"This is for Captain America," the reporter in the tweed sports coat says, scribbling away on his little notepad. "You were frozen in ice for over seventy years. What are the changes that really stand out to you, and do you think it's harder to be a role model now than it was in the forties?"
Tony leans forward in his seat, his mouth hovering near his mic. "Yes."
Steve's lips twitch even as he shoots Tony a reproving look. "Ah, I guess the biggest change I've noticed is that things move a lot faster?" he says, leaning closer to his own mic. "Folks travel faster, talk faster - dance faster," he adds wryly. "As for being role models, I hope we're good ones; I don't think we spend a lot of time focusing on that? I mean, I think life's what it always has been, where you give something your all and try to do the right thing; I think that means something to people, that given a choice people want to do the right thing."
"Mr. Stark," a blonde woman in the back begins.
"Call me Tony," Tony insists, with the charm he's so capable of.
"Tony; how do you reconcile your company's history as a mass weapons producer with your present role as Iron Man?"
"I don't." Tony flashes a brilliant, practiced smile. The billionaire's well-versed in the dog and pony show, but it doesn't mean Steve has to like it.
Bruce shifts in his seat, bending toward his mic. "Stark Industries' arc reactor technology is the future of clean, sustainable energy," he says.
"Dr. Banner," someone calls from the back of the press group. "What do you think is the Western world's greatest obstacle to inner peace?"
Bruce chuckles, rubs at one eye with his index finger. "Wow, yeah, I thought I was just going to have to answer questions about being green," he says, drawing a laugh from the assembled crowd. "I'd say for most of us, it's probably fear; I think we spend a lot of time being afraid of things we don't necessarily need to be afraid of."
"I'll direct this to Hawkeye," says a sloe-eyed brunette from the left, gazing at the archer with frank appreciation. "It's been reported you can hit any target, any time, from any angle, sometimes with your eyes closed. Does it ever get too easy?"
Clint smiles, and Steve would be surprised how good he is at these things if Clint hadn't already explained. "Grew up in the circus, remember? I can always perform." Steve was pretty sure from Clint's grin and Natasha's groan there was a joke in there somewhere, but knew better than to ask. "No such thing as too easy, ma'am."
"Can I get in one more for Widow?" asks another guy in a suit.
Steve wants to say 'no'. They've all had their fill of questions today. "Sure," Steve hears himself saying.
The reporter smirks. "Widow, your hair color was recently featured in Glamour Magazine as the most requested in New York City's salons. Are you a natural redhead?" he asks. He regards the panel slyly. "Or maybe someone else wants to answer?"
Natasha smiles sweetly. "Why don't you come up and check my roots?"
# # #
"God, does anyone else still hear the screaming?" Bruce asks, head in hands as the limo navigates the streets of Manhattan.
Steve is staring at Tony. "Where did you get a martini?"
Tony frowns, staring at the glass in his right hand as if he's just noticed it. "No one else got one?"
"We were too busy trying to find Bruce a pair of pants," Clint replies dryly.
"Yeah, hey, looks like someone will be getting a few marriage proposals this week," Tony says, raising his glass in Bruce's general direction. "You've been hiding that light under a bushel, my friend."
"Do you think this is funny?" Steve asks, his voice tinged with annoyance. Because he's pretty sure what just happened could be classified as a disaster. He feels an ungracious twinge of envy for Thor, who won't be returning from Asgard until this afternoon.
"Are you still asking me that?" Tony wants to know.
"No one was hurt," Natasha says, pretty calmly now that her temper is spent.
"That reporter was getting a neck brace," Clint points out.
"No one was seriously hurt," she repeats, shrugging when Clint rolls his eyes.
"Guys." Tony waves a vague hand. "Not a problem. I'll just call Pepper she'll see they put a spin on it."
# # #
"A spin?" Fury demands, his tone scathing even through the air waves. "How is Stark Industries going to spin an attack on the press?"
Tony folds his arms from where he and Steve are standing in the conference room. "I'm not hearing any better ideas from you; aren't lies and deceit usually SHIELD's area?" he asks sarcastically.
Fury ignores him, good eye honed on Steve. "No more bullshit; I want Agent Romanov in my office tomorrow."
"I'm sorry, I can't do that, sir," Steve replies, and braces for fallout.
The eye narrows. "Excuse me, Captain, because I'm sure I heard you wrong."
"Oh, your ears still work fine," Tony informs the Director. "It's just not happening. She's on our clock now."
Steve throws his teammate a warning glance. "What Tony's trying to say is that Agent Romanov was under my command at the time, and as her CO, it's my responsibility to deal with the situation," Steve explains.
"You've already had this conversation with Agent Romanov, several times as I recall, and I still have photos on my desk of her thighs gripping a noted reporter's head like a nutcracker," Fury snaps, his voice rising with obvious frustration. "Not to mention a very up-close and personal portrait of the Hulk's buck-naked ass! Why is this time going to be different?"
"I'll make it work, sir," Steve promises tightly.
"You'd better, Captain Rogers."
The signal goes out, and Steve and Tony take a moment to stare at the static now filling the conference room screen.
"What a dick," Tony says.
In this case, Steve kind of agrees. "I thought I was done with this public relations stuff in the forties."
"Next thing you know they'll have us singing and selling war bonds - " Steve slants him a reproachful look, and Tony mock winces. "Sorry. Personally, I think someone should pin a medal on her, because I didn't know people could turn that color. Think she'll get written up?"
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Steve replies grimly. "Even if we have to tell Fury we're not doing press conferences anymore."
Tony's mouth quirks. "He's not going to like that."
"I don't care what he likes," Steve tells him. "Natasha's a member of this team, and we take care of our own." He glances toward the ceiling. "JARVIS, do you know where Agent Romanov is?"
"I believe she's in the kitchen, Captain Rogers," Tony's AI responds.
"Would you ask her to come see me, please?"
# # #
"Excuse me, Agent Romanov. Captain Rogers is requesting you in the conference room."
Natasha glances toward the ceiling. "Thanks, JARVIS."
Clint glances up from the turkey sandwiches he's putting together. "You want me to go with you?" The tone is casual; too casual. But she'll be damned if he's going to start worrying about her now.
"I can kill you in less than a heartbeat," Natasha reminds him darkly, pushing herself from her seat on the counter and dropping neatly to the floor. It's not like she hasn't been reprimanded before. The Captain's discipline will be a lot more hands on, but as much as Clint bitches, not much more than a temporary inconvenience.
"Are you kidding?" Clint smirks, a hint of concern still lurking in the crinkles near his eyes. "That's what makes this fun."
Natasha shakes her head. "You should be worried about the Captain," she says, on her way out of the kitchen. A moment later, Clint calls out behind her.
"Who says I'm not?"
# # #
"You wanted to see me?" Natasha asks.
"Yeah; have a seat," Steve says, pulling out the chair for her before stepping around the conference table and taking a seat himself. He sighs. "I got another call from Fury." She stares at him, arching an eyebrow when he doesn't continue. Steve scratches the back of his neck, cheeks growing warm under her intense gaze. "It's about your ah thighs."
"My my thighs?" she says carefully. "What about my thighs?"
"He wants you to stop choking people with them," Steve replies, trying not to glance at what even he's noticed is a very ah, compelling area. "We've talked about this before, Natasha; none of us like dealing with the press, but - "
"I think we both know where this is going, Captain," Natasha says.
"- we have a responsibility - we do?" Steve's forehead wrinkles.
She peers at him from beneath her lashes. "And I think we both know I was a very bad girl."
"Well, I wouldn't say bad," Steve says, because he doesn't want Natasha to be too hard on herself.
"I said very bad," and there's something in her throaty voice that reminds Steve of a midnight movie Bucky once took him to in Queens. He's a little ashamed of himself when he has to swallow thickly before continuing.
"And I deserve to be punished."
"You well, I'm glad sure," Steve agrees with a confused frown.
Natasha stares at him for a moment, then sighs. "What did you have in mind?" she asks, suddenly all business again. Steve is pretty sure he's relieved.
"You need some time to cool off; a week restricted to the Tower ought to do it," Steve says, wishing she hadn't been subjected to the press conference in the first place. "I hope this doesn't happen again.
This time Natasha looks confused. "Restriction?"
"You think it's too harsh?" Steve doesn't want to be unreasonable about this.
"Isn't the spanking enough?"
Steve's brows pull together. "Who said I was going to spank you?"
"No!" Because, okay, he might be behind the times, but does he seem like the kind of guy who goes around spanking women?
Natasha's eyes narrow dangerously. "Why not?"
"Because because you're too pretty?" Steve asks uncertainly, aware something has just gone horribly awry.
"Are you joking?" she asks.
"No," he's quick to assure her. "You're, ah, really swell-looking."
Natasha scowls. "Is this about my breasts?"
"No!" Heat rushes his face. "No, Natasha, I promise - "
"Because I can't think of any other reason besides my breasts that you wouldn't want to spank me," she maintains grimly.
"Oh, boy," Steve says, because this is not the kind of stuff he's trained for, and he doesn't think he has anything in his files, either.
"You think that just because I'm a woman, that I can't take the same kind of punishment as Clint or Bruce or Tony?" she demands.
"I didn't say that," Steve protests.
"You're not denying it," Natasha points out, and waits. Then, "You're not denying it!"
"That's because I can't think when there's a woman yelling "breasts"!" Steve tells her.
Natasha glares at him. "Exactly my point."
# # #
"I don't understand what just happened," Steve says, walking into the living room, where the remaining members of his team are watching something called America's Funniest Home Videos, and Thor is chuckling at an eight year-old taking a header into a snowbank.
Tony glances up from where he and Bruce are sitting on the couch. "You're going to have to be more specific."
"Natasha's sore at me." Steve resists the urge to lecture them about the platter of sandwiches on the oversized ottoman.
Tony frowns. "Is it Tuesday?" he asks Bruce.
"Monday," Bruce says, watching a terrier smile on command.
"Because I said I wasn't going to spank her," Steve clarifies.
"She's Russian," Clint says, gaze glued to the television.
Steve's brows lift. "And?"
Clint glances at him over his shoulder, shrugs. "That's it."
Steve folds his arms, eyes him suspiciously. "Your girl wants me to spank her, and you're okay with that?"
"First of all, Natasha isn't my girl, she's my partner," Clint replies bluntly, "and the last time I tried to tell her what to do I nearly had my boot shoved up my ass, while I was still wearing it. If she asks you to spank her, you spank her."
"But I don't want to spank her," Steve says, flushing all the way to the tips of his ears.
Tony frowns. "Really?" he asks. "You never, in all those times bringing up the rear; you never just wanted to reach out and tap that really tight little yeah, okay," he concedes, when he notices the stares of his teammates.
"Did you attend any of those sexual harassment seminars?" Bruce wants to know.
"The Lady Widow is a hale warrior; to treat her otherwise is to dishonor her," Thor decrees from his chair by the windows. "Though it would be better at your hand, Captain, I will bear this burden if you cannot."
"Hey, hey, hey," Clint says, finally seeming to take an interest in the conversation. "No. Remember that time you walked in on her in the shower, and told her she was 'as comely as the most rare and poisonous flower'? I'm not going to survive an ode to her ass."
"Do you not find her nether parts inspiring?"
"Is there something you want to tell me?" Clint asks, but Thor only grins.
"This is ridiculous," Tony announces impatiently. "Fine; this kind of manual labor is usually beneath me, but as a team player and in the interest of the greater good, I'm willing to make the sacrifice."
"Yeah, that's not going to happen," Clint drawls.
Tony squints at him. "Are you saying Steve's the only one you'll let spank your girlfriend?"
"She's not Yeah, that's what I'm saying," Clint fires back, then takes a moment to consider. "And maybe Bruce."
"Ahh, thank you?" Bruce says cautiously. "But I don't think the Other Guy would like my increased heart rate. From all the scolding," he adds quickly, at a sharp glance from Clint.
Tony's gaze levels on Clint. "Why aren't you spanking her, Barton?" he asks, and Steve could swear Clint's jaw tightens.
"Because I like to keep work and play separate," Clint tells him. "It's better for my health. That thigh hold? Only good until you pass out."
Tony kicks his feet up on the ottoman, and Steve bites back a rebuke as the sandwich tray teeters. "While I can't believe I'm saying this, Thor is right." Thor looks pleased by this validation. "Women take this shit seriously. You don't respond to her the same way you respond to the rest of the team, and you'll be painted as the worst kind of misogynist."
Bruce sighs. "He does have a point."
"Your life will be easier," Clint mutters.
"Indeed," Thor agrees.
"So you're saying you think I should do it?" Steve asks.
"God, no," Tony says with a horrified grimace. "It's a catastrophe waiting to happen. And what if Pepper finds out? She already wants my head on a stick; you won't be nearly as wily at dodging her."
"I believe the Midgardian phrase is 'between a rock and a hard place'?" Thor suggests, and Steve wipes a hand over his face.
Clint smirks and grabs another sandwich. "Welcome to the 21st century, Cap."
# # #
Sleep doesn't come. At some point in the night, Natasha simply gives up, rolling away from Clint's warmth and glaring at the bedroom ceiling.
"What?" Clint doesn't crack an eye; doesn't have to. Over the course of years and missions, they've become familiar with each other's patterns, something Natasha finds both comforting and disturbing all at once.
"Go back to sleep," she tells him.
Clint squints, peering at her in the darkness. "I can't sleep; you're seething too loud."
"I don't seethe."
"Those reporters are idiots," Clint says in his sleep-roughened voice. "You're not actually starting to buy into their bullshit, are you?"
Natasha scoffs, rolling her eyes toward him. "Of course not." He raises an eyebrow, continues to stare. "A little."
"So, you just going to keep giving people whiplash?" he asks.
"God, you don't know what it's like, Clint, to be asked these ridiculous questions because of the way you look - "
"Hey, that old lady I danced with at the gala last week groped my ass the entire time," Clint tells her.
"That was Pepper's grandmother."
Clint shrugs. "I'm just saying, when it comes to the PR, we all take our lumps."
"Or not," Natasha mutters.
"What did happen with Steve?" Clint wants to know.
"Nothing; I'm restricted to the tower for a week."
"Sounds okay." Clint says, and Natasha gives him a sour look. "Come on, it can't have been that bad," he tells her.
"He was nice."
"Like he thought he might hurt my feelings," she complains.
Clint rolls to his own back so they're lying side by side. Considers. Then, "So?"
Natasha blinks in the darkness. "What?"
Seriously? What is she, twelve? "What do you think?"
"I think there's a lot you don't say."
"Goodnight, Clint." And this time when Clint pulls her closer, Natasha's careful to keep her own space.
# # #
"Good morning," Tony says, strolling into the kitchen. He's unusually perky for this hour of the morning, and Natasha shoots him a baleful look from her seat at the counter. "Uh, oh, Gingerella still pouting?" he asks, grabbing a coffee cup and sticking it under what he keeps reminding them is a very expensive coffee machine.
"Been stabbed in the neck with a needle lately?" she returns smoothly, satisfied when Tony winces.
"Touché," he concedes, as he begins programming his drink with deft fingers.
"At least someone recognizes I'm dangerous," Natasha grouses to Clint, who's scrambling eggs and frying bacon at the stove. Surprisingly enough, he's better at the task than any of them, except maybe Steve. Tony refuses to work with such primitive appliances, and Thor tends to set things on fire. Bruce's cooking is more frightening than his lab experiments, and Natasha; well, she didn't become a spy to bake cupcakes.
"Not true; everyone recognizes you're dangerous," Tony points out, "including jaywalkers and small children who kick the back of your seat on airplanes."
"Well, maybe someone should alert the Captain."
Tony sniffs his coffee in appreciation. "I'm pretty sure that everyone by definition includes our star-spangled leader."
"She's upset that Steve was nice," Clint explains, obviously amused, and Natasha stares at him in disbelief.
"He wasn't just nice, Clint; he's completely oblivious to my skill set," she insists. "The bad girl innuendo sailed right over his head. And then he had the nerve to soft serve my reprimand."
Tony leans one hip against the counter, brows drawn together. "So what you're saying is that you tried to manipulate him with your sex, and now you're pissed because he's noticed your sex? Is that ironic or just stupid?" Without turning, Clint quickly reaches behind him and snags the stray fork Natasha's going for, abruptly dropping it into the sink. Natasha scowls at his back. "Look, you know how Cap is - the guy respects women, for crying out loud. Probably more than any other guy you know. And while you might be the biggest, ball-breaking bitch of them all, there was no way he was going to just stand by and let Fury have at you."
That gets her attention. "What do you mean?"
"I mean Fury wanted your ass on a platter, and Cap told him no. We both did, actually," Tony adds sheepishly.
"Oh, shit," Clint says under his breath, as Natasha feels herself go rigid.
"Are you saying that Director Fury now thinks I need the Avengers to protect me?" she demands. This is ridiculous. Is she an assassin or a debutante?
Tony shrugs. "I'm saying he knows we will."
"And you're okay with this?" Natasha asks, turning her stony gaze on Clint, but he simply holds up his hands, spatula and all.
"I'm just the guy who woke up and wanted to have breakfast. Hey, wait; don't - Shit." Clint grimaces. "I'm going to pay for that later, aren't I?" he asks, watching Natasha stalk from the kitchen.
"Oh, yeah," Tony tells him.
"Pay for what?" Steve asks, frowning as Natasha brushes past him. "Hey, what about breakfast?" he calls after her, but the assassin never breaks stride. "It's the most important meal of the day!"
Clint's mouth twists ruefully as he grabs a platter from the drawer. "You sure you don't want to rethink this thing, Cap?"
Steve sighs. "I'm sure."
"Someone will get hurt," Clint says.
"That's what I'm trying to prevent," Steve tells him, reaching for a coffee cup, because even if the caffeine doesn't work the way it used to, the strong and familiar taste is still a comfort to him..
Clint shakes his head as he shovels the eggs and bacon onto their serving plates. "With all due respect, Cap, it's not going to work."
"Hey, let the guy have his principles," Tony says, wresting the coffee cup from Steve's grip and putting it under the coffee machine for him. He punches a few buttons, peering warily in the direction Natasha disappeared. "Stay strong, Cap; that's some powerful mojo she's got going there, hard to resist. It's like she's the incarnation of bacon or something."
Bruce wanders in, scratching his stomach where his t-shirt rides up. "Did someone say bacon?"
Tony's elbow bumps Steve's ribs. "See?" He tilts his chin toward the physicist. Then, "I'm sorry; did I miss the memo for crazy hippie day?" Tony wants to know, frowning as his gaze sweeps to what Steve thinks might be Bruce's pajama bottoms. "That's it; we're going pants shopping."
Bruce looks down at his lower half. "What's wrong with my pants?" he asks, pulling at the baggy folds of textile. "I got these in India; they were eight dollars at the haat."
"I think you just answered your own question," Tony replies, handing Steve his coffee.
Steve sips and smiles his thanks before turning to Clint, who's setting breakfast on the table. "You got plans today?"
Steve waits, but Clint doesn't elaborate. "Want to talk about them?" Steve invites.
Clint shrugs. "Just, you know, big projects, top secret, classified, those sort of things; could take all afternoon."
"Uh, huh." Then, "You're hiding, aren't you?"
"You bet your ass I am."
# # #
Steve finds Natasha in the living area, curled into a corner of the sectional like a sulky cat. Steve knows it's almost impossible to sneak up on her or Clint; she's aware he's standing here just isn't noticing him. Steve guesses he has that coming.
"Good morning," he says cheerfully.
Green eyes cut warily to his. "Good morning, Captain."
Steve shoves his hands into his pockets, rocking slightly back on his heels. "We missed you at breakfast," he says.
"Tony and Clint pissed me off." Natasha's not complaining, just stating it matter of fact, but it still makes Steve frown.
"I'm sorry." Things are difficult enough without having those two make wise-ass remarks. "You want me to talk to them?"
She arches a brow. "Like you talked to Fury?"
"If that's what it takes," he replies sincerely.
Natasha gets a funny expression; like she doesn't know what to think, when Natasha always knows what to think. She settles on a grimace. "Think I'll pass."
"Is this really necessary?" Bruce's voice says from behind them.
Steve turns to see Tony herding a reluctant Bruce toward the elevator. For a guy who claims to not play well with others, the billionaire spends an awful lot of time doing just that. "Where are you guys going?"
"I'm taking Bruce to my tailor," Tony replies, with a look that dares Bruce to argue.
Bruce sighs. "I keep telling him it's a waste of money, but he won't listen."
"Cute, isn't he?" Tony quips, reaching to pinch Bruce's cheek and smirking when the man slaps his hand away. "You want to come? Make it a threesome?" he asks, before making a face. "Okay, yeah, there's something that's never going to sound sexy again," he mutters.
"Nah." Steve shakes his head, used to Tony's ramblings now. "Thor's talking about roasting a bilgesnipe." That doesn't require explaining, since Pepper's made it quite clear she still hasn't forgiven any of them for what happened on Thanksgiving.
Tony's brow furrows. "JARVIS, please put together a presentation for Cap here covering the abundant alternatives to khaki."
"That really isn't necessary, JARVIS," Steve says, with an apologetic glance toward the ceiling.
"It's very necessary," Tony informs him, before pushing Bruce into the elevator. The scientist's shoulders slump in resignation.
"Do you think that's a good idea?" Steve asks, brows drawn with concern as the doors close on the pair. Natasha doesn't reply, and Steve glances back at the empty sofa, then around the living area. The assassin has disappeared. "I hate it when they do that."
"Do you wish me to locate Agent Romanov, Captain Rogers?" JARVIS inquires politely. Steve wonders sometimes if Tony's so blunt because he put all his social niceties into his AI.
"Is she in still in the Tower?"
"Then no, thank you," Steve replies. "I'm sure when she's ready to talk, she'll find me."
# # #
"I'd like a word, Captain?" Natasha requests, falling into step beside Steve as he walks down the corridor. The guy seems kind of lost when they're off-mission, like he doesn't quite know what to do with himself. Natasha makes a mental note to speak with Clint about it.
"Sure." If Steve's at all surprised at her sudden appearance, it doesn't show.
"I want you to spank me."
"No." Easy, affable, and final. Or so he thinks.
"You haven't heard my reasons," Natasha points out.
Steve sighs, coming to a halt mid-floor. "Go ahead."
"You're making me appear weak."
Steve slants her a wry look. "I think that's impossible, Natasha."
"Imposing a different penalty encourages the team to think I'm vulnerable," she insists. Because sure, she and Clint might be standard human issue, but they're trained SHIELD agents, and probably two of the most dangerous people around.
Steve frowns. "Everyone is vulnerable; you know that."
Time for the big guns. "It singles me out, Captain. It's - " she weights her voice. "Unfair."
"Your not liking it doesn't make it unfair," he counters, and damn, Natasha really thought she had that one. "I levy the reprimand that best motivates each team member; just because you can take a beating doesn't mean I'm going to dish one out."
Natasha folds her arms. "Are you saying you beat Clint?"
"No, of course not!" Steve replies, obviously dismayed by the suggestion. His brows pull together suddenly. "Did he say that?"
"You know he didn't," Natasha replies, feeling a twinge of guilt at causing the man distress. "So why would I?"
"Look, no honorable man would ever hit a g a woman," Steve says, flushing a bit at the near slip. "And what about the rest of the team?" he wants to know. "They might claim to be progressive, but do you really think any of them are okay with me hurting you? Especially Clint?"
Natasha blinks, because okay, the protectiveness; kind of nice. Totally unnecessary, possibly insulting, completely inappropriate, but nice. "No, I don't think they're okay with that, but you wouldn't hurt me," she explains. "And you have to stop seeing me as a woman; it's a dangerous mindset. What if we're attacked by Amazons?"
Steve frowns again. "The Greek warrior women? We have those?" He shakes his head. "Look, I get how it might seem unfair, but that's not what's - "
" - going on here, if you would just - "
" - take a minute - could you please stop saying that?" Steve asks, carding his fingers through his hair in frustration.
"I wish I could," Natasha mutters, frowning as Steve suddenly glances up and sniffs. "What?"
"Do you smell that?" he asks, narrowed gaze moving up and down the corridor.
Natasha sighs in resignation. "Does it smell like bullshit, Captain?"
"No," he replies, obviously too distracted to be offended. "It smells like bilgesnipe," he says, with an expression of dawning horror.
"Oh, my god," Natasha says, as the noxious odor assaults her senses, a combination that somehow manages to recall rotting fish, spoiled milk, and sauerkraut all at once. She gags and stumbles after Steve, who's already jogging toward the veranda.
# # #
"Christ, that's awful," Clint gasps, slipping in Natasha's door and slamming it quickly behind him. Natasha glances up from the Times. The wafting air still carries a faint scent of bilgesnipe, and Natasha wonders vaguely about its potential as a chemical weapon.
"Did the fumigators leave?" she asks, tossing the paper to the Balinese coffee table and sitting back on the couch.
"There's one still puking in the garbage can downstairs," Clint replies, walking around the back of the sofa. "I think that one's my favorite," he says, leaning over Natasha's shoulder to point at the newspaper's color spread of her thighs enveloping a blue-faced reporter.
She purses her lips in consideration. "Personally, I like the one of Bruce's ass - is this Kung Pao chicken?" she asks, as Clint pushes one of the cartons of Chinese food he's carrying at her.
She opens the box and sniffs. "Mmm, my favorite."
"Is it?" Clint straightens, and Natasha throws him a sideways glance.
"Did you carry this through the ducts?"
"Pepper's here; she seems unhappy."
Natasha snorts. "How's Steve taking it?"
"Very seriously," Clint reports, coming around the side of the couch and dropping onto the cushion beside her with a carton of what Natasha knows will be sweet and sour pork. "Expect a team lecture on fire safety."
"Nice that he's taking something seriously," she remarks, as she takes the plastic utensil set he hands her.
"Still mad, huh?" he asks, ripping open his own set. He opens his dinner, stabbing a piece of pork and lifting it half-way to his open mouth before glancing up and catching her dark look. "That was a dumb question," he concedes.
Natasha neatly rips into her own utensils. "I tried to change his mind, but it's like talking to a wall."
"You tried to - " Clint returns the fork to the sweet and sour with a huff of disbelief. "I'm sorry; how does that conversation go again? 'Captain Rogers, requesting to be spanked because I am clearly out of my mind?'"
"Go ahead; mock me," Natasha tells him. "But did you read that?" she asks, nodding at the paper. "I start a public brawl with the press, and the only question being asked is if I do yoga or pilates to keep those curves in shape." She drops her eyes to her Kung Pao chicken, neatly spearing a bite. "It's embarrassing."
"Hey," Clint says, expression softening. "There are plenty of people who know firsthand exactly what you're capable of; do you really care what these guys think?"
Natasha finishes chewing, swallows carefully. "I care what the team thinks," she tells Clint, and points her fork at him. "If this had been you, Cap would have read you the riot act," she insists, and Clint grimaces. "Instead, now I'm a liability, and he's at risk."
"You're overthinking it, Nat."
"So what's simple?" Natasha wants to know, setting her carton down on the coffee table. "I know we're not close like you and Cap are," she ventures quietly, "or even he and Thor - "
"Come on; sure you are," Clint says with a frown.
"Maybe men and women can't be friends."
"We're friends," Clint points out. It's true and it isn't. There might not be a classification for what Clint is to her.
Natasha shakes her head. "You can't tell me that there's one of these guys who doesn't see me as a woman first."
"You make a very good woman," Clint agrees, his light eyes moving over her with frank appreciation.
"You've never made any exceptions for me," Natasha says, and Clint shrugs and picks up his fork again.
"When we met you were trying to kill me; I couldn't afford to."
Natasha stares at him. Leave it to Clint to solve a problem without even trying. "Barton? You're a genius."
Clint scoffs. "Tell me something I don't know."
# # #
"A little late this morning, aren't you?" Tony asks, when Steve walks into the training room. "It was the fumigator, wasn't it? I told Pepper she was checking you out."
"It was a long night what?" Steve asks, brows drawing together.
"She wear you out? Ask you to do things that made you feel dirty?" Tony tilts his head, peering at Steve curiously. "Feel free to share."
"He was already dirty," Clint replies, throwing a towel at Tony before mopping at his face and neck with his own. "I saw him before he hit the shower."
"If the Captain chooses to embrace the companionship of this fumigator person, we should respect his privacy," Thor advises sagely from behind the pile of weights Tony's engineered for Asgardian strength training.
"I'm not embracing anything," Steve assures him.
"Go ahead, be selfish, vanquish our hope with your cruel lies."
Clint smirks knowingly. "Pepper went back to DC, didn't she?"
"Hey," Tony says, turning on the younger man and holding up a finger. "First of all, Pepper's job is very demanding, and second of all, it's entirely possible she believes I may have understated the professional hazards of working with the Avengers."
"Like when you were being held upside down from the Empire State building and you told Pepper you were at Starbucks?" Clint teases.
"It was an abridged version of the morning; do you know how much they charge for minutes?" Tony wants to know, and Steve shakes his head, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
"Good morning, Lady Widow," Thor greets, as Natasha strolls through the doors in a SHIELD t-shirt and athletic pants, her red hair pulled up into a short ponytail.
"Good morning, Thor," she replies gracefully, and Clint rolls his eyes.
"You wanna go a few rounds?" he asks, even though Steve knows he probably just ran ten miles.
Natasha makes a face. "I think I'm getting complacent; I should change it up a little. Cap?" she asks, ignoring Clint's surprised look.
"Want to spar?" Natasha asks patiently.
"With you?" She's caught him off guard. It's not that they haven't worked a move or two before, but Clint has always been Natasha's partner of choice.
Natasha shrugs. "You can get the shield if it makes you feel safer."
It might. "I think I can manage," Steve hears himself saying, and follows her over to the mat. He lets Natasha start them slowly, circling, the usual intensity glinting from the Russian's green eyes. They exchange a few combination moves, Steve favoring the Defendo of his Allied days, Natasha sticking with her adapted Systema techniques.
"Is that all you got, Cap?" she asks, blocking a carefully calculated kick with the outside of her thigh. "Come on; come at me."
"You sure?" Natasha's more agile, but Steve has speed and strength on his side.
"Positive." She flips toward him, twisting in midair and swinging her leg around to hook behind his knee, allowing a sharp blow of her forearm against his chest to send him careening backwards. Steve's backside hits the mat like dead weight, his hands splayed to catch himself. They don't usually play this hard, and Steve's brows draw together quizzically.
"Should've got the shield," Tony mutters, from where he and Clint are watching from the sidelines. Even Thor has stopped lifting weights and is viewing them curiously.
Natasha raises her brows in challenge. "Come on, Cap, show me something."
"Okay." Maybe Steve's concentration is a little lacking. He pushes to his feet and waits for Natasha to start their circling again. Steve bides his time, letting himself relax. He focuses on her fluid movements, anticipating how each motion will evolve into the next. The next time she strikes; he grabs the leg coming at him and pulls up, dropping her flat on her back. The air exits her lungs in a harsh whuff, and Steve immediately steps closer, looking down with concern. "You okay?" he asks, putting a hand out to help her up.
She takes a breath. "Fine," she says, ignoring his hand and climbing smoothly to her feet. There's something tight about her smile. "Again."
Steve's forehead furrows. "I'm not sure we should - "
"Again," she snaps, her tone brooking no argument.
Steve sighs, but they resume the exercise. Natasha's watching him carefully; she waits for an opening before launching a series of strikes to Steve's knees, his diaphragm, his arms. Steve's enhanced reflexes aid him in blocking the blows, the dull, repetitive thud of flesh striking muscle absurdly loud in the large space.
"What are you doing, Nat?" Clint says, frowning from the side of the mat.
"Sparring," she fires back. "You got a problem with that?"
"I'll let you know," Clint replies.
"What are you doing?" Natasha demands, glaring at Steve.
"You just said we were sparring," Steve replies, using his arm to deflect a blow aimed at his chin.
"You're not even trying," she accuses.
"Trying to what?" he asks, taking the opportunity to aim a mild punch toward her stomach and having it knocked savagely away.
"No," he agrees mildly. "I'm not. This isn't a competition."
"Come at me," she insists, and shoves at his chest.
Steve holds up his hands. "Natasha."
"Don't 'Natasha' me." She shoves at him again before firing off a combination of strikes meant to put anyone with less than super-soldier responses down on the mat. Steve gets his defenses up just in time, methodically using his forearms and outer legs to block the assault. This can't go on; his bruises will heal in an hour, but Natasha's will be there for a week.
"Enough," Steve says sternly, pulling her into a clinch at first opportunity, stifling her attack. "You're going to hurt yourself."
"Says who?" she hisses, beginning to struggle, but then Clint is there, pushing them apart.
"Hey!" Clint glances at Steve with something like regret before turning to Natasha. "Now I have a problem," he tells her. "This might have been funny once, but it's not anymore."
Natasha flushes, still breathing fast. "He doesn't get to tell me when I've had enough."
"The last time I checked we were on the same team," Steve points out, frustrated in spite of himself.
Natasha's gaze jumps to his. "Then why don't you act like it?"
"No," Clint says, and they both turn to him in surprise. Steve's never heard him use this tone before, and especially not with Natasha, who's staring at him with angry disbelief.
"Clint, he - "
"Leave it," Clint commands, and Steve sees her hesitate, fists clenching at her side. Clint arches a brow. "You wanna beat me up, too?"
Natasha's jaw tightens. In icy silence, she pivots on her heel and walks stiffly from the room. Steve rubs a hand over the back of his neck, and Clint looks like he might need a drink.
"This is most unfortunate," Thor remarks, clearly disturbed by present events.
"Seriously, I don't know what you people were thinking," Tony says, staring after Natasha. "She is such a natural redhead."
# # #
"Come on, big guy; it's not the end of the world," Tony says, clapping Thor on the shoulder as Steve passes by with the colander. The kitchen is warm and crowded when all the Avengers are present, with lots of bumping and spills and the occasional crack of breaking glass, and tonight is the same. Natasha hasn't said anything since she walked in and started refilling the salt and pepper shakers, but Steve's counting her presence alone as a win.
"It was going to be a splendid feast," the warrior laments. "Worthy of great tales and feats."
"Are we still talking about the bilgesnipe?" Bruce asks, setting another plate on the table. This is the first they've seen of him all day, and Steve reminds himself to start dragging the scientist out of the lab at lunch.
Clint nods from his perch on the counter, surreptitiously swiping olives from the bowl Steve put out. "SHIELD's implementing a new policy," he says. "They put a freeze on the importation of Asgardian game until risk management can evaluate the situation."
"It was a little ah, pungent," Steve says, stirring his meat sauce with a wooden spoon. "Are you sure it wasn't spoiled?"
"The more pungent the aroma, the greater the virility of he who consumes it."
Bruce's wary glance bounces among his teammates. "And by virility, you mean..?"
"Are you saying you intended to feed us Asgardian Viagra for dinner?" Tony has to ask.
Thor shrugs. "It might not work on mortals."
Clint stares at him. "Might not?"
"Am I the only one who finds that disturbing?" Bruce asks.
"Let's just be happy no one was hurt," Steve says, shaking off the spoon and setting it aside before reaching for a head of lettuce on the counter. "Thor, in the future, please advise us if dinner might have ah, unexpected consequences."
"Yeah, that," Tony agrees, with a slight roll of his eyes. "I'm having a drink. Anyone else?"
"Can someone please pass me a knife?" Steve asks. A flash of steel flies past his face and there's a dull thud. Steve blinks. The hilt of a large knife quivers an inch from his face, its tip buried in the wall.
"You're welcome," Natasha's voice says sweetly.
Steve takes a deep breath. "Natasha; conference room. Now."
He doesn't have to ask twice. Natasha turns and heads out of the room as Steve switches off the stove.
"Steve - " Clint begins awkwardly.
"I got this."
# # #
"You sure you want to do this?" Steve asks.
"Yeah," Natasha nods, glancing up at him from over her shoulder. "You sure you don't want my pants down?" It'd be pretty comfortable over Steve's knee, if it weren't for the blood rushing to her head. But she's been in worse positions for worse reasons.
"Not as sure as I'd like," he mutters.
Natasha frowns. "Captain?"
"Never mind. Let's just get this over with," Steve says, lifting his hand, and Natasha braces herself for the first blow. He at least makes an effort; there's a little weight behind his palm, and she's pleased when a faint sting spreads itself over her ass. The repetitive smacks increase the sensation, smarting through her thin pants. It's not much of a punishment, as far as punishments go, but she might as well embrace it.
Steve freezes mid-swing. "Oh, geez," he breathes. "Did I hurt you?"
"I was just trying it out," Natasha explains.
Steve sighs above her. "This is a bad idea."
"No, no, I'm sorry," she says quickly, dropping her head in an attempt to look contrite. "Sorry. I'm taking this totally seriously now."
"I think you've had enough," Steve says, his hand coming to an awkward rest at the back of her thigh.
"But I haven't even learned my lesson yet," Natasha protests. Does he really think a few half-hearted slaps are going to do the trick?
"I'm sure that's not true," he says.
Natasha is unconvinced. "Did you stop this soon when you spanked Clint?"
"That's between Clint and I," Steve replies firmly.
"Fine, have it your way," Natasha says. "Bing Crosby's dead."
That catches his attention. "What?"
"I mean, of course he's dead, but he also sucks," Natasha tells him. "And the Dodgers didn't leave Brooklyn, they fled in shame."
Steve huffs softly. "That's not going to work."
"I threw out an entire box of cereal yesterday because I decided I didn't like it. While children starved in China and everything."
"Natasha," Steve warns.
"And I helped Thor glue your slippers to the floor."
Sometimes Natasha is too good at her job.
# # #
"It was for your own good."
"Really?" Steve drops his hand from his face and throws Natasha a sideways glance. She's upright now, standing beside his chair and studying him with candid eyes.
"I think you really challenged yourself," she adds sympathetically.
"Please don't make me do this again," he says.
"I'll try to do better," Natasha promises, handing him a box of some sort.
"I hope you mean that," Steve mutters fervently. A distracted glance at the box has him realizing it's Kleenex. He shoots her a reproachful look before setting it on the conference table. Then, "You know, during a war, the things you guard and protect they're not always your weakest points, or even strategic." Steve taps his fingers on his knee, hoping he's saying this right. "Sometimes they're just the things you love best."
Natasha's stoic features soften for a moment, a tentative smile touching her lips. "Thanks, Cap."
Steve returns the smile. "I'd say anytime, but - "
"Don't sell yourself short," Natasha tells him. "Little more practice, you might even be able to show a girl a good time." What? Oh. Yeah. Heat rushes up Steve's neck, climbs his cheeks, and Natasha jerks her chin toward the conference room door. "Come on; we can still make dessert. Before the guys start thinking I've hurt you," she adds, completely serious.
Steve chuffs softly and rises from his chair. "You're a hell of a woman, Miss Romanov."
"Yeah." She pats his arm gently. "I know." She pauses. "No hard feelings?" she asks.
"I guess not I need a raise," Steve tells her, as they start for the kitchen.
Natasha considers. "What are they paying you?"
"I don't know," he replies. "But whatever it is, it's not enough."
# # #
"You sure you're alright?" Clint asks again, frowning as Natasha wriggles out of her pants and panties, her bare legs flashing beneath the black blouse. Natasha had hardly set down her fork before Clint had made their excuses and hustled them off to his rooms.
Natasha glares at him. "If you ask me one more time " She lets the threat hang in the air. At least Clint had contained his concern during dessert, and if the rest of the team thought anything odd about Natasha and Steve eating their pie standing at the counter, they knew better than to mention it.
"Okay, okay," Clint says, stepping into her personal space. "Just making sure." His calloused hands glide down Natasha's back to gently cup her ass, his thumbs brushing over the scorched skin. "Do you know how hot your ass is right now?" he asks, his warm breath stirring the hair by her ear.
"It's been mentioned a time or two," she says, sighing a little at his cooling touch.
"No, I mean hot," Clint murmurs, sliding his hands to her hips and turning her slightly. "Christ, you're red back here."
"Yeah, Cap needed a little persuading," she says, her palms resting on his chest. "I might have overdone it."
"Don't you think you were a little hard on him?"
Natasha rolls her eyes, pushing back in his arms. "He's fine, Clint. You guys are so overprotective; I'm surprised you didn't offer to take his place oh my God, you did!" she exclaims, when Clint's gaze flickers.
"I didn't!" Clint tells her. "Swear," he insists, holding up his hands. "Not that there weren't other offers."
Natasha raises her brows. "Thor?"
Clint groans. "I'm never going to hear the end of this, am I?"
"You'll die someday," Natasha replies. "Tony?"
"For the greater good."
Natasha snorts. "I'll bet What about Bruce?"
"He thought it might up his heart rate," Clint says.
Natasha hmms. "Almost like a rare and poisonous flower," she muses, enjoying Clint's obvious suffering.
"Are you done?" he wants to know.
She smiles. "Jealous?"
"I'm thinking about it."
"Well, let me know when you're finished, and - "
Clint pulls her back against his chest before she can complete the jibe. "I'm finished," he promises, then smirks. "So, you want to show me how the bad man touched you?"
"Dream on, Barton," Natasha tells him, but she doesn't knee him in the nuts, either; something she's glad of when he delivers the next bit of news.
"I talked to Steve about the press conferences; he thinks he has a solution."
# # #
"Marissa Cole, New York Post," the woman introduces herself. "Everyone is talking about what amazing physical shape you're in. How do you stay looking so good in such a tight-fitting suit?"
From his seat on stage, Thor beams as he answers the question, flashes going off like crazy as the sunlight glints from his golden hair.
"I don't see how this is a reprimand," Natasha says from where she and the rest of the Avengers have gathered backstage.
Steve flashes a grin at her. "Think of it more as creative problem solving." Steve figures the loss of Thor's Asgardian delicacy is punishment enough for his failure to follow safety measures, but it's important Thor considers the debt paid.
"Thor, what do you use on your hair?" another reporter shouts.
"How did you talk old One-Eye into this?" Tony asks, sounding impressed as he peers out over the crowd.
"I know a thing or two about public relations," Steve replies, a little smugly.
Clint looks amused. "Steve told him it would reestablish good will between the two realms after the recent policy changes," he explains.
"He really does have good hair," Bruce remarks, still running a smoothing hand over his cowlick.
"Mr. Odinson, what do you think of SHIELD's recent statute prohibiting the importation of Asgardian mead?"
"Uh, oh," Steve says in the pendulous silence that follows.
Then, "What is this treachery?" Thor demands loudly. A sudden bolt of lightening illuminates the sky, thunder cracking overhead, and Bruce jumps, his eyes flashing neon.
"Oh, shit," Tony says, watching as Bruce greens, ambling away in lurching contortions. "There goes the Armani." He takes a step back, speaks into his comm. "Pepper, have Ralph start the car no, seriously, is he starting the car??"
The first drops of cold rain pelt Steve's skin, shocking him into action. "Clint, we're going to need pants."
"On it!" Clint calls, just as a cranky Hulk flings the press table into the fleeing crowd. Chairs topple as reporters and onlookers scramble to get out of the way.
"We need to - " Steve trails off as Tony downs the rest of the martini he's holding. "Where do you keep getting those?" Steve has to ask. He shakes his head. "Never mind. Natasha; you with us?"
"On your six, Cap." She glances back at the scattered flashes amidst the downpour. "Any suggestions?"
"Yeah," Steve says, and beckons a wet, indignant Thor with a wave of his hand. "Don't forget to smile."