There has been nothing in Clint’s many years of horrifying sights, sounds and deeds that prepared him for the sound of Natasha weeping in her sleep. It woke him as if he’d been electrified. He took a single deep breath and tried not to move.
He had never heard her do this before. Not when they were squeezed into a bunk on a missile sub, not when they had to take turns napping in the back of a tank taking blows from enemy fire, not even in the longest night of Budapest when he had kept watch over her concussed body with an AK-47 clenched so hard in his hands that when she finally woke up, she had to massage his cramped fingers so he could let it go. All those many nights, she had only slept so still and quiet that he sometimes wondered if she had died.
Tonight, the first night she had come to his bed for no other reason than she wanted to be there, tonight she cried. It wasn’t loud really. A shaking wave that left her cheeks wet and her forehead wrinkled. Her fingers clutched at the sheets as if seeking someone long gone missing.
It didn’t surprise him at all that she could cry. He had seen her do it at moment’s notice if it was required. In an instant, she was a delicate flower scared and trembling. But those were crocodile tears.
There had been times early on when he was first pulling the scales from her eyes that had been bolted on from childhood, that he had wished to see her sob. He wanted to know that the frozen bombshell could be hurt. That there was something left in her to feel. She never did. Not even when he told her, as gently as he could, that she had never been a ballerina. That all those years of training, of doing, of being something other than a delivery system for other people’s vengeance, were false memories. Her fury had burned hot, her guilt a bloody wellspring, but she had never cried.
And now in the warm safety of this room, in his bed, she wept as if all hope was lost. It was enough to give a man a complex if he wasn’t busy trying to figure out what to do about it. He didn’t have much experience with comforting people. It didn’t come up a lot in his line of work. And it wasn't as if Natasha was generally open to that sort of thing.
He didn’t dare touch her until she was properly awake. They woke each other up verbally, always. For good reason. He would have to actually say something. Something non-offensive and open and supportive.
For a brief, insane moment, he wondered if JARVIS would have any ideas. The AI was good a problem solving. Natasha made a wounded choking noise and suddenly, he was blurting,
“Don’t cry, sweetheart, you’re breaking my heart.”
Her eyes flew open, her hand going to her face, fingers touching her own damp cheeks in confusion. She blinked at him, the last of the tears melting away.
“Why am I...” She sat up a little, sniffling experimentally. He reached across her to the bedside table, handing her a tissue. For a moment she just stared at it, then blew her nose.
“I don’t know. I just woke up and you were. Bad dream?”
“Yes.” She frowned, tossing the tissue neatly into the wastebasket.
“Hey, c’mere.” He tugged at her until she rolled stiffly into his arms. “Probably only to be expected with all the shit you’ve had to talk about for the past few days.”
“Tash, half the stuff you told me this week is nightmare fuel to ordinary people. The other half would probably send them into catatonia. I think you’re allowed a few rough nights.”
She insinuated herself impossibly closer, one leg thrown over his, an arm around him and her forehead touching his. It was intoxicating. Far too long since he’d held a woman close, longer even than that since he’d wanted one to stay. Natasha had filled up all the space in his life where another woman might fit for so many years. Maybe since that first day when she had been all fury and knives.
“Don’t call me sweetheart.” She said sharply, threat somewhat undermined by the way their noses were touching.
“Just sort of came out. But you’re going to have to allow me a few endearments.”
“Relationships are about compromise.”
“Did you read that in a book?”
“Dear Abbey.” He stroked a tentative hand down her back. “That lady knows her stuff.”
“I dreamed that he came for me.” She said abruptly. “I was sitting on the edge of a building, his hands on my shoulder. He whispered something in my ear then snapped my neck”
“Harsh.” He kept up the slow caress. “It’s not unlikely. Not the building part. That he’ll come looking.”
“I think he’s already begun.” She sighed. “That target today was deliberate. A warning shot across my nose.”
“Can you take him down when the time comes?”
“You’re the one that signed me up for this knowing where things stood.”
“I know, but I’m asking again. Can you do it?”
“Yes.” She glared at him, eyes a little cross from being so close. “He was my lover, but it was a long time ago. He’s more monster than man. I can shoot him if I need to without hesitation.”
“I’ll do it for you, if I can.”
“Go for a run with me.” She kissed him the edges of his mouth, coaxing. “Spar. Anything. I need to burn this off.”
“How about laps? Break in the new pool.”
Technically the pool wasn't open for use yet. Pepper had posted a notice on the refrigerator with reasons as to why, but none of them looked hazardous. Tony had already used it several times with Pepper away on business, blatantly towel drying his hair in front of the sign as if she would feel his defiance in Kyoto. Steve had refrained, but Clint had seen Bruce trailing after Tony’s towel clad body with his pant legs rolled up and feet still dripping.
“Yes.” She agreed, breaking away from him. “Laps would be good.”
Her bathing suit was the color of fresh butter with dark red trim and covered more of her than some of the dresses he’d seen her in. It made her look a little like a pinup girl and he trailed happily after her in his own sensible trunks. The play of muscle under creamy white skin fed his already rich bank of fantasies. He hadn’t lied when he told her that sex didn’t matter between them. They would always be partners. But. Well. He was only human wasn’t he? What he thought about when he was alone in the dark was no one else's business.
The swimming pool sat under a dome of glass. Anywhere else and they might have seen a brilliant display of stars, but this was Manhatten. Instead a thousand points of artificial light cast the stars into darkness while the pool glowed with pale underwater light. There was no furniture out yet and bright yellow caution tape wrapped around the hot tub. Natasha slipped under the water in one elegant move, her hair billowing out behind her red as blood. He followed, taking one lane over. Not willing to risk his eyes to the chlorine, he mostly swam with them closed in a long armed crawl. He could just make out the sound of her occasionally breaking to the surface for air. Otherwise, she was quiet and quick as a seal. It took him entire precious seconds to realize that she’d stopped altogether.
He slowed his crawl and turned. She was standing in the shallow end, arms ramrod straight at her sides, staring up.
The Winter Soldier was everything Clint had heard and more. It wasn’t often that assassins lived up to their reputations. For one thing, if they were as good as was said than no one lived to describe them. For another, it didn't do anyone in their field any good to actually look like an assasin. The Winter Soldier was a new exception.
He wasn’t an especially large man, but his shoulders were broad and his stance wide. The bionic arm looked nearly natural, except for it’s out of scale proportions. A brilliant red star painted on the upper bicep ruined the otherwise monochromatic look. Clint approved of the practical black uniform with the line of pockets and clear bulge of kevlar underneath. Even the black domino mask worked combined with thick dark hair falling around his face. It shadowed all his features, rendering him almost faceless. He carried a gun in his natural hand, training it on Natasha’s forehead.
Clint carefully drew out the knife he’d tucked into the swimsuit’s zippered pocket. It wasn’t balanced for throwing, but he could make it work if it became necessary.
“Hello, Soldier. How’ve you been?” Natasha said with the kind of sauce she used for a mark. It was even lightly accented. He hadn’t heard her accent in so long that it sounded fake now.
“Natasha.” And to Clint’s shock, the man dropped to one knee and offered her his bionic hand. She took it and he drew her from the water, setting her neatly on her feet in front of him. “How long since I saw you? You look...grown up.”
“I am.” She held onto to his hand. In the terrible long hours of debriefing, she’d explained that the bionic arm was capable of ripping a grown man apart. Clint moved slowly in the water waiting to reach the right angle for a guaranteed kill shot.
“Do you require assistance, Ms. Romanov?” JARVIS asked. “I apologize for the delay. My sensors for this area are not fully alert.”
“Stand down, Mr. Jarvis.” She said calmly. It was one of the trigger phrases that they had worked out and insisted everyone in the house memorize. Right now, JARVIS would be waking everyone and telling them to come in fast and quiet.
“You defected. I couldn’t believe it when they told me.” The Winter Soldier’s reached to touch a wet strand of her hair with his trigger finger. Every atom of every cell of Clint’s body revolted. He wanted nothing more than to leap from the water and strangle the son of a bitch. Only years of training kept him still, waiting for the right moment.
“I had to.” Natasha cupped her hand around his, the muzzle of his gun pointing harmlessly at the ground behind her. “They messed with my mind, changed my past to suit their needs. I couldn’t live like that.”
“You know what I have to do.”
“And you know I won't go down without a fight.” She dropped her hold on him and took a step back.
She drew a small caliber pistol from the bust of her bathing suit. Faster than Clint could track, Winter Soldier’s bionic arm whipped out out, grabbed her wrist and twisted until something snapped, while issuing a sound kick to her stomach.
Clint threw, aiming for the weak spot at the temple. Without so much as looking, the bionic arm swept up and knocked the knife from the air. A gun appeared as if from thin air and the shot went off before he could properly react. Only the distortion of the water prevented the shot from hitting true. It glanced off Clint’s shoulder, a bright splash of pain that he quickly locked down.
As he regained himself, Clint saw the team gathering in the vestibule. Tony, unsuited had been shoved to the back to keep the light of the arch reactor from giving them away. Steve and Bruce were talking mostly through hand signals.
“Goodbye, little darling.” The Soldier said gravely, taking aim at Natasha, already back on her feet.
“Please, it doesn’t have to end this way.” She said in her best injured fawn voice. Clint calculated angles and found no way that let him reach her in time.
The Winter Soldier squared his shoulders, resolve strengthening his stance. Clint made himself keep his eyes open. Natasha was the best. She had been shot at point blank range before and won. And if this was the end, the least he could do was bear witness.
The gun never went off.
It happened in an instant. One moment, Natasha was tensed, ready to move to take the bullet as best she could. The next the Winter Soldier was buried under a blur of green and rage. Clint launched out of the pool, ready to pull her out of range. Natasha had a bad habit of freezing up when the Hulk was involved, just for a second, but that could be long enough.
The concrete shuddered under one particularly fierce blow of the Hulk’s fist, knocking him to his feet and back into the pool.
“Hulk smash.” The great beast said, oddly peaceably, turning from his prey to face Natasha. With one great shake, the Hulk was gone and Bruce, naked and trembling, staggered in his place. Tony rushed from the atrium, holding out a bathrobe. Clint mirrored him, stepping cautiously towards Natasha, who was trembling almost imperceptibly.
“Are you alright?” Bruce closed the space between them, taking Natasha’s wounded wrist gently between his hands. “This looks broken.”
“It is.” She said, dazedly. “Bruce...”
“Hey, it’s ok.” He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “It’s ok.”
Clint looked at Tony over their heads. With a shrug, Tony threw the robe over his shoulders and opened his arms.
“Fuck off and die.” Clint told him with a relieved smile.
“I’m not feeling the love.”
“How did he get in?” Steve asked, passing by the four of them to look over the prone body. “Oh God, he’s still breathing. We have to get him medical attention.”
“I’ve got a patient.” Bruce let Tony settle the robe around his shoulders, all his attention bent on Natasha. “Call in SHIELD. They’ll have a high security hospital bed.”
“JARVIS is already on it like ten minutes ago.” Tony rolled his eyes. “Right?”
“Yes, sir.” JARVIS cut in. “I alerted them after Ms. Romanov’s order. They should arrive in the next three minutes. I have already forwarded video and pictures of the event to Director Fury. If you would remove his mask, Mr. Rogers, I will take high resolution photos of his face as well.”
Steve obediently bent down, prying at the edges of the man’s mask. Clint turned his attention to Natasha, who was allowing Bruce to run his fingers over the break.
“You good?” He asked her, moving in when it became clear Bruce wasn’t backing off anytime soon.
“Yeah.” She offered him a tight smile. “I had a plan. It wasn’t as close as it looked.”
“Are you bleeding?” Bruce asked, glancing up at his shoulder.
“Oh, yeah.” Now that Bruce mentioned it, it stung like a son of a bitch. “Flesh wound.”
“We need to get both of you downstairs.” Bruce huffed. “Unless you want the SHIELD medics to look it over?”
Clint waited for Natasha to say that yes, she would in fact prefer that because the idea of Bruce touching her made her skin crawl. Instead, she shook her head.
“You.” She insisted, glancing up at Clint.
“Yeah.” He blinked. “Yeah, ok.”
The thing was, Clint liked people in a way Natasha didn’t. He had liked Tony from the get go, despite his vast idiosyncrasies and Natasha’s many complaints from her time undercover with him. Underneath all that ridiculousness, Tony cared about the world he’d done so much to ruin. He was a man intent on making amends, something Clint was all too familiar with. Plus, he was usually hilarious a trait not common in the tight, anxious world of SHIELD. Steve and Thor were even easier to like. They were good solid men through and through. Bruce was more complicated, dogged by his own beastly shadow, but that had never bothered Clint. The fact was that most of the time, Bruce was a bundle of nerves, flyaway curls, ancient clothes and huge words made it hard to be intimidated by him.
Clint liked people. He liked his team. He didn’t trust them. That particular list up until a year ago had been: himself, Natasha, and Phil. As of ten minutes ago it had been: Natasha. One year was not enough time for people to show their true colors. To let you down, to turncoat, to break at the wrong moment.
But Natasha gave him a firm look and a nod and now apparently, they trusted Bruce. Fine. He could be ok with that. Maybe it was time to write a few new names down, if only in pencil.
“No!” Steve was on his feet. “It’s not possible.”
“Steve?” Tony was at his side, staring down at the black and blue face of the Winter Soldier. “What is it?”
“It’s not...he died. I watched him die.” Steve kept stepping away until he was in danger of falling into the pool. “He fell, we were hundreds of feet up.”
“Wait.” Tony wrinkled his nose. “You mean your sidekick?”
“Bucky. He wasn’t my sidekick. He was my friend.”
“Right.” Bruce finished pulling on the robe, belting it firmly. “Med lab, downstairs. Bleeding people can get the drama newsletter later. Tony, you got this?”
Tony saluted sloppily. “On it. JARVIS, give Pep the all clear, ok? I can hear her yelling obscenities at me from Japan.”
“We don’t know if it’s all clear.” Clint protested even as he was herded toward the elevator.
“SHIELD has arrived, Mr. Barton.” JARVIS said crisply. “They are checking the building now. General Fury has requested an immediate meeting. I informed him of the team’s injuries and he has agreed to wait until this afternoon.”
“Thanks, JARVIS. Hold any incoming unless it’s critical, ok?” Bruce did something to the elevator keypad and the doors shook before opening. Dimly, Clint remembered something about lock down mode.
The elevator sank like a stone. Blood loss must have been making him woozy because Clint found himself clinging to the handrail. Natasha looked a little green. The pain must be sinking in with the adrenaline rush over.
“Here, sit.” Bruce ordered when the doors opened on a clean white room that Clint hadn’t seen before. There were several nice cots and a wall full of medical supplies. “You’re in luck. Pepper and I finished stocking this place last month.”
“We have our own med bay.” Clint was still a little boggled sometimes by how quickly money got spent when there wasn’t a bureaucracy involved. “Underground.”
“Right next to the panic room and the nuclear fallout bunker.” Bruce grabbed a thick pad of cloth and made to put on Clint’s shoulder.
“Oh, hey. Natasha first, man. I’m only bleeding.”
“I am going to treat her first. This is for you to hold down so you don’t bleed out while I take care of her.” Bruce covered the wound and exerted an even pressure. “Can you duplicate that?”
“This isn’t my first rodeo.” He took over with a sigh. “Thanks.”
“Mmm. Welcome.” Bruce turned on him to examine Natasha’s wrist. “X-rays then setting.”
Bruce picked up some kind of mutated Polaroid camera and snapped a few shots. Film came out exactly like the old Polaroids and the film even coming out the front. Once they developed, they looked like the same translucent white and black photos Clint had seen too many times before.
“Stark invention?” Natasha asked, her voice slightly pinched as Bruce examined the x-rays.
“Hm? No. Banner. Part of something I’m working on. Improving medicine in poorer areas. Compact, cheap, easy to work diagnostic tools.” He wrinkled his nose. “Not really my field, but some of the guys in R and D are helping. We’re in luck, it’s a clean break. I can set it and fix it here. If it was shattered, we’d be in trouble.”
Clint moved to Natasha’s good side and offered up his free hand to her. She took it, lacing her fingers through his and laying her head on his shoulder.
“This is a numbing agent.” Bruce held up an aerosol. “It works fast, but also wears off fast.”
Bruce kept talking. He talked as he numbed her, set the bone and applied a cast with meticulous care. He explained every move he made without sounding condescending or patronizing. Natasha never released her grip on Clint’s hand, but outwardly she was utterly calm. Almost at ease.
“Your turn.” Bruce turned on him what seemed like hours later.
They shuffled around the cot until Bruce could get at Clint’s shoulder without craning his neck and Natasha could lean against his uninjured side.
“What’s the prognosis, doc?” He peeled away the blood soaked cloth.
“You tell me.” Bruce sprayed him with the same numbing agent then set to cleaning out the wound with the kind of brisk efficiency that screamed battle medicine.
“Clipped me. Probably a few stitches?”
“Fifteen at least. Awkward spot at the top of the shoulder. You’ll have to take it easy for a week or so while it heals.”
“I thought your doctorate was in physics.” Clint mentioned though it was far past the time to care.
“I learned first aid on the go.” Bruce set out some supplies. “It was more useful than particle physics where I was. Picked up some advanced things where I could.”
“Genius, remember?” Natasha ghost whispered into his ear.
“This night hasn’t gone how I planned.”
“You had a plan?” Her laugh tickled his neck. “That was your first mistake.”
Twenty-seven stitches closed up the gash and the white bandage spread over most of his shoulder would keep it clean. There was a definite mobility compromise. He’d be out of commission for a while.
“Percocet.” Bruce pulled out a bottle from a bottom drawer. “Both of you.”
Clint palmed his pills even as he watched to make sure Natasha took hers. It wouldn’t be hard to stay up a few more hours. She needed the sleep more.
“You too.” Bruce trained a steely gaze on Clint’s palm.
“What?” Clint looked guilelessly back.
“You’re out of your league.” Bruce shook his head. “Tony is the Jedi Master of fake swallowing.”
“I’ll take them later.”
“You’re in pain now.”
“I need to be awake.” He killed the innocent look in favor for very real need.
“Do you.” Bruce looked between him and Natasha, who was already fading a little.
“We were attacked in our home.” Clint frowned.
“Oh.” Bruce looked up at the ceiling then back to Clint with a shrug. “I’ll take watch.”
Losing someone was like an injury. Clint was mostly healed over now and he didn’t even think about it more than once or twice a day. Then out of nowhere, he’d turn the wrong way, see the wrong thing and it split open again, bleeding everywhere.
”Go to sleep, Barton.” Phil commanded from the driver’s seat. Natasha was already slumped under a blanket, not really asleep but hardly awake.
“Can’t.” He’d been so much younger than and so much more afraid.
“Everything is under control.” Phil’s dark eyes met his in the rear view mirror. “Lay down, agent. I’ll take watch.”
“Thank you,” Natasha said for them, pushing at Clint until he got off the cot. “Take your pills, Clint.”
Too off kilter to resist the command, he took his pills. They were bitter going down.
He hoped that he could blame them for the blur his memory became after that point. Surely there was an elevator ride, a walk up the tortuously cold marble stairs, some kind of shower and definitely a clothing change because he’d still been in his swimsuit. It all faded into a muddy grey mix of painkiller and grief.
He woke, head pounding and mouth dry. Natasha lay next to him in one of his cotton undershirts and a pair of Captain America boxers that he’d been saving for the right moment. It made her look oddly normal and soft. Her cast rested on her stomach. With care, he managed to get out of bed without jostling her too much.
Brushing his teeth and drinking from the faucet alleviated the worst of the hungover feelings. With the half-cooked idea that he should check-in with the rest of the team, he opened the door to the hall. Only to find Bruce settled on a fold out chair, a paperback open on his lap. He looked up at Clint, surveying him.
“How do you feel?”
“Like I got shot.” He leaned in the doorway. “What are you reading?”
“The Hobbit. Steve and I have a book club going. He’s got American Gods right now. Something to talk about when we meet awkwardly in the kitchen at three am.”
“Huh. That’s way better than watching the QVC. What time is it, by the way?”
“It is twelve thirty-two pm.” JARVIS chimed in.
“Time for ibuprofen.” Bruce took a bottle out of his pocket and handed it over. “I figured you were done with the hard stuff. There’s some on the bedside table for Natasha though.”
“Thanks.” He dry swallowed three of the pills. “And you know. Thanks for taking care of her. Us.”
“It made me feel useful. So thank you, for letting me.” He stood up and folded his chair up. “The debriefing is at two, in the living room.”
“The living room?”
“Pepper called Fury.” Bruce didn’t smile, so much as exude amusement. “Apparently, she felt that everyone needed a day at home.”
“I thought she was in Kyoto?”
“Oh, she is. Her wrath is far reaching. And she likes Natasha a lot.”
“Well, she’s a woman of taste.”
“Bruce!” Tony descended the stairs, hair at wild angles and eyes bloodshot. “Oh good, you’re awake Barton. Can I have my boyfriend back now?”
“He’s all yours.”
Tony threw an arm around Bruce’s shoulders, “Pepper is allowing Fury to step into our home. She’s officially lost her mind, yes or yes?”
“It’s better than going over to SHIELD offices. You how much I hate it there.” Bruce replied mildly and Clint could actually see Tony’s mind backtracking, reworking and accommodating. It was weird.
“Maybe you should cook. I bet he hasn’t had a home cooked meal in so long, he won’t notice anything else.”
“Tony,” Bruce started walking away, “you realize we didn’t actually do anything wrong this time, right?”
Clint turned back to the now empty spot where Bruce had been. Probably for hours. He could have left at any time. Neither of them would have blamed him for going once the all clear was official. They never would have asked him to take watch again though and maybe Bruce knew that.
He went back inside. Natasha hadn’t moved and for a moment, he briefly debated leaving her there. Though if she missed the debriefing, he knew he would catch hell later.
“Time to wake up, kitten.”
“I don’t like kitten either.” She said, eyes still closed.
“Honey, baby, angel, sweetlips?” He offered.
“No, no, no and I will remove your testitcles.”
“Light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul.”
“Do I look underage?” She cracked one eye open. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Bruce stayed.” He sat down next to her, brushing stray hairs from her face. “You were right.”
“I’m always right.” She kissed his palm, nearly distracting him from the point.
“Why him? Why now?”
“Because he wasn’t the Hulk yet when he got between me and the gun.”
Clint strained to remember, he’d only seen green, but she had been closer.
“He’s not Phil.” He said because it had to be vocalized.
“And we’re not regular agents anymore.” She sighed. “Things change. We’ve changed.”
“Doesn’t he already have enough on his plate? I mean. Between the Hulk and science and Tony and Pepper...”
“We don't need all of him, not the way we had Phil.” She sat up, searching his eyes. “We don’t need a handler anymore. We need friends.”
“I’m the one who makes friends.” He teased, but it came out serious. “You...don’t.”
“I don’t take lovers either.” She kissed him, once, twice. “And yet.”
“Apparently Pepper made Fury agree to have an in-house debriefing. She’s worried about you.”
“That was kind of her.” She raised a pointed eyebrow and he conceded defeat with a nod.
“It’s in an hour or so. Want something to eat? There’s more painkillers.”
“Food and then pills. They’re too strong on an empty stomach.”
Theoretically, she could have easily dressed herself with one hand. He was reasonably sure she could dress herself without the use of either of her arms if it came to it. Yet, she let him hold out a pair of slacks so she could step into them with her good hand on his good shoulder for balance. Her thighs twitched as his thumbs skimmed them. Impulsively, he kissed the hard surface of her stomach, cupped the swell of her ass in his hand. When he pulled a tight black tank top over her head, he caressed the milky skin of her biceps and palmed the contour of her ribs.
“I’m here.” She said, breaking his silent communication with her body. “I’m alive.”
“Do you know,” he kissed her throat, to feel the jump of her pulse under his lips, “that I love you?”
“Yes,” she pushed him away, “I do. Now. Food. Pills. Meeting.”
What he wanted was to pin her to the wall, to lick her all over, to have her right then and there. He wanted to make her his in a way that would be irrevocable and undeniable. But he was an agent before he was a private citizen. He could never do exactly as he pleased. The deal had been struck long ago and he had few chances to regret it. This was going down as one of those.
“As my lady demands.”
“Not lady either.”
The kitchen had been neatly cordoned off with yellow caution tape that looked as if it had been stolen from the hot tub upstairs. Bruce was chopping something while Steve and Tony stood outside looking slightly lost.
“We’ve been banished.” Tony informed them.
“Cabbage may be a more serious business than either of us originally guessed.” Steve offered sheepishly. He looked as awful as it was possible for Steve to look. His eyes were even a little red as if he’d been crying.
“Let’s wait in the living room.” Natasha led the way, sitting in an overstuffed armchair. Clint sank down, leaning against her legs. He liked being there, taking comfort in her presence and maybe a little because she couldn’t disappear on him that way.
Tony ensconced himself on one end of the couch, legs thrown over the arm while Steve circled the living room like a restless dog.
“Was it Barnes?” Natasha asked as Steve started his third pass around the coffee table.
“I-yeah. I think so.” Steve stopped as if all his energy had been drained at once. “It looked like him, but still...young.”
“Cryogenics.” She supplied and Clint remembered her drawing out the chamber for the SHIELD scientists only a few days ago in her neat lines and sweeping arcs. “Years would go by sometimes. They’d let him out of the box for a job, then back on ice.”
“Did he ever....” Steve stopped.
“He didn’t remember anything. If you asked him about his past, he would go blank. Slack. They’d programmed him to exist for the job.” She hesitated at Steve’s lost expression, then plowed on. “Glimpses came through though. He could be kind. Funny, even, if he thought no one was listening.”
“He was funny.” Steve didn’t brighten, but he did finally sit down.
The elevator dinged and they all went silent. Clint sat up straighter, sucking in a breath as he pulled at the stitches. Fury entered the room, black coat sweeping out behind him. He surveyed the room, a king among his subjects, hands tucked at the small of his back.
“Welcome to my humble abode.” Tony muttered.
“We have confirmation,” Fury said as if Tony hadn’t spoken though Clint knew he heard him, “that the man currently in custody is James Buchanan Barnes, formerly believed to have died in action.
“His current condition is critical, but the doctors seem to think he will live with minimum permanent damage. He hasn’t woken up yet, but we will be keeping him in maximum security facilities at all times. Brain scans and preliminary reports indicate that he was subjected to brainwashing techniques familiar to us.”
“Then they can be undone.” Natasha said firmly. “We can retrieve him.”
“You can?” Steve looked between her and Fury, hope in his eyes.
“We’ve only done it successfully on one previous occasion. And that was done with trial and grievous error.”
“Hey, everyone lived.” Clint objected.
“We had to rebuild the Berne facility.”
“Not much of a waste.” Draping her leg over Clint’s shoulder in something like protectiveness, Natasha went on. “The Berne facility was a two room shack.”
“But it can be done.” Steve pressed.
“Yes.” Fury admitted reluctantly. “Agent Barton?”
They all turned to look at him. Even Tony, who had to practically squirm off the couch to do so.
“It takes time, mostly.” He couldn't look at Steve, so he kept eye contact with the far wall. “A lot of hard conversations. I had help though.”
They’d stayed there for weeks, exhausted and half-crazed, sending junior agents out for food. Clint should have been one of them. He’d only gone legitimate with the goverment months before, but Coulson had insisted that he be made a senior agent based on experience, then roped him into the deprogramming.
“You spared her, agent. You've got to be the one that proves she was worth it.”
He had imagined Phil handling the real work while he dithered around the edges guarding them all, but it was Clint that Natasha had latched onto in her way. Clint who she allowed to sit close and explain that her life was a lie.
“It requires rapport.” Natasha slid her heel over his chest as if to soothe him. “Time, energy. I can help with that as we have a previous relationship.”
“So do I.” Steve crossed his arms over his chest, ready for a fight.
“And we’ll take that into account.” Fury said firmly. “But you have to be prepared for the worst, Captain. He was under for a long time and we can’t account for the cryogenics. Even if he breaks through the conditioning, he may not be the man you remember.”
“Then I’ll make a new friend, won’t I, sir?”
Tony stifled a laugh. Bruce and Pepper must have been working on that. He’d never bothered to stifle anything before.
“Can we expect any further enemy action?” Clint asked before Tony undid his good work.
“We’re unsure. The Russians are denying any knowledge of the Winter Soldier, Department X and the Red Room facility. All the leads we generated in the search led to dead ends or long abandoned buildings. Best guess is that whoever had him last turned him loose one way or another with a general clean up order. Get rid of anyone that might talk about Red Room.”
“I’m the last.” Natasha’s foot stopped moving and Clint wrapped a hand around her ankle in support. They had been saying it, but not saying it. He wondered if the others had guessed already or if they had imagined it had something to do with Loki’s ugly magic.
It wasn’t that he didn’t count Loki’s hacking into his mind as brainwashing, only that it was something altogether different. Natasha had believed what they had stuffed into her head with the kind of fervor usually reserved for mystics and acted accordingly while Clint had been made a drone, mindful, but without his own will. A knock over the head was a damn sight easier cure then the long weeks of Berne and the years of piecing things together that had come after.
“As far as we can determine.” Fury agreed. “The last few sleeper agents disappeared off our radar last year. Barnes work, most likely.”
“Lunch.” Bruce announced unceremoniously, slouching into the room, hair in his eyes. “Are you staying, sir?”
“Has Stark chained you to the stove, Dr. Banner? When he said he was hiring you, I assumed it was in your capacity as a scientist.” Fury arched up an eyebrow and it occurred to Clint that Fury...didn’t know. The idea that the man Clint had been sure was omniscient had somehow missed the most obvious relationship since Branjelina took him off guard. He glanced up at Natasha who looked equally startled.
“Cooking is a science.” Bruce replied serenely. “Mix the right chemicals and generally it won’t explode or kill anyone.”
“He finds it soothing.” Tony grinned though from upside down it looked even sharper and more manic than usual. “I encourage the soothing vibes.”
“Stark, there is nothing soothing about you.” Fury’s eyes darted around the room. He’d picked up that he was missing something.
“Staying or going, sir?” Bruce asked, rocking a little on his feet, for all the world another small, unassuming man.
“Going. There’s more to talk about it, but we'll need Barnes conscious for it.” Fury turned on his heel. “You will be alerted when he’s awake.”
“I want to see him.” Steve got to his feet, following Fury to the elevator. A whispered shouting match followed that Clint didn’t bother to eavesdrop on.
“What’s for lunch?” He got to his feet slowly, the ache in his shoulder penetrating through the ibuprofen.
“Comfort food.” Bruce ambled back out.
“Fury is afraid of Bruce.” Tony’s grin got impossibly wider. “That. That is...hilariously awesome.”
“Anyone sane is afraid of him.” Clint pointed out, heading toward the kitchen. “It’s good thing our collective sanity took a leave of absence when we moved in.”
Lunch proved to be stuffed cabbage with leak and potato soup on the side. Natasha comfort food. Though the smells filled something empty and aching in Clint’s chest too, so maybe it was everyone’s comfort food. They ate in silence, Tony diverted by a flurry of text messages from the R&D team. Steve came in, color drained from his face and took only half of his usual giant portion.
“We’ll do whatever we can.” Clint found himself saying.
“Thanks.” Steve set down his fork. “I...thanks.”
“It’s an animated feature afternoon.” Tony declared, stabbing viciously at the keys. “No one’s getting any work done anyway.”
With surprising care, Tony told JARVIS to play one of the few Disney films with no obvious themes of death or loss. Maybe Emperor’s New Groove wasn’t going to win any awards, but it had no bad associations. The elevator opened just as the credits were rolling and Pepper arrived in a flurry of suitcases. She dropped them all at the living room entrance and came immediately to Natasha’s side making a disapproving noise over her wrist.
“You can't play WoW or the WII like that.” Pepper reached into her enormous purse and pulled out a CD-Rom case, dropping it into Natasha’s lap. “Civilization V. Me and my troops stomping you and your culture out of existence, Tuesday at 7pm.”
“You’re on, Potts.” Natasha grinned at the case. Her next dose of Percocet has left her a little untethered and the smile careened into deadly shark territory.
Pepper turned on her towering heels to kiss first Bruce and then Tony, running her hands over their chests and arms as if inspecting them for damage.
“There’s leftovers.” Bruce offered when she drew away.
“I’ll get something later. You,” she pointed to Steve, “with me.”
“Uh...” Steve got to his feet. “Is everything alright?”
“I need you to help me put away my suitcase. The shelf is high.”
“Hey!” Tony protested. Bruce poked him hard in the ribs.
When Pepper and Steve were gone again, Tony turned to Bruce with his eyebrows raised.
“She wants to talk to him alone.” Bruce said patiently. “They’re friends.”
“No, I get that. But why does the excuse have to be at my expense.”
“Steve is a giant. Don’t take the height thing personally. You're taller than me."
"Only half the time."
“They’re going to keep bantering.” Natasha complained.
“Probably.” Clint levered himself up. “Want to adjourn to my place?”
“No.” She got unsteadily to her feet. “Mine.”
To combat the arctic temperatures of her suite, Clint brought in his own rarely used comforter to add to her nest. They bundled together and turned on the television for background noise.
“You know,” she said when the news melted into prime time sitcoms, “I should feel worse than I do. I should feel paranoid.”
“Yeah.” He put his arm around her shoulders, soaked in the clean sweet smell of her hair.
“The building was compromised, the team was nearly too late and JARVIS didn’t react properly. I should be pacing the halls, checking every door.”
“So why aren’t you?”
“I feel safe. Which is sloppy and stupid, but I can’t help it.” She turned her face up to his, lips asking for a kiss, so he obliged them. When he pulled away, she sighed and closed her eyes against the flickering glare of the television.
“I told Pepper months ago that this was home.” He drew the comforter closer around them. “Glad to know I was right.”
“Don’t let it go to your head.”
“I never do, Nat. Never do.”
“Call me Nat. I like how you say it.”
“Nat.” He repeated. “But I’ve always called you that.”
"That’s why I like it.”
Then she went heavy against him, the pills finally dragging her into sleep. This time she didn’t cry. Though she did drool a little and he intended to hold that over her head for the rest of their lives.