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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.

Chapter Text

The art exhibition was being held at a nicer facility than Steve had expected, the nondescript brick exterior giving way to crisp white walls and wide-planked white oak flooring. Steve fussed with his skinny red tie (last year’s Christmas gift from Jan) and looked around for anyone he knew. The crowd was mostly populated by eclectic bridge-crossing Brooklynites in fedoras and cheap oxfords and high-waisted skirts with loud patterns. Middle-aged art critics with frameless glasses, receding hairlines, and big pearl earrings were sprinkled among the crowd, along with predatory agents hunting for talent and the odd bored senior citizen. Steve had gotten notice about the show from his friend Sam Wilson, who had left the art world for the environmental awareness one long ago but still stayed in touch with his friends from art school.

Sam had texted that he was running late, though, and Steve didn’t know anybody else, so he made his way to the food table. It couldn’t hurt to grab a few hors d’oeuvres, and eating always helped diffuse potentially awkward situations.

He spotted him as he was reaching for the brie — Tony Stark, in all his glory, leaning against the bar and turning on his roguish charm as he pleaded the bartender for something stronger than wine. Not that Steve thought Tony had roguish charm. Or any charm at all, really.

He tried to flee before Tony saw him, but as he was turning away with a plate full of cheese but a disappointing lack of crackers, Tony called out, “Steve?” in disbelief. Steve prickled at the tone that clearly said he had no right to be there. Tony’s next words confirmed the sentiment: “The hell are you doing here?”

“I’m an art teacher, Stark,” Steve said, probably more annoyed than he really had the right to be, but this guy seriously rubbed him in the wrong way. And certainly not in the way Jan had wanted him to when she had set them up! “What do you think I’m doing here? The better question is what are you doing here?”

“Pepper likes contemporary art,” Tony said by way of explanation, even though the sentence made zero sense to Steve. Was Pepper a person? And if so, was it someone Tony was seeing? At the thought, a strange knot formed at the bottom of Steve’s stomach. It definitely had no business being there, but it stubbornly refused to budge.

“What?” he said intelligently.

“Yeah, I don’t know either,” Tony said. “She says she likes the meta and the creative use of materials, but I think she just has a thing for young hipster types in suspenders.”

Oh. Pepper was a woman, then. Tony’s girlfriend?

Steve didn’t realize he had voiced that inference aloud until Tony burst out laughing. “Oh god, no, she’s not my girlfriend, jesus, we tried that ages ago and it failed so hard that the tabloids didn’t shut up about it for, like, a year, but she’s totally engaged to Happy right now and very happy, thank you very much.”

Steve blinked. Happy? Was that a person’s name? Or was this Tony’s weird way of calling someone single? He was beginning to think that Tony was actually talking about imaginary friends. Just as he was going to say something about it, a tall, thin redhead sheathed in an elegant charcoal-gray dress appeared at Tony’s elbow.

“Pepper,” Tony whined, “this guy,” he said, pointing at the bartender with his thumb, “won’t give me scotch. Make him.”

Oh. So this was Tony’s art-loving friend.

Pepper rolled her eyes. “You’ve already had too much to drink, Tony. For heaven’s sake, it’s an art exhibition, not a bar.”

As they started bickering like a married couple, Steve tried to make his escape. Unfortunately, Tony spotted him and called him out.

“Pepper, you should meet Steve Rogers,” he said in a mocking voice that made Steve grit his teeth. “Jan thought we might be good together.” Tony’s tone suggested that it was the most hilarious thing he had ever heard of, but there was an odd bitterness to his words that Steve didn’t know what to make of.

“Uh,” he said, brain short-circuiting with embarrassment at Tony’s blasé rudeness. “Hi.”

“Disaster date Steve Rogers?” Pepper said, seemingly little more diplomatic than Stark. “It’s nice to finally put a face to the man.”

Disaster date? The words stung, even though it really had taken a turn for the worse. It wasn’t like it had been Steve’s fault anyway. Tony was the one who had gone and become an offensively pretentious asshole — or had revealed himself to be one, anyway. A small part of Steve reminded him that it had been going okay before that revelation, but Steve quickly tamped down on that dangerous voice that sounded way too much like Jan for his comfort. Especially in this particular situation.

Which he definitely had to get out of, stat. Where the hell was Sam?

Pepper’s eyes softened at his discomfort. “I mean that sincerely,” she said, holding her hand out. “I’m Pepper Potts, Tony’s PA and occasional CEO of his company when he gets bored with it or too negligent — which is pretty much every other week nowadays.”

Steve wanted desperately to flee, but his mother had raised him with manners, and he wasn’t about to shirk them now. Pepper’s handshake was impressively firm. He supposed that was fitting for a businesswoman who could be trusted to run Stark International.

“That must be a difficult job, ma’am,” he said. He glanced at Tony, who was rolling his eyes even though he hadn’t looked like he was paying attention to their small talk.

“You know, the PA and CEO bits don’t bother me so much as the job that doesn’t pay at all: the one where I have to take care of Tony because he is completely inept at taking care of himself,” Pepper said. Steve was surprised at how openly she was talking about her boss — and in front of him, too. He expected Tony to get angry, but he only rolled his eyes again.

“Oh give it up, Pepper,” he drawled. “You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if you didn’t take it upon yourself to mother me half to death.”

“Sure I would,” she said easily. Steve found, in a strange way, that the familiarity of their banter reminded him of his and Bucky’s relationship. They gave each other crap but even the harshest (and truest) insults were laced with affection. “I could go shopping, I could go to the spa, I could get a much-needed massage, I could actually have time to plan my wedding… Need I go on?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said, waving a hand in the air as he took a swig from a flask that had emerged from some hidden pocket of his tuxedo. “You say that like I don’t let you bill all of those things to the company.”

“Who cares where it’s billed to if I don’t actually get to do any of it?” Pepper exclaimed, rolling her eyes. “Shut up, Tony, you’re looking even stupider than usual in front of Steve.”

That was a weird thing to say. Why would Stark care about looking stupid in front of Steve? He certainly didn’t seem to care about looking stupid on the covers of tabloid rags. (Steve had looked, after the so-called disaster date, to his utter shame.)

Steve looked at Stark to see how he would respond. He didn’t, instead chugging the rest of his wine glass and slamming it down on the counter as if it were a shot glass. He gave Steve a bizarrely suspicious look before jabbing the bartender in the chest.

“Come on, don’t tell me you don’t have any whiskey hidden down there.”

*

Sweaty from exertion and tangled in the bed sheets, Bucky and Natasha huddled together under the thick blankets. Natasha was cradling Bucky to her chest, raking her fingers through her hair. She knew he liked the pain-pleasure of her long fingernails massaging his scalp. He breathed in her scent, which lay somewhere between grapefruit and saffron, all zest and cold spice.

Fuck it. He had to do this before he lost his courage.

“Hey,” Bucky said tentatively. “Can we talk?”

“Mm,” Natasha said noncommittally. Bucky steeled himself.

“Look,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for a while. We do all the things that old married couples do — eat shitty food together and watch shitty movies together and bicker about stupid things and go to each other for comfort and I think…maybe it’s time to move to the next stage?” he said in one breath.

Natasha had gone still in his arms, which was probably not a good sign. Shit. Shit shit shit.

“Uh,” he said awkwardly into the silence, “thoughts?”

“I wasn’t aware that you felt this way,” Natasha said stiffly into his hair.

Bucky frowned, feeling defensive. “So what if I do? If you don’t, we don’t have to change anything. I just thought it was worth a shot.”

“Don’t be stupid, Barnes,” she said. “Don’t you get it? Once you put this out on the table, you can’t take it back.”

He rolled his eyes. “What does that even mean?”

“It means,” Natasha hissed, “that you’ve gone and fucked up the status quo of something that was, for once, good.”

“If it’s good, then why not say yes?”

Natasha shoved him off of her and turned her back to him. “Because that’s not how I operate,” she said.

He tugged at her shoulder gently. “Me neither, but you make me want to be different. Would it be so bad to change?”

Wordlessly, Natasha slid out of bed and pulled her clothes back on with none of her usual effortless grace. He thought he saw her hand quiver, but it might have been a trick of the light. She tossed back her hair and left, slamming the door behind her.

Bucky let her go.

*

Sam had come across some of his hip environmental activist friends, who were all having a rousing discussion about the ethics of ethanol, and so Steve excused himself and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air. There were two college kids with bandanas around their necks propped up languidly against the wall, smoking cheap cigarettes with one hand and texting rapidly with the other. Steve edged a polite distance along the wall so that he was no longer inhaling their smoke and turned his head up to the familiar hazy city sky.

His reverie was suddenly broken when the door burst open and Tony Stark stormed out like a severely offended hurricane. He barely acknowledged Steve before he began ranting:

“— just wanted to have a nice night with Pepper after a week of stupid meetings with the stupid board about that goddamned deal with Ezekiel Stane that still makes me want to vomit just thinking about it, but no, not even hip-as-fuck Chelsea art shows are safe from the goddamned paparazzi and dumbasses who think they can get away with drugging my drinks to try to get into my pants or steal all my money or whatever it is for the golddigger flavor of the week, as if the alcohol weren’t poisonous enough, as if I were an idiot, Jesus fucking Christ, what is it about genius that eludes them, just because I have a reputation of sleeping with anything with a pulse doesn’t meanI’m stupid, and now Pepper’s probably pissed because I made a scene and scared the shit out of that model, who looked barely eighteen, god, and I’m just sick of putting on this bullshit front when all I want to do is —”

Tony’s rant stuttered to a stop as he seemed to realize who he was talking to and what he was saying. He looked stricken yet weary, the expensively cut suit doing nothing to distract from the bags under his eyes and the droop of his eyebrows. His breath reeked of alcohol. Steve tilted his head and prompted, “All you want to do is…?”

“Invent,” Tony said. “Build things. Fix things. That’s all I’m good for, but nobody gets that.” Maybe it was a trick of the dim light emanating from the street lamps, he looked so despondent that Steve felt a pang of sympathy clutch his foolish heart.

He was opening his mouth to say something reassuring — something, anything, to wipe that awful forlorn look off Tony’s face, so different from the sneering expression from earlier — when Tony’s phone chirped loudly and he started scowling at the screen before firing off a rapid response, muttering something that may have been “Pepper.” Steve was feeling irritation creep up at the rudeness of it when Tony tucked the phone back into his pocket and glanced nervously around them before blurting out, “Hey, the High Line is like a block away, you wanna go?”

“Uh,” Steve said stupidly. Tony Stark’s brain and moods seemed to shift at a pace that made sense only to himself. But his jitteriness made Steve think Tony didn’t want to be alone right now. It couldn’t hurt, right? And maybe he could coax more out of Tony. He had to admit that he was curious to learn more about him, as silly as it made him feel, especially after his earlier dismissal. “Okay, sure, let me just text my friend so he knows,” he said before retrieving his own phone from his pocket.

Before Steve could even flip the phone open, Tony had snatched it away with a crow of disbelief. Steve was caught between being amused and being offended when Tony, jaw dropped, touched it as if it were covered in angry wasps. “Oh my god, what is this thing? Is this even a phone? Does it actually work? I haven’t seen anything like this since the nineties, grandpa.”

Steve rolled his eyes. He was fond of his good ol’ phone. Bucky had tried to get him a smartphone for his birthday this year, but Steve had turned all the options down. He understood their usefulness just fine, but he didn’t want to become one of those people who were constantly immersed in whatever was on that tiny screen. “It’s a perfectly functional phone,” he replied defensively.

“Sure it is,” Tony said, squinting at the screen. “Oh my god, I forgot what buttons actually feel like. I feel like I’m time traveling. Am I time traveling? Are you time traveling? Steve Rogers, are you from the past?”

“Tony!” Steve said, exasperated. Tony tossed him back his phone, still looking as if its mere existence offended him. Their brief camaraderie faded into an anxious silence as Steve sent Sam a text informing him where he was going (but not who with — that was a story for another day).

“Well?” Steve said as he put the phone away. “Lead the way.”

They ascended the stairs at 26th Street and strolled along the former railway at a leisurely pace, strategically dodging the tipsy students and noisy tourists, while Steve racked his brain for something to say. Making small talk seemed stupid, but he wasn’t completely certain that Tony’s earlier rant meant that he would take kindly to Steve’s prying. It was rather disconcerting how much the thought of accidentally pushing Tony away worried him.

“Hey,” Tony said awkwardly, yanking Steve abruptly out of his thoughts, “I’m sorry for exploding like that earlier.” He scrubbed a hand through his hair and looked so uncomfortable in his skin that Steve almost did a double take. This was not the same irritatingly arrogant man who seemed to eat up his tabloid superstardom in all the articles Steve had read, the seemingly invulnerable man who showboated on all the television appearances Steve had hunted down.

Steve shook his head. “No, it’s fine. You sounded like you needed to get it out.”

“Yeah, well…” Tony shrugged. “It’s just the same old stuff.”

Raising an eyebrow, Steve said, “People drugging your drinks to take advantage of you is routine for you?”

Tony looked away disconsolately. “It’s par for the course,” he said. Steve frowned when Tony laughed, tight and self-loathingly. “I know, I know, I have it all and I don’t have the right to complain.”

“Of course you do,” Steve said, because it was true. But Tony’s expression was one of surprise as they meandered toward an edge and looked out at the city. A few feet away, a couple was murmuring softly between quiet kisses as taxis zipped down 10th Avenue. “You can tell me, you know,” he offered cautiously. “I’ll listen.”

Tony scowled. “The last time someone with a pretty face said that to me, they ended up selling my secrets to the highest bidder—The National Enquirer won that one, I think. Or was it the Post?”

Pretty face? Steve pushed his traitorous heart (and libido) away. Now was hardly the appropriate time for that. He gave Tony a scornful look. “I didn’t even recognize you when I met you,” he pointed out. “If I don’t pay attention to the tabloids, I’m hardly going to do business with them.”

Tony laughed a little — a real laugh pleasant to Steve’s ears. There was a long pause before he spoke again, but Steve was surprised to find that it wasn’t as awkward as he was worrying that it would be. “I’m just tired,” Tony said finally. “Tired of living like this.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asked carefully.

Tony waved his hand in the air, gesturing to encompass everything around them. “This,” he said, “all of this…this celebrity bullshit. All the grandstanding. It’s pointless. When I got back from Afghanistan, I dismantled all munitions manufacturing and got into tech — which is what I’m good at — and when that wasn’t enough, energy — which is what I can contribute to the world. And yet,” he said haltingly, “everything feels so empty. I keep feeling like I should be doing more, helping people more, giving more. The weapons that I made killed people, so many people, and I didn’t care. I didn’t care, and Yinsen saved my life and then sacrificed his own for mine, and how does someone begin to work off such debt? I keep thinking I need to give the world more but there’s so little of me left that I just don’t know what else I can do.”

“You give the world plenty,” Steve countered. “I looked you up, Tony. All those scholarships? All those grants? All the donations and free tech you distribute to the less fortunate all over the world? Tell me, are those just publicity stunts?”

“No!” Tony exclaimed. “Of course not.”

Steve smiled kindly. “Then you’re doing fine. You don’t owe the world anything. Just…keep doing what you do best.”

Tony shook his head. “It’s not enough,” he said emphatically. “I still dream about Afghanistan all the time. Seeing the enemy use weapons with my name on them… Watching innocent people die before my eyes and knowing that I was responsible for that…and so much more. God, it’s horrible,” he said, thrusting a clenched fist to his mouth.

“You’re not alone,” Steve said quietly. Tony looked at him but didn’t say anything, so Steve continued, though his chest felt tight. “I was in Afghanistan, too. Served for four years. I saw things no man should ever have to see. I lost my best friend — thought he’d died — only to find out a year later that he had been taken prisoner and tortured and manipulated and I’d done nothing to help him. And then I almost died, and I still have nightmares about being stuck in the ice, and it’s just… I get it, Tony,” he said, though his voice was much less reassuring now that it had gone all wobbly. But it was important that Tony know he wasn’t alone in his pain. Steve knew that Bucky still woke up shouting some nights, and though he would never wish any suffering on his friend, knowing that he wasn’t the only one who had been changed by the war made him feel more capable of facing his demons. He couldn’t imagine believing that he was alone in his pain and thus having no one to turn to.

Tony was looking down at his hands, which were quivering. He nodded. Eyes halfway closed, he confessed in a stuttered whisper, “They tortured me. It was horrible. I dream about it all the time.” And then even more softly, “I… I’ve never told anybody that.”

Without a second thought, Steve reached out and pulled Tony in against his side. He was shaking horribly, so Steve ran his hand down Tony’s arm soothingly, even though he probably couldn’t feel it through his thick wool coat. “Shh,” he said gently. “Stay with me. You’re here now. You’re home. You’re safe.”

Tony took a deep gulping breath, his breath visible on the exhale.

“Fuck, Steve,” he choked, despair mingled with wild entreaty. Pressed against him, Steve didn’t miss Tony leaning into the embrace almost desperately. There was something about Tony like this that resonated with something inside Steve, like a corresponding part lighting up or a puzzle piece clicking into place.

As they remained pressed against each other tightly in silence, tiny flakes of snow began to drift downward, falling delicately and disappearing in Tony’s hair.

Steve very, very valiantly resisted the completely inappropriate urge to kiss him.

*

Natasha got scared. She ran.

And if she just happened to run to her ex-boyfriend-old-fling-good-friend Clint Barton, well. She couldn’t be blamed, right?

NATASHA: I’m coming over.

CLINT: What? Now? Where’s the fire?

NATASHA: I’m on your doorstep.

CLINT: Jesus wtf

Clint opened the door wearing only a towel, with a ludicrous amount of water dripping down his front. Christ, didn’t the man know how to use a towel properly? When she said so, he scowled at her and gestured for her to get into the house.

“I would have toweled off properly if someone hadn’t texted me while I was in the shower and then appeared on my doorstep out of nowhere in the middle of the night,” he groused. “For fuck’s sake, is my security really that shitty?”

“James asked me to be his girlfriend,” Natasha said in response.

“Well, shit,” Clint said, not missing a beat at the abrupt subject change. “I liked that one. You’ve been less bitchy ever since you started sleeping together. It’s been, what, years now? Why the hell would he upset the status quo? What an idiot.”

“I want to say yes,” Natasha blurted out, and if the situation hadn’t been so dire, she would have laughed outright at the astounded expression on Clint’s face.

“You’re not serious,” he said. “Who are you and what have you done with my Tasha?”

She rolled her eyes. She and Clint had a long and storied history. She had met him long ago, when she had been working as a spy and sniper for the KGB and he had been on the run after being framed for theft. He had haplessly fallen in love with her, and she with him. They had been young, naïve, and incredibly stupid. She had been so enamored that shortly after he had been hired by Interpol, she had submitted an application as well and then applied for American citizenship. Looking back, she didn’t regret her decision, but she did scorn her foolish reasoning behind it.

But work had inevitably gotten in the way of their relationship, which had become increasingly dysfunctional and strained by Natasha’s ambitions as a field agent and the need for her to constantly travel. They had ended things, Clint had started dating their fellow agent Bobbi Morse, and then he had eloped with her shortly after. Natasha and Clint had been together for years and the subject of marriage had never come up, but with Bobbi he had made such an impulsive decision out of the blue. Natasha had never told anyone, but she had been seriously hurt by Clint’s actions.

Then there had been Matt Murdock, a blind and brilliant lawyer who had captured her heart out of the blue. Realizing that they weren’t actually suited to one another, she had been the one to end their whirlwind romance this time, but the feelings hadn’t gone away. After a mission gone horribly wrong, she had sought him out after months without contact — only to find that he was in a new committed relationship. He had turned her down. The rejection had stung. Natasha wasn’t someone who got rejected.

After that, she stopped trusting in love and believing in happily ever afters, making a resolution never to dedicate herself so wholly to another person ever again. She had never been a romantic, but Clint and Matt had swayed her, made her want to believe. That was what cut so deeply. They had made her vulnerable and then hurt her.

Natasha had lost track of Matt over the years, but she and Clint had reconciled eventually — although Bobbi still didn’t like Natasha, and vice versa. Natasha now considered Clint one of her closest friends.

“Oh shut up and get me a drink,” she said, tossing her jacket onto the sofa and meandering into the kitchen, her heeled boots silent even against the wood floors. “Where’s Bobbi?”

“Business trip,” Clint said, pouring her a tumbler full of vodka and grabbing a bottle of beer from the refrigerator for himself.

Natasha eyed the label on his vodka and sighed. “James and I were working on a handle of the good stuff.”

Clint snorted. “So why aren’t you there now?”

Natasha sat down backwards on a kitchen barstool and gave her vodka a long sip, relishing in the familiar slow burn down her throat and in the depths of her belly. “You know very well why,” she said solemnly.

“Sure I do,” Clint replied, perching on the countertop and drinking his beer more slowly. “Maybe more than anyone in the world, but shit, Tasha, it sounds like you finally landed something good. And stable. Why throw away a good thing?”

“And what if it doesn’t stay good? What if I do the girlfriend thing again, and it turns out just as badly? I can’t go through that again, Clint.”

“Can’t or won’t?” he pointed out. “Natasha, you’re complicating a simple thing.” Then softer, “You don’t have to be unhappy, you know.”

Natasha remained silent. “I’m not unhappy,” she said finally. And that was the truth. She was neither particularly happy nor unhappy — although her time with James was the happiest she could remember being ever since she had hardened her heart. Clint knew her well enough to read between the lines.

“What’s it like, being with him?”

“Carefree,” Natasha said immediately. And, after a moment, “Like I want to be a better person.”

Clint fiddled with the label of his bottle, looking sad for a moment. “We were never carefree.”

“No,” Natasha agreed. “We were idiots.”

Clint laughed and raised his bottle. “Cheers to that.”

They clinked and downed their respective drinks, and their eyes met and held each other’s gaze.

“Go to him, Tasha,” Clint said softly. “It’s what you want, and you deserve to get what you want.”

“And what if it turns out badly?” Natasha said, unable to avoid imagining the worst.

“Then I will beat the shit out of him,” Clint promised. Natasha laughed and smirked.

“You’d have to get in line.”

*

Monday, December 10

“Thanks, Mr. Rogers,” Billy said as he gathered up his sketchbook and supplies. “I’ll see you on Wednesday.”

Steve smiled and said goodbye to his star pupil as he rushed off to his next class. Billy Kaplan was something special, capable of conceiving an idea and translating it to paper in the most beautiful and uniquely alive style Steve had ever seen. He had reminded Steve that he still had the ability to do good, back when he had begun to doubt that he would ever make a difference in anyone’s life in his career. Billy had come to him with that same spark in his eye that reminded Steve of himself, and since then they had grown close. Steve worried about that — the boy should be making friends his own age, not hanging out with his art teacher during lunch periods — but he remembered being a skinny thing in the old days and being alternately harassed and utterly ignored by all his classmates.

Steve was pondering how he could help Billy find his place in the treacherous realm of high school society when his phone startled him with a loud chirp. Almost no one ever texted him on weekdays, so he was frowning when he flipped the phone open and clicked the new message notification.

TONY: Entertain me.

Steve gaped at the text on the screen. How had Tony Stark gotten his number? How had Steve gotten Tony Stark’s number?

It had been three days since the art show, and Steve hadn’t gone one day without thinking about Tony and their exchange on the High Line — how he had been awkward and defensive yet trusting Steve with his vulnerability. It was as if he hadn’t known how to reach out, but some part of him had been desperate to. The thought that Tony would open up to him, it was…humbling. And rather lovely, if Steve were being honest with himself.

STEVE: How did you get this number?

TONY: Huh? Oh, I programmed it when I was checking out your horrible phone on Friday. By the way, do you want a new one? I can get you a new one.

STEVE: What? I don’t need you to buy me a phone! Mine is perfectly functional.

TONY: Riiight. Hello, I own the biggest tech company in the world. How about I just get you a prototype to test? Really challenge it to be user-friendly, you know.

STEVE: Oh shush. And no thanks, I like my phone.

TONY: Fine, be that way. I’ll just sneak one in your pocket the next time we hang out.

Steve blinked down at the screen as his heart did a stupid little somersault in his chest. Next time? But he couldn’t tell if Tony was flirting or if he was just speaking platonically. Maybe Bucky had been right with all of his teasing; Steve really had been out of the dating game for too long. Best to play it safe. Tony had shown him that he needed someone to be there for him. And Steve would be there for him, without any ulterior motives. Tony had enough people taking advantage of him in his life and was clearly skittish about it. Steve wouldn’t make it worse.

Steve wouldn’t let Tony push him away.

*

From: Glenn C. Talbot <glenn.c.talbot@us.army.mil>
To: Betty Banner <betty.banner@starkmail.com>
Subject: RE: Bored at work

Dear Betty,

Dunno what you’re talking about. The photos on the wall at your dad’s house are proof enough that you were an adorable little kid. Did you know that your old man still keeps a photo of you in his wallet? I know that you two don’t always get along, but he really loves you. I just thought you should know that.

Sometimes I think it would be nice to be bored at work. I’ve never really had that luxury. But don’t get me wrong: I don’t regret enlisting. This stuff is my life, and it’s the way I feel I can contribute the most to society. Gotta admit there are times when I wish I were smart like you and could make scientific breakthroughs happen, though. I admire you so much, Betty.

Yours,

Glenn

*

Tuesday, December 11

Teddy was screwed. He was falling madly in love with Billy Kaplan and completely addicted to hanging out with him. If such a thing were even possible.

He and Billy had started to hang out more, visiting their local comic shop together, grabbing afterschool meals, and playing video games together on the weekends. Teddy had begun to look forward to Billy’s company as the best part of his days, pickup basketball games and illicit alcohol runs with the guys be damned. It sounded so corny even in his head, but for the first time in his life, Teddy felt like he could actually be himself with Billy. With him, there was no pressure to be “cool,” to act the way that “popular kids” were expected to act. He had realized after the first few times that they hung out that his blustering hadn’t gained him Billy’s admiration — instead, Billy seemed to like him the best when he was being a huge freaking dork, blabbering on about how much he loved Spider-Man and debating aloud whether Hulk or his alter ego was the better character.

That was why he was so bummed when Billy canceled their plans to finish the final campaign in the video game they were playing together:

BILLY: Last minute change of plans. I can’t hang out today. Sorry.

TEDDY: What? Why?

BILLY: Too complicated to explain. Don’t worry about it.

But that only made Teddy worry even more — although if he were being perfectly honest with himself, he would have to admit that he felt a little betrayed as well. Hadn’t he proven himself to be a good friend to Billy? Didn’t Billy know that he could trust him with anything? But maybe he had been projecting. Did Billy consider him as good of a friend as he considered Billy? It wasn’t as if he had ever seen Billy hanging out with anyone else.

Saddened and feeling oddly bereft, he tagged along with the guys after school, in the hopes that a good game of ball would take his mind off of Billy. (It had never worked before, but it was certainly better than going home and doing homework.) He hadn’t expected such a simple decision to change his life.

Greg was trying to get him to do his Brad Pitt impression, which always amused him to no end. Sometimes, Teddy suspected that Greg kept him around just so he could show off his party trick at, well, parties. He wasn’t exactly fond of feeling used, but he also didn’t want to piss off his closest friend. (Although Billy was developing into a highly viable contender for that position.)

By the time they got to the basketball courts, Greg was rolling his eyes. “John won’t shut up about some nerd he beat up today,” he said. Teddy winced. He wasn’t exactly fond of his friends’ tendency to pick on their skinnier, weaker peers and often tried to turn a blind eye to their activities, knowing that there were only so many times he could tell them off for their cruelty before they beat him up. In fact, he was more often than not aware that if he hadn’t bulked up the summer before freshman year, he very well could have been a viable candidate for the jocks’ pummeling.

“He needs to get over himself,” Teddy sighed. Greg grinned and punched him in the arm.

“Yeah, but I’m not going to be the one to tell him that — are you?”

John was definitely the bigger and cockier one between the three of them, and his short temper was infamous. Teddy was pretty sure half of the school lived in fear of him. Teddy did not belong to that half. He merely thought John was an idiot who derived sadistic pleasure from controlling the people around him and intimidating those he thought weaker through violence and swagger. He was a coward more than anything — although he was a coward Teddy really did not want to piss off. There were a lot of people Teddy tried to avoid pissing off, as it turned out.

“Not likely,” he snorted as they dropped their backpacks down on a bench next to the courts and joined their friends where they were huddled in the center of one court. Teddy didn’t always love his friends, but he loved playing ball. He was good at it, he had fun playing it, and the adrenaline rush he got from it was addictively awesome. Besides, when they were all playing, he could almost forget that John liked to pick on people, Greg sometimes treated him more like a pet than as a friend, Ben measured people’s worth by their wealth, Daniel was an unapologetic bigot, and Chris enjoyed preying on wide-eyed freshman girls.

“Hey, Altman,” John greeted him, nudging him in the side. “You hear about my latest accomplishment?”

Teddy rolled his eyes. “Greg told me,” he said, really not in the mood to listen to John describe his “feat” in gruesome detail. Not that he ever was, but usually he was a little more tolerant. Today he was grumpy that he wouldn’t be able to see Billy until Thursday and just wanted to play some ball, damn it.

“Yeah,” John crowed triumphantly, “that fairy Kaplan had it coming. You should’ve seen the look on his face!”

Teddy couldn’t have heard that right. “What did you say?” he growled. But John was already bragging to someone else. Teddy glanced at Greg. He could hear his heartbeat racing in his ears. “What did John just say?”

Greg gave him a puzzled look and shrugged. “Something about ‘that fairy Kaplan.’ What’s up with you, dude?”

Billy. John had hurt Billy. John had hurt Billy. Billy was hurt. Billy had excused himself from hanging out with Teddy. Billy hadn’t wanted to tell Teddy why. John had hurt Billy.

Teddy saw red. The world narrowed down to just John and him. Acting purely on instinct, he leapt and tackled John to the ground, not caring that some of their friends had been knocked off their feet with the motion.

“How dare you touch him,” he snarled, baring his teeth. “You worthless piece of shit.”

“Jesus,” John exclaimed, gripping Teddy’s shoulders in an effort to throw him off. “What the hell has gotten into you, Altman?”

You hurt Billy,” Teddy shouted. “How could you hurt him?”

“Who the hell is Billy?” John said, and man did it feel good to punch that guy in the face. “Dude!” he choked out, coughing up blood. “Wait…you mean Kaplan?” He began to laugh, red dribbling down his chin, a grotesque sight matching the ones he always described of his victims. “What are you, his boyfriend?” he jeered. The words stung more than Teddy would have liked.

Teddy swung again, but John blocked his fist this time with a beefy arm. He rolled them around so he was on top, and they fought recklessly, tumbling back and forth on the blacktop as their friends watched and took pictures on their cellphones and cheered. Teddy was so focused on causing John pain that he barely even noticed.

“This is for everyone you’ve ever hurt,” he said, punching him in the face again, and this time there was an audible crack as his nose broke. “All those people who are a thousand times better than you.” John had gotten in quite a few punches, though, and Teddy could feel that one of his teeth was chipped and his ribs burned something awful. He was going to bruise for days. And the horrible truth was that while John did this all the time, Teddy had never been in a fight in his life. He had never imagined that he would ever have a reason to be.

So Teddy was not so surprised when John escaped his slacking grip and crawled to his feet, teetering to the side as he got in a final kick. It had been pretty inevitable, and Teddy could only be proud that he had gotten some damage in. He grunted and lay bonelessly in the middle of the basketball court, staring up at the wide blue sky.

“Come on, guys, let the fucker rot,” John pronounced, motioning for the other guys to help him up. Chris and Daniel went to him quickly, propping his arms around their shoulders so that he could lean on them. Teddy noted hazily and not without pride that he had a black eye and blood was crusting on his skin. Some of the other guys seemed torn — John was something of a ringleader, but he was an asshole even to his closest friends; Teddy could be a little too competitive on the court, but he had always been nice to them. Of Teddy’s closer friends, Ben and Greg hovered nearby, Greg even dropping to his knees.

“Teddy, what…” Greg said, trailing off. He didn’t seem to know what to do, caught between helping Teddy and following the rest of the guys in just leaving him there. Teddy almost felt bad for him.

“Kaplan is a good friend of mine,” he confessed. What did he have left to lose? “I wasn’t just going to let some jerk beat him up without giving him a taste of his own medicine.”

Greg looked stricken and his eyes suddenly filled with self-loathing, something Teddy had never seen on him before, and it hit Teddy suddenly that Greg hadn’t done a single thing during the fight — he had simply stood by as John had pummeled him. It really shouldn’t have surprised him; Greg had never been particularly noble or brave. But Teddy had still considered this guy his best buddy for a long time. Inexplicably, he felt tears climb into his eyes.

“Just go, Greg,” he murmured, turning away so Greg wouldn’t see him cry as his world crumbled. Whatever, he didn’t need such useless friends anyway. For all his skinny limbs and lack of physical coordination, Billy would back him up in a fight, Teddy knew with sudden certainty. “I deserve better.”

“Dude,” Greg said, and maybe Teddy was just projecting, but he sounded sad. He still got to his feet, though, and that made all the difference. Billy would fight for him, Teddy was sure he would.

Suddenly, Teddy knew what he had to do. As Greg walked off with Ben and the other guys, Teddy took a deep breath and got himself up slowly. It was time to take a chance. He had nothing to lose.

*

TEDDY: Hey, I'm outside. Let me in?

Billy flung the door open, and Teddy heard his voice before he saw him: “What are you doing here?” And then Billy gasped so loudly that Teddy burst out laughing despite the serious nature of the situation. “What happened to you?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” Teddy pointed out, raising his eyebrow at Billy's black eye and the cuts and abrasions on his cheek even as his heart broke over the sight of them. He could see a ring of finger-shaped bruises on his neck, and for a wild moment his stomach surged with the wild impulse to strangle John for hurting what was his.

“I got into a bit of a scuffle,” Billy admitted. Teddy shook his head in exasperation.

“A bit?” he repeated. “John doesn’t do anything by bits, I assure you.”

Billy winced, suddenly distracted from Teddy’s injuries. He hid his face partly behind the door, leaving just his eyes peeking out. “How did you find out?”

“He was bragging about it,” Teddy said quietly. “I punched him. A lot.”

Billy’s eyes grew as wide as saucers. “You did? For me? I mean…”

“Well, yeah,” Teddy said, and he cursed the blush he could feel rising on his face. “Also for being an asshole, but mostly for you.”

“I didn’t know you cared,” Billy teased, only it sounded more like disbelief than mocking. Teddy felt himself turn redder; Billy was doing a terrible job of hiding the wonder in his expression.

“Well, I do,” he said hotly, embarrassed. “Now, do I get to come in or not?”

“Yeah,” Billy said softly, opening the door wider and smiling in invitation. Teddy wished that it was a more specific kind of invitation. “Yeah, get in here.”

Billy poured them two glasses of orange juice — Mrs. Kaplan didn’t believe in soda — and led them up to his room, where the bed linens were tossed back on the bed, as if Billy had leapt up at Teddy’s text.

“Were you sleeping?” Teddy wondered. Billy shrugged.

“Getting the crap knocked out of you kinda tires you out, you know,” he said flippantly, though the strain was apparent in his smile. Teddy grimaced. Yeah, that was true enough.

“Yeah. Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you up,” he mumbled.

“No big deal,” Billy said. “Sleeping was getting boring anyway.”

Teddy laughed, slightly hysterical from the day. “Billy,” he said, flopping onto the floor of Billy’s cluttered room. “Why was John picking on you?” He was pretty sure he knew exactly what had set John off, but he wanted to hear Billy say it. He needed to hear Billy say it, in order to say it himself. He had never told anyone, never even said the words aloud. Some part of him had always expected to just go along with life, date a few girls he didn’t care enough about, get married to a nice one, raise a family and all the works. But Billy made him want to risk it all to not have to live a lie anymore. Billy made him want to be honest — and more than anything, for people to accept him for who he really was.

Billy gave him a funny look, suddenly looking inordinately troubled. “I thought you knew,” he said. Teddy closed his eyes and didn’t say anything. “I’m gay,” Billy continued, and the casual way he said it was killing Teddy. But then Billy’s voice trembled: “Is…is that going to be a problem?”

Oh. Oh no. “No!” Teddy blurted out, eyes snapping to meet Billy’s so he would know that he was telling the truth. “Of course not. Not at all. That would be crazy, because I’m. Also,” he stuttered, and then his words came to a stop.

Billy blinked, clearly having no idea what he was saying. “What?”

Teddy’s head spun, and he suddenly felt like throwing up all of his insides, emptying himself out until nothing in him could feel anymore.

“I am, too,” he said in a wrangled voice.

“You are…what?” Billy said, totally lost.

“Gay,” Teddy whispered, shutting his eyes again and letting his head loll to the side as an uncomfortable silence fell upon them. His stomach rolled. He had no idea what the expression on Billy’s face would be, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to find out. Logically, he knew Billy wouldn’t be revolted — that would be ridiculous, of course — but he had kept this a secret for so long that he found it difficult to imagine any other reaction.

“You’re kidding me,” Billy said flatly at last. Teddy cracked one eye open, and then the other. “Teddy, that’s not funny.”

“Yeah, it’s really not,” Teddy muttered, still trying to gauge the situation and completely unable to read the strange emotion in Billy’s eyes that made them glow with something bright. “I’m not joking around, Billy. I wouldn’t. Not about…that.”

“But you… You’re athletic, and big and buff, and popular, and all those jocks love you.”

Teddy chuckled weakly, still feeling queasy. “And I love comic books more than anything in the world. Don’t believe all of the stereotypes you hear,” he said.

“Yeah,” Billy breathed in wonder. “I guess. Wow.”

And in Teddy’s fantasy, this was when he would go over to Billy and kiss him, consequences be damned. And every bone in Teddy’s body yearned to grab the other boy and do just that, but now that the perfect moment had come, Teddy couldn’t. His heart was racing in his ears, and all of his limbs felt numb. Billy’s warm brown eyes were still clouded over with that strange emotion, and they were so beautiful. Teddy didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t move.

And then the moment raced past him, slipping from his grasp.

“So… You wanna play a game or something?” Billy said, fidgeting with his sleeve. Teddy covered his face with his elbow, shoving away the crushing disappointment that had invaded his chest and spiraled out to the rest of him.

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “That sounds good.”

Teddy helped Billy set up the console and slumped down on the ground in front of Billy’s old TV. Billy sat down next to him, close enough that Teddy was overly aware of his presence but wasn’t touching him at all. Not until Billy nudged him gently with an elbow, anyway.

“Hey,” he said. “Thanks.”

“For what?” Teddy asked, puzzled at the non-sequitur.

“For being on my side. For telling me what you told me. And for being the best friend I’ve ever had.”

Teddy latched onto that word, “friend,” like a lifeline and smiled, doing his best to leave his fantasies behind. He had been wrong. Now more than ever, he had everything to lose.

Billy was everything.

*

Natasha hated dwelling on things. It had never done anyone any good, and it was a distraction in the field. She didn’t tolerate distractions. But James’s words and that kicked-puppy expression on his face when she had rejected him continued to rattle inside her head.

Would it be so bad to change?

Natasha made a good agent because she was a master of disguise. She could slip easily from persona to persona, adapt to any scenario, convince anyone that her intentions were true, and keep a level head as the world imploded around her. But that was her job. It was significantly harder to do it when she was personally invested in the protection of something — her heart, her well-being, her pride.

James was everything that she had never known she had wanted: strong, honorable, steadfast, driven. A good man, but a damaged one — one who understood what it was like to be unmade. One who didn’t think less of her because she was physically attractive or dangerous, or expect more of her because she was both. He made her feel safe, and feel okay with the fact that he made her feel safe.

But Natasha was terrified of moving beyond that. She knew he cared about her deeply; he never bothered to hide that, and she liked that about him. But to commit fully was something else entirely. She had always felt comfortable with James because there had never been the pressure to move beyond casual companionship.

Then again, she had meant what she had said to Clint; a large part of her yearned to run into James’s arms and just give him whatever he wanted. But listening to that instinct was what had gotten her heart broken previously, and she had sworn to herself that she would never let anyone get to her like that again.

Her thoughts were traveling in an endless loop, and it was so pointless. This was exactly why she didn’t do relationships anymore. Second-guessing her own decisions was awful.

She needed to get away, and she needed to get away now. Every night in New York that she spent away from James felt wrong and pathetically empty. She hoped she would be able to convince Director Fury to give her a deep cover mission far, far away.

*

Wednesday, December 12

Bruce and Betty’s love was a quiet one; it always had been. Wednesday evening found them sitting in their warmly lit living room in companionable silence as the news played quietly on the television, some anchors debating rumors of the next Starktablet. A modest tree twinkled in the corner, covered in an array of ornaments they had collected over the years. The noise of their neighbors shuffling could be heard through the ceiling, but it wasn’t loud enough to be a disturbance. Outside, snow fell on brightly lit streets as happy hour stragglers headed home. Betty was reading a novel Rick Jones had recommended the last time he had been over for dinner. Freshly showered, Bruce was scribbling on a notepad, frowning down at his equations in consternation.

Betty leaned up from where she was lying across the sofa, feet against the side of his thigh, to gently smooth out his furrowed brow and kiss his cheek. Looking up from his work, he smiled at her and touched her cheek. They kissed.

“Thanks,” he murmured. “I needed that.”

Betty smiled, too. “I know. Do you want dessert? There’s still some of that salted caramel cheesecake left over, and I can make peppermint hot chocolate.”

“Sounds great. Do you need help?”

“Don’t worry about it. I know you’re stressed out about this project.”

“It’s going to save so many lives if it works,” Bruce said earnestly. “But I have to get it exactly right to maximize its potential.”

“I know,” Betty said, kissing his forehead and heading to the small kitchen. Neither Betty nor Bruce were much of cooks, though they did try, so their kitchen was filled with random ingredients and seasonings that they usually purchased for a single meal and then never used again. They were trying to eat at home more often now that Bruce was worried about his diet affecting his disposition, though, so their refrigerator was full of fresh produce from the farmers’ market in Union Square.

Betty moved the basket of cherries to the side to retrieve the storage container in which she had been storing the pieces of cheesecake, leftovers of the gift from Leo Samson and his girlfriend Delia the last time they had all had dinner together. Samson had been Bruce’s first — and until Xavier, most effective — psychiatrist, but there had been an awkward situation in which he had expressed interest in Betty that had made Bruce the opposite of calm, and that had been the end of that. Since Samson had started dating Delia, he and Bruce had been attempting a tenuous friendship.

A short time later, Betty put the two steaming mugs of peppermint hot chocolate (one with marshmallows, one without) on a tray next to the plates of cheesecake and brought it to the coffee table, nudging Bruce’s feet out of the way.

“Time for a break,” she announced. Bruce set down his notebook and took up a dessert fork.

“Thanks for this, sweetheart,” he said.

“You’re very welcome,” replied Betty, picking up her plate. “By the way, I just remembered: Sue and Reed asked us to brunch on Sunday. Are you feeling up to it?”

“I should be okay,” Bruce said around a mouthful of cheesecake. “Mm, this is good. Give them a tentative yes.”

“Great, I’ll let Sue know,” Betty said and blew gently on the hot chocolate to cool it down. “Now, can we please look for a documentary or something to watch instead of this garbage? I’m so sick of hearing about the Starktablet that isn’t even coming out for another six months!”

*

Thursday, December 13

Jan hadn’t even noticed the escalation of arguments at first. But bimonthly quarrels turned into biweekly fights and then daily shouting matches, and they began taking turns sleeping in the guest room. Hank started coming home only after ten, and Jan stopped asking him about dinner before making plans with her friends. But the more space they gave each other, the more their presences seemed to grate on each other.

The final argument erupted from a disagreement over their Christmas plans. Jan wanted to spend the holidays with her family, but Hank didn’t want to be part of it, citing his discomfort toward her mother and her high society life. Normally Jan wouldn’t make such a big deal out of his undisguised scorn toward her family, but she was tired of putting up with his insensitivity and how frequently his anger stemmed from his ridiculous insecurities.

“Don’t insult my mother,” she snapped. “And don’t be so dramatic; it’ll just be Christmas dinner and a party.”

“No is no,” Hank shot back, stubbornly refusing to budge on the issue, as usual. “Do you know how it feels to be under their scrutiny? Do you know how belittling it is when your mother’s friends ask me about my salary? They look at me like I’m not good enough for you, Janet. They think you’re slumming and that this is just a phase. I hate it! I refuse to be a part of it. If you’re so keen on it, then go on. I’ll find something else to do.”

“But I want you there,” Jan protested. Why couldn’t he just get over it? Why was he so afraid of people and what they thought of him? It was something she would never understand about him. “I don’t want to spend Christmas without you.”

Hank rolled his eyes. “What are you, a petulant child? It’s one or the other. Let me know when you decide.” Shooting one last condescending glare at her, he started making his way out of the room.

Jan grabbed his arm and yanked him back toward her.

“We are not done talking,” she hissed. “And you’re the one being childish here, not me. Can’t you just do this one thing for me, Hank? Please. It would mean a lot.”

“Don’t be pathetic, Janet,” Hank retorted, shrugging her off. “Begging isn’t going to help you. I’ve already made up my mind.”

“I am not begging,” Jan said indignantly, and if she was raising her voice, she could hardly be blamed. “I just want you to come with me. Mother expects it.”

“It’s always about what you want, isn’t it?” he boomed, scoffing in disgust. The expression on his face was not a kind one. “You never bother considering my feelings.”

That was it. Jan had been a saint all these years, stubbornly holding onto a broken man while burying away all the hurt he caused her deep within herself. She had done so much for him — stayed with him when she had so many other options— and it was as if he hadn’t even noticed. Rage boiled within her even as his words cut like machetes across already tender wounds.

She exploded.

“You are the blindest, most selfish man I have ever met!” Jan screamed. She didn’t care if she sounded hysterical anymore. She had put up with him for too long. “It’s like you don’t even get how hard it is to live with you, like you don’t notice all the shit I let slide! I take your insults, your snide little comments, your judgmental bullshit — and you accuse me of never considering your feelings? Fuck you, Hank! Fuck you for making me fall in love with you and then turning into someone I hate!”

“Shut up. Shut up. Shut up!” he shouted. His left arm was in the air, poised to strike.

Jan froze. Everything stuttered to a stop.

Red-faced and trembling, Hank froze, too, his eyes wide and horrified. The arm slowly returned to his side, though he stared at his hand as if it were possessed. And boy, did she hate her own sentimentality, because even now sympathy — pity, really — tugged at her heartstrings, like an unwelcome invader amid her swelling anger. She shoved it aside. He didn’t deserve it.

“What the fuck was that?” Jan spat as shock subsided into fury. “You would hit me? You would dare hit me, Hank Pym? You don’t think I could give as good as I got, or better?”

Hank looked sick. “I wouldn’t, Jan, you have to believe me that I wouldn’t.”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Jan said, grabbing her coat, phone, and keys and storming out of the apartment.

*

Friday, December 14

The jocks always went off-campus for lunch, but they left without Teddy today. Again. In fact, not one of his old friends had spoken a single word to him all week. Teddy tried to tell himself that he didn’t care about those jerks, but it hurt just as badly anyway. What was worse was that he was craving a burrito from Gordo, but it was Friday, and they always went to Gordo for burritos on Friday. Part of him wanted to just go anyway, to show them that he didn’t give a crap, except that he did, and the rest of him could only imagine how humiliating it would be to see them all gorging themselves at the little mismatching tables and pretending that they didn’t miss him (although maybe that part was wishful thinking).

So Teddy grabbed a lousy burger from across the street and found Billy, who sat alone at the same table most days for lunch, eating what his mom meticulously packed for him while reading comics or finishing homework assignments.

“Hey,” Teddy said. “What’chu reading?”

Smiling, Billy flashed him the cover the newest issue of Journey into Mystery.

“Oh, I haven’t gotten that one yet. Can I borrow it when you’re done?”

“I just started,” Billy said. “You want to read it with me?”

Teddy stared doubtfully at the narrow bench and how close he’d have to be sitting to Billy in order to read the small print.

“I can wait,” he said. It wasn’t that he didn’t want that kind of contact; it was more that he was terrified someone would see and then… And then what?

“No, come on, I insist,” Billy said, and Teddy tilted his head at him appraisingly. Screw it. His friends had ditched him, and now Billy was his only friend in the school. Teddy had spent all his life trying to be cool and to fit in and be accepted and liked, but where had it gotten him? He had spent the past few years of his life hanging out with people who he didn’t really even like objectively but had been too cowardly to stand up to or just leave.

But they were no longer a part of his life, and now… Now, Billy was the only person whose opinion really mattered.

“All right, scoot over, then,’’ Teddy said, and sat down next to his best friend.

And maybe if he sat a little closer than was polite and happily leaned his head down with Billy’s to read about what the Asgardians were up to this month, then, well. As long as Billy didn’t protest, he didn’t care who saw them together and made all the wrong assumptions.

After all, those assumptions were only wrong because Billy didn’t like him back.

*

TONY: What’s up today, Star-Spangled?

STEVE: Waiting for the subway. I get out of work early Fridays, but I’m going to a homeless shelter to help out. And why do you keep calling me that?

TONY: Army man, patriotic, you know. I’m also willing to call you the Sentinel of Liberty if you prefer.

STEVE: Whatever you say, Hugh Hefner.

TONY: What kind of comeback is that? I’m disappointed in you, Rogers. And volunteering on a Friday? Stop making the rest of us look bad.

Tony was an idiot, and he was going to get himself in so much trouble. He and Steve had been texting regularly all week, and it was turning him into a lovesick fool at an alarmingly fast rate. Steve was legitimately distracting him from his work, which he hadn’t even known was actually possible. Pepper had been embarrassingly excited when she had found out who he was texting (well, more like dictating texts for Jarvis to type out, but still) so fervently. She kept trying to set up dinner reservations for them, but Tony didn’t want that. Well, he did, but he didn’t know if Steve wanted it, and he didn’t want to screw things up by jumping the gun the way he always seemed to do. When he fell for people, he always fell too hard and too fast, and too often they ended up stabbing him in the back. Most times, connecting with someone didn’t end up meaning shit.

He was tired of that endless cycle and was starting to think that just making a new friend wouldn’t be so bad. He had always been lousy at relationships, but forging friendships didn’t come any easier to him. That was evident enough from the fact that the people he called his friends were all people who either were employed by his company or had been employed by his company at some point. People didn’t tend to like Tony, whether they got to know him or not. In some cyclical kind of retaliation that had been ingrained in him since childhood, he didn’t like people either.

But there was something about Steve, something special that Tony couldn’t put his finger on, something that fascinated him. Not just the fact that he was an army vet with a background in art or that he donated his Friday nights to homeless shelters, but also that there had been something precious in the way he had held Tony as he trembled — and hadn’t been daunted by the man falling apart in his arms. He had known what Tony needed in that moment, despite barely knowing him.

When Steve had spoken of his own experience in Afghanistan, a haunted look had occluded his eyes, and something in his broken voice had struck a chord deep within Tony. Here was someone who, too, had gone to Afghanistan and come home damaged. Tony’s best friend Rhodey, too, had served overseas, with the Marines in Southeast Asia, but he had always seemed stronger for it. And Tony always felt strangely ashamed that he had been a prisoner rather than a soldier.

STEVE: They always need an extra hand around the holiday season. I’m helping them run a toy drive for the kids this year. You’re welcome to join us if you feel so bad.

Tony scratched his goatee and flicked his holoscreen of blueprints away as he called out, “Hey, Jarvis, how many of the Starktablet 7.0s do we still have lying around the Long Island warehouse?”

TONY: Naw, Tony Stark volunteering would become a media circus that would do more harm than good. There is something I might be able to do to help those kids, though…

*

Jan couldn’t focus. She couldn’t get their argument out of her mind.

The burning words spat out of desperation kept echoing in her head. Even the mere memory left a bitter taste in her mouth. Maybe they would fade in time. But she didn’t she would ever forget the sight of Hank’s hand raised to strike her.

Had he really meant to do it, or had it been merely a threat? Even if he had fully intended to hit her, could he really have gone through with it? Had he been acting on pure instinct, or had it been a carefully calculated move?

She knew what she wanted to believe — but there was no way to know the truth. There would never be. She had thought she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Hank, but would she have to spend all that time wondering what he had been thinking that night? How could she go back to him with such doubts ringing ceaselessly in her head?

When it came to love, where did one draw the line? Where did the border lie between loving someone and saving oneself? Because Jan loved Hank dearly, but his instability was destroying her like a slow-acting poison of the cruelest kind. And she couldn’t stop thinking that she deserved better than a man who caused her to go through such torment.

But she knew Hank. At least she thought that she did. But the Hank she knew would never even hit a guy for insulting his mother, much less strike his own girlfriend. Hank was a devout pacifist and not a man of action in any way. He avoided confrontations like the plague, hiding his problems away and hiding away from his problems. He tried to devise solutions, not cause strife.

Yet she couldn’t deny what she had seen. It had been like a dagger in the heart. Hank needed to get help. He was fighting a losing battle, and worse, he was being his usual blindly proud self about it.

She wavered back and forth about her decision, but in the end, she knew that she had to be the brave one. No matter how codependent they had grown over the years, she had to sever their ties. Their love, always too fierce, had been twisted into a vile, nebulous shadow of itself—no less strong but now burdened with doubts and accusations.

Jan would always love Hank.

But she had to demarcate that line between them before her devotion destroyed her from the inside out.

So by the time Hank got home, Jan already had a suitcase packed. Nothing major—just a toothbrush and some pajamas and a few changes of clothes, along with a couple pairs of shoes. She set the bag by the door with her coat and boots and caught up on some work at the coffee table while she waited for Hank to get back from work.

“Jan?” Hank said anxiously when he walked through the elevator doors and saw her things. Although he was practically radiating fear, Hank was not a stupid man by any means, so he just asked quietly, “What’s all this?”

“Hank,” Jan said, struggling to maintain eye contact even as her voice broke, “I’m leaving you.”

The startled, distraught noise that came from Hank was like that of someone being sentenced to death row. Jan was instantly filled with pity — but not remorse.

“Oh god,” he said, thrusting a fist over his mouth as his eyes watered and the muscles his cheeks pulsated unnaturally as he struggled to keep his sobs in. His knees buckled, and he folded in half onto the cold marble ground. “I’m sorry,” he choked out. “I’m so, so sorry, Jan, I. I don’t. I just. I’m so sorry.”

Overtaken by her own sadness, Jan was at a loss of what to say. She had expected him to be angry and indignant, to lash out at her and cement her decision. Not this. Not tears and apologies and what sounded too much like resignation in his breaking voice. God, had he expected this? The thought was heartbreaking.

Hank’s shoulders shook as he cried, and Jan had to clench her fists so tightly that her long nails dug painfully into her palms in order to stop herself from going to him. Every bone in her body screamed for her to take him into her arms, to protect him and give him the strength to fight against whatever was attacking him. Only that was no longer an option. Too long had she suffered and felt insecure about her place in his life. This time, she had to be the one to hurt him — if she didn’t now, he would never stop hurting her.

Jan looked at him in the low light of the antique living room lamps and saw two people superimposed on top of each other. There were times when they were more difficult to tell apart and then times when the tenuous tape holding them together seemed to crack or disappear altogether — those times, they were as different as night and day. One man was reticent but smart, awkward but sweet, and always puzzled when people around him weren’t as excited about things like the mating habits of ants as he was. She had fallen in love with this man when she was young. But the other was arrogant and cruel, apathetic and inattentive, treating her as if she were a nuisance in his life. She had loved the former man for so long that she couldn’t help but love this latter one too, in a twisted way only befitting of his love for her.

Both were familiar. Both hurt her, as long as they were together. She could love the kind, absentminded Hank, and she could hate the mean, condescending Hank, but she could no longer do both and maintain a belief that this relationship was going to go anywhere other than down the drain.

“Do you understand why?” Jan said softly, swiping at her own tears. She didn’t even know if he could hear her over the gutting sobs that were being wrenched out of his throat. “You have to understand why, Hank. You’re not well. You need to get help. Please. If not for your own sake, then for mine.”

“I will,” Hank hiccupped. “I will make it up to you, I swear. I will find a way to fix it. Then we can be happy again.”

“Don’t,” Jan said, trying futilely to stop the fresh flow of tears. “Don’t, Hank, don’t make this harder than it has to be, please. Just get better. Don’t think of me. I don’t want to give you false hope. Don’t think of me.”

“How can I think about anything else?” Hank shouted. “What the hell else is there in the world for me, Janet?”

“Don’t shout at me!” Jan snapped. “I’m not going to fight with you anymore. I’m going to stay at Carol’s for a week. Move your stuff out of here by then.”

Hank rocked on his knees, covering his face with his hands. Jan scooted closer cautiously and then kneeled down to grasp his shoulder with as little affection as she could manage. Every nerve in her body was on edge, feeling open and exposed.

“Come on,” she said gently. “Get up.”

He didn’t, instead clinging onto her. He was trembling.

“Jan,” he whispered. “How can you leave when I love you so much?”

“Oh, honey,” she said, once again flooded with pity. “It has never been your love that I’ve questioned.”

Hank nodded, closing his eyes. He grabbed for her hand, but she folded his fingers closed and caressed the outside once before squeezing his shoulder and standing up. She didn’t trust her resolve.

“I’m going to go now,” she said, heart already aching for him but brain reminding her that it knew better. Still, she felt like she was saying goodbye to half of herself. There was no easy way to put all of her feelings into words. She could only hope that Hank understood and would seek help. He was a good person; he was just…troubled. And being too proud to seek wasn’t helping. More than anything else, she hoped that this would be a wakeup call. “Take care of yourself, Blue Eyes.”

Perhaps it was ridiculous, but she was proud that she held the rest of her tears in all the way until she reached Carol’s apartment.

*

From: Betty Banner <betty.banner@starkmail.com>
To: Glenn C. Talbot <glenn.c.talbot@us.army.mil>
Subject: RE: Christmas plans

Glenn,

Oh, that sounds lovely. I’m sure your family will be so happy to see you, and maybe this will be a good opportunity to make up with your brother. And the cabin sounds so picturesque.

I think Bruce and I are staying in the city this year. Things have been a little rough for us lately, so I don’t think we’re up for traveling. It will nice to just bundle up and listen to Christmas songs while we sip spiced cider. In contrast, my friends are dragging me to Tony Stark’s annual New Year’s Eve party, which is going to be absolutely ridiculous, I just know it. I’m not really interested in that kind of thing, but Bruce says Tony and his friends are making him go, too, so I guess we might as well.

Are you staying in Michigan until New Year’s, or do you have other plans?

Best,

Betty

*

It was as if once the concept of breaking up with Jane had been planted into Thor’s head, every moment of his life with her had been tainted. Things that he had easily forgiven before suddenly mutated into egregious character flaws in his mind. Little disagreements suddenly seemed like signs that they would never work out. The traitorous voice in his mind pointed out that their cultures were too different; he would never understand her completely and she him. The poisonous devil whispered that he had been ignoring the problems brewing between them for years, and that this argument over living together and about trusting Loki was only the manifestation of all those long-simmering conflicts.

“Thor,” Jane was saying now, tugging his chin toward her as they sat together on the couch in her apartment. “Thor, are you listening to me?”

“I apologize, fair Jane. My mind is elsewhere today,” he confessed. He had never been capable of lying to her. Not that Thor was all that great at lying in the first place — as Loki was much too fond of reminding him.

"What's troubling you?" Jane asked. Her fingers grazed his jawline gently, fingernails shorn to a practical length. That was his Jane, practical to a fault. He often caught her dozing off over her papers or forgetting to shower when she was on the verge of some kind of monumental discovery. To his shame, Thor had no real interest or knowledge in her work, though he tried hard to pay attention when Jane took the time to explain the basics to him. He had no patience for trying to figure out how the world worked, and trying to understand all those theories made his head hurt.

“Just thinking,” he said solemnly.

“That’s a surprise,” Jane teased him. Her easy smile dropped when he didn’t respond. “Hey, big guy, what’s on your mind?”

Thor sighed. “Do you ever think we are too different to last?”

“Um,” Jane said, “no. Why… Why, do you?”

“Perhaps,” Thor said softly. “I can’t keep up with you, Jane. You think in terms of equations and proofs. I think in terms of pounds and pints. You deserve someone who can debate astrophysics with you, who can understand you when you explain your work.”

“But I don’t want anyone else,” Jane said, taking his hands in hers. Her fingers looked obscenely tiny when held against his larger ones.

“We hail from different worlds,” Thor said. “And I will forever be grateful for the way you welcomed me into your unfamiliar one, but… There are too many things we don’t understand about each other and that I fear we never will.”

“Thor, where is this coming from? This isn’t like you,” Jane said, and Thor felt mildly irritated that her tone was more one of concern than outrage or hurt. He knew she never did it intentionally, but sometimes Jane had this way of speaking to him that made him feel as if she saw him as a child or a stupid man. Of course he was less intelligent than her, but so were most people in the world. It didn’t give her the right to treat him like he was lesser for it. It reminded him too much of the way his father talked to him and Loki.

“I speak from my heart, Jane, you know that,” he said. Jane’s brow became further knit in worry.

“Yes, but…”

Thor extracted his hands from hers and turned away. “If you will not grant my thoughts the respect they deserve, then there is no point in having this conversation.” Then quieter, “I do not know how you believe us to be ready to move in together. Sometimes I feel as if you believe you can dictate my every move just because I let you have your way so much.”

Let me?” Jane said, raising her eyebrows. “Excuse me if I try to manage your life a little; it’s not as if you do a very good job of it.”

“It’s no business of yours how I go about my life,” Thor declared. He had had enough of other people meddling in his affairs. His brother, his father, and now his girlfriend? No, it was ridiculous and embarrassing. He was not a child who needed to be coddled.

Jane threw her hands up in the air in exasperation. “I’m your girlfriend! Of course it’s my business!”

“Not anymore,” Thor thundered, getting to his feet and stomping to the front door, only remembering his coat as he was halfway out of the apartment.

The trek home from the subway was cold and lonely. It started snowing midway, and Thor pulled his coat closer for warmth as he continued debating with himself whether he should go back to Jane and apologize, or stick to his guns and find out what it was like to live as a single man in New York.

His pride won in the end. Some things never changed, he thought glumly.

*

Thor stormed into the apartment, pushing aside the elevator doors before they fully opened. His face was a maelstrom of emotions — angry brow, sad eyes, and pouting lips. He threw his umbrella and coat to the ground as if they had offended him. Loki looked up in interest from where he was videochatting with Leah, who was trying to figure out what to wear for her date with her longtime crush Damion Hellstrom.

LOKI: Hold up.
LOKI: Thor just got home. He looks upset. TTYL.
LEAH: Loki, don’t do anything stupid.

Loki is busy: “Burdened with glorious purpose.”

“Pick up your things,” Loki said in a bored tone, testing the waters. Thor whirled to send him a scorching glare and then stomped to his room. The door slammed with a loud bang. Loki couldn’t help but chuckle, flexing the knuckles of his fingers. A volatile Thor was always great fun. He leapt off the couch and headed toward Thor’s room, making a stop by the foyer to pick up Thor’s abandoned things and putting them back in their proper places.

Loki opened Thor’s door without knocking, as was his custom. He poked his head in and saw Thor sitting on top of the covers of his bed with his arms propped on his bent knees and head in his hands. There was a defeated air to him, evident from the uncharacteristic slump in his shoulders.

“What havoc have you wreaked now?” Loki said, purposefully making his tone that of one coaxing a scared wild animal.

“I do not wish for company, brother,” Thor muttered into his arms.

That was rather unusual. Intrigued, Loki opened the door and sat down next to Thor on the bed. “Sulking suits you unwell, Thor,” he said. “Tell me what happened.” He knew Thor was not one for keeping secrets, especially not about himself.

“Jane and I are no longer together,” Thor said glumly.

Loki suppressed his instinctual gleeful reaction, but his eyes glittered. The game was on. “How did that happen?”

“I told her we were too different and then we got into an argument. She tries to run my life, and I can no longer bear it. It reminds me too much of being manipulated by Father. And by you.”

“I told you she was not right for you,” Loki couldn’t help saying.

“Yes, but when have I listened to you, brother?” said Thor.

Loki snorted. “You do have a tendency to do exactly the opposite of what I advise you.”

After a moment of contemplation, Thor said quietly, “Loki, do you think I am not meant for relationships? They never turn out well for me.”

Loki laughed humorlessly. “They never turn out well for anybody.”

“Aye,” said Thor sorrowfully. “I love her fiercely, though. I love the passion in her eyes when she speaks of things I don’t understand. Why cannot love be enough?”

Loki glanced away to disguise the ceaseless squall of jealousy and disdain that tossed and turned in his stomach. His brother was a fool, but what did that make Loki? After all these years, he still could neither quench nor fully accept his fierce regard for Thor. “No one knows how to love perfectly.”

“That is the truth,” Thor sighed. “We can only try.”

On impulse, Loki reached over and smoothed Thor’s hair. Dampened by snow, it looked darker than usual, matching Thor’s brooding mood. At the tender caress, Thor lifted his head. His cheeks were devoid of tears, but his eyes were bright and watery.

“Come now,” Loki said. “Let us go out and take your mind off of all this.”

Thor frowned suspiciously at the invitation. Rightfully so. “You don’t like bars or drinking,” he said. Loki shrugged, deliberately casual.

“It won’t kill me,” he said. “And I know you won’t pass up the opportunity to get me drunk.”

Predictably, Thor seemed to perk up at the notion. Grinning, he said, “I don’t believe it. It’s been years since I’ve seen you even tipsy.”

Keeping his smirk to himself, Loki pulled Thor to his feet. Sometimes his brother was so easy to manipulate that it was barely even fun. In moments like this, Loki could only marvel at the tedium of the life he was leading. With only such dull pawns to play with, it was no wonder that he had turned to so-called crime and the criminal community for entertainment.

“With haste, brother,” said Loki, grabbing his phone on the way out.

LOKI: Thor broke up with the wench!!!

LEAH: Oh god, you’re going to do something stupid now, aren’t you?

LOKI: Shut it, you should be happy for me.

LEAH: If you make a fool of yourself, I will refuse to speak to you for a week.

LOKI: As if you could bear to be parted from me.

LEAH: Whatever, Loki. Just be careful. If he turns you down, it will break you.

LEAH: And I won’t be responsible for picking up the pathetic pieces of your shattered heart.

LOKI: You and I both know that you would do it anyway. And thank you for the concern, but I know my brother.

*

The Bifrost was hardly Thor’s scene, which was exactly why Loki decided to take him there. Rich jazz notes emanated from speakers hidden in the walls, mahogany tables were littered across the cozy space, and golden light fixtures danced down from the ceiling like enchanted acrobats. Heavy burgundy-colored velvet curtains were drawn across discreet leather booths, where unhappy husbands (and occasionally wives) futilely chased their youth with nimble dancers the age of their children. Billionaires entertained beautiful mistresses and shady clients alike, feigning sophistication with generous tips and exaggerated pompousness.

“Don’t worry, their ale selection is excellent,” Loki reassured Thor as he waltzed up to a booth shaded from prying eyes. “Although I would really recommend a few of their stronger cocktails if our goal is to get you hammered.”

They removed their coats and settled down in the booth. Rolling up his sleeves, Loki eyed Thor speculatively. The setting was right — this was Loki’s turf, and Thor’s uneasiness with his surroundings would make him easier to surprise. The situation was ideal — Thor was distraught, and people were always so much more vulnerable (delightfully, pathetically so) when they were emotionally compromised. Now Loki just needed to play his cards right, and the prize would be his.

An hour later, Thor was staring glumly down at his half-finished pint of hefeweizen, five shot glasses haphazardly scattered on his side of the table. Across from them, a matching set of five stalwartly stood in a resentful straight line. Loki couldn’t unfold the scowl that had formed on his face. Thor had teased him about being a lightweight, and Loki had had no choice but to match him shot by shot. Not one of his best decisions — he had always envied Thor’s ability to handle his drink. Loki hated the way alcohol snatched away his control over his facilities and dulled his mind into a useless blade.

“I know you dislike Jane, brother, but if you were me, would you go back to her?”

Through his haze, Loki snorted at the stupid question. Thor really did make things too easy. It almost enough to make him lose interest in his ultimate goal. Almost.

“You are too good for that wretched woman,” he declared, hoping that he was only imagining how jealous he sounded when he voiced the words aloud. “You have wasted enough time on her; do not sully your already miniscule mind by thinking on her.”

Thor drained his glass and waved down the waitress. He didn’t seem even vaguely tipsy, to Loki’s absolute fury. “I don’t feel too good for her,” he said.

Thor’s somber moods were the worst. Loki could handle anger, but sadness did not suit Thor, bringing his shoulders down into a slouch and emptying his eyes of their usual annoying spirit.

“The harlot is an academic,” Loki said dismissively. “She is bound to measure a man’s worth by his scholarly achievement, not his boldness or strength. You will never be good enough, in her eyes.”

His carefully calculated target hit its mark. Thor’s shoulders slumped even lower, and he barely glanced up as he mumbled for the waitress to bring him another beer.

“I thought after everything that happened with Father, I had learned my lesson,” Thor said quietly. “But it seems that I am doomed to constantly be blinded by my own arrogance. I was stupid to think I could establish something secure with Jane. I am a nothing but a fool.”

Surreptitiously, Loki scooted closer to Thor in the booth. “You’re not a fool,” he pronounced. “Though you frequently act in foolish ways.”

Thor chuckled. “Yes, Loki, very helpful. What ever would I do without your barbed compliments?”

There, that was better. Banter was good. Laughter was even better. Loki smirked and edged closer. “I promised to get you drunk, not to make you feel better.” And then deliberately softer, projecting a vulnerable demureness, “Relationships are not exactly my forte, either, as I’m certain you are quite aware.”

“It is not the same,” Thor declared. “Your solitude is one is of your own choosing.”

Hmm, an unexpected response, though he was uncertain whether Thor was being more perceptive than usual or if Loki was just being less so. He eyed his nearly untouched Midori sour with suspicion, fingers tightening almost threateningly around the beads of condensation dotting the highball glass. He was now sitting close enough to Thor to smell him, musk and sunlight and cardamom mingled with the infuriating scent of what Loki had come to recognize as the harlot’s soap. The nearness sent a dizzying sensation through his head, which he immediately blamed on the alcohol as well.

“You sound very sure,” he said. Definitely not one of his best comebacks. But his tongue seemed intent on dodging out of his grasp. “You think I choose to be alone?”

Thor laughed. “You are smart, ambitious, wealthy, and beautiful, brother. You would have me believe that you are in want of admirers?”

Loki’s mind struggled to keep up with the conversation. A rare occasion, but it seemed stuck on beautiful. He couldn’t help but preen a little at the word choice. “You think I’m beautiful?” he purred.

Thor blinked, seeming to suddenly realize how close they were now sitting. “I need more shots,” he mumbled.

The two ounces of vodka barely burned going down and gave Loki the last burst of courage — or was it temerity? — that he needed to make his final move. Draping an arm around Thor’s broad shoulders, Loki casually slipped a hand into Thor’s lap.

“Loki,” Thor hissed, flinching as if stung. “What are you doing?”

Loki gave him the most innocent look he could manage in his dizzy state. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, even as, under the table, he undid Thor’s zipper. He really hoped he wasn’t going to regret this in the morning. In all of his calculations, he had not counted on being so damn drunk when executing his plan of seduction. Thor was the one who was supposed to be getting drunk, not Loki.

“What are you playing at?” Thor repeated, warning heavy in his voice as Loki danced his idle fingertips across the warm skin of Thor’s neck. But he didn’t pull away, and Loki could feel him hardening beneath the palm of his other hand. With a wild grin, Loki moved his fingers in an insistent caress, thrilling in the almost inaudible whimper that escaped from Thor’s lips.

“What makes you think I’m playing?” he said seductively into Thor’s ear before catching his earlobe between his lips and nibbling at it. With a rush of triumph, Loki heard Thor’s catch before his entire body stiffened and seemed unable to decide whether to back away or lean closer.

A beat. Then, the former won out. “We’re going home, Loki,” Thor growled, prying Loki off of him and fixing his pants. “Stop this madness.”

Loki smiled dangerously, teeth gleaming in the dim golden light. “You want it, Thor,” he said smugly in a low voice. “I’ve seen the way you look at me when you think I’m not looking. You desire me, brother; do not deny it. And I’m offering you what you want on a silver platter.” He lowered his voice and crooned, “Any way you like.”

Thor looked both terrified and extremely turned on, which Loki found both hilarious and worryingly attractive. Loki held his gaze until Thor broke it, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply as if he were trying to calm himself.

“Well?” Loki said, intentionally interrupting his impromptu meditation session. He was starting to get impatient. The world was still spinning around him, Thor the only thing in his vision that seemed to remain steadfastly in one place. He wanted more than anything to be horizontal and making Thor beg for mercy in the most deliciously naughty way possible.

But predictably, Thor shook his head and practically ran out of the bar, and Loki could barely suppress his chuckling as he paid the bill and sauntered out at his own pace—because he wanted to savor his victory, not because he was afraid he would trip and fall on his face. He was, after all, not at all a lightweight.

Just like he was not at all in love with his idiotic, beautiful brother.

Not one bit.

*

Once out in the cold, Thor waited for his brother to appear before hailing a taxi and very nearly shoving Loki into the backseat before very pointedly climbing into the front. He was fuming even as certain parts of him remained overly excited, and he had to rearrange his coat so that the taxi driver would not see. This felt like the ultimate betrayal — Loki deducing how he felt and acting on it in order to make a fool out of Thor when he was at his most vulnerable. When Thor, in the dark of night, had imagined being touched by Loki, he had never imagined that it would be by a mocking hand. Although, Thor thought sadly, he really should have known better than even fantasize about Loki without considering that Loki would only seize the opportunity as a chance to make fun of him, for a chance at a power grab.

Loki followed Thor up to their penthouse apartment silently, to Thor’s immense relief. But when they stepped through the door, Loki slammed it shut and subsequently shoved Thor against it, pressing his body against him tightly, as if he was trying to fit them together like dysfunctional puzzle pieces. His head was tucked in the hollow of Thor’s neck, and the movement reminded Thor of how he and Loki had used to cuddle in bed when they were children. The thought was strange juxtaposed with the way Thor’s body was reacting to the embrace.

“Loki,” Thor groaned, feeling Loki’s breath on his neck like a brand.

“Yes, Thor?” Loki purred, tongue lashing at his neck and fingers sliding down Thor’s side to slip beneath his shirt. Thor gasped at the feeling of Loki’s cool touch on his hot skin. “I know you want this,” Loki whispered like a secret fire as the buttons of Thor’s shirt popped off and spilled across the floor. So focused on the sensation of those slender fingers brushing against his sensitive nipples, Thor barely noticed his ruined shirt as it fell unceremoniously to the ground. “Touch me, brother.”

Unable to stand it anymore, Thor grabbed Loki and pinned him against the door. He smashed his lips to Loki’s, uncaring of anything but the fact that he needed to taste. Loki tasted like silver bells and lies, and Thor swore he could feel sparks dance along his skin wherever Loki’s hands grazed. He couldn’t get enough of it, but he needed to touch Loki as well. He yanked off Loki’s scarf and ducked his head to nip at Loki’s pale neck. He grabbed Loki’s hands and held them to the door, not budging when Loki tried to wriggle out of his grip.

“Oh, but I like this,” Loki purred. “Hurt me,” he said, eyes on fire.

That brought Thor out of his reverie. What was he doing? He was falling for Loki’s tricks again. He had to be the most gullible idiot on the planet. He let Loki’s arms go and backed up far enough to look him in the eye.

“I don’t know what you’re playing at, Loki, but I will not be a pawn in your games,” Thor said, although he didn’t seem to be able to pull away. Loki’s eyes were, for once, empty of mischief, instead filled with a familiar indignant exasperation. They also seemed strangely unfocused — perhaps Loki was even worse at handling his liquor than Thor had thought.

“This is not a game!” Loki insisted, and yes, his voice sounded strangely unrestrained. Thor closed his eyes and leaned his head against the side of Loki’s, taking in the scent of his beloved brother. He wanted so badly to believe Loki, especially knowing that he was probably speaking more loosely than he had in years — but that had always been his folly. Even when his head told him that Loki delighted in speaking lies, his heart wanted more than anything for the things his brother spoke to be the truth, no matter the subject. Any truth from Loki would better than one of his twisted lies. Thor kept holding out for it, but Loki seemed to see truth-telling as a sort of weakness, of stupidity.

“And how can I be sure of that?” Thor said softly. His heart wasn’t in challenging his brother — not when it wanted more than anything for whatever this was between them to be the truth and not one of Loki’s elaborately constructed lies.

“Gaze into my eyes and see that I speak the truth,” Loki spat, growing more and more irate by the minute. Thor ran a soothing hand through his hair, which was growing a bit long, hugging the nape of his neck. Loki shivered. Thor wondered what else he could do to elicit that reaction.

“That has never been good enough, and you know it,” he said softly.

“Brother, this is too much,” Loki hissed. “You trust me implicitly when I tell you ludicrous lies that any idiot would be capable of unraveling, but the one time I speak the truth, you cannot bring yourself to believe me. If you only knew how long I have longed for this —”

Whether it was a truth or a falsity, a sober Loki would never say such a thing. And a drunk Loki did not possess the keen mind required to calculate such effective words. So that left only one possibility: a liquor-induced truth. And that was okay. That was safe. That was…maybe even good.

So Thor kissed him.

“Sentiment,” Loki breathed into his lips, and dug his hands into Thor’s hair to pull him down and kiss him back.

*

Saturday, December 15

In the days leading up to Xavin’s arrival in the United States, Karolina spent much more time wondering what Xavin was like and what it would be like to be with her than studying for finals or preparing the New York apartment for her parents’ impending holiday visit — both of which honestly felt like afterthoughts compared to what was coming.

Karolina’s only experience in the relationship department was a seventh-grade boyfriend with whom she had been happy to hold hands but had been repulsed by their pathetic attempts at kissing. That made a little more sense now, but it didn’t help her any. Neither did her humongous crush on her best friend. Too many nights she had lay awake staring at her glow-in-the-dark star-studded ceiling and wondering what it would be like to hold Nico close in her arms and press a loving kiss to her lips — and after she had actually gone for it and Nico had gently rejected her, the fixation had only gotten worse.

But with Xavin she had a chance. Maybe. She had no idea what Xavin would actually be into — asking her parents about her fiancée’s sexual orientation was too strange to even ponder. Still, she couldn’t help but imagine touching that smooth, dark skin and running her hands through that shiny brown hair, so different from her own blonde mane.

The night before Xavin was scheduled to land at JFK, Karolina spent hours laboring over what to wear and what to say in order to make a good impression. She ended up changing her mind in the morning anyway, settling for a nice pair of jeans, a cropped jacket, and a glittery top. The Deans’ stern driver Pierce drove them to the airport, Karolina fidgeting with her hair and playing with her jewelry the entire time, a cluster of wrecked nerves. She had no idea what to expect, not really.

Her parents stood with her in the waiting area with a modest sign that simply read “Welcome, Xavin De’Zean.” Karolina thought for a moment that they looked just as nervous as she felt. Maybe they were afraid that the prince would ask more of them than their daughter’s hand in marriage. It certainly was enough to frighten her.

KAROLINA: Picking up my fiancée. Can you believe it?

NICO: Not even a little bit. Good luck! :]

KAROLINA: Thanks. I’ll need it...

Karolina was just getting bored when she spotted Xavin in the crowd. Dark hair swung as she walked, her jaw set with grim determination. She walked with the aggressive confidence of army soldiers as she made her way toward them. On her shoulder was a sizeable duffel bag that she didn’t seem to be struggling with at all. She zeroed in on the sign, intelligently serious eyes flickering with recognition, and then searched out hers to make eye contact. Butterflies danced in Karolina’s stomach as their eyes met and Xavin held her captive in her gaze.

“You must be Xavin,” Leslie gushed.

“That’s right, ma’am,” Xavin said. Her voice was deeper than seemed to fit her appearance, and her words were accented, the vowels dark and syllables clipped.

“I’m Leslie. This is my husband, Frank. And this is our daughter, Karolina.”

Xavin shook the hands of Karolina’s parents but took Karolina’s hand gently in her own calloused one and bowed, bringing it to her lips. Karolina watched, fascinated, as if she were removed from her own body.

“It is a pleasure to finally meet you.” The words applied to all of them but seemed to be directed specifically toward Karolina.

“You too,” Karolina replied, suddenly shy despite having imagined this moment for weeks. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Xavin’s eyes twinkled. “I’ll bet. Don’t believe it all.”

Karolina smiled, relieved at the mildly flirtatious tone. She could do this. If Xavin was going to make an effort, she could do this. Her future may have been predetermined, but it didn’t have to be a bad future.

“Well,” Leslie said, clapping her hands together. “Let’s get going, shall we? That way, Xavin can get settled in, and Karolina, you can show her around the city.”

“Okay,” Karolina agreed. As they made their way toward the exits, Karolina could feel Xavin’s gaze on her burning like a brand. She couldn’t decide whether it made her feel uncomfortable or kind of good about herself. When she tried to look back at her, Xavin’s eyes skittered away, but Karolina caught an expression of wonder on her face before it shifted into a neutral, innocent one.

The butterflies continued to flutter in her stomach.

*

Central Park’s lake wasn’t too populated this early in the morning. Karolina and Xavin sat down on the edge of the west end of the fountain and gazed at the green water. Xavin was munching on popcorn, which she had declared to be a strange but delectable treat. She seemed completely unbothered by the cold.

The silence was making Karolina nervous, so she tried to break the ice by snatching up a popcorn kernel. At the same time, Xavin reached into the bag. Their fingers bumped into each other, and the contact sent electricity tingling from the tips of Karolina’s fingers down her spine. She gasped at the sensation and then blushed when she realized that the sound had come from her.

“This is awkward,” she blurted out, unable to stand the tension in the air. Xavin smiled wryly.

“It doesn’t have to be,” she said encouragingly. “Do you like me, Karolina?”

“I don’t even know you,” Karolina answered truthfully. “How can you be so calm about all of this? Don’t you think it’s unfair and just a little bit ridiculous? Why do we have to pay for our parents’ ridiculousness?”

Xavin didn’t respond immediately, seemingly taking her questions as more than rhetorical and actually contemplating answers. When she spoke, it was quietly, sorrowfully. “I was raised with the knowledge that my destiny was to wed you,” she said. “I am calm because I have spent my entire life preparing to meet you and to be with you. I don’t know if it’s unfair because it’s all that I’ve ever known. And I have never thought of my future with you as an undesirable outcome, or,” and here her voice faltered, “or, punishment.”

“Oh,” Karolina said stupidly, suddenly feeling horribly guilty even though she couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. I didn’t know about any of it. My parents only told me like a month ago.”

Xavin nodded solemnly. “I understand. Karolina, it is fine if you need some time to adjust. I imagine this is all a bit sudden for you.”

“Understatement of the century,” Karolina sighed. “I… Xavin, I would really appreciate the time to adjust.”

Xavin nodded again. There was such sincerity in her eyes that Karolina couldn’t help but trust her. “Then we will take this slowly. I cannot change the circumstances of our impending marriage, but I will do my best to make it easier on you.”

Deeply touched, Karolina reached over for Xavin’s hand, intentionally this time, and gave it a gentle squeeze. Xavin’s hand felt big and strong under hers, the palm too large to be feminine yet the fingers too thin to be masculine. Karolina found that she liked the balance. The rough palms contrasted sharply with her own smooth, small hands and felt comforting, somehow.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

*

Thor drifted into wakefulness to find his head throbbing and eyes briefly blinded by the brightness of the overcast sky glaring through the windows. Groaning, he squeezed his eyes shut and grabbed for the other pillow to cover his face.

His eyes flew open when the heady scent of Loki assaulted his senses. The events of the previous night came rushing back to him at breakneck speed: Jane’s hurtful words and his quick reactionary anger, drinking with Loki, Loki’s talented mouth and hissed confessions. It had all happened so quickly; his brain struggled to process everything. Had it really not just been a wild dream? Loki was certainly no stranger to his dreams, given to appearing in them at the most inopportune times — usually with an incredibly inappropriate lack of clothing. But as he shifted in his bed, his skin remembered the hungry but precise way Loki had touched him, clenching his fingers and his thighs tightly enough to bruise Thor, so much more real and anarchic than a dream. He had radiated wild delight as Thor handled him roughly yet lovingly, in a way that he knew how to be only with Loki, as conflicting emotions of hurt and sadness and glee and possessiveness had roared through him.

It had been wonderful.

But Loki was not here now. Despite the trace of scent that he had left in the pillows, the other side of the bed was cold. Thor sighed. To wake up next to a still-slumbering Loki would have been so miraculous he would have almost been suspicious, so he was far from surprised, but the thought was still nice.

Thor found Loki in his usual position in the living room, legs long against the cream-colored chaise as he frowned at a screen flooded with letters and numbers. His skin was still faintly pink from the shower, although he was covered from head to toe in black jeans and a deep green turtleneck sweater that complemented his eyes in the most distracting way. One hand cradled a steaming cup of coffee, and immediately to his right sat his phone, which he was never without. He didn’t acknowledge Thor when he passed him on the way to the kitchen. Maybe Thor should have left his sweatpants and T-shirt off after all.

“Good morning,” Thor said, testing the waters. How did one navigate the morning after when one had spent the night with his brother, who also happened to be his roommate? Thor had partaken in many, many one-night stands, but this one befuddled even him.

“Mmhmm,” Loki said absently, sipping slowly at his coffee and making a satisfied sound after he swallowed it. Thor couldn’t take his eyes off Loki’s pale, elegant throat as he remembered how Loki had broadcasted his pleasure last night.

He dumped milk and cereal into a bowl before calling out, “Would you like some cereal?”

Loki glanced at him and the box of cereal he was holding up before wrinkling his nose in distaste. Thor rolled his eyes; of course Loki was too posh for such a plebian breakfast. He returned the milk to its proper resting place in the obsessively organized refrigerator (sometimes Thor liked to mess with his brother by purposely not returning things to their designated spots, but today he thought better of irritating Loki).

Slurping on his breakfast, he joined Loki on the couch and flicked on the television to see if he could catch the tail end of Saturday morning cartoons. It was almost like any other weekend morning, except that Loki was sitting more stiffly than usual and Thor couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off of him. It was completely absurd; Loki had always been beautiful, and it hadn’t been so distracting before. Certainly, he had admired his brother’s long, lean form and his lively eyes, always glittering with mischief—but it had never been this much of a struggle to concentrate on anything else.

Loki licked his lips clean after finishing his coffee, and Thor nearly had an aneurysm containing his reaction. His fingers twitched as he valiantly resisted hauling Loki onto his lap and kissing him madly. He wondered if Loki would reject him if he tried. Loki had said last night that what lay between them was not a game, but in the stark daylight, Thor was no longer sure that was good enough.

“Loki… About last night…”

Keeping his eyes fixed on his screen, Loki sighed, a familiar put-upon sound tinged with an odd melancholy. “Must we do this, Thor?”

Indignant, Thor said, “Yes. Brother, did you mean the things you said?”

“And if I say no?” Loki said, his tone so measured it was maddening.

“Then you played me a fool when I was in a vulnerable state, something you know that I will not easily forgive,” Thor said.

“And…if I say the opposite?”

“Then I would want to know why you have never told me how you feel. And I would wonder…if there will be a next time.”

Thor watched as something in Loki’s careful veneer of apathy cracked at his words, but Loki quickly buried the emotion.

“I meant what I said,” Loki said quietly. “But there will be no more of that.”

“What? Why not?”

Loki sighed again before laughing weakly. “You and me together, Thor? It would be a disaster. We don’t even get along. You soak up attention like a dumb puppy, and I have had enough of living in the shadow of your greatness. I am certain we would end up destroying this city with our quarreling.”

When he had started this conversation, Thor hadn’t even considered a relationship with Loki; he had only wanted permission to kiss him again, and yet — the way Loki was so firmly dismissing the notion of them being together made him want to protest.

“Just because we occasionally disagree doesn’t mean that we don’t love each other,” he pointed out. It was true, after all.

Loki shook his head. “Don’t be naïve,” he scolded. “Just yesterday you were saying that love was not enough to salvage your relationship with that woman. I will not subject myself to your meaningless delusions of this ever amounting to anything.”

“You’re not even willing to try,” Thor said, brow furrowing with displeasure.

“No,” Loki confirmed.

“So what, we just sweep it under the carpet?” Thor exclaimed. “Go on pretending it never happened?”

Loki looked at him, seeming surprised by the vehemence in his voice. Thor was startled by his conviction as well, but he suddenly wanted nothing less than for them to never speak of last night again. It had been the best sex he had ever had, and it had been the closest he had ever felt to his brother. Loki had clearly enjoyed it as well, so why was he pretending otherwise? Did he really expect Thor to just put it aside? The more he thought about it, the more that seemed impossible. Even now, he was struck by the sweep Loki’s cheekbones. How had he never been distracted by their elegance before?

“Yes,” Loki said. “I think even your miniscule brain can handle that, Thor.”

Thor growled, but his heart wasn’t in it. Did Loki really think they could just go on as if they had never touched each other with burning fingers? Was he truly not as affected by Thor as Thor was by him? It surprised him how much the thought stung.

“It was a cruel trick, brother,” he said stonily as he got up to put his bowl in the sink, “to toy with my emotions if you had no intention of following up on them.” Before he made his exit back to his room, he caught Loki’s eye and said, “Last night, you seemed happy for the first time in a long while. I do not understand why you would give that up so easily.”

Loki looked away and did not speak a word.

Chapter Text

Sunday, December 16

Steve always rose early, even on Sundays, an unshakable habit that predated his time in the army. It was something ingrained in him from childhood, back when he would climb out of bed at sunrise to check on his restlessly slumbering mother and make breakfast for the two of them. On weekdays, he would take an extra five minutes to throw together his lunch, usually a meager sandwich filled with whatever he had scrounged up that week.

Nowadays, he usually spent his Sunday mornings working out and then the rest of the day drawing or painting while Bucky slept in until luxurious hours in the afternoon. Though he was kind and polite to every person he interacted with, Steve didn’t have many friends. He was neither good at making them nor keeping them. Before the war, he had been a skinny, awkward little thing, and afterward, he had felt too removed from civilian society. Trying to bridge that gap seemed to require titanic effort. Sometimes he still felt as if he were traveling in hazy dream, some hallucinated afterlife conjured up by the freezing waters that had drowned him.

He knew for a fact that if he didn’t still have Bucky around, he would be much more unhinged. And now this new thing with Tony — whatever it was — grounded him even further, reminding him that he should be trying to live, not just survive.

As if on cue, his phone started buzzing steadily — not a text, but a phone call. Steve frowned in bemusement before grabbing it with the hand that was slightly less paint-stained.

A familiar name scrolled across the display. Steve didn’t even get to say hello before Tony said, “What are you doing? Let’s go watch a movie.”

“Right now? I’m kind of in the middle of something,” Steve said, trying to ignore the embarrassing little flip his heart did in his chest at the suggestion that Tony wanted to see him. Holding the phone between his cheek and shoulder, he added a splash of red to the corner of the background he was painting before the watercolors dried.

“Steeeve,” Tony whined. It was strange to hear his voice after reading his texts all week. “You said you didn’t have any plans and were just going to be painting today.”

“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” Steve said, leaning back to evaluate his work as he dunked his brush in the murky water. “But I’m up for it if you can wait an hour.”

“Fine,” Tony said. “How about we make it an early dinner in East Village?”

Dinner and a movie — his mind whispered date, but Steve tried not to think about it too much as he agreed. Tony began rattling off a list of restaurants Steve had never heard of.

“It’s up to you,” he said, adding honestly, “I’ll eat anything.”

“Anything? I bet that’s not true.” Tony replied skeptically, sounding distracted. Suddenly, he said, alarmed, “Hey! Dummy, get away from there, you’re going to…! Damn it, Dummy, you idiot.”

“What?” Steve said cluelessly.

“Sorry, that’s my lab assistant; he’s kind of incompetent. And when I say kind of, I mean a complete nuisance, aren’t you, Dummy?”

“To the point that you call him ‘Dummy’? Seems rather uncalled for,” Steve said. He couldn’t decide whether he was amused or appalled.

“He’s a robotic arm,” Tony replied completely seriously. “DUM-E is his name.”

“Oh,” Steve said, without the faintest inkling how one was supposed to respond to that. Engineers were a unique breed, and Tony Stark most of all. Steve never knew what he was going to say next — something that both irritated and thrilled him. “I see.”

“Yup,” Tony said, not missing a beat. “So I’ll see you at four-thirty? I know just the place, and it’s not far from the movie theater. I’ll text you the address.”

“Sounds good,” Steve said, relieved that Tony couldn’t see the completely embarrassing grin on his face. “See you soon.” After hanging up, he continued to smile stupidly at his phone. Fully aware that he was being totally ridiculous, he covered his face in embarrassment, feeling like a silly twelve-year-old girl with a crush.

*

Tony couldn’t remember the last time he had had such a good time with another human being. Steve was hilarious, with a surprisingly wry sense of humor and an old-fashioned sensibility that equally entertained and impressed Tony.

Dinner was both fun and revelatory — Steve shared stories about the Army and art school, things so far from Tony’s own realm of experience that he couldn’t help but be enraptured. If he was being truly honest with himself, though, it was the man telling the stories that he was really interested in. Tony suspected that Steve could read him financial reports compiled by his board members and he would be still be fascinated, as long as Steve did it so earnestly. This was a good man — the type of person Tony so rarely encountered that he had long ago stopped believing they truly existed in the world.

They walked to the theater a few streets down, bumping shoulders every once in a while. Steve looked adorable in his navy blue coat and plaid scarf. His lips were cheery red and chapped from the chill, and his sky-blue eyes lit up as he talked about the new exhibit at the New Museum. Tony was overcome with the desire to kiss him, to throw his arms around those broad, all-American shoulders and sink into the warm, kind, goodness of Steve Rogers.

Instead, he said, “Here’s the theater,” as they approached the neon lights of the cinema.

He was about to take out his wallet when a hand stopped him. Steve smiled, and damn it, why did he have to be so fucking handsome?

“You paid for dinner,” he said. “Let me get these, at the very least.”

Tony conceded, heart skipping a beat as he watched Steve ask the woman at the ticket window how her evening was going. Dinner and a movie, paying for each other… He wondered if he was reading too much into how very okay Steve seemed with all of this. But maybe Steve was just ultra-secure in his masculinity. That would be just Tony’s luck.

He tried to keep that in mind as Steve chose seats in the back of the dark theater, smiling at Tony as he asked him in a hushed whisper, “Is this okay?” Their elbows brushed on the shared armrest, and Tony swore the tiny space between knees was supercharged with electricity. He was so distracted by Steve’s proximity and his perfect profile, rapt in attention as the film’s protagonist followed a lead to Greenland, that he barely paid attention to the movie’s fast-paced plot.

It was probably because he had been secretly staring at Steve that he noticed the change in expression two-thirds into the film. As the protagonist fought he villain on a white field of ice, Steve’s jaw clenched, and his breaths came quick and short. The sound was almost lost in the sound of gunfire as the hero and villain shot at each other, with only frozen rocks for cover. Beneath them, the ice rumbled forebodingly.

When the ice cracked and the hero was submerged in the Arctic waters, Steve gasped so loudly that several heads in the audience turned to glare at him.

“Steve?” Tony whispered. The film wasn’t even particularly good, and any idiot could have seen that the ice was going to crack—there was no way Steve could actually be this affected or shocked by it.

But Steve didn’t respond. His eyes were wide and unflinching as he stared at the protagonist struggle for breath beneath the Arctic ice. His fingers clenched the armrests, and Tony could both see and hear his breath come in short, agonized pants.

Tony placed a hand on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve turned to look at him with wide, unseeing eyes. Frightened — no, terrified, eyes.

Tony recognized the expression suddenly — it was the one he had seen in the mirror for a year after Afghanistan, every time he went to wash his face after a bad dream or trembling flashback.

Tony slid his hand over Steve’s closer one, gently extricating the strong fingers locked onto the armrest. He laced their fingers together and said softly, non-threateningly, “Let’s get a breath of fresh air, all right?”

The air outside had dropped several degrees, but Steve’s hand was warm as Tony dragged him out onto the sidewalk. Steve’s eyes flickered back and forth, making him look like a skittish animal. Tony took his face in his hands.

“Steve,” he said, and then repeated it when Steve locked gazes with him. “Hey. It’s me, Tony. We’re in New York. Just hanging out. You’re safe.”

Steve breathed harshly, and Tony could practically see his heart racing at a hundred miles per hour.

“You’re safe,” he repeated.

“Tony,” Steve croaked.

“I’m here,” Tony said, and he was startled when Steve pulled him into a fierce hug. Steve took a deep, slow breath and pressed his face to Tony’s shoulders. Tony lost track of how long they stayed like that, Steve’s arms squeezing his waist as if he would disappear otherwise.

“I’m sorry,” Steve said into his hair.

“No big deal,” Tony replied easily.

“No, I really am sorry; I’m an idiot; it’s just a movie and I should know better —”

“Steve,” Tony said firmly. “It’s no big deal. You were there for me before, too, remember?”

Steve pulled back a little to look at him with a complicated expression Tony couldn’t read. It was a cross between happy and uncertain, somewhere between shame and awe. “Yeah. I remember.”

When they separated, they were holding hands. Tony wasn’t sure how that had happened, but he certainly wasn’t complaining.

Steve squeezed his hand and looked shy as he said, “Thank you for being here for me, Tony.”

“Anytime,” Tony answered, and was surprised to find that he truly meant it.

*

Monday, December 17

Hank didn’t sleep for three days, trapped in a manic state of productivity, and the sleep he did get when he finally gave in to his fatigue was tumultuous, leaving him tossing and turning in the night. Part of that may have been due to the fact that he was sleeping on a cot in his office, but it was better attributed to the fact that he was in a perpetual state of shock and depression. He lashed out at every employee who asked him questions and made up flimsy excuses to get out of lunches with Tony and Bruce. No matter how much he had expected Jan to give up on him, his chest still ached with the tangled, warring feelings of hurt and longing. Every time he dissolved into tears, he felt like he was drowning.

Then Bruce showed up, a thermos and two packets of hot cocoa powder in his hand, like a balm for a terminal wound. Hank let him in because he was too tired to do anything else, and all he could think about was the feeling of Jan’s sharp fingernails curling into his shoulder as she demanded that he seek help.

“I brought chocolate,” Bruce said simply, taking a seat at the desk across from Hank. “You look like you could use it.”

Hank laughed weakly because suddenly everything seemed bleakly hilarious. “Yeah,” he said, throat scratchy from barely eating or drinking anything since Jan had left. He had heard about comfort food and eating your feelings, but he seemed to have completely lost his appetite. “Thanks,” he said anyway when Bruce poured some of the impromptu hot chocolate into the cup of the thermos and handed it to him. Normally, he liked chocolate just fine, but the sweet smell seemed to choke him now. He held it at arm’s length, gazing despondently down at the steam rising from the smooth brown liquid.

“So…what happened?” Bruce said in his easy way that sounded relaxed to the untrained ear but after years of friendship Hank had learned was actually constantly forced.

“After Maria, you’d think I would have known better,” was all he said. Usually, the mention of Maria Troyvaya, his first wife, sent him into distress and depression, but today, the hole Jan had left in his heart was too fresh a wound.

“Oh, fantastic,” Bruce replied, taking a sip of the steaming beverage and wincing at the burn on his tongue. “This will be good.”

“Jan left me,” Hank said, unable to lift his ashamed eyes from the layer of foam over the hot chocolate. “She told me to get help.” It was pathetic how proud he was that tears hadn’t yet formed in his eyes at the words. “She couldn’t handle me anymore.” Then, quieter, “I always knew my illness was going to be the end of us, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon.”

“Which cliché would you like to hear first — that there are more fish in the sea, that you can do better, or that if something loves you and leaves, it will return if it really loves you?”

“None of the above,” Hank said glumly. “I definitely can’t do better than Janet Van Dyne, but she can do so much better and there’s no chance in hell she will come back now that she’s finally given up on a lost cause.”

“Hank, you can’t think like that. Anything could happen.”

“Sure,” Hank said. “But that doesn’t mean anything will happen.”

Bruce hmm’ed and blew gently on his beverage. Neither of them were ones for small talk, but Hank appreciated Bruce’s concern and company nonetheless. A companionable silence fell over them as Hank gathered up the courage to say his next words.

“Bruce,” he said, “could you give me your therapist’s number?”

*

Xavin had been in love with Karolina Dean for virtually her entire life. From the day her father first told her about her betrothed, she had been smitten — first with the idea of Karolina, then with the way she looked, then with the prospect of being with her, and now with the person she was. She felt completely incapable of wanting to be (or even just imagining being) with anyone else.

This was what made it so hard to accept that Karolina didn’t feel the same way. Not yet, Xavin reminded herself. Xavin was hard-headed and practical, the way her people were all raised to be, but she had never been rational when it comes to her Beloved. (That was what she had been given to calling Karolina in her head. It had even almost slipped out a few times when she was speaking to Karolina, embarrassingly enough.)

Xavin was staying in the Deans’ guest room, which was really more like a guest suite, with a big canopy bed (and a mattress that was much softer than Xavin was accustomed to using) that smelled like lavender and a bathroom with a bay window dressed up in gauzy ivory curtains that overlooked Central Park. The Deans seemed fond of this hazy, dreamlike style for the furnishings of their home — so different from the straight lines and practical form-fits-function interior design with which Xavin was much more familiar. She felt out of place here, too hardened by her army training for the luxury of silk sheets and showers with multiple showerheads. Where she was from, people expressed their wealth in a different way, exerting power and control over those not as fortunate rather than simply indulging themselves in nicer material things.

She had grown up learning about American culture, though, and knowing that one day she would leave her country not to engage in war or to conquer more territory, but rather to build bridges and, most important, to understand the person she would marry. There were a lot of things she didn’t understand about Karolina or Karolina’s culture yet, but she was eager to learn. And since Karolina didn’t seem to always realize that Xavin had practically come from a different planet, Xavin had had to rely mostly on her observational skills and the Internet to figure out all the details.

This coffee beverage that they had just waited in line for ten minutes to attain, for example — Karolina claimed to need it every morning in order to function. Xavin’s knowledge of biology provided no such requirement for the human body, but she noticed that Karolina was always grumpy in the morning until she had drunken her mug full of the dark, fragrant liquid (into which Karolina always dumped an appallingly extravagant amount of cream and sugar). The Internet informed her that a major ingredient in coffee was caffeine, which was what gave Karolina her much-needed jolt in the mornings.

Another quirk of Karolina’s culture was the complete lack of fighting on the streets. Karolina had almost been run over by the yellow vehicles called taxis, been hollered at by a raggedy man sitting on an old bucket wielding a cardboard sign worn at the edges, and had her feet stepped on by multiple strangers in the busy center with the enormous glittering tree called the Rockefeller Center — and she had reacted by simple ignoring them. Xavin had been on the verge of fighting every single one of the perpetrators, but Karolina had looked alarmed at each announcement of her intent. Xavin had gotten the picture, though she hadn’t understood it. She still didn’t, really. The fact that Karolina didn’t want her to defend her honor was strange to behold, and Xavin’s devotion to her constantly warred with the instincts instilled in her to punish those who hurt the ones she loved.

Currently, Karolina was dragging her away from an imminent fight with a young man with a head-hugging hat and pants too loose for his skinny legs who had shouted lascivious words at her, commenting on the sliver of midriff she was showing under her big winter coat.

“I wish you would cover yourself up more properly,” Xavin said. “Or at least let me at the hooligan. How dare he speak to you so disrespectfully! He deserves a good thrashing, if not two.”

Karolina hadn’t taken her seriously the first time she had threatened to take out someone who had besmirched her honor, but then Xavin had proven her worthiness as a mate by punching the snotty woman with the impractical shoes who had cut Karolina in line to pick up their Broadway tickets and then pretended not to hear when Karolina called her out on it. Karolina had looked like she was caught between being horrified and being impressed. It had been rather comical, Xavin thought through her pride at successfully defending Karolina from people unworthy to kiss the soles of her feet.

Karolina only looked alarmed and a little exasperated now. “Xavin, I appreciate that you want to beat up anyone who so much as looks at me the wrong way, but this is New York City, and you’re going to have to hit a lot of people if you keep going on this way.”

“Then so be it,” Xavin said, a bit haughtily. Karolina rubbed her temple. Xavin had learned that this motion meant that Xavin was being troublesome. She promptly sagged from her predatory stance. “I will restrain myself,” she promised. “I just hate seeing people act so crudely toward you when they should be treating you like a queen.”

Karolina’s pale complexion made her blush all the more obvious. Xavin thought she looked adorable when her cheeks turned that lovely shade of pink, even if the pigment change was induced by embarrassment.

Karolina’s nervous little laugh was endearing, too. “I’m not a queen, Xavin.”

“You might as well be,” Xavin said, which was really the truth, since she was the crown prince. That wasn’t something she wanted to think about for a few more years, though. First, she wanted to get this thing with Karolina right. “And you are to me,” she said in a softer tone.

Karolina smiled, and Xavin promptly decided that this was how she loved Karolina the most.

*

Tuesday, December 18

The walls of Charles Xavier’s office were covered in portraits of people, mostly teenagers and young adults. Some were sullen and others beaming. Tired, Hank sat staring at one — of a tall man in red-tinted sunglasses with his arm around a smiling redheaded woman — as he waited for the receptionist with the high ponytail to call his name.

“Henry Pym.” Hank got to his feet and steeled himself for an unpleasant hour, reminding himself of what really mattered — the reason he was really here. Jan.

The décor of Xavier’s office was dark and warm, with mahogany crown molding and elegant curved wooden edges on everything, and in the center of the room was a single large, plush armchair. The air smelled faintly of pine and cinnamon.

“Ah, Henry,” Xavier said from behind his enormous desk, upon which a miniature Christmas tree with a tiny spatter of twinkling lights sat cheerfully. He was bald, with kind but intelligent eyes and an easy smile. His voice was soothing and had an aristocratic air laced with the didactic tones of a college professor. “It’s so nice to meet you.”

“I prefer Hank,” Hank said uneasily, staring at the armchair. Why was there only one?

“Hank, then,” Xavier said. “You may call me Charles. Take a seat, my dear boy.”

Hank wasn’t sure how much he liked being called a boy at his age, but he sat down obediently. He was paying for this, after all. It wouldn’t do to storm out before the session even started.

The mystery of the single chair was solved when Charles rolled out from behind the desk, settling his wheelchair a polite distance away from Hank’s seat.

“So what brings you here today?”

Frowning, Hank pressed his lips into a thin line. “My… The love of my life left me. She told me to seek help. And, uh, Bruce said you were good. That is, Bruce Banner. So…here I am.”

“Ah, Bruce,” Charles said with clear delight. “He has been doing so well. I am very proud of him.”

“Yeah,” Hank said noncommittally, though he really had noticed that Bruce seemed a little less tightly strung lately.

“You two are close?”

“I’d say so, yes,” Hank said, wondering briefly if Bruce had ever spoken of him to Xavier. “We work together. At Stark.”

“I see.” Charles brought his fingers to his lips. “So, tell me about this love of your life.”

“Janet is everything that is good in me,” Hank said. Charles nodded encouragingly as he gazed at Hank as if he could divine his secrets from the folds of his eyelids and the curve of his jaw. “She is what keeps me going.” Then, quieter, “And she has had to bear the brunt of my flaws.” Charles didn’t say anything, still listening silently. Hank was relieved that he didn’t use a notepad or anything. He took a deep breath. “I used to think it was so amazing that after so long, she still hadn’t snapped and left me. But I guess our time ran out. It finally happened.”

“And why do you think she left?”

“Me,” Hank whispered. “She finally had enough of me.”

*

Usually, Jan loved the holiday season. She loved buying extravagant presents for her friends and family (often improvements on their wardrobes); she loved hearing Christmas music in every restaurant and shop; she loved the omnipresent scent of pine and how the city lit up with tiny lights, as if it had been taken over by a colony of fairies. So normally she would leap at any chance to go Christmas shopping, but Carol and Jessica had to drag her out to help them pick out gifts.

“It’s not like you to mope,” Carol pointed out, winding a hand-knit blue, red, and yellow scarf around her neck securely.

Stuffing her hands in the pockets of her favorite winter coat and following Carol out of her apartment, Jan glared at the back of her best friend’s head. “It’s not every day that I break up with my boyfriend of eight years. Give me a break.”

“No, she’s right,” Jessica pitched in from behind Jan, her heeled boots clicking against the stairs. “You know we’re here for every step of your recovery, but you’re stronger than this, Jan. And can we be real for a second? You can do infinitely better than Hank.”

“But what if I don’t want to do better than him?” Jan argued as they descended to the subway station and swiped their MetroCards to push past the turnstiles.

Honey,” Carol said sympathetically. Jan sighed.

“You guys don’t get it,” she said. “It’s not about fairness or deserving whatever — I mean, it would be nice if it were, but I don’t think it ever works out like that. There is nobody else. I don’t want anybody else. I want Hank, but I want Hank the way he used to be…”

“He almost hit you, Jan,” Jessica spat over the noise of the train arriving and people streaming onto the platform. “How can you talk about him like that? How can you forgive him so easily?”

“I’m not saying I’ve forgiven him,” Jan replied. “But… I can’t help it. I know him, guys. I know he wouldn’t do that.”

“But how sure can you really be?” Jessica argued as they got onto the train and crammed themselves into a corner, surrounded by tired office drones in pressed suits heading home and loud tourists discussing lavish dinner plans.

“How sure can anybody be?” Jan pointed out. “Hank is under a lot of pressure. He’s unstable. He needs help. I’m not excusing him, and I’m not forgiving him. But you have to understand that things aren’t so black and white with us.”

“I don’t know, Jan,” Carol said. “We’re just worried that you’ll do something stupid, like go back to him.”

Jan rubbed her temple. “I’m not going to do that. I don’t regret leaving, I just… It’s just hard. We’ve been together for so long that it’s like losing a limb. It’s just…complicated.”

“Of course,” Carol said, “we get that,” but Jan didn’t think she really did. Neither of them had been in any relationships that came at all close to the level of commitment she and Hank had shared for years. Jessica still picked up random guys from bars sometimes, and Carol was essentially a serial dater who seemed to have a different squeeze for a few months every year. Neither of them had much of a track record of making long-term relationships work, so they had no right to criticize her confusion.

Knowing that Hank was almost definitely having a worse time than her made things even harder. She desperately hoped that her leaving had been enough to push him to seek help. Her own complicated feelings aside, what she wanted most in the world was for him to be healthy and happy, and the difficult truth was that as long as she put up with him, he was never going to realize just how bad he was getting.

“I’ll be okay,” Jan said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. “I just need some time. Part of me still can’t believe it — it feels so surreal, not being with him.”

Carol let go of the bar she was gripping for a moment to wrap Jan in a warm hug. Jan closed her eyes briefly to soak up the freely offered comfort. Carol’s fluffy scarf smelled like cinnamon and clementine. “We’re here for you,” she murmured. “No matter what, okay?”

“I know,” Jan replied. “I don’t know what I’d do without you guys.”

They got off at Penn Station, making their way to the crowded Macy’s. It was something of a tradition of theirs, visiting the store during the holiday season and having a good time browsing for gifts until they inevitably decided that it would be much more practical go shopping somewhere less inundated with stressed out, frenetic holiday shoppers.

“I love Christmas!” Carol crowed happily when Jessica stopped to take a picture of the gargantuan decorated tree parked at the front of the store. Jan couldn’t help but smile at her childlike enthusiasm.

“Who did you guys get for Secret Santa this year?” Jessica asked as they walked into the foyer, garlands of pine, ribbon, and beautiful ornaments hanging high above their heads. “I drew Sue, god help me. You two will have to help me figure out what the hell is an appropriate gift for a newborn, because that is definitely not my area of expertise.”

“Jessica!” Jan exclaimed, aghast. “You’re not supposed to tell us. It’s not called Blabbermouth Santa!”

Jessica rolled her eyes. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

Smiling, Carol shook her head in dismay. “She does this every year,” she said in a stage whisper to Jan. “Drives me crazy.”

With a pout, Jan crossed her arms and said, “What a party pooper.”

“Hey, I’m surprised that you’re complaining — now you get to help me shop,” Jessica pointed out. “I know you enjoy that.”

Jan grinned, cheered by the prospect. “True. All right, ladies. Off to the seventh floor we go!”

Eyebrows raised, Jessica turned to Carol and said, horrified, “She has the floors memorized?”

“Ohhh yeah…”

*

Wednesday, December 19

Billy was incredibly distracted. He thought he’d had it bad for Teddy before, but that was nothing compared to his state of mind after Teddy’s mind-blowing revelation.

Teddy was gay. Teddy was gay. Teddy was gay. A week later, Billy still couldn’t get over it. Teddy was gay and he had beat up Kessler for Billy.

This meant that Billy actually had a chance with the coolest, hottest, sweetest guy on the planet. It was beyond his wildest imagination, his craziest fantasies. Not that he was vain enough to think that Teddy being gay automatically meant that he would be interested in someone like Billy, but still. Teddy seemed to like him as a friend, and they got along so well it was almost ridiculous, and… And…

“Kaplan, you’ve been typing brackets for the last minute.”

And Billy should probably be paying attention at work. He snapped to attention, turning his head to see his advisor, the brilliant but sometimes kind of creepy Mr. Laufeyson, peering closely at his screen over his shoulder. Billy often found him unnerving, those green eyes too intelligent and perceptive for their own good, but Loki Laufeyson was a programming genius and a mostly patient teacher. Besides, getting to work at Stark was the opportunity of a lifetime. Definitely worth it.

“Oh! Hi, Mr. Laufeyson!” Billy blurted out. “Sorry, I—” am totally daydreaming about my best friend, he thought wryly — “I’m just out of it today. Finals and stuff, you know.”

Smiling at him thinly, Mr. Laufeyson said, “It’s fine as long as you finish by the time you leave for the holidays.” Billy nodded, but his mentor continued to stare at the screen, uncharacteristically lost in thought.

“Are you okay, sir?” Billy asked. “You seem kinda out of it, too, if you don’t mind me saying.”

Mr. Laufeyson blinked at him and then rubbed his forehead with a grimace. “Ah, worry not. I had a strange weekend is all. It will pass.”

“Okay,” Billy said skeptically, though he was pretty curious what the head of Stark International’s computer software department considered strange.

“Now get back to work,” Mr. Laufeyson said sternly before moving on to the next cubicle.

Billy sighed and tried his best to concentrate on his assigned project, even though the thought of romancing Teddy was a thousand times more interesting. Maybe he would ask him out on a date over the winter break…

*

NICO: So when do I get to meet your fiancé?

KAROLINA: Technically, it’s fiancée.

NICO: Oh hush. So come on, don’t hog her to yourself. Let’s all get lunch! It’ll be fun.

KAROLINA: Fine. I was going to show her campus tomorrow anyway. Ramen at 1?

NICO: Yup. See you there.

The morning of the day her fiancée and best-friend-slash-crush were to meet for the first time, Karolina awoke with the sinking feeling of dread. After a shower during which she spent the entire time imagining the worst that could happen, she slipped into a pair of fleece-lined leggings and threw her peacoat over a sweater dress before going to knock on Xavin’s door. The other girl had seemed excited yesterday when Karolina had announced that she would take her to see Empire State University, so it was a surprise that she wasn’t yet awake. Karolina had learned quickly (from firsthand experience) that Xavin was punctual to the extreme and intolerant of anyone who wasn’t just as on time as she made a point to be.

“Xavin?” she called. “It’s Karolina. Wake up! We’re going to visit my school today, remember?”

“I’m awake! It’s unlocked!” Xavin said through the door.

Karolina opened the door and opened her mouth to speak only to freeze in place. Xavin was only half-dressed, in a practical black bra and much less modest black mesh underwear that was really doing a terrible job of covering her backside. She was bent down, pulling a pair of black jeans over her shapely legs. Oh my. Xavin hadn’t worn anything but long pants since she had arrived, so it had been hard to tell, but those athletic legs went on for miles. She was more well-endowed than Karolina, all hard muscle and round curves, which was simultaneously envy-inducing and completely fascinating.

Karolina’s face felt like it was on fire.

“I apologize for not being ready yet,” Xavin said, back still turned from Karolina. She didn’t seem to care at all about the fact that Karolina had seen her undressed. Karolina closed the door quietly behind her, suddenly feeling strangely possessive of the sight before her. “I went for a run earlier down to Wall Street and was sweaty from exertion. I decided to take a shower because I thought it would be distasteful to allow you to see me in such a state.”

Karolina wasn’t so sure about that. The thought of a sweaty, post-run Xavin flashed briefly in her mind and made something in her achewith longing. Her cheeks turned redder, if that was even humanly possible. But then what Xavin was saying hit her, and her mouth fell open as she gaped stupidly. “Wall Street? But that’s like…ten miles!”

Xavin shrugged. “It was closer to seven. In our military, that’s nothing.”

“Jesus,” Karolina breathed, suddenly turned on beyond belief. Her eyes were probably as big as saucers at the moment, but she couldn’t seem to get herself together. Xavin was full of surprises. Okay, yeah, Karolina wasn’t sure if she was staring at Xavin’s still uncovered chest or just staring aghast anymore, but she was definitely staring.

The other girl seemed pleased by her surprise, and if it had been anyone else, Karolina would have said that she was preening at the praise. Not that Karolina was paying all that much attention to Xavin’s face right now. Well, not until Xavin pulled a purple shirt over her head and crossed the room to grab her jacket from the coat rack there.

“I am excited to see your school,” Xavin said.

“Good,” Karolina said, smiling as she tried to get a grip on herself and act more like a normal person and less like a horny fourteen-year-old boy. This was so embarrassing. “We’re also going to lunch afterward with my best friend. She really wants to meet you.”

“I would be honored to meet anyone whose company you value,” Xavin said, taking Karolina’s left hand in hers. Karolina squeezed it without thinking, marveling at the feeling of the soft skin of their freshly washed fingers sliding together like the pieces of a puzzle. Xavin seemed to take it as an invitation, stepping closer, close enough for Karolina to see the gold flecks in her dark brown eyes. Karolina felt her breath catch at the warmth she radiated, and her eyes couldn’t help but flicker down to Xavin’s plush lips.

“Beloved,” Xavin whispered, the word landing like a wayward flame on Karolina’s own lips. It was followed by Xavin leaning in and pressing her mouth to those very lips.

Karolina’s eyes fluttered closed as the sensation washed over her. Every nerve ending was on burning hot as Xavin wrapped her arms around Karolina’s waist in an almost protective gesture, as if to hold her there, and kissed her boldly. Xavin’s lips were so soft, in sharp contrast with the almost bruising aggressiveness with which she pushed them together, and Karolina had to admit that it was very, very hot.

But what was she supposed to do with her arms? She was sure she was supposed to be doing something with her arms. She settled with placing one hand behind Xavin’s neck and underneath hair still wet from the shower and cradling Xavin’s face with the other one, tilting her head slightly. Oh. That angle was lovely, slotting their mouths together and allowing Karolina to lick Xavin’s bottom lip.

Xavin whimpered and pressed her body against Karolina’s in what seemed like an unconscious gesture. Eagerly, Karolina pulled her closer, experimentally nudging Xavin’s lips apart with her tongue. She found out with delight that Xavin was just as aggressive with her tongue as she was with her mouth, and they tangled in the cavern of Xavin’s mouth, warring for dominance. Xavin won and chased Karolina’s tongue back into her own mouth, hand shifting upward to cradle the back of her head, fingers tugging gently at the still-damp strands of hair to allow her more access to plunder the depths of her mouth.

Karolina barely stopped herself from moaning. She could practically feel herself glowing. Xavin’s fingertips clenched and accidentally (or maybe not-so-accidentally, although Karolina didn’t think Xavin was actually that devious) brushed the sensitive skin of Karolina’s lower back. At the touch, Karolina jumped and gasped into Xavin’s mouth in surprise. Their teeth clacked together, followed by their heads.

Wincing, Karolina rubbed her head. Ow. The mood was most definitely broken.

“Sorry,” she muttered, totally embarrassed. But Xavin was smiling, wide and happy — happier than Karolina had ever seen her look. There was something in her eyes that Karolina was too scared to analyze.

“Do not apologize for something beautiful,” Xavin said firmly. “I… Thank you, for that.”

“Oh, um,” Karolina mumbled, even more embarrassed at Xavin’s blatant gratefulness. She still looked kind of awed. “It’s, I. Don’t thank me. I enjoyed it just as much. And um. There’s more where that came from. I hope.”

God, she was an idiot. But nope, Xavin was grinning even more widely now, as if what Karolina had said was the greatest thing any human being had ever said to her. With a tight feeling in her chest, Karolina hoped that it actually made Xavin that happy. The thought of anyone else putting that smile on her face was strangely unsettling.

“I hope for that as well,” Xavin said, still beaming. “Now, shall we go visit this school of yours? I am eager to see where you complete your studies, and I must admit, to compare it to our Skrull learning institutions.”

Karolina didn’t realize until they were well on their way to the subway station that that had been her first real kiss.

Yup, she thought. This was pretty much going to be the most awkward lunch of all time.

*

Nico was already waiting for them at a table when they arrived at Sezz Medi after Karolina’s thorough tour of Empire State University. Xavin had been amazed at the size of the school and had asked many questions, including a number to which Karolina did not know the answer and had had to pause to rifle through the Internet for the correct response. She had learned a few things herself, a fact that had greatly pleased Xavin, who seemed to celebrate even the smallest of Karolina’s victories as her own. It was strange but endearing in its own way.

Nico stood up when they approached the table she was saving for them, greeting them both with a bright smile. She was dressed in a short red skirt and lacy tights, plus a black sweater that highlighted her bare shoulders, proudly exposing the pale, sharp collarbone that Karolina had wanted to kiss for almost two years now. The thought filled her with newfound guilt.

“Nico, meet my fiancée Xavin. Xavin, this is my best friend Nico.”

They shook hands and then Xavin did a strange little bow. “It’s an honor to meet someone Karolina holds in such high regard.”

Nico gave Karolina a disbelieving look, to which Karolina shrugged and gestured for them to sit.

*

“You love her,” Xavin said suddenly on the taxi ride home. “Does she not return your affections?”

“What? What are you talking about?” Karolina said, hoping Xavin wasn’t talking about what she thought she was talking about. She knew this had been a terrible idea. Damn Nico and her insatiable curiosity.

“Nico,” Xavin clarified, as Karolina feared. “You love her. I can tell from the way you look at her. It is very obvious.”

“Of course I love her; she’s my best friend,” Karolina said defensively, hoping her eyes didn’t give her away. But Xavin saw through her. Karolina got the uncanny feeling that Xavin seemed to know her as well as someone would have after years of friendship. It both thrilled and terrified her.

“You don't have to lie, Beloved,” Xavin said, though she wouldn’t meet Karolina’s eyes. “I know you weren’t raised knowing you were betrothed to me. Not in the way I was. I will not hold it against you.”

Karolina closed her eyes and turned away, too, for a moment. “Nico is very dear to me,” she said finally, because if she didn't tell Xavin, then who could she tell? “But she rejected my advances last month, and I've been trying my best to get over her. So you don't have to worry. Nico and I are never going to be anything other than just friends.”

Xavin nodded. “I know,” she said, even though she didn’t sound so sure. “I can only hope that someday you will love me as much as you love her.”

Karolina didn’t say anything, but she found herself wondering if that day would be sooner than later. Xavin was beautiful and strong and fierce, and no-nonsense and stubborn, and endearingly lost in American culture, and so, so devoted to her. How could anyone else ever compete with any of that?

*

Glenn has signed on.

GLENN: hi betty
BETTY: Hello
BETTY: How are you?
GLENN: doing well
BETTY: That’s good.
GLENN: you?
BETTY: Not bad
GLENN: wanted to ask you…
GLENN:im flying out to the pentagon this weekend
GLENN: was wondering if you wanted to meet up
GLENN: i can take the train up to NYC
GLENN: i haven’t been in so long
BETTY: Sure
BETTY: When and where?
GLENN: im craving pizza
GLENN: do you have any recommendations?
BETTY: Yeah, I know just the place
GLENN: great
GLENN: i dont know what time ill be free yet
GLENN: but ill call you on sat?
BETTY: Sounds perfect :)

*

Thursday, December 20

Betty stared blankly at the array of paint chips Sue had handed her, peering at all the different shades of blue. Costa Rica Blue, Carolina Blue, Triumph Blue, Bluejay, Meltwater?

“They all look the same to me,” she confessed. Sighing, Sue shuffled through the rest of the rainbow scattered across the carpet.

“I know! But I still have to pick one for the nursery, and Reed is no help whatsoever.”

Betty laughed at the thought of Reed attempting to decorate the interior of any room. “I get the feeling that even if you managed to recruit him, he would be horrible at it. Although I bet he’d probably like this one,” she said, pointing to Electron Blue. Sue laughed, too, taking the assorted chips back and frowning at them.

“In the end, I’ll probably just end up closing my eyes and pointing to one. I’m too tired to care about these things.”

“Is it really bad?” Betty wondered. Sue was five months along and seemed to be doing well, a healthy glow to her cheeks and a swell to her belly that excited and terrified Betty in turns. Sue hadn’t been able to make their scheduled brunch over the weekend, but Bruce hadn’t been feeling well that morning either, so it had been for the best.

Sue grimaced. “Nothing unusual. It’s just all very new to me. Ben’s been great, and even Johnny has been trying to help in his own way, but I’m just not used to feeling this weak.”

“You’ll let me know if I can ever help with anything, right?” Betty said. “Well, except picking paint colors, which I’m clearly awful at. This is more Jan’s department.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask her, but this whole thing with Hank…”

“I still can’t believe it,” Betty said. “I always imagined the six of us growing old together, the guys arguing over which one of them is smarter and us being smug in the knowledge that we are.”

Sue laughed a little. “There’s still a chance they’ll get back together,” she pointed out.

“Yeah, maybe. I guess it just scares me,” admitted Betty. “I know they fight a lot, but they’ve been together for even longer than Bruce and I have. Almost as long as you and Reed! What’s to say…”

“Oh, Betty, don’t think like that,” Sue reprimanded. “Bruce adores you.”

“Hank adores Jan,” Betty countered. “And yet…”

Frowning at her, Sue said, “What’s gotten into you?

Betty looked away. Voicing her dangerous thoughts scared her; it would make them that much more real. Rattling around in her head, they were only far-fetched fantasies that she could convince herself to ignore, but if she spoke them aloud... But Sue wasn’t stupid, and Betty could tell from the determined look in her eyes that she wasn’t going to buy a change of topic. Well. Maybe it would be good to get some of it off her chest.

“Lately, I just… The therapist is helping a lot, but Bruce’s condition is still spiraling downward, and I feel more and more helpless. On a logical level, I know he’s being distant because he doesn’t want me to know how bad it’s getting and because he’s afraid of hurting me, but… It’s not helping matters. And I just… I wonder sometimes, you know?”

“Wonder what exactly?” Sue said sharply, though her eyes were kind.

“About other people,” Betty said, though guilt lanced through her immediately after she uttered the words. “And what it would be like to be with them.”

“Other people in general,” Sue said, too smart for her own good, “or another person in particular?”

It wasn’t so much of a crush as a once-in-a-while thought that snuck past Betty’s moral barriers and made her wonder what it would like to be with Glenn. The thought usually only lasted a few seconds before it was demolished by her utter devotion to Bruce, but the fact that it existed was worrisome enough for someone as chaste as Betty.

Betty fidgeted, staring down at the carpet without seeing it. “I’ve been talking to someone. Just as friends!” she clarified quickly. “Nothing weird or wrong or anything, but… He’s going to be in town this weekend, and we made plans to get lunch, and I… I think he really likes me, and that just freaks me out.”

Sue reached over and squeezed her hand. “Don’t let him pressure you,” she said. “You know what’s right and what’s wrong, Betty.”

Betty winced. “What I’m most scared of is that it won’t take any pressure.”

Shaking her head, Sue said, “You wouldn’t, Betty. You didn’t really date before Bruce, did you?”

“No, not really.”

“It’s natural to be curious,” Sue assured her. “Especially if Bruce is being distant. But I know you. And in the end your love for Bruce will trump your curiosity.”

Sighing, Betty nodded and rubbed her forehead. “You’re right,” she said. “I’m just being silly.”

“No, not at all,” Sue said. “But you should talk to Bruce. Bring him back to reality, you know? Maybe sometimes he just needs a reminder that even though he may mean well, he’s gradually pushing you away.”

Betty smiled weakly. “Speaking from experience, I’m sure,” she said. “How often does Reed need a reality check?”

“You don’t want to know,” Sue said dryly. Betty laughed, feeling better already.

*

Steve smiled and waved goodbye to the other shelter volunteers as they went their separate ways. They had been in high spirits all day, after the shelter had received an enormous shipment from the Maria Stark Foundation of the previous generation of Starkpads and Starkphones. Only a brief missive had accompanied the boxes: Steve, The kids can do much more with these than I can. Merry Christmas and all that. –T

Steve had blushed tomato red when the innocuous message had been read aloud, but everyone who worked at the shelter had been so pleased that they barely even questioned his connection to the Maria Stark Foundation and Stark International. That had been so nice of Tony. He still didn’t know how to thank him for his generosity. He had kind of assumed Tony was one of those billionaires who had charities named after them for the glamour of it and only funneled money toward philanthropic efforts because they could, rather than because they actually cared about what they were supporting or who they were helping. But he had nothing to gain here, and the anonymity of the contribution meant that he hadn’t even been looking for credit. Though Tony and Steve approached charity in vastly different ways, they were both trying to do good in the world, in the only ways they knew how.

Steve was trying valiantly not to fall for Tony Stark, this was not helping one bit. The more he got to know the man, the more fascinated and charmed he became. Every time he thought he was getting the hang of Tony, the other man would surprise him again.

“Stop smiling like a lovesick puppy,” Bucky grumbled from the couch, beer in his hand and bag of greasy curly fries beside him, as Steve stepped through the door and shrugged out of his coat.

“I am not,” Steve replied defensively. Bucky rolled his eyes, though his lips quirked upward in fond amusement.

“You are so transparent,” he said. “What did Stark say now?”

Steve joined Bucky on the couch and rummaged through the bag on the coffee table for his requested burger. He tried to sound nonchalant: “Tony donated a couple hundred Starkpads and Starkphones to the shelter for the families. Anonymously.”

Bucky whistled. “Thought you had it bad. Sucker must really be trying to impress you.”

Steve punched him in the arm. “It’s not like that,” he said hotly.

“Sure it’s not,” Bucky teased. “Jesus, Steve, I never thought this thing with Stark was actually going to go anywhere.”

“Neither did I,” Steve admitted. “But there’s a lot more to him than you’d think.”

“Uh-huh, of course there is,” Bucky said skeptically, surfing the television channels as Steve reached for the fries.

“You hear from Natasha yet?” Steve asked.

“No,” Bucky muttered. “But I don’t expect to. She’s too proud.”

“As are you,” Steve said, shaking his head in exasperation. “The pair of you… If you ever wanted to get married, you’d be eighty before either of you would dare pop the question.”

Bucky shuddered dramatically. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Don’t even joke about it. That’s more your department than mine, pal.”

Steve snorted. “Right, because I am so close to getting married right now.”

Smirking, Bucky said, “Sure you don’t have secret aspirations to be Stark’s trophy wife?”

Steve shoved him playfully, snatching up the fries and moving them out of Bucky’s reach. “You shush now,” he said. “Tony and I are just friends.”

“I give it two weeks,” Bucky said. “Stark isn’t exactly known for his chastity, and you’re already getting stupid about him.”

Wrinkling his nose, Steve said, “I resent that.”

Bucky snorted and gave him an incredulous look. “You’re literally texting him right now!”

Steve tucked the phone away and gave Bucky his best attempt at an innocent smile. “Not anymore. Now stop hassling me and put on Casablanca, like you promised.”

*

A storm had been brewing for days, heavy gray crowds hovering overhead, and the sky finally decided to open up at the most inopportune time. Loki normally got a ride from one of the Stark International drivers late at night, but tonight he was especially tired from a frustrating day and had decided that leaving early and taking a stroll in the fresh air would be good for him. By the time the rain started pouring, he was only five blocks away from the apartment he shared with Thor, so snagging a cab seemed ridiculous.

New York in the rain stunk, as if the water were scrubbing away all the filth and corruption that had gathered since the last rainfall. His boots and beloved umbrella shielded him from the worst of the downpour, but he hated the feeling of drenched pants and damp skin. Loki loathed storms; he had since he was a child cowering under blankets as the thunder roared and Thor echoed it in delight, pretending to control it. But when the booming and subsequent violent flashing got too intense and Loki quivered in terror, Thor always halted his play and joined Loki under the covers, holding him tight and whispering reassurances into the darkness.

Loki frowned and shoved that line of thought away. What a stupid, sentimental memory.

He wiped his feet on the doormat in the lobby and nodded politely when the doorman greeted him and keyed in the penthouse level on the elevator for him. He wondered if Thor was out again or if he was mature enough to face Loki tonight. He had gone out drinking the past few nights, leaving before Loki got home from work and returning after he went to bed. Loki would call it the most blatant passive aggressive effort to get him to talk ever if he didn’t know his brother so well. Thor probably just couldn’t handle being around someone who had rejected him.

The apartment was dark when he entered. It seemed that Thor was out again after all. Loki left his umbrella and boots out on the shaded balcony to dry, but as he was shutting the sliding door, the reflection of a mysterious box on the dining table caught his eye.

The black velvet box was small, only a few inches wide, and inside sat a pair of elegant cufflinks, smooth, deep-green stones set in gold ovals. Although there was no note attached, they were unmistakably for him, and he could tell at a glance that they were of expensive make. He held one up to admire how it looked under the light.

It was a beautiful gift, but did Thor really think he was going to be swayed by trinkets?

Not that Loki was at all certain where he stood. A pathetic part of him simply desired Thor in whatever form he could have; a prideful part of him wanted to refuse Thor just to be contrary; and yet another terrified part feared that there was no winning—for if Thor offered himself again, Loki would either greedily take all of him, consequences and self-preservation be damned, or lash out at Thor so hard that he would end up forever regretting giving up his one chance.

His phone chirped, interrupting his contemplation. It was Kingpin, with an update on the Acts of Vengeance’s latest heist. Loki was less interested in this project than he had been in previous ones and so had been taking a bit of a backseat. Though he respected Kingpin’s unique style and skill enough, he had no interest in crime wars or the Maggia and little to provide or gain at both the project’s success and defeat.

He was catching up on the thread over a quickly thrown together dinner when the front door opened, a drenched Thor appearing in the foyer.

“Loki!” Thor said, sounding surprised. “You’re home early.”

“I had a long day,” Loki said without taking his eyes off of his tablet screen. If Magneto and Red Skull didn’t stop bickering, he was going to have to kick them off of the team.

“Ah,” Thor said, leaving his umbrella on the floor and wet shoes at the front door. Loki glared at them but didn’t say anything. Thor came over to him, picking up the box and examining its delicate contents.

“I see you found your present, though earlier than I had intended. Do you like them?” he asked earnestly. “I saw them in the store window and immediately thought of you.”

“They’re lovely,” Loki said. “But I am not some shallow tart to be swayed by shiny pieces of jewelry.”

To his credit, Thor said, “No, brother, not at all. Am I not allowed to buy you gifts when it pleases me?”

Loki sighed, glancing at the box, which looked comically tiny in Thor’s massive hands. “They are nice,” he said.

“You should put them on,” Thor suggested.

Loki rolled his eyes. “Thor, I’m eating.”

“Come on, it will only take a second. I want to see them on you.”

Annoyed, Loki ignored Thor’s eager expression and said in a tone that booked no argument, “Fine, but not until I’ve finished dinner.”

He had expected Thor to needle him until he was done eating, but to his surprise, his brother simply agreed and took a seat at the table, commencing playing some inane game on his phone. Loki was allowed to finish his dinner in peace.

After clearing his place and sticking the dishes in the dishwasher, he went to the couch and said, “Very well, bring them over here.”

Thor did so, but when Loki reached for the box, he asked, “May I put them on you?”

Loki flickered his eyes over Thor’s hopeful smile and sighed. “Why not,” he muttered. Thor reached for his right wrist with surprising gentleness and carefully removed his plain silver cufflink, placing it on the coffee table. He fastened the new cufflink onto the sleeves, taking care not to jab Loki in the process. He did the same with the other cuff and then held Loki’s hands out so they could admire them. Loki was hyper aware of the soft, teasing touch of his rough skin against Loki’s own, and chided himself for his stupidity.

“Perfect,” Thor said, but Loki looked up from his wrists to see that Thor wasn’t looking at his cuffs any longer. Uncomfortably warm, Loki tried to move his hands away, but Thor gripped them, preventing him slipping away. “Loki…” he murmured, his fingers stroking Loki’s palm. Loki’s breath caught at the sensation, and Thor took advantage of the moment to lift one of the hands to his mouth.

“Thor,” Loki reprimanded, but what came out of his mouth didn’t sound nearly as much like a protest as he was going for, especially when Thor’s tongue did something completely obscene to his index finger. Loki was instantly hard, but he was still trying to convince himself to pull away when Thor began biting down hard on the tips of his finger and then soothing the pinching sensation with gentle licks. The mix of pain and pleasure sent blood rushing between Loki’s thighs. Throwing abandon out the window, he yanked his hands away from Thor’s mouth so that he could drag Thor on top of him on the couch, their mouths crashing together.

Loki would never admit it aloud, but he loved the feeling of Thor all around him, like a warm cloak pressing in, nearly suffocating in its embrace. He wrapped his legs around Thor’s waist and pulled at Thor’s hair without mercy so that his throat was bared and prime for Loki to attack it. In little time, they shed their clothes, the cufflinks clattering to the wood floor as hands roamed greedily over exposed skin. They rutted against each other hard and fast, loud gasps and moans escaping them as the storm continued to rage outside.

Nearly lost in Thor, Loki came with a loud cry that was instantly followed by shame and self-loathing as he spilled onto both of their stomachs, their seed mingling on hot, sweaty skin.

“Loki,” Thor whispered with awe, stroking his hair and pressing their foreheads together.

Loki closed his eyes, and hating his own weakness, he memorized the comforting feeling of Thor pressed against him, breathing gently against his cheek.

*

Friday, December 21

The last day of school before Winter Break dragged on forever. Billy had three different finals, two of which were for his worst subjects—English and History—and his hand ached by the time he got through the Calculus exam. When he exited the classroom, Teddy was still bent over his test, eyebrows furrowed as he stared down the questions like he was facing an invading alien army.

Billy emptied the heavy books in his backpack into his locker and waited for Teddy on a bench out front. He was engrossed in the latest issue of X-Men when someone took a seat next to him.

Billy turned to find Mr. Rogers looking curiously at the comic book in Billy’s hand.

“Hi, Mr. Rogers.”

Mr. Rogers smiled. “Hello, Billy. Finished your finals?”

“Yup. Finally. I’m just waiting for a friend now.”

Looking pleased at his words for whatever reason, Mr. Rogers nodded and asked cheerfully, “Any plans for the holidays?”

Billy shrugged. “Just some Hanukkah stuff, and I’ll probably sleep a lot and read a bunch of comics. No complaints here. How about you?”

“That sounds nice. I’m just going to celebrate Christmas with my roommate, and maybe head down to the shelter and help in whatever way I can.”

Billy cringed inwardly. Mr. Rogers was so cool and such a good person that he made Billy feel embarrassed and ashamed of his comfortable Chelsea living when he started talking about volunteering. And Mr. Rogers volunteered a lot.

“I should do —” he started to say, when he felt a large, warm hand land on his shoulder. He turned and followed the line of wool-covered arm up to Teddy’s smiling face. “Oh, hey! How’d the test go?”

Teddy made a face and then laughed. “I don’t want to discuss it with you, math genius. But c’mon, we’re done! It’s time to celebrate!”

His grin was infectious. “Okay, okay,” Billy said, completely failing at sounding put upon as he got to his feet. Mr. Rogers was smiling at them both. “Oh, uh, Teddy, this is Mr. Rogers; he teaches art. Mr. Rogers, Teddy — my best friend.”

Teddy’s face was distinctly pink as he shook Mr. Rogers’ hand.

“Nice to meet you, Teddy,” Mr. Rogers said pleasantly. “It’s good to know that someone is taking care of my prized student.”

It was Billy’s turn to blush. “Oh, stop it,” he muttered in embarrassment. Teddy and Mr. Rogers both laughed. “We’re going now,” he said. “Bye, Mr. Rogers.”

“Happy holidays, Billy,” said Mr. Rogers.

All smiles and happy chattering, they made their way to Billy’s house. Karolina Dean (yes, that Karolina Dean, daughter of power couple Frank and Leslie Dean, whom Billy’s dad had once been brought in to advise on cardiology for their show), who normally babysat Billy’s brothers, was off for the winter break. As they walked, their arms brushed frequently without interrupting the flow of conversation, and Billy swore it wasn’t just him initiating the casual proximity. He felt like he would explode from excitement every time it happened.

“I can’t believe school is finally over!” Teddy said with glee for what had to be the fifth time as Billy unlocked the front door and shouted that he was home to whoever was listening. “I am so ready for Winter Break.”

“Me too,” Billy said, as they made their way to his room to dump their stuff — no homework for two whole weeks! “You hungry?”

They made BLTs and caught the tail end of the Spider-Man cartoon. Sitting on the couch in the living room, spilling crumbs all over himself as he laughed at Teddy’s purist raging over a botched storyline the show had adapted, Billy wondered how he had gotten so lucky. Was this — was Teddy — his reward for putting up with the teasing all his life and always feeling like he didn’t belong? Or was Teddy just a bright moment, bound to disappear the next time he blinked? Billy had made friends from time to time, but they all seemed to slink away after a little while, whether it was due to a sudden confidence boost that led to admittance into a more popular circle, or moving to another state and losing contact, or just plain drifting apart. Already he felt that he couldn’t imagine life without Teddy — but did Teddy feel the same way about him? Or was he just a rebound now that Teddy’s friends had dismissed him?

Teddy poked him in the side. “What’s up? You look way too serious for someone watching afterschool cartoons.”

Billy gnawed on his lip. What was he supposed to say?

“I’m glad we’re friends,” he said, and then smacked himself in the forehead for the non sequitur. But Teddy was looking at him fondly. Teddy never seemed phased by Billy’s idiotic behavior — it was just another thing Billy adored about him.

“Me too,” he said seriously. “I think you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Billy’s breath caught. “Even though you got beat up? And your friends ditched you? And I’m a total dweeb?”

Teddy shifted on the couch to face him, blue eyes bright. “I’ve been truer to myself in the few weeks we’ve known each other than I have ever been,” he admitted. “Besides… Those guys were jerks.”

Billy grimaced. “Yeah, they kind of were.”

Laughing, Teddy said, “Seriously, man. Thanks for being so cool.”

“I don’t think anyone has ever called me that,” Billy replied with a grin. “I’ll remember this day forever.”

Teddy punched him gently in the arm and then threw an arm around his shoulder and squeezed briefly. Blushing, Billy automatically leaned into his touch and then had to gingerly remove himself from the casual embrace.

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous. I have to come clean,” he blurted out. Teddy gave him a funny look.

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve had a mad crush on you since the end of sophomore year,” Billy confessed quickly, the words leaving his mouth in a single breath. “Oh god, this is so embarrassing, but I can’t lie to you anymore. I’m really sorry.”

Teddy stared at him.

“Seriously?”

Billy buried his face in his hands. “Maybe?” he tried. “Please don’t hate me. Please please please tell me that you don’t hate me. Because if you do, I’ll hate me, and I—”

Teddy grabbed his hands. He was so strong and his grip so firm; even through his haze of embarrassment Billy couldn’t help but swoon. “You like me? For real?”

Billy nodded miserably but didn’t try to extract his hands. Teddy’s were big and warm. “You don’t have to rub it in or anything…”

There was a funny light in Teddy’s eyes. “Shut up, Billy,” he said, and leaned in.

Teddy kissed like his life depended on it, which was good because Billy had no idea what he was doing as he threw his arms around broad shoulders and gave it his all. Teddy’s hand was hot against his face, the other buried in Billy’s hair as he nudged his tongue against Billy’s lips. Billy gasped, trying to get closer as he scrabbled at Teddy’s shirt and tried to suppress a whimper at the sensation of Teddy exploring his mouth.

“Billy, we’re hungry!”

Startled, they broke apart, and Billy groaned when his brothers ran into the living room, action figures in hand. He got reluctantly to his feet, shooting Teddy a nervous apologetic look.

“I’ll be right back,” he promised, but Teddy grabbed his hand and pulled himself up. He squeezed Billy’s hand.

“No problem, I’ll come with,” he insisted, his big, warm hand resting casually on Billy’s back.

They heated up frozen pizzas for Billy’s brothers and pigged out on ice cream while they ate. Billy grinned like a loon the entire time, squeezing Teddy’s hand under the table every time he started to think this was a dream. After the meal, they snuck back to Billy’s room.

Shutting the door behind him, Billy said stupidly, “So, uh…” What was the proper etiquette after kissing your best friend?

“Come here,” Teddy said from where he was sitting on the edge of Billy’s bed. Billy sat next to him gingerly, their arms pressed against each other. “I like you, too, Billy,” Teddy admitted quietly. “It scares me, but I really, really like you.”

“You mean it? You really mean it? Even though I’m a complete dork?”

“Honestly? More so because you’re a dork,” mumbled Teddy. He was blushing. Teddy was blushing! It was the cutest thing Billy had ever seen in his life. He couldn’t help but grab him for a clumsy kiss.

“I’ve never kissed anyone and liked it before,” Teddy breathed against his lips. Billy smiled, pleased with himself.

“I’ve never kissed anyone at all,” he said. “In case you couldn’t tell from my complete lack of technique.”

Teddy grinned. “I don’t care about that.” He pressed a wet kiss beneath Billy’s ear and whispered, warm and wonderful: “We can work on it together.”

*

Natasha was all the way on the other side of the world when she received the call. The number had a 212 area code. New York. It was Steve Rogers’ voice on the other line, deep and worried.

“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am,” he said, clearly having no idea she had just climbed into bed in a discreet Portuguese hotel after a long day. “But Bucky — James — has been badly injured in a shootout. They’re not sure if he’s going to make it. I thought you should know.”

Her heart stopped in her chest. It stuttered back to life with difficulty, and she actually had to struggle to disguise her panic. “What’s the damage?” she said as evenly as she could manage, as she flung the bedcovers off, slipped back into her uniform, and started zipping up her small bag.

“Two bullet wounds — left arm and ribcage — and possible head trauma, ma’am,” Rogers reported.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Natasha said, already making a list in her head of the people in Interpol who owed her favors. With a push and a display of desperation (which Natasha wouldn’t have to fake this time), Agent Coulson would probably help her, and he was the best at getting around Director Fury.

“There’s no need —”

“I’m not letting the bastard die on my watch,” Natasha interrupted sharply. She could hear Roger’s smile through the phone.

“Very good, ma’am,” he said, sounding pleased. “He’s at New York Downtown. I’ll see you soon.”

*

Natasha tried to imagine life without James and was startled to find that she couldn’t. It had barely been two weeks since they’d stopped talking, and already she was throwing herself into her work to distract herself from thinking about him — an effort that was failing terribly, since it only seemed to make her miss him more. The emptiness of her text message inbox and the cold loneliness of her bed made her ache somewhere deep down, in the heart she hadn’t known she still had access to.

She was too nervous to get any work done on the plane ride back to New York, ending up sitting alert the entire time, staring at the back of the pilot’s head as she alternated between imagining a life without James and a life as James’s girlfriend. Neither seemed particularly viable, and yet one was definitely preferable. Live, you bastard, she thought fiercely.

Getting past all the hospital restrictions was merely a distraction. With a flutter of her eyelashes and a few well-placed threats, she met Rogers outside of James’s room.

“How is he?”

“They’re operating on him,” Rogers said solemnly. “It’s just be a waiting game now.” Natasha scowled. She hated waiting for things that weren’t within her control. Rogers smiled wryly at her obvious frustration and nodded his head toward the frizzy-haired doctor who stood nearby, reviewing some papers in a file. “That’s Dr. Rodriguez. You can ask her if you want to know more about the procedure.”

A little over an hour later, Natasha was sitting in the waiting room with Rogers, both silently awaiting the announcement of James’s fate. Rogers was texting intermittently, and at one point, Natasha peeked and got a glimpse of his conversation.

STEVE: I can’t lose him again.

SAM: He’ll be okay. Bucky’s not one to give up. Trust him, alright?

She wondered if Rogers had been talking about the war. James had once told her, after a terrible nightmare from which she’d had to slap him twice to wake him up from, about the time he’d been captured by the enemy, tortured, and then forced to run missions for them. But his squadron had believed that he had died in a terrible explosion. James had said sorrowfully that he thought Rogers still had nightmares about it and sometimes looked at James like he wasn’t sure whether he was real or a figment of his imagination.

“He’ll be all right,” Rogers said suddenly, though he seemed to lack conviction. Natasha tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her ear and glanced at Rogers. She could see a little bit of James in him, the rough-and-tumble street upbringing, the no-nonsense soldier, the air of defiance and grim courage born of living through hard times and witnessing horrific things — but where James tried to disguise his compassion with gruff masculinity, Rogers wore his heart on his sleeve. His eyes were full of kindness and a bizarrely relieved fondness when he looked at her.

“He’d better be,” Natasha growled. Rogers smiled.

“You’re good for him, you know.”

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “I think I broke his heart.”

“He has been rather upset,” Rogers allowed, and Natasha thought she heard some accusation in his tone. She narrowed her eyes at him.

“If you think you’re going to sit here and convince me to be his girlfriend —”

“I wouldn’t think of it, ma’am,” he replied sharply, though his eyes were still kind. “Bucky deserves better than someone who would be threatened into being with him. Who would need to be threatened,” he added, sounding infuriatingly knowing when Natasha didn’t even know herself. Natasha glared at him, but he met her glare evenly. If you aren’t that person, then you should get out of his life, she read in his eyes. This wasn’t the doddering grandpa she had seen puttering around the apartment he owned with James; this was Steve Rogers, four-star general and highly decorated war hero. This was the man who James had told her he would die for without a second thought.

“You’re not so bad, Rogers,” she said after a moment. Steve grinned and ducked his head, and she noted that he really was handsome, if you were into the blushing all-American types. Tony Stark didn’t know what he was missing out on.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

*

Saturday, December 22

Betty made sure to look nice but not too nice for lunch with Glenn. Slacks and a nice shirt would send the right signals, Jan had said. And Betty certainly didn’t want to give him the wrong signals — which her father was undoubtedly pushing him into seeing. The thought made Betty very uncomfortable, but Glenn was pleasant to talk to, never said anything inappropriately out of line, and, well, it wasn’t like Betty had ever had many friends — especially ones who made her smile like Glenn did, down-to-earth and kind.

She met him at the restaurant, which was a casual affair on Lexington and 26th. He was effortlessly handsome, she had to give him that. Bruce was nice to look at and rather stunning in evening wear (which he always fought tooth and nail to get out of), but Glenn looked like he had just walked out of a GQ magazine from the fifties. Dark, neatly coiffed hair and a 5 o’clock shadow gave him an authoritative look, but intelligent blue-gray eyes softened the edges where the light hit them right.

“Sorry for not changing,” he said, taking the seat across from her and setting his hat in his lap. “I wanted to see you as soon as I could.”

“It’s fine,” Betty said, smiling. She had always had a bit of an aversion to military men, given her father’s severity and the crude, entitled way the men she had grown up around had catcalled her when he wasn’t looking. But Glenn was polite, respectful, and endearing in how clumsy he was with words. His biggest downside was probably the fact that her dad loved him so much. In fact, Betty had gotten the uncomfortable impression during Thanksgiving that her father considered Glenn the son he had never had — and the one he had always tried to raise her to be, to her detriment. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too,” he said, unfolding the menu.

Lunch was pleasant, the camaraderie between them pleasant and easy. Glenn had a charming laugh and a way of redirecting the conversation back to her, even though he had clearly lived the more interesting life. Things seemed easier between them than they had when Betty and Bruce had started dating, although Betty supposed that could be due to how nervous she had been back then. Marriage had instilled in her a good deal of courage.

The meal was over too fast, in Betty’s opinion.

“Well, I should get going. My flight is at six,” Glenn said, reluctance obvious in his tone and his expression. He got up, and just as Betty was about to do the same, he dashed to the other side of the table and helped her out of her chair.

“Thank you,” Betty said, startled. His eyes twinkled.

“My pleasure.”

They exited the small shop together, and Glenn paused outside one of the large windows that looked into the restaurant.

“Betty,” he said, taking her hands. “I’m glad we did this. I had a wonderful time.”

“I did, too,” Betty said earnestly, and okay, maybe it was a bit of a crush, she admitted as she blushed at the contact. Glenn’s hands were big and rough and strong.

“I know I shouldn’t, but I like you so much. I can’t stop thinking about you,” he confessed. That was when the alarm bells started ringing in Betty’s head — for good reason, too, because the next thing she knew, Glenn was kissing her, warm and wet and possessive, and her knees threatened to buckle. Suddenly her scarf felt stifling but Glenn’s arms around her waist didn’t. He was tall, enveloping her in his embrace almost protectively.

But no. This was wrong. Bruce. This would break Bruce. She couldn’t do this to him. And she couldn’t do this to herself. With a tight, suffocating feeling in her chest, Betty wrenched away, all while shaking her head to clear it. Guilt threatened to overwhelm her.

“I can’t,” she said brokenly, although there was a part of her, deeply buried, that really, really wanted to. Tears came to her eyes, and she couldn’t discern whether they were for Bruce or for Glenn. What was the point of loving someone if it didn’t stop you from straying?

Glenn closed his eyes briefly and when he reopened them, he said, “I know,” sadly. “You really do love him. I just thought… Maybe.”

“In another life, maybe,” Betty agreed. “But in this one, Bruce needs me, and I love him more than anything in the world — no matter what.”

“Fair enough,” Glenn said softly, tipping his hat. “A real man knows when he’s been bested by another. I hope he deserves your loyalty. I’ll see you around, Betty.”

Nodding solemnly, Betty kept her hands clasped before her for fear of doing something stupid like reaching out for him. “Goodbye, Glenn.”

She watched him go, traitorous eyes tracing the outline of his tall silhouette as he walked away from her and then melted into the crowd.

Bruce, she reminded her sternly. Bruce needed her.

*

Waking up was slow and not particularly pleasant. James took stock of the white walls and his general fuzziness with a sinking feeling. The hospital. His memory of what had happened began to slowly trickle back to him. His eyes roved to his left, and he was startled to see Natasha dozing in a chair, perfect posture and long red ponytail and all.

Steve strolled into the room just as James was pondering what Natasha’s presence at his bedside meant. He greeted James with a careless grin, relief evident in his eyes, and then briefly ducked back out the door to flag down a doctor.

“Thank god,” he said under his breath before racing to James’s side. He reached a hand as if to clap James on the shoulder but then halted his motion, returning his hand to his side. “I knew you’d make it. How do you feel?”

“Like shit,” James said honestly. He hated painkillers. Steve chuckled.

“That’s my Buck,” he said affectionately. “Your lucky lady has been worried as well, though I suspect she’ll never admit it.”

James looked at Natasha again, lips quirking upward at the thought of her being worried about anything at all, let alone his wellbeing. The notion was mighty amusing — but also warmed his heart. Steve smiled at him knowingly, and James rolled his eyes.

“Stop being so smug,” he said. “So maybe you were right.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Steve said, completely failing at looking innocent.

“Right,” he said, and then glared at Natasha through narrowed eyes. “And you, stop pretending to be asleep. You woke up the moment the door opened; don’t think I don’t know it.”

Steve jumped a little when Natasha opened her eyes slowly, glaring back at him. James grinned cheekily.

“Don’t give me that; you know you’re glad that I’m awake.”

Natasha sighed, reaching for his hand and squeezing it. “Maybe a little,” she conceded. “If you had died, I would have resurrected you just so I could kill you for dying.”

James snorted, and the look on Steve’s face was inappropriately affectionate for someone who should’ve been cowered by Natasha’s words.

“Oh god,” James said, realizing the two most important people in his life had been left alone for god knows how long while he had been out. “You two talked, didn’t you?” Just the thought of Steve earnestly trying to talk Natasha into giving him a chance was horror-inducing (and maybe just a tiny bit hilarious).

“Maybe a little,” Steve said, echoing Natasha’s words. James rolled his eyes.

“Great,” he said and then turned to Natasha with an overly beseeching expression. “Didn’t scare him too much, did you?”

“You know,” she said casually, shooting Steve a secretive smile, “it was really Steve that did most of the threatening.”

James gaped at her and then at Steve. “That true?”

Steve grinned proudly. “That’s for Natasha and me to know and you to spend the rest of your life wondering.”

The doctor insisted on running a few tests, then, and Steve and Natasha stood by silently while James tried his best to be an obedient patient, even though he hated hospitals and the stench of death that marred the unnaturally sterile air.

After the tests were done and James was ordered to rest, Steve graciously offered to leave the two of them alone — though by that point, James and Natasha didn’t have eyes for anyone else anyway. The door closed quietly behind him. James looked into Natasha’s eyes and saw fear laced with hope.

“Changed your mind, then?” he said, going for a conversational tone but instead sounding just as wracked with anxiety as he felt. Still, he had never been one for beating around the bush, and he knew she liked that about him.

At his question, Natasha looked more serious than he had ever seen her, and that was saying something.

“And if I say yes… What changes?” she said, the syllables rolling off her tongue slowly and uncertainly. She was as nervous as he was. Emotions were not something that either of them handled well. They probably would have been better off if Steve had stayed and just sorted all this nonsense out for them, James thought wryly.

“Just that I know you love me as much as I love you, in a way that I love no one else,” he said, feeling like an unbearable weight had been lifted off of his shoulder by saying those dangerous words aloud at last.

Natasha looked stricken. “James…”

“Natasha, I’m not going to ask you for anything you don’t want to give me. I don’t plan on pampering you, and I don’t want you to clean up after me or whatever the hell else girlfriends usually do. I don’t want the way we work to change. But I’m happy when I’m with you, and I’m tired of being so goddamned scared you’ll leave me when you find out how deeply committed I am to you.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Natasha commanded, and maybe James was imagining it, but her voice sounded hoarse and her eyes were shiny as she reached over and roughly grabbed him into a kiss. She squeezed his hand so hard he thought she might break it, and he squeezed back just as fiercely. When they finally broke apart, she said, with determination as sharp and strong as steel, “Okay.”

James beamed. “Okay?”

Natasha nodded, looking down at their entwined fingers, the edges of her eyes going soft. “You obviously can’t take care of yourself, so somebody has to.”

James laughed and kissed her again. Steve was going to be so unbearable after this.

*

They had kissed exactly seven times, made out twice, and gotten their hands up each others’ shirts when the question of gender had come up. From what she had studied of American culture, she had expected the conversation to occur much earlier, but to her delight and relief, Karolina was full of surprises.

“So… Do you think you were meant to be a girl all along?” Karolina asked awkwardly as she used Xavin’s chest as a pillow.

Xavin raised an eyebrow at motion and then sighed. “Where I am from, we do not think of gender the way you do, in binaries and polar states of being, but rather a fluid spectrum. It is perfectly normal to be born somewhere on the scale and choose to live elsewhere on it. I presented as masculine for a long time because I believed that soldiers from outside armies perceived male fighters as more intimidating than female ones. I was trained to take advantage of any weapon I had when it came to defending our soil and conquering new lands for the empire, so I wore my chosen gender with pride. But being a good soldier isn’t my top priority anymore, so I have elected to take this form now.”

Karolina was staring at her. “What?” she said defensively. “I’m telling the truth.”

“No, it’s not that,” Karolina replied. “It’s just, that’s the most I’ve ever heard you speak.”

“Oh,” Xavin said, suddenly feeling oddly bashful.

“So what’s your top priority now then?” Karolina asked curiously.

“I thought that would have been obvious,” Xavin replied. “It’s pleasing you, Beloved.”

Karolina blinked, blue eyes big and wide. There was awe in her expression. “You…” she said, trailing off as she tilted her head and considered Xavin. “You wanted to look feminine for me?”

Xavin shrugged. “As I’ve said, your culture sees it differently than we do. But when I got word that you were attracted to women exclusively, I wished to take on a form that would please you. It would have been the worst thing, to have repulsed you.”

“Oh, Xavin,” Karolina said, surprise now intertwining with wonder in her words and in the “O” of her mouth. “I don’t know what to say. I wish I could say that it wouldn’t have mattered, but… I was so scared. I didn’t want to live a lie. I lived it for fifteen years before I realized what was missing the entire time. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life lying to everyone, and to myself. And the truth is, I would have liked you either way, but in this form you are the most beautiful to me.”

Xavin’s heart sped up at the words, and the warmth of it spread to the tips of her fingers and toes. “That is all I ever wished for, Beloved,” she murmured. Karolina kissed the edge of her mouth, and Xavin turned her face so that their lips met in a chaste kiss lacking the wild, hurried passion that had characterized their recent intimacy but filled with something far sweeter and heavier, like honey being poured into Xavin’s chest, flooding her until she felt like she was fit to burst with sweet happiness.

And then suddenly Karolina pulled away, her face creased into a frown. “Wait. How did you know that I like girls?”

Xavin had never been very good at hiding her confusion. “What do you mean? Your mother informed us.”

And then Karolina had screeched, “My mom knows I’m gay?” and all hell had broken loose, as the Americans were fond of saying.

*

Sunday, December 23

Hank hadn't bought Jan flowers in years. Having no idea what to get, he hovered in front of the flower stand for too long, prompting the suspicion of the stand's owner, a rotund old Cantonese man with bushy white eyebrows and tiny glasses perked on the edge of his nose.

"You need help?" the man said irritably. Jittery, Hank jumped when he realized he was being spoken to. His eyes darted toward him and then jumped back to the assortment of flowers.

"Yeah," he admitted. "My girlfriend, I... She left me. I'm trying to win her back."

"Ah," the man said, drawing the vowel out thoughtfully. "You need purple hyacinth, to say sorry, and yellow tulips to express your love."

“Okay,” Hank said uncertainly. “I’ll take that. Jan likes yellow.”

With the obscenely large bouquet that had cost way more than expected in one hand and his briefcase in the other, Hank made his way to Jan’s apartment. The friendly doorman smiled at him and asked where he’d been over the past week, to which Hank stuttered a nonsensical reply. Jan hadn’t asked for his key back, so he made his way up to her penthouse. Anxiety began to assault him on the ride up as he questioned what exactly he was doing here.

But then it was too late to escape — the gilded gold doors slid open, and Hank found himself blinking at an unexpected sight. Jan was sitting on the living room couch in her pajamas, tousled head tossed back in raucous laughter. She was surrounded by a number of other women, some of whom Hank recognized and some he wasn’t sure if he’d met before. There was Carol, blonde hair and broad shoulders easily recognizable, sitting to Jan’s right, and Jessica, whose distinctive voice rose above the din. Betty was slouched down in the armchair, staring lovingly into her cup of coffee, and at her feet sat an extremely tall, dark-haired woman who bizarrely reminded Hank of Bruce. There was also Susan Storm Richards, who Hank hadn’t realized was pregnant (he made a mental note to send Reed a congratulatory email), and a regal-looking woman with a shock of white hair. Natasha was notably absent.

They all turned to look at him when the elevator doors closed behind him with a soft chime.

“Oh,” Hank said awkwardly. “Hello.”

Jan blinked rapidly and then rubbed her eyes “Hank?

“Uh,” Hank said, not sure what to do with his hands, “hi. Sorry, I didn’t know you were having…something. I’ll come back another time.”

“Jan, why does he still have a key?” Jessica said sharply.

“Uh,” Hank said again. Wow. This was even worse than he had imagined. Suddenly he was picturing Jan inviting all of her friends over to gossip about him and them having a blast making fun of him behind his back. That was probably why Jan had been laughing in the first place. There was a sinking feeling in his chest, and he was suddenly finding it hard to breathe as he struggled to swallow his bitter hurt. He had been spending his nights crying at his office desk, feeling so desolate and alone, while Jan had been having parties in her penthouse?

But Jan glared at Jessica, her expression strangely pleading. “Carol has a key,” she protested.

“Yeah, but Carol’s not crazy or abusive,” Jessica mumbled, making eye contact with Carol briefly behind Jan.

In a split second, Hank’s hurt transformed into anger.

“I am not abusive!” he roared. Jan’s friends froze. He stared back at them unflinchingly for a second, feeling his body ablaze with indignant fervor, before he deflated and bent down to pick up the fallen flowers and briefcase. “Sorry,” he mumbled, turning to get back into the elevator and leave before he embarrassed himself further. At this point, Jan’s friends wouldn’t even need to speculate. Jessica was probably right — he was crazy, and he had been crazy to think that coming back here would solve anything, that anything was salvageable from his relationship with Jan.

“Excuse me for a moment,” Jan said to her friends. She ran over to Hank and tugged his wrist away just as he was about to call the elevator. Hank jumped at the touch from those too-familiar fingers, forcing himself to resist the sudden urge to fall to his knees and cry.

“Honey,” Jan said in a lowered voice, “what are you doing here?”

Hank flushed. This had been a stupid idea. “I just… These are for you,” he said, handing her the bouquet. “The purple ones are an apology, and the yellow ones are for love. Well, I don’t know, that’s what the guy at the stall said, anyway, but maybe he was just trying to get me to leave because I took too long to decide and was scaring away potential customers.”

“Thank you,” Jan said, looking surprised. She buried her face in the soft flowers and inhaled deeply. “They smell nice. And they’re very beautiful.”

Hank nodded awkwardly. He had something else for her in his briefcase, but he didn’t want to take it out in front of everyone, especially when he had just been called crazy. He said, “Do you want your key back?” just to have something to say, because even though part of him shouted at him to run as fast as he could away from this awful situation, the rest of him couldn’t bear to be parted from Jan again. She looked tired. Hank wasn’t used to seeing bags under her eyes — they looked unnatural and wrong on her pretty face.

Jan hesitated for the longest time. In the background, her friends had stopped talking and were watching them and eavesdropping shamelessly. “No, keep it,” she said, raising her voice. She glanced at her friends briefly as if making a point, then smiled weakly at him.

He did his best to smile back, though it hurt. “I’ve been talking to someone,” he said, even though he knew Jan’s friends were listening. He just wanted to prolong the conversation further. “Like you said to.”

“Really?” she said, surprise evident in both her tone and the look on her face. He tried not to be hurt by that and merely nodded. “Good, Hank. That’s good. I’m glad.”

Was that it? Somehow, he had imagined that Jan would see that he was going to be better and take him back.

He lowered his voice until he was sure Jan’s friends wouldn’t be able to hear him, though something told him that Jan would spill to them after he left anyway. “I’ve been feeling a lot better. I brought the prescriptions to show you.”

Jan looked mildly appalled. “You don’t have to do that,” she said. “I believe you.”

“I know,” Hank said, trying futilely to explain, “it’s just that…” That what? That he had ruined the best thing that had ever happened to him? That he was sorry? That Jan was much too good for him but he couldn’t help but want nobody else anyway? “I miss you,” he said lamely.

“I know,” Jan said softly. “I miss you, too.”

The air was rife with tension, and Hank almost thought that they would kiss — he was hoping desperately for it — but Jan didn’t move, and he was too scared to initiate anything. Her eyes were sad and full of something close to regret interwoven with resignation.

“I have to go. We’re going out to brunch soon,” Jan said. Hank flinched. That hurt, too. Brunch had been their thing for years, and Hank had loved sleepy Sunday mornings when Jan would smack him none too gently with pillows to wake him up and then he would grab her and hoist her back into bed, where they would make love in the hazy weekend sunlight and then awaken hours later to eat brunch in a restaurant of Jan’s choosing.

“Have fun,” he said, turning away and calling the elevator. As he watched Jan rejoin her friends out of the corner of his eye, he wondered if he had done the right thing at all, coming here and intruding on a life that was no longer entwined with his own. If anything, it had only seemed to highlight his own loneliness and the fact that without Jan, he was little more than a hollow husk, floating aimlessly in the December wind, waiting to be helplessly crushed by a blizzard.

*

Bruce didn’t know what was wrong. He had never been much of a people-person, but he prided himself on being able to read Betty like a book. When they had first met, she had been an enigma for him to study and puzzle out, and he had loved peeling back the layers. As their love grew strong and deep, he had to come to know her like he knew nobody else, memorizing her affection in the flutter of her eyelashes, her exhaustion in the slump of her shoulders, her excitement in the way she leaned into him, her pain in the furrow of her eyebrows.

Betty had always been a little scatterbrained, but lately she had seemed more distracted than usual. But she hadn’t mentioned any work troubling her, and she never fought with her friends. And she knew Bruce very much didn’t mind it when she complained to him about her dad. It felt strange — wrong — to not know what was bothering her. He was trying not to let it stress him out, but he hated feeling like Betty was keeping something from him.

The roar of the hairdryer from the bathroom stopped, and Betty exited the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her torso and pale skin aglow in the dim light of his bedside lamp. Just then, he found himself the distracted one, ignoring his tablet in favor of following her beloved form with his eyes as she made her way over to the wardrobe. Even after marriage, he still found himself astonished by her beauty, especially in intimate moments like this. Quiet but brilliant Betty, plain in the eyes of the world but a wholly unique treasure to Bruce. Beautiful, thoughtful Betty, who saw in him a man worth saving where others saw only a monster.

He watched silently as she slipped on one of his ratty old Stark International T-shirts. He loved the ordinary things he got to share with her—their coffee brewed by the same machine, their toothbrushes resting inches away from one another, their clothes hanging side by side, their living room littered with scientific journals and books from both of their fields.

When she turned toward him, her eyes were sad, and she looked a million miles away. His heart wrenched.

“Is something wrong?” Bruce asked as she climbed into the bed beside him.

“Why would you say that?” Betty said, staring up at the ceiling, and Bruce wondered if he was imagining her nervous tone.

“Betty…”

She took a deep breath and turned to face him. “I’m not in the mood for talking,” she said.

He was about to protest when she reached up to remove his glasses, gentle fingers ghosting across his cheek. She dragged him into a kiss, pressing the length of her body against him, still radiating warmth from the shower.

He set his tablet on the bedside table and slipped down into her arms. He loved the protective embrace of those arms, especially when Betty kissed him as if she was trying to melt into him, or maybe the other way around, so sweet and genuine that he nearly drowned in it. She made a soft, pleased sound, and he traced kisses down the soft, clean skin of her jawline.

He wouldn’t push. She would tell him when she was ready, whatever it was, and they would work through it together. He was sure of it.

Chapter Text

Monday, December 24

Jan loved her pale gold dress with the long sleeves and open back, but she was having a rotten time at her mother’s obscenely lavish Christmas party. Dinner had been lovely, and the guests were beautiful and the cocktails divine, but Jan was in no mood to socialize and fend off intrusive questions about Hank’s conspicuous absence.

“He couldn’t make it,” she would say.

“Oh, what a shame,” they would say insincerely, and she could tell from the way they appraised her that they thought she was putting herself back on the market. The name and phone number of some attractive young man often followed. Her lack of a date was noted by the eligible bachelors in attendance as well; she shared dances with a dozen handsome, smarmy men ranging from age twenty to fifty, but none of them piqued her interest or lifted her spirits.

She wasn’t sure what she had expected — she and Hank had been together for so long that the thought of dating anyone else seemed absurd — laughable, even. Tall old money boys with blinding smiles and eyes like empty deserts, distinguished older men with medical school or law degrees and roving gazes — nobody made a lasting impression.

“Stop moping, dear,” Jan’s mother said. “It’s unbecoming.”

“I’m not,” Jan said petulantly, hating how transparent she was to a woman who had barely lifted a finger in raising her.

“Are you really still upset about Hank? You know, I never thought he was good for you. So…plain. Unremarkable.”

“He’s brilliant,” Jan refuted. “He’s the foremost biochemist in the world, and is breaking ground by contributing his expertise to robotics and AI development —”

Her mother waved the words away as if they had no meaning. “It’s awfully dull, don’t you think?” she remarked. “Now Thomas Wu’s son on the other hand…”

Jan frowned. “Did you think Dad’s work was dull?”

Her mother blinked fast, and Jan could see where her thick fake eyelashes had been glued on. “That’s different, darling,” she answered. “I loved your father.”

“And I love Hank,” Jan said. “How is it any different?”

“Does he truly love you back?”

“Of course he loves me,” Jan fired back. “How could you even doubt that?”

The answer came faster than Jan expected, her mother straightening her shoulders and saying disdainfully: “How long were you together, Janet? Five years? Ten? And he never proposed. You say the circumstances are complicated, but I think he just didn’t want you enough to commit.”

Jan sucked in a breath. The words hurt, though she tried her hardest not to let it show.

“Maybe the right time just never came,” Jan said instead of what she was really thinking. She looked away so she wouldn’t have to see the pity in those eyes that were too much like her own. “Excuse me, I’m going to go freshen up,” she said hastily, making her escape.

It was no wonder Hank hadn’t wanted to come. Jan loved her mother, but she couldn’t stand her most of the time. She wanted to go home — or back in time, maybe, to a time when things hadn’t been so hard. In the early days, Jan had entertained herself pursuing an oblivious target, and then when flirting with Hank actually snowballed into a relationship, she had enjoyed going against everyone’s expectations for her. Hank wasn’t particularly tall, or rich, or handsome, but he was smart and cute when he was shy, and he looked at Jan like she was the only thing in the world that mattered. Jan had always had a weakness for nerdy boys and a love of being the center of attention. The rest had fallen into place.

Jan wove past the crowds and made her way to a quieter part of the mansion. She gravitated toward one of the balconies that overlooked the pool and gardens. Idly, she remembered hot summers spent lounging in that pool and tea parties held in the gardens, surrounded by meticulously dressed boys and girls who hung onto her every word. She remembered when it had become a bore, too.

“Fancy a smoke, gorgeous?”

She turned as a tall man with a smart suit and sandy blond hair approached. Sighing, she said, “Oh, why not?”

Below, waiters and guests milled around while a couple made out drunkenly in the shallow end of the pool, their formalwear abandoned next to the water. Jan closed her eyes as the smoke burned sharp and blissfully familiar in her throat. Heavy with mascara, her eyelashes felt heavy against her cheeks.

The handsome stranger chuckled lowly. “Been a while?”

“Mmm,” Jan said. “You could say that.” Hank had never approved of the habit.

“I’m Paul,” he said. “Marlene Denning’s son.” Jan opened her eyes and passed the cigarette to her other hand to hold out her right one for him to shake.

“Janet,” she said. His eyes crinkled in mirth.

“I know who you are. The real question is what you’re doing up here when you have hundreds of guests to entertain.”

“It’s not my party,” she said, perhaps more sullenly than she meant to. “I don’t even want to be here.”

“Well, maybe I can change your mind.” He took a long drag. “If you don’t mind, that is.”

Jan leaned against the railing and looked at him. His shoulders were broad and his eyes bright blue. Smoke drifted from plush lips nearly out of place adjacent to the strong jawline.

“I don’t mind,” she said, inching closer. “Mrs. Denning’s son, you said? I think I played with your little sisters when we were kids.”

As they spoke of their childhoods, both spent running around big empty mansions and attending countless, tedious social events with inattentive parents, they ended up shoulder-to-shoulder. The expensive fabric of Paul’s suit pressed hot against the thin sleeve of Jan’s dress. It was almost funny how simple it was to slip back into this, flirting with beautiful men and being perfectly confident seeing it through. How long had it been since she had kissed a stranger?

“Oh, would you look at that,” Paul said, putting his cigarette out. “Must be my lucky day.” He glanced up meaningfully.

Jan’s eyes flickered upward. Sure enough, a sprig of mistletoe dangled mischievously above them.

She moved first, reaching up to yank him down and smash their mouths together. He tasted like ash and grabbed her like she was a particularly coveted trophy. It was rough and alarming, and it sparked part of her that had lain dormant for years. She melted against his rock-solid chest and tamped down the urge to jump into his arms. Small as she was, she had always been too heavy for Hank.

Hank. Her chest hurt.

She tried to push away the thought, but the vision of Hank pleading with her to stay swam before her eyes. This would devastate him.

There had been a time when she wouldn’t have cared, when nobody she was seeing warranted fidelity. (It wasn’t as if they pledged themselves to her, either.) Men who earned the chance to sleep with Janet van Dyne knew they were going to get kicked out of bed afterward and that her plans could change any moment. She had lived for that excitement, loved that attention and the thrilling power she wielded over handsome, charming men. It had been fun, plain and simple. But then Hank had come along, a dorky scientist with a cute butt who hugged her on her bad days and made her things instead of buying her jewelry, who stayed the night and through the mornings, who cared about her and for her.

And now even just kissing this handsome man felt dirty. She pulled away and wished she hadn’t put her cigarette out.

“What is it?” Paul said. “You have a boyfriend or something?”

“No. Yes. I don’t know,” Jan said, turning back to the view. Below them, the skinny dipping couple was nowhere to be found. She envied their carefree liaison. “I’m sorry. It’s complicated.”

Paul shrugged and laughed a little. “I don’t get turned down very often,” he said. “I should’ve known Janet van Dyne would’ve been different. You sure he’s worth it? Most guys just — we’re mostly scumbags, you know.”

“Not Hank,” she said, but she didn’t know if that was really true.

Paul shrugged again and lit another cigarette. “Suit yourself.”

“Have you ever been in love, Paul?” she asked softly.

“Once,” he said. “When I was just a stupid kid. It’s not for me.”

“How so?”

He didn’t say anything for a moment. Then: “Love — the real thing — requires a level of patience and understanding that takes too much out of me.” He laughed, a little hollowly. “I was young, stupid, and selfish. I didn’t realize that it has to be a two-way street.”

“So you’re happy seducing beautiful, vulnerable women at boring parties?”

“I would hardly call Janet Van Dyne vulnerable,” he said, and his mouth quirked in a wry smile. “In all honesty? Happy is a stretch. But I’ve settled into a routine, and I’m always upfront, so nobody gets hurt.”

Jan sighed, leaning against the rail and looking up at the winter sky, filled with the glimmer of stars normally occluded in the city. “I don’t want to settle.”

Paul chuckled lowly, and this time, when he looked at her, his gaze was filled with pity. “Everyone settles.”

*

Though Karolina missed the festive splendor of her family’s house in Los Angeles, their New York apartment was giving it a run for its money. Garlands wound elegantly around columns, hundreds of fairy lights illuminated the walls, the smell of pine and cinnamon emanated from strategically placed candles, and a massive Christmas tree had taken over the living room, surrounded by a sea of presents.

Filled with impeccably dressed guests — mostly television actors, entertainment executives, and Broadway stars — the apartment glowed with warmth, despite the snow fluttering to the ground outside. From her position by the mantle, Karolina could see her parents across the room laughing at something one of their former co-stars was saying.

At her side, Xavin sniffed suspiciously at the tiny cup of almond eggnog she had been handed.

“Go on, try it,” Karolina said. Taking a deep breath, Xavin downed the contents of the cup in one go. Karolina laughed at the face she made after swallowing.

“I think I prefer milkshakes,” Xavin said, handing a passing server the empty container.

“My parents are vegan, remember?” Karolina said, still smiling. “Besides, milkshakes aren’t exactly a festive drink.”

“May I have some of your beverage, then?” Xavin asked, peering at Karolina’s mug.

“Sure,” Karolina said, handing over the mulled wine. Xavin’s fingers lingered on hers. “Careful, it’s hot.”

“Oh, this is much better,” Xavin said.

Karolina grinned. It was irresistibly cute, watching Xavin learn about American culture. She seemed to take a lot of it in stride, but when something tripped her up, she wore her confusion or repulsion on her sleeve. Once when Karolina had commented on it, Xavin had admitted that her lack of diplomatic skill was why her father had relegated her to the army.

“Thank you for showing me your traditions,” Xavin said.

“It’s no problem,” Karolina said. “After all, Christmas is for spending with your loved ones.”

Eyes bright, Xavin pressed a tender kiss to her cheek. “One day I will show you how we celebrate the Skrull holiday for lovers.”

“Sounds great,” Karolina said. “But I hope it’s saner than Valentine’s is over here…”

“What is Valentine’s?” Xavin asked curiously. Karolina grinned. Where to start with that one?

Later, they snuck up to the rooftop patio, a plate of desserts in Karolina’s hands and two champagne flutes in Xavin’s. They cuddled in the couch by the heat lamps, Xavin’s arm snug around Karolina’s shoulders. The view of Manhattan was spectacular, lights twinkling playfully amid fresh snow. The music playing downstairs followed them through the patio speakers, in harmony with the lively sounds of traffic and partygoers on the street.

“I’m glad to be here with you, Beloved,” Xavin said.

“Right back at’cha,” said Karolina, beaming. She put her drink aside and kissed Xavin, who tasted like chocolate and peppermint. “This is the best Christmas I’ve had in a long time,” she whispered into the space between their mouths.

And as they kissed leisurely, the stars twinkling above them and Xavin’s strong, firm hands possessive beneath Karolina’s wool coat, Karolina sent her thanks to the heavens for bringing the two of them together. Here in Xavin’s arms, she felt that she had finally found somewhere to belong.

*

The flames in the fireplace cracked and snapped as A Christmas Carol played on the television. The lights were turned down low, fragrant candlelight illuminating the wide, open space of the penthouse’s main living room. Loki and Thor sat close on the sectional couch, near enough to feel each other’s presence but not quite touching.

Warm with expensive wine and filled with comforting foods from the traditional Christmas dinner they had just shared, Loki felt surprisingly at ease as he dug into a new fantasy novel. Beside him, Thor browsed his inane social media sites on his phone, which buzzed frequently with incoming messages. He laughed softly at many of them.

Always irrepressibly curious and jealous of anything that captured his brother’s attention, Loki asked, “What is it?”

Thor turned the screen toward him with a mirthful grin. Enlarged on the screen was a photograph of Thor’s friends Fandral, Sif, Hogun, and Volstagg on a beach, Fandral’s arm draped around a stranger with shaggy blond hair and a sunny, confident smile. The caption read, “We found your West Coast counterpart!”

Loki scoffed. “Please, you’re much prettier than that oaf.”

Thor laughed, nudging him in the ribs gently. “Is that so?” he said impishly.

“No need to get a big head,” Loki said dismissively. “He’s not much to look at.”

Still smiling, Thor stood up with his empty wine glass in hand. “Another?” he asked, motioning at Loki’s also drained cup. Loki glanced up at him, momentarily distracted by the sight of his brother, strong arms bare in his undershirt and bright eyes kind. He nodded.

As Thor wandered to the pantry, Loki asked, “Why didn’t you go with them?”

Thor didn’t respond for a moment, after which he reemerged with a bottle of Pinot Noir in hand. “What was that?”

“Why didn’t you go to San Diego with your friends?”

There was a stretch of silence, but Loki knew Thor had heard him this time. Socked feet padded back to the sofa, and Thor handed him back his wine glass. Their fingers brushed against one another.

“I wanted to spend the holidays with you,” Thor said, settling back down. “I worried that if I left, you would question my sincerity.”

Loki was unused to hearing his proud, boastful brother admit insecurity, and there was a mischievous part of him that found comfort in it. Another part loathed having to crush the open hope in Thor’s eyes. “Thor,” he said, exasperated, “I told you—what you wish for cannot be.”

“Is that true?” Thor said, warm hand on his thigh. Even as he frowned at the presumption, Loki cursed his traitorous body, which yearned for more of that precious touch. A part of him felt flush with delight at this victory, of having finally having ensnared the man whose attentions he had ached for since he was a child.

Yet another felt like a wild animal caught in a trap. What Thor was offering—it was beyond dangerous. Loki had spent his life in the shadow of the brother he loved more dearly than any other human, even as insidious jealousy had chilled his heart. Bitter hate and helpless love had become so tightly entwined that it was impossible to tell which was more poisonous.

“Is it?” Thor repeated.

Irrevocably drawn to him, Loki leaned in and cupped Thor’s face with his hands, gazing at that infuriating beauty. Throughout boyhood, Loki had envied the masculine strength that seeped out of every inch of his brother’s being. As they grew older, wishfulness had mutated into some impractical hybrid of lust and resentment. He had always told himself that if only he managed to seduce Thor and satisfy that curiosity, he would be able to move on.

But a deep, infrequently examined part of himself had known that it had never been about sleeping with Thor. It had been about capturing Thor’s affections—his attention—and now that Thor was offering those freely, insisting, even… It was nigh impossible to say no. But Loki loathed the thought that he was just yet another person who had been ensnared into Thor’s orbit.

Expression folding into a frown, Thor grabbed his wrists, his immovable grip both irritating and unbearably arousing. Quietly, he asked, “What is it you want from me, Loki?”

It had always been Thor’s frank, vulnerable honesty that brought Loki to his knees, wrenching difficult, true words out of him. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “But it matters little.”

“It matters to me,” Thor said. “I do not wish to hurt you callously because of falsehoods and misunderstandings, brother. In the past… I have caused you hurt because I refused to listen. I wish to avoid that mistake, now more than ever.”

It was too good to be true, and Loki struggled to find fault with it.

“Oh?” he said, leaning in close. “Prove it.”

Thor harrumphed, letting go of his hands. “Stop deflecting,” he demanded. “You know words are hardly my strongest suit, but I mean to speak with you, truly. Will you not listen?”

A beat. Sighing, Loki looked away. “Can you not see how this would ruin us?” he said, clinging to what resolve he had.

“Since when do you forsake something you desire so easily?” Thor asked him in response. “You are a skilled liar, Loki, but I know you better than that. I would hear the truth. If you are truly unwilling to give this a chance, then I deserve to know why.”

Loki was silent for a moment. To put his complicated feelings into words was something that even one as deft with words as him struggled with.

“You are raw from leaving a two-year relationship,” he said hesitatingly. “You are looking for comfort to replace what you’ve lost. You are looking for affection to fill the empty spaces in your bed and in your heart. Perhaps it would be enough to sustain the average tart. But I do not give myself lightly, and though you may not intend to ask that of me, that is what you would receive.”

“If you think I would ask for your heart without demanding eternity, then you underestimate me greatly, brother,” Thor replied. “You are too important to me to fool around with. I would not pursue you if I weren’t committed down to my very core.”

Loki swallowed, deeply uncomfortable with the frank admission. A cacophony of thoughts raced through his head as he imagined what their lives would be like if he accepted this, if he gave into what had been his heart’s greatest desire for far too long.

Thor reached out to cup and stroke the back of his neck, his big, rough hand surprisingly tender. “Why do you deny yourself this? You need not fear me, brother. I am yours. For always.”

Trembling, Loki reached for Thor’s other hand. After a long, ponderous moment, he lifted it to his lips, letting the sweet, musky taste linger.

“And I am yours,” he murmured.

It felt only natural for them to fall into one other.

*

Steve loved the smell of gingerbread cookies. The warm, spicy scent wafted around the apartment, mingling with the tang of pine and sweetness of cranberry candles. Cookies had been a special treat growing up, and he loved making all the different kinds. Gingerbread always reminded him of his mother, though, and how she used to save up for the ingredients to make him dozens of gingerbread men so he could artistically decorate them with cheap frosting.

The doorbell rang, the vibrant chime slipping in between “Sleigh Ride” and “Cold December Night.”

“Sorry, Bucky, could you please get that?” Steve shouted as the oven timer started beeping. Bucky was dozing off on the couch, one arm still in a cast and ankle in a brace. Grumbling, he got to his feet and hobbled over to the door with the help of a crutch. He had wanted to help Steve with the preparations, but Steve had ordered him to rest.

Tony was in the stairwell, large bags in each hand as he texted distractedly on his phone.

“Hey,” Bucky said. From the oven, Steve frowned at his wary tone.

Tony looked up and flashed a show-stopping grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes, which darted nervously behind Bucky. He craned his neck to get a better look at Steve in the kitchen. Steve waved, giving him a reassuring smile.

“Guessing you’re the infamous Bucky,” Tony said, tucking the phone away.

“Yup,” Bucky said, crossing his arms. Steve rolled his eyes.

“Bucky, stop posturing and let our guest in before you collapse,” he called.

Tony placed the bags by the tree and joined Steve in the kitchen, where the fragrant cookies were now cooling on a rack. “Sweet jesus, those smell good.”

Steve grinned, removing his oven mitts. “Thanks. I hope they taste good, too.”

“He’s being modest,” Bucky said from where he had resubmerged himself in the ocean of blankets on the coach. “Steve’s baking is a gift to mankind.”

“Speaking of gifts… What’s in the bags? I thought I told you not to bring any presents,” Steve admonished.

Tony dismissed his scrutiny with a wave of his hand. “Oh, they’re just little trinkets. No big deal.”

Steve had a terrible feeling that what Tony considered ‘trinkets’ would be equivalent to a month’s worth of salary for him. “Tony…”

Tony grinned, looking anything but innocent. “Don’t worry your pretty little head, Steve,” he said.

Steve sighed. “Well, since here you’re here, you might as well help. How are you with a mixer?”

An hour later, Natasha arrived just in time to see Steve leaning over Tony’s shoulder to watch him construct a much-too-elaborate gingerbread tower. Steve had only intended on a classic gingerbread cottage — he was a traditional guy, after all — but Tony had insisted that Steve sketch out a tower that he would then figure out how translate into gingerbread form. Steve had drawn a ridiculously complex spire in the hopes that Tony would deem it impossible and settle for making a little house, but of course Tony had taken on the challenge. After a while, Steve was in too much awe of his silly drawing coming to three-dimensional life to protest. Tony was so smart.

“Well, this is cozy,” Natasha said. Steve flushed, backing away from Tony a little.

“Merry Christmas, ma’am,” he said.

Natasha gave him a little smile and joined Bucky on the couch, where he handed her a cookie. “You can call me Natasha, you know.”

He smiled back. “I know. Tony, say hi to Natasha.”

Tony glanced up, fingers covered with icing. “Hey,” he said. Then he did a double take and narrowed his eyes. “Have we met?”

“Janet Van Dyne’s birthday party, two years ago,” Natasha said matter-of-factly. “You were a sloppy drunk and a pain in the ass.” Bucky laughed as Tony huffed. Grinning, Steve squeezed his shoulder.

“C’mon, guys, Tony is my guest,” he said. “No need to give him a hard time.”

Bucky shook his head in dismay, mouth full of cookies. “I told you,” he said in a stage whisper to Natasha. “He’s so fucking smitten.”

“Bucky!” Steve scolded, cheeks burning. Bucky shot him an innocent look and went back to pretending he wasn’t trying to cuddle with Natasha.

By the time they finished the gingerbread tower, Bucky and Natasha had already started the Christmas movie marathon. They were sharing a blanket on the couch and looking as domestic and affectionate as Steve had ever seen them. As much as Bucky teased him, Steve would say that it was Bucky who was smitten; a soft, quiet smile lit up his features as he leaned against Natasha’s shoulder, her arm possessive around him but careful of disturbing his healing wounds.

Steve was so happy for him, and if he was entirely honest with himself, a little envious. He glanced at Tony, who averted his eyes once his staring was noticed. Steve wasn’t sure what was going on there, but last week at the movies he had thought he’d sensed Tony’s interest. But he didn’t know how to approach it — their friendship was so fresh and delicate and amazing; what if he ruined things by declaring his feelings too early?

“Help me grab a few mugs and then we can join them?” he said, tilting his head toward the television as he stirred vanilla into the hot chocolate on the stove.

“Sure,” Tony said easily, reaching for the cupboard.

They joined Bucky and Natasha with their offering of a warm drink. When Tony opted to sit with Steve on the loveseat despite the empty armchair across from them, Steve tried to quiet his thumping heart.

By the time the credits began rolling and Bucky and Natasha were debating the next film to play, Tony was sitting close enough for their arms to rest against each other.

“Thanks for inviting me,” Tony said quietly, turning to him. Steve was suddenly struck by how blue his eyes were, clear and honest as they met Steve’s. “I don’t usually do Christmas, but this has been really great.”

Steve bumped his shoulder lightly, offering a bright smile. “It’s my pleasure,” he said. “I’m really glad you came.”

Tony gave him a shy smile, and Steve was struck by the intense urge to cup his face in his hands and kiss him. He might have, too, if Bucky hadn’t announced, “Fine, Die Hard and then It’s A Wonderful Life.”

As the movie began loading, Steve got up to refill the cookie platter. When he returned, he handed Tony a cookie with one hand and put his hand on his knee with the other. Tony glanced at it and thanked him, cheeks flushed endearingly. The fabric of Tony’s slacks were warm under his palm.

Steve kept it there throughout the rest of the movie.

*

Tuesday, December 25

BILLY: Hey, Merry Christmas <3

TEDDY: Thanks! <3

BILLY: What are you doing to celebrate? Did you get any cool presents?

TEDDY: My mom and I are both still in bed, ha. But later we’ll exchange gifts and make Christmas breakfast together.

BILLY: Sounds nice. No plans to see other family?

TEDDY: Yeah, it’s quaint but it’s our tradition. It’s always just been the two of us.

BILLY: I can’t imagine having my parents to myself. The judging…

TEDDY: Nah, dude, my mom’s super chill. You should meet her sometime. I think she’d like you.

BILLY: I hope so. :)

TEDDY: Hey, you wanna hang tomorrow? I really want to go ice skating.

BILLY: You know that’s gonna be crazy with all the tourists, right?

TEDDY: Fine, that’s what I get for being a romantic, huh? Then how about you come over and we can play SSX Tricky instead?

BILLY: Aww <3 We can go in January! SSX Tricky will have to do for now.

*

A shrill but steady alarm rang throughout the lab, snapping Hank awake.

“The results of your test are ready, sir,” JARVIS said.

Heaving a sigh, Hank ran his hands through his already tousled hair, unkempt from inattention. He tried to remember the last time he had showered.

He had moved most of his important things from Jan’s apartment into his office in Stark Towers and had checked into a nearby hotel. There wasn’t really much point to it, though; he was spending most of his time working anyway. It was the only thing left for him. Jan’s presence in his life had been like a constant sunbeam illuminating him, and without it the world felt that much bleaker.

“Thanks,” he muttered, getting to his feet and lumbering over to the computer his experiment was hooked up to.

“Dr. Pym, might I suggest resuming your work another day? It’s Christmas, sir.” It was funny how indignant JARVIS was capable of sounding, despite being an AI.

“No point,” he said morosely. Despite being a fairly solitary person, he found himself yearning for company. He had lost his parents early and had no siblings or close relatives, so he had always tagged along with Jan’s Christmas plans. Most times that meant rubbing elbows with obnoxious old money, but Hank’s favorite Christmas memory was the one when Mrs. Van Dyne had vacationed in the Swiss Alps for the holidays, and he and Jan had gone to Hawaii. Under gently swaying palms and the generous December sun, they had strolled along the coastline hand in hand, bursting with mutual affection.

He found himself wondering at all times of the day what she was doing and how she was feeling — freer and happier than she had been with him? Right about now Jan would be awakening in her opulent childhood bedroom in Mrs. Van Dyne’s stately mansion upstate, well rested, feet aching from impractical shoes, and — knowing Jan — intensely hungover. A flash of fear and fierce jealousy struck him when he realized she might not be alone in that lavish bed. Any number of eligible bachelors regularly attended Mrs. Van Dyne’s parties, and Jan was nothing if not beautiful and charming. The thought made his eyes water, but crackling tear stains from his previous bouts of blubbering reminded him that crying had stopped helping diffuse his anguish.

Hank had to admit it — what was proving most helpful was the sessions with Xavier. He was thankful for the therapist’s support. Although he could never be glad that Jan had left him, he was grateful that if it’d had to happen, then something good had come of it, at least. Xavier never pried too hard or pushed too hard at boundaries, seeming to have a supernatural understanding of all that went unsaid.

It was what Hank had needed all these years, someone to listen to the words he struggled to express, to talk him through his insecurities and anxieties, to assure him that he wasn’t irreparably broken. Too fiery, too well-adjusted, too impatient, Jan had never been able to give him this. He had to concede that the meds were a tremendous boon as well, keeping him level-headed and just hazy enough to stymie the detrimental spikes in emotion. Though it was far from a miracle cure, it made his waking hours that much more bearable.

Soon. Soon he would be good enough for Jan.

*

Wednesday, December 26

Bruce spent two hours a day meditating: once in the morning, once after lunch, once in the early evening, and once at before bed. That wasn’t counting the moments when something was about to trigger an episode and he had to do his best to quickly clear his head and focus on nothing but staying calm. The most frightening part of it all was the thought of losing control. He was hazy about what actually happened when he had an incident — he only knew from what people told him, and from tells like shattered glass or furniture knocked over, black eyes or bloody noses. Every waking moment, he was haunted by the fact that he was a danger to everyone around him, and that if he slacked off on his relaxation regimen, he could hurt someone.

More than anything, he worried about hurting Betty. He loved his job, and he loved his research, but he loved Betty more than anything. His world revolved around her. There was nothing he feared more than to cause her any harm. She already put up with enough of his late hours and absentmindedness, and some days he still couldn’t believe that he had won her over all those years ago. He couldn’t lose her. He would do anything to make sure his breakdowns wouldn’t tear them apart.

So when Betty pushed him to go to therapy, he went. When she asked him not to give up when he didn’t get along with his doctors, he kept seeking out new therapists. When she came up with flimsy excuses to accompany him to run errands, he didn’t protest, even though he hated the thought of his wife feeling responsible for babysitting him.

He had done everything he could. That was what made what was sitting on Betty’s computer screen so unbelievable and hurtful.

From: Betty Banner <betty.banner@starkmail.com>
To: Glenn C. Talbot <glenn.c.talbot@us.army.mil>
Subject: RE: Lunch

Glenn,

I had a good time, too. But we can’t

It took Bruce a moment to recall who Glenn Talbot was. At Thanksgiving in Arizona with Betty’s father, Thunderbolt Ross had invited one of his protégés in an attempt to lure Betty away from Bruce himself. It had only been another expression of how much Betty’s father truly loathed him. The man would stop at nothing to separate the two of them. And now it looked like he may have finally succeeded, Bruce thought with a tight pain in his chest. He stared at the tiny words on the screen, astonished that a few letters arranged together could cut so deeply.

We can’t. We can’t what?

“Did you get the showtimes, Bruce?” Betty called from the other room, where she was changing out of her work clothes and into something more comfortable for their night out. They had been planning to go to dinner and then see a movie, and Betty had charged Bruce with looking up showtimes at the theater near their favorite Italian restaurant. She obviously had forgotten that she had left an email draft up on the screen, the cursor blinking tauntingly at Bruce.

He took three slow, deep breaths, willing his heart to stop racing as if it were trying to leap out of his chest and jump to its death. He would not lose it. He had been doing so well in the past two weeks, avoiding every single imminent episode with the relaxation techniques that Xavier had taught him.

He would not let Thunderbolt Ross win. No matter what the other man said, he was not a monster, and he was not a danger to Betty. He controlled the beast within, not the other way around.

“Bruce?” Betty said again. The gentle sound of her voice filled him with a rage that was both familiar and impossible to rationalize. Bruce ignored her in favor of slamming the laptop screen shut—perhaps with more force than had been strictly necessary—and trying to clear his head, fists clenching and unclenching as he trembled. His vision swam before his eyes.

Fuck.

“Bruce, are you even listening—” Betty sounded annoyed. Then, softer, “Bruce?”

He rubbed his temples and recited the first twenty-five digits of pi in his head, drawing deep, painful breaths from his lungs.

“Bruce! What’s wrong?” He felt her warm arms encircle him, holding him tight. Relishing the feeling, he almost let it distract him. But fear for her washed over him, and he attempted to shake her off. For the first time ever, it had been something about her that had made him angry, and he couldn’t risk hurting her once he devolved into that uncontrollable state. Only the fear only seemed to add to his inner tumult, his anger rolling like the waves of a tsunami within him, crashing into anything in his way.

“Betty,” Bruce said, sharper than he liked, “do you want to explain why you’re talking to Glenn Talbot?”

Letting go abruptly, Betty glanced at the computer. “Were you reading my email?” she asked, wounded. “That’s private, Bruce.”

“Is it?” Bruce demanded, the hurt transforming into accusatory anger. “What else are you hiding from me?”

“Nothing,” Betty said quickly. “It’s nothing, Bruce. Glenn is nothing.”

“If he’s nothing, then why didn’t you tell me you were talking to him? How long has this been going on?” If there was one thing Bruce had believed that he could count on, it was Betty’s loyalty and honesty. To receive anything else was a slight he could barely comprehend. Furious, he slammed his fist onto the table and shouted, “What else are you hiding? Tell me!”

“Don’t try to intimidate me,” Betty said, bright eyes glaring hard. “I’m not afraid of you.”

“I deserve to know!” Bruce roared, as he felt the beast rise up on its haunches within him.

“You need to breathe, Bruce,” Betty said, tone still gentle despite the steely determination that hardened her jaw. “You’re safe with me. You’re safe, here. I’ll take care of you. We’ll get through this together.”

Fury roiled in his gut, consuming him as thunderclouds devour the sun during a storm. All he could think about was Betty leading some secret life behind his back, her sympathy and support as artificial as Thunderbolt Ross’s thinly feigned derision. “Don’t lie to me!” Bruce shouted, standing up and throwing a nearby glass at the wall opposite Betty.

As glass shards rained down brick, the monster surged, hungry for a fight.

Bruce was aware of nothing more.

*

“No, I don’t think that will be necessary,” Betty said. “Thanks again, Carol. You guys have a good time. I’ll talk to you later. Yeah. Bye.”

Hanging up the phone and tucking it in her back pocket, she crossed back into the bedroom, where Carol and Natasha had helped her move Bruce earlier. She had texted them the moment Bruce had begun to lose control. While a part of her wished she was enough to calm him down, his anger had never been truly directed at her before, and it had been impossible to know what would happen. Luckily, Betty was smarter than she was romantic; and she had reached out for help the moment she had the chance. She would have to buy her friends a nice dinner to thank them for their reciprocal willingness to drop everything to help her.

On their bed, Bruce stirred. Eyes opening blearily, he met her gaze in the darkness. An ugly, weak part of Betty was relieved to see the shame that creased his face. As long as he continued to feel regret, she would see no monstrosity in his actions.

“Hello, beautiful,” Bruce whispered, voice hoarse from shouting.

“Hi,” Betty said, somewhere between demure and cautious. With a grunt, Bruce tried to hoist himself up but failed. Betty rushed over, helping him sit against the headboard and handing him a glass of water. As he drank, she switched on the bedside table lamp and sat down on the bed beside him, laying a small hand on his thigh.

“Did I… Did I hurt you?”

“No, you didn’t,” Betty said. But it didn’t seem to absolve his guilt or the furrow of his eyebrows.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce said, wincing in that self-deprecating way he had. “I’m so sorry. Not just for this, but for everything I’ve put you through. You deserve so much better than this.”

“It’ll take much more than this to make me stop loving you,” Betty said. Bruce’s face crumpled, his eyes glistening in the dim light.

“I don’t know if I can go on like this,” he confessed. He made an aborted gesture, as if to reach out to her, but dropped his hand after a moment. “I’m a danger to everyone around me.”

“It’s okay,” Betty said, tracing idle patterns on the sheets over his leg. “I’m here for you. We’re going to get through it together.”

“But you shouldn’t have to be,” Bruce said. “Your dad is right. I’m nothing but a monster.”

Frowning at him, Betty said, “Don’t be stupid, my dad is never right.”

Bruce let out a watery chuckle, staring down at his lap. “You’re too good to me, Bets. I don’t deserve it.”

Betty lifted his chin with a gentle finger, catching his eye and maintaining steady eye contact so he would know she meant every word. “In college, you were the only guy who tried to genuinely get to know me. You met me in the library for study dates when you could’ve been out partying, courted me when it would’ve been easy to take advantage of my naiveté, got me thoughtful gifts when flowers and chocolates would’ve been novel enough to me. You brought me out of my shell and encouraged me to voice my opinions and stand up for myself. You turned down a PhD program at your dream school because I got accepted to a university on the other coast. You taught me what love takes, and how wonderful it is to receive it.” She leaned in for a kiss, raw and tender. “You’ve been good to me, too.”

Tears spilled down Bruce’s cheeks as he said, trembling, “I just want you safe and happy. How am I supposed to live with myself if I’m the one hurting you and putting you in danger?”

“Oh, Bruce…” Betty said, gathering him in her arms. “I love you, you know that, right? We’ll get through it. We’ll get through it together.”

She held him as he cried, sobs wracking his exhausted body. The sight of him in such anguish always broke her heart a little, and even more so now after this strange month. How could she have considered anyone else? How could she leave Bruce, who needed her so desperately, to drag him back from the cliff? How could she have even conceived of being apart from him?

Later, he said meekly, “Betty?”

“Yes, honey?”

“Can we talk about the other thing, too?”

Betty froze. She had been hoping to put this conversation off. “Right,” she said reluctantly.

“Please just be honest with me,” said Bruce. “I can handle it.”

“I’m not having an affair, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Betty said, the mere thought of betraying Bruce in that way sickening her.

“And I’m not saying you are,” Bruce said gently. He had the uncanny ability to sound more dangerously persuasive when he used that voice than when he raised it. She buckled, seeing no option but to answer the unspoken question.

“He emailed me after Thanksgiving,” Betty admitted. “He was friendly, and polite, and I just thought… Well, I don’t make friends easily, you know that. So it was nice.”

Bruce was sitting very still when he said quietly, “But that wasn’t all it was.”

“It was just a little crush,” Betty countered. “That’s normal, right?”

Bruce shrugged. “What do I know about normal, Betty?” Eyes lowered, he continued, “I know things have been hard on you lately. My condition… It consumes me sometimes. Not… I don’t mean the incidents exactly—it takes up the rest of my life, too. And you’ve suffered the brunt of that. I know that, and yet…”

“I support you, Bruce. You suffer so much, and I can only try to alleviate the pain as much as possible.”

“No, that’s not right,” Bruce said. “I’m not the only one who matters here. You have to talk to me, Betty. You have to tell me when it’s too much. This relationship can’t just be you taking care of me. I want to take care of you, too.”

Betty squeezed his hand, bashful but grateful. “I’ll try,” she said, but Bruce shook his head adamantly.

“No, you have to. Or else I’m going to lose you, Betty, and I can’t bear that. It would be no one’s fault but my own.”

“Okay,” Betty said. “I promise.”

“Okay. But there’s something else you’re not telling me.”

Betty winced. It was silly of her to have thought that she could fool Bruce, who knew her better than anyone in the world. “I met with Glenn the other day,” she said, unable to meet Bruce’s eyes. “We went to lunch. Pizza. It was fun, but he… We kissed briefly before I told him no. He said he understood.”

Bruce took several deep breaths, an expression on his face akin to resignation.

“I’m sorry,” Betty said. “You have to know how sorry I am.”

“I do,” Bruce said. “I won’t pretend I’m not hurt, but… I forgive you. I understand why that would’ve happened.”

“It won’t happen again,” Betty promised.

“Okay,” Bruce said. He believed her. Leaning in, he pressed a tender kiss to Betty’s forehead and then held her close. Her exhales were shaky, and he wordlessly wiped a stray tear from her cheek.

“I love you,” she whispered into his neck.

“I love you, too,” he said. “Forever and ever.”

*

If anyone asked, Xavin would never admit it, but she was nervous. Karolina’s parents were gone again, having flown to Los Angeles to finalize some movie deal they had been negotiating for almost a year now, and Karolina had asked Xavin if she wanted to sleep in her room tonight. Of course, Xavin had accepted.

But the fact that she was looking forward to getting to falling asleep with Karolina beside her did not detract her anxiety about what would happen almost certainly happen tonight. If they unclothed each other, Xavin feared that everything that had happened in the past few weeks — the best of her life — would dissolve into nothing but bitter memories.

They ordered in for dinner and ate in the living room as they watched the romantic comedy movies that Karolina was so fond of and Xavin found completely absurd. After the third time a protagonist and her love interest got in a fight over something stupid, Xavin dozed off, her head falling onto Karolina’s shoulder as they cuddled under the plush multicolored throw. Karolina didn’t wake her up until the credits were rolling, some soulful voice crooning over a bizarrely intense guitar riff.

Once awake, Xavin did not need any more prodding to emerge from her slumber. It was her soldier training. During the most recent Kree-Skrull war, she had even trained herself to sleep with her eyes open. So when Karolina led them to her bedroom, sleep was suddenly the very last thing on Xavin’s mind.

Later, in the heat of the moment, so lost in Karolina’s kisses, Xavin almost didn’t notice the hand snaking down to remove her belt and undo the button on her pants.

“Karolina,” she whispered as she laid Karolina’s hand on the button of her pants and lay back on the pillows. “I want there to be no secrets between us.”

“What are you talking about Xavin?” Karolina responded, frowning in confusion. Xavin let out a deep sigh. Cowardice and adrenaline battled within her.

“If you unclothe me there, I worry that you may find me lacking. Skrulls believe that the body is simply a conduit of the soul, but I understand that this is where our cultures differ, and the notion of gender may be too integral to yours for our bond to last. I want you to know that I will understand if you do not wish to continue with me. We will find another way to settle the agreement. But you are the only one for me, Beloved, and if you will not have me, nobody shall.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Just…” Xavin closed her eyes. “Just do it.”

Wordlessly, Karolina peeled her tight pants and nice black underwear off simultaneously, agonizingly slowly. Xavin’s heart raced in her ears. For a long, tortuous moment, Karolina simply stared. Xavin lay there, silent and still. Her cheeks burned with humiliation for one of the few times in her life. Any arousal had long departed.

“I thought…” Karolina said, before she swallowed hard and seemed to run out of words to say.

“Yes,” Xavin said, and she too, swallowed hard and definitely did not feel tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. Princes did not cry. “Gender fluidity is nothing remarkable for Skrulls, but I have royal blood, and the Skrull nation frowns upon wasting that seed. My father forbade me to, and his advisors followed his lead.” Then, quietly, “Though I did try.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Karolina asked, and Xavin averted her eyes to avoid confronting any trace of disappointment in her eyes. Dread coiled in her stomach.

“I tried,” she explained. “I brought it up a number of times, but I think you believed I was jesting. I didn’t know how to else to broach the subject. And to be perfectly honest, I selfishly didn’t want anything to disrupt the wonderful time we have been having together…”

Karolina looked thoughtful, as if she were trying to think back. Xavin wondered if she now understood why Xavin had avoided pressing too close to Karolina when they were kissing.

“I remember now,” Karolina said with a frown. “I didn’t think… I just didn’t think you were being serious, I guess. I’m sorry if I seemed insensitive or as if I didn’t want to hear what you had to say. I’m sorry if I made you feel like you had something to hide.”

“It’s okay,” Xavin said. “I know things are different here. But I hope it’s enough that my heart and body are forever devoted to you,” Xavin replied, willing her voice to remain steady. “And I will understand if you do not wish to consummate this relationship anymore.”

Though Xavin did not really understand how genitalia and genders could be so important — so concrete — in this strange Western culture. Should not one’s heart and true intentions lead to attraction, rather than the form one took? It was all rather stupid to her, though she had tried her best to accommodate and please Karolina. None of it would really matter, though, if Karolina turned her away now. It would all have been for nothing, and Xavin knew as surely as she knew the sun would rise tomorrow that she would shut her heart away and let it grow cold if that happened.

Karolina sat back, still blinking hard and staring. But she said gently, “You’re more than your body. More than any gender you identify with.”

She raised a pale hand laid it on Xavin’s upper thigh, her slender fingers just barely curling into the modest flesh there. Slowly, the fingers crept their way inward, until the hand they belonged to was cupping Xavin gently. Xavin inhaled sharply at the sensation, body springing to life at the tender touch. She raised her head to meet Karolina’s curious eyes, unable to voice the question lodged in her throat. But Karolina understood.

“I love you, Xavin,” Karolina said softly but with conviction. “And I think you’re perfect the way you are.”

“Really?” Xavin said, and her heart had never felt so fragile, like a breakable object trapped in her chest, ready to shatter at any moment’s notice.

But Karolina nodded. “You adapted for me when you didn’t even know me. I can and will do the same for you. There’s no doubt in my mind — I love you. Every inch of you.”

Later, Karolina proved she meant it when she rose from post-orgasmic bliss to straddle Xavin’s lap and shyly lower herself onto Xavin. Gasping at the pleasure so sharp it was nearly unbearable, Xavin searched for fear or repulsion in Karolina’s eyes and instead found love, so much love. They kissed until they couldn’t do it while maintaining their rhythm and Karolina came for the third time that night with a gasp, her back arching at an angle that made Xavin see stars.

At the stunning view and wet, appreciative kisses that followed, world-shattering waves of pleasure coursed through Xavin, leaving white spots in her vision and her head dizzy.

“Marry me,” she whispered in the aftermath. Sweat-drenched and still panting, Karolina looked up from where she had made a home on Xavin’s chest and smiled the most brilliant smile Xavin had ever seen.

“Yeah,” she said breathlessly. “Yeah, that sounds good.”

*

Thursday, December 27

After he made the decision to contact Jan, it took Hank an hour to compose his message. Then he spent another fifteen minutes debating whether or not he should press the send button.

HANK: Hi, Jan. Can we talk? Let me know when you're free.

The response came hours later, jolting Hank from an experiment with artificial intelligence (mapped with human brainwaves!) he was setting up.

JAN: Okay. I’m free tomorrow at eight, if you are.

The next day arrived too quickly. Hank rushed to the Greek restaurant Jan had requested, his clothes in disarray and hair a mess. He had planned to look nice for Jan, but a breakthrough with the Ultron project had distracted him, and he was running late, and no wonder Jan had given up on him.

Of course, Jan looked pristine and beautiful, hair curling past her ears and red-and-gold dress displaying an alarming amount of cleavage. Hank tried to bury the rush of possessiveness he felt at the sight; as she had told him many times, he had no right to police the way she dressed.

“Hi,” he said as unconfrontationally as possible.

“Hello, Hank,” Jan replied, polite but distant, as he took a seat.

“Thank you for meeting me,” he said into the awkward silence that quickly settled over them.

“Hank, I —”

“I’m sorry,” he blurted out. “Jan, I’m so sorry for everything; you have to believe me, please.”

“I know you are,” Jan said, uncharacteristically reserved. “But honey, everything we were — it’s not something you can just apologize for.”

“I’m trying to be better,” Hank pleaded.

“I know,” Jan said. “But I don’t know if it’s enough.”

“How can I convince you otherwise?” Hank said. “I miss you so much, I can’t sleep, I can’t stand being awake, and I just… I need you.”

Eyes glistening, Jan said, “Don’t say those things, Hank — you’re just going to make this harder on us.”

“But you’re not happy either,” Hank said. “I know you; you wouldn’t have bothered coming — or even responding to my texts if you had truly given up on us. What can I do to convince you that it’s worth it? That I’m worth it?”

“Carol says I should stay away from you,” Jan said quietly. “But I can’t bear it.”

Hank’s heart leapt. The server interrupted them to take their drink orders, and as Jan asked for a glass of Chianti, Hank soaked up her presence — the diamonds that dangled from her ears, the cherry-red lipstick (slightly smeared at the right edge), the too-stiff lines of her shoulders. Aching to just shove the table aside and embrace her, he took a deep breath and requested a glass of water. A silence ensued. Jan checked her phone, and Hank felt a stab of hurt when she smiled to herself and texted back enthusiastically. He resisted the urge to chide her — it wasn’t his place, he told himself sternly.

“I don’t want anyone else,” Jan said as she slipped her phone back into her purse. “But I don’t know that I can be with you unless something changes.”

“It is. I am,” Hank insisted.

“But how can I know that?”

An impossible request he wished that he could fulfill. “You can’t,” he said, “but how can you ever know with anyone?”

Jan just nodded, eyes sad. He hated seeing her sad. “You were going to hit me, Hank.”

He buried his face in his hands. That he hadn’t forgotten. The moment he had actually lifted his hand was hazy white, but the furious expression on Jan’s face afterward had been branded into his memory. The worst part was knowing that he deserved her scorn. She could do so much better, and yet, he could not bear to let her go. Selflessness had never been his strong suit.

“I can’t even begin to put into words how sorry I am,” he mumbled.

Jan raised a skeptical eyebrow. “It certainly can’t hurt for you to try,” she said pointedly. “What the hell were you thinking?” Then, quieter, “And why did you stop?”

“Because it was wrong. Because it wasn’t me, because I would never… I would never do such a deplorable thing,” he insisted.

“Except that you very nearly did,” Jan said flatly.

“I know,” Hank said, staring glumly at the tablecloth. “I know, I just… You were right. I’m not well. I haven’t been well for a long time.” He fiddled with the napkin in his lap, continuing, “I didn’t want to believe that there was anything wrong with me. I’m brilliant, Jan — the foremost pioneer in biochemistry, the planet’s supreme scientist, really — how could I be hindered by a damn mental illness? But these mood stabilizers… They’re helping. They make it so that I don’t feel completely like myself, but… Maybe that’s a good thing.”

Jan was staring at him strangely, thoughtfully, almost as if she didn’t recognize him.

“What?” he asked, feeling self-conscious. He really wished he had gotten dressed up as planned.

“I’ve never heard you admit a flaw,” she said wonderingly.

“Oh,” he said, feeling like a fool.

She smiled at him. “It’s a good thing, Hank. It’s okay to need help.”

He didn’t know about that, but it felt so good for her to be smiling at him again. “I’m trying,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I get that.”

He wasn’t sure he understood, but then their food arrived, and he didn’t know how to phrase his question. For a few minutes, they ate in a not-quite-comfortable silence before Hank could no longer bear the unfamiliar tension and blurted out, “So, how was your Christmas?”

*

They tumbled into bed, the room dark but for the light from the hallway streaming in and the city lights glimmering outside the windows. Jan grabbed at Hank’s soft hair as he pressed kisses along her jawline and nudged aside the straps of her dress to trace her collarbone with his tongue. She arched into him and yanked him back up into a messy open-mouthed kiss as he shoved her dress up her stomach and trailed his hands down her thighs, alternately squeezing and caressing.

Panting and soaking up the attention, Jan slid her bare legs around Hank’s waist and flipped them around so that she straddled his hips. He looked so good like this, hair tousled and shirt unbuttoned, chest firm beneath her hands and unwavering gaze fixed so adoringly on her it was as if he couldn’t quite believe she was real.

This was so familiar that it ached.

“What are we doing, Hank?” Jan whispered, because she still didn’t know what she wanted. It would be so easy to have a passionate tumble here in their old bed, fall asleep in each other’s arms, and then fall back into their rollercoaster routine. It would be so easy, but she didn’t know if it would be right. Was it wrong to still want Hank so much, after everything? Sometimes she hated him so much it brought her to tears, and yet other times she loved him so much, so fiercely, that she thought she might combust from the sheer brilliance of it. She had given him so many chances already. Did he really deserve another one? And did it matter, when nobody else would ever compare?

“I love you,” Hank said. It didn’t answer her question but still said so much.

Jan leaned down to cradle his face. His eyes were so blue. She loved his blue eyes, sharp with intelligence and warm with devotion.

“You have to be better,” she said as she traced his high cheekbones. “You can’t just promise it; you have to actually treat me better. I’m not going to put up with what I did before.”

“I will,” Hank replied. His unwavering tone surprised her. “I will, Janet. There is nothing in the world more important to me than that — than you. You deserve to be treated accordingly. But please, you have to be patient with me. You have to understand, to put yourself in my shoes when I’m upset. To help me. This… This…” Closing his eyes, he hesitated and took a deep breath. “I can’t just tuck my anxiety and everything else away. You have to give me the chance to prove that I can get myself in order and not just… I can’t do this if all I can think about is you leaving.”

Jan frowned at him, though it was hard to maintain when he looked so earnest. “You’ve never admitted that aloud,” she realized. It seemed to be a day of many firsts.

He reached up to brush her hair out of her eyes and press his palm against her cheek. “I’m trying to be better,” he said. “I love you.” And the two shouldn’t be connected, but she could read in the tension of his body that when it came to Hank, they always would be.

And maybe that was enough.

Maybe he was right that she had never tried to understand him, the unpleasant Hank—the Hank who disagreed with her and put her down and made her feel insignificant and stupid. She had never tried to help him, only fixating on how his words and actions affected her.

Maybe Jan needed to be better for Hank, too.

After all they had been through, there was only one thing she knew for sure:

“I love you, too,” she murmured against his lips, and guided his hand to the back zipper of her dress.

*

Monday, December 31

Tony Stark threw a great party. Everyone in New York knew this. Everyone in the world probably knew it. Even Steve had known it, despite being unable to pick the billionaire out of a crowd. He had certainly never expected to be afforded the chance to attend one, though. And the Stark New Year’s Eve Party was famous for being extremely exclusive. Paparazzi began camping outside the Stark Mansion grounds a full twenty-four hours before the event. People spent absurd amounts of money on outfits and bragged about the experience for years to come.

And yet Tony had invited Steve as if it were an afterthought. He had invited Bucky and Natasha as well — “You should come, too, lovebirds” — after seeming to enjoy spending time with them during Christmas. Steve had yes immediately, something he grew more and more flustered by as the day of the party drew closer.

“Whatever you’re thinking, stop it,” Bucky said, coming up behind him as he obsessed over his appearance in front of the bathroom mirror.

“Do you think the tie is too much?” Steve wondered, biting his lip.

One of the many presents Tony had bequeathed upon him had been a tie — fashionably thin, a bright but elegant blue the color of eyes, and so expensive that Bucky had let out a sharp whistle when he looked it up online. (Steve had made him promise never to tell him the price.)

“Not if your intention is to walk into Tony Stark’s house announcing that your body now belongs to the man himself.”

Steve made a face and elbowed him. “Bucky!”

Laughing, Bucky clapped him on the shoulder with the hand of his good arm. “Just messing with you, buddy. You look great. He’ll eat you up.”

Flushing, Steve checked his newly shaven cheeks in the mirror again. “You think so?”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “That guy is crazy about you. I’m pretty sure you could show up in a potato sack and he would still jump you.”

“Now you’re just having me on,” Steve muttered, sighing exaggeratedly.

The doorbell rang just then, summoning a great big grin on Bucky’s face.

“That’ll be Natasha,” he said, with a quick glance at the mirror.

“Who’s worrying now?” Steve teased. “You look good, too, Buck. Now go get your lady.”

*

The ballroom of Stark Mansion was decorated to the nines in an eclectic mishmash of holiday themes that somehow managed to work and look properly cheerful, if not particularly orderly. The room was filled with people from all walks of life, from Stark International employees to high school students patronized by the Maria Stark Foundation to old friends, as well as new ones.

Jan was in her element, milling around the crowd in a silky red dress with a low neckline and dramatic shoulders, chatting up good friends and acquaintances alike. She loved few things more than sizing up everyone’s formalwear and was pleased to see quite a few people wearing her winter line. She had ditched Hank by the entrance with Reed Richards and Hank McCoy when he had gone from complimenting her dress to bragging about the headway he had made on his most recent project. That was fine; she always felt bad dragging him along as she made her rounds, anyway.

After chatting with a multitude of people she knew from elite social circles, she found her best girlfriends congregated by the gigantic Christmas tree. Carol was in a short black dress with a high collar and no sleeves, paired with a red belt and her favorite black leather boots. Carol had never been very fond of heels, although even without them she was nearly as tall as her date, the famed co-worker, who had a fluffy blond head of hair and eyes such a piercing blue that they were almost alien. He and Carol looked like the perfect All-American couple, and Jan told them so.

The man laughed and held out his hand. “I’m Walter.”

“Call him Marvel,” Carol corrected, giving him a fond, teasing look. “Sorry, dear, Walter’s never going to stick.”

Jan grinned. “Well, you can call me Jan. You’re very handsome,” she added, unabashed, just to see if he would blush. Marvel pinked slightly, accepting the compliment with a smirky grin. Boy, he was attractive for an engineer. Then again, Jan had always been attracted to the nerdy type. And his tie, a bold red with a bright yellow star in the center, was an interesting choice paired with his midnight blue suit. Jan had a professional love for people who dressed in daring outfits.

Beside them and dressed in a long off-the-shoulder red and gold gown with a high slit, Jessica was engaged in an enthusiastic conversation with Natasha’s ex Clint Barton. Jan was surprised — and impressed — to see that up close, his suit was not black as she had thought but actually a deep purple. His wife Bobbi Morse stood by, looking bored in a conversation with one of Tony’s corporate buddies who Jan didn’t recognize. Jan didn’t know Bobbi very well — what she knew was really just hearsay from Natasha, who was, even if she would never admit it, pretty biased — but she did like her blue-and-white dress very much and made a note to tell her when she got a chance.

“Jan!”

Jan swirled around to see Sue Storm beaming at her, golden hair swirled up in a pretty bun. She was wearing a deep blue dress that brought out the color of her eyes and draped elegantly over her sizable baby bump.

“You look beautiful,” Jan said as they hugged. Sue smiled sweetly.

“Thanks, Jan. You’re the first to notice, of course,” she said with a resigned look at Reed, who was standing beside her, gesturing wildly at Hank about who-knows-what. Jan winced in empathy. “You do too, although that’s a given, of course.”

Jan smiled and shrugged before tugging on Hank’s arm. “Say hi to everyone,” she said. With a sigh, he did so, although he was clearly uncomfortable. Jan thought of the last time he had seen her friends and cringed a little. Okay, so maybe she would cut him a bit of slack this time.

“We didn’t get to meet properly last time,” Ororo said kindly to Hank. He shook her hand, looking awed as he looked up to meet her eyes. Jan didn’t blame him; Ororo looked like a cross between a queen and a rockstar with her mohawk and black open-back gown.

“Hey, why weren’t we invited to this little get-together?” Bruce cut in, looking sharp in a suit and a purple tie. On his left arm was Betty and his right arm his cousin Jennifer. There was a spring in his step and newfound clarity in his eyes, something Jan had never seen before. Betty looked happier, too, and Jan was proud of having wrangled her into a deep red dress that hugged her curves and having convinced her to coax her hair into loose waves. Bruce looked more in love with her than ever.

Jennifer, who was in town for the holidays and who Jan had loved almost instantly after they had met, was wearing a very revealing green dress that flattered her broad shoulders and stilettos that increased her already towering height.

Jan hugged all three of them hello and rolled her eyes, sharing an exasperated look with Sue and Betty when their men welcomed another member to their genius clique for the night. Betty giggled and shrugged without letting go of Bruce’s arm.

“New York throws a damn good party,” Jennifer was saying.

Tony Stark throws a damn good party,” Jan corrected, tiptoeing to search the crowd for Tony. When she returned her attention to the group, Carol was introducing the girls to Marvel, who was trying to prove that he could recite all of their names. Jan smiled in approval. That one seemed like a keeper.

Just as Jan was about to tease Marvel for already forgetting her name, Natasha sashayed into view, looking gorgeous sheathed in a gold floor-length gown. Jan wouldn’t be surprised if she was armed under there, but Natasha always knew how to look beautiful without compromising her power whatsoever. Then Jan lost her train of thought when her eyes roved to the man whose arm was hooked in hers. He was tall (though not too much taller than Natasha), dark, and handsome, with serious eyes and something of a natural smirk. His left arm was in a black sling, and he walked with a slight limp.

James. It had to be James! Jan clapped her hands to her mouth in surprise.

“No,” she said, stunned, under her breath. Natasha joined them, nodding at the mishmash of people.

“Hi, everyone,” Natasha said with a shockingly genuine smile. “I have someone I’d like you to meet.” Jan swore she wasn’t the only one holding her breath in anticipation. He-who-must-be-James gave Natasha a fond look, eyes twinkling with affection and excitement, and Jan was already totally in love with this guy. “This is my boyfriend, James Barnes.”

“Yes!” Jan whispered, to which the group burst out laughing and James looked like he couldn’t decide whether to feel uncomfortable or pleased. Jan grinned, refusing to be embarrassed, and held out her hand for him to shake. His grip was sure, and he met her eyes squarely. “I’m Jan. It’s wonderful to meet you.”

“Finally,” Jessica breathed as she introduced herself in turn. “Carol, you owe me ten bucks.”

Carol glared at her, which, of course, was nothing compared to the look that Natasha leveled at them. “Yeah, yeah,” Carol said, turning back to James and smiling her dangerous smile. “Fair warning: If you hurt her, I’ll snap your neck.” James smirked, looking charmingly impish.

“I hear you’re Air Force, so I’ll take that threat to heart.”

Oh, he was good. Carol was beaming with pride, clearly won over as well. But the best part was still how happy Natasha looked, even though she looked reluctant to show it. Jan nudged her side.

“He’s perfect for you,” she whispered.

Natasha’s smile was small and almost shy this time. “I know,” she said back softly. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

*

Jan playfully called Hank and his friends the “Geek Brigade,” and Hank had to admit that it was a pretty accurate description, looking around at Bruce, Reed, McCoy, T’Challa, and Tony, who had suddenly appeared with a hors d’oeuvres–toting waiter in tow. But the science talk halted briefly when McCoy asked Bruce how he was feeling lately and Bruce was surprisingly frank about it, thanking him for his concern and reassuring him that both Dr. Xavier and Betty were doing a wonderful job helping him through it. Hank remembered belatedly that it had been McCoy who had recommended Xavier in the first place and made a note to thank him privately later.

“Hey, Hank, you came with Jan, right?” Tony pitched in. Hank nodded, rubbing his neck nervously with one hand and fingering the box in his pocket with the other.

“We’ve been working things out,” Hank said. “It’s not going to be easy, but… It’s worth it.”

Bruce and Reed nodded in understanding while a thoughtful look passed over Tony’s face.

“I’m glad,” Bruce said. “She’s good for you.” He turned to Reed and asked, “And how’s Sue?”

Reed’s expression soured. “Being flirted with by Victor again,” he said. Hank leaned to the side to see that Victor Von Doom had indeed descended upon the women, though he seemed to only have eyes for Reed’s wife. Reed practically flew to Sue’s side, and Hank could tell just from the snooty look on his face that he was insulting Von Doom. Hank laughed a little at the sight, as Von Doom sneered and probably responded with something terrible. Tony snickered, too, as Sue very obviously rolled her eyes, hand on her round belly.

They still had no idea how someone as absent-minded and socially awkward as Reed had landed someone as kind and patient as Sue, but it was clear that they loved each other deeply and were in it for the long haul.

Hank couldn’t wait to see what their kid was going to be like.

Then Namor McKenzie strolled up and took advantage of Reed and Von Doom’s bickering to very openly hit on Sue, and then Bruce and McCoy began laughing, too. Even the unflappable T’Challa was smiling.

Hank grinned goofily at his friends and the good cheer. It was difficult to keep in mind when he was feeling alone and adrift, but he had to recognize that he was privileged to have a support group full of people who cared about him and had his back. People who genuinely enjoyed his company and made him laugh.

Not to mention that his girlfriend was the most beautiful, charming, and talented woman in Manhattan. Just seeing her in her element, entertaining and being entertained, made him swell with pride. People loved Jan. They loved her worldliness, the way she paid attention to what they said, the way she never got embarrassed, the way she could spice up even the world’s dullest conversation. To love Jan was to share her with the world, but Hank could live with that. He had learned that he didn’t want it any other way.

Sensing his eyes on her, Jan looked over to meet Hank’s gaze, her face lighting up with the soft, affection smile that she only ever directed at him. She blew him an air kiss, which made his cheeks flush and heart skip a beat, as if they were new lovers. He couldn’t help but return her smile

For the first time in a long couple of years, he felt brave and resolute. Like he could face life — and everything else, too.

*

Steve lasted about half an hour before he gave up any pretense of not looking around the room for Tony. He knew better than to expect Tony to come find him, especially given that he was likely occupied with entertaining literally hundreds of guests, but he still hoped for at least a smile and wave.

Sam, who he had invited as his plus-one, was beside him talking enthusiastically with some wealthy attorney whose eye-catching falcon-shaped lapel pin he had complimented. Steve couldn’t tell a cockatiel from a cockatoo, so everything they were saying was going completely over his head.

He spotted Bucky and Natasha across the room and watched as a beaming Bucky shook the hands of each of Natasha’s friends. Steve was delighted that Bucky and Natasha had worked things out and stopped denying their all-too-obvious feelings toward one another. It was good to see his best friend so openly happy, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

The thought made him think of Tony again, about his laugh — the real one — and the way he had looked at Steve at Christmas. That night, after the movie marathon, after dinner and dessert, after Natasha and an exhausted Bucky had retreated to bed, Steve and Tony had stayed up late talking. Sitting pressed close to one another, they had divulged stories and secrets, sharing equal parts laughs and serious conversation. When Steve had quietly, haltingly, told Tony the full story of what had happened to Bucky when they had been stationed abroad, Tony had given him this soft look — not of pity, not of charity, but of profound compassion and desire to help — that had taken Steve’s breath away. He couldn’t have stopped himself from leaning forward if he’d tried.

But there had been a crash down the hall, and they had gotten up to investigate it. And after they helped Steve’s inebriated neighbor back to his apartment one floor up, the fragile moment between them had passed. Tony had flopped onto the couch, announcing that he was exhausted, and Steve had left the room to get him a pillow and toothbrush. It had been on the tip of his tongue to ask Tony if he’d rather join Steve in his bed, but he didn’t know how to broach the subject. What if Tony wasn’t interested him? What if Tony wasn’t interested in that? What if Steve had read all the signals wrong and Tony didn’t even see Steve in that light?

So instead, he had said goodnight and lay awake in his bed, full of yearning and the prickle of hope.

“So where’s loverboy?”

“What?” Steve said, jarred out of his thoughts. Sam gave him a crooked grin as he, too, began to peruse the crowd.

“I’m talking about your boyfriend, genius,” he said.

“Tony’s not —” Steve protested, before he caught himself and felt his cheeks heat. Laughing, Sam patted him on the arm.

“I’m just teasing you, man,” he said. “But really, with you not being able to shut up about him, he’d better be just as smitten, or I’ll kick his ass.”

Rolling his eyes, Steve said, “I think he’s interested. At least a little.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “But then again, it might just be wishful thinking. You know I’m not good at these things.”

“You have a better read on people than anyone I know,” Sam said. “Don’t second-guess yourself.”

“If you say so,” Steve said skeptically, looking down at his feet. Sam rolled his eyes.

After a moment, he said more seriously, “So you gonna make a move?”

Steve sighed and played with the tail end of his tie, the material luxuriously silky against his fingers. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “Even if he is interested… It’s Tony Stark, Sam. He’s so out of my league it’s not even funny.”

“No, he’s not,” Sam said. “Steve, you’re the bravest, kindest, most loyal guy I’ve ever met. Let’s be real, he’s the one who’s outclassed.”

Steve rubbed his neck. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “That means a lot. But to the rest of the world, I’m nobody. Just a poor veteran art teacher with terrible PTSD.”

Sam gave him an incredulous look. “Even if that were true…since when have you ever cared what the world thinks?”

Steve opened his mouth to respond, but he couldn’t really argue with that. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” he said ruefully, sparing a chuckle for himself. “This relationship junk is scrambling my brain. Thanks for having my back.”

“Always, buddy,” Sam said sincerely.

With a grin and a friendly bump of the shoulder, Steve nabbed Sam’s glass out of his hand. “To show my gratitude, I’ll grab you a refill. Cab, right?”

As Steve was weaving through the crowd, someone with a booming voice called his name. He turned and was surprised to see Thor waving at him enthusiastically as he approached.

“Thor?” he said. “What are you doing here?”

“My brother works for Stark,” Thor said proudly.

“Oh, right,” Steve said, mentally slapping himself on the forehead. How could he have forgotten? Thor talked about his brother all the time and claimed that he was some kind of computer wizard (but Steve tended to take Thor’s effusive praise of people with a grain of salt).

“Things still aren’t working out with Jane, then?” Steve hazarded a guess, looking around as if Thor’s girlfriend — ex-girlfriend? — could have been hiding under a table.

“No,” Thor said. “We are speaking now, but I fear the relationship is a lost cause.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Steve said, but to his surprise, Thor didn’t look to be overly troubled.

“I will cope,” he said. Steve wished he could be that zen about lost relationships. He still thought frequently about his first love, Peggy, who would always be the one who had gotten away, in his heart of hearts.

“What are we coping with?” interjected a new voice. It belonged to a handsome man with dark hair and a very expensive suit who moved to stand possessively close to Thor, shrewd eyes narrowed in a suspicious glare.

“Steve, this is Loki,” Thor said happily, seemingly unfazed by the man’s hostile demeanor.

“Oh, your brother!” Steve said, smiling at the man in what he hoped was an encouraging manner and holding his hand out. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

Loki seemed pleased by that, giving off the impression of a smug cat, but he shot Thor an expectant look as he said curtly, “It’s a pleasure.”

“And…” Thor began. Then he hesitated.

A cool mask fell upon Loki’s face as he looked at Thor with an expectant expression tinged with dread, as if he was bracing himself for the end of the world. Tension hung stale in the air between them.

Then, almost shyly, Thor put his arm around Loki and said, “And we are also lovers.”

Thor’s expression was a little too intense, as if he was daring Steve to say anything. But Steve was more fascinated by the look on Loki’s face — one that openly displayed wonder and reverence.

“Well, congratulations,” Steve said.

Thor seemed taken aback with his reaction. “That is all you have to say? You do not find our relationship repulsive or unnatural?”

Steve shrugged. “Thor, you’re my friend. I just want you to be happy. If Loki makes you happy, then it’s none of my business who you choose to be with. And maybe this way you won’t have as much trouble relating and understanding each other as you did with Jane.”

Loki laughed, looking far less intimidating all of a sudden, his razor-sharp edges softened by the affection in his eyes for Thor. “If only you knew, Steve,” he said. “If only you knew.”

*

“So, what do you think of American parties?” Karolina said, idly caressing the purple silk of Xavin’s shirt that she couldn’t keep her hands off of.

“Not so different from Skrull ones,” Xavin replied. “Although Skrulls generally abstain from alcoholic substances and somehow are much rowdier than these Americans.”

Karolina laughed. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Xavin’s eyes twinkled, and she rubbed the modest ring on Karolina’s left hand affectionately, a habit that she had developed over the past week. Karolina didn’t mind. Not at all. “I think that when we hold our wedding ceremony back in the Skrull nation, you will have no choice but to believe it.”

The thought still daunted her — Xavin had told her that she would be treated like the princess she was there, which was more than a little intimidating — but not as much as it had before. They were already married in the law and in their hearts, anyway. Any elaborate ceremonies would be for the benefit of their loved ones.

“Do not be afraid, Beloved,” Xavin said. Karolina was constantly amazed at how well Xavin could already read her after only really knowing her for such a brief amount of time. “My people will adore you as I do.”

Karolina blushed. She was good at making her bashful, too, which was a mighty feat. “I hope so,” she said, pressing a kiss to Xavin’s cheek. She hoped her parents weren’t looking; she knew they would probably encourage it, but it was still beyond awkward that they had made this happen. Still, it was worth it… “I’m so glad I met you,” Karolina confessed, “even if it was under such bizarre circumstances.”

When Xavin smiled, she looked like an angel. A brave, strong, and kind angel, who Karolina could already feel shaping her into a better, more open-minded person. “And I you,” she said.

For a moment, they just held hands, watching the crowd of people swaying and making merry.

“Would you like to dance?” Xavin asked, eyes shining. “I assure you, I have been well-versed in this Western style of dance.”

“Yeah,” Karolina said. “I’d love to.”

They walked hand-in-hand to the dance floor and joined the couples, some gazing at each other lovingly, some dancing scandalously close, and some clearly just friends having a good time.

Karolina was just getting into the groove of it, impressed by how well Xavin was keeping up with her (Karolina’s parents had forced her to take ballroom dance lessons as a young girl), when a voice suddenly interrupted her concentration.

“Karolina?”

Karolina blinked, whipping her head in the direction of the voice she recognized but couldn’t place. Next to them, Billy Kaplan was swaying in the arms of a tall, buff blond with an impressive number of piercings along his ears. Oh. She had had no idea he was gay, although now that she thought about it, it wasn’t a huge shock.

“Oh, hey,” she said. “Uh, what are you doing here?”

“I, uh, I’m an intern at Stark International,” Billy said awkwardly. “And I’m not really one for fancy parties or whatever, but I thought this was a once in a lifetime kind of thing, and Teddy thought it would be cool to see the inside of Tony Stark’s house, so here I am. Oh, um! Sorry. This is Teddy.”

Karolina shook Teddy’s hand. His grip was strong and his smile friendly and open. Well, Karolina thought in amusement, anyone who could handle Billy’s chatty, excitable nature definitely had to be.

“I’m Karolina,” she said. “And this is my wife, Xavin.” She laughed a little at Teddy and Billy’s dropped jaws, and then felt a little bashful when Xavin looked at her with surprise and undisguised happiness. “We, um, we just got married a few days ago. But we’re planning to have a ceremony here in New York next year, and we’ll be sure to invite you guys. Xavin, this is Billy. I babysit his little brothers during the school year.”

“What is this babysit?” Xavin asked, suddenly frowning at Billy suspiciously. Karolina chuckled a little.

“I take care of his brothers when his parents aren’t home,” she explained.

“Oh,” Xavin said, dismissing the definition and executing an abbreviated version of the elegant bow Karolina had learned was the traditional greeting custom of the Skrull nation. “I’m pleased to meet you, Billy and Teddy. We would be honored to have you as guests at our wedding. Invite your friends!”

“Is she serious?” Billy said, looking to Karolina with wide eyes. Karolina muffled a laugh.

“Sure, whatever, my parents can afford it. And I want to milk them for what everything it’s worth for putting us in this situation in the first place —”

“What do you mean?” Teddy wondered.

And then Karolina and Xavin got to tell Billy and Teddy the story of how they got together in the first place.

*

“Dude,” Jessica said, “is that Hank on stage?”

Jan whipped her head around to stare at the aforementioned stage. Hank was indeed on it, gesticulating and looking vaguely annoyed at the lead singer of the live band. What the hell was he doing?

Hank cleared his throat into the microphone. “Hi, everyone. I hope you’re having a good time. I’ll try to make this brief, but I have an important question to ask someone very special in the audience.”

Eyes wide, Jan looked at Carol, her heart pounding.

“No way,” Carol said in disbelief.

“I met Janet years ago when I was working with her father on a project. For reasons I can’t fathom, she liked me and pursued me. Being the idiot I am, I didn’t notice for the longest time, but when I did, we decided to be together, and I was so happy. I wish I could say that we were so in love that nothing could tear us apart, but Jan bore the brunt of the worst parts of me, and for so long I was blind to the suffering I put her through.”

He took a deep breath, and Jan could read terrified anxiety in every bone of his body. It had to be killing him to say these things in front of a crowd of so many people — so many of their friends, as well as so many strangers — but that made the gesture that much more meaningful to her.

“Things aren’t always easy between us, and I don’t believe that they ever will be. But I love her for her spirit and the way she doesn’t back down at a threat. She makes me a better and stronger man, and I hope she continues doing so for the rest of our lives.

“Right now, we’re still recovering, and we’re going to need a lot of time for me to prove that I can be better — that I will be better. But I want to make this declaration to prove that I mean it, that I’m dedicated to improving things between us, and that I know there is nobody else for me and never will be. Umm, what I’m trying to say is… Janet Van Dyne, will you marry me?”

Tears fell from Jan’s eyes. Hiking her dress up, she ran toward the stage, weaving through the throngs of people murmuring to each other. Hank was staring unseeing into the crowd, stiff and nervous.

“Yes!” she shouted joyfully as she raced onto the stage and threw her arms around him. “Yes, Hank, yes!”

“Jan,” Hank whispered against her lips, and she saw that he was crying, too. “I love you,” he said and then kissed her. Their audience exploded in cheers, and Jan saw Carol give her a thumbs-up and Tony smiling at them both.

“I had no idea you could be so romantic,” Jan teased Hank as he slipped the ring onto her finger.

“Only when it comes to you,” he replied. Affection bloomed in her heart, and she hugged him tightly, relishing in the feeling of her cheek against his chest.

They would be okay. Like Hank had said, things wouldn’t ever be easy, but moments like this made everything worth it.

*

Over at the tables, Betty and Bruce leant against each other, taking comfort in the calm they provided each other as the hour got later and the party began to get more raucous.

“We should dance,” Bruce said suddenly. Betty laughed.

“Since when can either of us dance? Remember the last time we tried?”

“At Reed and Sue’s wedding? How could I forget?” Bruce chuckled.

“You hit your head so hard on that amp that I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d forgotten that night entirely,” Betty joked. Bruce grinned, not embarrassed in the slightest, and grabbed her hand.

“Aw, c’mon, Bets,” he said with that roguish twinkle in his eye that always made her knees — and resolve — weak. “Let’s give it another chance. Anything Reed and Hank can do, I can do better.”

Laughing, Betty let him tug her onto the dance floor and wrap his arms around her.

“Honestly, I just never know what to do with my hands,” she admitted. Bruce snickered, too, and then lifted her arms and waved them around a bit in her stead. She burst out laughing. “Okay, even I know that’s not right!”

After a few moments of fumbling and breathless giggling over the way they kept stepping on each other’s toes, they got a hang of the rhythm and the movement.

“See, it’s fun!” Bruce shouted over the music, which was getting more and more upbeat with every song. It was true, Betty was having fun letting loose. She needed it desperately after the past few months. And her spirits lifted at the sight of Bruce at ease and having fun on his own terms. Smiling wide, she clasped her hand in his and did little twirl.

Before long, the band was playing a lively song that Betty remembered from high school, and everyone on the dance floor was singing and dancing without shame.

Soon, the movement of the crowd nudged them over to where the rest of their friends were tearing up the dance floor.

“Betty!” Jan said, throwing an arm around her. Her brand-new ring caught the light, and Betty felt a warm swell of happiness for her friend finally getting what she had longed for for so long. That speech Hank had given… It had been so heartfelt and grandiose and so utterly unlike him. She really hoped it was a sign that he would do better by Jan from now on.

“You’re not going to trip on your feet again, are you?” Hank McCoy teased Bruce. Betty started laughing again. It looked she wasn’t the only one who had her doubts about their dancing skills.

“Oh, you’re going down, McCoy,” Bruce said, a mischievous glint in his eye.

Surrounded by her best friends and the man she loved more than anything, Betty smiled to herself. She knew in that moment that through it all — the fear, the misery, the need for escape, the shame, the remorse — everything would be all right.

*

By the time Steve tracked Tony down, the party was getting bit wild and he was craving a breath of fresh air. He found Tony outside on the patio chatting with a beautiful bronze-skinned woman with a curly head of hair and a pearly white smile.

Immediately, Steve felt an ugly stab of jealousy and irrational hatred of the woman. Was she leaning closer and giving him bedroom eyes, or was that just his imagination at work? Was Tony interested in her? Had Steve only been imagining whatever had happened at Christmas?

But the moment Tony spotted him, his entire face lit up. He beckoned Steve closer, and Steve couldn’t help himself, despite his disinterest in playing nice with one of Tony’s pursuits — conquests? — and the subsequent annoyance at his own pettiness.

But to his surprise, Tony made his excuses to his companion and met Steve halfway, guiding him by elbow to a quieter portion of the patio.

“Hey,” Tony said. Steve could swear his touch felt like a brand even through all the layers of fabric between them. “I’ve been looking for you all night. I was worried you might get bored and leave before saying hi.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Steve protested, ignoring the flutter in his chest at the thought that Tony had also been looking for him.

Tony grinned. “I’m glad. Here, over this way,” he said, gesturing with the highball glass in his hand.

Steve followed him, through a door hidden behind vines and up a couple flights of stairs. They ended up on the roof, on the Central Park side of the house. Steve gasped at the view that the vantage point afforded.

“I used to come up here when I was mad at my parents or Jarvis,” Tony said, sitting down and adopting a faraway look as he gazed into the distance. Steve joined him and looked around, trying to imagine a tinier version of Tony finding solace here.

“I bet you were a cute kid,” he said.

Tony laughed, and their shoulders brushed. Steve couldn’t help but press closer at the comforting sensation. “I was a privileged piece of shit,” Tony said. Then more softly, he reflected, “I would’ve traded it all for parents who paid attention to me, though.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Steve said. “They didn’t know what they were missing out on.”

Shrugging, Tony quoted, “‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad.’”

“I think you turned out well in the end,” Steve said. Tony rolled his eyes, but a smile played at his lips.

“Of course you would say that,” he said.

“I mean it,” Steve said, meeting Tony’s eyes. They held the gaze for a long moment. Steve couldn’t take his eyes off of the fragile, awed expression on Tony’s face, the December moonlight highlighting his cheekbones and eyelashes in a breathtakingly beautiful way. In return, Tony’s gaze seemed to caress his features where his hands dared not, lingering on his lips. Feeling self-conscious, Steve’s tongue darted out to wet them. Tony took in a sharp breath.

The air between them was too intense, and Steve’s stomach was doing nonstop backflips.

Tony seemed to feel the same way, breaking eye contact to reach for the glass he had set down beside him.

“What are you drinking?” Steve asked, searching for an innocuous topic. Now that he was confronted with Tony before him, seemingly interested, he found himself strangely on edge. Not in a bad way, just…anxious. What was his next move here?

“Ginger ale,” Tony said.

Steve looked at him in surprise. Tony gave him a wan smile. “Just getting a head start on a New Year’s resolution,” he said. “I’m going to try going easy on the drinking.”

“Wow,” Steve said, genuinely impressed. “That’s really admirable, Tony. Good for you.”

Tony smiled. “I’m glad you approve. I mean it. Thanks.” He set the glass back down beside him and fidgeted with his expensive-looking cufflinks. “Any bad habits you’re planning on phasing out?”

“I think…I think I want to take more chances,” Steve said. “Live a little more in the present and stop focusing on the past.”

“Yeah?” Tony said. “What brought this on?”

Steve shrugged. “Years of being unable to, and then years of being too stubborn to make a change. But now even Bucky is finally facing his fears and settling down. Hell, just look at Jan’s boyfriend — the poor guy was clearly terrified out of his mind on that stage. But he sucked it up and took a leap of faith. Some proposal that was, huh?”

“Yeah,” Tony said with a strange amount of protectiveness. Steve remembered belatedly that besides just being friends with Jan, Tony was also the friend and employer of her now-fiancé. “I’m glad they’re finally sorting things out together. They’ve always been on and off, but I hope this time they’re really playing for keeps.”

“If it’s meant to be, they’ll work it out,” Steve said.

Tony gave him an unreadable look. “You really believe that?”

“I think when two people belong together — are good for each other and willing to do everything in their power to make it work — there are few things that can truly tear them apart.”

“I hope so,” Tony said, a strange weight behind the words. Steve didn’t ask him to elaborate. He wanted desperately to believe that Tony was thinking about him.

A comforting silence settled between them. Steve marveled at that — there was just something about Tony that put him at ease, the way old friends tended to. He felt as if there didn’t need to be any pretenses when they were alone together. He loved the way Tony relaxed around him, sharing honest thoughts instead of just filling conversation space with jokes and witty comebacks — such a remarkable departure from the way he acted around most everyone else. And Tony never seemed to think less of Steve, no matter how many thoughts he shared or stories he divulged. It was scary how refreshing that was, how quickly Steve was coming to need that staunch reassurance. Tony didn’t expect him to get everything right — didn’t count on him to have all the answers — and there was something beautifully freeing about that.

He snuck a furtive look at his friend and let his mind meander into an idle fantasy of how he wished that Christmas Eve had gone. To have Tony in his arms, warm and eager, smiling that irresistible smile between heated kisses as their bodies fit perfectly together…

Steve took a deep, steadying breath. He really wanted this. More than he had wanted anything — anyone — in a very long time. He thought that if, after all this, Tony turned him down, his heart might just break.

“There’s another reason I didn’t drink tonight,” Tony said suddenly, as if confessing something incredibly embarrassing.

“Yeah? What’s that?” Steve said, distracted from his thoughts as his curiosity was piqued.

“I wanted to be sober for midnight,” Tony replied, gaze skittering away from Steve’s. He stared across the glittering lights of the New York City skyline, as if assessing his territory.

Steve had the sudden urge to paint him with oils, a lone silhouette against the shimmering lights and flashing neon signs. Lonely Billionaire Surveys His Dominion.

“Why?” he asked. He glanced at his watch. To his surprise, there were only twenty seconds left. He had completely lost track of time, another refreshing consequence of spending time with Tony. Down below, the music in the ballroom had gone quiet.

Instead of explaining what he meant, Tony simply smiled at him, soft and hopeful. But the anxiety in his eyes belied his feelings, and Steve was riveted. They were so close, and so blue.

Down in the ballroom, people began counting down loudly.

8…

7…

6…

Tony began leaning in, his breath warm and inviting in stark contrast to the crisp winter air.

Steve’s heart beat so rapidly that he feared it might just leap out of his chest.

3…

2…

1…

The kiss started out tentative and sweet, as they tested out the new territory, but it quickly segued into an inexorable heat and passion that made Steve’s toes curl. He parted his lips and invited Tony to do the same as his fingers dug into dark hair to tug him closer. Without breaking the kiss, Tony rose to his knees, winding his arms around Steve so that he could press closer. Steve had no idea how long they kissed — honestly, he would have been hard-pressed to remember his own name in that moment — but he knew he never wanted the magical moment to come to an end.

But eventually, Tony pulled away. Steve couldn’t suppress the whine that escaped him, and he thought he saw a delighted glint in Tony’s bright eyes.

“So I could do that,” he said softly. Steve’s brain took an embarrassingly long moment to catch up.

“Oh,” he said intelligently, unable to rip his eyes off of the intoxicating sight of a rumpled, well-kissed Tony.

Tony grinned at him. “Happy New Year, Steve.”

Steve knew he was smiling stupidly back at him. “Happy New Year,” he said. He reached over to take Tony’s hand in his, lacing their fingers together and pressing a tender kiss to the knuckles. Tony’s hand quivered in his, which Steve found irrepressibly charming. That Tony Stark — a man who could have anyone — was nervous and excited about a regular guy like him was incredibly humbling.

“Was…” Tony cleared his throat. “So that was okay?”

“Very okay,” Steve said, squeezing his hand. “Actually, I’m pretty certain we should do it again.”

“Yeah?”

“Definitely,” Steve said.

And as the sky exploded with fireworks and his heart swelled with radiant hope, Steve grabbed Tony and kissed him with everything he had.

*

And high up above or down below
When you're too in love to let it go
But if you never try you'll never know
Just what you're worth

Tears stream down your face
When you lose something you cannot replace
Tears stream down your face
And I promise you I will learn from my mistakes

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you

—“Fix You,” Coldplay