It was Pepper who told Tony, pointed out that Natasha wasn’t acting at all like any of the versions they’d experienced yet.
“She’s blank, Tony.” She was starting right in the middle of the argument they had already fought twice now in three days.
“She’s a professional spy and assassin, Pep. She puts on and takes off personas like you do suits.” She leveled a look at him for that, because of the two he was the fashionista. “She never was really Natalie the PA. You can’t expect that from her.”
“Yes, I know this Tony. I kept in touch with her after-“
“I still haven’t forgiven her for stabbing me in the neck, saving the world aside, and I’m hurt that you’ve gone behind my back-“
“Tony!” Frustrated Pepper, in this way, was no good for him. “I’m not pretending I know her well but I know her enough that this feels wrong. She and Clint both came along when everyone else moved in but they’re…I don’t think they’ve even moved belongings in.”
Bruce hadn’t meant to be listening to their argument, but they were right outside his lab. Rather than wait until they realized, saying something in front of him that they’d really regret in the meantime, he finally gave up his subtle signals and just shouted out to them.
“Hey, guys! Were you headed this direction for a reason?” They cut-off, seeing him at his door and stepping out. Pepper was apologetic for the both of them, but Tony stole the chance to consult.
“Bruce. Spy versus Spy. Pep’s not only worried something is wiggy with them but that ‘as their teammate, I have a moral obligation to check on them’. Thoughts?”
He’d already figured out that part from their discussion, but – “Wiggy?”
“Yeah, wiggy. Little bit off. Don’t know Legolas well enough to know about the drifting aimlessly through rooms, but he could be doing special agent memorizing exits ninja shit. Widow sort of specializes in being unsettling. Sides, bit of a rough time for all of us recently. I want time, stands to reason they could too. I say leave well enough alone unless they give a signal. What’s your vote?”
Bruce and Pepper gave nearly identical sighs in unison, Bruce pinching the bridge of his nose in addition. Tony just narrowed his eyes at the both of them.
“Yeah, rough is a word you could use. Think it was different for them than us. I have some firsthand knowledge of acting outside your control, in Agent Barton’s case. Could be some PTSD. If we’re voting though? I say we talk to Steve.”
Tony groaned, but followed Bruce and Pepper from the room.
They’d all sort of gone along with Steve as Captain of the team, even if they weren’t otherwise military, because he had experience and Phil had put his weight behind it. They had honored a dying man’s wishes and when it turned out Fury had taken some creative licensing it seemed rude to be taker-backers just because he wasn’t dead.
Still, Steve kept proving himself in little ways each day. With half the team concerned, he listened to Tony argue in favor of leaving well enough alone, Bruce cautiously say there were probably some issues but take that with a grain of salt and Pepper argue passionately that something was very, very wrong. Then he did the sensible, professional leader action of using the tools at hand to gather more intel.
“JARVIS, can you give me information on Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff’s sleep and sustenance patterns?” Steve had taken about thirty seconds to adjust to JARVIS before ruthlessly exploiting him as a capable ally and source of information. When Tony asked him why it hadn’t shocked his delicate forties sensibilities, Steve had leveled a considering stare at him before saying, “I was a science experiment, Tony. Your dad made me a shield pretty much out of science fiction. Two days ago I was on a flying boat, met a god of legend and killed an alien race. Your super computer is useful, polite and I’m a quick study.”
JARVIS liked him immediately.
“Of course, sir. Agent Romanoff has been sleeping sporadically, approximately two hours for every thirty-six. She eats a protein bar and fruit leather every six hours like clockwork, which consistently works around her sleep schedule and is hydrating regularly. Miss Potts was correct, rations and weapons are the only things in her quarters.”
Pepper was a little pale at this, but she’d gone through worse weirdness with Tony and was visibly bucking herself up. The guys went with shorthand significant looks over her head.
“Agent Barton is following the same eating and hydrating pattern. He sleeps longer and more frequently, but the quality is lesser. He often wakes several times during his four hour stretches. His quarters are similar, except he only enters them to use the supplies.”
“Well then, where is he sleeping if he isn’t using the room?” So, okay, that was a little worrying. Tony had memorized the files Coulson left with him back before this all started and this didn’t fit with the vibe on either SHIELD agent’s records.
“Never the same place twice. Nowhere with windows or multiple entrances. He removes a ceiling tile and puts a climb rope in place first. I have kept staff away from his staked area each time.”
Bruce’s quiet,” Oh, good,” was perhaps more sarcastic than the occasion called for but Tony’s, “You didn’t think to mention that before now?” was equally unhelpful.
“It takes three days to establish a behavioral pattern and their SHIELD records indicated they have mandatory three days downtime after long or particularly difficult missions. It is likely this is normal behavior given that information.” JARVIS wasn’t well pleased with Tony calling him out.
Still, that was reassuring. Pepper was nodding her head, color more normal. So, Tony had been right, just a rough time for them, needed time to reach equilibrium. They were on the third day already. Maybe tomorrow she would see if Natasha wanted to get pedicures. She had rescheduled a week’s worth of meetings because it had almost been the end of the world and she’d almost lost Tony. Again.
Bruce was nodding, too, but thoughtful. There wasn’t any evidence that they had been worse and were now on the way towards better. Both agents seemed blank when passing him, not ignoring him so much as just performing the motions of acknowledgement. Still, one more day couldn’t hurt either way. Which he said.
“Keep your eyes open, then. I’ll check with Thor. Fury’s timetable on Thor returning Loki to Asgard is loosely in four more days. SHIELD is documenting whatever data they can get on the man first. I’d like to have the whole team present and functioning at that.” With that, Steve dismissed them. It took Tony a minute to realize that’s what it was. Pepper listened to him complain the entire elevator ride to their suite. At least he didn’t say ‘I told you so’.
Day four was a turning point that, retrospectively, everyone wished hadn’t been necessary. Hindsight was twenty-twenty and it wasn’t until Steve was passing Clint in a hallway rather than a room that several details came together for him. It wasn’t that Clint smelled particularly bad, just…noticeable. Steve nodded back as they passed, then turned to watch as Clint walked away. That’s when he noticed something that should have been glaringly obvious. There were tiny slashes in the back of Clint’s uniform, from where glass had been embedded, and Steve hadn’t seen either of them out of uniform since arriving at Stark Tower. He just hadn’t realized it was the same uniform.
“JARVIS.” His voice was soft, but he knew the AI could hear him.
“Analyze Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff’s movement since arrival. Report any patterns. Oh, and ask the other guys to meet me in the private dining room.”
“Of course, sir. And Miss Potts?”
“No, let’s wait to update her. She hasn’t spent much time in her office and I know her work is detailed and very involved.” He was already going over everything from the attack to present from his own memory. They both had seemed quiet at schwarma, but ate the plate put in from of them. Everyone had been given a quick look over by SHIELD’s field medic, that’s when the glass had been removed from Clint’s back then everyone was given the all-clear. Everyone went through decontamination, just in case. His suite hadn’t had alien guts on it afterwards, but it’d been torn up fairly well and he’d peeled out of it first chance he’d gotten.
Agent Hill had come to the tower to debrief them. First individually and then together to compare notes and impressions. They’d been concise, detailed and thorough. Thinking on it now, retrospectively, he wasn’t sure he’d actually heard either speak since.
Thor arrived first, followed by Tony and Bruce coming in together from the lab. It seemed weird to be having this conversation in an unused dining room on a fancier than necessary heavy oak table, but Steve wanted the table for his notes. JARVIS was swell, but the act of pen to paper was just soothing enough that he thought he could get through this.
No one bothered to ask what was up. They didn’t have anything else on the horizon. Steve, never one to shirk his duty, dove right in.
“They’re still wearing the same uniforms from the invasion.” It seemed a little dramatic put that way and if it wasn’t coupled with everything else, Tony would have rolled his eyes. Instead, he whispered, “Oh, shit.” Yeah, he understood that was pretty far into ‘not normal’ territory.
Even Thor was in civilian clothes. His frown was thoughtful and neither Bruce nor Tony had been with Steve for their discussion. It was with some surprise that they were caught up.
“I was thinking on what we discussed yesterday, Captain, and while it seems unnecessary to confirm it now, Hawkeye’s behavior as of late does not seem in keeping with my previous meeting.”
Tony asked, but Bruce was the one tilting his head in question. “You’ve met before?”
“Aye, in New Mexico last year. It was very brief, but he was one of the agents with Son of Coul.” Tony finally let himself roll his eyes, because he was fairly sure Thor was doing that on purpose. He let him continue, though, nothing short of a miracle. “We did not make formal acquaintance, but he made several jests in my presence.”
“Jests?” This was from Steve accompanied by an impressive frown.
“Yes. It seems he approved of my fighting style and thought several of his fellow agents should rethink active field duty.”
“So, Barton has a sense of humor in there somewhere. Noted. Since two of Earth’s deadliest agents appear to be off the deep end, what do we do about it?” Tony was ready for the take action part. If emotional nuance wasn’t a major portion of this, he might have just shoved off and tried a few ideas on his own. How hard would it be to get them drunk, Russian bedamned, with his experience?
Steve was saved answering whatever thoughts went along with his narrowed gaze, something half formed about mental health being no joking matter, by JARVIS.
“Captain Rogers, I have compiled the information you requested. Shall I bring up visuals?”
“Yes,” Tony and Steve spoke in unison, sharing glares in time as well. Bruce and Thor wisely stayed out of it.
There were seven floors dedicated to the Avengers, not including Pepper and Tony’s suite which was emphatically off limits. That didn’t appear to matter to either agent, who had both been through that floor in it’s entirety. Tony would have to have a word with JARVIS about that later. There was a purple line marked as Clint’s movements and an orange line for Natasha. They were nearly identical through the building, neither used the elevator to get to other floors, every bathroom had been entered by both, including those attached to teammate’s rooms, which were equally infiltrated. The only differences were that each had entered their own bedrooms, not each others, and Clint had been sleeping in out of the way places.
“I would like to note, sirs, that both agents only cover half the area in any given twelve hour period, switching to the other half of our quarters the next period. They do not overlap, they do not take the same route twice, nor check the same rooms at the same time as previously. There is no pattern to the time or location of bathroom use. They go slowly enough to be thorough.” JARVIS’ voice faded out and Bruce let out a low whistle.
“No overlap? Have they been communicating with one another?” Steve tried to keep the hope out of his voice, but it was there. Still, he made eye contact with the other three men, trying to exude confidence.
“No, sir. After the debriefing with Agent Hill, they split up without speaking or making any acknowledgement. They haven’t passed each other, even when switching patrols.”
And it was very evident to Steve that patrolling was exactly what they were doing.
“That mean something to you, military man?” Tony wasn’t blind. The Captain was a little bit freaked out beyond his former concern.
A worried Steve got soft. Not in temperament or ability, but in voice and gesture. He telegraphed comfort. “Yeah, it means something.” He looked down, realized he’d doodled Bucky’s face next to a note about checking the rooms Clint choose to sleep in. “Basic survival mode.”
Bruce nodded. Couldn’t say if it was because he concurred or because he had experience with the concept. Could very well be both. It was probably exactly as he assumed, but Thor still made a questioning noise, accompanied by a gesture.
Steve continued, “Eating enough to keep moving, drinking enough to stay on their feet, no trackable pattern to their movements in case of outside observation. They didn’t discuss it but their both doing it, so its got to be fall back behavior. Basic hygiene, or we’d actually have known something was wrong from smell or appearance sooner.” Not that they’d looked amazing, but everyone still looked like they could use extra sleep right now.
“That is not normal behavior given the lack of danger we are in. Or that we present.” Thor was cut off by Steve.
“Oh, they aren’t doing this in reaction to us. They’re patrolling our rooms, even. Either making sure we’re safe too, or being thorough enough to check out our areas to confirm we’re competent enough to keep them free of threats.” Either idea had its own set of pros and cons.
JARVIS qualified, “Both agents make it a point to cross paths with each of you once per twenty-four hour period, sir.”
“But not each other?”
“What’s the significance of that?” Bruce asked. He was bracing himself, like he knew the answer and wasn’t going to like it.
“It isn’t a necessary expenditure of energy. They know exactly what the other is doing already.”
Bruce was right, he hadn’t liked the answer. “JARVIS said they had three days downtime normally. We’re on day four with no sign of letting up. Thoughts on a plan of action? As someone who is often talked about in whispers behind closed doors, I’ve got to at least suggest talking directly to them.” He didn’t seem exactly thrilled with the idea.
“Sirs, Agent Barton’s enroute. He was going through the labs when I noted a change in behavior. He seems distressed. That was the last section of the floor and this one is next on his path. He has two more rooms before reaching here.
Tony blanched while Thor actually looked surprised. Steve just sighed, flipped his notebook forward several pages and began writing.
Thor – 1 pepperoni, 1 hamburger
Tony – ½ cheese
> 1 pizza
Bruce – ½ vegetarian
Me – Pineapple?
“What-“ Thor didn’t get to finish, as the door opened with more force than necessary. Clint had more expression than any of them had seen in days. This wasn’t particularly reassuring as the emotion was, as JARVIS aptly put it, distress. He had sweat at his temples and had cleared the two rooms in record time. He didn’t move into the room, but his eyes moved quickly, taking in every corner and that there were no other doors in the room.
They could practically see the numbers click over in his head. One. Two. Three. Four. All present and accounted for. His eyes slid from agitated to narrowed. Steve spoke into the awkward silence.
“We’re ordering lunch. Pizza. You want to join us?”
Clint slowly shook his head no.
“You want me to order you anything?”
Another slow refusal.
“Hey, you okay?” Tony cut in. Clint didn’t even bother to look at him. Just shut the door behind him as he assumedly moved on to the next room.
Tony turned to Bruce. “No, I don’t think talking is going to be useful.” Bruce frowned at him but pointed out, “He answered yes or no questions.” Then he spoke to the room at large. “JARVIS, you said they had three days downtime. Like – off base, whatever they wanted to do downtime?”
“It wouldn’t appear so, sir. They regularly reported to Agent Coulson during that time for the past five years.”
Steve took over. “Thank you. Do you have an update on Agent Coulson’s condition?”
“Yes. You all received an email notification from Director Fury thirty minutes ago stating that he is now approved for visitors.”
“Tony, JARVIS is monitoring our email?” Bruce really had no cause to look so disappointed. It was hardly a surprise given any interaction he’d had with Tony over the past week.
“Let’s address that never. JARVIS, did our erstwhile compatriots get the same email?” Tony hoped to just steamroll past the topic.
“Yes, sir. Neither has a device to check, nor have they used my interface. A cursory exam of their inboxes shows nothing urgent at present. I will keep watch and report as needed.”
“Good man, JARVIS.”
“How we going to play this, Captain?” And all three men looked at him. A different kind of battle, certainly, but they were following his lead again.
“I’m going to visit Phil.” He continued over their immediate demands to also attend the meeting with, “You want all four of us to be gone when Natasha realizes no one is where they’re supposed to be?” That stopped them all in their tracks.
Bruce managed, “Tony, maybe you should have Pepper-“ before Tony, phone in hand and typing out a message, responded, “On it.” She was going to be so upset when all she was allowed to do was nod to Clint as he passed her in the hall, but weird behavior wasn’t going to ease him.
“Actually order the pizza, since we said we were. I’ll be back in time for dinner. Make it hearty.” And Steve was gone.
JARVIS had neglected to mention that Coulson was very sleepy and very drugged. Still, he smiled wide when he saw Steve enter. “Hi, Captain.”
“Call me Steve, Phil.” Might as well make use of his charm.
“Hi, Phil. How you doing?” The room was empty of people, but Steve didn’t have anything to check for surveillance or bugs. Time seemed to be pressing, so he was going to hope for the best.
“Not dead.” Phil sounded cheerful at the thought, and as someone recently unfrozen, Steve could appreciate the sentiment.
“We’re all glad. Anyone update you on the team?” Phil’s face narrowed in concentration. He was understandably not at his best. “No.”
Steve sat down beside the bed, smiled easily, and said, “All of us survived. Got dinner afterwards. Natasha got Clint’s head screwed on straight.” Let himself laugh, but Phil was frowning now, chasing a thought.
“How are they?” Like he knew something was off with them. Steve wondered how much Coulson would be talking if not for the drugs. Then again, if he wasn’t drugged up he would have been with them in person. Steve pushed aside the guilt. Needs must.
“They are a little out of it, Phil. I’ll be honest. I’m worried.” Phil smiled at him again. Steve chalked it up to Phil’s devotion to team dynamics. It dimmed as he spoke unfortunately.
“Out of it? Yeah, bad op. Takes a while to crawl back into your skin, you know?”
Steve knew, kind of, but that wasn’t enough to go on here.
“How can I help them with that?”
Phil gave him a look like he was an idiot that ended on a yawn. Still, he blinked the sleep from his eyes and said, “Take care of them.”
“Take care of them?”
Phil nodded a bit, gave a sleepy, “Mmmhmm. Gently.” He was fading fast and Steve was running out of time on this. What happened when they had a mission or either agent did get an important communication? How long was Fury giving them as down time in reward for saving the world? “Can you be a bit more specific, Phil?”
He was sliding into sleep as he said, “Start with a bath.”
Pepper was there at the dining table they actually used when Steve arrived. No one had tried to get Natasha or Clint to join them, though JARVIS had a map up in the corner tracking their movements. Steve sat down, accepted the bowl of stew he was passed and stared into it like it was going to give him advice.
Tony broke the silence, unsurprisingly. “Sooo…” Him trailing off was admittedly a bit unprecedented, actually.
“JARVIS, you happen to record the conversation from my phone?”
“Of course, sir.” Bruce managed to say, “Tony, seriously, we’ll need to talk about this.” Then Steve said, “Please play it.”
He ate through the brief audio clip. Met each person’s eyes, feeling semi-helpless and trying to hide it. He got to Pepper and she looked sympathetic.
“What?” He hadn’t meant to snap and she didn’t seem to mind.
“Steve. You’re the leader.” Like he didn’t know that? “You’re going to have to take charge. Lead them where they need to go.” Tony made a soft ‘oh’ of surprise. He didn’t give Steve a chance to respond before lazily rolling his head to look at Pepper. “Team effort?”
She actually smiled. “Looks like.”
“What do you think – separate baths?”
And it clicked into place for Steve, Thor and Bruce. They all agreed Tony was a half minute quicker because he had the Pepper advantage.
It was a risk, changing things up on Clint for the second time in a day. No one wanted to make them go a minute longer, and so... So Clint entered the hallway to Thor and Steve waiting. He started to shy away, but Steve moved slow and sure, planting himself in front of Clint, hand steady on his arm, trusting he wasn’t about to get thrown into a wall.
“Hey, Clint. It’s Thor’s turn to patrol.” Clint didn’t make an aggressive move, but the tension stayed in his arm. “Thor knows what to do. He’ll finish this floor, take the stairs heading up. It’s bathtime for you.” Figured it was Coulson’s wording, might as well use it. Still, he wasn’t getting a response.
“Can I take over watch, friend?” Thor asked, voice steady and true. Clint nodded at him, reluctantly but technically a yes. Using the yes/no model really did seem to work, so he followed it up with, “Will you go with the good captain to bathe?” Clint nodded again.
“Can you say it, Clint?” Steve joined in. It was raspy but he received a, “Yes” coupled with a nod. It counted as progress, even when Clint made no motion to move until Steve guided him from the hall. He looked back, anxiously, but Thor just entered the next room and began his patrol.
They had all agreed that it would be easier on them both if they knew someone had taken up the patrol and equally that in the interest of trust, it was important they follow through on their promise. Steve hoped Bruce and Pepper had done as well with Natasha. Personally, Steve didn’t think Natasha would particularly respond to Pepper on the basis of gender solidarity. Didn’t seem her M.O. but Pepper was the closest thing available to a friend Natasha had right now and that was what counted in his book.
Tony was actually prepping the bath and bedroom of his suite. The altruism seemed to be Pepper and pragmatism based, but it was still another subtle sign of the fact Tony already cared about his teammates. That he’d taken the time to track down pajamas that were wearable, if not the best fit, was a gesture all his own. Which, to cut down on the sentimentality of it, he made sure to point out frequently and emphatically to anyone who would sit still long enough for him to brag.
Pepper was as good as her word, Natasha standing in the gigantic bathroom as blank faced as Clint. They made eye contact with each other for a fraction of a second, lips tightening in mute unease. Partly to break the tension and partly because they were about to be in each other’s personal space for a while, Steve started with, “How about we brush our teeth?”
It wasn’t directly enough a yes or no question, apparently, as all he got was more unease across their faces. Clint eased back from how close he was to the group.
Pepper decided to try a slightly different tact. “Natasha, go stand by the left sink, please.” And Natasha nodded like it was an order from the next in command and went over, so Pepper continued. “Clint, please go stand by the righthand sink,” to equal results.
She and Steve tried the silent communication thing, and both were pretty sure the other understood but it wasn’t natural to them yet. Tony stepped into the doorway and raised an eyebrow at them both. It was way more effective, particularly when he held up two toothbrushes from the next floor’s guest bathroom. “Glad to see we’re all on the same page.” And tossed one of them to Steve. “Get that one open, would you?”
Tony crossed to stand next to Clint. “Hey, buddy. Got you a fresh toothbrush. Purple, your favorite!” Clint just watched him while Tony nearly destroyed it trying to open the package. The voice in the back of his head noted he could design something more efficient. Then, “Aha!” and he was brandishing the freed toothbrush, pushing it into Clint’s hand and stepping back.
Pepper tried, “Brush your teeth, Clint,” but she only got a blank stare in response. Things were starting to come together a little more for them all, but so slowly. Steve handed the opened package to Pepper, stepped between Clint and Tony, and uncapped the toothpaste. Holding it up, he asked, “Can I use this flavor?” When Clint nodded, Steve put a dollop on the purple toothbrush still in Clint’s hand.
He lifted the hand in his own, turned on the water and quickly ran the bristles under the water, turned off the stream because he was energy conscious even amidst upheaval, and guided it up to Clint’s mouth. When he removed his hand, Clint didn’t lower his own but he appeared to just be waiting there patiently. Steve contained his sigh, but he took the toothbrush, Clint’s hand falling away, and used his other hand to tap the side of Clint’s jaw. “Open up for me.”
He did, and Steve set about brushing from the other side of the equation. He could sense Tony staring, and used the mirror to see his captivated expression. “This is so weird.” Steve didn’t bother to admonish Tony. Yeah, this was different.
Pepper repeated his actions for Natasha, and there the five of them were standing, the two SHIELD agents docile and cooperating with direct, uncomplicated orders. “Rinse and spit.” “Gargle this mouthwash.” “Stand still,” which was a little unnecessary, given, but Steve used the hand towel Tony handed him to pat Clint’s face dry.
They discovered, “Get undressed” fell into the too complicated category, and rather than waste time going step by step through the motions, Steve stepped up and gently unzipped the front of Clint’s vest. Pepper did the same for Natasha after a near silent exchange with Tony that ended with, “Jesus, Pepper, look at them. Really?” She shot him a fond look, and he busied himself, back to them all, making sure he had soaps and shampoo at the ready, even grabbing Pepper’s pumice stone because who knew what was going to be useful?
Natasha’s suit might have been skin tight, but it was one piece and Pepper finished with it while Steve was still trying to figure out where all Clint’s vest attached to his pants. Natasha was out of her bra and underwear, Pepper leading her into the tub, Tony’s eyes once again averted, while Steve realized he’d need to deal with the boots still.
Eventually they were seated side by side in the water, on a wide ledge designed just for this kind of seating, Tony wisely having chosen a neutral scent that frothed bubbles up to help with concealment. The tub was big enough to swim around a bit, if they’d been inclined to do so. At present, that wasn’t an option and Tony considered them lucky in that at least. On the unlucky side, no one was moving.
No one was talking, either, because it was finally sinking in that things like, “Wash up,” just weren’t going to work for them. Tony’s, “One. Two. Three. Not it,” was unappreciated by all.
Still, Steve stepped up to the plate, dipped the sea sponge Tony had conveniently left on Clint’s side of the tub into the water and wrung it out. Then stared at the army of supplies Tony had also helpfully placed. Natasha’s side had an equal amount of choices, Steve noted. Hope springing eternal, he held up two bottles of body wash and asked, “Which one do you want me to use?”
Clint actually bit his lip in response, something Steve feverishly hoped he’d never, ever cause again. Precision and control were points of pride, obvious in his manner on the battlefield and equally noted in his personnel file. That Loki had so recently usurped that, coupled with this now, and Steve had a moment to wonder how much Clint remembered of his time under Loki’s control. How much he’d remember of his time like this.
He reworded it to a yes or no question, putting one of them down at random, “Do you want me to use this one?” Clint didn’t release his lip, didn’t move at all, and Tony slipped into place, kneeling beside Steve outside the tub.
“Don’t make it about want, Steve. They aren’t ready for it.” He nudged Steve’s arm up, holding the bottle up higher again, and asked, “Clint, can we use this to wash you up?” Clint nodded, small but visible. Tony reached out, used his thumb to gently tug Clint’s bottom lip free and leaving a smear of water droplets on his cheek. “There you go. No worries, we’re all friends here. You’re safe.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve saw Natasha turn to look at Tony. There was a minute, quickly controlled tremor along her shoulders and she swallowed hard, still looking at him. Then her attention went back to Pepper, following her direction to lift her right arm and Pepper’s sponge gliding along leaving soapy trails in its wake.
They figured it out. Moved on, part by part, no hesitation, embarrassment or, thankfully, jokes from Tony as skin was revealed and resubmerged. The tub had one of those amazing attachments that Steve had grown to love, and used to gently rinse out shampoo, Clint’s head tipped back and eyes closed at Tony’s command. He didn’t react to the bit of scalp massage Steve treated him too, but at some point both of them had released the tension they’d been carrying. It happened so slowly no one could pinpoint when it had happened only that with the bath finished muscles were moving more smoothly.
Tony had giant, decadently fluffy towels that absorbed water while barely seeming sodden. Pepper made the de facto choice of helping their charges into the borrowed pajamas a priority, followed by hair drying once they were covered up. Pepper had a drastically different body shape than Natasha, and Tony had figured comfort over fashion so a pair of ridiculously fifties era button up pajamas had been taken from Bruce and rolled up to keep Natasha’s hands and feet free. Clint was sporting another rolled up ensemble from Steve’s drawers and Tony had the cleaning service put a rush order on laundering their unmentionables for the next day.
They had debated it before stepping foot outside of the kitchen, but now that the moment of truth was here, Steve was rethinking the whole, “Of course we aren’t going to send them off to their rooms to sneak out after two hours or wander off god knows where to plant an escape repel.” Now that they were all staring at the giant bed, not a standard size that you could buy frame or mattress for, the three of them knew this was going to take some maneuvering. Worse, some fairly intensive yes/no directed questioning.
Tony placed his finger to the side of his nose and Steve wondered how many ways the man knew to call ‘not it’.
“Natasha, are you tired?” She nodded, no pause necessary, and Steve decided to work on the same thing he’d begun with Clint. “Can you tell me?” Natasha’s voice, without personality behind it, was disconcerting, but she said, “Yes,” evenly. She made eye contact, which made it almost worse, because like her voice there was nothing behind it.
Still, when push came to shove, Tony pitched in. He might not have invented talking in riddles but he had certainly tried to patent it in 2002. “Can you fall asleep now?”
Steve vaguely wondered what was going to happen tomorrow morning when he asked if they were hungry. Slipping back to the present, he started a new track. “Natasha, can you fall asleep with Clint in the same bed?” Apparently two verbal responses in a row were enough for her because she nodded again. “Clint, can you fall asleep if Natasha’s in the same bed?” He nodded too.
Steve gave Tony the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t just information gathering when he asked, “Can you fall asleep with someone else in the bed?” Neither answered, but Steve noticed that if the bitten lip was Clint’s tell, then Natasha’s was curling her toes. Pepper proved why Tony’d fallen madly in love with her before Steve could comment.
“Too broad, Tony. Could you fall asleep with another Avenger in the bed?” Natasha’s toes straightened and they nodded in unison. Tony bit back a comment about how creepy that looked to instead ask, “Coulson?” Despite himself, after their nods, Steve added, “Director Fury?” Tony shot him an appraising look tinged with respect. Steve wanted to tell him he didn’t dick around, in Tony’s vernacular, but there were more important things to focus on. Like how they both would have been able to sleep with Fury or Hill present, but no other SHIELD agents. No family. No friends. Steve cut off the questioning after Tony moved towards, “Prostitute?” Having anything remotely sexual come to mind while they were so far out of it seemed inherently wrong.
So they were tired, they could feasibly fall asleep in the bed but both knew that if they climbed in right then that they wouldn’t actually do so. Without more to go on, they had only a few sensible questions to ask before blind guessing would become a last resort. The most obvious thing to address was weaponry, so Tony got the knives and guns that they’d secured from the uniform holsters. They were accepted without any discernable change in expression, but each of them quickly performed a check on the weapons before securing them around the bed. Natasha to the left, again, and Clint to the right.
Pepper distracted Tony and Steve before they could start a new line of questioning on this.
“Hey, guys, how much do you think their auto-pilot is going to be on now that we’ve taken them under our wing?” Defense still seemed to be online. Steve saw several different possibilities spin out from that. He turned away from Pepper to address both the agents.
“You can use the facilities whenever necessary.” He almost, almost said ‘wanted’ before remembering how disastrous that could be. More pitfalls sprung to mind, though. “You need to use that bathroom, tonight. I’m going to stay awake, patrolling the suite. I’ll keep watch on the windows, the door, the closet and the bathroom. It will be safe.”
Natasha’s shoulder made the same, barely perceptible motion. Neither Tony nor Pepper seemed to notice either time and Steve had a moment to realize how very, very good at her job Natasha was truly. Playing the hunch, he added, “I’ll keep you safe. You can go to sleep.” Apparently their inner sleep directive was also still working for them, because that seemed to trip Natasha. She got into the bed of her own accord, turned onto her side and closed her eyes. Clint looked at her, slide back the covers on his side and flipped onto his stomach. His right hand was next to his head, resting on the pillow two inches from the knife he’d placed on the nightstand. They didn’t move again and their breathing was even.
“We’ll close the door behind us,” Pepper whispered, and Steve settled in to his patrol.
Pepper had returned to the suite to help Steve with morning prep. Both Clint and Natasha had slept for eight hours. Natasha straight and Clint with some thrashing that calmed when Steve had stood next to him, hand on his shoulder and trying his best to make soothing noises. They’d both awoken at the click of Pepper opening the door, rolling out of bed and arming themselves in fractionately less time than to assess her as not a threat and disarm.
Pepper had only stumbled a little, trying to cover it by saying cheerfully, “Good morning.” Natasha nodded to her as she walked past, entered the bathroom and shut the door. Four minutes later she returned, even nodded to acknowledge Clint as he took his turn. It said something about how accustomed he’d become to his strange new life that he felt proud at seeing it. And, too, “Did you brush your teeth Natasha?”
More progress, she said, “Yes.” Clint had brushed his teeth unprompted as well.
Without pulling in Fury or Hill, which the team had decided was an all around Bad Idea, sleep schedules were going to be completely jacked before a full twenty-four hours were up. Steve was pretty sure that he and Thor could handle an extended sleepless stretch but Bruce looked ready to drop at the breakfast table. Popular vote had decided that they would all do their best to attend meals together, but afterwards he had a date with his bedroom.
There had been a moment, when the two agents realized no one was patrolling that had seemed almost touch and go. Thor had calmed them, saying gently, “I just completed a sweep of this floor. Both Bruce and I need to eat and then take our rest, the next patrol will begin soon. Until then, JARVIS is scanning.” Simple, direct, and he’d smoothly delivered them into their seats at the same time. The god was full of surprises.
They were still in the borrowed pajamas, because no one had figured out a great solution to the clothing issue yet. Steve was just the side of emotionally tired that he hadn’t asked if they were hungry, if they had food allergies, nothing. He put a bowl of oatmeal down in front of each of his teammates and dug in to his own. There were enough people in the room that could figure out explaining spoons if this was an issue.
They did fine, eating their entire serving, and Steve was idling trying to figure out the best way to reword, “Do you want more?” when Tony took the initiative.
“Should you eat more?” It was almost an open ended question, as what criteria decided should versus should not? The drive they were basing things off of was, “What do you need to do to stay alive?” They had eaten enough to do that. It shouldn’t have worked the way Tony wanted, but enough had shifted overnight that Clint, voice still a little rusty, said, “Yes.”
Bruce refilled their bowls before deciding that talking like they weren’t there was rude but going to be his best bet to getting out of there quicker. “Plan for today, Captain?”
It wasn’t much of one, but he put Tony and Pepper on patrol, a whispered sorry for taking her from work still more. Otherwise, “Relaxing. Thought maybe a movie or two before lunch. Then reassessing. Go ahead and get some sleep, Bruce.”
He had no idea what they would normally do in their free time, but for lack of a better idea he led them to the lounge and asked JARVIS to queue up one of the movies Tony had listed as Must See. He sat on the couch and looked up to see one of his charges standing in front of him on either side. He thought about all the things he could have said, and went with, “Sit next to me.” He grabbed a hand, pulling gently for each of them. They went down easily, Natasha refusing to let go of his hand and resting her head on the outside of his shoulder. Clint let go when Steve opened his hand, but after an infinitesimal pause picked it up again long enough to pull Steve’s arm over his shoulder, tucking in so his head rested on his other shoulder.
It was…unexpected. They looked comfortable, but he asked, “All settled?” He got a twincast, “Yes” which was a little eerie sounding. The room was dark and cool, the screen brightly lighting the title on pause, and he decided to go with it. “Okay, let’s start the movie JARVIS.”
He was asleep before he’d figured out who was supposed to be the main character. He woke to Natasha poking him in the shoulder after the movie was back to the opening screen. He looked blearily at her as she pointed to the screen.
“Oh, oh. Sorry. Wanna watch another?” He slurred, before freezing, instantly awake, remembering the night before. She just said, “Yes.” He hated to push, he did, but he still turned to Clint. “How about you, Clint, do you want to watch another?” He had to wait for a second, and he was ready to berate himself internally when he got the answer, “Yes.”
The next movie started, ostensibly a sequel that was going to leave him hopelessly lost but he was happy realizing that he’d only gotten verbal answers so far that morning. They were responding to more complex questions and situations. He didn’t have a time frame but he had evidence they were on their way back to normal.
He related his observations over lunch, while thinking Bruce should have taken more than five hours of sleep. He still had shadows under his eyes. What with the impromptu movie snuggling, his own nap had been enough to get him through another long stretch.
“Sure you don’t want to go back to bed?” No one pointed out that he’d asked in the same gentle voice he’d been using with Clint and Natasha.
“No,” Bruce answered, smiling and voice to match, “I want to know how the movie watching went.”
He directed it at Steve, so everyone was surprised when Clint said, “Good.” He actually got Tony’s mouth to gape. Natasha turned to look at him, but only to nod and add, “Liked them.” There was a silent, stunned moment, before Thor gave a snort of laughter.
Steve joined him. The two agents slide their gazes to catch each other’s eyes and then shifted slightly closer together. Steve managed to get his laughter under control, realizing that in their current state, they couldn’t tell that the laughter was relief.
“It’s okay, you guys. We’re just glad you liked the movies,” Tony reassured them, voice the same patient one he’d been using since last night. He had some hits or misses, but overall Steve had been impressed with how he handled himself.
Still, the upset from the confusion of why the team had acted so out of the ordinary reduced the two back to yes/no answers for the rest of the day. Steve clued into the regression when he asked them, after finishing lunch, if they wanted to watch more movies. Clint’s bottom lip made it’s way between his teeth and Natasha, still barefoot, curled her toes against the hardwood floor. Tony was beside Natasha, and turned in an instant, hand on her shoulder and repeating what he’d said to Clint the night before, “No worries, we’re all friends here.”
Bruce was closer to Clint, and while he had heard about the night before he couldn’t see this for what it was, particularly so soon after the success of the previous movie question, and he followed Tony’s lead and put a hand on Clint’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s all okay. We don’t have to watch movies if you don’t want.”
Clint pulled away, throat making a painful clicking noise that Steve attributed to trying to keep quiet. He stepped up, moving to Clint’s side so he wouldn’t feel boxed in. They’d managed to avoid bloodshed so far and he was hoping to keep that streak going. “No, it’s not that Bruce. I think we’re just pushing a bit too much too soon. Can’t make it about want right now.”
Bruce nodded, kept his hand on Clint’s shoulder and said, “I’m putting my favorite movie on. I’d really like it if everyone joined me, but I’ll let Steve decide that.” He finished with a few casual pats, before exiting the room. Steve wasn’t exactly happy about the way Bruce worded that, but it made sense. He’d been directing them since the night before and it was working. They both turned to look at him.
“Come on, we’ll watch with Bruce and then go for a jog in the gym before dinner.” He sat down in the middle of the couch, again, and pulled them down to sit next to him, but they sat there eerily still. He debated himself, trying to decide between if he was taking advantage of their vulnerable state or if their prior behavior should be considered as what they wanted.
“I can hear you thinking all the way over here, Cap. You heard them last night, they wouldn’t be doing a damn thing Sitwell suggested. They trust us enough to go off emergency mode, so trust yourself.” With that, Tony finished sweeping the room and went through to the next to continue his patrol.
It was as simple as that. It was as terribly complex as that. Steve tucked Natasha up against one side, threw his arm around Clint on the other side, and went so far as to keep holding each of their hands throughout. He even stayed awake this time.
It was four in the afternoon by the time they walked down five flights of stairs to get to the gym. They passed Pepper switching from one floor to the next, and she gave a professional nod to the group before putting her eyes back to sweeping the stairwell. Steve was impressed to begin with, but the fact that neither Natasha nor Clint tracked her to make sure she continued to do well put him in a better mood.
“We’re just going to jog, guys. Tony liberated another set of pajamas for each of you, so after this we’ll eat and then try our hands at another bath.” He wasn’t asking questions and they weren’t offering opinions, but some of the wariness seemed to leave their eyes when they knew exactly what to expect. So he kept up the patter and pace so they all had an easy gait. At first.
As he fell into his routine they all began to pick up steam. By the time the alarm he’d asked JARVIS to set for dinner went off, they were all red-faced and sweaty. He grabbed three waters and opened the lids for each without thought. As they steadily drank it down, he contemplated them.
“Well, dinner is ready now. We’ll all three take a pass and eat a little grubby.”
It wasn’t a question, but Natasha still said, “Yes.” Steve smiled at her, clapped Clint on the back, and took the stairs two at a time on the way up. He was halfway to the next floor before he realized they were walking gingerly up behind him. He narrowed his gaze at their bare feet, irritation at his own lack of focus coloring the words.
“Have you ever run barefoot before?” They both stopped, looked up at him, and, thankfully, didn’t quite manage to sync up their “Yes” this time. Hating the thought of their looks turning wary, Steve pushed through to make his voice even.
“That long, that fast?” They both only shook their heads, but their gazes didn’t change. He’d have to talk it over with the others, see if he was missing something from this exchange. In the meantime, he tried to put a smile behind his eyes, hoping they recognized rueful when they saw it.
“Feet a little tender?” He didn’t wait for them to answer, adding, “I’ll walk slower.”
If anyone noticed the softer steps as the three of them walked in, no one mentioned it. Instead, they did bring up the state of their clothing. Tony’s eyes narrowed to make a comment but Pepper managed to actually speak before him.
“Wow, you three are a little gross. Sit on that side of the table, thanks. We’ll have a bath after dinner.”
Tony let himself leer a little at her, “Will we?” She just slanted him the same look from last night. He threw his hands up in the international symbol for surrender. For three seconds, before slanting a considering look across the table at Clint and Natasha. Still, his voice came out almost hesitant.
“Did you guys have a good afternoon?” Everyone waited to gauge how well they were doing now. Natasha ducked her head, a movement none of them had seen before that would have made Tony’s heart stop if it weren’t hooked up to a super battery. Clint once again surprised them, though, by reaching out to tap Natasha’s hand twice with his first two fingers. She looked over at him, the longest eye contact they’d given each other since battling Loki. Then they turned to look at Tony in unison, both saying, “Yes.”
No one said it out loud, but it was pretty obvious everyone still found that disconcerting. It was not easing up with time and familiarity.
Since the two didn’t seem to mind or backslide like this afternoon, Tony pushed them a little harder. Steve thought about cutting him off, just accepting what they had now rather than risk it, but he held his tongue, barely, as Tony kept on.
“What did you do today?” Patient and even, Pepper moving to rest an arm on Tony’s shoulder like he was working just as hard as they were too.
Natasha didn’t hesitate this time, and Steve was sure that Tony deserved the swell of pride that came across his face when she said, “Watched a movie with Bruce.”
And Clint might have dropped eye contact to the side, not quite going so far as Natasha’s ducked head, but he still added, “Ran with Steve.”
Everyone moderated their responses, treating this as delicately as it had proved to be, but Bruce nodded approvingly, and Thor smiled at them broadly.
“I was happy to have the company,” Steve told them, before turning back to his food and letting Tony tell Bruce where he’d left off in rounds. They made the switch easily after dinner and once again Tony, Pepper, and Steve led Clint and Natasha to Tony’s master bath.
This time, they were barely in the room before the two began to reach for the bottom hems of their pajama tops. Steve couldn’t quite stop his automatic response of slight panic, turning his, “Whoa-” into a weirdly structured sentence with, “-teeth brushing first.” It came out somewhat like a reprimand, and he held his breath to see how they would respond.
Fingers dropped the cloth, Natasha with a small flutter before moving her hands away, but they walked over to the sinks and began the process of brushing their teeth. No one had been in the bathroom with them that morning, so it was quietly revealing to them to see both Natasha and Clint mimic their teeth cleaning of the previous night. Even to Clint tapping a finger against his chin before opening up to bring the bristles to his teeth.
Steve turned to Tony and Pepper, saying very softly, “It makes sense. Their other actions have been fall back behavior. Routine. They just added this as another routine to follow.”
Once Clint finished by patting his face dry, they turned to look at Pepper. Apparently whatever had prompted them to start to strip when they first walked in had faded, or Steve had unintentionally wiped that pattern away with his sharp response, but not even, “Get undressed,” prompted them to touch their tops. Pepper and Tony made quick work of getting the pajamas off and then led their charges up to and into the bath.
This time went without incident, no stumbles or accidental set backs. They were out, toweled off and into the fresh pajamas efficiently. The dresser top held their now laundered under clothes, but Pepper decided they’d go ahead and let them be fresh the next morning.
Steve started to direct them into bed by route, but Tony cut him off, like always, almost reflexively. “Will you guys sleep if you get into bed now?” They both looked tired, but Natasha spoke for them, actually saying aloud a negative response for the first time, “No.” Everyone was careful to not react and kept their faces still.
It wasn’t even quite 8 p.m., Steve realized, so it was extremely unlikely even though they needed at least a week of 8 hours each night to get back on track. He was normally pretty quick with an adjusted plan, but Pepper was smoothing the way already for him. They were quickly becoming a small, well-oiled machine at this.
“Why don’t the three of you lay down and JARVIS can put on another movie. If you’re tired afterwards, you can go to bed, and if you aren’t, you can always watch another.”
Steve was nodding alongside Clint and Natasha, only realizing he’d synced to their in unison action when Tony wrinkled his nose at him, limiting himself to only saying, “Yeah, you’ve got this well in hand. Pepper and I will leave you to it.”
Pepper pulled back the covers, motioned Clint in and had him scoot across the bed, but obviously thought it was okay to direct Steve at this juncture. “In you go, Captain. That way they can both have access to you.” He shot her a straight faced look, but she was far more subtle about sarcasm than Tony. Instead of trying, he just climbed in, no longer surprised when Clint and Natasha settled in on either side of him. He just adjusted his arms to give them both a comfortable shoulder to rest on. Though the way Natasha was curling, she’d landed more on his pec. No one complained.
“There you go. JARVIS will turn down the lights once Tony and I get out of here,” she was saying while pulling the blankets back up into place. “Enjoy your movie.”
Steve woke, the instantly alert without warning kind, but carefully kept still so that his bedmates wouldn’t roll out of bed arming themselves again, and decided he needed to have a talk with JARVIS. The only explanation for him having chosen an exceedingly long and terribly boring movie could have been to lull them all to sleep. Still, no one had woken upset in the middle of the night and they were both still asleep 7 hours in. If he was lucky, they might get a little more.
Luck wasn’t on his side, in that one minute everything was quiet except for deep, even breaths and then Clint was snuffling against his shoulder, saying in a gruff, sleepy voice, “Morning, Cap’n.”
Steve smiled, bringing the arm that had fallen asleep under Clint’s head up to give him a firm half hug. “Good morning, Clint.” Knowing there was no way Natasha wasn’t awake now, despite her managing to keep even her breathing regulated, he did the same half hug for her. “Good morning, Natasha.”
“Morning, Steve,” didn’t even sound like she’d just awoken. With that, she rolled out of bed to head into the bathroom. Her stride didn’t break as she picked up the clean underclothes on her way in. Thinking Clint would be just as efficient, Steve was surprised when, for lack of a better word coming to his mind, Clint snuggled up against him and wrapped his arm around Steve’s stomach.
“You okay?” he asked, even as he put his arm back around Clint’s shoulders.
“Mm’cold,” even though he seemed warm enough under the blankets. Steve wasn’t the type to call him out on that. He just began to add what was hopefully soothing circles being rubbed into the expanse of shoulder and back.
Natasha returned, coming around to Clint’s side of the bed for the first time, and put her hands soothingly through his hair. When she quietly told Steve, “Ice dreams,” Clint shuddered. And Steve knew, even if you normally didn’t wake up screaming, nightmares from your memories cut deep. He hadn’t thrashed that night like the previous, but freezing in body as well as dreamland wasn’t unheard of to him.
“You want to take a warm shower today, Clint?” His hands kept moving steadily, his voice was light, it was just an offer.
“Nuh, feeling better,” he told Steve’s shoulder. Natasha gave him two more pets before stepping back, giving him room.
“How about you go get ready and we’ll have breakfast, then?” He got a brief nod in reply before Clint rolled from his side. His hands brushed Natasha’s as he walked by and he just as gracefully grabbed his shorts on his way into the bathroom. With him out, Steve took a turn and then steered them down to the kitchen to meet up with the rest of the team.
Bruce had cooked – eggs and bacon, toast and diced potatoes, with butter, honey and jams littering the table. Steve watched as they took their places and started loading their plates on their own. Clint put salsa on his eggs, something Steve wouldn’t have even thought to ask him, and Natasha used butter and raspberry jam thick on her toast. Bruce caught his eye behind their heads and Steve just lifted his coffee mug in acknowledgement.
“You look rested, friends,” Thor greeted them as he came in from patrol.
“Steve slept with us last night,” Natasha told him solemnly.
Tony knew, of course, the truth behind that, but his delighted look regardless prompted Bruce to look at him with eyebrow raised in question. Natasha’s eyes sparkled and Steve realized she’d known exactly what she was doing in that moment. It was disconcerting and delightful by equal parts.
“We fell asleep watching a movie,” was to Bruce and, “Eat your food. Tony has spare suits so we’re going swimming until lunch.” And then scooped eggs into his mouth to forestall arguments or more conversation. Clint just took an extra piece of toast.
It took him nearly an hour to be sure he had everything necessary for three hours poolside. Tony kept the guest bath house well stocked, but he was compelled to check that they’d picked out the correct sizes from the guest stock. Why the man had spare swimsuits when they’d had to scrounge for clothes to kit out Natasha and Clint probably spoke more to his previous lifestyle than Steve cared to indulge in. He just slathered them all in sunscreen, even if he wasn’t convinced he needed it himself, and decided to stop worrying. He set out beach towels near the ladder and dove in.
They quickly proved themselves stronger swimmers than him. He set an easy pace of laps and they wordlessly began to race. Based on Natasha successfully dunking Clint, Steve figured she won, but they both lay panting on chairs while he kept going. Two lengths later, they’d caught their breaths and were positioned comfortably.
Clint, arms behind his head, had his face tipped up to the sun. He looked relaxed, it was nice. Natasha was on her stomach, arms in place to catch the light evenly. Even in repose she was making effective use of time and circumstances. He had thirty more laps he wanted to fit in but they looked fine every time he checked.
When he finally pulled himself out, Natasha had flipped to her back and Clint had an arm across his eyes now. They both turned to look as he approached, a guarded smile on Natasha’s lips and Clint grinning as Steve flicked water at him.
“Showers all around and then its our turn to get food ready for the group.”
It wasn’t necessary, but at this point it seemed useless to argue when Natasha followed them in to the men’s showers and stood in the stall beside him. She no longer needed him or Pepper to towel off and they both got dressed easily. Hopefully this would be the last day in the pajamas because Bruce didn’t actually have more than the two pair. He wasn’t going to push too hard, of course, but today was so vastly better than the day before he couldn’t imagine it taking too much longer.
Then again…he had no idea what ‘normal’ looked like for this pair. It was a sobering thought but he had to push it aside. They had lunch to make.
It probably wasn’t strictly necessary, at this point, but he decided cutting fruit for salad and veggies for fixings wasn’t a job for people who occasionally needed help with teeth brushing when loading a gun was still fine. No need to risk Tony getting a knife thrown at him on reflex. He just pulled every sandwich food he could find in the fridge and put them on assembly.
“Go ahead and make what you want and you can make things for people as they show up.” Retrospectively, he might have wanted to word that differently, as Clint built a monstrosity that defied gravity and physiology. But, hey, if it made him happy, Pepper’s blanch when he actually ate anchovies and peppercinis together was a small price to pay.
“We making sandwiches?” Bruce asked, coming into the room and heading over. A spoon covered in what appeared to be fresh French onion dip stopped him. “Go sit. These guys will make what you want.” Reluctance crossed his face, but Bruce took Steve’s lead and sat at the table.
“What kind of bread, Bruce?” Natasha asked him, returning his sudden grin shyly as he asked. “What’s available?”
“White. Wheat. Rye. Sourdough. Multigrain.” She was slightly pointing at each as she said it, which wasn’t necessary but he followed along regardless. “Multigrain would be great, thanks.”
Thick slices on a plate, she moved down the counter to ask, “Mayo, mustard, salt, pepper, vinegar, oil or dressing?”
“Uhh, wow. Tony has a lot of options. Mayonnaise, nothing else, and skip the meat section for me, please.”
Clint, self-appointed master of meat and cheese, cut in to actually be able to contribute to the sandwich, “Cheese?”
He smiled as Bruce said, “Oh, yeah, absolutely. What are my choices?”
“White, yellow, mixed white and yellow, white with yellow edges and white with holes.” He casually flipped Natasha off as she rolled her eyes at him. “What? He knows exactly what all these are, right Bruce?” Too glad to see the sparkle of knowing laughter in Clint’s eyes, he nodded back at him.
“How about one of each. Can’t have too much cheese. Then lettuce, tomato, onion and some of that avocado Steve is slicing.”
“Coming right up, good sir.” The sandwich was put together more by enthusiasm than skill and Bruce wondered if it was residual task mental blocks or if neither of them really every made them much before now. Either way, lunch was delicious.
Every one of the rest of the group made them each list the options available until Natasha, no longer quite as enamored with the novelty after making Thor six sandwiches in a row, said, “Next time, we’re making a sign.” And Clint added, pointing at Steve, “We’re on to you. You know what’s here, just tell us.” Steve put his hands up in surrender and then shooed them away. “Go eat your food before the bread gets soggy. I can make my own.”
The two looked at each other before frowning. Steve arms lowered as he stepped up to them. A hand on each shoulder. He didn’t even get a chance to question them this time.
“We…want…to make your food.” Clint said, looking at his shoulder, the closest he’d gotten to ducking his head all day.
“Yes. Let us?” Natasha joined in.
He’d have to examine the implications, later, that they’d maybe taken his guiding them the past few days as orders they couldn’t ignore. That the first want they’d expressed had more to do with another person than themselves. Still, it would have to be later, perhaps when they could talk it through with him.
“Well, sure, I’d love a Natasha and Clint special. Give me ham and swiss on rye, heavy mayo and light mustard. Then get on over to the table and eat. Swimming was hard work.” They both nodded, and ignored Tony’s faux whining, “You missed a golden opportunity for a pun there, Captain!” They began making him four identical sandwiches, indicating they’d noticed how much he ate. If they remembered this week, it was going to be interesting to see what they took from it.
Two sandwiches in, Steve got a call from the hospital. Instantly on alert, he went to the hall to answer.
Coulson’s voice came through, less drugged but not any more pained. “Captain Rogers, Agent Coulson here.”
“Oh, we moved on to Phil and Steve a few days ago. Do you remember?” He had no idea how to interpret the five seconds of silence after that.
“I don’t remember much of the past few days, honestly. I thought maybe I’d dreamed that.” It took everything in Steve not to make a joke of Phil dreaming about him. He’d spent too much time with Tony.
“No, not a dream. I needed your help getting Clint and Natasha settled.” He spared a thought that maybe they should be having this conversation in person, not over an unsecured line.
“Oh. Hmm.” He sounded thoughtful and Steve waited for him to continue. He got a minute of silence before finally giving up.
“So, hmm?” Phil actually chuckled at him.
“Everyone hates when I do that. Just thinking. They normally stay mission ready until I help them start to transition. Even right after a harder mission, they’ve waited until I got back from my own to start the process.” He paused again.
“Okay, so this is unusual…” he prompted, trying to force the conversation into gear.
“Yes, but I guess it’s not surprising. They trust you guys. They know, on every level, that they’re safe with you. Trust plays a huge role in this. They relaxed their defenses enough to start decompressing.” It was slightly awe-inspiring, in an absolutely terrifying way, to have two such capable people trust that he’d keep them safe through something this intense. Coulson recognized it as just that big, but didn’t leave him long to take it in. “Clint have nightmares?”
“Yeah, Loki-centric, so far as I can tell. He hasn’t really been up to talking about them, you know?”
“Yes, I do. He won’t talk about them even when he is able to do so. You seem to have a bead on this. Let me know if you have more questions. I’d be there if I could but I’ve been informed I’ll be here for a while yet.” He honestly sounded regretful, like he’d put off healing from mortal wounds to be there. Steve made a note to ask Tony about dedicating a room to Phil, even if it was just a guest room for when he could stay. When he was needed to stay.
“Will do, sir. Actually…How will I know they’re back to normal? I think they’re close.” He got another chuckle. He must still be on some drugs, even if he was handling them better.
“Normal is relative. For your purposes, Natasha will distance herself emotionally and Clint will throw up humor as a deflection. They won’t acknowledge what went down and they’ll probably demand a new assignment right away.” He said it lightly, but Steve thought he sensed a resigned worry. “Ignore that last one, by the way. No new missions while we figure out the world security council.” The last was said with deadly intensity.
“Sir, should we really-“ was cut off.
“You’re on a phone from Stark, Steve. JARVIS, all clear?” Steve rather thought he wouldn’t tell Tony about this part of the exchange. He relaxed back against the wall.
“Yes, Agent Coulson. You are cleared to converse however you wish. Though, Mr. Stark does receive reports on these conversations and will review transcripts of anything that he finds interesting.”
“Don’t tell Bruce,” came from Steve as Phil began, “Perhaps Dr. Banner shouldn’t…” before he trailed off.
“Bruce likes Tony a lot, even if Tony likes crossing lines. I imagine this will be an interesting place to live the next few months.”
“Try years, Captain. I sincerely doubt you’ll all suddenly become calm, unassuming personalities. We’ve had to reassign nearly a dozen agents due to Barton’s antics alone. If he and Stark team up…god help us.” It was enough to surprise a quick laugh out of Steve, some of the tension easing out of him. There would be an after to this.
“You’re going to be here to help keep them all in line, right? After recovery? Phil?” The panicked tone was fake, but Phil’s laugh was true.
“Sure. If you’ll help me get Clint and Natasha back on track after difficult assignments?” He straightened up, no longer relaxed. “No need to barter on that. You know I will.”
“You’re a good guy, Steve.” Coulson said, projecting understanding. Of course he wouldn’t joke about the health of his agents. “And a good Captain. Don’t doubt that. You were the right man for the job.”
“Thank you.” Calm and sincere. No reason to argue right now, with the man healing and worrying about two of his own. It was nice that he’d thought he’d done well, but if there was another world endangering attack, it’d be nice to have talked strategy before it hit. It’d keep.
“Thank you for helping with my agents. They mean a lot to me.” He could hear Phil getting tired, wondered if maybe he wouldn’t have said that aloud if not for the haze, but he meant it. And he could trust that information to Steve.
“Your Avengers, sir.”
“God help us, my Avengers.” And he laughed, even as he said goodbye and hung up, ready to drift to sleep again.
Bruce was introducing Thor to the grave responsibilities of the dishwasher when Steve returned. The man was picking up cultural norms at a quick pace, even if the Allspeak came out rather formal and dated.
“Hey, guys, where are Natasha and Clint?” No one else was in the kitchen.
“They made popcorn and are picking out a movie. We’re to join them when we are finished.” Bruce told him, though he had no idea why he said so in faux imperial tones. He was smiling, so it couldn’t be that bad.
“Yes. So Natasha has decreed. Clint backed her up on it. Those two working together is dangerous.” Steve assumed the whirlwind hand gesture that Bruce paired with that statement would have made sense to someone other than him and Thor.
He went with it though. They kind of did seem like they’d be a force of nature. “Yup. Glad they’re on our side.” He started to inch towards the door. They were probably fine, but it couldn’t hurt to check. Who knows how soon after he took his call they struck out.
Bruce just waved him off. “They took your sandwiches and drink out, too. Go on, Cap, we’ll get the rest of this.”
He kept his stride casual as he went into the lounge and actually did a movie worthy double take. They’d arranged the room to have spots obviously designed for everyone. They hadn’t gone so far as to put out place tags, but the plate with his sandwiches was centered on the table in front of the couch. Two bowls of popcorn flanked it, with his drink set between two glasses of milk.
A bulky, sturdy easy chair had been dragged across the room with a giant bowl of popcorn in the seat and a beerstein he’d never seen before was waiting for Thor to take up his seat. All of the remotes were lined up on a side table next to Tony’s fancy massage chair. A matching chair that hadn’t been in the room previously was next to it, a bottle of Pepper’s favored mineral water at hand. An incongruous puffy ottoman was in front of her chair so she could kick her shoes off and put her feet up.
Natasha noticed him eyeing it and said, a touch nervous in voice, and when he focused in on her, in manner, “We’re going to get them too. We just-wanted to check with you first.”
“Yeah. It’s okay? As a thank you?” Natasha asked him.
“For taking care of us,” Clint added, compelled to explain. As vulnerable as they’d seemed before, this was somehow scarier for him, because like this he had the power to accidentally hurt them close to the surface.
There was the faintest hint of a blush on their cheeks and rather than draw it out, he just said, “You are very welcome. Anytime, you know you can count on me.”
“We know,” was said in unison. Sure, it was still creepy, but it was their creepy and they were his.
“You guys pick out the movie and get comfortable. I’ll go find the rest of the team.” He slipped out before they could argue.
Bruce and Thor were finishing up in the kitchen when he ducked halfway through the doorway. He just motioned them to follow. They came into the hall as he asked, “JARVIS, where are Tony and Pepper?”
“On their way to your location, sir. I took the liberty of informing them they were needed.” He didn’t even get the first word out of his, just his mouth open and an airy sound before JARVIS added, “Nothing more, sir.”
Tony pivoted around the corner, caught sight of them, and demanded, “What’s wrong? Backslide?”
Pepper entered from the other side and Steve felt himself grin at the group of them. “Nothing’s wrong, unless you really loved your movie room arrangement.”
That had the unexpected bonus of derailing Tony’s thought process. He went from emergency mode to confused, “What? Talk sense, man.”
“They rearranged your lounge to comfortably seat all of us for a movie. They have popcorn and a mug of tea for Bruce and everything.”
“Oh, they’re quick. I didn’t see them do that at all,” Bruce murmured.
“When you say all of us…” Pepper started.
“You’re off patrol. They wanted to thank us for taking care of them.” Steve couldn’t keep the grin off as he continued to talk. Even Bruce was starting to smile back.
“So, they returned to their senses?” Pepper half-heartedly smacked Tony’s arm, giving action to the disapproval at his word choice. It said something that by now Steve was starting to realize that it was just part of Tony’s manner, not a purposeful slight.
“Not entirely, yet. Coulson was my phone call and he was more lucid this time. They’ll probably go a little distant, try to regain their equilibrium and won’t acknowledge this at all.” Not that it was a particularly healthy tactic, but it made sense for them.
Bruce surprised him, smile more wry but still in place, “So, no group hug?”
“No group hug. Enjoy the thank you while you can. I’m sure by tomorrow we’ll have our deadly duo back.” He turned to start to lead them back to the room, ready to check on them even if they were fast approaching not needing his hovering.
“They’re still deadly now. Pep told me about the guns yesterday.” Tony didn’t acknowledge Bruce and Thor’s questioning look, so maybe this actually was on purpose. He liked to push.
Steve didn’t have to push back, though, at least not on Tony’s terms. “Phil said something that I’ve been turning over in my mind. Normally, if he wasn’t there after a mission, they continued on just as though they were still on mission, in that mindframe. They waited it out until they knew they were safe, that they had someone they trusted, to shut down.”
It really wasn’t responding to Tony’s question, but he listened regardless. Steve was answering more important questions. “I think that even though they didn’t realize it, they felt safe enough with us that they could leave that headspace behind. It wasn’t a choice they made, so they didn’t warn us beforehand, and once they were too far down it was too late. Things got garbled up, a bit, but we figured it out. We proved their trust, however unconscious, was not in ill faith.”
The grins were faded, but not completely gone. They had stepped up to the plate, to steal a phrase of which Steve was fond.
“Let’s go watch whatever movie our whacky assassins picked out, eh gang?” And Tony led them into the lounge, where Clint and Natasha were seated, space between them for Steve, and watching them enter. Eyes just a bit wider, responses returning to them from their previous eerie detachment but control enough to hide them not quite in place.
“Thanks,” they said to the room in unison, everyone knowing what they meant and no one flinching this time. Bruce walked over to his chair, squishy and a mug of tea balanced on the wide arm, and returned the thanks.
Thor took his own seat, held his beer in toast and gave his thanks as well. The two agents looked pleased at both but then their eyes dipped to the side and down, looking at the chairs for Tony and Pepper. It wasn’t the most subtle hint, for spies, but Pepper lavished them with praise on her and Tony’s behalf.
Steve dropped down beside them, gave them each a light squeeze on their knees, before picking up his plate. He managed, “What are we watching?” and then began to eat another of their sandwiches.
Their answer meant as little to him as any of the other movie names he’d heard that week. What was important was that he ate, that they leaned against him and occasionally even laughed. That as the movie ended, Natasha was blinking rapidly trying to stay awake while Clint had slowly let most of his weight slump against Steve. He shook him gently, brought them to their feet.
“Looks like that lack of sleep is still catching up. How about we hit your room and take a nap before dinner? Let these guys clean up?” They followed, not fighting that they were tired, though Natasha looked behind her at Tony, stopped in the doorway half out.
“Don’t move the furniture, Tony. You can get a new chair for your office.” Which explained where Pepper’s chair had come from before this. Steve just smiled, ignoring Tony’s curse, and kept a hand in the small of their backs until he’d gotten them settled into the bed.
“I’ll do a quick patrol, make sure everything is still fine, and then I’m going to sit over here watching out. You’ll be safe.”
They were tired enough that it had seemed like maybe they wouldn’t need to hear that, but it still made both of them look more at ease, more relaxed. So he said it and he meant it.
“Thanks, Cap’n,” Clint murmured, before his eyes closed. Natasha just breathed deeply once, before dropping off. Steve did his tour of the room, eased into the chair, and joined them in sleep.
Steve woke to Clint saying, “Aww, Christ, what am I wearing,” to which Natasha replied, “This room smells like Stark.”
He got up from the chair, moved next to the bed so he could smile down at them when he said, “Welcome back.”