Chapter 9

The five women stepped out onto the balcony, where a small seating area awaited them under a canopy. Comfortable chairs were grouped together around a round, low-lying table, which was draped with a white cloth. A small cabinet with an assortment of glasses and an ice bucket stood off to the side. Strings of lanterns hung just under the eaves of the canopy, giving off a warm glow. Overall, the effect was quite cozy.

Pepper removed the cloth from the center table, revealing several covered dishes. Natasha and Melinda set to work removing the covers from each platter, while Pepper, ever the consummate hostess, poured everyone a drink. There were far more concoctions in that tiny piece of furniture than Hermione would ever have expected, including non-alcoholic versions of several cocktails.

Hermione was thankful for that option tonight. Even though Pepper had immediately cut down the number of new and relatively-new people for her and Luna from eight to three, Hermione still wasn't quite comfortable enough to let loose, officially. She gratefully accepted a delightfully delicate combination of pear nectar and ginger ale.

Luna settled herself down on one of the chairs, between Hermione and Natasha. Hermione was keeping an eye on her, but, inexplicably, Luna was acting like her old self—like she had at Hogwarts: a little spacy, but perfectly at ease in her surroundings.

Pepper finished serving the last drink, then brought her own with her to the chair on the other side of Hermione, and sat. "I understand you're studying with Wong?"

Hermione blinked, somewhat startled. "I am, yes," she answered after a moment. "It's been quite good for me, I think."

"Is it anything like your previous studies?"

"It many ways, yes," Hermione said, thoughtfully, "and in others, completely unlike. For one thing, there's a much greater physical aspect to Wong's methods than any previous instruction."

"Oh?" Pepper inquired. "How so?"

Hermione hesitated a moment, considering. "We were always in a classroom, before. Sitting at desks, listening to lectures, taking notes, writing exams. Learning sorcery is…"

"...more hands-on?" Pepper suggested.

"More like a full-body experience! I have never been so active in my life. I was such a bookworm before, always living in my head. And now…it's odd, but I never considered my body before. I was so focused on improving my mind. But when I do the forms, and really focus… I find knowledge I didn't realise I had. I know more than just what my brain knows." Hermione paused to gnaw on her bottom lip. "Does that make sense at all?"

"It makes perfect sense," Melinda interjected from across the table. "Your mind does remember things, but not always in a conscious way. When you train enough, you eventually develop muscle memory. Your body knows how to react to a certain stimulus, without you having to think about it or decide what to do."

"Second nature," Natasha commented.

"Exactly!" Hermione sat forward in her chair. "I mean, I've heard of muscle memory before, of course I have, but knowing something from a book is so very different from having it happen to you," Hermione beamed, while Melinda and Natasha exchanged a look.

"Well, I for one am very proud of you," Pepper said, raising her glass. "Both of you. Like Luna said earlier, it's no easy feat to leave home for parts unknown."

"This is proving to be a much better home than the old one," Hermione said grimly, then sighed. "We're honestly lucky to be here."

Natasha's mouth slipped into a wry smile. "They're lucky to have you," she commented dryly, " especially Strange."

"Yes, well," Hermione stammered before drowning any further response in her glass.

"The fates have been kind, I think," Luna said into Hermione's silence. "Although perhaps they merely wanted balance."

"I'll drink to that," Hermione said.

"Why not?" Pepper raised her glass again, this time across the table towards the other women. "To balance."

The five clinked their glasses together. "To balance."

Stephen watched the women go, until Wong elbowed him in the side. "She won't disappear if she's out of your sight, you know."

"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" Tony interrupted, before Stephen could find a snarky reply. "You are at a party, so for God's sake, come have a drink!" He pointed an accusatory finger at them from around a glass tumbler. "Host's orders."

Exchanging a shrug, the two men leaned up against the bar.

Tony was already pouring something for Stephen out of a crystal decanter, without even bothering to ask what he wanted. "Drink up, Strange. You're going to need it."

Stephen examined the glass, and gave it a sniff. "What is this, Stark?"

"Divide and conquer," Tony replied cryptically. "You'll get used to it."

"I meant the scotch," Stephen grumbled into his glass as he took a sip.

"Oh, small batch, small distillery, somewhere in the Highlands, I'm sure. Pepper could tell you."

Bruce reached over to take the decanter from Tony, but Wong held up his hand in protest. "I would rather not imbibe this evening," he said, with a pointed look at Stephen. "Someone has to keep their head."

"You're not the only one," Bruce said, ignoring Tony, who was muttering under his breath about 'fuddy-duddies.' "I'm sure I can find something to your liking back here."

"Unless you have jasmine tea, I sincerely doubt it."

Bruce gave a lopsided half-smile. "You'd be surprised. The kitchen is pretty well stocked. I'll see what I can find."

He rifled through the cabinets below the bar, eventually pulling out an assortment of boxes. Wong looked over the options while Bruce rummaged for an electric kettle.

Tony groaned and rolled his eyes. "This is a cocktail party, not a tea party," he groused.

"Tea soothes the spirit," Wong replied obstinately.

"And it soothes something else you don't want to mess with tonight," Bruce said archly.

Tony held up his hands in mock surrender. "Okay, okay, I get your point. Just… you had better have a good time. Or else."

Wong frowned at this, but Bruce just rolled his eyes. "Tony, why don't you go mingle, you know, with your other guests?"

"I suppose I can leave you two here to your tea party ," Tony sneered as he got up from the bar. He turned to pull Stephen along with him, but the other man was already halfway across the room. He peered into his nearly-empty tumbler, poured another two fingers, and stalked over to lean against the half-wall behind the couch.

"So you've got house guests, is that it?" Steve was saying as he pulled up an extra chair to the rough circle of sofas where he, Sam, and Clint had parked themselves almost as soon as they had arrived.

Stephen, plate in hand, was perusing what remained of the hors d'oeuvres. "Two, at the moment."

"At the moment?" Clint frowned. "How many are you expecting?"

"Honestly, I have no idea." Stephen took a seat in the provided chair. "Hermione would have a better idea on the number needing shelter with us, but whether or not they can even get here is the more difficult question."

"Hold on a minute," Sam said, leaning forward. "That sounds like…did they escape from some kind of cult?"

"It is a closed society, and yes, the dynamics are very similar," Wong said as he ambled up, Bruce just behind him. "The law that Hermione and Luna have run from would essentially have sold them into slavery to whatever men in power wanted them as their broodmares."

Steve blanched at this, and Clint's jaw tightened. Sam just sat back in his chair and sighed. "No wonder Pepper whisked them off, away from all this testosterone."

"She's really looking out for them, isn't she?" Steve said, contemplative.

"If you can call it that," Tony muttered from behind his glass.

"What was that?" Sam looked up at him.

"I heard that, Tony," Steve frowned.

"Didn't escape me, either," Clint confirmed.

"Seriously, though—why?" Tony continued, perturbed. "None of us have hurt them."

"It's like fireworks," Sam said in an even tone. "Vets come back from active duty, and every damn loud noise sounds like weapons fire. Fireworks aren't just fireworks anymore. You go through any kind of trauma, any direct threat on your life or liberty, and anything remotely similar can just set you off. Pepper was looking out for them, that's all."

"That's all?" Tony seethed. "Sure, she's just protecting them. From what? If we're not dangerous, why do they need protection, huh?"

"What the hell, Tony?" Steve looked at him incredulously. "How are you making this about you?"

"How is this not about me—about all of us?" Tony countered hotly. "Why even come here if they're just going to feel unsafe?"

"It's a test–" Stephen began.

"No shit, Sherlock," Tony cut him off. "And frankly, I resent the implication."

"What implication?" Steve demanded.

"I would never hurt those girls, not in a million years. I don't–" Tony fell silent.

"You don't what?" Steve pressed.

"I don't do that anymore!"

"Fuck, so that's what this is about?" Clint said, as enlightenment dawned. "You're getting all pissy because Pepper went off for a girls-only party for a while, and you think it's because she doesn't trust you?"

"Isn't it, though?" Tony jabbed a defensive finger at him. "Why else would she do something like that?"

"Didn't you hear a single thing Sam said?" Steve said accusatorially. "It's not about us—it's not even about you. It's about them and what they went through. It wouldn't matter who was in this room, there's a chance they wouldn't feel safe around us."

"They're fine with Strange and Wong, but they're gonna have problems with us?" Tony demanded.

"That has taken much time and patience," Wong replied levelly, although Stephen understood that the edge on his voice was about to go beyond annoyance. "We were very careful, especially when Luna arrived, not to overwhelm them with demands on their space, either physical or mental. I would prefer we not undo that work through incautious action."

Tony opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. Instead, he caught the looks on his friends' faces: Steve's obvious sympathy, Bruce's cautious censure, Clint's disappointed disbelief. Wong was unreadable, as usual, but Strange just looked unsurprised.

Sam, the newcomer to this crew, was sitting back in his chair with a relatively neutral expression, but something in his eyes spoke to him louder than any physical demonstration would have. There was hurt there, and something akin to pity.

It was too much to take in. "I…I think I need to take a walk."

"Okay," Sam said in that same level tone.

"See you when you get back, Tony," Clint chimed in.

"We'll save you some bruschetta," Steve added.

Everyone was quiet as they watched Tony go.

"Well, that was exhausting." Clint flopped back onto the couch, letting his head hang off the back of it.

"That's Tony," Steve said, somewhat apologetically.

"Not what I expected from a casual get-together," Sam conceded, "but I've seen worse."

"At least he had the sense to back down, for once," Steve grumbled.

Clint huffed a laugh. "That wasn't sense, Wong terrified him."

"Wong terrifies everyone," Stephen snarked.

Wong rolled his eyes. "Everyone except you, evidently."

Stephen put on his most mischievous grin. "Oh, but I'm incorrigible."

"Hi, Incorrigible, I'm Steve Rogers, nice to meet you."

"And you're out here making dad jokes?" Sam groaned.

"Aww, hell, you beat me to it," Clint muttered.

Bruce, who had remained silent all this time, drew Stephen and Wong aside. "Hey," he said as they walked towards the windows and away from the rest of the crowd, "I don't mean to pry, but are Hermione and Luna...are they…are they witches?"

The two men exchanged a look. "Why do you ask?" Stephen hedged.

"Something about them seems, well, familiar, I guess?" Bruce explained. "And your descriptions of their society, well, it sounds like something I ran into a while back, so I was wondering if that's what was going on."

"You 'ran into' a hidden society?" Wong inquired.

"It happens sometimes." Bruce rubbed the back of his neck. "The...other guy ends up in all kinds of places."

"I think you should speak to Hermione about that," Stephen suggested.

"You don't think that'll be too, well, invasive?"

Both men considered this. "Hermione would be fascinated, I think, once you explain the situation to her," Stephen replied, and turned to Wong. "I can't speak for Luna, as I don't know her as well, but…"

"I believe you are safe to speak with either of them on the subject, if you wish," Wong pronounced.

"Oh, okay," Bruce breathed, clearly relieved. "That's good to know. Thanks," he said, before ambling back over to sit with the others.

"Wong, you've seen the Hulk," Stephen said in a low voice. "Are you certain Luna knowing about him is a wise idea? She might find the very concept disturbing."

"More likely she would consider him one of her fantastical creatures," Wong replied stoically. "You have not heard her describe them, Strange. She takes joy in what many would consider quite fearsome." Without waiting for a reply, Wong went off in the direction of the bar, and a second pot of tea.