The atmosphere of the hospital waiting room is tense, but that is to be expected. One rarely encounters a jovial emergency room, especially not when it is a SHIELD hospital. But there is a unique quality of unease between the men waiting here that indicates that perhaps she has not, despite being the SHIELD liaison and handler of the two agents on the Avengers team, been kept completely in the loop as to how the mission unfolded. She assesses each of the men individually, looking for hints, clues that might give her some indication of what occurred on this mission that clearly turned sour.
Body language indicates a division within the group. Barton, still in uniform, sits in a hard plastic chair on one wall, eyes closed, head resting back against the wall, doing quite a good impression of sleep. But Maria can see the tense muscle in his neck twitch. Beside him is Banner, looking a little dishevelled and tired, but dressed in clean hospital scrubs, who is flicking disinterestedly through a copy of The Economist that looks like it was published before Gordon Gecko was a relevant cultural reference.
Both men are studiously ignoring Rogers, who sits across from them, also still in uniform, with an extremely unhappy expression on his face. His arms are crossed across his chest, and one foot taps impatiently on the ground.
Maria sees nothing to indicate the whereabouts of Stark and Thor, though one of Stark's little glass phones sits on the table in front of Bruce, as though waiting to be used the moment there is any news of note.
"Barton." She barks, and the man snaps to attention, and if there was any doubt as to whether he was sleeping or not, his bloodshot eyes wash it away. "Report."
He stands, and begins listing off the standard essential sitrep info that the military drummed into him. "Wrecker is neutralised. Thor and Stark are still on site securing the scene until local LEOs arrive. Minimal collateral damage. Tash is in surgery, she's been in there about thirty minutes so far."
"Any details on her injuries yet?" She asks Barton, but Rogers is the one who answers.
"Dislocated elbow. Probable punctured lung, internal bleeding." The Captain says, but he keeps his eye trained on Barton, as though watching for a reaction. "It was a through and through wound."
"We won't know the extent until the doctor confirms." Banner interjects quietly. He sounds thoroughly exhausted.
And perhaps the doctors ears were burning, the light padding of scrub slippers from behind warns her of his approach.
"Agent Hill. Agent Barton. Good news and bad news." Dr. Perry acknowledges the two standing with a sharp nod. He doesn't bother waiting for the anxious platitudes and questions about the wellbeing of his patient, and instead launches straight into the clinical explanation. "We've set her elbow, and the orthopedic surgeon is confident it was a minor break. I'm more concerned about the chest wound. The projectile went straight through her chest cavity, entering and exiting the fourth intercostal space. It punctured her lung and nicked her spleen, but it was an otherwise clean wound. Now, the spleen is a fairly resilient organ, we can repair it and stop the bleeding but the risk of septicemia is quite high, especially considering the nature of the injury and the risk of cross contamination of other pathogens. We can risk it and leave it to heal, and monitor how it develops. The other option is to remove it."
Maria nods. It was a fairly common medical dilemma, especially when trauma is involved. She'd authorised the surgery for several other agents that she handled over the years, "And the body can live without a spleen, correct?"
"Yes," The doctor confirms, and glances down at his clipboard.
"Do it." She says, "It'll be a cleaner recovery."
"Actually, you don't have power of attorney for Agent Romanoff." The doctor says. "Agent Barton does."
All eyes turn to Barton, who is the only one in the room who does not seem surprised by the revelation. Maria immediately casts her mind back to their files, racking her brain to recall anything to indicate this brash affront to SHIELD policy. There is a reason that handlers have power of attorney instead of fellow agents, especially when considering agents like Hawkeye and Black Widow, who so often work as partners. There have been... issues, in the past.
"Since when?" She asks coldly, staring the agent down, but he seems unphased by her ire.
"Long enough. Coulson approved it." He says to her, and then turns back to Dr. Perry. "Repair it, if you can."
"That's a big risk, Barton." Maria says, putting aside the battle about policy and protocol for now, to address the current situation at hand. It is one thing to for Barton to have the power of attorney, but quite another for him to choose the riskier option. She and Barton have not always seen eye to eye on many things, and she wouldn't put it past him to be contrary purely for the sake of taking up a position in opposition to her. "If it gets infected-"
"Agent Romanoff has an enhanced immune system, which will be impaired if we remove her spleen." Barton replies. "In you or me, it would be the riskier option, but her body stands a greater chance of fighting any infection that might take hold."
"And you're willing to be held accountable if something happens to her?" Maria asks, knowing that she is throwing down a gauntlet.
"I already am." He says, and turns back to the doctor. "Repair the spleen, Doc." The doctor nods, scribbles a few things on his clipboard, then leaves to deliver the marching orders to the rest of the medical team working on Natasha. Barton scrubs his face with his hand, and turns back to Maria. "I'll fight this one out with you later, HIll. Right now I need some air."
He doesn't give her any time to argue, leaving quickly through a side door that leads towards the fire escape. She is left standing here in the waiting room with a third of Fury's Avengers, wondering how the fuck they got into this situation in the first place.
She must have said that out loud, because Steve answers her question. "He was the one who shot her."
Steve had fought genetically enhanced humans and aliens, and now fights along side the Hulk and Thor, so he knows logically that he should not be surprised to fight a guy who gets his power from a cosmically enchanted crowbar. Wrecker has been living up to his name, with he and his crew wrecking havoc in downtown manhattan in a frenzied crime spree. No bank had been left alone, and no jewellery store untouched, and they were causing quite a bit of trouble as they knocked over any place that had valuables or cash aplenty at hand.
It hadn't taken the team long to get here, but despite the relatively confined nature of the incident, the Avengers seemed to have their hands full.
New York was still rebuilding after the Chitauri attack, and Tony had impressed upon them all what a PR nightmare it would be ("There is such a thing as bad press. It's called Mayor Bloomberg.") to justify the creation of more property damage so soon after this particular section had been rebuilt.
So the heavy hitters- Thor, Hulk, Tony, were all relegated to civilian wrangling, making sure that there were no innocent New Yorkers around to get caught in the crossfire. He and Black Widow were on ground control, picking off members of the "Wrecking Crew", immobilising them for when the police showed up to deal with it, with Hawkeye providing cover fire from above.
But when Wrecker pulls out his cosmically enchanted crowbar- that's when things get tricky. When he wields his weapon he becomes extremely strong, even by Steve's standards. He gets close enough to confront the man, but Wrecker wields his weapon like a baseball bat and smacks him hard in the chest. He flies back, landing hard on the asphalt, feeling dazed, confused, and quite like he felt when Thor hit him with Mjolnir.
"You alright Cap?" Iron Man backs, and his communicator fizzles a bit, as though it too is rocking from the impact.
He coughs. "Yeah. We need to disarm him."
"Widow is on it." Hawkeye reports, and Cap looks up just in time to see Black Widow use a breathtaking combination of pressure points and thigh flexes to get Wrecker to drop the crowbar. It hits the ground with an ear shattering THOOONNNNNNGGGGG.
And that is when it goes wrong. Normally once Natasha pulls that particular move, she uses the momentum of her opponent against themselves, but perhaps Wrecker has experienced it before, and knows how to counteract it, or perhaps he is just faster than he looks. But he catches her arm, twists and Steve hears the distinctive snap of bone, but Wrecker doesn't stop there. He grabs her by the throat and holds her firmly to his chest.
"Any one of you move, I'll snap her neck." He says, and Steve can see him squeeze Natasha's throat, her eyes bulge a little.
"Everybody hold." Steve snaps, knowing that Hawkeye is probably training a kill shot from high above, and Tony has no doubt locked onto Wrecker as a target, but both options are too risky when Natasha is there being used as a human shield. "Nobody shoot."
Natasha struggles a little in Wrecker's grasp, her good arm coming up to claw at the fist gripping her neck.
There is a thin whoosh from above, and both Wrecker and Natasha collapse, pinned together through the chest by an arrow. A second arrow flies through the air a moment after the first and embeds itself right between Wrecker's eyes, killing him instantly.
"Target down." Hawkeye says in an unbelievably neutral tone. "Hulk, we'll need Bruce's first aid skills ASAP."
"What did you do?" Steve blurts, agog at what just happened. It was one thing to defy orders, but quite another to shoot your partner in the process.
A grappling hook and chain embeds itself in the ground not far away from where Natasha lies, pinned to a dead man, and a few moments later, Hawkeye propels down the line, detaching with practiced ease. "What needed to be done, Cap. I did what needed to be done."
"I do not understand the point of this charade."
"It's Taboo. You have to get your partner to guess the word on your card."
"But there are certain words that one cannot use?"
"Yes, see on this card. The world to guess is 'apple', but you can't use any of these words as clues."
"So I could not say Fruit or Red or... why can I not say Computer?"
"Because Apple is the name of a company who makes computers."
"Yeah, we're all going to need to be much drunker to handle this game. Steve, what's your poison?"
"I don't drink, Tony."
"Neither do I."
"Grape Ne-Hi it is, for you both. Thor? Clint? Natasha?"
"I will have Coffee."
"Coffee isn't on the menu, big boy."
"I'll have a beer."
"I shall also have Ale."
"You want straight vodka?"
"I'm on a team with Steve. Tony, you're with Thor. SHIELD's finest are together and we alternate who gets the buzzer."
"What are the stakes?"
"Not every game has stakes, Tony. This is about improving our communication as a team."
"We communicate fine. And stakes build camaraderie through bragging rights."
"You brag enough as it is, Tony."
"Consider this your chance to hold one over me then, Natasha."
"Okay. Winners get a get out of jail free card for the next press conference."
"Sounds good to me."
"I also accept these stakes."
"It's sorted then. We all clear on the rules? Who's going first?"
"Bruce and Steve. Clint has the buzzer. I have the timer. Who's guessing first?"
"Alright, here's your cards Bruce. Aaaand Go."
"A sweet fruit topping you have on toast in the morning."
"Yup. A big grey animal that you'd find in a circus."
"Yup. A non-violent conflict between America and Russia."
"... The Alaska Purchase?"
"What? No. Later than that."
"No, the war"
"Can't say war."
"The word was 'cold'. Forgot you weren't around for that. Okay. Each nation on has it's own individual one, ours is on your uniform."
"Yup. The Dark Knight is..."
*BZZZZZZ*"Time's up guys."
"It was Batman."
"You scored 3. Could be worse."
"I forgot to take into account how much this game relies on cultural references."
"It's all right. All the better for us to practice our communication skills."
"Steve, you get the buzzer this time. Natasha, you're timing."
"Who is guessing?"
"Okay. You ready Thor?"
"I am Ready!"
"Mjolnir is not this."
"No, I refer to his weight."
"You said weight."
"Never mind, big guy. Keep on going."
"All right. A Magical Disc that shows us classic tales of adventure that we view on Friday nights."
"Yes! Good deduction, friend Tony!"
"Yes yes! Keep going!"
"We all have it and use Shampoo on it."
"Yes, we have won another! The oceans on this planet are made of..."
"Wait, the oceans on other planets aren't made of water?"
"Shut up, Steve!"
"The large metallic animals that are used to get from one place to another."
"Not on the ground."
"Time is up. That one doesn't count."
"You got 3 as well."
"See, there is a reason we need to practice our communication."
"Bite me, Steve. You ruined our rhythm."
"Here Tony, you're buzzing, I'm timing. Clint, Natasha... who's guessing?"
"Okay then. Clint, here are your cards. You two ready?"
"As I'll ever be, I reckon."
"Start the timer, Bruce."
"Yup. All I want for Christmas is..."
"No the other gross thing."
"The black vampire hunter."
"When I was 11 I had three square meals of this a day."
"You killed that guy in Abu Dhabi with these..."
"There is one of these in a shoebox in Sitwell's-"
"I think we've been hustled."
"You said you'd never played before."
"How did you two get partnered up anyway?"
"We drew names, Tony. You were the one who said it made it fair!"
"We won fair and square with eight-"
"It was nine."
"-nine correct answers. Don't be a sore loser."
"Keep in mind she just admitted to killing a man with rusty scissors."
"Fine. You win. But you're on separate teams next games night!"
"This will be a glorious meal, I am sure!" Thor cried, as the tantalising smells of spicy meat teased his nostrils. The scent had drawn him from his slumber and to the kitchen to investigate the source.
"I sure hope so." The archer replies, dressed resplendently with a smock tied around his waist that commands to all who read it: 'be nice or I'll poison your food.' Lady Natasha stands along side him, wielding a large blade in her hand.
"Is it common practice here to warn others of your murderous intent?" Thor asks, gesturing to the menacing garment.
Both the Archer and Lady Natasha look to the smock, and as if acting by some silent cue, they begin to laugh in synchronisation.
"It's a joke apron, Thor." Lady Natasha explains.
"And it's actually Natasha's." Clint adds, and takes up a wooden spoon. He stirs the contents of a large pot on the stove. It is that pot that smells so wonderful. "Natasha would never warn you before she poisons you."
"I would just do it." She says, and Thor does not doubt her sincerity.
"I consider myself warned, and will endeavour not to incur your ire."
Natasha smiles, and Clint brings the spoon up to sample his enticing meal. He smacks his lips then asks: "Would you like to try some?" He dips the spoon once more into the pot, and gathers another sample of the stew which he proffers with alacrity.
"I would be honoured." Thor says. The stew is hot to touch and aromatic and flavours explode across his tongue in a fiery, spicy wave, leaving his lips feeling tingly. "I like this!" He proclaims, eager to try more.
"It's gumbo." Clint explains. "It's a traditional recipe."
At that, Natasha laughs. It is a full-bodied laugh, unashamed and unconcerned. "'Traditional recipe'? Are you kidding me?"
Clint stares back at her, face void of all expression. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"He got the recipe off the internet, Thor. There is nothing traditional about it." Natasha explains to him, as though she is revealing a shameful secret. Clint does not flinch, but continues to stir the contents of his Gumbo pot.
"You mean there are instructions on the Apple Computer as to how to concoct this glorious meal?"
"There are instructions on the internet for everything." Clint says.
To Thor this is a revelation. "You must teach me, Clint! I have only ever used it to send messages to Lady Jane, and Lady Darcy sends me messages that contain very funny videos of baby animals sneezing."
"My hands are tied up with this at the moment." Clint gestures to the pot bubbling. "But Natasha is free. She'll show you how to use Google."
"Fantastic!" Thor cries, eager to learn, and incredibly happy that he lives with so many competent teachers. "To the Apple Computer!"
"Now?" Natasha says, wide-eyed. "But..."
But Clint pushes her roughly out of the kitchen. "Next time don't snitch on me."
Bruce had once had a roommate in college. Everyone had those horror roommate stories, usually liberally sprinkled with unwanted bodily fluids, a complete lack of consideration for those sharing the living space, and socks on the door. Bruce doesn't have any such stories. Devon was a pretty good guy, all things considered. A Poli-Sci major from Chicago, he was a big Cubs supporter, and the most obtrusive thing he'd done was hang a large CUBS WIN flag in their dorm window every time his team was victorious.
But even then, as a fresh-face eighteen year old, he hadn't really been comfortable sharing his living space with another person. He'd always been introverted, and he was completely reliant on scholarships to fund his college experience, so he spent more time at the library than in the rec room.
When the option came up to have a single dorm during his sophomore year, he took it without hesitation. He still saw Devon regularly throughout the following years, and when he went on to post-grad study, and Devon accepted an internship working on a state senator's re-election campaign, they still kept up contact. But that was all before the incident.
He'd gotten used to living alone and sleeping rough, that it was taking him awhile to get used to the Avengers tower. First of all, it's a lot higher up than he was used to, and the room that Tony had given him was bigger than the house he used to own.
Now he was living with housemates. Granted, there is a bit more privacy than the roommates situation, and he could lock his door if he wanted, but what good was a lock when a sentient A.I. butler was hooked into every room, presumably monitoring everything.
And he is not the only one who is adjusting to this new situation. Steve and Thor are often found locked in battle against some piece of technology or another, and it being a building owned and designed (at least in part) by Tony Stark, technology pervades every crevice of the tower. Bruce finds himself giving impromptu tutorials on how to program the microwave, and look up public transport options on Google.
And then there are the others. Natasha is polite and friendly enough when they are together, she will share her meals with him, and make room for him on the couch if there is a program he wants to watch, but sometimes he sees in her the same reluctance to settle. He can't help but think that he is somewhat responsible for that, and he is not sure how he should atone, or even if he could.
Then again, she did not have to move in when Tony made the offer. Bruce is sure that she would not be homeless for long.
And Clint is even more of a puzzle. He rarely ever sees the man alone. He spends a lot of time with Thor. Bruce is pretty sure that they're friends. They watch TV together and he's heard Clint explaining the rules of baseball to Thor as they watch a game. But the archer is usually with Natasha. They share meals, they train together; to watch them spar is to watch a brutally violent dance, and neither of them pulls their punches. They are almost, in a word, intimate.
Bruce doesn't think he's ever seen them have a conversation. They don't seem to talk at all, unless there is a third person in the discussion. In the mornings, when the rest of the house is still asleep and he is still not completely awake, they are both already sitting at the breakfast nook, usually eating cereal or toast or fruit, but he never interrupts a conversation with his entrance.
Bruce can't imagine a relationship like that, without the idle small-talk that all couples rely on to pass the time. He'd never been closer to anyone than he was with Betty, but even they needed to fill the silence between them with conversation.
Perhaps they are not friends, as he'd always assumed. Perhaps theirs is purely a working relationship, honed through years of practice, rid of any superfluous, unnecessary elements. Perhaps they only turn to each other for companionship out of habit, formed from years of service to SHIELD, and this is just another mission to them.
But she had put her life on the line to save the archer. She had faced down The Other Guy to try and get him back, and he didn't think that was a light and easy stand for her to take.
Eventually he stops his speculation, willing to admit to himself that reading body language was not his forte. Everyone had facets to their lives, public and private and even more besides. Hell, he had The Other Guy, which wasn't exactly an easy concept to wrap your mind around. And if he'd learned anything from The Other Guy, it's that sometimes you need to let things come naturally. Jump-starting the process was unnecessary.
And anyway, being nosy is Tony's job.
6. Clint and Natasha
The surgery to repair her damaged spleen and punctured lung takes seven hours. Her recovery is the big surprise. Natasha remains in an induced coma for two days, but by the time she wakes up, her wounds have closed over and her bruises have begun to fade. Her doctors are impressed enough with her improvement that they say she can be released for the weekend.
Despite the relatively little time she's spent recuperating, she's had more visitors this hospital stay than perhaps all her previous ones combined. Fresh flowers line the window sill and there is a bowl of all her favourite fruits, even the ones that are out of season. She has her own private room, with silky cotton sheets and more channels than she could ever possibly want.
But while her body is nothing if not efficient at healing- one of the few longstanding Red Room's modifications that she is thankful for- it is not a cake walk. Her left arm remains in a cast and every breath hurts. She cannot lift her arms above her head and she is tired all the time. These are problems she will overcome, though, and she doesn't do her dignity the disservice of complaining, nor does she ask for analgesic relief for the pain. She'll take mental clarity over pain any day.
She shuffles over to her private bathroom to relieve herself for the final time before she leaves. Clint should soon be arriving with clothes for her to change into. They've both been hospitalised so many times that they have the recovery routine down pat and she can practically time it to the second. If the situation were reversed, she would have been here five minutes ago, with his old army duds and a Jamba Juice to sip on the ride home, as long as the injury permitted it.
As she finishes in the bathroom and is washing her uninjured hand, she hears the distinct shuffle of her expected visitor in the main room, and sure enough when she leaves the bathroom he is unpacking an outfit onto the bed for her. There is an iced coffee with extra cream sitting on the bedside table.
"Hey," He says, and he is at her side, gently holding her by the arms as his eyes scan her various war wounds. "How you feeling today?"
"Still sore." She says. She owes it to him to be honest. "But I'm feeling better every day."
He nods, and she expects to see a smile creep at the corners of his lips as he wryly thinks of her body's particular perks. But there is no smile there, and instead there is a subtle frown, only detectable to a few.
"I'm fine, really Clint." She insists, then leans up and gives him a soft kiss, the kind that they only ever have in private, when they are safe, and when they are comfortable. It is a kiss that is meant to reassure and to reaffirm. To let him know that there is no bad blood here, that she is fine.
He brings a hand up and brushes a stray lock of greasy hair out of her face. "I know." He says, and he relaxes, somewhat. "We might have to explain a few things to the others, that's all."
"I told you to do it. The blame is on me, Clint."
"I don't think they caught that particular signal, Tasha."
"It wasn't meant for them. It was meant for you."
Clint nods. "Which is what we'll have to explain."
It is exactly this part of 'teamwork' that Tasha despises. If they are forced to explain their actions every time they make a gut decision, when everything is on the line and you win or you die, it implies a heavy lack of trust in their competence as members of the team. It is one thing to be underestimated by your opponent, but quite another to be so by your colleagues.
"Don't think of it like that, Nat." Clint says, interrupting her internal griping. His arms fall and he turns to gather her outfit together for her to change. She sees fresh underwear, yoga pants and a well-worn sweater she thinks is actually his. "We've been working as a team for a lot longer together than we have with them. It'll take a while for them to catch on."
"Have they been completely insufferable all week about what happened?"
"Steve wasn't happy we didn't follow his orders. Tony seems to think there were alternatives we could've considered at the time. Thor and Bruce are mostly sticking out of it." He says and hands her her clothes. "And Hill..."
She ducks inside the bathroom, but leaves the door open a crack so they can keep talking. "Let me guess, there is an Ethics review in our future?"
"Next Tuesday, if you're up to it."
"I'm sure I won't be." She says, stripping off the hospital gown and pyjamas she'd been living in for the past few days. She manages the underwear and yoga pants without any problems, though it is a little complicated to pull her pants on one-handed, with her other arm immobilized in the cast. She struggles when she gets to the sweater though, not finding a comfortable way to slip the garment on without pulling at her stitches and sending her insides into fits of sharp, fiery agony. She steps out of the bathroom, still only half dressed and holds the difficult garment out to Clint. "Help me with this?"
He spares only a momentary glance at the large white gauze patch that sits underneath her left breast before threading his arms backwards through the sleeves. He gently threads the first sleeve onto her bad arm, then the second onto her good one, then carefully guides the neck hole over her head.
Clint tugs the rest of the sweater down to her hips but doesn't remove his hands. "We need to explain a few things. At the very least you can exonerate me in the eyes of the other guys."
She rolls her eyes, believing completely that everyone was overreacting, but she owes him that much, at the very least. "Fine." She admits. "But the minute Steve starts lecturing us about our communication skills, my painkillers will kick in and I'll probably pass out."
"You're not taking your painkillers anymore."
"And that, Agent Barton, will stay between you and me, or else I won't let you escape under the guise of carrying me to bed."
"Agreed." He says, and finally she sees that small, private smile grace his eyes, barely reaching his lips. Most others would miss it, but she never would.
You just needed to know what you were looking for.