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Steven Grant 'Steve' Rogers, July 4th:

“Are you awake?”

Peggy’s voice filters through the rush in Steve’s ears, the pounding that sounds like being hauled under tons of water. Steve’s never slept particularly well, but he does sleep deep, and waking feels like his entire body relearning how to move.

His eyes flicker open to daylight streaming in through open windows, curtains floating in the breeze. He can feel the heat of summer on his shins and crawling up his spine, his skin damp with sweat. Turning his head, his lips brush Peggy’s nose; she’s perched her chin on his shoulder and is looking up at him through her eyelashes. She falls back a bit to catch her neck in Steve’s elbow, drawing enough space between them so he can see her face.

“Yeah,” Steve answers belatedly, grinning lazily. He’ll never get tired waking to this. To Peggy’s brilliant smile, her frizzy curls wilting from the summer heat, her sharp eyes, her weight resting across his body.

“Good. I was quite convinced you were planning to sleep all day.” She rolls herself on top of him and goes for a light kiss, stretching her body along his like a cat. In one of Bucky’s undershirts and a pair of underwear, she looks near indecent; the shirt is thin enough that it hides absolutely nothing, the heavy curves of the breasts visible through the translucent cotton, her rosy nipples he wants to set his mouth to.

She leans back up and sits squarely on his hips, making the view even better. Steve feels his dick twitch in interest. Steve has always known Peggy Carter is a beautiful woman - inside and out - but getting to see her like this, bared and rumpled from sleeping in his bed, makes his entire body ache with want.

A shiver suddenly runs up his body like a cold sweat. His toes and fingers cramp up with the chill even though Peggy’s warmth leaches into him. He brings his hands to her hips and lets them sneak beneath her shirt and panties, clinging to her heat.

“He finally up?” Bucky’s voice calls from from down the hall.

“Mmm, yes,” Peggy replies loudly, brushing Steve’s hair back from his forehead gently. He closes his eyes reflexively, even though he wants to keep watching her face. It seems decadent lying here, letting himself be touched this way. “The birthday boy has finally risen.”

“Oh jeez,” Steve sighs.

They’ve been talking about his birthday for weeks, though Steve’s never been overly fond of birthdays. Howard’s been making a lot of noise about a party he thinks Steve doesn’t know about at the Ritz, and it’s been difficult for Steve to explain that while he’s flattered, he’s not interested in extravagance nor spending his birthday with relative strangers. He’s got everything he needs right here in his bed, and he’d rather let the fourth slide over to the fifth with little fanfare.

Back when they’d been truly dirt poor during Steve’s preteen years, his mother not even able to afford the sketching paper and charcoal she’d typically get him for his birthday, Steve and his mother would go out to Prospect Park and watch the fireworks. His mother would whisper in his ear that he must be special for such a fuss, that not every boy got fireworks on his birthday. Though he was long past the age where he could believe the fireworks were actually for him, there was something special about it, being able to believe for a second that the explosions in the sky were just for him.

His birthdays make him think of his mother, and though he’s had many happy memories since those days in Prospect Park, his birthday makes him miss her ferociously.

The chill returns, and Steve tries to burrow further into Peggy’s warm curves.

Bucky strolls through the door in a pair of boxers with a frayed waistband. Steve’s pretty sure they’re the pair he put on last night, and when he looks down at his own hips, he spies the grey plaid pair that Bucky had slipped on before Peggy had pulled them off.

“Morning,” Bucky says as he leans over the side of the bed and kisses Peggy’s shoulder, taking a moment after to smile wickedly against it, his eyes finding Steve’s over the ridge of skin and bone. Bucky’s hands find his on Peggy’s hips, two warm layers pressing down on chilled fingers.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s damn near a hundred degrees outside and you’re as cold as a block of ice,” Bucky laughs, hauling himself onto the bed roughly enough that Peggy loses her balance and has to plant a hand on Steve’s chest. It lands hard right over his heart as Bucky leans into a kiss that has Steve gasping when he pulls away, Steve's mouth swollen from Bucky's teeth and tongue.

Steve feels a shiver go straight up his back. He’s so, so cold. He aches for warmth, tries to burrow himself between them.

“Don’t fret, Captain,” Peggy says with a laugh, leaning down to brush her lips over the crest of his cheek as Bucky curls into his side, one of his hands drifting up to steal his shirt back from Peggy. “I do believe we can find ways of keeping you warm.”

--

Below the cold surface of the Atlantic, down in the icy dark, Steve Rogers sleeps.

Steve Rogers dreams.

 

 

 

Jane Foster, June 9:

The last dregs of the coffee are cold and bitter, the grinds cling to her teeth. Jane slides her mug away and it skids along the table before bumping into a stack of teetering journals. She scrubs her palms over her face and pulls the blanket tighter over her shoulders. The stars are long past their peak clarity; the sun is due to break the horizon any minute now. Jane looks at her watch, and then draws herself up short.

For the last six weeks, her entire life had been exclusively devoted to her academics, her defense coming up at the end of the month. It had crossed her mind once and then not once more, that she’d be spending her birthday - her thirtieth - accompanied by cold coffee and a vast, empty basement lab. With sunrise happening right now, she’s just about on the mark. Jane chooses not to dwell on it, and instead tugs the blanket tighter around her shoulders. Desert nights, even in the early summer, aren’t known for their warmth. The communal lounge is open still, but deserted - she’s not the only one with an upcoming thesis defense - and she smacks on the lights before letting her dirty coffee mug drop the last inch into the cloudy water with a gross schlump. Prodding the buttons and fiddling with a filter are tasks accomplished with her eyes closed, and Jane nearly does; she thinks about leaning against the counter for just a moment -

“Hey, sleepyhead.”

Jane startles, and she throws one hand out catch herself before she topples sideways. The heavy blanket droops. She blinks at her interlocutor for too long - he blinks owlishly back, pleasant face turning sour over the bouquet he’s holding. Bouquet, right, birthday. Donald? At five in the morning? In the basement?

“Donald?” she asks. “It’s the crack of dawn.” Jane understands that normal, diurnal people do not go to bed when she goes to bed. Donald does not go to bed when she goes to bed. They’ve had this fight. Twice.

“Yeah,” he says, quite happily. “But Janey, it’s your birthday.” He thrusts the flowers into her face. The coffee machine perks and steams and hisses; the ancient fluorescents flicker and whine over their heads. She takes it slowly.

“Thank you,” she says, after a moment. She blinks at him, and then scrubs her face once more. The blanket slips further down her back. “I’m sorry,” Jane starts to apologise, “I’ve been working all night, I’m a mess-”

Donald holds out his hand, stopping her. “I know,” he says, and that stops Jane in her tracks, because he’s not normally so nice about it. His hand lingers, and Jane walks into his embrace. The blanket trails behind her on the dusty floor. For all that they argue, Don gives the best hugs. It helps that Jane only comes up to his shoulder. After a moment, he tucks a finger under her chin and tilts her face up for a small kiss. Jane tries not to drop the flowers. He doesn’t bother to hide his grimace when he pulls away.

“You’ve got old coffee breath,” he complains.

Jane smushes her forehead into his sternum, hiding. “That’s because my PhD is in how to eliminate romance,” she grumps, sarcastic.

“Hey,” he jostles her a little, “don’t be so hard on yourself. I’ve got a shift at the hospital until seven-” Jane does the math; if he’s on his way now, it’s a twelve hour shift. They’ll have spent a grand total of four hours together this week “- but I was thinking maybe we could have a nice dinner. It’s your big day, after all.”

Jane blushes. The Big Day is in two weeks, but Don’s always on her to take a little time for them, for herself. Small victories, he calls them, when the medicine works and the treatment holds and the sun comes up after an endless night. “Yeah,” she agrees lightly, “yeah, that’ll be nice.” She twiddles with the ribbon on the bouquet. They’re calla lilies; they’re her favourites.

 

 

 

Clinton Francis 'Clint' Barton, March 7:

Clint officially hates the fucking desert.

Doesn’t matter the country: sand is fucking sand.  The sand in Afghanistan ends up in his boots and briefs the same as the sand in Iraq.  And the heat.  Don’t even get him started on the goddamn heat.  He’s from fucking Iowa, man.  All Clint had to worry about growing up was a nasty heatwave that would last a couple days and have all the girls out in skimpy bathing suits trying to get tans.  Here, the heat’s enough to boil the water in his pack, and he’s got camel spiders the size of hummers climbing into his roll at night.

It’s official: the next time the US decides to declare war, his vote’s for the South of France.  Or Louisiana.

Clint likes jambalaya.

Alas, until he controls the universe, he’s going to be fighting the wars of other men, drowning in sand.

Which is why he’s belly-down on a roof in Kabul, a insurgent dressed as a cleric in his crosshairs.

“No please, take your sweet fucking time, Franny,” He hears Burdett sing-song over the comms.  The little bastard had snuck a look at his file in medical when Clint had ended up facedown on a bed for a day getting shrapnel pulled from his back.  Middle name, birthplace, assorted sundry.  Now all Clint’s shit is out there, though at least Burdett had the common sense not to share it with the base.

“I swear to god, I will shoot you right in the face,” Clint answers, one eye still through the scope.

“Now now,” Burdett says, “I ain’t that kind of soldier.  I expect dinner and a show before anyone’s shooting anything off in my vicinity.  Speaking of shooting things off, once you’re finally taken your fucking shot, Major Pain-in-my-ass - sorry, Major Pantini - says you’ve got a visitor.”

“One, you’re a cheap date.  Two, thanks for the relay.  I’ll be done once this fucker gives me a proper line of sight.”

Clint’s been deployed for almost eighteen months.  He doesn’t have family in the military (or family period), and he’s been with the Rangers for years.  He honestly can’t think of a single person it could be.  He ruminates on it as he pulls the trigger, watching the man’s head snap back violently with the impact of the bullet.

The last person he expects to see in the base conference room is Phillip Coulson.

“Phil,” Clint says, dropping into one of the chairs around the table.  He’s spent the entire day lying down, but he’s still exhausted.  It’s the fucking heat.

“Clint,” Phil answers with his cryptic smile.  It’s been about three years since Clint last saw Phil and while they’ve always been friendly, the clusterfuck in Dubai soured Clint’s relationship with SHIELD.  They’ve made a few overtures since Clint returned to the Rangers, but it’s been met with a resounding FUCK YOU from Clint’s end.  He doesn’t trust Fury and he sure as fuck doesn’t trust Alexander Pierce.

Phil slides a box across the conference table.  Inside, Clint finds an engraved flask, really expensive banjo strings, and about 20 Butterfingers.

“Bribe?”

“Birthday present.”

Clint narrows his eyes and thinks about the cliched titty calendar Burdett and Lipshitz have hanging on their barrack wall.  Thursday was the 4th, so… yeah, shit.  It’s his birthday.  Thirty.  Man, back when he’d first joined up, Clint had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t going to see the other end of twenty-five.  Thirty feels like a fucking achievement.

“Thanks,” Clint says, unwrapping a chocolate bar and taking bite.  “But something tells me you didn’t come to the ass-end of nowhere, Afghanistan, to drop me a care package.”

“We have a problem that we need taken care of,” Phil says.

“I don’t do that shit for you anymore.”  Clint’s not a fucking hired gun.  He’s a soldier, and he’ll take orders, but he’s not a goddamn assassin and he’s doesn’t clean up SHIELD’s messes.  Not anymore.

“I wouldn’t come to you if it wasn’t serious,” Phil says, his hand resting on a file folder.  “We sent Tucker after her last year and she dropped his corpse off in front of the American embassy in Lima.  In several pieces.”

He slides the folder in front of Clint on the table, the paper gliding quietly over the glass.  On the front of it, Clint sees a name printed in large block letters.

NATALIA ALIANOVNA ROMANOVA
“BLACK WIDOW”

 

 

 

Maria Hill, April 3:

 There were facts in your early life, unshakable truths you built yourself around. The winter was cold, the harbour was colder; a piece of string and a strong stomach could invariably be enough to yank your loose tooth. Hot cocoa was a gift, homework was better finished than ignored. Sundays were not for sleeping in, drunk men were dangerous men, and your father hates you. Two plus two equals four; A lead to B lead to C.

He married a slim, quiet woman named Anna the winter before your twelfth birthday, and you weren’t ashamed to wonder how long it will take for him to hate her, too. You’re sent to a private high school the following year and assigned a room in one of the nicer dormitories, no roommate. Anna had insisted on your behalf: “She didn’t grow up with siblings, Bill,” she’d said, “it’ll be hard for her.”

You remember, clear as day, his response, when he looked you cold in the face. “And whose fault is that?"

Anna tried, over and over again, to do nice things for you. You aimed for non-reaction when your father was around. Anna looked hurt by it, and when she’d helped you unload the last of your things, she paused. “I know you don’t like me much, Maria,” she said.

From where you were standing, you could see through the window your father open the driver’s side door and climb back into the idling truck. It’s your chance, your freebee. You wrapped your arms around her middle and hid your face in her chest. It felt strange, overwhelmingly warm and soft; you’d seen other kids say goodbye to their moms just like this earlier that day. It looked right.

“I like you,” you told her softly, quickly. “I like you lots.”

Very slowly, Anna put her palm on the back of your head, ran her fingers over the bumps of your frizzy braid. Dad didn’t let you cut it, then. She didn’t say anything right away, so you kept going.

“But Dad takes away the things I like.”

Anna sat heavily on your thin dormitory bed, and she pulled you down with her. “Shh, honey,” she said, rubbing your shoulders and petting your hair, “I’m too tough for your dad to shake, even if he dared to try.” You must’ve been crying, but you don’t remember that part.

You only had a few minutes before Anna had to go, but she gave you the address of her best friend, and told you to write your letters there. “What Dad doesn’t know won’t hurt us,” she whispered.

The care packages from Anna, from her best friend, from her sister and two brothers in Maine and Georgia, respectively… those start to arrive the first week of school. You got practically one box every two weeks from somewhere your whole time at school, and for the first time in your life you could tell your friends: “I’ve got a big family. They all live far away.”

It was prophecy of itself: Anna had six babies before William Jonas Hill wrapped his drunk self around a tree in the middle of the night, three weeks shy of your graduation.

Your whole family came to see you walk across the stage.

-

As an adult, there are unshakable truths that you build yourself around. New York is cold, the Hudson is colder. Coffee is a gift, after-action reports are best written immediately. A cool head and a mean right hook will invariably get your through the ranks, and every day you can squeeze it is for sleeping in with your girlfriend. Drunk men are predictable, your hateful father died when you were nineteen, and you’ve got one hell of a big family.

And as soon as midnight of April third ticks over in your timezone, your cellphone comes to life.

“What the hell,” Suz mutters into her pillow as your phone dances off the bedside table. “It’s the middle of the night.”

“I’ve got baby siblings,” you groggily tell the back of her head. You went to bed two hours ago, because you’ve been awake for three days. It’s not like you forgot their tradition… except that you forgot what day it is in relation to the tradition. The babies get excited about you still. You don’t really know why. Maybe staying up til midnight to call your sister is just that exciting when you’re eleven-and-a-half.

“What’s that got to do with anything,” Suz grumps. That might be what she’s saying, there’s a lot of hair in her mouth.

“Tradition,” you tell her, leaning over to snag your phone before it throws itself to the floor. “Hi,” you whisper-answer.

Maa-riiiii-ahhhh!” There are easily ten voices shouting on the other end.

Suz rolls over, alarm on her very-awake face. “What tradition?”

Happy birthday!” roars your cell phone. You cringe, holding it away from your ear.

“It’s your birthday?” Suz asks.

“Yeah,” you answer, stealing a blanket from the end of the bed. “Don’t worry, I’ll go to the living room.”

Suz nods, already falling back to sleep where she’s balancing on her elbows. “Okay,” she mumbles. “Sounds good.”

Her face is already mashed into the pillows again when you look over your shoulder to shut the bedroom door.

“Thanks, everyone,” you speak normally into your phone. “Who’s all there?”

 

 

 

Bruce Banner and Betty Ross, December 18:

Betty grins widely, sweeping her dark hair from her face as she opens the door to let him in. She closes the door behind him with a heavy shove from her shoulder, creating a cold gust that has Bruce shivering even under his leather jacket. She tugs on his scarf, pulling him down for a brief, warming kiss. Bruce reaches to catch her waist, but she slips out of his arms, pushing a bottle of beer into his empty hand.

“Hey,” he complains, kicking and stumbling out of his boots, trying not to step on the trailing snow in his socks, “I don’t want this.” He chases her into the apartment.

“No?” she asks, her expression genuinely concerned, “Bruce? Is everything-”

He silences her with another hungry kiss. “I want this,” he says, smiling against her mouth.

Betty laughs, kisses him again, and then slides from his arms. He gives her a put-upon frown, and she tsks at him.

“You can have those later,” she says, blushing high and bright, “but come have these now.” She pats the space beside her on the couch. There’s a small tree standing on the side table, lit with minilights of all colours. Beneath it is a untidy sprawl of brightly wrapped gifts across the table’s surface. The coffee table, however, has another little pile, though their wrapping paper is unseasonably green and purple stripes.

Bruce sits and puts his beer down, reaching across the couch to pull Betty into his lap. “I told you not to get me anything,” he complains, “it’s nearly Christmas, sweetheart, you didn’t have to get me birthday things, too.”

“I know,” she says quietly. “But I wanted to. They made me think of you.” Bruce just presses his nose into her neck, not moving. Betty sighs, grumps, and flails around enough to find the remote for the radio buried between the couch cushions.

“Ta-da,” Bruce mutters, a little sarcastically. Betty gives him a half-hearted thwump with the back of her hand, and flips through the channels until she finds some non-holiday jazz, and then she turns it down low, just to fill the air.

“There,” she says, “I’m not singing happy birthday, but I do have birthday-cake ice cream, just in case.”

Bruce smiles. “For me?” he asks, and then he sets his fingers to tickling up her ribs, and she laughs and shrieks and tries desperately to crawl out of his lap, “Or did you get just for you?” he teases. She’s an ice cream fiend - there’s no flavour she won’t try once.

“Uncle!” she cries out, laughing so much her eyes water, “uncle, Bruce, nononono, stop, please, oh God!” She laughs and swats his hands, and then collapses back against his chest, defeated. “I got it for me,” she confesses, and Bruce grips her sides again, just for an instant, “but you can have some!” Betty screeches, grabbing his wrists. Bruce leans back into the arm of the couch, and both of them laugh. After a moment, Betty complains, “For that, you can fix it yourself.”

 Bruce kisses her hair. “Sounds fair.”

Betty sighs, content, and then she reaches blindly over to the coffee table, plucking a gift seemingly at random. She holds it backwards for him to take from over her shoulder.

“Happy birthday, Bruce.”

“Thank you,” he says, taking the gift from her hand and setting it down beside his leg. He’s about to lean down to kiss her again, but she swats his side.

“No, open it now!”

Bruce huffs, setting into tearing the paper with one hand - Betty won’t let go of the one she’s holding. The object is clearly a book, but…

Are You Ready For Y2K?” he reads out, tone incredulous. Betty is already laughing herself into stitches, her hands clutching her belly. Bruce can’t help it, he laughs with her. After a few minutes, Betty rearranges her features into an expression so concerned and serious Bruce momentarily thinks something’s gone wrong. “What?” he asks quickly.

“Have you backed up your data?” she asks, like some foolish, breathy heroine. Bruce gawps at her, and when Betty’s resolve crumbles and she snorts, they both collapse in gales of laughter again.

 

 

 

James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, November 29:

“I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Yeah?” Rhodey challenges him, eyebrows raised as Tony’s bumped from behind and the fizzing champagne in his hand splashes liberally over the floor. “Is that why there’re people - multiple people - coming out of the cake?”

“Do you want me to get in the cake? I’ll do it for you, platypus.”

“No, Tony,” Rhodey laughs, and he reaches for the neck of the bottle. He’s here for a good time, he’s gonna damn well have a good time. “Don’t get in the cake. And gimme that.”

Tony passes it off to him, grin stretching his features and his eyes lighting with mischief. “There he is,” he roars, arms in the air to get everyone’s attention, “man of the hour!” He spins on his heels and makes foolish come-hither curlicues with his fingers, bidding a handful of girls closer. Some are caked, some not; most are well on their way to tipsy, but they’re beautiful and friendly and Rhodey has a look-don’t-touch policy, so he is definitely in favour of this development.

The party’s not as ostentatious as it could be - there are only about a hundred people here, and after the requisite starlets, dancers, and girlfriends, Rhodey finds he knows and is on friendly terms with a great deal of them. Even Potts had approached him with a card and a brief kiss on the cheek - how she’s managed to cope with Tony’s mercurial recklessness for an entire fourteen months is beyond Rhodey. He feels bad for being initially cold with her, since time and tenacity has proved her sainthood. Sometimes they catch sight of each other tonight, and she always smiles fondly.

Tony’s tipsy vision snags on the conspiratorial look he’s sharing with her right now, and it jogs something loose in his memory. “Oh, hey,” he interrupts, and then he interrupts himself by dragging his finger through some of the lingering frosting on a girl’s shoulder, causing the women in their arms to coo and titter. He gets back on track, saying, “Did Pepper give you your birthday present?”

Rhodey is circumspect. He tucked the card into his inside breast pocket without opening it - Potts told him it was just fine to wait. “I think so,” Rhodey says. “Please don’t make me open it now.”

“Whatever, see if I care,” he says, in a way that means I actually care a whole fucking lot, thanks for that, now you’re embarrassing me, “but your ass is mine tomorrow morning.”

Rhodey looks at his watch, smearing cake frosting off its face in distaste. “Tony,” he says, “it’s already tomorrow morning.”

“How much?”

“It’s quarter to four,” Rhodey says, and he has no honest idea where the night went. They haven’t had fun like this since Tony’s first undergrad, and even that’s a stretch, because it’s the longest they’ve gone without something -

Wahoo motherfucker!” Tony grabs him by the collar and hauls him out to the closest balcony, where yes, as a matter of fact, there are explosions in the sky. Those don’t look like normal fireworks. “I was wondering where those were.” They balance unsteadily, clinging to each other’s shoulders. “Okay,” Tony says insistently, shaking him a little, “you gotta look, promise, you gotta look in three, two, one!”

The night flashes with ‘Happy Birthday Rhodey’ in bright pyrotechnics, and then it sets off a chain reaction that booms and billows over the sky, and Rhodey can feel it shake in his bones. He loses count, but knowing Tony, there's probably thirty of them.

“You mighta put a little too much juice in those,” Rhodey yells near Tony’s ear.

“No such thing as too much,” Tony yells back, smacking an open palm over Rhodey’s chest. “There’s no such thing.”

 

 

 

Sam Wilson, September 23:

“What time is Riley getting here? Sam!”

What has his mother done with the barbecue sauce? It used to be right -

Sam!” she hollers from the garage. 

“What?”

She appears, puffing for breath and heavily burdened, in the doorway to the kitchen. There are heavy canvas grocery bags hanging from each of her hands, and Sam feels a punch of guilt to know that she lugged them up the steep garage steps without help. He takes them from her without hesitation. One bag, he notes, contains nothing but sweating ice cream tubs.

“There’s not gonna be that many folks,” he starts to tell her.

“I don’t wanna hear it,” she says, moving further into the kitchen and pulling the barbecue sauce out of some magical nowhere to leave it on the counter. “This is a special day, and we’re gonna have everybody down to help celebrate.”

“Ma,” Sam starts.

“Claire is gonna be here in an hour,” she tells him, “and she’s got Addy and Zoe, so you can swan off with them.”

As much as Sam adores his nieces - and he really does, they are glowing, laughing angels in his life - he still has to man the barbecue. There’s six racks of ribs to slave over, in fact, that’s where he should be now. Sam grabs the bottle of sauce and kisses his mom’s cheek as he heads out to the deck again, calling, “I have to man the meat!” over his shoulder.

“Paulette and Guilia are coming over, too, and we both know they’d do it better than you!” They’re the married couple just next door, and they’ve lived there since before Sam’s memory. He and Claire had even stayed over the odd night in their childhood. “They’re bringing Charlie!” his mom shouts.

“Who’s Charlie?”

His mother follows him out to the deck, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “He’s their first grandchild.”

Sometimes, Sam feels like he’s been away from home for a lifetime. He focuses on other things. “What about Mawmaw,” he asks, “can Mawmaw come?”

“Yes,” his mother nods. “Your grandmother Dolly is coming, and she’s bringing her sister, Cherie, you remember Cherie." 

Sam doesn’t, not clearly, but that’s not the point, so he nods. “Who else,” he continues, brushing more sauce onto the ribs and occasionally flapping his hand to keep the smoke out of his mom’s face.

“Your Aunty Joanna,” she starts.

“And Uncle Dean, right?” Sam adds, “Hey, are all my cousins coming?"

“Malcolm and Suki are,” she says, “but Xavier’s already gone back to school.”

Sam nods. “We’ll skype him, yeah?” he says, “How does that sound?”

“Well, it’s Thursday. You think he won’t be out with his own friends?”

“We’ll call him first,” Sam decides, and then he closes the lid of the barbecue. “Is Aunty Joanna gonna make her potato salad?”

“She’ll make it for Mawmaw,” his mother teases, “but you’ll be lucky to get some.” She wanders back to the house door. “You didn’t tell me: when’s Riley coming?”

“Uh, he’s already in town, but he’s gone to the train station to meet his brother. 

“Oh!” his mom smiles big enough to hide her eyes, “Matt’s coming, too?”

“And Andrew,” Sam adds, “his fiance? husband? They’re super serious, but I can’t remember if they got married already or not. Oh, and they’re bringing their dogs.”

“Addy and Zoe are good with animals,” Sam’s mom yells through the open door.

Sam joins her in the kitchen. “Yeah,” he agrees, “but Harmony is a rescue and Cobalt's just a puppy, so I’ll tell them to be gentle, anyway.”

She’s sorting out fruit for fruit salad, and there are countless carrots and baby tomatoes to be chopped. Sam walks up behind her and wraps his arms around her shoulders, pressing his cheek into her soft neck.

“What’s up, kiddo,” she asks, putting a hand on his wrist. 

“Thanks for this,” Sam says, “Ma, thanks for all this.”

She pets his arm, reaches up to gently card her nails over his shorn scalp. “Happy birthday, baby,” she says, and then she goes back to work, humming as she sorts and slices. Sam sinks into the moment, closing his eyes and feeling the sound of her voice write itself on his bones.

 

 

 

Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts, September 27:

She nearly throws herself in the back seat of the Rolls. It’s clearly the most disheveled Happy Hogan has ever seen her.

“Ms. Potts.” Happy looks a little troubled. Pepper tucks a strand of loose hair back into place, and the effect works.

“Drive, please, Happy,” Pepper insists.

Happy steps smoothly on the gas. “Where we goin’?”

“Home,” Pepper says.

“Home? Really? What’s the occasion?” Happy teases.

“It’s my birthday,” she replies quietly. “I’m taking the night.”

“Aha!” Happy doesn’t shout, but he does raise his voice as he searches the glove box with one hand. “I knew it was soon.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Here! Open it!” He reaches backward over the seat; there’s a thin, oblong box in his hand, wrapped in muted cream-colour paper and topped with an enormous pink bow.

“Happy,” Pepper sighs, “you really didn’t have to.”

“It’s just little,” his reflection in the rearview tells her, “it’s just a little treat. you deserve it.” His eyes are bright; she can see the stretch and bulge of his smiling cheek even from this angle behind him.

Pepper can hear her phone buzz in her purse and she resolutely ignores it. She told Mr. Stark she wouldn’t be looking at her phone for the next eighteen hours. If the world ended, he could reach her through Happy. She saves the bow - Pepper finds sentimentality in small gestures like those - and then pulls the paper away in thin strips. In plastic, on a pretty piece of thin waxed cardboard, is a chocolate rose, immaculately sculpted. Pepper feels her face light up.

“Thank you, Happy.”

“S’not melted, is it?” he worries. “I knew your birthday was right around now, see, and I picked that up while I was waiting on the boss, oh, day before yesterday. And I thought to myself, ‘ya’know, Hogan, it’s nearly October, it’s Ms. Potts’ birthday right soon, what’ll she like?’”

Pepper laughs as Happy imitates himself. “And so I popped in to some little bodega, and I saw that, and I thought to myself, ‘ya’know, Hogan, she don’t like big gestures, Ms. Potts, the boss does that enough, so what little nice thing...’ and then, ya’know, there it was, this big display of ‘em, and I thought, ‘okay, Hogan, there ya go, something nice and sweet for Ms. Potts.’”

She delicately opens the wrapper and breaks away one petal, letting it melt on her tongue. “It’s just perfect,” she says, “I’ll have the rest of this, I’ll have a glass of wine, I’ll have a bubble bath, and it’ll be perfect.”

Happy is still smiling, though his gaze is mostly fixed on traffic.

“Sounds very nice, Ms. Potts, very nice. You told the boss not to bother you?”

Pepper sighs, leaning back into the plush leather and closing her eyes. “Not even if the world ends.”

“Atta girl,” says Happy, peering into his side mirror as he changes lanes, “you tell ‘im.”

 

 

 

Howard Stark, August 15:

STARK FETE SURPASSES ALL EXPECTATIONS

THE PARTY OF THE CENTURYWHO’S WHO 

CHECK THE MAIL! STARK’S ANTICIPATED GUESTLIST NUMBERS IN THE HUNDREDS

“Howard,” Peggy asks politely, folding away her paper, “just how many people have you invited to your birthday?”

“Oh, you know,” he grins into the rim of his coffee cup, “just some friends.”

Over his shoulder, Mr. Jarvis makes a pained face.

“You won’t be having it here, though?” she asks. “The paper says you’re planning to fete in Malibu,” Peggy looks carefully at his posture. She has chosen not to comment on the fact that the only details she can wrangle into open air come from the paper, and not the man himself. “You’re going to give several hundred strangers the go-ahead to ransack your property, in celebration of your birth, your own person in absentia?”

“No way, pal,” Howard says, putting down his coffee with a thump. It doesn’t slosh on her newspaper or her shirtcuff, so there goes her one Howard-related miracle for the day. “We’re headed out to California tonight.”

“And by ‘we’, you mean yourself and Mr. Jarvis?” Mr. Jarvis makes a weary gesture over Howard’s shoulder, and Peggy keeps a very straight face.

“And you!” he adds brightly, pointing with one hand and smoothing his mustache with the other.

“Oh no, Howard,” she starts.

“Oh yes, Peggy,” he interrupts.

She challenges him again, but Howard jumps to his feet - there goes the newspaper - and snags Peggy by the wrist, hauling her down the hallway with him, both of them still shod in slippers and skidding on the carpets. He leads her down the hallway that joins up to his own wing, branching off to a narrower corridor with an open lounge and boudoir, a doorway hidden around a beautiful silk screen. On the opposite wall, there’s an open door to yet another opulent bathroom. The sheer size of this place confounds Peggy - it’s never-ending, palatial in its sprawl. How Howard ever remembers how to get from one room to another, whilst so perpetually distracted, is boggling.

“C’mere!” Howard tugs her into the screened-off bedroom. She’s known Howard far too long to be scandalised by nary any bit of him now; his excitement for life is as large as his purse and a great deal more innocent. Sometimes. 

He shows her to a seat on the edge of the hedonistically large bed, and then throws open the doors to the wardrobe. It’s chock-full of women’s gowns. Peggy wishes she was surprised, but she’s known Howard for five years now. He casts a critical eye over her frame - Peggy nearly squawks - and then he starts pulling out gowns of all shades, and Peggy wonders if this was how Alice felt when confronted with the Mad Hatter. It’s surely just as wild, if not as romantic, as Daisy and Gatsby.

“Pick something!” Howard shouts, his head still ostrich-buried in taffeta.

“No, Howard.” Peggy tries for stern, but she dissolves into giggles when Howard gets himself stuck in a sequined bodice.

He turns to her with the full punch of his winsome charm. “Yes, Peggy,” he cajoles, tangled up as he is, “come on! We’ve gotta leave in,” he pauses, snaking his arm out from under the full skirt of yet another dress, and finally checks his watch, “two hours, tops.”

“Is that so?” asks the aproned and bespectacled Mr. Jarvis, skillet in one hand and spatula in the other, as he minces over the discarded formalwear. He peers first at Howard, who languishes in a bedside chair as if Peggy’s decision carries the same heft to his very soul as St. Peter’s, and then he blinks owlishly at Peggy. “Well then,” he says primly. “Chop chop, Director Carter.”

 

 

 

The Winter Soldier, Unknown:

You do not know it, but it is your 30th birthday.

(Between the serum and the cryochamber,  you will never look older than twenty-seven.)

They let you out for your first solo mission, the assassination of a small-time Russian politician that Department X has grown weary of.  They tell you make it hurt and you do, making use of your knife instead of your gun because the walls are thin even though the building he lives in is expensive, near the Moskva.  You can hear his neighbour watching the evening news through the wall as your mark gurgles with his last bloody breath.

You wonder if you should feel something: sadness, satisfaction, happiness, nervousness.  But you feel nothing but hollowness inside.

Unfortunately, you run into problems with security on your way out, taking a bullet in the shoulder as they pursue you. When you return home, they scold you for a messy exit.  You must be better than this, they tell you.  You are their greatest weapon.  You are their Winter Soldier.

The doctors are cruel and detached, and your flesh is little more than meat to them as they cut and stitch.  There are three nurses you have met.  One of them is like the doctors, cruel and dismissive of you, but the other two are okay.   Kseniya is mostly quiet and nervous around you, but Ekaterina is kind and gentle.  She smiles when the doctors aren’t in the room and talks to you instead of giving you commands, asks you how you are doing.

You like the way she touches you.  You don’t remember the last time someone touched you with kindness, but she does.  Sometimes you reach out and touch her, too.  Your fingers over her knuckles when she’s stitching you up, a brush of your arms when she passes you.  This is not allowed.  This is forbidden.  But she doesn’t tell you to stop, so you don’t, because it feels nice, and so little does.

Ekaterina checks on you the third day after your botched mission.  “You’ve almost healed up,” she tells you, patting your shoulder gently.  Changing your bandages, she smiles down at you as you lie on your bed, staring up at her.  She really is very beautiful, but you like her kind hands more than the pretty slope of her cheeks.

You want to tell her.  The thoughts that have been in your head are wrong.  Things aren’t adding up, feelings that you should tell your handlers but don’t.  You’re starting to feel angry and suspicious and scared.  You want to tell her all these things, but instead you say, “Help me.”

Her face crumbles a bit, and you know enough to realize that she’s conflicted about something.  “I--” she starts to say before she falls silent, her head twisting over her shoulder to look at the closed door on the other side of the room.  She looks frightened and it worries you.

You reach up and touch her cheek with your hand, your skin brushing hers.  “Please,” you tell her.  You don’t even know what you’re asking her for, not sure what you want her to do.

She presses her fingers against your mouth.  You can taste the skin of her fingertips through your parted lips.  Ekaterina leans down, and for a heart-stopping second you think she’s going to kiss you, but instead she presses her cheek to yours and whispers in your ear.  “Don’t say anything,” she tells you.  “Don’t tell them.  Don’t tell them or they’ll take you back to that room.  You must stay silent, must pretend.”  She leans back up again, and you immediately miss her warmth.

She stands and smiles, but it’s strained.  “I am glad you are feeling better, comrade,” she says loudly.  “I will be sure to pass on your progress to your superiors.”  

Before she leaves, she leans down and squeezes your fingers.

The next day, when you return from a session with your handlers to test your fitness for duty, you find Ekaterina on your bed.

Her eyes are open and her neck is bent at an angle that lets you know immediately that it is broken.  She looks frightened, one of her hands limp at her throat, like protecting it was the last thing she tried to do.  You think about those hands and realize you will never feel their kindness again.

There are three soldiers flanking you, one of your handlers beside you.  He tells you, “Lies and deception will not be tolerated, Soldier.  Let this be a lesson to you.”

The next sound that mouth makes is a scream as you reach back with your metal arm and rip his right from its socket.  Next are the ribs snapping under your fist as the soldiers try to restrain you.  It take another two running in from the hall to get you pinned to the ground, though you break many of their bones in the scuffle.

Then there is darkness.

When you wake up, you remember nothing except that Ekaterina is dead.  A traitor whose life you ended.  

 

 

 

Thor, winter:

Jane blinks awake when the bed dips and shifts. “Hey,” she whispers into the dark. 

Thor looks back over his shoulder, smiling faintly. From the far end of the bed he grabs his robe. He holds it in his hands a moment before sliding it on. He turns back to look at her, gentle fingertips brushing her hair away from her face, the soft cuff brushing over her cheeks. “Go back to sleep,” he whispers, the pad of his thumb on her lip.

Jane snakes a hand up from under the covers and catches his wrist before closing her eyes again. “Where are you going?” Her voice is muted, bedroom-soft.

“Just to the window,” he answers, shaking his hand free to pet her shoulders, her hair.

She sits up, holding the bedsheet over her breasts. “What’s in the window?” Jane blinks the sleep out of her eyes, glancing at the alarm clock. They only went to bed an hour ago. The Avengers haven’t been mission-called in weeks.

“The city,” Thor replies patiently. He stretches for her robe, too, and holds it open for her. He stands up as she swings her feet to the floor, and they walk to the wall of windows hand-in-hand.

“What’s happening to the city?” Jane only sees a quiet winter night, the daytime bustle muted.

“It’s snowing.”

Jane tilts her head way back to smile at him. Not the first time he’s seen snow, and not the first time he’s seen New York, but maybe the first time for both. She lets go of his hand and winds her arms around his middle. Thor’s gaze lingers on the outside world, but he smiles and reciprocates, pulling her closer.

“First snow of the season,” she mumbles into his chest.

“Is it winter now?” he asks. “Is that how you measure the seasons?”

“No,” Jane yawns quietly, turning over in his embrace. He wraps his arm across her chest; Jane links their fingers. She likes the shape their reflection makes, and it distracts her for a moment.

“No?” Thor asks quietly, bringing her out of her thoughts.

“We measure the length of the days, the sunlight hours,” she says. “So, technically, it’s been winter since November. But.”

“But what?”

“Lots of people don’t like to call it winter until it snows.”

Over her head, Thor nods.

“Do you like winter?” she asks, tilting her head back. All she can see is his scruffy chin.

“I was born in winter.”

“Oh,” says Jane. She thinks about that. “What day?”

He smiles, kisses her temple, rubs his cheek over her hair.  “We do not age as you age; the day was not so important. But it was the deepest winter in Asgard’s living history, the war with Jotunheim at its height.” He falls silent, though his fingers still trail over her arm. Jane wonders what he must think of their time together, if his days bleed out as quickly as her minutes. “I don’t think I could translate,” he tells her.

“Well,” Jane says. It must be different when you’ve had a thousand of them. “Happy birthday, anyway,” she says, pressing her face into the bulk of his arm

Thor touches her chin, tilting her face up for a kiss. “Thank you, Jane,” he says, his voice as soft and sincere as the snow. “It has been a very good year.”

 

 

 

 

Nicholas Joseph 'Nick' Fury, CLASSIFIED:

There is a cupcake sitting on Nick’s desk when he returns from a situation briefing with Pierce.  It has yellow frosting and a little giraffe made of marzipan resting next to an unlit candle stuck in the top of it.  There is no note.

He looks at his assistant, a thin young man with thick-rimmed glasses named Kevin who normally tries to not make eye contact with Nick unless Nick is speaking to him directly.  He can type nearly a hundred words a minute, takes coffee breaks precisely five minutes long, and is suspicious by nature.  This pleases Nick greatly.

Standing in front of the cupcake, he catches Kevin’s eye and lets his mouth furrow into a deep and intimidating frown.  As far as Nick is concerned, he shouldn’t even have to ask.  He doesn’t; as soon as Kevin locks eyes with Nick, they widen and Kevin shrugs helplessly, shaking his head and offering no excuses.

“Never let this happen again,” Nick says roughly, motioning for Kevin to shut the door.

When the door snaps shut, he picks up the cupcake and peels back the waxy paper.  Takes a bite.

It’s Banana.

Nick likes Banana.

 

 

 

 

Darcy Eveline Lewis, January 29th:

The first three months are hell.  The absolute fucking worst.

Steve hovers like a goddamn sympathy helicopter, and if there’s something worse than praying to the porcelain god a couple times a day, it’s yakking your guts up in front of a man that A) knocked you up in the first place, and B) looks like Steve.  Darcy knows she isn’t supposed to care about that shit anymore considering she’s sleeping with him on the regular and she’s supposed to be effortlessly confident and cool, but the painful beauty and sweetness of Steve is really fucking intimidating, even knowing what an insecure marshmallow he actually is under the suit.

So yeah.  The first three months really, really make her regret her decision to keep it.  Yes, it.  The current rule is that It is not to be referred to as a baby in Darcy’s presence.  The idea that she has a baby growing inside of her makes breathing difficult for so many varied reasons:

  1. Captain America knocked her up.

  2. She’s not married (Steve proposed a few days after the PREGNANT 2-3 message on the pee stick and she turned him down flat, so frankly, this one’s partially her doing).

  3. Her mother is not going to be pleased that she’s knocked up and not married, and the news that the father’s a formerly-frozen World War II vet isn’t going to help things.

  4. CHILDBIRTH.  No thank you.

  5. Yesterday, she literally set her kitchen on fire making a grilled cheese sandwich, how the fuck is she going to take care of a BABY?!

So she has to deal with about twelve weeks of barfing every goddamn morning with Steve over her shoulder trying to hold her hair back and asking if she’s okay and apologizing profusely while Darcy seriously freaks the fuck out.  She’s twenty-nine and working for Tony Stark and crying/barfing twice a day and dating a guy who she’s still waiting on to finally figure out he’s too good for her.  And she’s pregnant.  She feels nineteen again: lost and scared, with exactly zero percent of her life together.

But then she hits the thirteenth week and it’s like a fog lifting.  The ever-present nausea recedes and suddenly Darcy can look at food and think about how much she wants to eat it, not about the likelihood of it coming back up in an hour or two.  She also suddenly can’t stop thinking about throwing Steve down and fucking his brains out, which is fabulous considering her sex drive has been non-existent for a few months.  She’s missed sex.

Darcy also tells her mother, who is exactly as thrilled as Darcy was expecting, but who seems more worried about Steve supporting Darcy the way her mother expects her to be supported.  Listening to her mother threaten to beat the shit out of Captain America is the first time Darcy laughs since she missed her period and had Steve walk in on her peeing on a Clearblue stick because of course she forgot to lock the bathroom door.

Then she wakes up on a Thursday - her thirtieth birthday - and there’s this little… bump.  

Whoa.

It’s like the bulge she used to get eating too much Taco Bell, but when she puts her hands over the bump, she starts to shake because god, she’s having a fucking baby.  That’s their kid under there.  Well, technically it’s their peanut (or avocado.. she can’t remember what the book said about the size of the fetus at this point), but it’s theirs and it’s growing and eventually it’s going to be a baby.

“Darcy?” Steve calls out quietly like he’s afraid he’s going to be interrupting another of her vomit sessions, but when he steps into the bathroom and sees her with her tank top yanked up under her boobs and her hands on her tummy, his eyes go wide.

“Whoa,” he says, eyes trained on the little bump.  He steps in front of her, his hands reaching forward before he snaps them back, looking sheepish.  “Can I?”

God, he is adorable.  “Uh, yeah,” Darcy says with a little laugh.  “You’re the one that put it in there.”  And Steve gets this delightful little blush going, for as much as Steve is pretty aggressive in bed, talking about sex outside of it?  Ha.  But he puts his wide, warm palm right over it, runs his thumb over her skin like he’s testing the curve.

He looks up at her, his smile blinding.  Darcy feels warmth rush between her legs instantly.

She rests a hand over his, enjoying the moment, then slowly slides their joined hands down, down, down, into her panties and up against where she’s incredibly wet and swollen.

“Oh,” Steve says like a revelation.  He doesn’t need much direction; as soon as Darcy’s fingers push his against her, he starts to rub gently, his fingers slipping in the slick.  “This?  Darce, this what you want?”  The words aren’t dirty or leading, but rather sweet and inquisitive.

“Yeah,” Darcy sighs, letting her head drop against his chest.  It’s been way, way too long since she’s gotten off.  When Steve slides his hand down to slip two of his fingertips inside of her, she lets out a heavy moan and pushes him back toward the bedroom.

 

 

 

Anthony Edward 'Tony' Stark, February 29th:

Tony wakes to something gently plowing into his face over and over, followed by a series of soft mechanical beeps.

“Whu?” is Tony’s elegant response, because it currently feels like he’s got a brain full of rabid hamsters. There’s a wet spot in the carpet under his mouth and when he opens his eyes, JUNK-E, his automated cleaner bot, is attempting to suction up what looks like ground-up cheetos, the shards of a beer bottle, and Tony’s saliva.

(“So what you’re telling me is you spent a week building a glorified roomba,” Rhodey says the first time he sees it, and Tony lets out an undignified huff and makes JUNK-E destroy and clean a grand piano.)

Tony rolls over onto his back and spends a few minutes just breathing and trying to remember both where he is and how he ended up face down in the carpet. It takes him a while to recognize the ceiling of his house in Malibu, and remember the birthday bash he’d thrown himself the night before. The smell of booze is overwhelming, and as JUNK-E whirrs around him, he can hear more glass being sucked up and deconstructed into dust.

Looking around, his mansion’s more than a bit of a disaster: the glass coffee table has been overturned and smashed, his couch currently looks like a crime scene given how much red wine has been spilled on it, and yeah… that’s definitely vomit in the corner.

He’s slowly falling back asleep when he hears the angry click-clack of high heels on the marble. Pepper walks into the room in a lovely little get up, pencil skirt and tight blouse, hair up in a ponytail. She pauses near the fireplace and lets out a deep sigh before walking the last few feet toward him.

“You’re up, I see.”

“Yep,” Tony says, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and then regretting it. It does not smell right; he really needs to wash his hands. He stares up at her, making a legitimate effort not to look up her skirt. “You missed a hell of a party, Potts.”

Normally, Pepper regards his extravagances with an air of amusement, but lately she’s been a real wet blanket. Tony had been legitimately disappointed when she hadn’t shown up to his party for at least an hour or two. A man only turns thirty once.

“It wasn’t even your birthday,” Pepper says, picking up a broken vase from the floor and placing it on one of the very few pieces of furniture not demolished. She looks genuinely upset at its destruction, and Tony feels a weird mix of regret and petulant anger.

“Yeah, pre-birthday party.  It's a leap year thing. Tonight’s the main event,” Tony says, finally shoving his body off the floor and standing. His legs are not prepared for the weight and wobble, Pepper reaching out and grabbing him to prevent him from face-planting into the ground. She lets go as soon as he finds his balance and crosses her arms over her chest. “Booze will be drunk, couches will be ruined, a girl may become a mother. Good times, Pepper. You gonna grace us with your divine presence?”

There has never been anyone in Tony’s life who’s been able to express disappointment and make it stick like Virginia Potts, and the look she gives him makes his chest feel like a deflating balloon. Like she had really expected him not to throw the party of the century for his thirtieth. His father’s not around to disapprove, and Rhodey’s in Afghanistan, prepping for his visit in a few weeks. The universe is practically begging for a Stark extravaganza.

But then she smiles. It’s weak and sad, and ugh. Tony feels like fucking shit. “You know I would. But I’m going to be watching The Big Sleep tonight. Maybe order empanadas from the place down the street. Not really up for a huge party, it’s been a long week.” She pauses for a second. “Maybe you need a quiet night too, Tony.” She taps at his chest, right over his heart. “This isn’t indestructible, you know.”

Tony grins. He’s never had much use for his heart, anyway. “It’ll last. Genetics. We Stark men have hearts of steel.” He coughs, because this is getting close to feelings and feelings lead to parties where he ends up passed out face first into a carpet filled with crushed junk food. “You sure you’re not up for a little fun?”

Pepper nods. “Yeah, I’m sure. Now, you have a conference call with Obadiah in twenty minutes and then a security briefing with the Pentagon regarding your trip to Afghanistan in March, so can you please take a shower? You smell like a dumpster.”

Tony smirks. “God, you know how to sweet talk a man, Pep.”

“Now would be good.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

--

Pepper answers the door on the third knock.

“Tony?” she asks, slightly incredulous. Tony takes a second to absorb Pepper off-duty, the delight of seeing her hair tangled up into a loose bun, no make up, glasses, and a set of pajamas covered in slices of cakes with little cherries on them. She’s standing in the door of her condo, a movie playing in the background, and looking shocked to see him.

“Hey Pep,” he says, holding up a bottle of wine. It’s red, expensive, and when she sees the label, her eyes go wide as dinner plates.

“Thought you had a party tonight,” she asks, taking the bottle of wine from him as he passes it over.

He did. Cancelled. He hadn’t gotten a refund on his giant ice sculpture, so Tony’s pretty sure there’s a likeness of himself leaving a medium-sized lake in his living room.

“Change of plans. Someone said I needed a quiet night.” Pepper smiles at that, genuine and kind, and Tony feels - not for the first time - like he doesn’t quite deserve having her in his life. He’s not self-sacrificing enough to let her go, but there’s a part of himself that knows without a doubt that eventually she’ll grow tired of him and leave all on her own.

“You want to come in?” Pepper asks politely, stepping aside as if to let him by.

Tony shakes his head. “Nah, I’m going to go back to the house. Make sure JUNK-E hasn’t demolished the place. Work on a few new designs.”

“You sure?” Pepper asks, pressing her glasses up her nose. He’s never seen her in them before and it’s a good look for her. “Really. I have enough empanadas for three people and the movie’s barely started.”

“Nope, just wanted to drop off the bottle. A little apology gift. You know, for the drool. And the vase.” For putting up with me, he thinks in a moment of self-flagellation. He really wants to get drunk. He wants to get drunk, destroy his living room again, and have ill-advised sex with a woman he’ll need Pepper to get rid of.

“An ‘86 Richebourg is a little much for something I see on an almost constant basis.”

He chuckles. “Touche. Consider it a bonus.”

Pepper smiles, stepping forward and pulling Tony down by the collar to kiss him on the cheek. “Happy Birthday, Tony.” She steps back, waving her fingers at him in goodbye as she shuts the door.

Tony spends his thirtieth birthday drinking alone on his wine-stained couch, JUNK-E whirling around happily at his feet.

 

 

 

Natalia Alianovna 'Natasha' Romanova, November 5:

Natalia turns thirty in the bitter cold of Philadelphia in 1969, though the mirror betrays not a year beyond twenty-five.  She is not a vain woman, but twenty-five had been a good year for her: young, but missing the baby-faced features it had taken her until twenty-three to finally grow out of.  The timing of her change had not been left to chance.  They wanted her young, but not too young; some men (though not many in Natalia’s experience) have trouble bedding a woman that looks too much like a child.

Not that many got beyond touching her skin before she left them with broken vertebrae and glassy eyes.

Philadelphia feels like a loud, obnoxious Siberia in many ways.  Cold and lonely, filled with people who barely look at one another as shift by her on the street.  She’s been sent to the city by her handlers to track a defector and dispose of him as quietly as possible.  Moscow has begun testing their nuclear weapons underground, and Colonel Anatoly Yakolev knows far too much of their plans for him to live.

She’s been tracking him for a little under a week when she comes back to the small rent-by-the-week apartment she’s been squatting in to find a familiar shadow lurking in her bedroom.

She’s got a knife strapped to her thigh and a gun in her purse, but neither would be enough to take down the shadow that smiles when she says, “Soldier.”

It’s been the better part of a year since she’s seen him, her missions taking her to the United States while he’s been tearing through Eastern Europe.  Interpol and most of the western intelligence agencies have failed to put a name to the swath of assassinations, but she knows.  She knows because she knows him well.

Natalia would never be as cliched as to say that he has taught her everything she knows.  There was a great deal she knew before he waded into her barracks one night, finger flicking against the chain of the handcuff binding her to her bedpost as he said, I’ve been told you are the best. Tomorrow, we find out, yes?

(He’d dislocated her shoulder so badly the next day that they’d had to send her to medical to have it set.  But she’d managed to break four of his ribs and blacken an eye, and when she’d finally been discharged and ordered back to the barracks, she found him back there, sitting on her bed, his hand resting on the handcuff again.)

But he taught her the important things, the pieces of herself hidden beneath the Red Room.  The parts she’s starting to realize may belong to him, though she will never speak the words out loud.  A Widow has no master - not even herself - other than the Red Room.

He steps into the light.

“Natalia.”  There is a warmth in his voice that it so rarely carries.  He is the same man that trained her - cold, ruthless, and determined - but there are moments that Natalia can see pieces of the man below the soldier.

“I thought you were in Cyprus,” she says, tugging off her coat and throwing it over the couch before stepping into the bedroom proper.  The heels go next, kicked toward her closet as she begins to unbutton her cardigan.  She hates that she’s forced to dress like a secretary to blend in here.  She’d forgone the nylons out of pure petulance, though the women who passed her on the street looked at her like she was crazy for braving the temperatures in bare legs.

“I was.”

The Soldier pushes off the wall with his left foot.  He moves with such strength and grace; Natalia feels her insides begin to stir watching him stalk toward her.  It’s been so long since she’s had him inside of her, had his hands on her.  

“Any reason for your visit, comrade?” she asks.  She’s barely ever paired with the Soldier on missions now, and to have him sent to her on a solo op is an insult.  It speaks to doubt in Natalia by her handlers, and doubt is dangerous.

He nods, but doesn’t answer, instead reaches for her hips and leans down to kiss her.  Natalia tips her head up, letting her mouth fall slack under his, allowing him to take control of the kiss.  Oh, she’s missed this.  The taste of him is unmistakable and familiar, the salt of him mixed with the light hint of what might be alcohol.  She moans lowly, before she can stop herself, and she can feel the pull of his mouth against hers in return, the edge of what might be a smug smile.

“Oh,” she says as he pulls away, licking his swollen bottom lip as he retreats just far enough the smell of him - leather, sweat, and the sharp ghost of blood - dissipates and she can think again.  “So… this?”

His eyes narrow and the side of his mouth ticks up.  There’s darkness here, the edge of danger, and Natalia can feel herself get wet for him.  No man makes her feel the way her soldier does, no man - no one - knows her the way he does.

He shakes his head.  “No,” he tells her, his fingers mapping the planes of her cheeks quietly.  “This.”

Her breath catches in her chest when he drops to his knees and rolls up her skirt roughly, reaching for her panties and dragging them down so hard she hears a seam tear.  He sets his mouth to her cunt with such determination that she can’t help the surprised gasp it tears from her throat.

He licks and sucks, drags his teeth across her like she’s not only something to be enjoyed, but devoured.  He gets her up onto the bed and licks and bites and fucks her until she comes and comes and comes, his body pushing hers to the brink the way he used to when they’d spar.  She’s near delirious by the time he finishes, her body completely spent and mind fuzzy when she hears what might be, Natalia.  My little Natalia.

In the morning, he’s gone, the only evidence the map of bruises on her body, the ache in her cunt, and his come on her thighs.

 

 

 

Margaret ‘Peggy’ Carter, April 9:

Toctoctoc: the sound of a single knuckle against a glass panel in the French doors that separate these rooms from the rest of the wing. “Director Carter,” Mr. Jarvis whispers sharply, “Director Carter, do wake up.” He taps frantically again.

Mr. Stark’s boots thunder down the steps, the thick pile of the carpets doing nothing to damped his boisterous movements. “Is she up yet?” He half-shouts, still a dozen paces and another corner away, “Jarvis, man, this is no time for pleasantries!” He rounds the corner, still in his sheepskin and his heavy boots and his fisherman’s woolens. He sighs extravagantly at Mr. Jarvis, and then smacks the edge of his fist against the wooden frame of the door.   

Thampthampthampthampthampthamp

“Peggy,” he calls loudly into the glass, “I don’t care if you’re decent; I’m coming in.”

“Oh, you mustn’t,” Mr. Jarvis chastises, but Mr. Stark merely pulls off his gloves, shoving them into Mr. Jarvis’ wringing hands. He waits some predetermined seconds, and then thampthampthamps on the door once more.

“That’s your warning!” he shouts, turning the knob.

It’s locked.

“For the love of God, woman!” Mr. Stark is genuinely shouting now; Mr. Jarvis thinks Director Carter cannot possibly be sleeping through the ruckus. He flips through a heavy ring of keys, selecting the appropriate one and putting it into Mr. Stark’s impatient hand, for fear the man would sooner send himself through the glasswork than wait another moment. Mr. Stark fits the key to its lock, and looks back over his shoulder to admit a carefree, “Thanks.”

The door wrenches out of his hand and swings inward, nearly toppling Mr. Stark out unto the carpet face-first. Mr. Jarvis does not think about just desserts, restraining himself gallantly.

“Flipping Hell, Howard!” Director Carter quite shouts. She stands before them barefoot, the pants cuffs of her peach-toned loungewear peeking out beneath the ankle-hem of her peach-on-navy embroidered robe. Her hair is still coiffured, her daytime cosmetics yet untouched. A very long night at the office for the director, then, Mr. Jarvis notes; she is apparently just come home, and just getting comfortable. Mr. Stark recovers his balance and very nearly pulls Director Carter into his arms 

“Peggy!” Mr. Stark’s earlier haste dissolves into boyish excitement as he stands before them. He takes one of her hands in both of his, and she measures his features very carefully in return. “Pegs, I found him.”

In Mr. Jarvis’ experience, there has only ever been one individual meritorious of such singular emphasis. He feels his stomach drop in response. Mr. Stark was apparently wise to take Director Carter in arms; she lists into him like a thief might’ve nicked the floor from under her very feet.

She clutches closed the neck of her dressing gown, after a breath, Mr. Stark props her upright. “No,” she whispers, gaze still locked on the floor, “no, did you?”

“C’mon,” Mr. Stark jostles her gently, “get your coat, let’s go.”

Her face is still distant; she glances right through Mr. Jarvis in a way that leaves him deeply unsettled. “No,” she says again, scarcely as loud as a breath, “no, this is a dream. I’m dreaming,” she states more soundly.

Mr. Jarvis assesses her features without his previous negligence. It is nearly four o’clock in the morning; Director Carter had already quit the premises by six o’clock yesterday morning. She sports routinely the best maquillages Mr. Jarvis has ever seen, but after nearly twenty hours, it tells the truth of her exhaustion. He steps in.

“I assure you, Director Carter, we are very real.”

She looks at him curiously, takes in Mr. Stark’s face once again, and then winds up to smack with her open palm full on his cheek. It rings remarkably through the room, and Mr. Jarvis recoils in sympathy.

“Hey!”

“Why didn’t you wire?” she shouts, turning from his stinging face and sweeping about the sitting room, shoving bits and scraps of paper into files, and then all this and more into her pocketbook. On the other side of the room, she puts her hands on her hips and looks at Mr. Stark in cold fury. “If you’ve just come from the other side of the Arctic, God knows how many days it’s taken, so why didn’t you damn well wire me?”

Mr. Stark’s trips to the North have been a bone of contention between friends ever since he first went to look in May of 1945, not two weeks after Captain Rogers had been presumably lost to the sea. Director Carter had once been a proponent of the searches, accompanying Mr. Stark. In the intervening years, however, she had become as icy to the pursuit as the Arctic Circle itself.

Mr. Stark’s returning answer is terrifically cold. “Because I didn’t know if I was bringing you Steve or a block of ice.”

At the very mentioning of his name, she drops to sit on the couch. Mr. Stark goes to her, kneeling on the floor by her feet. “Look at yourself,” he instructs her, “doin’ like this, you’ll only feel like this for an hour. Imagine if I’d told you a week ago,” he jests, “you’d have punched my head clean off.” She tsks and wipes at her eyes. “Why are you always hitting me?”

She touches his other cheek. “Because you never tell a whole truth if you can help it,” she scolds him. The touch and tone is intimate, if between friends; Mr. Jarvis turns away.

Mr. Stark sighs audibly, there is the rustle of the director’s silks. “Get dressed,” he says, and call the nightwatch at the office. We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready. He’s asking for you.”

Mr. Jarvis studies the wallpapering of this wing’s main thoroughfare. The paisley is awfully sunspotted in places.

“He’s awake?”

“Yeah.”

There is a long pause; Mr. Jarvis hears distinctly the sound of the bathtub running over. Thus accounts for the late opening of the door. 

“Happy birthday, pal,” Mr. Stark whispers. There is the gentle whuff of a crying breath, greatly restrained.

Something must be done about the wallpaper. Perhaps Anna has a suggestion.