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People start up at these kinds of places for different reasons, Peggy knows this. She started up because she needed a distraction from her PhD – something so wholly unrelated to what she was studying that it felt like a break without feeling like she was wasting time. And clearly it was a great decision considering she got a husband out of it; Steve, who started up because Steve is the kind of person who wants to change the world and probably will.

Clint started up because he needed to feel like something was going right for him. He’s never said this, to her or to anyone else, but she knows that it’s true. Darcy wanted to meet people, Pepper needed friends, Sif needed to improve her English – well, that’s the official reason, Sif’s English is probably better than most native English speakers. Tony’s dad made him and then regretted it when it turned out not to be the punishment he intended it to be.

But now that she thinks about it, Peggy can’t quite work out why Natasha is here.

Peggy had offered to cover for Melinda today as she had to go to some meeting. She only has to be here until eleven, but it’s nice because she gets to see Clint and Darcy and Natasha, none of whom she sees as often as she’d like. Why Tuesdays have so many volunteers, Peggy doesn’t know. And why Melinda didn’t leave Clint to open up today is a mystery to her as well, but she’d decided not to argue. Currently, Darcy is manning the till, Natasha is sorting the sheet music, and Clint is heaving boxes around in the back to make room for a large donation that’s promised to turn up sometime after lunch.

And Peggy is stood restocking sci-fi and watching Natasha out of the corner of her eye.

Peggy had always assumed that Natasha volunteering was a combination of hearing how much Pepper enjoyed it and her really liking books. But for the past two hours Peggy has observed the strangest dance between Natasha and Clint that makes her think that maybe there’s another reason too. The dance mainly involves Clint blushing and Natasha micro-smirking when no one is really paying attention.

“I’m going to go into town to buy some more magazine file things,” Natasha says, getting up and startling Peggy out of her thoughts. “Sort this out properly so people can actually find stuff.”

“Yeah OK, how much do you need?”

Natasha shrugs. “A tenner?”

Darcy sorts some petty cash out for her and as soon as she’s out the door Peggy turns to Darcy.

“OK, I know I haven’t worked with you lot for over a year but,” she waves her hand to indicate Natasha in town and Clint in the back, “am I missing something?”

Darcy rolls her eyes. “Not as much as they’re missing something.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ve been around the two of them together for what, two hours? And you can tell there’s something there.” Darcy leans on the counter, her hands curled around her coffee. “Maybe Natasha can see it, she’s an observant girl, but Clint’s a brick. He has no clue.”

“Oh.”

Peggy frowns at the door Natasha left through, and then turns to the door to the back room when she hears a crash and Clint cursing.

“Don’t worry though, we have a plan.”

“A plan,” Peggy says flatly.

“Yes. We’re staging an intervention,” Darcy looks smug. “Well, Pepper is. My idea.”

Peggy raises a sceptical eyebrow.

“Shut up with your eyebrow,” Darcy demands. “You don’t have to work with them; they’re ridiculous. Besides we’re all softies really. We just want another Oxfam wedding.”

Peggy smiles down at her wedding ring while Darcy continues, “And don’t pretend like they wouldn’t be the cutest couple ever.”

Peggy has to laugh at that. “Yeah, maybe. Let me know how that all turns out for you.”

 

“I am not sure I will stay here. Perhaps. But Norway is my home and I would feel strange not living there.”

“So you’re not planning on falling in love with an astrophysicist and moving to London then?” Natasha says, and Sif has to laugh at that.

“I forgot that you know Thor! No, I am not planning on falling for an astrophysicist. I like it here, but I have my degree to finish in Oslo and friends in Norway I would miss, even if staying would mean I was closer to Thor.”

“You and Thor are close?” Natasha asks.

“Yes,” Sif says, watching as a small boy gets really excited about Thomas the Tank Engine books. “We even dated for a while. But I think we are a little too similar. Better as friends.”

“Ah,” Natasha says, shifting her bag from one shoulder to the other.

“What about you?” Sif asks slyly. “You are from Russia. Is there anything here that could convince you to stay in this country?”

Natasha doesn’t have to be in today. She doesn’t work Thursdays. She’s ‘just passing’.

Clint works Thursdays though.

“Well, I have a Masters to finish,” Natasha says, laughing slightly. “It’d be an awful waste of money if I left half way through.”

“And you have this shop. This shop is almost worth staying for despite not paying. Lots of good things about this shop.”

Clint comes out carrying a stack of books to put in the window. He sees Natasha and blushes slightly, but manages to weave around customers without crashing into anything nonetheless. Natasha smiles a small smile to herself, and Sif decides to be nice and doesn’t mention it at all.

“Yes,” Natasha says.

 

“Donation!” Pepper calls into the back, watching as both Clint and Melinda stuff the last of their lunch into their mouths before hurrying out to help.

“It looks like a bunch of crap,” Pepper hears Natasha mutter as she passes Clint, carrying a box into the back.

Pepper hasn’t actually has a chance to look at the books yet, but a brief glance at the ones she’s carrying indicate that yes, Natasha is right. These look like crap; old and dusty and thrown into boxes that look like they’ve previously been used to keep gardening tools in. Is that a dead spider? Yes, yes it is. Some people should not be allowed books.

Pepper valiantly holds back a sigh. The donations recently have all been bad, apart from that one donation of teen fiction and comics that came in last Wednesday when Steve was in. And unfortunately there are twenty-four boxes of this stuff. Nonetheless Pepper thanks the donor when they’ve all finished unloading the car, and even manages to sign them up for Gift Aid, despite the fact that they’re probably going to get only about five sellable books from this donation.

“OK,” says Melinda as soon as the donor is out the door, “Pepper, stay on the till please. Everyone else, start sorting this into bags and then into the basement.”

Pepper can hear Melinda grumbling about the donation all the way into the back room and doesn’t envy any of them the task of sorting through it. It’s probably all crap.

She would love to see Clint having to work close quarters with Natasha though. Pepper mentioned to Natasha that Clint had managed to get a job recently (something Pepper was stupidly happy about even if it was just a crappy supermarket job. Clint deserved a bit of a break after being let go by the small construction company he’d been working for since he was sixteen) and she’s pretty sure Natasha will mention it to him. Pepper knows Clint doesn’t realise, but Natasha will take literally every opportunity to talk to him.

Five minutes later though Clint comes back into the shop, looking pissed and miserable, and starts moving Steve’s comics stand to get to the weird stable-split door leading to the basement.

“You alright?” Pepper asks, finishing up a transaction with a kid buying Cirque du Freak.

“Yeah,” Clint shrugs, tugging the comics rack with more force than necessary.

Clint has been her best friend for two years. Pepper knows when he’s lying, and right now he’s not even being subtle about it.

She raises her eyebrow. “No you’re not. What’s up?”

But Clint just goes back to forcing the bolts on the door, ignoring her.

Pepper decides to move up the schedule, because this is just getting annoying. She presses the buzzer to get Darcy to cover the till and, at Darcy’s questioning eyebrow, just says “Phase Two is a-go-go,” before standing at the top of the stairs with her hands on her hips.

“Come with me,” she says a soon as he reappears.

“Huh?” Clint says stupidly.

Come.” Pepper gestures imperiously towards to the front door and, when he doesn’t move, she rolls her eyes and grabs him by the wrist, dragging him out the door and into the covered alley two doors down.

“What the fuck, Pep?”

“You do realise you’re the first friend I made here right?”

Clint blinks at her. “Huh?”

Pepper doesn’t let go of his wrist.

“When I came to uni here, I didn’t have any friends. The people in my halls were nice but not my people and my classmates thought I was a stuck up bitch because I actually knew what the professor was talking about. I didn’t have any friends. So I volunteered here, two years ago, and I got put on Tuesdays with you. And you were friendly and patient and taught me how to sort and work the till. You introduced me to Darcy, and to Tony. I made friends because of this shop and because of you.”

“…Right?”

One of the things that annoys her so much about Clint, despite the fact that he is her best friend, is that he can be so fucking dense. Pepper has a very low tolerance for stupidity, and Clint seems to bleed stupidity sometimes, especially when it’s to do with a) his own abilities and b) Natasha.

“When I had a minor panic attack about my assignments you came over and calmed me down and watched films with me and cooked me soup.”

“I don’t – ”

“When Darcy’s dick of an ex-boyfriend dumped her on the other side of town with no lift you drove over and brought her home. When Tony’s dad railed at him over all the time he spends here, you took him out to the pub and got him wasted and looked after him the next day. Melinda trusts you to close up, and Nick trusts you to run the shop on your own. When any of us have a problem, we can come to you, because apart from Bruce, Nick, and Melinda, you’ve been here longest.”

“Peggy has – ”

“Not the point, Clinton,” Pepper says dismissively, gearing up for her pièce de résistance.

“Then what the fuck is the point, Virginia?” snaps Clint, completely derailing her, because Clint sounded so like Sam then. “Because I’m supposed to be helping Melinda and Natasha, and instead I’m stuck in an alley with you.”

Pepper gapes at him for a moment, completely thrown.

“The point is,” she rallies, “I know Natasha – ”

“Oh for fuck’s sake!” Clint says, and makes to leave, but Pepper thinks no and grabs his wrist again.

I know Natasha,” Pepper says. “I live with her and I go to uni with her and she might be two years older than me but that means jack shit. I know her and I know you and I hate – absolutely hate – that you, my best and oldest friend here, cannot fucking see that there is nothing wrong with who you are. You are so hung up on not feeling good enough that you can’t even contemplate the idea that nobody gives a shit. So you work in a supermarket, so fucking what? You have a job, you have a car, you can make rent, you have friends and this shop. And we all care a hell of a lot more about what you have and who you are than what you don’t or aren’t.”

As soon as the words are out of her mouth though, Pepper knows they were the wrong thing to say. Clint is sometimes so like Sam and she can’t cope with the idea that he will leave. Leave like Sam left, because he doesn’t think he’s good enough. And though she knows that Clint isn’t like that, wouldn’t do that, she can’t help but worry about it anyway.

She can see a million emotions swirling in Clint’s eyes, but his anger is the strongest. She’s hurt, but not surprised, when he wrenches his arm away and practically runs off up the street.

Fuck.

She doesn’t move for a long while.

 

“What the hell is this?” Nick demands as soon as he gets back from the bank, the sound of some god-awful twangy something filling the shop.

“The Famous Potatoes, sir,” says Bruce, as Clint and Sif laugh madly in the background.

“The what?” He really hopes he misheard that.

“Famous Potatoes,” Bruce repeats, smiling all too smugly. “Worth £25 apparently.”

Nick stares at them.

“OK, new shop rule; no records are allowed on by bands with ‘potato’ in their name.”

“Ruin all our fun why don’t you,” Bruce says, sighing and taking the record off the player, and Nick is just about to go into the back when Sif says brightly, “Hello Natasha!”

Nick turns in time to watch Clint go bright red and he shares a look with Bruce. That boy’s going to burst something soon if this carries on.

“Hey, Sif. I forgot my umbrella here on Tuesday. Just picking it up. ‘Scuse me guys.”

She squeezes past everyone blocking the door, and Nick watches Clint watch her.

This is just getting stupid, he thinks.

“Clint!” he snaps, and Clint’s head whips round. “Till.”

 

Darcy has been watching this one customer for a while now. They open the books, look at the price, frown and put the books back. Darcy knows what’s coming, just wishes people weren’t so selfish.

“Excuse me, why are your books so expensive?”

Here we go.

“They’re priced according to their value,” Darcy says patiently.

“Most other charity shops have books for £1.99.”

“That’s their decision. We have books at £3.49.”

“But that’s ridiculous,” the customer exclaims. “You’re a charity shop!”

Darcy has had this conversation too many times to be polite about it anymore.

“You’re right, we are a charity shop. But the charity isn’t for you.”

The customer looks offended, but she really can’t bring herself to care. And if they want to talk to the manager, well, Melinda would be even less polite and Nick is downright scary. So really, they’ve got off lightly.

“You’re going to lose custom!” the customer calls over their shoulder angrily as they leave.

“Pretty sure we’re not,” Darcy mutters to herself before turning to serve a little old lady buying Sylvia Plath.

“Some people,” the little old lady leans over to say, “need a good kick up the bum.”

Darcy grins.

“Do you have Under Milk Wood?” she continues.

So Darcy shows the little old lady where Dylan Thomas would be, then finds the humour section for one customer and the kid’s section for someone else, all while keeping half an eye out for when Pepper and Clint come back into the shop.

Pepper comes back into the shop, but only two minutes after Darcy sees Clint storm off up the street.

“I think I fucked up,” she says miserably, coming around the till to drop her head onto Darcy’s shoulder.

Darcy pats her on the head. “I thought you were good with this diplomatic problem solving stuff,” she says mildly. “It’s why you’re the intervention.”

Pepper doesn’t say anything to that, and Darcy stays where she is until a customer comes up and she has to make Pepper move to serve him. But even after he’s gone, £16.48 lighter and two books heavier, Pepper doesn’t say anything. After a while, Natasha comes out with tea for them both and asks after Clint. Darcy makes something up – “gone into town, suddenly remembered something he needed to buy” – before deflecting by asking if Natasha can shut up the basement.

There’s a brief bustle of activity – a load of Chinese tourists come in – and then Natasha goes back into the back to price, or sort, or whatever Melinda wants to happen now. Pepper hasn’t moved.

“He’s so like my brother,” she says eventually.

“Oh?” Darcy didn’t know Pepper had a brother.

Pepper fidgets a little. “He died. Three years ago.”

Darcy turns wide eyes on her. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”

Pepper shrugs. “I’m – I’m going to price. Or… put out kid’s books or something.”

Darcy can’t think of anything to say other than, “OK.”

 

“Weirdest donation item,” Tony says, pointing at Clint. “Go.”

It’s after the four-monthly shop meeting and they’re in the pub across from the shop – the good one, with the open fire and no music. It’s nearly eleven and they’re all a little tipsy, Tony telling stupid stories and Steve’s just listening and watching Clint, Natasha, and Darcy, who’re sat opposite him.

“Um… Erotic Percussion the LP,” Clint says.

Everyone dissolves into laughter, but he can see Natasha is unable to just leave it there.

“Seriously?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Clint says, grinning at her all crooked. “It’s still there too. I’ll find it for you.”

“OK,” she replies, smiling back at him. Clint blushes slightly and looks away, and Steve wants to roll his eyes. Those two. Honestly.

“Natasha? How about you?” Tony asks, and Steve watches as she tears her gaze away from where Clint’s hands are wrapped around his beer.

“Knitting with Dog Hair,” she says promptly.

“That’s not a real thing,” Nick says derisively as a laugh is startled out of Steve.

“Oh it is,” she says, grinning and bringing up a photo on her phone of her and Melinda holding the book up whilst pulling questioning faces.

“Holy shit,” Nick says, taking Natasha’s phone from her to stare more intently at the photo.

“Darcy?” Tony says.

“Um… well we got Mein Kampf in once.”

There’s a silence.

“That’s just depressing,” Peggy says eventually from where she’s sat next to him and on her other side he sees Sif nod.

“We got ninety quid for it too,” Tony adds, and Steve internally despairs at the world.

“Isn’t there a deep irony there?” Bruce says. “A charity focused on reducing poverty and increasing worldwide tolerance getting money for a book by the world’s most famous genocidal dictator?”

“Probably,” Tony says, before looking down at where Pepper’s curled under his arm. “Pep?”

“Um… probably a toss-up between Cooking with Coolio and that ‘erotic’ Jane Austen rewrite.”

“Oh I read that, it was terrible.”

Everyone turns to stare at Darcy.

“You read that?” Clint asks eventually. “Why?”

Darcy shrugs. “Curiosity.”

“OK!” Nick says loudly. “Next round’s on the shop. What does everyone want?”

 

Melinda frowns when it’s Pepper who comes into the back, not Darcy, and Clint is nowhere in sight. She looks miserable and Melinda watches as she sorts through the teen fiction, pulling out a pile and grabbing a pencil, before going back onto the shop floor.

Melinda can put two and two together and all she can think is, Well, that wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

“Natasha, can you print off some Gift Aid labels? 10101090. This pile,” she waves her hand at the table, “and those two boxes in the left hand bay.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Melinda grabs a few art books to look as if she’s doing something even half productive, and goes out to talk to Darcy.

“I take it that didn’t go to plan then,” she says, dumping her books on the counter and fishing around underneath for a pencil.

“Not so much, no.”

Melinda sighs. “Pepper alright?”

They both look over to where Pepper is studiously sorting the children’s books alphabetically by author. A largely futile task, as they’ll get mixed up again almost immediately.

“Dunno,” Darcy says. “Did you know she had a brother who died?”

Melinda is quiet for a while. “No, I didn’t,” she says eventually.

“Apparently he was like Clint.”

Melinda thinks about this for a moment. “So much makes sense now.”

Darcy nods, turning to serve a customer, and Melinda watches for a moment before going to put two books on Cezanne in the art section. She also removes some books on trains that have somehow ended up there, by mistake she assumes, unless this is Tony’s peculiar brand of humour coming out to play again.

Melinda would like to say she has nothing to do with this; that she’s above the schemes of a large number of the volunteers. But the truth is that she finds them as amusing as she finds the ongoing saga of Clint and Natasha exasperating. And when they’re not upsetting themselves over thwarted attempts at matchmaking and dead brothers, she loves that she works in a shop where the volunteers are so friendly and welcoming.

It’s unusual to find a charity shop like that; where people are open and engaging and genuinely seem to get on, and Melinda loves it, especially as she remembers what this shop was like before Nick. Alex Peirce may have been a very knowledgeable antiquarian bookseller, but he had no idea how to run a charity shop, let alone engage and motivate volunteers. Melinda didn’t even pretend to be upset when he left.

“Have you seen Clint?”

Natasha’s voice jolts Melinda out of her musings. Clint might be the one who blushes and stutters and is generally useless around Natasha, but Natasha sure notices when he’s gone. It’s cute, really. And Melinda can’t believe she just thought that.

“He went into town,” Melinda says vaguely. “Must not be back yet.”

Natasha frowns. “He’s been gone ages.”

Melinda shrugs. “You know Clint. All in his own time.”

Natasha seems to accept this and returns to the backroom. She doesn’t stop frowning though.

When Melinda comes back to the till to pick up more books, Darcy just smiles.

“They’re so cute,” she says, watching Natasha leave.

Melinda nods solemnly. “She stares at his hands an awful lot, that’s for sure.”

“Hands?” says Darcy. “Weird.”

“Oh I don’t know. Hands can be nice.” Melinda frowns at the book in her hands, then bumps in up a couple of pounds.

“Really?” Darcy says, sceptical. “Hands are your thing are they?”

“Oh, no. Not really. I’m more of a shoulders type. How about you?”

Darcy thinks for a moment then says, “Boobs on girls. Butts on guys.”

Melinda stops what she’s doing, completely thrown for a moment.

“Huh,” she says when Darcy doesn’t say anything else, “Boobs on guys would be weird, I guess.”

“Butts on girls are awesome though.”

Melinda laughs and Darcy grins.

“I’ll believe you,” she says, returning to the art section.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it,” Darcy says teasingly. “I bet you were wild in the nineties.”

“Why the nineties?” Melinda asks, writing week number in the front of the books before putting them out.

“Well, you’d’ve been in your twenties then, right?” Darcy says after being distracted for a moment by a customer wanting theology and Jungian psychology.

“Darcy, how old do you think I am?” Melinda asks, turning to her with her eyebrow raised.

Darcy looks slightly apprehensive. “Um… thirty… six?”

“I’m fifty one.”

Darcy stares at her. “Get out, you are not.”

Melinda laughs. “I am. Born 1963, Macau.”

“Holy shit,” Darcy says, slightly awed. “I want your genes.”

 

“No, no, I can do better,” says Bruce. “I used to work for a biology research lab, and my co-workers and me, we had a Secret Santa one year. And I don’t know who bought it, but someone put in dildo.”

Tony chokes on his drink as Clint doubles over laughing.

“What the fuck?” he gasps out.

Bruce is laughing now. “No wait, wait it gets better. So obviously, someone pulls this out, right? And it’s not appropriate in the slightest so no one really wants to be the person to take it home. But there’s this guy we worked with – Emil, his name was – and he jumps in saying ‘I’ll take it’. And he was weird anyway but fine. Apart from the next time we go out for drinks – and you know those dildo’s that sort of rotate right? It was one of those – next time we go out for drinks he whips the thing out and uses it to stir his beer…”

Tony is laughing so hard he can’t breathe and Clint’s not in any better shape. The rest of the group have noticed now, though it looks like Darcy is the only one to come in early enough to actually understand why Tony and Clint are almost crying laughing.

“… in the middle of the pub, at work drinks,” Bruce continues. “And we had to work with this man the next day! I had to be able to look him in the eye without laughing!”

Bruce finally succumbs to laughter just as Peggy and Natasha come back from the bar.

“What have we missed?” Peggy asks, but Tony is laughing so hard he can hardly breathe, let alone reply. Pepper is sending him fond looks from the other end of the table and when he manages to regain some semblance of control he notices that Natasha is looking at Clint in much the same way. Just Clint is laughing too hard to notice.

 

Sam hasn’t been back here in ages. And even though he’s got an awesome job now, and doesn’t have to write essays anymore and doesn’t have to deal with stupid customers, he sometimes really misses living up here. Well, mostly he misses this shop.

It’s a Tuesday, so that should mean Melinda and Natasha. But as he walks in the door it’s Darcy he sees behind the till. He waves, and watches as her entire face lights up. Darcy is so easy. He points through the back and she nods, still grinning, as he makes his way into the back room.

“‘Sup guys?” Sam says, grinning down at Melinda, Natasha and… Pepper? OK, cool.

“Officer Wilson,” Natasha says delighted, jumping up to give him a hug. “How come you’re here?”

“Finished basic and was in the area,” he says, grinning. “Swapped days Pepper?”

Pepper laughs, though she looks a little more subdued than usual.

“Yeah, the Tuesday team is the best team.”

“Damn straight it is,” he says, dumping his bag on the table and giving Pepper a hug. “Though question; why is Clint sat in the graveyard up the top?”

“What?” Natasha and Pepper look at him.

“Yeah, I saw him in there. He looked pretty crappy. We chatted. He said he’s got a job now. You know, I reckon he should join the Army too. He’d be good at it.”

Pepper looks miserable again, and Natasha looks horrified at the idea of Clint joining the army. He feels like he’s missed something, especially when Natasha rounds on Melinda and snaps, “You said he was in town!”

“Technically, I was not lying.”

“Melinda! Don’t be pedantic. What the fuck is he doing in there?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Melinda says, frowning. “Clint’s mind is a mystery to us all.”

“He’s been gone since just after lunch! What the hell guys?”

Sam has definitely missed something and Natasha is glaring like… well, like this is a bigger deal than this probably is, hands on her hips.

Pepper sits down heavily in the computer chair, twisting her hands ever so slightly. Something Sam can honestly say he’s never seen her do before. Pepper is so with it, most of the time.

“I pissed him off,” she says quietly.

Natasha’s head whips round.

“What? How?”

“I was… It – it doesn’t matter. I was dumb. I… we should just leave him alone.”

“Right,” Natasha says flatly. “What’s the time?”

“What?”

“Time, Virginia.”

“Um,” Pepper wiggles the computer mouse and checks the time as the screen wakes up. “Quarter to five.”

“OK,” Natasha says, grabbing her bag and coat and shoving books across the table to make room for them before going back to grab Clint’s bag too. “I’m going. Sam can help shut up if you need it.”

And she storms out the room.

There’s silence for a moment as Pepper and Melinda look after Natasha in shock.

“What the fuck have I missed?” Sam says eventually.

 

Darcy stands up when Bruce arrives, looking like she’s pretending this is a conference room and not a beer stained table in their local pub.

“OK, I have called this emergency shop meeting because of an actual legitimate emergency so stop looking at me like that Melinda.”

“I’m looking at you like nothing.”

“Right, sure.” Darcy takes a deep breath.

“As you can see, two of our number aren’t here.”

“Loads of people aren’t here Darce, Nick for starters.”

“Shut up Tony. Nick’s a buzzkill, that’s why he’s not here.”

“He’s the manager.”

“Buzzkill. Anyway, the two I am referring to are – ”

“Steve and Peggy?”

“ – Clint and Natasha. Shut up, Tony. I’m proposing an intervention and if you don’t know what for then you’re as dense as Clint.”

Bruce frowns. “You’ve called an emergency meeting so we can set Clint and Natasha up?”

“Yes!”

“This is a terrible idea.”

“Shut up Bruce, no it’s not.”

Bruce rubs his temples. “Why am I here?”

“Bruce!”

“No really, why am I here?”

“Because,” Melinda butts in, “You and me are the designated adults in this situation because Nick – ”

“Is a buzzkill,” Darcy interjects.

“ – terrifies Darcy – ”

“He does not.”

“ – and it’s better if we just let it happen because at least this way we have a semblance of control. ‘Cause you know it would happen anyway.”

“Pepper’s going to do it,” Darcy says. “It’s guaranteed to work.”

“You’ve agreed to this?” Bruce asks, turning to Pepper.

“Yes,” Pepper replies shortly.

Bruce turns to the group. “You do realise that they’re going to end up together eventually anyway, right?”

Tony snorts. “Yeah, right.”

Bruce rounds on Tony. “Just because they’re not working to a pace that suits you doesn’t mean you get to interfere.”

“But it’s so annoying!” Darcy says petulantly. “And Melinda is right, we’re going to do it anyway.”

Bruce sighs. “Fine. But I bet you a fiver that this makes it worse and they work it out for themselves.”

“Challenge accepted,” Tony says immediately, sticking his hand out to shake.

 

Maria can see Melinda cashing up through the window in the door and knocks to get her attention. Maria doesn’t volunteer at Oxfam, but as both of her flatmates do, she’s got to know almost everyone who works the same shifts, and Melinda is easily one of her favourites.

The sound of a vacuum cleaner assaults her ears as soon as Melinda unlocks the door for her and Maria sees Pepper vacuuming the kids section, fighting with the ancient Henry that seems to do sweet fuck all if how Pepper is grumbling is any indication.

“Hi Maria,” Melinda says, going back behind the till to continue cashing up. “Natasha isn’t here.”

Maria frowns. “Why not?”

“Pepper’s intervention was less than successful.”

“Oh.” Maria frowns. She might not volunteer here, but Natasha and Pepper keep her abreast of most of the shop’s goings on and Pepper has told her about Darcy’s intervention plans.

“That seems very un-Pepper like.”

“Yes, well.”

In the other room Maria can hear when Pepper kicks Henry. “Henry needs to be ditched!” Pepper calls. “He’s absolute shit!”

Maria leans on the counter. “How much?”

“£418.36,” Melinda says, once she’s finished up counting the twenties. “Not bad for a Tuesday.”

She packs all the forms away and calls Pepper over to countersign the takings.

“Tony is going to be so pissed when he finds out he owes Bruce a fiver,” she says when Pepper has gone, taking Henry and the day’s takings to put in the safe.

Maria nods absently, before what Melinda actually said properly registers.

“Wait, you think they’ve worked it out themselves?” she asks.

“Well, Sam saw Clint in Holy Trinity’s graveyard – ”

“Wait, Sam’s here?” Maria interrupts. She hasn’t seen Sam in ages, not since he signed up for the Army.

“In the back with Darcy,” Melinda says, waving her hand in the general direction of the back. “So Sam saw Clint at Holy Trinity, and when he told us, and Pepper admitted to pissing Clint off, Natasha stormed out of here. So yeah, I reckon they’re going to sort their shit out.”

“Necking in a graveyard,” Maria grins, “How classy.”

Melinda returns her grin, but it has a distinctly evil edge to it. “And soon you three will be able to go on triple dates.”

Maria freezes.

“Oh my God, Tony would totally suggest that,” she says horrified. “Can you imagine Clint, Pepper, Tony, and Kathy together? It’ll be chaos, it’ll be horrible. They’ll talk all over each other and have popcorn eating contests and we’ll end up with a blanket fort in our front room. Fuck fuck fuck. I can’t deal with that.”

She turns wide eyes on Melinda.

“Melinda, you need to help me stage a pre-emptive intervention.”