The soldier stood at attention, eyes forward, chin lifted as Commander Lukin paced back and forth in front of her. His booted heels clicked on the pristine tile, a slight limp breaking the rhythm of his steps. An ancient television cast odd, dancing shadows on the wall that tickled the corner of her eye. It was showing something that she thought might be familiar, but memory was so blurred that she couldn't be certain without a better look. Regardless of temptation, she didn't so much as twitch, far too well trained to let such a little distraction interfere with her focus before a mission. There would be no time for retraining, after all.
The room was bland and cold, all chrome and icy white, making the Commander's breath fog. Between missions it was the entirety of her world. Visitors were rare splashes of color, staining her memory for days. Even in the hibernation chamber, the colors hovered at the edges of her dreams, threatening to crack open the black and white purity and let it bleed onto the floor. It always left her unsettled. Color was for the world outside, for missions and attacks. Letting it invade her place was wrong.
"Where is she?" the Commander snarled, whirling around to face her. His wrinkled face twisted into a scowl. "She was supposed to be here an hour ago!"
She didn't respond. There was no answer to give, and it would have been a waste of energy to say as much. Waste, like distraction, was not tolerated.
A wash of warm air hissed into the room as the main door opened. "Don't get ahead of yourself, Lukin," the Nameless Lady purred as she stepped in and let the door close behind her. She was an explosion of color, vivid green jacket and suit making the soldier's eyes ache after so long with soothing greys. The soldier had never been told her title, but nearly everyone deferred to her. That was enough. A black garment bag dangled over her arm. "I was merely arranging for our friend's disguise."
"You told me that you would be here at three!" the Commander snapped.
"If you recall, I said that she would be awoken at three," the Lady tutted. "It is hardly my concern if you misinterpreted that."
"I don't like this." Lukin stood so stiff he practically vibrated. He'd been angry as long as the soldier could remember, which admittedly wasn't long, but this time there was an edge to it. His hands moved in little jerks, fingers flexing and spreading wide, face flushed with emotion. "This is a mistake—a risk we can't afford."
Frightened, her assessment clicked into place. The Commander was afraid. Another variable to handle. If Commander Lukin had doubts as to the viability of the mission, then there were likely reasons for that.
As always, she would adapt. There was no other option.
"Little risk, compared to the potential reward," the lady corrected quietly, a tiny smile curling her painted lips. "Our friend will see to that. You have briefed her?"
Lukin nodded and looked away, shoulders set in a sulk. "I have."
Thin black brows arched as the lady considered this. "Hm. Do pardon me if I doubt your word. Winter Soldier, forward."
Obediently, the soldier took a single smart step forward.
"Have you been briefed?"
"Yes." Not as fully as she preferred, but her own preferences made no difference. Enough to make do with.
"Who is your contact?"
"And your emergency protocol?"
"Protocol Gamma Tango."
The lady clicked her tongue, and Lukin shrank down in on himself. "Really now, I know she's your pride and joy, but Gamma Tango?"
"I have spent all my life crafting her," he blustered. "She is irreplaceable."
"Only to you, Lukin. Soldier, your protocol if captured is Xerxes Omega."
She nodded. Xerxes Omega—cyanide—was her usual set of orders anyway. It was a good protocol, in her opinion. Firm and unyielding; even if the initial execution went wrong there were always plenty of other opportunities. Human bodies were frail. Hers was only a slight exception.
A smile curled the corner of the Nameless Lady's mouth. "Excellent. And your target?"
This there was no doubt about, at least. "Tony Stark."
Something terrible was in the air. Tony could feel it on the tip of his tongue, as if he'd licked a battery. Thin black silk wound through his fingers, drawn taut around his neck. There was no sign of the enemy yet, but he could feel them approaching like a thunder storm. "We should abort the mission."
"Stop being melodramatic and give me that." Jan swatted at Tony's hands until they dropped away from the bow tie he'd been mauling. Her gloved hands plucked at the knot he'd made, the powder blue silk matching her gown. "It's not that bad. Half of us are used to this sort of thing, the other half can learn, and Wolverine agreed to stay home on watch duty. Have some faith."
Tony held up his hands in surrender. "I'm fine. Just— nervous." Normally he was perfectly capable of handling his own tie, but tonight he was too fidgety. The first annual Avengers Charity Banquet wasn't hugely important other than for PR, but PR was always his weakness. Reporters loved to hate him, even when he'd been a good boy for two years and counting. Maybe especially because he'd been a good boy. They missed all the old scandals and were hungry for new ones.
Of course, the biggest scandal of all was right under their noses, but Tony would sell his armor before he'd enlighten them.
The Avengers were collectively getting ready in what was, technically, Tony's bedroom. It had the best lighting, the most room and—not coincidentally—a bed large enough to fit them all comfortably. Tony couldn't remember the last time he'd had it to himself. Steve had practically migrated there permanently, to the point that his own room needed dusting, and the rest of the team roamed as interest struck them. In the Avengers Mansion, bedrooms had become more a matter of convenience than anything else.
The informal arrangement suited them all except Wolverine, who hid in his den at the far side of the mansion and could sometimes be caught sniffing aniseed oil.
"I still think I shouldn't be here," Peter grumbled from where he was cuddled up against Thor on the bed. Every now and then one of Thor's big hands smoothed back his hair, but even petting couldn't keep Peter from fidgeting and playing with his cufflinks. "What if someone recognizes me? No one's going to buy the personal photographer schtick."
Jan yanked at Tony's tie harder than necessary on the final twist. She stepped back and put her hands on her hips, looming at five-three and as half. "We promised MJ," she reminded them all. "One night out without the mask won't kill you, Pete."
"Fear not, friend Peter, for the Avengers shall guard you and fair Mary-Jane most diligently this night, that your secrets need not become revealed." Thor patted Peter again, as if he were a puppy. Of all of them, Thor was the only one who hadn't changed clothing for the Banquet. His idea of formal was to put on a bigger helmet and a slightly different cape. Not even Jan had wanted to argue it. The job of getting a tuxedo that size and making sure it stayed on was bound to be one beyond even superheroes.
"Worrying again, Tiger? I thought we talked about that." Mary-Jane paused in the doorway with an actress's sense of timing, letting them all take in her sweep of red curls and the low cut on her emerald gown. Ororo curled around her from behind, wearing a modest gold-and-white number that fell around her knees and ankles in tiered folds.
Jan pursed her lips together for an appreciative whistle. "You two look stunning. Where were you hiding all this time?"
MJ batted her eyes. "We were looking for my shoes. See?" She lifted her hem to reveal a glittering high-heeled sandal. Her ankle turned left and right, showing off the shoe. "I couldn't go barefoot, could I?"
"You were wearing them when I found you," Steve shooed them the rest of the way through the door. His dress greens almost clashed with MJ's gown, the dull color seeming even dimmer next to her bright ones.
No one, but no one, could pull off a uniform quite like Captain America, Tony was sure of that. Other soldiers had the muscle, and a few even had the wide-shouldered, narrow-waist look that tailors tried to create, but none of them had the sheer gravitas. Steve habitually held himself like a man just a breath away from saluting.
Steve's smile wasn't the only thing on his face, though. "Hey. Hey, Steve." Tony snapped his fingers until he had Steve's full attention, then tapped at a spot on his jaw. "Lipstick, Cap."
As was the way of things, Steve pulled out a handkerchief and scrubbed at his cheek—the wrong cheek. When Tony tapped the right spot again, Steve's handkerchief wiped too high, and then too low.
Finally, Jan got fed up with them both and snatched away the handkerchief. "You both need to learn what a mirror is," she grumbled, scrubbing the smear. It wasn't red, which they'd all learned never, ever came off easily, but the soft pink seemed to want to stick almost as badly. "It's that pretty piece of glass with the other man inside who mimics everything you do."
Stricken, Peter slouched back against Thor's chest and pouted. "You had sex with Steve and you didn't invite me?"
Ororo slid under Thor's arm on the other side of the bed, spreading out her skirt to keep from winkling it. Even with her dress, Thor was big enough that another person could wiggle in if they'd really wanted to. "Next time," she promised, patting Peter's leg. "It was rather unplanned."
"We jumped him," MJ announced proudly, sweeping back her hair and settling on Thor's free knee, taking up the last bit of space and effectively turning Thor into a giant pillow. "He didn't know what was coming until it was him."
Color crept up Steve's cheeks until he was as bright red as Peter's usual costume. "I didn't think it would take that long," he mumbled, starting to duck his face until Jan gripped his jaw and wrenched it back around again.
"Stop that," she muttered, scrubbing harder. The tip of her tongue poked out the corner of her mouth in concentration, smearing the gloss on her lower lip. "I've almost... got it... There!" Jan tugged Steve's head back and forth, then nodded to herself. "And be more careful next time. If you'd gotten it on your collar, we might have had to find another shirt."
Seeing his chance, Tony swept in to wrap his arm around Jan's waist and twirl her away before she started nitpicking more. Steve's uniform offended her fashion sensibilities somehow, as if he were cheating. "Pink doesn't show up well on green, trust me on this," he promised, looking over at the pile on Thor. They looked cozy, far more than any of them would be for the rest of the evening. Official events meant being on their best behavior, which was hard on a good day. "Are we ready?"
Thor's face crumbled, and his arms tightened around Ororo and Mary-Jane. They leaned into him, and even Peter snuggled back. Between Thor and Peter, the puppy eyes could have caused world peace to spontaneously erupt, in the right circumstances. "Must we?"
"Sorry, big guy, but it's for a good cause." Steve took MJ, then Peter by the hand and gently hauled them to their feet. They didn't help, dangling limp until he had them balanced and upright. Then they propped each other up with matching pouts.
When it came Ororo's turn, she sighed and kissed Steve's cheek once she was close enough, creating a fresh smear of color. "Yes, it is. And it is only a few hours."
"Besides, some of us already had our fun and didn't share," Tony reminded them, getting a wink from Ororo that he chose to ignore. "Alright Avengers, time to mingle."
Tony watched as his last target, an elderly couple with way too much to say about their dog, had finally wandered off, satisfied that they were the most interesting thing in his world and dedicated to donating to the Orphans of Villainous Attacks fund. Time for a new one.
He sipped his drink and looked around the mansion ballroom, trying to spot someone who hadn't been by the donation table. The evening was almost over, so he had to pick carefully. There were some people collected around the hired musicians, but he was fairly sure he saw Steve working them earlier, and if Steve couldn't get people to donate then they were a lost cause. Across the way a middle-aged couple were taking advantage of the dance floor to act like teenagers, which put them off-limits as well, since people who had their romantic mood interrupted tended to be less than generous.
Mingling was not something Tony naturally excelled at. He could lie and bullshit his way through pretending to be interested in stocks and legal battles, but it always left him feeling a little dirty, and not in the fun way. He liked people, and people liked him, but for some reason they tended to lose interest when the subject of four-dimensional geometry came up. Normally, he would solve that by sticking with Jan or Peter, who were always willing to talk geek, but that was the opposite of mingling.
Someone touched his elbow from behind. Pasting on his best You Want To Give Me Money smile, Tony turned. "Hello, Ms..?"
A pretty girl with dark blond hair smiled and batted her eyes. "Delilah," she purred, leaning closer in a way that was clearly designed to show off her cleavage. Not that she could do anything that wouldn't show it off. Her dress was a simple red number, cut so low that it probably needed glue. The color didn't really suit her, making her look flushed and faintly orange. "And you must be Tony Stark."
"One and the same." Across the room, Jan frowned at him, but it was even odds if it was jealousy or disapproval of Delilah's dress.
Tony shrugged it off. He had three gorgeous women, two handsome men and a god in his bed. There came a point where any man had to admit that he had enough. Even a man with his reputation had limits. "What can I do for you, miss?"
She straightened up, apparently realizing that the peep show wouldn't get her anywhere. It didn't stop her from batting her lashes though. That didn't really work either—sure, her eyes were blue, but Steve's were bluer. "I'm interested in donating to OVA," Delilah explained, "but I'd like to know a bit more about how the money is managed before I commit. If you have a moment..?"
"For a beautiful woman? Always." Tony hooked his arm around hers, guiding her out of the main walkway to one of the tall tables set up off to the side and starting his usual spiel. He'd explained the money question so many times, he didn't even need to think about it. It tripped off his tongue, words bouncing smoothly with practice. She nodded at all the right places, asking questions that weren't creative but at least suggested she was actually listening. It was better than the last people had been.
When he realized the end of his little speech, Delilah smiled and shook her head, casually leaning into his space. Golden light from the lamps glittered off the diamonds at her ears and throat. "I must say, Tony, you've certainly calmed my worries. I'll be sure to donate in the morning."
Just as casually as she leaned in, Tony leaned away, smile growing distant. He wished he was Steve, who managed to dissuade people just by acting innocent and patriotically cliche. "The donation table is open all evening."
Bat bat bat went the lashes. "Oh, I know, but I'd like to be busy this evening. And I suspect I'll be much more generous after a night of sleep."
The implication was clear—sex or no donation. Tony let his smile drop away entirely. They weren't that desperate for funding. "I'm sorry, I don't think I—"
Champagne splashed everywhere as someone tripped and stumbled into Delilah from behind. It dripped down her face and flattened blond curls that vast experience had taught Tony took forever to get right. Delilah gaped in shock, staring down at the giant wet spot, alcohol dripping from her chin. "Watch where you're going, you—"
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" the new woman sputtered, hands fluttering in the vicinity of the stain. "I'm just useless— here, let me help you clean it up."
"No—" Delilah yanked herself away, back stiff, expression hard and nose wrinkled in disgust. "No, thank you, I can take care of it myself, I'm sure." She glanced at Tony, who didn't bother hiding his smirk, and turned to flee.
"Silly girl," the new woman snorted, straightening up and tossing back the rest of her glass. "A waste of good champagne, but what can you do?"
"I'm sure something would have occurred to me." He offered his hand, which was taken in a firm shake that wasn't at all lessened by her gloves. Tall and brunette, her brown dress was a year out of style and her makeup understated, but it suited her. She was beautiful; makeup would just have hidden it. Jan and MJ probably would have approved. "Tony Stark."
"Maggie Piper," she smiled, dimpling a bit. "I hope I didn't interrupt anything. You looked like you could use some help."
Tony eyed the new comer, but returned her smile. "I think I could have handled it, but thanks."
"You're welcome." Maggie hooked her arm around his and tugged him toward a balcony. Her purse bounced off his elbow, surprisingly solid for being tiny. "Come on. You can try and sell me on your new charity, and I'll keep anyone else from trying to trip you into bed, hm?"
"So you can do it instead?" Her hip bumped his every time she stepped, with a distinctive sway that came from high heels. Tony glanced down and, sure enough, strappy little pumps. Maybe not so tall, then. "I hate to disappoint, but have you read any tabloids lately? I'm not exactly sowing my oats these days." It was all they'd been able to talk about, when he stopped publicly dating, and the occasional speculative article still popped up. Since he couldn't exactly say sorry, taken six times over it was just something he'd learned to put up with.
She winked as they passed out onto the balcony into the cool night air. "I know, but let a girl hope, could you?"
It wasn't a good night for star gazing, but few were in New York. It took a total blackout for more than a few stars to shine through, and there was enough cloud cover to make even that spotty. Tony leaned on the railing and watched them anyway, pretending they were bright enough to light the front garden. He'd schmoozed enough for one night.
Maggie settled next to him, a warm spot against his arm. It was nice. Unobtrusive. She wasn't acting like she wanted anything from him but a couple moments of time. It was a nice change from the usual. Since Tony had taken himself off the romantic market, it seemed like people had magically become more interested in him. He hadn't dared to ask if the other Avengers were having the same problem. Maybe they were, but they'd still laugh at him.
"So, you wanted to know about the charity?" he asked, practically folded over the railing to ease some of the pressure off his knees. "You must have already heard something, if you're here. Most of the invites went to donors for the Maria Stark foundation." At the edge of the drive below he could see Steve chatting up an elderly lady by a waiting car, probably convincing her to leave everything to charity. Old people liked Steve, the ladies because he was polite and the men because he remembered "the good old days". They probably could have just taken Steve to a retirement community, left him for an hour, and come back with enough funds to keep OVA going for three years. But that would have been cheating.
Steve glanced up and smiled. A bit goofily, Tony smiled back. God, he was a pretty man. It never ceased to be a shock that the Avengers had managed to land him. He still blushed watching Angelina Jolie movies.
"Most." In the corner of his eye, Tony saw Maggie lean down a bit, adjusting her skirt. "I must admit to an ulterior motive, though."
"And what's that?" he asked, distracted. Down below, Steve's expression had changed, going flat. He ran for the door, vanishing into the mansion. Tony frowned and tried to make out what had upset him. "As long as you're not here to kill me..."
"I apologize for disappointing you." Maggie's voice went cold, a blur of Russian biting into her bland American accent. Tony twisted just in time to catch the edge of her hand as she chopped at his neck. He staggered back, grabbing her arm and whirling to try and pin her against the banister. Instead of being caught, Maggie dropped low, ducking out of his hold and bouncing up into a kick. The hard edge of her high heel caught him in the ribs, stiletto point scraping. Pain spiked up through his side, hard and biting, and Tony fell back again, gasping. Another blow cracked into his sternum, and air became a precious commodity.
Maggie's smile had vanished, leaving her expression utterly empty as she reached into her purse as pulled out a syringe. It didn't have the decency to glow green, or else-wise indicate its evil nature, but Tony had no doubt that it was anything other than good for him. "Good night, Mr. Stark."
Steve skidded out on the balcony just in time to see Tony's attacker pull a syringe out of her purse. "Good night, Mr. Stark."
He didn't pause for thought, judging trajectory and angles instinctively before pulling back and let fly. She cried out as his shield slammed into her back, forcing her down to her knees. Neat as anyone could ask, the shield bounced off the banister, then the wall, and returned to Steve's hand.
"Back off, lady!" Steve kept the shield up, ready to throw again. His eyes drifted worriedly over to Tony, who was sprawled on the ground, but he couldn't risk taking his eyes off the attacker. Tony was breathing, sort of, so he'd probably just had the air knocked out of him. They'd all had worse.
The attacker rose to her feet, slowly but gracefully, keeping her back turned. Steve's guard stayed high, watching the movement of her arms to try and figure out what she was doing with her hands. His shield had left a growing bruise across her back. Most people it would have put down for a month of rehab, but she moved as if the injury were superficial. Steve's mind sorted through the possibilities. She might have been a robot, but a robot wouldn't have bruised at all. Reinforced bones like Wolverine?
Tony wheezed and sat up, holding his chest like the arc reactor hurt. His eyes went wide. "Gun—" Tony gasped, just as the woman turned around and fired.
Steve ducked the bullets, letting his shield fly and then following right after it, catching her when she dodged left. As soon as his arms were around her, he dropped and rolled, struggling to keep the woman contained. The gun dropped to the floor as she used every dirty trick he'd ever learned, and a couple that were new. Her nails were digging into the sensitive skin inside his wrist, high heel stabbing into his thigh, elbow making a spirited attempt to break his nose. As long as Steve kept rolling, she stayed off-balance just enough that most of her attacks missed. They kept moving right up until they slammed into the side of the building. She didn't stop struggling, but Steve's extra hundred pounds gave him too much of an advantage, and he soon had her hands pinned. Tony did his share by swinging a leg and knocking her purse and gun out of reach.
Panting, the attacker tossed her tangled hair out of her brown eyes and snarled something in Russian. She never stopped twisting and fighting, as if unable to realize that she was trapped.
Steve froze, his insides going cold. "Peggy?"
She went still, not even breathing heavily.
"What?" Tony dragged himself upright enough to see what was going on, clutching his ribs. "You know her?"
"Yeah— yeah, I do. I did." Steve shook his head and tried to get a handle on himself. "From the war. Peggy Carter."
Tony's eyebrows lifted, then dropped down into a wince. He cupped his hand to his bruising eye. "Your old girlfriend?"
"Yeah." No, Steve wanted to say. It couldn't have been Peggy, because she'd died a long, long time ago, and she never would have attacked Tony. But the evidence was right in his face, and denial was for civilians. "Go get Jan. She can keep her pinned while we figure out what to do with her."
"One Giant Girl, coming up." Tony groaned and pushed to his feet, limping and hunched. When he went to step over them, Peggy's leg snapped out and caught his ankle. Tony stumbled, knocking into Steve. It startled him just enough for his grip to loosen. Peggy slammed her elbow into Steve's face and rolled free, scrambling to her feet. Stiletto heels slid on tile as she ran for the balcony. Without a glance back, she hopped the edge and jumped.
Steve and Tony untangled themselves as quickly as they could and ran to look over the edge. Below, Peggy had somehow managed to land five floors down without breaking anything. She sprinted off across the lawn, vanishing into the edge of the grounds.
Wolverine prodded at the bushes near the edge of the northern fence, sniffing carefully. He'd refused to wear a leash, repeatedly, but he didn't like the way Giant Girl kept eying him. One of these days, he was going to go back to the X-Men. They had their faults, but at least there he'd almost never had to stumble across three people naked with a bowl of jello.
The team had left Thor and Mary Jane to guard the property while Jarvis saw the guests out. Thor hadn't been happy about being left behind, but as far as Wolverine cared that was his problem. He was their only powerhouse since Banner had taken the Hulk off to Nevada, and they couldn't risk leaving their headquarters unguarded. There was no telling what sort of tricks the woman would have up her sleeve. She might have had a tank waiting somewhere, for all they knew. Other villains had managed weirder.
"The security cameras said she went through here," Iron Man tapped a place on the wall to show Storm and Giant Girl, as if cameras had anything on Wolverine's nose. "She vanished from there camera's sights there, and here she had returned without the dress, so..." Thoughtfully, he prowled the bushes, trampling all over Wolverine's evidence.
"Aha." Iron Man picked up the little bundle of dark colored satin. "Wolverine, take a sniff of this."
Wolverine frowned slightly more, glaring at the thing, and thought about protesting that he wasn't a dog. But Cap was making those damned sad-eyes at him, cowl wings drooping, and if Wolverine didn't give in soon he just knew that his usual spot on the sofa would have something sticky and web-like spilled on it in retaliation. Deciding to just get it over with, he snatched up the dress and inspected it, taking a couple of careful sniffs, then a few more when things didn't line up right. "No perfume. Some sort of metal—the gun, maybe. Smells industrial. Lot of chemicals. Ice. That's all I've got."
"Peggy loved perfume," Cap said, as if reminding himself. Storm stayed by his side, patting his arm in gentle reassurance every now and then.
"Don't worry. We'll find her and discover what has happened to turn her to this," she said, though to Wolverine's ears it was an empty promise. New York was huge, and it was too possible that even his nose wouldn't be able to track her through it. Cap smiled at her, though, clearly appreciating the thought.
"What did she want, though?" Giant Girl wondered aloud. "If she wanted to kill Tony, couldn't she just have taken a shot at him right off?"
Up in the treetops, Spider-Man dangled from one of his lines. "Maybe he needed to die from poison? We don't know what was in the syringe."
Wolverine gave him a glare while he turned back to sniffing the grounds. Someone who smelled like an industrial warehouse shouldn't have been so hard to track. But something nearby had died—a rodent, maybe a squirrel, and it was mucking everything up, and Iron Man practically was an industrial factory. If he could get a clear scent...
Giant Girl tipped her head back to look at Spider-Man. "But why? Dead is dead."
"Who knows what goons like her want," Wolverine answered, and then ignored the reproving silence as he sniffed his way around the fence. As far as he was concerned, the woman was a villain until proved otherwise. It wasn't like shape-shifters didn't exist, after all.
The scent trail finally led up the wall, though barely. She'd only touched the brick in three places, making it tricky to follow. He hopped the wall three feet to the left to keep the trail unmuddled, landing on the other side with barely a noise. Sure enough, she'd landed six feet out—a jump from the top rather than a climb down. She was good.
"Nothing picked her up," Wolverine reported as the others landed next to him. "She stayed on foot, headed northeast." The trail was so clear that he could have traced it in his sleep. No one was out to muck it around, and she was sweating heavily from the run. Only way it could have been easier would have been if she'd been bleeding.
It was almost too clear. The whole thing reeked of a set-up, and he knew, knew that if he actually said so everyone would give him that Look again. They'd decided it was Cap's Long Lost Girlfriend, and none of them were going to believe otherwise until she turned blue or something.
Well, that was why they had him. Someone had to be the practical one in the sea of idealists.
Cap's expression was stony as he landed by the wall. "We should scout ahead," he decided. "Iron Man, you're with me. Storm, you take Spider-Man. Giant Girl, you stick with Wolverine. Stay a mile apart, and if you spot her don't engage.
Doing his best to put an insult in every little movement, Wolverine saluted with a single claw and then took off, following the trail. He'd find the woman, unmask her, and then help himself to Giant-Girl's ice cream as a reward for showing them up.
It was good to have a team.
Captain America stepped into Iron Man's waiting arm while Spider-Man made himself a web-sling. They waited until the wind from Storm lifting off died down before Iron Man kicked on his jet boots. Wolverine's grumbling faded into the distance as they sped up into the sky. New York sprawled below, close enough that little landmarks and street signs were easily visible.
They fell into a search pattern, Iron Man tacking in a slow zig-zag slightly to the north of Wolverine and Giant Girl. The silence wasn't comfortable, but neither of them really wanted to talk. There were too many chances that everything would end horribly, and talking would just make them all seem more real. When they faced her, he didn't need to be thinking that she could be hurt, or a robot or an alien, or anything other than alive.
Firmly ignoring the sinkhole in his chest, Cap tried to focus on keeping an eye out. It wasn't very late, which meant people were still on the street. Peggy or not, he didn't think the attacker—the assassin, he reminded himself—would be stupid enough to draw eyes to herself. If she had any idea what she was doing, she'd lay low and try to blend in. Unless Wolverine could follow her scent clearly the whole way through, they'd probably already lost her.
The communications line crackled the life, wind and weather giving it a static-y hiss. "There seems to be a disturbance roughly a mile to the east," Storm reported briskly. "Spider-Man and I will check it out."
Iron Man tapped the comm unit in his helmet. "Remember not to engage, Storm. We don't know what other tricks she might have."
"It's a single woman who is half-naked, at best." The wind sound over the connection lessened slightly. "Spider-Man and I can handle it."
Cap frowned and glanced at Iron Man, but as always the mask was inscrutable. It was one of the more annoying things about the armor. Sometimes, he just wanted to know what Tony was thinking. "Storm," Cap tried to sound reasonable and authoritative at the same time, "this woman took a jump from the fifth floor balcony without a scratch. We don't know what sort of enhancements she might have. Do not engage."
Wolverine grumbled into his microphone, grunting like he'd tripped over something. "Do whatever you like, the trail ain't changing."
Iron Man turned east to keep close to Storm and Spider-Man, his thrusters letting out soft bursts as they dropped. The turn made Cap adjust his grip and cling a little tighter, hands sliding over the smooth surface of the armor plates. They were down low enough to see the disturbance Storm had mentioned, a flurry of people on Seventh. No screams and no running, but people milled around in clear confusion. A few police cars were parked off to the side, keeping the crowd corralled. Experience told Steve that it wouldn't last much longer.
As if purely to confirm Cap's fears, Spider-Man's line on the comm clicked to life. "It was her," he whispered. "Officer tried to stop her. She threw him into a building and took off east. Police are in pursuit—she headed into the zoo."
Under his breath, Captain America cursed. The zoo had too many places to hide and not enough that were visible from above. Overhangs and trees were the least of their problems. There'd be no way to find her from the air, and on foot would be too slow.
Long experience negated the need for instruction. Without needing to be asked, Iron Man angling in to land in a dark alley just off the action, where neither police nor civilians would be in their way. Behind them, Wolverine and Giant Girl followed, reaching the alley around the same time as Storm and Spider-Man.
"The police bands are down," Storm reported as she eased into the light. Behind her, Spider-Man was a slightly darker shape on the wall, hunkered down to keep from attracting attention. "They blame the weather, but mere cloud cover would not cause such trouble."
"We need a plan." Cap kept his eyes low on the ground, thinking. "If the authorities get to her first, they might be injured." That they couldn't let her be arrested didn't need to be said. If it wasn't Peggy, they could hand her over to SHIELD later.
Spandex scraped against brick as Spider-Man crawled into the street light. He sat up, hanging on with only his feet and knees. "I think I have one."
"There's no way she's going to fall for this," Tony hissed into his microphone. He was stripped back down to his tuxedo, which had been heavily wrinkled by the armor and might as well have been nothing for all the protection it gave. The zoo had been closed for hours, leaving the pathways between cages empty and lit only by the security lights. The power of Captain America (and a few autographs) had gotten them emergency access as soon as they'd been able to confirm that maybe-Peggy had run into the area. It wouldn't protect them if any of the animals got out, but the Maria Stark foundation would take care of that if they needed it. Buying replacement gazelles and zebras would be one of the more reasonable expenditures that the Foundation had been forced to cover over the years.
"Just go with it," Jan said soothingly from underneath his lapel—she'd shrunk down to Wasp-form to hide on him. It was better, she'd claimed, that there be two of them present if things went horribly wrong. Spider-Man was nearby, and Wolverine could drop down out of the trees at any second, but that wouldn't do them any good if Tony was already dead. "She tried to take you down in the middle of a crowded building, with her only escape route a jump from a fifth-floor balcony. She's not going to pass up taking a shot at you just because she knows it's a trap."
"You're really not making me feel better."
"I'm not trying."
"Tony, please," Cap said over the intercom. Rare stress kept his voice tight, no matter how well he usually stayed in control. "We'll keep you safe. Don't worry."
"Worried? I'm not worried," Tony snorted and took a wander down the path to the reptile house. Storm had promised that it wouldn't rain, which was something at least. The only way things could have gotten more ludicrous would have been if the weather turned worse. "I just think we're wasting time. She's getting away, and we're busy setting traps behind her."
"Quit yer bellyaching, Stark," Wolverine didn't bother to use the communicator, he just growled from somewhere in the decorative shrubbery. "She's here. I can smell her."
"So what do you think she's going to do?" Tony asked the bushes rhetorically as he started down a long hill. He wished he had the armor, but it was safer in the lizard hut if everything went wrong. "Just pop out of nowhere and try to—"
At the bottom of the hill, a single headlight came on, and an engine roar broke the silence. Tires screeched against the cement and the headlight started moving. Not one to waste time, Tony turned and started running back up the hill. Shrubs and thick bushes lined the path, keeping people from wandering off and, incidentally, forcing Tony to stay vulnerable.
At the last possible second, Tony ducked to the side, missing being run over by less than a foot. The woman on the bike yanked it around, turning so tight that her knee almost scraped the ground. She spun around him and twisted low, catching Tony's gut on her shoulder on the second pass. Air pushed out of his lungs as he was scooped up like a sack of potatoes. Under his lapel, Wasp grunted from the impact, a little spurt of bio-energy escaping to singe Tony's goatee
Peggy kept her hand firmly on Tony's ass as they wove along the pedestrian paths and animal cages to burst out the front gate into the parking lot. Overhead, an occasional man-shaped shadow caught Tony's eye—Spider-Man was following them, with Storm close behind. But as long as Tony was on board, he couldn't risk crashing the bike. At even a low speed, it could kill them both.
A shield came down right in the middle of the bike's path, bouncing off asphalt and ricocheting off a lamppost. Peggy swerved, nearly tossing Tony off as she headed straight for a parked Prius. The bike bounced once, twice—on the third bounce they went up, hopping onto the hood and ramping up to the roof.
Things started happening all at once. Wolverine appeared in a flash of yellow, slicing at the motorcycle's tires with his claws. At the same time, the Prius crunched under the weight of two people and a motorcycle, first plastic-and-fiberglass and then Wolverine catching under the wheels. Even with apparently advanced reflexes, Peggy didn't have a chance to save it before the bike flipped, knocking them both through the air.
Tony curled into a ball, cupping a hand around Jan's tiny body to protect her as the ground rushed up. Something blue flashed in the corner of his eye, and suddenly Cap was there. They crashed together in a pile of limbs, rolling across the parking lot to a gentle stop.
Wasp crawled out from her hiding place, staggering around Tony's chest and rubbing her head. Her wings flexed once before drooping down her back. "I think I'm going to be sick," she moaned, green in the cheeks. "Can we never do that again?"
Big, red-gloved hands patted Tony down from shoulders to hips, checking for breaks and bruises. As always, Cap avoided the obvious PDA option in favor of actually making sure Tony was okay. It was the first time Tony had appreciated it. His head whirled from having been lugged around at high speeds mostly upside down. They could catch up on things later, when there wasn't a very real danger of being ill all over his fresh new aches and pains.
Instead, he patted Cap's chest and eased upright, sending Jan sliding down to his lap. Automatically he reached for the cell phone in his breast pocket. Happy or hospital, that was the question. "How's our assassin?"
"I'm checking her now. She is alive." Storm crouched over Peggy's sprawled body, checking her over. She was in some sort of leather one-piece, black and cut like a swimsuit—presumably to be easier to conceal under clothing. The bike was a totaled wreck, having slid across the parking lot and crashed into one of the ticket kiosks. "She seems to have a head injury, but I see nothing else. I recommend a hospital."
"How severe a head injury?" Cap steadied Tony, then scrambled over to Storm as soon as Tony wasn't falling over. "We can't take her to the hospital, and there's not much they could provide that Avengers Mansion can't."
Wolverine pulled himself out of his pile of Prius and gave himself a good shake, snapping broken bones back into place. "She ain't dying and she don't smell hurt, let's just get out of here."
Happy, then. Tony's thumb flicked over the controls, sending an automated message with their location attached. Technology was beautiful. "Either way, I've already called a car." Tony hadn't tried to stand yet, and even the thought of flying was right out. He still felt queasy, and suspected that the feeling wasn't going to go away in the near future. Jan had stayed small, and was curled up into a little comforting ball on his thigh. It was nice to have company in motion sickness while the others bickered. Red and blue lights started flashing at the edge of the parking lot—police, always fun after a battle.
Storm pressed her lips together disapprovingly. Minds were made up, however, and arguing with Captain America had never done anyone much good. He had a well-hidden stubborn streak. "We'll take her back to the mansion, and if she shows any signs of more trauma, to the hospital," she conceded with obvious reluctance. "But we will need a doctor to care for her."
A slow, mean grin crept over Wolverine's face. "I can think of one."
Steve watched the woman sleep on the other side of bullet-proof glass, stroking his shield for comfort. He'd rushed through washing up and had thrown on yesterday's jeans to stand guard, but he was starting to wonder if someone else might not have been a better choice. She looked just like Peggy; it made it hard not to think of her like that, to not think that she'd open her eyes and say Steve. It had been two years since he'd seen her last—or sixty-eight, depending on how he counted—but she didn't look like she'd changed at all. Her hair was a few inches longer, and there were little scars he didn't recognize, but she could have been Peggy's twin.
There'd been some sort of pills hidden in her jewelry, razor blades sewn into her clothing and a set of lock picks in her underwear. There'd even been a cyanide tablet hidden behind her cheek. They'd ended up having to strip her entirely to get rid of everything, and Steve still couldn't be sure they'd gotten it all. It would have to do, though—Tony didn't have anything that could x-ray her at hand, and none of the Avengers wanted to do a body cavity search on an unconscious woman. A white sheet covered her from shoulders to toes, hiding her nudity for the most part, with her left wrist handcuffed to a pipe.
Shaking his head to clear it, he turned his back and adjusted the cell phone cradled between his shoulder and ear. "I'm telling you, it's her."
"And I'm telling you it's impossible, Great Aunt Peggy died in 1946," Sharon said slowly on the other end of the line for the fourth time. "It's probably just a coincidence." She sounded annoyed, but Steve couldn't blame her. Anyone would be if a friend called up and insisted that their long-lost great-aunt was alive, young, and trying to kill a well-known billionaire-industrialist-superhero-whatever it was Tony was calling himself these days.
Two years on the Avengers had taught him to never discount anything just because it was impossible.
In his mind's eye, he could see the face Sharon made at the phone. "Let me get this straight. You want me to go down to Records, sneak in and find all of Aunt Peggy's files without anyone finding out what I'm looking for or why, in an outfit run by Nick Fury, the man who reinvented paranoia because it wasn't secure enough. Is that right?"
Sharon sighed right into the receiver. "Alright. But you owe me. Double if I get caught."
"Done." Steve ran his hand through his hair, which was still spiky from the cowl. "Thank you."
"Don't thank me until I tell you what you can do to pay me back." Something in Sharon's background noise beeped, a high, shrill sound that trailed off into a trill. "And that's my alert signal. I'll get back to you when I can. Carter out."
Steve frowned at the phone and turned back to watch Peggy. Any wait seemed like forever, but really, it was more than he had any right to expect. It wasn't Sharon's fault that he was antsy. He would just have to suck it up and wait. Between the doctor Wolverine was calling in and Sharon looking for those records, waiting was really all he could do.
That didn't mean he had to like it.
His eyes slipped over Peggy's still body, looking for any sign of life. It worried him that she hadn't woken, but Wolverine insisted that she was fine. He had to trust Logan's nose, or else he'd go off the deep end. None of the equipment Tony had dug out could show any signs of a major concussion, but there was no obvious reason for her to still be unconscious either. It was as if she'd just shut down.
If he hadn't been watching so closely, Steve never would have noticed her fingers twitch. When he did, he sat up straighter. Her breathing didn't change at all, and her eyelids didn't even flutter. It could have been anything, but suddenly he was certain that she was awake. Not just awake, but probably evaluating everything she could without opening her eyes.
Stepping out of sight, Steve pressed the call button on his Avengers communicator. "This is Captain America. Who's on comms?"
"This is Mrs. Spider-Man. I'm reading you loud and clear, Cap," Mary-Jane's voice chirped back at him. "Everyone else's is washing up after the fight, so I volunteered."
"Washing up or 'washing up'?" Steve made air quotes before he remembered that she couldn't see him.
MJ snickered as if she'd seen him. "Actual showering. It's been a long night, no one's in the mood. I asked. Sorry."
"No, no, it's fine. When they're out, can you tell everyone that I think our guest is waking up?"
The laugher dropped away as if the line had been cut. For a minute, only MJ's soft breathing let Steve know they hadn't been disconnected. "Do you want me to come down there?" she finally asked quietly, worry curling around the edges of her voice.
"I..." Steve swallowed. The edge of his shield bit into his palm as he gripped it. He didn't want to be a bother, but sitting down in lock-up watching Peggy watch him would be... "That would be—thank you."
"I'll be down in a jiffy, Cap. Mrs. Spidey out."
Steve mostly stayed where he was, shifting only slightly to the left so that Peggy's handcuffed hand was in view. He didn't want to see more. If she opened her eyes, he didn't think he'd be able to stop himself from going in there. While that wouldn't top jumping on a suicide-mission plane loaded with explosives over the Arctic for his worst idea ever, it would be a serious contender for the spot.
By the time MJ got down to the holding cell, Steve had forced himself to sit on one of the plastic chairs in order to keep from edging closer to the door. Mary Jane looked at the door, then at him, loosely clutching to her chest the metal clipboard that held all the communications frequencies. The headset that let her keep a visual and audio line open blocked her eyes from view as effectively as a mask, but Steve saw the corner of her mouth twitch downward in a grimace.
"Well? Are you going to just sit there like a lump?" MJ hooked her arm around Steve's and tugged, using his shield to keep him from slipping out of her hold. Resist as he tried, she had the leverage to use against his greater weight. After only a couple of yanks, he stumbled forward out of the chair and toward the door. "Come on, let's go."
"Go?" Digging in his heels didn't help—MJ just weaved him back and forth, making him stumble forward again in order to keep his balance. If it had been one of the others, or even Tony, he would have tried harder, but MJ was the non-combatant of their family. There was an unspoken rule that they wouldn't use their abilities against her. "We should wait for Iron Man—or Giant Girl, or—"
"There's no reason not to talk to her now," she insisted, hauling him bodily the way she sometimes did her husband. Being scrawny, Peter might have been much, much easier to drag around, but Steve wasn't trying very hard to resist. "I'm on comms. If she tries to get free, I'll hit the panic button, the house will lock down, and Thor or Tony will jump out of the shower to run down here in a towel. It'll be fine." He kept fighting, forcing her to yank him extra hard. "Come on, what happened to that Captain America Courage?"
"It's all in the wings." Steve made a few half-hearted efforts, but MJ dragged him all the way to the security door. After that, it would have felt silly not to at least try. Standing up straight and taking the knob in his hand, Steve shot MJ a puppy-dog look, only receiving an encouraging pat on the rear in return. Chest tight, he let himself in.
Peggy was still pretending to be unconscious. Up close, he could tell that her breathing was a little too regular, her muscles too loose. It was a good act though. He might have fallen for it with anyone else, but not with her. Steve knew her too well, had watched her sleep while they were being shuttled all around continental Europe and beyond. She'd never been a peaceful sleeper.
He stared at Peggy, fidgeting with his hands while behind him MJ shuffled in and leaned against the door frame. Her hair was shorter than he remembered, pinned up in a sort of twist that had grown messy in her escape attempt. The knock on her head was still swollen, dark bruising curving down her temple to touch part of her jaw. If Wolverine hadn't sworn blue that he didn't smell any real damage, he would have been worried. Where they were visible under the sheets odd scars marked her legs and arms—he didn't remember those, but back then he'd never had a chance to look either.
Steve fumbled for something to say, but words died in his mouth. It was Peggy, his Peggy. There wasn't anything that could be said that wouldn't sound awkward, or out of place, or harsh.
As he should have seen coming, MJ's patience with his nerves had a finite limit. She took a seat on the folding chair in the corner and drummed her nails on her clipboard, making a staccato beat that sounded loud inside the small cell. "We know you're awake, you may as well open your eyes." Steve turned to make a face at her, but MJ just shrugged. "You weren't going to do it."
She was right, but he didn't have to like it. Making another face, he turned back to Peggy. Her eyes were open and locked on the ceiling. Other than that, there was no indication that she'd heard or cared.
Steve licked his lips and carefully set the shield down by the wall before stepping up to her side. It would intimidate her, be a threat, and that would make her resist. She was just a villain—a problem that needed to be taken care of, someone they needed information from. He had to think of it that way, or he'd go mad. "She's right, we know you're awake. State your name and rank."
Silence. It shouldn't have surprised him. Whatever she was, name and rank weren't going to cut it.
"We've removed all your weapons," Steve tried again. "Even your emergency out. Iron Man is investigating them right now, and if you think that he can't trace them back to your home base you'd be mistaken. You may as well tell us what you know."
Nothing. Grating, empty nothing. She didn't so much as twitch. Frustration crawled along Steve's nerves. The patience that got him through long, slow excavations of Tony from his lab or Jan from his lap was nowhere to be found. Desperate, he finally snapped, "Peggy, say something."
A jolt, as if someone had rocked the table under her. Her eyes flicked to him, then back to the ceiling.
It wasn't much, but he seized the opening—anything could be a weapon, even a name. "What? That's your name, isn't it? Margaret Carter, Agent 13. You served in World War Two with me—with the Howling Commandos."
She shook her head, lips moving faintly. "—dier. Not— no."
"What was that, Peggy?" Steve moved up to the side of the table, forcing himself into her line of sight. The modern jeans and t-shirt weren't that unlike what he'd worn in his downtime back in the war. His costume would have been better, but he wasn't going to quibble over what worked. "Do you remember the Stork Club, Peggy? We were going to go there and you'd show me how to dance. But I was late. We'd made a lot of plans, Peggy—"
"Not Peggy—" She clenched her eyes closed. "The Winter Soldier, unit 1843-D. No name, no rank, no history. The Winter Soldier, unit 1843-D. No name, no rank, no history. Winter—"
Steve lifted his voice to speak over her mantra. "You are Peggy Carter and Agent 13. Your brother is Jonathon Carter, your mother was Susan Carter and your father was Gerald Carter. You signed up with the British army in 1942 and your favorite food is spaghetti—"
Peggy clenched her teeth and twisted away, dropping the sheet to the ground. The handcuff cut into the skin of her wrist, biting down with a sound like breaking metal before she was able to wrench free. Her bare legs locked around his neck, tossing him across the room.
Steve curled himself into defensive ball just in time to protect his head as slammed into the floor. He kept rolling, moving just in time to miss having a bare foot slammed into where his stomach would have been. The wall came up too quickly, stalling his progress before he could finish getting to his feet. Peggy took advantage of it by kneeing him in the chin. Stars flashed behind Steve's eyes, but he kept moving until he was finally standing again.
"Thor, Tony, anyone!" MJ's voice echoed off the metal walls behind him, high with panic. "We have a situation down here!"
Peggy didn't give him a chance to catch his balance before kicking him in the ribs again, and following it up with a punch that would have knocked him silly if it had a chance to land. Steve stayed on the defensive, deflecting her blows more often than returning them.
"Damn it— Peggy, I know you're in there—" He caught her right wrist and whipped her around, trying for an arm lock. She whirled with him, something popping out of place in her shoulder joint that let her duck under his elbow and knee him in the back. Steve let go before she could use the hold against him.
A shrug popped her arm back into place with a crunch that made Steve wince in sympathy. She crouched low, knees bent and arms up, ready for anything he could give her.
He brought his arms up to block any on-coming blows and grinned. "Ready when you are, Peggy."
A thin line formed between her eyebrows, confusion clouding her expression. For just a second, her guard relaxed. "I am not Pe—"
Something cracked into the back of Peggy's head with a sound like a muffled gunshot. She choked midword, eyes going wide before rolling back in her head as she toppled forward into unconsciousness.
MJ held the shield up by the rim, ready for another blow. She looked as stunned as Peggy was, panting and pale with shock. If he could have seen her eyes, Steve suspected they'd be rimmed with white like startled horse's "I didn't kill her, did I?"
Steve knelt down and checked the back of Peggy's head, then her pulse and breathing. MJ hadn't the muscle or training to wield the shield with any great strength, but there was already a second lump forming at the base of Peggy's skull. Only a little blood and apparently an uncracked skull, but that worried him more than if she'd been bleeding heavily. Two major head traumas in one day wasn't anything to shrug off. "She's alive, but I'll feel better when we have a doctor look at her."
"Then I arrived just in time, didn't I?" Professor Xavier asked as Beast held open the security door for him.
Peter knew that Steve's years in the army couldn't have left him entirely untouched, but the arrival of Professor X showcased an extensive vocabulary that won applause from Jan and shocked stares from everyone else. Never in Peter's life had he thought of someone doing that with a weasel, and he wasn't sure she wanted to know where Steve had gotten the idea. It probably involved Nick Fury.
They'd gathered at the kitchen table while Xavier and Beast did their work, far from where Steve's "negative energy" could disrupt things. Peter had claimed his wife's lap as a chair—probably the best chair in the house. Because she was on a stool at the breakfast counter, he had to cling to the wall with one hand and a foot to stay balanced. It was worth it.
"I said a doctor, Logan, not a teacher!" Steve snapped. He had his arms crossed atop the table, stern and reminiscent of more than one of Peter's high school teachers. If he'd had the shield he probably would have been holding it ready, but it was still leaning against MJ's knee. "She's wounded for God's sake."
Logan's claws slid in and out of his hands reflexively, like another person would crack their knuckles. "I know brainwashing when I see it. Beast can take care of anything else, but the professor—"
"The professor will care for her spirit, Steven." Ororo touched Steve's shoulder lightly. Her hair was still damp from her shower, leaving dark trails on her grey dress. "We have no idea what she's gone through."
"Two rounds of blunt force trauma," Jan piped up, as if anyone needed to be reminded.
"I didn't hit her that hard," Mary-Jane sulked into Peter's shoulder. In deference to the presence of non-Avengers, he and MJ were still wearing masks. Thanks to the reality of one of those visitors being telepathic, they'd shoved them up to only cover their eyes. "It was just a little blunt force trauma."
"No one believes me when I say it either," Tony joked, bumping his shoulder against Steve's. "She'll be fine. Nearly got away from us, didn't she? She's made of tough stuff."
"Aye." Thor couldn't fit comfortably in one of the usual seats, so he had one just for him at the head of the table, with an extra foot of leg space and a hook for his helmet. It made him look regal, nearly kingly, when placed next to the smaller chairs. "She is a great warrior. Perhaps the professor can win her over to the side of good."
Peter eyed Thor warily. "You make it sound like he's going to re-brainwash her into being a good guy after she was originally brainwashed into being a bad guy."
Thor shrugged one massive shoulder. "I know not the working of mortal minds, but if 'washing' will assist in reclaiming her, then I'll not oppose it."
"Fortunately, I don't think that will be necessary." Big and blue, Beast let himself into the kitchen through the lab door. The pad of yellow legal paper looked oddly out of place in his hand, but it fitted with his stethoscope and reading glasses. None of it matched his X-men uniform, though. Not that it was ever easy to match yellow spandex. "I'm happy to report that Ms. Carter doesn't seem to have any serious injuries, though it took a bit of work to verify that. Did any of you know she has a bionic arm? I broke three scanners before I was able to work around it."
Tony gaped and half stood in his chair. Already, the familiar jealous grimace was settling across his mouth, as it did when someone did something with technology that he hadn't. With the bruises he'd gotten that evening, it looked more sinister than nerdy. "Bionic? Are you sure?"
Beast lifted his eyebrow. "Quite certain. The circuitry is wired directly into her nervous system. It's quite fascinating—"
"But that sort of wetware is decades from being implemented!" Tony insisted, standing the rest of the way. The other Avengers became background as he focused in on what was undoubtedly going to become his latest obsession. "I tried with the armor. There's just no way—"
"Nanites, I believe—"
"Impossible to control, without a direct brain implant, which—"
"The outer layer of the membrane—"
"Is that thin enough to allow—"
Wood clattered against tile as Logan stood, deliberately letting the chair fall over in order to make the most racket possible. "If I'm gonna listen to you two geeks any longer, I'm going to need a drink," he announced, stomping over to the refrigerator and pulling out one of his beers.
Tony and Beast both had just enough grace to look sheepish.
"Well," Beast managed, only a little stiffly, "the mechanics of it aside, yes, she has a fully functional bionic limb, and is in good health, other than a few bumps and bruises. I suspect there may also have been metabolic reinforcement similar to what the Captain here has, but I don't have the equipment to do the blood work for proof."
"Can we see her?" Steve sounded like he was trying to sound calm, but Peter could hear the real question in his voice. Can I see her?
The other Avengers shifted uncomfortably. Jan and Storm glanced over at each other, then subtly shifted closer, creating a united front against anyone trying to force them into talking sense into Steve. Peter rediscovered how fascinating MJ's hair was, and Thor started toying with his hammer.
The only one left oblivious to the tension, Tony just nodded along with Steve. "She should see a familiar face first."
Beast shook his head. "The Professor will tell us when he's finished. In the meantime..." He took a breath and looked at them over his glasses. "In the meantime, you should understand what this means."
Steve met Beast's eyes firmly. "We're listening."
Who are you?
The space behind the soldier's eyelids was peaceful, and familiar. There'd been enough time spent in semi-hibernation, that place between sleep and wakefulness, that it didn't worry her that she heard voices. Being given commands and debriefing while she was restrained was normal. Whatever room she was in didn't have the harsh chill of her hibernation chamber, but it wasn't unheard of for her to be removed from it. Many of her superiors couldn't stand the low temperatures.
Had she been captured? Something worried at her memory, sharp blue eyes and a— a shield? There had been a fight, she knew, and she'd been captured, then interrogated. But she had escaped, hadn't she? Her mission was been accomplished, and she'd returned to base for repairs and fresh orders. That was right.
After a moment of contemplation, she verified her last instructions, then answered, I am the Winter Soldier.
No, you are not. Who are you?
She started to frown, then cleared her expression before it could give her away. This was not her usual programming. Was her identity being changed? That had never happened before, but there were several reasons why it would be necessary. But whoever was questioning her hadn't identified himself, or given her the code that would allow him to change her programming. I am the Winter—
What is your name?
Name? That brought her up short. Soldiers didn't have names. She didn't have a name—names were for people, not her. She was the Winter Soldier, unit 1843-D. No name, no rank, no history. If there had ever been a time before that, it had been reduced to hibernation-illusions and dreams.
Of course you have a name, the voice said. Everyone has a name.
Goosebumps crawled over her skin, sharp prickles not unlike when a sniper had his sights on her. This was wrong. Everything was wrong. Why was an unidentified man asking her anything? Where was Commander? The Nameless Lady? I am the Winter Soldier. I need no name.
Sadness and regret brushed across her thoughts like a feather over silk. It wasn't hers—it couldn't be, a soldier didn't feel regret, so she didn't feel regret. Externally imposed or not, it still made her eyes sting and her throat tighten. Fighting to keep her physical reactions neutral only made it worse. Something warm slid down her cheek, leaving a breath of coolness behind.
Everyone needs a name, even the Winter Soldier. What is yours?
In her memory, the blond man—Captain America, friend of the target, classified: extremely dangerous, kill if possible—brought his fists up and bared his teeth. Ready when you are, Peggy.
That name was familiar, like something she'd heard in passing ages ago but had never really forgotten. Her forehead wrinkled slightly as she tried to think of when she would have used it, though. None of the identities she'd used had ever been a variation on it. But—
—Agent 13, Margaret Carter—
Things were clicking in the back of her mind, tumblers in a complex lock falling into place. She remembered the war, standing in front of a line of men whose only qualification was that they hadn't dropped their guns yet. Remembered dragging more than one soldier aside to put him in his place.
Remembered crying when Steve's radio signal cut out.
—the Winter Soldier. No name, no rank, no history—
The voice pried at the memories, pulling them forward no matter how hard she fought. Birthdays and dates slithered through her thoughts, dragging behind them faces that were more impressions than images. Her first kiss, the first time she'd held a gun, the last time she'd worn that specific red dress...
Who are you?
Opening her eyes, Peggy remembered.
Tony rubbed his forehead and eyed the coffee. As far as he was concerned, he hadn't had enough, but the headache was saying otherwise. He felt jittery, a sure sign of overdosing. Not that cutting him off would do much good to help that. It was nearly three in the morning, and there was no sign of the Professor being finished with Peggy.
He watched Steve pace around the floor, having given up on composure somewhere after the one AM mark. Just watching him made Tony jitterier than coffee ever could.
Tony heard the motor of Xavier's wheelchair approaching before the man himself actually entered. When he did, all activity in the kitchen slid to a stop, conversations falling silent and Steve whipping around to face him. Beast sprung up and retrieved him a glass of water, pressing it into Xavier's hand.
Xavier looked wrung out, skin pale and hands shaky on his wheelchair controls. He accepted the water with good grace and a smile. "Thank you, Hank," he croaked in a thick, gravely voice, and took a sip. When he spoke again, some of the roughness had cleared, but not all. "You all will be happy to know that I was successful in restoring Ms. Carter's memories. But there were some complications."
"Complications?" Tony repeated, when no one else seemed inclined to ask. "What sort of complications?"
"Whatever method was used to bury her previous life was very effective," Xavier admitted, waving his hand as if brushing something away. "There's much that has been altered and hidden. I was not able to undo the changes entirely, merely to sublimate the main control mechanism."
There was a moment of silence as the Avengers looked at each other. Storm leaned forward, elbows on the table and fingers laced. She pursed her lips in a thoughtful frown. "Does that mean what I think?"
"It means that I only recall generalities of my incarceration, rather than specifics. No faces or dates, only... things. But I'll help in any way I can, of course." Peggy stepped in behind Xavier, awkwardly looking around the room. "Hello, Steve."
She was in a pair of loose sweats and a t-shirt that Tony faintly recalled Steve having gotten from Jan. Dark hair bounced against the back of her neck in a loose braid that had been tied with a piece of wire. Like Xavier, she looked tired, but Tony figured she had a lot of reason to be. If it had been a rough night for the Avengers, it had been even harder for her. Eating pavement and being clobbered by Steve's shield couldn't have been fun, not even for someone who was brainwashed into it at the time.
Steve swallowed, fists clenching at his side. His eyes locked somewhere on the kitchen tile. "Peggy. I..."
The corner of her mouth quirked in a soft smile. "I know. We have quite a bit to discuss, don't we?"
Xavier nodded and handed the glass back to Beast, who took it to the sink without being asked. "We should be off, then. Classes tomorrow, and we can't call them off easily. The students are far too eager to do that as it is."
"Thank you for coming, Professor." Ororo stood to give him a hug. "Do visit more often."
He smiled up at her, looking ten years younger suddenly. It wasn't enough of a shave to make a difference, but at least he looked like likely to die of exhaustion. "Could I not convince you to return to us? Jean and Scott miss you terribly."
Ororo smiled with the professional gleam Tony usually saw across boardrooms. "I am afraid I am quite happy here."
"Ah, well." Xavier sighed and patted her cheek. "Perhaps soon enough you will return to us."
While Ororo escorted the X-men out, Tony pushed his coffee cup away and went to stand by Steve, who was still fidgeting like a teenage boy on prom night. He patted Steve's back gently, then rubbed a slow circle. Steve's back muscles were so tense that they were trembling. "Look, it's nearly dawn. Anything we need to talk about can wait until tomorrow, when we're rested."
Peggy's expression flickered to something contemplative before settling back into a more neutral one. "Yes, I believe that would give us time to— to sort ourselves, wouldn't it?" She glanced around at the Avengers, visibly taking notes. There wasn't much chance she'd miss how MJ and Peter were curled up together, but everyone else was at least not in each other's lap.
Wood creaked as Thor levered himself out of his semi-throne. "An excellent thought, Tony," he declaimed in his usual boom. He offered her his arm in a gesture more suited to a bad historical romance than a Norse warrior. "I shall escort the lady to her room, as I thought to have Jarvis ready one earlier this eve."
"I..." Peggy looked between Steve and Thor. Uncertainly, she wrapped her hand around Thor's massive forearm. "Thank you. I greatly appreciate it."
"Think nothing of it." Thor's smile had all the sunshine and good cheer of a puppy. "Come, I am certain you must be tired from your travails."
Tony watched them go, mouth tugged to the side contemplatively. Then he glanced at Steve, who was still staring at his feet.
Peter, as always, spoke for all of them. "Well, this is going to be weird."
Jan lingered in the kitchen to finish her cocoa while everyone took their cue from Thor and wandered off to find beds. No one said anything, but they all went different directions when they did, without any of the grouping off or playfulness that usually happened. Peter and MJ stuck together, of course, but Steve slouched off and left Tony, and Ororo had only glanced at her before going off by herself. Tony had ended up going down to his lab in the basement, where he was probably going to sulk, miserable and alone, because that was what Tony did when he didn't have people around him. Even Logan had just wandered off without any grouching.
She didn't like it. There was something deeply, desperately wrong in all of them collectively acting like they had something to hide. Of course, in a way they did, but in their own home it seemed ridiculous. Jan could only imagine what it was doing to Tony.
When the Avengers had started, it had just been her, Tony, Bruce and Ororo. It was easy to remember how alone Tony had been, how fragile. He'd had friends, but he'd always seemed to think they were one screw up away from walking away. Bruce hadn't been cut out for a group relationship, but Tony had blossomed. He'd stopped taking so many stupid risks to prove himself, started smiling more, talking more openly. And then SHIELD had found Steve and Ororo had convinced Logan to jump the X-ship for the Quinjet, and Peter had webbed his way in and...
And it all worked. At first it had been casual, but that hadn't lasted. They might as well have been married, as far as Jan was concerned. They supported each other, plugged holes that might always have been left open otherwise. Tony had a lot of holes to plug. Now for the first time in two years his bed was going to be empty, because no one wanted to have that conversations with Steve's wartime girlfriend.
No one else, at least.
If Peggy wanted to take Steve from them, Jan wasn't going to let go without a fight. He was theirs, damn it. They needed him. Tony needed him. But while that was being sorted, Tony was going to need something else.
Jan stared into the last dregs of her cocoa, then tipped it back to finish in a gulp. She put her mug in the sink before heading down to the workshop. The stairs were a tight spiral, forcing her to go slow rather than rush. They also had the effect of hiding whatever Tony was up to until she rounded the last bend.
Bright florescent bulbs lit every edge of the workshop, making the few shadows that existed sharp and dark for the contrast. Tony sat in the middle of the floor, surrounded by parts and tools. Jan watched as he slotted together two pieces of metal, looking like nothing so much as a little boy playing with oversized Legos. The thing finally clicked together, and Tony reached for a wrench behind him without looking.
"I know you're there," he said quietly as he tightened the bolt. "The steps squeak."
"Good thing I'm not trying to sneak then." Jan padded into the work room, dodging half-finished projects. Everything was organized perfectly, each table with its own set of equipment and plans, ready to pick up again as soon as Tony's attention turned back to it. "What are you making? A robot?"
"Just an arm. For Iron Man." Another bolt slipped into place, Tony working industriously to tighten it. His shoulders were tense and hunched, much more than they needed to be for just a bolt. Jan stood behind him and bent over with her hands on her knees to watch him work.
There was none of Tony's usual grace in his movements. He was just banging things together until they stuck. At one point, he even mismatched a bolt and washer and had to unscrew it to put a different one on. She knew how that worked. Before the Avengers, she used to sew out her frustrations. Some of the creations had been terrible, but there was nothing like hands-on work to keep from having to think about something.
But Tony's work was frenzied, unfocused. Every little slip made his muscles more tense, and there was a furrow developing between his eyebrows. Instead of getting thinge out, he was just making it worse.
"She's not going to take him away from us," Jan blurted, when Tony's fumbling got to be too much.
His wrench slipped, banging his knuckles on the metal brace. It was a mark of how often that sort of thing happened that Tony just hissed and started back to work. "We don't know that," he replied after a few turns of the bolt. It had tightened down, apparently, because he gave it a few more testing tugs and then moved on to the next one. "She's his old girlfriend. He loves her, of course he'll want to go back to her."
"And you don't think he loves us?" When Tony didn't answer, Jan sighed as dramatically as she could manage. Still nothing, other than another bolt tightened. Before he could get started on the next one, she ducked around, plopping herself down onto his lap before he could ignore her some more. "I asked you a question."
Tony stared at her, bright blue eyes behind thick black lashes. "I know he does," he finally mumbled, like a school boy admitting he was the one who put the glue on the teacher's chair. "I just... I always thought it would be one of my exes that would show up and cause problems. You have to admit, it's a lot more likely."
"Since when do things ever go the way we expect them to for the Avengers, huh?" Their noses bumped. Jan took advantage of being so close to steal a kiss. Tony tasted like champagne and metal and just a hint of coconut. She squirmed to settle in closer, sighing happily when Tony put down the wrench wrapped his arms around her. It was comforting, just being close. Not as good as curling up in bed, but it would do. "We won't lose him. Don't worry."
"How could I worry?" Tony asked against her hair, voice soft and just a little thick with emotion. "I have you guys, right? Nothing to worry about. Nothing at all."
Mary Jane stirred her cocoa and stared at the empty television screen. The loveseat in the den was the most comfortable place to sit in the morning. Most of the others were occupied, or asleep, so she didn't have to battle anyone for it. Later, Thor would probably claim it all by himself, and unless she sprawled across his lap she wouldn't see even a cushion.
It had only a few hours since Peggy had joined them, and things hadn't settled. Choosing sleeping arrangements the night before had been strange and uncomfortable. Usually they just fell into whichever bed was handy, with whoever happened to be in it at the time. No one had really felt up to any bedroom aerobics, but having to choose had killed whatever interest they might have had. Jan and Ororo had ended up splitting off to their own rooms for the first time in months, and Thor had eventually settled between herself and Peter, so that had worked. For a Norse God, he was a giant, cuddly furnace, and didn't mind when she put her cold feet on him. But Steve had gone directly to his room alone, and when Tony saw that he'd gone to his workshop instead of bed. If he'd done more than nap, MJ would be shocked.
Someone cleared their throat behind her, breaking through her thoughts. "Pardon me?" MJ twisted around to see Peggy cradling a mug. She smiled faintly. "You're Mary Jane, correct? Would you terribly mind some company?"
"Of course not." MJ shifted over, freeing up the other half of the loveseat. Her knees curled under her, letting her snuggle in without taking up too much space. "Pull up a cushion and enjoy. When the others wake up, we'll probably lose it anyway."
Peggy's dark eyebrows arched, but she took the offered seat. Unlike MJ's comfortable curl into the back, she stayed on the edge, hands curled around her cup. She stared down into it, giving it a little swirl now and then to make the liquid move.
Both hands looked perfectly human, the fake flesh natural enough that MJ couldn't really remember which one was bionic. Not that it mattered, really. She wouldn't be one of the ones out fighting evil. At least, not unless she convinced Tony to make her one of those battle armors.
"You... know Steve, don't you?" Peggy finally said in a soft tone. Her drink—tea, from the smell of it—swirled slowly in her mug before she lifted it for a sip. "He's different than I remember him."
Lost love returned. MJ could do that, at least, even if she couldn't do the superhero thing. "I think he's just in shock," she offered. "He'd— he mourned you, and now he doesn't know how to handle you being back. I don't think he meant to be rude."
A frown line appeared between Peggy's brows, but she nodded slowly. "That seems... Understandable. Does he..." She ducked her head. "Have anyone special?"
Uh-oh. Swallowing, Mary Jane tried to find some sort of answer to that that didn't involve the word "orgies". "Uh... I don't..."
Before she had to finish that sentence, Tony stumbled into the living room, rubbing his eyes and clutching some sort of neon orange breakfast drink. His dress shirt was much cleaner than usual after a night in the lab, so he'd likely been planning rather than working. He had the loose limbed ease of motion that came with either drink or sleep deprivation. Going by the bags under his eyes, the second was most likely. Knowing Tony, he probably hadn't had more than a nod and a wink for days. The man worked himself into exhaustion way too often.
Mary Jane sighed in relief and tipped her head back to watch him as he walked behind the loveseat. "Good morning, Tony."
Tony paused, finally realizing that there were other people in the room, and interaction was probably unavoidable. "Mornin', MJ," he yawned and patted her head, once, twice, and then apparently forgot to stop petting. "Jus' finished rewriting the house security. 'M gonna catch a few winks, 'kay?"
As kindly as she could, Mary Jane disengaged Tony's hand from her hair. "Go sleep, you're dead on your feet."
Groggy blue eyes blinked at them, mind visibly processing at a tenth its usual rate. He stared for a second, nodded, then bent to drop a messy, scratchy kiss to her lips. She froze, very aware of Peggy watching them with a calculatedly disinterested expression.
Tony disengaged and smiled sleepily, and then wobbled his way upstairs. "G'night MJ, Peggy."
Feeling like she was about to step on a land mind, Mary Jane turned to Peggy. "Tony's... Something, isn't he?" she laughed. Even with all her acting ability, there was no way to make it come out anything other than forced.
"Something, yes," Peggy agreed. She took a long sip of her tea, eyes dropping down to Mary Jane's wedding ring, and then back at the stairs Tony had gone up. "Is that a usual occurrence, or...?"
"No— no, it's just Tony's way," Mary Jane babbled, desperation making her words bubble and fall over each other. "You know how some people are—Tony's just an affectionate guy, no one thinks anything about it—really, we're used to it by now—" Her eyes fell on Peggy's freshly emptied mug. Grateful for any port in a storm, she downed her coffee in a gulp, snatched Peggy's mug up and bounded for the kitchen. "I'll just refill this for you!"
When the door swung shut behind her, MJ sagged back against the frame and heaved a sigh.
Jarvis raised an eyebrow, polishing rag in one hand and cleaning spray in the other. "Mrs. Parker?"
Mary Jane grimaced. "We're in a lot of trouble, Jarvis."
Since settling into his place amongst his sibs in arms, Thor Odinson, the mighty God of Thunder, had not needed to much heed mortal concerns. It was, to his way of thinking, only right and proper to trust one's fellows with one's heart, in addition to body and spirit. If most men of Midgard were confused on the matter, he could rest easy knowing his fellow Avengers understood the matter fully. They would attend to his needs as he would theirs, and all would be well. Perhaps one day he would endeavor to bring mortal kind to understand the necessity of the close bonds shared between warriors, but it would not be that day.
So it was that when the new woman—Peggy Carter, he was told—approached him in the hall as he was exiting Peter and Mary Jane's room, Thor found himself taken aback by her questions.
"Aye, Tony is indeed a man most free with himself," he answered, looking down at her with a frown. She was not tiny, but not of particular stature, either. Perhaps she was smaller than their Janet, but it was an unfair comparison. Most mortals were smaller than Janet at one time or another. "A man of grand courage and fierce heart, his story will be sung throughout the ages, echoed by the lives he has saved and touched in every way since the day he first donned the armor of the Iron Man—"
"That really wasn't what I meant—" Peggy cut him off before he could start on the Saga of Iron Man. Which, Thor privately conceded, was likely for the best. He was only half done composing it, and it certainly wasn't ready for a translation yet. "I mean... He's..." She made a gesture with her fingers that resembled a sword being sheathed. "Very... giving? Of his body?"
Thor nodded, finally understanding, as the gesture had been used more than once by Peter in his presence. "He is indeed a man of great generosity. Look, and see at how he opens himself to all that come pleading for comfort and companionship, though truly few are worthy of his gifts."
Peggy still didn't look like she understood. For not the first time, Thor considered the clear disadvantages of All Speak. Mortals could be so indirect about some things. It had taken almost a full three months for the Captain to join them in their revels, and there had been blunter tongues than Thor's to explain the matter.
Thinking to demonstrate, and thus clear the confusion from her lovely eyes, Thor took her hands in his and formed the sword again, adding his own set to match hers. "Most generous."
Thinking to be helpful, Thor bumped their hands together, wiggling his sword. "Of course, we have not enough hands here, but it is an apt enough demonstration."
Her lips parted. Gingerly, she knocked their hands together a few more times, her poor mortal mind struggling to encompass the depths of Tony's grand generosity. "Like... Oh. Oh. Yes. That is... Very generous of him. Very..." The swords bumped again. "Generous."
The bedroom door opened, revealing a yawning Peter in his Captain America undershorts. He rubbed his eyes and blinked. Half-heartedly, he tried to smooth his hair from its sleepy tousle and succeeded only in reversing the direction of the mess. "Why are you two fist bumping?"
"I was demonstrating the gifts of Iron Man to our guest," Thor beamed, while Peggy just looked even more bewildered.
"Didn't you just come out of there?" she asked sharply, leaning to peer around Peter, as if expecting to still see him on the bed. When whatever she'd been looking for wasn't present, Peggy turned a piercing look on Peter. "And I thought you were married."
Thor and Peter glanced at each other. "Aye?"
Peggy pressed her lips together. "I... See."
Clearly, their mortal visitor needed more assistance, but he was at a loss of how to give it. She was, after all, Steven's friend of old. It would be churlish of Thor to step in uninvited.
"There you are!" Janet buzzed up out of nowhere, ducking under Thor's arm and then proceeding to climb him like a tree until they were nose to nose and she was holding on mostly with her thighs, thin night gown bunched around her hips. He ended up sliding a hand under her rear to support her, lest she slip and injure somewhere delicate. "I tried but I can't sleep. Come tell me a story?"
While Peter colored a dark red in the corner of his eye, Thor frowned reprovingly. "I was speaking with our guest."
Still holding on with her thighs, Janet bent backwards. The maneuver nearly shoved her breasts into Thor's chin, but he found himself disinclined to protest. "Sorry," she muttered. "We should hang out sometime. I'll show you around the mansion. All the good spots. Or we can go to lunch!"
Initially, it seemed as though Peggy would refuse Janet's most heartfelt offer, but then she nodded amiably. "Thank you. I will keep that in mind."
Janet grinned and grabbed two great handfuls of his hair, holding them like reins. She snapped them and bounced. "Great! Okay, come on big guy, bed time. H'yah!"
Thor laughed and carried Janet back down the hallway, to where her bed awaited them. Behind, he heard Peggy's voice say to Peter, "You may wish to put on some trousers. Only a suggestion."
Ororo stretched and looked out over the grounds from her perch on a balcony. By the sun, she would wager it was nearly ten o'clock. Much later than she normally slept in, but the long night had played havoc with her sleep cycle. And there was, as of yet, no pressing Avengers business to attend. Ms. Carter, according to Beast and the Professor, did not recall enough to be of assistance in locating her previous employer. Without any information of that sort, all they could do was wait, and watch, and hopefully piece together clues.
If it had been any one of the rest of them, the list of potential suspects would be small and manageable. Unfortunately, it was Tony, who had succeeded in annoying most villains, politicians and corporate moguls in the world, as well as not a few media persons. The list of people who weren't out for his head was likely to be the shorter of the two.
A soft footstep brought Ororo's attention around to the double doors behind her.
Peggy Carter hovered uncertainly, clearly having been in the process of trying to sneak away. She hesitated. "I apologize. I'd thought the balcony was empty. I'd just.... wanted some sunshine. I don't think I've seen it in a long time."
Poor woman. She'd been through more than any one person should ever have to see, and now had to deal with them. As much as she loved her teammates, Ororo freely admitted that they could be a trial even to those who knew them. "No, it's fine. Come sit, there's room for two." She gestured at the other bench. Tony's father hadn't spared any expense when he'd had the mansion built. The balcony was large enough to host a small party on and, in fact, still showed evidence that they had the night before. Jarvis had worked miracles in the few hours he'd had, but there was still the odd cigarette butt in the potted plants, and a distinct undertone of over-applied perfume clung to the curtains.
Peggy eyed her warily—and what was that about?—, but took the offered bench. Someone had provided her with a pair of jeans and a T-shirt with kittens on it. She turned her face to the sun and closed her eyes, muscles visibly relaxing.
Shaking her head, Ororo pushed her hair out of her eyes. She'd been there long enough that it was warm to the touch, but she didn't quite feel like going in yet. For once, there was no hurry. "Have you been having a pleasant morning?"
No answer came at first, and when it did it was soft, almost lost in the distant sound of New York traffic. "It's been very educational. I've not been able to speak with Steve, though. Not seen hide nor hair of him, to tell the truth."
And Steve didn't sleep in past dawn if there were any possible chance of waking up. A habit he'd learned in the war that had not vanished simply because the era had changed. Ororo frowned and toyed with the embroidered edge of her robe. "Have you checked the gym? He often goes there to relieve stress." And they often went there to find him for the same, but the methods were very different. Ororo didn't think any of the others were crude enough to take advantage of Steve's emotional turmoil, but...
Well, he was very pretty when he brooded. Anyone could see that. And none of them were very used to containing themselves...
Pausing her thoughts, Ororo considered Peggy's tense expression, the way she stayed on the edge of the bench as if to run at any second. It wasn't the body language of a woman finding peace after what was likely decades of captivity.
Denim rubbed against the smooth marble bench as Peggy finally moved to lean back. Sunlight curled around her face, casting lovely shadows along the length of her neck and highlighting the hints of rich auburn in her hair. "Can I ask you something that may seem to be a bit personal?"
It didn't take a genius to know what was coming, but she'd not become an Avenger because she was a pessimist. "Please, feel free. I will help with anything I can."
She opened her eyes. In the warm light of a spring midmorning, they were touched with greens, just the faintest hint of hazel. It was easy to see how Steve had loved her, might still love her. She was lovely when she wasn't trying to kill them. "You—all of you—are more than merely teammates, aren't you? More than friends?" Peggy asked. Her voice was tightly controlled, with the same sharp cadence that Steve sometimes got when he was being professional, usually under the cowl.
Ororo leaned forward thoughtfully. "You're very observant. You've only been here for thirty-one hours?"
"Thirty-two, but I didn't need to be observant." Peggy shrugged. "They're not very adept at subtlety, are they?"
"Not as such, no," Ororo accepted with a nod and a hesitant smile. Peggy didn't seem like she was running for a bunker yet, so maybe it wouldn't be so bad. "I apologize for any discomfort it might have caused you. As you may be able to tell, we are not accustomed to accounting for visitors."
"This is your home." And the stiffness in that statement meant quite clearly that there was discomfort, and a lot of it, but Peggy had apparently decided to swallow it down. Ororo's opinion of her crept up a bit, and it didn't have far to go after Steve's glowing recollections of her. "I only... I need to know how Steve is involved in this."
Of course she wished to know Steve's place in their arrangement. Of course. Ororo pressed her lips together, wishing beyond wish that there was some delicate way to put it. "He is one of ours, yes, but whether he stays so is his own concern."
Peggy closed her eyes and leaned back into the sun. "Fair enough, I suppose. Do you—" Her voice stumbled, growing thicker before she found her feet again. "Do you love him?"
Blond hair and a smile like the sun coming up crossed through Ororo's memories, a strong back or a watchful eye at need, and tender hands too. She ducked her head and smiled. "I do. We do. But I think the better question is, do you?"
Peter perched on the back of an armchair, watching as Jan led Peggy through the basics of video games. Peggy didn't look very certain, but she nodded along. Being some sort of super secret assassin probably didn't leave much time for gaming.
When she'd first wandered into the den, Peter had given it the good old superhero try, but he'd gotten tongue-tied and awkward and had pretty much made a fool of himself until Jan had taken pity. It wasn't his fault though! Peggy was gorgeous in a stern sort of way, and he'd never really been the suave Avenger. That was always Tony. Peter was comfortable in his position as the adorable one, and if it meant that he wasn't very good with non-Avenger woman then that was okay by him.
But Peggy was more than gorgeous, she was Steve's ex-or-maybe-current girlfriend. He wanted to impress her with how well they were taking care of Steve. Instead he'd dropped the controller three times and had stumbled over the word "orc".
Such was the tragic life of a spider.
Steve stepped into the den, a massive, broad-shouldered silhouette. He hesitated, and Peter just knew that he was looking at Peggy. Then he cleared his throat, sounding as awkward as Peter always felt. It might have been the lighting, but his ears glowed red. "Spider-Man, are you up for some patrolling?"
Peter looked at the ladies, then at Steve, then back. Peggy had her eyes locked on the screen, back stiff, but Jan kept shooting sharp glances between him and Steve. Catching his attention, she jerked her head, flapping her wrist weirdly behind her. Peter tilted his head, confused, and Jan's shoulders bounced. She indicated Steve again, with more emphasis.
Helplessly, Peter shrugged. No one had taught him Significant Looks in high school, and it wasn't a Spider Power that he knew of. Not like opening pickle jars.
Sighing, Jan collapsed forward, hair hiding her eyes, and pointed out the door. "Go. Just go."
Why hadn't she said so in the first place? Peter wondered, hopping off his chair. "Mask or no mask?" He hadn't bothered putting it on that morning, even though they had a stranger in the house. There were pretty good odds that Peggy wasn't going to go running to Mr. Jameson.
"Keep it in your pocket. We don't want to draw attention." Steve was in civvies, which meant that they wouldn't be fighting anyone. Probably. Hopefully. With bad guys, it was kind of hard to tell. Grey hoodie and jeans, he could have been hiding the costume under most of that. But there was no place to hide the shield, which meant no fight. Unless Tony had been playing with shrink rays again. He hoped not. That had been the most awkward weekend of Peter's life, and in terms of Peter's life, that was really saying something.
They actually walked out of the back door, instead of taking one of the cars. Which, okay, Tony's cars weren't really low key, but there had to be something that wasn't too flashy. Or even Cap's bike with the sidecar thing.
Peter had to stretch his legs to keep up. The nice autumn day helped keep the walk from getting too onerous. A breeze kept the pollution from settling too heavily, and the sky was that sort of robin's egg blue that Peter always forgot wasn't just a cliche until he saw it again. Tony's neighborhood—their neighborhood, he guessed—was quiet, too. Only a few cars passed, and most yards were fenced in by high walls and hedges.
"It's a really nice day, isn't it?" he said to fill the quiet. Taking aim, Peter let a tiny filament of webbing shoot out to snag a falling leaf out of the air. "We don't get to do this often enough."
"Yeah," Steve grunted and shoved his hands into his pockets.
That hadn't gone well. "I mean, we live in a mansion, but we don't enjoy it much," Peter tried again, putting as much cheer into his voice as possible. "We're not always on duty. We should do stuff. Like... Uh..." What did normal people do when they lived in great neighborhoods with lots of space? "Picnics. And games. I bet Logan would be hide and seek champion if we let him. And capture the flag!"
"It's less fun in real life." If Steve had been wearing his cowl, his wings would have been drooping. The last bit of cheer dropped through Peter's stomach and out his feet. He slunk down and focused on picking off leaves.
After about ten minutes of walking in grumpy silence, Peter started to wonder if he'd been called on to do some sort of significant other male bonding thing and missed his cue. Thor's idea of bonding was to find something big and dangerous to beat up, and Peter was Peter, so Tony usually handled that sort of thing. But Tony was passed out after working himself to death in the lab (again), and Steve was just getting deeper into his sulk by the block.
"So, um," Peter started nervously, "are you oka—"
One of Steve's arms shot out, catching Peter across the chest. "We're here."
It was like walking into a steel girder. His breath and voice whooshed out of him, leaving his head to spin aimlessly. Peter rubbed his sore clavicle and looked around. "Where's here?"
Nowhere special, from what he could see. Just another high brick wall, half-hidden by overgrown creeping plants. Which, once he thought about it, was kind of weird. Jarvis kept them trimmed back at home, because they ruined the wall. All of the other houses had at least kept them trimmed, but this one had just let it go. By a large drive-through gate, a polished plaque read the address and a name. "Piper Residence?"
"The Banquet was invitation-only," Steve explained in a short, clipped tone. He prowled the wall, inspecting the base of it, then leaning back to look at the top. "Peggy's invitation was real; it was sent to Margaret Piper at this address. I want to see what's here. Come on."
In one smooth leap, Steve sprang up and grabbed the top of the wall, swinging over so fast Peter barely had time to admire his ass. Looking around for witnesses, Peter threw himself at the wall and made a pretense of scrambling over. At least anyone who saw him would just see a kid who was good at climbing, instead of someone with suspiciously familiar webbing powers.
On the other side of the wall, the grounds showed the neglect that the street side had mostly hidden. The lawn was unevenly cut, where it had been cut at all. Whole tree limbs had been left to rot where storms or old age had knocked them down. It looked like it was the half-way point for a post-apocalyptic wasteland. At any second a zombie could have lurched out of a shadow and eaten their brains and Peter wouldn't have been surprised at all.
"Do a quick search," Steve ordered in his I'm Captain America and this is Serious Business voice. Peter hadn't heard that voice in years. "You get the north side, I'll take south, and we'll meet back here. Be quick, but thorough."
Bouncing into a jaunty and probably completely inaccurate salute, Peter snapped, "Sir, yes sir! And shall I swab the plank with my toothbrush, sir?"
"I—" Steve's mouth opened, then shut again. He floundered for words before running his hand through his hair. "Am I being that bad?"
"Kind of." Smiling uncertainly, Peter sidled up to Steve's side and worked his way under his arm. If Steve had been sitting, he'd have taken over his lap. "I still love you, though."
Steve's lips quirked in a quick, hesitant smile, and he dropped a kiss to Peter's mouth, nervous like the first time he'd done it. "Thanks. I... Why don't we search together?"
They weren't going to find anything. All of Peter's Spider Senses were telling him that this was a long dead nest, and the occupant wasn't planning on coming back again. They'd taken care of it just enough to use, and now they were done.
Male bonding, he reminded himself. Supportive partner. Not getting frowned at by Thor for letting down a shield-brother.
"Yeah," Peter nodded, snuggling deeper against Steve's side. Let's stick together."
Ororo cradled a book in her lap, running her fingers up the spine and then along the pages. It gave her something to do with her hands to ease her nerves. It was one she'd read a dozen times, but time never decreased its appeal. "We must come to some decision, even if it is to do nothing. Matters cannot go on as they have been."
The Avengers, minus Captain America, had stolen away to the library to discuss what to do about Peggy Carter. While not one of their usual places to gather, it had plenty of comfortable couches that could be rearranged into a circle without being as open as the den. Books and old leather scented the room, lending it a peace that the rest of the house often lacked. Ororo breathed it in, trying to tuck away a bit of it for later. Peace was sometimes rare and precious, especially in their lives.
"I'm not sure we should be doing this," Peter mumbled, looking around as if someone would spring out of the shadows at any second. Tony's legs were propped over the arm of the loveseat next to Peter, giving him a convenient surface to cross his arms on. "We should wait for Steve."
"We don't have time." Privately, Ororo had to agree with Peter. It didn't feel right to discuss relationship troubles without all of them at hand. Unfortunately, they didn't have much choice. When she'd knocked on the door to his room, Steve hadn't answered, and that was all the evidence she needed that the matter was urgent.
Sprawled out with an entire sofa to himself, Thor shook his head. "He is heartbroken. If we have it in us to mend, then it is our duty."
"I'm with Thor." Jan was curled up in an armchair to Ororo's right, arms wrapped around her knees. "I got Steve's breakfast tray from Jarvis this morning. He didn't look good. I don't think he slept."
Fingertips on leather, Ororo traced out the embossed title of her book mindlessly. She wanted to rise out of her chair and go force Steve's door open, to wrap him up where nothing could hurt him. "And that's why we must decide."
"But just letting her in?" Mary Jane asked from the loveseat beside Peter. She had her own worrystone to play with by way of Tony's hair. Curls formed and vanished as she combed and twisted it, ruffled and played. "I like her, don't get me wrong, but that's a little much. Maybe we should trust Steve to make his choice."
"I want to." Tony's eyes were closed from MJ's petting, but apparently he hadn't quite fallen asleep. "I want to try. She's all he has from his home time. It would be—weird, kind of selfish, to not even give it a shot."
"She has a good heart," Thor added in. "I do not believe she would cause us turmoil."
"Baby steps." Jan's chin nestled between her knees, hugging them close to her body. "We can't force her to accept anything. So why don't we just open the door? She doesn't have to if she doesn't want to, and we'll have tried. That's something."
"We still have time," Peter spoke up. He was surreptitiously making a delicate webbing between Tony's shoes. "She won't go anywhere until this assassination thing with Tony is done."
"One step at a time," Ororo nodded. "As Jan said: baby steps."
"And in the meantime, we need to take care of Steve." Tony's eyes opened, sharp and clear even though MJ's toying was slowly reducing the rest of him to relaxation. "Priority number one."
After his "patrol" with Peter, and Peggy could only hope the word applied, Steve settled into a pattern that was at least not overtly avoiding her. That was definitely a positive. Unfortunately, it didn't mean he was speaking to her. Mostly he just sulked in her general direction and tried not to make eye contact. It was rather like when they'd first met, really, except that back then his eyes had been on a level with her breasts. Now they were on other women's breasts, and other things as well. She still wasn't sure what to make of that.
A week of following cyberspace dead-ends passed without much fanfare. Tony provided her with a laptop and the essentials she needed to conduct an investigation into what memories she could call up, on the off-chance that they would leave a clue. Peggy used it shamelessly to avoid the awkwardness that was the Avengers' romantic entanglement, and Steve's involvement with them in general.
Storm—Ororo—must have passed the word that she knew their secret, because the hiding became much less subtle. Had she been asked that first morning, she would have thought "less subtle" was impossible, what with Giant Girl dragging Thor off before her very eyes. That was before she'd watched Tony be carted off by Mary Jane and Jan, or when she'd nearly walked in on Ororo and Thor in the library. The only person who never seemed involved was Steve.
Things had settled in so nicely that when Mary Jane slid over the back of a sofa and closed her laptop, Peggy didn't even finish reaching for a weapon.
"We're going to lunch. No arguments." Not letting Peggy argue, Mary Jane gathered up the laptop and tucked it into the case at Peggy's feet. "You've been cooped up all week. We need some girl time."
"That's kind of you, but not necessary," Peggy tried to argue, reaching for her computer again only to have her knuckles swatted.
Mary Jane waited for her to make another move, two fingers raised to smack her hand again. "No! Bad!"
Peggy's lips pursed to keep from smiling. Her whole face felt stiff from having sat still for so long, which made it easier to control herself. "I need to work. Whoever sent me after Tony is going to try again if we don't stop them. That's too important to break for lunch."
"I agree with Mary Jane. You need to rest, or you'll miss something vital." Ororo, elegant and gorgeous in a long dress and shawl, appeared from behind to wrap her arms around Mary Jane's shoulders. They shared a lingering kiss that made Peggy avert her eyes nervously, heat gathering in her cheeks.
"I really shouldn't..." For a protest, it was a terrible one. She couldn't even convince herself that she meant it.
"Jan has already made reservations for four," Ororo said gently, velvet hiding the steel in her voice. "You will return with a clear mind and new energy."
"Please," Mary Jane added, green eyes pleading.
And that was how Peggy found herself wearing one of Mary Jane's dresses in the middle of a restaurant that seemed to serve half of its menu in some form of dessert.
"You have to try this." Jan leaned into Peggy's space, reading the menu over her shoulder. Which was, Peggy considered, completely unnecessary, since Jan had a perfectly good menu of her own. She seemed to get enjoyment from occupying Peggy's personal space, pointing out every other item. "And that. Oh, and that, the trifle is amazing here, you have no idea."
"I'll have to remember that." Peggy tried to subtly lean away from Jan's encroaching, but it brought her right into Ororo's space instead. "I admit, I when you said 'lunch', I wasn't expecting this." For all the menu's oddness, a chandelier gleamed overhead and the flatware appeared to be real silver. Prices seemed ridiculously high, but she couldn't be sure how much of that was the venue and how much was forgotten inflation. It was odd, everything feeling normal, while actual attempts to remember what normal should be left her with only scraps of memory, at best.
She wasn't sure she liked it, the familiar glitter and polish of it all. It made the hairs on her arms stand up, and she couldn't stop glancing around for exits. There were too many windows to avoid having her back to one, which just made her more nervous. She folded her menu and ran her fingers up and down the edge. "I'll let you ladies pick for me, since you seem to know what you're doing."
The target raised his glass. It had a double chocolate cake and mint shot, the smooth brown liquor strong enough to easily hide any residual flavor from the powder the soldier had dropped in it. "To your health, my dear."
The agent stationed as a waiter caught her eye and nodded as she met the toast—he'd take care of any lingering evidence.
"Share?" Mary Jane's voice startled Peggy out of the memory. "Everyone get something different and eat off each other's plates?"
"That sounds wonderful." Blinking, Peggy shook off the memory. It was already mostly fading at the edges, but she remembered the sharp feel of a mission nearly accomplished, a string just plucked for the first note of the final crescendo.
Instinctively, she looked up for her contact.
Across the room, one of the servers watched her as he cleared off a table. Almost invisibly out of place, his lapel pin was some sort of silver circle rather than the gold triangle the rest of the waiters sported. Peggy went still for a heartbeat before she reminded herself to relax.
It was enough to attract attention from her table mates. Ororo touched her knee under the table, leaning in against Peggy's shoulder. "Is something wrong?"
"I think..." When Peggy turned her head, they were close enough that she could see the gold touches of shadow at the outer edge of Ororo's eyelids, almost close enough to kiss. "I recognize someone. A server."
The other two leaned in, Mary Jane's expression set in a light smile, while Jan couldn't keep herself from frowning completely. "An enemy? Or a friend?" Jan asked in an undertone. She twisted her hands around the tablecloth, tying it in knots.
"One in the same, these days." Cutting her eyes over at the suspect, Peggy smiled and pushed away from the table. "Order for me, will you? I need to make a trip to the ladies'."
Ororo nodded and Mary Jane waved her off with a laugh, but Jan just looked more worried. Someone needed to teach her how to dissemble. Peggy tucked her purse under her elbow and ducked back to the alcove that hid the restroom doors from sight. There she ducked into a corner reached into her purse to palm the knife she'd found in the kitchen. It was meant for cutting vegetables more than people, but anything with a point and a blade would do.
It only took a minute before a shadow fell across the hallway, hesitating uncertainly. His silhouette was bulky, wide-shouldered but short, and he moved without any grace at all, clumping around and letting his shoes clatter one the hardwood floor. "Winter Soldier, are you there?" he asked in a loud whisper.
No wonder the man was working undercover as a waiter, if that was his idea of subtle. "Quiet, you idiot," she snapped, practically hissing. Before he could notice, she shoved the knife back into her purse. "What do you want? You were about to give me away with your staring."
The enemy agent moved in closer, shoulders sagging unprofessionally. "I apologize, ma'am. We presumed you dead—reports said you'd been captured and had orders to execute Xerxes Omega."
In close quarters it was impossible to miss the reek that rose off him in waves fit to make her gag. It wasn't quite the smell of body odor, but chemical and ocean, as though he lived in an industrial factory that also gutted fish on the side. Otherwise he was well-groomed, at least, so she didn't have to deal with rancid breath.
Regardless of minty freshness, Peggy's opinion of her former employers-cum-captors was falling by the minute. She searched for an explanation that would be generic enough to fit most organizations while still making sense with her apparent story. It wasn't hard. "You may report to our superiors that my apparent capture was a ruse," she explained sharply. "I am still on the mission."
"I was given free rein to accomplish this mission as I see fit," she growled as menacingly as she could, shutting him down before something like imagination could kick in. "This is a delicate operation. If I move too quickly, the wrath of the Avengers will be on us and we cannot afford that at this time."
Back in the war, the tone had caused more than one private to back off, but the agent—definitely an agent, no rank worth caring for, her memories whispered—apparently didn't have the intelligence to tell when he was nearing the end of her patience. "But the target remains uncollected and fully functional."
She missed the days when she could assign someone to run in circles until she got tired. That had handled more than one idiot private. "It will be handled," Peggy assured him through clenched teeth. "Now, return to your duties and do not attempt to contact me again."
Grabbing the back of his neck, Peggy whirled the agent around and cracked his head against the bathroom's metal door. He let out an inconveniently loud bark of pain, but didn't struggle when she held him pinned. She was starting to have her suspicions as to why that particular agent was working as a waiter, and competence had nothing to do with it. "I have given you an order. If you do not obey immediately, there shall not be a second." Whirling him again, Peggy shoved hard, sending him staggering back.
Stumbling to catch his balance, the agent slammed his fist against his chest once before turning. Peggy waited until she couldn't hear his clumsy steps anymore, breathing slowly, fists clenched. Then she ducked into the bathroom and locked the door behind her.
Knees shaking and heart pounding, she leaned back against the wall and focused on breathing. Holding up her hand under the bright florescent lighting, she unfolded it slowly. In the middle of her palm, the agent's lapel pin had dug into her palm, staining the silver with a smear of blood.
Peggy knew the symbol—a circled skull with six curling tentacles. Hydra.
"Wait, he actually had a Hydra lapel pin?" Peter sounded almost admiring. "That's either incredibly loyal or incredibly dumb. So what do we do?"
Logan scowled down the table, only listening with half an ear as the rest of the Avengers discussed what to do about Hydra, and came to a big whopping nothing. He could have told them all that as soon as Peggy finished speaking, but it made the Avengers feel better if they worked things through themselves. Rush them and mistakes were made.
Instead of paying attention, his eyes were on the new one, Peggy. Through the whole Team Meeting, her expression had been flat, body language silent. She told her story with plenty of detail and no inflection, sticking with the simple facts. No emotion, no bias, no detail spared.
She couldn't have screamed louder that something was wrong.
"There's nothing we can do," Tony sighed, drooping at his corner of the table. He still had the pin in hand, turning it around. Logan could smell the reek of Nazi on it from halfway across the room. Hatred had a special stench. "We're stuck without more information."
Peggy pushed her chair out and stood. "Then I suppose I had best go get it," she said with cheer that was so thin it would have cracked on a cold day. "I'll leave you lot to it."
Snorting, Logan waited a beat before standing too, following her out with a lazy wave. "I'm with her. Call me when there's something to fight."
"Logan—" Steve was cut off by a cough from Peter.
"Hold up, Cap, we've been wanting to talk to you about—"
The door swung closed behind Logan, thankfully muffling any propositions that were almost definitely about to happen in there. Sniffing around for a scent, Logan found the latest trail and followed it around the corner to a window seat. Peggy had taken it over, stretching her legs out to soak up the sunshine and staring out the window like a prisoner.
Carefully, Logan stopped three feet from her, and stayed in the edge of her vision. She still tensed as he approached, but she didn't jump. It took a few minutes before she turned her head to acknowledge him with a raised eyebrow. "Can I help you?"
Hooking his thumbs in his belt loops, Logan forced himself to relax. It wasn't easy. He almost never went through the trouble, but he could smell her suspicion on her like a bad perfume. "Ya wanna talk, I've got ears."
Peggy cocked her head, inspecting him. "You don't seem the counselor type," she mused, and he could only shrug.
"Brainwashing. I know a thing or two about it," he admitted. Unconsciously, he flexed his claws, letting them press against the inside of his skin before pulling them in again. "Amnesia. Being souped up like a hotrod and made to run the race, I've been there."
She pressed her lips together, then slowly shook her head. "I wasn't aware."
Logan shrugged. "Don't talk about it much. Don't need to anymore." He'd gotten his fill of talking it out when he'd signed on to the Avengers. There was nothing for it but the team making him air out his feelings, without letting him beat anyone up as he did it. "It helped when I did, though."
Silence. Peggy's eyes dropped and her fingers laced. He could see her flexing her left hand, knew without needing to be told that she was feeling for the difference between the flesh and the metal. "Not today, I think," she said softly. "But thank you. The offer is greatly appreciated."
And that was all he could do. "Don't bottle it up too long. That makes it worse."
"I'll remember that."
"Good." Nodding at her, Logan turned and walked away, leaving her to her thoughts. She'd talk when she was ready, to him or to one of the others. The important part was, he'd offered.
They're rubbing off on me.
Logan had barely closed the door before Tony hopped up and onto Steve's lap, mouths crashing together. His legs wrapped around the back of Steve's chair, locking together at the ankle. It wouldn't keep him from standing, but it would do for the symbolism.
"—about that," Peter finished behind them. Tony set him to temporary ignore, focusing on the glide of Steve's tongue against his and the warm stretch of skin just a thin piece of cotton away. He tugged at Steve's shirt, pulling it out of his waistband and sliding his hands up under it at the first chance. Being one of the only guys Tony knew that had a six-pack even when relaxed, Steve was a joy to grope.
The kiss didn't last thirty seconds before Steve pulled away, eyes wild. "What was that for?" he demanded breathlessly.
"You've been upset," Tony explained, touching their noses together. He sat up straight, giving Steve the freedom to lean away if he wanted.
"And you think sex will help?" Predictably, Steve took Tony's bait, pushing back in his chair until his head bumped Ororo's blocking body. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, cushioning his head between her breasts.
"We think that you would like to be reminded that you are loved," Ororo murmured into Steve's bright blond hair. Tony felt more than saw Thor sit on the table behind him, an over-sized presence that never failed to bring comfort.
Jan, MJ and Peter closed in on the sides, trapping Steve in the middle. It was an old maneuver from the slice of time after Steve had joined them but before he'd stopped having nightmares about ice. Warm, protected, loved, that was the ticket, the way things were supposed to be.
"We are here for you, Steven," Thor's voice rumbled against the back of Tony's neck, making static crackle along his skin. Huge hands settled on Steve's shoulders, pulling him and Tony together back against Thor's chest. Larger than Steve's and scarred at the knuckles like an old school boxer, Thor had shockingly gentle hands.
"Even if you decide against staying," Jan added, pressing herself against Steve's shoulder. She was at her natural size, which left her just tall enough to slot in easily against Ororo. Her hair tickled Tony's ear, making him twitch, but there was only so much to do when working together in close quarters. "We just want you to be happy, whether it's with Peggy or with us."
"I'm not—" Steve's throat worked against Tony's lips. "I'm not leaving anyone. I don't know what I want to do about Peggy, but I know that." He tilted his head back against Ororo, baring his neck. Thick, strong fingers settled at Tony's back but only moved in loose circles.
Tony concentrated on nuzzling his way into the crook of Steve's neck and leaving kisses wherever seemed tastiest. "Great, I love it when we all agree," he mumbled, tonguing the skin along Steve's pulse. Buttons weren't easy at this angle—Steve's jeans were always too tight, and it meant the fabric bunched weirdly when he was sitting. Perseverance would pay off eventually, Tony was sure. In the meantime, he took advantage of fumbling to rub Steve's dick through his pants.
"So let us take care of you." Peter stole a kiss from Steve, having to bend awkwardly to keep from jostling anyone. He took over Operation: Buttons, and Tony let him without argument. Opening awkward pants was one of the lesser known Spider Abilities.
Time for talking apparently passed. MJ took over the last bit of available space to kiss Steve's lips, her slender hands joining Peter's and Tony's. Between the three of them it took even longer to pop the buttons, but they weren't in a rush. Steve made heady little noises as they kissed him, muscles flexing every time someone found an erogenous zone, and a shudder when Mary Jane's hand first touched his dick. Tony's joined, then Peter's and Thor's at the base. Jan and Ororo had to stretch before they were able to help.
Between the six of them, there was only room for fleeting touches, hands spending as much time sliding along Steve's chest or rubbing his hip as on his dick. Kisses rotated without any real pattern, anyone who could reach and felt like it slipping in to take over when there was an opening. It was awkward and uncoordinated and slow, but Steve sank into it. Tony could actually feel him melting, tension unraveling and dropping away. He could feel the same effect mirrored in himself, even though he wasn't the one getting any, and unless he begged a ride from Thor probably wasn't going to get any.
We needed this, he thought, running his thumb across the head of Steve's dick, smearing precome. They'd been thrown for a loop, left off-balance. It was good to remember what was important.
Steve came eventually, spilling across three different hands and Tony's shirt. They worked him through it, practice having taught them all a few tricks about Steve's body. When he finally relaxed back in the afterglow, he was so loose-limbed that Tony worried he might have passed out. But his eyes were moving, and that was a good enough sign for Tony to steal a kiss. MJ took over from him, and then Thor nearly squished Tony getting his own kisses from the bargain.
"I love you," Steve mumbled, actually smiling for the first time since the Banquet.
Ororo ran her fingers through his hair, smoothing it back. "And we love you."
And that, Tony decided as he settled in against Steve, was all that really mattered. Even if he was going to have a raging case of blueballs.
Steve sat on the thick blue mat, legs stretched in front of him casually. He'd tried working out, but it hadn't helped anything. It had just left him slightly sweaty and a bit bruised when his concentration slipped. The Avengers couldn't afford to have him out of action because he'd been too stubborn to know his limits. With someone out there on the hunt for Tony, and now probably Peggy soon, everyone needed to be in top combat readiness.
Sharon had shown up just before dawn with an armload of files, soaking wet and sporting a few burns. Fury's security had apparently involved sharks, and had taken nearly a week to work around. But none of the files had really told him anything. The data all matched up with her official story, right down to the plane crash in 1946.
The last he'd seen of her had been in that damned Nazi/Hydra-mobile, kissing her goodbye. He'd gotten used to missing her, the same way he'd gotten used to missing a lot of people. Peggy's loss had been a special ache, but it had just been one of many. Everything had been easier that way.
When the Avengers opened their door—Tony's door—to him, he'd been skeptical. Things just weren't done that way. But Logan had been on the team without being in anyone's bed, and Steve had thought he'd be able to do the same. He wanted to make the world a better place, and the Avengers were far better at that than SHIELD. Then one thing had led to another, first with Tony, and then Jan and Thor, and then Ororo, Peter and Mary Jane... until he couldn't think of a better way to be. They were his family, more than family.
And he couldn't keep them and have Peggy.
What were the odds, though? Peggy, in modern times. Next thing he knew, his old sergeant would waltz in. It would take an idiot to let the opportunity slip past.
When she stepped into the gym, Steve didn't have to turn around to know who it was. He knew her footsteps, the way she breathed when she was trying to be quiet. He let her walk up behind him without turning, even when he felt her weight pushing down on the mat.
"Is this seat taken?"
"I don't know. It's the best seat in the house. Might be." Steve swallowed back his nerves and looked up at her. He'd fought through a war and was in... something with six other people, but he still couldn't talk to women. Or maybe he just didn't know how to talk to Peggy. "Hey."
"Hey, yourself." Peggy lowered herself down with a grace he didn't remember in the war. Not that she'd been clumsy, but that liquid-smooth melting from one position to another was new, just like the soft bite of Russian in her accent. She took the spot right next to him, close enough to touch without actually doing so. "You, Captain Rogers, were late for our appointment at the Stork Club. I'm beginning to think this is a habit of yours."
Steve shook his head, staring at the punching bag on the far wall. "I sort of lost track of time."
Very slightly, her shoulder brushed his, hand slowly creeping over until it rested atop his. She smelled like metal and gunpowder and, very faintly, some sort of floral soap. "I suppose that's understandable. I'm not perfect either. I'm told I missed my own funeral."
Something clamped around his throat. Finally, he turned to look at her, but could only manage it for a second before he had to glance away again. "Peggy, I don't—"
"I hear you've found other dance partners now." Her voice stayed blank, without a hint of inflection to give him a clue to her thoughts. "I wouldn't have thought you the type."
"I'd bet so." Warm, callused fingers squeezed around his, much stronger than he remembered. Whatever they'd done to her, at least they'd been thorough. The Avengers fought enough Super Soldier style experiments that he knew how bad the results sometimes were. Inhumane was usually the nice word for it. "You never seemed like the complicated sort."
Steve licked his lips. "I'm happy with them. I love them."
She didn't move her hand. He was grateful for that, though it made him feel like even more of a heel when she said, "And you don't love me."
"I didn't say that," he insisted hastily, not letting silence speak for him. "I don't— It's just..." Frustrated, Steve pushed to his feet. He ran his fingers through his hair, pacing a few steps before whirling around. "It's been two years. I thought you were dead."
Peggy drew her legs under her and curled in on herself, arms wrapping around her knee. Where her hand had rested around his felt cold. "And I thought you were dead. Isn't it interesting how that works?"
Not having the high ground didn't seem to bother her at all, but nothing much did from what Steve could remember. It made his theatrics seem... silly. "That's not the point. I moved on. And I'm not sure if I want to give up what I've built for myself."
Dark eyes watched him seriously. Always serious, was his Peggy. He'd only been able to drag a laugh or a smile out of her a few times through the entire war, and not at all toward the end. Howard had been better at it, but everyone liked Howard, when he wasn't being a complete ass. Even Colonel Phillips liked Howard. She didn't say a word, just thinking at him, and he let her until it was just too much to take.
"Well?" Steve asked, shoulders drawing back, ready to be shot down. What else could she do? He knew that what the Avengers had was hard to understand from the outside. "You don't want anything to do with it, do you?"
One corner of her mouth dropped down. "I don't know what I want," she admitted, more freely than he could ever have. "But I do know that you don't need to hide it. It's hardly fair to your new... Your new dance partners."
"It's only been a a few days, Steve," she reminded him, voice softening, vowels rounding out to something more like what he was used to hearing. "Don't pretend for my sake. If you're happy the way things are, then be happy, damn it."
Steve's throat was tight and his stomach ached, a visceral pain that had nothing to do with any of the battles he'd been in recently. "I am. I'm happy," he repeated in a whisper. It was all that really needed saying, wasn't it?
Peggy's smile was brittle, like a shard of thin ice. "Then there we have it." He thought he saw her eyes mist over, but she pushed off the mat before he could be sure. Neither of them said anything as she walked out of the gym.
Jan scuttled around the gym in her Wasp form, watching while Peggy worked on turning Tony's machines to mulch. It wasn't that she was overly strong—those machines had survived Thor and Steve for almost three months, they weren't about to break easily. But she was rough, dropping weights just a split second too soon, lunging against the counterweights harder than necessary. Right then she was bench-pressing some ridiculous triple-digit number, almost punching the air with them.
Something had upset her, and whether she realized it or not she was working it out.
Good, Jan thought, just a little uncharitably. Steve had been quiet all day, and all anyone had been able to get out of him was that he and Peggy "talked". Even fresh cookies from Jarvis hadn't peeled the information out of him. Whatever had come up had hurt him terribly, and Jan was incapable of letting things like that stand.
A sad Steve was a sad thing for all of them, and had to be fixed.
Skimming through the air, Jan landed on the end of the bench just as Peggy put the bar back in place. Their knees touched when she grew back to her original size, but there was enough room for Peggy to escape if she really wanted to. "So, wanna dish?"
"Dish?" Peggy eyed Jan uncertainly, sitting up with just her stomach muscles. Her metal arm gleamed in the florescent lights overhead, freshly oiled and shiny, free of its usual faux skin for some reason. The red star on the bicep looked like something drawn onto a cast and made the thing look even more unreal. Someone had loaned her a sport's bra and a pair of shorts. Sweat-sheened and freshly pumped, she was almost as ripped as Jen when she hulked out. Her hair had partly fallen from its braid. Tendrils sticking up in odd directions and matted to her cheeks by sweat. "I'm not sure what there is to 'dish'?"
"You and Steve." Planting her hands between her thighs, Jan leaned forward, eating up just a little more of Peggy's personal space. "Something happened, so let's do the girl talk thing."
The corner of Peggy's mouth twitched. "I'm not sure it's the done thing to 'dish' about a former paramour to one of their current partners," she said lightly. "There's a certain etiquette involved."
"Etiquette, schmetiquette," Jan snorted, with exactly the sort of delicacy that occasionally got her The Look from Jarvis. Her bare toes brushed over the thick blue mat as she swung her legs. "Steve's upset and you're killing things in your head. Spill."
Peggy regarded her with dark eyes. There was no seeing behind them, like her thoughts were tucked away in a lock box. Eventually, Peggy gave a little nod and relaxed back, bracing herself with her hands behind her. "Yes, we talked. It went as well as could be expected under the circumstances. He quite understandably chooses to remain with you."
Steve did want to stay with them! Jan's heart leapt at that. Even though she'd reassured Tony, there'd been a tiny, niggling doubt that she hadn't been able to excise. Everyone knew that they wouldn't be able to hide their relationship forever, and when it came out the things were going to get really messy really quickly. She couldn't have blamed Steve if he'd decided to settle down in something else before that happened.
Certainty in Steve's affections re-settled, Jan turned her attention to the other important part of that sentence, the part that hadn't been said aloud. "And what about you?" A shift of her weight scooted her farther up on the bench. She tucked her ankles behind Peggy's, linking them loosely. "You don't have to just walk away, you know."
At first it seemed like Peggy might pull away; her shoulders went tense, and her legs tugged where Jan's had hooked around them. Jan held her breath, waiting for whatever was going on inside the lockbox to be let out.
The sharp line of Peggy's shoulders rounded, metal moving as smoothly as skin. She licked her lips, eyes falling to the bench between them. "I don't know. I've already imposed enough."
"It's not an imposition," Jan insisted, leaning forward into the last bit of Peggy's space. She smelled like clean sweat and sharp tang of metal. "He does love you. And we might not know you yet, but Steve knows how to judge people."
"Is that an offer, Janet?" A couple of hairs had fallen into Peggy's eyes, catching on her lashes and flashing every time she blinked.
Jan had to fight the urge to push them out of her eyes. "Yes." Tony and Thor had taught her terrible habits, such as blunt force honesty. "What have you got to lose? If it works, you've kept Steve. If it doesn't, you're back where you started."
The space between them narrowed microscopically as Peggy inched forward. "If I were to consider such a thing," she breathed, voice low and intimate, "I wouldn't even know where I'd begin."
That was Jan's cue. She finished sliding closer, lifting her legs around Peggy's waist. The line where mechanics met flesh was fascinating up close, a clean transition with a smooth seam. Her fingers slid up the warm metal bicep, lingering for a moment at the joint before sliding around to loop over Peggy's shoulders. She wasn't imagining when Peggy's breathing stuttered. "How about with the small stuff?" Jan asked quietly, ducking their heads together.
Human fingers touched Jan's waist lightly, calluses catching on her costume where wear and tear had roughed it up. It took effort for Jan to stay still. It had been years since she'd had to go through the awkward, uncertain stage of things. Since the Avengers had snagged Steve, actually. It seemed to take forever before Peggy's hand settled at her hip.
"I love Steve, though," Peggy whispered.
"So do I," Jan grinned. They were close enough that Jan only had to move her head a little for their mouths to brush. "We've got that in common, don't we?"
Peggy's muscles trembled under her hands, but instead of pulling away she leaned in closer. Jan parted her lips, slowly pressing the kiss deeper, wondering if Peggy was going to run. Has she ever kissed a woman? Maybe not. It had been the 40s. Time to take it slow, Jan.
Bit by bit, Peggy relaxed, pressing closer to Jan until their breasts touched and Jan had to shift around to avoid unpleasant crushing. The next kiss was deeper, harder, tongues sliding against one another.
The sports bra was made of thick, bright pink material that clashed with Peggy's hair and made her look like she hadn't seen the sun in years. Peeling off the gloves that came with her costume, Jan dragged her fingertips over taut skin, then down over the curve of her breast. Peggy's breath hitched with a startled sound, nearly a whimper, but she didn't object. Taking it one step farther, Jan hooked her fingers in the cloth and tugged, pulling it off over Peggy's head. Free skin was much, much better than cloth, fitting neatly into Jan's palm.
Clever fingers, metal and human, found the hidden zipper on Jan's costume and tugged. Cool air washed over Jan's skin as it was bared down to her navel, and then farther, to nearly her groin. "Won't your partners disapprove?" Peggy asked, stealing a kiss that scorched Jan right down to the last tooth on her zipper.
Maybe not that slow.
Jan did her best to crawl into Peggy's skin, pushing her back onto the bench and settling between her knees. She wasn't able to resist tonguing the pert peak of nipple, or moving her mouth lower to taste the sweat from Peggy's workout. "Already discussed it," she mumbled around a mouthful of soft skin. "Not cheating if it's a bribe."
Peggy's black gym shorts had to have been Ororo's originally, because the knot in the string was cemented like it hadn't been untied in years of washing and wearing. Normally Jan hated that, but this time it meant that the shorts had been tied to fit Ororo's fuller hips. On Peggy, they slid right off.
Strong hips curled up to help Jan strip the shorts and panties off. A soft pink flush crawled down Peggy's skin, making her look oddly vulnerable. "And what are you bribing me for?" she asked breathlessly.
Smiling, Jan dropped her head to kiss just below Peggy's belly button, drawing a damp line with her tongue. "Maybe bribe isn't the right word. Incentive?" Before Peggy could answer, she shifted a little lower. Her tongue dipped into the wet folds of Peggy's cunt, tracing out the contours of it, the flavor and texture. Two of her fingers dipped in, teasing the sensitive nerves just inside.
Up at the top of the bench, there was a soft thunk, as if a head dropped back to the cushions with force. One of Peggy's legs curled over her shoulder while the other planted firmly on the ground. She didn't make many noises, just a soft Janet and the occasional stifled gasp.
Jan took her time, tongue and fingers and lips working together to draw it out. Her own breasts ached for wanting to be touched. That was where having a group was best, in Jan's opinion. Less prioritizing, more instant gratification. But there was something nice in the way Peggy was spread out just for her, eyes glazed. It was new and breathtaking and perfect in a way she'd never really experienced away from the Avengers.
It seemed like it took forever before Peggy let out an honest to God moan. Her leg tightened around Jan's shoulders, clutching her in closer and pushing her hips up in needy little rolls. Her whole body relaxed, some barrier falling away. Jan drew her tongue around Peggy's clit, dodging and avoiding until Peggy snarled and a distinct feeling of imminent murder tinted the air. Then she wrapped her lips around it for a hard suckle.
When Peggy came, her whole body locked up, thighs clenching and trapping Jan against her, back bowed. Nails left red marks down Jan's bared shoulders as she scrabbled for a hold. Jan nursed her through it, mouth softening against her cunt until Peggy sagged backward, limp as a tired kitten.
"God in Heaven," she groaned, raising a hand and then letting it fall again. At that moment, Peggy didn't seem like a super-secret brainwashed assassin so much as a busy woman who'd finally gotten a long-needed massage. She looked half-way to melting into a puddle. "Was that incentive or torture? I can't quite tell."
"Why not both?" Jan stretched her jaw, cracking it to ease some of the pressure. Not as bad as going down on Thor or Steve, but it was still some work. "You okay? I didn't break you or anything, did I?"
"Maybe a little." Dark, mischievous eyes glinted down at Jan. It was just enough warning that she braced herself before Peggy's legs tightened again and they flipped. Air rushed out of Jan's lungs as she crashed to the mat. Adrenalin rushed through her veins, tingling under her skin as she instinctively tried to change sizes, but that was impossible while the suit was open.
Peggy peered down at her, knees on either side of Jan's waist. Metal fingers curled along the bottom edge of Jan's zipper, warm against the skin of her lower stomach. "It would be terribly rude of me not to reciprocate, wouldn't it?"
"Very rude," Jan confirmed with a nod. Her head was spinning from more than the fall. "Unforgivable, maybe."
"Oh, we wouldn't want that," Peggy murmured, leaning down to kiss her.
After another week of working toward and failing to track Hydra's headquarters, Peggy was pleased to note that Steve had stopped avoiding her. That was definitely a positive. Unfortunately, it didn't mean he was speaking to her. Mostly he just blushed in her general direction and tried not to make eye contact.
Regardless of whatever tension existed between her and Steve, the rest of the Avengers seemed to be much more at ease. Mary Jane stole some sort of webbing shooter from her husband and used them freely to lasso people, at one point even catching Peggy and demanding a kiss in exchange for freedom. Jan had insisted on more than mere kisses when she'd trapped Peggy on a balcony, and the one time she'd allowed Thor to cart her off had been immensely satisfying.
It was a bit like living with very young puppies, really. She kept finding them in the most unusual locations, often chewing on each other. Once, she even stumbled across the lot of them asleep in the den, fully clothed. She chose not to consider the how tempted she'd been to join them. It would have been too much of an assumption, slipping into a moment of intimacy that went beyond sex.
There was an ease to staying with the Avengers that she liked, and suspected she would miss no matter the outcome of current events. They were trustworthy, decent, and honorable to the last.
And that was why she was in the middle of a lab, straddling a wooden bench with her arm held in place by metal restraints. The tamper-proof casing on her arm hissed and spat sparks as Tony poked it with a small screw driver. Peggy winced instinctively, but it felt more like carbonated water than an electric shock. For his part, Tony didn't flinch, even when one of the sparks touched his arm. She'd insisted that he wear goggles, otherwise he probably would have gone after her with just a toolbox and enthusiasm.
It was singularly strange, seeing her arm bare down to metal. Somehow during her lost time, she'd gotten used to having it, but seeing it was different. There was still sensation, but it processed differently. When she flexed her fingers, she felt a hundred small parts shift, instead of muscle and bone. Even the color was unsettling, deep gunmetal, dull and unpolished.
"You know, I've never seen anything like this," Tony said suddenly, tapping his screw driver again one of the thin lines of metal joints that formed her muscles. Then he wedged one of the plates up and peered at the circuitry. "It's beautiful. Complex as all hell, and if you'd asked me a month ago, I'd have said that it can't be done. One of a kind."
Wondering if she was being hit on in some roundabout way, Peggy nodded. "I don't recall seeing any others with similar attachments," she agreed cautiously. He was Howard's son, after all. There was no point in encouraging him. He might try and switch out her arm for something with more firepower, and then where would she be?
"Probably couldn't be recreated or upgraded." Behind his goggles, he gave her an inscrutable look before turning back to his prodding. Something popped free, an oval of metal the size of a grain of an M&M. It attached to Tony's screwdriver as it fell, dangling from the tip. He peered at it, then carefully set it aside in a dish and turned back to her arm. "If something's special enough, perfect enough, it usually can't be changed, just added on to."
Peggy pressed her lips together. The conversation coalesced in her head. "You mean Steve."
"Did I say Steve? Hold still so we can get a scan of this," He didn't look at her as he gestured over one of the robots that littered his lab. "No, this isn't about Steve by himself. I know he told you that we're a package deal, right? Buy one Avenger, get six free."
"He didn't say it quite like that." It was surprisingly difficult to keep still as the robot rolled around, taking pictures of her arm from every angle, and then zooming in for one of the etching. "But I think I got the idea, yes. And I didn't reject the idea."
"Good—no, Zoot, that's enough, go process—good boy." Tony waved the robot off and started packing her arm back up, tucking the plates back into place and making sure she had full range of motion before letting her have it back. "I just wanted to let you know that you're not— you don't have to just share him with us, you know?"
Peggy's expression closed in on itself. "I don't think I follow, no."
The last bit of her arm closed up with a soft sound of latching metal. Tony heaved a sigh and pushed his goggles up, staring at her with the sort of intensity that might have gotten his father somewhere if he'd mastered it. "We talked. You don't have to hover around the outside like you're afraid we're going to kick you out. You can..." He flopped his wrist around, apparently trying to find a way to finish the sentence that wasn't too vulgar.
She rather liked him more for the effort, and delicately suggested, "Pile in?"
"Something like that," Tony grinned, and if she'd not been trained in watching people for years even before the plane crash, she wouldn't have seen the tightness around his eyes. He dropped down onto the bench between her knees. Amazingly, for being situated between her thighs, he managed to not touch anything personal. "You don't have to commit or anything—MJ and Peter manage, and Steve..." The smile wavered. "Steve adores you. It's eating him up."
"And I rather like him." Maybe she should have been more definitive when she and Steve had talked, if it was bothering him. But he'd always been a bit of a worrier when it came to romance, anyway. They hadn't even had a chance to really express their feelings before the war caught up with them. Leaping headlong into whatever the Avengers were would likely have just been disaster.
So if you're not leaping headlong, then just what are you doing, Agent 13? she asked herself rhetorically. Cozy as she'd been in various beds, she'd be a hypocrite if she tried to claim any sort of purity of purpose. But she wasn't sure she could be in that sort of situation without developing affections, whether she liked it or not. It would be one thing entirely if the Avengers were other than wonderful, but it seemed to her that they would be altogether too easy to love.
A fling was one matter, but something more permanent...
Peggy tilted her head and considered Tony, from the fine crinkles at the corner of his eyes to the faint shadow of stubble. He was so sincere, far more so than his father had ever been, with his smooth lines and fussy little mustache. "What about you?"
Tony didn't pretend to misunderstand the question. The edge of his smile faded to something wistful. "I love him," he admitted, in a low voice that made her heart jump. "And I don't want to lose him because of this."
"How can you love someone and give them away?" she had to ask, and then immediately felt bad for it. Who was she, appearing after years gone and coming between them? "I'm sorry, that was rude—"
"No, it's a fair question." Tony patted her leg. One of his calluses caught on the smooth fabric of her borrowed skirt, dragging it along her thigh a full inch before the callus released. "I guess the answer is that it's not giving him away. Or it doesn't feel like it when you love them all."
He had nice hands, strong and well proportioned, with neat nails that only had a bit of grease lodged under them. For a moment, she let herself think about what it would be like to let those hands touch her, especially if they were joined by Steve's. "But Steve is special."
"Yeah," Tony agreed quietly, with a soft smile. "He really is."
She bit her lip, thinking. There were a lot of ways it could go, but with so many people involved, there were also a lot of ways it could fail horrifically. More to the point, her last date had been with one man a lifetime ago, back when she'd had to paint on the lines for her stockings and it shocked some people that she even knew how to drive. Times had changed, Steve had changed, and she didn't want to lose him any more than Tony did.
The decision that needed to be made was an obvious one, but she still had to swallow back her nerves to make it. Looking up, she met Tony's eyes. "I need your help."
"Come on, you have to see this," Tony urged, dragging Steve down the hall. Not that Steve was resisting, actually, but Tony had decided he wasn't not-resisting fast enough. Tony had just gotten back from some sort of meeting, and was still dressed in a ten thousand dollar suit. It fit him perfectly, of course, since it had probably been made for him.
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Steve laughed, but it fell flat. It was pretty obvious that Something was Up. Tony was never very good at containing himself, and just then he was nearly bubbling over. Usually it was reserved for exciting new ways of blowing things up, but Tony was taking him to his bedroom, not the lab.
The image of Tony with explosives in the bedroom was a terrifying one. "Whatever you're planning, I'm not sure it's a good idea."
"Oh, it's not my plan," Tony said, too glib as they arrived at the end of the hall. He pushed open the door and hauled Steve through. "It's hers."
"Hello, Steve. You're under dressed." Peggy's smile lit up her eyes. She'd found a red dress that fit like a dream, and someone had done her makeup and hair into curls. The rest of the Avengers—notably missing Logan—were there too, wearing what they'd worn to the Charity Banquet. Jan was trying to teach Thor a box step, while Ororo and MJ had already trapped Peter in a corner and taken his tuxedo jacket off. Soft music played over hidden speakers, some sort of orchestral piece that he wasn't familiar with.
"Not like he'll be dressed at all for much longer." Tony nudged the door with his shoe, letting it swing gently closed.
"What's this about?" Steve asked, feeling bewildered as Tony hooked his arm and dragged him forward to where Peggy was waiting. He ended up stumbling before he caught his feet, and then she was there and had her arms around his neck. Tony let go of his arm and slipped off to drag Ororo off Peter and to the middle of the floor. Suddenly, it seemed like everyone was dancing and his feet were still rooted to the floor.
Peggy's eyes crinkled at the corners. Pointedly, she put one of his hands on her waist. "I thought it was obvious. You owe me a dance, Captain Rogers."
"I don't... I thought you hadn't decided...?" Steve swallowed nervously and forced himself to move. He could dance now. Tony had taught him. But looking at Peggy, everything he'd learned tried to dribble out his ears.
"Maybe I did decide." Warm, strong arms tightened around his neck. Peggy's body pressed against his, swaying with the beat. Heels made her almost tall enough to not have to crane her neck when looking him in the eye. "Don't tell me you still don't know how to dance."
"No, I—" Steve licked his lips. He could do it. It was just moving in rhythm and not stepping on toes, that was all. Even Peter could dance. The beat came easily. It was just like timing anything else. Once he started moving, falling into it, the only hard part was not stepping on her—
"Ow!" Peggy shuffled back, and Steve winced.
Jan and Thor had already lost interest in dancing and migrated to a wall for other entertainments. When Steve and Peggy turned to bring them into sight, Peggy flushed. Her eyes ducked away, then back. "Are you—" he started to say, but she shook her head.
"It's fine," Peggy promised. "I'll get used to it, just like I expect you had to." Her eyebrows lifted, and a smile teased the corner of her mouth. "Unless you just threw yourself into this willy-nilly?"
"It was mostly Tony, Jan and Ororo at first. None of the other Avengers even knew, I think," Steve explained, trying his damnedest not to blush. Not that it ever worked like that. "The team's changed a lot since then, and things just..." He shrugged a shoulder and spun her out, remembering how to move so she did it naturally. Of course, Peggy twirled and returned without so much as a stumble. "Things fell into place."
"Maybe they should fall into place now?" Tony said behind him, just as the music started to fade away. Warm, strong arms slipped around his waist as Tony pressed against Steve's back, his usual hint of cologne an interesting contrast to the perfume Peggy must have borrowed.
He had a sudden memory of those early days, when he'd picked the Avengers over SHIELD. When he'd found out about the others, he'd nearly changed his mind. Tony had convinced him to stay, but it had taken literally tripping over them and a long heart to heart before he'd stopped being an ass about it.
"We want you to stay on the team, Cap," Tony said, voice low and intent, sandwiched between the ladies on a sofa that wouldn't have fit three people less "friendly". "Don't think I don't. You're a good Avenger, a good man. But happiness is rare, and I'm not going to give it up. Not even for you."
Happiness. At the time, Steve thought Tony had been exaggerating, thought it was a sex thing. Looking back, he felt ancient compared to how he was then.
Steve let the warmth of Tony's body relax his muscles while he turned his attention to Peggy. She was the unknown factor in everything. It was one thing to fool around with individuals, but the team was another matter. "Are you sure you want this?"
"No." The single-word answer was a deadpan, but she laughed when his expression turned to badly concealed panic. Rising up on her slightly sore toes, she kissed him. "Steve, I'm never going to be sure until I try it. And if it doesn't work, at least I know."
He had a feeling that was the best he'd get. Nodding, Steve dipped his head and returned her kisses. Her lipstick tasted odd compared to his memory, smoother and softer, more perfumed than the last time—the only time he'd kissed her.
Off in another corner, just at the edge of his sight, Ororo and Mary Jane had sandwiched Peter again and appeared to be working on removing his pants. It was familiar and comfortable now, when back then he would have been too confused for comfort. Arousing, of course, because they were all handsome people, but he found himself looking for Ororo's little smile of concentration, the surprised sounds Peter always made, as if he could never figure out what was happening.
Next to them, Jan had her back to the wall and her thighs hooked around Thor's shoulders. The beautiful fabric of her dress bundled up around her waist, baring lean thighs and hips. Her groans were a soft counterpoint to the music, barely audible until a quiet part hit. Even as he watched, Ororo's hand reached out to wrap around Jan's.
That was where the real happiness was, in knowing that they were all there for each other, all loved each other. Even Logan, in his own way. And when he thought about it that way, he couldn't even see why he'd hesitated.
Ever aware of opportunity when it called his name, Tony's hands slipped low on Steve's waist and started working at the buttons of his jeans. A second later, one of Peggy's hands slid down Steve's chest to take apart his shirt. Between the two of them, Steve was hanging out of his clothes in under a minute.
Tony noticed it too, and grinned against the back of Steve's neck. His hand slithered inside Steve's underwear, gripping him with a loose roll of his wrist. "Efficient, and teamwork. I like that."
"Comes with military training." One step at a time, they herded Steve toward the bed. Peggy used her grip on his neck and shirt to drag him along, while Tony body-blocked him into keeping on the path until the back of Peggy's knees bumped into the bed. Normally, Steve would have twisted around so, as the larger one, he landed on bottom, but Peggy kept her arms tight and fell just as Tony pushed. It forced him down to sprawl over her, knees spread, while Tony pressed into his back.
"Plan?" he asked, a little breathless from the way Tony still had a hold of his dick. Peggy glanced over his shoulder, clearly looking at Tony for input, and Steve snorted. "I know you two have talked this out, so you may as well let me in on it."
Someone rocked the bed on the other side, and Steve looked up instinctively. Peter and Mary Jane had tumbled onto it, laughing and squirming, as Ororo worked to pin them both with kisses. It was working, though MJ had Ororo's dress off her shoulders and hanging around her waist, so it was even odds who was actually winning.
Looking away, Steve caught Peggy watching them too, with a curious expression.
"Look good, don't they?" Tony asked, moving enough to strip Steve's shirt off, followed by his undershirt.
Peggy looked back and grinned, locking her arms back around Steve. "I've always had an eye for pretty... faces. Now." Her nails dug into Steve's shoulders, blunt enough not to do any damage. "Come here."
The noises of so many other people having sex in one bedroom were distracting, at first. Peggy kept her eyes on Steve and, slightly less often, on Tony. They were collectively a wonderful distraction from her nerves, which would eat her up otherwise. Tony had a way of making things seem fun, even when she was just trying not to trip over her dress. It was relaxing, in a decidedly odd way, to know that if it ended up being a mess, at least it wouldn't be a bad sort of one.
And then they finally had Steve shucked out of his clothes, and thinking became hard.
Peggy had seen Steve's naked body more than once. In an army camp back in the war, a woman had to get over any squeamishness she might have had about male nudity. Tent walls were thin, emergencies happened, and she just had to just suck it up and not stare. Since she hadn't before, she took her time getting in her fair share of staring now. He really was lovely, in a chiseled, unnaturally perfect sort of way. From the curve of his pectorals down to the muscles of his abdomen, and lower where his cock pressed against her thigh, he was positively exquisite.
Steve smiled down at her, a hint of the small guy she remembered coming through in the shy tilt of his lips. "Your turn?" he suggested.
Oops. Peggy grimaced and patted his chest, then again for good measure. "I'll need up then. The zip's on the back."
Laughing, Tony hauled Steve upward so Peggy could scoot out from under them. "I knew we forgot something," he said, still snickering.
"We'll just have to try harder next time." Her shoes dropped down by the bed with two heavy thunks. Hopefully, they'd land where no one would step on them. Next, the dress. It was low enough in the back that she was able to tug down the zip by herself. The boys helped pull it off over her head, leaving her in her garter belt, hose and undergarments. The bra went fast after the dress, two hooks and away it went, flying overhead to smack into the wall by Jan, who didn't seem to notice or care that she'd become a target.
As Peggy reached for the edge of her underwear, she happened to glance up and saw Steve and Tony's eyes on her. A shiver ran over her skin, pickling her spine. That was interesting. Her movements slowed as she arched her back and lifted her hips, sliding the panties down her thighs. It was gratifying, the way their eyes tracked, Steve's on her legs—she always knew he was a leg man—and Tony's just a bit higher up. Tony was shedding his clothes without looking, long fingers running over buttons until he'd could kick out of his pants.
She waited for Tony to finish before asking, "Well? Are you coming, or should I go ask if Thor needs help with Janet?"
"Your hose?" Steve's voice had lowered. She'd never heard it like that before.
One of her fingers ran along the top edge of her hose along her thigh. It was scalloped lace, pretty and clingy. "They're not in the way."
"Have I taught you nothing, Rogers? Never question a lady." Tony crawled onto the bed, one arm wrapping around Peggy's waist, curving behind her back and around to cup her breast. His other hand dropped two condoms and a small tube off to the side of the mattress, ready for a need. She shivered and leaned into him, swallowing when his thumb flicked over her nipple. Tony's lips brushed the corner of her mouth, then swept across it, leaving a trail of tiny kisses before finally asking for more.
The bed dipped. Steve's hands ran up her thighs. Peggy let herself be pulled back against Tony's chest until she found herself tucked between his legs, while Steve settled on his knees between hers. Steve's lips pressed against her neck, tongue sliding up over her pulse. This wasn't exactly the plan, but it had been one of the options mentioned. She'd really expected Steve to be the one getting all the attention.
"Just tell us if it gets to be too much," Steve murmured against her skin. His eyes were bright when he pulled back to look at her, full of emotions that were just at the tip of her tongue. When Steve looked at her like that, it used to feel like the world faded away until it was just him.
But this time, it was just him, and just Tony, and just the others, who she refused to look at too much because she couldn't watch and concentrate. Maybe it was an acquired skill.
"Nervous," Peggy finally admitted. It wasn't easy, but there was nothing for it but honesty. She'd been around the bedroom a few times before meeting Steve, but there'd been nothing like the feeling of being pressed between two people. One of her legs wrapped around Steve's thigh, tugging him in closer. "Stop worrying so much and get over here."
For maybe the first time in his life, Steve followed orders without arguing. He settled against her, hard cock pressed against her stomach until she slipped a hand down to wrap around it with a tentative little pull. Against her back, Tony rocked, slipping his hands between her thighs to run an artist's fingers along her cunt.
Sweat started to bead Peggy's skin. She gasped, arching her back and rolling her hips down into Tony's hand. It pushed her back against Tony, where his dick had nestled against her back, and his hand fumbled. Vindictively, she did it again, just to feel him shudder.
Steve had, in fact, been paying attention the years he'd been with the Avengers, and took advantage of the moment to lock his lips around her breast. His tongue lashed at the hard peak of her nipple, dragging another groan from Peggy's throat.
Tony's teeth nipped at her ear. "Ready? Lift up."
Heat pooled between her thighs, drawing a line directly between Steve's mouth and Tony's fingers. She didn't even hear the question consciously, just pushed to her knees, using Steve's shoulders for balance. She was far enough gone that it didn't even worry her that she had a direct line of sight on Jan and Thor now. They'd graduated from Jan propped against the wall to on her knees and straddling his head, mouth wrapped around Thor's cock. Peggy licked her lips and let herself watch, fascinated beyond all measure. She remembered the feel of Jan's mouth against hers, clever fingers on her skin. It felt strange and forbidden, watching someone else receive Jan's pleasures as she had.
Steve glanced between her and Tony, but whatever Tony did must have reassured him. He watched her anxiously while somewhere behind the sounds of sex she heard the pop of a cap coming off. After a second, something slightly chilled slid down between her buttocks.
"Is this okay?" Steve asked again, moving to be in her line of sight, and Peggy had to resist the immediate need to hit him. She settled for giving his cock a twist of her wrist as she pumped it.
"If you don't stop asking that, I'm going to shoot you again."
"Again?" Tony asked—snickered, really. His fingers curled, applying far more lubricant than was strictly necessary.
Peggy fought to keep herself relaxed as the first finger eased into her anus. It wasn't entirely new to her, doing things this way. The stretch wasn't too bad, not yet, and the slick was better than anything they'd had in the 40s, but it had been a while. "He was kissing another woman," she explained in a ragged voice, rocking back into Tony's hand. "Are you always this careful with women?"
"Just ones that can kill me one-handed." But he added another finger anyway. The stretch went from a mild discomfort to something more invasive. Steve picked that moment to pick up where Tony had left off; his thicker fingers ran down her cunt, sending shivers up her spine. Any unpleasantness from the stretch behind melted away under the dual assault. Even her hand on Steve slowed as her ability to concentrate faded away.
Groaning, Peggy's head tilted back against Tony. At the other side of the bed, Ororo and Mary Jane were putting Peter to work. Ororo had taken over his lap while his wife straddled his mouth. They rode him in time to the music, exchanging slow kisses as they did. She shivered and rocked into Steve's hand, then back into Tony's. Her skin was too tight, too sensitive already.
Over her shoulder, Steve and Tony's lips met in a building kiss, flashes of tongue and teeth that were nearly as distracting as the others. She was starting to have a hard time recalling why she'd been at all wary.
The sound of foil tearing finally dragged Peggy's attention away from watching. She couldn't see Tony properly, but she watched Steve roll on the condom. Her nerves flared again, curling in her stomach and fluttering up into her heart.
Steve leaned back, pulling her down atop him. She straddled his hips with little rolls against him, sliding along his cock slickly. It only took a slight shift to catch against him and slide down. It was a slow stretch of muscles long unused, making her gasp. His hands flexed against her hips in short little tugs as if he were used to going much faster.
Adjusting to Steve's girth wasn't nearly as easy as she'd anticipated. Though she'd kept plenty fit, there was really no helping so many years without. By the time she finished settling on him, she was positive that she'd be feeling it the next day, and possibly into the day after. It left her gasping, eyes unfocused as she adjusted. Little motions made sparks dance across her nerves and stole her breath.
"Peggy?" Steve asked in her ear, breath warm on her skin.
Peggy managed a nod and a smile and somehow didn't just shove him over and take control. No matter how good it felt, she had some manners. "I'm fine—more than fine. Just been a while. Tony?"
Tony was next, and that was much, much harder than Steve. His cock pressed against her, easing in as carefully as his fingers had before. He was gentle, slow, but she was already filled by Steve. Every little bit made her breath come in shorter pants and threatened to bring her to orgasm much, much sooner than she cared for. The burn and stretch of muscles was stronger too, the wider stretch touching nerves she hadn't even been aware of before. Steve's fingers played along her back and sides, rubbing and teasing the skin. There was really no distracting from Tony, though.
By the time she had both of them inside her, Peggy was nearly coming apart. She closed her eyes and focused on breathing.
Lips pressed against the back of her neck, along with the soft scratch of a beard. "Doing okay?" Tony murmured. She nodded, still trying to hold herself together. She didn't even have attention to spare for what the others were doing. Everything had come down to Steve, Tony, and what they were doing to her.
"Next time—" Peggy started to say, then choked on a gasp when her weight shifted, moving them inside her. Her vision faded at the edges before coming back into sharp focus. Tentatively, she rolled her hips, finding that as long as she was careful she had a surprising amount of motion. Steve and Tony rocked with her, helping her balance as she focused on taking them both.
They found a rhythm eventually, a comfortable slip-slide that was just fast enough without being awkward or too rough. Peggy dropped her head, back arched and groaned, eyes slipping closed from the sheer weight of everything. Every now and then, someone's hand would slide along her skin, or a mouth would find hers. Steve liked kisses, liked pressing his face into her neck and whispering encouragement, as if she really needed any. By contrast, Tony only stole kisses from Steve twice, and once from her. He barely even spoke, as if his mind had to entirely focus on the task at hand.
The heat and pressure built higher, higher, as if it would just keep going on. Something happened, some magic combination of Steve's teeth against her neck or Tony's hand pressed against her abdomen, but it was enough. Her head slipped against against Tony's shoulder as she cried out and came, hips jerking down against them in broken, hard little thrusts. Every muscle in her clenched, dragging out the pleasure until she felt wrung like a rag.
Miraculously, they had the patience left to wait her out until she'd fallen forward again, Tony especially showing more restraint than she would have suspected for any son of Howard Stark. Then they started moving again, slower until she remembered herself and picked back up.
It didn't take long for Tony to follow her over the edge. He buried his forehead against her shoulder as he shook against her, body strung tight as a drum. Another, smaller orgasm dragged through Peggy when his teeth sank into the muscle of her shoulder.
Tony slipped out of her and to the side, discarding the condom with a practiced hand. He watched them with lazy eyes, like a contented cat in his favorite place at the window.
Peggy used the extra room to sit up and drive herself down on Steve hard, picking up speed. She wasn't about to let Steve's patience wear her down. Not now. Her pride needed some shreds to hold together.
Steve gasped and gripped her hips, staring up at her with wide blue eyes. Peggy grinned and deliberately clenched herself around him, earning a noise of surprise. With as many lovers as Steve had, he had to have seen that before, so she suspected he just hadn't expected it from her.
Someone pressed against her back, big and bulky with muscle, chest hair a soft tickle against her skin. "Teeth, my lady," Thor stage-whispered, lips brushing her ear. Steve's throat worked in a hard swallow, clearly indicating that he'd heard, but Thor kept whispering as if he hadn't. "Our Captain finds much joy when pleasure comes with a bite."
Peggy nodded, too breathless to reply, even if she knew how. Figuring Thor knew better than she, she ducked her head and found Steve's throat, sinking her teeth in. Whether it was the bite or something else, Steve came undone, whole body going stiff and eyes rolling back in his head as he came. Then he toppled backward, limp as a rag doll.
Collapsing seemed like one of the better ideas anyone had had all day. Peggy slipped free, wincing at how empty she felt without them both. She'd adjust, but the first bit of time was the worst. Steve's arms slipped around her, and Tony uncurled himself enough to toss his arm over her hip, which helped, while Thor found someplace just to the other side of Steve.
The Spider-Storm triad had collapsed into a sated heap, having been joined by Jan. They looked cozy, and Peggy considered suggesting they join them, then sighed and snuggled deeper into Steve's chest. There would be time for that later.
Someone kissed her temple, she wasn't really sure who, but it was definitely Tony's voice asking, "Not bad for a first try?"
"Mmhm," Peggy answered, turning her head enough to get the words out. Steve's heartbeat under her cheek was slowing from its high point. She liked feeling it, a reminder that the Arctic hadn't killed him after all. "Not bad at all."
"I have it!" The door to the laboratory stairs burst open as Tony threw himself through them, clutching in his hand a piece of paper. "I figured it out!"
Thor looked up from breaking his fast, waffle sandwich in one hand and strong coffee in the other. Unfortunately for his excited lover, there was no one else to share his joy. Fair Peggy had been whisked away by the equally fair Ororo and slightly less fair Peter. Janet was occupying her morning with Mary Jane, attempting to maintain the golden bronze of her lithe limbs while the autumn sun yet remained. Steven was, most likely, occupying himself with Logan in the gym, which left only Thor to bear the task of hearing Tony's adventures in Science.
It was not, to Thor's shame, a duty he greatly enjoyed. For while in his many years he had enjoyed the beds and company of many who meddled in mystic or technic arts, never had he developed any fondness for them himself. But for a shield brother, he would attend carefully, regardless of his personal interests.
Putting forth his greatest attempt at being both gallant and generous, Thor waved Tony to a chair. "Sit, friend, and feast as you tell me of your discoveries."
Tony dropped down into the chair at Thor's side and reached for a waffle from the mighty stack Thor had obtained through Jarvis' clever work. Predictably, Tony immediately began eating, evidencing a hunger that suggested most certainly that he had not taken time to eat the previous evening. This was something Thor had suspected, as the rest of them had dined on most excellent roast swine while Tony had been notably absent, hard at work on his Art. It was possible that Tony had dined after they had retired for the evening, but unlikely.
Displeased by the lines of exhaustion that crossed Tony's brow, Thor refilled his own cup from the coffee carafe and nudged it into Tony's hands. His friend did not even pause before taking a drink: more evidence of having failed to care properly for himself. This development would need attending to, if Tony did not see to it himself.
"You have discovered something of note?" he prompted gently once Tony had consumed an entire waffle.
"Mm, yeah," Tony nodded, setting down the waffle to spread out his paper. It was a map of some sort, hills and buildings picked out clearly, but quite a bit was open space. "Peggy let me look at her arm yesterday, and I found something that turned out to be a GPS tracker embedded in the support plating. I managed to follow the signal back to to an address—supposed to be a manufacturing plant for shower curtains, but satellite shows a mostly empty lot. It has to be where they're hiding out."
When Tony failed to resume eating, Thor cast about for a morsel, finding in in the delicious sausages that accompanied the waffles. Picking up on, he offered it to Tony's lips expectantly, then nodded in satisfaction when a bite was obediently taken. "So we may attack, and lay low the foes who would harm you and the Lady Peggy. We shall tear their fortress asunder and show them for the villains they are."
"Not exactly," Tony demurred around a mouthful of thick, hearty sausage. Teeth scraped the tips of Thor's fingers as the sausage reached its end, but he did not protest when Thor offered his unfinished waffle. "We don't even know what they want. Charge in and we might land ourselves in a trap."
"A disquieting possibility," Thor had to acknowledge. He'd been in more than one ambush, and while the Avengers had as well—and survived, obviously—he did not care to risk his family lightly. "And one we would be wise to avoid. Have you thoughts on the matter?"
Tony shook his head and quaffed the remainder of his coffee. "That's what I came up hoping to find. We need to call a meeting to brainstorm. Peggy's been gone long enough that Hydra's probably suspicious."
"Aye, time is not something we dare waste." Thor continued to provide Tony with food as he thought over the matter. As a matter of course, the Avengers had a plentitude of options available to combat any traps or difficulties Hydra might provide, but a plan of action was never amiss. Peggy in particular drew his thoughts. The enemy with many heads thought her another one of them, and did not know that her loyalties had been freed to attain their rightful place.
He was minded of the trouble he once had with the Thrym and the steps he had taken to retrieve Mjolnir from their grasp. While his brother Loki was not available to assist as he had been at the time, there were other methods available. "Finish filling yourself," Thor declared, stuffing the last bit of waffle between Tony's lips, "and then we shall call together our brothers and sisters in arms. I believe I know of a way to strike at our enemy's very heart."
"This is a bad idea," Tony said for the sixth time while they were at a stop light. At least, he thought it was a stop light. It was hard to tell, with his head covered by a hood. He was also, incidentally, on his stomach folded over a motorcycle and trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, or that one time Jan had wanted to try bondage games, which only made it worse. The Iron Man armor had given him a lot of experience with G-forces, but nothing could have prepared him for that. "I just want to make sure you know that. Bad idea. Very bad."
Peggy patted his back soothingly, and if her hand drifted a little lower than just his back, he wasn't going to complain. "At least you're not in a skirt. Now be quiet, we're almost there. Act unconscious."
"Pretty soon it won't be an act," he grumbled, but obediently worked on looking limp. The only thing to do was hang on and hope she knew what she was doing. He had a deactivated GPS tracker on him, a remote that would call the armor and a few handy explosives, but nothing that would save him in serious trouble.
Hydra being essentially the definition of serious trouble.
The last part of the ride was bumpy, probably off road. The air took on a smell of grass and ocean, and the sound of traffic vanished entirely. Bruises gathered on Tony's ribs and stomach as the bounced and bopped their way through ruts. By the time they slowed , Tony's possum act was only a few more contusions from being real.
"Okay, we're here," Peggy whispered, putting a hand between his shoulder blades. The bumps eased, and then vanished with one last thud as they hopped back onto some sort of pavement. "Relax."
"Easy for you to say." Relaxing was not an option. He was barely keeping his ribs from being cracked as it was.
He'd expected Peggy to say something back, but a light flashed over them, bright enough to be visible through his hood, and Tony did his level best to relax.
"The Winter Soldier, reporting in." Peggy hardly sounded like herself. Tony had grown used to her being serious, but warm, a bit like Steve when he was in Captain America mode. All of that had bled out, leaving a voice with less personality than most of his machines.
"Is this the target?" an unfamiliar person asked. "You don't usually bring them back to base, do you?" If Tony had to guess, he would have said a male voice, but there was some sort of breathing mask in place that muddled the sound. Hydra had apparently invested in Darth Vader helmets.
"That's between myself and my superiors," Peggy replied. Tony wished he could see. He suspected that frost was growing on the guard's helmet from her tone. "You will inform them of my presence."
"I don't think—"
"You will inform them of my presence," Peggy repeated, even more sharply.
"I— yes, ma'am. If you'd please step off the bike. There's an unidentified energy source coming from it."
Tony's heart nearly stopped. The reactor. He hadn't thought they'd notice, but of course they'd be scanning for anything unusual. This was the Nazi Science Division. Being picky about details was probably in the union contract, along with bad aim and an affinity for shiny boots.
"That won't be necessary," Peggy said smoothly, pressing Tony harder into the bike when someone grabbed his shoulders and tried to lift him off. He grunted, unable to help himself. More bruises. "It's his pace maker. Consider it identified."
A machine beeped. "That's one hell of a pacemaker," the guard finally said.
"There's a reason I've brought back this one. Are we finished?"
There was a pause, as if the guard really didn't like it, but eventually he said, "You can go. I'll send word to Commander Lukin and the Lady that you've come back."
Tony's head came up, but fortunately the the bike started again and it looked like he'd just been bumped. He only had to brace himself for a few minutes before it stopped, and was replaced with the distinct sensation of down. Elevator, probably. Hydra always had liked working underground.
"You know that name?" Peggy asked under the rumble of the elevator.
"Aleksander Lukin, buys congressmen like they're stocks in a bear market," Tony whispered. "Not surprised he's a Nazi."
She snorted as the elevator stopped. Parking, it seemed, was as simple as rolling backward and letting some machine move them around on a platform. Tony was going to have to look into that for his own garage.
When the platform stopped moving, Peggy shook his shoulder hard, then physically pulled him off the motorcycle. Her hand—the right one—wrapped around his arm and yanked him upright. "On your feet," she ordered, and okay, maybe the machine-voice was a little hot. Her body pressed against his, and even though he was fully clothed, he could feel the leather bodysuit she was in.
"We're being watched now," Peggy whispered into his ear while she pretended to force him awake and upright.
"Do you know where we're going?" Tony choked, bent nearly double. It was only half an act. His stomach hurt like someone had been using him for a punching bag. He hoped she remembered to grab the suitcase armor from the back of the bike, because his ribs were going to need the support.
"I remember this," was all she'd say. Then she had a hard on his shoulder and practically dragged him along.
Light changed outside the hood, going from dim to nearly bright, and the quality of the air changed with it. It became crisper, with a cold bite that came from air conditioning and antiseptic. It smelled like every professional laboratory Tony had ever been in, faintly of explosions and mostly of chemicals that tried to mask the scent of the explosions. Safe under his hood, he grinned. There were only so many ways a lab could be laid out, and he'd been in them all and had probably blown them up too. Even if he lost Peggy, he could probably find his way around eventually.
After three turns and another elevator, the air suddenly went from cool to freezing. Goosebumps crawled up Tony's skin, cool even through his business jacket. Peggy yanked him around without a word of warning and shoved him down into a chair that was so cold it had frosted over. He let himself sag forward. At least it let him ease his still-sore ribs.
Footsteps, two pairs. One soft and another that could only be high heels.
"Ah, my Soldier. I thought we'd lost you," a faintly accented male announced. It was only a little familiar, since Tony made a habit of avoiding Washington, which was Lukin's favorite snake pit. Next to Hydra, apparently. "And you brought a gift. Madame, I told you that the Winter Soldier would come through for us."
"So you did." That voice Tony didn't know, but he didn't need to. He'd heard the same tone from people throughout his life. It was the silky sound of someone who wanted whatever they could get from you, and really didn't care how much bleeding you had to do to give it. "That is who I think it is?"
The hood was pulled off. Tony kept his eyes closed and his posture limp, even when someone with claws for nails gripped his chin and lifted his head.
"He doesn't look injured," Lukin murmured.
"There are ways." Scratch being hot, the machine-voice was back to creepy. Just then, Tony would have paid a lot of money to never have to hear it again. "But there's more to report."
Tony risked cracking his eyes, but all he saw was way too much green. Villains had to have a theme, he guessed, but lime didn't look good on anyone. "And what could that be?" the woman said.
The sound of a safety being clicked off was impossible to miss. Peggy kept a gun trained on Lukin, while one of the small attachments in her wrist was focused on the Lady in Lime. "The Avengers are here."
That would have to do for a cue. Tony pulled loose the knot at his wrists and dived forward, out of the way of Peggy's targets. One of the small, golf ball-sized bombs he'd stashed in his pockets rolled toward the emergency exit, while he sent the other at the security panel.
Explosions. Whenever Tony was involved, there were always explosions. Spider-Man probably shouldn't have grinned when the ground trembled and smoke started coming from Hydra's Secret Lair, but it was kind of hard not to. Okay, so maybe it was only a little boom, but any boom was good against Hydra.
"Knock it off and spin me a line," Wolverine scowled, holding out his hand expectantly.
Spider-Man immediately stopped his happy dance, lest he face the wrath of The Grumpy One. Estimating arc and speed, he carefully picked an anchor point and latched a webline onto it, giving a good tug. He wouldn't have risked it with most of the others, but if Wolverine broke his neck it was less permanent than if Cap did.
They'd split up, and for whatever reason, he'd been the one stuck with Wolverine. Not his best gig ever. Not even his second best. Maybe third, above the paper route he had once. And even that hadn't been so bad, since he'd been the sort of kid who liked riding his bike around for hours on end. Getting to throw things while he did it had been a bonus.
Fog started rolling in off the coast, along with thick thunderclouds—Storm and Thor, doing their thing. He couldn't see Cap or Giant Girl, but they were around there somewhere. They might even have been close to Tony's boom.
The fog got so thick that they could barely make out the web anchor. Together, Spider-Man and Wolverine waited in the dark, until Hydra—finally—noticed that someone was blowing things up without authorization. Bright yellow flashlights and flares lit up the night, but with the fog it all just became one glowing blur.
Wolverine wrapped his hand around the line, picked up his feet, and swung. It was hard to tell, but he thought he saw Wolverine drop down into the mess of Hydra agents. Someone yelped, and then that part of the fog was a little quieter.
Spider-Man followed a minute after, using three different strands to swing himself around in a circle. Every time motion caught his eye, he spun out a bit of webbing, swaddling anyone he saw. They cursed and went down, fighting the sticky strands, but there was enough confusion that a few more people rolling on the ground didn't really catch attention. A few of them tripped over each other, rolling, and Spider-Man helpfully added more strands. They piled up, one by one, until he was able to proudly perch on the ball and proclaim, "Behold, the world's biggest ball of Hydra!"
The ball groaned and wiggled under his feet. Everyone was a critic.
The fog rolled in easily, growing thicker than pea soup in a matter of minutes. Storm watched approvingly from above and used the wind to keep it corralled. Fog was always tricky business. Too fast and it shredded, but too slow and it was late. Weather could not be rushed.
Well, most sorts of weather.
Off to the north, Thor used the whirl of Mjolnir to hover, coalescing thunderheads around him. Lightning flickered between high clouds, lighting them like the flashlights in the fog, but never forked to the ground without Thor throwing it back. He played them like a conductor in front of an orchestra, building to the crescendo.
Working with Thor was always a pleasure. He did half of Storm's job for her. Electricity danced over her skin, lifting the hair on her arms and prickling her senses, invisible to the eye but not to her mutation. She stole some of the energy from his storms, sending it down to adjust the temperatures and thicken her fog. Thor grinned across the expanse of clear air between them, noticing her theft but not particularly appearing to care. A God had enough resources to loan her a few to warm the waters.
Two explosions went off in the compound below, separated only by the breath of a second. At least Tony was somewhat predictable.
She released her hold on the fog, letting it roll in off the Atlantic coast. It folded out in a blanket of thick white, hiding everything below except for vague shadows. Lights started turning on in the Hydra base, first at the edges, then in the very heart of the fog, where they succeeded only in blinding anyone stupid enough to use one.
Villains never really chose minions for intelligence.
"Have you finished with your hindering of the enemy gaze, my Lady, that you may tell me where to best strike?" Thor yelled over the howl of winds. While she'd been concentrating on laying down the concealing weather, his thunderstorms had lowered and grown more brutal. Lightning came every few minutes, barely restrained by Thor's hand.
Storm pulled out her Avengers ID card, tapping it in the sequence that started the pocket GPS program. The little photo turned dark, then developed two thin green lines and a red dot. She adjusted her position by the tracker, riding the winds until the red dot occupied the center of the crosshairs. "Here!"
Electricity sparked. What had been a prickle turned into a torrent, shivered across her skin and down her back. Storm let it slide through and then past her. It cracked into the ground with a sound that defied any of Tony's attempts, the pure roar of nature unleashed. Another one followed, ripping through dirt and concrete like thin paper. Unlike natural lightning, nothing arced from the ground to meet it, all the force being directed purely downward. Thor didn't stop until the earth peeled open, leaving a gaping hole over what appeared to be a parking complex.
Almost invisible through the fog, a figure clad in bright blue darted into the breach and dropped out of sight. Storm nodded to herself, and turned her attention to the remaining Hydra agents.
Wasp stayed small and clung to Cap's shoulder as he ducked into the hole Thor had so thoughtfully smashed into the ground for them. The parking complex—well, she thought it was a parking complex—was a mess. Chunks of vehicles littered the ground everywhere. One of them distinctly looked like half of the motorcycle Peggy had used to "kidnap" Tony. Good thing they'd picked one of the less loved models. Cap stayed low, dodging between bits of rubble for concealment. The occasional Hydra agent rushed past, but none of them noticed him as they ran either to or away from the fight going on above. They had other things on their mind.
The last stretch between the parking area and the main base, however, was clear of anything to hide behind. Fifty Hydra agents, better disciplined than the others, milled around in something like a formation. They'd parked themselves right in front of the access tunnel, blocking it entirely.
Cap glanced at her, holding up three fingers, then pointing at the agents. There were too many to fight through without risk, and they couldn't be sure backup would arrive in time. Trickery was going to be their best bet.
She nodded and lifted off, zipping through the air. Her stingers charged with a faint yellow glow that was easily drowned by the lights coming from the access tunnel. Flying low, Wasp dodged between the agents' legs, aimed upward, and let her stingers fly. One by one, they yelped and leapt away, causing a domino effect as they started stepping on each other's toes in an effort to avoid being stung. She wove in and out of their legs, stinging whatever happened to be nearby and sensitive.
In the crush of agents, it didn't take long before a fight broke out. Wasp stayed in the mix as long as she could, but it was only a few minute before the rough got too tumble and she made for the tunnel.
While Wasp was being a distraction, Cap slipped through the chaos. She touched down and grew to normal size as he looked up from the portable GPS that was locked on Tony's personal signal. "Good work. Now, let's go find out people."
"Do you think they've really found the leaders?" Wasp asked as they picked their way through the tunnel to the main body. The whole place was a little too cool, making her shiver. What was it with villains and underground lairs? Hadn't any of them ever heard of normal buildings before, or were those just too popular?
Hipster villains. Her mind shuddered away from the thought. Some things were just too much.
Hydra's predictability worked in their favor. The base was set up logically, as a simple grid with elevators at the north and south ends and stairs at the east and west. It only went down. They took the northern elevator, checked Tony's location, and then moved down again. Most of Hydra had been drawn outside, leaving only a few roving guards to take down.
The red blip on the locator blinked weakly, and then started rolling across the screen. Cap made a face and looked back at the Wasp. "He's on the move, headed west."
"Stairs?" she asked, surprised. Tony and Peggy were supposed to stay in place.
"Maybe they—" The overhead lights flashed off, then started glowing red. "That's not good. Let's move!"
Shrinking down for better speed, Wasp zipped ahead, taking the turns on the grid with hairpin precision. Cap followed hot on her heel, boots squeaking every time he skidded around a corner.
They came in sight of the west stairs just as the door blew off its hinges. Peggy rolled through the falling fragments, hit her feet and kept running for the next staircase up. A repulsor blast exploded the next door before Peggy got to it.
"They set off a self-destruct!" Iron Man's computerized voice yelled. "Move it or lose it!"
Cap and the Wasp glanced at each other, then took to their heels. With Iron Man blowing open the doors, they didn't have to slow down as they sped back upstairs. There was just one problem—fifty pissed off Hydra agents were between them and the exit.
Peggy peered down the tunnel, then upward, silently estimating the distance between ceiling and surface. "Iron Man, do you think you can blow a hole in the roof?"
Repulsors whined as Iron Man let them charge. The clear white glow from his palms cut through the red lighting like a small sun as he took aim. "For a lovely lady, I can do anything."
"Not so fast, my Winter Soldier." An elderly man with a thinning head full of white hair stepped out from around the corner, gun aimed directly on Peggy. Memories clicked, and she froze in place, hands half-way to her holstered gun. "Did you think I would let your loyalty go unrewarded? Iron Man, drop your hands at once or I shall place a bullet in her pretty skull."
"Lukin." Peggy's teeth ground together. Slowly, she shifted her balance, leaning in toward Steve. Wasp had vanished out of sight, but as small as she was it didn't take much to do. Maybe she was going for help. But there wasn't any time. "You're insane. If you keep us here, you'll die too."
He shrugged. "I am an old man. I no longer fear death. Ignominy is a worser fate."
A few feet in front of her, Cap leaned backward, apparently adjusting his stance. His hand crept behind his back, slowly reaching for the emergency release on the strap that held his shield to his shoulders. Just a little farther... "Who do you think will remember you, if you die hiding in a hole in the ground?" he asked rhetorically. "Hydra? Hydra doesn't remember anyone."
Lukin grinned. It was an ugly grin, perfectly straight teeth bared in a grimace of a smile. "They will remember the man who killed Captain America—you may cease your squirming Captain. I will shoot her for your transgressions as well."
Something was moving in the corridor behind Lukin. Peggy fought not to let her eyes track it. "You'd kill your favorite creation?" she asked, trying to keep him distracted. In her head, the countdown for the self-destruct marched onward. Two minutes left. "You dedicated your whole life to making me."
"And it is fitting that you will die with your creator, isn't it?"
"Wait, he made you? Him?" Iron Man sounded nearly insulted. "He's a Luddite! I saw him type in the self-destruct code! Two fingers!"
Peggy's lips pressed tight together as the motion behind Lukin became apparent. A large black marker moved apparently of its own volition, scrawling on the wall. Be ready to move. She wasn't going to smile, she wasn't going to smile... "He managed the operation. Always more of a planner than a doer."
That seemed to be the trigger. "You are my creation!" Lukin screamed. His gun dropped marginally. "I gave the order, I watched as they—"
Wasp sped down the corridors toward them, flying at top speed. At the half-way point, she started gaining size. Her feet touched down on the slick, well-waxed linoleum as she dropped into a slide. By the time she reached Lukin, he was just starting to turn, and she was three times her usual size.
In a flash of sudden motion, Peggy dodged to the side, grabbing Cap and rolling with him. She sandwiched him between her and the wall while Iron Man took the cue and moved the other way. Before Lukin had time to react, she bowled him down, sending him tumbling head over tail. Just before she hit the wall, she shrunk back down into Wasp form and curved upward, the tips of her toes nearly grazing it as she avoided a crash landing.
Iron Man bent over Lukin's crumbled and unconscious body. He peeled open his eyes, checked his breathing, then picked him up in a fireman's hold. "I think his legs are broken."
One minute, forty-five seconds Peggy's internal clock reported. She uncurled from around Cap and helped him up. "Worry about it later. Roof, then out. We're out of time."
Detritus scattered everywhere as Iron Man carved a hole out of the roof, layer by painful layer. The shield kept them protected for the most part, with tiny-Wasp tucked against the underside, but stray debris nicked Peggy anyway. Shallow cuts decorated her unprotected arms and a longer one cut down across her thigh. Cap slid an arm around her waist to help keep her under the shield, but he could only do so much. And if it meant that she got to hold him close, that was just a pleasant side-effect, really.
She tried not to think that her inner voice was starting to sound suspiciously like Tony.
The second a large enough hole had been carved, Wasp dropped out of her safe place and grew, and grew, until Giant Girl had to hunch down with her back pressed to the roof. Cap and Peggy caught a lift in one of her massive palms, being lifted up until they could jump to clear ground and run while Iron Man flew Lukin out. As soon as her hand was clear, Giant Girl shrank down again and flew out the hole, making for height rather than distance.
Overhead, helicopters with SHIELD logos were breaking apart the fog with the wind from their blades. Thirty seconds, Peggy counted, beating feet through the fog and clutter of downed Hydra agents. Most of them had been webbed up, but a few had been knocked entirely unconscious, and more than one looked like they'd been singed. More agents were running out of the building, appearing from hidden exits and making tracks.
"Avengers, fall back!" Iron Man broadcast, so loud that it echoed. "I repeat, fall back!"
A webline smacked into one of the helicopters, dragging it down for a nanosecond before Spider-Man found the right swing. He rose out of the mist carrying a ball of Hydra agents the size of a large SUV. Peggy and Cap reached the far edge of the complex just as the explosion started. The ground rippled under their feet, sending everyone sprawling to the dirt. In slow motion it rose up, then sank back down into a deep dip, like delicate soufflé when the oven door was slammed.
Cap pushed himself to his hands and knees as soon as the shaking stopped. "Did everyone make it out?" he asked, looking back at the decimated ground. A few places had turned to utter mud and muck, and holes had appeared as if from nowhere. More than a few small fires were evident underground, but the crush of dirt was putting them out as fast as they could burn.
Peggy rolled over to sit on the ground, her mostly rump chilled through the thin leather bodysuit, but not enough to care about. "I don't see the Lady anywhere," she answered, looking around at the prisoners. Iron Man was handing Lukin over to a SHIELD agent, who was handling the businessman like he was week old roadkill. Other than that, everyone else was in a standard Hydra uniform. The Lady would have stood out, but the only agents she saw were definitely lower level.
Wind picked up, blowing dirt and loose leaves in a spiral. "Escaped," Storm reported with a frown. "We saw her take to a small plane and head east, but were unable to follow without leaving Spider-Man and Wolverine undefended from the air."
"At least we got Lukin," Peggy grimaced. She pushed her hair out of her eyes. It smelled like smoke and sulfur, scents she would be happy to never have to deal with again. "Let's go home."
Behind his cowl, Cap's eyes lit up in a way that Peggy was too tired to notice. But Storm did, and it brought an answering smile to her lips.
"Yes," she agreed, holding out her hands to help them to their feet. "Home."
"You actually sleep like this?" Peggy whispered to Steve doubtfully from the middle of a pile of sleeping Avengers. She'd claimed the spot between Steve and Tony. While she didn't really mind Jan sprawled across her legs, or the way Thor's arm engulfed all three of them from Steve's other side, there were definite draw backs. Peter and Mary Jane apparently slept on Thor as a habit,, which meant that every now and then one of them would throw a leg over her and Steve. On Tony's other side, Ororo's hair had already escaped from its braid and was making a valiant effort to be eaten by everyone in range.
They were all wearing some sort of sleepwear, which eased her nerves somewhat. Sex was one thing, but sleeping in the nude felt oddly even more intimate. In some cases it was new sleepwear—Peggy had found the price tags.
"Just some nights," Steve answered, whispering almost directly into her ear. She shivered against him and wiggled a little, getting more comfortable. Her nose was practically smushed against his bare chest. Not that anyone was complaining about Steve's chest, of course. "We can move if you want...?"
"No," she decided after a few minutes of thought. "This is good." The joint bed was cozy, if a bit of a tight fit. Rolling over would be a trick. Luckily, the mattress was probably something ridiculously expensive, going by how comfortable it was. It would have had to be just by the size. Fitting Thor alone would have been a trick for most furniture.
Tony's beard scratched the back of Peggy's shoulder as he stretched against her. "Are you two still awake?" he mumbled. "Go to sleep. We have to deal with the death certificate thing tomorrow."
On Peggy's hip, Jan lifted her head. The waistband of Peggy's shorts had left a crease across her cheek that was barely visible in the dim room. "Death certificate?" Her eyebrows drew together in a frown. "Who died?"
Peggy reached down and tapped Jan's nose. "I did."
"Have to declare her alive to get her on the Avengers payroll," Tony said, then yawned and snuggled back in, burying his face between Peggy's shoulders. "And a driver's license."
Steve had other concerns than Peggy's legality. "Avengers payroll?" he asked hopefully.
One of Peggy's elbows knocked back to gently nudge Tony's ribs, getting a grunt for the effort. "Wonderful work, ruining the surprise."
"We'll come up with a better surprise tomorrow." Jan dropped her cheek back against Peggy's hip and squirmed until she was nestled snug between Tony's legs and Peggy's.
That, Peggy decided, wasn't a bad plan at all.