Note: I always overestimate my posting speed! Sorry everybody, and thanks for sticking with my story.
Chapter 11: Pranks and Possibilities
"Actually there is such a thing as magical liquor…and this is our lucky day, because I just so happen to have some on me," the witch declared, to the engineer's dawning delight.
Producing a heavy amber bottle from her bottomless bag to Tony's look of awe, Laurel shrugged and tried to say, "For medicinal purposes only, of course," but couldn't keep a straight face, dissolving into laughter.
He held it up to the light and read, "'Ogden's Old Firewhisky'. Huh. So what does this stuff do?"
"Well, it burns a bit going down, but it's supposed to fill you with courage….And from what I've seen, it lives up to its reputation," Laurel returned, conjuring two tumblers. "Ice?"
"You know I'll take it, just to see you create the cubes from thin air," Tony admitted.
Tony watched as she artfully dropped a few pieces in each of their glasses. With forced casualness, he said, "I've been thinking….I don't really know very much about you at all. I mean, I know some of what you can do, but not who you are."
"What would you like to know?" she asked with an unreadable expression, wary of saying too much, but unable to prevent the small burst of happiness at the thought that he wanted to know her, and wasn't only curious about her magic.
"Everything, naturally, but I'm ambitious like that," he quipped. "First of all, if you're immortal, how old are you now? Do you age? Are you really a few hundred-years-old? Do you look around you and think, 'Look at all these foolish young mortals, driving too fast with their music up too loud'?"
His attempt at mimicry startled a laugh out of the witch, and she answered, "No, I only know one 'foolish young mortal' that does that….But to answer your question, I'll be twenty-six at the end of July. I stopped aging a few years ago though—when I was twenty-one or –two. It took a while before I noticed that I wasn't shedding any hair—even when I brushed it. And then somebody pointed me out in a picture from several years before and remarked that I hadn't changed at all. It was at that juncture that the reality started to sink in."
Tony mulled over this for a few moments. She was being uncommonly forthcoming tonight, and he wanted to learn as much as he could. "Will you tell me how you became immortal?" he asked hopefully.
She snorted. "I haven't had nearly enough to drink for that conversation," she retorted.
"Well, we must remedy that," he smirked, holding up his glass and eying the amber liquid with interest. "What should we drink to?"
"I'll drink to your science," she said with a grin, lifting her tumbler and angling it towards him.
Not to be outdone, the inventor replied brightly, "Then I'll drink to your magic."
Tony was no naïf when it came to alcohol, and felt fairly certain that he could handle whatever alien concoction she had produced, as long as it was meant for actual human consumption. With an audacious grin, he tapped his tumbler against hers and took an experimental swallow. With a name like firewhiskey, he wasn't exactly surprised at the burning, tingling sensation in his mouth and throat. In spite of the fact that he almost felt he could spout flames, the whiskey actually slid down quite smoothly, with a rich, dry, smoky aftertaste. He felt a sudden wild tattoo in his blood, and instantly grasped what the witch had meant about it 'filling him with courage'.
Laurel took a dainty sip and tried not to grimace. She was an infrequent drinker, uncomfortable letting down her guard and trusting others. But Tony was savoring the firewhiskey like the seasoned scotch drinker he was, and she didn't intend to be left behind…well, not too far behind.
"I like it. I feel like I'd turn into a berserker after about a quarter of a bottle of this stuff," he declared, and returned his attention to the woman beside him. "Since we're getting to know each other, I'll just move on to the next overly-personal, uncomfortable topic on my list, shall I?"
In response, Laurel fixed him with a sardonic look and took another deliberate swallow, feeling the alcohol seep through her like lava.
"So, what about your love life? Were you married? Did you leave a lover, boyfriend, anything like that back in your other dimension?" the engineer pried.
"No, I'm afraid not," she replied tersely, and when he seemed to want to know more, she reluctantly elaborated, gradually growing more impassioned, "Romance was never really a priority. At first, it was difficult enough just trying to stay alive. Then I learned how to read minds. Let me tell you, it rather puts you off your meal when your date is continually projecting their desire for your fame and money. After that, I became immortal, and then it seemed a bit of a moot point."
When Laurel glanced up at Tony, she saw a thousand micro-expressions flicker across his face. "You can read minds?" he asked, in a mixture of intrigue and trepidation.
The witch froze. "Oh, bugger!" she exclaimed. "I'm already telling you things I shouldn't, and I've barely started drinking….But in for a knut, in for a galleon, I suppose. Where I came from, it was extremely rare to meet a practitioner of the mind arts, but I needed to learn them because of…extenuating circumstances.
"Back when I occasionally tried to date, my shields weren't very good, and I was constantly being bombarded with stray thoughts. I've improved a lot, and never look into minds accidentally anymore. The minds of non-magical people have no natural shields, so it's almost too easy to take a glimpse. I know I shouldn't, but I sometimes peek. You wouldn't believe the things I saw in Nick Fury's head."
Tony had started to look a little sick, and Laurel hastened to add earnestly, "I know you're wondering, but I've never looked in your mind or tampered with your memories. I would never violate you like that, I promise….I'd swear an Unbreakable Vow to show my sincerity, but since I probably can't die, it would be an empty gesture. So I'm afraid that you'll just have to take my word for it…or I can leave you alone. I'll understand if you don't want me around anymore and will respect your decision," she finished reluctantly.
"No!" he blurted without hesitation. "…I believe you."
The engineer drained his drink and poured himself another. After a moment of indecision, he topped Laurel's off as well. Her words had revealed a sinister power; and he knew he ought to be very afraid. But when his heart had begun pounding in panic, not at her revelation, but at her offer to leave, he was forced to admit to himself that, by comparison, her powers didn't frighten him at all. He wondered what that said about him and his morals.
His brown eyes met hers searchingly and he added finally, "People have always been intimidated by me too—by my money, mind, and ability. A large part of my whole playboy philanthropist image is a calculated effort to make me more accessible. It's lonely at the top, and I'd be the last person that would turn on you because of your gifts. Besides, I'm sure there are occasions when it's a huge asset—like in the bedroom."
He waggled his eyebrows comically, wringing a laugh out of her and dispelling some of the tension. "But hold on a second," Tony pried, "you just said you can tamper with memories?"
"Basically, I'm a master of Occlumency and Legilimency. The first is the art of guarding the mind from external penetration and the second is the art of viewing thoughts and memories. Basically, I can do almost anything that involves the minds of others. I can erase memories, alter them, influence people or turn them into my mind slaves. But just because I have this power doesn't mean I abuse it…much. The reason I learned Occlumency in the first place was to protect myself from that sort of violation, and I just sort of picked up Legilimency along the way. It was really a side-effect of learning the first discipline."
"Could you teach me? The idea of having a wide-open mind is kind of horrifying," Tony said, his hands playing restlessly with his glass.
"Unfortunately, magic is required to actively practice either specialty. But I believe that I could help you construct a mindscape that would effectively make you invulnerable to mind magic. I've never done it before, but am convinced the theory is sound….The only problem is that the set-up process would be extremely invasive. I'd have to enter your thoughts in order to build it, and might see memories that you didn't want me to see. Since I'm the only person we know of able to spy inside your head, it might be counter-productive to let me in to build defenses that would only be effective against me."
Tony's irrepressible curiosity resurfaced and he asked her question after question about mindscapes. Gradually, the conversation lightened and they ended up discussing how it felt to fly in his suit versus on a broom, which he desperately wanted to try. The alcohol continued to flow, and they forgot the party and their surroundings, and were completely wrapped up in each other. She told him about other forms of wizard transportation and communication, and Tony had much to say on the subject of owls and the Floo network (mostly uncomplimentary). At some point, Laurel told him about the Tri-Wizard Tournament, and Tony was amazed and incensed on her behalf. "Those bastard wizards did that to you when you were fourteen? They made you fight a dragon? And your parents let them get away with it?" he asked incredulously.
"I was orphaned at fifteen-months-old, and didn't have anyone to speak for me. My guardians were nonmagicals; and, had they been invited to the tournament, would have been the first to shove me into the arena with the dragon," the witch related coldly.
She only realized she'd clenched her fists when she felt his warm, callused fingers gently pry them open. Laurel felt a rush of gratitude towards the inventor. "So I guess when you came to this world, you weren't leaving behind anyone you cared about. Otherwise, they would have protected you," he clarified.
"People don't normally take a jaunt through something called the 'Veil of Death' if they're happy where they are," she volunteered with a painfully twisted smile.
Neither said anything for a few moments, but Tony suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of kinship with her. In her own way, she was as broken as he was; but she was also strong, like well-welded metal. "I'm sorry. These dark memories have no place at a party. Right now we should be happy. I've certainly got no cause to complain-good whiskey, excellent company…and the best view in Europe," Laurel murmured slyly, sneaking a glance at him from under her lashes.
He snorted in disbelief, but accepted her change of topic. Both of them were old hands at sealing away the darkness inside them, switching back to lighthearted merriment as quickly as blinking. Before long, they found themselves making frequent toasts. Laurel started it when she said, "To Merlin!"
For their next drink, Tony roguishly proclaimed, "To Sir Isaac Newton!"
The toasts got steadily more ridiculous, as Laurel praised various notable witches and wizards and Tony extolled famous scientists. "To Uric the Oddball!"
"To Pythagoras!" he rejoined with a laugh, noting that the firewhiskey had slightly numbed his lips.
"Hey, he was one of mine!" Laurel objected, noting how Tony's eyes glinted mischievously at her.
"To Alberic Grunnion, inventor of the Dungbomb!" Laurel retorted, unwilling to lose, but already beginning to have trouble articulating her words.
"To Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. Beat that, wizards!" Tony crowed.
They drank and drank, but the bottle never seemed to get any lighter. Laurel tried to keep up with Tony, but it was really a hopeless endeavor.
"I can't drink anymore. I really should have stopped after the first two. But I guess I could hit myself with a Sobering Charm," she pondered, absentmindedly reaching up to run her hand through her hair, but forgetting that it was in a chignon. She winced when her fingers snagged on several bobby pins, and shook her head self-deprecatingly. Tony observed her predicament with laughter-softened eyes.
"Whatever that is, it doesn't sound pleasant," Tony quipped.
She replied as though revealing a great truth, uttering each word slowly in order to maintain her precision, "The problem with Sobering Charms is that they make you sober."
"I would have never guessed…but why would you want to go and do a thing like that?" he inquired, eyes dancing with amusement.
"Good point. It would obliterate my buzz. I'll just switch to water for a while," she decided, nodding to herself as if she had resolved a momentous conflict.
He could tell that she was well on her way to becoming plastered. It amused Tony that she still sounded so proper, continuing to use four-syllable words even though her voice had taken on a slight lilt that was only a half-step up from full-blown slurring. With a sardonic grin, the inventor mused, "Tomorrow's hangover will be one for the ages," as he took another sip.
He watched with interest as she conjured a tall glass and filled it with a wordless Aguamenti.
"Not necessarily. I could cast a Sobering Charm on you when you fall asleep," the witch volunteered.
"So you plan to be there when I fall asleep, eh?" he asked provocatively, tilting back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his head, the very picture of smug nonchalance.
He snorted with laughter when Laurel gaped for a moment before enunciating carefully, "For science, Tony, not for anything in—inappropriate," she declared high-handedly. "Theoretically, if you fall asleep after drinking, and someone else casts the spell on you, you'll wake up without any alcohol in your system and won't have a hangover. It'll be an experiment."
"I like the way you think, and I'm mostly sure it's not just a Pavlovian response to the words 'science' and 'experiment'," Tony said appreciatively, before tilting his head to the side in thought. "You know, I mean it. I actually do like the way you think. I've never said that to anyone before. In fact, it might possibly be the greatest compliment I've ever given out."
She smiled brightly at his praise, and after a moment asked curiously, "What's the second greatest compliment you've ever given?"
With a sly glance and a smirk that was all sin, he replied, "I can't feel my legs."
She snickered, and it quickly became full-blown laughter. After she caught her breath, the witch said affectionately, "I'm inordinately fond of you, Tony Stark."
He basked at this admission, and hoped he was able to remember it tomorrow.
"Of all the muggles in all the world, you are my absolute favorite," she continued happily, caressing him with soft, glossy eyes.
The witch was feeling warm and relaxed, not only from the alcohol, but also from Tony's safe, comforting presence. Laurel couldn't remember ever being so at peace around anyone. Her experiences with the Dursleys and wizards had made her extremely wary. Over the years, she had never shared even a conversation with someone without waiting for the other shoe to drop. But she already knew what Tony wanted from her. He'd told her, hadn't he? In her current state, his exuberant curiosity suddenly seemed impossibly innocent and endearing.
He snickered. "What's so funny?" she asked placidly, feeling far too pleasant to care if he laughed at her.
"Two things. First of all, have you ever seen Casablanca?" Tony, who was considerably more sober than Laurel, inquired with a lift of one dark eyebrow. "And also, you called me a 'muggle'."
"No, I've never been to Casablanca. Do you want to go to now?" she asked solicitously; before tilting her head in thought and adding, "Although I'm not sure they look favorably on alcohol consumption there…especially when a woman is drinking."
"I don't think so. I've seen enough of the desert to last a lifetime," Tony replied, valiantly trying to banish the resurging memories of Afghanistan. "But no, I was asking if you'd seen the movie, Casablanca. You inadvertently quoted it."
"No, I've never even heard of it," she replied with a slight shake of the head.
The engineer smiled gently and quipped, "We really should start your pop culture lessons right away. Casablanca's a classic. Two former lovers meet again in a bar, are madly in love, but forced to separate forever because of their circumstances and sense of honor."
"It sounds terrible," Laurel retorted, propping an elbow on the table and resting her cheek on her hand, thinking that she had never seen anyone wear a grey suit quite so well.
"You would think so, wouldn't you? I would think so, and yet…it's one of the best damn things I've ever seen….But never mind that, why did you call me a 'muggle'?" Tony pressed.
"Because you are a muggle," Laurel persisted. "I checked."
When his face still showed an utter lack of comprehension, she added helpfully, "It means non-magical."
"I don't like it; it sounds too much like 'muddled, bungled, bumbled'….Besides, I want to be your favorite person, not just your favorite muggle," he dared.
"But you already are," she said earnestly. "I've just got one friend, and it's you….We are friends…of a sort. Right?" she asked, peering up at him with anxious green eyes.
His expression grew impossibly soft and with a lopsided grin, he replied, "We most certainly are friends. In fact, if I'm your only friend, can I be your best friend?"
"Well, of course," the witch returned, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"Since we're BFFs, will you tell me your name?" Tony inquired, hoping to tease a confession out of her, now that her usual sharp caution had been burned off with the firewhiskey, leaving her as warm and pliant as melted wax.
Laurel drew herself up and responded haughtily, "I may not be sober, and you may smell like Amortentia and be wearing the loveliest tie, but I'll not fall for your trickery again, Mr. Stark."
Fighting a smile, the inventor persisted with his questioning, "What do you mean, you 'checked' to see whether I was a 'muggle'?"
"The first time I saw you was back in February, when you were on the telly fighting planes and missiles. At first, I thought you were a robot, and then you lifted your visor. I'd never seen anything like you before, and thought you must be a powerful sorcerer to do the things you do. That's why I first visited you, but then I couldn't detect any magic," Laurel explained.
"Were you very disappointed?" Tony asked, idly swirling his drink and gazing into the amber depths, afraid that she would tell him what he dreaded to hear in her whiskey-induced honesty.
"Why would I be disappointed?" she asked in genuine perplexity.
"Because I turned out to be just another 'muggle'. The most I can ever be to you is a distraction to pass the time until you meet more of your own kind," he tossed out flippantly, refusing to display even a hint of the maelstrom of fear and self-disgust swirling through him at the possibility.
She frowned. How could he think her so fickle? She'd been relentlessly stalking him for months. What did a girl have to do to show dedication these days?
"We both know that you're much, much more than that. I like you better than all the witches and wizards I've met. I'm not a goddess or a supernatural creature. I'm a person, and I like you for the same reasons other people like you…because of who you are—your mind and personality and little quirks. You have more value than just your usefulness, Tony (not to say that you aren't useful, because you are. You're brilliant.). But having magic wouldn't raise my respect for you or make me like you any better.
"Who cares that we're not good at the same things? It would be boring….Does it bother you that I'm not a genius? That I have the formal scientific education of an elementary-age child? Do you find me lacking?" the witch demanded in an impassioned voice.
He stared glossy-eyed at the indignant little sorceress; and had never wanted to kiss anyone more than in that moment. "God, no! You're the most perfect being in the galaxy. Even without your magic, you'd still be perfect. And formal education is mostly a waste of time and money anyway. If you wanted to learn, I could teach you more science in an afternoon than you'd learn in a month of classes," Tony declared unashamedly.
"I'd never waste your time like that! It would be like having Beethoven teach piano lessons to a five-year-old," she returned, completely scandalized.
"Well, if you're ever interested, I'm already teaching Spock," the engineer confessed, quirking a grin.
"Spock might out-perform me," she dead-panned, sipping a little more water; all the intensity of a moment before had seeped away, leaving indolent good humor in its wake.
"Intimidated by a dog?" he teased.
"Nooo…." Laurel hedged, glancing away shiftily.
He chuckled softly, and glanced up at her to see her staring mesmerized at his hands. Tony was a man with a lot of nervous energy, and his fingers sometimes moved idly of their own accord. This continuous motion didn't irritate her, because his hands were so graceful that they seemed to be itching to create wonders she couldn't even imagine. When she noticed him watching her watch him, Laurel glanced away, pretending to be very interested in the party going on below. She spotted Pepper standing by the bar, wearing a navy blue dress with white polka dots. All she lacked was a sailor hat, the witch thought wickedly. She would have conjured one for her, but suspected Tony might not approve.
"Oh, Tony! We almost forgot to get Justin Hammer," Laurel said suddenly, the drink and conversation having completely fogged her earlier intentions until that moment.
Tony brightened. Who was he to say no to that? He followed her line of sight and spotted Hammer, with a glass in one hand and a plate in the other, standing in front of a fountain and chatting with two men in tuxedos. They seemed to be giving him very little feedback, placidly focusing on getting steadily drunker rather than his words.
"A variation on the Pied Piper Charm ought to do it," she snickered.
Tony looked vaguely alarmed and asked, "Are you sure you're sober enough to do magic?"
She gave him a superior look. "Oh Tony," Laurel replied pityingly. "I have a feeling that this is going to be some of my best work….By the way, if you want anything else from the buffet table, now is the time to get it."
Tony eyed her worriedly. After the two glasses of water she'd downed, her green eyes seemed much clearer, but now gleamed wild and dark. He suddenly remembered her terrifying power, but pushed aside his anxiety. Tony had never had much sense of self-preservation. The inventor fancied that he could feel her leashed magic building in the air around them, as potent as an impending thunderstorm.
"You might want to get out your phone. I promise you're going to want to record this. Wait for it…now!" she bit out.
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. The doorman had wandered away from his post, and the French doors had been left open to the balmy night. Suddenly, a strange yowling could be heard, and a rushing that sounded like many feet. Laurel rose, swaying slightly, and stood next to Tony to get a better view. The engineer's cheeks were flushed with alcohol and adrenaline, and he leaned forward, bracing himself against the railing with one hand, while keeping his phone at the ready.
The moment anyone realized that something was wrong, it was already too late. Dozens upon dozens of cats poured into the room, and all of them headed straight for Justin Hammer. Laurel had summoned every cat in the vicinity with her spell; and there had been quite a few more than she had anticipated. Easily a hundred cats had flooded through the open doors, aiming for the buffet tables, but taking a slight detour towards Tony's nemesis.
The surprise on Hammer's face was comical, as were the girlish shrieks when their charge caused him to overbalance into the fountain. Cats clambered around him, eating the crab off his partially-submerged plate, hissing and sputtering as they stepped all over him in an effort to stay dry, and using his body as a springboard to leap out of the fountain and head for the rest of the food. "Stop it! Ow! It hurts! …They're really angry! …Hey, don't bite me….That's a bad kitty!" Hammer hollered, abandoning all dignity as he rolled back and forth, trying to dislodge the cats, prompting them to dig in with their claws to avoid being thrown off into the water.
All the guests watched with slack jaws, and even the security personnel seemed not to know what to think. It didn't take long for the cats to abandon Hammer and make a beeline for the food, which they gorged on greedily. Eventually, some guards regained their wits and began shooing the cats, which scattered with their mouthfuls of shrimp and pâté, and escaped the building through the door leading to the pool and courtyard.
Justin Hammer finally regained his footing, shakily rising from the water with three cats still clinging to his ruined suit. He looked frightful, with his hair sticking up, glasses askew, and suit shredded and soaked. A suspicious urine smell lingered in the air. Perhaps it was from the cats.
A few people managed to help him extricate himself from the animals, but one particularly stubborn Siamese was too quick for the rescuers, and kept reattaching itself to Hammer's chest. Its noisy squalls echoed loudly in the dumbfounded silence.
Tony laughed so hard that Laurel was afraid he would topple over the railing. Every time Laurel stopped giggling, one glance at him set her off again. "Oh my God, did you see his face? And that last cat….Look, it keeps trying to follow him. I may pass out from too much joy," Tony gasped. "Conan was so right. There really is nothing better than 'to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women'…and his lamentations were louder than any woman's I've ever heard."
Laurel's eyes sparkled with mirth as she surveyed the inventor's blissful expression. When he turned his admiring gaze on her, she couldn't help but preen a little. The whole incident hadn't lasted more than a couple of minutes, but had seemed much, much longer. The rest of the guests had lost their gobsmacked expressions and were twittering excitedly amongst themselves. Christine Everhart had approached Justin Hammer with her notepad, and seemed to be pressing him for comments, which the bedraggled CEO appeared reluctant to give. All of the cats had disappeared into the night. If it hadn't been for Hammer's condition, the few splashes of water on the tile, and a table picked clean of meat and dairy products, one might never have believed they had been there at all.
"Hands down, that is the funniest thing I've ever seen. Ever….You didn't 'set him up with an appetizer'; you made him the appetizer. And I got it all on my phone," the engineer related proudly.
She grinned brightly, soaking up every ounce of his pleasure and luxuriating in it. "Where did all the cats come from?" he inquired, watching the commotion taking place below.
"I called all the ones in the immediate area. They've gone back where they came from now. Some of them were people's pets, but more than a few were feral. Hammer may need to get a few injections," Laurel answered, feeling slightly guilty over that last part.
Tony had no such qualms. "May that be the fate of all our enemies!" the inventor retorted gleefully.
When the witch favored him with a sardonic look, he protested cheekily, "Hey, this is war, Glinda. We burn the fields, kill the livestock and take no prisoners. We engineers aren't ones for half-measures. And on that note, I'm uploading the video onto YouTube right now," Tony snickered, leaning over so she could read the caption he had added.
"'Justin Hammer and the Running of the Cats'," Laurel recited, and with a swift grin, she added, "I love it….But you didn't post it under your own account, did you?"
"What do you think?" he retorted fondly. "I'm drunk, not crazy."
All at once, they heard a clatter on the stairwell, and looked up to see an exhausted, but clearly eager Spock, about to race down into the reception area. With its keen ears, the dog must have caught wind of the commotion caused by the cats and tried to join the party. Unfortunately for Spock, Tony had the penthouse, and the little dog had had to escape the room and then run all the way down.
"Spock?" Tony called out in surprise, and the dog scooted to a halt and swiveled its head in his direction, having the good grace to look sheepish.
Slinking towards their alcove, the dog glanced at Laurel and hopefully wagged its tails, seeming completely unsurprised to see her there. "That was very reckless of you, Spock!" Tony scolded. "You promised not to leave the room. You're too adorable to wander around here on your own. Someone could snatch you up, and then what would I do without my little Vulcan?"
The dog licked his hand apologetically, and Tony scooped him into his lap, careless of his expensive trousers. "He must have very sharp ears to have heard the cats from so far away," the witch remarked, allowing him to sniff her hand and then scratching behind his floppy ear.
"He does. He practically has sonar," the inventor bragged. "Hey Spock, watch this video."
He held his phone out to the dog, which watched attentively, its little throat rumbling with a low growl. "The fires of rage burn hot in the heart of this puppy," Tony observed to Laurel; before turning to Spock and saying, "I'm going to take you back upstairs, and this time I expect you to stay there! If you promise to be good, I'll let you watch Beethoven again, but then you have to go to sleep. I'll be out late. I'm on a date, Spock."
"It's not a date," Laurel objected halfheartedly before she could censor herself.
Tony met her eyes, and his glistened with such intensity that the witch glanced away. "You're right. It's not. I was just kidding...I mean, you and me? That would be impossible…completely crazy. I'm with Pepper and about to push up daisies. You're an immortal, magical goddess, and I don't even know your name….I should stop drinking and definitely stop talking now….But hypothetically, if this were a date, it would be the best date ever," the inventor affirmed with an ironic tilt of his lips that made her hands shake with nerves even as she questioned whether he had meant a word of his declaration.
He rose abruptly from his chair, still holding Spock, and asked earnestly, "By the way, if anything happens to me, will you take care of him? You made him, and he likes you. You'd understand him better than Pepper would."
Laurel suspected that Spock wasn't the only one that she understood better than Pepper did.
"Of course, but I'm not going to let anything happen to you," she objected.
When he turned towards her, his smile was a brittle, ugly thing. "Well, you know how it is with us 'muggles'. We're such flimsy creatures, always just one tumble on the stairs away from death."
"On that note, take the elevator," she shot back drily, before adding in a slightly troubled tone, "I never thought anything good or bad of the word 'muggle' before, but now I'm finding it…unpleasant to hear as a descriptor for you."
He shrugged one shoulder and murmured, "'That which we call a rose…'"
"Hurry back," she demanded, suddenly unwilling to let the elevator doors come between them, but hesitant to follow him into his bedroom while she was so close to making a pass at him.
"Why?" he asked playfully, having regained his good humor, and tilting his head as though he needed to be convinced.
"Because I'm far from finished with you tonight," the witch rejoined, and even she knew that the words hadn't come out nearly as innocent as she'd intended.
He swallowed and nodded sharply, pressing the button with one elegant finger and watching as the doors closed. Laurel sighed and tilted her head back. It shocked her that she hadn't even noticed her surroundings until that moment. The hotel was beautiful and opulent, with marble Corinthian columns surmounted by a lit glass dome. Rich Persian carpets decorated the floors. The walls were covered with gilded plaster molded in intricate designs. Crystal chandeliers dazzled every few yards. The hotel was the finest she'd ever seen, but she hadn't noticed or cared a whit while Tony's bright eyes had been sparkling back at her.
Absently, she poured herself another glass of water, but before she brought it to her lips, the engineer had returned, smiling with something akin to relief when he spotted her sitting where he'd left her. "I got him to settle down. He was really fired up though. Spock's never met a cat, but he's heard a lot of bad things about them. And he really wanted a piece of one. I've tried to get him to see all sides of the issue; but unfortunately, most of the pro-dog books and movies out there are simultaneously anti-cat. Now he's prejudiced, which is ironic, because he has a lot of cat-like traits for a dog," Tony declared to an increasingly-bemused Laurel.
Suddenly, his eyes brightened wickedly. "Wait a minute—we aren't limited by the people here at this party. We can prank anyone, right? You can teleport!"
She gazed raptly at his mischievous face and purred, "Who did you have in mind?"
"Just a second….I have to get the coordinates from Jarvis," he said, pulling out his phone and typing rapidly.
The AI's voice came through the speaker, as serene and classy as always, "Mr. Stark, I must advise against whatever you're planning. You sound intoxicated, and the senator will not be forgiving."
"You're killing my buzz, Jarvis," the inventor scolded.
"I apologize, sir," Jarvis replied demurely, but Laurel almost thought she detected amusement in his voice.
"See you later, Jarvis," Tony called.
"Good night, sir. And please do tell your magical companion good night for me as well," the AI replied knowingly.
"Now that was uncanny," Laurel murmured.
When they finally had the address, Laurel made him show her a satellite photo of the property. "I can't go somewhere I've never been without an image to hold in mind," she explained in response to his raised eyebrow.
She then wasted no time in casting a Disillusionment Charm over Tony. He exclaimed delightedly, but they ran into a bit of trouble when they tried to rise in order to hold onto each other for the Apparition. Quite a bit of unnecessary groping took place, but finally Laurel had her arms around his waist, wondered whether he always smelled this good, and teleported them to their destination. They arrived in a large garden next to an Olympic-sized pool with a waterfall. "I guess the senator's doing alright for himself," Laurel mused aloud.
To Tony's endless delight, Stern was hosting a party. "Ooh, I know that guy. And that one. A lot of these people were at my hearing the other day. He must be trying to drum up more support…which means that the press is likely to be here," he whispered, his lips entirely too close to the shell of her ear.
"I can lure them outside with fireworks," she whispered. "Do you have any ideas for a prank?"
She had considered tossing a few Dungbombs, but was certain they could do better. "How are you with illusions?" Tony asked suddenly.
Laurel couldn't see him, but could tell by his tone of voice that he had something particularly good in mind. The witch felt for his hand and gave it a squeeze. "I could trick the eyes of a few, but not this whole group. That would take skill I can't even imagine," she opined.
"That's perfect. A few is more than enough. The pool has given me the greatest idea," he began, and outlined his plan to her, causing the witch to gape with astonished joy at the scope of his ambition.
"Who would guess you were so diabolical?" she replied admiringly, and then, with a devious smirk, whispered, "Watch this."
She lit a WWW firework and stepped back, watching as it exploded overhead and painted the night sky with glittering sparkles. It wasn't anything too ornate that would make muggles suspicious, but was designed to last several minutes, so firework enthusiasts wouldn't have to buy and set off as many.
"This is like Make-A-Wish for adults," Tony murmured in an awed voice.
"What?" the witch asked, tilting her head towards him, her breath fanning across his cheek.
"Nothing," he amended quickly.
The house quickly emptied, everyone standing around the huge terrace and watching the impromptu display. One daring woman removed her heels and dangled her legs in the pool, and several others followed her example. Laurel caught sight of Sen. Stern standing beside two brigadier generals of the air force in their dress uniforms and a former Chief of Naval Operations.
"I'm going to create the illusion now. Only you and I will see it…and Stern, of course….Here we go," she breathed, and closed her eyes, envisioning exactly what she wanted and making it so.
Tony's small gasp told her that she had succeeded, and she raised her head to survey the delightful pandemonium about to take place. Stern stood right beside the pool, and as the fireworks finally died out, his eyes were drawn to a huge dark shape in the water. An erect dorsal fin cut the surface, and the light from the Tiki torches gleamed off rows of razor-sharp teeth in the fish's gaping maw. Its body must have been at least four feet high, and it stretched the length of a pickup truck, moving its tail side-to-side and inexorably heading for the kicking legs of the party-goers.
Stern paled and dropped his drink, drawing the concerned gaze of everyone around him. Laurel and Tony spotted the exact moment the senator realized he could be sued if anyone was eaten on his property. "Shark! Everybody, get out of the water!" he screamed at the top of his lungs.
His guests stared reflexively at the pool, but saw nothing but tile and transparent water. Someone giggled nervously at his pronouncement, and a few others joined him. An old man muttered amusedly, "I don't think I've ever been that drunk."
Stern turned towards the chatting women, gaily wetting their toes, and bleated, "It's coming! It's going to eat you. It's huge. The size of a bus! Oh, God. Move! Move! Move! My insurance doesn't cover guests getting eaten."
Laurel could feel Tony's shoulders shaking with mirth, and had to hold back her own giggle when Stern waddled towards the women, giving the pool a wide berth, his square arse swaying amusingly. When he reached them, he began roughly hauling them up by their arms and tossing them behind him onto the stone patio in a pile, prompting shrieks of outrage from the socialites.
Laurel made the 'shark' swim back and forth menacingly, keeping its cold black eyes fixed on Stern. When several men came forward and began objecting to his handling of their wives, Stern paced like one demented. "Don't you see it?" he demanded. "It's right there, looking at me. Stark is responsible for this!"
"For what?" a colonel asked dubiously.
"For putting a f****** six meter shark in my pool! What the hell else would I be talking about, s*** for brains?" Stern spat, forgetting himself entirely in his agitation.
"Just calm down, senator. I think you may have had a little too much to drink," someone soothed.
"Stark's trying to kill me! You're all witnesses! …He's the only one rich enough to pull this off, the smug bastard. Johnson, get the Fish and Wildlife Service people on the phone right now! I will not have a monster shark swimming around in my backyard. This is simply intolerable! I never should have built my second home so far south. You don't have to put up with this kind of s*** in Pennsylvania," he raged.
"Senator, there's nothing in the pool," his aide said warningly, trying to take his arm and lead him into the house.
Stern turned on him disbelievingly. "Are you calling me a liar? Do you think I'm making it up? Do you think I'm crazy? …Or are you just trying to f*** with me? If you don't think anything's there, then why don't you go take a hop off the high dive, you little prick?"
The other man pinched his lips together in irritation, but didn't contradict his boss.
Laurel smothered her laughter with a hand, propping herself up against Tony so that she wouldn't roll on the ground howling with laughter. Stern had just figuratively shown his arse to nearly a hundred of the most important people in Washington D.C.; and the governor of Virginia didn't look very happy at his disparaging remarks about his state. "I'm going to up the ante," she whispered.
"Oh…yes…please….Do it and I'll build you a shrine," he replied, in between bouts of hysterical laughter.
All at once, Stern's eyes nearly bugged out of his head. According to his perspective, the massive shark had just approached the pool steps and was lifting itself out of the water with its pectoral fins in a maneuver no real shark would have been capable of. "Oh my God, it's a mutant land shark! We're not supposed to have those in the United States," he wailed. "It's headed right towards us! We have to get in the house and barricade all the doors! If you have guns, use them!"
With those words, he raced inside, faster than anyone had seen him move in his life. A disbelieving silence hung in the air, and his aide finally cleared his throat awkwardly and said, "I…er…I'm very sorry about that, ladies and gentlemen. The senator isn't feeling well tonight….More wine, anyone?"
Laurel and Tony had tried to follow Stern, because they really wanted to hear his conversation with the police and the Fish and Wildlife representative, but were so overcome with laughter that they couldn't maintain their footing. Laurel dropped their invisibility and cast a Notice-Me-Not Charm instead, because she couldn't stand being unable to see his expression. Holding onto each other, they staggered towards the doorway, dissolving into giggles each time they glanced up and caught the other's eye. They only made it about a third of the way before collapsing on a stone bench in utter bliss.
"You gorgeous little trickster goddess! You're making all my dreams come true," Tony gushed, looking at her with such fascination that Laurel caught her breath, and secretly admitted that there were very few laws she wouldn't break to inspire that look again.
"I'm hungry," Tony said suddenly.
Laurel cocked her head in thought and said, "You know what I could really go for right now? Gelato."
His brown eyes glittered with delight. "And they call me a genius," he declared admiringly.
"Where should we go? I doubt we're going to find any of the good stuff in Virginia…and I don't really even know where we are," the witch admitted, shrugging off her disorientation. Such were the pitfalls of Apparating while intoxicated.
"I've been dying to try the Gelateria I Caruso," Tony said, brandishing his phone at her to show a picture.
"In Rome?" she inquired.
"Why not?" he replied, raising a challenging eyebrow.
Laurel gave in easily. "I've always wanted to go to Rome," she mused, quickly adjusting one of her strappy heels.
"There's no place better. We'll have to come back during the day sometime when everything's open. You've got to see the Pantheon, and St. Peter's, and the Borghese Gallery….There's just so much. You'll love it. I promise," he related enthusiastically.
Laurel regarded him with warm eyes. "Then we'd better toss a coin in the Trevi Fountain before we leave if we want to come back. That's the legend, isn't it?"
"So it is," the inventor returned with a smile. "I'll toss all the coins I've got for the chance at another night like tonight."
As they sat side-by-side on the Spanish Steps and companionably ate their ice cream, Tony pulled out his phone. "I'm going to change my ringtone to the theme from Jaws," he confided, grinning in secret satisfaction.
The engineer suddenly snickered.
"What is it?" she asked, intrigued.
"People are already commenting on Hammer's video. Some of the things they're saying are hilarious, but pretty crude. This person must know him. He says, 'Hey, Hammer, it looks like you got a lot of pussy tonight. In a record-breaking first, some of them actually appear wet'….I sort of wish I'd thought of that," Tony admitted with a low chuckle.
Laurel snorted and held her cup steady while he dipped in his spoon to try a bite of her strawberry gelato. She didn't mind. She'd already stolen two bites of his amazingly creamy dark chocolate.
"Oh, my. Hammer's really taking some heat for this," she observed, leaning into his warm shoulder and reading the remarks. "This guy says, 'Hope his weapons are tougher than he is'. Another one goes, 'Animals really can sense evil'. Burn….Ooh, listen to this, 'The only thing that scares Justin Hammer more than budget cuts is a basket full of kittens'."
Tony gazed raptly at the little witch as she forgot her gelato and placed one of her hands on his wrist to get a better view of the screen.
She turned questioning, slightly wistful eyes on him. "Should we getting back? Your girlfriend is probably wondering where you've run off to," she murmured finally, her fingers reluctantly trailing over his wrist bone until they dropped away entirely.
Tony nearly grimaced at the gentle reminder that he and Pepper were…something. They had some form of amorphous, bloodless relationship. "That's unlikely. She doesn't need me to sign many papers anymore, now that she's CEO," he said a little bitterly.
"Why did you sign over your company to her?" Laurel asked interestedly, remembering that Fury had charged Romanoff with finding the answer to that question.
"My buzz is wearing off," he complained playfully, avoiding the query.
She dropped the issue, reasoning that if he practically allowed her to robe herself in secrecy that she ought to permit him a few mysteries of his own. "Well, I can't have such a travesty occurring on my watch," she quipped lightly, rising to her feet and offering him a hand up.
They made a quick trip to the Trevi Fountain, where Tony and Laurel made the obligatory wish to return to Rome, and then took turns tossing in coins, making humorously outlandish wishes. When Laurel was about to throw in her last quarter, the inventor caught her hand. With a strange intensity, he asked, "What's the one thing that you want most?"
Taken off-guard, she wrapped her arms around herself and babbled, "I wish that we could be happy like this all the time. It would be terrifyingly lonely to live for all eternity. But I don't think it would be so bad if I could do it with someone like you."
Tony immediately immersed himself in the fantasy. "We could have a few good centuries…or millennia. Right now my life's too short, and yours is too long," he mused.
"I wish we could do away with the disparity," Laurel murmured, staring hard at the fountain as though by wishing hard enough, she could will it to do her bidding.
"That's what I wish, too," he whispered, and looked torn for several moments before favoring her with a broken smile and adding, "Let's toss it together."
"But our wish is impossible," she objected.
"Probably, but I'm feeling a bit more superstitious now that I know magic is real….And I don't think it ever hurts to articulate what you want…because then, we can try to 'find a way or make one'. Besides, in spite of everything, I've always been lucky," Tony confided, and as he spoke the words, he realized that he actually believed them.
They took one last detour, because Tony figured that he might as well prank all of his enemies while he and Laurel were out marauding. Invisible once more, the two of them Apparated into the computer room in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s headquarters. Sneaking into the adjoining break room, they quickly found Fury's mug, which displayed his name and the agency's logo. Laurel kept the name so he'd know it was his; but, at Tony's behest, changed the image of the spread eagle to text that read, 'I like big butts'. They thought about putting Stern's picture next to the words, but decided that might give Fury too many clues.
When they returned to Monaco, the furor caused by the cats seemed to have died down. About a third of the guests had disappeared, but Laurel spotted Pepper and Romanoff, talking animatedly together, no doubt wondering where Tony had gone.
She and the inventor each had another two drinks, feeling very mellow and pleased with themselves. Laurel had taken the pins out of her hair and Tony had loosened his tie and undone his top two shirt buttons. Not quite wanting to call it a night, Laurel suddenly proposed naughtily, "Would you like me to throw the cat in with the pigeons?"
"Do you even have to ask?" Tony exclaimed, interest instantly rekindling.
"I used my winnings from the Tri-Wizard Tournament to become the silent partner in a joke shop in my former world," she relayed conversationally. "This is a trick that the owners invented."
She conjured three golden apples and was careful not to touch them. "I've placed a True Love Spell on them. Each apple will change depending on who holds it. It's inscribed with the name of whoever is currently touching it, and declares the name and address of their soulmate.
"I also cast a spell on the apples so that they'll disappear as soon as no one's looking at them. I don't want anyone examining them too closely. Because they're made of metal, people will assume that they're mechanical and have some sort of advanced algorithm."
"That's incredible," Tony breathed. "How do they select the names? Because people don't really have one destined soulmate. That's just illogical."
"Well, it gives them their best counterpart—supposedly, their 'true equal'. It won't match them to a dead person. This is just a party trick really. No one I know has ever taken it seriously," she rejoined a little too blithely. "Would you like to take a peek?"
He recoiled as if she'd tried to hand him a tarantula. "What if no name appears?" he ventured, watching as she tossed the apples down the stairs, where they rolled among the feet of the partygoers.
"I've never seen that happen before, but theoretically it's possible," the witch admitted, shrugging one elegant shoulder. "You asked for chaos earlier….This is me delivering."
Both of them leaned forward, keenly surveying the scene. One man lifted an apple that had bounced against his shoe. After a few beats, he said, "This can't be right….It has my wife's name on it."
His friend peered over his shoulder and took it from him. "No it doesn't," he objected, "It has the name of my sister's best friend."
Laurel snickered and whispered in Tony's ear, "It gives all the married people the names of their spouses. Technically, they do have common ground with them because of their shared history….They may not really be their closest match, but I'm not a home-wrecker."
"This is some serious magic," Tony muttered in reply, watching as the people downstairs lost their composure one by one.
Some scoffed and tossed the apple to someone else. Others furiously wrote down the information on cocktail napkins. Some stared too long, surreptitiously trying to memorize the data. Surprisingly, Justin Hammer was still there, sporting a few Band-Aids. He seemed intrigued by his apple, and tucked it into his pocket. That left two still floating around the room, and everyone seemed to want to have a look, however reluctant they pretended to be.
Tony cringed when he saw Pepper pick one up, because he knew in the depths of his soul that hers would not have his name scratched into it. The fair-skinned redhead flushed hotly at whatever she read, and dropped the apple like a hot potato.
In the midst of the chaos, Laurel noticed one face turned towards the balcony. It was Romanoff. The two women stared at each other in surprise, and the witch silently cursed herself for forgetting to add the privacy charms when she'd dropped her invisibility and Tony's disillusionment. But Romanoff had never seen her before and had no idea who she was. The spy probably just assumed that she was some bimbo having a drink with Tony Stark. There was absolutely no reason to be alarmed. And yet, Laurel still felt prickles of apprehension and found herself seriously considering an Obliviate.
"Your spy just spotted us," she whispered softly to Tony.
The inventor sighed. "I suppose I should go make the rounds at least once…just so people know I was here. Are you coming to the race tomorrow? I'm sponsoring one of the cars. Should be a good time," he lured.
Smiling gently at the invitation, she replied, "No, I don't think so. It's not a good idea for us to be seen together; and trying to remain invisible in crowded stands is really more of a challenge than I'm up for. I'm going to Ireland to try to find a few potions ingredients, but I'll be there to greet you when you get back to the States."
"Will you stay visible?" he asked hopefully.
"No. It's back to business as usual, I'm afraid," she replied wryly. "Tonight was a dream-a bloody good one-but nothing more."
He felt her fingers gently caress the back of his hand, and then she Disapparated. Tony took a few slow, deep breaths, trying to reason away the sudden wave of grief and desolation he felt when she disappeared.
With a false smile and a bit of leftover courage from the firewhiskey, the inventor strolled downstairs and spoke to a few people, greeting Pepper and casually mentioning that he'd gone back up to his room for a bit. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Rushman—no, Romanoff—pale slightly as she took one of the apples into her hand. Then, looking more flustered than he had ever seen her, she snatched up her purse and rushed out of the room.
Hoping to read what her apple had said, he used his pocket handkerchief to snag it out from under the chair where it had rolled when she'd dropped it to the ground in horror. Her reaction to the apple's message had been intriguing to say the least. Tony felt it burning into his pocket the whole way to his hotel room, and his fingers twitched just a little as he pulled it out and held it up to the lamp. When nothing happened, he delicately touched it with his skin. He stared, turned it over, and stared again at the small bright object that had just confirmed his secret fear. It was blank.
Out of curiosity, Laurel apparated into the assassin's room to wait for her and do a bit of snooping. She didn't find anything at all out of the ordinary, which just proved how good the assassin really was; Laurel knew she had guns and magazines hidden, but they hadn't been placed anywhere obvious. And the witch knew about hiding places. She had grown up with the Dursleys, after all.
When Romanoff finally arrived about twenty minutes later, Laurel stood quietly in a corner, watching the Russian pace furiously while in the middle of a rather intense phone call. "I'm telling you, I've been compromised. Someone in Monaco knows who I am, knows who Clint is and about our friendship. They even had his correct address—the one only S.H.I.E.L.D. knows," she exclaimed in agitation.
Romanoff paused to listen impatiently to the person on the other line. "No," she said tiredly. "It wasn't Stark….Yes, I'm sure. It's not even his style….Right, sir."
Laurel smiled wickedly. So, the spy was talking to her boss, the inestimable Mr. Fury. Well, anything that stirred the hornet's nest at S.H.I.E.L.D. without pointing to her or Tony was only a good thing. Knowing that she had plenty of fodder for sweet dreams, she popped back to her room. If she had stayed just a moment longer, she would have heard Romanoff say, "There's another thing, sir. Stark was drinking with someone tonight. It was the girl….That's right—the one he's been searching for. They looked very friendly, but didn't leave together."
"This is an interesting development," Fury said, as Romanoff put him on speaker phone and began changing out of her cocktail dress. "I'll have all outgoing flights checked so we can see what identity she traveled under….Something else is bothering me, Romanoff. I'm sure you've heard about the drawing that someone did with a Sharpie on the back of my head?"
"I did hear about it, sir," she acknowledged, stifling a smirk.
He detected the amusement in her voice because he continued in a slightly more irritable tone, "Two things concern me. The first is that someone was able to get close enough to me to make an elaborate, bi-colored drawing on my very sensitive skull, and the second is that whoever did it knows about S.H.I.E.L.D. That little shield drawn on the underpants was an obvious jab at the agency, and not a joke that one of our own would make.
"I can't accurately pinpoint the time of the drawing to our meeting in the restaurant, even though that's when I suspect it happened. The footage from there is useless, since I deliberately chose a seat away from the security cameras. Our techs have looked at the recordings from the bar, and ruled out every single person that entered the door. No one but the two of us knew about our meeting, and nobody followed me. There was a nearly empty stretch of highway behind me for most of the drive, and no one entered the restaurant after me until you came in.
"The odds than someone just chanced upon us there and also knew who we were are infinitesimal. But you came straight from Stark Industries. Stark knows about S.H.I.E.L.D. And he's been communicating with some strange operative…for all we know, she's a mutant working for Hydra….Do you have any thoughts?" he inquired finally.
Romanoff had narrowed her eyes at his assessment. 'When one eliminates the impossible…' "I don't think anyone followed me. People don't follow me….But if she's a mutant, we can't rule it out. And actually, this whole week has been a little weird. I kept feeling like I was being watched. I thought I was just paranoid, but once I could have sworn that someone had crept up right behind me. I actually did a roundhouse kick in the middle of the hallway, but no one was there…or visible," the assassin murmured.
As an afterthought, she added, "Incidentally, I didn't see the woman or Tony Stark for most of the evening. He was there at the beginning of the party, drinking at the bar and looking bored, but suddenly disappeared about an hour in. He didn't leave through the front door. And then, a little while ago, I saw the two of them at a table up on the balcony. I would swear that the second-level tables had been unoccupied all night. That woman looked me straight in the eye a few seconds longer than normal; and almost immediately afterwards, Stark rejoined the party by himself."
A long silence followed these revelations. At last, Fury responded, "Keep your ears and eyes open, and stay close to Stark. Be very careful, and if you see this woman again, follow her if you can."
"Right, sir," she replied, and they hung up.
Laurel had returned to her Malibu hotel to take a shower, and when she had finished and dressed in her nightclothes, she Apparated back to Monaco and braved the inventor's room. Tony's clothes had been tossed haphazardly on a chair, and she absentmindedly cleaned, pressed and hung them in the closet with magic. The man himself rested on his back, breathing softly. He had made a platform of pillows for Spock, and the dog opened its eyes and lazily observed her from its aerial view. Casting a quick Sobering Charm on Tony, she prepared to leave, but couldn't quite bring herself to move. She felt a unfamiliar ache as she gazed affectionately on his sleeping features. Laurel knew that she and the inventor had become ridiculously co-dependent in a relatively short time; but how could she help it, when he had become the primary wellspring of her fun and happiness? Before she left, she conjured a small figurine of an angry Siamese cat clinging to the back of a shark and left it on his bedside table.
Still grinning to herself and basking in the pleasant memories of the evening, Laurel readied herself for bed in her hotel half a world away. As she thought back to Tony's laughter and animated brown eyes, she couldn't help her little skip of happiness as she dove between the cool, luxurious, Egyptian cotton sheets. Laurel lay there with a smile on her face for a while, idly watching the faint, multicolored glow of a distant ship peeping between the gap in the curtains.
Part of her wished that she had had the courage to look at an apple herself, but another part felt pleased that the spell had only lasted thirty minutes, to shorten the temptation. Secretly, she dreaded seeing the name of someone from her old universe, or even worse, no name at all. She hoped that Pepper had looked at an apple, because she was fairly sure that it wouldn't have Tony's name on it. But Pepper might not be the type to give credence to something so unscientific. In fact, she might redouble her efforts with him, or not care at all, as long as she could sleep with him and have a date to important events. Laurel knew that Pepper cared about Tony, and found him handsome and familiar. Tony was wonderful, unique, the superlative man. No one would ever throw him back into the dating sea.
The Following Morning
"Well, if it isn't the Cat Whisperer herself," Tony declared cheerily, catching sight of a sulky Justin Hammer in the lobby the next morning.
"Very funny, Stark," the man retorted sourly, rubbing his left cheek, which still bore faint claw-marks.
The engineer eyed him for several moments before exclaiming accusingly, "Oh no! You've already heard that one today. Someone else got to you first! I know it was weaker than my usual material, but it just begged to be said….But that's all beside the point. I told a stale joke. How mortifying. Good thing it was only Justin Hammer, or I'd never live it down."
The inventor wandered off, outraged betrayal written all over his face. Justin Hammer wished very hard that something bad would happen to him.
Hammer got his wish. In a moment of wild impetuosity, Tony had demanded to drive his own racecar. Focused on the risks inherent in the race, he had been shocked and unprepared when a huge man in primitive, pseudo-Iron Man armor had stalked onto the track, using long, whiplike cords that sizzled with electricity to wreak destruction. Tony had never seen any technology like it. The weapons cut vehicles in half like they were made of pudding rather than metal.
It didn't take long for the engineer to realize that he was the target of the attack, and barely managed to reach his Iron Man suit in its portable suitcase. He took a beating before he managed to don his armor, but won the battle.
His heart sank when realized how high his palladium levels must have climbed during the fight. He flinched away from the agonizing knowledge that the attack had just shaved a few precious weeks off his life. Tony knew that the whole debacle had been displayed on live television, which was extremely worrisome. He was well aware of how weak and helpless he had looked before he'd reached his armor. No doubt every wolf in the world would think they were dealing with a crippled sheepdog. He had an ominous feeling that no good would come from his 'victory' today.
The aftermath of Vanko's attack was a long, unpleasant blur. Tony was forced to speak with one reporter after another. He actually felt slightly grateful for Romanoff, because she headed off the barrage of phone calls that had been coming in for him from various shareholders, lawmakers, his attorney…the list was never-ending.
He presented a brave front, submitting to interviews with quips and a smile, and gritting his teeth as he bled into his suit from where his skin had caught on a piece of jagged metal. That afternoon, he had dropped by his hotel room, cleaned himself up as well as he could, and then gone out to pay a visit to his attacker in the local jail. It had been a rather creepy experience. Tony had become used to people disliking him, but the raw hate coming from Vanko had been unsettling. He didn't even know Tony. The engineer had done nothing to earn this level of concentrated malevolence. What was wrong with this man that he was willing to spend the rest of his life in prison on the off-chance that he was able to harm the inventor's reputation?
After a brief conversation with his attacker, who had stared and smirked eerily at him the whole time, Tony had left unsatisfied, feeling even more unsettled than before. He had a logical mind; and it bothered him to meet an enemy that couldn't be reasoned with, an intelligent man filled with such implacable rage.
That evening he went to dinner with Pepper and a large entourage; and it took everything he had to laugh and smile and be a witty companion, but he managed it. He always did. Tony didn't know how he would have been able to cope with the day he had had if he'd woken up with a hangover. He smiled wanly when he recalled the night before. That little magic-user had certainly been something. The engineer wasn't used to having the people close to him tempt his wildness. Usually only strangers encouraged him to do crazy things. It was surprisingly liberating to pursue his mad schemes with an equally keen companion by his side-someone he could trust to protect him if things got out of hand.
Desperate for rest and a chance to recovery his equilibrium, the inventor dutifully stayed until the party broke up and it was time to escort Pepper back to the hotel. As he slipped his keycard in the door and entered the blessedly cool room, Tony found himself suddenly facing Laurel, who had materialized out of thin air and appeared on his couch. She immediately leapt to her feet and strode towards him, taking his hands and tugging him gently forward into the light. He numbly allowed her manhandling, noting that he had never seen her eyes look so stormy. "I thought I'd cornered the market when it came to attracting trouble. Now I find myself wishing I'd been right," she muttered in agitation.
"It was no big deal. Bad guys will be bad guys," Tony replied carelessly, trying to give her some reassurance.
Trying to give it right back, she looked him straight in the eye and said quietly, "You handled yourself well."
He scoffed. Vanko had come out of nowhere. Tony had been showing off, behaving recklessly. It had occurred to him that the rest of his short life wasn't likely to top the night before. The witch had been right. It had just been a dream; and his former optimism beside the Trevi Fountain had seemed very far away, when he had the slow slide into death to look forward to. With that painful thought, he had seized the opportunity to play a little roulette game with fate. If an accident happened on the track…well, there were worse things, like what he could expect without intervention.
"Listen to me," she urged, taking hold of his shoulders and breaking him out of his spiraling train of thought. "I don't know what you were doing down on that course. You took an incredible risk that wasn't even remotely acceptable, but it may have worked out for the best. If you had remained in the packed stands, that psycho might have forced his way towards you through the crowd, killing people in the process. But it's over now.
"And I'm so proud of you, so impressed, and relieved. It was clever to keep a suit nearby, and you moved quickly and kept your head. It appears that all that boxing paid off."
Her words warmed him and melted the jagged edges that had formed around his thoughts. He was very aware of the two points of contact between them; and her light grip on his arms felt like all that was anchoring him to reality. She suddenly noticed that she hadn't released her hold, and dropped her hands with alacrity. Tony swayed with exhaustion, and collapsed onto the sofa. "Who was he?" she asked, concerned by his uncharacteristic silence.
"Ivan Vanko," he said tiredly. "I'd never even heard of him, but apparently he's sworn a vendetta against me."
She blinked in surprise and the engineer teased halfheartedly, "What can I say? Everyone wants a piece of me. It's ridiculous. Beautiful sorceresses spy on me in the shower. Inferior engineers declare blood-feuds. It's how they show they care."
With an eye roll and a twitch of her lips, Laurel dropped down beside him, leaving most of a couch cushion between them. "So he was a competitor?" she inquired, glancing over his immaculate dinner attire.
It suited him, but the same casual grace was just as present when he was wearing his grease-covered work clothes.
"Apparently, his dad had a beef with mine about some project they worked on together, and Vanko Jr. blames him for dissolving their partnership and getting him deported. He's angry and bitter, and wants to hurt someone. Dad's not around anymore, so he figures I make a decent substitute. I think the fact that I've become famous and successful has just poured more gas on the flame," Tony recounted, frowning once again at the other man's utter lack of sense.
"What a nutjob. I'm just relieved that you contained him," the witch averred, turning towards him with one leg tucked under the other.
She could tell that he wasn't quite himself. No doubt the day's events had shaken him emotionally as well as physically. "I wish I'd stayed for the race," she said fiercely. "Although it's probably better I didn't. I would have exposed magic on national television; I'd be so preoccupied with trying to kill him."
He chuckled and closed his eyes. "We can't have that….Everyone else getting to see you for free, when I've had to work damn hard for the privilege."
He opened his eyes again when he heard her edgy tone. "I heard about the fight a couple of hours ago. I was in Kilkenny, and some people were talking about it in the street. I found an internet café and pulled up the footage. It looked like you took a pretty bad hit against the torn frame of the car. And you've got to be black and blue after all the knocks you took trying to get hold of your suit," the witch quested.
"It's alright," he shrugged. "I have a gash on my back, but I'm pretty sure it's stopped bleeding. Believe me when I say I've had much worse."
"I do believe you," she replied darkly, "but I'm trying not to think about it for the sake of my sanity."
He looked up in curiosity when he heard a clinking noise. She had just placed two jars and two vials on the coffee table. "What're those?" he slurred tiredly.
"Bruise Balm, Wound-Cleaning Potion, a blood-replenisher and an optional sleeping draught," she answered matter-of-factly.
"You mean the others aren't optional?" he joked, unscrewing one of the lids and examining the thick yellow paste.
Laurel sighed and gently took the jar out of his hands, unbuttoning his cuffs in the process. "I know you're going to make me regret saying it like this, but would you mind taking off your jacket and shirt?"
"Why, not at all," he beamed, making swift work of the buttons. "Should I leave the tie on?" he asked mischievously.
She shot him a dry look.
"You know, this is not at all how I foresaw first baring my beautiful body to you. The scenario is all wrong," he continued, pleased that he'd gotten under her skin.
"In what way?" she asked amusedly.
"Well, there was supposed to be a hot tub," he replied with a sly sidelong glance at her.
Tony moved to slide off his jacket, and winced in sudden agony. His muscles had locked up, and his back felt like one large bruise. "Let me," Laurel interrupted; and before the inventor as much as blinked, he found himself shirtless.
Leaning around him for a better vantage point, the witch hissed through her teeth when she caught a look at his back. "What's wrong?" he asked anxiously.
"You're pretty well mangled, Tony," she answered, already carefully siphoning off the dirt and dried blood.
"I don't know how you were still moving around with all of this damage….I've got to clean this gash. Do you want a pain potion?" she inquired, already knowing he would refuse.
"No. Don't waste your supplies on me," the inventor replied dismissively.
"If you asked, I'd pour out every potion I have just so you could admire their colors. And you know what? I wouldn't consider it a waste…because it's you," she vowed, feeling him tense under her hands as she poured Wound-Cleaning Potion on his ugly gash.
He stayed quiet, and she began knitting the sliced skin back together. "I want to set up protective charms at your house," Laurel said abruptly, distracting him from the eerie feeling of his skin regenerating with unnatural speed.
"And I want you to wear a tracking device. How about a trade?" he shot back impudently.
The witch gave a long-suffering sigh, and began spreading the thick bruise paste over his back and shoulders. He had a deceptively strong build, with muscular arms and a lean, beautiful torso. Mindful of her task, she reverently ran her hands over the patches of discoloration that marred the perfection of his form. "I won't agree to that, but I am open to bargaining, if the terms are right. The whole world has a healthy respect for Iron Man, but has seen that Tony Stark is vulnerable. I just want you safe when you're at home and to be able to let your guard down," she explained, too serious about the subject to let it drop.
He didn't reply for a few moments, surprised at how powerfully affected he was by the offer. Unable to articulate what he was feeling, he cleared his throat and asked, "What sort of magic are we talking here?"
Laurel stared in naked wonder at the skin in front of her, which was gradually regaining its normal hue. "What?" she asked, momentarily flustered before his words penetrated her fog. "Oh…I'd like to construct some magical wards that would prevent anyone from seeing inside or entering the property if they have malicious intentions. I'd also want to set something up to disintegrate any sort of ballistae aimed at your house."
He hummed in response, no doubt thinking of what he could ask in exchange. Tony surprised her when he huffed out a laugh and confessed, "I know this is the perfect opportunity to gain a concession, but when you're being so good to me, I just can't bring myself to do it. Curse my irritating sense of fair play!"
"There's a reason you're a superhero, Tony," she rejoined in amusement. "And I almost hate to tell you this, because Merlin knows you don't need any encouragement, but your soft heart is every bit as appealing as your sharp mind."
Her keen eyes assessed his back, and she smiled to herself, pleased that he was healed and that she'd managed to silence his ready tongue. "Are you hurt anywhere else?" she asked, moving around him and sweeping a solicitous gaze over his chest.
For a moment, he considered shielding his arc reactor from those green eyes that saw everything. He felt simultaneously proud and ashamed of the glowing disk, because he knew it wasn't exactly what one expected to find when looking at a man's torso. It certainly wouldn't be considered aesthetically pleasing by normal standards.
He came back to himself a little at her question. It was true that he sported a few more injuries in places covered by the remainder of his clothing, but if she left that paste, he could apply it later himself. Tony already felt a million times better than he had before she'd come. Feeling overwhelmed by gratitude and absolute trust, he burned with a sudden urge to confess his terrible secret. Looking her in the eye, he gently took her hand, which felt slightly greasy from the ointment, and placed it on his arc reactor. It felt like the moment of truth.
Tony opened his mouth to tell her about the palladium, when a knock on the door sounded as suddenly as a gunshot. At this reminder of encroaching reality, he could see her withdrawing into herself. The inventor wanted to ignore the visitor and hope they went away, but he heard Pepper's voice on the other side, "Tony, are you alright? Tony?"
He dropped his head forward in resignation. Impulsively, Laurel pressed her soft lips to his forehead before vanishing from the room. She reappeared in his bathroom to deposit the potions, and then left Monaco behind her. Tony remained still for several moments with his eyes closed, savoring that last loving gesture.
The witch Apparated to a stretch of empty beach near her hotel and started walking, trying to burn off nervous energy. How did she always forget to factor in the relevant data, like the fact that she was immortal and he wasn't, and that he already had a girlfriend? Pepper was nowhere near as spicy as her name implied, and Laurel had a tendency to forget her very existence, which was extremely unwise for the sake of her own rationality.
In fact, Pepper was probably spending every night with Tony in Monaco. She was away from home and less stressed. She'd want to have vacation sex. Laurel's nails cut into her palms at the thought. Her visceral horror momentarily surprised her, but if she was honest with herself, she had known for a while that affection had long since joined her fascination with the inventor. But there were too many reasons to count why that would be a bad idea. And Tony wanted Pepper. Even their names amalgamated in a cute way—'Pepperony'. The papers would eat it up. It seemed written in the stars. This, Laurel thought grimly, is a perfect reason why one ought not to dimension travel.