(pepper & tony)
When the announcement arrives that Aerosmith are playing Madison Square Garden in a month's time Pepper Potts has to put a superhuman (heh) effort in not to whoop and jump out of her chair. She crosses her legs instead and thins her lips; before she's thought it through she knows it's not an option. There are the takeover talks, and the new campaign, and the factory visits for the re-purposing, and trying really hard not to bring a stilletto heel down on General Jameson's foot for being stubbornly unwilling to accept that no, they absolutely will not be renewing the defence contracts.
"Sounds like fun," she says neutrally.
"Not really," says Clint. "Eighties hair rock, God."
"People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," says Natasha smugly.
He points at her with his fork. "Remember who it was that taught you everything you know, young padawan."
"What a horrific notion," says Bruce.
"If it was Springsteen..." says Steve.
"Next time," says Clint.
"It would be a most interesting experience," says Thor.
"Why don't we just take you to a Bon Jovi gig and have done with it?" says Clint.
Pepper's so busy pouring herself another coffee and ignoring the bickering that she doesn't even notice Tony watching her - she should have, really, he was being silent, that was definitely a noticeable thing where Tony was concerned - but at the time she didn't.
That had a lot to do with the hot swoop of disappointment in her stomach that she was busy clawing down.
The takeover talks run like clockwork. Pepper would be astonished, but it takes her about ten seconds to realise that Tony's both done his homework and some significant groundwork, which he will do if it's important, she's always known that. It's just that his definition of important doesn't overlap often with other people's.
"Wow, you want that opening in the Japanese market," she says to him that night.
"Huh?" he says. "Yah. We'll make millions, Potts. Millions!"
"Why, Mr Stark. I hadn't realised vulgar money-making was so important to you."
He assumes a saintly look. "I will, of course, be sinking it all into good deeds, charities, funding the Avengers and buying you pretty things."
"Is that last a good deed?"
"Of course. For example, that box over there -"
"Oh, Tony," she says, laughing. It's a nightdress, thin, dark green, clingy.
"Figured it was the only way I'd get my MIT shirt back," says Tony.
As if. She likes his MIT shirt. And it suits her better than it suits him. And it's one he's had for decades, so - all soft and worn and familiar enough that even when it's fresh out of the wash and doesn't smell like him, she thinks it does. "Sorry, no. You'll have to buy yourself another one."
"Uncool. Deeply uncool."
"You can't go around trying to bribe the CEO of a major global tech corporation, honey. I'm incorruptible."
"I," says Tony, "would like to contest that, Miss Potts."
"Incorruptible," she says, dodging round the sofa away from him, "not saintly. Be a good boy and sit still while I try this on."
Tony doesn't need telling twice; he drags a chair over and collapses in it, legs spread wide and wanton. His eyes have gone dark and heavy-lidded, intently focussed. On her. "A floor show! I'll take it. Although, fairly pointless, it's not going to stay on..."
"I don't see why not," Pepper says silkily. She can see it, in her mind's eye, her shoulders against the wall, the straps falling down her arms, all that shiny green silk bunched at her waist, folding and flowing over his hands...
He licks his lips at her and grins. "As always, Miss Potts, your suggestions are flawless. Wait!" He jumps up again. "Rule twelve."
"Seconded to you for the duration," says Darcy when Pepper finds her in the PR HQ for the livin' in the future campaign and the Expo. "Hope you don't mind."
Pepper opens her mouth, looks around at the bustling office, takes note of the way everyone's eyeing Darcy up like she's... come on, of course she's carrying the taser, and the Organisational Whiteboard is gloriously well-kept and someone appears to be printing out six different copies of the application to the planning committee and Erika is saying into her cell phone, "Of course, Mr Mayor, I'll get that to Ms Potts right away."
"Mind?" says Pepper. "No."
She's just suspicious. If one more thing falls into place - just one more thing...
Friday's dinner and ball is enlivened considerably by the sight of Steve getting every single senior military officer in the Embassy to eat out of his hand - British and American - Pepper's not even sure he knows he's doing it, but - oh, oh, yes he does, that's Jameson, nodding enthusiastically along to something he's saying.
"What?" says Tony.
"You," says Pepper, pinning him up against the bar with a swish of skirt and a dangerous look. "Sneaky. Roping Steve in."
Tony's mouth curls into a smile. "Noticed that. Thought you would. Like a dance, Miss Potts?"
"Like to stab you with a fountain pen," Pepper says sweetly. "What are you doing?"
"Clearing your schedule," he says promptly.
She plants her hands on her hips, then crosses them, shifts irritably; she can't look too openly annoyed, it'll be all over the tabloids by tomorrow morning, ARE TONY AND PEPPER FINALLY SPLITTING UP, IS HE CHEATING, HAS SHE HAD ENOUGH AT LAST?
He's still grinning. "The Aerosmith gig at Madison Square."
Pepper can feel her jaw unhinging.
"You - I -"
"You forget," Tony says cheerfully, "that you moved in with me and I have seen that box you had marked throw out already and also, those leather pants, smoking hot."
Tony Stark has not made Pepper Potts blush since the first time she accidentally walked in on him with another woman nearly eleven years ago, and certainly not since they started - since they've been in a relationship.
She's blushing now. "They were - that was college - you can't -"
But he can of course, and he tugs her onto the dance floor with him as easily as the first time, at that charity ball, when she was wearing the blue dress she'd bought herself whilst he was missing as a wish and a dream and a tacit acknowledgement. He draws her close; she falls easily into step with him, leaning in and letting him lead.
"I'll wear mine, if you like," he adds.
"Of course you've got leather pants."
"Mine have even been worn."
Pepper laughs at last. "I wasn't brave enough," she admits, absurdly giddy. "I bought them and then I just - couldn't."
"I had one of those moments when you think you're going to re-define yourself completely and be a whole other person," she explains. "But then I worked out that I wasn't all that unhappy with who I already was, and... basically got scared of losing it, I guess."
"Hmm," says Tony again. "Never had that, personally."
"I know," says Pepper. They dance in silence, close and warm, for another few minutes. Then she says, "The Aerosmith gig at Madison Square."
His grin gets wider again. "Just you and me, baby."
Pepper chews her bottom lip, eyes shining, before she gives in, falling out of the dance and flinging her arms around him. They spin off the dance floor, laughing.
She doesn't wear the leather pants, although she probably could fit into them if she wanted. She does wear one of Tony's old leather jackets, neither brushes her hair nor puts make-up on. Tony shaves, which makes an amazing difference to how quickly he gets recognised in the street, and then they slip out the back way of the Tower without telling the others that they're going anywhere; like a pair of kids sneaking out to their first concert with Mom and Dad knowing. They drive too fast and drink cheap beer when they get there; they wait in line and chat with half a dozen other people bouncing with glee at being here, and when they stumble out again, ears ringing, to a world that seems unreal, flat and boring, they find a diner to serve them burgers and fries and ice cream after. It's stupidly normal. It's entirely perfect.
"You never went to a concert, really," Tony says over the ice cream. They're leaning close, teenagers on a first date; her legs are flung between his, knees brushing his thighs.
"College did not find me at my best," says Pepper. I didn't care about much of anything, or anyone, and no one cared about me.
"Me either," says Tony. "Course, I was fifteen at the time, so..."
Pepper laughs. Tony's delighted look remains the same whether he's surveying a new invention or a fantastic new idea or Pepper herself: amazed, gleeful, besotted. Their fingers touch, tangle, on the tabletop.
But the best bit is when Darcy mails Pepper the news story about what a self-sacrificing and good-hearted girlfriend she is to put up with a rock concert for Tony's sake when everyone knows she'd rather go to the opera.
(peggy & steve)
He comes to find her in the Strand, weaving through the miles of bookshelves till he finds her in the history section, examining Andrew Marr's A History of Modern Britain.
"Saw him on the Beeb," Peggy explains.
"Uh-huh," says Steve, careful not to grin. He knows she doesn't really like the TV that much, not as much as the movies, but the BBC is sacred. It's one of the many ways Peggy is determinedly, deliberately, wholeheartedly British, more so than he remembers from the War. Of course it's different for him: New York is still New York, and his country is still his country, even seventy years on. Peggy is an exile twice over.
"Want anything?" She tilts her head back to look up at him, smiling; she cut her hair differently last week, falling in waves around her face. If he squints, he can see her old perfect curls. She's wearing a pale blue dress down to her calves, and Mary Janes, and a thin green cardigan, and her lips are red as roses. She wears so much colour, all the time, anything but olive green and drab brown leather.
"The pleasure of your company," he says pompously. Her laugh rings out, drawing people's eyes.
"You spend far too much time with Tony."
Steve purses his lips.
"It's the anniversary of Howard's death," he says quietly. Her face clouds over, lashes falling. It's barely been a year, for her. "And Maria. Pepper's got Tony, he'll be all right, but I thought -"
"- we should do something," Peggy says. "Yes. Let's."
Visiting a graveyard is not what most people would call the thing to do for a date. Peggy brings a spray of - what else? - poppies, cradled in her arm, shining red against her white blouse. It's a sunny day, warm, windy; there are other people in the cemetary, but none very close to them. They're buried together, Howard and the girl he loved, Tony's mother whom they never knew. Peggy kneels to lay the poppies down; Steve sits by her, cross-legged.
"I hope you didn't blame yourself, or anything," she says softly. "After I disappeared. I'm sorry for that, truly." She reaches out to touch the marble headstone. "Not sorry enough to want to come back. I'm all off-balance, and a bit lost, but it's so lovely, Howard. It's all so beautiful. I wish I'd met Maria, though... I can see her in Tony, in the ways he's not you." Her voice takes on a touch of asperity. "For one thing, he's not in this business for the cheap thrills. For another, he's not in the habit of treating people he doesn't know as things..."
Steve stays silent. He and Bucky have played enough pool with Lieutenant Colonel Jim Rhodes to know that there's an 'anymore' missing from Peggy's last sentence.
"I miss you, you demented fool," Peggy says quietly.
"So do I," says Steve. "It's strange to think I know Tony so much better... but there." He grins. "Peggy's right, he is a better man than you are."
Somewhere a dog barks once; someone calls to it, low but firm. The wind is in the trees; a cloud crosses the sun, sinking the cemetery into a brief dull gloom. It's peaceful, and quiet, and so very far from those other fields they'd all once more than half-believed they'd lie in: we are the dead, short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow...
Suddenly Peggy jumps up. Steve sees her dash her tears away with the back of her hand. "Come on," she says fiercely. "Let's go, let's see a show or go to that comedy club Bruce talked about - he'd laugh at us for lying around here being melancholy when we've got the whole world to play with."
"Yeah," says Steve, following her to his feet. "Yeah, he would - you're right, let's go." He smiles. "After - let's go dancing."
"They closed the Stork Club," says Peggy. "I'll never get over that." She twirls, a little, in her dress and her shoes, as if to demonstrate; Steve never realised how much she likes to dance, to run, to move, constantly, when she's not at work and being professional.
"Yeah, if I'm honest with you me either," says Steve. "You ever been up the Empire State Building?"
"Actually," says Peggy, "now I come to think about it - no."
"Can't allow that. It's right outside our bedroom window, come on."
"I've always found the view inside rather prettier."
"I don't blame you," he says solemnly, mannerism copied from Tony live, and then bursts out laughing at himself. "Sorry! I don't know how he does that, I really don't."
"It doesn't suit you," Peggy agrees, laughing herself. "All right. Take me up the Empire State Building, Captain Rogers."
"My pleasure, Agent Carter."
(jane & thor)
Jane comes home swearing in the middle of a rainstorm. She could, she supposes, have just stayed in the Tower, as Tony offered, but she finds she doesn't want to - isn't all that sure if she so much as likes the place. It makes her weirdly nervous, which Darcy scoffs at, but come on, it's a Tower full of superheroes that gets attacked on a semi-regular basis and isn't it bad enough that she's spending so much time in the New York in the first place, three weeks exceeds her official yearly limit for living in cities, let alone three months, God.
Exactly what she's going out with. The God of Thunder in fact, which, considering what the weather's doing right now...
She marches into the apartment and finds him standing on the fire escape out the back in the pouring wet, barefoot and silent, staring up at the sky. Mjölnir's lying on one of the dining room chairs. When you've got a hammer you can call to your hand from miles away that no one else can ever pick up you tend not to bother much about stuff like putting it away.
"Did you do this?"
He turns, surprised. "The storm? Of course not."
Jane squeezes water out of her hair onto the floorboards in a pointed way. "Of course not."
"It is unwise to interfere with planetary weather patterns too much."
The hypocrisy of that particular statement just about stuns her into speechlessness. He shifts a bit, pulls a rueful face. "I could perhaps be more careful of them."
Worst thing about Thor is that Jane's not very capable of staying angry with him. She doesn't know who is, except - well, Loki. She dumps her bag with a sigh, strips her jacket off, kicks her poor soaking Converse into a corner, climbs out the window to join him. She stands in front of him; he touches her shoulders, then wraps his arms around him. Jane rubs a socked foot on the wet metal underneath, feeling small and fragile and all the more feminine for it. Sighs in relief and lets her weight fall against his chest.
"You sound unhappy."
"Bad day. Well, not bad. Just. I don't think I like cities much. I think I spent too long in New Mexico."
"Are you leaving again?"
She grins. "Norway wants me back. You like Norway."
He laughs. "Indeed. They worship me there."
"Shush. I thought you were storm-whispering."
He kisses her temple.
"Erik's happier there," she says quietly. "I like it, but I'm not really that picky, and I guess that's a deciding factor, that he'll be all right there. I think he's gone off the US for good."
"I cannot blame him," says Thor.
A gloomy sort of silence descends then for a while as the storm blows around them and people hurry by in the street, cars rush past, a window slams.
"Jane," says Thor, "I meant to ask. Darcy informs me I have been inattentive?"
Jane winces, horrified. Darcy informing people of things outside of her ridiculously awesome job as Tony's PA is inevitably a recipe for disaster. She remembers the week-long discussion about parliamentary democracy and the Drunken Drafting Of The Asgardian Magna Carta; when the sun's too bright she still feels twinges of that hangover, three months later. "Darcy's ideas are not always... reliable," says Jane.
He laughs. "Perhaps not. She tells me that despite - or perhaps because of, I am unsure - our cohabitation I am expected to take you on dates?"
"Oh!" Jane's hugely relieved. Then suddenly she's not. "No! No, hell, don't date me, I'm terrible at dates, I don't have anything to wear and I always get nervous and talk too much and order the wrong thing in the restaurant. Dates are horrible very bad no good things."
"I... see," says Thor, in a tone of voice that suggests he doesn't.
"They're like... you go do something together as a couple and most people think that what you should do is have dinner in a really nice restaurant and stuff," Jane tries to explain. "But I hate that, I really - I like Starbucks dates with coffee and stuff and - if you want to see a movie with me find a Terminator DVD. I just. Dates. No."
She went on a couple of the other kind of dates when she was in college. They were excruciating.
"But," says Thor, "if I understand this concept aright the idea is to do something special? Something memorable?"
Jane feels indignant. "I'm standing on a fire escape in a rainstorm in my bare feet with the Norse God of Thunder and am already sensing a cold coming on," she says. "What's not memorable about that? Darcy's a date snob, tell her to go away, I'll lock you out of the apartment if you try to take me on a date."
"I believe that would be the kind of statement the Lady Pepper would advise me to get in writing for future proof," says Thor.
"That woman terrifies me," says Jane honestly. All that stiff unrelenting confidence, yikes.
"That," says Thor, "is because you've not yet seen Natasha fight."
"Swordfights on TV are sexy," says Jane. "Swordfights in real life are not my thing."
She can picture his smile, slow and wistful. The rain has slowed to a drizzle; it's getting lighter. Perhaps there'll be a rainbow.
"Don't you date in Asgard?"
"The concept of spending time with the person one is courting is not completely unknown," Thor says cheerfully, "but apparently I have finally discovered a social custom around which you have even more conflicting and frankly impenetrable rituals than I do."
(natasha & bucky)
"I'm going to church," he says. "You wanna come?"
She stares at him. Then she laughs.
No, that's not how it goes.
He goes to church. Sits in the back and listens to the sermon, hands folded in his lap. One of the other parishioners sees his prosthetic when the glove slips, says, "Army?"
"Yeah," says Bucky Barnes. "Long time ago now."
They're still fighting, running around in Iraq, Afghanistan. He laughs at the news reports of every soldier killed, the way each individual death is remembered, talked about, as though it were something extraordinary, as though, surrounded by all their shining new technology, these people had expected war to become as bloodless and mechanised as the rest of their lives.
The sermon helps him remember: his mother, skirt blowing against her legs in the wind as she stood by the door of the chapel, his father, dimmer and further away, buttoning his coat up on a Sunday morning. Dead, both of them, before they'd reached the age he was when he joined the Army. Little more than blurs in his memory, shadows of warmth. He has no photographs of them, cannot see their faces clearly.
He walks from the church to the orphanage, tracing the old route back through streets both changed and unchanged to a building that still stands, remade into a school: these kids escape it at the end of the day. They have other, warmer places to be than he once did.
He doesn't want to be the Winter Soldier. The only parts of that man that he keeps are his enviable skills at staying alive and his love for Natasha. He wants the Brooklyn street kid back, the mouthy recruit, the experienced Sergeant. He wants the orphaned boy who learned to say no and stand his ground by watching Steve do it, who learned to love by being Steve's brother.
He misses the Commandos with a visceral ache, had known and loved them even longer than Steve had. That's flipped now, with the Avengers. Their only constant has always been each other.
One day he comes out of a diner with a cardboard cup of coffee and finds her waiting for him.
"You're out so much, I was starting to think there was someone else," she says cheerfully.
"You're a paranoid madwoman, it's not your fault," he says. Carries right on walking. She falls in with him. Those heels she wears sometimes are almost as bad as Pepper's. Her stride doesn't hitch, or falter.
"Meant to go to church," he says. "You could come."
She laughs, but it's bitter. "I don't do Gods."
"I can't do Gods. Not that kind, anyway."
"OK," he says. "I don't know if I do, either."
"But you do churches."
"They're a part of home," he says.
She falls silent as they cross an intersection, walk a block, round a corner. He doesn't hope, hope's for fools and children.
"I... I guess I could come."
He's always been a fool.
"It's a date."
(betty & bruce)
"You drive me crazy," says Betty over the remnants of Chinese food and Spanish red wine, cracking fortune cookies and smoking. "How do you stay in love with someone whom you don't even know any more?"
Bruce rubs a finger through a scattering of crumbs on the table-cloth. "I don't know. I've been telling you this wouldn't work for years."
"For a genius, you're an enormous fool," says Betty.
"It's been said."
"By me. Frequently."
The bill arrives; Bruce pays it, smiling, not yet over the fact that he has money now, again, delighted as a kid with every paycheck. He thinks Betty doesn't know that he puts half of it away every month, wrapped up in accounts that aren't under his name which he doesn't keep the documents for in their apartment.
"Are you taking me to a show, or do I invent my own entertainment?" she asks, smiling.
"Whichever you'd prefer," he says. They're too old for this, too old to start again, to relearn each other, to discover a new city and a new life from the inside out. Or they should be, should be too settled and happy to want, to be willing to change.
Forty feels much the same way thirty did, and not too different from twenty, although admittedly less hung over.
"We should do this more often," says Bruce as they wander back to the subway. "Date, I mean. We never see each other, we're always working..."
"No, honey," says Betty, laughing. "I'm always working. You're running around saving the world and blowing things up. Or smashing them, as the case may be."
"Ouch," he says, laughing too. "OK. You're always working. I'm always running around like a video game character -"
"With your posse."
"Stop it. I'm trying to be serious."
"Oh, stop the presses!" She hooks her arm through his as they walk, leaning against him. Unbound her hair clings to his shirt, hangs over her face, their footsteps perfectly in time.
"I never see you," he repeats. "We should do this once a week. Go out, eat, pretend we don't like each other."
She laughs again, warm and delighted. "You're a very bad liar, it's cute."
"I'm an excellent liar," says Bruce and means it. Betty squeezes his arm.
"Yeah. Every Friday? No, Saturday. Every Saturday, barring death, destruction or disasters in the lab."
"Hmm," says Bruce. "It's Wednesday now."
"So you'd better get to booking us a table," says Betty cheerfully.
"What, you can't do that?"
"It's a sign of your appreciation for me."
"Which... doesn't work the other way round?"
She pulls a face. "OK, I might have just talked myself into a corner."
He laughs at her, drags his arm out of hers to wrap it round her shoulders instead.
(maria & clint)
"So I'm guessing this isn't really your idea of a date," says Maria.
Clint squints up at the cuffs holding his wrists to the wall above his head and says, "Only if you're into this sort of thing, darling."
She laughs ruefully - bruises and bloodstains and busted ribs and all. "Not really."
"That's a relief," says Clint. "It's my job, I ain't carrying it into the bedroom."
"Makes sense to me."
They're skirting uncomfortably close to a Personal Conversation for two people who are trying to banter at each other while being held by the current Monster-of-the-Week in a basement dungeon-type place whose general hopelessness would impress the turnkeys of Barad-dur. Clint doesn't like Personal Conversations, at least not as a rule. They make his neck itch, like he's getting a rash.
Natasha would tell him that's ridiculous, and she'd probably be right.
"Next time somebody else goes undercover at the serial killer's favourite bar," says Maria. Upstairs, something scrapes across the floor, the noise cheerfully reminiscent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like slasher movies and body-sized freezers being dragged around. Clint's starting to feel like they're going to end up like a Fringe experiment gone horribly wrong.
"Rookies'd be screaming the place down by now."
Clint leaves unspoken the fact that if he'd actually seen the crime scenes, the bodies of Heather Reynolds' first three victims, instead of just reading the autopsy reports, he'd probably be screaming the place down by now.
He really doesn't like serial killers. He likes 'em still less when they manage to wrangle their way into high-ranking Air Force General's offices as their official spokespersons and then decide to start cutting up the people who could trace said General back to a nice little corruption scandal over stolen Hammer drone prototypes and black market auctions.
"It's not even the first time," says Maria.
"Oh. Well, the guy's in prison, I guess it's safe to say he just stopped caring what they did with his stuff."
"I guess it is. How'd they make us?"
"I dunno," Clint admits. "She must've gotten a look at Meurier before."
"And let's be honest, your French accent could use a little work."
"I object to that," says Clint. He's not smiling. No, really. That would be hurting his extremely bruised and delicate jaw. They're both silent for a while as they try to find ways to get out of the shackles; unfortunately, that's not gonna happen. The things are crude but effective and they've been tied up too far apart to help each other. It's chilly down here, and getting colder as the night draws on. New York fall, not necessarily the warmest of seasons. At this rate they'll both die of pneumonia long before she starts cutting on them.
As if she's read his mind, Maria says, "I still don't get the torture. It's excessive."
"I," says Clint tightly, "don't want to get the torture."
She looks at him. He pulls a face and meets her eyes, blown wide with fear; it's there in the white lips, the trembling fingers, but she's keeping it well out of her voice. Furniture moving overhead, footsteps, a noise - perhaps the TV.
"Bad memories," she says.
"Which were you?" The tortured or the torturer?
"Both. At different times."
Her eyes narrow. "Be a problem?"
He smiles. "Not when it counts. Right now though I could use a hug."
Maria laughs again; seems about to speak. Then, upstairs, something crashes.
"Ah," says Clint. "Hi-ho the cavalry."
Outside, in the ambulance, while Nat and Steve and Tony and Bruce and Thor all hover and Coulson wanders around the property supervising clean up and looking like he'd be happy to resurrect Heather Reynolds if anyone else wanted a shot at the murderous bitch, Maria says, "So what is?"
And Clint gives up trying not to think along those lines, because obviously the universe kind of hates him right now, and say, "Oh... pizza, beer, a scary movie," and they spend the next ten minutes in hysterics.