Tony shut the access panel on the underside of the Quinjet and cleaned his hands on an oil rag that Spider-man passed him before giving Ororo and Jan a thumbs up. “She’s all ready to fly.”
“Excellent,” Ororo replied, summoning a wind to toss several suitcases into the open hatch. “Have you made up your mind, Tony?”
“Yeah, I decided to come along,” he said, as Tigra, Luke, and Logan entered the hangar, carting more bags.
Four of them had Tony’s trademark red and gold nametags on them. Tigra grunted as she hefted one into the Quinjet. “What did you pack in these, Tony?”
“A portable suit of armor. You wouldn’t expect me to travel for two weeks without it, would you?”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine. But you get to haul it around once we’re there.”
“No fair,” Clint whined, bringing up the rear with Steve to complete the send-off party. “You said it was a ladies trip when I asked if I could come.”
“We all agreed an exception could be made for Tony,” Ororo said.
“Why does he get a special pass?”
“Because Sfiera,” Tigra said with a grin that showed her teeth.
Tony bumped his head on the belly of the Quinjet, startled by the memory of the imposing Frost Giant that had accompanied Odin to Earth--the one who had kept insisting on seeing him thanks to Spider-Man. She was not particularly picky, and hadn’t seemed to care when she’d learned who the real Iron Man was. A man in red was a man in red, she said, and Tony was less stringy than the webby man. Tony had done his best to avoid her after that. Explaining why he didn’t want to marry her would have just been an all around awkward conversation for everyone.
But what did she have to do with anything?
Clint shot Tony a glance and said, “Ah. Gotcha.”
Which annoyed Tony--what was that supposed to mean?
“Are you okay?” Steve asked, holding out a hand to usher Tony safely from beneath the Quinjet.
Tony rubbed at the bump on his head. “Nothing an aspirin won’t fix.”
Jan rubbed her hands together in excitement. “Two whole weeks of vacation. New Zealand here we come!”
“I guess I’ll be short a basketball partner till you get back,” Steve mused.
“Well, you could always play Clint,” Tony pointed out. “But then again, he can probably make shots from across the court...so your incredible 20-0 record might be jeopardized.”
Steve smirked at him. “I think I’ll just wait until you get back, Tony.”
Steve’s hand lingered on Tony’s shoulder, and Tony wanted to do more than just say goodbye. But with the rest of the group present, his mind drew a blank on what would be appropriate. He settled for, “Throw something on my calendar for the day we get back then.”
He knew he’d start counting the days till he saw Steve again from the moment they arrived in New Zealand.
“Count on it,” said Steve.
The bachelor fortnight had been going so well, it was a shame when Clint threw a wrench into things by accidentally signing them all up for that awful dating service.
At least Batroc had agreed to scrub their data from the system after they went on a few dates as a PR stunt.
That first day, Spider-Man, Clint, Luke, and Logan had all been sent out with their initial matches. Puffed with pride, Batroc said he stood by his match results and was confident they would have a marvelous time.
When it came time to send Steve off on a date, however, Batroc frowned first at the computer monitor, then at Steve, typing away for several minutes in silence. Steve couldn’t see the screen, and he wondered if Batroc was purposefully trying to send his old enemy off on a miserable date.
As it turned out, when his date showed up to Stark Tower later that night, she was a nice, if forgettable redhead who gushed about her pet poodle and Steve’s mediocre cooking.
The next day, Steve got an email from the administrator at Lover’s Leap. One down.
Steve wrote back immediately. You didn’t say anything about multiple dates.
In response, he got a link to a celebrity gossip site, a new phone number, and a message that said, You agreed to a few--the other ladies will be so disappointed after seeing the news .
Steve’s eyes narrowed. He’d hadn’t realized Batroc meant a few dates each. Against his better judgement, he followed the link, only to find a story speculating on his love life splashed across the front page. It was replete with pictures of the previous night taken with a telephoto lens. The reporter--if they could be called that--had even managed to find the girl for an interview. “He makes the best spaghetti.”
Of all the manipulative little--! Steve let out a puff of breath. He could get through this! If solving their problem without coming to blows just meant one or two more evenings of tedious dates, then he’d grin and bear it. Grudgingly, Steve dialed the number, and within five minutes was consigned to another date with a different woman on the following night.
“I hear you’re quite the cook,” she said.
Steve glanced over at the pile of recycling and the empty bottle of knock-off Ragu sitting on top. He sighed. “Do you have any food allergies?”
Jan lay sprawled out across the longer sofa in the hotel suite, leafing through a magazine targeted at tourists. Ororo had claimed a big comfy chair by the window overlooking downtown Auckland, and Tigra was in the bathroom, brushing her fur. This meant that Tony got to stretch out on the loveseat while he perused the news, Starkphone in one hand, a mug of steaming coffee in the other.
“We have to go see the penguins down in Omaru,” Jan announced, flipping another page. “And I want to go looking for moose in the Fjordlands.”
“You can see moose in Canada,” Tony pointed out.
“Yes, but here they’re like Sasquatch.”
“Fine.” Tony shook his head, but smiled. It was a vacation, after all. Not like it would hurt to go on a wild moose chase.
He scrolled idly past the sports section, though none of the teams that he followed had played yesterday, and was about to bypass the Entertainment section when he did a double take.
As a subject frequently caught in their crosshairs, Tony made a habit of ignoring gossip sites. Today though, Steve Rogers--and his redheaded date--was their point of interest. And there were pictures of them. At the tower.
Tony’s hands shook. He was just surprised, he told himself, not angry. He’d thought that there had been a spark of something there between him and Steve. Clearly he’d been wrong. Clearly their weekly get-togethers and one-on-one basketball matches hadn’t meant the same thing to Steve.
Oh my god, I can’t believe I let him win twenty times, Tony thought hotly. Next time he was wearing the jet boots, no matter what Steve said.
“Tony? Are you feeling alright?” Ororo asked, and Tony realized that she and Jan were looking at him with concern. “You look pale.”
It was at this moment that Tigra strode into the room, towel wrapped around her long orange hair. She peered over Tony’s shoulder, and quite innocently asked. “Oh. Since when did Steve start dating?”
Ororo and Jan’s faces fell instantly.
Jan sat up straight, one hand coming up over her mouth. “Oh. Tony --”
“I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation,” Ororo said.
“What’s there to explain?” Tony felt distinctly uncomfortable with the way the women were all looking at him. “He’s not a monk. I’m just surprised he didn’t bring a lady around the tower sooner.”
The way Ororo looked at him, Tony felt as though she were seeing straight through him. Maybe she was. Her intuition about people made her a canny leader. ”No you’re not.”
Well, if the rest of them hadn’t already peeked at the mess behind the door, then they knew it was there now. “No, I’m not,” he admitted.
“Do you want to go back?” Tigra asked.
Tony shook his head in an emphatic no. “That’s the last thing I want right now.” Why cut short a lovely vacation to head back and have a conversation he wanted to avoid? “In fact, I’m going to book ferry tickets to get us down to the south island. We’re not leaving till we look for Jan’s moose,” he announced, picking up his phone and retreating to his room.
One perk to being the only man on the trip was that Tony didn’t have to share a room, and now he was glad for the privacy it afforded. There was no one to see him delete the calendar countdown in his phone, or to see him wipe his eyes.
Steve was trying to be polite. Date number four was loud. She also cackled when she laughed, which was far more frequently than Steve felt their conversation warranted. He'd always taken pride in being able to make teammates--especially Tony--laugh, but this was more than once a minute, and Steve knew he wasn't that funny.
Boy, did he miss Tony. Tony would have gotten through this effortlessly, and Steve couldn't help but envy Tony's charm. It certainly left Steve weak-kneed when it got turned on him.
And, oh dear , speaking of: his date had asked him a question, and Steve had missed it while thinking of Tony. That wasn't very gentlemanly of him.
“Sorry, I don't think I heard that right. What was the question?”
“Oh,” she cackled like it was a funny joke, “I asked if you were a dog person.”
Remembering the lengthy discourse he'd received on date number one's poodles, Steve feigned a grimace. “I’m more comfortable with cats.”
Number four’s eyes widened. “Oh, perfect. I have nine. I can't wait to introduce you to them!”
“Enough, Batroc. Four dates is more than enough. Wipe our data and let's be done with this.”
“Four?” Clint sounded incensed. “I had to go on ten!”
“Ah, but ze company, her subscribers have never been so active, mon capitaine . You are tres bien for business.”
“Your subscribers have jumped in the last two weeks,” Steve conceded, “but it's not fair to keep dangling uninterested matches in front of them. You'll start to lose them if no one gets a second date.”
Batroc cocked his mustachioed head to one side, considering Steve’s words. “You make a good point, mon frere. Yes, I will remove your information. But first…” He pulled out a folded piece of paper and handed it to Steve.
“Your last assignment, should you choose to accept. It was your original match,” Batroc explained, “which I stand by. Zere is no finer match making system in ze world!”
Steve was a little perplexed at the gesture. But maybe pride was getting the better of Batroc--maybe he was regretting the impulse that had lead him to set his old foe up on lackluster dates. Steve took the paper reluctantly, but didn't open it. There would be time for curiosity later. First he wanted to see Batroc wipe their data.
Once he was satisfied that the Leaper had kept his word, and that all data related to the Avengers had been removed from the Lover’s Leap system, Steve and the rest of his happy Avenger bachelor cohort returned to the tower.
“So now we get to go back to pizza and movies, right?” Spider-Man kicked his red and blue feet up onto the Avengers conference table.
“As long as it isn’t Robin Hood ,” Clint groaned, clutching his head. “Every single girl I went out on a date with wanted to watch some version of it. Give me a rom-com over green tights any day.”
“I don’t know what you guys are complaining about,” Luke said, not looking up from his phone.
Logan decided to swipe it from him. “Who’s Jessica?”
“None of your business.”
“Cage, did you actually meet someone?”
“Give me that back!”
At the far end of the table, Steve ignored the scuffle over the phone. He’d slipped Batroc’s piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it. Like the other contacts he’d been given, there was no name, just a telephone number that he didn’t recognize. He slipped the paper back into his pocket, and berated himself; he wasn’t sure why he’d expected anything different. The only thing Batroc’s algorithm seemed to be good at was finding women who enjoyed fawning over Steve.
Two more days till Tony and the girls got back, though. More than ever now, Steve found himself looking forward to burgers and basketball with Tony.
“Please don’t ever leave again!” Spider-Man hugged Ororo tight.
“Didn’t you enjoy having the tower to yourself?” Jan teased.
“No. It was awful. Hawkeye signed us up for a dating website, and a super villain made us go on all these dates.”
“Oh come on!” Clint protested. “It wasn’t that bad. Some of us,” he elbowed Luke, “even had a good time.”
“It was the WORST,” Spider-Man insisted. “One of the women who got my number is STILL texting me pictures of her food!” He held up his phone for Ororo, as if presenting evidence to a judge.
She took it from him and read aloud, “ It would be even yummier with you here to share. Aw, that’s cute.”
“No. She’s trying to tempt me,” he whined. “She knows I’ve been living off of pizza and spaghetti for the last two weeks.”
Ororo frowned at Steve, who held his hands up. “I had a lot of requests for pasta. It was more efficient to just make a batch in bulk.”
“He made enough to feed a whole army,” Luke added.
Tigra emerged from the Quinjet with several suitcases. “Is there any left? I’m starving.”
“Uh...plenty…But maybe we should go out to lunch as a team. You can tell us all about your trip.”
“The tower’s a mess, isn’t it?” she asked dryly.
Luke scratched at the back of his neck. “I have no idea what could have possibly given you that impression.”
“Team lunch, then?” Logan said, looking between Steve and Ororo hopefully.
“Go ahead,” Steve said. “I’ll catch up later.”
Steve was a little surprised that Tony still hadn’t emerged from the Quinjet. As their resident engineer, he was usually the one to run the post-flight checks, but today it seemed to be taking longer than usual. Steve climbed up into the aircraft to help, and found Tony fiddling with the wiring on the entertainment system. The checklist on the seat next to him was all ticked off, and looked like it probably had been for some time.
“Still up for those burgers, Tony?”
Tony jumped, and looked around at him startled. “I thought you were going with the others.”
“And miss out on time with you?” Steve smiled. “We had a date.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Tony’s face fell. “Sounds like you’ve had enough of those lately, though.”
“I’ll take a raincheck, Cap. But if you hurry, you might be able to catch the team before they leave.”
But Steve didn’t feel like chasing down the rest of the Avengers. He’d missed Tony. Looking forward to spending time with him again was what had gotten Steve through his dates with a polite smile intact. He couldn’t fathom what might have upset their easy camaraderie over the two week vacation.
The mystery of it was perhaps what hurt the most.
Steve had been glum for several days, and it seemed everyone had noticed.
“Maybe it’s diet,” Logan said, choking down a forkful of spaghetti. They had supplies for at least two more group dinners, and everyone was delighted that they were in the home stretch.
“Maybe he misses the attention from all those ladies,” Luke teased.
“Ha ha.” Steve stabbed morosely at his plate. “Very funny.”
“You did seem to be happier before,” Spider-Man pointed out. “Maybe ol’ Batroc could hook you up with one more date.”
“Pass,” Steve said, but it did get him thinking about the slip of paper again.
“Perhaps a vacation would do you some good then,” Ororo suggested.
“Maybe.” Steve pushed away from the table. He hadn’t had much of an appetite to begin with, but now with the game of twenty questions, it was non-existent. He decided to make a strategic retreat to his room.
Upstairs, he fished the slip of paper out of his costume pocket, and before he could convince himself that it was a bad idea, called the number.
The line rang several times before going to voicemail and Steve bit back a wave of disappointment. He was just about to hang up when a familiar, recorded voice drifted over the line. “Rhodey! I gave you the new number to the lab. Use it!”
Steve hung up the phone and then burst into laughter. He was an idiot.
Steve dialed the Lover’s Leap office, and asked to be put through to Batroc.
The Frenchman crowed when he heard Steve’s voice. “ ‘ave you changed your mind about deleting your profile?”
“No. I want to know if you deleted Tony’s data too.”
“Oh!” From the delight in his voice, Batroc had probably figured out why Steve was calling. “ Oui. I am no longer a criminal. All Avengers data is gone. But perhaps Batroc’s good faith will be returned? Perhaps you two will submit a blurb?”
“Ze women were hand chosen, you know. Perhaps zey left a poor impression? I assure you, ze algorithm is perfect.”
“I’m not submitting a testimonial for your company.”
“Ah.” Batroc sounded disappointed, but not at all surprised. “Ze best of wishes to you, all ze same--”
“Wait--” Steve said, before he could hang up. “Why did you hand select women for me?”
“Batroc is no longer a bad man, oui? ” Well, that was debatable, Steve thought. Forcing people into dates wasn’t evil, but it also wasn’t the nicest thing in the world. “ Mon ami , Batroc did not wish to out you before you were ready.”
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration with himself. He was such a doorknob.
“Maybe you reconsider ze blurb, eh?” Batroc encouraged him before hanging up.
Tony was elbow deep in the armor with a soldering iron when Steve poked his head into the lab. He looked up and saw Steve, though his eyes were inscrutable beneath the welding goggles, and continued his work. “Something you want?”
“I came to tell you to update your contact information.”
Tony raised an eyebrow, but kept his focus on the circuit board he was working on. “Why?”
“Clint uploaded everyone’s data.”
Tony groaned, a little tendril of smoke rising as he finished. He put the tool back in its stand and pushed the goggles up on his forehead. He looked tired to Steve. “Don’t tell me. He wants me to go on dates to advertise his company too?”
“No, he says he really did delete everything on the Avengers. But the number you have on file is old.”
Tony frowned and Steve handed him the slip of paper. “He told me that that was my first match. Turns out, he was out of the country, though.”
Tony’s eyes widened as he recognized the number.
“I was wondering if you might like to redeem that raincheck with me, Tony?”
A grin spilled over Tony’s face. “Still want burgers?”
“Sure. Anything would be great. As long as it’s not Italian.”
“Fine by me,” Tony laughed and picked up the armor’s jet boots. “Want to go now?”
“Sure. But what’s the armor for?”
“If everything’s changing,” Tony smirked, “then it’s going to include that undefeated basketball record of yours.”