She feels for the shape of her knees, because why not? She might have left everything behind in the war, but she still has this. Her knees, her body, the set of her shoulders as she picks up the gym bag and walks out the door. Sweat stains her skin like paint on a church window, and she can't bear to look at anybody, not even Agent Philippa Coulson when she waylays her in the compound hallway.
"Captain Rogers," Coulson says. "Can I have a word?"
"You need me," she says, cutting to the chase. It's a plain fact and Stephanie Rogers has always been for stating the plain facts. She starts rolling the tension out of her shoulders.
"We need you," Coulson affirms, and Stephanie knows the way she looks at her, mixed awe and reverence. Stephanie's stomach flips. What has she done in this modern world to earn that? She's just a doll in ice, a toy SHIELD bought on its expensive defrosting budget. But then Coulson says Tesseract, and Stephanie feels the shape of her knees, the tilt of the floor, the sudden rush of blood to her head.
"Captain," Coulson repeats, adding meaningful emphasis to that word. Stephanie Rogers is the Super Soldier, the first genetically engineered American for the battlefield, and the first woman to rise to that rank. Peggy told her from the beginning, you're special, you're going to make it easier for our daughters and our nieces, be strong. Some days, though, she thinks: I'm just a relic, a freak.
"Well, to be fair," Coulson says when Stephanie mutters her thoughts out loud, "they're all freaks too."
"Who?" she asks.
"You're very blonde," Antonia Stark says the first time she meets Captain America, and Stephanie tugs at her ponytail self-consciously.
"I can't exactly help it."
"It's not a criticism, Cap," Toni says, stepping back from the table. "The world's round, Loki is out to turn us into worm meat, and you're blonde like whoa." She peers at Stephanie, grinning. "Nice abs too."
They're going to tell her to stop it. Fury is going to step into the room and tell Toni to knock it off. No making Captain America blush. No staring at her beneath the weight of Toni's eyelashes, watching the way Rogers moves from one end of the room to the other. She's no supermodel. She's not even Natasha. Her movements are brisk and efficient, and already Toni is fascinated.
Rogers doesn't like her, though. She sees in Stephanie's mobile face what she's seen in all the others: Toni Stark, talks too much, drinks too much, plays with fire and burns down the house. Well, it's not like she can do more damage than what Loki's already done, and her mouth quirks as she slinks into her seat and pulls out her datapad. Pepper's sending her important messages. She should probably see to them.
Stephanie paces the room two times, until Toni says, "Jesus Christ, you're making me nauseous. Sit down."
Toni taps her nails on the datapad for good measure. They're hard and shiny, the colour of dried blood, the colour of iron.
In Calcutta, the wind moves through Bruce's bones and she has to concentrate very hard until she's able to smile at Natasha Romanova. Until she can pretend she's a harmless creature waiting to hear what Romanova has to say. Bruce knows about her, of course. Their paths have crossed in the way that a monster's path crosses with everyone's, moving through the fairy tales in the wreckage and the ruin. But Bruce doesn't want to be that anymore, and when the wind moves through her bones, stirring her cells into anticipation, she thinks, Stop.
Her parents named her Bruce because they wanted a boy, and she wasn't. SHIELD names her a priority because they want a monster, and she isn't.
She's not their monster, anyway. She isn't even her own.
But then there's that strange, fickle narrative, the one they don't mention in the stories: not pride, not glory, not patriotism. But curiosity. Agent Romanova is so calm as to be angelic, but her hands move with the deadly precision of piano keys, and Bruce allows herself to believe, if only for a moment, that this will be a good idea.
She sticks her hands into her pockets and rocks on her heels. "I think," she says mildly, "you're quite desperate for the Other Woman. I've got to warn you: she's a homewrecker."
It's night-time in Stuttgart, and as the lights of the ballroom cut through the shadows in strips, Natasha assesses the new recruits and what they can do for her.
Her initial survey isn't positive. They're volatile and self-obsessed in the case of Stark, stubborn and self-pitying for Rogers. Banner is harder to read because Banner is both the problem and not the problem at all — Banner drinks tea in the rooms they've given her and reads Hemingway with her feet propped up on her desk. It helps her think, she claims, and in the margins of her books there are diagrams of the Tesseract in blue ballpoint ink.
Natasha has her opinions, but she tries not to draw conclusions just yet. Inconclusive evidence. Until tonight, she hasn't even seen them in a fight. There are details in SHIELD reports listing their field strengths and weaknesses, but words are a desert landscape until you pair them with action.
She thinks the same about Loki, dark-haired Loki in a green dress as sharp as bottled glass. The air when she moves smells like oranges and cinnamon. Loki who bleeds through the scattering crowds, power and fury and, god, Natasha just wants to beat her face in. The excitement is visceral; she has to train herself to neutrality.
Stark is firing up the Iron Woman armour, blazing through the city square like an unfurling flag, a declaration of war signed and delivered. Rogers is jumping and leaping, her shield whirring with the strength of an Amazon with a discus.
But Loki pauses in the fight to look at Natasha, and suddenly all the lights in Stuttgart go out, one by one.
You took Barton, Natasha thinks, stepping forward. That was your first mistake.
Thor, goddess of thunder, a smear of silver in an electric field.
When she lands, Loki goes very still, because this is her sister, and she both loves her and wishes she was dead.
"Listen to me," Thor says, and oh, Thor has a beautiful tongue that can command the armies of Asgard to kneel, even though she is a woman and it is meant to be Odin's son who leads the men and not Odin's daughter. Loki used to believe it truly, would have been content to step down if Thor had done the same. But Thor had not, thus shaming her. Thor is a shield maiden born and raised on Frigga's mercy, and one day Thor will be a shield queen, a queen of worlds. Oh how bitter it is on Loki's tongue, her Jotun tongue, her tongue of lies.
Thor raises Mjölnir, a warning. Loki licks her lips and says, as sweet as raspberries, "Do you have the will to kill me? When we were raised together, fought together. Sister."
"There are people in this world that I love," Thor replies, and Loki hears that name in every reverberation of Thor's blood. Jane, Jane, of course it is Jane. It is so simple for Thor, is it not. Love as cheaply bought as war and oil.
"That," Loki says, savoring her words, "can be easily remedied."
"Tall and blonde, another one for the party," Toni says as they feel the Helicarrier rise and rise through the clouds. "You know, you might even get away with that outfit. Just say you came from a Milan runway. Nouveau fashion and all that."
"I do not know what you mean," Thor replies, and Stephanie has to quell the thought, You aren't the only one, buddy.
"We could have a slumber party," Toni continues with relish. "We could paint each other's nails and gossip about boys." She looks at Stephanie, her gaze long and thoughtful. "Or not," she adds and Stephanie goes hot with discomfort because it seems like Toni knows, but how can she? No one knew about Stephanie's feelings for Peggy, not even Peggy. No one knows Stephanie is built... like that, though this is SHIELD and apparently they know everything about her.
"You must make a decision," Thor says, "about what to do with my sister. I wish to bring her home. In Asgard she will not be a threat to you."
"Yes, but the Tesseract isn't in Asgard," Natasha points out. "The Tesseract is right here on Earth, and we need to know what Loki is doing with it."
"High energy, unstable particles," Bruce muses. "I could think of a lot of applications."
"And most of them go boom boom," Toni says, clapping Bruce on the back. They smile at each other, Bruce vaguely amused while Toni is effervescent, a force of nature in a charcoal pencil skirt. Stephanie has to look away. She doesn't even know why, except that it hurts to look at Toni for too long, like she'll burn into her retinas.
"That's the plan then," Natasha says. "To stop the boom boom?"
"That's always the plan," Toni says. "It's the best plan of them all."
Nicola Fury watches them from the deck, and knows without a doubt that they're sending chaos to meet chaos. It's unfortunate that this is their best option now, but Fury has done with less in worse situations. She has the weapon; now it's up to her to aim.
"Do you think you might regret it?" Agent Hill asks, but Fury raises her eyebrows at her, surprised by the question.
"Regret comes after the war," she says. "This is war, now. Focus on one thing at a time, agent, and I'll do the same."
"I monitor my heartbeat at all times," Bruce says in the lab, tinkering with the latest diagrams of the Tesseract's energy core. "When it reaches a certain level, that's when I know I need to calm down. To pull myself back."
"Self-control, huh?" Toni says from her computer station. "Doesn't sound like much fun."
"Going wild and crushing people to their bones is kind of overrated," Bruce says. She thinks of the cage, a cage meant for her, and she goes back to her work. Work is easy. Work is good. Work lulls the Other Woman into a false sleepiness.
"Bet it's a hit at all the parties."
Bruce blinks. "I don't go to many parties."
Toni swirls around on her swivel chair. "When this is over," she says, "you are officially invited to all of my parties. There will be booze, there will be hot chicks, there will be fun and games. I promise you this."
Bruce tries to imagine herself at a Toni Stark party. Her mind is stalling on the image. "I'll go if Stephanie Rogers goes," she says, which is pretty much the same as a polite no because the chances of Stephanie Rogers showing up at a shindig like that, all glitz and glamour? Ha. Not for Toni's lack of trying, though. "You should really stop making gaga eyes at her," Bruce suggests. "It's sort of obvious you want to get into her pants."
"Well, you know them old people," Toni says. "Hard of hearing."
"She's Captain America. That might be even out of your league, Stark."
Toni makes a sound of disagreement. "She's Captain America, and we're in this to save the world. Remind me which part of this isn't already stretching belief?"
"Save the world, are we?" Bruce says. She looks down at her pictures of the Tesseract: clean, beautiful, deadly. "I guess we are."
"When this is over, I fully expect you and I to win the Nobel Prize," Toni says seriously. "I'll be the first Stark, and you'll be the first green person. It'll be excellent, you wait and see."
Stephanie has never known a war-time mission to go completely smoothly. War is a theatre, and like any good performance there are actors and props and missed cues and sometimes the curtain falls down and ends the show prematurely. She knows this. She's used to it. She thinks of the fields of Germany and the meadows in France, the woods with the rivers and the mortar shells, the septic scent of soldiers rotting in the ditches. She has to clear her head sometimes; this world she's been reborn in is very different.
She likes Thor for this reason. Thor is as new as she is, and they walk the halls together, side by side. It's a companionable moment, and where Stephanie is guarded, Thor is full of open interest, stopping to poke her fingers into windows and buttons at every opportunity. "This is different from Asgard," she will say, and Stephanie has to bite her cheek to keep from replying no kidding. Thor is an alien, an actual alien, for all that she looks like a Victoria's Secret model with summer-sweetened hair.
"What's it like where you're from?" Stephanie asks.
"Cold," Thor says immediately. "Cold and frozen and as lovely as you are."
Stephanie almost walks into a wall.
"I am sorry, was that rude of me to say so?" Thor tilts her head. "We are much more open with our praises in my father's hall. I had thought from Antonia that it would be the same here."
"Stark is... Stark is trying to mess with my head," Stephanie says. Thor says nothing, so they continue walking. "It's cold where I was too," Stephanie says after a while. "For so long — it was— it was very cold."
"And sometimes," Thor says kindly, "that is not a good thing."
"No," Stephanie agrees. Then she turns her mind to what she is here for, wandering the lower banks of the Helicarrier. The Tesseract, always the Tesseract, and weapons the strongarm of war. "I need to know what SHIELD is doing," she says, "and it doesn't seem like anyone wants to tell me. So here I am." She looks at Thor.
"I will not tell," Thor promises easily. "I will go back upstairs and talk to the talented Agent Romanova or the formidable Director Fury, and they will never have cause to wonder where you are." She turns on her heel and disappears down the hall.
How to trick a trickster.
But really, Natasha feels, the question is how to do anything. And the answer to that is simple: as best as you can, as neatly as you can, and if neat isn't possible, then get the job done and don't ask questions.
Loki is a storm in a box, all smiles and sneers and long dark hair that tumbles into her fingers when she combs them through. She's killed hundreds of people, but at that moment Natasha gets the sense that she is very young, as young as a new star, burning too hot and bright for her own good. As long as she is young, she is weak. One day Loki will turn cold, and on that day a terrible thing will have happened for everyone who has to live with her shadow in their world.
Natasha fully plans to relinquish that privilege. She'll do it gladly.
"This is about Barton, is it not?" Loki says silkily, her cheekbones pale as milk. "You are angry. You are irked. You want her back."
"This is about many things," Natasha says, and she lets Loki believe that, making her voice quiver. Loki's lip curls; she hates weakness, and she hates it in women most of all. Natasha casts her eyes aside, as if she is afraid to imagine the consequences. "You will pay for this, in the end," she says.
"As you have paid?" Loki asks.
You don't know what I've paid, Natasha thinks, because Loki was a princess in her world, and Natasha was trained to kill and kill, and forget. She no longer keeps track of the price. The numbers are too high, and that is something Loki has no conception of, cannot understand, with her eyes bright and feverish, her mouth a twisting winter vine.
The Helicarrier rocks with the force of the blow, and Toni turns to Stephanie. "I need you," she says.
"Uh," Stephanie replies.
"The engines," Toni says pointedly.
"Oh," Stephanie says, and she stops demanding answers because this is where Toni excels, not her. Toni is brilliant, dazzling even, given two pieces of wire and an electric spark. Stephanie has seen this by now, so she doesn't question Toni's orders. The possessed agents are boarding the Helicarrier, and she follows Toni out into the broken landscape, watching as Toni fires through the enemies with her armour and her repulsor beams.
Stephanie swings into her own fight. Her muscles are tight and focused as she punches out one enemy before twisting around to kick another in the chin, sending him flying backwards and off the scaffolding. Her arms and her knees slide between tension in one moment and smoothness in the next as she makes her way through the battle zone, clearing a path for Toni as they head towards the damaged engines.
It's a rhythm she knows. When she was young, she wanted to be a ballerina. She never did get around to that, because she wanted to be a soldier more. Used to sneak into recruitment agencies with her hair shorn and her breasts bound, trying desperately to convince the recruiters that she was a boy — look, she could talk like them, she could walk like them, she could fight for her country and die just like they did, never mind what was between her legs.
She's wanted a lot of things in her life, but right now what she wants is to win. To see Toni above her, forcing herself against the engines, and to feel her own breath stall in her throat, thinking, Do it, do it, be safe, come back.
When Thor sees the giant green creature that was once the amiable Dr. Banner, she yearns for Darcy's tazer. Or even better, one of those needles the doctors used to inject her during her first visit to Midgard.
"I suppose," she says out loud, "there is too much going on right now not to lose your temper. I do not blame you for transforming!" The Hulk roars and launches herself at Thor. Thor dodges and hits the wall. She unrolls herself and swings Mjölnir. "Only, can you not calm yourself?"
The Hulk rips apart a wall with her hands.
"No?" Thor says sadly. All right then. She has tried diplomacy for the sake for a new friend, but there seems to be very little left of Bruce Banner in those large, maddened eyes. She stands up tall and Mjölnir is a stony weight in her hand, a weight that has accompanied her all her years. "Then come get it."
Loki has called her brash in battle, and Thor knows this to be true. However, where there is brashness there is boldness, and where there is boldness, there is victory. The Hulk may yet be one of the most dangerous foes she has ever faced, stronger even than the ice giants, but Thor does not let herself doubt. She must stay true, even when the Hulk stops being her enemy and she sees Loki instead, Loki who is waiting for her — and even when Thor falls, with the air screaming in her ears and her body tumbling in circles.
Thor does not let herself think, If I die. Instead, she thinks, Wait until I return.
Somewhere not far from where Thor lands, Bruce wakes up with a gasp, surrounded by rubble.
There's a man nearby, and a scratchy blanket pulled over her. She grasps at it, trying to remember what happened. "Thanks," she says, pulling the corners up to her ears.
"No problem," the man says. He looks up at the sky and squints. "It's raining naked women. That wasn't in the weather forecast."
Bruce winces. At least there are no cameras around.
"Barton," Natasha says, but Catherine Barton does not wait for a response. She is upon her, a swirl of black, followed by pain, and Natasha knows that there is no point in saying Cat, because there is no Cat.
There is only this, the force of their blows against each other, rattling the railing and shaking the foundations. This, Natasha knows how to do, and it's frighteningly easy how she slips into it, turning Barton from friend into target, from victim into attacker. She aims two blows at Barton's head, grabs the railing and flips back around, kicking Barton to the other end of the scaffold, where Barton sprawls breathless and furious.
The goal is to disarm, or at least the primary goal is. Barton without her arrows is weaker than a Barton fully armed, but even that's not quite true. Barton without her arrows still has her strength, the solid bulk of her body, the tendons in her arms straining as she topples Natasha to the floor, pinning her down.
Natasha switches from melee to survival, and the blow, when it comes — for a moment she thinks she's done it, she's killed Barton, there's more red on her ledger than paper. But then Barton groans and blinks, crawling on all fours until she's able to stand up again, woozy and shaky, ten sorts of ill.
"What the fuck, Tasha?" she says, and the relief in Natasha is sharper than nails. She grabs Barton by the hand and yanks her to her feet. Too quickly, maybe, but not quickly enough. It's been a long time coming.
Philippa Coulson was born in high places, near the Colorado mountains, but she'll die in a higher place yet — up in the air with the wind and the cold, and blood welling her lungs and in her mouth, smooth like the glass windows of her childhood, the patios where she used to watch her mother build porch decks and birdhouses, building building building. Make things, her mother used to tell her, and then protect them, and all Philippa can think right now is that her mother better be proud of her. All of them. They better give her the best funeral possible, and if at least three people don't cry, damn it, she'll come back and haunt them until they do.
She can hear voices above her, Director Fury leaning over her, that eyepatch like a single planet in a universe quickly drifting away.
Philippa Coulson decides it's time for sleep. They can fight without her for a little while longer.
(And in another room, with machines and tubes and three Nobel laureates staring tiredly at their cold coffee, Nicola Fury says, "Wake up, Agent Coulson. There's still work to be done, and you haven't earned your vacation leave just yet."
Philippa wakes on the indignation of that alone).
"We'll do this," Toni says, catching up with Stephanie after the meeting is over. Stephanie is looking down at the bloody cards in her hand, her throat sick and sore.
"I didn't say otherwise," Stephanie points out.
Toni crosses her arms and leans against the wall, blocking Stephanie's path. Stephanie knows that it's not much of a threat. Outside of the armour, she can lift Toni up and move her as she pleases. She doesn't.
"Your mouth says no but your body says yes," Toni says, but when Stephanie doesn't laugh, she drops the joke and goes serious. "You think we're a mess. You think we won't be a team."
"I think," Stephanie says, "that there are too many elements."
"That's why you need a periodic table," Toni says. Stephanie frowns at her. She raises her hands in truce. "Science joke. I'll save that for Bruce."
"Do you really think this will work?" Stephanie asks. She's genuinely curious.
"Isn't it obvious?"
"I don't know what you're thinking, ever," Stephanie says. She doesn't know how to explain it. She and Toni are from different worlds, literally, and if they are speaking the same language, English, it's only by quirk of chance because none of their other words overlap. There's no shared tune, there's no mutual understanding. But Toni doesn't move from the wall, and when Stephanie looks at her, she notices, not for the first time, how tiny Toni is. Barely five foot one, though she seems so much bigger when she's in the armour.
"Obviously," Toni says, "I'm overcompensating." She runs her fingers over her lips, a thinking gesture, but between the battle and now she's gone to reapply her lipstick. Her fingers come away stained in plum, and Stephanie shivers.
These aren't good thoughts. These aren't safe thoughts. These aren't thoughts she should be having, not of Toni Stark of all people. Better to have them about, say, Thor, because at least Thor will go home to Asgard and Stephanie won't have to think about her anymore, not like Toni, whose face and inventions are everywhere. Even in the SHIELD compound, before all of this, she knew who Toni Stark was and what she was capable of.
"This is what I think," Toni finally says. "I think sometimes you're in the desert and you've got nothing but a few scraps of metal, and that's all you have, and it's all you're ever going to have until you get yourself out. So you do. Because what's the alternative? Nothing you want to think about."
Stephanie is silent.
Toni looks at her with dark eyes and a beautiful mouth. "Our world, Cap," she says. "It's the same one."
Half an hour later, Toni greets the news with an expression of utmost disgust. "My tower," she says. "Loki's going to use my tower to bring in the alien forces that will enslave the world?"
"That's about the gist of it," Fury says.
"Oh hell no," Toni says. "She is going down."
Catherine Barton has seen a lot of wild shit in her lifetime, but this one might take the cake. New York in a frenzy, the police evacuating the citizens, the sky opening as the Avengers watch, spilling out wave after wave of Chitauri. Barton readies her arrows. "No going back now," she says, and Natasha nods in agreement.
Barton is more than ready. Barton is angry, because they took from her her own free will, her own mind. She can forgive a lot of things, because she hangs out with Tasha, doesn't she? But she can't forgive that. It's steel in her bones and wrath in her lungs. She peels her lips back from her teeth. Those assholes.
She aims and fires.
It doesn't look like a fight they're going to win, but Barton doesn't care. It matters fuck all what SHIELD says, what the commanders say, what the U.N. believes — because they haven't been in the same room as all the other Avengers the way she has. They haven't seen Toni's puffed up ego, Stephanie's walking blockhead routine, Thor's cheerful irritability, Bruce's wishy-washiness, Natasha's cold heart. They haven't seen nothing yet.
We call ourselves Avengers? Then let's avenge something.
Barton goes through her arrows as fast as foxes.
The city is falling all around her. The sky is crumbling down with hordes of Chitauri, and when the serpents burst through, Barton has a moment when even she's not sure it'll be enough. If they all die here, at least, she comforts herself, they'll die in a burst of glory. After all, dying by space snake is a hell of a lot more interesting than dying because Loki got tired of her and stabbed her in the heart. This time, she might even be on TV.
But then there's Tasha, because she can always count on Tasha, Tasha with the sceptre, Tasha by the portal, Tasha making the sky literally close in on itself. Barton starts grinning wickedly as she kills the last few of the Chitauri, bam bam bam, thank you, please never return.
They're going to do this. It's going to happen. It's happening right now.
Then she sees the missile.
Toni thinks, I wish I was on a beach right now, working on my tan.
Toni thinks, I wish I was getting a Swedish massage from a pair of busty twins.
Toni thinks, I wish I had a drink.
But there's no time. There was never enough time. The portal is closing in above her as she steamrolls through, hard as a train, pushing the Iron Woman armour as far as she can while holding the nuclear missile aloft. Jarvis is talking to her as the numbers flash across her HUD, but she can't even hear it anymore. She only hopes Pepper and Rhodey won't be too mad, and she hopes that Stephanie will be at least a little sad, because come on, this is Toni's big damn hero moment right here. She hopes they remember to feed the fish in her aquarium.
Then she thinks of Yinsen in that last second, of his goodness, which to her had been as true as anything, as true as math.
Hey, Toni thinks as she watches the Chitauri flagship explode in a crescendo of light, washing out even the stars, I did good, didn't I?
Yeah, she thinks as the power bar flattens out and she begins to fall, I did all right.
They fight, and they win, and the Hulk catches Toni in the crook of her arm, smashing down through skyscrapers and ruins until they hit the ground.
"Bruce," Toni is saying, "Bruce, Bruce, I am throwing you the party of the year, you oversized genius you."
Stephanie sees them. The Hulk transforms back into Bruce, looking supremely embarrassed until a nearby police officer walks into a looted boutique and finds her some clothes. Toni disassembles her armour, and then she and Bruce are limping together, heading towards the epicentre of the disaster where the other Avengers are gathering, sweat on their skin, dirt in their eyes.
"Are you—" Stephanie asks awkwardly, "are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Toni says. Stephanie is surprised at her own fierce gladness, though she should stop lying to herself — it's obvious Toni can see right past it.
Bruce peers up at the sky, her extra-large t-shirt hanging off her shoulders. "Do you think it's over?"
"For now," Stephanie says, while Natasha and Barton come up to them, followed by Thor, who looks delighted.
"My sister is contained," Thor says. "I will make sure she bothers you no longer."
"If you ever want to hand her over—" Barton says.
"Don't," Natasha finishes.
"I believe Asgard will have something to say about her recent activities," Thor says. She gazes around, Mjölnir hanging casually at her side. "Look! There seems to be an establishment of feasting over yonder, and it is unharmed! Shall we?" She's already striding off before any of them can speak, lured in by the song of food and shawarma and maybe beer.
"I could do with lunch," Barton announces. "On me?"
"Yes," Natasha says, following her.
"Can you get good shawarma in New York?" Bruce wonders out loud. "It can't be as good as the shawarma I had in Lebanon. But we'll see." She lopes after them, leaving Toni and Stephanie alone.
"Well," Toni says.
"Well," Stephanie says.
"Fury will be here in a few minutes, trying to herd us all together for a debriefing," Toni says. "What do you say let's go ditch her and do something fun?"
"Fun," Stephanie says ruefully. "I'd rather have a nap."
"You can have a nap," Toni says, "if you'll go to dinner with me next Friday. We'll catch a game beforehand, maybe stroll through Central Park. I hear it's pretty nice-looking when New York isn't being invaded by extraterrestrial forces. How about it?"
"I—" It's on the tip of her tongue to be cautious and say no, but Toni is standing there dishevelled and tired, blood smeared across her cheek and through her hair, and all Stephanie wants to do is to wipe it away, to brush her fingers across those bruised cheeks and learn what Toni's skin might feel like. We just saved the world, Stephanie thinks, and that's a first, even for her. "I — okay," she says in a rush, and Toni's smile is like a supernova, like the first perfect thing Stephanie has seen in this new world.
"It's not because I'm Captain America, is it?" she asks suspiciously as they pick their way through the mess to the shawarma joint where the others are waiting. They can already hear Thor shouting her approval at the food.
"Honestly, I always thought Captain America was kind of a boring hero," Toni admits. "I prefer Wonder Woman."
"What?" Stephanie asks.
"She has a Lasso of Truth. Where's your Lasso of Truth, lady?" Toni says, and Stephanie can't resist shoving her slightly off the sidewalk. Toni trips and snickers, and okay, Stephanie can learn to live with this. Save the world, get the girl — not a bad way to end the day.