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Accompanying artwork found here, which I commissioned from the lovely leperu

Title: Pick up all the pins (AO3)
5th in the Starring Role series
Author: Enmuse
Characters: Avengers cast, pre-Coulson/Pepper
Universe: MCU (Avengers)
Rating: Teen (language)
Word Count: ~8K
Warnings: Mastectomy referenced.
Summary: The Avengers Initiative is off to a rough, but miraculously successful, start.
Notes: This is not simply a recap of the film, although some dialogue is based off the original film. See more after story.
Regular disclaimers apply – I'm a fan playing in someone else's sandbox. Title from Marina & The Diamonds' "I am not a robot"


Toni finished smoothing the lines of her pantsuit and gave the armor another glance-over before exiting the secure storage area set aside for her on the Helicarrier. She came to an abrupt halt in the doorway when she came face-to-face with Agent Coulson standing little more than a foot away, expression passive.

Arching an eyebrow, Toni reminded, "I know my way, Agent. I designed this baby, if you remember."

"I remember you overriding all others' input during the construction stages," Coulson replied. He turned. "They're waiting on the bridge."

Toni rolled her eyes and fell into step. "You ducked out quick the other night so I didn't get to ask; when did you change your name to Phil?"

"I don't believe you have the clearance to use that name, Ms. Stark," Coulson deadpanned.

Smirking, Toni nudged Coulson with her elbow. "But Pepper does? I'm sure she's flattered. Don't think I haven't noticed the little dance you two go through. And the phone tag — Jesus! Do you have the patience of a saint? Man, go get the girl!" Toni was delighted to see the hint of a flush coloring the agent's cheeks. Her smirk broadened into an outright grin. "Pep loves art. Flowers are acceptable. Avoid strawberries. She's totally a sap for romantic theater. Let's see, what else...?"

"Here we are!" Coulson announced with a decidedly uncharacteristic upbeat tone as they triggered the sensors of the bridge doors.

Toni let herself momentarily be distracted by the group gathered around the large briefing table. Dr. Bruce Banner was questioning the purpose of Loki's stolen Iridium.

"It's a stabilizing agent," she explained. Before joining the group, she patted Coulson's shoulder and winked. "Call me, I'll set you crazy kids up." She took a moment to appreciate the embarrassed twitch she managed to elicit. She wasn't completely without a romantic bone in her body, and she loved Pepper dearly, so if the agent (Phil) was genuinely interested...

Returning to the more pressing issue, she addressed the group, "It means the portal won't collapse in on itself like it did at S.H.I.E.L.D." She looked around the bridge as she strolled around the table, taking in the dozens of uniform-clad agents huddled over monitors. To all appearances, the general deckhands seemed to be ignoring the group on the platform.

Toni paused when she came near Thor. She smiled slowly and gave him a long, obvious look-over. "Nice guns, Point Break," she complimented. She patted his muscle-bound arm and grinned up at the demigod currently giving her a bemused look. "Oh, and Iron Man said no hard feelings."

"I am unaware of your identity, m'Lady." Thor caught her hand gently as Toni moved to turn away.

Amused — after all, when had someone last called her a "lady" with any hint of sincerity? — Toni let her hand be captured. "The 'Lady' thing is pushing things. Name's Toni Stark."

"Iron Man's employer," Maria Hill cut in sharply. Toni had met her only a few times and had always found the woman especially cold. Currently the agent was staring at them impatiently. The effect was lost on Thor, who didn't appear to notice the glare, and Toni just didn't care.

"There are few in Midgard who can stand against the Mighty Thor," the demigod told Toni, "but the Man of Iron held his ground."

Toni smirked. "I suppose that calls for a rematch."

"Agreed. When it is safe for you and my fair Jane to observe," Thor replied, expression sincere.

"Are you done?" Hill asked, raising a sharp eyebrow.

Before Toni could retort, Natasha diverted her attention to the table. "Stark, what have you got?"

Toni resumed her stroll around the platform as she launched into her explanation of the scientific side of things. Dr. Banner was probably the only one who could truly follow, though neither Hill nor Natasha showed any confusion. Amid her avid gesticulations and occasional tangential comments, Toni slipped a button-sized bug under one of the monitors at the director's station. Captain Rogers managed to follow at least some of what she said to ask a pertinent question, but in the end, Banner made the most relevant comment. Toni beamed at the scientist and moved to him with an outstretched hand.

"Finally! Someone who speaks English!" She toned down her grin a little as he accepted her handshake with a firm grip. His smile looked hesitant but genuine as she enthused, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Banner. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster."

Banner's eyebrows arched in a look of confused surprise as he stammered a thank-you. Then Nick Fury swept onto the bridge and directed Banner and Toni to the lab.

"Shall we play, Doctor?" Toni offered with a flirtatious smile. He responded with a look of amusement.

~ * ~

It didn't take long for Toni to determine that Rogers had no sense of humor. Tall, Blond, and Muscular interrupted Toni's experimental prodding of Banner ("Call me Bruce") with a sharp, "Are you crazy?"

The lack of general positive mood shouldn't have been overly surprising, given the current circumstances, but Toni had grown up hearing glowing tales of Steve Rogers and Captain America. Most of the stories relayed by Colonel Phillips had brought a fond twinkle to the old man's eye and ended with him chuckling. Aunt Peggy had told Toni bedtime stories, sometimes in a conspiratorial whisper of a persistent scrawny kid whose smile was rare but as bright as sunshine. Howard's stories started off well but often took a dark turn as he dwelled on the plane crash and his inability to track the war hero. Despite the grim elements of war clinging to most of the stories, Toni had always gotten the impression of a stubborn man who was charming despite his awkwardness outside combat settings. She had anticipated finding the man amusing and warming up to him quickly.

She should have known reality could only lead to disappointment.

Rogers berated her lack of decorum, questioned her dedication to the problem at hand, and implied Bruce would endanger the crew. The scientist's reaction (vaguely amused) to the insult convinced Toni more than any of her prodding had that Bruce truly had achieved a level of emotional control.

But what really got to her during Rogers' visit to the lab followed him asking after Iron Man. She gave a vague answer, "Iron Man's around, keeping an eye on things and seeing to the armor since I'm needed here."

"I wanted to talk with him about what happened during Loki's transport," Rogers said with a slight frown.

Toni arched her eyebrow. "Oh? Was there something wrong? You may as well tell me, I'll pass the message along."

Rogers looked surprised momentarily. "You don't need to do that, ma'am." He hesitated, gaze darting away then back.

"What?" Toni prompted, resisting the urge to narrow her eyes.

Rogers looked moments away from rubbing the back of his neck sheepishly. "It's just field stuff, Ms. Stark, you don't need to—"

"Worry about it?" Toni finished dryly. "Did you miss the memo where I'm part of Fury's little pet project?"

"O-Of course you are," Rogers stammered, eyes wide. "I meant no disrespect, ma'am. I wouldn't want to call anyone out in front of others." He stopped abruptly and visibly winced, clearly not having intended to share that piece of information.

Toni crossed her arms. "So now Iron Man's in trouble. For pursuing a wanted villain suddenly taken from custody."

"It's nothing, Ms. Stark," Rogers said, shoulders rolling back as his posture straightened. "I merely wanted to discuss something with him."

"Fine. When Iron Man's free, you try 'discussing' things. In the meantime, Dr. Banner and I have stuff to do and secrets to crack." Toni waved her hand dismissively and turned toward a monitor.

She could hear Rogers' frown as he said, "You think Fury's hiding something."

"Yes, Captain Obvious. He's a spy. He's the spy. His secrets have secrets." She jerked a thumb in Bruce's direction. "It's bugging him too, isn't it?"

Despite his initial reluctance to get involved in the brewing argument, Bruce voiced his doubts and Toni provided colorful commentary. Rogers was less than impressed to find out Toni was hacking into S.H.I.E.L.D. and made a swift exit after ordering them to "Just find the cube."

Toni glared at the captain's back and crossed her arms. "That's the guy my dad wouldn't shut up about?" she muttered, peripherally aware that she was drumming her fingers against the padding covering the arc reactor. "I'm wondering if they shouldn't have kept him on ice."

"He's not wrong about Loki," Bruce offered. He held out a tablet and Toni took it, glancing down at the equations and scans filling the screen. "No way that kind of crazy goes down easily." Toni silently agreed.

"Whatever the guy's about, it's gonna blow up in his face," she answered. "And I—Iron Man's gonna be there when it does." Toni paused a moment in surprise at her near slip, something she believed she'd outgrown.

"And I'll read all about it," Bruce said with a hint of a sigh.

Toni set aside the tablet and turned to him with a raised eyebrow. "Uh-huh. Or you'll be suiting up alongside the team."

Bruce's smile was tired as he faced her. "See, I don't get a suit of armor. I'm exposed, like a nerve. It's a nightmare."

Toni looked down at the man's still hands on the workbench and caught the minute tremor of his fingers. She raised one hand to her chest and tapped again at the padding beneath her shirt.

With a near silent sigh, Toni admitted quietly, "Not many people know, but I've got a cluster of shrapnel trying every second to crawl its way into my heart." She met Bruce's stunned gaze with a wry smile.

"Toni..." he breathed, worry taking over his expression. "How lon— since... Afghanistan?" She nodded shortly, jaw tightening. "I'm sorry. How do you keep it out?"

"Special pacemaker," she replied, tapping where her sternum had largely been replaced with the reactor. "Iron Man's arc reactor is... based off of it." She shrugged and flattened her hand against her chest. "It's... not pretty. But it's part of me now."

Bruce glanced only briefly at her chest, keeping his gaze mostly on her face. He nodded through her quiet confession. When Toni had finished, he said, "Thank you."

Bemused, Toni asked, "Why?"

"For sharing." Bruce touched her shoulder and squeezed gently, a brief brush of comfort. "You didn't have to trust me."

"Doctor, you're the only one here speaking my lingo," Toni said with a small grin. She let the heaviness that had settled over her with her confession slide away. "Soon as we're done with this mess, I'm taking you to Stark Tower and seducing you with lab equipment."

Bruce looked torn between amusement and wariness. "Not sure what a good idea that is. Last time I was in New York..."

"Hey, you want to pull a Rapunzel and stay locked away in the highest room of the highest tower, we can manage that. Admittedly I'll need a little time to get a lab on the top floor, but it's workable. C'mon, you're totally wasted anywhere else," Toni cajoled, nudging Bruce with her elbow.

"Uh... I wouldn't have imagined anyone would ever compare me to a princess," Bruce said, lips curving in amusement.

"People underestimate us, Brucey. Just means we strike out to defy expectations." Toni clapped him on the back. "And, hey. I read all about your accident." All amusement dropped from Bruce's expression and his shoulders went stiff. "That much gamma exposure should have killed you."

"So you're saying that the... Other Guy saved my life?" Bruce shook his head with an expression of wry humor. "That's nice. It's a nice sentiment. Saved it for what?"

Toni waited silently for their gazes to meet again. "I guess we'll find out."

They started back to work in companionable silence.

~ * ~

"You're just riding in the wake of your father's successes," Rogers snapped and he turned sharply.

Toni stepped into his personal space and stared him right in the face as she challenged, "What the hell do you know? I've done plenty and—!"

Rogers snorted derisively. "Got your hands dirty and hid them behind the flashes of cameras and a distracting smile. You think throwing around your money can get you anything and buy you anyone. Do you really think a sudden change of heart and taking credit for Iron Man's good press is going to erase decades of atrocities? Take away the bodyguard, what are you?"

Toni felt her fingernails bite into her palms as she clenched her fists. Somehow she managed to keep her voice controlled as she quoted some of the labels she'd been given over the years, "A genius billionaire 'playboy' philanthropist."

"Always another joke," Rogers scoffed. He leaned back, dismissive, which was more of a slap in the face than actual physical contact would have been. "I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I've seen the footage, of you and your reckless 'bodyguard.' The only thing he fights for is you, which might be commendable if not for the fact that you're so preoccupied with yourself. You're not the one to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on the wire and let the other guy crawl over you."

"Damn ineffective and a waste of life," she retorted. "I think I would just cut the fucking wire."

Rogers' smile was sharp, all teeth, nothing like the Captain America Toni had seen pictured over the years. "Always a way out. You know, you may not be a threat, but you better stop trying to elbow your way into being a hero."

"A hero?" she demanded, leaning towards Rogers' face. "Like you? You were a scrawny little idiotic brat who ended up a goddamn lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle!"

That obviously struck a nerve. He took a step forward and although Toni refused to back down, she did have to tilt her head back a little farther so that she didn't bump into him. Rogers' face was stony and his eyes were as cold as ice. "Have any training, Ms. Stark?"

"You wanna hit me, Capsicle?" she sneered, shifting her feet slightly. She cursed the damn heels she was wearing, they would offer absolutely no support in a fight.

Rogers' eyes narrowed at her, but his expression was more of confusion than anger. Before either of them could say anything else, Thor started laughing and it sounded strange. The distraction was enough to give Toni a moment to breathe and look away from Rogers. She closed her eyes against a piercing headache and rubbed at her temples. She took a step away from Rogers and tried to assess what was going on because the escalating volume between people who were supposed to be working together was getting ridiculous.

Everyone had been wound too tight and the delicate elements of their hastily formed, so-called team popped out of place. Bruce had Loki's glowing scepter one minute, the alarms alerting the Tesseract's whereabouts sounded the next, and suddenly another alarm went off as an explosion knocked everyone off their feet. The amount of smoke and debris blocking her vision told her that the damage was major. She kicked off her shoes (one heel was broken) and scrambled away from Rogers' unwanted touch and overbearing concern that she get to safety. Fuck him and his contrite expression as he offered a quick apology.

"Save it," she snapped. "I'm getting Iron Man." She ran down the corridor without waiting for a response.

~ * ~

"Madame, private high priority hail from Colonel Fury," JARVIS said. Toni didn't get the chance to say anything before Fury's voice came through.

"Stark, are you hearing me?" Fury was outside, there was wind rushing noisily past the mike he used. "We have a missile headed straight for the city!"

Toni took down another two Chitauri before launching herself upwards. "How long?" she demanded. JARVIS fed her readings of the incoming nuke and detailed her flight path to intercept it. Fuck my life.

"Four minutes at best. Stay low and wipe out that missile," Fury ordered.

Yeah. Because she was going to be able to destroy the fucker when she would be intercepting it over populated areas. She snorted quietly, knowing that she was no longer transmitting. She felt JARVIS adjust her flight path and add juice to armor's thrusters. "Give this thing's trajectory on the HUD. We're on a countdown, Jarv, and I need options."

"Processing," the AI responded.

Occasionally the others' voices sounded over the comm line, but Toni couldn't worry about what was happening on the ground. The team was back there, fighting the good fight, and no one else could do what she needed to. She struggled to speak past the lump in her throat as she glanced at the information covering her HUD. "Any other options?"

The AI's voice sounded distinctly regretful as he said, "It has the highest likelihood of success with the... least chance of casualties."

Toni's lips twitched briefly into a bitter smile as the HUD cleared of all but the most pertinent readings. She could see the missile straight ahead of her, mere seconds away.

Romanov's voice crackled over the comm, "I can close it! Can anyone hear me? I can close the portal!"

"Do it!"

"No, wait!" Toni snapped. She let JARVIS direct the suit into position beneath the missile and she reached up to lock her arms around it.

"Iron Man, these things are still coming!" Captain America said, sounding frustrated.

"I got a nuke here and it's going to blow in less than two minutes." Toni struggled for a moment to stabilize her flight as she started directing the missile upwards, toward the portal. "And I know just where to put it. Widow, leave that thing 'til I'm through!"

"Iron Man... you know that's a one-way trip?" Rogers' voice was tight with suppressed emotion.

Toni ignored all but Widow's terse "Affirmative" as she turned her full attention to following her flight plan. "Keep us going, J. Be prepared for a return if we can."

The portal loomed before her, still several thousand meters away but the suit was closing the distance quickly.

"Madame. Shall I place a call?" JARVIS offered quietly as the profile images for Pepper and Rhodey appeared on the HUD.

Toni swallowed hard as she stared at her friends' smiles. "You might as well." She was only peripherally aware of the call ringing. "Hey, Jarv? Remember what I said last year?"

"You say a lot, madame."

"Sure, make me say it again," she joked, though she felt anything but amused. "You're more than a creation, J. Just... remember that."

She remembered staring bitterly at the film reel of her father and ranting, "People aren't creations! You don't get to create people, not like... not like that. Hey, JARVIS? You're not my greatest creation." The AI had given her a snarky reply before she continued. "No, no! Listen to me. You're more than a creation! You're... fuck it. You're my friend, okay? One of my best fucking friends. And oh my god, we are never talking about this again. Erase it from your databanks or something."

Even if she'd been blind, Toni would have known the moment she crossed through the portal and into space, she could feel it. Miraculously her suit held up around her, but the HUD lit up with a myriad of warnings and she could feel cold penetrating. JARVIS said something garbled as the maglocks disengaged and Toni's arms fell away from the missile.

She stared in silent shock and horror at the expanse of space — she was in fucking space — crowded with what had to be the alien armada.

The last of the lights on her HUD died and a moment later she saw the warhead explode against the hull of the massive central ship. She tried to watch, but the afterimage of the bright flash of light began to gray in her vision and she realized she couldn't breathe. Instead of panicking, she felt a strange sense of detachment as her vision went black.

"You think throwing around your money, a sudden change of heart, and taking credit for Iron Man's good press is going to erase decades of atrocities?"

At least, she thought as life ebbed away, the missile wasn't mine.

~ * ~

Toni awoke with a sharp gasp. She reached for her chest before realizing that she was in the armor. The HUD flickered, display shaky and warped. "JARVIS?" she asked warily.

"I am here," the AI responded, voice wavering on the last word.

"Shut down the HUD, it's making me dizzy. Status?" Toni closed her eyes until the flashing red lights disappeared.

"The armor is compromised, Madame. Full damage unknown, my connection is tenuous," JARVIS informed, voice cutting out every few words.

"Understood," Toni told him. She opened her eyes and found herself staring out of the helmet's eye slots at the worried face of Captain America. "Um. Hi?" she greeted, relieved to hear the voice modulators working. Despite her allover body ache and a sharp pain in her ribs, she managed to wave her hand.

Rogers smiled and the genuine delight and relief that swept over his expression made Toni catch her breath in surprise. Goddamn he was gorgeous.

Recovering from her momentary lapse, she asked, "So, what's up? What the hell happened?"

Rogers leaned back and stared up at the sky, which Toni finally noticed was clear of Chitauri and that damned portal. That portal... she felt a cold fear seeping through her veins at the memory. Over the sound of blood rushing through her ears, she managed to hear Rogers say, "We won."

"Aye. It was your brave feat which dispelled the enemy's spirit!" Thor leaned into view and reached down to help Toni up. The demigod showed obvious signs of having been in battle, but his smile was bright and welcoming as he clasped Iron Man's hand. "Man of Iron, it gladdens me that you returned. We feared we would lose you."

Toni patted Thor's shoulder and looked past him at the giant green Hulk poking through the nearby rubble. "Big Green! Why wasn't your shining mug the one I woke up to?"

Scowling, Hulk jabbed a finger at the chest plate. "Light go out."

Toni looked down as best she could and touched the cracked casing over the arc reactor. Cold, sick fear curled heavily in her gut and she struggled to hold it at bay. When she looked up again, Hulk had crossed his arms. It took her a moment to place the expression on the big guy's face, but when she did, she felt a hesitant smile crossing her lips.

"Hey," she prompted gently, "you worried about me?"

"Hulk never worry," he huffed.

"It's not a bad thing to worry about your teammates," Rogers said, stepping up to Iron Man's side. "Speaking of, Romanov's up top with Dr. Selvig."

"And my brother," Thor added with a grim expression.

A sharp whistle carried through the comm line, making Toni flinch. Barton's voice followed a moment later, "Hey! You guys headed up Mt. Stark? Are elevators working or can I get a lift?"

Rogers glanced at Toni's suit with a frown. "Thor, Hulk...? I think we could use some help getting up top."

"Yeah... kind of lost my thrust," Toni agreed reluctantly. She stepped close to Hulk and opened her arms. "Take me away, Jolly Green!"

Thor started swinging his hammer. "I see the Hawk. I shall provide his travel."

Hulk swung one large arm around Toni, cradling her against his chest. From so close, Toni could feel the vibration of his voice as he told Rogers, "Blue Man grab on."

"Uh, sure." Toni snickered quietly at Rogers' dubious expression. With clear hesitation, Captain America shouldered his shield and moved around the Hulk. "Is it... okay to, um, hold around your neck?" Hulk's grunt apparently was assent. Rogers crossed his arms around Hulk's neck and yelped as the giant immediately leapt for the nearest building.

"Iron Man, are you okay?" Rogers asked as Hulk climbed to the building's roof.

Toni rolled her eyes. "Better than expected considering I crashed back to Earth after a bad trip," she quipped.

"Hulk catch," Hulk rumbled. He jumped onto another, taller building, then bounded off that one just as quickly to start up Stark Tower.

"Good job, buddy," Toni assured. Yeah, she liked both sides of Banner.

"Even so..." Rogers started, sounding a little breathless; Toni supposed he was getting jostled around a lot more than her, given his position on Hulk's back. "Soon as we get Loki locked down you need to report to medical. I won't pretend to understand how the suit works but that... light. It went out, and the armor's pretty beat up. It keeps you alive, doesn't it?" His voice got quieter, enough so that the armor's sensors kicked in to accurately capture his words.

Toni was quiet for a long moment as she considered Rogers' hypothesis. She sighed to herself before switching to external audio. "Pretty sharp for an old man, Capsicle," she commented. "A little simplistic but... reasonably accurate." She left it at that.

"Medical," Rogers told her firmly.

"Yeah, yeah. Like any of us are escaping that," she muttered. Luckily she was spared further conversation as Hulk pulled them onto the balcony of the penthouse.

~ * ~

It was reasonable to explain Iron Man's isolation from the rest of medical, what with the secret identity, people's limited knowledge of how the suit worked and what the damage might mean to the person inside it. Toni Stark didn't get the same luxury of hiding away. The doctor and assistants "in the know" did her examination behind locked doors and dealt with injuries to her torso before shuffling her down the hall to the main infirmary. Toni would have snuck out before any of the staff saw her, but Natasha appeared and pushed Toni toward a cot next to Barton's.

"She get you, too?" Barton asked Toni in commiseration. When Toni sat down, he leaned in to murmur, "Actually, the only way she sticks around to get herself checked out is if she's standing guard over someone. Just don't try too hard to escape or she'll add to your injuries."

Natasha kicked his shin and sat beside Toni with a smirk. Barton rubbed his leg and raised his eyebrows at Toni in an expression clearly reading, what did I tell you? A moment later he stuck his hand out toward Toni. "I'm Hawkeye, by the way."

Toni accepted the handshake, brief and firm. "Saw your moves. You live up to your name, Barton. S.H.I.E.L.D. outfits you, right? Let's make a deal — you show me what crap they've been handing you and I'll get you settled for some real creativity."

"Sounds like I'm getting the better end of that deal, Ms. Stark. I like it," Barton agreed with a quick grin.

"Drop the 'Ms.' and work with me on a few moves... plus you'll owe me one." She paused and corrected, "A lot more than 'one'."

Barton gave her a messy salute. "Yes, Ma'am. Got it, Toni."

"Hey," Bruce greeted as he shuffled into view from behind one of the curtained sections. He slumped onto the cot behind Barton's and seemed to succumb to gravity as he flopped onto his side. He lifted his hand and wiggled his fingers at Toni.

"Gang all here?" Toni asked, looking around at the various curtained-off stations that hid most of the room from view.

"Thor's keeping a close eye on Loki," Natasha said, words cool but expression tight.

"The Tesseract?" Toni asked.

Barton motioned between Toni and Bruce. "Selvig's got it for now, but I'm pretty sure Fury's gonna get you two in on it when you're patched up." He glanced over his shoulder at Bruce, who looked half asleep. "Patched up and rested," he amended.

Rogers walked out from behind a curtain, wearing only the boots and bottom part of his uniform; his torso was wrapped in a swath of bandages that Toni knew from experience meant, at minimum, cracked ribs. The blond's gaze scanned over the team, then did a visible double-take to focus on Toni.

"When were you injured?" Rogers demanded, coming up to their little group and frowning down at Toni.

Wow, make a girl feel welcomed, Cap, she thought wryly. Toni arched an eyebrow. "Destabilized engines don't make for a smooth flight, Captain."

Rogers' frown deepened. "Did you just come in? You should have gotten medical attention right away."

Toni grit her teeth in annoyance. "Kinda busy around here, Cap. Sit your ass down before I get a crink in my neck," she complained. She hurt all over, though she knew it would be much worse later when the pharmaceutical miracles the doctor had blessed her with wore off.

Thankfully, Rogers promptly took a seat at the end of Barton's cot. "You all right, Captain?" Natasha asked, nodding at his taped ribs.

"Fine, I'll be healed by this evening," Rogers said with a faint smile.

Barton delicately fingered a nasty-looking bruise below his ear as he eyed the captain. "Bonus of being a superhuman specimen, eh Cap?"

There was something flat and forced in Rogers' light reply, "Test tube specialty."

Toni held back a grimace as she recalled her words from the lab. She let her gaze slide away, finding Bruce's sleeping face a safe focus as she waited out the awkward silence.

"Where's Iron Man?" Rogers eventually asked.

"He has special protocols," Natasha surprised Toni by answering.

"I actually... I meant," Rogers said, something in his voice calling Toni's attention to him, "why isn't he here?" The blond's gaze slid aside, suddenly looking a little flustered. "Ah... with you, Ms. Stark."

It took longer than it should have for Toni to realize what the captain meant. When it did click, she felt a rush of frustration. "Iron Man is not my boyfriend," she snapped. "And I'm not his lover or his Sugar Mama. I didn't make the armor out of some desperate attempt to keep someone at my side. Are you seriously listening to the media's assumptions or is this crap in my file?" She turned to Natasha with a glare. "I thought I saw my file. You wrote part of it, for godssake, and you know—!"

The redhead arched her eyebrows silently and okay, Toni could admit she was getting a little worked up over the issue; but she was really sick and tired of the years of speculation constantly pairing her and Iron Man in shades from hearts and romance to torrid love affair to vicious love-hate relationship. (The latter wasn't helped by the handful of times when Toni hadn't been able to hide battle-related injuries yet was still required to appear in public.)

"I apologize, Ma'am," Rogers said hurriedly, like he was afraid Toni would cut him off with further ranting. (Admittedly, if Natasha hadn't drawn her attention, Toni would have continued.) The blond seemed to hunch in on himself a little and he met her gaze briefly before glancing down. "I, ah, haven't been fair. I didn't mean to offend... just, seemed like you would be close to Iron Man. And I'm so sorry about earlier. The lab— I had no cause to say what I did. That wasn't fair."

Toni held up her hands before the guy could continue his little confessional. "Whoa, Cap. Fine, it's fine. Lab incident we're gonna write off as Loki's shitty Punking. The other thing... Just." She paused as her jaw clenched. She still felt angry but it was no longer focused on the genuinely apologetic man before her. She huffed. "It's not that kind of relationship. Or any kind of relationship, really." What the hell was she supposed to say about it? To the public she generally tried to keep to the original story of employer-and-bodyguard, but she knew she spoke of Iron Man and the armor in a way that suggested something more.

Toni's phone vibrated in her pocket and she pulled it out to see Pepper's photo smiling at her from the screen. For approximately 1.5 seconds she was relieved for the distraction... until she realized that she'd have to explain Coulson. Phil hadn't been the only one with a crush. "Shit," Toni muttered as she pushed off the cot and moved away from the group to answer the call.

Pasting on a smile, Toni greeted cheerily, "Pepper! How's D.C.?"

"Do not pull that shit with me, Antonia Stark! How badly are you hurt? How close were you to dying? Why didn't you leave me a message when you called? I wasn't even sure you were alive! The news stations have awful footage and just— Damn it, Toni!"

Toni tried to huddle herself in a far corner of the infirmary that offered a modicum of privacy but still allowed her a clear view of the room. "Pep, it's alright now. I'm fi—" Pepper's disbelieving snort cut her off. "Okay, I hurt like hell and maybe there's some recovery time to be scheduled, but I'm really not too bad. The message thing, that was totally a tech failure. Trans-dimensional reception's on my to-do list, okay?"

"God, Toni... I was watching and..." A small choked sound made Toni's chest clench with guilt. "I was wishing so hard but was convinced you weren't coming back," Pepper admittedly quietly, tears audible.

"I'm sorry, Pep," Toni murmured. She cast a quick glance around before continuing, "It was a nuke. I couldn't..." she trailed off and rubbed at the headache settling heavily over her eyes.

Pepper gave a shaky sigh. "You did what you had to. I know."

They were quiet for long moments and Toni tried to think of what to say to explain Coulson. She leaned against the wall and swallowed hard. "Hey, there's something else. I..." Toni shook her head, what the hell was she supposed to say?

"Toni...? Pepper prompted anxiously.

Toni sucked in a fortifying breath and admitted in a shaky voice, "Coulson... Phil's gone. He was killed in action."

The silence was awful. Toni closed her eyes and unfortunately her mind brought forth the image of Coulson's blood smeared on the wall. He shouldn't have been alone. Loki was too much...

"Pep, I'm—"

"Toni? I don't..." Pepper sounded confused. God, was Toni going to have to repeat herself? "That's not what I heard..."

"I know it's hard to accept, but he was— Wait. What do you mean 'what you heard'?" Toni asked. She pushed off from the wall with a frown.

"I received a call from S.H.I.E.L.D. forty-five minutes ago notifying me of Coulson's status. He's not... I don't understand. Toni, they told me it's going to be rough, but the outcome looks hopeful!"

Toni had to take several moments to process the implications. "Son of a bitch! I am going to fucking skin that one-eyed bastard!" She must have shouted because she was suddenly aware of people peeking out from behind curtained sections, Bruce startling awake, and the other Avengers getting to their feet. "Pepper, I'll get back to you," she announced curtly before hanging up.

"What's going on?" Natasha demanded as Toni approached.

"You sure as hell better not have known," Toni told her. The redhead's tight, wary expression was enough to tell Toni that at least this time Natasha hadn't been in on Fury's scheme. "Pepper just told me Coulson's alive."

Barton's eyes narrowed. Rogers looked stunned. Natasha stared hard at Toni.

"Excuse me," Natasha said a moment later, voice dangerously cold. She slipped past Toni and was out of the room before the billionaire could ask to join her.

Barton visibly sagged and dropped back onto the edge of a cot. "Nat's got this. Christ." He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. "I need to get out of here."

"Read my mind," Toni agreed.

Bruce shook his head. "Unfortunately, I think we need to deal with the Tesseract and Loki first."

Toni's lips tightened as she saw Barton's reluctant nod of agreement. "Yeah. Fine. Take a power nap, Banner. I want these bastards out of my hair."

As she turned on her heel for the door, Rogers called, "Where are you going?"

She responded without pausing, "Getting to work. The sooner this is wrapped up, the quicker I can get out of here and the less likely I'll commit homicide."

~ * ~

A couple hours into the Tesseract containment project, Toni was joined by both Bruce and Selvig. Another hour in and they added Dr. Jane Foster to the team via video conference. They worked well into the night to complete a serviceable carrying case that worked as a containment field that could be activated to utilize the cube's power for travel. When they'd finished, Jane signed off to talk to Thor.

Selvig slumped onto a lab stool with a sigh of relief.

"We can take it from here," Toni told him gently. She'd noticed the clear signs of stress and sleeplessness haunting the physicist's face; his condition was unsurprising given his trials of the past few days under Loki's thrall.

Selvig glanced at her with a rueful smile. "The truth is I still wish we could keep her. She's a fascinating piece of technology."

Bruce grimaced. "You'll forgive me for wishing we could just destroy the damn thing."

"It's a little too close to magic to be worth prodding at it." Toni eyed the case holding the Tesseract warily. She checked the clock and frowned. "What are the odds of getting rid of this thing before dawn?"

"I don't think Jane's going to let Thor take off without at least an hour of scolding," Selvig said. "She's really not happy about being left in the dark."

With a shrug, Bruce said, "Not much she could have done. Toni, you should get some rest now. I can handle arranging the departure and updating the others. I don't think you've slept since this started."

"I'm fine," Toni countered, waving a dismissive hand. "I'll sleep when this thing and Loki are gone. But I will take you up on the offer of event planner. I have some work to do on the suit so I can get Iron Man home."

"Is Iron Man alright? Barton filled me in on what I missed."

It was tempting to dismiss the question, but she liked Bruce and he looked genuinely concerned. Toni tapped her head as she said, "Iron Man's got a hard head, plus the armor lets you take a lickin' and keep on tickin'. Don't give me that look! Seriously, I'll keep an eye on 'em. Iron Man will recoup, I'll upgrade the armor, and you'll see ol' Tin Man in the skies again."

Bruce smiled a little and nodded. "I believe you, seems like you've taken good care of him so far." He looked back at the Tesseract's container and the smile faded. "I'll take care of the arrangements and keep you updated. I don't want this thing out of my sight until it's off-world."

"I'll leave you to it, then." Toni clapped Bruce on the shoulder in parting before turning for the door with plans to see what she could do with the armor.

~ * ~

Toni slipped her heels on as she opened the car door. It was impossible to drive in stilettos, so she'd gone barefoot since the parking garage. Her back twinged in pain as she stood up, reminding her in no uncertain terms that she'd be much better off in bed and doped to the gills after the trials of the past seventy-two hours.

Just a little longer, she told herself. Despite how sore and shaky she felt, Toni knew she looked composed as she strode confidently to take her place in the little semi-circle that the Earth-bound members of the Avengers were forming around Thor and Loki.

"Ms. Stark," Rogers greeted as she drew even with his shoulder. Her choice of heels meant she wasn't staring at his chin like she had during their meeting on the Helicarrier.

"Captain," she returned with a small nod. Her eyes focused on the case in Selvig's hands. "We ready to go?"

Selvig nodded and Bruce held up the specialized containment tube they'd spent the night preparing. Toni flashed them a grin and stepped forward to help transfer the Tesseract to the tube. As she and Bruce sealed the artifact, Thor and Selvig exchanged a firm embrace. Loki glowered at everyone, but with a (rather disturbing-looking) muzzle covering the lower half of his face, he didn't make a sound.

"Keep a close eye on him, Big Guy," Toni said as Bruce handed over the contained Tesseract.

Thor nodded solemnly. "Indeed we shall, Lady Stark. It saddens me that my return to Midgard was due to such grim circumstances."

"Make sure the next time is a voluntary vacation," she suggested with a smirk; "I think your girl would appreciate some attention. If you need a place to stay, swing on by and I'll make sure to have a room clear."

"You are most generous." Thor reached for her hand and touched his lips briefly to the knuckles. "Is the Man of Iron not joining us?" he asked as Toni withdrew her hand.

"Had some things I needed 'em to take care of," she excused.

"Then please extend my regrets that I did not say farewell earlier." Thor turned his attention to the group and nodded regally. "I thank you all. It is an honor to be counted among you as Shield Brother."

Toni just barely managed to resist the urge to raise a hand against the brilliant flash of light that washed over them as the Tesseract activated.

After the light faded, Selvig said his goodbyes and made his way over to one of the many S.H.I.E.L.D. vehicles waiting at a distance. The remaining members of the Avengers Initiative drifted a little closer together in the silence that followed.

Eventually, Natasha said, "Fury recommends laying low." Toni felt her hands clench at the mention of the manipulative, lying bastard.

Rogers' lips quirked briefly in a wry smile. "I received a recommendation to 'take some down time' and see the country."

Toni snorted derisively. "Interesting orders."

"Are you going to?" Bruce asked.

"I'm... not sure." Rogers frowned. "Of course I'd like to travel, but it doesn't feel like the right time."

"You've more than earned the right to be your own person, Steve," Bruce told him gently.

"I'm sure Director Fury has good reasons for wanting us to lay low..."

Toni waved off the half-hearted protest. "Screw it. What do you want to do, Rogers?"

Instead of answering, he asked, "Ah, what are you going to do, Ms. Stark?"

Surprised, Toni started with the easy part of her response; "You need to cut the 'Ms. Stark' thing. It's Toni." She caught the others' amused looks as Steve mumbled an apology. "Hey, he's not calling you Ms. Romanov, now is he?" she said, pointing at Natasha.

"Fun as the name game is," Barton interrupted, "What are you planning?"

"The Tower needs repairs. Besides the Loki-shaped hole in my floor, the building can't be cleared for business operations."

Rogers looked thoughtful. "It would be good to get things back to normal."

"Yes, and the sooner I can be sure the company's in some semblance of order, the sooner I can spread my focus."

"You're going to help rebuild the city," Rogers said, tone just shy of questioning.

Crossing her arms, Toni challenged, "Surprised?"

He flushed and stammered, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean—"

With a sharp shake of her head, Toni cut him off. She was too worn out to deal with fumbled apologies and Rogers' awkward interactions with her. "Not now, Captain." She turned to face the others with a tired smile. "Look, even with the damage, the Tower's standing solid and there's plenty of room if you need a place to crash. It's not under S.H.I.E.L.D.'s thumb and no one's going to bug you there. If you need something to keep you busy, I'm sure Pepper or I could find something for you, too."

Barton looked her over with a calculating gaze. "I'll think about it," he muttered.

A brief glance at Natasha gave Toni the impression that the other woman would be by as long as Barton agreed.

"Any time; I don't keep regular hours," she said as she looked around the group, pointedly including Rogers in her sweep. "Open offer, no time limit." With that, she leaned into Bruce's side with a winsome grin. "Come on, Green Bean. You promised to come see the fun house."

The scientist smiled hesitantly. "I'm not sure I did... I do remember you threatening to attempt seduction via fancy laboratories."

Toni smirked. "Honey, my seductions are things of dreams, never a threat."

"I'd, ah, prefer to skip the seduction," Bruce said with a cough.

Toni gasped dramatically. "Didn't you hear? I'm a Lady, Dr. Banner. I do not put out on the first date."

"Not what I heard!" Barton snickered.

Toni flipped him off. "Careful, I'll start rethinking that new equipment I promised you." Barton's amused expression stayed in place as he raised his hands in silent surrender. Dismissing him with an eye-roll, Toni returned her attention to Bruce. "Let's get going."

"I'll accept a tour," Bruce agreed; Toni read his careful tone as a warning that he wasn't promising to stick around. However, she was confident she could win him over.

Waving at the others, Toni started moving towards the car. "See ya. Remember: Tower, rooms, invite."

She and Bruce had reached the convertible by the time Rogers jogged up behind her. "Ms— Toni?" She waved Bruce into the car before turning around, arching an eyebrow in silent question. Rogers stood awkwardly a couple paces away, hand raised like he'd been reaching for her. He withdrew his hand and rubbed at the back of his neck, wearing a sheepish smile. "Thanks. For, you know, offering the invitation. Would it be alright to visit sometime? To check in on Iron Man, I mean. I'd meant to... Well. We didn't really talk and I feel like..." He winced as he shrugged off the rest of his attempt to explain.

"It's an open invitation, Captain," she reminded. "You're welcome to come by whenever you wish. I can't promise I'll always be free. As for Iron Man—" She paused a moment as his request sunk in. "Well. Iron Man hasn't exactly had visitors before. But I guess you can stop in and see where that gets you." In light of Rogers' concerned frown, she wondered if she should have thought her answer through more carefully.

"I think I'll try that. Thank you, Toni." Rogers smiled lopsidedly and offered her his hand. "I look forward to seeing you later, then."

Surprised by his statement, Toni distractedly accepted the handshake and nodded.

Rogers walked away as Toni settled into the driver's seat and kicked off her shoes. She eyed the man's retreating back while turning the ignition.

"Thinking of giving him another chance?" Bruce asked quietly, startling Toni from her thoughts.

She shrugged, partly in answer and in part trying to dismiss her puzzlement. Spending time and energy on trying to figure out Steve Rogers, alias Captain America, was not something she could add to her list of current priorities.

Toni slipped on her sunglasses and firmly shut down any thoughts about the other Avengers. With her best Bette Davis impersonation, she misquoted, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride!"


---

Regarding the closing line (a link to YT clip if you don't recognize it): My headcanon says Toni likes classic movies, okay? (I've had this lingering thought of trying to come up with some excuse for her to dress up like Katherine Hepburn from the 1940's, like for a themed gala or masquerade or something — not that I have any reason for something like that to have any bearing on plot right now.)

This was a goddamn hard fic to write. I started writing this immediately after completing "Won't let you choke" and struggled over every single scene. At first I was writing mostly for the sake of writing and to develop a sense of the world for my personal use. I needed to know how things went down in the 'verse I'm building during the film events. Then I shared some scenes with my roommate, which paralleled the film script and offered very little in the way of "extras." After her initial comments, I started working on some other fics for this series while debating what I wanted out of this one. I rewrote lines for the in-film scenes several times and I'm finally feeling comfortable with what's here. I think the ending leaves something to be desired (I'm so sorry), but it's time for me to take a deep breath and release this. This is, after all, a bridging piece to unite the characters for the rest of this 'verse.

I continue to work without a beta, so polite criticism is greatly appreciated — and if someone would like to get an advanced look at things and help me out...? Drop me a line and I would be delighted to have the assistance.

Plus bonus meta! Regarding terminology: Behind-the-scenes of writing Starring Role (relevant to Stark's rather infamous self-definition.)

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