The ride back to the Helicarrier was endured by all aboard the VTOL in the kind of tense, worn-out silence that Steve had experienced in post-battle convoys carrying brothers-in-arms who couldn’t stand each other. The Asgardians sat across from each other, Loki in an attitude of superior boredom and Thor managing to half-doze while glaring steadily over crossed arms. Agent Romanov flew the plane with detached, calm skill - frankly, Steve envied her for having a job that let her ignore the mess in the back and focus on something useful.
In the back of the VTOL, nearest to the cargo hatch and thoroughly obstructing any (Asgardian) ideas about leaving prematurely, crouched something Steve was still struggling to get his head around. He’d read the file on the Aegis, of course, but there was something about photographs and schematics that didn’t capture the technological monstrosity of a quarter-ton walking tank with enough firepower in one hand to level a city block that just happened to put any airplane on the planet to shame when it came to speed and maneuverability. He’d half-imagined that it was an engineer’s joke, like the German rocket planes that had never quite worked during the war, but now that he’d seen it in action it seemed more like a Hydra weapon, no less dangerous for all its outlandishness. It wasn’t just the power, though - there was something about the design that rubbed him wrong, the impersonal armored bulk of it and the slit-eyed dragon mask of the helmet. It was a machine built to intimidate, a weapon that advertised, and it made him want to take a hammer to it.
According to the file, it was operated by a single pilot - one chosen anonymously by Stark Industries for the job, and ‘uniquely qualified’ for the task. As far as Steve Rogers was concerned, the only thing the showboater was ‘uniquely qualified’ for was making Thor-shaped holes in the forest.
Whatever the jackass thought about the little brawl in the forest, he wasn’t saying. For all Steve could tell, the guy behind that armored helmet might as well be asleep.
When they’d landed, Steve had helped escort the prisoner to his high-tech fishbowl of a cell, the gargoyle had lumbered off to whatever garage they were keeping it in, and he’d gone back to his bunk to get some peace and quiet before morning. He had a feeling he was going to need it.
After a couple of hours of reading a battered Agatha Christie paperback - he’d been delighted and relieved to discover they were still in print - Steve showered, shaved, and put on the oddly stretchy blue shirt that was just another thing he didn’t understand about the twenty-first century. It was time to get back on mission, no matter how strange that mission was starting to seem.
Doctor Banner was already on the bridge when Steve arrived, looking nervous while he hovered by the bulkhead. Thor, the so-called god, stood nearby talking with Agent Hill. SHIELD agents went about their jobs with a no-nonsense attitude that Steve appreciated, and he’d just sat down and started bringing the briefing to order with a question about iridium when all the nice, orderly progression of the morning went off the rails.
“Honestly, Phil, just let me know when you have a day off. I’ll detail a jet for you, reservations in downtown Portland, flowers, the whole deal. You have to keep on top of these things or she’ll get away from you.” She wasn’t a tall woman, in spite of the three-inch heeled boots that were not at all regulation for the obviously borrowed SHIELD uniform she was wearing, but the brown-haired beauty who walked in at Phil Coulson’s side walked like she owned the room in spite of the fact that he’d never seen her before in his... no, that wasn’t right. He had seen her before, but where?
“So, while our glorious leader is downstairs going Gitmo on horn-head we’re sitting here talking about... what? The weather? Phenomenal cosmic power? Natasha, good to see you. Thanks for the PA - got an image to think about.” She passed Thor, patting him on the shoulder as she went. “Nice swing, pointbreak. Any chance I can borrow that hammer some time, do a scan?” Thor stared, but she was already past him and headed straight for Fury’s station. Hill tried for an interception, missed, and she ran her hands over the panels for a few seconds before frowning and covering one eye. “How does he....”
“He turns,” Hill provided, teeth visibly set.
“Sounds exhausting. So, right, iridium. It’s a stabilizing agent - keeps what happened in New Mexico from happening again. Portal stays open as long as Loki wants, as big as he wants. The rest of what he needs is easy - kindergarten stuff - except the kicker.” She looked up. Waited. Sighed. “Right. So clearly I’m the only one who did the reading. He wants to use the cube for a big portal, he’s going to need to prime the cube. Big energy source to get it going so it can do its thing.”
Now Hill was really trying not to grind her teeth. “Since when are you an expert in high-energy astrophysics, Stark?”
The woman shrugged carelessly. “Since last night. What, you didn’t do your homework?”
The name clicked in Steve’s memory, and various news reports on TV about the billionaire industrialist came to mind. They’d really let the fast-living CEO on the SHIELD Helicarrier? Putting up with the Aegis pilot was enough of a pain in the neck.
“Not everyone understands the impact of different elements on particle physics, Ms. Stark.”
Doctor Banner detached himself far enough from the bulkhead to speak at a reasonable volume. “But you’re right, he’d have to heat the cube to around 4000 Kelvin before it would generate a repeating cascade.”
‘Ms. Stark’ flashed a grin and spread her hands, starting around the table behind Steve. “Unless Doctor Selvig’s beaten the quantum entanglement equations.”
“If he’s done that, he could bring the Tesseract to critical mass at any reactor in the world.” By now, talking about his realm of expertise had Banner standing straighter and more relaxed than Steve had seen him, now more a scientist than a hunted man.
Ms. Stark’s eyes lit up. “At last, someone who speaks English.” Banner might actually have blushed a little at that one.
“Is that what just happened?” Steve asked the room in general. Hill gave him a commiserating eye-roll.
Stark ignored them. “Doctor Banner,” she said in a voice that positively brimmed with pleasure, “I can’t tell you how good it is to finally meet you. Your work on anti-electron formation is unparalleled, I have a framed copy of your neutron-cracking formula on my workshop wall and I’m a huge fan of the way you turn into a giant green rage monster - it puts every celebrity meltdown on record in the shade, mine included.”
The beaming smile that had begun to light up Banner’s face folded in on itself into a guarded, annoyed bearing of teeth. “Thanks.” He withdrew his hand and went back to lurking near his bulkhead.
Good God, who did this woman think she was? She seemed even more arrogant and rude than her ‘specially qualified’ pilot.
Steve frowned. An idea was forming in the back of his mind that he was pretty sure he wasn’t going to like.
Agent Romanov asked pertinent questions, Stark and Banner described the threat and some steps they should take to address it, and Thor defended and then promptly abandoned his brother’s dignity. Stark, grinning impudently at the Asgardian’s discomfiture, put her arm around Banner’s waist like a prom date and headed him for the door. “We’re going to the lab. You all can hang around and wait for Nick to get back and tell you Loki’s not talking. Natasha, tell him that if he just asks I’ll fix his screens for him, will you? Save on stress, neck strain, bills to the SHIELD health plan.”
Then they were gone, leaving the table in a long and awkward moment of silence.
“I can’t believe she’s related to Howard.” Steve finally said out loud. “She’s so...”
“Human,” Thor provided unhelpfully.
Something very like a smile shaped Natasha’s lips. Hill just frowned. “There are billions of us who don’t act like that . Thank God.”
The door hissed open, admitting Colonel Fury, and he stopped to glower at the room. “Where are the brain trust?”
“Came, exposited, left,” Natasha answered efficiently.
“And none of you tried to.... never mind.” Fury waved the thought away and adopted a long-suffering look. “Brief me.”
He really shouldn’t be surprised, Bruce reflected, that Antonia Stark brought up a number of conflicting reactions. She was famous for being brilliantly infuriating, after all. On the one hand, she’d made fun of the condition that had ruined his life, something that he’d never found endearing. It was a good thing for everyone that he didn’t let it get to him. On the other hand, she also understood and appreciated his work, and as they talked in the lab, he realized that collaborating with the tech genius was the most satisfying and interesting thing he’d done in years.
“So, we’ve got your algorithm for the spectrometers running. Think we have time for a quicky on the lab table?”
Banner paused, gave Toni a disbelieving frown through the clear-panel screen of his terminal, opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“Are you actually propositioning me or just testing my limits, Stark?” He tapped at a readout to cover his tension.
“Both. Definitely both.” She twirled her panel around, stretched, then frowned and unzipped the jumpsuit she was wearing to the waist. Reflective ebony fabric clung to her body underneath, more absolutely frank than nakedness would have been. “Seriously, though. Can’t a girl have a crush on a hot, brilliant older man and want to get it on before the end of the world?”
Looking briefly through the windows down on the bridge, Bruce dragged a hand through his hair before turning back to Toni. “I suppose I should be flattered by your curiosity, scientific or otherwise. Are you really willing to risk your life for a thrill?”
“What’s the point of living if you can’t feel alive, Doctor Banner?” She was grinning, now, and she advanced on him with the lithe grace of a hunting cat stalking a particularly attractive gazelle. “You worry too much, is all I’m saying. You tread lightly when you ought to work on your strut. I’ve read all your work, so trust me when I say you’ve got plenty to strut about.”
Pulling his screen around to keep Stark out of his space, Bruce chuckled a little and shook his head. “Sorry. I think my level of worry is about right. Besides, I like to keep my partners around for a bit longer than a quickie on the lab table. Build some trust. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve already taken a sample of my DNA for study while I wasn’t looking.”
Her eyes danced teasingly, and she leaned up enough to plant a kiss firmly on the back of his screen. “Why do you think I want to do the quicky in here?”
A deep, strong laugh surprised Bruce. It had been a long time since he’d done that, too.
“See? Knew you could do it.” She flicked a wink at him. “When this is all over, you should come by Stark Tower. The top ten floors are all R&D - Candyland - and I’ve got a gorgeous spot in the penthouse with the perfect view of New York for fun and games. You’ll love it.”
“Me. In a tower full of expensive things and unique minds. No, I don’t think so.” He was back to feeling his usual, guarded self. “The last time I was in New York I broke, uh, Harlem.”
“Don’t worry about it. Sometime I’ll tell you about the time I was invited to the Playboy Mansion - there was a party that got out of hand.” Toni’s smile was still teasing, but there was a hint of sympathy in her eyes that lacked any trace of pity. “I’m serious, Bruce - at least think about it. I’m dying for an autograph, and I didn’t bring my old physics journals or my tattoo pen.”
“I guess I should be glad that Phil’s interests are more old-fashioned.” The tall, blonde wall of muscle that was Captain Rogers stepped into the lab, saving Bruce from having to think of something witty to say to Toni. The world’s first super-hero stepped up to a screen, inspected it, then gave up and turned to Bruce. “How’s the search going?”
“It’s going, Captain,” Toni cut in just a little briskly. “The program’s running, so in a couple of hours we’ll know right about where to look for our missing gear.” Her eyes flashed, but her voice stayed casual - the better to strap on the hint of mockery. “In the meanwhile, do try not to break Phil’s heart. He’s only had a crush on you since he was a boy.”
Bruce felt sorry for Steve, he really did, but the look on his face was hilariously uncomfortable-yet-trying-hard-to-be-gracious. The scientist turned away to ‘examine’ something before he made an ass of himself. Toni seemed to be doing enough of that for everyone.
Just then, an alert appeared on Stark’s screen, the words ‘SECURITY BREACH’ flashing urgently in angry black-and-yellow letters. All three of the lab’s occupants stared at the screen and the long string of code flashing by. Steve frowned as Stark stepped over and began tapping away as if everything was going to plan.
“What’s going on? Are we under attack?”
Antonia Stark glanced over her shoulder, clicked her tongue disapprovingly and then went back to her screen. “Do you hear explosions? Sirens? See men with guns running by in the hall? If no, consider that a silly question. I’m just running a little hack on the SHIELD dataspine, that’s all - see what Director Fury is actually up to. Should have results in an hour or so, from the look of it. JARVIS has been running it since I came aboard.”
“What? You’re breaking in?” Steve’s glare at Stark was mingled horror and outrage. “You’re supposed to be an ally.”
Over by the scepter, Bruce was frowning. He could see why Toni wanted to dig a little deeper.
“You’re kidding, right?” Toni’s expression suggested she was speaking to a particularly slow student - the sort who might need extra time on his tests. “Fury’s a spy - hell, he’s the spy. He doesn’t have allies, Captain, he has assets. So yeah, before I put Aegis in the field to do his dirty work I want a look at what he’s actually doing. Come on, even Doctor Banner knows there’s something going down and he’s been living in Nowhereistan for the last five years.”
Damn. Bruce hated it when people pulled him into the spotlight. Still, the questioning look Captain Rogers gave him couldn’t be ignored. “Well...Loki said ‘a warm light for all mankind.’ He was talking about Stark, I think, and her arc reactor. Fury said they were researching the Tesseract for clean energy purposes. So, why didn’t they call Stark before? It doesn’t add up.”
“I am pretty much the only name in clean energy,” Toni annotated without a hint of modesty. “Now, sure, the government’s been getting into the health care business lately but I’m thinking that cheap energy for all on the U.N.’s dime is not Captain Eyepatch’s agenda here.”
Rogers was still glaring at Toni, but now it was a thoughtful glare. He nodded towards the screens and asked one of the most grudging questions Bruce had ever heard. “How long until you know?”
Seeing Steve do that--examine the possibility that the man and organization he had faith in could be less than on the up and up--made Bruce respect him all the more. Even the best scientists had trouble letting go of preconceptions.
“Ninety minutes, give or take.” Toni glanced over her shoulder again, and this time her own eyes were more measuring. “You want to order take-out, start a boyband, find out what we’ve learned about horizontal recreation in the last seventy years?”
Beefy arms crossed over his chest, Steve frowned slightly, then shook his head. “I don’t think they’d let us borrow a jet to get chop suey, I have no idea what you’re talking about, and I’m choosing not to think too hard about that last one. I’ll be back in an hour and a half.” Striding purposefully towards the exit, he paused with one hand on the doorframe. “Ms. Stark, I’d like to have a word with your pilot if we’re going to be working together again. Is he with the Aegis?”
“My pilot.” Her back to Rogers again, Toni’s lips started to twitch at the edges.
Bruce covered his mouth with a hand and pretended to look seriously at some printout that he was pretty sure was upside down.
“Your pilot,” Steve confirmed, voice snapping with irritation. “The one with more balls than brains who decided we really needed to have a brawl instead of catching the bad guy.”
“Says the man who figured inviting Thor to ‘put the hammer down’ was a good idea. Was that your idea of a come-on, Captain Rogers? Because I think you might just be his type.” Antonia Stark turned and smiled, sweet as death, and put her hands on her hips as if she were carefully restraining herself from charging over and slapping that too-perfect face. “I designed the Aegis, I built her and I fly her - on profile, on mission, every time. Any problems you have with that, you can take them up with me in the gym when this is fucking over with. Is that clear enough for you, soldier boy, or do I need to strip down so you can check my equipment yourself?”
Jaw set, face and neck quickly turning scarlet, Steve let out a long breath through his nostrils. His voice was surprisingly steady when he spoke. “I don’t give a damn about your ‘equipment,’ Stark. The problem is that you aren’t on mission when you’re fighting your allies.” Turning on his heel, he strode out of the lab, tossing one last injunction over his shoulder. “None of us are going to win this by ourselves.”
Antonia stood staring at the door for a good minute and a half, practically trembling with indignation, before turning and fixing Bruce with a baleful smile. “Says the guy who goes into a fight wearing the stars and stripes in kevlar to the woman in the multi-billion dollar war array backed up by the most sophisticated tactical AI on the planet. No wonder my father liked to talk about him so much. They’re exactly the same sort of cliche-spouting, paternalistic pain in the ass.”
Taking off his glasses and cleaning them with the edge of his shirt, Bruce sighed. “Captain America, spangly arm of the partiarchy? I don’t see it.”
She glared at him for a minute, then crooked a smile. “Bruce Banner, are you trying to convince me to be reasonable?”
“Perhaps, Ms. Stark. I have been known to attempt the impossible before.”
Now it was a real smile, not just a hint of one, and her eyes were dancing with mischief again. “My friends call me Toni, Doctor Banner, and if you keep this up I’m going to renew my suggestion on better uses for that lab table.”
Putting his glasses back on, Bruce smiled, picking up a hand-held scanner. “When we aren’t in a metal city thirty thousand feet in the air, Toni, we can call your assistant and talk about it.”
“Bastard,” she informed him, cheerfully scooping up a spiral-bound lab book and throwing it in his general direction. “You’ve got no love of adventure in your soul, and you didn’t tell me they had cable news in Kolkata.”
“I thought it was Nowhereistan.” She was brilliant, she was charming, and she was interested. Not only that, she was throwing things at him and the other guy hadn’t even complained. Maybe he’d think about taking her up on that trip to New York after all.
He’d think about it.
A steel cage and a thirty thousand foot drop - you have to hand it to Nick Fury, he may not be much of a technician but his people’s ideas don’t lack for brutal simplicity. Wonder if tall, blond and mythic made it out in one piece or if he’s jelly on the coastline. Antonia Stark stood with her fingers tucked into the belt of her borrowed uniform, hair loose across her shoulders, and felt the aching burn behind her eyes were the tears were refusing to come. She knew why she’d come down here - she’d have had to be an idiot not to - but here she was, staring at the hole in the middle of the room and avoiding the real reason like she didn’t have work to do.
Like her armor hadn’t been ground half to pieces by the turbine on engine three.
Like the world was still turning toward morning and everything was still the way it was yesterday.
The sound of boots on steel deck plating let her know that Steve had come down too. When she glanced over at him, he was standing at the top of the second platform, eyes locked on the place she was so desperately avoiding. He said nothing at first, but his guilt-stricken grief communicated his thoughts well enough.
She did her best to ignore him, on the theory that if she kept it up long enough he might actually go away.
It didn’t work.
Steve cleared his throat like a fucking schoolboy, and she told herself fiercely it was nothing like charming. “I didn’t really know him. Did he have family?”
“No. I don’t know. Not officially.” She closed her eyes for a few seconds, reopened them when she didn’t like what she saw. “There was a cellist in Portland. He wasn’t the kind of guy who talked about it.”
Grunting in acknowledgement, Steve nodded. “Is someone going to tell her, or do they do that sort of thing for spies? They can’t just let him...disappear.” There was a subtly plaintive note in his voice, like he was trying to convince someone it was true. Probably himself.
She should have just let him stew on it. Couldn’t. “Fury’s classification system can go fuck itself. I’ll tell her, if nobody else does. She ought to know what kind of man....” Her voice broke, and the heat behind her eyes hurt and she hated herself for the weakness of it.
Focusing on the grateful, proud look Steve gave her was a little better. A little. “She should,” he said, like he knew what she meant, and she appreciated that.
“I thought I was going to take a swing at you back there. Before.” She admitted it reluctantly, embarrassed by her own stung anger as much as by the pride that made it so hard to admit. “Now I kinda think you wanted me to.”
Snorting a laugh, Steve smiled as spots of color in his cheeks reinforced the schoolboy analogy. “Something tells me your interest wasn’t entirely combative, either.”
She tried to glare at him, but the wry smile that snuck onto her lips didn’t help with bringing it off. “Says the man engineered to be perfect, as if he were surprised.”
His glance slid away and loneliness crept into his expression - the sort of vulnerability that was pretty near impossible to fake unless ‘method actor’ was right up there on the list of talents granted by being a super soldier. “Most the time I’ve spent awake has been as a ninety-pound weakling with a stubborn streak, I can’t talk about anything that happened in the last seventy years, and the first time we met each other we wound up fighting. Several times. So yeah, I’m surprised.”
If he was any more charming, she would have had to kill him. Or kiss him. Or possibly kiss him and then kill him. “Didn’t boys throw rocks at girls they liked in school during the thirties?”
“Your regard for my maturity is stunning.”
“I was just trying to say that these days, sometimes the girls throw rocks at the boys instead.” She flashed him a smile, throwing herself into the distraction from the ugly reality on the wall behind her. “I could leave nanobots in your locker instead, if it’d make you feel better.”
“I think we can skip that.” The smile faded from his face, and his gaze drifted over to the wall behind Toni. “If we get this bastard, I’ll practice my modernity and let you take me to dinner.”
“It’s a deal.” She finally turned and made herself look, the stain of Phil’s blood on the wall finally draw a few hot tears to her eyes. “When we find him, I’m going to grind his face down Central Avenue so hard that....”
She stopped. Stared. Turned and looked at Steve, then back at the wall.
His face was stony. “Not that I don’t have revenge fantasies myself, but no, you won’t.”
“Will, won’t, whatever. Fuck.” She waved the irrelevance away, eyes focused on nothing. “He made it personal. This is his way of saying ‘fuck you, you can’t stop me no matter how pissed off I make you.’ You get it?”
“It’s a common enough strategy in war. Attack the morale first.”
“No, idiot.” She shook her head, frustrated, hands working the air. “He knows it’s about us - that he’s got to take us out, that we’re the rogue factor that could blow his whole plan to bits. Strategy says we all ought to be dead - why shoot to wound when you can make the kill? This isn’t about strategy. This is psychology. This is ego.”
Lips tight, Steve raised a wry eyebrow. “I guess you know all about that.”
She glared. “Yeah, okay, fine. So I’m the expert and you’d better listen. You caught his show in Stuttgart, right? Posturing, drama, public speaking. That was previews - this is opening night, okay? And Loki, he’s not gonna set up in some barn in the backwoods and establish a beachhead. He’s prime diva material - he was parades, he wants rave reviews in the Times , he wants an audience of millions, he wants a monument to the skies with his name in fluorescent....”
Her brain skipped a gear, and she felt a sudden urge to bang her head against the wall that required smothering. Pre-battle concussions were not a good plan. “Steve, this is the moment you get to tell me I’m an idiot.”
“You’re an idiot,” he obliged without hesitation. The bastard.
“I gotta get my gear working, and I mean now.” She turned and headed for the door, trotting already and catching her breath for a run. “The melodramatic motherfucker’s headed for New York - for my own damn tower - and I should have figured this out two hours ago. Idiot. ”
She was out the door before he had a chance to answer, which was probably good for her blood pressure and his life expectancy. Not that the second was looking too bright for any of them, but that wasn’t where her head needed to be right now.
“JARVIS,” she growled into her phone as she slid into the elevator fast enough to bang into the back wall, “I need to get her flying. Now. Fast and dirty. We’ve got to get home, or there’s not going to be a home there to go to.”
“You’d think that after the last few days, seeing a couple of demigods use a dark energy travel array to jump universes would seem kinda mundane.” Antonia Stark, leaning back against the rail over a thirty foot drop into traffic with the nonchalance of the profoundly exhausted, shook her head and blinked the sparks out of her eyes. “Guess it doesn’t work that way. I’ve got to get myself one of those.”
“No,” Bruce and Steve said in unison.
“Bastards,” she rebuked them both cheerfully. “I just saved the world, didn’t I? I deserve something special for that, and Thor didn’t even let me test out his hammer before he left.”
“So throw a party,” Steve retorted dryly. “Let the world have a break between episodes of being torn apart by mystic forces.”
“No sense of adventure, either of you.” Toni clicked her tongue disapprovingly, then shrugged. Next week, her expression suggested. “Fine. But if I’m throwing a party, you’re both coming. No arguments.”
Bruce shifted his weight from side to side, looking away. Steve just sighed.
“If it’s somewhere I can get some space when I need it, I think I can make it.” Steve was pretty sure there was a glint of pleasure somewhere under all of Banner’s caution. It was hard not to be charmed by Toni.
“I was thinking ocean. Beachfront. Sand. Bikini.” Toni’s teeth gleamed behind her smile. “Sound spacious enough?”
Steve frowned. “Bikini, singular? This is a party, right? Not an elaborate seduction scheme? Or are those basically the same with you?”
“Steve, I’m hurt you’d think that.” Toni put her hand to the gleaming metal disc just visible above the open buttons of her blouse and batted her lashes in a way that couldn’t possibly be unrehearsed. “Not all of my parties end in orgies. Just the really good ones.”
Steve really hoped she was joking. “I’ll stay as long as everyone stays dressed. Bikinis don’t count.”
She shook her head and pushed away from the railing, headed for the expensive sports car with the custom plates at an easy saunter that took full advantage of the way the skirt hugged her hips. “Prude,” she tossed over her shoulder. “I’m driving.”
The soldier and the scientist exchanged looks.
“We’re going to regret this, aren’t we?” Steve mused, unable to look away from the girl or the car.
“Definitely.” Banner agreed. “You mind if I take shotgun?”
“He can sit on your lap!” Toni called back over her shoulder encouragingly, already climbing into the driver’s seat.
Bruce looked like he was going to burst into laughter. Steve couldn’t help but grin. “I’ll follow on my bike.”
“Spoilsport!” Toni strapped herself into the car, pulling on a pair of shades that took five years off her age and flashing a smile that took ten. “Fine. Get your ass in the seat, Doctor Banner, before I have to come back there and carry you off myself.”
Steve grinned in a way that was not entirely gentlemanly. “Enjoy the ride, doc.”
“Your turn next time, Cap.” Bruce smiled ruefully, shrugged his shoulders and resigned himself to the inevitable.
Toni was already on the car’s telephone before Banner had himself buckled in. At least, he assumed it was a phone until he got a look over Bruce’s shoulder at the computer screens that took up most of the dashboard - if there was enough trunk space left after the mainframes Toni had strapped into that thing for a swimsuit and a picnic basket, he was going to owe Nick ten bucks. Again. “Pepper Potts. Now you answer your damn phone. I’ve saved the world, nearly gotten blown up by a nuke and probably got kissed awake from a coma by Prince Charming in Stars and Stripes, a demigod or the Hulk, and what have you done with your day? Don’t answer that, it’ll probably be boring. Anyway, I have more important news - party, Coney Island beachfront, and you will never guess who I’m bringing. Find your swimsuit and bring at least six crabs - no, wait, seven. I’m starving. And pasta from that place on Seventeenth, and at least three bottles of the Rochester ‘65.”
As he started up the bike, Steve shook his head. He could only hope that Miss Potts was as good at managing Toni as everyone said she was. It wasn’t something he - or Bruce - was going to excel at any time soon.
He sort of liked that about her.
The picnic, dictated by Toni’s whims and orchestrated by Pepper’s skill, had been marvelous, if Ms. Potts did say so herself. She’d thrown in a salad of locally grown organic greens, a small thermos full of melted butter for the crabs, and an assortment of adorably decorated petit fours. In characteristic fashion, Toni had called the Coast Guard and either blackmailed or bargained an entire mile of public beach to themselves. Pepper and the boys were lazing around on the fluffiest of beach towels, watching a deepening blue chase streaks of red and orange across the sky while Toni pursued the waves.
She’d brought her e-reader to keep herself occupied if need be, but the sunset was so beautiful and the company so agreeable that she was just laying on her side, basking in it all. Honestly, they all damn well deserved it.
The sand warmed her from beneath, and in her languor Pepper’s eyes had drifted half-closed. Toni was in the water, after all, and there was only so much trouble even Antonia Stark could get into playing in the ocean.
A few moments of comfortable silence passed, the evening air becoming cooler on her skin. Steve, or maybe it was Bruce, shifted position a little.
“I can’t remember the last time I had wine this good, or pasta and crab at the same time.” Bruce Banner’s voice was replete with contentment and amusement, tinged by a hint of wonder. “Or sat on a beach without worrying about someone seeing me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever had wine this good. I remember Coney Island, though - sitting out on the beach and watching the sun come out.” Wistful memory drifted into a rueful laugh as Steve rolled over to stare out at the water. “It felt like what I thought living in the future would be like. Now I am, and I miss Brooklyn and Coney Island. How crazy is that?”
“Not crazy.” The hiss of Bruce’s fingers against the sand was an echo of the ache in his sigh. “I spend enough time missing grad school, and I’m living in the present.”
With the light almost gone, the birds had roosted for the night, and Pepper let the quiet wash through her. Sometimes she missed things like her favorite cafe in her hometown, or the spot on the banks of the Seine she’d fallen in love with on a business trip. Being as busy as she usually was tended to preclude nostalgia.
Toni, though...Before, Toni’s love for her world was directly proportional to how much input she’d had in creating it. When things were boring, or uncomfortable, or infuriating, Toni would miss her garage and do whatever it took to get back to it as soon as possible - or recreate it, if absolutely necessary. Afghanistan had changed that, burned it away or transmuted it almost unrecognizably. Now ‘home’ seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, anywhere her tech was lining the walls or maybe just when she had the Aegis between her and the world.
Or maybe when she was sharing a room with Pepper Potts. It was the only time she seemed to get any real sleep, at least, which suggested something of peace.
Steve shifted again, his eyes wide and young and earnest in the dark. “What I said before about your... condition. I feel like I owe you an apology. You really came through for us in the end.”
“You mean the other guy.” The edge of bitterness was still there in Banner’s voice, but the wine and the warmth of the sand under his shoulders seemed to have dulled the bite of it. “The Hulk.”
“You. Or you both. However you want to say it.” Steve didn’t seem inclined to let go of the point. “Not just the lab work or the smashing - you saved Toni’s life there at the end. That counts with me, even if it doesn’t count with you.”
“You know, I ought to worry more about getting this drunk... but I don’t.” Bruce’s throat worked audibly, another swallow of wine. It was a deflection, but there was acceptance in it too. “I really thought you were going to bolt when she started stripping out of her blouse.”
“I thought about it.” Steve blushed deeply enough to be visible in the moonlight. “For a whole second or two, at least.”
“You really are that wholesome, aren’t you?” Bruce laughed, shook his head and took another drink. “Anything I had resembling resolve was gone by the third or fourth button.”
Steven chuckled, low and masculine and thick with acknowledgement, then looked back out at the water. “What she said earlier - I mean, what they both said... you thinking about it?”
Banner snorted. “If you can stop thinking about it, you’re a saint. I’d be risking an... incident... and I’m still thinking about it.”
“I’m pretty sure they didn’t make women like that back in the ‘40s. If they did, I never met any of them.”
Anaïs Nin, Pepper thought. Eleanor Roosevelt. Probably some others. In the warm cloud of the wine she was impressed she’d had even that much historical recall. In any case, Steve wouldn’t have had the chance to know them.
If someone had asked her yesterday if Captain Rogers would have known what to do with a woman like Toni, Pepper would have smiled softly and said something diplomatic about cultural differences between eras. He’d wound up surprising her, just as he’d surprised Toni a few days ago with the substance behind his war effort poster boy exterior.
They’d poured the wine and had dished out the salad, and after everyone was settled on the towels, Toni raised an eyebrow at Pepper in question. Ms. Potts had cleared her throat, made the appropriate opening remarks, and opened negotiations.
“We’ve discussed it, and we’re inviting you to watch us have sex with an option to join in.” Taking a sip of her wine, she watched their reactions with a politely curious expression.
Both men stared. Steve looked like he was trying to decide between being scandalized and intrigued, while Bruce had begun breathing deliberately slowly. Well, there was definitely mutual interest.
“I should have known you really meant it.” Bruce shook his head, a wry smile on his face. “I don’t know. Maybe.” He looked down at the delicate wine glass in his hands. “And only if you promise me that if I have to leave suddenly you won’t follow me.”
“Of course,” Pepper answered smoothly, then elbowed Toni.
“No following,” Toni affirmed. “Or tying up, for that matter.”
Steve’s cheeks heated visibly.
Hiding a smile in her drink, Pepper turned to the Captain next. “It’s all right to say no,” she offered.
“You-- I-- we--” He coughed. Took a rather large swallow of wine. Tried again. “I’m definitely interested and I very much appreciate the offer. It’s just that I’m half-sure I’m about to wake up somewhere that makes sense.”
“Don’t worry, Steve.” Toni’s eyes twinkled, and she got a particularly wicked grin on her face. “I’m pretty sure you still remember how to dance. Left foot, right foot...”
Eyebrows reaching for his hairline, Steve gave a disbelieving laugh. “If I’d tried to ‘dance’ with two girls at once back in Brooklyn I don’t think I’d have made it to basic training in one piece.”
“We promise no bodily harm will come to you,” Pepper reassured him before smiling mischievously. “Well, none you won’t like.”
If possible, Captain Rogers blushed even harder, but he took a bite of salad and said nothing more about it.
She doubted if either them had any idea how close it had come to not happening at all. How much, even after four years, it must be a struggle for Toni to feel safe enough with these men not just to flirt but to fully intend to follow through on it. It wasn’t something they talked about - not really; Toni was fond of saying that therapy was something she was already paying for, and would prefer to leave to the expert rather than indulging amateurs. That didn’t mean Pepper hadn’t spent four years watching her fake the classic Stark swagger a little less every day, hadn’t noted every time her eyes had lingered on someone and then fallen away when the pain of memory won out over the anticipation of desire.
It had surprised her - stunned her, actually - when she’d discovered herself aching to have that back. To watch Toni flirt and seduce and scandalize her way through the world again, even if it meant sharing her, just so she could see that careless insolent smile again. She’d wanted it enough, in the end, to pick out a cute blonde city planner and practically drag her over to Toni at a party with the suggestion they might all enjoy a few drinks. Together. Alone.
It had taken Toni all of forty seconds to get her meaning, which was something like a lifetime when it came to Antonia Stark. Then she’d smiled in a way that had almost broken Pepper’s heart, hesitated and let herself be persuaded.
It had not exactly been a good night so much as the relief of a hovering storm finally giving way and bringing life back to the desert.
Tonight was another step back, maybe the last one, and she wondered if either of them knew how much it said about how much Toni thought of them both that she’d chosen them. Probably not. Toni wouldn’t have wanted them to know - would have wanted them to think that this was a night like every other night, so they could enjoy the hell out of it and leave clean in the morning if that was what they wanted or come back itching for more if the impulse took them. Toni couldn’t stand being patronized, hated being pitied, and probably would have crawled across hot coals before she admitted weakness in front of anyone.
Anyone except Pepper Potts.
“You ever hear the story of Athena?” Bruce’s eyes were out on the water again, watching Toni’s skin catch in the moonlight.
“Can’t say so. Didn’t get a lot of school.” Steve covered whatever else he might have thought with another swallow of his wine.
“Zeus, the king of the gods, got himself an almighty headache. All the other gods of Olympus, they can’t figure out what’s wrong, so finally they crack his head open to relieve the pressure and out springs the goddess Athena, fully armed and shouting her war cry to the heavens. She was the wisest and cleverest of all the Greek gods, the patron of everything from good advice to just warfare, strategy and tactics to mathematics and engineering. When Odysseus, the guy who ended the Trojan War by coming up with the trick involving the horse, needed to get through the long voyage home it was Athena who he called on to have his back.” Bruce’s voice softened a little, his breath short as Toni broke the surface of the water, and his fingers carved fresh lines in the sand. “All she’s missing is the gray eyes. Makes you wonder if Howard Stark just had a headache one day.”
“Hell of a story,” Steve murmured, his own breath catching just audibly in his throat.
A tightness pulled at Pepper’s throat. Goddess analogies were sort of sweet, she supposed, but she’d come too close to having only the legend of Toni Stark to keep her warm at night. And while she loved Toni’s brilliance and courage and passion, she also loved the arrogance and idiosyncrasies and all the tiny mundane details that would never be mythic. Toni was too human and too big to be a story, and that’s how Pepper liked it.
Also, the boys were obviously forgetting the part where Athena was a virgin. Pepper wasn’t exactly sure when Toni had jumped that particular fence into adulthood, but what she knew very well was that Antonia Stark had been a fox in the henhouse ever since.
“You know what amazes me?” Steve whispered, almost to himself. “Since I got out of the ice, people treat me like... Phil and people in the street, they treat me like some kind of legend. Something out of a comic book or a story. Fury and SHIELD, they treat me like what I was at the end of the war - like a weapon. She gives me seven kinds of hell, but she never treats me like anything but a man. Guess I didn’t know how much I’d gotten to miss that.”
Banner didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. His silence was eloquent enough.
Damn. Smart enough to know how to be quiet and keep up with Toni at science. Not bad looking, either. Pepper had found Toni’s crush on Bruce Banner a little weird when it had first come up - now she was starting to see the appeal. She didn’t dare mention that to Toni, though. She’d never live it down.
The sound of footsteps in the sand finally motivated Pepper to open her eyes, and when she did everything else became background.
Water sluiced down Toni’s skin in rivulets and sheets as she stepped out of the waves, highlighting her curves in reflected moonlight. The red material of the bikini, almost iridescent with damp and moonshine, clung to her skin and left just enough to the imagination to catch Pepper’s breath. Four years together, and Toni could still burn every thought out of her head with one look.
Hips swaying hypnotically as she approach, Toni grinned - wicked, primal and infinitely knowing. Why yes, that look said, I do know what you’re thinking and I’m entirely okay with that. Still lying still on the towel, Pepper bit her lip at the sight. It had been too long since she’d seen that grin, since before she’d been in a position to be on the receiving end of it, and she was suddenly wondering how all those girls at all those parties had managed to keep their panties on long enough to get behind the bar or into the back seat or wherever it was they usually avoided ending up on Youtube.
“I didn’t bring you out here to drink and brood, boys.” Her hair wet and loose around her shoulders, Toni’s face was a mingling of dusky marble skin and ivory white teeth. “So you’re either going out in the water with me or I’m getting dirty on those towels with you.”
Toni Stark. The thought was half-exasperated, half-affectionate and half-wondering. Toni was the sort of woman you needed three halves just to keep up with.
“We don’t actually have swimsuits,” Bruce pointed out with something less than complete confidence.
Steve rallied to his defense. “I’m pretty sure there are laws against that, Toni.”
Toni’s grin flashed in the dark. “And your point is?”
Toni fucking Stark.
Pepper gave up the pretense of sleep and lifted her hand to point to one of the baskets she’d carried out from the car. The look of mingled relief and dull horror on the boys’ faces when they realized that a) she’d been listening and b) they were saved from the prospect of skinny dipping was hilarious enough that she couldn’t resist a giggle.
Toni glared through her own laughter. “You, Miss Potts, are a cheat and a spoilsport. I ought to take you out to the ocean and find a boat with which to keelhaul you, but in my infinite mercy what I am going to do instead is pleasure you in front of these upstanding gentlemen until you beg for mercy. Twice, at least.”
Pepper wasn’t sure which of the men made the choked whimper in his throat and which was shifting the towel in a hurried backpedal. It might have been the same one - the blood was too busy rushing away from her brain for her to really notice. They’d talked about this before, and not just regarding Steve and Bruce--Toni splaying her wide in front of an audience close enough to hear and see--but hadn’t quite gotten around to it. It made so much sense that at the moment she couldn’t remember why not; Toni was a natural showman, an exhibitionist by nature, and the first time Toni had kissed her up a wall outside a board meeting Pepper had discovered embarrassment made better fuel than JP-7.
They hadn’t even really gotten started, and already this was going on Pepper’s favorites list.
Toni dropped down onto the towels, straddling Pepper’s knees to prevent a quick getaway, and the brown rims of her eyes were steel black in the dark. “And if either of you two gentlemen even thinks about running for it,” she continued threateningly, “you can expect an even more dire fate to befall you than the one this treacherous wench has earned for herself.”
“Is it the wine or the beach that’s making you talk like a pirate? Because if you’re going to do that, I insist you wear knee-high boots, one of those Commodore coats, and a corset. Ooh, wait, let me put that shopping list in my Blackberry.”
“Three times, Miss Potts,” Toni breathed into her mouth. “Would you like to try for four?”
Steve was making a sound down in his throat that suggested he was having trouble breathing, or maybe just remembering to breathe, and through the spill of Toni’s hair Pepper could make out Bruce Banner sitting in the sand with his eyes and mouth equally wide open. It made her wonder how long it had been since the poor man actually let off some non-violent steam.
It made her think of at least a half-dozen ways she’d like to help him with that, too.
She tangled her hands in Toni’s hair, hard enough to drag their lips together and arch Toni’s hips down against hers, and the growl that came out of her was anything but civilized. “Five, Ms. Stark. I insist.”
Toni laughed into her mouth, already peeling apart her sarong, and a few flecks of salt caught moonlight on those exasperatingly perfect dark eyelashes as Toni started down Pepper’s body with an intent to make mischief singing in her voice. “Pepper Potts,” she husked, leaving the mark of her teeth and nails as she went, “never let it be said that I don’t appreciate your service.”
Pepper meant to say something clever in reply to that - really, she did - but Toni was a lot faster with the bikini than she’d expected and by the time she had the retort ready to come to mind there simply wasn’t room for it. Not with what Toni’s mouth was doing to her, or the way Doctor Banner was breathing a bare two feet away, or the blue-silver glow of Steve’s eyes in the moonlight as he watched her.
As he kept watching her.
If someone had told her a week ago that anything in the world could have held her attention while Toni Stark made love to her, much less a man’s eyes, Pepper Potts would have laughed. Now she was entirely too out of breath for laughing, or for much of anything else more elaborate than tiny whimpering gasps, but was still aware of him - of both of them - in a way she couldn’t have imagined. Not any more than she could have imagined the almost delicate growl in Steve’s throat when her head snapped back and her whole body snapped up like a bow under the skill of Toni’s hands or the harsh shivering rush of Bruce’s breathing when Toni made her scream things she couldn’t have pictured herself saying in front of anyone else until this moment without a desire to laugh, or throw things, or possibly bury herself under her pillows until the whole world went away.
There weren’t any pillows to be had, but the world did go away. Several times. All of it but the bright blue shine of Steve’s eyes.
That never quite left her.
She came back to the world gasping and trembling like a victim of shipwreck, sand in her hair and her cheeks on fire, and she only really realized she’d been staring into Steve’s eyes when Toni slid up into her field of vision and blocked her view. There was a momentary, incoherent flash of irritation at that - didn’t Toni know that she was in the way? - but it didn’t last more than a few seconds because Toni was radiant. Her eyes were dark fire, her lips slick and parted around breath that was coming far too fast for how confident and deep it was, and the way she was looking at Bruce Banner could have made a Bengal tiger feel cornered.
“Clothes. Off.” Toni’s voice vibrated in the air, struck and reverberated like a hammer on hot iron, and when she bent down to kiss Pepper’s mouth it was as unexpected and fierce as a bolt of lightning through a conducting rod - left the redhead trembling and arched, breathlessly aflame, unable to believe that the sand beneath her hadn’t rendered down into dark glass under the weight of that heat. Toni’s eyes were already back on Bruce, and her voice was if anything more imperious. More perfect. More hers. “They’re in the way, Doctor Banner, so I want them off. ”
Pepper’s breath slipped out of her again, so caught up by the brilliant fire in those brown eyes that she almost wept - not for pain or fear but for bright hot joy. To not just believe but to know that all of Antonia Stark had come back from Afghanistan like a slow-burning phoenix was a relief so profound that it left her nearly as boneless as the pleasure had, pooled soft and quiet on the towels and yet still pierced through with sharp, delicate spikes of arousal that didn’t give a damn how thoroughly she’d just been pleasured. Toni could do that, had done that from the first time they’d finally gone to bed together - roused her at times and in ways she didn’t think were possible, caught her and transported her out of herself until she barely recognized the unbound (or occasionally, admittedly, very thoroughly bound) and eager creature wrapped around Toni as herself.
It would have been damned annoying if it wasn’t so good.
“Good.” Toni’s voice hummed satisfaction, and then Pepper was trembling and bereft and wind-kissed, the night air washing over the sweat on her skin as Toni crawled off her toward a fresh lover (subject, victim, celebrant) and left her to her own devices. That was all right. Pepper was good at her own devices. Besides, Toni was only doing what she’d soundless asked for.
Toni had gotten out of her way, and now she was looking Steve Rogers in the eyes again.
“Miss Potts,” he managed through the obvious fire on his cheeks, “I have absolutely no idea what to say.”
A low chuckle danced through Pepper. “Well, Captain Rogers, we can start with the transition to speaking on a first-name basis. I just let you see me come half a dozen times. Seems only natural.”
“Natural is not the word I would apply to any of this,” Steve muttered under his breath, but he smiled when he said it and he couldn’t - or maybe didn’t try to - keep his eyes from wandering over the sweat and sand clinging to her skin, the marks of Toni’s nails printed across her hips, the visible heat and eagerness of her body. A few feet from them, Bruce made an inarticulate protest that Toni efficiently smothered with her mouth, and Steve’s lips twitched. “Do you think there’s any chance we’re not going to end this evening running from the Hulk?”
“Steve,” Pepper said through a smile, “Stop worrying and hand me that basket. If anyone can keep Bruce....Bruce, it’s Toni.” Bringing her arms over her head, she pulled her back into a taut curve - every line of her torso on display, toes pointed out towards the surf, the long arch of her neck as provocative an invitation as any words could have been.
Steve, caught with basket in hand and entirely off-guard, went so wide-eyed and still that for a few seconds she thought he might actually do something ridiculous like faint. Then he managed to find his voice, and what came out was a growl that wasn’t anything like ridiculous. “Are you trying to seduce me, Pepper, or are you just seeing how many times you can render me speechless in a night?”
Rolling onto her side and pushing herself up to sitting in front of Steve, the redhead grinned, the more mischievous for her nudity. An elegant hand slid up the soldier’s chest in a long caress. “Can’t it be both?”
“Apparently,” he breathed out on a laugh. “It’s been a while since I’ve done this, you understand. I’m a little rusty.”
“And I can barely move after what Toni did to me. Stop whining and step to, soldier.”
His eyes flashed, and he was grinning when he grabbed her around the waist and pressed her down to the towels again. “Aye aye, ma’am.”
Pepper’s last coherent thought, before fresh heat reduced anything resembling coherence to a tangled rubble, was that if Steve Rogers really was rusty, the women of the world had better watch out for the day he got back to top form.
“I really,” Bruce gasped between kisses as Toni shoved him flat on the sand for the fifth time in seven minutes, “just need a minute... to catch... my breath.”
“Breath,” Toni Stark told him as she dragged his boxers off and snapped off the last wayward button of his shirt, “is superfluous to requirements.”
“It really,” he gasped out as the last piece of clothing left his skin, leaving him open to the night and Toni’s attentions, “really isn’t, actually. I’m sure you must have had some biology.”
“Messy. Redundant. Needs serious corrective work.” Toni kissed him again, hard enough to make the thunder in his blood stop for a fraction of a second in pure shock, then pulled back enough to give him a wicked grin. “Does make some fun toys, though.”
Then she’d slid down his body and wrapped her mouth around him before he had a chance to think of something half-clever or even intelligible to say, and his entire attention had to be split between convincing the other guy to mind his own business and not thrashing like a schoolboy having his first blowjob.
Fortunately, he succeeded at the first and failed at the second rather than the reverse.
In his defense, he’d been living like a monk ever since the accident, so he supposed a little oversensitivity was to be expected. He’d heard stories about actual monks who, after years of complete chastity, had succumbed to the urge one night, and after a simple jack-off session been laid up in bed for a day from the intensity of the explosion.
Crap. Don’t think about that. Peaceful thoughts.
“God,” he gasped, and he wasn’t sure if it was a curse or a prayer. He and God hadn’t exactly been on speaking terms in the last few years, but he also could use all the help he could get at the moment.
Toni did something with her tongue that was probably a violation of the laws of physics, and he abandoned that line of thought for just trying to keep the air in his lungs and his brain on the inside of his skull. Not that he really expected his head could explode from this. Probably. He wasn’t in any condition to run simulations on that in his head.
He was pretty sure there was a biochem joke in there somewhere, but he was much, much too distracted to find it.
Toni slid off him, which for a half-second he thought was an act of mercy - or of torture, he couldn’t really tell one from the other under the circumstances - but that particular misconception lasted just about as long as it took him to catch the look in her eyes. Antonia Stark was decidedly not in a merciful - or sadistic - mood.
She wanted him, and he suddenly couldn’t remember if anyone in his life had ever looked at him with that kind of want. Maybe Betty. Maybe once. It scared him.
“Do you know, Bruce,” she told him softly as she slid down on top of him and buried him inside her, “I’ve been thinking about this since I was fifteen years old?”
“Uh.” His hands stilled on her hips. He supposed it was a good thing to get a little cooled down. “Flattering, really, but please no underage images right now. I like my women, y’know, women.”
“I know.” She was grinning now, insufferably wicked. “But now you’re in me and you’re not worrying about turning into a giant green rage machine, so I’m going to score it a win.”
Then she started moving, and he had about enough time to reflect that it was completely unfair how often this marvelous, infuriating woman cheated at conversation before the sharp bite of her nails and the quick smooth twist of her hips put the topic very firmly out of his mind.
Out of his mind was actually exactly the right phrase for his current state, if he’d been able to string enough thoughts together to realize it. As it was, he went a good twenty minutes without being aware of anything except the bright heat of Toni over him and his own thorough, long overdue enjoyment of it.
She really shouldn’t have bit his neck. That was probably the key mistake. Or maybe it was just the pent-up pressure of the oncoming orgasm smashing through him like the rush of air before a train crash that set his body shaking with the first fractional echoes of the change. That turned him rigid and gasping and terrified, pushing at her shoulders to try to get her off him before... before....
“Bruce.” Her hands locked his head in place, forcing him to look her in the eye, and her voice went right through him - not angry, not afraid, not even a rebuke. A demand. Pay attention. “I see you, Bruce. I’ve got you. You aren’t going to run away from this because you don’t have to. Because your pulse hasn’t hit critical and your eyes are still what I’m looking at and because that raw throbbing nerve in your head wants to get off as much as you do and if you change, that’s not going to happen and it knows it. You know it.” She kissed him hard, hard enough that there wasn’t anything he could do except kiss her back, and some of the burning in his skin melted away into that kiss like she was drinking it out of him.
“There,” she breathed, and her voice shook, and her eyes were wide and wild and dark with the intensity of her pleasure as she locked down on him and wouldn’t let him go. “God, Bruce, there. Told you... I’d.... fucking.... enjoy .... it!”
He thought she might go limp then, curl up on his chest or get up or otherwise end it, because that’s what a sensible person would have done. In retrospect, he’d blame the thought on the lack of blood in his brain. Toni had never been and probably never would be a sensible person.
She kept at him instead, through enough orgasms that he actually hurt when she was done, and he never came that close to changing again. Not once. Apparently, sex was not a categorical trigger. Good to know. Experiment logged. Of course, if he’d been sleeping with someone sane , they probably would have picked a lower-risk way of finding out.
When she was curled up on top of him after, laughing and tugging at his hair and nipping his lip, he had to admit that crazy was growing on him.
Some time a bit before dawn--he’d have to check his watch to be sure, assuming he could find his watch--Steve lay staring up at the sky, stars wheeled far from where they’d been just after sundown. Not that he knew his constellations, though he had spent a number of watches in the war looking at them. At least some things hadn’t changed.
Other things definitely had. The expansive variety of sizes, colors, textures, and flavors of prophylactics, for one. Pepper’s basket had been almost full of them. They’d opened four and used three (the one with the little bumps had felt too strange). When Toni had swayed over to them a few hours ago, Pepper had insisted that her girlfriend pause long enough for him to use several more. He’d not actually managed to keep track of how many, since Pepper had innocently insisted on helping with putting a couple of them on for him and that had been extremely distracting.
Not quite as distracting as some of the things Toni had insisted on having him ‘try out’ on her, though. Some of those had been downright obscene, the kind of thing that would have gotten him thrown out of polite company for even implying, but the second time he’d stumbled out something about how decent people didn’t do that, she’d threatened to gag him if he said it again. He was still not entirely sure she hadn’t been joking, even though Pepper had laughed - Pepper laughed a lot at Toni, even when Toni was obviously in deadly earnest. When it didn’t leave him feeling run over by a truck, he actually found that charming about them.
If he was honest with himself, he kind of liked getting run over, too.
At the moment they were both lying partly on top of him, their arms linked over his chest, Pepper’s head resting on one shoulder and Toni’s leg flung over his hips. Toni’s head, the last time he checked, was tipped back under the curve of Bruce’s jaw in a way that only a cat should have been able to find comfortable and which seemed to be designed to ensure that Brue couldn’t sneak off without waking her - not that, from the sound of his snoring, Bruce was going to be sneaking anywhere any time soon. He’d been a limp mess after Toni had finished with him, and then Pepper had cheerfully insisted on helping him ‘clean up’ in a way that hadn’t looked likely to actually make him any better put together. Steve hadn’t been able to spare a lot of attention for that at the time, admittedly, but it had certainly looked exhausting.
He was pretty sure that he was the only one still awake. Mostly sure. Suspected. It was just that Toni kept shifting against him and her eyelids kept flickering in a way that made him feel as if she might just be watching him, no matter how implausible it seemed that even Antonia Stark could still be awake after all the excesses she’d inflicted on herself and the rest of them tonight.
She was probably asleep. Almost certainly. But it was still driving him a little crazy not knowing, and he was beginning to suspect that might be part of the plan. He was already sure that she was eventually going to drive him crazy, deliberately, in as many ways as she could discover or invent.
Avengers briefings were going to be awkward.
“You know,” she whispered, startling him out of a particularly lurid train of thought that somehow involved Natasha, Pepper, Toni and the briefing table on the helicarrier’s bridge, “I’m pretty sure my dad had a crush on you.”
Steve was silent for a long moment. “I don’t know if you’re serious or just playing with my head. Possibly both.” He turned to look at her, found her eyes still closed and her face relaxed in the glow of the starlight, and was for a fraction of a second not sure if that comfortable peace on her face was the most infuriating or beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Maybe both. He blew out a breath, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake Pepper, and tried not to sound like he was smiling. “Actually, from now on I’m just going to assume you’re messing with me and that any truth mixed in is incidental.”
She grinned softly without opening her eyes. “I’m wounded that you think that I’d ever lie to you, Steve. Real skill is in telling you the truth and messing with your head.”
He rolled his eyes in the darkness, pretty sure she couldn’t have seen them even with her eyes open, and even at a half-whisper he managed a mocking falsetto. “‘Oh, no Steve, I’d never lie. That would be wrong.’” He cleared his throat, voice returning to normal. “Sorry. Just had to get that out of my system.”
“Bastard,” she murmured with indecent cheer. “If you keep that up, I’ll convince Pepper you’d look perfect in a Dudley Do-Right outfit and get myself a red wig for Nell Fenwick. Pepper can be Snidely - she’d enjoy that.”
“That might sting if I had any idea what you’re talking about. I guess there is an advantage in missing seventy years of pop culture.” His grin was wide and a bit brighter than the surrounding shadow. “Anyway. Was there more you were going to say about your dad?”
Her eyes finally snapped open, searching his, and then her lip quirked and her voice changed - deepened a little, lost the snap and patter. “You know, sometimes I can’t tell if you’re just serving me slowballs over the plate or if you really do care enough that you set yourself up just to give me a chance to talk.”
He started to answer, but she stopped him with a sharp little click of her tongue. “Don’t. I’m already half in love with you and I don’t need more reasons to be. Just... let’s say that my dad wouldn’t shut up about you and now I can see why. All right?”
“Toni....” He stopped, tried to compose himself. Tried not to think about the fact that what he had to say - what was only decent to say - was the last thing he wanted to. Not to think about how bright and brilliant those eyes had been looking down into his, or how sweetly but emphatically Pepper had demanded his best and more from him. “If I’m out of line, here, or if you want me to clear out in the morning and not....”
“Don’t be an idiot,” she snapped, then shut her mouth hard and flushed as if the words had embarrassed her somehow - or as if she’d suddenly realized how sharp and hurtful they sounded and was regretting it. Or maybe he was blowing soap-bubbles because that was what he wanted her to be thinking. He hadn’t understood women in the ‘40s, and apparently seventy years of ‘progress’ wasn’t helping him.
She cut off that line of thought with the slightest bite of her nails on his skin, and when she met his eyes again in the dark he was sure he wasn’t imagining the uncertainty there. “I’m with Pepper,” she started off slowly, “and that’s a solid thing - no negotiation, term of life kinda deal. We’re not married because... well, because we don’t want the press and I want her to keep working for me and because we’ve never really talked about it, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s not on the table, ever, at any price. We have outside people for bed and that’s fine, that’s really good, but it’s never been anything more than that. So I don’t know where we are with that, or where you and I are with working together or whether I’m just having combat trauma bonding and in a couple of weeks I’m going to wonder what the hell I was thinking. But... if there’s ever anything I can do, anything you need, you ask. Anything, even if it’s just dinner and a movie and a roll in bed with Pepper and me. Okay?”
Steve let out a breath in a long, slow exhale. “You’re a brave woman and a good fighter and that’s all I need to work with you. The other things...” He shook his head slightly and let out a wry snort. “God must have a funny sense of humor.”
Toni crooked a half-grin and winked at him. “Because two gorgeous, smart, fascinating women screw you within an inch of your life, and now you don’t know if you’re coming or going, or because you had to get frozen in ice and skip sixty years of history to meet them?”
He had to fight hard to stifle a laugh that would have woken Pepper, and when he finally got himself under control he gave her a look that would have had men twice her age with a wealth of combat experience and stars on their shoulders trembling in their boots. “You’re going to drive me crazy, do you know that?”
“Yeah,” she said, and winked, “but you’re going to enjoy it.”
There was really no arguing with that, so he staged a tactical retreat. “So is there a special phone number I call you at for one of these dinners or a jet ride to wherever the world’s trying to end? Your own switchboard or something?”
“Satellite, darling, satellite. Besides, no need for anything that cumbersome.” Her eyes were dancing again, and damn if he didn’t want to kiss her. “Just pick up any phone in the world, dial your birth-date and say ‘Paladin’ into the receiver. I’ll know where you are and get the call wherever I am in the bargain.”
He leaned close enough to kiss her, glad that it was covering the skeptical look on his face. He would try it, ridiculous as it would make him feel, but he would also get Pepper’s phone number. Just in case.
Toni laughed into his mouth, like she could taste the thought on his tongue, and bit him playfully. “Don’t worry,” she reassured him, “that one’s just for you. I distributed the code by virus to all the telephone exchanges yesterday.”
“Toni,” he murmured against her lips, “you know you don’t make modern technology even a little bit more comforting?”
“I know,” she chuckled, “but at least I’m on your side.”
Warm hands slid against his ribs, pushing him up onto his side and more fully against Toni, and Pepper’s voice was muzzled and sleep-drenched against the back of his neck when she murmured, “I can’t leave you two alone for a minute.”
Toni laughed, pulled him tighter, and managed to kiss her girl across his shoulder without quite smothering him. “No,” she breathed in a voice that felt hot against his ear, “but you can join us for as long as you want.”
“Tomorrow,” Pepper groaned. “Sleep now, you freak. Not you, Steve. You’re wonderful.”
“He really is,” Toni murmured back, her voice still light but a tremble of emotion vibrating her body against him. “Do you think we could keep him?”
“No decisions while I’m sleepy. That’s how we wound up with that awful tortoise.” Pepper nuzzled more firmly against Steve’s back, tight enough to make sure he stayed right where he was. “Tomorrow.”
“Donatello was neat,” Toni protested. “I can’t believe you made me donate him.”
“He ate my shoes and stank up the whole house. You just didn’t care because he couldn’t get down the stairs to the garage.”
“Point,” Toni mumbled into Steve’s shoulder. “This one could. Maybe I should reconsider.”
“Do you discuss all your bed partners like pets? No, don’t answer that,” Steve sighed. “I don’t want to know.”
“Don’t worry,” Pepper murmured sleepily, “you’re the first one.”
“Mmm. Special case. Exceptional model.” Toni agreed.
Steve closed his eyes and decided that it was probably a good thing this was never going to work, or he’d be putting up with this sort of thing for the rest of his life. If he was lucky, he’d even convince himself that sounded less appealing than it did. “I’m going to sleep now. Please be quiet.”
Miraculously, they were.