Phil Coulson is not the Avengers' Matchmaker (Or Their Style Consultant)
When Thor was in a really good mood, Tony Stark almost expected small forest creatures to come scrambling out of the woodwork to sing happy songs and dance little dances.
He blamed the cape, really.
“No one should be that goddamn happy when leaving a meeting with Fury,” Tony said to Steve, who was bent awkwardly over a folder of paperwork. The blonde glanced up, his body still canted forward. There was a pen gripped in his teeth like the pin of a grenade, and his hair was ruffled against his forehead.
“Maybe the Director had good news for him,” Steve said, bending back over his forms.
“Fury wouldn't know good news if it bit his ass and called him baby,” Tony pointed out, leaning back in his chair. He wished it was the old fashioned kind so he could tip himself back on the rear legs, but the helicarrier only had high tech things that were glued to the damn floor and Tony was bored.
“Appealing mental picture,” Clint said. His booted feet were crossed at the ankles and braced against the wall. “Really. Thanks for that.” He was spinning his pen between his fingers, the gesture idle and easy. His head was bent over his report, but his attention was on Thor as the man all but skipped towards them.
Thor in full-on skip mode made his cape billow and the hallways shake.
Bruce was sipping a cup of herbal tea, the only one without reports to file. His job, after a major incident, was to pull himself together and find his balance again. Right after the Avengers had formed, he'd disappear for hours, sometimes days, into medical or his lab or his rooms. Tony took it as a positive sign that the man now came looking for them as soon as medical released him.
And if the rest of the team just happened to be within sight, filling out their reports in a nearby conference room, well, that was just coincidence.
A really, really common coincidence.
So it was Bruce, who had nothing else to occupy his attention, who said what everyone else was determined not to bring up. “You're in a good mood.”
“Aye!” Thor crowed, giving Bruce a hearty clap on the shoulder. He did his best to moderate his strength, especially around Bruce, but Bruce still bobbled his tea, grabbing for it before it could end up all over the conference table. “My apologies, I am much pleased this day!”
“Any particular reason why?” Natasha asked him, a faint smile on her face. She didn't look in Thor's direction, but her pen beat a steady tattoo against her report in time with the words.
“Jane has completed her work in the realm of New Mexico and has agreed to travel to New York!”
Steve grinned at him. “She's coming to visit? Or stay?” Thor's routine trips out west to check in with Dr. Foster had been trying on everyone, but he was happier when he'd seen her, even for a short time. “That's great, Thor!”
“Aye,” Thor agreed. “For now, she has accepted a post with SHIELD, and will remain in New York.” He threw himself into a chair and leaned forward, folding his arms on the tabletop. He rested his chin on them, looking like a love sick teenager as he stared into space, his grin wide and bright and boyish.
“Sickening,” Clint said, earning himself a sharp elbow in the thigh from Natasha. “Seriously. Pull yourself together, man.”
“Just because you have no sense of romance,” Tony told him, stabbing his pen in Clint's direction. “You do not get to talk. It's fine, Thor, it's great, where's she staying? Trick question, she's staying at the tower, I'll have her rooms made up.” More people were good. He was getting used to the people thing, and he kind of liked it, it was nice, waking up and wandering around at three am to find Steve in the gym or Clint perched on the roof or Natasha watering the plants.
And there was absolutely nothing wrong with sitting in the lab with Bruce until one or both of them passed out and slept until the centrifuge or the incubator or the computer started beeping and woke them up.
As it turned out, Tony rather liked company.
Thor was looking at him, his face doubtful, and Tony could sense his plans about to be thwarted. “I will offer, but she is much proud of her independence.” He sighed, his smile slipping away. “'Twould be my preference, too, but I have my doubts that she will agree.”
Tony snorted. “Independence is fine in New Mexico. New York? Not so much. She's not going to be able to afford a walk up in Jersey for what SHIELD pays for a starting salary, and better Avengers tower than the SHIELD barracks.”
Thor frowned. “I do not know...”
“I've lived in SHIELD barracks,” Clint said. “Thor, buddy? Paper. Thin. Walls.”
“And co-workers in your personal business,” Natasha added. Everyone looked at her, and she shrugged. “Not mine, of course, no one would dare, but it's not conducive to romance.”
“Meanwhile, the tower is soundproofed and made to withstand rough handling,” Tony pointed out, and Steve had finally figured out what they were talking about and looked scandalized. His ears were bright red, and Tony resisted the urge to go into more detail, because he had a feeling that Thor was not a quiet guy in bed.
But even teasing Steve had its limits, he was not getting into that conversation, knowing him, he'd get stuck and have no way out.
“Look, just make the offer,” he said instead. “Tell you what. Let's ease her into it.” He snapped his fingers. “Let's do this right, it's a welcome to New York shindig, I'll take care of the details, it'll be a surprise, you, her, the city, romance out the wazoo, we'll do it up right.”
“What the hell is a 'wazoo?'” Clint asked him.
“Where you keep your romance, I don't know, who invited you to this conversation?”
“She is bringing Lady Darcy as well,” Thor said.
“Oh, fuck, no,” Clint burst out, making everyone blink.
Thor's eyes narrowed on him. “Do you have an issue with the Lady Darcy?” he said, and the weather inside the small room took a turn for the worse.
Clint held up his hands, placating. “No. Not at all. Ask Darce. We get along like peas in a pod. Just exposing New York to her without any warning, that seems a bit rash, I don't think we should just, you know, jump into anything here-”
“Too late,” Tony crowed. “Done deal.” He stood up, slapped his palms together and started for the door. “I got this, I'll get Pepper on this, we will have a thing, it's gonna be great.”
He was all but skipping as he left. He had the best ideas sometimes.
Dr. Jane Foster looked terrified.
Pepper was trying her most calming and easy-going smile, one that she'd perfected after years of dealing with anxious boards and angry politicians and Tony in a fugue state. “Hello, Dr. Foster. I'm Pepper Potts, Thor and his teammates asked me to come out to meet you?”
The pretty, delicate, dark haired woman jerked as if she'd just been shocked, and blinked at Pepper, huge dark eyes making her look like some sort of anxious forest animal. “Oh. Oh, hello, yes.” She bobbled the bags in her hands, an attache case and a battered leather messenger bag and an even more battered army-green rucksack. She managed to juggle them around to the point where she could offer Pepper her right hand, but her cheeks were bright pink by the time she managed it. “I'm sorry,” she said, and her smile was wide and real and relieved. “Thank you for coming out, Ms. Potts. I, uh, I assumed someone from SHIELD would be meeting me.”
“Please, call me Pepper,” Pepper said, taking a bag with effortless grace. “That was the original plan, but the Avengers were concerned that you might need a friendly face.”
“That's, yes, that's definitely appreciated, really. And it's Jane. Oh, God, are they all right?” Jane asked in a whisper.
“They're fine, I've already gotten three whiny calls from Tony. “ Pepper rolled her eyes. “From the middle of the battle. If he can take the time to call me, it's not that difficult of a fight, believe me.”
“Does this, does this happen often?” Jane asked, and she was still shifting her bags, as if she needed something to do with her hands.
“Fairly often,” Pepper said. “You'll get used to it.” Jane was blinking at her, her skin pale, her large eyes dark and just a tiny bit damp. “Oh, honey.” Without thinking about it, Pepper wrapped her arms around Jane, holding on tight. “It's okay, it's fine! He's with his team, and they love him and they'll take care of him.”
Jane latched on, bags swinging awkwardly and her fingers digging into Pepper's back. “Sorry,” she mumbled into Pepper's shoulder. “Oh, God, you must think I'm a complete freak, really, usually I do better than this, I do, really, but-” She sniffled.
Pepper patted her on the back, light and soothing. “It's quite all right. I've been there, it's fine!”
“Oh, c'mon, boss! I went for like, five minutes! I went to the BATHROOM and you start accosting random people?”
“I didn't- I didn't accost anyone!” Jane pulled back, sniffling, her eyes red.
The young woman propped her hands on her hips, a backpack hanging from one shoulder. “Yeah, yeah.” She grinned at Pepper. “No way you're SHIELD. You're not clubbing her with the butt of your pistol like she's a baby seal.”
“Pepper Potts,” Pepper said, offering the girl a hand and a smile.
The girl took it in a firm grip and pumped it. “Hey, StarkIndustries CEO! Gotcha. Man, bosslady, you rate. I'm Darcy Lewis, lab assistant and completely disoriented civilian.”
“Pleased to meet you, Ms. Lewis.” Pepper's smile stretched into a grin. “If you'll both come with me? Your rooms have been prepared, and despite my objections, Tony has plans.”
“Plans?” Jane had herself in hand again, and Darcy took her attache case with a roll of her eyes. “What kind of, what kind of plans?”
“To welcome you to New York, he has secret plans to send you and Thor out for a night on the town. The rest of us will inevitably be dragged along.” Pepper gave her a sideways glance. “I spoil this secret only because, and I do apologize, I hope I'm not out of line, but do you have any clothes that are appropriate for what Tony Stark would consider a 'night on the town' in New York City?” She watched as the color leeched out of Jane's face. “Darcy?”
“What, her or me? She does most of her work in pajama pants and unless I can get away with the leather mini-skirt with the fringe and silver and turquoise beading that I picked up in Austin-”
“You cannot,” Pepper said, trying not to laugh.
“Then we are shit out of luck!” Darcy said. She grinned at Jane. “Wanna pretend to be jetlagged? I am SO good at playing sick, you have no idea.”
“Ladies, there is one rule around here.” Pepper was cutting through the crowded terminal, her heels clicking with impeccable timing. “When Tony Stark gets you into a mess-” She held up a black AmEx between two fingers. “He can damn well get you back out.” She gave them a bright grin. “Who wants to go shopping?”
“I love New York, I love you, Jane, and I love the fact that an internship to fulfill my science requirement somehow landed me in New York about to run up a hell of a bill for Tony Stark without having to give him access to any of my lady bits.” Darcy tipped her head in Pepper's direction. “I don't have to give him access to my lady bits, do I? I mean, I'd consider it, if it came down to that, but no promises. Man's fine, but he seems to have the attention span of a gerbil with ADHD and a serious meth habit.”
“Oh, my GOD, Darcy, could you be any more embarrassing?” Jane hissed.
“Probably. I don't think you want me to try that hard, though.”
Pepper struggled against laughing, but it was a losing battle. “No,” she managed, choking on a very unladylike snort. “No lady bits access.”
“Excellent!” She gave Pepper a soulful look over the tops of her glasses. “So, if I'm going on the town, who's going with me?”
“I don't know if-”
“Please say Captain America. Please. I'm begging you. I swear, I swear as the Girl Scout I once was, honest and true, I will not molest him, but please. Please let me be able to say to my grandchildren someday that I was a smokin' hot bitch that got to go on a double date with Captain America.”
“Oh my God, Darce,” Jane said. “I regret not firing you. I take that back, actually, I regret HIRING you.”
“No, you don't. Please, Pepper? Please? At least ask him? I swear, I do not harbor any illusions. But a pity date, c'mon, he's a red-blooded American hero, the least he can do is give the women of America hope!”
“I'll ask him,” Pepper said, her lips twitching. “I make no promises.” Darcy gave her an exaggerated pout. “But Steve's an adorably sweet guy, so I'm sure he'll be happy to do it.”
Darcy squealed and hugged Pepper around the waist. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! For that, you may have access to my lady parts!”
“Are you hitting on me?” Pepper asked, laughing, as Jane groaned, long and low.
“Just putting that out there. Letting you know. I prefer honesty, and you are gorgeous,” Darcy said, all innocence. “No pressure!”
Pepper laughed out loud. “I'm flattered, but I have to decline. Also, I don't think putting you in the Avengers tower is a good idea,” she said.
“Probably not, but Thor thinks I'm an adorable little ball of snuggles, and having the God of Thunder as an overprotective older brother figure is enough to scare most people off.” They reached the door to the terminal, and as they emerged into the sunshine, Pepper steered them to a waiting car. The grinning driver slid out to open the door for them.
“I imagine so. Jane, Darcy, this is Happy, Happy, Dr. Jane Foster, and Darcy Lewis.” She waited as they exchanged hellos and handshakes, then Happy collected their luggage. “We're going shopping, Happy.”
“Excellent idea, Ms. Potts. Mr. Stark says you've stopped answering your phone.”
Pepper slid into the back seat. “Mr. Stark shouldn't be calling either of us when people are shooting at him.”
“Good luck convincing him of that.” Happy waited until they were all in before shutting the door and disappearing to load the trunk.
Pepper glanced at Jane, who was looking frazzled but determined. “So, who wants to hit the spa after we find some clothes?”
“Can we skip the spa and hit the bar?” Jane asked, her voice faint. Her face flushed. “Oh, my God, I'm sorry, I'm not, I'm not a drunk or anything, really-”
“I am,” Darcy said. “So the motion's seconded.”
“Don't worry. I know a place that'll suit our needs,” Pepper said.
“What do you mean, they're not here?”
Tony looked around the living room again, not really certain that the women in question weren't hiding behind the sofa or something; Pepper liked to punish him in weird ways some times. Or maybe he was just misinterpreting normal human interaction as a punishment, she said he did that sometimes too.
He and Pepper might not have a normal working relationship.
“They are not currently within the confines of the tower,” Jarvis interpreted, with his usual caustic wit. “They have not yet arrived. They are not presently-”
“I get it, I get it, thank you!” Tony threw himself onto the couch. He'd taken the armor off, but he was still a mess, smudges on his neck and forehead, his hair a matted mess. “We rushed around for nothing. They are throwing off my schedule.”
“Since when do you give a damn about schedules?” Bruce asked, his lips twitching. “You can't show up on time unless you're being carried.” There were deep lines of exhaustion carved in his face as he fell onto the nearest armchair. He rubbed his forehead, his face twisted as he tried to massage away the ache there.
“Unconscious and being carried,” Natasha corrected. She took a seat next to Bruce, perching on one arm of his chair. She'd made it through the mess without doing much more than ruffling her hair, but her boots were a battered mess. She gave Bruce a critical look, and he waved her away with a faint smile. Reassured, she glanced back at Tony. “And God forbid you wake up halfway there.”
“Yes, but that's ME causing chaos with the schedule. Not someone else ruining my carefully planned efforts,” Tony said. He was not pouting. That would be immature. He reached for his phone, prepared to demand an accounting from his erstwhile assistant.
“Well, it gave us an excuse to skip the briefing,” Clint said. “Coulson's going to kill us for it later, but ask me if I care.” He stretched, wincing as something pulled hard. “Since introductions are slightly less terrifying when we're not filthy and covered in blood, I'm going to go shower.”
“You okay?” Steve asked. Both of them were still in uniform, but unlike Steve's bright blue and white costume, Clint's darker vest and pants hid damage and blood equally well.
“Yeah, just caught some flying debris,” Clint said. Steve didn't seem reassured, and, rolling his eyes, Clint reached up and ruffled his short dark hair. Traces of dried, tacky blood came off on his fingers. “Coulson already checked it, didn't need stitches, already stopped bleeding.”
Steve took a look, his brow knit in tense lines, but he nodded at last. “Okay. Let us know-”
“Jarvis'll keep an eye on me,” Clint said, clapping a hand to Steve's shoulder. “It'll be fine, Cap. Thanks.”
Tony looked up from his phone, where he was scrolling through a series of texts from Pepper. “He bitched the whole way home, and piloted the quinjet, Cap,” he said, with a smile. “He's fine.”
“It wouldn't be a mission if Clint didn't bleed,” Natasha said.
“HEY!” Hawkeye yelled from the hallway. Everyone ignored him.
Bruce glanced up, his face pinched, his jaw tight. “Where is Thor?”
“On the roof, waiting,” Tony said. “I saw him up there when I landed.”
“I'm going to make some tea,” Natasha said, rising. “Bruce, I'll get you a cup, too.”
“Oh, you don't have to-” he started, but she waved him off.
“It wasn't a question, Doc. You need a cup. I'll be right back.”
Steve took a seat on the couch. “You all right?” he asked Bruce, who nodded.
“Just a headache. I'm fine, promise.” His head tipped back and he let out a long sigh, his skin damp and pale in the light. “Natasha's right. Tea would be, uh, it'd be nice.”
There was the pounding of booted feet that near to shook the floor, and Thor burst into the living room. “They are coming!” he crowed, his face split wide with a grin. His blue eyes were dancing, his whole body almost vibrating with eagerness.
Tony resisted the urge to check if he had a tail that was wagging.
His phone vibrated in his hand, and he checked it. “We have independent verification,” he said, tucking it in his pocket. “Pepper says they're on their way up.”
“That is what Pepper said,” Pepper said, striding into the room with her usual aplomb. She sidestepped as six plus feet of Norse God made a beeline for one of the women who'd come in right on her heels. Tony opened his mouth, and Pepper held up a hand. “Now that I have collected your guests, done your job of making them comfortable and making sure they have everything they need, I will return to the other job that I do because you are bad at it: running your company.”
She turned a glacial look in his direction, but there was a faint smile around her pink lips, in her eyes. “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
He considered saying something. Considered her face. Thought better of it. “Thank you, Ms. Potts.”
Pepper gave the rest of a team a smile. “Excuse me, gentlemen, I'll see you soon, but for now, I've got a company to run.” And then she was gone.
“Everyone!” Thor boomed. “This is Jane!” He pulled her forward, almost lifting her off her feet with an arm around her waist. “Jane, my new friends!” He hugged her from behind, his arms looped around her waist and his chin resting comfortably on top of her head.
Jane shoved her hair out of her face with one hand. It was visibly shaking. “Ah, hello,” she said, smiling. “Hi. I'm, um, I'm Jane Foster. This is Darcy.”
“Hey!” the pretty dark-haired woman said. She was carrying a bunch of bags, and she dumped them with a sigh of relief. “Wow. Everyone's, uh, big in New York.”
Tony burst out laughing. “I like this one,” he said, putting his feet on the coffee table. He gave them a wave. “Tony Stark. I own the joint. I'm sure Pepper told you that you have rooms here. They're yours, as long as you want them and don't steal my coffee. There are lines here. Big ones. Don't cross them.”
“Thank you, that's really very-” Jane's words cut off on a strangled shriek as Thor bent over and started to kiss his way up her neck. She flushed bright red, and grabbed for his head, her fingers sinking into his hair. “Thor! Thor, ah! Oh, my God, we're-” She gave up on trying to pry him loose as his hands slid up under her shirt. “Sorry, he's very, uh, affectionate, it's-”
Darcy kicked Thor in the knee. “Hey! Big an' blonde! BEDROOM! We have HAD this discussion, no one wants to see this!” She set her feet and gave him a firm shove. It didn't move him so much as an inch, but it seemed to get his attention. He gave the group a warm, mellow smile, scooped Jane up and headed out of the room.
“Sorry!” Jane called over his shoulder. “Sorry, I'll, it was very nice to meet-” They were gone before she could finish the sentence.
Darcy put her hands on her hips. “The things I do for college credit,” she said, shaking her head. She glanced at the others. “Don't worry. They'll surface in a few hours. Usually Thor remembers pants. We're working on that. Not hard, mind you, I got no issues with pantsless Thor, but Jane gets weird about it.”
Tony raised a hand. “I have issues with pantsless Thor, so we're going to work hard on that.”
“If you say so, landlord of doom.”
Natasha walked back in with a cup of tea in each hand. She held one out to Bruce, who took it gratefully. “Hello. I'm Natasha, this is Dr. Bruce Banner.”
“Hey,” Darcy said, giving them both a smile. “Jane wants to talk to you, Dr. Banner. A lot, she's not so good around other scientists, she gets really excited, so be nice to her, okay?” Her smile stretched, her eyes crinkling with it behind her glasses. “Erik told us about you, he said you're quality people.”
Bruce smiled back. “Erik Selvig? That's, that's really nice of him.” He ran a hand through his hair, making it even more of a mess. “Dr. Foster's work is fascinating. I mean, it was even before she found a God or two.”
“That was less science and more poor driving,” Darcy said.
“Hi,” Steve said, giving Darcy a shy smile. “I'm Steve Rogers. Pepper called. I'll be escorting you to dinner, if that's all right with you.”
Darcy stared up at Steve. It was a long way up. “Holy fuck,” she said. “I want to climb you like a tree.”
Steve, bright red creeping up his neck, stammered out, “Thanks? I... I think? That's a good thing?” He looked at Natasha. “That's a good thing?”
“I don't think you need to get the shield, Cap, let's leave it at that.” Natasha smiled at Darcy, her eyes considering. “I've heard all about you.”
“You've heard all about me? From where? From who? From Thor? He lies,” Darcy says, still studying Steve as if trying to determine the best angle to begin her ascent.
“Oh, everything he says is the fucking truth. Except the karaoke incident is totally his fault, I had things under control, and he had to go all overprotective big brother on me.”
“Coulson says you stole a drunk trucker's keys and tried to hijack his rig,” Natasha said, arching an eyebrow.
“I'd recommend against talking to Coulson at any point in time,” Darcy explained. “And I didn't try, I succeeded. It was fine.”
“You ran over a bunch of motorcycles with an eighteen wheeler and when I came out of the bathroom, a pack of angry bikers was chasing you across the parking lot,” Clint said as he wandered in, hair damp and hands in the back pockets of his jeans. “I nearly had a fucking heart attack. Nat, it was like being back in Fargo, except with tequila, so everyone was extra angry and none of them cared about consequences. Or law enforcement.”
“You get the best assignments.”
“CLINT!” Darcy flung herself into his arms, and Clint caught her, laughing. “Baby! Hotness! Snugglebunny!”
“Hotness?” Tony asked.
“Snugglebunny?” Natasha asked.
“What, and BABY is okay?” Clint said, even as he was spinning Darcy in a circle while she squealed. “You should hear what she calls me when she's drunk.”
“Most of my drunk pet names for Clint involve his ass. And his arms. And his shoulders. And his ears,” Darcy said, her voice arch.
“Don't ask,” Clint said to Natasha, who closed her mouth with a faint shrug. “What trouble are you causing now?” he asked Darcy, affection clear on his face.
“I was going to be good, but now you're here.” She let out a melodramatic sigh, pressing the back of her hand to her forehead and leaning back in his arms like a Victorian maiden with the vapors. “It's been too long, I've pined, heartsick and full of longing.”
Steve gave Clint a disapproving look, and Clint rolled his eyes. “Nothing happened. I was assigned to be her body guard in New Mexico after it was clear that she was going to drive all the other agents on site into the loving arms of the shrinks. She knows that I am in a committed relationship.”
“I tried everything,” Darcy said, straightening back up. There was an exaggerated pout on her full lips. “But I couldn't get his pants off. And I tried. I really, really tried.”
Tony cleared his throat. “Does she know who-”
“She does not.”
“Does that other interested party know she-”
“Do you imagine said interested party not knowing that a drunken college student tried to steal my pants?” Clint asked. “I was informed to keep her away from booze. Like that was going to happen.” He rolled his eyes. “New Mexico was one long booze and peyote fueled nightmare.”
“I love how anyone assumes that I do things because I'm drunk. I do things because I want to, and use being drunk as a convenient excuse,” Darcy said, her smile full of teeth and heat and brutal intent. Steve took a step back. Natasha studied her, her face blank.
Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out a packet of M&Ms. She held them out to Darcy, who took them with a little squeal. “Oooooh, chocolate. Thanks, pretty lady!” She leaned against Clint's side and ripped open the packet with a gleeful little chortle.
Clint looked at Natasha, his mouth hanging open. “Did you just feed her?”
“I may keep her,” Natasha said, her eyes narrowed.
“Awesome!” Darcy said.
“No, no, no,” Clint said. “No. Absolutely not, no.”
“Hey,” Darcy started, and her glare would've been more effective if she wasn't stuffing chocolate into her mouth with abandon.
“Just ignore him, baby,” Natasha said, offering Darcy a hand. “Want to see the armory?”
“Yay!” Darcy bounced along in Natasha's wake.
“We are so screwed,” Clint said, his voice faint. “I am, uh, I am going to go and notify Coulson about this latest development and the doom that it spells for the world.”
“She can't cause that much trouble,” Steve said, his brow furrowing. “Can she?”
“The only possible worse person for Darcy to bond with would be him,” Clint said, pointing at Tony, who arched his eyebrows.
“I believe I'm insulted.”
“I believe I don't care,” Clint said.
“Who let Lewis and Romanov talk to one another?” Coulson asked from the doorway. He had a cup of coffee in one hand and a stack of folders in his other. “Because that? That was a horrible idea.”
“She beat me here, sir,” Clint said, sighing.
“Wonderful.” Coulson glanced at Tony. “So. Pepper says you have made arrangements for a dinner out tonight for Jane and Thor?”
“And Darcy, and I guess Steve's going to be escorting her. And the rest of us. What the hell. Welcome to New York from the team, all that jazz.”
“I see,” Coulson said. He sipped his coffee. “So, out in public?”
“Gonna happen eventually. Might as well do it now.”
“Only the best!”
“We deserve it.”
“What puts you in the delusional state to think that the men of this group have appropriate wardrobes for this kind of a paparazzi baiting, high class disaster?” Coulson said, never once changing tone.
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. “You-”
“I do. You do. Clint?”
“I can borrow something from SHIELD,” Clint said, not particularly concerned. Coulson gave him a cutting look and he shrugged. “I leave the looking classy to you. I'm comfortable being white trash.” Coulson's look just got worse. “I look damn hot in a pair of jeans, sir.”
Coulson sighed. “I can't argue with that. Bruce?”
“Uh, it might be, you know, it might be better if I don't go, anyway.”
Tony turned deliberately stricken eyes on him.
“Tony-” Bruce sighed, polishing his glasses on his shirtsleeve. “No. Really, not a good idea.”
“It'll be fine, really, don't worry about it, we'll all be there.” Bruce opened his mouth, and Tony held up a hand. “If you don't go, none of us are going.”
Bruce subsided. “This is, this is a bad idea.”
“Steve?” Coulson asked.
“I can just wear my dress uniform,” Steve said, shrugging.
“No,” the whole room said, making him jump.
“And Thor most certainly does not have Midgardian formal wear.” Coulson stared into space, one eyebrow arched. “Wonderful. You're an idiot, Stark.”
“So it would appear. Let's go.” Tony stood.
“Go? Go where?” Steve asked, crossing his arms.
“To buy clothes, where else?” He glanced at Coulson. “Since there is no way we're going to be able to drag Senor Trueno out of bed any time soon, do we have his measurements?”
“You assume that SHIELD keeps people's measurements on file?”
Tony gave a pointed look to Steve and his Captain America outfit. He rolled his head back towards Coulson, his expression somewhere between pitying and disdainful. “Yes.”
Coulson sighed. “Fine, I'll pull his file.” He set his current workload down on the table. “You'll forgive me if I don't join you, I'm going to keep an eye on Natasha and Lewis.”
“Do you really think we can get something off the rack for Thor?” Clint asked, stealing Coulson's coffee. “Guy's built like a tank.”
“I'm going to pretend that the words 'off the rack' never crossed your lips. Everyone up. Let's go.”
“What do you mean?” Bruce asked, who slugged back the rest of his tea before he found his feet.
“Tailor,” Steve said, blinking. “What else?”
“Oh, no,” Clint said. “Not a goddamn chance.”
“I'm going to need to borrow your taser,” Tony said to Coulson.
It was only a decades long relationship between the Stark family and the small, half-hidden tailor shop in Little Italy that kept them from being thrown back on the sidewalk when Tony explained the situation. The tiny, wizened old man had stared at Tony from behind coke-bottle glasses, his lips pursed tight. His eyes, magnified by the thick lenses, had flicked over Clint, Steve, Bruce, and the page of Thor's measurements.
“Impossible,” he said, at last.
“You can do it,” Tony said, with a grin. It did not win him anything more than a withering glance. “No. Seriously. You can do this. There is nothing to hide here. This is pretty much the most perfect group of male specimens you will ever find. No complicated tricks necessary.”
The old tailor stared up at Steve with narrowed eyes. “Long legs, long arms.” He flicked a tape measure from around his neck and stretched it across Steve's chest. He stared down at the numbers between his pinched fingers and made a tsking noise. “Impossible. Impossible.”
“If you can't do it, no one can,” Tony said, coaxing. “And I'll have to go-” He paused, shuddered. “Off the rack.” The tailor gave him a horrified look. “Everyone knows you do all my outfitting,” Tony added. He tried to sound sad. “It would be such a shame if someone assumed that something we picked up at Bloomingdales that didn't fit quite right came from here.”
There was a moment of stillness as Tony and the old man stared each other down. The tailor blinked first, flicking the tape measure like a whip. It cracked against the counter. “The fee for this will be astronomical,” he said, his lips pursed.
“Oh, obviously,” Tony said, putting his sunglasses back on. “Horrific.”
The tailor snorted. “Fine. I'll call my boys. All of them. We will need the hands.” He stabbed a finger, crooked and bony, in Bruce's direction. “You first, boy. You're the easiest. I have things that can fit you. Heaven knows I have much started for him.” His eyes flicked towards Tony. “Close enough in size. It can be adjusted.”
Bruce managed not to flinch. “Ah, yeah,” he said, as the tailor flicked the tape measure across the back of his shoulders, down the back of his arms, up the length of his spine, around his hips, moving with surprising speed. He straightened up, as much as he could, age and a career on his knees had curled his spine. He reached out and ran a hand through Bruce's curls, and his nose wrinkled.
“We'll get you done, then you need this cut.”
“No,” Bruce said, earning him a sharp glare.
“This-” the tailor said, waving a hand at his hair, “is a mess, no reason to bother with a good suit if everyone does nothing but stare at your head. Suit first. Then you get that cut.” He flicked a hand in Tony's direction. “Maria down the block should be able to get it cut. She can be trusted, very fast, very good.” With that prognosis, he snapped his fingers and gestured for Bruce to raise his arms. He was scribbling notes and numbers on a page as he studied Clint and Steve.
“You,” he said, his chin flicking towards Clint, “you won't be bad. Good size, excellent structure.”
“He's damn hard on clothes. And his boyfriend wears nothing but D&G,” Tony said, making the tailor's eyes narrow.
“We need to impress him?”
“That would be awesome,” Clint said. “Not possible, but awesome.”
The tailor gave a snort. "I can impress him. Bah. Dolce." He spat the word out. "Mass produced nonsense. I'll make you something better. Much better."
“Please,” Clint said, grinning. “Also, I need to be able to hide a couple of weapons.”
The tailor paused. “This going to bring me trouble?” he asked Tony, clearly not happy about it.
“He's law enforcement. Military. Something along those lines.” Tony gave him a bright, reassuring smile. “Just a couple of pistols. Knives. You're not getting the bow under a jacket, Barton.”
“I will have you killed and take my chances with Coulson, shut up now,” Tony said, still grinning wide and bright and white.
The tailor gave them both a slit-eyed stare. “Bah,” he said at last. “You, boy.” He crooked a finger in Steve's direction.
“Sir?” Steve stepped forward.
The tailor heaved a heavy sigh. “Trouble,” he said. “Raise your arms.” He ducked under Steve's arms, not even needing to bend down to clear Steve's heavy limbs. He set the tape measure along the side of Steve's ribs, the angle of his hip, around the bulge of his bicep. “Trouble,” he repeated. “The pants, is easy enough, the pants, we can do. The jacket...” He made a click of his tongue on the roof of his mouth. “Fast. We start work on that now, I've nothing that could even be adjusted for you.”
Steve held still as the tailor poked him. “Sorry,” he said.
“Did you just apologize for being, well, you?” Clint asked, leaning his shoulders back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. “We can make you do that? This is a fun new game.”
“That's not a fun game,” Tony said. Before Steve could thank him, he added, “It's too easy to count as fun.”
Steve gave him a look, but his lips were twitching in amusement, undermining the severity. He acquiesced easily enough as the tailor nudged him into place, the tape measure swinging around like a dancer's trailing ribbon. “And the last?” he asked, glancing again at the page Tony had brought from SHIELD.
Tony held it out. “He's unavailable. We'll have to do the best we can with this.” The old man squinted at the precise rows of numbers and statistics. He shook his head.
“You want me to make a suit for a man who isn't even here, get me the right measurements,” the tailor said, pushing the page back at Tony. “These measurements are impossible. No man is built on these lines.”
“Not a man.” Tony flicked through his phone and held up an image of Thor standing next to Steve. The tailor looked at Steve, then back at the photo. Steve. Photo.
He fumbled with the cross that hung around his neck. “God is testing me.”
“Less God, more Stark,” Clint said. Tony threw a low sharp punch at Clint, who sidestepped it. “What? Oh, c'mon, we all know what side of the good/evil spectrum you fall on. Come to the dark side, we've got booze.”
“Not helping,” Tony said, maintaining a smile through force of will alone.
“Fine. We will do what we can.” He headed for an ancient looking rotary phone. “Bring them in the back. You know where to go.” He paused, gave Tony a look over the top of his glasses. “Keep your dirty fingers out of my fabric stores.”
“Of course, of course,” Tony said, waving the other Avengers ahead of him towards the rear of the storefront. “Barton, tell me you're not armed.”
Clint gave him a pitying glance. “Of course I'm fucking armed.”
“Can you not, just once, can you not be you? Be someone more normal.”
“Do you know any normal people, Stark?”
Tony paused. Considered. “Rhodey. Rhodey is normal,” he said, nodding.
“Wow. You had to.... Think about that. That's pretty damn pathetic, Tony.”
“I'd really like to go home now,” Bruce said, sounding like he was seriously considering making a run for it. “This is... This is a very bad idea.”
Tony gave him a bracing smile and nudged him in the right direction. “C'mon, it'll be fine. I promise.”
“Yeah, but you lie. You lie a lot,” Bruce said, making Clint snort with laughter.
“We'll get suits and go to dinner. What could go wrong, really? I do it all the time.”
Coulson was sitting in the living room, his jacket folded neatly next to him, his shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, and his tie loosened when they walked in. He glanced up from his tablet. “How did it-”
“Cap made the tailors cry, Bruce made the hairstylist cry, Clint made me cry, and I fucking forgot to get everyone shoes,” Tony snarled out.
Coulson blinked. “About what we expected, then,” he said, shutting down his spreadsheet.
“No one actually cried,” Steve said. He had half a dozen garment bags in his arms, and his hair was far more disordered than Coulson had ever seen it without there having been an alien invasion or a poker game involving the X-Men.
Clint vaulted the back of the couch, landing with an easy grace. “I did my best. But Stark had a flask.”
“I hate you,” Tony said. “I had to all but sign over my firstborn to get them to continue once you started pulling out the sidearms.” He tossed the bags in his hands over the back of the couch. “They are convinced that I'm doing business with the mob. An hour of people muttering that they don't deal with that element, I was about ready to stab myself in the face with a pair of fabric shears.”
“What's more surprising,” Clint asked Coulson. “That they think that I'm mafia, or that they think Stark will produce a child at some point?”
“I think that you being mafia would be less damaging to the social fabric,” Coulson said.
“You're just looking for excuses to handcuff me, sir.”
“I don't need an excuse for that, Barton. That's Tuesday in this relationship.”
“Jesus Christ, I hate everyone!” Tony snarled. He stomped for the elevator. “Reservations are for eight tonight! Wear the best pair of shoes you have! I no longer care!”
Natasha had entered the room as he was exiting, Darcy bouncing along in her wake. Natasha stepped out of his way, one eyebrow arched. “Fun day at the mall, Stark?” she asked, and Tony made an inarticulate sound of rage. “I'll take that as a no.”
“I'm going to the workshop!”
Just as he was stepping onto the elevator, Steve asked Clint, “Clint, I thought we discussed working within SHIELD regs.”
Coulson leaned his forehead on one palm, and Clint bit his lip. “The use of handcuffs,” he said carefully, “is not, uh, it's not SHIELD, it's more personal- Will someone help me out here?”
“You're on your own,” Natasha said, her lips twitching.
Behind her, Darcy had gone poker straight, her eyes huge behind her glasses. “Oh my God,” she said, clutching Natasha's arm. “Coulson. Handcuffs. Are they-”
“Yes,” Natasha said.
“You're fucking kidding me.”
“No,” Clint said, rolling his eyes. “You're a little slow, Darce. For God's sake, I can't believe you didn't figure it out that night he had to bail us out of the Sheriff's office. We were bickering in the front seat like a fuckin' married couple.”
Coulson gave him a look. “I got a call at two in the morning that you were being held by the local authorities with a drunken co-ed. When I got there, she was wearing your SHIELD windbreaker and nothing else that I could see. You were wearing your jeans and one boot. I think I did pretty damn well, considering the circumstances.”
“Where'd you lose your shirt?” Natasha asked.
“Poker game with the deputies. She can't bluff. It wasn't the shirt that should concern you. It was the underwear,”Clint said. He held up one hand and made a circle in midair with his index finger. “Whee. Adventures in New Mexico.”
“I cannot believe I missed it. You get all the best assignments.”
Darcy let out a high pitched shriek. “COULSON?” she asked Clint. “Coulson? You. And Coulson.” She stalked across the room. “Coulson, you DOG.”
“Yes, Miss Lewis?” Coulson said, and there might've been the faintest smirk around his mouth.
“You DOG!” she repeated, and punched him in the shoulder before throwing herself down on the couch next to him. “Is he any good?”
“I have slept with everyone in this room,” Clint said, proudly. “No joke. I am that good.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Darcy held up both hands as everyone gave him a look. “Wait. Is this a platonic thing? Because you refused to put out for me.”
“Definitely not platonic with me,” Coulson said, going back to his spreadsheet. At some point, his life had taken a turn for the weird, and he wasn't sure he cared or was that upset by it.
“He couldn't even spell platonic when we were together,” Natasha said, patting Clint on the head.
“I fell asleep on top of him,” Bruce said, folding his arms. “But I was naked.” Darcy gave him a look, and he shrugged. “The other guy makes life difficult sometimes.”
“A building fell on us, these things happen,” Clint said. “Can't let things get awkward.”
“I haven't slept with you,” Steve said.
“Yes, you did,” Coulson said. Natasha nodded, a faint smile on her face.
Steve looked at Bruce, his face betraying his confusion.
“Yes, you did,” Bruce said. “That thing with Chemistro's sleeping gas? How it didn't work on you fully? You just, uh, got sleepy? You latched onto Clint for some reason and, well, carried him around for a while. We thought you were, well, kind of sleep walking.”
“I... Don't remember this,” Steve said, looking horrified. “You told me nothing happened.”
“You carried your shield in one hand and Clint with the other arm. Like a teddy bear,” Coulson said. “He was pissy about it for the first hour. Then he just gave up and learned to shoot without his feet on the ground.”
“I was pissy?” Clint said. “Stark was LIVID.”
“Please tell me you have pictures of this,” Darcy said to Natasha.
“Computer. File marked, 'Retirement fund,'” Natasha said. “I'll trade you for what you've got on him from New Mexico.”
“Deal.” Darcy bounced to her feet. “I'll do you a solid, Clint. The handcuffs are a bondage thing, Cap. It has nothing to do with SHIELD regulations, but knowing SHIELD, they do have regulations about that sort of thing, too.” She paused, and glanced in Coulson's direction. “Do they have-”
“Only if official SHIELD equipment is involved. Buy your own and they are fine with it.”
“Thank you, Agent Coulson, a font of knowledge as always.” Darcy turned back to Steve with a wide smile. “If you'd like a more hands-on explanation, I'm happy to assist you with-”
Steve was a painful looking red color. “No, thank you,” he managed. “I know what bondage is, thank you, that's- That's fine. Thank you.” He scooped up the garment bags. “I should- I should get ready, there's not much time before dinner, I should just-” He nearly tripped over his own feet. “Thank you. I'll see everyone at dinner.”
He beat a hasty retreat, and Darcy sighed. “I want to do horrible, horrible things to that man,” she said, her voice forlorn. “But I think I'd actually feel guilty about it later. I would've thought that was impossible. But I kind of regret making him uncomfortable right now.”
“It happens, baby,” Natasha said. “Don't worry, he'll still show up tonight. The man has backbone. And he'll bring a corsage.”
“He will not bring a goddamn corsage,” Darcy said.
“Ten bucks says it matches your dress,” Clint told her.
“I love New York,” Darcy said.
Darcy's corsage was the same warm, sweet pink as the trim of her dress. She stared down at the plastic box, the simple clutch of flowers and silk ribbon arranged on a bed of greenery. “Well, damn,” she said, her lips curled in a sweet bow of a smile. “I so desperately want to keep him.” She turned sad eyes on Natasha. “Tasha? Can I keep him? Please? I promise, I promise I'll be nice to him and not handcuff him to anything and we can totally just have plain missionary style sex, like all the time.”
Natasha's lips twitched. “No.”
“But, really, I promise, I'll take care of him and make sure he eats properly and hug him every day and I won't let anyone be mean to him.”
“Baby, he's not a dog,” Natasha said.
“No, but that's pretty much the spiel I gave when I brought you home,” Clint said from the door to the living room. He was wearing a sleek, dark gray suit that fit him like a glove, flowing along the lines of his body and making his shoulders look impossibly broad. “Nat, tie?” He held out the plum colored strip of silk.
“You must be joking,” she said, crossing her long legs. Her black and red dress skimmed over her curves, but the tight skirt was slit to mid-thigh, so it wasn't hard. “You still can't do a half-Windsor?”
“No, but I can do a slip knot.” He held up the delicate strip of silk. “Or a noose. Would you prefer a noose?”
She flicked a finger in his direction, gesturing him in close. “Come here, I'll take care of you. As always.”
“Thank you!” He threw his hands in the air. “Was that so hard?” He stalked forward, and Darcy swatted him on the ass as he walked by. “Watch it, grabby mitts,” he said, not even looking in her direction, but his lips quirked up as he reached Natasha.
“Coulson will disappear you if you keep that up,” Natasha told her.
“I'm not afraid of Senor Grim and Gristle,” Darcy said, staring her corsage like a freshman who'd been invited to the senior prom. The very tip of her tongue flicked out to trace her brilliant red lips.
“You should reconsider that stance,” Natasha said to her, even as she reached up to pull Clint down with one hand on his shirt front.
“No wrinkling my shirt,” he said, and Natasha grinned.
“Looking pretty good, Barton,” she said, tying his tie with quick fingers. “Or at least as good as you're likely to get.”
He made a face at her. “Look, I've only got one goal tonight.”
“And what is that?” she asked.
“To get laid.” He choked as Natasha tightened the tie right up against his throat with a flick of her hand. “No?” he gasped out.
“It's pretty much a sure thing,” she said. “You look amazing; Coulson's not going to know what hit him.”
He grinned. “Thanks, Nat.” Loosening the tie enough to breathe, he tossed himself into one of the armchairs. “Where is everyone?”
“T-minus one hour,” Pepper said, striding in. She gave them a smile, as regal as a queen in sapphire blue silk trimmed in a sea foam roll of black ruffles at the neck and swirl of her hem. Her black heels clicked on the stone floor and her hair was a gorgeous fall of golden red curls. She had a tablet cradled in one bare arm and a grin on her red lips. “How are we doing?”
“Two Avengers, one assorted hanger-on, reporting for duty, ma'am!” Clint said, saluting from his slumped position.
“Shoes off the furniture, Clint,” Pepper said, but she was smiling as she strode past. Clint grinned and put his feet back on the floor.
“Hanger-on?” Darcy said. “Hanger-on?”
“What, you prefer camp follower?” he asked, and Darcy made a fist in his general direction. “Fine, fine, revered holder of the sacred power of shock.”
“Better,” she said with a flounce of her hair.
“We are on a tight timetable here,” Pepper said, flicking the tablet's stylus against the surface. “Places, people!” She slashed it in Clint's direction. “Go and make sure Bruce is out of the lab, please. In the shower and in the suit, we are not leaving without him, so he needs to stop with that line of thought now, understood?”
Clint rolled to his feet. “Ma'am, yes, ma'am,” he said, heading for the door. “I'll have him dressed to the nines, hair combed and everything, right on schedule.”
“Thank you, Hawkeye.” She glanced down. “Tony-”
“Sorry I'm late!” Steve came into the room, carrying a garment bag. Darcy choked on a whimper, the man looked edible. Literally. If she was ever going to try cannibalism, she'd start with Steve Rogers. Long, tall drink of water in an impeccably tailored double-breasted suit. He caught her eyes and smiled, shy and sweet, his blue tie exactly matching his eyes. “Miss Lewis.”
She grinned back. “Captain Rogers.” She stood and gave a curtsy, and what do you know, her breasts stayed in her bodice after all. This dress was a fucking miracle of fabric engineering. “Thank you for the flower.”
His cheeks got pink. “I'm glad you like it.” For an instant, he just stood there, holding the garment bag and looking adorable, and Pepper cleared her throat. He jolted. “Oh, sorry.” He held up the bag. “Tony's suit. I'll go shove him in the direction of the shower.”
“Thank you,” Pepper said, arching an eyebrow in his direction. “I'll be down in a minute to dress him.”
“Really?” Darcy asked her as Steve disappeared out the door. “Really? Man's a genius of the first degree, and he needs you to put on his pants?”
“It's not that he NEEDS me to put on his pants, it's just that if someone else isn't there constantly reminding him that he needs pants, he will forget about dinner and fall face first back into his work,” Pepper said, her lips quirking up. “One time he was supposed to be prepping for a speech in front of congress, and half an hour before we were supposed to leave, I found him in the workshop, still in a towel and one sock. He was working on a system issue, so I'm lucky he had the towel.”
“He might've made a better showing in front of congress if he'd shown up in the towel,” Darcy said, perching on the arm of the couch, swinging one leg in mid air. She loved her stockings and garter belt. So much, did she love her new fancy underwear.
Purchased on Tony Stark's credit card. How weird was that?
“Well, it wouldn't have been his worst showing in front of Congress,” Pepper said, rolling her eyes. She checked her tablet. “That just leaves Thor and Jane. Are they still in his room?” she asked.
“Oh, oh, I got this one!” Darcy bounced up. “Don't worry about it. I am so used to Thor visits, you have no idea.” She grabbed her purse from the bar and dug out her phone. “I can handle Tall, Blonde and Naked.” She dialed with a flick of her finger. “Jane knows how this works.”
The call connected with a slurred sound that was probably a hello.
Darcy held up a finger as she turned her attention to the call. “Ding-dong,” she sang into her phone. “This is your five minute 'get your damn pants on' warning, Jane! We have reservations, and I have a one time chance to be on a date with Captain America. If the only thing standing between me and that is you and Sir Norse and Naked in there, I will not even slow down.” She paused. “You know I will not.”
Pepper stared at her, her eyebrows arched. “Well, that's one way of handling it.”
Darcy disconnected the call, ignoring the shrieks from the other end. “I've got Jane. Natasha, can you poke Thor with something sharp and pointy until he puts on a shirt? There is no way Jane'll get him into more than boxers in five minutes. He's a clingy slug after a couple of hours in the bunk.”
“You have a very odd job,” Pepper told her.
“This isn't in the job description. It's a labor of love,” Darcy said, grinning. “Also the very real chance that I'm about to see Thor naked. C'mon, Natasha!”
“I've already seen Thor naked,” Natasha said, but she was smiling. She tossed her head, her perfect wave of red hair settling back against her cheek. “Far too often, actually.”
“Yeah, pants are optional for Thor, despite Jane's best efforts,” Darcy said, making a purring noise under her breath. “If she's locked the door, can you get in?”
“Let me show you how to get past Stark's locks,” Natasha said, winding an arm around Darcy's shoulders.
“No,” Coulson said, coming into the room. “Absolutely not. We discussed this, Agent Romanov. Do not make her into a worse problem than she already is.”
“Looking good, Coulson,” Darcy said, slapping him on the rear as she bounced past.
“We need to discuss acceptable risk,” Natasha told her. “That? Was not an acceptable risk.”
“You're giggling on the inside,” Darcy said, grinning. “And Clint would be sad if Coulson had me killed. Or kneecapped.”
Natasha paused. “You're depending on Clint's ability to make sad eyes at Phil Coulson to keep you alive?”
Darcy glanced at her. “Not a good idea?”
Natasha considered, and gave a faint shrug. “Actually, no, that just might keep work. I wouldn't push my luck, though, baby.”
“I'm apparently living with a half-dozen super heroes,” Darcy said, with a grin. “I make poor life choices.”
“This is a horrible idea,” Bruce said.
“Those are pretty much the only kind we have,” Clint said with a grin.
“Why aren't you bothered by this?” Bruce asked.
“What- What does that even mean?”
“After a couple of missions with Nat, I learned to duck,” Clint said. “Real fast.”
Bruce didn't mean to, he didn't want to, but that startled a laugh out of him. When he choked it back, getting himself back under control, Clint was grinning at him. “Why do I even try to talk to you?” Bruce asked him, shaking his head.
“I'm a charming guy. Life of the party.” Clint wiggled his eyebrows at Bruce. “And I carry your tranqs.”
“Oh, that's right, you're the one I depend on for my health and safety,” Bruce mused. “We're back to the 'we only have horrible ideas' problem, Clint.”
“You think you have horrible ideas? I'll be the one trying to stab you in the ass with a tranq while wearing a custom tailored suit,” Clint said. “I might be an idiot, but I'm gonna look damn fine while doing it.”
“I can't do this,” Bruce told him.
“Tough! Team's going, you're on the team, get your ass in there, Banner.” Clint wrapped an arm around his shoulders and hustled him into the living room. “We got Banner.”
“I can't do this,” Bruce said to the room at large. “I'm sorry, I... I just can't do this.”
“Sorry, didn't hear that,” Clint said, ambling away.
“We're missing... Jane and Thor?” Pepper said. “Where's Steve?”
“Helping Thor,” Darcy said. “Jane knows I'll be back for her in ten minutes, she needs to be done with her panic attack by then.”
“Getting Steve and Thor,” Clint said as Tony stalked by, a tumbler of amber liquid in one hand.
“What are you wearing on your feet?” Tony asked, his voice just a shade under a growl.
Clint looked down. “Combat boots?”
Tony stared at him. “What possible reason would you have to think that was acceptable?”
Clint thought about it. “You told me to put on my best shoes. These are my best-”
“You are kidding me right now.”
“I lost my dress shoes in Santa Fe.”
“I remember that,” Darcy said. “Oh, wow, that was a NIGHT.”
“It was more the morning that-”
“Will someone find the man shoes that don't have giant waffle soles on them? Please?” Tony asked. Pepper took the glass out of his hand, and he turned to chase her, and it, across the room.
“I've got some heels that might fit you,” Darcy said to Clint.
“Let's save that for another night, shall we?” Pepper said to her.
“Yeah, I'm not so good with walking in them.” Clint nodded at the door. “Okay, I'll see what I can find.”
“I'll come! I wanna snoop!” Darcy bounced along in his wake, and Bruce wondered if he could escape in the chaos.
He jolted, turning around to find Natasha right behind him, smiling. “Uh, hi, there,” he said, smiling back. “You look, that's a lovely dress.”
She glanced down at it. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes darting back up. “You look wonderful.”
He realized he was twisting his hands together and made a conscious effort to relax. “Ah, yeah, this is, well, most of my suits come from Goodwill, so this is something else. Something else entirely.” He sucked in a breath, wishing that he felt a little comfortable in the damn thing.
Or even a little more comfortable in his own skin.
“I can't do this,” he mumbled, and Natasha's head tipped to the side.
“You going to run off and leave me without an escort, Doc?” She smiled, and her eyes were warm and kind, there was kindness in this woman, her eyes like the sun when she smiled and meant it. “And here I thought you were more of a gentleman than that.”
“Did you get stuck with me?” he asked, shaking his head, and yes, that made sense. Darcy was with Steve, and Pepper was still adjusting Tony's coat as he grumbled about something, and Clint and Coulson were the only ones who really were in love and here, other than Jane and Thor, and he didn't want to think about that. “Boy, you drew the short straw there.”
Her smile went soft on the edges. “I got first choice.” She leaned against the back of the couch, sleek and graceful. “We need you, Bruce.” She held out a hand, palm up, fingers a delicate sweep. “Dinner?”
“I'm no good in crowds,” he said, and just the thought of that was a shock of anxiety through his system. He sucked in a breath, and another, and without even thinking about it, he grabbed her hand. He jerked back, but her fingers had already closed over his.
“Neither am I,” she said. “We'll let Tony handle the crowds, and you and I will hang in the back and keep each company.” Her eyes flared wide. “Right?”
He took a breath, and another, and her fingers were steady and warm. “This is a horrible idea.”
“Pretty sure that Clint's stealing shoes from someone's closet right now,” Natasha said. “So we're still not part of the worst idea that's happening right now.”
He laughed, his head falling forward. He heard her chuckle as well, low and husky and soft. “I'm afraid,” he admitted, his eyes coming up to find hers.
She considered that, and her fingers tightened on his. “So am I.” Her lashes swept low, and she peered at him from underneath. “But I'm no less afraid here then I will be there. So let's get dinner.” Her head tipped to the side, and the curve of her jaw, of her neck, was lovely. “All right, Doc?”
“This is a horrible idea,” he warned her.
“Is that a no?”
He held on tight. “No. I mean, how often do we get the chance to see Thor scare the ever loving hell out of a waitstaff?”
“Now, that's the spirit, Doc.”
Jane realized that she was in over her head when Darcy shoved her into her dress. She staved off the complete sense of panic when she faced down the whole of the Avengers and their assorted dates in the vast, sophisticated layout of Tony Stark's living room. The reporters and the photographers in front of the restaurant were so confusing that she didn't have time to freak out about it.
Her vision hadn't even cleared from the camera flashes by the time she and Thor were escorted to a small table in the center of the restaurant. It took her a moment or two to realize that the rest of their party had gone to another table, a larger one some distance away, leaving the two of them alone.
Jane stared down at the array of silverware as a veritable army of servers buzzed around her, filling her water glass, arranging her plates, offering a hot towel. Thor took it without so much as a raised eyebrow, not even seeming to notice them, but Jane got more and more tense as the table was prepared. She sucked in a breath and hoped she could get through this without humiliating herself.
“We have a tasting menu tonight. Our first course will be trout roe with coconut foam and banana pudding,” the waiter said, his voice smooth and modulated.
Jane resisted the urge to get up, throw her napkin in the air, and walk out. Only the knowledge that dozens of pairs of eyes were locked on her right now kept her locked in her seat, her fingers twisted together in her lap. “Well, that sounds... Interesting,” she managed.
“How does one make a foam of a coconut?” Thor asked her, his brow furrowed, and any other time, she would've found that funny. Now, she barely managed a wan smile as the first round of plates were presented in front of them.
She made it through ten courses, or maybe it was more than that, she could barely keep track. Rabbit tempura with prune and shallot, pierced with a burning oak branch. Flash frozen wagu beef with mitake mushroom and smoked dates. Lobster with popcorn, baby corn and curry, swirled with a puree of popcorn and clarified butter. Frozen crab apple puree wrapped in foie gras and brown sugar and sorrel. Peppered concord grape juice in a mint yogurt shell that dissolved as soon as she put it in her mouth.
All of it was delicious, all of it was so bizarrely unfamiliar that her sense of anxiety just kept accelerating, until the waiter set a pillow in front of her, and announced, “Pumpkin puree wrapped around gruyere cheese, with bliss maple syrup sauce and vegetables. The pillow contains smoke that will scent the course as you eat.”
Thor, unconcerned by anything and anyone, poked the pillow and took a sniff. “Ah. How odd a thing you've created. Fine.” Amusement on his face, he reached for his fork, his golden hair gleaming in the low light and his grin alive with humor.
The first tear caught her off-guard.
She blinked hard, not wanting to call attention to it, but it rolled off her cheek, ruining her makeup, she knew it was ruining her makeup, to ping, soft and musical, against the edge of the fragile china. Horrified, she blinked harder,squeezing her lids shut, and ducked her head. One hand came up, her fingers spread wide so she could hide behind them.
“Jane?” His voice was so soft, so gentle that it just made things worse and she bit her lower lip, hard, almost hard enough to draw blood as she tried to stop crying.
But the tears were slipping free now, more and more of them, faster and faster, and when she sucked in a breath, it sounded like a sob.
“Perhaps the lady would like to excuse herself before she causes a scene,” the waiter said, and the sense of humiliation was stunning. She tried to push back from the table, her feet not getting traction on the slick floor, and she was sobbing now, in earnest, choking on the sound.
“The lady,” Thor said, his voice very soft, and holding all the wrath of a coming storm, “may do whatever she wants, where ever she cares to do it. And if you are wise, little man, you shall not DARE to tell her what she may or may not do.”
She froze, her head jerking up. Thor stood, grace and masculine strength in every movement of his body as he tossed his napkin aside and came around the table. He went down on one knee beside her chair, his huge hand reaching up, his fingers stroking against the wet plane of her cheek. His thumb flicked across her skin, sweeping away a tear. “Jane?” His brow furrowed, he leaned in, pulling her chair out of the way with a casual sort of disregard that she would never have.
“Everyone's looking,” she whispered, agonized.
Thor shrugged. “That is no concern of mine. Shall I order them to stop?”
Against her will, she giggled at that, the sound watery and uneven. She clamped a hand over her mouth, and he grinned at her, his blue eyes brilliant and warm. “Don't,” she said, ducking her head, and he leaned forward to touch his forehead against hers. “You can't just order people around, Thor.”
“I certainly can, I will just-”
She caught his arm as he made to stand, and there was something comforting about the fact that he could've shaken her off without even trying, but instead, he stilled at the touch of her fingers. “Don't,” she said, but her lips were twitching.
He leaned in again, for a kiss this time. “If it pleases you, I will not. Only because it pleases you.” His lips were warm, a zing like static electricity curling over her nerve endings. “What is wrong?” he whispered.
She sighed, closing her eyes, because she couldn't do this and look at him. “I can't do this,” she whispered. “I don't belong here.”
His face crumbled in something like confusion. “In New York? We can go back to New Mexico, if that is your wish-”
“With you,” she whispered. “I don't belong with you.” Wrenching herself free, she pushed herself out of her chair and took off, her legs wobbling beneath her as she tried to cut through the restaurant, trying to keep her head up, but there was no lighting here, and the wait staff was staring at her as if she'd just pulled out a gun and started shooting, and for an instant, she was lost and confused and so humiliated she wanted to die.
Then Darcy was there, next to her, her arm around Jane's back, her grip solid and strong and warm. “This way,” she said, pulling Jane along, not towards the main entrance, but towards a door that Jane hadn't even seen. But Darcy had, Darcy was the practical one, the one who rolled with the punches and didn't give a damn what people thought of her.
Darcy had the door open, and she was shoving Jane through it. “You- You had a date-” Jane stuttered out.
“Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?” Darcy glared at her. “You're more important. What's wrong? What happened?” She was seething, her cheeks flushed. “What did he do? I'll kill him, I will absolutely kill him. I told him I would kill him if he-”
“Darcy!” Jane leaned against her shoulder for a second, and Darcy just hugged her tight. “I screwed everything up,” she whispered, and Darcy patted her on the back.
“It's okay. It'll be okay, all right? Let's just-” Darcy shut the door behind them, and they were at the top of a massive staircase, rich red carpet draping graceful wood stairs. Darcy grabbed the bannister. “There's a door down at the bottom, c'mon, we can sneak out that way and catch a cab.”
Jane stared down the length of the staircase, a slightly hysterical laugh trapped behind a lump in her throat. “Should I leave a slipper behind?” she asked. The words echoed down the stairs, and she'd never felt less like a princess. Despite the dress, despite the setting, despite the actual and literal prince she'd left behind in the dining room, she was no princess. She clutched the skirt of her dress, and before Darcy could stop her, she took off down the stairs, stumbling and almost falling.
She was crying out loud by the time she reached the bottom.
Just as she reached the last stair, the door opened, and a worried looking Happy Hogan slipped in. His face relaxed. “Yeah, I got 'em,” he said, into his phone. He held up a hand, his brow furrowed. “Hi, ladies,” he said, with an easy smile. It didn't reach his eyes. “I need to bring the car around, so can you just stay in here for a second, and I'll-”
“Just take us back,” Darcy snapped at him, and her arm was around Jane's shoulders, warm and steady. “Fuck it, take us to the airport, right now, we're gone, we're in the wind, airport, now.”
“Oh, wow, no,” Happy said, spreading his hands. “That is not a good idea, that is really not a good idea, just wait here for a second, okay?”
“Fine,” Darcy snarled, and she was fierce when she wanted to be, she was the toughest person Jane had ever met, and she didn't take anything from anyone. “We'll get a cab.”
“Hey.” It was Clint was moving down the stairs, at a light jog, and Jane flinched back until she realized he was alone.
Darcy turned on Clint, her posture like a protective mama bear. “What?”she snapped, her voice a crack of a whip.
Clint held up his hands, palms out, his expression placating. “You need to talk to me right now,” he said, his voice low and gentle. “You need to tell me what's going on, because Coulson is dealing with the restaurant and Steve, Bruce and Natasha are dealing with Thor and Tony and Pepper are dealing with the paparazzi and everyone else and I am dealing with you.” He looked at Darcy, then at Jane. “I am not here to stop you, but I need to know what's happening, because there's some confusion.” He met Darcy's eyes. “Help me out here, you know I've never done anything but my best for you.”
Darcy stared him down, and he didn't flinch, didn't move. Her lips tight, she glanced at Jane. “Janey?” She pushed Jane's hair away from her face. “What happened, baby? Was he mean to you? Because I will tase his ass again, you know I will, I will walk right back in there and fry his big dumb ass.”
“He's not dumb,” Jane said, her shoulders slumping. “I just- I just don't belong there.”
Clint glanced back at the restaurant. “Okay,” he said. “That was Stark's stupid idea, but he was trying to be nice. He's just lousy at figuring out what normal people want and can stand. But he means well, he really does want you to feel welcome, and he just makes stupid rich person choices sometimes.” He paused. “All the time. So you don't have to go there. You don't have to go anywhere you don't want to go, you know that. That's not how this works.” He tucked his hands in his pockets. “Look, can we sit down here for a second? Please?”
Darcy looked at Jane. “Maybe just for a second?” she asked, her voice coaxing. “We can just take a seat for a second and catch our breath, okay?”
Jane nodded, and a moment later, she found herself seated on the carpeted steps, her dress a mass of flounced silk around her upthrust knees. Darcy sat down next to her, Clint on her other side. “Hell of a restaurant, isn't it?” Clint asked, and she glanced at him. “The big leagues.” He jerked his head over his shoulder at the massive staircase and the subdued decorations. “You got a lot thrown at you all of a sudden.”
She scrubbed her cheek with the heel of one hand. “Three days ago,” she said, her voice gritting out from between clenched teeth, “I was still holding my hair up with a couple of pencils and using a plastic folder to keep my peanut butter sandwich from leaving jam residue on the equipment.” She sucked in a long breath. “I bite my nails and I forget to change my socks sometimes and it was fine, when he was walking around New Mexico in jeans and a t-shirt and his hair held back with an elastic. I forget to sleep and I live in flannel shirts and glasses held together with a paper clip and my work makes me stupid cranky sometimes. I didn't really-” She drew her knees up tight and hugged them. “I don't belong here.”
He nodded, slowly. “Okay,” he agreed after a moment. “The thing about New York? Everyone belongs here and no one belongs here. It's New York. Doesn't care whether you live or die, succeed or not. But New York's got a lot of people, scholars and socialites and workers and the idle rich. Hell, it's a city that spawned both Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. That should tell you something right there.” He braced his elbows on the stairs behind him. “It's what you make it. New York is this place, thousand dollar a plate dinners and limos, but you don't have to go that route. You wanna disappear into SHIELD and eat nothing but instant ramen and take out? That's your choice. You can live off of Coney Island hot dogs and pizza. That's New York, too.”
“It's just-” She choked on a sob, and Darcy cuddled up against her side, making sad noises. Jane kissed her head, grateful for the support. “It was easy to ignore that I was dating a, well, a God, until I saw him here.”
“You're too good for him,” Darcy said, loyal as always, and Jane laughed.
“Uh-huh. Right. Thanks, Darce, but I think you're a little prejudiced.”
“Doesn't mean she's wrong. He talks about you all the time. All the time,” Clint said, his lips twitching. “He was so happy that you were finally moving here. He's proud of you, he read your last paper, did you know that? Bruce and he went over it, and Tony dealt with some of the 'outer space physics' aspects, and I didn't understand a word of it, but Thor read it over and over until he felt he understood it.” He paused. “He's really proud of you.” His eyebrows arched. “You know that, right?”
Jane realized her mouth was hanging open, and she shut it with a click. She swallowed. “He did not.”
Clint's teeth gleamed as his grinned. “Scout's honor.” He sat up, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Okay, none of my business-”
“It's really, really not,” Darcy agreed, and Jane laughed.
Clint's mouth twitched. “But I think I'm dating outside of my league, too. And let me tell you, it sucks sometimes. It does. But I figured something out after a while, okay? That the whole, 'he's too good for me' thing, that's my problem. And I don't get to choose for him. And if he wants to date me, I can't tell him that he shouldn't. If I don't want to date him, that's something different. That's a reason to walk away. But making the choice for him? I don't have the right to do that. All I can do is be, you know, me. And if that's what he wants?” He spread his arms wide, a manic gleam in his eyes. “Then fuck it. Fuck what anyone else thinks. Fuck the paparazzi and the blogs, fuck SHIELD, fuck 'em all. I'm happy, and he's happy, and fuck every person who doesn't get that.”
Jane stared at him. “That- That makes a lot of sense,” she said at last, and Clint grinned.
“So the question is-” He tipped his head up, his eyes glinting under the flat line of his brows. “Are you walking away because you want to, in which case, I'll drive you to the airport myself, and I promise you, everyone will accept that, one hundred percent, or are you walking away because you think he should, in which case, that is a dick move? Just so you know. That is a dick move, because he's a smart guy, and he's never had a problem doing what he wants. He can make up his own mind.”
Jane reached out and hugged him, not at all surprised when he hugged her back, his hands gentle on her back. “The dick move one,” she said, her voice raw. She buried her face against his shoulder, just for a second, and then she was pulling away, just far enough to meet his eyes.
“That's lousy,” Clint told her. “You wanna talk to the poor guy? Because he really wants you to be happy.”
She nodded. “I made a scene,” she said, humiliation bleeding into the words.
“Welcome to the Avengers! We make the best damn scenes!” Clint grinned at her. “No one cares. Coulson only cares if something explodes or catches fire and the rest of us only care if you outdid our last scene, and trust me. You only have to wait a couple of hours and Stark'll make anything you've done look like the height of refinement and class. He can't bear to be second place.” He stood and offered her a hand. “Pretty useful, when you think about it.”
She let him pull her to her feet, and Darcy scrambled up after her, already twitching the wrinkles out of Jane's skirt with quick hands. “Good as new,” she said, grinning at Jane. “Knock 'em dead, boss lady!”
Clint tipped his head back and let out a sharp trill of a whistle, and the door at the top of the stairs opened. Natasha leaned in. “What's the call?” she asked.
“Send him down,” Clint said, stepping back from Jane. He offered Darcy an arm. “As much as she appreciates you, how 'bout they get to have this discussion without anyone fondling a weapon in their vicinity?”
Darcy let out a snort, but she took his arm, resting her fingers on the crook of his elbow. “I, and my weapon, am not going far.” She looked at Jane. “Okay? I will tackle him. You know I will, I am that damn stupid.”
“I love you, Darce,” Jane said, grinning at her friend and assistant, and got a flick of a two fingered salute in response.
“Knock him dead, Dr. Foster,” Clint said, escorting Darcy up the stairs. Jane gave him a sharp nod and straightened her back, putting her shoulders back, her chin up, sucking in a careful breath. The top of the stairs was full now, the whole group hovering there, and she figured she should be annoyed by that. Or angry. But instead, it was nice. It was nice to see them surrounding Thor, to see Natasha talking to him, her face stern and affectionate all at once. And when Natasha glanced down at Jane, she smiled. Smiled and winked. And Jane found herself smiling back.
Thor came down the stairs slowly. Carefully. His shoulders were tight, his jaw a hard line, but his eyes were sad and confused. “Jane?” he asked. “Will you speak to me?”
“Sorry,” she whispered, staring up at him. “I'm sorry, I just- I panicked.” She held her hands out to him, and with only an instant's pause, he caught them.
“Do you wish to leave?” he asked, and his voice was miserable, aching. “I would understand. I would miss you, very much, but I understand.”
Jane pulled loose and threw herself forward, her arms around his neck, and she clung to him for a moment, burying her face in the front of his shirt. “I love you,” she whispered against his chest, and his arms wrapped around her. “I'm sorry.”
His chest expanded as he took a deep breath and released it. “I love you,” he whispered, his lips warm against her hair. “Very much.”
She leaned back, just far enough to see his face, and he was every inch a prince, a king, proud and huge and regal. And despite that, he was looking at her with something that like adoration. Like she was the special one here. “You read my paper?” she asked, the words breathy, uncertain.
Thor grinned, and his whole face lit up with it. “It was brilliant.”
She laughed. “You don't need to do that,” she said, and her cheeks felt hot. She fanned her face with her hands, trying to cool down. He caught her hands with a laugh.
He leaned forward and kissed her forehead, her nose, her lips. “Of course I do. I am proud of you.” When he pulled back, he was grinning. “My clever, brave, beautiful lady. Loyal and kind and so very clever.”
Jane shook her head, grinning like an idiot. “Can I stay here? With you?”
He searched her face, his eyes brilliant and sharp beneath lowered brows, and this time, when his arms closed around her, he lifted her right off of her feet. With a whoop of delight, he spun her around, making her skirts flare like a cascade around them. “I would be pleased if you would.”
And he meant it, that was the strange thing. He was so clearly excited to have her there. She caught his face in her hands and leaned forward, just far enough to kiss him. She was pretty sure that Darcy was clapping and stomping her feet, and someone was laughing, and that was fine. It was all fine. When she broke away, Thor lowered her to her feet, his hands firm on her waist.
She glanced up at the others, clustered at the stairs, worry and sympathy and reassurance on their faces. “Sorry,” she said, blushing.
“There is nothing to apologize for,” Thor whispered in her ear. “And I care naught that you dislike the food here.” He leaned back, eyes still worried. “We do not have to stay.”
“Aren't you hungry?” she asked, and he grinned.
“Aye, but I cannot see what we were served making any difference in the level of my hunger.”
“Stark's fault,” Clint called from the top of the stairs.
“Okay, so I wasn't really thinking of the appetites of this particular group when I made the reservation,” Tony griped, and Darcy laughed.
“Bulk, Stark. Gotta buy in bulk,” she told him.
“You think this is news? We're getting Pop Tarts by the crate.”
“I know a place,” Barton said, and for an instant it was like being back in New Mexico. With Clint on the edge of the gas station roof, arguing with Darcy, and Sitwell and Coulson rearranging her world as Erik snapped at them. “Not far. They'll be open. They might be a bit more our speed.”
Jane went to wipe her cheek, and Darcy was there, dabbing at her skin with a tissue, and behind her was Pepper with an easy smile and a compact. “You think?” Darcy asked, giving Clint a look over her shoulder as Jane tried not to make a bigger mess of her makeup than she already had.
Clint grinned. “New York's equivalent of Izzy's place. C'mon, soul food and the best sweet tea outside of Atlanta. What do you say?”
Jane glanced up at Thor, who smiled at her. “What do you wish to do?” he asked, and his hand found hers, huge and comforting and familiar.
She sucked in a breath, glancing around the group, and they were all smiling, all hovering around her, no mockery, no frustration, no judgment. Tony arched an eyebrow at her. “I don't know about you,” he drawled, laconic and easy, “but I'd kill someone for a slice of pie right about now.”
“The real kind,” Clint said. “Home made crust. Coconut cream's my favorite.”
“That-” Jane took a deep breath. “That sounds nice. Are you sure it'll be okay?”
“Please, who wouldn't want this amazing assembly of heroes to show up at their restaurant?”
The woman behind the counter, broad in the shoulders and the hips, arms crossed over an impressive chest, black hair scraped back into a tight bun, stared Clint down. “No.”
“We tip really, really well,” Clint told her with his brightest grin.
“You-” She stabbed a finger at his chest, then at the door. “Get out of my place.”
“Aw, c'mon,” Clint said, just a little bit of a wheedling note slipping into his voice. “Look at them,” he added, waving a hand at the group, and god, they were an attractive set of people. “All dressed up and no where to go. You've got at least an hour before the clubs let out, and the place is empty now.”
“Is it true,” Thor boomed, his eyes huge in his face, “that I can procure both fried chicken and waffles for a single meal?”
She stared up at him. Because she couldn't have been more than five and a half feet, it was a long way up. “Yeah, baby, we got that.”
“I have never desired a meal so much as this one,” Thor said to her, and it was with such utter seriousness, such gravity to the words that no one could doubt the truth to that statement. “Will you not let us partake in your bounty?”
She stared at him, her face working its way through confusion, suspicion, consternation, and settling on something that looked like amusement. “Are you for real?” she asked, bracing her hand on the counter, gleaming clean and white under the lights.
“He is,” Clint told her. “Exactly what he seems to be. He'll write an ode to your brisket. I can pretty much promise you that.” He did his best to make his face pathetic. She gave him a sideways look, her mouth tight. “It was not my fault last time.”
“Well, it sure as hell wasn't my fault, boy.” But her lips were twitching. “Gimmie a sec, I'll need to push some tables together.”
“Martha, you are a peach of a woman, a queen among peasants, we will rearrange the furniture, please just warn the kitchen that we will require so much food,” Clint said, and behind his back, he made a 'go, go, go,' gesture before she could change her mind.
They moved as a group, and from the outside, they must be terrifying, but she simply shook her head. “I guess so. I'll bring you a pitcher of sweet tea.” She flicked a glance at him. “Do not make me regret this.”
“If you're not already regretting this,” Clint told her, “you're not paying attention.” She was laughing as she wandered off.
Tables were wrangled in the far back of the cozy restaurant, where they'd be mostly out of the way and mostly invisible, and the inevitable jockeying for seats set off a round of laughter and yelling. But when everyone was seated, gathered around bright and colorful tables, glasses of water and sweet tea, baskets of corn bread and biscuits, and menus being passed around, Clint took a moment to just observe.
And they were laughing, the whole group was alive and warm and Tony was trying to get Thor to drink the honey straight from the little bear shaped bottle and Steve was opposed to this plan, and Bruce was laughing so hard that his face was flushed, eyes bright with tears behind the lenses of his glasses. Jane was trying to talk Darcy out of ordering an entire pie, and Thor couldn't figure out why. Natasha was sipping her tea, and there was the smallest smile on her perfect lips, but her eyes were dancing as she tore tiny chunks of corn bread loose and licked crumbs from the pad of her thumb. Pepper was laughing at Happy's attempts to choose a single item from the menu and Tony was just yelling for the kitchen to send them two of every delicious animal, and a vat of every side, two on the mac and cheese.
Clint leaned back in his chair and considered constructing a tiny bow from the coffee stirrers. Coulson's hand settled on the nape of his neck, fingers rubbing gently, and Clint gave him a sideways look out of the corner of his eyes. “Not bad, sir,” he said, and Coulson's lips twitched.
“Just once,” Phil said, his soft words lost under the flow of the conversation, “I'd like to not be wasting my life fixing Stark's mistakes.”
Clint shrugged. “Food was good. You know. For foams and pillows filled with smoke.”
Phil gave him a quick look, surprise disappearing in an instant. “I wouldn't have thought it was your kind of place,” he said.
Clint shrugged, and this should've been awkward, should've been fumbling and fearful and embarrassing, but it wasn't. Because Phil's fingers were still stroking the short hairs at the nape of his neck, warm and strong and comforting. “I like it well enough. I can appreciate it even if it isn't my kind of place. I'm kind of-” He waved a hand at his chest. “This isn't me. Like a kid playing dress up.” He gave Phil a grin.
Phil was staring at him, eyes dark and unreadable. “You look amazing,” he said. “And if you want to put that suit on again, I will find a place good enough to rate it.”
Clint blinked at him. “And if I want to go home and put on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt?”
“Then we'll go home and put on jeans and a t-shirt,” Phil said, his lips twitching. “Which is fine with me, because that's my favorite outfit on you.”
Coulson's fingers squeezed. “You're happy like that. Relaxed. I like it when you're happy.” He paused, arched an eyebrow. “You know that, right?”
Clint ignored the wash of heat that started somewhere low in his stomach, something like comfort and love and desire, all at once. “So if you could dress me, what would you put me in?” he asked, his lips curling up.
Phil considered that. “Your favorite pair of jeans, boots, and that battered leather motorcycle jacket.”
“Why bother?” Phil asked, and Clint burst out laughing, too hard, too loud, and he was an embarrassment, he knew he was, no manners and no style, but Coulson was still grinning at him, all the warmth in the world in his eyes. He leaned over and kissed Phil, hard and fast, and across the table, Darcy made a catcall before she was stifled by Jane.
When they broke apart, Clint could feel the heat in his cheeks, and Phil was flushed, and they were surrounded by smiling faces, laughing eyes and voices raised in a cacophony of humor and acceptance, and it was so strange. To be there, to feel this solid bedrock, these bizarre people, so dissimilar, but so familiar. Bruce's shy smile, Natasha's rare laugh, high and light and musical, Steve's bright eyes, careful and so aware, Tony's voice, sharp and staccato and filled of life, Thor's body, always in motion, hands and arms and shoulders and his head rolling back on his neck as he shifted, even while sitting still. Pepper's hands, delicate and strong, Darcy's hair, bouncing and gleaming in the light, Jane's cheeks, flushed and pink and sweet, the sound of Happy's foot tapping out a sharp rhythm. They were there, all of them were there, and there was Phil, solid and stable and amused, next to him, his leg against Clint's, his fingers on Clint's neck, his mouth swollen from that fast, hard kiss.
And as waitresses arrived to take their orders, Clint just leaned back, struggling with something that felt like grace, like peace. He glanced at Phil, and Phil smiled at him. “I'm going to steal your sweet potato fries,” he warned Clint, and Clint laughed.
“So I look okay?” he couldn't help but ask.
Phil leaned in, his lips almost against Clint's ear, his breath a flicker of touch on Clint's skin, and whispered, “When we get home, I'll show you just how 'okay' you look right now.”
Clint shivered. “Well, damn, now I regret agreeing to dinner,” he said, and Phil laughed.
“Always dinner first. Make me work for it,” he advised, and that was perfect, too.