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“I just really don't understand why I'm here, I mean that keyboard was a perfectly reasonable price.  A thousand bucks for a CUSTOMIZABLE KEYBOARD, c'mon, Rhodey, you can't tell me you'd pass that up!”

It’s not as bad as, say, a toddler throwing a fit as their parent drags them through the mall, but it’s not exactly quiet or hard to miss.  Pepper can’t help but glance up from the Margaret Atwood book she’s reading but once she does, she knows she can’t leave poor Rhodey to that.

So she closes the book, grabs her coffee, and approaches her apparently-harangued friend.  “What’s the issue here?” she asks, using her smoothing-it-over customer service voice.

“I was just escorting His Highness here over to his job training session at Sharper Images,” says Rhodey, sarcastic as ever.  The man who had been so loud has crossed his hands over his chest and is now pouting - maybe the toddler comparison hadn’t been that off after all.  Of course Pepper recognizes him; she’d have to be utterly oblivious not to.  Tony Stark’s face has been periodically featured on the local news for as long as she’s lived here, since everyone loves to watch spoiled rich children’s illegal escapades.  She’s even fitted him for a suit or two in the past, and while the bragging rights were nice, they hardly made up for the hours she’d spent dealing with this adult child.  And now here he was again.  For a job training session?

Tony must have caught the quizzical look on her face, because he’s off again, talking so fast that she can hardly keep up.  “Apparently I’m here to, what was it?  Learn the value of a well-earned dollar?  I think those were Dad’s words.  Rhodey, you probably remember the lecture better than I do, I was busy calculating how long it would take me to rig the sprinkler in front of Dad’s room so it’ll go off every morning when he leaves.  He’s pissy because I don’t do a damn thing to ‘contribute to the family’ which, I’d like to see him program anything close to JARVIS, and what thanks do I get for that?  None at all.  You’re welcome for making your daily life easier, Dad.  I’m sorry the thousand-dollar customizable keyboard wasn’t even more on sale!”

“When does your training session start?” Pepper asks, trying not to let how overwhelmed she is by his tangent show on her face.

“One,” says Rhodey, while Tony goes back to sulking.

Pepper checks her watch and stifles a sigh.  “That gives us enough time for a tour,” she offers, raising her eyebrows in a way that she hopes Rhodey will understand to mean maybe feeling like part of the gang will help mellow him out somehow, even though she assumes that’s wishful thinking.

Rhodey laughs a bit, and nods.  “All right, this way, your highness,” he says, and all Tony does to respond to the nickname is look mildly miffed.  Rhodey ignores him, and points to the bakery that’s marked in jaunty wobbling letters as Corner Bakery Cafe.  “Over there is where you can get the best cookies ever, the end.  It’s a chain but that doesn’t even matter, it’s so damn good.  Volstagg probably puts something magic in them.”

“That’s not a corner,” is Tony’s only comment.  Which, it’s not, it’s sandwiched between a Sbarro’s and a McDonald’s, and Pepper’s always thought the name was a bit silly.

But it’s not worth commenting on, really, so instead she turns her attention to the opposite side of the food court, pointing and nodding and switching to her all-business voice.  “Over there at MaggieMoo’s, see the girl working?”

“Yes,” Tony says, like it’s obvious.  (It is.  Why wouldn’t he see her?)

“That’s Jemma,” Pepper continues.  “She will mix up the weirdest, most delicious ice cream cone for you, but you are under no circumstances allowed to even think about flirting with her.  Understand?”

“I don’t know where this accusation’s coming from,” replies Tony, “I didn’t hit on you and you’re, well, you’re not quite my type but you’re nothing to sneeze at, definitely.  She’s not really my type either.  Being honest, I tend to prefer blondes.  I am a gentleman.”

Pepper rolls her eyes.  Of course that’s his reaction.  “I’m still issuing the warning,” she says.   From what she knows, Tony Stark is the sort to flirt with anyone and anything if the mood strikes, and besides.  “Don’t hit on Jemma Simmons” is basically a rule around here.

Rhodey’s watched the entire exchange with an amused expression, and once they’ve stopped he gestures for Tony to follow him out of the food court.  Pepper joins them; hell, she doesn’t have anything better to do.

Rhodey takes a left out of the food court, gesturing to the Sephora that’s located just outside.  “Bucky works there.  He, uh...well, ask Steve and Natasha about Bucky if you get curious.”

“We’ll point them out in a minute,” Pepper adds, hurrying them along before Tony starts asking too many more questions (he’s got a look on his face like he might).

“Teavana next to that, if you feel like paying entirely too much for fancy teas.”  Rhodey says this so sarcastically that Pepper laughs, both at the entirely-true comment and at the mental image of this spoiled playboy drinking tea.  He practically sweats coffee.  “And next door, the hipster mecca,” he says, indicating a slightly out-of-place-looking bookstore called Pages.  “Ian works there, and they have a pretty decent tech section actually.  If you ever feel like deigning to set foot there.”  He grins.

“And across the way is our Big 5 Sporting Goods,” Pepper takes over.  “That’s Sif and Melinda in there.  Neither of them will take any shit, but Sif will be cooler about it.”

“Now, pay attention to this next part, it’ll be relevant to your dumb ass.  That’s the security office there.”  Rhodey points across the way, where a nondescript grey front has only a no-nonsnse sign reading SECURITY on its door to give any hint as to its purpose.  “Nick Fury is the head, but he’s not usually out on the floor.  Officers Coulson and Hill are.  Hill’s not too bad, she used to be a real cop but then she got hurt and had to retire, so she doesn’t blow things too out of proportion.  But Coulson…”

“Coulson takes his job very seriously,” Pepper declares, letting that sink in for a moment before she smirks and adds, “that’s why his forehead is so big.  It’s full of secrets.”

“Oh my god, was that a Mean Girls reference?  Marry me.”  Tony looks entirely serious for a moment.

Pepper raises an eyebrow, looking mildly amused.  “Anyway, let’s take the tour downstairs,” she declares, heading in the direction of the escalator and expecting the boys to follow.

Once they reach the bottom of the escalator, the first thing Pepper sees is Steve and Natasha in the Gap windows, arranging the display.  Steve is adjusting the clothes on the mannequins and Natasha is hanging an obnoxiously brightly colored sign.  Steve sees them first and waves, smiling in his familiar all-American way.  Natasha’s smile is subtler, more of a smirk really, but she doesn’t look unhappy to see them, anyway.

“Hey, you two,” Pepper greets them, nodding amiably before gesturing to the newcomer.  “This is Tony.  He’s going to be working at Sharper Image.”

“Hi, Tony!” Steve grins and waves.  Natasha, unsurprisingly, just looks him over, not unlike a feral cat sizing up a possible threat.  Tony nudges Rhodey and mutters, “Okay, I lied earlier.  I’m totally into redheads.”

Of course Pepper hears that, but like hell she’ll say anything.  Besides, she knows that if Natasha heard herself and was bothered, she would take care of the situation herself.  Instead, she waves goodbye and leads the others to the left.

“Over in the Sunglass Hut is Heimdall, he keeps an eye on everything that happens around here,” she declares.  “Bath and Body Works, Claire’s, the art store… ah.”  She pauses toward the end of the corridor and smirks.  “And there’s Hot Topic.”

“The original goth boy works there,” chimes in Rhodey.  “Loki.  He’s a real basket case, daddy issues out the ass.  Thinks he’s gonna rule the world someday.  Basically, if you don’t have to talk to him, don’t.  Word is, he went to one of those...special high schools.”

“Special like how? Like, gifted and talented special? I went to one of those, you know,” says Tony. “And I’m totally gonna rule the world someday, so maybe he and I could find some common ground. Y’know, co-rulership.”

“Maybe ‘alternative’ would be a better word,” Pepper frets, equally terrified by Tony’s ego and by the thought of a world where Tony and Loki could get along for long enough to co-rule anything.  (That isn’t this world, or any other one that makes logical sense, but it’s still a frightening thought.)

Tony looks only mildly disappointed.  “Fine.  I’ll just have to settle for being the smartest person in the building, again.”

“Glad to know your ego’s intact,” Rhodey snarks.

“The hair salon is in the corner there,” Pepper continues, “Kohl’s, David’s Bridal, Fuego, just your usual collection of stores.  Fuego is where you’ll find Clint, he’s all right.”

Rhodey shrugs.  “Kind of an enigma.  Nice enough, but probably a secret agent or something.  Keeps to himself.  RadioShack’s over there, and...oh.”  He says this as they all turn to look at Victoria’s Secret, where an ethereal-looking redheaded woman is hanging about the entrance.  Seeming to feel the eyes on her, she smiles enticingly at them and makes blatant bedroom eyes at Tony.

“NO!” says Rhodey, losing his cool for the first time as he grabs Tony’s arm to keep him from walking over to her.  “I know you like redheads, man, but Lorelei is bad news, seriously.  That’s a no-fly zone!”

“How bad can she be?” Tony asks, because it’s not like Rhodey isn’t aware of some of his more… interesting former flames.

“You have to trust me on this.  Do not do that.”  Rhodey sounds more like he’s offering someone advice about how to navigate a battlefield than warning them away from a date, but Pepper knows how serious this is.

“Fine.”  Tony only drags the word out a little bit, sighing like a kid who’s been denied another hour of video games.

As if trying to distract him, Rhodey pulls him along, saying “And there’s middle-aged women’s clothing, and here’s a whole store full of science!  You like science, Tony.”

“You’re being patronizing,” says Tony, “but you’re right, I do like science.  Maybe more than redheads.  Or brunettes,” he adds, catching a glimpse of the short, nerdy-looking woman manning the inside of the store.

“That’s Jane,” Pepper says with a placid smile, “and across the foyer  we have the chocolate store on one side and the Disney Store, where Jane’s very tall ex-quarterback boyfriend Thor works, on the other.”

Tony, seeing the enormous Thor for himself (at the moment, engaged in a swordfight with two very enthusiastic children), swallows and nods.  “Point taken.”

“Over here, a bunch of useless stores, candles and phones and shit, and there’s Sharon in Charlotte Russe!”  Seeing him wave, the blonde woman inside smiles and waves back.  “Don’t hit on her either,” he adds, “she can hit a target from three hundred yards away.  And Darcy’s over there in FYE.”

“Can I hit on her?” asks Tony, clearly only partially serious.

“If you want,” Pepper shrugs.  “She’ll play along, as long as you’re not an asshole.”  

“GameStop and the arcade are down there,” Rhodey says.  “Sometimes they have tournaments, and Hogun kicks everyone’s ass but it’s a good time.  Do not go anywhere near the weed store though.  Raina’s nuts, and I mean nuts.”

“It’s not actually called the weed store, is it?  That seems remarkably unsubtle.”

“No, but…”  Pepper shrugs sheepishly in that way she only rarely  deigns to do.  “The thing is, nobody remembers the real name, because everyone knows exactly what it is.”

Tony nods.  “Ah.  Fair enough, duly noted.”

“That’s about it for down here. Back upstairs,” says Rhodey, herding Tony back towards the escalator.

Once they’ve arrived at the second floor once again, Pepper leads them back toward the center of the mall.  “Foot Locker, that’s where Hogun of the aforementioned gaming tournaments works, and across the way is Abercrombie and Fitch, where his good friend  Fandral works.  Fandral is the quintessential Abercrombie boy.  I think he actually modeled for them once or twice.”

“You don’t say?  I’m sure we’ve already seen each other in various states of undress then.”

Pepper blinks in confusion a few times, shakes her head, and presses on.  “Men’s Wearhouse, on that side, then on this side there’s Build-A-Bear, Mike’s in there and he’s kind of shy but really nice.  Then there’s candy and women’s clothes, oh, and the Apple Store.   Skye and Fitz are there; they’re nice kids, but don’t mess with them too much, please.  Skye’s got a mouth on her and Fitz will just get passive-aggressive.”

Tony makes an exaggerated face of dismay.  “Not passive-aggressive, oh no!”

“Yeah, but just wait.  His passive-aggression means shitty wi-fi for everyone until he gets an apology,” replies Rhodey.  Tony looks slightly chagrined, but only slightly.

“The last woman you’re not allowed to hit on, ever, is Victoria in the jewelry store,” Pepper declares, waving across the corridor.  “Victoria can kill you with her pinky.”

“Is that...literal?”  Tony looks slightly unsettled, which pleases Pepper.

“Bruce in the watch store is very nice, though,” she continues, altogether ignoring his question.  “You can get your souvenir knives and your board games right over there, and that, gentlemen, concludes our tour.  This is where I leave you.” With a nod at the Nordstrom entrance. “If you’ve got any more questions, I’m in designer women’s now with Maya, or if you’re downstairs, Trip’s in young men’s.  He’s very helpful too.”

As she walks away briskly, she hears Tony say, “Okay, but this isn’t really, like, an all-day gig, is it?  Because I got stuff to do that doesn’t involve being trapped in here all day.  I get bored if I’m stationary too long, I’m like a rat.  I gotta, y’know, solve mazes.  I don’t see anything even vaguely mazelike here.”

Chapter Text

He glances around multiple times before slipping into the hot pink monstrosity of a store.  He’d never set foot near it under ordinary circumstances, but today he needs help.  Well, not needs, he could take care of this himself, but this woman seems to be the only one in this miserable place who thinks even remotely like himself.  She could be useful.

Naturally, he stands out, a tall, gawky boy in a store filled with women’s undergarments, so she comes right over to him.  A lesser person would have been taken in by her beauty, or the way that she purrs “Hello” in a way that sounds like she wants to bed him right then and there.  Not him, but nevertheless he can admit her voice is captivating.

She’s been watching him, and not in the way that, say, every man who comes into the store to buy his girlfriend some lingerie watches her.  She’s not interested in him, but she finds him very interesting.  “I expected you sooner,” she says, raising an eyebrow at him before turning her attention to a rack of citrus green bras.

“Yes, well.”  He refuses to let her throw him off guard.  “I came as soon as I could, I suppose.  I take it you saw my...encounter earlier?”

“I don’t know how I could have missed it,” she points out.  “It did get rather loud.”

“Not by my wishes,” he replies, sneering a bit to let her know that he noticed the innuendo she snuck in there and he is not amused by it.  “We have...a history, he and I.  I think he rather relishes the opportunity to confront me whenever he can.”

She glances at her (quite elegant, even to his untrained eye, but tasteful) watch.  “I’m off in five minutes,” she declares.  “Buy me lunch and you can tell me everything about it.”

He sighs.  “Is there no situation you won’t twist to your advantage?”

“Do you want my help or not?” she asks, voice gone low as if she cares about being overheard (she doesn’t entirely, but it’s fun to have secrets).

“I do, I suppose.”  He sighs again.  “Meet me in front of the food court when you’re done.  We’ll talk.”

So exactly eight minutes later (five more of work, one to find her way upstairs, two just because it’s also fun to keep him waiting) she appears, tossing her perfectly-curled red hair over her shoulder like she’s in a shampoo commercial.  “I’m feeling like Greek food,” she says, her tone making it clear that there’s not room for debate.

“Very well.”  Loki bows a bit, mockingly gesturing for her to walk in front of him.  She does, giving her order with her usual assertiveness, and once they have their food they sit down at one of the tables that’s farthest away from anyone else.  “So I gather you are just as fond of Ward as everyone else here,” he says, by way of starting the conversation.

“He’s a dick,” she says, punctuating it with a sip of her soda.  “And not the fun kind.”

Loki chuckles.  “That’s not a bad way of phrasing it.  I wouldn’t stoop to ally myself with most of the fools who work here, but you seem...stronger than them.  You think differently.  You have skills that could be useful.”

“I assume I know what you’re referring to,” Lorelei smirks, “and I’m intrigued.  What do you have in mind?  And whyever are you so interested in whatever that is?  Nothing good comes from having a history with a boy like that.”

“Oh. I apologize if I have given you the wrong idea - we were never involved in that way, you see.  I was merely one of the smaller, weaker victims to his reign of terror.  He seems unable to let go of the past.”

She sighs, shaking her head.  “More’s the pity.  The first part, I mean.”  And she lets that sit for a moment as she nibbles her gyro, rather relishing the way it might make him uncomfortable.  “But a reign of terror sounds awfully dramatic.”

“Perhaps not him, specifically, so much as his cronies,” Loki clarifies.  “He was part of an organization that...well, it made life quite difficult for you if you didn’t comply with their wishes, let’s say.  He seems to have had a difficult time adjusting to life without them.  Thus the display you saw earlier.”

“Well, aren’t you being vague about it,” she croons.  “I don’t think there was a proper noun to be had in that thought.”

“Purposefully,” he says.  “But very well.  They...well, I suppose it could be referred to as a gang of sorts?  Not that they were anywhere near that well-organized, mind.  They were the junior league, perhaps.  A student teacher was a member of the larger organization and was...instrumental in the recruitment of certain weak-minded persons at the school to his cause.  Ward was one of them.”

Oh,” Lorelei exclaims.  “So some of the rumors are true.”

Loki chuckles.  “Some, yes.  They seem to enjoy it when those get out of hand.  Mind, Ward was never one of the cleverer ones.  He followed orders; his behavior towards me was extracurricular.”

“Poor baby,” Lorelei pouts, widening her eyes and blinking with comical sadness.  “You said ‘life without them,’ does that mean the nefarious gang has since disbanded?”

“Yes and no,” he says after a pause.  “I have no doubt that they still have a foothold in the politics of the school.  And no doubt there are students who have graduated, as it were, to the higher ranks.  But Ward was never particularly ambitious.  He never wanted to advance beyond being Garrett’s second.  Now he’s content to work at the IKEA across the street and recruit from its automatons.  As well, of course, as terrorizing teenagers and former victims,” he finishes in a falsely bright tone.

“Including you,” she deduces.  “You and all of those victims are having to pay for the fact that he’s stuck in the past.”

“Essentially.  So I’ve decided that he should suffer a similar fate.”  Loki smirks at her.  “I thought I might ask you to help, if you were inclined.”

“If I am, what can you offer me?” she asks.

He narrows his eyes.  “Amusement?  Satisfaction?  What sort of thing do you require?”

“That could do for now,” she replies coyly.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he says wryly.  “Here’s a few things I had in mind…”

Chapter Text

“So how was your weekend?”

Sif raises an eyebrow.  Melinda doesn’t generally exchange pleasantries with her, so this must mean she’s genuinely interested.  She tries not to get too excited about what that might mean and replies, “Thor and Fandral and I went rock climbing.  They overestimated themselves and underestimated me, as usual,” she adds, grinning.

“Oh?”

Melinda’s feeling really chatty today.  Sif continues, “Yes, Fandral managed to make it only 10 feet down the 50 foot wall we’d all climbed before he slipped.  Lucky he had the bungee cord to catch him, or he would’ve fallen right on his ass.  Honestly, I was a little disappointed, though I wouldn’t have wanted him to get hurt, of course.  But it serves him right.”

At the term “fallen right on his ass,” Sif swears she sees a smile dart across Melinda’s face.  That’s the equivalent of anyone else falling on the floor laughing, so, feeling bold, she decides to keep going.  “Thor made it farther down, but he slipped off halfway.  I plan on never letting them hear the end of it, especially since Fandral kept insisting that he was the best of the three of us.”

Nodding, Melinda smirks at her, and Sif has to physically stop herself from basking in the glow of the nonverbal compliment.

“Doesn’t surprise me,” says Melinda, clearly referring to Fandral.  It’s not like she knows him personally, but Sif knows all too well his reputation.  It’s no wonder Melinda’s aware of it too.

“How about you?”  She doesn’t really expect an answer, but given how comparatively talkative Melinda is being, Sif figures there’s no reason not to at least try.

“I stayed in.  The usual.”  Melinda shrugs.

Well, Sif was expecting more of an answer than that, but now she’s embarrassed for asking.  “Oh,” she says politely, and wracks her brain for other conversation topics.  It’s rare enough to get Melinda to discuss anything not involving work that she doesn’t want their conversation, seemingly one-sided as it is, to end yet.

It’s quiet for a long moment, and then Melinda, as if to apologize for the awkwardness, says “I was painting.”

That was definitely not the answer Sif was expecting.  “What were you...painting?” she asks, because it’s all she can think to say.

“Just my living room,” replies Melinda.  Before Sif can ask some other asinine question like what color paint she’s using, she’s saved by a customer, who comes in and heads for the hunting knives display.  “You’d better handle that,” says Melinda, not unkindly; they both know that of the two of them, Sif knows more about those knives.  She turns to go, thankful that she’s managed to not humiliate herself in front of Melinda today.

 


 

It’s his lunch break, and before he gets food for himself Phil has a very important mission.  Every day at exactly 12:24 PM he brings Melinda May a sandwich from the semi-gourmet shop that’s possibly the food court’s classiest establishment.  Today’s is an avocado BLT.  He clutches the bag in anticipation as he walks into the Big 5, glancing around in what he hopes is a nonchalant way for Melinda.

She’s finishing up with a customer over in the exercise equipment, so he waits patiently until she’s done before calling out, “Hi!”  It would be impossible for his voice to be shaking as much as he thinks it is, but with any luck Melinda won’t notice.

She spots him, and doesn’t exactly smile, but she looks as pleased to see him as she ever does and comes over.  “You’re always on time,” she says, smirking slightly.

“Punctuality is important to me,” he says, smiling.  He always feels a bit like a schoolboy around her, tripping over his own tongue.

“Thanks.”  She takes the sandwich from him and motions in the direction of the break room.  He follows along, sure he looks exactly like a puppy dog trailing after its owner but not really caring.

 


 

Maria’s doing her customary walk of the top floor when she sees Melinda heading out of her store.  “Hey!” she calls, smiling when Melinda looks over at her.  “You heading out?”

“Yeah.  Shift just ended.”

“Want me to walk you to the stairs?  I’ve got a great story.”

“Sure.”  Melinda smiles, just quirking up one side of her mouth, but that’s basically a grin, so Maria grins back.

They head for the door to the stairs, and Maria says, “So I got to tase some dumbass kid today.”

“Oh?”  Melinda sounds amused already.

“Yeah.  He thought he was clever, trying to steal a copy of The Last of Us from GameStop.  Jasper caught him, but then the kid started arguing with him and shoving him around, so we got called.  You know Coulson, he started lecturing the kid, but it clearly didn’t work cause he tried to run.  I’m sure he wasn’t expecting me to jump him.”  Maria laughs.  Melinda chuckles too, and that makes Maria even happier than she’d been seeing the shocked look on the kid’s face right before she hit him with a shock of electricity.

“Sounds like fun,” says Melinda.  “I’m a bit envious.”

“Yeah, it kinda was,” Maria admits.  They’ve almost reached the stairs, so before she can lose her nerve she adds, “So...on Saturday night I’ve got an extra ticket for a Grace Potter show, do you wanna come with?”

Melinda thinks about it for a second, and then she nods.  “Sure. I’d like that.”

Maria tries not to show how excited this makes her.  “Great.  I’ll text you my address later this week.  You can leave your car at my place and we’ll go from there.”

“Sounds good.”  Melinda gives her a half-wave as she opens the stairwell door.  “Later, Hill.”

“Later,” Maria calls back, waiting until the door is closed and her back is turned before ducking her head to hide the giant idiotic smile on her face.

 


 

“Oh my god,” Darcy whispers, nudging Trip across the table.

“Hm?”  Trip glances in the direction she’s indicating, and it takes him a moment to realize that she’s trying to point out Officer Hill and Melinda May walking towards the stairwell together.  “Uh...not really seeing what you mean, Darce.”

“You mean you… haven’t noticed?” Darcy asks, raising an eyebrow at him.  “There’s basically a bisexual romcom going on right under our noses.”

Trip looks at her blankly.

“It’s like the olden days and Melinda May is the belle of the town with all the gentleman callers courting her,” Darcy continues.  “Except two of the three gentleman callers are women.”

“You are so weird,” says Trip, but he’s grinning.  “Okay, so who are the other two?  I have slightly more of a life than you and don’t stalk my fellow mall employees.”

“It’s not stalking,” she insists.  “It’s blatantly obvious.  One of them is her fucking gorgeous fellow sportswoman.  The other one is Officer Dad.”

Trip laughs.  “You mean Officer Coulson?”

“Of course I mean Officer Coulson,” she rolls her eyes.  “You have to admit it’s an apt title.”

“I guess,” says Trip, smiling despite himself.  “So how long have you been not-stalking this… situation?”

“I couldn’t put an exact date on it,” Darcy shrugs, “because like you just noticed, not stalking, but a good few months at least.”

After taking a sip from his drink, Trip widens his eyes.  “Damn.  That’s a while.  You have a favorite?”  He feels a little silly indulging Darcy in this, but, well, against his better judgment he’s interested.

“I have a favorite just out of the three of them as people,” she says.  “But it’s hard to tell what the hell Melinda’s thinking or how she’s reacting, so it’s hard to guess who’s the most likely.  There might be a wager, though.”

“Oh, that’s not creepy at all.”

“It’s out of affection!” she exclaims, mock-offended.

Trip grins and rolls his eyes.  “Sure.”

Darcy lets a moment go by with that same contrite expression before she lowers her voice and gets decidedly more devilish.  “You wanna place a bet?” she whispers.

“Really?  You’re really asking me that question?  Right after I just got done calling you creepy?”

“Creepy could be a term of affection too,” she says, batting her eyelashes.

“I can’t believe you sometimes, girl,” he says, shaking his head.

But about two weeks later, he slips her a $10 bill with a post it note stuck to it that just says “Officer Dad.”

Chapter Text

“What’s the matter?” Steve asks as he sits down at the break room table, bottled water in hand.

Natasha’s gritting her teeth and clenching her fists so tightly that her knuckles are turning white.  “Kids.  I don’t like kids.”

“Aw,” he says, making a face that’s something between a sympathetic frown and a grimace.  “What’s the matter with kids?”

“Nothing.  As long as they stay far, far away from me.”

He sighs, takes a swig from his water bottle.  “What happened this time?”

“Just a general infestation of children,” she growls.  “I try to look as off-putting as possible, I don’t know why they insist on following me around when their incompetent parent lets them roam free.  I also think that every parent in the area got the idea to inject their kid with pure sugar today, because I can’t think of another reason why there were so many of them running around and screaming and throwing fits.  All near me, of course.”

“You’re exaggerating,” he declares.  “Some of them can be… something else, but plenty of the kids I saw were being polite.  One little guy even told his brother off for knocking a hanger off the rack.”

She sighs, relaxing a little.  “I just really dislike back-to-school sales.  Children make me… very uncomfortable.”

Steve nods as understandingly as he can (it’s not a problem he’s ever had, he doesn’t mind kids at all, but he’s trying to be helpful).  “It should let up soon,” he offers.

“Not soon enough,” she replies.  “But thanks, I know you’re trying.”

“How late are you working today?” he asks.

“Six, then I have to leave for rehearsal.”

“Ah,” he says, regarding her as if searching for clues.  “Your mystery… endeavor.”

Snorting, she says, “Steve, no one uses the word ‘endeavor’ in casual conversation.”

“Then I’m breaking new ground,” he declares, giving her that silly, self-satisfied and yet humble smile of his.

She rolls her eyes and grins.  “Good luck with that, old man.”

“I’m only a year older than you, Natasha,” he points out, leaning forward and resting his chin in his hands.  “And you’re diverting.”

“Am I?” she asks, the picture of innocence suddenly.

“If you really don’t want to tell me, I’m not going to be offended,” Steve begins, letting that sink in before he continues.  “But I’m asking as a friend.”

“Asking what?”  Again with the innocent face.

“Am I ever going to find out what it is you’re cutting out of here to rehearse?”

“It’s dance rehearsal.  I’m a dancer.  Ballet, to be more specific.”  She knows she’s being obnoxious, and kind of reveling in it.

He takes a moment to consider this, but before he has a chance to continue, they’re joined by Sam, who’s one of the Gap’s newest employees as well as Steve's running partner and has become fast friends with both of them.

“Hey guys!” he says, grinning.  “Steve, are you trying to get Natasha to tell you her secrets again?  You know that never works.  Girl’s stubborn.  You can’t push her.”

Natasha laughs.  “Thanks, Sam.”

“I just want to support my friends,” Steve insists.  “That’s all!”

“That’s sweet.  You still don’t get to know.”  Natasha smirks at him.

He spends the whole rest of the week giving her sad looks until finally she snaps, “Oh my god, stop looking at me like a disappointed dad, fine, I’ll tell you.  It’s the Midwest Ballet Company.  Happy now?”  He’d never admit it, but he is.

He’s even happier when he looks in his locker after his shift is over and finds a flyer advertising the Midwest Ballet Company’s upcoming production of The Firebird.

Sam gets one, too.  “I’ll be damned,” he says, smiling.  “You actually wore her down with that sad puppy face of yours.”

“I’d like to chalk it up to my all-American charm, thank you,” Steve replies, not without a certain hint of smugness.

“Yeah, sure.  You’ve got that in spades.  So, I’m assuming we’re going to this to embarrass the hell out of her with how much we cheer, right?”

“Sam,” Steve rolls his eyes, drawing the syllable out, “it’s the ballet.  You don’t cheer.”

“Much.”  Sam grins mischievously.  “We’ll cheer the maximum acceptable amount.  And bring her a shitton of flowers.”

“We’ll have to find out if there are any that she’s allergic to,” Steve points out.

Sam chuckles.  “Natasha?  Allergic?  More like flowers are allergic to her.”

“We should still check somehow,” Steve insists.

As Sam suspected, Natasha is allergic to nothing.  The amount of effort they have to go through to obtain that information is more proportionate to the President’s medical records than a Gap employee-slash-ballerina’s.  But eventually, they manage it.

Chapter Text

“Work, you piece of shit. Work! Listen to me!”

“Ah yes, yelling and swearing will definitely accomplish whatever you’re trying to do,” calls Fitz, smirking from the other end of the store where he’s rearranging the iPod accessories.

Skye glares at him before turning back to the laptop in front of her. “I’m just trying to run freaking Office without it flashing the beach ball at me every two minutes, God!”

“And what exactly possessed you to start working at the Mac Store if you hate Macs so much?”

“There’s this little thing called tuition money. I need it. Principles only go so far, and it was that or making meth. Hell, I barely passed chemistry and I don’t have the money for half the shit you need, this was probably a better option anyway.” Skye rolls her eyes. “Excuse me if I don’t like my computer spelling everything out for me like I’m five and costing me twice as much as the ones that I can actually work with.”

Fitz chuckles. “Wall-E ran on Mac software, y’know. It’s clear who’ll be around after the apocalypse. It’s not your precious cheap, unreliable hardware.”

“That is the stupidest comeback I have ever heard. You know Pixar was just sucking up to Steve Jobs so he would give them money, right? Besides, I’ve dropped my laptop a dozen times and it’s survived every single one. You can’t do that with a Mac, they’re like eggs, they break on impact.”

“Lies. I’ve had friends who’ve had to replace their laptops multiple times in two years, whereas mine? Still good. Also, I could’ve sworn I heard you bitching about Windows 8 a couple months ago.”

“Yeah, okay, Windows 8 was shitty, but I’ve heard just as many people bitching about Mavericks. If you recall, they had to release a patch just to make sure Mavericks wouldn’t crash the old MacBooks. If you ask me, that’s way worse than taking away the Start menu.” These debates were nearly a daily habit between them, a way to pass the time when business was slow, and neither one really put much venom into their arguments.

Just then, Jemma comes practically skipping into the store, or at least walking in that spring-in-her-step sort of way that means it’s been a better day than usual, even.  “Hi, Fitz!” she exclaims, glancing around the store to make sure there aren’t customers she’ll be in the way of before she plants herself at the side of the shelf he’s currently attending to.

“Simmons, please tell Skye how wrong she is about Macs,” says Fitz, flashing her a quick smile before turning back to his work.

And Jemma just rolls her eyes.  “Everyone’s got a preference, I suppose,” she says, ever diplomatic.  “Or at least some people do.  I’m sure you both have your reasons.”

“And mine are better,” says Skye. She slipped out from behind the Genius Bar as soon as she heard Jemma’s voice and started slinking over to where she’d stopped by Fitz. Now she’s grinning at Jemma, her eyes bright. “Always nice to see you, Jemma.”

Jemma startles, laughing rather nervously.  (It’s her usual reaction where Skye’s concerned.)  “You, too,” she mumbles.

“You’re looking chipper. Good day at MaggieMoo’s?”

“Good enough,” Jemma manages to say.  “I’m stopping by because I just got off --”  And of course, she flushes immediately, makes to correct herself.  “My shift just ended, is all.  I’m heading home pretty quick, I was just wondering, ah, if Fitz, you want me to pick up anything on the way home?”

Fitz shakes his head. “Unless Griffith needs food or anything, we should be fine.”

“Griffith?” Skye looks confused. “Do you guys have a dog or something?”

“Oh, she’s a kitten,” Jemma corrects, smiling widely.  “Or, well, a cat, we think she’s a Russian Blue, maybe, three years old?  Give-take.  She just sort of adopted us, you see, and she was so precious, with her little paws and nose and all, and -- well, she was younger then so of course she was littler, but…”

A bit taken aback by the deluge of words, Skye blinks and hopes the shocked expression on her face isn’t too obvious. But she can’t deny that Jemma’s excitement is awfully cute. “Adorable,” she says, grinning. “I like seeing you all excited like this.”

Fitz makes a choking noise and Skye spins to glare at him, though Jemma seems to be too flustered to notice.

Instead, she waves a hand through the air, murmuring, “She’s named after a famous scientist, I mean, not exactly household name-famous but that would be a bit trite, and anyway, yes, I’ll stop talking now, that sounds like the wisest choice.”  She’s doubtlessly bright red, too.

“Aww, you don’t have to,” says Skye. “I like listening to you talk. It’s kind the highlight of my boring days, seeing you when you drop in.”

Jemma’s eyes are impossibly wide, she’s sure of it, and it wouldn’t shock her one bit to find out that the other two could hear her heart beating from where they stand.  “O-oh,” she manages to say, her smile turning rather nervous.  “I’m, I’m glad I can be that for you.” Of course, she’s wishing she hadn’t said that, either, but it’s out now, at any rate.

Skye’s still smiling, but it’s a little less mischievous. She doesn’t want to freak Jemma out too much, after all. “Yeah,” she continues, “you’re probably the most interesting person in this whole mall.” She ignores the offended yelp from Fitz.

Please,” Jemma exclaims, laughing.  “I don’t think you’ve met most of the people here, then!  I mean, Pepper’s outrageously classy, and Melinda and Sif, they’re such badasses, and Jane is so brilliant, and have you ever really spoken to Mike?  He’s the sweetest man. And Victoria, I…”

“Okay, okay, I’ll mingle at my next break,” teases Skye. “Still. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone more interesting than you.”

“I’d be happy to, ah, mingle with you,” Jemma offers in a rush.  “Accompany you while you mingle.  You know.”

“Yeah, I’d like that. Lunch tomorrow? Or, well, when is your lunch?”

“Sometime around two,” Jemma says before she can question what’s going on right now.

“Great! I’ll come to you.” Before she can stop herself Skye adds, “It’s a date.”

Jemma just hopes her mouth hasn’t dropped too far open.  “Yes,” she manages to squeak.  “I -- I ought to get going.  I wanted to pick some things up before… yes, I… I’ll see you at home later, Fitz, see you tomorrow, Skye.”  And with that, she all but dashes out of the store.

Skye’s grinning so widely that it seems to be making Fitz a bit uneasy. “What was all that about?” he asks. “I haven’t seen Simmons that flustered since she accidentally ran into Maya Hansen coming out of Dr. Weaver’s office a few months ago. So many papers everywhere. Poor thing, I thought she would never stop stuttering.” He eyes Skye for a moment. “Wait. When you said ‘date,’ did you mean…?”

“Ding ding ding! And he takes home the gold!” Skye throws up her arms in mock celebration. “Seriously, you didn’t notice I was flirting my ass off?”

“Okay, don’t take this the wrong way, but you basically act like that with everyone, so excuse me if I didn’t notice subtle nuances in your behavior--”

“‘Excuse me if I didn’t notice subtle nuances in your behavior,’” repeats Skye, putting on a stupid voice. “Whatever. You jealous I’ve got a date with your roommate? Flatmate? Whatever you guys call it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Fitz rolls his eyes. “We’re not like that at all. I was just trying to figure out what’s going on, that’s all.”

Skye shoots him a sarcastic double thumbs-up as she heads back toward her position at the Genius Bar. “Got it in one, Sherlock. You English people are a bunch of genuises.”

I’m Scottish!” he protests, but she’s put headphones in, clearly ignoring him on purpose.

Chapter Text

Jane knows she shouldn’t be surprised by what she sees in the Disney Store anymore. Emotionally, it’s a miniaturized version of a Disney park itself with less of a potential to make its visitors nauseous, which means that any and all things that could be described as “wacky” have the potential to take place there. This is no exception: her boyfriend, who’s one of the only employees on the floor, sitting behind the counter wolfing down a sandwich while his friend Volstagg (the eternally jovial one, which makes sense about now) pretends to swordfight with a handful of children.

Thor spots her after a moment and waves. “Jane!” he calls, coming out from behind the counter to stand beside her. “It’s good to see you!”

“I just saw you this morning, Thor,” she mumbles, but she’s smiling. His good nature is kind of infectious.

“I know, but I missed you all the same.” Thor flashes her one of his knee-melting smiles. “Volstagg was just entertaining some customers while I ate.”

“If I’d known you were coming I would’ve brought one for you too, Jane,” calls Volstagg apologetically, then groans exaggeratedly as one little girl gently stabs her foam sword into his stomach. “Oh, you’ve bested me again!”

“It’s fine,” Jane assures, waving a hand. “I already had an applesauce, I’ll be all right.”

Thor frowns. “Jane, you must eat more than that. Tonight I’ll make you dinner, I insist.”

“I had an actual breakfast this morning,” Jane defends. “Cereal and a whole glass of orange juice like on the commercials.” But it’s an impossibly cute offer (not the first time such an offer has been made, but they’re never getting old) so she can’t help but add, “I wouldn’t say no to that, though.”

“Excellent! It shall be done.” Thor gives her one of his crushing hugs and a kiss that makes her head spin. Vaguely, she hears the kids yelp “EWWWW!” and “GROSS!” and scamper away, and Volstagg chuckle.

“Should you be doing that on the salesfloor?” Jane murmurs faintly.

“It’s true love’s kiss, nothing wrong with that,” says Thor, laughing.

Volstagg smiles. “Just a few years ago, you never would’ve made such suggestions. Or offered to cook a girl dinner. I vastly prefer your new and improved self.”

“You and everyone from school I still talk to,” says Thor cheerfully. “Although I should be sure that my family has no obligations for me tonight. Come to the break room with me, Jane?”

She nods, reaching for his hand and letting him lead her in the right direction. “Is that a specific obligation-check or a vague one?” she asks.

“Oh, you know my father, he may have invented something that I’ve forgotten about.” Thor sounds like he’s joking, but Jane knows that Thor’s father puts a lot of expectations on his elder son.

“So it’s better safe than sorry,” she surmises. “I get it.” She slips her phone out of her pocket and pages to her calendar, abiding by the same principle. “Glad to report that I’m nice and free this evening.”

Smiling, Thor replies, “I hope I am as well.” He’s reached his locker by this point, opening it and pulling out a thin planner (he’s the only person Jane knows who uses a physical planner in the year 2014 but she’s not about to criticize him for it). After a quick glance, he says, “Excellent, I have no prior plans. I will cook you a feast!”

“A feast,” Jane repeats, laughing. “So you’re gonna make sure that Darcy and I have leftovers for a week, basically.”

“I swear it!” Thor looks so earnest that she believes him entirely.

“She’s going to be so happy,” Jane says.

“And you? I hope this makes you happy, also?”

She leans in for another kiss, this one softer but no less passionate. “It makes me delighted,” she agrees. “And besides, I think it’ll be good for us to just have a night to ourselves, you know? No hyper friends, no work or homework or any of that, no family drama…”

At the words “family drama” she notices a grimace pass over Thor’s handsome face, but then it’s gone just as quickly.

“What’s the matter?” she asks. “Is there some new version of that I haven’t heard about? Something with your brother?”

Thor sighs. “Nothing new, but Loki’s being…cagey. He refuses to talk to me about anything, his therapy or his interactions with our father or that woman I’ve seen him talking with sometimes, Lorelei. I’d like to think well of her, but I’m afraid she might be the sort of person that would encourage him to get into more trouble.”

Jane has to work to keep from consciously sighing. From what he’s said and what she’s seen, Loki being cagey is nothing new and getting into trouble isn’t something he needs any help doing. But she understands that Thor’s biggest blind spot is where his brother is concerned. “Well, from what I hear she doesn’t have the most pristine reputation,” she says diplomatically, “but it could all be very innocent.”

“I hope it is,” says Thor, looking serious. “Loki doesn’t need to get into any more mischief.”

‘For everyone’s sake,” she mumbles in agreement, trying not to roll her eyes. “Your mother has the patience of a saint.”

Thor laughs, her words seeming to cheer him up. Then again, he’s fond of his mother, and never misses the opportunity to praise her. “She had to, with the two of us. We were terrors as children. I’m sure she was relieved once we were old enough to be kept busy with homework and sports and such. Not that we didn’t get into trouble even so, of course.” He’s looking happier, which makes her feel better, and then he says, “Anyhow, I heard that Tony Stark is thinking of throwing a Halloween party. I don’t know what plans you had, but I thought it might be something fun to do.”

“I don’t have plans,” Jane agrees. “But a party at Tony Stark’s house? Really?”

Thor shrugs. “I think he’s planning to invite everyone from the mall.”

“Plus who knows how many of his… his so-called friends,” she assumes. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Neither would I,” admits Thor. “At all the parties I attended in school, at least fifty more people than intended would always show up.”

“Well, at the parties I attended in school, if ten people showed up it was a crowd,” Jane points out. “Excuse me if I’m not all… social like that.”

Thor chuckles. “You needn’t worry, we don’t have to go. I thought I’d mention it, that’s all. Anything you want to do will be fine.”

“I’m not saying no,” Jane says. “I bet Darcy will insist, for one, and for another it could be interesting. I’m just saying I won’t be in my element is all.”

“I’ll do everything within my power to make you comfortable,” promises Thor.

“I know,” Jane murmurs, giving his hand a squeeze.

Chapter Text

“Where are your candles?”

He’s so completely focused on rearranging a display, it takes Clint a moment to register that someone’s spoken to him.  It’s been dead in the shop for at least half an hour, so he’s taken to giving himself busywork.  “Ah…” he says, very intelligently, and turns to face whoever it is, then nearly jumps out of his skin when he sees it’s Raina from the weed store.  Not only has he never talked to her one-on-one, he’s never even seen her emerge from the back corner of the mall.  He’d just assumed she was a ghost that could only move from the weed store to the arcade and back, because that’s how ghosts work, right?  He tries to cover up his shock by coughing and says, “Um, sorry, we don’t actually h-have any candles.”

“Oh.”  For her part, Raina doesn’t try to hide her disappointment (or disgust, or disdain, or something along those lines).  “I just thought… since you’re called Fuego, you would have merchandise that had to do with fire.  My mistake.”

This has actually occurred to Clint before - along with wondering why there’s a bird in the logo instead of a flame - but since he can’t do anything about it, he just sort of shrugs and smiles awkwardly and says, “Yeah, it’s weird like that, I dunno why.  Sorry.”

“You aren’t the one who decides what merchandise you carry,” Raina shrugs.  It’s her way of absolving him, apparently.

“True enough,” replies Clint, still smiling apologetically.  “Feel free to look around though.  It’s pretty much dead in here.”

Raina raises an eyebrow.  “Poor bird boy,” she murmurs, turning and drifting toward a rack of jewelry at the front of the store.

He blinks in confusion, decides to ignore that (because, after all, he’s well aware that Raina has a reputation for saying…weird things), and, attempting to make conversation, asks in a playful way, “So, did you exhaust the entire stock of Yankee Candle before coming here?”

“No,” she says, shrugging once more like she doesn’t immediately realize there’s more she needs to say.

“Oh.”  He blinks again, unsure of what to say to continue the conversation.  If it could be called a conversation.

“I don’t see the point in paying twenty-eight dollars for something I’m just going to burn up,” she continues, taking his confusion as a prompt.  “But that’s not why I asked.  It seems odd that you’d name your store something -- the general you, not the specific you -- and not follow through.”

“Uh,” he says, drawing the noise out while he processes the hypocrisy of the first statement while still trying to come up with a reply.  “Beats me,” he says finally.

“Seems a bit dishonest to me,” she continues, tangling her fingers in some long, extravagant necklaces as she ponders.

He chuckles.  “Well, I always thought it was pretty funny that someone thought naming a sporting goods store Dick’s was a good idea, but y’know.  I guess people are into false advertising.”

To one of their credit (depending on how you look at it) Raina laughs at that, though it’s more of a smoky sort of chuckle than a full-on hysteric giggle. “Shame,” she says.  She lets the jewelry fall abruptly back into place and moves to the other side of the store, right behind the window display that’s all paper lanterns and gauzy fake sky; unsurprisingly, she seems to get lost contemplating this very seriously.

After a few moments of staring at her with no sign that she’s paying the slightest bit of attention to him, Clint gives up and decides to leave her to her own devices.  He turns back to the display he’d been working on earlier and doesn’t think about her again until he hears her mutter, “Absolutely disgusting.”

“Hm?” he asks, almost automatically.

“I know it wasn’t your idea to carry all of this,” she begins, waving a hand toward a rack of merchandise, “but doesn’t it just make you sad?”

He turns to see what she’s talking about, and is still confused when he realizes that the merchandise she objects to is all from The Big Bang Theory.  It’s a stupid show, to be sure, but he wouldn’t jump to disgusting necessarily.  Disgusting that it got better ratings than Community despite being nowhere near as funny, maybe.  “Sure?” he says, trying to be agreeable.

“I mean, why would people want to strive for the lowest common denominator?” she asks, wrinkling her nose.  “The writing, I mean.  It’s lazy and offensive to just about everyone.  Stories should try to give you something better to shoot for.  Not just stereotypical stock characters and racist, sexist jokes.”

“Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he agrees.  “Now that I think about it, I happened to be channel surfing and caught the tail end of an episode that had one of them going out with a deaf girl, but it turned out she was a gold digger using the guy for money.  I was pretty prickly about that.”  He casually gestures to the small hearing aid in his right ear.  “Myself, I’m an NBC man.”

She tilts her head to the side, gives a short nod.  “As you should have been,” she declares in a voice that sounds like she thinks she’s being somehow encouraging.  “Do you have any more of the purple lanterns?  There aren’t any near the display.”

“Ah, I can check for you, see if we have any more listed in the system.”  He ambles over to the register while she floats over to look at the greeting cards.

“Is it hard for cats to spell because they picked the language up phonetically?” she asks, lifting a card with a picture of a cat in a suitcase that reads “iz redy fo advenchrr.”

Clint laughs, not expecting that commentary.  “I guess so? It’s just a goofy internet thing that escaped, really.  Best looked at when drunk off your ass.  I can testify.”  After fruitlessly searching, he has concluded that they have no purple lanterns.  “Or maybe it’s because they haven’t got thumbs?  Anyway, sorry to say we haven’t got any lanterns left in that color.  You could check back in a couple weeks when we restock, though.”

“Maybe,” Raina shrugs.  “I don’t know if they’ll hold my fancy that long.  But they might.”  She flashes a smile.  “Thank you for trying, bird boy.”

“Uh, you’re welcome.”  The nickname throws him off-guard enough that he just nods.  “Nice to, uh, meet you?”

“That’s always a funny sentiment when it’s clear you both already know of each other,” she muses, calling it over her shoulder as she starts to exit.

He stares after her for a long moment, then shakes his head.  “So that’s Raina,” he says, to no one in particular.  Well, I guess that means she’s probably not a ghost.

Chapter Text

It hadn’t been Victoria’s intention to become one of those people who used every one of their breaks to text their significant other, but without even realizing it was happening till it was too late that’s what she’s become.  She used to spend her lunch hour on her phone reading as many Reuters articles as she could make time for, now she spends the time doing what everyone around her probably thought she was doing anyway.  It’s Isabelle’s fault, she swears.

Occasionally things happen to catch her eye, though.  She’s not quite as disinterested in her surroundings as a lot of the other employees here seem to think she is.  (Though really, they’re none of them as fascinating as they think.)  What causes her to look up from her saffron shrimp and gnocchi this particular lunch hour is the loud voice of one of her least favorite people, and said loud voice isn’t doing itself any favors given that it’s being used to say things both cliched and likely unwelcome.

“Y’know, you’ve got really pretty eyes,” says the smirking asshole whose name is Grant Ward, and who Victoria would just as well never see again.  Fortunately, she’s not the target of his attention - that dubious honor goes to Jemma Simmons, who seems to be all alone behind the counter of MaggieMoo’s (and if there is something else working today, they’re in the back).  Ward is holding a cone, but it’s clear that’s not what he came for, and Jemma’s reacting with the kind of awkward uncertainty that Victoria is used to seeing when men hit on them while they’re just trying to do their jobs.  The poor girl looks a little like a frightened animal, and while Victoria generally keeps herself out of other people’s business, she decides that if this continues for much longer, she might have to step in on Jemma’s behalf.  Ward’s clearly not leaving.

In fact, he leans on the counter and continues talking to Jemma, his voice low enough that Victoria can’t make out the exact words but she can judge both from both his tone and her experience with entitled douchebag men the kinds of things he’s saying.  She narrows her eyes and then belatedly registers the phone in her hand, which has buzzed three times in the last two minutes (twice from Isabelle).

>>Sorry.  I’ll be responsive soon.  There might be a situation.

There.  That’s a sufficient enough explanation for her momentary absence, although she doesn’t set the phone down lest she seem too involved in the drama unfolding in front of her.  Jemma (who Victoria has always seen as one of the more tolerable of her fellow employees, at least in small doses before her nervous energy starts to rub off) is tidying up her register, running water in the nearest sink to clean utensils, doing anything she can think of to distract herself, but it doesn’t look like Ward is even paying attention to her signs.  Of course he’s not.

Granted, it doesn’t really seem like he’s interested in Jemma in particular, so much as that he’s enjoying making her uncomfortable by flirting with her because she’s young and female and alone.  Victoria rolls her eyes again.  Men.  He might even think he’s doing the cute little nerdy girl a favor, being an attractive older man who’s deigning to give her his attention and all.  It’s making Victoria a little sick to look at, honestly.

She’s seriously considering stepping in when she notices another one of her least-favorite people (but at least this one’s slightly more tolerable) heading for the scene as well.  Skye, the mouthy little hacker who works at the Mac Store, has said something she thinks is clever one too many times for Victoria’s liking, but Victoria has also noticed that Skye’s been hanging around MaggieMoo’s ever since she was hired here, and she has a suspicion it has to do with Jemma.  And if there’s anyone who won’t stand for Ward’s posturing, it’s Skye.

“Hey, Jemma!” Skye calls brightly, and when Ward turns around to see what the commotion is her expression flickers to distaste for the briefest second before she pastes her smile back on.  Meanwhile, Jemma looks relieved to see her.

“Skye!” Jemma exclaims, loud enough that she can probably be heard at the end of the corridor.  “Hello!  Did you want your usual?  Piña colada?”

“Sure!  Unless there’s anything you recommend?”  Skye’s voice has a false brightness to it, and she’s pointedly ignoring Ward, who looks slightly confused.

Jemma’s eyes go wide.  “I, I could drizzle caramel on it?  Mix it up a bit for you?”

“Ooh, yes please!”  That brightness seems less false.

By now Ward, confused that the attention is not on him, has switched tactics and grins lazily at Skye.  “You work at the Mac Store down the way, right?  That shirt looks good on you.”  He punctuates this with a creepy lick of his ice cream cone that makes Victoria feel more than a little ill.

Skye giggles in the most blatantly fake way, and Jemma raises her eyebrows as she hands Skye’s cone to her, but Ward’s apparently fallen for it.  “Thanks,” Skye says, batting her eyelashes like she’s in a fucking cartoon or something.  “Yours does too.”  She twirls a strand of hair around her finger and looks up at him in the most ridiculous way.

Now, Victoria knows Skye’s faking him out for some reason, but Jemma seems less assured.  From what Victoria can assume about the girl, she’s not completely ignorant to the ways of the world, but she also doesn’t seem the savviest; she’s watching the whole exchange with a raised eyebrow that could be read as suspicion, could be read as veiled amusement, or could be read as genuine confusion.  Given the way she keeps surreptitiously touching her face, Victoria’s going to guess it’s at least partly the last one.

Skye then spends two minutes fawning over his biceps and asking to feel them.  Ward looks so smug Victoria kind of wants to punch him in the dick, but she keeps herself still.  This is probably going somewhere good, and far be it from her to interrupt the show.

“Wow, these can’t be from working at IKEA!” Skye’s saying.  “Do you work out?  You must.”

“Every chance I get,” replies Ward proudly. “I believe in constantly improving yourself.”

There’s a flicker of something across Skye’s face - disbelief, Victoria hopes - before she nods.  “That’s very admirable,” she says, her smile giant and false.  “I like men who are self-aware.”

Jemma raises an eyebrow at that, then promptly turns away under the guise of retrieving something or another, but not before Victoria can very clearly see the beginnings of a smirk on her face. It seems like she’s finally gotten the joke.

Ward, on the other hand, barrels on.  “I’ve never particularly thought of it as self-awareness, just as a responsibility on my part to improve the world by eliminating flaws.  Mine, or other people’s, if possible.”  He grins, and that Victoria has heard the rumors of his involvement with a Nazi group the double entendre makes it a chilling expression.  Not that she’s often chilled by things, but Nazis are the exception.

To Victoria’s delight, Skye and Jemma both seem to have heard those rumors too.  Jemma’s whirled around and looks completely horrified, but Ward is too busy being smug to notice.  Meanwhile, Skye is marginally better at hiding her disgust, covering it up with yet another pasted-on smile.  “Funny, I’ve always thought it went pretty badly for those who try to improve other people.  But maybe I’m just mistaken,” she says with a shrug.

Ward is smiling patronizingly.  “It’s easy to think that if you haven’t been properly educated.  Some people just know what’s best.”

“Your ice cream!” Jemma suddenly exclaims, setting a bowl on the counter as noisily as she can.  “Here!  I added some coconut, too!  I took a bit of a chance, I mean I know not everyone likes coconut as much, but I promise it complements!”

Skye grins, genuinely this time, and takes it.  “Thanks!  I trust you.  Promise.”

While Skye takes her wallet out to pay for her ice cream, Victoria wonders, Is this always what straight people flirting looks like?  Granted, she’s pretty sure not everyone in this equation is straight, and she has straight friends who don’t flirt like this, but she’s unsure whether the ostensibly straight flirting is what’s making it weird, or if it’s just the Nazi ideology at play.

Ward is clearly about to say something when Jemma lifts her chin like she’s made a meaningful decision and asks, “So, are you still coming over for movie night tonight?”

“Of course! I wouldn’t miss it.”  At this point Skye is also ignoring Ward.  This seems to confuse him again, and he just stares at them for a moment before asking, “What movie are we watching?”

Of course he assumes it’s an open invitation, Victoria thinks.  She’s not sure if she’s ever seen someone radiate entitlement so clearly.

“Oh, we’re not set on any one thing yet,” Jemma chirps.  “We each bring a movie and roll for which gets watched.  Very diplomatic, really, leaving it up to chance.  That way it’s not always one person’s pick or another.”

“Everybody gets a turn,” adds Skye with a grin.  “We three have a system.”

Ward frowns.  “Who else is there?”  He seems vaguely threatened by the prospect.

“Fitz, of course!” Jemma says.  “He wasn’t exactly keen on adding a third, but he’s warmed to the arrangement.”

Skye’s eyes brighten and she says, “Yeah, we work really well together.  It’s very balanced and everyone gets what they want...eventually.”

Based on what Victoria knows about both Jemma and her relationship to Fitz, she’s pretty sure they’re lying and she’s pretty sure Jemma is doing it accidentally.  Skye, on the other hand, is playing it up, clearly trying to freak Ward out since flirting him out wasn’t working.  And possibly because this make-believe situation would earn his extreme disapproval.

“That’s...interesting.”  Ward looks distinctly uncomfortable, as predicted.  Jemma looks like she’s finally realized what is actually being discussed and shoots Skye a pointed look as covertly as she can (which is not particularly covert).

“Well,” she says, her voice wavering, “it certainly works for us, and like I said, Fitz is very stuck in his ways with us.”

“I see.”  Turning to Skye, he says, “Well, if you ever get tired of the Wonder Twins, you know where I’ll be.”  With a last half-hearted smile, he leaves.

“Yeah, we do,” Victoria hears Skye say quietly.  “Prefab hell.”

That makes Victoria almost laugh, though she’s careful to be subtle about it (can’t have her aloof reputation soiled, after all).  She gathers her things to leave, and then remembers Isabelle suddenly.  She sends her a quick text.

>>Sorry, got caught up in something.  I’ll fill you in later.

Then, sure that the unexpected but highly entertaining afternoon drama is over, she makes her way back to the jewelry store.  However, she hears Jemma’s anxious voice behind her say, “You know we’re going to have to mention this to Fitz.”

“I know, but it was totally worth it,” replies Skye, and Victoria walks slower so she can listen in.  “Plus I managed to hack into his phone and copy everything on it.  I’m sure there’s some juicy shit on there.”

Chapter Text

Sharon knocks three times, then stands there politely for probably fifteen seconds before knocking again.  “Guys?  Are you in there?”

“C’mon in, the door’s open!” she hears Natasha’s voice call.

So she shuffles her bags of chips around to get her hand free and turn the doorknob, then she makes sure it’s shut behind her (she doesn’t lock it, though she thinks about it; maybe Sam has a strange policy about doors that she doesn’t know) before stepping into the living room.

Where she sees… what can best be described as a pile of people.

Steve is flopped in a position that’s halfway between sitting up and lying down, with Sam spooning him from behind.  Natasha is wrapped around both of them at once, somehow.  They all look happier and more relaxed than she’s ever seen them look at the mall, especially Natasha - Sam’s got his hand tangled in her hair and seems to be petting it.  Steve pauses in the story he was telling to look over at Sharon and smile warmly.

“Uh… hey,” Sharon says lamely, cursing how confused she probably looks.

Sam seems more interested in the bag of chips.  “Ooh, you brought snacks! Here, let me get you bowls for those.”  He gently untangles himself from the pile of people, and then the other two are back to being individuals just like that.  Natasha’s hair is just the slightest bit disheveled, and Sharon has to consciously will herself not to stare.  Natasha’s hair is always perfect at work, no matter what else is going on, so it’s a weird sight to say the least.

“I just thought it would be nice,” she murmurs.  “Since I’m your guest and… all that.”

“You don’t need to be so formal, Sharon,” Steve says kindly.

“Because you’re truly a bastion of informality, Steve,” Natasha comments, with a fond smirk.

“You may be one of the only people I’ve ever met who’s offended by my manners,” Steve counters.

Natasha rolls her eyes.  “I’m not offended.  I’d just rather get to the point of things.”

“And I don’t know why you can’t do both,” Steve replies with a smile that on anyone else would be infuriating but on him is almost sweet.

“Oh, not this fight again,” calls Sam good-naturedly as he comes back in with two brightly-colored bowls.  “I apologize for these hooligans, Sharon.  They’re always arguing about the dumbest shit.  Here, I’ll take those from you.”  He proceeds to fill each bowl with barbeque- and sea-salt-and-vinegar-flavored chips.

“It’s all right,” Sharon shrugs, waving it off as she perches on the sofa.  “So, is anyone else coming tonight?”

“Did Bucky say he was coming?” asks Natasha, looking at Steve.

Steve nods.  “He’s been having a good week at work, so he felt up to it,” he confirms.

“Cool,” says Sam with a grin.  “It’s been a while since he’s been over here.”

“Oh!” Sharon exclaims suddenly, realizing that it would be important to choose her next words carefully. “I’ve heard a lot of things about him, but we’ve never talked.”

“What things?”  Natasha’s tone is friendly and her expression is neutral-curious, but it makes Sharon slightly nervous.

“Well,” Sharon begins, because she realizes it’s too late to back out now.  “He’s been involved in some… less than savory stuff?”

All three of them laugh, which is the last thing she expected.  Natasha’s is a knowing, throaty chuckle, Sam seems to find it riotously funny, and Steve’s laugh is more surprised than really amused.  As the laughter dies down - well, mostly Sam’s - Natasha says, “Sorry, we’re just...never sure what people know about Bucky.  There’s a hell of a grapevine around here.  But I guess we’d better fill you in.  Steve, you wanna take this?”

“Bucky and I were best friends growing up,” Steve begins, with a tone of voice like this is going to be one of those stories.  Sam takes his hand as if to offer moral support.  “We used to get up to some pretty… bad stuff.”

“As long as your definition of ‘bad stuff’ involves ‘saving abused dogs,’” cuts in Natasha, with a wry smile.

Sharon is completely aware that she’s probably made a very distinctly shocked-in-the-positive-way kind of face, but she doesn’t say anything.

“Saving the dogs wasn’t bad,” Steve concedes, “but breaking into a building to save the dogs…”  He shakes his head, looking highly disappointed in himself.  “We should have thought that one through better.”

“Since when do you ever think things through when injustice is involved?” asks Natasha, but her voice is gentler than Sharon’s ever heard it. She leans against Steve’s shoulder.

Steve manages a slight smile for her, one that looks somehow oddly private.  “I just wish I had that time, because when we got caught Bucky felt like he had to take all of the blame for it, because…”

“That’s the kind of guy he is,” finishes Sam.  “Throw himself under the bus if it meant everybody else’d be okay.”

“Right,” Steve murmurs.  “His dad was…”

“A dick.”  Natasha says it with a smirk, as if she’s happy that she gets to deliver the blunt criticism that Steve won’t.

“And sent him to the alternative high school as a punishment,” Steve concludes.  His frown is quick to return.

Sam, while still holding Steve’s hand, chimes in, “You’ve probably heard the rumors about the gang that basically runs that school.  Poor Bucky got himself tangled up in it pretty bad.  John Garrett, who was an aide, basically had full run of the school and recruited for his crazy Nazi group from the worst of the bullies.  No one’s really sure how Bucky ended up in there, and he doesn’t talk about it, but it was pretty rough for him.”

“Oh, my goodness,” Sharon whispers, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear anxiously.  “But he managed to get out, right?”

“He did,” Steve said.  “Thanks in very large part to Natasha.”

“Please, I just did the punching,” murmurs Natasha, having closed her eyes in the way of someone who’s utterly relaxed.  “You’re the one who took care of him for months afterwards, drove him to therapy and found him those dogs.”

“But none of it would have happened if you hadn’t been there,” Steve points out.  To Sharon, he explains, “Bucky and I had fallen out of touch by the time he met Natasha, but… well.  I won’t put words in Natasha’s mouth.”

Natasha smiles and opens her eyes.  “Much appreciated,” she says, sort of patting his arm.  “Essentially, I told him several times while we were together that perhaps staying in the Nazi gang wasn’t to his best interests.  Then after we parted ways but stayed friends, he came to me for help after some fucker shot his arm off.  Thus, punching.  And some other things I probably shouldn’t mention in the interests of plausible deniability.”

The best thing Sharon can think of to say is, “I didn’t know you two had been… together.”  She feels silly that it’s that she takes away from that confession, but still.

“I’m full of surprises.”  Natasha looks amused.

Sharon has always sort of figured that, but she decides it’s better not to mention. “I’m really glad you were able to help him out of that, then,” she says earnestly.

“Yeah.”  Sam smiles fondly at the other two before continuing.  “They were pretty awesome through that whole thing.  I didn’t meet him till after the fact, but I guess it messed Bucky up pretty bad and these two were a big part of his recovery.  Steve even put in a good word for him at Sephora, which got him the job there.  He’s okay now, I think.  It’s a process.”

“That’s a good word for it,” Steve agrees.  “If I could go back and keep all of it from happening, I would.  But the important thing now is to be there for him.”

“Wow,” Sharon can’t help but murmur.  “You guys are…”

“We know,” interrupts Natasha with a chuckle.  “It’s flattering of you to think so, though.”

“So is there anything I should be sensitive of?” Sharon asks.  She knows to watch out for a person’s triggers, especially a person who’s been through as much as Bucky apparently has.

“Well, Nazis,” says Sam with a wry smile, “but maybe don’t bring those up in general.”

“It’s good of you to ask.  In general, just don’t patronize him - he hates that,” Natasha adds.

“Of course,” Sharon nods.  Because she doesn’t want to seem like she’s making more of a deal than she is, she reaches for a potato chip to nibble.  “What… game are we playing?”

“Apples to Apples,” Steve pipes up, looking and sounding a bit more like his usual self.  “You ever played?”

“Once or twice,” Sharon says.  “It’s been a little while, but it’s not too hard to remember the rules.”

Sam laughs.  “Yeah, well, we play it a little differently.  Less with the straight answers, more with the ridiculous or gutter-minded.”

“I… see,” Sharon says very politely.  “That will be interesting.”

Just then there’s a knock at the door.  “That’s Bucky,” said Natasha, before calling out “C’mon in, Buck!”

Despite herself, Sharon sits up a bit straighter, arranges her expression into something politely neutral and welcoming (she hopes).  Steve had said not to be formal but she sort of can’t help it after hearing all that.

The door opens, Bucky walks in, and, not even acknowledging Sharon, immediately strides over to lie on Steve’s lap.  Natasha smiles and starts to stroke his hair.  “Miss us, James?” she asks.

“Yeah,” says Bucky, and it’s more of a sigh than a word as he closes his eyes.  After a moment he opens them again and glances over at Sharon.  “Hey there,” he says shyly.  “I’m Bucky.  You must be Sharon?”

“I - yeah, I am,” she says.  Part of her wonders if he just knew of her in the way that all of the mall’s employees know of each other or if the others had mentioned her, and if they’d mentioned her what was the context, but she doesn’t want to let any of that slip out.  Instead she says, “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.”  Bucky smiles at her.  “So, is it game time, then?” he asks Steve.

“Sure is,” Steve grins, opening the box and starting to shuffle the cards.

 


 

The green card on the table (drawn by Sharon, because they all insisted that as the newcomer she should start them off) is Loud.

Sharon watches everyone drawing and contemplating their red cards very seriously, trying to gauge just how ridiculous they’re planning on getting.  (If she gets a Sex card, she’ll have a pretty good idea.)  Natasha looks smug as she lays her card down, Steve looks decidedly neutral, Sam looks amused, Bucky just shrugs.

“Loud,” Sharon repeats as she takes the cards in.  Hit & Run, Airplanes, Rock And Roll, and Jim Carrey.  She can’t tell for the life of her who set down what, and after a moment of deliberation she selects the Rock And Roll card.  Well, it’s true.

“Oh, c’mon,” protests Natasha.  “You’ve seen a Jim Carrey movie before, right?  That man is obnoxiously loud.”

“Okay, so I guess we know what your card was,” Sharon smirks.  “Who wins this round?”

“Oh, that’s me!”  Bucky looks surprised.  “I was sure it’d be too boring.”

Sharon’s sure she’s blushing.  “It’s probably the loudest thing, overall,” she shrugs.

“True enough,” says Sam, grinning.  “But now, I’m gonna show you how we really play this.” He draws a green card and announces, “Up & Down.  You guys better not waste this glorious opportunity.”

Everyone seems amused by this, but Sharon really doesn’t know what to do.  Finally, she settles on Bowling, with the rationalization that in bowling the pins get set up and then knocked down.  It’s lame, but it’s something.

Sam picks up the cards, flipping through them for a second before bursting into hysterical laughter.  “Oh my god, thank you.  Dildos wins!”

“Since when is there a Dildos card?” Sharon exclaims, laughing to hide her shock.

“Since there were a shitton of offensive cards, so we replaced them with our own.”  Natasha’s smirking again, and it’s clear she’s the culprit.

“Dammit, I never get Dildos,” says Bucky.  “Why do you always get Dildos, Tasha?”

Before this can get out of hand, Steve flips over a new green card, this one reading Jolly.

Given that her most recently-drawn red card reads Jelly Beans, Sharon feels like she might have a chance this round.  It’s sort of a childish version of jolly, but it’s something.  And when Steve examines the cards and then flips hers down with a smile, she can’t help but feel proud of herself.  Which is silly, because it’s a silly game, but she does anyway.

Steve, for his part, looks at her and mouths “not all of us play it dirty the whole time,” which she finds somehow reassuring.

It’s Natasha’s turn to judge, and she draws Tempting.  “Do your worst,” she comments playfully.

Since Steve is the first to set his red card down, she looks at him and quips, “That was quick.  Did you have Vibrators?”

“No,” Steve retorts, actually sticking out his chin.  “But it does involve temptations.”

“Ooh, I’m curious now.”

Sharon, for her part, has adopted a smug expression of her own.  Pajamas.  Pajamas are… they’re something you wear to bed.  And bed is the place that most sexual activities occur.  Or something like that.  (She’s beginning to feel slightly out of her element, but since it’s not in a bad way she’s trying.)

Natasha snorts appreciatively once she’s surveyed all the cards, then says, “In any other circumstances I would’ve picked Pajamas, but one of you assholes knows the way to my heart is to make fun of Breaking Bad.  So, Rock Candy.”

Grinning, Sam takes the card and says, “Asshole present and accounted for.”

Bucky pulls out Nasty.  “Please feel free to be as loosely sexual as you’d like,” he says with a winning smile.  From the choices given, he deliberates between Danielle Steel and A School Dance.  “I mean, I never went to any school dances but they seem pretty gross from all the teen comedies I’ve seen.”

“They are,” Sharon chimes in.  “Although I might be biased, too, because ours always had the extra grossness element of the boys from the boys’ school freaking out over the presence of us girls, but…”  She trails off sheepishly, because complaining about going to private school is sort of a jerk move.

Natasha makes a sympathetic face.  “High school boys are awful.  Without exception.”  

Though she doesn’t say anything (she doesn’t want to make a thing of it), Sharon finds that comforting in a way, reassuring somehow.  Like she’s not just the apparent square of the bunch.

Finally, Bucky picks Danielle Steel, much to Sam’s delight.  “Tempting and Nasty, that’s me,” he says cheerfully.

 


 

By the end of the game, or what passes as the end of the game, they’ve all racked up a fair amount of green cards.  Not enough to get a technical win according to the rules, but Sharon’s pretty much assured they don’t play by rules, in this or any other thing.  She doesn’t mind it.  It’s sort of endearing.  It’s just different.

They wind up trailing off after the third round, and by that point, Sharon notices, the others have all melted back into each other.  Steve and Sam are leaning against each other, Steve resting against the arm Sam’s casually flung around him, and Bucky’s back to being flopped across both their laps.  Natasha has draped herself over Bucky’s legs to rest her head on Sam’s chest.  And Sharon is… just sitting there, trying to decide whether or not to start picking up the game.

They’re chatting casually about the game’s ending too.  After a few minutes, Steve lazily turns to look Sharon head-on, that easy smile returned.  “What are you doing?” he asks.

“Cleaning up?” Sharon murmurs, phrasing it as a question even if it’s really not.

“Eh, we’ll have time for that later,” replies Sam, also smiling.  “C’mon over, there’s room for you too.  If you want, I mean, no pressure.”

“Oh!” Sharon says.  She’s proud that it comes out sounding unsurprised, even if she’s incredibly surprised (and dimly wondering if this was or is an audition of some kind).  She regards the pile, trying to figure out where to add herself in, but Natasha, possibly sensing her dilemma, extends an arm and beckons her close, so she nods and snuggles right up.

“There you go,” says Natasha softly.  “Comfy?”

“Yeah,” Sharon agrees, reflecting on the fact that despite the way she would never have predicted this, she really is.

Chapter Text

“Hill, this parrot is on my shoulder because why, exactly?”

“Because you’re a pirate.”

“I know that. But when I agreed to wear this costume, I didn’t know you were gonna throw in a damned parrot.” Nick scowls, which is truly comical considering he’s wearing a goofy-looking pirate outfit with red satin framing the belt and a matching red bandana on his head. And his customary eyepatch, of course. The green flocked parrot perched on his shoulder really doesn’t make it any less dignified than it already was.

Maria raises an eyebrow. “I don’t know why you assumed I wouldn’t throw in a parrot,” she deadpans. “And don’t be so hard on the poor guy, I don’t think he’s committed nearly enough treason on the high seas yet to be going to parrot hell.” Because it’s Maria, she manages to keep a completely straight face when saying this, though that should be impossible.

Nick blinks, and then, apparently deciding better of it, just looks resigned to his situation. “There had better be some good drinks at this party.”

“There’s no way you haven’t heard the rumors about Tony Stark’s parties,” Maria points out.

“I have, and they’re the only reason I’m here,” replies Nick. “That, and I didn’t wanna look like a dumbass on Monday while you all are yakking nonstop about this party.”

“You mean you’re not even a little curious to see everyone outside of the work bubble?” Maria quips. “I for one think observing them in this environment might actually make it easier to deal with them. Imagine: someone does something stupid here, we can remember it and just laugh every time they make us want to tear our hair out there.”

Snorting, Nick nods. “Fair point. But I’m not staying out the whole night either. I like getting a reasonable amount of sleep.”

“Eager to get back to your NCIS reruns, Grandpa?” she asks, turning to scan the room (and avoid his undoubtedly scathing gaze).

“If you think I’d watch that shit you know even less about me than I thought. Which, I admit, would be somewhat comforting, if you didn’t think I have terrible taste.”

“Hey, you two!” The overly cheery (possibly strained) voice from behind them belongs to none other than Pepper, appearing with a tray of golden-brown-colored shots. “Shots?”

“How the hell did Stark rope you into being the shot girl?” Maria asks disbelievingly.

“I found out he was getting drink inspiration from a BuzzFeed article,” Pepper rolls her eyes. “13 Shots You Have to be Crazy to Take. I decided that was one of the worst ideas possible.”

Nick winces as he takes one of the shots. “These are what?” he asks, then, before Pepper can answer, he downs it.

“Peanut Butter and Jelly,” Pepper says proudly.

He shoots her a withering look. “I see.”

“It’s black raspberry Chambord and hazelnut Frangelico,” Pepper explains. “It’s not dangerous at all! And sometimes that’s exactly what we need.”

Nick shrugs and takes another. “Ah, what the hell, it’s still booze.”

“Hey, boss,” Maria says suddenly, her tone turning sneaky. “See that, on Pepper’s shoulder?”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Looks to me like an owl,” Maria says. “It’s an owl, right?”

“It is,” Pepper agrees. “I figured it would be the easiest way to set me apart as Athena and not just a generic Greek goddess.”

“And I assume it hasn’t been giving you trouble,” Maria presses.

“I see what you’re doing,” grunts Nick, “and I acknowledge it. Doesn’t mean I have to be happy about this parrot.” But he doesn’t say anything more, so Maria considers it a win for her.

Then someone, wearing a shiny black suit and a helmet that Maria instantly recognizes as one of Daft Punk’s, saunters over and taps Pepper on the shoulder.

“I don’t know, Rhodey,” Pepper sighs. “I thought he was with you.”

Looking sort of sad and defeated, Rhodey begins to shuffle off, but not before Maria calls “Great costume!” and puts up her hands in a triangle shape. Rhodey turns back, nods, and does the hand motion in return before moving on.

“The fuck was that?” Nick turns to Maria looking entirely baffled.

“Daft Punk,” Maria says, slowing her voice down deliberately. “It’s a band.”

“Uh huh. And that triangle hands thing, that’s what, their secret code?”

“Or something,” Maria agrees, because she knows what is and isn’t worth explaining.

There’s a loud noise from somewhere in the house (probably screaming, possibly someone screaming at Tony) and the next thing Maria sees is a tall person wearing an oversized number 83 football jersey, exaggerated shoulder pads, and a terrible blond wig and carrying a football. “‘SUP, BROS?” says the person, and Maria is startled to realize it’s Sif, though it’s hard to tell even without the paint smeared on her cheeks. “LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED!”

Maria bursts out laughing. “I admit this is stumping me,” she says.

“DON’T YOU RECOGNIZE ME, DUDE?”

“I really don’t,” Maria declares.

Sif grins and turns around so that everyone can read the back of her jersey: ODINSON. Just then, Fandral (who’s wearing a truly ridiculous Robin Hood outfit) comes in from another room and, upon seeing Sif, laughs so hard that he falls to his knees. Behind him, Volstagg, dressed as Santa Claus, leans on the doorframe and howls, and even Hogun is smiling (Maria guesses he’s Link based on the sword and shield that she vaguely recognizes from her brother’s marathon Zelda sessions).

“Where did you get my old jersey?” comes Thor’s booming voice from somewhere behind them. He’s forcing out his words, laughing so hard that they’re barely comprehensible.

Sif’s smirking, clearly happy that her costume’s gone over so well. “Your mother was very helpful.”

“Help an old man out,” mutters Nick to Maria, “how exactly is that a costume?”

“She’s dressed as him when he was a football player,” Pepper helpfully provides, overhearing. “Back in high school and college.”

That gets a laugh out of Fury, but then he immediately looks grumpy again. “I’m surrounded by children,” he sighs.

 


 

“Natasha, you were a cat earlier and you are now a grand princess! Why the change?” Thor asks.

“Well, just look at this dress,” replies Natasha, curtsying slightly. “There’s no way I’d wear it to work. It’d never survive the Gap. Or the children in the Gap. But I felt like being a princess tonight.”

“It’s beautiful,” Jane enthuses. “Did you make it yourself?”

“I did.” Natasha smiles, and doesn’t elaborate.

“I don’t know when you’d find the time for that,” Jane declares, with a certain amount of awe. “Thankfully Superman -” she gestures to Thor’s costume - “is one of those you can buy at any Halloween store and Lois Lane is easy to just borrow from yours and your friends’ closets.”

“Woah, nice dress,” gasps Tony, poking his head into the room where they’re all talking, “but I must admit, I have no idea which Disney princess you’re going for there.” He’s clutching a helmet under his arm.

“C’mon, don’t you recognize Anastasia, man?” calls Clint as he drops from the ceiling. This would be ridiculous even if he weren’t outfitted in a vaguely tent-shaped yellow blob of fabric that has cartoon eyes printed on the front, and he’s aware of that.

Tony stares for a moment. “Uh, well as a matter of fact I didn’t, and also, how did you get-” He breaks off. “Oops, gotta split!” he says, dashing off. A moment later a very exasperated (but still mostly in-character, since he at least has the helmet on) Rhodey stalks past.

“Oh, bird boy, you really are a bird tonight,” Raina exclaims delightedly, appearing from some mystery location. It’s possible she was hiding behind one of the indoor plants (that would suit her) but then again it’s also possible she materialized out of nowhere.

Clint grins. “Well, I thought dressing as an Angry Bird was funny. And you are...not a ghost?” He’s still not completely sure about that.

“I’m a fairy,” she says, rolling her eyes like it’s completely obvious. Well, she does have wings, which would be a good clue, but aside from that the costume seems to be a red and purple corseted tutu dress, purple fishnets, and an impressive number of purple flowers pinned to her bodice and in her hair.

Nodding, Clint stammers, “Ah - v-very nice.” She smiles in her enigmatic way and floats off again, and when Clint turns back to his friends Natasha’s staring at him. “That was...unexpected,” she says.

He shrugs and replies, “I thought she was a ghost. She’s probably not a ghost.”

“Guys, has anyone seen Pepper?”

This time, the exclamation comes from Maya, who doesn’t seem to be wearing a costume at all, just black clothes and a nametag.

“Maya! I haven’t seen you this evening,” says Thor warmly. “And what is your costume?”

He’s interrupted by Jane’s giggling. “Your costume is amazing,” she says, once she’s gotten herself under control again.

“I don’t get it, a nametag?” asks Clint. Natasha also looks confused, but in a more dignified way.

“Hello,” Maya says flatly, gesturing to the nametag. “I’m dark matter.”

Jane giggles again and Natasha chuckles. The boys continue to look perplexed. Maya doesn’t offer further explanation.

Chapter Text

“And then she showed us her name tag and she’s dark matter,” Jemma exclaims, eyes wide.  “Because nobody knows what dark matter looks like, so she doesn’t look like anything!  It’s brilliant, is what it is.”

“Wish I’d thought of it,” grumbles Fitz, scratching his head and then needing to adjust his cape for the fourth time since they’ve arrived.  “This wig is awful, I don’t know why I let you talk me into it.  It’s an old lady wig.  I don’t understand how Jon Pertwee put up with having something like this on his head all day!  Let alone not being able to take it off, poor bastard.”

Jemma rolls her eyes.  “I told you, you could have been Harry or Ron,” she says, straightening her own Gryffindor tie.  “That would have been just fine.”

“If I wanted to be one of the less important characters,” he argues.  “Besides, I couldn’t be Ron because then people would think I’m your boyfriend and that’s - that’s not okay with me.”

“So I see you haven’t told him that we’re all polyamorous now, Jem,” chirps Skye as she bounds up to them with a grin on her face, looking only slightly more hardcore than usual because she’s added leather pants to her usual leather jacket and tanktop ensemble.  She’s holding a drink in one hand and an obviously fake cigarette in the other.

Fitz blinks at her.  “Sorry? Is that the drink talking or have you gone insane?”

“Skye,” Jemma says warningly, “this isn’t the place to discuss that, darling.”

“Well, I thought he might like to know,” replies Skye, smirking and fiddling with her cigarette.  “Y’know, since that’s how I got Ward off your back.”

“I could have gotten Ward off my back just fine without that,” Jemma pouts.

“Yeah, but dashing rescues are fun. As is messing with assholes.”  Skye takes a sip of her drink and then squints at Fitz, as if trying to figure out what he is.  “Okay, you’re either an old lady going to the opera or a very fabulous greying Dracula.”

Fitz snorts.  “Third Doctor, c’mon Skye.  The great Jon Pertwee!  And you, I suppose, are auditioning for Grease.”

“No, I’m Joan Jett.”  Skye adjusts her slightly-better-than-Fitz’s wig.  “Well, sorta Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett.  From The Runaways?  Or did you guys stop worrying about rock music after The Beatles took over the world?”  Eyeing Jemma’s outfit, she comments, “And as for you, I love the schoolgirl look.”

“I’m Hermione,” she defends, although she can predict the next thing that Skye’s about to say.

“Bloody ‘ell, how British can you be?” asks Skye in the worst British accent since My Fair Lady.  “Shall I put the kettle on for a spot of tea?”

“You’re a disgrace.”  Fitz shakes his head.  “Never make it as a Doctor’s companion.  He’d throw you out.”

“She’d still be better’n Mickey,” Darcy chirps in a British accent that’s just about as bad, flouncing up to the others and striking a thoroughly uncomfortable-looking but dramatic pose.

Trip comes up behind her, wearing an extremely silly-looking knight costume that he’s still managing to look dignified in somehow.  He grins and waves the hand holding a plastic sword.  “Having fun?  We just got here.”

“Oh, y’know, annoying foreigners, hitting on hot girls, business as usual.”  Skye fistbumps Trip.  “Is she like, your princess, or…?”

Darcy lifts her arms, which manages to make her current legs-akimbo pose even more ridiculous.  “Agent of Love and Courage, the pretty sailor suited soldier Sailor Jupiter!  In the name of Jupiter, I will punish you!”

Skye starts giggling.  “Gotcha,” she says after she’s managed to get herself under control.  “Nice.”

“And I see you’re repping for Classic Who,” says Trip, smiling at Fitz.  “Nice cape.  I always did like Pertwee.”

Fitz looks a bit like he’s been suddenly doused in cold water, but he manages to stammer, “Y-You’re the first person to get it so far tonight.”  He smiles, and it’s shaky but genuine.  “He’s my favorite of the Classic ones, though everyone usually says Four.”

As the two of them get into a spirited discussion about the merits of various Doctors, Skye leans in close to Jemma and whispers, “I guess I was a little off the mark - Fitz is totally his prince.”

 


 

The passage of time at parties like this one is best marked by how many rounds of shots have been passed between the guests, and by the time the fourth variation of shots (this one cinnamon whiskey) is going around, everyone seems to have settled into a rhythm.  They’re all drinking and mingling and having a good time, except for Rhodey, who continues to fruitlessly chase Tony through the house like they’re the central characters in a comical version of Les Miserables.  Skye and Jemma have been pretty much inseparable all night, and surprisingly Trip and Fitz haven’t left each other’s side either.

Around 9 PM Mike arrives, in a very elaborate Batman outfit that was clearly not bought at a cheap party store.  As if he has a radar for these things, Thor accosts him almost immediately once he’s set foot indoors.  “Mike!  I see we have by happy chance coordinated our outfits for the evening!”

Mike smiles.  “Yeah, I took Ace out for trick-or-treating earlier, that’s why I’m late.  He was Robin.”

“An excellent choice! I’m sure he did credit to the costume.”  Thor beams at him.

“Yeah.  I’ve actually got pictures if you wanna see them-”

“Most definitely!”  Thor claps him on the back in enthusiasm, and Mike only coughs a little before pulling out his phone.  Skye, who happens to be standing nearby, pulls Jemma over to look too.

“Awwww!” she coos, because Ace does look especially cute in his Robin costume.  “I bet he was happy.”

“He had a good time, yeah.  Told everyone who would listen that he was gonna grow up to be Nightwing, it was pretty sweet.”

Both of the girls make appreciative noises and Thor says, “I look forward to seeing that costume as well.  You are an excellent father, Mike.”

“Thanks.”  Mike looks pleased, but also as if he’s not used to hearing that.  “I try, anyway.”

“No, you’re a kickass dad,” Skye says, and Jemma nods eagerly.

By this point most people have arrived, so no one’s really watching the door too closely.  So when a lumpy white shape clumsily pushes the door open and slips inside, Skye’s really the only one to notice.  Mostly because it looks like those sheet ghosts from the Peanuts Halloween special, so she’s intrigued.  “Hey!” she calls.  “Who’s under there?”

The figure jumps, as if startled, and then mumbles, “Oh, hi, um, it’s Bruce.  Bruce Banner?”

“Oh yeah, hi! I’m Skye, I don’t know if we’ve ever met but I’ve seen you around.”  Skye awkwardly shakes Bruce’s sheet-covered hand.  “Nice costume.”

He chuckles.  “Thank you, I...I wasn’t quite sure what to do and I forgot about it until earlier today, really, so I just had to make do with what I found around the house.  I’m a ghost.”

“It’s charming,” Jemma interjects, grinning and offering a little wave.  One of Bruce’s stumps waves back.

“Hey, Bruce,” says Skye, spotting Pepper hurrying through the room with another tray of shots, “you should start going up to people and saying ‘boo.’  Y’know, to introduce yourself.”

“Oh, do you think they’d like that?” he asks, clearly nervous.

She smiles.  “I know they would. It’ll be adorable.”

So that’s how Pepper ends up getting tapped on the shoulder and spinning around to find an absurdly precious sheet ghost who’s saying “boo!” behind her.

“My goodness!” she exclaims, placing a hand over her heart.  “Who’s under there?  Or should I guess?”

“Guess,” comes the slightly muffled voice.

“Tony,” she declares.  “Are you trying to hide from Rhodey under that sheet?”

“No, guess again!”

“Sif,” she suggests.

The ghost chuckles.  “No, she’s much taller than me!”

“I give up,” Pepper says.

“It’s me, Bruce!  Whoooooooooooo…” he says, making his very best spooky ghost noise.

“Ooh, spoopy,” Darcy stage-whispers, walking by and swiping a shot from the tray on her way over to photobomb Natasha and Melinda (because she’s the only person who would have the nerve to do that).

“You have to be a princess to be in the princess selfies,” says Natasha somewhat sardonically.  Melinda, in a much simpler but still stunningly accurate Mulan dress, smirks.

“Hello,” Darcy rolls her eyes, “I’m the princess of Jupiter.  Or I was back in the Silver Millennium.”

Melinda shrugs.  “Works for me.”

“Hell yeah,” Darcy chuckles, making the silliest wide-eyed face she can manage and waving their camera her way.

They take a series of increasingly silly pictures, which astounds Darcy because she’s never seen Natasha make faces that weren’t intended to frighten someone and she wasn’t even sure that Melinda could smile.  Then, once they’re done, Darcy skips off again, leaving them to what she can only perceive as their contented misanthropy.

 


 

Sif’s been having a great time barging into various rooms and doing her very best impression of Football Jock Thor.  It’s been a big success, especially with people who knew Thor in college or even who had heard stories about him back then.  She’s feeling pretty good about herself, and makes a mental note to bring Frigga flowers the next time she’s at Thor’s for dinner.

But also, to her embarrassment, she keeps glancing around for Melinda.  Not creepily, at least she thinks so, but just...keeping tabs on her.  She’s half-hoping that they’ll have a chance to talk tonight about something that’s not work-related - not that Sif handled herself well during their last conversation, but she’s determined to do better.  And as she wanders through the house in search of Pepper, she catches sight of Melinda, Darcy, and Natasha taking selfies in their gorgeous princess costumes and wishes for a moment that she, too, had gone for one of the stereotypical “girl” costumes.

I’ve never seen her look that relaxed, she thinks, watching Melinda smile and do ridiculous poses in a way that just intensifies her crush.  I wonder if she could ever be that way around me.

“Are you okay?” comes Jane’s voice behind her.

She realizes how silly she’s being and, chuckling, turns around.  “Ah, yes, I’m fine.  Sorry, I was just…”  And then she trails off, because there’s not really a good explanation for that.

“Lost in thought?” Jane provides.  “I get that.  Even at big parties like this, it’s easy to get caught up in your own head sometimes.”

“Yes, that,” says Sif, relieved that Jane’s given her an out.  “Hi.  Are you having a good time?”

“I am, surprisingly,” Jane agrees.  “It’s not really my thing, partying I mean, but this is a lot more casual than I thought it was going to be.”

“Especially for being at Stark’s place.”  Sif laughs.  “I confess I was half-expecting some sort of Gatsby-esque extravaganza.”

“Given the rumors, that seems reasonable,” Jane smiles.  “But enough about the apparent lack of all that.  I just wanted to tell you how awesome your costume is.”

Sif grins.  “Thank you!  I thought it was rather ingenious and I’m glad you agree.  Yours is lovely too.  I always was fond of Lois.  She’s very clever.”

“Thanks,” Jane returns, suddenly almost sheepish.  “I mean, most people just see her as the superhero’s girlfriend, so it’s - it’s nice to hear she’s appreciated, I guess.”

“Oh, please.”  Sif rolls her eyes.  “The people who say that have no understanding of the Superman mythos beyond maybe the newest movie, and that’s hardly the benchmark.”

“Still,” Jane says with a shrug. She lets a comfortable silence settle over them for a second, but as she watches Sif watching the crowd she’s suddenly struck with a thought about what or who Sif might be watching.  Blame Darcy and her need to poke her nose into everyone else’s business, which Jane will never admit to appreciating even if she does (at least insofar as it keeps her aware of things she’d otherwise miss out on entirely).  So, lamely, she offers, “Lots of great costumes tonight, huh?”

Sif nods.  “Definitely.  It seems everyone put a lot of work into them.  Or thought, at least.”

“Yeah,” Jane says.  “Natasha and Melinda’s princess dresses are incredible, especially.”

“They are,” says Sif, and it comes out more as a sigh than she means it to.  Quickly, hoping Jane hasn’t noticed, she continues, “And they seem like they’re having a lot of fun in them.”

“I’ve been there,” Jane says before she can think better of it.  “It’s not fun, but you’ll get through it.”  She lets her smile grow larger, more reassuring.  “Actually, you’ll probably kick its ass.  You’re tough like that.”

Startled, Sif replies, “Thank you?”  She’s more than a little mortified and hoping Jane’s the only one who’s caught her mooning over Melinda like a lovesick teenager.  Although she knows Jane’s not the most socially adept, so maybe that’s a sign that everyone’s figured it out and she’s not as subtle as she thinks.  “Damn,” she mutters.  “I tried not to be obvious about it.”

Jane winces sympathetically.  “You’re not,” she exclaims, then immediately lowers her voice in the interest of being conspiratorial.  “It’s Darcy’s fault, she told me, but it’s not that anyone else knows!  She’s just impossibly nosy.  But I mean, I can’t blame you, it’s Melinda May, she’s… well.  Worth being infatuated over.  Not that you need my approval, but.  Yes.”

Sif smiles despite her embarrassment.  She finds Jane’s tendency to wordvomit when nervous impossibly endearing, and her desire to reassure Sif even more so.  “Well, I appreciate that,” she says.  “I...I doubt anything will come of it, though.”

“You don’t know that,” Jane points out.  “It could happen.  You’re kind of a catch, you know.”

“You’re quite something yourself,” says Sif with a wry smile.  “Don’t tell Thor I said that.  He still occasionally pouts about the girl he liked in sophomore year that chose me instead.”

“Your secret’s safe, I promise,” Jane smirks.

 


 

“James, hold still.  I need to pin this together and you’re not helping.”

“You keep poking me!”

“Because you won’t hold still.”  Natasha rolled her eyes.  “Steve, please explain to him how that works.”

“Better do as she says, Buck,” says Steve, laughing and tugging at the collar of his baseball uniform.

“Fine,” whines Bucky, sounding like a teenager.

“‘Thanks for fixing my costume when I ripped the seam like a dumbass, Natasha,’” says Natasha, doing an exaggerated impression of Bucky.  “‘I don’t know what I’d do without you, Natasha.  Certainly not fix it by myself because I can’t sew at all.  How can I ever repay you?  Perhaps with a promise of eternal servitude or a year-long supply of baked goods on demand.’”  She switches back to her normal voice.  “Why yes, I’d like that very much!  Cookies every week, please.  I’ll text you with my order on Sundays.”

Sam and Steve are chortling as Bucky glares at her, and even Sharon is hiding her giggles behind her hand.

“Man,” Darcy exclaims, skipping up and planting her butt on the arm of the couch they’re all surrounding.  “That’s a pretty sweet deal, Nat.”

“Right?  All because I’m such a good person,” quips Natasha as she slides the last pin into place.  “There you are, Tin Man.  Remember, I like gingerbread cookies best.”

“Hey Darce!” says Sam, waving his entire arm (since his costume makes it difficult to wave just his hand).  “That’s a kickass outfit.”

“Why, thanks,” Darcy grins.  “I’ll take any chance I can get to be an interplanetary warrior.”

“Yeah, I know the feeling.”  Sam clears his throat and then does his very best Peter Cullen impression.  “Autobots, roll out!”

Steve, meanwhile, has started rubbing Bucky’s back.  Almost absentmindedly, as if he’s doing it out of habit. Tonight Bucky’s apparently decided to incorporate his prosthetic arm into his costume rather than try to work around it, as he’s dressed as a slightly more high-tech version of the classic Tin Man.

Darcy can’t help but notice the backrubbing, and in her unmistakably Darcy way, she turns to Sharon, who’s currently standing the closest.  “Can I ask you a weird question?”

“Uh, sure,” Sharon says, because she’s pretty used to those.

“Okay, so…”  Darcy waves a hand in the direction of the others, currently magnetizing to each other (and shit, but it’s funny to see Anastasia and Optimus Prime buddying up).  “Who here is banging?  I feel like there’s some banging going on here, and I’m usually right about these things.”

Sharon coughs, trying to hide how wide her eyes are.  “Excuse me?”

“I mean, no big if it’s not, like, an open secret,” Darcy continues.  “I just don’t always hear the Gap gossip, y’know?  And these guys, there’s something going on here.”

Point of fact, there is, but Sharon doesn’t entirely know what or how to describe it.  Hell, Sharon’s sort of been invited to join in and she still doesn’t know exactly what she’d be joining.  So after clearing her throat again, she concedes, “They’re close.  We’re close.”

“Like… we’re close we’re close?” Darcy presses.

Sharon blushes.  “Ask them,” she says.  “If you dare.”

“Noted,” Darcy chuckles, but it is her, so she might take that dare eventually.  She spins around to survey the rest of the guests - not that everyone’s in this one room, but there’s a fair amount of activity - and, loud enough that it makes Sharon giggle, calls out, “Heimdall!  Get your butt over here, dude!”

Heimdall, dignified as always in some form of homemade armor with a fur-trimmed black cloak thrown over his shoulders, comes over to join her.  “Hello there, Darcy!”

“So, buddy,” she begins, “what’s the tally?”

“Three,” he sighs.  “Every time I inform them that I am Dolorous Edd, and only one of them recognized the name at all.”

“See, that’s their loss,” Darcy declares.  “I mean, yeah, Jon Snow is cool and all, but Dolorous Edd is hilarious.”

“I’m glad you think so,” he replies, smiling.  “I rather like this cloak.  I’m considering wearing it for everyday occasions.”

“That’d be kinda fierce,” she agrees.

All this while, there’s been music playing through Tony’s far-too-expensive speakers.  It’s seemed like a pretty standardly top 40 set of songs, not exciting but not offensive either.  At that moment, though, there’s a slight pause that indicates a switch in CDs and the telltale opening notes of “Thriller.”

“Fuck yeah!” Darcy shouts, jumping off the sofa.  “C’mon, guys!”  

Sam shuffles over and enthusiastically starts doing the dance as best he can in his costume (which is still pretty well).  No one can see it, but he’s mouthing the words under his mask. “Tasha!” he calls.  “You know you want to!”

“Really don’t, thanks,” she replies, looking affronted at the idea.

“It’s not that bad,” Sharon chuckles, sliding forward to join the dance and surreptitiously tugging on her red Rosie the Riveter bandana.

“That’s the spirit!” Darcy exclaims, clapping approvingly.

“I’m very comfortable where I am,” says Heimdall from the couch.

“You’re being a spoilsport,” Darcy retorts.

“No one will fall over if I don’t dance,” he says lightly.

And Darcy just shrugs in concession, trying not to grin too much.  “Well played, Edd.”  She lets her gaze travel over the room; even Steve and Bucky are attempting to work through the dance, though it’s clear that neither of them know exactly what they’re doing.  So far, a success.

And then she notices a new pair of people very much abstaining in the doorway.

“Victoria,” she shouts, breaking formation to bound over and start dancing right in front of them.  “Victoria’s girlfriend, I’m guessing.  Come on, it’s ‘Thriller’ and it’s Halloween and that means you have to dance.”

“Isabelle,” corrects the woman in the white dress, “and no, we don’t.”

Darcy is unfazed.  “Please?” she wheedles.  “Oh!  And we should totally get Nat and Melinda over for more royalty selfies.  Queen of Hearts and… and the White Queen, right?”

“Right,” Victoria says dryly.  “But that still doesn’t mean you’re going to get us dancing.”

Suitably, the track ends and switches to “Just Dance,” which makes Darcy grin.

“Did you put together this nonsense?” Victoria asks, taking in the smug look on the younger woman’s face.

“You bet I did,” Darcy agrees. “And seriously, you’re not going to listen to Lady Gaga’s suggestions?”

“If I do, check me for a fever,” Victoria deadpans.

They’re a lost cause, Darcy decides, so she skips off with a wave (and makes a mental note that Victoria has damn good taste) to go check in on the others.  It’s her stupid mix CD, she feels responsible for making sure that everyone’s having fun while it’s on.  Nobody who refused to dance has changed their mind, and Sharon’s paused to sip on her bottle of Mike’s Hard Cranberry, but Sam has moved to join Steve and Bucky in their little corner of the most adorably horrible dance moves known to man, so that’s sorta cute.  Cute enough to creep on and then eventually join, anyway.

Until the track switches again.

“YOU REMIND ME OF THE BABE,” someone yells, and Skye barges into the room with Jemma in tow.

“WHAT BABE?” Darcy shouts back.

“THE BABE WITH THE POWER!”

“WHAT POWER?”

“THE POWER OF VOODOO!”

“WHO DO?”

“YOU DO!”

“DO WHAT?”

“REMIND ME OF THE BABE,” Jemma jumps in, her grin turning almost sneaky.

“What the fuck?” interjects Isabelle, as the actual song begins.

“I am so sorry,” Victoria mutters, squeezing Isabelle’s hand in apology.  “This is the hazard of working with babies.”

“Oh I’m not offended, it’s mostly just funny,” Isabelle replies, smiling at her in a way that almost looks out of place on her face.

“Still,” Victoria murmurs.  “We don’t need to stick around any longer than you want.”

“I’m fine,” says Isabelle, “but my god, Victoria Hand being acquiescing.  Never thought I’d see that.”

“The pattern could continue later tonight,” Victoria replies, dropping her voice teasingly.

Isabelle makes sort of a purring growl in her throat. “I’d like that very much.”  She reaches up to stroke Victoria’s hair, carefully since it’s arranged precisely, but in a way that makes her affection obvious (and something along the lines of possessive).

Meanwhile, Skye’s been bopping around to “Magic Dance” quite happily, but she’s also been watching the exchange, completely riveted.  “I ship it,” she says to Jemma, who’s sort of shuffling around in a vague approximation of a dance.

“What are you talking about, Skye,” Jemma mumbles, though she’s glad of the opportunity to stop making a fool of herself trying to move about.

“Them.” Skye nods to Victoria and Isabelle, who seem to be too engaged to notice that Skye’s been staring at them.  “They’re hot.  I ship them.”

“You can’t ship people,” Jemma exclaims.

“Watch me.”  Skye grins.

“You know if she found out she’d throttle you,” Jemma points out.

“And she’d be very hot while doing it,” Skye says cheerily.  There’s a pause, and then she adds, “Besides, unlike some of us, I don’t care, goody-goody.”  She nudges Jemma with her shoulder affectionately.

“Excuse me!” Jemma squeals.  “I just don’t feel comfortable… supposing things about real people.”

Skye snorts.  “What is there to suppose?  They’re totally dating.  And basically about to jump each other right there, check out that eyesexing.”

“I know they’re dating,” Jemma defends.  “Obviously, Victoria wouldn’t have brought her to the party if they weren’t dating.  I just…”

“Just what?”  Skye’s voice has gone a bit gentler.

“I don’t know,” Jemma says, bringing hands to her face.  “I just feel odd about it.”

“You sure that’s all you feel odd about?”  Skye’s smirking.

“What else would…”  Jemma trails off, entirely realizing where this is going, and blanches.

“I knew you’d get it, you’re a smart girl.  That’s why I love you.”  It just sort of slips out of Skye’s mouth, she’s not thinking about it, and for a moment she just sort of blinks at Jemma, a bit nervous.  They haven’t said that yet and it’s possible she’s just royally fucked up.

“O-o-oh?” Jemma whispers.

Skye nods, still nervous.  “Yeah.”

“Oh,” Jemma repeats, this time in a squeak.  “I, I.  Ah.  I.”

“Uh, we can pretend that didn’t just happen if you want,” says Skye quickly.

“No,” Jemma rushes.  “I mean.  No, we don’t have to pretend.  I, I love you too.  I do.  Yes.”

Skye smiles.  “Oh good, cause I was getting worried there for a sec.”

“Oh,” Jemma repeats yet again.  “Well, I.  I don’t want you to worry about that at all, or about anything really, but this at least is in my control, so I can guarantee.  Or try to guarantee.  I definitely do love you, and I’m really very flattered you love me too because I thought I’d been jumping to conclusions, because of course it would be easy to get caught up in loving you because you’re very loveable, and.  And.”

Before Jemma can talk any more, Skye grabs her face and kisses her.  It takes a minute for them to come up for air, during which Darcy notices and wolf-whistles.  Once they’ve finally stopped, Skye rests her forehead against Jemma’s and says, “Definitely not jumping to conclusions.”

Chapter Text

“We’re absurdly late,” Loki points out as he holds the door open for Lorelei.

Lorelei rolls her eyes.  “Sweetie,” she says, “that’s entirely the point.”

“I see,” he says, still somewhat confused but unwilling to let it show on his face.  “So should we...that is, we came here together and I’m not quite sure what you were thinking…”

Of course he’s not.  It’s sort of funny to watch him squirm, but it’s more to the point that she’s not actually watching him at all as she runs her tongue over the points of her false fangs and replies, “It’s not a date, kid.  We mingle.  That’s what you do at parties.”

“All right,” he says, nodding.  “Well, thank you for, ah, escorting me to the other party.  I suppose this is where we part ways for now?”

“For now,” she agrees.  She finally looks at him, her expression somewhere between amusement and pity, and says, “I do hope you had a good time.  I thought those friends might be rather up your alley.  And I hope you manage not to be miserable here.”  Then she tosses hair over her shoulder and saunters off in the direction of the bar.

Loki chuckles and strides purposefully in the opposite direction.  Eventually he comes upon Sif and Fandral playing an intense-looking game of ping-pong while various groups drunkenly cheer for them.  Unfortunately for him, he enters the room just as Fandral smacks the ball particularly hard and it connects with Loki’s face quite abruptly.

“AUGH!”

“Oh, terribly sorry,” says Fandral, not looking sorry at all.  “I suppose that round was a dud.  Well, never mind, I shall have victory!”

Sif snorts.  “The only victory you’ll have tonight is in drinking the most of anyone here.  Or of failed serves, that’s your fourth.”  She retrieves the ball from where it’s rolled behind the door and then, almost as an afterthought, looks sympathetically at Loki.  “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” he grunts, sliding in behind May and Natasha (perhaps if Fandral serves poorly again they’ll shield him from further harm).

Satisfied with that answer, she serves the ball and a new round begins.  It’s clear that Sif wasn’t exaggerating earlier, as Fandral’s motor control is shoddy at best.  Every now and then he manages to get in a lucky hit and score a point, but mostly Sif seems to be taking it easy on him, out of pity maybe.  She only really puts effort into about every third hit, and every time she does she smiles in the way a warrior does when they know their opponent has played right into their hands.  Once or twice she glances behind her when there’s particularly exuberant cheering, as if hoping to catch the eye of someone in particular.

“Oh, come on, Fandral, don’t let her beat you!” says Volstagg cheerfully, and perhaps a bit patronizingly.  “You know you’ll never hear the end of it!”

“Please, I’ve lured her into a false sense of security!”  Fandral lunges for the ball, only barely managing to tap it before it hits the table.  “Any moment now the tables will turn in my favor.”

“Or any moment now he’ll lose his balance,” murmurs Natasha to Clint and Melinda, who are standing on either side of her.  Clint only barely stifles his bark of laughter and Melinda smirks.  Even Hogun, who’s allegedly cheering on Fandral, lets a small smile creep across his face.

Sure enough, the game lasts only a few more rounds before Fandral wobbles and then crashes, only narrowly missing the table.  “Very well, I concede,” he groans from the floor.  “But you must admit, it was a hard-won victory!”

“Of course,” says Sif, rolling her eyes.  “I’d say a 15-3 game was hard-won indeed.”  She turns to grin and bow exaggeratedly at the four behind her, who clap obligingly.  Well, Clint claps and whoops appreciatively and Natasha and Loki join in with the clapping after a moment.  Melinda nods at her, but from the smile on Sif’s face Melinda might as well have been cheering loud enough to drown out the other three.

 


 

Fitz and Trip have been walking through the house casually, just chatting and almost-but-not-quite touching but walking really close together, and Fitz is about to remark how he almost didn’t come tonight but Simmons made him and he supposes he’s glad he did, when they wander into the room that has music blasting out of it and they’re greeted with “I got a feelin’, ooooooohhooo, that tonight’s gonna be a good night…”

Fitz winces instinctively.  “Good lord, that’s loud.”

Trip’s looking around the large and overly lavish room, which has a pool in the middle and way too many couches around the outside.  “Damn, I didn’t know Stark had a pool,” he says, then, noticing Fitz’s discomfort, he adds, “We can keep moving if you want.”

Boys!” Darcy shouts, skipping over with far more grace than she ought to be capable of given how much she’s possibly had to drink.  “Join the dance party!”

“Nope,” says Fitz flatly.

Trip laughs.  “We’re good, thanks, Darce.”

Pleeeease,” she wheedles, putting her hands on her hips. 

Just then the song ends and a telltale “OOGA-CHAKA OOGA-OOGA-OOGA-CHAKA” chant begins.

“NOPE,” says Fitz, more emphatically.

“You’re no fun,” Darcy shouts, then turning to add in a rush, “Jemmagetyourbuttoverhere!”

And in a flash, a breathless Jemma appears at Darcy’s side, Skye’s hand twined in hers.  “What?” she asks before turning to the boys and asking, “Have you found anyone else who got the costume yet?”

“Hm?  Oh.  Ah, no,” says Fitz, looking a little caught off-guard.  “But it’s okay, I’ve been having a nice time.”

Skye grins.   “Oh really?”

Jemma rather sharply elbows Skye’s side before saying, “Good!  I’m glad of that.”

Darcy, who’s been looking from person to person in this little exchange and getting increasingly surer of what she’s watching (and holy shit is it adorable), interrupts to say, “Jemma, make him have fun our way.”

“Your way,” Jemma corrects with a fond roll of her eyes.

“You’ve been dancing,” Darcy defends.

“Not of my own volition entirely,” Jemma says, giving Skye a pointed look.  In return, Skye makes the most innocent face she can, although she’s about five seconds away from cracking up laughing.

“You’re having fun,” she adds.  “Right?”

Jemma goes bright red, or she feels like she does anyway, which could account for the way she hides her face behind her hand for a moment.  “Yes,” she chokes out.  “But if Fitz doesn’t want to dance, you probably shouldn’t make him.  You haven’t been exactly successful at getting people to do that tonight, Darcy.”

“That’s because half the people here are giant buzzkills,” Darcy declares, and she takes Trip’s hand to get him to twirl her before she spins off.

Fitz, having just noticed Jemma’s complexion, gives her an odd look.  “You’re bright red, are you feeling all right?”

“I’m fine!” Jemma exclaims a bit too quickly.

He looks unconvinced.  “All right, then.”  He sort of shifts his weight, then starts, as if he were expecting Trip to be next to him and is thrown off by the lack of him.  Trip’s only taken a couple of steps back, but it was apparently enough to throw Fitz off.

Trip looks down at him in concern.  “You okay there?”

“Yeah,” murmurs Fitz, flushing a bit and looking at the floor.

Skye is starting to look like she might start giggling villainously at any moment, so Jemma, looking entirely horrified, tugs on her hand a bit more firmly and exclaims, “Drinks.  Let’s.  Let’s drinks.  I’d like drinks.  Come on.  Catch up with you two later!” before pulling Skye away in the direction of the minibar set up in a corner of the room.

Trip smiles at Fitz.  “Why don’t you go get a seat in one of those couches over there and I’ll get us some drinks.”

“All right,” says Fitz, still clearly nervous but smiling up at him again.

They spend several songs sitting together on a couch, sipping from their beers and smiling awkwardly at each other, before Melinda and Natasha slip into the room.  Coulson, who’s been awkwardly dancing in one corner for a while, stiffens as if he’s been shocked and then starts to shuffle his way over towards her.  “Huh,” says Trip, his interest piqued.

“What?” Fitz asked, relieved to have a potential topic of conversation.

“Oh, Darcy has some crazy bet going based on who’s gonna end up wth Melinda May,” explains Trip.  “I guess it’s between Coulson, Hill, and Sif.  Personally, my money’s on Coulson.”

“I see,” says Fitz, looking a little shocked.  “I had no idea they were all interested.”

“Oh yeah,” chuckles Trip.  “I mean, I don’t really care, but it’s something to keep an eye on anyway.  I think she called it the bisexual romcom?  If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll win tonight.”  He keeps his eyes fixed on the scene.

Melinda and Natasha are surveying the room with identical expressions of mild disdain on their faces, although probably that has more to do with the NSYNC song currently playing than anything.  Coulson, meanwhile, has moved into their vicinity while dancing in the truly embarrassing way only people 35 and over can achieve.  “Great party, huh?” he says, smiling at Melinda in a hopeful schoolboy sort of way.

“It’s definitely something,” replies Natasha, glancing from Melinda to Coulson and back again.

“You both look great,” he continues, still gazing at Melinda.  “Did you make that dress yourself, Melinda?”

“Yes,” she says, giving him a half-smile.  Natasha, seeing the smile, relaxes slightly but continues to eye Coulson like a wary feral cat.

“It looks exactly like the one in the movie. I’ve always liked Mulan, literary inaccuracies aside.”  Coulson’s practically shaking from nerves, but he keeps talking, possibly to his detriment.  “And it looks wonderful on you. I mean, I don’t just say that for the obvious reason,” he laughs, “but you just - you have this really noble warrior sort of air to you, you know?  I’d trust you to save all of China, or anywhere really.”

Natasha makes a kind of strangled noise that she manages to cover with a cough, and meanwhile Trip barks a laugh.  “Oh man, he was doing okay and then he just crashed and burned,” he says quietly to Fitz, who looks as if he can’t decide whether to laugh or pity Coulson.  “Maybe I should’ve bet on Sif after all.”

Melinda, shockingly, looks amused.  “Thank you, I suppose.  That’s...flattering.”

“Well,” comes Maria’s voice as she waltzes up behind them, a beer in one hand, “I got the old guy in a cab home.  He insists that’s the reasonable thing to do, but hell, I’m not working till the evening tomorrow, I can stay out past curfew.”  She’s incredibly at ease with this whole situation, with the way that the others are or aren’t reacting, and, completely ignoring her fellow security officer (because honestly, if you’re a mall cop, going as a secret service agent for Halloween isn’t even trying), she turns to Natasha and Melinda, nodding to both of their dresses.  “You’re putting the rest of us to shame, you know.”

“What, this old thing?  Just threw it on last minute,” Natasha replies playfully.

“Please,” Maria rolls her eyes.  “You just can’t resist the opportunity to show off the fact that you’re good at everything.”

“You flatter me.  Besides, no need to get competitive, there’s no contest or anything.  And anyway, I quite like yours, Captain Hill.”

“That has a nice ring to it,” Maria declares, taking a sip of her drink before shifting her attention towards Melinda.  “This fabric you used is gorgeous.  Where do you find stuff like that?”

“Trade secret,” replies Melinda, smirking.  “But thank you.  I’m pleased with it.”

Coulson, after spending a moment with a truly pathetic expression of confusion on his face, shuffles away as if hoping no one has noticed the events of the past few minutes.

Darcy, who of course has been watching this too, leans over the back of the sofa that Jemma and Skye have planted themselves on for the time being and whispers, “Woh woh.”

“Don’t be mean,” Jemma immediately murmurs, but there’s no real determination behind it.

“I dunno why you’re so concerned with who Officer Dad is hitting on, but oh my god I’ve been googling Victoria Hand’s girlfriend and her name is a fucking pun!” announces Skye, waving her phone in the air triumphantly.  “Isabelle Hartley. Hartley, get it?  Like, she’s the heart and Victoria is the hand?  This is like something out of a shitty romance novel, I love it.”

“You saw what Victoria is dressed as, too,” Darcy adds.  “The Queen of Hearts.”

“So many puns, oh my god.”  Skye’s practically vibrating with excitement.  “It’s punception!  BWAAAAAAH.”

“Did you seriously just make the Inception noise,” Darcy mutters, reaching to ruffle Skye’s wig before coming around front of them and planting her ass in the fraction of sofa left available.

“Like you wouldn’t have if you’d thought of it,” replies Skye, making a face at her.

The telltale beginning of “Ice Ice Baby” is punctuated by the sound of someone from an entirely different part of the house screaming “WHAT THE FUCK.”

To which Darcy just reacts with a smug smile, leaning back against the couch and putting her arms up behind her head.  “This is a success,” she declares, letting her eyes wander over the crowd - most of the guests have migrated into the room by this point, but upon catching sight of one of the newest-appeared she jumps right back off the couch and shouts, “Be right back guys, I just thought of something really important I have to tell Heimdall,” then runs off.

Mystified, Jemma shrugs and scans the room for what that might have been set off by, but then again, Darcy has so many obscure inside jokes with everyone that it’s hard to keep track of them.

She’s about to turn to Skye and continue their conversation from earlier when there’s a shout from the door and none other than Grant Ward, clad in something that’s probably meant to resemble the sort of outfits that the Natives in Peter Pan wore, ambles in.  “The party has arrived!” he yells to no one in particular, and then, spotting Skye and Jemma, makes a beeline for them.  “How are you, ladies?” he asks, blatantly eyeing them both.

“Honestly?  Better before you opened your mouth,” says Skye.

“Aw, there’s no need to be like that. We’re all here to have a good time.”  Ward swings his prop tomahawk and then turns to Jemma, probably hoping to have a better reception.  “You’re looking good, Jems. I’m really digging the schoolgirl uniform.”

“Jemma,” she corrects under her breath, because only people she likes are allowed to use nicknames with her.  “And it’s not a schoolgirl uniform, it’s a Hogwarts uniform, ta much.”

Ward blinks.  “You’re using your Britishness against me.  The accent’s hot, though, can’t deny that.”  He looks at Skye.  “As for you, you should wear leather pants every day.”

“I’ll take that into consideration,” hisses Skye.

“What are you?  A biker?  Buffy?  Nah, can’t be Buffy, you don’t have the hair.”

“I’m sure the hair and the leather pants are the only things Ward even knows about Buffy,” Jemma mutters in Skye’s ear, rolling her eyes vehemently.

The comment makes Skye laugh, but by the time she turns back to answer Ward her teeth are bared again.  “I’m Joan Jett from the Runaways, you ignorant fuckhead.”

“Oh yeah, I saw that movie.  She was pretty hot.  She was a lesbian, right?”

You’re not even worthy to say her name, you piece of -”

She’s interrupted by Steve’s very loud and very earnest exclamation from across the room: “Wasn’t this song just on?”  It’s noticeable enough that everyone’s attention turns that way and there’s quite the audience as Sam shakes his head and murmurs something, prompting Steve to scrunch up his eyebrows and listen to the song playing for a minute before going “oh.”

“Doesn’t everyone know that’s how ‘Under Pressure’ starts?” asks Ward.  It’s a perfectly innocuous question, but he manages to make even that sound incredibly douchey.

“Doesn’t everyone know that it’s not okay to use an oversimplified cultural appropriation as your Halloween costume?” Jemma retorts, taking Skye by the hand and leading her toward the tower of tiny orange and purple cupcakes in the corner.

Momentarily confused, Ward stands there for a surprisingly long amount of time before the gears in his brain apparently start to work again and he retorts, “I’m a sexy Indian warrior, thanks very much!” before striding after them.

“Bollocks,” Jemma whispers to Skye.

Trip and Fitz, who have been watching the whole ordeal, glance at each other.  “Er, would you mind if I…” says Fitz awkwardly.  “That is, I feel like I should go help...not that they need my help, they’re very capable, but I just…”

Trip reaches out to pat Fitz’s arm reassuringly, then pauses.  “Is it cool if I, uh, pat your arm or whatever?  I know some people don’t like to be touched that much.”

“Oh!”  Fitz looks at him with wide eyes.  “I...ah, that’s fine.  I don’t...I don’t normally like being touched but you can, sure.”  He smiles almost apologetically.

With that permission, Trip gently pats his arm a couple of times before saying, “I get what you’re saying.  Let’s go over there and make sure they’ve got everything under control.”  He stands up, then turns and offers his hand.  “You want help getting up?  These couches kind of suck you in.”

Fitz stares at his hand for a second before grasping it and hauling himself to his feet.  After he’s standing, he keeps hold of Trip’s hand for another few seconds before blushing and letting go.  “Er, thanks,” he mumbles.  Trip smiles kindly at him before they head for the cupcake table.

Jemma and Skye have attempted to deal with Ward by pretending that he doesn’t exist, which is difficult because he’s aggressively trying to get them to talk to him.  Skye looks like she’s about five seconds from jumping him, and Jemma about five seconds from letting her.  “How are things over here?” asks Trip, hoping to divert Ward’s attention from the beleaguered girls.

“Been better,” mutters Skye, looking grateful.

At that moment a new song starts and in unison Jemma and Fitz say “A traditional Earth ballad!” delightedly.  Trip chuckles and while Skye looks a little confused, Ward looks utterly lost.  “What?” he asks, and everyone ignores him.

“I don’t get it,” says Skye.

“Oh!  Well, let me explain!  You see, ‘Toxic’ is used in Doctor Who, series one, episode two, ‘The End of the World,’” Jemma exclaims, then launching into what she considers a succinct retelling of the episode’s context.

Ward, apparently deterred by in-depth explanations of cult television minutiae if nothing else, doesn’t even make it through a minute of Jemma’s explanation before wandering away.  He doesn’t make it far before almost tripping, and when he looks to see the cause of that tripping he sees Raina standing a few feet away, having shed an enormous purple flower in his path.  Or anyway, that’s what he assumes, given that she’s standing there innocently twirling the end of a garland of the things that’s wrapped around her waist.

“What the fuck?” he asks, more out of confusion than accusation.

“What?” she replies, fluttering her eyelashes at him.  “It must have fallen off.  DIY costumes fall apart sometimes.”

Across the room, Darcy has finally located Heimdall and swoops in to whisper in his ear, “See?  She was flowered and terrible and flowered.”

Heimdall laughs for the first time that night, and possibly for the first time in a while.  “She is that, indeed.  And red as well, tonight.”

“It’s like she knows,” Darcy replies, waving her hands and making her voice wobble in some cartoon approximation of spookiness.  She doesn’t take her eyes off of the woman in question, though, probably hoping she does something else worth punning about, but what happens next is possibly even better.  Or worse, depending.

Lorelei, who’s currently working the hell out of these skintight pants and knee-high boots and a corset that must have been made just for her because how else would it fit so brilliantly (and Darcy knows she’s a horrible person for noticing that but what’s a girl to do), saunters up beside Raina and whispers something in her ear.  Something that makes Raina raise an eyebrow in that - that creepy way she has that makes it look like she knows the secrets to destroying the world and actually giggle.

“That is truly unsettling,” says Heimdall, his eyes widening.

But before anyone can make any further comment on the unholy alliance unfolding before them, Ward starts pelvic thrusting towards Darcy to the beat of “Anaconda.”  “This song kinda sucks, but it’ll do, huh, Darce?” he calls.  At this, Heimdall narrows his eyes and glances at Darcy as if checking to see whether she’s going to take this on or if she wants his help.

Ward, oblivious, keeps thrusting at Darcy.  “I mean, Nicki Minaj is a shitty rapper, but she’s got a great ass on her so at least this song is good for something.”

“Excuse you, sir,” Ian exclaims, slamming a bottle of Smirnoff down on the bar as he pops up from behind it (it’s a surprisingly forceful gesture and tone for someone currently dressed as Samwise Gamgee).  “You really shouldn’t-”

Darcy shakes her head and looks at Ian before mouthing, “I got this.”  That done, she leans forward and shakes her shoulders at Ward, shimmying him in what he apparently doesn’t realize is the direction of the pool.

“Hey, great!  You’re the first one to dance with me.  Everybody else is being a bitch,” says Ward with a grin.

Darcy smiles wide, puts her hands on his waist to turn him so she can grind up against him from behind.  “Aw, I’m sure that’s not true,” she croons.  “I’m sure you were able to make plenty of girls dance with you at whatever sad little gang party you came from.”  Before he can say anything further, Darcy pulls back, spins into a kick, and firmly plants her foot against his ass so hard to push him forward into the pool, shouting, “In the name of Nicki Minaj, I will punish you!”

The shout, as well as the yelp and splashing from Ward, are enough to cause everyone in the room to look, and then start applauding.  Tony runs in too, still carrying his helmet.  “Dudes, what the hell?  I told my dad we wouldn’t be getting in the pool in our costumes…”  Upon seeing Ward flailing in the pool like a drowned rat, he grins.  “Oh.  Never mind.”

Ward finally manages to haul himself out of the pool by his arms, sputtering the whole way.  “She attacked me!” he gasps, pointing at Darcy, who is looking very pleased with herself.  “What the fuck?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I’m sure it was provoked,” says Tony.  “Anyway, I don’t remember inviting you, Tonto.  I’d say she was just helping her host out by getting rid of a party crasher.  Which, yeah, you should probably beat it before I sic Jarvis on you.”

Ward, dripping wet and radiating ineffectual anger, heads for the door.

Pepper, who’s come in to see what all the commotion was about and arrived just in time to hear Tony’s threat and see Ward stalk past, says quietly, “I didn’t know you could ‘sic’ Jarvis on anyone.”

“One of his many advertised but not present benefits,” Maya deadpans, strolling by and casually twirling her straw in her glass before she goes on her merry way.

“I mean, probably I could get him to target the sprinklers.”  Tony shrugs.  “It didn’t need to be a legitimate threat, just enough to get the jackass out.”

“Don’t buy Darcy a gift basket,” Pepper says.  “I know you want to, but it probably wouldn’t send the best message.”

“Gift basket?”  Tony raises an eyebrow.

“Socially conditioning her into taking out your human garbage,” Pepper rolls her eyes.  “I know how you think.  I’d suggest something smaller, more subtle.  A gift certificate, maybe.”

“Noted,” says Tony.  “But hey, if she’s willing to do the job for free…”

“You have a reputation to uphold,” Pepper counters.  “She can’t be the only person you never bribe, after all.  That would send the wrong message too.”

“Ooh, fair point.  I should hire you as a life consultant or something, clearly you know how this PR business works.”

“Lots of practice selling people things they might not actually need, that’s all,” Pepper points out.

Tony’s about to say something more, but he’s distracted by a sudden burst of laughter from nearby.  “Did you see that imbecile leaving?  He was soaking wet and he looked so unhappy!  It was delicious!”  It’s Loki, crowing gleefully to apparently the closest person who will listen to him (Heimdall, who’s looking somewhat uncertain about this new development).  “I have waited years for someone to show him what it feels like, and finally someone delivered!”

“You are very intoxicated,” observes Heimdall.

“Yeah, uh, you okay there, buddy?” asks Tony, torn between wanting to make sure Loki doesn’t actually start in on more destructive drunken shenanigans and wanting to keep his distance.

“Tony,” Pepper whispers.  “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“No, but we’ve already had someone thrown in the pool tonight,” Tony points out.  “It’s my job to keep the drunken shenanigans to a minimum, or something.”

“Oh I’m fine,” slurs Loki, turning to Tony and Pepper and making it very obvious that he is indeed very drunk.  “Who are you, my father?  Oh wait, my father’s not even my father!  Did you know that?  Because I didn’t, until very recently!  He wouldn’t even tell me, I found out by accident!  Do you know how it feels to grow up with a brother who can do no wrong, and then find out that he’s not even your brother?”

“Ah, no,” says Tony, thinking quickly, “but my dad’s not exactly gonna win any Father of the Year awards either.  Um, are you sure you don’t wanna come sit down, away from the expensive decor?  What are you dressed as, by the way?  That is a kickass suit.”

I’M SHINJI IKARI, YOU BOURGEOIS FUCK!”

And then Thor, mercifully, appears in the doorway with Jane lurking behind him.  “I do believe it is time for us to take our leave,” he says, smiling apologetically at Tony and Pepper.  “Come, brother, you have had enough to drink tonight.  I think I will call Mother and take you home to her in the morning.”  He manages to steer Loki, who is still ranting about Neon Genesis Evangelion, toward the door.  Jane gives Pepper a little wave goodbye before darting after them.

Everyone else in the room, who had been watching the encounter, looks at each other in slight confusion.  “What the hell is a Shinji Ikari?” asks Natasha.

“Don’t ask, he’s from an anime,” says Clint with a roll of his eyes.  “Daddy issues out the ass.”

“Hey guys!” Darcy exclaims, reaching to grab Ian from behind the bar so she has someone to bop around with.  “It’s the song from Space Jam!  Nobody’s yelling anymore!  Everyone’s good!  Let’s play basketball against aliens!”

“Why would you play basketball against aliens?” Steve asks, perplexed.  “Do they even have basketball in outer space?”

“Of course they do!”  Clint looks affronted at the very idea that there is no basketball in outer space.

At this point most people either go back to awkwardly dancing or refusing to dance at all.  Darcy has roped Ian into enthusiastically dancing with her, and while he looks a little confused he goes along with it and even seems to be enjoying himself after a few minutes.

“Well, that was all very interesting,” Raina murmurs to Lorelei.

“After a fashion,” Lorelei concedes, shrugging.  “I probably should have cut him off at some point.”

“I didn’t realize that you were babysitting tonight,” Raina counters.

“Hardly,” Lorelei says, but that’s all there is to say about that, in her opinion.  That particular arrangement takes more explaining than she cares to do, especially right now.

“Hey, I have a question,” Raina says after a moment, turning to study Lorelei’s face more intently.

And Lorelei just raises an eyebrow.  “Shoot,” she says, because she’s pretty sure she can guess where this is going (and she’s very sure of that).

“Wanna make out?” Raina asks sweetly.

Okay.  That’s not actually what Lorelei was expecting at all.  Usually it’d be a guy making that proposition (because they’re really the most predictable) and usually if it hadn’t been her idea it wouldn’t be a question, it’d just be a suggestion.  So she’s a little suspicious to say the least, but - though she won’t outright admit it - somewhat intrigued.  She doesn’t know Raina all that well (because she doesn’t know anyone all that well if she can help it) but given the strangely sincere look on her face, she’s pretty sure it’s a genuine offer.

And hell, what’s it really going to hurt.  Raina’s cute in a vaguely psycho killer kind of way.

“Why not,” Lorelei says.  She’s expecting that Raina’s going to wait for her to make the first move, somehow, because of that look in her eyes maybe, but once the permission is given, Raina pivots on her heel to face Lorelei, then immediately wraps an arm around her shoulders and goes in for a kiss.

Clint, who is the first to notice because he’s been keeping an eye on Raina all night - he will prove she’s definitely not a ghost if it’s the last thing he does, dammit - makes a frightened whimpering noise.  “What the hell’s going on?”

Raina, for her part, is getting very comfortable with this very quickly.  It’s not like she’d planned this - she hadn’t really even thought about Lorelei in any conscious way for more than a few minutes before tonight - but she’s also not one to ignore her impulses.  And when a pretty girl walks up and starts talking to her about how stupid men are, making out seems like the most relevant impulse.

So she’s running her tongue over Lorelei’s lips (her fangs are disappointingly blunt), she’s pulling her closer and grinding their hips together, and she knows she’s doing something right when Lorelei actually wraps an arm around her waist, careful not to crush her wings, and starts really participating in the kiss.

“The fuck?” Skye asks, eyes wide.  “I can’t tell if that’s hot or terrifying.”

“What,” Jemma mumbles, because she’s been very busy studying the label of her hard apple cider so as not to have to participate in the Space Jam.  And then she notices and immediately shudders.

“This can’t lead anywhere good,” says Sam.  Steve says nothing but he’s gripping Bucky’s hand so hard that his knuckles are white.

Sif, who wandered into the room at some point during “Space Jam” and had been floating on the edge of the room somewhat awkwardly, opens her mouth and makes a small frightened noise that no one and least of all herself could’ve suspect her of being capable of making.  Melinda, who’s standing nearby, says sympathetically to her, “This is unsettling.”  Sif snaps her jaw shut and nods, turning to Melinda with wide eyes.  She wants to enjoy the attention Melinda is giving her, but she can’t because the scene in front of them is too frightening.

Everyone in the room has noticed, and most people’s expressions are somewhere along the range of unsettled to horrified.  Darcy has even stopped dancing, and she doesn’t even bother to keep her voice quiet when she says, in reference to the song now playing as much as the events in front of her, “This shit really is bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s.”

And it’s probably a good thing that neither Raina or Lorelei seem to notice that everyone is whispering about them.  They know everyone is looking (Lorelei assumes, within reason, that someone is always looking at her; Raina just knows how these parties work) and neither of them seem to care.  But after a moment, Raina has to pull back to take a breath, which allows Lorelei the chance to whisper, “Just how drunk are you?”

“I’ve been drinking orange juice all night,” Raina shrugs.

“...and vodka?”

“Nope.”

“And you don’t smell like that store you work in.”

“Good call.”

Lorelei blinks, shocked at how shocked she is by this revelation and even more shocked by the way that Raina dives back in to start kissing her throat.

“I have the weirdest boner,” announces Tony.  “But like, out of fear mostly.  A fearboner.”

“Stop talking before you do something you’re going to regret,” Pepper hisses.

But the damage is apparently already done, as Lorelei takes this opportunity to peer over Raina’s shoulder, give Tony a scathing once-over, confirm that what he’s saying is true, and let out one of her terrifyingly throaty chuckles.  “Men,” she declares in a voice like velvet.

Raina turns to look behind her and follow the remark, then starts giggling.  “How basic,” she says.

“You getting as tired of this as I am?” Lorelei murmurs against Raina’s neck.

“I really am,” Raina agrees, then after what amounts to a series of significant looks, she lets her hand slide from Lorelei’s shoulder and down her arm, then laces their fingers together.  “Lead the way,” she adds.

And Lorelei does just that, practically parading Raina out of there as everyone attempts to go back to business as usual.

“Did… did everyone see that?” Jemma whispers, sounding scandalized.

“Maybe they’re both ghosts,” says Clint.

“They… they just left,” Jemma says.  “Together.”

“I thought you didn’t care about the affairs of others,” Skye teases.

Fitz shrugs.  “They probably left because of what Stark said. Can’t blame them, really.”

“I can’t either,” Jemma says.  “That was a step too far for sure.  But… but they’re holding hands.”

“You’re being ridiculous.  They’re allowed, they’re adults.  Clearly consenting adults.”

“Consenting adults who, with their combined… powers might well be able to make the world implode,” Jemma sighs.

Trip looks at Skye, then nods at Jemma as if to say you’d better get some food in her, and Skye nods in return.  “Hey, Jem, let’s go get some pita chips or something,” she says gently, grabbing Jemma’s hand and leading her towards a different, significantly quieter room.

“See, this is why parties are terrible,” Fitz deadpans to Trip.  “Especially with alcohol. Very loud, unsettling public displays of affection, and Simmons gets all weird when she’s had too much to drink.  I hope you don’t mind if we don’t go to another one for a while.”  Then he seems to realize what he’s said, and coughs.  “Er, that is...if I don’t go to one?  That you’re at?”

Smiling, Trip pats his shoulder.  “No worries, I know exactly what you mean.”

Chapter Text

Mike seems to have just sidled into the room to inspect things, or possibly look for lost personal items (there is going to be an impressive collection of those at the end of this party), when Sharon waves him over.  “Hey,” she greets.

“Hey,” he says, smiling.  “Sharon, right? How’s the night treating you?”

“It’s been pretty nice,” she says, because with the exception of that slightly baffling exchange she had with Darcy earlier, all of her personal experiences tonight have been.  “I heard you had some cute pictures of your son to show off?”

“I do,” he says, pulling his phone out and flipping to them.  “He was Robin.”

“Aw,” Sharon exclaims, grinning.  “He’s adorable.  Mind if I…?”  And she waits for Mike’s nod before waving Steve and Sam over to admire the pictures too.

“That’s a nice costume he’s got there,” comments Sam, smiling as Mike shows him.  “Cute kid.”

“He’s lucky to have you for a dad,” Steve adds.

Mike smiles shyly.  “Thanks, I mean, I try to do right by him.”

Bucky and Natasha, noticing their people have wandered away, come over to see what’s going on.  “That costume is quite small,” observes Natasha, as if she’s not sure what to say about Ace that will be complimentary.

“He seems happy,” says Bucky, equally at a loss for socially appropriate small talk.

“He was thrilled,” replies Mike.  “I was amazed he agreed to take off the costume when we got back - last year he insisted on sleeping in his T-rex costume.  Which reminds me, I actually need to get back.  I had to leave him alone since my sister couldn’t babysit, but he’s just sleeping anyway.”

“Don’t let us keep you,” Steve says cordially.  “But we’re always happy to hear about Ace’s adventures.”

“If you feel like sharing,” adds Natasha, with a quick eyeroll in Steve’s direction.  She knows he’s eager to please everyone by discussing their favorite topics, but, well, this one might be less socially acceptable to show an interest in, depending on the context.

As Mike slips out, the familiar soft opening of “Call Me Maybe” starts and Darcy joins in.  “I threw a wish in the well, don’t ask me I’ll never tell, I looked at you as it fell and now you’re in my way…”

Everyone within hearing distance groans.  “Must you do that?” calls Fitz.  Trip squeezes his hand in sympathy.

“I must,” Darcy chirps, then twirling over to the bar for an empty bottle to use as a microphone.  Rather haplessly, Ian trails after her, and Sam says “Nice job, man” in sympathy.

“That’s cute,” Sharon murmurs, settling back against one of the couches their group had claimed earlier.

“Cute, or maybe absurd,” Sam chimes in, grinning.  “Could really go either way, considering it’s Darcy.”

“I think it’s cute,” Sharon defends.

Natasha sits down next to her on the couch and wraps her arms around her, pulling her not quite onto her lap but as close as she can get.  “You’re awfully cute when you’re optimistic.”

“She’s almost always optimistic,” Steve points out with a smirk.

“Draw your own conclusions.”  Natasha looks almost like she’s daring him to.

He seems like he’s about to, but Bucky’s too busy grabbing him around the waist too.  They flop onto the other couch and Sam, refusing to be left out, shuffles over and awkwardly drapes himself over one of the arms so that he can touch both of them at once.

“You know, I can’t decide whether Darcy’s serious with this mix or she’s just trolling all of us,” he adds after a moment.

“You don’t think both are possible?”  Natasha smirks.  “It’s Darcy we’re talking about, after all.”

He nods.  “Fair point.”

 


 

Everyone seems to be positive that it just couldn’t get more absurdly awkward than Darcy dragging Ian around the room doing some horrible fake square dance to “Cotton Eye Joe,” but then the next track begins.

“Is this a junior high school party?” Maria asks loudly, sighing dramatically and looking at Darcy with her patented security officer disapproval face.  “I think we can do better than Enrique Iglesias, Lewis.”

“Better hurry before all the good partners are taken,” Darcy crows with a smug smile before extending a hand to Ian and pulling him close.

Maria grumbles, but it doesn’t take long to realize that it’s a real danger.  In one corner of the room, Steve has started to lead Bucky in what’s possibly the actual sweetest slow dance ever witnessed (not that Maria would admit to such a thing) and moments later Sam offers his arm to Sharon.  On the other side of the room, Pepper is tapping Rhodey on the shoulder and curtsying invitingly to get him to dance with her.

And Phil goddamn Coulson is holding his hand out to Melinda with this blandly courteous smile he probably stole from one of the animated Disney princes.  The old ones who all looked the same.

“Would you, ah, would you like to dance?” he asks shyly.

Melinda kind of chuckles.  “Sure, Phil,” she says, taking his hand and letting him lead her closer to the center of the room.  He sort of hovers his other hand over her waist once they’ve started actually dancing, and it makes Maria kind of want to smack him.  You’re not an eighth grader at his first dance, godammit!

“Check out the parents,” Skye snarks quietly to Jemma.

“They look so strange,” Jemma whispers.  “Like the handlers let them out of their natural habitats for a few hours and they don’t know what to do.”

“I think it’s kinda sweet,” says Trip.  “And anyway, shouldn’t you guys be out there too?”  He grins playfully at them both.

“Shouldn’t you?” counters Skye.

Fitz flushes and Trip chuckles.  “No, we’re good here, but you two should go.  Make it all ironic or whatever.”

“Fine.”  Skye extends her hand to Jemma.  “Wanna slow dance to a shitty song?”

“You’ll have to lead,” Jemma says, going a little pink.

“No worries.  One of my foster moms made me take weird dance classes in middle school, said it would ‘broaden my horizons.’  Mostly what it did was let me dance with cute girls because there were like three dudes in a class of twenty kids, but I guess it’s useful now.”  Skye whisks her out onto the floor.

Maria is sighing and she’s sighing a lot.  The song is horrible, but everyone seems to be playing into the vibe of it and pairing off.  She’s about to go ask Natasha (they’ve danced together before, she knows how to handle her) when Clint steps in and takes that role.  She’s scanning the room for available partners; Tony is at the bar getting progressively drunker off his ass and like fuck she’s going to get near that, Fandral looks equally lonely but she knows how handsy he can get and she’s not in the mood, Sif is pouting until Hogun gamely offers himself as a partner.

But then she notices Maya, standing at the end of the bar and nibbling on the cherry from her drink, and why the hell not.  “Care to?” she asks, giving the kind of pseudo-courteous bow that matches her dandyish pirate getup.

“Oh, gee,” Maya says, putting a hand over her heart.  “Here I thought I was gonna be the class wallflower.”

“Glad to save you from such a fate,” Maria quips, pulling Maya close to her and taking up a very proper ballroom dance stance.

Across the room, Clint and Natasha are dancing like pros, both incredibly serious-faced (but anyone who knows them well would know that they’re about five seconds from cracking up at the ridiculousness of everything).

“You’re not going to get sick if I twirl you around a little, are you,” Maria whispers to Maya.

“It’s incredibly unlikely,” Maya promises, smirking as Maria lifts their arms and nudges her into a series of spins that also serves to get them across the dance floor.

“Graceful,” Maria muses.

“Why thanks,” Maya replies.  “I figure if you’re trying to show off, I might as well play my part.”

“Trying to do what exactly?”

“Show off,” Maya repeats.  “It’s cool, I understand.  Dip me.”

And Maria’s a little perturbed that her motivations were so obvious, but she’s not going to argue when they’re so close to Phil and Melinda and yeah, showing off was completely the point.  She obliges, dipping Maya dramatically as she can and silently thanking her for the way she keeps up that weirdly elegant manner she’s suddenly exhibiting.

Coulson, who happens to look up and notice Maria dipping Maya, seems to understand what’s going on and spins May somewhat abruptly, but she catches on fast and even manages to make it look somewhat natural.  They dance normally for a few seconds, and then he goes in for a dip too, crossing his fingers that Melinda will go along with it.  She does, and he almost drops her in amazement but manages to recover himself before it becomes obvious.

“I’m sorry, did I pass out and wake up in the weirdest romantic comedy ever?” Tony asks the nearest person, who happens to be Heimdall.  “This is a pissing contest with dancing.  I feel slightly uncomfortable but also riveted.”

“I have not had any alcohol and I am seeing this too,” replies Heimdall.  “And I am having similar conflicting feelings.”

“Okay, good.”  Tony takes another sip of his drink.

Meanwhile, Sam and Sharon are semi-awkwardly dancing together (Sam’s costume makes slow dancing impractical, but they’re doing their best) when Fandral slips up behind them and taps Sam on the shoulder.  “Pardon me, might I steal the lady for a bit?”  Sam nods and Fandral guides her away, doing his very best gallant lordly dancing.

“You know,” Darcy murmurs in Ian’s ear, “most guys would have flipped shit if I started leading.”

“Then they would be fools,” Ian declares.  “And not appreciating the fact that they were lucky enough to be dancing with you.”

It’s kind of a cheesy line, and Darcy objectively realizes that, but they’ve both had more than enough to drink to get them into a cheesy sort of mindset.  And it’s well-intentioned.  Pretty much everything that Ian says is well-intentioned.  And Skye and Jemma are totally getting some and there’s a whole foreplay orgy in the corner and a dance-off that may or may not end with their pants off on the other side of the room, and Ian’s sweet, and he’s cute, and he has that accent…

Fuck it.

“I’m gonna kiss you now,” she says, just to see the shocked look in his eyes before she rises up on her tiptoes to do exactly that.

“Well,” says Trip, smirking, “maybe she’ll stop messing with everyone else’s love lives for a bit now that she’s got her own boytoy.”

“You’ve been spying on everyone all night,” comments Fitz, then looks worried about what he’s said.  It’s adorable and Trip’s not the least bit offended.

“Fair point,” he says lightly.  “Maybe this is the natural order of things.  There must always be some nosy bastard at this mall, and the duty’s fallen to me.”

“But...but you said a minute ago...er, I mean, if you think you have to be...unattached to be that...then…”  Fitz is twisting his fingers together anxiously, and he looks down at the floor, letting his sentence drop off.

“Aw, hey.”  Trip’s voice is gentle.  “I was kidding, mostly.”  He pauses.  He’s not quite sure how to phrase what he’s thinking, which is basically that Fitz is cute and interesting and he’s definitely into continuing this...whatever-it-is if Fitz is.  He’s definitely attached.  “And if those are the rules, then I guess someone else will have to take it up.”  He gently takes Fitz’s hand and squeezes it.

Fitz swallows and looks flustered, but not in a bad way.  “Oh, oh that’s...that’s good.  I - I’m all right with that.”

“Good.”  Trip smiles at him and Fitz smiles back.

Skye, who’s been guiding Jemma slowly in their direction in the most obvious eavesdropping attempt in the history of the world, sing-songs “Get a rooooooom” and then makes exaggerated kissing noises.

“You first!” replies Trip.

“Gotta wait for the Time Warp first, I promised Darcy!”  Skye spins Jemma away with a flourish.

Trip rolls his eyes and smiles good-naturedly, turning to Fitz to give him a those two, right? look.  But then he sees that Fitz is acting anxious, flicking his gaze from one spot to another, and he says, “Hey, are you feeling okay?”

“I…”  Fitz swallows.  “I’ve got something to tell you, I suppose.  About myself.”

“All right, shoot.”  Trip is careful to look at him, but not directly into his eyes, because he’s learned that that bothers Fitz when he’s trying to articulate himself.

“It’s about...it’s about sex, I guess.  I don’t...I don’t have the same feelings that everyone else seems to about it.  I don’t - I’m not attracted to people in that way, I guess.  Not that you’re not...oh bloody hell.”  Fitz looks as if he’s about to cry.

Trip reaches over and pats his shoulder.  “Don’t worry, I get it, I think.  I mean, I know there are people who aren’t wired that way and that’s totally cool.  Do you want me to back off, or…?

“No!”  Fitz blinks, as if shocked by his own outburst, but then he continues, “No, you’re...you’ve been great, you’re great.  I like...I like this, I like you.  I just thought you might, um, like to know, before you got too...involved.  I’ll understand if you can’t handle it though.  It’s pretty weird, I know.”

“No it’s not,” says Trip, gently taking Fitz’s hand.  “Sex is nice, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of everything.  I always kind of liked the other stuff just as much.  Hanging out with a person, getting to really know them.  Kissing and all that sappy shit.”  He laughs, then asks, “Would that be something you were into?  I just wanna be absolutely sure.”

Fitz is quiet for a long moment, staring at Trip with wide eyes.  Then he nods.  “Yeah, I - I’d really like that, with you.  That’d be nice.  But...slowly, maybe?  I’ve never...I mean, most people get scared off pretty early on, by Simmons if not by me, so this would be my first time doing any of that.  But I would like it.”  He smiles shakily at Trip and then winces suddenly.  “But, ah, I think I’d be more comfortable discussing this with literally any other soundtrack than Enrique Iglesias.”  The song abruptly changes to “Bad Romance.”  “I stand corrected.  Or Lady Gaga.”

Trip laughs and squeezes his hand.  “I read you loud and clear.  So here’s another important question for you...Star Trek or Star Wars, and why?”

 


 

Nobody is quite sure what to do during “Bad Romance,” to be honest, and there don’t seem to be any options but to stand there awkwardly mingling with the person who’d just been your slow-dance partner while watching Darcy and Skye scream “RAH RAH AH AH AH!  ROMA-RO-MAMA!  GAGA OOH LA LA!  WANT YOUR BAD ROMANCE” at each other.  (Fitz is almost tempted to go rescue Jemma himself, but he’s sort of leaned against Trip’s shoulder and he’s very comfortable there. Jemma can take care of herself, he figures.)  This confusion means that when the Time Warp starts up, everyone is thoroughly relieved.

Or… some of them are relieved.  Of course Darcy is relieved, because she put the damn thing together, and all the other kids seem to know what’s up (with the direct exception of Ian, who stands there unapologetically jaw-dropped), and Natasha perks right up and steers Clint into the corner that the others of her little group haven’t left yet so they can all be excited together.  Sam takes off his Transformer head in order to be completely prepared.  Rhodey covertly pumps his fist in apparent glee, Maya starts grinning.  And everyone who apparently gets the joke is forming groups.

Everyone else looks… baffled.  Or non-responsive.

Sif, who vaguely recognizes the song but couldn’t tell you much besides its title, notices that those in the know have mostly grouped themselves in threes: Fitz, Jemma, and Skye; Clint, Natasha, and Sharon; and Sam, Darcy, and Maya.  This does nothing to lessen her confusion.

Out of the corner of her eye she sees Coulson nudge Melinda and whisper, “Do you know what this is about?”  Melinda doesn’t answer, only smirks vaguely.

As the actual lyrics start, Sam, Clint, and Fitz all sing along, in various directions and with varying degrees of seriousness.  Sam serenades Heimdall and Tony in a goofy way, Clint appears to be as entirely committed as if they were onstage right at this moment, and Fitz is shyer but seems to know what he’s doing as he sings to Trip.  “It's astounding, time is fleeting, madness takes its toll, but listen closely…”

“Not for very much longer,” Jemma and Natasha and Darcy all purr, Jemma popping up over Fitz’s shoulder and Natasha swinging around Clint’s side and Darcy leaning forward giving Tony a very, very seductive look.

Which makes Tony whimper in a frightened way, “How fucking much have I had to drink tonight?”

The boys, meanwhile, have taken up their respective parts and have turned their attentions toward their Magentas.  Sam, finding it somewhat hard to maneuver in his costume and also less familiar with Darcy’s approach to the role, just turns to face her and they lean in toward each other.  Clint grabs Natasha around the waist as well as he can, and it’s obvious they’ve done this before, albeit not in bulky costumes.  And Fitz is jumping around Jemma doing high kicks and basically acting nothing like himself, before they put their palms together above their heads and then clasp hands in what appears to be a display of meticulously rehearsed choreography.

And then.

“LET’S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN,” the above trios - and Trip, and Steve, and Bucky, and Rhodey, and Bruce, who apparently just materialized out of nowhere - shout ecstatically before hurrying to form the straightest rows they can manage.  Trip, after looking around for a second, realizes that no one else has stepped up to be narrator so he slips out of the line to take on that role just in time.  “It’s just a jump to the left!” he calls, and then everyone joins in.

“And then a step to the ri-i-i-i-i-ight,” they all sing, varyingly on- or off-key.

“With your hands on your hips!”

“You bring your knees in tight!”  And of course, everyone who knows what’s going on is doing exactly that.  Maria and Sif and Fandral are all attempting to join in, with moderate levels of success; Melinda and Heimdall are abstaining but with expressions like it’s completely their conscious choice to do so; Ian and Coulson are also attempting, obviously to try and impress their respective ladies, with much less success.

“But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane!”  

At this point the dance appears to break Tony and he slips off his chair onto the floor.  “Oh, all right, that’s fine, the floor is fine,” he murmurs.  “I won’t have to see that again, that’s fine.”  Pepper, who’s perched nearby, gently helps him up, turns him so his back is to the dance floor, and hands him a glass of water.

“LET’S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN.”

At this point, the girls get to take a verse.  Darcy’s version is heavily reliant on waving her hands around mystically and posing like a pin-up, which makes lots of sense all things considered.  Natasha’s seems to be mostly comprised of rolling her eyes dramatically and flirting with Clint and Sharon.  And Jemma’s, as would match Fitz earlier, is stunningly accurate, which makes hers the most disconcerting display, given her usual all-too-sweet demeanor.

And then the third member of each bunch gets to play.  Or more to the point, Sharon and Maya each hop up on the nearest surface (Sharon on the back of a couch, Maya on an empty bar stool) and begin mouthing along while Skye perches on the arm of another couch and actually sings along, waving her hands through the air dramatically.

This continues through another chorus and Sharon, Maya, and Skye’s attempts to fake a tap dance routine, while Sif stares, riveted, and does her best to play along.  She vaguely recognizes the choreography from the one time Loki made her watch the movie but she couldn’t tell you what to do when, aside from the basic chorus moves.  And once they get to the end of the final chorus, everyone falls to the ground (carefully, since the floor is quite hard), and it’s quiet for about five seconds before a techno beat begins pulsing through the room.

Immediately Darcy is up on her feet clapping as if to rouse the others from their pseudo-fainting, then bursting into the dance that accompanies “Party Rock Anthem.”  Ian is the next on his feet, though he just stands and inches carefully backward as if to remove himself from the spectacle.  Sif continues to stare, this time even more baffled as she has heard this song about three times and has no idea what Darcy is doing with her body.

Skye, meanwhile, has scrambled to her feet in an effort to remove herself from the dance floor before she gets roped into more synchronized dancing, and whispers something to Jemma, who colors a bit but nods, before grabbing Jemma’s hand and saying “We’ll be back later.  We need...air” before darting out the door with Jemma behind her.

Bucky, though he threw himself into the dancing earlier, is starting to stare off into thin air in that way that Steve recognizes as meaning he’s getting overwhelmed, so he steps close enough to whisper, “Do you want to get some space?”

Bucky snaps his head around to look at him, eyes wide and startled, and then nods.

Steve glances around to get Sam and Natasha and Sharon’s attention, then raises his hand - currently making the “hang loose” sign - before leading Bucky toward the door.  Sharon springs up, needlessly dusts herself off, and hurries over to follow; Sam retrieves his helmet before following them; Natasha winks and salutes Clint, who gives her a wave from his position on the floor, before ambling after everyone else.

 


 

“So I was thinking,” says Isabelle, “that I could get on the bed with you on top.”

Victoria sets her glasses down on the dresser and turns with a raised eyebrow.  “Whatever you say,” she hums, though she doesn’t yet move.

“Oh,” Isabelle murmurs with a grin.  “I didn’t realize you meant you’d be acquiescing quite so soon.”  She strides over to the bed and arranges herself against a pillow, giving Victoria a good view of her lingerie, then beckons.  “Come over here.”

“What can I say,” Victoria muses.  “I’m committing to the mood.”  She tucks hair behind her ears, smooths her corset over her waist, and climbs on, slowly crawling up to straddle Isabelle’s hips.

“Excellent,” purrs Isabelle, reaching to pull Victoria into a kiss.  They’re not going to actually fuck in here, but they’ve got some time to have a little fun.

For the time being, Victoria just takes suggestion, keeping the pace that Isabelle sets and not doing much more than that; her hands stay pressed against the bed, supporting her weight as she leans against her girlfriend.  There’s a part of her that feels like a dumbass kid, sneaking off to make out at the popular boy’s party, but there’s a larger part of her that’s at peace with the fact that she’d much rather feel like a dumbass kid than watch actual dumbass kids make fools of themselves to that ridiculous soundtrack.

They kiss for a few minutes, and then Isabelle pulls back and whispers, “Play with my tits, darling.”  She arches her back to emphasize her request.

Victoria sits back slightly, lets one of her hands slide up over Isabelle’s side and cup one of Isabelle’s breasts.  “Yes?” she asks in a whisper.

Yes,” Isabelle groans.

“Oh, good,” Victoria smiles.  She skims fingers up over the exposed skin, then down over the satiny surface of Isabelle’s lingerie, before she leans back in and, watching Isabelle’s face carefully, presses a kiss over the fabric.

Isabelle makes a little content noise.  “More of that.”

‘All right,” Victoria whispers, and she moves to run her tongue over the top of Isabelle’s breast slowly before kissing the skin.

Every touch makes Isabelle sigh and wriggle a bit.  “’s good,” she murmurs, reaching to pet Victoria’s skin where she can reach it.

Victoria lifts her head just enough to show her smile - fond and altogether unlike the ones she pastes on in day-to-day life - before giving Isabelle’s breast more attention.  Her fingers continue to draw patterns along Isabelle’s side, but her lips and tongue stay engaged with Isabelle’s soft skin, and after a minute she dares to bite at her nipple through the fabric.

That earns her a gasp and then a moan.  “I’m going to request you continue with that when we’re somewhere where I can take off all my clothes without worrying about contracting something from the blankets,” sighs Isabelle.

That makes Victoria laugh in a thoroughly unladylike way, stifling the sound against Isabelle’s neck a moment before she returns to her original task.  “Request submitted,” she murmurs playfully.

Isabelle chuckles, tipping her head back and closing her eyes and enjoying her girlfriend’s attentions, when suddenly she hears giggling coming from down the hall.  “Shit,” she murmurs, unwilling to ruin the moment entirely but wanting Victoria to be aware of what’s happening.

“Shit,” echoes Victoria, staring at the door so intensely it’s clear she’d be locking it with her mind if that was possible.

But it’s unsuccessful, because the next thing they know the door swings open and Skye and Jemma are staring at them, Jemma looking shocked and horrified and Skye mostly just surprised.  “Shit!” yelps Skye, yanking the door closed again, and Jemma adds, “We’re very sorry!”

“Are you fucking kidding me,” Victoria mutters.

“It’s all right,” says Isabelle, stroking Victoria’s arm.  “What were you saying about dumbass kids?  If you want we could leave and pick this up again elsewhere.  You were doing very well.”

 


 

Steve took the time to scout out a room an appropriate distance away from the festivities with a comfortable-looking bed earlier in the evening, in case Bucky or one of the others needed to decompress.  So he leads them there, and he and Sharon make themselves at home on the generous and soft bed, but Sam and Bucky just stand there for a moment.  “Um,” says Bucky, helplessly gesturing to the cylinder around his torso.  Sam, too, seems concerned about how to relax while wearing a robot suit.

“Here, boys, let me,” says Natasha gently, then remembers her own dress.  “Sharon, can you come unzip me?”

“Sure,” Sharon exclaims, hopping off the bed and immediately positioning herself behind Natasha.  She places her left hand on Natasha’s shoulder and unzips the dress with her right, very carefully as suits the fabric, then moves back to allow Natasha to step out of the dress.

“Thank you,” says Natasha, brushing her hand against Sharon’s arm affectionately.  “Okay, c’mere, Tin Man.”

She helps Bucky maneuver out of the most unwieldy parts of his costume and then runs her hand through Bucky’s hair.  “There, you’re good. Now you, Optimus.”

“Thanks,” says Sam, setting his mask on a convenient shelf.  Sam’s costume takes a bit more work to get out of since it’s in multiple pieces and somewhat delicate, but eventually he’s stripped down to the skintight black lycra suit he’s wearing under it.

“Okay, everyone good?” Natasha asks, and waits for a moment to make sure before flopping onto the bed herself with a sigh.

Or, she’ll be there until they figure out how they’re arranging themselves tonight.  It’s always interesting, the logistics of cuddling when there’s more than three people, and adding Sharon means that they have to reconfigure themselves yet again, although no one minds.  Steve’s stretched out on his back and Sharon’s nestled up on his right side, and Bucky takes the opportunity to splay himself out so he’s at an angle and covering Steve’s lower half, grabbing Steve’s hand as soon as he’s able.  Sam spoons Sharon from behind, letting his hand rest on Steve’s chest, and so Natasha crawls over on top of all of them until her head is pillowed on Sam’s hip, setting one hand on Sharon’s abdomen and the other on Steve’s ribs.  They all settle in, making little grunts and sighs of contentment.

“This is nice,” Sharon whispers, trying to pretend she didn’t sound quite so surprised by that fact.

“Yeah,” says Bucky.  “Thanks for...for doing this, guys.  It helps a lot.”

“Of course,” Steve replies.  “You know we always have your back, right?”

“Yeah, I do.”  Bucky strokes the back of Steve’s hand with his thumb.  “You’re all great, you really are.”

“You are too, James,” murmurs Natasha.

The conversation drops off after that, aside from small mumbled affections here and there.  Natasha feels so warm and safe that she actually thinks she might nod off - and then the door abruptly opens.

She raises her head to see who the intruder is, giving them her best intimidating smirk.  Skye and Jemma peer in, wide-eyed.  Skye giggles nervously.  “He-hello,” Jemma squeaks.

“Hey there,” purrs Natasha, enjoying their confusion perhaps too much.  “Care to join?”

Jemma lets out another squeak, this one not even a recognizable word.

And Skye, before Jemma can freak out any more than she already is, gently pulls her out the door and closes it behind them.

“What was that?” Steve mumbles.

“Friendly banter,” replies Natasha, nestling back into her old spot.

“Really?”

“I’m friends with everyone, Steve.”

 


 

When the first notes of “Get Lucky” play, Tony doesn’t immediately recognize the song.

Why would he?  The group costume was Rhodey’s idea, and Tony’s aware of Daft Punk, obviously - he had the TRON: Legacy soundtrack on repeat for months after the movie came out, even if the movie wasn’t that great - but he doesn’t have time to memorize their entire oeuvre, okay, he has a life.

But Rhodey, who’s mostly left him alone while they’ve been in the same room, comes over and taps on his shoulder.

“Oh, hey, buddy,” says Tony, giving him a lazy grin.  “Having a good time?”

Rhodey points at Tony’s helmet, then Tony’s head.  Then he gestures in a vague way towards the speakers like it’s supposed to mean something.

“Uh, Rhodey, I’d better warn you right now that charades was never my best party game.  I was always better at bobbing for apples.”

Pepper rolls her eyes.  “This is a Daft Punk song, Tony. Rhodey wants you to put the helmet on and go dance with him.  It’s the least you can do after avoiding him all night.”

“Ohhhh.”  Tony shrugs and plops the helmet on.  “Okay, might as well.  Just promise me, no more pelvic thrusting.”

 


 

“You know,” Darcy murmurs, blindly reaching behind her to push things out of the way.  She’s not sure what she’s pushing, exactly.  Coats, vacuum cleaners, hatboxes, golf clubs, whatever rich people keep in their closets.  “You really are pretty much Brad Majors.”

“Excuse me?” Ian says, his brow furrowing.

“The guy from Rocky Horror,” she clarifies.  “He’s the square who winds up at the crazy party with all the dancing aliens and stands there going ‘huh?’ before they take his clothes off.”

“My clothes are still on,” he points out.

“But you definitely went ‘huh’ at the party with the dancing,” she counters.  “And you’re definitely a square.”

“I don’t think you mean that in a nice way,” he says.

“Aw, honey,” she exclaims.  “I mean it in the nicest way.  I think it’s cute.  Also, that means I get to feel all… devious about corrupting you in the closet.”

“Hey,” he exclaims.  “I might be a square, but I’m not… I’ve been corrupted before.”

Darcy raises an eyebrow, runs her fingers up his neck and over his scalp, gives him a look that’s either amusement or a challenge.  “Sweetie, you know nothing,” she says.

“Wanna bet?” Ian asks, then before Darcy can say anything about it he drops to his knees, pulls down the little white boyshorts she’s wearing, and puts his tongue to work.

When she tells her children this story (because of course she is, she’s going to be the most embarrassing mom… though it’s more likely she’ll be telling her nieces and nephews this story, because she might not even have kids, that’s still way up for debate), Darcy is going to make sure to point out that the faint strains of “Get Lucky” are playing in the other room.  That’s kind of the cherry on top.

As it were.

It’s a little less poetic that it continues into “Gangnam Style,” but she figures that makes it very of its time.  And also the longer the song goes on, the less attention she’s paying to it, because true to a form she kind of just said as a joke, Ian is actually really, really good at this and she’s fast losing the brainpower to process anything but his mouth on her.

And then the closet door swings open and she hears Skye gasp, “Whoops, sorry!” before it slams shut again.

Oh my god,” Darcy can hear Jemma shouting through the door.

Luckily, though, Darcy is more amused than anything, and she actually starts to giggle before she hears Ian’s slightly lost-sounding “What was that?”

“No one and nothing,” Darcy says, quickly getting herself together.  “Hey, if you can make me come before the High School Musical song, I’ll go home with you.”

 


 

“I think everyone at this party must have planned that they were going to all… all get busy at the same time,” Jemma is saying.  “And, and Victoria is, I mean she was, I thought she was going to kill us.  I really did.  She must be so mad.  And I don’t even know what Natasha and… everyone, what they were… where did Sam put his robot suit?  I didn’t see it anywhere, but he definitely couldn’t have been wearing it so I’m sure I’m not remembering that incorrectly, and oh my goodness do you think Darcy was really…”

“Honey,” murmurs Skye, gently taking Jemma’s face in her hands and pressing their foreheads together.  “Sssshhh.  You’re freaking out.”

“But we…”

“We picked a bunch of already-occupied rooms...and closets, it’s no big deal.”  Skye moves one of her hands to pet Jemma’s arm.  “We’re both okay, and hell, stuff like that happens at parties all the time.  Getting walked in on is part of the experience or something.”

Jemma’s eyes dart nervously around the room they’ve managed to find like she’s half-expecting someone to walk in on them just on principle.  “I know,” she says, even though she clearly didn’t or if she did she wasn’t thinking about it.  “I just feel bad.”

“Awww.  Don’t, okay?  Hand’ll get over it, and Darcy’s chill, and I think Natasha was just fucking with us.”  Skye jerks her head meaningfully toward one of the fancy couches in the room.  “How about we get comfortable and I’ll calm you down?”  She punctuates her statement with a lusty grin.

Jemma lets out a sigh.  “Keep talking,” she says, which is her I’m too tired to flirt properly way of flirting.

“Okay,” says Skye softly, gently leading her to the couch and making sure she’s settled before sitting down herself.  She reaches up to pet Jemma’s hair and continues, “You make an amazing Hermione.  You’re so much like her, kind of a know-it-all but in a charming way and so loyal and brave and just...good.  You’re a really good person, Jem.  I’d definitely ask you to the Yule Ball.”  She giggles at her own reference.

“Oh,” Jemma breathes, her eyes fluttering shut as she leans into Skye’s touches.  “Thank you.  You’re, you’re very sweet to me.  I definitely think next year we should think of something we can dress as together.  Fitz was giving me hell about it before we left, saying I was wasting an opportunity to do one of the only official couples things he doesn’t find appalling.”

Skye snorts.  “Well, maybe next year he’ll be part of a couple’s costume too.  A Dalek and a Cyberman, maybe.  That’d work, there’s a height difference.”  Then, because she knows Jemma will get huffy about that, she leans in and kisses her, swallowing her indignant squeak.

“You obviously need to watch more of the show if you think that would at all work,” Jemma mutters, then leans back in, nipping at Skye’s bottom lip as they kiss.

Which earns her some delighted noises from Skye.  “Ooh, feeling frisky tonight?” she says, her voice low.

Mayyybe,” Jemma replies, bringing her hand to rest on Skye’s waist.  “What are you going to do about it?”

“Reciprocate, of course,” growls Skye, moving to kiss and bite at Jemma’s neck.

Jemma whimpers.  “Do - again,” she sighs out.

“All right,” Skye purrs, sucking at the skin just under Jemma’s jaw before giving it a nip.  “Since you asked for it and all.”

 


 

“I just saw the last cab full of guests drive off,” Pepper announces, striding into the pool room.  “Every room has been checked for reluctant and-or stubborn and-or lost partygoers.”

“Oh good,” says Tony, smiling the smile of someone who’s had far too much to drink.  “So we can get to the good stuff now.  Whaddaya say, Potts?  Four out of five ladies recommend a Stark man for post-holiday coitus.”

“You did not just say that,” Pepper mutters.

“He did,” sighs Rhodey, who’s finally taken off his own helmet.  “He gets even worse than usual when he’s drunk.”

“I’m not drunk,” interjects Tony.  “Look, I can do jumping jacks!”  He attempts, though the wobble as he nearly falls off his stool is less than convincing.

“Okay,” Pepper exclaims as she swoops in to steady him, one arm sliding around his waist.  “I think it’s bedtime for a certain Tony Stark.”

“Ooh, are you coming too?”

“Not for the reasons you’re thinking,” answers Rhodey, letting Tony lean on him from the other side.

Tony pouts.  “I never get to have any fun.”

“You’ve had plenty of fun tonight,” Pepper reminds gently.

“True,” he replies, immediately perking up a bit.  “I’d say this was my most successful party in a while.  Dad’ll be happy we didn’t break anything, much.”

“What did break?” Pepper asks, sounding alarmed.

“Oh I dunno, it was just a general assumption.  Rhodey, did anything break?”

Rhodey laughs.  “Of course you expect me to know that.  One vase, I think.  Fandral was serving during ping-pong.  Dude’s got terrible aim.”

“See, there you go!  One vase broken.  I’d call that a success.”

“And no one threw up,” says Rhodey.  “This is an improvement over pretty much every other party you have thrown ever.  Let’s keep this crowd, they don’t barf or break shit.”

“I suppose those are good qualities to have,” muses Tony.

“They’re also helpful to have if you want to be successful in life,” Pepper says, nodding in a way that’s just a bit exaggerated to get through to the bleary playboy currently wandering along beside her.

Tony seems to be getting sleepy because he doesn’t offer a snarky comment, only nods.

They make their way upstairs and then Rhodey, who of course knows the layout of the upstairs better than Pepper, steers Tony towards his giant room at the end of one hall.  Once there, Rhodey directs Pepper to get Tony seated on the bed while he retrieves a pair of Tony’s satin pajama pants and one of the ratty T-shirts that he insists on wearing to bed. It’s like dressing a toddler, except this one is oversize and grumpier than even an actual sleepy toddler, but they manage it.  Finally they manage to get Tony situated in bed, and they’re about to leave when Tony whines, “Guys, I get lonely at night.”

Pepper tries to mask her complete confusion as she looks at Rhodey for a clue about what to do.  

Rhodey rolls his eyes and sighs.  “Do you want me to stay with you, buddy?”

“Will you?”  Tony suddenly sounds like a little boy afraid of the dark.

“Yeah, okay.”  Rhodey turns to Pepper.  “He gets like this sometimes, especially if he’s been drinking and his dad’s not here.  It’s not like Howard ever did shit for him like a dad should, but I guess being alone messes with his head?  Anyway, you don’t have to stay if you don’t want, I got this.”

Immediately Pepper’s expression changes to one of complete sympathy and (though she wouldn’t say it out loud, largely because she knows Tony would recoil and retaliate) pity.  “Of course I’m going to stay,” she says, unfastening the owl from her shoulder and setting it on a dresser.  “Mind grabbing some of those pajamas for me?”

Rhodey’s already rummaging in the drawers for both of them.  “Here, these...might not drown you?” he says, holding out some to her that are slightly smaller than the others.  Once she takes them, he takes a hanger from the closet and begins to take off his suit.

Pepper reaches for the pajamas, setting them down beside her owl while she takes the pins out of her hair and pulls her dress over her head.  She’s half-expecting some comment from Tony, given that all she has on underneath said dress is a pair of beige panties, but he doesn’t make a peep, not while she’s naked and not when she steps into the borrowed pants and pulls the shirt on.

She’s not sure exactly what comes next.  Part of her thinks they might just all climb into bed and see where they end up by the morning, but part of her knows it’s not going to be that simple.

“I’m gonna be in front, Tony, if that’s okay?” Rhodey asks gently.  “Or do you want something else?”

“No, that’s good,” replies Tony softly.

Rhodey lifts up the blankets and slides in next to Tony, holding him around the waist.  “You’ll have to get in on the other side,” he says to Pepper, sounding slightly apologetic.

“That’s fine,” Pepper says, scooting in and turning on her side.  It’s funny, because even if she has gotten probably idiotically fond of the manchild in front of her she hadn’t envisioned tonight ending with her in his bed, much less spooning him while wearing his satin pajamas, but - well.  These things happen, and right now his mood has swung far enough in the wrong direction that she finds the child half of his descriptor sad and accurate, which means she doesn’t feel like he’s going to revert back to his crass self immediately.

So she drapes her arm over his waist, resting against Rhodey’s, and leans against his shoulder.

“I love you guys,” murmurs Tony, sounding utterly relaxed and drunk and as if he might nod off at any moment.

Rhodey chuckles.  “Yeah, you too, Tony.”

Pepper, meanwhile, is trying not to chuckle, because she’s afraid of coming across mean or patronizing.  Instead, she just tightens her hold on Tony and chastely presses her lips to his shoulder.

Chapter Text

“So do you think we’d be good Jaeger pilots?” Skye asks Jemma as they lounge on the couch together.  Fitz has been sent to get the pizza (amid much complaining, but the die had spoken) and now they’re waiting for him to return or Trip to arrive, whichever comes first.

Jemma contemplates this very seriously.  “I think… yes,” she says.  “I think that nobody would expect how high we’d score together, but once we had done it would be hard to dispute.”

“Yeah, me too,” says Skye, running her hand through Jemma’s hair lazily.  “Plus, really the only thing that would’ve made that movie better was queer lady pilots.”

“I’m still hoping that we’ll get to hear the story of Nova Hyperion’s pilots someday,” Jemma declares.  “From what few teases we got, they were queer ladies.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t Highlander,” Skye teases.  “There can be more than one.  And we’d be kickass.  What should we name our Jaeger?”

Jemma looks as if she’s considering the question very seriously, but just then there’s a knock at the door.  “It’s open!” calls Skye, and a second later Trip peers in.

“‘Sup, ladies,” he says with an easy smile.

“Hello, Trip!” Jemma chirps, waving enthusiastically and making absolutely no effort to rise from the couch and Skye’s arms.

After dropping off his coat at the coat tree (that actually looks like a tree, courtesy of Jemma), Trip ambles over and sinks into the largest and most comfortable chair in their living room.  “Nice place,” he says. “Very nice chair.”

“Thank you!” Jemma says.  “It was one of our most amazing thrift shop finds if I do say so myself.  Didn’t even need reupholstered.”

“Ooh, sweet,” says Trip, glancing around the apartment.  “So do we know what movie we’re watching tonight?  And is Fitz gonna appear around the corner in a minute, all slick and handsome like in some romcom?”

“Oh, he’s getting the pizza,” explains Skye. “Which is actually convenient, because Jemma and I wanted to talk to you alone.”

For a half-second, he looks almost startled, and then slips back into his typical Trip low-keyed demeanor.  “Oh yeah?”

“It’s about Fitz,” Jemma says, and given that she sits up and primly folds her hands in her lap, it’s clear she means business.  “You two are… something.”

“A relationshippy kind of something,” adds Skye, rolling her eyes affectionately at Jemma.

“Yes,” Jemma agrees.  “A relationshippy kind of something.  Are you defining it more clearly than that yet?”

“Well, I was kind of hoping to talk to him about that tonight, actually.”  Trip smiles.  “He’s a special guy and I’d like to define it somehow.”

“Okay, what are your intentions here exactly?” says Skye, sounding more aggressive than she probably meant to.  “Because Fitz is...he is special, and we care about him, and we wanna make sure you’ll be good for him and stuff.”

Trip nods. “Understandable.  My intentions are...well, I really care about him and I wanna make him happy, however I can do that.  He mentioned the no-sex thing to me and I wanna respect that.”

“Good,” Jemma declares very firmly.  “I have seen too many asshole boys trample on his heart because they couldn’t understand that, and I don’t stand for it.”

Skye reaches over and squeezes Jemma’s hand affectionately.  “I haven’t been here for any of that, but I could destroy you if I needed to,” she says to Trip.

“I don’t doubt it,” replies Trip.  He’s smiling a little despite himself, because the concern these two are showing for their friend is really sweet.  “If I ever hurt him, I’ll deserve that.”

“You will!” Jemma exclaims, back to that grin of hers.  

“And since all our threats up to this point have been vague, I’ll just say that if you hurt him, we will beat you to death with a shovel.”  Skye’s grinning too as she adds, “A vague disclaimer is nobody’s friend!”  Trip understands the reference, and laughs with her, but then she adds, “No but seriously, be good to him or we’ll end you.”

“I promise,” says Trip, just as the door opens and Fitz enters holding two pizzas.

“Oh my god, what are you two doing to my- to Trip?”

“Nothing!” Jemma says brightly.  “Pizza?  You’ve got the pizza!  Should I get the plates, then?”

“Yes,” says Fitz, glaring at her, before saying to Trip, “I’m sorry for this lot.  Out of control, the both of them.  Should’ve known they were trying to get me out of here so they could accost you with all manner of ridiculous threats.”

“It’s no big,” chuckles Trip, “we were just talking. Promise I didn’t feel accosted in the least.”

“And there’s nothing ridiculous about it,” Jemma smiles as she hops up and moves into the kitchen to find appropriate dishes.

Fitz grumbles to himself as he settles in next to Trip, which does not escape Skye’s attention.  “Awwwww,” she coos. “You two are so cute!” This does nothing to ease the grumpy expression on Fitz’s face, but he softens when Trip takes his hand casually.

“Don’t tease him,” says Trip, smiling.  “We both know what y’all get up to in the break room.”

Jemma sticks her chin out, faking an affronted expression.  “We get up to being cute everywhere,” she responds.

Fitz snorts.  “Disgusting, that’s what it is.  And while I’m in the same room trying to eat, no less.”

“That was one time!” Jemma shouts.

“And I have an excellent memory,” he counters.

“I’d like to point out that we’re not the ones snuggling at the moment, when we are about to eat.”  Skye’s smirking.

“Plates!” Jemma exclaims, hurrying back into the living room with the objects in question.  “Let’s divvy out the pizza, which we can do now because plates!”

This distracts both Skye and Fitz enough that the argument is forgotten. Jemma returns to the couch and everyone takes some pizza, then Fitz picks up the bright green die that’s sitting on the table. “Pick your numbers,” he instructs. “I’m taking six and four.”

“Three and five,” says Jemma.

“Two and one for me then,” says Skye.  “Oh well.”

Trip watches with interest.  “This is for what now?”

“Deciding on whose movie we watch,” Jemma explains.  “This way it’s fair.  Even odds.”

“Clever.”  Trip nods.  “So what are the possibilities for tonight?”

Snowpiercer, Pacific Rim, and How to Train Your Dragon.”  Fitz looks somewhat less thrilled about the last one as he tosses the die.

It lands on a three. “Oh!” Jemma giggles.  “Well, you can’t argue with chance, can you?  Besides, it’ll at least be more upbeat than the snow apocalypse.”

“Yes, but I am a bit tired of listening to you go on about hypothetical dragon biology,” says Fitz with a roll of his eyes.

“I’ll go on very softly so you don’t have to listen, then,” Jemma offers.

“Actually, could I maybe have a moment alone with Fitz real quick?” asks Trip, almost shyly.  Fitz looks alarmed, but Trip gives his hand a reassuring squeeze and he relaxes.

Jemma and Skye exchange glances.  “Of course!” Jemma exclaims.  “We’ll just… go…”

“Name our Jaeger!” finishes Skye, grabbing Jemma’s hand and pulling her out of the room.

Fitz looks after them, a bit puzzled.  “That’s an odd excuse.”

“Well, it’s an important decision,” says Trip lightly.  “So. I wanted to, uh, talk to you about...us.  Where we’re going and what you’re comfortable with.”

“Oh!”  Fitz nods.  “Yes, of course, that’s important. Parameters. I...I appreciate your asking. So what do you want?”

“I want you to feel comfortable with me. I like being with you and I wanna keep doing that.”  Trip rubs his thumb against Fitz’s hand.  “But I don’t wanna pressure you into anything, so I thought I’d better check and see what you like and don’t like.”

“No one’s ever done that before,” says Fitz quietly.  “I...thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  Trip smiles warmly at him.  “So. Hand-holding, I’m guessing, is okay?”

“Yeah.  I like that.”  Fitz grins.

“Is there anywhere you don’t like being touched when we’re close like this?”

“Nowhere specific?  Sometimes I don’t like pressure in certain areas, but I couldn’t tell you where exactly.”  Fitz looks almost apologetic as he adds, “I’ll let you know if it’s too much.”

“Okay, sounds good.  Kissing?”

“I think so.”  Fitz is back to that shy smile.  “I trust you not to take it too far.”

“I won’t, promise.”  Trip kisses the back of his hand.  “Just let me know if I do anything else to make you uncomfortable, okay?”

“Yeah, I will.”  Fitz nuzzles into his chest.

“Are you guys done yet?” yells Skye from Jemma’s bedroom.  “We’re totally not listening at the door or anything, promise!”

Trip chuckles.  “Anything else you wanna go over?”

“No, no, I think that’s good.  You’re...you’re already doing better than anyone else.”  Fitz sighs.  “Thank you again.”

“Of course.”  Trip lets his hand rest on Fitz’s shoulder.

“All right, you nosy bastards, we’re done!” calls Fitz.

Skye and Jemma saunter back in, looking far too innocent.  “Good talk?” asks Skye casually.

“Yeah,” says Trip.

“Wonderful,” Jemma declares.  “Movie time, then!”

While she’s putting the movie in, Fitz and Trip adjust themselves until they’re nestled together comfortably.  Skye notices this and doesn’t say anything, but she decides that her goal for the evening is to take a covert picture of them snuggling because it’s basically the sweetest thing ever.

During the movie, Jemma keeps her promise and whispers most of her commentary into Skye’s ear, which Skye finds ridiculously cute.  And she likes the movie, so she’s paying attention to it - when she’s not glancing over at the boys.  Fitz gets progressively droopier, and Trip is gently petting up and down his arm which is no doubt helping to lull him to sleep.  Eventually she looks over and they’ve both apparently dozed off.  She hopes this lasts till the end because she really wants that picture.

Luckily, they seem to be pretty well passed out by the time the credits roll.  Skye’s ‘tearing up a little, although she’d punch anyone who tried to make her admit it (what? she’s a sucker for dragons), and after quickly destroying any evidence of actual emotion on her face she pokes Jemma and points at the chair where the boys are curled up together.

“Oh,” Jemma whispers in about the least-subtle way.  Conveniently, they’re sleeping heavily enough that they don’t hear, or at least it seems that way.  “That’s precious.”

“Right?” Skye grins.  “I’m gonna get a picture.”

Skyyye,” Jemma groans.  “You can’t do that!”

But Skye’s already slipped off the couch and is pulling up the camera on her phone.  “Can too,” she says, quickly muting it and snapping a picture.  Even the light from the flash only makes Fitz twitch a little, before burrowing into Trip more.

“It’s not like I’m gonna do anything with it,” she adds, grinning.  “I just want the evidence.”

Chapter Text

“Oh my goodness,” Sharon whispers, sounding somewhat awed as she stares at the tall and unfairly gorgeous brunette.  “Who is that?”

“That’s Bobbi,” replies Natasha, nonchalant.  “She’s new.  Transferred to our David’s Bridal the other day.  She’s cool.”

“You know her already?” Sharon asks, then rolling her eyes and laughing.  “Who am I kidding, of course you know her.”

Natasha laughs.  “Yeah.  She and I are old friends, of a sort.  It will be nice to finally meet her in person.”

“Of a sort,” Sharon repeats.  “Is this going to be one of those things you explain in further detail once we’re outside these walls but that you act coy about while strangers might be looking?”

“Maybe.”

Sharon sighs and glances at her watch.  “I’ve got to get going,” she says.  “Thanks for the ride this morning.”

“Of course,” says Natasha with a smirk.  “Why would I make you drive home from my house before coming over here?”

“The world is a mysterious place,” Sharon shrugs, then giving a wave and heading off in the direction of Charlotte Russe.

Natasha takes this opportunity to saunter in the direction of David’s Bridal.  She has about half an hour before she has to show up at the Gap, and since Bobbi doesn’t seem to be in a hurry she probably has a reasonable amount of time to kill too.  Might as well go over and properly introduce herself - not via Facebook friend request made at the behest of one of her other friends.

“Hey there,” she calls, and Bobbi turns, looking slightly confused.  “I’m Natasha.  One of Clint’s friends?  I mean, I’m sorry about that, but he’s probably the only person we have in common.”

By the end of that, Bobbi looks more like she’s trying to place the name than anything else.  “Have we actually met?” she asks.  “I’m not in the habit of forgetting faces.”

“Somehow we haven’t,” says Natasha, smiling.  “Mostly because Clint’s a dumbass and didn’t make more of an effort than badgering me into Facebook-friending you years ago.  Hi.  I see you’ve moved on to bigger and better things.”

Bobbi glances around the corridor, a smirk crossing her face.  “Oh, yeah,” she says.  “Twenty feet away from the constant smell of hairspray and the constant throb of sanitized punk music.  I’m on top of the world.”

Chuckling, Natasha replies, “Better than kids, maybe?  The Gap gets a lot of kids, being next to the Disney Store and all.  Somehow I usually end up having to deal with them.”

“I suppose that’s one of the advantages of bridal,” Bobbi agrees.  “Except the occasional flower girl or ring bearer, our clientele only hazards the adults who behave like children.”

“Ah yes, those are the most fun,” snarks Natasha.  “Anyway, I was wondering if you’d wanna come out to dinner tonight with me and some of the others who work here.  It won’t be anything fancy, but it might help you acclimatize?  Meet some people.”

“I’m off at six-thirty,” Bobbi says.  “That work?”

“Sounds good.  I’ll check in with some of the girls, see who’s available.  Meet us when you’re done at the Applebee’s across the street?”  Natasha looks almost apologetic when she adds, “Told you it wouldn’t be fancy, but sometimes we can con free drinks out of the bartender if we flirt with him a little.  You’re probably his type.”

“Now that sounds amusing,” Bobbi declares.  “Anyone else in the group whose face I’ll be able to attach to a social media profile?”

“No, just me.  Clint pretty much keeps to himself here, outside of when I drag him out to be social.”  Natasha rolls her eyes.  “See you then!”

“See you,” Bobbi agrees, nodding cordially before heading inside the store.

 


 

A few minutes after six-thirty, Natasha, Sharon, and Maria are chatting at a table when Natasha spots Bobbi and waves her over.  “Glad to see you,” she says, smiling.

Honestly, Bobbi is glad too.  She’s never been the sort who needs connections to feel satisfied, but she won’t turn down a friend, either, and that Natasha suggested Applebee’s for the meet-up is something of a comfort.  (People always assume that she’s much classier than she is as far as food is concerned, and it’s rarely worth dissuading them of the notion.)

“Hey,” she replies, waving just once as she approaches and helps herself to the empty chair across the table from Natasha.  “I assume that once again everyone knows my name before I know theirs, so I’ll just skip to asking that of you two.”

Maria chuckles.  “Natasha did mention that, yes.  I’m Maria.”

“Sharon,” offers Sharon, extending a hand and giving one of her student government smiles.

“You look familiar,” Bobbi muses as she shakes Sharon’s hand.  “Did we go to school together?”

“I don’t… I mean, I would have been a few years behind you, I think,” Sharon says.  “If you’re Nat’s age, about?  I just assume because…”  She shrugs sheepishly.  Because of what she’s heard about Bobbi’s history with Clint, she means.

“Sorry, it’s for the same reason I know you,” finishes Natasha with a wry smile.

“Right,” Sharon chirps, nodding.  “But, but anyway.  Sharon Carter.  Is my full name.  If that helps?”

“Oh!” Bobbi exclaims, grinning.  “Right, yeah.  Sharon Carter, budding star of the lacrosse team.  Unless I’m remembering another cute little blonde named Sharon Carter?”

Sharon assumes she’s gone bright red.  “That was me, yes,” she says, trying to regain a bit of her composure.  “Now I feel like an asshole for not remembering you.”

“If it helps,” says Bobbi, “my real name is Barbara.  I hadn’t figured I could trim it down in those days.  And I used to be a blonde.”

“Oh!”  It’s Sharon’s turn to have a moment of revelation.  “Debate team?”

“That’s right,” Bobbi smiles.

“So should we leave you two alone now?” interjects Natasha playfully.  “Maria and I are starting to feel like third wheels.”

“Speak for yourself, Romanov,” says Maria, smirking.  “I feel like I’m watching a romcom.”

“No!” Sharon exclaims.  “I mean, it’s fine.”  Suddenly she’s staring at Natasha’s face for signs that she’s somehow done the wrong thing.  “We can catch up later.”

“As it were,” Bobbi agrees, sounding more amused than anything.  She opens the menu and flips immediately to the drinks section, staring for a moment before turning sociable again and asking, “So I know that Natasha’s doing time at the Gap.  What about the two of you?”

“Charlotte Russe,” Sharon says immediately, then very definitely shutting her mouth lest she babble on again.

“Security team, actually,” Maria nods.  “It doesn’t get quite as boring.”

“Ah yes, because having the power to tase people is boring.”  Natasha rolls her eyes good-naturedly.  “At least you get to be mobile.  I’m stuck at the beck and call of entitled customers with shitty taste in clothing.”

“There’s less tasing than you might think,” counters Maria.  “Some.  Not a ton.”

“And I assume you don’t get to tase nearly everyone you think deserves it,” Bobbi interjects, smirking.

“I see you started the interesting conversation without me, Nat.”  Melinda, who’s come up in the last few seconds, slides into one of the vacant chairs.

“Introductions?” Bobbi asks with a raised eyebrow.

Melinda nods a greeting.  “Melinda. You’re Bobbi, I take it?”

“I sure am,” Bobbi says.  She glances at the group as she asks, “So do you just get together to commiserate about your shitty retail experiences, or what?”

“That, and we all generally seem to like each other’s company. Sort of.”  Natasha smirks at Melinda, who gives her a half-smile in return that does look genuine.  “It’s nice to be able to blow off steam outside of corporate hell, you know?”

“Oh, completely,” Bobbi nods.  “That can be a comfort.  It always tied to this location, or is it kind of a rotating venue sort of thing?  Not that I’m complaining about Applebee’s.  I’d rather get a decent serving of chicken wings than some artsy nonsense food any day.”

“Usually here, yeah. It’s pretty cheap, convenient for everyone, and Hunter gives us free booze.”  Grinning, Natasha gives a wave to the bartender, who’s been watching them with an incredulous expression on his face for the past several minutes.

“Hunter,” repeats Bobbi.  “Oh, fuck.”

Just then the bartender, one Lance Hunter, ambles over.  “Nice to see you lot here again.  Or, well, most of you. Kind of hoped I’d never see you again, truth be told.”  This last is directed at Bobbi.

“I’m so shocked to hear that,” Bobbi snarks, rolling her eyes.  “Although you never seemed to believe I was capable of making friends, I’m just here to have dinner with some of my new ones and I really could do without any passive-aggressive whatever while I’m doing that.”

“Oh don’t worry, I’ll stay out of your way.”  Lance gives her a once-over and then adds, “I liked you better blonde.”

“I’m running out to buy dye as soon as we’re done here,” she deadpans, then leaning in to Natasha and muttering, “Because I make all of my beauty decisions based on what guys think is prettier.”

“I like it,” Sharon chimes in.  “It makes you look mysterious.”

Lance sighs and rolls his eyes in an exaggerated way.  “Anything I can get for any of you others, while I’m here?  Since I have a job to do and all.”

“Heineken,” says Melinda, looking as if she would very much prefer him to leave.

Natasha glances over the drink menu before asking for one of the tequila margaritas.

Sharon orders her Fireball whiskey lemonade as quickly as she can and while Maria is musing over the menu one last time Bobbi says, “Long Island iced tea,” grinning sweetly because she knows he can’t very well refuse her.

After Maria puts in her request for a sangria margarita, she waves a hand in the direction of the bar.  “If you please,” she says dryly.

“All right, I know how to take a hint. Be back with your drinks, ladies.”  Lance grimaces one last time before retreating to the bar.

“What was that?” Sharon asks, trying to make light of the situation.

“That was… exactly what it looked like,” Bobbi sighs.  “Dealing with a stupid manchild of an ex-husband is always a great time.”

Everyone nods and makes sympathetic noises.  “Seems like those sort of gravitate to you,” says Natasha, almost apologetically.  “At least Clint is sort of a harmless dumbass.”

“Lance makes Clint look like an angel,” Bobbi agrees.  “But lots of people have idiot exes, I guess.  Unlike some people, I don’t really spend a lot of time dwelling on it.”

“You’re also not a child emotionally,” quips Melinda with a small smirk.

Sharon arches out of her seat, waving eagerly.  “Hey, guys!” she calls in the direction of the entrance, causing the others to turn around to see who’s being addressed.

Although the fact that it’s not returned with an equally enthusiastic response but instead a dry, “Of course.  Hello” probably would have tipped them off to the fact that it’s Victoria, accompanied by Isabelle.

“Leave her be, Sharon,” says Natasha with a chuckle, grabbing Sharon’s hand and squeezing it affectionately.

“Saying hello is polite,” Sharon defends under her breath.

“I’m sorry,” Victoria murmurs to Isabelle as they take seats at their table.

“For what?” Isabelle mostly looks amused.  “Not your fault everyone in that mall follows you around constantly.  I think the little blonde one meant well.”

“Everyone in the mall follows everyone around constantly,” Victoria corrects wryly.  “It’s like living in a very small town.  Very small.  I just wish there was some way to guarantee some alone time with you.”

Isabelle laughs.  “There is a way to do that,” she teases, “but it won’t be in public.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Victoria retorts.  “That’s all well and good, but it would still be nice to go out and not inevitably run into children.”

“Then I guess you’ll have to whisk me away for a weekend.” Isabelle smirks.  “Or maybe I’ll do that for you.”

“Either of those options sound appealing,” admits Victoria, gazing at her girlfriend.

“I bet that those two are secretly as fluffy as a greeting card,” Maria observes in a low voice, looking from the other women’s table to her own.

“Careful,” says Natasha, grinning, “she might hear you.”

“Nothing wrong with fluff,” Maria shrugs, looking about five seconds from cracking up.

Lance appears with a tray of drinks.  He passes them out, trying to appear stone-faced the whole time but mostly pulling off a near-comical pout, then slinks away without a single comment.

“Wow,” says Maria.

“This isn’t even the beginning of how ridiculous he can get,” Bobbi declares, “but that’s not worth obsessing about.  Melinda, you weren’t here when I was asking everybody about what it is they do, so it’s your turn.”

“I work at Big 5,” says Melinda. “It’s thrilling.”

“I can imagine,” Bobbi drawls, lifting her glass in a silent toast at the others before sipping at it.  “Are sports your passion, or was it just the next available position?”

“I enjoy being physical.  Selling sporting goods to others, less so.  Do you have a passion for wedding dresses?” Melinda asks sardonically.

“The individual dress catches my fancy, but I’d hardly call it a passion,” counters Bobbi.  “I don’t hate helping other women feel good about themselves, but this wasn’t exactly my dream job.”

“I don’t think any of us feel like these are our dream jobs,” says Natasha, “but it turns out being a dancer doesn’t pay the bills in this town.”

Bobbi draws in a breath.  “Please tell me Clint never hit on you just because I’m assuming you’re demonstrably flexible,” she groans.

Snorting, Natasha tosses her head and takes a sip of her drink.  “Please. He knows no one would ever find his body if he tried.  We were drunk and made out once, and both deemed it unsatisfactory.”

“Sounds about right,” Bobbi chuckles. “What kind of dance?”

“Ballet.  I was trained in Russia, then I came here.  Sometimes it feels like I made the wrong choice, but here I am.”

“You’re lucky,” Maria tells Bobbi.  “Somehow she managed to keep any and all of these details under wraps till a couple months ago, which is saying something in this mall.  But then again…”  She raises an eyebrow in Natasha’s (and Sharon’s) direction.  “I bet I can figure out why.”

“You caught me,” says Natasha, raising an eyebrow.  “I’m a sucker for a pretty girl.”

Sharon hides her face for a split second, long enough to recover some semblance of dignity.  “It’s kinda complicated,” she says to Bobbi.  “But also, I’m flattered.”

“Complicated is fine,” Bobbi says.  “Complicated isn’t a bad thing.”

“I feel like we should be catching you up on all of the important mall gossip,” Maria quips, sipping at her drink and watching Bobbi for reactions.

“Just talk to Darcy,” says Melinda, smirking.

“Is she the one I’m gonna have to suck up to if I wanna be in the yearbook, too?” Bobbi asks dryly.

This gets a laugh from everyone (well, a smile from Melinda, which amounts to the same thing).  “No, but if you wanna stay out of the school paper’s gossip column you might wanna stay on her good side,” replies Natasha.

“Noted,” Bobbi says.  “Does anyone else warrant a warning?”

“Lorelei at Victoria’s Secret is a little…” Natasha trails off, seemingly for emphasis rather than due to uncertainty.

“You probably won’t have trouble with her,” Sharon hesitates, “I mean, you’re… not a guy, but… still.  If somehow she managed to take over the world, it would be scary.”

Melinda chimes in, “Skye and Fitz control the Wifi, so be nice to them.”

“I feel like I ought to be taking notes,” Bobbi deadpans.

“Your across-the-hall neighbor Loki is a real ray of sunshine,” Maria adds.  “I once had to send him home for the day because he spent his lunch hour outside your store asking everyone who went in if they were really sure about participating in the, how did he put it, ‘bullshit institution’ of marriage.”

“Ooh, you never told me that story,” interjects Natasha with a laugh.

“Luckily, there wasn’t too much to tell, just a few complaints from guests,” Maria shrugs.  “I managed to get it under control before he moved the party to the Disney Store, I assume with the intention to ruin children’s dreams.”

Natasha snorts.  “He would.”  Turning back to Bobbi, she adds, “Also, watch out for Tony and Fandral, they’ll probably try and hit on you.  Fandral in particular has this delusion that he’s a ladykiller.”

Bobbi rolls her eyes good-naturedly.  “I can deal with that,” she says.

“And just… as a general rule, be wary of people from the IKEA across the street,” Sharon declares.  “Especially Grant Ward.”

Melinda rolls her eyes.  “Let’s talk about him as little as possible. I was having a nice evening.”

“Yes, let’s do that,” says Natasha.  “Also, I don’t know how much you wanna interact with Clint, but he might be able to recommend other people to you.  He kind of keeps to himself in his weird little corner near the arcade and the weed store, but he knows something about most of the people there.”

“He would,” Bobbi smirks.  “Hey, I try not to be the weird ex, that’s their business.  I’ll ask him if I get a chance."

Sensing the opportunity (both to change the subject and to assuage the curiosity that’s grown since the earlier revelation), Sharon jumps in with a very eager-but-calm, “So, Bobbi, what did you end up doing after school?”

Chapter Text

Natasha slips into the IKEA employee entrance at precisely 9:58 AM, on the heels of a dark-haired twenty-something who, upon seeing her, stopped and held the door for her.  She smiles at him, amused at the lovestruck expression on his face (these guys were so easy), and heads for the locker room.

Four more minutes to decipher the code, and she’s stealing all of Grant Ward’s spare long-sleeved shirts.  And then breaking into all of his friends’ lockers too, just in case.  Only a couple of them have similar long-sleeved shirts, and she takes those too, stuffing them into the oversized purse she bought for just such an occasion.  Then she slips out again, marveling at how easy it all is.

 


 

“Shit.”  Grant Ward stares at his open locker.  “Hey, Rumlow, you got a spare shirt I could borrow?”

His friend, who’s just come in and is slipping on his IKEA uniform, shakes his head and says, “Sorry, no.  I usually do, but I guess it’s at home or something.”

“Shit.”  Ward bangs his fist against the lockers.  When he’d been hired here, it was with the understanding that, while the higher-ups didn’t mind his Hydra associations, it was his responsibility to ensure that his “personal effects” (the insignia tattooed on his upper arm) didn’t “interfere with his ability to connect with customers.”  Since the standard blue button-up was short-sleeved, that usually meant layering.  And their IKEA’s uniform policy did cover that - exclusively Under Armor brand, which was usually fine.  If only all his fucking shirts hadn’t gone missing.

His shift starts in half an hour.  That isn’t enough time to get home and back for a shirt, but it’s probably enough time to run to the mall across the street.  There’s a sporting goods place there, they might have Under Armor.

He sprints across the street, narrowly missing getting hit by a car, and then heads up the escalator to the Big 5.  Inside, he pastes a charming smile on his face and ambles over to the nearest employee, who happens to be Melinda May.  “I don’t suppose you have Under Armor, large size?” he asks.

“Nope.”  She barely glances at him, apparently riveted by the display of weights she’s rearranging.

“You sure?  You couldn’t look?”

“All out.  Sorry.  Holiday rush.  We’ve only got small and XS left.”

He sighs.  “Okay.  Do you know if any other stores here carry it?”

“Probably not.”

“Thank you.”  He leaves, and pauses to think for a moment.  If not a shirt, what else could he use to cover up his tattoo?

Makeup.  Gross.  But necessary.

Where did you even buy makeup?  Fuck if he knew, he avoids that girly shit.  He glances around, hoping for inspiration.  Sephora?  That sounds kinda familiar, he vaguely recalls one of his high school girlfriends having bags with that name lying around.

But as he gets closer he sees that there are literally packs of teenage girls in the store already, and dammit, he has pride.  So he turns and decides to try elsewhere.

Kohl’s seems promising, but even though he’s directed downstairs by a cheerful-looking pudgy guy whose nametag reads “Billy” (“My brother Eric’s down there, he’ll be able to help you!”), that doesn’t pan out either.  Eric, who is apparently Billy’s twin, unless maybe he ran down here and switched nametags just to fuck with Ward, explains that just the day before they’d had a huge sale in the makeup department and all the foundation is gone.  “Sorry,” he says, shrugging.  “You might try Sephora, or Hot Topic, or maybe Claire’s?”

So, with a groan, Ward heads to Hot Topic.

His day picks up considerably when he sees the girl working there.  She’s cute, in a weird cartoon schoolgirl way, her smile bright and her hair cotton candy-colored, and he decides she’s worth paying attention to.  “Hey there, cutie,” he says with a winning smile.  “I was wondering if you have any foundation?”

Carina’s mouth falls open, she doesn’t even bother trying to hide it.  For one, she’s heard about those IKEA guys and she knows that they wouldn’t set foot in this store if it wasn’t an emergency.  For another, there’s the matter of his rather obvious tattoo.  It’s not cool like some of the ones she sees, on patrons here or in Gamora and Drax’s shop, and it’s not lame like some of the ones she sees either.  It’s horrifying.  She knows what it means.  She may come across innocent, but she’s not ignorant.

“Foundation,” she repeats, taking a deep breath and hustling over to the makeup display.  “We have eye shadow, we have plenty of lipstick.  Were you looking for something for a gift?”

The questions is so unexpected that he laughs.  “No, no, just...in a hurry, need to fix something.  That’s a no, then?”

“Fix…”  Carina trails off, trying everything in her power to keep from staring exclusively at his tattoo.  “It’s a no.”  She thinks about adding an apology, but that feels inappropriate.

“Okay, well, thanks.”  He flashes her his most charming, I’m-a-nice-guy-I-swear smile and leaves.

Carina really does try to be a good employee and not get distracted or anything, but while many of the stores in the mall are busy with Veteran’s Day sales today, Hot Topic is not exactly a prime destination for people doing their holiday shopping.  The traffic has been mostly young girls looking for cheap Frozen merchandise, honestly, and there haven’t been many of those, even.  So she doesn’t feel too bad about tapping her phone on and accessing the peer-to-peer site that Jemma from the ice cream store linked her to.

As Jemma explained it, it was something that her girlfriend Skye set up, a way for “awesome people” (direct words, which Jemma looked rather embarrassed about repeating) to communicate with each other about things going on in the mall.  Since “fucking with douchebags” was one of the subsequent activities that Jemma cited (again looking embarrassed) Carina feels that it’s her responsibility as a part of this community to sound the proverbial alarm.

>>fyi, everyone, there’s an IKEA employee with a Nazi tattoo apparently looking for foundation and he is very forward.

 


 

Claire’s is equally fruitless, and Ward is starting to become frustrated.  He has fifteen minutes to find something, and he’s unsure of where to go next.  He wanders somewhat aimlessly through the mall, seeing nothing that could help him, when he spots Charlotte Russe.  He shrugs and heads in that direction; it can’t hurt.

Given that it’s nearing lunchtime, traffic in the store is light enough that Sharon’s milling around straightening displays, letting her gaze travel toward the door every so often in hopes of customers who might actually be coming to purchase, not just wander in aimlessly.  It’s not entirely unusual to see a guy coming in to pick out clothes for his daughter or sister or something, so at first she doesn’t think anything of the man who’s getting closer and closer to the door.  She doesn’t even get thrown off by his purposeful stride.

But… then she realizes exactly who it is.  The IKEA shirt would be a giveaway, the tattoo would be a giveaway, and right now, the grimace is a giant giveaway.

“Hello!” she says brightly once he’s in earshot.

Ward doesn’t even bother with the full pasted-on smile, but he does attempt to turn up the corners of his mouth slightly.  “Hi.  I’m looking for foundation?”

Sharon doesn’t even bother to pretend to look around.  “Sorry, no can do,” she says.  “We haven’t got any.”

“Of course,” he mutters.  “Well, thanks.  Is there anywhere in this damn mall that would?”

She shrugs, nodding in the vague direction of the other end of the mall.  “Nordstrom is a department store,” she offers.

He makes a beeline for it, not even bothering to say goodbye.

Sharon doesn’t know exactly how the other steps of Natasha’s little plan have played out, but when she ducks back to the break room to check her texts and then the “secret internet,” as Darcy calls it, she sees that she hasn’t been the only one already visited by the asshole.

Ward pauses in the entrance to Nordstrom, unsure of where exactly to go, before spotting Maya and striding after her.  “Excuse me, do you have any foundation?”

Maya looks perplexed.  “I don’t work at the makeup counters,” she says, “so I couldn’t say for sure, but I could swear Hannah said something about how people were buying things over there in bulk today like crazy.  Coupons, what are you gonna do?”  She shrugs.  “I’d go talk to her.”  She nods in the direction of the blonde girl currently explaining a lipstick to a customer.

Ward nods and heads for the makeup counter.  Apparently this is the world’s most indecisive customer, because it feels like an eternity before she leaves and the blonde girl turns to him with a bright smile.

“Can I help you?” she asks politely.

“I need foundation,” he says, not bothering with politeness.

“What shade?”

He cannot fucking believe this.  “My shade.  I don’t know, I don’t make a habit of wearing it.”

Hannah peers curiously at him.  “You know, it’s the darnedest thing,” she says.  “This woman came in not half an hour ago who wore the shade you’re looking for, said that all her daughters did too, and she bought out every last one.  Said she was going to make gift baskets with it, bought a lot of lipsticks and blushes and things too.”

“Well, isn't that just the darnedest thing.”  He can’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice.  “Thanks anyway, I guess.”

“Sure thing,” she chirps.  “Wanna leave your number and we can call when we get some back in?”

“No,” he spits from between gritted teeth, and leaves.

He has ten fucking minutes before his shift starts and every single store in the mall is out of foundation, what are the fucking odds?

At this point he’s a little frantic and decides to stop in every single store that sells woman things, just in case.  Ross Dress For Less is so disorganized that he can’t even find their makeup section and gives up after two minutes, then he takes the escalator upstairs, going two steps at a time.  He stops in at Torrid, which is no help, and then, defeated, he sprints for Sephora.  Maybe all of the teenagers have left by now.

In the first stroke of good luck all day, only a few stray girls float through the aisles.  He’s a bit surprised to see his old associate Bucky behind the counter, but he doesn’t have time to say anything besides, “Foundation!”

Bucky blinks at him.  “You need foundation?”

“Yes.  Kind of short on time here.  Do you have any or not?”

Bucky steps out from behind the counter and ambles over to one of the aisles.  “Whoops, seems like we’re fresh out.  Sorry.”  He doesn’t look very sorry.

Ward sighs.  “Of goddamn course you are.”

Bucky’s face is the picture of innocence.  “Do you need me to order some for you?”

He wants to punch Bucky, but instead he just shakes his head and leaves.  Maybe he’ll get lucky and his manager won’t be in today, so he’ll never find out about this.  Pierce would hate to hear that he was doing anything to alienate customers, however unintentional.

 


 

Natasha brandishes Ward’s shirts and smirks.  “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you school a Nazi.”

“Nice job,” says Sam, high-fiving her.  “You’re kickass, you know that?”

“Yeah, but I always like hearing it.”  Natasha looks entirely satisfied with herself.

“I still can’t believe I missed this,” Darcy moans, leaning back in her chair.  “Someone seriously should have called me.  Did anyone at least take pictures?”

“I’ve got you covered,” Maya announces, flopping down in the chair next to Darcy’s and pulling her phone out.

“Oh my god,” Darcy exclaims.  “Oh my god.  This is genius.”

“Yeah, I mean, I told Melinda beforehand to get rid of the Under Armor, and Bucky to hide the foundation, but it was Carina who told the network.”  Natasha nods at Maya.  “I’m guessing that was how you found out?”

“Yeah,” Maya agrees.  “That girl is going places.  Luckily, it’s not entirely out of the ordinary that someone would come in and buy everything.  The impulses of those with large disposable incomes.”  She turns to pat Hannah, who’s sitting at the next table over eating a slice of pizza and smiling sheepishly, on the shoulder.  “Good job really selling it.”

“I think that woman would have bought all of the makeup anyway,” Hannah says.

Maya grins, because that’s really adorable.  “I mean the story,” she replies.  “You played it excellently.”

“Oh!”  Hannah startles, takes a sip of her soda.  “Thank you.  I’m glad to help, I mean… I believe in helping everyone, but not people who go out of their way to be horrible.”

“Trust me,” says Natasha, “he’s one of those.”

Mack, who’s recently been hired at RadioShack and is sitting by himself but clearly listening, chuckles.  “Serves him right.  I tangled with Hydra once.  Didn’t end well for them.”

“Cheers!”  Natasha toasts with her soda, taking a swig.  “Also, here’s to Nazis with ridiculously easy locker combinations.”

Chapter Text

Nebula’s not sure exactly where she’s going, but her sister’s vague directions lead her to a nondescript, slightly skeezy-looking store in the back corner of the mall.  As she steps inside, the scent of incense greets her.  She coughs.  She hates scented things.

“Hello?” she grunts, hoping maybe no one’s here and she can just leave.  She squints in an attempt to make out the theoretical employee.

“Hello,” comes a voice from inside a circular rack of what could best be described as faux-bellydancing skirts.  A moment later, a woman pops up, shaking her curly hair out before she grins.

“Oh.”  Nebula doesn’t bother to hide her disappointment.  “Here.”  She thrusts the flyer she’s carrying at the woman.  “My sister made me come over here to give you this.  Some girl on her derby team said you might be into it?”

“If we’re going to be doing business, we ought to know each other’s names, shouldn’t we?”

Nebula shrugs.  “I dunno.  I’m just the receptionist.  But call me Nebula, I guess.”

“Raina.”  This is accompanied by her grin widening.  “Cool name.”

She won’t show it, aside from a smirk, but that pleases Nebula.  “Thanks.  My dad was weird like that.  I got off lucky, my sister’s Gamora.  It’s like he wanted her to open a tattoo place.”

“I think they’re pretty names,” Raina says, finally accepting the flyer.  “Well, Nebula the receptionist of Knowhere Tattoos, what did your sister Gamora mean to suggest I do with this?”

Nebula shrugs.  “Hang it up?  I dunno.  I think it’s weird and shitty to expect your neighbors to advertise for you, but what do I know?  She only hired me to keep an eye on me.”

Raina waves vaguely toward the counter, to the front of which is hung a bulletin board covered in similar flyers.  A bakery, guitar lessons, puppies for sale, a Sound of Music singalong.  “We like to spread the good word for our friends,” she declares before crossing to the board and bending to pin up the flyer (covering an out-of-date advertisement for a local garden show).  “And I think we’re going to be friends.”

“Sure.”  Nebula rolls her eyes.  “I bet you have lots of friends.  So, do you sell brownies too, or just weed by itself?”

“I do, as a matter of fact.”  She looks so pleased about the fact that’s either actually an accomplishment or a blissful lie.  “And we don’t sell weed.”

“Oh yeah?  Then I’m supposed to believe that’s just incense?”

“This right now?  It’s mostly just incense.”  She shrugs.  “I can’t help it that some of my coworkers can’t keep business and pleasure separate.”

Nebula chuckles.  Raina’s being evasive, and it reminds her of how she talks when Gamora tries to get her to share.  That makes her like Raina more.  “Okay, whatever.  Can I have a brownie?”

Raina goes to unlock the baked goods display.  “Flavor?”

“Is there more than one?  I’ve only had, y’know, brownies.”

“Chocolate or extra chocolate.”

“Uh, the second one.”

“An excellent choice,” Raina smiles, selecting an appropriate brownie and placing it in a surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) nondescript paper bag before handing it over.  “This one is on me.”

Nebula’s eyes widen slightly.  “Thanks.”  She’d been planning on sneaking it out before Raina noticed she hadn’t paid, but this works too.

“Friends,” Raina repeats.

“Yeah,” says Nebula, nodding.  “See you later, then.”  To her shock, she means it.

 


 

Nebula’s bored. She’s been bored for the last three hours, but now that business has slowed to a crawl at 1:13 PM and she’s technically on a lunch break, she’s about to pass out from boredom.

“Drax,” she calls, “can you work on my arm? Since you’re basically done eating.”

Drax looks up from where he’s hunched over his fourth bologna sandwich. “But I am not done eating. I have one-quarter of this sandwich, and then another sandwich in my bag.”

“I said basically.” Nebula rolls her eyes.

“Once I am completely done with all of my food, yes, I will work on your arm.” Drax swallows the remains of sandwich number four and doesn’t bother to hold back the subsequent belch.

Nebula’s about to make another snarky remark when the bell over the front door chimes - no matter how many times she’s told Gamora that no respectable tattoo shop has a doorbell, Gamora won’t budge - and Peter Quill, clad in his usual ridiculous longcoat, enters. “Hey guys, what’s up!” he calls. “I brought fancy sandwiches from the mall across the street! Thought we could have a little business partner powwow.”

Gamora comes from the back room, rolling her eyes as she swipes one of the sandwiches from the bag and hops up onto the counter to sit.  “As long as you never refer to anything we do as a powwow ever again,” she drawls.

“Dealio,” he says with a grin. “Hey Drax, how’s it hanging?”

“My penis is quite comfortably hanging to the right at the moment, thank you for asking.” Even though he’s still got half of the last sandwich left, Drax reaches for one of the ones on Quill’s tray.

Quill gives him a thumbs-up. “Glad to hear it. So, Gamora, I was wondering if you guys had any plans for the holidays, y’know, decorations or whatever…”

“Yes,” Gamora says flatly, “Nebula and I were going to paint a giant Santa Claus in the window and hang wreaths.”

“Ew,” says Nebula, around her sandwich.

“Exactly my point,” Gamora declares.  “Ew.”

Peter looks genuinely hurt. “Don’t tell me you guys are Grinches.”

“We cannot be Grinches!” interjects Drax. “We are neither green nor covered in hair! And we do not know any small cheerful creatures named Whos.”

“I’m not anti-holidays,” Gamora says.  “I’m just anti-exorbitant decorations in my place of business.”  She glances at her sister, shrugging.  “I doubt that they’d hold with the metal police over there, either.”

“Not metal,” says Nebula, bored with the ongoing education she has to repeatedly give Gamora.

The door opens again, and in walks the weird evasive curly-haired woman from the weed store. This surprises Nebula enough that she stares.

“Hello,” Raina says with a placid smile.

“Hey,” says Quill, quickly pushing away the remains of his sandwich and resting his elbow on the front counter so he can lean on it and look pensive. Or at least that’s what he thinks - he really just looks like a tryhard idiot. Which is usually how he looks in front of girls. “What brings you here?”

“Nebula gave me a flyer earlier,” Raina shrugs.  She’s utterly unimpressed with Peter’s posturing, and she makes no secret of it.  “I figured it would be important to see the place I’m now offering advertising for.”

“Oh, hello,” Gamora exclaims, stepping forward.  “Please ignore the idiot who occupies the other part of this building.  He means well, but he has no idea of how to talk to strange women.  Or any women, actually.”

“I’ll make a note,” Raina giggles.  “You must be the sister.”

Gamora blinks, taken aback.  “You’re probably the first person to make that guess,” she declares.

“I was able to guess!” says Drax. “Even though you do not have the same skin color, you argue constantly, as if you both had sprung forth from the same womb.”

“Ignore that idiot, too,” Gamora mutters.

Drax mutters, “My intelligence quotient is slightly above average.”

“I promise,” Raina chirps in response to Gamora.  “She mentioned her sister being in charge of the shop and between the fact that there were no other women here and the tattoos, I figured it must be you.”

“Nice detective skills,” says Nebula, smirking.

“Thank you,” Raina says, missing any trace of irony that the statement was laced with and looking Nebula over.  “This is a nice place your sister runs, robot girl.”

That makes Nebula snort with laughter. Everyone whirls to look at her, shocked - Nebula never laughs in public if she can help it. After a few moments she gains control of herself and says, “You’re okay, Raina. Come over whenever you want. I can get you a discount if you want some ink or a piercing done.”

“I’ve never been able to think of one thing I want on my body that much,” Raina muses.  “My whims change too easily.  But thank you for offering.”

“We’ll call it the friends and family discount,” Gamora says, sort of wishing that not all of Nebula’s friends were so unnerving in one way or another.  “When you decide.”

“See!” Raina says to Nebula.  “Friends.”

“Sure,” says Nebula with a shrug.

“That means she likes you a lot,” says Drax. “She will not even talk to anyone she deems unworthy.”

Raina grins.  “I wasn’t told about any of the rest of you, though,” she mumurs.  “May I have introductions?”

“My name is Drax! I like food and drawing on people’s skin.” Drax waves.

“The name’s Quill, Peter Quill.” Quill still looks as if he hasn’t given up on charming Raina. “I own Quill’s Boards next door. You should, y’know, stop in if you ever need boarding stuff. Or other stuff.”

“Other?” Raina repeats innocently.  “I’m a skateboarding novice, I can’t imagine what other things you might have.”

“We got other gear. Shirts, some surfing stuff, some drinks.” Quill gives her his most charming smile. “I have a kickass sound system. It’s always a party in there.”

“Yeah, a party from the seventies.” Nebula rolls her eyes.

“Hey, I do not appreciate that crack against my music! People love that music.”

Drax grins. “I enjoy Quill’s music! It has a pleasant melody and allows me to move my body rhythmically in amusing ways.”

“See! The big guy likes it. You just don’t like fun things,” says Quill triumphantly. “Anyway, yeah, Raina, you should totally come over. You can meet my raccoon!”

“You have a raccoon,” Raina says, raising an eyebrow in an expression of perfect disbelief.

“No, he really doesn’t,” Gamora replies.

“So it’s a euphemistic raccoon,” Raina surmises.  “It’s an odd euphemism, but I’ve heard odder.”  She shrugs. “I mean, I knew this guy who called his penis ‘the obelisk.’  As if that’s at all sexy.”

“No way,” calls Nebula. She’s always interested in hearing stories about idiotic dudes.

“Yes way,” Raina agrees.  “Claimed touching it was some magical honor.”

Nebula snorts again. “Ridiculous.”

“Rocket is a raccoon!” Quill chimes in. “I mean, okay, not a real one, but basically! He has a machine gun, he’s way awesomer than a real one.”

“A raccoon with a machine gun is more interesting than a terrible come-on,” Raina agrees.  “Sure. I’ll see your raccoon.”

Quill looks as if his birthday, Christmas, and a winning lottery ticket have come all at once. It’s pathetic. “Cool! Yeah, okay, uh, Gamora, I’ll talk to you later about the...yeah…” He quickly starts to herd Raina out of the store, as if fearing she’ll change her mind at any moment. “Later!” he calls.

Everything’s quiet for a moment, then Nebula shrugs and says, “Aside from that, she seems cool. And weird. I like that.”

“It’s not a terrible idea to have a more official connection at the mall,” Gamora muses, “since we’re neighbors and all.”

“She smelled like Quill when he comes in late in the afternoons!” says Drax, grinning. “I quite like that smell.”

Chapter Text

The alarm on Skye’s phone goes off and she sighs, burrowing her face into Jemma’s neck. “Don’t wanna go,” she grunts.

“Nobody wants to work Black Friday,” Jemma says gently.  “But some of us are unlucky like that.  It won’t be so bad!”

“Nah, it probably will be,” says Trip, with a resigned sort of smile. “Mac people are nuts. They’re gonna be out in full force.” He almost sounds cheerful, although considering he’s running his hand through Fitz’s hair as Fitz dozes on his chest, that might be improving his mood significantly.

Jemma glares at him.  “You’re not helping,” she hisses before turning her attention back to Skye, carefully easing her up and helping her to her feet.  “C’mon, you can make it through.  Go get dressed and I’ll make you something to eat, all right?”

Skye groans and staggers off towards Jemma’s room, where she’s stashed her clothes. They’d all changed into pajamas after their early Thanksgiving dinner and flopped together in the living room, and now she’s the first that has to leave, for an eight AM shift. Working for a giant moneygrubbing corporation sucks. (Although it could’ve been worse, at least the Apple Store was closed on Thanksgiving.)

Jemma, meanwhile, heads into the kitchen, brushing her hands against her pajama pants and going first for the pantry and then for the fridge.  Once she’s buttered the bread and popped it in the toaster, though, she’s left staring at the still-chilly bacon in frustration.

“Trip?” she calls, sounding sheepish.

“Yeah, I hear you,” calls Trip, gently shaking Fitz’s shoulder. “Hey Fitz, you gotta get up now. I’ll make you food, I promise.” Fitz whines but, after a quick kiss, gets off his boyfriend.

“What’s the problem?” Trip asks, stopping in the kitchen doorway.

“Bacon,” Jemma moans.  “I know I can’t muck up the toast, I’m not worried about it, but I honestly don’t trust myself with anything more advanced.  Ridiculous, but I’d rather admit the failing to you and know you can help me remedy the problem.”

Trip grins. “I swear, you guys just keep me around so I’ll make you food that doesn’t come out of a box. And, in his case, for my rugged good looks. Give it here.”

“I’m asking you to teach me how to make the food that doesn’t come out of a box!” Jemma exclaims, looking indignant.  “I think that’s better.”

“Yeah, I know,” says Trip, still grinning. “Okay, grab a skillet. Here’s how to make perfect bacon.”

 


 

“Excuse me, could I have a few moments of your time for an interview?”

“An interview,” Bobbi repeats skeptically.  She isn’t always the chattiest with strangers, especially strangers who will very possibly take her out of context, but the woman asking looks - not harmless, exactly, but decent enough not to be an ass about it.  “What are you hoping to cover?”

“Local Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday sales and whether or not they are ethical, specifically from the employee point of view.” Christine decides it’s not important to mention that her blog only gets maybe a thousand hits per week. The topic is bigger than her. “So, Bobbi, could you comment on that? I won’t use your name if you don’t want me to.”

“I guess,” Bobbi says with a shrug.  Not too many people come to do doorbuster sales at the bridal shop, so the customers are numbering in the single digits right now; she can kill a few minutes talking to… “Uh, do you have a press badge or something?  What’s your name?”

“That’s not important,” says Christine quickly, because technically she doesn’t have a press badge but there’s no law against talking to employees, right? If pressed, she could simply invent something that would require the manager’s attention. “I’m sure you have an opinion, right? I mean, it’s 8:30 AM, shouldn’t you be, y’know, digesting turkey or something?”

“I’m not going to get all… I don’t know, paranoid and weird if you’re not official,” Bobbi chuckles.  “I just feel like if I’m gonna take the time to rant at you about my job, I should know your name.”

“Christine,” says Christine warily, unsure how Diane Sawyer would react in such a situation.

“Well, Christine,” Bobbi begins, heading to needlessly straighten a display of appropriately “blingy” earrings, “I don’t know about unethical, but it is a little bit ridiculous.  Some of the sales are pretty good, but it’s not like they couldn’t be just as good some other time, should the company decide it.”

Christine is frantically scribbling - she hopes maybe her mother will spring for that microphone she’s been asking for for Christmas for two years now, but until then she’s gotta make do - and nodding. “And do you think their other holiday hours are questionable, or just this one?”

“Honestly?” asks Bobbi.  “I’m not wild about any of them, but I’m not in too much of a place to complain.  It’s a job, so while it’s not ideal it’s not like I can really back out.”

“Gotcha.” Christine smiles sympathetically. “And would you prefer to remain anonymous?”

“On the off-chance that this bounces up to corporate, I probably should,” Bobbi admits.

Christine nods. “Understandable. Thank you for your time, Bobbi.”

 


 

By the time Fitz arrives at work, freshly showered and full of bacon and toast, the store is a madhouse. A very large part of him wants to turn and run, paycheck be damned, but he steels himself and walks into the fray.

Skye meets his eyes while ringing up a customer. Fitz has never been great at non-verbal communication, but even he can see she’s mentally screaming HELP. Fitz takes his place behind another register and pastes on his very best customer service smile.

When Skye’s break comes, she slides over to Fitz and murmurs, “I hate people.”

“Yeah, I’m not exactly a big fan either,” he says under his breath. “But at least everyone’s been fairly civil?”

“To you, maybe. I’m pretty sure at least one guy has called me a dumb bitch under his breath.”

Fitz rolls his eyes. “Because insulting the employees is the way to get what you want, I’m sure.”

“Totally. Anyway, I’m gonna get a pretzel, I’ve earned that shit. You want one?”

Nodding, Fitz turns his attention to the next person in line and prays for a sudden miracle to end this torture, like a power outage or an earthquake.

 


 

Darcy’s kind of surprised she’s even getting a break today, as crazy as it is.  Well, like, that’s not technically legal, people working without breaks, but then again, Black Friday really doesn’t seem like it should be legal (and she’s totally not one of those hypocrites who went plundering back when she was a civilian and now bemoans the day, she always thought it was a little too crazy, and for her that’s saying something).  But she has a plan to get her through the rest of her shift.

And that plan is currently ambling up in his beat-up Converse sneakers, smiling sheepishly.

“Hey, dude,” she greets, holding her hand out to him.

“Hello,” says Ian (who is definitely not the kind of guy who’s used to being called dude, so Darcy can forgive his awkwardness).

“So, coffee and a treat or a treat and coffee?”

He seems to be pondering this very seriously for a moment.  “The second, I think,” he decides.

“Awesome,” she says, dragging him off toward Nordstrom with a wicked glint in her eye.  “I’m sure you don’t usually do this.”

“I did it at the party,” he says, though he’s keeping his voice low as if someone might hear him and understand even with the lack of proper nouns.

“This is different, though,” she teases.  “This is a public place.  Strangers might overhear.”  She steers him into one of the lounges (she’s scoped them out, she knows which ones are less likely to get traffic) and all but shoves him behind a stall door.  “Also, you’re going to have to keep touching my ass or my legs or something so you don’t get your hands on the germy surfaces.”

“What a tragedy,” he murmurs, falling to his knees and tugging her tights down swiftly (she’s not even wearing underwear, because she planned ahead).

 


 

“Excuse me, could I have a few minutes of your time?”

Pepper glances dubiously around the department.  From what she can hear, kids’ upstairs is much wilder, but the designer department doesn’t draw quite as much traffic, because even on sale days, this stuff is too expensive for the majority of people passing through.  This woman definitely doesn’t seem like a shopper; for one, shoppers wouldn’t likely ask.  “A few minutes,” she concedes.  “What can I do for you?”

“I’d like to get your opinion on Black Friday sales and whether they’re ethical for the employees or not,” says Christine. “I can keep you anonymous if you’d like.”

“It’s probably a good idea,” Pepper agrees.  “Is this for the paper?”

“I’m writing an article on the topic.” Christine’s gotten pretty good at sidestepping questions like that. “It’s a hot-button issue.”

“Or something like that,” Pepper says, smiling one of her most tactful half-smiles.

Christine nods. She senses that she won’t get very far in this interview, but it’s worth a try at least. “So can I have a comment from you? This isn’t your first Black Friday, I’m guessing. You seem very on top of things.”

“It isn’t, and thank you,” Pepper nods, all gracious manners.  “How wild the experience is depends on where you’re located, I think.  There is a certain level of hysteria that underlines everything, but it’s a challenge for salespeople, nothing more, really.”

“That’s a very level-headed way of looking at it,” says Christine. “Have you always felt that way, or did that come with the experience of multiple Black Fridays?”

‘I try to approach everything with an even temper,” Pepper muses, “but I’m sure that having multiple Black Fridays under my belt helps, too.”

Christine’s diligently writing down every word Pepper says, but she’s always been observant and she can’t help but notice a pair emerging from the women’s changing rooms, the girl pulling the boy along by his arm. The boy looks a little shocked but not unhappy, and the girl is smirking like she’s just - oh. She has, probably. She’s also wearing an FYE branded shirt. Christine can’t hold back her grin as she gestures toward them and asks, “Do they work in the mall? Would they be good to talk to, do you think?”

Pepper looks in their direction, and she’s about to say that sure, more perspectives can’t hurt, but somehow she just knows that Darcy is not the girl to talk to about anything like this.  “They do,” she hesitates, “but I really don’t think you should.  It looks like they’re headed out of here, probably back to work.”

“Well, but I’m sure they’d have a few minutes to give a statement,” presses Christine. “The girl works at FYE, I see, and the guy?”

“He’s at the bookstore down at the other end of the mall,” Pepper supplies.  She’s not offering any more information than absolutely necessary.

“Excellent! Thank you for your time,” says Christine with a smile. “Do you want to give your name or would you rather remain anonymous?”

“Anonymous,” Pepper declares.

“All right. Well, good luck!” calls Christine with a cheery wave.

 


 

After lazing around the apartment for a couple of hours (and a spirited discussion on the series finale of Doctor Who), Trip and Jemma carpool because, as Trip points out, “You’ve got an hour or so before your shift starts, but parking’s gonna be hell, so you may as well just carpool with me.”

Since he also has some time before his shift, they grab some sandwiches and make a beeline for the Apple Store. Their first stop was Jemma’s idea, as she pointed out that Fitz and Skye will be wanting lunch. When they get to the Apple Store, it’s only slightly less hectic than they anticipated, and Trip definitely has to muscle through some people before they arrive at the back of the store.

“Oh my god, did you bring food? I love you,” says Skye, looking as if she might cry at the sight of the paper bag Jemma’s holding.

“I know, but I thought it wouldn’t hurt to confirm it,” Jemma teases.  “Are you on break yet?”

“Yeah, thank God,” sighs Skye. “It’s nuts in here. You are literally saving my life right now.”

Fitz snorts. “You would not have literally dropped dead if she hadn’t appeared.”

“Would too,” says Skye, sticking her tongue out at him. “Anyway, c’mon, guys, let’s take these into the break room.”

Bouncing on her heels with far too much energy for the day, Jemma take Skye’s free hand and follows her back, nodding at the boys to join.

“So has it been completely hell?” she asks softly, trying for equal parts sympathy and humor.

“Not completely,” says Skye with a playful (but tired) grin. “Just mostly. Spoiler alert: people are greedy, selfish assholes.” She opens the paper her sandwich is wrapped in and stuffs half of the sandwich in her mouth.

Trip laughs. “By all means, tell us how you really feel.”

Skye sticks her tongue out at him too. It’s not a pretty sight because it’s coated in mayo.

“Ugh,” groans Fitz, who is eating his sandwich, as he would say, like an actual human being and not a starving wolf. “Must you?”

“I must,” says Skye sweetly, taking another enormous bite.

“Well, since we took care of breakfast and lunch, you two are responsible for dinner,” Jemma declares, nodding very assuredly.

“Okay, but you’re getting takeout.” Skye grins. “You know how good we are in the kitchen.”

“That’s fine,” Jemma replies.  “I just don’t want to have to think about it when we’re done.”

Shrugging, Skye replies, “No worries, we’ll take care of everything. Now, I want kisses.”

“As you command,” Jemma giggles, bracing her hands on her lap before leaning in to kiss Skye.

Skye makes a happy purring sort of sound and reaches to pull Jemma closer to her.

Ugh,” groans Fitz. “Go back to talking with your mouth full, that’s more appealing than having to watch this.” Skye takes one hand off of Jemma’s back to flip him off.

“Aw, I could distract you if you want,” says Trip with a grin.

“Oh! Er, I…” Fitz looks embarrassed but nods.

Chuckling, Trip rests one hand gently on his shoulder and kisses him.

 


 

It’s a fairly quiet day at Hot Topic. Sometimes shoppers from other stores will drift in, take advantage of the t-shirt sale, but in general Loki’s feeling restless and bored. Not that he isn’t usually, but especially today.

Even Carina, who’s usually finding some way to busy herself even when there are no customers, has taken to milling around in a listless sort of way.

That is, until a group of four girls enter and one of them - the one with hair the most ridiculous shade of blue -  barks, “Hey, is it your lunch yet? We’re stealing you!”

Carina checks her watch (it’s disgustingly twee, with a pasted-colored heart made of bubbles on the face) and nods very quickly.  “I can cut out now,” she agrees, then running back to the breakroom in a flurry of pastels and enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, Loki turns to survey the new arrivals. There’s the blue-haired girl, whom he saw wandering the mall earlier this week for reasons unknown; a girl with white streaks in her hair who, judging by her outfit, looks like she might actually be a regular Hot Topic customer; another who looks like she’s barreled right past Hot Topic and straight into either biker or hooker territory (possibly both); and a redhead who’s wearing jeans and a sweater set that make her look like she’d be more at home in literally any other store. These are not the people Loki would have ever expected human My Little Pony Carina to associate with.

The one with streaks in her hair is looking at him like he might bite. “Is that nail polish in a skull?” she asks in a strong Southern accent, pointing at one of the nail polish displays next to the counter.

“Yes,” says Loki, guarded.

“That shape is ineffective,” chimes in the biker-hooker. “Unless the nail polish is poison, in which case it is understandable. But I doubt you would have that on display near the checkout counter.”

“I like it,” grunts blue-hair. “I’d buy some if I cared enough. I don’t.”

The redhead has wandered over to another shelf of slightly less absurd-looking hair accessories. She’s looking at the hairbows when Streaks calls, “Ya gonna go for really young roles there, MJ? Annie, maybe?”

Rolling her eyes, the redhead - MJ? - retorts, “Already did it when I was ten. I was the talk of my elementary school, I’ll have you know.”

Carina comes rushing out of the back, purse slung over her shoulder (it’s actually one of the Tangled ones they carry, which makes perfect sense given her whole animated vibe), and immediately appears beside MJ.  “I think those are darling,” she says.  “You could do a sort of sixties mod thing.”

MJ chuckles. “I’m glad to know that one of you has taste.”

“I think we all have taste, just… different taste,” Carina decides.

“Excuse me, who are these people?” says Loki, tilting his head to the side.

“Oh!”  Carina’s eyes go wide.  “Excuse me for not introducing them earlier.  I think my head’s a bit in the clouds today.  This is Mary Jane -”

“Hey,” says MJ with a wave. “And no, I don’t have any drugs for you,” she adds playfully.

Carina giggles behind her hand before continuing, “And that’s Rogue -”

Streaks nods, still looking wary.

“And Laura, over by the jewelry,” Carina adds, “and standing near the door and looking bored out of her mind is my girlfriend Nebula.”

“That’s an interesting array of names,” says Loki, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

“Oh, and this is Loki,” Carina says, nodding at her coworker.

“Yeah, that’s sure a normal name,” murmurs Rogue to Laura.

A hint of panic crossing Carina’s face, she dashes over to take Nebula’s hand and with her other waves at the girls to follow.  “I’ll be back in an hour,” she calls to Loki.  “Let’s go.  Did you have any lunch ideas?”

Nebula shrugs. “Dunno. Wherever you want, I guess. I’m buying.”

“Ooh, a treat,” Carina giggles.

They file out of  the shop, leaving Loki, blinking in an attempt to process what’s just happened, behind them. Then he decides to stop dwelling on it. He has to keep himself focused for his own lunch hour plans.

 


 

Christine’s next success comes at Kay Jewelers. Victoria, the manager she’s managed to corner, is somewhat laconic but is at least willing to reply to all of her questions, which is all Christine wants, really.

“How does this Black Friday compare to past years for you? Better, worse or about the same?”

Victoria raises an eyebrow.  “A few years back, I was working at Target,” she begins.  “By virtue of the fact that this store is smaller, quieter, and visited by almost zero children, this is better.”

“Oh wow, I bet,” says Christine with a sympathetic wince. “Are your hours here better too? Do you feel like this store is less interested in trying to compete for customers?”

“People who are looking to buy our jewelry are going to buy our jewelry no matter what,” Victoria shrugs. “They might buy more of it when it’s on sale, but it’s nine times out of ten not entirely an impulse buy like a lot of stores seem to bank on.”

Christine nods. “Makes sense.”

Just then they’re interrupted by someone outside the store yelling “Hey Victoria!” Both women whip around to look, and there’s two girls standing there holding hands. One of them is wearing a blue Apple shirt. “Every kiss begins with Kay!” she yells, grabbing the other girl’s face and kissing her passionately.

“What in the hell,” Victoria mutters under her breath.

Christine tries not to giggle. “Is this a recurring event?”

“I have a sinking feeling that it might be one soon,” Victoria sighs.

“Mocking corporate culture,” murmurs Christine, scribbling furiously. “I like it!”

Before Victoria can respond, Christine heads for the two girls, hoping maybe she can get a statement. “Thanks!” she calls over her shoulder.

“Excuse me,” she says to the girls, as they’re turning away from Kay. “Could I talk to you for a second? It’s for an article.”

One of the girls turns back, eyes wide and terrified, and the other one - the one in the Apple shirt - says, “Uh, sure, about what?”

“Oh, I saw your little display back there and thought it was an excellent parody of the corporate culture. Can I get a statement on that? And your names, if you want me to include them?”

Apple shirt shrugs. “I’m Skye, and I basically just wanted to annoy Victoria. But sure, if you want my opinion, I think that slogan is ridiculous and I just took it to its logical conclusion. Right, Jem?”

“Uh, yes!” she exclaims, nodding very quickly and anxiously.  “Logical.  It was logical.”

“Well I thought it was great,” says Christine with a grin. “You work at Apple, I’m guessing?”

“Yeah. Been here since seven AM.” Skye’s smiling in that tired, pained way that Christine knows all too well. “Heading home now, though.”

“And you? Do you work here too?”

“Yes,” Jemma repeats.  “I, I do.  At MaggieMoo’s.  What is your article for?”

“Oh, online,” says Christine quickly, hoping to change the subject before they ask what website. It’s not her fault she doesn’t have the cash for a domain name right now. Racialicious uses WordPress, it’s a legitimate platform! “I’m doing an article about whether or not Black Friday and Thanksgiving sales are ethical. Do you guys have any comment about that?”

Skye shrugs. “I mean, I’d rather they didn’t have me come in at the ass-crack of dawn, but I can’t complain too much, I had yesterday off.”

“I’m still not entirely sure what the whole fuss is,” Jemma admits.  “I didn’t grow up even really knowing that Black Friday was a thing, but then, I didn’t grow up with Thanksgiving, either, so it’s all rather something to get used to.”

“I bet,” nods Christine. “Well, thank you so much and I’ll let you get back to work now!”

The girls walk off and Christine’s about to head for the Lego Store - she figures the poor overwrought workers in there will have things to say about the behavior of frantic parents - when someone says to her, “Hey there, beautiful. My body has a deadline, and if you don't hurry, you're not going to make it.”

She freezes for a half-second, not sure if what she’s just heard is really directed at her. Then she turns to see a guy with a meticulously trimmed goatee and a suave smile standing a few feet away. “Name’s Tony Stark,” he says, blatantly ogling her. “Son of Howard Stark of Stark Industries? And what’s your name?”

She snorts; she can’t help it. It’s all so ridiculous. What is this guy, in college? He looks mid-twenties, too old for shitty pickup lines. And yet...he’s kinda hot. “Christine Everhart,” she says. “I’m writing an article on the ethics of Black Friday and Thanksgiving sales. I’d love to have a quote from you.” She practically purrs the last sentence.

“Well, I don’t really care either way, it’s only slightly less boring than a usual workday and that’s just because watching people get violent over electronics is slightly amusing.” He’s talking a mile a minute and it’s difficult for her pencil to keep up. “But I mean, I don’t need to use those deals, Dad will buy me whatever I want, or at least he used to before he got a stick up his ass and made me get a soulcrushing corporate job. But enough about that - off the record, do you have plans for tonight?”

She stops writing mid-word. “I...no, I don’t. Are you offering to change that?” Yes, she’s flirting with him. Why not? He’s hot, rich, and, yeah, self-absorbed, but what guy isn’t?

“In that case, my shift ends at 5, if you wanna grab an early dinner?” He’s charming too, schmoozing like a champion.

“Sure,” she says, because if a rich guy’s offering dinner, why not take it? “Where should I meet you?”

“Oh, I work at Sharper Images,” says Tony, nodding in the direction of the store. “Come find me there.”

“Will do, Tony Stark,” she says with a wink.

She’s about to leave when the FYE girl from earlier runs up, waving her arms in excitement. “You guys,” she exclaims.  “There’s the actual most ridiculous thing going on.”  When she finds no discernable reaction on Tony’s face, she shifts her attention to Christine, tilting her head in curiosity.  “Customer or new hire?” she asks.

“Neither, reporter,” says Christine earlier. She’s been fudging the truth all evening, why stop now. “What’s happening?”

“You’ve just got to come see, I don’t think words can do it justice.”

 


 

Downstairs, Christine is greeted with chaos inside the Disney Store.

A tall, pale, long-haired man is screaming and waving his arms around, knocking things off of shelves. An equally tall but more muscular blond man is attempting to subdue him, with somewhat limited success. The well-toned black man standing closer to the screaming man is having slightly more success, talking to him in a soothing voice with his hands extended.

And a petite brunette is standing in the entrance, attempting to regulate people coming into the store and looking very frazzled.  “No, come back in ten minutes, I promise it will be better, uh…”

“Princess Belle will be visiting in ten minutes,” Darcy exclaims, jumping to her friend’s side.  “Come back when the monster is vanquished and Belle will read you all a story.”

“What are you talking about?” the other woman mutters.

“I know for a fact there’s a yellow ballgown in the back room of this store, and in addition to being a sample size you’ve got the hair, and clearly your manager can spare you,” Darcy explains patiently.

“Actually I’m on break -”

“Even better,” Darcy declares.

“Excuse me, who is that?” demands Christine. She can definitely find a way to incorporate this into her article.

“Christine, this is Jane,” Darcy says.  “Jane, this is Christine.  Christine’s a reporter or something, and Jane technically works at the science store across the way there but is very generously donating her time to averting a disaster.”

“Oh, I meant him,” says Christine, giving Jane a cursory nod. “In the store.”

That,” Darcy announces, “would be Loki, would-be king of the revolution.”

Christine wrinkles her nose. “Revolution?”

Loki’s going on in the store about “You FOOLS, you utter slaves to capitalism! You’re playing right into their greedy hands, you know, you’re just another sap they can squeeze profit out of! They don’t care about your or your family!”

“Oh my god.” Christine pulls out her phone, even though it’s not the most professional course of action, and starts recording this for all it’s worth.

“He’s been like this for at least ten minutes already,” Darcy whispers to Tony.  “I guess he just wanted to ruin as many holiday seasons as he could.”  To Jane she says, “You’re clearly going to win a medal for crowd control.”

“Don’t be mean,” Jane retorts.

“I’m not,” Darcy says.  “I’m totally sincere.  Go, team you.  Keeping children away from the asshole of the century.  I bet Officer Dad will buy you lunch or something.”

“I wish I had some popcorn, this is quality entertainment,” chimes in Tony. “Anyone know if any stores here sell that?”

“Weird dessert popcorn, maybe,” Darcy shrugs, “but would you really want to miss this?”

“Fair point.”

Loki’s now screaming about “these idiot parents who think that buying their children overpriced dreck shaped like cartoon characters is a decent substitute for actually loving them, they’re scum! It’s all a lie, children, love is a lie! Your parents don’t really love you, the instant you step out of line they’ll cast you out!”

“The fuck?” says a new voice. A group of girls have walked over to see what’s going on, half of whom have non-natural hair colors. They kind of resemble cartoon characters themselves, notes Christine. The one that spoke has bright blue hair.

“Oh,” says Darcy.  “Hey, uh, Carina?  Carina’s… friends, I guess?”  She winces apologetically, but now is not the time for pleasantries.  “Your, uh… coworker friend-”

The blue-haired one barks a laugh.

“He’s going all…”  Darcy sighs, then starts over, faking a bright smile.  “The employees of the mall loved Christmas a lot, but Loki, who worked in Hot Topic, did not.”

“Oh, no,” Carina exclaims, moving her hand to her cheek in distress.

Blue-hair is chortling, the girl with white streaks in her hair who’s standing next to her is laughing too, and even the other two are smirking. One of them, a redhead who’s wearing the least bizarre outfit of the four, says, “I’m surprised he hasn’t cracked before this, from what you’ve said, Car.”

“I’m sure… there’s a reasonable explanation for it?” Carina attempts.

“If I was in charge, this sentimental bullshit would be nonexistent! We wouldn’t coddle children with the lies of happy endings and true love, we would teach them the truth! The world cares nothing for you and your petty desires, it will utterly destroy you!” Loki’s picked up a foam sword and is waving it around in an attempt to emphasize his points.

“Maybe there isn’t,” Carina murmurs.

“Has it occurred to anyone that giving him an audience is probably just fueling him?” Jane asks.

“Yeah, but I’ve been dealing with idiots for the last four hours,” says Tony. “The least I can do is get some actual entertainment around here, I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

Then two people wearing security uniforms arrive, led by the black man who’d been trying to subdue Loki. The male officer, whose badge reads COULSON, is balding and looks disproportionately concerned. He steps into the store and says, “Loki, I’m going to need you to put the sword down.”

Instead of doing that, Loki snarls, “Make me, pig!” and stabs Coulson in the chest with the sword. That, of course, accomplishes nothing, outside of looking very silly. Coulson blinks in surprise more than anything and backs away, just in time for the female officer to jump in and tase Loki. Loki goes down quickly, shuddering and groaning.

“That was not a great deal of electricity,” comments one of the girls who’s watching. Her entire outfit is leather. “If he is interested in being a revolutionary, he should build up an immunity to electric shocks.”

 


 

“Mostly, I’m just shocked that this turned into one of those horrid Black Fridays you hear about where the weapons come out,” Jemma is saying as she and Trip walk into the apartment.

“Yeah, I was glad Nordstrom didn’t get hit that bad,” says Trip, taking off his coat. “Sorry you had to see it all.”

“Hey,” calls Skye, striding over to grab Jemma in a hug and kiss her cheek. “You made it home!”

“Miraculously, yes,” Jemma agees, bumping shoulders with Skye.  “And I see you two actually came through with dinner.”

Skye grins. “Yep! It’s all there, especially your lemon chicken. And like, two pounds of rice. I insisted on lots of rice.”

“I’m just serving them up,” calls Fitz. “Your Mongolian beef is here too, Trip.”

“You know the way to my heart,” says Trip with a smile.

Skye points at the couch. “You guys, sit. We’ll bring you everything.”

Jemma’s eyebrow shoots up, and she exchanges glances with Trip, all too amused.  “Is this getting the royal treatment?” she asks him.

“Guess so. I’m sure not gonna complain,” he replies, ambling over to sit in his customary chair.

“Thanks, darling,” Jemma coos, flouncing over to the couch and plopping down.

Skye joins her after a moment, steaming plates of food in her hands. “Your dinner, madam,” she says in a terrible British accent.

“You’re being so sweet that I won’t even call you out on that,” Jemma says.

“Awesome!” Skye nuzzles her. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” Jemma giggles.  “Especially when there’s such good gossip to go over, it’s weird to not be able to do so immediately.”

Giggling, Skye says, “Well, there was that shit Loki pulled. Damn, it was nuts.”

“Oh man, I was stuck in the store and I’m so pissed I missed it,” groans Trip. “Darcy filled me in, but it just ain’t the same.”

“What’s this?” Fitz walks in holding plates, and once he’s close enough, Trip pulls him onto his lap.

“Oh my god, Loki went nuts and started screaming in the Disney Store about how it was for parents who didn’t really love their kids and how Disney teaches kids lies and the world is a shitty place and all that. It was amazing.” Skye’s grinning. “He only went down when Maria tased him.”

Fitz blinks. “Jesus. Sounds exciting.”

“That’s one word,” Jemma agrees.  “If he was hoping to incite some sort of mass rebellion, he didn’t really succeed. The only outrageous thing that happened after you both left was - you know Donnie, who works at the Sprint store?”

Skye snorts. “Yeah.”

“Well, he’d been across the street to Applebee’s for lunch, right, and I guess he thought it would be a good idea to take the edge off, because he came back completely tanked up,” Jemma continues.  “That song from Frozen, you know, the big dramatic one, it came on the stereo and he decided to stage an impromptu one-man sing-along.”  She giggles, but it soon gives way to a wince. “Poor misguided boy.”

“Hey, at least he wasn’t traumatizing a bunch of little kids,” says Trip, chuckling.

“No, I’d say he pretty well traumatized anyone who was watching,” Jemma declares wryly.

Fitz smirks. “Glad I missed that.”

“I hope someone filmed it. That shit sounds hilarious,” Skye says, draping herself over Jemma in a way that still allows her to eat. “Hey, so are we gonna watch a movie over dinner? I vote Pacific Rim.”

“You always vote Pacific Rim!” protests Fitz.

“Because it’s great!”

Chapter Text

"Where would you like this festive greenery?  Although of course it's not a real tree.  Those were too expensive and also much heavier."

Gamora rolls her eyes.  The normally-empty space around her is already much more festive than she would like, because while she’s not a Grinch like Peter suggested she’s also not the most prone to joyous celebrations, but it would be wrong to have a party without a tree, and she admits that.  So very quickly, she scans the room, from stereo to snacks to seating, and finally nods toward one corner.  “There,” she says.

Drax nods and lugs the five-foot tree toward the corner.  Gamora had tried to tell him earlier that it would’ve been easier to leave it in the box to move it and then assemble it and put the lights on, but Drax had been too excited to listen.  Drax likes lights.

There’s something sort of endearing about watching him be so enthusiastic about something so stupid, but like fuck Gamora is going to say anything, to him or anyone else; instead, after allowing herself a moment to smile, she turns her attention to her sister, who’s supposed to be fixing up the snack table and is instead leaning against a wall with her arms folded, smirking.

Fine, then.

“I see you’re underachieving now as much as ever,” Gamora dawls as she approaches.

“You seem to have everything under control,” replies Nebula.  “Besides, we both know I hate decorating even more than you.”

“This party was more your idea than mine,” Gamora retorts.

“Yeah, but it was mostly Quill’s.  I just didn’t feel like crushing his dreams, you know?  Guy’s really into Christmas.”  Nebula glances at her watch.  “Anyway, at least I invited some people.  See, I can be normal.”

Gamora bites back a sigh.  “I invited someone,” she says, hating how stubborn she sounds.

“And I’ve got five.”  Nebula looks disgustingly self-satisfied.

“Well, Sharon said she would be bringing some people, if that was all right,” Gamora defends.  “Which it is, so I -”

“Ladies, ladies, are we fighting over me again?” calls a new voice.  There’s Quill, carrying his stupid plant and his stupid raccoon and they’re all wearing ridiculous holiday outfits.  “There’s more than enough Peter Quill to go around, if you want.”

“Shut up,” Gamora snaps, at the same time that Nebula says, “Shut the fuck up!”

Quill shrugs.  “Hey, can’t blame me for assuming.”

“Yes we can,” says Gamora.

He puts up his hands in a defensive motion.  “Okay, okay, fine.  Where should I put Groot and Rocket?  I didn’t want them to miss out.”

“Miss out?” Gamora repeats incredulously.  “Quill, you know they’re inanimate objects.”

“Yeah, but they’ll get lonely,” says Quill, scratching Rocket’s head.  Most of it is covered with a stupid headband that has antlers attached, but he manages somehow.

“Oh my god,” mutters Nebula.

Before the argument can progress, there’s a brisk knocking on the window, one that causes everyone’s heads to turn in that direction.  Raina’s outside, holding a plate of brownies and waving.

“Oh look, there’s one of my people,” says Nebula with another smirk, going to open the door for her.

“I’m early,” Raina declares, glancing around the room and seeing only the hosts of the party.

“Naw, the party starts now!” says Quill.  “Cue the music!”

Everyone stares at him for a long moment.  “Is nobody in charge of music?” he asks, looking severely disappointed.  “I mean, I can be, but I figured you guys wouldn’t want me to be…”

This time, Gamora doesn’t bother to hide her sigh.  “Someone has to, and since I’d rather we not spend the whole night listening to people scream…” Said with a pointed glance at Nebula.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“It doesn’t really lend itself to smalltalk,” Gamora deadpans.

“Well, I don’t like smalltalk, I don’t see what your problem is.”

“I thought that at parties you are supposed to pretend to care about what other people are saying,” chimes in Drax.  “That is what I have been told.  I am getting better at it!”

“I’m sure you are,” Raina says sweetly.  “Where should I put these?”

“Food is on that table,” Gamora replies, waving a hand toward the refreshments (which right now consist mainly of potato chips, storebought gingerbread cookies, a terrible punchbowl, and beer).

With a smile, Raina drifts in that direction, wholly unconcerned.

“You have a festive hat made of flowers!” says Drax, indicating Raina’s holiday-themed flower crown.  “I have one too!  But it isn’t made of flowers, it is a Santa hat.  Still, it is jolly and festive!”

Nebula rolls her eyes. “You’re using that word a lot. ‘Festive.’ The fuck do you even mean by that?”

“I mean it is seasonally appropriate!”  Drax seems unbothered by her harshness.

“There’s no use pressing the matter,” Gamora whispers in her sister’s ear before going to move the presents to their place under the tree.  So far, there are only the ones that she, Nebula, Peter, and Drax brought, but it’s something she can do while she very covertly keeps an eye on Nebula’s new friend to make sure she’s not putting acid in the punch.

Nebula leans closer to Raina.  “Are those brownies...y’know, special?  Not that I care, but it’ll be hilarious.”

Raina raises an eyebrow.  “I’m assuming your definition of ‘special’ isn’t ‘made with love,’” she declares.

“Nah, I’m asking if they’re spiked.”

“Some of them.”

“Ooh, which ones?”

A shrug.  “I don’t remember.”

“Awesome.  I knew I liked you.”

“Because I forgot to label my brownies?”  It’s the sort of question that’s posed as a challenge, and if that wasn’t abundantly clear there’s Raina’s utterly faux-innocent facial expression.

“Because you fuck with people.  I’m a fan of that.”

Raina giggles, then before Nebula can protest she withdraws a spare holly leaf from her jacket pocket and pins it to Nebula’s shirt.  “I’ll keep that in mind,” she singsongs as she wanders off.

The door swings open again and with the rush of cold air comes Gamora’s roller derby teammate Sharon… and, apparently, everyone Sharon has ever met.

“Heyyyyyyy there,” says Quill, turning away from his iPod to strike a cheesy pose for the benefit of the two female newcomers.  “And who might you be?”

“Sailor Moonshine,” the blonde replies dryly, sashaying past and leading her posse over to where Gamora stands.

“You made it!” Gamora exclaims, sounding more enthusiastic than the others have heard her be all week.  “And you brought company.”

“It’s all right, right?” Sharon asks.  “You said it was all right.”

“Of course it’s all right, it’s a party.  More the merrier, or… something,” Gamora says.  “But since you’re all ‘my’ guests, introductions are in order.”

The other woman in the group, a redhead, points to each person as she introduces them.  “That’s Steve, Bucky, and Sam.  And I’m Natasha.”

“Thank you for having us,” the man identified as Steve says, smiling graciously.  “It’s always fun to get outside of the mall bubble.”

Sam gives him a slightly disdainful look.  “Some of us do that anyway, y’know.”

“Yes, well, more opportunities are always nice,” Steve retorts, though the smile hasn’t faded.

Nebula wanders over to inspect the newcomers.  “So this is your one guest and her plus-ones, huh?” she asks, running her gaze up and down each of them in turn.  “Which one of you is her actual plus-one?”

“Nebula,” Gamora hisses, looking mortified.

“I’m just curious!”  Nebula’s delighted to have embarrassed her sister.

Natasha smirks, amused.  “It’s a legitimate question.”  She nudges Sam, who’s standing next to her, and he gives her a playful wink.  Bucky starts to giggle before managing to stifle it, and even Steve looks like he might laugh at any moment.  Then none of them says anything for a while.

It takes a while for Nebula to catch on, but for just a second surprise flickers across her face before being replaced with her usual vaguely bored expression.  “Message received,” she says with a grin.  “You go, blondie.”

Sharon smiles shyly.  “Thanks,” she says, reaching behind her and knowing one of them will take her hand.  It’s Steve who does, taking her hand and squeezing it reassuringly, because he knows that as the newest member of their little group, she’s still adjusting to coming out.

“So,” he says, changing the subject cheerily.  “What’s on the schedule for the night?”

“Have you brought presents?” asks Drax.  “You should put them under the tree with the others!  We will all be taking one.  Gamora says this is a white elephant gift exchange, but there are no elephants involved.  Well, I bought an elephant for it, but you still have to guess which present I wrapped if you want it.  Gamora explained the meaning behind the name of the custom after I had already bought it.”

“That’s precious,” Sharon murmurs, turning her head just slightly to exchange a chuckle with Sam.

 


 

As parties go, this one is… not entirely disastrous, Gamora has to admit.  She doesn’t even entirely want to punch out the speakers, and though she could do without the sight of Peter attempting to wrangle any of the female party guests into dancing with him, she has to give it to her sister that while her friends are sometimes terrifying, they definitely don’t fall for bullshit.  Well, that girl from the weed store across the street danced with him for a little while, but in a way like she was clearly just messing with his head; by the time she got bored and moved on, Nebula’s bandmates had shown up (and not a moment too soon, given that Gamora was starting to worry that something might get set on fire just out of Nebula’s ennui) and they rebuffed him in sequence: Carina politely, MJ less so, Rogue sassily, and Laura with a look of complete confusion.

They seem to be enjoying themselves - perhaps too much, as she heard Rogue whoop at one point, “Damn, those brownies are strong!”  She has a feeling that Raina is responsible for that, and is glad she steered clear of them herself.

Given that they’re a couple of hours into the party, and she doesn’t know how late this is going to go or should go, so it’s probably time to get started with the officially sanctioned activity.

“Turn the music down,” she hisses to Peter before unceremoniously climbing on a mostly-empty table and calling out, “Okay, we’re gonna do the white elephant exchange now, guys!”

“Woohoo!” yelps Peter, turning down the music exactly two notches before jumping up onto the table next to her.  “Present time, guys!”

Gamora rolls her eyes, gracefully slides off the table, and turns the music down eight notches lower.  “Feel free to supply your holiday tidings of choice,” she says dryly as everyone gathers around the tree.

счастливого рождества,” says Natasha, smirking.

Gamora’s holding a stocking with slips of paper in it, about to draw one, when Peter pokes her and says, “Can I do it?  Huh, can I?”

“Fine,” Gamora sighs, handing the stocking over.

“Great!”  Peter rifles around in the stocking for a moment before reading the name on the paper he pulls out.  “Drax!”

“Exciting!” says Drax with a huge grin, standing up and moving over to the tree.  After a moment of consideration, he selects one of the smaller packages, that’s covered almost entirely with a gigantic red bow.  “I like this bow!  It is as large as my face.”  He tears into the package and pulls out a white hairbow covered in pictures of kittens.  “Oh, I quite like cats!” he says, clipping it to his Santa hat.  “Thank you!”

“Pleasure’s all mine,” says Rogue, looking a bit surprised that someone took her joke gift seriously.

Peter grins.  “Suits you, Drax.  Okay, next up is… Sharon!”

Sharon smiles sheepishly, like being the first of their little group to get called is somehow worth being sheepish, and Sam kisses her on the cheek before releasing his hold on her waist and nudging her out of his lap.

She doesn’t deliberate at all, just drops to the ground and grabs a modestly-sized box wrapped in plain blue paper.  After a moment of staring at it with open curiosity, she slides her fingertip under the tape to unwrap it with precision.  Inside is a very classy white and mint green mug with black stripes around the rim, something that’s tasteful and neutral enough to appeal to anyone at this party if they were inclined to admit that.  “I feel like… maybe we ought to make a game of guessing who brought the present,” she declares, grinning.

“Might be a bit of a crapshoot, seeing as how most of us just met a couple hours ago,” snarks Nebula, “but sure, why not?  Whoever brought that actually wanted someone to end up with something nice.”

“I can tell,” Sharon agrees, turning to look the crowd over and tapping her chin in an exaggerated thinking motion.  A lot of the guests look much too mischievous to have brought a perfectly decent, neutral gift, which isn’t an insult, just a fact.  “Well, I know that Steve didn’t bring this…”

“It’s not unique enough,” says Sam with a grin.

“In a situation like this, I think it’s a very tactful choice,” Sharon defends, holding the mug a bit closer to her as if to protect it.  “Tactically tactful, maybe.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say -”  Here she pauses, points to Nebula’s red-haired friend.  “And now I’m feeling like a complete ass for forgetting your name.”

“Mary Jane,” she says with a smile.  “No worries, it happens.  Glad you like it, Sharon.”

“I do,” Sharon agrees, sitting down again though this time it’s in Natasha’s lap.

“Aw, you don’t wanna trade with Drax?” asks Peter playfully.

Sharon shakes her head.  “I’m very good like this,” she says, though given the way she wiggles closer against Natasha that could just mean that she doesn’t want to get up.

Natasha smirks and pets her arm.  “You’re kinda high, aren’t you?”

“Why would I be high?” Sharon asks, befuddled.  “I don’t do drugs.  I haven’t even had more than a glass of punch tonight.”

“How many brownies, though?”

Sharon screws up her face in concentration.  “Uh… maybe three?” she murmurs, sounding guilty.  “It’s a party, and I didn’t eat a big lunch.”

“Uh huh.”  Natasha chuckles and starts petting Sharon’s hair instead.  “You’re adorable.”

Peter grins and shrugs.  “Okay!  So next up is… ooh, it’s me!”  He goes over to the tree and then proceeds to pick up and shake each gift individually.

“Quill…” Gamora says warningly.

“What, like you don’t do this with your presents?”  Finally he shrugs and selects the lone envelope.  “Maybe this one’s money!”  He opens it and pulls out a piece of paper.  “‘This certificate entitles the bearer to one drawing by the artist Steve Rogers of any subject the bearer desires’...cool!”  He looks over at Steve excitedly.  “Can you draw me Alyssa Milano topless?”

“He probably meant PG-rated drawings,” adds Natasha helpfully.

“Oh.”  Peter looks only mildly disappointed.  “So Alyssa Milano in a bikini then.  Thanks, Steve!”

Steve winces.  He’d sort of imagined that someone would ask for something like a portrait of an animal or a building, possibly a fancy car, but he can’t go back on his promise.  “You’re welcome,” he says gamely.

Peter basically skips back to where he’s laid the stocking, digging in it for a minute before calling out “Natasha!”

“Whoops.  Sorry, зайка,” murmurs Natasha, nudging Sharon off her lap.  “Back in a second.”  She inspects the boxes for a while before grabbing one of the larger boxes.  Inside is a large, friendly-looking stuffed elephant, sitting on its haunches and waving its trunk in the air.  She stares at it for a long moment before smiling.  “Cute.”

“Aren’t you going to guess whose present it is?” Drax asks, obviously eager.

Natasha pretends to consider her options before replying, “This is yours, right?” teasingly.

“Yes!”  Drax seems proud of himself.  “I hope you like it.  The tag said its name was Derby but I do not see why you would name an elephant Derby.  Elephants do not run in derbies; horses do.  You can call it something more logical if you want.”

“I’ll consider it,” says Natasha, smiling as she takes the elephant back to her spot and lets Sharon cuddle up to her again.  “Thank you, Drax.”

“Wow, you guys are really easily satisfied,” says Peter, not in a mean way.  “Okay, next up is… Laura!”

Laura blinks.  “Oh! All right.”  Seeming uncomfortable with everyone’s eyes on her, she quietly shuffles up to the pile of presents and grabs one of the smaller ones.  She’s so methodical about unwrapping the package that Peter coughs, but a nasty look from Gamora silences him.  Finally she reveals a Slinky box and pulls out the Slinky.  “What’s this for?” she asks, looking confused.

“It’s a toy!” says Peter, coming over to her.  “Do you mind?”  He holds out his hand, and when she gives it to him he extends it a couple of times to show her.  “I admit that I, uh, just wanted one myself, and there was a buy-one-get-one-free sale at the toy store, and then I raced them down my building’s stairs and you got the losing one.  Hope that’s okay.”

“But how could you race them?  They don’t have feet.”  Laura looks no less confused.

“Oh my god, Gamora, hold on a second.  I gotta show her how Slinky racing works!”  Peter immediately sets about cobbling together a makeshift staircase with boxes a ways away from the crowd, Laura watching in fascination.  “You can do the name drawing stuff while I do this!” he calls over his shoulder.

Gamora shakes her head.  She knew it was only a matter of time before he got bored and moved on to some other pursuit, because that’s always how it goes with him.  “Carina, looks like you’re up,” she declares, drawing a name from the stocking and smiling carefully.  Of all of her sister’s friends, she both knows and likes Carina the best, and she tries to make an effort to be nice to her.

“Okay,” Carina chirps, giving Nebula’s hand a squeeze before she scoots over to the tree and selects a box wrapped in silver paper.  “Thank you, whoever,” she says politely as she’s opening the package.  It’s a very lucky choice on her part, given that she’s the only person here who’s going to appreciate vaguely grapefruit-scented pink body spray from the Gap, but she does, and she lights up.  “Well, I think perhaps this isn’t entirely fair for me to guess, since I know three of you work at the Gap and it’s probably from one of you, but.”

“Ah, guess anyway,” says Nebula. “You know it’s not the blond guy, so it’s down to two. There’s no prize for getting it right and you’re not cheating or anything.”

Carina blushes.  “Fine,” she murmurs, screwing up her face in concentration. “I guess Natasha.”  

“Good guess.” Natasha looks amused.  “Sorry it’s kind of uninspired.”

“I like it!” Carina exclaims, spraying a bit of the stuff on her wrist.  “It’s a very happy scent.”

Chuckling, Natasha replies, “Good.”

Conveniently, Peter and Laura are wandering back over to join them.  Laura’s playing with the Slinky with a pleased smile on her face, and Peter looks happy too.  “All fixed!” he says cheerfully, taking the stocking from Gamora.  “Okay, so next up is… Sam!”

Sam grins and moseys over to the pile of gifts, pawing through it before grabbing the smallest box.  “I mostly just wanna see what the hell’s in this,” he admits.  What it is is a small bottle of black nail polish that’s skull-shaped.

Sam turns it over in his hands for a moment before laughing.  “Well, I guess my curiosity serves me right.  I suppose I have you to thank for this?” he asks Nebula.

Snorting, Nebula says, “If I bought that I’d keep it for myself.”

“Actually, it’s from me,” Carina admits.

Blinking in surprise, Sam asks, “Oh yeah, you work at Hot Topic, right?  Should’ve known.  Nice one.”

“Uh, ah, yes!” Carina stammers.  At this point it seems like she’s just going to keep on blushing forever.  “I’m glad you don’t think it’s stupid.”

“Nah, Tasha’s been after me to let her do my nails, I knew this day was coming.”

Carina giggles.  “I’m sure it’ll look very nice,” she decides.

Peter’s grinning as he draws out the next name with a flourish.  “Nebula!”

Nebula sighs.  After allowing Carina to squeeze her hand again, she gets up and, rolling her eyes, ambles over to the pile of gifts.  She grabs the biggest one.  “Maybe it’s something sharp,” she murmurs.

It’s the opposite: another stuffed elephant, slightly smaller than Natasha’s, but trunk lifted in the same friendly way.  This one also has two small tusks.  A tiny smile darts across Nebula’s face, but only Gamora and Carina can tell.  “Oh well, this’ll do,” she says, trying to sound nonchalant.  Gamora knows she’ll end up sleeping curled around that thing.

“So, two people brought elephants,” says Quill, looking intrigued.  “Who do you think it was, Nebula?”

She snorts.  “I dunno.  Probably Laura.  It’s something she’d do.”

“Yes,” says Laura.  “Do you like him?”

“Eh,” grunts Nebula, but she hasn’t let go of the elephant either.  She plops back down next to Carina.

“Well,” says Peter with a laugh, “the other boxes probably don’t have actual elephants in them.  Next up, Mary Jane!”

“Cool.”  After a few moments of deliberating, MJ selects one of the smaller boxes.  “I’m not expecting much,” she says with a smile.  When she sees that it’s a Barnes & Noble gift card, her smile gets a little bigger.  “Ooh, nice.  Now...who would bring this?”  Making a show of looking around the room, she adds, “It probably wasn’t any of my friends, because I think Carina is the only one of you who would ever voluntarily set foot in a bookstore.  And it wasn’t any of you from the tattoo shop.  So...it has to be one of Gamora’s friends.”  She rubs her chin playfully.  “I think it was...you.”  She points at Sam.

“Good guess.”  Sam grins.  “You’re as smart as you are pretty.”

“Sure am.”  MJ looks pleased at the compliment.  “And I bet you are too.”

“And charming.  Girl, you’re too much.”

Peter looks slightly hurt that MJ is paying more attention to Sam than she ever has to him.  “So Steve’s next, whenever we wanna be done with the flirting,” he says petulantly.

Steve smiles, unwraps himself from around Bucky and goes over to the tree.  With each gift that gets selected, the remaining pile looks weirder and weirder, which means it’s also harder to tell what the gifts might be.  He finally picks up a large floral-print gift bag with tissue paper poking out of it.  “This looks interesting,” he murmurs, reaching into the bag and pulling out whatever is inside.  Once he gets the wrapping off he pulls out what looks to him like the projects he’d see at student art shows, some multi-colored glass sculpture.  It’s not his medium, but he can appreciate the craftsmanship.  “Yep,” he declares.  “Definitely interesting.  I admit I don’t know much about really modern art, but it’s pretty.”

“Is that a dildo?” asks Bucky.

“Uh, Steve, you might want to trade that,” says Natasha, who knows a bong when she sees one.  Sam is snickering.

“Why?” Steve asks.  “It’s a little more abstract than my usual taste, but it seems like quality work.  I don’t have the slightest clue who brought it, though.”

“Suit yourself,” says Natasha, smirking.  “And I think it was probably her.”  She nods at Raina.

Raina grins that cat-that-ate-the-canary grin of hers.  “Good call,” she purrs.

Peter’s been giggling since Steve opened the bag (he’s had more than one brownie in the last ten minutes so that’s possibly a contributing factor).  Finally he manages to compose himself enough to read the next name.  “Rogue, you’re on!”

“All right,” she drawls.  She grabs one of the larger remaining packages and grins when it contains a box of assorted chocolates.  “Nice!  Thanks, whoever.”

“Aren’t you gonna guess?” asks Peter.

“Well, I guess I can.  Uh… you look like you’d bring somethin’ nice.”  Rogue gestures vaguely at Sharon.

Sharon shakes her head.  “Thanks, but it wasn’t me,” she admits.

“Oh.”  Rogue looks surprised, then shrugs.  “Dunno, then.”

After a moment, Gamora lifts a hand.  “You’re welcome,” she says with the slightly unsure smile she reserves for most of her sister’s friends.  Rogue nods her thanks.

The next name drawn is Bucky’s, who has some trouble disentangling himself from Steve before going right for the biggest present still left.  “Uh, I hope nobody minds,” he says apologetically before opening it.

He pulls out a stuffed bear that’s sitting up and wearing a scarf around its neck.  “Oh!” he says.  “Not what I was expecting, but okay!”

“He’s cute,” Steve declares.  “He’s a he, right?”

“Uh, I guess he is, yeah.”  Bucky shrugs, petting one of the bear’s ears.  “He’s great.  Thanks, Sharon!”

Sharon’s eyes go wide for a moment, then she starts to giggle.  “You found me out,” she says.  “You’re welcome, Bucky.”

“I just guessed, is all,” he says sheepishly, but he’s smiling.

“Aw, that’s sweet.”  Peter’s smiling as he draws the next name out.  “Gamora!”

Gamora goes for the larger of the two remaining presents, not for any particular reason, and opens it as fast as she can.  Maybe if they finish this activity soon, the party can be over soon, and that sounds nicer than she’ll admit.  

The box yields… what looks like dollar store tupperware.

“Thanks?” she says halfheartedly, shrugging.

Nebula snorts.  “Merry fuckin’ Christmas.”

Gamora resists the urge to roll her eyes.  Of course.  “I should be glad you participated at all,” she points out before going to set the box next to her coat and returning to her spot in the group.

“You’re welcome.”

“Alright, Raina, guess you’re the only one left.”  Peter grins.

“All right,” Raina coos, hopping off the table and then bending over at the waist to pick up the last present.  It’s another of the ones in a bag, so she doesn’t get much of a sense of what it might be before she takes it out, but she’s not worried.  She can work with anything.

Oh,” she hums as she inspects the little package of body butter she has in her hand.  “It’s from Sephora, which makes sense since it’s from Bucky, and it’s… yes, I can definitely make good use of this.”

“So you’re not trading?  Are you sure?” asks Peter, looking a little crestfallen.

“I’m sure,” Raina says thoughtfully.  “A gift like this is one that keeps on giving, isn’t it.  It can be shared, and even though I doubt very much I’ll be sharing it with anyone here-”

Peter looks even more disappointed at this.

“I’ll be able to find someone to play with,” she muses, ignoring their momentary emcee’s pouty expression (and everyone else’s subsequent giggles and horror).  “Something like this is nice enough to save for someone special, I think.”  Under her breath, she adds, “I should give her a call.  She likes being spoiled.”

The various expressions on the others’ faces range from curious to horrified.

Drax is the first to recover (he looked mildly curious).  “Now that we have finished that activity, I think we should play a game!  What about Mafia?  It does not involve the actual Mafia.”

Chapter Text

“So you’re sure this isn’t going to be weird?” Maria asks, slamming the passenger door shut behind her with one hand and balancing the containers of fresh-baked cookies on the other.

“Why would it be weird?” Maya counters, hurrying around the car to meet up with Maria so they can match step as they head up the driveway.

“Because this is all of your friends and professors from fancy science college and I’m going to be the one of those things that’s not like the others,” Maria says.

Maya rolls her eyes, bumping Maria’s shoulder lightly. “Lots of us bring dates that aren’t from the campus bubble,” she points out.

“Dates,” Maria repeats with a chuckle.

“Or pseudo-dates, whatever,” Maya shrugs. “But I figured you wouldn’t mind helping me out, since I helped you out at the Halloween party. And when you meet Killian, you’re going to understand why ‘I already have a date, sorry’ was the first thing out of my mouth even though it was and still halfway is a lie.”

“Well, as your pseudo-date, I just hope I don’t embarrass you in front of your genius friends,” Maria says airily. “I suppose that being your date also explains why I’m carrying your baked goods.”

“Hey, they were already in your lap,” Maya replies. “But thanks for the help, dear. Can I call you dear? How far do you want to take this date thing?”

“Let’s play it by ear,” Maria decides, then mischievously adding, “Sweetie.”

Given that she has her hands free, Maya’s the one that first knocks on the door and then turns the knob to open it and let them in.

Damn,” Maria whistles as they divest each other of their winter coats. “Whose house did you say this was?”

“Doctor Weaver,” Maya says. “She’s the department chair, but she also does enough contract work on the side that this-” Said with a sweeping wave around the tastefully but expensively finished foyer. “Is definitely within her means.”

“Kudos to her,” Maria murmurs.

They head in the direction of the music (not yet Christmas carols, those are probably being saved for later in the night when everyone’s drunker) and soon find themselves in what can only be described as a truly great great room. Save a couch and chairs around the television in one corner and a couple of high tables accompanying a built-bar in another, the furniture is pushed to the periphery of the room; a tree and a fireplace, respectively, take up the other corners. Though the night is young there’s already a respectable crowd ranging in age from undergrads to tenured professors.

But when they’re all eating cookies, drinking red and green cocktails, and wearing stupid felt hats, they’re definitely not as intimidating as Maria was sort of worrying they’d be.

“Oh, Maya, so lovely to see you!” A tall, burly man with a kind smile and big hands waves, then comes over to greet them. “I hoped you’d make an appearance.”

“Hey, Dr. McCoy,” Maya greets, her smile wide. “This is Maria. My date.”

Hank takes the hand Maria extends and shakes it, his hand engulfing hers. “We’re so glad you could join us tonight, Maria! Please, call me Hank. I really only keep up the title in class so the university won’t get antsy.”

“Hey, Hank,” Maria says, feeling suddenly more at ease. She nods to the cookies in her hand. “Where should we put these?”

“Over there on the table will be fine,” says Hank, gesturing to the table covered in trays of baked goods. “I know Anne - er, Doctor Weaver will be happy you’re here, and not just because you’ve brought food.”

“Good to know,” Maya laughs, leading Maria in that direction with a polite nod.

Skye’s standing near Jemma, who’s in the middle of an enthusiastic discussion with two of her classmates about the discovery of water on Mars in the past or something - Skye tried to be interested, she really did, but they’re all using so many complicated words that she had to tune out eventually. So instead she’s gazing around the room, hoping to spot someone she might actually understand, when she sees Maya and Maria come in. “Oh, hey, Jem, Maya and Officer Mom are here!” She tugs on Jemma’s sleeve.

“Oh!” Jemma exclaims, holding up one hand to pause the other conversation and glancing in the direction that Skye is. “That’s funny. I wonder why Officer Hill came?”

“Could go find out,” says Skye, hoping maybe Jemma will wrap up her science talk. She loves listening to it normally, but right now she’s bored and something new and shiny has occupied her attention.

“Yes, all right,” Jemma agrees, excusing herself with a polite smile and letting her girlfriend lead her off. She’s all smiles, though, all friendly waves aimed at everyone around her regardless of how well she knows them (it’s possible she knows every single one of them, it seems like a small enough program) and a sort of personal poise that she doesn’t entirely exhibit at the mall or at mall-related social functions.

“Hey, Maya! ‘Sup.”

“Hey, Skye,” Maya says, confused for just a split second before she sees Jemma standing there as well and puts two and two together. “Cookie?”

“Yes!” Skye grins and grabs one, wolfing it down in the most undignified manner. Hey, Maya’s cookies are practically legendary, she can’t be blamed. And these are pumpkin cookies, which are supposed to be incredible.

“Don’t choke,” Maya says dryly.

“I won’t,” says Skye around a mouthful of cookie.

Jemma rolls her eyes. “Excuse her,” she mutters. “Sometimes she loses her dignity at the prospect of sweets.” Much more delicately, she reaches for a cookie and nibbles at it. “These are wonderful, though!”

“Thanks,” Maya smiles. “They seemed seasonal.”

Skye is busy shoving another cookie into her mouth, but she grunts in agreement.

“Did you just arrive?” Jemma asks the older women.

“A few minutes ago, yeah,” Maria agrees. “Good thing your professor has a big enough driveway for all of these people to park and still be able to maneuver out at the end of the night.”

“So why are you here, Maria?” Skye butts in, having polished off her second cookie. She doesn’t mean to be rude, she’s just honestly curious.

Maria and Maya exchange glances that amount to a debate over whether to let the girls in on the joke. The consensus: “I’m Maya’s date.”

Skye can’t stop the giggle that forces its way out of her mouth, but she manages to recover and say, “Ah, gotcha. That’s...interesting.”

“Glad you think so,” Maya quips, eyes apparently lighting on someone or something across the room. “Hey, we ought to go make the rounds. Nice seeing you, all right?” And with that she nudges Maria away, leaving the girls with more questions still.

“Well, that was weird.” Skye reaches for another cookie.

Jemma shrugs. “They’re probably just very private people,” she suggests. “I mean, they must be, given that nobody even knew they were an item.”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s not the most random couple I’ve ever seen, but it’s not something I would’ve guessed either.” Skye shrugs. “Sharon’s out fifteen bucks.”

“Why is that?” Jemma asks, perplexed.

“Oh, don’t you know about the bisexual romcom?” Off Jemma’s continued puzzled look, Skye continues, “So basically there are, uh, were, I guess, three people in the mall who are all into Melinda May: Officer Dad, Officer Mom, and Sif. Basically Darcy figured it out and started a betting pool based on who May’s gonna choose. Personally, my money’s on Officer Dad, but I’ve only got ten bucks in there so I don’t have much to lose. Sharon bet on Maria.”

“Oh,” Jemma murmurs, faintly horrified. She glances about the room nervously, as if erasing the conversation, and adds, “I need to introduce you to Gwen and Peter!”

Skye chuckles. “Okay! I do wanna finally meet the fabled Gwen Stacy.”

Jemma giggles, taking Skye by the hand and dragging her toward a blonde girl wearing a pencil skirt, cream top and blazer and talking quietly with a tall, wiry boy in a hideously ugly Christmas sweater. “You guys!” Jemma exclaims. “Your… dear god, that’s an awful sweater.”

“Isn’t it?” asks Gwen with a grin. “He lost a bet. My grade in Weaver’s class was higher than his, so he got to wear this monstrosity.”

“By two points!” complains Peter, but he’s grinning too. “I still feel like it was rigged somehow. You just happened to buy this in exactly my size.”

“Oh stop whining, you baby.” Gwen nudges him with her shoulder. Then she turns to really look at Skye. “Oh my god, Jemma, is this your girlfriend? Skye? I’ve heard so much about you!”

“That’s me,” says Skye, a little embarrassed by Gwen’s enthusiasm. “Jem’s told me a lot about you too. If I didn’t know better I’d think she had a crush,” she teases.

“Skye,” Jemma hisses. “Honestly, I don’t know what’s gotten into you tonight.” She fakes a smile. “She just likes to tease me,” she tells Gwen and Peter.

Peter laughs. “Sounds like Gwen. Do you work at the mall too, Skye?”

“Yeah, I’m an Apple drone,” says Skye in the most deadpan tone possible. “Not my career of choice, but hey, it’s a paycheck. Weirdly, hacking’s not an easily marketable skill. At least, not one that keeps you steadily employed.”

“Ah.” Peter nods. “I’m lucky the Daily Bugle needs someone to code the website because no one there even knows what HTML is.”

Skye groans. “Normal people, right?”

 


 

“I can’t believe you refused to wear the stupid sweater, man. Stupid sweaters are required at Christmas parties!”

Fitz rolls his eyes. “No, they’re not. My outfit is fine,” he says, gesturing to the checkered button-up, tie, and cardigan he’s wearing. “Perfectly appropriate for the occasion.”

“Yeah, but you wear sweaters all the time. I don’t know why you got all bent out of shape about the one I suggested,” teases Trip.

“My sweaters don’t have bloody reindeer on them!”

Trip pouts exaggeratedly. “We could’ve matched, though.” He adjusts the headband he’s wearing that features a silly-looking pair of antlers.

“Nope.” Fitz shakes his head.

“You won’t wear it for even one picture?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry,” a blonde girl with big hazel eyes and even bigger glasses exclaims, rushing over. “I really don’t mean to eavesdrop, but - but Christmas sweaters! They really are very important. It’s a socially acceptable excuse to wear sweaters trimmed with sequins! See?” She waves behind her and suddenly a whole group appears, all of them very definitely decked out in horrible Christmas sweaters.

Her own is respectably pink and white, but the white band around the collar does have pink snowflakes and reindeer in it. The others’ sweaters range from nerdy (a green one reading “Thundercats Ho! Ho! Ho!” with an appropriate image, two robots high-fiving over a red and white ski lodge sort of pattern) to classic (black with a repeating pattern of gingerbread men and snowmen under a sleigh, a slightly chaotic mishmash of patterns and colors that’s basically your traditional ugly Christmas sweater) to...well, one of the girls is wearing one that features a unicorn with a glowing red nose. Trip’s a little envious, he won’t lie.

Fitz looks mildly horrified. “Where did you lot even find all of those? They’re...” He trails off.

The other girl in the group, who’s shorter and chewing gum, gestures to the boy wearing the robot sweater. “That one I found because Hiro refused to wear one unless we could find him one with robots on it.” She snaps her gum and looks pleased with herself. “He didn’t count on my online shopping skills.”

“But he really should have figured,” the first girl declares, beaming. “Because you’ve got all sorts of crazy awesome skills!”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Hiro grumbles. “I’m gonna go get more cookies.” He wanders off in the direction of the food table.

One of the taller boys rolls his eyes and smiles fondly. “That kid. He’s a handful. So, I’ve seen you around on campus. Fitz, right? I’m Tadashi.”

“Hi,” says Fitz shyly. “You’re from SFIT, right? I’ve been following your work with that, that healthcare robot, it’s amazing.”

“Say what now? This guy builds robots too?” asks Trip.

Tadashi chuckles, looking slightly embarrassed. “Yeah, I do. I’ve spent the last six months working on a healthcare robot, Baymax, and I just put some test videos up on the web. You might have seen them?”

“Oh yeah! He’s showed them to me. Got all excited, it was the cutest thing.” Trip pats Fitz’s shoulder and Fitz smiles, embarrassed but pleased by the attention. “That’s awesome. So y’all are here for a semester then?”

“Yes,” the first girl says, extending a hand very decisively. “A short term, it’s just a few weeks in January, but I’ve got family out here so they invited us out early! I’m Honey. And you are?”

“Trip,” he says, shaking her hand. “Very nice to meet you. Honey, is that a nickname or something? I mean, mine is, so.”

She giggles, nodding. “Lots of us have them,” she says, gesturing at her friends.

The girl with the unicorn sweater waves. “Gogo.”

“I’m Fred, and this is Wasabi!” The boy in the Thundercats sweater elbows the much taller, much bulkier boy next to him, who groans. “One time!

“Jemma and Honey are both in biochemistry,” Fitz explains to Trip. “I’ll have class with Wasabi and Gogo but I’ve seen the others around. They’re kind of… legendary.” His voice goes embarrassingly squeaky and nervous on the last word.

“Who called for a living legend?” And suddenly there’s Tony Stark, dropping into the conversation like he’s been there the whole time.

Fitz scrunches up his nose. “Hi, Tony.”

“Hey,” says Tony somewhat dismissively before turning to Gogo and Honey. “And may I say, those sweaters are working for you, ladies.”

Honey winces. “I must not have heard that legend,” she says.

Gogo blows a bubble. “You’re Tony Stark, aren’t you?” She doesn’t sound thrilled about it.

“In the flesh.” Tony spreads his arms as if he’s making a grand entrance.

Just then Bruce, looking frantic, runs up behind him. “Tony, what are you doing?”

“Oh, y’know, mingling. Isn’t that what you do at parties?”

Bruce gives him a beleaguered look and hisses, “Yes, but maybe don’t hit on my students?”

“You’re only a TA, technically they’re not yours…”

Bruce,” an elegant dark-skinned British woman croons, appearing at his side and carefully laying a hand on his arm. “So good to see you again. I see you brought a guest.” The last word is sniffed out as she looks Tony over.

Bruce sighs and runs his hand through his hair. “Yes, this is Tony. Tony was just leaving to get some refreshments,” he adds, narrowing his eyes at his companion.

“Oh, was I? Is there booze at this party? I didn’t see any, all I saw was the eggnog. Which, I mean, beggars can’t be choosers, but between the two…”

The woman pastes on a smile. “There’s a bar in the far corner, in the main room,” she says. “Open with exceptions.” Which means that the bartender is fully allowed to cut guests off.

“Ooh, very nice. Am I speaking to the hostess? You clearly have impeccable taste, madam.” Tony ignores the furious elbow Bruce keeps driving into his ribs.

“Yes,” she says, at the same time that Honey exclaims, “This is Dr. Anne Weaver and I think she’s a legend too.”

For once Tony looks appropriately cowed. “The Dr. Weaver? Well, I seem to have fucked this up pretty well so maybe I’ll just go get that drink now, unless… any of you would like anything…?”

Trip’s trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to hide his giggles, while the expressions of everyone else who’s been part of the conversation range from uncomfortable to amused. “I think we’re all good here,” says Tadashi.

“Then I’ll take my leave.” Tony slips out of the room just as quickly as he’d come in.

On his way to the bar, he spots Thor and Jane hanging around near the entrance. “Oh thank god, someone here who isn’t totally lame!” he says, going over to them. “Nice to see you, man. And, uh, you too,” he hurriedly adds to Jane.

“Nice to see you too, Tony,” Jane says with a barely-suppressed sigh.

“Hello there, friend!” booms Thor in his customary enthusiastic way. “What are you doing at this fine party?”

“Oh, well I badgered Bruce into letting me come and, y’know, mingle, but I was actually just on my way to find the bar, you wanna come?”

Thor turns to Jane. “Do you object to my leaving you for a while?”

“I promise I’ll be fine,” Jane laughs, standing on her tiptoes to give him a kiss before waving him off. “Go have bro fun.”

“And you as well, my love.” Thor smiles fondly as she heads toward a group of her classmates, then turns back to Tony. “Let us drink seasonal ales together, my friend!”

“You said it, man,” replies Tony, chuckling.

 


 

Maya’s slipped back into the room with the food, in hopes of another cookie for Maria and also one for herself. She grabs them and is just about to leave when a smooth voice purrs, “M’lady.”

She sighs. “Hello, Killian,” she says without turning around, busying herself with piling more snacks onto the napkin in her hand.

“Oh, I see you’ve brought some of your excellent cookies. Mind if I partake of one?”

Maya has to keep from laughing out loud at that. “They’re on the snack table for anyone,” she says.

“Well yes, but you’re here, and I think it’s only polite to ask the baker.” Killian reaches around her to take one and bites it in a way that she’s sure is meant to be suggestive, but mostly just looks ridiculous because it’s a fucking cookie. “I hope your date hasn’t abandoned such a lovely creature as yourself?”

“Oh, she wouldn’t dream of it,” Maya declares airily, emphasizing the she. “But healthy couples are capable of leaving each other’s side for a minute or two, generally speaking…”

Killian looks a little shaken up by her use of “she” but he quickly recovers. “Of course! I was merely concerned that she might not be appreciating you properly. You definitely deserve to be appreciated.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m plenty appreciated.” She drops her voice, breaks into a grin. “In every way possible.”

“Excellent.” Killian smiles in the faux-happy way she’s come to expect from him. “Do you think I might be able to meet this girl? I want to make sure she’s worthy of you. You know, as a friend.”

“Worthy?” repeats Maria, striding up and wrapping an arm around Maya’s waist casually. “I didn’t realize that was for a third party to decide.”

“I merely speak out of concern for a friend,” says Killian, flashing her his very best I’m-charming smile. It reminds Maya of the way apes bare their teeth as a sign of aggression.

“Uh-huh,” Maria says disbelievingly. “What’s your name, friend?”

“Aldrich Killian, at your service,” he says, extending a hand. Maya’s pretty sure if he were wearing a hat indoors, he would tip it. She’s kind of surprised he’s not, honestly.

“At my - wow, uh.” Maria doesn’t even bother to hide her grimace. She does give his hand a shake, but in the most perfunctory way she can. Then she turns to Maya. “I think they’re starting bad Christmas cartoons in the next room. Wanna join the mayhem?”

“Very much,” Maya says with a relieved sigh.

Killian gives them a little wave. “Have a pleasant evening, ladies, and a blessed yule.”

“May your Christmas tree not catch on fire,” Maya coos as she lets Maria guide her away.

The room set up for movie-viewing and the like isn’t as expansive or raucous as the main room, and that’s something of a relief; they manage to snag a small couch toward the front of the room and impulsively Maria twines her free hand with Maya’s. Might as well keep the cover up, or… something like that.

It’s sort of hard to pay attention to the cartoon when at least half of the people in the room are engaged in separate not-quite-private conversations, but that’s okay, because who hasn’t already seen Frosty the Snowman and who really needs to pay attention to get the plot of it? Instead Maria casually starts eavesdropping on whoever’s the loudest.

Which at the moment happens to be Fitz from the Mac Store, and while she doesn’t always understand what his rants are about, she can count on them to be noteworthy.

“See, I just don’t understand what the point of this song is. He’s magicked alive by the hat but then he only gets to be alive for a day? And how is he the same snowman if he’s made out of different materials each year? What is so special about this damn hat in particular? Is it just a lesson in patience? That’s not something I wanted to be reminded of as a kid.”

Trip, who’s sort of spooning him, laughs. “I really don’t think you’re supposed to think that much about it. It’s Christmas magic, y’know? Like Rudolph. Why’d he have that red nose? Who knows. He’s just special.”

“Yes, but Rudolph has a point. It’s a typical outcast narrative. Frosty is, what? A horrifying reminder to children that someday their friends will all leave them?”

“Quit being a Grinch.” Trip burrows his face in Fitz’s neck.

Fitz squeaks (apparently he’s ticklish) and murmurs, “Even that one makes sense to me, it’s about the true meaning of Christmas and whatnot. This is just horrifying once you’re old enough to understand the impli-” He doesn’t get to finish his sentence because Trip kisses him. At first he makes a little indignant noise, but then he melts into Trip a little and seems content, flopping against him after the kiss has ended.

“Frosty just evolves.”

Fitz, fully unprepared for the new voice, jumps in Trip’s arms and actually yelps. He calms after a second and, twisting his head, sees Raina sitting a few inches from them, where she definitely hadn’t been a few minutes ago. “Where did you come from?”

Raina shrugs, needlessly smoothing the satin of her poinsettia-print dress over her waist. “It’s not a well-thought-out story, but I get what they were going for. Things change. You can’t fight it, so you might as well go with it.”

Fitz, still twitching a little, stutters, “W-well yes, that’s all very well, but… but you weren’t there just a minute ago and now you are and where did you come from? You don’t even go here!”

“Who can keep track of how these parties go,” she murmurs dismissively before reaching to untangle her hair from her flower crown. She gives Trip a long look as she points out, “Neither does he.”

“Well, no, but he’s my - he’s with me, and you’re…” Fitz stops talking to try and collect his thoughts. “What I mean is, do you even know anyone from this school? It doesn’t seem your… scene.”

“Of course I do,” she exclaims, giggling. “And why would I be boring enough to limit myself to just one scene?” But with that, she gathers herself together and flits off just as mysteriously as she arrived.

Fitz blinks after her and makes a confused whining noise. Trip squeezes his hand reassuringly. “Let’s just forget that ever happened,” he suggests. “That girl’s just weird.”

“Okay,” says Fitz, nodding furiously.

“Hey guys, drinking contest starts in five!” Tony Stark calls into the room. “You know you wanna be there!”

“Nope,” say Trip and Fitz in unison, refusing to move.

“Your loss.”

 


 

“So the rules…”

“There aren’t rules, just drink!” Tony interrupts, downing a shot of whiskey.

“Cheater,” Jane scolds. “There are designated shots.” She gestures to the impossible number of currently flaming shots with Pop Rocks around the rims of the glasses that are currently laid out on the table that everyone is surrounding.

Everyone: Maria, looking incredibly doubtful about what she’s about to do; Professor Selvig, looking even more doubtful, if that’s possible; Tony, who has a confident smirk on his face; Skye, who’s eyeing the table of shots with determination; Peter, who looks comically out of place, like a beagle puppy that’s wandered in amongst a bunch of Rottweilers; Thor, grinning from ear to ear; and Fred, completely relaxed and potentially already under the influence of illicit substances.

Jemma, who’s perched on a bar stool nearby, has to take note of the fact that more than half of the participants in this little contest aren’t actually students here. It makes a kind of sense, probably.

“All right, on the count of three, shots,” Jane instructs. “And remember to extinguish the fires before you drink. Or -” She sighs, then pushes between Peter and Thor and just blows all of the fires out like it’s her giant alcoholic birthday cake. That’s one less thing that can go wrong.

“Awwww,” groans Fred.

“Uh, dude, you’re not actually a dragon, remember?” says Tadashi, who’s sitting next to Jemma watching the proceedings (likely to retrieve his friend once he passes out).

“I know, but it would’ve been awesome!”

Jane heaves a sigh, because it’s stuff like that that she’s worried about. But - they’re all determined to do this, so she’ll chaperone. Or something. She really shouldn’t be chaperoning a professor, but here they are. “One… two… three!”

They all down their shots, and there’s a smattering of giggles as they start to feel the effects of the Pop Rocks. “I’m pretty sure this was the best idea for a drink ever,” says Skye.

“Careful,” Jemma calls out before she can stop herself doing.

“You be careful!” says Skye, which means she’s feeling the effects of the alcohol already.

Jemma anxiously searches around her for something that will calm her and, finding nothing, settles for exchanging a mildly despairing look with Tadashi.

By this point everyone is at least on their second shot, though Selvig looks as if he regrets his entire life.

After shot number three, Maria groans and turns on her heel to get out of there. “I can’t be setting a bad example for the children,” she mutters, moving to join Maya on one of the couches near the tree.

“Look at you, being all responsible,” Maya murmurs, giving Maria a very indecipherable look.

“I quite like this. Another!” says Thor, tossing an empty shotglass over his shoulder and grabbing for his fifth.

“Oooooookay, I think I’m done,” groans Peter, pushing away his fourth.

“Damn right you are, dumbass.” Gwen guides him away from the table and toward a couch. “I’d say I told you so, but I know you’ll never listen to me about this.”

Tony downs another. “This is incredible, just fucking incredible. How did I never think to combine Pop Rocks, alcohol, and fire? That’s like my three favorite things in the whole world. Jane, you’re brilliant! I mean not as brilliant as me, but I’ll concede general brilliance.”

Jane shrugs modestly. “I’d rather be brilliant for my work than for novelty shots that I saw on the internet, but I’ll accept the compliment.”

“Good.” Tony shoots her a wink - Thor’s drinking, he won’t notice - and then takes another shot.

Fred giggles. “My throat feels like it’s on fire! And exploding! I am a dragon!” He proceeds to attempt to stand up and do God knows what, only managing to stagger to his feet for an instant before flopping to the floor and beginning to snore.

“Okay, I think it’s time for Fred the Dragon to call it a night,” chuckles Tadashi. He checks to make sure Fred’s not badly injured before hauling him to his feet as best he can. “Wake up, man, we gotta get you back to your cave.”

“Cave? Is there treasure? Do I have a hoard of treasure?” mumbles Fred as Tadashi herds him out of the room.

“The rest of you hanging in there?” Jane asks, sounding skeptical.

“I’m great!” yells Skye, belching. “I’ve never felt better in my whole life! I’m gonna go start karaoke!” She staggers to her feet, then collapses. Making a comically determined face, she attempts an odd sort of shuffling dragging motion that doesn’t quite require her to be upright to get to the door.

“Oh, no,” Jemma murmurs, running to her girlfriend’s aid. She supports Skye under the arms and guides her toward the farthest corner of the room, which isn’t much quieter but any little bit will do and she doesn’t want to even try to move Skye any more than that. “Just stay here, darling. I’m going to get you some water.” Then, after a moment: “And whatever you do, do not lie flat on your back, all right?”

“Why would I?” hiccups Skye. “You can’t sing karaoke flat on your back. But you can do other things... Jemma Simmons, are you…” Those are the last words she gets out before dozing off.

Meanwhile, Selvig and Thor are going head-to-head, downing shots almost too fast for Jane to follow them. Tony has either passed out or wandered away in the last two minutes, she didn't notice which. “You match yourself to a champion, Selvig!” says Thor, grinning. “At this point it would be more honorable for you to concede the contest!”

“Nope!” grunts Selvig. “Not happening!”

“For the love of - stop,” Jane shouts, sounding a little too frantic. “Please. We get it.”

“Ah, but Jane, we were enjoying ourselves. Or,” says Thor, with a grin, “I certainly was. Your professor is looking a bit ill, I think.”

“I’m fine,” says Selvig, but he really doesn’t look it. “Where’s that karaoke?”

 


 

When Jemma enters the kitchen, she’s surprised to see Jane standing at the counter, sipping what could either be a clear alcohol or water but is probably water given that she’s distanced herself from the bar to drink it. “Hello,” she calls shyly.

“Hi,” Jane returns. In a mostly-amused voice, she asks, “Have you just been wandering around getting air since you ducked out of that mess?”

“Well, technically,” Jemma shrugs. “I always get lost in this house. I mean, always in the two times I’ve been, but it’s just so - well. I’m rather used to normal-sized houses or more recently flats where you can stand in one spot and see at least the doors to every room.”

“Makes sense,” Jane nods. “Dr. Weaver really does well for herself.”

“Oh, yes,” Jemma agrees. “She’s marvelously talented, really.” Before she goes off tangenting on their hostess and professor’s myriad other positive qualities, Jemma cuts herself off with a little laugh and a smirk. “And truth told, I’m not upset to have had a few moments to myself. But I really ought to get - well, the whole goal was to come to get water for Skye. Poor thing. She’s good at so many things but apparently fizzy-candy-infused shots contests aren’t on the list.”

“She held on all right,” calls Maya, appearing in the doorway with a casual smile. “I’m not sure if saying that with more practice she could improve is a good thing in this case, though.”

The other two women both laugh at that. “Perhaps not,” Jemma says. “Are you getting water for yourself and/or your girlfriend too?”

Maya shrugs. “I’m not opposed to the possibility,” she declares. “Not that - can you guys keep a secret?”

Jemma nods very ardently; Jane offers a sincere, “Of course.”

“Maria’s not really my girlfriend,” Maya says in a low voice. “I told Killian I already had a date to this so I wouldn’t have to go with him and asked her to fill the role.”

Jane snickers. “Is that why he’s been hovering around you and staring at you across the room all night?”

“Probably,” Maya sighs. “Either that or he’s just a creepy douchebag who isn’t as interesting or special as he thinks he is.” She rolls her eyes and feels oddly vindicated to see the other two do the same. “But Maria, she’s not interested. Not really. I mean, she’s got that thing for Melinda…”

“So the bet really is real?” Jemma exclaims, then looks appalled at herself for having spilled.

“You mean the ridiculous one Darcy set up?” Jane asks.

“Where is Darcy, anyway?” Maya interrupts, eager to get the attention off of herself. “She usually comes with you to these things.”

“Darcy, uh… had plans,” Jane says evasively. So what if the plans were to get her unofficial but totally obvious boyfriend to… do things with her in her own apartment since she had it to herself for the evening. That doesn’t need to get mentioned.

“Well, I’m sorry to have missed her, I guess, but I’m glad she’s not gonna get firsthand evidence that Maria’s out of the running,” Maya muses. “That she looks like she’s out of the running. Because she’s still interested and she’s just doing me a favor. Because we’re friends.”

Jane and Jemma look at each other, both somewhere between surprised (mostly Jemma) and smug (mostly Jane). If this is what it looks like, Jane thinks, then she might have actually managed to catch on to something before Darcy, and she’s not going to brag about that but it feels like a weird sort of accomplishment.

“She’s a good friend, then,” Jemma says diplomatically. “Especially since this isn’t her usual social group.”

“Hey, there are plenty of us who brought non-science people,” Jane points out. “You did, I did. Fitz did. Are they really…?”

Jemma nods. “I’m really glad of it,” she murmurs. “He finally found someone who’s actually going to be make him happy the way he needs, I think. And Trip is a great guy. To think, this all started because some boy came into the Mac Store needing repairs done but not needing them explained to him in layman’s terms.”

“That’s cute,” Jane says.

“They seem pretty happy,” agrees Maya. “I mean, Trip’s always happy, basically, but watching him talk about his boyfriend is one of those oddly life-affirming things. And seeing them together melts my cynic’s heart.”

Jemma chuckles. “I… won’t tell Fitz you said that,” she says. “He’d get all embarrassed and go bright red and not want to ever be seen in public again.” She glances at the clock and makes an embarrassed sort of squeak. “Goodness, Skye’s going to think I forgot about her.” Jane points her in the direction of the glasses and Jemma rushes to fill one.

“Couldn’t have that,” Maya drawls.

“I really couldn’t,” Jemma exclaims before making for the door and calling her goodbyes over her shoulder.

She dashes down the hall - or dashes as best she can with a full glass of water in her hands - but she stops short upon seeing none other than the just-mentioned boys having what looks like a private moment. She knows better than to interrupt those when they look like they’re going well, so she stays very still and tries not to make any noise.

And while she hadn’t been in the shots contest, she’s had enough to drink tonight that she doesn’t feel guilty about semi-eavesdropping.

“Hey look, mistletoe,” Trip’s saying, his amusement obvious in his voice.

Fitz scoffs. “Do you know the actual history of that custom? It’s ridiculous, quite frankly, it all has to do with Norse mythology and the god Loki being an arse and making-”

But midway through his explanation, Trip, laughing warmly, gently grabs his face and pulls him into a kiss.

Without meaning to, Jemma lets out an audible yelp of joy, then makes to cover her mouth with her hand so clumsily-fast that she splashes water on her blouse. She’ll blame this on the alcohol, too.

Fitz, startled, immediately breaks the kiss and calls, “Who’s there?”

“Hello,” Jemma says weakly.

“Oh, it’s you,” says Fitz, relaxing a bit. “What are you doing back there?”

“I was, ah, I was getting Skye a glass of water,” she explains as she walks the rest of the way toward the boys. “When I left her she was passed out on the couch, having just been all - all pouty and out of it.”

“Oh yeah, I heard something about a drinking contest in the other room,” says Trip with a chuckle. “Should’ve known she’d get mixed up in it.”

Fitz is looking impatient. “Shouldn’t you, er, get back to her then?”

“Probably,” Jemma nods. “I… I’ll leave you two, then. Have fun!” And with that she’s gone in the direction of her sad sleepy girlfriend.

“Now, where were we?” Trip murmurs, grinning.

“Right about here, I think,” says Fitz, covering Trip’s mouth with his own.

When they come up for air a few minutes later, Fitz says, “Alright, fine, I suppose I can see the appeal of mistletoe.”

 


 

“Everyone! Taxis are waiting outside for those who feel unsuited for driving!” calls Hank, who’s making the rounds of the house to ensure that everyone knows it’s time to leave. “Please, don’t drive if you feel even a bit intoxicated!”

Various groups of people make their way towards the door, calling out their goodbyes and well-wishes to each other. Hank tries to shoo them out in his friendly but firm way, knowing that even if the next day is a Saturday, a good night’s sleep is important.

Finally, they all seem to be on their way and the house is quiet once again. Hank shuts the door and turns to Anne. “Well, my dear, I’d say that was a success.”

“None of our students got sick or wound up doing anything embarrassingly sexual in front of us,” she murmurs wryly.

“And that’s certainly an achievement,” he says, grinning. “I supposed we’d better tidy up the house a bit, and then shall we celebrate our accomplishments as party hosts?”

“I like the sound of that very much,” she declares. “Would you indulge a bit of celebrating before we get to the unpleasant task of cleaning?”

He smiles. “Of course!” Pulling her close to him, he kisses her.

“OH!”

Anne turns in the direction of the sound and isn’t wholly surprised to see Jane Foster standing in the doorway, looking alarmed.

“I just, uh, I came to get my coat, which I forgot,” Jane says quickly. “I’ll… do that.”

She sets about doing that, then ducks back out again with a murmured polite goodbye, quick enough to miss the amused look on Anne’s face.

“Oh dear,” says Hank, but he’s grinning. “I suppose the proverbial cat is out of the bag?”

“Seems like,” Anne agrees. “I’m sure we’ll make do.”

“Indeed we will.” Hank laughs and kisses her again.

Chapter Text

“Where do you want this?” Ian asks, lugging a cardboard box that looks heavy enough to topple him over into the grand living room.

“Ask the girls,” Frigga says kindly, nodding to the side of the room where Jane and Darcy are unpacking boxes of their own.

“Darcy?” he calls out, bewildered.

“You’re a dear,” Darcy returns, grinning and waving him over.

The doorbell rings, and Frigga, being closest to the door, answers. Sif and Melinda are standing there, wearing seasonally appropriate clothing. “Oh, hello, Sif!” she exclaims, leaning to hug her as best she can around the giant bag in Sif’s arms. “You’ve brought a guest!” She’s never actually met Melinda, of course, but she knows of her and the context in which Sif has invited her to the party.

“Hi, Mom!” Sif grins. “This is Melinda.” Melinda gives her the smallest smile and a quick wave, which is practically a warm hug.

“What have you brought?” Frigga asks, nodding to the bag.

“Oh, you’ll see,” says Sif with a grin.

“Oh, my,” Frigga murmurs. “Well, come in and have some refreshments! There’s more than enough to go around.”

“Thanks,” says Melinda. “Is there alcohol?”

“I’ll show you!” Sif says eagerly, putting her hand on Melinda’s arm to lead her.

As they go deeper into the house, they pass Volstagg, who is wearing a well-loved Santa suit and a bright grin. “Sif!” he calls. “You’ve arrived!” His three children, who are eating cookies, wave eagerly and call “Hi, Sif!”

“I see you still haven’t managed to get a new suit,” teases Sif.

Volstagg laughs. “And why should I? I’ve only just broken this one in!”

Darcy twirls up, her tutu fanning out around her. “Why, hello, my fellow holiday figurehead!”

“Er...I admit I don’t understand that reference.” Volstagg frowns.

“I’m the Hanukkah Fairy, of course!” She holds out her silver-and-blue skirt, then motions to her wings (which have the same letters as a dreidel painted on them).

“Daddy, what’s the Hanukkah Fairy?” asks Hildy, the youngest child.

“I fly around the whole world for eight days to bring presents to the good little Jewish kids,” Darcy explains, lightly tapping Hildy on the shoulder with her wand, which is topped with a Star of David.

“Oh,” says Hildy, nodding very seriously.

“I hadn’t heard that part of the story,” chimes in Melinda with a smirk.

Darcy shrugs. “What can I say? We have to do something to keep up.”

“I see.”

Stifling a laugh, Sif says, “Do you still want that drink, Melinda?”

“Please.” Melinda brushes her hand against Sif’s arm. This makes Sif twitch and look uncertain, her eyes widening, before nodding and leading Melinda off again.

Hogun wanders up a few minutes after they leave, nodding at Volstagg. “Hello.”

At his side is Hannah from the makeup counter, smiling sheepishly. “Nice to see you,” she says.

Hildy runs over to tacklehug Hogun’s leg. “Hogun! You’re here!” The other two swarm him, chattering excitedly.

“Hello, children,” says Hogun, smiling widely and patting Hildy’s head.

Hannah can’t help but grin as she watches that, which means she’s not paying enough attention to her surroundings to expect it when someone comes up behind her and claps her on the shoulder. “Good evening, fair maiden!” comes the accompanying voice.

It’s Fandral, who’s smiling at her in a way that makes her some sort of uncomfortable she can’t quite place, accompanied by a tall, dark-haired girl that she doesn’t recognize from the mall. She’s classy in the way that a lot of Nordstrom customers are classy, but she’s got a friendly enough smile that Hannah doesn’t find her intimidating.

“Fair maiden isn’t exactly the compliment you think it is, Fandral,” she murmurs good-naturedly.

He looks perplexed by this, but soon shakes it off. “Friends!” he exclaims instead, nodding at Hogun and Volstagg. “I believe I’ve mentioned Linnea.  The nurse.”  He says this last with a suggestive smile.

“Nursing student,” Linnea corrects.

“I’m surprised to meet you,” Hogun says, not unkindly.

“What I think he means,” Volstagg adds, “is that from what we’ve heard of you, you seem much too refined for this one.” With a teasing nod toward Fandral.

“This is a trial run,” Linnea deadpans. “Hogun and Volstagg? The kids, I assume, are yours. And you must be…?”

“Hannah,” supplies Hannah. “Hi. I, ah, I work at the mall too.”

“Well, Hannah,” Linnea declares, “if you don’t mind, I’m deeming you my go-to levelheaded person tonight. You seem much less prone to harebrained schemes than the boys.”

Hannah giggles. “I’ll do my best,” she promises.

 


 

“He thinks there’s something going on between us that there isn’t,” Lorelei is saying as she alights from the car, bare leg out first like a starlet for the cameras. “That’s the only explanation.”

“You could have stayed home instead,” Raina points out.

“Boring,” Lorelei scoffs. She holds an arm out to Raina and Raina accepts it, burrowing closer into Lorelei’s side than is strictly necessary. “Any time there’s the chance to make an entrance, I take it.”

“You’re good at it,” Raina murmurs fondly. Up ahead of them she spots Nebula and her twee little girlfriend, both of them looking out of place on the grounds of this very refined estate. “Hello, robot girl!” she calls out.

The younger girls turn to look, and Nebula lets out a whistle. “Look at the pair of you,” she says, rather shamelessly eyeing Lorelei up. “This the one you’re going to use that fancy-ass lotion stuff on?”

“She already did,” Lorelei croons, then turning to Raina to ask, “Your tattoo friends?”

“She is,” Raina says, nodding to Nebula. “She, I’m guessing, is here on the same invitation as you. She’s the lost boy’s coworker.”

“You’re Lorelei from, from Victoria’s Secret, right?” Carina asks shyly.

“Aren’t you cute,” Lorelei murmurs.

When they knock on the door, it’s appropriately Loki (looking sullen in a green sweater and dark slacks that just scream “Mommy dressed me today”) who answers it, and as his eyes rove over the four women before him, he goes from bored to confused to alarmed to intrigued and then back to bored for good measure. “Come in, I suppose,” he says with a shrug.

They do, with amused looks at each other. Inside Heimdall is waiting with a pleasant smile. “Good evening,” he says. “May I take your coats?”

“Sure, Jeeves.” Nebula smirks and hands him both her and Carina’s coats.

The corner of Heimdall’s mouth turns up as he takes them.

Raina tilts her head. “The festivities are elsewhere?” she asks, though it’s an obvious question. It’s so obvious that it’s not at all, because how he answers will imply so much.

“In the other room,” he says patiently, nodding in the general direction.

“Wonderful,” she murmurs, stressing the first syllable. She takes Lorelei’s hand (Lorelei, who didn’t have to hand her coat over because she didn’t wear one, despite it being December) and leads her off.

The next knock at the door reveals Victoria and Isabelle, who are wearing aggressively normal-looking outfits and identical incredulous looks. Heimdall looks pleased to see them. “I’m glad you came.”

“We certainly did,” Victoria says, managing to sound only a little bit guarded.

Nebula stares at them for a long moment, noting their outfits, and comments, “You have pink hair too. Look, Carina, you’re twins!”

From the little that Victoria has overheard, Carina isn’t notably horrible, but she’s still practically an infant and apparently attached to this annoyingly alternative delinquent. So the only thing she says is, “There’s a small difference between a full head of pink hair and streaks,” and then asks Heimdall, “Drinks are…?”

“Probably we just need to follow the sound of chaos,” says Isabelle dryly. The noises from further inside the house are strong indicators that there’s definitely some drunken antics going on.

 


 

“..but Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”

Having the Christmas story actually read to them from the Bible feels a little bit like being in Sunday school, or anyway that’s what Nebula assumes, although she never went to Sunday school, but this Hannah girl actually seems to buy into it, so it’s not anything that they can get snarky about. Loki’s mom even starts a round of soft, polite applause that (after some nudging from Carina) she joins in on as Hannah sits back down, smiling sheepishly.

“That was very nice, Hannah, dear,” Frigga declares (her husband grunts in what’s probably agreement). “Now, I think, ah… Jane? Darcy? You had put together… something?”

Odin grunts again, this time seeming more annoyed, and takes another sip of ale.

“You betcha,” Darcy exclaims, hopping up from her seat with her clipboard (she’s spent way too long decorating it to look like an old piece of paper, which would be a little more convincing if she wasn’t dressed up like a fucking fairy).

Jane grabs her own clipboard and waves to the other participants to get backstage; of course Ian gets up, and to Sif’s surprise, so do Thor, Volstagg, Hogun, and Fandral. “It occurred to me,” Jane begins, “that some of you guys might not actually know the Hanukkah story, so I decided I should contribute tonight by sharing it with you.”

“That’s not a horrible idea,” Melinda mutters to Sif.

“With a dramatic interpretation!” Darcy exclaims.

“On the other hand,” Sif quips to Melinda.

“I wanted to read you a more involved version, but Darcy swore up and down that a children’s version would be easier to, well, interpret,” Jane continues, trying not to roll her eyes at her friend. “So she found this one from a Social Studies For Kids website. Here we go.” She clears her throat and begins to read. “The Hanukkah holiday is an old one. It honors the struggle of ancient Jews to restore the Temple of Jerusalem.”

“Long ago, Judea was ruled by the Syrian king Antiochus,” Darcy picks up, making her voice waver spookily on the last words to accompany… Ian, emerging from behind the curtain that’s been set up wearing a plastic crown. “He said that Jews should give up worshiping Yahweh - that’s God - and worship the Greek gods instead.”

While she’s saying this, Ian pulls a curtain down, revealing a cartoon of Zeus at Mount Olympus, then mimes giving a proclamation, which looks more like he’s miming being a cartoon schoolteacher giving discipline to students.

“The Jews didn’t like this,” Darcy adds, nodding solemnly as the other boys emerge from behind the curtain.

“No shit?” Nebula mutters.

“They refused to abandon Yahweh,” Darcy says. “They decided to do something about it.”

As the boys huddle together like they’re planning a football play. All of them are still wearing their terrible Christmas sweaters except for Volstagg.

“I didn’t know Santa was there when they made Hanukkah,” Raina murmurs to Lorelei with a giggle.

“A man named Judah Maccabee got a group of people together to fight back,” Jane chimes in, beaming proudly as Thor steps out of the cluster and assumes an almost Captain Morganesque stance to indicate his leadership.

“Are you fucking kidding?” Loki exclaims.

“Be nice,” Frigga warns.

“These people got more people to join, and soon they had an army,” Darcy adds enthusiastically, waggling her eyebrows at the audience as Hogun and Fandral pull their dates onstage (Hannah looks mildly amused, Linnea looks politely mortified).

“They fought back,” Jane reads as the boys reach for fake swords and begin to battle (and it’s not a very fair battle, considering that it’s scrawny Ian versus four actually athletic guys, to say nothing of the two girls standing behind them exchanging glances). “For three years, the Jews battled the Syrians for control of Judea. Finally, the Jews won!”

As Fandral lunges forward and pretends to stab Ian in the chest.

“How dashing,” Lorelei coos, earning her an out-of-character glare from Linnea.

“They cleaned the Temple of Jerusalem, removing all Greek symbols and restoring the Jewish symbols. The job was finished on the 25th day of the month of Kislev. This is the day Hanukkah is celebrated. The day varies in the Western calendar,” Jane says, trying her hardest to sound serious despite the fact that Volstagg and Hogun are slashing that picture of Zeus with their wooden swords and Thor and Fandral are retrieving an overlarge fake book reading TORAH from behind the curtain. Linnea and Hannah shrug and sit cross-legged on the floor, waiting to be needed again.

“To help celebrate, Judah and his followers lit an oil lamp,” Darcy reads, which prompts Fandral to run backstage for exactly that (really what it is is a candle in a glass holder, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers). Volstagg retrieves a lighter from the pocket of his Santa jacket and lights the candle. “The supply of oil was very low, but this lamp stayed lit for eight days.”

“Hey, Raina,” Nebula whispers noisily. “You got anything else I could light up for eight days?”

“To honor this extraordinary event, Jews today celebrate the eight days of Hanukkah and call it the ‘Festival of Lights,’” Jane says, which prompts Hogun to run backstage for a menorah for Volstagg to light. “They light a special eight-candle device called a menorah.”

“I told you, Jane, you didn’t have to read that line, you can just call it a candelabra or something,” Darcy rolls her eyes before continuing. “People today give each other gifts - so it’s like Christmas and the baby Jews don’t feel sad and stuff - and make special foods and remember their ancestors who fought to take the temple back. And stuff.”

Jane’s turn to roll her eyes.

“And that’s Hanukkah!” Darcy concludes with a sweeping wave, ushering the cast of their little play to step forward and take a bow.

“Or a version of it, anyway,” Melinda says, low enough for only Sif to hear and wry enough for Sif to smile about.

 


 

By the time the boys start making noise about an ugly sweater contest, Odin has muttered something into Frigga’s ear and Frigga has announced, “We’re retiring for the night, enjoy yourselves, everyone!” Thor envelopes his mother in an affectionate good-night hug, and Loki pretends not to care but looks pleased when Frigga kisses his cheek.

Volstagg is appointed judge because, as Fandral argues, “It would only make sense for Santa to determine the ugliest sweater!” Suddenly there are sweaters being pulled from purses and bags and, apparently, thin air. Soon, half the party guests are decked out and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a line.

Volstagg walks slowly down the line, carefully looking over each contestant. Most of them are generically ugly, but a few are particularly unique. Jane’s has two anthropomorphized dreidels (that look, quite frankly, more like the teeth-brushing mascots one might see in a dentist’s office) holding up a menorah. Heimdall’s features the Abominable Snowman offering a rose and mistletoe to the viewer, and Sif’s - which makes Volstagg laugh out loud for a full minute - is almost normal, except for the pairs of humping reindeer. Through tears in his eyes, Volstagg says “Sif is the winner!”

Thor, pouting, says to her, “You knew it would make him laugh. You’ve appealed to our juvenile senses of humor!” But he can’t help but grin after a moment. Jane rolls her eyes good-naturedly.

“Your prize, m’lady.” With great ceremony, Volstagg presents her with a comically cheap pair of giant plastic eyeglasses with holly-themed foam frames.

“A highly coveted prize, I see.” Melinda’s smirking. Sif blushes just slightly and smiles.

After the contestants disperse, to mingle or drink more as they see fit, Raina approaches Heimdall with one of her eerie smiles. “I think yours is more creative,” she tells him sweetly. “How do you interpret the symbolism?”

Chapter Text

“I suppose you’re wondering why I called you all here tonight.  For that matter, I’m sort of wondering why I called you here tonight, and whether it would’ve been better to just skip out on this altogether, but have you ever had a quintessential all-American boy look at you like the world depends on you doing what he’s asked you to?  It’s really unsettling, I don’t usually listen to anybody but I did this time just so he would stop looking at me like that..”

“Don’t suppose you’re gonna get to the point anytime soon, mate,” calls Lance Hunter from where he’s preparing drinks behind the bar.

Tony clears his throat, as if to pretend the interruption was his own idea.  “Well, we’re all here to drink and exchange presents, which are really two of the best things that could happen to you on any given day so I guess it’s as good as any reason to be here.  I’m gonna go get my drink and turn the floor over to the all-American boy himself, Steve Rogers.”

Steve doesn’t roll his eyes in public, but he’s about as close as he gets as he takes the “stage” (which in this case is the platformed entry area where the host station is located).  He beckons to Sharon and Sam to join him, and they do, Sharon holding a large manila envelope clearly marked RECIPIENTS.  “So all of you have been participating in this, which means all of you know how it’s going to work,” Steve says.  “We call a name, the mystery gift-giver gives their gift, the person receiving it expresses gratitude and as much friendship as they’re comfortable with.”

“We’ve assumed you’ve all gone to the trouble of buying actual gifts and not shitty joke gifts,” chimes in Sam with a grin.

“Do we get disqualified if we did bring a shitty joke gift?” calls Darcy.  “Not that I did.”

“There’s no disqualification,” Sharon says with a smile.  “But your recipient will probably appreciate a serious gift more.”

And if other people’s opinions of you matter to you, that would either have served as motivation or will serve as a source of potential shame.  That’s the implication.

“So!” Steve says quickly before any more questions that might be sarcastic can be asked.  “Sharon, the first name?”

She reaches into the envelope.  “Hogun!” she reads out.

Hogun, who’s seated at a booth with Hannah, Carina, Fandral, and Volstagg, gets to his feet.  Thor calls out, “My friend, I have a gift for you!” and hands him a nicely wrapped box.  One corner of Hogun’s mouth turns up when he pulls off the paper to reveal a puzzle map of Hyrule.  “Thank you,” he says, nodding at Thor.

“You are welcome,” says Thor with a grin.

“Now, that’s a great example of the ideal way for this to go,” Steve declares, nodding proudly before reaching into the envelope himself to draw the next name.  “Victoria!”

Victoria, who looks like she would much rather be anywhere but here (she’s sitting at a tall table near the bar, sipping on something that’s the same pink as her hair and covertly texting under the table), waves a hand.

Looking slightly intimidated, Coulson gets up, holding a tall box like he’s afraid he might drop it, and shuffles over to her.  “This is for you.”

Victoria raises an eyebrow.  “Thank you,” she says, and it’s probably the most perfunctory thank you that’s ever been said.  Her expression grows slightly less disdainful as she slices the box’s wrapping open with a fingernail and opens it to reveal a just-slightly-abstract red vase, and to express her apparent approval she nods politely at him before he slinks back to his seat.

>>[picture attached]
>>Not the worst surprise present I’ve ever seen.

“She’s totally texting her partner in romance novel romance,” Darcy whispers to Skye.

Skye snorts.  “Oh my god, don’t let her hear you!  She will literally kill you.”

“Next, Fandral,” Sharon calls over the crowd buzzing.  Best to keep this orderly, after all.

Fandral grins and stands up, looking around eagerly.  It’s a good thing that the unofficial kids’ table (Darcy and Ian, Skye and Jemma, Fitz and Trip) happens to be next to the one Fandral’s at, because Darcy rises and tosses a box straight at him.  “Catch!” she shouts.

Fortunately, Fandral’s reflexes are great, because it turns out the box contains a mug with a dinosaur skeleton on it (which reveals the outer skin when warm) and a cat card from Fuego.  “Excellent!” says Fandral, grinning even wider.  “Thank you, gorgeous.”

Darcy rolls her eyes good-naturedly and blows him a kiss before sitting back down, announcing to her table that “See?  Everybody likes dinosaurs!”

Sam’s looking at Fandral’s present a little longingly as he draws the next name.  “Mike!”

Mike’s head jerks up, as if he’s been lost in thought, and he puts his arm up and waves.  After a moment, Fitz leaves his place at Trip’s side to shyly approach Mike, holding a gift bag.  Mike pulls out a clock shaped like Lego Batman and grins.  “Woah, this is so cool!  Thank you. I may just wrap this up for Ace.”  He chuckles, but it’s not entirely a joke.

“I thought you might like it,” says Fitz, his voice shaking a little.  “It-it seemed like something he’d like too.  And it’s useful.  Not...not that it needed to be but… yes.”  He looks embarrassed.

Mike smiles kindly at him.  “Thanks, this is great.”  Fitz looks a little more at ease as he slips back to his spot next to Trip.

“Trip!” calls Sam, then adds, “I swear I didn’t do that on purpose” in response to the scattered chuckles.

Hogun walks over and hands Trip a box.  “Oh my god, a Companion Cube!” says Trip as he unwraps it to reveal a six-inch plush cube.  He gives it a squeeze.  “Ooh, it’s even weighted!  This is so awesome.”

“You’re welcome,” says Hogun, looking pleased, in his way.

“Okay, seriously, I want any of those last three,” jokes Sam.  “Next up, Jemma!”

“Oh!” Jemma exclaims, springing up from her seat and smoothing her blouse out for no real reason other than to have something to do with her hands that’s not cling to her girlfriend.  Billy Koenig heads over towards her, holding a gift bag that has a penguin on it.

“Oh, that’s precious!” she coos, smiling one of those face-crinkly smiles.

He smiles.  “I thought you’d like it! Hopefully you like the actual present too.”

“I’m sure,” she says, reaching into the bag and pulling out a gray-and-white stuffed cat with what she could swear is an inquisitive look on its face.  “I love it!  What a cuddler she’ll be, I’m sure.”

“Not as good as me though, right?” asks Skye, grabbing Jemma’s free hand.

“Of course not,” Jemma promises.

“Get a room,” Darcy groans.

“Speaking of Darcy!” Steve exclaims, having pulled another name from the envelope.

“Sweet,” Darcy says, hopping up and looking around expectantly.

Akela, who recently started working at Men’s Wearhouse and is polite but reserved, slips out of her seat, offering a bag. “I hope it’s to your liking.”

Darcy pulls out a scarf - it’s one of the Gap ones, but it’s nice, and she does use a shitton of scarves when she can get away with it - and grins.  “It’s kickass,” she promises, offering one of her be-nice-to-the-new-kid smiles. Akela smiles back and sits down again.

Steve is doing that proud smiling thing again, and Sharon nudges his shoulder, whispering, “You look very pleased with yourself.”

“We did a good thing, I think,” he says before pulling a new name from the envelope.  “Ian, you’re up!”

Ian scoots out of the booth to let Darcy reclaim her seat, then hovers around the edge, smiling awkwardly as he waits for his present to appear.

After a moment, Mack manages to extricate himself from the booth where he, Bobbi, Natasha and Bucky are sitting and strides over to hand Ian his present.  Inside is a copy of John Scalzi’s Lock In, which excites Ian enough before Mack says, “Open it and turn to the title page,” with a grin.  It turns out to be autographed and Ian touches the page almost reverently before whispering, “Thank you.”

“‘Course,” says Mack, still grinning.

As Ian resumes his seat, he’s excitedly pointing at the book and waving it at Darcy (she’s less excited but she can pretend because that’s what you do when you date a person, probably).  Sharon waits for him to be settled before calling out, “Bobbi’s turn!”

Bobbi is skeptical of this whole prospect, but she likes to be surprised, so she pushes herself out of her seat gracefully.  “Do your worst,” she says cheerfully.

“Oh, I’m up!” Sam grabs the box that he’d rested against the podium and walks over to hand it to her.

“Don’t I feel special, getting one of the organizers’ gifts,” Bobbi declares as she opens the box.  Soon she’s pulling out a blue t-shirt with a white line-drawing of an AT-AT and letters explaining it as in a technical manual.   “Oh, hell yeah,” she exclaims, delighted.

“Not quite your color, darling,” calls Lance.

“Suck it,” Bobbi sings out before reclaiming her seat and exchanging a devious giggle with Natasha.

“Bruce,” Sharon exclaims before that devolves into another pointless argument.

Bruce, looking a little surprised, waves his hand from where he’s seated with Tony, Rhodey, and Pepper.  Bucky slips from his seat and goes to give Bruce a small bag.  “It’s not much,” he says apologetically, “but I thought it might come in handy.”

Bruce pulls out a small atom-shaped stress ball and a wormlike plushie.  He grins at the stress ball and looks confused for half a second before reading the tag attached to the plushie and laughing.  “C. elegans,” he says, tapping it on its nose.  “The first multicellular organism to have its genome sequenced.  Very nice.  Thank you, Bucky.”

“Sure thing,” says Bucky, a bit shyly.  “I don’t know much about science but I got Tony’s help with it.”

“It’s great,” says Bruce, squeezing the ball a few times as if to test it.

“That was cute as hell,” comments Sam before drawing another name out.  “Fitz!”

Fitz, startled, lifts his head from Trip’s shoulder and, looking more like he’s about to deliver a presentation to the class than receive a gift, stands up.

There’s a moment of silence before Victoria realizes it’s time for her other role in this game, and quickly she dashes a text off.

>>Back in a bit.  Then out of here soon.  Time to play nice.

Then she stands and edges out from her table to hand the poor startled little boy (well, college student, but he looks like a toddler) a package.  “I figure it’s referential as well as useful,” she says with a shrug.

He unwraps it with shaking hands and yelps in surprise when he pulls out a plastic container that has ELEVENTH DOCTOR’S SONIC SCREWDRIVER SCREWDRIVER written on it in cheerful block letters.  “Oh my god! Thank you!”

Victoria raises an eyebrow.  “I’ll take that as a sign I made the right choice,” she says dryly, but there’s a hint of a smile playing across her lips.  Much more than anyone else usually gets.

“Satisfaction all around,” Steve declares without a trace of irony (it makes Natasha and Bucky chuckle).  ‘Next up, Coulson!”

Coulson stands up, looking excited and vaguely nervous (basically his normal facial expression).  When it’s Lorelei who stands up from her place at the bar next to Raina and Loki, he can’t keep the look of horror off of his face, but tries to cover it up after a moment.

“I figure you’ll be able to make good use of this,” Lorelei purrs, handing him an immaculately (if hyperfemininely) wrapped box and tossing her hair.

Coulson swallows and gingerly unwraps the box.  Inside is a long, pink object that has gently rounded tips and buttons on one end.  He stares at it for a long moment, afraid to admit that he doesn’t know what this is.

“Oh my god,” Maya murmurs, sounding oddly reverent.  “It’s a Mona 2.”  She stares at it a long moment, then adds, “Is this a white elephant sort of arrangement, by any chance?”

Meanwhile, Coulson is still examining the object, turning it over in his hands as if it’s an alien artifact.  Finally he chances to push one of the buttons, and the thing starts vibrating in his hand.  He turns an interesting shade of pink and croaks, “Oh.  So that’s what it does.”

Lorelei smirks, looking entirely devious.  “From what I hear, you could use the help,” she says.

The room goes dead quiet for a good ten seconds while everyone tries to decide what to make of this, whether or not they should be offended or laugh like it’s a bad joke (they mostly know it’s not), and then Raina and Lance burst out laughing, almost exactly in unison.  Everyone else stares at them now, and that attention makes Lance self-conscious enough to realize exactly what’s going on and that it might not be a good thing that his instinct matches hers.  Trip, meanwhile, contributes to these shenanigans by cheerfully pressing the button on Fitz’s new Sonic to make it buzz in concert with Mona 2.

“T-thanks,” says Coulson, quickly shutting the vibrator off and putting it back in the box while sitting down.

>>Holy shit.  This… is quite a night.

“Could you get us a transcription of Victoria’s text conversation?” Darcy whispers to Skye.  “I bet it’s hilarious.”

“I mean...yeah, if I wanted to die,” says Skye, and she only kind of sounds like she’s joking.

“I think her freaking out is rubbing off on you,” Darcy says, nodding to Jemma.

“Excuse me!” Jemma hisses, looking severely offended.

“Also I seriously doubt that was within the price point.  That retails for 140 bucks.”

“All right,” Sharon says loudly, like she’s trying to corral everyone after that disaster. “Next, Akela!”

Akela blinks, then waves from her seat.  To everyone’s surprise, it’s Tony who sidles out from his table and hands her a box, saying, “I wasn’t quite sure what to get you, but hopefully it’ll do.”

Inside is a ridiculously fancy phone camera add-on that works as both a camera and a telescope.  Akela, shocked, stammers, “I-I don’t think this cost $20.”

Shrugging, Tony says, “It was the equivalent of $20 for me.  Merry Christmas.”  Still looking awed, Akela nods her thanks at him.

“That’s very generous of you, Tony,” Steve says, sounding slightly surprised.

“He buys his friends,” Maya calls out.

“I resemble that remark,” says Tony with an easy grin.

Sharon raises an eyebrow.  “Anyway,” she says.  “Billy!”

Smiling widely, Billy stands up and waves.  Sif makes her way to him, handing him a gift bag that contains a black water bottle.  “It’s not the most interesting present, but it seemed useful,” says Sif with a smile.

“No, it’s really cool! Thank you,” replies Billy, looking pleased.

“At least you won’t be stealing my water bottle anymore,” mutters Eric with a smirk.

Sam is chuckling as he announces the next name.  “Tony!”

“Oh, cool,” says Tony, not budging from his seat but giving a cursory wave.

Smiling sheepishly, Pepper reaches into her overlarge bag and hands a package to Tony.  “This is slightly awkward,” she declares, “but here.”

“Oh! Well, don’t mind if I do,” he says, tearing into the paper eagerly.  He pulls out a stuffed bear that’s waving jauntily while wearing a two-piece tuxedo and holding a lightsaber.  “Awwww, he’s cute!  And this lightsaber is pretty kickass.”

“Read the card,” Pepper mumbles.

Tony does, silently, and he seems to swallow before saying, his voice shaking only a little, “Thanks, Pep. This is great.”

“You’re welcome,” Pepper says, reaching to pat his hand.

Most everyone is watching this moment transpire, despite how private it ought to be (most, not all - the usual suspects are otherwise occupied, Victoria and Lance and also the table of babies, who aren’t disinterested but instead busy canoodling), and so after a moment Steve clears his throat loudly and pulls a new name.  “Maya!”

And Maya stands, her usual dare of an expression in place.

Fandral slides out from his table, holding a carefully arranged gift bag.  “M’lady.”

Maya resists the urge to groan.  “Thanks,” she says tersely, reaching into the bag and coming away with, to her utter lack of surprise, a scented candle noted to be an aphrodisiac.  “Just what every girl needs, clearly.”

Grinning like a cat, Fandral runs a hand through his hair.  “I hope you...enjoy that.”

Now, it’s the urge to start laughing that Maya’s resisting, and oh, she’s resisting it hard.  She’s also resisting the urge to exchange a disbelieving glance with Maria, who’s across the table from her, because that wouldn’t seem entirely appropriate for reasons she doesn’t exactly have a grip on.  “I’m sure,” she settles for responding.

“How many of these gifts are going to be suggestive?” Steve whispers to Sam.

“I dunno, man, you know this crowd,” says Sam with a shrug and a playful grin.  He draws the next name and calls, “Clint!”

“Oh, that’s my turn,” Steve exclaims, turning to fumble in his bag for an all-too-neatly-wrapped container that he jogs over to where Clint is sitting.

“Gee, I wonder what this is,” says Clint with a grin as he unwraps the obvious tupperware container.  “Ooh, cookies!”

“If they’re not a kind you like, I’ll be glad to exchange them,” Steve says.

“No, they’re great,” says Clint, stuffing one into his mouth.  “Thanks,” he says around it.

“You know he’s going to eat half the container by the end of the night,” Sharon murmurs, not without a certain measure of fondness.

“His present, his decision,” Steve declares.  “Next up, Rhodey!”

Rhodey stands up and waves to the room.  “Hey, y’all.”

Wearing the most disdainful expression he can, Loki walks over and hands him a wad of tissue paper.

Rhodey suddenly looks less excited.  “Thanks,” he says warily as he pulls off the paper to reveal a black beanie hat.  “It’s just what I always wanted.”

“Good,” says Loki, either not catching Rhodey’s sarcasm or not caring.  He ambles back over to his seat at the bar.  Rhodey shrugs and puts the hat on.

“Bucky, you’re next,” Sharon calls out.

Bucky looks slightly nervous and waves from his spot next to Natasha.  He doesn’t stand up, just squeezes Natasha’s hand.

It’s Lance who brings him a gift bag, saying, “Merry Christmas, mate.  I wasn’t sure what to get you so I figured this’d do.”

It turns out to be a bottle of Bacardi 151.  Bucky stares at it for a moment, just sort of dumbfounded, before he says, “Uh, thank you!”

“Try torching it,” adds Lance with a wink.  “That’s a good time, for sure.”

Natasha grins. “Thanks from me too, Hunter.”

Meanwhile, Steve and Sharon are exchanging slightly more apprehensive glances.  Sam murmurs “Don’t worry, guys, we can go do something else while those two destroy their livers” while he draws the next name out. “Maria!”

“I don’t know whether to be excited or worried,” Maria jokes as she stands.

She decides to go for the former when it’s Bobbi who approaches her, with a tastefully envelope-sized present.  “I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but it’s worth a try,” she explains.

Maria rips the envelope open, finding two tickets to a Delta Rae concert inside.  “I admit I haven’t.  What’s their vibe?”

“Murder songs mixed with life-affirming twang,” Bobbi says with a smirk.

“Sounds perfect.”

Sharon smiles warmly at her friends.  “Next, Mack!” she announces.

Mack grins lazily.  “Over here,” he says, waving.

Rhodey stands up and hands him an impeccably wrapped box.  “For your Halo tournaments,” he says.

Mack’s grin only widens when the box turns out to be for an elaborate PlayStation 4 headset.  “This is kickass. Thanks, Rhodey!”

Steve smiles before he rummages in the envelope, then smiles even wider when he pulls the next name.  “Sif,” he calls out.

Thor and Fandral whoop enthusiastically while Sif stands with a grin.  “I’m ready,” she says.

Jemma squeaks from her seat, because she isn’t ready, she’s suddenly positive that she made the wrong choice.  Trying to reassure her, Skye slips her arm around her girlfriend to give her a quick squeeze.

And after appreciatively nuzzling Skye back, Jemma stands and approaches Sif, shyly tucking hair behind her ear.  “Here,” she says, handing a professional-quality present box over.

“Ooh,” comments Sif as she picks at the tape.  “I’m intrigued.”  She pulls off the lid to reveal a knife with a four-inch blade and makes a delighted noise.  “It’s beautiful!”  She gently removes it from the sheath to examine the blade.

‘I’m so glad you like it!” Jemma exclaims.  “I mean, I… it’s not my usual area, shopping-wise, but I thought it was neat.  There’s, ah, something the website called Swedish FireSteel in the handle?  For camping or apparently the apocalypse.  It sounded very practical.”

Sif’s eyes gleam.  The look on her face is so disconcerting that Volstagg pipes up, “Perhaps don’t test that out here in Applebee’s, eh, Sif?”

“Oh, please. I wouldn’t dare,” says Sif with a playful eyeroll.  “There are technically police here.”  Her tone is light, but she wouldn’t want to upset Fury or Maria.

Jemma, meanwhile, has scurried back to her seat and taken a large sip of her margarita, laughing nervously.  Skye pets her hair and murmurs reassuringly, although she can’t help but glance enviously at Sif’s knife.

“Well, then,” Sharon says, reaching for the next name.  “Pepper!”

Pepper stands, and she can’t help but smile when she sees that Maya’s the other one doing so.  “What a surprise,” she says.

“I know,” Maya quips, “who’d have thought?”  She hands Pepper a small gift bag, smirking.  “They’re not too fancy, but I figured they were both classy and interesting enough.”

Pepper chuckles.  “I’m sure they’re great, whatever they are,” she says, and that’s confirmed when she reaches into the bag and pulls out a pair of silver earrings, each a pair of interlocking silver spirals.  “They are!  They’re gorgeous.”

“Glad you like,” Maya declares, sliding back into her seat as Pepper does the same.

“Lance.”  Sam manages to pack both confusion and the slightest hint of disdain into his reading of the next name.  His expression tends toward the latter emotion.

“Oh, right, forgot I was included in this game.”  Lance leans on the bar and waves, as if anyone’s going to forget where he’s been during the event.

“How did that happen, anyway?” Darcy calls out.  “I mean, clearly you made good on the other end of it, but you don’t even go here.”

Shrugging, Lance says, “Hey, I wasn’t gonna argue.”

“He probably thought it would be an easy way to get free stuff,” Bobbi announces before finishing off her drink.

“And I’m sure you agreed to participate out of the goodness of your heart,” replies Lance.

“Team spirit,” Bobbi retorts coolly.

“Is whoever got Lance something going to reveal themselves?” Sharon asks.

Grinning widely, Raina pulls a messily wrapped, vaguely triangular package out of her purse and slides it down the bar to where Lance is standing.

Lance’s brow furrows as he unwraps the package.  His confused expression only deepens when it turns out to be a bouquet of large rainbow-colored lollipops, with a coordinated bow tied around them.  “The fuck?” he says to no one in particular.

“Don’t you like them?” Raina asks, making her eyes go wide in the most intentionally manipulative way.

“Er…” Lance looks at Bobbi with a help me face and Bobbi just shrugs innocently.

“Dunno what to tell you,” she mouths, while everyone around her (and in the entire restaurant) is trying not to laugh.

He glares at her, then is silent for a long moment.  “Thanks,” he finally says, and the word sounds like it barely made it out of his mouth.

“You’re welcome,” Raina replies sweetly, batting her eyelashes.

To his credit, Steve is managing to avoid laughing as he draws the next name, but only just.  “Eric!”

“And that’s my cue,” Sharon says with a smile, bouncing over to hand the brother not currently filling his brand new water bottle a long, flat box.

“Ooh!” he says, smiling eagerly as he carefully unwraps it.  He giggles when he pulls out the yellow-and-black checkered tie inside.  “Is this meant to be Hufflepuff colors?  That’s awesome!”

“I hadn’t intended that consciously,” Sharon admits, “but it could work that way!  I’m glad you like it.”

“I do,” he says. “Thanks!”

“Carina, your turn next,” Steve calls, nodding politely at the pink-haired girl.

She giggles nervously, smoothing the skirt of her dress as she looks around the room.  It’s something of a relief when she sees that it’s Maria, Officer Hill, approaching, as she knows that won’t end in some silly joke gift she won’t be good at interpreting on the fly.

“Here,” Maria says, handing over what’s pretty clearly a CD wrapped in Disney princess paper.  “Don’t mind the paper, it was left over from something I gave my niece.”

“I don’t mind at all!” Carina exclaims, taking care not to rip it too much.  “I think it’s cute.”  And as such she neatly folds it and sets it on her table before she takes the time to admire the present inside, a copy of Taylor Swift’s 1989.  “Thank you!”  She lowers her voice conspiratorially to add, “I’ll have to save this for when I’m home alone, but I like it a lot.”

“Good,” Maria says with a smile.

“Sam’s next,” Sharon says, elbowing him gently.

“Bring it on!” he says cheerfully.

Eric ambles over and hands him a large, colorful package.  “I hope you like it.  I wasn’t quite sure what to get you but I figured you liked this sort of thing,” he says, sounding almost apologetic.

Sam digs into it eagerly and, upon seeing that it contains a book called Incredible LEGO Technic: Cars, Trucks, Robots & More! he yelps, “Oh my god!  Best present ever!”

“Oh good.” Eric smiles. “I figured everyone likes LEGO.”

“You have no idea how much I love LEGO,” says Sam, as seriously as if he were talking about a religious icon.

“He really does,” says Natasha with a fond roll of her eyes.

“Speaking of you,” Steve tells her, waving her slip of paper with a smirk.

“Oh!” Carina exclaims, jumping up again and looking only slightly startled to have the attention back on her so quickly.  She scurries to give Natasha a simple gift box (bright green and tied with an unnecessary but decorative white ribbon) and then stands back with an expectant smile.

Natasha looks amused, pulling on the ribbon to undo it.  “Cute little box. Ooh!”  She pulls out the tiny pocketwatch pendant inside, dangling from a matching chain.  “This is nice.”

“Thank you,” Carina says immediately, ducking her head shyly.  “I mean, I was hoping it wasn’t too…”  She trails off, waving a hand in the way that means that Natasha can fill in her own adjective, as any of them would do.

“No, it’s lovely,” replies Natasha, softening her voice a bit.  “Thank you.”  She dangles it towards Bucky. “Put it on me, James?” He does so, running his hand down her arm afterwards almost shyly.

Something about that (probably what she knows of their relationship) is enough to make Carina blush, but she manages a simple, “Well, happy holidays!” before she returns to her seat.

Sharon smiles, because one of her favorite things about the whole big relationship is the way that they’re all different with each other, then reads out, “Raina!”

Raina, for her part, twirls around on her bar stool with legs crossed daintily, her face reading something between expectation and smugness.

After a moment, Mike stands up, holding out a gift bag, and goes over to her.  “I don’t know if you even know what this is,” he says, “but Ace and I are big fans and it, uh, seems like something you’d be into.”

She raises an eyebrow, because there aren’t many areas where her interest and a preadolescent boy’s interest might match up, but she grins when she pulls the Adventure Time DVD out of the bag.  “Perfect,” she declares.

“Awesome.”  Mike grins.  “Enjoy.”

“I will,” Raina promises.

“Is there something I’m missing here?” Steve asks Sam in a whisper.

Sam smirks.  “It’s, uh, it’s picked up an a following outside its intended audience.  Apparently popular with potheads.”

Steve nods, trying not to make a face.  “I see,” he says.  “Uh, next is Lorelei.”

And she twirls around even more dramatically, making come-hither eyes at the entire room.

Clint gulps visibly, then approaches her in much the way a frightened child would approach a particularly intimidating teacher.  “Here,” he says, his voice shaking.  It’s a small bag, and he almost drops it.

“Thanks,” she coos, and after exchanging an amused glance with Raina she adds, “Bird boy.”  Then she turns all of her attention to the bag, which yields what’s either unintentionally or perfectly consciously hilarious: a silver necklace with a charm shaped like scissors.  There’s the more sexual interpretation, there’s the interpretation that she’s scary and dangerous, whatever it is it’s funny.

“It just seemed like something you’d like,” says Clint with a shrug.  “They’re pretty sharp.  I figured that out myself.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she replies, giggling wickedly.

His expression wary, Steve draws the next name.  “Fury,” he calls.

Fury, who is seated as far away from everyone else as possible, grunts.  “Here I am,” he says.  “I suppose.”

Grinning, Natasha gets up from her booth and saunters over, handing Fury a bag.  “Meant with love,” she says, her eyes gleaming.

“That doesn’t fill me with confidence.”  Fury eyes the bag suspiciously.  Finally, he reaches inside and pulls out a tissue-wrapped object that turns out to be a mug with WORLD’S GREATEST DAD written on it.  A black mustache sits above the words.

Natasha smirks and doesn’t say a word.  Fury, after a long moment, sighs.  “Thank you, I suppose.  At least most of you aren’t on drugs.  I suppose that’s all a father can ask for.”

Sam’s snickering as he draws the next name.  “You’re up, Sharon!”

“I’m eager and scared,” she quips.

“You don’t get scared,” Steve corrects playfully, batting at her shoulder.

“Don’t be scared! It’s cool, I promise.”  Skye works her way out from her table and hands her a box.

“I’m pretty sure I trust that,” Sharon teases as she opens the box and pulls out a set of knee and wrist guards, ones she knows are ideal for derby.  “Thanks,” she says sincerely.  “You’re not gonna be offended if they wind up with stickers on them eventually?”

Skye shrugs.  “I figured they would.  Kick ass, Sailor Moonshine.”

Sharon fakes a curtsy.  “Much obliged,” she giggles.

Smiling fondly at her, Sam says, “Your turn, Steve!”

Steve is wearing his usual amiable expression as he surveys the crowd for who’s got his gift, and when Bruce stands up and waves at him shyly, Steve smiles.  “I wasn’t sure what to get you,” says Bruce quietly, “but I figured...well, just open it.”  He thrusts a gift bag at Steve.

“I’m sure it’s great,” Steve assures, reaching into the bag and pulling out a copy of The Hobbit that’s much nicer than the standard paperback.  “Thank you!  You know, somehow I’ve never managed to get my own copy of this?”

Bruce looks surprised.  “Oh!  Well...I’m glad, then.  I figured if you hadn’t already read it, you needed to, and if you had, well, it’s a nice copy.”

“It is,” Steve agrees warmly.  “Is it vintage?”

“Uh...I think it’s just meant to look it, but it’s nice, huh?  Apparently based off of the original printing that used Tolkien’s own artwork.”

“Well, I really like it,” Steve says.  “Thanks, Bruce.”

Bruce smiles, looking alternately happy and embarrassed.

“And next up, we’ve got Loki,” Sharon declares after sending a grateful nod Bruce’s way on Steve’s behalf.

There’s an “ugh” from the bar, but Loki does turn to face the rest of the room.

Looking only slightly nervous, Ian rises from his table and approaches.  “So I figured you would appreciate this,” he says before handing Loki his present.

Raising an eyebrow, Loki unwraps it to reveal a copy of Frankenstein.  He chuckles.  “Very amusing, yes.”

Ian is about to explain the joke further, but he thinks better of it and offers a polite nod instead.  Once the also-polite couple of seconds have passed, he hurries back to his seat.

“Volstagg is next,” Steve announces.

“Oh! Excellent!” Volstagg calls.

Trip brings him a brightly-wrapped package.  “Lemme know if you want something different, cause I can do it.  But I figured these were a crowd-pleaser.”

Eagerly, Volstagg rips off the paper to reveal a tupperware container full of brownies.  He pops the lid and pulls one out, groaning happily after taking a bite.  “These are fantastic!  I’m sure my family will enjoy them as well.  Although,” he adds mischievously, “they might only get a few.  Thank you!”

“Anytime, man,” says Trip with a grin.

“You’re a lucky fellow,” Sharon tells Volstagg.  “Those are fantastic.”  She rummages in the envelope to pull the next name.  “Heimdall!”

“Oh, right, yes,” Hannah exclaims, hopping up from her seat to present Heimdall with a shiny blue gift bag, complete with ribbon tied around the handles.

“Thank you,” says Heimdall with a smile, carefully untying the ribbon and pulling the present, wrapped in tissue paper, out.  It’s a small plush wolf puppy that makes him smile wider.  “Summer,” he comments, reading the tag attached to its ear.

“I thought, well, he’s… Summer's owner knows all sorts of things mysteriously, just like you, and he's slightly more obscure so you probably wouldn't have him,” she finally manages to say, pointedly ignoring Raina’s whispered shock that “little Jesus girl” is that familiar with those books.

That makes Heimdall chuckle.  “Indeed I do not.  Thank you, he’ll go nicely with Ghost.”

Hannah beams.  “I’m so glad,” she says.  “You should take a picture.”

“I will,” he says, looking pleased.

“Don’t sit down too quickly, Hannah, you’re up next,” Steve declares.

“Ah, that’s my cue!” says Volstagg cheerfully, hoisting a bag up from the floor and over to her.  “I also included some artwork from the little ones, they insisted.”

“I bet it’s adorable,” Hannah grins, opening the bag to reveal a plush brown-and-white bunny with oversized feet.  “And this is adorable too!”

“I had help selecting it.  Hildy will be glad to know you like it.”

“You can give her my sincerest gratitude,” Hannah says solemnly.  

“Does he have a name?” Carina asks in a whisper as Hannah takes her seat again.

“Not yet, but I’ll think of something,” Hannah declares.

“Melinda, you’re up,” Sharon says.

“Oh my,” Melinda deadpans.

Heimdall stands up, offering a box.  “I hope it’s to your liking,” he says.

Melinda unwraps the gift in complete silence, and only the slight quirk of her mouth upward gives her thoughts on the contents - wine and fancy chocolates - away.  “You remembered.”

“But of course,” he says.

“What the fuck,” Darcy whispers with wide eyes.  “Guys, is this… did I actually miss something?”

“I don’t think so,” Jemma replies, trying her hardest to be quiet.  “Or at least… it doesn’t look like, like present-tense something?”

“It’s so weird,” murmurs Skye.  “Like finding out your mom had a fling with one of your teachers or something.”

“Skye!” says Sam, trying not to laugh.

“Hey!” she says, waving in an attempt to cover up her previous topic of conversation.

Fury stands up and walks over slowly from his isolated corner.  “Here,” he says, handing her a box that’s wrapped in the most haphazard way possible.  “I’m not very good at wrapping things.”

“Eh, no big,” says Skye, demonstrating how very little it matters to her when she tears off chunks of the wrapping at a time.  “Oh my god, these headphones are so cool! Thanks!”

“Thought you might like ‘em,” says Fury with a hint of a smile.

“And last but not least is Thor,” Steve announces.

Thor stands, grinning.  “I’m ready!”

It’s Melinda who slinks out to hand it to him, adding, “I hope you like it.  I don’t know shit about professional sports.”

Opening it to reveal an Aaron Rodgers jersey, Thor grins even wider.  “Excellent choice!  Thank you!”  Melinda looks pleased.

As the various groups settle in for more drinking and socializing or pack up their things to leave (Victoria is the first one out the door), Tony, who’s been drinking this entire time, calls out, “Merry Chris’mas to all an’ to all a good night!”  Pepper has a longsuffering expression on her face.

Chapter Text

Coulson holds the door to the restaurant for Melinda, trying to hide his shaking hands as he shuffles her present from one arm to the other.  It had surprised him enough when Melinda accepted his invitation to brunch that he spent a panicked forty-five minutes on the internet researching every potential restaurant in a fifty-mile radius to be sure he picked out the best one.  This place has good reviews and a low-key but upscale atmosphere that he figures will appeal to her.

She gives him a look of what he hopes is approval - the corner of her mouth turns up slightly, so probably? - and steps inside.  A cheerful dark-haired woman whose nametag reads BETTY leads them to a booth in the far corner of the well-light room, leaving them with full water glasses and a promise to return in a few minutes.

For a moment they both sit there, alternating between glancing at each other and resolutely looking anywhere but at each other.  Finally Coulson smiles and says, “I, uh, I got you a present,” carefully hoisting the box onto the table.  “I hope you like it.”

“Oh,” says Melinda, her tone betraying nothing about her feelings, but she starts unwrapping the gift anyway.  She looks momentarily baffled when it’s revealed to be a blender - the Nutri Ninja, which has been good to him for years and he knows how much she likes smoothies - but then she smiles.  “Thank you.”

“It’s really good for smoothies,” he says, then feels silly for volunteering that information when it’s printed clearly on the box.  “I just...I thought you might like having a really nice one, since you mentioned yours isn’t very good.”

“It’s not.  This should be better.  Thanks!”  She sets it on the seat next to her and reaches into her purse.  “I also have something for you.”

He feels his heart speed up.  “Oh, you didn’t have to…”

“I wanted to.”  She hands him a small gift box tied artfully with a white ribbon.

He gently tugs at the ribbon, sure his nerves are obvious.  Inside the box is a pair of silver cufflinks shaped like foxes.  “Wow, thank you!  They’re very nice.”

“They seemed to suit you.”  Melinda’s tone is almost warm.

Coulson hopes his expression isn’t too pathetically hangdog.  Betty the waitress comes to take their orders - waffles, scrambled eggs, and orange juice for Coulson, steak and eggs and black coffee for Melinda - before leaving them to the awkward silence again.

Feeling confident, Coulson slowly eases his foot over towards Melinda’s.  When he brushes it up against hers, he can’t tell for a few moments whether she’s even noticed or not, because her expression remains the same.  He decides to be more assertive and leave it touching her foot deliberately.

This results in her gently but firmly nudging his foot back to his side of the table and asking, in a tone that implies she won’t mention what just happened under the table, “So Maria tells me you’ve been having an exciting couple of weeks at work.  Any good stories?”

 


 

“I don’t remember you being so squirmy about boys before,” Jemma observes.

“I’m not squirmy,” says Fitz, narrowing his eyes.

“Yes, you are,” Jemma replies coolly.  “You’re vibrating in your seat.”

Fitz scoffs, but he does make a visible effort to stop even the tiniest movements of his body.  “I’m hungry, ‘sall.”

“Right,” Jemma murmurs, but she apparently isn’t convinced.  And/or she finds it endearing how enthusiastic he is about Trip, that’s a very definite possibility.  “Did you text him when we got here?”

“Yeah, he said he had lunch at 12:20.  That’s only two minutes ago, he probably needed to grab his wallet or something.”  Fitz’s efforts at keeping still have failed, and he drums his fingertips on the table absentmindedly.

“I’m sure he did,” Jemma says, suddenly softer.  “Skye should be out in a few minutes, too.”

“Somebody call for me?”  Trip calls from across the food court.  He ambles over, smiling widely.  “Cute boy named Fitz, maybe?”

Fitz goes scarlet but looks pleased, unable to keep his own smile off his face.  “Hi, Trip!  We brought lunch.”  He gestures to the plates piled high with sandwiches on the table in front of him.

“Gosh, and lunch too?  Today must be my lucky day.”  Trip leans down to kiss Fitz, and Fitz, though he’s usually shy about PDA, is too happy to object.

“You’re adorable,” Jemma says before she can stop herself.

“Oh, like you won’t be worse when Skye gets here,” says Fitz, practically nuzzling into Trip as he sits down next to him.

“I’m not criticizing,” Jemma exclaims.  “Nor am I competing.  I’m merely observing.”

“I mean, she’s right,” says Trip cheerfully as he takes a bite of a sandwich and gulps it down.  “We are pretty damn adorable.”  He runs his hand through Fitz’s hair affectionately, and Fitz closes his eyes like a kitten happy to receive pets.

“Who’s adorable?  I mean, I assume you’re talking about me.”  Skye comes up from behind Jemma to wrap her arms around her shoulders.  “Or you could be talking about her too, that’s also accurate.”

“Shush,” Jemma giggles, turning her head to give Skye a kiss.  “We’ve brought lunch.  And I wanted to make sure we were all on the same page about tonight.”

As soon as Jemma says the word “lunch” Skye pounces on the food, wolfing down half a sandwich before Jemma’s even finished her next sentence.  She pauses long enough to say, “Oh yeah, tonight.  Are we all going out, did we decide on that?”

Expectantly, Jemma looks at the boys to answer, though she’s pretty sure her vote is obvious.

“Do we have to?”  Fitz’s question is just the slightest bit whiny.

Trip strokes his arm.  “I’d prefer to stay in too, yeah.  There’ll be a lot of crazies out tonight.”

“You guys are no fun.”  Skye pouts and takes another bite of her sandwich.

“We made cookies, though!” Jemma chirps.  She knows how to get through to her girlfriend.

That does seem to cheer Skye up.  “Cookies?” she mumbles through a mouthful of sandwich.  “What kind?”

“Holiday cookies!” Jemma says, opening the container to reveal sugar cookies decorated with fireworks represented by sprinkles.

“Ooh!”  Skye finishes off the last of her sandwich and grabs two cookies.  “Thanks!”

Trip takes one too.  “Clever,” he says, meaning the sprinkles.  “Did y’all make these this morning before you came?”

Jemma nods, nudging Fitz so he can do some of the bragging.

“It-it was my idea, sort of,” he says, almost shyly.  “I said we might bring you something nice along with the sandwiches, and then she went off madly googling recipes.”

“I’m fairly sure we didn’t mess them up,” Jemma adds.

“They taste great to me!” says Skye, reaching for another.

Trip grins.  “Yeah, you guys did good.  We’re pretty lucky, huh, Skye?”

He happens to ask just as she’s shoving the whole cookie in her mouth.  “Yeah,” she says around it, doing her best to grin too.  “Lucky.”

“Disgusting,” mumbles Fitz, rolling his eyes.

 


 

“Oh, good,” Maria exclaims as she runs up.  “Are you off?”

Maya glances at her watch, then back at Maria with an amused expression.  “Almost exactly,” she says.  “What’s up?”

Maria pulls a face, then lowers her voice before explaining, “I’m having dinner with Melinda tonight and I still haven’t gotten her a Christmas present.”

“You do know it’s New Year’s Eve by now, right?” Maya asks.

“Yes,” Maria grumbles, “but nothing I thought of was good enough and now I’m stuck and would you maybe help me look?”

Maya sighs.  “What were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” Maria sighs, “what kinds of things would she even like?”

“You would know better than I would,” Maya points out.

“Well, but you know more about, I don’t know, shopping stuff,” Maria says.  “I might be the worst shopper to ever work in a mall.”

“Jewelry is easy,” Maya offers, taking Maria’s arm and steering her in that direction.

It being Nordstrom, there’s a fair amount of jewelry, much of it overpriced (really, why you would pay more than maybe $30 for a rock you’re going to stick in a hole in your ear baffles Maria) but at least some of it is classy enough.

“I have no idea where to start,” Maria murmurs.

“Pick a jewelry item,” Maya says diplomatically.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen her wear any jewelry,” Maria murmurs.  “But I guess earrings?  Those are the least likely to get in the way.”  She eyes a rack of dangly earrings and frowns.  “Usually.”

“So, stud earrings,” Maya clarifies.  “See, we’ve narrowed it down!”  

“You’ve narrowed it down,” Maria corrects.

“You’re helping.”  Rolling her eyes playfully, Maya leans closer to the racks of earrings to inspect.  “Favorite color?”

“Black?”

“I was asking about hers, not yours,” Maya teases.

“I’ll have you know I prefer blue,” Maria retorts.  

“Then look for blues,” Maya suggests.  “Find something that will make her think of you and not just because you bought it for her.”

This in mind, they browse the racks for a good few minutes, contemplating, until Maria lifts up a pair of green-blue-purple studs that change color when they move.  “Do you like these?” she asks.

Maya’s eyes go wide for a moment before she collects herself.  “They’re pretty,” she agrees. “Classy but not boring.  Interesting without being at all flashy.”

“Perfect,” Maria says.  She heads for the counter and starts to rummage for her wallet, but Maya steps up beside her and shakes her head.

“I’ll get it,” she says.  “Employee discount.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Maria frowns.

“How about this, then,” Maya proposes.  “You take me to that concert and I just won’t pay you back for the ticket this time.”

Maria smiles gratefully. “You’re the best,” she says.

After they’ve paid, before they’ve parted ways, Pepper catches a glimpse of them lingering by the door.  She notices the way that Maya’s eyes sparkle, the way that Maria’s hand lingers on Maya’s arm just a moment too long, and she thinks to herself that she knows exactly what’s going on.

 


 

“Hey,” Jane says softly, sneaking up behind Thor with a grin.

Thor turns around, grinning as well.  “I missed you, my love!”

“I used to think it was sappy to say things like that after only a few hours,” Jane observes.  “That’s not really the case now.  Are you good to take a break?”

“Yes, business has been slow today.  Not many parents wish to buy toys on New Year’s Eve, it seems.  Would you care for something hot to drink?”  Thor gestures toward one of the mall’s exits.  “The coffee shop across the street serves excellent cocoa, I am told.”

“I’d be open to that,” Jane agrees. “We should get to spend some part of this day together.”

Thor chuckles.  “Yes, it is a shame that they have decided tonight is the optimal time during which to rearrange the store.  I think they think they are being generous by only keeping us until 11:30.  Still, we’ll have some time tonight.”

“Not enough,” she says decisively, taking him by the arm.  “But we can steal this little bit of time to make up for it.  Do you need to grab your coat or anything?”

“No, I shall leave the store in the capable hands of Mr. Wagner.”  Thor waves at his coworker, Kurt, who is grinning in an understanding way, before they head for the door.  “You are done for the day, yes?”

“I am,” Jane agrees.  “Which means you can look forward to my sad attempt at baked goods when you get home.  To my home.  After you’re done.”

Thor smiles at her babbling.  “Jane, it’s quite all right.  I assumed I would be coming to you.  I would not expect you to wait alone in my apartment for hours.  Although,” he adds, “if you would like a key, I would gladly have one made for you.”

Jane probably squeaks at that, but acknowledging that would make it worse.  “I wouldn’t object to a key,” she manages to say. 

“I shall get to work on that, then!”  Taking her hand, he leads her toward the coffee shop.  “What would you like to drink?”

“The chocolatiest cocoa they have to offer,” she declares.

 


 

Melinda is already at a table when Maria arrives (of course she is, she’s never late to anything - not that Maria is late, either, but Melinda is just more on time, or something like that) and Maria ducks over with a sheepish smile, murmuring something about traffic that isn’t involved enough to be an excuse but might be an explanation if one is needed.

“It’s fine,” Melinda says with a small smile that’s warm in its own way.

Maria breathes a sigh of relief that she doesn’t even bother hiding.  “How has your day been?” she asks, immediately mentally cringing at the obviousness of the question.

“Good.  Had brunch with Coulson earlier.  He gave me a blender.”  Melinda chuckles.

“A… really.”  Maria chokes back a laugh.  “Exactly why?”

Shrugging, Melinda replies, “He said he has one and it’s worked for years.  It’s a nice blender.  It was thoughtful of him, I suppose.”

“Right,” Maria agrees.  “Very practical.”  She reaches into her own bag to pull out the gift-wrapped jewelry box.  “On the subject of gifts, because I know that I’ll forget otherwise.”  That part is a lie, she couldn’t forget it if she tried, but it’s nicer than saying what she means, which is if that gift didn’t do the trick, give mine a try.

“Oh!  Thank you.”  Melinda carefully unwraps it and smiles at the earrings.  “They’re lovely.”

“I figured, better late than never,” continues Maria, shrugging.  “Since we haven’t had a chance to get together since before Christmas.”  And since she’d waffled on the actual content of the gift until this afternoon.

“Yes, it’s sweet of you.”  Melinda reaches into her bag and pulls out a much larger box.  “I have something for you too.”

Maria’s eyes go wide for a moment before she composes herself, grateful she’s good at putting on nonchalance.  “Thank you,” she says very sincerely, opening the box carefully and pulling out a black exercise jacket, long enough that there’s no risk of it riding up while she’s working out and stylish enough that clearly some level of thought went into picking it out.  “Wow,” she adds.  “Really thank you.  This is pretty swanky for exercise gear.”

“I thought you’d like it.”  Melinda looks pleased.

“I really do,” Maria says, feeling grateful that Melinda’s taste seems to align with hers.

A blond waiter comes over.  “Hello, ladies, can I get you drinks before you order?”

“The house red, please,” says Maria, looking to Melinda a second after.  “That sound good?”

“Please.”  Melinda nods.

“That,” Maria confirms to the waiter.  “Thank you.”

He nods and strides off to get it.

In the hours leading up to the evening, Maria had been increasingly nervous about her ability to hold a conversation with Melinda.  But, as it turns out, Melinda’s much more relaxed and talkative even before the wine arrives.  She seems to genuinely enjoy Maria’s company.  They talk their way through several glasses of wine and their plates and before long Maria notices that they’ve been inching progressively closer across the table.  They’re close enough that Maria could swear she can feel the heat off of Melinda’s skin, and it occurs to her that there’s really only one logical thing to do at this point.

But she’s sure as hell not going to be the one to do it first.

Melinda’s the one who finally bites the bullet and leans a little closer, seeming hesitant.  “Maria,” she says, though it’s more of a breath than anything.

And this should be the thing that Maria’s been waiting for, but suddenly the combination of that uncharacteristically gentle tone of voice and Melinda’s gaze fixed on her so intently and who knows what else seems like - too much.  That’s the only way to put it.  Maria leans back and takes a breath before she can think twice, exclaiming, “It’s possible I’ve had too much to drink.”

Melinda’s laugh is a loud huff of breath.  “As have I, apparently.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Maria says quickly.  “Let’s… let’s order dessert.  And maybe get refills on our water.”

 


 

“Can I take the garlic bread out yet?”

“No.  For the last time, I’ve timed it precisely so that the butter will be melted and the bread perfectly crisp on the edges.”  Sam rolls his eyes.  “I’m glad Steve and I were in charge of food.  Sharon eats like a normal person, but you two would just eat pizza rolls and Doritos all day if we didn’t put something else in front of you.”

“Guilty as charged.”  Natasha smirks and shrugs lazily.  “What can I say?  I’d rather use my time in other ways.”

Sam shakes his head.  “Don’t know why I bother with y’all.”

“Because we’re so cute,” says Natasha playfully, leaning up to kiss the corner of his mouth.

Just then a knock at the door announces Bucky’s arrival.  “You go, you gotta unlock the ninety locks,” says Sam with a grin.

“Only eighty-five,” Natasha calls over her shoulder.

“You’re paranoid and it’s ridiculous,” Sam replies in a singsong tone.

Bucky ambles in, sniffing the air.  “Ooh, garlic bread!”

“Just coming out of the oven,” says Sam as he pulls out the tray.  “No, you can’t have any yet.”  He deflects the hand he knew was reaching for a slice.  Bucky pouts.  “Wait till Steve and Sharon get back, then we’ll eat.”

“Oh, is he picking her up from work?  How adorably normal.”  Bucky chortles on the last syllable.

Natasha and Sam chuckle too.  “I mean, I think some people would argue that this is weirdly normal too,” Sam points out.  “Except for the part where the five of us are all into each other, maybe.”

“Yeah, that pretty well excludes us from normalcy.”  Natasha’s wrapped herself around Bucky from behind and is petting his hair.

“Do you think you can get away from Octopus there to chop mushrooms?” Sam asks Bucky.  “I’m making you animals eat salad tonight.”

Bucky tries to maneuver out of Natasha’s arms, but she just grips tighter, and so finally he just awkwardly walks them both over to the counter and obediently begins chopping.  “I’m comfy,” explains Natasha.

“You’re weird is what you are.”  Sam is assembling the rest of the salad.

They banter back and forth about who, exactly, is the weird one for a few minutes (Natasha argues that expecting people to eat salad is pretty weird) and after a while there’s another knock at the door.  “Oh good, they’re here!” says Sam.  “Octopus, you’re up.”

“Fine.”  Natasha finally detaches from Bucky and heads for the door.

“Can I get to the oven?” Sharon asks when the door opens, forgoing an actual greeting.

“Oh no, don’t tell me you have an exact process to make garlic bread too,” Natasha groans playfully.

“No such thing,” Sharon promises.  “I just have some ready-to-bake cookie dough that’s been sitting in the break room freezer all afternoon just waiting to be used.”

“What she means,” Steve offers, “is may she please use the oven?”

Sharon rolls her eyes fondly.  “If you insist.”

“Oh sure, cookies are fine.  He just insisted on waiting for you to eat.”  Natasha jerks her thumb at Sam.  “And we’re hungry.”

“I promise I’ll put them in fast and we can get to the rest of the evening’s events,” Sharon says solemnly, moving forward to give Natasha a belated hello kiss.

Natasha practically purrs.  “Sounds good, зайка.”

“We’re going to watch things while we eat, right?” Steve asks.  “Because I had a great idea.”

“What’s that?”  Natasha sounds only vaguely distrustful.

Power Rangers!” Steve says gleefully.  “Remember watching that when we were kids, Buck?”

“Oh my god, I haven’t thought about Power Rangers in so long.”  Bucky grins.  “I’m up for some nostalgia.”

Natasha looks skeptical.  “I’m missing some cultural reference.”

“That means we have to watch it!” Steve exclaims.

“Cool. I liked Power Rangers.  ‘Cept they always made me be the Black Ranger at recess.”  Sam laughs in an unhappy sort of way.

“Well, I’m sure it’s on Netflix,” Steve says after giving Sam’s hand a sympathetic squeeze.  “Tasha, would you get us set up?”

She nods and grabs the remote, opening Netflix, searching for “power rangers,” and, not wanting to admit she can’t tell which one he’s talking about, selecting one at random.

They all start eating, but when the theme starts Bucky looks up, confused.  “I...don’t think this is the right one.  I don’t remember them being animal-themed.”

“I had no idea the Power Rangers were Australian,” Sharon comments once the show actually starts, idly nibbling a piece of garlic bread.

“This really isn’t the right one,” Steve frowns.

But then one of the kids attacks another and a horribly CGI-animated tiger effect shoots from his body, and Natasha and Sam laugh so hard that they almost tip their plates.  “Oh my god, this is so much dumber than I remember it being.  And I remember it being pretty dumb,” Sam says, wiping tears from his eyes.

“I kinda want to see if it gets dumber,” adds Natasha with a grin.

Steve looks at Bucky and Sharon to gauge their interest, then shrugs.  “What the heck,” he says.  “Let’s keep going.”

“Who brought the booze?” Sharon asks devilishly.

 


 

Isabelle feels a little silly knocking at this point in their relationship, but she doesn’t have a key and the effort required to dig out her phone and text Victoria to let her in is too much after a long day.  Not that many of her clients had scheduled training sessions on New Year’s Eve (the fitness cravings start after New Year’s), but she’s been running errands for most of it and she’s pretty much done with people.

“Come in, the door is unlocked,” Victoria calls from inside the apartment.

So Isabelle does, and the first thing she sees is her girlfriend lighting candles on the table.  This strikes her as funny - it’s an unusual sight.  “I see you pulled out all the stops,” she quips, dropping her purse by the door.

“It seemed like a good time to try that,” Victoria shrugs.  “The bread is still in the oven.”

“Can I do anything to help?  I feel a bit useless just standing around.”

“Is sitting around better?”

Isabelle chuckles.  “Not really, but my feet’ll be glad of it, anyway.”  She sinks into one of the chairs at Victoria’s table and, after a minute, asks, “Would you like me to pour the wine?”  It’s sitting on the table in front of her, so she might as well ask.

“We’d be that much closer to drinking it if you did,” Victoria quips, just as the timer goes off and she hurries back into the kitchen.

Rolling her eyes fondly, Isabelle opens the bottle and fills their glasses.  “I could get used to this,” she calls, “coming home to a beautiful woman making me dinner.”

“Only if you did the same for me sometimes,” Victoria says nonchalantly.

“Oh, of course!  I make a mean steak.”

“You’ll have to prove it.”  This as Victoria glides back into the room, two perfectly-arranged plates of pasta-and-bread-and-salad balanced on either hand.  “I assume this looks okay?”

“Delicious.  Much like yourself,” Isabelle says with a smirk.  “I haven’t gotten a kiss hello yet.”

Victoria rolls her eyes and sets the plates down carefully before leaning to do just that.  She’s in enough of that sort of mood that it’s a pretty teasing kiss, but it’s a kiss nonetheless.  “Hello,” she murmurs, smirking.  “And how was your day, dear?”

“Long.  Tiresome errands, tiresome people.  I missed you.” It’s said with all the emotion of a statement like “I had eggs for breakfast,” but Victoria will know she means it.

“I missed you, too,” Victoria drawls.  “You know how many people get uncreative and decide to propose on New Year’s Eve without having already gotten the ring?  Too many.”  It’s unclear whether she means that the proposal stories were making her feel needy or whether she means that the people were pissing her off and Isabelle does not.  Both count for something.

Scoffing, Isabelle takes a bite of pasta.  “This is excellent,” she murmurs fondly.  “Thanks for having me over for dinner.”

“Of course,” Victoria says.  “I’d much rather dinner than whatever nonsensical party Pepper was about to invite me to before I told her I had plans.”

“I certainly hope you do,” says Isabelle.  “I’m feeling suggestible.”

 


 

“Dinosaur nuggets!”  Skye’s so excited she practically jumps up and down.

“I thought you might like them,” Jemma says, beaming.

“And I hope you have tater tots to go with them?” asks Trip with a grin.

“Of course!  We’re not animals.”  Fitz emerges from the kitchen and nestles into Trip, who puts his arms around him.

“Hey…” says Skye, and she’s using the tone that means she’s got an idea.  “So...there’s this party going on at some bar, I dunno, Darcy’s there, and I was kinda hoping you guys would wanna go after all?”

Jemma winces.  “A bar party,” she echoes.

“With loud people,” adds Fitz, looking like he’d rather skydive with an angry bear.

“Yeah, that might not be the best idea,” says Trip, almost apologetically.

Skye pouts.  “Well then, what are we gonna do?”

“Well, we were planning on staying in and hanging out anyway,” Jemma points out.

“We have alcohol!”  Trip nods to the paper bag full of bottles that’s been sitting on the counter for a few days in anticipation of tonight.

Fitz chimes in, “Look, we can watch Pacific Rim or something.  Anything you want.  But no bar!”

“I promise I’ll make it up to you,” Jemma says, dropping her voice to add, “However you want.”

Skye’s perked up as they’ve been listing off incentives, and with Jemma’s last she grins and practically purrs, “Well, I guess that’ll be okay,” before going to put her arms around Jemma and kissing her.

“Good,” Jemma murmurs.  “Now, we’ll get the food, you two just settle in.”  And she and Fitz go into the kitchen to retrieve the plates of snack foods.

Trip obediently ambles over to flop into his customary chair, while Skye perches on the couch waiting for Jemma to come back so she can flop on her lap.  Once she does, Skye gloms onto her, maneuvering around until she’s both comfortable and able to reach her plate easily. Fitz puts in the movie and hands Trip his plate before settling into his boyfriend’s arms.

Skye’s almost quiet until the theme song, when she starts singing along.  “This doesn’t even have words,” protests Fitz half-heartedly.

“I can make up words, if you want.”

NO!

 


 

“Where’s your girlfriend?” Linnea asks.

Hogun sighs, his expression translating to she isn’t my girlfriend exactly, but what he actually says is, “Visiting family.”

“Looks like I’m going to have to rely on you for moral support tonight,” Linnea says to Sif, grinning mischievously.

“She’ll be your undoing,” Fandral teases.

“Oh, I’ve undone her a few times in the past and she didn’t seem to mind,” Sif quips, taking a sip of her beer.

It takes a second, but once Fandral gets it, he rather openly gapes, which makes both women, and Hogun, chuckle.  “You seem surprised,” Linnea says.

“No,” he sputters indignantly.  “I just - need a moment to process.”

“Odds that ‘process’ is code for ‘imagine it’?” Linnea asks Sif in a stage-whisper.

“Ten out of ten,” Sif says.  “Going to let him get away with it?”

Before this can continue, though, Darcy and Ian practically skip up, both waving enthusiastically (Darcy in a way that suggests she’s already a couple of cocktails in).  “What’s up?” she asks.

“Breaking Fandral’s brain,” Linnea says solemnly.

“Ooh, fun,” Darcy giggles.  “You guys gonna be around for a while?  We’re still making the rounds, but I’m trying to figure out who’s actually gonna make it to midnight.  I hear they have a karaoke machine here.”

“Count me out of the singing but into the laughing at our drunken coworkers,” Sif says.  “Ian, you look surprisingly clear-headed.”

“I’m the DD,” he announces.  

Darcy glances around the slowly-filling room impatiently, like her attention span is dwindling.  “Back later,” she calls suddenly, pulling Ian in the direction of a booth along the wall that’s currently occupied by Bobbi and Mack.  “Just you two tonight?”

Bobbi shrugs.  “I’m between mistakes,” she says.  “I told Clint he could stop being a weirdo and come out of his little corner to hang out, but he said something about ghost-hunting.”

“Don’t even ask with him,” Darcy says.  “It’s better that way.  Which I’m sure you know.”

“Do I ever,” Bobbi agrees.

“Well, you’re gonna do karaoke, right?” Darcy presses.  “I’ve heard about your performing past.  I bet you could get up there and give us entire perfectly choreographed Britney Spears numbers.”

“I did drill team,” Bobbi corrects.  “Baton twirling and Britney Spears are two separate things.”  Not that she didn’t learn a few things involving the latter during her misspent youth, but that’s neither here nor there.

“She sings, too,” Mack says wryly.

Not karaoke,” Bobbi insists.

“Fine,” Darcy groans.  “Be a spoilsport.  I’m going to go recruit someone who’ll actually play along.”

“You didn’t even ask me, though,” Mack calls as Darcy and Ian disappear into the crowd again, Ian shrugging apologetically.

The next targets are Carina and all her friends, and Darcy appears next to them with a wide smile.  “Hey,” she singsongs.  “Happy almost-New Year.”

Carina laughs. “You, too,” she says.  “Hi, Ian.”

Ian lifts a hand in greeting, still looking rather self-conscious.

“So are any of you gonna karaoke?” Darcy asks, ready to jump into her pitch.

“Of course there’s going to be karaoke,” says Nebula.

“Do not let Tony find out there’s karaoke!” an unfamiliar brown-haired man exclaims, butting into the conversation rather spectacularly.

“He’s going to find out anyway, Happy,” Rhodey says from behind him.  “You’re sure as hell not getting him out of here before midnight.”

“Karaoke after midnight, then,” apparently-Happy exclaims.

“Too late!” Tony crows from the other end of the bar, causing Happy and Rhodey (and Pepper, who’s currently seated beside Tony nursing a Manhattan) to groan (Christine, on his other side, politely hides her laughter behind her hand).

Darcy shifts to complimenting all of Carina’s friends on their party clothes (only one of them, the red-haired girl, looks remotely appropriate for a glitzy New Year’s event, but they all have a certain charm) as a way to butter them up, but she’s momentarily distracted when Raina waltzes up, gives Nebula a kiss on the cheek just to see the others’ confused expressions, and then drifts toward the door, where for some ungodly reason Grant Ward is standing drinking what’s doubtlessly a shitty beer.

“Good evening,” Raina coos.

“Hi,” Ward says, barely concealing his confusion.

“Just hitting every party on the circuit?” she asks through a smile that looks fake but that somehow he falls for.

“Something like that.”

“Isn’t that the Nazi?” asks another of Carina’s friends - Rogue, Darcy’s pretty sure, which is a kickass nickname.

Carina nods.  “I don’t know why in the world she’d be giving him attention,” she admits.

“I think I do,” Nebula smirks.

All of them watch the exchange transpire - not listen, as the voices get lower and possibly more intimate, but definitely watch - and none of them but Ian and Carina even attempt to pretend they weren’t watching when Raina returns.  “Where’s your sister, robot girl?” she asks.

Nebula shrugs.  “Somewhere in here with Quill and Drax, I think,” she says.  “What game are you playing with asshat over there?”

Raina giggles.  “I don’t know yet, I’m not done,” she croons.  She reaches into her purse and pulls out her phone, apparently responding to a message, and it’s at that moment that the song switches.  To “Anaconda.”

Instinctually, Darcy starts laughing, because she made this song even better for herself, but then she looks up and sees Ward chatting up some girl, this wholesome-looking petite blonde, and she can’t help but glare, somewhat in defense of the girl, who probably doesn’t know what she’s getting into.

Probably to his advantage, Ward happens to meet her gaze.  Her terrifying, steely gaze.  It’s maybe two seconds before he mutters something to the girl and ducks out the door.

Chapter Text

Maya is pretty sure that staying home and finally catching up on Orange is the New Black is actually the lamest way to spend New Year’s Eve, but it’s better than the alternative (she’s received more than one frantic text message from Pepper asking her if she really won’t consider keeping her company, because Tony is apparently terrorizing the bar and babysitting gets tiring, but that’s a dance Maya has done before and she politely declines) and anyway, it’s not like it’s not unproductive.

She’s three episodes down when her doorbell rings, and it’s precisely because she’s mystified about who it might be that she actually bothers to make sure she doesn’t look horribly disheveled before she goes to answer the door.

Maria?”

That’s not really what she expected, even though she notices her heart pick up its pace a little seeing the other woman standing there.

“I fucked up, Maya,” Maria moans.

“I thought you were supposed to be out with Melinda tonight,” Maya muses.

“That’s what I fucked up,” Maria says, like it’s obvious, and she finally looks up long enough for Maya to notice her glossy eyes complete with telltale blown pupils.

“Okay, you’re coming in,” Maya says, taking Maria by the arm and dragging her toward the living room before protests can be made.  “I’m getting you water and food and you’re telling me what’s going on.”

Maria doesn’t immediately respond except for to fold her arms as she sits there, looking completely aggravated with everything, but that expression softens when Maya brings her not only a glass of water but a bag of (still disproportionately fancy, but that’s just Maya’s way, fancy without calling attention to it in the slightest) potato chips.

“Well, the date was a failure,” Maria says.  “I mean, it was going along wonderfully, we were talking and getting along really well.  Nobody knows how funny that woman is.”

“Well, she doesn’t usually say more than a sentence or two to us civilians,” Maya points out, not unkindly, as she sits on the couch herself.  

“As the night went on, we got closer and closer together, and I’m almost positive she was about to kiss me, but I just froze up,” Maria continues, sounding uncharacteristically small.

Maya’s heart leaps into her throat, but she isn’t going to pay attention to that.  It’s not the point right now.  Or probably ever.  “Too public?” she ventures.  “Too rushed?”

“Maya, I’ve been flirting with her for the better part of a year,” Maria says, rolling her eyes.  “And at least some of the time I think she’s flirting with me.”  She eats a whole handful of chips in one go, managing to look sad even then.  “I freaked out.  That’s all there is to it.”

Maya winces sympathetically.  “I’m sure it’s okay,” she says.

“Yeah, but what if it’s not?  I made an ass out of myself,” Maria groans.  “And she’s gonna be at that party too, and I…”

“You’re drunk,” Maya points out.  “Or drunk enough that I’m not letting you drive.”

“Are you just going to keep me here?” Maria teases.

“Well, considering that I’m sure as hell not chauffeuring you to some mess of a party, I guess that’s what it comes to,” Maya retorts.  It’s a bit more forceful than is probably appropriate, but Maria is pretty stubborn.

“Fine,” Maria says like it’s some great burden (although she realizes she’d pretty much expected this to happen when she decided to show up unannounced).  She eyes the TV screen.  “How far in are you?”

“Not very,” Maya shrugs.  “But since I’m forcing you to stay, you get to decide what we watch.”

Which is how, despite Maya’s gentle suggestions that they watch something calming and pleasant, half an hour later they’re tucked under a giant blanket streaming Heathers.  And sure, Maria idly lets her head rest against Maya’s shoulder, but she does it so nonchalantly, so without acknowledgement, that Maya knows better than to say anything.

And sure, Maya scoots closer, lets an arm drape over Maria’s lap, but she does it so unthinkingly, so without preamble, that Maria knows better than to say anything.

 


 

After more episodes than is probably healthy of the show, Sharon disentangles herself (her head is resting against Steve’s chest, her legs are draped across Natasha’s lap) and murmurs, “I’ll be right back, you guys” before grabbing her purse and disappearing down the hall.

“What was that all about?” Bucky asks.  “Is she okay?”

“She’s fine.  She has a surprise for us.”  Natasha’s smirking.  “Well, for you guys.  I know what it is, I bought it for her.”

Steve’s eyes go wide.  “The mysterious Christmas present?”

“Maybe.”  Natasha bops his nose playfully with a finger.

“I thought you guys were gonna keep that a secret forever.  That one wouldn’t stop talking about it, trying to figure out what it was,” says Sam, nodding at Steve.

“I voted for dildo,” Bucky offers with an entirely straight face.

“Not this time.”  Natasha smirks.  “Anyway, we have plenty of alternatives available.  It seemed a bit superfluous.”

Steve makes a very distinct choking noise.

“You’re weirdly innocent and it’s adorable.”

“No,” he whispers, sounding reverent.  “It’s just…”  He nods toward where Sharon is standing, clad in a lacy red - lingerie something (he can never keep track of the terms, despite Natasha’s attempts to teach him).

Sam whistles.  “Damn, girl.”

She smiles with just the slightest self-consciousness, shaking her hair out.  “You like?”

“Yeah.”  Bucky’s eyes are wide.  “You look...amazing.”

“You’re welcome, boys.”  Natasha’s ogling too, of course.  She’s only human.

“Come here,” Steve says, his voice still pitched low.

Sharon nods as she does, seeming to gain confidence with each step, and off his inviting look, she plants herself in Steve’s lap, then presses a kiss to the underside of his jaw.  “Happy holidays,” she whispers.

Very happy,” murmurs Natasha, leaning over to kiss Sharon’s lips.  “You come play too,” she says to Sam and Bucky, who do as she suggests immediately.  “I think our girl needs some attention.”

 


 

When Melinda enters the bar, against her better judgment, she makes a beeline for the alcohol.  That might make this experience slightly more tolerable.  She’s just settling into her barstool with her whiskey when she hears someone say, “Hello there.”

She turns to see Peter Quill, that kid who owns the skate shop across the street from the mall.  They’ve never spoken, but she knows of him.  She knows enough, anyway.  “Hi,” she says after taking a moment to size him up (he’s no threat at all).

“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”

“Drinking.”  She’s heard it before.  It was old years ago.  She scans behind him for Sif, or anyone she knows, really, that she can use as a convenient excuse.

“Ooh, whiskey.  A nice choice.”  He seems not to have noticed her fairly blatant gaze behind him and continues talking.  “So I think I’ve seen you before, you work at Big 5, right?  That’s a nice store.  I bet you know a lot about that stuff, huh?  You know your way around...balls.”

While she’s considering tossing her whiskey in his face (she could, for that joke, but it’s Four Roses and it would be a waste of a good drink) she spots Sif across the room.  “My friend is here,” she says. “I’m going to meet her.”  She completely ignores his attempts to bid her farewell.

Sif’s smiling when she comes up to her.  “You made it!” she says.

“I did.  I was having a drink and got accosted by someone old enough to know better.”

Sif laughs.  “I saw the end of that.  Quill is very...forward.  Anyway, we don’t have to stay if you don’t want to, I live about five minutes away and I also have drinks.”

“All right.  Sounds good.”

 


 

The credits are just starting to roll when Skye says, “Jemma and I would have a kickass Jaeger, right?”

“You would.” Trip nods.

“Actually I think Jemma and I would be good drift partners,” says Fitz.

“Okay, yeah, you’d be good, but not as good as me.”  Skye’s grinning.  She knows that’ll piss off Fitz.  She’s had a bit to drink and feels silly and mischievous.

Fitz hasn’t had as much to drink, but it affects him faster.  “That’s a lie!” he says.  “I’ll fight you for it!”

“How does it feel to have my boyfriend and your girlfriend fighting over you, Jemma?”  Trip’s grinning.

“It’s a little bit flattering and a little bit alarming,” Jemma admits.

“Okay, let’s do it!  Jemma and I’ll be the Jaeger and you be the kaiju, and if I win she’s mine and if you win she’s yours.  Deal?”

“Why do I have to be the kaiju?” whines Fitz.  “That’s not fair!  Trip, help me!”

Trip rolls his eyes fondly and picks Fitz up so he’s sitting on his shoulders.  Then he gives his very best kaiju roar.

“C’mon, Jemma!”  Skye pulls her to her feet and grabs her left hand.

Jemma squeaks as she’s pulled up, but the amount of alcohol in her bloodstream means she’s at least not disagreeing with the activity.  “All right, co-pilot,” she says, nodding very seriously.

“This is it!  Category four!  We gotta use everything!”  Skye’s shouting because that seems reasonable in the middle of a battle.  “LOCCENT, Seismic Crystal is gonna kick its ass!”

“Seismic Crystal, really?” scoffs Fitz.  “That’s the best you could come up with?”

“Shut up!  ELBOW ROCKET!”  Skye pretends to fire her elbow into Trip’s right arm and Trip cries out dramatically.  “A direct hit!  Quick, Jemma, use the machete!”

Jemma yelps, because she can go along with games like this but she’s not the best at improvising, and in a panic she picks up the nearest item she can find, which semi-conveniently turns out to be an unopened roll of wrapping paper.  She takes a second to regroup, then swings the roll at the boys, only slightly clumsily.

It still manages to whack Fitz on the shoulder.  “Ouch!” he yelps.

“Good work!  Let’s finish it off with the boob guns!”  Skye grabs a wad of unused napkins they brought out and starts balling them up and throwing them at the “kaiju,” and Jemma joins her.  Their aim is terrible and they’re nowhere near coordinated, but finally Trip, laughing, lets Fitz off his shoulders and groans like a dying animal as he flops to the ground.  “Augh, you got me!”

“You’re a bloody terrible kaiju,” giggles Fitz from where he’s sitting on the floor.

“We did it!”  Skye turns to high five Jemma.  “Best drift partners ever!”

Jemma catches Skye’s high five, then turns it into holding hands, then turns it into pulling her closer to kiss.  “Best ever,” she agrees.

Meanwhile, Trip’s still flopped on the ground fake-moaning and doesn’t stop until Fitz slides over to kiss him.  “My hero,” he murmurs.

 


 

“My entire body is tingling!  I wish to dance!”

Nebula groans.  “How much have you had to drink?”

“I did not count!” Drax grins widely.  “They were all so delicious and very cheap!  Come, skunk girl, dance with me!”  He beckons to Rogue, who’s nursing her own drink.

“Charming as that nickname is, I’m gonna pass.”

“Then you, pink-hair.  I know you are Nebula’s beloved, but I’m sure she will not mind.”

“I’m too drunk to dance,” Carina says immediately.

“Leather jacket?  Red haired girl?”  Both Laura and MJ shake their heads, and Drax shrugs.  “Very well, have a pleasant evening.  I shall go dance alone!  Billy Idol has a song about that that Quill played for me, I quite like it.”  And he’s off to do just that.

“Besides, it’s more fun watching Quill strike out with every girl in this bar,” says Nebula to the others with a smirk.  At the moment he’s chatting up Bobbi, who looks about two seconds away from kicking his ass.

“Y’know, all the girls I knew on drill team were really...talented.  Are you talented too?”  Peter’s tone makes the innuendo painfully obvious.

Bobbi grits her teeth.  “Ask me that question again when I actually have my batons on me and you’ll find out just how talented,” she says.

“Ooh, good idea!  Do you like, do you want my number or should I get yours…”

Without saying anything, she kicks him right in the knee and saunters off.

He groans and stays down for a moment, murmuring, “Okay, okay, no number then.”  Finally, he staggers to his feet and limps off in search of another girl.

“Good for her,” says MJ.  “I’ve kind of wanted to do that to him for a while.”

Peter works his way to the other end of the bar, hoping maybe that end will be more receptive.  Immediately he spots a gorgeous blonde who’s sort of standing near Tony Stark but not really, so maybe she’s just a groupie.  He sidles over to her and says in his best I’m-a-friendly-guy voice, “Hey there! What’s your name?”

She looks surprised. “Christine. And you are…?”

“Peter Quill.  I run the skate shop across from the mall.  I’m pretty good with a board.  Pretty good at some other things too.”  He grins.  “How about you?”

“Uh huh.  Well, Peter Quill, it’s very nice to meet you, but I should say at this point in the conversation that I’ve already got a manchild fuckbuddy just so there’s no confusion in the future.”  Christine’s smiling like she’s on her last nerve.

Tony, who’s seated nearby explaining some software to Happy, glances over.  “Manchild fuckbuddy here,” he calls, interrupting himself.

Peter can’t keep the disappointed look off his face.  “Oh, okay, well, uh...nice to meet you, Christine.  And you, manchild fuckbuddy.  Your parents must’ve been cruel.”

“I cry myself to sleep every night,” says Tony blithely.

“Have a nice evening, you two.”  Peter turns away, refusing to give up.  He spots Raina nursing a drink at the bar, apparently alone, and ambles over.  “Hey!  Raina!  Long time no see.”

“Hi,” Raina says, sounding disinterested.

“Come on, pal,” Gamora mutters, coming up behind him and tugging him away.  “There are some things we shouldn’t mess with.”

Now that the show of Quill humiliating himself is over, Nebula nudges Carina and murmurs, “You wanna split?”

“Yes, please,” Carina says, nodding.

 


 

Sif drives Melinda’s car to her apartment, since Sif had carpooled with Hogun and she and Melinda both agreed that Melinda’s glass of whiskey meant she shouldn’t be driving.  As she pulls into one of the visitor parking spots, she says apologetically, “I wasn’t expecting guests and I haven’t really cleaned the place, so apologies for that.”

“It’s fine,” says Melinda kindly.  “I understand.”

Sif’s apartment is small but she likes it that way - it’s all the room she needs, and she’s never felt embarrassed bringing women to it in the three years she’s been renting it.  Now, though, she’s definitely wishing she had a nicer place - the paint is long overdue for another coat, and there are only four rooms counting the bathroom, and she’s just starting to worry about what Melinda is thinking when Melinda, after glancing around for a minute, says, “Reminds me of my place, actually.”

“Oh,” Sif says, trying not to look too relieved.  “I was just about to say, I know it’s small.”

“It’s cozy.” That’s not a word Sif would have ever imagined Melinda saying.  “It’s secure and safe. I like small apartments better than large ones.”  Melinda smiles at her - it’s a real smile, both corners of her mouth turn up, and Sif can’t breathe for a second.

But she manages to get ahold of herself and asks, “Can I get you something to drink?  Or some food?  I don’t have much but there’s some chips in the pantry and…”

“Just water for now.  Perhaps more booze later.”  Melinda sits on Sif’s couch, which is old and kind of ugly (it’s an odd sort of maroon color) but comfortable.

Sif goes to get her a glass, and some for herself, because she suspects that drinking around her crush at this stage of the night will end very badly.  “Oh,” she calls as she comes back into the living room, “I have, um, something for you.  I meant to give it to you at work but I kept...forgetting to bring it.”  Or losing her nerve, but she won’t say that.

“Thank you.”  Melinda looks surprised.  “I have something for you as well, in my car.  Shall I go get it? I’ll need my keys back.”

“Of course!”  Sif tosses them to her and then has a horrible sinking feeling that that might be Melinda’s way of trying to escape hanging out with her.  But no, that wouldn’t make any sense, would it?  Melinda’s too blunt.  If she doesn’t like you, you know it.  So instead she pulls out the small gift-wrapped box from where she’s stashed it on top of her dresser (trying to get up the nerve to take it to work with her) and waits for a moment until Melinda returns with her own, much larger box.

“Perhaps I have been too extravagant,” jokes Melinda when she sees the size of the box in Sif’s hand.

“Oh, no, you haven’t!  The box is small because…  Er, just...just open it.”  Sif hastily hands it to her.

Melinda does, her face betraying nothing, but when she pulls out the bracelet inside her expression softens.  “Oh my.”

“Look, there’s more!”  Sif slides over from the other side of the couch to show her how one side of the silver bracelet slips out when manipulated in just the right way to reveal a knife edge.  “I thought...it was something you’d like,” she says, lamely.

“I do, very much.  Thank you.”  Melinda slips the box into her purse. “I won’t wear it tonight, I wouldn’t want to scratch it.  And perhaps not to work, but I will find reasons to wear it.”  She smiles again and Sif has to work to keep her composure. “Now open yours.”

Sif pulls the box up from the floor, and it’s large enough to rest across her lap and just touch one of Melinda’s legs.  “I’m not sure that you were too extravagant, it might be that I was,” she says as she pulls off the wrapping.

“I wouldn’t assume that.”

And Sif sees what she means when she pulls out Melinda’s gift - a gorgeous leather belt meant for a renaissance fair costume that has what must be a dozen loops and straps of varying lengths and sizes.  Melinda obviously knows quality where she sees it, and Sif is awed.  “How did you know I needed one?” she breathes.  Because, well, her old belt is old and has one loop for her sword and that’s all.  It was an emergency purchase from Goodwill and she just hasn’t had the funds for a better one.

“I asked for Heimdall’s help, I admit,” says Melinda with a grin.  “I knew you and your friends like to do that sort of thing, but I knew nothing about it.  He suggested a few vendors and I thought this was your style.”

“It’s perfect.”  Sif keeps running her hands over the butter-soft leather and imagining what her costume will look like with this belt.  She’s proud of that costume, but it’s always needed that last touch.  “Thank you so much, Melinda, this is…”

“I know.”  Melinda puts her hand on Sif’s shoulder.  “You’re welcome.”

Then Sif happens to glance at the clock.  “Oh! It’s about half an hour to midnight.  Do you want to...see what shitty New Year’s countdown programming is on?”

“I can think of no better way to spend the evening,” says Melinda, absolutely deadpan, but when Sif looks at her she’s smirking.

As it turns out, alcohol makes Melinda...not affectionate, but Sif would say at least more inclined to sit close to the person she’s with.  The talking heads on TV drone on and make bad jokes and Melinda leans against Sif, not fully resting her head on her shoulder but keeping it right next to it, and Sif tries to bask in the moment but mostly she just has to remember to breathe and act normal.

 


 

“That was a treat,” Victoria murmurs, stroking Isabelle’s hair.  They’re tangled up in the bedsheets, happily sated, both of them nearly naked; a bottle of champagne is on the endtable.

“Good.” Isabelle presses a kiss to Victoria’s shoulder.  “You’re cute when you’re all fucked out.”

“You know you’re the only person on the planet who’s allowed to say that to me,” Victoria points out, attempting some semblance of authority in her tone and failing.

Isabelle chuckles.  “What an honor.”  After a moment of quiet she adds,  “Did you want to go out and do anything else tonight with other people?  I mean, I’m content here, but I could be...persuaded if you wanted to socialize.”

“Honestly?  I can’t imagine anything I want more than staying here with you.”

Nuzzling her, Isabelle hums happily.  “Agreed.  More champagne?”

“More champagne,” Victoria agrees.   “But first, more kissing.”   And she positions herself to do just that.

 


 

It’s midway through Drax’s very enthusiastic but accidentally violent rendition of “Tubthumping” that Gamora mutters, “I don’t think this bar even has anyone working.  I think they just left us to our own devices.”

“Anarchy,” Rogue agrees, overhearing.  She doesn’t sound entirely displeased by the prospect.

Drax practically pitches headfirst onto the stage at the song’s conclusion, then rights himself as he exclaims, “See, I do get up again!” and elicits groans from the crowd, either because they know him so well that his literalism is no longer entirely endearing or they don’t know him well enough to find it that.  There’s scattered applause as he takes his seat, though, because nobody is so drunk that they completely forget their party manners.

It’s Quill on stage next, and his first move is to squint into the crowd and shout, “Duet partner!”

“Fuck off and stop trying,” Gamora shouts back, tone bright.

He pouts as the opening notes play, but all is forgotten by the first “Listen, baby” and it’s all either up or downhill (depending on your perspective) from there.

“Are you gonna give it a go?” Lance asks, sitting at Lorelei’s table unbidden but welcome as he brings her a new whiskey sour.

“It’s not really my thing,” Lorelei says.  “I’d much rather perform one-on-one.”

“Not, ah, one for groups?” he stammers.

“Not one for voyeurs,” she corrects.

He makes a face, wishing he hadn’t already put his name on the list, but it’d be a wussier move to back out once everyone knows.  “D’you mind being one?” he asks.  That’s a save, in his drunken mind anyway.

“Sometimes,” she says airily.  “Sometimes it’s fun.”

Meanwhile, Quill is trying to incite the entire bar to sing along, to little avail, and it becomes one of those hilarious times to be a voyeur, so the conversation fades out.  By the time Lance thinks of something new and charming to say, Lorelei has disappeared, taking her drink with her.

Of fucking course she has.

A few performances - Tony’s “Blank Space” (laughably bad) and Darcy’s “I Will Always Love You” (prefaced with the note that she couldn’t actually sing the entire “Elephant Love Medley” from Moulin Rouge not because she’s not two people but because they didn’t have it) and Mack’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (decent, plus he actually manages to get audience participation) and Fandral’s “I’ll Make Love to You” (aimed at Linnea, who has a hard time keeping a straight face) - and a few more drinks down, a very bleary-eyed Lance takes the stage.

“Yeah, you know who this is for,” he slurs into the microphone (Lorelei turns to Raina with an amused expression) as the opening chords play.

By the time he’s to the chorus, wailing about “we could have had it aaaaaaaaaalllllll” and barely managing to stay upright, Bobbi is laughing so hard she has to put her head down to cover it up.

“Well, that was something else,” MJ says as she takes the stage, launching into a perfectly decent and possibly rehearsed rendition of Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song.”

 


 

“I made cookies,” Jane calls as Thor enters the apartment.

“Goodness, Jane, seeing your lovely face was enough!  And cookies as well?  You will spoil me,” teases Thor, following her voice into the kitchen and then leaning down for a kiss.

“It’s only fair,” she murmurs against his lips.  “Was the rest of the day acceptable?”

Thor shrugs.  “It was fine, I suppose.  Kurt and I rearranged the store and put out the new inventory as requested.  But I am glad to be done now.  I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” Jane says.  “Now, I’m positive these aren’t the best cookies ever, but hopefully they’re not too horrible?”

“I’m sure they are more than satisfactory!”  Thor takes the plate and heads for the living room.  “Shall we watch something while we wait for the countdown?”

 


 

“These are so annoying,” grumbles Fitz, trying in vain to adjust the kitschy “2015” glasses that Skye made them all put on so they don’t irritate his nose.

“They’ll be off in five minutes,” Jemma says.  

“Good.  I’m tired.”  Fitz flops against Trip.

Skye blows into a noisemaker.  “Wuss.”

“Child.”

“Spoilsport.”

“Play nice, you two,” says Trip in a warning tone, stroking Fitz’s hair.

At some point in the evening, someone had put a candle on the table and lit it, and miraculously it’s managed to stay lit despite all their shenanigans earlier.   Skye blows it out like a birthday candle.  “Happy new year!” she says, blowing another noisemaker.

“Also not for another five minutes,” Jemma says, chuckling fondly.

“Since we’ve got that, anyone got any resolutions?” asks Trip.

Fitz grunts.  “I resolve to go to sleep immediately after this.”

Jemma perks right up, announcing, “I resolve -”

“-to kiss my girlfriend right now!” says Skye, grabbing Jemma’s face and kissing her.

Trip laughs.  “Well, that’s not a bad one, I guess.”

 


 

“Only a minute till midnight,” Steve announces, drawing patterns on Sharon’s arm.

“Ooh, we should get stuff for a toast!”  Sam gently disentangles himself from the rest of them, who are sort of melted together in a pile as usual, and heads for the kitchen to grab glasses and champagne.

“Happy almost-2015, everyone.”  Natasha doesn’t move from where she’s snuggled up against Bucky and Sharon simultaneously.

“Mm, happy almost-2015,” Sharon echoes, grinning.  She sits up when Sam reenters with the champagne, eagerly reaching for the bottle and a glass as soon as it’s set down.

Bucky lazily takes the glass Steve’s offered him.  He was almost asleep before Steve made the announcement, and he still seems dozy, smiling in a dopey sort of way.

“Here’s to a new year,” says Sam, clinking everyone’s glass.

When the numbers flick over to midnight, there’s a round of affectionate kisses and then a round of very affectionate kisses, and then everyone begins to take advantage of their mostly-undressed state and the glasses of champagne are mostly forgotten.

Chapter Text

Skye knocks on the door of apartment 303 and then says to Jemma, “See, we’re only like a minute late, we’re fine.”

“We would have been on time if you hadn’t insisted on pushing it to the very last minute,” Jemma mutters, though she’s smiling.

“You seemed to be okay with it when I was doing this,” teases Skye, leaning over to nibble Jemma’s earlobe.

Skye,” Jemma hisses, frantically pawing at Skye in a halfhearted attempt to get her to stop.  “Not where people might be!”

As if to prove this theory, Sharon strolls up, carrying a grocery bag that’s full of both soda and beer (something for everyone).  “Hey, guys,” she says cheerfully.

“Hey.  What are you doing here?” asks Skye, and she doesn’t mean to be rude, she’s honestly curious.  “I thought you were Natasha’s girlfriend or something.”

“And something, more like,” Sharon says dismissively.  “That’s why she invited me.”

Skye raises an eyebrow.  “Okay…”

Natasha opens the door.  “Oh good, you brought the drinks,” she says to Sharon.  “Come in.”

They do, and Skye glances around the sparsely decorated living room, featuring one couch, one short table that is maybe passable as a coffee table, one television, and several small paintings of birds.  It either looks like the living space of someone who enjoys the minimalist look or someone who doesn’t give enough of a fuck to furnish their place.  The latter of which Skye can appreciate, really.  “So this is Clint’s place?” she asks.

“Yeah.  We’re here for a life lesson, kids.”  Natasha nods to the floor in front of the couch.  “Sorry, he’s too lazy to buy more chairs so you’ll have to sit on the floor.”

Jemma glances around.  The couch is taken up by Darcy and Ian on one end and Fitz and Trip on the other, and she can’t help but think that the “kids” part of Natasha’s statement is intentionally applied.  So she sits daintily on the floor, legs folded to one side of her, and nods for Skye to join.  “Where is Clint, exactly?” she asks.

“He’s out getting the pizza.  We did promise you pizza,” Natasha says with a wry smile.  “He’ll be back in a few minutes, probably.  In the meantime, Sharon, come help me get cups.”

Trying not to giggle, Sharon sets her bag down by the door and puts her coat on top of it before following Natasha into the kitchen.

Skye nudges Jemma and murmurs “Well, someone wanted to say hello to their ‘and something’ in private” with a grin.

“Shush,” Jemma whispers, looking mortified for a second before she turns to the others and asks Fitz, “Did you just come straight after your class project meeting?”

Fitz nods.  “The others have some good ideas about what direction to go in.  Especially Tadashi, he’s brilliant!”

“Ooh, watch it Trip, I think Fitz has a little crush,” Skye says playfully.

“I’m not worried,” replies Trip, squeezing Fitz’s hand.  Fitz smiles fondly at him and then turns to glare at Skye, who responds with an innocent expression.

“Ugh, you’re so cute it hurts,” Darcy says, rolling her eyes.

Just then a key turns in the lock and Clint enters, carrying four pizzas.  “Soup’s on!” he calls.  “Nat, Sharon, stop making out and come help me!”

Natasha saunters back into the living room, hair slightly mussed.  She’s smirking and if someone looked closely, they might see that her lips are shinier than they had been five minutes before.  “We have cups,” she says, brandishing a stack of Solo cups.

“Plates?” Clint asks, setting the pizzas on the coffee table.

“Plates!” Sharon exclaims, reentering with more paper plates than this group would use in a week.  “And napkins!”

There’s a knock at the door.  “Ah, that’ll be the delinquents,” says Clint.

Natasha smacks him.  “Be nice.”  She opens the door for Nebula and Carina, who make an immediate beeline for the pizza (well, Nebula does, Carina’s holding her hand and gets dragged along).  “Find a spot on the floor,” Natasha says.

“Whatever,” replies Nebula, settling herself away from the others.

Carina, meanwhile, is busy smiling apologetically at their hosts.  “We got stuck in traffic,” she says.

“No worries, we hadn’t started yet.”  Natasha lets everyone get food and drinks and settle in before she announces, “We asked you all here to teach you an important life lesson.”

“Aw, damn!” says Skye.  “I was hoping you were gonna talk about a new mission to make Ward’s life miserable, or something.”

Clint laughs.  “Give it a week, she’ll think of something.  She’s too busy doing that to me right now.”

“Big baby,” replies Natasha.  “Anyway, we’re here to tell you the story of a lovelorn boy named Clint and some bad choices he made in college.”

“Awww,” Darcy croons.  “Is there an embarrassing tattoo on a lovelorn boy named Clint’s ass?”

“It’s on my chest, I’ll have you know,” says Clint indignantly.

“Oh my god, I was kidding,” Darcy giggles.

Nebula’s wearing a bigger grin than anyone’s ever seen on her face.  It’s a little bit scary.  “Are you that guy that Drax talks about sometimes who came in asking to put a tree around the mockingbird that was on his right boob?”

“I plead the fifth.”

“Awesome.  That makes this whole stupid day worth it.”

Very gently, Carina nudges Nebula in the shoulder.  “She doesn’t mean that,” she amends.  “It’s just been - she’s - tired.  She’s tired.  That’s all.”  The need to not offend everyone else is painfully apparent in her tone.

Sharon takes pity and offers the other girl a smile of reassurance before saying to Natasha, “Please, continue.”

“So, when Clint was in college he dated a lovely girl named Bobbi-”

“We’re not changing anyone’s name in this story to protect innocent parties?” interrupts Clint.

“Nope.”  Natasha’s smile is almost cruel.  “Clint and Bobbi had a good time together.  She put up with his antics for some reason, and he adored her.  They dated for about three years and were still together as graduation approached.  So, one night about six weeks before graduation, Clint was over at his best friend’s apartment getting trashed to forget about finals when they decided to get pizza.”

“Oh sure, this best friend doesn’t get a name!”

Natasha ignores his good-natured whining and continues, “When Clint drank, he got sentimental, and he spent twenty minutes telling his best friend all about how much he loved Bobbi and how he was sure it was their destiny to be together forever and how he should maybe propose to her after graduation.”

“And clearly that worked out well,” says Trip dryly.

“Finally his longsuffering best friend got tired of this and took him down the street to get some pizza in hopes it would shut him up.  In the lobby of the pizza parlor, there were vending machines with stupid toys in them that cost a quarter.  Clint saw one that had jewelry and begged his best friend for a quarter until she gave him one.  He got a ring, and proceeded to announce to the entire lobby that it was a sign and that he should ask Bobbi to marry him-”

“They did applaud,” interjects Clint.

“Yeah, and I think most of them were high off their asses at that point.  Anyway, so his best friend tried to tell him what a bad idea it was to take a pizza ring as a sign of who to spend his life with, and he refused to listen.  He just kept yammering on about it and by the time they’d walked back home he’d decided to use the pizza ring as the proposal ring.  He made himself a voice memo in his phone and then proceeded to eat seven slices and pass out for thirteen hours and sleep through all his classes the next day.”

Clint shrugs.  “I still passed ‘em.”

Jemma stares with wide eyes and fumbles for Skye’s free hand to squeeze.  “How could you possibly have - with finals coming up and everything!  You must have asked your teachers for the notes you missed, right?”

“Honey, not everyone cares about school the way you do,” murmurs Skye with a grin that’s half affectionate and half amused at her girlfriend’s fears over another person’s long-ended academic career.

“Can’t remember how,” says Clint with a shit-eating grin.  “Just know I passed.”

“So, despite waking up with a killer headache, he was determined to go through with this dumbass plan of his.  Instead of listening to his best friend, he made a reservation at the fanciest restaurant in town for the night of graduation and invited Bobbi to dinner.  You can imagine how well that went,” finishes Natasha.

“Did she throw her water glass in your face?” Darcy asks eagerly, ignoring the way Ian tugs on her sweater to attempt to quiet her.

“Did she storm off in a huff?”  Skye’s eyes are gleaming, like this is the juiciest story she’s heard in a long time.

“She did neither of those things, because this isn’t a stupid nineties romantic comedy,” says Natasha, smirking.  “I think she found it kind of funny, actually.  I know she laughed a bit.  He got lucky, she was very sweet about it, but basically she told him that he was a nice guy but not the right guy for her to marry.”

“And the right guy was that British douche from Applebee’s?” asks Trip, sounding incredulous.

Clint sighs.  “Look, I do my best not to judge her for her choices.  There had to be something she saw in him.”

“I bet I know what it is,” says Skye, sporting her own shit-eating grin.

“Bobbi doesn’t need to justify her reasons for doing what she did,” Jemma huffs.  “And it was only six months, anyway.”

Fitz blinks at her.  “...How do you know that?”

Jemma waves a hand.  “We’ve talked about it,” she says, like there’s nothing surprising about this (well, that they’ve talked isn’t surprising, but that Jemma’s recounting it so casually and so without starry eyes is).  “We’ve discussed lots of things.  She comes for ice cream sometimes.”

“How often is sometimes?”  Skye tries to keep her tone light, but she grabs Jemma’s hand as she speaks.

“Oh, love, are you jealous?” Jemma asks mischievously.

“Maybe.”  Skye pouts just slightly.

“Well, if you’re jealous of everyone who comes for ice cream, you’re jealous of everyone,” Jemma points out.  “But I’ll have you know, one of those things we discuss is how wonderful you are.”

Skye preens a little.  “Well, okay,” she says, leaning over to rest her head on Jemma’s shoulder. “Just checking.”

“Anyway,” says Natasha, looking amused, “the point of this story, children, is to always be sure you’re on the same page as your romantic partner before taking idiotically large risks like proposing to them with a pizza ring.  We have a visual aid for this.”  She looks pointedly at Clint.

Sighing, he digs in his pocket and pulls out something small, dropping it into Natasha’s outstretched hand.  She holds it up between her thumb and pointer finger, then drops it into the nearest person’s hand (Trip’s).  It’s made of cheap metal, covered in dents, and the magenta stone is heart-shaped and obviously plastic.  “Take a good look at this ring, kids.  This is the pizza ring.  The very ring that Clint bought for a quarter that night, and thought was a sign to propose to his girlfriend.  I show you this ring so that you can see what a bad decision following through on rash, drunk ideas can be.”

“At least it’s not actually plastic?” says Trip as he obediently examines it for a moment before handing it to Fitz.

“The design of this is really quite terrible.  I mean, I know it’s a trinket meant for children, but we should have some standards,” mutters Fitz.  “If this were a real ring, the stone would go flying out within six months.  Gotta get it set in deeper.”

“Setting it in deeper would mean having to use more glue to hold it in, probably,” Ian muses as he takes a turn looking the thing over.  “Which they wouldn’t have been able to do, given that it’s being sold for a quarter.”

“How wasted do you have to be to think this was a good idea?” Darcy asks.  “This isn’t even a color that would suit her.”

Clint has the sense to finally look embarrassed.  “I’m a romantic.”

“That’s sweet,” Carina says.

“In short, always talk to your partner about big life decisions and never take stupid twenty-five cent toys as signs.”

“Also probably don’t get tattoos inspired by somebody unless you’re good at improvising a coverup,” adds Clint.

“Can we see it?” Darcy asks.

“Nope,” he replies blithely.

Nebula chimes in, “I think Drax has most of the custom tattoo sketches he’s done.  Could go ask him if he’s got that one.”

“I’m sure he does.” Clint has switched over to calculated indifference.

“Did you deliberately invite only people under the age of twenty-three?” asks Skye.

Natasha shrugs.  “You’re the ones who needed to hear it.”

“Why, exactly?” Carina asks softly.

“Because some of you are getting to be the age where you start thinking about your futures and how they might include the person you’re with now, and we don’t want you to make the same dumb decisions he did and wind up heartbroken,” says Natasha, sounding more serious than she has for the last twenty minutes.

“And all of the grown-ups already have their shit together,” Darcy surmises, a bit sarcastically (because honestly, that’s at least half-untrue).

“No!  I mean, god, you’ve seen Tony,” replies Clint.  “But we want to help you guys not be twenty-eight and still figuring out your life and who you want to be in it.  Also, divorce can be really fucking expensive if it turns out you actually can’t stand your spouse and you don’t want your apartment to look like mine, or worse, right?”

Fitz’s eyes are huge and he nods like a kindergartner.  Most of the others look as if they’re at least partially receptive to that final point too.

“Hey, but I suppose it’s not a total waste?” Ian offers, grinning.  “You were able to turn your catastrophe into an after-school special for us.”

“Nice one,” Darcy whispers, kissing him on the cheek.

Clint shrugs.  “There’s a distinct possibility that my entire life is an object lesson for others.”

“What must that be like?” Sharon asks Natasha innocently.

“Pretty funny, mostly.”  Natasha grins.

“For him or for you?”

“Oh, for me. I get to sit back and watch the object lesson unfold.”

Skye, meanwhile, has gently disentangled herself from Jemma to get up and go into the kitchen in search of a glass of water.  “Hey Clint,” she calls, “how come your kitchen has paintings of farm animals everywhere?”

Chapter Text

Lance Hunter likes a lot of things about America.  Having to hear about shitty American “football” because ESPN is always on in the bar isn’t one of them.

“Stupid bastards don’t even have to do more than throw the ball and run,” he mumbles as he’s mixing drinks for a particularly noisy group who are watching the game that’s currently on with rapt attention, yelling uproariously every time their team scores or gets close to scoring or even thinks about scoring.  He briefly considers spitting in their drinks, then thinks better of it.  The alcohol hasn’t done anything to deserve that.

He can just see the table at the back wall of the restaurant where Bobbi, Skye and Jemma are sitting, and he glares in their direction.  Partially because, while he’d like nothing more than to not acknowledge them - or at least Bobbi - at all, he’d still rather be serving them than dealing with these animals in the bar.  Besides which, they’re far enough away from the howler monkeys that they might actually be enjoying themselves.  He envies them that.

“What’s a girl have to do to get the bartender’s attention around here?”

The voice sounds entirely unlike the clientele that usually frequents this shithole, so Lance is puzzled enough that he snaps out of his reverie.  He turns to see the slightly terrifying redheaded woman that he’d been flirting with on New Year’s Eve before she’d disappeared on him.  He takes a moment to thank whatever circumstances led to this stroke of luck.  “Hey there, darlin’.  Sorry about that.  What can I get for you?”

She glances over the drink menu even though she’s already completely aware.  “Whiskey smash,” she says flatly.

“Can do,” he says, putting on his very best “hello ladies” smile.  “What brings you here tonight?  Pretty girl like yourself shouldn’t be alone.”

“I wasn’t alone when I got here,” Lorelei grumbles, nodding behind her at a table of overgrown bros, all in their jerseys and gear.  “Oh, come along, it’ll be fun, he said.  We won’t spend the entire time watching football.  I’m sorry to report that regarding that point, dear Donald there was a liar.”

Lance curls his lip.  It’s one thing to just piss him off, it’s another thing to ignore a girl who looks this good.  But, he supposes, finders keepers.  “Seems a shame,” he says, turning to start working on her drink.  “I know the feeling.  This American football shite, why are they all so obsessed with it?”

“It beats me,” she sighs, tossing her hair over her shoulder.  “If you ask me the preoccupation with a bunch of men in skintight pants chasing after balls is comically hypermasculine to the extent that it loops back on itself.”  

That makes Lance laugh.  “Got a point there, gorgeous.”  He pours the bourbon into her drink and then hands it to her.  “There you are.”

She flashes a smile that might look dangerous if one was inclined to think that way.  “Much obliged.”  A moment passes as she stirs the drink, then sips it.  She’s waiting to see if he’ll come up with a new topic of conversation himself.

And hell, he’s never been good at talking to women, but he’s had such an awful night it can’t possibly get any worse, so he says, “Enjoy your New Year’s, then?”

“I did,” she agrees.  “It would have been so depressing to go home alone, so I’m glad I dodged that bullet.”

“Oh?” he can’t help but ask.

“Yes,” she says, raising an eyebrow in a way that means that’s all she’s going to say about that.  Mysteries are one of the things she relies on, honestly.  “I mean, there wasn’t really a question about it, when I decide I’m not going to be alone I’m not alone, but even still.”

“Well, makes sense for a pretty girl like you,” he replies, hoping maybe she’s the type that responds to flattery well.  “You probably have an army of men following you around.”

“Aren’t you the charmer,” she drawls.

“Somebody should appreciate you if that git over there’s not smart enough to.”

She looks down at her drink, then back up at him from under her eyelashes.  “I suppose it’s my fault for hoping I could take him at his word,” she says.

“You can take me at mine, love.  I wouldn’t ignore you for any reason.”  He’s fairly sure she’s receptive to him at this point, which is why he’s started to pull out the white lies.

“A gentleman, too,” she coos, tossing her head back as she takes a sip of her drink.  “That’s a refreshing change.”

He grins.  “I do try.  What’s your name, darling?  I’m Lance.”  Even though he knows he’s told her before, but she appears to have forgotten, which is, he supposes, understandable since Lorelei probably has dozens of men chatting her up every night.  He’s not arrogant enough to assume that she’s remembered him and is just toying with him now.

“Lorelei,” she says.  She leans forward on one hand.  “Lance what?”

“Hunter.  Lance Hunter.”  His grin turns a bit fake-bashful.  “My old man thought I needed to sound like an action hero, apparently.”

“I think it’s cute,” she murmurs, twirling a lock of her hair.  “I’m sure you’re more than proficient with weapons.”

It takes him a moment to notice that she’s staring pretty pointedly at his crotch as she says this, and then he chuckles.  “Proficient?  I’m an expert, love.  Want a demonstration?”

“I might,” she teases.

“How long are you here tonight?  My shift ends in half an hour.”  He tries to keep the eagerness out of his voice, play it cool.

“I can be here as long as you want,” she whispers, smirking.  Any of his attempts to hide his intent are completely failing, but she likes that.  She likes that he’s easy to read, easier even than a lot of men.

“Well, alright then.”  He smirks.  “Want another drink on me?”

“Please,” she says, leaning back against her seat and rather shamelessly arching so her chest (barely covered by a strategically-torn green tank top) sticks out.

He stares, blatantly, and nods.  “Same thing, or would you like to mix it up?”

“Same for this one, but who knows about after,” she declares.

“That’s what I like to hear,” he says with a grin.

 


 

“Hey,” says Skye, accidentally interrupting Jemma in the middle of her debate with Bobbi about the narrative merits of the newest Doctor Who Christmas special, “isn’t that your asshole ex over there talking to that creepy Lorelei chick?”

Bobbi smiles apologetically at Jemma - she can finish in a second, promise it’s still interesting - before glancing toward the bar.  “If the question is is my asshole ex trying to make conversation with some woman, the answer is almost certainly yes,” she says.  “If the question is is my asshole ex succeeding, the answer is maybe, in his own imagination.”

“I dunno, she looks kinda into it.  She’s all...boob-y,” Skye says, as Lorelei leans forward.

“Well, it is Lorelei,” Jemma interjects, rolling her eyes.  Of course, then she realizes how that could have been construed, and although she doesn’t like the woman even a bit, she still feels it necessary to correct, “I just mean, she has that way of, of looking like she’s into all sorts of people.  Subterfuge or… something.”

“You’re adorable,” says Skye, kissing her cheek (also as a way of apologizing for interrupting her earlier).

“I keep hearing all of these vague rumors about Lorelei’s seductive powers,” Bobbi says.  “Is that really what it is?  Playing around?”

Jemma shrugs helplessly.  “Well, she’s not exactly private about it,” she admits.

“She’s kind of awesome, in a weird way,” says Skye with a grin.  “She basically seduces dudes and then either makes them buy her a bunch of shit or eat her out for hours.  Sometimes both.  Then she kicks them to the curb.  And they’re usually not great dudes, either, so I don’t feel bad for finding it funny.  You know Fandral?  She got to him a couple months back, and left him with a sprained tongue.”

Bobbi snorts.  “Must’ve been self-inflicted,” she says.  “If he knew what he was doing, going for hours wouldn’t have been a problem.”

“N-no,” Jemma squeaks, startled and embarrassed by both the fact that Bobbi’s easy drawl makes that sound just seductive enough to get to her and by the fact that it gets to her while she’s sitting next to her girlfriend that she loves very much.

“You okay there, hon?”  Skye smirks playfully at Jemma.

“Yes,” Jemma mutters.  “I’m… we were talking about that in front of us, anyway.”

“So the odds are she’s going to chew him up and spit him out,” Bobbi summarizes.

“Oh yeah.  Gloriously!”  Skye’s grinning as she says it.  “Kinda wish I could be there to watch it happen.”

Just then, Lorelei slips off her bar stool and saunters toward the ladies’, and before she can stop herself Bobbi murmurs, “I’ll be right back” and follows.

She’s not surprised that Lorelei’s leaning into the mirror, freshening her lipstick, when she joins her, and after a quick sweep of the restroom to make sure nobody else is present she leans against the door to keep it closed and says, “You know he’s an ass, right?”

Lorelei doesn’t even flinch.  “Who, bartender boy?”

“Yeah,” Bobbi sighs.  “He’s an ass.  Trust me on that.”

“Sounds like a lesson painfully learned,” Lorelei observes.

“As I suspect you already know because nobody in this damn mall doesn’t, I was married to the guy,” Bobbi replies.  “Very painfully learned.”

“So this is, what, counsel?”

“This is me pointing out that he’s generally a graceless oaf, but he’s a bigger pain than he seems like,” Bobbi says.  “Not entirely horrible if he likes you, he does some pretty nice things with his tongue, but he might be more trouble than he’s worth.”

Finally Lorelei turns to look Bobbi in the eye, and she’s all smiles.  “Sweetie,” she says, “I have yet to meet a guy that I can’t handle.  But thank you for the concern.”  She makes for the door, nudging Bobbi out of the way.  “Thanks for the tip-off about the tongue thing, too.”

It takes some effort to keep from laughing out loud at that, but Bobbi manages, and once she’s collected herself she returns to her table.

“Well, she’s definitely planning something,” she announces to Skye and Jemma.

Skye looks delighted. “I hope it’s more than a sprained tongue. Although that would be pretty funny.”

“Oh, she’d have to work hard to get that out of him,” Bobbi admits.

Chapter Text

“So rumor has it that your father was instrumental in ending your suggested hiatus.  Any comment on that?”

Christine tips forward over the plastic food court table.  She’s doing her best to interview the sulking Loki, although he’s been hard to get an answer out of.  But she’s persistent - she spent her entire college career working towards valedictorian, and succeeded.  “Odin certainly has some clout around here,” she continues.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if he maybe gave your boss some incentive to-”

“My father is a fool,” snarls Loki.  “He just wanted me out of his hair.  That’s the whole reason he made me get a job, he couldn’t stand the idea of his son not participating in capitalist culture.”

“You seem to feel very strongly about that,” she replies.  She knows an opening when she hears one.

“You’re all slaves to it,” he says.  “You can’t even see it.  You’ll buy whatever the television or radio tells you to, never mind if you can’t afford it.  Anything for a shiny new toy.  I was merely trying to free those children from the bonds they have been born into, wake them up and make them see that their society has been lying to them for their entire lives.”

Tony, who’s sitting a few tables over and not even trying to hide his attempts at eavesdropping, murmurs, “Well, it’s not the most unreasonable thing I’ve heard.  Some of Dad’s investors sound like that after a few glasses of bourbon.  But they’re operating from the side that’s trying to make people buy the shiny new toys.  I wonder what stake Guy Fawkes there has in it all.”

“I’m not sure he’s not just blowing smoke,” Pepper whispers in reply, stirring her coffee.

“True.  I’m not sure he entirely knows the meaning of those big words he’s throwing around.  And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s someone who’s trying to make himself sound smarter than he is.”  Tony reaches over to steal one of Pepper’s fries.

Pepper snorts.  “Of course.”

Meanwhile, Loki is still talking and Christine is growing weary.  Two minutes of talk is a nice quote, five minutes is a monologue.  No one reads monologues except starving actors.  “I see,” she says, cutting him off at a pause.  “Now, Officer Hill, I want to talk to you about your actions on Black Friday.”

Maria shrugs.  She can’t exactly say that she tased the kid for being a jackass, even though that’s true, but saying, “He physically assaulted my fellow officer.  I did what I had to do,” is also true and a decent enough explanation.

“I tapped him with a foam sword,” snaps Loki.  “I’m sorry if I bruised his ego.”

Both women ignore him.  “And do you often have to resort to physically restraining customers or employees who are out of line?” Christine asks.

“Not often,” says Maria.  “But even a seemingly harmless provocation can be taken seriously in its context.”

“Oh, do tell me how that would have harmed him.” Loki’s smirking.

“Context,” Maria repeats.  “The nature of the situation.”

“That’s amusingly vague.”

“When your dad buys you a lawyer to join this conversation, I’ll be as specific as you could ever want,” Maria says with a sugary smile.

Loki glares at her.  “Hiding behind litigation is a sign of cowardice.”

Christine takes that opportunity to jump in with “And how do you feel about those accusations, Loki?”

“You’re a biased member of the press,” replies Loki.  “Fuck you.”

That’s not the worst thing Christine’s been called, but she’s startled enough that she doesn’t respond right away, which gives Tony a chance to appear next to her and chime in, “Hey, why don’t you take a chill pill, buddy?  The lady was just asking a question.”

“Oh look, the would-be hero comes to aid his lady,” Loki quips.  “Too bad she’s a nosy harlot who needs to be taken down a peg.”

This makes Christine bristle, but again before she can react Tony’s fist whips out to punch Loki in the nose.  As Loki groans and leans over the table, Tony says, “We’re not in Shakespearean England, but you could’ve called her a lot worse so I’m gonna let you off easy.”

‘“Now, now, Stark,” Maria says, though she doesn’t sound entirely displeased.  “Do I have to take both of you boys down to the principal’s office?”

“I think you’ll find it was provoked, teacher,” replies Tony with a grin.

She sighs.  “Maybe so, but rules are rules,” she declares, moving to lift Loki up and march them down to Fury’s office.

“Wait, Tony, can I talk to you a sec?” asks Christine.

He turns back with the expression of a man who’s ready for praise to be heaped upon him.  “Yes, darling?”

His expression instantly changes when the next words out of her mouth are, “What the fuck, Stark?”  Several people in the surrounding area stop what they’re doing.  At least one pulls out their cell phone and snaps a picture.

“Uh…” he says.  “I’m sorry, did you not like my defending your honor?  I thought women liked that sort of thing.  Pepper, help me out here, you’d like that sort of thing, wouldn’t you?”

From her seat, Pepper just sighs, her expression reading pity more than anything.  “It’s not really that simple,” she says.  “Or that universal.”

“Okay, okay, so I did something wrong.  Judging by your expression, I should probably just stop talking and let you explain what it is.  But first, let me just say that he’s known to be violent and I didn’t know if he was going to, y’know, attack you…”

“I’m trained in krav maga,” interrupts Christine, her face stormy.  “If he had tried anything, I would have taken care of it.  I don’t appreciate you fighting my battles for me, Tony.”

Tony sighs.  “Okay, I’m sorry.  Next time I’ll just leave you to take care of the violent freakshow yourself.”

“Oh, there’s not going to be a next time.”  Christine’s tone is even and serious, and she sounds like she hasn’t even noticed the way people are gathering to watch them.  “I know you think you were being helpful, but sitting three tables away watching me conduct an interview because you feel the need to exercise your machismo protective bullshit isn’t cute.  I’m telling you this so future women you date maybe won’t be subjected to it.  Oh, and,” she adds, leaning in closer so that only he can hear before whispering, “sorry, you’re not as good in bed as you think you are.”  Then she turns and walks away.

Tony’s so stunned he doesn’t even protest when Maria grabs his arm and starts hauling both men away.

Steve, currently sandwiched between Sam and Bucky in one of the sad excuses for booths along one of the food court’s walls, has been taking all of this in with horror.  He doesn’t get the pleasure that some people seem to in watching Loki go off like he does, and the entire semi-domestic drama of Tony and Christine is pretty far out of his wheelhouse too.  He doesn’t like seeing women disrespected either, but thanks in large part to his close relationship with two of them who could hand him his ass without so much as a thought, he understands Christine’s point of view and desire to be justifiably treated as capable and independent.

But he really doesn’t like the idea that everyone’s going to be staring after the bickering… well, lovers.  Staring after them and whispering and speculating and more likely than not being rude.  So before he can stop himself, he springs up and shouts, “Hey, guys, there are puppies for sale!”

Bucky, whose automatic reaction to the word “puppy” is to think of his dogs - even though all three are well past puppyhood - looks horrified for a second, because he doesn’t know of any other dogs Steve knows.

And sensing this, Steve places a hand on Bucky’s shoulder, attempting comforting.  “At the pound,” he adds.  “The animal shelter.  The humane society.  There are so many puppies without homes.”

“Nice save, Rogers,” chuckles Sam.

“So, so go adopt some!” Steve concludes, sitting down abruptly and trying to hide the way he’s cringing at himself. But at least he’s managed to divert attention from the drama, and it seems forgotten as the bystanders head on their merry way.

“It’s amazing how much I still love your dumb ass despite how terrible you are at improvising,” says Sam, kissing Steve on the cheek.

From the other side of the food court, Darcy shouts, “So now this is an open forum, anyone else got something to add?”

Chapter Text

>>The children are at it again. Can this week be over?

It had taken a couple of weeks for Skye’s little Black Friday prank to catch on, but one afternoon mid-December, Victoria had been at the front of the store changing the signage when the annoying girl who speaks entirely in memes dragged her lapdog up and repeated the offending slogan before acting it out.

From then on, it had been a fairly regular occurrence: she was greeted one morning with poor little rich boy Tony Stark shouting “hey Vicky, every kiss begins with Kay!” before planting one on the blonde wannabe journalist that in Victoria’s opinion is much too good for him (Ororo came out of the back room in time to hold her back from going to punch the smug little idiot); Darcy and her puppy came back at least twice to repeat themselves; Skye dragged her fellow Mac employee and his boyfriend up and dared them to join the fun one afternoon and although Fitz did refuse and try to apologize, Victoria glared him away.

It calmed down, but now as Valentine’s approaches and the mall is increasingly covered in red and pink hearts and other saccharine nonsense, it’s picking up again. Darcy and Ian’s reappearance is a warning sign, she thinks.

It’s clearly her idea, as he’s the brightest shade of red imaginable, but this time he’s the one who calls out the catchphrase.

“Every kiss begins with Kay!”

She has no idea how they always manage to time this to happen when she’s working, and she also has no idea why they’re acting like that dumb slogan was her idea, but they’re children. That really ought to explain all of it.

 


 

Normally, Nebula doesn’t give a shit about what goes on at the mall - sometimes Carina will mention stuff, and of course everyone knows about how Loki went nuts on Black Friday, but in general she prefers to keep out of it. But today is different.

“C’mon, it’ll be fun,” she says to Carina.

“I don’t want to be mean about it,” Carina murmurs, worrying her lip.

“We won’t be. She probably secretly likes having something to break the monotony of idiots buying overpriced sparkly shit.” Of course, Nebula suspects the opposite is true, but she’ll never convince Carina to go along with her if she says that. “We’ll be quick, anyway. Please?” She twists her face into a facsimile of a pout.

“You’re not going to let it go, are you?” Carina asks.

“Nope.”

Fine, but I’m blaming you,” Carina mumbles. Normally she would feel bad doing that, but, well, it is actually going to be Nebula’s fault.

Nebula shrugs and grins. “Figured you would.” She reaches for Carina’s hand. “Let’s go, I gotta get back before Gamora gets suspicious and calls the mall cops again.”

“Fine,” Carina repeats, more despairingly this time. Honestly, she wouldn’t get up to half of the nonsense she does without Nebula’s influence, but she doesn’t really mind.

Squeezing Carina’s hand, Nebula heads for Kay Jewelers, pulling her along behind. Truth be told, she hasn’t exchanged so much as one word with Victoria since the Odinson Christmas party, and that was brief, so she has no real opinion of her one way or the other, but she can’t resist the potential to annoy someone.

Once they’re in front of the store, Nebula waits for Victoria to be close enough to the front to see them and calls, “Hey, Hand! Every kiss begins with Kay!” before grabbing Carina’s face and planting one on her.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Victoria mutters, making a show of turning away completely as she finishes putting a collection of rings back in the glass display case. It’s not worth paying attention to.

Which Nebula sees as she pulls back, ending the kiss, and that makes her smirk. “Thanks,” she murmurs to Carina.

“You owe me,” Carina says defiantly before she loses her nerve.

“You’re cute,” replies Nebula. “Don’t worry, I’ll make it up to you.”

 


 

Not that Rumlow has any real cause to go into the mall today, but he’s bored of IKEA meatballs and, hey, he likes scoping out the girls here. Sometimes while he’s been wandering around, he’s seen couples taunting the employees in Kay Jewelers by yelling the insipid slogan and kissing. It’s pretty funny, but it’s not like he has a girl to participate with, so he’s content watching from the sidelines.

Until he sees this fine piece of ass walking by the store. Tall, long-legged, red hair, permanent “fuck me” face. Ward’s mentioned her before, she works at Victoria’s Secret. Must be his lucky day. “Hey there,” he says, sauntering over to her.

Lorelei sizes him up. One of the IKEA assholes. Goody. “Hello,” she replies tersely.

“Hey there, baby. You don't need Victoria Secret wings for people to know you're an angel.” He grins.

“You’re kidding,” she says flatly, starting to walk away. “You must be kidding.”

“Hey, now wait a minute,” he says, and grabs her shoulders and kisses her before she can get too far.

Her eyes go wide and after half a second of very much not returning the kiss, she pulls back and knees him straight in the crotch, snarling, “Well, it began with Kay, anyway.”

He can’t think of a pithy response; he’s too busy whimpering on the ground.

This time, Victoria nearly starts applauding. She knows which of the IKEA guys are, in fact, Nazi scumbags, so she doesn’t feel the slightest bit of remorse about laughing at their pain. Quietly, and facing away from the front of the store so nobody sees, but still. At least one good thing has come from this whole annoying trend.

 


 

Somehow, everyone’s lunch breaks have coincided (among other factors, the Gap is excessively slow today), so the five of them are milling about enjoying each other’s company and chatting about their days so far. Steve is having a pretty good day so far - no lengthy returns, no extreme messes left on the salesfloor - so he’s just enjoying the feeling of doing nothing with his favorite people.

Then Bucky says, sort of quietly like he’s embarrassed about it, “Yeah, I had someone yell at me because their expired coupon didn’t work. So I’m glad I could see you guys.”

Immediately, Steve frowns. He has a tendency to get righteously angry when any customer yells at any salesperson for something they can’t control, but it’s especially bad with Bucky. So he gives Bucky’s hand a squeeze, murmurs, “That person is a jerk,” and (even though he usually worries about public displays of affection) lays a gentle kiss on Bucky’s lips.

Bucky immediately relaxes and, when Steve pulls back, he murmurs, “Thanks” and smiles.

“Of course,” Steve says. “Any time you need me, I’m here.”

Sam lets the sweetness of the moment sit a minute before he says playfully, “Hey, what about me? I had to fold shirts for an hour, where’s my kiss?”

Steve rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “Right here, you baby,” he says, turning back to kiss Sam with equal care.

Which Sam promptly escalates by taking Steve’s face in his hands and licking at his lips until he’s able to dart his tongue into Steve’s mouth.

Ewwww, kissing,” says Natasha in an exaggerated high-pitched voice, scrunching up her face.

“It’s cute,” Sharon counters, making the sort of awww face you might see in a cartoon.

“Well I’m glad to know one of you is supportive,” says Sam, letting go of Steve to turn and plant one on Sharon too.

Natasha ignores him. “Oh, hey, look where we are,” she says, nodding at Kay Jewelers across the way. “And look who’s watching us. Or, rather, pretending not to watch us.”

Indeed, Victoria is behind the counter, going over the last hour’s sales figures and periodically sighing to herself.

“Whoops,” Sharon murmurs, flushing.

“Eh, we’re just strolling along,” says Natasha, finding Sharon’s red face too cute to avoid kissing her.

“That we are!” Sam gives Bucky a kiss too, for good measure.

Sharon looks helplessly at Steve, who once again is her go-to for a dose of normal people logic. But Steve seems caught up in the moment and he, too, leans to give her a kiss, enjoying the way it makes her squeak.

After a kiss from Natasha, Bucky grins and says, “Geez, if that’s how you guys react to that I kinda hope people yell at me more often.”

 


 

Build-A-Bear is one of those places that Bobbi’s seen enough about to doubt that she’d be interested in going in. But her college lab partner’s daughter is turning 3 and it’s not like Bobbi really has that many people’s children to spoil, so she decided to go wild and get little Katie Power a very unique stuffed animal.

Mike had been very helpful and very patient with her - reassuring her that plenty of people come in with no more idea of what they wanted to build than “something colorful, probably?” - and they’d come up with a rainbow-striped zebra in a matching rainbow tutu, so she’s feeling pretty good about things as she heads toward the food court to grab a snack.

Peter’s in the food court, too, trying to pretend like he’s not moping about the stupid Valentine’s decorations all over the mall. Like, whatever, Valentine’s Day is for losers anyway. But he hasn’t been on a date - or a hookup - in a while, and it’s starting to get to him a little, maybe. Fine, more than a little. He’s seen the shenanigans going on in front of Kay Jewelers and he wishes more than anything he had a girl to do that with, because kissing a hot chick while annoying another one? That’s like all of his favorite things in the world rolled into one.

He spots the blonde from the wedding dress store - Jamie? Charlie? something that sounds like a dude’s name… Bobbi - coming his way and decides to try his luck again. When she walks past his table, he says, “Hey there. Your clothes are really nice. But-” and here he flashes her a roguish grin “-they’d look better on my floor.”

Bobbi glances down at her outfit - her usual all-black work wear, slacks and a nice blouse - and then back up at Quill with disdain. “I’d worry they’d get covered in garbage if they got left on your floor,” she replies sweetly.

He laughs. “I mean, that’s probably a fair point, my place isn’t the cleanest. But I’d clean it up for you.” He restrains himself from making finger guns because that might be just a step too far.

“What a gentleman,” Bobbi mutters, rolling her eyes.

“Well, I try.” He shrugs modestly.

“What do you want?” she asks flatly.

“A date, maybe? I think you might really like me once you get to know me. I have killer taste in music.”

“Yeah, sadly, that’s not my only criteria for a date,” she replies with a sarcastic pout.

“Okay, well, can’t blame me for trying,” he says with one last winsome grin.

“Want some advice?” she asks suddenly, because - well, actually listening to her rejection and not pitching a fit is sort of remarkable.

He’s surprised, because usually when he annoys girls into leaving, they just go away. But he recovers and says, “Yeah, uh, sure.”

“Okay,” she agrees before she can think better of it. “If you’re trying to pick up girls who are actually going to want to date you, or actually any girls, maybe don’t start with the sorts of lines that sound like they’re off a vaguely racy version of a bubblegum wrapper.”

He chuckles. “All right, I’ll work on it. Thanks, Bobbi. You have a good day, okay?”

“Yeah, you too, I guess.”

 


 

“Look, if she asks I’ll just say we’re browsing for presents,” says Skye, squeezing Jemma’s hand and tugging her towards the store.

Jemma sighs loudly. “Do either of us look like the sort to buy anything from Kay Jewelers?”

“Well, no.” Skye grins. “But she doesn’t know anything about us!”

“I assume she knows more than she lets on,” Jemma says. “I mean, really.”

“Probably, but she can’t kick us out for just looking around. We’re gonna leave right after,” replies Skye with a shrug. “Oh my god, is that a necklace with two butts on it?”

From the other side of the store, Victoria hears the question and then registers who’s asking. She sort of hates herself for agreeing with Skye, of all people, but - well, those dumb things do look like butts.

Ssh,” Jemma hisses. “Don’t be rude.”

“I’m not. I’m stating the truth. That’s a butt necklace.” Skye tries to put her hand over her mouth to stifle her giggles and is only partially successful.

“Oh, do hush!” Jemma exclaims, thwacking her girlfriend in the arm. “It’s not the most - forgivable design for a piece of jewelry, I agree, but honestly. It could be much worse.”

“If you say so,” says Skye, still giggling. She’s quiet for a minute or two, but has another outburst at the Heartbeat collection. “What the fuck is this one with the stupid pulse symbol in the middle of an infinity symbol? That’s just dumb.”

“I guess it’s supposed to mean that… your love will go on forever?” Jemma attempts, wincing.

“Look, I don’t know shit about math but I know the infinity symbol is supposed to be smooth, not all jagged. That’s kind of the point, right?” Skye rolls her eyes. “I can deal with the ones that end in a heart, whatever, but those infinity ones are stupid.”

“It’s too many ideas crammed into one piece of overpriced jewelry,” Jemma agrees.

Skye nods. “I’m glad you’re not actually into any of this shit,” she says quietly.

Jemma shakes her head and gives Skye’s hand a squeeze. “Promise I’m not,” she replies. “Inexpensive nerd jewelry for me, thanks.”

Skye leans over to kiss her on the cheek. “Wanna do the thing now and then run?” she murmurs with a grin.

“If you absolutely insist,” Jemma sighs, though she’s smiling too.

So, Skye, with all the cavalier glee she can muster, calls, “Hey, Victoria! Every kiss begins with Kay!” and dips Jemma as much as she can before kissing her on the lips.

Victoria doesn’t bother to hide her groaning. At least, maybe, she can hope that this will be the last of it.

Chapter Text

They have been at this bar party for exactly twenty-four minutes, and Darcy has spent exactly nineteen of them hitting on some girl. Or not some girl, Ian supposes, from what he can tell she’s in some sort of rock band with Carina, but - still. He and Darcy sort of came together, and he feels rather put out about it, but he can’t very well say something (in part just because from his seat at the end of the table, he wouldn’t be heard over the dull roar of bar noise) so he’s just sitting there sullenly drinking his craft beer and staring like a creep.

Darcy, on the other hand, is apparently having the time of her life, batting her eyelashes like some coquette in an old film and murmuring things in a low voice, with a smirk.

Just now she’s actually reached to brush a lock of white hair behind the bandmate whose name he can’t remember’s ear, giggling. “So I keep not hearing what everyone plays in this band,” she says.

“Aw, well I play guitar, Laura’s bass, Carina’s keyboard, Nebula’s drums and MJ sings cause she’s got the best voice. Well, an’ she’s the prettiest.” The girl gives a self-deprecating shrug.

“Shush,” Darcy exclaims. “I think you’re all pretty, in different ways, y’know? Like you’ve got different vibes. And it totally works. You’re like some retro-punk subculture mashup.”

“Ain’t you sweet,” purrs the girl with a grin. “That’s one of the nicest things anybody’s ever said to me.”

Darcy looks shocked. “Seriously? You’re super-cute,” she enthuses. “Want me to keep going?”

Running a hand through her hair, the girl replies, “I mean, if y’wanna...you’re pretty darn cute yourself, sugar.”

Gosh,” Darcy says exaggeratedly, tugging her lip between her teeth. “Well, not only are you adorable, your accent is. I mean that in the least sketchy way possible.”

“Aw, shucks. I get the sense a lotta people think I’m kinda dumb, havin’ this accent and all. So it’s nice of you to say so.”

“Not to sound eight years old, but no, they are,” Darcy declares. “I mean, I’m not going off much information, but I think you seem pretty smart, Rogue.”

Rogue. No wonder Ian couldn’t remember her name, it’s only halfway a name at all.

Rogue chuckles. “Thanks, darlin’. So’re you. Y’all got plans for the rest of the night?”

For the first time in at least eight minutes, Darcy glances down at Ian and shrugs. “I dunno yet,” she concludes, and he thinks maybe she’s sounding the slightest bit guilty but he also could just be imagining that. “I’ll let you know.”

One of the girls, the one that always wears leather and frowns, tilts her head and glances at the redhead sitting next to her. “MJ, is Rogue flirting? She is running her fingers through her hair and laughing a lot. You said that was a common cue that someone is flirting.”

MJ chuckles warmly and takes a sip of her drink. “Yes, Laura, that’s flirting.”

“But I still don’t understand why,” replies Laura. “Why are you flirting, Rogue?”

“Cause I think Darcy here is real cute and I want her to know it,” says Rogue with a smirk.

“So you can go up to people and say ‘Hello, I think you are cute and I want you to know it’?” Laura nods, as if absorbing the information. “That seems easy! Thank you for explaining.”

MJ looks as if she’s going to correct her, then shrugs and sips again. “Sure, yeah. Why not. That’ll skip all the difficult shit.”

“All right.” Laura scans the bar for a moment, before sliding out of her seat. “I will be back later.”

Before any of the other girls can stop her, she’s walking over to a girl with red hair seated several tables away and saying, “Hello. I think you are cute and I want you to know it.”

“Oh my god,” groans Rogue. “MJ, you better go intercept.”

“No,” says MJ, eyes widening as she watches the redhead giggle and start talking to Laura, “I actually don’t think I need to.”

“Hey, Darcy,” Ian says loudly, placing his glass down and standing up. “Dancing?”

“Uh, yeah,” Darcy replies, taking the hand he offers. “Dancing.”

He leads her away into the crowd, but before they can start dancing they’re approached by Jane and Thor, the former of whom says, “Okay, I came to this party, can I go home now?”

“No!” Darcy shouts, looking horribly offended. “No, you have to stay. Thor, tell her she has to stay.”

Thor looks confused. “Jane does not have to do anything she doesn’t want to. If she wishes to leave, I will accompany her. I would not have her be unhappy.”

Darcy sighs. “I just meant, like, there’s so much more night and therefore adventure to be had, y’know?”

Ian shifts his weight, looking rather uncomfortable. “If she’s not having fun, you shouldn’t make her stay,” he murmurs. “We were gonna dance.”

“Yes!” Jane exclaims. “Go dance. Have fun. We’ll be not here.”

“Fine,” Darcy groans. “Go, but you’re accountable if you miss anything crazy.”

“We will most assuredly be!” says Thor cheerfully. “I expect a full report if, for example, aliens suddenly appear among you all.”

 


 

“You probably just haven’t met someone you’re really attracted to.”

Carina frowns, tightening her grip on her purse strap. “I have a girlfriend,” she attempts. A girlfriend she really wishes would get out of the ladies’ room.

“Yeah, but I mean, c’mon.” Ward makes a really? gesture with his arm. “She’s lacking...y’know, essential equipment.”

“If I did like sex, there are ways around that,” Carina says primly. “But I don’t, so it’s a moot point.”

“You really don’t have to lie like that,” replies Ward. “Everyone likes sex. If they don’t, they just don’t know it yet. Or they haven’t had good sex.”

“I like kissing,” she offers helplessly.

“I could teach you to like other things,” he says, grinning.

Before either of them can notice, Bobbi is at Ward’s side, an empty bottle in one hand (she’s not going to use it, that’d be too much trouble, but it helps her not go completely uncontrollably angry to have something to hold onto). “How many ways does she have to say no for you to get the hint?” she asks in a low voice.

He shrugs, still grinning. “I’m very persuasive.”

“When a girl says no, that’s the end of the discussion,” Bobbi hisses.

Conveniently, Nebula’s heading out of the restroom just as Bobbi’s finishing her sentence, and she’s at Carina’s side in an instant, slipping one arm around her girlfriend and using her other hand to toy with the butterfly knife that she keeps for just such an occasion. “Back off, shithead,” she growls.

“Hey now, I think we’re overreacting just a little…” Ward holds up his hand like he’s trying to diffuse the situation, and starts to back away.

And almost runs into the rest of the Helldivers, plus Skye and Jemma, who have all materialized to glare at him. “You’re very rude,” says Laura, who looks particularly annoyed, “and you interrupted my flirting.”

Ward starts laughing, but stops once he realizes that no one is joking. “Okay, okay, I can see when I’m not wanted…”

“Oh, how astute,” Jemma exclaims, folding her arms.

“Give the man an award!” says Skye, rolling her eyes.

Ward starts to attempt to sneak away and Rogue says, “You oughta be ashamed, makin’ a sweet girl nervous like that. ‘Cept I know you ain’t ashamed at all, ya jackass.”

“You’re lucky I’m a lady or I’d deck you in the face,” adds MJ.

Normally a line like that from a girl like MJ would make Ward laugh, but right now he’s starting to feel a bit ganged up on, so he takes the first opportunity to dart towards the door. As he practically runs past Darcy, she tosses a stack of dirty napkins at him and shouts, “Go home, Nazi.”

“You okay?” Nebula asks Carina, quietly. She’s running a hand up and down Carina’s arm, which she would never do ordinarily but Carina seems to need it.

“Yeah,” Carina whispers, but her voice is shaky. “He’s awful. I’ve dealt with awful before.”

“I would’ve cut him up if you wanted me to,” says Nebula.

“I believe you,” Carina murmurs.

“Since the rude man has left, I am going to go back and flirt more,” announces Laura. “Her name is Cessily and she thinks I am cute too.”

 


 

“And honestly, I just don’t know why she had to go and say that! I mean, one of the nicest things was that Harry and Hermione didn’t end up together, and her discounting that…”

“Hey, Jem? Jemma? You need air, babe. Let yourself breath for a sec,” says Skye with a grin, squeezing her hand.

“Obviously I’m breathing, if I weren’t breathing I’d have passed out,” Jemma retorts.

“Okay, but I mean you should stop talking and take some deep breaths. I love it when you talk, but you’re getting a little bit motormouth-y.”

Jemma pouts, pulling her hands into her lap very sullenly. “Fine,” she says, because every comeback she thinks of sounds too juvenile to be taken seriously.

“You’re so cute,” murmurs Skye, kissing her on the cheek. “Even when you’re pouting, you’re cute.”

For a couple of seconds, Jemma tries to resist this, but it’s the repetition that makes that hard to do. Honestly. “Do you want a turn to go rambling instead?” she offers.

“No, but I’m not nearly as tipsy as you,” replies Skye playfully. “How about we go outside for some air? And...other things?” she adds, waggling her eyebrows.

“I’m not tipsy,” Jemma mutters, which is a perfect sign that she is. “Air would be all right. Other things would be more than.” That last is said in her attempt at a sexy voice, which is catastrophically not sexy.

“Alright, c’mon,” says Skye, herding her towards the entrance.

Three minutes later they’re enthusiastically kissing, Jemma being even less quiet than usual due to the alcohol. “Quick,” Bobbi shouts as she bursts through the door, kicking a wad of napkins out of the way. “Include me in your conversation, I need a good excuse to avoid my ex.”

Skye pulls back, causing Jemma to squeak indignantly, and says, “Uh, okay, but it wasn’t exactly a conversation…”

Jemma tilts her head, slipping a hand in Skye’s back pocket as she murmurs, “I’d be okay with including her.”

“See, that’s how I know you’re drunk,” teases Skye.

“Am not,” Jemma defends. “What kind of friends would we be if we didn’t help out?”

“I’m sorry,” says Skye to Bobbi. “She loses her filter when she’s drunk.”

“I think it’s charming,” Bobbi replies, shrugging it off. “So you two just came out here to make out?”

Skye laughs. “Well, she needed some air, and, y’know.” She shrugs. “Stuff happened.”

“You intended for stuff to happen,” Jemma corrects. “You were all… insinuatey.”

Skye giggles. “That’s not a word - even I know that - but you’re cute.”

“I think you’re only calling me cute to distract me,” Jemma declares.

“And what are you gonna do about that?” asks Skye, smirking.

“Bobbi, what should I do?” Jemma asks, sounding distressed by the notion even as she leans against Skye.

But Bobbi just chuckles. “You two are too much,” she says. “Ridiculously functional for your age.”

“Geez, we’re not that young,” replies Skye, sounding less offended than she means to.

“And I’m not that old, but you’d be ridiculously functional for my age, too,” Bobbi points out. “Relationships are weird like that.”

“You’d know, I guess. You dated a guy who has pictures of farm animals all over his kitchen and proposed to you with a pizza ring.”

“The farm animals are a recent development,” Bobbi says grimly.

Skye snorts. “Still. You should probably date chicks for a while, you might have more luck.”

“That’s a good idea,” Bobbi agrees, nodding. “Too bad so many of the hot chicks around here are already taken.”

“Damn straight,” says Skye, smirking.

“In most cases, rather the opposite of,” Bobbi quips.

“It’s lovely,” Jemma sighs happily.

“I mean...there are ways we could work around that whole ‘taken’ thing,” says Skye suggestively, mostly to see what Jemma will do.

She probably doesn’t disappoint, between the squeak that comes out of her mouth and how wide her eyes get. She mutters something about “consenting adults, anyway,” but most of the sentence is unclear.

“Would you like that?” murmurs Skye, kissing her feather-light on the lips.

“I don’t feel like having this conversation,” Jemma murmurs, embarrassed. What she means is she doesn’t feel like having it around Bobbi before she and Skye have had it between themselves.

“Okay,” says Skye gently, stroking Jemma’s hair. “Sorry, honey.” She turns back to Bobbi. “Why and who exactly are you avoiding?”

“My ex,” Bobbi reiterates with a roll of her eyes, “and because - well, it’s a bar-sponsored party, which is a prime opportunity for awkwardness. I forget you guys missed out on his whole… Adele fiasco on New Year’s Eve.”

Jemma smiles smugly. “See, perfectly good reasons not to go to bar parties.”

Skye rolls her eyes and squeezes Jemma’s hand. “So, you…”

Before she can finish her sentence, a tall white-blonde man with circular glasses and a suit that is way too fancy for this bar saunters out the door and towards them. “Hello there, ladies,” he says, in a voice that’s just barely tinged with some sort of European accent. “You’re looking lovely this evening.”

Jemma makes a face and Skye looks like she’s about to flip him off or possibly jump him, so Bobbi edges in front of them protectively and says, “I didn’t know the sidewalk was hosting a beauty pageant tonight.”

“Oh, I mean no offense. Simply that I enjoy the small pleasures of life, such as looking at beautiful American girls. Although,” he says with a smirk, his eyes sliding up and down Bobbi’s body, “if I may say, you are the loveliest of the three.”

“How old are you?” asks Skye, curling her lip.

“Not too old to enjoy myself,” he replies with a shrug.

“Oh, great answer,” she snarks. “So we know you’re younger than like, 100. But apparently not old enough to know when you’re not wanted.”

Jutting her chin out defiantly, Jemma asks, “How did you even hear about this party? It doesn’t look like this is your usual crowd,” then immediately hides behind Bobbi again.

“Ah, I hear many things,” he says with a chuckle. “That’s another thing I like about girls like you. Such fire, such passion - I have found that that often carries over to certain, well, activities-”

Bobbi makes a fist and, before either of the other girls can stop her, punches him square in the jaw.

He reels from the punch, grunting, then rubs his jaw and smiles again. “You see, that’s just the sort of thing I mean. You, my dear, are a fine specimen. Lovely bone structure and hair.”

Bobbi’s first instinct is to put her arms out to either side, directly shielding Skye and Jemma (Skye’s face is a mixture of disgust and anger, Jemma’s is mostly horror) and her second is to snarl, “I really don’t think ‘specimen’ is the compliment you think it is.”

“Oh, I mean it as the greatest of compliments,” he replies. “Are you German? You have a good German jaw. And you,” he nods at Jemma, “you are obviously British. Perfectly acceptable, in most cases.”

Skye lunges for him, only barely being held back by Bobbi’s arm. “Now listen here, Christoph Waltz, you better shut the fuck up or I’ll-”

“And you,” he interrupts, studying her as if she’s on display behind glass, “what are you?”

Fuck you!” Skye attempts to jump him, but Bobbi gently nudges her back, silently praying that Jemma can keep a hold of her girlfriend while she herself moves to deck the man again.

“I think we’ve had more than enough Nazis being creepers tonight,” she declares, giving him her best “if looks could kill” look.

Raina drifts out the door, stuffing something in her purse, and tilts her head curiously at the scene in front of her before starting to laugh. “I guess you can’t find anyone willing to handle your obelisk tonight,” she croons before wandering off.

He doesn’t reply, because he’s too busy whimpering.

“Y’know, I’m starting to see your point about bar parties, Jem,” says Skye.

 


 

Ward’s hiding out at the run-down table outside the bar, taking swigs of PBR and feeling very sorry for himself, when he hears someone say, “Someone’s lonely tonight.”

He turns to see who it is, and is shocked to see Lorelei smirking down at him. “Yeah, well,” he grumbles, “some people can’t take a joke.”

“Poor thing,” she croons, sliding into the empty chair beside his and leaning on one hand. “Some people, then, might need to adjust their senses of humor.”

“I think so,” he says, her meaning flying over his head entirely. “All I said was that everyone likes sex. It’s true, for fuck’s sake!”

“All the men I know certainly feel that way,” she agrees casually.

“Well, if you don’t mind me saying so, you seem to too,” he says, grinning at her.

“I see my reputation precedes me,” she drawls, flipping hair over her shoulder. “Is that the sort of girl you like, then?”

“I like a lot of girls.” Ward shrugs playfully. “Can’t say I’d object, though.”

“Object to what?” she asks, clearly goading him.

“A woman who knows what she likes.”

“I like a lot of things,” Lorelei murmurs, staring into his eyes. It’s funny to make them admit their fantasies.

“Like what? You seem like the sort who’d enjoy telling me what to do.”

“At times, I admit that can be fun,” she muses, careful not to let on how delighted she is by this turn of events. “Do you take orders well?”

He nods, smirking. “I’m very obedient.”

“I bet you are,” she says. Without preamble, she kicks back in her chair and puts her feet in his lap. She doesn’t really care what he does with them, or if he does anything, but she wants a footrest, and apparently he’s willing to provide.

“So just to clarify, is this all hypothetical or should I call a cab for two?” Ward is doing his best to be smooth.

“Oh, definitely call a cab,” Lorelei agrees, flashing a brilliant smile.

So he does, and while they wait for it he says, “Anything else you like? Or should I wait to ask until a later stage of the evening? Your wish is my command.”

“How sweet,” she giggles. “You have a safeword you usually use?”

He shrugs. “Never had cause to.”

“Well, you do now,” she says, trying to keep the complete shock out of her voice. “So pick.”

After thinking about it for a moment, he asks, “Berlin?”

Lorelei bites her lip to keep from laughing. “Berlin it is. Now right at this moment I think I want to hear what you want to do to me.”

“Well, if it’s not too crude to say I’d like it if you sat on my face,” he says lightly.

“I could do that,” she says slowly, like she’s having to give it some great thought (honestly, this one is walking right into it). “Are you good with your mouth?”

“So I’ve been told,” he says with an overly humble shrug.

“Well, I’ll be happy to be one of your references if you please me,” she teases.

“I’ll take that challenge.” He grins. “Y’know, you’re the first girl at that mall who hasn’t yelled at me for some stupid reason.”

“Oh, I promise if I yell it will be for a very good reason, sweetie,” she assures.

“You will be,” he replies, confident.

“I like the ones with some arrogance,” she murmurs.

He laughs. “Luckily for you, I’ve been told I have that quality too.”

“It suits you,” she says. “You’re not going to disappoint me, I’m sure.”

The cab pulls up, and, going to open the door, he gestures inside. “M’lady.”

“Oh, and he’s a gentleman too,” she exclaims, delighted. She slides into the cab daintily, putting her purse in the middle seat.

“I try,” he says modestly, reaching for her hand in order to kiss it. He’s laying it on a little thicker than usual, but she seems receptive to it, so why not?

 


 

Christine hadn’t really been planning on going out tonight, but Pepper had mentioned a “fuck this fluffy shit” party going on a few days ago and she’d shrugged and thought maybe she could show up, take notes, and turn it into an article. Now she’s sipping at a screwdriver while she reviews her notes (watching everyone gang up on that creep Grant Ward had been pretty funny, though not strictly pertinent to her subject), in preparation to leave soon.

The bar is still pretty full, so instead of trying to take up an entire table Bobbi just sits at the counter, ordering an apple cider and glancing around. The night… hasn’t really gone as planned, if she’s being honest with herself, because she’d sort of hoped to do something other than yell at assholes, and what she told Skye and Jemma was true, more or less. She’s trying a “no guys” thing right now, and most of her female options are otherwise occupied.

Sitting at the end of the bar is that reporter from Black Friday, the persistent one, and so she doesn’t seem like a creep who’s staring she flashes a smile when the other woman notices her.

“Hi,” calls Christine, waving and then feeling a bit like an idiot for it. “Bobbi, right? I interviewed you on Black Friday.”

Bobbi shrugs, smiles, and closes the gap between them, moving to the nearest seat. “Yeah,” she agrees, all friendliness. “Writing an exposé tonight, too?”

Christine laughs. “Nothing so dramatic. Just a piece on anti-Valentine’s Day parties. It was more productive than sitting at home marathoning Buffy again.”

“And depending which season you’re on, less depressing,” Bobbi quips.

“Well, I usually default to three,” replies Christine. “Faith is hot.”

“She certainly is that,” Bobbi agrees. “The whole wrong-side-of-the-law thing isn’t super great in real life, but she definitely wore it well.”

“Yeah, but I like bad girls sometimes.” Christine grins. “How about you, what’s your season?”

“Five,” Bobbi says. “There’s a lot to be said for it, I think. A complete and at least semi-cohesive Scooby Gang, relationships before they detoured into too much angst, ladies supporting ladies. Some great one-off episodes. Glory.”

“Ooh, good choice,” says Christine. “Glory is awesome. And also hot. You might notice a running theme here.”

“Yeah,” Bobbi chuckles, “but it’s a pretty good theme. I’m still thanking whatever’s up there for putting Faith and Glory in a cheerleading movie together, you know?”

“Oh hell yeah! That movie was responsible for some interesting personal revelations in middle school. I’m guessing for you too?” Christine’s smirking, because she likes where this conversation is going.

“Something like that, yeah,” Bobbi says. She drops her voice to explain, “I went to a private high school that didn’t have cheerleading, but drill team was the next best thing, so there I was.” It’s not like it’s a secret, but in the context of the conversation she’s sure Christine will get why she’s whispering it.

Christine giggles - not something she does very often, but she feels like Bobbi won’t judge her for it. “That’s genius. I was on the school newspaper staff and got to cover all the football games - pretty sure everyone thought it was for the guys. Which, I didn’t mind watching them either.”

“Hey, I don’t blame you,” Bobbi says. “Ours was an all-girls’ school, so college football games were a very pleasant surprise for me. Best of both worlds, until you actually tried to talk to some of the guys and the pleasant illusion was shattered.”

“Oh yeah.” Snorting, Christine nods and adds, “I went to homecoming with one of the linebackers, and spent most of it listening to him summarize the differences between different kinds of pickups. I mean, it was an impressive amount of information, but he didn’t really seem to know any other topics.”

Bobbi rolls her eyes knowingly. “My favorite thing to do when guys pulled that shit - or pull, I guess - is to inform them that I actually already knew that, but did they know some other obscure fact about whatever they’re talking about,” she declares.

“You’re brilliant,” says Christine. “I bet that’s hilarious to watch.”

“Why thanks,” Bobbi grins. “It’s pissed them off as many times as it’s impressed them, but that’s a good test.”

“Well, yeah, guys are ridiculous and can’t always handle it when we aren’t impressed by them.” Christine rolls her eyes. “So, what brings you here tonight?”

“Sheer boredom,” Bobbi shrugs. “And an ill-advised desire to possibly score.”

Well.” Before she can pause to think about what she’s doing, Christine smirks at Bobbi and says, “I’m not doing anything tonight, if you’re interested.”

Bobbi has to work to keep from laughing, but just at Christine’s forwardness and entirely out of admiration. “You’d be a pretty good option even if it wasn’t a little bit by default,” she declares.

“Gee, thanks,” says Christine playfully. “You too. You’re hot, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Not at all,” Bobbi smirks. “That’s sort of what I was getting at.”

“Great! My place or yours? And can I buy you a drink? I guess I sort of got this whole flirting thing out of order.”

“I’ll gladly take that drink,” Bobbi says. “And as for whose place, what sort of toys are you working with?”

Christine shrugs. “I don’t have that many of my own, honestly.”

“Well, if you come to my place you can pick something out,” Bobbi murmurs, all innuendo.

“Ooh, I like the sound of that.” Grinning, Christine adds, “What’ll you have to drink?”

“Surprise me,” Bobbi says. “Something hard and fun.”

Chapter Text

“Aren’t you freezing in that?” Skye asks, looking pointedly at Trip’s gold bathing suit.

He shrugs. “I’ve had worse.”

“Well, I’m sure Fitz doesn’t mind.” Skye grins and nudges Fitz, who gives her a baleful look.

“Don’t be mean,” Jemma chides, though there’s not much behind it.

Fitz mutters something that sounds like that’s impossible but calms once Trip puts his arm around him and kisses his forehead.

A cast member in a neon-accented tuxedo strolls up to them. “Any of you virgins?”

“Very assuredly not,” Jemma says over the also-muttered sounds of Fitz wishing they didn’t use that term here.

“Did you bring your own props or do you need to buy goody bags?”

“Fuck yeah we brought our own!” says Skye, brandishing her squirt gun (which is perhaps unfit for the occasion, looking more like some kind of sci-fi blaster and being bright green, but she loves it).

Fitz rolls his eyes. “You do realize this isn’t a screening of The Fifth Element, yes?”

“Shut up, it’s awesome!”

Clint strolls by, wearing a shirt that says THEATER SECURITY on it (never mind that it looks like it’s written in Sharpie), and ducks into the theater ahead of the line.

“Hey, what’s all that about?” asks Skye.

“You saw the shirt, right?” the cast member says with a shrug.

“Yeah but...he made that shirt himself, I’m pretty sure. He’s really supposed to be theater security?” Skye sounded unimpressed.

“After a fashion.” The cast member glances down the rapidly-growing line and makes a face. “Look, you kids have fun, okay? Just wave one of us down if you need us.”

Fitz waits until they’ve gone to say plaintively, “I hate this wig. I like being Riff-Raff, but I’ve always hated this wig.” He scratches his head as best he can under the half-bald cap-half-wig.

“Why don’t you just be Brad? Jemma could be Janet and then you wouldn’t need a stupid wig,” Skye points out.

“Ew,” Jemma cuts in helpfully.

Fitz makes a face. “Never.”

“Okay, okay, more for me,” says Skye, laughing. “You look pretty good in that outfit, anyway,” she adds, smirking at Jemma.

The short dress and obviously-gartered stockings are the sort of thing that under any other circumstance Jemma would be outrageously embarrassed to wear, to say nothing of the fact that her (unusually) black bra is visible under her unbuttoned top. But tonight it’s perfectly acceptable. And she’s damn proud of how accurate their costumes are. “Thank you,” she chirps, putting a hand on her hip and grinning smugly. “You in yours, too. I’m so glad you didn’t want to be Janet, either.”

“Why would I? This costume is way better.” Skye preens, sticking her chest out both to show off the sequined bustier and to show off, well, her chest. “Janet’s either boring or just underwear and Columbia’s more fun.” She nods at her leather-and-sequin shorts, then her sparkly blue tap shoes.

“Don’t Riff and Magenta have sex, though?” Trip chimes in. “I mean, you guys do whatever you want, but I’m pretty sure that’s heavily implied.”

“You don’t have to see them so much as kiss,” Jemma defends.

“Besides,” adds Fitz, “Brad and Janet are all...sappy. Cutesy. It’s revolting.”

“Yes!” Jemma exclaims. “The others are just… vaguely deranged polyamorous space aliens.” It’s a less-viable excuse when she actually says it, but it’s not like she’s making it up.

Skye giggles and squeezes Jemma’s hand. “Okay, whatever you say.”

“I admit, I am a little envious of y’all’s fancy costumes,” says Trip with a grin. “Not that I’m not rocking this, of course.”

“You certainly are,” says Fitz, and then blushes. But it gets him a kiss from Trip, so he doesn’t regret it much.

Jemma grins and makes a delighted face at Skye, but before Fitz can say anything about it she says, “I wonder if anyone else came tonight?”

“Darcy couldn’t come, she had a date.” Skye smirks. “With that Rogue girl, I think.”

“Really,” Jemma not-quite-asks.

“Yeah. I mean, I can’t blame her, Rogue’s pretty cute. For, y’know, a punk-goth chick.”

Fitz looks confused. “I thought she was dating Ian?”

“Aw, hon, she’s a swinger,” explains Skye. “Not so much with the long-term dating.”

Fitz blinks. “I don’t understand normal people.”

“If it makes her happy and everyone’s aware,” Jemma says, though she sounds doubtful.

Skye shrugs. “Didn’t ask. But I assumed so.”

The line starts moving and, once their tickets have been taken, they sit down - not in the front row, because that’s just asking to be pelted with props, but relatively close to it. Since they were at the front of the line, they end up watching as everyone else files in. Skye’s the first to notice Clint perching in the rafters and nudges the others until they look, too, then attempts to stifle her giggles with both hands.

Somewhere in the middle of people filing in Fitz murmurs “Oh my god” and points at a Columbia and Janet, both wearing Floorshow corsets, coming into the theater. “Isn’t that Victoria Hand and her girlfriend?”

Immediately Jemma whirls around to look, her jaw dropping. “It is,” she breathes out, sounding somehow in awe.

“Holy shit,” giggles Skye. “Do you think we should say hi?”

“Did - if - I mean, you know,” Jemma dithers, “if they see us we’d pretty well have to.”

Trip nods. “I think they did.”

Jemma squeaks, then begins frantically waving.

“Oh my god,” Victoria mutters under her breath.

“What?” Isabelle looks up, seeing them, and chuckles. “Oh.”

“Shouldn’t they still be home watching High School Musical or something?” Victoria asks.

Isabelle strokes down her arm. “Oh, be nice. They’re at least cultured.”

“I like your costumes,” Jemma yells across the theater at them.

“And they obviously recognize good craftsmanship when they see it.”

It’s not a horrible point, and it appeals to her vanity (Victoria isn’t even ashamed to be vain about these corsets) which is manipulative although she knows it’s not meant that way. So, forcing a smile (more like a wince) she calls back, “Yours are nice too.” Politenesses.

“See? That wasn’t so bad,” teases Isabelle.

“No,” Victoria mumbles, trying to avoid rolling her eyes. “It could be much worse.”

“Good evening, jewelry queen,” Raina croons, strolling up and stopping beside Victoria and Isabelle’s row.

“Do you need to get by us?” Victoria asks.

Raina giggles. “Don’t worry about me,” she says. “I just wanted to say hello.”

“Why?” asks Isabelle, raising an eyebrow. Victoria’s mentioned this odd woman in passing, but as far as she knows, they’re not friends.

Raina shrugs and adjusts her white bra strap before wandering down the aisle. She glances up at the ceiling, giving Clint a little salute (Clint’s eyes go wide and he very nearly falls off of the rafter he’s sitting on) and giggling. Then it’s down to the front of the theater to say hello to the children, all of them looking so cute and eager and dressed up.

“Charming,” she declares over the two rows of people between her and them.

Fitz yelps in surprise. “You’re...you don’t have any flowers.”

“That you know of,” Raina murmurs, just to see his reaction.

“It’s unnerving.”

“I don’t think the one I do have would reassure you,” she says lightly before turning her attention more closely on the girls. “I almost wouldn’t have recognized you all done up like that,” she says to Jemma.

Jemma, for her part, wiggles in her seat, looking uncomfortable. “I suppose we all have our outlets,” she mumbles, instinctively reaching for Skye’s hand.

“Well, I think she looks amazing,” says Skye defensively, squeezing Jemma’s hand and narrowing her eyes just slightly at Raina.

“Never said she didn’t,” Raina retorts cheerfully. “It seems like it’s catching, too.”

“Catching?”

“The gorgeous,” Raina explains, letting her gaze travel up and down Skye and come to rest on her rather well-accentuated chest for a moment before darting back up to her face. “You’re something to stare at for sure.” There’s a certain note of respect behind it, but also a very certain note of attraction.

Skye blinks, more than a little shocked. “Um. Thanks?”

“You’re welcome,” Raina replies, like it’s a perfectly natural conversation they’re having. She glances down at Trip and Fitz, too, grinning. “Good job, all of you.” And with that she wanders off toward the other side of the room, waving at who the fuck knows.

“What the hell was that?” asks Fitz.

Jemma squeaks out a vague, indecipherable noise in response.

“Was that some kind of test?” Trip asks. “I think we passed it.”

Skye shrugs. “Maybe? Like, have one conversation with the weirdo from the weed store and she’ll spare us when she causes the apocalypse. What?” she asks when the other three turn to stare at her. “It’s totally plausible she’s secretly a crazy supervillain.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Jemma mumbles. “At the Halloween party, I said - but then you just assumed I was prattling on because I’d been drinking, which, well, it’s not unheard of - but - well.” She shrugs and shrinks into herself a bit more, because she doesn’t exactly love being paid sexual attention to herself and she definitely doesn’t love Skye being paid sexual attention to in front of her. She’s not jealous, in that she’s not mad about it, she just… doesn’t like it. It doesn’t feel right.

“Aww, I’m sorry, honey,” murmurs Skye, kissing Jemma’s cheek. “You were totally onto something. Also I promise that just because Raina likes my boobs, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna go jump her or anything. You’re my girl.”

“I know that,” Jemma says all sheepishly. She doesn’t bother to clarify which part she means, because it’s all of them.

Skye reaches to pet her hair, then thinks better of it because of the wig and settles for petting her arm instead. Fitz makes a face just as the lights go down.

And Skye tries to pay attention through all of the pre-show shenanigans and virgin initiations, she really does. She loves this. But she’s been to about a million of these midnight showings, and she can tell Jemma’s still kind of pouty, so after the second of what seems like is going to be a dozen initiations, she leans over and starts kissing Jemma.

Jemma is glad that this particular initiation seems to involve a lot of screaming, because it means nobody hears her moan into Skye’s mouth. It’s a slightly awkward position for making out, but thankfully the armrests are the sort that can be lifted up, so after wiggling a bit to be out of the way of said armrest she pushes it out of the way. This done, they can commence with the kissing. Lots of it.

Skye swallows Jemma’s moans greedily and puts her arms around her as best she can. She kisses Jemma hungrily, running her tongue over her lips until she can slip it inside and loving Jemma’s reactions to it all. Jemma’s not usually this acquiescent towards public displays of affection, but Skye can’t say she minds.

They keep kissing through “Science Fiction Double Feature” and only pause for a few seconds to get their breath during “Dammit Janet.” Skye happens to glance a few rows up and see Victoria and Isabelle also making out, and barely avoids giggling loud enough for the entire theater to hear her. She nudges Jemma and points, and Jemma nearly bursts out laughing herself, hiding her face against Skye’s neck to stifle the sounds.

Once they’ve calmed down, they start kissing again, only stopping when the rest of the theater is getting newspapers out and Fitz, who has apparently been oblivious to them the entire time, finally notices what they’re doing and sprays them with his water gun to make them stop.

“Excuse me!” Jemma shouts over the dull roar of crowd noise and the film itself and singing-along and callbacks and newspapers wrinkling. She turns to glare at Fitz indignantly, attempting to brush some of the water off of her wig.

He scoffs. “You’re the one practically going at it in public.”

“I guess we should’ve saved it for later in the movie - we could’ve blended in,” quips Skye. Fitz glares at her.

Jemma gives one of her very most British huffs, reaching for her newspaper in no time flat and holding it above her and Skye’s heads so decisively it’s clear she means to bring this conversation to an end.

“You guys are ridiculous,” says Trip affectionately.

“We’re adorable,” Jemma corrects airily.

The movie plays on, the audience participates, and they all do the Time Warp, of course (Skye mutters that her tap dancing skills are way better than the girl doing Columbia in the shadow cast). During “Hot Patootie” there’s a minor scuffle in the back when a guy (it’s too dark to get a good look at him, but Skye suspects he’s probably Hydra) attempts to get an unwilling girl to dance with him. Clint swings down from the rafters to unceremoniously eject him from the theater, and all is well again.

Isabelle watches these goings-on, tilting her head in confusion. “What just happened?”

Victoria shrugs, tossing her hair back. “We don’t ask as far as Clint is concerned,” she says. “Sometimes things like that just happen and we accept it.”

When “Touch-a-Touch-a-Touch-Me” starts, Skye and Jemma go back to kissing and a good number of the other audience members follow their lead. Fitz looks acutely embarrassed, and unsure of where to look, since the movie and the people around him are engaging in overly sexual behavior for his taste. He starts to sink down in his seat and cover his eyes.

Trip looks over at him, concerned. “Do you wanna get out of here for a bit?”

“No,” says Fitz in a very small voice. “‘s okay.” He tentatively peeks out from behind his fingers. “If you, ah, wanted to kiss me I wouldn’t object. At least then I could have my eyes closed.”

“Of course,” says Trip gently, leaning over to do so.

Jemma pulls back from Skye to stretch a bit and catches sight of the boys, immediately cooing, “Aw, look at them.”

“Awwww,” replies Skye, grinning. “They’re adorable! Also now he can’t get on his high horse about us.”

“You know what I want to get on?” Jemma asks.

“Me?”

Jemma nods very seriously. “In a way that’s not appropriate even for Rocky Horror.”

Skye moans softly. “That’s hot. Let’s do something about that after this is over.”

“Painting toenails too?”

“Oh, sure! Paint my toenails and let’s do it!” Skye grins.

“And the hair dryer?” Jemma asks in a low voice, smirking wickedly.

“Ooh, you are excited. Whatever you want, honey.”

Biting her lip, Jemma giggles. “Thank you,” she chirps.

“You’re welcome,” murmurs Skye, leaning in for another kiss.

They’re interrupted mid-kiss when a roll of toilet paper from higher up hits Skye in the head. She’s not even really mad, since it didn’t hurt, and she starts laughing hysterically. “Only at Rocky Horror,” she giggles.

Which makes Jemma start laughing too, leaning against Skye’s shoulder and just enjoying the utter silliness of this moment. Fitz, she notices, has nuzzled against Trip too, presumably to hide from everyone else’s aggressive sexuality. Trip doesn’t seem to mind, though - he’s got his arm around Trip and is stroking his back.

“They’re precious,” Jemma whispers to Skye.

“They really are,” nods Skye. “I give him a lot of shit, but I’m glad he’s got Trip. They’re good for each other.”

“They’re wonderful,” Jemma agrees. “I was beginning to wonder if any boy was going to be good enough for him.”

Skye chuckles. “Well, Trip’s got that covered. That boy is pretty much perfect.”

“I think it says a lot about him that he’s wearing a golden speedo and he’s still probably the classiest person in the room,” Jemma says.

“Seriously. It’s ridiculous.” Skye rolls her eyes good-naturedly. “He’s like, like Superman or something. He’s nice and noble and smoking hot and he can cook - does he even have flaws?”

“I hear he hogs the covers,” Jemma attempts.

Skye bursts out laughing. “God, if that’s the worst we can come up with then he’s basically a saint.”

“Exactly.”

Fitz chimes in to ask, “Are you two even paying attention? The Floorshow’s on.”

“Oh, we’re just talking about how awesome your boyfriend is,” says Skye nonchalantly.

“You’re…” Fitz stops talking and shakes his head. “You’re bloody odd, is what.”

“I know,” Skye replies, smiling innocently.

“I appreciate the compliments, guys,” says Trip with a grin. “I know I’m pretty rad.”

Fitz rolls his eyes. “You’re lucky I find your arrogance endearing,” he teases Trip, kissing him.

Just then the group sitting behind them joins in with Riff-Raff, singing (loudly and off-key), “Frank N Furter, it’s all over! Your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extre-e-e-eme!!! I’m your new commander, you now are my prisoner, we return to Transylvania, prepare the transit be-e-e-am!”

Skye winces. “Well, that’s happening.”

“Are you intending to show them up, love?” Jemma teases.

“Sure! But not during the serious slow song, whatever. Give it a minute.”

“Fine,” Jemma says, leaning against Skye’s shoulder again. There’s something oddly peaceful about being in a theater full of people in various revealing costumes all watching a forty-year-old movie about lascivious, fabulous aliens. A real sense of togetherness, or something ridiculous like that.

When Riff shoots Columbia, Skye turns to Fitz and says, “You’re an asshole.”

“I’m not!” replies Fitz indignantly. Then he seems to realize the stupidity of the argument he’s getting into and sighs. Skye giggles.

“I promise I would never let my vaguely incesutous alien brother shoot you with a laser gun,” Jemma says very seriously.

“Aw, thanks, Jem,” says Skye playfully. “That means a lot.”

“Glad,” she murmurs, then dropping her voice to a stage whisper to add, “and he was being a bit of an asshole.”

Skye nuzzles against Jemma. “I’m glad we agree on that,” she chuckles.

You’re the arsehole,” mutters Fitz, “blaming me for my character’s actions.”

Trip pats him on the shoulder. “Would another kiss make you feel better?”

“Yes,” says Fitz, pouting a little.

Trip laughs and leans over to oblige him.

When “Super Heroes” starts up, Skye joins in, in a much better voice than the people behind them, and then she turns around to sing directly into their faces (they seem to be drunk and not entirely paying attention to her, but she feels like it’s the principle of the thing). One of them says, “I know what you’re doing, bitch. That’s classy.”

“Excuse you,” Jemma exclaims, whirling around. “We’re all here to have fun.”

“We are having fun,” the guy says, then settles back into his seat like the conversation’s over. Skye, having seen the entire exchange, starts to sing directly at him, which he resolutely ignores.

“Skye,” Jemma says warningly, “don’t start something…”

Once the song’s over, Skye whines “But they started something…” but doesn’t press the issue.

When the shadow cast emcee starts to organize some vague noisy sexy game onstage for anyone who wants to stay, Fitz turns to the others and hisses, “I’m not getting involved in this nonsense.”

“We could go,” Jemma says.

Skye shrugs. “Someone might do something dumb, though. That sounds fun to watch.”

“We’ve been mean enough to him tonight,” Jemma muters, nodding in Fitz’s direction.

Fitz makes vague grumbling noises but looks pleased that Jemma’s on his side.

Okay,” groans Skye.

“I’ll make it worth your while,” Jemma promises, trying to add a seductive note to her voice.

That makes Skye perk up. “Okay!”

“Oh god,” groans Fitz. “Trip, can I go home with you tonight? I don’t want to have to wear earplugs again.”

Trip chuckles. “Of course, baby.”

Now Skye’s all too eager to leave, practically herding them out of the theater. There, they’re greeted with the sight of Isabelle perched on Victoria’s lap on one of the lobby benches, making out like the world might end at any moment.

“Oh my god,” Jemma murmurs, sounding not entirely displeased by this new development.

“Holy shit,” says Skye, eyes wide. Fitz looks as if he might faint and even Trip is looking a bit taken aback.

Everyone seems equally riveted, perhaps more out of fear than fascination, and they don’t move or even really breathe for several moments. Then Isabelle pulls herself away from Victoria long enough to turn and look at them. “Do you mind?” she asks, sounding less angry than amused.

“Please, ah, just please, pretend, pretend that, ah,” Jemma stammers.

Isabelle snorts. “Go on, we’re not gonna eat you.”

“Pretendwewereneverhere,” Jemma finishes in a rush.

They beat a hasty retreat, and Victoria mutters, “I’m not sure if I’m pissed off or impressed that we startled them so intensely.”

“Oh, I think it’s funny,” replies Isabelle, nuzzling her. “We gave the sweet little British one a real scare.”

“That’s not that hard to do,” Victoria observes.

“True. Anyway, where were we?”

Instead of answering, Victoria wraps arms around Isabelle’s waist and leans in for another kiss.

Clint, taking his job very seriously, has left the rafters to come guard the lobby. Not that it really needs guarding, but he feels more useful here than watching the pseudo-orgy going on in the theater. When he spots Victoria and Isabelle, he swallows nervously, then decides that when people start leaving in droves, he’ll direct them away from the two women. The last thing he needs to deal with tonight is catcalling, or an angry Victoria Hand.

Chapter Text

“...bloody hell, I thought Sharon was kidding when she told me they had necklaces that looked like tiny arses.”

Natasha started snorting with laughter the instant she saw them, and has clapped her hand over her mouth in an effort to keep the noise in (it’s not very successful). “The fuck?” she asks once she’s calmed down a bit. “Those are asses.”

Peggy purses her lips, studying the offending items more closely. “Do you suppose they genuinely just wanted to see what they could get away with mass-producing?” she asks.

“I think straight people are just fucking weirdos,” giggles Natasha, whipping out her phone to take pictures of the weirdest examples (one pendant features a tiny dog print inside one of the “hearts,” and another uses them to make the wings of a butterfly). “I have to show Clint and James.”

“Are they equally amused by bad taste?” Peggy quips. From what she’s been led to understand, this James is one of the ones currently tangled up with her niece - she hasn’t met him yet, but her interest is peaked by the mention of him.

“Oh yeah,” nods Natasha. “The first time we dated, James and I used to have a running competition to send each other pictures of the stupidest romantic gifts. I usually won,” she adds with a grin.

“I can only imagine what monstrosities you found,” Peggy murmurs. “Truth be told, that’s one of the reasons I asked Sharon, and in turn you, to help me out today. Finding sentimental gifts that aren’t horribly cliched or disgusting is damn near impossible.”

Natasha chuckles. “I’m well aware. What kind of thing are you looking for?”

“You know, I don’t have the slightest clue,” Peggy says. “It’s very sweet that when Angie says that she’ll love anything I get her, she means it, but that doesn’t exactly narrow it down when I’m shopping for her.”

Rolling her eyes, Natasha says, “Steve is like that. It’s a pain in the ass. If Sam wasn’t around to tell me about stuff he sees Steve looking wistfully at, I’d never get him anything but stupid gag gifts. Anyway. I guess the first question is, what sort of jewelry does she like?”

“Honestly?” Peggy smiles fondly, almost but not quite rolling her eyes. “She’s not a particularly… shall we say, subdued person, and ideally her jewelry reflects that. She doesn’t like asking for fancy things, but that’s all the more reason that I want to give them to her.”

“Okay, so you’re probably gonna want something with a lot of stones in it.” Natasha glances around and spots Victoria straightening a display of necklaces at the other end of the store. “Hey, Hand, can we get your help with something, when you have a minute?”

Victoria turns to face them - it’s a slow day, so she’s admittedly been eavesdropping just a little bit, trying to sort out exactly why Natasha is jewelry-shopping with a woman she’s never seen before in her life - and nods. “Sure thing,” she says, assuming that Natasha will pick up on the slight ironic twist to the words.

Natasha does, of course, and smirks at Peggy. “Victoria Hand is about as far from a romantic as you can get. I have no idea why she’s still working here, but she knows her way around jewelry.”

“So,” Victoria begins as she heads over. “Natasha and…?”

“Peggy,” supplies Peggy, smiling like someone who recognizes a generic courtesy and doesn’t begrudge someone for giving it. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Sharon’s aunt,” Natasha explains to Victoria. “She’s here looking for a birthday present for her girl.”

“Her… girl,” Victoria repeats, raising an eyebrow. In her experience, “her girl” can mean one of a few things: her female friend (“oh, you know, I’m getting something for my girlfriend” followed by Victoria’s interest peaking followed by “yeah, she’s getting married to the guy she’s been seeing and I wanna surprise her with a nice piece of jewelry”), her daughter (“yes, I wanted to get something nice for my girl… she’s my only daughter, you know”), or her girlfriend (this option rarely happens, because while a pleasant number of queer women work at this mall, none of them are part of the regular Kay clientele, and most of the people who are part of it tend to be straighter). Clarification is relevant.

“Angie,” Peggy agrees with another smile. “We’ve been lovers for years and exclusively so for much of that time. She doesn’t like to ask for flashy gifts, but that’s all the more reason to give them.”

Victoria nearly laughs at the woman’s bluntness, but delightedly so. “How flashy are you thinking?” she asks. “As you’ve doubtlessly seen, we carry a wide range of flash.”

Peggy does laugh, entirely fondly. “She’s drawn to sparkle,” she says, “but managing to keep it understated enough that it wouldn’t look out of place in daily life would be preferable.” She pulls a bit of a face. “I’d prefer something that won’t entirely be unreasonable on my teacher’s salary, too.”

“And I’m here to offer advice, sort of,” adds Natasha wryly. “Not that I’m great at this either.”

“Noted,” Victoria says. She’s sure it’s got something to do with the arrangement between Natasha and Sharon and all of their boys, why Natasha was volunteered for that task, but - in a very weird way, that makes her respect Natasha’s being here more. Doing legwork. (While Victoria loves Isabelle, for example, she’d rather give herself food poisoning than help any of Isabelle’s relatives pick out jewelry.)

“So I don’t suppose you’d feel like helping us jewelry-illiterates out?” Natasha makes a mock pitiful face.

“Conveniently, that’s what I’m paid to do,” Victoria says with a smirk, lowering her voice to add, “I much prefer the honest customers to the ones who come in with unrealistic expectations, too.”

 


 

Sharon is technically supposed to be distracting her… not quite aunt (it’s complicated, because Aunt Peggy’s husband had been her uncle, but Angie and Peggy have never legally qualified their relationship, so Angie isn’t strictly speaking her aunt officially, but it’s a simpler explanation than “my aunt’s long-term live-in girlfriend” anyway) while Peggy and Natasha go do the sneaky part of this shopping trip.

Sharon did not bank on said distraction leading to Victoria’s Secret.

“Hey, whaddaya think of this?” Angie holds up a pale blue teddy that’s mostly lace. “Kinda matches my eyes.”

Sharon is fairly sure she squeaks. “It… does do that,” she agrees lamely.

“Or maybe I should go for pink,” muses Angie, looking at a two-piece set that’s pale pink and has slightly more solid lace. “Peg likes it when I’m all girly.”

“You know, I’m fully aware that the two of you have a fair amount of sex -”

“You bet we do!” interrupts Angie with a wolfish grin.

“-but I’m actually very comfortable not knowing particulars,” Sharon concludes. “It just feels off.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Angie looks slightly chagrined. “Should we go somewhere else?”

“Something I can help with, ladies?” croons Lorelei, swooping in from who knows where with the sort of smile that implies that she feeds off of human discomfort.

“Oh, we’re just lookin’ around, thanks,” says Angie, who has never met Lorelei and is naturally trusting.

Of course, that’s not really a concern in this situation, due mostly to the fact that Lorelei doesn’t get pleasure from ruining innocent girls (clearly this customer who’s making cute little Sharon so uncomfortable is older than her, but she still seems like a girl). But there aren’t any dumbasses in here buying lingerie to dress the girlfriend they wish they had instead of the girlfriend they do have, so she’s killing time. “You sure?” she asks. “I could recommend some favorites.”

“Oh, well, sure!” Angie smiles. “Thanks. Haven’t been to one of these places in awhile.”

Sharon tries to do her best to be polite and not groan. Instead, she folds her arms and stares Lorelei down warningly.

“Is this for a special occasion?” Lorelei asks.

“Just my birthday,” replies Angie modestly. “My gal Peggy, she offered to buy me anything I wanted, and I thought maybe I should get somethin’ she can enjoy too, if y’know what I mean.”

“Oh, good grief,” Sharon mutters.

It’s not the best answer in terms of answers that would make Lorelei giggle to herself (those are always fun) but it does have the added bonus of involving absolutely none of the aforementioned sorts of dumbasses. “Well, aren’t you just lucky and generous all at once,” she murmurs, waving the other women toward a back corner of the store where the Very Sexy (the company’s term) pieces are kept.

“I’m the luckiest,” says Angie in her matter-of-fact way. “She’s so great, Peggy is, she’s brave and smart and gorgeous and she has legs that go on for days and the nicest brown eyes and god, what a figure. Almost ten years with her and I still feel stupid giddy when I look at her. I knew when I first saw her then - she was the history teacher and I’d just got hired to do drama classes - I just knew she was the only girl I’d ever want. Oops,” she adds sheepishly, “there I go runnin’ my mouth again. You gotta tell me when to stop or I’ll just keep chattering on.”

Lorelei raises an eyebrow. She’s not entirely used to dealing with that much sincerity, even just observationally. “You’re enthusiastic,” she shrugs. “I’m sure it works for her.” Her, meaning the girlfriend. “Would you be open to something like this?” she asks, holding up a red number that could politely be described as designed for smoldering.

“Shit, Angie,” Sharon mutters, ready to jump in if it’s needed.

Angie’s eyes go wide. “God, uh,” she says, “d’you have anything with less...smolder?”

 


 

“...and jesus, Peg, you’ll never believe this red number she showed me! I mean I know it’s gonna just come off, but it was down to here!” Angie demonstrates the cut of the piece with her finger.

“Well, it was the Very Sexy collection,” Sharon interjects, smirking.

Natasha snorts. “I like that they apparently have to label it. In case it wasn’t obvious.”

“Lowest common denominator, I imagine,” Peggy shrugs. “I’m looking forward to seeing what you did pick out, though, darling.”

“Yeah, I think you’re really gonna like it.” Angie smirks.

“Next time, you get to do underwear patrol,” Sharon mutters to Natasha.

That makes Natasha laugh. “Alright. I’m sorry we subjected you to that, зайка.” She takes Sharon’s hand in hers and rubs her thumb across the back of it.

“I’m not even good at picking out lingerie for myself,” Sharon mumbles sheepishly. “Let alone…”

“Sorry,” Angie says, grinning apologetically. “Thanks for humoring me. You were a good sport about it.”

“Well, as long as I was a good sport,” Sharon says with a friendly shrug. “Hey, I even got rewarded with ice cream for it.” She nods down to her bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough.

“‘s a good reward,” agrees Natasha, taking a spoonful of her plain chocolate.

“Glad you agree,” Peggy declares. “I figured it was the least we could do for making you haul us around all afternoon.”

Natasha shrugs. “Not hauling. I had a nice time.”

Sharon squeezes her girlfriend’s hand gratefully, then turns to nod at her aunt. “You were saying you wanted to discuss party plans?”

“Yes,” Peggy agrees. “First off, I’ll need an exact head count for dinner.”

“Five on our end,” Sharon says immediately.

“Sounds good!” says Angie. “It’ll be nice to see Steve again, huh, Peg?”

Chapter Text

“I still can’t believe that Ms. Carter is your aunt,” Steve says to Sharon, squeezing her hand excitedly. “Carter is a common enough last name that I didn’t think to ask, but that’s so - what a coincidence!”

“Aww, you’re cute when you fanboy,” says Natasha from the front seat.

“I can’t help it,” Steve says before he can think better of it. “You’ve met her, you should understand.”

“Oh I don’t disagree, but your fawning is adorable.”

“Are you going to manage to keep cool in her presence?” Sharon asks playfully.

“Excuse me, but are y’all talking about Beyoncé or what?” jokes Sam. “I’m feeling a little left out here.”

“Well, I could explain it, since she’s my aunt, but I think Steve should have the honors,” Sharon says.

“Well,” Steve echoes, nodding like he’s about to begin some sort of serious dramatic recitation. “High school wasn’t really a great time for me.” Part of that, of course, is because of the abrupt loss of Bucky, but he knows better to say that in Bucky’s hearing - it’s not a judgment, but it’s still an unpleasant reminder. “I was a scrawny, artsy goody-goody, which, ah.”

“Were you in the glee club too?” Natasha is smirking, but there’s no venom in her words - they both know she’s only teasing.

Steve rolls his eyes fondly. “I most certainly was not,” he says, deciding that now is not the time to mention the school musical he was roped into participating in. “I had friends, I got by, but I guess dissatisfied is the word.”

“Aw,” says Sam sympathetically. “I can’t imagine you being dissatisfied with anything, except injustice, of course.” He grins, trying to lighten the mood, but when he glances back at Steve in the rearview mirror his eyes are sad.

“I’m not trying to ask for pity or anything,” Steve shrugs sheepishly. “But the point is that my junior year, I was taking AP US History and Ms. Carter was my teacher. I was one of the only kids in the class who actually seemed interested in the subject and not just the AP credit, so she became sort of a mentor to me. She really encouraged me with my art and my studies, and when I decided I wanted to try to get into shape she was really supportive and gave me some resources for getting started.”

Sam’s smiling again. “That’s sweet.”

“Yeah,” Steve agrees, shrugging again. “She helped me choose colleges and she wrote recommendation letters for me and everything. I needed that kind of good influence.”

“I think you would’ve been okay, Steve,” says Bucky, running his hand down Steve’s arm. He’s been quiet for most of the car ride, processing and gearing himself up for the evening, but he feels it’s important to reassure Steve of his inner goodness.

“Thanks, Buck,” Steve says softly, closing his hand over his boyfriend’s. “I want to think I would’ve been, but Ms. Carter really helped, anyway.”

“Plus you were pretty taken with her, as I understand it,” adds Natasha playfully. “Didn’t you say something about some experimental poetry?”

“Hey, now,” Steve exclaims, eyes going wide. “I may have dabbled in some things, but not so that it’s worth mentioning. That’s what kids do at that age.”

“Oh don’t worry, I’d never tell her. I just think that’s also pretty endearing.”

It’s pretty clear that by this point Steve is flustered, which means that his only response is, “Yes, well, you know.”

“I highly doubt that she counted on seeing you again in the context of being in a poly pile with her beloved niece,” Sharon quips, “but I’m sure she’s going to be excited to see you again in general.”

“She knows, right?” asks Bucky. “I mean, I know you told her about Natasha and she knows the rest of us are coming, but does she...know?”

Sharon hesitates. “Not… entirely,” she says. “I sort of alluded, but I haven’t directly said the p-word. She’s not going to freak out, ‘cause of the Angie situation -”

“I’m still so surprised,” Steve interjects. “I mean, there were rumors, but there were rumors about all of the teachers getting… romantic with each other. Except Mr. Jarvis, he was always very proper.”

“So do you know how long Peggy and Angie have been together?” Sam asks, vaguely in Sharon’s direction. “I know since you were a kid, but it seems like it’s been going on for a while.”

“Well, I think I was maybe fifteen when I really put it together,” Sharon says casually, “which means it had been a long time before that.”

Bucky’s eyes widen. “Wow. That’s a long time.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that they were subtle,” Sharon observes. “They’re good at adapting.”

Natasha makes a small noise of approval. “I thought I liked Angie. Even though she’s very...enthusiastic.”

“So uh, where does Angie fit in exactly?” asks Sam.

“Oh, Ms. Martinelli was the drama teacher,” Steve explains, nodding. “I knew they were friends, just…”

“Not more than that?” Natasha is smirking again.

“I never felt right gossiping about teachers,” Steve mumbles.

Bucky smiles. “You were a good kid, Steve.”

Steve flushes, all sheepish and shy. “I wanted to be, anyway.”

“You’re a regular Boy Scout,” says Sam affectionately. They all fall into companionable silence for a minute or two while Sam navigates the neighborhood the GPS directs him into, before finally pulling into the driveway of a pale yellow house. “And we’re here!” Sam says cheerfully.

“Aw, it’s so domestic,” says Natasha as she gets out of the car, cocking her head as she looks as the house.

“Yeah, they’re all sneaky like that,” Sharon says wryly.

Bucky adjusts his shirt, grabs the presents from the trunk of the car, and then heads for the door. “I guess we’d better go in?”

“Yeah,” Sharon repeats, trying for comforting. “It’s going to be fine, I’m sure of it.”

Bucky turns back to smile gratefully at her. Natasha pats him on the shoulder before ringing the doorbell.

After a moment the door opens and Angie’s standing there, grinning madly. “Sharon! And Sharon’s bunch. I know Natasha, but who are all these gorgeous fellas, Sharon? Come in and you can introduce yourselves!”

Sharon grins and steps inside, waving for the others to follow. “Well,” she begins, drawing the word out, “this is Sam, and Bucky, and you know Steve.”

Peggy appears from around the corner, equally smiley, but she catches the glint in Angie’s eyes and doesn’t say anything quite yet.

“Little Steve Rogers? Hell, you grew up nicely!” Angie opens her arms to give Steve what’s probably supposed to be a bear hug, except she’s a head shorter than him. “I remember when you were half this size!”

“You’re exaggerating,” Steve mumbles.

“Not really,” says Bucky quietly, grinning. He nods and smiles awkwardly at Angie once she pulls back from Steve. “I’d, uh, I’d offer you a hand, but I’ve got these…”

Angie grins back. “I gotcha. Bucky, yeah? That a nickname? Not a bad handle, either way.”

“Um, my real name’s James…”

“Oh, that’s nice too! But I’ll call you Bucky if that’s what you want.” Angie turns to Sam next. “Shit, Sharon, how’d you snag three men this pretty?”

Sam laughs and extends his hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Angie.”

“Likewise,” says Angie with a wink. She nods respectfully at Natasha, who nods and smiles back. “And you, young lady,” she says to Sharon, “obviously need to visit more! Imagine finding out about these lovely people through email! That’s where she first mentioned you all,” she adds to the rest of the group.

“Sharon leads a busy life, as I’m sure all the rest of you do,” Peggy interjects, giving Angie a gently chiding sort of smile before turning a more polite one on the rest of the group.

“Hi, Ms. Carter,” Steve says shyly, waving.

Peggy rolls her eyes, but good-naturedly, and she leans in to give Steve the briefest of hugs. “Please, we’re all adults,” she says. “Peggy will do.”

“Peggy,” he repeats, trying it out on his tongue and coloring.

“Well, this is amusing,” says Natasha, smirking. “Nice to see you again, Peggy.”

“And you,” Peggy nods. “Found any more daft gifts to photograph?”

Natasha laughs. “Not as of yet, but it’s an ongoing game.”

“Those were awful,” interjects Bucky. “They really were asses!”

Sam snorts. “Yeah, I thought y’all already knew about how weird Kay Jewelers was. Anyway, it’s nice to meet you, Peggy.” He offers his hand.

Which Peggy accepts with a pleasantly surprised sort of smile. She’s glad her niece has managed to find a group with manners. “Well, why don’t we all come in and get settled, yes?” She nods toward the living room, but she doesn’t actually start moving in that direction until Angie takes her hand and joins her.

“Uh, where do you want these?” Bucky asks, nodding at the presents he’s holding.

Peggy and Angie exchange looks. “Pile on the side table, I suppose,” Peggy says.

Bucky nods and shuffles off to put them down, dashing after the others once he’s done.

They all settle into the living room, and after a moment Sam asks curiously, “So are you expecting anyone else, or are we it?” He’s not quite sure of the details of Sharon’s relationship to her parents, or Peggy’s relationship to her brother, and he’s suddenly wondering whether this’ll turn into a family affair.

“Nah,” says Angie, smiling. “We went out with some of our work pals a couple nights ago, and Harry and Amanda are out of town on some business gig. I dunno, they didn’t give a lot of details. You know your folks, Sharon,” she adds, rolling her eyes playfully at Sharon.

“Yeah, I sure do,” Sharon agrees with a rather resigned expression. “To be honest, I think this will be more fun.” Not to mention less stressful, given that she’s told her parents even less about this arrangement than she’s told Peggy and Angie (and Peggy and Angie have pretty much figured it out, anyway).

“Oh, no doubt.” Angie grins mischievously. “If they were here, we couldn’t drink!”

“You say that like my parents don’t know I’m old enough to do that now,” Sharon huffs.

“Well, yeah, but drinking in front of your parents is no fun. But drinking in front of your aunts…”

“Why, that’s practically like getting dragged along to a party by big sis,” Sharon declares. Technically speaking Peggy’s too old to be her sister, but she’s still young enough that she doesn’t entirely feel like an aunt a lot of the time either.

“Exactly! So, can I get anyone anything? Booze? Or snacks? Peg went a little overboard with the snacks,” Angie says with an affectionate smile.

“I wasn’t entirely sure what you’d want, so I prepared,” Peggy defends. “Will everyone be all right if I open a bottle of wine?”

There’s a chorus of “yes”es, although Sam chimes in to say, “Just a little for me, thanks. I’m the only one of us who can drive reasonably well.”

“I take offense to that!” Natasha nudges him with her shoulder. “My driving skills are excellent.”

“Girl, it’s a miracle you’re not dead,” he replies cheerfully.

Peggy’s already on her feet and heading to the small wine rack on the kitchen counter. “Red or white?” she asks. “I can’t guarantee they’ll be the best ones you’ve ever tasted, but they’re not the worst, either.”

“Oh, I’ve had worse, I’m sure,” says Natasha. “Either way is fine with me.”

‘I can go either way, too,” Steve chimes in, shrugging.

“Bring the red,” Sharon decides. “If we don’t make up our mind now, we’re never going to.”

Peggy has to make two trips to bring the bottle and all of the necessary glasses, but she does so quickly enough that there’s no real lag in the conversation, and as she’s uncorking the bottle and starting to pour she says, “Are we going to get any sort of story about you five?”

Sam chuckles. “You might need to elaborate. Like how we all met, or what we all are, or do you want actual stories? I have a great one about this one time when Tasha and Steve were pretending we weren’t on a three-way date.”

“Ooh, I wanna hear about that!”

Peggy nudges her girlfriend pointedly. “In a minute,” she amends. “I’m more interested in some combination of the first two. You met at the mall, to whatever degree, but that’s hardly all there is to it.” She smiles as comfortingly as she can. “I promise this isn’t some stand-in for a meet the parents conversation. I’m genuinely curious.”

“It’s a funny story,” Steve says playfully, nodding to Natasha. “We, she and I, we both dated Bucky and then we were both dating Bucky.”

Bucky sort of rolls his shoulders, looking embarrassed but pleased. “Something like that,” he says shyly.

“And I was just too charming to resist,” adds Sam with a grin, taking a sip of wine.

“Sharon was my fault, sort of.” Natasha’s smirking again. “Well, Steve mentioned her but I called dibs first. I was tired of him getting to have all the fun first.”

Sharon blushes, but she’s grinning. “Did you know you can dibs people?” she asks her aunts. “I didn’t until now.”

“Sure did,” replies Angie, reaching to squeeze Peggy’s hand.

“Well, it was a surprise, but I can’t say that I mind,” Sharon says. “And just judging by the way you’re reacting, I guess you guys don’t mind either?”

“You kiddin’? How could I mind? You’re all so sweet together!” Angie smiles fondly at all of them.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Peggy agrees. “I don’t see anything at all the matter with it, provided you’ve all worked it out, which I’m sure you have.” She nods in Sharon’s direction. “But if you don’t want me to tell your parents, I won’t.”

“Maybe not for a little while?” Sharon says. “I’m still sort of figuring out how to tell anyone. I’m just glad that everyone seems to have picked up on the clues so far.”

“We’re not exactly subtle,” replies Natasha.

“And it’s not exactly a traditional arrangement,” Steve says carefully, “so I can see why everyone picking up on it but being nice is a good surprise.”

Sam snorts good-naturedly. “Always putting a nice spin on it,” he says, reaching over to pat Steve’s shoulder affectionately.

“What about this isn’t nice?” Steve asks, sounding vaguely bewildered.

“Nothing,” replies Sam quickly. “Just...people aren’t always so nice about this stuff.”

Peggy sighs softly, squeezing Angie’s hand. “Nontraditional arrangements, however full of love they may be, will always baffle a certain bunch of people,” she declares. “But those are the people whose opinions matter the least, I think.”

Bucky nods, leaning against Steve. The others are either nodding along or looking serious, as if they’re lost in thought. Finally Angie says, “Well, that was heavy. Thanks for sharing. I hope you all make each other happy for a good long time.”

“Thanks,” says Natasha, speaking for all of them. She smiles at Angie.

Sharon laughs nervously. “Sorry for being such downers all of a sudden, Aunt Angie,” she murmurs. “You said something about snacks?”

 


 

“Are you...are you a broken robot?” Bucky furrows his brow in confusion.

Sam shakes his head frantically and keeps rocking back and forth on his heels, his arms held out on either side of him.

“You’re an impatient scarecrow!” Sharon exclaims, setting her wineglass on the table and leaning against Steve’s shoulder with a satisfied grin.

Sam chortles and shakes his head again. Then he stops, and starts shuffling his feet around in a weird sort-of-pattern.

“You’re a child who needs to take a piss?” asks Natasha, smirking.

Peggy snorts laughing, then hides her face in Angie’s neck; Angie pets her hair affectionately while giggling behind her hand.

Sam glares at her before raising his arms in front of him and beginning to turn himself around and around, raising his arms up and down. He walks in small circles as he does so.

“A… theme park ride?” Steve suggests.

Sighing, Sam stops, plants his feet, and cups his hands like he’s holding a stick between them before moving them through the air, keeping them stuck together.

“Cricket,” Peggy calls out.

Sam makes the gesture for keep going and does the motion again.

“Cricket bat?”

He does it again, slower this time.

Baaaaat?” Sharon says, drawing it out exaggeratedly. (As usual, she’s somehow tipsier than the others despite having had approximately the same amount of alcohol.)

“You’re cute,” murmurs Natasha, reaching over to stroke down her back.

“Mm, thank you,” Sharon hums happily, arching against Natasha’s hand without entirely moving from her place against Steve.

“Noun or verb?” Steve asks. “Are you allowed to… indicate?”

“Birthday girl says it’s fine!” calls Angie.

Sam looks relieved, and holds up two fingers, hoping they’ll understand his meaning.

“Verb!” Steve exclaims. “You’re… you’re…”

Sam does the movement one more time.

“Steve, you’re the one who knows sports,” says Bucky.

“Well, he’s batting, but we’ve already said bat,” Steve frowns. “He’s... swinging?”

“Yes! Finally,” sighs Sam. “I was trying whatever I could think of.”

Natasha chuckles. “And the toddler needing the bathroom was…?”

“Swing dancing! C’mon, girl, I’d expect you of all people to know.”

“Oh no, that isn’t my area at all,” she protests with another laugh. “‘Dancer’ doesn’t mean ‘proficient in every style,’ you know.”

“Alright now, kids,” says Angie with a grin. “I’ll go next, if nobody minds?”

No one objects, so she bounds over to the box full of slips of paper and pulls one out. Then she proceeds to open her eyes comically wide and look shocked.

“You’re trying to take a silly photograph,” Peggy calls out.

Angie rolls her eyes, shakes her head, and then, keeping the expression, puts one hand against her cheek and lifts her hand so she’s pointing ahead at something.

“Fire?” asks Bucky.

“Look out?” guesses Sam.

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane…?” Sharon begins.

Angie sighs and changes tactics, miming pulling a lever.

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “Some kind of machinery?”

“Joystick?” Sharon says, ignoring the snickers it elicits from the others.

“Fire...alarm?” Bucky tilts his head.

Angie nods eagerly and moves her hand to encourage him to keep talking, going back to her original shocked face.

“Frightened of fire...pyrophobia…um…”

“Alarm?” Sam chimes in.

Angie hops and claps her hands. “Yeah! I woulda thought the faces I was pulling would be convincing enough, but I guess not.”

“They were charming, love, but not entirely all-encompassing,” Peggy says with a playful sort of pouting face.

Angie returns the face. “You think you could do better, English?”

“I’m not the actress,” Peggy retorts airily.

“I dunno, I think you’ve been pretty convincing,” says Angie, practically purring the words (she means to be as suggestive as possible).

“What exactly do you mean by that!” Peggy yelps, looking completely indignant (and being completely oblivious to the kids’ expressions).

“You know,” replies Angie, smirking. “C’mon, Peg, it’s my birthday. Please?”

Peggy rolls her eyes, but she pushes out of the chair. “Fine,” she says. “But only because I love you.”

“It’s not that hard,” says Sam cheerfully.

“C’mon, you can do it!” Sharon shouts encouragingly.

Sighing dramatically, Peggy reaches into the prompt box.

And immediately bursts out laughing.

“Oh, that’s a good sign.” Natasha looks riveted.

“I’ve got the best clue for it but I have no idea how to act it out,” Peggy exclaims.

“Oh, just give it your best go,” says Angie.

Peggy makes a face, then holds two fingers up in a sideways “v” shape.

“Vagina!” says Bucky.

“You would,” says Natasha affectionately.

Trying not to laugh, Peggy uses her other hand to draw a rectangle in the air, then “hold on” to what’s been vaguely established. Her first hand comes across the empty space, fingers spreading out and coming back together over and over.

“Oh, scissors!” Sam laughs. “Yeah, I see where you were going originally.”

“You’re good at this game,” Sharon declares lazily.

“Sure am,” replies Sam, grinning.

“I think it’s Natasha’s turn next,” Steve announces, mostly just because he wants to see if she’ll actually play.

“Must I?” asks Natasha dramatically, but she stands up and wanders over to the box. She stares at her slip of paper for a moment, then nods as if to herself and puts both hands in the air in front of her, as if gripping something. Then she purses her lips.

“I’m not going to say it,” Sharon giggles.

“The only reason I’m not rolling my eyes is because I’d be saying it if I were you,” says Natasha good-naturedly. Then she goes back to posing, moving her fingers up and down. “See, not a blowjob. Or at least, a really weird one.”

Angie snorts. “Well,” she says, and lets that be for a moment before adding, “Blowing a horn?”

“Bugle!” says Sam.

“Trumpet?” asks Bucky.

“Glad to know someone understands me,” says Natasha, grinning and taking a quick bow.

“Where are these words coming from?” Sharon asks.

Angie shrugs. “Anyplace, mostly. I add to it every couple weeks or so. Just words I think up, I guess.”

“Do you play charades a lot?” asks Sam playfully.

“I’m an actress, whaddaya think?”

“She’s very good at spontaneously offering up party games to keep people entertained,” Peggy declares fondly.

Angie smiles at her and then says, “Steve, I think you should go next! I remember that time you were Will Parker in Oklahoma!, I bet you’ll be great at this.”

“Steve!” Sharon exclaims, giggling. “You never told me you did musicals!”

“It was just the one,” he mumbles, squinting and hiding his face.

“That’s adorable,” says Natasha. “I don’t suppose someone had the good sense to film it?”

“Why, of course not! That’s illegal!” says Angie, winking exaggeratedly.

“Oh, you’re being mean,” Peggy exclaims, pouting overdramatically.

Angie pulls a face at her before flopping into her lap again. “Just havin’ some fun, Peg.”

Steve smiles at them before rising and grabbing a paper from the box. Immediately he makes a face. “I don’t know how I’m gonna do this,” he says.

“Ooh, that means this’ll be fun,” says Sam, grinning.

“It’s not dirty,” Steve rolls his eyes.

“Just go,” Sharon shouts.

Steve sighs, then starts drawing lines in the air in a vaguely vertical zig-zag pattern.

“Zipper?” Bucky calls out.

Steve shakes his head.

“Uh, zigzags?” Angie tilts her head like a puppy.

Steve swipes his hand over his face, a thinking sort of gesture, and then makes sure he’s positioned fairly behind the table before he starts to walk forward, getting lower to the ground with each step.

“You’re a mime?” Nataska asks.

“Nah, he’s obviously climbing stairs!” says Sam. “It’s stairs, huh Steve?”

“Yes!” Steve shouts, relieved. “That’s what these were.” He repeats the drawing motion, slower this time.

“It’s not Pictionary,” Sharon giggles.

Bucky grins and says, “Well, he is an artist. That’s his comfort zone.”

Steve flops back down on the sofa, reaching for his wineglass and finding it recently refilled. “We’ve all got those, I guess,” he says.

“Well, that was fun!” Angie chirps. “Now, I wanna open presents!”

“Of course, darling,” Peggy murmurs. “Shall I go get?”

Shaking his head, Bucky stands up. “You’re comfortable, let me do the honors.”

“Well, aren’t you a gentleman? Our Sharon’s a lucky girl,” says Angie.

Sharon grins, turning to hide her face against Natasha’s shoulder. “I’m taking that as a compliment and not getting too embarrassed by it,” she mutters.

“Oh, honey, you should.”

Bucky returns holding the bag with the present that Steve picked out (which also has a card signed by the rest of them), Sharon’s present, a mysterious package that’s still in its bubble envelope, and Peggy’s present. He sets them on the coffee table and grins sheepishly. “Here. Uh, the one in the big bag is from all of us, sorta.”

“Aw, gosh, thanks!” Angie puts her hand over her heart. “You’re all sweet.” She picks up the bag and pulls out the card in question. It’s the least sappy card Steve could find, because he knew Natasha and Bucky would never sign it if it was cloying.

Angie reads the card, smiles warmly, and then tears into the bag. “Oh, it’s lovely!” It’s a dark blue sweater covered in rhinestones, which somehow manages to look classy and not childish.

“It seemed like the sort of thing I remembered you liking,” Steve says politely. He doesn’t mention the employee discount, because that goes without saying.

“I do! It’s so pretty!” Unfolding it, Angie slips it on over her blouse, looking pleased. “Thank you. You’re sweet, to buy an old lady you knew years ago a birthday present.”

“You aren’t old!” Steve exclaims. “You’re barely older than I am.” Or anyway, she’d been new to teaching when he was in his last years of high school, so it doesn’t seem like much of a difference now.

Giggling, Angie replies, “You’re a real nice boy, Steve. And so are the rest of you.” Then she reaches for the other bag, the one from Sharon.

“It sort of seemed like it might be your style,” Sharon shrugs.

“Yes!” says Angie excitedly, holding up the intricately beaded vintage clutch inside the bag. “It kinda matches the sweater, actually.”

“I see what you meant about her liking shiny things,” remarks Natasha to Peggy, smirking.

“Isn’t it charming?” Peggy replies, kissing Angie on the cheek.

Angie preens a little. “Thanks, Peg.” She inspects the unlabeled package for a moment before slicing through the tape using a fingernail and her teeth. A slim rectangle and a note slides out. “Oh, it’s from Howard! I thought so.”

“Howard...Stark?” asks Sam.

“You know him?” Peggy asks, tilting her head.

Natasha laughs. “Oh, we’re all aware of Howard Stark. Or rather, his son. He works at the mall along with the rest of us peons.”

“You hadn’t mentioned that, Sharon,” Peggy says.

“I didn’t think it was that important,” Sharon shrugs.

“Oh yeah, Howard’s been on the school board for years. He went there, I guess, and it’s not really a great school overall but I guess he enjoyed himself. So he dumps a bunch of money into it every year and shows up for about two out of every ten meetings, and he’s hit on pretty much every one of the staff who isn’t ancient.” Angie rolls her eyes. “But he and Peg got to be pals, and he’s pretty fond of me too. Or at least, Peg’s muscled him into sending me really nice presents every year.” She grins and pulls off the wrapping paper, to reveal a Stark tablet that’s a full version ahead of the one that’s currently available. “Damn, he knows how to butter up a girl.”

“Goes to show that my muscling skills are intact,” Peggy declares smugly.

“‘Course they are,” says Angie fondly.

Sam’s eyeing the tablet. “I see Tony inherited the whole ‘I’m gonna buy my friends’ thing from his dad.”

“Oh, he’s really fairly harmless,” Peggy says with a shrug. “Most of the time.”

Bucky tilts his head. “If you say so.”

Angie picks up the last present, Peggy’s, and teases, “Gee, English, I can tell this is a ring box. I’m guessing this isn’t a proposal?”

“I think we both know that anything that personal wouldn’t have an audience, no matter how small,” Peggy says. “It was just something I thought you might like.”

“Well, like I keep saying, I’m your girl no matter what,” replies Angie as she pulls out the ring box and opens it. “Oh, Peg,” she murmurs, sounding awed.

“I thought it matches your eyes,” Peggy explains.

Angie pulls it out and settles it onto her left index finger. It’s a heart-shaped aquamarine stone, with several sets of tiny diamond leaves on either side. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” She twists around to kiss Peggy on the lips before leaning forward again to show off the ring to the others.

Natasha, of course, had seen it when Peggy picked it out, but she obligingly smiles. It’s not at all something that would appeal to her, but clearly it makes Angie happy.

“It’s very glamorous,” Sharon says with a nod.

“Yeah, it suits you,” adds Sam.

“It’s perfect. You’re perfect.” Angie turns around for another kiss.

Peggy hums happily, letting an arm slip around Angie’s waist.

“Ew, kissing,” Sharon comments helpfully.

“Hey, that’s my line,” protests Natasha without venom. She leans over to kiss Sharon’s cheek.

“You’re a big girl, you can handle seeing your aunts kiss,” teases Angie.

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to joke about it anyway,” Sharon declares.

“Should we leave you two to it?” Sam chimes in, grinning.

Angie giggles. “It’s been real nice having you, but I do kinda want my other present, if y’know what I mean.”

“Let’s get going!” Steve exclaims, jumping off the couch and offering either of his hands for a tug up. “Thank you so much for having us. Wonderful party.”

Angie manages to tear herself away from Peggy long enough to say, “It was nice meeting you all. Don’t be strangers, now!”

 

Chapter Text

Laura rings the doorbell promptly at 7:30.

Darcy’s all dolled up, wearing her very best the-parents-are-away party dress and no shoes at all because it’s her (parents’) damn house, she doesn’t need shoes, but when she said 7:30 she didn’t plan on anyone arriving at 7:30, so she has to pause in the middle of applying lipstick to scurry downstairs.

Well, it makes sense that it’s Laura here so early, anyway.

She grins and grabs a few of the cheap plastic necklaces from the entry-hall table to throw around Laura’s neck. “Glad you made it!” she says cheerfully.

Laura blinks in confusion. “What are these for? It is not my birthday.”

“They’re Mardi Gras beads!” Darcy grins, as if this explains anything (which it doesn’t, since Mardi Gras was almost a month ago).

“Oh. But Mardi Gras has passed already. Have you gotten the days confused?”

Darcy shrugs. “I know it was earlier,” she says. “But I had extra beads, and it makes things more festive and fun!”

Laura nods. “All right.” She glances inside. “Where should I sit? I have brought alcohol, as I hear it is customary to do for one’s host.” She holds up a bottle of cheap tequila. “Logan said this one will ‘do it pretty good.’”

Darcy raises an eyebrow. “I both do and don’t wanna know,” she muses. “Come on, we’ll put this in the kitchen and then, uh…” She looks around. “Well, you’re the first one here, so you can sit anywhere in here.”

Following her, Laura settles into the couch and glances around the room slowly, as if studying it. She doesn’t say anything.

“So, uh, you… heard from anyone else about when they’re gonna be getting here?” Darcy asks.

“I believe MJ and Rogue are coming together, as are Nebula and Carina. I don’t know about anyone else,” replies Laura. “Are you and Rogue having sex?”

Darcy’s eyes go wide. “We’re, uh. We’re not… not having sex.” Normally she wouldn’t be shy about this sort of thing, but the abrupt question caught her off-guard.

“I just wondered. Rogue’s scent has changed lately. She seems more cheerful, and she has been skipping some rehearsals. I thought it might be because she was having sex with you.” Laura’s tone is neutral, albeit a bit curious. “So I thought I would ask. She is my friend, and I want her to be happy.”

The explanation is long enough that it gives Darcy a chance to recover herself, so she’s all winning smiles when she confirms, “She’s very happy. In my opinion.”

“All right. I’m glad to hear that,” replies Laura, trying a smile of her own. It looks vaguely out of place and uncomfortable and she quickly stops. “I understand that people sometimes tell the people their friends are dating that they will hurt them if their friend is hurt. Please consider this your warning.”

In spite of herself (well, Laura is unnerving), Darcy laughs. “Promise I understand,” she says.

Conveniently, the doorbell rings again, and Laura says, “I don’t think that’s Nebula and Carina, they like to kiss for a minimum of five minutes before they leave to go anywhere.”

“Good to know,” Darcy says. “I’m gonna go see who it is, then. Make yourself comfortable.” With that, she skips off in the direction of the door, and she’s completely unsurprised to see Hannah standing there holding a bag of chips in one hand and a case of… fruit-flavored water in the other.

“Hello,” Hannah chirps. “I wasn’t sure how many people were going to be here, so this isn’t probably enough for everyone, but I figured it would be right to bring something, anyway.”

“It’s totally appreciated,” Darcy promises. “C’mon, you can set that stuff down and get comfy.”

Laura watches them. “Hello,” she calls.

“Hi,” Hannah replies, trying to sound chipper despite the fact that she’s not entirely sure she knows this person. “Are we, ah, the only ones here so far?”

As if on cue, there’s a knock at the door.

“I’ll run and get it,” Darcy says, doing exactly that.

“We’re early,” Pepper says in greeting.

“No, technically you’re a few minutes late,” Darcy corrects. “And apparently, tonight is a kind of night where ‘late’ actually does mean ‘after the time on the invitation.’”

Melinda smirks. “I see. Well, here we are.”

“Here you are,” Darcy agrees. “Come in. So far it’s a fairly unlikely bunch of buddies-to-be.”

“That sounds like you’re writing a children’s book,” Pepper muses.

“Just trust me,” Darcy deadpans, nodding them into the main room.

“Hello,” Hannah says with an eager smile.

Laura nods, her eyes passing over the newcomers. Melinda nods back, and Laura looks pleased.

“Drinks?” Darcy asks, her voice going high.

“Please,” Pepper says, sounding relieved by the mere notion.

Darcy nods gratefully. “Anyone else? And does it matter what the drink is?”

“Logan had me try every alcoholic beverage so that I would know what I like,” said Laura. “I like tequila. He says he knew I was his kid.”

“So, tequila for Laura,” Darcy says.

The doorbell rings again. And then again. And then three more times.

“I think that’s Nebula,” says Laura. “She likes things that make irritating sounds.”

“Makes sense,” Darcy says, because from what she’s figured out about Nebula that’s the case. “I’ll get the drinks in a sec, okay?” And she runs to the door, hoping somehow that the new guests will make this less awkward.

It’s, as predicted, Nebula, with her sister on one side and her girlfriend on the other; Gamora looks entirely over this whole thing already, Carina mostly just looks nervous.

“Your lipstick’s half-done,” says Nebula, by way of greeting.

Darcy immediately reaches up to touch her mouth, which is thoroughly ineffective. “Shit,” she says, pulling the lipstick out of her cleavage where she stashed it and quickly finishing the job. “Sorry. I got caught off-guard.”

“Let me guess,” Gamora chimes in. “Laura showed up precisely on time and you weren’t expecting it.”

“Is that a thing with her?” Darcy asks.

“She’s just trying to be polite,” Carina defends.

“Well, the instinct is appreciated,” Darcy says.

Nebula snorts. “Yeah, we all appreciate it.”

Darcy smirks. “Well, I was just getting drinks for people,” she says, waving them inside. “Should I add you to the request list?”

“Yeah, I’ll take whatever’s strongest.”

“So far, I’m guessing that’s Laura’s… uh, her dad’s cheap tequila,” Darcy shrugs.

Shrugging, Nebula replies, “Whatever.”

Then they hear loud talking from the other room, which is quickly getting faster and louder, and as they go to see what’s happening it turns out to be Laura and Melinda in the middle of a passionate argument. “How can you call the Colt Python a better gun than the M1 Garand? Don’t you know anything about weapons history?” Melinda’s voice is louder than anyone has ever heard it get.

“The M1 Garand is impractical for civilian use!” retorts Laura. “Its purpose was fulfilled and it is now obsolete!”

Obsolete! And I suppose the Python was discontinued because it was in such high demand?”

“Hi!” Carina exclaims, waving. “I brought cookies.” As punctuation, she holds up a bag full of grocery store sugar cookies, all of them frosted in perfectly her Easter colors.

“Awesome,” Hannah says loudly, jumping up to inspect the choices. “You really can’t go wrong with cookies.”

Nebula bursts into loud laughter.

“Hey,” Darcy says, raising an eyebrow at Nebula. “Would you help me with drinks? Sooner poured, sooner everyone’s on their way.” That, and she’s not interested in finding out whether the other girl is going to explain her outburst.

“Sure.” Nebula’s still laughing as she follows Darcy into the kitchen.

Meanwhile the argument seems to have diffused into the irritated glaring phase, where Laura and Melinda seem unable to break stony eye contact.

“Do you know how to diffuse that?” Darcy asks in a whisper as she reaches for the plastic cups.

“Nah. I think they’re fighting about guns or some shit? I’ve learned you kinda just have to let Laura be weird. I guess she found someone whose weirdness was the kind that set her off.”

‘Yeah, okay, but the fact that Laura managed to set Melinda off in return is stunning,” Darcy murmurs. Honestly, she’s almost in awe.

“I didn’t know she’s a gun nerd too. I guess you learn something new every day.” Nebula shrugs again.

At the sound of the doorbell, Darcy shouts, “If it’s open, just come in!” She’s in the middle of making some weird strawberry kiwi water/vodka combination, and she’d rather not move until she’s got it perfect.

“Hey!” calls MJ. “We stopped to grab some beer on the way.”

“Hey there,” purrs Rogue, poking her head into the kitchen. “Nice to see ya again.”

Darcy lowers her gaze just to look up again from under her eyelashes. “You, too,” she says with a coy little smile.

Coming up behind Rogue, MJ notices the charge in the air and rolls her eyes playfully. “Anywhere you’d like these?” she asks, indicating the six-packs she’s carrying.

“Preferably divided up and in people’s hands,” Darcy declares.

MJ chuckles. “All right, I’ll go ask around. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” she calls over her shoulder as she turns to leave.

“How broad a category is that?” Darcy asks.

“Well, we can’t get it on where people can see,” says Rogue with a smirk. “Not that that was part of my plan anyway.”

“We should save some fun for later in the night,” Darcy agrees. She picks up some of the drinks and nods for the others to help.

Out in the living room, Jemma, Skye, Natasha, and Sharon have all let themselves in and sat down wherever they can. The mood between Laura and Melinda is still frosty, but they’ve each become preoccupied talking to other people. Skye’s holding one of MJ’s beers and looking quite content perched on Jemma’s lap.

Darcy raises an eyebrow at the newcomers’ disheveled appearances. “Okay, did someone forget to invite me to the orgy again?”

“If you wanna be invited to an orgy, I could talk to the boys,” Natasha says with a smirk.

“I’ll get back to you,” Darcy squeaks, really hoping that people stop surprising her at her own damn party.

Akela, who’s just entered the room as well, notices that more than half of the occupants are holding drinks and says, “Oh, I see I’ve come right on time.”

“Take your pick, there’s beer and tequila and vodka and a whole fridge full of stuff to mix with,” Darcy says.

“Excellent.” Akela smiles and heads in the direction of the kitchen.

Melinda glances up and notices Maya entering the room. “Maya, please explain to that child that the Colt Python is a joke of a gun.” She nods at Laura.

Maya winces, looking down at her phone and then back up at Melinda. “I, uh, give me a second,” she says, quickly firing off a text message. “I can’t exactly speak to that without evidence.”

“Fine.” Melinda takes a sip of her drink. “Tell Maria hi from me.”

“I’ll, ah, I’ll do that,” Maya says, because she knows there’s no point in lying about what she’s doing. Not to Melinda.

“What’s Maria doing tonight?” Pepper asks, smiling in what Maya is sure is a knowing way (although she couldn’t say exactly why).

“Oh, she’s on a blind date,” Maya says. “Sitwell set her up with his neighbor. It’s not going so hot, apparently.”

“I’m sure,” Pepper muses, taking a sip of her drink.

Melinda smirks and says nothing.

After Sif wanders in, Darcy calls out, “You guys want drinks?”

“Yes, please,” Maya mumbles, her attention already back on her phone.

Sif nods, grinning. “Something strong for me.”

Darcy chuckles. “Sure thing,” she says, heading back into the kitchen. “Is everyone here?”

“If I’m the last person who needed to arrive, then yes,” Bobbi calls as she enters, twirling the lanyard on her keys.

Darcy glances around the room, nodding for Skye to double-check and then nodding in return when she has confirmation. “Apparently it’s not a party without you,” Darcy says to Bobbi, smirking.

“So, what’s the plan for the evening?” Hannah asks from the couch.

“Booze?” Skye asks.

“Booze,” Darcy confirms.

“Sounds perfect,” Bobbi declares.

 


 

“We should play Never Have I Ever!” says Sif, a little too loudly.

“I think I’m missing something,” Carina murmurs, frowning apologetically at… anyone, really.

“It’s only the best game,” Darcy exclaims, flopping on the floor by Carina and Nebula’s feet and leaning back against their legs. “Everyone gets a shot glass, right. Someone says something, like something they haven’t done, and then everyone who’s done it takes a shot. If nobody takes a shot, the person who says it has to.” She grins. “The soberest one wins.” She leaves to get glasses.

“And there needs to be a sober person chaperoning, too,” Pepper chimes in. “I’ll volunteer.”

“Let’s team up,” Maya says. “This is a wild bunch. They’re going to need it.”

“I don’t know if I should be flattered or offended,” Darcy deadpans, returning with shotglasses and beginning to distribute and fill them.

Sif grins. “Who’s starting?”

In the quiet moment after she asks, Nebula calls out “Hannah” with the expression of someone who enjoys embarrassing others.

Hannah smiles weakly, pretty sure she understands that she’s being baited. Once she’s exchanged a slightly alarmed look with Carina and noticed Carina whispering admonitions in Nebula’s ear, she says, “Well, ah, never have I ever… seen a penis?”

Everyone in the room takes a shot. “It wasn’t on purpose,” Jemma mutters, looking disgusted. “It really, really wasn’t on purpose.”

“How does one see a penis not on purpose?” asks Laura, tilting her head. “I assumed you have had sex with a man as well as your current partner.”

“Everyone assumes that,” Jemma sighs. “I’ve done… things with men. Boys, really. Not penis things.”

“Oh.:” Laura nods. ‘That is understandable. The male anatomy is rather unappealing.”

“If it’s attached to someone you think you like, you can deal with it,” Bobbi chimes in, sighing. “But it’s not exactly a visual treat.”

Skye snorts. “Yup. Okay, I’m going next. Never have I ever had a threesome...yet.” She grins mischievously.

Jemma appears to choke on air, then repeats that when she notices exactly who’s taking a shot this time: Gamora, Maya, Melinda, and, most interestingly, Bobbi. Who notices her noticing and smirks.

“I’ll go,” says Laura. “Never have I ever been responsible for the care of a domestic animal.”

There are sympathetic noises from about half of the room. “Oh no!” Hannah murmurs.

She, Jemma, Sharon, Akela, Pepper, Carina, Sif, and Bobbi all take shots. “Does it count if you’ve watched your boyfriend’s giant dogs?” asks Natasha.

“If you’d like it to,” replies Laura.

Melinda announces, “I think this is officially a sleepover. Everyone is drunk.”

Darcy glances around. “Well, if Cool Mom says so, I guess that means we have to. Pillows and blankets and stuff are in the hall closet. I’ll drag them out when people want them.”

“We should make a pillow fort!” exclaims Skye.

“Cute,” says Bobbi. “My turn. Never have I ever been to church.” Since they’re now going in a non-sexual direction.

Hannah, Skye, Akela, Jemma, and Sharon take shots, which prompts Darcy to look at all of them but Hannah wonderingly. “Really?” she asks.

“Christmas Eve family appearances,” Sharon shrugs.

“Misguided elementary school sleepovers,” Jemma explains.

“I went to Catholic school. For like a year. And then I left,” says Skye.

“My grandparents are very religious.” Akela seems unfazed by having to give this explanation.

“Well, on the opposite end of things,” says Gamora, “never have I ever had anything but my ears pierced.” She then leans back in her chair and revels in everyone’s obvious confusion.

Nebula glares and downs a shot. “I know you did that for me.”

“Hazard of the game,” Carina says blithely, taking her own shot.

After taking her shot, Sif explains, “Fandral lost a bet a long time ago. We have matching nipple piercings.”

Darcy bursts out laughing, nearly spilling her own shot.

Rogue smiles, drinking. “Y’all can see mine,” she says, pointing at the stud in her nose.

Bobbi and Melinda both take their shots without saying anything, while smiling.

 


 

Never Have I Ever fades out as more and more of them start just taking spontaneous shots, and after Pepper gracefully bows out of the party (making sure Melinda is fine catching another ride home, and smiling when Sif offers to help out) and Maya exits as well (explaining that she needs to go rescue Maria from her apparent failure of a date, which makes at least half of the room snicker) the room all but falls into lazy chaos. There’s drinking, there’s chatter, there’s all manner of mayhem, and after maybe an hour of this, Darcy (currently seated in Rogue’s lap) calls out, “Let’s play Truth or Dare.”

“Must we?” Jemma groans, her voice slightly muffled due to the fact that her face is buried in Skye’s chest.

“Yes!” says MJ, grinning as she takes a sip of her third drink of the night. “Great plan, Darce.”

Darcy grins. “I think so,” she declares, turning around at an awkward angle to face Rogue. “You, I dare you to take your shirt off.”

“Alright,” drawls Rogue, pulling her shirt off in a way not unlike a striptease. Then she smirks and asks, “Like what ya see?”

“Always,” Darcy says, clearly delighted. “Your turn to ask someone.”

“Sure.” Rogue scans the room for a minute, her gaze finally landing on Carina, who’s resting her head on Nebula’s shoulder and nibbling on a cookie. “Hey, Car, truth or dare?”

“Truth,” Carina says immediately.

“What’s the meanest thing you’ve ever said?”

“That I would rather fucking die slowly than have to spend any more fucking time looking at someone’s fucking face or hearing them say any more of their fucking bullshit,” Carina murmurs, sounding oddly calm for someone who’s just dropped that many expletives in one sentence. She shrugs and reaches for her glass (filled this time with water).

A bit taken aback, Rogue just says “Oh” while nodding slowly, looking as if she’s making connections in her head.

“My turn!” Carina exclaims cheerfully. She glances around for a moment and likely emboldened by the alcohol says, “Melinda, truth or dare?”

“Dare,” says Melinda without batting an eye.

Carina makes a face, and she’s very clearly about to turn to Nebula for suggestions before she thinks better of it. “Okay,” she says warily. “Uh. I dare you to… sing something.”

“Somewhere over the rainbow,” sings Melinda, vaguely off-key, and then stops. Carina looks confused, and Melinda adds, “You didn’t say how much,” with a smirk.

“That’s true,” Carina squeaks. “It’s your turn now.”

“Okay.” Melinda turns to Natasha. “You said the boys are at Sam’s tonight?”

Natasha nods.

“Dare you to sneak in and bring something back.” Then, Melinda adds, “You’re not allowed to distract them in any way,” looking pointedly at Sharon.

“What makes you think I would do that?” Sharon says indignantly.

Squeezing her hand, Natasha grins. “I’ll see you later,” she says to the room at large, and heads for the door.

Jemma sits up straight, looking alarmed. “I know they’re… whatever they are,” she whispers to Skye, “but isn’t that horribly illegal?”

“I doubt they’d call the cops on their own girlfriend,” giggles Skye.

“Still!” Jemma hisses, then raising her voice and calling out, “I’ll go next. Akela! Akela, truth or dare?”

“Truth.” Akela seems surprised but pleased to be asked.

“How.... many people have you kissed?” Jemma asks, clearly under the impression that she’s being scandalous enough to keep up (or maybe just optimistic, or maybe just too far gone with drink to hear Nebula chuckling at her).

Akela smiles, taking a minute to think. “Ten, I think. Yes, ten.”

“That’s a very nice, even number,” Jemma agrees solemnly.

“Skye, truth or dare?” calls Akela.

“Dare!” Skye says eagerly.

“I dare you to...take off your clothes and run down the street and back in your underwear.”

Jemma yelps.

Skye, who started shucking off her shirt immediately after Akela said “take off your clothes,” stands up and shimmies out of her jeans before chirping, “Back in a sec! Darce, come out and film this shit!”

“Hell yes,” Darcy says, sounding slightly in awe.

“Need a cheerleader?” Bobbi asks in a low, obviously seductive voice.

Jemma yelps again.

“If you wanna,” Skye replies suggestively, heading for the door.

Darcy hoots, scrambles for her phone, and then turns back to kiss Rogue on the cheek before following Skye; Bobbi pushes out of the beanbag chair she’s currently flopped in and strides after them, beer in hand.

As they’re heading for the door, Sif takes the opportunity to slip out of the room, in the hopes of avoiding uncomfortable questions (she has a bad feeling that someone would insist on “truth”ing her). She crawls into the pillow fort Skye and a few others built earlier, and settles in. She expects that no one will follow her, but after a moment someone calls, “Sif?” It’s Melinda.

“Oh, hi,” says Sif, awkwardly. “I, uh...I needed some air?”

“I know the feeling,” says Melinda dryly. “Mind if I join you?”

“No...no, that’s fine.” Sif knows it’s partially the alcohol, but she feels like Melinda can hear how loudly her heart is pounding too. Melinda comes in, sitting crosslegged next to her (it’s at a spot where Sif, who’s lying on her back, can see her face).

Suddenly the situation strikes Sif as absurd, and she giggles. Melinda doesn’t react except for a small smile, but she doesn’t seem to mind either.

“The last time I was in one of these was with Lorelei,” says Sif, an old memory suddenly coming back to her.

“Oh?” The way Melinda says it, she’s interested but won’t push Sif for more if it’s not immediately forthcoming.

“Yes, we...well, we knew each other in college and we ended up in a play together. Twelfth Night, you know. She would hit on me every day in rehearsal to intimidate me, and the director would yell at her for it. One day I got tired of it, and grabbed her and kissed her to try and shut her up.” Sif snickers. “Didn’t work, but. We were both at a party a few weeks later and ended up making out in a pillow fort. I don’t remember why. I know she’s embarrassed about it still.”

Melinda chuckles. “Follies of youth.” She’s quiet for a moment before adding, “When I was in college, Heimdall and I hooked up several times.”

“What! No,” gasps Sif, drawing the word out in a silly way that she wouldn’t if she weren’t drunk.

“Yes. We were both unattached, we were friends, it was nice.”

“I’ve just...known him for years, I never would’ve guessed. And I definitely didn’t, ah...know that about you.”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me,” replies Melinda, and if Sif didn’t know better, she’d swear Melinda was flirting with her.

 


 

They spend a long time in the pillow fort, mostly in companionable silence, sometimes talking quietly, often just listening to the drunken shenanigans in the other room. At some point someone must have suggested karaoke, because they definitely hear Bobbi doing a startlingly good impression of Britney Spears. The cheers after that are particularly loud.

Eventually, though, it dies down, and Melinda says, “I guess we’d better go make sure they’re all still alive.”

Sif giggles. “Yes.”

The others appear to be in various states of drunken napping and snuggling: Nebula and Carina, Rogue and Darcy, Sharon and Natasha (who seems to have returned triumphant, given the pair of American flag-patterned boxers she’s wearing on her head), and Skye and Jemma, who are curled up like quotation marks with their heads on Bobbi’s tummy. Laura and Akela have commandeered the bigger couch; MJ has the smaller one; Hannah is holding a pillow and is curled up on the largest, most comfortable chair, and Gamora is sharing a body pillow with Bobbi. “Precious,” says Melinda in the most deadpan voice. Sif has to slap a hand over her face to avoid laughing loud enough to wake everyone up.

Over in one corner of the room is a stack of blankets which everyone seems to have ignored. Melinda nods at them and Sif, understanding, grabs a few and begins to distribute them accordingly. Finally everyone seems to be covered. “There, I’ve done my grown-up duty for the night,” jokes Melinda. “Back to the fort?” Sif nods and follows her, grabbing the last blanket for themselves.

Chapter Text

“Let me see it,” Lorelei calls as she strides into the weed store.

When Raina pokes her head up from behind the counter (she’s fixing the display of “decorative glassware” kept locked away under there) she starts laughing.

“What?” Lorelei asks peevishly.

“Your face,” Raina giggles. “You look so…” She trails off, thinking about it. “Disdainful. Like a queen out among the commoners.”

“This place stinks,” Lorelei huffs. “And what’s more, it feels so dirty, like there’s a layer of ash covering everything.” She accidentally brushes a rack of vaguely poncholike sweaters and shudders.

“You’re cute when you’re priggish,” Raina singsongs.

Lorelei rolls her eyes, but she’s smiling. “Come on,” she goads, “show off for me.”

Raina very dramatically stands up straight, then lays her hand out flat on the countertop. “What do you think?” she asks, her voice lower and sexier than most people’s would be when discussing body art.

“I don’t know why I was wondering if it was going to be anything but a flower,” Lorelei says dryly.

Raina giggles in that unnerving way of hers. “But do you like it?”

Lorelei isn’t big on tattoos most of the time. There are nice ones, but so often the ones she sees are moronic impulse decisions (she’s talked more than one guy out of getting her name scribbled on him in some pseudo-vintage font, bannered over a heart or something equally trite, probably because of the college boyfriend she had that actually did that) that she’s sort of soured to the whole premise. Besides that, she doesn’t feel comfortable committing to one person for that long, and people, unlike art on someone’s skin, actually change.

Most of the time, Lorelei doesn’t actually give a shit about flowers either. Probably so many guys have thrown them at her feet that she’s gotten bored of them. Plus, while their lifespan is actually a pretty accurate metaphor for most of her relationships, the fact that they get old and die so quickly means that they’ve always struck her as a misguided symbol for true romance.

But there’s something at once innocent and imaginative about Raina’s little obsession with them. The only time that Lorelei’s seen her not wearing something floral is when she’s not wearing anything at all (even that apparently won’t be true now); her purse has a giant fake lily wrapped around the strap and there’s a matching one around the top of the rearview mirror in her car; hell, there’s even a little row of origami flowers, taped to the top of the cash register. But never once has Lorelei seen her so much as in the same room as a real flower that’s been cut. It’s like she likes them so much that she can’t bear to kill them.

Or she just doesn’t want to take care of the real ones, either way.

And now she’s got one with her for as long as she wants it. It’s on her left hand, over the joint of her thumb, a red rose with a stem (thorns and all) wrapped around her wrist. (Her fingernails, long and deadly and very false, are currently painted a green-black color to match.) On another woman, it would be a cliché, but on Raina?

“It’s perfect,” Lorelei murmurs, only sort of surprised to find she means it.

“I’m glad you like,” Raina purrs.

“Does my opinion really matter?” Lorelei asks.

Oblivious to the potential customer who’s just wandered in (or maybe just ambivalent toward her) Raina drawls, “I figure my hand spends enough time inside you, you should approve of its new decoration.”

The customer (a slight blonde) coughs loudly.

“You know it won’t be getting anywhere near me with those nails on,” Lorelei counters.

“I’ll take them off before I try to pay tribute, o my goddess,” Raina murmurs, smirking.

Lorelei can’t help but preen, though in her usual overly self-aware sort of way. “I suppose that’s fair.”

“Was seeing this really your only reason for deigning to set foot in the slacker corner?” Raina asks, clearly not bothered by whatever the response may be.

Lorelei shakes her head. “I’m getting bored of training boys,” she sighs dramatically.

“Had your fill of the marble-jawed Nazi?” Raina teases.

“God, yes,” Lorelei groans. “I like my subs a little mouthy, not all…” She makes a face. “All compliant.”

Raina grins. “You mean you like them like me.”

“Well, it gets boring if it’s not at least a little bit of a challenge,” Lorelei shrugs. “At least the vanilla lollipop was more of a Shepherd than a lapdog. And the warning label his pretty ex fitted him with was accurate.”

“Don’t have too much fun without me,” Raina pouts.

“That’s the whole point, I’m not,” Lorelei retorts, standing aside so Raina can ring the girl up but not pausing the conversation. “I was wondering if that offer you made is still open. It’d be a way to cut up the routine.”

Lorelei!” Raina exclaims, feigning shock. “What will people think, hearing you care enough not to presume.”

“I think my secret’s safe,” Lorelei says, turning to glare at the girl. “Doesn’t answer me, though.”

Raina finishes the transaction and sends the customer on her way before she says, “Of course it is. It’s about to turn spring, isn’t it? Let’s enjoy nature’s gifts out in the wild.”

Lorelei smirks. “How inventively pagan,” she muses. “I’d forgotten ideas like that existed.” She glances toward the back room. “Someone going to cover for you while you take lunch?”

Raina nods. This hadn’t been planned, but she gets what’s being suggested and she’s very amenable.

“Excellent,” Lorelei hums, holding out a hand. “Shall we, then?”

 


 

“Seriously, free food?” Nebula eyes the plate of beer pretzels like she’s expecting it to disappear at any second.

Lorelei nods, then looks up to flash a brilliant smile in the direction of the bar. “I have a hookup,” she says, because that’s true in multiple ways.

“Okay. Cool.” Nebula shrugs and grabs one of them, tearing a huge chunk off with her teeth.

“Thank you for inviting us,” Carina says very politely, sipping her raspberry lemonade.

“Sure thing, sweetie,” Lorelei says dismissively. “No use keeping my good fortune to myself. Eating out alone is so depressing.”

Raina, to her credit, snickers. Nebula snorts too, grinning wickedly when she notices the expression on Loki’s face, who’s sitting across the table from her. He looks like a cat that’s just had a bucket of water dumped over it.

“Besides, consider it a thank-you on my part,” Raina says to Nebula.

“I didn’t draw the tattoo, I dunno why you’re thanking me.”

Raina smiles winningly. “For the friendship that got me the discount, silly.”

“Oh. Well, uh, you’re welcome.” Nebula shoves more of the pretzel in her mouth and deliberately doesn’t make eye contact with Raina.

Raina is not such a good friend that she doesn’t slightly revel in this discomfort, but there’s not much else to say on the subject, so she turns her attention to Loki. “You’re not eating anything.”

“I’m not hungry.” He sounds not unlike a sullen child.

“You’ve been at work all morning and you’re there through most of the afternoon,” Carina says. “You should try to eat something even if you don’t feel like you want to.”

Primly, Loki reaches over and rips off the end of a pretzel and puts it in his mouth. He manages, somehow, to chew petulantly. “There, I’ve eaten something,” he says, once he’s swallowed it.

Carina frowns. “I just meant you ought to take care of yourself,” she mumbles.

“He’s a big boy, he can manage,” says Nebula, but it’s more gently than she’d say that sort of thing to anyone else, and she squeezes Carina’s hand.

As Carina smiles one of her little all-too-sweet smiles, Lorelei and Raina just grin at each other. This may or may not be what real people act like, and because they can stand the real people in question it’s charming rather than cloying. “She’d punch me for calling her cute, wouldn’t she,” Lorelei murmurs.

“Oh, definitely,” Raina agrees.

“I’m sorry to interrupt these scintillating conversations,” chimes in Loki, “but just why am I here again? Truth be told, I’m feeling a bit fifth-wheel.”

The real answer is that it would have seemed rude not to invite him (since Lorelei gave Raina the go-ahead to invite Nebula, who invited Carina) and while Lorelei pays very little mind to people’s feelings a lot of the time she isn’t often rude without reason. Callous, sarcastic, sure. But rudeness is so unbecoming.

“I thought it would do you good to get out and do things,” Lorelei says airily, because that’s technically also true. She agrees with the boy about a lot of things, but also is fairly sure he’d be better-served by at least attempting to crawl out of his self-imposed isolation occasionally.

Loki snorts. “Fine. Thank you, I suppose.”

Meanwhile, Nebula’s gotten bored and started glancing around. She notices the bartender watching them, his expression sour. “Hey, what’s up with pissface over there?”

“That’s the hookup,” Raina whispers conspiratorially. “I think he’s sad that he’s treating her and her friends to free lunch and he hasn’t even gotten a kiss hello.”

“We’ll see,” Lorelei says, waving a hand dismissively. “There might be a kiss goodbye in the deal if I’m feeling interested.”

Him?” Nebula wrinkles her nose. “Does he look better with the lights off or something?”

“He had a few… recommended traits,” Lorelei shrugs, neglecting to mention that the recommendations came after her decision to give it a try. “Mostly he’s just very normal.”

Loki makes a sound of disgust. “He’s unworthy of you.”

From most people, a comment like that would make Lorelei snap and argue, because who the fuck are they to decide that (even if it’s technically probably true). From Loki, it mostly comes off harmless and amusing, and she has to ask, “From where exactly do you draw that conclusion, dear?” She knows pet names can piss him off. That’s the on-purpose kind of rude.

“Well,” he says, deliberately ignoring the endearment, “you deserve to be worshipped. That fellow looks like he’s never given a single thought to how a woman ought to be treated.”

“He’s right about one thing,” Raina murmurs, nudging Lorelei’s side.

“Worshipped, hm?” Lorelei presses.

“Should we be listening to this?” Carina whispers to Nebula.

“People who fuck are weird,” says Nebula by way of reply.

Carina makes a face, like she’s glad of an easy explanation.

Loki nods. “You should be waited on hand and foot, not merely seen as a means to sexual gratification. Why, if I were so lucky, I would…” He stops suddenly, narrowing his eyes. “I confess, I’m more than a little perplexed as to why you haven’t taken me up on that offer yet.”

“Shit,” Carina squeaks.

“You mean why I haven’t invited you to fuck me,” Lorelei clarifies, being as blunt as she can to get a rise out of him.

“I wasn’t going to be so crude about it, but yes. I don’t understand why you’re making do with second-rate temporary men when you could have...well, someone who would appreciate you as you deserve.”

Raina bursts out laughing.

“Kid, I can take care of myself just fine,” Lorelei says, trying to resist the urge to point out that everything he’s suggesting is being taken care of, one way or another (and one of those ways is sitting right next to her).

“But you shouldn’t have to!” protests Loki.

Sipping noisily on her milkshake, Raina gazes up at him and gives a curt wave.

“You know how I do things,” Lorelei shrugs. “I’m pretty sure that’s half of why you sought me out in the first place, wasn’t it?’

“You can’t blame me for finding you intriguing.” Loki purses his lips. “How was I to resist such a divine creature as yourself?”

“I thought the whole thing was you guys were going to wreak social havoc, part of which you were going to do by doing what you always do,” Raina interjects, nodding to Lorelei.

“Yeah. He basically asked me to,” Lorelei agrees. “Or more specifically, to build up to seducing a certain supremacist.” She rolls her eyes, then says to Loki, “By the way, not nearly as effective as you’d think. Although he did beg to, as you put it, wait on me.”

Loki scowls. “It’s more effective than an absurd pick-up line, anyway.”

Lorelei giggles, the sort of giggle that’s laced with danger. “So just so we’re clear, you expected there to be sex eventually.”

“Oh, I expected nothing,” says Loki with a shrug. “I merely wanted to interact with you however I could. The idea of becoming your paramour was an appealing one, but I was content to bask in your presence.”

“Go easy on the poor thing,” Raina coos in Lorelei’s ear.

“Well, I don’t know how sincere you’re being, but let me tell you one thing,” Lorelei says. “It’s a compliment that I haven’t tried to sleep with you.”

Pouting, Loki mumbles, “It doesn’t feel much like one.”

“Think about it this way,” Carina chimes in before she can think any better of it. “She respects you too much to sleep with you!”

“And, I mean, I can’t really say I get it but just ‘cause she won’t fuck you doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you,” comments Nebula.

Lorelei nods, rather surprised that they seem to understand (but also not surprised at all).

“Well, I wouldn’t expect you to understand,” snarks Loki. “But no one understands me, it seems. Except you.” He makes what is probably supposed to be a puppy-dog face at Lorelei but mostly just comes off as the wrong kind of pathetic.

Lorelei sighs. “Sweetie, I think you think you mean what you’re saying, so I’m going to be nice about it. If we fuck, it will not be because of some sad little ‘woe is me, I’m friendzoned’ routine. And if that day comes, you’ll understand me as well as I apparently do you.”

“Very well.” Loki edges his way out of the booth. “Noted. I think I’ll just show myself out.”

“Don’t trip on your way out the door,” Raina says cheerily.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he calls over his shoulder.

Carina frowns into her drink. This is not going to be a fun rest of the day. “Does he not know that you two,” she begins, waving a hand between Lorelei and Raina, “that you two are… doing… things… together?”

“He has to know something’s up,” says Nebula, grinning, “but I think he thinks he can fix everything with his magic cock. Or her magic vagina, or something.”

“He’s a romantic,” Raina says with a roll of her eyes. It’s clear how she feels about those.

“Uh huh.” Nebula smirks and sips her drink. “Gotcha.”

“I expect he’ll come to his senses,” Lorelei says. “In due time. I haven’t succeeded in finding him more appropriate friends yet, so he’s likely to need me more than I do him.”

“Well, that’s not a surprise,” says Nebula.

“And honestly, it’s a relatively painless arrangement,” Lorelei continues.

“Tomorrow, this will be funny,” Raina agrees. “Maybe not to him, but I don’t think hardly anything is.” She looks to Carina for support in this.

“There was a top that said something about fractured motivation,” Carina offers. “He seemed to find that amusing.”

“Hardly anything,” Raina repeats.

Nebula snorts. “Well, he’ll probably find some anarchist to fuck in a couple months. Then everyone will be happy.”

“One way to look at it,” Raina says, nodding. She takes another sip of milkshake, then looks at Carina intently. “Have you taken advantage of the friends and family discount, too?”

Before Carina can answer, Nebula blurts, “Yeah, she has a butterfly on her ass like a goddamn My Little Pony. It’s hilarious.”

“Be nice,” Carina exclaims, though she’s turned bright red.

“That sounds cute,” Raina says, seeming happy about the idea or maybe just amused.

“Yeah, Sunbeam Berry here is adorable,” replies Nebula, giving her hand a squeeze. Her tone is almost sarcastic, but not quite.

“Oh, that’s just…” Raina giggles, nudges Lorelei. “Isn’t that charming?”

“It’s something, all right,” Lorelei says, managing a weak smile.

“I didn’t mean to make it a cutie mark,” Carina mutters.

Cutie mark,” Raina repeats. “You’re too much. How on earth did a nice girl like you get mixed up with a crowd like this?” She doesn’t really mean it, and she very pointedly includes herself in the crowd that’s being discussed, but it is something of a curiosity.

Nebula shrugs, not offended at all by the insinuation. “Therapy.”

“As good a way as any,” Raina says. “It’s probably better than meeting someone with a background just full of questionable actions at some strange underground party.”

“Something you know all about,” Lorelei hums, bumping Raina’s knee under the table. It’s very clearly not an insult.

“I doubt I’m the only one,” Raina replies. She hasn’t exactly gotten all of such details out of Lorelei, but she can presume, and given Lorelei’s little shrug she’s right to do so.

“Well,” Carina says loudly (or loudly for her, which is normal for most people), “I’m glad. It’s, ah, it’s not the most normal crowd but it suits me just fine.”

“I imagine it’s more interesting,” Lorelei says with a shrug.

Nebula nods. “Yeah, we’re all right.”

“They’re so stable,” Lorelei says to Raina. “Did you have any idea?”

“I expected,” Raina replies with one of her beatific smiles.

“Did you know we were going to be analyzed?” Carina asks Nebula.

“Nah, but I’m pretty much used to it.” Nebula smirks. “At least they’re being nice about it.”

“What else would we be?” Raina asks.

“Spewing diagnoses.” Rolling her eyes, Nebula starts ticking examples off on her fingers. “Pointing out root causes. Asking about what the fuck ever repressions. Holding up stupid little inkblots and asking what we see. Y’know, shrink stuff.”

Raina sighs like someone who understands this all too well, though it’s unclear whether it’s due to personal experience or hearsay or both (it could be any of that). “You’re safe,” she says.

“Her analysis is always more interesting,” Lorelei interjects. “Completely batshit sometimes, but less objectionable.”

“How generous,” Raina smirks.

“Well hey, I like interesting.” Nebula’s grinning.

“Exactly why I’ve decided to keep you, both of you, in the inner circle,” Raina proclaims. What inner circle exactly, she doesn’t specify, and maybe it doesn’t matter.

Chapter Text

Given that Maya had opening shift this morning, she’s actually getting her lunch hour at a fairly normal “lunchtime” (it cracks her up that in retail it’s still considered “lunch” even at seven-thirty at night). Maria takes her lunch whenever she pleases, and when Maya had stopped by to ask if she wanted to join her, she left with only a cursory nod towards Fury (who rolled his eye and didn’t say anything).

They’re at a table in the middle of the food court, Maya idly nibbling on a sandwich and Maria wolfing down three slices of mildly questionable pizza, and both giggling as Maria tells her about the idiot from the other day who tried to make off with an iPad by stuffing it under his shirt.

When Maria’s hand is flat on the table, Maya’s happens to be too, and as she’s giving some response she casually brushes their fingers together, shrugging amiably. Nothing strange about it.

 


 

“Oh, it’s nice that Maya’s got a friend,” says Tony as he dips a fry in ketchup. He nods to where Maya and Maria are sitting because Pepper has her back to them.

Pepper glances over her shoulder, though she’s positive she knows who he’s talking about. “Maya has more than one friend,” she points out instead of saying what she’s thinking.

“Well, I know, but I saw her dorm room a couple years back. I mean the lights didn’t stay on for long, but it didn’t look like someone who had friends.” Tony’s tone is casual; he doesn’t mean it in a mean way. “And I hear grad school doesn’t leave a lot of time for socializing.”

Pepper rolls her eyes. “I get the feeling that you’re more open to sharing that information than she would be,” she mutters. “Besides, I think you’re forgetting that you’re talking to one of Maya’s friends.”

“Well, yeah, but you’re friends with everyone.” Tony takes a bite of his overloaded burger and doesn’t quite finish chewing before he adds, “And you’re here with me. It’s nice to see her with, y’know, a gal pal.”

“Oh, they’re gal pals, all right,” Darcy murmurs dryly, walking by with a tray.

“I’m just saying,” Pepper continues, trying not to laugh, “I think I’m more aware of Maya’s current social life than you are.”

Shrugging, Tony concedes, “Fair point. Hey, do you know if she’s seeing anybody? He’s a lucky guy, if you know what I mean.” He doesn’t even let that sit for one minute before he adds, “I’m saying she’s good with her-”

“Tony, I am begging you to stop,” Pepper exclaims. “And if you would to refrain from ever going down that rabbit trail again.”

“That’s not an answer to my question. And you know how annoying I can be when people won’t answer my questions.”

“No,” Pepper says bluntly. “There’s no guy.”

“Hm. Well then, maybe I’ll stop by sometime and see if she wants a second round.”

“I think she’s old enough to know better,” Pepper retorts cheerfully.

Tony only looks wounded for a moment, and then shrugs again. “Potentially.”

 


 

Gal pals,” Darcy repeats in a low voice, clearly under the impression that it’s the most hilarious thing ever.

Trip glances up from his sandwich, amused. “You talkin’ about Rizzoli and Isles over there?”

“Oh, you know I am,” Darcy chirps. “Somebody in this room is apparently even later to the party than the two of them.” She rolls her eyes in Tony’s direction.

Laughing, Trip replies, “Well, it’s Stark. He doesn’t seem to get that whole ‘sometimes other people might want to bone more than one gender too’ thing.”

“Especially when ladies are involved,” Darcy adds. “Because then that means they don’t want to bone him.”

“Oh yeah.” Nodding, Trip says, “So when do you think they’re gonna figure it out? Should we set up a bet for that too?”

“Maybe,” Darcy says airily. “I think Jane’s scientific curiosity is rubbing off on me.”

“I mean, it kinda sucks for everybody who bet on Maria, but what are you gonna do.” Trip half-shrugs. “Shit happens.”

“Yeah, you can’t fight love,” Darcy agrees in a dramatic voice. “Or lust. Or whatever it is.”

Shaking his head, Trip replies, “I don’t think it’s lust. They wouldn’t be drawing it out this long if it was. Maria would’ve just taken her out already. Nah, this is something else.”

“You make it sound so epic,” Darcy comments.

“Aw, girl, I’m no poet,” says Trip, fake-modestly. “I just got a feeling, y’know?”

“Fair,” Darcy says. She glances at Maria and Maya, tilting her head. “What do you think they’re talking about?”

Trip thinks for a moment, then says, “Possibly how dumb people are? That seems like something they’d agree on.”

“And it’s such a broad category,” Darcy murmurs.

“Yeah, good point. I mean I’d imagine most of Maria’s annoyances are people who steal shit, but she’s probably seen her fair share of fuckery as a cop, too.” Trip pauses and then adds, “You’re a bad influence, y’know.”

“Oh, am I?” Darcy croons.

“I didn’t used to be such a nosy bastard,” he continues. “Kept to my own self. Now, you got me paying attention to everybody in this mall.”

“Doesn’t it make things more interesting, though?”

He grins. “No comment.”

 


 

“Oh, there’s Maya,” Jane exclaims, nodding across the food court. “I haven’t been able to get a hold of her for days.”

“She looks like she’s having a good time,” says Thor, smiling. “And I don’t think I’ve seen Maria laugh like that in a long while.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Maya look that happy,” Jane muses. “At least not about people.”

Thor laughs. “I confess that I can be somewhat inept when noticing the relationships of others. Are they merely friends, or…?”

“It’s complicated, as silly as that sounds,” Jane says. “I don’t think they’re not not merely friends, but they haven’t said anything official.”

“Ah.” Nodding, Thor replies, “Well, I hope they find happiness, however they may. They seem to be making each other happy.”

“I think they are, even if they haven’t quite realized it yet,” Jane decides.

“Though I am glad that our courtship was much less drawn out,” adds Thor with a playful grin.

Jane blushes. “Well, owning up to how I felt about you meant I could get to the fun part of actually knowing you faster,” she rationalizes.

“Yes. Though I would have waited for you, I’m glad I did not have to.” Thor leans down to kiss her cheek.

There was a time when shows of affection like this made Jane blush and feel almost embarrassed, if pleased. Now? Now she just revels in them. “You’re so sweet it shocks me sometimes,” she murmurs.

“You deserve that and more, my love,” replies Thor with a warm smile.

 


 

“Oh look,” says Heimdall casually, nodding in the direction of Maya and Maria.

“You know, I wouldn’t have put that together, but I think it makes sense,” Victoria agrees.

Heimdall nods again. “I thought for a while that Maria was pursuing Melinda, but now I see that her interests have shifted. I am not even sure she’s realized it as of yet.”

“She was, they have, and if the way they’re acting is any indication, they haven’t,” Victoria shrugs.

“Yes. They will figure it out sooner or later,” Heimdall says with a small smile. “In the meantime, I’m surprised you paid close enough attention to all of that. You’re not the sort for gossip or interpersonal drama.”

“One, I can actually stand Maya, which helps,” Victoria says, “and two, there’s a difference between pretending not to care and being completely ignorant to things.”

That makes Heimdall chuckle. “That is true.” He adds, “They look very comfortable together. They aren’t people to whom that comes easily.”

“No, they aren’t,” Victoria agrees. “When you do find that kind of person, if you do, that’s not something you ought to take lightly.”

“Ah, I see. How is Isabelle?”

Victoria has to work not to chuckle. Of course he saw right through that observation. “She’s good,” she says. “Really good.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” replies Heimdall, with the sort of smile that says he knows that she knows what he’s up to. “You’ve been much happier since meeting her.”

“She…” Victoria trails off, acutely aware that they’re about to tiptoe into the territory of feelings that she rarely feels comfortable discussing. “She’s better for me than most people.”

“Good.” Heimdall nods briefly. “I’d like that for you.”

“I… thanks,” she mumbles, feeling uncharacteristically shy.

“You’re deserving of it,” he says. “And you are my friend, so I’d like the best for you.”

Part of her surprise with this is that Heimdall is one of her only close friends, and even they rarely have conversations that get into this sort of territory, but part of it is that the way he phrases it hits her like a revelation (even if it’s really not). “I think she might be,” she replies.

He nods slowly, smiling in his mysterious way. “Very good.”

Chapter Text

“It’s kind of nice having someone else who’s shorter along for the fun,” teases Natasha as she walks on Sharon’s left side. Sam is on Sharon’s right, and ambling along in front of them are two Great Danes, one mottled grey and the other white with black patches. Their heads are at the same height as Sharon’s waist, and Natasha’s chest.

“I’m not that short,” Sharon retorts. “I’m only a couple inches shorter than the guys. Mostly.” She rolls her eyes back at Steve, who’s the outlier here.

“True.” Natasha grins. “You’re a bunch of giants. I suppose it’s only fitting that most of your dogs would be also giant, James.”

Bucky, who’s trying to nudge a smaller black dog with three legs along (she’s preoccupied with sniffing every inch of a particularly interesting bush), makes a mock-offended face. “You got a problem with my dogs?”

“No, I’m just saying that combined, they’re the size of a small country.”

“Callie isn’t quite as big,” Steve defends, nodding in said dog’s direction.

Sam chuckles. “Yeah, but ‘not as big’ is relative when you’re talking about these guys.” He gives Artemis, the grey Dane, a stroke down her haunches. “How’re you handling Apollo, Sharon?”

“I’m… managing,” Sharon says with a slight wince. “He’s not too bad, and he’s a cutie, which helps a lot.”

“Yeah. You basically just have to let Artemis steer for him, and hang on when he takes off.”

“That’s good,” Sharon agrees. “I mean, I’ve never really walked any dogs before, let alone a blind dog.” She tilts her head in contemplation. “Wait, what do you mean ‘takes off’?”

“He’s very...driven when he’s focused on something,” says Natasha cryptically.

“He’s a dog, not a supervillain,” Sharon says, rolling her eyes. “Why are you being mysterious?”

“Because it’s funnier that way.”

“Says the one not currently walking any of the dogs,” Sharon retorts.

“I thought you should experience it for yourself.” Natasha’s smile is mischievous. “They’re not that bad, honestly. Compared to how they were at the shelter, they’re perfect now.”

“You guys are great,” Sharon says immediately, turning to nod at Bucky. “You especially. There’s just so… much…” She trails off, trying to think of how to put it. “This is one of many things I respect about you all, I guess.”

Bucky ducks his head, smiling shyly. “They needed me, is all.”

“You’re amazing,” Steve whispers, nudging Bucky’s shoulder carefully.

“Hello! It is quite a coincidence, seeing you at this dog park!”

They look around for the source of the voice, and finally spot Drax coming towards them, waving and smiling. He has an Italian greyhound puppy scampering beside him, tail wagging. “This is Swift,” he says, leaning down to scratch her behind the ears. “I named her that because swift means fast, and she is fast. Though she is still growing.”

“Aw.” Sam, careful not to let go of Artemis’ leash, offers his hand for Swift to sniff. She does, then turns her attention to the Great Danes. It’s comical, since she doesn’t even come up to their bellies, but she doesn’t seem afraid of them.

“Cute,” Sharon coos, because she’s the one who does things like that.

“Well, these guys are all Bucky’s, strictly speaking, but we all like to help out,” Steve offers, nodding to each dog in turn. “Callie, Apollo, Artemis.”

Drax smiles. “Hello Bucky’s dogs! And Bucky, and Steve. I have forgotten your names,” he says to the others. “I would have said I am afraid that I have forgotten them, but I am not afraid at all.”

Sharon laughs. “I’m Sharon.”

“Hello, Sharon!” Reaching for the hand that’s not holding Apollo’s leash, Drax pumps it up and down enthusiastically.

“Natasha, and that’s Sam,” says Natasha, quickly slipping both hands into her pockets with a wry smile.

“Hello!” replies Drax. Callie, who had been distracted earlier by a particularly interesting patch of weeds, yelps and tries to jump on him.

“Callie, no!” Bucky gives the leash a firm tug, which only sort of works. “Sorry, she’s excitable.”

Laughing, Drax scratches her under her chin. “It is no trouble. I like happy dogs!”

“Should we be, ah… worried about Callie and Swift?” Sharon asks softly.

“Nah, Callie won’t hurt her.” Natasha’s watching the two dogs sniff at each other, and while Callie is roughly three times the size of Swift, neither one seems likely to do anything more than play-fight. “You can probably let her off the leash now, James.”

He does, and Sam unclips Artemis’ leash as well. After a pause where she looks to the others for approval, Sharon gingerly takes Apollo’s leash off and pets his head reassuringly.

Artemis guides Apollo off in the direction of some very interesting bushes, while Swift and Callie start wrestling. “Must be nice to have nothing to worry about,” observes Sam.

“I’m pretty sure I’ll take intelligent, conscious wrestling romps over apparently nonsensical ones, but they are pretty adorable,” Sharon quips.

“Have you sustained any impressive injuries from roller derby yet?” Drax asks Sharon. “Gamora once showed me the bruise that covered her entire right buttock. She had trouble sitting down for two weeks.”

She laughs. “Lucky for me, I haven’t hurt my ass yet,” she says. “I’ve had a couple of really gross bruises, but nothing that was as bad they looked.”

“And they looked pretty bad,” chimes in Natasha, nudging Sharon playfully with her shoulder.

“Good thing I had someone to help me take care of them,” Sharon replies with a smirk.

“Wait until you break a bone!” Drax is grinning; it’s a bit unsettling. “Gamora tells me that’s how you become a true derby girl.”

“Here’s hoping it’s a small one that won’t affect my day-to-day life,” Sharon declares.

 


 

The dogs mill around happily, the humans watching them at a respectful distance, and finally they park themselves in the shade of a tree. Bucky immediately takes over Steve’s lap and refuses to move, and Steve doesn’t seem to mind in the least, running his hand through Bucky’s hair. Drax wanders off to greet another regular at the park, and Sam leans against the tree and dozes. Sharon’s focused on taking pictures of the dogs with her phone, to varying degrees of success.

Natasha’s watching the dogs, but she’s also watching the other people. One in particular looks very familiar, so she decides to test that theory, standing up and ambling over to the woman. “Audrey?”

“Natasha, right?”

“Yeah, hi. I thought that was you.” Natasha smiles her most unassuming smile. “Been a while since I’ve been able to get to a concert, sorry. And I don’t usually have time to go to the orchestra pit after performances.”

“It’s no worry at all,” Audrey says, waving one hand as the other slips her phone back in her pocket. “Most of us are usually trying to get out of there as soon as we can, so we’re not good company.”

Natasha chuckles. “Fair. I can’t imagine it’s much fun being down in there for three hours. Which one’s yours?” She nods in the general direction of most of the dogs.

Audrey points out a big blond dog in the crowd, milling about making friends before he gets bored and moves on. “That’s him,” she says, smiling. “Ajax. I bought him to be a guard dog, but he turned out to be a much better lapdog.”

“Cute.” Natasha smiles, then says, keeping her tone light, “Didn’t know you were in need of a guard dog.”

“I was,” Audrey replies, shrugging. “Conveniently, changing locations is a good way to eliminate the need for one.”

Nodding in understanding, Natasha points at Callie, who, with Swift at her heels, is investigating a scruffy brown-and-white terrier. “That one’s my boyfriend’s, and so are the Great Danes over there.”

“Cute,” Audrey declares, grinning. “Which boyfriend?”

“James. The one who’s draped across Steve.” Natasha rolls her eyes affectionately. “You basically can’t separate those two.”

“They’re cute, too,” Audrey muses. “I wasn’t sure if the rumors were true, but hey, more power to you for it, I think.”

“Those rumors. Every week it’s something different. I live in fear of the day I gain five pounds and everyone assumes I’m pregnant,” Natasha snarks.

“You say that like it’s common enough to worry about,” Audrey says.

“In both of the jobs I’m working, it is.” Natasha rolls her eyes again, this time with no affection. “The mall is basically a slightly less depressing version of high school, and a lot of the other dancers would love me to leave so they can get their fifteen minutes. I can’t imagine orchestra’s that much better, though. Artists.” She shakes her head.

“Well, you can still play if you’re knocked up,” Audrey smirks. “But I’m sure you mean the cattiness. Which -- yeah, you’re right about that.”

Natasha nods. “I can handle it, but it’s nice to know that not everywhere is that extreme.” She’s quiet for a moment. “How about you, seeing anyone?”

Audrey shakes her head. “I haven’t exactly been in the place for it,” she says, meaning emotionally.

“It’s good that you know yourself well enough to know that. Not everyone does.”

Just then, Sharon strolls up and laces an arm with Natasha’s. “New friend?”

“Old acquaintance,” corrects Natasha with a smile. “Sharon, this is Audrey. She’s the star cello player in the orchestra for my troupe. Audrey, my girlfriend Sharon.”

“Nice to meet you,” Audrey says with a polite smile.

“And you,” Sharon returns. “I’ve always thought cellos were pretty sexy.” Of course, then she realizes what she’s said and winces apologetically.

Natasha snorts. “You’re adorable.”

“They’re sexier than a trombone, anyway,” Audrey replies, shrugging.

“Got a point,” concedes Natasha.

“So, have you… been here long?” Sharon asks Audrey.

“About five months,” Audrey says. “I’m still adjusting to the move, I think. Which, well, combined with the fact that I’ve never been all that great at putting myself out there…” She shrugs again, though she’s smiling.

Natasha smirks. “It’s okay, none of us are, really. We have game nights every week, if you wanna drop by sometime. Sam and Steve are a little better at meeting people than the rest of us.”

“There’s also, I got into roller derby a few months back, and the team has a high enough turnover that we’re almost always looking for newbies,” Sharon offers.

“I’d fall on my ass,” Audrey laughs, “but maybe I’ll come watch you guys sometime. That sounds like it could be fun.” She nods at Natasha. “Game night sounds moderately less like it would end in my being seriously injured.”

Laughing, Natasha replies, “Only if it’s not Twister. The boys play to win.”

“And you’re a perfect gentlewoman,” Sharon says airily, nudging Natasha. “Who has never once tried to make anyone fall over.”

“Who, me? Lies.”

“She really isn’t lying,” Sharon explains. “Although, there’s no need for her to play vicious, she’s the most flexible one of us by far.”

Natasha snorts and claps her hand over her mouth. “No comment.”

“I’m going to ignore the implications of that,” Audrey chuckles, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.

“Anyway, you’re welcome to come. I can give you my number if you want,” offers Natasha.

“Yeah, sure,” Audrey nods, reaching for her phone. “It sounds nice. Tame. Casual.”

“Except for the part where everyone’s got dirty minds,” Sharon chimes in.

“I can handle that,” Audrey promises.

 


 

After Audrey and Ajax leave, the others watch their dogs for a bit longer before Apollo and Artemis wander back over, apparently having decided it’s time to go home. Bucky calls Callie back to him and she, eventually, comes, and they all walk home.

“Phew. Dunno why I’m so tired, they were the ones running around,” says Sam, collapsing onto Bucky’s couch.

“You were sleeping the whole time,” Steve points out, smirking. “I don’t know why you’re tired either.”

“Beauty sleep,” replies Sam with a grin.

It’s quickly wiped off his face, however, when Apollo plops down on top of him and settles in. “Hey!” Sam says, without any real malice. “I’m not your doggy bed!” Apollo grunts contentedly and doesn’t move. “Okay, I guess I’m never leaving your couch now, Buck.”

Bucky shrugs and grins. “I didn’t need the couch anyway.”

Sharon fishes her phone out of her purse and points it in Sam’s direction. “This is too cute,” she mumbles.

You’re too cute,” says Natasha, coming up to grab her around the waist from behind and pull her into a chair. Callie, still wagging her tail but less bouncy after playing so much, comes over to curl up in front of them.

Sharon squeaks as she falls into Natasha’s lap, but it’s a very happy squeak. “We’re gross,” she says fondly.

“Yup,” says Sam cheerfully, scratching Apollo’s ears.

“Destroying America, one hug at a time,” chimes in Bucky, sitting with his back against the couch and pulling Steve down to join him.

Chapter Text

With a roll of his eyes, Lance begins distributing the drinks to the table that’s full of birds he’d really mostly rather never see again, the exception being Lorelei. But her weird friend with the flowers and daft, staring eyes, and the two girls with neon hair and wildly differing expressions...he’d just as soon they never set foot in here again. (The fifth member of the troupe is one he’s never seen before, but she at least has normal hair, no tattoos, and dresses like she might have some sense in her head.)

“Thanks, lover,” Lorelei purrs, blowing a kiss as she accepts her margarita from his tray. She can read the vague distaste on his face right alongside the resignation to put up with it for whatever reason (probably to appease her in hopes of a repeat performance) and it’s sort of funny how uncomfortable he seems.

Nebula’s smirking as she grabs her beer. “Much obliged,” she says, toasting him almost mockingly before she takes a swig.

Carina winces, taking her cocktail (a Summer Squeeze, because of course it is) and nodding almost apologetically.

“Well mixed, Lollipop,” Raina purrs, swirling her own mojito and taking a sip.

MJ’s wearing a carefully calculated non-expression, setting her whiskey smash on the table and not making eye contact with Lance. Which is just fine by him, really.

“So,” he says, turning to Lorelei with his best charming smirk, “might you be up for a bit of fun after all this is over?”

As he asks this question, Raina falls against Lorelei’s shoulder and stares up at him as she gets her hair petted, as if acting out the answer to his question (“no”).

“Possibly,” Lorelei says casually. “Depends how late it runs, depends on how many more of these I finish off. Depends on a lot of things.”

Lance does his best to act like this doesn’t bother him. “Alright, whatever you please,” he says with a too-casual shrug. “Any appetizers for you lot?”

“Mozzarella sticks,” Lorelei says immediately, blinking coquettishly.

“And the beer pretzels,” Raina adds with a grin.

“Right then,” says Lance, trying his damnedest to keep a neutral face as he turns to leave. Next stop, the table full of fetuses, half of whom work for Apple, that Bobbi’s apparently befriended. “What’ll it be?” he asks, trying for a casual smirk. “And are we all together or getting our own, or…?” The two in the middle, the squirrely kid and the girl with an earnest face, they might be together, or maybe not. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if they were all fucking each other.

Jemma glances to the boys, then at Skye, her expression reading somewhere between amusement and confusion. “I, ah, I’ll have a margarita, just the regular one,” she offers.

“I want one of these,” says Skye, pointing at the mud slide. “It looks amazing.”

“The blue agave margarita,” Trip says. “And I’m paying for his drink too.” He nods at Fitz, who’s sitting next to him looking slightly embarrassed.

“Just a Blue Moon, thanks,” Fitz mumbles.

“Alright, so that’s one check for him and one for...both of you?”

“I’ll get hers, too,” Jemma says with a brilliant smile.

Lance nods. “And any appetizers?” He always feels a bit like a dancing monkey or a waiterbot, but he’ll catch hell from Summers if he doesn’t ask all the right questions.

“Wings!” says Skye eagerly, glancing around and seeing no dissent.

“Sauce?”

“The hot buffalo stuff?” When no one protests that either, Skye nods. “Yeah, that.”

“Right, be back shortly.”

Fitz, glad to be rid of him, starts glancing around the restaurant. “Oh look, Lorelei and her lot are here,” he says, nodding towards the corner table. “Never thought I’d see that.”

“I’m still not convinced they’re not planning something devious,” Jemma says, sipping her margarita. “Well, Carina and Nebula are fine. And MJ. But, you know.”

“Raina’s all right,” Trip replies with a lazy grin. “Lorelei’s okay if you know how to talk to her.”

“Damn, look, there’s a table of actual adults over there,” says Skye, pointing at the table where Coulson, Melinda, Maria, and several others are sitting. “I see Officers Mom and Dad wanted to maintain control of this situation too.”

Jemma snickers. “Officer Mom brought company, too,” she murmurs, nodding in Maya’s general direction.

Skye wolf-whistles. “I see how it is.”

“And there’s our friendly neighborhood KKK, right on schedule.” Trip frowns as a group comes in wearing IKEA shirts (minus one member, who is wearing street clothes and looks mildly confused about the entire affair).

“Of course,” Jemma sighs loudly.

“What’s Donnie doing falling in with them?” asks Fitz, looking horrified. “He’s a bit of an arse sometimes, but not a Nazi. I didn’t think.”

“Well, everyone’s got secrets, I guess,” Skye replies, rolling her eyes. “Sorry if my sympathy ends with ‘hanging out with Nazis.’”

Looking suddenly horrified, Jemma whispers, “You don’t think it’s another… vague, unexplained coercion situation?” Like the one that’s rumored to have been the case with Bucky, she means.

Trip shrugs. “He’s smart enough to get himself out of it, I think, but I could talk to him after if you think it’d be a good idea.”

Jemma makes a face like she’s genuinely considering this, and Skye decides to work on talking her out of it in case she’s drunk later. Right now, she distracts everyone by saying, “Hey, check out Officer Dad rallying the troops over there. Oh my god, is he actually giving a speech?”

“Damn,” says Trip, because Coulson is definitely giving some kind of inspirational speech to his team (Melinda looks politely engaged, while Mack and Bobbi keep giving each other significant looks and Maya eyes the plate of nachos that’s just within reach). “That’s hardcore.”

“I’m glad we’re not taking it that seriously,” Jemma declares, though her phone is still lit up beside her on a page of sports trivia questions and answers that she’d been studying.

“Well, some of us aren’t.” Skye squeezes her shoulder affectionately. “But yeah, whatever, I’m here to have fun and drink and kick ass with you guys.”

After a few more minutes to allow everyone’s drinks and food to arrive, a tall man wearing sunglasses comes out and says loudly, “Attention! Attention, everyone! Welcome to Trivia Night! I’m Scott Summers and I’ll be your emcee-”

“You know we’re inside and you can take your sunglasses off, right?” calls Nebula.

Scott scowls and ignores her. “So if we can start figuring out teams now, that’d be great. I have forms, and I’ll start them going around so each team can take one. Along with that, I’ll be sending a stack of answer sheets for each table. Give me the name sheet back within five minutes, but keep the answer sheets for longer, of course.”

Skye grabs the name sheet the first chance she gets and, after pulling something out of Jemma’s purse, enthusiastically writes her chosen name in the blank. Then she leans her homemade sign, which reads JUPITER PHOENIX in various colors of glitter glue, against the drinks menu. “Best name ever,” she says, grinning.

“In your opinion,” says Fitz.

“Hey, I call it like I see it.”

“I think it’s cute,” Jemma coos, kissing Skye’s cheek.

Skye hums happily and closes her eyes for a moment.

Trip murmurs, “I wonder what everyone else is picking.”

Lorelei writes down her team’s name with a self-satisfied expression, while Nebula sips on her beer and attempts to keep the irritation off her face. Half of Coulson’s team appears to be in heated discussion, while he is determinedly writing on the sheet. And the table full of Hydra associates is looking slightly panicked.

“I don’t think we should do that,” Donnie mumbles.

“Why not?” John Garrett scowls. “It sends the right message.”

“I just…” Donnie winces, looking to Ward for assistance, because he actually remembers Ward’s name since Ward was the one to invite him along.

“I think that might be just a bit too on-the-nose here,” says Ward smoothly. “Anyone else have any ideas?”

Rumlow’s looking nervously at Scott, who’s making his way around to collect the name sheets. “If someone doesn’t come up with something, it’ll have to be Aryan Nightmare Void.”

“Here, give it to me.” Ward tugs the sheet from Garrett.

“Just write down whatever you sold last!” exclaims Rumlow. “Summers is coming!”

Ward, who’s having trouble managing Garrett and Rumlow at the same time, wracks his brain for what that might be, and writes it down just as Scott comes to take it from his hand. “It’ll do,” he says with a shrug.

Scott saunters back to the vague center of the room, or at least the spot where he’s most likely to be heard by everyone. “So tonight, we have The Gecko Geckos, Lucky Bombshell, Trivia Corps, Dark Flying Thunder Sharks, Jupiter Phoenix, and...Chest of Drawers?” He shrugs. There’s a snicker from pretty much everyone in the place, except for the Hydra table, whose expressions vary from confused to angry.

Rumlow turns to glare at Ward. “I meant write down the Swedish name, dumbass!”

Ward has his innocent “who, me?” face on. “I didn’t think of that.”

“How this works is, there’ll be six rounds of ten questions each, from various categories. I will read off the questions and you will write down your answers. Once finished, my assistant Lance will take them.” Lance is resolutely ignoring everything and seems to be trying to concoct a drink, or maybe poison, at the bar.

“First category is general questions!” announces Scott, shuffling a stack of index cards that he pulls from his pocket.

He starts reading off the questions, pausing after each one to give time for brief team consultations. Jupiter Phoenix seems to be working well together, Trip writing down the answers as they whisper amongst themselves. Lucky Bombshell may or may not be taking any of this seriously, though Carina at least looks as if she’s trying to focus. One question involves listing three distinct characteristics of female kangaroos and, even though Carina’s the one with the pencil, Nebula and Raina have badgered her into writing down “vagina, vagina, vagina” (“They’ve got three,” explains Nebula with a smirk).

The Trivia Corps table seems to be having some difficulty. Maya is writing the answers down, but Coulson keeps leaning over as if to make sure she’s doing it correctly. This, while he’s micromanaging everyone’s answers (Bobbi and Mack keep attempting to talk and being shut down, and Maria’s given up and is just rolling her eyes). He also keeps saying things like “Melinda, I don’t suppose you know any of these?” with a smile that would be called earnest by some and pathetic by others. At one point Maria catches Maya’s eye and mouths “bitch eating crackers,” which makes Maya snort.

Fury seems unconcerned with the drama and mostly interested in sipping his beer. Sif looks slightly embarrassed.

Finally, they finish the category and Lance shuffles around to pick up the answer sheets, handing them to Scott with a baleful look. “Okay, so here are the official answers! Question one: What musical instrument plays the ascending opening notes of George Gershwin's masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue? The answer is clarinet!”

There’s a celebratory shout from Trivia Corps’ table, and Coulson turns to Melinda with a grin. “I’m glad we’ve got you, Melinda. Of course you knew that.”

Maria groans. “Phil, for god’s sake, stop,” she mutters. “Yes, she knew it because she was in band. But so was I. So were you. Stop talking like she’s so fancy.” The moment it’s said she gives Melinda an apologetic smile.

Melinda snorts. “It’s really not that difficult of a question.”

“I didn’t know it,” says Sif, and then looks as if she regrets speaking.

“How did the other teams do on that one?” Coulson asks.

Bobbi leans back, glancing around the room. One of the tables of randoms (it doesn’t matter which one) seems to have succeeded, and Jupiter Phoenix is high-fiving and patting Trip on the back. “I guess he got it right,” she offers.

“Oh, I didn’t know Trip was in band too,” replies Coulson.

“Trip just has varied interests,” Bobbi retorts, twirling her straw between her fingers.

At that, most of the table either exchanges wry glances or snickers. Coulson remains blissfully ignorant.

“Hurry up with the next questions, I Wear My Sunglasses at Night,” Raina calls from the corner.

Scott’s brow furrows as he reads off the next question. “List three distinctive parts of a female kangaroo’s anatomy. This one’s a little vague, but as long as you wrote something that identifies it as a kangaroo you’re probably fine.”

From the table where Lance is scoring, there’s a squawk of protest. “Who the fuck wrote ‘vagina’ three times?”

Raina and Nebula burst out laughing.

“Well, it’s true,” says Nebula, smirking. “Female kangaroos have three vaginas.”

Lance looks helplessly at Scott. “You’re not gonna give them that?”

Scott has pulled out his phone and is frantically fact-checking. “They’re right,” he says, sounding a bit horrified. “Give it to them.”

Wearing the most disdainful expression possible, Lance adds up the points dutifully.

This continues through the rest of the questions (Lucky Bombshell continues to interject needlessly sexual references into every answer possible, to Lance’s irritation), and by the end of the round Trivia Corps is in the lead. Coulson looks smug. Most of his team doesn’t seem to share his feelings, though - their expressions range from neutral to annoyed.

“And here we see the wild Officer Dad, completely oblivious to how his micromanaging causes social unrest and makes him the target of the herd’s frustrations,” murmurs Skye, trying for a vague David Attenborough-esque accent.

Of course, the voice makes Jemma roll her eyes, but only for a moment. “It does seem to be taking a bit of their fun out,” she observes, if warily.

“Bobbi looks as if she’s ready to throttle him,” comments Fitz, eyes wide.

“Yeah, I know it gets competitive and all, but damn, it’s still just Applebee’s trivia.” Trip shakes his head.

“Alright, it’s time for round two!” Scott announces. “We’ll be playing short clips from songs and you’ll have 30 seconds to identify them. If you can only name the title or artist, you’ll get one point or half a point, respectively.”

“Goody,” Maria mutters, sipping her margarita.

Scott nods to Lance, who has a laptop set up, and he plays the first song. To which Skye flails about and hisses “FERGALICIOUS” at Trip in what is clearly an attempt to not stand up and dance along.

Jemma winces in Fitz’s general direction, as if to say well, I guess that’s my girlfriend.

Ward and the rest of his team are exchanging baffled glances, while Donnie seems to be wracking his brain for the answer. But finally, he shakes his head and looks resigned.

The second song, “Last Train to Clarksville,” causes most of the room to scowl as if they’re trying to retrieve a long-buried memory. Only Trivia Corps and Lucky Bombshell are writing answers down, Coulson smiling triumphantly and Raina secretively.

When the third song turns out to be “Mr. Brightside,” approximately half of the players begin singing along at the top of their lungs. “Quiet, please,” says Scott, trying and failing to maintain order. Coulson, who isn’t singing along, gives him an approving nod.

The fourth song is “Cry Me a River.” Lance spends the entire time glaring at Bobbi, who is too busy frantically whispering the answer to Coulson (who looks doubtful but nods at Maya to write it down).

The fifth song seems to confuse most of the players - both groups of randoms are making “huh?” noises at all of the hidey-hos, and most everyone else is scrunching up their noses like they’re either not sure what this old-timey shit is or like they’ve heard it before but don’t remember it for anything. Jemma whispers an answer in Trip’s ear, which he shrugs and writes down; Raina just takes the pen from Carina, to everyone else’s confusion, and Fury leans across the table to grumble “St. James Infirmary” at Maya, who looks mostly surprised that he’s actually participating.

The Hydra table are all wearing identical leering smirks when “Hungry Like the Wolf” starts playing, and Ward’s is most definitely directed at Skye (who seems to be resolutely ignoring him). After a few seconds, though, Lorelei catches his eye and gives him such a stern look that he starts to work on pretending he was leering at her the entire time.

There’s a round of groans when song number seven turns out to be “Safe and Sound.” Carina perks up, but most of the mall employees especially look as if they’d rather eat glass than listen to this song again.

But number eight turns out to be a gift. One that prompts Maya to start sarcastically strumming an air guitar in Maria’s direction. Melinda watches, smirking, as does Trip. Skye frantically pokes Jemma in the arm and nods toward them, which is her way of being discreet.

“What in the hell is everyone freaking out about?” Lorelei mutters.

“It’s ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis. It’s a meme,” explains MJ. “Douchey white guys with acoustic guitars sing this song to impress girls, or so the theory goes.”

Lorelei snorts.

The next clip, which features a string of “lala deedadee”s, causes Nebula to remark, “This sounds like a kids’ song if the kids were high as shit.”

Maria doesn’t look anyone in the eye when she says “It’s ‘We Can’t Stop’ by Miley Cyrus.” Preempting the shocked looks, she adds quickly, “I have an six-year-old niece.”

And the final one causes everyone who recognizes it to make identical expressions of embarrassment. “I hate myself for knowing every word of this song,” says Skye. “Fucking Green Day.”

Raina, who has proven herself her group’s resident music trivia expert, is sitting there glaring at the paper. “Do you know this one?” Carina asks softly.

“I am forfeiting this point on principle,” Raina declares.

As Scott reads off the answers, there are chuckles and groans corresponding to the appropriate songs. “St. James Infirmary” gets a couple shouts of “not fair!”, which Scott ignores.

The next category is sports, which essentially disqualifies half of the room from participating. Jupiter Phoenix’s members occupy themselves by watching the drama unfolding amongst Trivia Corps. Apparently every one of them except Maya, Mack, and Coulson have more than a rudimentary knowledge of sports trivia, and they’re willing to defend their knowledge to the death. Coulson mostly directs his attention to Melinda, asking her for the answers to each question, much to the annoyance of the others. Bobbi doesn’t even consider herself the biggest sports nerd, but she’s starting to feel like a seat-filler, and that doesn’t sit well with her, so by the last question she’s telling Maya her answer directly, flatly, before Coulson can say a thing.

“Oh shit,” says Skye. “Cue dramatic music.”

Meanwhile, the members of Chest of Drawers are all looking unsettled, as Rumlow determinedly scribbles down bullshit answers. He’ll be damned if he’s going to turn in a blank sheet.

As Scott reads off the answers (The Gecko Geckos and Trivia Corps seem to be the only ones getting any significant points), Lance begins circling the room to refill drinks. Coulson smiles proudly at Melinda after every right answer, saying “I’m glad you’re on my team, you’re brilliant.”

“Dude,” Maria interjects. “She didn’t even answer that question. I did.”

Coulson ignores her and continues to smile at Melinda. Bobbi’s starting to make the same “bitch eating crackers” face as Maria whenever she looks at him.

The next round is history questions, which every team seems to do middling to fairly well at, with the exception of Chest of Drawers. Judging by the whooping and odd pseudo-secret handshakes going on amongst them, they’re getting every single answer right. Skye watches them, eyes wide. “Is it a bad time for me to say that they’re getting all of them right because they’re stuck in the past?” she asks.

“Nah, that’s definitely what’s going on.” Trip narrows his eyes as he watches them.

“They need some way to hold onto their misguided superiority complexes,” Raina drawls, loud enough that she knows they’ll hear her despite the fact that she doesn’t turn to look at them.

During the next round, which involves identifying ten celebrities based on pictures of them in blonde wigs, there’s an argument amongst Trivia Corps. It starts in whispers, then gets progressively louder and more venomous until finally Bobbi, with an unreadable expression, gets up and storms away toward the ladies’ room.

“Should someone go after her?” Jemma whispers, watching Bobbi’s exit with a concerned expression.

“Do you know she wouldn’t deck you for it?” asks Fitz.

“Bobbi would never deck me,” Jemma says confidently.

Scott reads off the answers, which include Anne Hathaway, Rachel Bilson, Stana Katic, and Orlando Bloom. As he does, Maria slips away after Bobbi, attempting to be discreet and apparently neglecting to notice the just slightly startled, just slightly needy look that Maya fixes her with as she does. When Scott pauses after finishing the list, Lance pokes him and says, “Hey, mate, we might wanna take five,” because asking Scott Summers to notice interpersonal conflict is like asking the rain to stop falling.

Scott stops for a moment, like a robot who’s rebooting, and says, “Oh, okay. Ten minute break, everyone!”

“Oh my,” Carina murmurs, looking impossibly worried as she reaches for her (second) drink.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d suggest some sort of lover’s spat,” Lorelei says archly. It’s a joke, because Phil Coulson is nobody’s lover, especially one worth a spat.

Nebula snorts. “More like she just got tired of his micromanaging bullshit. Can’t say I blame her.”

“Well, no, it’s… very untoward of him,” Carina agrees. “It’s just…”

Reaching over to grab Carina’s hand gently, Nebula, who knows where that statement was going, finishes, “He is taking whatever fun they were getting out of it away, yeah.”

Carina sighs loudly, leaning her head against Nebula’s shoulder (this in turn prompts MJ to make a mildly sarcastic cooing noise and Raina to turn to snicker fondly into Lorelei’s chest).

Ward and his friends are murmuring amongst themselves, casting confused looks at Trivia Corps. “I guess that’s what you get when there’s too many women on one team,” Garrett says, twirling the straw in his drink.

Donnie makes a face, but apparently decides it’s not worth saying anything.

“Do you think they’ll come back?” Fitz asks.

“They’ll have to, won’t they?” Jemma whispers.

Skye shrugs. “I mean, there’s enough people on the team that they don’t really have to, I guess…”

“But they…” Jemma makes a face, not entirely sure where she’s going with this except for that the situation slightly unnerves her.

“Not saying they shouldn’t, just saying if they don’t want to the others can’t really drag them back.” Skye reaches over to rub Jemma’s back reassuringly.

“No,” Jemma agrees, though she still sounds hesitant. “They can’t. I’m just… confused.” About the suddenness of this, mostly.

Trip nods. “It is pretty weird. Thanks for not being drama queens, y’all.”

Maya, meanwhile, has been struggling to make eye contact with Mack across the table, and finally when she does she mouths, “What is going on?”

Mack shrugs, tilting his head towards Coulson, then towards Bobbi’s empty seat. Then he attempts to discreetly make claws with his hands and twist them together.

Maya nods, trying not to sigh audibly; Sif is watching this out of the corner of her eye while pretending not to and trying not to chuckle. She glances over at Melinda, who is attempting to give Coulson some kind of comfort in the form of awkward shoulder pats (but also doesn’t seem all that thrilled by this turn of events).

Before the designated ten minutes are over, Bobbi and Maria emerge from the ladies’ room. Their arms are linked, their chins are lifted almost haughtily, and as they walk back to their table Maria mutters something - a drink order - in Lance’s ear.

“Shall we?” Bobbi says sweetly as they sit down.

“Yes,” says Maria, flashing a reassuring smile at Maya.

Coulson blinks for a moment, unsure of what to do. Finally, he just says, “Welcome back.”

Bobbi doesn’t bother to come up with a cover story; hell, she barely even bothers to approximate an apologetic wince. Instead she just turns to nod at Scott, as if to say it’s all right to continue.

Scott nods back, and then announces the next category (entertainment). For the rest of the night, Bobbi is all smiles and assent, the perfect picture of civility. The mood is still a bit uneasy at first, but after a while Maria and Mack follow her lead. (Fury spends most of the night nursing his drink and vaguely glaring at everyone.) The other teams continue as before, with Lucky Bombshell continuing to write answers that are meant to get a reaction out of Lance, up to and including spilling his own drink.

At the end of the night, Scott announces the top three teams: the winners, Trivia Corps, and the second and third place runners-up, Gecko Geckos and Jupiter Phoenix. Skye is just tipsy enough to start making loud whooping noises when he calls their names, and though Fitz tries to shush her as his ears turn red, Jemma rather messily pats Skye on the shoulder in congratulations with one hand and toasts the boys with her other hand. Coulson looks unbelievably smug, while the rest of his team’s expressions vary from pleased to embarrassed. Bobbi’s face gives nothing away.

 


 

Bobbi scowls in that weary way that she knows Mack will be able to interpret. “Stupid me, I thought that once I was the manager at work, I wouldn’t have to worry about getting bossed around,” she mutters. “I didn’t even think about it happening in the rest of my life.”

“Wanna talk about it?” Mack’s not much for talking, really, but if Bobbi wants to, he’ll listen.

“Hey, you need help or anything?” a new voice asks. It’s Skye, who’s come up with the rest of her team and is on her tiptoes, peering into the truck bed at them.

Bobbi chuckles, lifting the beer. “We’re not having car troubles.”

“Help with anything… else?” Jemma asks weakly, blushing once she realizes how it sounds.

Skye giggles. “I don’t think they need help with that either, honey,” she murmurs, kissing Jemma’s cheek.

“We’re fine,” Bobbi promises, leaning against the side of the cab. “You kids going to be safe to get home?”

“Fine, thanks,” says Trip with a chuckle. “Hey, good work tonight. In spite of...y’know.”

“You guys, too,” Bobbi replies, giving a rather tipsy salute.

Skye grins and salutes back. “Jupiter Phoenix, roll out!”

“Good night!” calls Fitz, somewhat awkwardly, as the four of them turn to leave.

The moment they’re out of earshot, Bobbi chuckles. “They’re cute.”

“Yeah,” agrees Mack. “They’re nice kids.”

“Very good manners, too,” Bobbi observes. The unlike some people doesn’t need to be said.

Nodding, Mack’s quiet for a moment before he asks, “So you wanna come back next week, or…?”

She fixes him with another one of those looks. “We need to regroup,” she declares.

“Thought you might say that.”

Chapter Text

“So, Hannah,” Darcy says grandly, gesturing around the small nightclub they’re sitting in. “You ever been to a battle of the bands before?”

Hannah very politely winces. “I didn’t think this was a battle,” she says. “Just a showcase.”

Darcy shrugs. “It may not technically be a battle, but it’s totally a battle,” she replies. “It’s so much more interesting that way.”

“I… see,” Hannah murmurs, although she really doesn’t. “So aside from Carina’s band -”

“The Real Helldivers,” Darcy agrees with a grin, because she thinks it’s kind of adorable how Hannah is here to support her friend but refuses to say her friend’s band’s name.

“Aside from them,” Hannah continues with a pleasant smile, “who all is playing here tonight?”

“Nobody I’ve heard before,” Darcy shrugs. “I mean, before I started dating one of the Helldivers I wasn’t exactly up on the local punk scene. But let’s see. “ She opens the badly photocopied program (it’s on bright orange paper, black text and images, so it looks like a really shitty jack o’lantern). “Godbot, Swindlers and Rats - I heard they’re not very good, for political reasons… hm. Death In My Family and… Climax With Honor.” She says the last with a mischievous grin.

“That’s nice,” Hannah says faintly, looking slightly overwhelmed.

 


 

“They have a girl drummer,” growls Nebula.

“They have girl lots of things,” Carina points out.

“Yeah, but look at her. She looks smug. I hate her.”

Just then, the redheaded girl Nebula’s talking about, who’s standing near the rest of her bandmates, glances over and flips Nebula the bird, as if she’s heard her. The girl next to her, who has olive skin and pigtails and is holding her other hand, widens her eyes and starts murmuring urgently to her.

“You can’t hate someone you don’t know,” Carina insists.

Watch me.” Nebula calls over, “Hey asshole! I’m gonna come over there and shove that drumstick up your ass!”

“Jus’ try it an’ see where it gets ya,” the girl calls back, her Scottish accent strong.

Rogue,” Carina implores, making her best cartoon eyes. “Maybe you can get them to stop, since I clearly can’t.”

Rogue sighs. “Neb, c’mon, stop antagonizing her. We’ll kick their asses tonight, you know we’re better than them.”

“Besides, uh, no offense, but she’s got...muscles and stuff,” MJ points out. “Like, I think she could probably kick your ass without much trouble.”

Carina shakes her head ‘no’ violently.

Nebula glares at MJ. “Fuck you, I’ve been in fights before!”

“Didn’t say you weren’t,” replies MJ quickly. “Just trying to keep you out of a fight, and us from getting kicked out of here. We have a gig to play, remember?”

Growling, Nebula punches the first thing her fist comes into contact with (the wall) and storms off.

“You better go after her, Carina,” sighs Rogue.

“Yeah,” Carina sighs, standing and brushing imaginary crumbs off of her skirt. “Hopefully I’ll be back soon? With her in tow?”

“Good luck,” says MJ with an apologetic smile.

Laura wanders over to them, looking confused. “I have missed something. Logan wanted to make sure I was ‘still in one piece,’ as he put it.”

“Oh, Nebula took offense to the girl drummer for Death In My Family and almost started a fight,” sighs MJ. “Then I tried to head it off and she went thataway. Carina went to do damage control.”

Laura nods. “I see.” She looks over at the other band. “MJ, that boy is watching you.”

“Hm?” MJ glances up. Sure enough, the darker-skinned boy is grinning at her and running a hand through his curly black hair. When he spots her looking back, he gives her a little wave. “Well,” says MJ, smirking. “You guys can hold down the fort for a few minutes, right?”

Rogue rolls her eyes. “Yeah, sure.”

MJ walks over to him, deliberately swaying her hips more than normal, and soon they’re both chatting away like old friends.

Laura watches them, tilting her head. “Cessily said she would come tonight. You haven’t seen her, have you, Rogue?”

Shaking her head, Rogue says, “Nah, sorry. I’ll keep an eye out, though.”

“All right.” Laura busies herself with tuning her bass.

A few minutes later, another redhead, this one wearing vaguely sporty clothes, tiptoes over. “Um, hi, is Laura here?”

“Cessily!” Laura smiles, or at least looks happy. “You did come! I thought you might have forgotten, or decided you did not want to come. Not that I would blame you, it gets very loud sometimes.”

“No, of course I wanted to come!” Cessily puts her hand out as if to shake Laura’s hand or touch her, then seems to think better of it and settles for a wave. “Am I supposed to be back here? I wasn’t sure…”

“It’s fine,” says Rogue, smirking. “Nice to meet ya, Cessily, I’m Rogue.”

“Oh! I’m sorry,” chuckles Cessily nervously. “Where are my manners? Yes, hi, I’m...I’m Laura’s...Laura invited me.”

Rogue nods and murmurs to Laura, “She’s cute.”

“Yes,” says Laura, lifting her chin proudly. “Cessily, do you want to watch me warm up? I’m told it can be boring but it is necessary.”

“Sure!” Cessily glances around for a moment before carefully clearing a stack of papers off of a nearby folding chair and then sitting on it.

Rogue rolls her eyes fondly and, without anyone to talk to, surveys the crowd. After a minute or two she spots Darcy and Hannah up on the balcony and, though she feels silly doing it, waves.

Darcy has, of course, been waiting for Rogue to notice her, so her return wave is hyper-enthusiastic, very fond, and, after a moment, accompanied by a blown kiss.

And since Rogue doesn’t have anything better to do and they’re playing next-to-last (Godbot’s up first), she heads up to say hi. Since Darcy brought the other girl, there’s probably not gonna be any kissing, but a girl can hope, right?

“Hey, cutie,” Darcy coos, batting her eyelashes.

“Hey yourself,” purrs Rogue, turning to Hannah to add “and you” in a much less flirty tone of voice.

“Hi,” Hannah says. The poor thing looks entirely bewildered by this point, but she’s trying to smile as bravely as she can.

“You guys aren’t on for a while, yeah?” Darcy clarifies.

“Nope,” says Rogue with a chuckle. “Which is, y’know, fine except Neb’s gone and gotten herself in a near-tussle with one of the drummers. Car went to calm her down.”

“Carina is kind of a saint,” Darcy observes. “I say with love.”

That makes Rogue laugh. “I keep tellin’ her she oughta see about that sainthood, but she just laughs me off.” She eyes Hannah for a moment before saying, “This don’t seem like your usual crowd, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so.”

“I wanted to support Carina’s band,” Hannah says almost plaintively. “I keep hearing about you guys, and I figured it was the nice thing to do.”

“Aw, you’re sweet.” Rogue grins. “Sorry if it ain’t what you’re used to. We’re, uh, well. We’re kinda rough around the edges.”

“I’m… sort of getting that feeling,” Hannah says, “but it’ll be interesting, you know? It’ll be very, ah. Very different.”

“Good for you,” Rogue nods.

After a minute or so of awkward small talk, Cessily comes wandering over and says, “Um, Rogue, Nebula said I should come tell you you need to come practice because she wants to rip that redhaired bitch apart. Her words, not mine.”

Rogue laughs. “Well, she’s back to normal, sorta. I’ll see ya later, Darce,” she says with a wink, “and Hannah.”

“Who’s this?” Darcy asks, nodding in Cessily’s direction.

“I’m Cessily,” she says with a wave. “Um, I’m...I’m with Laura, Laura asked me to come, I mean. You’re...Darcy? She mentioned you. Something about a party?”

“I had a party recently that Laura attended, yeah,” Darcy says warily, like she’s trying to figure out where this is going.

“Oh, she didn’t say anything bad! Just that she went and it was interesting. I guess she’d never played a party game before that.” Cessily laughs awkwardly. “She said her dad wasn’t one for sleepovers, really, and she didn’t have a lot of friends since they were on the road so much. So it was something new.”

It’s apparently the right remark to get Darcy to soften, because her response is, “I’m glad I made sure she had a good first sleepover, then.”

 


 

Tonight might be a night like any other. There’s nothing particularly radical or innovative about local indie punk bands, but when you’re friends with people, you go watch their indie punk band anyway. Sort of punk. Nebula hasn’t exactly been able to pin their genre down, which in Raina’s opinion is actually something of a recommendation. Defined genres are incredibly boring.

But she’s also decided to multitask tonight. Lorelei had other plans, so Raina is here alone, fidgeting with the umbrella in her drink (purchased strictly because she was curious what the umbrella drinks would taste like at a dive bar concert hall) and trying not to look too bored as a quartet of people who are much too old to be dressed like terrible trash punks yet are mix their messily reverberating guitars with some thudding club beat. Honestly, the best thing she can think of to say about this excuse for a band is that some of their members refuse to conform to society's rigid gender roles.

Out of the corner of her eye, she notices Clint suddenly appearing from the upper balcony and taking a seat four down from hers, seemingly unaware of his physical surroundings (he’s either actually interested in the technopunk monstrosity or watching them intently in hopes that they’ll finally do something interesting; Raina hopes it’s the latter) and as casual as ever. Well, he’s more interesting than Godbot, at least.

So she leans across the empty seats and flashes a brilliant smile. “Evening, bird boy!”

He jumps about a foot and yelps, “Oh my god!”

Raina giggles behind her hand like an anime villain. “Having a good time tonight?”

“Uh, uh, uh,” he says, trying to readjust. “Yes? What are you doing here?”

“I have friends playing,” she says with a shrug.

“These guys?”

“Very much not,” she rolls her eyes. “They’re pedestrian.”

He laughs, as much in surprise as actual amusement. “Yeah, but I don’t get out a lot. They’re serviceable, as excuses to go out.”

“Technically true,” she agrees. “Though lots of things are technically excuses to go out, if you try hard enough.”

He blinks. “I guess.” Then he adds, before he can think better of it, “I kinda feel like you’re haunting me though. I mean, you show up everywhere I am.”

“Not everywhere,” she says, exaggerating the word. “I’ve never seen your apartment. You’re never at Applebee’s unless there’s a mall function.”

He shudders a bit, unconsciously. “Not everywhere, but...lots of places.”

“Well, then we just have similar tastes,” she declares, nodding as if that clinches it.

He nods because that seems to be the best answer to that, and then notices the rose on her hand. “Is that new?” (Ghosts can’t get tattoos, he’s pretty sure.)

Raina nods too, very proudly. “New enough,” she says, displaying it for him. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Because it is, it’s vibrant and detailed and really neat. He recognizes Drax’s style in the leaves and colors, and it kind of weirds him out to think that they’ve gotten work done in the same place, but hey, it makes sense.

“Do you have any work done?” she asks innocently.

He laughs nervously. “Yeah, I...I have a tree on my chest. For, y’know, nature and...life...and…”

“It’s a cover-up tattoo, isn’t it?” She’s not asking like someone who already knows, but she’s asking like someone who probably already knows.

“Not...entirely,” he mumbles. “The bird goes very nicely in the tree.”

She hisses out a breath, pitying almost. “I bet it went better with another bird.”

“Well, she has more than one, but yeah.” He’s fidgeting, unsure of how this got personal so quickly.

“Poor thing,” Raina coos. Then she nods back toward the band, bright as ever. “Can you understand a single lyric they’re singing?”

 


 

“I’m not seeing Skye or any of her group,” says Ward, disappointed.

“Dude, you gotta get over her.” Brock rolls his eyes. “You only want her ‘cause you can’t have her. There’s plenty of girls here. Just focus on finding one to take home, you’ll forget all about her.”

Ward shakes his head. “Easy for you to say. You never keep them around for more than a week.”

“Hey, what can I say? It’s a talent.” Brock scans the room before letting out a wolf whistle. “Speaking of, I just found a candidate for tonight’s position. See you later.” He strides off, projecting an air of smugness.

Ward sighs and glances around for a while, finally spotting that weird girl from the weed store. Skye’s sister? She looks like she could be, anyway. Well, close enough, he thinks, and heads over, putting on his very best air of charm. “Hey there,” he says with a grin. “How’s your night going?”

“I’ll be back, bird boy,” Raina says smoothly, waving Clint goodbye as she slips out of her seat. “It’s not the worst night I’ve ever had. Could be getting a lot better now.” A terrible line, but she knows he’s going to fall for it.

“Oh, is there some way I can help with that?” he asks. Yeah, he can definitely see the family resemblance.

She raises an eyebrow. “That depends,” she murmurs.

“You wanna dance? My friend’s band is up next,” Ward says, just as Swindlers and Rats is announced.

 


 

“Hey there.”

Gamora looks up from the napkin she’s been doodling on. “Hey,” she says, looking up to see someone whose name she’s moderately embarrassed to admit she doesn’t remember.

“Gamora, right? You work at the tattoo place? I’m Mike.” He smiles shyly. Normally he doesn’t make a habit of talking to strangers, but here he is.

“Right, hey,” she nods. “Mike. You’ve got me right, but I’m drawing a blank on where you work.” She shrugs in what’s meant to be an apologetic move.

“Oh, Build-A-Bear,” Mike replies with a chuckle. “It’s crazy sometimes, but it pays the bills. And Ace thinks my job is pretty cool.”

Gamora tilts her head. “Ace is…?”

“My son. I forget y’all over there don’t know every stupid detail of our lives.” Mike grins. “He’s eight and gives me hell sometimes, but he’s all I got.”

“Are you used to people knowing every stupid detail of your life?” she asks, because that seems like the first obvious point to get squared away.

“In that mall, yeah. It’s kinda like high school, except we all pay bills.”

“That sounds exhausting,” she says. “I hated high school. When I went.”

“Me too,” he agrees. “This is a little better. Fewer bullies. Or, well, I guess they’re mostly over at IKEA, at least.” He glances down at the stage and grimaces - this band is terrible, but it’s obvious they’re at least Hydra-adjacent by the symbol painted on one of their drums. “And people actually seem to like me, which is a bonus.”

“How nice for you,” she says after a moment, smirking and hoping it doesn’t come off incredibly ridiculous or like something Quill would say.

Still grinning, he replies, “How about you, how long have you been a tattoo artist? I noticed you doodling there, you’re damn good.”

Startled, Gamora peeks at her drawing (she’s had a little to drink, so it’s a very intricate unicorn running its horn through the chest of several Hydra associates) and shrugs. “I’ve been drawing like this since I can remember,” she says. “I’ve been a tattoo artist about as long as it was legal for me to be.”

“Damn. Well, it shows. I love looking at fancy tattoos, but I just have this one myself.” Mike rolls up his sleeve and nods at the Batman symbol that’s hiding on his upper arm. “Ace loves Batman and I thought it’d be appropriate, y’know, quiet loner and all.”

“Nice,” she murmurs, smiling appreciatively. “I’ve got wings on my back, but I won’t show them to you here.” The minute it’s said, she wants to kick herself, or possibly kick Quill, because he’s definitely rubbing off on her, there’s no mistaking it now.

Interested, Mike asks, “Did your partner do them for you? Drax?”

“He did,” she agrees, before it dawns on her that Mike said “partner” and she immediately rushes to clarify, “Drax is not my partner like that! We work together. That’s really, really it.”

Laughing, Mike nods. “Okay, sorry for assuming. You must get that a lot.”

“I’m used to it by now,” she shrugs. “You spend enough time around people that someone else thinks you’re supposed to be fucking and you’re bound to hear it.” She grins wryly. “I’m not fucking Quill either, just in case you were headed there next.”

“Honestly hadn’t crossed my mind,” he says lightly. “You seem too smart for him, anyway.”

That makes Gamora chuckle in a very ungraceful way. “He’s not as dumb as he acts,” she says, “but he is sort of dumb.”

“Has he even managed to score with any girls since you guys moved in over there?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” she says. “He doesn’t act like a kicked puppy every day, so I assume some of his attempts at flirtation end well.”

Mike rolls his eyes. “I can’t believe anybody would be dumb enough to fall for that. But I guess that’s their prerogative.”

“Takes all sorts,” she agrees. “I can’t say I’ve never wanted to interfere just to save the girls that trouble, but I can’t babysit all of them.”

“It’s good of you to think of it,” he says with a smile, which she returns.

 


 

Nebula is busying herself with making as many obscene gestures toward the stage as she can while never actually doing it while any of the band is looking their way.

“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Carina sighs.

“They’re Nazis, they deserve everything I give them,” replies Nebula.

“Yeah, Car, I think your instincts are good but in this case I’m gonna have to say Nebula’s in the right,” chimes in MJ. “She shouldn’t do it while they’re looking, and she’s not. But they’re kind of awful.”

“I think Logan might fight them later,” Laura says. “Nazis make him angry.”

“They’re completely awful,” Carina agrees, voice pitching high. “But shouldn’t she save it for after the show, when we’re not inside the theater and the event organizers can’t kick us out for foul play?”

Rogue snorts. “If that was all it took to get us kicked out, Neb’s trash talking would’ve done it already.”

“I can’t decide which band I hate more,” grumbles Nebula.

MJ opens her mouth to argue the point, and then something catches her eye that makes her forget everything she’d been about to say. “Is Gamora hitting on that guy?”

Everyone stops arguing to look in the direction she’s looking. “Holy shit,” says Nebula. “She’s definitely talking to him.”

“That’s Mike from the bear store,” Carina exclaims, although she doesn’t entirely expect the others to care.

“He’s kinda cute,” Rogue says, “for, y’know, a dad.”

“Isn’t he like 30?” asks MJ. “I’m not sure he qualifies as ‘hot dad’ just yet.”

Rogue grins and shrugs. “I call ‘em like I see ‘em.”

“This is weird. I dunno if I like it.” Nebula’s tilting her head, looking at Gamora and Mike, like they’re a Magic Eye picture and she might suddenly understand it if she moves her head around enough.

“She looks like she’s having a nice time,” Carina offers.

Laura’s been listening to the entire discussion, a thoughtful look on her face. Finally she says, “They’re not going to have sex tonight, but I think it will happen eventually. They are laughing and Gamora is touching her hair. Nebula, you may wish to speak to her about this so that you do not walk in on something unexpectedly in the future.”

Nebula snorts. “God, I’d better not.”

 


 

Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly at all, Climax With Honor winds up being considerably more indie than the bands that preceded it in the lineup. Not good indie (Darcy has been wincing since one of the singers brought out a banjo) but even still.

“I think they must have named themselves after something they won’t be able to do,” Darcy says solemnly.

“I don’t think I get it,” Hannah mumbles apologetically.

Darcy glances down at her own drink (whiskey sour) and then at Hannah’s (cherry Coke) and suddenly decides it’s just not worth it. “I don’t think they’re able to do anything with honor,” she says instead.

Hannah nods. “They do seem fairly suspicious.”

 


 

“Has anyone ever told you you’re very exotic-looking?” Ward asks. “It’s fascinating.” He does his best soulful gazing at her face.

Raina has to take a moment. Between that line and that look, she’s tempted to start laughing hysterically, but that just wouldn’t do. So, once she’s calmed, she bats her eyelashes and smirks. “How so?”

“Well, you’re just so different from all the other girls. They’re all so...cookie-cutter, nice-looking but in an average way. You, I haven’t seen a lot of girls who look like you. Coffee with just the right amount of cream. And your eyes are gorgeous.” He grins charmingly.

She’s pretty sure that if she had a dollar for every time someone compared her to coffee, she’d be able to buy the Starbucks corporation, but she’s putting up with this out of scientific curiosity. And because hell, she hasn’t really run a con on a guy in a long time. It’s too much fun. “Mm, thank you,” she croons, leaning across the table to fondle his bicep. “You’re quite something yourself.”

He flexes for her, unable to keep the satisfied smile off his face. “Thanks. Always nice to get a compliment from a pretty girl.”

“I can’t imagine you don’t get those every day,” she says.

He shrugs, trying to seem self-depreciating. “Not as often as I’d like. Which is why it means more when I get them. And you, I bet you get men fawning over you constantly.”

There are about four different responses on the tip of her tongue, but the one she manages to force out is, “I’ve had my share.” In her opinion, that’s actually an understatement, she’s had far more men fawn over her than she’d really like, but he doesn’t need to know that.

“Well, I hope I’m not being forward if I ask to do it some more.”

She makes a show of glancing around the room before she answers. “I suppose that could be all right,” she tells him.

 


 

Cessily’s back down with Laura and the rest of the band, waiting for their fifteen minute cue, and Cessily’s sitting next to Laura with their hands not-quite-touching. Laura’s cocking her head, listening to Climax With Honor. “I do not see what the banjos are for,” she says, quietly enough that it’s obviously meant for Cessily only.

That makes Cessily giggle, a little nervously. “Neither do I,” she admits. “I guess a lot of indie bands think they need them now?”

“This is the kind of music that Logan would say belongs on a farm.” Laura glances down at their hands, then suddenly says, “If you would like to, we could hold hands now. I hear that is something that people who are dating do.”

“Oh!” Cessily flushes. “I...I’d like that, yes.” She holds her hand out, unsure what to do next.

Laura takes it, somewhat awkwardly, and then smiles. “I have never held anyone’s hand before,” she says. “It’s nice.”

Cassily gives her hand a gentle squeeze. “Good.”

“Get a room,” says Nebula, almost cheerfully.

“But we are in a room.” Laura stares at her. “Or is that a sexual reference?”

“...Never mind.”

 


 

“So what brings a nice girl like you to a place like this?” asks Ward. He doesn’t usually drop that line so late in a conversation, but something tells him it’ll be well-received.

“I enjoy art in all its forms,” Raina says casually, shrugging a way that she’s practiced enough that she knows it looks utterly organic.

He blinks. “Yeah, but are you here for someone? Or...with someone?” Because some girls do that at places like this, they flirt while their boyfriend’s onstage. He’d just as soon know if he needs to slip away to avoid a fight.

She giggles. “My friends are playing,” she explains. “I just came to support them.”

“Which ones are they?”

“The Real Helldivers,” she says brightly. “Your friends just played, but is that the only reason a nice boy like you would end up here?” She thinks she knows where this might lead, and she wants to know if she’s correct.

“I’m not a nice boy at all,” he says with a wry smile.

“But you wear it so well,” she murmurs, faking a sort of awe (when really, all she’s feeling is absolute delight that he said something so solidly terrible).

“Appearances can be deceiving.”

“Then what would you say if I confessed to you that sometimes I just can’t help but be naughty,” Raina whispers, eyes sparkling.

He can’t help the eager expression that causes. “I’d say that’s an interesting idea that I’d like to hear more about. Maybe after the show?”

“Will you make it worth my while?” she asks, voice as throaty and seductive as she can manage.

Well, that sure gets a reaction. Adjusting slightly (because he doesn’t want to seem like an inexperienced kid who’ll pop boners at the mention of sex), he gives her a smooth smile and replies, “I’ll do my best.”

Perfect. “And what do you expect of me in return?” she presses.

“Proper compliance. I have a feeling you’re very obedient.”

She shivers, and she’s sure it passes for aroused even though it’s the direct opposite. Her eyes close for just a few seconds, and when she looks back up at him it’s as little girl lost as she’s ever done. “Yes, sir,” she says, so faintly it’s barely audible.

“Ooh, I like the sound of that,” he replies, reaching out to run a hand down her arm.

It’s almost funny to her how dense he is at this point, but then, that makes it that much easier. She bites her bottom lip, tucks hair behind her ear with her left hand. “I want you to,” she murmurs. She knows she sounds insincere, but he apparently doesn’t.

“We’re leaving right after your friends play.” He hasn’t been the one giving orders in a while, and it’s kind of nice.

She nods (she’d been planning on doing this anyway, but she’d be lying if she said a tiny part of her didn’t suddenly feel like staying until the end). “Whatever you like.”

“I’d like you to bring me a drink, actually. And once you’re done with yours, don’t get yourself any more.” He’s laying it on a little thick, and he knows that, but he really is enjoying this.

When she thinks about it, that’s probably for the best. She’s got enough of a buzz on that she can act like she tolerates this, but not so much of one that the ridiculous details are going to be a blur. “Do you have any requests?”

He waits a moment, like he’s thinking about it, before answering, “Your choice. We’ll see how good you are at judging what I like.”

It’s not hard. One, this is a dive bar, so that means the menu is limited. Two, she can smell the scotch on him. Three, she’s just good at knowing these things. “May I go get it now?” she asks, all too sweet.

Nodding, he says, “Go on.”

 


 

“Next up, the Real Helldivers!”

“The drummer’s your sister, right?” Mike asks.

“Yeah,” Gamora agrees. “Obviously not biological, we had the same asshole of a foster dad and - that’s a really depressing story, so I’ll spare you.” It’s as much that as the fact that she started telling it before she realized what she was doing and then caught herself.

Mike nods sympathetically. “Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to.”

She can tell he’s not just saying that to sound like a Nice Guy worth confiding in (something she’s well-acquainted with) and that makes her realize she may actually want to confide in him eventually. Maybe. But instead of saying any of that, she glances at the crowd and chortles.

“What?”

“Look down and see if you can guess,” she says, sounding amused.

He does, and notices Peter Quill about fifteen feet from the stage, whooping enthusiastically and holding a neon sign that says #1 FAN. “Oh my god.”

“He’s mostly harmless,” she shrugs. “Doesn’t keep him from being an idiot.”

“I see,” Mike says, chuckling. “At least he’s...enthusiastic.”

“I think he means well, anyway,” Gamora agrees. “And in this particular case, he’s not just doing it to score with anyone, so that’s a step in the right direction.”

Mike snorts. “Always good.” Then he adds, “Your sister’s a pretty good drummer.”

“She really is,” Gamora says. “They’re all pretty good at what they do, actually. I don’t really get some of it, but they’re sure better than any of these other guys.”

“Not like that’s hard,” replies Mike with a roll of his eyes. “I mean, I never expect much, but the lineup has been pretty lackluster tonight.”

“Yeah,” she nods. “You come to these things a lot?”

He shrugs. “When I can. Punk’s a genre I have a lot of respect for, when it’s done properly. I like keeping an eye on the local scene.”

“I’m surprised I’ve never seen you at a show before,” she declares.

“I keep to myself a lot, try to blend in. Which is harder than it looks, being a six-foot tall black guy with burns everywhere.” He grins.

Part because she knows that he didn’t say that to invite her to ask and part because his grin is infectious, she just smiles and replies, “If you’ve done it well enough that someone who’s trying to do the exact same thing hasn’t noticed you, you’re truly impressive.”

“Well, thanks! Nice of you to say so.”

They don’t talk for a few minutes, listening to the Helldivers play. Or, Mike’s listening - Gamora, because she’s heard these songs a thousand times, has gone back to doodling. Mike studies the band, noticing which members are hyperfocused on the music (Laura, who’s frowning in concentration as she plays, and Nebula, who’s wearing an almost murderous expression) and which are more interested in putting on a show (MJ is putting her heart into her voice, but she’s also flirting with the crowd). The Helldivers certainly know how to put on a show, unlike most of the other bands.

And Gamora isn’t entirely paying attention, but she can see that Mike is into it, and that makes her proud. For all that she and Nebula argue and for all that she really doesn’t know how to talk to Nebula’s friends, she does understand that Nebula enjoys this and she does understand that Nebula is good at it, so it makes her happy to see that it’s working out.

After five songs, the Helldivers are applauded (and cheered for, in Quill’s case) and ushered offstage so that the final band, Death In My Family, can play. While they’re packing up their instruments (Rogue and MJ had agreed that sticking around while the girl drummer played was a terrible idea), Laura glances out at the audience. Two things catch her eye: Mike and Gamora on the balcony, each taking the other’s phone and typing something in, and the rude man from the Valentine’s bar party leaving with Raina, who she remembers from the Christmas party. “Rogue, is Gamora giving her number to that man?”

Rogue pauses and glances to where Laura’s pointing. “I...guess so,” she says, a bit shocked.

“Wait, what? What’s my sister doing?” Nebula follows their gazes and gasps. “That’s fucking weird. I’ve never seen her do that.”

“I think it’s nice!” Carina chimes in.

“You would,” says Nebula, not unkindly. “Can I crash at your place when they start fucking?”

“You know you don’t even have to ask,” Carina replies softly.

Nebula makes a soft noise that would be a grunt from anyone else, but which is meant affectionately.

“And the Nazi from the bar, he is going home with that woman, Raina.” Laura nods in their direction. “I do not understand.”

MJ raises an eyebrow. “Well, she’s got...interesting taste.”

“Jesus christ,” says Nebula. “The fuck does she think she’s doing?”

Carina winces. “I don’t think she’s entirely on the level about it,” she attempts.

“Sorry?” Rogue asks.

“I’m not quite sure,” Carina mumbles, “but - Nebula, do you ever get the feeling that she and Lorelei are up to something? They… look at each other like they have a sinister plan sometimes, and a lot of the time it’s when the Nazi is involved.”

Nebula snorts. “It’d make more sense than the idea that she wanted to fuck him, anyway.”

“I don’t think there’s that to worry about,” Carina agrees. “I mean, I think she’s… you know. Satisfied. Already.” She shrugs helplessly, because she doesn’t know how else to put it.

Laura blinks. “Interpersonal relationships are complicated. Has anyone seen Cessily?”

“I think your girl’s over there,” says MJ, nodding to where Cessily’s making her way over to them.

“Thank you,” replies Laura, waving at Cessily.

“Not a bad night, I’d say,” says Rogue with a smirk. Her phone buzzes and, after glancing at it, she adds, “I’m gonna meet Darcy outside, I’ll see y’all later?”

“Yeah, yeah, enjoy yourself.” Nebula rolls her eyes.

“Plan on it,” Rogue calls over her shoulder.

Chapter Text

“I’ve never done this before,” admits Cessily, a bit nervously. “I’ll do my best!”

“I haven’t either,” replies Laura. “But I have acquired a variety of knowledge in the last ten years, traveling with Logan. Did you know that the human body contains an average of six quarts or 5.6 liters of blood?”

“Did you know,” Raina cuts in, smiling in a way that’s either pleasant or dangerous, “the carbon removed from someone’s corpse could be used to make hundreds of pencils? Every time I hear it, the exact number changes, but I think it’s fascinating.”

Laura looks interested. “I had not heard that. Thank you.”

“Well!” Carina interjects, looking slightly uncomfortable. “Did you know 3 Musketeers bars used to have strawberry flavor in them?”

Nebula chuckles and runs her hand down Carina’s arm. “Well, that’s gross in a different way, I guess.”

Cessily’s making a face. “I can’t imagine that.”

“People have strange taste,” Lorelei shrugs, nibbling on a sweet potato fry.

For some reason, this makes Raina chuckle, and she stares out the window and runs a hand through her hair before she turns her attention to the others. “Where’s your other friend tonight?” she asks Carina and Nebula.

Shrugging, Nebula says, “She had a date or something. Didn’t ask too many questions. Didn’t care.”

“Well, that may or may not be more fun than whatever goes on here tonight,” Raina shrugs.

Laura’s been staring intently at Raina’s neck since she moved her hair, and now she asks, “What’s that bruise on the side of your neck? And there are popped blood vessels too. Were you aware of this? Those can cause serious health problems if you are unaware of them and they persist unattended.”

“I’m aware,” Raina says, almost serenely. “I’ve been applying ice and the appropriate gels.” She doesn’t yet answer the first question, though.

Scowling, Nebula grumbles, “That wasn’t what I wanted to know about it.”

Raina blinks innocently. “What’s that?”

“Where it came from,” Nebula answers in her most exasperated voice.

“Oh.” Glancing around the room almost shyly, if anything she does could be considered shy, Raina says, “It was a boy.”

Immediately Carina goes tense.

Nebula hisses a breath. “Do I need to kill him?”

Laura also looks alarmed. “I know twenty-six ways to kill a person without leaving traces of an attack.” Next to her, Cessily’s eyes go wider than they already were.

A second later, Lance appears with a tray of chips and salsa and, with the practiced air of someone working in food service, asks casually, “What’s happening, then?”

“We were expressing concern over Raina’s recent interactions with a Nazi,” explains Laura.

“You don’t say?” Lance’s eyes flick over to the table of Hydra associates, and he glares at them for a moment before saying to Raina, “You don’t really seem the type to mix with them, love. Everything all right?”

“There’s a difference between mixing with them -” Raina interrupts herself to roll her eyes toward the Hydra boys, utterly disdainful - “and mixing with one of them. I promise it’s nothing that I can’t handle, but if that changes you’ll all be the first to know.” Both because of their apparent willingness to go to battle on her behalf (or with her as an excuse) and because she’s oddly touched by that willingness but doesn’t know how to say it and wouldn’t want to even if she did.

Nebula relaxes a little, though she still looks bristly. Lance nods and goes about his business, having noticed Coulson and Fury heading for their usual table.

“I will keep an eye on him,” promises Laura.

The faintest sincere smile crosses Raina’s face before she turns and snuggles into Lorelei’s shoulder, a pretty clear sign that she’s done talking for now.

Lance stops in front of Coulson and Fury and, putting on his best waiter-face, says, “What can I get you gents?”

“Heineken,” says Fury.

“I’ll have the Cabernet Sauvignon,” Coulson says, and Lance only just manages to keep his lip from curling at how douchey that sounds.

“Right, I’ll be back with those.” Lance turns to go and hears Fury ask, “This isn’t going to run long, is it? I have things to do.”

Several minutes later, Melinda and Sif enter the restaurant, giggling (they’ve obviously pregamed), and slip into the table. Coulson does his best to look unperturbed. “Good to see you, Melinda.”

She smirks. “Hi, Phil.”

Lance returns with Coulson and Fury’s drinks, takes Melinda and Sif’s drink orders, then comes back with them, and by that time it’s about three minutes before the semi-official start time and Coulson’s furrowing his brow. “I wonder where the others are?”

“This’ll be an interesting challenge if they don’t show,” says Fury sardonically, taking a swig of his beer.

As if on cue, someone else appears: Anne Weaver, wearing a black-and-white striped shirt and slacks and strutting like a queen over to one of the unoccupied tables. Melinda raises an eyebrow at this; she knows Anne, she’s known Anne for years. Anne doesn’t seem the type to partake in something like this.

“Fitz?” Jemma whispers, gently nudging her friend and sounding for all the world like the most troubling thing has happened.

“Um, I believe I was talking to him,” says Skye, exaggerating an indignant face. “I need to know how BB-8 could possibly be a practical effect!”

Fitz rolls his eyes. “For the last time, Skye, they’re going to release some explanation within the next six months, it’s practically guaranteed. You’re not the only one scrambling for an explanation. Jemma, what’s going on?”

Look,” Jemma hisses, nodding frantically in Anne’s direction.

Following her gesture, Fitz gapes. “What...what’s she doing here?”

“I haven’t the slightest,” Jemma whispers. “I mean, it’s one thing to see… mall adults here, but…”

“Wait, who’s this? Oh, that professor you have a thing for? Weird.” Skye cocks her head.

Trip, who’s been quiet listening to Skye’s diatribe about the new Star Wars trailer, snorts. “You sure have patterns,” he says to Jemma with a smile.

Jemma huffs, taking a sip of her margarita to collect her thoughts. “I don’t need to explain myself,” she says as aloofly as she can manage. “But I would like an explanation as to why Dr. Weaver is sitting at…” As she watches, Victoria and Isabelle wander into the restaurant, both looking like they have other things to be doing but this is for some reason important. It means that her voice gradually gets squeakier as she observes. “At a table with, with Victoria and her girlfriend.”

“You’re cute,” murmurs Skye, grabbing her hand. “But yeah, this is weird as hell. They are all way too cool to be here.”

Hey!” protests Trip good-naturedly. “I make this place cool just by gracing it with my presence.”

“Oh excuse me.” Skye rolls her eyes. “We’re all really cool. But like, in an ironic disaffected way. We should be the subject of a John Hughes movie.”

“Too heterosexual,” replies Fitz. “And about three decades too late.”

“Also, you and I are halfway the same stereotype,” Jemma says to him. “That might confuse audiences.”

“And I’m too black,” says Trip with a grin.

Concerned, Fitz starts making noises like he’s going to contradict him but is unsure how, and then Jemma jumps in, saying, “You’re no such thing! Being perfectly honest, you’re stunning, and I…” She makes a face. “I really didn’t mean that to come off like I was…”

Trip laughs. “No worries. I know I’m irresistable.” Fitz grumbles a bit but quiets down once Trip reaches over to rub his back. Then, after glancing around for a moment, Trip catches Carina’s eye across the room and calls, “Hey girl! How you doin’?”

Carina grins, shouting back, “More than good!” and raising her glass in his direction.

The table full of Hydra glares at this before shaking their heads at each other. “So where’s your little science pal, Ward?” asks Rumlow, and there’s a challenge in his voice.

“Couldn’t make it tonight,” says Ward smoothly. Too smoothly. That makes Rumlow happy.

“What’s the deal with those three chicks at that huge table?” one of their friends asks.

As if cued by that remark, the front door swings open and in come, from left to right, Mack, Bobbi, Maria, and Maya. Bobbi is just slightly in the lead, twirling a blue Sharpie in one hand; Maya is two steps behind the other three, making a face that’s half-intimidating and half-intimidated. Mack is nearly keeping pace with Bobbi, looking as if he dares anyone to say something, and Maria’s face is indecipherable.

“You can close your mouth now,” snarks Fitz to Jemma. “I wonder what that pen she’s twirling is for. Lucky pen, maybe.”

“Who has a lucky pen?” Skye asks with a snort.

“Lots of people,” retorts Fitz.

For a moment, it looks like they’ll be taking the expected seats at the Trivia Corps table, but they don’t pay it any mind (except Maria, who makes the slightest disdainful face in its direction) and instead go to join Anne, Victoria, and Isabelle, despite the fact that they’re some of the least likely people to associate with each other in most everyone else’s opinion.

Coulson blinks for a long moment, then turns to look at Melinda. “Do you know what’s going on here?”

Truthfully, Melinda shakes her head. “No idea.”

Fury snorts and says nothing. Sif eyes Melinda nervously and also says nothing.

“Isn’t it time to get going?” Maria calls out once their table is fully settled in.

“Yes, thank you,” replies Scott, ambling out and gesturing for silence. “Alright, everyone, let’s get started. I’m Scott Summers and I’ll be your emcee for Trivia Night tonight. I’ll start the name sheets and answer sheets going around; those of you’ve been here before know the drill. Newcomers, please give your name sheets back within five minutes.”

Hydra converse intensely amongst themselves for a few minutes before writing something on their name sheet. Conversely, Bobbi and her team appear to need no time at all, passing it back to the edge of the table within thirty seconds of receiving it.

Scott reads off the names, which include new group Nippyfrost and Hydra’s attempts to rebrand themselves as Promise of the Champion. Lance snorts at that. Then he gets to Bobbi’s group, which call themselves the Rebel Alliance, and people seem unsure whether to look at Bobbi (wearing a black t-shirt with the Alliance symbol on it and smirking) or Coulson.

After explaining the rules, Scott reads off the first question. “From the list of foods which cause allergies in humans, which particular food product is (according to my ref. material) at the top of the list?”

Lance, from his spot at the table, snickers. He knows the answer to this question, and he knows it’s going to make the bunch at the corner table crack up.

Sure enough, there’s a round of giggles as Carina writes down the answer (nuts).

But while the other teams are deliberating, Lorelei leans in and murmurs, “I’m not just inventing the tension in the room out of a need for dramatics, am I?”

Laura shrugs. “I sense very little tension, except sexual tension. Those two,” she says, pointing at Maya and Maria, “are going to be having sex soon. They are flirting.”

“Good for them,” Lorelei says dismissively, “but I’m actually not talking about sex for once.”

“It has been kind of weird ever since Amazon and her posse showed up,” Nebula nods.

The next question - “What Catholic church official ranks just below Pope?” - baffles half of the room. But especially Coulson, who looks hopefully at the rest of his team (they stare back at him blankly) before glancing over at the Rebel Alliance. He’s surprised to see Isabelle whispering something to Maria, who writes it down while Victoria gazes at her proudly. Odd that Isabelle of all people would know the answer.

It’s not that he dislikes Victoria or her girlfriend, it’s just that...well, they’re kind of intimidating. And he’s pretty sure they don’t like him much. He’s not sure why - he’s never given them any reason to dislike him, as far as he knows. But still, they give off that vibe, so he steers clear of them out of both respect and self-preservation.

Sif nudges Melinda and murmurs, “What’s going on?” Melinda frowns apologetically at her and, taking the pen, scribbles “later” on a napkin and jerks her head at Coulson. Sif nods and seems content with that answer for the time being.

Deliberately ignoring the interpersonal conflict, Fury sips his beer and remains silent.

When Scott reads off the question “Imported into Europe for the first time by Dutch traders around 1610, what beverage was sold commercially for the first time in Britain around 1660?”, Fitz makes a noise of disgust. “Is this the kiddie version of trivia? Who doesn’t know this?”

“Well, it is trivia they’re aiming for drunk people to be able to answer,” Jemma snarks.

“Aw, it’s cute when you guys get all angry and British,” giggles Skye. “You’re like angry kittens.”

Fitz glares. “Now that’s just patronizing.”

“She’s trying to be nice, I think,” Jemma offers hopefully.

“I think you’re cute no matter what your mood is,” chimes in Trip, kissing Fitz on the cheek. While Fitz is making startled but happy noises, Trip glances around to see how the other teams are doing. Most of them seem to be writing down something, although Lucky Bombshell are giggling so much it’s a wonder any of them can hold the pen. Coulson is looking beseechingly at Melinda, while Sif taps on the table with her pen nervously. Bobbi seems to have made “smug” her permanent expression for the evening.

Jemma looks out at the others too, frowning. “Do you think this -” she waves a hand around at the divided tables - “I mean, do you think it’s because of what happened last time?”

“Oh, duh,” replies Skye. “I mean, c’mon. Bobbi obviously got sick of Coulson’s micromanaging shit and made her own team. With the best name ever, by the way. Er, second-best. We’re going to invite her to the Episode VII midnight screening, right?”

“I don’t blame her, I suppose, but it all seems a bit… dramatic,” Jemma mumbles. Then she really registers Skye’s question and instead of answering, settles for frantic nodding.

Skye grins. “Good.” Not that the drama isn’t interesting to her, but she’s personally way more interested in bringing along a hot girl who can understand what she’s talking about when she tries to discuss the finer points of the canon. (She loves Jemma and Jemma is her girl, but Jemma just doesn’t get Star Wars.)

Chest of Drawers takes only a few moments to consult on the question about the age of three-star brandy, and though Garrett answers first, it looks as if two or three of the others had the answer too. “Five years,” says Garrett with a satisfied smile.

“Not like anybody else’ll get that.” Rumlow snorts. “This place barely serves beer. They’re too busy drinking girly drinks to pay attention to the good shit.”

Ward’s nodding along (truth be told, Garrett gave him three-star brandy a couple years back and he’d barely kept it down, but he’d die before he admitted that) and adds, “It’s not something they’d be able to handle anyway.”

The next question is one about listing London’s five major airports. Jupiter Phoenix seems to have it well under control, thanks to Jemma and Fitz, and Lucky Bombshell doesn’t seem particularly worried (Raina, Lance notices, seems to be able to list off every one of them without trouble, which confuses him), but Victoria can’t help but chuckle at the apparent confusion on the other teams’ faces. Not in a mean way, exactly, but - well. It makes a sort of sense.

“Anne, you probably know this, right?” asks Mack.

Anne nods over her old fashioned. “Heathrow, of course,” she begins, “Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, London City. Strictly speaking only the first and last are in London, but they’re all considered to be in the greater London area.”

“Do you think that’s what’s giving the other teams trouble?” Maya asks, though she’s smirking like she thinks that might not be the case.

Isabelle snorts.

“Well, if I know Coulson, asking him anything European might as well be asking him about quantum physics,” says Maria.

Victoria snorts too.

“And it’s the wrong kind of European to expect those assholes to pick up on it,” Bobbi adds, nodding toward the Hydra table.

“I’m a bit surprised that there haven’t been managerial efforts to discourage a known violent hate group away from what’s intended as an innocent, potentially family-friendly activity,” Anne remarks, raising an eyebrow. “Or family-friendly within reason, I suppose.”

Mack rolls his eyes. “They’re paying customers, I guess. Sure doesn’t make me feel very welcomed.”

“We’ll just have to eviscerate them as well, then,” Anne says with a deceptively innocent shrug.

“If last time was any indication, that won’t be hard,” Maya offers.

Maria laughs. “They only know history questions. Piece of cake.”

“The kids don’t seem to be struggling too much,” Bobbi remarks, nodding to Jupiter Phoenix this time.

“Nah, they’re a smart bunch,” Mack replies.

“As… hard as they can be to deal with in large doses,” Victoria begins, “they do seem fairly competent. Most of the time.”

Isabelle squeezes her hand. “High praise, from you.”

The rest of the round goes by, and Scott reads off the answers at the end. Lance, keeping score, notices that there’s not a clear leader yet - they’re all within five points of each other, except Chest of Drawers (he refuses to call them anything else). He blinks at the sheets in confusion.

Then he notices that Coulson is giving another motivational speech to his team, and he pretends to be very interested in the table while eavesdropping. “The four of us can do this by ourselves, we’re doing really well! We don’t need anyone else. If they want to come back, we’ll let them, but we don’t need them. We’ve got this handled. You are all incredible and I believe in you.” The words are inclusive, but he’s gazing at Melinda the whole time.

Lance scowls. Though, deep down he feels like that’s a damn stirring speech, stupid as it is. He hates himself for admitting that.

The music round starts, and all goes well until the lyrics that start “I just wanna tell you how I’m feeling, gotta make you understand…” At which point the room erupts into chaos, between the shrieks of laughter and the impromptu sing-along.

Bobbi, between laughs, can’t help but peek over at the Trivia Corps table, where she’s unsurprised to see what can only be described as complete confusion all over Coulson’s face. “You’d think for a so-called trivia buff he’d be better at memes,” she whispers to Mack.

Mack stops bobbing his head to the beat and grins. “Bet I could hack into the mall PA system and play this.”

“You don’t even technically work there anymore,” Bobbi points out. “Which is to say, while I’m sure you could sneak in and pull that off, you could also do that at Best Buy. But I’m also thinking that maybe you’d be doing it at the mall precisely to avoid complications.”

“And because both you and Coulson work there,” replies Mack, chuckling.

“I could get it on the mix for a class,” Isabelle volunteers. “It’d be funny to see who got it.”

“That is underhanded and I love it,” Bobbi declares.

Five seconds into one song, it seems like every table starts giggling at the instantly familiar hoarse vocals of the singer - “THIS TIME I’M MISTAKEN FOR HANDING YOU A HEART WORTH BREAKING” - before writing down the answer. Except Trivia Corps, whose members look mostly bewildered.

“I’ve heard this song before,” muses Coulson. “What is it?”

Melinda frowns. “It’s a terrible song.”

“Er…” says Sif. “I think I know what it’s called. Fandral used to play this CD constantly in high school…” She trails off when she realizes that not only is Coulson not listening, but he’s only paying attention to Melinda. Rolling her eyes, she glances at her phone.

The rest of the round goes normally, and by the end of it both the Rebel Alliance and Jupiter Phoenix are ahead of Trivia Corps. Skye’s beaming, and the others are looking pleased as well, while the Alliance members are projecting various shades of smug. Coulson visibly struggles to keep up his optimism, especially when the one that stumped him is listed as “How U Remind Me.” “I was right,” says Sif, loudly.

“If that’s how he’s been the whole time, I understand your decision to break off,” Anne mutters, glancing at Sif sympathetically.

“I think he’s gotten worse,” Bobbi says. “But that singlemindedness is the problem.”

Anne nods. “I don’t suppose Melinda and the other one could be tempted away?”

“Sif,” Maya supplies. “I’m pretty sure at this point she and Melinda are a two-for-one. You know. Triviawise. Because most of Sif’s people aren’t here.” She flushes and steals an apologetic glance at Maria.

“The answer is, not likely,” Victoria rolls her eyes. “Melinda is one of the most reasonable people in this mall, but she’s also admirably loyal to the point that it stops being admirable.”

“She certainly is. I guess there’s no accounting for taste,” replies Maria, smirking and rolling her eyes. Then she smiles at Maya, who’s still looking at her nervously.

As the next category, sports, is announced, Coulson beams. “We’ve got this!” he says to Melinda.

Sif coughs. “Yes, we do.”

“Dammit,” Carina says to the other members of Lucky Bombshell. “I think we got a grand total of one sports question last time.”

“We’ll manage,” Raina says airily.

“I know many things about boxing, cagefighting, gambling, and fisticuffs,” Laura chimes in. “But organized sports do not appeal to me.”

Scott reads off the first question: “What is the most powerful hand in poker?”

Laura smiles. “Oh! I know this. It’s a Royal Flush. Logan taught me poker years ago. He says I have a good poker face.”

Cessily chuckles. “Well, I think it’s a nice face either way,” she says shyly.

“Thank you. Your face is also nice.”

One member of Chest of Drawers says loudly, “This isn’t a sports question.”

Lance scowls and thinks, Fight me, twats, but keeps quiet in the interests of not getting banished to the back.

“Do any of you know this?” Jemma asks, sounding rather frantic.

“Nope!” says Skye, grabbing the sheet and cheerfully scribbling down “Manos.”

“Oh my god,” groans Fitz. “Must you?”

“Hell, we’re not gonna get the point anyway. And it’s funny!”

Coulson frowns. “I don’t play poker. Melinda, do you know this?”

“Yes,” says Melinda. “I’d like to write it down.”

Somewhat reluctantly, Coulson surrenders the pen and paper. Melinda writes it down and says, “Royal flush.” Sif smirks.

“Anyone?” Maya asks her group.

“I almost wish I didn’t know this,” Bobbi mumbles, taking the pen and scribbling down the answer before looking over at Lance with no small measure of embarrassment.

Isabelle giggles. “Wasn’t Hunter an aspiring professional gambler at one point?”

“You know very well he was, he dropped out of your guys’ college to pursue it,” Bobbi says in an accusatory tone, knowing that Isabelle’s mostly just phrasing it as a question to give shit.

“Ah, the follies of youth.” Isabelle sips her drink and gives Bobbi a shit-eating grin.

Chest of Drawers has been mostly fairly quiet, but when Scott asks the fifth question, their reactions are dramatic. “Which sports arena is the world's largest steel constructed room unobstructed by posts?”

“The fuck?” Rumlow shouts. “This isn’t sports!”

“This is architecture,” agrees Garrett. “I’m not Frank Lloyd Wright!”

Much as Coulson hates himself for it, he has to agree with them.

Skye, meanwhile, just makes a face at the question before declaring, “The Shatterdome,” and writing it down.

The final question for the round is “Who is the youngest female winner of the gold medal for women's figure skating?”

There are more groans from Chest of Drawers. “I mean, the costumes are hot, but you think I’m paying attention to that shit?” Ward grumbles.

“Oh!” Jemma exclaims in a whisper. “It’s the girl from last year, isn’t it? The tiny Russian girl? Yulia something.”

“Lipnitskaya,” replies Fitz. “She was quite something. Very impressive.”

Skye and Trip start giggling in unison.

“That’s a very respectable Russian surname!” says Fitz.

“I don’t think that’s why they’re laughing at us,” Jemma mutters.

“I think it’s cute,” Trip reassures them. “Never been an Olympics guy myself, but I can see the appeal.”

“Really it’s just the skating, for me,” Jemma says quickly. “It’s this interesting balance of technicality and art, you know.”

Skye squeaks (the drink is starting to get to her). “You are so cute,” she murmurs, leaning over to nuzzle Jemma’s hair. “You’re the cutest nerd in the whole world.”

Once again, Raina is feeding Carina the answer, carefully spelling out the name and looking very satisfied with herself.

“You know such random shit,” says Nebula, not unkindly.

Raina shrugs. There’s no answer beyond that.

Over at Trivia Corps, everyone but Sif is looking blank. “I do not watch the fucking Olympics,” says Fury.

“I actually know this,” says Sif, “but I can’t remember how to spell her name…” She attempts to write down several variations of the name, growing more and more flustered as they come out wrong. “It’s Russian,” she mumbles apologetically.

Melinda gives her a faint, gentle smile. “Russians have terrible names,” she says.

“I feel bad for laughing,” Bobbi murmurs.

“But it’s so funny,” snickers Maria.

“This really hasn’t been Coulson’s sports round,” Victoria observes, looking like she’d be about to crack up if she did that.

Isabelle, smirking, says, “The answer is Yulia Lipnitskaya, by the way.”

Lance collects the papers a few minutes later and tallies them, sighing when he reads down Lucky Bombshell’s list of obscene and ridiculous answers. Then, with a beleaguered expression, he hands the papers to Scott.

Scott looks them over before announcing, “The winners of that round are the Rebel Alliance!”

Trying not to gloat too much, Bobbi high-fives the rest of her team.

“What?” Coulson’s mouth is hanging open. “How?”

“Dumb luck, obviously,” mutters Rumlow to the rest of his team.

The history round begins, and Mack nudges Isabelle after Scott’s finished reading the first question. “Check out the Nazis,” he murmurs.

Isabelle glances over and narrows her eyes when she sees Chest of Drawers whispering amongst themselves intensely. “Of course they’re getting all these answers,” she snorts.

“Bloody disgusting,” Anne agrees.

One of the questions, “How tall was Abraham Lincoln?”, prompts a round of eyerolling and disgusted noises from Chest of Drawers. “It’s 6’4”,” says Garrett sourly.

“He was gay, probably, you know,” adds a thin-faced man with a scar above his eyebrow. This prompts another round of faces.

“Holy shit,” Victoria mutters, overhearing and very clearly seeing this.

Maria groans. “They’re not even trying to hide it.”

Over at Lucky Bombshell’s table, Laura tilts her head questioningly and asks, “Raina, why did you sleep with him? He and his friends are bad men.”

“I’m completely aware of that,” Raina sighs, keeping her head still as if moving is too much work and gazing steadily out the window. “I’ll explain later, but that’s sort of the point.”

Laura blinks. “All right. I assume you do not wish to be bothered about it further.”

“Thank you,” Raina says, softer than she intends.

Coulson is eagerly writing down the answer. “Lincoln’s my favorite president,” he says, mostly to Melinda.

“Wonderful,” replies Fury dryly.

Blinking, Sif says, “I didn’t know we were supposed to have favorite presidents.”

“Some people do,” says Melinda with a shrug.

Trip tells Jemma the answer and then explains, “In high school I ended up dressing up as him for a class project. The one other guy in our group was only like 5’7”.” He grins. “I delivered a hell of a Gettysburg Address though.”

“I’m sure you did,” says Fitz warmly, squeezing his hand.

“And I get the feeling those guys over there would’ve rather played the slave owners,” adds Trip with a grin, gesturing to Chest of Drawers.

Skye giggles. “Totally. I dunno why they bother coming, they don’t know much about anything after, y’know, suffrage and civil rights.”

The next question causes Trivia Corps to begin a fervid discussion. “Who was the first person to suggest Daylight Savings Time?”

The Rebel Alliance stare at each other quizzically. “I haven’t the faintest idea who that is,” says Maria with a shrug.

Meanwhile Coulson looks triumphant, and the rest of his team looks...not exasperated, which is something.

When the papers for the photo-identification round are passed around, Carina takes one look at the collection (largely cartoon characters this time) and says, “I… think something is missing.”

“Hey!” yells Nebula. “You said they were all blue, dumbass! They’re in black and white!”

“Use your imagination,” sighs Scott.

Skye, who’s commandeered the pen for this round, gleefully yells “SPOOOOOOOOOOON!” when she spots the square with a picture of The Tick.

“That’s not Tommy Wiseau,” Jemma frowns.

That makes Skye giggle even more. “No, it’s The Tick’s battlecry. I need to make you watch that sometime.”

“Great show,” Trip nods.

Fitz blinks. “What the hell are any of you talking about?”

“I keep telling you you need to let us show you The Room,” Jemma says. “If just so you understand moments like this.”

“Must I?”

Skye nods. “Yes. It’s an important cinematic experience.”

The entertainment round seems to be a crapshoot, between Skye’s eagerly rattling off the answer to every question and the Rebel Alliance conferring and seeming confident about their answers. Coulson just looks more and more baffled.

Every table looks lost at the final question. “List ten winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, more commonly known as the Triple Crown?”

Then Melinda glances at Sif and asks, “You know about horses, don’t you?”

Sif nods. “I do. Sir Barton, Affirmed, War Admiral, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Whirlaway...Citation...and…” She pauses to think. “Assault, I think. They’re hard to keep track of.”

While Coulson’s frantically writing down names, Melinda gives Sif a smile. “Well done.”

Fury, who’s been watching all of this, frowns. He’s not sure what to make of this.

Lucky Bombshell, meanwhile, have devoted themselves to giving the names of pornstars as answers, since none of them have any idea of the actual answers. Carina is blushing, but dutifully writing them down. Jupiter Phoenix and the Rebel Alliance can at least fill in War Admiral and Secretariat, because both Skye and Maya have seen Seabiscuit and Secretariat. Chest of Drawers writes in mostly bullshit answers.

Once Lance has tallied up the scores (putting his head in his hands when he reads Lucky Bombshell’s sheet), he hands the sheets to Scott, who, after glancing over them for a moment, asks absentmindedly, “What’s a Jiz Lee?”

Jemma rather drunkenly bursts out laughing; Raina and Lorelei look very smug; Bobbi cringes. She’s not entirely sure what her ex’s porn habit has to do with horse racing, but she is sure she doesn’t want to know.

Glumly, Lance takes a larger swig of his drink than usual, refusing to look anyone in the eye.

Scott coughs awkwardly, then announces, “Well, anyhow, the third place winners of tonight’s game are...Jupiter Phoenix! Second place...Trivia Corps! And the top winners this week are...the Rebel Alliance!”

This time, Jemma bursts out frantically applauding and Skye whoops in delight for a minute, but when Jemma continues to clap she nudges her with her shoulder and murmurs playfully, “Excited?”

Coulson’s pouting and doing a poor job of covering it up. “I have to go,” he says. “I have something to do.”

“At eleven PM?” Sif asks, raising her eyebrow.

“Yes.” He gets up and leaves without further explanation.

Rolling his eyes, Fury slides out of the booth. “See you all later, I guess.”

Chapter Text

Normally Karen gets to take her lunch outside of the office. She goes to get a sandwich in the food court or, if it’s a slow day, she heads across the street to Applebee’s. She usually spends lunch texting Foggy, sure, but it’s still a change of scenery. Today, she’s not so lucky: Garth, who usually comes out of his office to cover her lunches, called in sick. (Or “sick” - she has her doubts.) This means that she’s left eating her crummy pizza at her desk just in case the phone rings and it’s someone who’s too important to leave a message.

And… still texting Foggy, because honestly, her life can be divided into three categories: sleeping, being around Foggy, and texting Foggy.

He’s been on a “telling bad jokes” kick lately (it’s been a slow week at work for him, she figures; not a lot that needs to be done in a school office when it’s too early for finals and too late to switch classes) and he sends her one that’s actually about puns, sort of, that is silly and random and not-gross enough to make her laugh out loud, wildly enough that when the office door opens her first reaction is to try to compose herself and act like nothing is off.

“Hey,” Kara says shyly, “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“You didn’t,” Karen says with a smile. She’s trying to be as polite to her new coworker as she can in hopes that it will eventually segue into friendship.

“What were you laughing at?” Kara asks, setting her takeout container on the beat-up coffee table and sitting down.

“Oh, it’s just a joke, my roommate just texted it to me. It’s like…” She shrugs and reads the text aloud. “So when I was younger I used to submit puns to Boy's Life magazine, because they'd pay you if they published your joke. I sent like ten puns to them per year, hoping at least some of them would get published, but no pun in ten did.”

Kara snickers behind her hand.

“Kinda dumb, right?” Karen asks.

“Kinda, but it’s endearing,” Kara shrugs. She takes a sip of her bottled water, then sits back with her lunch like she’s expecting the conversation to end there.

The thing is, though, Kara’s still new here, and she’s never mentioned friends or anyone in passing or said that she’s got interesting plans after work. Maybe she’s just private, but Karen knows from experience that it might just be loneliness. Moving can be rough, after all, but it’s easier if you get some people in your corner.

So, she continues to offer. “Hey,” she says. “I know why I’m eating back here, I’m savin’ Garth’s ass by doin’ lunchtime phone duty while he goes and flies his dumb plane or whatever it is he does with his spare time. What about you?”

“I usually eat in here,” Kara explains. “Or, that’s what I’ve been doing so far.”

Karen nods sympathetically. “Haven’t made many friends yet?” she asks.

“I’d… rather not be around that many people,” Kara mumbles, fidgeting with her hair.

It suddenly occurs to Karen that Kara’s shyness might have something to do with the relatively new-looking scar on the left side of her face, and she spends half a minute worrying about seeming like a jerk for saying anything before she decides to go for an abrupt subject change. “So!” she exclaims, eager as she can. “How about that new mattress store, huh?”

Well, it’s not really distinctly new to Kara, considering it’s been here longer than she has, but Mattress Firm did, in fact, move into the space that RadioShack vacated, and that’s about the only gossip Karen can think of that doesn’t have to do with people that Kara probably doesn’t know yet.

“It’s all right,” Kara agrees. She talks like she’s measuring her words very carefully. “I needed a new mattress when I got here, so it was pretty convenient.”

“I’m glad,” Karen smiles. “How are you liking it here?”

“Remind me the next time I get it in my head to do a bit of shopping that slow-moving packs of shrieking idiots that block the aisles are the bane of my existence,” calls Irani, striding in with a dramatic eyeroll.

“That’s like hittin’ the annoying customer bingo,” Karen chirps. “Did they leave trash in their wake, too? That’d be really perfect.”

“Blessedly, no. But they did loiter for the entire five minutes I attempted to slip past them in front of Sephora, discussing their various romantic woes.” Irani sighs. “I suppose it serves me right for leaving the sanctuary of this office. You have the right idea,” she adds, smiling at Kara.

Kara’s eyes go wide a minute and she bites her lip. “Maybe, yeah,” she says.

“Anyhow. Enough about my unfortunate encounters. Karen, how are your boys?”

Karen rolls her eyes fondly. “I assume you mean, have they blown up the house or managed to break anything valuable recently?” She shrugs. “Nah, they’re in one piece. So’s the house.”

“Your… boys?” Kara asks.

“Ms. Page has a somewhat nontraditional living arrangement with two young men who currently attend law school,” explains Irani. “As I understand it, they are generally prone to harebrained schemes and physical injuries.”

“I don’t know what’s nontraditional about it!” Karen exclaims, putting on a fake pout. “They needed a roommate, I needed a place to live. It’s not like we all sleep in a pile on the floor. Well, most of the time,” she adds, just to see Kara’s confused expression.

“That, ah…”

“Relax, I’m just messin’ around,” Karen laughs. “They’re cool, and they’re a lot of fun. You should come over sometime, we could get movies or whatever you wanted to do.”

Kara touches her hair again, frowning very intently at her lunch. “I… maybe,” she finally says.

Then they’re interrupted by another new arrival, this one less welcome. “How are you ladies doing on this fine afternoon?” calls Tony, ambling in to lean on Karen’s desk.

“Hello, Mr. Stark.” Irani sounds as if she’s barely holding back her disdain.

“I just stopped in to file a complaint, or really, more of a comment, that involves the temperature of this establishment. You know, what with the coming of spring and all it’s gotten quite a bit warmer in here than usual, I’m sure you’ve noticed, and really I was just wondering, is it hot in here or is it just you?” This is directed at Karen, along with his best charming playboy smile.

Karen’s heard worse lines, but that doesn’t mean she’s in the mood for them. Her response is a roll of her eyes, nothing more.

“If you have nothing better to do than harass my employees, Mr. Stark, I suggest you go find something else to occupy your time before I put in a call to your father.” Irani’s hand is resting on her desk phone.

Tony raises his hands. “Okay, okay, I’m out. Just one more question...does the dress code change with the weather? Cause I have a few small suggestions…”

Kara sets her chopsticks down and looks up to glare at Tony. “Leave,” she all-but-growls.

He does, trying not to let them see how startled he is.

Raising her eyebrows, Irani glances at Karen. Karen just shrugs, equally taken aback.

After a long moment of near-silence, the phone rings shrilly. “Rhomann, would you get that?” calls Irani, too loudly.

Rhomann, whose desk is in the far corner of the office, scurries over to Irani’s desk to grab the phone and yelp, “Hello, Customer Service Department!” into the receiver.

“You know, I could’ve gotten that,” Karen says sheepishly.

Irani shrugs. “It’s fine.” Then she adds, “On a completely different topic, I understand some working environments involve extracurricular outings. Might the two of you be interested in pedicures at some point?”

Chapter Text

“...so you see, Coulson started managing the entire group and Bobbi decided to hell with that, and started her own,” Fitz finishes.

Gwen’s eyes widen. “And here I thought the lab had drama.”

“Yeah, this makes the Bugle look like a functional work environment,” jokes Peter.

“Luckily, this isn’t where any of us work,” Jemma says with a roll of her eyes. “The Applebee’s, I mean. Excepting Hunter, I suppose, he technically works here.”

The door opens, and Thor, Jane, and Hogun enter, heading for Coulson’s table. “Oh, I guess somebody showed up after all,” says Skye with a grin.

“It kinda makes sense,” says Trip. “They’re Sif’s friends.”

Sif grins as they sit down. “I’m glad you could make it,” she says. “We will be victorious!” She immediately glances over at Melinda, as if to make sure her enthusiasm is well-received, and is rewarded with a small smile.

“We’re glad to help out,” Jane says, looking to Thor for more reassurance. (She’s here for his and Sif’s sakes pretty much entirely; she’s had a grudge against Coulson since he confiscated some technically dangerous but perfectly safely-stored samples she was just transferring from school to a class project.)

Hogun offers the faintest of smiles. “It will be interesting.”

Heimdall enters the Applebee’s, prompting Jane to nudge Sif and say, “I didn’t know you’d convinced him to come, too.”

“I didn’t,” says Sif, tilting her head.

It becomes clear what’s going on when Heimdall sits down at the table next to Victoria and Isabelle, nodding fondly at the former.

“Oh,” Jane says faintly.

“Et tu, Heimdall?” calls Sif. “Never figured you for a traitor.”

Heimdall chuckles. “You are very loyal, Sif. As am I, in my own way. I could not be loyal to one who would seek to manage me.”

Laughing in disbelief, Sif replies, “I ll be the judge of who’s doing that, I think.” Though secretly she agrees with him.

“I’m so glad we’re spared any attempts at talking smack,” Victoria says to Isabelle

“I’m not bad at it, when the subject arises,” replies Isabelle, “but I’d just as soon not.”

Coulson finally appears, giving a perfunctory nod to the newest team members before sitting down. Next to him, the corner of Melinda’s mouth turns downward just slightly.

Just after him, Fury wanders in, looking generally done with everything. “Thor, Sif, Hogun,” he grunts.

Anne Weaver and Hank McCoy take their places at the table with the rest of the Rebel Alliance, and Gwen can’t help but gasp. “Dr. McCoy! and Dr. Weaver! This is serious.” Peter nods, eyes wide.

Akela, who’s been quiet since she arrived, tilts her head. “I wouldn’t have expected to see her here.”

“I’m still not entirely sure why she’s personally concerned with showing up a grandiose mall cop,” Jemma shrugs, sipping her drink, “but it’s… nice to see her outside of school.”

“Did you think she was stuck there like a ghost?” teases Skye.

‘No,” Jemma retorts. “I just… I’m glad she’s…”

“You're staring. You have the hots for her.” Skye bumps Jemma with her shoulder. “You like staring at her.”

Fitz is making a face like he smells something awful. “Oh look, Bobbi and Mack are here,” he says, blatantly changing the subject.

And so they are, Bobbi grinning and reaching to shake Hank’s hand before she sits down. “I’m told this event can get rather exciting,” says Hank. “It seemed a better option than continuing with the endless drudgery of grading papers.”

“The high likelihood of winning doesn’t hurt either,” Bobbi quips.

There’s a sudden commotion near the entrance: Maria and Maya are standing there with several Hydra members, Maria poking the chest of a barrel-chested one and growling, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“It’s okay, Maria,” Maya mumbles, rolling her eyes.

“No it’s not!” protests Maria. “You will apologize to her.”

“Or what?”

“Or I’ve got ten thousand volts right here with your name on it.” Maria’s hand drifts down to her jacket pocket, ghosting over a telltale lump.

Coulson frowns. “She’s not supposed to take that off mall premises.”

“Hell yeah!” Darcy calls from the Lucky Bombshell table. “Do it, Officer Mom!”

“As funny as it would be an’ all, probably not the best idea,” says Rogue, putting her hand on Darcy’s arm.

Darcy sighs dramatically. “Fine, fine, ruin the fun,” she says.

Skye catches Darcy’s eye and mouths Ugh, jerking her thumb towards the Nazi table. If Hill doesn’t tase them, I will, Darcy mouths back.

Besides Nebula and Carina, the other members of Lucky Bombshell still haven’t arrived, and Nebula is taking this opportunity to casually play with her butterfly knife while glaring at Chest of Drawers’ table. Once Maria starts arguing with them, Nebula shifts her attention and her movements become more deliberate as an unsettling grin creeps over her face.

Carina, on the other hand, is frowning. “I’m starting to worry,” she says as she watches Maria and Maya take their seats and greet their teammates. “Where are they?”

Darcy shrugs. “I mean, I don’t know them as well as you, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they just got bored,” she says.

“No, they said they were going to be here!” Carina pouts. “I’m just… Raina’s been so off lately. More off than usual. And last time we were here, that…”

Nebula rolls her eyes and puts her hand on Carina’s shoulder. “It’ll be fine. They’ll be here. Hey, speaking of.” She points toward the entrance, where Lorelei and Raina have just come in. Lorelei’s hair is oddly disheveled, and she and Raina are wearing identical smug expressions. “I see they were fucking,” Nebula snarks.

Lance, showing uncharacteristic concern, makes a beeline for the two of them and escorts them to Lucky Bombshell’s table. Partially out of an interest in Lorelei, but he can also see bandages on Raina’s wrists and since he knows some of Ward’s reputation, he’s concerned for her. “How are we doin’ tonight, ladies?” he asks. “Everything...all right?” He looks blatantly at Raina’s wrists as he asks the question.

Raina smiles placidly, staring directly at the Hydra table for a moment before looking Lance in the eye. “No damage that’s going to last,” she says with some of her eerie calm.

“D’you, uh...d’you want me to give him some lasting damage?”

Lorelei smirks. “That won’t be necessary,” she murmurs, reaching for Lance’s hand, “but thank you for your concern. Sweetness like that could be rewarded.”

“What the fuck is going on over there,” Bobbi halfway-asks, watching this exchange with a mix of horror and fascination.

Chuckling, Lance shakes his head. “It’s a great offer, darlin’, but it seems like you’re needed elsewhere.” He glances at Raina’s wrists.

“What are gal pals for,” Darcy interjects with a smile.

As Lance turns to leave, Nebula hisses, “The fuck?”

Raina glances back to the Hydra table. “Well, it’s over, I feel safe telling you now,” she stage-whispers. “A certain prominently-cheekboned someone plays neither safe nor sane and only dubiously consensually.”

Carina’s eyes go wide. “Did he…”

“I won’t alarm you with the messy details,” Raina says. “I knew what I was doing and these are the worst of it.” She holds up her wrists. “I’ll be okay, I promise.”

“What… what…” Carina stops herself from reaching for Raina’s hand, but only just.

“Improper handcuff usage,” Raina explains.

“That’s disgusting,” Darcy says. “Dude, I’m so sorry. There’s no excuse to play dangerously.”

Meanwhile, Rumlow nudges Ward. “Why do those weird girls keep staring at you?”

“Huh? Oh.” Ward shrugs. “I had a thing going with the flowers one. She couldn’t handle me.”

Rumlow rolls his eyes. “You know fucking Skye’s sister isn’t the best way to get to fuck Skye, right?”

“Please. Like you’ve never had something on the side.”

Scott walks out from the back room and calls, “Okay, everyone! We’re gonna get started! I’m Scott Summers, your emcee.” He begins to explain the rules and pass out the sheets.

Thor tilts his head. “This has many more rules than the trivia games I have attended previously. There, we were merely expected to shout the answers.”

“Yes,” says Sif. “I miss those sometimes. This is fun, but much too quiet.” She grins. “I enjoyed screaming the answers over everyone else.”

“Hooligans,” Jane admonishes, rolling her eyes fondly.

The first general question Scott reads is, “What was the full name of the founder of J.C. Penney? Both names must be written down, no half-credit for first name only.”

Skye snorts. “Yeah, we’re not getting this.” She grabs the sheet and scribbles Jesus Christ.

“James Cash,” Victoria mutters to her group. “Which I only remember because somebody giving their child the middle name ‘Cash’ when their last name was already ‘Penney’ is moronic.”

Maria makes a face. “That’s awful.”

“I’ve heard stupider names,” Bobbi shrugs, looking pointedly in her ex’s direction.

Fury mutters the name in Coulson’s direction, who writes it down. Maria, noticing this, smirks and sends Fury a text: did you know him personally, grandpa? Fury glances at his phone and then glares at her.

“This hasn’t exactly indicated anyone as being completely hopeless,” Anne observes. “But it’s only one question. Setting a mediocre tone for the questions to come.”

“In Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures, the number four is considered unlucky. Why?” Scott asks.

Chest of Drawers groans almost in unison. “This isn’t fucking fair,” grumbles Garrett. “How are we supposed to know that shit?”

“It’s because the word shi means both ‘four’ and ‘death,’” explains Melinda to her team, smirking. “Cultural superstitions are a bit ridiculous.”

“I think it’s very interesting!” says Sif, smiling at her. Then she catches Thor making an exaggerated moony face at her and flips him off under the table.

Bobbi takes the pen to scribble her answer down, and Mack comments, while glancing around at the other teams, “I know why you know this, and May, but I’m not sure why Raina does.”

“Who knows why Raina knows any of the stuff she knows,” replies Maria with a chuckle. “She’s a mystery.”

Akela’s writing the answer down, while Skye frowns. “I feel like I should know this, but the only Chinese I know is cussing, and most of what I know is from Mulan. Maybe I’ll ask my mom when we go.”

“Do you want me to remind you?” Jemma asks. “Since… you know. Random trivia detail. And we’re drinking. I can write it down that you wanted to know?”

“You’re adorable,” says Skye, kissing her cheek. “If you wanna. It’s not really important.”

Jemma blushes at the compliment, then pulls her phone out to make a note, just in case.

The next few questions go fairly well, with most groups writing at least something down, and the final question is “What substance is the sweetest on earth, at more than 200,000 times sweeter than table sugar?”

“Goddammit, Ward, where’s your science friend?” growls Rumlow. The rest of Chest of Drawers looks helpless.

“Lugduname,” Jemma whisper-shouts.

“You beat me to it!” whines Fitz, looking genuinely hurt. He glances over at Gwen and Peter for sympathy, but they’re too busy kissing to notice. Trip, seeing his distress, puts his arm around him.

Akela’s eyes are wide. “I feel as if I’m in a cartoon.”

“It’s normal,” Darcy says, leaning so Akela might hear her better. This is another one of the questions that of their group only Raina seems to know, so the rest of Lucky Bombshell is pretty much just eavesdropping on their peers.

“It’s lugduname,” Maya says to Bobbi. “L-u-... hell, you don’t need me to spell it for you, you know what I’m talking about.” Bobbi chuckles, and to prove it she’s already writing.

Maria smiles at Maya. “We’re lucky to have you.”

Maya ducks her head to hide her smile (it doesn’t work).

In the music round, the first song involves a screaming male voice going on about “SUFFOCATION NO BREATHING” and everyone looks perturbed. “He should see someone about that,” jokes Gwen.

“I’m not sure how he can sing about it if he can’t breathe, but whatever,” Jemma says with a very tipsy sort of shrug. (Also her use of the word “whatever” pretty well indicates her intoxication.)

“Papa Roach is awesome,” comments one Nazi as Ward writes the answer down.

The next song is “Bring Me To Life,” which everyone either immediately recognizes and looks embarrassed about or appears to be frantically trying to place. “Y’know, in the Kidz Bop version someone forgets the words and literally just fucking goes RUFF,” comments Skye with a grin.

“I love dogs,” Darcy all but moans, leaning all the way into the aisle. “I’ve always loved dogs.”

Skye’s laughter in response is nearly hysterical.

“Is this the shopping mall punk music round?” Raina asks with distaste, idly rubbing her wrist. After a moment she says to Carina, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Carina replies, and this time she really does lay a hand over Raina’s. “You should stop fussing so the wound doesn’t get aggravated, okay?”

“Okay,” Raina says, seeming for a split second genuinely confused by Carina’s giving a damn.

“The younger generation,” Anne says to Hank, shrugging.

Hank laughs. “I’m not sure our generation necessarily had better taste in music, truth be told.”

The next song clip, which begins “Thinkin' of you's workin' up an appetite, looking forward to a little afternoon delight,” makes Skye giggle and say, “Afternoon Delight was more adult-themed than its innocent melody would have you believe.”

“Yeah, your generation isn’t looking so great about now,” Bobbi says smugly.

“I believe this song first charted in 1976, at which point I was less than a year old and Anne was but a twinkle in her parents’ eyes,” Hank replies. “We cannot be blamed for the poor taste of our elders.”

“I’m pretty sure Nazis had something to do with this,” says Mack, his head in his hands.

“I loved this song as a boy,” says Garrett to the rest of his team.

At the end of the round, as Scott reads off the answers, Nebula watches the other teams celebrating and snarks, “Nazi Squad didn’t do that bad.”

“It makes sense,” Lorelei remarks. “They’re shit, the music was shit.”

Trivia Corps are mostly watching the Rebel Alliance nervously. The Alliance members look generally smug. “Well, they seem to have done alright for themselves,” says Coulson. His smile looks strained.

“Just wait until the sports round!” Sif calls to Heimdall. “You’ve never even watched a game on TV, have you?”

“Not willingly,” replies Heimdall with a laugh. “We shall see how this turns out.”

Darcy grabs a spare answer sheet and scribbles on it before folding it into a paper airplane and sailing it over to Skye. After unfolding it and reading it, Skye calls back, “You stuck-up half-witted scruffy-looking nerf herder!”

Darcy sticks her tongue out, but she’s just fucking around and that much is clear; Rogue and Jemma exchange amused glances.

The sports round starts up, beginning with the question, “In the history of Major League Baseball, how many perfect games have there been?”

“The answer is eighteen,” says Hogun quietly.

“Thank you,” replies Coulson as he writes it down.

There are snickers from Lucky Bombshell as they write down 69. The members of Jupiter Phoenix are practically falling over themselves to write 42, since they don’t have a hope of getting it right anyway.

“Fuck if I know,” says Rumlow. “So Ward, what were you saying earlier about that new chick at the mall?”

“Kara? Yeah, she’s cute. I gave her my number earlier today.” Ward shrugs. “After the thing with Flowers didn’t work out, I thought maybe I’d try for something a little different.”

“If by different you mean fucked up,” says one of his teammates. “You’ve seen her face, right? Like, all of her face?”

Ward rolls his eyes. “You have to look past that. The insecure ones, the ones who don’t get this kind of attention? They’re way more likely to agree to anything.”

Smiling, Garrett nods. “Brilliant.”

They’ve all been speaking somewhat quietly, since Ward knows that if Raina or any of the other, more aggressive girls hears them, he’ll get an earful. He’s relieved to see that she seems to be talking intensely with the hot redhead. He can’t remember her name since she made him call her Mistress, and it doesn’t seem important to learn it now.

Rumlow catches him staring and says, “Don’t tell me you’re gunning for a repeat performance.”

“Maybe,” he replies casually. “It’d be two more than you’ve gotten from her.”

Scott’s next question is “What is the technical term for the birdie in badminton?”

“Shuttlecock,” Jemma whispers. “I don’t know why I know this.”

Skye giggles and repeats, “Cock.”

“You might’ve read it somewhere?” suggests Trip. “I know I have a bunch of weird shit in my head that just comes from having read it randomly.”

“I’m pretty sure like half of the things I know come from just reading,” says Peter.

Melinda and Sif, of course, know the answer. “If I never hear another person laughing about that word, it will be too soon,” mutters Melinda.

Thor gets very excited about the next question - “What football team was the first to put a logo on their helmets?” - and he and Sif say “Los Angeles Rams!” at the same time, in almost-too-loud voices. Hogun rolls his eyes and smiles at them.

“Still not used to quiet trivia, I see,” Jane teases.

Sif shrugs. “If I say it quietly, he’ll get credit.” She elbows Thor, who returns it with a grin.

Coulson glances at Fury, eyes wide. Fury gives him a motherfucker, what do you expect me to do? look.

Over at the Rebel Alliance table, the more overtly academically-minded team members are looking at Bobbi and Maria and Isabelle, the usual go-tos for sports, but all three of them are shrugging helplessly. “I know how to play football, I don’t know about their damn helmets except that they really ought to wear them,” Bobbi says.

“There aren’t hot girls, so I don’t care,” Isabelle says cavalierly.

Hank raises a finger. “I actually know this. I read a fascinating book on the history of the sport once. The Los Angeles Rams were the first, in 1948, I believe.”

Anne can’t help but smirk.

“What have sixty eight percent of hockey players lost at least one of?” asks Scott.

“Oh, crud,” Carina mutters, preemptively surrendering her pencil to Lorelei.

“Well, I’m just guessing, but it is a very violent sport,” Lorelei says, writing down “testicle” with a serene smile. Darcy and Rogue giggle.

Gwen’s snickering as she suggests, “An academic debate?” to Trip, who’s holding the pen at the moment.

“Probably not inaccurate,” he says, grinning as he writes it down.

The members of Chest of Drawers keep glancing nervously at Trivia Corps and the Rebel Alliance. “I don’t suppose anybody knows this?” asks Ward, and is met with silence.

After a moment, someone asks, “...hockey games?”

Garrett snorts. “So the other thirty two percent have won every game they ever played?” he asks with a sneer.

Ward flinches.

When the history round starts up, Chest of Drawers looks much more confident. Until, that is, the first question. “Black History Month started as Negro History Week on February 12, 1926,” says Scott, looking mildly embarrassed about saying the original name. “Why did founder Carter G. Woodson designate that week?”

“Hey, I know this!” says Trip with a grin. “It’s ‘cause it lines up with both Frederick Douglass and Abe Lincoln’s birthdays.”

Fitz sighs and nestles into Trip’s side. “Are you all jealous of me yet?”

“Alright, fine, if we say yes will you stop bragging about how perfect Trip is all the time?” groans Gwen, but she’s grinning.

“Aw, you brag about me? That’s so cute.” Trip kisses Fitz on the cheek, which makes Fitz squeak happily.

Bobbi reaches for the pen, twirling it a couple of times as she explains, “Frederick Douglass’ and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. Convenient when things work out like that, I guess.”

“I think this one has the Nazis spooked,” Victoria chuckles, nodding at the Chest of Drawers table.

Rumlow is grumbling about how “this is PC bullshit, this is rigged,” and Garrett’s glaring in Scott’s general direction.

Their luck doesn’t improve with the next question: “Name the three sub-tribes of the Blackfoot Indian tribe.”

“Fuck me,” says Grant Ward cheerfully.

Garrett writes something down, looking defeated.

“I’m going to partially blame my not knowing this on the cultural slant of the American education system,” Maya says halfheartedly. “Anyone?”

Mack shrugs. “I think I remember one of them being the Siksika, but I’ve got no clue about the other two. Sorry.”

“Hell, it’s more than I know.” Maria frowns.

“Shit,” Jemma says, sounding distinctly alarmed.

Fitz’s ears are turning red. “I’d like to blame the education system as well,” he mumbles.

Coulson also looks embarrassed, but like he’s annoyed about his embarrassment.

Scott, miraculously sensing the discomfort in the room, quickly moves on. “What was the dominant social and political ideology during Korea’s Yi dynasty?”

“Oh come on!” Chest of Drawers looks about two seconds from rioting.

“Confucianism,” Victoria says quietly, nodding as Maya writes it down. When she looks around, she sees that the non-Hydra tables are writing down answers, guided by, respectively, Darcy and Hogun and Akela, and she figures that makes sense because it’s not exactly a difficult question.

One question doesn’t make the Nazis balk: “Which country was the first to adopt Daylight Saving Time?” The answer is Germany, which their triumphant smirks make obvious.

“That’s predictable,” sighs Mack.

They’re not looking so smug at the next question, though. “What is the supposed landing site of Noah’s Ark? Place name and country needed.”

“I actually know this,” says Skye, frowning in concentration. “Or I did. It’s in Turkey, it’s a mountain. Mount...Ar...Arar…”

“Ararat?” asks Akela.

“Yeah!” Skye grins. “That year of Catholic school is finally good for something!”

“Yes, my grandparents were very insistent on my learning what they felt were essential parts of history.” Akela makes a face.

Isabelle says the answer, then glances at Victoria, and they both burst into giggles. Giggling is not, to Bobbi’s knowledge, something that either of them do very often, so she’s quick to ask, “Are we missing some crucial joke?”

“Oh, just amusement over our mutual experiences in Catholic school,” says Isabelle. “Not that I was a very good Catholic even back then. The uniforms made it difficult.”

Bobbi smirks. “Secular private school had its advantages,” she half-agrees.

By the end of the round, Chest of Drawers is looking rattled, having had no answers for any of the other questions. Even Trivia Corps looks smug about this. Melinda catches Anne’s eye for a moment and they exchange respectful “we know who the real enemy here is” nods.

Scott passes out photo sheets and explains, “You’ll have five minutes to list as many of these people as you can. The common factor here is that they’re all bald.”

Darcy leans out of her seat so she can make direct eye contact with Skye and, in a put-on mediocre baritone, sing, “I am the one who knooooooooocks.”

“Is this normal?” Carina whispers to Rogue.

“Yeah,” says Rogue, snorting. “She’s pretty much the internet in a person’s body.” She wraps her arm around Darcy’s waist.

Meanwhile, Skye is singing “I’m bluuuuuue rock caaaaaaandy” to herself while the rest of her team scrambles to come up with the names.

“Skye, you’re wasting time, help us,” Jemma hisses, tugging on her girlfriend’s sleeve.

“Well, that’s Vin Diesel,” Skye says without missing a beat. “And Ripley from Alien, and Dr. Evil.”

“Oh, Evie from V for Vendetta,” says Maya, pointing and nodding.

“I don’t know how I expected there would be a sheet full of bald people without fucking Walter White,” Raina sighs dramatically, letting her head rest on Lorelei’s shoulder.

Nebula snorts. “Maybe someday fucking Walter White will stay dead.”

“Oh, but Taye Diggs is nice to look at,” Darcy offers.

Rogue grins and replies, “Can’t argue with that.”

As Trivia Corps fills in the answers as best they can, Coulson comments, “I’m really liking that Breaking Bad show. Walter White’s an interesting man.”

Fury and Melinda both say nothing, but in a calculated sort of way. Sif, on the other hand, narrows her eyes and asks, carefully, “And...how do you feel about Skyler?”

Shrugging, Coulson replies, “I’m not that far in. I don’t have much of an opinion. I hear she gets harder to like.”

“Uh huh.”

“Oh, Voldemort!” Jemma exclaims, sounding much too cheerful about the prospect.

Fitz squeaks in horror. “You said his name!” he whispers.

“Nerds,” says Skye affectionately.

“Spoken like a dumbass Gryf,” replies Gwen with a mischievous grin.

“Hey, hey! No House trash-talking!”

Chest of Drawers is grumbling amongst themselves. “I liked Walter White fine up until that last season,” says Garrett.

“It’s a shame,” agrees Ward.

Nebula, who’s gotten bored and is eavesdropping on the other teams, leans over to poke Raina’s arm and hisses, “So you said you knew what you were doing with that shitbag, why did you let him do that to you if you knew about it beforehand?”

“I didn’t know about this,” Raina says, nodding to her wrists. “I had my suspicions.”

“But why fuck him at all? I mean, you’re clearly not hurting for company.”

“Nebula,” Carina says warningly, “you’re starting to sound judgmental.”

Nebula sighs. “Sorry. I guess I didn’t mean it that way, probably, but seriously, why?”

“The world needed to see proof of what he’s capable of,” Raina murmurs.

Nebula starts to demand an explanation, but before she can finish Scott calls, “Time! Turn in your sheets, please!” Nebula’s expression is similar to a cat being bathed.

The entertainment round begins with the question, “From where is the word Jedi thought to originate?”

Bobbi’s eyes are gleaming. “Jidai Geki,” she says. “It’s the Japanese samurai soap opera genre.” She’s as smug as she’s been all night.

Isabelle raises her eyebrows. “It’s hot that you know that.”

“And it’s cute when you let your nerdy side out,” Victoria tells Isabelle.

That makes Isabelle sigh and lean over to nuzzle Victoria’s cheek. Heimdall smiles at this uncharacteristic softness from Victoria, but says nothing.

Maya, meanwhile, is looking around to see who else seems to have this question taken care of. Skye, which makes sense because she’s pretty outspoken about being into things like this; Carina, which is a little bit surprising because she seems a little too twee to be into Star Wars but then again, not too twee to be into Japanese culture and language.

Coulson’s looking hopefully around at his team, to no avail. “I love Star Wars, but I’m hopeless with behind-the-scenes stuff,” says Sif apologetically (in Melinda’s direction).

“That’s all right,” Jane says diplomatically. “I think we’re still doing pretty well.”

Scott’s next question is “Which television show featured the first scripted interracial kiss, and which two characters was it between?”

“Kirk and Uhura in Star Trek,” says Trip immediately.

Skye leans over to high five him.

“Although,” Trip adds, “it was while they were under the telekinetic influence of Platonians and neither of them were particularly into the other, so I’m not sure how much of a positive thing it actually is, in hindsight.”

Akela grimaces. “Ah, yes. I hate that episode. At least the new films, while heavily flawed, sometimes allow Uhura to do things.”

“And Spock and Uhura look hot together,” Skye chimes in.

“Actually,” Hank is telling his teammates, “in certain online communities there is debate about whether this should be considered the first interracial kiss on television. A 1966 episode of Wild Wild West and of Mission: Impossible and I Spy feature kisses between a white man and an Asian woman, and a white man and biracial woman, respectively. The latter also happened in another Star Trek episode the previous year. Though of course in popular culture, when one thinks of ‘interracial marriage,’ white and black is the first pairing to come to mind, so perhaps that contributes to the potential misconception.”

“I’m not sure you should be the one to be making that statement, darling,” Anne says with a little smirk, resting her hand on top of Hank’s.

Hank chuckles. “Well yes, that’s a fair point.”

There’s vague grumbling coming from Chest of Drawers, since a few of them know the answer but none of them are happy about it (the fact of the answer or that they know about it). Darcy is writing an answer down and she’s pretty sure she’s correct, but she and Raina are making faces at each other because of it. Over at Trivia Corps, Coulson is guessing (his teammates all look equally blank).

The next question is “What is generally considered to be the most-covered song in history?”

Coulson grins. “‘Yesterday’! That’s one of my favorite songs.”

It’s not a horrible song, it’s pretty good, but Jane still has to work not to roll her eyes. He’s really a very predictable human being. Not for the first time tonight, she wishes she was over at the Rebel Alliance table, where she can currently see Maya giving the answer, where she can hypothetically see herself having more fun.

“I can’t help but wonder,” Anne murmurs, “what the point of even coming is when you’re so clearly not enjoying yourself.” She says this to her team but without taking her eyes off the Trivia Corps table, where the only ones smiling are Coulson and Thor.

Maria shrugs. “Loyalty? I don’t get it either, but knowing Melinda and Sif, that makes sense.”

By the time the last question rolls around - “What was the name of the shark in Jaws?” - that team appears to have given up entirely. Jane and Thor are having a separate conversation, Hogun’s on his phone, Melinda and Sif seem to be teasing each other (Melinda is smiling), and Fury is...Fury.

“That’s sort of sad,” Carina murmurs.

“Eh,” grunts Nebula. “Paul Blart’ll be okay. And it might teach him not to order everyone around so much.”

The final round involves listing the top 10 grossing movies of all time. “Adjusted for inflation,” Scott is quick to add.

Star Wars!” yelps Skye immediately.

Fitz has pulled out his phone to access the calculator and starts grumbling about the vagueness of the question and the lack of clarification about inflation rates. Trip pats him on the back reassuringly.

Chest of Drawers seems to have utterly given up. Ward is writing, but he’s looking defeated.

Titanic,” Lorelei says. “I was Rose for Halloween once.”

Nebula makes a noise of disgust. “I hate that movie.”

“Yeah, I do too,” Lorelei shrugs. “It’s a long story.”

“Does it have to do with somebody you were fucking?”

“Not that long, apparently.”

“Also The Sound of Music,” Raina says.

Over at the Rebel Alliance’s table, Mack suggests, “Star Wars and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” He grins playfully at Bobbi. “Beat you to it.”

“Yeah, well, Gone With the Wind and Titanic and Jaws,” Bobbi counters, like they’re arguing.

“Also Avatar,” Maya adds, pulling a face.

“Wouldn’t The Ten Commandments be?” Victoria asks Isabelle.

Isabelle frowns. “Probably? I know they made us watch that, but I don’t remember most of it.”

Meanwhile, Trivia Corps has devolved into Coulson attempting to write down all of the answers himself, since no one else really cares. He manages to write down Avatar, Titanic, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, and Harry Potter before looking desperately at Melinda. “Do you know any of these?” he asks hopefully.

“Probably Gone With the Wind,” she says.

When the round finishes, Scott collects the score sheets and passes them to Lance, who tallies them up. To his satisfaction, he notices that Bobbi’s team have won the night - not that he would’ve admitted to rooting for them, but Coulson was being a tosser after all, so why not root for the group that at least doesn’t have a micromanager leading it?

Jupiter Phoenix gets second place, just slightly ahead of Trivia Corps, and Lance is amused to watch Coulson’s mouth fall open a bit as his team is announced in third place. Meanwhile, the members of Jupiter Phoenix shriek in delight and exchange high fives. The rest of Trivia Corps seem nonplussed by their loss.

Bobbi’s wearing that familiar smug expression that he hates so much, but he has to admit, she’s earned this.

Chapter Text

>>I understand why your others might not want to come, but you should really think about it some time. The rush of winning is pretty nice.

Bobbi chuckles to herself, sliding her phone back in the front pocket of her purse. She’s sitting on one of the benches in the middle of the corridor, waiting for Mack to come find her so they can do lunch; doing lunch has become more difficult since he got his new job, but she doesn’t hold that against him. Waiting for him is as good of a time to return texts as any, and she and Sharon have been having an ongoing conversation about the hilarious trivia debacle for the last few days.

After another minute or so, Mack appears and ambles over to her. “Hey.”

“Hey yourself,” she says, immediately checking his wrist for evidence. “Nice watch you’ve got there.”

He chuckles. “Thanks. Took your advice. Bruce was really helpful.”

“That so,” she grins.

“I see what you’re doing,” he sighs. “Meddling with me like I’m a damn doll.”

“What are you talking about!” Bobbi exclaims, although she doesn’t really bother to make it sound genuine. “You needed a watch, I pointed you in the right direction. The selection at Kohl’s is sadly lacking.”

Mack grins. “I do like this watch. Your plan’s not quite foolproof, though. I don’t have to go back to the watch store.”

“Well, you don’t have to do anything,” she replies airily.

“He definitely didn’t give me his number either, since I know you’re dyin’ to ask.”

She sighs. “Am I really that transparent?”

“I know you,” he replies. “Just ‘cause you don’t get the warm fuzzies about people doesn’t mean you can orchestrate other people’s love lives.”

“Hey, I get warm fuzzies,” Bobbi retorts. “Not the warm fuzzies, but they’re no less important.” She shrugs and finally stands. “Anyway, I just wanna make sure you’re happy.”

He smiles. “I know. But I am capable of finding my own dates.”

“I know, but you’ve been moping around since you and Tim broke up -”

“I don’t mope,” Mack interrupts.

“You’ve been very masculinely but sadly walking around,” Bobbi corrects, “and I don’t like it.”

“Your concern is touching,” he deadpans. “I’m fine, really. Did you wanna get lunch still?”

“Yeah,” she agrees. “Do you mind if we stop in here really quick? I’m looking for a book that Pages doesn’t have, and Ian said it might be down here.” She nods to the science store.

He shrugs. “Sure, why not.”

Bobbi smiles before leading the way in. Unlike a lot of the stores in this mall, this one is quiet, impeccably organized, and unlikely to be visited by screaming children: this, matched with its proximity to her own store, has made it one of Bobbi’s favorite places to wander in during breaks.

“So what exactly were you looking for?” asks Mack, heading for the bookshelf.

“Oh, just a book,” she says lightly. “You didn’t tell me what you two did talk about, though.”

He sighs. “Should’ve known. We were talking about work, mostly. He said that job is the most relaxing one he’s ever had.”

From the general direction of the doorway comes a loud “Sssshhhh” followed by soft giggling. It’s attributable to Darcy, who’s holding Rogue’s hand in one of her own and a paper bag clearly marked “JANE” in the other.

“You realize this ain’t one of those places that’ll toss you out for talkin’ too loud, right?” asks Rogue with a smirk. She’s used to this.

“No, but it feels respectful to be quiet in here,” Darcy says, stopping to examine a rack of DNA plushies (one of the store’s few concessions to the less science-genius-y customer). “Besides, I think they’re talking about something interesting. I wanna hear.”

“Relaxing, not boring, so he meant it as a positive,” Bobbi muses, unaware of the eavesdroppers (or maybe just not caring). “Positives are a good place to start.”

“Sure,” replies Mack, rolling his eyes fondly. “He seems like a sweet guy. Quiet, kind of awkward. Nervous. But he calmed down once he started showing me watches.”

“Yeah, the few times I’ve talked to him he’s been about like that,” she agrees. “Like there’d be a lot more to know the closer you were with him, but he’s already very nice to be around.”

Mack nods. “Something like that,” he says, as if he’s choosing his words carefully.

“Who’re they talkin’ about?” murmurs Rogue to Darcy.

“I’m not entirely sure yet,” Darcy replies, fascinated.

“So you didn’t get his number yet, but did he leave room to think you might?” Bobbi presses.

Shrugging, Mack keeps his face neutral (not without considerable effort). “He told me if anything went wrong with my watch, I should come in and talk to him about it. I doubt that was the salesman talking.”

“Oh my god,” Darcy whispers, “I think they’re talking about Bruce. That is so crazy.”

Rogue frowns. “Who’s Bruce?”

“He’s this really shy, really nice guy who works in the watch store,” Darcy explains. “I don’t actually know him that well, which is why it’s crazy. I know everyone.”

“Yeah, that is weird,” teases Rogue. “I’d have thought you’da wandered in and introduced yourself first thing.”

“Oh, I’ve spoken to him,” Darcy shrugs. “I just don’t know him well. I think he’s sorta friends with Stark, which makes even less sense to me.”

“Huh.” Rogue tilts her head. “Stark like that rich prettyboy who works at Sharper Images? I can’t see that.”

Darcy nods very seriously. “I mean, key word sorta, I don’t know that he’s capable of any more than that, but y’know.” Jane comes out of the back room, holding a case of driver bit kits, and Darcy calls, “Hey, weirdo, I brought you lunch.”

Jane rolls her eyes and sets the case down dramatically before responding, “Do I have to buy you dinner to make up for it?”

Darcy looks affronted. “What the hell, Jane,” she mutters, coming to stand next to her friend. “I’m just trying to be nice. I made sandwiches.”

“You make enough for two people?” Jane asks.

“Why, I do declare, roomie,” Darcy says, batting her eyelashes. “I’m already promised to another this lunch hour.”

Rogue scoffs.

“I was actually asking for Helen,” Jane explains, nodding to the pretty Korean woman behind the counter, who’s been reading this entire time but now looks up with a shy wave.

“Finally we meet!” Darcy exclaims, bounding over to the counter. “I keep hearing about this brilliant new transfer student-slash-coworker. I’m starting to worry for Jane’s boyfriend.”

Helen smiles, and it’s coy enough that Darcy is delighted. “I think Thor will be fine,” she says. “I have no plans of trying to fill his shoes.”

“Helen, this is Darcy,” Jane says, deciding introductions are more important than restocking for the moment. “My loudmouth roommate. Darcy, this is Helen.”

Meanwhile, Mack’s spotted a giant box of drill bits and yelps in excitement.

“You are such a dork,” Bobbi laughs.

Mack purposefully ignores her in favor of reading down the list of the toolbox’s contents.

Rogue rolls her eyes and smirks as she waves at Helen. “Darce, you’re ridiculous. Hey there, I’m Rogue.”

Helen nods politely. “It’s nice to meet you, Darcy, Rogue,” she says. “Are you the reasons I keep seeing Jane in the library past midnight?”

Darcy bursts out laughing, so loud that she has to stifle the sound against Rogue’s shoulder; Rogue snorts and replies, “‘Spose I am.”

“Youthful indiscretions,” Bobbi says nostalgically, in Mack’s general direction.

“You’re one to talk,” he replies, grinning.

“You’re only allowed to tease me about the indiscretions you’ve actually witnessed,” she retorts.

“I saw the aftermath of one, that was enough.”

Bobbi rolls her eyes, but she knows better than to argue that particular point and instead waves at the cluster of people by the counter. “Since it’s weird being the only ones in the room who haven’t participated in formal introductions now, hi, I’m Bobbi, and I’m a science dilettante,” she says blithely.

“And I’m Mack.” Mack offers a hand. “Formerly of RadioShack, now at Best Buy.”

“From what I hear, it’s good that you made the switch,” Helen declares, because she hasn’t at all had a hard time picking up the rumors about this town (the starry-eyed girl in the genetic neurobiology course she’s TAing is prone to very expository monologues to friends before and after class, for example).

Mack laughs. “Yeah, well, I can’t say I was heartbroken about losing that job. Weird working environment.”

They’re all busy talking and don’t notice the pair who’ve walked in right away: a boy and a girl, young-looking but obviously not teenagers, who are walking so close together that it seems like they’re moving as one. The girl has long dark hair that looks as if it hasn’t been combed in a while, and she’s wearing a worn red leather jacket and black arm warmers. The boy has obviously bleached white-blond hair and seems to be a walking Under Armor advertisement. He follows close behind the girl, who seems preoccupied with looking at every single thing and person in the store. She’s staring intensely at it all.

Finally Jane decides everyone is settled enough into the conversation that she can get back to her restocking, and after a few moments of that she becomes very aware of the newcomers. Like a good employee, she smiles and says, “Can I help you find anything?”

“Maybe,” says the girl. “I am here to find something to hold onto, something that squishes, perhaps. Something small. I had a ball that was very nice to squish, but then he-” she indicates the boy - “threw it out the car window.”

“It was an accident!” protests the boy, but he’s grinning.

“My brother has many such ‘accidents,’” she continues. “So I asked him to buy me another.”

Jane makes the slightest of faces, not entirely following, but Helen nods, marking her place in her book with a blue ribbon and setting it on the counter. “I think we may have some options,” she says as she comes around to demonstrate and the others resume their conversation. “They are officially marketed as stress balls, but I find that many people in charge of marketing have a very narrow view of the world.”

The girl continues to stare at Helen, her expression unchanged. After a long moment, she nods.

“I’m told that these are the most popular ones,” Helen begins, holding up a pink ball covered in a mesh webbing and small spikes. “They have a playful air, which I know many people appreciate when they look to relax.”

Taking the one Helen offers her, the girl squeezes it, then makes a soft unhappy noise. “No, too spiky,” she says, handing it back. “Something less pointy.”

The boy reaches for the ball. “I’d like to see it.”

Helen nods, giving it over before turning back to the display. “We also have these,” she says, indicating a more traditionally ball-looking ball filled with beads. “They squeeze very well and return to their original shape after, but they are a bit noisy.”

The girl plays with it for a moment before nodding. “Yes, this is good. This will do. Pietro…”

Her brother, who’s been squeezing the pink ball contentedly, has glanced over at the group of women talking across the room and, still holding the toy, strides over to them. “Hello there,” he says. “How are you lovely ladies doing today?”

“Startled to realize I apparently look like a careworn French prostitute,” Darcy mutters to Rogue.

Bobbi folds her arms, surveying the boy, apparently-Pietro. He’s not that much younger than her, probably, but he’s young enough that he looks like a baby to her, like if he was one of the grooms-to-be who came through her store with their fiancees they’d be religious fundamentalists. That clearly isn’t the case, though, and she can’t quite tell if he’s seriously using that as a come-on or kidding.

“We’re fine, I think,” she says, looking around for agreeing nods.

“Glad to hear it,” he replies. “Name’s Pietro. My sister and I are new around here, I don’t suppose you’d be willing to...show us around?”

“We are new to the mall,” corrects Wanda.

“I could give you a tour,” Darcy pipes up. Jane, standing slightly behind her, is hurriedly shaking her head ‘no.’

Pietro grins. “Ah, very appreciated, thank you. And you are?”

“Darcy Lewis,” said girl announces, stepping forward with a giant smile.

“I really shouldn’t let this happen,” Jane whispers to Bobbi.

“I’m not likin’ it much either,” says Rogue with a grimace.

Bobbi doesn’t really know Rogue well, but she knows that expression. “I’m pretty sure your girlfriend just likes filling people in on hot mall gossip,” she says, attempting comfort.

Rogue doesn’t look entirely convinced, but she nods.

Wanda, holding the ball with beads inside, comes over to stand next to Pietro. “If you are done flirting with pretty women, we can go now. I’ve decided on this one.”

Darcy grins. “Then we’ll start the tour right here! Over at the counter ready to ring you up is Helen, who we all just met today, too. Except for Jane, who knows her by virtue of also working at this store.”

Jane waves weakly, wishing she was better at new people.

“Hopefully Helen is less of a square than Jane,” Darcy continues. “I’m Jane’s roommate, so I’m allowed to say that. Then there’s Bobbi -”

“Hi,” Bobbi says, deciding this probably isn’t a hand-shaking moment. “I’m down the hall at David’s Bridal.”

“And Mack -”

“Hey.” He nods. “Best Buy, across the parking lot.”

“And this is Rogue,” Darcy finishes, grabbing Rogue’s hand with a pleased smile.

Looking happier, Rogue smirks and says, “Hey, y’all.”

“Hello.” Wanda looks at Pietro. “Now you know their names. Can we go?”

Pietro chuckles. “And this is Wanda, my younger sister-”

“By twelve minutes.”

“Well, ah, welcome,” Jane says, fully aware she sounds too formal.

“Let’s keep the tour going!” Darcy exclaims, clearly delighted. “Rogue, you coming?”

“Ah, I actually gotta go. I got somethin’ to get to.” Rogue gives Darcy’s hand a squeeze.

Darcy nods, understanding, and finally hands the paper bag to Jane. “Well, your sandwiches as promised, and we’ll get out of your hair,” she says with a wave, ushering Wanda and Pietro out of the store and out of the grown-ups’ hair. She doesn’t drop Rogue’s hand until she has to, though.

Rogue turns a different way than the rest of the group and blows Darcy a kiss as she leaves. Watching her leave, Wanda suddenly asks, “Is the something a therapy appointment?”

 


 

‘It looks as if we’re all here, let’s begin,” Moira announces, folding her hands in her lap and smiling (it’s not quite a careful therapist smile, but it’s more formal than a buddies smile). “Does anyone have anything that they want to discuss?”

Carina very shyly raises her hand.

“Go ahead, Carina,” Moira says.

“Well, last time I mentioned that friend of mine in the bad relationship,” Carina begins, making a face. “This friend, her - I don’t even want to call him her boyfriend, he’d hurt her. Physically. She said she knew what she was doing, and I wanted to believe her, because she’s very worldly, you know?” That’s directed at Moira, despite the fact that she is not one of the four other people in the room who would know. “But I was still very worried about her, and I didn’t know how to get that across to her. I’m not sure she thinks of me as a friend like I do her.”

Moira frowns. “What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, it’s nothing bad,” Carina says. “I just don’t think she thinks of people as friends very often, in the traditional sense. I don’t think she’s used to people caring about her.”

“It’s good of you to be there for her as long as it doesn’t hurt you,” Moira says.

“It doesn’t,” Carina replies, sounding almost chipper for a moment. “So the other night, I saw this friend at tri - out. He’d hurt her even worse this time, but she said they were over, that she’d had enough. And I believe her, and I’m happy for her.”

“I am too,” Moira declares, although she doesn’t know who the girl in question is (they avoid identifying nouns in group). “It’s not always easy for someone to get out of a situation like that.” She regards Carina a moment, quizzical but not judging. “Which I think you know. Did what your friend went through bring up anything for you?”

They’re not supposed to be snuggly during group, technically, but Carina reaches to squeeze Nebula’s hand for courage anyway. “I think that at first I was confused,” she admits. “She said she knew what she was doing, and she and - another friend of hers, they always seem like they have plans, so at first I thought that this was just part of one of them somehow. But the worse the situation got, the more I was wondering why she knowingly put herself in it.”

Nebula rolls her eyes and chimes in, “She didn’t know that bad shit was gonna happen. She said she had a feeling and she was prepared for whatever.”

“I guess it just didn’t make sense to me when I started seeing it go on,” Carina muses. “I… because I know how hard it can be to make it out of a situation like that, I didn’t understand why she’d sort of seek it out? I didn’t want to make her feel like I was judging her, but it was scary.”

“You said that you’d told her you felt that way, though,” Moira says. “You left it open for her if she wanted to ask you for help.”

“Yes,” Carina says. “I think I just wanted her to want to. I remember wishing I had someone to ask like that.” She shakes her head, forces a smile. “But it’s all better now, I think!”

“And I didn’t snap the guy’s neck,” Nebula adds. “Do I get points?”

Moira smiles, though it’s strained. “A very few points, perhaps,” she concedes. “Does anyone else have anything?”

“I am dating a very nice girl,” says Laura. “She does not mind that I have unconventional habits.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Moira replies, sounding sincere about it this time.

Laura nods. “I am still unsure of how to flirt, but she doesn’t mind that either.”

“That means whatever you’re doin’ is working for her,” says Rogue.

Moira chuckles. That isn’t something she feels comfortable having an opinion about, though, so she says, “If the rest of you don’t have anything to bring up yet, I’d like to introduce our newest group member, or more aptly let her introduce herself.” She motions to the woman sitting to her left, who Carina vaguely recognizes but can’t immediately place and the others don’t have a clue about.

“Hi,” she says softly. “I’m Kara, and I just moved here. I…” She looks to Moira for more encouragement, fussing with her hair, and Moira nods. “I, ah, I lived in a smaller city, a town, about an hour north of here, but…” She motions to the scar on her cheek. “There are better doctors here, and I needed a fresh start, anyway.”

She pauses for a long moment and looks around anxiously. MJ, sensing her discomfort, gives her a warm smile.

“I was working as a teller at a local bank,” Kara continues. “It was pretty small, not a big chain or anything, and I used to prefer that. More personal, I guess. I’d been working there since I got out of college, and I liked it. It was one of those environments where it seems like nothing bad could possibly happen, which meant that something bad was bound to happen.”

“You can take your time,” Moira assures.

“It was Tuesday, March 24th,” Kara says. “It’s funny, I’m usually not good at remembering dates but that one is burned into my brain. Some days were busier than others at the bank, and some times of day busier than other times - lunchtime on Tuesday was always one of the slower times. I was the only teller out when a strange man came in. I recognized most of our clients at that point, small town and all that, but this guy was different. At first I figured that he’d just come in when I wasn’t at the counter and I thought nothing of it. He came up to the counter and slid me a note asking for money, demanding my, my compliance. I don’t know why I didn’t just -”

She’s faltering enough, looking upset enough, that Moira reassuringly nods and says, “It’s fine, Kara. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Kara shakes her head, smiling bitterly. “I went back to get the money, but I made the mistake of going for the panic button. Before I realized what was going on, he’d slammed my head against the counter and yelled something threatening, I don’t even remember what it was but I remember the tone of his voice. I was still fumbling for the button when he lifted me up by the hair and I guess that’s when he messed my face up, but everything from then on is a blank.”

“Oh my god,” says Nebula, looking uncharacteristically interested. Carina glares at her.

“Anyway, my memory cuts back in a few days later,” Kara says. “I was still concussed, and there was a bandage on my face, which they told me was because I’d had surgeries. The robber had cut my cheek open and taken what money he could before running. One of the cops who showed up told me they found me behind the counter sobbing in a pool of my own blood.”

Laura also looks very interested. “This sounds not unlike the night my mother was murdered. I am sorry.”

Kara winces. “I’m sorry about that, too,” she murmurs. “It’s horrible. Things like this shouldn’t happen. I’ve thought about what I would do if I saw him again. It’s… not polite conversation.”

“Having impulses like that is completely normal,” Moira offers. “But it’s all right to not want to share them, too.”

“I spent a little time in the hospital there, but once I was stable enough, the doctors recommended I come here,” Kara declares. “There are more resources, and it’s not like I had any family there or anything. The fresh start is supposed to be good for me.”

Rogue nods. “They usually are. Mine was. I hope yours is too.”

“Me too,” Carina says, sniffling. She’s a sympathy crier, which isn’t exactly the best for group therapy but it’s not like she can really help it. “That’s - you’ve been through so much and I…”

Kara’s eyes go wide. “Oh, I didn’t mean to upset you, I’m so sorry,” she exclaims.

Nebula snorts. “It’s fine, honestly,” she says while rubbing Carina’s back. “She does this at pretty much every session.”

“Which is her way of handling things, and that’s fine,” Moira says archly, handing Carina the tissues. “Everyone’s coping mechanisms are different.”

“Still, I’m sorry for… being the cause,” Kara mumbles. “I don’t wanna add to your…”

“It’s really all right,” Carina replies. “I’ve gotten pretty good at not breaking down outside of group, so it’s inevitable.” She tries to smile. “I really am sorry you had to go through that, and I think I know what you mean about if you saw the guy. If you ever wanna talk more, I’m here, okay?”

“I’ll take you up on that when I feel ready,” Kara says, managing a smile of her own.

“I found that doing that research on the most efficient ways of murdering someone was very helpful,” chimes in Laura, almost cheerfully. “I have some very instructive books if you would like to borrow them.”

“I can’t condone that,” says Moira, looking alarmed. “Maybe we should talk about other coping strategies.”

Chapter Text

Fitz is vaguely grumbling as Trip tugs him along by the arm. “Bloody irritating child,” he mutters. “Kicking my seat the whole ride. I was looking forward to some nice sleep.”

“We can turn in early tonight,” promises Trip. “We’ll let Jem and Skye and her mom hang out, and you can sleep.”

“All right,” says Fitz, resting his head on Trip’s shoulder for a moment. “Thank you.” Trip reaches down to squeeze his hand. Then he notices a holographic poster illustrating the efficiency of San Fransokyo’s famous wind turbines and points it out to Fitz, who perks up.

Skye, meanwhile, announces, “I’m thirsty. Jemma, buy me a drink.”

Jemma rolls her eyes fondly. “What do you want?” she asks, shouldering her backpack and heading for the nearest concessions shop.

“Uh, I dunno. Something unhealthy,” says Skye with a grin. “Ooh, are they doing those Coke bottles with names on them again?”

“I think so,” Jemma muses. “I haven’t seen any good ones yet, though.”

The shop turns out to have an entire display of them, and Skye immediately begins to sort through them. “Oh my god,” she says after a minute, “I gotta get the Victoria one. I’m Instagramming that shit.”

“I don’t mean to be mean, but I highly doubt that Victoria checks your Instagram enough to take note of your attempts to troll her,” Jemma points out, smirking.

Skye shrugs and pulls out her phone. “I’m gonna tag her in it. Wait, I should find you one too!” She rummages around and finally pulls out one that says Maria, offering it to Jemma.

“Ridiculous selfie incoming?” Jemma asks.

“Duh!” Skye holds up the phone and puts her arm around Jemma.

“What are you two doing?” calls Fitz.

“They’ve got the personalized Coke bottles,” Jemma explains.

“Man, those are great in theory, if you have a boring name,” jokes Trip.

Skye says “hang on!” and fervently searches for a long moment. “Well, Antonio?”

He grins and takes it from her. “Close enough. Thanks, girl.”

“Have you told anyone we’re landed?” Jemma asks the boys, already pulling out her phone as she watches them search for another bottle.

Trip shakes his head as he dutifully spins bottles.

“I’m sending Honey a message, then,” Jemma narrates as she does just that. “I know she was wondering what time we’d be in.”

“Here,” says Skye, shoving an Alfredo bottle at Fitz (ignoring his indignant yelp), “we better go, I forgot we’re meeting my mom’s assistant or something. What time is it?”

“4:37,” Jemma declares, striding over to the counter. “I’ll cover all the drinks, c’mon.”

They pay and head for the Arrivals terminal, where, after a moment of looking around, Skye spots a tall blond guy holding a sign that says SKYE (DAISY) and is covered in what seems to be Pokemon stickers. She calls, “Hey!” and lifts her hand to wave until he spots her.

“Hey there,” he says, once they’ve walked over to him. “You must be Daisy - I mean, Skye. Sorry. Jiaying always used your birthname when she talked about you.”

Skye shrugs. “No big deal, Pikachu. Nice stickers.”

He chuckles, replying, “Yeah, she put me in charge of decorating it and there honestly isn’t that much around the office. I think these were leftovers from some kids’ event from years ago? But I figured, who doesn’t like Pokemon?”

“Deprived people,” says Trip cheerfully, offering his hand. “Trip, and you are…?”

“Lincoln.” There’s a round of introductions and then Lincoln says, “I’ve got the car waiting outside, unless you needed anything? The house isn’t too far away, maybe twenty minutes.”

“Nope, I think we’re good to go.”

 


 

“...and yeah, the novelization makes it better, but that’s like saying a broken arm is better than gangrene!”

Laughing, Lincoln shakes his head. “Yeah, but once you know that their relationship was supposed to be abusive and Anakin was a creepy douche before he killed the kids, it makes more sense.”

“Oh, Anakin was a creepy douche even as a kid. Like, what was that? ‘Are you an angel?’ Are you kidding me? That’s some weird shit coming from a ten-year-old.” Skye’s in her “talking about Star Wars" mode, ignoring everyone else in the car but Lincoln. She called shotgun and none of the others had wanted to argue.

“Lincoln,” Jemma says loudly from the backseat, “I noticed we just drove past the botanical gardens. Are they as impressive as people claim?” She’s starting to feel a bit sullen and neglected, and that’s the best thing she can think of to say without sounding overtly jealous.

“Uh, I guess so.” He shrugs. “I haven’t been in a few years.”

“It’s on my list of places to visit, I admit,” Jemma continues cheerfully. “Maybe we can get the kids to take us?” That’s said more at Skye and the boys.

“Yeah, that’d be good,” replies Fitz, shooting her a sympathetic look. He can tell she’s jealous of Lincoln.

“Good,” Jemma says. That glance from Fitz serves to snap her out of it a bit, because she doesn’t want to be petty (it’s just hard when there’s a conventionally attractive, seemingly friendly boy possibly flirting with one’s girlfriend).

The rest of the ride is spent in slightly awkward silence, and when they arrive at the house Lincoln says apologetically, “Jiaying had some things to finish at the office, but she wanted you guys to settle in and stuff. She should be home within the hour.”

“Cool, thanks,” says Skye with a quick smile.

“Should we just pick rooms?” Jemma asks.

“Uh, she had specific ones for you. You two,” he says to Trip and Fitz, “are the third door down the hall, and Skye, you and Jemma are at the other end.” He awkwardly leads them to the appropriate door and, opening it, gestures inside.

“I guess it didn’t occur to her that keeping boys and girls apart would be super unnecessary,” cracks Skye, dropping her duffel bag on the bed.

Lincoln tilts his head. “Uh…”

“You live in San Fransokyo, I know you’ve heard of queer people, dude,” teases Skye.

“Oh, right. Of course.” Lincoln grins and nods. “Alright, uh, do you guys need me for anything else?”

“Nah, go on, Pikachu.” Skye waves her hand toward the door. “Thanks for driving and all.”

She turns to make a crack at Jemma about secretly being the daughter of the ridiculously rich parents from The Parent Trap, but then she notices the weird look on Jemma’s face. “Hey, are you okay?”

“Yes,” Jemma says, so quickly it’s probably not true.

“Jem, I can tell you’re lying,” Skye replies. “What’s up?”

“It’s stupid.”

“If it’s bothering you, it’s not stupid.” Skye reaches for her hand.

“Do you think he’s cute?” Jemma mumbles, ducking her head.

That takes Skye by surprise enough that she laughs. “Who, Lincoln?”

Jemma doesn’t look up, but she nods.

“No. I mean, not really. I guess he’s okay, I hadn’t thought about it. But you’re way cuter, and I’m dating you, so.” Skye’s tone becomes more gentle as she asks, “Are you jealous of how I was talking to him?”

“Not - I mean, it’s... “ Jemma sighs. “It’s just that you’re so charismatic and vivacious with people, and I love that, I really do, but I suppose sometimes I just worry. I told you, it’s dumb.”

“Awww. You don’t have to, okay? You’re my girl. Promise.” Skye squeezes her hand and leans over to kiss her cheek.

“Thank you,” Jemma whispers, squeezing Skye’s hand right back. “I promise I’m not some possessive arse who gets jealous at every interaction. Apparently, it just flares up occasionally.”

“It’s okay, really. It’s kinda nice having someone care that much, actually,” admits Skye with a grin. “I haven’t had a lot of people be possessive of me. In ways I like, anyway.”

Jemma nudges Skye’s shoulder. “Well, I do care that much,” she declares. “I promise.”

Skye kisses her, deep and affectionate, and only pulls back when they’re both slightly out of breath. “Thank you,” she murmurs. “I know this is weird, it’s weird for me too. We’re in my mom’s house and we’re gonna meet her in a while and it’s just...weird.”

“Oh, darling, I’m sorry,” Jemma says immediately. “I didn’t mean to be territorial and silly when you’re…” Worrying, she means. “Look, I can’t do anything but be here for you, but I want to do that, all right?”

“No, no, it’s okay. I’m just...getting used to it, I guess. I want you here, thank you.” Skye squeezes Jemma’s hand.

“You’re welcome,” Jemma murmurs, pressing a kiss to the corner of Skye’s mouth. “It’s going to be all right.”

Skye nods, swallowing. “She’s...she’s gonna like me, right?”

“Of course!” Jemma exclaims. “You’re infinitely likable.”

“Okay, just checking,” replies Skye, her tone falsely bright. “It would suck if she didn’t like me.”

“She’s going to,” Jemma insists, very serious. “You’re incredible.” She kisses Skye’s cheek. “You’re talented.” She kisses Skye’s other cheek. “You’re clever.” She kisses Skye’s forehead. “You’re funny.” She kisses Skye’s lips. “You’re lovely.”

Skye’s eyes drift shut while Jemma’s kissing her, and she makes a little noise that’s half-gasp half-sigh. “Thank you. It’s...it’s really dumb to worry about it but…”

“I can’t pretend to understand exactly, but I sympathize,” Jemma says. “But she’d be stupid not to like you, and whatever happens, I know it’s not the same but I love you, all right?”

“I love you too,” says Skye. “Thanks, Jemma.”

“You’re welcome,” Jemma murmurs. “You’re amazing.”

“You are.” Skye nuzzles into Jemma’s neck. “I wanna make out with you so much right now, but we probably better unpack, huh?”

“Probably,” Jemma teases. “We can make out later, all right?”

Grinning, Skye nods and, with one last quick kiss, turns her attention to her suitcase.

 


 

The four of them eventually end up in the living room, after an uncertain Fitz and Trip knock on the girls’ door (and interrupt the coveted makeouts, which makes Skye grumpy). Jemma suggests the living room, since it’s a central location downstairs and is within view of the door.

So Fitz leans on Trip, dozing a bit, while Skye plays with Jemma’s hair absently. They haven’t been waiting there for more than about fifteen minutes before they hear a key in the lock and all start. Skye grabs Jemma’s hand tightly.

“Hello?” a woman calls as she enters and shuts the door behind her. She seems unsure as to anyone’s location, but a glance in the direction of the living room answers her question and she hurries to greet them more directly. “Hello, I’m Jiaying. Lincoln let me know you’d all gotten in safely. You must be Fitz and Trip-” She pauses to smile at the boys. “And Jemma and - Skye.” Another pause follows, but this one is significantly weightier.

Skye takes a shaky breath and raises her hand in an awkward wave. “That’s me. Hi...Jiaying. Uh. Mom? I don’t really know the protocol here.”

Jiaying comes to sit in one of the empty chairs, giving off an air of effortless elegance as she moves. “I think that in a situation like this, we’re allowed to invent our own protocol,” she says warmly. “Whichever you feel comfortable saying.”

“Okay. Um, Jiaying for now, I guess.” Skye laughs nervously. “I’m sorry, this is just...weird. This has gotta be weird for you too, huh? Like, I was looking for you guys for years and I just found nothing, and now…”

“I suspect some of that is your father’s fault,” Jiaying says. “Since the official records were all but scrubbed, I’m assuming he used false names, and I wouldn’t be surprised if local authorities got involved at one point, which would account for your disappearance into the system.” She says this very matter-of-factly, despite the complicated nature of it.

Skye shrugs. “Sorry, I can’t really help you fill in the blanks. All I remember is St. Agnes, and the homes. And those aren’t great memories.”

Jiaying winces. “I’m sorry,” she says, and it looks like there may be more to that thought but she apparently thinks better of it and smiles. “But where are my manners? Did you have a good flight? Can I get you anything?”

Skye glances at the others before replying, “Well, I actually am getting kinda hungry, how about you guys?”

“Yes,” says Fitz immediately.

“I wouldn’t mind eating,” Jemma says.

“Yeah, it was kind of a long flight. Not bad, though.” Trip shrugs.

“If you like, I can order something,” Jiaying offers. “It’s a bit cliche, but there’s an excellent Chinese place just down the street.”

That makes Skye laugh. “Hey, that’s fine by me.” The others agree, and Jiaying retrieves a menu and, after taking everyone’s requests, calls it in.

“So,” Jiaying begins once they’re all settled again, “how do you all know each other?”

“We all work at the mall,” replies Skye. “Fitz and I are Applebots, Trip’s at Nordstrom’s, and Jemma’s at the ice cream shop.”

Jiaying chuckles. “Applebots, I’ve never heard that one before.”

“She resents working there,” Fitz says with an affectionate roll of his eyes. “I don’t mind it though. Anyway, Jemma and I are roommates and we’ve been mates since we were kids.”

“Well, most of the kids whose families emigrated over here tend to stick together,” Jemma shrugs, then backtracking to explain, “A prominent corporation in our town has its headquarters in the UK, and it’s not uncommon for them to send families over here to set up shop. Fitz’s and my parents came over around the same time, so we’ve been around each other for what feels like forever, really.”

“How interesting,” Jiaying says, sounding as if she means it.

“And I sort of just wandered in,” says Trip cheerfully. “Fitz and I have been together since Halloween.”

Jiaying smiles, turning her attention to the girls. “And what about you two?” she asks. “How long have you been together?”

“Is it that obvious?” asks Skye, grinning. “God, I dunno, when did we start dating, Jem?”

“I remember -” begins Jiaying, at the same time that Jemma says, “It was -” and immediately cuts herself off, looking horrified. “You answer first, please,” she exclaims.

Jiaying nods in amiable concession. “I’m not entirely sure that it would be obvious to everyone,” she says, “I just remember how I looked and sounded when I was in love. I expect there are a few similarities.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess that would make sense.” Skye nods, then turns to look at Jemma. “You were saying, honey?””

Jemma flushes. “It was August,” she says. “Officially.”

“I’m so bad at remembering dates,” says Skye cheerfully. “But yeah, that’s when. I’m happy.” She takes Jemma’s hand and squeezes it.

“I’m happy, too,” Jemma murmurs, going bright pink. Despite the fact that they flew out here to meet Skye’s mother, she hadn’t quite registered that it would properly feel like meeting the parents.

“You seem happy,” Jiaying says, watching them for a moment before asking the boys, “Is this shyness and sappiness normal for them, or for my benefit?”

Fitz snorts. “I wish it were just for you. They’re revolting.”

Trip pats Fitz’s hand and nods. “They’re like this all the time.”

“Please, like you guys aren’t cuddling nonstop,” replies Skye, rolling her eyes. “I have evidence.” She pulls out her phone and, after scrolling for a moment, thrusts her phone forward. It’s displaying a picture of the boys nestled into each other.

Fitz squawks. “When did you even take that?”

“Months ago! I knew it would come in handy.” Skye’s grinning and looking extremely smug.

“I’m not sure that I should encourage this behavior, but it is a charming picture,” Jiaying says.

“Damn right,” Trip says proudly.

Then dinner arrives, and Jiaying pours everyone a glass of wine to go with it - “careful,” she cautions, “this is Chinese wine, it’s stronger than what you’re probably used to” - and they talk while eating, mostly about inconsequential things. Fitz gets overly excited about his robots, which Jiaying seems to find endearing. At one point, Jemma starts talking about Griffith.

“And she’s the sweetest cat, but so shy with new people,” she says, leaning against Skye’s shoulder. “She didn’t even want to come out and meet Skye for months, and Skye’s over all the time. But then - it was the silliest thing - she decided to come in and say hello while we were -”

“-Watching Pacific Rim!” interrupts Skye suddenly, because she knows booze makes Jemma lose her filter and she’s just not okay with Jiaying knowing they have kinky sex at this point. Or ever, maybe.

“Yes,” Jemma says, to her credit sounding embarrassed. “I think she must have been comforted by the sound of it, we have it on so much.” She sounds pleased with her lie.

Jiaying smiles, because she can tell that’s not what actually happened but she’s polite enough not to press for details. “How sweet,” she murmurs. “I can’t say I’m familiar with the film, so I couldn’t vouch for its comforting sound specifically, but repetition is pleasant sometimes.”

Skye’s face looks like the most excited emoticon. “Oh my god, can we watch it? I brought it. It’s the best movie ever basically. It has giant robots fighting monsters and teamwork and friendship and a badass chick and a dude who takes off his shirt and-”

“I’m tired,” says Fitz. “I’d like to go to bed, please.”

“I did promise him he could turn in early,” adds Trip. “Y’all won’t be mad if we cut out, right?”

“Certainly not,” Jiaying promises. “Please, go and rest. If you need any more blankets or pillows, there are some in your closet.”

Fitz smiles tiredly. “Thanks. Night, all.” Trip gives them a wave and smile as he leads Fitz toward the stairs.

Skye gets up to follow them. “I gotta get it out of my room. Oh my god, this is the best thing ever.”

“This wine is amazing,” Jemma says to Jiaying when they’re alone.

“I’m glad you like it,” Jiaying chuckles. “I have to go a bit out of my way to get it, but it’s worth it.”

“It very much is,” Jemma declares, grinning.

Skye comes charging back downstairs holding the DVD case. “Okay! Where’s your TV?”

“I have it set up in the next room,” Jiaying says, motioning in the appropriate direction.

“Help me up,” Jemma implores, making puppy eyes at Skye.

Skye reaches down to grab her hand, cooing a bit. “You’re adorable.”

“Thank you,” Jemma declares.

Jiaying says nothing, but smiles fondly.

 


 

As if making up for lost time, Jiaying prepares breakfast the next morning, bacon and eggs and pancakes and plenty of coffee and tea and juice, and she manages to get this done before any of the kids wake up and stumble downstairs.

“Holy shit,” says Skye, still rubbing sleep from her eyes. “That’s more breakfast than I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Well, there are four of you, and you likely have different tastes,” Jiaying replies.

“I’m not complaining, I just…” Skye’s staring at the table. “Thanks.”

“Yes, it all looks wonderful,” Jemma chimes in.

Fitz grunts a hello and stumbles forward to plop himself in a chair. Trip, on the other hand, is all smiles as he slides into the chair next to Fitz. “Good morning,” he says to everyone.

Skye follows his lead, dishing up a plateful of eggs and bacon and wolfing down about half of the eggs before pausing. “Uh, you didn’t wanna say grace or anything, did you?” she asks, glancing at Jiaying.

Jiaying laughs. “The thought wouldn’t have crossed my mind,” she says.

“Y’know, being raised by nuns will fuck up your routine,” replies Skye cheerfully.

“Nuns? Where?” mumbles Fitz, blinking sleepily.

“Thankfully, not here,” Jemma says wryly, pouring herself some tea and nodding her thanks at Jiaying.

“Did everyone sleep well?” Jiaying asks.

“Fine, thanks,” replies Trip. “Fitz here is just not used to early mornings.” He rubs Fitz’s back fondly.

Skye nods. “Yeah, your beds are super comfy, thank you.”

“Of course,” Jiaying says. “Once you finish eating, we should discuss what your plans are today.”

Skye finishes off another plateful of eggs and bacon in the time it takes the others to finish their original plates. “Okay, so what were you thinking for today?” she asks. “We’re gonna meet our friends from SFIT at some point, but if you wanna do something I’m down for it.”

“Well, I actually have go to into work today, but if you kids wanted to come to the office with me for a little while, I’d be happy to show you around,” Jiaying offers, sounding almost shy.

“Okay! You guys cool with that?”

“I think it would be very interesting!” Jemma chirps.

“Fine,” grunts Fitz, looking slightly more awake now that he’s had a cup of tea.

Trip smiles. “Sure! So uh...what is it that you do, exactly? Skye didn’t say much about it.”

“I founded an organization that works for the benefit of abuse survivors, specifically women and children,” Jiaying explains. “It’s part community outreach, part shelter, and part just us providing the resources that people will need to get back on their feet.”

“Cool.” Trip’s smile gets wider. “That’s important.”

“I want to give people the kind of outlet that I wish I’d had,” Jiaying explains, shrugging casually, “and I want to be able to give back in some way.”

Fitz sits upright, eyes wide. “Oh, oh dear,” he stammers. “I...I hadn’t...I didn’t realize…”

Jiaying waves it off, then reaches for her coffee. “It’s a long time ago now, and channeling my energy into helping others is more productive than obsessing about whatever anger remains.”

“That’s awesome,” says Skye quietly.

Jiaying turns to smile directly at Skye before she continues. “Our headquarters is mostly for fielding phone calls and having our organizational meetings,” she explains. “There are several on-site therapists as well, whose areas we won’t be visiting.” She nods, because she’s sure the kids can figure out why.

“You don’t need to worry,” Jemma assures, “we’ll be very respectful.”

 


 

When they arrive at the building, Jiaying takes them to her office. “We just relocated to this office about eight months ago,” she explains. “I’m still unpacking things, I apologize for the mess.”

“Are you kidding me? Compared to my place, this is insanely clean.” Skye ambles around the room, noticing that Jiaying’s desk is pretty much entirely lacking personal things. Although the desk lamp does have three bronze pendants hanging off of it. “What’re these?” she asks, reaching for them.

“Oh, uh, they’re to ward off evil spirits,” Jiaying stammers, seeming flustered for the first time since they’ve all met. “I was going to… well, I had them hanging over your crib and I was going to give them to you when you were older, but…” She trails off, looking embarrassed.

Skye blinks. “I...oh.” She’s quiet for a moment and then stammers, “Th-thanks, I guess. I mean, good thought.” She puts her thumb up and immediately feels like the biggest idiot ever.

Jiaying laughs, seeming taken aback. “Thank you,” she says, taking a moment to collect herself before she adds, “I lost the fight with your dad about your name, so it was the least I could do.”

Snorting, Skye replies, “So that explains Daisy, huh?”

“I had wanted Mingzhu,” Jiaying explains. “It was the first in his series of increasingly insistent demands.”

Skye tilts her head, thinking about the name. “Well, it’s definitely better than Daisy,” she says with a laugh. “Sorry Dad turned out to be a dickbag.”

“Well, live and learn,” Jiaying says with a shrug. “I’ve made a better life for myself here.”

“Good.” Skye nods awkwardly. “Me too, I guess. I...I mean, yeah, my life is good too.”

Fitz, who has been intently studying one of the pictures on the wall, suddenly chirps, “I’d like to sit down.”

“Please, use one of the chairs,” Jiaying exclaims, motioning to her seating area.

Fitz flops down and looks up at some of the other pictures for a few moments. Then he makes a surprised noise and says, “That looks like...is that Raina?”

“What?” Skye steps over to take a look. ‘Holy shit, I think it is!”

Jiaying blinks at the photo - one of three women repainting the living room in the shelter, all of them laughing, all of them covered in paint - and, after a pause, says, “The curly-haired woman in the middle? That’s the name she used when she was here, anyway.”

“We know her! She works at the weed store in the mall,” says Fitz. “How long ago was she here?”

“Fitz!” Jemma exclaims, hitting him in the arm. “You’re not supposed to ask things like that.”

Fitz looks wounded. “But I wanted to know.”

“She was about twenty-two at the time,” Jiaying says, expecting this won’t actually clear things up for them.

“Oh, we don’t actually know how old she is now,” replies Fitz. “We’re not really her friends. She hit on Skye once.”

Jiaying chuckles. “That makes sense, Raina was a defensive flirter,” she says. “But I shouldn’t say any more than that, it wouldn’t be right of me.”

“No worries, we get it.” Trip glances at the clock on the wall. “Do you, uh, need to actually do work or anything? Cause we can peace out…”

“I should probably take care of some things,” Jiaying says apologetically. “Go bother Lincoln for a better tour. He’ll oblige.”

“Jiaying, did you want me to leave the paperwork with you or send it to the printers?” The new voice comes from a man wearing comically large sunglasses who’s poked his head into the room.

“I’ll take them,” Jiaying declares, reaching out to do so. “Thank you, Gordon.”

He steps inside to hand her a folder and, with a polite nod at the others, leaves.

“Who was that?” asks Fitz.

“My assistant Gordon,” Jiaying explains. “He handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes work around here.”

Everyone nods and Skye says, “Okay, well, we’ll get out of your hair now. Any idea where Pika- Lincoln would be?”

“My guess would be the reception area,” Jiaying says. “He’s usually in there waiting for the mail at this time of day.”

“Okay. Bye! Uh, we’ll probably meet up with our friends later, text us when you’re all done here.” Skye waves awkwardly.

“All right, have fun,” Jiaying nods. “Have Lincoln give you the house key.”

“Will do!” Skye calls over her shoulder as they leave.

In the reception area, Lincoln is playing on his phone and perks up when they enter the room. “Hey! What’s up?”

“Jiaying said to come find you for a tour,” replies Skye. “So let’s go.”

“Okay! Later, Red,” Lincoln calls to the redheaded receptionist, who gives him a wave. “C’mon, let’s start with the acupuncture room. It’s this way.”

“Oh!” Jemma exclaims eagerly. “Fascinating.” Mostly to Skye and Trip, she says, “Did you know acupuncture is one of many therapeutic activities thought to change the release of neurotransmitters and neurohormones?”

Skye giggles. “You’ve mentioned that before.”

“In what context?” asks Fitz, sounding wary.

Skye smirks and doesn’t reply.

When they arrive at the acupuncture room, there’s no one there. There’s a bed in the center of the room, which is decorated more like a living room than a medical office, with candles on every surface and several lamps scattered around.

“Fancy,” says Skye.

“Ugh,” says Fitz. “I don’t like needles. I don’t see the point of this.”

“Well, it’s good for some of our clients who have physical injuries or chronic pain,” replies Lincoln. “But we can move on if you want. It’s pretty straightforward.”

“Thank you.”

“We’ll go to the art room next,” announces Lincoln. “No needles there! And nobody else, probably. There aren’t any classes for a few hours.”

“What’s that for?” asks Trip.

“Oh, it’s like, art therapy stuff. Rehab classes for PT patients, and therapy for the clients who need something to focus on. It helps a lot of them. Plus when we get kids, it’s a good place for them to hang out.”

Trip nods. “That’s cool. Sounds like you do a lot of good here.”

Lincoln grins and shrugs. “The actual employees do. I’m basically here to get coffee and sign for packages and drive people places. Whatever Jiaying needs.”

“So what other kinds of therapy do you guys have here?” asks Skye.

“Well, the traditional armchair stuff, of course. Group therapy, the art therapy and acupuncture as mentioned, some PT, and occupational. It’s a nice variety. They’ve managed to find something that works for most of the people that come here.”

“That’s lovely,” Jemma enthuses. “I mean, it’s the opposite of lovely that your work needs to be done in the first place, but it’s lovely that you do it and so thoroughly.”

Lincoln chuckles. “I’ll tell Jiaying that. I’m sure she’ll be flattered.”

 


 

After the tour (though Fitz parked himself in a chair halfway through and told them to go on without him because he wanted to rest), the four of them walk to the SFIT campus and wait for Honey to meet them.

Fitz seems perkier. “Tadashi said he’ll show us the healthcare companion he’s been working on?”

“That sounds...sketchy,” says Skye.

“It’s not! Baymax is fully equipped for medical emergencies as well as rescue situations, and Tadashi says he can even scan patients to detect their injuries,” replies Fitz indignantly. “It could completely revolutionize healthcare as we know it!”

“We’ll still need doctors,” Jemma says, rolling her eyes rather indignantly. “But this will be helpful in some situations, that’s true.”

“I think it sounds pretty cool,” says Trip, grinning. “Fitz was showing me some of the test footage Tadashi put online. It’ll b