Chapter 1: Beginning
They give her sweets and pat her on the head, charmed when she gives them back a shy, gap-toothed smile. Run along home now, they say, this is no place for a little girl. One of them, the barrel-chested one, short-cropped beard with a patch of grey on the left side of his chin, lets his eyes linger on her hair in a way that makes her skin crawl. She smiles even more sweetly at him, and takes note of the way he favors his left leg.
“Good girl, Tasha,” she hears when she returns. She doesn’t know the man’s name; not his real one. He takes the files she stole, but lets her keep the sweets. “Did they suspect anything?”
“No.” The taste of lemon, sweet and tart, bursts over her tongue.
“How can you be sure?” he asks, and she can only stare back at him. What a stupid question. Still, he seems to expect an answer.
“Because I’m a girl.”
He laughs, long and loud. “Clever child.”
“I’m not a child,” she says sullenly.
She is seven years old, and the best they have, and when she moves to the Red Rooms they will no longer laugh.
Chapter 2: Accusation
Ensemble cast; random crackiness. Sometimes I just want them to all live in Avengers Tower together and have wacky roommate hijinks, okay?
A wordless roar echoes throughout the entire floor, and they all involuntarily jump. Natasha doesn't look overly worried, though, and Bruce is standing right there next to Tony, looking as startled as the rest of them.
“Theories?” Clint posits to the room at large.
“Well,” Tony offers, “Cap's wound way too tight to let loose like that, which means it's probably—”
Thor, large in the normal course of things, seems impossibly tall when he's angry. Stalking into the room, he looks like he could easily dwarf their usual towering rage monster.
“THESE WERE MINE!” he roars, brandishing an empty cardboard box.
“Don't see your name on them,” Tony says blithely. Thor snarls furiously.
“What is that?” Tony asks, squinting at where Thor is pointing.
“You sure? Looks like a doodle to me.”
“They are Aesir runes!”
“Well there you go; I can't read those. How was I supposed to know whose they were?”
“WHO ELSE WOULD WRITE THEIR NAME IN AESIR RUNES?”
“Are you going to 'fess up?” Natasha asks quietly as the two continue to snipe at each other.
“Nope.” Clint brushes a strawberry Pop-Tart crumb from his shirt and settles back to watch.
Chapter 3: Restless
Clint Barton; Natasha Romanov; implied Clintasha. Some things you don't just get over.
Worse than the nightmares is the waking, long moments of terror as he tries to remember not just where but who he is. The fear drives him out of bed and up, as high as he can go without flying.
She's already on the roof when he gets there; he's not even surprised.
“What are you doing awake, Barton?” she asks as he settles next to her on the uncomfortable gravel. “We take off at dawn, and getting on a plane with a sleep-deprived pilot isn't actually on my top-ten list of things to do.”
“Couldn't sleep,” is all he says. All he needs to say, because if there's one person who'll understand, it's Tasha. It's long minutes before either one of them speaks again.
“Does it ever get easier?”
“Which answer do you want?”
He considers for a moment. “The true one, I suppose.”
“Not always. But usually it does. There are always scars; it's just a matter of finding that thing that'll make them heal over.”
“And what's that?”
She pauses, and finally says, “It's different for everyone.”
He doesn't ask more, and she doesn't offer. They simply sit, and bit by bit he remembers who he is.
Chapter 4: Snowflake
Loki; Thor; Frigga; Loki character study. He just doesn't understand.
They've returned to Asgard bloodied, wet, and cold, laughing with their arms slung around each other. The creatures they hunted today were ten feet tall, with talons sharper than Loki's knives; they slew three, and Thor has claimed the pelt of the largest as a trophy.
“No match for the princes of Asgard,” he boasts, and their mother smiles but sighs.
“Go wash,” she tells them sternly. “You smell like the battlefield.”
Thor obeys, but Loki hangs back; he turns to his mother with a smile.
“I've brought you something.” He twists his fingers, summoning his gift from the empty air. “I figured out how to keep it from melting,” he says proudly, holding it out to her: a snowflake from another world, as perfectly preserved as when it fell into his palm.
She hesitates, alarmed and frightened as he's never seen her. Then it passes, and she touches her finger to the speck of snow. It melts immediately, and she smiles.
“The beauty of snow is in its transience. Forget that trick, my son.”
She kisses his forehead, and he stands there long after she leaves, staring in pained confusion at the tiny drop of water on the marble floor.
Chapter 5: Haze
Peter Parker; Tony Stark; Steve Rogers; Clint Barton; Natasha Romanov. Just how bad does Spider-Man want to be part of the team? Hazing crackfic.
“You're not serious.”
“Look, kid,” Tony shrugs, “I like you, I really do. But you want on the team, you're gonna have to make some sacrifices.”
“Steve. C'mon, back me up here.”
“Sorry.” Steve's trying to hide his grin, with no great success. “I was in the army, son; believe me, you're getting off easy.”
“If you're not willing to put others' needs above your own, I really don't see why you think you deserve this anyway,” Natasha adds seriously. “We need a distraction; you want to prove yourself; this is perfect.”
“But I look ridiculous!” Peter complains, his voice muffled through his mask as he clenches a fist in the uniform skirt. “Why do I have to wear this thing over my costume, anyway? If you want a distraction, I could just—”
“It's this,” Clint says ominously, “or nothing.”
“Fine.” Peter sighs. “Fine. He's gonna see right through it, though.”
“My brother is not overly knowledgeable of Midgardian fashion,” Thor assures him. “Not to worry.”
“And kid,” Tony calls out as Peter heads across the street to Loki's headquarters in all his merit-badge-laden glory. “Really try to move some of those cookies; Phil's niece needs to meet her quota.”
Chapter 6: Flame
Natasha Romanov; character study. The story of the hospital fire.
The sky spits drops of rain, as if to make a mockery of the fire that rages on unchecked. Spurred on by heavy winds it roars, licking hungrily at stone and brick. It's already too late to stop the blaze when the firemen arrive, though they try; but it's spread too far, too fast. They can only tend to those lucky few who've made it out, wrapping them in blankets and shepherding them to safety while they wait for the flames to consume enough to be contained.
Her first solo mission, and she came so close to irrevocably fucking it up. Her target had ended up in the hospital instead of in the ground, surrounded by guards and all but impossible to reach. It's been cause for some concern—her instructors in the Red Rooms are not the forgiving sort.
The idea seemed obvious once it occurred; Natasha knows fire well, knows its terror and destruction. Late at night it was easy enough to block all the exits but one that might be easily monitored.
She waits until dawn breaks, and the flames die out. No further survivors, the authorities say.
In the end, she thinks, a job well done.
Chapter 7: Formal
Clint Barton; Natasha Romanov; Clintasha. Some things are worth getting your heart broken.
Natasha is stunning in black. The slink of her evening gown doesn't match the shallow cut at her hairline or the bruise blooming over her right cheek, but Clint thinks the combination actually suits her. Despite the dress, she's abandoned formality entirely in favor of attacking the enormous sandwich that they've liberated from the kitchen.
When they talk it's about trivial things—the hockey match she missed, his half-formed vacation plans to Fiji if they ever get more than a couple days off at a time. With no one's expectations to meet, she's willing to drop a little bit of her guard. They have the canteen to themselves this late at night; technically, the place is closed, but Natasha's always ravenous after a mission and the security here is for shit.
Clint knows she'll have at least one gun in a holster around her leg, probably some sort of bladed weapon in the complicated twists of her hair. Still, he knows her well enough to know what her most dangerous weapons are, and he's seeing her without them now.
A broken heart, he thinks as he smiles back at her, is a small enough price to pay for the privilege.
Chapter 8: Companion
Tony Stark; JARVIS; Tony character study. Loneliness is for people who just aren't motivated enough.
Oops I accidentally Tony feels.
Gritty-eyed from lack of sleep, Tony pours another cup of terrible coffee as he waits for his code to finish compiling. He hasn't quite figured out the trick to brewing it himself, but that hasn't stopped him from drinking three pots so far. Hell, at this point he's tempted to cut out the middle man just eat the grounds straight out of the bag. The call from his father's secretary, saying he won't be coming home for another two weeks, came thirty-six hours ago. Tony hasn't done more than catnapped since.
Two hours later, he's finally ready to run the program. There's a series of beeps as it comes online, and Tony can't help but hold his breath in a fit of superstition.
“Hello?” he says at last, hoping, hoping—
“Good evening, sir,” a smooth voice responds from the speakers, and Tony leaps up to perform a cheering, whooping dance, fueled by caffeine and victory.
“So, JARVIS.” He's grinning madly, heart pounding because he did it. “How are you feeling?”
“Quite well, thank you. And if my information is correct, I believe the appropriate sentiment is: happy birthday, sir.”
“Yeah.” Tony swallows hard and keeps on grinning. “Back at you.”
Chapter 9: Move
Tony Stark; Pepper Potts; Pepper/Tony. Unabashed Pepperony fluff. I'm not even sorry.
Longer than 200 words this time, because I just couldn't bring myself to cut any of their dialogue IT WAS SO MUCH FUN TO WRITE.
“Tony? What's going on here?” Pepper's wearing her concerned frown, and Tony goes back to his design; there's no need to worry until it reaches you-unbelievable-ass levels.
“Yes, I can see that.” Another glance up; edging towards annoyed already. That was fast. “There's power tools and drywall and tarps all over the place—”
“If you can see what's going on then why did you ask?”
“—and I had clothes and . . . and things in there, and now I can't get to them—”
“You needed your moisturizer right now, really? Because—”
“—because you've decided to what, remodel?”
“The bedroom was all wrong; it was too . . . me.”
Pepper snorts. “Since when have you had a problem with things being too you?”
“Since I decided to ask you to move in with me.” He picks up a pen and fiddles with it as she gapes at him in open-mouthed shock. “I had a whole speech planned,” he adds abruptly, “but . . . yeah. That's pretty much it.”
“You . . . what?”
“Well, it's the mature, adult thing to do, isn't it? I mean, at this point in a relationship—”
“—there's a next step to take—”
“—I don't want you to do this out of . . . obligation, or—”
“—and I should've stuck to the speech, this is just pathetic. Pepper—”
“—because you think you should, I just—”
“Because I want to.”
“Oh.” It draws her up short. “Well. Then.” She smiles, warm and happy and absolutely beautiful. “Okay.”
Chapter 10: Silver
Thor; Loki; Loki/Thor. Um. Mostly I just wanted to write vaguely poetical smut? Sorry I'm not sorry.
Pale skin gleams silver in the moonlight, like a phantom or a dream; like a construct conjured from precious metal and dark, forbidden need. Thor fears it can't be real, and so he holds tight, and tighter still 'til bruises bloom black beneath his hands. White teeth sink into swollen lips; he shivers at the taste of blood, at the low, encouraging moan that follows.
Each cry, each hitching breath, sounds like surrender but feels like conquest, and he knows he's playing right into his brother's hands. Knows, but doesn't care—not with the line of Loki's throat bare to lips and tongue and teeth, with strong, lean legs pulling him deeper into scorching heat. He'd imagined cold, when he allowed himself to imagine anything at all. But pressed against the flame of Loki's body, tangled together in a sea of moon-drenched sheets, cold is the furthest thing from his mind.
They mark their passage with blood and bruises, scattered over skin like flags over newly-conquered territory. In the morning, if he is wrong and this is real, he'll know—will read the truth in the map of damage they have done each other, in the tallies of the fallen.
Chapter 11: Prepared
Steve Rogers; Bucky Barnes; Steve/Bucky. Aaaaaaaand this time I just wanted to write about boys having sex OH WELL.
Bucky has him pinned to the mattress, and Steve is taking shameless advantage of this new position, letting his hands wander freely over warm, bare skin. They slide leisurely down Bucky's back until they're cupping his ass, pulling him closer as he lightly skims one careful finger over the cleft there. Bucky shudders into the kiss and pulls back with a groan, panting breaths ghosting over Steve's wet lips as he presses their foreheads together.
“This wasn't what I expected when I came over tonight, you know.”
“I know. I . . . if you don't want—”
“No, I mean—” Bucky laughs. “Jesus. I mean I don't have anything with me.”
“Oh. Oh. Um.” Steve turns his head to glance at his bedside table. “Well.”
With a disbelieving look, Bucky reaches over and opens the drawer; that look turns astonished when he straightens again, holding aloft a box of condoms and a new bottle of lube.
“Okay, I really didn't see that coming.”
“Always be prepared, right?” Steve says sheepishly.
“Yeah, I don't think this was quite what our troop leader had in mind.”
“Still a good motto, though, don't you think?”
“God, yes,” Bucky groans, and leans down to kiss him again.
Chapter 12: Knowledge
Thor; character study. Mostly platonic bro-feels, but Thor/Loki if you tilt your head a bit and squint.
I was thinking, "Hmm, I wonder how Thor knew about Loki and his Chitauri army?" and then I thought, "What if he went to ask the Norns?" and then this happened. Technically part of the continuity for Lock the Kids Up Safe Tonight, for the record.
“Thor approaches. Hail, Odinson.”
“So quickly they come, the princes of Asgard. You enter practically on your brother's heels.”
“Though not so soon after, by your reckoning.”
“Nor he your brother, by his.”
“What would you ask of us, Odinson?”
Thor sets his teeth against the ringing in his ears. “I wish to know what happened to him. To Loki.”
“A trifling wish. A child's longing.”
“He is not dead. I feel it. I know it. But if he is not—why does he not reveal himself?” He swallows past a throat gone tight. “Why does he not come home?”
“Your need is great.”
“And so therefore the price must be, as well.”
“Odin All-Father gave us an eye.”
“What would you bargain, Prince of Asgard, for the knowledge?”
“I . . .”
Thor hesitates, despite himself. What, indeed? For the man who betrayed him, who would have seen him dead; for the usurper of a throne and the would-be-destroyer of an ancient realm?
For the chance to have his brother back?
“A bargain met and matched. Your terms accepted.”
“Enjoy your power while you may, young prince, and see what has become of Loki Laufeyson.”
Chapter 13: Denial
Bruce Banner; the Hulk; character study. Poor Bruce, it took me so long to get to you. ILU, though. <3
Let me out .
There's so much to do. He has three separate experiments running at once; there's so much time to make up for, after being at S.H.I.E.L.D.'s beck and call for nearly six months. Tony's given him the run of his personal lab in New York while he and Pepper are in California, on the condition that he gets first look at Bruce's results. Bruce had agreed without complaint; he's eager to discuss his findings in any case, and Tony is one of the few people he knows who will both understand and treat him as—
Let me out.
—a normal person, as well. It's something Bruce hasn't allowed himself to admit that he's missed in the years since his accident. He knows how dangerous he is, and he's always thought it was for the best that other people recognize it, too. But Tony doesn't tiptoe around what Bruce is, and despite himself, he finds it . . . refreshing.
You need me .
To be treated as a human being.
You are me .
LET. ME. OUT.
“No,” he says aloud, ignoring the way it echoes through the empty lab.
He has work to do.
Chapter 14: Wind
Loki character study, after a fashion. The noun wasn't working for me, so I switched to the verb.
From Wikipedia: “Beside these three norns, there are many other norns who arrive when a person is born in order to determine his or her future. There were both malevolent and benevolent norns, and the former caused all the malevolent and tragic events in the world while the latter were kind and protective goddesses.”
Also relevant: the Red String of Fate myth.
Okay, I'm done.
She attends his birth unseen, and watches in silence as he's left alone to die. Small for his kind, alone and frightened, he moves her heart to something close to pity.
A single thread, red as fresh-spilled blood, she loops around his ankle. It draws him towards the other end, sweeping others with him in his wake. It brings the All-Father, fresh from battle, to take the child in his arms and steal away with him back home.
Their lives are bound together; had he accepted that, he may yet have altered the pattern of his fate. Instead he fights it, fights for a destiny that is his alone. He can not see the thread that binds them, does not know that every attempt to free himself only tangles it more tightly, drawing them closer still.
Now as he stands, bowed and broken, that thin red string now looped and snarled, wound tightly around his throat. And still he struggles, refusing to yield against the pressure threatening to choke him.
It may have been kinder to let him die. He will fight this fate until his dying breath; surrender is not in his nature.
Mercy, however, is not in hers.
Chapter 15: Order
Steve Rogers; implied Steve/Bucky, or Steve/Bucky friendship. A good soldier or a good man; which is more important?
It would have been easy enough to stay behind. It hardly would've been the first time he'd disobeyed an order. The fall had been impossible to survive; that's what everyone had said, and he'd known they were probably right. Just as he'd known they were probably right when his friend had been presumed dead once before, when Steve had openly defied Colonel Phillips and his predictions both, and brought Bucky back alive.
Everything in him had screamed at him to stay, to comb through that canyon until he'd found him. To bring the body back, if nothing else, because the thought of leaving it to the mercy of snow and wind and wild animals had been enough to make him sick. But in the end, he'd been a good soldier; he'd put the needs of the many above his own, and he'd followed his orders.
He has strict orders now. Kronas is a civilian operation, and he's not to get involved. But he's left his friend behind once already—left him to the wind and snow, and to the mercy of the animals that found him.
Steve straps on his shield. Orders be damned; he's going to get his friend.
Chapter 16: Thanks
Steve Rogers; Phil Coulson (mentioned); oops I accidentally Phil Feels. In memory of a fallen hero.
The grave is modest and unassuming, the service simple. Fitting for the man, Steve thinks.
He hadn't expected the others to come, though in retrospect of course he should have. Most of them knew him longer than Steve did, after all. A plane ride from New York, a few minutes of conversation scattered here and there in the midst of a crisis; that's all he really had with him.
He lingers after the others have left, staring at the headstone and trying to think of words to do justice to the man. But everything he thinks of sounds weak. Ordinary. Phil Coulson was one of the bravest men Steve's ever known, and given the company he's kept over the years that's saying something. With no powers and no backup, he faced down a god; what possible tribute could be enough to honor that? To honor Phil's belief in him, long after Steve had stopped believing in himself?
In the end, his throat is too tight to speak at all, even if he had the words, and all he has to offer is is a salute, and a promise as he walks away that he will always, now, believe in heroes.
Wow, things are gonna be kind of awkward when Phil gets back from his recuperation vacation in Fiji.
Chapter 17: Look
Jane Foster; Darcy Lewis; Loki. The theme here is basically, "Loki is a little shit and sometimes likes to cause entirely unnecessary trouble." Also, I love Jane; haters, please familiarize yourselves with the left-hand evacuation procedure.
My most sincere apologies for my brother's behavior of late. Please be assured that he was raised better than to visit the area and yet neglect to pay his regards. With profound sympathies, ~Loki of Asgard
The note was tucked away in the mail that collected when she was out of the country. She stares at it for nearly ten full minutes before she snaps out of it and starts checking the online news reports. It doesn't take her long to find what she's looking for; what happened in New York is all anyone's talking about. There's picture after grainy picture—snapshots from people's phones of the battle itself, and carefully framed shots of the aftermath.
The internet is rife with speculation as to what, exactly, happened, and what—if anything—the reports of freak thunderstorms springing up during the chaos might mean.
Jane slams her laptop shut.
“Are you gonna keep looking for him?” She must look even scarier than she'd realized, because it's the first time Darcy's spoken in nearly half an hour.
“You bet your ass I am,” Jane says, setting her jaw as she grabs her notebook off the table. “He owes me a goddamn explanation.”
Chapter 18: Summer
Phil Coulson; ensemble cast. I felt a little bad about the Phil Feels I stuck you guys with before, so here, have some ridiculous fluff inspired by this ridiculously wonderful fanart.
Stark's the one who finds him first, and there's about ten minutes of angry yelling that Phil shrugs off easily enough. What's harder to shrug off is when one by one the others arrive, as well.
“Tony called us. Thought I'd come down and say I'm glad you didn't die,” Barton offers, and,
“We could all use a vacation,” Natasha adds, dropping her bags and glancing around his room like a queen surveying his domain.
There's a handshake and a warm smile from Banner, and a heart-stopping, bone-crushing hug from Captain Rogers.
“Just . . . don't do it again, okay?” he says roughly, and all Phil can manage is a weak nod.
Agent Romanoff, it seems, wasn't kidding about the vacation. Stark has booked up an entire block of cabanas, and the beach is almost entirely theirs. They lounge in the sun and swim in the sea, drink ridiculous concoctions out of coconut shells; Phil gets a photo with Captain Rogers that remains the background picture on his phone for years to come. And looking around at the assembled team, Phil can't help but smile.
He knows, without a doubt: he absolutely made the right decision.
But thank god it wasn't permanent.
Thor and Loki didn't make an appearance, because that seemed like it would be a bit rude. -_-
Chapter 19: Transformation
Agent Phil Coulson; ensemble cast. That glorious moment when, after being singularly uninspired for your prompt, you suddenly realize, "Wait . . . KITTEN!FIC."
“A bag of cats, is it? Excellent idea.”
Most of S.H.I.E.L.D. was there when Loki said it, so when the entire team is suddenly replaced by six fluffy, excitable kittens, no one's really that surprised. Phil starts the paperwork for more vacation time and sends a junior agent for litter and scratching posts. It doesn't take long for him to realize that it's still as easy as ever to tell them apart.
Barton is still the one climbing up to the highest spot he can reach, heedless of Phil's admonishments, and the one who never loses sight of either of them has Agent Romanoff's air of reserved superiority.
Thor gleefully pounces on everything that stays still long enough, and mewls for food almost constantly at the top of his tiny lungs; but as long as he's found a sun puddle big enough to share, Steve usually manages to lure Thor in for a nap.
Banner is as likely to be hiding under the furniture as not. When they find him pinned by an insistent Tony, a long-suffering look on his face as he submits to an enthusiastic ear-grooming, Phil is grateful that Pepper had the foresight to bring a camera.
Chapter 20: Tremble
James "Bucky" Barnes; Steve/Bucky. Post-Winter Soldier. Just because they've saved you doesn't mean you're okay.
Three two five five seven.
The numbers come to him when he sleeps, snatches of an almost-memory he can never hold onto once he wakes. Just five numbers, and something that comes before . . . or after . . . he's not quite sure. He knows there's something missing, though. And sometimes when he opens his eyes and hears the fading echo of his voice, there's a brief moment when he almost . . . almost . . .
It's a shock to find himself alone, those times, though he can't imagine why. Alone is what he always is; he's never known anything else. He thinks he must be dangerous, to be kept so isolated. He thinks that, when they let him think at all.
He's waking again now, and he struggles against it.
Five. Five .
He doesn't want—
“Bucky.” Strong arms wrap around him, and he clings instinctively to the body lying next to him. “It's okay.” The voice is deep and soothing. Familiar. “I've got you.”
He presses his face against Steve's chest, trembling as he remembers the rest of it. As he remembers who he is. He is not the Winter Soldier.
He is Sergeant James Barnes of the 107 th .
And he is not alone.
For anyone who may not have picked up on it, 32557 is (at least what we hear of) Bucky's serial number in Captain America: The First Avenger. No, I absolutely didn't watch that scene like twenty times and then turn on the subtitles to see what he said, and I didn't tear up when I realized he was repeating name, rank, and serial number to an empty room WHY WOULD I DO THAT?
Chapter 21: Sunset
Clint Barton, Natasha Romanov; Clintasha. He doesn't say a word about it, and that's what makes her stay.
They came to Prague on a mission, but Clint's arguments were convincing enough that she's agreed to stay for a few days. It's a beautiful city, and he's right: it would be a shame if their only memories of it were bruises, blood, and death.
“You've gotta live in the world some, Tasha, or you'll forget why it's worth protecting.”
So here they are, living in the part of the world that's the crush of people on the Charles Bridge, to anyone else just two more tourists amidst the throng. Natasha doesn't care for crowds, and avoids them when she can, but she's determined. She takes Clint's hand out of practicality, nothing more; it's easy to get separated here by the shifting streams of people.
The crowd thins out as the sun sinks lower, and they've made their way to the railing. It's not until the sky is glowing orange and pink that she realizes her hand is still in his, like it's the most natural thing in the world.
She doesn't want to pull it back; later, she'll worry over what that means. But for now they simply stand, relaxed and easy, and watch the boats go floating past.
Chapter 22: Mad
Loki; character study. He'd expected to die when he fell from the Bifrost; death, he thinks, would have been kinder.
He falls, expecting to die, though he should have known better. Death would make things easy; make them simple. Make them over. The truth he finds, as he falls, is that he has not earned death yet.
He sees things as he's falling—though seeing isn't right, somehow. Yet he knows them, nonetheless: the secrets that were meant to stay withheld, the things that he was never meant to know. His children bound and slain; his own death, swift and brutal. He will die knowing that he failed. That he was always meant to fail. He has seen the weave of fate, and knows it for the trap it is.
The struggle is instinctive, and pointless. He knows far more than he should now, and there is no escape, no hope of respite in forgetting. He can feel his mind begin to fracture, splitting along fault lines already running deep. He shatters, and breaks again, writhing in terror and hopelessness and still, still falling.
Freedom is life's great lie .
The words break over him like death, like peace, and he clings to them.
Do not struggle .
Accept the part as yours to play.
Be mine to command .
. . . Yes.
Chapter 23: Thousand
Pepper Potts; Agent Maria Hill; Pepper/Maria. PWP. I just . . . think they'd be really hot together? IDEK.
There are a thousand reasons why this is a terrible idea. Pepper hasn't actually sat down and counted through them, but she's sure there must be at least that many. This has to be a conflict of interest, though she's not altogether sure how. Something about Tony and S.H.I.E.L.D. and appropriateness in the workplace, but it's a little hard to think just now. Maybe later, when she's not perched on the edge of her desk with Maria crowding in close between her legs, hands on Pepper's hips as she takes her mouth with a single-minded focus that Pepper can't help but admire.
Maria barely tolerates Tony, and Pepper feels a little foolish for only just now suspecting why. Something about the way Maria's mouth is trailing down Pepper's neck, the way her hand is sliding between buttons Pepper didn't even notice her undoing to cup her breast through the thin lace of her bra. Pepper shivers, moaning before she can help it. And then Maria is easing her back onto the desk, sliding Pepper's skirt up as her mouth slowly follows.
There are a thousand reasons why this is a terrible idea, but right now Pepper can't think of one.
Chapter 24: Outside
Bruce Banner; character study. He's always preferred the outdoors.
Bruce has always preferred being outdoors to in, even before The Other Guy showed up and made things . . . complicated. It's more than just a preference now, admittedly—if he does lose control, more space is always better. So while he used to find it hard to make time away from the lab, to make it out into the fresh air, he doesn't let himself make excuses now.
There's a strong wind here at the top of the cliff, and he checks his harness again just to be safe. It's funny, he thinks, how much more careful he is now, when there's so much less danger that he'll actually be seriously hurt. But it turns out there are things more terrifying than falling a hundred feet or so to his death. One thing, at least, and he doesn't like the way that he'd survive. Besides, a little extra caution never hurts.
Despite the wind, it's quiet here. It's been too long since he's been able to get away from cities, away from people and noise and the constant strain against his temper, and Bruce closes his eyes to drink it in.
He's learned to savor peace when he can get it.
Chapter 25: Winter
Steve Rogers; Bucky Barnes. Steve hates winter. But then, he's got good reason.
Even after all this time, Steve still isn't overly fond of ice and snow, so when the winter storm hits the city he hunkers down in his apartment and waits for it to blow over. It's an easy enough thing to do—central heating is a miracle he still hasn't quite gotten over, and he's got enough books to last him through 'til spring. That plan works fine for three days. Then five. Six.
By the time a week has gone by and the weather still shows no signs of clearing, Steve has to grudgingly admit that he'll probably have to venture out after all.
Wrapped up in his warmest clothes, and clutching sturdy canvas bags, Steve heads for the closest supermarket. It's not quite as cold as he'd feared, but the pavement's slippery, and he keeps his eyes on his feet; it's hardly a surprise, then, when he crashes headlong into someone.
“Sorry,” he says quickly, but the man is already moving past, and Steve makes it another half a block himself before he realizes—
No , he chides himself. Just a trick of the light, of the falling snow, making him see things.
Just an old ghost. Nothing more.
Chapter 26: Diamond
Tony Stark; Emma Frost. Only the wealthiest and most influential need apply.
“Not that I typically object to finding a gorgeous, scantily-clad woman lounging around my house,” Tony says, dropping his briefcase by the door and casually readjusting the bracelet on his wrist. “But I am kind of curious about how you got in here.”
She unfolds from the chair, impossibly graceful. Covered only by scraps of white and a fall of long blonde hair, she looks like sin made flesh.
“I can be very persuasive.”
“I'll just bet you can.” It's easier than he'd have thought to keep himself in check, when every instinct he possesses is screaming danger at him. Whoever this woman is, she wears it like a perfume. “But whatever you're selling, I probably have two already, so—”
“Not selling,” she smiles. “I'm here to issue an invitation.”
“A club. A very exclusive club.”
“Yeah.” He glances her up and down. “My wife and I aren't really into swinging. Sorry.”
“I've left my card.” She saunters past him without a backwards glance. “If you'd care to work it out.”
Heart still pounding long after she's left, Tony finally spots the single playing card, pinned beneath the white queen centered on his chess board.
The queen of diamonds.
Chapter 27: Letters
Steve Rogers; mild Steve/Peggy implied. Seventy years, and she never once lost faith.
The funeral is simple but well-attended, and Steve is surprised to realize that he recognizes a surprising number of people who've turned up to pay their respects. Or not them, exactly, so much as parts of them, people his own age with Gabe's nose or Jim's smile. Steve hangs back, reluctant to intrude on the grief of people who had a lifetime to love her.
Afterwards he's stopped by a woman who stares up at him with Peggy's eyes, and his heart clenches in his chest.
“Steve Rogers?” She doesn't wait for him to answer, just nods and holds out a bag. “I recognize you from the pictures. I talked to my dad, and . . . well, we thought you might like to have these.”
Steve doesn't look inside until he gets back to his apartment, and when he does he's glad that he waited.
There are years' worth of letters here in Peggy's careful hand. They talk about the war and how it ended; about her promotions through the years; about the man she fell in love with and the children that they had. A record of the life he missed, of the faith in him she never lost.
Chapter 28: Promise
Clint Barton, Natasha Romanoff; Clintasha; first kiss; oops I accidentally angst. If there's one thing Clint's never doubted about Natasha, it's that she always keeps her promises.
Natasha's lips are soft, warm, and inviting, and even though it's a terrible idea, Clint can't help himself. He's wanted this for so long; too long to stop even though he knows what it is.
What it has to be.
“You all right there, Barton?” Natasha's eyes are gleaming and wicked. She's barely even broken a sweat, and he might hate her a little bit for that. “Need to take a breather?”
“Be honest with me, Tasha.” He presses a hand to his ribs to make sure nothing's broken, which it probably isn't, and drops back into position. “You're trying to kill me, aren't you?”
Her laugh is loud and delighted as she mirrors his stance.
He threads his fingers through her hair and imagines that he can feel the color against his skin. Deep and rich, and hot enough to burn.
“Believe me, you'll know when I start trying.”
“Oh yeah? How?”
“You mean aside from the being dead part?”
He needs this more than he needs to breathe, and consequences be damned.
“I'll kiss you first. How's that?”
“How very Judas of you. Please don't say you're only teasing,” he winks, and she laughs again.
“It's a promise.”
Chapter 29: Simple
Steve Rogers; Bucky Barnes; Steve/Bucky. Things are really pretty simple, when you think about it.
To say that Steve's life hasn't been without its complications would be an understatement of the highest order. From the time he was four years old, it's often seemed as though the world has conspired to make his life an endless series of difficulties. Finding himself suddenly orphaned in a country still struggling in the grips of war wasn't exactly the best recipe for an easy life, and things had only gotten more difficult from there. But as he'd grown, he'd discovered that it was easy enough to find his way through the most complex of situations by seeking out the simple truths that were hidden beneath the details.
The war, and their reasons for being in it, had been knotty at best; but he doesn't like bullies, and he's never cared where they're from.
He'd found himself in the far-flung future, where the world had changed more than he ever could've imagined; but there were still people who needed him, people to stand for when they couldn't fight for themselves.
Kissing Bucky is complicated. It means changes, and adjustments, and things that Steve isn't altogether sure he's ready for.
But Steve loves him.
And in the end, there's nothing simpler.
Chapter 30: Future
Ensemble cast; Tony/Pepper; Steve/Bucky; Clint/Natasha; Steve/Thor BROMANCE 4EVAH. The future's so bright . . .
“I think she should get her own suit.”
Pepper rolls her eyes, exhausted and fond and absolutely radiant. “Maybe that should wait until she can actually hold her head up on her own.”
“Good idea.” Tony just smiles down her, besotted. “Give Daddy time to map out the specs.”
“The treaty is signed.” Thor raises his glass, a proud smile on his face. “To strength in battle, and the wisdom to avoid it where one may.”
“I'll drink to that,” Steve grins.
And they do.
“Oh god.” Steve has never been this nervous in his life. “What if he changes his mind?”
“He won't,” Bruce chuckles.
Steve nods, breathing deep. He's marrying his best friend today, and nothing in the world matters beyond that.
“Uncle Bruce!” Virginia leaps up into his arms, grinning at him with her father's mischievous smile. “Are we gonna blow stuff up today?”
“We'll be home by nine,” Pepper says, pretending not to hear. “Thanks again for watching her.”
Bruce beams. “Anytime.”
Natasha grins as she takes Clint's hand, ready to jump.
“Do you even need to ask?”
It's not the future any of them planned for, and all the better because of it.