“No,” Steve shook his head firmly. “No, Tony. I don’t need one, I don’t want one, no!”
“It’s a tradition!” Tony argued, and went for the big guns. “An American tradition, Steve—can’t get more stereotypical than that! Besides, I’m footing the bill so you can’t refuse—I’ll get Pepper to book us someplace appropriately raunchy yet classy.” He looked up at the ceiling. “Jarvis, pipe me through to the Tower homies wherever they be.”
“Yes sir. Connections to your thug life associates established. Yo.”
“Barton! Banner! Thor! Who’s in for Steve’s bachelor party?”
“I’m in,” came Barton’s direct reply.
“Ah sure,” Banner chimed in. “Why not?”
“A celebration! What is a bachelor?” Thor boomed cheerfully.
“An unmarried man,” Tony replied. “A bachelor party, also more appropriately known as a stag party is an occasion for said bachelor to overindulge in all sorts of lovely vices in one last epic bacchanalia before getting married. A chance to sow wild oats, be gross and drunk and make memories that will last a lifetime—or at least as long as his friends have videos of the night.”
“Which is precisely why I’m not interested in having one,” Steve pleaded. “Let’s face it Tony; you’ve got lots of opportunities to carry on without putting me in the middle of it.”
“Oh contraire!” came the reply as Tony grinned dangerously. “You give the whole thing some respectability, and it would be a hell of a lot of fun, Cap. I know the present company aren’t the Commandos, but we’d be honored to carry on the way they would have for you.”
Steve shot Tony a look, prepared to see a cocky grin, and was touched when he saw the dark-eyed sincerity on the other man’s face. Tony had his chest out, his expression both compassionate and kind.
He hesitated, and in that moment was lost to Stark’s machinations. Tony clapped his hands together and beamed. “O-kay, it’s ON, people!”
“Niiice,” Barton replied, a grin evident in his voice.
“Potentially dangerous, but it could be interesting,” Banner added.
“We shall make it a living legend!” Thor boomed. “They shall sing sagas in memory of the night we partook! Odes to our rutting and quaffing!”
“Whoa, whoa, slow down, Thor!” Steve muttered, alarmed. “No sagas, no odes! Most especially no rutting! Geez, Tony!”
“Sometimes I think Asgard must have been like one huge frat party,” Tony snickered. In a louder voice he added, “We’ll get the details out in a bit guys. Comm out.”
Steve sighed and looked at Tony, who was already bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Happy now?”
“Delirious. We all need to blow off some steam and even Fury can’t argue with a great American institution like this. Oh, he’s invited too, right? Because if he’s not, I don’t want to be the one to tell him.”
Steve waved a hand. “Sure why not? I’ve got a few names of my own to add to guest list anyway.”
“Great! So since you and Lauren are due to go waltzing down the aisle in three weeks seems like the perfect time for this night of debauchery would be this weekend, barring any missions.”
Steve tensed. “This weekend? Isn’t that kind of . . . soon?”
“Five days,” Tony nodded enthusiastically. “Just enough of a deadline to have Pepper at her best, and short enough to prevent you from too many second thoughts. I suggest you let Lauren know and get those names to Pep as soon as possible. In the meantime I have a few favors to call in.” He trotted past Steve, reaching a hand to pat the other man’s shoulder. “Epic,” Tony repeated, grinning.
Steve felt a sense of dread in his stomach.
Lauren looked up from the display of sheet music she was putting into alphabetical order as Steve came into Time Was. He waved to a few greetings and made his way towards her, steps unexpectedly slow.
She tensed. Normally Steve was bright-eyed and enthusiastic when he came home, and he only ever trudged when something was bothering him. Carefully she looked up at him, waiting until he had slipped his arms around her before she smiled. “All right, what’s wrong, Hero?”
Steve kissed her lightly and sighed. “Tony Stark.”
Lauren smirked. “That would have been my first guess. What’s Tony done now?”
“He wants,” Steve actually gulped, “he wants to throw me a bachelor party! I didn’t want one, but the rest of the team was listening and they were enthusiastic and Tony announced he was paying for it and he went all sincere on me, invoking the Commandos and I just . . . sort of gave in.”
Lauren wanted to laugh; Steve looked so conflicted and woebegone; like a golden retriever missing his favorite chew toy. She held back and ran her hands over his chest in a comforting stroke. “Well they are traditional.”
“I can’t get drunk, I don’t have any lustful interest in women other than you, and I’ll be older than anyone else—face it, I’m going to be the designated driver at my own party,” Steve moaned.
“Oh come on, you’ll have a good time!” Lauren tried to cheer him as she steered the two of them towards the front counter where Grandpa was finishing up with someone’s purchase. “These are your friends, Steve!”
He took a deep breath. “Yes, I know that. They’re my friends as well as,” Steve lowered his voice, “my team mates. I just think it’s a lot of unnecessary fuss.”
“Steve sweetheart, I think this is as much for them as it is for you,” Lauren assured him. “Think about it—you’re the first of the group who’s getting married, right? That’s sort of a milestone right there.”
And it would be, Lauren knew. The amount of paperwork and clearance she and Steve had ploughed through at this point might have daunted a less devoted couple, but they’d persevered, submitting to whatever Fury and the government had insisted on including security checks, physicals and several joint sessions with Doctor R.
Lauren had genuinely liked Doctor R and the feeling was mutual.
“I’m so very glad to meet you, Lauren! Steve has told me so much about you and your grrrrrandfather! I would love to visit your bookstore!” the tiny woman had trilled, beaming up at Lauren.
“Anytime,” Lauren agreed happily, “we’d love to have you!”
Although the sessions had been a little embarrassing when the three of them settled into them, Lauren was glad too—it was counseling and therapy rolled into one, and the delight in talking to another woman about sex was a relief. Doctor R was candid and upbeat, her supportive advice peppered with enthusiasm. She offered up books and videos as well, and Lauren had them tucked away in the one of the nightstand drawers to be perused a bit later.
“That’s true,” Steve murmured, bringing her back to the here and now. “I didn’t think of it that way.”
“Exactly. Hopefully you’re showing them it can be done—the career and family thing,” Lauren teased gently. “You know—the American dream?”
“If you say so,” Steve replied, still looking doubtful.
Grandpa looked up when they reached the counter and flashed a grin at them. “Steve! Things going all right? You look a little down in the dumps.”
“Bachelor party,” Lauren laughed. “He’s not sure he wants one, even though Tony is offering to host it.”
Grandpa looked over his glasses at Steve. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Joe, I’m not interested in . . . shenanigans,” Steve sighed, going pink in the face again. “Certainly not the ones Tony will whip up.”
“Oh,” Joe murmured. “I see. So you’d pass up a chance for your friends to share an evening with you that isn’t a life-or-death situation fraught with peril and ending in blood and destruction? You don’t want them all to have a great meal, lots of quality booze and a chance to actually socialize? To swap bullshit stories and laugh and make toasts in your honor and generally celebrate the fact that one of their number is planning on having a future instead of a now?”
Steve blinked. “Okay, when you put it that way I sound like a selfish bastard, Joe. That’s not what I meant at all!”
Grandpa laughed in a wheezy chuckle, reaching out to pat Steve’s shoulder. “God love you Steve, you are the easiest leg to pull! Look, you have the final say in something like this, sure, but think back to the stag parties you’ve gone to—and I know you’ve been to a few in your life, son—and you might remember that under all the shenanigans as you call them there are some pretty solid memories of camaraderie that are the sole privilege of men. The night’s one way of reminding each other that you’re brothers as well as friends or a team or any other bond you’ve got.”
Steve gave a slow nod. “I . . . I do know what you mean. It’s just . . . it’s been so long, and Tony, well . . . he does have a reputation for overkill.”
“Am I invited?” Grandpa demanded. Lauren tried to hide her grin.
“Yes, of course!” Steve replied. “You bet!”
“Good. Then I’ll be your check against Stark’s excesses then,” Grandpa winked. “After all, with a geriatric in the group—a visual one anyway-- he’llhave to curb some excesses. Fair enough?”
Lauren watched as Steve grinned, his dimples deepening and his eyes bright. “You are a devious man, Joe Scott.”
“Nah, I just want my fair shot at the cigars and steak,” he chuckled. “I’ll leave the women to all the other fellahs.”
“Generous of you,” Lauren giggled. “I guess this means I can start hinting to Sally about a bachelorette party.”
“Bachelorette party?” Steve echoed, faintly surprised. The three of them shifted to let Grandpa ring up a customer, and Lauren shot Steve a quick smile.
“Yeah, you don’t think you’re the only one who gets to watch strippers and go wild for one night, right?”
“Wait, what?” Steve blurted. “Strippers?”
“Male strippers, all slicked down with oil. Sally says there’s this place uptown where she can get a good deal,” Lauren murmured, and then burst out laughing at Steve’s horrified expression. “Steve, it’s a joke, honey!”
“God I hope so,” he murmured weakly. “Listen, I’m not going to be a hypocrite, but the idea of some guy other than me getting naked for you . . .”
“Is never going to happen,” Lauren assured him. “Not only am I madly in love with YOU, Steve, you’re also pretty much perfection when you are naked. I’m totally spoiled in that department and really have no interest in anybody else. I know strippers are expected at your party so I’m not going to worry about them, okay?”
Steve bent down and rubbed his nose with hers. “You and only you, Kitten,” he whispered in that soft deep voice that always made her knees weak.
“Okay then,” she sighed happily.
The next three days were a constant blend of annoyance and anticipation for Steve; he did his best to stay unruffled while working at the Stark Tower despite Tony’s occasional non-sequitur comments and the grins of the other men. Natasha managed to ride the elevator with Steve at one point and shot him a sidelong look as it brought them down to the basement. “You’re not looking forward to Tony’s bacchanalia in your honor I take it?”
“I’m putting a good face on the whole thing. See?” Steve managed a grimace and for the first time in a long while Natasha actually snickered, her soft laugh lasting only a second or two.
“Men will be boys,” she murmured, and sighed. “Your fiancée’s okay with it?”
“Yep,” Steve nodded. “Her grandfather’s going to be there, as a sort of . . . chaperone.”
“Good idea. Tony’s less likely to put a senior citizen in the line of fire—present company excluded.”
“Yeah. Um, Natasha?”
“Yes?” the elevator stopped but she didn’t step out. Steve felt the heat rise on his face, but he rushed through his question anyway, before his courage failed him.
“Are there really . . . male strippers?”
He risked a look at her face; one groomed eyebrow arched up as Natasha stared back, the very faintest of smiles at the corners of her mouth.
“You don’t need to worry. Tony won’t hire any.”
“No—I mean yes, I know he won’t,” Steve blurted. “That is, he’d better not! I just . . . never mind.”
Natasha finally did smile, her gaze soft. “It’s the twenty-first century, Captain Rogers; sexual equality goes both ways but your fiancée strikes me as someone who’s not going for the downtown hamburger when she’s got top sirloin like you at home, sir.”
She strode off, leaving Steve red-faced and trying hard not to laugh at himself.
Later in the day Tony called him up to the penthouse and was sprawled on a sofa surrounded by no fewer than three holographic screens hanging in the air like ghostly windows. “Okay, so Pepper’s got us booked for the Cosmopolitan Lounge. I’ve got dinner lined up, along with poker, karaoke and a floorshow to sear your eyeballs out.”
“Tony!” Steve huffed, torn between laughing and wanting to throw his hands in the air. “You really don’t need to go to all this trouble . . . and expense. Seriously, a night out at Waffle World could cover the basics for me.”
“They have pole dancers at Waffle World? Damn, I need to get out among the little people more often,” Tony shot back cheerily. “Slick themselves up with syrup, do they?”
“No! What’s a pole dancer—you know, never mind. I don’t want to know,” Steve huffed gloomily. “I guess it won’t do any good if I tell you I don’t want any strippers at the party, right?”
“Right,” Tony nodded. “Not a damned bit of good. You know and I know that you’re faithfully devoted to your one and only, that no other woman will ever mean as much to you as your beloved Lauren, yadda yadda yadda, but on the other hand you’ve got Clint, Thor, Bruce and whoever else you’ve invited to think of, Steve. Don’t be selfish. You might not want to see hot and gleaming naked girl-flesh on parade, but why make your teammates suffer? Don’t you owe them some wonderful mammaries?”
“Sometimes,” Steve managed through gritted teeth, “I hate you.”
“That’s a given, but I won’t take it personally,” Tony grinned. “So who else is coming? Pepper wants a head count. Or I guess in our case a dick count.”
“Joe, Binh, and Fury, I guess. I feel bad leaving Natasha out, but I don’t think she would want to come.”
“You guess right,” Tony shuddered. “Even though I’m pretty sure she’s got a dick. Or several. Severed. In jars.”
Steve tried not to laugh. “Intimidated?”
“Cautious. Okay, so two guests for sure, and as for Fury, I’ll let you go up and invite him to the shindig.”
“Why me?” Steve asked, and realization dawned on him. “Ohhhhh, I get it. If you invite him he’ll be instantly suspicious and insist on going to make sure you don’t do something spectacularly stupid, but if I invite him, he’ll think everything’s under control and he won’t feel compelled to go. Cheap shot, Stark.”
“It’s called strategic initiative, thank you very much, and it’s been damned helpful in keeping me alive, Cap. In this case, it will help insure that nobody rains on the parade, capice?”
“Tony,” Steve paused and stepped closer, looking at the man sprawled on the sofa. “Seriously, why go to all this . . . trouble? I’m touched, but it’s a lot of work.”
Tony looked up, and his dark eyes locked on Steve’s for a moment, his mouth bracketed with tiny strain lines. “Someone once told me not to waste the second chance I got at life. The way I see it, you got shortchanged out of the lifetime you should have lived, and while none of us here can make up for what you missed out on, we can pick up the ball.”
Steve blinked, a little startled by the obvious sincerity.
Tony added, “That, and let’s face it; Starks know how to throw parties.”
“Yeah,” Steve nodded, finally grinning, “You do. Thanks. I’ll go see Fury.”
“Good. Maybe we can get him drunk enough to do Karaoke. I bet he does a hell of an Isaac Hayes.”
Binh was delighted to be invited, and even Fury had agreed to stop in briefly, leaving Steve with the impression that the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. knew perfectly well what was going on. By the time Steve made it home to Time Was, he was starting to wonder if he might actually enjoy part of the planned events.
Lauren was amused that he didn’t know what Karaoke was. “It’s people singing songs with the music playing behind them. They do it in front of an audience of their friends and generally everyone has a silly time doing it.”
“But I . . . I don’t know any songs unless they do the National Anthem or something by the Andrews Sisters,” Steve fretted. “Or maybe some hymns.”
“Trust me, nobody does hymns for Karaoke, sweetheart,” Lauren giggled. She was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, running the water, and Steve peeked in, noting with interest that she’d lit some candles as well. This looked very promising.
“Not all of us are amazing singers like you,” he sighed. “So. Planning on a bath?”
“Oh yes,” she twinkled up at him, rising and batting her eyes. “And I wasn’t planning on taking it alone.”
Steve bit back a groan. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that.”
“How happy?” Lauren smirked, pressing up against him, her hips wriggling slightly. “Oh, very happy, apparently.”
“I like the thought of you naked in hot water,” Steve admitted. “It gets better when I’m part of the picture as well.”
“Agreed. Lose the clothes, Hero, and I’ll introduce you to the joys of Loofah for two,” Lauren told him as she began to unbutton his shirt.
It look a while between kisses and touches, but by the time they were both naked the tub was half-full and topped with inviting foam. Lauren urged Steve to get in first and settle himself, which he did, grateful that the remodeling had gone so well. The oversized marble tub was one of the few luxuries he and Lauren had agreed on and as he stretched out he sighed.
That only lasted until Lauren leaned over and tested the water, her hand slipping under the foam and touching his thigh. “You look comfortable.”
“There are still a few tense spots,” he assured her, holding out his hands to help her into the tub. “We’ll have to work certain muscles until we ah, both relax.”
“Yes,” she murmured, stepping in and straddling his hips. “Oooh yessssss!”
It took a while for the sloshing to stop, but afterwards even Steve had to admit that there was nothing like a hot bath to relieve stress, even if you ended up with foam up your nose.
The Cosmopolitan was a gleaming building of Neo Art Deco design discreetly situated in downtown Manhattan amid the other towering structures housing multi-national corporations and businesses. Steve was pleased to see that it had flair without flash; no neon signs or sidewalk chalkboards advertising drink specials no—just a long canopy of green and silver silk and a doorman in front of the glass entrance. He breathed a small sigh of relief and looked at the other men in the limo.
“Looks nice,” he ventured.
“It IS nice,” Tony replied cheerfully. “Pepper wrangled their biggest room at the last minute, so if you see any sulking businessmen it’s because they got downgraded to the kiddie table.”
“That was mean,” Bruce murmured.
“That was the first lesson in business,” Tony countered. “Never try to out-negotiate Pepper Potts. She will not only yank the rug out right under you, but will also have one of those Acme Corporation portable holes as well and you’ll be falling past panoramic southwestern mesas before you know it.”
Thor laughed uproariously. “I have seen this! The scrawny wolf and the long-legged fowl and their endless competition! Very amusing, the legend, yes!”
Steve grinned along with the rest of the men at that.
“So who do you root for—Wiley Coyote or the Roadrunner?” Hawkeye asked as they climbed out of the limo and onto the sidewalk. The soft gleam of fading sunset tinted the buildings in mauve, and twinkling gleams from taxis and cars sparkled in the oncoming dark.
“The wolf of course. He reminds me of my brother in many ways,” Thor cheerfully replied as he helped Joe out onto the sidewalk. “Loki too, is determined and ruthless. And also very underfed.”
“Plus he’s never going to win,” Hawkeye added.
“Enough about that loser,” Tony rolled his eyes. “Gentlemen, we have arrived! Steve, you’re the man of the hour, so come on this way—Joe, would you like a hand?”
“I’m good,” Joe grinned. He was up to a cane now and looking much better these days. Steve shifted to stand next to him, and Joe pushed his glasses up, looking towards the doorman. “La-di-dah! Lead on, Steve.”
Taking a deep breath, Steve strode forward, allowing the doorman to pull open the glass door. The other six trailed in after him into the glamorous foyer. It looked much more like the lobby of a theater, plush with thick carpet, and an open two-story ceiling space where a futuristic chandelier hung.
A thin older woman with spiky hair in a startling shade of purple came forward and gave them a shark smile of toothy amusement. “So! This must be the Stark Party!”
“Actually it’s the Rogers party,” Tony corrected her. She boosted the wattage on her grimace and nodded, eyes sweeping over the group.
“Yes of course! I’m Ingrid your co-coordinator here to make sure everything is to your satisfaction. Right this way, gentlemen, your deluxe accommodations await!” She spun on her spike heel and stalked off, hard little behind bouncing.
They moved forward; Thor rumbled. “I did not know goblins had bred here in Midgard.”
“I think it’s just the hair dye,” Hawkeye reassured him. “Although she does look a bit like a pissed . . . Norfin.”
“She looks like she could break your arm if you pissed her off,” Joe added. “I’m betting she was a bouncer in her early days.”
“Hey, hey we’re talking about a lady here,” Steve objected. “I think.”
That made even Tony snort a laugh as they all made their way down a glass staircase, aware of music rising up from the depths. Steve tried not to gawk, but the opulent atmosphere was a little intimidating, as was Ingrid. Still, there were lovely smells drifting from the kitchen, and nothing embarrassing had happened so far.
“We could take the
elevator,” Steve murmured to Joe, who shook his head.
“Therapist wants me walking. Tell you what—I’ll take ‘em down and I’ll ride back up when we’re done,” came the offer. “That way we can tell Lauren I didn’t strain myself.”
“Fair enough,” Steve agreed, feeling it was a good compromise. He’d introduced both Joe and Binh to the rest of the team, and he was proud that everyone was getting along well. It was clear that Joe knew perfectly well who most everyone was, and if Binh knew he wasn’t saying, content to watch and grin.
Downstairs was another foyer, this one a hall of mirrors, and at either end were double doors of carved wood. One set of doors stood open invitingly, and through them drifted the music. The other set were ajar with a hastily tacked note reading: Ingersoll Group Dinner.
“I think we now know who got bumped,” Tony murmured unsympathetically. “Tough beans, Ingersollers. This way, mes amis!”
The main room was cavernous, with a full bar set into an alcove at the back, and a rounded table booth across from it that looked like the setting for the Last Supper painting. Steve noted that the central floor area was hardwood, and small circular inlays hinted where the dancer’s poles would rise up.
He sighed and allowed Tony to herd them forward to the long table, everyone chattering and enthusiastic. A pair of ultra-gorgeous cocktail waitresses glided up in a matched set, one dressed as an angel, the other a devil, both of them in scraps of Spandex that strained to hold back cleavage.
“Hi boys, can I tempt you with anything?” the devil asked naughtily.
“Yes,” Hawkeye informed her without a moment’s hesitation. “Oh God yes.”
“Seconded,” Bruce grinned sheepishly.
Not to be outdone, the angel leaned forward, giving everyone the full benefit of her décolletage. “How about me?”
“Valkyrie, you are lovely,” Thor assured her. “You may sweep me to Valhalla anytime.”
This made her giggle, which did interesting things to the spandex. Steve heard Joe give a low snort.
“Me, I was always told to side with the angels,” he told her.
“Good advice,” she winked back. “What can I bring for you gentlemen?”
Angel and Devil took the
drink orders, and Steve went red when both of them cooed over him as the man of
the hour, leaning in to plant kisses on his cheeks.
“Don’t be good tonight,” Devil purred.
“Look at him,” Angel giggled, “He couldn’t be bad if he tried!”
“I could,” Hawkeye offered. “I’m very good at being bad. I’ve got references.”
“I’ve got documentaries,” Tony scoffed. “Whole exposés.”
“Nobody wants to see you expose anything,” Bruce sighed. “Especially us.”
sighed, wiping his hot cheeks and grinning just the same.
As the cocktail waitresses sauntered away, Ingrid swooped in, followed by a man in a chef’s uniform. She smiled her sharky grin once more and zeroed in on Steve. “Ah! Things going well so far?”
“Great,” Steve assured her lightly.
“Good! Chef Rene here is going to be in charge of your dinner. Now I’m given to understand that meat is the order of the night so we’re starting you off with bacon puffs and shredded beef canapés, then onto standing rib roast and later, cake.”
“Beef cake?” Thor wanted to know. The other Avengers snickered.
“God I hope not, on any level,” Bruce muttered.
Ingrid managed a rictus. “A special cake,” she sighed. “Rather traditional for a bachelor party, if you get my drift.”
Steve tried not to blush again. “Lord,” he muttered, but Tony laughed. Ingrid and Chef Rene gave a nod and slipped away just as the drinks arrived for everyone.
Tony sipped his appreciatively and added, “Now it’s a party, Rodgers. Speaking of which kiddies, we also have games to play.”
“Shit,” Hawkeye rolled his eyes. “Beer pong? Bombadier?”
“Please,” Tony scoffed, “We’re men with special skills. May I direct your attention thus . . .” He waved hand and Devil came forward, rolling what looked to be a tall form on wheels covered with a drape. She set it fifteen feet in front of the table, and then tugged the drape off with a flourish, revealing a department store manikin covered in sheer balloons.
It took a moment for Steve to realize that the balloons were in fact inflated condoms, that the manikin was that of a naked woman with a long blonde wig, and that someone had taken the time to insure the rest of her was . . . natural-looking as well.
Thor laughed. “What jest is this?”
“Target practice,” Tony assured him, and held up a handful of red, heart dappled darts. “One for each of us this round. But the handicap is . . .” he held out the other hand, revealing the blindfold. “We’ll see who can zero in on female anatomy best. All right Steve, give it your best shot.”
Steve shot Tony a murderous look that dissolved as everyone at the table laughed. He sighed, letting Tony tie the blindfold on him, feeling both embarrassed and amused to be embarrassed.
“Come on Cap; playing Cupid’s easy,” Hawkeye asserted.
“Barton, you’re getting an extra handicap when it’s your turn,” Tony assured him.
“Bring it on.”
“Shhh,” Thor chided, “We must be silent for the competition!”
Steve stood, hefting the single dart in his hand, thinking hard for a moment. He drew a breath, cocked his hand and tossed, gratified to hear a ‘pop’ a second later, followed by a roar of approval. As he tugged the blindfold off, he noted that his dart was buried right in the manikin’s belly button, the shreds of a broken condom around it.
“So close!” Tony mock-sympathized. “I really think you need to lower your sights, Cap.”
Steve snorted. “It’s called foreplay, Stark.”
Another roar of approval came from the table, and Steve accepted the pats on the back, feeling that perhaps it might be a fun evening after all.
Joe passed on tossing a dart, declaring he’d rather place bets with Bruce on who’d get what body part. Binh managed to plant one right on the left breast, bringing a roar of approval from the group.
“Nice,” Hawkeye murmured. “Almost romantic, except for the potential blood loss.”
“Funny, that’s what my wife says too,” Binh replied straight-faced, making everyone laugh.
“Your aim is too good; clearly you’re not drinking enough,” Tony announced, and waved Devil over to freshen up the glasses. Steve looked at the manikin, which now had two darts in it, and glanced at Bruce, who was blushing as he picked up his projectile.
“We all know this is misogynist and childish, right?” he murmured.
“All of which make it fun,” Tony reminded him. “Come on, Bruce—out there we’re polite and politically correct and in touch with our feelings. Here and now, we’re channeling our inner sexist pigs!”
“Not a difficult task for some,” Bruce shot back, but a small grin curled his lips and he allowed Thor to tie the blindfold. A quick flick and a second later, the dart was wobbling from a point between the manikin’s eyes.
“There you go. I’ve always thought a woman’s brain was the sexiest part of her.”
“Dude, you need to get out more,” Hawkeye sighed.
“Intelligence is a good thing, but it vanishes when other members stir,” Thor added. “This I know well.”
Next it was the Asgardian’s turn, and Thor’s dart flew straight and true . . . and far past the manikin all the way across the huge room to catch the edge of Angel’s right wing, pinning her to the far wall as she gave a squeal of surprise. Instantly everyone leaped up from the table and crowded over to her offering apologies.
Thor pulled the dart free and trailed a hand down her cheek, his gaze concerned.
“Valkyrie, are you injured? I apologize for my poor aim. I did not mean to clip your flight!”
“It’s okay, I’m good,” Angel gulped, managing a quick smile. “That was my fault, being in the line of fire like that.”
“We’ve only got two more,” Tony assured her, neatly tucking a five hundred dollar bill under one of the glasses on her tray. “After that, no more sharp objects, babe.”
Angel smiled up at Thor even as she pocketed the bill. “I'm all about forgiveness!”
Tony’s shot came closest to the bikini line on the manikin; below Steve’s but not by much, and he waved away the good-natured jeering. “What’s that? The sound of jealousy, yes?”
“All right Barton, your turn,” Bruce murmured, and Tony snapped his fingers. Devil sauntered up with a small tray that held three drinks on it. “Before you try to shame us all with your target talent, you must drink one of these little beauties first. We have some Irish Poitin, or USA Everclear or Polish Spirytus, so pick and we’ll see how good you are.”
Steve held the blindfold as Hawkeye flashed a quick smile at Devil. “You pick, honey. I always did like drinking with a bad girl.”
Devil chose the poitin and held it to his lips, tipping it down as Hawkeye drank amid cheers from the rest of the group. Steve tied the blindfold on as Hawkeye coughed, and when it was on, spun him quickly at Tony’s nod.
“Oho! A true challenge to the master of arrows!” Thor called, waving over the un-chosen drinks and downing them himself with a quick belch. Hawkeye fought a wobble but his hands came up, moving in quick snaps; the hiss of feathers cut through the still air as the red dart, followed by six sleek black ones sang in their flight. Condoms popped loudly.
Steve found himself laughing; the six black darts formed a rough heart right at the manikin’s crotch, with the red dart perfectly planted in the middle. At the table, the rest of the group gaped, then broke into applause, rising to cheer Hawkeye, who tore off his blindfold and grinned. He smiled like a naughty boy he was and crooked a finger at Devil, who came over to kiss him amid another roar of approval.
“Nice shooting,” Steve told Hawkeye, who was blinking a bit.
“Th-thanks,” came the reply. “Ooh. Need to sit.”
Everyone made room for him and he dropped into his seat, rubbing his face. Tony leaned over, smirking. “I figured you’d have extra darts, so that’s why the grain alcohol.”
“Still won,” Hawkeye pointed out. “Got a kiss out of it too.”
“The night is young, Robin Hood,” Tony shot back. “Very young.”
After that the appetizers showed up, and Steve had to admit that the bacon puffs were terrific. He wondered if he could ask for the recipe for Lauren, and with a pang of guilt realized it was the first time he’d thought of her all night. He hoped she was okay, and wondered if he could sneak out and send her a quick text.
Before he could move though, Tony stood up again and clapped his hands for attention. “Appetizers come in all sorts,” he announced, “So while we’re working our way through these, a little cheesecake might be good too.”
At that, a slender gold pole rose up from the floor, clicking into the ceiling socket. From the speakers, the sounds of Superfreak began to blare out, and Steve squeezed his eyes closed, feeling mortified for a moment. “Great. Cheesy and sleazy,” he muttered under his breath as a long-legged woman in six inch gold platforms appeared in a cloud of green smoke and reached for the pole.
“Oh damn,” Hawkeye muttered, leaning forward. “Legggggggs.”
“Jeez Louise,that’s one hell of a pair of gams,” Joe agreed in a slightly strangled tone, and Steve risked opening his eyes to see the woman flash a perfect smile of even white teeth. He noticed the teeth belatedly, because the rest of the woman was striking. She was a brunette, with bright green eyes and sleek hair that flared around her high-cheekbones; although Steve knew he’d never met the woman, there was something vaguely familiar about her.
There were whistles and calls of appreciation, and the dancer took them in stride, swinging around the pole provocatively, her tiny green and gold bikini barely covering anything as the music reverberated through the room. Steve tried not to stare but it was difficult not to . . . appreciate some of her lascivious moves, particularly when she wrapped one leg around the pole and slithered in an arc of sensual grace.
“I swear I’ve seen her before,” Steve murmured to no-one in particular.
Thor cocked his head, looking like a puzzled Labrador retriever. “Those legs . . . and eyes . . .”
Before he could say more, gunfire erupted.
For a few second nobody reacted, and then in a group Tony, Steve, Thor and Hawkeye rushed to the door, just reaching it when an explosion blew through it, sending Tony slamming back into the others. The music died, only to be replaced by yells and screams. Plaster sifted down, and the two cocktail waitresses shrieked, diving for the bar.
“Down!” Tony yelled, his voice hoarse but in charge. “Happy! We have a situation!”
For thirty seconds nothing more happened, and then gunfire erupted in the hallway, followed by more screams. A crackle of static came through the air.
“On my way sir,” Happy rasped. “Smoke bombs here in the garage—“
“What the hell is going on?” Hawkeye wanted to know, crouching at the doorway and eyeing the dark hall. “Robbery of some kind?”
“Petty politics,” came a bored purr, “and very inconvenient ones.”
This came from the dancer, who strode up, her mile-long legs bringing her over to the door in a few steps. “You humans fight so much among yourselves it’s hardly worth the trouble to take you on as a whole.”
To a man they turned, and she rested her hands on her exquisite hips, fluttering her eyelashes at them.
The penny dropped.
“Brrrrrrother . . .” Thor growled in a tone that wasn’t sure if it was annoyed or aroused. “What game are you playing at?”
“Brother? Oh no. No, no, no, nooooo—” Bruce shook his head, chagrin all over his face. “You can’t mean—”
“Loki.” Tony spat out the name as if it tasted bad, and Steve empathized as he stared at the lissome brunette who blew him a kiss.
“My invitation was mislaid I fear, but what’s a feast without dancing? Still, you have other matters to attend to.” She snapped her fingers and instantly Mjölnir appeared, as did Happy, clutching the suitcase armor.
Tony held out his arms. “Hap!”
The bodyguard heaved the case, moving despite his clear confusion; Tony caught it and began to suit up. Thor held out a hand and the hammer flew to it.
“Thor, you and I will take care of this; Cap, might want to get everyone else out,” Tony called tersely as the armor locked around him.
“Right,” Steve replied, slipping an arm around Joe, who was still staring at Loki. “Binh, you too--”
“Yeah,” came the quick reply as Binh trotted over. Steve glanced at Loki and felt his jaw twitch; seeing it, Loki broke into a lascivious smile.
“I’m sure you would hit a lady, but not today. Many felicitations on the occasion of your betrothal. Your intended certainly has her dainty hands full with your great, big . . . charms.”
“Loki,” Steve began, uncertain what to say. He could hear Tony and Thor in the hallway, and along with their voices he heard Ursula as well, her tone sounding extremely . . . annoyed.
Loki came closer and laid a finger on Steve’s lips, smirking sweetly. “Shhhhhh . . . your enjoyment of my dance—that will be our secret.”
“What?” Steve spluttered, blushing.
“S’okay,” Joe spoke up, still gazing at Loki. “We all did, honey. Even if you usually ARE a guy.”
More gunfire, but Loki smiled and waved her fingertips. “You I like, old one. Fare very well.”
She disappeared in a gleaming flash of green, and Steve glanced around quickly, but there was no further trace.
“Fre-aky,” Bruce muttered in a weak voice. “I knew bachelor parties could get a little crazy, but . . .”
“Later,” Steve said firmly. “Let’s get everyone up to the street. Barton?”
Hawkeye nodded. “I’ll scout the way up, collect anyone else I find.” He pushed up one sleeve to reveal a compact crossbow strapped to his forearm and grinned. “I came prepared.”
“Good,” Steve nodded. “Lead on.”
The foyer that joined the two rooms was filled with smoke, and the mirrored wall had cracks in it; Steve looked towards the other meeting room and could hear the sounds of a fight coming out of it. “Looks like the Ingersoll Group’s in trouble.”
“Tony and Thor can handle it,” Bruce reminded him. “We need to move, Steve.”
“Clear up here,” Hawkeye called down.
“Joe?” Steve looked at the older man, who eyed the stairs uncertainly.
“I can try but it won’t be quick,” he admitted. “Sorry Steve.”
“I’ll carry you,” Steve told him. He handed the cane to Bruce and then gently lifted Joe, one arm behind his back, one under his knees. Moving smoothly, Steve trotted up the stairs, trying not to jostle him. The lobby was filled with chunks of rubble and broken glass; above the fancy chandelier swayed. Steve moved to the doors, still holding Joe while Bruce, Binh and Hawkeye flanked him. The sudden appearance of a large black S.H.I.E.L.D. transport outside the glass doors cheered him, as did the sight of agents spilling out of it. Striding ahead of them was a familiar figure in a black leather trench coat.
“What the hell sorts of games is Stark having you all play?” came the aggrieved bellow. “I generally don’t have to mobilize troops for a bachelor party!”
“Whatever it is didn’t start at our party,” Bruce told Fury. “It was the adjoining room, bottom of the stairs to the left. Thor and Tony are down there right now.”
Fury still looked pissed, but contented himself with waving a squad leader down and turning back to glare at Steve’s group. “Any ideas?”
“We’d switched rooms,” Steve pointed out, gently setting Joe down. “If there was a bomb it might well have been meant for our group.” This little realization had dawned on him earlier.
Fury nodded. “We’ll check it out. Any clues as to who?”
“Someone with access to AK47s, and C-4,” Bruce murmured, handing Joe his cane. “I smelled the DMNB.”
“Terrorists,” Fury grunted. “Not . . .”
Steve debated his conscience for a moment, and then sighed. “Sir . . . Loki was here, but I’m pretty sure the explosion had nothing to do with her. Him.”
Fury’s gaze narrowed. “Loki?”
“Crashed the party,” Hawkeye murmured, gaze scanning around the lobby. “I’d really prefer not to talk about it, sir.”
“As a woman,” Steve admitted, feeling another blush deepen as Fury gave him a hard glare.
“A woman,” the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. repeated slowly, turning that one-eyed gaze to each face in turn.
“One of those whattayacall’em pole hootchies. She was hot,” Joe whistled. “Legs that went on for miles, and a hell of an ass.”
“Joe, ixnay,” Steve muttered. “Not now.”
A voice called up the stairs. “We have snared the troublesome one!”
“Thor,” Bruce sighed, sounding grateful for the shift in conversation.
The sound of thundering footsteps made them all look, and the Asgardian appeared, dragging up a bulky figure in black body armor in one hand. Behind him came Ursula, looking like a peeved scarecrow.
“Stupid, stupid corporate trust games!” she spat. “God, I TOLD management not to allow those, I TOLD them that sort of idiot role-playing nonsense wasn’t worth it!”
“Role-playing?” Hawkeye asked, crossing his arms.
“Team-building. Hey Ingersoll Group, what would you do in the face of a terrorist attack?” Ursula bellowed, pacing around the figure and looking as if she wanted to kick him with her pointy shoes. “So of COURSE the planners got over-enthusiastic, and then someone has a cousin at some building site and wouldn’t it be great to use REAL plastic explosive, and oooh my brother has this automatic rifle and now, complete fucking CHAOS because a few upper management idiots thought it would be FUN to make their colleagues shit their pants during the session!”
No one spoke for a second. The figure in the body armor took off his helmet to reveal a chubby flushed face and terrified eyes.
“Sorry, sorry. Rick MacGruder, Senior executive accountant . . .”
“Sorry.” Fury turned his fierce stare on the man. “Sir, you haven’t even begun to fully understand the meaning of that word. Allow me to escort you and your fun-loving ‘team’ to my headquarters where all of you are going to explain to the chief of police and the mayor of this city exactly what thehell you were thinking and what the hell you’re gonna do to make up for it.”
Rick began to quietly tear up, and Steve sighed, looking away. As other people began to climb the stairs and fill the lobby, he felt his phone vibrate; looking at it Steve spotted the text.
Saw the news; are you okay?
He texted back. We’re fine. Someone ELSE’S party got out of hand.
You’ll have to tell Tony he’s slipping. J came the reply.
It took nearly the rest of the night to get matters cleared up at the Cosmopolitan lounge. Ingrid had to be bodily restrained from assaulting members of the Ingersoll Group; Thor picked her up and sat her on one massive shoulder until she’d calmed down. Chef Rene brought up the dinner and ended up feeding not only everyone in the party, but also several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and some of Manhattan’s Finest, who enjoyed the rib roast, seared corn salad and slightly dented rolls.
The best moment had been the cake, of course. The massive confection had been rolled out onto the sidewalk, red, white and blue frosting smeared; the decor on the top was a ball and chains in licorice and the message ‘Good luck Steve: you’ll need it!’ The cake was enormous, clearly large enough to hold someone inside, but the bosomy girl in the checkered apron who was serving up slices merely shrugged and grinned. “I hadn’t gotten into it before things went screwy down there, so I guess I’m pretty lucky.”
Tony mournfully took a slice. “Yeah, I guess so—you’re too pretty to be a cake-casualty.”
Steve thanked everyone, accepted Tony’s offer of a ride home for Binh, Joe and himself, and within an hour was making his way up the back stairs of Time Was, having first made sure Joe was comfortable for the night. It was tricky, trying to juggle four wrapped slices of cake, but Steve managed, and when he stepped into the apartment, he gave a sigh of relief.
Home. No matter what the day had been like, this little haven of peace was a thousand times better than any sterile room in Stark Tower and that was the truth. Steve set the plates on the kitchen counter and looked around for Lauren, moving to the door of the bedroom to peek in.
She was there on the bed, propped up against the pillows, reading Pie, a Global History when he stepped in, and Steve noted she was wearing the white eyelet nightie. He swallowed, since very naughty things happened whenever this particular nightie made an appearance, if only fleetingly.
“Hey, you’re home,” Lauren purred, putting a bookmark between the pages and setting the heavy tome aside. “How did it go?”
“Nobody died,” Steve assured her, “although the Ingersoll Group is now banned for life from the Cosmopolitan, and their senior executive accountant is going to need a restraining order against the Cosmopolitan’s events coordinator. Tony says your peach crumble is still better than the cake we had, and I’m a little worried that Joe might have a crush on Loki.”
Lauren blinked. “Uhhhh . . .”
Steve began undressing, neatly tossing his shirt, undershirt and socks into the wicker hamper by the bathroom door. “Loki showed up at the party, disguised—transformed—as a woman. He, uh, . . . danced. Joe seemed to like it.”
“There is so much wrong with that. I can’t even begin to decipher how wrong that is,” Lauren giggled. She slithered over, the nightie pulling low across her chest, exposing the rounded bounce of her breasts. “I take it you weren’t impressed?”
“Eh,” Steve shrugged. “He’s a brunette.”
This brought another round of giggles, and Lauren pounced on Steve, taking him down to the mattress, the two of them joggling a bit. “What about the girl in the cake?”
Steve blinked. “She didn’t get a chance to do anything—well, she did bring the cake out to the sidewalk so everyone could have some, but how did you know about her anyway?”
“Steve, Steve, Steve,” Lauren shook her head knowingly. “There’s ALWAYS a girl jumping out of a cake at a bachelor party, especially if Tony Stark’s catering it.”
He blushed but said nothing; Lauren giggled at his expression and moved to straddle him, bringing her hands up to cup her breasts through the white eyelet. Steve stared, mesmerized.
“I suppose I could jump out of a nightie for you,” she offered, trying to look innocent.
Steve reluctantly pulled his gaze from the smooth curves of her cleavage and gave her his best Boy Scout sincerity. “I think it’s only fair to warn you that if you do that, I might stray from the path of appropriate behavior, Miss Scott.”
“In what way?” Lauren wanted to know as she wriggled ever so slightly against his hips.
“Impure thoughts for starters,” Steve admitted as unbuttoned the first little pearl shank on the scoop neckline. “Your temptations here figure prominently in the back of my mind.”
“Then we should bring them to the forefront,” Lauren decided, and began to help him with the other buttons. She peeled the two halves of the nightgown away, and Steve’s big hands slid up to cup her breasts as he fought a smirk.
“And to think I wasted an entire evening eating bacon puffs and playing darts when I could have been practicing for our honeymoon.”
“Practice makes perfect,” Lauren sighed happily, and turned her attention to his belt.
Steve felt the need to re-acquaint himself with nearly every inch of her exposed skin, and his kisses mapped out her entire chest and stomach. By the time he brushed a cheek against her damp inner thigh--“pie over cake any time”--Lauren was trembling, her fingers threading through his hair.
This was how he loved her best; when she lay under him, open and inviting, her eyes dark with desire and trust. Steve took his time bringing her to climax with gentle licks and kisses, savoring the heady perfume of her mound, the tang of her cleft. When Lauren held her arms out and pulled him into her, Steve groaned, driving himself deep.
This was how it felt to be loved, deeply and intimately. Lauren was his, he was hers, and everything between them—the jokes, the kisses and quiet conversations in the dark of the night—all of this made life good. Made her . . . home. Steve let the lightning heat of joyful lust drive his orgasm forward, and when he finally relaxed, he rolled over to his side of the bed, pulling Lauren with him, settling into sleep with her tucked at his side.
“Lauren ala mode,” he murmured drowsily. “Love you, Kitten.”
She giggled and snuggled closer. “Love you too . . . Mr. Dessert.”
Steve snickered and fell asleep, nose in her bangs.