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The Observable Universe

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"The Observable Universe"
by Sarea Okelani

//\\

When Thor first suggests meeting his new friends, Jane's enthusiastic. She's heard so much about them, though she doesn't actually understand most of what he tells her, which is partly the way he talks, partly because it all sounds pretty unbelievable, and partly because she gets distracted looking at him. He is, after all, a very attractive man... demigod... being... and it's only been a couple of weeks since the rebuilt Bifrost has been stable enough for Thor to make the journey to Earth without needing his father's intervention. He's told her about New York City (his version of events is markedly more interesting and detailed than CNN's), about Odin sending him back to Earth to stop his brother from destroying the planet and bring that same brother back to Asgard ("This is the family you want to marry into?" Darcy says). Jane has read all the media reports and seen it all on TV, but it felt surreal, because part of her – irrational, but undeniable – didn't want to think about Thor being on Earth, so close, and she'd been in Tromsø, completely unaware.

Jane's feeling less excited, though, the closer she gets to actually meeting Thor's friends. Despite how much Thor obviously likes and respects these... Avengers, she doesn't know how much she'll actually have in common with them, these soldiers, spies, superheroes. And one of them is Tony freaking Stark.

It's Tony's idea that they all go bowling. Jane is pretty much the opposite of athletic, but Darcy is surprisingly excited, telling Jane that she bowls a 160 average, as if this is supposed to mean something.

Jane likes Pepper right away. She seems genuinely nice and approachable for not only being Tony Stark's girlfriend, but CEO of Stark Industries, besides. Jane has alternately pictured her as a barracuda, who would eat Jane and Darcy alive; someone intense and possibly humorless; or an ice queen, sharp and distant. Pepper is none of those things. In fact, she smiles an inordinate amount, and she's actually dressed appropriately for the occasion, in casual jeans and a plain button-down shirt. Pepper is someone Jane can easily picture hanging out with on an individual basis, without their significant others in tow. She's someone Jane can picture confiding in. Pepper might not have experience in dating a demigod, but it seems to Jane that Tony Stark might be even tougher.

Natasha Romanoff, on the other hand, is a different story.

Dressed all in black — jacket, jeans, boots, and a form-fitting top that leaves Jane feeling fairly inadequate in the boob department, Natasha's intimidating in the way she coolly surveys everyone. She's quiet. She's not bubbly like Pepper. She greets everyone with a nod and a hello, but doesn't volunteer much beyond that. She gives everyone the same guarded look, and Jane finds it strange to be that mistrusted by someone who doesn't know her at all. But it's hard to take it personally because Natasha seems reserved in general, even around those she knows better. When Tony cracks a joke that has nearly everyone laughing, Natasha looks vaguely amused, but doesn't laugh. It's noticeable. Even Darcy has mentioned it. "What's up with Catwoman," she hisses, before Jane shoos her away, fearing that Natasha will overhear. It wouldn't surprise her at all to learn that the other woman has super sensitive hearing or something. It seems everyone in Thor's circle of friends has some enhanced ability or other. Sometimes Jane misses when she, Erik, and Darcy were the only humans he knew.

But, for the most part, she likes everyone. They're not nearly as daunting as she'd kind of feared they would be. Social situations aren't her forte, and more often than not they make her ill at ease, but it's better that Thor's here, that Darcy's here, that Pepper's so nice. Most of the others are nice, too, but it's going to take her awhile to get to know them all, because it just takes her awhile to get to know anyone. But she can see herself getting used to them one day. Everyone but Natasha, that is. She doesn't think she'll ever have enough in common with her, nor does she think that Natasha has any desire to be her friend. The other woman seems perfectly content with the ones she already has, and even with them she's not overly friendly.

Some women just aren't. Jane learned that the hard way, in junior high, then high school, and even in college. When you're the geeky girl who wants to talk more about string cosmology and black holes than boys or the next frat party, it's not easy to make or keep friends. At first you exclude yourself, but it's not long before it's not your choice anymore, especially among other girls.

But Jane wants to make a special effort with Thor's friends, wants to know them, and wants them to know her, because it's important to him and he's special to her in a way she can't put into words. So she joins Natasha in one of the two chairs at the scoring table, determined to get past her social discomfort. They watch everyone bowl (Tony and Bruce are very good; Steve and Thor are terrible at first, but Steve quickly adapts, adjusting his strength, having bowled before, while it takes Thor a bit longer), and Jane tries to talk to Natasha. The other woman answers the questions that Jane poses civilly, but doesn't offer anything to actively continue the conversation. Jane runs out of topics quickly – she's not really sure what to say to a Russian master spy/assassin.

It's obvious that Natasha is simply not a people person. Not that Jane is a people person, but she sure feels like one in comparison. Thor can't say she didn't try.

As she stands up and crosses behind Natasha on her way to where Darcy's drinking Coke from a truly enormous plastic cup, a kernel of popcorn hits her in the eye. It doesn't hurt, but she's startled enough to clap a hand to her eye and exclaim.

"Shit!" an unfamiliar voice says. "You weren't supposed to get up."

Jane's first instinct is to apologize. Then she realizes she has nothing to apologize for, and is kind of indignant instead. Did she ask to be pelted in the eye by popcorn? No, she did not. She's about to say something when she realizes with some surprise that at the sound of the voice Natasha has turned around and has a genuine smile on her face. A smile. After being uninterested in anyone and anything for the entire duration of this get together, she's finally taking an interest. Jane can't help but feel a bit annoyed that it's apparently at her expense.

But Natasha's not even looking at her. And her smile's too soft to indicate any kind of malicious pleasure. Flabbergasted, Jane turns to learn who her assailant is, and sees a guy with short-cropped brown hair, wearing what seems to be a low-key SHIELD uniform, about ten feet away. He's behind the divider, sporting a big, crooked grin aimed at Natasha. He's cute. And must have some kind of death wish.

"What are you, twelve?" Natasha says, seemingly okay with the fact that he'd been attempting to toss popcorn at her head.

The guy continues to smile unrepentantly. "My aim wasn't that good at twelve," he says modestly. "Okay, maybe it was." He leaps over the divider, landing easily.

Natasha rolls her eyes. "It's about time you showed up," she says over her shoulder, before turning back around and looking at the scoreboard as Pepper goes to line up a shot.

"Sorry I'm late," he says to everyone. "I was held in the principal's office after school."

"What did Fury want?" Bruce asks. "Was it about Venice?"

"Maybe. That is classified information, Banner."

Bruce gives one of his half smiles. "Mm-hmm. Just asking."

"Here you go, Barton," Steve says, tossing the newcomer a beer.

Thor claps him on the back and he winces. "I wish to make introductions. Hawkeye, this is Jane Foster. She is a brilliant astrophysicist. Jane, this is Hawkeye. He is a grandmaster marksman." Thor sure knows his manners.

"Uh, I also go by Clint," he says, holding out his hand, which Jane takes. She likes his easy smile. His hands are big and surprisingly rough. "Nice to meet you, doc."

"Hi," Jane says, smiling in return. "I go by Jane."

"Fair enough. Sorry about—" Clint gestures at his eye. "No lasting damage, I hope."

"No, I was just startled," Jane says, forgiving him on the spot.

"It wasn't intended for you." A wink.

Natasha can apparently hear them, because she salutes Clint with her middle finger without turning around.

"You really do have good aim," Jane realizes, gauging the distance from where he'd originally been standing and where she'd been sitting. The accuracy is particularly impressive given the lightweight nature of his impromptu projectile.

"Aww, it's all right," he says with a grin. Natasha makes an unladylike sound while everyone else groans and says that Jane's done it now, they'll never get Barton out of the building on account of his hugely inflated head.

"I'm Darcy." Jane is pushed aside as Darcy none-too-gently edges her way in, apparently tired of waiting for someone to introduce her. She sticks her hand out for Clint to shake. Jane is alternately amused and exasperated. Darcy did the same thing with Steve earlier.

"Hi. Clint Barton," he says, wiping the condensation from his beer onto his pants before shaking Darcy's hand. "You Thor's friend too?"

"I'm Jane's friend," Darcy says. "Jury's still out on Thor."

"Darcy is always jesting," says Thor. "Of course we are friends." He smiles wide and hugs Darcy with one arm. She squeaks and probably passes out from lack of oxygen, because she says nothing further.

Clint uses the opportunity to go and sit next to Natasha at the scoring table, offering her a sip of his beer.

"You playing?" Steve asks Clint. He's just returned from making a spare.

"No!" Tony exclaims before Clint can even answer. He points at him. "You can't play."

Instead of being insulted, Clint just laughs. Even Natasha has a small curve to her mouth.

"Why can't he play?" Steve says, jumping immediately to the defense of a perceived wronged party.

"He'll make it no fun," says Tony.

"I don't have to play," Clint says, lounging in his seat and draping an arm around the back of Natasha's chair.

"Good," Tony says.

"Stark, this is ridiculous," Steve argues. "It's a game. We're just doing this for fun. Are you saying you can't take a little competition?" It's obvious what he's trying to do.

Tony doesn't rise to the bait. "It's not a competition when one of the players doesn't miss."

"Ever?" pipes in Darcy, apparently having regained the use of her lungs.

"Ever," Tony confirms. "He has 'near-flawless precision with any aimed or thrown weapon.'" He sounds as if he's reciting from a textbook.

Clint and Natasha both look at Tony. "You read my file? My confidential file?" Clint asks.

"No. By which I of course mean yes." At the look of outrage from the two of them, he protests, "How is it my fault that you work for an organization whose security protocols are a joke?"

"Okay, enough. We're here to have fun," Steve says. He looks sternly at Tony. "Stop being such a spoilsport."

"I'm not being a spoilsport, he'd be the spoilsport if he played!"

Instead of defending himself, Clint leans in closer to hear something Natasha says, seemingly ambivalent about whether he gets to play or not, content to just let Tony and Steve fight it out.

Jane goes to stand next to Pepper. "So are they..." she begins, looking pointedly over at Clint and Natasha.

Pepper shakes her head in the negative, but gives Jane a Can you believe it? look.

"Really?" Jane says.

"Really. I keep saying the same thing."

"Yeah, it is kind of hard to believe," Tony interjects from behind them, shamelessly eavesdropping. He's apparently finished arguing with Steve. "But evidently, that—" He gestures at Clint and Natasha with his beer bottle. "—is not a thing."

"It should be a thing," Pepper says, looking at the two, who are completely oblivious to their interest. "It's probably because of something stupid."

"Listen, babe," says Tony. "If Barton wants to be out of touch with his feelings, and fill his nights with hard liquor and early Coltrane, too emotionally stunted to reciprocate the love of a good woman, well... goddamn it, that is his fucking right as an American male. And I will not let you, or you" — indicating Jane — "take that away from him."

"Yes, dear," Pepper says, brushing away invisible lint from his shirt. "You're up." She offers him his customized Iron Man-themed bowling ball from the ball return.

"You're doing it again, aren't you," Tony says. "That thing where you pretend to let me have my way, but are actually plotting to have your own way, by making me think it was my idea all along. That's what you're doing, isn't it. Pepper. Pepper, answer me."

Pepper crosses her arms and smiles benignly. "Of course not, Tony."

Any potential reply is lost when they overhear Steve tell Natasha to put Clint on the scorecard for the next game, distracting Tony enough that he leaves Pepper and Jane to go reassert his opinion on that particular matter to an indifferent Steve.

//\\

There is apparently an exhausting mission in Oslo and no one wants to go out, so they order pizza (eight different ones because no one can agree on toppings and Tony is too lazy to try and sort out half pizzas) and play Truth or Dare. Actually first they play charades, but Steve and Thor don't know any of the references, though that doesn't stop them from guessing, and finally Tony gets so annoyed by the nonsensical things they throw out that he changes the game. Pepper makes her excuses at this point, and in hindsight Jane probably should have taken that as her cue to leave as well.

They are ruthless Truth or Dare players. Jane isn't sure at this point which option is worse, though they softball her "Truth" with a tame, "Have you ever had sex with a girl and what was it like?" Since the answer is no, she feels the need to tell them about the time she and her college roommate kissed with tongue. Thor looks interested in continuing this line of questioning later, but everyone else groans in disappointment. Jane feels incredibly lucky, however, after Steve is forced to out himself as a virgin ("I was busy saving the world! That's why you're all here, you know!"); Bruce has to wear tighty whities while using a terrible pick-up line on Tony ("If I could rearrange the alphabet, I would put U and I together."); Clint reveals that his first sexual experience was with Tina the Dog-Faced Girl ("She was very attractive on the days she shaved!"); Thor outs himself as a bed wetter ("I made water in my pallet until the spring of my tenth year." — Jane is not interested in continuing this line of questioning later); and Tony has to tell them about every time he's ever cheated on a girlfriend ("How do you define 'girlfriend'? Also, emotionally or physically?" Then he talks for the next 30 minutes, sounding exhausted himself, by the end of it). Jane finds it interesting that most of them choose truth. Maybe doing what they do for a living, what constitutes 'daring' is too high a bar.

Since Tony is the last to go, he gets to pick the next player, but there's only Natasha left, either because no one has been willing to be the one to risk her wrath, or because they want Tony to be the one to do it. Probably both.

"Dare," Natasha says, to little surprise.

Tony appears to wrack his brain for something that will give even Natasha pause. They all know he's hit upon it when his look of concentration melts into one of glee. "I dare you to sing. Something by Johnny Cash."

Natasha looks nonplussed. "Fine."

Tony seems disappointed that she's taking his dare so well. Jane has to admit she's a bit surprised as well. Natasha may be a master of mien out in the field, but she's very reserved around the people she actually knows. Singing in front of them isn't something Natasha would have done voluntarily. Bruce and Steve look wary, looking from Natasha to Tony as if afraid of what might happen next.

Clint, on the other hand, looks delighted. He retrieves his guitar from the corner of the room, pulling the strap over his head and strumming a few notes. "All right, Romanoff, what're you gonna sing?" He settles back in his chair.

Natasha shrugs. "I only know one Johnny Cash song. And it's a duet."

"You only know one Johnny Cash song?" Tony sounds appalled. Clint's expression echoes a similar sentiment.

"I can't help what American music my marks listened to," she says. Jane can't help but wonder if those songs were the last sounds those people ever heard. "Should I sing both parts?"

"Clint, sing with her," Steve says.

"It's not my dare," he protests.

"You're not doing anything you wouldn't normally do, so it's not really a dare for you," Bruce points out.

Clint drums his fingers on the guitar while looking at his partner, clearly anticipating her singing in front of the group. "All right, fine. What song is it, Tash?"

"'If I Were a Carpenter,'" she says, without changing her expression.

Clint's jaw slackens and Tony coughs into his fist, but is still unable to stop his smirk. Jane sees him throw an amused look toward Bruce, who refuses to look at Tony. Jane doesn't know this particular Johnny Cash song, as she doesn't listen to country music much, but it would appear that it's some cause for consternation.

"Seriously?" Clint says. Jane notices that there's a slight flush creeping up his neck.

Natasha just looks back at him, calm as always. "Why would I lie?"

"What's wrong with the song?" Steve asks. "Do you not know it, Clint?"

"Nothing's wrong with it," Tony announces. "There's no way Barton doesn't know it. Play the song."

"Play the song," Thor also urges impatiently. The reason for the delay is clearly not of interest to him. Jane runs her fingers down his arm absently.

Clint seems to recover, looking away from Natasha to play the first couple of bars. It's a bit hesitant at first, but he regains confidence quickly, and when he starts to sing, the notes are clear and even. He has a nice voice. After his refrain, Natasha joins in. And if anyone thought she'd feel ill at ease and start tentatively, they would have been wrong. She sings the way she does everything, with self-assurance.

But it quickly becomes apparent why Tony is so full of glee. The only Johnny Cash song Natasha knows is a call-and-answer folk number detailing the commitment between two people, including love, marriage, and procreation. Jane is already thinking of how she's going to relay this to Pepper tomorrow, and can only hope the story doesn't end in bloodshed.

As they finish the second refrain, Clint's cheeks are tinged pink and he's studiously not looking at Natasha, while Tony is grinning with satisfaction. Steve's finally realized why Tony was so delighted by the song choice and why Clint was initially so ill at ease, so he's doing his best to look encouraging.

Natasha has a pleasant voice and can carry a tune, even if it's not really made for country music. Jane thinks she sounds more like she belongs in a smoky bar, wearing a slinky red dress, sashaying around a guy playing a piano.

As they get to the bridge, Clint seems to forget his earlier discomfort and just enjoys performing the song, adding a bit of a drawl to his voice as he sings and little flourishes to his guitar playing. Natasha's actually smiling now, index finger tapping gently on her leg as he plays, and the simple rhythm of the music and the way they're clearly having fun with it silences even Tony, who leans his head on the couch with a slight smile and watches like the rest of them.

Clint smiles at Natasha as their voices meld together for the last line, and they finish up the song with him strumming the last couple of notes with exaggerated emphasis, laughing.

Everyone applauds enthusiastically at the end, Tony included.

//\\

Jane is thinking of moving to New York. Well, it might have already happened, without her explicit knowledge and consent. That's how SHIELD works, she's come to realize. She's been asked to consult with their science department more and more, and they've been dropping hints that it's not fiscally responsible to keep flying her and her team up for every consultation (more often than not, Darcy and Erik get left behind) with taxpayer dollars. It's true though that it's easier to see Thor in New York when he's not in Asgard. Jane knows it makes him happy to be able to see her and his friends at the same time, and she likes them, too. In fact, a couple of them are starting to become her friends. Well, Pepper. But she counts.

In fact, Jane now even has her own room at Avengers Tower, which it's known as colloquially even if not officially yet. It's not on the same floor as Thor's room, which she knows is a concession more for his benefit than hers, as when it comes to sex, he has the ye olde sensibilities of Steve Rogers. The two of them could open some sort of chastity shop together. They wouldn't get much patronage, but they'd be happy.

Right now, though, Jane is not in her room. She's in the kitchen with Pepper, and there are baking materials spread out all over. It's the most spacious, high-tech kitchen Jane has ever seen. She's never been much of a cook, preferring even dated research equipment to space-age stoves and refrigerators, but she likes this one. Maybe because this one comes with a well-stocked, temperature-controlled wine "cellar." And Tony and Pepper are very generous with it.

Jane and Pepper are both on their third glass, a crisp Riesling that Jane wouldn't have chosen herself, but trusted Pepper when she said it was excellent, as Pepper is rarely wrong about most things, and never about wine.

"All right," Pepper says, setting down her glass determinedly. "Let's do this." She goes and starts rummaging around one of the cupboards.

Pepper's got her body halfway in there when the door opens and Natasha walks in. It's the most casual Jane has ever seen her look — she's actually wearing cotton shorts and a soft tee, her gorgeous red hair loose and free of product. Jane has always wanted red hair, or Pepper's strawberry blonde, but she made her peace with being a brunette long ago.

"Hi," Jane says with a friendly smile.

"Hi," Natasha returns. "What's going on?"

"We're making mini cakes," Pepper says, from the depths of the cupboard. "Aha!" She re-emerges, small cake tins in her hands.

"You bake?" Natasha asks, sounding surprised.

"Before I was a CEO, I was a simple girl from New Haven," Pepper informs them primly. "I used to bake cakes with my grandma every Sunday."

"Now you do it for Tony?" Jane asks.

Pepper makes a face. "For myself, thank you. I find it very relaxing. If he doesn't piss me off, I'll let him have some."

"Can I watch?"

Jane is surprised that Natasha has any interest in staying in the kitchen with them. Usually she seems far more comfortable with the guys. This is the first overture Natasha's ever made toward the gals in the group, which makes Jane warm to her a little more. She's wondered before if Natasha felt that Pepper and Jane weren't worth hanging out with because they were "just girls" and not Avengers themselves. Maybe that was unfair.

Pepper doesn't miss a beat. "Of course, join us. But you can't just watch. You have to make one, too."

"I've never done it before," Natasha says, but gamely reaches for a bowl.

"Before we start, an important question: red or white?" Pepper grins, holding up two wine bottles.

For the next hour, Pepper directs the cake-making activity. Pepper is patient and Natasha is not, and Jane has to stop herself from bringing up the chemical reactions of the ingredients that are transforming butter, sugar, eggs, and flour into delicious confections, but in the end they all manage to create fairly presentable cakes, complete with frosting and everything, though Pepper's cake is so beautiful that the other two cakes look like turds in comparison. That's what Natasha says, and Jane opens her mouth to defend her cake, but closes it when she realizes that Natasha's right.

Natasha grabs a fork and tries some of her cake.

"How is it?" Jane asks.

Natasha shrugs. "It's okay. Chocolate cake isn't my favorite."

"Then why did you make it?" Pepper asks reasonably.

"Clint loves chocolate cake," Natasha says, taking a second forkful.

Jane exchanges glances with Pepper. If Natasha made the cake for Clint, why was she eating it herself? And if she hadn't made it for him, why make his favorite and not her own?

Pepper apparently decides to use this opening to grill Natasha. "About that—" she begins, but is thwarted from saying anything further as the kitchen doors bang open, admitting the subject of said thwarted interrogation.

Clint surveys the tableau before him. "What is going on here? A cake party? And the rest of us were kept in the dark?" He turns to Natasha, a betrayed look on his face. "Are you mad at me or something?"

"Not particularly," she replies, eating another forkful of cake.

"Then... why?" Clint places a hand to his chest as if she had plunged a dagger into it.

"Be more dramatic," she replies, handing him the plate. He digs in immediately.

"Oh, I will," Clint says around a mouthful of cake. He forks in another giant bite. "I will be more dramatic." He's barely intelligible, but they get his gist, particularly as he's pointing a chocolate-covered fork at Natasha accusingly.

Jane starts eating her own cake – peach – which isn't half bad. Pepper takes a bite as well and says that it's good, but Jane's pretty sure she's just being nice. Jane wants to try Pepper's cake, but Pepper doesn't offer. One look at the other woman's face makes it obvious why. Pepper's clearly eavesdropping on Clint and Natasha while trying to seem like she's not.

Clint's talking to Natasha with his mouth fully stuffed, deliberately trying to annoy her, Jane figures, as he must realize that no one can actually understand him. Natasha only looks at him with a raised eyebrow at first, but then starts answering. Jane can only track the conversation by what Natasha's saying.

"Mmfpf pburgle dufms offl meghf," says Clint, sucking a stray crumb off his thumb.

"No, because I sharpened them before we left," says Natasha.

"Pefl flurge thef mslob," Clint shoots back.

"Yes, I did. And you were the one who insisted on taking it with us. It wasn't my responsi—"

"Mlerb bluag plerf!" Clint cries in outrage.

Natasha calmly takes a sip of her wine. "Well, think about that next time, then."

"Burgff hamin." Eyebrow waggle. "Ex em."

Natasha rolls her eyes.

"Wun em mah?"

"No, you finish it," Natasha says, and drains her wine glass.

"They're totally hot for each other," Pepper stage whispers to Jane, holding up a hand and pointing her other finger at Clint and Natasha behind it. Her eyes are a little too bright and there's a tell-tale flush on her cheeks, which means she might actually think she's being quite stealthy. Luckily, the other two are not paying Jane or Pepper any attention at all.

So Jane winks at Pepper and they clink their wine glasses together.

//\\

With everyone's schedules being packed, the next chance Jane has to go out with the whole group isn't until a few months later. They go to a barbecue buffet that boasts whole pigs being roasted on spits outside the barn where the actual "restaurant" is. There's a large, boisterous crowd, with live music from Smokey Joe and the Pits. There's a small dance floor in front of the band, and the patrons dine on picnic tables, complete with bench seating.

It is, of course, Tony's idea.

"I've always wanted to come here!" he shouts over a banjo solo.

"Always since last week, when he read about it in the paper," Pepper says, rolling her eyes. She's once again dressed for the occasion, in long blue jeans and a red-and-white checkered shirt that is tied at her waist.

The rest of them are wearing more or less what they usually wear, mostly because they weren't told of their destination until they were halfway there. Jane is wearing what she wore in the lab earlier that day, tan slacks and a pink button-down dress shirt (minus the white coat), Tony's in an expensive suit and sneakers. Steve's in jeans and a dark blue shirt, and almost looks like he belongs, other than the slightly confused look on his face. Bruce is in a rumpled button-down shirt and slacks, looking resigned to his fate. Thor tends to stand out no matter what he wears, but his soft cotton shirt and worn jeans blend fairly well, and from the grin on his face, he is clearly finding the other patrons' enthusiasm infectious. Darcy's in her usual eclectic ensemble, her expression alternately horrified and fascinated as she stares at the people around them. Natasha, as usual wearing nice, form-fitting clothes that she can maneuver in, looks as out of place as Jane feels, and Jane has the thought that, for once, she and the assassin are on the same wavelength. Clint is the only one of them who actually looks at home in this crowd, though there's nothing specifically about his gray t-shirt and jeans that give that impression. But if he had a cowboy hat, Jane thinks, they could lose him here.

"This is like shawarma all over again," Jane hears Bruce mutter.

Jane has only heard good things from Thor about shawarma, though she's never had it herself, so she's not quite sure what Bruce is talking about. The line to get in moves quickly, Tony foots the bill, and they're assigned a table toward the back of the barn. Jane volunteers to camp out there so no one will try to take their spot. As there's assigned seating the chances of this are slim, but she's not big on crowds and has been on her feet all day. She asks Thor to make up a plate for her, which he is of course happy to do.

Sometimes, Jane has to pinch herself to make sure she's awake and he's not just some elaborate dream she's having while asleep in the lab, drooling on her journal. After Donald, who'd taken so much of her that she'd stopped recognizing herself for a time, she'd sworn off men, no longer believing that a relationship in which she could be honestly, wholly herself, was possible. What Jane feels for Thor could easily overwhelm her despite her best intentions. If he asked, she would give herself up to him completely, but the thing with Thor is that he would never ask that of her. She knows he loves her for exactly who she is, no more and no less.

Jane watches the band, their energy riveting, tapping her foot in time to the music. She notices a small commotion at one of the buffet tables. It seems that people have finally noticed the Avengers in their midst. Jane is even more glad that she's on table duty as she sees people start pushing into their personal space and trying to talk to them. Tomorrow, the local paper will undoubtedly headline "The Hulk Ate Pork Here!" Jane can't get used to dating a celebrity. The demigod thing, she thinks she might one day be able to get accustomed to. The celebrity thing, she never will.

One by one, the members of their party arrive at the table, plates laden with food. Thor sets down what appears to be twenty pounds of smoked, braised, grilled, or otherwise cooked meat in front of her, and Bruce hands her an iced tea. Jane smiles her thanks, then says to Thor, "I think this is your plate."

"No, you have the smaller one, because you eat like a neeble," he says, and Jane's eyes grow wide when she finally sees the mountainous portion he has in front of him. It's rivaled only by that belonging to Steve, who apparently only stopped putting food on his plate due to the laws of physics.

Clint arrives and sits at one of the far ends of the table, turning his back on everyone so he can get a better view of the band. When Darcy shows up, there are only two seats available, one next to Clint and one on the other side of Jane. Jane isn't surprised at all when Darcy chooses the former. Darcy isn't the shy type, and she's mentioned several times that she finds Clint to be an attractive member of the opposite sex, is nice, and has the added bonus of being "an actual human who doesn't change colors, couldn't accidentally kill me by rolling over in his sleep, and didn't used to be a war profiteer." Besides, Darcy and Jane see enough of each other at work, and the point of these outings is to get to know the others a bit better.

The fact that everyone else steered clear of that seat for a reason doesn't faze Darcy at all.

Natasha is the last to arrive, and her step slows almost imperceptibly when she notices that there's no available space next to Clint. Jane only notices Natasha's reaction because, well, she's watching for it. It happens only for a split second, and Natasha merely heads to the only open spot and sits down next to Jane, who has a ridiculous urge to apologize for Darcy, but doesn't. Natasha does not, Jane notes, attempt to sit on Clint's other side and make the others scoot down. Of course, Natasha is also not an insecure teenage girl. Jane finds Clint and Natasha's relationship interesting, like a puzzle she can't solve. Jane likes challenging puzzles, likes balancing equations. She's not sure if this one has an answer, but for the moment she's still working on the theorem.

"Good luck with that," Natasha says, a rare note of sympathy in her voice.

Jane starts, wondering for a panicked moment if she'd spoken out loud or if Natasha had developed mindreading superpowers since they'd last bumped into each other in the hallways of Avengers Tower. Then Natasha nods toward Jane's plate, and Jane laughs in relief. "Oh. Yeah, I'm going to need a little help."

Thor takes a hearty bite out of a ginormous beef rib. "You are not hungry, Jane?"

Jane picks up a less-intimidating pork rib and takes a bite. "It's delicious," she says honestly. "I just can't eat so much. Thank you for remembering that I like honey with my cornbread." She tips her head up for a kiss, which he drops on her lips with a smile. He tastes like barbecue sauce. But then, so probably does she.

"It is an honor to be the one who should remember your preferences," Thor says, and Jane pretty much melts into a puddle of goo.

The band starts up a new song, this one with a really upbeat tempo, and the crowd cheers and lets out a few whistles. The loudest is coming from Tony.

"I love this one!" Clint says, finally turning around. "Remember when—" Jane almost wants to giggle at the way Clint falters when he sees Darcy next to him, the smile still in place, but his brows come together as if in confusion. Clint scans the table until he finds Natasha, then his expression clears.

"I love it, too! What is it, again?" Darcy says.

Clint laughs and starts animatedly telling her, no doubt, about the song, though Jane can't hear the rest of their conversation. Jane turns quickly to see how Natasha's responded to all of this, but she doesn't seem to have noticed anything at all.

"I missed the beef ribs," says Natasha, and helps herself to one off Jane's plate. "Barbecue's the one kind of American cuisine that's really grown on me."

It's an actual conversation starter, Jane is pleased to realize, and they talk about the differences between Russian and American cuisine while stuffing their faces with succulent meat, buttery corn on the cob, tangy potato salad, crisp coleslaw, deviled eggs, yam fries, sweet baked beans, creamy mac and cheese, and maybe even something that resembles a vegetable or two.

Jane can hardly believe it, but before long some of them start getting up for seconds, even Thor, who has managed to eat not only his own portion, but what Jane can't finish as well. Jane takes the opportunity to get up and visit the dessert bar, asking Natasha if she can bring anything back for her. Natasha shakes her head.

The dessert selection is impressive, boasting at least twenty different kinds of cake and pie, with platters of cookies, bars, and fruit. Still, it's not hard for Jane to decide what she wants. She builds a big sundae for herself, because she's always had a second stomach for dessert. When she returns to the table, she finds that her seat's been appropriated by Clint. She doesn't think she has much of a chance of getting it back, so she sits next to Darcy, who looks put out but resigned.

"Give me that," Darcy says, grabbing the spoon and digging into the ice cream.

Jane lets her, gently patting the back of Darcy's head while stealing a glance down the table. Thor is working on his second — third, if you count Jane's — plate, looking as if he can go five more rounds. Steve looks like he is planning to match Thor rib for rib (the two of them are going to be here all night). Bruce is definitely flagging, though he's doggedly cutting into some beef brisket, while Tony and Pepper have stopped eating and are whispering in each other's ears, tears of mirth in their eyes. There are approximately ten different types of desserts in front of Clint and Natasha, and she's taking delicate nibbles of each while he seemingly watches for whether she likes it or not before he digs in. He's talking the whole time, Natasha not appearing very interested in the conversation, but as soon as he stops, she says something, which gets him going again.

"I finished it," says Darcy, looking forlornly at the empty dish. "I'll go get us a new one."

"Bring another spoon," Jane calls after her.

//\\

Jane leaves Thor snoring softly in bed and goes to get herself a glass of warm milk. She can't get used to the fact that she has to use an elevator and walk what amounts to three lengths of her apartment in Albuquerque to do this simple task. It was Erik who got her into the habit; Jane was never given warm milk as a little girl. Erik makes it for them sometimes when they have to spend the night outside on the lookout for some cosmic event, and while it doesn't help Jane sleep any faster, it now brings its own kind of comfort, associating it as she does with two things that make her feel warm and safe: a starry night sky, and Erik, her mentor for so many years.

The kitchen is just off the common area, and as she gets closer she can hear voices. Despite having a low (sultry) voice for a woman, there's still no mistaking Natasha, and Jane fervently hopes she's not going to walk in on some intimate moment between the other woman and Clint.

Jane considers turning around, except that would be silly; they aren't together in that way, and even if they are having an intimate moment, it would be their fault for doing it in a public area. It's not Jane who's in the wrong, after all — she is perfectly within her rights to make a visit to the kitchen. This wouldn't be an issue in the first place if only they could be a normal couple and just have their private moments in private like everyone else, instead of being unable to admit that their private moments aren't made any less private just because they have them in public places—

Jane's runaway indignation stops abruptly when she hears multiple male voices. So it isn't just Clint and Natasha, then. Good. She'd worked herself up to a point where she would have felt compelled to keep going forward out of principle, but doesn't actually relish the thought of barging in on the two of them.

Bruce, in sweatpants and a t-shirt, is half sitting, half lying in an armchair. Steve, dressed similarly, is lying on the floor on his back, his hands behind his head, eyes closed. Clint and Natasha are sprawled out on the couch, one on each end, legs stretched toward one another. Natasha is lazily playing with one of Clint's sock-clad feet, while Clint is reading aloud from a book, wire-rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. He stops when Jane enters the room. They all make note of who the newcomer is, then Clint goes back to reading and the others go back to listening. This non-reaction to her presence somehow makes Jane feel more comfortable with them than she's ever felt before.

She prepares her warm milk, then goes back out, settling into one of the other armchairs. She doesn't recognize the book Clint's reading from, but it's a medieval fantasy of some kind, as there are strange names, historical-sounding events that don't come from any history she's ever heard of, and mentions of magic. There are far too many characters for Jane to keep up with, having arrived in the middle, but it doesn't matter, because Clint has a pleasant voice, slightly raspy from the late hour, and it dips up and down in a soothing rhythm as he reads.

"What an idiot," says Natasha, and Jane's eyes snap open. She'd been drifting off without realizing it.

"But think of everything she's been through," Steve says. His eyes are still closed. "Gosh, Sansa's really one of the strongest female characters in the book, if you think about it."

Natasha makes a pffft sound. "Not in comparison to her sister."

"Because she's like you," says Clint, who yelps when Natasha squeezes his toes.

"They have their own types of strength," says Bruce diplomatically. "But Cersei... what a bitch."

"Yeah," Steve agrees. "What a – that."

Clint removes his glasses, tossing them on the coffee table, and stretches with his whole body, taking the opportunity to tangle his legs with Natasha's. Jane resists the urge to roll her eyes. "Your turn, Rogers," he says.

"Nah, I'm beat." Steve gets gracefully to his feet. Jane's not sure how it happened. One second he's on his back; the next he's standing. "I'm gonna turn in."

"Me too," says Bruce. He lets out a yawn that sounds more like a growl.

Natasha and Jane get up as well, leaving Clint the lone holdout, an arm draped over his eyes. "You guys suck," he moans. "I always get the long fucking chapters."

"Come on," says Natasha, holding out her hands. Giving in, Clint takes them, allowing her to pull him up with petulant reluctance, being extra floppy and difficult.

"Cap," Natasha calls.

"All right, I'm getting up," Clint grouses.

"Was that Game of Thrones?" Jane asks, something finally clicking as they all troop to the elevator. Darcy has been going on and on about it. "Isn't that a TV show?"

They all stare at her.

"Don't say a single word," Clint says warningly. "Do you know how hard it is not to get spoiled?"

"That's pretty much all I know," Jane says.

"You're kidding, right?" Bruce asks, then sees the look on Jane's face. "Okay, you're not kidding. Wow, and I thought we were out of touch." Jane doesn't take exception to this. It's hard to take exception to anything Bruce says; he's just so mild.

"I know pop culture Jane doesn't know!" Steve crows, and punches in everyone's floors as they all pile into the elevator. She notices that he's selected Thor's for her, even though her room is still technically on a different floor.

"Not a very high bar," Jane informs him dryly. "I never get anything. I suck at Trivial Pursuit." Except for the astronomy questions, but she figures that's a given.

Bruce's floor is the elevator's first stop. "See you in the morning," he says to Jane.

"I'll bring you a jelly donut if Tony hasn't eaten them all," she replies. He sometimes does.

"He doesn't even really like those," sighs Bruce.

Next stop is Steve. He bids them all good night, then shuffles off, yawning behind his hand.

Thor's floor is next. Jane says goodbye to Clint and Natasha. Clint's eyes are half closed and he gives a one-handed wave. Natasha says, "Night."

Just before the doors fully close, Jane hears Clint joke, "Alone at last."

Jane crawls back into bed, sticking her feet out of the covers because Thor is generating obscene amounts of body heat. He rolls over, one heavy arm falling over her, and sighs contentedly. As she drifts off to sleep, part of her can't help but wonder whether the elevator actually lets anyone out on one of its last two stops.

//\\

They're at Monaco, one of the hottest new clubs in New York. It's not Jane's scene. It's not any of their scene, but somehow Tony has gotten his way again. Maybe because he happens to own this particular club, so they're on The List. What's great is that it's in New York, whose inhabitants pride themselves on not being impressed by anything, so no one in the club says a word to them, or even mentions the word "Avengers" in their presence. Hiding in plain sight at a trendy New York club is as incognito as they can get these days.

Thor's in Asgard this week, but Jane, Darcy, and even Erik are now officially residents of New York, though the latter two have their own places in the city. Erik very politely declined residence at Avengers Tower, saying that he is an old man set in his ways and will cramp their style (but what he really means is that he is too old to want to live in what amounts to a fancy dorm); Darcy not-so-politely declines a similar invitation, saying that she values her privacy too much to give it up for a celebrity hotel (but what she really means is that she is much too young to stay in what amounts to a retirement community for superheroes).

They grab a table in the VIP area, and Steve, Pepper, Tony and Darcy immediately head for the dance floor, while Clint and Natasha chart a course to the bar, refusing to wait for the server, leaving Jane and Bruce to try and converse over the loud, pounding music.

Jane likes Bruce a lot, thinks he's kind and intelligent and a good person besides, but he's like Natasha in that he holds part of himself back, and Jane knows from Thor that it's because of what Bruce refers to as "The Other Guy," and what Thor refers to as "a rare Midgardian who would be a worthy opponent for an Asgardian warrior." All of which makes Bruce not really a small-talk kind of person.

"You look very nice," Bruce shouts, making an effort.

"Thanks, so do you," Jane shouts back, and means it. Someone — probably Tony — has forced Bruce into a dark, custom-fitted pinstripe suit, and while he doesn't exactly look comfortable in it, he wears it well. Jane's wearing her favorite low-back purple dress and Darcy did her makeup, so she knows she looks good, too.

After a couple of back and forth "What?" "WHAT?" attempts, they lapse into silence.

Clint and Natasha return with four bottles of beer. Jane doesn't much like beer. She prefers wine and girly drinks like cosmopolitans and frozen blended things. Still, she accepts the proffered beverage and takes a sip. She'll get something else later.

Bruce takes his beer and says he's going to check the rest of the place out. To her surprise, Clint and Natasha don't make a beeline for the dance floor. She wonders if they're trying to be polite, not wanting to leave her by herself in the booth, but somehow she doesn't think that's it. If she could fill out that skintight aquamarine dress the way Natasha does, and if Thor were here, Jane would definitely be strutting her stuff and pressing right up close to her man to give him a taste for what'll come later. But of course, Clint is not Natasha's "man," so the two of them sit side by side, almost touching, and drink beer instead of indecently grinding together on the dance floor the way Tony and Pepper are currently doing.

Jane wants to say something to break the rather awkward silence, but is distracted by someone at the bar trying to get her attention. It's a woman she doesn't know. Jane points at herself and the woman nods, smiling wide, then points to Jane's left. Where Clint's sitting. With a slight sinking feeling in her stomach, Jane has a good guess what the woman wants. She considers ignoring her, then inwardly shrugs. It's none of her business. If Clint and Natasha say they're nothing more than friends, why shouldn't people believe them? So she taps Clint on the shoulder to get his attention.

"That woman at the bar," she says loudly in his ear. "The blonde, in the pink dress. I think she's trying to get your attention."

Surprised, Clint looks in the direction Jane's indicating. Natasha turns to look as well. He returns the blonde's wave weakly.

"Oh yeah," Natasha says. "She asked me about you when we were getting the beers."

"Really?" Clint says, expression betraying nothing. "What did you say?"

"I told her you're better in bed than you look—"

"Thanks," responds Clint dryly.

"—and that you're available."

Jane's straining to hear every word. She'll be responsible for reporting every word of this exchange to Pepper later.

"Really."

"Aren't you?" Natasha raises an eyebrow, taking a swig of her beer.

Clint lets out a short laugh and looks at the bottle in his hands, picking at the label. Jane's not sure if that's actually an answer.

Natasha seems to know, though, because she rolls her eyes and sets her beer down, then gets up and walks over to the bar. Clint looks as surprised as Jane feels. They watch as the two women converse. After another moment, Natasha turns around with a big smile on her face — something Jane's never seen — and gestures for Clint to join them. He tosses his napkin toward the center of the table and sighs.

"You don't have to go," Jane says, impulsively sticking her nose where it doesn't belong.

Clint laughs, but it's not a sound of mirth. "Why wouldn't I? I have the greatest goddamn best friend a guy could ask for." He turns and meets Jane's gaze with his, and in his eyes Jane gets the answers to all the questions she and Pepper have ever had about Clint and Natasha, all of which amounted to just one question, really.

And now that Jane knows, something in her doesn't want him to go over there, doesn't want him to hook up with this unknown blonde woman, doesn't want him to continue this charade that he and Natasha have had going for probably years. "Don't go," she repeats, knowing that it's futile, knowing that they know their roles too well and won't risk losing what they have for something unknown.

Jane's not surprised at all when Clint gets up and heads over to the bar. Introductions are made, Clint is soon chatting with the blonde woman, and Natasha is heading back to their table, completely unaware — no, ambivalent — to the stares she's getting from people of both sexes as she passes. She sets another beer down in front of Jane, but Jane is too preoccupied to appreciate this sign of consideration from someone she wasn't even sure liked her all that much.

"Why did you do that?" Jane's shocked to hear her own voice. She was going to stay out of it, she really was, but apparently her mouth is not following instructions from her brain tonight. It must be because Thor's not here. If he were, he'd be keeping her occupied, instead of leaving her free to meddle in other people's love lives.

"Do what?" Natasha settles into the booth, her dress like a second skin, and absently Jane wonders how she even got into it as the thing looks painted on. But she doesn't want to get distracted; that question can come later.

"Set the man you're in love with up with someone else," Jane says bluntly, deciding that with Natasha, honesty is the best course of action. Otherwise she'll answer evasiveness with evasiveness of her own, and Jane doesn't know how to play that game as well as Natasha does.

Natasha looks at Jane coolly. Someone else would backpedal at this point, would feel intimidated, would maybe wet themselves. But Jane's on her second bottle of disgusting beer, and she's decided that if Natasha won't be her friend, Jane'll still be hers. "Why do you care?" Natasha says finally, and Jane wants to throw a fist in the air in victory. She didn't deny it, she thinks gleefully, almost in shock. It's not an admission, but as close to one as she's ever going to get from Natasha Romanoff.

"Because you're both acting like idiots." In for a penny.

The look Natasha gives her says I've killed people for less. "Look. You love Thor. That's great. You and Thor... it's easy. You both want the same things. You're not — you don't —" Natasha stops. "It's hard to explain." What she means is, With Clint I don't have to explain.

"Well, he feels the same way. You know that, right?" Jane isn't letting her off that easy. She doesn't have to be Natasha's confidante, but she's tired of seeing two people who need each other so much not take the happiness that's being offered freely. Other people would kill for that kind of connection. It's such a waste; it's so stupid. And Jane has a low tolerance for stupidity. It's one of her main faults, which Darcy is only too happy to remind her of. Often.

"He said that?" Natasha says, almost involuntarily. She snaps her mouth shut immediately after she asks. "No, he wouldn't," she decides, and turns her head toward the bar. "He doesn't. He wouldn't have gone over there if he did," she finishes almost wistfully, then drains her bottle of beer. "Want another one? Stark has an open tab for us."

The last thing Jane wants is another beer. She thinks of Donald. She thinks of Thor. "Natasha," she says, and the urgency in her voice makes the other woman turn and look at her. "Don't settle for something in between. I'll be your wingwoman."

Natasha looks amused. "My what? Jane, you've only had two beers. How can you be this drunk?"

"I'm not drunk," Jane insists.

"Your face is bright red."

"It's hot in here. Let me do this for you," Jane says. "I do it for Darcy sometimes. I'm really good at it. Well, I'm kind of good at it. It's worked twice. Maybe. But it's not going to be hard, because he totally wants you. I don't even really have to do anything. Plus you're wearing that dress. There's no way—"

"Hey."

Jane and Natasha both look up in surprise to see Clint, who makes Natasha scoot in so that he can take the seat next to her. He easily could have sat on the other side of the booth, Jane wants to point out to Natasha, but doesn't.

"What happened?" Natasha asks.

"Shot down," Clint says, sighing a little. "I'm just bad at the bar scene thing."

Natasha looks at him sympathetically, but Jane doesn't buy a word. She saw them talking, saw how into him the blonde was, knows that Clint has a silver tongue the devil would envy. Like Tony, but with less of the asshole factor. He has a new bottle of beer, and is wiping down the condensation with a napkin, which he balls into his left fist and rubs around. He and Natasha are looking into each other's eyes like the moony idiots they are, but Jane sees a flash of ink.

She hops out of the booth while they're distracted and grabs his hand, tossing the damp napkin that he was using to try and rub away the ink, aside. "I knew it! You liar!"

"Foster, what the hell?" Clint says, snatching his hand back.

"Marjorie," Jane announces, looking at Natasha in a challenging way and pointing at Clint's fist. "212-842-5185." She's always been good at remembering numbers, a helpful skill for a scientist to have.

Clint looks panicked. He turns to Natasha, undoubtedly about to deny it or laugh it off or make some kind of excuse. Maybe all at the same time.

He's never given the chance. Natasha leans forward abruptly to fuse her mouth to his, a hand on his jawline to hold him in place.

This time, Jane doesn't even try to hold back the fist pump. It's the perfect moment when she also happens to catch Pepper's eye on the dance floor. Jane knows exactly when Pepper sees what's going on in the booth behind Jane. Her mouth drops open. After a moment, she raises two thumbs up to acknowledge Jane's victory, while shooting her a look that says, You will spill all, later.

Jane leaves Clint and Natasha to their makeout session, which, from what she can see out of the corner of her eye, has escalated quickly. She's never witnessed two people so hungry for one another, but they're going to have to take it somewhere else soon. Even a club owned by Tony Stark, who would himself be open to all sorts of debauchery, has its limits. It is, after all, bound by the laws of New York City, and isn't actually a strip joint, so she's pretty sure there's a rule about clothing, in that, generally, you should be wearing some.

Jane marches over to the bar, smiling to herself.

She damn well deserves the tallest, frostiest piña colada they have.

//\\