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Twenty-Two Days

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When it begins, no one knows it. Not then, not later, and not any of the times between.

On the first day, they get ready for bed.

 

*******
“You left all your dirty dishes on the counter.” Natasha’s hands are on her hips, but she doesn’t look particularly mad.

“Whoops.” Clint’s head is upside down and dangling between his legs; he grins up at her and she raises an eyebrow. “I’ll take care of them in the morning. Promise.”

“And you also left your socks on the coffee table.” He shrugs awkwardly and she sighs. “Are you almost done?”

“Twenty more minutes. I’m all invested now; I need to see who the killer is.”

“Alright.” Natasha disappears and returns with a magazine—some science journal she’d swiped earlier from either Tony or Bruce. She arranges all the pillows on the bed, his included, into a huge mound, pushing her shoulders back into them with a happy sigh.

Clint stands in the open space beside the bed, keeping one eye on her—the way he has ever since the day he met her, the first time he tried to kill her; in their unique history it amounts to the same thing—and the other eye on the television, where a true crime program drones in overly dramatic tones. When he shifts into the warrior pose, his knees crack loudly, and he coughs in a poor attempt to somehow retroactively cover the sound. Fucking yoga.

“I think it was the wife,” he observes, not caring that Natasha isn’t paying the show any attention. “The husband probably had a life insurance policy worth a million dollars.”

“If you could go to space, but couldn’t come back again, would you go?” she asks, focused on whatever she’s reading. She turns a page, scowls at what she sees there, turns it back.

“Why couldn’t I get back to Earth?” Clint lets his shirt ride up a little as he twists; he has good back muscles and even better abdominal muscles. He peeks at her surreptitiously under his arms to see if she’s looking.

She isn’t. “That’s not the point. The point is the question. Would you still go even if it was going to be a one way trip?”

“Would I go to space—” He changes to a downward facing dog, frowning at his feet, wondering exactly when and where he’d shed his socks “—just to experience going to space? To experience dying there? I guess I’m not seeing an upside.”

“The vast majority of humans have never gone, and will never go, to space. Any person can live out a normal life and die in some unoriginal way. To live the remainder of your life there and die above everyone else...would you do it?”

She would, that’s clear enough from the way she says it, even if Clint wouldn’t have guessed as much already. “Hell no. I’m going to live to be super old, then jump off Stark’s Tower. If I can’t walk by then you can take my wheelchair to the roof and tip me over the edge. One last rush of excitement before the big finale.”

“You could jump out of the space shuttle,” Natasha counters. “That’d be even more of a rush. You would see nothing but endless stars while you just—“ she flutters her hand vaguely “—float away.” She looks disturbingly delighted at the idea.

“Natasha, this is the kind of morbid conversation that I will not entertain,” Clint intones in his best Phil Coulson voice, and she laughs, breaking the spell of the moment. Clint changes poses again, grinning also, picturing Phil and feeling a faint surprise that it doesn’t hurt. Three years later the thought of Phil has become only dull ache somewhere inside, where the old nostalgia for his mother and brother and even his father still live. It’s almost more painful because it doesn’t hurt anymore, that he’s finally gotten over it, that they both have.

Phil’s dead, he tells himself, testing, but there’s just that ache again. He sighs and pushes Phil away, settling further into a lunge, his hamstrings protesting. He’s not as limber as he used to be. He looks back up at the television.

“I bet the wife killed him.”

“The wife is always the killer,” Natasha mutters, absorbed in a picture of Jupiter. “That’s the hook of the entire fucking show.”

“The husband probably had a life insurance policy.”

“Yeah, I heard you the first time.”

Clint raises up in salutation to cool hued bedroom lights instead of the sun. “The wife did it,” he says confidently. “You just wait and see.”

 

*******

“You look good,” Tony tells his reflection, laughing a little, maybe a little drunker than he had intended to get tonight. “No, you look great. You look like a million goddamned bucks.” He shoves his toothbrush into his mouth and scrubs absently, then frowns at the mirror. “A billion bucks,” he corrects thoughtfully around a mouthful of foam, then spits and calls into the next room “Pepper? How many bucks do I have?”

“All of them,” her voice drifts back, and Tony nods at himself.

“Yeah, that’s right. Alllll the bucks.” He grabs his toothbrush and gasps to find it already wet. “Gross! Did you use my toothbrush? Cooties are a real and serious thing, Miss Potts!” She says something back that he can’t make out, just slathers on extra toothpaste and brushes his teeth with an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.

He climbs into bed to curl up behind Pepper, who adjusts his arm over, then moves it up higher. She pushes her back into his chest, adjusts his elbow again, reaches back and smooths down her hair where it’s been caught up in his beard. She’s always seeking more contact, can never cuddle close enough, burrow deep enough into him, especially on nights like this one, before one of them has to go away. Whether it’s him going on a mission or one of them leaving for a business trip she looks for that extra contact, that connection.

“One of these days,” he says, “I feel like you’re just gonna go ahead and hollow me out, crawl inside like Han Solo did to that tauntaun.”

Luke was in the tauntaun,” Pepper points out smugly, and pulls his arm around herself more securely, making a happy noise when he gives her a squeeze. “Don’t roll away. Stay here, just like this. It’s happened—we have finally achieved the perfect snuggle position.”

Her feet are like icecubes against his shins, but Tony knows better than to point that out. “I’ll wait as long as I can, but my left arm will, at some point, require actual blood flow.”

“Hmmph.” She sighs and rearranges his arms. He lets her do it, making sure his fingertips are left touching the middle of her chest. Maybe she thinks he’s just copping a feel—and that is, admittedly, a happy coincidence—but he really wants to be able to feel her heartbeat beneath his fingers.

 



On the second day, they fight.

“Punch him in the balls!” Tony yells from across the gym, then says something to Steve, who laughs.

Natasha ignores them as she and Clint continue to circle around each other. This sparring bout has already fallen into what she would consider a light round, Clint seeming a little automatic, a little off in his reactions, responding half a second or so beyond his usual standard. She swings at his jaw and he blocks it at the last possible second.

Lazy, she thinks.

Clint settles back onto his right foot, his next swing telegraphed so blatantly he might as well have sent notice via certified letter. He looks a little bored.

Sloppy. She sighs to herself, putting her forearm up to knock his fist away. Predictable.

But at the tail end of that thought comes another idea—Hawkeye got the drop on you once, and rather easily, when it was real. When it mattered. He has never held that over her head but her own brain can’t ever quite let her forget it. Clint had taken her down once and changed her life; of course it had all been for the better, but the fact remained the same. Lazy, sloppy, and predictable he might be today, but he’s always had the potential to be something very different.

The thought shoots an odd shiver of unease down her spine as she continues to jab at him with a steady one-two rhythm, and though she knows it’s coming, even stepping back lightly in anticipation, somehow the sight of his bare fist arcing down toward her mouth still somehow sets something off. She blocks him easily and twists her body to hit back suddenly and violently, breaking the spell of their usual dance, their old sedate pace, the one that apparently bores him so.

Clint moves just quickly enough to receive a nasty bruise to his forearm instead of the broken elbow she’d intended. They grapple a few seconds more until he’s holding both her wrists, Natasha allowing it to happen, her heart still racing too fast with the unexpected surge of adrenaline.

“In the balls, I said!” Tony calls in a disappointed voice. It all happened so fast and fluidly that neither he or Steve have noticed.

Clint watches her with raised eyebrows and a careful wariness, ready to catch any other wild hits. “You okay?”

“Of course.” I thought back to when we met and suddenly had the need to actually hurt you, she does not add. Clint is easy going almost to a fault, but even he wouldn’t care to hear such a thing. “Just had a bad moment,” she adds, and that’s a cheat, that’s a copout, that’s exploiting their shared history and language to pass off a moment of unreality as a flashback or PTSD, or whatever regular people call such things.

“Sure.” Clint obviously doesn’t believe her, but they’ve always had an unspoken agreement to honor the other’s surface lies, when they aren’t dangerous, and releases his grip on her wrists. He stands there, considering, almost too long, almost long enough for Steve to catch wind of the situation and look over. If Steve senses anything amiss he’ll begin his careful questioning, which usually she doesn’t mind but will undoubtedly drive her insane right now, when her blood is up and everything feels vaguely wrong.

Natasha turns to grab her towel off the floor, scrubbing at her face an extra moment to give herself a chance to regain her composure.

Clint rubs at his arm showily, with an exaggerated pout that ends in a wink, an acceptance of the apology she’ll never voice.

The smirk she gives in return almost feels genuine.

 



On the third day, they try to go to lunch.

At least some of them do—Thor’s gone away with Jane, Bruce is wrapped up in something “very important, please go away”, and Natasha is making herself oddly scarce. But Tony and Clint are game when Steve asks; those two love nothing better than getting out, getting away, being anything but cooped up, even when the walls are as gilded as those in Stark’s Tower.

He hates sitting in the back seat, where his knees are folded uncomfortably into his body, but Clint insists on driving and Tony insists on riding shotgun, claiming a highly suspect and previously unmentioned personal history of motion sickness. Steve dislikes being uncomfortable but he dislikes hearing the others bitch endlessly even more, so he resigns himself to an uncomfortable twenty minutes...or maybe more, if traffic is bad.

“This is gonna be awesome. It’s going to be a world of carbs and goodness where everyone tips well and nobody hurts,” Tony insists as he slides into the passenger seat, as if putting the words into the universe will help them to become true. “Can I get a little bro love, here? Can I hear a whoop whoop?” He elbows Clint, making him fumble and drop the keys he’s holding. “I said, let me a hear a whoop whoop!!”

“Whoop whoop,” Clint mutters. Then, distractedly, “Where are my keys? You made me drop...where are the...” his voice gets quieter as he casts his hand around blindly by his feet “...keys?” He peers down owlishly into the floorboard, then growls in frustration as he raises up to look between and under his legs. “Ugh, come on.”

“Only Hawkeye would completely lose something in the same one foot radius as his own body,” Tony observes cheerfully, popping on the flashlight on his cellphone to give Clint a little light to work with. “I’m pretty sure I heard them hit the floor.”

“Maybe they’re still in my—“ Clint pats his jeans carefully, takes out his wallet and blinks at it, puts it back in his pocket. Looks between his legs again, then turns to Tony. “Did you take them? The keys?”

“What? Why would I? I want to go. They’re on the floor where you dropped them, Clint.”

Clint swings his head around to look at Steve, looking uncertain but also suspicious, as if sure they’re having a joke at his expense. “Do you have them? Come on, guys.”

“You. Had. Them. In. Your. Hand.” Tony clips each worth off with irritated deliberateness. “I saw them. Steve saw them. They were jingling right in my face, for God’s sake!”

“Well—“ Clint looks down by his feet again, raises up in his seat, looking behind and under himself. “I think I dropped my keys.”

“Knock it off, Clint,” Steve says, not liking this. Tony’s eyes meet his in clear agreement. “It’s not funny.”

“No, it’s not. I can’t fucking find—“ Clint brightens suddenly with inspiration and checks the ignition, expression falling when there’s nothing there. He looks at Tony again, confusion painted all over his face. “Come on... Do you have them?”

“We’re going back inside,” Steve says firmly, not annoyed anymore but afraid. Maybe Clint is having some kind of seizure or stroke or something, and even if the keys turn up this very second they’re sure as hell not letting him operate a motor vehicle. “You know, I bet they’re still in your apartment.”

“You think?” Clint says hopefully. “Yeah, maybe. Yeah, no, I bet you’re right.” He shakes his head in consternation and opens the door, and Steve breathes a sigh of relief until they’re all standing in the parking garage and Clint starts up again. “Where the hell are my keys? Oh man, I hope I didn’t lock them into the car.” He pats at his pockets again, pulls out his wallet, frowns at it.

“Son of a fucking bitch!” Tony snaps, defaulting to anger, so much easier to deal with than fear. “Move it!” He pushes Clint aside roughly and opens the driver side door, immediately plucks the set of keys from where they sit in the middle of the floorboard. “Here they are, crazypants. Let’s go inside now.”

 

*******

“That did not happen!” Clint insists. He looks both furious and terrified as he points accusingly at Tony. “Stop saying that!”

Tony scoffs. “You stop it. You were acting totally crazy. And now? Acting even crazier.”

“That didn’t happen,” Clint says again to Bruce. “I don’t know why they’re doing this, but none of that happened. It didn’t.” He glares at Steve this time. “It didn’t.”

“Let me take a look at you. You know, to give Tony and Steve some peace of mind. They’re obviously upset about something.” Let’s just humor them, goes unspoken with the easy smile on his face. “Did you start any new medicines today?” Bruce gets close, trying to look at Clint’s pupils without being too obvious. “You seem a little worn; maybe you should lie down for awhile.”

“No. I have to go to SHIELD.” Clint narrows his eyes angrily, but the look crumbles quickly when the other three men go still, and turns to confusion instead, as if the thread of the conversation just got ripped from his fingers. “What? What??”

“SHIELD’s gone, Clint,” Steve says carefully.

Clint pales, but recovers quickly. “I know that. I didn’t mean SHIELD. We were going to lunch. That’s what it was.” The naked terror on his face is reflected in the others.

 

*******

Steve and Bruce have Clint bundled off to a hospital less than twenty minutes later, only forgoing an ambulance in an attempt to not freak him out any more than he already is. Tony leaves them to it, stays back at the Tower because he and hospitals are historically an unhappy mixture. Of course, staying behind also means that he has to tell Natasha what’s going on, and in hindsight he’s not sure that’s preferable.

He’s not sure if she was dancing or doing pilates or jazzercising because she stops the second the door opens, her arms crossed and her face stony at the intrusion. At least in this case he’s got the nuke when it comes to diffusing Natasha-type rage.

“Something’s wrong with Clint.” Her eyes widen fractionally, but there’s no other visible response. “Bruce thinks he’s having a some sort of walking seizure. Or...whatever.” He waves his hand dismissively. “I don’t know about health things.” Tony sighs and shifts uncomfortably, put off by her continued lack of reaction—usually by now she would have already comandeered a helicopter and then rappelled into the first open hospital window.

“Alright,” she says finally, still not moving.

“Alright,” he echoes, and turns to leave, then turns immediately back in an almost comedic spin. “Actually? Not alright. What the hell is your problem? I just told you that your boyfriend, or best friend—or whatever the hell he is to you—is in the hospital. I expect a little more of a response.”

“Coulson will keep me updated on my partner,” she says cooly.

“Uh, how’s that, via Ouija Board? Or do you know something I don’t?” He tries to make it a joke but feels a creeping dread behind the manufactured smile.

Again Natasha doesn’t respond in any way, just keeps staring at him.

“You know what? I think I’ll just—“ He doesn’t bother finishing the thought before leaving.

 

*******

The others come back from the hospital a few hours later with no answers, but a referral to a neurologist and a written prescription for an anti anxiety medication that Clint tears into tiny pieces while Bruce frowns.

It takes every bit of restraint Tony has not to comment on the bits of blue and white paper all over the kitchen table. “Feeling better, then?” he asks instead.

Clint just glowers back and Bruce answers “The brain scans didn’t show anything”—and here Tony heroically again refrains from a snarky remark that would be both utterly hilarious and totally unappreciated— “and neither did the EEG. They said maybe it was just a stress thing, but to follow up with a neurologist anyway.”

“That’s right” Steve says, encouraged. “And we can do that, can’t we?”

We,” Clint mutters darkly, rolling his eyes and tearing the prescription into even smaller bits, then dumps most of them into Steve’s water glass. “Oh, we can, can we?”

“So...” Tony says, going for casual and missing by a wide margin. “Something is up with Natasha, also. She seemed...off, like she wasn’t quite sure where she was, what was going on. She referred to Coulson as though he might come strolling through the door any second.” He shrugs.

“Okay.” Steve doesn’t sound as confident as he had moments before. “What does that mean? That what Clint has isn’t a stress thing? That it’s something contagious?”

“I don’t know,” Bruce says cautiously. “It would explain why the tests didn’t show anything, but I’ve never heard of a contagious illness like this. Is everyone else feeling okay?”

Of course he means Tony, the only other team member that is minus an enhanced, monstrous, or godlike metabolism and thus likely to get sick. Stark rolls his eyes and snatches the glass away from Clint, all the bits of paper bobbing on the surface of the water, holds it up. “You don’t see me doing this kind of shit, now do you?”

“If it’s contagious then it’s just a—a, you know, virus or something.” Clint looks hopeful. “No big deal, right? We’re tired, we’ve been running hard the last few weeks. A few days off, and we’ll be right as rain. Coulson will understand and Fury can just...he’ll—“ His words drift off at their unhappy looks, the way no one will meet his eyes. He swallows hard and stands, intent on marching off with all the dignity that he can muster, then pivots at the last minute to sit back down forcefully at the table, covering his face with his hands.

“Clint?” Bruce asks carefully.

“I don’t know the way to my room,” he says, his voice ragged and muffled by his palms. “Fuck. Help. Fuck.”

 



On the fourth day Bruce and Tony look for answers.

They don’t find any.

Clint hides out in his apartment, pretending to sleep and wondering why Natasha is avoiding him.

 



On the fifth day, Steve calls Thor.

He’s not sure exactly what he hopes will be gained by this; the Asgardian knows nothing about human medical matters and can’t give anything other than moral support, but he figures Thor would want to know, all the same. Even when it doesn’t help, it’s easier when they’re all together.

Thor is on his way back to the Tower without even hanging up the phone; Steve’s not sure quite how long he’s been talking to dead air.

 

*******

Tony also makes a phone call.

“Don’t come home,” he tells Pepper. “Go even farther away and don’t come back here. Run up a huge tab at some posh hotel on another continent. There’s nothing here at the Tower you need to come back for. Your things, our things—they might be...contaminated.”

“Tony,” she says, sounding terrified. “Tony, what’s going on?”

“We don’t know yet, just that Barton and Romanov are sick. We don’t know if it’s contagious or how it happened. It could be something from our last mission. Or it could be something they were exposed to elsewhere. But I can’t take the risk that there’s something potentially toxic in the Tower, not with you. I’ve cleared all the SI employees out as well. They can chalk it up to my largesse in vacation time, or to my paranoia and wacky eccentricity. Frankly, I don’t care what the fuck anyone thinks, as long as no one else catches this thing.”

“What about you? You’re still there!”

“I gotta go, Pep,” he says, eyeing Bruce, who’s scrubbing his face with his hands, the very picture of tired misery. “Just don’t come home. Go. Go far away and don’t come back here. Run up a huge tab at some posh hotel on another continent.”

Tony—!!” she cries out, but he’s already hanging up, not wanting to hear any more. His phone starts ringing immediately and he silences it, stuffs it into his pocket. Pepper has to stay gone. She has to stay safe.

 

*******

“I just wish Natasha would let us draw some blood,” Bruce says for the millionth time. “If I could just compare hers to Clint’s...”

“I know.”

Whatever is wrong with Natasha has manifested very differently than with Clint—he seems like his usual self but incredibly distractible, losing track of conversations and thoughts and forgetting things that have happened. When they try to reorient him it seems to work, only for him to forget again soon after. Tony is already bone weary of the “Sorry, Coulson is dead” conversation, which results in Clint getting upset, then forgetting they told him, only for the process to be repeated exhaustingly. Natasha, on the other hand, seems to have reverted back to some previous Black Widow version of herself, watching them all with guarded, suspicious eyes. It’s hard to know exactly what she is and isn’t thinking, because she will barely speak in an attempt to give nothing away.

There’s no way in hell she’ll set foot willingly to the lab, much less give a sample of blood.

“Is the difference between their symptoms a difference in the manifestation of the illness between men or women? Or is every person affected differently? Or are their symptoms actually exactly the same and she’s just hiding it better?”

Bruce isn’t even really talking to him, just repeating these same questions aloud as he’s done endlessly for almost two days now. Tony would worry that this was a sign of Bruce’s own confusion if the scientist didn’t approach every single problem this way, though usually with much less worried, frenetic energy.

Tony picks up a stack of their last five mission reports, carefully composed by Steve and Natasha and sloppily assembled by everyone else, studying them again to see if there’s anything they had missed. Any indication of experimentation or enemies acting strangely or...anything. He doesn’t even really know what he’s looking for, and the magnitude of the task and remoteness of finding anything makes it hard to focus.

Hawkeye’s reports are especially awful, completely absent of any capitalization or punctuation or effort, reading like terrible stream of consciousness poetry that makes Tony’s head throb even harder.

romanov shot some guys i shot some guys stark said get the hell out so i got the hell out because there may have been a fire it was very hot at any rate then cpt rogers said it was over so i packed up my shit and we left the end

“Fuck you, Clint Barton,” Tony mutters.

Bruce’s report from the same mission isn’t much better. I transformed into the Hulk and aside from brutally murdering some people, the rest is a blur. End of report. —Dr. Bruce Banner

“But no one else is sick,” Bruce says, again, a now well known mantra that Tony can almost mouth the words along to. “We can hold onto that, at least. That no one else is sick.”

“That’s right,” Tony says, the way he always does, and sighs. He fingers the phone through his pocket, thinking that he should call Pepper soon, warn her to stay away.

 



On the sixth day, Natasha takes a bath.

People that are on the run don’t pause to take a bath. People that are in danger don’t even shower, much less linger about enjoying themselves chest deep in a pool of hot water. Not that she’s enjoying herself. She sits grimly and stares straight ahead, watching the faucet form an occasional fat drip, which pauses dramatically and dangles infuriatingly before it plinks into the water’s smooth surface.

It’s a luxury to be able to get clean before running. Usually that just means a hasty shower, washing essential areas with ruthless efficiency, then tying up a mass of wet hair into a bun. But not now. There will be no rushed retreat, no panicked exit. For her, this time, it’s a bath, and it’s not as much to get clean or to avoid the others when they show up as it is to show them how unconcerned she is about this situation. That she isn’t afraid in the slightest. To prove that she’s so goddamned secure that she can sit here and bathe slowly. Everything is normal and perfectly okay.

It’s not a hotel. It’s not a prison. It’s not the Red Room. It’s not SHIELD. It’s not a typical house, but it’s still somebody’s home. Many somebodys’ homes. How she came to be here, she can’t remember. She doesn’t think she is a prisoner, but the way they watch her signals that they won’t just let her leave. She thinks she knows their faces, but can’t quite remember their names. They are both strangers and maddeningly familiar, their names and histories like words that dance on the tip of her tongue.

But this space, these rooms, somehow are hers.

Everything about the apartment tells her so. She picked these things at some point—her signature touches and pieces of her are woven into every corner of the space. The canned food in the cabinets are stacked and all facing at an angle, since she always approaches cooking from the side, never the front, to keep her sightlines open. There’s a print of Blake’s “Jacob’s Ladder” in the living room, and no one could know that’s her favorite piece of art, much less hang it directly across from the chair she would automatically choose to sit in, the one that would hug her body just right, the pillow positioned perfectly to hit her lower back.

The bedroom, which she finally convinced herself to peek into, is almost aggressively girlish, with pinks and yellows and pale lavenders everywhere. The bedspread is a pink chenille so soft that she had to force herself to stop petting it, crossing her arms instead and fisting her hands. This kind of room had been her dream bedroom when she was younger—she can’t picture herself in such a place now, and yet she also still sort of can. She can see someone else in there, too, the blankets tucked up under his chin, saying I don’t give a fuck what color things are, so long as you’re happy.

It all means that she hung the Blake picture. She chose the chair across from it, she placed the pillow. She chose these things—or at least most of them—and based upon the clothes in the closet she has a pretty good idea who chose the rest.

Barton is also here, and that’s the most confusing part of all. They say he’s sick, but he doesn’t look sick, at least not by her definition of the word. He looks suspicious and unsteady, as if he can’t get his bearings, like he can’t make sense of what’s going on any more than she can. They haven’t been paired together long, but even though they are still getting to know one another she knows him more than the other men, and she clings to that fact like a lifeline.

From the look of this apartment they are together.  She’s not sure what would be worse—that it’s all a setup to fool her, to fool both of them, or that it was somehow real, or at least had been real for awhile, and she’s forgotten. That overly pink bedroom, the pictures on every single wall, even fucking placemats on the table—everything looks artificial and too perfect to her, like a carefully orchestrated dream, like two overgrown children playing house, playing at love.

She’d had dinner that night with the group when they insisted, and it was stiff and formal and uncomfortable, everyone giving each other meaningful glances that meant everything to them and nothing to her. Natasha suspected there was something in the food or drink, squirreling every bite into her napkin. It was an old trick, but obviously not one Barton was interested in bothering with; he just kept flipping the same forkful of noodles over and over until it started to congeal into a starchy ball.

“Eat something; it can only help,” the man in the glasses said, his voice a combination of scolding and commanding and caring. Natasha always wondered if that’s what fathers sounded like. “Please try to eat.”

“I want to call Coulson,” Barton said, not looking up. He flopped the mass of egg noodles over again, the gravy overworked into an unappealing gray slime. “Give me my phone back.”

They’d thrown around more of those pointed looks. The bearded man threw his fork onto his plate and swore, and the man in the glasses wanted to run “more tests”. She wondered if she could stop him before the others intervened, but Barton just rose to his feet and didn’t resist, throwing her one dismayed look before letting himself be pulled away.

She excused herself soon after, intent on following them but quickly becoming confused by the layout of this not-house-not-prison-not-SHIELD. Luckily her own instincts led her straight back to the apartment, where she went almost weak kneed with relief to see the familiar things again. Even if all of it was an elaborate trick, these things are a piece of her. A touchstone, even if it is only temporary.

Natasha knows that she needs to get out, and that she needs to take Barton with her. She’ll pull him out and they’ll escape together, and everything will be better. He saved her once and that debt will be repaid, and will also assure her place with SHIELD, prove her loyalty to the other agents who always look at her with such thinly veiled suspicion.

How she can get them away, and how they will get to headquarters afterwards, that’s more of a mystery to her. It doesn’t help that she can hardly hold a thought in her head before it flies away, and she exists in a constant state of trying to find the thread of a thought, a constant sense of deja vu. Nothing feels quite real, as if it’s all a dream and she just needs to shake herself fully awake to move on. The ways out she knows and can usually see so easily—she suddenly can’t see them anymore.

So, for now, she takes a bath.

She washes her hair and brushes it carefully, braids it tightly to dry against her scalp. That will do for many scenarios; if she needs to fight, if she needs to conceal it quickly. She can wear a wig if necessary and keep her hair, one of the few things in the world that is solely hers.

She washes up a bit more and then just sits there, watching the drops slowly form and fall from the faucet. Baths always sound nice in theory, but then whenever she has the luxury of taking one she always just ends up sitting there feeling hot and bored. She reads the instructions on the bottle of soap sitting on the edge of the tub. Pokes her toes in and out of the water. Her toenails are a glittery purple. There are faint water spots on one tiled wall and she scrubs at a few carefully with her pinky. There’s no polish on her fingernails.

Finally she hears what she’s been waiting for. The sound of Barton coming back, someone—no, two someones—with him, all talking to one another, his voice louder, angrier.

“Fuck off!” she hears him shout, then slam the door to his bedroom. The bedroom. Their bedroom.

The other voices murmur to one another in the hallway some more, and damn the insulation in this place—it might be nice otherwise, but it really sucks when trying to eavesdrop. Finally there’s a interminable silence, long enough for another drop to plink! out of the faucet, and then a hesitant knock on the bathroom door. She knew it was coming, vaguely surprised it had taken this long. Her fingertips, with their unpainted nails, are all pruned.

“Natasha?” a man says quietly. “Are you okay in there?”

“Yes,” she calls back, affecting a slightly irritated quality. They are supposedly interrupting her leisurely, nonchalant bath, after all. “I’ll be finished in a bit.”

“Okay,” he says, and God his voice is so maddeningly familiar that she could almost weep, if she did such things. “We’ll go, but...call us if you need anything, alright? Or if Clint needs anything. Just have JARVIS get us, no matter what time it is, we don’t mind.”

“Of course.” She gambles and adds “Thank you” then winces internally—judging by the pregnant pause that follows it was the wrong thing to say.

Another misstep; usually she’s much smarter.

“Good night,” the man says finally.

 

********

Clint sits up with a start when the bedroom door bangs open so hard that the doorknob leaves a divot in the wall. His hand moves automatically for a weapon under his pillow, but it isn’t there, he’s left grasping only sheets and the pillowcase.

“We’re getting out of here,” Natasha says.

“What? What’s going on?” he asks, but he’s already getting out of bed, his body trusting her even if his mind is too sluggish to keep up.

“Just get dressed.” He can hear her accent for the first time in years, and wonders why she’s let it slip. She has a gun in her hand and he feels a flash of jealousy. He wants a gun.

“I lost mine,” he says sadly, staring at it.

She narrows her eyes. “You didn’t lose it,” she snaps. “They took it from you. They took all your weapons away when they decided you’d lost your mind.”

He doesn’t remember that at all, but overprotectiveness is an Avenger family trait, and he has no doubts Steve and Bruce would do just that if they felt justified. Thor and Tony might leave him a knife or two because they’re considerate that way, but he’d really rather have a gun. It’s not fair that she has one and he doesn’t.

“I said to get dressed!” she snaps, annoyed, and opens drawers, throws clothes in his direction.

He kicks a shirt off the top of his foot and gestures toward the gun. “I want it,” he says, because it’s the most reasonable thing in the world. There’s only one weapon available, and he’s better with a gun than she is. He should have it. And he wants it. Suddenly nothing seems more important than that, and he thinks that if she won’t give it over then maybe he’s just going to take it. He moves toward her.

“Fuck you, this is mine,” she hisses, guessing his intention immediately. Clint takes another step closer, too close, and her hand darts out to pop him in the mouth.

It’s both a surprise and not a surprise at all, and Clint runs his hand along his nose, which is already bleeding. He inspects the red fingertips and then holds them out to Natasha. See what you’ve done. “You get that hit for free,” he says evenly.

Natasha is quick, everyone knows that, and as confused as Clint may be even he knows that—he knows her in his marrow, certain of her even when everything else seems unstable. But he also knows something that maybe only she is aware of; that’s he’s quick too, and just as strong, and she may win most sparring matches because she’s the best, but also because she’s a dirty fighter one hundred percent of the time, whereas he can’t help but pull most of his punches when they’re landing on the face of the person he loves best.

But there won’t be any pulled punches now, no balletic, acrobatic hopping around, no feinting back and forth, no good natured teasing. Because she has the gun and he wants it.

“Make your move, Hawkeye,” the Black Widow challenges.

He does.

 

*******

Tony runs a hand over his face. His eyes hurt from staring at computer screens but then he thinks of Clint and Natasha and knows he has to keep working. Something’s wrong, maybe something in the air or the water, maybe something to do with the mission last week—whatever it was they got hurt somehow and now they’re depending on Tony to make it right.

He thinks of Clint a few hours ago, his arm out across a table, watching passively as Bruce took vial after vial of blood, so much that Tony finally had to call him on it—Clint was barely functional already, he didn’t need to be made anemic on top of that. As Bruce taped a cotton ball to the crook of his elbow the archer said quietly “Can you at least tell me what it is that I’ve done?” and Bruce had thrown the last vial of blood against the wall and fisted his hands into his hair.

Thor and Steve took Clint away and Tony was left to comfort Bruce awkwardly, hoping he didn’t Hulk out but moreso hoping the scientist didn’t cry, because as far as uncomfortable scenarios went that one would be a hundred times worse.

He settled on the staccato pat pat pat on the shoulder that usually worked on Pepper, though he couldn’t very well add the kisses and hugs that usually went along with the tri-pat attack. “He’ll be okay,” he said instead. “And Natasha, too. It’s just science, Bruce. Just science that we haven’t figured out yet. That’s all it is. If we keep looking long and hard enough, we’ll find it.”

“Yeah,” Bruce said hollowly. “I know we will.”

It’s too quiet everywhere. Natasha and Clint are barely speaking, and the rest of the team just hovers around them in a silent, anxious orbit. It’s also quiet because there aren’t any people. The Avengers like their privacy but there are still people about—the cleaning service, the guy that delivers the groceries, various people wanting signatures from Tony about various things. The Stark Industries employees are many floors down and separated by infinite layers of soundproofing, but Tony can feel their absence and their silence just by knowing they’re gone, knowing it’s lifeless beneath his feet. Cut off from everyone else he feels like one the few survivors in an apocalyptic world.

“We’ll figure it out,” Tony says now. He looks over to where Bruce sits sprawled out over a table, head resting on his arm. He’s likely to have a nasty imprint of his wristwatch on his cheek when he wakes up. “We’ll find it.” He squares his shoulders, cracks his knuckles loudly. “Science is the answer!” he announces, sending a plea into the ether as much as trying psych himself up. “The answer to all our problems.”

“In the meantime,” he adds, because it’s fine to talk to himself if Bruce is rude enough to fall asleep and leave him all alone, “we just need a little mood music in here. Music gets the creative juices flowing. It soothes the savage beast. That’s why Hulkie over there is sleeping. He’s soothed.” He laughs at his own joke, a little taken aback by the sound. It doesn’t sound like his own laugh, but instead as if someone else just laughed through his mouth. That’s stupid, he thinks just as quickly, but the whole thing unsettles him a bit, makes him feel off balance.

“I’ll fix it, JARVIS,” he says, because talking to JARVIS is less weird than talking to himself, and waits for the AI to agree pleasantly, like he always does, then blinks in surprise when the words never come. “With the right music, the right idea, I can do it. I just need the right song. The magic words. Don’t you believe me, that I can fix it? Because I can.”

“Sir, might I suggest a good night’s sleep to assist you in that endeavor?”

“No, you may not.”

Tony walks over to the chem work station and then stops short, trying to remember what he was going to do, or look up. He mentally runs through the last few moments—reading, griping at JARVIS, looking at Steve sleeping, then coming over here—because that usually jogs his memory quite neatly when he has a brain skip, but nothing happens. He shakes his head a little, and okay, maybe JARVIS was right, he should go to bed, is obviously too tired for this if he’s short circuiting in the space of three feet between desks.

“Sir?”

“...Yeah?” Tony wants to move but can’t summon the willpower suddenly, feels like his feet have been anchored to the floor, the expanse of the laboratory all the way to the door too wide suddenly, too insurmountable. Making it all the way to his apartment, to his bed...that’s farther still. Too far. Too fucking far.

“Do you require assistance, Sir?”

Jarvis. Thank Christ. Tony closes his eyes in relief because Jarvis is there and can help, help Tony get to bed where he’ll sleep for awhile and everything will be fine again. “Yeah, that’d be great. Can you give me a hand?” There’s a long pause and Tony waits for Jarvis to take his arm, maybe scold him a little while helping him anyway, ferry him to his bedroom before either one of his parents wakes up and sees that he’s come home drunk again.

“As Dr. Banner is sleeping I have summoned Captain Rogers to come assist you. He is quickly making his way to the lab.”

“Steve?” Tony says doubtfully, because Steve is already in the room, napping on top of his work, but then he blinks and that’s Bruce there instead, and Edwin Jarvis isn’t here at all but JARVIS is.

The actual Steve bursts into the room and Bruce wakes up at the sound, blinking rapidly.

“Oh God.” Tony sags into the nearest chair, staring at his hands as if they’ve betrayed him. They aren’t shaking at all. They’re not. “I think maybe I’ve caught it, whatever it is.”

He knows he sounds scared but that’s probably okay, because the others look frightened too.

 

Chapter Text

******

Tony is sick, too.

Steve is still reeling from that idea when JARVIS calmly informs them that Natasha and Clint are involved in “a physical altercation”. Bruce’s horrified eyes meet his before Steve starts running, hoping Thor is on his way as well, not wanting to imagine how much damage two master class assassins can do to one another in the amount of time it takes him to travel down seven floors.

He hadn’t stopped to put on shoes or socks earlier when JARVIS had summoned him to help Tony, and now his bare feet drum on the floor, tile to carpet to tile.

They don’t have any weapons, he tells himself. You and Tony got them all. There’s that, at least—there are no weapons in the apartment.

He doesn’t wait for the elevator. He charges down the stairs, leaping down four and five at a time.

Natasha can kill people using just her legs. Clint has a lot of power behind his hits.

When he finally makes it to their floor he almost rips the fire door off the hinges.

They love each other. He would never hurt her, and she would kill anyone who tried to hurt him. It’s going to be fine. Just fine.

 

*******

It isn’t fine.

It’s not like in the movies—loud, theatrical punches and clever taunts, each one of them with a dot of blood in the corner of their mouths and their clothing torn just enough to be sexy. Clint and Natasha don’t fight that way. When they fight for real there’s nothing showy about it.

There is blood all over the floor and bed, even a little splattered up high on the wall. Natasha is focused and snarling, swaying slightly on the balls of her feet like a cobra. Her right eye is purple and rapidly swelling and Steve hopes the blood coating her neck is coming from a cut in the braided hair above her ear, and not the ear itself. Clint stands still, with his head down and eyes up. His face and shirt are so soaked in blood it’s hard to tell where it’s even coming from. Neither of them looks at Steve. Their world extends no farther than their locked eyes, each waiting for the other to make the next move.

And Clint has a goddamned gun.

Thor tears into the room just then and Steve grabs his arm before he can advance any further. The four of them stand in silence, everyone breathing hard, before Steve lets go of Thor and moves closer slowly, his hand held out for the gun.

“Give that to me,” he says, going for calm authority.

“That’s never going to happen.” Clint’s lips stretch into a feral smile. His teeth are bloody. “It’s mine.”

Steve carefully doesn’t look at Thor, who shifts almost imperceptibly forward. “I won’t take it from you,” he says. “But I would like it to put it away. It can still be yours. I don’t want for anyone to be hurt accidentally.”

“I don’t have accidents,” Clint promises, and Natasha’s lip curls. Then Clint’s eyes move away from hers to dart around the room uncertainly, his red grin fading. He takes in Natasha’s bruises and Thor’s grim expression, the blood all over the floor, his own split knuckles. “Uh.” His expression turns confused, then horrified. “Uh. Uh. Oh shit. I don’t— It wasn’t— Uh.”

Natasha capitalizes on the distraction of Clint’s distress to leap forward the same moment that Thor grabs for her, even as Steve pushes Clint to the floor with one hand and snatches the gun with the other. He removes the clip and racks the slide, catching the shell and tossing it into the other room. Somehow Natasha’s eyes track the entire process even as she tries to fight off Thor. As deadly as she is she cannot dislodge the Asgardian once he gets his arms around her, pinning her own arms down and holding her tightly, unbothered by her savagely kicking feet.

 


 

On the eighth day Tony forces himself to visit them.

Clint and Natasha are in cages. They lost control and the others had to lock them up, and Tony wonders when that will happen with him. Wonders if even now Steve and Thor are combing through his apartment and workshop, pulling out steak knives and screwdrivers and anything else sharp. To protect him, of course.

Just in case, Steve said, as he and Tony had done the same to Barton’s apartment, only three days before. He’s not thinking clearly; he might hurt himself. Tony agreed at the time, seeing the wisdom in the idea, helping Steve collect weapons from room after room. There were so many that he suspected the former SHIELD agents were prepared to make some sort of apocalyptic last stand there—there were more knives stashed in the bathroom than in the silverware drawer.

Not that any of it made a difference. He and Steve missed one weapon, and that had been enough.

Natasha stands in the middle of the small cell, her arms crossed, narrowing her eyes at Tony but gives no other acknowledgement. Thor put her in the cell meant to contain the Hulk—it’s a temporary holding area, a place for Bruce to rest and chill out for a few hours if he’s worried about a meltdown. It’s not meant for long term incarceration, but that won’t matter. It won’t come to that.

The cell opposite hers isn’t Hulk proof, but is secure enough for any human. Tony designed and built it himself, and hadn’t been keen on anyone worthy of being locked up being able to escape into his Tower. Clint is one of the best, but even he won’t be able to escape it.

He turns to his friend now, his stomach dropping when he notes the dried blood still all over the lower half of Clint’s face; two days later and they still haven’t been able to convince him to clean it off or change his clothing. “How are you doing?”

“Tony. Thank god you’re here.” Clint gives a shaky laugh. “It’s a good one, huh? I mean, it’s funny, right? It’s a joke, I know it’s a joke, and it’s hilarious, it is...but...I want out now.” Clint grins too widely, licking his lips nervously, and Tony wonders sickly if he can taste the blood there. “I know it’s a joke but I don’t like it anymore.” His mouth works soundlessly for a moment. “Tony. I don’t like this.”

“I don’t like it either,” he says, putting his palm to the glass barrier. He half expects Clint to put his hand to the other side, but he doesn’t, instead groaning in frustration and fisting his hands into his hair.

“I didn’t hurt her,” he insists. “I didn’t, I wouldn’t. You’re fucking liars if you say otherwise. All of you.”

Tony sighs and starts to answer, only to be distracted by his vibrating phone. Pepper keeps calling—he’s probably late for a meeting. He loves her and hates meetings, so he sticks the phone back in his pocket to be ignored. He gives Natasha and Clint an apologetic shrug and heads back to his workshop, wondering if the others are done yet. He’s not exactly sure what they are doing in there—maybe they’re cleaning it. Or setting up a surprise party. 

Tony ignores Clint as he calls out, wanting to get back, wanting to get to the party. He’s probably late, but they won’t start without him, and everyone will be there—Pepper, Rhodey, Steve, Clint, Bruce, Thor, and Natasha. They’ll all be there and it will all be great, because everything is best when they’re all together.



On the ninth day, Bruce despairs.

Part of it is the silence. Tony Stark is possibly the most annoying and distracting lab partner Bruce has ever had, and he can’t count the number of times he had prayed that the inventor would shut up and leave him in peace for five minutes strung together. What he would give now to have Tony here jabbering away, if only it meant that he were well again. That all of them were.

And they’re worse, all of them obviously worse. Clint’s decline is an unstable, untrackable thing—there’s no predictable pattern to what he will and won’t remember, or what he’ll react to. Tony is increasingly agitated as he grows more scattered, holing himself up in his workshop and sending the bots fleeing from his tirades. Bruce guesses Natasha is probably also deteriorating mentally, but she won’t communicate enough for him to measure her behavior against itself. Every time Bruce comes she’s always standing the exact same way, never sitting down on the cot or flipping through the books or even pacing. Just standing there—a defensive, forbidding statue of Natalia Romanova made flesh.

“I need to get blood samples,” Bruce tells Thor, who’s sitting in the open area between their cells, watching them. “We can wait till Tony falls asleep—JARVIS can keep an eye on him—so Steve can help out with...” restraining Natasha, he doesn’t say aloud, and tries not imagine her glare boring a hole into the back of his skull.

“I will not do that again,” Thor says gravely.

Last time had been a disaster, with Thor and Steve cornering her in the cell and holding her down as she thrashed and fought and Bruce drew blood, the whole thing taking longer when the needle broke off in her arm. She struggled silently, the way she did everything now—all the shouting had come from Clint, who got to watch the whole thing, who had almost torn himself apart in a futile attempt to help her, to stop them.

“I need samples. Data.” Bruce can’t work without data. He needs to compare her blood to yesterday’s sample. To Clint’s. To samples taken when she’d been healthy. Thor doesn’t seem to understand that and Bruce doesn’t have the time to explain it. “I can’t find the cause if I don’t have...I need your help to get it.”

“I will not. And I will not allow you or Steve to do that again either.”

The Hulk growls inside him, but if Thor notices he is unmoved, and Bruce huffs in irritation. “You’re hindering the possibility of a cure—you know that, right? We need to help her; she doesn’t know what’s in her best interest right now.”

Thor just sits there impassively, so Bruce turns his attention to Clint. “Hey, man. I need to take some more blood, okay? Would you let me do that?” He glares at Thor meaningfully. “It was no big deal, right?”

The archer doesn’t seem to be listening, still pulling on his hair and rocking slightly back and forth as if pained.

“We’ll help you get cleaned up, too, and that will make you feel a lot better, I promise. Clean clothes. Maybe a shower?” Bruce’s eye catches an almost imperceptible shift from Natasha’s direction, but when he glances over she appears as unchanged as ever. “Clint? Let me draw some more blood, okay? It’ll be easy, so quick.”

“Will you give me my gun back? It really was mine. It really was.”

He looks so miserable that Bruce longs to say yes, of course you can have it, yes yes yes, just stop being so sad. But he can’t do that, can’t let Clint have his bow either, can’t give him anything outside the bolted down furnishings in that cell because any object can become a weapon in the former SHIELD agent’s hands.

Bruce gets the phlebotomy kit ready, and for a wild moment he thinks Thor won’t allow this either, but when Barton holds his arms out in resignation, Thor opens the cell. He hovers carefully, but he doesn’t stop it.

 



On the tenth day Pepper comes back, but gets no closer than the outside of the lobby door.

“Let me in,” she demands, while Steve watches her from the other side of the glass.

He’s not worried that she’ll get in, not when Tony had ordered JARVIS to keep her and everyone else out. Fearing his own instability he had given final authority of the building over to Steve days ago, trusting the leader of the Avengers to do the right thing for them all.

“Sir would not wish you to become ill,” JARVIS points out.

“He wouldn’t want to be alone,” Pepper insists. “Steve!”

“We don’t know if it’s contagious,” he tells her. He’s so exhausted. All he wants is for this to be over. Part of him even kind of wants to let her in—let her watch Tony and the others waste away. Let her watch that non stop. Then she can see how it easy it is, how it feels to be faced with demands then. “If I let you in, and you end up catching it somehow—Tony would never forgive me. Would never forgive himself. It’s awful, but I’m sure this is the right thing. I’m sure it’s right and I’m so sorry.”

“I’m coming in there,” she warns.

“You aren’t.”

They stare at each other for a long time. He thinks she might cry, but she doesn’t—she’s too furious.

“I’m coming back,” she says finally. “For Tony. And when I do you and I are going to have a come-to-Jesus moment, Steve Rogers. I’ll come back, and so help me God, I’m coming in.”

 



On the twelfth day, Steve goes shopping.

They typically have groceries delivered two to three times per week, but they put a stop to that a week ago in case this illness was contagious. Despite what he told Pepper, Steve doesn’t really believe that anymore—no Stark Industries employees have reported an illness—but it’s still so easy to stay isolated from the world. Apart.

Clint and Natasha haven’t eaten in over a week, and now Tony is refusing food also. They’re noticeably fading, and the worry is a gnawing fear that chases his own appetite away. But he still needs to try to care for them, and take care of Thor and Bruce, too. Bruce needs to be able to work while he and Thor divide their time to watch the others. There’s a lot to do, and they need fuel to do it.

They depend on him. They need Steve to take care of things.

He’s seen Natasha and Clint drink endless bottles of Gatorade after missions, so he tosses some in the cart. Cereal that Tony likes. Bagels that Bruce can keep on hand in the lab. Some donuts; maybe Clint’s appetite can be plied with sweets. He circles back around and adds more juice. Apple. Grape. Cranapple. The cart is filled with nothing but various carbs and sugary drinks and he doesn’t notice, or care.

Steve passes the vitamin and supplements aisle and isn’t sure if he feels more like laughing or crying. Ginko Biloba. Omega 3s. Take two twice a day for memory improvement. Laboratory tested. Satisfaction guaranteed.

If it could only be that easy, he’d buy the lot. He’d bring home avocados and blueberries and anything else that even claims to be a superfood and cram them down Clint, Natasha, and Tony’s throats. He’d hold them close and wait for it all to work, praying to God that this illness isn’t irreversible. That they can still come back.

Natasha had spoken to Steve that morning, for the first time in ages, asked him to let her take a shower. He knew it was all a ruse; she can’t get out of the cell and needs an opening, will say or do anything to get it. He knows that perfectly well, but it still hurts, that such a small request, the desire to be clean, is one he cannot honor.

Because it matters, suddenly, that she’s a woman—in a way that it never really had before. It was easy for so long; Natasha was the only woman on a team full of men and it just never came up. No one ever made anything of it or treated her any differently, because she was good as anyone, and better than most. She was different but they could always pretend that she was just one of the guys and nothing else mattered.

But now, suddenly, it does. Steve and Thor can help Clint shower, but they can’t do that for her, because it’s inappropriate for them to watch her and she can’t be trusted enough to be left alone. So he throws in boxes of wet wipes and hopes they will be enough in the meantime, hopes that she’ll forgive him. Maybe they’ll even laugh about it someday. When she’s better.

He goes through the checkout and pays automatically, not responding in kind when the cashier chirps cheerfully at him. Doesn’t spare a glance for the guy bagging the groceries or even notice the young mother struggling to fold a stroller so she can get onto a bus.

Steve Rogers moves like a man in a dream, knocking into people on sidewalks with his bags, unable to focus on anything but his own fear and dark thoughts and his dread of getting back home, back where illness has reduced strong people to helplessness. He pays no mind to the crosswalk warning and almost steps in front a car. It screeches to a stop and someone shouts and calls him an asshole. Everyone nearby gives him a dirty look.

No one recognizes him as Captain America today.

 

*******

Clint Barton has always been an excellent liar.

Dad would beat him bloody, but then later would hug him close. That was the worst part of all—that the man could be kind, that he might have been a good father had a thousand things gone differently. As it was, Dad smelled of beer and vodka and sometimes vomit and would say You forgive me, though. You love your old man, don’t you? And Clint would stare at the ragged knuckles on his father’s huge hands and say Yes. I love you.

Of course my parents are around, he told police officers and other nosy onlookers. There they are—up there. The acrobats were always busy and out of reach and no one ever waited long enough for them to come down and ask if any of it was true. Yes, traveling with a circus is fun. Yes, it’s great, I love it.

You can trust me, he told the woman, and she smiled and pressed into his arms. In a nondescript car nearby Coulson listened over the comms and gave the go ahead. She wasn’t afraid—when he could help it, Clint never let them be afraid. She was just collateral damage and he made it quick for her, closed her eyes afterward.

Are you sure you’re up to this? Steve asked, and Clint promised I’m sure. He’d made the jump, taken the shot. Everyone was happy and so was he, most pleased because they only heard his words and not his racing heart, his screaming doubts.

The lies come so easily. They kept him safe and fed, successful in a career built on deception, and one day even bought him a sort of happiness. But all of a sudden he can’t keep track of them, can’t keep track of anything, and everything seems terrifyingly true and impossible at the same time.

They tell him Coulson died. I’m sorry, He’s dead; died years ago. Natasha whispers it too—she will barely speak to the others, but she’ll talk to him when they’re alone, inexplicably cruel and delighting in causing him pain. Didn’t you hear them? He’s dead. He isn’t coming. 

Phil’s dead, he tells himself, trying it out, and there’s a lance of pain right through his chest, because it can’t be true. Phil Coulson can’t be dead. He always comes back, always comes for his team. Maybe he’s just pretending, will come bursting through the door any minute to save them. He’s done that before, scared them before. There’s always that feeling of relief and knowing triumph when Phil shows up at last, when he’s suddenly alive again.

“Do you like it?” Natasha asks. Her voice is so angry, but there’s uncertainty under it, a genuine question. He blinks at her, not following, and she adds, “You spend every night wrapped up in a dark pink chenille nightmare, and you expect me to believe that you’re alright with that?”

“Wait... Do you mean the, uh, bedspread?”

The first time Natasha laid it out Clint had internally recoiled, but his mouth and innate sense of self preservation hadn’t let him down and produced a perfectly acceptable It’s sort of pretty. It’s always best to slightly hedge such statements; to be too exuberant made them less believable. Then he knocked his elbow to hers and added I don’t give a fuck what color things are, so long as you’re happy.

That was true, because the best way to lie is always to tell a truth immediately after. He’d hated that blanket at first, but he thinks he had grown to like it, admiring Natasha’s ‘Fuck the world—I like what I like’ philosophy of decorating. She’d never had her own bedroom before, never her own space. Ten year old Natalia had never gotten her pink bedspread, so thirty year old Natasha could sure as hell have it.

Clint tries to tell her that—his Natasha loves nothing more than a well reasoned and presented argument—but the words just evaporate off his tongue, as if they were never there in the first place. “I’m not sure,” he says instead.

She sees his uncertainty and her eyes narrow. “Is any of it real? You and me. Is any of that real?”

“It is.” That’s said easier and with confidence, because that he’s sure of, because in a lifetime of lies he would never lie about that. Not to her. They love each other. That is true. He’s sure about that.

Fairly sure.

But he’s not completely sure, because her eye is bruised, her right ear swollen. He can’t see it, but knows there will be another bruise right below the neck, right on the collarbone, right where it hurts. He’d seen that same bruising pattern on his own mother plenty of times. And in the mirror.

But Dad is years in his grave and Clint wouldn’t do that. Not to her, not to anyone, not ever, so it must be one of the lies. What Steve says, what Natasha says, what Clint remembers and even what he sees with his own eyes—none of them can be true, because he wouldn’t do that.

Clint covers his face, fingers gripping his temples, trying to keep the thoughts both in and out, because they hurt. Everything hurts, every memory, all real and unreal at the same time. Both elusive and painfully present.

“Coulson will be here any minute,” he moans miserably into his hands, more to himself than her. That’s all he has to offer. SHIELD will save them. They can both depend on SHIELD, and Phil. He believes it with the depths of his soul—Coulson always finds them, always comes back.

...And yet...

It could also be one of his lies. He’s told too many for too long, and finally lost his grasp on them all.

That sharp pain in his chest tells him that no one is coming, and that no one ever was.

 



On the thirteenth day the director of the FBI calls, asking for the Avengers.

“We can’t help you,” Steve tells him dully. “There aren’t enough of us left.”

He hangs up the phone before the man says anything else.


*******

That’s also the day that Tony kicks them out of the Tower, or tries to.

“It’s been fun, and it’s been good—mostly—but the time has come to part ways. Get the hell out, freeloaders. Go be boy scouts and earnest good-doers...good-do...g-g-g-“ Tony gets stuck on the word and clenches his jaw so hard Bruce is sure his teeth will crack. “Do-gooders!” he spits out finally, looking both triumphant and distraught. “Go be go-gooders somewhere else! Leave me and my robots in peace, you bastards!”

“Tony,” Bruce says again. “Please don’t do this. Just...sit down. Sit down and try to relax.”

Tony has none of Natasha’s eerie watchfulness or Clint’s confused passivity, instead running on adrenaline and a manic spin that has lasted for days. He refuses to sleep and only wants to build, doing so for hours on end, as the others take turns watching unhappily. They had worried at first that he would make something dangerous and hurt himself, but what actually happens turns out to be worse. Instead he makes nonsense things—half formed ideas that can never become reality—then rails in desperate, terrified anger when none of it works.

“If you don’t go I’m—I’ll—I’m calling the police,” he warns. “You are not wanted. You are being told to exit the premises. You are being told to get the fuck out of my house!”

“We cannot leave you like this,” Thor says patiently, his hands up, ready to catch Tony as he careens around the workshop.

“If I’m going to go nuts I want to be alone while I do it. I’m gonna eat waffles in bed and piss in jars like Howard St...Stark. Wait. No.” Tony pauses and glares at nothing, pulls words out of the air with effort. “Wait...Hughes. Howard Hughes.” He starts pacing again, picking up things and dropping them back down too hard. “Gonna be a rich, dramatic recluse like Charles Foster Kane. I don’t care if he’s fictional, I’m still going to be just like him! Get out!”

Bruce thinks it would be easier if they didn’t know they were fading. Natasha seems the least aware of her impairment, believing everything is an elaborate ruse, and that may be why she’s still holding together fairly well. Clint and Tony, on the other hand, realize they’ve lost hold of the narrative of their lives and get to live in constant dread of the next piece they will lose. Tony doesn’t want anyone to see him break down, is trying to scrap together whatever last bit of dignity he can, even if it means crumbling to pieces all on his own.

“I understand,” Bruce soothes. “I really, truly do—but I can’t leave. I can’t leave you alone this way. None of us could.”

“Is Barton dead yet?” Tony asks ruthlessly. As if he doesn’t care, as if his terrified, darting eyes did not immediately undermine his cavalier tone. “He was the first one, and he’s our barometer, isn’t he? Our birdie, right? Our canary in the coal...coal...Coulson...in the...” He grips his jaw as if to tear the words out. “Motherfucker!”

“Tony.” Bruce wants to grab him—maybe to shake him, maybe to hold him, but mostly just to get him to stop. Stop casting around in angry mania, stop yelling, stop being scared, stop being sick.

“Call the police, JARVIS. Call the National Guard. Call Starfleet. Tell them there are intruders in the house and I don’t want them here.”

“Don’t do it, JARVIS.”

There really isn’t any danger that the AI would call. Steve holds all the authority in the Tower now and wouldn’t allow it.

“You’re supposed to listen to me!” Tony shouts. “made you! You’re my....JARVIS. You’re supposed to help me.” When there is no answer he gives a sharp, laughing sob. “Gonna lock me up next? Like you did with—“ He waves vaguely, not remembering their names. “For my own good right? Maybe you should gag me, too, so I don’t say all the crazy crazy crazy things that make you so scared.”

Tony shoves Bruce roughly and for one horrible second Bruce thinks he might push back, and that would be awful, that would be the worst thing imaginable, because Tony’s just sick and half starved and terrified and ranting. Bruce teeters on that brink of anger for a few moments too long—Thor is watching him warily the whole time—but pulls it back.

Bruce covers his face with his hands. “God,” he moans. “God.”

 



He suspected it before, but now Thor is certain. Bruce and Steve are also ill.

The table usually holds seven, everyone talking over and at each other and grabbing at dishes, throwing elbows and good natured insults. Stealing dinner rolls. Pepper could never make it through a meal without getting up repeatedly, checking on this or that, getting another serving spoon, making a phone call. Every time she would leave Tony would grin and spoon more food onto her plate, only for Pepper to return and frown in confusion.

Why on earth did I take so much, she would ask, and Tony would innocently answer, I guess someone’s eyes were bigger than her stomach. Everyone would stifle laughter, and she never caught on, no matter how many times he did it.

Thor loved that trick, loved Tony’s glee at getting away with it, loved the way Pepper would laugh along with everyone else if she ever caught on.

Now there are only three of them around this table. Steve makes sandwiches, which Thor supposes were intended to be peanut butter and jelly, but he’d forgotten to buy peanut butter at the store and the sandwiches are just huge globs of jelly on bread. Bruce doesn’t say anything about the unusual choice, doesn’t seem to even notice, and Thor sees no benefit in mentioning it either.

It would just upset them. Anger them. Maybe scare them. They’re already frightened enough, and he won’t make it any worse.

“Let’s take them back to the hospital “ Steve says, startling them from a long, spun-out silence. His face is so lined and tired that it looks almost gray. “We...you need the help.”

Thor nods in relieved agreement but Bruce is incredulous. “A hospital?? An emergency room? Nothing but fucking—“ he flutters his hand “—bandage dispensing m-m-meat markets!” He’s so furious he can barely spit out the words, and Steve narrows his eyes, angry also. “We tried that the first day, if you recall. They ran tests and sent Clint to back home to beat his best friend half to death! Because he was just so anxious, you know. Just a little overtired, just stressed. Let’s go tape the pieces of that Klonopin prescription back together and fill it after all. I’m sure it’ll fix him right up. Jesus Christ!”

“Well, o-kay,” Steve says testily, drawing the word out. “I just think you need some help on this. Usually you and Tony are enough, but he can’t support you now.”

“I’m the best living chemist in the world and you think I need help! God!”

“I also think that you need help,” Thor says quietly.

“Well, no one cares what you think!” Bruce snaps.

Thor carefully does not look up from his jelly sandwich. Provoking the scientist further will only lead to disaster on multiple levels when the Hulk runs barely an inch beneath his emotional surface. Steve stands up suddenly, because he’s like Pepper these days, unable to sit still and eat, always concerned with something that needs doing, though his sole preoccupation these days has been checking on the others, over and over and over. He takes the extra plate of sandwiches, so poorly made that the jelly has started to seep through the bread, intent as ever on getting Clint and Natasha and Tony to eat.

“They’re worse,” he says, pointing at Bruce. “All of them are worse. They’re falling apart bit by bit and there’s nothing Thor and I can do about it. So it has to be you. Has to be you that comes up with something, saves them. And it has to be soon.” His angry facade crumbles a bit. “They’re going to die.”

Thor agrees with that, too.

 

*******

He knows that Jane Foster isn’t the kind of doctor they need, but he doesn’t know any other doctors, besides Selvig—who is also not the right kind of doctor—so he calls her anyway. Maybe he also because wants to hear her voice. She sounds worried, but also just the way she’s supposed to sound. Thor closes his eyes in relief and drinks in her familiarity.

“We’re on it,” she tells him. “Help is coming.”

 


 

On the fifteenth day Pepper comes back, and she isn’t alone. She has Nick Fury and Betty Ross and Maria Hill and threatens to break the doors down. Steve stands opposite her again, prepared for another standoff.

Everyone is shouting. Even the low, reasonable voices somehow sound like shouts.

“We want to help,” Betty says, while Fury snaps “Open these goddamned doors right now!” and Hill is frowning as Steve insists “No one is getting in here, it’s not safe, we’re not safe” and Bruce just glowers at Betty and growls “You should have stayed away.”

Pepper pounds on the door, not caring that people passing by are starting to take notice and interest. “We are coming in, so help me God! I’m taking Tony out of here and you can just—“

Thor sweeps into the lobby in full battle regalia and pushes Steve and Bruce away to either side, Bruce tumbling to the ground and Steve surprised into taking a few staggered steps backward.

“Steven Rogers is incapacitated and I, Thor of Asgard, am taking leadership of the Avengers team,” he declares. “Open the doors.”

The noise the doors make when JARVIS throws them open sounds a lot like a sigh of relief.

 


 

Pepper called days ago, and hadn’t even finished her tirade before Nick Fury started packing a bag, muttering “uh huh” and “yeah” into the phone as appropriate. He’d been with SHIELD a long time before everything went to hell, and had a pretty good idea of the kind of shitshow this thing could possibly devolve into. He’s known and watched over these people too long to let it all go to hell now.

It’s not as bad as he feared, but it’s still pretty fucking unpleasant.

Banner is a walking timebomb, trying to maintain a facade of control while almost shaking apart at the same time. Years of training and experience scream that Fury needs to clear everyone away from the scientist as fast as possible, but he trusts his gut instincts more, and agrees when Dr. Ross calmly says that she can handle Bruce, that she isn’t afraid.

Pepper makes a beeline for Stark, all but snarling at anyone that tries to follow her to the elevator. Nick has no idea how the inventor is, but no matter the situation he’s certain Pepper Potts will have it well in hand.

Rogers looks like hell, as if he hasn’t eaten or slept properly in weeks. Fury pities him, and tries to hold onto that feeling when he and Hill are taken to the containment area and he sees his former agents. It isn’t Rogers’ fault, not really, that he couldn’t take care of them properly, no more than it was Thor’s for not being able to contain the whole situation. They’d done the best they could, and Fury tries to focus on that and not the anger that threatens.

Both former SHIELD agents look sallow and unclean, and there is a massive quantity of food piled up on the floor of their cells—unopened packages of snack cakes and crackers, oddly assembled sandwiches that have spoiled. Someone kept bringing plate after plate, trying to get them to eat and never thinking to remove the uneaten food.

The scene is pathetic and the entire area reeks of rot and illness, and Fury and Hill exchange a pointed look before they send Thor and Rogers away to rest. Hill holds up a taser in warning and takes charge of Romanov, who is too weak to put up much of a fuss. Fury looks to the man that had once been the kid he’d poached straight out of an Army bootcamp, and who—along with Romanov, Hill, and Coulson—had also been one of the jewels in his former crown.

Barton’s laying on the bed, facing the wall, arms black and purple with bruising wrapped around his head. Fury frowns at the the puncture wounds that cluster in the crook of his elbows—two of them even look infected, for Christ’s sake—and gives the archer a shake.

“Wake up, Agent.”

There’s no response, so Fury pats his cheek, gently at first, then harder and harder, until it’s almost a slap, until Barton opens his eyes. He blinks in bleary confusion, then his face crumples and he sobs “Oh my God.”

“That’s flattering, but a little off the mark.” Fury pats Barton’s back awkwardly, then helps him up and half drags him out and down the hall, one arm around his waist, the other locked on his elbow.

“I knew it....would come.” Barton’s voice is shaky with fatigue and relief. “Because. Because—because—he—he’s—because I’m such a good asset.”

“That’s right.”

They make it to the apartment that JARVIS promises is his, a cozy place with huge, uncurtained windows and doilies and knickknacks on every flat surface. There are also bloodstains all over the bedroom floor, long dried to a crusty, flaking brown. Barton stops in the middle of the room, staring at them, swaying slightly back and forth.

“Shower,” Fury orders, and getting no response, rummages through some drawers. “Change clothes, then. And that’s non-fucking-negotiable!”

To his everlasting relief Barton is able to dress himself, albeit slowly, clumsily. He tries to tell himself it doesn’t make any difference if the archer sleeps with his t-shirt on backwards, then sighs and helps him fix it.

“Am I...going back?”

“No more prison cells; this is your room.” Fury’s nose wrinkles a bit. “Or so they say.” He picks a glass jar full of layered, colored sand, and can barely resist the urge to shake it, forces himself to set it down again. “You and Romanov are into some weird shit.”

“No, I want. Let’s...uh...back to SHIELD. I-I-I want to.”

“Someday,” Fury promises. Maybe he should push that shower anyway, or at least get Barton to brush his teeth, but the man looks just about dead on his feet, blinking owlishly and still a little teary eyed. “Come on now, lay down.”

Fury steers him toward the bed by his shoulders and tucks him in, sighing loudly when Barton’s fingers wrap around his wrist. It’s not his usual vice-like grip, but instead so weak that it’s unbreakable. Fury rolls his eyes and kicks off his shoes before climbing under the covers.

“You have been a pain in my ass for years now,” he growls, but puts an arm around him when Barton curls in close. “Every time I think I’ve reached the terminal limit of the grief you can cause, you just effortlessly take it to the next level.” He laughs a little, ruefully. “Coulson would laugh his ass off if he could see this right now.”

“He’s alive,” Barton whispers against his shoulder. “He’s...a secret.”

“You’re right,” Fury whispers back.

 

*******

The Director introduces the woman as Maria, though Natasha can’t hold onto that name any more than the others. But it doesn’t matter, because Natasha finally gets her shower.

The woman refuses to let her close the curtain, and stands armed with a taser, don’t-give-me-shit expression, and undoubtedly more than a few hidden weapons, but none of that bothers Natasha either. She doesn’t recognizes her face, but knows a sister in arms at any rate. This woman is tall and stern and fucking put together. She could easily be a Widow.

“Who do you work for?” Natasha asks. She dumps half a bottle of body soap into a washcloth, and it feels like heaven.

“I’m kind of between projects, but we used to work together. You and me and Barton.” The woman shrugs, obviously not interested in talking about it. “And a few other people.”

“I suppose you’ll tell me that we are best friends.” Natasha inhales sharply when the material is painful against her stomach. Her overly red skin and the woman’s pursed lips indicate that she might have been scrubbing too hard, too long. Natasha scowls back.

“You send me birthday and Christmas cards every year, and I dropped everything and flew seven hours to come here and help you take a shower. You can make of that what you will.” The woman sighs loudly and pulls the washcloth from her fingers. “Enough. You’re clean.”

“Do you know why this has happened?” Natasha asks. She’s not sure exactly what question she’s even wanting answered. Why she and Barton can’t hold a thought in their heads. Why she’s been locked up. Why everyone is a familiar stranger. Why she appears to live here in the first place. Why why why—her whole life has been reduced to nothing but half-formed ideas fashioned from incomplete knowledge.

“Because you guys got careless. You were sloppy,” the tall woman answers matter of factly, throwing a towel at Natasha. “The Avengers are good at the fight, of the righteousness of the moment. You’re not so great—as a team—with the nuance, with the details. You can blow a building to bits, but you always needed help to sort through those bits afterward, find all the shards of glass that could hurt someone later, and take them away. That’s why you needed SHIELD, and always did. We did that for you.”

“What happened to it?” She can’t imagine how something that vast and alive and strong could ever be broken.

The woman sighs. “SHIELD got careless, too.”

 


 



“We treat the symptoms we see,” Betty insists. “There’s no need to chase the cause, Bruce. Not now. Treatment first.”

“When someone’s bleeding out you don’t just hand them a bandage. You stitch the wound.”

“Analogies aren’t helpful. Facts are. Numbers. Science.” She’s so calm and confident that it’s almost unbearable; as if she’s putting on an act just to emphasize how much he’s not calm, not confident.

“Alright,” Bruce bites out, trying to match her professional tone and probably failing miserably. “High blood sugar. Confusion. Deteriorating cognitive declining cognition.”

Betty gives him a sharp look but keeps going. “Too much glucose everywhere,” she says, her eyes looking up and to the left, the way they always do when she’s thinking. “Everywhere except the brain. There’s a disconnect somewhere....probably a carrier protein.”

He fights the urge to shout But how? How did it happen? How is it being blocked? Why? How?? He literally has to bite his tongue, pulls his hands inside the sleeves of his labcoat and clenches his fists. She wants to treat symptoms when they need to identify the cause. She’s brilliant and wonderful but in this she is wrong. She is.

Somehow they keep working. Bruce’s fingernails leave bloody cuts in his palms, but they keep working.

 

*******

Steve wakes up with a start. He’s in his bed, in his apartment, and it’s strange, because he hasn’t been there in weeks. Thor is sitting in a chair beside him, reading a tattered copy of “The Postman”. He looks up, puts a hand on Steve’s arm.

“What are you—who’s watching them?” Steve asks, disoriented. If he and Thor are here that means that no one is with them. Anything could happen. Tony could start a fire. Natasha could escape. Clint could hurt himself. He needs to get back to them, take care of them, and get them to eat if he can.

“They are not alone. They are safe, and it’s alright to rest now.” Thor’s hand is a steady weight, like an anchor.

Steve falls back asleep.

 



Tony is in bed with Pepper again, but they aren’t seeking the perfect cuddle position this time, but laying face to face, his dark eyes on hers. It’s a little easier to think now, with her here; just the two of them in the dark, with no other noises, no other distractions.

Clint isn’t talking anymore. It’s not clear if he can’t speak or just won’t, and not even Fury can’t get him to respond in any meaningful way.

“Natalie and I will be next,” he points out. Pepper makes an unhappy face and runs her hand up through his hair. “Will you be happy when finally shut the fuck up? My parents are probably pretty eager for that day.”

“Not me,” she says. “Even when I’m sick to death of hearing you I still don’t want you to stop. I wouldn’t change you; I love you for all the things you are, I don’t mourn the things you aren’t.”

“What about when I’m not me anymore?”

“Oh? Who will you be, then?”

She makes it sound like a tease, like a joke, but it isn’t. She’s sad, but Tony suddenly can’t remember why. He probably said something. The wrong thing. He sighs and puts his hand on her waist, pulls her closer. “I’m glad you came back. I’m not sure why you left, but I’m glad you came back.”

“There is nothing you can do to keep me away,” Pepper promises. “There’s no one I won’t go through—even Captain America—and no door I won’t break down to get to you.”

 



On the nineteenth day, it’s ready. It’s a treatment and not the cure that Bruce wanted, but it’s something. 

“I should test it on Clint,” Bruce says, “but I can’t...for all the same reasons I should. He’s the worst of them. He could die.”

“I know,” she says worriedly. “That poor thing; it makes me sad just to look at him. Of course you can’t try it on him first.” Betty has never had any of Natasha’s—or even Pepper’s, apparently—brand of ruthless pragmatism. She has always been too sweet, too soft. “You’re going to try it on yourself.”

Well.

Maybe she’s not that soft.

Excuse me?”

“The Hulk will protect you from an adverse reaction, but we’ll also be able to see if it helps. You’re symptomatic, Bruce. You know you are.”

“That’s not true. I’m just tired, run down. Three weeks...I’ve been working on this for almost twenty hours a day. Let’s see how great you feel when—“

“You’re not just tired,” she snaps, and while some part of Bruce happily muses Betty grew a backbone, the rest of him recoils, the Hulk wanting to snarl at her. “I’ve seen you tired and sick and distracted. This isn’t that. You’re functional, but you still almost killed your friends with poor science because you couldn’t focus and because you wouldn’t ask for help. Steve thought no one could take care of everyone as well as he could, and you thought there couldn’t be a cure just because you couldn’t find it.”

“That’s ridiculous! I didn’t—and we are taking care of them!”

“Then why does Clint have trackmarks? A few weeks under your care and he and Tony look like junkies. Bruce, if you had to draw blood over and over why on earth wouldn’t you put in an IV port?”

That stops him cold. Why didn’t you use a port? What a simple question. What a simple idea. Anyone could have thought of that, and he should have, especially when he blew out the first, then the second, then the third vein in Barton’s arms.

“Why didn’t you, Bruce?”

No, she isn’t sweet at all. Somehow in the intervening years sweet Betty Ross had morphed into hard-as-nails Betty Ross, and Bruce suddenly doesn’t like her very much. Or at all. Wants her gone. Wants her away.

“Because...they wouldn’t have...”  No, Natasha wouldn’t have allowed it, but Tony would have understood and after a point Clint had been beyond arguing. He’s making a fool’s excuses, but it’s her that is making him sound weak.

“Why didn’t you do it, Bruce?” she pushes again.

“Because I didn’t think of it!” he roars back. Bruce sweeps all their data onto the floor, but Betty doesn’t flinch, doesn’t react at all.

He tries to calm his racing heart and breathing, center his mind but it isn’t working and and he waits, waits for the change he almost welcomes, for the release of it, for the pain, waits for the dread that will follow the destruction. But it doesn’t happen, and the Hulk is nothing more than a steady, muttered no no no no somewhere in the back of his skull. Not wanting to hurt her, for once working to keep himself at bay.

Betty,” Bruce says, strangled, reaching for her.

She holds out the syringe instead, still calm. Still confident. In him. “Trust me.”

 


 

On the evening twenty-first day, they are ready.

Natasha’s eyes are wild, not wanting the injections, but she recognizes Fury and accepts him as an authority. She puts her chin up and holds out her arm on his order, and Steve thinks that he’s never seen a braver act in all his life. Tony holds Pepper’s hand and allows it as well, while Clint just lays against Thor and doesn’t react at all. His eyes are open and unseeing, like he’s watching his own thoughts and memories play out instead of the world around him.

“Be okay,” Steve says to them. Two injections earlier that day and he’s markedly better, though still wracked with worry and barely able to look Pepper in the eye. “It’s not too late. Come back, and be okay.”

They pile up in the common room and wait.

It’s always better when they’re together.

 



On the morning of twenty-second day, it’s over.

Tony wakes up first. He looks blearily up at Bruce, then over to Thor and Steve. He sees Pepper, then Fury immediately after, his happy “Ah!” turning into an affronted “Ugh!” Fury raises an eyebrow but looks pretty charmed otherwise.

Tony’s surprise quickly gives way to an exuberant hopefulness. “You know, I always hoped...Is this an orgy? Did I really just wake up mid-Avengers orgy? Or am I just in time for the cuddle-tastic aftermath?” His smile is brilliant, a mirror of the others’. “Because at this point I’d be happy with either one.”


*******
Epilogue

Natasha wonders when showering is going to stop feeling like a blessed gift. Maybe not for awhile. She shampoos twice and conditions once and uses too much soap and then overlotions her skin to the point that it’s actually difficult to get dressed again. She hates going to bed with wet hair but it’s worth it for the luxury of the shower—her second one today.

Clint’s the one sitting against the bedpillows this time, a laptop perched atop his bent knees, the computer wobbling and dipping each time he hits the keys too hard—which is every time. There’s a frown line between his eyebrows as he concentrates on his hunt-and-peck style typing, and as she saunters in Natasha idly wishes, not for the first time, that he wore reading glasses. He would look pretty goddamned adorable sitting there in pajamas and a pair of dark, dorky glasses.

“Almost done?” she asks.

“Hell no. But I’ll quit anyway. That’s the first rule of show business, you know—always leave ‘em wanting more.”

She climbs in next to him, peeks at the screen, and sighs. His reports for SHIELD had been consistently tardy, but still complete and professional—Coulson demanded no less. But ever since the organization collapsed and Clint has reported to the Avengers alone, it’s been a point of pride with him to make every report as unpleasant to read as they are for him to write. This time he’s made liberal use of bullet points, the whole thing centered obnoxiously and vaguely arrow-shaped.

• they locked me
• up in starks stupid
• human fishtank the ventilation
• in that motherfucker is awful get it fixed in case you ever need
• to put me back

Natasha shakes her head, trying not to smile, because it only encourages him.

“I so love to see the little vein in Steve’s forehead pop out,” he says, grinning. “And when he’s really mad? That muscle twitches in his jaw. You’ve seen it. It looks like—“ He does a pretty passable imitation.

She presses against him, putting her face into the hollow of his neck, and he sets the computer on his nightstand, touches the side of his head to the top of hers.

“I can’t believe you questioned my commitment to the pink blanket,” Clint says, and runs a hand down it with exaggerated tenderness. She’d questioned his love for her, as well, but he doesn’t mention that—some things are better left unsaid forever. “It’s sooooo beautiful.”

Natasha elbows him, hard, right where she’d stabbed him once, her lips twisting up as he groans. “We’ll need to replace it anyway.” She sighs. “The blood didn’t wash out.”

“And that, Dear Heart, should be the name of our joint biography.” He kisses her hair with a loud smack to cover the slight unhappiness to those words. “Well...as long as we’re doing big emotional displays, I may as well tell you that I slept with someone else. Right here in our own bubblegum colored bed, no less.”

“Oh yeah? Who with?” She’s heard too many of his gosh-golly-gee-Hawkeye-is-hilarious jokes over the last decade to even feign concern.

“It was Nick fucking Fury!” Natasha looks up and laughs; Clint is practically apoplectic with delight. “I cuddled with the alpha badass of the world! And he let me do it!”

“Oh my god. He must have been sure you were dying.” She kisses his cheek and lays down, motions for him to do the same.

“Yes, he was,” Clint says happily, snapping off the beside light, and presses up against her. Back to back, the way they’ve always slept, from the moment they each decided the other was worth protecting. “In fact, you might be pretty surprised what people will admit to when they think you won’t remember it.”

“I’m sure I would be.” She’s also sure that it’s another joke, but he’s too quiet suddenly, and his hand gropes backward to clutch hers. “Clint?”

“Phil is alive.”