A Minor Bird

No Return

It doesn't take long to gain trust in Agent Barton. That was the fear Natasha secretly had harbored when everything finally blew over and the dust settled. New York was piecing itself back together and everything was going to work out because time went on and people had to band together. Because there was no 'or else' or 'if not's.

The Avenger's Initiative was the same.

It was no question on Captain America's involvement in the project-the perfect soldier was the team leader and ultimately the core. Iron Man just so happened to surpass his original evaluation to find a place amongst the team. Thor was an honorary member, so long as he was on the planet. Dr. Banner never wanted, nor was he officially, a part of the initiative, but when he switched his pass back to a third world country for a floor at Stark's Tower, it became apparent that if the offer had ever been officially presented, he'd take it. The offer part was just skipped altogether.

Natasha never once considered herself apart of it. She worked together closely with the others because she wanted, rather needed, to get to Barton. To bring him back. Even after, the only reason she stuck around was to settle a score. Because the earth was in trouble and as an agent it was her responsibility to help. And because Loki had hurt someone important to her, and that was as personal as an agent with no material ties could get.

It was at that exhausting dinner that it came to her attention that the Avengers had the same goal as her; to protect the earth, to the extremes, where Shield couldn't. Like an afterschool club, and she'd unintentionally joined it. This she realized when Stark finally coughed, speaking up, "It's a bit of a mess, but I think a few of the bottom floors are still in tact, I could have Jarvis take inventory, pull together some couches or what not-"

"What are you talking about, Stark?" Natasha grumbled, irritation and fatigue getting to the better of her.

"We'll need a place to sleep."

"Tony-" Steve started.

"I'll be damned if Shield has us on clean up throughout the night. We did our part. Let Shield and the locals handle the rest."

This didn't settle well with Steve, but Natasha could tell a part of him did agree. They had just saved the world...A few hours of sleep would be grateful.

"I won't hear another word of it! Jarvis will report to Shield, we'll have overnight bags and a tooth brush brought over, I'll order take out-"

"-We're eating right now."

"Right, I meant for Thunder over here-" Stark motioned to Thor.

Despite the looks passed between everyone, no one spoke up against Stark.

"That's settled, Avengers out!"

Tony rose, nudging Steve in the shoulder and looking expectantly at Banner, who was still eating but jumped awkwardly up. Thor rose more majestically, slowly.

Natasha crooked a half smile at Stark's words, before looking back at Barton. He never looked up from his book.

"What? Waiting for the end of the chapter? Come on, Barton, Romanov. I have separate bathrooms, you're fine."

Natasha shot a look up at Stark, slightly bewildered. He'd been meaning them as well?

"I said Avengers," Stark added in a lowered voice, but she caught the small smirk he gave her, of acceptance. Natasha hesitantly rose. Only until she was standing did Barton also rise to his feet.

"Stark, we could really use you're back up, right about now!" Natasha barked through the com link.

"Well, see, I was just on my way, thinking 'oh, right about now I'm sure Natasha is itching to see me', and there just so happened to be this party waiting for me out front-"

"Cut the sarcasm, Stark," Natasha snapped.

A volley of bullets hit just shy of Natasha and she ducked behind the cover of the office desk for a moment, clicking in a new clip for her hand held before whipping back around and taking several quick-aimed shots. She saw two engaged enemy targets fall, only for three more to jump from their own cover and replace them. Just before she ducked, she caught sight of one falling limp, an arrow protruding from his chest.

She nodded thankfully to Clint, who responded with the same quick gesture. The mission wasn't too difficult-a hostage crisis spanning a sky scraper. The agents were currently trapped on either the sixteenth or seventeenth floor, using a makeshift desk fort for cover as the enemy did the same from the opposite room. The difference was that their engaged enemies were making progress in closing the distance, while Natasha and Clint were sitting ducks.

Steve was several floors ahead of them, having taken an opportunity earlier to make his escape to trek onward to rescue the hostages, leaving Natasha and Clint to clean up the mess as his back up. Thor was unheard of, and Stark and Banner were outside, dealing with whatever snipers and big guns were being targeted on the streets and innocent bystanders.

But, the situation was getting out of hand and Natasha had requested Stark's assistance. However, his unintentional delay wasn't doing them any good.

Dropping behind the desk once more, Natasha reached for another round, but found none. She was dry on ammo, and quickly looked to Clint. He wasn't watching her, but she caught a glimpse of his quiver and quickly came to the conclusion that he was nearly in her position.

"Stark, we really need you," Natasha emphasized, worried as she saw the look in Clint's eyes, without even looking behind him, that he'd come to the same conclusion as she had.

"I'm flattered, Romanov, but what would Barton say?"

Clint dropped behind the desk as another round fired off overhead. He shot a quick look to Natasha.

"They're gaining. I have two arrows left, that'll be enough to give us some cover to make a break for it for the elevator.

"They're un-operational," Natasha shook her head.

"I had Jarvis take care of that," Stark grunted from the other line.

"I'm glad your AI is at least timely," Natasha scoffed.

"Stark, is it operational on your command?" Barton asked.

"Yeah, give me a moment. What floor are you two on?"

"We don't have a moment," Natasha grimaced.


Natasha heard the thumping of footsteps approaching. Cursing, so stole a glance at the approaching enemies.

"Stark-" She warned.

Just then, a beep sounded and the elevator doors clicked open. Immediately a round of guns went off, but harmlessly hit the wall of the empty compartment.

"Stark, are you on your way?" Natasha sounded strained, desperate.

"Give me a second, honey," He snarled in return.

"On my count, Nat," Clint commanded, crouching in position to make a run for the elevator. He pulled out one of his two final arrows, prepping his bow as he nodded to Natasha.


The second they jumped up, firepower was chasing them. Natasha made a clear sprint, diving at the last moment through the doors that Jarvis was holding open. Behind her, Clint was a second in delay.

"Stark, Jarvis, do you hear me? Close the doors, now!" Natasha yelled the second her shoulder hit the wall.

Behind her, Clint had sent a single arrow flawlessly through, and a moment later an explosion sounded. Natasha almost sighed in relief, thinking they'd make it, but then it hit her. Already their attackers were recovering, posed and ready with the barrel of their guns singled out on one target. She realized Clint wasn't going to make it.

And he realized this a second before she did.

Natasha barely had time to react, pushing off the wall, everything slow and hazy as Clint whipped around, his back to the enemy as his final arrow shot straight to the wall beside the elevator-jamming the controls just as the doors closed.

In the split second before the silver shut her out, Natasha caught a glimpse of the opposite wall elevator doors opening, an unmistakable gold and red armor punching its way through the passage. She saw and heard the guns go off, and she saw the jerk in Clint's body as his back twitched from a hit.

And the last thing she saw was his grey eyes, wide and watching her with no expression as he fell, crumpling to the floor just as the doors closed.


That was the moment she realized they were apart of the Avengers, Natasha recalls.

When Stark initiated them as such by reminding them, not asking, that they were Avengers. It never was a question of skill or ability or humanity. Stark was just a human, a damn intelligent and snarky one, but he was more vulnerable than the two agents. It was always a question of profession. They were two spies, already settled deep in the interworking of Shield and their operatives.

As Stark reminded them, however, they were probably soon to be looking into a new profession.

"Your faces should be plastered half way across the world by now!"

"I wouldn't be so sure of that," Barton finally spoke up, causing Natasha to jump. Stark seemed unbothered by Barton's speaking, less so of his actual words.

"Amateur videos? Satellites? Street cameras? Finger prints, blood samples, discarded arrows? They'll find some trace on you tw-"

"Don't look down on Shield's resources. And I personally accounted for all my strewn arrows."

Natasha quirked a brow, cautious. When had he found the time to gather all loosed arrows? Unlike Stark, she didn't question the implausibility of it too much. Barton knew how many arrows he'd loosed and she bet he kept a better tab on it than one would expect, given the immediacy and hopelessness of the situation that would have clouded out any other priority during it's activity.

"Right...So, you're what? Not compromised? You'll be back across the world in a day or two, pretending to be some millionaire oil tycoon to get close to some drug cartel overlord and that's that? Back to business, same old same old?"

Clint flashed a quick grin.

"We're not compromised, that doesn't make us not human. Come on, Stark, even we need more than a day or two to recuperate."

Natasha didn't smile back at Barton, because she recognized the bruises and wounds that he was alluding to. That was definitely more than a day's worth of recovery.

She would've guessed two weeks.

"How long?" Stark asked, the teasing in his voice diluting on as he eyed Barton suspiciously, who shrugged in return.

"Three days, maybe."

Three days later, Barton was halfway across the world set as a sniper in retaliation towards an extremist group seeking to infiltrate an American embassy, planning to exploit the weakness of the attack on Manhattan.

"Clint! Clint!" Natasha was screaming through the com, but no response was coming through. She switched to Stark, barking at him for an update.

"Barton's down," Stark grunted, all traces of his humor from earlier gone. She heard the familiar charges of Stark's suit and recognized the beep of warning as his reactors blasted through the enemy line that was giving the two agents so much trouble. In a great, contrasting irony, her end of the line was quiet save the timed dings of the elevator through each floor.

"Stark, where does this elevator get off? I can't control it-"

"I had Jarvis circuit it to reach the penthouse floor, you're to meet up with the Captain-"

"Bullshit, I'm taking the stairs. I'll be done there in a minute, just hold ground and keep Barton-"

"Natasha, listen to me. Barton's going to be fine, I've got him, he's right next to me-"

"What's his status? Is he awake, is he-?" Alive?

"He's been hit...I can't turn him over, but it looks like two clean shots through, there might be more on his back-" Tony flinched as more fire power unloaded on him, before sending another guided attack on the persistent opposing forces. Turning his attention back on Barton, he continued, "He's having trouble breathing but I've got his hands on the wounds, we're slowing the breathing down-"

"Put him on the line." Natasha demanded.

There was a shuffle of the equipment and the distant sound of Tony taking up the offensive again as Barton wheezed on.


"Hang in there, Barton, I'm coming back down-"

"Don't be stupid, Nat."

"Me be the one that's stupid..? What the hell was that? You-"

"Finish the mission, Nat," He cut her off.

That was the last thing Natasha wanted to hear, but it was exactly what she needed.


There was another cough and the com was pulled away from Barton.

"Clint? Clint-" Again, the shuffle of static and she realized the link was back in the possession of Stark.

"Stark, watch over Barton. Keep me updated on his status, keep him alive. You hear me?"

"Loud and clear, Mom."

Natasha stashed the link in her ear again just as the elevator approached the top floor.

"I'm going to rendezvous with Rogers, we're going to complete this mission and then get the fuck out of here and get Barton to a hospital." Natasha announced, as though she was issuing new orders.

There came no response but she knew Stark understood.

"The mission comes first," she whispered to herself, as a mechanism to calm down. Barton was strong, he could last a couple of minutes on shock alone. She just didn't want to risk the minutes after.

Thor trusted Barton half out of pity and remorse, at first. This man had been controlled by his brother (He'd only heard the whispers and details hushed overhead, clear of Natasha' hearing, when he'd first arrived on the strange air craft). The full story came after the aliens had settled and debriefing had taken place. So that's who this man was, he'd thought. His eyes hollow and tired, his fingers strained and muscles twitching. He looked as fragile and broken as he probably felt, no doubt after the mind tricks of Thor's own brother.

But then he'd fought through it all, and any hint of weakness or fatigue in his stance or physical attributes disappeared. He fought like any of the others, extraterrestrial or not.

So much that Thor forgot he was human, because he surpassed those limits long ago. The moment Barton stopped seeming weak and human to Thor was the moment he gained his trust.

The elevator door slipped open and instantly Natasha was on the ground, rolling as bullets pelted above her.

"Cap!" She yelled, trying to assess the situation quickly.

Something flew above her and the bullet trail ended to the sound of metal clinking against bone.

"Romanov, over here!"

Natasha made a bee lien sprint towards Roger's voice, diving beside him as he caught his returning shield.

"Barton?" Steve asked, looking hopefully between Natasha and the elevator. She didn't answer him.

"What are we looking at, Cap?"

"We need to detain the perimeter. There's some kind of big gun docked by the window, manned by one gunner. It's terrorizing the streets below; Thor's out there trying to fight his way in, but this thing is shooting him out of the sky."


Rogers shook his head.


"There's at least six backing him, if we can take them out, we can make a run for the-"

"On it," Natasha jumped up, ignoring Steve's protests and she unlatched a device from her belt. Giving it a quick throw, her finger clicking the small device into play, she watched it land and immediately taser the nearest two guards.

As they fell, she leapt up onto the nearest one, sending a kick to the man standing as back up to the first two assailants, sending a Widow's Bite into the shoulder of the fourth male.

With a draw as quick as lightning, she gripped the gun from the crumpling man's holster and aimed it at the fifth guard, shooting him point blank. Just as she turned to face the sixth man, Cap's shield blurred and beat her to the hit.

Natasha whipped around to look at Rogers.

"I can't let you have all of them."

Natasha didn't respond, because already they were wasting time. This whole mission was a waste of time. They needed to get Barton to a hospital.

Stepping over the bodies, Natasha rounded the corner of the office to caught sight of what appeared a tank rifle, pointed through an open window of the sky scraper. The man in the seat of the sniper had yet to notice Natasha, and she didn't give him a chance. Within moments, his neck was snapped, the gun powering down through lack of control.

"Right, that's done."

"That's not it, we have to secure-"

Steve was cut off as a gun shot sounded throughout the room, both Steve and Natasha ducking as a new assailant entered.

It was at that moment that true lightning burst through the window. opposite of the wall Natasha was crouched by.

Thor found an immediate attraction towards the Olympics.

It started with Barton, which wasn't all that much of a surprise. After insistence by Natasha and even Stark (Who had spied enough through Jarvis's intelligence), Barton was confided in an almost house arrest within the house from the training facility, as it was doing his injuries from a previous mission no good, straining them excessively.

Stark had insisted he "Be normal, watch television" and Natasha (Still obviously upset over Barton from said previous mission) actually hid his books and bow from him. If he looked hard enough, naturally, he'd be able to find them. But, rather than give cause to unnecessary fighting, he merely sat himself at the TV and made a show to mindlessly flip through channels.

Then, as it happened, he passed through a sports channel, premièring the Olympic Trials. At first he sat through a few swimming events, taking note on the forms and techniques of the athletes, and even when that program ended he found little motivation to change the channel.

Which lead to him sitting through the men's diving trials.

As it would happen, Pepper was in that day and on her way to the kitchen, she needed merely to catch a glimpse of one athlete in a Speedo before she squeezed her way onto the couch beside Barton.

Bruce entered the room and attempted to remain indifferent, until after a particular dive, he broke out, "That entry was phenomenal! He kept his feet together through the water..!"

He joined Pepper on the opposite couch.

Natasha, checking to make sure Barton wasn't unnecessarily exercising, also found some form of merit in watching the event and took her place between Pepper and Barton on the floor. Barton offered her his spot, but she declined.

Steve joined a few minutes later, simply because everyone else was watching, and even Stark jumped between Banner and Potts, mostly to gain back the attention of Pepper.

When Thor walked in, the questions were numerous and his thirst for understanding was unquenchable.

"What gain is this sport for?"

"To make it to the Olympics, it's just a trial. Like...Prelims."

The Olympics was a whole new concept that also required explanation. This fell down to Barton, who as it would turn out was quite the fan of the Olympics (Archery being his favorite event, naturally). Stark remained indifferent throughout most of the conversation and shrugged it off.

If the prospect of diving and swimming illuminated Thor in interest (He recalled several stories of Asgardian sporting events and races that made more than one teammate uncomfortable with how ordinary the blood fest brawls sounded), then the men's gymnastics only furthered that interest.

"Ah, these men have great strength!" Thor complimented, in awe as the athletes pulled themselves up by hands and wrists alone.

Stark, however, was unimpressed.

"Male gymnastics...men in blue tights, it's not exactly a show of masculinity, is it?"

He, however, was preaching to the wrong crowd.

"Says you, in your red and gold Barbie mold," Natasha quipped, garnering a snicker from Pepper. The Captain also looked amused, taking offense to the 'blue tights' (And any snide remark made towards anyone representing America at an honorable level of merit).

"Fair enough," Stark agreed, if only because Natasha could easily kick his ass if he said anything out of term. "But, I mean...come on, gymnastics? It's like ballet, or-"


"Exactly! Circus kind of thing, that whole freak show; it's not very manly-"

Stark froze when he realized who had offered the suggestion.

None other than circus-acrobat-freak himself.

Thor, however, had remained oblivious to the conversation.

"What is this? This here event, what name do Midgards refer to it as?"

Clint, without so much as taking his trained eye off of Stark, replied, "Pummel horse. It's rather difficult."

Stark, not quite knowing when to shut up and eager to lose Barton's attention, did exactly what he shouldn't have; he fidgeted, looking between Thor and the television and Barton, muttering, "It's not all that difficult...Or impressive."

Challenge accepted.

And somehow they'd found themselves all filing into the training room (Exactly what Natasha had been fighting to keep Barton from doing) as he performed tricks a top a balance beam that rivaled the routines they'd witnessed moments ago on the broadcast.

"Ya, aright, it looks mildly difficult-"

Barton dropped his left hand, spinning momentarily on only his right and swinging his waist high above the bar before spreading his legs and bringing them up into a hand stand, only to twist down back into another sway of weaving his legs in and out with the bar constantly between him, only supported by the palms of his hands.

"...It's hard. Alright, happy?"

Thor, like everyone else and ignoring Stark, was booming with laughter.

"Amazing! You must teach me this trick, Master Barton!"

Barton, dismounting with a firm landing, smiled at the Thunder God.

"I'd be my genuine pleasure."

Thor landed, cracking the marble floor as he did so.

The man opposite of him, dressed head to toe in disguised black, shivered with terror, aiming his gun at Thor.

"You would point such a trivial, small weapon at myself-"

The man ignored Thor, unleashing a full clip of ammo at the God, who didn't so much as flinch as each bullet bounced from his armor. When the gun clicked empty, the man panicked, tossing it aside.

"-Shame upon your houses, I damn it upon thee," Thor rambled on, ignoring each bullet as he stepped toward the man.

As a last resort, the terrorist grabbed at something on his hip, again directing him aim at Thor.

"That will not work, my friend, against so mighty a person as myself, The God of Th-"

The man, at the last moment, dipped his weapon downward, unleashing a spinning volatile of weighted ropes which snapped about Thor's legs, tightening as the twisted around him and pushing his feet from under him. Collapsing, Thor caught himself on the floor just before his face crashed in, frowning at the handicap delivered to him.

"He's getting away!" Natasha yelled, jumping up from her position to pursue the man, who was turning to make his escape. Not that he would have, however.

At that moment, Thor holstered himself up by his fore arms, spinning his hips from the waist down to swing his feet at the man, tripping him just as Thor vaulted himself to stand. In one hand he gripped the rope and tore it away from his feet, sighing as he cast it aside. Steve, standing momentarily after Natasha, stared alongside her at Thor in disbelief.

"Thor...you just-"

"Admittedly, Barton is much better than I."

"Where did you learn these tricks, Barton?" Thor barked, amused. Barton tossed him a water, wiping his own brow on a towel as he did so. Thor was a fast learner, granted he was a bit bulky and sloppy, but the gist of the movements he picked up quickly.

"Circus," he answered.

"What is this...?"

"Circus," Barton provided again. "It's like...well, from my understanding, Asgard has, ah...minstrels, entertainers, right?"

"That it does."

Barton nodded. "It's like those. Normally, people come to see us-er, the circus. It's a show, a performance."

"With jugglers and dancers?" Thor mused.

Barton grimaced momentarily, "Ya, there's some of those."

Thor heaved a great sigh, shaking his lightly as he grasped all these foreign concepts.

"Olympians...Circus...Midgard is very different than Asgard."

Barton shrugged.

"I don't think there's too much of a difference."

Thor laughed.

"No, I suppose not."

Trust came to Barton easily in the form of Captain Steve Rogers. It had taken a whole nod-from-Natasha and Steve had been won over. Rather, Barton's trust came in a package deal with Natasha, whom Steve had earned trust for when she'd flown and operated as his backup in Germany in their first encounter of Loki.

If she approved of Barton, so did Steve.

Easily, Steve left Barton to be the eyes in the back of his head-to call the shots and stragglers up top. Barton was the best, as he'd heard, and Steve wouldn't dispute that. Agent Barton gained Steve Roger's trust before the Quinjet had ever touched New York ground.

"Stark, do you copy? Can you hear me? Tony?"

Static, followed by, "Loud and clear, Romanov." He sounded irritated.

"How's Barton?"

"He's got a pulse. It's faint, but it's there."

"Is he conscious?"

Silence was her answer.

"Stark, where are you?"

"Where you left us," He grumbled.

"And the front?"

"Still coming in waves. I can hold these guys off, but it's difficult by myself-"

"You won't be by yourself. We're coming to you-"

"Who is 'we'?"

"I've got Thor and the Captain with me-"

"Well hurry, the opposition is gaining an upper hand down here-I'm loosing battery charge to acid corrosion down here, and Barton isn't getting better by the minute-"

"Stark, we're on our way," Natasha replied, severing the connection with Stark. The elevator sprung open and Natasha shoved the trio in.

"Any word on Banner?" Natasha looked hopefully to Thor, who shook his head in reply.

"Right...well, let's get down there as save Stark's ass."

"Natasha..?" Steve questioned. Flinching, she looked up at the blonde.

"...Barton's going to be alright."

She nodded like it was common knowledge, but her eyes betrayed her worry.

"I know."

The doors opened, unleashing a blast of thunder that sent anyone less than a few meters in front of Stark's defensive position flying backwards. Stark jumped, turning around just as Natasha and Steve bolted behind the fortified desk compound Stark had composed to shield Barton.

"How is he?" Natasha instantly questioned, reaching for his pulse. It was more a flicker than an actual pulse, and he'd lost a considerable amount of blood.

"We need to get him to a hospital," Steve noted, more Captain Oblivious than America in that moment.

Stark sighed, watching as Thor made his way across the room, bullets acting more like misguided pebbles as his hammer spun at his arm.

"First thing's first, you need to get him out of here. Sparky over there is about to light the whole room up."

Steve helped prop Barton between himself and Natasha, slumping the man's arm over each their shoulder's.

"Get him in the elevator. I'll have Jarvis send you to the basement, the parking garage. Get him to the hospital, we'll clean things up here." Stark turned to Rogers, "Any word from Banner?"

Steve shook his head.

"Right, Jarvis?" Stark commanded, his AI voicing through the suit.

"Yes sir?"

"Get me in contact with Banner. He should still be positioned outside, evacuating civilians across the street for cover."

"Right away, sir."

"We're going, Stark," Steve called just as him and Natasha made a break for the elevators again. Stark turned his attention back to Thor.

"Right, circus-freak to a hospital, you hear me? No pit stops, that means you, Soviet!"

Natasha spared Stark the bird, to which he didn't even see but nonetheless was aware of.

The task of educating Steve in the rite of passage known as driving fell upon Clint's shoulders, after much debate.

Tony was briefly considered for nearly a whole second before everyone came to the same imaginative conclusion-Tony was a terrible teacher. The all easily could see it now; Stark half-heartedly instructing Steve in a vehicle that was far too high tech for even the average driver to understand, mumbling jokes and quips about Steve's progress and caring minimally about the public property damage that Steve caused because, let's face it, Stark could afford it.

It was that lack of care that immediately casted Tony from the count.

Banner was considered for a far more impressive minute, before it was brought to the attention that while Banner was no doubt a steady hand and decent teacher, the 'other guy' probably lacked the patience or had the nerve to deal with a first-time driver. Banner shamefully withdrew his hand.

Thor wasn't ever considered.

Natasha fell into the next best, but the hope of her was lost at the whim of Tony making some crude remark about women behind the wheel. The slam of a door following gave her answer.

So, it was then that everyone turned to the silent but present Barton, who had observed the debate yet hardly thrown in any input other than to point out another flaw of Stark's, not that he didn't already have enough going against him to convict him to the prospect of being banned from being even in the passenger seat.

It wasn't that Steve had never driven before-hell, he'd even operated a few planes back in his day.

Simply, the technology gap was rather large and he needed a...second course in driving, to adjust.

The duo took a rented car, a regular jeep, lent from Shield (like Tony would have offered up one of his prized collection pieces in the first place) and left early one Saturday morning. They returned exactly an hour later, without so much as a word.

This was fine, for the first three days. By the fourth day, Stark was curious. He casually dropped a question to Steve (The Captain was more likely to offer any answer as opposed to the Hawk) on how the driving crash courses were going.

Steve shrugged, "Fine, I guess."

Natasha, nearby, smirked. She could almost see Stark's dissatisfaction, despite only catching a glimpse of his profile as Rogers took the lack of Tony's response as a cue that the conversation was over, exiting the room.

The elevators opened, and Natasha immediately made a dart for the nearest vehicle, positioning Barton in the back seat of a jeep. Steve dropped his hold and jumped into the driver's seat, just as Natasha gently lowered Barton's back in seat. She positioned him comfortably, as best she could, before jumping up to look at Steve.

"Are you sure you should-"

"Relax, I learned from the best," he winked through the rear view mirror, fumbling with some cut wires in the steering wheel.

Natasha raised an eyebrow at the action.

"When did you learn to jump start a car?"

Steve shrugged, confidently sparking the wires.

"Like I said, I learned from the best."

Just as the jeep jumped alive, Natasha reminded herself to discuss with Barton which bad habits to pass along to the uncorrupted Captain and which not to. At this moment, though, she supposed it was a useful enough skill.

Settling into the seat and fastening his seatbelt, Rogers shifted the car's gears.

"Right, hold onto him. I think the hospital is left from out of here. Keep him awake," He added, mumblnig the last part more to himself than to remind Natasha.

Natasha only nodded, turning her attention back on Clint.

"I-isn't that illegal?" Steve questioned, looking between Barton's fingers and the sparking wires.

"In our line of work, sometimes legality takes a back seat to necessity. Here, you try-"

Steve frowned, eyeing Barton and the car. At least they hadn't stolen the car, else he'd really feel unnerved about this lesson.

"Once you get it started, we'll drive around the block a few more times," Barton added, settling into the passenger seat. Steve, sighing, fumbled with the wires until the car jolted awake, again, and then nearly jumped when he noticed Barton was settling to sleep, eyes closed and hands crossed.

"B-Barton? You're not-you can't go to sleep-"

"I trust you," He muttered.


"Cap, I'm tired," Barton blurted honestly. "Car rides are calming...they help me sleep. We're in the neighborhood, you know this route, these streets, and we've gone this way a couple times by now. I trust you can make the right decisions and you're not too bad a driver. So, turn your indicator on and pull out to the right. Gentle, now, don't peel out."

Steve, nervous, did as he was instructed.

"...You really trust me?"

Barton smirked, still not opening his eyes.

"Or I'm just that damn tired."

Trust of Agent Barton to Dr. Banner came after he woke up, groggy and hazy as the rubble settled and the Hulk subsided within his mind. The only convincing he needed of trusting Barton was the fact that he'd been present and the Hulk hadn't killed him. He'd fought alongside the others and survived.

That garnered his trust enough.

Banner watched as the sniper's fire from the top floor ended, several frightened civilians clutching around him from the safety of the opposite street. He'd opted to sit on stand by for this job. It'd appeared easy enough.

A hold up in a sky scraper, some assembled weaponry on the top floor and some crunching numbers of assailants who had conquered the building. Most evacuations had taken place early on, Banner assisting in the organization outside. Thor had distracted the large gun, with Steve and the two agents heading inside to take out the gun and opposition from inside. Stark, who headed the evacuations, was to make his way up as back up once the civilians were all safe.

Which had occurred a good ten or so minutes ago. Thor had finally broken into the building, and silence had filled the air as Banner waited for any sign of his teammates or the enemy or struggle or just anything.

Finally, he felt his com go alive as Stark's voice broke through.

"Banner-Bruce, are you there?"

"Tony? I'm here, what's going on-"

"Barton's been hit. I'm cleaning up on the...sixteenth? Whatever floor, Romanov and the Cap are making their way to the parking garage, they need to get him to the hospital-"

"Barton's..? What, wait, Tony, what all happened-?"

"I need you to Hulk out."

Banner didn't even wait to be told twice, stepping outside onto the crunch of glass as he warned the civilians to stay down and stay inside.

In the wake of each member's individual mourning and recovering from the attack on Manhattan, Banner had surprisingly opened up more than he'd expected. In his previous grievances, after his initial experiences with 'the other guy', he'd found himself distancing himself more and more from society and people.

This time around, it was like he was being drawn towards this specific group, a cluster of rejects and freaks no different than himself.

He had regrets and knew loss, but not so much as Steve Rogers. He'd had his whole world shaken upside down and come out alive from the other end with a new understanding, and he saw the same expression of a changed man in Thor as well. He knew about weakness and how difficult it was to hide it, or hide behind it, and that vulnerability was in Stark as much as it was him (Just under layers upon layers of narcissism and egotism).

And as much as Natasha pretended to be strong and invulnerable, she was just as much so as Stark and, inevitably, Banner himself.

And yet, even after years of denying himself any form of company or comrade, and after finally accepting these individuals to share in his flaws, his misery, he still couldn't see any comparison between himself and Barton. Sure, there was the obvious that he too avoided people and kept his silent distance, but his reasons were different than Banner's. It was by choice and not fear that he lingered from a distance or observed others without a word. There was an air about the archer that contrasted everything that Banner was about, and never could Banner imagine they shared in some self-loathing department or other.

This was, until, the moment their roles switched. It was a brief moment when Barton's eyes were focused on Natasha, and Banner had just happened to look up at Barton, and suddenly the hawk was the one being watched and read and dissected.

Natasha was engaged in some conversation with Stark, humoring his nuisance talking about disguises and aliases. Barton was apart of the conversation yet wasn't contributing, and Natasha had the painstaking pleasure of answering all of Stark's whimsical questions.

"You can do all that? You're skilled in that many different areas..?"

"Agents have to be masters at all arts. If a job requires a certain skill of us, we need to be able to perform it to better mold to our cover."

Stark snorted in bewilderment.

"And appearances? You, I imagine, are some sort of chameleon..?"

"Disguises are a part of the cover..." Natasha replied, amused at Stark's disbelief and inability to grasp how simple a concept that was.

"So I imagine you've dyed your hair before..?"

Natasha rolled her eyes.

"I've been blonde, brunette, had jet black raven hair...I've tanned, paled, slimmed down or built up muscle-"

"You sound like an actor," Stark muttered. He then turned to Barton, nodding at him.

"What then, I suppose you have, too?"

Barton shrugged.

"If the job called for it."

"My god, you're both like puppets," Tony feigned horror. "Mannequins, dressed and dolled on the whims of that mean Director Fury," he joked. "I can't imagine someone pulling the strings on my poor, blue eyed bird man. The horror-"

Stark's joke was harmless, but his choice of words were obviously not. Natasha seemed to stop whatever motion she was mid-action of performing, snapping to look at Barton who had visibly tensed. His eyes darted from Stark to Natasha to the floor, before he uncomfortably rose and coughed an excuse to leave.

And it hit Banner that he and Barton did share something in common. An understanding that no one else could relate to.

Natasha had made to follow him but Stark was already bombarding her with a new round of questions that she had to dodge. By then, Banner was already on Barton's trail and he shot a glance at Natasha, letting her know that he'd handle this one, if she didn't mind.

That helpless look she gave in return only confirmed to Banner that she and Stark were more alike than she'd care to admit.

Banner found Barton on the roof.

"This is a surprise," Barton mused before Banner had even fully stepped out onto the terrace. Banner shrugged.

"I'm no Natasha, I'll admit..."

Barton said nothing, so Banner continued.


"Don't beat around the bush, Doc," Barton offered. Banner pondered this a moment, smiling, before reaching to clean his classes.

"Very well, then. I get it."

Barton raised a brow, turning to look and acknowledge Banner finally.

"What Stark said...It's about Loki, isn't it? Why you came up here and-" He motioned to Barton's brooding, though if Barton realized it he said nothing.

"Doing things and knowing that you're doing them...that you're causing things, but having no control over it...I get that, too."

And any animosity Barton had melted, because if there was one person he could relate his experience under the Tesseract to, it was Banner. Because Selvigg didn't kill anybody, and because having all his training to protect those he worked with and for turned against them and him was only relatable to someone who had gone through the very same.

"Stark tried to explain to me that...the other guy, wasn't some curse. That maybe he was a blessing-"

"So you think what happened has...some sort of positive side to it?" His voice rose, and Banner wondered if Barton was as fearless as Stark when it came to urging Banner's anger, or if he just didn't care at this point.

"Not really," Banner rejected. "It's a bit different. The other guy...He's a part of me, in a way. A darker part of me, that's there but I don't...normally acknowledge. I control to subdue him and when I'm successful, he's dormant. You...what happened to you wasn't another 'side' to you or a hidden part of you. It was you, solidly, a hundred percent. It was your regular emotions and self and thoughts. Just, they were being controlled."

Banner looked up hopefully at Barton, questioning if he was understanding all this. Barton's face didn't change, so he assumed to just continue.

"I can't control the Hulk and he's a part of me, but he's not this part of me," Banner motioned to his self at present. "What Loki did..."

"It was me," Barton offered, concluding his own fear. That everything he'd done was his fault.

"It wasn't your fault though-"

"Isn't that what you're saying?"

"I'm saying the part of you that you had no control over, the part of you that was being manipulated, isn't some 'other guy' that you can blame."

"So it's my fault-"

"But you can't blame yourself either. You have to blame the source, you have to blame Loki, because he made you do it, he turned you against-"

"Loki isn't here to accept the responsibility. I am. Those lives fall to me, those damages-"

"You didn't have a choice, you can't-"

"Can't what? Blame myself? Who do I blame, then? Someone has to take the blame-"

"I told you, Loki-"

"That isn't it...It can't just be Loki-" Barton stopped, his breathing peaking for a moment before he sighed and relaxed, any trace of worked up anger or resentment gone.

Banner ran a hand through his hair.

"Maybe I should have left this to Natasha."

There was a short pause, before Barton mumbled, "No...thank you."

Banner scoffed.

"For what?"

Barton thought a moment.

"Because you're right. You get it. You know what it's like, to be uncontrollable and to cause harm and pain...you know that more than anyone."

Again, Banner tipped his head in a nod off bitterly.

"It's not exactly something to be proud of, I'm not expecting an award for it-"

"But Stark's right."

Banner cocked a brow.

"The other guy...he isn't all bad. I've seen shades of it, I think you could control him, if you accept him as a part of you. He might be more willing to work with you, if you'd open up to him a bit."

Banner pondered this a second before snorting.

"Even if I turned around and started...using him for good, it wouldn't make the past mistakes go away-"

"-It never does," Barton responded. Banner stared at him, and suddenly it seemed they had even more in common.

Banner doesn't remember much, being in an angrier and greener state at the time, but later Natasha would inform him that he smashed his way through the bottom floor, collapsing the sky scraper's supports in on themselves and causing a collapse of the whole building. She'd tell him how he single-handedly crumbled to offensive opposition and saved the team from having to deal with any tails as they made their escape from the tower in the jeep which Steve had wired.

And she'd thank him for clearing the roads of any rubble as Steve swerved through the track of debris chunks in race to reach the hospital in time for Barton.

Banner wouldn't remember any of it, but he might recall a moment of sprinting beside said jeep, with a blur of figures boarded in it, and catching a glimpse of a certain limp archer, who in all his paleness and weakness, appeared to smile and just possibly wink as the 'other guy' sprinted ahead, a new sense of urgency propelling him to make way for the tiny vehicle.

Natasha was arguing with Stark, again. Barton eyed the glass of water in front of him, when Banner walked in, nodding at the trio before taking a seat at the counter. Stark tried to bring Banner into the conversation, as a sort of back-up to his own defense, but Natasha was winning the argument and Banner opted to remain neutral.

He caught sight of Barton and jerked his head at the man in question.

"You alright?" He asked, low enough that neither Natasha nor Stark would hear.

For a fraction of a second, Banner smiled.


Banner nodded, understanding.

"Me too."

Over the course of the few years Romanov had been apart of Shield, he'd actually grown accustomed to her barging into his office regardless of the hours and warnings. There was no breaking her of this habit and he had enough patience to hear out whatever nonsense she decided to bombard him with each time. He'd argue with her after she got whatever it is she needed to say out.

"I want to marry Barton."

Fury raised his good brow.

"Agent Romanov, isn't that something you should take up with Barton himself..?"

"I mean for our covers."

Fury's expression didn't change.

"Sir...neither of us has a family, you and I both know we're the closest thing either of us has. So, if we end up in some remote, foreign country hospital, with Barton spilling his intestines in the hallway during the rush to the ER, I want the illegitimate papers that permit me to be in that room with him if he's dying while we wait for Shield to evacuate us to a safe house location and higher technology facilities."

Ah, so this was about their last mission.

"Romanov, I cannot promise that every mission will require that cover. You, as a spy and agent, should know that your covers must be versatile-"

"Then I want the back up cover. I don't care if we go in single, but if one of us goes down on a mission, I want the clearance that those local goons accept so that I'm there in case he-" She didn't finish, but she didn't need to.

"Agent Romanov, circumstances for each mission vary. Whose to say you will ever end up in that situation again-"

"Then just as a precautionary."

Fury inhaled.


After a moment, he sighed.

"Have you discussed this with Barton?"

Natasha, who never lost much of her composition to begin with despite her passionate demand, straightened herself a little, brushing back a loose hair.

"It's nothing I deemed that needed to be brought to his attention."

"You deemed," Fury snorted, rolling his shoulders back.

"I'll see what I can do."

Natasha nodded, not bothering to argue any further. Fury had bent the rules enough for her already, and she wasn't about to run that patience and trust completely to the ground.

Clint whistled.

"What do you know." He flashed his ID card. "Mr. and Mrs. Packard." He scoffed. "This is what...fifth time in a row? You think those up in Intelligence are trying to tell us something," He winked.

Natasha rolled her eyes and ignored him.

The nurse looked terrified, looking between Natasha and Steve and finally at the limp Barton.

"Put him on this stretcher," She commanded, signaling for doctors and nurses to assist her. They tugged the man towards the metal doors at the end of the waiting room, shouting orders as Natasha and Steve jogged to keep up.

"I'm sorry," She insisted, stopping the duo as Barton was pulled through the doors. "Only family beyond this point-" Steve looked exasperated.

"What..? But, we're-"

"He's my husband!" Natasha blurted.

The nurse looked more shocked at that than their appearances (The cat suit and American flag get-up weren't exactly the most normal looking outfits to sprint into a hospital in). Steve looked half sick.

"You're.." Both Steve and the nurse questioned. Natasha quickly nodded.

"I-I have the paperwork, please...just, please let me through."

Slowly, the nurse nodded, allowing Natasha to sprint past her after Clint. Steve, bewildered, stood by, retreating tot he waiting room chairs to wait for Banner to revert to normal and the others to join him.

His com link burst alive as, surprisingly, Fury's voice patched through.

"Rogers, what is going on down there?"


"Stark already called in. I know about Barton. I'm sending a Quinjet to lift you all out of there, once Barton's out of immediate surgery we'll lift him out for treatment from Shield's medical-"

"I-I don't know if he'll be alright to move. He just got sent of for surgery, Natasha's with him...Director, are they..?"

Fury ignored him.

"We'll see when we get there, won't we? Stark and Thor are on their way, wait for further instruction."

Without anything else to do, Steve nodded, slouching into his seat. He'd need a lot of explaining, later.

"How about this one?" Barton asked, lifting another DVD for Natasha to scrutinize. She rejected it with a childish face of disgust.

"Too sappy."

Barton laughed out loud.

"Too sappy? Natasha, there's hardly any romance in this-"

"There's the problem," She remarked, dryly. Barton, frowning, dropped the DVD and reached for another.

"This one?"

She shook her head.

"Then this?"


"Damn, Natasha. They sent us to pick up a couple of movies, at this rate we'll return empty handed-"

"Then we show up with nothing!" She agreed, frustrated. Barton stopped moving, holding the basket in place.

"What's wrong with you?"

"I just don't see why we have to be here-"

"-Because Stark wants us to slowly reintroduce Steve into the modern world via movie marathons. That's not it, though, is it?"

Damn him, knowing exactly what the problem was.

"It's just...well, your movie selection sucks."

Barton scoffed.

"Nice choice of words, Black Widow."

She hissed at him to lower his voice.

"I think...you hate any bit of romance."

"It's not romance, that's just mushy acting and-"

"Oh, if that isn't cynical! Do you always drink your vodka half empty?"

She spat. He was sounding like Stark.

"Let's just grab a comedy-"

"Why? Afraid of a little romance? Love?"

She uncharacteristically stiffened at the word, pushing past Barton.

"Grab a movie and let's leave."

Barton sighed.

"Natasha...this isn't about a movie-"

"Drop it, let's go."

"Why are you-?"

"I said drop it!"

She expected him to argue with her, to make some large scene. She was afraid he would, because for not the first time since Loki, she felt uncomfortable. And it had to do with those toying words, with the concept of 'love', and with Barton. And she didn't want to confront that, and she certainly didn't want to do so with Barton prying.

Surprisingly, he didn't argue. He merely reached for the nearest comedy, without so much as reading the title, yet never dropping the flick in his hand.

"Fine. But, one day, we will watch this movie," And with that he set it down.

She knew he wasn't talking about the movie, and maybe one day they would have that conversation that she was too afraid to acknowledge.

Stark had difficulty trusting anyone, as it was. He trusted Banner-not the 'Other Guy'. He trusted Steve, if only because he doubted the good-two-shoes could possibly commit any treason towards him as he was seemingly programmed to be an after-school special, but he didn't like him. It took a bit longer to trust Thor, if only because his character seemed as wholesome and honest as the Captain's yet his intentions and, in all honesty, species were less clear. He trusted a paid hooker more than he trusted Natasha, though he could trust that she would never fail whatever she set her mind to.

Barton wasn't as unnervingly edgy as Natasha was. He was a likeable guy, when he spoke, and just as serious. Stark knew not to blame or hold any of Barton's actions while under Loki's control against him because it was just that-Loki's control. Still, he was apart of the Shield operative, and Stark never trusted them a damn bit to begin with.

But as a person, Stark didn't fully trust Barton until it was off duty of a mission, a regular day off of quiet bliss and no trouble at the Tower. No emergencies, no attacks, no aliens or terrorists or anything out of the ordinary.

Pepper was in a board meeting in DC, leaving Stark alone essentially with the Avengers. Except they weren't here either. Natasha was on a mission (Stark assumed Barton had gone with her because he never knew when or if Barton went on missions, only ever Natasha, so he assumed half the time when Barton didn't make himself known that he'd tagged along as well). Thor was unaccounted for in Asgard. Steve was tagging along with Pepper for a memorial site-seeing tour of Washington, nothing as he remembered it. Banner had gone to see to some project involving his old friend, Selvigg.

Stark thought himself alone, until he strolled into the kitchen and jumped, his eyes locking on the back of the head of someone seated at the counter.

"Jarvis-" Stark yelled, but froze when the head turned around.


"Jesus, Barton...I thought you were with Romanov, or whatever her name is this go around."

Clint eyed him like it was the most obvious thing. "She's on a mission."

"Well, that's my point, I thought-" He sighed, dropping the explanation of how the duo were inseparable before a further thought crossed his mind.

"What...exactly is between the two of you? I know, partnership and all, but, really..?"

Barton's expression never changed.

"Come on, this isn't confidential Shield information," Stark joked, half heartedly hoping it wasn't.

Barton rolled his shoulders back.

"Right, if it was, you would've hacked into it already and you wouldn't be asking me questions in the first place."

Stark shrugged. Guilty.

"I just-"

"Stark," Barton cut him off, before Stark could build momentum on his rant.

"Hm?" Stark jumped.

"I'm not saying this as an agent, or of Shield, or as anything other than a human being. From one man to another. Everyone has secrets and privacy and things they keep to themselves that others should just let leave."

Stark pursed his lips together, watching Barton speak evenly.

"So...there's something there, right?" Stark pried.

It was a quick flash, a tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth, but Stark caught it, momentarily, as Barton pulled up from the counter.

"You don't trust me because you know so little about me."

Hitting the nail on the head, Stark tensed.

"But, I think it's the opposite. You should trust me, because you don't know enough about me. People should have secrets. It's people with no secrets that you shouldn't trust."

Stark thought on this, long after Barton turned away. Just as Barton exited the room, Stark flinched attentively.

"Wait-You're just saying that to pull attention away from the question at hand, which is, what is the relationship between yo-"

"Who are you yelling at, Stark?"

Stark yelped, not anything he is proud of, when Natasha spoke up, having just returned. Barton never did answer him, and Stark did his best it avoid Natasha for the rest of the day, fearful that she was overly capable of extracting what his question directed towards Agent Barton was.

That night, gathered around for take out dinner, Natasha questioned Stark once more.

"It's a thing between two guys, Nat." Barton responded, before Stark could so much as hiccup.

From that moment onward, Stark trusted Barton with his life.

As it would happen, there was a gift shop in the hospital. The DVD collection was on a small rack beside postcards and "Get Well Soon" notes. The selection was small, but Natasha managed to stare at it for a good half hour before finally being startled from her dazed position by an elderly man trying to reach the counter beside her.

Her fingers finally gripped the black rack, turning it slowly to scan over the covers and titles.

This whole mess was his fault and he was stupid and she promised to hit him to moment he woke up.

But, it didn't look like he would be up for at least a couple of hours more (if at all-she threw that thought from her mind). The nurse had finally pried her from beside him, told her to "walk out some nerves, shake out her muscles". The nurse insisted that Natasha go make a round about the hospital, in the halls. Give the doctors some room.

"Find a movie," She'd suggested, down at the gift shop. Something to play and watch as she waited for him to wake up (They had a TV in the room, courtesy of tax dollars to give the comatose something to listen to, she thought bitterly)

She wasn't even going to actually heed the nurse's advice, but somehow her feet had dragged her here. She should probably go check on the others, return to give them an update on Barton's condition if the nurse hadn't already-

And then she'd spotted the movie. That damn movie she'd refused the night Barton and her had been elected for a movie rental run. That damn movie that had sparked the inevitable conversation they'd yet to have. About love...

She was afraid to admit it, because that would make loss (Which, in their profession, was inevitable) that much harder. Not that she wouldn't already break if she lost him, but if she admittedthat to herself...

Or worse, to him?

It was pure irony that of all the romantic nonsense movies, he'd chosen this one. About love and how wrong it was and about loss.


God, she'd sock it to him so hard when he woke up, she thought as she threw some loose change at the cashier.

"How's Barton?" Stark demanded, stepping into the hospital with Thor at his heels. Timidly, Banner followed, his clothes having changed since last Steve saw him.

Steve didn't look so much as up from the floor, his fingers laced into a fist at his chin as he shrugged.

"I haven't seen or heard so much as anything since he was whisked away with his wife behind him-"

"His what?"

As if on cue, Natasha stepped out.

"I'm sorry, but I feel insulted. I wasn't invited to the wedding?" Stark gasped.

"I'll explain later," Natasha lied. It wasn't a story Clint was familiar with and she had no desire to relive the moment of panic she'd had with Fury. It was something she decided a long time ago for instances like these when authority was just too much of a hassle to threaten or deal with and necessity demanded she be by Clint's side. The nurses and paperwork be damned.

Stark hated chess. It was too much patience and thought and while, yes, he could defeat you within three moves, he nonetheless hated playing it. Sitting around and watching your opponent stare at tiny crafted pieces on a checkered board-it just wasn't his ideal pastime.

So, he avoided it, even as the wave of interest in the game swept over those in the tower.

It all began with Barton, which was surprising and yet not at the same time.

Barton was, believably, very good at chess. He had the patience and observance to spot moves well before even his opponent saw them, and he calculated quite well. Barton's games played out very neutral until the final stretch, where he'd pull out a string of victories and by the time you caught up to his strategy, he already had check mate.

Not to say his victories against anyone in the tower were ever easy.

Steve surprisingly was decent at the game, usually with a strategy of frontal charging. He'd put up a good enough fight, executing his moves well enough, and Stark gave him credit that he did know a thing about formations and battle strategy and playing to the strengths of your components.

But Barton always snuck up on him.

Banner indulged in chess the least, save for Stark, but rather enjoyed it. He always found Barton formidable and gave him the best run for his money. Banner was a gracious loser, always smiling and shaking Barton's hand after, and despite how silently the duo played the game, whenever Stark witnessed or watched it, the duo always appeared to thank each other like they'd just had some in depth conversation, played out in the silence of dragging each piece across the board.

Stark didn't understand it.

Thor at first was, expectedly, easy to beat. He didn't understand the rules and frequently had to be corrected on which pieces moved in what ways. However, once he picked up on the gist of the piece's movements, he was much more difficult. Like Steve, he had knowledge in battle formations and his upbringing as a future king didn't exactly leave his mind dull. Nonetheless, this was chess, not a battle, and his games didn't last very long. Not to say they were a walk in the park, but they were short.

Natasha actually appeared to give Barton the hardest time. Her methods usually resorted to cheating and emotional distraction. On anyone else, it worked flawlessly. On Barton, depending on his mood and whether he wanted to humor her or not, she rarely could rouse him with batted eyelashes or verbal gimmicks to distract his concentration (That being said, Steve was the easiest for Natasha to beat).

Still, Stark had once witnessed a true game between the two, where Natasha didn't try to distract Barton through verbal ticks and what not. It was a silent game that consisted of Barton starring at the board for nearly five minutes, before flickering his eyes up to Natasha, and some how coming to the silent agreement of a draw. The two had withdrawn from the game, exiting the room one after the other, leaving a baffled Stark as to what just transpired (He looked at the board; Barton had a clear victory in three moves, So some treaty of sorts had passed between the two that Stark doubted he'd ever understand, though he'd use to support his theory of their involvement with one another).

There even was an occasion where Barton played Pepper. Pepper held her own well enough, and they were pleasant throughout the game, but Barton naturally won.

Steve had offered to play against Stark on several occasions, to which Stark declined.

Banner had suggested a game once during a break from their formula concocting. Stark ignored it.

Thor boomingly request a game, and Stark politely waved it off.

Natasha snidely joked about Stark's inevitable loss, to which he shot back with some snide remark amongst thousands on her relationship with Barton.

Natasha punched him in the nose for it.

Barton, however, never once asked Stark. He might look up from a game or two, notice Stark watching intently as he played out his inevitable victory, and smirk. But, he never called the billionaire out on it or for a game, and it was left at that.

Until one day, Stark walked in on Barton playing virtually no one. The board was set, but he had no partner.

Stark swallowed his pride, and spoke up. "I'll play you."

Barton said nothing, merely waiting for Stark to settle in behind the row of white pieces.

"You're pretty good, I'll admit," Stark blurted, half way through the game with only two pawns left and a couple key players still unmoved. Barton propped his chin in his hand, eyeing the board.

"You don't play much," He countered, more a fact than a compliment. "Why's that?"

Stark frowned, "I'm not fond of others-" Barton knocked a knight into one of Stark's remaining pawns, "-taking my things."

Barton flashed a quick grin.

Exactly three minutes and twelve second later, Barton had won.

"I think...you're afraid of someone taking your queen."

Stark snorted.

"Straight to the point, are we?"

"Your whole defense was around protecting her. The moment you lost your queen, your king was vulnerable. That's the kind of strategy you had."

Stark looked unimpressed.

"Your strongest piece was also your weakness," Barton continued, philosophically as he placed each piece delicately back into the box set they'd come from.

Stark frowned.

"Isn't that only natural? You want to protect the most valuable asset. Pawns can be thrown away, that's why they're pawns."

Barton shrugged.


Curious, Stark leaned against the wall, eyeing Barton.

"And how do you play?"

Barton smirked.

"Sacrifices have to be made. But, I don't tend to favor one piece above another. If they can all get the ob done, if any given piece can take out an opponents, aren't they all just as valuable?"

Stark snorted.

"You honestly believe that?"

Barton shrugged, his own smile dropping.


Stark eyed Natasha, composed as ever as she leaned against the wall. Steve looked frozen, somewhere between terror and pain. Banner was a frigid ball of nerves, and even Thor looked shaken. Natasha, however, hardly broke a sweat, three hours into Barton's second surgery.

Finally, he snapped, anger boiling over.

"Don't you think you're being a little too heartless about all this? Isn't he your damn partner?"

"This is the repercussion that comes with our line of duty. We both knew what we were getting into the moment we became what we are."

"I don't remember hearing you had a choice," Banner uncharacteristically added, a hint of irritation in his voice. Natasha glared back.

"Barton did."

Steve said nothing, and Natasha knew it was because he, regrettably, knew exactly what she was talking about. But, he didn't agree with it any more than she did, except she did a better job at hiding her dissatisfaction.

"So, do you want us to go ahead and save your seat at the funeral or would that be too much trouble as well?"

She flared up at this, "He isn't dead, Stark!"


In an instant, Stark was on the ground, Natasha sprawled on top of him with her fists flying at his face. Steve yanked her off a second later, but not before Natasha got in a good hit tot he billionaire's nose, leaving a trickle of blood from it.

"Oh, so they did program emotions into your prototype. And here I thought Shield didn't have the technology."

"Shut it, Stark," Natasha warned. There was no point in hiding her emotions now-she'd already been compromised. She'd let Stark get to her, and there was no turning back now.

Of all the times, it had to be now that she finally snapped. She was already vulnerable and tense, apprehensive and to top it off Stark couldn't keep his damn mouth shut. She threw her glare to the wall, not wanting to face the others at that moment. Steve refused to let her go yet, however.

"You know, I always suspected you were somehow engineered to feel nothing, but I thought maybe I would've been wrong at least when the exception was Barton. I guess not even he means something to you-"

"Stark, enough," Steve warned.

"You think I don't feel a damn thing for Barton?" Natasha finally snapped, yanking herself free of Steve who let her go. Stark flinched as Natasha approached, but she didn't make to hit him so he held his ground.

"What good is crying and wailing going to do for him, though, huh?" She questioned, her eyes firm set on Stark as she spoke.

"It's not..." Her voice cracked, and like a wave rolling over, her shoulders dropped and her fingers twitched, an uncontrollable shiver shaking her body over. "He won't...just..."

Tony reacted just as she collapsed, catching her. Steve was by her side in an instant, and Banner was already directing the two to drop her in a seat. Thor stood by, alert and stiff, as they worked to lower Natasha into a chair.

"Natasha, calm down. Stay with us," Steve soothed, not sure how to handle the situation. Banner gripped at her hand.

"Hey, it's going to be alright, remember? Remember what you said, remember? You swore on your life that we'd get through this. Remember?"

She didn't respond to either of them. Stark ran a hand through his hair, sighing.

"Agent Romanov, if I was Agent Barton, right now, and I saw you like this, how'd you think I'd react?"

She jerked her head up to face him, the others following to pass questioning looks on where exactly Stark was going with this. First he patronized her, now he chided at her-

"As Tony Stark, I don't like to see you like this, but as Barton, it's probably just killing me inside. I'm...Well, I'm sorry about what I said," He muttered. "You're not heartless. We're all just..." Scared.

Scared to loose a piece, who willingly sacrificed himself to get his queen to safety.

Stark gritted his teeth.

All that talk about how each piece was valuable, and he'd gone and played just like Tony; he'd sacrificed a pawn, himself, for his queen. Because she's the most important...

"Son of a bitch," He mumbled softly, so Natasha wouldn't hear. He'd definitely have to have a talk with Barton when he woke up over chess strategy...

Barton woke up to Natasha sitting at his side. He smiled weakly at her, before noticing that they weren't alone. He eyed between the blurs of unmistakable figures.

"The whole gang, huh?" He coughed.

"Fury wouldn't fit," Stark joked dryly. Barton grimaced, turning back to Natasha, who was the only one close enough that he could make out clearly.

"Did we win?"

Natasha scowled, but Stark spoke before she could.

"Funny thing about that, you and me really need to play a game of chess sometime," Stark implied, leaning in accusingly at Barton. Clint suspected what Stark was talking about, but left it as a silent promise that they'd play once they got home.

Natasha looked less amused.

"Clint...don't you dare-"

"Where are we?"

Steve spoke up.

"The hospital. About six blocks from-"

"How'd we get here?"

"I drove," Steve beamed.

Barton looked to Natasha for conformation, who slowly nodded.

"Well, I'll be..." He coughed, slowly sitting up. "How long have I been out?"

"A day. The doctors insist you need to stay another week, at least."

Barton shook his head.

"That won't do." He winked at Thor, who was second closest other than Natasha.

"The Olympics start this week, big guy. Don't hate me, Cap, but when it comes to gymnastics...America is great and all, but have you seen the Japanese..?"

Thor smiled, nodding as he laughed half-heartedly. "I look forward to the viewing of the events with you, Barton."

Barton nodded slowly. "There's still archery," He mused, his eyes rolling back a bit as he slumped forward, Natasha catching him.

"You need to rest. Come on, Clint, get some sleep."

His hand weakly gripped at her arm as she set him back.

"You won't go anywhere, will you? You'll be here..?"

Banner began to shake his head, "Barton, we can't all stay-"

"-Yes." Natasha cut him off, running her thumb along his temple. "I'll be here, Clint, alright? Get some sleep."

Banner looked between Stark and Steve, "Can she..?"

Steve scoffed, shaking his head in warning to best leave that one at that.

Clint slurred, "I might need more than three days, this time, Nat..."

She smiled.

"Alright...how's four?"

He smiled just as he slipped back to sleep.

"You know how to diffuse a bomb?" Stark asked, skeptical as he dodged yet another heat seeking missile. These bastards were persistent, he noted.

Through the com, he could almost hear the frown Natasha was sending him for daring to doubt her partner. Barton seemed more amused as he chuckled (and though Stark missed it, tipped his head in a slight nod),

"It's come up in my profession once or twice. Secrets, remember, Stark?"

"Just take care of the decoys, we have the bomb covered," Natasha snapped, fidgeting despite herself from a little ways off from her partner. "Steve, how's the front line coming along?"

Her com link was answered with a grunt and the sound of a screech of tires.

"I still can't parallel park."

"Who can," Stark grumbled.

"Anyone seen Banner?"

There was a faint roar, and a quick answer from Thor, "He appears to be at my left." There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. Natasha would have to discuss with Stark what all they taught the Thunder God; one teammate with a snarky habit was enough.

"Since I'm one wire cut away from blowing us both to smithereens, is now a bad time to confess I love you?"

Scratch that, two snarky asses.

"Barton, you're breaking up." Natasha dead panned. Clint was just a few yards away, well within view, and she made sure he had looked up, watching her, as she removed her ear piece momentarily to sell the joke. Even from this distance, she saw him wink.

"Ouch, Romanov," He winced, holding a hand to his chest, "Come on now, it's only been a few days since I was shot...like rubbing salt in the wound-"

"Whose fault is that?"

"Is this a couple's quarrel I hear?" Stark mocked through the comm. Natasha rolled her eyes and Barton turned his attention back to the wires.

"I hope this doesn't take all day...I'm missing the Opening Ceremony..."

Natasha puffed her cheeks out dramatically, feigning irritation as she set her hands on her hips.

"Excuse me, but wasn't it our movie we had to pause for this mission?"

Clint smiled.

"You're absolutely right. I'll have Jarvis record the Opening Ceremony. Which reminds me, we still need to have that talk..."

"I still owe you a good punch-"

Clint coughed.

"Right, we'll talk later. Quiet, Tasha, I need to concentrate, I've got a bomb here-"

He clearly saw her raise her middle finger at him. He smirked.

"I'm serious...about I'm in lo-"

"Later, Barton. The bomb?"

He sighed.

"You're impossible...I don't know any man who could ever marry you," He mumbled.

There was several coughs and "Eh-hms" through the com of the various members.

"What was that? Why did you guys all just-"

"Barton, the bomb."

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