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As my devoted readers know, elsewhere on this blog I’ve referred to SHIELD Records as greedy, dishonest sleazeballs, and the only ones in the business with less integrity than Disney. Well, their latest actions make me want to say it all over again. Sources tell me the new plan out of SHIELD is to smush together the frontmen of a few of their less lucrative properties, creating a band that’s all frontmen, and leaving the rest of these kids to rot by the side of the road. Anyway, I’ve got the word on who’s rumored to be joining this new teen sensation (tentatively called The Avengers… kinda angry for a boy band, but there you have it).
I’m sure no one’s surprised that Iron Man is being broken up, or that Tony Stark will be continuing his eternal quest for fame in The Avengers. If you missed their two releases, know that this is mainly a vehicle for Stark to play in his famous dad’s shadow and exercise his self-obsession. I mean, I don’t wanna say they suck, but they’re not really here to make great music. Tony, at twenty-three, is starting to get old for the boy-band business, but he’s still cute and he’s a famous face. I can’t feel too sad about competent but uncreative partner Pepper Potts being cast aside either, since she’s made it clear for ages she only stays with it for Tony. Good luck on your future, Pepper!
What I do feel sad about is the downfall of Captain America. If you’re unfamiliar with this group, first of all, have you been living under a rock, and second of all, it’s just about the best throwback pop I’ve heard in years. These kids are an all-American success story—started out as a high school thing in Brooklyn, then got signed. Too bad it was by SHIELD—now it’s over for the fabulous Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter, while golden-haired Steve Rogers heads to bigger and better things. Here’s hoping their inspiring friendship doesn’t break up when the band does.
Next on the list is Thor—no last names for this rock god—from Scandinavian band Asgard. Thor’s band is filled with a group of gorgeous faces who are apparently all related to him somehow, and first album Mjolnir was saved from being ABBA Junior mainly by brother Loki sporting a permanent bassist’s scowl at all times. Thor was pretty much made for boy bands, so he’ll be kissing the family good-bye.
You almost certainly haven’t heard of Clint Barton, who’s already been screwed over by SHIELD—he was brought into the SHIELD stable as a solo and has yet to have anything released. Rumor has it the nineteen-year-old from Iowa actually produced an album with Natasha Romanoff—another in the same situation—under the name Hawkeye, and that it’s actually pretty damn good. Clint actually has appeared live with Asgard a couple times, so he’ll probably work well with Thor, and I’m excited to see what he can do.
And finally, exclusive news from What’s Poppin’, you’ll never guess who SHIELD are bringing back from wherever he’s been hiding. Solo artist Bruce Banner hasn’t been seen since he threw a tantrum, got in a spectacular fight with SHIELD execs, and ended up releasing videos of himself rapping (badly) under the name The Incredible Hulk that have since become wildly popular. But I hear SHIELD is giving the volatile crooner a second chance (or forcing him to take one).
So, there you have it. Tony, Steve, Thor, Clint and Bruce: The Avengers.
ETA: Right after posting, a source in with SHIELD let me know that Natasha Romanoff will also be recording with The Avengers, calling the collaborations The Avengers Featuring Black Widow. Natasha was a Russian pop hit at age thirteen, and she’s still a huge star over there. SHIELD brought her to the US last year, where she supposedly did the Hawkeye album and was in a couple of numbers on Iron Man’s second record. She’s good. Very good. (I’m supposed to hate SHIELD. So why do I feel like they’ve really done the right thing bringing these six together?)
* * *
Natasha flips through the CDs that Coulson’s handed her. Whole New Machine and the one she’s in, Shiny Suit. Star-Spangled Man—that’s Captain America. Not exactly her scene, even if she’s managed to shake the accent after two years in the States and the awful speech therapy required in her contract. Then Mjolnir—Clint’s not on the record, but he’s played with Asgard, says they’re good guys. And then the one that she’s listened to over and over again and almost no one else ever has. Secret Agent. It was supposed to be her American debut, to be the thing that catapulted her from a barely teenage Russian darling to the real deal (and that took Clint from Iowa coffeeshops to sold-out arenas). Instead, her brand-new American name barely shows up on Google , and he’s never heard a crowd screaming for him in any language. He deserves it, she knows, and when she can get out of the mindset that’s been so fucked up by thirteen-year-old stardom, she thinks she does too. She just hopes this project is going to be it.
“The Avengers, featuring Black Widow,” she says.
“That’s the idea,” Coulson says, nodding. “A boy band, except with you as the gimmick. Fury wants to play you for sex appeal, so get ready for that.”
Natasha nods. She’s been doing this long enough that the suggestion she’s been chosen for her looks hardly surprises her, even if it bothers her a little.
“There’s, ah, one more thing,” says Coulson.
“I have to bring Stark in?” Natasha asks.
Coulson laughs. “No! This was practically his idea!” He pauses. “We’ve got someone else for you to talk to.” He slides another CD across the table.
Gamma Ray. Bruce Banner.
“You want me to find the Hulk?”
“He doesn’t like to be called that,” Coulson says.
* * *
Tony looks up from where his head is on Pepper's lap.
"So," he says, "you're getting out of show business."
Pepper nods. "I was never really in it to begin with. More like the keeping-Tony-Stark-happy business."
"Well," Tony says, raising an imaginary (for once) glass, "here's to Iron Man. There'll never be another band like it."
"To Iron Man," Pepper echoes, solemnly, and the moment lasts a good ten seconds before they both crack up.
"Who the hell came up with that name, anyway?" Tony asks.
"Coulson, I think," says Pepper, at which point Tony's phone rings.
"Ah, speak of the devil," Tony says, not picking up.
Pepper reaches across him and answers the phone, tapping in Tony's password.
Tony rolls his eyes. "Were we not just abusing Coulson's taste in band names? Can you get with the program for two minutes?"
Pepper covers the phone, whispers, "What program?"
"The not-treating-Coulson-like-a-person program."
"Tony!" She turns back to the phone. "Sorry. My former bandmate is being an ass. What's going on?”
Tony continues to mouth insults at Coulson while Pepper nods, making those agreeing noises that give Tony absolutely no clue what's being discussed. Finally, she hangs up.
"Well?" Tony asks.
"Well, what?" Pepper replies, smirking a little.
Tony attempts to wait her out. It's not a successful attempt. "Why did Phil Coulson feel the need to call us at eight-thirty at night?"
Pepper grins. "It's time to sign the papers. He's downstairs."
They're living in the penthouse of one of the many buildings Tony's dad left to him (Malibu mansion, New York mansion, Virginia cottage, a few real estate investments, and the tower in Manhattan), so it's a long elevator ride, and Tony almost suggests they make out just to stave off the monotony, but Pepper's not the type to enjoy a little smooching just between friends. Coulson’s waiting for them at the bottom, frowning.
“I thought you two broke up.”
“Just because we’re not sleeping together doesn’t mean we’re not still best friends,” Pepper says, and in fact back when they were sleeping together Tony couldn’t have imagined moving in with her. It’s only now that they’re back to the way they always were that living together has become the obvious choice. And if it means the public thinks they are coupled up, well, that’s a bonus.
“Hm,” Coulson sniffs. “Get in the car.”
* * *
Steve's phone is blinking "one missed call", which is pretty much the norm lately.
He clicks through to it, sees Mr. Fury at the top, which means he actually has to return the call, which is not the norm lately.
It's a futile exercise, but he thumbs through the list: Peggy, Peggy, Peggy, Peggy, Mr. Fury, Peggy, Peggy. There's a name which is conspicuously absent--if you go back far enough, it's because Steve never used to miss a call, and now it's because there aren't any calls to miss.
He shakes his head like he's trying to get the emotions out through his ear, then dials.
"Mr. Fury? You called?"
"Steve? That you?"
"Yes, sir." He knows that this is rock 'n' roll, that it's not impolite to be a little more casual, but Steve breathes out sirs and ma'ams like carbon dioxide. Bucky always used to make fun of him for it—he takes a deep breath, away from the phone so Fury won't hear.
"It's official," Fury says. "Stark just signed. We're doing it now, even if we don't get everybody."
Official. So The Avengers is officially born, and Captain America is officially dead.
"No going back now," he says, accidentally out loud.
"No going back," Fury agrees. "We want you all in on Monday."
Which gives Steve four days to miss calls and brood and wish he was still a member of the best damn garage band around.
* * *
I've had other offers, Clint thinks indignantly. It's even true, if by "other offers" you count Loki of Asgard stealing his voice off some of those live recordings and trying to use it, then apologizing by offering Clint a place in his "new, better" band. He refused, of course; Loki's a major creep. He'd have to be under some kind of mind control to join his band.
Which effectively leaves The Avengers as his only option. Never mind that Clint never saw himself as a boy-band type. He knows the drill, after two years: SHIELD says shoot, and he says "Where's the target?" At least Tasha's going to be there, his friend since they made an album, just the two of them, and his best friend since it stayed just the two of them.
But Tasha's not here now, just Stark and his girlfriend, both of whom Clint’s avoiding—Stark because this is his fault, and the girlfriend because Clint gets nervous around pretty girls, even if it is for all the wrong reasons. He's pretty sure, actually, that his inability to talk coherently to Samantha Lee is what saved him from being outed in high school. Back then he was terrified of that happening; now he kind of wishes it would, just to put an end to things. But he's been told in no uncertain terms that this boy band is his last chance at SHIELD, and that if he's openly gay they don't want him. Twelve-year-old girls don't want posters of boys on their walls who are incapable of ever loving them back.
Tasha knows, of course, because Tasha knows everything about him, from the fact that he used to dream Olympics instead of Grammys to his hatred of dark chocolate (both of which she finds inexplicable). Coulson presumably guesses, or he wouldn't have given him that talk, unless he just gives that to everyone. But other than that, Clint lives in a nice little walk-in closet. It's not so bad, he figures--he hasn't wanted to date anyone in a while, and they all have things about them they have to hide in public.
* * *
India was probably a mistake.
No, scratch that, India was definitely a mistake.
It’s not the first time Bruce’s George Harrison complex has gotten him in trouble, and it probably won’t be the last, but it makes for a pretty spectacular middle.
“Shoulda turned back at London, Banner,” he mutters to himself, although if he’s being honest, he should’ve turned back a long time before that. Maybe before he made the rap videos, or before he broke Fury’s chair against a sixteenth-floor reinforced window at SHIELD, or before he went into Fury’s office, or before he got into the fucking music business at all.
There’s a phone ringing. It’s not his, because Bruce hasn’t had a working phone since he left the US and didn’t realize international calling was a thing you had to pay for. He keeps the thing around for sentimental value; it’s like an old friend, or so he assumes. Bruce doesn’t have any old friends. He flops down on his bed, hopes the noise stops soon, but there’s always noise, and yeah, New York was noisy, but somehow New York didn’t constantly scrape at his nerves the way the noises do here.
Another noise enters his awareness, a sort of dull . . . knocking! That’s not ambient noise, someone is knocking on his door, who the hell?
Bruce and the mysterious knocker apparently realize at the same time that his door isn’t actually locked, because just as he’s getting up to lock it, the knob turns.
“Bruce Banner?” the red-haired girl asks.
“Natasha Romanoff,” she says, like he should know the name. He scans his memory—she’s younger than him, shorter, looks like she should still be in high school. He supposes she’s also smoking hot, by some objective definition, although Bruce’s personal kind of smoking hot doesn’t usually have wicked chin-length red curls or curves (and shoes) that look like they could actually kill someone. She does look vaguely familiar, but the name doesn’t match anything.
“I’m sorry, Natasha?”
“I’m with SHIELD,” she says, which is when he realizes where he’s seen her—on the cover of a CD that one of his landlady’s kids was listening to, a gift from a Russian tenant. She was Natalia Romanova on that, which explains why he didn’t place her right away.
More importantly, though—“How did you find me?”
“You think SHIELD would just let you go? Anyway, you’re hardly an man of mystery. It wouldn’t have been difficult to track you down.”
Maybe it’s the secret Russian name, or maybe it’s the killer curves, but Bruce finds himself wondering if he’s stumbled into a KGB op instead of a shitty record deal.
“So they, uh, they sent you all the way out here to drag me back? Seems a little like overkill.”
Natasha frowns. “Is there overkill where you’re concerned? Because between the brilliant music and the crazy temper, I think sending a teenage girl to India to hand you a record contract isn’t much. I’m not even supposed to threaten you too bad.”
Fury’s offering him a contract. Bruce can’t believe it. Did he miss the chair-throwing? Because the entire rest of the world sure didn’t.
“A record contract?” he asks, for once deliberately showing the tension in his hands instead of telling it to calm down. “After last time? Fury sends you here with a record contract?”
She nods calmly, but she’s definitely spotted that tension. Mission half-accomplished.
“And if I don’t want to sign?” Bruce asks, trying to make the calm in his voice sound fake. It’s easy enough; he’s sounded like this for real plenty of times. He’s not sure why he’s messing with her, except that he is angry at Fury’s audacity. He is angry that, mistake as it is, his Indian escape is being threatened, that this stranger can walk in the room and see his legendary anger even before he starts showing it.
“I have this building surrounded,” she tries, and it’s surprising how solid the joke sounds, how instead of trembling she’s braced herself like if he starts throwing furniture again she’ll be ready rather than terrified. Instantly, Bruce decides he likes her.
“Sorry,” he says, letting the tension drop from his voice, his hands. “That, uh, wasn’t nice of me.”
Natasha smiles shakily. “I knew you were faking.”
Bruce doesn’t think she did, but he can already tell he’s never going to be sure with Natasha. “So,” he says, “do I get to work with you? Show me the contract.”
She hands it to him, and a pen. “Some. It’s a boy band. The Avengers,” she points to him, “that’s you, featuring Black Widow, that’s me.”
“Sounds,” Bruce says, looking for places to initial, “like an excellent name for a band.”
Whatever, Howard Stark was a big enough rock star to buy a building in New York.
Oh, and I realized this might make it look like Bucky is dead, which is not the case.
In which the gang's all here, sparks fly, and Clint is a fanboy. (Also, texting!)
Text message from Natasha Romanoff to Clint Barton
Guess who I’m bringing home?
Clint à Natasha
Aren’t you on a plane?
Natasha à Clint
I do what I want
Clint à Natasha
. . . bitch
Natasha à Clint
No, moron, layover. And guess.
Clint à Natasha
Natasha à Clint
Natasha à Clint
Natasha à Clint
Natasha à Clint
You’re not beating me in a waiting game, Barton.
Clint à Natasha
Natasha à Clint
I’d say that.
Tony à Pepper
Have you listened to this Rogers kid’s stuff? Please tell me he sucks.
Pepper à Tony
He’s only 3 yrs. younger than you. & no, he doesn’t suck. Why?
Tony à Pepper
He’s fucking beautiful. He can’t sing better too.
Pepper à Tony
Is he beautiful? I hadn’t noticed. ;-)
Tony à Pepper
Curse you and your ability to pull straight guys.
Pepper à Tony
You better not be pulling ANY guys or you’ll lose your contract.
Tony à Pepper
Just because shield hired you you’re enforcing the rules now?
Pepper à Tony
Uh, excuse me, do the words “i trust you to save me from myself” mean anything to you?
Clint à Natasha
TELL ME WHO YOUR SECRET MISSION WAS
Natasha à Clint
Fluffy. Glasses. Poster on your ceiling.
Clint à Natasha
Natasha à Clint
Loki à Thor
You won’t forget me in America?
Thor à Loki
I could never.
Loki à Thor
And soon I shall join you in the land of freedom!
Thor à Loki
We shall, as they say, rock it in the World of Disney!
Clint à Natasha
You’re bringing me Bruce Banner. I forgive you everything you’ve ever done to me.
Tony à Pepper
I was VERY DRUNK when I said that, Pepper. Stop remembering things.
* * *
Steve takes a step into the room and immediately wants to run out again. As if this wasn't scary enough, they're all so pretty.
He feels silly immediately after he thinks it. Of course they're pretty. He can hear his inner Peggy voice saying they're a boy band, Steve. Attractiveness is kind of their job, and it follows from that that Steve is just as good-looking at the rest of them. This actually would be really helpful except that appearances of his inner Peggy are usually followed by appearances of his inner Bucky, and appearances of his inner Bucky are usually followed by excruciating pain in the pit of his stomach.
In the end, this is helpful after all, because talking to Tony Stark means he doesn’t have to think about Bucky Barnes. He recognizes Stark, of course, in his unfairly tight t-shirt and indoor sunglasses. He’s seen the guy’s face at a thousand newstands and checkout lines. He’s even, in fact, been to a concert—Peggy’s a huge Howard Stark fan and she used to think his son was going to live up to his promise. Hasn’t even come close, in Steve’s opinion. As far as he’s concerned, the only thing Tony’s got on his dad is not being dead. But the point is, at least he knows who Stark is, which means he feels a little safer going over and sticking out his hand.
“I know who you are,” Stark says, sounding bored out of his skull.
“Um,” says Steve.
“Captain America. I listened. Well, no, actually, Pepper listened, I’m a busy man, but I got the précis. Vintage pop, you sing, the lady plays guitar, and that Bucky kid on the drums. Little over-eager, right? Bucky?”
“Um,” Steve says again.
“Don’t say much, do you?” Stark asks, and turns on his heel. Apparently that’s all the audience he’s getting with the Great Tony Stark.
“You’re the one who oughta be blowing him off,” says another inner voice, one which sounds a lot like Steve himself—but Steve before Captain America, Steve when he was getting beat up every other day. That Steve was pretty damn familiar with being treated like this. That Steve would’ve wished he didn’t have to put up with this annoyingly untalented, boringly rude, stupidly pretty jackass. This Steve actually doesn’t have to.
“Oh yeah, you’re Iron Man, aren’t you?” he calls after Tony, somewhat involuntarily. “Thought you’d buy some instruments with your daddy’s money? Come on, you wouldn’t be here without your dad’s reputation. Some of us worked hard to get where we are.” It’s meaner than, well, anything he’s ever said—he’s a bit horrified with himself, but Stark doesn’t even look shaken.
“Pepper!” he calls, and walks off. “Damn,” Steve swears softly. He’s messed that up beyond all repair, and he only has five bandmates left.
* * *
Why did he leave? Why the hell did he leave?
Tony looks for Pepper, cursing himself. So what if Steve Rogers hates him? He shouldn’t care. Doesn’t care, doesn’t care. He doesn't care that everything Steve said was true, that Rogers was doing things that were supposed to "revitalize the genre" and "provide a welcome relief from the recent idea of what a young band should be" (it being Pepper, the précis was more of an exhaustive report) when Tony was selling out arenas based solely on his face's prettiness and resemblance to somebody else's. He doesn't care that there was no call for his brusqueness, that Steve was both remarkably friendly and a sight braver than Tony, walking up to someone like that. No, his anger at himself for leaving is entirely because he made it look like Rogers bothered him, and not because he can hear Steve and Clint Barton hitting it off in the other room and wishes it could've been him.
He finally finds Pepper in Coulson's office, banging the door open and flopping into the chair in front of her. She looks up from her work, much more calm than Tony feels anyone has a right to be at the moment.
"Tony," she says, voice full of what Tony, dimly, knows is affection but only feels like condescending pity. "What happened this time?"
Tony mutters something under his breath, a cross between "Steve didn't like me" and "I didn't like Steve."
Pepper laughs gently, saying "You're going to have to repeat that," and Tony lashes out at her. "I would appreciate someone in this building not ridiculing me, Pepper. Don't I keep you around to say nice things about me?"
"You keep me around," says Pepper, "not to lie to you. Who's been ridiculing you?"
"Steve Rogers," Tony grumbles, and Pepper's face folds into that awful kind expression.
"Do not look understanding, Pepper! There is nothing to understand here! Nothing to understand! Do you . . . ah . . . understand me?"
"Perfectly," Pepper says. "You did not storm into this office in a snit over Steve Rogers' treatment of you, and this snit had nothing to do with your previous assessment of his looks, or with your insisting that I provide you with a full background check on him and then saying I 'shouldn't bother myself' with the rest of the band.’"
Tony nods emphatically. "Now that is why I keep you around."
"But seriously," Pepper says, kind-and-understanding face replaced with her straight-shit face, "If Steve's being mean to you, that is his problem."
"I know," Tony says, even though he doesn't, really, but Pepper's not done. "And if Steve just isn't falling to his knees and worshiping Tony Stark, then it's your problem, and you'd better patch it up for the band."
"I didn't say I wanted him to fall to his knees," Tony says.
He's not sure he even has a name for that Pepper face.
* * *
Bruce swipes his hands on his pants, stepping out of the elevator.
“Now,” Natasha says, “go easy on Barton, okay? He’s kind of . . . a fan. Just be nice to him.”
Bruce nods, opens the door and walks in.
There are three guys standing there, two tall blonds, one of whom is clapping the other on the back, and a short spiky-haired teenager who has to be Clint Barton from the way his eyes light up when he and Natasha walk in. Bruce wonders which of them the happy face is for. Both, probably.
He walks over to them, hugs Natasha tightly and quickly. That one surprises Bruce—he hadn’t pegged Natasha for a hugger. Or a toucher at all, really, unless, perhaps, it’s in violence. “Clint, Bruce Banner,” she says, gesturing from one to the other. “Bruce, Clint.”
Clint shakes his hand, and oh, at least some of that eyes-lit-up was for Bruce, because it’s very much still in evidence.
“Bruce! Can I call you Bruce?”
Bruce nods, a little bemused at Clint’s excited tone. It’s been a while since he last met a fan.
“I really, really like what you did on Gamma Ray. I was wondering, could you show me what chords you were using? Because I think you were working with some different combinations—is this what you were doing?”
His voice is serious and intense and he moves his hands to demonstrate and oh, Bruce is in trouble.
People often question (and rightly so) why Bruce Banner thought the best way to settle a fight with Nick Fury was an angered rampage and property destruction.
For some reason, they rarely wonder what the fight was about. They assume, he supposes, that it has to do with the rapping, or a money thing, or Fury’s general reputation as a hardass. The assumptions, however, do what assumptions tend to do. The real issue was Bruce’s childhood crush on Harrison Ford. Or, rather, that he wanted to tell people. It’s a testament, in fact, to how well SHIELD hides their policy against openly gay stars that no one has guessed it’s what Bruce Banner rubbed up against.
Until just now, Bruce would have told anyone asking that for a second chance to make music (and with his reputation, this is the only one he’s liable to get) he’d be happy to climb in the closet after all, that the fuss wasn’t worth it for what it got him. Just now, Bruce watches Clint Barton finger imaginary frets on his upper arm, humming like he knows what he’s doing, and isn’t so sure.
* * *
Clint looks ecstatic, eagerly talking music-geek with Banner, whose dreamy expression suggests Clint isn't the only besotted one here. It's a bit much for Natasha, so she slinks away, leaving them to their goo-goo eyes and their minor sevenths.
"Flame-haired girl!" a voice booms.
Natasha turns around, sees a boorish, boring, blond giant waving her over.
"I prefer woman," she says, partly because she may be eighteen but she's just as adult as anyone, and partly just to be a bitch.
"Flame-haired woman!" the giant thunders, just as joyously. Natasha's lip twitches against her will.
"I prefer 'Natasha Romanoff' even more," she admits, going over to him properly.
"Natasha Romanoff!" he shouts one last time, and adds, "And I am Thor!"
"Thor," Natasha says, considerably more controlled. "Nice to meet you."
"I hear you are also a foreigner!" Thor says. "Are not the American States enthralling?"
It's an interesting question. Natasha doesn't feel Russian, not anymore, not with a new name and new accent and new people around her. But she doesn't feel American, either, doesn't like the taste of barbecue or understand the rules of football and baseball, doesn't quite know what an American Dream is or why it's necessary to deconstruct it.
"Enthralling," Natasha murmurs. "Yes, I can see why you might think that."
Thor nods. "I am quite happy here. But I miss--I miss Loki."
"Loki. Your brother, yes?"
"My brother, yes. And a kick-ass bassist!"
Natasha laughs softly. Thor frowns. "Did I not use the word correctly? My knowledge of American speech is . . . imperfect."
Natasha smiles. "No. I'm sure your brother is kick-ass, Thor."
Thor's face breaks into a broad grin like a sunrise. "Kick-ass indeed!"
Behind him, Bruce is talking to Steve, which means Clint is dying to post-mortem their conversation. Speaking of brothers, Natasha thinks, and nods to Thor, walking over to Clint.
"Thor?" he asks.
She nods. "He was telling me about his brother."
Clint's face darkens. "Loki."
"Yes. He said he was kick-ass."
"I'd like to kick his ass," Clint says, then, "tell you later," motioning to the loving brother not too far away.
Natasha nods, but his face worries her. "So. Does Bruce Banner live up to the dream?"
The second she says his name, the shadow disappears from Clint's expression. "Natasha. He's perfect. And he touched me. And he's, honestly, is he genetically engineered, because he's perfect."
"Yes," says Clint, so passionately Natasha has to quirk her face in Bruce's direction, so he'll keep it down.
* * *
Clint is really, really glad he didn't wear sleeves today, because if he had he wouldn't be able to feel his upper arm burning where Bruce Banner touched him. As it is, the spot is sort of sparkling at the back of his awareness, making his stomach swoop whenever he thinks about it, remembering Bruce's thick fingers capably tapping out chord shapes on his skin. Playing me like a guitar, Clint thinks, and his stomach doesn't just swoop but drops through the floor.
He's a little disgusted with himself for the sentimentality--what is he, some twelve-year-old girl with a crush?--but he thinks, this once, he's owed a pass. Clint listened to Gamma Ray as a sixteen-year-old playing in coffee shops and hoping for a big break, hung up a picture of Banner he'd printed off the internet until he had enough spare cash to buy a real poster. Clint idolized him as a musician, and he crushed on him as a guy; he might have kissed the poster once or twice, and there could have been an embarrassing daydream inspired by a pro-gay marriage commercial. So Bruce Banner actually touching him is enough reason to suspend his usual coolness, if anything is.
Still, that's no reason to float around in happy-cloud-land in public. Luckily, he's got an easy antidote for his happiness: Loki. He'd been hoping, when he heard Thor was joining the band, that at least he’d stopped getting along with his slimy, conniving little brother. Instead they're apparently still best buds. Meaning when Clint (and Natasha, of course) take the sucker down, they're going to have to do it in some way that doesn't upset Big Bruddah. Especially because, uh, big indeed. Clint would rather not come to blows with this guy. But leaving Loki alone is not an option. Just the thought of Clint's voice being used against his will makes him sick.
He really wants to pull Natasha out of the room and tell her all this now, or better yet give her the bare facts and let her stare at him until she guesses the rest. But Fury's arrived, and the group is starting to drift toward the center of the room, taking seats around the table.
That's not as simple as it sounds, actually, because Clint wants to be by Bruce, and Bruce feels safest with Natasha, and Clint also wants to be as far away from Thor as the seven-person table allows, and he can't really tell if Tony feels the same way about Steve that Clint does about Bruce or about Thor, but in the end those two end up next to each other, Bruce unexpectedly next to Tony. Clint's got Tasha between him and Bruce, which is acceptable, and Fury between him and Thor, being enough of a presence that Loki's brother feels far away.
"All right," Fury says, meaning, "God, what a bunch of idiots I have to deal with. If you squabble like children over seats one more time, I swear."
He pulls out a pad of paper and a pen. "Songs."
Thanks to ScarJo for being completely awesome; I've ripped off a favorite line of hers and generally been inspired by her when writing Natasha in this chapter.
Also, hmm, new pairing tag, what could this mean? (It doesn't show up for a few chapters, really, but I got excited.)
(Oh and lol what are reasonable timelines)
Tiger Beat Magazine, unedited transcript of interview with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers
Tiger Beat: Hey, guys! Thanks for coming!
Steve Rogers: Thanks for having us.
Tony Stark: Yeah, what he said. Can we do this quickly? I promised Pepper we'd go to that Indian place.
TB: Pepper? Would that be your girlfriend and former bandmate, Pepper Potts?
TS: Girlfriend, willing lackey, it's all the same.
SR: Is there anyone you actually like, Stark?
TS: Oh, you're one to talk, Rogers. I'm sure lots and lots of people meet your relaxed standards.
TB: So, uh, speaking of friends, how are the Avengers getting along?
TS: (snorts) Bruce and Clint are getting along.
SR: Tony. We shouldn't talk about their private--
TS: They want to fuck, Steve.
TB: Um. You understand that this will be edited? For language? And, uh, probably for content.
SR: Good. Just because you can't behave yourself doesn't mean you need to ruin this for the rest of the band.
TB: Look, can I just . . . ask my questions?
SR: Of course.
TB: So, what do you look for in a girl?
SR: I'll answer for Tony. A pulse.
TS: Hey! You can't say that! I can say that. You can't say that.
TB: Um. What's your . . . perfect date?
SR: Gotta be—
TS: I'll answer for Steve. Dinner with her parents and not getting laid.
TS: Notice he's not denying it.
SR: I would—enjoy having—sex—with a—girl!
TB: Uh. Why do you make music?
TS: Oh. Because he’s perfect fucking prodigy Steve fucking Rogers!
SR (simultaneously): Because it's a cheap way for him to be goddamn famous Tony goddamn Stark!
(Interviewer's words unintelligible due to extreme volume of next comments from SR and TS)
TS: You're a snob.
TS: Uptight sonofabitch.
SR: Criminally irresponsible!
TS: Pretty boy!
SR: I don't know why Pepper puts up with you.
(TS left the room at this point.)
SR: Well, I don't.
TB: Uh. The printed interview may differ from the initial transcript. Your agreement with Tiger Beat consents to this.
* * *
"Oh no," Bruce whispers, "oh no."
They're only ten days into the publicity campaign and already this has happened. Exactly what he didn't want.
"What's that, kittykat?" Clint asks him, obviously proud of his rhyme. Bruce shuts his eyes. Clint's fake flirting, today, is more painful than usual. He can't even find it in him to foolishly pretend it's real.
"Fuck yeah . . . Hulkeye?" Clint reads.
Bruce opens his eyes again. It's still there.
"Hulkeye," he says. "My, uh, less mild-mannered alter ego and your former band. Portmanteaued."
Clint looks blank.
"Smushed together." Bruce says. He sighs. "Like . . . Brangelina, for Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie."
"Oh," Clint says, voice wobbly.
"Yeah," Bruce says, keeping his steady through long practice.
Bruce scrolls through a little; in for a penny, in for a pound might as well be his life's motto. It's mostly pictures: Bruce standing a little too close in an unposed publicity shot, Clint tossing a casual arm around him in their latest interview. A few quotes, too, from that one time Clint called him "Specs" in public, a mention of the time that lady from MTV asked where they'd be in twenty years and Bruce accidentally shot a glance at Clint, and a detailed side-by-side comparison of those two really similar purple shirts they own, attempting to prove that they are, in fact, the same shirt. (Bruce wishes they were. Unfortunately, he's just really bad at buying well-fitting clothes.)
"People think we're together?" Clint asks. He looks not just bothered but terrified, eyes wide and arms tense.
"Yeah," Bruce says. "I'm sorry, I'll—I’ll try not to—”
"Man," Clint says, looking right at him, "It's not your fault. Fans are . . . crazy, you know that."
Right. Crazy fans. That's all this is, to Clint. Bruce focuses on the part of himself that's thinking thank God, rejoices that they can still be friends, and pretends the part of him that was hoping Clint would say "maybe we should be" doesn't exist.
"Well," Bruce says, regaining his outward composure even if he's still completely shaken, "it's been a while."
Clint nods. "Better get your skills back. You'll need 'em on tour."
"Guess I'll . . . look at this a little longer, then. Get ready for what they might throw at us."
"I'll leave you to it," Clint says, and walks away, leaving Bruce staring at a drawing of Clint pushing at his glasses and kissing him on the cheek.
* * *
"Black Widow, okay? Not Black Girlfriend," Natasha snaps at the interviewer. "I mean, there's no time for romance. We've got shit to avenge."
That earns her an appreciative laugh, but she can't help but think it sounds a little indulgent. Of course she and Clint, public friends and partners, must be dating. Of course it's okay to ask Natasha if she's dieting for the tour when Tony gets asked if his father would be proud of him and Clint gets to talk about his musical influences. Of course it must be oh-so-difficult for poor Natasha (can I call you Tasha? Nat? No you fucking can't, ma'am) to work with such attractive men.
And sure enough, the next question is, "Oh, but you must have a special someone."
"Love is for children," Natasha says. "I never really got to be a child."
It's been a hellish not-quite-two weeks of press appearances, Assemble! going live halfway through and making everything even more hectic. Natasha, for the first time in two years, is recognized in the street, and she finds she didn't miss it. But at least in Russia she was thirteen; at least in Russia she famously worked alone. Here every question she's asked is about her body or her romantic prospects, and while at least her body is something she cares about (if not in the shiny-hair, bikram-yoga, stiletto-sandal way they think she should), she’s feeling more and more that she is just not interested in finding some nice (or not-so-nice) man. How else could she look at America’s Crush, as they’re calling Steve now, and feel nothing but respect; how else could she work with notorious playboy Tony Stark and only raise an eyebrow in question and not flirtation.
Pepper helps, when Natasha sees her, similarly interested in getting the job done; she’s dealing with a different kind of sexist treatment as a twenty-year-old with long red hair just starting at SHIELD (and only Pepper could’ve swung that job so young, even if Coulson’s the reason she has it), and they text each other each time they just want to smack someone for not taking them seriously. Bruce helps, too; Natasha’s nervous around him, more scared than she wants to admit of dealing with an episode of emotion, but she can see he’s got it under control, and they get along surprisingly well. She can hear his quiet mumble in her head, telling her to calm down, breathe, it’s all water slipping through her fingers, and she wonders if he hears the same voice, and who it sounds like to him. And Clint helps, of course, because Clint has always helped more than anyone. To him, she always tells the truth, even when it’s something she would never want her new friends to know, and she can tell he’s her best friend because he understands what that means, coming from her. Natasha’s not had an abundance of people she trusts in her life, but Clint, since those first days in America, speaking like a cartoon villain and finding out foods didn’t taste right, has sat there quietly, letting her work off her energy, waiting for her to say something, not minding if she never does.
This interview finishes quickly, the overly blond woman in the other armchair obviously a little off after her outbursts. There's a car waiting to take her back to SHIELD headquarters, and she knows exactly where she's heading first.
* * *
The SHIELD building has easy roof access. They use it to hold parties sometimes, but right now there's nothing up there but concrete and sky. That suits Clint just fine.
He doesn't hear her coming up behind him, because he never does.
"Must you dangle your legs over the edge?" Natasha asks, lowering herself next to him, her own legs safely crossed.
"Doesn't feel high up otherwise," Clint says, kicking a little.
She looks at him like he's just professed his love for Hannah Montana.
"Love you too," he says, and she sighs and leans against him. "How was your day?"
She starts telling him some story about an interview, but he's not really paying attention. Instead, he's just letting the wind and the city sounds and the pull of gravity on his feet wash away the split-second image of Bruce's horrified face, the memory of those pictures documenting some alternate reality straight out of Clint's dreams.
"Clint," Tasha's voice cuts in, "you're not listening, are you?"
Clint grimaces. "Sorry."
"No," she says, "what's wrong?"
He can tell she's dying to know, but she sits there, waits for him, same way he does for her. He swings his feet up off the ledge, turns to face her. "It's Bruce."
Natasha nods, waits again.
"You know I don't just like him as a friend."
"I do," Natasha says.
"If he ever found out . . ."
"You think he wouldn't even be a friend anymore."
Clint's mouth twists. "There was . . . the idea came up. He looked like he was going to be sick thinking about it."
"Just the suggestion . . . I left him alone and came up here."
"How long?" Tasha asks, because oh, she knows him so well.
"Mmm-hmm," she says. Then, silent again.
"You don't think I should talk to him, do you?"
"Do what you think is best, Clint," she says, not dismissing him, just trusting him, but it hurts. Because what he thinks is best is tugging on Bruce's collar and pulling him into a kiss, is taking him to Clint's favorite pizza place and sharing a slice (or a few), is making him pancakes and finding out whether he likes bananas in them or chocolate chips.
"He's right," Clint says, "it is disgusting."
Natasha pauses for a long time, long enough that he thinks she isn't going to respond at all.
"It's not disgusting," she says. "It's what you feel."
"I shouldn't be—it’s unfair to him," he says, shaking his head.
"Maybe he's being unfair to you," she says, and it's not like he's never thought of that, but it isn't true, can't be true.
He's got to get over Bruce Banner.
* * *
Steve is pretty sure he’s dreaming, because Bucky’s smiling at him, and that doesn’t happen when he’s awake anymore. This is a good thing (the dreaming, not the lack of smiles, that’s a bad thing, the worst thing), because if Steve were awake he’d actually have to decide whether to risk going for the kiss. Luckily, he’s being piloted by his subconscious right now, which means he can’t be blamed for whatever goes down.
And, sure enough, Dream Steve leans in to kiss Dream Bucky. It’s amazing, actually, just like kissing Bucky always is (always was); Steve once, very stupidly, said it was like violin music, and Bucky said it was more like the Who. Of course, it’s also soul-tearingly painful, given that Steve hasn’t kissed his ex-boyfriend in too, too long, will in fact never get to kiss him again.
But for now Steve firmly tells himself to shut up and enjoys the moment, the solidness of Bucky in his arms, the faint scratch of his goatee—oh.
Steve doesn’t have to look up to know he’s dreaming about kissing Tony Stark.
Steve wakes up at eight, makes himself brush his teeth before he thinks about the dream. Then he goes back to his bed, sits down, and takes stock.
It’s not exactly a surprise. He likes Tony, loath as he is to admit it, likes how he doesn’t act like he has anything to prove to anyone, how he is always emphatically himself. He likes, too, his . . . sassiness. When it’s not directed at him, anyway.
Which brings him to point two—this is totally a surprise, because Steve also hates Tony. He hates his entitlement and his meanness and the way that other people aren't people to him. He would never in a million years want the kind of "friendship" that Pepper—so sensible otherwise—seems to love; he would certainly never want the kind of romance that even she couldn't put up with.
And yet he does. There's something there, something in Tony, that makes Steve dream about kissing him when he should be happy that at least his bedroom is a Tony-free zone. But he's not. And it's not just the kissing either—Tony’s famously attractive, if it were just that he could deal with it. But suddenly he wishes there were no more Tony-free zones in his life, however infuriating the man is, and that is going to take some work
* * *
Tony is bored. He's never been a team meeting kind of guy, and the fact that he is at this one is largely due to his extremely large terror of Nick Fury. However, every second the man is on the phone that terror is becoming less important than Tony's equally large annoyance with him, and he's just about this close to walking out.
Fury's listening to whoever's on the other end, nodding in that way that inspired the terror in the first place.
"Mmm-hmm," he says, and then "All right." Tony leans over to the guy sitting next to him (Bruce, apparently) and only-sort-of whispers, "That 'all right' sounded like a 'fuck you.'"
Bruce looks at him. "Everything Nick Fury says sounds like 'fuck you.'"
Tony decides he likes him. He offers him one of the chocolate-covered carob beans he's eating.
Bruce takes. Tony decides he really likes him.
"All right," Fury says, finally off the phone. "The higher-ups—and yes, there are higher-ups than me—have made a decision. Now, given that it's a stupid-ass decision, I'd elected to ignore it. But apparently, I don't have that option any more."
Bruce shoots Tony a Significant Look. Tony decides he likes him almost as much as he likes Pepper.
Natasha lazily raises her hand. "Mr. Fury, what exactly is this decision?"
Fury somehow manages to look even angrier than he already does, which Tony actually has to give him props for, that is some serious angry.
"Twitter," Fury growls.
Tony and Bruce start giggling.
"Something funny?" Fury asks.
Tony and Bruce stop giggling.
"Right," Fury says, "I didn't think so. You're all getting Twitter accounts. I am to remind you that the Internet is a public forum--"
And Tony has to snort at that, because really? Tony has been a celebrity since before he was a fetus, actually, he doesn't need to be reminded about public forums.
Unfortunately, this causes Fury to reach a whole new level of angry. Tony thinks he might be setting an anger record and they should maybe call the Guinness Book, or perhaps a cardiac surgeon.
"That the Internet is a public forum," Fury continues, "and that your tweets will be deleted should they reflect poorly on this company, but if they reflect poorly on you," and here he clearly gets sick of whatever he's quoting, because he finishes, "you're fucked."
("There it is," Bruce whispers to Tony.)
@redwhiteandrogers: Come see #AvengersAssemble tour tonight! Gonna be awesome!
@TheTonyStark: skip #AvengersAssemble tour and you're as lame as @redwhiteandrogers
@redwhiteandrogers: not speaking to @TheTonyStark
@TheHawk: ritual breakfast w/ @BlackWidow
@BlackWidow: Soothing Clint's troubled nerves RT @TheHawk: ritual breakfast w/ @BlackWidow
@TheMightyHammer: WOKE UP LATE! REQUIRE SUSTENANCE! YOU DECIDE, FOLLOWERS: #lunchorbreakfast
@TheTonyStark: pre-tour lunch! sitting at the cool table with @incredibanner
@incredibanner: hey @TheTonyStark, pass the mustard
@TheHawk: nice try, @incredibanner, you're eating a tofu salad
@incredibanner: you can put mustard on a tofu salad
@redwhiteandrogers: get off twitter and eat guys, we have a rehearsal to get to @incredibanner @TheHawk @TheTonyStark
@BlackWidow: uh, @redwhiteandrogers, you're . . . on twitter.
@redwhiteandrogers: I don't need your sass, @BlackWidow. Sometimes to enforce the rules you have to break them.
@TheMightyHammer: I WELL UNDERSTAND WHY ROGERS IS THE FAVOURITE OF NICK FURY.
@TheHawk: hard to get pumped for concert when heavy @incredibanner is sleeping on you in the car #AvengersAssemble
@incredibanner: not sleeping RT @TheHawk hard to get pumped for tour when heavy @incredibanner is sleeping on you in the car #AvengersAssemble
@TheMightyHammer: THE STAGEHANDS ARE TRULY MY BRETHREN #joyoustidings
@redwhiteandrogers: Nothing beats a great rehearsal! #AvengersAssemble
@TheTonyStark: apparently, it is 'unprofessional' to be drunk at a concert #soulofasoloist
@TheTonyStark: seriously, no one told me to rehearse for iron man concerts #whatisthisshit
@PepperPans: I told you that all the time RT @TheTonyStark: seriously, no one told me to rehearse for iron man concerts #whatisthisshit
@TheTonyStark: well coulson doesn't have your . . . appeal #thatmeansboobs
@incredibanner: going to kill @TheHawk
@BlackWidow: Fell on him from the roof. RT @xoxogossipkate: what did Bruce DO to Clint? #oneqfortheavengers #AvengersAssemble
@TheMightyHammer: IT WAS A VALIANT STRIKE, WORTHY OF SONG! RT @BlackWidow: Fell on him from the roof...
@SHIELDrecords: Official notice that there will be NO Avengers song about Clint Barton's pranks. #AvengersAssemble #nicegoingthor
@TheTonyStark: forty-five minutes to concert. STILL not drunk. this feels wrong.
@PepperPans: as your official tour manager, GOOD. RT @TheTonyStark: forty-five minutes to concert. STILL not drunk. this feels wrong.
@TheTonyStark: YOU'RE OFFICIAL TOUR MANAGER? #prayersanswered
@BlackWidow: Congratulations to @PepperPans!
@redwhiteandrogers: well, we survived. see you soon, America! #AvengersAssemble
* * *
Tour buses in America are fancy shit.
The ones Clint rode on in Norway, touring with Mjolnir, were nice too, but this—this is state of the art. He's pretty sure it's actually nicer than his apartment.
At least, he's sure of that until he's explored it all twice and it's started moving and he's realized that he's expected to live on it for the next couple months.
"Top bunk!" Tony yells, staking one out, and Clint hurries over to claim the one across from it. Tasha grabs the third, above Steve, which puts Thor under Tony and Bruce under Clint. Pepper gets her own bed.
"This is just like a slumber party!" Thor cries, but everyone else is intent on going to sleep after the concert. Clint isn't planning on any late-night overshares tonight. Instead he says a quick goodnight to Tasha and climbs into bed barely taking the time to strip off his sleeveless t-shirt and jeans.
It's about forty-five minutes later, when he thinks for the tenth time, "Maybe on my right side," that he hears the cough.
It's a sad little cough, almost a whimper. In fact, though Clint hates to think it, it sounds like it's trying its valiant best not to be one.
The owner of the cough is obviously Bruce Banner, on the bunk below. (Clint doesn't want to think about how easy that was to recognize.) He sticks his head over the edge of his bed.
"Big guy? You doing all right down there?"
There's a pause. Clint sighs internally.
"Can't sleep either?"
"Better come on up here, then."
He rolls over and waits, and this time the silence is filled with the scritchings and bangings of someone tossing off a blanket and climbing up a ladder. And then there's Bruce's head (oh God, Clint is not thinking about his mussed-up hair right now, not thinking about it) and then the rest of him, clad in button-up pajamas that make Clint feel ashamed of his boxers, squeezing into Clint's bed.
The bunk is really not made for two, so Clint's head sort of ends up in Bruce's armpit, and one of Bruce's legs is actually under both of Clint's, but eventually they're something resembling comfortable.
They lie like this, silent for a moment, but Bruce isn't Natasha, and Clint has to look him in the eye and ask "What's wrong?"
"Just the usual."
Which isn't really an answer, except that it makes Clint's heart do all kinds of funny and unpleasant things.
"D'you wanna. . ."
"Talk about it? God, no. Something else?"
Clint searches for something, anything else, anything other than, "I love you, please don't be in pain," and settles on "India, huh?"
Bruce laughs, a very Bruce laugh, ironic and melancholy.
"What brought you there?" Clint asks.
There's a little window next to Clint's pillow and the curtain's not drawn; it's so dark on the bus that their reflections can barely be seen overlaid against the stars. Bruce turns to look, watches the night sky rush by. He's not looking at Clint when he says, "I guess I was aiming for the Great Beyond and overshot."
He gives it another of those sad, sarcastic, Bruce Banner laughs, but Clint knows that laugh, knows Bruce Banner, and he understands this is not a joke.
That doesn't make him any more sure what to say, though. What he wants to do is roll the two of them into a proper hug and hold Bruce until he squeezes all the sad out of him. But there are reasons, pressing reasons, why he can't do that, even if they don't seem so important right now, even if for the first time he thinks it might not hurt Bruce as much as he fears it would.
But he can't quite believe that. So instead he says, "Oh. I'm glad you went to India, then."
Bruce looks at him, and shakily, honestly, smiles, and that's it. Clint does it anyway.
* * *
Natasha wakes up early in the morning, light just beginning to filter through the bus curtains, sliding awake just as they roll to a stop. They're in Washington, D.C., she knows, here for a free day before their all-American July fourth concert tomorrow—it’s her first time, and Clint's promised to take her to the Smithsonian and skip the White House and the war monuments.
She looks over to see if he's awake; he's an early riser too, sometimes, and they could sneak off the bus, find a bite to eat. Instead, she sees him happily curled around a sprawled-out Bruce Banner, head nestled in his neck, legs tangled together.
Natasha studies them for a second, plans her extraction maneuver. If she makes any noise, the whole bus is up, and then their cover's blown. If she doesn't do something, though, she's gambling on Clint or Bruce waking up before anybody else, and she'd guess both Pepper and Steve have military habits regarding mornings. She climbs down from her own bed, thinking silent as a spider, then surveys Clint and Bruce's. She's not sure she can go up the ladder silently, and anyway their heads are on the opposite side; she'd have to crawl over them and they'd probably make a noise when they woke up. She frowns at the bed, judging its size, then climbs up on the bottom bunk and from there boosts herself up to the top, crouched as tiny as she can make herself right next to Bruce's ear.
She leans forward and kisses Clint lightly on the cheek.
He blinks frantically, sitting straight up; she catches him before he can bang his head on the ceiling and give the game away.
"Clint," she hisses in his ear, "What were you thinking?"
Clint stares at her. "It's not—it’s actually not what it looks like."
Natasha rolls her eyes. "Would you like to kiss this one awake?"
Clint looks horrified. Apparently it actually isn't what it looks like. Nevertheless, they've got to get Bruce out of Clint's bed, so Natasha reaches over and pokes him on the cheek.
He doesn't wake up.
She pulls his hair a little.
He groans a bit, and Clint and Natasha freeze, terrified, but no one wakes up. Unfortunately, that includes Bruce.
Natasha gives Clint a pointed look. "If you don't do it, I'm going to."
Clint tries to look like he doesn't care. Natasha leans in, gets closer—
Clint dives in and pecks Bruce on the forehead.
His eyes open instantly, and kind of adorably even from Natasha's point of view.
"C'mon, Sleeping Beauty," she whispers, "let's get you downstairs," and they manage to trundle him down the ladder and into his own bunk before those eyes slide sleepily closed again.
* * *
Tony is grouchy.
They've got one day to do the tourist thing in DC. Natasha insisted on the Smithsonian, then disappeared with Bruce (and Clint), Thor begged off to Skype with his brother, and Pepper is Working, which has all lead to him sitting across from Steve in the cafe of the American History Museum, after watching him get hit on by some blonde at the cash register.
"I don't get it. That chick—"
"Her name was Alice, Tony."
"How do you know that, 'cause last I checked you are not a telepath," Tony says, thinking about Steve in a dominatrix outfit just to make sure.
Steve doesn't react, so he's pretty sure either he's safe or Steve has a much better poker face than he thought.
"She was wearing a nametag."
"Ah. Right. Well, nametag girl was into you in a very my-body-is-ready kind of way, and not unattractive, and here you are without even her number. What is this?"
Steve stares at him for a second.
"I'm gay, Tony."
Tony blinks at him, because that actually shut him up, that is actual important news, where is Pepper he has to tell Pepper, oh my God, oh my God, "Oh my God."
"Got a problem with it, Stark?" Steve asks, and Tony's back to blinking, because apparently Steve thinks it is possible that Tony has a problem with gay people, as if he doesn't screw them on a regular basis.
He considers saying this, but for some reason doesn't quite want to. Instead he goes for stating the obvious.
"No, I, I don't have a problem, I just—you’re gay."
"I'm gay," Steve says, smiling in a way that Tony thinks means Steve's laughing at him a little bit.
"Stop it," Tony says, because that's not fair.
Steve's brow actually furrows, Tony did not think he would ever have cause to think the word "furrows", and he says, "Stop being gay?", voice going cold.
"NO no no no no no no," Tony says, more hurriedly than he really wants to think about, "stop it with your face."
"Uh," Steve says.
"With the I'm-Steve-Rogers-and-I-know-better-than-Tony-Stark face."
Now Steve is definitely laughing at him, but he also looks confused, although confused is better than angry (why is confused better than angry? Tony loves to make Steve angry) and he doesn't seem mad at all.
"Seriously, though, man, I have no problem with gay, Pepper's gay, we're all gay," Tony says, fiddling with his plastic utensils.
"Wait," Steve says, "Pepper's gay?"
"Uh, bisexual," Tony says, "Sorry, I'm not so good with the political correctness."
"It changes so fast," Steve mutters, and then they both jump a little, realizing at the same moment that they've just agreed on something.
"Well," Tony says, attempting to unfold their hopelessly tangled floor plan, "We are right next to Science and Innovation, so I'm just gonna go look at robots or something, and you can, uh, go check out the first lady dresses."
"Right," says Steve, "I come out to you and you send me to look at fashion," but he does head in that direction, so Tony's not wrong.
* * *
Steve hates to admit it, but the first ladies exhibit is tempting. Right now, however, trailing Tony Stark seems more important. Crucially important, in fact. Steve goes with it.
It reminds him a little bit of the early days of his crush on Bucky, obsessing over his every move, trying desperately not to let on. Except Steve doesn't quite have a crush on Tony, certainly doesn’t feel the same floaty way about him that he did about his best friend turned boyfriend. He hates Tony. So this is kind of like a . . . hate-crush. Yeah, a hate-crush, he likes that. Also, with Bucky, it was more likely to be some hole-in-the-wall concert or oughta-be-condemned amusement park than this neat glories-of-American-science exhibit.
Tony's enjoying it, though, flitting from display to display, fingering his cell phone in his pocket. Finally, he pulls it out.
"Pepper! I thought you'd never pick up, where are you when I need you?"
Steve feels nervous all of a sudden—he hadn't realized he was close enough to hear Tony, feels bad eavesdropping on his conversation. Then he hears his own name and it's too late—he’s in this to the end.
"—Steve. Yeah. Yeah. Okay, yeah, Pepper—Steve’s gay."
Steve chuckles to himself, because he knows Pepper when she's working, expects Tony to soon be holding a dead phone as she hangs up on him and leaves him perplexed, but that's not what happens. Instead, there's a pause, and then Tony says, "Yeah, okay, Pepper, I just think it's interesting, I don't want to 'totally bang him', who even says that, why did I ever have sex with you—"
Pepper's apparently cut him off again.
"No, Pepper! No. I am not—"
"Whatever you may think, Pepper Potts, I am not in love with Steve Rogers, and I wouldn't need your help with it if I was."
Steve replays the earlier conversation in his mind: I have no problem with gay, Pepper's gay, we're all gay. Uh, bisexual, sorry.
Suddenly there are too many things going through Steve's head; he needs a moment, needs to sit and think. There's a bench near the elevators and it's thankfully empty. He sits down and runs over the known facts.
First. Tony Stark knows he's gay. (A little one to start out with.)
Second, Tony Stark said some things that sort of implied he's bisexual himself.
Okay, Steve can deal with that so far.
Third, Pepper Potts usually knows what she's talking about.
Not new knowledge, but relevant to the situation, because given all that—
Fourth, there's a high chance that Tony Stark is in love with him.
But Tony hates me, Steve wants to whine, except he hates Tony himself and it hasn't exactly put "in love with him" out of the picture. No, he's going to have to assume it's true.
Now he just has to decide whether to be violently upset or wildly happy about it.
* * *
Bruce has spent the day with Clint after spending the night dreaming about him. More than dreaming, he thinks, but he woke up in his own bed, too embarrassed to ask Clint how much of what he remembered from the night before really happened. There are parts of it (if he were a blushing man, he'd blush now) that he's pretty sure he can count out, but other parts are muddled, fuzzy, and he's not sure if that's because they were dreams or because he was half-asleep. He's a light sleeper at the best of times; on the bus, after the concert, it's entirely likely he could've hallucinated the whole thing—climbing up to Clint's bed, talking to him under the stars, being held close, a kiss—and it's entirely likely he could've actually done all that and only half-remembered it today.
Well, even if he did have the nerve to ask Clint, Natasha hasn't left the two of them alone for a second. Not that he begrudges her the chance to spend her day off with her best friend—he likes her company well enough too, if it comes to that. But if any of last night was real, he's sort of hoping for some kind of continuation, and that's not going to happen with her around.
Right now, in point of fact, it's Clint and Natasha who're alone, wandering through Modern and Contemporary Art; Bruce left them to go find a bathroom, wash his tired face in the sink. He splashes the not-quite-cold-enough water onto his face, smears it around a little, then looks at himself in the mirror, a little fuzzier even than normally, dripping a bit, bleak confused look, tries to decide if this is a face that Clint Barton would kiss.
Then he shakes the water out of his hair—he looks like an animal in a Disney movie—and swipes his shoulder across his face to dry off the rest of it. That's a futile line of inquiry.
He makes his way back to where he left Clint and Natasha, but it's a museum, he keeps getting distracted, or doesn't recognize something he should, and when he gets there of course they've moved on anyway. He keeps going in the direction he thinks they were headed, figures he'll find them eventually and until he does he might as well look at the art. (Bruce is more into Van Gogh, but this'll do.)
But finally, he turns a corner and there they are, with their backs to him, looking in silence at a sculpture.
He's mostly past the panicked wondering if their relationship is actually the one that's deeper than it looks, he's not sure how anyone can spend time with Natasha and not get past that, but because This Is Your Brain On Clint Barton he still has a scary moment where he has to check and make sure they're not holding hands. And they're not, but they still look really comfortable together, and all of a sudden he's afraid to disturb them, afraid his being invited along was mere courtesy, that they were having a much better time when he was gone. He knows it's not true, but he decides to hang back a little anyway, give them a little more time to themselves.
He's on the other side of the gallery, really leaving them alone, when he can't help hearing his name.
"Just talk to Bruce," Natasha is saying. "You have to."
"I can't," Clint says. "He hates me now, that's all there is."
Natasha shakes her head. "Trust me, he doesn't hate you."
"But he doesn't love me," Clint says, bitterly. That can't mean what I think it means, Bruce thinks, because he can't get his hopes up even further just to have them dashed.
"You don't know that unless you talk to him," Natasha says. It sounds, Bruce realizes, like they've been having this conversation since he left them; it has the feel of a worn-out path.
"We're friends now, Nat," Clint says, in a stopping-the-argument voice. "If I try to be something more, we'll just end up something less."
Natasha shakes her head. "You're not friends, Clint. You're in love with him, and he has a right to know."
And Bruce can't rationalize that one away, and his body is singing, he checks because he thinks he's getting goosebumps, he squeezes his hands into fists to keep himself from running a lap around the gallery, because Clint Barton's in love with him.
The only thing I have to say is that I am getting this chapter out while it's still barely July 3, 2012, which happens to be the day on which it takes place.
Total coincidence that this was posting day.
Text message from Pepper Potts to Tony Stark
Found a place for dinner! Why don't you bring Steve along? ;-)
Tony to Pepper
I'm not exactly sure where he is...
Pepper to Tony
YOU LOST ONE OF MY BAND MEMBERS?
Tony to Pepper
how can you LOSE an adult? he just... isn't here. and didn't tell me where he was going.
Thor to Natasha
JOIN ME FOR DINNER! BRING THE SNARKY ONE AND THE FLUFFY ONE! (do u like the new words i learned)
Natasha to Thor
Turn off capslock or so help me god this band will have five members.
Thor to Natasha
Sorry! But! Dinner! Clint and Bruce!
Natasha to Thor
Exclamation points are a form of capslock.
Pepper to Tony
any reason why he would do that, Tony?
Tony to Pepper
Pepper to Tony
Tony to Pepper
For real this time!
Thor to Natasha
Natasha to Thor
Clint and I will come. We're not sure where Bruce ran off to.
Thor to Natasha; Clint
The fluffy one has disappeared?
Clint to Thor
Not disappeared! Just left! For a very good reason. I'm sure.
Natasha to Thor
Pepper to Tony
* * *
Pepper expertly twirls noodles onto her chopsticks. "So you say he just never came back?"
"Yeah. I sent him off to First Ladies, called you, went to look for him, he wasn't there, I searched the whole museum, almost had them call for him, he just . . . left."
Pepper daintily slurps the noodles into her mouth. Tony stares; his own noodles are slipping off his chopsticks, the sauce splattered on his T-shirt.
"So, he comes out to you, seems totally okay, you actually manage not to say anything ridiculously offensive, and then he disappears."
Tony nods. "That's about the shape of it."
Pepper sips her water. It is a sip that smacks suspiciously of stalling.
"Tony, I'm going to give you advice," she says.
"Yes," Tony says, "that's what I wanted you to do."
"Okay," says Pepper, "But you might not like this advice."
"I think you should give up on Steve," Pepper says.
Tony reaches over and steals a mushroom from her. She rolls her eyes.
"Okay," Tony says, "I don't like it." He steals another mushroom. "But I think you're right."
"I'm always right," Pepper says. "But the fact that you've realized that so quickly makes me think you don't actually agree."
"No," Tony says, "I do think you're right. I just don't know if I can do it."
And he does try. He doesn't tease Steve, the next day, about sharing a birthday with America (or he does, a little, but as non-flirtatiously as possible). He doesn't steal glances at Steve as they get ready for bed on the bus every night (or he does, yeah, but only after he's put on his pajamas). He doesn't give in to the urge to lean in a little closer over their shared mike, put their lips together (or he does, of course he does, but only when the fans shout for it, and he can pretend it wasn't his idea).
He tries, and he basically succeeds in giving up. Getting over is a whole different story.
* * *
It's been two and a half weeks.
Not that much, really, except that two and a half weeks is an eternity in tour time, is DC and Richmond and Atlanta and Austin and everywhere in between.
Not that much, really, except that it's been two and a half weeks since Bruce figured out Clint was in love with him, and Clint still hasn't bothered to find out if Bruce loves him back.
It's not like they haven't spoken; quite apart from singing onstage every night, from interview banter and "pass those chips", they've been friends. Best friends even, excepting Natasha. But there's been no "excepting Natasha"; she's been with them almost always, and even when she hasn't Clint has talked about music, the weather, goddamn baseball. Never a word about their feelings. If he hadn't happened to overhear that conversation, he'd still be tiptoeing, afraid Clint was going to scream and run any second now.
They're in El Paso, Texas, tonight, enjoying the treat of a hotel stay for once instead of sleeping on the bus. Bruce leaves his room to see Tony and Thor splashing in the pool, Steve grabbing a burger at the snack bar, Pepper with her computer on her lap a safe distance from the water. Natasha's lying on a towel, clad in sunglasses, a very small black swimsuit, and an impeccable sense of dignity.
"Nat!" Bruce greets her.
"Mmm," she grunts, not moving.
He plops down next to her. "Mind if I keep you company?"
Natasha raises her head and lowers her glasses. "Tell you what. Clint'll be on the roof."
Bruce blinks. "On the roof?"
"Just trust me."
"And, uh, how do I get up there?"
Natasha laughs. "You're on your own, big guy."
All right, the roof. It takes him a while to find, climbing up more wrong stairways than he'd like for either his legs or his pride, but eventually he's walking out into a flat space that's much too open for how high up it is, and they don't even have tall buildings in El Paso, really.
"Hi," he says, walking up to Clint, who is inexplicably swinging his feet off the edge of the building.
Clint doesn't say anything, but Bruce is tired of letting that be okay. He sits down next to Clint, if at a more sensible distance from going splat.
"You wanted to kill yourself," Clint says.
Oh. Apparently Natasha knew what she was talking about with this roof thing.
"I don't know if I wanted to," Bruce says, carefully. "I just didn't really see another option."
Clint nods. "I'm sorry," he says. "I don't think I knew how to deal with that."
"I don't understand," Bruce says, but he thinks he does now, a little. He's used to people walking on eggshells around him, trying not to trigger his temper. Clint wouldn't do it for that (and oh, Bruce loves him for it), but he thinks this might be sort of the same thing.
"I care about you," Clint says, simply. "Maybe I shouldn't, but I care what happens to you and I care how you feel. And I just . . . you'd been so hurt, and I couldn't be the one to hurt you even more, except I think I was."
Bruce nods, because lying to Clint just got added to his list of things to never, ever do again.
"You were," he says. "But it's over now. You aren't hurting me anymore. I don't think you will again."
"Oh," Clint says, "I will. I'll do something stupid, or something careless, or I won't do something I should—”
Bruce cuts him off. "Yeah, you probably will," he says. "You'll do all those things. You won't hurt me."
Clint looks at him for a second, and then he nods, goes back to staring off in the distance. "Okay," he says, "tell me about that song you're writing?"
And Bruce does for a while, until the sun is slipping down and their stomachs are growling and Bruce, at least, is getting really uncomfortable.
Just before they stand up, Clint speaks again. "You . . . you do see another option now, don't you?"
Bruce looks at him, heart in his throat. "Of course I do," he says. "You're my other option."
* * *
By the time they roll up into Tucson, Steve is confused.
Well, he's often confused, but this is the good stuff, the grade-A, fair-trade, Costa Rican imported confusion. He actually considers googling "how to understand Tony Stark" except that he's afraid there'd be results.
There ought to be a book, he thinks sourly. What The Hell Is Going On In Tony Stark's Brain. He pictures the cover. By Pepper Potts, he adds, then realizes that's not actually a half bad idea. Certainly if anyone can decipher the insane snarl that is Tony's brain, it's the woman who is not only his best friend, but one of the most cool and determined people Steve knows. So, when they stop for lunch, Steve corners Pepper outside the restaurant, asks her for a minute to talk.
"Sure," Pepper says, "but we are on a schedule here."
"Right," says Steve, "I need to understand Tony."
Pepper laughs. "There's no schedule in the world forgiving enough for that."
"Well, specifically, I need to understand how, exactly, his behavior in the past weeks has been 'not needing your help.'"
Pepper looks confused.
"Because if he's in love with me, he's certainly not doing a good job of getting me to love him back."
"Oh, god," Pepper says. "You heard the conversation."
"I heard the conversation."
"He's . . . he's been trying to back off," Pepper says, then trails off. "Oh. That's not what you meant, is it?"
Steve shakes his head. "Backing off is the last thing I wanted him to do." It's true, because even back when he hadn't been sure he wanted to say yes, at least the chance to say no would've been better than this.
"I guess he'll need to stop trying, then," she says.
Steve tries to be cool, but he just can't help it, a grin breaking out on his face. Pepper smiles just as widely. "Oh, this is nice," she says, and turns to head in to the restaurant.
"Wait," Steve says, and she stops, turns around. "There's one thing I don't get here. Since when does Tony Stark know how to back off?"
She blushes, actually turns a ladylike shade of pink. "There may have been . . . influence," she says, and then pivots and walks in so professionally that it doesn't even look like she's running away.
"You owe me one big time, Potts!" Steve calls after her, and then follows.
* * *
Natasha hates Arizona.
Natasha hates Arizona with a passion she usually only reserves for interviewers, country music, and the pink dress they made her wear on her first album cover.
Today, in Arizona, it is one hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit, and Natasha, signing autographs in a public park, is discovering that in fact that passion could hardly be called hatred. This is hatred.
Clint, stupidly, tells her she’s acting "jumpy", then actually runs away after she glares at him. Bruce tries commiseration, but in the end isn't prepared to stay away from Clint for as long as that would take. The two idiots still aren't a couple (and a good thing too, Natasha reflects, considering they don't have the first idea how to go about hiding it), but they’ve inseparable anyway since El Paso.
Tony and Steve, wisely, just stay away. Unfortunately, the word "wise" doesn't really apply to Thor. Which is how Natasha finds herself suddenly soaking wet, Thor standing next to her with a near-empty bucket of water in his hands.
"Tell me," Natasha says, "that was an accident."
Thor shrugs. "You looked hot! Did that not cool you down?"
Natasha resists the urge to say "I'll cool you down," and instead just starts toward him. He's smart enough to back up, but not smart enough to back up fast, and she's a couple inches away from hitting distance when she's intercepted by Pepper.
"Let's . . . ah, let's go sit down," Pepper says, and Natasha has no goddamn idea why, but she does it.
Pepper leads her to a park bench, away from the crowd of fans, sits down with her, and then just stares at her. Natasha tries to stare back, remembering that she's angry at Thor, and Arizona, and everything. It lasts about two seconds before they both burst out laughing.
"Your hair," says Pepper, and Natasha grabs a lock of it; it's lost its curl, falling down flat and straight around her face.
"I do," Natasha gasps, "I do feel cooler now," and why is she laughing, she hasn't laughed out loud like this since she was eight. Natasha's always been a dry chuckle and raised eyebrow kind of girl, but here she is with Pepper having a genuine gigglefit.
"He had no idea," Pepper says, and Natasha finishes her sentence, "what in hell he was getting into!"
Natasha's got giant gasps of laughter coming out of her stomach. She ends up leaning on Pepper's shoulder for support, letting the last few spurts of giggling die down by themselves. Pepper isn't much better; she keeps stopping altogether and then suddenly snorting a bit and starting all over again.
"Okay," Natasha says, when it's finally over, "we never speak of this moment."
Pepper nods. "Agreed," she says, and shakes hands. (This starts another, less dramatic, run of giggles, and by the time they go back to the group Natasha doesn't hate Arizona quite so much anymore. Certainly it doesn't compare to that pink dress.)
* * *
They're on the bus, speeding toward California. Clint's sitting next to Bruce, who's playing some kind of video game with Tony, and reminding himself they haven't quite reached the stage where he can just start playing with his hair. Natasha's relaxing on the bed opposite, feet on Pepper's lap next to her computer. Steve and Thor are half-heartedly arm-wrestling; they're on best one hundred of one ninety-nine now or something.
Pepper looks up. "So," she says brightly, "you know how Los Angeles is the halfway point of our tour?"
There's a chorus of unenthusiastic grunts.
"Tony happens to have a mansion in Los Angeles," Pepper says.
Clint beats her to it. "Party."
Thor slams Steve's hand to the floor with a grin. Bruce looks excited, and even Natasha looks mildly interested. Tony rolls his eyes.
"Was anyone planning on consulting me, here?"
"I was thinking," Pepper says, "it might be an excellent time to do that thing we were talking about?"
Clint has no idea what she means, but Tony obviously does, because his eyes light up and he says, "Right! Party. Getting on that. Pepper, where is my phone, I need to make calls. Can you make the calls for me, actually? No, you can't, you're tour manager, you're tour managing, I don't like calling people, fine, party at the end, Pepper, you haven't told me where my phone is yet."
Clint stares at him. "In through the nose, out through the mouth, superstar."
"Oh, shut up, Boy Wonder," Tony says, and Clint does, because he's getting his party.
The more he thinks about it, actually, the better this idea seems. Him and Bruce, slightly drunk, in a great big mansion . . . yes, he likes this idea quite a bit indeed.
Post from the tumblr page of user steverogerssexual
So, here's what we learned from that latest interview.
- Pepper Potts is allergic to strawberries.
- Tony's dad almost joined the Army instead of becoming a rock star.
- Tony almost went to MIT instead of becoming a rock star.
- Tony is really glad these things didn't happen. (So are we.)
- Steve has the cutest embarrassed face ever.
- And the cutest happy face ever.
- And the cutest I'm-pretending-I-don't-find-Tony-Stark-attractive-right-now face ever.
- Speaking of which Hulkeye is SO REAL actually DYING
- seriously EYEFUCKING
- Bruce can play eight different instruments.
- Natasha can't play ANY
- Natasha was trained for the ballet in case being a popstar didn't work out
- Thor can ballroom dance
- Thor CANNOT do ballet
- Thor is not allowed to do ballet or Natasha will kill him
- One time when Thor was little Loki locked him in a shed and didn't let him out for six hours
- Thor does not appear to be at all bitter about this
- The Avengers are having a party TONIGHT at Tony Stark's mansion in Los Angeles. Who wants to crash with me?
* * *
Bruce is nervous. He doesn't really know anyone here except the other Avengers, who are scattered throughout the house somewhere. He's clutching a glass of something that Tony handed him too quickly for Bruce to get out an "I don't really drink" and trying to look the right sort of approachable.
Where the fuck is Clint? he thinks, because he'd figured they would spend the party together. But no, Clint is gone with the rest of them, and Bruce is left like a big rock in the middle of the room.
"Pull yourself together, Banner," he mutters, "keep moving," and starts walking aimlessly, not really sure where he's headed. He figures Tony's mansion must have a kitchen somewhere, and the kitchen never failed him at the few high school parties his nerdy self got to.
And in fact, the kitchen does not fail him at all, is in fact the best kitchen Bruce has been in since he learned to make chocolate chip cookies at the age of four, because Clint is in the kitchen, drinking what inexplicably appears to be orange juice and squinting at Tony's space-age microwave.
"Clint!" Bruce says, then feels sheepish—what if Clint came here to get away from him?
But no, Clint looks as relieved as Bruce feels to see him, turning around with a genuine, if tired, smile.
"Bruce," he says. "It's good to see you, man."
Bruce laughs. "I was just in the other room.”
Clint shrugs. "I don't really do crowds. Came in here to get away, but then I realized I'd gotten away from you, too."
"Good thing I'm not a crowd person, either," Bruce says.
There's an awkward pause. Bruce is uncomfortably aware of this kitchen's largeness, and emptiness, and at the same time uncomfortably aware of how small and crowded it feels with just him and Clint in it.
"So, is that, uh, orange juice and . . ." he says, for something to say.
Clint laughs. "Just orange juice, actually. I'm not really clear on what most of Tony's fancy shit even is, forget whether I like it. Plus, you know, I'm only nineteen."
Right. Clint's a year and a half younger than Bruce. He had forgotten.
"Well," Bruce says, stepping a little closer just so the kitchen won't feel quite so huge, "that's probably a good idea, then. I don't drink, either." He feels a little silly saying it with the glass still clutched in his hand like a security blanket, but then again he already felt silly, so it can't hurt.
"Oh, I drink," says Clint. "Just, it's either, like, shitty beer, or Natasha won't tell me what it is."
Bruce laughs. "We're all poorly socialized, aren't we?" He's wearing that purple button-down shirt, the one that's a little too tight because he's not good at sizing, and it's got long sleeves that he's suddenly hot in. He sets the drink down for just a moment, pushes up the cuffs. As he grabs the glass again (he's gotten used to having something to hold on to) he realizes Clint is staring.
"Like what you see?" he jokes, because sometimes life's too short.
"Yeah," Clint says, "Yeah, I like—”
And then oh shit because Clint's mouth, Clint's mouth is on his, oh shit, he's kissing Clint, mouths open, okay, okay—
"You taste terrible," Bruce says, because orange juice, really?
"Can fix that," Clint mutters, looks around, and snatches the drink out of Bruce's hand, downs it. Bruce watches his throat and doesn't even bother to point out that's not going to taste any better, really, because it is far more important to be kissing Clint, nasty taste and all.
Yeah, okay, Bruce thinks, this is really nice, this was actually worth waiting for, and then he stops thinking for a bit.
* * *
Tony has been playing host all evening, and what he really wants is just five minutes to get away. That's what he said to Pepper before the party: "Just five minutes, that's all I'll take, just to know one way or the other, because Steve won't want to do the party thing and I will." Pepper'd nodded, laughed at him, said, "You won't be able to do just five minutes."
Tony's pretty sure she was right, actually, five minutes with Steve will not be enough, but right now, between the C-list actress trying to get him upstairs and the niece of some director who's trying very hard to pretend she isn't seventeen, he doesn't even have that. He hasn't actually seen Steve since the show ended and they arrived at the mansion, where he got all the Avengers as settled as he could before there were too many guests there that needed his attention. He could blow them off, he supposes, it's nothing he hasn't done before, but at first he wanted the attention, wanted to feed off the crowd, get a little confidence before he went after Steve, and now he just can't get away.
He doesn't even know where Steve is, anyway; probably kissing some guy right now and not even caring it isn't Tony, because Tony couldn't figure out a way to make "as long as no one else gay is there" an acceptable guest list. (And anyway, he's pretty sure that would exclude at least two of his bandmates, even if they won't open up about it.) Not fair, Steve kissing some other guy. Tony ought to give this stupid actress what she wants, in revenge, it is not okay for Steve to do that, actually, "Oh, look, there's Steve," pops out of his mouth, because there he is.
There's his stupid Steve face being stupidly attractive over in the corner of the room, not kissing anyone at all, actually, looking sort of like he'd like to be kissing Tony, maybe. Tony absentmindedly pushes the girls away, walks over to Steve with a purpose and dedication he rarely shows for anything except the possibility of jetpacks, ice cream, and apparently this man, who really needs to stop it with his face right now because Tony is this close to just planting one on him in front of the entire room.
* * *
Tony's across the room and then he's not, and Steve isn't even surprised to suddenly find him two inches away because he's used to Tony moving a little too fast for him by now.
"Hey," he says, sheepishly. He doesn't know what Pepper told Tony, but he can tell there's an understanding between the three of them that he and Tony will work this out tonight—“this” being their sexual tension, or their awkward friendship, or their deep and abiding love for each other. He'd been hoping it was the last, of course, but right now, Tony right in front of him, goatee a little overgrown, dark green tie on, eyes very brown indeed, he wouldn't mind if it was the first, either.
"Hey," Tony says back, running a hand through his hair, and Steve has to respond "Let's go somewhere," because if this night goes well at all it is going to end up with Steve doing something he's contractually obliged not to do in public.
"Yeah," Tony agrees, in a tone of voice that makes Steve wonder if his own fresh face and t-shirt do to Tony what ties and thick brown hair do to him.
It's Tony's house, even if he doesn't live here, so of course he finds the best place to go: a little nook that's emphatically not a bedroom, but still seems private enough that people are leaving it alone. There's one of those weird L-shaped couches in it (white leather—the part of Steve that still lives with his grandmother dies inside), and they sit down, not too close but not too far apart.
"So," Tony says, "I think I go first?"
Steve nods. He's not sure what the protocol is here, but he's thankful to have a little longer before he tries to put his feelings into words.
"You made me really angry," Tony says, and Steve tries not to look shocked and offended, but he can tell he fails, because Tony says, "No, no, no, that's a good thing, I mean, you really pissed me off, that's . . . I mean, Pepper does that, no, you're making the laughing-at-me face again, what I mean is, I don't care about shit a lot. But I cared about your shit."
Steve frowns. "Tony. We're talking about our feelings here. This isn't a joke."
Tony shakes his head, so strongly that if there were any dust in the room Steve's pretty sure it would've blown around. "God, I hate you."
Steve laughs. "I hate you, too."
Tony grins. "See! See! It is a joke! It's a joke! It's just, I'm joking here because if I wasn't joking I would probably be embarrassingly emotional, there would be tears, it would be gross..."
Steve cuts him off with a hand on his cheek. Tony's eyes move, sort of stare sideways at Steve's hand like he's got no idea what it's doing there.
"Okay," Steve says, "I'm glad you're joking. Because if your face were covered in tears, it wouldn't feel as nice—”
"Don't finish that line," Tony growls, and oh, God, that stubble feels even better on Steve's face than he thought it would. He wants to get lost in it a bit, but Tony's teeth are clutching at his lip, and apparently Tony kisses are going to be a lot less lazy than Bucky kisses, as if he couldn't have guessed that already. He's got a mouth full of Tony and suddenly a lap full of Tony, too, and a heart full of Tony, actually, and while he's still Steve, and he still thinks shouldn't we still have that talk, he's perfectly content to tell himself not now.
* * *
Kissing isn't something Clint's done a lot of. A couple clumsy makeouts in high school, that's all, done in secret and nothing to write home about.
This would be something to write home about, if Clint ever wrote home.
For once he's not too aware of his surroundings, absorbed in feeling whatever Bruce's tongue is doing and running a hand through Bruce's curls and trying to be the one holding him even though he's smaller. So he doesn't know how long Natasha's been standing there before he hears her dry chuckle.
"Shit," Clint says.
Natasha half-smiles. "Don't mind me."
But the moment's ruined. Bruce, flustered, pulls his glasses from his pocket and jams them on his face; Clint turns to give Natasha the best get-out-of-here look he can handle without actually sticking out his tongue at her.
"Pepper won't let me drink," Natasha says, rummaging through the fridge. "She said there was soda in here. She did not mention the two morons making out where anyone could see them."
Clint actually doesn't remember why that's a big deal for a moment, but Bruce obviously does, if his panicked look is any indication. "Damn," he mutters, "damn."
"Yeah," Natasha says, sniffing at them, "You're really, really lucky it was me who walked in."
"Right," says Bruce, "let's, uh, let's find somewhere else then," pulling at his hair, and Clint gets lost in watching this and forgets how to respond.
"Good luck with that," Natasha says, finding her soda and walking back the way she came. She stops one more time before she goes, turns back in the doorway to say, "By the way, boys, I'm happy for you."
"Finding somewhere else," Clint says. "We can handle that."
Bruce nods. Slowly.
* * *
Natasha weaves her way through the party, soda bottle in hand, trying to get back to Pepper. She's not where she used to be, but eventually Natasha finds her in a neat little TV room, flipping through an old magazine. It takes Natasha a moment to realize they're not alone—only the clunk of a bottle dropping to the floor makes her realize that Thor is lying sprawled under the coffee table, drinking something gold and thick. She steps over his legs to perch on the arm of Pepper's chair.
"The idiots are making out in public. They're going to get caught."
Pepper rolls her eyes. "I know."
Natasha frowns. "You know? I didn't see you in the kitchen."
"The kitchen? Tony and Steve—”
"Oh, really?" Natasha says. "Is there anyone in this band who isn't secretly gay? Thank God for you, Thor—”
"Loki's not really my brother."
There's a brief silence. Natasha rallies first. "Thank God for me, then."
"Yeah. Yeah, that's . . . good," Pepper says, giving her a look Natasha's not quite sure how to interpret. Confused, she thinks, or maybe frustrated, but neither of those really make sense. In any case, it's gone in an instant, replaced with Pepper's usual businesslike expression. "So, what are we going to do about these idiot men?"
"Help them cover it up, I suppose," Natasha says, sliding off the arm onto the floor in front of Pepper and going into a stretch.
"Right," says Pepper. "So you're going to be dating Clint and I'll be dating Tony."
She's produced a pad of paper and pen from somewhere and is jotting things down. "Wait," Natasha says, "that's your move? You want me to pretend to date Clint?"
"Yeah," Pepper says, "I'm just thinking of things we can do to make it look real . . ."
"Only for you, Pepper," Natasha says, "only for you."
"Thanks," Pepper says, with that odd look again, and keeps scribbling.
So Tell Us Again You're Not Dating
Avengers star Natasha Romanoff has been claiming "He's not my boyfriend" for months every time bandmate Clint Barton comes up. Seems like every time she says it she insists a little more—a little too much, in our opinions.
We've been saying for months that Natasha and Clint can't really be just friends, and turns out we are so, so right. An inside source tells us that at the Avengers' house party last night the two were "canoodling, definitely. Those were not friendly cuddles. She was even calling him some kind of Russian pet name!"
Oh-kay, Tasha. Want to tell us how you don't need romance again?
Our source adds that model Veronica Muntjac was seen entering on the arm of Lakers player Jackson Karr—and leaving with Dodgers star Jeremy Gordon!
And this: "Tony Stark and ex Pepper Potts also looked pretty close—maybe rekindling an old relationship?"
* * *
This is hell.
Natasha hadn't realized this would happen so quickly, but now she's reading this and why, why did she agree to it?
For Clint, says an honest part of her brain, and because Pepper wanted you to, says an even more honest part.
Pepper'd sat them all down last night, right after their conversation, said, "This is how it's going to be." Natasha'd managed to gather a dazed Bruce and Clint; Pepper had less luck moving Tony and Steve when they didn't want to be moved, so they were all sprawled out on the couch on which they'd recently been making out, Pepper and Natasha strategically positioned to prevent that from continuing.
"Clint, you and Natasha have been secretly a couple since before the Avengers. You got a little drunk tonight and forgot the 'secretly' part. Sell it, though. Cuddling, nicknames . . ."
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Nicknames, right. I'll swear at him in Russian, no one'll know the difference."
"As long as you do it with loooooooooove," Clint said, waggling his tongue at her.
"I'll remind you this is your fault," Natasha snapped, and left it at that.
"Right. Tony, you and I also got a little drunk tonight—not a stretch in your case—and we, uh, rediscovered the magic." They made faces at each other for a second, then Pepper continued. "Make sure you show off in front of Colbie Adams, she's definitely getting paid for gossip."
"Really?" Tony said, "That nice girl?" and then it devolved into an argument between Tony and Pepper before she came to her senses and shooed them all off to their assignments.
And now, the very next morning, Natasha sees this, and she knows it won't all be this bad, but damn, this is bad.
* * *
Bruce isn't sure how to describe what he's feeling right now.
"Happy", obviously, but he wouldn't be Bruce Banner if he could just be happy. He's got this ache like his heart isn't big enough to hold all he's feeling every time he looks at Clint, and he still can't tell if it feels good or not.
Clint, at least, doesn't seem to be having the same problem; he's not a big smiler, exactly, but he nevertheless seems completely joyful to be exploring Berkeley on rented bikes, veggie burritos falling apart in their hands. Bruce's choices, of course, and yet Clint hasn't complained once. Or he has, but only about the fact that he can't lean over and kiss the last bit of avocado off Bruce's face.
It's been hard, these last few days, trying to be together and yet not, especially when even the alone time they can have is cut into by Clint needing to work on his cover with Natasha. But this, this sunny California afternoon, is suspiciously like easy.
"Race you to that mailbox, freckles," Clint says, tossing the paper wrapping from his burrito on the grass and speeding off. Bruce stops, picks it up, then catches up with him and swats him with it.
"Cheating," he says. "You knew I would pick it up."
"I'm dating a bleeding-heart liberal," Clint says.
Oh, God. If Bruce ever needed proof that it's not just negative emotions he feels too strongly, the way the sun seems to be inside his chest right now would provide it. He's pretty sure he just grins like an idiot for a good thirty seconds before he realizes Clint looks worried.
"Well, I'm dating a no-good, dirty cheater," he says, and races forward. "Keep up if you can," he yells back at Clint, who in fact can, catching up with him quickly.
"Why?" Bruce asks the heavens, "why?"
"Because I'm the one who's good at biking," Clint says.
"What does that make me?" Bruce asks.
Clint considers for a moment. "You're the one who's good at emotions," he says, and Bruce stops in his tracks.
"No," Clint says, "you are. You actually have them, that's a good start."
"Well," Bruce says, "speaking of emotions, I'm glad you said we were dating."
"See," Clint says, "I never could've said that. True for me, too, but you're the one who said it."
Bruce looks at him, feeling amazed and so goddamn happy—Clint thinks it's a good thing!—that he has to kick off and pour all his energy against the pedals to keep from kissing his boyfriend, his boyfriend.
* * *
Today is a day for new experiences, Steve reflects. First time in Seattle, first daytime concert, and tonight, Tony is taking him out dancing.
Bucky loved dancing, but he didn't love dancing with Steve; Bucky didn't have a lot of patience for people who were bad at things, and Steve, for all he can work it onstage, is terrible at the kind of dancing you do when taken out. Tony doesn't have a lot of patience for that either, of course, but somehow his reaction to Steve's clumsiness was "I'll teach you" rather than "I'll do it with someone else".
So here Steve is, rummaging through his collection of solid-colored t-shirts and ratty jeans and wondering what he's supposed to wear to this place Tony's taking him to.
He ends up just sticking with the navy blue shirt he's already wearing; at least he knows Tony likes that one. It's been about a week of being . . . whatever they are, and he knows what shirts Tony likes but he's still not sure what it is they're being. It doesn't help that every time they get a moment to themselves one of them ends up kissing the other instead of talking it out.
Tony comes up behind him and does just that right now, or tries to before he's interrupted by a loud "Boys!" from Pepper. Pepper's going with them, to provide a cover story, and unlike Steve she looks stunning. "Ready to go?" she asks, and they set off into the Seattle night.
It's only a couple blocks to the place Tony found, and there's a sign outside announcing that the band is somebody called Winter Soldier. Steve's never heard of them, and Tony and Pepper confirm they haven't either, but they go ahead in, Steve hoping to be pleasantly surprised.
It's a duo, Steve sees, and they're loud, one of them sloppy and the other precise in way that balances out just right. He likes them.
And then the crowd shifts, and he gets a better view, and oh, he's surprised all right.
"We need to leave," he whispers to Tony, urgently.
"Why?" Tony says. "They're good!"
"We really need to leave," Steve says, because apparently the band has a break now, and Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter are climbing down from the stage and heading over to the bar. Which is, conveniently, right where Tony, Steve, and Pepper are standing.
The band has two members, a man with messy hair and an old military jacket and an absolutely gorgeous brunette. She's wearing lipstick; he's wearing eyeliner. They are, inexplicably, making their way toward them. (Well, there's one possible explanation. But they don't look or sound like big Avengers fans.)
"Hello," says the man, looking right at Steve and slouching in that I'm-trying-really-hard-to-be-casual way Tony knows all too well.
"Hi," Steve says, sounding as unhappy as the brunette looks, her red lips in a picturesque frown. Tony is really confused now.
"Bucky Barnes," Pepper whispers in his ear, leaning over discreetly, and it takes a moment, but then it all makes sense; this is Steve's former bandmate, and, Tony realizes, looking at them, his former boyfriend, too, if Tony's not wrong.
"Seattle?" Steve is asking, and Bucky's not answering, scrutinizing Tony instead (oh, this is bad). "Thought we'd get a new start," says the girl—that must be Peggy Carter, then.
"I was getting tired of Brooklyn," Bucky says, looking at the floor, and Steve grimaces. "I know the feeling."
There's a silence, and then Peggy says, "So! You must be Pepper Potts and Tony Stark!"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm Tony, that's me . . ." Tony starts, anything to get Steve out of this, but Bucky cuts in.
"Replaced me already, Rogers?"
Steve blinks at him. "No, uh, no, Tony's dating, uh, Pepper, we're just . . ."
"You always were a crap liar," Bucky says, and Tony can't help a little nod, because it's true, Steve is shit at lying.
"Oh, fuck off," Bucky says, and stalks away, leaving Steve looking like he's biting back tears and Peggy, Pepper, and Tony awkwardly looking at each other.
Tony, in this moment, makes a couple decisions. First, that it would be entirely natural for a guy to give his friend a little hug after an obviously upsetting encounter, and second, that he wants to be Steve's boyfriend.
"Maybe you should go after him," Peggy says, and Tony screams no! inside, but he also wants to be a good boyfriend, so he squeezes Steve's hand and lets go.
"No," Steve says, "I'm just gonna get . . . something to drink," and he heads off.
"They were best friends since they were toddlers," says Peggy to Tony and Pepper. "A couple as soon as they got old enough. I don't think they even talked about it, really."
"So what happened?" Pepper asks, and Peggy sighs. "Bucky felt like Steve betrayed him, saying yes to The Avengers. He doesn't want to hear that Captain America would've been dropped either way." She pauses, lowers her voice. "I'm glad you're with him, though—you are with him?"
Tony nods. "I think so. I want to be."
"Then you will be. I know him, Tony. He's moving on from Bucky, I could tell. And that's a good thing."
Steve comes back, to the group then, looking much better. He's happy to be with me, Tony thinks, and grins to himself.
* * *
Not a lot of people have Clint's phone number. So when it rings and just shows him numbers he picks up anyway, heading into the parked and empty bus to talk, figuring it's probably some SHIELD employee whose name he hasn't bothered to learn.
There's silence for a second after he says hello, then a crisply accented voice saying "Hello, Clint."
He freezes, because this guy may be miles away, but he creeps him out.
"What do you want, Loki?" he asks.
"Ah, it's not about what I want," says Clint's least favorite person. "It's about what you want, actually."
"So you're going to hang up?"
"It's about how you desperately want me to join your little band. Perhaps in a featured role, even."
Clint doesn't even know how to respond to that.
"Eat shit, Loki," is a pretty good try, though.
"So easy to work up," Loki says. "Will you call Nick Fury now?"
"Why would I do that, Loki?" Clint says. "You stole my voice. You lied to me. You cheated me. I have never acted like I didn't hate you, and the only reason I haven't thrown a punch at you is because your brother's my friend." He thinks for a moment. "Well, and you're on another continent."
"Oh," Loki says, "I'm not," and then the bus door opens and he's there. Loki.
He hangs up the phone. "You won't throw a punch at me, though," he says. "You're going to call Nick Fury and get me what I want."
Clint just shakes his head. But Loki's doing something with his phone again, and suddenly Pepper's voice comes out of the speakers. "So what are we going to do about these idiot men?"
Another voice. Natasha. "Help them cover it up, I suppose."
"Right. So you're going to be dating Clint—”
Loki turns it off.
"Call Nick Fury."
Er. Maybe it's just me, but I feel this has been long enough it warrants an apology. So, how about another chapter tomorrow or the day after, that good?
Also, ah, Sebastian Stan in eyeliner is incredibly hot and I will brook no arguments.
Trouble in Paradise?
A source close to the Avengers tells us that the love blossoming on their tour may not be all it appears to be.
"Tony and Pepper, Natasha and Clint?" he writes. "I don't want to say too much, but it'd be hard to say too little, if you catch my meaning."
Seems these stars are fully aware of the effect a little romance has had on their fans—and maybe sought it out? Our source wouldn’t be clear, but seems like these lovebirds may be completely faking it—or even covering up something else!
"I'm not trying to betray their trust," our source says. "But it'll be worse to lie to the press if they keep on like this."
The Avengers are continuing their Assemble! tour, tackling the West and Midwest before heading back to New York. Hopefully they can work out their issues along the way.
* * *
"Stracciatella gelato," Pepper tells the man behind the counter, and receives something that looks very, very good, chocolate threaded through vanilla. Natasha’s struck by the image—Pepper’s hair swishing across her face as she leans over to take it..
Pepper notices her staring. "I'd offer a lick, but that's strawberry, isn't it?"
Natasha nods. "Yes?"
Pepper smiles. "I'm really, really allergic. Strawberries could kill me—I don't want to risk any getting on my ice cream."
Natasha looks at pretty, businesslike Pepper with new eyes, suddenly taking stock of her in a different way. What must it be like, she wonders, to go through life knowing something as small as a strawberry can kill you?
Actually, she realizes, this is Pepper. She can just ask. "That sounds terrifying," she says. "Just one bite being able to take you down."
"Well, I'm careful," Pepper says, like it’s nothing, but careful, the way Pepper does it, is not nothing. Pepper’s careful means she’s always in control, and Natasha could just watch that all day, hope a little of Pepper’s control can be hers. Natasha’s careful, too, but not the way Pepper is.
"You're amazing, being able to trust yourself like that," she says. “Easier for me to fight back afterwards than just be careful.”
"Yeah, I am amazing," Pepper jokes, but then she gets serious, looks at Natasha over her ice cream. "Natasha,” she says, and then takes a breath.
“What?” Natasha asks.
“Nothing,” she says. “Just—you’re amazing, too.”
Natasha almost laughs, because she has nothing on Pepper Potts. "I'm amazing? Yes, bratty pop stars with control issues are the definition of amazing.”
"Natasha," Pepper says, "I'm careful instead of fighting back afterwards because if I ever need to, I might not be able. You . . . you don't need to be careful. You can just give 'em hell." She takes a lick of her ice cream, smiles at Natasha. "I've always wanted to be like that."
Natasha is suddenly aware of their age difference—Pepper’s three years older than her—and just as suddenly aware that it doesn't matter. They're both adults on this tour, whatever their ages, and that’s something Natasha’s been fighting towards for a long time. She's stunningly glad of it. Pepper’s still waiting, a little anxious, for a reply, and Natasha thinks over her words.
"I can't say, exactly, that I've always wanted to be more careful," she says, because for years be more careful meant follow directions, meant do what your handlers tell you, meant stick to what sells. "But I like the way you do it. Makes careful seem like what I’ve been looking for."
Pepper turns a little pink. "It’s nice to hear you say that," she says, and then busies herself with her ice cream. Hmm, Natasha thinks, was it? and follows her example.
* * *
Clint dials, hands shaking.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
"He's not picking up," Clint says.
Loki shakes his head, looking very disappointed. "A week," he says. "I'll be in the country, visiting my dear brother, for a week. I hope I can cancel my plane ticket. I shall assume you hope that, too." He turns—practically twirls—and shuts the bus door behind him.
So Clint has a week to figure something out. Which means, in practical terms, that he'll figure something out a week from now.
Right now, he’s going to put it off like it’s nothing. For one thing, he doesn’t want to wreck his reputation as the reason Natasha learned the word “nonchalant”. For another, he's got an early dinner date with Bruce, and he'll be damned if he's going to let Loki spoil it.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
"You're distracted," Bruce says, across the table.
"Hello, Clint Barton?" he teases, waving a fork in Clint's face, bits of eggplant Parmesan still on it.
Clint may be distracted, but he can still snatch the fork out of Bruce's hand.
"Sorry," he mumbles, using it on his own chicken.
Bruce touches his wrist—quickly, so no one notices. "Clint. Are you okay? Did something happen?"
"No," Clint says. Not yet. Not for a week.
"Okay," Bruce says, not sounding convinced. They go back to eating, the only sound forks clinking and water gulping. Bruce is still looking at him funny, though.
“So,” Clint says, “it’s been pretty hot lately.”
Bruce looks at him, smiling a bit, shaking his head. “You don’t have to try, Clint.”
Clint frowns. “No, really. There is nothing wrong. I’m cool.”
“If you say so,” Bruce says. There’s another silence. "You know I . . . care about you, right?"
"Yeah," Clint says. Oh, we are so fucked.
Bruce still looks worried, and that isn't fair—this is Clint's problem, he can deal with it on his own. He doesn't want Bruce to be dragged into this.
"I care about you, too," he says, even though it doesn’t need to be said, because it's the only thing he can think of to make Bruce feel better.
"I know you do, silly," Bruce says, and then it's okay, for now at least.
"Who are you calling silly, specs?" he teases, and kicks Bruce under the table, and slides him his own fork, keeping Bruce's. It's a stupid kind of kiss, but it makes him feel better.
* * *
"So," Tony says to Steve, "talk?"
It's been a busy three days, what with Thor's impressively creepy brother visiting and a killer double concert in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but finally, for the first time since meeting Bucky, Tony and Steve have a moment to themselves.
"Talk," Steve says.
And suddenly here it is, what they’ve been leading up to for so long, and Tony can’t do it. For once in his life, he can’t open his mouth. He doesn’t know what it is—that this is so important, that he’s not sure at all what’s about to happen, maybe just the sheer amount of setup for this one moment of payoff. And actually, that helps him, because isn’t that what his life is right now, all that setup for that one concert, that one recording session? For all this maybe isn’t the life Tony would’ve chosen, he’s walked into it, he loves it, and more importantly he knows how it works, and if you let yourself freak out about it all coming together in one moment, about the audience only getting one shot at what you’ve been working on, then there’s no point in doing it at all.
"I want . . ." Tony starts out, and then he stops, tries again, because that’s not quite where he’s going and Steve’s a more forgiving audience than most. "I was going to say I want to have what you and Bucky had,” he says, looking Steve right in the eyes for once, the way he knows Steve likes even though Tony’s eyes are usually all over the place,” but that's wrong, I don't want that, because I'm not going to be your, like, brother that you also date, I don’t want to be the person that your life revolves around, or maybe I do but I can’t be that for anyone, so, and also not like Bucky at all because can we not have the horrible breaking up with the crying and the never wanting to see each other again, because what I'm saying is, I never want to never see you again, I mean I always want to see you, I mean, not while you're going to the bathroom, unless you're into that maybe, but, like, see you as in 'seeing someone', as in when someone asks 'Are you seeing someone?' I would like the answer to be yes, and I would like the answer to be you."
Steve smiles, gently and a little tired. "I'd like that too, if I understood you at all."
Tony grins. "Maybe I shouldn't explain, then, if you're going to say yes."
Steve rolls his eyes.
"I want to be your boyfriend," Tony blurts out, and then wishes he hadn't, because it's such a stupid word, they're not twelve, and then oops, Steve is kissing him, so he guesses it was an okay thing to do after all.
"Mmm," he says, because he can't really talk right now but he has to say something, and relaxes into kissing Steve, already familiar and comfortable. Not that it's too comfortable, that's not what he means at all, damn, no, Steve is a really good kisser, and he wonders if he actually owes Bucky a word of thanks, but actually fuck no, Bucky made Steve cry, that makes Bucky officially Tony's Least Favorite Person, and that spot used to be held for people who kept him apart from Pepper, and but now, well, it's at least a tie, and that's how he knows he's doing the right thing. Well, that and the fact that his mind is buzzing with things he has to tell Steve, because now that he’s started doing that he’s not sure how he’s ever going to stop.
"Good talk," Steve says when they break apart.
"Um, yeah," Tony says, "let's not end it just yet," and goes back to making out.
* * *
Steve goes to sleep overjoyed, fuzzy-headed, and uncomplicated, because Tony is his boyfriend.
Steve wakes up at quarter to seven terrified, nauseous, and conflicted, because Tony is his boyfriend.
Heartfelt and unintelligible speeches aside, that's a word that's only meant one thing in Steve's life: Bucky Barnes. They first used the word at thirteen; they last used it at twenty-one. It's something that has always meant Bucky's place in his life, something he thought always would. And so more recently it's been a word that means betrayal, bitterness, misunderstanding.
Bucky and Steve were boys together, that's how Peggy always put it, and then they got a bit older and started kissing each other, and then they got a bit older than that and Bucky bought an old drum kit and Steve stopped shutting up when he felt like singing and they found Peggy somewhere and Bucky and Steve, boys and boyfriends, became Bucky, Steve, and Peggy, Captain America.
They were good, they knew that from day one, when Peggy had only ever played folk songs before and Bucky was thumbing through the falling-apart teach-yourself book he'd gotten with the drums. There was even a horrendous phase where they tried giving Steve an instrument, and even through that, Bucky kept saying they had something strongly enough for the other two to believe it.
Because for Bucky, Captain America really was the next stage of his and Steve's relationship—from friends to boyfriends to a band. Steve took a broader view, but Bucky had always acted like saying Captain America wasn't great was saying Bucky and Steve weren't great. And then suddenly, not too many people were saying anything of the kind. There were original songs and sold-out shows and, to Steve's eternal consternation, t-shirts with their names on the back. And then they got signed, and they were so in love and just on the brink of success and Steve didn't think he could ever be happier.
He feels that way now, too, but it's poisoned, because right after that last time, things went very wrong. Because Captain America went nowhere. SHIELD put them on ice for months and months, said they weren't worth developing but were worth too much to let go. They had the rights to the songs, the band name; Captain America couldn't play so much as a birthday party without SHIELD's permission, and they weren't about to give it. Steve was okay with it, started looking into art schools, figuring it wasn't too late to try college instead of wild pop star fame after all. Peggy walked around with an army recruitment brochure in her purse for a while. But Bucky couldn't take it well, couldn't look at other options. He'd made Captain America his whole life, and when the band failed, he felt like everything was failing.
Which was when Nick Fury came to Steve with an offer. Captain America was getting dropped, either way; they wouldn't have the chance to buy back the rights. The band was dead. But Steve had a shot with a new boy band that was forming up. Take the deal, and he had another shot at doing this for a career.
Steve took the deal. He was twenty-one; being a rock star was the only skill he really had. If Captain America had no chance, he'd be an idiot not to take the life preserver Fury was throwing him.
Bucky, of course, didn't see it that way. Steve had turned his back on the band, and that meant turning his back on Bucky, on their lives together.
So Bucky stopped calling. Peggy tried to patch things up for a while, but there was no real way to do it. And Steve had distracted himself with the Avengers, and was so, so glad when they left New York, because he kept getting unexpectedly torn up in Brooklyn, just seeing places where he'd been with Bucky.
And he'd distracted himself with Tony Stark, too, with his hatred of him and then his love for him, and now he didn't know what to feel, because now the word "boyfriend" might mean something very different, and Steve wasn't sure he was ready.
* * *
Bruce cried a lot, as a kid. When things didn't go right, or he banged his shin, or someone called him a name, on came the tears--not from sadness, usually, but from anger and frustration and fear. The usual reaction to this from friends and adults was to tell him to stop, which only made him angrier, which made him cry harder. So Bruce got used to crying, to raw throats and red eyes.
And Bruce—small, with crazy hair and glasses, not quite tough enough to fit in with the boys at the best of times—also got used to being the only one who cried. Which, as the years passed and everyone but him seemed to grow more emotionally mature, meant getting used to being the only one who got really, really upset at all.
So that's why it seems so incredibly, horribly not okay that Clint has been obviously hurting all week. Because Bruce has gotten used to being the one who suffers, maybe decided that's okay as long as no one else has to do it, and now here's someone he cares about—maybe someone he loves—and Bruce wants to shake him and shout, "No one's allowed to be sad but me!"
It's only years and years of learning to be soft-spoken and calm that can get him to sit down next to Clint and say, "Hey. Do you want to talk about it?" instead.
Clint shakes his head anyway, and Bruce can feel his anger rising again, and sadness too, deep and unshakable because he does not want Clint to be hurting.
"You sure?" Bruce says, because he can't just let it alone.
"There's nothing you can do," Clint says, and goes back to fighting zombies on the TV screen.
"Try me," Bruce says, softly, and Clint blows something up and mutters "Damn, I hate Loki."
"He done something?" Bruce asks. He knows they have a history; Clint told him the whole awful story over Starbucks cupcakes in San Diego. And it's obvious Clint hates Loki being here. But just in case, Bruce wants to make sure, because all he needs is an excuse to go smack the tall, greasy-haired bastard right in his smirking mouth.
Bruce nods. "Just wanted you to know I'm on your side." He could say more—about knowing what it's like to have your power to control your life taken away, about how well he understands the sick feeling of your decisions not seeming like your own, even if in his case it's his anger that's taking over and not another person.
"You're still in charge," he does say, because he's not sure Clint knows it. "Whatever anyone does, you're in charge."
"No," Clint says, "No, I'm not," and he tells him.
If Bruce thought Loki was a bastard before, now he thinks it might not be too soon to use the word evil. He thinks he can't believe he has the chance to apply the word "blackmail" to his own situation. He thinks Thor has some balls to bring this guy into their lives.
He also, however, thinks he has a plan.
As promised! And the last two should come pretty quickly as well. Thanks for reading about these big dumb idiots, y'all.
(Pepper's allergy, by the way, is fairly well-researched and it's possible, although rare, for it to work as described. Anything to do with recording contracts is not researched at all and works that way because I want it to, dammit.)
Tumblr post by user hulkeyess
Okay so you've probably heard the news already, but in case you want to "see" it while they're decide whether to keep the videos locked up I humbly present
Transcript of end-of-tour interview, New York, NY
transcribed by me, hulkeyess (with annotations) (because I was THERE not over it!!!) (sorry if i get anything slightly off they wouldn't let us RECORD so this is from memory)
Mal Kristiansen: So. Clint. The big question.
Clint Barton: (big grin) Oh, no. Here she comes.
MK: (like a sleaze) There's been some talk that your relationship with Natasha Romanoff is faked for media attention. What do you have to say to that?
CB: Happy to answer. (bigger grin, someone's gonna get hurt) I can promise the world that I am really, truly, one hundred percent honestly dating (aaaaaaaaah) Mr. Bruce Banner.
(NO. FREAKING. SHIT.)
MK: (this was basically spluttering and he didn't know what to say)
Bruce Banner: I can confirm Mr. Barton's statement. (also grinning aaah)
CB: I want to apologize to my fans for misleading them, to Bruce for hiding him, and to Natasha because she had no idea I was about to pull that out.
(Natasha does in fact look murderous. Like, more than usual.)
Tony Stark: Well. If it's honesty hour and everything . . .
(at this point the entire room is literally holding their breaths and there was a man who I'm pretty sure is Phil Coulson that actually DIED at this moment) (not literally DUH I'm just saying) (he was dead)
TS: Much as I love Pepper, I am not, in fact, back together with her.
Pepper Potts: Thank God for that.
(there is all this appreciative laughter that almost drowned out Tony saying)
TS: I am, however, pretty sure I'm in love with Steve Rogers.
(okay so now Steve goes all blushy and Tony goes to kiss him and Steve turns his head like no not in front of the kids and then Tony keeps going like yes in front of the kids and then they kiss like big dumb idiots)
(and then I died a thousand deaths)
(and then they kicked us all out of there and the avengers are probably still getting yelled at DON'T HURT THEIR LOVE SHIELD)
* * *
Coulson's mad, jaw set and lips almost white. He doesn't say anything, though, just trundles Pepper, Tony, Clint, and Thor into one car and sends them off, then gets behind the wheel of another. Bruce exchanges an awkward glance with the others before they realize if they don't get in, Coulson's liable to leave without them.
Steve grabs the front seat, looking preoccupied and nervous, leaving Bruce and Natasha together in the back. She leans over to him. "Did you know?" she asks.
"It was my idea," he says.
"Could've warned me," she whispers, but then Coulson spares a moment to glare back at them and they shut up.
Bruce stares out the window at New York speeding by, thinks back to the last time he was in this city, committed to stepping back in the closet, desperately trying not to scare Clint Barton away.
He thinks about stepping off the plane from India, Natasha next to him just like she is now, adjusting his ears to English in the streets and hoping for a second chance; thinks about the taxi taking the same turn Coulson's taking now, toward the SHIELD building, and wondering if it meant hope or despair.
Okay, so no one ever said Bruce Banner wasn't a little melodramatic.
Clint's good for that, though. Clint's good at helping take a little of the melodrama out of Bruce's life, at making things seem exactly as they are. Partly because he knows how to talk about things just the way Bruce needs, but somehow just having him around does it, too. Just looking over at him, just feeling Clint's hand on his shoulder or Clint's foot against his leg, can make Bruce calm down a little. When Clint's nearby . . . he's still emotional. He's always going to be. But when Clint's nearby his life can be more like an Emmy-winning drama than a soap opera, and that feels really, really good.
"All right," Coulson says, and with a start Bruce realizes they've arrived. For a second he's sure the lecture is coming now, but Coulson shakes his head, says, "Go on, get out. You've earned your party."
"Thanks," Bruce whispers, and Coulson smiles. "I've been in love, too, Banner. Just a hint: give him some space, first."
Bruce nods; he could use a moment himself. Then he takes a breath and walks in, presses the elevator button. He smiles at Natasha. "Take us all the way up," he says.
* * *
The roof of the SHIELD building is filled with people in evening gowns and tuxedos now, but Natasha is still on the same old mission, still finds Clint with his feet dangling off the side. She takes off her glittering black shoes (they cost a lot of money, and she doesn't want them falling down into New York), sets them carefully beside her, sits down next to him.
"Hey," Clint says, all nervous but really, really happy beneath it, she can tell.
She thinks about letting him sweat for a minute, but this is too big, and she leans over and hugs him.
"Don't get that too often," Clint says, and Natasha stops the hug and swats him.
"Ah, that's more like it," says Clint, and Natasha's embarrassed to find tears in her eyes.
"I am so, so proud of you," she says around the tightness in her throat, floored by how much she means it.
"Thank you," Clint says. "You aren't mad?"
"God, Clint," Natasha says, "Mad?"
"Well," Clint says, "I may have fucked over all our careers."
Natasha looks at him, serious as a summer storm. "And I'd be mad at the chance not to be a teen pop star any longer?"
Clint's look is serious now, too, and Natasha waits. She's been building up to this for a while, and maybe, in the wake of Clint's moment, it's not the right time, but she doesn't like Clint not knowing something about her.
"You're leaving, aren't you?" he says, and she says “Yes.”
"I hate this," Natasha tells him. "I hate being recognized and I hate touring and I hate the stupid questions they ask. I'm not a musician; I'm just there to look pretty, and I don't even like doing that."
"I didn't get a choice about this," Natasha says, and Clint cuts in, "I know, Natasha," takes her hand.
"I didn't get a choice," Natasha says, "but I'm making one now."
"Love you, Tasha," Clint says, and Natasha nods, hugs him again, tight and fast. "I'm proud of you, Barton," she says. "Now go kiss your boyfriend."
He gets up, smiles at her, happy and nervous again, and sets off, weaving through the crowd with a purpose. Natasha watches him go, her best friend in the world, and smiles after him. She feels curious—like there's somewhere she ought to be going, too. But she can't think of anything, so for the moment she just sits and picks up her shoes, dangles them over the edge. They cost a lot of money, and maybe fate wants someone else to find them.
* * *
Clint slips past women in sparkly dresses and men in shiny shoes, heading for Bruce, who's standing near a table of food looking uncomfortable. And beautiful, in Clint's opinion, even if his shirtsleeves are too short and his hair needs a good brushing. He's almost close enough for Bruce to see him, too, when a small woman with dark hair pinned neatly back stops him. She's skipped the sparkles, wearing a short black dress that doesn't appear to have any place to stash the business card she produces.
Clint looks at it. Maria Hill.
"Fury's an idiot if he lets you go," she says. "But either way, give me a call." She jabs a finger at her number on the card.
"Uh, thanks," Clint says.
"Go," she says, laughing. "But don't forget. If Fury says no, or if you or your boyfriend wants something a little more . . . fulfilling."
Clint resolves to do a search on this Hill woman tonight. Or maybe tomorrow, because tonight he plans to be kind of occupied. He looks over at the reason for that, and finally makes it to him.
"Hey," he says.
"Hey, yourself," says Bruce. "You disappeared." He doesn’t sound angry.
Clint shrugs. "I just . . . I'm glad, y'know? But it's different, now, being with you. Everybody knows what it means."
"Hmm," Bruce says. "I don't know. Think some of them might not be sure."
Clint stares at him. "Bruce Banner," he says, "are you trying to be smooth?"
Bruce laughs. "You tell me," he says, and kisses him.
It's a quick kiss, for all it's visually dramatic, but Clint smiles when Bruce lets him go.
"Okay," he says, "If this means you're going to do that all the time, I no longer have mixed feelings about it."
Bruce grins, and kisses him again.
Yeah, Clint's feeling pretty overwhelmingly positive.
* * *
Steve is surprised not to find Tony at the bar, and he's not sure where else to look. He hasn't had a chance to talk to Tony since their awkward coming-out kiss; Coulson took them straight to the party, but Steve's car arrived after Tony's did, and he can't imagine where he went.
"Damn," he mutters, looking around. The longer he doesn't find Tony, the longer Tony's going to think he doesn't want to find him; he knows his . . . well, he knows Tony that well, at least.
He passes Pepper by the door to the roof, drinking something fruity-looking and checking the news on her phone.
"What are they saying?" he asks.
She rolls her eyes. "Most people are trying to claim they knew it all along. There're a couple mommy bloggers planning to steal all your posters from their daughters' rooms in the dark of night. And we might get some coverage in serious press; someone's thinking of doing an article on gay superstars."
"Nice," Steve says, then blinks. "Wait, I'm a superstar?"
"You're adorable," Pepper says, putting the phone back in her purse. "You do realize this is the biggest thing since Ricky Martin? Bigger, even, people still care about you."
"Ricky Martin's gay?"
Pepper narrows her eyes. "You are joking, right?"
Steve laughs. "Come on, Pepper. Even I'm not that oblivious."
"Hmm," Pepper says. "You seemed pretty shocked up on that stage."
"I didn't know he was going to come out for us," Steve says, missing the point on purpose.
"He really is in love with you," Pepper says. "I think you're in love with him too."
Steve shrugs. "Last time I thought I was in love, it didn't turn out so nice."
"That was last time," Pepper points out, and she's right, but Steve still doesn't know. And then she looks over the top of his head and says, "Here he is."
Steve looks, sees Tony, hair rumpled, face worried and searching just like Steve's was a minute ago, and suddenly he's convinced. Tony's not Bucky, and that's a good thing. Something new, something different, but something great.
"Hey, Tony!" he calls out, and hears Pepper humming the Frosted Flakes jingle.
"Hey," he tells her, "that's my boyfriend you're making fun of," just in time for Tony to walk over and hear him say it.
* * *
"Boyfriend, huh?" Tony says, cool as the proverbial cucumber, just to see Steve blush and groan. He's disappointed, though, because Steve just smiles, says, "Yeah. If that's okay?"
Tony actually snorts. "Think it might be, yeah."
Kissing Steve seems like a really good idea right now, and Tony leans in to do it—
"Brother!" Thor shouts, audible from across the rooftop despite the evening wind.
"Really?" Steve is muttering, and Tony agrees—they were all sort of hoping Loki'd gone home—but no, the door really is opening, and the guy who takes "annoying little brother" to intergalactic levels is stepping out, looking sheepish, a slightly squashed pink cardboard box under his arm.
What happens next is somewhat difficult to follow even for Tony, who has just about a perfect vantage point.
Clint leaves a food table and walks over to Loki, anger in his eyes, fist swinging.
At the same time, Thor rushes to his beloved brother, arms open for a hug.
The two notice each other at the last minute, and only trade glares, confident they're not on a collision course.
They speed up, attempting to make it to Loki before the other does.
Thor appears to reach his brother first—but Loki must sidestep or something, because the next second there's a loud crack as Clint's fist slams into Thor.
Thor and Clint both glare at Loki, who can hardly hold back his laughter. "Really," he says, "are you ever not going to fall for that?"
"What are you doing here, Loki?" Clint asks. "It's over. Go home."
"You were supposed to be home already," says Thor, who clearly has no more idea what's going on than Tony does. He still looks a little cross; apparently, real physical violence actually has the power to take him out of the Loki Fanclub.
"Can't we be past all that?" Loki says, and Bruce, arriving behind Clint, rolls his eyes. "Yes, Loki, we're well over your blackmail and extortion."
Tony is really going to have to hear this story sometime, but for now he's got his bandmates' backs.
"Get out of here, Emerald City," he says, referring to the garish green-and-gold tie Loki's got on. "Learn to tell when you're not wanted."
Loki holds up flat palms. "All right, all right. I certainly can tell. I only came to apologize. Look, I brought a gift." He opens the box, reveals seven chocolate cupcakes with perfectly swirled icing. "Go on, take one."
No one does. Loki frowns. "I bring you an honest offering and you merely scoff. The hand of friendship struck down."
Pepper rolls her eyes, but she steps forward. "He has a point, I suppose."
"Excellent!" Loki says. "Miss Potts?" He holds out a cupcake sprinkled with silver dots like stars, icing a little less extreme than some of them.
Pepper licks the icing. "Mmm," she says, "Loki, this is good!" And then she bites into the cupcake.
There's a moment where nothing happens.
Then her face does something Tony immediately forgets, because he knows he doesn't want to remember this. She clutches at her throat, and then she's down.
Steve, apparently, knows where Pepper keeps her medicine, because he goes for it. Natasha is already on the phone to 911.
Tony just stands there, unsure and staring.
I feel I should warn you that there is only one chapter left, and it's more of an epilogue; that is, it's a bit shorter than usual. No worries, the cliffhanger will be resolved. Thank you guys so much for reading my ridiculous story!
Also, my deepest apologies for the Coulson joke. Couldn't resist.
Chapter 10: Epilogue-ish
Clint stands in the doorway of the hospital room, holding Bruce's hand. Pepper's sleeping on the bed; she's going to be all right, but none of them is ready to leave just yet. Still, Clint isn't as close to her as some of the others are, and he doesn't feel comfortable going right up to her bedside like Tony and Steve are, Tony holding her hand and talking to her under his breath, Steve with a hand on his back, biting his lip solemnly and watching Pepper's breaths.
Natasha isn't even in the room; she tried, for a bit, then brushed past Clint muttering, "Let me know when she wakes up," and went off, probably to find a coffee or something.
As for Thor, he's not there; last Clint saw him, he and Loki were having a whispered shouting match in the hospital lobby. To be honest, he doesn't much care what happens between them; he should hate Loki more than he ever did, but he's used up all his emotion worrying about Pepper.
There was strawberry in the cupcake, Tony had explained, barely able to focus. Luckily, there wasn't very much. Not enough to kill her, as, Natasha said, even a small amount could, but enough to put her in danger. They were all pretty sure Loki knew what he was doing; Pepper's allergy wasn't a secret, and it seemed like his style. Of course, they couldn't prove it, but Loki'd been angry, and he'd always seemed to know more about them than he should, and, well, Thor was having to realize he'd been wrong about him.
It had all come out on the way to the hospital—that Thor had been drunk under the table when Pepper and Natasha made their plans, that he'd left his phone connected on a call to Loki, that Loki had realized quickly what he was hearing and decided it was his chance to finally achieve his dream of getting out of Thor's shadow. No one had blamed Thor; he'd been blaming himself enough, tears in his eyes, swearing that he'd never thought Loki would seriously hurt someone.
Let them work out their own issues. Right now, Pepper's eyes start to open, and Clint sends a quick text to Natasha.
"Pepper!" Tony says, and hugs her; Steve does too, after.
"I was scared, Pep," Tony is saying, and of course he's about to go on, he's Tony Stark, but Natasha stops him.
She sweeps into the room, walks straight to the bed, gently but forcefully grabs the front of Pepper's hospital gown. "Never," she says, voice shaky but strong, "do that to me again," and then she leans down and kisses Pepper square on the mouth.
When she lets go, Pepper smiles.
"That's everyone, then," she says.
Natasha turns toward the window for a second. Clint can see her take a breath, and when she turns back, she's smiling.
"If you weren't in a hospital bed, I'd slap you in the face," she says, and then she swears, affectionately, in Russian, or maybe she says "I love you."
* * *
When Pepper's discharged, it's afternoon, bright sunlight contrasting with the first real fall weather. Tony sees Natasha unwind the scarf from her neck, drape it around Pepper's, and can't help smiling; he'd threaten to do something if she hurts her, but he's got no illusions about his chances against Natasha, and anyway, he's pretty sure he'd never need to try.
They're all there, Tony's band, his friends, even Thor, who's left Loki at the airport. He's planning to see him again, he says, and Tony thinks he understands loving someone even though you hate them.
There's a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant a little down the street from the hospital, and Tony glances at everyone: Thor in a navy hoodie, head down but no tears in his eyes, Clint and Bruce holding hands like teenagers, Pepper leaning on Natasha's shoulder, wearing her scarf and whispering something in her ear, and Steve, his Steve, in a beat-up leather jacket that's just asking for Tony to snuggle up against and a tired smile that's begging to be kissed.
"Hey," he says, and they look at him.
"Since we didn't have so much luck with the last party, I was thinking . . ."
He takes a deep breath, takes them all in with a smile.
"How do you guys feel about shawarma?"
Holy Hell, it's finished.
Now, uh, I believe I promised a Natasha/Clint/Tony story, like, three months ago? Oops.
Hope y'all enjoyed! Thanks for reading this.