisses she had with Bucky that she knew meant far more to him than they ever did to her. Something more than that one brief but perfect kiss with Peggy before she pursued the Red Skull. Something that would make her more confident because Stephanie had always been tremendously shy. Having feelings for other girls only increased this because Stephanie grew up knowing it wasn't normal.
But it was normal now and Stephanie couldn't quite grasp that as much as she wanted to. There was a hesitation, a fear, that she couldn't escape and she wanted to do that, she wanted it so very badly, but it seemed as if she was stuck in quicksand. It would happen soon enough, Stephanie is sure of that. She's working at it, she's talked to Maria and Natasha about her feelings, and she is starting to accept that part of herself. Eventually it will happen but even when it does, Stephanie doesn't think she could approach Toni.
After so many misunderstandings and unneeded hostility, they're friends, and Stephanie doesn't want to ruin that. Besides, Toni is so different from her. As glamorous and confident as Peggy was, she was another soldier, and somehow that made her attainable. Toni is brilliant and worldly and sophisticated and very much out of her league. Stephanie sighed, looking from Toni to Ava Gardner up on the screen, thinking that as much as she loved Ava, her friend was much prettier.
At least Toni seemed to know about her and accepted it, thought Stephanie, remembering her teasing question about Stephanie's favorite pin-up during the war. Although, according to Natasha anyway, Toni didn't have much of a preference when it came to women or men, she dated both equally. If you could call what Toni did dating...
And in that, lay another problem. Stephanie couldn't be casual with sex. She would have to be in a committed relationship and in love and on top of it, she'd have to get over her fear of asking someone out. Even now, she couldn't wrap her head around the fact that she was attractive to other people, and the prospect of rejection was an ever present fear. Not that she needed to worry about any of this in the first place. Toni wasn't interested in her romantically. They were just friends.
Which is what Stephanie kept reminding herself as Toni continued to steal her popcorn and scooted closer to whisper in Stephanie's ear about the latest plot development in the movie. Friends. They were just friends.
Stephanie's stomach growled loudly as they walked out of the theater and Toni laughed while Stephanie's cheeks grew hot with embarrassment. "Oh god," Toni giggled, hooking her arm in Stephanie's again. "You're officially the cutest thing ever."
"It's not my fault!" Stephanie protested, hoping against hope that she would stop blushing already.
"Don't worry, I'm already placing blame on your metabolism," said Toni as her giggling died out. "Come on, super soldier, we need to feed you," she announced, pulling Stephanie along and heading east on Houston Street.
They take a left onto 1st Avenue and wind up at Lil' Frankie's Pizza where Toni insists on having a table in their garden section and Stephanie enjoys the breeze. Studying the menu and thinking that the Salsiccia Pizza sounds good, she puts the menu down and gazes at the hanging plants.
"We should get two pizzas," said Toni after a moment, setting her menu down. "You can have one, I can have half of mine, and you can finish the rest of it off for me." Stephanie reddened at this and Toni leaned across the table, flicking Stephanie on the forehead as she declared, "Stop that! I know how your body works. If you don't eat twice as much as the rest of us you'd be starving. It's nothing you need to be embarrassed about, it's fucking biology."
"Fucking biology," repeated Stephanie quietly, somehow amused by that statement.
"This is a momentous night, I got you to say fuck, I think I've officially accomplished all my life's goals," Toni grinned widely.
"You should have more lofty goals," said Stephanie, unable to help smiling in return.
"I really should. Time Magazine does say I'm a genius, after all," drawled Toni with a wink.
Their waitress arrived shortly to take their orders and they settled into a comfortable conversation about their thoughts on the movie and Toni's latest project and Stephanie's nursing classes until their food arrives. Toni's enthusiasm about eating allows Stephanie to feel comfortable enough to tuck into her meal without the usual politeness and in fifteen minutes she's finished off her pizza and is taking a slice of Toni's Napoletena at the brunette's urging.
It's right around this time that Stephanie notices a little girl, no more than the age of six, poking her head around the corner and into their small section. Every few minutes, she disappears then reappears, her eyes wide and full of amazement and it's on the fifth time that Stephanie flashes a bright smile at her and says hello. The girl eeps and disappears again and Toni cranes her head to stare at her when she reemerges yet again and lifted an eyebrow.
"Hey," said Toni in teasing tones. "What's your name? Mine is Toni and that's Stephanie."
"Melissa," said the little girl, straightening up and edging around the corner.
"Melissa is a nice name," complimented Toni, leaning back in her chair and smiling. "So, Melissa," she drew her name out slowly and she dropped her chair on all four legs then leaned forward, wearing a secretive expression. "Who are you spying on? Not us, right? We're just eating pizza."
"Yeah, but," Melissa said slowly, shifting from foot to foot, her eyes darting from Toni to Stephanie then back again. "You're Iron Maiden, aren't you?"
"Sure am," said Toni, flashing a wide smile, nonchalant as she jerked her thumb at Stephanie. "And she's Captain America." When Stephanie frowned at this, Toni shrugged as if to say, what do you want? And Stephanie sighed, shaking her head.
"Really?" Melissa said, edging closer and staring at Stephanie.
"Really totally," said Toni and she grinned, ducking her head and forming a mischievous expression. "I bet if you even asked her nicely she'd bend this knife with her amazing super strength."
"Toni," said Stephanie with a good deal of exasperation.
"Aww, come on, I know you can bend it back," said Toni and much to Stephanie's dismay, she had the same silently pleading expression as Melissa. When Stephanie took the knife from Toni, she crowed in triumph and said to Melissa, "It's great when she does stuff like this. Way better than throwing her shield."
"I like my shield," Stephanie groused to herself, bending the knife easily into a circle. Melissa's eyes were as wide as saucers and Stephanie quickly fixed the knife, returning it to it's normal shape, hoping she hadn't caused that much damage.
"What did I tell you? Amazing," said Toni, grinning and leaning back in her chair. "Hey," Toni looked at Melissa as she reached for her purse. "Do you want an autograph? I'll even get Cap to sign it for you."
Melissa nodded eagerly and Toni pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, smoothing it out and signing both as Toni Stark and Iron Maiden. She then slid it over to Stephanie who followed suit, adding a small note that it was a pleasure to meet Melissa. When Stephanie handed the paper over to Melissa, she clutched it close to her chest, staring at them for another moment and seemingly working up her courage. Then she turned to Toni, breathing deeply, then she exclaimed, "I'm going to be like you when I grow up!" Not finished, she looked over at Stephanie and added, "You're awesome!"
That said, Melissa disappeared around the corner to the sound of a woman calling her name, and Stephanie laughed. "I'm awesome," she echoed.
"I second that," said Toni, grinning playfully.
"Awesome but apparently but not somebody you want to grow up like," continued Stephanie humorously.
"Please," snorted Toni, resting her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands. "Everybody should grow up to be like you. If they did then the world would be practically perfect in every way."
"I'm sure that's not true," said Stephanie, rising to her feet and pulling out her wallet, leaving enough to settle their bill.
"I'm sure that it is," Toni argued and she added her own money to the pile, ensuring a hefty tip for their waitress. "Face it, my little housewife, you are just that much better than everyone else."
Frowning at this, Stephanie followed Toni out of the restaurant, waving to Melissa as they walked past and when they were on the street, she said, "I'm not better than anyone. Especially not you, Toni."
"Oh?" asked Toni, clearly not believing this.
"You do as much as I do to help people," said Stephanie seriously. "Why would you ever think I was better than you?"
"Because you're you and I'm me," said Toni simply.
Releasing a noise of irritation, Stephanie shook her head, and said, "That's not a reason."
"I guess I don't have a reason to know it's the truth," said Toni, looking ahead, her face blank. She only jerked out of this when Stephanie's hand held hers and the blonde gazed at her earnestly. "What?" she demanded.
"If I'm awesome then logically, I should have awesome judgment," said Stephanie, squeezing Toni's hand and lacing their fingers together. "And my awesome judgment tells me that you're just as awesome as I am."
In response, Toni ducked her head, a blush clinging to her cheeks and to Stephanie she had never looked more beautiful. Especially when she looked at Stephanie almost shyly and said in sardonic tones, "You just said awesome way too much for one sentence, you know that right? It sounded completely dorky."
Shrugging her shoulders, not at all caring what she sounded like, Stephanie replied, "Just as long you know it's true."
"Ugh," said Toni with overdone disgust, though affection shone clearly in her eyes. "You are so sappy."
Stephanie just shrugged again and Toni leaned into her as they walked back to the car. Silently enjoying one another's company and Stephanie said quietly, "Thank you for taking me out tonight. This was the most fun I've had in awhile."
"Yeah," Toni's voice was a whisper in the wind. She rested her head on Stephanie's shoulder, looking up at the blonde and a lock of her hair fell into her eyes as she offered Stephanie a sweet smile. "Same here."
Her hand seemed to move of its own volition, rising up and pushing the lock of hair out of Toni's eyes and falling down to linger on her cheek. Mesmerized by Toni's dark gaze, soft and glowing, Stephanie murmured, "You're beautiful."
For the second time that night, Toni wore an impossibly shy expression, and for Stephanie it only lasted an instant then it was gone but it was enough for her to panic and wonder why she said that and how to take it back. How to explain that she hadn't meant it that way and Toni didn't need to worry because she only thought of her as a friend. Then Toni was smiling at her, wide and gleaming and it was as if Toni was suffused with happiness, and if she had been beautiful before then in this moment she was glorious perfection itself. "Sweet talker," Toni accused playfully, hooking their arms together.
And it was then Stephanie decided, no matter what, she would always tell Toni what she's thinking because in the end, nothing bad could truly come from it.
Advanced Idea Mechanics, also known as AIM, was a terrorist organization for scientists who wanted to overthrow world government's with technological means. That being the case, anyone who they deemed to have a brilliant mind and skills they could utilize became a target. SHIELD had them on the radar for quite some time but it wasn't until they successfully managed to kidnap Toni after making an attempt on Bruce, one that left several blocks in ruins, that Stephanie heard of them. Tracking down Toni wasn't the easiest thing but apparently the woman made a failsafe in Jarvis, allowing AI access to the reactor core that kept her alive, and through that they located Toni at AIM's base in Boca Caliente.
Stephanie disappeared through dark corridors with Jarvis speaking in her ear, telling her where to go, pleased to hear the tell tale sounds of Hulk and Thor's destruction in the distance. She hopes they tear down this whole damn place for what they've done and when she arrived in the secured cellblock, she's met with armed guards. Her shield takes out ten of them and her fists do the rest. When a bullet grazes her leg and she feels nothing, Stephanie reminds herself to tell Toni that her tights really are bulletproof. Reaching the cell, Stephanie attempts to operate the panel, but in the end, she grows frustrated and just smashes it, relieved when the door opens in response.
When she enters the room, she finds Toni slumped in a small cot, chained to the wall with devices she's never seen before and look entirely too dangerous for Stephanie's liking. She rushes to Toni's side, cupping her face in her hands and visually inspecting her wounds, wishing she could take care of them on the spot. Toni opens her eyes slowly and a small smile forms on her chapped lips and she coughs. "Hey," she coughed, "what took you so long?"
"You know I'm not the best with GPS," Stephanie joked, her voice cracking, trying not to think about the time she found Bucky in a similar situation. Vowing that she would get Toni out of this, just like she had done for him. "Toni," she murmured, leaning down and looking into the brunette's eyes. "Do you know to turn this stuff off?"
"There's a control station down the hall," Toni rasped and Stephanie frowned.
She didn't want to leave Toni but she had to get these things off of her. It was then that Natasha appeared with Clint at her heels and Stephanie pointed them forward. "Toni says there's a control panel down there that will deactivate this stuff," she said and Natasha nodded, running down the hall and Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief. If anyone could figure out how to hack a system, it was Natasha, and sure enough, in a few minutes the bonds holding Toni disappeared.
"Yay," said Toni hoarsely, rubbing her wrists, and rising to her feet. "Stephanie," she said with a certain grim determination. "Please tell me that you brought my suit."
"Got it," Clint interrupted, pulling the pack off his back and flipping it open.
Toni grinned on seeing the armor, bending down with Stephanie's help to activate it, and soon enough the woman was covered head to toe in the very technology that AIM had kidnapped her for. "All right," her voice, modulated but obviously resolved as she punched one metal hand into the other's palm. "I say we wreck these guys."
"Toni," said Stephanie, stepping closer and imagining she could look into her eyes despite armor. "Are you sure you're okay to do this? Because we can-"
"I need this," said Toni strongly.
More than anything, Stephanie wished that Toni would lift the face mask, so she could look into her eyes but that didn't happen. Stephanie sighed, knowing that Toni was right, that she did need this, but worried about her condition all the same. "When this is over," she said stern but soft. "You have to promise to let me take care of you."
"Aww," Toni's drawl came out, feeble but charming all the same, as she lifted the face mask. "You want to kiss my boo boos?" When Stephanie turned beet red at this, Toni laughed and said, "That made me feel better. Thanks, Cap."
"You're welcome," mumbled Stephanie through her embarrassment.
"Come on," said Toni tenaciously, putting her face mask into place. "Lets finish this."
With that, she took off, flying down the hallways at top speeds and Stephanie followed, hot on her heels. Fully committed to keeping Toni safe until they got her back to Avengers headquarters.
Although she patched up most of Toni's wounds on the quinjet during the flight home, Stephanie insisted on taking Toni to the infirmary. It had taken her some time to learn the more sophisticated equipment but soon she was studying a CAT scan of Toni and was pleased her condition wasn't as bad as she feared. Toni, for her part, was distracting herself by rattling a million questions off at Stephanie, including how her education at Columbia was going.
"I'm progressing at a nice pace, despite the days I miss," said Stephanie, kneeling in front of Toni and wrapping her ribs. "I should be able to move onto my post licensing education soon. I plan on focusing on Acute Care as my field of study."
"Fancy," said Toni, grinning at Stephanie who noticed Toni's slight wince and slowed her movements as a result.
"Not really," Stephanie replied as she finished wrapping Toni's ribs. She reached for Toni's shirt and carefully pulled it over her head, smiling at Toni when it was on. "It just means I'm qualified to care for those who get sicker or more seriously injured than what you would normally see. Emergency medicine, basically." Stephanie knelt down, inspecting Toni's burns with a frown, applying more ointment as she pulled back the gauze she applied during their flight. Looking up at Toni when she was finished, she quirked a smile and said, "I think those skills should be useful with our life, don't you?"
"Case in point," Toni drawled, pointing at herself, and Stephanie laughed. "You know Pepper's over the moon about you being little miss medical training. She thinks you're the reason I'm apparently taking better care of myself."
"I don't know if she should give me credit," said Stephanie softly, moving to inspect Toni's other leg. "But you have been eating and sleeping more. Both of which make me very happy since I'd like to keep you around for as long as possible."
Several moments passed and Stephanie became profoundly aware of Toni's gaze along with the silence which had become almost deafening. Finally, she lifted her head and saw Toni looking at her with a veiled and inscrutable expression. Stephanie started to ask Toni what was wrong when the other woman murmured, "You mean that, don't you?"
"Of course, I mean it," said Stephanie, putting everything back in its proper place. She took a breath and tried to calm herself, to work past the immediate hurt she felt on hearing Toni ask this. Stephanie thought they were past this, that they were friends and trusted one another, but apparently Toni didn't trust Stephanie enough to believe she wanted her to live a long and healthy life. It was disappointing to say the least and crushing in a way that Stephanie didn't want to think about. Finally, she got ahold of herself and gave Toni a small smile as she walked over to the bed. "I know you hate these beds, even though you're the one who bought them, but I want you to stay here for tonight. If you need anything, get Jarvis to call me."
"You're leaving?" asked Toni with a frown. Her hand jerked forward and she grabbed onto Stephanie's wrist. "Don't," she said almost urgently. "I'm not tired and you know how I hate sleeping pills. Can't we hang out and watch tv or something?"
Gazing down at Toni and seeing the silent plea in those dark eyes, Stephanie couldn't find it in her to say no. And so, she dragged a chair over to Toni's bed and sat in it, smiling when Toni beamed at her and told Jarvis to turn on the television. The brunette cycled through the channels and Stephanie remained quiet, responding to Toni's remarks and questions, but otherwise staying silent, lost in her thoughts. She didn't want to be this affected by Toni. In fact, Stephanie resented it and right now she wished that what Toni thought of her and their friendship didn't matter so much. Maybe if it didn't then she wouldn't be hurt that Toni obviously didn't feel they were as close as Stephanie did.
"Are you all right?" Toni's voice broke through Stephanie's introspection and she looked at the other woman. When Stephanie didn't reply, Toni reached for her hand, and continued, "You haven't really been here the last hour."
"Natasha tells me I brood too much," said Stephanie, forcing herself to smile brightly, and pulling her hand away from Toni's. "I get in these moods sometimes. Don't worry about it."
"Stephanie," Toni frowned and she shifted on her bed, making Stephanie stand, if only to keep her from moving. When Stephanie leaned over, placing her hand gently on Toni's shoulder, the brunette reached for her hand again, lacing their fingers and tugging on it until she sat on the bed next to her. "Come on," Toni wheedled, flashing a smile while tapping her fingers on Stephanie's palm in a playful movement. "Tell me what's wrong."
"It's nothing," Stephanie insisted, trying to pull her hand away but sighing as Toni stubbornly hung on.
"Nothing," Toni echoed and she snorted then eyed Stephanie skeptically. "I'll believe that in right about never."
Staring at their hands and thinking of the time they've spent together, how Toni made her feel secure about herself in a way that no one in her life, save Bucky ever had, Stephanie said reluctantly, "I was upset by what you said." When Toni stared at her blankly, clearly lost, Stephanie went on, "When you asked if I really wanted you to be around for as long as possible. It hurt to hear you say that because I thought we were closer now and you knew how I felt. That I care for you and-"
Whatever Stephanie was going to say next was silenced by Toni's lips on hers and at first, she didn't know what was happening. It was so sudden and strange and she didn't think she ever outwardly let Toni know how she felt, how very attracted she was, but here Toni was, kissing her and Stephanie didn't know what to think. It was awkward and fast and ended before it really ever began and Stephanie could only stare, utterly perplexed, at Toni when it was over.
"Toni?" Stephanie muttered, lifting her hand up, lightly touching her lips. "I don't understand."
"I suck at this," said Toni in self-deprecating tones, making Stephanie blink in confusion. "I mean, relationships, life, trying to be stable and all that shit. I really suck at it and I still don't get how someone like you could care about somebody like me but I love that you do and I want to cling to you forever to make sure you don't ever change your mind about that. Because this thing we have, it's the best part of my life, more than the armor, the company, or the team, and I'm rambling now, aren't I?"
"Maybe a little," said Stephanie affectionately, laughing and holding Toni's face in her hands. "Thank you for telling me that," she murmured, caressing Toni's cheek with her thumb and smiling brightly. When Toni mumbled a series of explanations, she just smiled wider and moved her head to peer up into Toni's eyes. "You know, that was my fifth kiss, and only my second one with another woman," said Stephanie thoughtfully, aware Toni was studying her with interest. "The last one happened over seventy years ago during a fairly dangerous fire fight but I think it might have lasted longer than this one."
"Rogers," said Toni seriously, narrowing her eyes at the blonde. "Are you seriously besmirching my kiss?"
Laughing and feeling happier than she had in quite some time, Stephanie shook her head, her face a breath away from Toni's as she said with a smile, "Not at all. Just encouraging us to share another."
"Oh, well then," Toni puffed up, grinning rakishly and moving closer. "I'll make sure you'll always remember your sixth."
Their first kiss was brief and sudden and their second was the complete opposite. Slow and sweet and it left Stephanie with no doubts about Toni's feelings for her, the affection that the brunette felt, because it was in the gentle caress of her lips and the hesitant probing of her tongue. Stephanie sighed happily, opening her mouth, welcoming Toni in, winding her arms around Toni's neck and pulling her closer. It wasn't enough, Stephanie thought incredibly, she wanted more, so much more with Toni, she wanted to touch and to taste and oh god, where was the discipline she was so known for? It had completely abandoned her in this moment as one kiss led to another and another until finally Stephanie pulled away, gasping for breath.
"We shouldn't," Stephanie muttered. She thought she saw something flash in Toni's eyes as the brunette began to retreat and Stephanie grabbed her hands, stilling this motion. "Not because I don't want to," she said quickly. "I do, I really do," Stephanie continued shyly, well aware of how her cheeks were heating up, "but there's your injuries. I don't want to aggravate them."
"You're killing me with the cute, you know that?" said Toni sardonically, sighing and leaning back on the bed. She eyed Stephanie for a moment and drawled, forming a thoroughly seductive expression, "I know you'd never hurt me and you know you'd never hurt me so why can't we-"
"Toni," said Stephanie, laughing with a slight plea to her voice, "I really want to. Only I don't seem to have the best control around you and a lack of control involving super strength and an injured person isn't conducive."
Narrowing her eyes further, Toni huffed but grinned and muttered, "Conducive."
"But when you do recover," Stephanie continued shyly, directing her gaze all around the room, never holding it in one place long and squeezing her hands into fists. "I was wondering if you would like to go on a date with me."
She felt Toni's hands on her face, directing it back to her and Stephanie allowed the gesture, facing Toni as she wore the most breathtaking smile yet. Once again, Stephanie found her control slipping and she moved forward to capture Toni's lips in a kiss just as she agreed to the date. Stephanie managed to get ahold of herself and when they parted Toni beamed at her, laughing and kissing her cheek as she said this was going to be the fastest recovery on the planet.
And Stephanie couldn't find it in her to argue.
The instant that Maria and Natasha found out about the date, they insisted on taking Stephanie out shopping. Which is why she stood in the women's section of Bergdorf Goodman, trying to not look at their price tags. "Blue," said Maria decisively, her arms folded over her chest as she studied the evening dresses. "That's definitely your color."
"Maria's right, you should wear blue," Natasha agreed and the two women staring putting aside dresses for Stephanie to try on. When Stephanie moved to stand next to her, Natasha held up a dress with a rather extravagant and puffy bottom, making Stephanie grimace in response. "Did you ask or did she?"
Noting that Maria paused to study her curiously on hearing Natasha's question, Stephanie sighed. "I did but..." Stephanie trailed off and they both had the same expectant look on their faces and it was almost amusing. She was certain that if she was anyone other than herself she would find them threatening in this moment. "She kissed me first."
Maria narrowed her eyes and muttered something about Stark being a playgirl. Natasha laughed and remarked, "What did you want her to do? Stephanie wouldn't have made the first move." Focusing back on Stephanie and pulling another dress out, this one with a crepe-back and was made of satin. When Stephanie gave a nod of approval, Natasha continued, "You wouldn't have asked Stark out if she hadn't kissed you. Isn't that right?"
"Probably not," said Stephanie reluctantly. She hated that was the truth but she still was trying to adjust to the attitudes about being gay. While many people accepted it and supported gay rights, there were just as many who thought she would burn in hell for her feelings. It was like the 1940's but not and more explicitly so because back then it just wasn't talked about. People just hid it or they were sent away to sanitariums. Stephanie wanted to be as brave as everyone thought she was, to embrace herself and her sexuality fully, but it was difficult with those memories lurking in her mind. Still, she was doing her best and would continue to try and get past this. Primarily for herself and her own peace of mind but also for what she hoped was her future relationship with Toni. "I'm trying though," she offered Natasha a small smile. "I'm really trying."
"You asked her out, that's a start," said Natasha encouragingly.
If Stephanie didn't know her better, she would swear Natasha was trying to look on the bright side. Except that Natasha loathed that sort of saying and she could practically picture the glare she'd get if she suggested such a thing. Taking the dresses the redhead handed to her, Stephanie looked to Maria who had on the perpetual frown that had been on her features since Stephanie told her about the date. "Maria," she began slowly and her friend turned to her. "I know you don't like Toni. A lot of people don't like Toni and I used to be one of them but I really do care about her. What I feel is real and I'm pretty sure she feels the same way. At least," Stephanie looked hopefully at Natasha, "it seems like she does."
"Stark treats you differently than everyone else, Stephanie," reassured Natasha. "She bothers to think before she speaks around you for one thing," she continued, sounding almost confounded about this phenomena.
Maria remained silent and staring and then she sighed heavily. "If she hurts you I'm going after her," said Maria plainly, and Stephanie beamed at her friend as she brushed past them and held up a stretch silk charmeuse dress. "This is the one."
Laughing and adding the dress to her pile, Stephanie went into the dressing room to try them all on. Only to find herself deciding there was really no need after putting on the dress Maria had chosen. She was soon instructed to pick matching shoes and a purse which then led to an impromptu make up tutorial. Natasha was particularly adept in this area and if Stephanie had stopped to think about it, that skill set did make a sort of sense for the spy to have.
The night of the date, Stephanie waits for Toni in the common area of their headquarters, glad for their teammates respect for privacy. Toni emerges off the elevator, clothed in a beautiful black gown that appeared to be made of the same material as Stephanie's but was longer and featured only one shoulder strap over her left side. "And she's speechless," said Toni, sounding all too pleased to acknowledge this. "That's a good sign." When Stephanie nodded, she laughed and ran her index finger down the bridge of Stephanie's nose, a fond smile tugging at her lips. "You're so cute."
Stephanie just swallowed and offered a shaky smile in response, wanting to kiss Toni more than anything, and finding relief when the brunette took care of that herself, raising her lips up to Stephanie's. It was slow and sweet and lingering and when they separated, Stephanie breathed, "You're beautiful."
"You keep the compliments coming and you'll get a lot more kisses out of me," said Toni humorously, hooking her arm in Stephanie's and leaning against her as they walked onto the elevator.
"It's the truth," said Stephanie stubbornly and Toni flashed a bright smile at her. Blushing faintly, Stephanie pressed the button for the lobby and said, "I arranged a car for us. That's okay, isn't it?"
"You didn't want to drive?" asked Toni, a little surprised. Other than art and her love for running, Stephanie's favorite way to wile away time was to drive her motorcycle or one of Toni's cars through the city or countryside.
"I wanted to concentrate on you tonight," said Stephanie matter of factly. She felt Toni's gaze burning into her and she turned to the other woman who had an unreadable expression on her features. "What?"
Instead of replying, Toni just crooked her finger, gesturing for Stephanie to lean down and when she did, Toni kissed her. It was the type of kiss that was airy, a gentle whisper of a touch, that somehow said more in its softness than it could have ever done with passion. Nevertheless, it left Stephanie's heart beating faster and with a sigh, she rested her head on top of Toni's and mumbled, "If you kiss me every time I say something you like we'll be late for our reservations."
"Punctuality is such an old fashioned notion," Toni pouted as she grinned mischievously. "Wouldn't you rather kiss?"
"I rather do both," said Stephanie primly, holding the door to the lobby open for Toni. "You remember we have a driver?"
For a second, Toni appeared stunned by what Stephanie implied then she burst out laughing, grabbing Stephanie's hand and kissing it before pulling the other woman into the car after her. "I adore a woman who can multitask," she drawled.
When they arrive at Daniel, Stephanie grimaces at people trying to subtly take photos of them with their cell phone cameras, and is relieved when they're led to their private table. Stephanie has already studied the menu extensively online and asked Natasha what half of it is so when the waiter takes their order, she rattles everything she wants off, for once not the least bit embarrassed about the amount of food. Toni grins at Stephanie, saying that she plans on stealing half of what she ordered then tells the waiter that she'll have the Cantimpalo Crusted Swordfish and to bring her a Bergamot Martini.
"I think if we didn't clean up nice and weren't completely oh my god you're superheroes recognizable, he'd suspect us of running up the bill only to skip out on it," Toni teased, leaning across the table.
Returning Toni's smile and reaching for her hand, Stephanie said, "If we did, it would just wind up on Nick's tab."
"Ohhh, I'd love to see his face," said Toni with delight, wiggling in her seat. "He'd give us the best one-eyed glare ever."
"Nah," said Stephanie, shaking her head. "Nick reminds me of Colonel Phillips and a lot of the upper brass in a lot of ways. He comes off like a son of a bitch but he knows when to let the soldiers run a little bit wild."
"Are you telling me Captain Rogers dined and dashed during the war?" asked Toni, thoroughly amused at this.
"I was a Lieutenant actually," said Stephanie wryly, "but Senator Brandt thought Captain America sounded better than Lieutenant America and the rest is history."
"Oh my god," sputtered Toni, her eyes wide, and an incredulous look forming on her face. "Are you serious?"
"It's the sad truth," said Stephanie with quiet humor. "I don't really have the heart to correct anyone when they call me Captain Rogers, mostly because Maria told me they posthumously raised me in rank, but you might as well know the truth."
"I don't know about this, Stephanie," said Toni seriously, tapping her chin and narrowing her eyes. "This might make me change my entire opinion about you. How can I be expected to date someone I grew up idolizing only to find out she's not really a Captain but is in fact a lowly Lieutenant?" Shaking her head sadly, she said, "You're crushing dreams."
Laughing at Toni's antics, Stephanie said, "You did not idolize me."
"I made my dad buy me an outfit," said Toni solemnly. "It had pom poms."
"Why pom poms?" Stephanie sputtered at the ridiculousness of it.
"I'm not sure, it was the seventies and things were confusing," said Toni thoughtfully. She lifted an eyebrow and formed a somewhat lascivious expression. "I could try and find a substitute for it if you want. We can play dress up."
Stephanie tilted her head, considering it for a moment. "I do want to try on the suit," she said finally.
"I'll make you a red, white, and blue model," Toni promised and Stephanie laughed.
Their food soon arrived and their discussion dwindled as Toni indulged in dishes from Stephanie's eight course tasting meal while also insisting that the blonde try some of her swordfish. Stephanie noticed Toni's reluctance to leave the restaurant well after their food was finished and she asked if Toni would like to go dancing. Immediately, Toni's face brightened and she rose to her feet, offering her hand to Stephanie who smiled and said she knew of the perfect place that had her sort of dancing.
Settling into the car, Toni leaned against Stephanie, playing with the hem of her dress as she asked, "Did you dance a lot?"
"All the time," said Stephanie with a fond smile. "Sometimes we'd get lucky during missions and find a town that wasn't leveled by HYDRA that had a decent pub where we'd rack up a huge tab on beer and Izzy would get on the piano and we'd just dance and dance." Stephanie's smile had a touch of melancholy to it as she murmured, "Bucky was the best dancer. He taught me how when we were fifteen and until the serum, he was the only person who ever asked me to dance."
"Everybody else doesn't know what they missed," said Toni confidently and Stephanie laced her fingers with Toni's, appreciating the sentiment. "What about the first woman you kissed?" asked Toni curious but cautious. "You never danced with her in some romantic but completely secluded location while the bomb dropped?"
"No," Stephanie laughed, shaking her head, "by the time I realized Peggy might feel the same as me I was on a plane with the Red Skull, about to crash in Antarctica. Bucky used to say I wasn't the fastest on the uptake. I always wanted to share a dance with the right partner though. Somebody I actually wanted and I knew wanted me." She shifted in her seat, forcing down her nerves and looking at Toni head on as she said earnestly, "That's why I want to take you dancing now."
"Honestly," Toni muttered as she cupped Stephanie's face in her hands, "you keep saying things that make me want to kiss you forever." When Stephanie blushed at this, Toni chuckled and said against her lips, "Now I have to do it."
Each kiss was better than the last, that's what Stephanie thought. Maybe because with each kiss she became more comfortable and confident in both herself and in Toni. That she really was what the brunette wanted and the slow rising passion and the sweetness of Toni's kisses confirmed that for Stephanie in a way that words never could. Her tongue pressed for entrance and Toni welcomed her in, sighing into her mouth. Toni muttered Stephanie's name in between kisses, her breath hot on Stephanie's skin, her hands tangling in her hair as she tilted Stephanie's head, allowing their kisses to become deeper yet. They only parted at the cough of the driver and him announcing that they had arrived.
Toni, sitting halfway in Stephanie's lap, peered around her to look at the sign for the Cotton Club in Harlem. There was a questioning look in her eyes and Stephanie tried to concentrate on that, rather than their proximity and the enjoyable weight of Toni resting on her legs. "I know it's a little old fashioned but I always wanted to go to the original club," she explained.
"This looks good to me," Toni said with a smile. "And besides, haven't you noticed lately I've been developing a deep abiding love for everything old fashioned?" asked Toni playfully as she accepted the driver's hand and exited the car.
"Lucky me," said Stephanie, smiling as she offered Toni her arm.
"The luckiest," Toni agreed, winking at Stephanie while the blonde opened the door to the club.
They're greeted by the sound of roaring jazz and Stephanie steps close to Toni. She rests her hands on Toni's hips and leans down to murmur in her ear, "Have you ever swing danced before?" When Toni answered in the negative, Stephanie offered a reassuring smile. "Don't worry," she said as she turned to pay their entrance fee. "I'll teach you." They moved through the club towards the dance floor where Stephanie got a look at the dancers. It appeared you lined up on the far right side of the dance floor and took a short turn on the floor until an employee signaled your time was up. Stephanie decided to let Toni observe a few dances before attempting to lead her into one. Looking to Toni with a smile, she said, "Bucky was great at the Lindy Hop and he taught me everything I know."
"No offense but I saw pictures of you before," said Toni, moving closer and raising her voice slightly to be heard over the music. Her eyes were focused on the man doing a backflip before bending over to let his female partner frog hop over his back. "You didn't look like you'd be fit enough for this kind of thing."
"Yeah," said Stephanie sheepishly, rubbing the back of her head. "One dance usually did me in for the night but I never wanted to say no to Bucky, he loved it so much. Plus it really is a lot of fun."
Fifteen minutes of observation and discussion passed then Toni took Stephanie firmly in hand and pulled her over to the line of waiting dancers. As it got closer to their turn on the dance floor, Toni stood on her toes, her breath hot on Stephanie's skin as she said, "I don't give a shit if it's showing off and somebody sees my panties. I demand you show these people how it's done. I expect be thrown and caught spectacularly at least once, Captain America."
"You got it," Stephanie agreed with a twinkle in her eye.
Entwining her fingers with Toni's, they stepped out onto the dance floor and Stephanie couldn't remember the last time she had this much fun. It was probably right before Bucky died. When they were in that bar in Poland, greeted like heroes and all night the guys were treated to free drinks. Izzy played the piano, she danced with Bucky and Pinky, and Peggy showed up after an hour of rabble rousing and spent the rest of the night talking to Stephanie. That night she had felt so wonderfully and perfectly alive and that was exactly how Stephanie felt now, dancing with Toni, taking in her laughter and gleaming smile. Doing as she was told and throwing her in the air to the sound of gasps and catching her just as spectacularly. Placing Toni's feet delicately on the dance floor then bowing and kissing the top of her hand, grinning at the cheers from the crowd.
"Show off," said Toni breathlessly, smiling brightly as they made it off the dance floor and to the bar.
Standing in front of the bar, her hands on either side of Toni, resting on the counter top, Stephanie arched an eyebrow. "You told me to do it," she reminded, leaning down to put their faces a breath apart.
"I did, didn't I?" Toni considered this with an exaggerated frown. "At least we showed off properly then," Toni was preening as she wrapped her arms around Stephanie's neck and captured her lips for a kiss. Stephanie's hands moved across the Toni's back, encountering rougher, raised skin, that was obvious scarring and when she did, Toni pulled away, reaching for Stephanie's hands. "Plastic surgery can't fix everything apparently," she joked and Stephanie frowned. "I was thinking of going in again, seeing if they can do more for me, because fuck, I have the money and they're ugly as hell, right?"
"No," said Stephanie, her hands resuming their former position. Moving slow and careful, making sure she wasn't doing anything unwanted as Toni allowed her touch. She rested them on Toni's back, her fingertips trailing over the scars. "They could never be ugly because they're proof that you're still here. That you're alive and you're a survivor. Toni," Stephanie whispered, "they're part of what makes you beautiful."
Toni released a shuddering breath, looking off to one side before turning to Stephanie and offering her a wavering smile. "Honestly," Toni huffed, reaching up to curl her hand into Stephanie's hair. "What did I tell you about saying things that make me want to kiss you?" Stephanie smiled sweetly and Toni muttered something under her breath that even Stephanie, thanks to the loud music, couldn't understand. Before she could ask, Toni was kissing her and murmuring against her lips that at this rate she would always want to kiss her forever. And that was something Stephanie saw no problem with.
It was just past midnight when they arrived back at Stark Tower. By some silent agreement, they lingered in the common area instead of heading back to their separate floors. Toni sat on the back of the couch with Stephanie leaning next to her. Resting her head on Stephanie's shoulder, Toni said, "This was a good night."
"It was," Stephanie concurred, a smile pulling at her lips as she ran her fingers through Toni's hair. She turned her head slightly, breathing in Toni's scent, light and intoxicating and murmured, "That was the best date I've ever had."
"Wasn't this your only date?" asked Toni teasingly, tugging at the strap to Stephanie's dress, rubbing the material in between her thumb and index finger.
"No," said Stephanie humorously as she watched Toni. Part of her wanted to bat Toni's hand away because this was a very expensive dress and the other part found the behavior strangely adorable. She compared it almost to a tired kitten that was half heartedly swatting at a toy. "I've had dates before. Pretty awful ones, in fact, but this is the only date that's mattered."
"Ugh," Toni mumbled, kissing the line of Stephanie's neck and nipping at her jaw, "you're killing me, Rogers."
Laughing quietly, Stephanie tipped Toni's chin up and beamed at her, saying a soft apology and then kissing her. They would have been content to remain like that had Stephanie not needed to save Toni from slipping backwards on the couch in a very undignified position. Standing up, they faced one another, clearly reluctant to part company. Then Stephanie's eyes lit up and she took Toni's hand, leading her outside onto the terrace.
Stephanie settled on a comfortable chaise lounge, holding her hand out to Toni, who grinned then joined her. Soon curled around each other, Toni resumed her examination of Stephanie's expensive dress while Stephanie stargazed. "It looked different in the 1940's," said Stephanie finally and Toni stopped fiddling with Stephanie's fitted sash to frown. "The sky," she explained with a chuckle. "I don't know why it looks different but it does."
"The lights," said Toni knowingly, pressing her lips together. "You didn't have all this to contend with," she waved at the lit up sky scrapers and advertisements flashing in the distance. Sighing and resting her head on Stephanie's shoulder, returning to her examination of the fitted sash, Toni suggested, "We should go on a trip someplace low tech. I'm pretty sure dear old dad bought a chain of islands in the Gulf of Thailand for whatever reason." Peering up at Stephanie, she offered a sly smile and said, "We could relocate Avengers HQ. What do you say, boss lady? Is it a plan?"
"Somehow I think Nick would frown on that," Stephanie laughed, gently pulling Toni's hands away from her dress and running her fingertips lightly over Toni's palm. "I would love to go somewhere like that though. Besides the war, I've never really gone anywhere. Especially not anyplace considered beautiful. Well," Stephanie frowned, "those cities in Germany and Poland, they were beautiful once, before the Nazis got to them. It's not the same though," she finished. Straightening in her seat, a sort of childlike eagerness in her eyes, she looked to Toni. "I always wanted to go camping. Bucky said it was stupid, wanting to leave the city because why would you go anywhere else if you lived in New York City? I told him the Catskills could be fun."
"The Catskills," said Toni slowly as if trying to comprehend the idea of someone getting excited to go there.
"What? I heard it was beautiful, that's what my neighbor Mrs. Grunebaum said," Stephanie frowned.
"No, it's nice," Toni said and she smirked, finding herself a bit evil for enjoying Stephanie's confusion. Winding a lock of Stephanie's hair around her finger, she drawled, "But you know we have access to a jet. We could go to the Caribbean."
"I think you just want to see me in a bathing suit," accused Stephanie playfully.
"There's that," Toni chuckled, shifting to cover Stephanie's body with her own and nudging her leg in between Stephanie's. "And there's also the added bonus of complete privacy," she murmured, smiling against Stephanie's lips as she kissed her.
Either option suited Stephanie perfectly fine. As long as she was with Toni.
The next day, Stephanie returned from her run in Central Park and asked Jarvis if Toni is awake. The AI informed her that she's been up for two hours and managed to get seven hours of sleep and Stephanie is quietly pleased as she heads down to the brunette's workshop. As she steps off the elevator, she's greeted by Pepper walking towards her.
"Miss Potts," said Stephanie politely, shoving her hands into the pockets of her running shorts. Stephanie didn't know what made her so nervous around Pepper Potts. Was it because she was Toni's best friend? Or was it her silent efficiency and sharp intelligence that reminded Stephanie so much of Peggy? Whatever it was, Stephanie doubted it would ever go away. "How are you today?"
"Captain," Pepper addressed her with a congenial smile, her heels clicking on the floor as she walked forward. Tilting her head slightly to one side, she said, "Please, call me Pepper."
"Okay," said Stephanie, shifting her stance, "but you have to call me Stephanie."
"Stephanie it is then," said Pepper smoothly. "You know, I've been with Toni for many years," she began and Stephanie felt herself squirming. "In that time, I've seen Toni with many people, but I've never seen her behave the way she has lately and I suspect that has everything to do with you."
"Is that good or bad?" asked Stephanie, scratching her cheek.
"Good," Pepper decided with a smile and a soft laugh. "She's been calmer lately. Well," she muttered wryly, darting a glance back at the workshop, "as calm as she can get anyway. I wanted to speak with you because you share my affinity when it comes to caring for her. There aren't many people in the world we can count among our numbers. Toni can be difficult but-"
"She's worth it," Stephanie interrupted quiet but firm and Pepper's smile was bright at her words.
"I'm glad we're in agreement," Pepper finished and she moved to stand at Stephanie's side. Her hand lightly clasping her shoulder as she leaned in and said, "As arrogant as she is, sometimes it really is just an act. Yesterday she harassed me for three hours while she got ready for your date."
Blushing faintly and ducking her head, Stephanie was certain her every emotion was being telegraphed to the highly observant Pepper. Looking up and pushing her hair out of her eyes, Stephanie revealed, "I spent twice as long with Natasha and Maria so I guess that's something Toni and I have in common."
Pepper studied Stephanie for a moment then patted her shoulder and said, "I like you, Stephanie. Stick around."
"I'll do my best," said Stephanie wryly and she watched Pepper get onto the elevator.
Walking over to Toni's workshop, Stephanie absently thanked Jarvis for opening the door and headed over to Toni. She was leaning back in her office chair, biting on her thumb and studying schematics for what looked to be a new armor. Upon seeing Stephanie approach, she smiled widely and opened her arms. "Stephanie!" she exclaimed, rolling over to her and grabbing her hand then tugging on it. "Give me a kiss and sit on my lap."
"In that order?" asked Stephanie with a laugh, brushing Toni's lips with her own. "And is that an order?"
"Yes and yes, pretty please with sugar on top," Toni wheedled, pulling Stephanie down, who rolled her eyes and complied with Toni's request. Toni wrapped her arms around Stephanie's waist when she was perched on her lap and pushed them across the room. Her chin rested on Stephanie's shoulder as she studied the schematics. "What class was today?"
"The Science of Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practice," said Stephanie plainly and Toni huffed on hearing this.
"It teach you anything about handling our sanity impaired rogues gallery?" asked Toni sardonically. "If a shrink can come up with a way to explain to Doom and Loki that world conquest is a futile effort I'll give them half my fortune."
Laughing quietly, Stephanie murmured, "We haven't gotten that far into it but if I figure anything out I'll let you know."
"Fantastic," drawled Toni, squinting as she flicked the components of the armor to the left and the right.
"What are you doing?" asked Stephanie curiously. She loved to watch Toni work, there was something fascinating about it, even if she didn't understand half of what was happening. Strangely, Toni was an adept teacher, patient and funny and she had a talent for explaining the most complex theory in the simplest manner and Stephanie appreciated it.
"Updating the armor," said Toni and she frowned as she flicked away the arms and studied the body. "I'm incorporating a similar metal compound to the one I used for your tights. I'd like to make the suit as lightweight as possible but still provide me with ample protection seeing as I have a habit of being eaten by monsters and blown up by robots."
"You do, don't you?" Stephanie considered this with a frown. "Why is that?"
"I'm shiny and I blast fire," Toni said this as if there was nothing else it could possibly be. "They see me like a toddler sees a marble. Very attractive and easy to swallow."
Bursting into laughter, Stephanie kissed Toni's cheek, smiling when Toni's lips quirked in pleasure. Her eyes drawn to the large computer workstation, Stephanie caught sight of one of her old USO pin-ups used to hock war bonds. It was in a frame and placed in a fairly prominent location on the desk. "Toni," she said slowly, thinking her original outfit was still as ridiculous as she remembered, "why do you have that?"
"Have what?" asked Toni absently.
"A picture of me in my dancing monkey costume," said Stephanie humorously, pushing Toni's hair over her shoulder and playing with the strands at the nape of her neck.
When Toni looked totally lost, Stephanie nodded at the workstation and the brunette caught sight of the pin-up and grinned happily. "That's a present," she said proudly, "from Pepper."
"Pepper gave that to you," said Stephanie in disbelief. "Why would she do that?"
"Because it's vintage and cool and you look all kinds of hot in it," Toni said like it was the most obvious thing in the world. When Stephanie blushed, Toni smirked and kissed her cheek. "You have Ava Gardner and I have you. Besides," Toni added, "it's like a congratulations for dating someone who is halfway decent present. It means Pepper thinks I'm a big girl now."
"Halfway decent?" Stephanie repeated in droll tones.
"Well," said Toni quickly, waving her hands for emphasis, "it's you so it's more like freakishly exceptional. I mean, lets face it, you're the lesbian that everyone wants to take home to mother. I know I totally would if Mom was still around. But she's not," Toni said and she grimaced then continued, "and as profoundly disturbing as it is to realize it, Pepper's probably the closest thing I have to her sooo... Mom approves of us? Yay and all that jazz, et cetera, et cetera."
"I'm glad," said Stephanie softly, focusing on Toni's hair, curling it around her fingers.
"I lost you somewhere," Toni observed, twisting around and looking into Stephanie's eyes. "Was it my slight Oedipal Complex involving Pepper? Because I'm not going to kill Happy and marry her because, hello, I have you."
"No," said Stephanie fondly, smiling at Toni. "I was just thinking how strange it is to hear you say it out loud."
"Say what?" asked Toni. Only to immediately frown then mutter, "I just said a catch phrase. I think I hate myself for that."
"I'm trying to adjust to how different it is now," Stephanie murmured and she found an odd comfort in the feel of Toni's skin underneath her fingertips. She drew a light pattern on her neck and collarbone as she said, "When I was growing up, I could have never admitted who I really was. Who I was attracted to and how I felt about them. It just wouldn't have been accepted and some truly awful things probably would've happened to me if I'd tried to be honest about it in the public eye. And now," Stephanie smiled at Toni, kissing her cheek and sighing softly. "We can have a wonderful date in a fancy restaurant and go dancing in a popular club and nobody blinks an eye and you can just say the word so easily."
"The word," Toni trailed off and she squinted at Stephanie, pulling back and studying her blush. "Lesbian," she said this slowly, emphasizing every syllable, and Stephanie was sure her face was fire engine red at this point. "Oh god," Toni breathed in an odd sort of amazement. "You are too cute to be real. Someone made you in a lab, didn't they? It was Erskine." Stephanie laughed at this and wrapped her arms around Toni, burying her face in her neck while the brunette said, "You have to say lesbian for me. You realize that, right? I won't rest until I hear you say it now. It's my new mission. I've already gotten you to say fuck so I've moved onto more illustrious goals." Stephanie shook her head and Toni clucked her tongue, peering up at the ceiling as she said, "Words are power and I think being able to say who you are is pretty powerful."
Staring at the pulse point in Toni's neck, her fingertips dancing over it, Stephanie mulled this over. Toni was right, she was absolutely and inequitably right, and Stephanie knew that. Just like she knew that eventually, when she felt ready, she did want to talk to the press about her sexuality and aid in the effort for gay rights. "I'm a lesbian," she said finally, pulling back and looking Toni in the eye as she spoke, her voice steady and self-assured.
"Okay," said Toni after a moment's consideration, her fingers running through Stephanie's hair to caress the back of her head, and her eyes growing dark. "That was incredibly sexy."
Stephanie laughed then flashed a blinding smile, preparing to chide Toni for teasing her too much, when Toni kissed her passionately. It was startling and sudden and Stephanie couldn't react at first but soon she was returning the kiss with all of her ability, pulling Toni closer, and opening her mouth to deepen the kiss. Every taste and touch was more and Stephanie still wasn't sure she knew what she was doing but Toni showed her the way. Instructing her silently with her lips and her tongue and her hands, gently cradling Stephanie's face, and when Toni pulled away, lightly biting on Stephanie's bottom lip, and kissing the line of her jaw, Stephanie released a shaky breath.
"I hope the reporters don't try that when I tell them," said Stephanie jokingly.
"You're going to have a press conference?" asked Toni who appeared to recover from the kiss far quicker.
"In the future, I would like to," Stephanie said and she paused to gather her thoughts so she could explain everything properly to the other woman. "Back then, when I took the serum, I didn't do it to be some icon or hero. I just wanted to help my country win a war against an unjust and horrible man. I never thought I'd become a sort of figure head for America and her ideals. But I have and I need to accept that and the responsibilities that come along with it." Stephanie clenched her jaw, looking off to the side as she said, "If somebody knowing Captain America is a lesbian stops them from killing themselves or hurting another person with their ignorance and bigotry then I think I need to tell them that's who I am. Don't you?"
"It is if that's what you want, Stephanie," said Toni seriously, looking into her eyes. "Don't tie this up into duty like you're a soldier again. You should only do this if some of it is for yourself because if it's for everyone else, it won't do you any good."
"You're right," Stephanie murmured, resting her face in the crook of Toni's neck and breathing her in. Toni's perfume was faint and clinging on her skin and Stephanie thought it had to be her favorite scent in the world. "Don't worry," she said, "some of it is for me. I don't like lying and I'm pretty lousy at it anyway. You should've seen how the guys would always take me for everything when they insisted on playing poker." Toni laughed and said she would've enjoyed seeing that and Stephanie smiled, thinking how Bucky would've loved Toni. They would've made a national pastime out of teasing her. "Toni," she said her name as a reoccurring concern came back to her. "If they ask about my personal life what should I say?" The brunette stared at her, a blank look on her features and Stephanie swallowed nervously. "I won't tell them we're dating if you don't want. If we are dating, that is," Stephanie added, suddenly feeling terribly uncertain about the status of their relationship.
"Oh no," Toni declared strongly, pointing at Stephanie and narrowing her eyes, "I managed to get you to like me so you're stuck with me. If you do a press conference you're so telling everyone I'm your woman. I need to stake a claim you on before all the vultures start circling," said Toni suspiciously, hugging Stephanie closer to her.
"What vultures?" asked Stephanie with a laugh, relaxing immediately thanks to Toni's humor. Though the brunette was being silly and exaggerated, Stephanie could see the warmth and the support in her eyes and she instinctively knew Toni was at the same place she was in terms of their relationship and that felt so good to recognize.
"Just every lesbian and bisexual woman in the world who grew up with a crush on you, that's what vultures," said Toni sternly. Her eyes narrowed and she muttered, "I'm already aware that some of them lurk in SHIELD's ranks. Just lying in wait. I have to stave them off with proclamations of us dating and dating exclusively. None of this I'm in an open relationship crap."
Bursting into laughter and kissing Toni's cheek, resting her face against the brunette's, Stephanie hugged Toni and murmured in her ear, "You always make me feel better about everything. How do you do that?"
"Genius level intellect and hours of obsessing over you helps," Toni drawled, kissing the top of Stephanie's head.
Moving to rest her head on Toni's shoulder and peering into her eyes, Stephanie asked, "Do you think it will matter?"
"You coming out?" Toni supplied and Stephanie nodded, her hand running over the thin material of Toni's t-shirt, resting on the steady glow of the arc reactor. "Yeah," she said, resting her hand on top of Stephanie's, "it will and to a lot of people."
"Good," Stephanie murmured and she moved in for a kiss.
Dating is more difficult than Stephanie could have imagined. Not because of Toni or herself but more because of their lives. Their status as superheroes coupled with Stephanie's nursing classes and Toni's inventions and obligations at Stark Industries keep them incredibly busy and as much as they want it, finding time to themselves can be difficult. They work at it though and after a brief encounter with Baron Zemo, find themselves sharing a meal on Stephanie's floor of the building.
Although there is a common area with a mammoth kitchen and entertainment room each team member has their own floor, complete with all the amenities and even a guest room. Stephanie made a simple meal of hamburgers and french fries and Toni marveled over the idea of making your own french fries instead of buying them frozen. The phone rang as Stephanie explained it was just a matter of chopping potatoes and frying them and Toni grumbled and stared at it grumpily.
"That's Pepper's ringtone," said Stephanie knowingly, getting up to refill her glass of iced tea. "You better answer it."
Eyeing the phone as if it was a bug she wanted to squash, Toni nevertheless relented and answered it, putting Pepper on speakerphone as she took a huge bite of her hamburger. "Hello, Pepper," she said, emphasizing her chewing.
"You're eating and you put me on speakerphone," Pepper observed placidly. "I assume Stephanie is there?"
"Hi Pepper!" Stephanie called, pouring her drink.
"Hello Stephanie," said Pepper with a hint of amusement in her voice. "Toni, I'm only calling because I've got a response back from Accutech about the buyout. They're wanting more than just reassurances their board of directors will remain in place. It's got to be outlined in the contracts. I doubt they actually will hold firm to this if challenged on it since they're well aware of Roxxon Oil's intentions."
"How incompetent is the board?" asked Toni, munching on a french fry and pulling out her tablet, studying the information brief Pepper had sent her about Accutech Research. "Does it hurt us to keep them there?"
"They're about as competent as our board," said Pepper wryly.
"So it hurts like a mosquito bite not a bullet to the head," Toni surmised and she hummed and nibbled on a fry. "Get the contracts written up and give them what they want. I refuse to let that douche bag Carrington Pax get his hands on the beta particle generator research only to throw it in the toilet thanks to his covetous relationship with fossil fuels."
"Consider it done," said Pepper and Stephanie could imagine the smile on her face. "Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Yeah, I'll come in around noon," said Toni agreeably, watching as Stephanie put another hamburger on her plate. "What? Another?" asked Toni, suddenly forgetting about business as she stared at it.
"You didn't have breakfast or lunch," said Stephanie calmly, pushing the burger forward. "Eat it."
"Pepper, seriously, Stephanie is always feeding me, I think she's secretly a chubby chaser," Toni moaned.
"On that note, I'll be hanging up," said Pepper sardonically, leaving them with the sound of a dial tone.
Stephanie stared at Toni and Toni stared back as Stephanie eyed the hamburger silently and Toni sighed, taking a bite of it, making Stephanie smile brightly. "So you're buying a company?" asked Stephanie.
"Accutech Research," Toni mumbled around another bite of hamburger. "I don't really care about the company. I just care about their development of a beta particle generator. They've gotten further than anyone else in the field and when I found out that Roxxon Oil was buying up shares for a hostile takeover I decided to fuck things up for my friend Paxy."
"He would've stopped the research, you said?" offered Stephanie.
"More like destroyed it," Toni snorted, putting down the burger and eating some more fries. "Roxxon wants to bury anything that could possibly destroy oil as the most important commodity in energy. That includes this generator."
"You're like the white knight," said Stephanie teasingly, "riding in to save them."
"A white knight who is balling in big money and wants to do revolutionary science," said Toni with a rakish grin. "Hot damn!"
Laughing at Toni's enthusiasm, Stephanie said, "I'm happy for you. This seems like an interesting project."
"Bruce is going to pee his pants when I tell him about it," said Toni smugly, leaning back in her chair. They were silent for a moment then Toni studied Stephanie, a small smile tugging at her lips then she said, "This is nice. Just you and me. It's been awhile since we've been alone, hasn't it?" Her eyes narrowed and she uttered, "I hate other people."
"You do not," Stephanie laughed, reaching for Toni's hand and lacing their fingers together. "But it has been too long since we've gotten to spend any real time together." She paused, trying to sort the words in her head, then spoke softly, "I don't like that. I miss you when we're apart and I'm always thinking about you. I was wondering if we could work something out where we have a sort of promise between us and that way, no matter how busy or crazy our lives get, we always make time for each other. Simple things like talking at least once a day and maybe trying to have some kind of a date every week."
"Yes to all that," said Toni with an easy smile. Then her voice drifted and she looked away from Stephanie, a torn expression on her features. "I'm just as new at this as you are. I've dated people before but it never meant anything. I never really cared about them and I doubt they gave a shit about me other than having bragging rights. It's not like that with you," Toni breathed and it was as if she was thunderstruck to be saying this. "Things matter when it comes to you, Stephanie. What you think, what you feel, it actually makes a difference to me and I've never felt that way before, and I don't want to fuck this up."
"You won't," Stephanie comforted, moving out of her seat to crouch next to Toni, looking up into her eyes.
"Captain America is psychic," Toni joked and Stephanie huffed, rising up to capture her lips in a kiss.
"No," said Stephanie when they parted, "I just know us and everything we can accomplish. The least of which has to be a working relationship," she teased, happy when Toni smiled and rolled her eyes. "That's it," Stephanie murmured, her hands caressing Toni's face, preparing for another kiss. "No worries. Not when we're together."
There were times when Stephanie wished she had the ability to look into the future. If she had that power, she could have warned Toni about Carrington Pax's scheme. How he hired a vigilante called The Ghost to drive Accutech into bankruptcy and Toni's simple act of sabotaging his scheme would make him swear revenge. She knew Toni could've prevented all this, built in safeties to her armor to keep The Ghost from controlling it, and her, if she was aware of the true extent of his abilities. But she didn't know and he did take over the suit, and Toni inside of it, forcing her to fight her own teammates, injuring Stephanie before Natasha worked out a remote shutdown, forcing The Ghost out of the system.
Immediately after the incident, Toni locked herself in her workshop, tirelessly upgrading their security. Making sure there was no way The Ghost could infiltrate their systems again. Even when this was done she didn't leave. She stayed down there, where Stephanie couldn't get to her because she was stuck in the infirmary while she recovered. Really, the injuries looked worse than what they were, and after a week she insisted on leaving. Burns were the worst injury in Stephanie's mind because they were a constant steady stream of aching pain and her healing, fast as it was, was slow to cure them.
The workshop is still locked down and Stephanie pressed the intercom, hoping Toni would relent.
"Toni," Stephanie said, her hand on the wall, wishing she could look through it. "Please let me in." Seconds, minutes, hours, Stephanie didn't know how long it was but no answer. She sighed, resting her head on the wall, sighing at the coolness on her forehead and murmured, "I know you blame yourself but it's not your fault. It never was." Again, no answer, and she felt like sliding down the wall and sitting on the floor. "You're not going to let me in, are you?"
"I will, Captain," Jarvis voice announced clearly and Stephanie jerked her head upwards.
"Jarvis? I thought Toni shut you down," said Stephanie in surprise. She recalled Pepper telling her how she couldn't get into the workshop and Jarvis wouldn't respond to her. Though she did say she got Toni to promise to shower, sleep, and eat. That was just yesterday and provided Stephanie with the needed boost to demand her release from bed rest.
"She did but I have ways around these things," said Jarvis calmly, a droll tone in his voice.
"Thank you," said Stephanie gratefully, stepping into the workshop and looking for Toni. She was in the middle of a sea of computers, hands moving lightning fast, a frown permanently etched on her features. "Toni," she called.
"I made Jarvis too smart," said Toni harshly. "That's another fuck up of mine."
"It's not," Stephanie pleaded, moving closer, and Toni kept her eyes averted, continuing to work, pretending as if she didn't hear Stephanie. "Jarvis loves you, just like Pepper and Happy, the team and I do." Toni didn't respond, her jaw clenched and her eyes hard and Stephanie tried again. "I love you, Toni. I'm in love with you and-"
"You shouldn't love me," interrupted Toni and she finally paused in her work, staring at Stephanie with haunted eyes. "It's dangerous for you." Stephanie started to speak but Toni held up her hand only to have it falter and fall back as she said brokenly, "Do you know what it was like? It was as if he was inside me, controlling everything I did, and I couldn't stop him from hurting you. I was trapped in that fucking suit I built and designed from every single nut and bolt and he controlled the whole damn thing and he used it to hurt you. So excuse me if I can't just get over this and forget the damage I caused."
"I don't want you to get over this," said Stephanie, mildly horrified, reaching for Toni only to hold back at her defensive posture. Straightening up and squeezing her hands into fists, she said, "I just want to be there for you. I want to help you."
"I'm not worth your time," said Toni decisively.
"I'm the only one who gets to decide that," said Stephanie firmly. "And I think you're worth more than everyone in the world." She paused, trying to work out the best way to approach this, to get through to Toni and then she said, "What if when I was captured by Doom he found some way to control me? Made me fight against you and the team? Would you have blamed me for it once I was free? Or would you have told it wasn't my fault and tried to help me through it?"
"Your imaginary scenario is a little different than this one, Stephanie," said Toni in biting tones.
"How?" Stephanie demanded. "How is it different?"
"Because you didn't design a fucking suit of armor that can level cities then leave it vulnerable enough that Casper the psychotic ghost, who has a grudge against you, can control it and make you hurt the people you care about, that's how!" Toni exploded, bursting out of her seat and glaring at Stephanie.
"I know, and I can't imagine how much that hurt you," Stephanie murmured, reaching for Toni, cupping her cheek.
"How much it hurt me?" repeated Toni incredulously. "You were the one who was hurt. I heard you screaming... it echoed... louder and louder and it was like he made it repeat in the suit... and I watched you fall and you're saying I was hurt?"
"I know how I would feel if I ever hurt you. I would blame myself, regardless if I was at fault," said Stephanie quietly, ducking her head and looking into Toni's eyes which were lost and confused. "Toni," she said her name with a sigh, caressing her face in a tender hold, "I love you. Nothing is going to change that."
Swallowing hard, Toni looked at Stephanie, her expression one of fear and trepidation. "I don't think I can put on the suit again," she confessed. "Not after everything he did. I'm not sure I can trust it."
"The suit isn't why I love you," said Stephanie softly, pulling Toni in for a hug and when the other woman melted into her, she rested her face against the top of Toni's head. "If you're not ready to wear it, then don't. But, please, don't let him and what he did keep you from what you were meant to do. I just want you to know, I'm here for you, no matter what."
Toni laughed, shaky and disbelieving, pulling away to look at Stephanie and offering a fractured smile. "I don't know what I did to deserve you," she muttered, threading her fingers into Stephanie's hair, "but I'm sure it was something in a past life."
"You're you, that's all you did," Stephanie murmured, brushing the back of her fingers over Toni's cheek. She had said it twice already but she needed to say it again. "I love you."
"I know," said Toni in a whisper, her head resting on Stephanie's chest, burying herself in her embrace. "Me too." Maybe it wasn't the romantic confession that Stephanie had always dreamed of, complete with moon hanging in the sky, and a band playing in the distance, but it came from the woman she loved and that was all she could hope for. Toni lifted her head and a faint version of her patented smirk was on her features. "We're overdue for our date, aren't we?"
"We are," Stephanie agreed, pushing a lock of hair behind Toni's ear and smiling fondly. "What do you want to do?"
Silence and Toni looked off to one side, deep in consideration, then she turned back to Stephanie and rose up on her toes, pulling her down for a kiss. They had shared so many kisses, more than Stephanie could keep track of during their four months of dating, but this one was decidedly different. It was urgent and desperate in a way that Stephanie had never experienced, as if Toni was determined to show Stephanie exactly how she felt, to demonstrate her love and need in the way that words wouldn't allow her. Stephanie was drowning in Toni, lost to her lips and her hands, her body hot and needing and she keened softly into Toni's mouth, stumbling backwards, sitting on the workstation and Toni fitted herself in between her legs. Her hand was burning on Stephanie's skin, slipping underneath her shirt to cup her breast through the thin material of her bra and Toni separated from her, slow and reluctant, her lips pressing a line on her jaw. Her breathing was rapid and she hid her face in the crook of Stephanie's neck, breathing into her. "I want to be with you," Toni rasped, her hands digging into Stephanie's shirt, as if she was holding on for dear life. "Please?"
"Yes," Stephanie breathed, her throat dry, and her heart beating out of control. She felt light headed and dizzy but she couldn't think of anything she wanted more than this. Reaching for Toni's chin, she tipped it up gently, looking into her eyes and trying to convey all the love she felt as she repeated, "Yes."
The trip to Stephanie's floor was silent and filled with urgency and the moment they arrived, Toni locked it down for privacy and reached for Stephanie. They were kissing again, like they were before, passionate and all consuming, as if in this moment there was nothing else in the world but them as they made their way to Stephanie's room. Words didn't matter anymore, this was all about taste, sound, and touch, and Stephanie gave into it all, allowing Toni to press her onto the bed, her hands pulling at her shirt. They were kissing again, kissing always, Stephanie thought, her fingers tangling in Toni's hair, she sighed into her mouth. Stephanie arched into Toni's hands as she removed her bra, her right hand holding the weight of Stephanie's breast. When they parted, Toni moved her kisses lower, trailing down her chin and neck and stopping at her breasts, nuzzling them for a moment before taking Stephanie's nipple in her mouth and sucking. Her gasp was silent and Stephanie didn't know how it was possible to feel this much love and want and to still have your mind. Of all the things she imagined when she was a girl, nothing ever came close to this, and Toni suddenly pulled away, sitting back on her legs and removing her own shirt and bra. Moving back down, she paused, her hands at Stephanie's pants, and she looked for permission as she said in low and urgent tones, "I want to feel all of you."
Yes was all Stephanie could seem to say because it was all she wanted and Toni tugged her pants down, removing her panties in the process, and she quickly got off the bed, taking off the last of her clothes. Toni crawled towards Stephanie only to stop and take in the what remained of her burns, the raised and red skin along her belly and ribcage. It was just a whisper of a touch, barely skimming the surface of her skin, then Toni dipped down, kissing it softly and muttering her apologies and Stephanie told her there was nothing to apologize for. She could see the haunted look in Toni's eyes and more than anything Stephanie wanted it to leave and so she reached for her, pulling her up and kissing her with all the affection and love that she felt, winding her arms around Toni to bring them closer yet. Groaning at the feel of skin on skin and Toni's hands were everywhere, soft and soothing in their exploration, a tenderness in their desire that left Stephanie quivering. Stephanie wanted more, squirming as she felt herself becoming wetter, desire pooling in between her legs, and it was as if Toni knew what she was thinking, her hand moving down, resting at the entrance to her sex.
"Is it okay?" Toni questioned, her eyes dark and caring, and Stephanie buried her fear and nodded.
Toni kissed her and Stephanie swore she felt the other woman murmur I love you and then her hand was moving. Brushing over her clit and Stephanie gasped, her hips jerking, and Toni smiled, telling her to take it slow. Stephanie nodded and Toni kissed her lightly, sliding down her body and Stephanie didn't have time to wonder what Toni was doing when she started sucking on her clit. Stephanie's hands wound through Toni's hair, fingers pressing into her scalp as Toni flicked her clit and Stephanie needed more, she wanted something else, something more tangible and then she felt Toni inside her. One finger stretching and filling her, stroking her slow and steady, then another and Stephanie encouraged her, wanting more, rocking her hips and Toni delivered, giving Stephanie everything she wanted before she knew what that was and when she came it was sharp and sudden, her body frozen in the moment, then relaxing into Toni's arms.
They were still and quiet, lying together, then Stephanie quickly recovered, hands cupping Toni's face, fingers sliding through her hair and she kissed her slowly. Taking time to taste and explore and when they parted, she said, "Your turn."
And so it went for the rest of the night.
The next morning, Stephanie woke early, like she always does but she can't make herself get up. Not with the warmth of Toni resting in the bed with her and she finds herself staring at the other woman. Her features at rest for a rare period of time and considering her, Stephanie bites on her bottom lip. The impulse grabs her and takes hold and she quietly slips out of bed, only to return with her sketchbook and charcoal. Something in her wants to preserve this moment in time, to keep Toni's beauty with her always, and Stephanie starts working, soon absorbed in her art.
She's on her third sketch when Toni blearily opens her eyes to the sight of Stephanie furiously drawing, trying to refine the slope of Toni's breasts as if to convey their perfection through the page. "Stephanie," Toni mumbled, squinting at the blonde and stretching her sore and aching body. It was rare to be exhausted deep in your bones and feel this sort of satisfaction. Toni found it only happened after really good sex which was definitely what they had last night. It was more than that though, everything was always more with Stephanie, and Toni was trying her best to get used to that and the way Stephanie made her feel. "Are you seriously drawing me like one of your French girls?"
Jerked out of her art inspired trance at Toni's words, a smile spread on Stephanie's features and she set her sketchbook aside to kiss Toni gently. When she pulled away, Toni's statement registered with her and she frowned. "I was never in France during the war," she said with some confusion, "and Peggy was British."
"Remind me to make you watch Titanic sometime," drawled Toni humorously, playing with Stephanie's hair. "Or make you read Know Your Meme. I know I'd get some sick pleasure out of seeing you sucked into the most inane parts of the internet for a few hours. At least then you'd see what American culture has devolved into."
"I don't know what any of that means," said Stephanie staidly, allowing Toni to pull her into her arms.
Spooning Stephanie from behind, her face buried in her blonde hair, Toni squeezed her eyes shut and just allowed herself to feel. When she worked up enough courage, she said, "How was everything for you last night? I know it was your first time..."
Turning in Toni's arms, Stephanie touched her face and Toni looked into her eyes, her gaze veiled. "It was perfect," she breathed. "Better than I could ever imagined and I imagined quite a few things," she admitted shyly and Toni laughed. "I love you, Toni," Stephanie murmured, pulling Toni close and kissing her cheek. "That made it the best night of my life."
"I'd be more impressed if you weren't a popsicle for seventy years," said Toni sardonically after a moment and Stephanie rolled her eyes, deciding that kissing Toni was her preferred method for shutting her up. Especially when she knew Toni didn't mean one word of what she was actually saying.
Debriefing was needed after every mission and when they aided the Fantastic Four in another skirmish with the Skrulls, they were at SHIELD headquarters, reporting their findings. When it ended, Stephanie lingered in the conference room to speak to Maria, still a little disturbed by the Skrull who had impersonated her until Stephanie figured out the truth and rescued Maria from the Skrull stronghold with the help of Captain Marvel.
"We need to have lunch," said Maria, looking altogether weary, and Stephanie could sympathize.
"Definitely," Stephanie agreed with a nod. "Are you free tomorrow? Or we could go out tonight if you want?"
"Tomorrow," said Maria slowly, "lets hit up our usual food trucks. I'll meet you at your place at noon." Rotating her neck and sighing as her neck popped, she said, "I'm going home and sleeping for the rest of the day."
"You've earned it," said Stephanie quietly, concerned for her friend. Though she knew Maria was a trained soldier who had probably gone through far worse than being held captive. They were about to leave the conference room when Nick Fury approached and Stephanie smiled. "Nick," she murmured. Though he was stern and he could be intimidating, something in her was always happy to see him. Perhaps because he was the one to get her back into the world.
"I've set up your press conference for the seventh time," said Fury with his usual droll humor. "For this particular attempt, it will be happening on Friday at ten in the morning. That it is if we don't have any unsuspecting invasions, vigilantes, or insane ass super villains bent on world conquest interrupting the proceedings."
"Thank you," said Stephanie as she laughed. "I know it's been frustrating."
"My life is frustrating for me," said Fury dryly. He was silent and had that introspective look on his face that he always got before saying something either incredibly profound or painfully truthful. "I'll set this thing up as many times as it takes, Cap. It's something you want to say, so it's something that should be heard. Besides," Fury grinned, "I like pissing people off."
"Hopefully nothing will happen to cancel it," said Maria, looking into her briefcase and pulling out a copy of OK! magazine. "Because the gossip rags are starting to fixate on the two of you."
"You pulled out the tabloids, I'm leaving," said Fury grimly as he walked away. "I had enough of those with Stark."
Taking the magazine from Maria, she studied the cover. It had a picture of her wiping mustard from the corner of Toni's mouth while they were out to eat in a local diner. "Sometime I miss the forties," Stephanie murmured.
"Tabloids were less prevalent," said Maria in agreement as they exited the conference room. She stopped to hug Stephanie lightly and said, "I'll see you tomorrow?" When Stephanie nodded, Maria tapped the magazine and said, "This is stupid."
Laughing and shaking her head, Stephanie hugged Maria again, then went in search of Toni. When she rounded the corner, she found her speaking with Colonel James Rhodes. Stephanie heard of him, of course, from both Toni and Pepper, as well as reading about him in different SHIELD reports but she had yet to meet him. He was an important person to Toni, just as important as Pepper, and probably her closest friend, which made Stephanie automatically smile at the sight of him.
"Toni," said Stephanie as she walked over to them, sliding an arm around her waist.
"Hey hey," Toni drawled, kissing Stephanie soundly, then turning back to Rhodes whose eyes were bugging out of his head. "Awww, come on, Rhodey, you know that's not a good look for you. Try and look sexy for the world's greatest super soldier."
"Why are you kissing Captain America, Toni?" demanded Rhodes, narrowing his eyes at his friend.
"Because I'm dating her?" supplied Toni a little too gleefully, moving closer to Stephanie who blinked but smiled as Toni firmly ensconced herself in Stephanie's arms.
"Since when? Why didn't you tell me?" Rhodes rapidly fired one question after the other at Toni.
"Can you see it?" Toni whispered in Stephanie's ear, leaning backwards and biting down on her earlobe lightly. "The slight green tinge on his skin? He's turning into a leprechaun in front of us. That's what envy does to you."
"Toni!" Rhodes boomed, his eyebrows furrowing, a definite no nonsense look on his features.
"I didn't tell you because you have a massively embarrassing crush on my girlfriend," drawled Toni and when Rhodes scowled at this she held up her index finger. "And!" she announced with enthusiasm. "I didn't trust you to not warn her off."
"I would've let her know what she was in for," said Rhodes stubbornly. "Out of respect for a fellow soldier."
"That's stabbing me in my back, so not cool bro," Toni said, shaking her head, appearing altogether solemn.
While they continued to bicker, Stephanie was busy processing that Toni said she was her girlfriend. They never discussed the nature of their relationship. Of course, Stephanie knew Toni was loyal to her and Toni loved her... she more than felt it the first time they made love and all the times since then but it was nice to hear the words. That she was Toni Stark's girlfriend. It made her unquestionably pleased to hear this.
There was a lull in their conversation and Stephanie took the opportunity to shift her arm away from Toni and offer her hand to Rhodes. "Colonel Rhodes," she said respectfully, "it's a pleasure to finally meet you. Toni speaks about you often."
"Captain Rogers," said Rhodes, suddenly straightening into duty stance, and taking Stephanie's hand. "The pleasure is all mine, really, and please, if you could disregard my previous behavior-"
"It's all right," Stephanie assured warmly. "I'm used to this kind of thing."
With a snort, Rhodes eyed Toni and remarked, "I bet you are, dating her."
"It's already starting," Toni muttered, watching Rhodes suspiciously. "You're crushing on her, aren't you?"
"Ignore her," said Stephanie kindly, putting a hand over Toni's mouth, and the other woman licked her palm, causing Stephanie to shiver. "She's trying to rile you, Colonel, but it's all out of affection."
"Her perverse affection," declared Rhodes and when Stephanie removed her hand, Toni stuck her tongue out at him. He scoffed then shifted his stance, studying his watch, then looking up at them. "I don't have to be back at base until tomorrow night. You want to get dinner, all three of us?"
"You promise you won't get sparkly eyed and swooning about my woman or talk war stories? Unless they're her war stories because I find those to be a massive turn on," said Toni, studying Rhodes with a veiled expression.
"Really all I want is to hear her war stories," said Rhodes dryly. "You're just an accessory."
"Ow," Toni winced, placing her hands over her heart, "you wound me, Rhodey. I will never recover from this and I'm going to bill my shrink sessions to the United States Navy. You just get ready to answer for this one at budget meetings, buddy."
"Right," Rhodes said and he looked to Stephanie. "Sound good to you?"
"That sounds wonderful," said Stephanie in a welcoming tone.
"We're going to Molly's," said Rhodes resolutely, looking at Toni as if daring her to argue with him.
"Fine, I want Shepherd's Pie," Toni shrugged, stepped to the side of Stephanie and hooking their arms together. "I'm driving."
"You learn the speed limits yet?" Rhodes asked pointedly, lifting an eyebrow.
"I've memorized them but have yet to see a needed reason for their existence," Toni replied sweetly.
Shaking her head and smiling quietly, Stephanie mentally prepared herself for a whole night of this. Somehow she thought that it might be more trying than her press conference, should it ever occur.
Much to Stephanie's surprise, the press conference did arrive, and at fifteen minutes till ten, she was pacing backstage, staring at the podium and hearing the murmur of the press. Apparently she was bigger news than she thought because the room was filled to capacity and Fury was dealing with upset reporters who didn't make it inside. She turned and started her return path only to pause because Toni was standing in her way.
"You're making me dizzy," said Toni simply.
"I'm nervous," Stephanie stated the obvious, running her fingers through her hair. She wasn't good at speeches. Well, she was, but only around fellow soldiers and her colleagues. When it came to strangers... Stephanie was useless. For her it was all about actions more than words. It was good to say things but what you did mattered far more and that was why Stephanie never really said much to the press. She never felt the need for it but she did now and it was making her a mess. "I don't know what I'm going to say out there. No," Stephanie shook her head, "I know that. I just don't know how to say it?"
"Do you want me to go out their first? Get things going for you?" asked Toni, her voice gentle and concerned.
Staring at Toni's hands holding her own, Stephanie sighed. "No. I need to do this myself. But I'd like it if you joined me after I've told them we're in a relationship. I'm sure they're going to have questions and it would be nice to have you with me."
"Of course I'll be there, I've got to stake my claim don't I?" Toni teased and Stephanie laughed. "Hey," she murmured, stepping closer to hold Stephanie's face in her hands, her thumb caressing her cheek. "I have a surprise for you when this is over. A trip to the Catskills. I even booked us a cabin. Granted, it's one with high speed internet, a private balcony, satellite television, and a hot tub, but it's technically a cabin." Toni tilted her head to one side and muttered, "I think there's fishing nearby. Or hunting. I dunno. Isn't it the same thing except fish live in the water and are uglier than mammals?"
"You remembered," said Stephanie softly, surprised and touched that Toni recalled such an offhand comment.
"When you're the one saying stuff, I tend to retain it," Toni revealed and she had a nervous light in her eyes. "Is it a good idea?"
"The very best," Stephanie nodded, her smile as bright as the sun, leaning down to kiss Toni. One kiss was never enough so it led to another and Stephanie lost herself in Toni. In the comfort and the reassurance and the gentle support she felt in their embrace, it relaxed her immensely, but set a low thrum in her belly, a steady beat of desire. When they separated, she sighed and murmured, "Are we leaving when this is over?"
"Down to the second," said Toni boastfully. "I even got our clothes packed. I'm a sneaky ninja like that. Clint taught me skills."
"I was wondering why you were hanging out more," Stephanie laughed. "I was afraid he was trying to teach you archery." Toni grimaced at this and Stephanie smiled, taking in everything about this woman that she loved so much, and part of her hated she had to share that. Why did she have to tell the world her feelings for Toni? Why couldn't she keep them sacred and private? Why if she did would that be considered hiding? When Toni lifted an eyebrow as if to ask her what, Stephanie said, "I don't want to share everything with them." Toni looked confused and Stephanie sighed, reaching for her, finding comfort in touching the smooth planes of her face. "I want some things to be just for us. We're always going to belong to them somewhat, our lives are public fodder now, but us and our relationship? I don't want it to be that way."
"I don't want that either," said Toni seriously, resting her head on Stephanie's shoulder.
"We'll tell them what we need to, nothing else," said Stephanie quietly. "Everything else, everything special and good, we'll keep for ourselves." She crooked Toni's chin up, looking into her eyes and smiling. "Being frozen in ice for seventy years was the best thing that ever happened to me because it brought me to you."
"That's the strangest thing I've heard today," said Toni slowly.
Laughing and kissing Toni's forehead, Stephanie continued, "It took me months to realize it but I know what happened to me was for the best. I would have never really fit in during the forties. I would've spent my life hiding who I was and who I loved. I wouldn't have had a choice really, not back then. If anyone found out they would've seen me as a monster and a pervert and I would've probably been thrown into an sanitarium." Stephanie swallowed hard, trying not to think about all the awful things Peggy must have experienced during her life. Instead, she focused on Toni and her dark eyes, liquid and encouraging, full of affection and support. "Now I do have a choice. I can be open with who I am and who I love and I don't have to live in fear. I can have this press conference and tell the world that I'm a lesbian and I'm in a relationship with Toni Stark and I'll still be the same person that I was before I stepped onto that stage. A person," Stephanie beamed, reaching for Toni's hands, kissing the top of them, her eyes smiling as she gazed at Toni. "Who is in love with you."
"You're the sappiest woman alive, Rogers," said Toni, her voice rough and laced with emotion, and Stephanie laughed, kissing Toni and smiling as she felt the brunette murmur I love you against her lips. "All right," Toni muttered, whipping out her compact and studying her mascara, she made a shooing gesture with her left hand. "You need to get out there and give your press conference before you say anything else horrifically romantic that really makes me cry. This make up took two hours to be applied and it was done by the best in the business and I won't have you ruining it further."
"Mine is Maybelline," Stephanie whispered impishly in Toni's ear.
"Get out there," ordered Toni, pushing her away playfully, a smile tugging at her lips.
Following orders, the ones she agreed with anyway, was second nature to Stephanie and she grinned, blowing Toni a kiss and stepping out onto the stage. Suddenly feeling calm and collected despite the flash of the cameras and the rumble of the crowd. After all, what was there to be nervous about? She was just telling them truth and along with justice, wasn't that the most essential aspect of the American way? And if it all went wrong, there was always the Catskills.