Summary: Clint's never been all that good with nice.
Rating: Probably R for language.
Warnings: Spanking, Schmoop, and some SPOILERS for the movie, so read at your own risk.
A/N: Ah, well, going to the special hell. Thanks to LJ's just_an_acrobat and Jet for going with me. No Beta on this one, so all errors are my own. Also, I don't own the Avengers. They own me. At least for now. ;)
Author's Website: hucknclem's LJ


INTO THE FIRE


Clint doesn't know how it happens, exactly. He's wiping up from a last round of speed drills, rubbing the training room towel over his arms and the back of his neck, when Thor frowns in his direction.

“Hawkeye; you have injured yourself,” the warrior says, slinging his own towel around his neck.

Clint blinks. “What?” His muscles are singing with that familiar burn, but he certainly isn't injured. In fact, this is the best Clint's felt in weeks. Being shot and nearly blown up he considers a professional liability; even a probability. The pain's been negligible, but the boredom's been excruciating.

Thor looks like he wants to roll his eyes. “Your arm,” he says, gesturing in that direction.

His – oh. “Shit,” Clint says, craning his neck to get a look at the back of his right bicep. Sure enough, red seeps slowly through the bandage, and Clint doesn't have to unwrap it to know he's split his stitches.

“The Captain won't be pleased,” Thor observes; rather unhelpfully, Clint thinks.

“Aren't you supposed to be taking it easy?” Tony asks, slanting him a knowing look as he throws his own towel down an automated chute to who the fuck knows.

Clint glances up from his arm. “Hey, this is me taking it easy,” he returns, although he doubts Steve will think much of that excuse. Apparently, the 1940's outlook is a lot more black and white.

“Yeah, well, take it any easier and I won't be the only one wearing an iron suit,” Tony warns, then smirks. “Or maybe he'll just put you in a really giant bubble.”

Clint gives him the finger.

Thor chuckles, reaching for a bottle of water from the dispenser. “You should not feel embarrassed, Hawkeye; the Captain honors you with his friendship,” he says, twisting the cap from the bottle with his usual delight in all things Midgardian. “Though I don't doubt he'll have much to say of your carelessness.”

“Who's going to tell him?” Certainly not Clint. After some initial conflict and insubordination, he and Steve have slipped into a sort of awkward truce. Steve scolds, and worries and sighs, and Clint tries to be respectful. Because Steve's also quick with a “good work' and a clap on the back, and well, because Steve is nice.

“Ahh, Bruce? Thor? Me?” Tony ventures. “The gorgeous redhead I'm pretty sure could kick any of our asses?”

“That was a rhetorical question,” Clint mutters. But Tony's right; Bruce will feel obligated, and Thor can't lie. Tony can, but won't bother. And Natasha – well, Nat has her own ways of dealing with things, and all of them scary. No, Steve will find out about this one way or another; Clint might as well take his medicine and get it over with. His lack of excitement must show, because Tony slings an affable arm around his shoulders.

“Oh, come on, I'll walk you over to Medical,” Tony offers. “I'll even hold your hand when Bruce sprays the antiseptic.”

Clint eyes him sourly, damp towel crumpled in his fist. “You just want to see if there's going to be trouble, don't you?”

“Little bit,” Tony admits.

**

As it turns out, Steve is already in the lab with Bruce, discussing the hypothetical side effects of Hulk B Gone, a sort of temporary remedy for those times it's really inconvenient for the big guy to makes an appearance, like on the Helicarrier, or Costco on a Saturday.

“We don't know what else it might do,” Steve is saying, spreading his hands in a familiar appeal to reason. In his civvies, he's just a clean-cut guy from Brooklyn, with a creased bomber jacket you'd think he bought that way and the earnest conviction of a Cub Scout. It really should be annoying.

“Does it matter what else it does?” Bruce fires back, but without the heat that would bring on an episode. He rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “We're talking about something that might save lives – your lives, even - ”

Steve shakes his head, brows drawn together. “You don't know that.”

Finding Steve's protective instincts already engaged seems like a sign; one that flashes EXIT in large, fluorescent letters. Clint spins on his heel, fully intending to retreat when Tony's fingers catch him by the wrist.

“Hey, birdy with a broken wing here,” the billionaire announces brightly, causing Steve and Bruce to look up in surprise.

“I will hurt you,” Clint swears under his breath, causing Tony to chuckle.

“What happened?” Bruce wants to know, immediately approaching Clint's side and carefully turning his arm for appraisal. Tony steps back and gives them some space, obviously intending to enjoy his handiwork from a distance.

“Not sure; must have busted some stitches during training,” Clint says, shrugging within the doctor's grip.

“I thought you were going to take it easy?” Steve asks, appearing confused as he moves closer to assess the situation.

“I did,” Clint says, and there's a faint arch of the guy's eyebrows. “You know, for me,” he adds lamely, and maybe Clint is off his game. Just a little.

“Well, I'm afraid this is going to be unpleasant – 'for you,' ” Bruce says, his nimble fingers already unwinding the bandage. He prods experimentally at the damaged flesh.

“Ow,” Clint complains, glaring at the doctor. Bruce doesn't even blink.

“Stand still,” Steve tells him, watching Bruce's examination with some concern, and Clint decides discretion is the better part of valor here. The team leader's made it pretty clear it doesn't matter that Clint's perfectly capable of sewing up and treating his own wounds, that he's done so since age eleven. No, as long as Clint's an Avenger, he's on the medical plan, without option to decline. Clint thinks he should have negotiated his contract better.

“You might even get a lollipop,” Tony puts in, now leaning comfortably against the lab counter.

“I'll be the judge of that,” Bruce reminds him, peering curiously at the injury. “Exactly what kind of exercises were you doing?”

“Few speed drills, maybe a shot or two,” Clint admits. Disapproving silence follows.

“You know it's too soon for that kind of exertion,” Bruce says after a moment, glancing up from beneath his dark, rumpled hair. “Do I need to put you back in the sling?

Steve folds his arms, and Clint bites back the sharp retort he's about to release. “That won't be necessary,” he assures Bruce tightly.

Tony cocks a brow. “Have you ever considered a really giant bubble?”

“Tony?” Bruce asks.

“Yeah.”

“Get out of here and quit agitating my patient. And you,” he adds to a suddenly smug Clint, “have a seat in Medical. We have some work to do.”

**

Steve waits with Clint as he sits in Medical; either because he has nothing better to do, or because he's afraid Clint won't stay of his own volition. Maybe a little of both. At any rate, his steady pacing and staring is starting to wear on Clint's nerves.

“Guess it might have been a little early for shooting,” he confides, a little sheepishly.

“You don't say.”

But Steve doesn't sound pissed, exactly. Clint takes that as an encouraging sign. “C'mon, Cap; you can't expect me to just sit around while you guys have all the fun.”

“Better than not sitting at all,” Steve replies sternly, his expression softening slightly when Clint flushes with color. Clint doesn't like to think about that particular disagreement, or how strained things were between he and Cap just weeks before. And he's pretty sure Steve knows it. “Look, I know how hard it is to sit out a fight you believe in,” Steve promises, “but sometimes you have to look beyond the battle, and focus on the war. This isn't something you can just ignore,” the blonde maintains, blue eyes seeking Clint's. “If you don't start following Bruce's instructions, that muscle might never be the same. And I need to know you have our backs.”

Clint frowns. “You know I do.” Damn straight he does. Why else would he be up in the rafters?

For some reason, Steve actually smiles. “Then give us all a break, and mind the doc,” he says, bumping Clint's good arm gently with his shoulder.

“Yeah, okay,” Clint agrees, unable to resist the good-natured request. But he guesses he doesn't sound all that enthusiastic, because Steve's giving him that look again.

“Promise?” the guy persists.

“You want a pinky swear? Yeah, I promise,” Clint says quickly, when the team leader's eyes narrow.

Steve nods his approval. “Good,” he says. “I have some reading I need to get back to, but I'll check in with you later.” Bruce is returning with an armful of supplies, and Steve jerks a thumb at Clint as he makes his way to the doors. “All yours, Doc,” he tells the mild-mannered physicist.

“Just like I've always dreamed,” Bruce replies, setting up his loot on the counter. But he tosses Clint a Blow-Pop, which Clint catches on reflex. Cherry. Not bad.

“Oh, and Clint,” Steve says, lingering in the open double doors to the lounge.

“Yeah.” What's it going to take to convince him Clint's going to be a good little soldier?

“Saw some of the target analysis you put together for Fury on the remaining Chitauri; nice work,” Steve says with a slow grin, slapping the glass with his palm once for emphasis before disappearing.

Clint doesn't realize he's smiling until he notices the smirk on Bruce's face. “What?” he asks, and Bruce shakes his head. “I'm awesome. Ow!” he gripes again, as the doctor injects him near the wound site.

Bruce gives his arm a brief pat of sympathy before reaching for the sutures. “Shut up and have your lollipop.”

**

“You're looking awfully pleased with yourself,” Natasha remarks, just moments after sliding from Clint's hips. She's propped up on one elbow, all bare limbs and impassive features, but there's a glimmer to her eyes that Clint recognizes as amusement.

Clint smiles lazily. “I was pretty fantastic for a guy who just laid there.”

Natasha snorts. “If you call some dirty talk and five minutes of foreplay fantastic.”

“I think we both know the answer to that,” Clint replies, raising his brows when the Russian suddenly leans over him, snatching a Rubik's Cube from Clint's nightstand.

“What are you doing with this?” Natasha asks, dropping back to Clint's side and studying the puzzle with a suspicious eye. She rotates one of the axes, then another, scowling when the colors refuse to line up.

“Dug it out of some old stuff; thought Cap might get a kick out of it,” Clint tells her, his calloused fingers threading absently through her hair.

Natasha huffs softly and sets the cube aside. “It'll drive him crazy.”

Clint's smile broadens. “That, too.” Clint's doing the guy a favor, after all; the soldier can't be serious and somber all the time; sooner or later the guy's sense of humor will thaw with the rest of him.

“You like him, don't you?”

What? The candid question has Clint's brow furrowing. “He's okay. What?” he has to ask. “Are we in high school now? Should we call him on the phone?” Clint teases, making to roll toward his cell, but Natasha puts a stop to it, shoving him back beneath her naked body with an ease that could threaten Clint's masculinity if it weren't so hot.

“I didn't realize you knew so much about American high school,” she says, making Clint's arm her pillow and daring him with arched brow to protest. He doesn't. She has Clint exactly where Clint wants him; he's hardly going to complain.

“Thor watches a lot of CW.”

Her mouth curves the slightest bit before she rolls to her back, turning her attention to the ceiling. They lie in companionable silence for a while, in that hazy space between wakefulness and sleep. Real sleep doesn't come easily to either of them, so Clint isn't surprised when Natasha eventually speaks again, her voice soft as shadow. Clint strains to hear her. “It's strange here, isn't it?” Her forehead wrinkles. “Like having a family again.”

Clint shrugs at the unexpected confidence. “Wouldn't know.” The team isn't like any family he's ever had. Clint's not even sure he knows what real family is, outside Natasha.

The redhead slants him a knowing look. “Wouldn't hurt you to find out.”

Clint sighs. “Are we talking or sleeping?”

“Sleeping,” Natasha promises. Then, “You obviously share a connection with these people,” she explains, ignoring Clint's groan as he pulls his pillow over his face. “You should explore that.”

“I'd like to explore a good night's sleep,” he tells her, wondering when he acquired an ex-Russian spy as his therapist. He's about to ask as much when his cell phone vibrates against the floating night table. On top of Clint's dresser, Natasha's phone buzzes as well. Clint tosses off the pillow and grapples for the phone, frowning as he scans the text.

“What is it?” Natasha asks, sitting up again in all her threadless glory. Clint curses the timing of supervillains everywhere and reaches for his pants.

“We've got a mission.”

**

“Per Agent Barton's report, the Chitauri are holed up here, in the basement levels of the old Bank of America building,” Fury is saying, as Steve and the rest of the Avengers study the holographic display rotating from the center of the conference table. Outside the conference room, the Helicarrier bustles with activity, the impending mission creating an almost tangible anticipation. Strangely enough, Steve feels more comfortable on board SHIELD's mobile headquarters than he does on the streets of today's New York City. Despite the advanced technology, SHIELD is military, and military? Steve gets.

“The building's been vacant for a year due to contract disputes,” Clint says. “They've been lying low, but Bruce was able to help us track them by their energy emissions.”

Bruce's mouth twists ruefully. “It's actually a little more complicated than that - ”

Fury's good eye levels on the physicist with barely contained annoyance. “Is anyone going to understand the more complicated explanation?”

“Oh! I am,” Tony says, raising his hand with a smirk.

Fury sighs. “Besides Stark?”

“Has anyone been able to determine why these Chitauri failed to perish with the others?” Thor asks, and Steve throws him a grateful glance for keeping them on track.

“Yeah, because I seem to remember shoving a nuclear warhead up their collective asses,” Tony gripes.

“It's possible these remaining Chitauri are drones, and didn't share the neural link with the mother ship,” Fury surmises. “We intended to go after them once we had sufficient Intel, but the situation has become urgent.”

Yeah, that doesn't set off any alarms. Steve's eyes narrow. “How urgent?” he wants to know.

“The energy emissions began spiking two hours ago,” Fury admits.

“Do we know what's causing the spikes?” Natasha asks.

“Not yet,” Bruce replies, his face reflecting the grave concern of his teammates'.

“We're not waiting to find out,” Steve tells them, glancing at Fury and daring him to disagree. The last thing they need is the Chitauri calling home for a ride. Thankfully, the Director doesn't contradict him. “What about the civilians, Hawkeye?”

Clint folds his arms. “It's a commercial area with a few scattered residents,” he replies. “We're going to need to set up a perimeter and evacuate.” He glances toward the doors, and Steve turns to see Agent Hill enter. She reminds him a little of Peggy, with her crisp, no-nonsense demeanor.

“Agent Hill?” Fury asks.

“We're approaching target, sir.”

Steve manages to catch Clint while the rest of them are filing out of the room. “Hawkeye.” Steve clasps the guy's shoulder, holding him back while the team disperses.

Clint glances up at him, his brows drawing together in expectation. “Cap?” His face is absent of any resentment, and Steve releases a soft huff of relief. He'd expected more resistance when he'd told Clint he'd be working the mission from the command center, but since their discussion in Medical, he's been unusually cooperative.

“We'll see you topside when it's over,” Steve promises, knowing that the archer probably won't breathe easy until the team's returned. “Your research should make this an easy-in, easy-out.”

“It's never an easy-in, easy-out,” Clint informs him darkly. Then, “I don't like it. You do know my aim with firearms isn't exactly bad, right?”

“I do,” Steve assures him, feeling a little guilty about leaving Clint behind, even if it is part of the strategic plan. He remembers seeing Bucky walk away that first time, off to a war Steve seemed destined to never become a part of. How helpless he felt. But Clint's a force to be reckoned with, even without the bow, and Steve knows the guy won't hesitate to reinjure his arm if it aids the mission's objectives. “We need your eyes and ears here in the air,” Steve says, then quirks a grin. “Just think of it as doing your job from a little higher than usual.”

**

“Call it, Cap.” Clint folds his arms at Tony's familiar request coming over the comms, slowly pacing the command center so that he can keep an eye on SHEILD's monitoring systems along with the other agents. Fury and Hill stayed on the bridge; plausible deniability, Clint guesses, but that's just fine with him. He doesn't need Fury up his ass right now. Or ever, for that matter.

“Widow will flush them out. Thor and I will be there to meet them,” Steve says in his Captain America voice, the one Clint finds always inspires confidence. “Iron Man, Hulk; we need a five block perimeter. If you can't take it down, turn it around.”

And everything goes according to plan, right up until they realize the Chitauri have more functioning skimmers than predicted, and the battle in the air begins to rival the one on the ground. Steve's clearing the area while Natasha and Thor contain the situation on the street, and Hulk's swatting skimmers down like flies, so Clint focuses his attention on Tony.

“Remember, they can't corner for shit, Stark,” Clint advises, watching Iron Man's maneuvers on radar and trying to ignore his growing frustration. He should be down there with his team; they need him, and since when does Clint follow orders, anyway? “Turn sharp and let 'em fly. Where are you, Captain?”

“Half block west of the mark. We've got some civilians here; we're evacuating now,” Steve reports above the surrounding mayhem. Some kid is crying in the background, and then there's the distinctly quavering voice of a little old lady.

“But what about Mr. Snickerbuttons? I can't just leave him here!”

“Cap, are you clear?” Tony checks loudly, and Clint can see him approaching their target location with three skimmers in hot pursuit. His lips press into a tight line as he watches the red blips move across one of the monitors.

“Negative. Gonna be just a minute, Iron Man.”

“Do not go back for Mr. Snickerbuttons, Rogers,” Tony warns, sounding more than a little annoyed. “Are you listening to me? I will kick your star-spangled ass. Do not - ” Tony sighs. “He went back for Mr. Snickerbuttons.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Clint mutters, briefly covering his mic. Then, “Captain, get out of there.” Clint's calculating the speed, angles, and potential trajectories, and he's got an antsy feeling things are about to go sideways.

“Got it,” Steve says triumphantly. “On my way.”

“Hurry up, Cap, we're almost at your door – shit!” Tony exclaims, and Clint hears the repeat of skimmer fire on armor, and Tony's blip takes a sudden dive to the right. The skimmers follow and there's a sudden roar in the comms, the blips abruptly disappearing. The command center goes eerily silent.

“Tony; sit rep,” Clint requests quietly.

“I'm okay, but the building's down.”

“And the Captain? Did anyone have an eye on the Captain?” Clint asks.

“He didn't come out,” Natasha says, then grunts as the familiar sound of boot crushing windpipe comes over the comms.

Clint ignores the weight of other eyes on his skin. “Captain? Come in, Captain.” Clint makes it an order, because Steve is supposed to follow orders, and Steve always does what he's supposed to.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Tony wants to know.

“I'm seeking the Captain now,” Thor says, and Clint hears the demigod begin tearing through the wreckage.

Clint glances at the monitors again. “Radar says the air is clear; can you confirm?” he requests.

“Hulk just took down the last two,” Tony says.

“All down here, too,” Natasha reports grimly.

“Thor?” Clint asks.

“I've not found him,” Thor replies, and Clint briefly closes his eyes. It's like Coulson all over again, only not, because this time Clint hasn't been mind-fucked by a Jotun sorcerer with daddy issues, and Clint still can't manage to save anyone. He rubs a hand over his face, eyes snapping open a moment later when static comes over the comms, followed by a now familiar voice.

“Captain America reporting in,” Steve's voice says sheepishly. “Sorry, lost my comms for a minute there.”

The command center breaks into applause, and Clint turns from the noise. “Copy that. We've got him, guys,” he says, thankful the words emerge strong and steady.

“Hey, Cap,” Tony says cheerfully. “Nice that you could join the party.”

“We get invited to the worst parties ever,” Natasha grumbles, and Clint releases a short bark of relieved laughter.

“The tiny beast owes you a great debt of gratitude,” Thor adds.

“Is that a rat?” Tony asks.

“I think it's a Chihuahua,” Steve tells him, sounding a little confused about it himself.

“Puny dog,” Hulk rumbles in the background, and Clint smirks.

“Hawkeye out; see you guys on deck.”

**

The elevator doors are about to close when the other agent steps in – Claussen, if Clint remembers correctly – Clint doesn't spend a lot of time at the office.

“Not in this one, huh?” the guy says, as they wait for the doors to close again. He's standard issue as far as Clint can tell, probably recruited from the military and hungry to 'get some.'

“Not today,” Clint agrees, wondering if the Quinjet's landed already.

“What? Suddenly you're not good enough for Captain America?” Claussen asks, shaking his head. “Unbelievable. The guy's been frozen for a hundred years, and he thinks he can just come back and - ”

“Seventy.”

Claussen frowns in Clint's direction. “What?”

“It was seventy years,” Clint tells him, as the elevator doors finally slide closed again.

Claussen scoffs. “Whatever; the guy still fights with a shield.”

“You should shut up now,” Clint advises, because the guy doesn't know what he's talking about, and it's starting to piss him off.

“Hey, no one's blaming you; his fan club loves this shit. A real American hero,” the guy carries on, apparently unable to take a hint. “You know they can't really confirm how many Nazis he actually killed. All that flag-waving self-righteousness; it's all public relations spin.”

Clint punches the up button again, because an elevator on a goddamn Helicarrier should move faster.

“I mean, come on, Godliness and virtue; this is what's going to save us?” Claussen wants to know. “They should have left him on ice where they found him.”

Clint's used to acting on reflex; it's kind of a necessity in his line of work, so when his fist swings on its own accord, Clint's content to go with it. The tell-tale crack of bone beneath his knuckles and the blood spurting from Claussen's nose is pretty satisfying, too.

“Tell that to Mr. Snickerbuttons,” Clint drawls, shaking out his hand as the other agent groans and holds his face. There's a burn at the back of Clint's bicep that tells Clint he'll be getting more stitches, but he's pretty sure this was worth it. Behind him, the elevator finally dings and the doors slide open on the flight deck. Apparently the Quinjet has arrived. Clint turns and aims a crooked grin at his disheveled teammates, ignoring their stunned expressions. “Hey, guys. Good to have you back.”

**

The injuries turn out to be negligible, at least by their standards. A few scrapes and bruises, a sprained ankle, Clint's arm. Clint knows Steve's unhappy about that last one, but the guy follows a protocol even in his censure. There's the usual discussion on the Helicarrier before they agree none of them want to be poked at by SHIELD, and then the usual discussion back at the tower, where Bruce laments his loss of pants and tries to minimize their damage. Then there's the discussion where Steve asks Clint just what he was thinking, and Clint makes the mistake of replying. That one comes sooner than Clint would like.

“Two hours,” Steve says grimly, and Clint thinks he looks surprisingly flushed for someone just back from the dead. Again.

“Look, I know I - ”

“Two hours, where all you had to do was coordinate from the air,” Steve persists, hovering near the exam table where Bruce is cutting away Clint's bandages.

Clint scowls, taking a sideways glance at the other table, where Thor is wrapping Natasha's ankle with the same careful respect he affords Mjolnir. Behind him, Tony rubs arnica onto a blossoming bruise on his side. “Hey, I coordinated the shit out of this mission – ow,” he exclaims sharply, eyes swiveling to Bruce with accusation, because he just knows some skin ripped off there.

“Sorry,” Bruce says, without a hint of apology on his scraped up face. Sadist.

“I am surprised you did not sprain it before now,” Thor is telling Natasha, eyeing her still-booted foot with consternation. “I don't understand how the women of this world can fight upon such precarious foundations.”

“I can show you,” Natasha offers magnanimously.

No,” reply several voices in unison, and Natasha and the warrior share a grin.

“What happened?” Steve wants to know, undeterred by the familiar banter of their teammates.

Clint shrugs, then kind of wishes he hadn't when the Captain's eyes narrow.

“Aren't there cameras everywhere these days? Tony, do you think you can - ”

“Nothing happened,” Clint snaps, drawing a raised eyebrow from Natasha. “Well, okay, something happened,” he concedes, committing to only the minimalist explanation as Bruce starts in with the needles. “The guy was running his mouth.”

“Tony runs his mouth, and you ignore him,” Steve contends.

“Tony's easier to ignore.”

Tony frowns as he tugs his shirt down. “Thank you; I think,” he says, and Clint hears Thor chuckle.

“You're not invincible, you know; your muscle can't keep taking this kind of damage,” Bruce tells him, for what feels like the hundredth time.

“I know,” Clint says, as respectfully as he can manage. He doesn't do these things on purpose, after all. A reopened wound is just collateral damage.

“How's it looking?” Steve asks, and Bruce shakes his head as he reaches for the tape and gauze.

“I've cleaned it up, put in some new stitches, but it's going to be a set back - he'll need massage to break down the scar tissue.”

Steve heaves a sigh of resignation. “Steve,” Clint begins, and doesn't get a chance to finish.

“Can you take care of it?” Steve asks Bruce, and Clint guesses he's been escalated to a situation. Terrific.

“I've got this one,” Bruce assures him.

“I want to see you when he's done,” Steve informs Clint, confirming the conversation isn't over, just being postponed. “Don't let him disappear,” he adds to Tony, a touch of humor returning to his voice.

Clint frowns. “I don't disappear,” he mutters in the Captain's wake. Although the idea does have its merits.

“You better not,” Tony says, stepping around Bruce and heading for the adjoining lounge. “Because if I have to pay someone to crawl the ductwork searching for your ass, you'll be back to firing those Nerf arrows from SHIELD. I'm having a drink – anyone else?”

“Very funny – ow!” Clint complains, as Natasha's hand smacks the back of his head on the way out.

“Idiot.” The single word is rife with disapproval. Clint rubs at his head and stares after her, vaguely aware that Bruce has finished and is now wrapping his injury. A large, warm hand comes to rest between his shoulders.

“You are a great warrior, Clint Barton,” Thor vows solemnly. “He was not a worthy opponent.”

“Yeah, alright,” Clint says glumly, as the big guy follows Natasha into the lounge. Medical's strangely empty now, just he and Bruce, who's now eyeing Clint with something resembling pity.

“All done,” Bruce says, giving Clint's forearm a light pat before turning and rustling in the counter drawer. “Here you go,” he says finally, setting Clint's usual cherry Blow-Pop beside him on the exam table.

It sits there long after Clint is gone.

**

It takes Clint a good minute or two to rap on the good Captain's door. Not that he can't take whatever lumps are coming his way, but it doesn't mean he's looking forward to it. He's still wary when Steve opens the door, damp blonde hair falling into his eyes. He's showered and changed into a tee and sweats, and Clint suddenly wishes he'd taken the time to do the same.

“Hey,” Clint ventures, uncertain of his reception, but as usual, the guy surprises him.

“Hey; come on in,” Steve says, offering Clint a small but genuine smile as he opens the door wider in invitation. The Captain's rooms are as homey as Clint and Natasha's are Spartan, a study in a guy who prefers substance to style. Tony paid remarkable attention to detail when designing all their spaces, an act that sort of undermines his bitching about how much trouble they are.

“What's all this?” Clint asks, his gaze immediately drawn to the stacks of files piled onto the sturdy oak coffee table. It's less order and more mess than he's come to associate with the guy.

Steve shrugs, closing the door and padding back into the room on his athletic socks. “Just trying to catch up on things; I'm a little behind the times,” he admits ruefully, and Clint frowns.

“What's so great about the times, anyway?” Nothing that Clint can see; the world's as fucked up as it's ever been, maybe more.

“Plenty, I'm sure,” Steve says, gesturing for Clint to take a seat. “Just haven't figured it all out yet.”

“Must be surreal at times,” Clint says, taking perch in what he's come to think of as his favorite chair. The recliner is ugly as hell and soft as a nest, but right now it's the most uncomfortable chair Clint thinks he's ever sat in, and that includes the one in Bulgaria where the guy tried to pull Clint's teeth out.

Steve settles on the couch, leaning slightly forward with his forearms on his knees. “Having friends helps.”

“I'm sorry,” Clint says, before he can stop himself.

Steve frowns. “Clint - ”

“Let me say it,” Clint snaps, and Steve looks a little surprised. But Clint's not going to let the guy think he has to be shamed into saying it, because he doesn't. “I'm sorry if I made trouble for you - ”

“I don't care about the trouble.”

Clint's brows lift fractionally. “You don't.”

“If I cared about trouble, do you think I'd be working and living with Tony?” Steve asks, and Clint chuffs softly, because, yeah, maybe not. “Well, okay, I care a little,” Steve amends, “but we talked about this.”

Clint lets his eyes fall to the carpet, suddenly grateful for the subtle intricacies of Berber. “I know.”

“About your arm,” Steve clarifies.

“I know.” How could Clint not know? Apparently, Steve's wondering that himself.

“Was there a misunderstanding?” Steve asks, and Clint curses the guy's unfailing sense of fairness. Because Clint can say yes, after all; he's been trained to come up with the kind of lies that will literally save his hide. And if the lie is even remotely plausible, Steve will believe him, give Clint the benefit of the doubt, because that's just the kind of guy the Captain is.

Fuck.

“No,” Clint replies, glancing up to meet Steve's gaze. The regret there is unnerving. Clint hasn't seen this look in years, not since the time his mother discovered the Hershey bar Clint hadn't paid for melting in his pocket. It's two times too many. “Don't look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you're disappointed.”

“It was your decision, Clint,” Steve reminds him. “You knew what would happen.”

Clint flushes. Yeah, he knew. Son of a bitch.

“I don't like it any more than you do,” Steve says quietly.

“Then let's forget it.”

“I already promised.” Great. Leave it to Captain America to always keep his promises. Only this isn't Captain America, it's Steve, and Clint is suddenly pretty sure it always has been. Steve Rogers just isn't the kind of guy who breaks his word.

Unlike you.

Clint considers his options, which amount to exactly zero. Clint may be a fuck-up, but he's always accepted the consequences of his actions, and he's not about to cry off what amounts to some kiddie reprimand.

“Fine,” Clint agrees tightly, standing and walking behind the sofa. “But we're doing it over the couch, and I think it's asinine.”

Steve frowns again. “Which part?”

“All of it!”

“Okay,” Steve says, rising with a faintly perplexed expression.

“And we're not hugging afterwards,” Clint warns, as the other man approaches.

“Okaaay,” Steve allows carefully, taking a seat on the back of the couch. Before Clint can issue further mandates, he's taken by the forearm and bent over Steve's thigh. It's only the guy's arm circling his waist that keeps Clint from planting face-first in the sofa cushion.

“This is not over the couch,” Clint grits, immediately stilling and resisting the urge to punch the upholstery.

“What do you mean?” Steve asks, sounding puzzled.

Clint closes his eyes, feels himself flushing again. “Never mind.” The last thing he wants to explain is that he didn't plan on spending the evening having his intimates pressed up against Steve's thigh, especially when Steve doesn't waste any time, just lights into the seat of Clint's athletic pants like Clint's some wayward teen. “You do realize they don't do this anymore, don't you?”

“I haven't made it to that file yet,” Steve tells him.

“Well, read faster!” Clint snaps, because yeah, this stings, in more ways than one.

The arm around his waist tightens, and Clint tenses, but Steve just keeps on spanking with his typical, steadfast dedication. “You gave me your word, Clint.”

Shit. “I know; I – I lost my temper,” Clint confesses quickly. “It won't happen again.” He means it, too; Clint's been reamed out countless times for insubordination, but it's always been about protocol, never anything personal. But it's pretty damn hard to mistake what's happening now for anything but personal.

“I want to believe that,” Steve says sincerely, just loud enough to be heard above the clap of his palm smacking Clint's ass.

“You can – ow! Come on, man, I said I was sorry!” Clint says, his hands balled into fists.

“And I forgive you,” Steve assures him. “But your arm isn't going to if you keep this up.”

“I was going to say the same to you!” Clint fires back, and Steve chuckles.

“Wise-ass,” he says fondly, but he keeps at it until Clint's ass is blazing and his eyes are hot and wet. By the time Steve tugs him upright, Clint's red-faced and just fucking spent, his hands still clenched at his sides. He's determined to look everywhere but at Steve, so he's not expecting the arm that wraps around his shoulders and squeezes gently.

Clint stills. “We agreed no hugging,” he growls after a moment.

You said no hugging,” Steve reminds him. “I didn't agree.” But he lets go, once more bumping Clint's shoulder with his own. “Come on, you okay?” Steve asks, and Clint can hear the thread of concern woven into the words.

“No, I'm not okay,” Clint retorts, trying to uncurl his fingers. “You just beat my ass.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Clint's eyes flash to Steve's in disbelief. “No!” And Clint can't believe he's actually pouting about this, but can't exactly bring himself to care, either.

“You know, we'd have a lot more fun if you'd just practice some self-preservation,” Steve remarks wryly.

“Really not my thing,” Clint mutters, shifting on his boots to see if it helps alleviate the burn. It doesn't.

“Yeah, I know,” Steve says. “Good thing you have me, right?”

“Don't make me answer that,” Clint grouses.

Steve smiles. “Come on,” he tries again. “Let me get you a beer, and you can educate me on some of the finer points of modern culture,” he offers, gesturing at the files on the coffee table.

“That's okay,” Clint says, not really wanting to do anything but find some empty vent or rooftop to nurse his wounded pride. And his ass. That, too.

Steve hesitates. “Sure?” he asks, blue eyes moving over Clint questioningly, and Clint shrugs.

“I'm gonna call it a night.”

“Okay, then,” Steve agrees finally, and if hurt flashes on the guy's face, Clint must be imagining it. “See you tomorrow?”

Clint manages another noncommittal shrug and gets the hell out of there.

**

“Good morning,” Steve says, a little surprised to find Clint in the kitchen, finishing his cereal at the counter. Clint's usually an early riser, but Steve figured after yesterday's events, the guy could use a little extra sleep.

“Morning,” Clint says, eyes never lifting from his bowl. He looks okay, Steve thinks, no worse for wear except for the bandage on his upper arm.

“We the only ones up?” Steve asks, taking the eggs out the refrigerator.

Clint shrugs. “Thor's already in the training room, Bruce and Natasha went to his hot yoga class.” No need to mention Tony, who they usually don't see until closer to noon on days following a mission.

Steve shoots him a sideways glance as he pulls out a bowl and whisk. “You should take it easy, sideline it today.”

“Okay.”

Steve sets the items on the counter and frowns. “Okay,” he agrees cautiously, because he's still not fluent in Clint-speak. Then, “Is everything okay here?”

Clint glances up, his light eyes unreadable. “Why wouldn't it be?”

“You just agreed to take it easy,” Steve points out. “That's it? No arguments, no negotiations?”

“I don't - you're not – of course you are,” Clint mutters, as Steve leans over the island to put a hand to his forehead. “I'm not delirious,” he says, batting Steve's hand away.

“Just checking,” Steve tells him, amused now that he knows Clint's not nursing an infection. He turns and pulls an egg from the carton.

“Believe it or not, I can follow instructions,” Clint says from behind him, and it sounds like sarcasm, but it doesn't feel like it, and Steve's brows draw together.

“Yeah,” Steve says, turning around again. “I know.”

“Right,” Clint says, pushing his cereal bowl forward. “Well, then I'd better get at it. See you later,” he adds, slipping from his barstool, and before Steve knows it, right out of the kitchen.

“Hey, wait,” Steve starts, moving to go after him when he hears the tell-tale crack of an egg. He looks down. Yellow yolk leaks from between his fingers, drips to the polished concrete floors. Steve sighs and reaches for a dishtowel. One mess at a time.

**

It takes Steve about a week to notice it, which maybe isn't surprising considering both Clint and Natasha's ability to blend, but Clint isn't around. Oh, he's there, watching training exercises from his crouch at the top of gym mats, eating his Coco Puffs in the kitchen; but suddenly he's too tired for a beer, or too busy to help Tony in his ploy to get a mic on Mjolnir so they can scare the bejesus out of Thor.

“Hey, Clint, I need you to help me out.” Tony says that evening, as the archer walks by the kitchen.

Clint frowns, but he does stop, which is more than usual these days. “Yeah?”

“Guess what I made? No, really, guess,” he says, as Clint's frown deepens. “You're not guessing. You're not going to guess, are you? Never mind. It's a mini-AI, complete with mic,” Tony brags.

“It's a sticker,” Clint says, giving the tiny object in Tony's hand a token glance.

“I know; it's cool, right?” Tony asks, repocketing his invention with a wide grin. “And if it were, say, attached to a certain Asgardian's hammer, the Asgardian might be convinced it's sentient.”

“Do you really think that's nice?” Steve asks, holding back a smile.

“It's funny,” Tony tells him. “That's better than nice.”

“And you say you're not a people person,” Bruce says, carefully removing another bag of popcorn from the microwave.

Tony points a finger at the physicist. “Hey, I'm the biggest people person of all you – people. Or I would be, if Steve and Thor weren't so freakishly tall,” he amends. “So, how about it, buddy?” he asks Clint, clapping his hands together and rubbing them with enthusiasm. “Think you could slip through the vents?”

“Actually, I'm headed out,” Clint replies, causing Steve to glance up from the napkins he's pulling out. “Have to take a rain check.”

Bruce's brow furrows. “Headed out?” he repeats. “On movie night?”

Clint's gaze flicks to Steve, then away again. “I'm not really in the mood for Titanic, but thanks,” he says, and claps an apologetic hand to Tony's shoulder on his way out. “Let me know how it ends.”

“How what ends?” Thor asks a moment later, as he and Natasha file into the kitchen.

“What's taking so long? And where's Clint going now?” Natasha adds, glancing after the archer with more than a little irritation.

“He had plans,” Steve says, wondering what he's missed. Clint's never been a fan of Steve's traditional approaches to team discipline, but Steve thought they'd come to a sort of tenuous understanding. That they might even be, well, friends.

“Hawkeye's been most quiet,” Thor observes, pretty solemnly considering how much the demigod loves movie night.

“Maybe he's run out of clever and snarky things to say,” Tony suggests, snatching a handful of popcorn out of the bowl Bruce is filling.

“If only that would happen to you,” Bruce deadpans, and Tony throws a piece of popcorn at him, hitting him squarely between the eyes.

“He say anything to you?” Steve asks Natasha.

Natasha's brows rise slightly. “I know he was upset when he reinjured his arm,” she tells him.

Steve frowns. “It didn't seem to be bothering him.”

“Not about – he wasn't upset about his arm – god, don't you guys ever talk?” she wants to know.

“We talk all the time,” Steve assures her, although okay, lately it's been mostly small talk. Clint disappears too quickly for anything else.

“If that were true, you would know that Clint never breaks a promise; not without a damn good reason,” Natasha tells him. “Loyalty is everything to him.”

An uneasy feeling coils in Steve's stomach. “He said he lost his temper.”

“And yet somehow he manages not to take a swing at Tony?” Natasha asks dryly. Steve has no response for that, because yeah, sometimes dealing with Tony requires a level of self-control that should preclude walking around punching people in the face.

“Standing right here,” Tony reminds them.

“Could you guys go ahead and start the movie?” Steve asks, handing the napkins to Thor. “Tony; may I have a word, please?”

Their resident genius glances up with surprise. “What? Come on; what did I do? Is this about your slippers being glued to the floor? Because that wasn't me.”

Stay,” Steve tells him, and more than one of the teammates rolls their eyes as they take the popcorn and shuffle their way out of the kitchen.

“Seriously, Cap; gluing your slippers to the floor? Highly unoriginal,” Tony informs him. “Who even wears slippers anymore? I mean, besides Hugh Hefner – do you know Hugh? Old guy, young girls, big…?” Tony's hands move to his chest and he gestures meaningfully, carefully watching Steve for signs of recognition.

Steve shakes his head, unwilling to be flustered by the game of charades. “I'm not – I need your help,” he says.

A spark of surprise lights Tony's eyes. “I am so glad to hear you say that,” he says, throwing an arm around Steve's shoulders. “The first step is always admitting you have a problem,” he adds confidentially. “And honestly, if someone hadn't glued those slippers to the floor, I was going to bolt them to the ceiling with that god-awful recliner of yours, because - ”

“My recliner?” Steve shifts under Tony's arm, putting his hands on Tony's shoulders and setting him at a distance where Steve can look him directly in the eye. “This isn't about me,” he explains patiently.

Tony frowns. “It damn well should be.”

Steve can ignore that. “It's about Clint. Can you help?”

Tony doesn't even blink; just shrugs as if Steve's asked a particularly dim-witted question. “Sure, Cap. Whatever you need.”

**

“How did you get SHIELD to give you these?” Steve asks three hours later, impressed as Tony's fingers glide smoothly over the conference room table's integrated console. On the room's huge, drop down screen, Tony is fast-forwarding the Helicarrier footage from their last mission.

“Yeah, they didn't,” Tony replies, eyes narrowed on the screen as he instinctively navigates the controls.

Steve sighs. “Do I want to know?”

Tony grins, entirely unrepentant. “Ready for some reality entertainment, Cap?” he asks, pausing the video where Clint and Agent Claussen enter the elevator. At a nod from Steve, he flicks a finger. “Here we go, then,” he says, as Claussen's mouth begins moving. “What is it with the sleeves on this team, anyway?” Tony asks, peering critically at miniature Clint. “Why does it have to be this all or nothing thing? Can't we just compromise at a comfortable three quarter length?”

“Focus, Tony,” Steve replies automatically, watching the interplay between the two onscreen men. Whatever the guy is saying, Clint appears to be taking it in stride, even responding once or twice. If you don't notice the tensing of Clint's shoulders, the change in his posture, everything looks normal. Right up until the time Clint turns and drives his fist into the guy's nose.

“Oooooh.” Tony winces. “That just looks painful.

“Can you get the sound?” Steve asks, still watching the screen.

Tony scoffs. “Could Mozart play chopsticks?”

“Just roll it back,” Steve tells him, a reluctant smile pulling at his mouth. Seconds later, the video plays again. The sound of Claussen's voice echoes in the conference room.

“Not in this one, huh?”

“Not today.”

“What? Suddenly you're not good enough for Captain America? Unbelievable... The guys been frozen for a hundred years, and he thinks he can just come back and - ”

“Seventy.”

“What?”

“It was seventy years,” Clint points out, and Steve has a sinking feeling he knows where this is going. From Tony's uncharacteristic silence, Steve guesses he does, too.

“Whatever. The guy still fights with a shield.”

“You should shut up now.”
Clint sounds friendly enough, but the guy isn't watching his body language, something Steve finds incredibly stupid in someone dealing with a trained assassin.

“Hey, no one's blaming you; his fan club loves this shit. A real American hero… You know they can't really confirm how many Nazis he actually killed? All that flag-waving self-righteousness; it's all public relations spin.”

Steve grimaces, watching Clint punch the elevator button with restrained force.

“I mean, come on, Godliness and virtue; this is what's going to save us? They should have left him on ice where they found him.”

“That's enough,” Steve says, as Clint shatters Claussen's nose, and Tony switches off the sound. He looks as uncomfortable as Steve feels.

Then, “You have your own fan club?” Tony frowns. “Look, you're not upset, are you? The guy's a tool,” he says, then frowns even more at Steve's puzzled expression, waves an impatient hand. “Yeah, never mind. You know, you're not obsolete, even if you were a Capsicle. We think of you as a classic.”

“Thanks,” Steve replies absently, now watching the film cycle silently. It's all there, written clearly in the lines of Clint's body as the conversation progresses; if only someone had taken the time to read it. Something like guilt settles in Steve's chest. “I should have known.”

“He didn't want you to know,” Tony reminds him, as Steve turns to leave. “Where are you going?”

“I'm going to talk to him.”

“You don't want to do that,” Tony says flatly, and Steve holds up, shooting Tony an inquiring glance. “You don't think he's going to be embarrassed that now you know that he knows that you know about the – what were we talking about again?”

Steve is frowning. “Why would he be embarrassed?”

Tony cocks a brow. “He's a grown man who got caught fighting over his favorite superhero, so I really think the question here is why wouldn't he be?”

Heat creeps into Steve's cheeks, something that seems to be happening quite a lot since he woke up in the 21st century. “I'm not his favorite.”

“Seriously?” Tony wants to know.

“I'll take all that into consideration,” Steve tells him tightly, turning for the doors. He's halfway there when Tony sighs.

“You're going to talk to him anyway, aren't you?”

“Yes, I am.”

**

“Hey,” Clint says, his sleep-roughened voice masking his surprise at finding Steve on his doorstep in the middle of the night.

“Hey,” Steve says, shoving his fists into his pockets. Hasn't been to bed yet, then. “Sorry it's so late - am I interrupting anything?” the guy asks, going a little pink in the cheeks. Clint wonders what it would take to make him swoon.

“Besides my beauty sleep?” Clint's lip curls slightly. He sees no need to mention that Natasha isn't exactly happy with him at the moment. Situation normal, there. “It's just me. Did you want to come in?”

“Yes, please; thank you,” Steve adds, accepting the invitation of the open door and striding into Clint's living space. The Captain's too polite to gape, but his keen eyes still do a quick assessment of the surroundings, Clint's minimalist furnishings, the cleared surfaces. Steve hasn't been here before – none of them have, except for Natasha. The rest of the team thinks it's because Clint's intensely private, but he really just enjoys keeping them guessing.

“Have a seat,” Clint says, watching Steve take a cautious seat on a Lucite armchair. “Can I get you anything?” He hopes Steve says no; he thinks Steve might be a little appalled to discover Clint subsists on beer, water, and Hershey bars.

“No, thanks,” Steve says, with a small smile. “How's your arm doing?”

Clint leans on the edge of the sofa, then wishes he hadn't. Steve and Clint and sofas aren't currently one of Clint's favorite combinations. “It's fine,” he says, a little shortly. “Thor's been breaking down the scar tissue for me – hand of God and all that.” Clint frowns as Steve nods. “Something on your mind, Cap?” Clint wants to know. “I know you didn't stop by in the middle of the night to ask about my arm.”

Steve's lips press together briefly. “I know what happened on the Helicarrier.”

Clint's brow furrows. “I know you know; I told you.”

“I saw the footage, Clint. Heard it, too,” he adds, before Clint has a chance to respond

Clint stares at him a long moment. Could Fury have – no, the man was a paranoid hoarder when it came to SHIELD security; there was no way he'd risk a breach to satisfy even Captain America's curiosity. Clint shakes his head. “Tony,” he says, a humorless smile twisting his lips. How did Clint not see this coming?

“I asked him to,” Steve tells him, his discerning gaze making Clint feel like he can see right through the old t-shirt and sweatpants he's got on, like Clint is standing in his own living room buck-ass naked, and while Clint doesn't object to the idea per se, Steve is not the company for that.

Clint's response is terse and to the point. “Why?”

“Because someone reminded me you don't break promises without a reason.”

Natasha. Of course. Jesus fuck; is everyone conspiring against him now? “Let's just forget it, okay?” Clint says, rising from the couch and walking over to get a bottle of water from the refrigerator.

“You should have told me,” Steve says, and Clint can't believe he's going to be scolded about this. He untwists the cap, tries to modulate his tone.

“I told you everything you needed to know,” Clint replies, taking a long drink. The cool water feels good against his dry throat, gives him something else to focus on besides his growing sense of panic. Unfortunately, Steve's followed him half-way into the kitchen, his face set in familiar, determined lines.

I decide what I need to know,” Steve tells him, sounding frustrated, and Clint relents, setting the half-empty bottle on the counter with a resigned thud.

“Look, the guy's a complete moron – he wouldn't know a real hero if one jumped up and bit him in the ass.” Not that a real hero bites people in the ass - well, not unless you're Natasha posing as a Czech mobster's mistress, and then things get real interesting.

Steve's expression is faintly incredulous. “You think I'm upset about what he said.”

“I don't think anything,” Clint says, eyeing Steve warily. He doesn't know where this is going, and maybe Natasha's right about Clint not being smooth outside the field.

“Geez, Clint; I was a scrawny kid from Brooklyn a lot longer than I've been Captain America – you don't think I heard things a thousand times worse every day?” he asks, then sighs at Clint's deliberately blank stare, runs a hand through his hair and around to the back of his neck. “The world is full of bullies, but the only power they have over you is the power you're willing to give them. You didn't need to - ”

“I didn't,” Clint interjects. The conversation is moot, anyway. “Would it change anything?”

Steve frowns. “What?”

“Would you still have beat my ass?” Clint clarifies sarcastically.

Steve has the grace to look chagrined. “I wish you'd quit saying that.”

“I wish you'd quit doing it,” Clint tells him, but Steve's brows have drawn together in consideration.

“Honestly?” the guy asks.

“Can you do anything else?” Clint wants to know.

Steve takes a breath. “Yes,” he answers frankly, but his eyes are pleading, and Clint doesn't need this shit. “But I would've - ”

“Hey, before you go getting your panties in a twist: don't,” Clint says carelessly. “It wasn't about you.”

“It wasn't.” Steve is giving him that look, the one that says Clint is an idiot, but Clint already knows that.

Clint shrugs. “I had a headache; the guy wouldn't shut up. So I gave him a hand. End of story.”

“I don't think it is,” Steve maintains.

“I don't give a rat's ass what you think,” Clint snaps, and Steve holds up his hands in defeat.

“Fine,” he concedes. “You weren't defending me; I never should have brought it up. I just thought - I'm sorry I woke you unnecessarily,” Steve finishes, before offering Clint an awkward nod. “I can let myself out.”

Clint watches as the Captain does just that, the door slamming behind him with just a little more force than usual. Clint releases the breath he doesn't know he's been holding, lets his head drop to his chest.

“Well, fuck,” he mutters.

**

It hits the fan two days later, when Clint boycotts game night. Or maybe he just boycotts the awkward, because it's pretty obvious his teammates know something has transpired. Steve doesn't approach, just walks around like someone kicked his puppy. Someone – and Clint knows it's Tony, the bastard – puts a Captain America plushie in Clint's gym locker. Destroying it just feels wrong, so Clint stashes him in the freezer, a prank Thor informs him is “most unbecoming” before discreetly walking off with the frozen toy tucked under his arm. Bruce stays out of it, as usual, but his overtly compassionate gaze is enough to make Clint long for a Hulk rampage. Natasha's been quiet, even for her, so Clint's surprised when he passes the common living area and she stalks after him, not even bothering with stealth.

“Clint!”

Clint keeps walking, hoping she'll let it pass.

“Don't you dare walk away from me,” Natasha growls, and Clint reluctantly comes to a halt in the middle of the corridor. It's either that or have Natasha put him in a sleeper hold, and Clint's been there, done that.

“What?” Clint asks, letting his exasperation show as the Russian draws closer. She steps into Clint's personal space, glaring up at him with cat-green eyes.

“You know what - when are you going to stop punishing him?” Natasha demands. “He feels terrible.”

“Why?” Clint says, not bothering to pretend they're not talking about Steve.

Natasha stares at him a moment, gaze drifting over his face. Her expression softens. “Don't be a jackass, Hawkeye.”

And okay, Clint is a jackass, but this is Natasha, and she knows better than anyone the damage people do when you're vulnerable. “He wasn't supposed to know,” he tells her.

“Well, he does,” she replies with a simple shrug.

“Yeah, along with everyone else,” Clint grouses, his ears growing warm at the thought.

Natasha quirks a brow. “Is it really so bad?”

“Yeah, Natasha, it is,” Clint hisses, glancing down the hallway to make sure they're still alone. “You think anyone is going to take me seriously after this?”

“No one is taking you anything but seriously – hey,” Natasha says, when Clint looks away, deliberately aloof. “Not everyone is Barney.”

Clint stiffens. “This has nothing to do with him,” he says.

“Your almost pathological need to prove yourself has nothing to do with Barney?” Natasha snorts. “Yeah, okay.”

“My pathological need?” Clint repeats scathingly. “Is this what we're doing now? Hugging it out?”

“You don't have to do this,” Natasha insists. She puts a hand to his chest, over his heart, not removing it even when Clint goes rigid. “Have I ever given you reason not to trust me? After you brought me in?” she adds, her eyes steady on his.

“No.” He doesn't have to think about it. Clint trusts her implicitly, even when they disagree, which is pretty damn often.

“And the others?” Natasha asks quietly. “Cap?” Her hand on Clint's chest is just another way for her to monitor his heart rate; she'll know if he's lying.

Shit. Clint knows he's not exactly being fair, but he learned early it's not a good idea to make yourself a mark, not for anyone. He has the literal scars to prove it. “I am not this guy,” he says thickly.

“But you could be,” Natasha tells Clint, just before Thor's booming voice shakes the floor, announcing her turn. Her hand falls away, but her eyes won't release him. “Don't fuck it up, Barton,” she cautions, before she turns and heads off to beat their teammates at Monopoly or Jenga or ever Twister, if Thor had any say.

The spot on Clint's chest stays warm even after she's gone from sight.

***

Anyone who does what Clint does for a living agrees; it's all about the timing. In this particular instance, it's all about waiting for Steve to be alone, so that Clint doesn't have to be socially awkward in front of an audience. And while being a voyeur comes with the job, it's a little creepy when you're not in Prague and the guy you're stalking happens to be your teammate, and, oh, the Earth's First Avenger.

Clint's opportunities are surprisingly lacking. Breakfast is out when Tony walks in with the results of their latest public relations poll, and Steve spends an hour explaining why they're not going to wear helmet cams on their next mission. Then it's the gym, where Steve surreptitiously watches Clint while Thor tries to persuade Natasha that an Aesir, a frost giant, and a bilgesnipe walking into a tavern is a great comic tale. There's a minor explosion in Tony's workshop, another disagreement with Bruce about the Hulk B Gone (wherein Bruce Hulks out and Steve promises to reconsider), and finally the descent of an annoyed but entirely prepared for disaster Pepper. No small wonder it's almost eleven when Clint manages to catch Steve returning to his rooms.

Clint waits for the door to close behind the guy, then pops the air vent and drops into the hallway. He gives it a minute; enough time for it to not look like Clint's been hovering in the ducts for the last half hour, then knocks softly on the door, a crumpled brown paper bag balled in his fist. Maybe Steve won't hear it. Maybe he's already gone to bed. Maybe -

The door swings open. “Clint.” Steve looks surprised and even pleased, and Clint's kind of sorry that he's never going to be a regular kind of guy, that he's always going to have sharp edges, and Steve is always going to be at risk of nicking himself. “Come in,” Steve says, tilting his head toward the living area. “What a day, huh?” he says with a tired smile.

“I wasn't sure you'd still be up,” Clint replies easily, stepping inside so that Steve can close the door behind him. “It's kind of…” He trails off. The Captain America plushie sits in the center of Steve's couch, all stern and noble and fuzzy, and Clint feels his mouth go dry. “Oh, it's – ah - ”

Steve winces, waving a hand in dismissal as he walks around the sofa. “Yeah, I know; it's embarrassing, right?” He picks up the plushie and sets it on top of the files scattering the coffee table before taking its seat. “Thor said he found it, and it was going to hurt his feelings, so…” The Captain shrugs.

“It's a good likeness,” Clint tells him.

Steve glances at the plushie, then back at Clint, brows pulled together doubtfully. “You really think so?”

“Sure,” Clint says.

“Even better when he's frozen?”

Shit. “Yeah, about that - ”

Steve breaks a smile, and Clint realizes he's not upset about it. “It's fine. Although not very original, according to some people,” Steve adds. “Besides, you have a right to be sore.”

“Try embarrassed,” Clint says, opting for the truth. It doesn't hurt as much as he thinks it should.

Steve's mouth twists ruefully. “Yeah, Tony warned me about that.”

“How unusually sensitive of him,” Clint remarks dryly.

“He was trying to help.”

“I didn't ask for anyone's help,” Clint points out.

Steve frowns. “Why would you have to? Are you going to sit down?”

“I'm better on my feet,” Clint replies, strangely disarmed by the simple questions. Before he thinks better of it, he goes ahead and asks what he came to ask. “So; I was wondering,” he says, folding his arms across his chest. “You would've what?” And shit, that comes out a little more defensive than Clint intends.

Steve blinks. “Huh?”

Clint tries not to flush. “When I asked you if things would've gone down the same had you known, you said, yes, but you would've – I didn't let you finish,” he explains lamely.

“Oh.” Steve leans forward, arms resting on his knees. He's got that thoughtful expression Clint associates more with a scholar than a soldier. “You deserved to be called on the carpet,” he maintains, shooting Clint an exasperated look. “You were injured, and you let that jerk goad you into a fight. But, well…” Steve looks down where his hands are clasped together. “I wasn't kidding when I told you I've known my share of bullies,” he says, a half smile curving his lips. “Growing up, I had this pal – Bucky – saved me from getting my ass kicked nearly every week, whether I wanted him to or not. He was such a hothead,” Steve muses affectionately.

“Sounds like a good one to have on your side,” Clint says, still uncertain where the guy's going with this.

Steve nods. “He was a swell guy; I would've told you that.”

Clint's forehead crinkles. “That he was swell?”

“That it's been a long time since I had a friend like that,” Steve replies sincerely.

Oh. Oh... Well; okay, then. That's - nice. Only Clint's never been all that good with nice. Instead, he clears his throat awkwardly. “Brought you something,” he says, raising the brown paper bag he's been holding for proof.

A spark of interest lights the blue eyes. “Really?”

“Yeah,” Clint says, tossing the bag into the Captain's waiting hands. “They call it a Rubik's Cube,” he adds, biting back a smile as Steve pulls out the toy, turning it cautiously in his large hands.

Steve throws him a sideways glance. “This isn't like a Tesseract, is it?” he half-kids.

Clint snorts. “Hardly. It's a puzzle that was big in the eighties – the goal is to get each face just one color.”

Steve considers the item in question, a slow grin spreading over his face. “I can do that.”

“Don't get cocky, Cap,” Clint teases, watching Steve's hands already spinning the colored axes.

“You want that beer now?” Steve asks.

“Yeah,” Clint says. He's got nowhere to be, and he's pretty sure Pepper is still out there looking for blood. Besides, he's thirsty. “I think I do.”

**

“This is a lot of files,” Bruce says, looking at the color coded folders now strewn over the surfaces of the common area.

“Seriously,” Tony says, “couldn't you have Fury get you electronic copy?”

“I like having something in my hands,” Steve replies from the oversized sectional, where he and Clint are currently riffling through a heap of files..

Tony opens his mouth to reply, but Natasha cuts him short. “No.”

Steve sighs. “Who am I kidding?” he asks, using the folder he's holding to wave at the mess in front of him. “None of this makes sense to me; why would anyone want to keep a rock for a pet?”

Clint frowns. “Is that really in there?” he asks, leaning over to peer at Steve's file. To his credit, Clint doesn't even flinch when the mighty roar echoes throughout the floor, shaking the walls and rattling the windows in their frames.

“Behold; Mjolnir speaks!”

Steve takes a long look at Clint, brows lifting slightly. “Do anything unusual this morning?”

Clint shrugs. “Not really.”

“Who's going to tell him?” Bruce asks, scrubbing a hand through his unruly hair.

“I vote for someone who isn't me,” Tony says.

Natasha sighs. “I'll break the news,” she concedes, pushing up from her chair in a single, fluid motion. She starts forward, pausing seconds later when Steve speaks up.

“Hey, Natasha?” he says, back to skimming files.

She frowns over her shoulder. “Yeah, Cap?”

The corner of his mouth quirks upward. “Give it an hour.”

Clint grins and opens another file.

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