Rating: T (language)
Fandom: Avengers (movieverse)
Characters:Pepper, Tony, Steve, Bruce, Clint
Spoilers: Takes place the day after Interlude. #5 in Recruitment series.
Summary: There are no secrets inside of Stark Tower.
Notes: Again, many thanks for everyone who is reading and commenting and generally sending me such positive feedback. I love it! Thank you, Tripp3235 for your help and for indulging me in my fandom obsessions. There will be at least a part 6 and 7 to this series, which hopefully won't take me forever to finish. That's about it... thank you again and enjoy!
Steve didn't like gossip.
He didn't like the idea of talking behind his teammates backs. He didn't like wondering what they were doing or what they were thinking. He was honestly okay with them spending their time in any way they wanted but...
"Something has to be done about this," Tony said firmly. "This is going to end badly. Very, very badly. Trust me, I'm the expert."
"He's right about that," Pepper reluctantly agreed.
"It's really not our business," Bruce put in, not bothering to look up from his bowl of cereal.
"Yes, it is," Tony persisted. "They made it our business when they broke-up during a mission."
"First off, that wasn't a real mission," Steve felt the need to clarify as he retrieved a glass of orange juice from the refrigerator. "And second, even if it was, it still doesn't make it our business. It's their private lives and what they do -"
"No," Tony continued to argue, cutting the other man short. "They brought us along. They involved us. It might have been their private lives before this, but now it's too late. Now I feel responsible."
"Since I wasn't actually there can I not be responsible?" Bruce asked.
"We'll see," Tony answered.
"Okay," Pepper said, shaking her head emphatically. "Now I call foul."
"Sorry, Bruce," Tony said quickly. "You're still responsible."
"Damn," he muttered indifferently.
"None of us are responsible for one another's personal lives," Steve said, shaking his head and hating this conversation.
"Oh, good then," Bruce replied mildly, his eyes still cast down.
"But Pepper said -" Tony started to say but was quickly interrupted.
"No, I did not," Pepper corrected. "That's not what I meant at all, and you know it."
"Tony, are you serious? I know you're the expert on terrible break-ups, but you, of all people, should know that Steve's right - it's their lives. If this is how they want it to be then there is nothing you can do about it."
"I disagree. There are several things I can do."
"Like what? Are you going to tell them no? That they can't be involved or see each other during their free time? Listen to me: they are adults."
"Wait a minute," Bruce said, lifting his eyes from his food. "I'm back in. I want to see Tony tell them no."
"Try to," Steve muttered under his breath, earning a smile from Bruce.
"I wasn't thinking me personally," Tony hemmed.
"But if you're the responsible one," Steve said, having figured Tony out enough to know how to argue with him. A little bit.
"We're the responsible ones," Tony corrected as he waved his hands vaguely around the room.
"I never agreed to that," Steve said, shaking his head.
"Tony," Pepper sighed. "You're intentions are good but..."
"I thought you'd be on my side," Tony said, throwing his hands up and all but admitting defeat as he tipped back in his chair.
"That's not going to work," Pepper said evenly. "You can't just tell someone that their personal life is screwed. Believe me. I speak from experience."
"Really? We're all just going to sit back and watch this train wreck?" Tony asked the room.
"Sometimes you have to," Pepper said, not without emotion.
"That's it then?" Tony continued to ask. "We're going to ignore this thing that's happening? Under my roof? We're all just going to sit back and let her walk all over..."
"Walk all over who?" Clint asked, coming into the kitchen and heading straight for the refrigerator.
"Oh, hey," Tony said, dropping his chair back to the floor in surprise. "It's Clint. Hey, Clint. Didn't see you there."
"Uh huh," the other man returned, his back to the group as he began to rummage about.
Tony's eyes darted from Pepper, to Steve and finally to Bruce, looking for some sort of sign. Not one of them gave even the slightest hint of encouragement, but that had never deterred him before. He didn't know how much Clint had overheard, and mentally made a note to buy that man a bell, but Tony figured even if he hadn't heard a thing, now was better than later.
"So," Tony said, dragging out the word and watching as both Pepper and Steve practically deflated in defeat. "I ran into Natasha this morning."
"Oh yeah?" Clint returned, his tone still easy.
"Been awhile since she's been in the Tower."
"Um... a few weeks," he agreed, his back still to them but his posture definitely growing more defensive. "She was out on assignment."
"She didn't really have much to say," Tony continued, dragging this out on the faint hope of someone else jumping in and joining him.
Clint seemed to be out of things to say as well, at least about Natasha.
"Why is it that Greek yogurt is supposed to be better than regular yogurt?" Clint asked instead, joining them at the table with a freshly opened container. "What's the difference?"
"I think it's something about protein," Bruce answered, more than willing to help change the conversation. "That and it's probably made in Greece. Never liked either kind, myself."
"Me either," Steve added. "Oh, but I like that yogurt sauce... With the pita bead... What is that called?"
"Tzatziki," both Bruce and Clint answered at the same time.
"That's really good," Steve said with a nod.
"Let's have Greek tonight," Pepper said happily. "I know this great place -"
"Is this really happening?" Tony interrupted, almost angry. "Hello? Barton? We were having a conversation."
"No," Clint said, putting his spoon down and finally giving Tony his full attention. "We were not. What that was, was me humoring you. And then I stopped."
"I wasn't done."
"I was," Clint countered.
"I feel like we should talk about this."
"And I feel that you should mind your own business."
"Well, when your business happens in my tower..."
"Here we go," Steve sighed.
"...then it's becomes, by default, my business," Tony finished.
"Unbelievable," Clint said, getting to his feet and throwing his half-eaten container in the trash.
"Listen," Tony said, also getting to his feet but wisely keeping his distance, "I'm not asking for specifics, like positions or favorite kinks..."
"Oh my God," Bruce muttered.
"Tony," Pepper gasped.
Steve could only shake his head.
"...I just want to know where the two of you stand now that you are obviously back to co-mingling," Tony finished.
"Un-fucking-believable," Clint said.
"You can try and deny the facts," Tony continued to push, "but they are pretty damning."
"Fact one: Natasha arrived at the Tower last night, after midnight, and didn't go to her room."
"Has he been tested for... everything?" Bruce leaned over and asked Pepper, who merely sighed in response. "I can't even describe how wrong this is."
"Fact two: This morning, I spied with my little eye, her leaving your room before she slinked herself right out of the Tower altogether."
"And what exactly does any of this have to do with you?" Clint asked.
"It has plenty to do with me," Tony argued.
"It really doesn't," Steve said, shaking his head and looking down at the table. "And this whole conversation is inappropriate."
"It isn't and it does," Tony pushed. "Because, either you two had a nice little conversation and worked things out and are now happily... whatever it is you want to call it. I'm not picky and I won't define this thing for you. Whatever."
"Tony," Pepper said slowly. "Remember our discussion about boundaries?"
"Or," he continued unabated, "she was here for a booty call and things are still just as fucked up as they were before. Maybe worse."
"Booty call?" Steve repeated questioningly, looking to Bruce for some kind of assistance.
"You really don't want to know," was his reply.
Clint didn't say anything, just continued to glare at Tony with practically no expression at all. Which was somehow more unnerving than if he had looked angry.
"Now, I'm not trying to cast aspersions on your reputation, or hers," Tony said, sounding if anything, sincere. "What you do and who you do it with... you're right. Not my business. I don't care. Everyone's legal and consents... knock yourself out."
"Tony... the line," Pepper said pleadingly.
"But, I feel obligated to say something here because, after Steve and I got a front row seat..."
"If you're really going to keep this up," Steve interjected, talking over Tony as he plowed on, "then please, keep me out of it."
"...to Natasha's unique brand of tender loving care, I feel that not saying something would be doing you a disservice. Maybe you already know this. Maybe you don't need me to say it."
"Oh, no," Bruce muttered, clearing up his dishes and choosing to stand by the door.
"But I am going to, anyway."
Clint's eyes hardened as he continued to silently stare at Tony, and for a split second, Tony considered dropping it. The problem with that scenario was that he honestly felt he was right. And, even if it hearing it was unpleasant, ultimately that didn't make saying it wrong.
"She's using you."
When no one moved or spoke or even remotely acknowledged that Tony had spoken, at all, for nearly a full minute, he couldn't stop himself.
He kept talking.
"She is," he repeated. "And I'm guessing by that non-blinking thing you're doing, which, by the way, you've perfected... you know I'm right and you're not happy about it. How can you be? I mean, you can't be. And... it's affecting you and it's only a matter of time before it affects all of us."
When Clint still didn't respond, Bruce shifted nervously where he stood. Pepper had gone nearly white with rage, choosing to avert her eyes and stare at the ceiling than to watch what was happening. Steve also felt uneasy, but for an entirely different reason: he thought Tony might be right.
"Maybe you didn't think we've noticed," Tony continued. Really on a roll. "But we have."
"I want no part of this," Bruce interjected, serious this time. More than most people, Bruce valued his privacy and the privacy of others. He still felt that, while needed, they crossed a line weeks back when they'd all confronted Clint over his dealings with SHIELD. This, however, was something else entirely. It wasn't called for at all.
"Fine," Tony sighed. "I've noticed. And I'm not trying to be an asshole. I'm really not."
"Tony," Clint said, taking a deep breath before the word could even come out of his mouth.
"No, just listen to me for a minute," Tony argued, despite the fact that he'd been the only one speaking for the past few minutes. "I know what you're going to say but you're wrong. This is wrong. It's unhealthy. It's not normal and it's not right. Please. Someone. Anyone. Say something."
Bruce shook his head in defiance. Pepper wouldn't even look at him. But Steve...
"It might not hurt to reexamine the situation," Steve finally said, looking pained as he spoke. "Just... just consider what you're getting yourself into, Clint. I'm not saying I agree with Tony entirely, but... this is affecting you. You have been acting differently and..."
"Different from what?" Clint asked, turning his attention from Tony to Steve. "How have I been acting?" But before anyone could answer, Clint continued on, clearly agitated now. "And how would you know? How would any of you know if I was acting differently? None of you know me."
"We know of you," Tony provided, not meaning to sound sarcastic, but accomplishing it just the same.
Clint took a deep breath and turned his eyes to the floor in an effort to calm himself.
"Listen," Bruce said with a sigh as he ran his hands through his hair, "the last thing I want to do right now is defend this, but they have a point. From what we know of you, the last few weeks, you've been different. You're quiet. You're around less. You seem distracted. I am not going to comment on the cause or the resolution, that's entirely up to you, but I can understand the concern."
"I'm fine," Clint said flatly.
"You're not," Pepper said, still reluctant to get involved but finding it necessary. "And it's..."
Before she finished, Clint left.
"...okay to admit that," she finished, shaking her head as her eyes lingered on the door he'd gone through.
"That went well," Tony said dryly.
"How did you expect it to go?" Bruce asked.
"Well, I thought that, being a team, one of you might back me up," Tony answered.
"This isn't about being a team," Bruce countered. "This is about you being in control. Clint's just the easiest target because all of his issues are right here within reach. People aren't science experiments, Tony."
"This can't just be me being genuinely concerned?" Tony asked in return.
"Are you?" Steve replied.
"Fine," Bruce sighed, heading for the door. "Be concerned. That's fine. But you've said your piece. Leave it at that."
Bruce paused long enough before leaving the room to get his point across. This wasn't just about Clint and his problems with Natasha. This was about making sure he wasn't the next object of concern.
"Obviously, I'm missing something here," Steve said, retaking his seat across from Tony, and bringing his voice and tone down to a reasonable level.
To Steve's surprise, Tony looked to Pepper and waved a hand across the table towards him, indicating that it was her turn to explain.
"I should have never said anything," Pepper said, leaning her head into her hand.
"About what?" Steve asked.
"I mistakenly told Tony a few days ago that I thought Clint was depressed. And then this happened with Natasha so of course..." Pepper said, trailing off as the rest of her sentence felt unnecessary.
"Oh," Steve said, sounding surprised and relieved. "Well, it's understandable that he's sad. We just give it some time, right? He'll pick himself back up."
"No," Pepper argued, a little confused by his response. "Not just sad. Like clinically depressed. He needs help." When she saw that Steve still looked confused, and Tony looked amused, Pepper leaned in closer and went on. "He's showing classic symptoms. He's inattentive. He's not engaging with anyone around him. I can't remember the last time I've seen him eat a full meal."
"You watch what we all eat?" Steve asked seriously.
"Don't worry. No one's concerned about you missing a meal," Tony answered with a smile.
"Guys, this could be serious."
"Okay," Steve said, still sounding skeptical. He was worried about this affecting how the team worked, but wasn't quite getting why Clint being depressed was an issue. Everyone gets sad and then they get over it. Sometimes it was harder than others, but you had to just keep busy. It worked for him. Mostly.
"Pepper, what we're witnessing here is a generational gap," Tony said with a smirk. "See, Steve, nowadays people aren't content to just be sad. They don't have to be. There are drugs and doctors and all kinds of options for getting help. No longer are the masses limited to drinking away their woes. Oh, but there's an idea. We'll take him out. Or keep him in. Let's throw a party."
"Tony, be serious," Pepper sighed.
"Okay, okay, but if I was overreacting before..."
"I'm not," Pepper insisted. "I really think..." She stopped when Tony started to smile and instead shook her head. "You know what? Forget it. I'll take care of it myself. If you try to talk to him again he's likely to rip your head off. Which you'd deserve. And you," she said, standing up and suddenly angry as she wheeled on Steve, "I don't know why I'm mad at you, but I am."
"I'm sorry?" Steve asked, completely unsure of himself.
Pepper left the room without saying anymore, leaving Steve and Tony behind, more confused and amused than before.
"Better start smiling more or you're next," Tony said with as a grin as he got to his feet and placed his glass in the sink.
"Pepper thinks I'm..." Steve began, but didn't finish. He wasn't sure if he should be touched or bothered by her concern.
"She's got theories on everyone. She's kind of a natural worrier," Tony said. "It's what she does. Clint's depressed. You're lonely. Bruce is emotionally repressed. I'm a narcissist. Natasha's a psychopath," he finished before shrugging. "Okay, that last one is mine, but Pepper has us all sorted out."
"What about Thor?"
"He's an alien. She hasn't finished sussing him out yet."
As Steve and Tony continued their discussion, Pepper went about tracking down Clint, which was always easier said than done. He wasn't in all his usual haunts: the range, the gym, or the library. He also wasn't in all his secondary hangouts: the labs, the kitchens, or his own quarters. Pepper got desperate enough to ask Jarvis if Clint had left the Tower, which he hadn't, and was amused when the AI told her that he was forbidden from revealing Mr. Barton's location.
Finally, sheer desperation drove her to the roof, where she found Clint sitting on one of the electrical boxes, staring up at the sky.
"You come here a lot?" she called out, shading her eyes as she first looked up and then locked eyes with him.
"Sometimes," he admitted. "I like the air."
"View isn't bad either."
"Honestly," he said, his eyes darting back up to the sky. "I'm not crazy about it."
"I wanted to apologize," Pepper said as soon as he looked her way again. "For Tony. He means well but..."
"It's... it's okay," Clint said with a sigh. "I mean, it's not okay for him to do that but... I'm kind of getting used to him doing that sort of thing anyway."
"It's best to just accept it," Pepper agreed with a nod. "It's his warped way of showing how he cares."
"He's wrong," he said, having shown little signs of having heard her at all, and Pepper held her tongue, pursing her lips together in a way that clearly said she disagreed. "She's not using me," Clint continued. "We have... an arrangement."
"I'm really not sure..."
"Not... No, not like that. Not that..." Clint stammered, and Pepper could have laughed. She didn't realize Clint could blush. "We're not... I mean we help each other. She has something bothering her, I listen. It's not... We're there for each other, no matter what."
"That's..." Pepper began, stopping abruptly as she realized she was about to call two assassins 'sweet'. "That must make this very difficult."
"What? Because I'm in love with her and she's... "
"She cares for you," Pepper said, really meaning it. "A lot. It's obvious."
"But that's not the same, is it?" Clint asked quietly.
"No," she whispered, understanding his regret and disappointment.
"I don't want this to be an issue for... for everyone. This is my problem," Clint said emphatically. "It's not anything new and... and I'll get over it. I can accept that she doesn't love me. But if Tony or Steve or anyone just expects me to stop... to stop caring for Natasha... I can't. I won't. She's all I have left, good or bad. And she might not admit it or like it, but I'm who she has. That's it."
Pepper nodded her head and took in his words. He obviously meant them. He'd obviously thought a lot about this. And, perhaps more than anyone else could, she got it. She'd been there herself. It was devastating to feel so much for one person and not have those feelings returned. It was worse when it was someone who you couldn't escape, whose life was so closely tied to your own that you are incapable of quitting them.
There was nothing she could do for him.
Well, almost nothing.
"You know," she said, hoping to sound nonchalant but falling a little short of the mark, "next week I have to fly back to LA. I know you're not officially a part of Stark Industries yet... but if you want, this would be a great chance to get out there. It's not exactly a vacation..."
"You think I need a vacation?" he asked with half a smile.
"I think we all need a vacation," she returned. "And sometimes a little distance... sometimes it does a lot of good."
"Uh... I don't know," he said, staring back up at the sky.
"It'll be fun," Pepper said brightly, before shaking her head and continuing on, "Well, not all fun. There will be meetings and a lot of other office type catching up things, but it will give you a chance to get away. From SHIELD and the Tower."
"And I'll just, what exactly? Tell Fury I'm going on a job interview?"
"We'll let Tony handle Director Fury," she answered. "He owes me one." When Clint still looked hesitant, Pepper pressed, "Come on. It'll be good for you."
"At this point... it can't hurt," he said with a reluctant smile, as he slid to his feet. "Okay. I'm in."
"Just don't get your hopes up. This isn't going to change anything. Not really."
"I know it won't."
"Okay then," he said with a nod.
"I'll make all the plans," Pepper said, turning to go and continuing to talk as she walked. "Don't worry about arrangements or clearance or anything. Just be ready to go Monday morning and... Clint?"
Pepper paused when she realized he hadn't been following her. And she grew worried when she saw why. He was staring back up at the sky, right where the portal had been. Where everything had really ended and began again for them all.
"You coming?" she asked hopefully.
"No," he said, shaking his head slowly. "Not yet. I'm just... I'm going to hang out here for a little while."
"Not too long, okay?"
Clint nodded, but Pepper didn't think he'd really heard her at all.
She also thought that she'd been wrong. Not about him, per se. Now, more than before, Pepper felt that Clint really was depressed. More than depressed; he was despondent. Pepper felt she'd known Clint the moment she met him, before that even, from the stories she'd heard from Phil and even Natasha, back when she still thought her name was Natalie. Neither had ever mentioned him by name, but the similarities were so striking it simply rang true. Pepper hated seeing anyone hurt, and it was so clear he was hurting. It was like watching a drowning man. To do nothing was to become an accomplice. To do too much and pride might kill him just the same. It was a tricky situation, and she was already afraid she'd made a mistake.
Clint didn't need distance, not really.
He needed someone to draw him close.