This wasn't supposed to happen, and certainly not this quickly. But I just couldn't let go of the human aftermath of the Chitauri attack – individual Avengers needing to find their feet, figure out where they fit now. Including with each other. Then Egyptian Princesspractically challenged me to "punch up the sadly-lacking CPT America side of things and explore his battered psyche next"; a sad little scene deleted from the final cut of the movie provided additional inspiration.
So here we are. The story fits onto the head canon I started with "In the Service" and "Going to Ground", although it won't be necessary to have read those (of course I'd love it if you did!). It's intended to be a series of vignettes about this bunch of misfits - with a veritable smorgasbord of issues among them – who find themselves thrown together through shared experiences and daunting expectations. And Hawkeye, the non-team player according to Joss Whedon, will be in the middle; after all, no one pays me for this, so I get to do what I want …!
Clint's Lexington Avenue neighbourhood is more an amalgam of places than the Real Thing, although I have (since writing this) found out that there is, in fact, a water tower and a Chinese take-out in the block across from Kalustyan's Armenian Grocery (Lex at 28th, my personal mecca, every time I'm in NYC). The smells are real, too.
And no, I don't own a single thing related to the Avengers, except for a Hawkeye action figure BlueMaple gave me (it comes with a fire escape!).
Finally, a heartfelt thank you to Runawaymetaphor for test-driving this piece even though Avengers isn't her thing, and to Inkvoices for the icon.
The Skies Over Manhattan
By Alpha Flyer
1. Water Tower
The majority of the destruction is behind him now; the Chitauri ships hit mostly the skyscrapers and the big glass-and-concrete office towers. In the part of Manhattan where Steve Rogers now finds himself, the locals have already started to do what New Yorkers do best – kick obstacles out of the way and get on with their lives.
There is still broken glass glinting on the sidewalks though, even here, catching and reflecting the neon lights. It's only been, what, four weeks?
Seems a lot longer, especially since Steve hasn't exactly had a lot to do since then; this latest war was over a heck of a lot faster than the first one he was involved in. Plus, there's only so many briefings a man - even one super-enhanced with everything from strength to patience - can endure, and he's about seven decades past giving interviews.
The buildings in this neighbourhood look lived in, slightly run down, comfortable. Steve knows that it's not close enough to Gramercy Park to attract the high rollers, and even though it's on the wrong side of the Brooklyn Bridge, he feels more at home here than since … well, anytime since they pulled him from the ice, actually. Walking down Lexington Avenue in the twenties is almost like shrugging into an old leather jacket that's scuffed and soft with wear; his step picks up a little unconscious bounce as he walks.
There's a veritable symphony of smells coming out of the restaurants here: Indian, Korean, Vietnamese food - you name it, it's there in the air. And that Armenian-sounding spice shop at the corner of 28th? Well... It's all different and unusual and amazing, and enough to make a man very, very hungry.
It's funny, Steve ponders, how scents more than anything, bring back memories - or force you to make distinctions. His New York didn't smell anything like this. When he last walked these streets, the most exotic restaurants were places - usually called Tony's, he remembers with a grin - where you could get spaghetti and meatballs. Then there were those mom-and-pop operations on Delancey, where the women wore black woolen dresses and kerchiefs and you could get a dozen different kinds of pickles and maybe some borsht. This … ethnic thing, as Stark calls it, is a part of his new world that Steve actually rather likes: all those different smells, food from all over the worlds, and people who don't seem to care so much anymore whether your last name sounds American enough.
His nostrils flare a little as he sniffs a distinct overlay of Chinese in the air now – peanut oil, Steve has learned that smell is, and barbequed duck. He must be getting close to his goal.
He still hasn't entirely admitted to himself why he's come here: the best he's done so far, is to tell himself that while he likes walking and learning this new-old city with his feet, he's getting a bit tired of never having a destination. And for once he actually (sort of) knows someone in one of the neighbourhoods he's exploring.
So there it is: A place to go. As good a reason as any.
It is well-known around S.H.I.E.L.D. that Barton prefers his own place to quarters on the helicarrier (not exactly a social animal, the Hawk), so chances are about fifty-fifty he'll be here. Given the usual downtime between missions, Steve figures that this is as good time as any to get to know the man he fought beside (and against), and he settles on that as his second motivation for looking him up: they're supposed to be on the same team.
A team that, according to Nick Fury, 'Captain America' is supposed to be leading. Right. (Did anyone think to tell Thor, the god? Or Tony Stark?)
The door he wants is almost invisible beside the Chinese take-out place he's been told to look out for. The latter is brightly lit, with all the neon charm of a bus terminal, while the entrance to the rest of the building is deep shadow. It takes all of Steve's enhanced visual acuity to make out the nameplates beside their respective doorbells; seven of them bear names he doesn't recognize; the eighth, the top one, is blank.
Not exactly rolling out the red carpet for visitors and as high up as he can get? Sounds like Hawkeye alright. Steve decides to take the risk, and hits the button.
The door alarm is one of those obnoxious things you can hear all the way through the building, but even so, for a minute or two absolutely nothing happens. Steve rings again, waits for a bit longer, and is just about to turn away (well, at least he did have a place to walk towards for a bit there) when the buzzer goes. He shrugs away his surprise and pushes the door open.
The stairs are wooden, well worn and so smooth they're almost shiny; they creak a little as he puts his weight on them to go up. And up. And up. The building is rather narrow, and there's only one apartment per floor. Hawkeye, as established by the buzzer hierarchy, lives at the very top.
A couple of the lights in the staircase are burnt out and it gets darker as Steve goes up. Strange, foreign-sounding music comes from behind one of the doors. A sitar? When he gets to the eighth floor (the ninth, really, the ground floor being taken up by the take-out) the door is ajar in something approximating an invitation, and light shines out into the dim hallway.
The doorframe is adorned with a keypad that Steve immediately recognizes as being S.H.I.E.L.D. issue – he's got one at his place - and the door looks newer than the others he's passed, more … solid. At least he knows he's in the right place. Steve knocks on the open door not entirely sure what to expect; walking unannounced into the private realm of one of the most lethal people on Earth may not be the smartest thing to do, and he's still not entirely sure why he's here to begin with.
But then the gruff voice comes out from somewhere inside, "C'mon in," or something that can be interpreted as such. Barton is barefoot and shirtless, dressed only in dark jeans. His hair is damp and there's a towel draped over his shoulder; he's obviously just stepped out of the shower, which would certainly explain his delay in getting the buzzer. Steve is about to apologize when the archer drops the towel over a chair and pulls on an olive T-shirt with faded lettering on it. Once it stretches out over his chest, Steve can make out the letters ISAF, whatever that means.
"Captain?" the Hawk says, in a greeting that is welcoming enough in a neutral way, but with a distinct underlay of what the fuck? "Sorry, wasn't quite ready for company yet."
"I was in the neighbourhood," Steve says, although as explanations or apologies go, it sounds a little lame even to him. "Thought I'd stop by to say hello. But if you're expecting company ...?"
"Nah, it's okay, be a while yet," Barton responds. At least he's not denying it.
It almost sounds like an invitation to stick around, but when it comes to reading people, Steve has found that he's lost his compass. Body language, expressions, things have all changed. People used to be easier to read; there were once stories in the silences between words, and a raised eyebrow meant surprise. With someone like Clint Barton, who's trained not to give anything away unless he wants to, Steve's frame of reference breaks down entirely.
And so, because the archer is still looking at him as if waiting for an explanation, Steve feels compelled to add, "I don't know many people in New York … this New York, and you did give me your address – you know, after …"
Clint gives a small smile then, and nods.
"Yeah, I did, didn't I?"
It's clear by his tone though that he didn't exactly expect Steve to actually turn up - especially not unannounced, almost a month later. When Clint had mentioned his place on Lex, they'd been at that shawarma joint, ready to keel over with fatigue and trying to figure out where to sleep off the alien hangover. Barton had mentioned how it was in an area where all the windows had gone thanks to Thor's lightning strikes, but that people would be welcome to crash there if nothing better came along. It had struck Steve as a decent thing to do, even if Stark immediately trumped it with an offer of his tower (that no one took him up on).
"Amazed you remember that."
Steve shrugs; his muscles and CV system aren't the only thing that's been chemically enhanced. He remembers telephone numbers too, even though the number of digits has exploded since the last time he had occasion to call someone. But Barton's comment didn't sound like a go away, or even a I wish I'd never mentioned it, and so Steve decides to stick it out for now, especially since the archer is already moving to close the door behind him.
Steve doesn't bother to hide his curiosity as he looks around. He doesn't really have any idea what to expect – not only doesn't he really know Agent Barton all that well, but he hasn't been in anyone's private home for seven decades and has really no clue how people live now. (The sterile, furnished thing S.H.I.E.L.D. has assigned him doesn't count.)
Barton's place is like the man himself, compact and muscular, nothing wasted or extraneous. It consists of a single room, with a kitchenette in one corner and a door in another, presumably leading to a bathroom; there's also a door to what looks like a fire escape in the back. The pine floor is obviously old, but refinished to a sheen; there are no rugs. (Steve wonders briefly whether S.H.I.E.L.D. sends around security-cleared cleaners when agents are on mission; he can't quite picture Barton with a mop.)
At some point Barton must have knocked out the ceiling up to the rafters, giving the place spacious feeling despite its small footprint; it'd be a broom closet otherwise. There's a skylight, and what looks like a platform mounted just under the roof – extra floor space? Steve has the feeling that in daylight, the place would be quite bright, and is surprised that this fact doesn't leave him more … surprised.
The thing that intrigues him, though, is the elaborate security features. There's a wall panel with several screens beside the entrance, apparently showing different parts of the building, including the front door and a couple of landings on the fire escape. He points to the screen that shows the front door.
"You knew it was me, then?"
"Yep. I don't buzz up just anyone, Captain."
Steve decides to take that in the spirit in which it was delivered: You're welcome here - I could have pretended not to be home, and his smile in response is broad and genuine. Based on the Hawk's reputation, that comment practically amounts to a red carpet and a handful of rose petals.
"What if it's someone you don't ... want to see?"
Steve can't help himself. The man is, after all, a professional killer, and has probably made a few enemies over the years. In addition to the obvious spy features, there are a couple of gizmos by the door that don't look like they'd be operating lighting fixtures.
"No comment," Clint grins openly now as his eyes follow Steve's. He seems to be enjoying this on some strange level. "Would have to kill you if I told you."
Then he adds, almost as an afterthought, "Don't touch that, that's the solicitors' chute. Take you straight to the 'gators in the sewer."
Barton seems to be getting his rumoured - black, very black - sense of humour back. In the short time that Steve has known the man, he's mostly been pretty grim, but maybe getting turned inside out by a Hitler clone would do that to anyone. Nonetheless, he retracts his hand from the button in question.
The Captain knows he's being watched as he takes in what passes for décor in the Hawk's hideaway, and so he doesn't bother to hide what he's doing.
"You don't mind if I look around a little, do you? I haven't been in someone's house since …" his voice peters off. 1943? It doesn't seem quite right, saying it out loud.
Clint just shrugs a diffident, "Sure, go ahead," and proceeds to return his towel to the bathroom where it belongs.
The place has the look of something that's inhabited (however sporadically) by someone whose taste runs to the minimalist and austere; to Steve, it's an interesting contrast to the ramshackle look of the rest of the building and it makes him wonder what he would find behind the other doors. It's tidy to a fault, with some black-and-white landscape photographs on the high walls, an expensive-looking sound system - although admittedly, to Steve anything electronic looks expensive – and a corner desk with a computer and some other equipment Steve doesn't recognize. Two black couches, one of which must double as a bed, because there isn't an obvious one in the place. Unless … that platform in the rafters …?
There's a neat stack of arrows on the coffee table, together with a fine mechanic's tool kit and a plastic compartment box with parts, and an assortment of tips. The archer obviously fletches his arrows himself and has been using his enforced downtime to stock up on those you don't need an explosives license to procure.
Apart from the assortment of lethal devices, the most personal touch Steve can see in the place is a wall covered with overflowing bookshelves.
"You read a lot?" he can't help but ask.
Clint shrugs diffidently.
"Self-defence," he says. "Surrounded by all these smartasses with college degrees and a well-developed sense of superiority."
Steve remains silent for a moment, looking thoughtful; the man has a point. He looks at some of the titles: Marsden's Taliban; Kleveman's The New Great Game: Blood and Oil in Central Asia; Dallaire's Shake Hands With The Devil. The nature and purpose of Clint's reading list is pretty obvious.
But then … Dostoyevski's Brothers Karamazov, Tolstoy's War and Peace?
Steve doesn't bother hiding the surprise in his voice. It's true he doesn't really know Clint Barton, but … that?
"Yeah, well. Attempt at cultural diversification. Afraid it didn't exactly take. Got me a brownie point or two for trying, though."
Steve understands immediately. Romanoff. Hawkeye and the Black Widow are partners, so it stands to reason Barton might want to delve into what makes Russians tick, the same way he seems to be approaching the rest of his job – looking for the big picture. Whatever it is, it's obviously all the explanation the archer is prepared to give Steve, because he quickly changes the subject.
"Can I get you a beer?" Clint hesitates briefly, intense eyes flickering across Captain America's clean-cut appearance. "You do drink?"
Steve is still on his tour, inspecting the sound system now and trying to figure out what all the buttons and levers are for.
"Sure," he says over his shoulder. "I'll have a beer."
Then he stops and turns around to hold Barton's eyes, which are still on him. There's a point that needs to be made here, and the sooner he makes it the better, given his experience with Tony Stark.
"Everyone seems to think I'm something like … like … do you still call it a goody two shoes? Someone who won't ever touch alcohol, or say 'shit' out loud? I'm from Brooklyn, for crying out loud, not Utah."
Barton barks a short but genuine laugh as he heads for the fridge.
"My apologies, Captain. Preconceived notions successfully dispelled."
He pulls a couple of cans out of the otherwise empty-looking appliance, and tosses one to his guest. Smithwicks, it says on the label. Steve smiles in recognition – he remembers this one from time spent with troops stationed in Britain, although it came in bottles then. He considers the can for a moment and hesitates, frowning, then casts a quick, inquiring look over at Barton. The archer turns the top of his can slightly towards Steve, flips up the tab and pulls. Steve follows suit and gives a small smile of relief when he hears the hiss, then quickly sucks off the foam that threatens to spill out.
"It's the little things that get you," Steve remarks a propos of nothing as his host raises his can in a silent toast.
"Yeah. I sure can see how that's the case," Clint responds, a brief look of sympathy in his normally intense eyes, and it almost looks to Steve as if he might want to add something else. But Barton isn't the most loquacious of individuals, and in any event his silent understanding is enough.
They drain their beers while Steve scrutinizes Clint's record collection looking for names he might recognize, not expecting any. But then … Charlie Parker! He holds the case out to his host, who nods in response.
"Yep. The sax is a timeless thing. I'll play you some Springsteen sometime."
Steve finds he is surprisingly thirsty and the beer goes down well. He won't get drunk – ever - thanks to the serum coursing through his veins, but he can sure enjoy the taste.
"If you're done looking around inside, Captain, want to take in the view? Best feature, far as I'm concerned, apart from the endless food supply downstairs."
All Steve can see through the fire escape door is the back of buildings like this one; maybe some of the neighbours have picturesque potted plants on the landings of their fire escapes, but it's getting too dark to tell and he's not quite sure whether you could call that kind of thing a "view" anyway. Barton doesn't strike him as the kidding type though, and so he just shrugs.
"Sure. Mind if I use the bathroom first?"
Clint has no objections and so Steve is off for his final round of not-so-surreptitious exploration; you can tell a lot from someone's bathroom. This one is small but well laid out, with a stacked washer/dryer unit - one of those twenty-first century things Steve has really come to appreciate - and a glassed-in shower, no bath. Steve mentally gives himself a pat on the back when he spots the straight razor.
What does surprise him, though, is the extensive selection of shampoos on a recessed shelf in the white-tiled shower. And conditioner? He tries to reassess what he thought he knew about Barton, and fails. Utterly.
Which leaves one option: Barton is seeing someone.
And a sudden realization: Barton is expecting … a woman.
Steve resists the compulsion to blush or clear his throat, and wonders how quickly he can leave without seeming impolite – after all, it was him who called on the archer. But when he comes out of the bathroom, Clint has already un-padlocked the door that leads out onto the fire escape, opening it to the mild June evening.
"You'll need both hands. If you want another beer, stick it in your pocket."
He punches a few buttons on a keypad before heading out on the narrow landing, jumping up with the grace of a large cat and swinging himself up to the next level.
"Coming?" Clint asks, and Steve swallows. The compulsion to get the hell out before Barton's … company gets there is almost overwhelming, but at the same time he's
intrigued by this alleged view, and Barton doesn't seem to be in a particular rush to be rid of him. (There's also that nagging little voice whispering in Steve's ear, urging him to hang around to find out what kind of person the Hawk might be involved with.)
And so he shrugs and steps out the door.
"I assume if you hadn't pushed those buttons, we wouldn't want to be out here right now?" he asks as he follows Clint up.
"Yep. Crispy critters," the archer replies with a feral grin, and Steve really doesn't know whether to laugh, or shudder. "Saved my butt at least once, that little feature."
They end up on the roof of Clint's building. A short balancing act, a couple of jumps and a hand-over-hand climb later, Steve finds himself on a flat rooftop. Over top looms one of those water towers that, much to his delight, are still dotting the Manhattan skyscape like homemade rocket ships, ready to take off for places both marvelous and obscure.
And all around them are the outlines and shapes and lights – especially the lights! – of mid-town, topped by the sparkling diadem that is the top of the Chrysler Building. Steve knows Clint is watching him now, but he still bursts into an involuntary smile at the sights and smells and sounds of the city that they'd put their lives on the line for not so very long ago.
"Wow," the Captain stammers, a little overwhelmed. "Gee whiz, that's really … something."
"Yeah," Clint replies, his voice not quite as gruff as it usually is. "Pretty great, given what I paid for the place, huh? You'd think they'd charge for a view like this."
He tosses Steve one of the beer cans while the Captain is wondering whether the archer is joking again, given what they just had to do to get here. Doesn't seem like it, though. Steve nods, takes the beer and pops the can open like a pro.
They sit in companionable silence for a few minutes, listening to the sound of the endless stream of yellow cabs honking down below, a car alarm going off, the hum of a jet engine banking off from La Guardia. Eventually, Clint turns to the Captain, although Steve can't tell whether it's out of genuine curiosity or because he feels obliged, as the host, to make conversation.
"Has it changed much? New York, I mean?" he asks.
Steve considers the question. "From up here? Not so much. A lot of these buildings are new, but many of them were here already."
He points with his chin to the Chrysler Building, the centerpiece of the skyline from here – looking much like it did when he left this city so many years ago, for a different war.
"That one sure was. And the water towers, like yours up there."
He points up at the moonlit, familiar shape looming overhead. They lapse back into silence; the next time it's Steve who breaks it.
"You managed to get your place fixed up pretty quickly, considering."
Clint knows what he is referring to; glaziers rank among the most coveted of creatures in Manhattan right now, and you'd think that a little private flat would rank pretty low on the priority list for places to get fixed up.
"Fury pulled a string or two," he says. "For once, I let him. Didn't feel like spending my … probationary period on the helicarrier, frankly."
Now that it's out there and the archer mentioned it first, Steve feels less shy about asking. Besides, he really needs to know if they're to do this thing, have this Avengers Initiative – this team - mean something.
"How long do you think it'll take?" he asks. "Before they let you back in the field, I mean?"
Barton shrugs. "Couple of weeks now, max. Less if something comes up and Fury needs a job done."
Steve frowns. The idea that the protocol established for Agent Barton's rehabilitation could be circumvented strikes him as strange.
"You think all those … tests they're putting you through, all those evaluations - they're not useful?"
Clint's answer is a snort. "Somebody needs a few boxes ticked, make sure I can be trusted and all that. But if the shit hit's the fan and they decide they need me, they'll clear me fast enough."
Clint turns to Steve, an unreadable expression on his face now.
"Like you did."
And then he adds a single word, but one that Steve knows comes from a place that few people ever get to see, a place very deep down where the real Clint Barton lives.
For a moment Steve doesn't really know what to say other than a reflexive, "You're welcome," but that seems somewhat inadequate. He picks his next words carefully.
"We needed you on the team. And you needed to get back out there, I think."
Clint takes a long sip of his beer, nods slowly.
"Ain't that the truth," he says. "Thanks for giving me the chance, Captain."
Something inside Steve cracks a little just then, and he needs to get something straight - in his own mind if not for Barton's sake, who seems to have the wrong impression. The familiar Manhattan skyline, sentinel from his past, spurs him on.
"You know I'm not really a Captain, don't you, Barton?"
Clearly, he has the archer's full attention now.
"What do you mean? You're …"
"Captain America, yes, I know." Steve gives a laugh that is just this far short of self-contempt.
"A marketing strategy, you'd call it now. Moral support for the troops, propaganda, recruitment, and a walking sales pitch for war bonds, that's what I was. I never really went to officer training, never came up through the ranks. Only did a couple real missions, and they weren't exactly sanctioned."
He stares at Clint's chest now.
"That t-shirt you're wearing, that looks military. What does ISAF stand for?"
"International Security and Assistance Force," Clint responds slowly. "Afghanistan."
Steve shrugs. "See? You're more of a soldier than I ever was. You served. How long?"
"Four years. But I wasn't actually with ISAF," Clint feels compelled to point out.
"Operation Enduring Freedom, Special Ops. Bought the shirt at Kandahar Air Field before the end of my tour, since my unit didn't have any of its own."
But whether he served with the outfit whose lettering is on the shirt is hardly the point, and Barton knows it.
Steve is convinced, moreover, that the archer has also figured out just why the Captain has been wandering the streets of New York, and why he turned up at his door – the door belonging to the one guy among these so-called Avengers who knows. Barton may not be the greatest of team players, and may still be chewing on issues of his own that Steve can't even begin to comprehend, but he bloody well knows what makes the kind of officer people will follow onto a battlefield.
Steve almost dreads what might come next, but it is what he came here for, now that he's decided to be honest with himself. One of the things, anyway. And so he just looks at the former soldier, waiting for the verdict. He doesn't have to wait long.
"You know, being an officer, that takes more than going to school and getting a commission. And you have it, Captain, you have what it takes. They didn't just hand it to you with that shield and that funky outfit of yours. Coulson was right."
Steve's mouth opens in reflexive protest, but Clint doesn't give him the chance, just waves him off with the hand holding his beer.
"Save it, Captain. It was a privilege serving with you. And you know what? I'd do it again, anytime. All you have to do is ask."
The archer raises his beer in a smart salute, and there's really not much left for Steve to do but to follow suit. And to say the other thing he now knows he came here for.
"Okay, then. Glad to hear that. 'Cause I'm asking," he says, holding the archer's eyes with his own once more.
Clint cocks an eyebrow and tilts his head slightly.
"Yeah?" He shrugs. "Guess I'm in then. Whatever it is. Does Fury know?"
"He's the one who asked me to make it official, this whole Avengers Initiative thing. As official as it can get, with …"
"… a bunch of freaks who don't generally play well with others, and some of whom still have day jobs? Including with Fury?"
Steve chuckles, but refuses to confirm or deny the part about the freaks. As for the day jobs … that'll be S.H.I.E.L.D.'s and Stark Industries' problem to sort out. Not Captain America's, or the Avengers'. Luckily, reporting lines don't seem to be a priority with Agent Barton.
Clint quirks an eyebrow and gives a half-smile back; together they drain what's left of their beers. There really isn't much more to say.
"Gimme your can," Clint says eventually, and Steve hands it over, wondering what he'll do with it up here. Barton doesn't strike him as the kind of guy who leaves garbage lying around.
Sure enough, the archer crumples both cans up and fires them over the side of the building without looking where they might end up; two rapid-succession clanking sounds suggest that they landed in exactly the same place, among others of their kind.
"Recycling bin, back alley behind one of the restaurants on Lex," Clint explains; Steve resists the temptation to look over the edge.
The return trip is quick and easy, but when the two men get back to the roof across from Clint's apartment, Steve sees a shadow moving behind the window.
"Whoa, Hawkeye," Steve manages as he stops in his tracks. "See that? Someone's in your place. What about all that security?"
"Couldn't keep her out if I tried." Clint replies evenly, but the grin that flashes across his face makes him suddenly look years younger. He jumps across, hand-over-hands it down the fire escape and lands on the metal grid outside his backdoor. Over his shoulder he adds, "She's had my number for years, Captain."
Almost as if on cue, a familiar voice reaches Steve's ears.
"Clint? I was beginning to wonder whether you'd forgotten I was coming over."
Agent Romanoff. Of course Barton's partner would have access to his place. And if it was her he was expecting, no wonder he wasn't worried about anyone interfering with his evening. She's probably come to discuss the mission she's just been on.
The Black Widow looks up when they enter, barely raising an eyebrow when she realizes Clint is not alone.
"Captain," she acknowledges his existence with a slight dip of her head, before turning her attention to Clint.
"When was the last time you had something in your fridge that wasn't a six-pack, Barton?"
"Hey. There's a thing of Pad Thai in one of the drawers."
"I meant, something that wasn't either fossilized or looked like a Long-Haired Blue Tribble. When was the last time we even had Thai?"
Barton, for his part, seems stumped by her question.
"Ummm ...," he fails to articulate.
"Right. Before you went to New Mexico. The first time. And that was in March. Whatever happened to, I don't know, keeping non-petrified, edible food around? Some eggs? A pint of milk? A hunk of cheese?"
"I don't cook. Why I live on top of a Chinese take-out. All you can eat, 24/7. Bliss in a cardboard box. Chang even delivers."
Clint doesn't sound in the least defensive. In fact, he sounds downright triumphant, like he's just made an important point. Natasha sighs, and gives Steve a look of exasperation that she evidently expects him to share, even though he hasn't been a part of this conversation. She turns her green eyes back on her primary target.
"You don't cook a hunk of cheese, Clinton Francis Barton. You peel back the cellophane, cut off a piece, stick it in your mouth. With or without a cracker underneath. Plus, it isn't loaded with MSG."
The archer just shrugs, and Steve knows without any doubt that this is a discussion that has been going on for years. It's been a long time since he's had that kind of thing - not since … Bucky. Yes, Bucky Barnes … He tries to ignore the twinge of envy as the exchange of fire in the kitchenette continues.
"I've got wine. In the fridge door. That count?"
"Don't change the subject."
"I'm not. You said all I ever have is six-packs. Proving you wrong, I am. Chablis. Want some?"
"You have Chablis? When all you ever eat up here is Chinese?"
"I sometimes eat Thai. Just not very often."
And then something happens, something Steve did not expect at all. The Black Widow steps up to Barton, invading his personal space without so much as a by-your-leave, wraps her arms around his neck and curls her fingers into his short hair.
"Idiot," she says and pulls his head down for a kiss, with just the most fleeting of glances at Steve where he stands rooted to the ground.
A surprised look crosses Clint's face, almost as if he hadn't expected her to display this kind of affection in front of a third party, but it only lasts a fraction of a second. He smiles down at her, pulls her close and whispers something that might or might not have been a "Glad you're back, too."
Now, Steve is not naïve when it comes to picking up cues (despite what everybody seems to think), and he almost smacks himself in the forehead for not having figured it out sooner.
"Shampoo," he manages to choke out.
The two agents, briefly oblivious to anything but each other, remember his presence and break apart. Natasha turns in the arms that are still circling her waist and leans into Clint, who drops his face into her hair and takes a deep breath. It's a small, intimate gesture that rattles Steve more than the kiss he has just witnessed.
"Shampoo?" Clint asks, obviously not finding anything amiss with the hair his mouth is still buried in. The tiniest of smiles crosses his lips, and his arms tighten around Natasha's waist for a second before he lets go and takes a step back, obviously aware of Steve's discomfort.
"That's Agent Romanoff's shampoo. In your shower, Barton."
The archer lets out a short laugh and exchanges a quick look with Roman … Natasha.
"No shit, Sherlock," he says drily. "Congratulations for figuring it out."
"Obviously," she frowns. "You don't expect me to use the cheap stuff Barton buys in that Vietnamese grocery, do you?"
Steve suddenly feels very, very awkward, and very … superfluous.
"I should go," he says, turning towards the door. "Leave you … two … to your evening. Especially since … Agent Romanoff just got back from mission."
Clint and Natasha exchange a quick glance, then she speaks up.
"Why don't you stay for dinner? Chinese take-out. It's actually pretty good. I hear we have a decent Chablis to go with it."
Natasha sounds like she means it, and if Barton is taken aback by her inviting someone for dinner at his place, he sure doesn't show it. In fact, he gives his assent with a decisive nod, before adding with his usual precision, "One of us will have to use a water glass though."
Steve looks from one to the other and he suddenly realizes that, although Hawkeye and the Black Widow have been partners for a long time, what he's just seen passing between them is still new, still raw, and still … fragile. And that despite this, they have dropped their guard – for him.
It's a thank you, and a payback. Barton seals it.
"Got anything better to do, Rogers?" he drawls, cocking an eyebrow, knowing full well that the answer is 'no'.
Steve looks from one to the other, these people he'd never met until a few short weeks ago – his partners now, too. And he knows one thing with absolute certainty: Everything is new now. Every last damn thing, and suddenly, that doesn't seem so bad. Beginnings are generally considered something good.
He hesitates, but only for a fraction, and really only for show.
"Guess not," Captain America says with a grin that could light up the Eastern Seaboard.
"Besides, I've never had Chinese."