Chapter 1: Challenge Accepted
With Loki vanquished and Thor preparing to return his brother to Asgard to face their justice, things were still left to be done to help with the clean up and rebuilding. Which left Steve wondering why exactly he was in a SHIELD conference room with Black Widow, Hawkeye and Director Fury. The battle was over, the war won, but the civilians still needed help to clear the rubble from their front steps, and here they were in the midst of what equated out to a debrief.
Clint entered the debrief with an icepack on his shoulder, looking around quickly, a frown appearing on his forehead when he noticed the lack of a certain black suit. "Hey, director," he greeted, flicking the paperwork and then ignoring it. "Saved New York, aliens gone. Anything else?"
Fury gave him a long look before shrugging. "There always is. That's what the paperwork is for you know."
Natasha slipped in quietly behind Clint, eyes scanning the room before she moved over and settled into one of the chairs, looking far more relaxed than she actually was, "And the reports might eventually get written."
Fury snorted. "Unlikely."
Her lips curled upward briefly, "Well that's what you have—” She broke off before she finished the sentence, glancing toward where Coulson would once have stood during the post-op debriefs.
Steve glanced between the three agents, finally turning his attention on Fury, "What are you looking for in the report?"
Tasha arched an eyebrow at him, "You've never written one?"
"I have, sort of. But each commander needed something else out of the report."
"Give me your usual," Fury replied, shaking his head slightly, arms crossed loosely over his chest. "If I need more, I'll tell you. Just what happened and what's on the ground."
Clint frowned at Natasha from where she'd cut her sentence off. "Sir?" he said finally, after using a rubber band and pencil to create a makeshift cross bow. "Where is Agent Coulson?"
The room fell silent at that question, Natasha suddenly finding the blade of her knife extremely interesting. Steve's blue eyes flickered to Fury, and then to Clint, waiting to see what the director would say.
"Guys?" Clint tried again, looking around. "Come on, I woke up out of that mind control thing and went down the surface. I haven't seen him since the portal opened--did something happen? Is he injured?"
Crossing his arms again, Fury glanced over at Natasha.
Natasha returned Fury's look steadily, but didn’t say anything. Steve's eyes narrowed at their silence and he carefully cleared his expression and turned to Clint, speaking softly, his tone and posture indicating remorse, "He, he's dead. He died fighting Loki."
Clint stared at him a long moment. "That's not funny," he managed, deadpan. "That's really not..." he turned to Fury and Natasha as if seeking confirmation that at least it was a joke.
His partner finally met his eyes and shook her head, "He's not joking, Clint."
Clint stared at her a long moment. "Nat," he said finally. "When you told me, not to do that to myself did you know about this already?"
She kept her gaze steady as she nodded very slightly, "I did."
For a long moment Clint remained sitting perfectly still, hands crossed on the table in front of him before standing hard enough to send his chair over backwards and stalking for the door.
"I didn't dismiss you—" Fury started and let it go when Clint flipped him off and slammed the door on his way out. "—But I guess you already knew that."
Steve looked at the door for a long moment, "Who was Coulson to him?"
"His handler," Natasha replied, earning her a skeptical look.
Fury snorted. "Look, Captain, you're supposed to be doing paperwork, because I don't think Banner is walking back in with me and I don't think I could get Stark to write down a damn thing."
"No, sir." Steve responded, his gaze going to where Clint had left, "I'm doing paperwork because I'm the only one, technically, you're still providing housing for and I need to earn my keep somehow. You could get a decent report from either one of you agents, but you don't expect those reports to ever show up, do you?"
Natasha made a discontented sound, but fell silent, Cap was about half right there after all.
"I need more than one perspective you know," Fury snorted. "Besides, Clint won't be making a report after that. In fact, I assume he's at Stark's right now finding all the alcohol."
"Can't say I blame him." The blond got to his feet, "I'll write the report, and I’ll show up for that photo op you're working on setting up in central park, but after that I'm severing my connection with this agency. I'll take my belongings, the ones the government doesn't own, and I'll take myself—since unless a hell of a lot has changed slavery should still be illegal—and I'll be on my way straight from the park." Tasha's brows arched sharply at that speech, but she simply slid her knife back in its sheathe.
Fury considered him. "Yeah, you're not really suited to this work anyway. But you know what not to do? You don't send a man to save the world by telling him his lover is dead. Then it becomes a vengeance gig, not a saving the world gig. But these just aren't your methods are they?"
Steve considered for a long moment, processing everything Fury had said and pausing at the word 'lover' before setting it aside and meeting the director's gaze, "No, sir, they are not. A man has the right to know that the person he thought he was coming home to isn't there anymore. He has a right to know that he's got to figure out something else to live for. He's got a right to know that his world's just been turned on its head. Vengeance or not, it can get the job done. From where I'm standing you just lost yourself a good agent because of that little bit of truth you left out. You've been in this game too long, Director Fury."
Fury laughed. "You're probably right. Doesn't change my outlook though. I do things my way, you do it yours."
Offering the spymaster another long look, Steve finally turned and exited the conference room, closing the door firmly behind him.
Fury watched him leave before turning to Natasha. "And you?"
"I didn't tell Clint because I didn't want him to get too reckless. Doesn't mean I was happy about it," Natasha replied, looking up at him from her seat.
"But you're the one who had the chance to tell him," Fury pointed out. "And you chose not to. So you don't have much of a leg to stand on in terms of high ground."
"I didn't say I did." She paused, "Hill told me what you did with the cards. You know Clint's going to want those back."
Fury paused. "It was needed at the time," he said instead of admitting the thought had in fact not occurred to him.
Natasha pursed her lips before rising from her chair, "I'll go write my report. You'll have it by tomorrow."
He paused. "Alright," he said with a nod. She considered him for another moment before she slid out of the room silently, leaving the door on the latch.
Tony blinked as the elevator doors opened and Clint stood there. "Hello?" he offered. "Oh god, do you need a place to stay to? Because I already have two Asgardians, one of which is pissier then the other, and a scientist and I don't have that many guest rooms do you know how much I'm going to have to remodel?"
"I need a place to stay," Clint replied. "And possibly a lot to drink."
"Well, you can have the couch," Tony offered, "And I certainly have a whole lot to offer in the drinking department."
"Oh good," Clint said, setting his bow down carefully and coming more fully into the tower.
Tony hummed, bending over the work table to the side to continue fixing cosmetic damage to his armor. "What's got a bee in your bonnet?" he asked, having barely slept since an army appeared in the sky.
"When was anyone going to tell me Phil was dead?" Clint demanded, anger entering his voice.
Pausing, Tony looked up. "Erm? Soon? I don't know, was that a trick question?"
"How much did you know about Phil anyway?" Clint asked, collapsing on the couch, spreading his arms along the top of it and throwing his head back.
"Well, that his first name was Phil and not agent and he was sorta seeing a cellist," Tony replied, staring at the helmet in confusion.
"Not quite how I'd describe me," Clint remarked, one hand making a lazy circle in the air.
Tony looked over at him. "Huh," he said and set the armor down, walking over to his bar. "Drinks all around," he replied, handing Clint the first of what soon became many.
The elevator opened nearly an hour and a half later, Bruce stepping off of it, "Tony?"
Tony was sprawled out on his back on the plush carpet between the couch and the chairs, wedged almost under the table and a bottle of scotch nearby. "Bruce!" he hollered, pleasantly. "Join us in celebration! Or mourning. It might actually be mourning. But you're welcome to join us."
"Alcohol and I don't mix," Bruce answered, considering his host and the other man in the room as well. "I was really just coming up to check with you about some results and a potential lab issue."
Clint gave him an appraising look like he had given the Hulk when he first arrived on the battlefield. "You are welcome," he replied before giving a tiny shrugged.
"Not up to lab issues," Tony hummed, rolling onto his side.
"I can see that." He poured himself a glass of water and moved over to join them, "Who are we celebrating and mourning?"
"Agent Phil Coulson," Tony said, voice sounding a little hollow. "You knew him a little, didn't you?"
"A little," Bruce agreed. "He...he seemed like a good man."
"The best sort," Clint murmured, shaking his head. "Bastards..."
Tony tilted his head up. "You know—"
"They didn't tell me," Clint said, tongue loosening with the drink. "Tasha, Fury, Steve. They didn't think I needed to know." He looked down at Tony. "You didn't tell me either."
"Sorry," Tony shrugged. "Didn't realize."
Bruce looked between them, mostly focusing on Clint, "When did you find out?"
"What was it—two hours ago?" Clint offered.
"Are..." He cut himself off, changing the question entirely, "How drunk are you both planning to get?"
"I'm not even tipsy," Tony protested the same moment Clint replied.
"As drunk as I possibly can," he said, holding his glass up. "Cheers," he added, downing the glass.
The doctor looked down at Tony, "You're almost under the table. I don't believe you." He picked up the bottle of alcohol and offered it to Clint, "You were...close with Agent Coulson then?"
Clint just laughed, possibly hysterical. "Yeah, well," he said. "We worked together, you know. Nothing like secret ops missions through Europe and Central America to make people close." Not to mention all the nights in hotel rooms when it was too hot to move, or the other nights when there was plenty of movement going on beneath sheets.
Bruce quietly considered the archer before nodding slightly, "Are you going to make it?"
Clint just laughed again and shook his head.
"And that was entirely not what I meant to say," Bruce murmured.
"You can try again," Clint offered. "I'm probably too drunk to remember it later."
That earned the faintest ghost of a smile, "I'm sorry for your loss. Death is never easy to handle, and it's far, far worse when you're close to the person." He paused, "If there's anything you need..."
"Drinks," he said and frowned at the ceiling. "I wouldn't say no to revenge."
"You'd have to go through Thor," Tony reminded him, still underneath the table. "And he wouldn't take kindly to you going after his brother. I'd shelf the revenge gig for now."
"Like you're one to talk, Stark," Clint murmured.
Tony waved a lazy hand. "Okay, so I went after them with missiles and a suit of armor. But hey. Don't follow my example."
"You'd have to take out an heir of a realm containing people that were considered gods," Bruce reminded quietly.
"Seems like a decent plan to me at the moment," Clint remarked.
"No," Tony replied. "Under my roof, my protection, yada, yada. Also, my alcohol you're drinking so shut up and enjoy it."
"Like Tony said," Bruce murmured. "Besides, it wouldn't make anything better."
"Make me feel better and keep him from doing it again," Clint said idly.
Bruce was still considering how to respond to that when the elevator opened again and Steve stepped out. He paused when he saw the small gathering, having been expecting Clint and probably Tony, but Bruce was a bit of a surprise.
Clint looked over at him, eyes narrowing slightly as he still was unsure how the soldier was reacting to the news of his past lover but Tony sat up quickly enough he hit his head on his coffee table. "Steve!" he said, waving a bottle. "We're getting drunk. Join us."
Bruce held up his water glass, "We have water if you'd rather."
The soldier shook his head, "Alcohol doesn't affect me, so I'll be fine having some." He paused before joining them, his gaze moving to Clint, "I didn't realize they hadn't told you, I'm sorry you had to find out like that. I genuinely thought one of them would have told you before."
Clint considered him from across the room before shrugging and taking another drink. "You wouldn't have any reason to think I needed to be told now would you?"
"It seemed to hit everyone else, but no, not really any reason to think you particularly needed to."
"Then I'm good if you're good, cap," Clint replied, lifting his glass.
Steve poured himself a drink, raising his glass in response, "Then we're good." He glanced at Tony, "I was coming by for a couple reasons actually..."
"A couple?" Tony asked, propping himself up on his elbows. "Which are...?"
"Well, the first was to apologize to Clint, I thought I'd check here first." His gaze moved briefly to the archer and then back to Tony, "The other, well, it would only need to be until that thing Fury's setting up in Central Park, and I hate to ask....I'm kind of without a place to stay for the next couple days."
Tony blinked and looked between Clint and Steve. "Huh. Well, I have two couches I suppose. Most of my guest rooms sorta got smashed or rather broken up."
"If it's too much trouble I can find somewhere else," Steve offered quickly.
"Eh," Tony shrugged, waving the bottle dismissively. "It'll be a PR nightmare I'm sure, but the building is still self-sustaining and I'm sure I have room somewhere. Besides, I sorta wanted to run an idea by you all when I'm less drunken like."
Steve bit back his first question in the interests of good relations. Bruce glanced between them, sipping at his water again, "And here you told me you weren't even tipsy about fifteen minutes ago."
"I can consume a lot of alcohol in fifteen minutes," Tony replied and Clint actually cracked a smile.
Bruce snorted lightly at that, shaking his head. Steve's brows rose slightly at that, but he shrugged, "Fair enough, If you've got room we'll still be here then I guess."
"Are you drinking yet?" Tony asked, turning a long look on Steve.
Steve held up the glass he’d poured himself to indicate that it had in fact gone down, "Yeah, I'm drinking for all the good it does."
Frowning, Tony looked between him and the glass. "All the good?" he asked, head lolling back on his shoulders as he considered the soldier.
"I can't get drunk," he answered with a shrug. "My metabolism's too fast."
"Technically you still could in that case," Bruce murmured.
"Regenerative cells too," Steve countered.
"Challenge accepted," Tony replied and Clint finally laughed, the sound short but present.
That earned a blink from Steve, "What?"
Bruce shook his head, "Taking on challenges when drunk probably isn't a good idea, Tony."
"Doesn't matter," Tony replied. "I'll find a way. I'm good at finding ways and you, my friend, will end up drunk. As a fish. Swimming in a sea of vodka."
"I'm," Cap considered that briefly, "No, I'm good with that never happening actually."
Tony laughed. "No, it'll happen."
Steve grinned very slightly, "You're welcome to try."
"You're encouraging him, Cap," Bruce murmured into his glass.
Tony graced Steve with a grin that lit up his entire face. "I welcome encouragement."
The next morning Tony staggered into the kitchen, sunglasses perched on his nose as he sat down, Clint passing him a cup full of juice. "Ow. You think I'd be used to this but not quite."
Steve entered from where he'd been out for his morning run and moved over to the coffee pot. He glanced toward Tony and Clint, hiding a bit of a smile, "You're up earlier than I expected."
Tony gave him a narrow eyed look from behind the glasses. "I don't sleep in and waste the day away if that's what you're usually implying."
"I think it has more to do with the hang over," Clint replied. "Drink your juice and then go at the coffee, alright?"
Moving over to sit down at the table, Steve nodded, "What Clint said basically."
Tony grunted, finishing what was in his glass and then frowning at it. "Okay, if you're going after my health then I'm not inviting either of you to live with me."
The soldier simply pushed the untouched cup of coffee toward Tony, rising to pour himself another one. Bruce entered, looking rumpled and with a rather severe case of bed head. He poured himself some juice and settled at the table.
Tony muttered something that sounded dark at the cup as Clint blinked at him and over to Steve. "You missed that didn’t you?" he asked, glancing at Bruce as well.
Steve turned away from the coffeepot, "Missed...?"
Bruce spoke, glancing up, "He just invited you both to live with him. Or said he wouldn't as the case might be."
"That," Clint nodded and Tony glared at Bruce.
"I'll revoke your invite as well, you know."
Bruce blinked owlishly at him as though he hadn't fully registered the idea of the invitation being extended to him for any longer than it took him to catch a flight back to Calcutta, or to some remote part of Africa. Africa could be good for the next place.
Steve took a drink of his coffee, letting the words sink in, "By live with you mean beyond the next few days?"
"If I'm going to start remodeling floors, yes, I believe that would be more than three days," Tony replied, hoarding his coffee.
"Floors?" Clint asked after a moment's pause.
"You're sure about this?" Steve sat down at the table again.
Dr. Banner looked toward the two blonds, dropping his gaze back to his juice for a moment before turning his attention to Tony, "Company could be nice."
"No, I thought I'd just invite four guys and a girl to live with me without thinking about it at all," Tony replied snidely. "Yes, I'm sure. I have five floors above me that aren't seeing any use really because I need only two of them for living space and frankly, we're a team now, right? Might as well be team mates of a sort. Avengers tower and all that." He glanced over at Clint. "You can have the top floor with your freaky predilection to anything high."
"Cool," Clint replied and then stopped. "Avengers?"
"That's one I haven't heard before. It's a good name though," Steve mused. "Hey, if you have the space I won't say no to it. Thanks, Tony."
"Reinforced walls might not be a bad plan," came Bruce's murmured contribution.
"I can make those," Tony replied promptly.
"No, wait, the Avengers? Who decided on that? Why?" Clint protested.
"Well, the papers will need something short and quick to use if they're talking about the battle, I suppose," Steve answered, taking another drink of his coffee and considering if there was a possibility of making breakfast.
A voice spoke from the door, "The papers are already dealing with the fall out, and seeing what they can do on their own for naming all of you. Just be glad the Bugle's going gentle so far." A slender woman with light red hair, dressed in a business suit entered the kitchen, "Tony you didn't tell me everyone was staying over."
"Well, that requires pre-planning, though in the future I should probably plan for the fact that Nick Fury is an asshole," Tony replied, waiting until Pepper was closer to slide an arm around her waist.
She smiled faintly at that, "I don't need that PR nightmare; stay on speaking terms with the head of the secret government organization, Tony." Pepper glanced at the other three men, "Only two of you look hung-over so that's better than it could be."
"I have an excuse," Clint replied.
"And he needed company," Tony finished. "The other one shouldn't get drunk and Blondie over there can't. Actually, I'd bet good money that Romanov would be hard to get drunk too."
Clint snorted. "You kidding? She was raised on vodka."
Steve frowned at the 'Blondie' comment but simply rose and went over to the refrigerator to see what he could find for actual food. Pepper shook her head, "Tony, the goal is not actually to get everyone you meet drunk. You remember this right?"
"I'll give Bruce a pass," Tony replied, grinning at her. "But Rogers is getting drunk."
"It's not possible," Steve reminded him as he finally located ingredients for omelets that involved more than just eggs and cheese.
Pepper shook her head, "Don't encourage him. Seriously."
"Yeah, because I'll just make things possible," Tony replied and looked around. "So, are any of you going to actually move in or should I just give the remodel money to like, a fund for pandas or something?"
"There are other funds rather than one for pandas," Bruce answered. "But, honestly, I wasn't looking forward to Calcutta again."
Steve shrugged very slightly, "If you were planning on it anyhow, I'm not going to turn you down. I'm taking a few weeks after that Central Park thing to deal with some things I've been meaning to see to since I woke up."
"What sorts of things?" Tony asked, turning his attention there as Clint busied himself with coffee.
The soldier met Tony's eyes as he answered, "I have some old friends I need to see."
Tony blinked once before shoving the sunglasses that had fallen down his nose back up further. "Right, good," he said, mostly meaning it but also biting back comments about how one of Steve's old friends would probably be his own father. "Have fun." He glanced over at Clint who shrugged, rubbing his forehead.
"Sure, I'll move in. It's not like there's anywhere else to go."
Bruce spoke softly again, "You said four guys and a girl? You're asking Thor and Agent Romanov too then?"
"Well, Thor when he's here and sure Natasha can come too," Tony said, and Clint's eyes suddenly snapped cold. "I mean... a team and all," Tony said, glancing at Clint and deciding not to ask.
Steve glanced at Clint, cracking several eggs into a bowl and whisking them, "So a home for the team then. You guys like anything in particular in your omelets?"
Pepper leaned down to kiss Tony, "Well, I'll leave you all to it. I have a meeting and then a statement to give. I'll be there at Central Park in time for what's going on there, alright?"
"Sure, Potts," he said, pressing up into the kiss quickly. "Enjoy the statement. Remember, the Avengers."
"That sounds like something you came up with," she offered him a faint smile. "I'll remember it."
"Of course I came up with it," Tony grinned. "Because if we can't save the Earth you'll be damned sure we'll avenge it."
Clint choked on the coffee he was drinking.
Pepper's lips quirked up at the clatter of Steve dropping the frying pan he'd been pulling out of the cupboard he'd finally found it in. Bruce smiled, amused, "Sounds like you've said that before."
"It made quite the impression on Loki I'm sure," Tony replied and Clint just shook his head, going to help Steve with breakfast.
Pepper rolled her eyes, "I think I'll leave that bit out. But Avengers has a good ring to it. Have a good day, gentlemen." With that she left, heels clicking on the floor.
Tony watched her go, chin propped in the palm of one hand. "Think we should take food up to the Asgardians?" he asked mildly.
"They should probably have something to eat," Steve agreed.
"Well, one of you two is going to be taking it up then," Bruce murmured. "I don't think me in their space is a good idea."
Clint gave them a long look and Tony considered. "Hey, Steve. Feed the Asgardians."
Steve turned to give him a look, "When did I become cook and butler?"
"When Clint would kill Loki before looking at him, Bruce shouldn't be around issues, Pepper's left and I'm hung over," Tony replied. "Please Steve? For the poor starving Asgardians?"
The blond frowned, but finally nodded, "Alright I'll take it food up to them then."
"You're my hero," Tony drawled and Clint just shook his head, starting the burner.
Title taken from "Little Lion Man" roughly.
The kitten doesn't actually show up the first few chapters as we work on establishing the team dynamic, but it will appear soon! Also, we toss in random Marvel characters as the story progresses instead of sticking only to the Avengers film, so be on the look out for cameos and various references.
Chapter 2: Not That I Ever Say No To Benefits
Shortly after breakfast, Clint found himself standing the park, arms crossed over his chest as Thor dragged Loki forward to return them both, and the damned Tesseract, home.
Natasha had come out to join them, taking up her position beside Clint automatically whether he wanted her there or not. As Loki's gaze swept past the two of them she leaned over to murmur in her partner's ear indicating the muzzle over the would-be ruler's mouth, "Silence is silver apparently."
Clint barely glanced over at her from beneath the sunglasses, snorting though as Loki glanced toward him. His hands curled into fists and he tried to remember every calming thing Phil had ever tried to tell him. It only made him angrier.
Tasha withdrew from his space, watching as each of the Asgardians took hold of the Tesseract's container. With a turn on the end Thor held, the two of them vanished in a rush of blue light, leaving the remaining Avengers to go their own ways and sort out their footing in light of all that had happened. Natasha opened the back door of the sedan she'd arrived in, pulling out the single bag of belongings Bruce had left behind on the Helicarrier. The doctor took them with a softly murmured thanks before getting into Tony's convertible. Tony waved at all the others, having quickly mentioned to Natasha the offer to move in with them before shaking Steve's hand and hopping into his own car.
Clint considered Natasha a long moment before sliding into her car, waiting for her.
Settling behind the steering wheel, she glanced at Clint, "Are you taking Stark up on his offer?"
"Yeah," he said. "Where do you think I've been? Will you be coming?"
"I was thinking about it. I might wait until he's done with the remodel entirely, but then I'll probably come," she answered, watching him from the corner of her eye.
"I just wanted to tell you I wouldn't stand in the way, and it would be good to have the team together, if we're going to be a team. I missed out on all the early team building exercises," he added with a bitter twist of his mouth. "So come if you like," Clint added, finally looking over at her. "But I haven't forgiven you. Drop me off where you like."
She pulled up in front of Stark Tower, stopping the car, "I hardly expect you to forgive me." She paused, "Do you want me to bring Coulson's effects or are you going to come back to pick them up yourself?"
He stopped for a long moment, considering. "I'll get them," he said, not wanting to add that he really didn't want anyone else touching them at the moment. He got out of the car quickly, not slamming the door but there was anger in the motion. Natasha closed her eyes at that, drawing a deep breath before opening her eyes again and heading back to SHIELD's base.
A few afternoons later, Clint sat cross legged on the floor near the kitchen, several boxes stacked beside him. Tony was off with Pepper doing a media jaunt—and supposedly paperwork as well—and Steve still hadn't returned from his visits. So while he knew Bruce was around in the tower, he considered himself relatively alone.
Bruce turned the corner toward the kitchen, having actually emerged from his lab in the hopes of finding something to eat. Even with that he still had his latest test results in hand and he was skimming them until he saw Clint. His brown eyes swept over the other man and the boxes beside him, and although he didn't conceal his presence he also didn't speak.
Looking up when he entered, for a moment Clint didn't speak either. "You hungry?" he asked finally, holding a tie in his hands.
"I figured I should probably eat before I lose all ability to concentrate," Bruce answered softly. His gaze moved to the tie, but he resisted the desire to ask. "Can I get you anything while I make my lunch?"
Clint shrugged. "Can you cook?" he asked, honestly surprised.
The other nodded, "Almost anything you can ask for, and what I don't know already I can follow a decent recipe for. Comes from living alone for so long in so many places."
"Huh," Clint blinked. "Somehow I was not expecting that. I mean, sure, if you're making stuff."
Bruce glanced at the boxes again, "Do you want company?"
Turning to look at the boxes again Clint bit back any response he wanted to give. "Sure, if you feel like giving it."
"I'll get the food made first," came the quiet response as Bruce stepped past Clint into the kitchen.
Watching him, Clint returned to sorting through Coulson's ties, trying to think about them as abstract colors and patterns rather than specific memories tied to buying them or pulling on the tie to drag Phil closer after a particularly bad day, with mud and rain water still in his hair.
Because while each tie was dark and could almost pass as black, they were navy or dark green with geometric patterns and occasional flashes of color, expressing in each and every one of them how much Phil was not just your average black suit that took orders blindly.
Clint could feel his eyes start to burn and shook his head quickly, jamming the dark tie with red accents to the bottom of the pile before picking up the next one and taking several deep breaths.
A short while later, Bruce set a plate with a simple chicken quesadilla down next to Clint, lowering himself down to sit on the floor nearby. His gaze moved to the pile of ties, categorizing the colors absently as he debated whether to say anything or wait for Clint to feel like speaking.
"So what have you been entertaining yourself with?" Clint asked, not looking up but pulling the plate of food offered closer to him.
"Mostly I'm still getting used to the labs here. I haven't been able to work with anything like this before so it's taking some adjustments. What have you been doing the last few days?" The doctor kept glancing at the other, nibbling at his food a bit as he considered Clint.
Clint shrugged. "Organizing, I guess. While Tony's working on those floor remodels I just needed space to spread out."
"He and Miss Potts seem to be progressing on the floor plans faster than I'd expected."
Clint managed a faint laugh. "When Tony Stark wants something done it tends to get done. And Pepper organizes him, you know?"
"I've been noticing, yes. She seems to organize everything around him too," Bruce remarked, a hint of a smile on his features.
"Has she touched your lab?" Clint asked. "Is this a territory thing? Has she invaded your territory?"
That got a quiet laugh, "No, I think she's been around Tony too much to actually even consider something so daring as organizing someone's lab."
"So I should take that as a suggestion and not go in and hide the sulfuric acid?" Clint asked.
Bruce smiled, shaking his head, "Yes, that's very much a suggestion to not do that."
"Well there goes my excitement for this week," Clint huffed, finally started on the food that had been left for him, the cheese starting to go a little cold.
"Delicate experiments and the like," Bruce responded with a shrug. "Though I'm sure it's possible to find some source of excitement that doesn't involve acid."
"I don't know, I've always liked pretty explosions," Clint said, and could still get away with the easy banter because he knew Phil hadn't been killed by an explosion.
The corner of the scientist's lips quirked up, "Explosions and NYC and I tend not to get along all together."
"Right," Clint said, pointing the fork vaguely in his direction. "That was a fun debrief to read. I don't think Tasha ever wanted to go under cover again after that one, but Fury talked her around it to eventually."
"She was involved on that one?" Bruce's brown eyes moved to look at Clint again, hesitance in his expression.
"Undercover, mostly monitoring and getting caught up in the aftermath," Clint shrugged. "I think she almost missed being Tony's PA after that one."
"And then they sent her to collect me," Bruce shook his head.
Clint managed for once not to say what he thought of that originally. "Well, at least she had some experience yeah?" And had survived the first time through.
The other smiled ruefully, "Enough to come well and truly prepared."
"Basically," Clint agreed, free hand wrapping around one of the ties before he thought about it.
Bruce's gaze moved to the ties, "They sent you Agent Coulson's effects." It wasn't a question, though perhaps it ought to have been.
"Less sent, more picked up by me," Clint replied mildly.
"Do you want to talk about him?" The question was quiet, not pressing or prying, just there.
"Did you even know him?" Clint asked, focusing on the plate.
"Not really, no." Bruce answered honestly, "I met him, but I've never been one for doing more than observing initially."
"Look," Clint shook his head. "He was my handler. We worked together. He had no one else," he added, looking back at the boxes. "Who might—" Rather than finish the sentence he tossed the ties back in, having been unable to get rid of a single one before pulling out a battered box where he knew Phil liked to keep his cards and freezing when he opened it.
Bruce stopped what he'd been considering saying, setting his plate aside and sliding a bit closer at the other man's reaction to the box's contents, "Clint?"
Clint lifted up the set of Captain America trading cards. "I'd been looking for these everywhere—" he started, flipping them back and forth as if it would change anything. Fury must have stuffed them in the bottom of the box, and suddenly Clint could understand why.
The scientist's eyes widened slightly, "Those...those are his vintage cards, aren't they?"
"Yeah," Clint said, voice strangled. "Wait, you even heard about that?"
"When Steve and I first came on board. Natasha mentioned them, told Steve that he'd probably ask if he would sign them," he murmured in response.
Clint shuffled through them. "No signature," he murmured, still looking at them in sheer horror.
Bruce shook his head slightly, "Things got crazy pretty fast after we got on board."
Still staring, Clint started running through covert missions to kill Fury without anyone being the wiser—but Tasha would probably figure it out, and while he'd picked up from her silent looks that she wasn't currently talking to Nick Fury either, he figured she wouldn't forgive him assassinating the man.
Once she might have helped him.
That was a long time ago.
"That fucking bastard," he managed finally, dropping the cards back in the box.
Startling slightly at that, Bruce frowned and spoke softly, "Not that I'm disagreeing, if you're talking about who I think you are, but...I don't think I'm getting the full picture."
Clint shook his head slightly. "Fury, always Nick Fury. He..." Clint shook in anger. "These cards are covered in blood, but I know Phil would never have left them in his pocket where they—they could get damaged. So for some reason Fury thought it worthwhile to dip them in..."
Paling, Bruce's eyes narrowed and he drew a deep breath to calm himself, "Steve or Tony might have an answer. Thor and I were both....off the carrier by then."
"I don't think I want to bring up Fury's manipulations to his victims," Clint muttered, burying his face in his hands, moving his fingers up to rake through his hair.
Bruce paused for a long moment, not entirely sure how to respond. He finally lay a hesitant hand on Clint's shoulder opting to remain silent and simply be around for the archer if the other man wanted him there.
Taking another breath, Clint glanced up at him and very carefully managed not to slide away from the touch, much as he wanted to. "Yeah?" he asked, voice hoarser then he wanted it to be.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"No," Clint replied, finally giving in and twisting gracefully out from under the touch and rising, stacking the boxes carefully on top of each other.
Bruce watched him for a long moment before picking up the dishes and slipping quietly into the kitchen to give the other man space. He really ought to be returning to his lab anyhow.
"Thanks for the food," Clint murmured, not sure the other could even hear him anymore before he carefully picked the boxes up to return them to the small guest room he was calling his own.
Once he was safely inside the Limo, Tony became intently focused on his phone, tracing out a couple new designs. Pepper sighed, reaching down to slip off her high heels. She shrugged out of her blazer as well, turning enough to look at Tony where he was sitting next to her, "Well that went better than it could have."
"Which is not saying much," Tony replied. "You know, I thought the media and stock holders were bad when it was just me. What part of heroic sacrifice to save Manhattan did they miss?"
"The part where you survived, sir," Happy replied from the front seat.
Pepper nodded, "It will, possibly, calm down at meetings eventually. They're still blustering on about this that and the other thing. Little things. Things that are not now nor never shall be relevant."
"Small minds seem to really like irrelevant things," Tony remarked.
Nodding again, she drew her legs up next to her on the limo's seat and changed the subject, "The remodels are coming along well."
Tony hummed, turning the screen to consider them from a different angle. "Yeah. Should be better, and it might not be bad to have several functioning suits ready at any one time."
Pepper's lips curled upward fondly, "I was talking about the floors of the Tower, Tony."
"Oh," he said and grinned. "Yeah. They seem to have been a success so far though Clint is annoying as hell when he wants something."
"How do you think it'll be living with the lot of them?"
Tony paused. "Um, good? Is good the right answer? Swell."
"Good is the correct answer, though whether it's the right one is up for debate," Pepper answered.
"Aw, I'm sure it'll be good," Tony replied. "Like a frat—or actually no. Dorm? No, still bad."
"And having Captain America living a floor or two away instead of in comic books and newsreels?" She murmured, watching him closely.
"I have no idea why that would be relevant," he replied, tone not sharp but edging towards such.
Pepper offered him a long look, but didn't pursue it, "Maybe it isn't."
"If you have something to say you might as well," Tony replied, still fiddling with the phone, having brought up the floor plans as he tried to pick out floor tiles for Bruce's bedroom.
"You mean besides mentioning that he was your first crush when we were growing up?" She asked, sliding over a bit to glance at the floor plans.
Tony's fingers stopped. "Well, I've grown up," he tried instead.
"You have, yes. It doesn't change the fact that your idol is living in your home now," Pepper replied. She pointed to a particular pattern of tile, "What about this one?"
Tony finally sprang back into motion, bringing the phone up to frown at the pattern. "Too busy. I don't think busy and the Hulk on the same floor is recipe for success."
Her lips curled upward at that, "Alright, that's probably true. What about hard wood or something like that instead of tile?"
Tony considered before tapping another sample to bring it up, a light brown with a vaguely geometrical design around the edges in a faded purple color. "How about it?"
Pepper tilted her head at it, "Soothing colors, or muted enough to qualify, not busy, cool underfoot." She nodded, "I think it could work."
"I don't know," Tony shrugged. "He lived in India a long time. Seems to fit the aesthetic in a more mild way."
She nodded, "I think he'll like it."
"Hopefully," Tony said and he went to pull up the flooring for Steve's area and paused again.
Pepper settled her head against his shoulder, considering the flooring, "What's the general design on this one so far?"
"Not sure," Tony replied. "I mean, I really have no idea."
Pepper pointed at a particular oak flooring, "What about this for the central room? I'd actually carpet the bedroom though I think."
Tony glanced over at her. "It would be sortta bad to do his whole floor in red white and blue wouldn't it?"
"I think he'd walk out at that point," she answered honestly.
"So bad plan," Tony laughed. "Alright, oak doesn't sound bad."
"Oak sounds like a very good idea." She paused, considering the floor plan, "You gave him a small studio?"
"Of course," Tony said. "I mean, even you remember he was an artist right? Remember when I found that out and demanded art lessons when I was a kid? And failed at them miserably which is why no evidence of that exists anymore."
She kissed his cheek lightly, "That's what you think. But, yes I do remember him being an artist."
"Wait you still have—Pepper, that is unacceptable. Destroy it immediately."
"I didn't keep it, Mom did. So...well, I suppose that means that I do have it now doesn't it?" She sighed. "It was adorable though. I couldn't not keep it. I promise it is securely and secretly stored away and no one would be able to tell you drew it anyhow."
Tony groaned. "I signed all of them."
She grinned in response, "Oh you did didn't you? Whoops. Oh well, it's still locked up tight."
"It had better be," he said, giving her a long look.
"You have my word of honor," she vowed.
For a second Tony just considered her. "Potts," he said finally. "Are we actually dating?"
Pepper blinked at him at that question, "Where did that come from? I mean, yes? At least I thought we are?"
"No, I mean we are," he said. "We just don't act like it. Do we? Am I missing something?"
"I guess it depends on how we think we're supposed to act. I mean, we go to parties together, we have sex when were in the same city, we're certainly too touchy for just friends," Pepper mused, sorting the indicators out loud. "To anyone looking at it from the outside it certainly looks like we're dating. I mean, we technically are. Aren't we?"
"I don't know," he shrugged again. "I mean, are you happy?"
Her brows drew together slightly as she considered that, "That's kind of an odd question. Am I happy? You're my best friend, Tony, and you have been for years and years."
"No that," he shook his head, digging around in the side bar of the limo before producing peanuts, eating one before handing her the rest without thinking about it. "We're best friends. That'll never change. But it feels like it hasn't. Not that I ever say no to fantastic sex, and seeing you more often than usual but Pep, are we friends or lovers? We could be both I just don't think we are."
She nibbled at the peanuts, holding the bowl between them so he could sample them as well as the mood took him, "I don't know if we've ever really been lovers. I mean, we've tried it. And I think there were times where we could have come close, but I don't think we've ever actually gotten there. We're friends. Recently with wonderful benefits, but I don't know if lovers is the right term, I suppose."
"Not that I ever say no to benefits," he said, grinning at her. "I just don't want you feeling tied down to someplace that's not... all it could be. I mean, not that you can leave me. Because I'd seriously last only a week without you and you're the most important person in my life and probably my favorite too, sorry Happy," he added and the driver snorted.
"You would last two and a half days," Pepper corrected. "Or until there was paperwork requiring your social security number." She curled a bit closer to his side, still picking at the peanuts, "Well, like you said, I also won't say no to benefits in this case, since it hasn't seemed to make anything awkward with us, but I also want to be sure that if I do find something that's the perfect fit in the lovers department that you won't have trouble when I head in that direction. I couldn't ever leave you, you know that, but it would be nice to have my own life too."
"Only if I get to vet them," Tony huffed. "Your own life has to come with approval from Tony Stark."
Pepper kissed his cheek lightly, "I am well aware. And you know I expect to vet anyone you actually plan to date after me as well, of course?"
"Was I planning to date?" he asked, glancing over and stealing another peanut.
She shrugged, "You never plan to do anything. You just do it. You wake up one morning and find you're in process on something you didn't realize you were doing and JARVIS and I will have a long conversation about it approximately three days before you realize it too. Unless it's science and then we'll have the conversation about three days after."
He blinked, narrowing his eyes. "Just so we're clear?" he said, waving a hand between him. "I resent this alliance you've struck with my AI to plot against me."
"It's not a plot. It's concern. Your AI is so advanced he feels concern. So we make sure that we both know what there might be to be concerned about so we can head it off," Pepper explained, sounding like she'd done so before.
Tony huffed. "You're still conspiring with my AI. Even if it's just over my own health."
"Well, someone needs to conspire about your health."
Tony just huffed again, attention already wondering to the phone and floor plans. "Do you want your own floor then?"
"I'll just use the guest room in your floor. I have my own apartment on the next block, remember?"
"Please. My floors are so much better than that apartment you insist on keeping."
Her lips quirked upward, "Well, if you want to put in a floor for me. I'll keep the apartment too, though. I need my own space, Tony."
He glanced over at her. "Right. So, color scheme?"
"Blues for accent at least. Greys for the predominant neutral," she answered, settling in to continue helping him plan the floors, including her own.
Chapter 3: It Doesn't Matter How Many Times You've Seen Star Wars
Several weeks later the floors were finished with most of the inhabitants moved in, though Thor still hadn't returned from Asgard to claim his own. The only other member still missing was Steve, though he'd had the decency to call ahead when he was expecting to be back in New York.
Only he got the time wrong and Tony found himself jittery, moving up and down the place, sprawling over the couch before hitting the gym and swimming laps and sprawling over the couch again. He really hated waiting.
Steve stepped off the elevator almost three hours later than he'd said he'd be there. He looked subdued from his trip and apologetic for his tardiness, "Sorry, more traffic now than I was expecting."
"No worries," Tony said from behind the couch where he was lying on the floor on his back, working on a tablet. "No one was waiting up, it's cool."
"Except apparently you," the blond replied, looking over the couch at the scientist.
Tony looked at the watch. "Um, well, it's still early," he said, even though the watch face told him most people were probably asleep.
"For you maybe," Steve answered. "Me? I'm beat. I hear this rumor there's a room for me around here somewhere?"
"Sure," Tony said, bouncing lightly up on his feet and tucking the tablet away. "Come right on up. Though, I'll warn you now, you're moving into a tower of insomniacs. I can promise that Clint and Natasha are probably ignoring each other in the gym right now."
"And most nights I might just join 'em," came the response as he followed Tony up to his floor. "Tonight though..." he shook his head, "I think it's time to take a night off."
"Everyone takes them sometimes," Tony said. "Any idea why they're still not talking to each other though? Because they're beating each other to a pulp every other night and not talking. I get everyone has therapy but..."
"She didn't tell him," Steve answered. "In fact, from what little I picked up in the debrief she told him not to 'do that to himself'. I can only take a guess at what that might mean."
"So this is a Coulson thing," Tony said and nodded as if that made perfect sense. "Okay."
Cap nodded, "Yeah, it stems from there."
"Great," Tony sighed. "Which means it will take forever for them to get over whatever issues they're having."
"Or they might surprise you and it'll take less time. It's different for everyone," Steve murmured as they reached his floor.
"I don't know, I haven't seen most people get over losing their lover that fast, especially if they can focus any of that pain on someone else," Tony said, giving Steve a long look, wondering if he'd heard about Phil and Clint or not, or how he'd react to the news.
Steve shook his head, "I didn't say he'd get over it. I also didn't say he'd forgive her. But they might actually offer each other a hello sooner than you think." He shrugged, "Who knows. I guess we'll see."
Deciding Steve had just misunderstood somehow, Tony shrugged as the doors opened, stepping through and spreading his arms. "And this is yours."
Stepping into the main room, Steve's eyes widened, "This...Tony, this is...Wow." His gaze swept around the room, taking in the large windows, the gentle browns with subtle teal and dark red accents, and the opening to a hallway off to the left. “This is…this is, you’re sure about an entire floor? It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, it just. It’s so much.”
“It’s what everyone else is getting too,” Tony shrugged. “I mean, not sure Clint’s handling it any better then you but…Yes, take the whole floor.”
The blond offered him a bit of a smile, “Well, in that case, I...Thank you, Tony. This, it means a lot to, well, to have a place to come back to.”
Tony’s eyes softened slightly, though the rest of his face and posture only expressed a relaxed pleasure. “Well, everyone should have a place to go back to, shouldn’t they? I mean, especially when you don’t have a lot of pla—anyway, how’d your tour of veteran America go?”
“It involved a long trip to Arlington, but it, it went well I guess,” Steve answered softly as he set his bag down by the end of the couch.
Tony paused.”So something you wanted to do alone then? Any other graves you need to visit or are you good?” he asked.
He offered a faint smile, “Yes, something I wanted to do alone. I, for now I think I’ve visited the graves that I needed to. I suppose I should eventually visit Howard’s, I just couldn’t this trip.”
Tony hummed, moving further into the floor, opening the door to the studio he’d had designed. “Here you go. Made sure it has the amenities it needed. Howard’s grave is in California anyway, it’s a bit further then Arlington.”
Steve followed him over, looking into the studio before stepping past Tony into the room. He turned fully around, “This, Tony you really have thought of everything. Thank you. So much.”
Rolling a shoulder, Tony looked around. “Anything I could remember. You have a front room too, but I thought this might make it feel a bit more like… someplace you wanted to hang out.”
“It is. You’ve gone a long way to making it that sort of a place. It’ll be good to get back to my art,” the blond murmured, offering Tony another smile.
“Good,” Tony declared, looking uncomfortable, as if he had exposed himself and wasn’t really sure what he’d gotten back. “Well, if you wanna get to sleep I’ll just… leave you to it.”
“I…” He considered the other and nodded slightly, “Alright. Sleep well, Tony.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Tony said, waving a hand. “You too, sleep tight, the bedroom’s through there. I’ll see you in the morning, or whenever everyone’s up. Don’t like, expect everyone in the breakfast room when you’re there though. Oh and we haven’t heard from Thor yet, but sleep well.”
Steve hesitated for another moment, but nodded, thanking him again and turning to head down the hall and see the rest of the floor. He would get to sleep when he got there.
Several evenings later, after a super villain had gone through Manhattan in a craze of world domination lust, Clint stared down a bowl of cereal. His shoulders ached and he had a lovely new set of bruises and a sparkling new vendetta against all super villains.
Bruce entered the kitchen about an hour after they had all returned, a new shirt and clean pair of pants on. He barely registered that Clint was there as he moved over to the stove to set the kettle on for tea. Once the water was heating he turned and blinked at the sight of his teammate, “Oh. Hello, Clint.”
Clint waved his spoon at him. “Hey there. How’s the evening going?” He didn’t comment on Bruce’s lack of perception, having watched him enter silently, eyes following Bruce’s movements across the room.
The scientist rolled his shoulder slightly, “Well, the evening seems to be improving a bit. It’ll go better once I’ve got some tea I think. Maybe curl up with some treatises or something.”
“Treatises?” Clint arched his brows. “Really? Most people relax with movies you know.”
“That’s probably true. I don’t really have any movies to relax with though,” Bruce answered, opening one of the cupboards to his tea.
“You don’t have—“ Clint shook his head. “What sort of movies do you have then? Because honestly, I could do with something with spaceships.”
“Intercontinental running and hiding tends to leave me with a single bag without room for movies, unfortunately. I used to slip into the back of theaters sometimes. I have a couple of documentaries I picked up this last month though,” Bruce shut off the burner and poured himself a cup of tea before moving over to sit across from Clint.
Clint groaned. “Oh my god, what is wrong with you? Documentaries are as bad as fucking treatises. Are you temperamentally incapable of relaxing or have you just forgotten how?”
Bruce’s eyebrows rose slightly at that, “Neither? I just don’t have much in the way of relaxing material. I think you mentioned spaceships?”
“Spaceships,” Clint said firmly, nodding his head. “This definitely calls for spaceships. The question only remains which kind of spaceships. It’s a very complex question you know.”
“I have to admit I didn’t realize that there was more than one kind,” the other responded with a hint of a smile.
For a moment Clint just stared at him in horror. “You don’t… You must become educated. I’m sure even Steve knows there’s more than one kind of spaceship and he was frozen seventy odd years. You might not want to let Stark know, he’ll kick you out of the tower. Alright, come on, I might have to call in backup but you shall be educated in the things that really matter,” he said, with another firm nod before standing, dumping his dishes in the sink. “Come,” he declared forcibly.
Blinking at him, Bruce finished his cup of tea before rising and setting the cup in the sink, “And where are we going?”
“Probably the, whatsit, Rec Room or whatever Tony calls that massive TV screen that’s allowed to have a room around it. Actually, he’s been stuck in his lab all afternoon and evening and I think Steve is going to start begging around it, so let’s fetch him for some enforced relaxation first,” Clint rattled off, heading toward the stairs to where Tony’s main lab was in the basement, below the bottom of the tower. Their private elevator reached the first floor, all their floors, and the basement, with no access to the floors in between and a special key card and code needed to get into it.
Bruce followed the archer down to the lab, entering his code and pushing the door open. He winced slightly at the music volume, but simply crossed the room to where Tony was working. The inventor in question barely looked up, finally shoving his goggles back and looking up in confusion at the pair. “What’re you doing down here? Tell me Richards hasn’t opened another portal or some such nonsense we need to deal with.”
“Nope,” Clint chirped, perching himself on a stool an narrowing his eyes at the device Tony was working on, trying to figure out what it’s function might possibly be. “Bruce needs to be educated not only on how to relax properly but spaceships. You need to relax too.”
“This is relaxing,” Tony protested. “And, erm, spaceships?”
“Clint says there’s more than one type and that I’m uneducated regarding that.” He shrugged, “Basically he’s trying to figure out what movie he wants to watch to relax after the fight today and has decided it should be a communal event.”
Clint grinned, Tony giving him another wary look. “Well, we need more communal events,” Clint declared. “The question is only which type of ship to introduce Bruce too—X-Wings and Blockade Runners, or Battlestar Class, or even Constellation Class.”
“…What?” Tony managed after a moment.
Bruce turned to stare at Clint in confusion, “I’m with Tony. What? There’s context for those, right?”
Huffing, Clint crossed his arms over his chest. “Of course there is, which is what I’m going to be teaching you. So, Tony, any thoughts on what first?”
“Like, in terms of movies?” Tony asked, blinking at him before finally deciding he wasn’t getting out of this and pulling his goggles off from where they’d been pushed into his hair and trying to clean up the lab space enough that he would be able to use it again when he came back to the project.
“Yeah, like in terms of movies,” Clint shook his head. “I mean, Star Wars? Or Star Trek? Or Alien? Naw, that’s too intense for relaxation right now. Space Operas, I think, would be best.”
Tony just blinked once.
“Star Trek’s a TV series, I’d say it’s too long at this point,” Bruce spoke, glancing at Tony. “Are you weighing in on what we’re watching on your TV?”
“No,” Tony said even as Clint stared at Bruce in horror.
“Dude, Bruce, there are movies. Star Trek has movies. Wrath of Khan? Seriously, tell me you’ve at least heard of Khan I mean the guy’s a classic!”
Bruce’s eyebrows rose, “I had heard there were movies. I think I may have even seen one or two of them ages ago. I just assumed that you’d want Steve more familiar with the characters?” He shrugged, “But, since this seems to be your brainchild, what would you recommend?”
“The beauty of it is you can start with the movies if you need to,” Clint replied. “But if we’re roping Steve into this? I might start with Star Wars.”
Waving a hand Tony inched back toward his work bench and goggles. “Well, you guys have fun—“
“Tony, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen Star Wars, it’s Star Wars and always worth a rewatch,” Clint declared, pushing him from the lab toward the elevator.
“Um,” Tony started again.
Bruce followed, “Tony, if I’m getting stuck with this, you can join in. He’s decided that it’s a team thing, so we might as well make the best of it.” He glanced from one teammate to the other, “How many times have each of you seen Star Wars then?”
“Like you could count something like that—” Clint said at the same time Tony replied with.
“None. Half. Maybe.”
Clint stopped, staring. “What?” he yelped and Tony just shrugged.
“Weren’t you quoting them at me the other day?” Bruce asked, turning to look at Tony. “At least I thought that was what you were spouting.”
“Well,” Tony shrugged. “Yeah I was quoting it, doesn’t mean I’ve seen it.”
“What?” Clint repeated. “How could you not have seen Star Wars, I mean, okay, some quotes I can see you knowing without seeing but—” They entered the elevator, and Jarvis cleared his throat.
Frowning at the ceiling, Tony shrugged. “Jarvis likes Star Wars.”
“Certainly sir,” Jarvis replied. “As I enjoy every other product of popular culture you ask me to read or watch so that you do not have to.”
Bruce’s brows arched again, “How many films have you actually seen in recent years, Tony? I mean, you go to the premiers don’t you?”
“Sure,” Tony shrugged.
“And out the back door,” Jarvis added for their benefit, and Clint snorted.
“Wait, no, I did watch one Star Wars,” Tony said after a moment. “There was something with Clones—”
“No,” Clint said abruptly, waving a hand. “That is not Star Wars, don’t even. Does not count.”
“Well, then I suppose you’ll just have to show him what does,” Bruce remarked as they stepped off of the elevator.
Steve came down the stairs from his floor, pausing when he saw the trio, “Evening, fellas.”
Clint groaned before draping himself over Steve’s shoulders. “At least you have an excuse,” he whimpered before Tony dragged him off. Straightening, Clint shrugged. “Okay, there’s one more. Come on Steve, I’m educating every sorry sucker in this tower on what they’re missing.”
Steve blinked in confusion, “What? I—”
Bruce shook his head, “Just go with it, that’s all we’re doing at this point.”
Exiting the kitchen, Natasha paused at the sight of her teammates, “What are you going with now?”
“None of these idiots have seen Star Wars!” he complained, the most he’d said to her in several weeks. “I’m surrounded by uneducated fools who don’t understand.” Once Clint had met Natasha, he soon enough sat her down and made her partake in a Star Wars night with him and Phil, though in revenge she’d forced him to watch several Soviet silent films.
She gaped at them, “None of you have seen Star Wars? Steve has an excuse, but have the rest of you been living under rocks?” Her gaze moved to Clint almost warily, “So you’re showing the trilogy then?”
“Of course,” he said, looking away, the thought of Phil reminding him why he wasn’t talking to her.
Just then the sky outside darkened, lightning flashing before a shape landed outside the floor to ceiling windows on the pad. Straightening, the form shook its shoulders and strode forward. “My friends!” Thor greeted once Jarvis made sure the doors were opening for him.
“Been a while,” Clint remarked.
Steve offered Thor a smile, “Welcome back. We’ve missed having you around.”
“You’re just in time. Clint was planning on showing us some films,” Bruce remarked.
Thor blinked exhausted eyes, nodding slightly, his hair stringy and falling into his eyes. “Films?”
“Star Wars,” Clint said, looking him over once. “To relax. Which you look like you need, unless this is one of those things that just can’t wait.”
“Loki has escaped from his imprisonment in Asgard,” Thor replied and Clint’s expression shut down. “But he is lying low and I cannot track him until I rest.” He offered Clint and the rest a smile. “So I could partake in films. I am surprised to see everyone here already.”
“They live here,” Tony cut in. “On their own floors. You have one too, I’ll show you around later. But I think Clint has his little heart set on Star Wars first.”
At the mention of Loki’s escape, Bruce had tensed and Natasha’s hand went to where she usually carried a gun when in civilian clothes. Steve glanced around, nodding in agreement with Tony, “If we’re going to watch the movies we probably should get going on them. We’ll worry about other things later, we could stand an evening to rest and recharge.”
“Is he going to try anything?” Clint asked, voice low and Thor glanced over.
“He wouldn’t be strong enough yet,” he replied. “And I am not ready for the search yet. First thing tomorrow we will set out, or I shall with any who wish to accompany me.”
“I’m sure you have volunteers,” Clint managed, heading toward the TV screen before saying anything else, Thor trailing after him, happy with the very idea of sitting and not moving for a long amount of time.
Bruce settled in one of the chairs slightly to the side of where the TV was, Steve sinking down on the floor in front of one end of the couch. Natasha hesitated before sitting down on the couch, crossing her legs and watching the others silently for a moment, “Does anyone want me to see about getting popcorn?”
“Popcorn?” Thor asked, perking slightly at what he assumed was another kind of Midgardian food.
Clint, rather than actually speak to her just nodded as Tony settled behind Steve, staring a moment at the blond head in front of him and regretting his seat choice.
Natasha nodded very slightly, rising and slipping into the kitchen while Clint got the movie set. Steve glanced around at the team, tilting his head back enough to look at Tony and offering him a crooked grin before turning his attention back to the television. He wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the group they had formed, but it was starting to come together and, though they didn’t quite fit yet, they were making it work.
While the rest of the team was watching the credits appear on screen, dramatic music blaring as the introductory text scrolled by. Except while their interest was perking, Clint realized he hadn’t actually watched the movies since Loki had arrived on Earth and Phil had died. While Agent Phil Coulson would pin any agent that spoke about science fiction or other media on the job with a glare, that didn’t stop him from being a childhood science fiction aficionado. He’d shared much of it with Clint, though it took the archer months to pry it out of him.
Rising suddenly he moved to the kitchen, bracing his arms against the counter when he was out of the others’ sight. So much for relaxing. Natasha looked up from where she was using a stovetop popcorn maker. She paused for a brief moment before moving over to her partner and leaning against the counter next to him, “You going to be able to get through the films, Clint?”
“Fine,” he practically growled. “How’re you and Fury?”
“I haven’t spoken to him since handing in my report on the Chitauri,” she answered, crossing her arms over her chest and focusing her gaze across the kitchen.
“You should have told me,” he said, still not looking up from where his arms were braced on the counter, eyes sliding over to the popcorn maker when it let out a particularly loud pop.
Natasha sighed, moving over to the popcorn maker and turning the handle, “I should have, yes. I didn’t, but my reasons for that don’t make sense anymore if they ever did.”
“You should have told me,” he repeated, arms actually starting to shake a little bit. “Tasha, I…” he shook his head, finally turning his head slightly toward her.
“Clint, I,” she paused, meeting his eyes and saying something she rarely said to anyone. “I’m so sorry, Clint. You deserved to know and I denied you that. I’m sorry.”
He looked at her for a second before his face crumpled and he finally shed the tears for Phil he’d been holding in for weeks. Natasha hesitated for the briefest of moments and then took two steps to cross the distance between them and wrap her arms around her partner, running one hand gently over his hair.
Pressing his nose against her shoulder, he clung to her, listening vaguely to the sounds of Darth Vader and R2-D2 in the next room over.
Tony entered, and stopped, having come to check on the popcorn and decided that going back to staring at Steve’s gleaming blond hair in the changing light of the film was preferable to watching an international spy and assassin have a breakdown in his kitchen. He waved to Natasha and retreated quickly, Thor already enthralled with the actors on the screen.
Natasha watched Tony leave and turned her full attention back to Clint, murmuring quietly in Russian. She stayed like that until the smell of the popcorn burning cut through and she took a step back to yank the popper off of the heat. Turning back to her partner she considered him, running a hand over his hair again absently.
“’m fine,” Clint managed, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I’ll finish the popcorn even. Go watch Star Wars again.”
She arched an eyebrow, “You’re sure? I can finish this up if you would rather take the evening off from them.”
“No,” he shook his head but actually managed to give her a smile. “It’s Star Wars. Painful or not, what’d become of me if I couldn’t enjoy it? Besides, I’m making everyone else watch it, might as well join them.”
Natasha offered him an upward quirk of her lips at that, “Alright. Take all the time you need, Clint.” She patted his shoulder once more before slipping back into the TV room and settling on the couch again.
Clint remained in the kitchen, seeing to the several bowls of popcorn before making deliveries out to the living room quickly, finally settling down himself as well with a particularly large bowl of buttered popcorn. He watched as Luke Skywalker emerged on Tatooine, curling deeper into the chair he’d claimed, glancing over from time to time to see how the others were reacting, noticing that Tony seemed to be paying more attention to Steve’s blond hair then the screen, though the corner of Tony’s mouth would quirk at a particularly good line, even as he looked slightly pained.
Natasha spent more of her time watching her teammates than the screen. She had seen the films more than once and knew when to watch for her favorite scenes. She would catch Bruce shaking his head at certain scenes even as his lips tilted upward at C-3PO and his conflicts with Artoo. Glancing away from him, her eyes landed on Steve who was entranced by the effects used on screen as much as by the story. Last, but certainly not least, she focused on Clint, glancing at him more frequently than any of the others to keep a quiet eye on him.
When the first film ended, Thor looked around. “Surely that is not the end!”
“There’s two more,” Clint grinned, already rising to put the second one in.
“Really?” Tony asked, blinking almost owlishly at him, snapping his attention up to Clint.
“Sure,” Clint smirked. “We might as well finish, don’t you think? And no, Tony, you can’t have a tablet or your phone, pay attention to the movies.”
Steve blinked and drew his attention away from the screen, “Film’s come an awfully long way…”
Bruce’s lips quirked, “Should we tell him these films are about thirty years old?”
The soldier’s eyes widened, “Thirty…Do I want to know what you’re able to do with them now?”
“Rest assured Clint will make certain you see,” Natasha replied, rising to find a throw blanket or three.
“Though only the good ones,” Clint said, pointing the DVD case at Steve. “Too many movies rely on the tech now, instead of good storytelling. But I’ll be sure you get a really good taste of what films can do nowadays. But first, the theatrical cut of the Empire Strikes Back.”
“The theatrical?” Tony asked, glancing over. “Even I know he put out a new edition of these films.”
“I’m a purist,” Clint sniffed.
“Don’t argue with Clint about the editions,” Tasha advised as she settled back on the couch under a blanket. She sounded like she had long experience with that argument.
“Well, there’s the Lord of the Rings if you really want to show him a newer level of tech,” Bruce suggested quietly as he curled a bit further into the chair he was seated in.
“See, those are well crafted movies,” Clint agreed, before retreating back to his seat as the opening sequence began to roll. “And ones in which I will accept the expanded editions, and gladly.”
“Over a couple of nights though I think,” Natasha advised, curling her legs up next to her on the couch and covering her feet with the blanket as well.
“Well, yeah, those ones are almost four hours each.” Tony gave Clint an almost horrified look when he pronounced that. “Dude, you’re the one who called me Legolas, yes, you get to watch them. You are sorely under educated when it comes to movies. How many movies have you watched in the past year anyway?”
“One,” Tony replied and considered. “Half. Maybe. Parts of three that equal one?”
Bruce shook his head at that, “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen more films than you have, Tony. And that’s really saying a lot.”
Scowling, Tony crossed his arms and hunched down in the chair, muttering darkly about not having the time. Clint just grinned, watching as Hoth filled the large screen.
And this, dear readers, is the chapter in which we discovered that VS's Clint muse is a complete film snob. We have no explanation for this. However, if anyone has questions about why Tony hasn't seen many movies, feel free to ask, VS is more than willing to explain and justify her reasons behind that.
A couple weeks later Tony glanced around the posh and pretentious bar he’d found himself at, supposedly for an interview with an aspiring reporter. The drinks, he supposed were good, but the atmosphere was doing nothing for him.
A tall, slender, black-haired man entered and crossed to the bar to order a gin martini with no olives. He leaned against the bar, his shadowed green eyes scanning the room. He picked up his drink, the idiot behind the bar had placed an olive as garnish regardless of his order, sipping it as he spotted Tony Stark. Pausing for a moment he strolled over and settled down at a table near the inventor.
“You’re joking,” Tony remarked, glancing up. “What in the name of—well, you’re a god so in the name of you I guess—are you doing here? And where is the logic in actually seeking me out to sit next to? Tasteful drinks though.”
Loki Laufeyson’s lips quirked upward, “Well, I’m still recovering and I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” He took a sip of his drink, shaking his head, “Though what you’re doing here does rather spark my interest.”
“Um, none of your business and the whole laying low while recovering thing only works if you’re avoiding the people likely to a, attack you, or b, attempt to drag your sorry ass back to your rather large and well-meaning brother.”
The chaos god offered a thin smile at that, “And you assume that I couldn’t take you out and vanish before Thor could so much as get your message?”
“I’m still missing exactly what your goal is here,” Tony said, gesturing for another drink.
“A drink, that’s all,” Loki held up his martini glass slightly. “Well, and listening to you all go about your boring little lives.”
“I’m going to assume you’re saying you all in a human race sort of way rather than an Avengers sort of way,” Tony replied, arching a brow over toward him. “Are you going to eat that olive?”
The god wrinkled his nose offering the olive to the other, “Disgusting things.”
Tony gladly accepted the olive, preening slightly. “So what the hell brings you here anyway? And do I need to coach you in where not to go for good company or something?”
“I told you. I came for drinks. If I desired something more than that I would be out seeking it. As it stands now, I seek color and sound. This is enough. What brings you here, while we’re on the subject?” Loki asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Nothing,” Tony repeated. “Besides, I’m sure you don’t care about my dating schedule anyway,” he added, even if he just meant an interview date with someone he honestly was not planning to bed.
“I’m pretty certain no one actually cares about your dating schedule. Those that think they do are too vapid for a stray thought or concern.”
Tony laughed. “Every tabloid in the world disagrees with you, and quite a few international business journals as well.”
“As I said, vapid wastes of paper.” Loki shook his head, “Your world crumbles and they spend their time on your sexual escapades.”
“My sexual escapades are very exciting, I’ll have you know,” Tony replied with a completely straight face, sipping at the fresh drink that was handed to him.
“Odin’s eye, you sound like Fandral. Of course, you at least have photographic evidence that you’ve performed some of these feats,” Loki set his empty glass aside.
"Screw photographs, I have videos," Tony said, taking a sip of the drink he held. "Which I'm assuming whoever Fandral is, doesn't."
"I'm not entirely certain that Fandral has actually managed to sleep with a woman or man in the past few hundred years. So, no, he has no video evidence either," Loki drawled.
"Poor soul," Tony drawled, even though since becoming Iron Man there had been few new videos of him on the internet with his shirt off—he was sure Pepper and Jarvis were still relieved about the entire thing. "Dare I ask after you or would you hex me?"
"After me? What exactly would you care to inquire of there?" Loki asked, arching an eyebrow. "And hexing you would cause far too many problems at the moment no matter how satisfying that might be."
"Because I'm a curious soul," Tony drawled, filing away the information Loki was giving him on his intentions.
"So what specifically are you asking, then, Stark?"
Tony shrugged. "Mostly if you've been lucky in the last thousand years or so," he grinned, leaning back. "And if there's any evidence to back such a thing up."
"A few times," Loki shrugged dismissively. "But no, no evidence I can offer to one such as yourself."
"But now I'm all curious," Tony said with another smirk. "About what the sexual preference of the gods might be."
The god of chaos' lips curled upward and he tried not to think about blond hair and blue eyes, "Well, obviously it has to be someone who could keep up with our stamina."
"Of course," Tony agreed idly. "Wait, are you saying humans couldn't?"
"I'm saying that it is a rare thing indeed," Loki responded. "There are gods who have taken mortal lovers, but you are such a frail race in comparison to those of other realms."
"What about mutants?" Tony asked, oddly intrigued. "I mean, like Logan. He's pretty much indestructible and so far immortal." Tony paused a beat to take another drink. "Though, don't actually try to take him as a lover, that would get bad fast."
"They have a difference in genetics that makes you just different enough that mutants might be viable. Of course they weren't all that common until less than a hundred years ago, which in the scheme of time isn't all that long," Loki replied, toying with his empty glass.
"It'd be a theory to test at some point," Tony shrugged, leaning back.
Loki shrugged, "Perhaps, if I find the time or inclination."
"Yeah, but seriously, don't go after Logan, he's cut your face into pieces. Actually," he paused. "Damn that would be funny."
"I try to avoid anything that might end in scars, even for the sake of your amusement, Stark," the other drawled.
"Ugh," Tony smirked. "But it would be so funny. Actually, who knows, little Wagner might teleport you into the tropics for pissing Logan off and that would also be funny as hell."
"Do you have anything that amuses you that doesn't involve my possible choice of lover?"
Tony paused, pursing his lips as he considered. "The ball gag was pretty fucking hilarious actually."
Loki's jaw tensed and his eyes narrowed, "Tread carefully, Stark."
"Well you wouldn't hex me for sex jokes, I just don't know where the boundaries are," Tony said, totally idle as he finished his drink, setting the glass down.
"Consider my last trip to your city off limits," Loki replied, leaning back in his chair.
"You mean the time you got completely crazy, killed one of my friends and tossed me out a window?" Tony asked, eyes going a shade colder. "Sure, why not."
"See, we were having a decently pleasant conversation until it came up," Loki said, waving a hand and breezing past Tony's words.
Tony shrugged, still grinning. "It was such a nice change of pace." He almost added something glib about a lack of windows with a drop that could kill him. Setting his glass down, he pushed his way to his feet. "And yet, it is time for me to leave."
"So soon? A pity, you're the most interesting company I've encountered here," Loki said, green eyes following Tony's movement.
Tony laughed. "I'm trying to decide if I'm flattered or terrified."
Loki's lips curled upward ever so slightly, "It's fascinating how often those things go hand in hand."
"You know, that's entirely true," Tony said, shrugging into his coat and checking his watch one more time. "But I really must be off. I'm sure I'll see you around at some point or another, one way or another."
"Oh I'm quite sure of that," the god agreed. "Good day, Stark."
"Evening, technically," Tony replied. "Try not to destroy any buildings I like," he added over his shoulder.
"Too much effort tonight," Loki replied, watching him go and waiting before gathering his own coat and departing.
Steve was on his way home, a few blocks from the tower, when he thought he heard something. He paused and turned down an alley, following the sound until he found a battered cardboard box with a small, scrawny, tabby kitten, "Hey, there little fella." He kept his tone gentle, holding out a hand and quietly talking to the trembling ball of fur which had puffed up and hissed when it had seen him. He shrugged out of his coat and finally picked up the kitten, wrapping it up in the fabric, "Shh, let's get you warm and something to eat, what d’ya say to that? Would you like that?"
He was still murmuring to it by the time he'd reached the tower and taken the elevator up to the main floor. Entering the kitchen, he set the bundled jacket, with a now sleeping kitten in it, down on the table and started going through the cupboards, "Jarvis?"
"Yes, sir?" Jarvis asked and seemed to actually pause. "Sir, Tony does not generally like animals. Is that a kitten?"
"It is. Do we have anything I can feed it?" Steve continued rifling through the cabinets. "I'll be able to go get actual food for it tomorrow, but it'll need something before then."
"I believe there should be something in the left lower cupboard," Jarvis said. "And I am certain you could take some towels to make a bed for tonight."
Steve knelt down, going through the suggested cupboard, "Aha, here we go. I'll see about setting up a bed in my room, or something."
"Bed for what?" Natasha asked from where she'd entered silently.
Nearly banging his head on the cupboard as he pulled back, Steve waved toward the bundled coat, "It needed a home." He found a small plate and put a little bit of tuna on it.
Natasha arched an eyebrow and pulled back a sleeve of the coat to reveal the kitten, "My God, Steve, where did you find it?"
"A couple blocks from here, it was shivering in an alley."
Stepping into the kitchen, Clint paused at seeing the other two there, but a small mew from Natasha's direction brought him over instantly. "Is that a kitten?"
She nodded, her face softening very slightly when it yawned, "It just woke up. Steve found it."
"Are we keeping it?" Clint asked, face opening up.
"I'm hoping to," Steve answered, bringing the saucer with tuna and a small bowl with water in it and set them down near the kitten.
"Why wouldn't we keep it?" Clint asked, looking like he was more than prepared to fight anyone who would want to get rid of the kitten.
"Jarvis says Tony doesn't like animals and it's technically his place," Steve answered.
Natasha arched an eyebrow, "He gave you an entire floor to yourself. The kitten doesn't have to be in his space."
"I'll take the kitten into my space if I have to," Clint said, picking it up gently as it did not yet seem to be going for the food.
The kitten pressed into his hands, mewing again. Steve smiled, "We've all got room for it, really. It shouldn't be a problem, should it, Jarvis?" He glanced at the ceiling.
"It should not be a problem," Jarvis replied. "Hopefully," he added more quietly as Clint stroked the kitten's head before setting it down next to the bowls, still petting its ears.
The kitten started purring even as it sniffed at the tuna and started eating finally. Steve breathed a soft sigh of relief at that, "I'll take it to the vet tomorrow, and see about getting supplies for it too."
Tony pushed inside the kitchen, pausing. "What did I miss?" he asked and frowned at the cluster of them around the table. "Holy fuck is that a kitten?"
Natasha glanced at him, crossing her arms in a challenge, "Yes. It is."
Tony blinked, adjusting his sunglasses, glad suddenly he hadn't taken them off. "Why is there a kitten here?" he asked.
Steve glanced up from where he was watching the kitten, "Because I found it shivering and starving in an alley. It needed food and to warm up, it's really cold out there right now and going to get colder."
"So we just picked up a stray?" Tony asked, arching a brow and for a second Jarvis' panel flickered like he was laughing.
"It was cold and hungry," Steve repeated. "I couldn't just leave it."
Tony blinked at him, pushing his glasses back up. "You do seem to like taking in strays, sir," Jarvis said and Tony scowled up at the ceiling.
"Please don't start comparing me to fucking Xavier, Jarvis. He has a school full of strays."
"Sir," Jarvis drawled as Clint protested not to swear in front of the kitten. "You have a tower of strays."
"Oi," Clint glanced up at the ceiling too.
Natasha's lips curled upward very slightly, "Harsh, but true."
Bruce entered the kitchen, blinking at the group, "Do I want to ask?"
Having just picked up the kitten, Clint grinned over at Bruce. "We have a kitten," he said, looking happier than he had since the Tesseract started giving off strange energy surges.
Bruce stared at the kitten who was mewing and purring again, Clint's smile throwing him for a loop the way it lit up the other's eyes, "A kitten. When did we get a kitten?"
"Steve picked up a stray," Tony said, clearing his throat.
"Is this the 'so can we keep him' moment then?" Bruce asked, arching an eyebrow.
"This is a, ‘we're keeping it regardless’ moment," Natasha answered, reaching over to scratch the kitten's ears where Clint was holding it.
"Unless of course, Stark wanted to try and protest," Clint said and Tony's hands went up instantly in defeat. "Not that stupid, thanks."
"Well, as long as it doesn't end up in my floor," Bruce said.
"You don't like cats?" Steve asked, sounding surprised.
"I'm allergic," came the answer, Bruce leaning back.
Clint paused, about to say there was medication for that but wasn't sure how medication worked with the Hulk. "I'm sure Tony could come up with something," he said, holding the kitten still. "I'm sure you could at least scratch its ears—hey, is it a girl or a guy?"
Steve shrugged, "I haven't checked, I wanted to make sure it had eaten."
"It takes all of three seconds to turn it over," Natasha remarked, considering the kitten.
Clint promptly flipped the kitten over, grinning at its mew of protest.
Natasha's lips curled upward again, "Boy or girl, Clint?"
"Male," Clint declared. "We should really get him to the vet."
"I was going to take him first thing in the morning," Steve said.
"He'll need a name," Bruce offered.
"Are you sure you don't want to hold him?" Clint asked, looking over at Bruce and petting the kitten's stomach, wrapping a finger around a tiny paw.
Tony looked around, finally taking his sunglasses off but not looking at Steve.
Bruce shook his head slightly, "No, thanks though. It's best if I don't."
Natasha held out her hands for the kitten, "Share. They don't stay that adorable and tolerable."
"Cats are always adorable and tolerable," Clint protested, finally depositing the kitten in her hands with reluctance.
She curled the kitten close, listening to him chirp, "Until they turn from kittens into cats."
"Anyone have any name ideas?" Steve asked, glancing around, pausing for a moment longer on Tony.
"I name things Dummy and Butterfingers and You," Tony said. "Don't bother looking at me."
"Seems kind of unreasonable to name it without knowing what it's like," Bruce said, considering the kitten where he was bumping against Tasha's chin.
"So we're, what, calling it 'cat'?" Steve asked with a frown.
"Kitten, for now," Clint said. "But you're right, Tony doesn't get to name it." He'd been quietly trying to convince Natasha that cats were as cute as kittens.
"We'll make sure to name it something more substantial later," Natasha said, having none of Clint's arguments.
Sighing, Clint just shook his head. "So, we'll need to take him to the vet, and get food and like a bed or something."
"You'd buy a cat bed?" Tony protested.
"Toys too," Steve suggested.
Bruce nodded slightly, "And a scratching post or two."
Tony was still frowning. "Yes, yes, but why would you buy those things?"
"Did you have another suggestion?" Natasha spoke, a challenge leaking into her tone intentionally as she handed the kitten to Steve. The blond smiled brightly, stroking the kitten under the chin and gaining a purr for his effort.
"Yeah, who do you think build most of the stuff in this room?" Tony demanded. "You think some subpar store bought bed or toys is going to be nearly so useful?"
"I was under the impression you didn't like kittens," Natasha replied, leaning a hip against the table, only sparing Tony a brief glance.
He huffed out a breath. "It's the principle of the matter, okay?"
Steve offered him a grateful, crooked smile, "So you'd build something for him them?" He gently set the kitten down again.
"Sure," Tony said, shrugging and suddenly uncomfortable.
The door pushed open again, Thor slumping in from where he'd been out in the city, still looking for his brother.
"Thanks, Tony, that would mean a lot," Steve said, before glancing to Thor. "Still no luck?"
"No luck," he said and paused. "Is that a cat?" he asked, frown deepening.
"Yes, a kitten really," Steve answered, watching Thor almost warily.
Thor frowned, approaching the kitten warily before he reached out, lifting the kitten’s paw with one of his large fingers. The kitten mewed at him and after a moment he grinned, lifting the entire kitten up. "Ah, good!" he boomed, the kitten rubbing his head along Thor's beard. "It shall grow up to become a mighty warrior!"
Steve and Bruce blinked at that in confusion and Natasha arched an eyebrow. Bruce's lips twitched very slightly, "It's probably not going to be much more than ten pounds. Mighty warrior might be a steep expectation."
"Size does not matter," Thor said, sounding almost offended.
Natasha snorted at that, sarcastic amusement lighting in her eyes, "Small things can be dangerous."
"Exactly," Thor said, petting the kitten under the chin before carefully setting him down next to the food dish.
"Where's he sleeping tonight?" Bruce asked.
"I was going to set him up in my floor tonight, if no one objects?" Steve responded, glancing toward Clint to see if the other would prefer to have the kitten for the night.
"It's your kitten," Clint said after only a moment's hesitation. "You should bond and do all those things."
Steve looked hesitant at that, but Bruce cut in, "I'm not big on cats, but my guess is that he'll decide whose kitten he is. Can't be much harm to a night on your floor, Steve. I'm sure it could be set up as a rotation if people want to share him."
"Yeah, yeah, it'll be fine," Clint said, waving a hand. "Besides, I need to do some target practice and the poor thing already looks tired."
Steve carefully picked up the kitten, "I'll see about getting him settled in then and we'll take him to the vet tomorrow."
The next day, Charles Xavier arrived, gaze sweeping around the lobby of Stark Tower. He shook his head, crossing to the reception desk, his cane under his arm—he only rarely needed it now and mostly carried it for show, the metal on the ends useful to help it double as a weapon. He offered the receptionist a charming smile, leaning against the desk. Looking hardly more than thirty helped a great deal and he had been steadily perfecting the way his new body adapted his old expressions, "Hello, I'm here to see Mr. Stark. I'm Professor Xavier."
The receptionist frowned, certain that the man in question should be much older than the one standing there. Before he could call up, Tony came breezing in from the outside, stopping when he noticed who was standing there. "Oh, what're you doing here?" he demanded, wrinkling his nose from where he was carrying several packages of supplies he'd handpicked to make the kitten a bed.
Charles turned, smile slipping more into a grin, "Why I came to see you, of course. I haven't been able to make it down to the city since you all came together, after all."
"Since we all came together?" Tony asked, arching a brow up and shaking his head again. "It is still so weird to see you in another body, you know that?"
"Since the attempted invasion," Charles clarified. He glanced down at himself, grimacing at legs that were fractionally longer than they had been before and hands with more slender fingers, "It's no picnic walking in it either."
"But it's a new body and you can walk," Tony pointed out, moving over to the elevator. "So don't whine so much."
"I have not yet begun to whine about this to you," Charles replied, falling into step with the other man. "I could if you would like. I can go on for an hour alone about how my voice doesn't sound right."
"Bitch, bitch, bitch, Charles," Tony said, hitting the elevator open with one of his elbows. "Not to say it isn't disconcerting, but you could be dead you know."
"That's true, but that of course then presents the question of the ethics of wandering around in someone else's body, so I try not to think about that much," Charles replied, stepping inside as the elevator arrived. "So, you're all grown up now. How is it having a team of your very own?"
"Ugh," Tony said. "Charles, I've been grown up a long time, you know. Older than that body, now," he added, eying it sideways. "And please just don't tell me you're going to make some nonsense about following your footsteps. I will drop you off the tower."
Charles smiled serenely, "You wouldn't actually, because that would just infuriate Erik and we all know how well titanium alloy holds up against a master of magnetism."
"I have got to find a way around that," Tony sighed.
"Good luck with that," Charles replied with a smirk. "You still haven't answered how you like having your own team. Are you all playing nice?"
"We're mostly living under one roof," Tony said. "The master assassins are finally on speaking terms again. So yeah, I suppose it's nice."
"You've given them all a place to stay here then?" Charles' brow arched and he looked almost smug.
"You have never been an influence in my life," Tony protested. "I just had a lot of extra room. You know, as multi-billionaires do."
"You're taking in strays. You know that's how I started. Though I started far younger than you did," came the self-satisfied response.
"I will throw you off the tower and send Clint to deal with Erik before he finds out," Tony informed the door of the elevator as it opened up onto the main habitable floor.
Charles stepped off the elevator, looking around and ignoring Tony's plotting of his demise, "Oh, this is nice. Very modern, but nice."
Tony gave him a sideways look, dropping the packages on his work table that was off to one side of living room. It wasn't the same as his full lab but he still liked it. "I'm sorry, did you expect Stone Age decor?"
"From you? Certainly not. But you know I much prefer the classics. The lines of modern style are so....clean cut."
"If it's not the future, it's Stone Age," Tony said. "You're the one who likes the moldy old mansions."
"My mansion is not moldy," Charles replied with a long-suffering look. "And it's been remodeled so many times I'm not certain it even has a specific design anymore."
"You poor thing," Tony drawled, leaning against his work table and folding his hands. "Having to live in a place without a specific design anymore."
"I was attached to a couple of those rooms," Charles protested, though he had hardly been bothered when most of the ones he remembered from his childhood were redone.
"Then you probably shouldn't have let mutant children into them," Tony said, almost primly as he smirked.
Entering the room, kitten in his hands, Clint paused as he looked between the two men there. "Should I not interrupt?" he asked, not sure how to read their body language but certain something was off in the other man. He held himself wrong and it put Clint on edge.
Charles looked in his direction and promptly burst out laughing, "You have a cat, Tony you're turning positively domestic." He glanced toward the work table, "And you're building a cat bed for it too. Oh I am going to get years of mileage out of this, you know that of course?"
"It is not my cat," Tony protested. "But if it's going to be here, it will have the best damn cat bed to exist and shut up. Just be quiet."
"You are building it a cat bed, that makes it at least partially your cat," Charles smirked.
"I helped Hank build his jungle gym," Tony protested. "Does that make him my mutant?"
Arching a brow, Clint made his way with the kitten around the edge of the room, reaching the bar area and letting the kitten down on the counter.
Charles' eyes narrowed very slightly, "No, you've taken that point to an extreme that I doubt Hank would appreciate." He glanced toward the kitten, "Though it is rather an adorable creature."
"It's a kitten," Tony said. "Aren't they legally required to be adorable? Besides, Rogers picked it up and he has the big eyes as much as the kitten does."
"Of course," Charles drawled. "And it had nothing to do with it being Steve making that expression at you."
"Oh hush," Tony said, and Clint looked over at the kitten, trying not to laugh hysterically. "I'm sure his face would work on the majority of the population. Especially when paired with a kitten." He paused a beat. "Actually, that would be the best sales campaign known to mankind."
Charles rolled his eyes, "I think that level of consumer manipulation would be a step beyond what Steve would like." He strolled over to the bar, leaning his cane against the side of it and offering Clint a nod before stepping behind it and considering the selection Tony had, "You're hiding the bourbon again."
"That's because it's the bourbon and I learned important lessons from you—don't give me that look—about hiding my good alcohol. I don't have a ball room floor to wax."
Clint blinked once and returned to making a sandwich.
Charles smirked, "He polished the chandelier in there too. I figured I ought to deal with the underage drinking as well as using the best alcohol."
"The only person you'd have to worry about taking your stores is Thor," Clint pointed out. "Though, he could probably drink you out of your entire tower."
"And you," Tony replied and the corner of Clint's mouth twisted unhappily.
"Not generally speaking."
Charles' gaze darted to Clint, the unfamiliar mind in concert with his powers still adjusting to his relatively new brain letting more of the other's emotions seep through than he expected. He pulled away quickly and went back to rifling through the bar, "I'd be more concerned about the Norse God than anyone else. I still can't believe you hid the bourbon."
"I can get it out if you insist," Tony said, shaking his head. "Though I was holding it in reserve for the time I convince Rogers he should try to get drunk."
That earned a long-suffering sigh, "Well, I suppose if you're holding it over for that I can let it go. It's a bit early anyway."
"It is pretty early to start drinking," Clint agreed, lifting his sandwich in one hand and hefting up the kitten in the other before retreating.
Charles watched him go before shaking his head, "Is there anyone in this business who doesn't have a list of issues a mile and a half long?"
"Absolutely not," Tony replied promptly. "Why else do you think we would be in this business to begin with?"
"Altruism?" Charles offered sardonically.
"You mean to help people out of the goodness in our hearts? Please," Tony shook his head.
Steve entered the room, glancing toward Tony and pausing when he saw Charles, "Oh, I didn't realize there was a guest."
Charles' lips curled upward as he appraised Steve, "You must be Captain Rogers."
"He's not a guest, he's a pest and a menace," Tony said, though he grinned over at Steve from the workbench, Clint looking even more confused from the couch where he was eating with the cat in his lap.
"And yet you still haven't had Jarvis lock me out," Charles responded, still letting his gaze rove over Steve who shifted back slightly.
"It's nice to meet you...?" He trailed off hoping for a name, but Charles breezed past it.
Charles turned on his charming smile, leaning against the bar, "And you. It's quite an honor. Tony's told me so much about you."
"I have done no such thing," Tony protested. "Also, I don't need Jarvis to lock you out when I can toss you over the remodeled balcony instead. Much more satisfying."
"Titanium alloy," Charles sing-songed.
"Which is why I will send Clint to take Erik out while he's still surprised," Tony replied and Clint's head snapped up.
"Oh! You're Xavier! I get it now!"
Charles smiled at that, "Yes, that's me."
"Xavier, Charles Xavier?" Steve asked.
"I was under the impression you were..." he trailed off.
"Dead?" Charles offered.
Steve shook his head, "Older."
"He used to be," Tony sighed. "He cheated rather severely a couple years ago, not only cheating death itself but de-aging himself along the way." Clint nodded, realizing now why the man's movements seemed so off.
"How did you manage that?" Steve asked, not entirely certain he wanted the answer.
"A gray area and a loophole," Charles answered simply.
Clint looked over the edge of the couch, frowning slightly. "You have a lot of grey areas," Tony said. "In fact, some less grey."
"Alright it was less of a grey area and more of an ethical violation, but there was no brain function and no family," Charles replied.
Steve paused at that, frowning, "You took someone's body?"
"No higher brain function," Charles reminded. "Hadn't ever been."
Clint frowned, leaning further into the couch. "So how's the pack, I'm sorry, the students," Tony said instead.
"They're doing well enough. It's the teachers I have more difficulty with, frankly. The students just need a place they can be themselves," Charles answered with a slight shrug.
"I'm sure it's the teachers, but I thought you trained most of them yourself anyway," Tony said, glancing over at Steve and wondering how much he disapproved of Charles' idea of what was a grey area.
Steve was very carefully not looking at Charles, the telepath aware of that fact but ignoring it, "Actually I trained very few of the current ones. Ororo was one of mine, and so was Scott, but Scott's gone off to the West Coast for some reason or other."
"I hear California's less grey," Steve said before he caught it.
Charles glanced at him and let his lips quirk upward, "Something like that."
Tony took a breath and let it out. "Well, Summers and you have a complicated relationship, as have you and all Summers. Especially with Frost hanging around."
"Alex and I get along fine, thank you much," Charles responded. "And Emma, can be a charming woman when she wants to be."
"Which is pretty much never," Tony muttered, shaking his head. "Come on then, Charles, let’s go give the grand tour and get it out of the way, or you'll stay here for hours like an overbearing grandmother nitpicking everything."
He glanced at his watch and grabbed his cane, "I would like that tour. I've got an hour and a half before I need to leave. We're decorating this evening."
Not even asking what decorating was happening, Tony led the way out, leaving Clint and Steve in the living room.
Steve stared after them for a long moment before sinking onto the other end of the couch from Clint, "He stole someone's body?"
"Apparently," Clint said. "Actually, that was a huge blow up at SHIELD for a while. Well, and then he turned around and asked for amnesty for Magneto. He's a walking problem some days."
"I'm getting that feeling," Steve nodded, still looking at where Tony and Charles had gone.
"I'm still trying to figure out why he's here," Clint said with a tiny frown.
"They don't seem to like each other." He paused, "But Tony's giving him a tour."
"Yeah, and who else has he given a tour too?" Clint asked, leaning back and playing with the kitten who obligingly batted at his fingers.
"I don't think he's even given us tours and we live here," Steve said, still considering. "I think I'm filing this under things I don't understand about Tony."
"I think that's a good plan," Clint agreed, leaning back.
We apologize for how long this has taken. Our muses went on a vacation for quite a while.
As to Charles' legs, this story is based after the events of X-Men the Last Stand and due to the post-credits scene Charles is alive in a body that was not his own. He carries a cane because the body was bedridden its entire life and he still has weakness along with occasionally debilitating migraines from the fact that the brain in his new body is not accustomed to his telepathic abilities. (Erik is also de-aged, we claim Marvel Machinations to explain that at this point). Charles has a broken moral compass and always has, he just used to fake it better when he wasn't walking around in someone else's body.
Hope you enjoyed the latest installment!
Chapter 5: How Did No One Realize It Was Christmas Eve?
Also known as: the Avengers fail at Christmas part 1
Bruce entered the restaurant, looking around and smiling faintly when he saw Betty Ross. He crossed over to the table where she was sitting and she rose to greet him, "Betty, it's good to see you."
She leaned in to kiss his cheek, "I've missed you. Thanks for coming out."
"How could I say no? It's been a while," he offered her another smile as they sat down and started to catch up.
Dinner passed in conversation and talking about what had happened in the time since they had last seen one another. Or rather, some semblance of that, Bruce would deflect or give vague answers about that time, but was more than willing to encourage her to talk. He was able to talk at length about some of the locations he had been but never in too much depth. He research seemed to be progressing, though there had been a few setbacks—nothing as major as his change fortunately—and her father was foaming at the mouth about Bruce being back in the States. SHIELD had pulled off a pardon and protection for Bruce and the scientist wasn't sure whether to thank Fury or assume he now owed the man something. He would go with the second and wait for the other shoe to drop.
"What brought you to New York?" Bruce finally asked over dessert. "I figured after the last time, well..."
"I saw you on the news during the alien attack but I couldn't get away sooner," she answered, using the side of her fork to cut a bite of cake.
"Me?" He was almost certain there hadn't been any images of him from the attack.
"You're kind of hard to miss."
Bruce frowned in confusion before realization dawned, "You mean the Other Guy. You know we're not the same, right?"
"But there is a part of you there. He's a manifestation," Betty countered.
Sighing, Bruce shook his head, "I'm not there when he is. I don't remember what happens until I see the destruction or the footage."
"But he didn't harm any of the civilians or your teammates."
"He makes the decisions though."
“You seem to feel pretty confident in knowing when he’s going to be showing up though,” she said, looking at his wrist.
“What?” Bruce blinked at her.
“Your heart monitor, you’re not wearing it anymore.”
“Oh, it, it died a couple of months ago and I haven’t gotten a replacement,” he answered, though he had gained some control in his time away from the States.
Betty looked at him for a long moment, “So you’ve got a couple of steps further along in having this under control.”
“A few.” He paused, focusing his gaze on his plate, "Betty, I don't, I don't know if this is working."
She set her fork down, frowning, "What do you mean?"
He offered her a sad smile, "We've never done distance relationships well."
"You've always been on the run."
"Which doesn't mean much, really."
"I could come over here," she offered.
"And give up the lab and grant and research?" He shook his head, "I won't ask that of you. What you're working on could change the world for the better so much, Betty. I’m not worth that. And the danger that would put you in is too much."
Betty's eyes narrowed, "You won't hurt me, Bruce."
"You don't know that. He doesn't always recognize people as friends."
"He protected me."
"I don't want to take that risk," Bruce said quietly.
"So you're what, just making this decision and breaking up with me over dinner?" Betty offered sharply.
Bruce sighed, "You can make a new life. You started to do so while I was in South America. Why not try again?"
"What if I don't want to?" She asked, but it sounded more like she was offering it academically than with any force behind it.
"Betty, I can't offer you a normal life. I can't offer you even a safe place to finish your research. I'm wrapped up in this life and the Avengers."
She paused, sighing and finally nodding, "You are. And maybe you're right."
Betty held up a hand to cut him off, "If you say friends, Bruce, I will waste the remainder of this perfectly good wine and ruin your shirt. We won't."
He blinked at her for a moment, "We won't?"
She offered him a ghost of a smile, "We might try. But we've never been much for communicating when we're apart. We'll see each other at conferences, maybe get coffee if we're in the same city, but we won't keep in touch. And, maybe that's okay."
"I'm sorry, Betty. I wish..."
"I know. I do too. But we have our own lives, and they don't fit anymore, do they?"
"They haven't for a long time," he said, handing over his card to the waiter to pay for dinner.
"Maybe it's not a bad thing. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we will keep in touch if we're just friends," Betty offered.
"Maybe so." He had a feeling she had been right though. The waiter returned and Bruce signed the slip, rising as Betty did. They picked up their coats and headed for the door, hailing a cab and sharing it to her hotel.
She offered him a last kiss on the cheek and handed him a slip of paper with her number and email on it as a reminder, "Let's try to keep in touch at least."
"We'll try," he replied, watching her go before directing the cabbie to Avenger's tower.
Tony's head snapped up when the elevator opened, certain that everyone was either in the tower or not due to be back anytime in the near future. For a second he thought about the time that Phil had invaded his tower, causing a security breach. He took a step forward before actually taking one back when the door opened to reveal Nick Fury. "You're joking. Breach, Jarvis, security breach and get out, Fury."
"I have business," Fury protested, arms crossed over his chest.
"I cannot express the extent to which I do not care," Tony said, mirroring Fury's posture for a moment and then realizing what he was doing, dropping his hands to his sides instead.
The corner of Fury's mouth quirked upward. "It's not about you, Stark. Where's Agent Barton?"
"Here, sir, but not really your agent anymore," Clint said, coming down the stairs, the kitten with Steve down in the gym, mewing him on. "What do you want?"
Fury's face was impassive as he held a check out. "There wasn't anyone else to really give this to," he said and Clint froze.
"You sold Phil's apartment," he said, seeing no reason for Fury to be giving him a check otherwise. "You sold—"
"It's procedure," Fury replied, shrugging slightly. "You'd given no indication you would have ever lived there—could you have?"
Shifting his shoulders back, Clint didn't respond for a moment. "No, I couldn't have," he said finally. He'd gone to the apartment that he'd spent weeks in, when they had the rare moments tucked away without SHIELD or business, but it had hurt enough he'd grabbed only what he wanted and left, locking the door behind him. But now even that last link was gone.
Standard procedure or not he wanted to scream at Fury, launch an arrow at him. Instead, he reached out and plucked the check out of his hand. "I am not putting a good word in with Nat because of this."
Fury huffed out a laugh. "I would never have expected you to. I may be a manipulative bastard but I know you far too well."
"Good," Clint snapped. "Just so we're clear, sir." He turned on his heel, almost flying up the stairs toward the roof top of Stark Towers.
"Now will you get out?" Tony snapped and Fury shrugged.
"I suppose my business here is done."
The doors of the elevator opened again and Bruce stepped off, having just gotten back from his date, he blinked and seriously considered getting back on and just taking it up to his floor. He glanced from Fury to Tony and back, "Am I interrupting?"
"Not in the least," Fury said, sweeping past him in a dramatic swirl of leather.
Bruce watched him go with a frown before looking back at Tony, "What did he want?"
"He was giving Clint a check," Tony said, glaring at the elevator doors.
"What? He was doing what?" He paused, "Is Clint alright?"
"I think he stomped up to the roof."
Bruce paused for a moment and then turned and headed up the stairs. He emerged onto the roof a few minutes later, pulling his coat closer and looking around, "Clint?"
Clint waved from where he was sitting, feet dangling over the rooftop as he watched the traffic far below.
Crossing the roof and pausing a couple of feet back he finally drew himself together enough until he was sitting next to Clint, "Bit cold up here."
"You don't have to come all the way over here," Clint said. "I know it freaks most people out."
"I fall and the Other Guy keeps me from ending up flattened," Bruce answered, but focused his gaze out or up rather than down.
"Still, I'd rather you not fall at all," Clint said, glancing sideways at him.
Bruce leaned back, resting on his hands and letting his center of balance tilt away from the edge, "I'll be careful."
"Thank you," Clint said, looking back over the streets.
Bruce tilted his head back to look up at the sky. Fewer stars were visible than in other places he'd been, but he could still make out Polaris, "Are you alright?"
"No," Clint said. "But I'm sure I will be."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not really," Clint said, kicking his feet against the building. "I mean, it's just... it's nothing really. I'm just so irritated."
"I saw Fury on his way out," Bruce said, watching Clint.
"Yeah, well, he figures anywhere is a place he can drop in on," Clint shrugged.
"And everyone's lives are his to use."
"Something like that," Clint said, drawing his knees up to his chest. "So, what about you? How was your dinner or whatever you were going to."
"It," he paused, trying to figure out how to answer that, "better than it could have been, I think?"
"Who were you meeting?" Clint asked, curious.
"Betty Ross, she was in town and thought we should go out since we haven't, we haven't seen each other since Harlem," he answered, closing his eyes.
"So it's been over a year," Clint said softly.
"Yeah. It, it was good to see her for a while."
"Is she staying?" Clint asked, not looking over. "Are you two going to be a thing again or is she going back? I mean, not that you couldn't leave too."
Bruce sighed, "Our lives went different ways a long time ago. Probably before the last time we saw each other. So, she's going to try to get another start on a normal life again. We might see each other at conferences, who knows."
"I'm sorry," Clint murmured.
"No, it's for the best," Bruce replied, shaking his head. "I wouldn't be able to handle it if something happened to her because of the Other Guy. She doesn't get that I don't have any control when he's loose."
"But still it must be—" Clint started and shook his head. "I mean, it can't be fun, either."
"Must be what?" Bruce asked quietly, looking at Clint.
"It must be hard to let go of someone you love."
Bruce sighed, sitting up fully again, "It's not easy, no."
"And that's why I'm sorry," Clint said, folding his hands over his knees. "It's not easy and you shouldn't—" suddenly his head snapped around. "But you're not even trying?"
"Clint, she has a chance at a normal life." Bruce glanced at him, "I won't take that away from her. I've done that to her once before and I won't do it again."
"If you made that decision by yourself I'm going to pitch you off this roof and figure out how to calm down the Other Guy later," Clint said, a dark edge in his expression.
Bruce paused for a long moment, gaze moving to the drop from the Tower, "I suggested it, I'll admit that."
"I didn't actually mean that," Clint said, shrinking back slightly. "But why would you give something like that up? If you could keep it, I mean."
"I didn't figure you did," the other man responded, glancing toward Clint before looking back down again. "I don't know if I could have kept it. And I, I never know what's going on when the Other Guy is in control. To come out of that and find out that he hurt her or worse?" Bruce shook his head, "I couldn't."
"So what, you're going to just decide things because you're scared?" Clint snapped and drew back, realizing he was projecting his own issues. "I'm sorry. I should... I should not talk anymore."
Bruce sighed again, "No, it's fine. But she's able to make another life for herself. She was well on her way to one before Harlem."
"But you really think that's fair to her?" Clint frowned.
"And her dropping every piece of her research every time I show up in her life is fair?"
"Except you had a choice and you just decided to give it up," Clint said, pushing himself to his feet. "And that's unfair too."
Bruce looked up at him, "To who?"
"To everyone who never had that damn chance. Do you still love her?"
"I don't know," Bruce answered honestly. "I don't even know if I've loved her for a long while or if it was the idea of her, the idea of a possible normal life with someone who knew about me."
Swallowing, Clint looked off to the side. "Nick Fury dropped by to give me the money from Phil Coulson's apartment," he said, and was suddenly heading back toward the stairs.
Bruce rose quickly, starting after him but stopping not sure if he should follow the other. Tony watched Clint stomping down the stairs and heading to the gym. Emerging on the roof, he looked over at Bruce. "Well, I was going to see how Clint was doing but now I think I might ask you instead."
Bruce shook his head and turned to look over the city, "How do you think he's doing?"
"Like shit but I was asking after you actually."
"Oh, fine. I just sent Clint running because I tripped all over his current troubles," Bruce replied, still watching the city moving below.
"Well, that's the thing with grief," Tony said, not quite approaching the ledge. "You sort of trip over it whether you mean to or not."
The other scientist finally stepped further back from the edge, "Yeah, I just usually try to avoid doing it so spectacularly."
"Well, you know, open wounds, stuff like that," Tony shrugged. "Your pain being in the same space."
Bruce pulled his coat closer again, "Right, of course. I still should have been more aware of what I was saying."
"Bruce, you really can't beat yourself up for this," Tony said. "Come on down, anyway."
"Alright, I've got a couple of experiments I need to check on, anyhow," Bruce murmured, stepping into the stairs down to the main floors.
"You going to be okay?" Tony asked, following him.
"Yeah, I'll be fine. Betty will go on and have a normal life, I hope, and I will continue on my research and working with you."
"Good," Tony said, nod firm and hoping that Clint wouldn't emerge from the gym looking to drink again. It had been bad enough watching him the first time.
Bruce offered him a faint smile, tempted to go down and check on Clint but deciding that he needed to give the other time to himself and turned toward the labs instead.
Several days later, Clint lay sprawled out on the couch, flicking through channels on Tony's TV, still feeling numb and annoyed from the other day. He paused, blinking at the news bar scrolling at the bottom of the screen and sat up suddenly. "Holy shit!"
Bruce looked over the top of his reading glasses where he was taking notes on his latest round of tests, "What?"
"It's Christmas Eve!" he said. "Why did no one remember it was Christmas Eve?" Tony looked up in some alarm.
Natasha glanced up from her knives that she was sharpening, "Christmas Eve? Already?"
"How did no one realize it was Christmas Eve?" Clint repeated again. "Oh my god we have nothing."
Steve entered as Clint spoke, "So we fix that. The stores still aren't closed. We might be able to manage a Christmas."
"What is this Christmas?" Thor asked, coming up behind Steve's shoulder.
Bruce took his glasses off, setting them and his notebook aside, "Oh that's right, you're pre-Christian. Um, Yule."
"Ah," Thor nodded. "I will find us a log."
Tony blinked and realized that yes he did have a fireplace and then shrugged. "Just don't cut down a tree in Central Park."
"We'll need a tree," Steve said. "I can see about finding that, but we'll need garland and lots of ornaments for it."
"Are you serious?" Tony asked, "We're seriously going to try and do Christmas?" When he got several looks back he shrugged. "Alright. Why are we getting garlands?"
"Because it's Christmas Eve and any tree I manage to find is going to be what's left over," Steve answered.
"Tony and I will go get the garlands and ornaments then," Natasha volunteered.
Bruce paused for a moment, glancing around at the team, "Are we doing a gift exchange?"
"There are gifts exchanged?" Thor asked, starting to look happier than he had since he informed them his brother was missing. "Ah! May I invite Jane as well?"
"I think we can take that as a yes," Steve answered Bruce's question. He glanced at Thor, "Christmas is tomorrow, but I don't see any reason why you couldn't."
Thor seemed to consider. "We could pick her up in the Quinjet," Clint offered, as they had requested and received a jet of their own. "If she wants to come."
"I'll fly out for her myself," Natasha promised.
Thor smiled happily at them. "Then I shall see if I can find a log."
"You should go with him," Tony said, tapping Bruce on the shoulder. "Seriously, don't let him cut down a tree. I have seen what this man does to forests first hand."
Bruce's lips quirked upward, "So Thor and I will find a Yule log, Natasha volunteered herself and Tony for garlands and decorations and Steve's said he'll find a tree."
Steve looked at Clint, "You want to join me in that hunt?"
"Sure," Clint said, shrugging. "The pickings should be slim enough to make it either really exciting or hella depressing and I'm in the mood for either."
"Great, anything else we need?" Steve asked.
Natasha's lips curled upward as she answered, "Mistletoe."
"Doesn't that go under garlands and ornaments?" Tony asked and almost missed Thor's tiny wince.
She considered and finally nodded, "I think we can see about it, yes. We all have our assignments then."
Steve glanced at his watch, "It's five thirty, now. Plan to be back here in two hours?"
"We'll try," Clint said, laughing. "If we find presents is the next question."
Tony sniffed. "Please," he said, as if he had it entirely handled.
"Three hours at the latest then," Steve replied with a grin.
"Aye aye, Captain," Tony said, giving him a sloppy salute and heading out the door.
Natasha sheathed her knife as she rose, grabbing her coat she followed Tony. Steve shook his head after them as Bruce got to his feet as well, "Alright, we'd better get going then, Thor, if we hope to find a decent Yule log in that time."
Chapter 6: The Snow Feels Different
Also known as The Avengers Fail at Christmas Part 2
Hands shoved into his pockets, Clint considered the trees. "Nope. Totally, hella depressing. There is no other word for this."
Steve was carefully gong over the slim pickings that remained, considering the gaps in the branches and the size of each tree, "It's not the end of the world, that's what the garlands are for after all."
"Actually, no, I have a new idea," Clint said, clapping his hands. "There's a tree in the lobby, right? Well, no one's going to be at work tomorrow and they've already gone home tonight. We should kidnap it."
"We're not kidnapping the lobby tree," Steve replied. "It's a nice tree but it's already been decorated and it's our own fault for forgetting."
"You are too good for your own good," Clint muttered. "Alright, so you get choice of the pickings then."
Steve considered the trees critically before picking one that was just shy of six feet tall and had the fewest gaps, "Here's hoping they find enough garlands. We're going to need to get gifts too while we're out."
"Yeah, you don't happen to have any blinding ideas about that, do you?" Clint asked, blowing on his hands.
Paying the man on the tree lot and letting him know they'd be back for the tree on their way back to the tower, Steve shook his head, "None at all. You have any ideas?"
"Um, Stark might appreciate something that explodes?" Clint said. "Hey, do you think he and Bruce might appreciate the thought behind like a kids’ chemistry set or something?"
Steve chuckled, "Bruce might, I never know what Tony's going to find amusing or not. Any ideas for, say, Natasha?"
"Silk scarves or non-cardboard puzzles," Clint said promptly. "Or... sharp things if you can find the quality."
"I doubt we're going to find that quality on short notice," he paused for a moment. "What about you?"
"There's not a lot I want," he said, kicking the street as they walked and then paused. "I mean, I guess if you could find movie posters or something." Tony had done a good job decorating but Clint wasn't used to owning anything besides what he could carry or fit into a very small space. Everything felt superfluous to him.
"I'll see what I can find," Steve said, letting his eyes move from storefront to storefront, trying to see if anything jumped out at him for their teammates.
"So what are you thinking for Tony?" Clint asked, looking around and seeing a toy store, he headed there to look for chemistry kits and wooden puzzles.
Steve followed behind him, "I don't, I don't know. Everything I think of seems inadequate or entirely meaningless. I mean what do you get for a genius billionaire?"
"Something that doesn't cost money, probably," Clint said. "Or something so cheap it wouldn't even cross his mind. I don't know, you don't happen to have any paintings lying around or something?"
"Not that I like. I haven't worked with paints of that quality ever, and I haven't had the chance to work with paints at all since well, since this," he gestured to himself. "I have a couple of sketches, but they're just that—sketches."
"Think he would like any of them?" Clint asked, peering at the toy science kits and grinning. "I don't know, I'm thinking a crystal growing kit for him. It's flashy enough."
Steve thought about the sketches he had and shrugged, "There's one he might. I could try and find a frame for it I suppose." He picked up one of the kids’ chemistry sets and considered it, smiling a bit, "A crystal growing kit could work."
"As I said, it's flashy enough," Clint said, picking up another, more sedate one for Bruce and looking around for puzzles. "We can look for a frame, I think I remember a store nearby."
Steve considered a rack of origami books and picked one up for Bruce before following Clint toward the puzzles, "I can't believe we all forgot about this."
"We were busy?" Clint offered. "Who's that for? I mean, so long as it's not for me then forget I asked."
"I was thinking maybe for Bruce."
"He might like that," Clint agreed, looking over sideways. Suddenly he was thinking less of the chemistry set.
He nodded to the chemistry set, "I'm sure he'll like that. This? Not so sure about."
"I don't know, it might be nicer than the mocking of his profession which this could be taken as," Clint said and shrugged.
"Bruce seems the sort of guy who has a sense of humor, though," Steve replied, considering the assortment of puzzles.
"That one," Clint suggested, pointing out a twelve sided Rubik's cube even as he picked up an intricate wooden puzzle.
Steve took his advice, picking the Rubik's cube up and adding it to his other purchases. He still needed to find something for Clint.
"Come on," Clint said, pausing on the way back to the front of the store to pick up a plushy toy of Thor on the way. "We need to find you a frame and there's a store that sells movies nearby."
Steve followed Clint, paying for the gifts and picking up the bag, "Frame or the movie store first, then?"
“Um, the movie store is probably closer," he said, hefting up his own bag and slinging it over his shoulder as they walked. "Unless you're more nervous about finding something for Tony."
"Do I have a reason to be more nervous about finding something for Tony?" Steve asked, unwilling to admit to the uncertainty that was coiling in his gut.
"No, I couldn't imagine one," Clint drawled, looking up and down the streets. The lights were cheery, and some other desperate people were moving around, looking for last minute turkeys and gifts.
"Let's do the movie store first," Steve resolved, side-stepping a particularly harried looking shopper.
"Alright," Clint said, and found himself stopping in front of a particular men's fashion store, looking at the ties in the window. His eyes automatically picked out a dark green one, the pattern embroidered in the same color with small pinpricks of mint green. He'd shopped there before, one Christmas when he'd been out on a mission until late.
And he knew exactly what sorts of ties he could buy Phil and see them on his lover on the SHIELD base weeks later.
Steve stopped with him, looking at the display of ties for a moment before glancing at his teammate, "Clint?"
He actually had to twitch his head before he could tear his eyes away enough to look up. "Yeah?"
"You holding up alright?" His tone was quiet, checking without prying as best he could.
"No," Clint said, turning on his heel and stomping down the street. "I think I am and then something like the holidays comes around."
Steve kept pace with him, not sure what to say to that as all he could think about were questions that would likely cause more pain or sounded rote.
"What about you?" Clint asked, still not looking over. "I mean, it's your first Christmas in this era," he continued.
"I'm," Steve drew a deep breath and looked at a window display as they passed, "I'm actually trying really hard not to think about that."
"Yeah, so am I," Clint said. "Trying not to think about things I mean." He veered into the media store, free hand shoved deep into his pocket.
Steve trailed behind him, watching the other man quietly before drifting toward a display of posters.
Finding what he wanted, Clint moved to the counter quickly so Steve wouldn't see what he was buying, stowing the films in his bag. "I'll be outside," he told Steve and moved outside, letting his head thud against the side of the building.
Steve emerged a few minutes later, his own gift for Clint stashed in the bag from the previous store. He paused next to the other, "The frame and then back to get the tree and meet the others at the Tower?"
"Yeah," he said, clearing his throat. "So what sort of frame are you getting Tony? It's gotta be sleek, you know?"
"I'll know it when I see it, maybe a plain black or chrome-like one," Steve said, trying to think what would go with the sketch he had in mind. "Probably chrome."
"Yeah, sounds right," Clint said. "Come on, let's go find it."
Bruce pulled his coat closer around himself and glanced at Thor, "So how big a log are we talking about?"
"A big one," Thor said and paused. "Perhaps smaller than I would prefer. Anthony's fireplace is not as large as I'd like."
He considered where they might find that, "It occurs to me that the two of us who are completely unfamiliar with this city are out together."
Thor grinned down at him. "I suppose that is true. But we will be able to find what we need."
"Without cutting down a tree in Central Park," Bruce responded with a smile.
"Please, I am not that uncivilized," Thor laughed. "A tree would not fit into Anthony's fireplace. We shall buy one."
That earned a wry chuckle, "If we can find one. I need to do a bit of shopping to find gifts while we're looking too."
"Of course. Do we exchange gifts with everyone?" Thor asked.
"We do, yes. I'm still trying to figure out even where to start. I haven't had any sort of Christmas in a few years."
"I'm sure there are stores where you could find things!" Thor said, happily. "What do you think people would like?"
"That would be where I'm not sure where to start," Bruce replied with a smile. "I don't know any of you very well. Though I might have an idea for a couple of you. A bookstore would be my best bet for some things."
Thor nodded. "A bookstore seems an exciting place," he said, actually meaning it though the thought of books still reminded him more of his brother than anyone else.
Bruce blinked at him for a long moment, "Really? That's not a response I hear much."
"It's not?" Thor asked, looking over.
"Not a lot of people get excited about books. Sure, they read them, but actually find them exciting? That's not the most common thing. At least to the point of going to bookstores."
“That is rather tragic," Thor said, entirely meaning it. He crossed his arms, considering the streets around them, enjoying the sight of the lights around them, though he sighed when he realized he was still looking around every corner as if Loki would be there.
Bruce offered Thor a faint smile and a nod, "It is." He pushed open the door of a bookstore he thought looked promising, "Let's try here first."
"Excellent," Thor said, holding the door open for the woman behind them who blushed slightly at Thor's beaming smile. He stopped though when he actually got a look at the bookstore. "There are," he started. "Quite a number of colors."
Glancing at the other, Bruce nodded, "That's the current trend." He considered what he was looking for and looked at the signs indicating how the store was arranged, turning toward the sports books.
Thor trailed after him, considering the books as he passed, realizing he was picking books out for Loki in the back of his mind, seeing another he thought he might convince Sif to read before shaking his head and focusing on Bruce's back instead.
Bruce came to a stop in front of the shelf holding books on the Brooklyn Dodgers, frowning slightly at them, "It's hard enough shopping for people when you know them. Last minute gifts have always been difficult," he picked up one of the books, opening the front cover to skim the information about it and then checking on the short author's biography before deciding that it would do.
Thor smiled vaguely at him. "Well, I am glad not to have to worry about that." He looked over at a side table nearby with coffee table books and smiled at the images on the covers. "You have such an interesting world."
Bruce moved over next to him, looking at the books, one in particular catching his eye for Thor, "I like it. There's still so much about it we don't understand and can't explain. But we try."
"It's good to try," Thor said, voice softening.
Picking up a book on Astronomy, Bruce added it to the one already in his hands without commenting on it, "Who knows, maybe we'll answer some of our questions sooner rather than later." He looked around, trying to figure out if there was anything for anyone else there.
"Who are you shopping for?" Thor asked, dragging his eyes away from a book on architecture around the world which featured a golden style cover.
"I think I might be able to find something for Natasha here. The other two gifts probably won't be at a bookstore," Bruce answered, considering the store at large.
"Who else are you looking for?" Thor asked, wandering over to where he saw the history books.
"Tony and Clint," Bruce answered, following Thor. "I don't know what I'm getting them, and I'm hoping I will when I see it."
"Do you think neither of them would like books?" Thor asked, sounding actually concerned.
"I think they both would like certain types of books, maybe," Bruce answered. "Tony doesn't take the time to watch movies—and he could put them on as background noise in his lab—so my guess is he wouldn't take the time to read. Clint, I still don't have any idea about him, but I don't think I want to get him a book at this point. It just, doesn't seem like the thing to do this year."
Thor frowned, seeing a biography of Howard Stark on the shelf opposite the histories. "Then where else would you like to go?" he asked.
"I'm not quite sure yet," Bruce replied. "Perhaps we'll look for the Yule log and see if we come across something." He turned back toward the front of the store, pausing when he saw a history of weaponry and considered it for a long moment before picking it up.
"Alright," Thor said. "There would surely be stores like this that would sell logs would they not? Or should we find a lumber yard?"
"I think we're more likely to find what we need at a lumber yard than at an actual store," Bruce answered, setting the books down on the counter and paying for them, accepting the bag from the cashier.
Thor nodded, holding the door open. "So what are you thinking for Anthony and Clint?"
Stepping out and pulling his coat a bit tighter, Bruce shook his head, "I'm still trying to figure that out. Any suggestions?"
"I believe Anthony likes new things, but he invents most of them himself," Thor said. "And for Clint, I am less sure. I know he keeps a distance."
Bruce nodded slightly, "Both fair assessments. I know Clint likes films, but I know hardly enough about them to scratch the surface and not enough to buy him any." He paused at a window display and smiled, "You know, I think I might have found Clint's gift."
"Really?" Thor asked, looking over. "That is good!"
"This should just take a minute," Bruce said, stepping into the store to inquire about the steampunk-style telescope that was in the window.
Thor trailed after him, looking around the store with interest, still amazed at what humans decided to invent.
The transaction went quickly and Bruce slipped the box holding the spyglass into the bag from the bookstore, "We probably also ought to stop somewhere and get wrapping paper since I'm pretty sure no one else mentioned it."
Smiling, Thor nodded. "Yes, I do believe that would be wise. I'm sure the others will appreciate it too."
Bruce looked around once they were outside again and asked something that had been on his mind for a while, "What's Asgard like?"
Thor blinked in surprise. "What?"
"Sorry, that came out of nowhere, didn't it," he offered Thor a sheepish glance. "I've just been curious. It's obviously different than here, but what's it like?"
For a moment Thor didn't reply, looking around the streets around them. "It is like a legend that would be a dream to you people. We use magic instead of science but it is the same thing. There's more... pomp in the capital, but vast places of ice and darkness too. There is war and there is also hope. I don't know... I wouldn't know where to begin to explain it."
Bruce considered that for a long moment before nodding, "I guess that makes some sense. I wouldn't know where to start to describe this," he gestured to the city as a whole though he meant the earth more than anything, "to anyone. There's so much variety and so many things that come together to make it what it is."
"Yes," Thor nodded. "I like the lights you string up," he said, tilting his head back. "And snow feels different here."
"The snow feels different?" Bruce glanced at him in surprise, "I am rather partial to the lights—hopefully Tony and Natasha can find enough for our decorations."
"It is heavier, in Jötunheim," Thor shrugged.
"Interesting. You've done much traveling in the other realms, then?"
"Yes," Thor nodded. "At least, the ones that the Bifrost reached."
Bruce paused for a moment before asking quietly, "Did you do much of that traveling with your brother?"
"Almost all of it," Thor nodded. "Unless... Unless it was specifically for my father."
"What was it like growing up with him? Or would you rather not talk about him?" Bruce glanced at Thor, considering the other.
"It's not," Thor started and shrugged. "Things are different now, but he is still my brother. I just wish I could find him again."
"What will you do when you do find him?"
"I don't know," Thor said. "I'd rather know he wasn't causing more harm is all. Taking him to Asgard," he shrugged again. "It didn't work. I'm not certain we could hold him no matter what we did."
Bruce paused for a long moment, "And if you don't find him before you have to face him again?"
"Then I suppose we'll fight again," Thor said, sighing heavily and crossing his arms over his chest. "And we'll keep doing so if we must."
Bruce sought for another topic, "How did you end up interested in books originally?"
Chuckling, Thor shook his head slightly. "I believe that was Loki's fault. I had to keep up with him somehow, and somewhere along the way I realized I enjoyed it for its own sake. It was worth his expression when I started arguing with him about a book he hadn't realized I'd read as neither he nor Odin had ordered me to read it."
That garnered a smile, "Do you recall which book it was?"
"A treatise on the moral implications of travel to Earth," Thor smiled.
Bruce couldn't help but laugh at that, "And what were the conclusions?"
"I believe it was that one should be careful not to fry the small minds of humans who live for such a short time," Thor said. "Loki agreed with the author. I recall not doing so."
"Is that a common topic of treatises?"
"The Bifrost and our lifespan have always raised such issues," Thor shrugged. "I think I almost made Fandral faint though, when I started arguing the finer points of philosophy with my brother."
"Fandral?" Bruce prompted.
"One of our—well, my friends," Thor said. "It was the Warriors Three and Sif—Fandral is one of the Warriors Three," Thor added. "Fandral, Volstagg and Hogan."
"What are they like?" Bruce asked as they reached a store that he thought might have something for Tony.
"Loud," Thor said after a moment. "Fandral wants to believe himself a lover, Hogan is more interested in weapons, and Volstagg in eating. But they can all agree to drinking."
That garnered a laugh as Bruce entered the store, "They sound like quite the trio."
"Well, then Sif is added to the mix, and she can outdrink them all," Thor shrugged, looking around. "What are you looking for here?"
"I'm still not entirely sure, but it seemed like a good place to try and find something for Tony."
"It does seem rather," he paused, looking around. "Modern, by your standards."
"Hence the hope of finding something," Bruce said as he wove his way through the store, trying to find anything for Tony. He paused in front of a display of alarm clocks, picking up one of the unboxed ones to examine the casing for a moment.
Thor considered. "It's the right color," he declared.
"The casing will also come off without being broken, which means he can make as many upgrades to it as he likes," Bruce set the clock back down and picked up one of the still boxed ones. "And that's the last of the gifts I need." He went to pay, "We'll see about catching a cab to the lumber yard and get the wrapping on our way back to the Tower maybe?"
Thor nodded, pleased with such suggestions. "I am glad we've made such good time."
"I hope the others are having equal luck," Brue said, paying for the clock and leaving the store. He put the box into his bag and stepped to the edge of the curb, flagging down a cab.
Sweeping into the first high class department store he found, Tony waved a hand at the first shopkeeper. "Hello, yes you. We'd like your entire stock of Christmas ornaments, if you would. And garlands, we need garlands."
The clerk's eyes widened, "The whole stock, sir?"
Natasha arched an eyebrow sharply, her expression remaining otherwise unchanged, "That would be what he said."
"But—" It finally registered who was ordering him around and the clerk nodded, "Of course, Mr. Stark. We'll see what we can find for you."
"Thank you," Tony said, inclining his head. "Oh, we should see if there are any lights left."
"I can fetch those for you as well," the clerk offered, hurrying away when Natasha nodded and waved a hand in his direction.
"We're going to need to find gifts, too."
"Damn, and I thought this was honestly going to be that simple," Tony sighed, shaking his head slightly and meandering further into the store, hands in his pockets. "What are you getting everyone then?"
"Socks," she answered simply.
"Socks," he repeated. "You're getting everyone socks? And that's it?"
"Clint will get something different, and Steve's getting wool socks or something similar, but yes," Natasha nodded once.
"It's good to know we all rate so high," Tony said, looking around and realizing suddenly he had no idea what he was doing. "Damn," he sighed. "I've never been good at gifts."
She paused next to a rack of some of the most expensive sunglasses she had seen in a very long time, "That actually doesn't surprise me much."
"It's a skill you're supposed to practice," he said, wanting to pluck out a pair of those sunglasses to have sometimes to cover his eyes. Hesitating, he decided that he might as well, picking up a red tinted pair and putting them on without bothering to remove any of the tags. "Generally, Pepper buys her own presents."
"What has she gotten herself recently?" Natasha removed a pair of sunglasses from the display, dark enough to conceal the eyes of the person wearing them, and with frames designed to block the sunlight from the peripherals as well—minimizing distraction.
"A dress, and a sapphire necklace last year to go with it," Tony shrugged, casting his eyes around the store as if that would help him.
"Go with that theme then and you've got one gift done," Natasha advised, heading toward the men's socks.
"How do you mean?" he asked, and then shrugged, heading over to the jewelry counter, sure he could figure something out himself.
Natasha ignored the question, finding four different sorts of socks, wool for Steve, black light-weight dress for Tony, comfortable socks with a tension ribbing around the arch to lend support for Bruce, and dark red socks with a small star pattern for Thor. She approached the jewelry counter, leaning against it and watching Tony.
He'd already made the clerk pick out the ruby and silver flowered ring he'd spotted, the box sitting at his elbow before Natasha arrived, but he was having trouble figuring out which particular pair of earrings looked the most like Pepper's necklace.
"What does the necklace look like?" Natasha asked, considering the earrings he was looking at.
"It sparkles," Tony offered. "And it has sapphires. I couldn't tell you which matches it better though. They both look like they could."
"Well if they both look like they could, which one would better suit her?"
Considering, Tony tapped the counter. "I suppose the one on the left," he said finally, motioning for the clerk to fetch it.
"Mr. Stark," he said, hesitating before handing it over. "Have you paid for those sunglasses yet?"
"I will," he said with a dismissive wave, plucking up the small boxes and sweeping off.
Natasha snorted and fell into step next to him, "You worry the sales clerks."
"I can't imagine why," Tony said. An hour or so later, he was getting more desperate though. He'd seen a remote controlled airplane by chance for Rhodey but otherwise he'd made no progress. "People find shopping fun, don't they?" he asked the shelves in front of him, finding nothing useful.
"Some do," she said, leaning against the shelving on the opposite side of the aisle. "Though not always for other people."
"I still have nothing," he sighed, turned to trudge down another aisle.
"Well, who are you currently looking for a gift for?" Natasha pushed off the shelves to follow him. She thought about calling the others and letting them know that it would be a while yet, but decided to wait a few more minutes.
"Thor, Bruce, Clint," he listed off and paused. "Steve."
Natasha sighed, they could be there all night. She pulled out her phone and dialed Clint's number before she thought about it, "I'm calling to let them know we're going to be late."
"Alright," he said, frowning already at the next display.
She listened to the phone on the other end ring, watching him and considering whether to have someone come pick up the decorations as well, "Scowling at them doesn't actually help figure out whether or not they're suitable gifts."
"Doesn't it?" he sighed, moving along.
She shook her head, leaving a message for Clint, "We're going to be late, hopefully not more than an hour, but give us an extra two. Have Thor call Jane so I know if I'm flying to New Mexico tonight, and if any of you know what you want for Christmas call me back." She hung up and followed Tony, pausing by a display of fountains, "These are nice."
Tony backtracked from where he was glaring at a toy display. Seeing one of the fountains that lit up he picked it up, turning it over to see the description, which claimed that it was soothing and grinned.
Natasha's lips twitched upward ever so slightly, "So that makes gift four then? You've got the majority of them found then."
"If you say so," Tony said, looking at her sideways.
He'd made his way almost through the entire store, finding a book about world travel and wonders for Thor, and a fancy dart board for Clint before stopping in despair in front of the kitchen supplies. "Steve likes food doesn't he?"
"I would say that, yes, Steve likes food," Natasha said, having watched Tony consider and discard many things already and knowing they'd been through pretty much every other department.
"And team building," Tony said, voice almost desperate. He couldn't think of a single thing to give Steve and the fondue set in front of him still didn't feel right but he was out of other ideas.
"Which means something that we can all enjoy, or at least partake in," she followed his gaze. "You could always upgrade it later," Natasha could not believe those words had come out of her mouth and she was certain she was going to regret them later.
"I probably could," he said and grinned. "It's even for six people." It would just have to do, he decided. "Let's pay and call Steve and Thor to carry all these ornaments back to the tower. I suspect they'll have them packaged by now."
Natasha already had her phone out for exactly that purpose. She placed the call on the way to the register, hanging up and looking at Tony, "Next year we start this a month ahead."
"Or I just get gift cards," Tony said, feeling more exhausted than he had any right to.
"Or you just get gift cards," she agreed, looking him over.
He tossed the sunglasses onto the pile that made the clerk blink, putting them back on the moment they were rung up, finally pulling the tags off. He'd gotten everything boxed, and the professional gift wrapping was almost done by the time Thor and Steve arrived.
Steve's eyebrows rose at the stack of ornaments and garlands that were all carefully packaged, "Did you buy out the whole store?"
"Only their ornament section," Tony said, waving a hand. "I didn't want to have to pick them out at this point."
Steve gaped at him and Natasha smirked before looking at Thor, "Have you called Jane?"
"Yes," he said. "She was... surprised but willing to come."
Natasha picked up her purchases and some of the decorations, "Good, I'll leave as soon as we get back and go get her."
Tony pulled a face at Steve, meanwhile. "What?"
"It's a lot of ornaments is all," Steve answered.
"Well, it," Tony waved a hand, unsure what to say as Thor beamed at Natasha and thanked her.
Natasha glanced at Steve and Tony as she assured Thor that it wasn't any trouble, "So we've got extras if any get broken. And we have enough that we don't have to worry about it next year. Call it a win, Cap."
Steve glanced at her and then to Tony, and nodded after a long pause, "It's not a bad thing to have a lot of decorations."
Tony managed not to snap that Steve was really showing that opinion there, before shrugging and hefting up the gifts that he bought, heading right for the door.
Natasha sighed and shook her head at Steve before following Tony. Steve paused long enough to gather half of what remained, glancing at Thor, "I really need to not open my mouth, huh?"
"That, or you take too long to respond to him," Thor shrugged. "Some days it does seem to be a no win situation. You'll learn."
"Will I?" He didn't sound like he believed that in the least.
"Well," Thor paused. "Humans are on a faster learning curve than Asgardians. It shouldn't even take you a few hundred years." He offered Steve a smile and started for the door, carrying the boxes easily.
“Few hundred?” Steve yelped, but didn’t pursue that further as he followed the others out.
Chapter 7: Never Mastered the Art of Meaningless Comfort
Also known as The Avengers Fail at Christmas Part 3
Stepping into the main floor, Tony blinked at the tree from where Clint and Bruce were getting it set up with the tree stand that Bruce had remembered to buy next to the wrapping paper. "That," Tony started and stopped. "That is not a tree. Why is that a tree?"
"That is a tree because you got lots of garlands," Steve answered, setting the boxes he was carrying down.
Natasha set her things down, eyeing the tree skeptically, but only saying, "Start decorating, I'll go get Jane and we'll be back when we're back." She disappeared into the staircase to go to the Quinjet.
"But," Tony started again. He was used to fourteen foot trees that were professionally decorated and didn't know what to do with such a scraggly specimen.
"It's what we could find," Steve responded, already unpacking the garlands and laying them out near the tree as he considered how best to fill in the gaps in the branches.
"Well," he paused, trying to remember what he knew of Steve's childhood. "I guess it will do," he huffed, pulling a box of ornaments closer and considering the selection.
Bruce stepped away from the tree and opened a couple of boxes of ornaments while Steve carefully wove the garlands among the branches, giving the illusion that the tree was fuller and bushier than it actually was.
"I suppose that's a neat trick," Tony said after a beat.
Steve glanced at him, "We just have to be careful not to hang anything too heavy on the garlands or it might pull them out. We can hang ornaments from them, though, and it will help hide them a bit more."
Tony hummed, sorting through the ornaments as he hadn't actually bothered to look at them before.
Bruce carefully set out the ornaments as he unpacked each box, "Where did you get all of these?"
"I bought out the store," Tony shrugged.
"Well, that's one way to do it." Bruce pulled out a couple of boxes of lights and tossed them to Steve who unboxed them and started weaving them onto the tree as well.
"Can we start at least hanging them soon?" Tony asked, holding one up and considering. "I sort of like this one actually."
Steve tucked the last of the lights in and stepped back, "Yeah, it's all set to hang ornaments on now."
"Good," Tony said, stepping forward and trying not to consider how domestic this entire thing felt, hanging sparkly snowflakes on a tree covered in garlands because it was so pathetic, and that wasn’t even mentioning the lights.
Steve picked up a box of ornaments and started hanging them as Bruce opened another container and pulled out a couple of sprigs of fake mistletoe. He blinked at them and considered where it would be possible to hang them.
"You know," Tony remarked. "These things have really cornered the market in trite."
"That's the point, I think," Clint said, hanging a particularly round Santa Claus up.
"They're nice enough to look at, at least," Steve offered, frowning at the three different tree toppers that he'd found.
Bruce finally figured out where to hang the mistletoe and managed to get it put up, considering the room at large and the fact that they still had a large number of lights.
"Do you want help with the lights?" Clint asked, suddenly appearing at his side and taking note of where the mistletoe was so he could avoid it.
"I suppose so," Tony shrugged. "Use that one," he added, pointing to the gold star instead of the snowman or the angel that looked a little too angelic for him to stomach.
Bruce startled slightly at that, but nodded, "Help with the lights would be good. Starting with where to hang them."
Steve nodded, picking up the star and placing it on the top of the tree, "Been a while since I was able to decorate one of these."
Deciding to avoid the jab about him being asleep for so long, Tony shrugged. "Not big on trees in the army then?"
"Not big on having the soldiers decorate them," Steve answered.
"Well, glad we could provide then," Tony said as Clint strung a strand of lights up around the doorway.
Steve offered Tony a crooked smile at that, "It's shaping up to be a good Christmas."
Bruce tapped on the wood of the bar as he passed it to string lights up by the elevator, "Don't jinx us, Cap."
"Yeah, seriously, don't," Clint said, climbing up on one of Tony's chairs to string a light over the fireplace. "Good Christmases are few and far in between and if you jinx this one, I will personally have to shoot you."
"I'll try not to then," Steve answered, shaking his head slightly at them as he hung intricately painted globes on some of the upper branches.
Moments later, Thor came bounding out of the elevator, several packages of different sizes in his arms. The wrapping on them certainly was not what Bruce bought, instead boxes that were textured in brown and gold. "What?" Tony blinked. "Where did you find that?"
"In Asgard," Thor said, placing them on the table. "You put presents under the tree, do you not?"
"Yeah," Tony said, and frowned. "But... when did you get gifts in Asgard?"
Bruce sidled closer, ostensibly to grab another string of lights, "It would seem Thor's the only one of us who thought ahead."
"Yes," Thor grinned. "I believed, rightly it seems, that there would be some point of the year in which gifts were exchanged or some celebration or another, and I wished to be prepared. You are, after all, my team mates and have helped me with my brother."
Steve smiled at that, "That's real thoughtful. And you know we'll help you when you need it, like you said, teammates."
Thor smiled. "Of course," he said. "Can I aid in any way here?" he asked, looking around.
Steve gestured to the pile of decorations, "We've still got a lot of these to put up and around the room. Bruce, Clint, you got the lights handled?"
Bruce nodded, but glanced at Clint for confirmation, "I think so."
"Yeah, they're handled," Clint said, forcing a smile he really didn't feel.
Lifting the next ornament out of the box, Tony froze, hand stopped where he'd been about to hang it without really looking at the small glass figure of a father and son playing in the snow.
Bruce saw Tony pause and turned his attention to the other, freezing as well when he caught sight of the ornament. He carefully set the lights down and took a couple of deep breaths.
"No," was all Tony said, turning around and heading for the trash can without really thinking about it.
Steve blinked after him, "Tony?"
Bruce cut Steve off, his voice low and though he had himself mostly under control there was the slightest green cast to his normally brown eyes, "I'm more tempted to see if we can't melt that down in the labs before you toss it."
"Really?" Tony asked and Clint looked over to see what the fuss was, face shutting down and going back to paying attention to the lights.
"I'd toss it out the window except that might hit someone on the way down," he said and Thor frowned, looking at Steve in some confusion.
Steve looked at Thor and shrugged. Bruce drew another steadying breath before nodding, "At least break it before throwing it out."
"You sure you don't want to do the honors?" Tony asked.
Bruce looked seriously tempted, but shook his head, "No."
"What is wrong with it?" Thor asked finally. "It seems in the same style as the others?"
"It's a father issue thing," Tony said, waving a hand vaguely and Thor's frown deepened.
"Father issues, but—" Steve started but broke off when Bruce gave him a dark look.
"Don't go there, Cap."
"No, I'm curious where he was going to go, actually," Tony said, setting the offending object on the counter and crossing his arms, shoulders squared back. It could either look like he was daring Steve to continue, or like a defensive gesture.
Bruce tensed at that, but nodded slightly and crossed the room to stand near the stairs, ready to retreat if he felt himself slip any further.
"I'm just trying to align my memories with what that implies," Steve hedged, watching Tony's posture shift.
"And what is that?" Tony asked, wishing he hadn't taken the sunglasses off when they got home.
Steeling himself, Steve answered, "The Howard Stark I remember was a good man, if driven. That reaction says he wasn't so much when it came to you."
Bruce turned and disappeared up the stairs. Though he was still hanging lights, Clint looked over as Bruce left, letting out a breath and wishing that someone had taken the time to vet the damn ornaments.
"And yet you're one of the only people I've ever met to describe him as such," Tony said. "But no, it's good that someone apparently liked him."
"You're right, I did like him," Steve responded before he thought about it. "He was willing to take risks to get the job done, and was willing to bend the rules for the right reasons. It was what was needed in that situation and he was a decent friend too."
"So long as it's for the right reasons," Tony said. "Building weapons and killing people for the right reasons."
Steve's eyes narrowed at that, "We were at war, Tony."
"And after that?" Tony asked. "God, Steve, have you bothered to look at history since then? The world is always at war when you keep handing it weapons."
"There are always going to be people making weapons, Tony," Steve replied, not justifying what Howard did, but also not fully giving ground. "Just because Stark Industries stopped doing so doesn't mean the void stayed empty. You should know that."
Tony's expression blanked like a switch had been thrown and he dropped his hands from where his arms were crossed, mostly so that he wouldn't press a hand over the arc reactor as a nervous reaction. He refused to do anything that could be taken as a nervous reaction. "Except my father created weapons no one else could have. Whether the void stayed empty or not, at least it's no longer the best doing it." So long as it's not my own weapons killing myself anymore, he didn't add and wished he didn't still see Yinsen in his dreams.
Steve rocked back on his heels, keeping his gaze focused on Tony even as he really regretted opening his mouth in the first place. He hadn't even been thinking about the weapons when he'd mentioned Howard playing fast and loose with the rules—the testing and design of those had all been sanctioned, "So they're not the best weapons in the world, they're still there and they're still killing." He needed to stop, long since.
"Accurate," Tony said, tone too mild to be authentic. "But they don't have my name on them anymore."
Looking ready to shoot back some comment, Steve pulled himself up short at a sharp throat clearing from the stairs. Bruce stepped into the room again, having managed to calm down before the Hulk showed up, but didn't say anything and went back to hanging up lights, looking for all the world like he'd just had something caught in his throat rather than intending to cut off Steve's probable response to that.
Clint had stopped hanging up the lights and now just looked like he was watching a train wreck, Tony's expression down right daring Steve to continue. Steve drew a deep breath and finally looked away, backing down from the fight.
Considering him for half a moment longer, Tony pivoted on one heel, stomping out of the room. Clint waited until he thought he was far enough away and looked over at Steve. "Oh my fucking god, Rogers, are you a moron? Is that normal for you?"
Steve's jaw tensed and Bruce spoke before he could, "I'm surprised it hasn't happened sooner and with more regularity considering how well you two did on the Helicarrier."
"Look, I—" Clint paused, realizing he had no idea what Bruce was talking about before continuing. "I realize that Stark needs to come with an instruction manual, and that you're worse off than the rest of us that have been seeing him in the media for the past thirty and some years but still, could you hit less of his triggers in a given conversation? You might as well be punching him."
Steve actually flinched at that, "Should I—"
"No," Bruce answered, his tone tense and his breathing forcibly even. "Now is beyond not the time to apologize. Just, just try not to bulldoze through everything you do with him. How many insecurities and issues can you hit without knowing? I'm sure there are more than enough newspaper clippings and news videos that you could figure some of them out. And I strongly suggest you damn well do so."
"He told a live press conference that his father never told him he loved him," Clint said. "I suggest you start watching those."
"You can't be—" Steve broke off, considering what he'd seen of Tony's reaction to Howard and he sighed, "Maybe I should."
"But I have one really honest question for you," Clint said, leaning back against the wall. "What the hell do you think that arc reactor he has does?"
Steve blinked, "What? It, it powers the suit."
Bruce drew a deep breath and let it out, "Steve, think, a person doesn't carve a cavity like that in their chest for that sort of reason."
"Yeah, Iron Patriot or whatever he's calling himself now certainly doesn't have a hole carved in his chest, he has a nice one that sits in the suit when he needs it," Clint said and Thor slipped out, following Tony.
"But then, why..." Steve looked lost and disoriented.
Clint shrugged. "I don't know if he'd tell you if you asked. But he has a hole carved into his chest and it's not for decoration, you idiot." His nerves were feeling raw, from the lights and Christmas and the ties in the window and seeing the ornament of a father and son, and he knew he was taking it out on Steve but the fight had been painful from the outside.
Steve rocked back on his heels and Bruce cut in with a glance at Clint, "It's keeping him alive, Cap. I don't know all the details, but it came down to building that or dying painfully."
Paling very slightly, Steve nodded, "I..."
"Should ask someone who actually knows. But not right now. Just, don't think that Tony's description of himself is complete either," Bruce muttered, stepping back from the lights and boxing up what was still out.
"I know," Clint said. "Shield actually had a briefing on the damn thing and whether or not it should worry us. But you need to probably ask him, sometime, when you're not being dicks to each other."
"You think he'd actually tell me?" Steve sounded skeptical.
"At this point? Not if you ask the way you seem to ask everything else about him," Bruce answered. "Both of you need to cool off, and you need to not mention Howard Stark again around Tony. Or weapons building for that matter."
Steve sighed, "I wasn't even the one who started talking about weapons."
"That makes you sound sortta like a petulant child, cap," Clint said, finally turning back to hanging lights. About that time they heard a muffled yelp, and something like Tony swearing.
Steve turned in that direction, but Bruce shook his head at him, "Thor's with him, whatever it is I'm sure they're fine."
Except Tony's swearing got closer followed by a "Goddamnit put me down," right before Thor reappeared, actually carrying Tony back into the room.
Setting him down gently, Thor stepped back. "It is a holiday, is it not? We are celebrating it together and I am sure you and Steven will not fight again."
Bruce's eyebrows rose sharply and he turned away to hide what amusement he felt at that. Steve paused, blinking for a long moment before he nodded his agreement with Thor.
"If you say so," Tony said, not looking like he really believed it himself.
"Well, what say we finish up here at least," Bruce offered quietly.
Tony decided he didn't want to actually sort through the ornaments anymore, letting Thor hand him the ones he thought were pretty and hanging them, not quite looking over at Steve.
Steve glanced at Tony from time to time, but kept most of his focus on the tree and trying to sort out his thoughts and guilt for having inflicted damage again without meaning to.
It was just about two and a half hours after Natasha had left that footsteps were heard on the stairs and Jane entered, looking around. The entire main room was draped in lights and decorations, the tree having been so covered in ornaments and garlands that it was almost impossible to tell how scraggly it had been originally, "Oh my."
Natasha entered a pace behind her, arching an eyebrow at the room and the tension she could feel before she sidled over to Clint.
"Don't ask," Clint muttered, shaking his head slightly as Tony swept over to the lady he'd never met before.
"We can achieve such great things with team work, don't you think?" he said. "Thor's upstairs but I'm sure he'll be down in—"
There was a sudden sound at the back stairs and Thor came into the room, beaming happily to see Jane.
Jane turned, her face lighting up when she saw him, "Thor!" Steve looked in her direction, smiling faintly at her as she crossed the room quickly to Thor.
Grinning, he lifted her off her feet, turning in a circle before setting her down and kissing her gently. "I'm glad you came. I have gifts for Darcy and Selvig as well if they would like them but I am verily glad you came."
She rested her hands on his shoulders, still smiling up at him, "They're both going to be disappointed they missed the chance to come out, but Darcy went home for Christmas and Eric had plans already. I'm so glad to hear from you, and to get to see you."
"It has been too long," he agreed. He'd stopped by briefly when he returned to Earth looking for Loki but they had not had much time. "Come, I would like to show you the tower, if of course, you do not mind Anthony."
"Go for it," he said, waving a hand and seriously considering retreating once Thor was gone and thus not likely to literally carry him back again.
Jane looked toward Tony, still smiling, "Thank you."
Tony frowned, not entirely sure what he was being thanked for and shrugged. "Sure. Have a good time, kiddos."
Natasha watched them go, still considering the room as a whole, "At least someone appears to be having a good Christmas Eve."
"I don't know what you mean," Clint said, crossing his arms and leaning further back on the couch where he had been sitting.
"How bad was the fight?" She asked quietly, gaze fixed on Steve and Tony.
"Not quite to the 'put on the suit' level," Bruce answered as he sat down in the chair nearest the couch.
Her muttered response in Russian was sharp enough that there was no doubting it was a curse.
"He started talking about Howard and the Stark company building weapons," Clint said, watching Tony shift away from Steve. "And then Tony stormed off and got carried back by Thor."
Her jaw twitched slightly, "Of course that's what happened."
"Steve doesn't know when to stop talking," Bruce murmured, watching where Steve put the last touches on what he was working on before stepping back and keeping space between himself and Tony.
Finally shaking his head slightly, Tony turned to the group on the couch. "I'll see you in the morning," he said and took off for his lab.
"I bet you if we go down there in five minutes, we'll be greeted by ACDC," Clint muttered.
"I give it three," Natasha responded, as Steve excused himself and headed upstairs to his floor.
Clint just sighed. "I suppose this means we should wrap our presents, huh? As Thor's the only one to think these things through."
"I still can't believe we all managed to forget about it," Bruce murmured, pushing himself to his feet.
"We had other things on our minds?" Clint offered.
"Entirely," the other man agreed. "I'm gonna head upstairs and get my gifts wrapped. Have a good night."
"Yeah, good night," Clint said, waving him off before looking over at Natasha. He hesitated, unsure if they should talk or continue their truce since Star Wars.
Natasha waited until Bruce left before turning to Clint and pulling one of her legs up to her chest, the other one still hanging off the couch, "If we talk will we be able to see each other and speak tomorrow?"
"What do you mean?" Clint frowned. "I mean, about tomorrow."
"I mean, if we actually talk are we going to slip out of this truce we've set up?" Natasha asked calmly. "We need to talk, but should it wait until after Christmas?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "But this is the season to talk, or whatever, isn't it?"
"Something like that," she agreed.
"Have you talked to Nick yet?" Clint asked, tilting his head back on the couch.
Natasha shook her head, "Not yet. I should."
"Well," Clint paused, seriously thinking about his next words, sprawled out over the couch and looking at the bright decorations and not really seeing them. "It might not be a bad idea. If you wanted to. I actually shopped for Phil today."
She considered Clint for a long moment, "It's the first holiday you've really had without him. That's to be expected, it doesn't make it easier, but it's not surprising."
"I picked out the tie I thought he'd wear," Clint said, softly. "He's the one who remembered dates and holidays and to get presents and stuff. I just," he waved a hand, more honest than he had been to anyone up to that point. "I miss him. I don't know what I'm supposed to do without him, how I'm supposed to act or... I just miss him and there's this hole that's never been put back together."
"It's not going to be," Natasha replied after a moment, "not fully. Phil was a huge part of your life, in many ways he was your life. You'll miss him for a very long time, I would be surprised if you don't miss him for the rest of your life. You'll figure it out, though, Clint. And I'll be here while you do."
He laughed, shaking his head slightly. "God, Nat, you have never mastered the art of meaningless comfort, have you?"
Her lips quirked upward very slightly before her expression returned to neutral, "I've never been any good at that, no. Do you want meaningless comfort, though, Clint?"
"I don't know, sometimes a person just wants a hug and to be told things get better," Clint shrugged. "Even if it is meaningless, but no, I don't really want that."
"They will get better. But it won't happen overnight. It'll take time and you have to be willing to let it," she replied.
"Some days I'm really unwilling to let it," he said, tilting his head back against the couch and letting out a long breath. "I want it to still hurt, sometimes. Like not... would be a betrayal."
"Just because it doesn't hurt doesn't mean you're forgetting him, or betraying him," Natasha murmured, resting her elbow on the back of the couch and resting her head on her hand.
"It's what it feels like."
She paused for a long moment before letting her arm lay along the back of the couch and brushing her fingers gently over his hair, "There's nothing I can say to reassure you about that at all."
"There's really not," he agreed. "But... I think it was time to say it none the less."
"If you can admit to it there's some chance of facing it," she murmured. "You'll never forget him, Clint. You're not able to. You love him."
"I just miss him," Clint said again and pushed himself to his feet. "You know, you should talk to Nick. I think he misses... whatever weird thing you people ever did."
"I'll talk to him after the holiday," she agreed, following Clint's movement with her eyes.
"Good," he said. "We should... I don't know, wrap presents or something then."
"And try to get some sleep tonight too," Natasha agreed, unfolding smoothly from her seat.
"You expect to sleep on Christmas?" he laughed, taking the back stairs rather than the elevator.
She chuckled, trailing after him, "Maybe for an hour or two."
"Please," he said, still waving a hand. "Sleep is for other people on other days than this."
"Alright, keep telling yourself that," she patted his shoulder once as she slipped off the stairs into her floor. "See you in the morning, Clint."
"G'night," he mumbled, running a hand over his face once she was gone.
Chapter 8: Merry Christmas, ho ho ho?
Or the Avengers fail at Chistmas--the finale
Tony made it down the stairs in an old bathrobe, hair wild around his face and walking past everyone else already gathered for the kitchen. "No one talk to me until I have coffee," he muttered.
Sitting on the back of a chair, feet on the seat, and elbows on his knees, Clint smirked after him. "He didn't appreciate being woken up and told he had to open presents in his pajamas," he teased.
"You are so lucky I don't sleep in the nude," Tony shot back, hands curling around a coffee cup and inhaling the scent before focusing on actually drinking it.
Natasha snorted, sipping at her own coffee, "It looks like you have a robe at least. Clint has little shame."
Jane was wrapped up in a bulky sweater and sweat pants, perched on the couch with her mug of hot chocolate, "Holiday traditions."
"Or a semblance of them at least," Bruce answered where he was leaning against the wall, his curly hair still obviously tousled from bed.
"I'm dressed," Clint protested, as Tony slid back into the room, sinking down into the other couch as Thor bustled around, happily handing out gifts to where everyone had established themselves, leaving his pile next to Jane.
Bruce felt his face heat at that thought as he made his way over to settle in one of the chairs and Natasha's lips curled upward, "This morning you are, at least." Steve had settled himself by the tree, watching Tony almost as soon as the other man entered the room.
Still looking muzzy and annoyed, Tony started opening the first present he was handed before Thor scolded him to wait for everything to be passed out. Huffing out a breath, Tony sprawled backward, drinking the coffee and ignoring Steve.
"Did you even sleep last night?" Clint asked, deciding to ignore Natasha's jibe.
"What?" Tony looked over. "Why would I sleep?"
"Because it's a healthy idea to do so," Steve suggested, curling his hands around the mug of hot chocolate. He was bundled in a sweatshirt and sweat pants and settled close to the fireplace.
"I'm not sure any of us actually get enough sleep to count as healthy, Cap," Bruce said, finally drawing his attention away from Clint and Natasha.
Clint knocked his knee against Natasha's shoulder, still a careful truce between them. "It's not so much about health as companionship at this point, anyway," he offered, his own cup of coffee in his hands.
Natasha bumped his knee in response, "You're getting downright soft, Clint Barton."
"Well, isn't friendship and companionship what this holiday's technically about?" Jane asked from where she had curled her legs up next to her.
Very carefully, Clint didn't reply, taking a hasty swallow of the coffee instead. "If you say so," was all Tony muttered as Thor surveyed the room.
"Well, we're a cheery bunch this morning," Bruce murmured into his tea.
"Merry Christmas, ho ho ho?" Clint offered.
"Perhaps opening presents would cheer you all!" Thor said, looking around at his companions and sighing before joining Jane and leaning against her side.
Natasha unfolded from where she had pulled one leg up to rest her forearm across it, "Well, you all heard the man, let's open gifts."
Thor beamed at her, hoping that exchanging gifts would break the group closer together. He carefully focused on leaning against Jane's warmth instead of who he missed. As no one else seemed to be moving, Natasha shook her head and pulled Thor's gift closer, carefully opening the elegant box, her eyes lighting up as she withdrew the golden knife set from inside. She tested one against the pad of her thumb, smiling when she nearly cut herself, "Thor, these are magnificent."
Thor grinned at her as the others slowly moved toward their gifts, Tony carefully avoiding the gift from Steve as he opened the pair of socks from Natasha, drinking coffee still with one hand. Steve opened the book about the Dodgers from Bruce, offering the scientist a bright smile before looking over the information on the front flap. Bruce nodded once, opening the gift from Tony and arching an eyebrow as he read the information that promised that the fountain was soothing and relaxing, his lips curved upward ever so slightly.
"You can take it back," Tony said, setting aside the socks and arching a brow at Clint's childhood crystal growing kit, Bruce's alarm clock with removable panels getting a smile and then becoming entirely distracted with the Asgardian compass Thor had given him. He still had Steve's present on one knee but hoped the compass would be a good excuse for distraction.
"No, no I like it," Bruce answered, shaking his head in bemusement as he opened Clint's gift. The kid's chemistry set he was suddenly holding startled a laugh out of him. Steve tried not to look too pointedly at the still unwrapped present on Tony's knee, even as he too avoided the one from Tony for last. Natasha, meanwhile had been making use of one of the knives from Thor to systematically slit the paper from the other gifts, lips curling up at the wood puzzle Clint got her. She set it down to reach up and pat his knee in silent thanks.
He was so focused on Bruce opening his gift he only made a vague sound of acknowledgement, the glasses she bought perched on his head as Thor made happy sounds about every present. Jane curled up, watching the others over the top of the Asgardian study of the stars she was reading, a new gold bracelet gracing her wrist. Bruce glanced at Clint, his eyes dancing, "Thank you. It's not sulfuric acid, but it should cause pretty explosions."
Natasha looked up from where she was considering the twelve-sided Rubik's cube from Steve, "No explosions."
"But we all like explosions," Clint said idly as the door swung open.
"I brought coffee and d—" Rhodey started and stopped dead. "God in heaven, what is going on?"
Steve looked up, startled slightly, "Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes."
Jane looked over the back of the couch, offering the new arrival a welcoming smile, "Christmas gifts. Care to join us?"
"There are gifts," Rhodey managed and suddenly Tony was up and moving, shoving a box into his chest and taking away the coffee and doughnuts. "I have a gift."
"Traditionally I think you're supposed to open those," Bruce said, still looking faintly amused by the chemistry set he finally set aside in order to pick up another package.
Rhodey sat down, almost on top of Tony, to open the remote controlled airplane. He gave Tony a distinctly unimpressed look. "You said I owed you a plane, honey bear," Tony said.
"Not what I meant," Rhodey shot back. "Also, that was a couple years ago."
Pepper appeared in the doorway, carrying food that looked slightly more nutritious than doughnuts, but paused when she saw everyone congregated there, "I heard Rhodey, but what is going on here?"
"Christmas," Jane offered brightly.
The red-haired CEO blinked twice, "I did not bring enough breakfast for everyone."
"That's alright," Thor beamed and then frowned at Rhodey and Pepper. "I do not have gifts for you."
"Dude," Rhodey held up a hand. "That's fine."
Pepper nodded her agreement, "That's more than fine. What, what is—"
"Just come sit down, Pepper," Natasha advised, the ruby and silver ring Tony had given her catching the light from her right hand as she watched the other woman approach and sit down next to Tony on the opposite side from Rhodey.
"We forgot it was Christmas," Tony said, handing Pepper a package.
Pepper blinked at the package, "You usually do. I was expecting to go get my gift tomorrow." She opened the package, withdrawing the sapphire earrings, her eyes widening, "Tony, these are wonderful."
Starting to obviously relax, Tony started to lean back as Clint laughed. "Pepper, please tell Tony this doesn't count as a replacement," Rhodey said, shuffling the box so she could see it.
Pepper looked at the plane before bursting out laughing, "Oh, but Rhodey it's a perfect model. And look, it flies too."
"You can't fit men into it," Rhodey said and paused. "How did you find the right model even, Tony? That's not fair."
"Anything for you, pudding," Tony drawled, folding his hands over his stomach.
Pepper reached for the package that was in front of Tony, still wrapped and looked at the tag before setting it on his lap, letting him decide whether to open it or not, but not letting him ignore it any longer. Steve opened the last gift he had, the one from Tony and looked at it in moderate confusion.
For a moment Tony considered the package before finally opening the framed sketch as Clint rose to start breakfast, taking Thor's gift—which as far as he could tell was cheese grater from Asgard—to the kitchen with him.
"What's the story with the model?" Bruce asked after a moment.
"Tony destroyed one of my planes," Rhodey said.
"I did not," Tony protested. "I was completely not at fault."
"You flew into—" Rhodey started and Thor was paying rapt attention.
"The plane flew into me," Tony said, chin back and tone prim.
"The plane flew into you," Rhodey agreed finally. "In my military zone, without you telling me what the hell you were doing, after you took out a terrorist cell that was holding an entire town captive," he continued. "All of which you did without telling me a damn thing."
"I'd quit working with the military," Tony shrugged. "You weren't supposed to know about the suit yet."
"You still owe me a plane," Rhodey said, even though he was already looking at the packaging of the box, fully intending to try and fly it off Tony's reconstructed balcony after breakfast.
Steve paled at that, "You ran into a plane?"
"It ran into me!" Tony protested. "After they stared firing on me, alright, and I admit I was in their military zone but he ran into me. And I saved him when his parachute wouldn't work."
"It doesn't change the fact that they ran into you hard enough to apparently break the plane," Steve protested. Natasha sighed and started to rise, but paused when Bruce set aside his gifts and went to help Clint in the kitchen before she could.
"They started firing on me," Tony shrugged.
"You were in a military zone!" Rhodey said. "Without telling me that oh by the way I created a suit that allows me to fly around the world and I'm gonna take out a terrorist cell in a revenge scheme while you have no go ahead in the area."
Steve gaped at both of them, "I'm not sure how them firing on you makes this better."
Tony paused and shrugged. "Do you like the fondue set?"
Steve blushed at that, muttering something about bread and melted cheese before he nodded, "It's great. Has enough forks for all six of us too."
"That was the intent," Tony said and frowned when Rhodey was looking sideways at him. "What?"
Pepper looked from Steve to Tony before offering Rhodey a glance and arched an eyebrow, shaking her head ever so slightly, "That was a very well thought gift, Tony."
He refused to add it took three hours to find. "Well, we need more... more team building activities."
"Something that doesn't involve property damage at least," Natasha said with a shrug.
Steve glanced at her, "Alright, that's probably true."
"I think we've done enough of that," Thor said, his face serious and hands clenching before carefully releasing.
Jane reached up to comb her fingers through Thor's hair. Steve nodded, "It would be much better to try for actual building and rebuilding."
"And not alienating our teammates," Natasha suggested, looking at Steve pointedly.
Tony was suddenly up and moving toward the kitchen, leaving Rhodey and Pepper blinking on the couch. Pepper glanced at Rhodey, "You or me?"
"I can," he offered, rising and moving after Tony.
Pepper looked at Natasha, hoping for some sort of explanation, but the other woman shook her head, indicating she had no intention of explaining. Steve rose after a moment and Pepper reached a hand out to stop him, "Stick around here for a couple more minutes, Captain."
Rhodey paused when he entered the kitchen, Tony perched on the counter with the sunglasses from the night before already on his nose. "Holy shit, Tony, do you keep a pair in the kitchen now?" Rhodey asked and Tony laughed. "Alright, so I didn't expect this entire thing, but what was that?"
"What was what?" Tony hedged.
"Steve said Howard was a nice guy last night," Clint said from where he was making scrambled eggs. Rhodey blinked, anger clearly in his shoulders as Tony looked over at Clint and Bruce.
"You know, we should form a club," he told them.
"Sortta already have," Clint said.
"I still think we should have melted that ornament down," Bruce murmured, getting bread toasted and making sure the coffee pot was full.
Rhodey looked between the three of them and seemed to catch on. "I assume Steve would be out of that group then?" he said and Clint shrugged.
"Hell if we know, but he apparently liked Howard," and Rhodey saw the tiny way Tony's shoulders shifted back.
"I know the man was frozen for decades, but he needs to think before he speaks and not assume that people agree with him," Bruce said, carefully not looking at anyone else.
"My father was a very charming man," Tony said and Clint opened his mouth before clicking it shut. "It doesn't matter, anyway,"
Bruce finally turned to look at Tony for a long moment, "Doesn't it?"
"He can think what he wants," Tony said.
"Even when the data he's working with is obviously flawed?" Bruce responded.
"And god knows you're the least open book to walk around," Clint added and ignored the look Tony gave him through the shades. "What? You are. You don't like talking about yourself, I get it, but Fury—for some reason—set Steve up with a notion of who you were."
"And it's the wrong one," Bruce insisted. "Whatever Fury chose to show him was no true evidence of who you are and Steve hasn't taken the opportunity to find out more."
Tony looked flabbergasted even though the glasses and Rhodey covered up a laugh. "Hey, Bruce, I thought you weren't that kind of doctor," Clint said and handed him a plate of eggs. "Go forth and feed while you're at it, would you?"
Bruce accepted the plate with a murmured, "Well, I'm not," before offering Tony an almost sheepish smile and returning to the central room.
Rhodey gave Tony another look before leaving the room as well, sitting back down next to Pepper and leveling Steve with a look across the room. Noticing it, Thor almost stepped between them but decided to allow Rhodey whatever he wanted to say. Steve looked up, catching Rhodey's look and pausing, "Yes, sir?"
"I think the only reason I'm not punching you is because despite my friendship with Tony, I do believe in military discipline."
That earned a long blink from Steve, "What? I'm not sure I understand."
Natasha made an exasperated sound before getting to her feet and disappearing into the kitchen, scooping up the kitten from where it had appeared at the foot of the stairs as she went. The kitten made a sound of protest at being dragged away from the wrapping paper littering the ground. "Howard Stark was a bastard," Rhodey said and suddenly Tony appeared back in the doorway, as if called by his father's name.
"I'm beginning to understand that," Steve answered. "He was different when I knew him."
Pepper glanced toward where Tony was and then back at Steve, frowning very slightly, "That doesn't excuse what he was or what he did."
"I didn't say it did," the blond protested.
"Hey," Tony protested quietly, watching Pepper. "This isn't the time."
Pepper looked over at Tony again, focusing on the fact that he was wearing sunglasses in his own home, and tensed but nodded once. She turned her attention back toward Steve, "Get your act together, Captain. Because you seem to have missed a few crucial things over the last several decades."
"What did he miss in the last decades?" Thor asked, looking from Tony to Steve and seeing the unhappy set in both of their expressions. "It is unfair if they are hurting each other only by their own accidents."
"More than I'm going to explain here," Pepper answered, still fixing her gaze on Steve. "Did you get caught up on nothing?"
"I saw some footage, but it obviously wasn't everything," Steve answered, jaw tense but his tone subdued.
"What sort of footage?" Rhodey asked, leaning his elbows on his knees and Tony's posture only got stiffer.
Steve shook his head, "It was a variety of things. Some before," he glanced at Tony and then away. "Some before Iron Man, Monte Carlo, a senate hearing. Some press conferences."
Pepper swore under her breath, one hand clenching before she made herself relax again, "So anything that made Tony look reckless or rebellious."
Rhodey looked over at Pepper. "You bitched for months about Monte Carlo."
"I was dying!" Tony protested from the doorway. "I'm not responsible for my actions when I'm dying!"
"You were what?" Steve turned to Tony, looking at him in shock.
"I didn't know he was dying!" Pepper protested at the same instant. "No more than you did when he gave you the suit without giving it to you!"
"Hey I—" Rhodey started and stopped. "Alright, I didn't know either. Of course that might have had something to do with the blinding rage. Which I realize now he was doing on purpose."
Tony avoided meeting Steve's look. Steve ignored Rhodey and Pepper, his attention entirely on Tony something indistinguishable in his voice, "You were dying?"
"I got better," Tony said. "Discovered a new element, destroyed my entire lab and presto, new arc reactor." Rhodey just made a groaning sound. "And then I saved both your sorry asses, I might add, in the same day."
Steve just blinked at him. Pepper shook her head, "So, frankly, Cap? You saw the wrong footage. And nothing you mentioned came close to showing what he did within a week of being found initially."
Rhodey had just rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, big man finding a new element and saving our sorry asses that wouldn't have needed saving if you weren't being such an ass." He paused, glancing at Pepper. "Which was that? The being in my military zone or the bit where he went after Stane alone with the old reactor?"
"The bit where he went after Stane alone and had me blow the roof with him still on it," she replied without hesitation.
Steve paled at that, but latched onto the one thing he recognized, "Stane, wasn't that—"
"Yes," Pepper answered, not even needing to know the question, based on what Steve apparently knew.
Rhodey shook his head. "I find him on the floor of his lab with the arc reactor ripped out and he decides to go fight Stane with the arc reactor built out of scraps in a cave."
"I had managed to change the arc reactors out myself before you got there," Tony pointed out and Thor was looking at him.
"Yeah, you were still on the floor," Rhodey said.
"And then he told me to blow the full-sized one with him still hanging above it rather than let Stane continue what he was planning," Pepper said, shaking her head. "The number of times you could have died that night alone still makes me want to lock you up somewhere for the rest of your days just so it won't happen again." Steve was looking more and more like he wanted to turn back time and take back things he had said the longer the conversation went on.
"You were in danger," Tony protested.
"Dude, he had literally ripped your heart out and left you for dead already that night," Rhodey said. "By the time I got there after you went after him, he had pummeled you across the freeway."
"I recall there being a bus mentioned when I calmed down enough to talk to Rhodey later," Pepper supplied. "The risks you take for other people are suicidal, Tony."
"And I'm still alive," Tony said.
"All your attempts to the contrary," Rhodey snapped and Thor looked across the room with a frown, remembering Steve's snarled anger about Tony only fighting for himself when they first met.
Steve clearly remembered that fight himself, sinking further down and looking abashed. Pepper glanced at him and arched an eyebrow, trying to figure out if she was actually going to ask before deciding not to, turning back to Tony. "And then you flew a nuke into an alternate dimension. Really, Tony, we like you living."
"Sheer dumb luck is my only answer," he shrugged.
"Well, that dumb luck of yours had better hold," Pepper replied, looking at him.
"It has so far," he said, Clint eying him sideway when he brought out the toast and jam.
Natasha followed close on Clint's heels, setting a stack of plates down, "Do not jinx yourself, Tony."
"Thanks for the support," he said, shaking his head as Rhodey frowned at him before looking back at the model plane, focusing on that instead of strangling his friend. Tony's comment earned a long look from Natasha, but she didn't say anything at the moment, the kitten trailing after her and twining around her ankles.
As the conversation had taken a darker turn than he had expected after opening presents, Thor boomed happily over the food, making sure everyone had a plate and food. Steve rose after a moment, setting his untouched breakfast aside, and missed the way Pepper tracked his movement as he slipped across the room to where Tony was. Tony shifted so that he could get out of Steve's way, assuming he was heading toward the kitchen.
Steve came to a stop next to him, both of them in the doorway, "Tony, what Rhodey said earlier. About the terrorists, and revenge? And a box of scraps in a cave? What really happened that I don't know there?"
Tony double taked and stared up at him. "I got sold out," he managed, not mentioning Obadiah. "I woke up hooked to a car battery and told to make them weapons. Made the suit and broke out instead."
"And Stane?" Steve kept his voice even, "I know he was Howard's business partner, but beyond that."
"What do you mean beyond that?" Tony asked, stilling.
"I mean what did he do?" His eyes were locked on Tony's as much as possible considering the other's sunglasses he was still wearing, "I have no idea what Pepper and Rhodey were talking about." But he had suspicions.
Tony took another step back and forced himself to stand his ground. "That's not my problem."
"Damn it, that wasn't how I meant..." He shook his head, drawing a breath, "I was wrong. Top to bottom, start to finish, I've been wrong since I met you. I'm trying to understand, Tony, but I haven't, I haven't been trying enough."
Tony frowned at him. "The last thing I have ever needed was someone's pity and I am not a goddamn puzzle."
"Oh for the love of—This isn't either of those things," Steve responded. "There were things that I was told that I took at face value that I shouldn't have. And I'm sorry for doing that."
Tony frowned, not sure he liked the idea of an apology any more than the other things when Clint gave a sharp whistle across the room. "Hey, guys, look up."
Steve paused, blinking before looking up and mentally cursing when he saw the mistletoe there. "Oh," Tony managed. "Who the fuck bought mistletoe?"
"You did when you bought out the department store," Natasha supplied from where she was seated on the couch.
Steve swallowed hard and looked back down at Tony, "Who hung it?"
"That would be me," Bruce answered. "It's the best way to know where it is to avoid it."
"Just because I bought it did not mean you had to hang it!" Tony said, Rhodey looking up and across the room.
"You are actually supposed to kiss," Clint added. Tony was obviously glaring at him before he shrugged, turning and leaning up, clearly intending to just brush his mouth against Steve's cheek.
Steve responded before he thought about it, turning his head so Tony missed his cheek and caught his mouth. One arm slipped loosely around Tony's waist to balance him. Startling, Tony almost fell back but then he remembered what it was like to kiss someone and he reacted on automatic before the reality of who he was kissing hit him. He started to move back even though his mouth became more desperate.
Steve's free hand moved to cup Tony's cheek as he leaned down into the kiss. The arm around the inventor's waist was loose enough that he could pull away, but Steve curled his hand around Tony's side automatically, conveying a desire for the other man to stay. Moments later, Tony jerked away, the rest of the room silent. He forced a laugh and quickly stepped out from under the plant in question. Steve took a step back, putting space between them, a blush coloring his cheekbones. Natasha's eyebrows had risen sharply and Bruce finally cleared his throat, shifting further into his chair.
"I," Tony started. "I'm going to get dressed," he declared finally, moving away and Clint had fallen silent, expression still. Steve watched Tony for another moment before disappearing into the kitchen. Natasha paused for a moment before scooping the kitten out of the wrapping again and dropping it in Clint's lap, brushing a hand over his arm quietly. He shook his head slightly but accepted the kitten, pulling it against his face. The kitten mewed, batting at Clint's cheek.
When Tony came back downstairs, Rhodey and Pepper packed him off, saying something about a benefit gala that they had promised to attend. As soon as all three had left, Steve emerged from the kitchen just long enough to wish everyone a good rest of their day and disappear up to his floor. Jane watched him go from where she was still curled next to Thor, "This might be the strangest Christmas morning I've had."
He didn't sigh but his shoulders sagged. "They are all—We are all adjusting," he tried finally. "It is perhaps not so unusual for me, if we had a holiday that directly corresponded to this one. But they fought last night and are fighting now while the others... don't fight as obviously."
Jane leaned her head against his shoulder, "You all will work it out given time. And if they can just communicate, that kiss implied that it could be sooner than later. Though from what I'm seeing that's a big if."
"You don't need to communicate to sleep together," Thor said and sighed. "Though it is advisable of course."
Jane paused for a moment before rising, "It is." She caught his hand and pulled slightly, "Come on."
"What?" he asked, looking up.
"We're getting dressed and then going for a walk," she answered, simply.
"Alright," he agreed, pushing himself to his feet and offering her a smile, one hand resting on her waist.
Once they were dressed and out of the tower, Jane looked up at him, "Are you doing alright?"
For several strides, Thor was quiet, hand going to her waist again and looking ahead at where lights were strung up around the street, still early and still in the morning light. "More or less," he said.
"What's the less part?" She asked after a moment, stepping a hair closer to him to avoid a pile of snow that a plow had kicked onto the sidewalk during the last track down the street.
"It is a holiday to spend with family in this realm," Thor said, waving the hand not on Jane's waist around the lights and snow. "That will always hurt."
"You haven't had any luck trying to find him?" Jane glanced up at him again, before turning her gaze back to watching where her feet were landing.
"No," Thor said, shaking his head and paused. "I may not have been trying very hard," he admitted after a beat. "Not because I do not want to see him but because I do not wish to try and punish him again. And there has been no news of violence from him."
"I know he's your brother, but I can't help but be confused by not trying to at least have him finish the terms of his current punishment," Jane murmured and then paused, "What were those terms?"
"His life," Thor said. "He would only escape again."
She ran a gloved hand through her hair, speaking more to herself than to Thor, "Well, there's not much incentive for him to do much else at that point."
"So what's the point of dragging him back if he's only hiding and licking his wounds?" Thor asked even though it looked like the words pained him.
"There isn't really one," she replied, biting her lower lip. "I think most people who know he's here are more worried about what happens when he's done licking his wounds."
Thor's eyes slide over to her. "Do you honestly think me unaware?" he asked, voice low in his chest.
Jane blinked twice before looking up at him again, "No, no of course not. I just...I forget and think out loud more than I should."
His smile was kinder at that. "Of course," he said, looking back at the sidewalk in front of them. "And usually I am glad of whatever advice you would offer."
"And in another situation I might have advice to offer," she responded, drawing in a deep breath and briefly missing the clearer air in New Mexico. "Are your, are your teammates always like that?" It was a clumsy topic change, and she knew it.
"Yes," Thor said. "But you met the warriors three and the Lady Sif."
"They seemed to function together more than the Avengers do," she replied after a brief moment.
"We have had our whole lives to fit around each other," Thor said, not adding the snide comments between Fandral about Hogun's smile or Volstagg asking Fandral if he liked his face or Sif's cold wrath that was as like to earn a verbal attack as a physical one when she was pushed. "The Avengers are still figuring out where the jagged and hurt edges are."
"They're going to keep damaging each other until they do. Though they seem to come together well enough in a fight."
"Well," Thor laughed, tilting his head back to the sky. "Perhaps they will learn to fight together and slowly work backward."
Jane smiled at that, "Stranger things have happened."
"They are trying," Thor said. "And I am fond of them."
"I'm glad. They seem like good people. Even if they are an odd group."
"You may have an odd definition of good people then," Thor laughed.
Jane laughed, shaking her head, "No, really, they are. And alright, so my perspective may be a bit skewed. I just, I mean Agent Romanov flew all the way out to New Mexico to pick me up last night. And no matter what the conflict was during decorating, they still all gathered around for this morning. So, yeah, I'd say they're good people."
Smile fainter than usual, Thor nodded. "They are working on it. Despite what Anthony says about none of them being all that altruistic, I think they are somewhere, willing to sacrifice for others and that makes them good people. It makes it worth staying for, at any rate, even though I expect Anthony to break the dishes over Steven's head."
"Something tells me everyone's counting the days ‘til that happens." She considered for a moment, "I feel like, I feel like they're all aware of their weaknesses, but not so much their strengths. If that makes any sense. It's like, they're so aware of where they're weak that they're still wearing armor to protect that part without remembering where they're strong too."
"I heard them discussing fathers," Thor said. "I do not think people often tell them they are strong, only good warriors." He shifted and stopped walking, looking down at her. "But I am glad you seem to understand the difference."
"Well, I mean, all it takes is watching them. And I don't mean during battle. Because with the way the media's taken a love-hate relationship with you all everyone sees them during battle. It's the small things, like the coffee and hot chocolate this morning, like how Natasha managed to give you all socks, but personalize even what's a really...boring gift, or like how Clint acts to diffuse tension when he can."
Thor nodded, still smiling at her. "But the fact you are willing to watch such strange people," he said, twining their hands together and starting to walk again.
"I work with Darcy, my life is spent watching strange people," Jane answered, leaning her head briefly against his arm.
"I hope Darcy and Eric are having a good Christmas," Thor said, smiling as children ran past them, throwing snow balls before they stared wide eyed at the Asgardian, even in Midgardian clothing.
"I'm sure they are. Darcy wanted me to tell you, if I heard from you, that she expects to see you sometime soon."
Thor considered. "If there is time I will come out," he said. "Or you could come to New York again."
She offered him a smile at that, "I'd like to come back out here I think. And I'm sure Darcy would too."
"I am certain the city would still be standing when she left," Thor deadpanned over.
"You might be surprised," Jane replied, her smile trending more toward a grin.
"If she brings her taser I will not be responsible," Thor rumbled.
"I can't imagine her coming to NYC without the taser. Especially after she tested it on the god of thunder himself."
"I wonder if she should tell the company," Thor mused. "Admittedly, I was mortal then, and it would not work now but they could se—" he broke off, thinking he saw a flash of green and his head jerked around but there was nothing there.
Jane paused at that, following his gaze, "Thor?"
"Yes?" he asked, still distracted before shaking his head and looking back at her. "Sorry, Jane, did you ask something?"
"Just making sure you're alright, you stopped mid-sentence. Did you see...someone?"
"No," he said, attention focused back on. "Just a trick of my imagination."
Jane nodded very slightly, shifting the subject away again toward the breakthroughs in a few of the fields she kept up on—including research being done by Betty Ross which was admittedly out of her normal purview. She kept up a steady stream of conversation as they continued their stroll through Manhattan's streets. Thor tried to focus all his attention on her, truly fascinated by the science and what she offered to explain to him, but he still could not shake the feeling that Loki had been standing there, watching them, even after they returned to Stark Tower.
We are so sorry about how long this update took, so here have a long one. We were int he middle of internships which we came back for just in time to start up our second year of grad school. We're going into finals now, but hopefully we should be back to more regular updates *knock wood*. Hope you enjoyed!