Chapter 1: Prologue
The ER versus the Manhattan Fire-fighters baseball game is a tradition that stems from the sixties, when Chief of Staff Lee bet his ER staff could annihilate the members of Fire Chief Kirby’s team in a game of baseball.
In the past forty years, Lee has never won that bet – in fact, the opposite has been true.
But this year, something is different. Maybe it’s the temperature: breezy yet warm, even though it’s the middle of August and it should be scorching. Maybe it’s the fact that no one from either sides has turned up to cheer (both sides think the inevitable is going to happen, so why bother turning up to watch?) except for Pepper, of course.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the new ER recruits.
It’s the bottom of last inning, and so far, it’s been pretty even (a first in the history of the competition) – but the fire fighters are still four points up.
Doctor Maria Hill walks off after being hit out – her bright eyes sparkle dangerously and everyone subconsciously takes a step away from her. Before her, Phil Coulson and Pepper Potts, ER janitor and clerk respectively, have already gone around but haven’t managed to win any runs, not for lack of trying.
Steve Rogers walks up to bat. Steve is one of those men who effortlessly inspire others: case in point being the enthusiasm from the ER team when they found out he would be the captain. They’re cheering him on with a similar excitement that has been previously unrecorded. He spins the bat in his hand, licks his lips once, and then hits the ball. He sprints around the bases and back to home and yes! Its close but it’s definitely a run and just four more to go.
Steve holds the kind of unknowing, accidental power over people that many would assume he’s a doctor at the ER. But beyond the muscle and Greek god jaw line lies the deepest need to help people that goes past just stitching bodies up. Hence, his title of head nurse.
Next up to bat, it’s Tony Stark, surgeon extraordinaire, who swaggers to his position with dark hair and a smirk designed to weaken the knees of the female pitcher. He’s wearing his baseball cap backwards – Steve had teased him about wearing it properly earlier, even ruffling Tony’s hair after stealing the cap and rearranging it to its current position - Indeed, her throw is a little on the outside, but Tony still manages to hit it and runs all the way to home and past it. He does a little dance there (much to the disdain of the catcher next to him) and then sticks his tongue out at Steve, who rolls his eyes and gives him a somewhat satirical thumbs up.
Just two more points for a drawing score.
Thor is next: Paramedic Odinson. With his blonde locks and phenomenal biceps, it’s no surprise that he hits the ball far up into the air. But just as he races around to third, a horrified roar comes from the ER team – the ball has been caught by fire fighter Luke Cage and Thor is the second person out. He throws the bat on the floor in anger and curses in a strange language that sounds suspiciously like Old Norse. But he trudges over to the bench and sits next to Maria, who’s scowling at everyone. Things are tense now – one more person out and the fire fighters will win the game.
Dr. Bruce Banner is next up, the hospital’s most prized psychiatrist. Technically, he shouldn’t be playing as part of the ER team, but Steve found his old yearbook and discovered he was on the school’s baseball team and they got all the way to nationals. Anyway, he spends enough time in ER, helping to sort the genuine crazies from the drugged up or fakers. He’s scrawnier than the others, so the pitcher throws him a softer pitch, underestimating him drastically. He hits it enough to get him to second base while the opposing team are still wondering how the average-sized guy could run so fast.
The fire fighters are, understandably, confused. They’re exactly the same team from last year and they had been expecting a game of the same calibre and a win of the same difficulty. Meanwhile, the ER team are congratulating each other, though the game is far from over. Either one more person out or three more runs for one of the teams to win.
Next up, Dr. Natasha Romanoff. She’s a force to be reckoned with, her short orange locks and beautiful features meaning that once again, the fire fighters are guilty of
underestimating their opponent. There’s a wolf whistle from somewhere; she plays with it and winks in the general direction of its owner. She sways her hips, clad in denim shorts that barely cover her long longs. She leans forward over home a little, crowding it so the catcher can’t help but be distracted by her sculpted backside.
Then, while they’re still marvelling over her low-cut tank top, she scores a full run getting two points for both her and Bruce crossing home.
The teams’ scores are both the same – six all. The fire fighters, almost simultaneously, visibly tense and grit their teeth. This game has just become very serious.
Whooping the loudest over her victory is the man who’s also next to bat: Clint Barton. He’s another member of the team who technically shouldn’t be playing, since he’s a physical therapist, but his skill and physique put him in a definite slot in the team. Known for his wise-cracking smile and his fierce allegiance with Natasha (she’s the one who suggested his inclusion), it’s no surprise that he makes a joke about the whole fire fighting team still picking their jaws up from the door as he steps up to bat.
He gets two strikes and the fire fighters are smirking amongst themselves, their previous tension replaced by relaxed confidence. But they don’t see that Natasha’s smirking as well.
The pitcher throws the ball and time seems to slow down, just for a split-second, and then it speeds up again as Clint hits the ball with a loud crack. It spins through the air at a wicked speed through all of the fielders.
Well, almost all of the fielders. It hits the furthest one (coincidentally, the wolf whistle culprit) straight in the groin with a sickening thud.
Across the park, every single male onlooker winces as the stricken fielder goes purple and falls to the floor in a fetal position.
Meanwhile, Clint races all the way around to score the winning point.
And thus, the Avengers are born, amidst the eruption of cheers and shouts. The ER team go wild – their last home run was in 1982, and was then discounted because a passing dog had snatched the ball – clapping and yelling in ecstasy.
A short while later, after the fire fighters have grumbled their own way home, they start to walk back through Manhattan – most of them have a shift at the hospital in a bit, anyway – still laughing and reliving their victory. Maria gets a taxi, still sulking over being caught out.
Tony and Steve walk up in front of the group – it’s difficult to believe that just three months ago, they were constantly down each other’s throats, arguing about the smallest of things.
Behind them, Bruce and Pepper discuss their shared interests, of which there are two: being friends with Tony and a love of classic literature. They’re comparing J.D Salinger to Tony without his morning cup of coffee when Thor bounces in between them, wrapping his arms around their shoulders. He smiles down at them and tells them what a shame it is that his fellow paramedic, Sif, couldn’t play, since she’s a mighty player.
And bringing up the rear are Phil, Clint and Natasha, sharing private jokes from when it was only them at lunch breaks, when Natasha and Clint had just moved to the city and Phil was the only one they would talk to.
Together, they have avenged their hospital’s broken reputation.
Chapter 2: Monday - Natasha
Natasha bashes her first against the vending machine, and curses some choice words in Russian.
"Are you alright?" Clint's grinning face appears next to her. She scowls, and then he seems to realize she hasn't had her morning coffee yet, so he backs off. "You're way too aggressive."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"No, I mean with the vending machine. You gotta coax it into giving you the candy."
"I don't want the candy."
"Then what the hell are you doing with a vending machine?"
"I want the granola bar." Her stomach growls illustratively. "I didn't have breakfast this morning."
"I thought girls didn't have breakfast anyway - makes them fat." Clint says lightly, even though they both know that she didn't skip breakfast out of choice.
Natasha sighs. "Well, I'm hungry." She bashes her fist against the machine again, and snarls at it.
Clint gently pulls her arm away and tugs the dollar out of her closed palm. "Look." He eases the dollar into the slot with a care never before seen on Clint's face. "There we go."
The machine stutters and starts, and then the granola bar starts spiraling out of its position. Natasha is seconds away from patting Clint affectionately (sort of like a normal person's hug), but then it gets trapped and stuck and dammit.
"Well, at least I got it halfway!" He defends.
"But now I don’t have a dollar or a granola bar!" She huffs and stares at him accusingly.
He raises a finger. "Okay, I can still fix this."
"Roommate of the janitor, remember?" He grins. "I'll get Phil to fix it."
She raises an eyebrow. "Oh, really? Because you said he fixed it last month and it broke the day after."
"He did fix it!" Clint points a finger at her. "It's not Phil's fault that Fury won't-"
"Fury won't what?"
The deep voice comes from behind them and they spin around with wide eyes. He glowers at them, hands on his hips, and surely the Medical Chief of Staff isn't supposed to wear black?
Clint gulps. "I was saying that Fury - eh, Doctor Fury - won't back down because he is our strong capable leader."
Strong and capable leader? Natasha raises an eyebrow at him.
Fury casts his eye (his one eye, the other is bandaged up with black gauze after an operation at the weekend) over them both, and then decides it's very obviously not worth it. He spins around and storms back to his office at the other end of the hospital.
Clint lets out a huge breath of air. "Oh my god."
"You were this close," she holds her thumb and index finger half an inch apart, "to being beheaded."
"He's been, like, ten times more cranky ever since he lost an eye."
"Clint." She tuts. "He hasn't lost an eye. He just had an operation."
He looks at her darkly. "That's what he says. But I know someone down in radiology who-"
"Who, Peter Parker?" She rolls her eyes. "He's a gossip and a half, Clint, you shouldn't listen to him."
An aloft expression forms on his expression. "Actually, not Peter Parker."
He fiddles with his thumb nail. "Well, you know Jean Grey-"
"She is a class-A crazy." Natasha cuts him off. "She told me last month that she was channeling this new meditative program, the Phoenix, or something."
"Actually, I've heard good things about that."
"Oh, no you haven't. It's just lavender oil and a CD with wave sounds." She looks disgusted at the idea. “Come on, my shift starts in twenty minutes and I need a coffee before then.”
Clint walks with her to the break room, all the while complaining about this new patient he has. “My god, Nat, you will not believe how rude and lazy this guy is. First time I met him, he was brought in a wheelchair, which is buckling underneath him, mind you, and I spent the entire appointment just convincing him to put down his burger!” He runs a hand through his sandy hair. “I should’ve been a proper doctor, instead of this stupid physical therapist crap.”
“Man up, Barton,” she replies as they open the door and walk inside. “Just-”
She’s cut off by the loud argument going on across the coffee table.
“At least I’m not a jerk to everyone!”
“I’m a surgeon! I don’t need to be nice!”
“You don’t need to be anything, do you? You’ve never needed anything because you’re a spoiled brat-”
“Stop being so damn judgmental, Steve – oh wait, you’re always judgmental, aren’t you?”
Then they suddenly realise they’re not the only ones in the room. Steve, red with anger in his light blue scrubs, and Tony in his surgeon’s green with disheveled hair and fisted hands by his side.
“Hey,” Steve clears his throat. “Uh, we-” Tony shoots him one last glare and stalks past Natasha and Clint, muttering a harsh apology.
Natasha looks back at Steve, who is suddenly fumbling with his mug of tea, the fight sapped out of him. Clint looks at her pointedly – you can deal with this – and goes to start up the coffee machine. She slides into the seat next to Steve. “You should just ignore him.” She offers.
“He didn’t start it.” Steve confesses, fiddling guiltily with the tea bag’s label. “I mean, well, technically, he started the fight but it was, uh, my fault.”
She frowns. “What happened?” Judging by Clint’s overly-relaxed position, he’s just as curious.
Steve goes bright red. “I – uh, nothing. My shift starts in a few minutes – I should go. “ He stands and leaves behind his tea in his haste, his ears ruby red.
Natasha looks at Clint, who shrugs. “Leave them to it.” He sets down her coffee in front of her; black and strong, like her soul, as Clint would often joke. “They’ll kiss and make up eventually.”
She certainly hopes so – the atmosphere in the ER had been near blissful when Steve and Tony had been friends. Natasha certainly didn’t want that to change just because of...whatever was going on between them.
“I have to go,” Clint checks his watch. “My nine o’ clock will be here soon and I need to collect her charts.”
Natasha smirks. “Is that the one who keeps flirting with you?”
Clint pulls a face. “No, thank god. That delightful woman is no longer in my care. Anyway, I’ll see you at lunch?”
At the reminder of food, Natasha’s stomach gurgles. She takes a sip of the coffee to placate it. Perhaps Pepper will have something going spare – she usually over packs her lunch. Natasha starts walking to the ER reception, a few corridors away.
She and Clint had known each other before they both made the move to New York – they went to the same university, and then had both gone to Chicago for a job. Then, with the arrival of a new Chief of Staff, as rude as he was stupid, they had come to the New York hospital together.
“Hey, Pepper?” She walks around the huge reception desk and leans down next to her.
“No, you listen to me, Loki, I am not in charge of ordering the new scalpels, go talk to Human Resources or Management – I’m not Human Resources, I’m a clerk!” She slams the phone down with such force, they both hear an audible crack. Pepper sighs. “I don’t care if he’s Thor’s brother, he’s annoying.”
Natasha rubs Peppers back with one hand. “He’s so needy. He probably just wanted to talk to someone.”
Pepper, all of a sudden, looks horrified. “Oh, no! Do you think? Oh, I’m a horrible person.”
“No!” Natasha needs to stop putting her foot in her mouth. “No, I meant-”
“Somebody help!” A man suddenly staggers into the door, holding a bleeding body in a fireman’s hold. “Please!”
“Get Tony! I think we’re going to need him.” Natasha tells Pepper, and then she runs to the man. “Somebody get a gurney!”
A pair of hands are there suddenly, helping Natasha and she looks up. Steve. She smiles but he doesn’t see it, too focused on the bleeding huddle as they wheel it away.
The man tries to follow: “Please!”
“We’re going to do the best we can,” Steve tells the man as they enter the resuscitation room, where Tony, thank heavens, is already getting everything ready. “Can you tell us what happened?”
“They...” The man slumps against the wall as the operating doors slam shut and Natasha is cut away from both him and Steve. But time to focus.
Ten minutes later, the man is dead and there’s blood everywhere and there’s nothing to be done that they haven’t already tried. But Tony won’t stop trying.
“Tony!” Natasha snaps. He looks up at her with vulnerable eyes.
“Come on!” he says forcefully. “We’ve saved worse.”
But then Steve’s hand is on Tony’s arm. He whispers something that Natasha can’t hear and Tony deflates, his bloody, latex-clad hands falling away. “Fuck.” He whispers.
Natasha can’t help but agree. “I’ll clean up,” she tells Steve, who still hasn’t torn his gaze away from Tony.
But then Tony shoves Steve away and storms out of the room to clean up. Steve sighs, watching him leave. “I’ll help.” He says, and Natasha is burning to ask what’s going on, but she doesn’t. Instead, she nods and goes to call Loki to come pick the body up.
Then a man, the one who brought the now-dead patient in, bursts into the room. He sees the body, now a corpse, and goes very pale.
Steve stands up. “Hey, you shouldn’t be in here-”
“No!” The man breathes, staring at his blood stained hands in the white light, and this is the worst part, it always is. “No, he’s getting married in two weeks.”
Steve puts a hand on his shoulder (luckily, he has taken off his bloody gloves) and says, “Come on.”
Natasha rubs the side of her head, where an ache has already started – she really needs some food.
So she goes to find Thor, once everything’s been cleaned up – but then another emergency comes in and for God’s sake, people need to stop drinking and driving. She tries again after that’s been sorted with (the woman is stabilized after a few moments and taken down to the ICU with a grumpy-looking Tony) but then there’s yet another emergency, someone who has impaled themselves on a screwdriver straight through a lung, and then before Natasha knows it, it’s lunchtime anyway.
She takes her break, letting Maria Hill take over for an hour, and meets Clint in the break room. She slumps into a chair and lets her forehead bang onto the table. She groans. “I should’ve been a stripper.”
“Yes, you should have,” Clint sounds amused. “You would’ve made a fortune. No student loans to pay off, and the only latex you’d be using would be-”
She holds up a flat palm without looking up. “It’s too early.”
“I need food.”
“Well, then, maybe you should be a bit nicer to one of your dearest friends.” She looks up suspiciously and sees the grocery bag Clint is dangling temptingly. “I even go those stupid kid snacks you like.”
“The chocolate biscuits?” Natasha grins hopefully and reaches for it. “The ones shaped like elephants?”
“And they say I’m immature,” Clint scoffs, but relents, dumping the contents on the table in between them. While he reaches for an apple, Natasha goes straight for the aforementioned snack and gobbles it in a most un-lady-like way.
“I love you,” she tells him. “Can I have your children?”
Clint grins, and is about to say something when the door opens again.
“Who is having children?” Thor’s booming voice is amused.
Natasha smiles at him. “Me.”
Thor looks utterly elated. “Whose is it?”
She nods at Clint. “His."
Thor strides over and claps Clint on the shoulder. “Well done, Clint! Finally, you have-”
“She’s joking!” Clint’s voice is suddenly very high-pitched; Natasha can’t tell whether it’s because of Thor’s strength or his words. “She’s not pregnant.”
Thor frowns. “Oh.”
“Sorry,” Natasha pats the chair next to her as consolation. "Believe me, if Clint and I had a baby, it would turn out to be the spawn of Satan.”
“Yeah, from your DNA.” Clint sticks his tongue out. “My genes are excellent, thank you very much.”
Natasha snorts. “Not with that nose.”
Clint instinctively reaches up to touch his nose (which isn’t that bad, Natasha’s just teasing) without realising that he’s still holding a small carton or orange juice. In his self-conscious hurry, he accidentally presses the carton against his face a smidgen to hard and a spurt of juice hits him in the eye.
A split-second where no-one does anything, but then Clint starts yowling about his eye while Natasha and Thor howl with laughter.
“What are you guys all giggling about?” Bruce walks inside, ruffling his hair tiredly.
“We were not giggling,” Thor protests.
“Like school girls.”
Natasha grins. “Clint got orange juice in his eye.” Clint looks at Bruce with one eyes squinted shut and a forlorn expression.
“It hurts,” he moans.
Bruce smiles, and sits down next to him. “Here,” he offers, producing a tissue from his pocket.
“Thanks,” Clint wipes his face. “Ew, it’s all sticky.”
“You’re such a baby.”
“Whatever.” Clint turns to Bruce. “Have you had lunch yet?” He gestures to the huge amount of food scattered on the table.
Bruce shakes his head. “Betty packed me sandwiches, though.” He brandishes a small lunchbox and gets out a chicken sandwich. “Ooh, she added extra mayo.”
Natasha grins. “I feel I haven’t seen you in ages, Bruce.”
“Well,” he wipes a bit of mayonnaise from his lip. “I took the weekend off, including Friday, to go meet Betty’s parents. They were very nice.”
Thor sighs heavily. “When I took Jane to meet my parents, they started asking about her fertility and genetics.”
Clint laughs. “You’re kidding.”
“I wish I was.” Thor says solemnly.
Bruce finishes his sandwich, and looks thoughtful. “Hey, does anyone know what’s going on with Tony and Steve?” They all shake their heads. “They’ve been acting really weird today.”
“They were fine on Saturday,” Clint muses.
“And yesterday,” Thor chimes in. “I remember Steve asking Tony if he wanted to go see a movie last night.”
Clint frowns. “Like... a date?”
Natasha sighs. “Who wants to bet that Tony screwed it up somehow?” A chorus of agreement sounds out around the table. “Typical.”
“I thought they were already dating,” Clint shrugs one shoulder.
“No, Tony would’ve told Pepper, and Pepper would told me,” she frowns. “I wonder-”
“Tony would’ve told Pepper what?”
They all jump guiltily at the sound of Pepper herself, looking at them sternly from the doorway.
“Nothing!” Bruce stammers nervously, just as Thor says rashly, “We were talking about Steve and Tony’s recent dispute!”
Clint and Natasha share an exasperated look.
Pepper nods understandingly. “Tell me about it. I think Tony made an intern cry earlier.”
Natasha points to one of the few remaining chairs around the table invitingly, as Bruce asks in concern, “How did he do that?”
“He told her she was stupid and she should become a nurse instead of a surgeon because she clearly wasn’t clever enough to be a proper doctor.” Pepper rolls her eyes.
“Now, who do we know who’s a nurse?” Clint deadpans.
“You think the insult is related to Steve?” Thor frowns.
Clint nods. “Tony’s the king of passive-aggressive.”
Thor opens his mouth, almost as if he’s about to ask what passive-aggressive means, but then he decides against it and remains silent.
Pepper grabs for one of the remaining candy bars and starts un-wrapping it. “Something definitely happened last night. But Tony won’t tell me what.”
“At the movies?” Natasha presses.
“No, I don’t think they ended up going,” Pepper takes a thoughtful bite.
Clint sighs in defeat. “Well, there goes my theory.”
“And what was that?”
“That Tony stood Steve up or something,” he says. “You know how forgetful he can be.”
“It does sound like something Tony would do...” Bruce hedges.
They remain silent for a moment; the only sound was of Pepper eating.
And then the door bursts open. Loki pokes his head around, oily black hair swishing around his pale skin. His eyes gleam. “You need to see this,” he enthuses.
They all look at each other for a second, and then they’re clambering out of their chairs, following Loki to the ER waiting room.
And yes, Loki was right, they most certainly did want to see this.
In the middle of the room is a big, hairy man, being barely restrained by Steve who holds him from behind in a bear hug. The man is wearing only tiny speedos. He’s also covered in bright pink paint.
Opposite him is an equally huge man, coated in green instead of pink.
“I’ll kill you!” The pink man screams.
“Not if I kill you first!” The green man yells back – Thor races over to hold him back as well.
Natasha pinches the bridge of her nose. It’s just going to be one of those days.
“You son of a bitch!” The green man shouts – his voice slightly strangled by Thor’s hold on him.
“Shut it, you damn turd-face!” The pink man shrieks in response. The other people in the ER have backed away nervously, staring with wide eyes.
Natasha can’t help but hope that someone has called security. But looking at the way the men are dragging Thor and Steve, who each could be on the cover of Men’s Health, they might not be much help. So, before she even knows what she’s doing, she steps in between them. “Both of you, shut up!” She barks, and holds out her hands and to everyone’s surprise, it works. They both gape at her.
She looks at Steve. “What happened?”
Steve gives her a look suggesting he knows about as much as she does. “They came in with a blue guy – he had internal bleeding, I think. Tony and Maria took him.”
“Oh god...” The green guy goes limp and holds his green head in his green hands. “What if he dies?”
The pink man looks just as aghast. “No, he can’t.”
Natasha deliberately makes her voice as calm as possible. “We’ve got out best surgeons and doctors and nurses working on him, okay? You did the right thing by bringing him here – but shouting at each other won’t help.”
Then, to Natasha’s horror, the pink man starts crying. This is sets the green man off, and then, Thor and Steve as shocked as Natasha, they reach for each other. The meet in the middle with a wet smack – the wet paint between them splatters into the air and some of the drops hit Natasha in the face.
She’s about to complain, but then she sees that Steve and Thor’s fronts are covered in the stuff, and she grins. They look down at themselves and groan. “Let’s go get you cleaned up.” She looks at the time. “Come on, we still have ten minutes of lunch break left.”
Security arrives a moment later, passing them in the corridor and giving them each a strange look.
"This is so embarrassing," Steve mutters as they walk past staring patients and staff.
"I should be getting back to the ambulance," Thor agrees.
"Be my guest," Natasha raises an eyebrow at the both of them, stopping in front of the men's toilets. "I'll get you some new scrubs while you clean it out your skin, okay? And your hair," she adds, looking at Thor, who strokes his paint-flecked tresses sadly.
"Thank you, Natasha," they say in unison, and she hides her smile behind a roll of her eyes.
When she comes back with the fresh scrubs and strides inside, she's greeted with the view of Steve and Thor's naked chests. She frowns, and chucks Steve’s new clothes at him. "Hurry up, or the next guy who walks in here with leave with a different sexuality.”
Steve goes pink and shoves the light blue fabric over his head. Thor preens next to him, admiring himself in the mirror. "Do you think so, Natasha?"
She smirks. "Jane and Tony are very lucky."
She realises what she's said a second later: Thor booms with laughter as Steve's blush deepens and he stammers out a denial.
“I managed to scrounge some spare trousers for you,” Natasha throws them at Thor. “But you’ll have to make do with just a doctor’s shirt.” He catches it, the same colour as Natasha’s.
The bathroom door suddenly opens, and a teenager walks in, with straightened hair and a black hoodie. He takes one look at the half-naked men and the fact there’s a girl in the guy’s bathroom and walks straight back out again.
Natasha bites her lip to stop herself grinning. “Well, I should get back. Adieu, gentlemen.”
Her good mood lasts the journey back to the ER – as soon as she walks through the doors, she’s greeted with chaos.
A battlefield of sorts is set up, with two opposing groups shouting insults and profanities at each other. Natasha runs to Pepper, who is desperately trying to calm everyone down, to no avail.
“I am so not paid enough for this!” She moans.
“Where am I needed?” Natasha asks urgently – she can console Pepper over her career choices later. Pepper grudgingly points to the operating room and Natasha bursts inside.
Tony’s there, with an unconscious girl on the table, bleeding from a stomach wound. “What can I do?” She asks as an intern – Bucky? – tugs a plastic apron on her.
“Maria’s here already,” Tony nods to Dr Hill with her short hair and bright eyes. “You go to Hammer – for God’s sake, Kaplan, just stick the IV in, it’s not that difficult – next door.”
Natasha nods and shoulders her way through the double doors into the neighboring operating room, where Dr Justin Hammer is dealing with a teenage boy.
“What have we got?” She asks.
“Miss Romanov,” he looks up at her with coy eyes. “How lovely to see you.”
“Doctor Romanov,” Natasha corrects out of habit and a little bit of spite. “What are we dealing with?”
“Gun shot to the spleen.” He snaps back into professional mode. “Juliet’s father came home to find Romeo in his daughter’s bed.”
Natasha frowns. “So why is Juliet in here as well?”
“Her father accidentally shot her as well.” Hammer shakes his head. “Christ, I am never having kids.” Natasha privately seconds that motion, but doesn’t say anything and focuses on attaching the blood bag.
About six minutes later, Natasha is doing CPR while Hammer tries to stop the bleeding. They were this close to getting the boy stable so he could be taken down to ICU, but then Hammer had pulled out the bullet too quickly and had accidentally nicked an artery with the tweezers. So it takes longer than it should but eventually his heart is beating regularly and the wound has been stitched up and he’s being wheeled away.
Natasha strips off her gloves and bloody apron and looks at the clock – just six more hours to go.
She goes back to the other operating room and sees Tony holding defibrillators. “Clear,” he snaps. Maria and all the others surrounding the table – including Steve, Natasha notices – step back as he jolts the girl. The heartbeat monitor beeps, once, twice, enough to make Tony deflate in relief. “Okay,” he says. “I’m going to have to take her down to surgery.” Still instructing the interns, he wheels her through the doors and down the corridor to surgery.
Once again, Steve and Natasha are left behind to clear up – Maria’s also there, however, this time.
Maria’s perpetual frown deepens as she looks at them both. “Tony seems more neurotic than usual,” she comments.
Natasha speaks before Steve can, saving him from the blush that is sure to follow. “He’s pretty tired, I guess.”
“Oh?” Maria always has been too nosy for her own good.
“Well, Fury’s been keeping him up all night,” Natasha wiggles her eyebrows suggestively. “If you know what I mean.”
Maria clearly does know what she means, because her face colors and she walks out of the room without another word.
Natasha and Steve clear up the room in silence, until Steve finally says, “Thanks.”
She goes back into the ER just in time for a new arrival – it doesn’t require the operating room, however, just a bad head wound that she quickly stitches up. Then she decides she has nothing better to do so she deals with the ones who have been quietly waiting for a while, with just a minor problem.
One patient is determined she has a brain tumor because she can constantly see a pig in her vision. Natasha has to placate her by giving her an appointment to see Bruce, though she tells the woman that he’s a qualified tumor specialist.
Then, a very brave kid with a fork stuck in his hand thanks to his older sister, who Natasha sends off for a drugs test because his pupils are very large and he’s shaking unnaturally. After that, a man who has a nasty gash across his cheek from telling his wife he wanted a divorce.
Then, Natasha is called back to the operating room because a guy is going crazy on the table and he managed to slash Maria across the wrist with a knife in his pocket. Maria is sitting is the corner, calmly wrapping a bandage across her bleeding wrist, when Natasha runs in. Steve is holding the flailing man down as scared interns and veteran nurses strap him down.
It’s not long after that when they manage to get anesthetic into him which calms him into unconsciousness. After that, it’s a simple procedure – alcohol poisoning – which they’ve all dealt with before.
Then there’s nothing which really needs her immediate attention because Maria takes over the operating room again and the nurses are making the interns deal with all the minor injuries in the waiting room. So she decides to go check up on Juliet and Romeo (at the very least, she can find out there actual names.)
It turns out that the pair aren't exactly star-crossed lovers. Her name is Rosie and his is, according to him, ‘Dannolo’.
“Your dad shot me!”
“I told you to leave earlier!” The girl is red, cheeks streaked with tears and snot. The boy doesn’t look much better. “You only stayed because you wanted to wait for my sister!”
“That’s because she’s way hotter than you!”
“Screw you, Colin seems happy enough with me!”
Natasha decides to just leave a flabbergasted Tony, stuck in between the two, to it. But he sees her before she can escape and practically runs at her to thrust the clipboard at her. “You do it.”
She pushes the chart back at him. “Wasn’t Fury saying you needed to improve your bedside manner?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m not doing it.”
“No. Think of it as honing a new skill.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, you sound like Steve.”
“Wait, did you just say his name without storming out of the room like a diva?”
“I thought you two were having an argument.”
“We’re not having an argument.”
“You’re not?” She raises a sceptical eyebrow.
“No, see, because that would suggest we’re arguing about something.”
“It sure seems like you’re arguing about something.”
“Actually, we’re in complete agreement.”
“Oh, no!” He wags a finger at her. “Don’t you use your Russian interrogation techniques on me, it won’t work!”
“Tony, I immigrated from Russia when I was nine years old, you’re being racist.”
“I’m not being-”
“This only proves how desperately you need to improve your people skills.”
“I have plenty of people skills, I’m a social delight!”
She pats his indignant head. “Just talk to them, get their medical history, et cetera.”
“You do know we’re right here?” The boy says crossly. His haughty expression is ruined somewhat by his childish folded arms and his hospital gown.
Natasha pushes Tony towards them. “Hey, kids, say hi to Mister Stark.”
“We’re not kids!”
“I’m a doctor! Doctor Stark!”
Natasha looks at the clock in the ER – just three more hours until she’s home again.
And by home, she means a dingy studio apartment in Queens with a landlord who smells of urine, and a suspiciously unreliable lighting system. But it’s hers and she’s thinking of getting a cat and it’s this or using her father’s money to pay off her student loans, which is the nightmare scenario. But she tries not to think about that so she throws herself back into work.
One patient with a missing thumb – one with a bad burn on her recently shaved scalp. One who swallowed white powder and is having a very bad reaction to it(the white powder is later found to be rat poison hidden in sugar and it really is a bad day to divorce your partners). A little girl who have a dime stuck in her nose and a not-so-little girl who needs a pregnancy test as soon as possible.
Two hours to go.
By the time her shift is over, her eyelids are heavy. Hair lazily tied up into a ponytail she’s about to go find Clint before she remembers that his hours are normal and he’s been home for a few hours now. Same with Bruce, and Coulson, and hell if she’s going to deliberately seek out Tony or Steve when they’re being so weird.
It must be fate, she decides, when she meets Thor in the changing room, packing up his uniform in his locker.
“Hey,” she greets. “Need someone to walk out with?”
He grins at her. “I would very much like that.”
They go past reception – Happy Hogan is there now, instead of Pepper, her shift ended before anyone else’s – chatting about each other’s day amicably.
Thor nods at Natasha’s telling of the not-quite Romeo and Juliet. “Ah yes, I remember bringing those two in. They would not stop arguing the entire time. It reminded me of how Sif and I sometimes are.”
Natasha can easily imagine the arguments between hot-headed Thor and stubborn Sif. “What do you argue about?”
“Many things,” Thor smiles fondly. “Directions, opinions, Loki, even the weather sometimes.”
She frowns as they walks down the busy pavement. “Why do you argue about Loki?”
Thor twists his lips, making his blond beard twitch. “Sif is much harsher on Loki and his actions than I am.”
“What actions?” Natasha presses on. Her father had always said curiosity would be the end of her.
Thor now looks distinctly uncomfortable. “Once,” he admits slowly. “He tried to poison my father.”
Natasha gapes. She had been imagining pranks, of the sort Loki usually did, not an actual murder attempt. “What?”
“It was in reaction to being told he was not biologically my brother.”
She frowns. “Loki isn’t actually your brother?”
“He was adopted,” Thor replies sadly. “When he was a baby; his own parents were killed.”
Natasha isn’t really sure what to say to that – luckily, she doesn’t have to think of anything. She points to the subway sign. “Well, that’s my ride.” She says apologetically.
He nods, his smile returning. “I will see you tomorrow.” He kisses her on the cheek and turns to walk away.
When she arrives home, she sort of wants just to curl up and go to bed. But she needs to eat and it’s only nine and she’s worked for longer before. She grabs a TV dinner out of the fridge and warms it up in her microwave, the one thing in this apartment that isn’t about to fall apart.
She’s about to sit down and read a book (in Russian, so she doesn’t forget her native language) with her meal, but then the phone rings. She sighs, and picks it up. “Hello?”
Natasha freezes. “Papa.”
“How is New York treating you?”
“It is good.” Speaking to her father, her accent comes back in full force. “What are you calling about?”
“You remember Joseph?”
“Of course.” A childhood friend from Moscow, who had begged her not to leave, who had run around the snowy streets with her, who had joined her on so many deliveries of her father’s packages.
“He was killed last night.”
Natasha falls to the closest seat, which just so happens to be her kitchen floor. An exhalation escapes from her lips. “How?”
“The Maggia gang.”
She remembers various stab wounds that had come into the ER, with whispers of the Maggia being behind them, and their increase in the past few weeks. “I thought they were only operating in New York.”
“Apparently they have spread their interests to Russia.”
Natasha pinches the bridge of her nose. “Very well. Thank you for informing me, Papa.”
“I am sorry, Natasha.”
“I have to go now,” she lies. “I have a shift at the hospital.”
“Goodbye.” Never one for unnecessary civilities, he hangs up.
She stares at the phone, and for a second, contemplates throwing it against the wall. Then she dials another number. “Clint?”
“Nat? What’s up?”
“Do you...Uh,” she twiddles her fingers around the phone’s twirling cord. “Can I come over?”
“Sure,” he sounds confused. “What’s up?”
“Nothing, nothing.” She says absent-mindedly. She reaches for her coat and her shoes, TV dinner forgotten. “You sure it’s okay?”
“Yeah, of course it is.” He really sounds confused now. “Nat-”
“Okay, I’m going to have to hang up now,” she says quickly before he can ask too many questions. “I’ll be at yours in five minutes.” She slams the phone down and she’s out the door before she can change her mind.
Chapter 3: Tuesday - Bruce
Betty has good days and bad days. Today is a good day.
She whistles as she irons his shirt even though he assures her she doesn’t need to, and she watches morning television with a wide smile and laughs at all the jokes (even though they’re really cheesy). “Hey, honey,” she reaches up to kiss him on the cheek as he sits down to eat his cereal.
“Good morning, Betty-Boo,” he smiles teasingly at her, setting his spoon down by the side of his bowl. “Is anything the matter?”
“No, no,” she tilts her head to the side. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” he promises. “So much.”
People have told him before, how can you put up with it? When she becomes hysterical and it’s all he can do to just hold on tight and whisper soothing words in her ear. It’s because of times like these, when she’s looking at him with that smile and those brown eyes.
“I made you sandwiches,” she nods to the brown paper bag in between them. “They’re tomato and turkey.”
He thanks her and puts them carefully into his briefcase. The good days outnumber the bad days, of course, but that doesn’t mean he can’t treasure them lovingly.
“I’m seeing Doctor Blake today," she says quietly, a small admission even though he's had the date in his diary for quite a while - the day of the new therapist.
"Do you want me to drive you there?" He reaches over to cover her dainty hand with his own, hairy and broad and calloused even though he's only a psychiatrist.
She shakes her head. "No, I think I'm going to walk. Clear my head, you know?"
He nods. He knows the feeling well. "Okay. When's the appointment?" He knows the time, of course, it's written in next to the address and phone number of the small clinic. But he needs to make sure that she knows.
"Half past ten," she says correctly and proudly, like she's passed a test. Which, of course, she has.
Bruce lifts her hand so he can rub his thumb into her palm. "You're going to do great."
She looks down at their hands. "I know," she says in a little voice.
"Don't do anything you're not comfortable with, okay?"
"Okay," her head bobs in agreement.
"And you're going to call as soon as you're finished?"
"Yes, Bruce." She rolls her eyes but her tender expression assures him that his efforts are appreciated and needed.
"If you need to talk to me, text me," he wishes he could promise he would answer her if she called, but if he's in the middle of an appointment with a client; his phone is going to be turned off.
"Bruce, you're making me feel like a little girl," she complains, though she leans across the table to kiss him anyway.
"You have been watching cartoons this morning." He nods with a grin to the television.
"Bugs Bunny is a classic," she protests with a toothy smile.
"I'm sure it is," his grin widens as he stands and puts his empty bowl into the dishwasher. "I've got to go to work now."
"Say hi to everyone for me!" She tells him, like she does every morning. Ever since she met his friends at last year's hospital fundraiser, she's been more than eager to encourage Bruce's involvement with them.
“I will,” he promises.
“Especially Steve, he emailed me a funny video of a sneezing cat last night.”
“He did?” Bruce tilts his head to the side, curiosity getting the better of him.
Betty nods eagerly. “I replied that it looked a bit like Tony, but I don’t think he got my email.”
Bruce doesn’t mention that actually, Steve is probably sulking at the mention of Tony, and smiles complacently. “I’ll ask him about it.” He won’t – Steve is a hell of an intimidating guy.
He makes it to the hospital after an average ride on the subway – although he gets rudely shoved out of the way by mean-looking man and stumbles into a bin, where his hand lands on some still-sticky chewing gum – and smiles at Coulson as he walks past him in the corridor. He bumps into Thor in the corridor - literally bumps into him. His briefcase falls to the floor as his shoulder collides with Thor's bicep (the guys huge, of course there's going to a height difference). Thor's other hand reaches out to steady him.
"Doctor Banner!" His voice is joyful - then again, it's Thor. His two settings are joyful or enraged. "How are you this fine morning?"
"I'm fine, Thor," Bruce pushes his glasses back up his nose and reaches down for his briefcase. "What about you?"
Thor makes a face like 'can't complain'. "My mother is ill."
"Oh? What's the matter?"
"She has the flu," he replies matter-of-factly. "She phoned me this morning and I could hardly understand her because of all the mucus that clogs her orifices."
Bruce tries; really he tries, not to shudder at Frigga's mucus-filled orifices. He puts on a brave face, however, and looks up at Thor with a smile. "I hope she feels better soon."
"I will pass on your regards," Thor promises. "Though I will not be able to speak with her until tomorrow -her new boyfriend is pinning her arms to the bed."
Another mental image to forcefully suppress. Bruce doesn't want to hear about Thor's parents until the next millennium, if preferable.
"I must go now, I am afraid, Bruce," Thor clamps a hand on Bruce's shoulder and seriously, how does a paramedic have so much time to work out? "Perhaps I will see you at lunch break?"
"Sure," Bruce nods and waves goodbye as Thor walks away. He breathes a sigh of relief – one time, he had offended Thor by making fun of blondes, and he's been traumatized from the punch he received ever since.
His cell phone rings suddenly - he hasn't quite worked out how to adjust the ringtone so it's just the default, high-pitched ring - and he has to scramble to pull it out of his jacket pocket before it goes to answer phone.
Then he sort of wishes he had left it to go to the answer phone.
"Bruce!" The sharp bark of General Ross, Betty's father. "How are you?"
"Yeah, great. Listen. How is Elizabeth?"
Bruce would never, ever, understand the relationship between Betty and her father, how he could alienate her and coddle her at the same time. "She's doing really well," Bruce says, and he's a little bit proud because she's made loads of progress and she's happier each day (with a few exceptions, or course). "She has a new therapist-"
"What happened to the old one?" Ross's tone is one Bruce had been dreading.
"He, uh, wasn't the right choice for Betty."
"Right choice? Just pick on and let her get on with it, Bruce."
"It's not really something I can just 'let her get on with', sir, Betty needs-"
"Okay, you're the professional when it comes to dealing with this sort of thing." Ross sighs heavily. "She does seem better, I'll give you that, much better than when this whole thing started."
Again, Bruce wants to correct the General's use of language: manic depression isn't just a 'thing' that starts when it feels like it - but this time, he keeps his mouth shut.
"Anyway, Jonah J Jameson - you know him, the editor of the Bugle, his son is excellent - is having a barbecue next Saturday and I've been asked to invite Betty. He hasn't seen her since she had pigtails."
"I'll pass the invite on to her," Bruce promises, as he pushes the door of his office open with his shoulder.
"...And I suppose you could come along as well," Ross adds grudgingly. Bruce isn't exactly grateful for the invite, but if it means Betty doesn't have to go by herself (a scenario which could have all sort of triggers) he'll certainly welcome it. "Thanks."
"Now, I don't think there's any need for that tone."
"There wasn't a tone, I just-"
"I have to go to work, now, Bruce, bye." He hangs up and Bruce finds himself scowling at the phone as he walks behind his desk. He always said things like that, implying that Bruce's job wasn't a real job, as if being a soldier was a more valid job than a therapist.
"I know that look." A voice comes from the other end of the room; Bruce snaps his head up to see Tony leaning against the doorway in that deliberately casual look that Tony had perfected a long time ago.
Bruce smiles weakly. "Fathers in laws, especially military ones, are a pain in the ass."
Tony made a sympathetic expression. "The General again?"
Bruce nods, and then puts his phone down on the desk. "Anyway. What are you doing here?"
"When's your next appointment?"
Bruce frowns as he realizes he can't remember. He takes a seat at his desk and looks at the small clock sat on the surface, next to the picture of his and Betty's wedding day. "I have twenty minutes free, if you want."
"Great," Tony strides over and bounces into the chair on the other side of the desk. "I'll join you for lunch."
Bruce can think of two questions regarding this statement - the more obvious one is first to be surfaced. "It's not really lunch time yet, Tony. It's half nine in the morning."
Tony looks up over his partially-unwrapped crisp and lettuce sandwich (a strange mix that Bruce has never empathized with). “It’s halfway through my shift,” he replies. “It’s lunchtime for those who have horrible hours, okay?”
Bruce winces. “That must suck.”
Tony shrugs. “Whatever, it’s not like there’s anyone at home waiting for me.”
Bruce frowns. “What happened to that guy you were dating? The boxer.”
Tony pulls a face. “He’s not my type.”
“Really? Because I could’ve sworn he was blonde and muscular. That sounds exactly your-”
“He was replaced.”
“A woman who stole my kettle.”
Bruce blinks owlishly. “Sometimes I swear you’re making this sort of thing up.”
“That worries me more.”
Tony smirks wickedly, and then turns thoughtful. “Speaking of partners, how’s Betty-Bop?”
"She's fine," Bruce smiles. Then he looks down at his lap. "She had a bad week about a month ago, but I think that was partly because of the medication she was taking."
"She's okay now, though?" Tony looks honestly concerned - it's rare to see on his face.
"Yeah, she has a new therapist, a woman who has this really friendly clinic, with quilts and paintings on the walls."
"The old one didn't work out for her?"
"I didn't agree with his prescription," Bruce admits. "I know I'm hardly in a neutral position, but Betty wasn't herself on that many drugs. She...was like a watered down version." He looks down at his lap and feels almost guilty for confessing such a thing aloud.
Tony looks thoughtful. "When I was a kid, they put me on loads of pills for my ADHD."
Bruce had always suspected Tony of having the attention-deficit disorder (he wouldn't be a very good psychiatrist if he didn't notice the near-constant fidgeting and the lack of attention span and the impatience) but to hear it confirmed was still...strange. He asks, "Did it work?"
Tony lifts a shoulder up and then down non-committed. "I don't know. Ask my mother."
"Your mother's dead."
"Ask my butler."
"You had a butler?"
"Yes, but he's rather grumpy and currently residing in Miami, so you might not want to call him up before six o'clock."
"Can I call him after six?"
"Sure, he's usually doped up on medication and bingo euphoria by that point."
Bruce can't hide his grin. “I’ll make sure to do that.”
"But seriously," Tony says, his eyes abruptly solemn. "If you ever need anything-"
"I know." Bruce assures him. "Thanks."
That seems to be the extent of Tony's empathy and he takes another bite of his sandwich to end the conversation. This silence leads onto the second question Bruce had concerning Tony's visit. "Tony, are you avoiding Steve?"
Tony's gaze stays determinedly on his lunch, though his chewing slows. "I don't know what you're talking about. I came here because I knew-"
"-Steve wouldn't be here?" Bruce finishes. "What's going on with you two?"
"Nothing. Absolutely, fu-"
"You two were as thick as thieves-"
"Thick as thieves suggest we committed debauchery, which we didn't, because he's boring and dull and-"
"-On Saturday and now, all of a sudden, you can't stand to be in the same room together."
"Most relationships are."
"Well, then, it's a good thing we're not in a relationship because it would make it infinitely complicated. Complication to the power of infinity. And then cube that. And-"
"I get the impression something happened on that date-"
"-It wasn't a date. And when you say 'something happened', you mean you think I screwed it up."
"Can we move on?" Tony makes an impatient gesture with his hand but his eyes are alight, which usually is a signal to back off.
Bruce accepts the hint and changes the subject. "Apparently Thor's mother is ill."
"Frigga?" Tony's smirk makes a welcome return. "Now there's a woman I wouldn't cross."
"She gave birth to Thor - I'd be inclined to run away from her."
Tony opens his mouth to reply, but then another voice comes from the door. "Bruce, can I have your- Uh." Bruce looks up to see Steve, out of breath like he ran here from ER, blushing and looking awkwardly at Tony. Who is stubbornly looking forward and therefore away from Steve with an expression like it was chiseled from stone. "Hi, uh, Tony."
Tony mutters something under his breath that sounds rude and should never ever be repeated. Steve's blush darkens.
"Hey, Steve," Bruce decides to be polite, ignoring Tony's offended expression - for heaven's sake, Tony, he's not picking sides in this weird divorce - and smiles at the blond nurse. "What do you want?"
"There's a guy in ER who's talking about mad hatters and he's started mouthing off to every black guy in the building." Steve tries a weak smile. "I need you to come see whether he needs to be put into the mental clinic's care or whether he's just a racist."
"Sure," Bruce stands up and walks around his desk to Steve. "Tony, make sure you're out of here by the time I get out of here, I don't need you at my ten o'clock."
Tony forces out an agreement from between tightly bound lips. Bruce rolls his eyes and follows Steve to the ER.
Bruce wasn’t sure exactly what he was expecting when Steve described the scene. But when he walks into the ER, yes, there's a man loudly insulting all the colored people in the room, his arms held back by Thor, and yes, he does end every sentence with a reference to a mad hatter. But it's a little bit more complex than that.
Because the man has grabbed hold of Natasha, and is dragging her along by her bright lock as she clutches at the arm in pain. Steve looks visibly distressed at the sight - obviously this happened in the time since he came to get Bruce.
The man is naked from the waist up - to cover his genitalia, he has devised a sort-of wrap around, using what appears to be curtain fabric. Across his pale chest, he's covered in horrible bite marks - some have healed, others look almost immediately recent.
Steve tells Bruce, "We think he bit himself - Thor says that he was gnawing on his wrist when they brought, bleeding really badly." The wrist has been bandaged up so the man isn't any danger to himself in that respect, but he's certainly capable of much.
“Definitely psychotic,” Bruce says. “But I can’t tell whether it’s drug related.” Suddenly,
Steve bites at his lip. “Thor didn’t mention any signs or drug use, but you’ll have to ask him, we didn’t exactly have much chance to talk.” Finally, security arrive and the man is sedated and taken into a private room and Bruce sighs – that’ll be another patient to write up, and he won’t be able to do anything until the man wakes up.
He turns to Steve. “Sorry I wasn’t much help.”
Steve looks at him, and then laughs. “I was about to say the same thing to Thor. It’s fine,” he illustrates the point by thumping a hand on Bruce’s shoulder (how do these people have the time to work out, for heaven’s sake?) and smiling kindly. Then his expression clouds and his head darts around, as if he’s checking nobody is listening. “I saw you were talking to Tony.”
Bruce huffs. “If you’re offended because I spend weekdays with him, I have to tell you that this divorce is-”
“No, no, I didn’t mean- you can – not that I’m giving you permission – I, uh-”
“I was just wondering if he had told you-”
“What the hell has happened between you two?” Bruce raises his eyebrows. This secrecy is getting interesting – he has an urge to gossip to the rest of the group at their lunch break. “No, he hasn’t.”
“Okay.” Steve looks a mixture of relieved and worried. “Sorry, that wasn’t any of my business.” Bruce feels a little bit guilty about wanting to gossip now. “I have to go now, but I’ll see you around.”
“Sure,” Bruce waves him off and then goes back to his office – his ten o’ clock appointment is waiting outside and he greets her with a smile. He checks inside and yes, Tony has fulfilled his promise of leaving (though he’s left his sandwich wrapped on the chair in one final act of rebellion).
His patients are given to him with various amounts of leniency, and shared with the other psychiatrists in the hospital (like Dr Walters). Most are delivered because of the increasing possibility their mental state is causing harm to either themselves or anything people in the immediate future. Some are referred to him by the other doctors and aren’t as imminent in their need for attention. And some come in between; for example, the woman who walks nervously into his office and sits down in the couch. She’s been suffering from insomnia, which, paired with her HIV, is making her condition decrease more and more rapidly.
He sits down opposite her in a small and raggedy armchair and asks, with a gentle smile, how she is. Exactly one hour later, the woman leaves, smiling this time, albeit a little woodenly. Another appointment five minutes after that with a man experience hallucinations and then once that’s over, Bruce has some spare minutes.
So he decides to go see the man who had been causing such a commotion in the ER this morning. Bruce isn’t surprised to find him the ER staff-named Stink Room. The room is used to dump patients in who have been causing trouble for the ER staff. Some days, he feels sympathy for the patients thrown inside, since it’s such a dire place to stay or wake up in. There’s vomit stains on the floor and the bed sheets are almost rigid with starch and there’s an awful smell of sickness lingering in the air. On other days, however, Bruce can’t help but feel, probably sadistically, that the room is a deserved punishment. Like on days when Steve is punched for trying to help, or when Tony has to get stitches because of a hidden blade that comes out to play in the patient’s hysteria.
When Bruce pulls away the faded curtain hiding the aforementioned patient, he sees a woman standing next to the bed already.
“Jennifer!” Bruce grins at her familiar face. She smiles back at him, darkened lips and a thin green streak through her black hair, the only hint at her inner rebellious nature. The patient is still asleep and strapped to the bed, so Bruce feels no guilt for ignoring him for the moment. Doctor Jennifer Walters, the only other psychiatrist of note in the hospital.
She also happens to be Bruce's cousin. "Hey, you. What are you doing here?"
"Some reason as you, I think," he replies, gesturing at the patient. "I was there when he went psychotic in the ER." When psychiatrists use the term 'psychotic' or other clinical words like it, they don't use it as lightly as other might. When a psychiatrist says psychotic, they *mean* psychotic.
"Hallucinations?" Jennifer probes, making a note in her clipboard.
"I think so. I think he's suffering from a warped sense of reality - he was referring to all people of color as 'demons'." Bruce tilts his head to the side. "So can I presume you're taking this guy?"
She nods. "If you don't mind - I'm doing another article and I think he'd be perfect for my study on hallucinations triggered by the workplace."
"The workplace?" Bruce frowns, a crease appearing above his glasses. "How do you know his workplace is connected?"
She stares at him like he's grown another head. Then she snorts. "Oh my God, Bruce, I forget how dense you are sometimes."
"What do you mean?" Okay, he's probably proving her point by that question.
"This is the Mayor's son!" She hisses, looking around in a very paranoid fashion. "Didn't you see the bodyguards?"
He shakes his head slowly, his mouth open a little bit. "So you're telling me, that this man, who was calling half of the ER room demons, is the Mayor of New York's son."
He rubs his forehead. "You know what? I definitely agree that you can take this one."
She winks. "You're a doll."
"Is that a compliment?"
"Yes. Take it and go."
"Aye aye, ma'am."
He takes her advice willingly and has to stop himself from running to his office. Sure, they've had a couple of sort-of celebrities in the ER before, though Bruce has never had to deal with them since they're usually not having a mental breakdown when they come in. And when Bruce says 'celebrities', he's talking about people of the same status of the guy who was Bruce Willis' butt double one time (when he arrived in ER, he was suffering from a bad wound in his shoulder).
He reaches his office and yes, another appointment and before he knows it, it’s time for lunch. He makes his way to the usual break room (technically, it’s saved for ER staff, but no one’s ever complained because of his presence and it’s less lonely than his office) and opens the door to find only Clint.
“Hey,” he greets as Bruce approaches. “The other’s are caught up with a car crash, they should be here soon.”
“Except for Tony,” Bruce amends as he sits down. “He’s already had his lunch break.”
“And he’s avoiding Steve.” Clint makes a noise like a sigh, but a tad more infuriated. “Whatever. It’s none of my business, so I’m not going to pry.”
Bruce hides a disbelieving smile behind his sandwich. “That doesn’t sound like the Clint Barton I know.”
Clint points his soda bottle at him. “I’ve changed, man. I’ve turned over a new leaf.”
“Since my neighbor caught me looking in his apartment window.”
Bruce laughs. “Yeah, that’s verging on creepy, Clint.”
“No, see, I need to prove that he’s growing marijuana so I can get him evicted, and he just happened to look up when I was taking a picture of the suspicious plants growing on his balcony.”
“Did you get the picture?”
“No,” Clint slouches in his chair. “And he’s moved the plants inside. And he threatened to call the cops on me; can you believe the irony of that?”
Bruce is saved from having to answer that when Natasha and Steve stride into the room, a tired and defeated look in their eyes.
“What happened?” Clint is first to demand.
Natasha simply shakes her head as she sits down next to him, and Steve is the one to reply with: “We couldn’t save any of them.”
Bruce winces, and because he’s close enough to, he pats Steve on the back in the most comforting way he can manage. Clint simply pulls Natasha closer to him, where she curls, ever so slightly, into him. “Sorry,” Bruce says.
“It’s not your fault,” Steve smiles weakly.
“No, it’s Hammer’s,” Natasha says suddenly, with a tone so vicious, it makes Bruce subconsciously recoil in his chair. “If he pulled his head out from his-”
“Natasha,” Steve sighs. “There’s no point-”
“Of course there is!” Natasha hisses with the same angry venom in her voice. Only Clint seems unaffected by this, just as concerned for her as he was before. “He should be the one explaining to those mothers that because he didn’t think to listen to Tommy, their children are dead!”
“Tommy?” Bruce echoes in confusion.
Steve explains, “A medical intern. He tried to tell Hammer that there was a second piece of metal stuck in the girl’s side but Hammer ignored him and stitched it back up-”
“And the girl bled to death.” Natasha finishes with a steely expression. Then she turns to Steve. “I’m going to report him. Will you back me up?”
“You know that I will,” Steve looks resigned, but isn’t that just Steve? He’s going to do what’s right, of course he is, because he’s Steve. It doesn’t matter that it’ll probably be a load of paperwork and time and energy, it’s what’s right and that’s all that matters.
Bruce bites his lip, and then looks in his briefcase and picks out his sandwiches. He suddenly grins, amidst that sadness and grief in the room, and what he finds inside.
A small packet of chocolate, with exactly eight pieces. It’s times like these when Bruce wonders how Betty can be so astoundingly astute. He starts breaking it into four parts - the snapping sound in the silence makes all of the others look at him. Clint's face breaks out into a grin as soon as he realizes what Bruce is doing; he holds out one hand for his own as well Natasha's portions, since his other arm is suddenly wrapped around Natasha's back.
Steve thanks Bruce with a grateful smile as he takes his own piece of chocolate.
Bruce shrugs. "It's fine. I'm not a big fan of chocolate, anyway."
Clint's eyebrows rise up, and if he had longer hair, they would probably disappear behind it. "How can you not be a fan of chocolate?" He shakes his head in mock disappointment. "Natasha, tell him he's wrong."
"I can understand his ambivalence towards milk chocolate," she replies diplomatically, a small smile emerging as she gracefully pops one of her pieces into her mouth. "But anything over forty per cent cocoa is irresistible."
"You're a dark chocolate fan?" Steve asks, looking honestly surprised.
She raises an eyebrow at him. "I bet you like white chocolate, don't you?" Clint smirks his agreement with that statement.
Steve lifts his shoulders and then lets them drop. "I'm not particularly picky. However, I do love nutty chocolate."
"Nuts?" Clint pulls a face. "Ew."
"Don't you have a nut allergy?" Bruce frowns at Clint.
Clint snaps a head around in exaggerated paranoia. "Hush your tone! If my enemies found out-"
"What enemies?" Natasha grins at him. "Oh, you mean your old roommate."
"Shut up." Clint glares at her.
"What about his old roommate?" Bruce can't help but ask.
"Nothing!" Clint says in a worryingly high-pitched tone, at the same time as Natasha says, "He had an affair with Clint's grandmother."
Clint groans into his hand as Steve and Bruce burst out into laughter. “In my defense, she wasn’t my real grandma.” Bruce pauses slightly at that, but then he remembers that Clint was adopted when he was fourteen, and he doesn’t question it.
Then Thor bursts inside a moment later, and ruins the content calm that had settled over the group by recounting his adventure with a man who had rubbed his own feces over his own body.
The rest of the day is uneventful, and Bruce finds himself catching the bus home with a familiar weariness settling under his skin. He tries to shake it off before he twists the doorknob open, and he smiles when he opens it.
There's the smell of food wafting in the air, and he inhales it. Then he frowns - it smells like it's food that has been burned. He puts his briefcase down carefully, and calls out, "Betty?" He sees that there's smoke coming from the oven and he rushes over to open the door - the smoke billows out and he has to cough it out of his lungs before he can turn it off.
The smoke alarm goes off and he grabs a wooden spoon from the counter to smack its end against the button on the ceiling to turn that horrible wailing off.
“Betty?” He calls again; the worry seeps into his voice and his veins and he’s starting to panic and maybe it was too soon to see the therapist today maybe-
“I’m in here,” her soft voice comes from the bathroom – he races to it because her voice sounds thick, like she’s been crying. He opens the door tentatively and it takes every ounce of his self control not to slam it open with a bang.
She’s curled up on the bathroom floor, underneath the sink. She has tears down her face and her eyes are glistening as she looks up at him. He bends his legs and squats down perpendicular to her.
He reaches out a careful hand to rub her cheek dry with his thumb and then she smiles.
He almost drops his hand, because she’s smiling and crying at the same time. Maybe this wouldn’t be such of a big deal for most people, maybe it would be, Bruce doesn’t know, but the fact that she’s smiling even though it’s a weak one and there’s not a lot of real happiness behind it, it means that this isn’t a manic episode and maybe, just maybe, they’re going to be okay.
Chapter 4: Wednesday - Clint
“Good morning,” Clint mumbles while he rubs his tired eyes.
Phil looks up at him over his piece of toast. “You look rough.”
Clint grabs desperately for the coffee jar while simultaneously reaching up for his favorite mug. “Thanks.”
“Could it have anything to do with a certain redhead last seen leaving your room last night?”
Clint keeps his eyes on the brewing coffee determinedly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You must be imagining things.”
“Sure,” Phil smirks. “I must have been imagining the same thing on Monday night as well.”
“Please shut up.”
“Sure.” Phil says again. He goes back to his newspaper and calmly eats his toast.
Clint isn’t known for his patience. “So, did you speak to her?” He tries to hide his anxiety, but it doesn’t work by the look of Clint’s judging expression.
“Oh yes.” Clint’s stomach drops. “We discussed the ballet and then we had a fantastic game of tennis, right here in the living room.”
“...You know I can’t tell whether you’re joking or not.”
“No, Clint, I did not speak to her. I was on my way to the bathroom as she was just leaving.”
“Well, the second time, going to the bathroom was my excuse.”
“So you didn’t see her face?” Clint confirms, pouring his coffee.
Clint breathes a sigh of relief.
But then Phil adds, “Of course, I didn’t need to. It would be impossible not to recognize Doctor Romonova.”
Clint curses, and spills some of his coffee. “Phil-”
“I won’t tell anyone.” Phil raises a disturbingly serene eyebrow. “They’ll probably figure it out on their own, however.”
Clint scoffs at that. His colleagues are pitifully obtuse when it comes to this sort of thing. “Yeah, right.”
“Considering you’ve been walking with a spring in your step, and that Natasha smiled six whole times yesterday, it won’t take them too long to work it out.”
Clint doesn’t even want to ask how he could possible count Natasha’s smiles. He just shakes his head. “I don’t want to live in the same apartment as you anymore.”
“Hey, I’m happy for you.” Phil finishes his toast and Clint is horrified to see not even one crumb left behind. “You’ve liked her for what, five years? Six?”
“I am begging you,” Clint hides his embarrassment in his hands. “For the love of God, shut up.”
Phil looks at him and the corner of his mouth lifts up. He goes back to his room (he gets the day off, lucky beggar) leaving Clint to nurse his coffee mug and his pride.
He walks to work – determinedly without a spring in his step, thank you very much – and meets with Natasha halfway, as per their usual routine.
He looks pointedly at her overfilled backpack, books peeking out with Russian titles. “What have you got in there? The Moscow library?”
She sends him a sour look. “Very funny. I’m returning these to the library. If you don’t mind taking a detour to work, that is?”
He wouldn’t mind taking a detour with her anywhere, but he doesn’t say that, it sounds creepy (for God’s sake, Barton, get a hold of yourself). “Yeah, that’s fine. Why are you returning them all at once, anyway?”
She shrugs, but then remembers the huge weight on her back, and then thinks better of it. “I’m finished with them.”
Clint raises an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything about it. “Here, let me carry some of those.”
“I’m perfectly capable, thank you very much.” She gives him a withering glare.
He rolls his eyes. “I’m sure you are, but you look like a hunchback and you’re embarrassing to walk with.”
She looks at him for a second and then stubbornly turns so he can reach her books. “Fine.”
He takes as many as he can before she realizes what he’s up to and twirls out of his reach. “Don’t be chauvinistic.”
“I’m not,” he assures her. “Even if Steve were carrying all of these, I’d still offer to help.”
“Yes. Jesus, what do you have here? The Russian dictionary?”
She smirks. “The Bible, actually. And the Qur’an.”
“It’s an interesting read.”
“I always knew you were masochistic, but seriously? Voluntary reading?” He jokes. “Why would – hang on, is that my t-shirt?”
She looks down at her chest, and yes, he realizes with a grin, that is his t-shirt, he recognizes the small tear above the logo, and the bloodstain at the bottom when he pricked his finger on a knife that one time.
“No,” she denies, and there’s a definite blush spreading out on her cheeks. “Come on, the library is this way.”
“I knew it had been stolen,” Clint grins gleefully. “I thought it was Phil. But it was you.”
“Shut up, Barton.”
“Hey, I’d be a bit nicer to me, I could report you to the police for theft.”
“Look, I must’ve accidentally put it on instead of mine. No big deal.”
“Who said it was a big deal? Definitely not me.”
Okay, he’ll admit, there’s a tiny – miniscule, really – spring in his step now. Just a little one.
He follows her into the library and dumps the books onto the counter, still grinning like a madman. (Screw you, Phil.)
The librarian, a woman with tight curls and a frilly blouse, looks at the books with a faint expression. “Did you enjoy all of these?” She asks, mostly out of courtesy by the look on her face.
“Oh yes,” Natasha smiles and Clint frowns at it – since when did Natasha smile that widely? “Particularly the thriller. I found it very...appealing.”
Clint only figures out her scheming when the librarian starts checking the books in and looks at her computer. “You have a fine of fifteen dollars, thirteen cents.”
Natasha frowns, as if she didn’t already know that, and bites her bottom lip. Clint eyes widen accusatively. She’s flirting to get out of a library fine. “Are you sure?”
The librarian nods slowly. And then she looks at Natasha and then back at her computer screen. And then back at Natasha. “Wait, do I know you?”
Natasha leans her elbows on the counter. “I don’t know. Do you?”
“Yes!” The librarian’s eyes widen. “You saved my brother!”
Natasha now honestly does look confused. “I did?”
“Yes!” The librarian looks suddenly excited. “We were walking down Sixth Avenue and he had a seizure and you saved her!”
Natasha’s eyes widen with realization. “Yes! She was called Kelly, right?”
The librarian darts around the counter and wraps Natasha in a hug before she can do anything about it. Clint takes a step back, completely out of his depth. “I never got to thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
She steps back and relinquishes her grasp on Natasha, who looks stunned. Clint grins for her – gratitude to doctors is a dying act.
“Okay, so not going to be charging you.” The librarian taps some keys on the keyboard and then looks at Natasha with a blinding grin.
“Oh, no, you don’t have to-”
The librarian holds up her hand. “Seriously, it would be my pleasure.”
“If you’re sure...” Natasha hedges. Clint takes hold of her wrist before her pride makes her dish out fifteen unnecessary dollars and tugs gently.
“Come on, we’ll be late and I don’t want to piss off Fury twice this week.”
Natasha smiles at the librarian – this time, Clint knows she actually means it and wait that’s twice now in a day – and let’s Clint pull her out of the building.
They walk in silence for a few moments before Clint realizes he’s still holding on to Natasha’s wrist and he lets go quickly. He’s been subjected to enough of Natasha’s rants about clingy guys and how they treat her like she’s their personal property (even though he’s pretty sure half of them honestly just want to hold her hand). That and he’s no idea what their relationship status is right now.
“So,” he searches for a safe topic of conversation. “Are you coming to the baseball match? ER versus the fire fighters.” He waggles his eyebrows temptingly.
The corners of her mouth stretch – enough of a smile to stretch her lips a little bit. “Of course. Although I can’t believe you and Bruce are still allowed to play.”
He puts a finger on his lips. “I won’t tell them that we don’t technically work in ER if you don’t.”
She smiles for real this time (holy crap that’s three times in half an hour). “Like anyone’s going to tell. We’re definitely going to kick their asses again.”
“I hear Steve’s been training especially for it.” Clint grins.
She pokes him in the stomach. "And you as well, I presume. Pretty sure that chest wasn't there this time last year."
He preens as they enter the hospital, walking through the revolving doors. "Well, I don't like to brag, but-"
"You're late!" Pepper runs up to the both of them. "Why, of all days, are you late today?"
Natasha frowns. "Pepper? We stopped off at the library, what's-"
Then they both look around the ER room and see the absolute chaos surrounding them. Not just normal ER chaos - bleeding, moaning, crying chaos, with too many people and not enough doctors.
"There was a bomb," Pepper says frantically. "Well, four, actually, all in the area, Clint, I've cancelled all your appointments, you're needed in here, I'm sorry, I wouldn't usually and I know it's not protocol but you're trained as a doctor as well as a physical therapist and Dr. Smith is in Texas and he's going to be at least five more hours and that's too late to do any help and-"
"Pepper," Clint puts an arm around her. "Breathe. It's fine. Nat?"
"On it!" She calls, already racing to find Tony or Steve or Fury to see where they're going to be much use. "Clint, you stick to the secondary injuries, I'm going to see what I can do in the corridor."
So Clint quickly grabs a plastic apron to protect his clothes and starts towards the group where some interns have already started. He's about to tend to a kid with shrapnel embedded in his face and *god*, he's going to need plastic surgery, but then Natasha grabs him and tells him she needs him. They've turned one of the ICU's into another operating room, and Dr Stane's there, so things must be getting desperate since he usually pawns off actual operations to Dr Hammer and Tony. Clint helps stitch up the wounds as soon as they're cleaned and once they're done with one, here comes another but this one dies before they can even start to tend to the third degree burns.
This is exactly why Clint went to physical therapy - less people died in his arms, for one, and there's certainly a lot less blood. And there's another patient and Loki and his new assistant don't get her for another ten minutes so the body is just covered with a blanket and pushed to the corner.
There's shouting and a lot of people asking for help and Clint hates explaining that there's more important things to deal with, but he keeps his cool and he does what he's told.
They manage to deal with the worst of the casualties (too many die) and then they move on to the next level of injuries. A lot of shrapnel wounds and a lot of burns, overall. Clint is thrown towards a woman clutching her eye and crying in pain and he asks her gently to remove her hand. Half of her face is burnt, badly, and she's never going to be able to use that eye again by the looks of things. But Clint bandages up the burns and gives her some meds to deal with the pain (probably a smidgeon more than he should but he just wants her to stop crying).
He rubs his eyes and suddenly feels a strong hand on his shoulder. He looks up to see Steve, who looks just as tired as Clint feels, even though it's only been an hour since their shift started.
"Thanks for helping out, Clint," Steve says, and the smile he sends Clint could be used to convince penguins to move to the Sahara desert.
Clint smiles. "Whatever. Glad to help. My office was getting boring, anyway."
Steve nods, and then goes to help a howling man with a dislocated shoulder and a shredded side. Clint sighs, the smile dropping from his face, and he goes back out into the waiting room. It's a little less chaotic - or maybe that's wishful thinking, because there's still ambulances arriving. He's quickly called back into the waiting room to put help with a leg that's hanging on by a string. He recoils at the smell, but he puts on a fresh pair of latex and tries to ignore the way Natasha is whispering soothing words to the man.
The man loses his leg - Clint's probably going to be seeing him in physical therapy next week - but he survives, which is probably the most important thing.
He walks over the room to Natasha as the now-unconscious guy is wheeled away to whatever spare room they can find. “Hey,” he nudges her in the side with his elbow.
“They think it was an act of terrorism,” she says, looking straight ahead. Her orange curls are tied back, like they always are when she’s too tired or too stressed to give a damn about her appearance. Clint still thinks she looks sort of beautiful, but the one time he told her that, she had scowled at him and told him ‘friends with benefits doesn’t exist, Barton, stop being a prick’.
“Well,” Clint exhales slowly. “Maybe that’s easier.”
She looks at him sharply. “How is it-”
“I mean, it’s terrorists, right?” He tries to put his logic into words, but he’s never been much good with those. “That’s their thing, their MO; they’re trying to induce terror. So if we don’t panic and we do our job like that’s all it is, just our job and more, and we don’t feel terrorised, then they’ve lost.”
She twists her lips. “But that’s what I liked about this place – I felt safe, you know? But...” She trails off. “I don’t know.”
“Nat-” He begins, but then Tony pokes his head around the door.
“If you’re done with your little chit chat, we could use some help out here.”
Natasha pushes away from the sink she was leaning against and strides over. Clint follows wordlessly.
They all work together – even the interns manage to be efficient – and at one point, Tony and Steve both tend to a patient at the same time (though they don’t exchange a word the entire time). Clint hopes they work it out before the baseball game, he doesn’t want Tony swinging their star player around the head with a baseball bat in the middle of the game.
They all miss their usual lunchtime, but at two o’ clock, everything has calmed down enough that they can take a late break. Tony carries on working, shaking his head against their offers as he bandages a bad cut on a woman’s arm, but the rest of them huddle around their usual table.
Clint speaks after a few moments of tense silence. “Hey, did anyone else see that guy with the screwdriver stuck in his hand?” He’s met with a weird sort of quiet, like nobody knows how to respond. “Well, he wasn’t actually involved in the bombings. He just saw that his favourite bakery had been destroyed and he accidentally stabbed himself with it!”
Pepper is the first to laugh; a small giggle at the madness. “Seriously?”
Clint nods, a grin breaking out on his face. “And he kept moaning about it next to this woman who had lost her hearing in the ear on his side, so every time he’s start whining about it, she’d go, ‘What? Speak up, fatty, I can’t here you!’” He doesn’t do the woman’s accent justice, but it does the trick and everyone either smiles or laughs (or in Thor’s case, booms with laughter).
After that, the conversation runs smoothly – Pepper tells of one man who kept asking her for his sandwich, and she had to tell him three times that she wasn’t his wife. Bruce listens quietly without comment, because of course he was in the mental facility so he didn’t experience any of today’s events firsthand.
Natasha leans against Clint at one point – nobody seems to notice and he pretends he doesn’t either, even though he’s dancing the Macarena internally.
Suddenly, the sound of a tinny Elvis filters into his hearing and he realizes that it’s coming from him. He scrambles into his pocket and flips his phone open (he doesn’t care what Tony says, he doesn’t need a flashy phone when a ten dollar one will do just fine). “Hello? Clint Barton speaking.”
“Hey, Barney,” Clint says with false chirpiness. Barney Barton, brother and ex-partner in crime. “How are you doing?”
Natasha frowns as he holds up a finger. Hang on, he mouths at her as he steps away from the table and walks out of the room, into the empty corridor. “How did you get this number, anyway?” He asks nonchalantly.
“Well, I called up the hospital you’re working at, and a very nice guy – is he name seriously Happy? – gave me your cell number when I told him I was your older brother.”
Clint was going to kill Happy, slowly and painfully.
“Oh, cool.” Clint tries to inject his voice with enthusiasm, he really does. “So what’s up?”
“I wanted to talk to my little brother, of course!” Barney sounds a little bit more high pitched than Clint remembers, but that could be the effect of prolonged use of Class C drugs. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me you’re a doctor now.”
He grits his teeth. “Yeah, well, you know. Listen, I need to go, and-”
“Wait!” Barney snaps hurriedly. “Wait, I need your help.”
Clint is immediately on guard. “Yeah? With what?”
“I... I need a favor.”
“What is it?”
Barney hesitates. “You can write out prescriptions, right? For pain meds.”
“Fuck off,” Clint says savagely. Had he actually been hoping that Barney might actually want to talk to him? “No way in hell.”
“Come on, Clint!” Barney begs desperately. “Can you?”
“It doesn’t make a difference whether I can or can’t, Barney-”
“Clint, please! I’m begging you here!”
“I could lose my job, Barney. I could go to prison.”
“So? Prison isn’t that bad.”
“Delete this number before I report you to the police, Barney.” Clint hangs up before Mel can plead anymore or Clint can say something he’ll regret later. He hates this – this which Barney tries every year or so. Clint has to get a new phone, a new number, but Barney always finds him just in time to ask for something.
He realizes his heart is beating faster than is normal, and that embarrassing, and he leans his back against the wall until he can calm down enough to go back inside.
But then the door opens from the other side and Natasha steps out cautiously. “Hey,” she says softly. “Are you okay?”
He nods, plastering a grin on his face. “Sure. That was just-”
“I can tell when you’re lying, you know.”
“Yes.” She raises a cool, neat eyebrow. “And you’re lying now.”
He breathes out heavily. “Sorry. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Just an old friend.”
“It didn’t sound much like a friend.”
He looks at her sideways. “Were you listening?” Her steady gaze doesn’t falter. “That’s considered rude by most people, you know.”
“You’re changing the subject-”
“Well, the subject itself doesn’t matter much so-”
“Seriously, Nat.” He says firmly. “I’m a big boy. It’s fine and it’s been dealt with.”
“Fine.” She looks around and when she sees that there’s no one around, she leans up on her tiptoes and whispers in his ear, “And for the record? I know very well that you’re a big boy.”
He shivers involuntarily as she walks back into the break room; his head slumps back and hits the walls with a thud.
She’s going to be the death of him one day, she really is.
“I know that look.”
He starts, and his head snaps around to search for the owner of the statement: Dr Justin Hammer. He frowns at the condescending smile on Hammer’s face, and replies, “What look?”
“The I’m-so-hopelessly-smitten look.” Hammer’s smile curves into a leer.
“I’m not-” Clint sighs. Apparently Phil’s right – he’s being entirely too obvious if Hammer can identify it. “Shut up.”
“I had a friend like you,” Hammer says. “He adored this woman so utterly and completely, he would do anything for him.”
Clint doesn’t say anything, and folds his arms.
“And she used him. It was awful to watch – took him three and a half years to get over it and leave her manipulation.”
Hammer shakes his head in sorrow.
Clint’s stomach feels very tight all of a sudden. He grits his teeth. “Natasha’s not like that.” Even though she kind of is, and Clint’s seen her do it with more than one hapless fool.
“Oh, I’m sure she isn’t!” Hammer looks horrified at the thought, as if that wasn’t what he had been implying. “Of course not.”
“Of course not!”
Suddenly, Clint understands exactly why Tony complains about this guy so much. He shoves his phone back in his pockets and thrusts a thumb behind him at the break room door. “Yeah, well, I have to, uh, go…”
Hammer pats Clint on the shoulder, and smiles. “Sure. Hey, thanks again for helping out this morning.”
Clint just nods and stumbles back into the room, shutting the door behind him. He realizes that they’re all looking at him, and he grins bashfully. “Hammer was creeping me out.”
Steve looks understanding. “He told me once that I was a very pretty nurse.”
Bruce nods thoughtfully. “That sounds like Hammer – backhanded compliments, the entire time.”
Steve sighs. "No wonder Tony always complains about him. Imagine working with that, the entire time."
Everyone's thinking it: the burning desire to casually ask, now there's an opening, what was going on with him and Tony. But Natasha's the only one who says anything, in her usual subtle way. "Oh, I suppose so. Speaking of whom-"
Then the door slams open - really, they need to either keep it open or find a new place to sit for their break - and Maria Hill is there, her flat hand still clenched around the doorknob. "Natasha, Steve, we need you out there. They just freed a load of people from a building that fell on top of them and they're coming in, thick and fast."
Natasha throws down her sandwich without a second's hesitation and Steve's right behind her, following Maria back into ER.
Pepper sighs. "I should be going back as well, probably." She puts down her coffee cup. "It's going to be madness if it's only Happy there."
"I'll come and help," Clint offers. Since he has no appointments until four, if that one wasn't cancelled as well, he may as well do what he can. If that means helping out with paperwork, well then, he'll help with that as well. He follows Pepper, leaving Thor and Bruce and the left over food. No doubt said food will disappear very quickly, if Thor has anything to do with it.
Pepper assigns him to getting the insurances of everyone he can, and, she tells him quietly, to make sure the medical interns are doing everything correctly. It's times like these when the doctors and surgeons and nurses are too busy to check up on what each intern is doing. So he does that, walking around the room and asking for the insurance details of anyone who looks like they can speak. Natasha and Steve and Tony are nowhere to be seen, until once Clint looks around and sees Steve wheeling a covered-up body out of the room, his eyes darting around. Then he meets with Loki halfway in the corridor, and hands off the body to be taken down to the morgue. Steve catches eyes with Clint as he turns around, and gives him a tiny little salute, smiling weakly.
Clint turns back around and asks a teenage boy holding a bloody rag on his shoulder for his insurance. The boy looks up at him with wide eyes, and then shakes his head. Clint pauses, and then looks around guiltily. Then, quickly, before Fury can magically appear out of nowhere and tell him what he's about to do won't help in the long-term, he strides into the busy corridor and snatches two bandages and some medical alcohol as quickly as he can. Then he goes back to the boy and slowly lifts the dirty rag away. "Here, this will take two seconds, okay?"
The boy stares at him for a second, and then holds his arm a tiny bit forward to Clint, just enough of a confirmation.
Clint quickly cleans the wound - it's not too bad, just a simple laceration - and wraps it up again. He gives the second bandage to the kid, who stuffs it in his pocket. "You'll need to swap this over after a day, okay? Keep it clean and dry, and just say it was a kind stranger in the street, okay?"
The kid nods, and Clint stands up and goes to the next person, asking for insurance details. When he turns back around, the kid's gone.
That night, Clint trudges into his apartment. "Phil?" He calls into the darkness. He checks his clock: no, he can't be asleep, it's only half eight. He must be out. Clint flicks all the lights on and then pauses. Then, he strides purposely into his bedroom and snatches up his stereo. He plugs it in the wall socket and rests it on the counter, grinning as the sounds of some seventies garage band fill the room. He pretends to drum the air as he saunters around the kitchen, pulling out ingredients and chucking them into a sizzling pan, in the haphazard way his mother always used to cook. Sure, half the time it didn't work, sometimes with downright poisonous consequences, but the few times it did work? It was fantastic.
It's almost ready when the door opens - he doesn't have to turn around to know that it's not Phil.
"That smells great," she says over his shoulder, taking in a deep sniff.
"You want some?"
"Sure." She reaches over his head (she knows she's pressing her whole body into his back, she must) and pulls two plates down from the cupboard. "Where's Phil?"
"I don't know," he says, stirring the pan. "He wasn't here when I came home. I think his cellist girlfriend's in town."
"She's really pretty," Clint tells the pan. "I've only met her once, but, she's good for him. Gets him to lighten up a bit, you know?" He snorts.
She hums indifference.
"Hey, you're not just using me for my food, are you?" He says suddenly, trying to levitate his tone into a joke, but it doesn't quite work.
"Why would you ask that?" She says after a second's pause.
He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
She puts the plates down and leans away from him. All at once, he feels a little bit colder. “Clint-”
He slams his fist down on the counter, still clutched around the wooden spoon he was using. He feels, rather than sees, her flinch and he exhales slowly. “Nat, I’m not one of those people who can just…”
“Just what?” She presses, the hint of her own anger seeping through. “You think I’m using you, don’t you? Like some whore.”
“You’ve done it to guys before!” He snaps, before he realizes that he’s pretty much just called her a whore, and he sneaks a look at her: yep, she’s furious. “Wait, I meant-”
“You know what?” She grabs a coat that Clint didn’t notice being taken off, and tugs it on with angry, jerking movements. “I don’t need this. Screw you.” She storms out without another word, and Clint deflates as soon as the door slams shut.
He’s done the right thing, he’s tells himself as he dumps the freshly cooked food onto a plate. He takes a bite and dear god, that’s awful so he tips it straight down the bin. He has done the right thing, he has, he has, he has.
Chapter 5: Thursday - Thor
"Damn it, Thor," she rubs at her tired face and her voice is dogged, broken. "I just...can't do this. Right now, I mean. Or ever. I don't know."
He wants to reach out to her but he also wants to hit something and he's terrified he'll mix the two up so he keeps his hands by his side. "Jane, I only-"
"I don't want kids, okay?" She snaps suddenly. "I have my career, which is damn important to me-"
"I know that, I simply-"
"And I don't want to be one of those women whose biggest achievement is becoming chairman of one of those stupid Parent-Teacher committees, I can't do that, don't you understand that?"
"I do understand, truly, but-"
"I have to go to work." She grabs her coat and her hair is still messed up from sleep and she usually leaves for work an hour later than this, but he lets her go without a single word. The apartment door slams shut behind her.
He finally releases that pent up rage when he finds himself smashing a coffee mug to the ground; he doesn't even realize he's done it until he's staring at the broken shards and wondering how something so wonderful had gone so wrong.
He blinks, and then sighs. He brushes the shards, with his bare hands, into a plastic bag, which he then dumps into the nearby bin. Luckily, it's one of the cheap, plain mugs they had bought from a large department store when they had first moved in together. Rather that, than the few they had decorated and designed themselves (Thor's pride doesn't allow him to speak of that day ever again, but it involved ceramic paint, lots of glitter, and a squirt of glue that Thor brushed off a laughing Jane's nose).
He looks at the floor and realizes, with a huffed, exasperated chuckle, that Jane has forgotten her shoes (not the first time she's done so) in her haste to get away from him. He decides to go for a shower, to wash off the dried sweat from his work out last night, and when he turns off the water with the squeaking dial, he hears the door slam shut once again. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he peers around the door to see the shoes have been mysteriously taken.
He knows from experience that when Jane is this worked up, it's best to leave her alone until she's frazzled out of the energy needed to fight. When that happens, she simply flops back into his arms and the argument is over.
However, there's a fear, niggling at the back of his mind, that's telling him that this time isn't going to be quite like all the other times. Previous arguments had been about Thor leaving his smelly shoes by the front door, or Jane bringing her work home with her and pinning it up all over their bedroom wall (she's an astro-physics-something Thor has never understood and probably never will). Not quite in the same league of disagreeing about whether they should be having a baby or not.
He drives to work, after getting dressed in whatever he finds in his wardrobe (Jane picked his whole wardrobe, since it's a well-known fact that he has no sense of fashion whatsoever) in his old pickup truck, which is startling out of place in the city landscape. But being out of place has never bothered Thor before. Home schooled by his self-important parents until junior year meant that he never really got the hang on conjunctions, a fact that other kids would tease him for until they realized he could bench press twice their weight.
He parks and hoists his backpack over his shoulder. Working at the ER had been a godsend - just enough money to get him out of his parents' hair and a fulfilling purpose, a reason to get out of bed every morning. He's also managed to make some friends that don't care that he speaks more correctly than necessary, or that he doesn't understand why one would require personal space. It also means he can keep an eye on his brother. Speaking of whom...
"Loki!" He calls, perhaps a decibel too loudly since most of the car park stares at him for a moment, and waves at the lone figure walking through reception. He's wearing a black hoodie and black jeans (he has the same fashion awareness of Thor, except Loki has tried to compensate by sticking to two colors and two colors only.
He turns around with that awful leer that Thor just can't make disappear, no matter how hard he tries. "Yes?"
"Good morning," Thor greets, clapping a hand on his shoulder. "How are you?"
"Delightful," Loki says with a dead expression, and it takes a moment for Thor to work out that Loki is mocking him.
Thor feels his face darken. "Loki-"
"Thor!" He hears another voice call his name and he turns around to see Steve approaching, with his usual smile.
As he turns around, Loki wriggles out of his grip and, in a tone close to a lizard hissing, says, "Your friends are here. Go talk to them instead, dear brother."
Thor feels helpless, the second time in one morning, as Loki scampers into the reception and out of sight. Steve reaches his side, and frowns at Thor's expression. "Thor? You okay, buddy?"
"I am fine," Thor says indifferently. "It is my brother I worry about."
"Yeah?" Steve prompts, and they begin to walk through reception together. "What's the matter with him?"
"I do not know," Thor tries to think, since he's sure that Loki has been steadily getting nastier and nastier in this past week.
"Well, what's happening in his life right now?" Steve prompts as they walk into the staff changing room.
Thor opens his locker as he thinks, exchanging his backpack for his paramedic uniform. “Perhaps it is my parents' departure from each other."
It takes Steve a second, but then he translates Thor's words enough to reply, "Your parents are getting a divorce."
"Yes," Thor confirms, pulling his jeans off and his uniform trousers on. "They have been separated for a year tomorrow, and they are getting an official document as soon as they can, I believe."
Steve pauses. "And you aren't bothered by this?"
Thor pulls on his shirt as he thinks. "I suppose I... 'got over it' a long time ago. I do not understand why Loki has not."
"He's the younger brother, right?" Steve asks and Thor nods. "Well, maybe he was still hoping they'd get back together. I mean, my dad never stuck around and he was a bad guy, but when I was small, I still sort of wished they'd get back together."
"But you grew out of that desire?"
"Once I understood that he beat my ma, yeah," Steve's expression clouds over for a moment, but then he shakes himself. "But I guess that's a different situation."
“My parents were never very happy in each others’ companionship.” Thor says solemnly. “But I do not believe Loki sees it so simply.”
“Maybe you just need to talk with him,” Steve suggests. “It sounds like he’s in denial, and a conversation from his big brother might help that.”
“Do you think so?”
“It wouldn’t hurt to try,” Steve smiles, clipping his stethoscope around his neck and slamming his locker door shut. “Let me know how it goes.”
A few hours later, Thor is cursing Steve Rogers’ name, because he’s now stuck in a broken elevator with Loki, his assistant, and a dead body.
He had come down to the morgue, where Loki was mortician, to try and talk him. However, just as the elevator doors had dinged open, there Loki was, wheeling his gurney with the assistance of Amora.
Amora is blonde and beautiful, but her green eyes are superior and her lips are curled in a sneer. Her long fingers should be graceful and elegant – instead they are like a witch’s, and they grip rather than flutter. Thor is under no doubts about why Loki hired her.
Thor had opened his mouth to ask for Loki to have a private word, but Loki had ignored him and pushed the gurney inside the elevator, Amora and himself following it. So Thor had no other option but to ride the elevator up with them. Then it had broken with a flickering light and a groan.
Now, they're sitting down and waiting for their rescue. The smell of the corpse is beginning to warm up, making it even more sickening. Luckily, however, Thor has built a resistance to horrible stenches, considering some of the people he has to drive back to the hospital. Loki stands up and leans against the wall - Thor has a private suspicion that he likes to be taller than everyone else.
"Loki," Amora whispers in that simper of hers, a disgruntled swish of her hair behind her shoulder. "When is help going to get here?"
"I do not know."
"I do not know!" He snaps suddenly, and Amora shrinks back, abruptly silent. So Thor is right - he really is in a particularly bad mood.
Thor tries to speak with Loki; maybe the situation isn't ideal, but knowing Loki's usual slithery methods of escaping conversations he doesn't want to have, it may just be the only chance he gets. "Loki, I believe we need to talk."
"So talk away, brother."
"I know Mother and Father's separation is distressing you, and I thought-"
"I do not care one little bit for their problems," Loki sniffs the air and looks away. "It does not concern me."
"Maybe you do not know me as well as you think you do."
The words wounds Thor in a way he tries to hide - maybe Loki is right. Maybe they really have grown so far apart that- No. Thor knows his brother and he knows his behavior when he is upset. “Please-”
“I do not care about their divorce and if I did,” Loki hisses savagely, leaning forward to bend over Thor’s s the only thing I would be sad about is the fact they may find different people to bring down to their despicable level.”
Thor doesn’t know what to say to that so he keeps his mouth shut and glares at his hands folded in his lap. Amora giggles softly, and when Thor looks up, he sees that Loki is smiling slightly. It’s not the smile Thor remembers from his youth, however: it’s a mean smile, one that makes Thor’s stomach turn in a way that has nothing to do with the rotting corpse.
When Thor and Loki were young, maybe five years old or so, they would love being home alone. It didn't happen very often, but sometimes, when their parents went on a trip or an outing, they were allowed to have the house to themselves. On one such occasion, instead of their usual games of Cowboys and Indians (sometimes with an alien twist), Loki suggested that they should use their father's clothes and their mother's make-up to make themselves into fierce warriors, who wore war paint (lipstick) and amour (cardboard attached to some of their father's belts). Even now, Thor can still remember looking into their parents' floor length mirror, stand by side with his brother, feeling glorious (even though they were horribly drowned by their father's shirts and their mother's lipstick was sticky and smudged and mixed with some eye liner because they hadn't been able to tell the difference at first).
It's that memory that forces Thor to speak up again, to try to get through Loki's nasty and bitter shell. "I know you love them-" He implores, but Amora cuts him off before he can finish.
"No, he doesn't!" She closes her eyes in an exasperation that makes Thor want to wring her neck because she has no right to interfere, and then opens them again to stare at him. "They were cruel to him!"
Thor looks at Loki. "They were cruel to you?"
"Don't you remember?" Loki's voice is quiet and his head is bowed, but then he looks up and his gaze fixes on Thor with a relentless kind of energy. "How they use to chide me for not being more like you?"
"Do not make excuses!" Loki's eyes flash in the same way their mother's used to when she was furious. "I have left them behind. Does that not answer your previous question? How can I care about two people's divorce when I do not care about the people themselves?"
"But you do care!" Thor protests and he speaks quickly and forcefully before either Amora or Loki can cut him off again. "You do and perhaps it is not in a way that makes sense but you still care! It will not do you any good to pretend you do not."
"You do not know anything."
"I know more than you would like me to." Thor shoots back.
The fire in Loki’s eyes has increased and he’s about to spit out an insult when there’s a crackling from the speakers in the corners of elevator.
“Hello?” A timid voice says.
“Who is there?” Thor stands and directs his voice to the speaker.
“Is anyone there?” The voice continues.
“Yes, we are here!” Thor replies testily.
Amora titters – once again, Thor has to restrain himself from strangling her. “Silly Thor, he cannot hear us!”
“You must press that button,” Loki points to it.
Thor does as he directs, pressing down and then saying loudly, “Can you hear us now?”
“Oh, no, my mistake, there are people in there!” The voice seems to not be speaking to them, but then he says, “Don’t, uh, worry, folks, we’ll get you out soon enough.”
“You had better hurry,” Loki suddenly says, while Thor keeps his hand on the button. “Because we have a defrosting corpse here also.”
“Uh, oh.” The voice says, before disappearing entirely.
“At the very least, we now know we will be rescued.” Thor sighs. “I imagine Sif will be quite unhappy with me.”
Loki makes a noise underneath his breath that sounds suspiciously derisive; Thor has to stop himself from rising to the bait. If there is one thing Loki is talented at, it is winding Thor up. Thor sits back down with his legs straight out - his feet accidentally brush against Amora's own outstretched legs, and she looks out him with a coy smile. Loki doesn't notice, he's too busy twiddling his long fingers together.
Thor doesn't move his legs, but he looks away from Amora intentionally. There's not much else to look at, however, in the small space, so he begins counting the marks on the ceiling.
“You mentioned Sif,” Loki says suddenly, snidely, as if to fill the silence. “What of your lovely Jane?” Amora pouts at that, but Loki doesn’t seem to see it.
For an awful moment, Thor thinks that Loki somehow knows about his and Jane’s argument this morning. Then he decides that’s impossible and he replies, “Sif is my partner. I simply aired my hope that she would not think I have deserted her deliberately." Loki scowls at his failure to visibly anger Thor.
Amora sighs loudly, like a spoiled little girl. "I am bored. When will our rescue arrive?"
"If they are anything like the rest of the staff here," Loki casts a sly look at Thor. "They will be a while."
Once again, Thor has to restrain himself. If only one dead body entered the elevator, than only one dead body should be exiting the elevator. "The staff I know are very competent," he says instead. "In fact, I find them to be very efficient."
"Oh, of course, how could I forget?" Thor didn't think it were possible, but Loki's smile turns even nastier. "Your baseball team of friends. What are you called? Do remind me."
Thor doesn't say anything - his silence speaks enough, however.
Amora giggles. "They call themselves the Avengers!" She titters.
Loki's smirk says exactly what he thinks of the nickname, and Thor's hands curl into tight fists.
By the time the rescue arrives and pries the elevator doors open with a specialized crowbar, Loki has a broken nose and Thor is severely ticked off.
He marches straight out of the elevator and to the ambulance bay, but his usual ambulance is already gone and there's no sign of Sif, and when he goes to the reception desk, they tell him that there's really no need for him to be here any more because in his absence, they called in Fandrall in emergency to replace him temporarily.
So he sulks.
Because he's sure not going home until he has to, and even then he'll stop off at a supermarket to get some beer for him and a bar of candy for Jane. He marches to the lunch room but there's no one there - it only then occurs to him to check the time.
Quarter past two. So he's missed his lunch break and had spent it listening to Loki's insufferable complaints about each of his friends - the final straw had been when he had started making fun of Jane.
Just then, his phone rings in a shrill tone - he plucks it out of his pocket and peers at the screen. Darcy. He gulps - the one person he's ever been afraid of. Mainly because she tasered him when they first met. In her defense, he was very drunk and probably very scary when he came lumbering towards her, though he had only been intending to give her a hug. As he told her when he had sobered up, she looked very... huggable. Another point in her defense is that because of their combined assault on each other (depending on whose side of the story you listen to) it was how Jane and Thor had met.
Because of that fact, Darcy has usually been the self-appointed guardian of their relationship, for better or for worse. She was the one who helped to choose Jane's engagement ring and she was the one who decided they would go to the movies for their first date. She would also, Thor thinks almost mournfully with a pang of regret, be the natural godmother if Jane and Thor were to have a child.
He presses the phone against his ear. "Hello, Darcy."
"What did you do this time?" She hisses - her voice sounds like she's muting it deliberately. Thor frowns, but doesn't comment on the tone.
Instead, he replies, "I expressed my wish to have offspring."
It takes her a moment, but then she says in a high-pitched version of her previous hiss, "You did what?"
"Oh, Thor, you poor thing," she sighs in defeat. "No wonder she's been in such a foul mood all day." Darcy is also Jane's assistant, though she spends most of her time on the same sort of social network websites that baffle Thor.
"I did not know she would be so upset by the idea," he tries for an indifferent tone, but it sounds more desperate than anything.
Darcy makes a sympathetic tut. "I could try to change her mind, but I'm just as subtle as you, she'd see straight through me. Then again, she can be pretty obtuse..."
"No, do not worry," Thor shakes his head, even though she can't see him (then again, if she could, he wouldn't be able to tell - technology moves at a pace too fast for him to keep up. He keeps expecting hover boards to be the latest to be advertised on television). “This is not your problem to fix, dear Darcy.”
She makes a frustrated groan. “But you were my true love couple!”
Thor frowns. “Pardon?”
“You were the proof that true love exists, you jerk faces!” Her voice rises unknowingly and she quickly lowers it back down to a hiss. “Now you’ve ruined it.”
“Why are you speaking so quietly?” He can’t help but ask.
“Because Jane’s working in the other room and if she hears me talking to you in her current mood she’ll fire me and-” she sighs in defeat. “Too late.”
“Darcy?” Jane’s voice echoes through the phone, slightly distorted. “Who are you talking to?”
“My ma!” Darcy says, her voice also distorted, since she’s isn’t talking to the phone anymore. “She’s really sick at the moment and-”
“I thought you were talking to your ma yesterday.” Jane says in accusation; Thor can almost picture her hands on her hips and her narrowed eyes.
“Er, well, that was actually my boyfriend.”
“You lied to me?”
“It was only a little lie, really, barely noticeable in the scale of things when you really think about it-”
“How can I trust you ever again?”
“Okay, I think you’re being a little melodramatic-”
“How do I know you’re not lying to me now?”
“Oh, uh, no, Jane!” Thor can hear a scuffle coming from the phone but apparently Darcy wins because her breathy voice comes back a second later to say, quickly, “Okay bye thanks Ma hope you get well soon!” And then she hangs up.
Thor looks at the phone and isn’t sure whether to laugh or break it. He decides on neither, and simply puts it back into his pocket. He looks up and sees a familiar figure walking towards him. "Clint!" He says, maybe a bit too loudly, and Clint looks up.
His expression is strangely tense, one that is rare on him. He is sarcastic and he is deadpan, but never this degree of solemn. Thor tilts his head to the side so he can expect the man more clearly as Clint stops in front of him. Clint smiles, but it looks forced. "Hey, big guy. Why aren't you out in the ambulances?"
Thor huffs. "I was trapped in an elevator until a few moments ago."
Clint makes a sympathetic expression. "Ouch. By yourself?"
Thor shakes his head. "No - I was with my brother, his assistant, and a recently defrosted body."
Clint stares at him for a moment. Then, finally, he says faintly, "...That must have been awkward."
"Yes, that is one word for it."
"Well, I have twenty minutes until my next appointment..." Clint hedges. "Do you want to come work out in the training room?"
Thor grins for the first time that day. "That would be most desirable, my friend."
Clint scratches the back of his neck, and then shrugs. "Okay. Come on then."
Though Clint's gym isn't technically Clint's gym at all - it isn't really for staff use either - everyone seems to agree, though it's never been said, that he is the unofficial owner of the room. He's already the personal trainer with most experience and the one with the highest wage, and the fact that he sometimes allows his friends to come in and work out is probably the proof of his control. Steve's a regular, as well as Thor. Natasha sometimes comes in to practice her yoga if she has a spare moment, and Tony will maybe, if the weather's right and his coffee had exactly the right proportions in it, come in after a shift to go on a treadmill. Bruce will maybe enter the gym, but he's never touched one of the machines except to lean against it in conversation. Then again, there was that one night...
Thor remembers, with fondness, that one particular evening. They were celebrating Steve's promotion to head nurse, and that meant a beer bottle each and a break in to the gym. Wordlessly, they had looked at each other, and had then put all of their drinks together, on a yoga mat in the middle of the room. Then, they all chose a machine and simply exercised. About half an hour later, the spell had broken, and they were back to their usual, raucous selves. But that half hour was a treasured memory, even now, a year and a half later.
Thor immediately gravitates towards the weightlifter - wordlessly, Clint follows to be his spotter, calmly adding Thor's preferred weight. Thor grabs the bar and flutters his fingers around it before pushing up with a grunt. Clint's own hands dance just away from the bar, but Thor trusts him enough to be there in the small chance that Thor drops the weights. He then pulls it back down into position and catches his breath.
"You seem distressed," Thor says, keeping his gaze on the weights as he lifts up again.
"Please," Thor brings the weights back down and then props himself up on his elbows so he can look imploringly at Clint. "You can trust me to listen to your troubles."
Clint smiles softly. "I know, big guy, I know. It's just... It's complicated."
Thor isn't deterred. "Believe me when I say that there are few complications that could surprise me today." Clint makes a face at that, like he's going to inquire, but Thor stops that in its tracks. "Tell me. I will not tell anyone else if you wish me not to."
Clint sighs, and for a second, Thor thinks he is going to have to convince Clint further, but then Clint says, "It's Natasha."
Thor settles back down and wraps his hands around the steel bar again. "You desire her?"
"Oh yeah," Clint makes a sound that's almost like a snort, but softer, under his breath. "I desire her alright. But, ah... I think I messed it up. Even if I had to to begin with."
Thor doesn't say anything, just continues to lift and pull back down.
"We... Oh, man, you seriously can't tell anyone, she'd have my guts for breakfast. But, uh, we slept together on Monday night. And then again on Tuesday."
"But is that not enough?" Thor senses. "You want more than coitus?"
Clint lets out a strangled laugh. "Thor, you're something else, you know that? But yeah, I do, or at least, I thought I did. See, uh, I tried to...progress out relationship, but I kind of screwed it up and said the wrong things because I let damn Hammer, of all people, get to me, and now she's pissed at me. Understandably. But, uh, isn't that what girls are supposed to want? In the movies, you know, the ones with happy endings, they always want a proper relationship? But I guess Natasha isn't like most girls..."
Thor raises his gaze to see Clint's expression, looking down at him with an edge of hope, like Thor will have the answers. Thor swallows. He's hardly the expert in knowing what women want, as proven by this morning. "Were you clear that you wanted a relationship?"
Clint presses his lips together in thought. "Maybe not so clear..."
"Then perhaps you must just talk to her." Thor says sagely. "Simply apologise for hurting her feelings and prove your intentions."
Another choked bark of laughter. "Thor, seriously, thanks. I tried asking Tony for similar advice and he told me that relationships aren't worth it and we all die alone."
Thor sighs. "I believe Tony is not the best to talk to while he is in this state of mind."
"You've got that right." Clint takes a firmed hold of the weights to let Thor shuffle off the bench. "I'm sorry but I've got to kick you out, but my next appointment is usually early, and I need to set up the walking bars."
"It is not trouble." Thor smiles and grips a warm hold of Clint's arm. "I hope you fix your problems with Natasha. You seem the closest of friends and I cannot imagine that would translate badly into a romantic kind of love."
Clint looks at him with wide eyes, and then shakes his head, muttering about people who know everything. Thor smiles, feeling useful for the first time that day, and leaves the gym with a lesser weight on his shoulders.
He walks to his pick up truck, and before he turns the ignition, he just lets his forehead flop onto the top of the steering wheel. He hates days like this - days where he's done nothing. He hates sitting around, he hates not even being able to help people, and he hates not learning something new. There's four hours until Jane gets (well, that's around the time she should be) home from work and he doesn't want to just sit around waiting to see if she even does come home or whether she just sends Darcy over to get her stuff.
But he decides to be brave because Darcy's words have hit him hard and so have Clint's and he knows he's never going to find another Jane and if he can't do anything else today, he's do this. He'll fight for his marriage.
He gets home and walks through the door with his gaze on his feet. He sticks his keys in the door only to find the door's already unlocked. He frowns. Maybe he left it unlocked this morning, in his worry. He opens the door cautiously, and then sees Jane's head, facing away from him, sitting on the couch, watching TV, some stupid soap opera.
He shuts the door behind him with the same wariness he came in with. Jane turns around and he sees that her cheeks are slightly puffy, like they always are when she's been crying.
He steels himself, and asks, "Are you...okay?"
She nods, biting her lip, and then stands up. Before he can do anything, she's racing to him, and for one terrifying second he thinks she's going to hit him, but then she throws her arms around his neck and hugs him tightly. His own arms rely on instinct to hold her just as tightly, pressing his face into her hair and kissing her head.
She says something, but it's muffled by his chest, so she takes a step back, still holding onto his arms, and repeats herself. "Darcy talked some sense into me, so, I, I came home from work early, because I had this picture of a constellation and I was trying to measure the, uh..." She coughs, and starts again. "I mean, I just had this, this epiphany, because I realized that I was being stupid, I can't just my feelings above yours, that's not fair, I mean, okay it's fair that I don't just want you jamming a person up my uterus without my permission, but uh, okay Jane you're getting off track, and uh..."
Thor kisses her. It's nothing erotic, just a reassurance and she sighs into his lips.
He pulls apart and she starts again, although her words are slower and make much more sense. "I was thinking that, uh, maybe we could have a test run."
He frowns. "How can we have a test run of having a baby? Are there half-babies? Are they not grotesque-"
"No, no!" She laughs, and it's a little hysterical, but he doesn't comment. "No, I meant..." She looks up at him with hopeful eyes. "Maybe we could get a dog?"
Thor can't help the grin that stretches his face. "I would like that very much."
next up: Steve!
Chapter 6: Friday - Steve
“So what did that coffee ever do to you?” Steve looks up at the voice (from he had, okay fine, been scowling at the mug in his hand) to see Bucky scrubbing at his own forehead in exhaustion.
Steve answers with another question. “Were you mixing your drinks again?”
“Shut up.” Bucky simply takes the coffee from Steve and drinks it down in one go. “Oh god, I swear, this time, I’m never going drinking again.”
“Right.” The bemused disbelief must show in his face because Bucky raises a countering eyebrow.
“Just because you can hold your drink exceptionally well doesn’t meant you should hold it over us less experience young ‘uns.”
Steve snorts – Bucky never fails to lift his sour moods. “You’ve been drinking since you were fourteen. I wouldn’t exactly call you inexperienced.”
“Believe me, when you’ve take shots with Logan, you’ll feel like a damn novice.” Bucky groans, and Steve rolls his eyes. And then Bucky’s eyes narrow and his expression turns speculative. “What time is your shift today?”
“Midday,” Steve replies, suddenly suspicious. “Why do you ask?”
“Great!” Bucky starts making another pot of coffee, reaching up to pull two cups down from the overhanging cupboard. “You can help me cram for my pop quiz.”
Steve groans. “Another one?”
“Hey, blame Professor X, he’s the one who sets them.”
“His name is Professor Xavier,” Steve corrects half-heartedly, and then sighs in defeat. “What’s the pop quiz on?”
“You’re the best roommate ever!” Bucky gushes in elation, tossing Steve a ginger nut biscuit as a gift for his troubles. “I’ll buy you a new pencil if I get full marks again, I swear.”
“A new pencil?” Steve raises an eyebrow.
“You like arty stuff, don’t you? And don’t forget, I’m working with a medical student’s finances, I’m not going to be buying you the damn Mona Lisa.”
Steve huffs through a smile as Bucky sets down the cups of coffee and sits opposite of him. “So? What’s the pop quiz on?”
Bucky’s gaze drops guiltily to his twiddling fingers. “The skeleton.”
“Bucky! We’ve already been through bones, I’m pretty sure there was a pop quiz on the skeleton about six months ago, and you said-”
“I know, I know I said I had it covered, but we had only been roommates for four months, I couldn’t trust you with my darkest secret! I managed to copy off Danny Rand and-”
“I was desperate, Steve!”
Steve sighs for the umpteenth time that morning. “Okay, fine. This can be done. You know most of them, right?”
Bucky nods eagerly. “Oh, yeah, I know all of them important ones, it’s just the fiddling finger bones and the different parts and the skull and ones like that.”
“Okay,” Steve takes a long drain of his coffee. “Okay, when’s the pop quiz?”
“...In two hours.”
Steve groans, and lets his head fall down to the counter’s surface.
“Come on, please, Steve, you wouldn’t leave a comrade hanging like this!” Bucky pleads, and Steve groans again.
“When was this pop quiz announced?” Steve asks finally, his voice slightly muffled because he still has his forehead resting on the counter.
“Bucky! How do you expect-”
“I’ll buy you two pencils! Come on Steve, I would cheat again but Professor X – Xavier is way more observant that the one I had before!”
“You’re a nightmare. I’m getting a new roommate.” Then Steve frowns and lifts his head; an old crumb is stuck to his forehead. “Who was your teacher last year?”
“I had him when I was a medical student.” Steve sighs.
“He’s a tyrant, isn’t he?”
“Bucky, you should be more respecting of your teachers.” Steve pauses. “But yes, he is a terrifying man.”
An hour and a half later, Bucky is muttering acronyms under his breath as he grabs an apple and races out of the door, his satchel banging against his hip and his jacket on inside out.
Steve sighs, and puts the empty cups in the sink to soak. It's a good job Bucky's such a fast leaner - he always had been, ever since Steve was eleven and the Barnes family moved in across the street with a three year old baby. Now, they're like brothers. Bucky was the one who encouraged him to exercise his worries away, Steve was the inspiration behind Bucky's desire to go into medicine.
Steve looks at the clock - it's still three hours until he needs to be at the hospital for the first a double shift. Which, he had learned when looking at the schedule in the staff room yesterday, coincides with Tony’s double shift.
He pushes the thought out of his head – mainly because the more he thinks about Tony the more he wants to march over to Tony’s apartment and either punch him or kiss him and since he’s not sure which he’d do, he can’t take the risk- and decided to go for a run in the park.
He changes into shorts and a t-shirt and then shuts the door behind him. As much as he doesn’t want to think about Tony, it’s suddenly all he can think about, and the more he tries not to, the more Tony pushes his way back in, and isn’t that just a perfect representation of how Tony is in reality?
He reaches the park in record time but his feet ache (his new trainers needed to be broken in sooner or later) so he leans against a tree after buying a soft drink from a nearby vendor.
Then he sees her.
She’s facing away from him, so if Steve were a man of greater subtlety, he might have gotten away with just creeping away as fast as he could. However, luck is against him, and in his shock, he starts coughing on his drink.
The sound of him hacking his lungs out, inevitably, draws her attention and she turns around, big brown eyes focusing on him.
Peggy Carter, the one who got away and found herself an army husband while she was at it.
Sure, they were barely teenagers back then, but it doesn’t stop the dull ache of being dumped by her.
"Steve?" Her voice is exactly how he remembers it and she uses dainty fingers to push some hair away from her face, unknowingly showcasing the diamond and gold band on her wedding finger.
He gulps. "Hey, Peggy." He waves awkwardly. "How are- what are you doing here?" He switches questions halfway through.
"Oh, it's my nephew birthday party." She gestures behind her to where a group of children play together, near a picnic where a couple of other children sit.
He frowns stupidly. "I thought you were an only child."
She looks uncomfortable. "Uh, then, Sam's nephew, technically."
He stops himself from smacking a hand to his face. Smooth, Rogers, really smooth. He smiles weakly. "Yeah, well, have fun." Strangely enough, it doesn't sound bitter - or at least, he hopes it doesn't.
"Are you on a run?" She asks, and then seems to have the same urge to hit herself.
Looking down at his shorts and sweaty body, he can see why. His smile becomes a little stronger. "No, actually, I was bird watching."
"That can be pretty strenuous." The corner of her lips quirk, and it's then he notices she's not wearing her usual ruby red lipstick. He doesn't comment on it because even he can tell that's going to be extremely awkward.
He looks at his watch and realizes he’s rapidly running out of time if he wants to have a shower before he gets to the hospital. “I have to...” He gestures with a thumb and she nods frantically.
“Oh, yeah, me too.” She smiles and they take a step away from each other at the same time. Then Steve just bites the bullet and starts jogging away, back the way he came. He doesn’t look back, mainly because it would be a pretty awkward position he’d be putting his body in, and knowing his grace, he’d run into a tree or something.
He returns home panting and sweaty. He reaches into his pocket for his keys, only to finds that they’re not there. Then, with a sinking feeling in his stomach as he twists the doorknob. Nothing happens.
He slams his palm against the door as he realizes his own stupidity. He’s locked himself out.
He checks the time: great. Half an hour until he needs to be at the hospital, and he’s left his car keys, along with his apartment keys, on the other side of the door. Bucky won’t be back in time, there’s no way, and the only other people who have spare keys are one of Bucky’s friends (who’ll also be at the hospital school for med students right now)...and Tony.
Steve restrains himself from slapping the door again. Great, just great.
There’s only one thing for it (there’s no way in hell he’s going to ring Tony): he pulls out his phone and dials the number of the only other person he knows who owns a vehicle and isn’t at work right now.
“Hello?” Clint’s voice sounds tired, and Steve feels a stab of guilt for calling on one of Clint’s rare days off.
“I’m really sorry, Clint, but I’ve locked myself out of my apartment and I don’t have my car keys and I need to be at the hospital in thirty minutes.”
Clint sighs, but he doesn’t sound particularly displeased. “I’ll come and get you, don’t worry.” Clint yawns, and then says, away from the phone, “Tash? I’ve got to go pick up Steve.” A muffled grumble is her reply, and Steve raises a silent eyebrow at the phone. “Okay, I’m on my way now.”
“I’ll wait for you outside my apartment block,” Steve replies, and Clint hangs up before Steve can add ‘Thank you’. He quickly strides down the stairs and waits for approximately six minutes on the curb before the familiar sound of Clint’s motorbike sounds. Steve grins as it comes to a stop in front of him.
“Looking good,” Clint raises his helmet visor and cocks an eyebrow at Steve’s state.
Steve pulls a face. “I went for a run.”
“Oh, that explains it,” Clint grins.
Steve climbs on behind him. “Thanks, by the way. I owe you one.”
“Actually, we’re even now,” Clint replies: Steve can practically hear the grin in his voice. “Remember when you recommended yoga for extra flexibility?”
Steve laughs, and jams helmet on his head. “I take it you and Natasha are...”
“Oh yeah. And then some.” Clint revs the engine and Steve can almost hear the grin in his voice. “Do you think it’s too soon to ask her to marry me?”
“Probably a little premature, yes,” Steve laughs as Clint guns the acceleration and off they go, weaving through the busy streets of Manhattan.
They come to a stop outside of the hospital and the fast speed has dried Steve off somewhat. He might be able to squeeze in a quick shower in the locker rooms if he’s quick enough.
He jumps off the motorbike and takes off the helmet, clipping it back on the motorbike. “Seriously, Clint, tell me if you ever need a favour.”
“Sure, sure. Go!” Clint waves at him to hurry and Steve takes the hint, running through reception and ignoring the raised eyebrow from Pepper. He skids into the staff locker room, and yes, he has ten minutes until his shift starts, so he quickly strips off his shirt and then his shorts and pants and steps into one of the shower cubicles, grabbing a towel from the shelf. The water is cold but it does the trick and a few minutes later, he turns the water off and wraps the towel round his waist so protect his modesty. He steps out and, because he isn’t really looking where he’s going, he bumps into someone else on his way to his locker.
He takes a step back with a “Sorry, sorry!” as he reaches out to dust the other person off, and actually succeeds in doing so before he realizes who he’s actually dusting off. “Uh,” he says stupidly.
Tony raises a cool eyebrow, and takes another step back. “Look where you’re going next time, yeah? I mean, I know that usually everyone moves around you because you think you’re so tough and scary but-”
“Tony-” It hurts, this type of snide remark, because it’s not personal. Maybe it would sting more if it were personal, but this way, it’s like Tony’s cut all connections and he’s just being casually cruel to any old stranger.
But Tony just barrels on like he didn’t even hear Steve (he knows that Tony’s hearing is bad after years of listening to heavy metal and eighties rock, but it’s not that bad). “-some of us have places to go so if you’ll please move.”
Tony looks pointedly and Steve starts when he realizes his shoulder is pressed against Tony’s locker. He quickly takes a step away from him, not failing to notice how Tony doesn’t look at him once, and then walks to his own locker, which about a foot away.
It’s silent as Steve opens his locker. He stares inside for a moment. His shirt and pants are right there, obviously, but he just can’t seem to move his hand to reach them. As if putting his clothes on will be acceptance that this is just going to be how things are from now on.
Well, hell to that.
He slams his locker and turns around to face Tony, who is still looking determinedly away from him. “Tony, we need to talk.”
“About your behavior in public locker rooms? I agree, it’s rude to damage the property by slamming with such unnecessary force, really, the budget is small enough as it is without having to replace-”
“Tony, would you shut up?”
Surprisingly, he does. Now, Steve's a little lost for what to say, because he was expecting more of a fight to actually get to speak instead of Tony. He starts with the basics. "Look, I know that I...made a mistake in what I did, but you-"
"Yep." Tony slams the locker door and stands to face. "You did make a mistake. Now, if you'll excuse me." He smartly steps around Steve and storms out of the changing rooms.
Past a very shocked looking Peter Parker.
Steve sighs, and opens his locker door again. Then he wonders why Peter would even be here, and he realizes that maybe he's here for Steve. He turns around. "Hey."
Peter's eyes wide as Steve greets him, and then starts talking - more like garbling, really, like a more nervous and unsure version of Tony's rambling. "Uh, I'm supposed to, uh, you're needed in Fury’s office, I mean the Chief of Staff, because he, uh, needs to speak to you.”
Steve smiles. “Sure. Let me go clock in and I’ll go see him.”
“Uh, okay.” Peter smiles awkwardly and scratches the back of his neck. “Sorry to intrude, you know, uh, that.”
Steve raises his eyebrows as he wonders what Peter’s talking about, and then he turns away, cheeks reddening. “Oh, that was nothing.”
“Right.” Peter steps away, and then with one last nervous glance at Steve, promptly runs away. Steve swears he hears Peter mutter something about Mom and Dad fighting, but he must be imagining things.
Steve sighs, gets dressed as quickly as he can, and walks to Fury’s room. It’s pretty much on the other side of the hospital, but Steve doesn’t mind – gives him the chance to stretch his stiff legs after that morning’s jog.
He taps on the door as he reaches it. “Doctor Fury?”
“Is that Rogers?” Is the gruff reply. “Come in, Steve!”
Steve opens the door with a level of hesitance and steps inside. “Parker said you wanted to see me?”
He’s sat behind his massive oak desk, his certificates hanging up behind him. Doctor Hill stands beside him. “Yes, I wanted to talk about your work at the hospital.” He leans forward and clasps his hands together. His hospital bandage acts like an eye patch, and diminishes his usual ferocity somewhat. “Please, take a seat.”
Steve can’t help the nervous butterflies that erupt in his stomach. “Am I about to be fired?”
Fury’s face breaks out into a grin. “Oh, no.” Then Steve thinks the grin is predatory and the butterflies increase exponentially. “We just want to talk about all the overtime you’ve been putting in.”
“Oh.” Steve looks up and gives his face neutral. “Uh, what about it?”
“It’s unnecessary.” Doctor Hill says bluntly – her pretty features might have been calming, pleasant even, if it weren’t for the unveiled sharp edge to her eyes. “We’re not going to be paying you for it.”
“I don’t need to be paid,” Steve offers, though he does sort of need the money. But that’s not the reason why he does the overtime, though he couldn’t put his finger on the real reason without sounding like a cliché from the television. “If that’s the problem.”
“It’s not quite as simple as that, I’m afraid,” Fury says. “Look, if this was a perfect world, your overtime would welcome, hell, even celebrated. But it isn’t and it’s causing difficulties. Legal ramifications, higher loads of paperwork, messing with the schedule.”
“Oh,” Steve says again, his expression now more blank than neutral. “I didn’t realize it was causing a problem for the hospital.”
Doctor Hill chimes in again – Steve’s beginning to get a bit sick of her. “It’s doing more harm than good.”
Steve nods, and then he pauses. There’s a fire starting in his belly, and it’s the same fire that earned him broken noses and black eyes when he was a child, a fire which doesn’t let his conscience stop. “More harm than good?” He repeats, looking up at Doctor Hill with a steely glint in his eyes.
She crosses her arms across her chest. “Yes. It’s causing the hospital-”
“More paperwork, yeah, you said.” Steve cuts her off, and she’s his superior and he’s probably way out of line but he can’t stop now. “Except I’m wondering how less paperwork justifies me clocking out even when there’s a woman in the waiting room who’s had a broken leg for five hours now.”
Doctor Hill opens her mouth to respond but Steve marches on, he won’t stop. “Does it mess with the schedule if I stay behind an extra twenty minutes to hold a kid’s hand while he gets prepped for surgery for the first time? Does it overlap with the allotted hours when I console a man when he’s just lost his wife?” Steve slouches back in his chair as he realizes that he’s been leaning steadily forward to bore into Doctor Hills view. “Well, then, I apologize.”
Fury sighs. “Steve, it’s not like I’m doing this because I want to be the bad guy.”
“Then don’t.” Steve says. “Come on, don’t pay me for the extra time, just write down that I have for all the legal stuff, I know you need to do that, but don’t pay me. We’re understaffed as it is but you can’t make me go home on the clock just because it makes the schedule neater, you can’t.”
Again, Fury sighs. He shares a look with Doctor Hill, whose cheeks are pink and her eyes are flashing dangerously. She shakes her head, almost imperceptibly, but Steve sees it and his gut tightens. Then Fury seems to disagree with her verdict, because he then says, “Fine. It’ll go on the record because we need it to for lawsuits, et cetera. But otherwise, it’s unofficial, okay? You’re doing it of your own accord, and if you get sued, it’s on your head.”
Steve stops himself from smiling because he doesn’t want Doctor Hill to see this as a sigh of weakness – give that woman a crack in the ground and she’ll dig a valley. He simply nods, and then stands up. “Will that be all?”
“One more thing,” Fury says, and his one visible eye is scarily fixated on Steve. Steve freezes, and then Fury smiles, a genuine one this time. “Are you all geared up for the game next Saturday?”
For a moment, Steve doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Then relief makes him smile in return and he replies, “I think so, yeah. I know Thor’s been practicing his pitching.”
Fury nods in approval. “Good. That Chief Osborn gets under my skin.”
“We’ll try our best,” Steve says diplomatically. “Uh, I have to get to my shift...?”
“Sure, sure, off you go.” Fury waves his hand and Steve takes the cue to leave, darting out of the office and making his way back to ER.
When he gets there, it’s the usual chaos he’s come to predict – there’s someone crying in one corner and there’s a strong smell of urine that he tries to ignore. He sees Natasha wheeling a guy on a gurney into the resuscitation room and he races after her. “What can I do to help?”
“We’ve got it covered, here,” She nods to where Sam is busy prepping the room and getting the saline drip ready. “You can go do scut work, though.”
“Great.” He sighs.
“Well, it has to be done. I’ll come get you if we need you, I promise.” She disappears behind the swinging doors and professionalism tells him he’ll just be crowding the room if he goes in as well, so he heeds her advice and heads over to reception.
Scut work is the slang coined by the ER staff for all the paperwork and charts and busy work that no one else wants to do. Steve looks at the charts and goes through them in order rather than a tactic some other staff employs, which is to go by category (for example, doing all the IVs in one go, and then drawing all the blood, et cetera).
He goes over to the first woman he has to deal with. He smiles down at her and starts talking to her; Tony had always teased that his charm made all the old ladies keep coming back to the hospital.
“How are you feeling, Miss?” He asks, gently rolling up her arm so he can draw blood.
“Oh, I’m feeling wonderful, thank you,” she deadpans. He remembers her chart and the fact she has an inflamed pelvic infection, and he winces.
“Sorry,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll get you back on your feet in no time. I just need to take some blood to check your white blood cell count. That okay?”
She offers her arm and he pricks it as gently as he can. He starts drawing blood as she asks, “Are you from Brooklyn?”
He grins sheepishly. “My accent’s that bad, huh?”
She chuckles. “I’ve learnt to recognize it.”
“You knew a Brooklynite?”
“My husband.” Her voice goes fond. “He died in Vietnam, you know?”
“You married a good man.”
She scoffs. “He was a drunk and a schmuck.” Then her voice softens. “But yes, he was a good man.”
He has to leave her after that, and then he draws more blood and adjusts IVs and replaces saline bags for about three hours before he’s called into the resuscitation room.
He works side by side with Tony for half an hour before either realize it – and when they do realize it, it’s because they both bump into each other, mutter a hasty apology, and then dart away from each other as they make the connection. Steve ignores the sneaky smile Natasha has after that.
Then he has to help calm down a kid when his mother has to be taken in to the resuscitation with a collapsed lung and a blood clot, and then he has to console the boy when they find out the mother didn’t make it. His father arrives a few moments later, just as the boy’s tears verge on hysterics, and Steve lets him take over.
He barely has time to catch a breath before he’s sent to treat a guy who’s obviously been in a fight but won’t say a word about it. Steve makes him sit on a bed in an empty room and starts cleaning to abrasions on the patient’s arm. At one point, he looks up at the man, who immediately averts his gaze away.
“You want to talk about it?” Steve asks in his most gentle voice. The man doesn’t reply and Steve doesn’t take it personally.
He’s bandaging the worst of the cuts on the guy’s arm when the man suddenly says in a small voice, “I was stupid. I should’ve been...” He takes a shuddering breath and then tries to start again. “They’re guys from my college, and I should’ve seen it coming, I should...” He trails off.
“Do you want me to get a police officer?” Steve asks kindly.
“No, no. I mean, I don’t know...” He lurches forward and puts his head in his hands. His shoulders shake as he starts sobbing.
The first time Steve had to deal with a crying patient, he had been at a total loss at what to do. He had settled on patting the woman awkwardly. Since then, however, he’s had a fair bit of practice, and tears don’t faze him anymore.
He puts a hand on the man’s shoulder and squeezes gently, waiting for the tears to subside. Finally, they do, and the man looks embarrassed. “Sorry,” he mutters, still not looking at Steve.
Steve squeezes once more and then lets go. “Don’t be, it’s fine,” he switches to tending to the cuts on the man’s face – he’s going to have nasty scar across his cheek, but the others should fade away with time.
“They...They found out. About me.” The man continues, like he needs to get it all out before he can let it go, and Steve understands that feeling more than most so he keeps quiet and lets him go on. The man looks sideways at Steve and then blurts it all out in one go. “I’m gay. And they found out. And they followed me home. And they-” He stops, and then takes another, strangled breath.
“It’s okay.” Steve says quietly.
The man looks at him properly, for the first time. “You are as well, aren’t you?”
Steve nods. “Bisexual.” He says it simply, because there’s no use in trying to increase the emotion in the room.
“Are you seeing anybody?”
Steve recognizes a come-on when he hears one, but he pretends he doesn’t because there’s no way this guy is in the right state of mind at the moment. “Maybe. Sort of. It’s complicated.” He finishes adhering to all the wounds that need his immediate attention, and then gives all the necessary stuff to the man. “Painkillers no more than twice a day. Change your dressings tonight and then again tomorrow. Okay?”
The man nods. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
More patients and more faces. Infections and cuts and bruises and internal bleeding.
Then, before he knows it, he’s at the end of his first shift and he gets a short break before the next one. It’s ten at night, and he gets about three hours before the next one starts.
He makes his way to the staff room and grabs some food from the fridge. He starts gulping down his soda and then munches his apple. Sure, food’s important, but sleep is more, so he eats the food as quickly as possible before he goes to find his way to an empty room to sleep in.
He doesn’t look up as he hears the staff room door open – he’s too sedated to even register the possibility of who it could be. Then it’s too late for him to think ahead because he turns around and – Tony.
He gulps. “To-”
He doesn’t even get to finish the word before Tony raises a hand, not even looking up: he chooses to keep his gaze on his own mug of coffee. “Look, I’m already in a bad mood, I can accept that, but you’re not going to help, and if you start talking, the next patient I work on will go out without a head, so, just shut up.”
Steve obliges, keeping his mouth shut. But he can’t stand it, so he adds. “Why are you in a bad mood?”
“Does because have a sidekick, or-”
“Steve!” Tony slams the cupboard door he had open to retrieve another packet of coffee. His dark eyes flash. “Would you get over it?”
Steve frowns. “Get over what?”
“Us. Whatever we had before, we’re not going to get that back.”
“No. So can we move on?” Tony makes a rotating motion with his hand and then goes back to making his coffee.
“Maybe you should sleep instead of having more coffee.” Steve suggests before he can stop himself; this is probably the kind of comment Tony had just been telling him to stop.
“Shut up. It's decaf anyway.”
Tony makes an irritated huff and then storms out of the room – he seems to be doing that a lot recently. It’s probably just treatment given to rooms that Steve’s in as well.
He sighs, and then goes to ask Happy if he knows where there’s an empty bed to sleep in for a couple of hours.
Penultimate chapter next - and it's Tony's.
Chapter 7: Saturday - Tony
Tony Stark likes heavy metal music and crappy detective thrillers and a slice of toast with his coffee in the morning.
Tony Stark has bright red bed sheets and bad impulse control and a video on the internet of the night of his graduation.
Tony Stark does not care that Steve Rogers couldn’t stick around for five minutes after they had sex.
The morning after, when they bumped into each other in the hospital, their conversation went something like this:
“Sorry, Rogers, I have to go be a doctor, bye.”
And that was the closest they come since to actually talk about the real reason they’re fighting. Which is that Steve Rogers has either commitment issues (not likely considering he has a goldfish that’s managed to last for six years and he was with Peggy for longer than that) or issues concerning his sexuality (also not likely since he came out to Tony before Tony could return the favor).
Other possibilities include the theory that maybe Tony’s not very good in bed (so utterly impossible that Tony feels scandalous for even considering it) or Steve is just using him for sex (also not very likely: somehow, Tony doesn’t see Steve being that kind of guy. Then, again, Tony wouldn’t see Steve as being the kind of guy to leave straightaway, so there’s that.)
Since then, it’s been a constant stream of awkwardness and then bickering and then some more awkwardness. He doesn’t know what Steve is trying to achieve, to be perfectly honest, so Tony’s just going to stick to his plan: avoid Steve and everything to do with Steve until things to back to the way they were before this awful infatuation started.
It’s one in the morning and he’s already ready to collapse into the nearest bed. Yes, he probably should’ve heeded Steve’s advice, but that’s the crux of the matter, really, it was Steve’s advice. So instead of resting he takes three cups of plain tea (he’s going into the operating room in a couple of hours and any more coffee will have his hands shaking) to make up for it and a protein bar.
Then he finds an apple in the fridge and it has no post-it note of ownership so he gulps that down like he’s afraid someone’s going to steal it from him.
But he's still hungry and his stomach keeps reminding him of that fact by gurgling a poor rendition of the national anthem, so he goes across the room to the staff vending machine.
Because it’s reserved just for staff, it's a prerequisite that it is in the most crappy condition possible to still be working. There's a dent in it, right where the chip selection is, from when Thor bet Clint he could get a packet without paying for it (he lost the bet - the vending machine may be crippled in all other capabilities, but holding on to it's contents is a commodity that apparently cannot be lost). It used to be a bright shade of purple, with an overlaying orange pattern, but now it's just scratched silver with flecks of paint left over.
He holds a palm to the side of it and uses it to simply rest there, closing his eyes and breathing deeply.
Sometimes he likes to be alone. He likes the quietness, the fact he doesn't have to do anything except think and breathe and possibly move, if he really needs to.
Other times, however, there's nothing better than simply being in the company of other people: usually, he'll join in, of course he will, but sometimes he'll just sit and watch. Like when he's hanging out at the reception desk, with Happy and Pepper. Half of the time he'll be teasing Pepper (and then making it up to her a second later with a kind word or maybe two if he's really pissed her off), or discussing sports or the news with Happy. The rest of the time, contrary to popular belief about his show-off, extrovert personality, he'll simply watch as they bicker between themselves (Happy calls this flirting, Pepper calls it some choice words, depending on her mood that day).
The amount of times he tells people he wants to be left alone is a far greater number than the amount of times he actually wants to be alone.
But whatever. Sure, his life is stressful; maybe more than most, but he had a good mother and a lovely house with rich rugs and chandeliers and plenty food in the pantry. Okay, his father wasn't great, but there were worse, there still are, so he won't complain about that.
So he lifts his head again and blinks away the sleepiness. Thankfully, he has only three minor surgeries that won't take long, a couple of hours each at the most. Since it's the second of a double shift, he gets the easiest of the operations scheduled for the next ten hours.
The best part of today’s schedule is that he’s not required to be the surgical consultant in ER, which drastically lowers the chance of running into Steve.
He looks at the clock - he still has half an hour before he needs to begin prep work. He looks back at the vending machine and slips a couple of quarter in.
They come straight back out again and Tony sighs. The first barrier of trying to get candy from the ancient machine.
And then, because apparently he's going crazy, he starts talking to it. "Look, I don't have an argument with you, okay? I just want my candy. Seriously."
The vending machine, shockingly, doesn't reply.
Tony leans his side against it. "I mean, come on, I think we could even be friends. No, no, I know what you're thinking - I'm a person, you're an object. And yeah, that could cause some problems, but we've shared some memories, haven't we? Remember when Natasha practiced her new yoga move on you? And Clint's eyes were falling out of his head? Steve was about to give him CPR, honestly. Yeah, you know the one, of course you do, you had Natasha's nether regions against you, of course you can't forget. Sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself, assuming you're attracted to women. Then again, I think the most gay men and heterosexual women in the world are attracted to Natasha, she's something else.
"And hey, remember when we had our first ever 'team meeting'. I riled Steve up so much. He was about to punch me, wasn't he? Natasha and Clint weren't impressed at all. They told me later that they were planning to just take Coulson and Bruce and play by themselves. They might have won, Clint's a crack shot. Give him a target and he'll hit it with ninety per cent accuracy. Yeah, I know, but nobody’s perfect.
"And remember when Bruce came in and told us he was engaged to Betty? He was so happy. He nearly blinded me with that smile. She's good for him. Sometimes. Sometimes I think that he'd be better off without her, but then the next day he'll come in and be so happy it's painful to watch, so I guess it's worth it. See, Pepper thinks I'm unobservant, but obviously I'm not. I am observant; I just find certain things boring so I don't retain them, that's all. But I do notice them.
"Like Steve's hair. See, he has this really blond part towards the front, and when he's in a good mood and the light shines on it just right, it's really... And when he's stressed out, he goes flat and messy because he keeps running his hands through it. I don't know why I remember that - it's not very useful. I think I've just noticed it so many times that déjà vu has caught up to me and it's imprinted on my memory. It's probably replaced my knowledge of the lyrics of the Black album.
"That's another thing I've noticed. Because, uh, not-so-secretly, I judge people on heir music taste. It's shallow, but I guarantee that I have never met a fan of ABBA who I've actually liked. Proven theory, right there.
"Bruce likes jazz. Smooth jazz, none of that experimental stuff. Just give him a good saxophone tune and he'll just zone straight out. Clint's a country music fan - I think it's because he's a southern kid, though he's somehow managed to avoid most of the accent, thank God. Thor likes opera, which is pretty crazy to relate this massive guy with such a...actually, now I think about it, it does sort of make sense. In a weird, majestic kind of way. He's the kind of dude they write operas about, after all.
"Natasha isn't really much of a music fan. She likes little bits of everything, but I was looking through her CD collection when we all went over to hers for a marathon of- it doesn't matter. Anyway, I found all these really old CDs: you know the ones, re-mastered collections of Elvis and Buddy Holly and Frank Sinatra. It was weird: made her a little less scary, I guess."
He looks at the vending machine with an expression that's lost guilty. "And, uh, Steve has a strange music taste. Like he's taken something from every possible genre and made sure he's listened to it, like he needs to at least try it. I haven't, uh, asked him about it. Maybe I should have." Tony shrugs. "Too late now. Crashed and burned. Sorry if you were getting used to the idea of us together in the same room without bickering, that's way over now."
Then, at once, Tony seems to realize he's talking to a vending machine. He slips his quarters in again. "Can we try this again?" He needs to stop, in case Fury installed the cameras in here like he had threatened.
He holds his breath and yes! The desired candy tumbles to the bottom.
He bends over to pick it up and then he hears he cough. He freezes, and slowly pivots, still crouched over. He gulps at the sight of Natasha, standing in front of the now-closed door with folded arms and a raised eyebrows.
"Did you get your candy?"
Tony refuses to blush, and he reaches behind to pick the candy out from behind the metal flap and hold it out in front of him like a sacrifice. "Yeah." His palms are sweaty, when did that happen?
"Good." she walks over to the coffee machine and with her back turned, Tony makes for his getaway, creeping to the door.
But then, just as he reaches the door, her voice sounds again, cool and collected.
"Tell anyone about my CD collection and you will not live to see another sun rise."
"Yes ma'am!" He blurts out before hightailing it out of there, trying to will away the blush that's burning his ears.
He goes to see his patient next, once his ears have cooled down to manageable temperature.
It's a basic tendon repair, in the foot - the patient is of the athletic variety, lean muscle and gritted teeth with a determination Tony rarely sees anymore. So Tony gives him his respect, and asks how it happened and what his sport of choice is, even though he doesn't need to know (who has a crappy bedside manner now, Fury?).
The guy - he's seventeen with blonde locks and brown eyes - tells him it happened when he pushed himself an extra inch doing the long jump.
Tony grins. "Did you win?"
"Almost. But my best friend beat me, so it's not too bad." the guy grins back.
"Guess you'll just have to train extra hard when you get back on the field."
The guy now looks glum, the grin vanishing like an extinguished flame. "If I can get back on the field."
"Kid," Tony rests a hand on the guy's shoulder. "Believe me when I say that I am the best surgeon in this hospital. If anyone can get you back on the field, it's me. Okay?"
"Okay." The grin is back and Tony actually goes into surgery with a real desire, the first time in a few years, to really make this surgery perfect.
It's going to need a graft, which is why Tony convinced the patient to go under general anesthesia , because it's a gruesome affair if you aren't used to it. He washes his hands and then walks in the operating room to start.
A couple of hours later, Tony's sent the patient with some nurses to sleep it off, and he has to go prepare the next one.
He fills in her chart pretty quickly - she's a middle-aged (forty-five years old, to be exact) and she needs her kidney stones removing. While he's writing notes in the section she has no verbal input in, she suddenly starts talking about how worried her kids will be, and how happy they'll be when they find out she's okay.
Tony doesn't feel any more pressure than usual, if that was her aim. Almost all of his patients have families to go back to, spouses and children and parents and siblings.
Back in medical school, Tony had this teacher, Professor Yinsen. He'd get a lot of stick from the other students because he spoke with a funny accent and he used to impart little bits of wisdom after every lecture, which everyone laughed at while Tony secretly took note. This was back when he wanted to be a gynecologist, because it was good money and that was his father's job. But one day, Yinsen asked him to stay behind and he said to Tony, "You're going to make a fine surgeon."
Tony had replied with a quick, "Oh, no, I'm going to be a gynecologist."
And Yinsen had looked at him with an unreadable expression and said, "I've been a teacher for ten years, a surgeon for thirty years before that. Trust me, I know a surgeon when I see one."
That night, Tony phoned his father to tell him that he was going to be a surgeon.
He doesn’t know why he’s thinking of Yinsen now – maybe because his next patient reminds him of his old teacher. But Yinsen’s dead now, a heart attack the Christmas after giving Tony that piece of advice, and it was only then that Tony learnt his whole family had died seven years earlier.
Once he finishes the gastric bypass operation, that’s it for the day, all of his operations cleared. But his shift isn’t over so he goes back to his office (small though it is), taking a short detour to ER first to collect the paperwork.
That’s where he sees Rhodey.
He grins, and though Rhodey’s facing away from Tony, there’s no mistaking that posture, those over-starched clothes, and those scruffy sneakers. He sneaks up behind him and then jumps on him from behind in a very manly way. “Rhodey!”
Rhodey laughs and turns around. Then his laugh dies in his throat and he tilts his head to appraise Tony. “Have you been sleeping at all since I last saw you?”
“You know, there are nicer ways to greet your best friend after being separated for six months, really, your manners have been torn to scraps since the last time I saw you, I thought the army-”
“I’m in the air force, Tony, not the army. They’re different.”
“-Were supposed to improve your etiquette.” Tony can’t keep the smile off his face for long though, because it’s just so awesome to see Rhodey again. If ever there were a day where he needed to hear Rhodey scold him for doing stupid things, today would be that day.
Rhodey rolls his eyes, and then looks sideways at the actual reception desk. “Hey, Peps, I thought you were supposed to have a handle on this guy. Why hasn’t he been sleeping?”
“I have been sleeping!” Tony protests
But his words seem to fall on deaf ears, because Pepper says to Rhodey with a sigh, “It’s Steve.”
“Steve?” Rhodey turns back to Tony with a glint in his dark eyes.
“Pepper, you have no idea what you’re talking about, the only reason Steve would stop me sleeping is if he was poisoning me with caffeine, you are such a-”
“I thought you two had stopped fighting.” Rhodey’s gaze is speculative in a way that makes Tony want to fidget.
“They did, but then something happened on Sunday and now they’re fighting worse than ever.”
“Pepper, shut up!” Tony hisses, like they’re children arguing in the back of the class.
"So, what's the problem?" Rhodey is trying to stare Tony down and Tony isn't going to give in because-
"It's complicated." He sighs. He can see Pepper's eyebrows rise astonishingly high beside him, but Tony purposely avoids her gaze - and everyone's, actually - by looking at his shoes. "Look, Rhodey, I get that you're trying to help but you can't and-"
"I could punch him." Rhodey says, and Tony's so shocked, his head snaps up.
He starts laughing, because Rhodey adores Steve - maybe because Steve had a military family, maybe because Steve is the kind of straight-up American hero that Rhodey idolizes, maybe simply because Steve is Steve and Rhodey is Rhodey. An offer of this magnitude honestly means a lot to Tony for that exact reason. “Thanks, but there’s no need, really. Actually...”
“No, no, you’ve said no now, I’ve done my best friend duty.” Rhodey grins, and gives Tony a quick hug that makes him squawk a little bit. “I have to go to a meeting with Fury, and then I have to go straight away for-”
“Why do you have a meeting with Fury?”
“It’s nothing to do-”
“Is he digging up dirt about me? Don’t tell him about the time we went to Miami, nobody needs to hear about that, and I haven’t had that weird twitch for about three years-”
“Tony, shut up!” But Rhodey’s laughing, which shows just how happy he is to see Tony because usually he just huffs and rolls his eyes at Tony’s antics. “It’s a job interview, okay? But you can’t tell anyone-“
“Well, off you go, come on, you have to get this! It’s going to be so awesome, complement Doctor Hill’s eyes, she loves that, and don’t mention Fury’s eye patch, and-”
“Yes sir.” Tony salutes and there’s that familiar eye roll and then Rhodey has to go and Tony’s still smiling as he walks back to his office.
He opens the door, and then deflates. His office is possibly the most disheartening office in the entire building. Even Coulson’s has colorful pictures and posters and a plant pot.
Maybe Tony should get a plant pot.
A proper one, instead of the little, half-dead cactus he has on his desk, next to one of only three photos he has in the entire room. The one next to the cactus is a picture of his high school graduation day: Tony in the middle with one parent on either side. Jarvis, the family butler, had taken the picture, and Tony remembers his smile peeping out from behind the camera.
The other photo is on the other end of the desk, next to where he keeps his pencils, and it's a photo taken last year, at the baseball game where they had all become irrevocable friends. Tony and Steve have arms slung over each other's shoulder; Tony's spare arm is tugging Bruce into the photo by clutching onto his t-shirt. He had succeeded in his mission, with the bonus of Bruce actually -albeit shyly - smiling at the camera. On the other side of Steve is Thor, whose smile bests anyone else's efforts with full teeth and rosy cheeks. Next to Thor is Natasha, who had become good friends with Thor about a month prior to the game when they had bonded over the pains of mid-neck length hair and working in the ER. Obviously, Clint is next to Natasha; he's sticking his tongue out at the camera, and he's balancing the winning ball on top of his head. Coulson stands beside Clint, and he's showcasing the small smirk that is rarely seen, only on special occasions and staff Christmas parties. Pepper was the one taking the photo, so she's not in this one.
However, she is in the third and final photo, the one including herself and Rhodey. The photo was taken in the aftermath of Tony's twenty-fifth birthday party, and there are streamers in Pepper's hair and Rhodey's clutching an empty champagne bottle. Tony had demanded a picture - he was pretty drunk at that point - and since it was still technically his birthday, his demands were met. Pepper actually looks happy, and she's smiling in a genuine way, rather than the one that sometimes features in the photos including Tony.
Rhodey looks absolutely smashed, but it doesn't matter because Rhodey's a happy drunk, and it still makes Tony smile to look at it.
Tony sighs, and looks away from the photo. There's no use in indulging himself in nostalgia when there's work to be done. He grabs a sturdy, ballpoint pen, and starts filling in all the forms.
Suddenly, he looks at the clock, and it’s ten minutes past nine in the morning. His shift is over and he’s free for a twenty two hours. Perfect.
But then his door opens and Thor walks inside. Well, Thor doesn’t exactly walk into a room – he strides inside and his physique alone commands the attention of the room. But Tony doesn’t focus on that – instead he just rubs at his forehead and says, “Hey, Thor.”
“Hello,” Thor bounds over and sits in the chair on the other side of Tony’s desk. “I wish to speak to you.”
"Yeah?" Tony leans forward and rests his head in his hands while he rubs at his temples. It's been a long week, an even longer day, and this is as much attention as he can afford to give Thor at the moment. "What's eating at you?"
Thor's smile widens. "Firstly, I was wondering if you knew off a place to purchase a canine warrior."
"A canine... Thor, I'm really tired. Can you translate into normal people English, please?" Thor frowns, and Tony feels guilty. As much as the man is irritating, he's irritating in the way a puppy is when they're yapping for a cuddle. Tony sighs. "I'm sorry, that was rude. You mean a dog, right? As a pet?"
Thor nods - his beam suggests Tony is already forgiven. "Yes! I was wondering if you have any experience in the matter."
"Sorry, I don't have any pets. I never had."
Thor's expression seems confused. "You have never had a pet? That is truly saddening, friend."
"Whatever, it doesn't - yeah, whatever. Okay, so, uh, sorry."
But Thor isn't done with his pestering, and Tony recalls, with faint horror, Thor's use of the word 'firstly'. "Do you know of anyone who would be able to advise me?"
"No, I-" Tony thinks. "Wait, Pepper has a cat."
"Is it a fine feline specimen?"
"What? Yeah, yeah, it's pretty good at clawing my skin, if that's what you mean." Tony shrugs. "You could ask her where she got it from. Maybe they sell dogs as well."
"Thank you very much, Tony," Thor's grin widens, which Tony would've though impossible a moment ago.
He doesn't make to move, however, and so Tony asks, "So, you're getting a dog, huh?"
Thor nods almost painfully quickly. "Jane and I came to the decision last night. We are going to have a dog instead of producing a baby."
Tony frowns, and actually opens his mouth to ask about that, but then decides against it, and snaps his lips together again. Thor still doesn't look like he's going to be moving any time soon, so Tony prompts, "Was there anything else you wanted, or...?"
Thor nods. "Yes, I did indeed want to speak to you about another matter. I believe you and Steve are having a conflict, and I wish to know the problem so I can help."
Tony snorts. "Thanks, Thor, really, but, uh, it's not something you can help with. Really."
Thor's face falls. "Perhaps-"
"Seriously, unless you have some kind of time-travelling device, I don't think-"
Thor stands up. "I will find you this device you speak of."
"No, Thor-" Tony almost wants to laugh at this man, this creature, who can be so astute and yet so obtuse at the same time. "Thor, seriously, it doesn't exist, it was a joke."
"Oh," Thor sinks back into his chair. "But you will still not tell me what the matter is."
Tony finds himself rubbing at his temples again. "If I thought you could help, I swear I would tell you. But this is something that just needs to fade away. Sorry," he adds as an afterthought. And then he has the horrifying thought that he's actually becoming empathic and he should probably start drinking again to get rid of it.
Thor nods, and seems to accept this. He stands up again, this time at a controlled speed that doesn’t make Tony’s head spin. “I hope you can repair this broken union, dear Tony.”
Tony looks at him with a tired smile. “I’ll try.” No, he won’t.
“That is all I ask.” Thor nods, and then his hand lifts, almost as if he’s about to ruffle Tony’s head.
To stop that from happening, Tony raises his hands and awkwardly waves with a twinkling of his fingers – it’s a movement he’s seen previous girlfriends utilize and it doesn’t suit him at all.
Thor beams, and then ruffles Tony’s hair anyway, and who is he, Tony’s grandfather? But he leaves a moment after that and Tony sinks into his chair like he wants to be drowned in the leather.
He tidies his paperwork up and puts it in its according files. He’ll deliver them tomorrow to their correct places, and Pepper’s probably going to tell him off for not doing it now, but if he has to look at any more words swimming on the paper, he’s going to have a breakdown.
He starts to walk down a corridor, about to leave the ER, finally, when suddenly, from seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of hands grab him and roughly push him through a door and into an empty room.
He whirls around, fully prepared to start yelling for help when he sees who it is. “Steve?” The big blond is standing in front of the door with his arms crossed, blocking Tony’s escape. “What are you – are you out of your mind?”
Steve’s jaw tightens, but he doesn’t reply.
“No, seriously, it would explain a lot.” Tony tries taking a step forward to see if that will deter Steve – it doesn’t work. “Look, I don’t know about you, but I would very much like to go home, and, oh, will you look at that, you’re blocking my way, and if you could move aside that would be fan-”
“We need to talk.”
“You’ve said that before and it didn’t work, can I go-”
“You’re not leaving until I find out why you’re so mad about this.”
Tony’s mouth pops open and he’s sort of ashamed to admit that he actually gapes at Steve for a full moment before saying, “You’re kidding, right?”
“Gee, I wonder why I would be mad.” Tony’s tone has gone strangely flat and low and it’s like he can’t even control his own voice anymore.
“Tony, I made a mistake, okay, I-”
“Yeah, you keep saying that, I get it, I just don’t understand why you had to, I don’t know, take pity on me because you didn’t need to, okay, rejecting me flat out would’ve been better than making the mistake of actually fuc-”
“Wait.” Steve cuts over Tony and he’s frowning and quite frankly, Tony can’t help but think he’s the only one who has the right to be frowning in this situation. “You think that my mistake was actually having sex with you?”
“Okay, listen, Rogers, I don’t have time for this-”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “Really? Because I’m pretty sure you don’t usually do much on a Saturday night.”
“-And – Wait, what? I do loads on a Saturday. Everyone does something on a Saturday. I am a very busy bee, Rogers, and-”
“I’m pretty sure that you told me – what was it? Friday night is date night and Saturday night is reading night?”
“I have no idea what you are talking about, you are delusional and I have a delusional person blocking my way – Rogers!” Tony finally snaps. “Seriously!”
“Do you actually have anywhere to be right now?”
“Home will wait until after we’ve sorted this out.”
“What else is there to sort out?” Tony huffs. “Listen, I-”
“No, you listen.” Steve takes a deep breath and then chuckles. “I can’t believe you sometimes, Tony. You’re pretty stupid for such a clever guy.”
Tony’s jaw tightens and he says, “Yeah, okay, thanks, I think we get that.” Tony snaps. “Now, seriously, can I leave-”
“No, you don’t understand-”
“I really want to be home right now-”
“My mistake wasn’t-”
“And I get that you make fun of reading but it’s a basic skill that you should-”
“I thought it was what you wanted!” Steve exclaims suddenly, before widening his eyes infinitesimally as if he wasn’t quite expecting his own outburst. But then his expression steels and his posture stiffen in determination.
Tony’s gaping has returned. “You...what?”
“I figured...I mean, the day before, I heard Tiberius talking about how you were a one-night stand guy and then Sunday night happened and it was great but then it was over and...” Steve shrugs but it’s a stiff, not really as nonchalant as he would want Tony to believe, kind of movement. “I figured it was over.”
Tony narrows his eyes. “So that mistake you kept going on about...”
“Was leaving...ah, prematurely.”
Tony gulps. “Right, okay. Could we, uh, your place is further away, so, uh, have jet packs been invented yet?”
Steve grins that grin of his that makes Tony want to climb him like a tree, and then they’re following each other out of the hospital and suddenly, while they’re on the subway, Steve takes hold of Tony’s hand and Tony thinks that he’s not going to be able to last the entire ride home, he’ll melt into a puddle of Tony-goo before they finally get there.
They finally get back to Tony’s apartment and do stuff and oh god, Tony’s not going to be able to walk for a week. But the best part is, that once they’re...finished (for lack of a better word), Steve just flops his arm over Tony’s side and pulls the covers over them.
only one more left!
Chapter 8: Sunday - Pepper
She walks to work whistling – her strawberry hair is tied into a neat bun and she's wearing her new shoes and she can't deny that she skips off the curb when the little green man starts flashing at her. She picks up a bagel from a vendor on the street as she passes him and then. She gets checked out at the next street corner, which certainly doesn’t taint her good mood; in fact, her elation gives her the nerve to actually wink at the guy.
Then again, she’s wearing sunglasses (okay it’s not quite sunny enough to really need them but they’re designer and she hasn’t had enough opportunities to wear them yet), so he probably doesn’t see, but that’s okay, he’s not that cute.
Anyway, she’s sick of dating. A month ago, she would’ve been saying the opposite of that, but since then, she’s dumped one guy and gone on a failed date with another – she’s in the mood for being single. She has a cat called Ringo and she has all the movies of Patrick Swayze and a subscription to Vogue. She doesn’t need a guy to define her or invade her personal space at the moment.
She crosses another road and almost runs into rather large woman carrying what looks like fifty kilos of shopping. "Sorry!" She excuses with s bright smile - the woman scowls at her and barrels on past. But even that isn't enough to deter Pepper's good mood as she shrugs and carries on walking.
On impulse, she pulls out her phone and starts checking her text messages as she walks. One from her sister, inviting her to Pepper's niece's graduation. Pepper quickly replies with the affirmative - sure, she'd love to - and skips to the next message. One from Happy, asking her whether she knows what 'I don't speak Japanese' is, in Chinese. She laughs at that, earning her a few odd looks which she happily ignores, and then flicks to the next text, also from Happy, which tells her not to bother, the crisis has been averted using a very clever demonstration.
She texts him, asking what the demonstration involved, and he replies a second later, a watermelon. That's met with another laugh, and she flips to the next text, received about ten minutes later. It's from Tony. A year ago, her heart jumped a little bit at a text from Tony: a mixture of trepidation and excitement that caused many a sleepless night. These days, however, his more drastic messages require exasperation while the others are received simply with apathy.
She reads the text: Might be late to work today. cover for me if Fury asks.
She tuts, and is about to reply with an agreement, when her phone starts ringing. It's Steve (saved as 'Smelly Steve' after Tony had gotten a hold of her phone last week). She frowns, and puts it to her ear. "Steve? What's the matter?"
"Nothing," he sounds breathless; Pepper's frown deepens. "Just, uh, I...need to go to the doctor's this morning."
"Oh?" Pepper's mind is whirling because Steve's lying, obviously, but why-
"Steve, I'm stealing some of your shampoo, okay?" Tony's voice echoes through the phone and Pepper's eyes widen. There's a hissed whisper from Steve, directed away from the phone, probably to tell Tony to shut up for once in his life, and then there's a scuffle, and then Tony himself has taken control of the phone. "Hey, Pepper."
"Tony!" She exclaims. "Are you and Steve-"
"Naked? Yes. Steve more than me though."
"How can..." She trails off and shakes her head. "That's not the point. I thought you two had broken up."
"That's old news, Pepper, keep up." Tony replies dismissively.
"I'm not covering for you both just so you can screw each other," she says, but they both know she will because she's smiling and Tony can probably hear it in her voice. "Even though you're very cute together. And I'm happy that's you're happy."
"Pepper, come on, you don't need to actively lie for us, we're just going to be, like, ten minutes late. Tops."
"You promise only ten minutes?"
"I promise. And Steve does as well, just in case you don't trust my promises."
She shakes her head. "And I can't believe you managed to get Steve to lie."
She can faintly hear Steve's protests in the background, but then Tony smoothly replies, "Technically, he's not lying."
"Tony, it's pretty obvious he's not at the doctor's."
"I'm a doctor." He says primly.
"And Steve here drastically needs a check-up. In fact, I think I'm going to have to do a prostate examination, all very proper you know-"
"Tony!" Steve's exasperated groan filters into Pepper's ears and she pulls a face.
"I'm hanging up now, Tony."
She snaps the phone shut and sighs, though she's still smiling. Apparently, not even the description of Tony and Steve's sex life can hinder her good spirit. She finishes her bagel and replaces it with mocha from a nearby coffee shop.
She's still drinking it as she walks into the ER, but she's finished it by the time she walks around the huge reception desk and she dumps it in a nearby bin. She smiles at Gwen Stacy, the new part-time clerk who's come in to replace Jessica Jones while she's on maternity leave. "Hey, what's new?"
Gwen simply looks at her with her pretty eyes and her blonde hair neatly tied back. "You didn't hear?"
Pepper frowns. "Didn't hear what?"
But then the phone starts ringing and she picks it up. "Hello, Manhattan ER department, how can I help you? No, ma'am, this is not Flash's Diner, I promise. No, really. Look, I can take your order and prove it. How will that prove it? Well, you won't be getting your order, it's as simple as that, ma'am. Absolutely. Okay, thank you for calling." She puts it down again, and okay it was a little bit snarky, but that's just one of the perks of the job.
She turns back around to ask Gwen some more jobs, but then she's gone, and Pepper sighs. Damn, she was really hoping for some more gossip. But that's not really her concern, because a man walks up to the desk with a very bloody cloth held up to the side of his head. Her gaze flickers down for half a second and then she sees that he's holding his palm flat out, with a dismembered ear in the middle.
She bites back a shriek, and says calmly, "Hang on, I'll get you someone." Unbelievably, that's not even close to the weirdest, or most grotesque, thing she's seen in her time working here.
She rushes to the resuscitation room, and asks into the room, "Hey, I need a doctor out here!"
"Hang on, Pepper!" Natasha's voice snaps, and Pepper frowns, because while Natasha can be short-tempered sometimes, she's never snapped at Pepper, and certainly not for something that's actually professional.
Well, Pepper can be a bitch as well.
"Look, there's a guy in the ER with a recently dismembered ear and I really think-" Then one of the medical interns moves out of the way and Pepper's words die in her throat and her breath is suddenly coming fast because she can now see who's the patient they're tending to with such ferocity and speed.
"I'll come," Maria Hill grabs hold of Pepper's arm and drags her away from the room. "Now, Pepper, where is he?"
"Over there," Pepper mumbles, and Maria sees him and lets go of Pepper to go treat him. Pepper, somehow, finds her way to the chair behind the reception desk and she sinks down.
Happy is there as well, one of the instances where their shifts’ overlap, and he walks over to her with a worried expression. He crouches down next to her and looks up at her with kind eyes. "Guess you heard, huh?"
"I saw," she gulps. "Oh my god, Happy, it's Phil in there."
"I know." He rubs her thigh and it's soothing and if this were any other time or situation, she'd be subtly removing that hand. But at this moment, she needs that hand and she even places her own on top of it. "But he's not going to get better just because we're sitting around waiting for him."
She looks at him and she's almost ashamed to find her eyes are stinging and damp. But this is Happy, and he’s not going to hold it against her. She nods. "I guess not."
"We need to do our jobs, because if we don't, there's going to be someone else's Phil waiting for us to get our asses in gear." Happy stands up. "Come on, he's got the best doctors in there."
She looks up, and sees Steve and Tony entering the ER, smiling at each other and laughing at each other’s jokes. "He will in a minute," she promises, and she darts over to them.
"You need to get in the resuscitation room now," she says, and she's dragging them both like their mother. "Phil's been hurt and you need to go fix him because it's Phil and I need him to talk to in the mornings when nobody else is here, and I need him to help me fix the light bulb when it breaks and tell me how the computer works when the hospital install an upgrade and-"
"Pepper!" Steve tugs back and she has to stop to face them. "What do you mean, Phil's been hurt?"
"I don't know, you doctors don't tell me anything!" Okay, she's on the verge of making a scene, and this was so not how she expected today going, but now she's just got to try and fix it. "But there was blood and Natasha and Maria are in there now and you have to-"
They don't say another word, they just race inside, game faces on, and she sighs with relief, because now there's nothing else she can do except follow Happy's advice and do her job to the best of her ability.
She answers the phone again - it's the paramedics, telling her they have a new arrival. "We have a patient with third degree burns who's coughing up blood, is your ER available?"
"No, go to the west side hospital," she says sharply, "We have a major already-" Then she looks sideways and sees that Phil is being wheeled out of ER and down the corridor to surgery prep with Tony. She breathes a sigh of relief, and then says, "Scratch that, we have the resuscitation room free. ETA?"
"Okay." She slams the phone down and shouts to Natasha, who is exiting the room and snapping her gloves off. "Third degree burn victim, two minutes!" Natasha nods, and then races back inside to clean up the room and then prepare it all over again. Steve's still inside, but Maria comes out and walks past Pepper. It's the end of her shift, and Pepper smiles at her as she goes past. If she notices it, however, Maria ignores it, and simply strides out of the room with her usual, tight body language.
Pepper tries not to take it personally - Maria has never been the most friendly person to work with. Maybe because she spends a good part of her day with Fury.
A bulky woman suddenly snaps her fingers in front of Pepper, and says in a rude tone, "How long will this take? My sister has been waiting for two hours-"
"Two hours?" Pepper raises her eyebrows. "What is your sister's injury?"
"She twisted her leg when she was in the park - we think it's sprained," the woman announces.
Pepper bites back a remark about the woman's obvious medical prowess, and says instead, "I am going to be very honest with you - waiting two hours in this ER is nothing. I'm sure your sister is in a lot of pain, but we are dealing with people who have missing limbs, who aren't breathing, who have excruciating injuries. So, really, when you've been waiting eighteen hours, the record of this ER during my employment *then* I will listen to your complaints. Okay?"
The woman's expression tightens and her cheeks go purple. "I don't know who you think you are to tell me my sister's injury isn't as important as-"
Then the doors leading to the ambulance bay burst in and Fandral and Volstagg race into the ER with a groaning and charred man on a wheelchair.
They go whizzing past and the woman gets a spectacular view of the man’s burnt face, some of the flesh hanging off with black underneath.
Pepper simply looks back at the woman and raises a cool eyebrow. The woman looks back at her with flushed cheeks and an agape mouth; and then huffs and storms back to her seat. Pepper hides a smile.
And then another woman’s voice sounds above her. She looks up from her seat to see a very pregnant woman, clutching her belly and taking short, sharp breaths.
“Can you tell me where the labor ward is?” She manages to squeak between hisses of breath.
Pepper rushes to her feet and races around the desk to put an arm around the woman to support her: she looks as if she’s about to topple over.
“Oh my god, are you okay?” Stupid question, Pepper – after three years of being an ER clerk, she thought she had gotten rid of the usually obvious-answer question.
“Sure,” the woman huffs. “I just need to find a doctor who can get this baby out of me before my uterus explodes, that’s all.”
“Right,” Pepper replies faintly. She sees Steve walking past and she almost shrieks at him, “Steve! A little help!”
His eyes widen as he sees them, and he rushes over. He immediately wraps his own arm around the woman to support her and Pepper lets go, not realizing how much weight she was supporting until her back twinges. “Go get a wheelchair.” Steve instructs, and Pepper races to get one. She brings it back in record time, skidding around waiting people like a pinball machine –her neat bun is wrecked beyond repair by now – and holds it steady as Steve gently lowers the woman into it.
“What’s your name, ma’am?”
“Sue,” the woman pants. “Sue Richards. I-”
“How far apart have your contractions been, ma’am?” Steve asks urgently.
“I don’t-” She suddenly folds herself over, groaning in pain.
“That answers that question,” Steve looks stressed out. “Okay, we’re going to try and get you to the labor ward.”
“Is there time?” Pepper asks quickly. “I mean, it’s the other side of the hospital, and-”
“We have to wait for Reed!” Sue suddenly exclaims, still slightly hunched over. “He’s going to finish his experiment and then he’s coming straight to the hospital, we need to wait for him.” Her bright blue eyes are frantic, her blond hair messed up.
"He's going to finish his experiment first-"
"Pepper!" Steve snaps. "We're going to get this woman to the labor ward, okay? We've got time, I just need you to phone ahead while I take her, okay?"
Pepper nods. "Okay." Then she watches for a second and Steve twists the wheelchair around and starts jogging down the corridor in the direction of the labor ward. She's frozen for a moment, and then she remembers her role to play in this whole adventure and she runs to the phone, dialing the right number with shaky fingers. She tells them that there's a six-foot blond nurse coming their way with a woman about to deliver in a wheelchair. It sounds like this isn't the strangest thing they've had to cope with.
An hour later - in which Pepper spends most of them time fretting about the baby and Steve and Sue, and pushing the blind panic she feels about Phil to the back of her mind - Steve returns with a bright smile. "It's a boy, called Franklin."
Pepper runs to hug him tightly, more of a quick squeeze than a proper embrace, and smiles as she lets go. "That's great! Oh, but did the guy make it? Reed?"
Steve rolls his eyes. "Just in time. He was still wearing his lab coat."
Pepper can't stop smiling - at least, until she remembers Phil, and she takes the opportunity of having Steve in touching distance to ask, "How's Phil?"
Steve's smile disappears and his expression is abruptly shadowed. "It's too early to tell. He's still in surgery with Tony."
Pepper bites her bottom lip. "What happened?"
"He had a stab wound." Steve rubs his forehead. "It nicked his lung but it's not too bad, and it missed most of the major arteries. It's a fifty - fifty chance."
"But that's still fifty per cent chance he lives, right?" Pepper has always been a glass-half-full kind of girl. But by the look on Steve's face, he isn't.
But he says anyway, "Yeah. That's right."
"Do they know who did it?" Anger replaces worry in Pepper's gut as the thought occurs to her.
"They...Natasha thinks it was the Maggia. She's had some experience with them."
"Why would the Maggia gang go after Phil? He's...he's a hospital janitor."
Steve shakes his head. "I don't know. Thor picked him up in their side of town, though."
Pepper wants to scream and cry at the same time. “They stabbed him for walking through their part of town? How- I just don’t...” She trails off into a sniffle and really, this is pathetic, but Phil was always her constant.
In a hospital, things change. A lot. Permanently or temporarily, fast or slow. People change shifts, jobs, positions. Even the wall paint has changed since she’s been here. But Phil has always been a steady presence. You could always count on Phil to be there, nine until five, sometimes staying a little bit after to fix the vending machine, except on Sundays. Phil was calm routine in a place of chaotic surprises.
Suddenly, Steve’s arms are around her and she clings – again, Pepper, you’re being pathetic and your shame should be kicking in right about now - to his scrubs.
"I know," he says quietly, and the whole of the ER is probably staring at them but Pepper just needs to feel really safe at the moment so screw the ER they can wait.
Until, suddenly, they can't.
There's a familiar wail of an ambulance pulling into the bay and Steve has to let her go as Vogun and Leah bring in a kid having an really bad allergic reaction, his face is puffed up and they're already trying to stuck the tube down his mouth, and Pepper looks away because if she's sees a small child chocking to death, she really will start crying. She sniffs, once, and then it's back to work.
She files the paperwork Tony drops off on her desk and she starts checking the schedule on the computer for the next couple of months. It’s not really her responsibility but there’s no emergencies that she has to deal with right now and it’s good for the actual doctors to have to deal with all the pain-in-the-ass patients otherwise they begin to forget they exist.
There’s a bit where Natasha’s supposedly on a triple shift, but Pepper quickly fixes that by giving Maria Hill a double shift instead and no, Pepper really doesn’t take Maria’s indifference personally at all.
She's so caught up in her own little world that Happy has to gently touch her vibrating wrist as she writes out forms and say, "Isn't it your lunch break?" She looks up at the clock and her eyes widen.
"Oh, shoot!" She grabs her purse from underneath the desk and then races to the staff room.
But when she gets there, it's empty. She deflates visibly, and takes her hair out of its bun because she's given up with trying to look presentable. She's obviously missed them, and they've had to go back to their busy work. Then she looks at the clock above the vending machine and frowns, because she's only ten minutes or so late and-
She whirls at the sound of her name, sees Natasha slowing to a stop - she had been running just for Pepper? - and her frown deepens. "What-"
"Phil came out of surgery; we're eating lunch with him."
The relief that swells in Pepper is nothing short of overwhelming, but then reality kicks in. Just because he's out of surgery doesn't mean he's definitely going to make it. She couldn't count the number of time she's watched families flood to a room as the patient died from an infection, a blood clot, a complication.
And of course he's not awake - Pepper knows that it's not possible. So she pushes the relief down because it's not safe to think that way yet.
She starts walking with Natasha in the direction from which Natasha came, and she nervously runs a hand through her hair. Then, she fills the silence with something both her and Natasha are qualified specialists in: gossip.
"Did you see Tony and Steve?" She smiles.
Natasha pulls a face, but Pepper knows her well enough to be able to recognize the signs of good humor and well intentions. “I’m not sure whether I prefer this to their bickering. Tony's infuriating."
"I'm a bit nervous of leaving Clint with them - he might explode if Tony starts trying out pet names."
Pepper laughs (a small part of her says that she shouldn't be laughing, not today, when Phil is in such condition), and teases, "Yeah, I'm sure Clint's going to have no sympathy for love struck fools."
Natasha looks at her sideways, confused. "What do you mean?"
Pepper rolls her eyes. "Oh, Tash, don't you realize how smitten he is with you? I think the more likely reason behind his implosion would be if you still weren't dating by this point."
Pepper could be wrong, but she swears she can see a pink blush on Natasha's cheeks. "How did you know that we were dating?"
"You two aren't exactly subtle." Maybe Pepper's being a tad cruel in her teasing, but then again, she won't get another opportunity like this again. "I know you were pretty close before, but get since Monday, I think you couldn't keep your hands off each other."
Natasha moans in embarrassment, and swears in Russian. "If you tell anyone-"
"Tell anyone what?" Pepper laughs, again. "That you're like a teenagers..." she trails off as Natasha halts, forcing Pepper to stop as well, in front of a hospital door.
It's exactly like any other - if it weren't for the sight visible through the small window, Pepper would pass straight past it without a second thought.
But Pepper can see through the window, and she can see Phil, lying completely still with his eyes closed and tubes sticking into him from all directions. It's actually a lot like how Pepper would imagine Phil to sleep.
She knows that Natasha is waiting for her to make the first move, so she does - she takes a deep breath and pushes the door open with a twist of the handle.
Clint doesn't look up but Steve and Tony do. Steve doesn't stop rubbing a small circle with his thumb on Tony's knee.
She wonders whether it's easier to know what all the signs and numbers and tubes mean, as she looks around at everyone else in the room, to be able to predict the outcome. Or maybe that's more difficult - maybe ignorance is bliss, a welcome companion to hope.
She sits down in the spare seat, while Natasha sits in the one next to Clint. “Where are Thor and Bruce?” She asks quietly. The only sound is the steady beep of the machines, and she feels almost guilty for disturbing the quiet.
“Thor got called out in the ambulance a few minutes ago,” Natasha says simply. Perhaps she’s the only one who can actually speak in a controlled manner. “And Bruce-”
Speak of the devil, and he shall appear.
The door opens and Bruce edges his way inside. There isn't another chair and Pepper makes a movement like she's about to offer her own, but Bruce simply walks to the bed and sits down on the floor, resting his back against the bedside table. His head lolls back and there's a low thud as it connects with the plastic, but if it hurts, he doesn't comment.
He says, "Has there been any news?"
Clint shakes his head - it's the first movement Pepper's seen from him since she came in, and she peers more closely at him. His eyes are staring at his lap, where one of Natasha's hands in clutched in one of his - his knuckles are white and surely that must be hurting Natasha, but she doesn't seem to even notice.
Pepper lets out a shaky breath, because as much as she was saying she likes being single this morning, now, she would like nothing better than to have someone to curl up with. So she makes a snap decision and she stands from her chair and then sits down next to Bruce. There's nothing romantic about it: his wedding ring is visible and she's not hitting on someone in this kind of sombre scenario. She rests a head on his shoulder and the only fidget he does is so her neck isn't cricked at an uncomfortable angle and he can lean so his own cheek is rested against her head, like a pile up of sorrowful faces.
Then the door opens again and Pepper expects it to be Thor, so she doesn't bother moving from her comfortable position. She even closes her eyes, focusing on her breathing.
Then she hears the sound of ladylike heels on the hospital floor and her eyes snap open so she can actually check it isn't Thor. It's Maria Hill. She doesn't say anything, and Pepper is reminded, with a strange guilty flash, of her scheduling Maria's double shift, but she pushes the thought aside.
Maria sits down in Pepper's recently vacated seat, and keeps her gaze on Phil. Then, with no warning, she puts her head on her hands and her elbows on her thighs. She shudders, and Pepper has never felt more sympathy towards the woman.
A few more moments of silence, broken only by Maria's sniff as she pulls herself back together, and then the door bursts open. Who else could it be but Thor?
He seems to realize the silence he's just upset, and as repentance, he gently closes the door so it doesn't bang shut. "I..." He doesn't seem to have the rest of the sentence formed, but no-one really cares, so he sits down on the floor, near where Natasha and Clint sit. Clint's free hand, in a jerked motion, pats Thor on his shoulder. Thor reaches up to squeeze the hand, and then let it go.
Pepper closes her eyes again.
Then she hears Tony say, "You know, I'm pretty sure Phil's getting really pissed at us."
Steve makes a small sound and Pepper can't tell whether it's supposed to be a reprimand or an agreement. But then he says, "He's probably shaking his favorite mop at us right now." That earns an uneven laugh from Tony, and Pepper finds herself smiling weakly.
Then she hears Clint say, "He's probably wondering why we haven't brought him some mint candy."
Bruce laughs. "Oh god, remember, for his birthday, we bought him that bucket of the stuff? How long did that last?"
"Four weeks," Maria's calm voice suddenly chimes in, and Pepper looks up at her to see her smiling faintly, her eyes glistening wet. "Fury helped, though."
"I thought Fury preferred jelly babies." Natasha says quietly, a hint of humor to her voice.
"Fury will eat anything made of mainly sugar," Maria replies. "Unless it's sour."
Pepper giggles, and then sighs. “Remember when Phil bought Thor a dictionary of slang?”
Thor says enthusiastically, “He delivered it to my lap the day after I confessed to him my troubles in understanding the colloquiums used by my peers.”
Clint pats Thor’s head. “It clearly worked, pal.”
They don’t say anything for a moment, and then Pepper finds herself saying, “It’s going to be okay.” It’s not a question, not really, but everyone nods all the same.
And it is. They have each other and it’s not perfect, it’s bordering on dysfunctional, actually, but it works and it’s theirs and really, that’s all they could ask for.