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If I Don't Wake Up Dead

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The beating is bad.

Steve's body can stand up to a lot, can take a lot of trauma and shake it off, and so can Steve (the differentiation between "person" and "body" has always been important to Clint). Steve has a higher pain tolerance than ordinary people, and he heals so fast that even when Clint manages to bruise him during sparring, it's gone by suppertime.

Clint is of mixed feelings about sparring. Physical violence was some of the first physical contact he ever knew, so it makes him feel at home, grounds him in his form, but he knows that's fucked up. And thankfully he has Natasha, who understands how deep he could sink if it was the only contact he got now. The others think they're fucking; truth is they never have, but the intimacy of lying down together just to touch is much stronger, at least for him. He doesn't think Natasha particularly gets much out of it beyond reassurance he's fine, but she knows he does, and he's grateful for her.

Clint has no mixed feelings about what he sees in Medical. Steve took so much trauma that his enhanced healing has shut down. His nose bleeds and his eyes blacken while his body focuses on the broken bones, the bruised organs, the lost pints of blood.

Clint presses a hand to the glass observation window outside Steve's hospital room on the Carrier. Tony and Bruce are arguing with the doctor, Thor has gone down to the mainland to get some stuff for Steve from the Tower, and Natasha is standing next to him, her fingers twined in his the only lifeline to comfort he knows.

Clint feels sucked back down to his childhood, the one time Dad got to Barney so bad they had to go to the hospital. Clint isn't allowed to talk to the doctors at all, because he might tattle; he can't even ask if his brother's going to be okay, so he doesn't know. In the here-and-now they've already said Steve will be fine, that he is healing, just slowly; back then he didn't know if his brother would live or die, and Clint knows enough about trauma to know they can't promise him Steve will be okay either.

Above and beyond Barney being his brother, Barney protects him from Dad when he can, and Clint needs that. He's too small to fight back.

He inhales through his nose. He's not too small to fight back anymore. He protects people every day from the Dads of the world. Natasha squeezes his hand.

"We got him out," she says softly, and yes, they did; rescued him from the Hydra base where -- for reasons that are still not fully clear -- they'd been torturing him for days. When Hulk busted into the room it was Clint who'd followed, and even Hulk had gone quiet and still at the sight on the table.

Then Hulk had screamed, a sound Clint never wants to hear again. Hulk roars, Hulk bellows, and Hulk growls; Hulk screaming is an animal at the bitter extremes of torment. He'd gone straight up, through the roof, and Clint heard over his comm that he was destroying the second building in the compound, which they were pretty sure was a barracks.

Clint had clinically examined Steve for spinal trauma, determined that his legs and hands were broken, and summoned Thor and Tony while he unstrapped him from the tilted bed they'd had him on. Steve had been murmuring Steven Grant Rogers, Captain, Brooklyn, New York over and over until Clint got a hand under his blood-spattered head. One swollen eye had opened.

"Hey," Steve had said. "Rescue party."

"That's right, Cap," Clint replied, helping Thor ease him into Tony's arms.

"You're late."

"Forgot to set our clocks forward," Tony replied, settling him firmly into a safe carry. "I'll get him to medical, you guys -- "

He glanced around.

"Trash this place."

"Yeah," Clint said grimly, and went up into the rafters to pick off Hydra stragglers. Not many got out alive before they blew the base. He's not sorry.

They've been a team for a year now and they've had a couple of battles, some more significant than others, none as big as the Chitauri yet. Natasha understands him best and Tony is the most fun, but Clint adores Steve with the carefully hidden love of a little boy for his big brother. Steve is the bravest and strongest and nicest, and Steve is kind to him, always was, even when Clint was half an hour out from the thing he doesn't think about because he can't deal with what Loki did to him and you can't make him.

Steve trusted him with the innocence of family and Clint may have imprinted just a little on him.

"As much as I hate to talk shop, this isn't typical Hydra," Bruce says, joining them at the window, rubbing his eyes.

"It does lack finesse," Natasha agrees, all professionalism, because that's how she hides how fucked up she is, and Clint loves her for that. "Hydra is more subtle. Usually. In torture, anyway."

"I cannot believe we're having this conversation," Tony mutters.

"Not much else to do," Natasha points out.

"I know, just..." Tony looks in on Steve, and his own face twitches to hide whatever it is he's feeling. Tony is hard for Clint to read. Natasha often has to interpret him for Clint. "Okay," he continues, crossing his arms and turning back to them. "Hydra broke some bones. Are they usually more the bamboo-under-the-fingernails type?"

"Oh, they did that too," Bruce says. Clint knows that Hulk recognizes Steve as kin on some level; Howard Stark's "vita-rays" were, guess what, Gamma radiation. He wonders idly how much of Hulk's experiences Bruce remembers. He won't ask; he can tell from little tics in Bruce that Bruce had a Dad of his own who should have been put down. Now he looks calm, probably from exhaustion more than anything.

"Hydra usually works psychologically first," Natasha says. "In any normal situation they'd have taken one of us as well -- probably you," she adds to Tony, "and tortured you to get to him."

"Why me?"

"You're softest."

Tony opens his mouth to object, then shrugs and allows it. He's not soft -- Clint knows he's been tortured, knows he has metaphorical iron in his spine. But among them, yeah, if you catch him out of the suit he's easily the most breakable. Why argue?

Bruce hums to himself. "Here's a thought," he says. They all look at him. Bruce thinks strategically, like Steve. "What if this is the psychological?"

"Speak on, brother bear," Tony says.

"So they'd torture you to get to Steve. Who are they getting to by torturing Steve?"

"All of us," Clint answers. His voice is the quiet whisper of a child who isn't sure he wants to be heard, and he hates it.

"Gold star," Tony tells him. Clint knows he's joking but he preens internally under the praise anyway. He'll take what he can get.

"Why?" Natasha asks. "To get us to over-react? To get us off our feet?"

"Well, we did over-react at the base," Tony says.

"No, I think that was highly appropriate reaction," Clint says sharply, suddenly angry. "You hurt my Captain, you get an arrow through the lung."

The looks they give him tell him that he's been too vehement; sometimes he has trouble with that, with knowing the appropriate level of emotion for any situation, because his are all mixed up to start with. Natasha's thumb soothes the back of his hand.

"Look, the point is, if they did...that..." Bruce says, not looking at Steve, "to get to us, we need to stop and take a breath and be rational. If they're playing that big this is an important chess game."

Usually, if Steve's out or off comm for some reason, Natasha takes lead on the team. Now she looks at Bruce. "You call the play," she says, gracefully ceding control of this op to the guy who seems most like he knows what he's doing.

"We need intelligence on Hydra and we need to think hard about what this is meant to do to us," Bruce says. "Natasha -- "

"Intel. Got it. I'll speak to the SHIELD analysts, see what they have, and pull a few strings," she says. Clint recognizes the gratitude of a woman who wants something to do. She lets go of his hand reluctantly, but there's eagerness in the set of her shoulders, the straightness of her spine.

"Tony, work with her, try to figure out what's going on," Bruce adds.

"I'll pick up some food, meet you at the Tower," Tony tells her. "JARVIS can do some digging if you point him at the right anthill."

Clint gives Bruce an expectant look.

"You and I stay here in case they want to make some kind of second try," Bruce tells him. Clint suppresses a shudder. Long stays in hospitals are hard. Bruce can tell, somehow -- he gives Clint a gentler look. "We'll take him home the minute we can. Doctors say he'll be movable in a few hours, as soon as his blood loss stabilizes out."

"Stark Tower's got 24/7 medical monitoring anyway, and much lower chance of MRSA," Tony adds over his shoulder as he leaves. It's been suggested by some that Tony's germophobia is a faked quirk -- it's very Howard Hughes -- but Clint suspects it's actually a healthy reaction to having a giant gaping hole in your chest. Tony gets respiratory illnesses a lot more often than anyone else on the team or in the tower.

"Do you want to go in?" Bruce asks, when Tony and Natasha are gone. Clint chews his lip, trying to decide. He does, desperately, but giving comfort in public doesn't come easily to him. It wasn't something that was done in the Barton household, and the other children mocked the need for it at the orphanage. He knows that being able to sit by the bedside of a friend isn't a daring breach of the rules, not anymore, but panic still rumbles deep in his belly.

"I can come in with you," Bruce offers. Clint nods, and lets Bruce go in first.

Steve's on a heart and oxygen monitor, with a cannula blowing air into his nose, trying to help re-inflate his collapsed lung. The blood's been cleaned off his face, small patches of his head shaved where he had scalp lacerations. His hands are splinted and strapped down, though Clint knows that the restraints wouldn't do much if Steve genuinely wanted to get free. They tried sedating him, but they have no idea if it worked. He's resting, anyway. Maybe asleep. His skin is grey, lips pale and bloodless.

But when Bruce pulls a chair up to the bed, one blue eye flicks open. The other one's swollen shut. Steve's in there and apparently pretty alert; his lips curve up a little, weakly, as he takes in Bruce at his bedside and Clint standing near the foot.

"Guess we showed them, huh," he says in a hoarse voice.

"You sure did," Bruce says reassuringly. Steve rolls his eye at the tone, and Clint shoots him a grin.

"What's the damage?" Steve rasps.

"You want head to toe, or serious to minor?" Bruce asks.

"Dealer's choice."

"Mm. Well, you have a partially collapsed lung, bruised kidneys, liver trauma, and one of your ribs was broken so badly it was pressing on your heart," Bruce recites. Clint focuses on Cap's single, lucid eye, flicking intelligently back and forth between them. "Four broken ribs total, several broken bones in each hand; you'll need a cast or at least a splint on your left wrist for a few weeks, we suspect. You have a handful of breaks in your legs, including a cracked but not shattered kneecap, and a spiral fracture on your right leg that's also going to need a cast."

"I heal fast."

"Not that fast," Bruce sighs. "Though admittedly anyone else would need pins, and you won't. You had a dislocated left shoulder, which has been re-seated. Minor concussion, and when we reached you, you had some swelling in the brain which has since receded. Doesn't look like any permanent brain damage."

"Good. Haven't got that much to spare," Steve murmurs.

"You seem pretty lucid."

"Glad to hear."

"Other than that, some assorted bruises and lacerations. They've stitched up a few of the deeper ones, since they're not closing the way they normally do."

Steve does look mildly alarmed by that.

"You've just had too much trauma. Your body is prioritizing what to heal," Bruce assures him. "How much do you remember of what they did?" he asks.

Clint recognizes the gentle probe for what it is. Steve's body will reset itself. His mind might not, at least not immediately.

"Not much, to be honest," Steve says. He doesn't sound like he's lying, and Clint's a pretty good judge. "But that's par for me."

"How so?"

"Had the hell kicked outta me before now," Steve replies, closing his eye. "After a while go somewhere else. You know?"

Clint blinks, because he does know, intimately, what Steve means. The look on Bruce's face says he does, too. When the pain gets too bad, when the humiliation of being small and weak is too much...Clint knows he did it because he remembers a place that was other, inside his own head, and he can still get there on the rare occasions he's hurt really badly. He doesn't think Steve had a Dad the way he and Bruce did, but Steve was little and loud, and Clint realises that when Steve mentions getting kicked around before the Serum, he might mean actual kicking.

What a trio they must make.

Bruce pats Steve's upper arm, probably really the only safe place to touch him right now, and stands.

"I'll get you something to eat -- you like pudding?"

"Chocolate," Steve requests.

Bruce grins. "Sure. Clint'll keep an eye on you till I get back."

Clint takes Bruce's place in the chair, but the old admonition still makes it a little hard to talk. Steve opens his eye and regards him again.

"How's the team?" he asks softly.

"Okay," Clint answers. "Tony and Natasha are doing research. Thor's bringing you some stuff."

"How are you?" Steve asks, and then, while Clint's still working out how to answer that, he says, "Glad you're here."

"Yeah?" Clint asks.

Steve's fingers twitch in the splints. "I know this isn't your favorite place."

Clint rubs the back of his head. He loves Steve, but it's hard to have all of Steve's focus on him. He never knows what to do with the attention. And right now, really, it should be the other way around.

"Well, we gotta get you fixed up," he says finally. "Bruce says you can probably come home soon."

"S'good," Steve says, and then sucks air over his teeth.

"What?" Clint asks, alarmed.

"Rib just set itself."

"Should I -- "

"No, it's fine. Doctors can't do anything anyhow."

Clint feels the panic crawling its way up into his chest. "What can I do?" he asks haplessly, because he wants to help somehow, and Bruce's order for him to stay here to help protect Steve is only going to keep him calm so long.

Steve tilts his head a little to look at him. "Keep me company."

Clint despairs.

"You don't have to talk or nothin'," Steve says. The concussion is slurring his words just slightly, and Clint can tell that Steve, who is normally pretty proper about grammar, probably grew up around people who mostly weren't. The filters are off. "I just like the company."

"I can," Clint offers, anxiety receding slightly. "Talk."

Steve's smile seems fond. "Got your phone?"

"Yeah," Clint says, puzzled.

"How 'bout reading me the news?" Steve asks. His voice trails downward a little, like he's fighting to stay conscious. "Used to love when Buck did tha'..."

Clint watches his eye slide shut again, but he flicks his phone to the newsreader and then to the sports page. The sports page is safe.

When Bruce returns, he gives Clint a nod, touches Steve's arm to see if he's awake, and then tucks the pudding into a minifridge in the corner when it's clear he's not. By the time Thor walks in with a duffel bag of Steve's clothes and (hilariously) a giant bouquet of flowers, Bruce is asleep in one chair, Steve is snoring around the cannula, and Clint has moved on to the Life & Style section.


The next time Steve wakes, a few hours later, the delicate little bones in his right hand have healed, and he eats a bowl of pudding in order to prove his dexterity. Bruce smiles; the doctors splint his left wrist and put a cast on his right ankle, load him up with likely-unnecessary medication that Clint offers to carry, and allow Bruce to call for a wheelchair to get him, as even Steve says, the hell outta here.

Clint pilots the quinjet to Stark Tower, setting her down light as a feather in order to keep from jarring Steve. Bruce looks over the reams of medical directives in the seat next to him, while Thor employs a traditional Asgardian healing technique that involves poking Steve all over his body and asking "Does this hurt?" until Steve bats him off with his good hand. Natasha is quiet and thoughtful next to Thor.

"He sounds happy but he looks like crap," Tony observes to Clint, as Bruce sets out Steve's things in the guest suite of the penthouse. He has his own floor, but the penthouse is where they all spend most of their time, and it's the easiest place for Steve to yell for aid if he needs it.

"Docs say bed rest; doubt he'll comply," Clint replies. "I don't know how he's going to take a piss at this point, to be honest."

"I can hear you," Steve calls. Tony and Clint exchange a guilty look.

Clint hovers for the rest of the day -- aimlessly as Thor helps Steve to the couch, worriedly when Steve tries to move around on his own, pointedly when Steve insists he can fix his own meal, which he clearly cannot do. Halfway through trying to break an egg one-handed (two smashed eggs, a third full of shell bits) Clint gently takes the carton away from an increasingly frustrated Steve and sets about making the eggs himself. Steve retreats to a kitchen stool, leg cocked out in front of him, massaging his bad shoulder with his good hand.

"Scrambled, fried, or poached?" Clint asks.

"Scrambled," Steve replies. "With milk in."

"Hah," Clint agrees, because that's how his mother made it, too. It stretches the eggs further.

He beats the eggs, adds a little of Thor's full-fat milk, tosses some salt and pepper in, and dumps the whole mess in a hot pan. He puts some bread in the toaster, too. Breakfast for dinner.

"I'm not used to someone helping," Steve volunteers, as Clint skims the eggs around the pan.

"I'm seeing that," Clint replies lightly. "Your ma raised you, right?"

"She had to work, so I shifted for myself. Bucky would come over when he could. Mr. Egrich next door always turned his radio up loud so we could listen to the ball game through the wall."

Clint feels a certain satisfaction suffuse him as Steve talks. He likes to be helpful, likes it when he has a set task he can do and do well. He knows, intellectually, that he won't be sent away or loved less if he isn't useful, but that's hard-won knowledge from a long time spent with a SHIELD shrink after Coulson realized his little fledgling was a lot more messed up than he let on. The knowledge hasn't yet hit the emotional parts of his brain. Maybe it never will.

After Loki, who took control without asking and let the threat of an empty, howling void hover at the edge of Clint's consciousness whenever he tried to fight it --

It's not a problem. It's not. He likes to be useful, likes that he still can be, that Loki lost. And most people are happy to give Clint orders whether or not they realize how he reacts to them. He leaves the eggs to firm up a little and takes peanut butter from the cabinet, spreading it on the freshly-toasted bread and handing it to Steve as a first course. The look of delight on Steve's face makes him smile.

He's seen old propaganda posters in books -- Tony's dad had a whole library of Captain America books, which Pepper brought to the Tower and Clint has raided on occasion. Peanuts were cheap, unrationed, and high in protein; Steve did at least two posters advertising how much CAPTAIN AMERICA LOVES HIS PEANUT BUTTER. It wasn't a lie, either. Steve goes through a jar a week sometimes.

Clint dishes up the eggs onto two plates, joining Steve at the kitchen counter. Steve offers him the second slice of peanut-butter-toast, but Clint waves it off and digs into his eggs.

"You don't have to look after me," Steve says, and Clint wonders if the eggs aren't any good, or if he's being annoying. But Steve is eating, slowly and steadily, so maybe he just wants to be alone.

"I can go if you want," Clint says cautiously. "But Tasha and Tony don't need me, I'd get in their way."

"I don't want, I just don't want to take up team resources," Steve replies.

"I can work from here," Clint offers, a little desperate.

"Yes, but what I mean is if you'd rather be somewhere else -- " Steve starts, and then stops, and a look of amusement crosses his face. He sets his fork down and sits back a little. "Gosh, JARVIS is probably laughing at us."

"Laughing at us? Why?" Clint asks, alarmed.

"Well, there you are trying to work out why I don't want you here, and here I am trying not to be a pain," Steve says. He raises a hand to rub his eyes, then winces; one's still badly bruised. Clint doesn't understand, and he feels a little frantic, confused. Steve reaches out and rests a hand on his neck, reassuring.

"Our crazy's just a little funny is all," he says. "I could use the help, Clint, I'm glad you're here. I'm just not used to someone being able to look after me without giving something up to do it."

"I'm not," Clint says in a small voice. "I like it."

"I know you do, son," Steve answers. His thumb rubs at Clint's tight jaw briefly before he lets go. "I used to forget when I got hurt it wasn't just me. My Commandos got worried too. Guess I still forget. Make you a deal," he says, returning to his eggs. "You stay here and give me a hand as long as you please, but if the others need you, you go help them and don't worry about me. That's an order. Sound fair?"

Clint nods. His world straightens out, sharpens, and settles into place. He sighs with relief. "Fair."

Steve hands him his plate. Clint shoves the peanut-butter toast slice in his mouth, grins, and eats it as he carries both their plates to the sink. He comes back to shove his shoulder under Steve's arm when he extends it for help, and together they make their way into the living room. When Steve tumbles down on the sofa he pulls Clint down with him, his arm still over Clint's shoulders. It's dangerously safe and warm there next to Steve, but Steve clearly wants him there so Clint doesn't try to pull away. Steve stretches out his injured leg, settling deeper into the sofa.

"JARVIS, pick up where I left off, please," he says. "What year are we on?"

"What're you watching?" Clint asks.

"JARVIS made me a playlist. All the Oscar-nominated movies from every year since '44, plus movies from reputable top-100 lists," Steve says.

"We have just finished 1973," JARVIS announces. A list of films appears on the screen. "Do you have a preference, Agent Barton?"

Clint studies the list. 1974 was a good year; he's got his choice of The Sting, American Graffiti, The Exorcist, and Last Tango In Paris, among others.

"The Sting," he says.

"An excellent choice," JARVIS replies, and the opening strains of The Entertainer come over the surround sound. Clint realizes too late that maybe watching a movie set in the Depression isn't what Steve wants to do, but Steve is easy and relaxed, leaning up against him. By degrees, Clint relaxes too.

The first time Natasha crawled into bed with Clint, after their first mission when he took a baseball bat to the ribs and was lying in his tiny SHIELD quarters feeling sorry for himself, he hadn't known what to do. Clint's never been good at identifying what normal is, because he's never had normal, but he'd known your partner sliding under the blankets and curling up around you wasn't it.

"Heat heals," she'd said, when he tensed. "Also touch."

There were other reasons he'd understand later, but he was a mostly rational man who accepted rational reasoning. That body heat and touch would help him heal was rational. That it was also comforting, that it soothed a lonely hurt inside him and reassured her of his safety -- it wasn't rational, but it also wasn't relevant. She had a good reason; that was all either of them needed.

Clint can provide touch and heat to Steve to heal him. If Steve will accept them, it isn't relevant that Clint draws comfort from the solidity of Steve's body and the trust being placed in him. Normal doesn't have to apply as long as reason does.


Clint wakes when he feels air displaced around him; he opens his eyes, fighting the urge to take a wild swing, and finds that someone has settled a blanket over him and Steve. Natasha, on the other side of Steve, is curling up with a second blanket, half over Steve's lap and half over her where she's lying on the couch, head on his thigh. On the television, The Sting has been replaced by what looks like some kind of murder mystery.

Tony and Pepper are at the little table near the big wide windows, eating something; Bruce and Thor aren't visible but clanking from the kitchen suggests one or both are fixing themselves a meal. Clint yawns.

"Hungry?" he asks Steve, then glances at Natasha to include her.

"A little," she says, not looking away from the television.

"I could eat," Steve says, sounding lazy. His hand is resting on Natasha's head. Clint wonders if Steve is aware that he is one of maybe four people in the world who can touch Natasha's hair without losing a few fingers. (Marks don't count; they'll lose more eventually.) "Popcorn?"

"Sure," Clint says, sliding out from under the blanket. "Back in a few."

Bruce is in the kitchen, cooking something that smells like molasses and spices and vinegar on the stove.

"Glaze," he says, when Clint sniffs the air appreciatively. "I thought I'd do a roast."

"I won't mind," Clint tells him, taking out a deeper saucepan and pouring some popcorn and oil in. He'd never had anything but microwave until he joined the Avengers, but Steve says microwave just isn't the same, and made everyone try stove-top, which did convince Clint. He sets the oil to heat, adds the corn, covers the pan, and goes for fixings: butter, paprika (learned from Natasha), salt.

"How's Steve?"

"Probably hurting more than he's showing."

"Gee, what a surprise," Bruce drawls.

"Tony and Tasha seem relaxed," Clint says. "Taking a break, or did they find something?"

"We think we found something. Thor's doing some recon."

"Thor. Recon."

Bruce shrugs. "He's too small to ping radar, puts out less noise than Iron Man, and we needed some eyes in the sky."

"What's the scoop?"

Bruce tastes the sauce and adds a little salt. "Well, we start from the theory that Hydra was trying to get a specific reaction from us. Anger, aggression."

"Fair," Clint allows.

"What did they expect us to do with that reaction?"

Clint shrugs. "Kick their asses."

"Prioritize," Bruce corrects. "It's a typical closed-community reaction, the same thing that happens if a policeman is killed. All the community's resources are reallocated towards preventing a repeat crime and ensuring retribution."

Clint narrows his eyes. Bruce is good at framing things in such a way that he can see the big picture, and Clint sees best when he sees everything at once.

"Someone paid them," he says.

Bruce nods. "That's what Natasha thinks. Someone wants us focused on Hydra. Someone wants the dogs off chasing a bunny while the fox gets into the henhouse. Maybe von Doom, but that's not his style. Maybe Advanced Idea Mechanics. Thor's checking on von Doom."

"No, that's backwards," Clint says distractedly, as the popcorn begins rattling in the pan. "Doesn't matter who hired them. It matters what they're going after."

"What?" Bruce asks.

"Well, if they want us specifically distracted...not SHIELD, not the military, not the government, what do we have that they..." Clint is hardly aware he's talking, he's just working it out in his head, and he knows he's not that quick, Bruce probably got there ahead of him, but -- "Oh. Someone's going after Stark Industries, huh?"

Bruce looks baffled and appalled.

"Is that right?" Clint asks hesitantly.

"I -- I don't know," Bruce replies. "We hadn't considered Stark Industries. That makes sense, though. I'll talk to Tony and Pepper about it."

"Oh. Okay," Clint says, shaking the popcorn pan and turning the heat off. The idea that he beat Bruce Banner and Tony Stark to the punch is a weird one. It's an uncomfortable, scratchy feeling, like when Fury frowned at him after he pointed out the Tesseract might be letting something in before it lets them out.

He puzzles this over as he fixes the popcorn up in a big bowl and brings it into the living room where Steve and Natasha are still watching the movie, whatever it is. Clint settles in with the popcorn, and Steve immediately leans again. He makes happy eating noises when he tries the popcorn, and tips the bowl over to share with Natasha, so Clint just huddles down in the blanket and basks for a while.