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Tony, Natasha, and Clint hanging out

//

“Compulsive behaviour,” Natasha said.

“Self-destructive,” Natasha said.

“Textbook narcissism,” Natasha said.

“We could use him,” Natasha said, and then, “Not just the suit.”

Fury said, “Hmmm.”

//

Tony wasn't even sure why he said yes; he tugged the file folder over and Fury let it go. He flipped it open. Paper! Fury was hilarious, but Natalie's -- Natasha’s -- face stared back at him and that was barely funny at all. She looked like she did in the diner: faintly amused, unknowable. The file said Black Widow.

Fury was watching him, gaze calm and steady. "That still a yes, Stark?"

The next file said, Hawkeye. The one underneath had Tony's picture on it. It was still a yes. It was a whim; that’s what he could call it. Tony had a long and documented history of indulging his whims. Everyone he barely knew would buy that it was a whim.

"I don't work for you," Tony said. Still a yes.

"And we don't want to pay you," Fury said, "so that works out for everybody."

“Pepper isn’t going to like this,” Tony said.

//

Pepper liked it.

“I am so confused right now,” Tony said. He inched closer on the couch; put one careful hand against her bare ankle and curled his fingers over it. “Pepper. Confusion.”

Pepper allowed the ankle-petting, which was a good sign. She had Rules about touching when having serious discussions, because many of their serious discussions were about Tony wanting to do something stupid, or having already done something stupid, and Pepper claimed that increased proximity made it occasionally difficult for her to think. There had been incidents. Neither of them would ever mention the Great Chain Store Purchasing Spree of ‘11.

“I’ve come to realize,” Pepper said, “that I’m never going to be able to stop you.”

“You stop me all the time,” Tony said, but she shook her head.

“Not when -- not in this. I can’t stop you from going out there in the suit. Happy can’t. Rhodey can’t. I don’t think anyone can. And this --”

“Avengers Initiative,” Tony said. His throat felt a little tight.

“Yes. The Avengers Initiative." Her lips quirked into an almost-smile, because yes, Avengers, whatever, Tony agreed that it was totally ridiculous. "You know what this is, Tony? People will know where you are. They'll have your back. It means I can worry a teeny tiny bit less.”

"Oh yeah, talk sexy to me," Tony told her, which she pretended not to appreciate terribly much because they were having a serious discussion, but, encouragingly, she moved his hand from her ankle to the inside of her thigh just as JARVIS said, less encouragingly, "Sir, you appear to have guests."

JARVIS had never said those words in that particular order before. It was alarmingly ambiguous. "Appear?" Tony said.

"They are already in the elevator, sir.”

"They," Tony gritted out. He didn’t move his hand. If it were serious, JARVIS would say something like, "Intruders, sir," or, "I have incapacitated five charmingly misguided miscreants, sir".

Pepper's phone dinged. "Oh," she said, checking the screen. She flipped it around so that Tony could see the picture that popped up. Natalie Rushman's smiling face stared back at him.

"Really?" he said.

"I like her," Pepper mused. "She's efficient."

"She's an assassin."

Pepper paused. "I imagine that being efficient makes her very good at her job."

"I don't think I want to think about Natasha Romanoff being good at her job."

"You're probably going to witness Natasha Romanoff being good at her job," Pepper said, and they were both still digesting that when the elevator dinged open and Romanoff walked in like she owned the place. The man from the other file, Barton, yes, Hawkeye -- slouched in behind her. Agent Coulson lurked in the elevator; he gave Tony and Pepper a little wave right before the doors closed again and hid him from sight.

“Meet-and-greets,” Romanoff announced, without saying hello. "This is Barton.” Barton frowned at them from just past Romanoff's shoulder. His face was more frightening in person than it was in his picture. His arms were enormous. Pepper made a “hmm” noise from the couch.

"Hey," Barton said, and fell silent again.

“Hi,” Tony said. “Tony Stark, Iron Man, all-around great guy. Welcome to the team.”

“Pretty sure that’s our line,” Barton said.

“Oh yeah, this is going to be great,” Tony told Pepper.

//

Being an Avenger turned out to be pretty boring. After that first tower incursion, they met up a few times a month, including two hours every second Tuesday in an official SHIELD conference room, for paperwork followed by the occasional training simulation or demonstration. Despite the new toys and the truly delightful experience that was Barton and Romanoff doing their best to cut one another and Tony off at the knees about once a month, overall it was not at all what Tony had hoped to get out of what was essentially a superhero team-up.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing,” Tony told Fury, three frustrating months in. “This is a test. I don’t do tests.”

“And what are we testing, Mr Stark?”

“My patience,” Tony said. It was sort of true. They wanted to make sure he wouldn’t actually flake out when it counted and take out SHIELD’s favoured son and daughter as collateral damage. “FYI: bullshit make-work projects are not the best way of doing that.”

“Not your style?” Fury said.

“I’m pretty sure that people on teams are supposed to complement each other,” Tony said. “Make Barton do Patience for Bullshit 101; he seems like the type who’d be good at it. I can do something else. Ideally with a lot of, uh, physical action or possibly fantastic feats of engineering.”

“Noted,” said Fury, sounding bored and not at all like he would take Tony’s suggestion under consideration.

The second type of meetups started a whole month in, when Tony had a craving for greasy spoon diner food that would not be denied. Rhodey pled out on the basis of being an eight hour flight away and “too busy” to spend the entire day traveling back and forth for what would end up being an extremely late lunch. Pepper and Happy shook their heads regretfully and went off to eat lunch at a yearly charity benefit that Tony was unofficially uninvited from eight years ago, when he had shown up wasted and fell in the decorative fountain, and all the headlines the next day were “STARK’S DRUNKEN SWIM” and not “FUNDS SUCCESSFULLY RAISED FOR NEW HOSPITAL WING”.

Tony had a fleeting thought but grabbed onto it before it could actually flit away, and called Romanoff without dwelling too much on what she might say to this particular request.

Barton picked up; Tony was beginning to learn that this was par for the course for them. They had identical, SHIELD-issued phones, and Tony had witnessed them toss said phones off to the side for an impromptu wrestling match and then pick them up after without actually checking whose was whose.

“Come eat lunch with me,” Tony said.

“Why,” said Barton. This was an improvement on last week, when Tony had called Barton’s phone and Romanoff picked up and said, “Sorry, who is this?” while Barton cackled in the background; he had an a-henh-a-henh-a-henh sort of laugh that sounded like a rusty engine being cranked.

“Because I know all the best places to eat” -- read, Pepper and Happy and Rhodey did, and JARVIS faithfully kept track of them -- “and I will buy you all the onion rings your little heart desires. Romanoff, too.”

Barton was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “I really don’t eat junk food.”

“Seriously?” Tony said, aghast. “What about Romanoff?”

“Natasha eats what she wants,” Barton said.

“Does she want roadside diner food?”

Another moment of quiet. “Yeah,” Barton said. He sounded almost surprised.

Tony could empathize; he was kind of surprised, too.

//

So, meeting up in diners. It was a thing. It was deliberately casual, but it was regular thing.

Tony found himself kind of looking forward to these lunches; sometimes he got both of the wonder twins, and sometimes only Barton, or only Romanoff, and sometimes Tony bullied either or both of them onto Tony’s private jet because he had a thing he couldn’t get out of and he hated to miss his weekly assassin entertainment.

Tony still didn’t trust these people, exactly, but Pepper made pleased noises anytime he told her about the lunches, and Rhodey had shown up once and spent the whole time chatting pleasantly to Natasha while Tony kicked Barton under the table for every steamed pea that got launched into Tony’s hair from Barton’s tiny makeshift catapult.

He trusted Romanoff and Barton to toss vegetables into his hair because they found it amusing, and he trusted that they would always put SHIELD business first, but that a lot of the time, SHIELD business seemed to coincide with Tony’s business (usually when least convenient).

Anyway, it went both ways; Tony knew what SHIELD thought of him and, by extension, what Barton and Romanoff thought of him, but somehow, here they all were anyway. Tony’d made one attempt to reassure the two of them that he wasn’t going to be a flake or a self-destructive superhero in a metal suit, but it derailed into babbling territory while Barton and Romanoff stared at him like staring things that stare, all blank-faced and kind of terrifying.

They didn’t reciprocate with babble re: being trustworthy themselves. Instead, Barton interrupted midway through, though, and said, “They’re working on a new arrow for me.”

Tony said, “...Oh?”

Barton shrugged. “It’s like my regular exploding kind, but with a more reliable timer. The ones I’ve got now have some …unintended results. We’re hoping for something a little less, uh, interesting.”

“Is there a prototype?” Tony said, dumbly.

“At the New York offices,” Clint said.

“I’m headed there after this,” Romanoff said.

They paid the bill and all left together, a first for them. Barton let the door swing wide behind him for Natasha to catch and hold. She gestured Tony through ahead of her.

The whole thing felt oddly like a peace offering. Okay. Tony could work with that. He could even keep it going by making sure Barton’s arrows stopped accidentally exploding people, as opposed to deliberately.

//

After the “You are Testing My Patience, Stop It” meeting with Fury, Tony brought the illegal spoils of his retaliatory, righteous hack job and slammed them down on the faded blue-gold formica of the latest truck-stop diner. The tablets were Stark products and neither of them suffered adversely from the slamming: Stark Industries made the good stuff. Top reviews on CNET; wild praise and excessive line-ups from good SI fanpeople everywhere. How’re them apples, Apple.

“What is this?” Natasha said. She slurped at a strawberry milkshake, leaning forward over the table and watching him carefully; Romanoff got swapped out for Natasha after the third diner meetup, when Tony had accidentally spilled soda all over the table and into her lap during an overly enthusiastic hand gesture.

She hadn’t killed him. Definitely a first name basis moment.

“I have,” Tony said, “a really great, really wonderful, really fun idea.”

“No,” said Natasha. Tony leaned forward over the table, too. Her skin looked particularly flawless today. Actually, Barton’s did, too, like pores were something that happened to other people. Tony’d worn that look himself, more than once; usually when forced in front of cameras after accidentally hurtling himself into a wall. There was only one explanation.

“You bastards,” Tony said. “You had a mission! And didn’t invite me?”

“You don’t work for SHIELD,” Natasha said around her straw. “You say that a lot. All the time, in fact.”

“It wasn’t that fun, anyway,” Barton offered. “Cracked my cheekbone and fell off a windmill.” There was a bit of blood in the corner of his eye, visible now that Tony was looking for it. Any bruising was artfully hidden under what was probably a small fortune in very expensive cover-up.

“Barton,” Tony said, “in the time that I’ve known you, I have heard no fewer than four stories about you falling off of buildings, and you were grinning during every single one of them. Liar. Also, do you know what would be handy to have around for someone who makes a habit of falling off of buildings? Someone who flies.”

“You don’t work for SHIELD,” Barton said. He shrugged. “The Avengers thing is a last resort. Natasha and I are the first.”

“I am not comfortable with the idea of you two as a first resort,” Tony said.

“A first resort when you need -- stuff -- accomplished,” Barton clarified. He put down his forkful of chicken breast and pointed at the tablets, still face-up on the table in front of them. “Aside from being a so-called wonderful idea, what’s the deal with these?”

“Adventure,” Tony said. “Also, taking down an international drug cartel.”

Natasha reached out and flipped one of the tablets on. “These documents all have SHIELD branding,” she said, after a moment.

“That’s because I stole them,” Tony said.

“Definitely no,” Barton said.

“Well --” said Natasha, and Barton turned enormous, betrayed eyes on her; an opening salvo in a silent conversation that Tony couldn’t follow, but when it was over, Natasha said only, “We’ll revisit this,” and, “Someone buy me another milkshake.”

//

Two weeks later, Tony was in a very small amount of trouble with the U.S. military (again) for flying in a no-fly zone (again), and it was -- inadequate. Some part of him knew it felt particularly inadequate, right now, this month, because some anniversaries were always going to be scored into his brain, but that still didn’t stop him from jetting off to drop in on tiny, desperate firefights: the superheroic equivalent of playing an eternal and useless game of whack-a-mole.

Thankfully, Pepper still kept his calendar. Not his work appointments, but all the days that mattered.

“Come and build something with me,” she told him.

“I always did want to revolutionize the energy industry,” Tony said. “Change the world. All that jazz.”

Pepper said, “Good,” and “I’ve already started the zoning paperwork.”

Natasha showed up the next morning, dressed all in black and looking almost identical to Natalie Rushman, demure young professional (assassin spy). She walked right through a glowing rendition of Stark Tower and eyed him up and down. “You’re doing well,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “I -- yeah. I’m building something.”

Natasha didn’t ask what he was building. Maybe it was obvious, and anyway, who knew what beans Pepper had spilled. She lifted an eyebrow at him. “You busy this weekend?”

“I’m never not busy, honey, but I can make some time,” Tony said.

“We’ve been thinking about your proposal,” she said. “And I’m going to say yes.”

“Would you have said no if I’d been -- doing less well?” New York rose, slowly, around them, filling in the skyline beyond Stark Tower, glowing brighter as one by one each building connected itself to a single, golf-ball-sized pulse of light by Tony’s left foot. He nudged it, gently.

Waist-deep in a skyscraper, Natasha said, “I’ll make sure Clint says yes, too.”

//

When Tony showed up at the rented apartment in a tiny city, wearing a ball-cap pulled firmly over his head and long-sleeved shirt thick enough to hide the arc reactor, Barton was present, as promised, sitting pressed up right against the window. He was watching Natasha strip out of her work wear in the middle of the living room; jewellery and weaponry stacked in a growing pile on the coffee table. Tony would avert his eyes, but, well.

“We’ll start tomorrow night,” she said, diamonds in her ears and long, sharp knives strapped to her thighs, under her dress. Her hair was inches and inches shorter than it had been the last time he saw her, but Tony wasn’t sure he was allowed to comment on that. “I should have this task wrapped up by the afternoon.”

There were only two bedrooms. Tony stretched out on the couch in his boxers and undershirt after losing a brief but intense staring contest with Barton, trying not to let anticipation keep him from sleep. Even with the sound of a muted television coming from Natasha’s room and unforgiving springs under his back, he closed his eyes for a moment and somehow opened them up again to breakfast and a entire plan laid out whole and pristine in his head. Ten minutes later, it was laid out slightly less pristinely on his tablet.

He put on a pair of jeans, but only because autopilot kicked in while he was diagramming and he didn’t notice until he tried to walk toward the kitchen and got tangled up in them.

“So what do you think?” he said, after he’d explained and shoved said diagrams in both their faces, and Natasha paused with her hand on top of the Raisin Bran box before bypassing the cereal cupboard entirely to head straight for the hard liquor.

“That good, huh,” Tony said. Barton spared him a neutral glance, but only a glance, before going back to gazing steadily at the battered paperback in his hand. Barton could be stingy with his facial expressions. Especially in the morning. “Guys.”

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Barton said, abandoning the book momentarily to watch Natasha. His feet kicked gently against the counter as she spun the screw-top lid around, tipped her head back, and gulped down a mouthful of rum. Tony could feel his hands twitching involuntarily around his tablet.

“It’s six in the morning,” he said. “And historically I’ve done a lot of planning while imbibing, but --”

“I need to have alcohol on my breath,” Natasha said, shrugging.

“And you couldn’t rinse and spit or -- okay,” Tony said. “Whatever. Your current job requires alcohol; good to know. Moving on, though: why is this a terrible idea. Feel free to use small words and talk slowly; that’s definitely the best way to get me to pay attention.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and shook some cereal into the bowl. “It’s a terrible idea,” she said, “because this initiative isn’t just showing up to deliver the big hits, right now.”

“Uh, that is exactly what this is. Did you get a better debrief than me? Wait, no, mine sounds way better.”

“Not in its nascent stages. If we’re thinking long-term, it’s in our best interests right now to test our strength, but to do it quietly until necessity calls for more. Avoid politicking and media until we know more. We need to keep from stepping on sensitive toes.”

“We’re basically jumping up and down on SHIELD’s toes right now.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow, like, Go on.

“I’m willing to bet Mr Director wouldn’t be happy to know that I came to hang out in your secret SHIELD safe house while you two finish your secret SHIELD errand, and that afterward we’re all going to use my private jet to go on an Avengers-only mission using -- wait for it -- secret information stolen from SHIELD.”

“I guarantee you that SHIELD already knows what we’re doing,” Barton said.

Tony groaned. “A test,” he said. “Again. A SHIELD-sanctioned milk-run.”

“Unavoidable,” Natasha said. “First time out would always be a test. This is just us choosing it. This is us making the call.”

They were both watching him now, Natasha in her too-big t-shirt, hand curled gently around the bottle of rum; Barton in his bare feet. “Tasha’s a spy,” Barton said, after a moment. “I’m an assassin. You don’t think it’s odd that they’d put the two of us on a team that walks up in costume, under real names, and blows shit up in broad daylight? That’s not us.”

“I think it’s ‘odd’ that they’d put me on a team that works undercover, in the dark,” Tony said. “That doesn’t strike you as the worst kind of decision-making?” Their faces didn’t change. “Ah,” said Tony. “You’ve already had this conversation.”

“Fury and SHIELD have been … unusually hands-off,” Barton said, and that was … surprising. Barton was a snarky guy, and he liked pushing people; Tony was certain that this wasn’t the first time he’d audibly questioned SHIELD, but it was the first time he’d ever done so in front of Tony.

Tony felt strangely touched, and so of course Natasha pounced in that moment of weakness. “We go in quiet,” she said. “Maybe we stay quiet, maybe we don’t, but to start with -- quiet. Acceptable?”

“Yeah,” Barton said.

“To start with,” Natasha said again, when Tony turned his most dubious expression on her. “We can evaluate on the fly.”

“Yeah, fine, whatever,” Tony said, but he sat down anyway, somewhat mollified.

Natasha nodded at him, took another swig of rum, then followed it with a bite of cereal. “Now. I have work to do. Play nicely, don’t go out -- don’t make that face, Stark -- and when I’m back we’ll --”

“Make Fury deeply unhappy,” Barton suggested.

“Avenge stuff,” Tony suggested.

“Make a better plan,” Natasha said, firmly.

//

When Tony woke up, it was dark, which was a bit of a problem because he didn’t remember falling asleep in the first place, and it had been months since he’d fallen asleep in the suit. He was doing better. Months.

“Stark,” Barton said in his ear, voice tight, “if I have to come down and drag your shiny, heavy metal ass through a hail of bullets I’m gonna be pretty displeased.”

Ah, yes. It was all coming back to him now. Plan: Take Down the Bad Guys, executed. Apparently with less than ideal results.

“I’m up,” he croaked. “JARVIS, am I up?”

“If you give me a moment, sir, you will be,” JARVIS said. Something pinged off the chestplate.

“Make that as few moments as possible, buddy, will you?” Tony said. “Ba -- Hawkeye. What’re my options?”

“Well,” Barton said, “if I were you, I’d lift my hands straight ahead in about fifteen seconds, do one of those pulse things, and then jet up to where my good pal is being a set of eyes in the sky and give him a lift before the building he’s on collapses underneath him. Five seconds, now.”

There was, suddenly, light again, as the HUD flickered back to life and displayed the screaming mob rounding the corner of a building, who all ran directly into Tony doing what Barton had suggested.

“Where’s Widow?” Tony asked, once he had Barton safely in hand, tucked against the crook of the suit’s elbow joint, one of Barton’s arms hooked around Tony’s shoulders while he twisted in the hold to keep track of the men still on the ground. Someone took a pot shot and winged Barton’s shoulder. “Don’t bleed all over the suit, please,” he added, relieved that Barton didn’t fall off and sort of impressed that Barton didn’t give much of any outward indication that he’d just been shot.

“Widow is extracting the information,” Barton said, ignoring that last directive and swapping out his bow for a pistol, aiming at someone standing just inside a shattered eighth-story window. The shadowy figure toppled out of sight. “She made it into the building while you were having a nap.”

“I thought you didn’t use guns,” Tony said. He maneuvered closer to their final destination on this mission: the building that JARVIS’s helpful GPS indicated contained Black Widow, doing what she did best.

“I said I didn’t like guns as much,” Barton said. “I use ‘em just fine.”

Behind them, Barton’s lookout building made a rumbling noise and then began to crumble. A cloud of white-grey dust ballooned ominously in their direction; Barton rummaged one-handed in the pouch just above his left knee-pad, yanking out a large black cloth that he tied securely over his nose and mouth. A pair of goggles appeared next. He looked pretty ridiculous, although as one of Tony’s advisors at MIT used to bellow, SAFETY IS NEVER RIDICULOUS, TONY.

“So much for quiet, huh?” Tony said, after a long moment.

“Nah,” Barton said, a bit muffled. “This is still pretty much quiet, for us. D’you see any functioning video cameras? Nope.”

“You know, I think part of the problem was that we had different ideas of what ‘quiet’ meant,” Tony mused. “This definition is so far up my alley that it’s already snuck into my house and taken over my couch.”

Barton snorted, then said, “Drop down, okay? Widow’ll be out ASAP.”

“Wait, is my radio not working? I didn’t get anything.”

“It’s really only when you hear from her that you need to worry,” Barton said. “You’ll start to notice this about her.”

That was an odd thing to get warm fuzzy feelings about, but there you go. Natasha came walking out moments later, at a nonchalant pace that brought to mind a stroll through a park with a pair of cracked ribs.

“Got the intel,” she said, serious but smiling. “Let’s go.”

Tony swiveled his head, pointedly looking around. They’d driven into the compound two hours ago, passing through checkpoints with suspicious ease. It had all been very cloak and dagger -- literally: they’d worn cloaks, short brown ones with deep hoods that matched what everyone else inside was wearing like a uniform and were a sure sign that someone in the leadership structure had an overactive sense of the dramatic, and Natasha had engaged in some lethal knife-work when their second-last checkpoint tried to sound the alarm.

The parking structure was now a smoldering ruin (totally not Tony’s fault!). Getting out the way they’d come in was unlikely.

“Am I giving you both a ride?” Tony said. “I don’t think either of you will enjoy that. I know I won’t.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Barton said. “I was pretty cozy just now.”

“They have a helicopter,” Natasha said, like it was obvious.

//

They swooped back into town, first successful team mission under their collective belts, and discovered that SHIELD had stolen all their thunder by discovering Captain fucking America, who had the audacity to be alive after all and just about to wake up.

“Ten bucks says nobody remembers we’re here,” Barton said, low, while they sat and waited for everyone to stop staring at Captain America and come debrief them.

“SHIELD’s moving on to bigger and better things?” Tony said, a little wild-eyed, but felt bad when a whole set of tiny muscles that Tony hadn’t previously been aware were capable of movement twitched on Barton’s face. “You’ll always be the first Avenger in my heart,” he added, to make up for it. Barton grimaced at him.

“Twenty bucks,” Natasha said.

“Thirty,” said Tony.

//

Barton and Natasha both turned him down for that week’s informal meet-up. And the next week’s, pre-emptively. SHIELD cancelled the biweekly paperwork session, but foolishly neglected to do so until Tony was already in their base at dangerously loose ends.

Something I said???????????? Tony texted to both of them. The abundance of question marks was to indicate he was totally just joking.

He kind of wasn’t joking.

U R not the only 1 w/ a day job Barton wrote back. His texts were always this intriguing cross between glorious, streamlined efficiency, and hitting the English language with sticks.

Right. Day job. Tony remembered, abruptly, that he’d jetted off in the middle of creating the cleanest, greenest energy of all time. Also he was pretty sure he’d missed some sort of board meeting. Bored meeting. Ah well.

What’s your day job right now Tony sent back, without much hope of an actual answer, and, Also where’s natasha??.

classifiedx2

Tony frowned at his phone for a moment. You’re buying lunch next time

ha, texted Barton. And then, a moment later: fine.

“Great,” Tony said, out loud, and texted AwesomeX2 at both of them, even though Natasha’d missed the whole conversation.

//

Coulson didn’t even look surprised when Tony sauntered into what seemed to be his new temporary office, judging by the collection of dirtied coffee mugs lined up neatly below a bank of surveillance monitors. Nobody had tried to chase Tony out from under their feet yet, which he thought was suspicious, but then again half the uniforms in the hallways all had the distracted sort of look you got when your workday was going to be: it appears a comic book superhero has come back to life, now please deal with it.

“How’s it going, Big Brother?”

“Well. Thank you. Have fun last week?” Coulson said.

“Best playdate ever,” Tony said. “Speaking of, where are the wonder twins?”

“Off being wonderful,” Coulson said. He didn’t even sound like he was joking, which was-- Tony wasn’t sure what that was.

“That better not be catching,” he said.

“What?” Coulson said, and then, “Don’t even think about it,” just before Tony put his hand on the door to push into the room containing Captain America, in the defrosted flesh.

“Think what,” Tony said.

Coulson frowned at him.

“Fine, fine,” Tony said, because he was an asshole, but he was also an asshole who’d been watching from the other side of a screen showing CCTV footage when Captain America sussed out SHIELD’s whole ill-advised ruse and smashed through an outside wall to run barefoot through the streets.

Tony had experienced a strange desire to pat the guy on the back and also offer him a pair of shoes; not the reaction he’d anticipated to seeing Captain fucking America in the flesh, sometime-target of Tony’s faded childhood hero worship turned long-smoldering resentment.

Coulson smiled at him, quiet and steady and about three times less condescending than his usual kindly smirk. “Great,” he said, and pushed gently past Tony to enter the room himself. The door clicked shut behind him. The lock locked.

Fury materialized at Tony’s shoulder, which was perfect, because Tony was a man with a very specific mission: “Where’re Barton and Romanoff?”

“Gone,” Fury said, spinning out Coulson’s recently vacated chair with one hand and sitting down without taking his eye off the monitor displaying the room to which Tony had just been denied access. On-screen, Coulson tugged the visitor’s chair over to the side of the bed where Steve Rogers slept the sleep of the exhausted and emotionally drained.

“Did you really send the rest of my team off to parts unknown? They literally just finished dusting themselves off forty-eight hours ago.” He consults his watch. “Forty-six! Forty-six hours ago.”

“Nah,” said Fury. “Nothing that like that, Stark. Light duty for a few weeks, for both of them. Romanoff has an undercover gig we’ve been eying and we already shipped Barton off to go sit on some scientists. Nice, easy work. They get twitchy when they don’t have stuff to do; I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

“I have,” Tony conceded.

Fury did glance up then. “And you?”

“Oh, you know,” said Tony. “Build a better power source; revolutionize the world, be a change for good, yadda yadda yadda.”

“I guess we’ll give you call when we need you, then,” Fury said, focused back on the monitor. Coulson took out a sheaf of paperwork and started going through it with a red pen; Rogers slept on.

“Oh please,” Tony said. “You need me constantly.”

“Leave now. Go home and play with your … tower.”

“I’ll invite you over when I get the new power source up and running,” Tony said. “Maybe do some gloating.”

“Great,” said Fury. His tone of voice was an empty flatlands field in the middle of the 1930’s dustbowl; there’d been a picture in one of his books when Tony was five, maybe, a gift from one of his father’s work contacts. “I’ll be sure to send a representative as soon as you get it going. Within the hour.”

"Well, hey, fantastic,” said Tony. “That’s just super. I’ll see you then.”

//

Diner-food was out, but Tony did manage to lure Barton and Romanoff into a conference call a few days later.

“They’re gonna stick him on the team,” Barton said, interrupting Tony’s impassioned speech re: the special hell waiting for engineers who incorporated insufficient degrees of freedom into their sad, unimaginative robotics work.The phone line crackled.

“Are you underground or something? Can you hear me now? And anyway, you’re stating the obvious, sweet-cheeks,” Tony said. “Of course they’re gonna stick a super soldier on the team. Unless his brain is fried. Frozen. Reheated?”

“Probably even then,” Natasha said. In comparison, her line was crystal clear, apart from all the shouting in Russian on the other end of it. “After all, you’re on the team.”

“I am on the team,” Tony said. “And you’re casting stones from inside a beautiful tiny house made entirely of non-shatter-proof glass.”

“I’m hanging up before your metaphors get weird,” Barton announced, and did.

Tony crooned, “I think we’re alone now,” and Natasha rapped her phone sharply against something metal and echo-y; Tony reeled at the sudden noise and dropped his own phone on the carpet, effectively ending the conversation. Natasha was already gone by the time he picked it up again. “Point to Romanoff,” Tony allowed, and sat back down in his spinny chair. Bounced a few times.

“Hey, JARVIS,” he said. “Turn on the lights, pull up the schematics, and start the music, would you?”