Tony was, unsurprisingly, making no effort to help anyone move in. Steve finally tracked him down in the kitchen, gazing out of the vast picture window over the equally vast steel sink. Why he was choosing to lurk in here, when he had fifty rooms to roam about in, Steve had no idea. He considered asking; but he doubted he'd get a straight answer from Tony, who directed a lazy smile over his shoulder and raised his glass in salute.
"Did you find everything all right?" he said, and Steve nodded. "Jan's down the hall from you." Steve shrugged, and crossed the smooth stone floor to lean against the counter next to Tony. Jan had turned away and darted down the back stairs when she'd seen him. He picked up the bottle of whiskey, and studied the label to avoid conversation; Tony tapped his tumbler idly on the counter, the tink of crystal on stone a thin but expensive sound. The kitchen was surprisingly homely for something that probably cost more than a Porsche, soft golds and cream in pine and marble, everything silky smooth under Steve's hands. Even the whiskey matched the colour scheme, although Steve was going to assume that was coincidence. Surely even Tony wouldn't choose his drink to go with the decor.
Steve watched out of the corner of his eye as Tony took a very careful sip, the whiskey just barely washing over his lips. He kept the tumbler to his nose for a moment, breathing it in, and then returned to tapping it on the counter. Steve laid his hand on Tony's wrist, stilling the the twitch. Tony raised his eyebrows, mouth curling up at one corner. He opened his mouth, no doubt to say something barbed; but Wanda clicked in on her towering heels, Pietro's hand folded into her arm, and Tony's focus shifted instantly and entirely to her.
"Can we have the garden suite with the green walls?" she said, something like suspicion in her expression, and Tony smiled at her indulgently.
"Anything you want, darling. We can redecorate it, if you like."
"I like it how it is." Doubt melted into pleasure, and she dimpled at Tony, somehow managing to look demure despite the expanses of skin revealed by her costume. Steve looked away, at Pietro's distrustful eyes flicking from him to Tony to Wanda. "It'll be all golden in the afternoons." She sat down at the kitchen table, and picked up a tumbler, cut into diamonds at its base. Tony took the whiskey bottle out of Steve's hand and sloshed some into the glass, and she made an absent noise that might have been thanks, and held it up. Golden light and rainbows striped her face, and Pietro brushed his thumb over her cheekbone.
"Pretty," he said, and she dipped her eyelashes like Lauren Bacall and peeped up at him.
"Move our things." He dropped a kiss on her smooth hair before vanishing in a shiver of air; Wanda glanced around, and bit her lip. "Oh, I forgot my book." A second later, a book hit the table. "Thank you, Pietro."
She rested the glass on the book and looked at them incuriously; her eyes were a deep violet today. Steve never liked to mention the shift in colour, but there wasn't much of the rest of her he was comfortable looking at. His eyes skimmed over her, shapely in dark and crimson leathers - worn out leather, she needed a new uniform - and then he looked at Tony instead, who was gazing at her with every sign of appreciation.
"Is there anything you need?" Tony's eyes were wide and sincere. "Let me encourage you to treat the hot tub as your own."
"You're very kind," she said gravely. Tony's smile widened in the way that meant he was about to say something dreadful, something that Steve would expect to get slapped for, and Tony would probably get away with; but the garden door opened and Thor ambled in, carrying a stack of boxes balanced on his palm. A rainbow of glistening satin evening dresses was draped over his other arm.
"I thought you moved in all your things yesterday," Tony said brightly. Thor gave him a tolerant look. "I like the glittery red number; daring, but you have the legs for it."
"Jan's room is on the third floor, with the balcony facing south," Steve said, and Thor nodded to him before heading for the stairs. He was aware of vague curiosity as to what Thor had moved in. He didn't seem to be a man with a lot of material possessions.
Jan had worn the glittery red thing on the first date he'd taken her on; dancing, because it was easier than talking. She'd liked it, though, laughed whenever he complimented her, and let him teach her the foxtrot. At the end of the evening she'd taken off her shoes and walked in her stocking feet, leaning heavily on his arm, and he'd wanted to pick her up and carry her. He hadn't quite dared, though, not sure if she'd laugh or scowl. Maybe if he'd spent less time worrying, and more time acting on his impulses... as if summoned by his thoughts, her soft familiar tread sounded in the hall, and she came in frowning. Not at him, though.
"Tony, Clint is asleep in the library."
"I'm not surprised, darling; he's been knocking back port all morning. He's going to have the hangover from hell." Tony shook his head. "I put a bucket by his feet, and a glass of water by his hand. The rest I leave to fate."
"It's hardly appropriate." Jan bit her fingernail. Her eyes flicked to Steve, and then back to Tony, who threw up a hand to ward off responsibility.
"I'm not going to lecture him on drinking responsibly. You're team leader now, I'm just the sponsor."
"Perhaps I should give you a lecture on drinking responsibly?" she said, directing a pointed look at the whiskey in his hand. Steve eyed the door. If Jan was in a mood to find fault, he was better out. But Tony could usually be counted on to soak up all the female attention available. Wanda had taken advantage of the distraction to open her book, apparently uninterested in Clint.
"I am, darling. I'm not going to die of cirrhosis of the liver."
"I - " Jan's eye was caught by the sparkle of Wanda's glass as she raised it to her lips, and she stared for a moment. "Oh, Wanda, no."
"Hm?" Wanda gave her dark guileless eyes, and Jan shook her head reprovingly. She put a finger to the top of Wanda's book and tipped it back so she could see the cover. Wanda frowned at her, but Jan didn't notice.
"Oh, Wanda, no." She shook her head firmly. "No no. That's no good, the man's a hack."
"He has some interesting theories on quantum entanglement- "
"I know, but he misrepresents so much of the evidence, his conclusions are meaningless - you need to look at Bohm's original work to properly understand the implicate and explicate order. I have some books - "
"Oh?" Wanda's gathering scowl melted away. "Can I see?"
"Yes, of course," Jan headed towards the door, still talking. "I did my dissertation on the implications for the law of energy conservation - "
Wanda knocked back her whiskey, made a face, and followed Jan out, leaving the maligned book behind. Steve stared after them.
"Women, eh?" Tony leaned against him, and gave him a conspiratorial little smile. "You've got to get yourself a doctorate, Stevie boy, or you'll never lure in the ladies."
"Shut up, Tony." Tony elbowed him gently.
"I'm team sponsor, now. You should treat me with respect," he said loftily, and Steve had to smile back at him.
"Oh, I treat you with all respect you're due, Stark."
"Well, for a billion dollars a year I think I've bought a bit extra."
"A billion?" Steve didn't quite wince. It was no wonder Tony seemed detached from reality, sometimes, with that kind of money to play with. He hadn't even had to consider when Jan proposed he take possession of the Ultimate.
"And the rest. You people aren't cheap dates." Tony fluttered his eyelashes in a parody of seduction, and Steve looked aside, and tried to think of another subject.
"What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you'd taken a blond to the mountains?" Tony's smile iced over.
"Yeah, well. I came back. After a woman puts a gun to your head during sex, anything else seems... dull."
Steve had nothing to say to that. He folded his arms, and watched the muscle in Tony's jaw twitch as he took another deep breath of his whisky.
Pietro put down the last box, and searched the Mansion, smooth floors scattered with rugs not ideal for high speed work but good enough. Clint snored in the library, the Captain and Stark stood silent in the kitchen, Thor stood on a balcony eyeing a storm cloud speculatively. Janet Pym and Wanda sat on a bed, surrounded by brightly coloured clothes and piles of papers. There were half unpacked boxes scattered over the floor, and books everywhere. He stopped in the doorway, and waited. After a moment, he tapped his foot, and Wanda looked up from the papers, eyes bright and cheeks flushed.
"Pietro. Did you know Jan's second PhD was in quantum physics?"
"No," said Pietro.
"Pure self-indulgence." Jan smiled at him, friendly. She was a mutant, of course, though that was beyond top secret and they weren't even supposed to acknowledge it out loud. Still, he gave her back a small smile. "I love biochemistry, and it's what I'm best at, but my size-changing gave me an interest in quantum mechanics, and I thought, why not? It's good to broaden the mind."
"Sure." Pietro took a couple of steps forward, and Wanda smiled at him and picked up another book.
"You should read some of these, Pietro. The theories of quantum mechanics could explain a lot about how mutant powers work - "
"That's all so beyond hypothetical," Jan said, and Wanda smiled. "It's nothing but speculation, and they haven't been able to produce any reliable evidence; Talbot's trying to build a theory of everything out of some vague ideas about quantum entanglement."
"You have to start somewhere. I mean, it all sounds logical."
"Phlogiston sounded logical in its day." She spoke in withering tones, and Wanda laughed as if she'd made a joke. Maybe she had. She carried on talking, and Wanda's smile faded into intense concentration.
Pietro stood there a little while longer, but Wanda seemed entirely focused on the long, unintelligible sentence spilling from Jan's lips. Wanda was always gripped by any insight into her powers.
He'd go unpack. That would please her.
Clint blinked his crusty eyes open and found himself staring at a bucket. He considered, and decided he didn't need it right now. Sitting up brought a glass of water and a packet of painkillers into view. He fumbled for his glasses, and squinted at the packet. The good kind, which meant Tony had left them.
"Nick called." Clint turned his head slowly, to avoid jarring his headache, and Cap looked up from his book. "Tony told him you were sleeping. He wants to talk to you about arrangements."
"Arrangements," Clint said hoarsely. A nice, neutral term. Fury knew exactly how to drain the colour out of things and put them into the grey language of bureaucracy.
"Tony said he could take care of things if you didn't feel up to it."
"Tell him - " He and Stark had been unable to look at each other for the last week, recoiling whenever their glances met. Tony's obvious guilt might have been comforting if Clint could have brought himself to blame him. But Clint had fallen for Natasha's opaque green gaze as hard as Tony had, trusted her like a fool. Trusted her more than Tony had. "Tell him I'd be grateful."
Cap nodded, and let his gaze drift sideways; not quite returning to his book, but not watching Clint as he took one too many painkillers and drank the water.
Clint stared at his profile, the very serious expression his face always rested in. Not a scowl, although it was easy to mistake it for one; Clint could remember him fixing that grave attention on Laura while she talked about her soaps, remember choking back snickers as Steve starting talking back, telling her earnestly all about General Hospital. Clint had thought he was just humouring her until Tony had leaned forward and murmured he actually bought a TiVo just so he'd never miss any, I'm not kidding - and they'd both started laughing and Cap had frowned and Laura had shaken her head at them.
"Will you give the eulogy?" Clint said, and Cap looked at him. There were no signs of bruising or injury left on his face, despite the battering he'd taken at the hands of SHIELD and then their enemies. Cap healed fast.
"If you want. I'll tell Tony. He'll make sure it's - I'm doing quite a few." Of course, Captain America was always first choice for a moving eulogy.
"If you don't have - "
"I have time," he said, and Clint nodded.
"They liked you."
"Yeah." Cap looked down at his book. "Laura was always kind to me."
"She said you needed looking after. Course, she said that about everyone. Said it about Natasha, even. You never liked Natasha." Clint clamped his jaws together to stop anything else from spilling out. He was hungover and still drunk, which wasn't really fair.
"She never really made an effort with me. I expect I would have liked her, if she had."
"Yeah." Clint leaned back into his chair. "Yeah, she was - she was a piece of work."
Another morning, another painful, compulsory gap between pills and booze. Tony took another sip of water, and then kicked his slippers off and walked down the tiled hall, and considered lying down on it and letting the chill soak into his bones and soothe his aches. Experience told him it wouldn't work for long; he turned into the library, when there were cool leather armchairs that would be almost as good.
Thor was curled up in an outsize armchair, thumbing through a book. Tony froze, and was just about to go into reverse when Thor looked up. Too late.
"Good morning, Tony," he said just that bit too loudly, and Tony winced.
"Don't be cruel," he said, and Thor gave him a benevolent look.
"Thank you for the bed. And the chairs."
"It's not like we don't have the room; you don't need to sleep with your feet sticking out of the bed." Tony yawned. "Also, I don't want you breaking things. Do you need anything else?"
"Can I have a tanker?" Tony squinted at him.
"So unwashed hippies can ram it into a whaling boat?" Thor's grin was positively gleeful, and Tony sighed. "No, don't tell me. I'll look into it." A tanker, good god. And he'd get the blame when it turned up embedded in Tokyo or wherever Thor dumped it.
"Do you feel guilty, Tony?" Thor's voice was more gentle, and Tony made a face, and looked away. He could see Clint sprawled in another of the chairs, passed out or just staring at the ceiling.
"A little bit." He lifted his glass to press it against his forehead. The heavy crystal stayed wonderfully cool. Thor kept looking at him, eyes the soft blue of summer skies. "I'm sorry."
"I thought you believed in me." A little hurt shaded his voice, and Tony shook his head. Then he nodded.
"I suppose so. But the evidence... Loki was quite convincing. I suppose I thought, if you were really a God..."
"That you'd fail? Why did you believe in me, Tony? You trusted me to dispose of a nuclear bomb with my divine powers."
"I trusted you. I'm sorry I stopped." He swallowed around a sudden lump in his throat. "I'm sorry I didn't listen to you. If I - " If he'd listened, Natasha would still have been a spy, still not loved him.
He might have saved Jarvis, though. Maybe the Bartons. Clint's kids might be shrieking out on the lawn right now, while Laura gossiped about fashion with Jan. Natasha might be locked up, in a cell next to Hank, and he and Jan could make conjugal visits together. That would be delightfully awkward. Not to mention he'd probably be as much of a sucker as Jan. I'm sorry and I love you were always convincing if you wanted to believe, and if they'd caught her in advance, she'd never have said -
"Oh, well," Thor broke into his train of thought. "I almost believed Loki when he said I wasn't really Thor, and I am Thor."
"You were right about everything, though," said Tony.
"Well, I am a God."
Tony laughed, and sat down on the arm of Thor's chair. Thor patted him companionably on the back. That had been easier than he'd hoped. If he'd listened to Thor...
"Are you well, Tony?"
"I'm not worse." Thor tutted, and spread his palm out over the small of Tony's back, a seep of warmth that eased the gritty feeling in Tony's vertebrae. He could smell Thor, not unpleasant, but there were no artificial smells on him, no soap or shampoo or perfume. It was like sitting next to a very large, clean animal. It was tempting to slide into his lap and demand a hug; Thor would probably co-operate, the big hippy. God, he needed to get laid.
"It wounded me to fight my friends," Thor said, following his gaze to Clint, and Tony shook his head.
"Subtlety's not one of your powers, is it?"
"Thunder God, Tony."
"Well. I can't really criticize anyone for their self-interest, I suppose," Tony said. A hundred billion dollars, Natasha had said. Her head had made such an awful noise when he'd hit it.
"You're very forgiving."
"I'm just tired," Tony murmured, and looked at the clock. Another fifteen minutes before he could have a drink.
"I'm sorry, Steve," said Jan, and Tony stopped dead outside the kitchen door. He could smell bacon, which made his stomach roil, and coffee, which sadly did the same thing. They'd said chemotherapy might make his hair fall out, which was one thing, but they hadn't mentioned coffee would make him sick. An utter bait and switch.
"But why?" said Steve again, helplessly, and Tony shook his head. Steve persisted in the touching belief that people were sensible and logical, and would behave reasonably if you talked to them for long enough. It could make conversations with him very dull. Steve, unsurprisingly, was refusing to take It's not you, it's me with any grace at all, although Tony shared his bewilderment that anyone would opt for Hank over Steve. Tony had something of a weak spot for the crazy-violent type, and he'd still give Hank a wide berth.
"It's notabout Hank!" snapped Jan, and for a moment Tony thought he'd accidentally joined the conversation.
"But I don't - " Steve began, and all right, the third go round was enough. Tony wasn't quite sure who he was rescuing when he entered, but both of them looked relieved to see him, which was a novel experience. Jan was dressed up; not dramatically so, but there was lipstick, and she was wearing heels. Steve turned back to the stove, and poked viciously at the mess in the pan.
"Good morning, Tony." Jan's brightness was glaringly artificial, but he let it pass without comment. "Coffee?"
"Orange juice, darling," he said, and they gave him identical looks of puzzlement. "It's all right, I'm going to put vodka in it."
Steve silently sloshed orange juice into a glass and passed it to him, and then dug the vodka out of the freezer. Tony held out the brimming glass, and Steve shook his head.
"Drink half of that." The good old Captain America voice of authority. It sounded out of place at the breakfast table, but Steve seemed to think he could break it out whenever he wanted his own way. Tony's morning drink was not a matter of national security, and Tony was going to tell him so.
"Cap," Tony began, and then pinched the bridge of his nose. Steve was a stubborn, stubborn man. After a moment, Tony sighed and took several large swallows of juice. He held out the half empty glass and Steve sloshed a generous amount in, gracious in victory. Tony sat down, and took a drink, and Jan put some toast down in front of him.
"What do you expect me to do with that?" Tony wrinkled his nose, and Jan poked him in the shoulder.
"Civilized people don't eat breakfast. They drink it." He took another drink.
"You should have porridge for breakfast," said Thor, wandering in. "It's better for you." He picked up a piece of Tony's toast, and took a large bite. Steve gave him a nasty look, and scraped some bacon onto Tony's plate. It made a clunking noise as it landed.
"This is domestic hell," Tony said thoughtfully. "It's like having multiple Jarvises with no wit, who I can't fire."
"Like you could fire Jarvis." Steve's tone was gentle, and Tony gave him a smile he knew was weak.
"I could," he said. "Theoretically."
"Well, in theory you could throw us all out," said Jan, and sat down next to him. He patted her knee, the smooth bare skin warm under his hand. Perhaps the shortness of her skirt was why Steve was so grim. She picked up his hand and returned it to the table. "Eat your toast." Bacon shattered under her fork. "Steve can't really cook," she confided in an undertone, and Steve put the pan down in a pointed fashion. "Well, neither can I." Thor laughed, and then vanished out of the back door clutching a loaf of bread; probably to feed the koi carp. Tony had seen him peering into the fish pond earlier in the week. He had quite possibly been whispering to them. Tony was going to have to bug the pond, perhaps with a robot fish.
"What are you all dressed up for so early, Jan dear?" Tony said, and Steve clattered noisily and pointedly. "Cap, stop the musical accompaniment, I'm not a well man, I need peace and quiet and - "
"She's going to see Pym," Steve growled, and Jan's eyes narrowed.
"I'm going to talk to my husband," she said too loudly, and Tony winced in anticipation, but the cupboard doors closed softly. Steve pulled out a chair with exaggerated care, sat down, and began to shovel in the fried foods with fierce attention. The man burned through calories like the Human Torch; Tony had been delighted to find that the numerous pouches and pockets on Steve's costume were mostly filled with chocolate and energy bars. It was something of a weak spot in his design, but Tony had noticed he got meaner as he got hungrier, so there were certain advantages.
"Does he need a lawyer?" Tony asked, and Jan looked at him doubtfully, no doubt seeking a hidden motive. "I can arrange it." If it stopped Hank from driving Jan crazy - and as a consequence, Jan driving Steve crazy - and Steve spreading the crazy around with a large spoon - anyway, Jan was less likely to feel obligated towards Hank if he was all taken care of.
"It might be an idea." She stirred the unappetizing mess around her plate. "If they allow him one."
"He should be allowed one," said Steve, grudgingly, love for civil liberties apparently overcoming his urge to put Pym in a box and sneer at him. "If you have any problems with that, I'll talk to Fury. Might need to be a military lawyer, though."
"Guaranteed to be unbiased, I'm sure," said Tony. Still, it was better than nothing, and would give Steve the feeling of smug self-righteousness he so enjoyed. Nothing ever quite matched the righteousness you got from punching Nazis, Tony was sure; it was no wonder he was so disappointed in the modern world. "You can tell Hank we'll take care of getting him legal representation. Maybe that lawyer who defended Banner will feel like tilting at another windmill." Jan smiled at him, and he ventured another knee pat. Steve eyed him tolerantly, apparently more threatened by Hank three miles away behind bulletproof glass than by Tony right there pawing her. That was probably fair.
Wanda and Pietro drifted in, and Jan got up, shaking off Tony's hand. Pietro sat down in her place, and stole Tony's plate and began eating his bacon, which was kind enough Tony almost patted his knee, too.
"Jan," said Wanda, and her tone made Tony squinch his head round for a better look at her, sleek and deadly in her red and black leather. This version of the costume covered rather more of her; he had a suspicion Steve had something to do with it. Action needed to be taken, if only to irritate the good Captain. Wanda was looking at Jan with wide-eyed concern as Jan gave her a watery smile.
"I have to go," she said, and Wanda nodded.
"I'll come." Pietro looked up at her, frowning. "I have to pick up some things from SHIELD anyway." She leaned down and kissed Pietro on the cheek. "I'll see you later, love."
Tony hid his smile in his juice as Steve and Pietro stared after the women with identical expressions of mistrust.
"I wish they'd shut down that Ultron thing," said Pietro grumpily. "I don't know why she's so fascinated."
"Well, I'll leave you two to bond over the mystery of womankind," said Tony, forcing himself to his feet. "I have a meeting. Four meetings, but who's counting."
"You haven't eaten anything," said Steve, scowling at him like it was a personal offence. Tony thought that was actually his concerned face, but there was a very precise degree of scowl to read and his vision was still a little blurred.
"Pepper will feed me," he lied cheerfully, and made his escape before Steve could start interrogation procedures.
Wanda drifted through the halls, touching things. The atmosphere reminded her, distantly, of the days they had lived with Xavier. Magneto had had finer halls, but there was always something chill about the architecture he produced; it was probably too simplistic to say the sterile distance reflected his personality. The way he collected human art was, perhaps, a sign that he realised that they had something he didn't.
There was a time she would have been jealous of all the beautiful things, angry that a mere homo sapiensowned all these things, but there was warmth, now, the feeling of satisfaction that she lived here, that these things, if not hers, belonged to a member of her team. That she lived here, was recognised and acknowledged.
"Wanda, darling," said Tony, appearing out of a nearby doorway. He seemed to have a sixth sense for knowing when Pietro was otherwise occupied. "A photo shoot for Time. I told them you wouldn't be inclined to discuss family matters, but they still want you."
"And Pietro?" She gave him wide innocent eyes.
"And Clint. But I think I know who the photographer will focus on." He caught her hand and touched it to his lips, giving her a sweet look; Wanda smiled at him and moved a little closer. Pietro might complain, but Wanda rather liked the way he looked at her; as if she was one of the pretty things he wanted to ornament his house. Which, in a way, she supposed she was. He tucked her hand under his elbow, turning her, and they sauntered down towards the garden doors. "You know, you're quite welcome to stay here as long as you please."
"Yes?" Tony flashed her another smile.
"Your uniform is very fetching," the back of his hand grazed the bare jut of her hipbone, "But you don't have to live out of a suitcase anymore."
"I like my uniform," she said stiffly, straightening her back. "I don't need anything else." She mentally ticked over the clothes she had; nothing suitable for photographs, and she wouldn't present herself in rags when she claimed to be the future of the species. Pietro could acquire her something, of course... but it would be embarrassing to be caught in a crime, now they were Ultimates.
"Still, it can be nice to have a change." Tony leaned a little closer to speak into her ear. She could smell alcohol on his breath. "You aren't getting paid in political prisoners, you know."
Wanda stopped dead, and Tony arched his eyebrows a little.
"The money Pietro and I got - " she began, and stopped.
"Every month." Tony smiled. "Now you're on my team, and not Fury's. Hell, I'll give you a clothing allowance if you promise to spend it on things that are low-cut. You should get Jan to take you shopping; she's responsible for dressing Steve, you know. At least, his good clothes. Those vile T-shirts he wears are all his own."
"I think they suit him," said Wanda, thinking. When was the last time she'd been shopping? With the Russian, for puffy white dresses. Before that... years, because human clothes and concerns were for humans.
"Oh, I do too, darling. You can count every muscle through that cheap fabric. Pietro needs new clothes, too. And a haircut. He looks too... well, we don't want to bring back memories. Get him to smile occasionally, too."
"Where's Wanda?" Jan's voice came through the door, and Wanda looked up from the mirror, feeling a little surge of pleasure at being sought out.
"In here!" she called, and Jan put her head round the door, and then came in when Wanda beckoned.
"Aren't you coming to breakfast?" said Jan, and Wanda smiled at her.
"Of course," she said. "I'm just running a little late. Wait with me?"
"Sure." Jan flopped down onto Wanda's bed, roughly remade; the staff would change the sheets later, but Wanda didn't like leaving it a complete mess.
Jan rolled over and bunched up Wanda's pillow to rest her head on. Wanda watched her in the mirror, idly calculating the probabilities. Jan was leaning on a book; there was more than a ninety per cent chance she'd pull it out in the next thirty seconds. Wanda combed out another section of hair, and applied the straighteners.
"I don't know how you have the patience." Jan wriggled before tugging out the book and tossing it aside. Wanda smiled, meeting her eyes in the mirror.
"To do that every day." Her gesture took in the straighteners, the makeup, the hair products, all the things Wanda used to create the face she showed the world. Wanda looked down at the neatly arranged pots and bottles and jars, and shrugged.
"I like straight hair," Wanda said. She shook her head; the hair on the right side of her head swung smoothly, while the left tumbled, already forming little tangles. She picked up the comb again. "I like it neat."
"I couldn't do that every day," Jan said, and Wanda watched her pick at the sheets, and tried to predict the restless movement of her hands. "Hank used to say I never made an effort for him."
"I always thought that when you got married you didn't have to make effort any more." Wanda looked at herself thoughtfully. Marriage should be... well, like her and Pietro. Perfect understanding, and love. She couldn't imagine settling for anything less. "That they'd love you for who you are."
"But if they've been making an effort all the time you know them, you love who you think they are." Jan worried at the sheets; for show, the slick heavy fabric had no loose threads. Wanda combed, applied styling spray, put the straighteners to her hair again
"Hank wants me to come see him more often," said Jan abruptly, and Wanda nodded.
There was a pause.
"Well?" Jan's voice was challenging, and Wanda nodded again.
"He'll probably hit you again," she said, and Jan sat up.
"That wasn't - "
"You're probably going to see him more often. He's your husband, you love him, you're lonely, you're not used to being alone. He'll likely get out this year, because Fury doesn't care about justice. You'll probably sleep with him a few times, and then decide you might as well try again." Wanda blinked away probabilities. She wasn't sure why Jan would go back, but the numbers were clear enough. "He'll take you back; probably because he loves you, partly because it proves what he did isn't so bad, maybe because it's points over Cap. He'll hit you again. You might leave him again." Wanda shrugged. She put down the straighteners, and picked up her eyeshadow and the little brush. The mists of probability blurred, the paths laid out again and again, certain patterns shining up bright and clear.
Jan rolled onto her back, and stared at the ceiling.
Wanda added a layer of lipstick, and blotted it; expensive lipstick, the kind they kept behind the counters, where it was hard for even Pietro to filch them. Then a little gloss. Perfect scarlet lips, dark eyes, gleaming hair.
"How do I look?" she said, and Jan looked at her, and then smiled, a little forced.
"Perfect." She hesitated. "Tony said you wanted to go shopping?"
"Yes. I need some new clothes." She smoothed a hand down the curve of her breast, solidly reinforced with kevlar. Practical, the Captain had assured her, but it wasn't as flattering as her old costume. "Quite a few, I think."
Steve put his feet up on the coffee table with a mild feeling of guilt, and slumped deeper into the cushions. He flicked the channels again. He should, really, be doing something useful with his time; but he'd been kicked in the face by a cyborg horse the day before, and then taken a morning-star to the shoulder. He deserved a morning off. And clearly Fury agreed, or he would have telephoned with some demands.
He smelled booze before he heard the shuffle of Tony's slippered feet, like it was too much effort to pick up his feet this early.
"What's Euler's Jewel?" he said, and Tony appeared in his peripheral vision, cocked his head. He was wearing a suit, slightly rumpled, which meant he'd been out already; a breakfast meeting, probably.
"No idea. Famous diamond, maybe?"
Steve looked up at him, assessed the little crinkles around his eyes, the quirk of his mouth.
"You know what Euler's Jewel is," he said, and Tony laughed.
"I'm pretending not to, so we can bond. Like I'm going to sit down and pretend to be interested in this godawful show of yours." He settled in right next to Steve, despite the fact the couch was ten foot long, and nudged his elbow into Steve's side. "No snacks? Man sits and watches daytime TV, man should have... nachos? Popcorn? Bonbons?"
"Shut up, Tony," Steve said, but he couldn't quite suppress the smile, which meant Tony would keep talking, the soft teasing tone that Steve liked best on him, even when he was talking the most ridiculous nonsense. At least he was dressed before noon today.
Tony shifted, and stuffed a pillow under his shoulder, and dug an elbow into Steve, probably by accident this time. A sharp elbow; he was thinner than he used to be.
"So Fury called again," he said, and Steve kept watching the screen. Tony gave a put-upon sigh. "Can I have some of your blood?"
"Why?" He glanced at Tony, who was grinning.
"I don't want any. But you let Fury have it, so I don't see why I can't have some."
"No, you'll only waste it." He bit his lip to hold back the smile, and Tony nudged him again. "What?"
"They're getting a new Black Widow. Fury's ex-wife." Steve turned to look at him. Tony was studying his neat shiny fingernails. "She's not a lot like Natasha."
"You..." he couldn't think of anything to say; Tony shrugged abruptly.
"I wasn't surprised, you know. I always knew Natasha was self-interested, wanted my money." Steve watched him; he kept staring at his hands. After a moment, Steve leaned carefully against Tony, pressing their shoulders together. Tony didn't look up, but he leaned back.
"Why did you propose to her, then?"
"Because I had the money to spare, and I wanted her. I thought it might last a few years, and that's all I need. Not too much to ask; a few years for an inheritance of a few billion." He looked up, his face uncomfortably close; Steve could see the fine tracery around his eyes that might be wrinkles one day, if he lived long enough. They vanished into smile lines as Tony tried and failed for a grin. "And she may not have loved me, but she faked it very well."
"I - " Steve swallowed, and tried to think of something, anything, to say. Tony's smile became more genuine.
"Cheer up, Steve," he said. "It's not the end of the world."
"You shouldn't have to - " Steve floundered. The idea of settling for the pretence of love, as if it were good enough; Steve shook his head, and tried to think of a way to articulate that. "You deserve better," he said finally, and Tony snorted.
"It doesn't matter." He turned his gaze back towards the television. "What are we even watching here?"
"I don't want to be in a photo shoot," Pietro snapped, and Stark gave him that maddening smile he used whenever he was saying ridiculous things and expecting people to just accept them. "You have photos of me. Use them." He considered just putting Stark outside - it was their suite, after all - but instead just threw himself down onto the couch and stared at Wanda, who was standing silhouetted against the window. He couldn't make out her expression with the light pouring in behind her.
"They're no good, Pietro," Stark said, the smoothness of his voice dragging on Pietro's nerves. "We want some nice pictures of you and Wanda and Clint." He looked at Wanda, sweeping her up and down with his gaze, and Pietro clenched his fists. He'd promised Wanda he wouldn't hit Stark, that they could stay here, but when he looked at her like that - "You can tell the interviewer all about how you saved the world. Twice."
"Well, we did."
"Of course you did," said Stark, transferring his gaze back to Pietro. "Clint may joke, but I know that we couldn't have done it without you, and we couldn't have done it without Wanda. You're invaluable team members, and the interview is to stress that."
"I don't see why we have to perform for humans," Pietro muttered, pleasure warring with anger. He didn't need Stark's compliments.
"I'm sure mutants read Time as well," said Stark, and smiled again. "Anyway, I won't take up any more of your valuable time, Pietro, I'm sure you have brooding to be getting on with." He retreated, and Pietro waited until the door shut before calling him a few choice names.
Wanda had turned her back, and was staring out of the window. After a moment, he got up and went to her; she didn't look at him, and he gently hooked the curtain of hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear. She looked different, dressed up in a ridiculously fragile shade of blue, a skirt revealing her slim ankles. She was wearing sandals. He'd never seen her dressed quite so... impractically. She looked like any human off the street.
"I don't like it when you're like him," she said in a small voice, and Pietro slipped his arm around her waist. Him, said in that tone, meant only one person. She turned into his embrace and grabbed handfuls of his shirt - the pink shirt Janet Pym had insisted he wear, because his uniform wasn't good enough - and pressed her face into his shoulder. He stroked her glossy hair; something had happened to that, too, the straggly ends blunt under his fingers.
"I'm nothing like him. I promise," he murmured against her ear, and felt her shiver. There was an ache in his knees, as if the bullets Magneto had put there had left their ghosts behind.
He remembered, worse than the pain, Wanda's tear-streaked face.
"Of course you're not." She took a gulping breath. "I know that. You're not cruel."
"But I don't see - "
"When they look at us, they see him. Everyone knows about him. This is our chance, Pietro." She slipped her fingers into his hair, resting her thumbs along his cheekbones, holding him so he couldn't escape her dark gaze. "We were only children, then. But we turned away, and we fought him and we saved the world, and then we saved America. We want the world to look at us, and see Wanda and Pietro."
"Good mutants," he said bitterly, and she shook her head.
"Ultimates," and there was a gleam in her eye, something new and unfamiliar. "Heroes."
"I don't want to change," he said stubbornly. He didn't want Wanda to change.
"You didn't even choose that haircut." Wanda curled a finger through his hair, tugging gently. "You just copied his. Copy someone else's."
"There's nothing wrong with my hair," snapped Pietro, and she bared her teeth at him, tightening her grip almost painfully.
"It looks like his." Pietro shook his head, wincing at the tug on his scalp.
"Of course it does!"
"It doesn't have to have the same cut, and you don't have to wear that expression. Like you hate everyone."
"I could never hate you," he promised. Wanda made a frustrated noise.
"Of course not! But I don't want you hating anyone. I want us to be happy, and have friends, and have a home. I want to belong!"
"You belong with me!" said Pietro. "Aren't I enough?" His voice rose to a whine, and her eyes went soft and she snuggled closer. He hunched down to nestle his head in the curve of her neck. She smelled like home, same as always, even if the feel of thin silk against his cheek was unfamiliar. Wanda could never leave him. They were twins, after all.
"I never want to be apart from you, Pietro," she whispered, her hand smoothing over his cheek. "But I like the world, and I want to live in it and love it. And I want it to love us. Cut your hair, brother, please. Be as little like him as you can; because I never want to look at you and see him. I never want to see him again."
Steve patrolled idly round the grounds, checking... things. Their were foxgloves blooming, and the fountain was still making that odd hiccuping gurgle. A problem with the water pressure, Tony had said. There were birds singing, and altogether the garden looked very beautiful. If it wasn't for the distant hum of traffic, he could almost believe he wasn't in the city at all. It reminded him of France, a little, the sunlight on the beautifully laid-out gardens, the serene white bulk of the house. Looking at it you could forget the wreckage and madness that was outside the grounds.
Not that New York was exactly occupied France, even after the invasion.
As soon as things settled down, he should find an apartment and move back out. Living here was... a stopgap. He could have some peace in his own place; no Tony bothering him, or Clint wandering about with that gaunt, wounded expression, or awkward encounters with Jan in the halls.
He wandered along the avenue of trees - they were clipped tiny ones at the far end of the garden, larger closer to the house, a forced perspective trick to make the garden seem longer. Jan had flown out out there once and posed, tiny, between the two smallest trees.
He'd been so happy to move in with Jan, to have company in the long evenings. To have someone to love, again.
Of course, now Hank was in captivity - maybe she'd come to her senses. Maybe they could find a place together, try again. She had to be over him.
As if in answer, he heard her voice, and he was moving into cover even as he pinpointed her location; sitting on the porch. He used the shadows of the trees to slink along until he reached a small sunken garden, with a curved stone bench and a reflecting pool. A good place to hide; he sat on the bench, as if he were watching the fish, and listened. Jan's soft murmur, then Wanda's giggle; he lifted his head and peered through the bushes that edged the hollow, and they were on the porch, heads bent together over a book. Surely even those crazy dames couldn't be giggling over math.
He could almost make out the words - he stepped onto the bench, then out and into a crouch, and skulked along behind a row of pink and purple flowers before taking up station behind a tree. He was scoping out a route closer when a flash of motion caught his eye behind the corner of the porch, a spray of dust - he followed the line of it, and there was Pietro. Spying on Wanda and Jan, which was - it was pretty pathetic.
Steve spun on his heel and stalked away.
"What are you doing?" said Pietro, and Clint didn't look up. He'd expected privacy in the gun room; it wasn't exactly a high traffic. Clint suspected Tony had equipped it especially for his benefit, although he wasn't about to ask. If Tony wanted to spend money on Clint, let him. It was a drop in the ocean for him, but for Clint, it was all the glossy high-tech bliss of SHIELD facilities, all to himself.
"Cleaning my guns." Pietro tutted at the statement of the obvious, and Clint felt the soft shift of air that meant superspeed had been used. Pietro would be - Clint looked up and scowled at him, and Pietro cocked his head.
"How did you know I was over here?"
"I'm a marksman," he said curtly. "I pay attention." Pietro's eyes lit, and he vanished; Clint turned his head, with the vague feeling that he shouldn't be humouring Pietro. "How long have I worked with you? Of course I can keep track."
"I thought you didn't notice me." He put his hands on his hips and glared. "You always say I'm no help."
"Well." Clint shrugged. "Maybe you're a little bit of help. Sometimes." His mouth pulled a little bit, in an attempt at a smile, before he turned back to the guns, a fearsome array of gutted weaponry. His hand hovered over a little black derringer, sleek and glossy. Natasha had given it to him for his last birthday.
It was a good little gun, though; she'd had taste in weapons despite her dislike for the bow. He picked it up and began wiping it down. Pietro paced about behind him, occasionally blurring into superspeed.
"Stop fidgeting, Pietro." Clint paused, considering. "Hey, get me a beer." The words had barely left his mouth when a beer was dangled in front of his nose. "Thanks." Pietro crouched and watched as he drank. At least he didn't care if Clint drank around his guns. Cap was afraid he'd have an accident. Tony, he thought, was afraid he'd have a purpose.
"I really thought it would be you guys who betrayed us," he said, and Pietro scowled. "I thought you were going to roll over on us for some kind of mutant supremacy thing."
"Oh, we were." Pietro's scowl smoothed away, and Clint shook his head. Pietro was really a piece of work. "But Wanda and I agreed this was better."
"Saving the world." Pietro's fingers wandered idly towards a clip, and Clint grabbed it. God knew what Pietro would do with bullets. Push them through people at superspeed, probably. "We can wait for mutant supremacy. It's only a matter of time, after all. And some of you primates aren't so bad, I suppose." He smiled at Clint, as if he expected him to be pleased, and Clint tried not to show that he was.
"You know, I think you guys are still primates."
"Everyone knows what I mean."
There was a pause. Clint fitted the derringer back together and levelled it at Pietro, who looked back at him calmly.
"Could you dodge at this range?"
"Before the bullet left the barrel. Maybe before you finished pulling the trigger. You didn't load it." Clint snorted and laid it down. Pietro edged forward, a little bounce on his feet, and looked about him before speaking again. "Wanda says I should cut my hair. She says I look like my father."
"You do. He's an asshole. I have some arrows set aside just for him." Wooden shafts and glass heads; let the bastard try his powers on those. He'd need to have a bow with no metal parts, though, and he didn't have the space to carry an extra as standard. He should talk to Tony about getting a good compound bow with no metal parts.
"So should I cut my hair?"
"I don't care, Pietro," Clint said, and Pietro tipped his head, nibbling on his lower lip.
"I could shave my head like you do." He frowned when Clint sniggered. "What?"
"Nothing. Why don't you just ask the barber to make you look different?"
"Will that work?"
"I expect barbers get special training, Pietro, I just shoot things."
Pietro watched him for a while, as if he expected Clint to do something amusing. Clint tried to clean his guns in a boring fashion, and suppressed the urge to talk about them. Sometimes he'd let the boys watch him, and given them gun safety lectures. He'd been thinking about maybe taking them down to the range next year, if Laura let him.
"Do you want another beer?" Pietro said finally.
"Yeah," and by the time Clint reached out, Pietro was already offering him the bottle.
"Well, that went well," said Tony to the back of Steve's head. For reasons as yet undetermined, he was watching the shopping channel; Tony was pretty sure that whatever a Bowflex was, Steve didn't need one. Steve grunted, which in his primitive language probably meant 'fascinating, tell me more'. Tony obliged. "Pietro looks positively space-age with all those silver spikes on his head, and he even smiled at the reporter. And Wanda is adorable, she's becoming quite the little charmer. Sometimes she even looks at me like I'm not a trained monkey." He settled down on the couch next to Steve, leaning against him. Steve shifted to accommodate him, which was friendly. Sometimes Tony had hopes of turning him into a civilized being.
"It went well, then." Steve didn't shift his eyes from the mysterious apparatus being demonstrated on-screen. It seemed to have something to do with abs, which meant Steve definitely didn't need one. His abs had their own Facebook page, which Tony assumed he wasn't aware of.
"They compensated almost entirely for Clint throwing up out of the window, and I think I persuaded the reporter to be kind about his little difficulties. Given recent events." That caught rather more of Steve's attention; he turned to give Tony a disapproving look, as if it would somehow transmit back to Clint.
"Someone should talk to him," Steve said, and it was was quite clear that by 'someone', he didn't mean 'Steve'. "What if he's drunk when the call comes?"
"Well, if you think I can make that argument sound anything but totally hypocritical... I was drunk when the call came, and I coped fine." He smiled, and Steve's eyes narrowed, consideringly.
"No you weren't," he said. "You got drunk on the way."
"How - " Tony stopped, torn between amusement and irritation. Still, he supposed that was why he liked Steve; full of surprises. He went with amusement, and his smile brought an answer on Steve's lips.
"Your medication schedule. You don't really drink that early, just walk about sniffing it. I guess you didn't take your pills that day?" With Steve's thick skull when it came to reading people, it was easy to forget how well he could put events together. Tony sighed, theatrically.
"No, I went for the booze. I decided it would be unwise to fly Iron Man Six while mixing my chemicals. Besides, they make me smell... unpleasant." Even that crack hadn't made it easy to hit Natasha. It should have been easy, after that, but it had taken him all the way down the stairs to work up the... not courage. He really, really hadn't wanted to hurt Natasha. He pushed closer into Steve, and Steve reached over and patted his shoulder in a way that was probably meant to be comforting. Even Steve could recognise unhappiness when it tried to crawl into his lap.
"I think that's the cancer," said Steve, and his tone was trying for comforting.
"You're supposed to tell me I smell fine," Tony mumbled, and as they were apparently on good enough terms to comment on each other's smell now, he put his head down on Steve's shoulder.
Steve shrugged, gentle enough not to jostle him. A moment later, Tony rolled his head to squint up at him.
"Wait, you can smell cancer?"
"You smell fine, Tony." A little too late, really.
"Natasha said she could smell the chemotherapy." It was really not entirely comfortable knowing that people could smell it on him. He'd hoped, after the next round of chemotherapy, he could start in with the women again, but if it wasn't the chemotherapy, but the death they could smell...
"Maybe. It's not nasty or anything."
"You're a comfort." Tony sighed, and then Steve shifted again, resettling Tony into the crook of his shoulder, his arm resting along the back of the couch. Not really a hug, but it was... comforting. Somewhat.
"You smell fine." Steve frowned. "Except when you have a hangover, then your sweat smells bad."
"Right." Tony shut his eyes, and listened to Steve's slow heartbeat.
"I was too fast for Thor," said Pietro, and Clint grunted, taking aim at the target. Dull work, easy work, but it kept his hand in, kept him accustomed, and he didn't feel like going in to the SHIELD building, when he could be out here on the green velvet lawn, soaking up the midsummer sun. Didn't want to see SHIELD agents looking at him with pity; even Pietro, self-absorbed as a cat, was an improvement.
"Only when you thought he'd been slapping Wanda around. You're not usually that fast." A weird stereo effect from Pietro's indignant snort, as he moved from one side of Clint to the other.
"Well, you're not a God." He put his fists on his hips. His new hair was really pretty funny; when he puffed out his chest like that, the whole thing resembled a cockatoo. "And I ran that foreign woman down for your benefit, you ungrateful ape."
"Sure you did, you're always such a help," said Clint, and then he spun and put a shot into the ground between Pietro's feet; shifting air, and Clint shut his eyes, pointed, and fired. He was aware enough to keep the gun down, so a miss wouldn't go too far.
"Huh," and Clint opened his eyes. Pietro was still, tapping one foot on the pristine lawn. "There." He pointed to the little eruption of grass where the bullet had gone in. "Missed by about a foot. That's pretty close." He gave Clint a thoughtful look.
"I'm a marksman. Shooting things is my job. Now will you stop bothering me?" Clint turned back to the target, but Pietro kept talking.
"I can run faster than bullets; but inertia, you know. Wanda would be able to tell you the physics, but dodging bullets isn't as easy as it looks. If a bullet's aimed for my start point, it's not a problem; but if it's aimed for where I'm going..." Pietro stared down at the bullet hole, and Clint squeezed off a few more shots. "Hey," Clint felt the gentle prod of Pietro's boot at his calf. "Hey, shoot me again."
"Pietro, I'm not going to take pot shots at you."
"What if we meet another speeder, like that one? You were helpless."
"Shut up." Clint looked over his shoulder at Pietro; he was smiling.
"We should practise," he said, like it wasn't an incredibly stupid idea.
Jan flipped over another page of the latest report from Fury, and laid it on the stack between the toast-rack and the coffee pot. After a polite five-second interval, Steve picked it up, ran his eyes over it, and then laid it back on the pile and waited for the next, all without stopping the steady movement of fork between mouth and plate. It was a particularly annoying trick; he'd be able to recite most of the page if asked, too.
"What does dear old Nick have to say for himself?" said Tony, wandering in with a glass clasped to his chest like a security blanket. Jan gestured to Steve, who shrugged.
"Nothing new yet. Why does he send us these reports?"
"To take up time," Tony said. He leaned against Steve's chair and ruffled his hair. Steve hunched down and scowled, but let Tony smooth it back into place. Jan turned another page; when Steve reached for it, Tony poked him in the ribs.
"I can get you copied in on these, you know."
"It doesn't really matter," he said vaguely. "I'm sure Jan will tell me anything I need to know." He scanned the page idly, then put it down and turned to look at the door. After a few seconds, Jan caught the faint sound of footsteps, and then Wanda appeared.
"Do you like my hat?" She struck a pose, and Jan smiled.
"You haven't straightened your hair." Wanda was also wearing far lighter make-up than usual, which suited the straw hat and white sun dress.
"Ringlets take even longer than straightening." She fluffed her hair over her shoulders. "But I like it, I think."
"You look breathtaking," said Tony approvingly. "Would you like me to build you a petit Trianon in the grounds?" He coiled one ringlet round his finger, and Wanda put her lashes down and smiled. Pietro appeared from nowhere, glowering like the demon king in a pantomime, and glared at Tony.
"I'm going to read in the garden," Wanda said. "Would you like to come, Jan?" She started collecting up Jan's papers without waiting for an answer, and Jan decided not to argue. She hooked her arm in Wanda's, and they sauntered out onto the terrace. The green grass and blue sky were gaudy in the bright sunlight.
"I love living here," said Wanda dreamily as they descended the shallow steps to the path. "I feel like a princess."
"It needs peacocks." Jan looked about; the garden was somehow too perfectly maintained for a fairytale. Fairytale gardens should ramble. "And banners, and maybe a knight on a white charger."
"And a dragon. And perhaps a wicked sorceress." Wanda took a few dancing steps forwards, throwing out her hands; little flecks of light sparkled around her. "Could I be Maleficent?"
"Not dressed like that," said Jan. "Maybe in your costume."
"I've been thinking about something a little more dramatic, now Pietro and I are publicly on the team." Wanda returned to take Jan's arm again. "Something with more red. A cloak. I am the Scarlet Witch, after all. I'll co-ordinate with Cap and Tony. Especially if Pietro stays in his greys."
"Red is nice," Jan said. At least the Wasp name meant her costume colours were decided for her. No one else on the team wore yellow.
There was a big sun hammock hung in a copse of trees near the corner of the house; Wanda hopped into it, and then tossed out an empty bottle.
"I hope Tony was alone out here."
"He hasn't brought any women back here since we arrived. I think he's still..." Jan trailed off, and shrugged. Wanda patted the cushions beside her, and after a moment Jan scrambled in. She settled shoulder to shoulder with Wanda, who opened her book and then laid it face down on her chest. Jan arranged her papers carefully, and then settled back to ignore them.
"He was in love with Natasha," Wanda said thoughtfully. "But she wasn't who he thought she was. He's still mourning her, though."
"Tony's..." It was hard to know what to say about Tony. He always smiled at her, easy and apparently untroubled. "He's mourning Jarvis, too, I guess. And maybe... maybe he's mourning what he thought they had. Their marriage. The person he was going to be."
"It's sad," said Wanda, and Jan turned her head to look at her. Her eyes were shut; Jan could see the carefully graded shades of her eyeshadow, from a deep brownish-pink near her dark lashes to a pale shimmer under her equally dark brow. Jan tugged gently on a ringlet, watched it spring back into place, and Wanda's pink lips curved.
"Do you think..." Jan bit her lip, and didn't finish the sentence.
"Think what?" Wanda opened her eyes, and Jan sighed.
"I don't know. It was cruel of Natasha, to pretend she loved him."
"Maybe she did love him."
"She almost..." Almost killed him, she didn't say, and turned away and settled onto her back. Wanda wriggled beside her, and pushed an arm under her shoulder and pulled her round, till they were nose to nose, slipping her hat over their faces so they were in cool golden dimness like the inside of a flower. Jan had been inside flowers, come out golden with pollen and left tiny scented hand prints on Hank's cheek when she gave him kisses.
"My father loved us," Wanda said. "Pietro says he didn't. Pietro says he never really loved us, or he wouldn't have hurt us. That's not true. People hurt the people they love all the time. People think they're safe with the people they love, and when they're not safe they think it wasn't really love, and then they still love and they lie to themselves that they must be safe."
Wanda closed her eyes again, her breathing a little rough.
"I don't love my father," she said in a tiny voice. Her hand folded around Jan's, and Jan watched her eyelids tremble with the movement of her eyes beneath. "We tried so hard to be good for him. And then I realised it would never be enough. Never. It wasn't us. It was him."
"I know that." Jan's mouth was dry; it was a struggle to speak. "I know that, Wanda."
"He hurt Pietro to punish me," Wanda breathed, so soft Jan could hardly hear it. "He took my love and used it to hurt me. He didn't - " she moved even closer, her lips against Jan's ear. "He never loved Pietro like he loved me," she said. "And that's why he wanted so badly to hurt me."
"You think Hank loves me?"
"I don't think it matters, really." Wanda's eyes opened, squinting as they tried to focus. "I think he'll kill you eventually."
"Did Natasha love Tony?" said Jan, and Wanda shrugged, and leaned away, lifting her hat and letting the light in. Jan rolled on to her back, and stared up at the shifting green canopy of leaves.
"I don't know," Wanda said. "I don't know love very well. I only have Pietro; and that's different."
"Oprah?" Tony sat down, and slumped against Steve's shoulder. He was wearing his robe, even though it was past lunchtime; bright blue, which Steve judged an improvement on the mauve. "God, you have such appalling taste. I bet you're in her book club."
"I was for a bit," said Steve, and Tony snorted. He smelled of - Steve sniffed carefully.
"Stop smelling me. I haven't had a drink yet." It was true as far as Steve could judge. He smelled of expensive soap and spearmint toothpaste, and the musty subtle smell of his sickness, that reminded him slightly of Bucky.
"You've only just gotten up?"
"Didn't feel like it today. Still don't, really. I can't stand this hot weather. And I can't have a drink for at least half an hour after my pills." Steve put a hand to his neck. Pulse normal, temperature a little up. The hollows under his eyes were too pronounced, though. "Stop that." Steve wrapped his hand over the back of Tony's neck, gentle as he could, and Tony made a surprised noise. "Okay. Keep doing that." He pushed his face into Steve's shoulder and made a contented noise when Steve patted him.
Steve rubbed his thumb carefully over the fine smooth skin, tiny bristles of hair at the nape - Tony had someone who came and trimmed his hair every week. They did things to his nails as well, that left them smooth and shiny, worked on his hands, although they couldn't remove all the engineering callouses. Steve had noticed that Tony's feet were rather better kept than his hands, but in general Tony was as carefully cared for as his house.
"Hm." Tony picked up Steve's other hand and put it on his shoulder. Steve rubbed obligingly at the tight muscles, and Tony sighed.
Tony eased very slowly into his lap, head still buried in his shoulder, and Steve didn't object. He could tell himself it was just nice to be close to someone, the weight over his thighs, warm smooth skin and cool silk under his hands. Tony moaned and stretched, dull cracking noises coming from his spine, and Steve ran a hand down the line of his back, the shift of muscle pleasing. Tony had definitely lost weight. Steve would have to - have to do something, Tony couldn't go out and fight running purely on expensive booze. Tell Jan, maybe. She was team leader, after all.
Tony licked him, and Steve's hands stilled.
"Don't play shocked now," Tony mumbled into his neck. "Shut your eyes."
Steve closed his eyes, and returned to petting Tony's back. Tony wriggled, and panted, and Steve heard the rhythmic sound of skin on skin. Tony mouthed carefully along the line of his pulse, too gentle to leave a mark, and after a minute or two a wavering groan sounded. The rustle as Tony wiped his fingers clean on his robe, and then Tony rubbed their cheeks together, affectionate, as if he didn't quite dare a kiss. Maybe he thought Steve wouldn't let him.
"Endorphins are better than painkillers." Tony's voice slow like he'd drunk half a bottle of whiskey. He shifted sideways, sprawled onto his belly on the couch, and yanked at Steve's pants. Steve kept his eyes shut, rested his hand on the back of Tony's neck.
"There's no need," he said, but he was relieved when Tony ignored him. Only the wet sound of his mouth broke the silence, and Steve bit his lips to suppress his own noises so he could listen. Sloppy and shameless, and he - Steve tried not to think about it too much, just concentrated on the way it felt, not looking down at the pale exposed skin of Tony's nape under his hand. He'd assumed, on the occasions he'd considered it, that Tony would be good at this, that he'd - Steve squeezed his eyes shut, and wished he could, just for a little while, stop thinking.
He was able to keep silent, but he threw his head back and arched his hips, and Tony patted his thigh encouragingly. Then he wiped Steve clean on his robe, the slick silk making him shiver, and zipped him up all neat.
"Jesus, I need a drink," muttered Tony. "Do I have come in my beard?" Steve opened an eye, and then reached out to wipe a few white spots from his chin. "Thanks." He belted his robe, and shambled off towards the kitchen. Steve stared, unseeing, at the television.
"Pietro's looking for you," said Wanda, and Clint grunted and took another drink, wishing he could be bothered to fetch more ice for it. He was surprised a man like Tony didn't have a minibar in his library; maybe there was one hidden behind a bookcase. Wanda leaned further into his field of vision. "He's out in the garden."
"Pietro is perfectly capable of coming and finding me himself." Why stop at a minibar, in fact? Pull on the right book, and the fireplace could rotate to reveal an entire cocktail bar complete with a waitress dressed as a bunny girl. He should suggest it to Tony. He looked up at Wanda, who was blurring like Pietro. Pietro, right. "In fact, I saw him looking in at the window an hour ago."
"Hm." Wanda crouched down, folding her arms on the the arm of the chair and resting her chin on it. She looked up at Clint through her long lashes. Pretty, Wanda was so lovely to look at, but there was a certain steel in her big dark eyes. Clint touched her smooth hair, and she obligingly tilted her head into the curve of his palm. "Pietro's very lonely, you know," she said earnestly, and Clint snorted.
"Pietro?" Her skin was like silk, Jesus, it was a cliche but he couldn't think of any other way to describe the glide of it under his fingers.
"Well, we only have each other. And it would be nice to... " she nibbled on her lower lip. "Well, just to be able to spend time with people. Healthy, I think. And he likes you."
"Pietro doesn't like anyone but you."
"No, no. He didn't like - " she hesitated tactfully, and Clint gritted his teeth. "But I think being part of a team, you know, one that's..." she put a hand forward, and patted him on the thigh. "Please?"
He was very tempted, for a second, to lift her into his lap and see how far she'd go to persuade him. But he thought of Laura -
"Wanda," he said, grouchily. "Go away."
She folded her hand round his and tugged, and he let her pull him to his feet, because Wanda was stubborn. She might just drag him wherever she wanted him to be, or turn him into a pussycat and carry him.
What did cats think about all day? Maybe that wouldn't be so bad.
"Come and have lunch with us," she said, and he put his arm around her shoulders as she turned him towards the door. His knees felt unpleasantly liquid; maybe some food was a good idea. Pietro was loafing outside the library door, and he gave Clint only a cursory glare, which was positively friendly considering Clint was draped over his sister. He moved in close, and Clint put his other arm over him. Keeping his footing during the walk to the garden took all his concentration, and then he was deposited on the grass, propped against a tree. He seemed, weirdly, to be attending some kind of team picnic. He squinted through his haze at Thor and Jan chatting away, and then turned to Wanda, who gave him a sandwich.
"My glasses," he said, and Pietro vanished, then reappeared, scowling.
"They're hanging on your collar, idiot."
"Oh." Wanda giggled and picked them up and put them on his face. His vision got clearer; it still felt blurry. He looked down at his sandwich as Wanda settled herself against his shoulder, and Pietro flung himself down and put his head in her lap. Clint took a deep breath of the hot still air and wondered if this was, perhaps, a particularly vivid dream.
"Afternoon, Clint." Cap sat down on his other side, looking reassuringly Cap-like and solid. "How're you doing?"
"Fine." He took a bite of his sandwich before he could be forced to talk more. Not that Cap was so bad to talk to, if you had to talk to anyone; he knew better than to try and make Clint talk about his feelings. The sandwich tasted weird. "Where's Stark?" he tried, and Cap's usual expression of amiable neutrality congealed over.
"I don't know," he said curtly. "I'm not his keeper."
"I'm not Tony's keeper either." Thor beamed at them from across the array of sandwiches and - were those cupcakes? Had someone baked cupcakes? Clint had a sudden vision of Thor in a pink pinny, wielding a wooden spoon, and took a huge bite of his sandwich. He clearly needed to soak up some booze. "Tony had a meeting."
"Should he be working so much right now?" Jan looked from Thor to Cap. Cap shrugged and looked away; Thor put his hand on Jan's shoulder.
"Try and stop him," Thor's voice was kind. "What else is he going to do?"
"Can't you do something?" said Clint, and everyone looked at him. He focused on Wanda's pansy-violet eyes. "With the... hex. To help his chances."
"Throw hex spheres into his brain?" Her eyebrows arched.
"That's a no, huh."
"If I could, I would." She gave him a tiny smile. "If I could, I'd fix everything, but I don't want to - break things. Brains are - they're so complicated."
"Sorry," Clint put his arm around her and squeezed. "I know you would."
Cap was still staring blankly into the middle distance, as if he was pretending he was somewhere else. Clint tried to think of something pleasant and uncontroversial to say, and then gave it up as a bad job and watched Wanda tickle Pietro's nose with a blade of grass.
Steve concentrated on the food while Wanda fussed over Clint and Jan talked politics with Thor. It was probably a good idea to eat out here; most of their informal team meetings had been dinner at Clint's house, with Laura trying new recipes every week, with varying levels of success. Tony had brought ridiculously expensive wine and attempted to get everyone as drunk as he liked to be; Wanda had hiccuped hex spheres once, and Steve had had to excuse himself to go to the bathroom and snicker. She didn't like to be laughed at.
Steve'd played ball with the kids when the weather was nice, hot summer days just like this. They'd been just the right age to be in awe of him, and listen to him tell stories about the War.
He excused himself as soon as he could, and heard Thor trailing after him; he didn't look around. If Thor wanted to talk, well, he was right there.
If he said a word about Tony, Steve was going to knock him on his ass; the look Thor had given him -
Thor gave in when Steve started up the stairs.
"Captain?" he said, and Steve turned and looked down at him. He was looking up with that wide, innocent gaze that'd have you swearing he could never raise a hand in violence. "You haven't apologized for leading the team out against me."
"No, and I haven't complained about being brought in by SHIELD agents myself." He set his jaw and gave Thor his best military asshole face. "We make the best decisions we can on the information available."
"And what about loyalty, to a brother in arms?" He widened his eyes mournfully, and for a second Steve wrestled with a laugh; but training won, and he just deepened his scowl.
"Don't give me that. You left the Ultimates, you can't claim brotherhood when it suits you."
"A good answer," said Thor solemnly, although Steve could see the crinkles around his eyes that meant he was trying not to grin. "I hope we may be better comrades, in the future."
Clint laid out the last caltrop, settling it securely on the close-cropped turf, and looped the thread over the uppermost spike. Twelve; he'd have to remember to collect them all afterwards, he'd get hell if anyone stepped on one of these. Even Stark would likely muster up some genuine annoyance with a nail through his foot.
Pietro was hovering over him, so close Clint could feel his breath. Clint elbowed him, and he grunted but didn't move.
"So I pick up these." Pietro tested the point of the caltrop with his finger, and then tapped the thread. "And you have to try and shoot me."
"Pick them up without setting off the alarms," said Clint, and Pietro nodded, tugging the thread until a sharp beep sounded.
"Okay. Are you ready?"
Clint took his time loading the gun, getting ready. He'd get one, maybe two shots off. A little adjustment to his goggles to compensate for the sun; very little wind, not that it really mattered at this range.
"You sure no one's close?" he said, and strained his senses to detect Pietro's movement as he blurred for a second.
"Everyone's busy." Pietro bounced a little on his toes. "Ready?"
Clint cocked the gun, and gave Pietro his best shit-eating grin. Pietro actually smiled back, like he was excited to be shot at.
"Ready," he said.
"Moping?" said Tony, and Steve opened one eye, and made a mental note to lock his bedroom door in future. He wasn't moping, anyway, he was just getting some extra rest. He and Clint had been up half the night transporting a stick of flash memory from SHIELD to the Baxter Building by way of a running gun battle, and he deserved a nap. There was no moping.
"What do you want?" he said, and Tony shut the door behind him.
"Company." He put one knee on the bed next to Steve. When Steve just looked at him, he smiled, and threw his other leg over Steve's waist.
"I don't think so," but he put his hands on Tony's knees, feeling his heart flip. He'd thought about Tony's mouth far too much recently. Tony flopped over, and put his head on the pillow next to Steve's. He wasn't hard.
"C'mon, Steve, talk boring to me." Tony's breath was warm against his cheek. "It's not like you're getting any elsewhere. Jan's still wailing for her demon lover." Steve's grip tightened, and he felt Tony's muscles twitch, and his breath catch. Steve let go, and let his hands fall to the bed, loosely curled.
"I don't know why you think getting me to beat on you is going to get you laid." Tony just snickered. "You know how I feel about that kind of thing."
"Maybe I like that kind of thing." Steve shrugged, and Tony just lay there, as relaxed as if Steve was a pillow. After a while, Steve put up a hand to rub Tony's back, and he sighed. "I liked Natasha," he said, muffled against Steve's neck. "She was vicious and funny and she didn't give an inch. Unkind people are a lot of fun, you know. You should have heard what she said about you."
"Glad I didn't." Steve rubbed circles between Tony's shoulder blades, feeling the muscles twitch and jump. It was far easier to read Tony's moods like this than from watching his expression.
"I thought she was jealous of you; I guess she was just trying to separate me from people." He bit gently at Steve's throat, and Steve swallowed, and tried to ignore his body's response.
"Right." He managed to say it without a tremor in his voice. Tony was quiet a bit longer, and Steve drummed his fingers idly.
"I shouldn't have a drink for another half-hour," Tony said, and Steve sighed.
"What are you after, exactly?" and Tony lifted his head and grinned. Spoiled brat. Steve smiled back, reluctantly.
"Roll me over," Tony directed. "Hold me down."
Steve gripped Tony's biceps, and hesitated. Then he rolled Tony over, held him still with care, like a moth cupped in his hands; it was difficult not to think of him as breakable, out of his iron shell. Tony pulled at his grip, struggled, and then tipped his head back.
"Bite me," and his voice was throaty. "You just need to distract me for a bit, Steve, come on."
He left pink marks up the column of Tony's throat, probably not enough to bruise, and then bit quite hard at his earlobe. Tony made soft urgent noise and squirmed under his hands.
"What now?" Steve breathed against his ear, and Tony laughed a little.
"You going to do whatever I say?" he said, and Steve fought to keep his breathing even, tried not to think too much about the things Tony might ask him to do.
"I could just hold you here for the next half hour," he said. "It's not like I get tired." Tony turned his head, and kissed him on the cheek.
"Hey, Steve," he said quietly, and Steve shut his eyes. "Give me a kiss."
Wanda drifted by, in a cloud of scent, and waved her fingers at him. Clint gave a slight gesture back, and she smiled sweet as sugar. Pinks today, and the smell of roses. She didn't seem curious as to why he was prowling the second floor landing in his combat gear.
He could hear Cap and Stark talking; he increased his pace, not wanting to get dragged into their squabbles. Soft down the back stairs, and the warm air was very still, even with all the windows opened.
Clint adjusted his goggles, and padded slowly down the hall, placing each step as gently as he could on the tiles. He could hear the soft murmur of Wanda's voice somewhere outside, she must have gone down the main stairs, and there was a scent of burnt metal that was Thor, close by. The library, probably. He tried to clear his mind, just feel his surroundings, the movements -
It was the change in air pressure that alerted him, or maybe it was the sound of his feet, or maybe just instinct, but his arm jumped and he fired into empty space that was suddenly filled with Pietro, squawking and tumbling out of the air to fetch up the foot of the stairs. They stared at each other for a moment, wide eyed.
"Caught my foot in the rug," Pietro said breathlessly, and Clint nodded.
"We should do something about that," he kicked at it, and then frowned. His eyes tracked a line of dark spots towards Pietro, who was looking down at his leg. "Uh, Pietro."
"I think," said Pietro.
"I shot you," said Clint.
"Only because I tripped!"
"You tripped because I shot you." Pietro caught his breath, and then snickered.
"I can't believe you shot me!" he said, and Clint tried to wrestle back a laugh, and failed. They both started to giggle.
"Pink suits you," Jan said, and Wanda preened and smoothed her flowing skirt, the colour rich and soft as peony petals. Posed in the doorway, the light gleaming off her bare shoulders, she looked like a fashion shoot. Jan patted the grass beside her, and Wanda gave it a doubtful look.
"Grass stains. Let's go - " she turned her head at the sound of a muffled crack, and a thud. "What have they done now?" Her smooth brow creased, and she leaned back to peer inside. Her face went rigid.
"Wanda?" Jan scrambled to her feet.
"Pietro!" she shrieked and flew - literally flew - through the doorway in a blaze of light. Jan darted after her in time to see Clint fall over, and a bookcase fall on him. He had the presence of mind to fling away the gun before it exploded. Wanda crashed down to the floor and gathered Pietro up, tears running down her face. "Pietro. Pietro!"
Jan advanced to the foot of the stairs, and stared down at the spreading pool of blood. Had Clint and Pietro - had they fought over Wanda, perhaps? How had Clint managed to get a bullet into Pietro?
"I'm fine," said Pietro, and tried to move. "Oh, damn, he shot me!" He cast a reproachful look at Clint, and then rested his head on Wanda's bosom.
"Told you." Clint sounded winded. Jan wondered if it was wise to get him out from under the bookcase. She'd have to grow; the thing was heavy. But Wanda might decide to finish him off. Maybe he was safer under there for now. "Uh, I'm sorry though."
"No, no. I caught my foot in the rug," Pietro told Wanda, as if that somehow explained why Clint had shot him. Wanda clucked to him and patted his hair.
"So that's where all those little dents in the walls have been coming from," came Tony's voice from above. He sat down on the stairs, wrapping his robe around him, and Steve hurried down past him. He was wearing only a pair of jeans, and his skin was hot when he passed Jan, a brush of heat and scent that brought back a sharp memory of his body moving against hers. Oh she thought, and looked back up at Tony, who winked at her, then put his head down and rubbed at his temples.
"He's bleeding," said Wanda brokenly. "Oh, please - "
"It's not serious." Steve wrapped his big hands around Pietro's calf. "Jan, call - "
"Pepper," said Tony, not looking up. "She'll arrange it." Jan snapped out her phone, and hit speed dial five. Tony had been quite insistent that everybody needed Pepper's number, that they all needed it on the same number so everyone knew where to find it, and that they call her for even the tiniest of problems. It couldn't have been an easy job. Then, by the shoes Pepper wore, she was paid extremely well.
"Tony, can you - " Steve frowned up at him, then turned to call down the hall. "Thor! Can you get Clint free, please."
"Please," said Clint politely. "This is kind of heavy."
"This doesn't mean I submit to your command as a general thing." Thor popped out of the library so fast, he must have been lurking just inside the door. Waiting to make an entrance, no doubt. "Only respect for a fallen comrade - "
"Lifting now, justifications later, big man," Clint rasped, and grunted as the weight came off him. Thor put the bookcase back against the wall, and leaned down to pick a few books off Clint's back. "I'm okay. Ow."
"Pepper?" Jan said. "I'm afraid Clint shot Pietro, can you - " she winced at the sharp rattle of words. "Mansion. First floor, back stairs. Right calf. Steve says it's not serious. An accident. Okay, thank - " she sighed, and closed the phone. "She'll get someone here."
"It hurts," Pietro complained, and Wanda whimpered. "Oh, don't cry, love."
"Why did he shoot you?" She fixed a wet glare on Clint, who cringed and scuffled closer to her like a bad dog seeking forgiveness.
"It was a game," he said, and yelped as Thor picked him up and put him on his feet. "Oh, ow."
"Don't crawl about on the floor, Clint." Thor patted him on the back, and Clint winced and put a hand to his back.
"I think I may have cracked some ribs."
"Serve you right." Wanda hugged Pietro a little tighter. Clint edged up and touched her shoulder, and she made a snuffly noise but didn't do anything dreadful to him; Jan figured that was probably forgiveness.
Wanda and Clint both went in the ambulance with Pietro; Jan considered accompanying them, but just the thought of the drama made her tired. They'd cope. Steve turned to the stairs, and scowled at where Tony wasn't; after a long moment, conflict clear on his face, he went up the stairs again.
Jan didn't look to see which way he turned at the landing.
Tony stifled a yawn, took another swallow of his drink, and tried to look interested. Steve would get grumpy if he thought Tony wasn't taking team meetings seriously enough. Thor had managed to dodge all three meetings so far, with increasing ludicrous excuses, which meant Tony didn't even have anyone to pass notes to. He was apparently off fighting ice giants today, which sounded wonderfully refreshing; Tony's shirt was sticking to his back even with the Mansion's excellent air conditioning, and he felt like putting his head down and taking a nap; Steve caught his eye and glared, apparently sensing his inattention.
Tony had bought them a nice round table, and little nameplates with their codenames on. Really, what more did Steve want from him?
"I don't think we really need more members," said Jan. "Thor, Steve, Tony, me, Pietro, Wanda and Clint; seven is a good number. A few ready to give backup in case of injury would be helpful." Pietro made a grumpy noise, and Clint gave him a sheepish look.
"SHIELD is going to have a new Black Widow." Tony kept his voice as neutral as he could. Clint's hands clenched into fists, and Wanda patted his arm and rested her cheek against his shoulder. "And I understand they have other plans in motion, some of which don't even involve their continuing attempts to duplicate Steve." Steve's hands didn't clench, but Tony saw the shiver of muscle along his forearms. Tony probably couldn't get away with snuggling up to him comfortingly, though. Maybe later. "And, of course, there's Hank," Tony finished, and Jan shook her head.
"He's too unstable," she said. "We need to be able to trust each other, and Hank just doesn't have that trust. We're not even sure if he was working with the Liberators, not really. He can avoid prosecution by doing lab work for SHIELD, but we can't afford to have him active on the team." She looked at Steve, who looked down at his hands. Then she looked at Tony, holding her chin up and glaring, as if he was going to fight her.
"You're team leader." Tony made a show of making a note, and she relaxed a little. "I'll leave it to your judgement. Do you want me - "
"I already told him. He took it well enough." She nodded, and glanced at Wanda, who smiled approvingly at her. Tony looked from Jan to Wanda to Clint to Pietro, and decided that he didn't care, as long as they stopped shooting each other.
"Well." Tony glanced down at the agenda. He'd allowed for the Hank discussion to take half an hour and involve screaming and crying; it took him a second to get back on track. "Well. All right, well, there's no sign of Banner, and I don't think we really want the Hulk as a regular team member."
"No thank you," said Jan. "Now I can grow to giant size, we have enough heavy hitters." She glanced at Steve. "Right, Cap?"
He looked up at her, blue eyes widening a little, as if he was surprised to have his opinion asked.
"You, Thor and Tony for brute strength... me less so. It depends what we're facing, of course, but it seems a decent team distribution. Four flyers, a speedster, the lightning, and Wanda's powers... short of a high-grade telepath or telekinetic, I think this is the best distribution we could have." His eyes narrowed. "When you're giant, your wasp sting - "
"We can experiment with giant wasps another time," said Tony. "Pietro, you saw the doctor this morning?"
Pietro was very happy to hold forth about his injury. Clint and Wanda listened attentively, but Jan and Steve seemed more interested in giving each other awkward looks.
If Jan had finally shaken of Hank, off course... Tony shook his head. It was absolutely none of his business.
And he'd find out eventually anyway.
Tony took another drink.
As the meeting dispersed, Jan grabbed Steve's arm and held him back. He gave her a puzzled look, but shut the door behind Clint and waited expectantly.
"I want to apologise," Jan said, and Steve's look of puzzlement deepened. "I mean, for what happened. With Hank."
"Well. That was a while ago." Worry, now, his mouth setting into hard lines, the look he always got when she wanted to talk about their relationship.
"I never meant..." Jan trailed off, and turned away. She walked to the window and stared out at the sky, which was filled with yellowy clouds. Rain would be a nice change.
"Jan?" She heard Steve take a step, and turned back to look him in the eye.
"Steve, I'm sorry. I shouldn't - I shouldn't have been seeing Hank. I was cheating, I wasn't sleeping with him but I was cheating. I didn't mean to. And I'm sorry." Steve watched her intently, as if trying to lipread, or see her thoughts. He didn't look as if he was understanding, really.
"I don't - " Steve made a vague gesture, and shook his head. "I know I'm not exactly... but why him, Jan? After what he did? Am I worse than him?"
"Of course not," she said, a bit too loudly, and Steve spread his hands out placatingly. She reached out to pat his hand, and he caught her hand and held it lightly. His gentleness was one of the things she'd adored, back at the start; he always touched her with intense care, as if she were precious and fragile. But then, to him they must all seem breakable. Steve didn't have the luxury of carelessness, or losing control; if he lost his temper like Hank did -
There was really nothing to compare between Steve and Hank; only that she'd had loved them both, and didn't any more.
"Steve, it isn't about that. It's about me. Hank was - so much a part of me. Still is. I'll probably never be free of him, not totally." Steve's lips turned down, and she squeezed his hand. "I thought I was, I really did. After what happened - and then you, well, rode to the rescue, and I thought... this is how it's meant to work. I can move on." She tried a smile. "It's really hard to refuse you when you come riding in on that white horse and fix things."
"You managed it at first," Steve said, and Jan hiccuped a laugh, remembering his alarmed expression when she'd yelled at him.
"I thought... I don't know what I thought. You were kind to me, Steve. Don't think I don't appreciate that. But we should have just been friends, and I'm sorry." She made a face. "You shouldn't be so gorgeous."
"No pleasing you dames." He was smiling, just a bit, and she laughed again.
"It would have made it far easier to turn you down if you weren't so damn good-looking and determined to do right. How could someone as screwed-up as me resist? I'm just sorry I dragged you into it."
"Jan," he said firmly, and tugged on her hand. She went cautiously, and he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and hugged her. "Jan, thank you. I - you were good to me, when I first woke up, and you were - I would have been so lonely without you. I mean, I guess we screwed it up, but it was - when it was good, it was really good, and I'm glad for it. Thank you."
"You're a decent guy, Steve." She put her arms around his neck, and hung on tight, enjoying the warmth, the familiarity. Steve gave amazing hugs, really. "You deserve better than me."
"I don't." She felt his breath catch, as if holding back laughter. "Believe me, Jan, I'm pretty sure it's all downhill from here."
She thought of Tony's smirk, and laughed and stood on her toes to kiss his cheek.
"I'd say something about poor life choices, but who am I to judge?"
Steve grinned at her, easy. She thought, with a little surge of happiness, that she'd finally done it right.
Steve wandered back to his room, and found Tony there, sitting on his bed. That was... welcome, really. He leaned against the doorframe, and tried not to look too pleased. Tony was frowning, and holding a bottle of Cognac, so it was possible he was just lost. He'd drunk a fair bit during the meeting.
"You and Jan worked things out, then?" He gave Steve a sideways look, and Steve nodded.
"I think we have." Tony made a grumpy noise. "I feel... glad, I guess." Jan had looked happy with him for the first time in months, and it turned out that was just what he wanted. He couldn't really think of a way to say that without sounding like a Hallmark card, so he just shrugged. Tony scowled.
"Glad. Interesting choice of words."
"Well... it's nice to be certain. At least she's not going back to Hank. I'm not..." not worried about her he wanted to say, but Jan was his friend, of course, and he'd worry. But she was going to be okay; she didn't need him to rescue her. He smiled at Tony, who was giving him an odd look. "Really, I've known it was over for a while." Tony absently opened the Cognac, not taking his eyes off Steve, and Steve frowned. "Are you going to drink that here?"
"It's for you." Tony grinned at him. "Girl dumps you, you have a drink. Sit down."
Steve kicked the door shut, and prudently turned the lock. There was a glitter in Tony's eyes that wasn't alcohol. He sat down on the bed, and Tony straddled his thighs and tipped the bottle to his mouth. "Tony," he started, and was cut off by the burn of the alcohol. Spit or swallow, and he couldn't quite bear to spill something that expensive so he took, several great swallows. Then Tony kissed him, no taste but the bright burn, just slick texture and the roughness of his beard on Steve's numbing lips. Tony pulled back, pressed the neck of the bottle to his mouth again, and Steve drank.
By the time the bottle hit the floor, he was feeling distinctly light-headed. He was resistant to the effects, sure, but an entire bottle of brandy... Tony tugged at his belt, and stripping his clothes off was awkward, but Tony had experience in getting clothes off while drunk. Soon they were skin on skin, and Steve sighed and nuzzled into his throat. He could go to sleep like this, wrapped up in Tony's arms; but he was pretty sure if he stayed awake there was going to be sex.
"Jan told me I was too good-looking," he remarked, and Tony snickered. "Said it interfered with her judgement."
"I can entirely appreciate her position on that." Tony closed his teeth on Steve's neck, sucking in a bruise. Steve really hoped that healed up by breakfast. "Spread your legs for me."
He obediently spread his legs for Tony's nudging thigh, and made a doubtful noise when Tony's wet fingers slid down behind his balls.
"Shh," said Tony. "It's okay. You want this."
"Yeah?" said Steve, and hooked his leg up round Tony's waist. "Yeah, I guess." He bit his lip at the slick invasion of his body. Where had Tony been hiding the lubricant, anyway? Did he wander about with it in his pocket? "Jan said... that we should never have gotten involved. Should've stayed friends."
"Well." Tony rested his head on Steve's shoulder, looked up at him. "Natasha said I was sick and horrible and smelled of chemotherapy and she was revolted by me."
"That's not true," said Steve, and was rewarded by a touch that made his back arch. "Ahhh, that's - "
"Well, she was. But you're not, right?"
"You - I'm letting you - what do you think?" Steve caught his breath and tried to spread wider as the dull ache fought with the sparks of pleasure.
"Things change, that's all I'm saying."
"I don't get it." He tried to focus, but between the alcohol and the dizzying sensations, it was hard to pin down a meaning. Tony smiled, and stroked his cheek.
"No rush." He sounded like he meant it; that was all right, then. "I just want someone to like me, okay?"
"I like you." Steve put his arms around Tony's neck and pulled him down for a messy kiss. Tony laughed softly against his lips.
"I know you do. You can't do that wrong." Tony's fingers twisted one last time, then pulled free. "Let me in." The warm weight of him between Steve's thighs was nice; the feel of him pushing into Steve's body was definitely not.
"Ow. Jesus, ow, you're too big." Steve's eyes watered; this was worse than a severe sprain, not as bad as a broken bone. It sure as hell wasn't fun.
"Flatter me," Tony said breathlessly. "I always said you were uptight, but this is ridiculous. Ow back at you." Tony shoved deeper, and for a second Steve considering just throwing him off.
"Why are we doing this if it hurts?" Steve almost whined, and Tony snickered into his neck. "Ah. Ahhh." He bit his lip, and Tony stilled, breath hot and fast against his skin. The pain gradually subsided to an ache, and Tony made a pleased sound.
"Mm, that's better." Tony pulled out slowly, a dragging feel of discomfort, leaving just the end of himself in Steve. He reached down between them to smear more lube on, cool against the stretched, aching skin. The push back in was easier, smoother, and Steve scowled at the feel of his body untensing. "That's right, sweetheart, give it up."
"Don't call - ohhhh," Steve grabbed Tony's hip, and held him still. Then he rocked his hips. "Oh. Oh - "
"Hold still," said Tony. "Let me - oh, fine. Do what you want."
Steve did; it got much, much better. He didn't even care when Tony laughed at him, because he did it between urgent, needy noises and then he put his face down into Steve's neck and begged while Steve ignored him and focused entirely on getting himself off, which was fantastic.
Tony got a turn eventually, of course, and that was good too. Steve fell asleep about thirty seconds into the afterglow, and about ten seconds after Tony told him he loved him.
Steve was pretty sure that was the endorphins talking, but it was nice to hear anyway.
He woke up tense and alert when Tony whimpered; they were alone in the room, though. He looked down at Tony, who was trying to burrow into his armpit.
"Bright," he said, and Steve peeled himself away from the grabbing hands, ignoring the whining, to go pull the curtains shut. It was a clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight; at some point when they'd been wallowing in alcoholic stupors, it had rained. He dug a bottle of water out from his gym bag, and threw it at Tony.
"Drink that." He settled back down next to Tony in the dimness. Tony curled closer with a pathetic noise, and Steve sighed and opened the bottle for him.
"I'd rather have vodka." Tony mumbled.
"Well, I don't have any. I don't keep vodka in my bedroom."
"You don't have a hangover. I don't like you."
"No," said Steve absently. He wasn't suffering any ill effects from the previous night, apart from a faint stickiness on his thighs. And Tony was still here. All right, he'd just passed out drunk, but still. He ran a gentle hand over Tony's hair, and Tony made a reproving noise, belied by the way he pushed into the touch. "Don't you have pills to take?"
"Yeah, I - " Tony sat up, and then fell back, "Ow," he said again.
"I'll get them for you."
Clint leaned against the car, tapping his foot. It was tempting to leave without Pietro, let him catch up - and he would, he'd overtake Clint on the road and bang on the window all affronted - but the sun was warm, and the shifting greens and golds of the tree were nice to look at. He looked sideways at the sound of an approaching tread, and rolled his eyes at Thor, shuffling barefoot through the damp grass with a blissed-out look on his face.
Thor nodded and smiled as he passed, and Clint gave into temptation.
"Where's my wife?" he said abruptly, and Thor stopped and turned back.
"Was she of faith?"
"Christian." More or less; she went to church a few times a year and took cakes to the bake sales. Enough, surely.
"Then she will have gone to whatever afterlife the Christian faith assigns her," Thor said. "I hope she will be happy there."
"But there is an afterlife?"
"Yes. As many as there are people, perhaps." Thor spoke with utter certainty, as if he were talking about Chicago, and not some nebulous realm of angels. Clint tried to picture Laura surrounded by the rainbows and and light of Asgard; he really couldn't see it.
"So - "
"I can't give you anything the but the usual platitudes, Clint. Your wife and children are entirely beyond the reach of those who would do them harm, and you are still alive."
"I don't - " he tipped back his head to the sunlight, and shut his eyes. "All right," he said, and listened to the rustling grass as Thor shuffled away.
Jan rested her head on Wanda's shoulder, and yawned. It was still cool, here in the shadow of the house, a little damp from the rain. Soon the sun would rise high enough to shine into the garden, and then the dew would burn off and by lunchtime the path would be too hot to walk on with barefeet. Here in the hammock, though, they'd stay nice and cool.
She watched Pietro wander across the lawn; he leaned in to kiss Wanda, and Jan watched his lips touch the corner of her eye, the corner of her mouth, the point of her jaw.
"I'll be gone all day," he said seriously. "Only a second away, sister, call me if - "
"If anything happens." She turned to kiss him on the nose. "You have fun. I have my cellphone with me."
"All right." He smoothed her hair back, and then nodded to Jan, who smiled. Then he vanished.
"Where's he going?" she said drowsily.
"Going with Clint to a gun show." Wanda pushed on the tree to set the hammock swaying. "Clint's quite handsome, isn't he?"
"He's not exactly stable." Wanda hummed agreement.
"If I hold out for stable," she said ruefully, and Jan giggled a little.
"He's still... " she trailed off, and Wanda nodded.
"There's no rush. Pietro likes him, anyway. That's something." She ruffled Jan's hair. "Are you growing it out?"
"Maybe. I seem to have had short hair forever. You have such nice hair." She tugged at a stray lock, and Wanda laughed.
"It grows so slowly." Wanda wrinkled her nose. "I wish I had silver hair, like Pietro's."
"You're beautiful," said Jan, and Wanda laughed, and kissed the end of Jan's nose as if she were Wanda's sister.
Tony ambled down the hall, putting his feet down carefully so as not to jar his aching head. He could see Steve, staring down into the garden; he didn't stop, just kept on walking til his nose bumped Steve's collarbone and a big arm went round his waist. He turned his head, and tried to focus.
Jan and Wanda were lying entwined in the hammock, Wanda with a book tucked into her arm. Probably whispering delightful feminine secrets about chaos theory, bless their hearts.
"Voyeur," he said, and turned his face back in to Steve's neck, which smelled very nice; he'd found time to have a shower, and showed absolutely no signs of drunken debauchery. Even the nice hickey Tony had left was gone. He tugged down the neckline of Steve's t-shirt, and began work on a replacement, just above the collarbone.
"Jan's... pretty happy, these days," said Steve, in tones of mild surprise, and Tony snorted.
"She's a smart woman. I figured she'd get there one day." He pulled back to admire the mark he'd made, and Steve's thumb traced idle patterns on his back. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day, if he could hold off the nausea and keep his pills down. He considered the time until he could have a drink, and then sighed. "You know, I think I may be drinking too much."
He reapplied his teeth to Steve's skin as an alternative to meeting Steve's incredulous gaze.
"Really." Tony hummed agreement and bit down harder, until Steve firmly turned him and began walking him back towards the stairs.
""I mean, too much for me," Tony clarified. Steve rolled his eyes.
"Cut down, then."
"Just like that?" Tony looked sadly at the stairs, and contemplated finding somewhere else to sleep; Steve pushed him onwards, though, and he forced his legs to co-operate.
"You could join one of those programs."
"Which does Oprah recommend?" Picturing himself at some kind of support group was a surreal enough image that he lost his footing; he tottered for a second before Steve plucked him up. He was half expecting a fireman's lift, but Steve cradled him.
"Try not to be sick," he advised, and Tony made a noise he'd intended to be grumpy, but came out more gleeful as Steve took the stairs three at a time. He was still contemplating a joke about Steve-rides when he was deposited in his bed. Probably a better choice than Steve's bed, which smelled of booze and sex and Tony's sour hangover sweat.
Steve pulled the covers over him, and then slouched down next to him, chin in his hands, looking at him as if he expected to find something new and interesting there. Tony snuggled down and looked back at him.
"Are you going to stay and watch me sleep?" said Tony suspiciously, and Steve shook his head.
"You're boring when you're asleep. Call me when you wake up again." He leaned over, and kissed Tony lightly on the forehead, then the nose, and finally on the lips.
"I did brush my teeth," murmured Tony, and Steve chuckled and kissed him again, deeper. Tony considering clinging, and decided his hands weren't up to the task.
"Go to sleep," Steve said softly, and Tony shut his eyes.
Then he opened his eyes, and marked the time; he had to work out how long those hickeys lasted. Everyone needed a hobby.