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The Stars in Our Eyes

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“With our love, we could save the world.”
— George Harrison

 

Saturday, December 1

Steve finished buttoning up his navy-and-white checkered shirt and glanced in the mirror for the hundredth time. With a frown, he considered the way the shirt was tucked into his khaki pants. Too stuffy? He yanked the edges of the fabric out and smoothed them over his favorite brown belt. No, that just looked sloppy. Sighing, he retucked the shirt and checked his watch. He was still doing all right on time, so he turned his discerning gaze on to his hair. The shock of blond was parted painstakingly neatly to the side and combed over, the way he liked it best. Jan called it adorably retro, but Steve could never tell whether or not that was actually a compliment.

He hoped his mystery date would like it, too. Jan had refused to give him a name, occupation, or even physical description, only revealing that it was an attractive male and texting him the address of a nice Midtown bistro along with an infuriatingly unhelpful smiley face. Steve supposed he shouldn’t be getting so worked up about the blind date; it wasn’t like he really believed it would go anywhere. It had been a while since he had seen anyone, and he was beyond rusty when it came to flirting and dating etiquette. He had really only agreed to this because Jan had pestered him so insistently about it, citing his obvious loneliness (something that he vehemently denied) and her apparently amazing matchmaking skills. It could be fun, anyway. It was always nice to meet new people.

Forty-five minutes and a subway ride uptown later, Steve wasn’t so sure it would be nice anymore. His date was either ridiculously late or had stood him up. Annoyed and a little disappointed, he had texted Jan multiple times to announce he was leaving, but she kept pleading him to wait “just five more minutes.” Steve was really much too lenient when it came to her. She was just so used to getting her way; he felt awful whenever he had to let her down.

Just as he was about to call Jan and tell her he had no interest in dating somebody who had kept him waiting for half an hour, someone tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped in surprise and looked up into amused blue eyes.

“Sorry, you startled me,” he said. The man smirked, which made him look movie-star handsome.

“Obviously,” he drawled. “You are Steve Rogers, right? I’m not just assaulting some poor idiot loitering outside this restaurant?”

Steve blinked. “Uh, yeah, that’s me. How may I help you?”

The man looked even more amused. He lowered the sunglasses he was wearing even though the sun had set hours ago. His eyes were a sharp blue that contrasted beautifully with his tan skin and stylized dark hair. “I believe you and I have a date.”

*

At the sound of the doorbell, Karolina smoothed her hair frantically and quickly smeared chapstick over her lips before running to answer the door.

“Hi!” she said, slightly out of breath. The slight girl in the long black coat and red tights on the other side of the door raised an incredulous eyebrow at her.

“Chill out, Karolina,” she said easily and shooed her back into the apartment. “I brought a present,” she added, flashing Karolina the wine bottle in her hand.

“Oh thank god,” Karolina said, grabbing the bottle and setting it on the kitchen counter while she searched the drawers for her bottle opener. “Nico, you’re a lifesaver. I’ll need that to tell you about my Thanksgiving break, and you’ll need it to believe me.”

“Okay, seriously, what happened?” Nico demanded. “It’s not like you to be so mysterious, and it’s driving me crazy.”

“Not so cool being on the other end of it, huh,” Karolina muttered.

“What was that?”

“Nothing, nope,” Karolina said cheerily. “Aha!” She brandished the bottle opener and got to work opening the wine and pouring it carefully into two glasses. Nico accepted hers with a nod and took a seat at the kitchen island.

“What’d you get?” she said, reaching for the brown paper bags.

“Thai. That cool?” Karolina said. “It arrived just before you did, so it should still be warm.”

“Sounds great; I’ve been craving Thai.”

Karolina smiled and took a big gulp from her glass before joining Nico at the island.

“So…Thanksgiving,” Nico prompted once they had the cartons sorted out and portions split amongst them. Karolina heaved a big sigh and scowled as she finished chewing her food.

“So I got back to LA late on Wednesday and didn’t get to talk to my parents much. Thanksgiving itself was fine; we had a lot of my parents’ friends over and the caterer was really great. Nothing unusual. But on Friday… Oh god.”

“Yes?” Nico wasn’t even bothering to disguise her curiosity now.

“They told me I’m engaged to the son of some foreign prince.”

Nico was staring at her, mouth agape. “You’re what now?”

“Yeah,” Karolina groaned. Under any other circumstances, she would have found Nico’s aghast expression hilarious, but she couldn’t muster up the amusement. “They told me I’m going to have an arranged marriage.”

“Hold up, people still have those?” said Nico.

“That’s what I said,” Karolina mumbled. “But it gets even crazier. Apparently my parents got into some kind of trouble overseas with some country’s royalty and got out of it by promising their unborn daughter’s hand in marriage to some prince’s son. And now they want to collect on the deal.”

“That is ridiculous,” Nico declared. “What the hell did your parents do to piss someone off to that extent?”

“Mom refused to go into detail about it, but she said they were smuggling American products into the country, which sounds pretty sketchy,” Karolina said. “But yeah, completely unfair. And the worst part is that I can’t get out of it. If I bail, my parents’ lives will be in danger. And their agent would totally kill me if that happened.”

“Yeesh,” Nico said.

“That pretty much sums it up. So now I’m supposed to marry some random dude I’ve never met. Kind of puts a cramp on, like, my entire life.”

“Maybe he’ll be cool?” Nico tried.

Karolina threw her hands in the air, almost poking Nico’s eye out with her chopstick. “It doesn’t matter if he’s the coolest dude on the planet, or even in the galaxy. He’s still a he.” Karolina stopped her rant to look closely at Nico. There had been an awkward situation just before the Thanksgiving break when Karolina had made her move and tried to kiss Nico. She had been rebuffed firmly, and things had been weird between them for a few days before they had mutually agreed to put it aside. Not that Karolina was actually over Nico or the incident yet — but her friend didn’t need to know that. She would get there eventually — not that it mattered much, now that she was getting married. To a man, no less.

But Nico just looked indignant on Karolina’s behalf. “There’s really no way around it? Have they tried to reason with the prince dude?”

“The prince is holding us to the deal. Something about it being good for his country.”

“This sounds like something out of a terrible chick flick,” Nico grumbled, refilling their wine glasses.

“Feels like more of a horror story to me,” Karolina said sadly. Nico nudged her.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad. And even if he is the biggest asshole in the universe, I’ll be here to help you through it.”

Karolina smiled at her, now sad for a different reason. It still hurt to spend time with her like this, acting as if nothing had changed between them when she felt so empty with her hopes dashed. She still couldn’t believe she had read Nico wrong all those months; she had really thought that they had a chance. So many times after that jerk Alex Wilder had broken Nico’s heart she had professed disgust for men and proclaimed to be done with them forever. Karolina had taken her declarations at face value, but to her utter embarrassment, Nico had had to explain that she was tired of how people seemed to need to pair up automatically and just wanted to be alone for the time being. It was beyond awkward to be corrected about something she had been so sure about, and the humiliation still smarted. If anything, she was grateful that Nico hadn’t just up and left her. She didn’t think she would be able to stand that. Part of her still wished she could explain her feelings to Nico and make her understand how deeply she loved her, though. Maybe then she would give Karolina a chance.

“I know,” she said instead. “Thanks, Nico.”

Nico brushed it off and flashed her a cheeky grin. “So… Does this mean I get to be your maid of honor?”

*

The first Saturdays of each month were always Jan’s favorite. She and her girlfriends made it a point to get together and do something, whether it was a night out on the town, a nice dinner at a restaurant that was getting all of the latest hype, or just a movie marathon at one of their places. Tonight, they were going to one of Carol’s favorite bars to catch up on each other’s lives.

Slipping on her brand new black heels, she leaned over the back of the couch to kiss Hank goodbye. He jumped as if he hadn’t noticed her running around making a racket as she got dressed. Then again, knowing him, he probably hadn’t. He leaned into the kiss and then tilted his head to look at her, seeming mildly confused.

“I’m going out with Carol and the girls, remember?” she said. Hank wrinkled his nose.

“Don’t drink too much. I hate when you come back reeking of alcohol.”

“I won’t if you promise not to work so hard while I’m gone,” Jan replied, mildly annoyed, even though she knew it was Hank-speak for worrying that if she drank too much, she would cheat on him with the many suitors he knew always vied for her attention when he wasn’t there (and often times when he was). A lot of people in New York City would try anything to get a night with Janet Van Dyne, whether it was for the money or a shot at fame. A lot of people were idiots, Jan had decided when she had realized this at an early age. Jan was used to Hank’s paranoia, but it still stung that he would think so lowly of her.

“I’m not working,” Hank protested. Jan raised an eyebrow at the papers and books strewn all over the coffee table, as well as the highlighter and pen in his hand. “This isn’t work. Some of us have fun doing things other than desperately trying to recapture our youth.”

Jan just barely bit back her scathing retort. “I am still young, Hank,” she said, forcing her voice to sound lighthearted and teasing. “Don’t be jealous. You know I find your gray hair charming.”

The distraction worked. Sometimes it scared Jan how well she knew this man. “I do not have gray hair!” Hank exclaimed before a horrified expression crossed his face. “Do I?”

Jan grinned cheekily and ruffled his hair before planting a kiss on his cheek. “I was just kidding, darling,” she said. “You’re as blond as ever. I’ll be back late, so don’t wait up, okay?”

“Mmhmm,” Hank said, already distracted by his book again. Jan knew he would still wait up, though. He always did that, no matter how many times she told him it was unnecessary. She suspected he did it for his own peace of mind. Whatever, she wasn’t going to feel responsible for his insecurities. She called out a goodbye, locked the door behind her, and scurried into the elevator.

The bar wasn’t far, and when Jan climbed out of the cab, she saw that Carol and Natasha were already standing outside the establishment. Natasha was in a leather jacket and dark jeans and Carol in a modest navy dress, but Jan was used to being overdressed compared to her friends. What kind of fashion designer would she be if she weren’t? Besides, she knew she looked good in her a-line dress with the yellow satin bust and black lace skirt. And so what if she had deliberately chosen one with a shorter hemline to see if Hank would say anything?

Just as Jan was greeting her friends with hugs and kisses, Betty and Jessica arrived. At least Jessica was wearing a proper tight, low-cut red dress and heels; although Betty coming in what were clearly her work clothes definitely took away from the overall effect. They entered the bar-slash-restaurant just fine, though, and quickly claimed a half circle booth a decent distance from the crowded bar.

“So,” Carol said, “what’s everyone been up? How was Thanksgiving?”

Betty wrinkled her nose. “My dad and Bruce being cooped up in a tiny house in the suburbs went about as well as expected. We left early,” she added.

“Oh god,” Jan winced in sympathy. “Sorry, Bets.”

Betty shrugged. “Like I said, I didn’t expect much else. That’s not even the most awkward part, though. Dad invited one of his Air Force buddies and kept pushing him at me.”

“In front of Bruce?” Jessica asked.

Natasha snorted, not looking up from where she was texting someone on her phone. “Sounds just like Thunderbolt Ross.”

Their conversation was briefly interrupted by a bubbly waitress with a short skirt and impossibly tiny wrists arriving to take their orders. Jan asked for a Long Island Iced Tea just to spite Hank.

“So, spill, what was this Air Force guy like?” Carol prompted after they placed their orders. “Maybe I know him.”

Betty shrugged, the motion knocking her overgrown bangs over her eyes. “His name was Glenn Talbot. He was polite, I guess.”

Jessica rolled her eyes. “Details, Betty. How old was he? What does he look like?”

“I dunno,” Betty mumbled. “He’s maybe 40? He had brown eyes and a mustache.”

“40?” Jessica exclaimed. “Kinda old for you, don’t you think?”

Betty raised an eyebrow. “Bruce is 36.”

“Hank is 39,” Jan volunteered.

“Okay, okay, fair enough,” Jessica grumbled. “I guess it’s not that scandalous.”

“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Betty said firmly. “He’s not Bruce.”

“Oh, Betty,” Jan said sympathetically. Betty hadn’t had eyes for anyone else since she had fallen for Bruce. Jan wasn’t sure what she could see in the reserved, withdrawn scientist. Bruce was polite enough and possessed a sharp, sarcastic wit, but there was always an awkwardly aloof element to his interactions with anyone but Betty. As an outgoing and fun-loving spirit, Jan had always found this quality off-putting. And Betty really could do so much better if she just tried a little.

Then again, Jan understood how she felt in a way. After all, the tabloids had gone crazy when it had slipped out that the heiress to the Van Dyne fortune had finally settled down and for some “unremarkable nerd” (one of the gossip rags had actually printed that) instead of a famous actor or big-shot entrepreneur like everyone had expected. But Hank was smart and loved her single-mindedly with a childlike, selfish devotion, and she found his paranoia and grumpiness both infuriating and charming. She knew she could do better in terms of social standing, wealth, and looks, but she was secure in the knowledge that Hank could also do much better in terms of an intellectual equal yet had chosen her. The thought made her feel a little warm and fuzzy, and she took her phone out of her clutch purse to text Hank.

JAN: Hope you are enjoying your book, Blue Eyes. :)

“How is the good doctor doing?” Carol was asking. “The last time I saw him was...at the Richards’ Labor Day party.”

Jan and Jessica exchanged awkward glances. That party had not been one of Bruce’s greatest moments. Reed and Sue had invited them to the Baxter Building for a barbecue on the roof. There had been guests, food, and drinks aplenty. Even Hank had enjoyed it, sequestering himself in a comfortable corner with Reed and their nerd buddies while Jan worked the social circuit like she had been born to do it — which, admittedly, she kind of had. Catching up with her favorite people in New York was much more fun than chatting up airheaded socialites, though.

But Bruce hadn’t had such luck. Out of nowhere (or what Jan had felt like was nowhere, anyway) he had exploded at some poor guest of Sue’s, thrown around some yard furniture with a surprising amount of strength, and then freaked out and run away. As the guests had gaped after Bruce, Jan had instinctively searched for Betty in the crowd. Her expression had been one of both terror and sorrow, and one look at it had told Jan what she needed to know: that it had not been a one-time occurrence. She had approached Betty to ask if Bruce had ever hurt her in any of his fits of anger — Jan had never been one for subtlety — but Betty’s genuinely horrified response had been easy to read, too. She had asked Jan never to speak of it again.

Betty smiled tightly at the reminder of that embarrassing episode. “He’s doing okay,” she said, clearly trying to hide behind her bangs. “He’s seeing a therapist, and I think it’s helping. Mostly he just beats himself up about it. I think he’s scared more than anything.”

“I don’t care how scared he is; if he hurts you in any way, I’ll cut his eyes out,” Natasha spoke up, finally looking up from her phone. Anyone off the street would say that she sounded incredibly bored, but Jan knew her well enough to read the protective edge to her seemingly apathetic words, which Jan honestly didn’t doubt that Natasha was capable of carrying out. The woman was terrifying when she wanted to be.

Of course, the waitress happened to appear with their drinks at the tail end of Natasha’s threat and gave her an appalled look. Natasha glared evenly back at her before going back to her phone. Again.

“Okay,” Jan said. “This is driving me crazy. Natasha, who are you texting so intently?”

Natasha placed her hand over her phone on the table and sipped her double vodka nonchalantly. “None of your business.”

Carol raised an eyebrow. “Seriously? It’s not like we can’t all guess.”

Shrugging, Natasha crossed her arms and leaned back in her seat. Mysteriously, the phone had suddenly disappeared from the table.

“Oh, come on,” Jessica said, rolling her eyes. “We all know it’s James.”

Natasha’s face remained impassive.

“Seriously, Nat, is he in as much denial as you are?” said Carol, after finishing her whiskey faster than was human. Jan eyed her empty glass with a frown. She was beginning to notice a pattern on these nights out with Carol. She would have to keep a sharper eye out for her. Tony was bad enough; she didn’t need two alcoholic friends.

“I am not in denial about anything,” Natasha growled.

“Please just admit that you’re madly in love with him so we can all move on,” Jessica insisted.

“Love is for children,” Natasha snapped. “You’re making a big deal out of nothing.”

“You guys have been doing this friends-with-benefits thing for like two years,” Betty pointed out.

“Three,” Natasha corrected automatically before scowling, this time at herself. It was the opening Jan needed.

“Have you talked to him at all?” she wondered. “I mean, I honestly have no idea what this guy is like since you refuse to actually tell us anything about him, but anyone would be an idiot to pass you up. And I know for a fact that you’ve been passing up other guys for him.”

“Exactly!” Carol said. “When was the last time you slept with someone other than James?”

Natasha rolled her eyes. “I don’t know,” she answered placidly.

“Yes you do,” Jessica hedged. “I bet you know the exact date. That’s the kind of scary shit you do.”

“Fine. April. Two years ago. It doesn’t mean anything,” Natasha said.

Jan grinned. “It means plenty. Just talk to him. See where he stands.”

Natasha shrugged, brushing vibrant red hair out of her eyes. “I like James because things are simple between us. There’s no need to get worked up about definitions and get tangled in all the strings.”

“There’s every reason to!” Jan exclaimed. “If there’s even the slightest potential for something more… You guys clearly have a lot of chemistry, why not try?”

“Because we’re fine with the way things are,” Natasha grumped. “Now can we please talk about something else? How’s your love life going, Carol?”

“Uh, well, I got dinner with this guy at work last night,” Carol offered.

“Oh, right!” Jan said, suddenly remembering Carol texting her something about it last week. “How did it go?”

Carol smiled. “He’s sweet. A little aloof, but very polite.” At Jessica’s are-you-kidding-me look, she added, “Blond, really blue eyes, maybe 6’2”, built like an Olympic athlete. His name’s Walter, but we call him Marvel.”

Thank you,” Jessica said. “Finally, someone who will spill. If you give us more details, I’ll buy the next round.”

HANK: It’s a scientific journal. But I am enjoying it. Did you know that ants actually fight wars and enslave their own species? They are such fascinating creatures.

HANK: Tell Carol and the others hello for me.

*

Jan’s buddy Steve was even hotter in person than he had looked in the photo Jan had showed Tony to convince him to go on this silly date. He had the bluest eyes Tony had ever seen and the jawline of a true American hero. Jan had said that he was an army veteran, highly decorated. Not usually Tony’s type, but he could make an exception for this hunk of manflesh. Besides, Steve seemed sweet and easygoing yet completely unintimidated by Tony’s flashy demeanor. He had pulled an aw-shucks face when Tony complimented the way his ass looked in his slacks but laughed when the waitress rolled her eyes at Tony’s blatant flirtation. Tony liked that. Kept him on his toes.

“If she spits in my food, I’m blaming you,” Steve teased when the waitress left to place their orders in a huff.

Tony snorted. “She should be flattered, just like everyone else.”

“What, you just go around flirting with every person you meet?” Steve replied skeptically.

“No,” Tony said, unable to keep the leer off of his face, “only the pretty ones.”

Steve blushed. It was a lovely color. Tony pledged to do his best to make it appear as often as he could throughout the course of the meal.

“So, what do you do, Steve?” he asked after their entrees arrived. He was still smiling from a funny anecdote Steve had shared about the time his roommate — Benny? Barry? — had drunkenly tried to hit on a gaggle of lesbians and had to be saved from certain death by Steve.

“I teach,” Steve answered matter-of-factly. Tony raised a curious eyebrow.

“You don’t strike me as the professor type,” he said.

“Oh, uh,” Steve said. “Art. I teach art. At a high school.”

“Oh,” Tony said, even more intrigued now. This man looked like he could bench press 300 pounds easy, and his chosen profession was art? Steve was surprising him at every turn. And the next thing out of his mouth startled Tony even more anything else could have:

“What about you?”

“What about me?” Tony replied, bewildered.

“What do you do for a living?” Steve clarified.

Tony blinked. He tilted his head. And then he blinked again. An incredulous expression crept onto his face. “Are you serious?” was all he managed.

Now Steve looked confused. There was no way this guy was for real. Did he actually not recognize Tony? Had Jan not told Steve who he was going to dinner with? Or had he actually not even recognized his name? No. Way.

“You don’t know who I am?” he said, and if he sounded a little imperious, well, that could be blamed on his complete and utter shock. Not often did he encounter a New Yorker who did not recognize the face that had been plastered all over the tabloids for years. And if his face didn’t give his identity away, his name certainly did. The name Stark was plastered on a quarter of all the buildings in Manhattan.

Steve frowned at his tone, eyes narrowing. “Should I?” he said.

“Well, yeah,” Tony said, still taken aback. “This isn’t some elaborate joke Jan is playing on me, is it?”

No, either this guy was a fantastic actor or legitimately had no idea who he was. The utter bemusement that had taken over his handsome face was too convincing for anything else.

“No…” Steve said, sounding slightly offended. “Look, I’m sorry I don’t know who you are, but there’s no need to be so rude about it.”

Excuse me? Tony mouthed. He was not used to people talking to him like this. He definitely had not expected such ballsiness from the photo Jan had showed him, in which Steve had had an arm wrapped around her shoulders and an easy smile, the Brooklyn Bridge majestic behind them.

“I’m Tony Stark,” he said haughtily.

Steve’s fork fell onto the table with a loud clank. The way Steve paled, eyes wide as saucers, was almost comical, and Tony would have laughed out loud if not for the tension in the air between them.

“The billionaire?”

“Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Tony corrected, not really caring about sounding arrogant anymore. It was the truth, after all. “I’m also a genius inventor.”

Steve looked even more horrified. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Stark,” he said, his embarrassment almost palpable. “I had no idea. Jan didn’t give me a name, and I didn’t recognize your face.”

Tony felt a rush of affection for his friend; Jan knew how he felt about people only being interested in him due to his wealth and fame. Better than that, she understood because she was the same way. She must have kept the identity of Steve’s date a secret from him so that Tony would know Steve wasn’t a glory hound who would pounce on him for the sake of the chance at sleeping with a celebrity.

An awkward silence settled over the table as Tony gave Steve an appraising look. The fact that he didn’t recognize Tony was alarming but nice in a roundabout way; it meant that Steve didn’t pay attention to the nonsense the tabloids produced. Maybe Jan really did know what she was doing and there was some hope here.

Well, except for the fact that Steve’s eyes were shooting around the room as if he were trying to figure out the quickest escape route. He seemed to have completely forgotten about his food. Tony swore he could see sweat start beading on his skin.

“I don’t know what Jan was thinking,” Steve babbled.

Tony’s stomach sunk. No, of course, what was he thinking? What would a gorgeous, artistic man want with him? If he wasn’t interested in the fame or the money, then there would be nothing else to keep him. Tony — not Tony Stark but Tony — was not exactly the kind of person one would want to bring home to show one’s mother.

Not without difficulty, Tony shrugged. “No biggie.” He forced a smile on his face. “No pressure, we can just finish dinner and then part ways. You know how Jan is — fanciful and hopelessly romantic.”

“Oh,” Steve said, looking faintly surprised. “Oh, okay. I guess it makes sense that you would expect me to know who you are. Sorry,” he mumbled, sounding like he couldn’t decide whether to be relieved or disappointed. Tony wasn’t sure what the hell he was talking about, but he was feeling too rotten to parse out Steve’s meaning. He was definitely going to have words with Jan about this. Matchmaking skills. Right.

*

“Loki!”

Loki looked up from where he was lounging in green silk pajamas on the plush L-shaped sofa with his razor-thin laptop on a pillow in his lap. The television was switched onto a classical music channel, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake emanating from the surround sound system as he worked on a program that would scramble the Stark Tower Complex's security system. Thor was home, then.

“Loki,” Thor said again as he came into view. He was wearing a gray shirt left with too many buttons open, black pants that clung to his strong thighs, and shiny brown oxfords. The sway to his step and the inane grin on his face were clear indications of his drunken state. Loki rolled his eyes. He must have gone out drinking with the lumbering idiots he called friends, Fandral, Volstagg, Hogun, and Sif. He often pleaded Loki to join them on their so-called adventures around the world, but Loki made a game of conjuring the most ridiculous excuses for Thor to believe. His adopted brother was not known for his intelligence, after all. Good thing, too, Loki mused. A mind as sharp as his own housed in that gloriously powerful body would just be too much for mere mortals to handle.

“Hello, Thor,” Loki said pleasantly. “Please get your dirty shoes off of my clean floors.”

Without protesting, Thor bent down to clumsily untie and remove his shoes while Loki pretended not to watch the strong curve of his back. Understandably, he was distracted enough not to notice Thor chucking his shoes at his head.

“Oi!” he shouted, just barely dodging them in time. Scowling, he kicked the shoes onto the floor. “Now you’ve gone and gotten dirt all over my sofa.”

Thor laughed, a booming sound of joy, and flung himself onto the couch next to Loki. He shoved aside the laptop to lay his head in Loki’s lap. “It’s just a piece of furniture, Loki. Besides, it’s ours.

“What are you talking about, you oaf?” Loki grumbled. There was nothing pleasant about the warmth of Thor lying on him. None at all.

“Our floors, our sofa,” Thor said.

Annoyed by both a drunken Thor and his own traitorous feelings, Loki shoved him off and moved a few inches away, grabbing his laptop and planting it firmly back in his lap. Thor whined and grabbed a pillow to hug instead.

“Technically, it’s Father’s floors and sofa,” Loki pointed out, just to be contrary. Thor didn’t respond, and when Loki snuck a peek at him, his eyes were closed. Loki poked his forehead. “Wake up. Thor, wake up.”

“Not sleeping,” Thor mumbled, clearly hovering between sleep and wakefulness.

“Come on,” Loki said, prodding him with his foot now. “You’ll wake up with your back and neck aching.”

“Mmm,” Thor agreed. Loki rolled his eyes and grabbed a throw blanket from the other side of the couch. He tucked it around Thor, who was improbably smiling as he drifted off to sleep. Of course he was, Loki snorted. He got up to dim the lights and turn off the music and then settled back to continue working on his program with the warmth of his brother by his side.

*

NATASHA: Jan is telling them about setting up Steve and Tony Stark. Would it be cruel to tell them that it’s not going to work out?

The phone buzzed in his lap, and Bucky reached for it. The text message brought a smile to his face, and he sent his response without hesitation.

BUCKY: Stark was at least twenty minutes late. Steve texted me complaining.

NATASHA: Yeah, Stark texted Jan. But really, Steve complaining? Now that’s a sight I’d like to see.

BUCKY: Ha. There’s been no word since then, and he hasn’t come home, so Stark must have manned up and arrived.

NATASHA: Jan said as much. Still don’t know what she was thinking when she made that happen. Or HOW she made it happen in the first place.

BUCKY: From what you’ve told me, sounds like Van Dyne can be persuasive when she wants to be.

NATASHA: Understatement of the century.

NATASHA: I worry about her, though. She never talks about Hank. It’s strange.

BUCKY: No word is better than anything negative. Maybe there’s just nothing to remark on.

NATASHA: No, Jan used to speak of nothing but Hank. I haven’t seen him for months, so I can’t gauge how they act toward each other.

Bucky smiled again when he saw the message and quickly typed back a response. Natasha always put on a cold exterior and acted like she didn’t care about anything but her job, but it was so obvious to him that she treasured the few people she had in her life very dearly. He could read her affection in the way she talked about her friends, even when she was being condescending about their petty troubles. It had been her aloof manner and the way she moved like a barely sheathed living weapon that had caught his eye that fateful day they had met — but it was when she had begun to let him see past her walls that he had come to see her as something other than just an attractive bedmate who wouldn’t pester him for the commitment that he could not give.

Their paths had first collided when Natasha had been investigating a master cyber criminal who went by Silvertongue for spearheading a security breach at the Louvre and Bucky had been chasing after the same man for sending NYPD a list of security codes used at every bank in New York. In the end, the man had evaded them with embarrassing ease, but their team up had led them to discover that Silvertongue was being protected by a shadowy criminal ring called Acts of Vengeance.

Even though that case was still not closed and was a bit of a smear on his excellent reputation at the police department, Bucky still reflected on those fast-paced days of his and Natasha’s team-up with fondness. Bucky was not used to being rejected, and the way she had turned him down with terrifying glare each time he made a pass at her (every chance he got) had only increased his determination and interest tenfold. By the time they had tumbled into bed (or, technically, the post-shoot-out floor of a warehouse they had been investigating together), he had almost lost all hope that the strikingly beautiful woman would ever respond to his advances with anything other than a threat to break his fingers if he ever dared to touch her.

He had expected her to lose her appeal once he slept with her, as most women did, but his mind, heart, and dick had had other ideas. They had stayed in touch after she left on a mission to Budapest, and he had asked her over the moment she told him she had returned to New York. During that first year, their arrangement had been simple: She would come over, the sex would be fantastic, and they would talk for an hour before she slid back into her clothes and left with nothing more than a curt nod.

But one night, about a year and a half after they had been together in this way, Bucky had received a text message that had changed many things between them. Natasha had said, “Had a close call. Can’t sleep. Are you busy?” and within ten minutes was at his place, dressed in sweatpants and wearing no makeup, with her hair tied back in a clumsy ponytail. Steve had long gone to bed, so Bucky had led her quietly to his room. The moment he closed his bedroom door behind them, she had tackled him with a kiss against the wall, pressing every inch of herself against him, as if she were trying to literally crawl under his skin. The sex had been fast and rough and desperate, and she had trembled in his lap as she kissed him more than she had ever allowed herself in their stolen moments together.

They had lain in silence for over an hour, and going out on a limb, Bucky had asked if she wanted to try to get some sleep here.

“I don’t know,” she had said. “I don’t imagine I’m pleasant to sleep with. There are…nightmares.”

Understanding more than she could ever imagine, he had pressed a kiss to the side of her neck, surprising even himself with its gentle affection, and told her that army vets were far from immune to nightmares. They had slept curled around each other that night, and Natasha had never left immediately after their trysts again.

NATASHA: Am I losing my touch? Someone just tried to grope me as I made my way to the restroom.

BUCKY: Trying to make me jealous?

NATASHA: You say that like I need to try.

BUCKY: Hahaha. Don’t worry, you’re plenty scary. I’m sure you made that jackass regret it.

NATASHA: Let’s just say that I’m certain he won’t be harassing anyone else soon and will never return to this fine establishment.

Bucky laughed. Natasha’s aggressive courage was one of her best qualities, in his opinion.

BUCKY: I’m just relieved not to be on the other side of that threat anymore.

Putting the phone back on the end table and grabbing the bottle of beer that was sitting on a coaster there, he sat back to watch as The Great Escape played on the humble television screen before him. Bucky loved World War II films of all kinds, and he and Steve had spent countless nights watching and rewatching their favorites, even before Bucky had moved in.

Steve had been his best friend since elementary school, when Bucky had come across him defending himself against fifth-grade bullies twice his size in both height and girth. He had been astonished at the scrawny Steve’s utter stupidity, but his courage had given Bucky himself a boost of confidence (if this shrimp of a boy thought he could take on three bullies, then Bucky could most certainly do it, too, and probably ten times better). He had joined Steve in taking the older boys down with amateurishly curled fists, the way they had seen men fighting on the streets of their rundown neighborhood, and they had been friends ever since.

They had even gone to war in Afghanistan together, and after they returned to the States, they had each rented an apartment and tried desperately to readjust to civilian life. It had taken Bucky a little longer to get on his feet. Steve had his art to fall back on and had gotten a job without too much struggle (even if he sometimes confessed that trying to get high school students to appreciate art wasn’t exactly his first choice for a career), but the only thing Bucky was really good at was fighting. Itching for a purpose but finding Steve’s volunteer work tedious, he had decided to help people and stop bad guys by becoming a police officer. It had turned out better than he had expected, and boring paperwork aside he actually enjoyed it. It gave him the drive that sometimes, in the dead of night, he wondered if war had brutally torn from him.

Natasha was another source of his drive these days, although he would never admit it to anyone. He hadn’t thought about settling down since he had returned from the war, cocky sureness shorn down to a grim confidence. Some days it was difficult to live with himself — how could he put someone else in that position? But Natasha could take it. Natasha took anything he dished out and gave it back twofold.

And more importantly, he could no longer imagine living without her.

But she never showed any signs of wanting to make their relationship official. Sure, they acted like more than just friends-with-benefits and had established an unspoken agreement about being monogamous, but Bucky had no idea what that meant. They texted all day and saw each other whenever their busy schedules allowed for it, but he didn’t buy her flowers or chocolates and she never cooked for him or asked for jewelry. He was hardly a novice in the bedroom, but he was completely helpless when it came to dating. He had even had to resort to asking Steve for advice. Steve, who had practically had to be blackmailed to be convinced to go on a date with Tony Stark and was probably still fucking it up right now.

Bucky was happy where they stood, but he couldn’t help but feel that there was the potential for more. If only he knew how to bring it up with Natasha. He couldn’t talk about feelings for crap, and he was pretty sure she was just as allergic to it as he was. But more and more, he was starting to feel like it was a conversation that had to be had sooner or later. And if there was a possibility of securing Natasha’s place in his life, then the risk was worth it.

Wasn’t it?

*

Monday, December 3

Thor owned, managed, and taught at a small sports club called Warrior Fitness in the East Village that offered plenty of workout machines, group classes, and expert instructors. He jogged to work every day at four-thirty in the morning under the benevolent sun’s rays (weather allowing). He prided himself on being jovially familiar with all of the gym’s patrons, who ranged from athletic people who enjoyed Thor’s collection of intense machines and weights to people looking to lose a little weight and get in more shape who liked the easy and pressure-free atmosphere Thor maintained.

Since he was a child, he had loved Norse myths, and when he had been remodeling the inside of the warehouse, Thor had spontaneously decided on a warrior theme. The insides of the gym were grand, with high ceilings, ornate crown molding, and giant murals of warriors in battle. It gave the place a unique atmosphere, giving Thor a needed boost in a city full of competing gyms run by the big names in the business.

His fellow personal trainers were some of his best friends: Fandral taught aqua fitness, Volstagg boxing, Sif cycling, and Hogun toning and strength. Amora was the mind/body and dance instructor, but Thor wouldn’t call her a friend. She was unnecessarily mean to people she deemed as beneath her and enjoyed groping him much more than was appropriate. Thor himself ran a boot camp program geared toward people who wanted to build strength fast and had the determination to go through with it.

It was the success of this program that had originally given him the idea of opening his own gym. Before, he had balanced modeling with his personal trainer gig, but when he realized how much he loved helping people feel better about themselves and learn to lead healthier lives, he had been determined to reach out to more people. Loki had scorned the idea the entire way, of course, though he seemed pleasantly surprised whenever Thor reported that the gym was doing well. Not that Loki ever showed up at the sports club; he much preferred staring at his computer screen. Part of Thor wished that he could lecture Loki about staying fit (Loki certainly admonished him enough), but Loki went running three times a week and was in perfectly fine shape, even if he would never be as strong as Thor. He simply wasn’t built for it, but he was beautiful and strong in his own right.

Thor did his regular check up all of the machines and unlocked the front door at five. As regulars began to float in to work out before they left for their offices and coffee shops, Thor fluttered around the two floors, chatting amicably with anyone he saw who wasn’t preoccupied with their exercising. At seven sharp, one of Thor’s favorite patrons, Steve Rogers, showed up, sweat-drenched from his jog from the subway station as usual. Thor admired Steve for his dedication to fitness as well as his upstanding spirit. They got drinks regularly, which often devolved into drinking contests, since Thor had the alcohol tolerance of a god and Steve’s body just had some kind of inhuman disposal system for liquor of any kind. It was great fun.

“Hello, Steve,” he said.

“Hi, Thor,” Steve responded warmly. “How was your weekend?”

“Full of splendor,” Thor said. “At one point, people were performing body shots off of Volstagg’s voluminous stomach.”

“Oh,” Steve said, sounding vaguely alarmed and disturbed. Thor assured him that whatever he was imagining had been nothing compared to what it had been like to witness it, eliciting a choked laugh from Steve.

“And yours?” Thor asked as they walked toward the weight-lifting machines.

Steve seemed to ponder the question for a moment, which was odd. “Strange,” he said at last. “I went on a date with Tony Stark.”

Thor blinked at him. “The Tony Stark? Of Stark International?”

“Yup,” Steve said, adjusting weights almost absently.

Thor wasn’t sure what to say. He had no idea that Steve knew Tony Stark, much less was dating him. He said as much, which mysteriously brought a bright red flush to Steve’s face.

“I didn’t know. Jan —” Thor knew Steve’s friend Janet from modeling “— set us up and didn’t tell me anything about who I was meeting. And now I know why.”

“So,” Thor said, settling in position to spot for him as he lifted weights. “What’s Tony Stark really like?”

Steve wrinkled his nose, though his arms did not pause, thick muscles straining against his skin. “A pompous ass,” he said finally. “We barely got through the rest of it after he told me who he was.”

“Perhaps not so surprising, considering what the tabloids say,” Thor mused. “Well, it’s something new to brag about — besides the way you became a legend in the physical fitness world when you first got in shape.”

“I don’t brag!” Steve protested.

Thor laughed and added weights to both of Steve’s arms. “If you say so, my friend.”

They went through Steve’s usual routine, and then Steve offered to spot for Thor. Thor accepted the offer gladly, for he had too much on his mind to concentrate on the weights he was lifting. He and his lady Jane had gotten into an argument Friday morning and had reconciled by Saturday night, but the words that had elicited his anger still stuck with him.

Jane had made some offhand comment about how Loki’s delinquent tendencies made him a dangerous roommate, and the accusation had deeply offended Thor. He had never been good at managing his hot temper, although he had improved much since his father had ordered his exile to America three years ago. That was when he had met Jane, who had helped him adjust to living in a different country, and her compassion had made him fall in love and decide to leave his father’s side to move to the United States.

He supposed he understood Jane’s suspicions of Loki to some extent — Loki had all but confessed to having manipulated the split between Thor and their father. But they had put all that behind them, and for all his schemes, Loki had ended up in America at Thor’s side anyway. Jane insisted that it was so he could cause more mischief and further disrupt the cautiously mended father-son relationship between Thor and Odin, but Thor couldn’t bring himself to care. He didn’t trust Loki not to lie or plot behind his back, but he knew that for all his scheming ways, he always had the best intentions at heart when it came to Thor. He had admitted to as much when Thor had realized and confronted him about trying to improve his character by forcing him from the comforts of his home.

Jane knew not to speak of Loki and had long made a habit out of treading carefully any mention of him after the brothers had reconciled, which was likely why Thor had been so irrationally angry at her turn of phrase. He knew she thought him oblivious to Loki’s less-than-innocent actions, which only angered him further. He may not have been the brightest crayon in the box, but he knew Loki better than anyone. They had been raised together, played together, and fought together when anything tried to get in the way of their ambitions. He could not stand anyone besmirching his brother’s honor, even if it was the woman he loved. That the conversation had stemmed from a discussion about moving in together only made the entire affair worse.

“What’s on your mind, fella?”

Thor blinked as he met Steve’s worried eyes. “Jane asked me to move in.”

“And that’s…bad?”

Thor shrugged, sitting up and grabbing his towel to wipe sweat off of his dripping face. “I am uncertain if I am prepared for so serious a commitment.”

“That surprises me,” Steve commented, “considering it sound like you really love Jane, from what you’ve told me.”

“I love her with all of my heart,” Thor said. He could never deny that. “But it does not feel like the right time for this.”

“Well, is this the gal you want to spend your life with?”

The thing was, Thor had never thought about their relationship in those terms. When he had first fallen for her, he had not believed that he would get a chance to remain with her. He had still been bent on trying to convince his father to let him go home. When he had ended up staying, they had started dating, and that had been that. Thor had never been one to think ahead, something Loki constantly chided him about. But he liked taking his days one by one, facing his problems head-on, one at a time.

This moving-in-together business, though, it wasn’t an issue that could be solved so easily.

“I don’t know,” he said honestly. Steve winced in sympathy and clapped a hand to his shoulder.

“If you’re not sure, you need to let her know,” he said. “Don’t lead her on about it.”

Thor bowed his head. “You are wise, my friend. I will heed your advice.”

Steve smiled. “It’s nothing, Thor. I will just be happy for someone to learn from my mistakes with Sharon. You know I’ll listen if you need to talk.”

“A good friend like you is not easy to find, Steve Rogers. Thank you.”

*

JAMES: Happy Hour last night was a terrible idea. I’m getting old.

Natasha felt the phone vibrate in her pocket but ignored it in favor of glaring at Quinn, her supervisor, who she was certain was to blame for the fact that she still hadn’t been promoted to senior officer status despite that she had closed more cases for Interpol’s New York division than any other officer in five years. It was either that or the fact that she was a woman, and she didn’t think it would be healthy for her to lose all faith in humanity. Luckily, the debrief ended shortly, as promised, and the agents were all dismissed to return to their cubicles.

Natasha allowed herself a miniscule smile at the sight of James’s text.

NATASHA: Still spry for an old guy. I’ll let you know when you lose your youthful vigor and looks.

BUCKY: I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll be a stud until the day I die.

NATASHA: Deluding yourself as usual, Barnes.

For all that she had protested her friends’ implications that she and James were anything more than friends-with-benefits, Natasha loved talking to James. They kept in touch as often as they could, with their hectic schedules and Natasha’s frequent trips abroad. They talked in bed, they texted throughout the day, they emailed when Natasha was away, they chatted online. She could never pin down what drew her to him, but she enjoyed his company and his attention like she had never anyone else’s.

He enjoyed her dry wit and took her sometimes caustic sarcasm in stride. He didn’t waste his breath on inane compliments but instead showed her how attracted he was to her through the passion with which he kissed her every time they were reunited after a notable amount of time. He didn’t treat her like some kind of vapid sex doll just because she was attractive, instead engaging in conversation with her about things from politics to work drama to pop culture. He listened to her without any pretense when she talked about her work and her friends and that annoying barista at the coffee shop around the corner from headquarters. He didn’t pretend to be anything that he wasn’t just to impress her; in fact, after those initial weeks, he didn’t go out of his way to impress her at all. She liked that confidence — it wasn’t born of arrogance or privilege. It was, like hers, built up from a rough childhood that had forced James to adapt and have faith in himself.

Most of all, he wasn’t intimidated by her the way that men tended to be. She had carefully cultivated that aspect of herself when she realized how easily women could be seen as vulnerable, but after years of building up and reinforcing the walls until they obstructed her own view of the world — well, it was a bit of a relief to be reminded by James that she was still human and not a soulless robot or a heartless monster.

The truth was that if Natasha had to spend the rest of her life with someone, it would be James. But that didn’t mean that she wanted or needed to spend the rest of her life with someone in the first place. It wasn’t something she had even considered as likely for — well, pretty much ever. Her childhood had not allowed for such fancies.

No, there was no need to upset the status quo. Her girlfriends were right in that there was the distinct possibility of something more, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t satisfied with the way things already were.

Natasha was excellent at being observant. She made a career out of it; it was what made her stellar at her job. And she knew that relationships and marriage hadn’t brought her friends any happiness. The too-wide-to-be-genuine way Jan smiled as she swung every conversation away from the topic of Hank spoke volumes, as well as Betty’s thinly veiled misery whether or not Bruce was the topic of discussion. Jessica could entice any man to sleep with her but couldn’t maintain a relationship to save her life, Ororo hadn’t seen anyone since she’d turned down Forge’s proposal, and Carol hardly ever tried. Sue Richards was the only person in their little circle who was in a stable relationship, and her happiness was still debatable. Natasha privately wasn’t so sure one could be wed to an inattentive ass like Reed and be happy.

“Romanoff,” Nick Fury barked from across the room. Natasha rolled her eyes as she made her way over to him. The director of her branch was a one-eyed U.S. army vet who took a perverse joy in yelling at new recruits and was infamous for his no-nonsense approach to cases. (It was very effective.) “New mission. How do you feel about Hong Kong?”

*

Billy stared down the clock in his calculus class, willing it to move quicker. He enjoyed math and especially had a knack for figuring out algorithms, but the teacher was possibly the most boring teacher in the entire school. Just listening to him drone on made Billy feel as if he had just gone three days without sleep and then run a marathon. The only reason he was still awake was because today, Teddy Altman had come to class late and had been forced to choose a seat in the front of the classroom instead of in the back with all of his upperclassmen jock friends. Billy was skipping out on his customary math class nap to stare at Teddy’s profile (at the biceps that made Billy’s knees weak) under the guise of paying attention to the teacher.

Billy had the biggest crush ever on Teddy, which was clearly masochistic and totally messed up. Teddy hung out with a crew that harassed smaller, nerdier kids every chance they got. They were all on sports team of some kind (some were on multiple), preyed on the prettiest girls in the school, and reportedly held crazy parties on the weekends. Billy had never seen Teddy himself bullying anyone and even thought he’d seen (or imagined) him chide his best buddy Greg Norris for being too rough, but it wasn’t like Billy followed Teddy around all day. Well. He tried to keep his creepy and utterly pathetic stalking to a minimum, anyway.

It really was an unhealthy investment, both physically and mentally. One of guys in Teddy’s crew was John Kessler, a bigoted bully who was especially fond of picking on Billy, taking a perverse joy in calling him awful epithets that were even more hurtful because Billy couldn’t deny them truthfully. Billy tried his best to stay out of Kessler’s way, but the lumbering idiot just refused to leave him alone. Too many times had he gone home and had to make up some dumb lie about falling down stairs to explain away the black eyes and busted lips. It sucked, big time, but even worse was just knowing that the guy he was obsessed with hung out with Kessler willingly and actually considered him a friend.

Teddy was so attractive though, with shiny blond hair and arms that Billy would give a kidney up just to have the chance to touch. When he wasn’t laughing with the other jocks, Billy imagined he could see Teddy for who he was a little better: a gentle giant, someone who hung out with unsavory company but didn’t share their cruel amusement and knack for intimidating people who were younger or smaller just for the sake of entertainment. But he was so far gone that it was hard to tell what was real and what he had manufactured for his own comfort.

Like now, Teddy had his elbow on the desk and was leaning his cheek on one hand as the other hand doodled in the margins of his sparse notes. Billy wished he could see what Teddy was drawing. He glanced down at his own notes at where he had idly started sketching out the Scarlet Witch, his favorite comic book character. He grimaced. Who was he kidding? Teddy would never be interested in a comic book geek who spent all his free time painting and programming. Teddy was popular, hot, and had horrible taste in friends. Billy was a nobody.

Despite that, he couldn’t tear his eyes off of Teddy. He groaned silently to himself. He was hopeless.

When the bell rang, he stood up and “accidentally” knocked his pencil off of his desk so that he had to crawl under the table to the other side of the chair and could get a better view of Teddy’s notebook. The sight almost made him drop his pencil again, this time on purpose.

Doodled in the margins was an assortment of superhero emblems — there was Captain America, and Iron Man, and Thor, and Wasp, and Ant-Man. Billy was still staring when Teddy closed the notebook and shoved it unceremoniously into his backpack.

What was Teddy Altman doing doodling geeky comic book things in math class?

*

Tuesday, December 4

JAN: Well? I’m dying to know how it went!

TONY: If you’re referring to your idea of a good match for me, I don’t want to talk about it.

JAN: You have got to be kidding me. You didn’t like him?

TONY: He didn’t like ME. Not after he found out who I was.

JAN: No way. Steve? I don’t believe it. He’s the nicest guy I’ve ever met.

TONY: Don’t care what you believe, Janet, but let’s just say that the first date was probably the last one.

JAN: I’ll talk to him. Did YOU like him?

TONY: Don’t bother. Like I’ve said before, I don’t need a distraction. JARVIS and DUM-E and Butterfingers and YOU are company enough.

JAN: Robots are not the same as lovers, Tony.

TONY: I beg to differ. My robots are very advanced.

JAN: You’re evading. Did you like him or not?

TONY: He didn’t give me a chance to decide.

JAN: Still not answering the question. I’ll talk to him, Tony.

*

TONY: Lunch at 1? On me.

BRUCE: Betty packed me lunch, but I’ll join you.

HANK: Sounds good. Meet you in the lobby?

Hank scrubbed his hands through his hair, staring uncomprehendingly down at the printouts of the most recent lab tests. He was working with the compact-compression of objects, or in laymen’s terms, a shrink ray. Tony was interested in the technology for his microchips; he claimed the Starkphone and Starktablet had only stopped getting slimmer because his tech-dedicated R&D team could not figure out how to build microchips any smaller than the ones he had installed in his systems.

So far, Hank wasn’t getting much farther than the techies had, but he couldn’t be certain whether that was due to the impossibility of the task or his complete lack of concentration the past two weeks. He hated admitting it to himself, but he was getting worse. His paranoia had always been a problem, but lately he had been inundated with mood swings that even he could not predict. He was sure that Jan was taking the brunt of it, and that made him feel so awful that he tried to leave for work early and return late so that she didn’t have to deal with his irrational tempers. He missed her desperately, but he was terrified that she would give up on him once she realized the extent of how screwed up in the head he was.

JAN: Wanna go out for dinner tonight?

HANK: Can’t. Will probably be at work late.

JAN: Haaaaank :(

HANK: If you want to pick something up and don’t mind waiting, I’ll try to be home by 9.

Glancing at the clock, Hank grimaced when he saw that there was still an hour to go before lunch. He sighed and began flipping through the reports again, forcing himself to concentrate on the tiny, neat words and figures to see if they would make more sense on the third read.

An hour later, Hank had buried himself so deeply in the lab results that he completely forgot about his lunch plans. Tony had to call him to jerk him out of his concentration, which soured his mood again.

They arrived at the deli at the tail end of the lunch rush and crammed themselves around a tiny table. Tony rambled throughout most of the meal while Bruce humored him and chimed in with sarcastic comments. Hank consumed his salad quietly, lost in his own thoughts. He finally started listening again when Bruce started talking about seeing a doctor.

“His name is Charles Xavier, and he’s supposed to be the best of the best,” he was saying. “So far, he doesn’t piss me off every time he opens his mouth, so that’s a good sign.”

Tony nodded, his eyes compassionate and respectful. “If it doesn’t work, I can ask around for recommendations,” he said. Bruce sighed and poked at his lunch.

“Thanks, Tony. I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Listening quietly, Hank made a mental note to look up this Xavier. A therapist who didn’t push any of Bruce’s buttons was rare indeed, so this man had to be nothing short of a miracle worker and could maybe help Hank so he wouldn’t have to be so terrified of everything anymore. For a moment, he considered speaking up, but decided against it. Tony and Bruce had enough to deal with in their busy lives — they didn’t need his troubles on top of their own. Hank knew that Tony was drinking again and that Bruce’s incidents were getting worse. His fuck-ups were his to deal with, and that was that.

*

Wednesday, December 5

Teddy Altman was a wimp. Sure, he talked the big talk like all his buddies and tried to act brave and macho because that was what society called for, but he was really just a big ol’ coward.

For three weeks now, Teddy had been trying to get up the courage to talk to Billy Kaplan. Teddy had never really noticed him before. After observing him for weeks, Teddy realized that Kaplan’s non-presence in high school social circles was the effect of his doing his utmost best to fade into the background. And Teddy hadn’t really had cause to notice him, not until he had spotted him sitting in an alcove at lunch with only an Avengers comic book for company. Teddy didn’t know anyone else who read comics. He loved them — had from a young age — but kept it on the downlow, knowing that it wasn’t exactly a respected hobby for popular guys. And the less the things Teddy liked were known, the better.

The thought of actually being able to talk to someone about comics excited him thoroughly, though. He wondered who Kaplan’s favorite characters were. He wondered what Kaplan’s favorite monthly was. He wondered what Kaplan thought about event books. Not wanting to make any silly blunders when he introduced himself, Teddy had tried to subtly ask around about Kaplan before he had planned his approach. He hadn’t expected to find out that the guy was gay, though. Not many people knew a whole lot about Kaplan (really, the introvert on this guy was bordering on depressing), but that was one thing that everyone seemed completely sure of. That had made Teddy hesitate. It had caused him to hesitate a lot, if he was being honest with himself.

It wasn’t that Teddy had a problem with gay guys, per se. It was more that he himself was pretty sure that he was gay, and the only thing he was surer about was that it could never get out. Greg and John would pummel him to a pulp without a second thought, and for all Teddy’s bluster, he didn’t know if he could handle the kind of emotional wound that a beating would surely leave behind. His popularity and the acceptance of the guys was all that he had; without it he was just a gay comic book nerd who was never going to get anywhere in life.

So Teddy Altman faced a conflict: He could talk to Kaplan about their mutual love for comics and risk his friends finding out and drawing not-entirely-wrong conclusions about the whole thing — or he could just not. And just keep going on as he had for the past three years in high school.

But the truth was that the prospect of having someone with whom to geek out about comics was sorely tempting. It wasn’t something he had really ever thought about, not until the prospect of sharing that kind of connection with someone had come up. He was far from lonely, but having someone to fanboy with sounded so awesome. Even if it was with an average-y, shy nerd.

Teddy mulled over it during the Thanksgiving weekend before he decided it was too risky. The more he thought about it, the more nervous he became. What if somebody saw him talking to Billy and got the wrong idea? What if Billy got the wrong idea? It was too risky. He didn’t know what he would do if he didn’t have his friends to count on. He couldn’t deny that it was a disappointment, though.

To cheer himself up, he stopped by the comic shop during his free period on Wednesday instead of after school, as was usually his custom.

He was staring at an awesome new Fantastic Four poster and debating whether it was worth the amount on the sticker when someone ran into him. Teddy barely felt the impact, but the other person exclaimed, “Ow!”

When Teddy looked up, he blinked rapidly. Just his luck. It was Kaplan himself, who was openly staring at him with wide eyes — the brownest eyes Teddy had ever seen.

“Uh, hi,” Teddy said awkwardly, since Kaplan didn’t seem to be planning to move any time soon.

“Hi!” Kaplan squeaked. “Um, sorry! About that, running into you, I mean, I’m just so clumsy, and I really didn’t mean to crash into you like that, you must think I’m such an idiot, oh my god, this is so embarrassing —”

“It’s, it’s okay,” Teddy replied, taken aback by the speed at which words were coming out of Kaplan’s mouth. He had not expected an allegedly shy guy to be so talkative and, well, hyper was really the only word for his anxious enthusiasm. “Um,” he said when Kaplan clapped a hand to his mouth, suddenly looking mortified.

“I’m so sorry, oh god, I’m babbling, aren’t I? It’s just, I can’t really get over it, what are you doing here?” he blurted out.

Teddy shrugged. Well, his secret was out. There was nothing to be done about it now. “Same as you, I’m guessing. Um, Billy Kaplan, right?”

“You read comics?” Kaplan asked, as if Teddy had just told him that he enjoyed eating human brains for breakfast. “You know my name?”

“Since I was a kid,” Teddy confessed. “Read comics, I mean. Not know your name. I’m not like a crazy stalker or anything.” Except he kind of had been stalking Kaplan like a crazy person for the past three weeks. Well, Kaplan certainly didn’t need to know that.

Kaplan’s big brown eyes were still gazing at him in wonder, as if he were Prometheus himself bringing fire to mankind.

“I had no idea,” he said. “Like, zero. Do you… What do you read?”

Teddy realized he had been worrying over nothing. Talking about comics was like letting go of a flood he had been secretly storing inside of himself for his entire life. Not only that, but having a conversation with someone who knew their stuff was exhilarating. And, Teddy realized when he glanced at the shop’s clock and saw that he had been standing at the back of the store chatting with Kaplan for an entire hour, that Kaplan was actually really fun to talk to, once you got over the way he had a habit of omitting any sort of vocal punctuation from his speech and looked like he had stars in his eyes the entire time. Teddy was worried the kid was going to start hyperventilating at some point.

“Hey, I gotta get back to school,” Teddy said in the rare second that Kaplan paused to take a breath. Kaplan deflated so fast he almost disappeared. “I have sixth period,” Teddy explained, already feeling bad.

“Oh,” Billy said, and wow, Teddy had had no idea that one syllable could carry such disappointment. “Is it two already? Oops! I have English.” He stopped talking for the first time since he had run into Teddy, mouth morphing into a pout.

“Hey, listen,” Teddy said, going out on a limb. He really didn’t want their conversation to end, either. It was cool, talking about this stuff with someone who really got it. “You wanna maybe grab something after school or something?”

There was Kaplan’s ecstatic, starry-eyed expression again.

“Really?” he said. “I mean, yeah!”

Teddy grinned. Kaplan was practically vibrating with excitement, and his enthusiasm was very contagious.

“Wait, no,” Kaplan said suddenly, slapping his forehead in a way that Teddy thought was simultaneously hilarious and adorable. (Uh-oh, a voice whispered in the back of his mind.) “I’m an idiot. I have to go to my internship after school today. I’m so sorry.”

“That’s cool,” Teddy said easily, mildly amused at how Kaplan had made being busy sound like the end of the world. “How about tomorrow?”

“Okay!” Kaplan agreed, although that was probably too mild a word for what he was actually doing — nodding his head up and down like a demonic bobblehead.

“Sweet,” Teddy said. “Does four o’clock at the diner on 50th between 3rd and Lexington sound okay?”

“Perfect,” Kaplan beamed.

Teddy didn’t realize until they were two blocks away from school that neither he nor Kaplan had actually ended up picking up any comics. He made a mental note to check back after school — he hoped they would still have the newest Incredible Hulk in stock.

“Well, uh, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Teddy said as they made to part ways at the edge of campus.

“Yeah,” Kaplan said happily. “See ya!”

Teddy watched him dash through the school entrance with disbelief. That guy was seriously unreal. Fun to talk to, but a complete dork. No wonder he was known as a quiet guy — if he opened his mouth around school, people like John and Greg would pounce on him without hesitation. They might even consider him too easy to bait. Shaking his head in both amusement and the strange feeling of content, he shoved his hand in his pockets and made his way to shop class.

*

Karolina ignored a total of five phone calls from her parents before she felt bad and finally picked up. Of course, the topic of her betrothal came up sooner than later.

“Mo-om,” Karolina whined. “This is totally unfair. Why do I have to pay for you and Dad’s mistakes? Crimes, really,” she said accusingly.

“Grow up, Karolina. A good daughter would be happy to help her parents. Our burden is your burden,” her mother said in a sing-song tone. Karolina was not as impressed by her mother's voice as the rest of Hollywood seemed to be.

“Somehow I’m not so inclined to put getting married to a stranger in the same category as helping you guys out,” Karolina growled.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” her mother said.

“Right,” Karolina said skeptically.

“There’s something else, dear. An unexpected update.”

“Great,” Karolina said, her stomach sinking. Was there actually somehow this situation could get even worse?

“Xavin—that’s your future husband—well, he’s…he may not so much be a husband as um, a wife.”

Karolina’s mouth fell open. “Wait, what?”

“Prince De’zean, well… He has informed us that Xavin is actually finishing up a, um…sex change, if you will.”

“Seriously?” Karolina said, floored. “He’s only telling you now? And you still want to go on with this?”

“Well,” her mother said, “Is it going to be a problem? I mean, you two can be good friends if nothing else and have a good friendship, maybe?”

“You are despicable,” Karolina seethed, even as relief flooded her. Maybe this was her saving grace. This way, even if she was still stuck married to a complete stranger, at least it would be to a stranger of the gender she was attracted to. At least there would be some possibility for chemistry. Unless Xavin was attracted to males. Then Karolina would be back to square one — but at least it would be square one with a girl so there wouldn’t be any funny business.

“You should see her,” her mother was saying. “It’s really astonishing how beautiful she is, but Prince De’Zean was beautiful when we met him, too.”

“You mean when he caught you smuggling illegal goods into his country,” Karolina corrected, although she had to admit that her interest was now piqued. Though…did her mother know more than she was letting on? If she thought Karolina was straight, then there would be no reason for Xavin’s attractiveness to be brought up at all. Then again, if she knew that Karolina was gay, why hadn’t she said anything about it? No, this madness was just making Karolina paranoid. Of course it was.

*

Dinner was on the table when Betty got home. Bruce stood at the sink scrubbing dishes, his purple shirt rolled up to his elbows.

“Hey, honey,” she greeted as she hung her coat up and put her keys on the proper hook in the foyer. She shivered. “It’s cold out,” she said as she hugged him from behind and kissed him hello.

“Hi,” Bruce said, sounding relaxed. “How was your day?”

“Not bad,” Betty said. “Had lunch with Jan today. She and Hank aren’t doing so well. She wouldn’t really say anything, but she wears her heart out on her sleeve.”

“Hank hasn’t said anything either,” Bruce said, “but he seems even more strung out than usual.”

Betty sighed. “Such a shame. I’ve always thought that they are so good together.”

Bruce shrugged. “Maybe they’ll make it. There are always rough patches, right?”

Betty nodded and kissed his cheek. “I hope they do,” she said. “What’s for dinner?”

“I made a Waldorf salad and baked lemon salmon. Dr. Xavier says that keeping a healthy diet can be calming. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Betty said. “I’ve been trying to sneakily get you to eat healthier for ages anyway. How did your session go today?”

“It went well,” Bruce said, smiling in his typically self-deprecating way. “He’s good. I don’t know if he can cure me, but I’m just glad he’s not a condescending jerk and not already writing me five different prescriptions for drugs that all do the same thing.”

Betty nodded in agreement as Bruce handed her a plate of the food he had made and joined her at the table. She didn’t completely agree with his refusal to take any meds to help manage his anger, but she did find it distasteful when after only two sessions, the so-called doctors had the tendency to prescribe him a plethora of drugs without any regard for actually helping him cope with the incidents. He seemed to like this Xavier guy okay. That was a relief. It had been Betty’s idea in the first place that he should try therapy and see psychiatrists and her pushing that had finally convinced him to do so.

“I’m glad you’re getting along,” she said. He chuckled.

“Yeah, it’s nice that I don’t want to strangle him. Yet.”

Betty smiled and reached across the table to take Bruce’s hand in her own.

“I’m proud of you,” she said. “You know that I’m with you every step of the way.”

Bruce smiled at her like she had personally placed the sun in the sky. No matter how severe his incidents got, she was always certain that he loved her. Not once had he ever been set off by something she had said. They had had arguments, of course, but he never lost himself when it came to her, no matter how deeply they disagreed. It was as if when he got into that dangerous state, he recognized nothing but her.

This was why Betty stayed, no matter how difficult it was to be the only one who could talk Bruce out of his tempers. She loved him deeply, and the knowledge that her devotion was returned made the times she spent crying in bathroom stalls and struggling to defend him against her concerned friends worth it. After all, everyone came with their own baggage; her husband’s just happened to manifest itself at the most unfortunate times when he became annoyed, scared, or stressed — and to lead to Betty having to flutter her eyelashes at police officers and security guards a lot. She couldn’t flirt to save her life, but those desperate times called for desperate measures. Bruce always took it in stride, later teasing her gently for twirling her hair or other such nonsense she employed for his benefit.

“Thank you, Betty,” he said, lifting her hand to kiss it like some ridiculous parody of a gallant knight. “Your support means everything to me. And that’s no hyperbole.”

Betty’s smile widened.

It was not an easy life she had chosen, and if someone had asked her if she would be willing to support a spouse who suffered from fits of uncontrollable anger that put both him and the people around him in danger, she would have been highly skeptical. Betty was good with chemicals and numbers, not people. But Bruce made her better—made her want to be better, so that she could be there for him. Life had not dealt her an easy hand, but for Bruce, she would do everything she could to make things easier on him. Because no matter how hard things were on Betty, there was no doubt that they were even harder on Bruce himself.

Besides, the times when he smiled at her, the corners devoid of his customary self-deprecation and sharp, wry edges, made even the worst moments worth it.

*

“You are unusually quiet tonight, brother,” Loki said. They were getting dinner at Loki’s favorite upscale French bistro. Silverware clinked quietly in the background, and the murmurs of low conversation provided for a comfortable but relatively private experience. In the low lighting, Thor’s blonde hair glowed gold and the candlelight cast shadows about his features, amplifying the mysteriously reserved expression on his face.

“It is nothing,” Thor answered glumly, sounding as if it were anything but. He shoved a giant piece of steak into his mouth and made a great show of taking his time to chew and swallow. Loki snorted. As if that wasn’t the oldest trick in the book. He had probably invented it himself.

“You cannot fool me, Thor,” Loki said. “I know your countenances as well as I know the skin on the back of my hand, and the visage you have adopted today is not one of content.”

Thor heaved a sigh. Loki could tell that he wanted to talk about whatever was troubling him but was concerned that his words would be too dangerous if unleashed, especially into Loki’s too-capable hands.

“I do not know if it would be wise to speak of it, brother,” Thor said at last.

“Is it Jane?” Loki guessed. “You had an argument last week.” It wasn’t a question. Loki wasn’t sure why Thor looked so surprised. His brother was not particularly adept at hiding his feelings and Loki made a hobby out of reading people (which, admittedly, was often for the purpose of later manipulating them). At least Thor never tried to lie when Loki had him pinged; he had learned at an early age that any attempts at besting Loki the Liesmith (a nickname that Thor had made up in an attempt to rile him up but that had ended up sticking) would be met with a steadily raised eyebrow.

To his credit, Thor got over his surprise quickly and dark clouds passed over his face as he schooled his expression back into a serious, troubled one. It looked unusual on him, like a strange mask obscuring the boisterous man Loki knew. He disliked it immediately.

“Aye,” Thor said. “She has asked me to move in with her.”

Loki felt a sharp pang in his chest. But why was this something that would incite discord? Unless Thor didn’t actually want…

“And how did you answer her?” Loki asked, trying to school his expression into a neutral one. He tried to imagine life without Thor. He could stay in the apartment, which Odin had paid for. It would be much quieter. He would get so much more done. But it would also be infinitely lonelier. Thor was obnoxious and obtuse on his best days, but his presence in Loki’s life was one to which he was accustomed. It kept Loki grounded, gave him something to depend on, and reminded him that he was beloved by somebody.

“I shy away from such a commitment,” Thor said, guilt marring his words. “I do not know if I wish to leave here. I have never lived without you, Loki.”

“Well,” Loki said, grimacing. It was a sweet gesture, but he had his pride. “Technically...”

“I lived like a ghost during our separation,” Thor said hollowly. “I would not have another repeat of that experience.

“Yes, right,” Loki said, chewing his food awkwardly. Thor always framed that year as if it hadn’t been Loki’s fault. The complete dissolution of guilt made him unaccountably uncomfortable. Animosity was something that Loki could deal with — it was born of chaos, which he thrived in. Forgiveness was a foreign thing. “I expect Jane was not pleased with answer?”

“Not in the least,” Thor said. “She attributed my reluctance to an unhealthy attachment to you,” he admitted. A feral grin unfurled itself on Loki’s face. Well, wasn’t this just delightful. Not only was there discord sowing between Thor and his beloved Jane, but that it was caused by him made the victory a thousand times sweeter.

“Unhealthy?” Loki repeated, exaggerating the syllables in delight. “I beg to differ.”

“She thinks you a criminal,” Thor muttered, and Loki smirked at his obvious discomfort. “I tire of defending you.”

Mood instantly soured, Loki narrowed his eyes and hissed, “I do not ask you to, brother. You are free to leave at any time you wish. I am not your keeper.”

Thor slammed his fist on the table, causing the silverware to jump ad clatter against the wooden surface.

“You twist my words,” he shouted. The conversation around them stilled. “It is not you I am trying to leave, Loki. I fear I can no longer bear to hear ill words spoken of you.”

“You speak of…”

“Yes, brother,” Thor said. “I am considering breaking up with Jane.”

Loki’s heartbeat quickened, and he became overly aware of his stomach turning cartwheels. Ugh, how utterly pedestrian.

“Surely you jest?” he said cautiously. He stilled his trembling hand. He had a chance. It had been years since he had had a chance.

For all his life, Loki had loved Thor above all else. He had also hated him above all else, and that had blinded him for the longest time from the fact that he could never feel as strongly about anyone else. When he was young, he had blamed his lust for his brother on his teenage libido, but as he grew out of adolescence the feelings had never subsided. Even when he had been at the lowest point in his life, insistent that Thor would pay for robbing Loki of their father’s love — even then, the raging, unquenchable lust had never once subsided.

Thor entertained all sorts in his bed, but never Loki. Sometimes Loki thought Thor’s gaze lingered a moment too long than was proper when Loki emerged dripping wet from the shower or got dressed in his impeccable suits for work, but they had never spoken of it. Once Thor had settled down with Jane, Loki had expected that they never would.

But here he had a chance. If he could convince Thor…

“You think this an unwise decision?”

Loki paused. He had to frame his words carefully; make Thor believe that he was making his own decisions.

“I think you should do what you want,” he said. “That woman has no business telling you what to do and how to treat the people around you.”

“Nobody does,” Thor said with a pointed look. Loki held his hands up in protest.

“You asked. I’m merely wondering if this…disagreement of yours could point to other deeper seated issues.”

Thor bowed his head. “You have a point, brother. I will think on it.”

Loki smiled.

*

Tony couldn’t stop thinking about Steve. He didn’t know what was wrong with him. The date had gone anything but well, and Jan had said that she would talk to Steve, but she hadn’t said anything, so either she hadn’t gotten the chance to or Steve had simply confirmed that he didn’t like Tony and Jan hadn’t had the heart to tell him.

The thing was that the more Tony thought about it, the more apparent it was that he had really started to like Steve before it had all gone downhill.

Steve had done the opposite of what Tony had expected — people usually got more excited when they found out that they were on a date with Tony Stark, not flip out and denounce him. It was that difference that had kept him on Tony’s mind. But who ever developed a crush because someone professed not to like him without even knowing him — rather than someone professing to love him without even knowing him? It was a rather ridiculous notion, and while Tony indulged in many of those on a daily basis, this was one paradox he was not so eager to unravel.

Still. Before he had known who Tony was, Steve had been well-mannered but not too serious, and that pearl-white smile was almost addictive. The more Tony agonized over it, the more perfect Steve seemed in retrospect. He had been pleasant but with a hint of dry wit, and anything vaguely flirtatious Tony said had resulted in a lovely shade of pink making an appearance on the handsome face. Tony was imagining what else he could do to elicit that kind of instant blush and wondering if the color would extend down past Steve’s neck when Pepper stomped into his vicinity. He hadn’t even noticed her entering the workshop. This fixation Steve was incredibly bizarre and not at all welcome.

“Okay, Tony,” Pepper said, yanking the blowtorch out of his hand and turning it off before dropping it unceremoniously onto the table, “that’s it. You’ve been down here for four days straight. You’ve barely eaten, and you haven’t slept. What is wrong with you now?”

“Ouch,” Tony said monotonously as he peered at the blueprints on the holographic display in front of him.

In response, Pepper yanked him away from the screen and said pleasantly, “JARVIS, could you please turn all of this off? I need to talk to Tony. Urgently.”

“Certainly, Miss Potts,” JARVIS intoned.

“Hey, you can’t tell JARVIS what to do!” Tony whined. The display disappeared just as the words emerged from his mouth, as if mocking him. Pepper smirked and pushed him down into a chair. She pulled up a chair and sat as well, crossing her legs primly and giving him a searching look.

“Now tell me what’s wrong.”

Tony crossed his arms, glaring at her petulantly. “None of your business.” He predicted Pepper’s eye roll before she executed it.

Tony.” Her tone exuded command; it was the one she used to face down uppity board members who dared to doubt her competence. One would think that Tony would be impervious to her will by now, but it had always been difficult to refuse Pepper. There was something about the fact that she saw through all his bullshit that always made his stubborn resolve falter. “You know that I won’t stop pursuing this, so you might as well be forthcoming so that I don’t have to twist your fingers to get answers out of you. Besides, you’ve already missed five meetings, and I refuse to keep making excuses for you. You owe me.”

Tony sulked in silence. He was not pouting, but there was no reason to buckle to Pepper’s demands so quickly.

“It was the date the other night that upset you,” Pepper deduced when he still didn’t say anything. Tony shrugged, but her eyes narrowed. He wondered what about him was giving it away — the twitch of eyebrows or the downturn of his mouth? “Did it go badly? Somehow I can’t imagine you getting upset over a date with someone you’ve never met.”

Tony shrugged again, wishing he had a glass full of whiskey in his hand — not even to drink, just for the comfort of a familiar weight. But leaned forward with her elbows planted firmly on her skirt-covered knees, Pepper had him boxed in.

“He was…different,” he settled on, for the lack of anything better to say. It was true, after all.

“You liked him?” Pepper said, looking mildly surprised.

Tony scrubbed his hand across his face and mumbled, “I think there could have been something.”

“But…”

With a sigh, Tony said, “I fucked it up as usual, what else?”

“Explain,” Pepper prompted.

“He got upset when he found out who I was,” said Tony, fatigue suddenly settling upon him like an old friend. At Pepper’s incredulous stare, he added, “Improbably, Jan found me the only person in this city who didn’t recognize me on sight.”

Pepper looked thoughtful, but Tony was too exhausted to try to guess at her train of thought. “So you clammed up,” she hazarded. He scowled. He wouldn’t put it in those words precisely, but…

“Something like that,” he said, trying and completely failing to sound like he couldn’t care less.

“And you…regret it?”

Tony shrugged again. He hadn’t gotten that far in his psychoanalysis of his nonstop moping. He couldn’t remember the last time he had actually been interested in anyone, and having his thoughts glued to one person was startling enough without debating any other dangerous feelings. The constant parade of women (and the occasional daring men) in his life was just as plentiful as ever, but over the past couple of years, sleeping with them had become yet another thing he did more for appearances than he did for himself. Even the poutiest lips or slimmest of waists only seemed to leave him feeling awfully bereft, feigning sleep while they snuck gracelessly out of his bed in the early hours of the morning.

“Tony, you don’t have to be so solitary, you know,” Pepper was saying. “It’s okay to let people in.”

“Not the problem,” Tony said sharply, wanting more than anything not to go down that road of conversation. Sometimes he really, really hated that Pepper often seemed to know him better than he knew himself.

“Tony…”

“What do you want me to say, Pepper?” Tony burst out. “That I hate that people either want me for my money and fame or don’t want me at all? That it drives me crazy that the one person I was actually interested in for a second is the one person who has ever turned me down without batting an eye? That I’m sick of being alone and drinking myself to oblivion? That I’m tired of this goddamned lifestyle and that some twisted part of me craves something more reliable than an endless stream of one-night stands? That all of these feelings are ridiculous and my energy can be better used to invent new technologies and discover new elements?”

He wasn’t sure when he had leapt up out of his seat. Pepper, never one for tolerating him towering over her, got to her feet as well. She poked him in the shoulder, hard, eyes narrowed into slits of green.

“That is exactly what I wanted you to say,” Pepper said. “What I wanted you to admit.

Tony made a face and then abruptly deflated. He rubbed his forehead in exhaustion. “I don’t want to deal with this right now.”

“You never will, Tony,” Pepper pointed out. “Why don’t you ask Janet for your ‘disaster date’s’ number? Maybe he’ll give you a second chance.”

“Yeah,” Tony said unenthusiastically. He wasn’t about to make a fool out of himself by pursuing someone who clearly wasn’t interested. But Pepper didn’t need to know that. “Can I get back to work now?”

Pepper rolled her eyes. “Fine. But keep in mind that I will know if you don’t contact Janet, and I won’t hesitate to nag you about it again.”

Tony smiled wryly. “What would I do without you, Pep?”

Pepper’s only answer was an inelegant snort.

*

Thursday, December 6

Xavin was beautiful.

Karolina gaped at the photo and turned her Starkphone sideways to see the full effect. The picture was of a woman standing on a balcony, dark brown hair windswept and skin like chocolate satin. Her striking eyes were obsidian blades set deeply in the soft contours of her face, and there was a confidence to her stance that made her look slightly off, like she was too big for her skin. Her regal gaze steady, she didn't have a trace of a smile on her face, but somehow this appealed to Karolina.

Okay, so maybe this wouldn't be quite the nightmare she had imagined. Even if no sparks flew, at least her wife would be eye candy. She could maybe almost deal with that.

Looking around surreptitiously the bench at which she was eating her peanut butter and banana sandwich, she saved the photo to her phone and opened her text messaging interface.

KAROLINA: That awkward moment when you find out you’re marrying a RIDICULOUSLY HOT GIRL.

NICO: Pics or it didn’t happen.

Karolina laughed softly and forwarded her her mother's e-mail, quickly penning a response to her mother as well.

*

From the moment that Teddy Altman asked him to hang out to the moment Billy parked his feet in front of the diner, he lived on a cloud and grinned like a lunatic at everyone he passed. He still wasn’t quite convinced that this wasn’t some elaborate prank or a dream his brain had conjured up. Spazzier than ever, he practically ran to the diner and waited eagerly, still barely believing that:

1) Teddy Altman was a comic book geek.
2) Teddy Altman had talked to him.
3) Teddy had asked him to hang out.
4) Teddy Altman was not just cool but actually nice.
5) Teddy Altman was even hotter up close.

Okay. He could kind of believe that last one, but still.

Teddy was walking up to the diner now, and Billy gave him a jaunty wave. He hoped he looked okay. Billy wasn’t fooling himself; there was no way anything would ever come of his stupid crush, but looking nice couldn’t hurt. He had spent an embarrassing amount of time in front of the mirror today, finally selecting a black T-shirt, navy blue plaid overshirt, his favorite red hoodie, and dark jeans. Unfortunately, it had meant that he hadn’t had time to do anything about his hair other than comb his fingers roughly through it. Teddy probably wouldn’t even notice, but Billy didn’t want to look like a slob on what he had to keep telling himself totally wasn’t a date.

“Hey,” Teddy said. He lifted a hand as if to clasp Billy on the shoulder but then retracted it, seeming to think better of the action. Billy offered him a shaky smile. It should be illegal for anyone to be this attractive. Teddy looked cozy in a peacoat and a striped green scarf, the gentle grin on his face at odds with the array of silver jewelry that lined his ears. “You wanna head in? The milkshakes here are killer, and I’m starving.”

“Sounds good,” Billy squeaked as the butterflies in his stomach suddenly went hyperactive. It was totally unfair for someone to be this cool.

After they settled in the bright red booth and placed their orders (a burger and strawberry milkshake for Billy), an awkward silence settled over them.

“So, uh,” Teddy said, clearly straining for something to talk about as he eyes flitted around the restaurant, “where do you intern?”

“Oh!” Billy said. He hadn’t expected Teddy to remember. “Stark International. I work for their Computer Software department.”

“Whoa, cool,” Teddy said, sounding genuinely interested. “I didn’t even know they hired high school interns.”

“I got it through the Maria Stark Foundation. It runs programs all over the world; it’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, wow,” Teddy said. “So what do you do?”

“I'm a programmer, you know, writing code that makes things happen,” Billy explained, hoping he didn’t sound too boring. It certainly didn’t help him seem less like a nerd loser.

“Dude, that’s awesome,” Teddy said. Billy flushed. “Can’t be easy to get a gig like that in New York, and for Stark.”

Pleasantly surprised but embarrassed, Billy rubbed the back of his neck and grinned self-consciously. “Yeah, well. I can’t write a decent essay to save my life, but I’m a bit of a wizard when it comes to that sort of thing.”

“I’ll bet,” Teddy said. “So what kind of things have you worked on? Or are you not allowed to say? I promise I’m not a secret Oscorp or Rand spy or anything.”

With enthusiasm, Billy launched into a rambling explanation of the project he had been working on in the past few weeks, so happy just to have somebody to talk to about the work of which he was so proud. Teddy admitted that computers were not his thing, which only piqued his curiosity more about Billy’s hobby.

Billy thought he had been in love with Teddy before, but as they talked, he realized that he had had no clue about how great of a person Teddy was. He had automatically assumed that because he was a jock, he was shallow and thoughtless. In reality, he was nice and a little self-deprecating and compulsively wiped his mouth when he ate and had a wonderful laugh that warmed Billy from head to toe. That on top of the artfully tousled blond hair and sunny blue eyes could only lead one to one possible outcome:

Billy was totally doomed.

*

From: Glenn Talbot <glenn.c.talbot@us.army.mil>
To: Betty Ross <elizabethross@arl.army.mil>
Subject: Just saying hello

Dear Betty,

Hello, it’s Glenn from Thanksgiving. Your dad passed along your e-mail address and I thought we could chat. Let me know if I’m being presumptuous, but you were lovely to talk to and I’d love the chance to continue our conversation.

Sincerely,

Glenn

 

From: Elizabeth Ross <elizabethross@arl.army.mil> via betty.banner@starkmail.com
To: glenn.c.talbot@us.army.mil
Subject: RE: Just saying hello

Glenn,

Thank you for your kind words. Sure, we can talk. I enjoyed our conversations as well. How was your weekend?

In the future, you can reach me at my personal address: betty.banner@starkmail.com

Elizabeth T. R. Banner
Director of Radiology
Chairman, Scientific Advisory Council
U.S. Army Research Laboratory

*

LOKI: BFF coffee today. ASAP. LMK when you’re free.

LEAH: What’s wrong with you now, Laufeyson?

LOKI: Oh shut up. When are you free?

LEAH: 3:00. Don’t be late.

Leah was already at World Tree Coffee by the time that Loki made his excuses to the Logistics department representatives with whom he was meeting and snuck out of his office. Her unhappy countenance was enough to divine that his tardiness had been noted. Then again, Leah’s countenance was never anything but unhappy. Loki wasn’t sure the muscles in her face were capable of anything else.

“Yes, yes, I’m late,” he said when he sat down across from her. Around them, people of all ages milled: undergrads with earbuds and sugary drinks, harried Wall Street types, and gossiping older ladies. The tiny café was tucked between a Laundromat and a pawn shop, with knick knacks from all over the world and shelves filled with coffee-stained books. “Save the lecture. You’ll want to hear this.”

Leah raised a challenging eyebrow. Half of her dark hair was swept back today, the other half cascading down the back of her severe black blazer. Leah ran a cemetery and pretended that she hated Loki, even though they were best friends. “Try me.”

“Thor is considering leaving the harlot.”

Leah’s eyes widened. Loki gave himself a mental pat on the back for starting his ever-stoic friend.

“Did he tell you why?” Leah asked before rethinking it. “Of course he did.” Leah and Loki had once tried dating, a move that had gone terribly wrong when Leah had figured out Loki’s agelong love-hate crush on Thor. She, more than anyone, knew how close the brothers were and how heated their relationship could get. She was also convinced that Thor wanted him just as badly and thought he was stupid for never making a move, but Loki never believed her.

“She asked him to move in,” he said. “She thought to persuade him by painting me as a bad influence.”

Leah laughed. “You are the epitome of a bad influence.”

Loki smirked. “Yes, I know. But my dear brother, he cannot bear to hear such things spoken about me.”

“Oh hell, Loki,” Leah said. “What did you do now?”

Loki’s smirk widened to ridiculous proportions. He couldn’t help it. The prospect of the chase was thrilling. For so many years, Thor had eluded him. First there had been Sif, and then Jane, not to mention all of the others who had briefly shared his bed. But at last, Loki had an opening — a chance to make his gambit. A chance to finally fulfill his desire and then to shed the fierce lust that had tethered him to his fool of a brother for too long.“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I simply gave him a push in the right direction.”

“Ugh,” Leah grimaced, taking a deep sip from her mug. Leah always took her coffee black, brewed to the point of unbearable bitterness. She was a strange woman, but Loki loved her dearly. “Well, he’s screwed.”

“Indeed,” Loki affirmed, flashing all of his teeth as he set his mug down on the table. His coffee had exactly two sugars — deceivingly dark and secretly sweet.

“God, you two are so fucked up.”

“That’s exactly why the sex will be so excellent.”

“If you go on, I’m going to vomit all over your nice new suit.”

Loki cackled with delight.

*

Tony’s driver Happy dropped Hank off at his and Jan’s Upper West Side apartment with a smile and a jaunty wave. Hank tried to remember; he and Tony’s Pepper must be getting hitched soon. He would have to ask Tony so that he could properly congratulate Happy when the time came.

The doorman greeted Hank with a nod and a polite “Good evening, Mr. Pym” as he held the marble-floored elevator open for him. The ride up to the penthouse was brief. After he scanned his key card, Hank slumped against the mirrored walls and let the automated voice wash over his senses as the elevator flew upward and the green floor numbers flashed quickly on the display.

The apartment was quiet, the lights in the foyer turned down low and softening the cold beige marble that lined the entire space. Hank tossed his briefcase onto the couch and tiptoed into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water. When he was finished, he set it in the sink and then made his way to the master bedroom, where Jan slumbered peacefully.

She was in a little blue nightie, sleeping on her side in the enormous bed with her dark hair splayed on the white pillow like a halo. Moonlight streamed in through the gauzy drapes and turned her skin gold. Her slender arm was stretched out, draped over the blankets on Hank’s side of the bed. Hank’s heart clenched at the sight of it.

As silently as he could, he stripped down to his boxers and changed into an old Stark International T-shirt. He slipped under the covers, lifting Jan's arm briefly and then carefully placing it back over his chest.

Hank turned his head and just looked at her — her elegant cheekbones and thick lashes, her blemish-free skin and lips not quite thick enough to be called pouty. She was so perfect that his eyes stung at the sight of her, and sometimes he thought he couldn’t breathe when he caught her looking so gentle like this, like a beautiful contradiction — an invitation and yet the most precious, untouchable thing in the world. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her.

He had no idea what she saw in him, and in his darkest moments, this made him question where he stood in her life and why and when it would end. The variables simply didn’t add up. He was average-looking at best and mentally unwell at worst, not to mention socially awkward and completely inept at being a good boyfriend. Why did she stay? She had dated men far above his station in both career and looks, and she certainly had no need to mooch off of him for anything. Yet she swore that it was him who she wanted to spend her life with, who she would always love and choose above all others.

He knew she thought he was oblivious and dense when it came to these matters (and he hardly blamed her), but it wasn’t like he hadn’t noticed the way she stared longingly into jewelry store windows and lit up when she talked about her friends’ impending weddings. He just didn’t know what to do about it. There was no one else that he wanted to grow old with — he couldn’t imagine loving anyone else even half as much as he loved Jan — but he was terrified out of his mind that one day he would lose control and it wouldn’t be just verbal abuse that he was lashing out. He couldn’t bear the thought of her seeing him sink to those depraved depths. He couldn’t bear the thought of hurting her, and of how it would break him utterly if she left him after they made a lifetime commitment to one another. The other things in his life — it wasn’t for them that he lived. It was out of determination to be the best man he could possibly be for Jan. Even to just be better, because if there was anyone who knew he had much room for improvement, it was Hank himself.

At the disheartening thought, Hank heaved a quiet sigh. With a soft sound, Jan shifted and a strand of hair fell over her closed eyes. Hank reached over and brushed it back, his fingertips lingering lovingly on the smooth skin of her cheek. Her eyes fluttered half-open and, with the air of one who still had a foot in dreamland, turned her cheek so she could press a soft kiss to the palm of his hand. Hank’s breath caught.

“Hey, Blue Eyes,” she whispered, warm breath brushing over his fingers as they grazed her lips. Her tongue sprung from her mouth to tease the tips of his fingers with a mischievous lick.

“Hi,” Hank whispered back in the darkness.

“Work was okay?”

Hank nodded and leaned in to kiss her. Every time he kissed Jan, it felt like returning home from a long journey on which he had been completely deprived of her soft lips and the way she kissed like she did everything — with passion fueled by an undercurrent of compassion.

“Is something wrong?” she said, big eyes blinking blearily at him and voice fuzzy from sleep.

Hank closed his eyes and wrapped himself around her, leaning his face into hair and breathing in the scent of her orchid and ginger shampoo.

“I just love you so much,” he said honestly.

Jan smiled up at him, leaning in to kiss him and slide her hands under his shirt. “Good,” she said haughtily as she tugged him even closer. “Because I love you too, you big doof.”

*

Friday, December 7

Bucky sat at the kitchen counter, a cold beer in his hand while Steve strung up Christmas lights all across the living room. Every year, he offered to help, but Steve was about a hundred times more artistic than Bucky and always just ended up bossing him around. As long as Steve allowed him to help decorate their modest tree, he didn’t mind taking a step back from all the other decorations.

“It sounds like you need to talk to her, Buck,” Steve said as he bent down to reach for another pushpin. Bucky winced.

“Harder than it sounds,” he countered. Steve shrugged.

“Sure, but it’s something that has to happen sooner or later, or else you’ll be stuck in this rut forever.”

Bucky shrugged. “Is that so bad?” he wondered. Steve’s raised eyebrow was oddly condescending. Bucky didn’t like it. He liked it even less that Steve was probably right.

“You tell me,” Steve answered. “You’re clearly antsy about it about where you stand.”

Bucky said gruffly, “You think she’ll go for it?”

Frowning, Steve contemplated the question for a long moment before responding. Bucky appreciated the thought his best friend was putting into his love life — it was certainly a better feeling than investing all his time thinking in circles and coming to no conclusion about what to do about Natasha and the possibility of asking her to, well, go steady, as they would have said in the olden days.

“I don’t know, Bucky,” Steve said finally. “I think she’ll want to, but what’s up for debate is whether she will let herself want it. But you have to try.

But what if trying just screwed everything up? was on the tip of tongue; he held it back because he didn’t want to sound scared. Bucky had witnessed — survived — countless horrors. He wasn’t going to be cowed by something as stupid as this.

But Steve knew him too well. He added, at Bucky’s sullen expression, “It’ll be worse if you don’t try. It’ll just fester into resentment and you’ll never be able to stop the thoughts of what could have beens.” Bucky wondered if he was thinking about Peggy. He knew that losing her so soon after losing Bucky himself had nearly broken Steve.

“Yeah,” he said glumly.

“Look,” Steve said, leaping down from the chair and coming over to clap a firm hand on his shoulder. “Someone must have broken her heart once. Broke her trust and faith in them. Whatever happens, she would hate it if you kept this from her.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Bucky sighed.

“Don’t look so down, Bucky,” Steve said. “Things will turn out all right in the end.”

Bucky wasn’t sure even Steve actually believed that. Still, he was a man of action. He had to do something.

*

JAMES: Come over tonight? Got a handle, takeout, and shitty old movies.

NATASHA: You sure know how to tempt a girl, Barnes.

JAMES: Whenever you’re free. Steve is leaving for an art show at 7.

Natasha arrived at James’s Lower East Side walkup at precisely 6:58. Sometimes it was good to be a little early.

The building was old and in desperate need of a renovation, because the teetering pillars and crumbling façade could be in no way earthquake-proof. The landlord’s great-grandfather had built it just before the Great Depression, and it appeared that she was reluctant to overhaul its appearance, despite the fact that the style looked out of date and out of place on a block full of cell phone carrier stores and computer repair shops. Natasha supposed it was charming in its own way, though.

She ran into James’s roommate Steve Rogers as he was leaving the apartment. Rogers was adorable, like the grandpa Natasha had never had. He always called her “ma’am” and had jazz playing when she was over. She respected his war hero status and appreciated that he never questioned her place in James’s life or pried too much in their private matters.

“Going out?” she said.

“Art Show in Chelsea,” he said.

“Not yours, is it?”

Rogers shook his head with a shy smile. “No, ma’am. If I ever get to have one, I’ll be sure to invite you.”

Natasha smiled — well, what she called a smile and most people would call a twitch of the lips. “You do that.”

“Bye, then,” he said. She nodded at him and stepped past him into the apartment. James was slouched down on the couch with his feet propped up on the wooden coffee table. An old black-and-white movie was playing on the television in the living room, the lights down low. There was an unfinished bowl of cereal on the kitchen counter and a teetering pile of magazines on the floor next to the trash can between the two rooms. Natasha sat down next to James and punched him affectionately in the shoulder.

“Hey, you,” he said, shifting to lean against the arm of the sofa and move his sock-covered feet into the lap of her jeans.

“What’d you order?” she asked, nodding at the stack of menus and the phone sitting on top of it.

“Sushi. That okay?”

“Yup.”

As she sat back to watch the film with him, her hands wandered up and down his legs, covered by the loose sweatpants he wore. There was an aimlessness to her motions — an content aimlessness that she had difficulty coming to terms with. In the old days, she would have slapped anyone who invited her over and expected her to behave like a good girlfriend, but with James it was different.

With James, it was always different. James knew her favorite color (black) and her favorite type of chocolate (as dark as possible, with nuts) but never went out of his way to do anything about it. Instead, the little things he did spoke volumes of his consideration — the way he always ordered food for them without making a big deal out of it, the way he let her take control in the bedroom on her bad days, and the way he was never affectionate with her when Rogers was around unless it was behind closed doors. James was different, in the best of ways.

Later, under the watchful gaze of the December moonlight, she moved above him, against him, around him, and couldn’t imagine feeling closer to anyone else.