It was hard to pinpoint the moment when Ellie started to feel like herself again but she knew it had everything to do with her friends and team mates. Pepper was the one who helped her pack up Phil's collectibles and clothes when Fury came to collect them several weeks later. He let her keep most of the comic books since she and Phil had spent most of their lives collecting them. After they packed everything up, Pepper brought her over to Stark Tower and they ordered dinner and spent time with Tony. Steve had become one of her close friends, which excited Ellie's inner fangirl more than she was willing to admit. While Steve and Tony were making slow progress on becoming civil with each other, Ellie made it a point to not be around both at the same time, often making plans with Steve when Tony was busy.
"You want to what?" Pepper asked, taking a sip of her wine.
"I want to dye my hair." Ellie repeated.
"But it's such a beautiful color." Pepper said.
"I think it's time for a change. I could use one." Ellie said. "There's a drugstore down the street. I can pick up some dye and be back in fifteen minutes."
"Oh, no." Pepper said, setting her class down. "If you're going to dye your hair, you're going to have it professionally done. That boxed stuff can turn out horrible."
"I think it's worth the risk." Ellie chuckled.
"What color were you thinking?" Pepper asked.
"She'd look good as a blonde." Tony said, looking up from his newest version of his suit. "Maybe draw a bit of attention from the glowing blue eye thing you have going on."
"I think he's right." Pepper said, picturing Ellie as a blonde. "You would look good as a blonde."
"Think there's any salon's open right now?" Ellie checked the time on her phone. It was almost midnight and she highly doubted any salon was open.
"We can go first thing tomorrow." Pepper suggested. "Then your hair can be freshly colored for the benefit this weekend."
"I don't think I'm going to go." Ellie admitted.
"What? Why?" Pepper asked.
"I've never really been to a benefit before." Ellie said. "ComicCon yes, but never a fancy party. Plus I don't have a date."
"I bet Steve would be your date if you asked." Pepper said, taking another drink of wine.
"I don't think Steve's going either."
"Capsicle's already RSVP'd in the positive." Tony interjected. "Also not bringing a date."
"Thanks Tony." Ellie said sarcastically. "Speaking of Cap, I should go. I have an early training session with him."
"Keep it rated PG please." Tony teased. "I just bought that gym."
He was rewarded with a throw pillow thrown a little too hard at his head. Ellie said goodbye to Pepper and headed home. Taking a taxi would have taken less time but she liked walking. She thought back to the conversation about Steve. Anybody with eyes could tell he was attractive but Ellie wasn't ready for anything new. It had been almost two months since the Battle of New York and Phil's death but the idea of dating was foreign to her. She was going to be 28 this weekend and she had only been with one man in her life so she didn't really know what to do. She was so lost in her thoughts that she didn't even realize that she had reached her apartment until she was unlocking her door. She cleared her mind and crawled into bed.
"You distracted today?" Steve asked Ellie, helping her up after knocking her down in the boxing ring. "You don't usually let me get in any hits."
"Just a little tired." Ellie put her arms up defensively, waiting for Steve to strike. "I was talking with Pepper most of last night."
She avoided his gloved fists and managed to land a few hits of her own before sweeping her leg under his feet and knocking him on his back. "I think you're taking it easy on me, Gramps."
Steve chuckled and got back to his feet. "Just want to make you feel like you're doin' all right."
"That sounds like a challenge." Ellie taunted.
"Maybe." Steve said with a smile. While the punching bag was good for his aggression he had to admit that it was more fun to actually box with someone, especially someone that he didn't really have to hold back on. The pair sparred until Pepper came to pick Ellie up a few hours later.
"Do I have time to shower?" Ellie asked, climbing out of the ring.
"Of course." Pepper smiled.
"Give me five minutes." Ellie bolted for the gym shower and true to her word, she was back in five minutes, hair still damp. "Thanks for the fight, Steve."
"See you tomorrow?" Steve asked, unwrapping his hands.
"She can't tomorrow." Pepper said before Ellie could speak. "She's helping me finish planning the benefit this weekend."
"Oh. Okay." Steve said. "I can just use the bags."
"I didn't have any plans to help you." Ellie told Pepper once they were outside. "Did I?"
"Not real plans per se but we have to find a dress and a mask for you." Pepper said as they got into the car.
"I don't understand why it has to be a masquerade." Ellie said.
"It's fun." Pepper promised.
That was how Ellie found herself with freshly dyed blonde hair, a beautiful red gown that clung to the right places, and a jeweled red mask covering most of her eyes. Pepper had managed to convince her to wear heels as well and Ellie was regretting that decision as she practiced walking in them, waiting for the car to arrive. She heard a knock at the door and answered it, surprised to find Steve on the other side, wearing a black mask and a tuxedo.
"Wow. You look beautiful." Steve said. He hadn't seen her blonde hair yet and combined with the glowing blue of her eyes, it was stunning.
"You look pretty good yourself, Cap." Ellie smiled. "Not that I'm not happy to see you, but what are you doing here?"
"Pepper asked if it was all right if we arrived together. She told me she talked to you about it."
"She hadn't but that's all right. Let me grab my coat." Ellie picked up her clutch and wrap that went with her dress and followed Steve to the limo. "Tony's going all out for this benefit, huh?"
"Apparently so." Steve said, glancing out the window before returning his attention back to Ellie with a smile. "I haven't seen you around the gym."
"Yeah, Pepper wanted to make sure we found the 'perfect dress' for the benefit." Ellie sighed. "Personally I would rather have been boxing."
"Well, I think it was worth missing a few lessons." Steve said.
"Thanks." Ellie smiled and blushed slightly as the limo slowed and the driver opened the door, allowing the pair to step out. They smiled at the photographers standing outside as they made their way into the large building. Ellie had trouble recognizing the other guests due to the masks but Tony was easy to identify. He was wearing his Iron Man mask. She found Pepper by the dress she was wearing and was walking over to say hello when Tony spotted her.
"Let's say hello to the birthday girl, Miss Ellie Johnson!" He said loudly into a microphone and a spot light landed on Ellie, causing her to shield her eyes with her hand.
"Do you like it?" Pepper practically squealed when Ellie finally reached her.
"I thought this was a charity benefit." Ellie said.
"I knew you wouldn't come if you knew we planned a birthday party." Pepper explained. "Do you like it?"
Ellie sighed but smiled. "Yes, of course. Thank you."
The pair hugged and the band started to play. Steve claimed her for a dance, both of them stumbling through the music due to lack of rhythm and knowledge of how to dance. The duo laughed at their mistakes and decided it would be beneficial for the others on the dance floor if they took a break. They went to the bar and got some champagne and Ellie looked at the large birthday cake that had been set up near the bar.
"What flavor do you think it is?" Ellie asked Steve, nudging him with her elbow.
"I think Stark said it was chocolate." Steve replied.
Ellie spied a spoon behind the bar and snatched it when the bartender looked away, giggling conspiratorially. "Do you want to find out?"
Steve chuckled and followed her lead as she snuck around to the side of the cake closest to the wall. She dug the spoon into the spongy pastry and then put the spoon in her mouth. She chewed then swallowed the cake before giving him a spoonful of his own and speaking. "You're right. It's chocolate."
"It's a rich chocolate." Steve said, his mouth partly full and wiping the icing from the corner of his mouth.
"Could you expect anything less when Tony is involved?" Ellie asked, tossing the spoon back on the bar as they rejoined the other guests. "I can't believe they did this for me."
"Starks love extravagance." Steve said with a shrug. "Do you want to dance again?"
"Sure." Ellie accepted his hand and they managed to get through half a song without hurting anybody.
"May I cut in?" A masked stranger asked Steve. After an accepting nod from Ellie, Steve relinquished his date to the stranger.
"You look lovely tonight." He said as he slipped an arm around her waist and took her hand in his.
"Thank you. I don't think I caught your name." Ellie said. His mask covered most of his face so it was hard to tell who he was as they moved to the music.
"Brian." He introduced himself.
"The birthday girl." Brian smiled at her, his brown eyes twinkling. "How young are you tonight?"
"28." Ellie couldn't help but smile back at the handsome stranger. He was easy to feel comfortable with.
"I'm sorry to have stolen you from your boyfriend." Brian said. "I hope he's not the jealous type."
"Steve's just a friend." Ellie corrected. The music stopped and they applauded the band before Brian retrieved drinks for them.
"Would you like to get some air?" Brian asked, gesturing to the balcony.
"Sure." Ellie followed him through the crowd, careful not to spill her drink. It was quieter on the balcony and the stars twinkled brightly.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Brian asked, gazing at the sky.
"What do you do for a living, Brian?" Ellie asked, setting her drink down.
"A lot of different things, I suppose. I'm a collector, mostly."
"What do you collect?"
"Things that others tend to discard as old or useless." Brian took her hand in his. "There is beauty in things that are different." He brushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear, leaving his hand on her neck. "What do you do for a living?"
"I'd tell you but I'd have to kill you." Ellie teased. The pair chuckled softly and a smile remained on their lips as they gazed into each other's eyes. "I swear I know you from somewhere."
"I wish that were true but it isn't." Brian said. He let his thumb stroke the skin on her neck as he leaned in to kiss her.
"I—um-" Ellie's words made him pause a millimeter away from her lips, his breath mingling with hers. "I don't usually kiss strange men on balconies."
"I'll consider myself a lucky first." Brian said softly, closing the distance between them and pressing his lips against hers. She wrapped her arms around his neck and heard herself moan when his tongue danced against her own. He pulled her close and put his arms around her waist, holding her close. When they finally pulled away, they were panting for breath. Brian reluctantly released her and plucked a single red rose from the vase placed on the balcony. "Happy birthday."
Brian kissed her hand before he turned and left her on the balcony. Ellie watched him go until Steve came to reclaim her.
Once he was clear of the guests of the building, Phil Coulson took off the mask covering his face and took out the brown contacts in his eyes. He had wanted to see Ellie on her birthday but knew he wasn't the one who could actually see her, hence the disguise. If Fury found out, Phil would be in big trouble but it was worth it. Phil went to their—her—apartment and placed a cupcake on the kitchen table.
A/N: You guys are awesome. Thanks to all who review/follow/favorite/read this story. Each and every one of you are appreciated. Reviews are always welcome and like I've said before, I don't bruise easily.
Rylee: I like to think they would be. :) Thanks for reviewing.
Tomb: I've already sent you a PM but I wanted to thank you here as well. :)