one girl revolution
an Avengers MCU story
Steve/Clint
26 000 words
by dirty diana

written in 2013 and 2014. always-a-girl AU and not The Winter Soldier compliant. content note for Claire making Steve feel different ways with her unabashed sexuality and inappropriate dirty talk. Claire in this fic is a character who has sex with her friends, or maybe just makes friends with the people she has sex with. I prefer not to tag for past or minor pairings but they will be in there.
This story was awesomely beta'd by Liss/inalasahl, grazie mille.

Captain America is staring at me.

It was a slow, sleepy morning in the Avengers Tower kitchen. She'd texted Natasha from beside the sink, and could almost hear the eyeroll with the response that came back. Do you want me to beat him up for you?

Claire Frances Barton grinned down at her phone before responding with another non-sequitur. do you think he has a super-soldier sized dick?

"Pardon me," Steve said, as he reached awkwardly around her for a refill from the coffee pot. Claire fought the urge to hide the screen of her iPhone, like a kid caught writing gossipy notes in class. Even super soldier vision wouldn't be able to read her texts with the screen tilted away from him, but she turned it face down just in case. Her phone buzzed again, against her palm.

Huge.

Claire laughed out loud. Steve frowned at her over his coffee cup, then looked away.

*

It wasn't like Claire wasn't used to people looking at her. Used to the things that they said about her, things she sometimes wanted them to say. It was nobody's fucking business how fast she dressed or how fast she lived. Not unless she wanted it to be.

Steve's stares were different, somehow. Captain America different. Jesus, she was such a fucking cliche. Like Coulson, who had enlisted with the Rangers because of Captain America's heroic shoulders and stalwart blue eyes, and died for much the same reason.

Steve looked at her, not just as if he were judging her appearance, but as if he were seeing right through to her soul.

Sometimes she skipped breakfast in the communal kitchen, and got coffee and granola from the cart in the lobby. She wasn't hiding, exactly. Just making things simpler for the both of them.

Natasha said, "Maybe you just want him to fuck you."

Claire couldn't help rolling her eyes. "Every disappointed housewife in Middle America wants that. How fucking boring."

*

"Heads up, Hawkeye. Nine o' clock. I'm coming in hot."

Claire glanced upwards in time to see Iron Man on her left, decelerating as he flew past her. The massive creature that had been following him let out a sharp cry as a taser arrow embedded itself in thick, dark fur and released its charge.

She'd seen a lot in her years with SHIELD, and yet somehow, every new mission, it turned out she hadn't seen it all. The beast was tall, perhaps almost two stories, though it rarely drew itself up to its full height. It preferred instead to move around on all fours, surprising the whole team with its speed when it did so.

She hated dealing with creatures like this, more than the megalomaniacal and superpowered. At least with those assholes, they always knew what insane ends the destruction was meant to achieve.

The creature roared reflexively against the pain of Claire's last shot, but it didn't seem to slow down. Instead it smashed through the plate glass of another storefront, crushing the shards to dust beneath its paws and beating the ground with its tail.

Claire voiced the thought that had been bothering her since they arrived on scene. "I don't like that we don't know what this is or where it came from. What if there's some regular person in there?"

Like Banner and the Hulk, she didn't need to explain.

"I know, Hawkeye." Steve's voice was patient and firm in her ear. "Disable or capture only."

"You know that just means Nick wants R&D to torture it after we've finished, right?"

"Hawkeye."

"I'm just saying."

"It's hurt two people already. We have to work with what we know."

The beast had appeared two hours ago underground at the 125th Street subway station. The 911 calls had started coming shortly after that, asking for the Avengers to come take care of the problem. It was a common request. All six members of the Avengers had rarely fought together since the Battle of New York, but Claire had gotten used to working with whoever was available, in tandem with the SHIELD agents who were often first on the scene. Today she had Captain America and Iron Man on her flank, but they'd only succeeded in drawing the creature's attention.

Stark's thrusters lit up, accelerating into the sky and hovering a safe distance from sharp, angry claws. His voice was clear over the comms, reverberating from inside the suit. "I wish we had Hulk here. He could just pick it up and carry it to base."

"Or Thor. He could translate."

"That doesn't always," Steve began, but he was cut off by the roar as the creature changed its erratic course again, doubling back towards Claire's position.

SHIELD HQ had deployed agents to clear the streets and get people to safety. But this was Manhattan, and the streets could never really be clear. "Captain America!" someone shouted out. "Hit 'em harder!"

The monster swerved towards the sound. Steve's reflexes were the fastest, as he aimed his shield with perfect accuracy at its midsection. Giant paws reached out, but couldn't quite match the speed as red, white, and blue impacted with a dull thud, before rebounding off a streetlamp and returning to Steve's expert grip.

The unseen spectators let out a yell of approval.

"Fucking jaded New Yorkers," Claire muttered under her breath.

"Hey, now. Steve isn't so bad."

"Avengers. That's enough."

From Steve's disapproving tone, he had had enough of the comm chatter. He hurled his shield again. Each impact caused obvious pain to the creature, but not actually enough slow it down for long.

Steve seemed to have the same thought. "We can't run it in circles forever. If anybody's got an idea for landing a big one and wrapping this thing up, I'm listening."

"Electric shock arrows aren't working." Claire listed the facts, as she always did when she ran into a problem in the field. Sometimes obvious things weren't obvious until she'd said them out loud. "Distance shots aren't working at all. We need to try get up close."

"Great idea, Hawkeye." Stark, sarcastic as always. "Should I ask it to stand still?"

"Might have better luck distracting it with your shiny red ass."

"It does seem to like you, Iron Man," Steve agreed. "Think you can keep it moving clockwise around the block?"

"On it." Iron Man's repulsors grew louder in sound as he lowered himself closer to the ground, still hovering just out of the beast's reach."

"Hawkeye, see if you can get a little higher. I might need you to cover me."

Claire readied her grappling arrow. "Copy."

She was up on another roof, startling the nearby pigeons, in as much time as it took Steve to get down the street. The monster was already coming around the block, with Iron Man close on its tail. Steve aimed his shield at the monster's head, the throw whizzing by its nose in what almost looked like a mistake. But Claire recognised the move, as one they'd practiced more than once. The creature twisted, eyes flashing as it attempted to evade the red and gold suit, and the red, white and blue shield that were now whizzing towards it at opposite angles. Steve was already coming from a third direction, launching himself off a lamppost straight at the beast's neck.

In the sterile environment of the training rooms, with Natasha's balletic agility to lend support, the move was always perfect. Here Steve's hand had barely touched the post that he had claimed as a lever, before both Steve and the creature were distracted by a broken scream.

Where Steve should have landed on the thick, furry neck with his shield firmly in hand, he was instead shaken to the ground, empty-handed. Close enough to the civilian whose hiding place had nearly been crushed, to reach out a gloved hand, and pull her away. But now, they were both defenseless.

The creature dropped down onto all fours. Iron Man's repulsors still whirred, but cold yellow eyes were fixed on closer quarry.

Claire reacted instantly. A second grappling line swung her towards the scene. She was on top of the beast now, astride its broad neck. It was definitely warm-blooded, veins throbbing hotly beneath the fur. Claire had no time to further consider the 0-8-4's anatomy, or to respond to Steve's voice in her ear.

She pulled the remaining tranq arrowheads out of her quiver, and used all her strength to bury each of them as far beneath the skin as she could. Task completed, Claire barely had time to reach up and grab onto a passing metal arm. Stark swept overhead and pulled her away, as the creature toppled over.

*

Sometimes she thought about the texts she would send to Coulson, if Coulson were still her team lead. phil, Captain America is staring at my tits again. bet you're so jealous.

She thought about the stupid jokes she would make, if it were Phil's debriefing that she'd delayed for the umpteenth time. "Sorry I'm late, Sir. Captain America was just telling me how great I am."

Maria Hill simply didn't have the same sense of humour. Steve Rogers, as far as she could tell, had no sense of humour at all.

*

"We have leaders in the field for a reason, Hawkeye."

"Technically I've been at this longer than you have, Grandpa." The fight was finally over. They'd left cleanup to the SHIELD field agents that had swarmed in from the perimeter like ants, and retreated to the restricted access floors of the downtown headquarters. Claire had been given a clean bill of health by their on-site medics, but she was still tired, sore, and increasingly low on patience. She didn't need this lecture, or Steve's tight expression of disapproval.

She just wanted to go take care of her bow and head home. "I know how it works in the field. But sometimes there's not enough time to ask for permission, and no one else close enough to get it done."

"What if it hadn't worked?" Steve demanded.

Claire shrugged. "What if you'd been squashed flat like a pancake? You're welcome, by the way."

"A million things could have gone wrong, Claire."

"SOP is to fall back, and you know it."

"Do I?" Claire cocked her head at him, brandishing a smile that filtered into her low, dangerous tone. "Maybe I just wanted to be a bad girl. Tell me more about how bad I am, Daddy. You gonna spank me, or use the whip?"

Steve stared at her, eyes wide in uncomfortable surprise. "That's not what this is about."

"No? You don't get off on scolding me to death? Telling me what a naughty girl I've been." She swayed closer to him, close enough to feel his breath rush past her, and he flushed a faint pink colour that ran across his cheeks and down the line of his throat. It took a lot to get this kind of physical reaction out of him, she'd noticed, whether in the workout room or in the field. When his emotions were close to the surface, though, it happened easily. Steve shifted, as if the movement could disguise the heat blooming under his skin. Claire couldn't seem to stop running her mouth now that she had caught his attention.

"Maybe you'd like to punish me, huh? Maybe I'd like it too."

"Hawkeye." He uses her call sign with a stern growl from the bottom of his throat. As if to pull her back to this time and place, in the sterile SHIELD meeting room in a dirty battle suit. "That's more than enough."

Claire shook her head, before turning her back on him, towards the door. "Sure thing, Captain. Whatever you say."

*

miss you, she texted Natasha, before taking a maximum strength muscle relaxant and falling sleepily into bed. that mission was one hundred percent balls. I hope the ukrainians needed you more than we do.

Natasha's reply came in the form of a link to Reddit, where bystander footage of her swinging onto the creature's back had already amassed hundreds of comments.

*

She didn't really expect to become friends with Tony Stark when she moved into Stark Tower. Claire appreciated the invitation, the needed change of scenery. She just didn't expect much to come of it.

But Tony Stark had opened his home to her, like the eccentric billionaire that he was, and his own living space in the building's penthouse was always stocked with good booze.

He flirted with her almost daily, but it was an automatic reflex with no real intent behind it. She'd watched him do the same to bartenders and junior field agents, turning on the aggressive charm that he'd been born with. Claire flirted back out of her own habit and they laughed at each others' jokes, crudely sexual but signaling no real intentions.

Stark was obsessively in love with his CEO girlfriend, Claire could tell, and any flirting they did was simply habit. Lazy, with no intent behind it. Stark would probably panic if ever there was intent, Claire thought. She didn't really get why anyone would choose monogamy, but Tony Stark obviously had.

Sometimes his girlfriend curled up on the couch beside them, listening to dirty stories with a glass of wine and a patient expression. Natasha never joined them, and Claire wondered what might have been left out of the SHIELD report. If Tash had had an impossible crush on the other redhead, she would never admit it.

"What's going on with you and Cap?"

"Nothing."

"Is that what all the yelling was about? Just asking," Stark added, in response to her sharp glare.

"Nothing's going on," Claire repeated, as she drained her glass in two gulps and held it out for a refill. "He should keep his condescending opinions to himself."

"Maybe you should go easy on him." Pepper sounded tipsy, belying just a thread of the shrewd negotiator that she was in the daytime. "He's from a different time. He's not exactly used to everything that gets thrown at him these days."

Claire shook her head, rolling her eyes. "That's bullshit. I've worked with a hundred guys just like him. If they don't like the way I act, don't like that I'm a woman or whatever, then that's their problem. Not mine."

No matter how much expensive whiskey he had put away, you couldn't always tell how drunk Stark was. Not unless he wanted you to. Tonight he simply stared at her, his expression steady. "I think you're leaving out an option, Legs."

She's never worked out if Tony's actually noticed her legs, or the name is another fictional archer reference. She stays away from asking him outright. "What option?"

"I think Tony is trying to say that maybe Steve doesn't mind that you're a girl. Maybe that's what's making him so, um, awkward. Right?"

"We can pretend I was going to phrase it like that, sure," Tony answered. Pepper hid a small smile.

"Still not my problem," Claire answered bluntly.

"Because you don't have a problem."

"Nope."

Tony gazed at her, brown eyes clear and slightly challenging. "You just hate him for absolutely no reason."

At that, Claire raised her eyebrows. "Is it getting a little windy over there in your glass house?"

"I don't hate him either," Stark grumbled. "Steve and I, we're BFFs." Pepper giggled, tucking her head against her boyfriend's neck. Stark reached out automatically, stroking her hair.

"BFFs? When should I schedule the matching tattoos, Mr. Stark?"

"Ms. Potts, you know you're the only one I want to get a matching tattoo with. Dancing girls? His and hers hepatitis shots?" He grinned, and leaned down to kiss her.

Claire left their suite in the early morning, just as the kisses started getting messier and more frequent. Pepper was always looser with the PDAs once she'd had a couple glasses of wine, and inevitably sober and embarrassed the next morning.

Tony Stark had absolutely zero shame, which was one of the things that Claire liked about him.

*

"Agent Barton, your presence is requested in Laboratory B." JARVIS' voice startled her, cutting through the buzz of her hair dryer.

"Right now?"

There was a pause, probably JARVIS relaying the question, and then Stark's voice sounded through the intercom. "Get your cute ass down here, Barton. Won't even take five minutes."

Claire scrambled into worn-in jeans and a cotton t-shirt, tying up her messy, half-dry hair. She'd expected to be greeted by the usual wall of loud sound, guitar-driven music intertwined with the banging and whirring of mechanical activity. Instead the workshop was quiet, and Tony and his robots weren't alone. Steve stood by corner, in casual street clothes, arms crossed over his wide chest. He nodded when he saw her.

"Hawkeye."

"Cap." She was pretty sure she was scowling, and pressed her lips together quickly to force some semblance of a neutral expression.

"Great, everybody knows who everybody is." Stark barreled dismissively through the tension with a wave of his wrist. "Come over here and look at this. J?"

A glowing blue display lit up in the middle of the room. Steve frowned at it. "It's a map of Manhattan."

"No." Small dots were glowing harder than others, and Claire recognised them immediately. "It's a map of Monday's fight."

Tony grinned. The charismatic salesman that he'd been in a past life would never quite let him skip directly to the point, but for once he seemed to jump over much of the preamble, tapping the map to zoom in closer. "You're both right. It's a map of local seismic activity on Monday afternoon."

"Earthquakes?" Steve asked. "I didn't feel anything."

"No, none of us would have. Didn't hit the tower. Just these specific locations, one after the other."

That caught Claire's attention, and she put down the gadget she'd been idly playing with. "Do earthquakes actually work like that?"

"Nope. I emailed the data to Bruce and he agreed, we've got someone or something with the ability to trigger targeted seismic disruptions. Dad's rolling over in his coffin. He could never quite control the inputs or outputs on that one. He..."

"Tony," Steve broke in sharply, to pull Stark back on topic. "What does this have to do with the fight on Monday? You think that thing we fought made the ground shake?"

"Nah. I've been following the progress at Area 51 and he's been tested pretty thoroughly. And gently," he added, throwing an apologetic look Claire's way. "For SHIELD, anyway. No sign of any special powers, besides hitting hard and smelling funny. No, current working theory is that our furry giant was more of an unwanted side effect. The moving ground probably disturbed wherever it lives."

"Under the subway tunnels." Steve grimaced. "Those urban legends have been around since I was a kid. But side effect of what, exactly? Why would someone use a power or a weapon like this in a crowded city?"

"Money? Politics? Mental illness? There are lots of reasons for domestic terrorism," Caire pointed out. "But there hasn't been any bragging. Or demands."

"Nope. That's why I sent everything to Banner. It's his kind of mystery."

Steve frowned, still staring at the lights that shone steadily on Tony's display. Threats to his hometown still bothered him more than most, something that he would never admit. "Okay," he said, finally, drawing the meeting to a close. "If Doctor Banner finds me something to hit, just let me know."

*

"Hey," Claire hung around until Steve had left. Tony was already picking up a screwdriver and turning towards another project when she spoke. "How did Banner seem to you?"

Stark glanced up, studying her for a moment before answering. "Same as always. Doing okay. Still paranoid."

"It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you."

"Ross has been out of the picture for a while, as far as anybody knows. And if trouble popped up, he'd be better off with the rest of us looking out for him." Stark repeated old arguments with an unimpressed frown. "Bruce is just being a drama queen."

Claire bit back a wry smile. "He stays in touch, though."

That was definitely an improvement over the early days. Stark nodded. "Yeah. And the data interested him. Maybe we'll see him in town one of these days."

*

Claire had just settled into the tower when Stark had disappeared abruptly to the left coast. He'd been increasingly a mess before he left, in ways that were both familiar and heartbreakingly obvious. More obvious, probably, than Stark himself had realised.

Months later he'd returned to Manhattan, having cheated death and terrible odds one more time. He looked like his old self, or like pictures of his old self that Claire saw in magazines when she was in line at the drugstore. He looked like he was in charge of himself again.

He'd said he wasn't making suits anymore. That had lasted all of eight months, but so far it seemed like the break had been good for him.

Stark was the name on the building, but Rogers' gentle, brooding presence had been more of a surprise. She wasn't entirely clear on why Rogers was around so much. He had his own place, one that wasn't even in New York. Stark had made that clear when she had moved in, bringing her few personal effects over the dark and musty two-room rental she'd had for years but never really lived in. "He says it's important for him to live like a regular person. What the fuck does that even mean?"

Claire simply shrugged, because she might not have a trillion dollars, but she didn't know a whole lot more about how regular people lived.

*

Claire wasn't sure what structures had been at this busy corner before Stark had broken ground on the tower, a concrete and glass monument to his genius. Now, even in a city full of landmarks, it's one of the most famous addresses in New York. Double decker tour buses drove by daily, and tourists posed with the modern artwork in the lobby. The cluster of paparazzi staking out the nearby pavement waxed and waned.

It had been quiet out front lately, up until Thor had flown back into town. Thor and Banner were the Avengers that were spotted the least often, and that made them the most interesting to a press that still argued over whether the alien and the monster were friend or foe.

Living in a place where anyone could find her should have made Claire nervous. It went against everything she'd been taught, against the rules that had kept her safe ever since she'd been on her own.

But for the first time in her life, she found that the silence and solitude of a small, Spartan, one-bedroom apartment was no longer what she wanted. Either that, or Tony's upside-down way of looking at the world was contagious.

*

Claire and Natasha had gone from "unnamed government agents" in the media coverage immediately following the invasion, to a favourite topic of both gossip sites and real news outlets. Natasha had been called into endless meetings to discuss "her future in the field", which she found equal parts frustrating and ridiculous. Natasha was a chameleon under any circumstances. A little fame wasn't going to stop her. In Claire's case ex-boyfriends had crawled out of the woodwork, just to tell America that The Amazing Hawkeye liked it doggy style.

Steve's expression grew increasingly cloudy as he read the morning news and editorials on his tablet. Technology always looked tiny in his hands, but he maneuvered it with comfortable grace. Claire shifted closer to him, craning her neck to read over his shoulder. The top of the article was adorned with a photo of her during the Battle of New York, expression shuttered and muscles straining to hold a steady draw.

"Why do you read that shit?"

Steve looked as if he didn't quite understand the question. "It's important. Public perception is extremely powerful."

Claire looked at the honest eyes and broad shoulders that had sold thousands of war bonds and driven enlistment rates long after he'd been listed KIA. He wasn't wrong, but it wasn't his responsibility. "SHIELD has people to monitor that stuff."

"I like to do things for myself. Other people have their own priorities." He paused, tilting his head. "Why do you let them say that stuff about you?"

Claire laughed, slouching away from Steve and draping her arms over the back of the bench. "I can't control what they say about me, any more than you can."

Steve frowned. Claire knew he was horrified by some of the things that his image had been slapped on, and some of the issues he'd been assumed to endorse. Tony took great pleasure in encouraging Steve to use CNN interviews and Youtube for impassioned counter-arguments, until Deputy-Director Hill had finally requested that both men cut it out.

"You're only making my job harder," she'd said.

But if he would always be an immutable icon in the national media, and never a real person, it wasn't from Steve's lack of trying.

"I don't bait them," Steve replied firmly. "You do."

Claire grinned, raising her eyebrows in a mock question mark. "I do?"

"You know you do." Steve placed his tablet beside his half-empty coffee cup, scrolling down to a new photograph.

The image was of her on the streets of New York, exiting a Starbucks with her usual iced latte in hand. Probably between runs to the dry cleaners or deli - it hadn't been any official appearance, but a day off. She'd spotted the paparazzo, and given him a flashy grin underneath her sunglasses. Still, most of the shots online focused stubbornly on her legs, lithe and muscular under a tiny denim skirt. Claire pressed her lips together, staring at the image of herself reflected back at her.

"Why do you dress like that, when you know what they're going to say about it?"

Claire threw her head back and laughed, brief and sharp. She'd gotten this lecture before, but never from a war hero. "Seriously, Cap? We had this little thing while you're asleep, it's called feminism. You could look it up on Wikipedia. Means I can wear whatever the fuck I want."

Steve's unhappy expression didn't change. "We had that before. Peggy - Margaret Carter - most of the guys didn't like that a dame could give them orders. And they definitely didn't like the days she chose to wear pants."

She smiled at that without meaning to. Peggy Carter was for many female agents what Steve was for others, an inspiration that had moved them even before they'd settled on this career. And Steve rarely talked about the past that for him, was barely yesterday. "What did you think of it?" Claire asked.

Steve shrugged, his tone turning wistful. "I thought she was really something great. And I didn't think it was fair that people expected her to wear the skirt all the time, when she had to live in that muddy camp with us. So don't talk to me like I'm the enemy." Steve's gaze shifted, focusing sharply on her once more. "What you're doing isn't that."

"No? What exactly am I doing, besides refusing to follow orders like a good girl? Besides dressing like a-"

Steve interrupted, tone hard. "Don't call yourself that."

"Why not?" She'd moved back into his space without warning, close enough to smell the aftershave on his skin. "Isn't that what you think?"

"No. I think you're a hero, Hawkeye. And I think everything about you is amazing. You shouldn't let people think you're something else."

"I see." She pushed down the feeling that burned in her stomach after the word 'hero', studying his face up close, as if that would help her decipher his thinking process. None of the specials on the History Channel mentioned this, the tendency of Steven Grant Rogers to see things only in black and white. "You think I'm just misunderstood."

"Well, yes." His fingers danced lightly over the tablet, over the image of her hips and her thighs. "Aren't you?"

"Maybe. Maybe not in the way that you think. I wasn't wearing any underwear that day."

She says it calmly, as if she's telling him it's raining outside, and he freezes. "What?"

"You heard me. Imagine if I'd dropped my purse and bent down to pick it up. They would have gotten a pretty shot of my ass, or my pussy slit."

Steve's skin began to flush a mottled pink. Of anger, or arousal, or disapproval. Claire couldn't tell, but the sensation of frustration snaking through her belly morphed into warm satisfaction at the sight. "Still think I'm misunderstood?"

Steve inhaled and exhaled a deep breath, as if steeling himself against a charging opponent. The blush crept further up his face, settling across his cheeks. "You like making me uncomfortable."

She hadn't expected him to call her on it so bluntly. She lowered her head in apology, mingled with unexpected shame. "I guess that I do. Sorry, Cap. You're too much fun to mess with. But you don't have to worry about me. I can handle the whispering."

The expression on his face said that he didn't necessarily believe her, about any of it. But he nodded, falling silent and turning back to his morning reading.

*

There's a time and a place for misbehaving. Agent Coulson had tried to teach her that, a long time ago. She'd been barely more than twenty-five, then, grinning at him across a cold safehouse floor. "Think you might be missing the point of misbehaving in the first place," she'd said. Then squirmed in warm, messy agitation beneath his dry, stern gaze.

"No," he'd answered, quietly. "I understand your game quite well, Agent Barton."

*

Claire went down to the range after that, releasing the wrought tension she was carrying with bullseye after bullseye. She'd never needed to picture the face of an enemy on the target. She simply allowed her bow to speak to her, let it heal and soothe.

Steve was young, as young as she'd been when Coulson had recruited her. He'd done more amazing things than she had at that age, and yet seen much less. That youth was apparent every time her words flustered him, and yet maybe, like Pepper Potts had claimed, she wasn't being fair. Steve was doing a difficult job, one that no one else on the planet would try to imitate. Perhaps she didn't need to be another complication. There was a time and a place for misbehaving.

Claire thought of the way Steve had looked at the bare skin in the paparazzi photograph, and an arrow embedded itself just left of the target center. She swore, and took a moment to conquer her racing heart before trying again.

*

steve thinks I like making him uncomfortable, she texted hours later to Natasha.

The pause was long enough that Claire knew Natasha was considering a real answer; a helpful answer. Not everyone knows how to handle you.

you do. It wasn't intended to be a come-on when she typed it, simply a wistful truth. But the considering pause happened again.

Would that help?

I'll keep you posted, Claire replied. She tapped her brightly painted nails against the screen before adding, he's very young.

Yes, Natasha replied instantly.

Claire nodded, as if she'd decided something, and put her phone away. She could be good.

*

But nothing much changed after that. Between polite conversations that Claire kept brief and professional, Steve kept staring. She caught him looking over the breakfast table and in the elevator, in the hallways of SHIELD where he would never be just another agent. She would catch his gaze and grin, casually, until he looked away. But it became more and more of a chore, to smile at him as if being the object of his studied observation didn't affect her. As if her skin didn't itch to give him something more to stare at.

*

Have you tried talking to him? Natasha texted back, one day when Steve's shirt matched his eyes and those eyes seemed to be everywhere. Maybe he just wants to be friends.

maybe. Natasha didn't necessarily know what to do with a man who wasn't actively trying to sleep with her, any more than Claire did. But Claire decided against pointing that out.

Steve grinned brightly. Shit, maybe Natasha was right.

"Hi, Claire."

There was a coughing sound to Claire's right, and Maria Hill stood, gathering up the tray she'd been eating from. "Back to work. I'll see you in that meeting, Captain Rogers."

Steve nodded solemnly. "See you later, Lieutenant."

Claire frowned, glancing from Hill's retreating form to the pleasant lines that gathered around Steve's mouth in the wake of his smile. Hill might have a reputation as a robot, but Claire had worked with her long enough to know that she dated and fucked just like any flesh and blood human. If she had her eye on Steve, she wouldn't be the only woman on base keeping that watch.

Claire winced at the thought. It was never a good idea to cockblock your CO.

Steve's star-spangled smile was fading as he stirred his coffee. "Is everything okay?"

"Sure." She shifted, wondering how to phrase the question. "I was just hoping I hadn't interrupted anything."

Steve shook his head blandly. "Just boring work talk. What would you be interrupting?"

"Flirting."

Steve laughed, so hard that he had to put down the porcelain mug in his hand before the hot drink inside spilled over the sides. His face looked young, suddenly, looked his lived age in a way that it often didn't. "Oh, um. Wow. That's pretty funny."

Claire shrugged. "Wasn't trying to be."

"I know, and it's very thoughtful of you, honest. It's just that Lieutenant Hill hates me."

"Why would she..." Claire paused, trying to match Steve's statement together with the facts she already knew. Things didn't quite add, and Claire shook her head. "No. I mean, she kinda hates the Avengers Initiative. But she doesn't hate you personally."

"Pretty sure she does." Steve went back to sipping his coffee, but the amusement didn't fade from his voice.

"I'm a science experiment." His voice lowered slightly in timbre, giving his words the sound of a recital from memory. "One who can't be made to do anything, not really. I'm everything the deputy director hates about the Initiative, and to make things worse I'm trying to lead the whole shebang and call it a team. So trust me, she hates me."

The anger flooded Claire's body without warning, her hand tightening into a fist around her fork. "Steve. Does she say that shit to your face?"

"She's professional," Steve promised. "But flirting would pretty much guarantee a sock on the jaw. I could try it if you need some entertainment."

She laughed in response, forcing herself to push down the anger and keep up with Steve's light, friendly tone. "You wouldn't."

"Oh, God. You will have to tell me about those. But I'm not cruel enough to expose you to Hill's wrath for no reason." Claire made a face, remembering some of the more creative reprimands and punishments that she'd endured at Hill's will. "But I'll keep the dare thing in mind."

Steve winked at her, a movement so surprising that Claire almost missed his next words. "Figured you might."

She was still working out whether to pursue that train of thought, or find a new, neutral topic when her phone trilled. She tapped out a message, exchanging a few terse words with Sitwell, and then she was out of her seat.

"Gotta go, Cap."

He frowned at her, head tilting slightly. "Emergency?"

"Yes and no. Changing intel, op moved up to right the fuck now. You know how it goes."

Steve nodded, reminding her that he did know, that he'd been executing last-minute ops long before she was born. "Be careful."

She didn't quite promise that, but she smiled as she waved goodbye. Then she was running through the hallways in her black SHIELD uniform. The throng of agents silently parted to allow her passage the way that they'd all been trained to do. She grabbed her go bag out of her cluttered locker, then Sitwell was waving her into the jet twenty minutes later, telling her to strap in for takeoff. Claire pulled her phone out of the pockets of her uniform, and sent out one last message.

911 sheels up right now. Back in a few days. p.s that was terrible advice. steve is still being weird.

You like them weird.

in the sense that I like you, and you're weird? sure.

Be careful, was Natasha's answer.

*

She disembarked the same jet four days later, sweaty and tired. Claire found Steve Rogers waiting there on the helicarrier deck, looking as neatly pressed as when she'd left despite the late hour. Or early, Claire thought, glancing at her watch. Oh three hundred.

"Cap?"

"Hawkeye." He nodded politely at the SHIELD agents leaving the plane with her, but didn't shift from her side. "Do you need help with that?"

He was pointing at her black duffel. "No," Claire answered bluntly, adjusting her fingers on the handles for a tighter grip. Bored SHIELD agents could spin anything into gossip and she didn't really need to become known as Captain America's girlfriend right now.

He didn't argue, just escorted her below decks. It was a cool night on the Atlantic, windy above but still and warm inside. Claire frowned, something just now occurring to her. "Where's Natasha? She okay?"

It was an unofficial team ritual, that they would go down to the 'carrier to greet each other after each mission or incident. Even as a jaded SHIELD veteran Claire found it comforting, but usually Natasha was the one waiting silently at the Brooklyn docks.

Steve shook his head, glancing away from her and slightly sheepish. "She's fine. Just thought we'd switch out tonight. But I know you two are pretty close."

"I'm happy to see you, Steve." Claire said this quickly, before he could start apologising. "I was just wondering. Never had you for a mascot before."

"Oh." The awkwardness shifted to a pleased smile, as they stopped outside the women's lockers. "Well, I'll just wait here, then."

Of course he would. Claire offered him a quick, lazy salute before pushing the door open. "Fifteen minutes."

*

Apparently it was a a full-service pick up. Steve waited patiently, andthen drove her home. "Good mission?"

"Sure." Claire yawned reflexively, then shook her head as if shaking of the sleepiness. "Best kind. I didn't have to take a single shot."

"That's kind of a weird point of view for a sniper to have," Steve observed.

"I guess. But I've taken enough shots in my lifetime, you know?"

Steve nodded, silently.

At a quarter-to-four, the Brooklyn Bridge was as empty as it ever got, and Steve maneuvered a borrowed-from-Stark luxury car with just a little too much speed. That's something she wouldn't have guessed, and she grinned to herself.

Steve glanced over at the passenger side, frowning. "What?"

"Nothing, Cap. Just wouldn't have taken you for a speed demon."

"Oh." Steve's gaze dropped to the spedometer, and abruptly shifted gears to slow down. "Sorry."

Claire shrugged, sleepily. "Of all the drivers in the city, you've probably got the reflexes to back it up. Why be sorry?"

"Other than the risk of getting caught? And the setting a bad example for other drivers?" Steve asked her.

"You're a good guy, Steve. I like that."

With eyes half-closed, she could still hear the amusement in Steve's voice. "Yeah? Since when?"

"Shut up. Just because I like to give you a hard time, doesn't mean that I mind that you're a good person. It's just hard to live up to. That's all."

The silence that lapsed after that was thoughtful. Claire tilted her seat a little further back and drifted lightly into sleep.

*

She woke abruptly twenty minutes later, to the noise of the opening car doors. A warm, solid presence leaned over her, releasing the seatbelt, and then she was lifted out of the car in a firm bridal carry.

"Steve." She kicked her legs against him half-heartedly. "I can walk."

"Sure, I know you can. But it's no trouble." He tightened his hold slightly, as if afraid that she might leap out of his arms onto the asphalt. "Everyone's asleep, Claire. No one's gonna see. Except JARVIS."

"JARVIS takes pictures," Claire mumbled into Steve's wide chest. "And shows them to Stark."

"I won't let him," Steve promised earnestly, and Claire could tell by the echo of his voice that they were already inside the elevator. "Eighty-seven, JARVIS."

The doors closed in silence, and she must have fallen asleep again. Seconds later she was tumbling gently into cool, familiar sheets.

"See, that wasn't so bad," Steve whispered. Large hands were stroking her hair, before sliding a pillow underneath her head. "Night, Claire."

"Thanks, Steve," she murmured into the sheets. "Goodnight."

*

She slept deeply, awaking with the midday sun filtering through the curtains and onto her bed. Claire stretched, taking stock of her aching body. She was still in her jeans and blouse, button marks pressed into her skin. But her shoes, when she looked, were tucked neatly under the bed, side by side.

*

She saw Natasha the day after, for their semi-regular get together at a favourite local restaurant. It was a small, neighbourhood place, where the owner took their privacy seriously. Here they might be recognised as Avengers, but never approached or photographed. Plus it made excellent margaritas. Claire reached the bottom of the first one before she broached the subject.

"You sent Steve to pick me up."

Natasha eyed Claire unapologetically from behind her own glass. "Yes. I did. He was getting on my nerves."

"Well, Steve is annoying," Claire agreed. He'd been kind to her recently, but that didn't mean that she'd forgotten the many lectures on the value of teamwork. And communication. And punctuality. "Not that I mind having company in the Naughty Corner besides Tony Stark, but what did you do to piss Steve off?"

Natasha shook her head. "He wasn't angry. Worried. He kept texting me to ask if I'd knew how your mission was progressing. I don't know why he didn't just ask Hill."

"Hill doesn't like him," Claire answered without thinking, then pretended not to notice Natasha's curious glance in response.

"Hmmn. That's probably true. Anyway, I figured he could pick you up and see for himself."

Claire took a breath to reply, then held it for a moment as the server set fresh drinks down on paper coasters. She dragged one finger across the cold outside of the glass before licking away coarse salt flakes. "Oh, God. Was that your first time with Steve in fretful mother hen mode? He freaks out anytime any one of us is on any kind of mission."

"He wasn't worried about the team, Claire. He was worried about you."

Claire rolled her eyes. "Tash, I've heard enough of your brilliant theories about me and Steve. He worries about everybody on the team. If Fury ever changes the roster, he'll worry about them too." She kept talking, not stopping to think about the fact that she was the member whose tenure was likely to be the shortest. "He doesn't like that we can be called out on non-Avengers assignments that he can't know about or help with. He doesn't think it's fair to us or the team."

Natasha tilted her head to one side, blinking in thought. Natasha was an excellent cold reader, the best that SHIELD had, but she and Steve hadn't really spent that much time together. "Really?"

Claire nodded. "He and Fury pretty much got into a shouting match over it. Hill had to break it up."

"But Steve goes out on solo SHIELD assignments sometimes."

"Really," Claire answered with thick sarcasm, rolling her eyes before turning back to her appetizer. "Captain America is a little bit of a hypocrite. That's a complete shock to me, Natasha. Complete shock."

*

Claire spent the next two days in the downtown HQ dealing with post-mission paperwork, then she had a string of cool and rainy days off.

*

Bruce Banner had a suite of rooms in the tower just as Claire did, but so far he was hardly ever in residence. It was as if he was testing, not only his ability to leave, but his ability to come back. Making sure he could board a plane without getting arrested, and verifying that JARVIS still opened doors for him when he returned. Claire didn't know if it was a manifestation of Doctor Banner's own neuroses, or an off-beat pattern that soothed his alter ego. She didn't ask.

By unspoken consensus neither did anyone else. Mostly the team was simply glad to see him, every time he turned up in the Tower elevator with uncombed hair and a satchel full of dirty laundry. Natasha couldn't be called a friend of Banner's, but she wouldn't be ruled by her fears either, and his arrival would spark impromptu group dinners that Tony was absolutely banned from documenting on Instagram.

Claire liked Bruce. She appreciated how honest he was, the way that he wore his frustrations and triggers out in the open. She almost envied him that certainty that nothing physical would hurt him, but she would never say so to his face.

Today Bruce stepped gingerly off the elevator as if he wasn't sure of his welcome. Claire did a double-take, then laughed, moving swiftly towards him and wrapping both arms around him."Banner, what the fuck. I thought you were still in Malaysia. You promised to call, or text, or something. Someone would have picked you up."

Bruce might not have the massive size of his "other guy", but he was solid and warm and hugged like a champion. He squeezed her gently before releasing her to say, "I, uh. Had a ride, actually."

Before Claire could ask, the elevator slid open a second time, and Thor stepped out. He was in full battle dress, cape flowing and Mjolnir gripped confidently in his hand. He looked, as always, as if he'd stepped off the cover of a romance novel, and Claire grinned at the sight. The alien thing still made her nervous, but Thor wasn't his brother. Thank fucking god.

A few more steps, and Thor wrapped her up in a greeting hug of his own, with strength that lifted her cleanly off the ground. "Lady Claire. It is good to see you."

"I'm no fucking lady," Claire muttered, but she'd reminded him of that before. Thor didn't seem inclined to defer to her opinion. "Now, 'fess up. What are you both doing here? Are we assembling?"

She expected to get a negative answer, and lengthy explanations involving Doctor Foster or a sudden craving for New York pizza. Instead, the sudden silence told her that she'd hit the mark.

"Wait. We are?" She tugged herself out of Thor's superhuman hold, ruthlessly suppressing the sudden spike of adrenaline that chilled her skin. "Somebody explain what's going on."

"Hello, Thor. Doctor Banner." Steve appeared at the end of the hallway as if by stage cue. She recognized the even, placating tone of his voice, because she had heard it too many times before. "Why don't we all go sit in the kitchen?"

"Why don't you go fuck yourself?" was on the tip of Claire's tongue, but Steve didn't actually wait for an answer.

Neither did Bruce or Thor, with Thor's grip on her upper arm gently unbreakable, strong enough to pull her along for the handful of yards to kitchen table. Which meant they were all in on it, whatever the hell it was.

Claire threw herself into her usual seat at the breakfast table, scowling as she watched Steve operate the coffee maker. He got out four identical yellow mugs, stirring sugar into three and half and half into two, and Claire frowned as she watched. She knew that Steve's memory was excellent, coveted by every agent in the Intelligence division. But she had never realized that he used it for mundane information like how the team members took their coffee.

Banner was talking, in that steady way he did when he wasn't ready to acknowledge the swirling emotions in a room. When Bruce said that Thor had picked him up, apparently he meant that literally.

"You just flew into the air outside the Port Authority bus terminal?" Steve asked.

Banner shrugged, a smile creasing his soft brown eyes. "Yeah. There might be pictures of it on Instagram by now. Admittedly, when Natasha said she'd arrange a ride for me, I thought she meant a car and driver."

That caught Claire's attention. "Natasha knew you were coming?"

"Uh, yeah. I hope you don't think..." Bruce sighed. "Steve told me that some of the team didn't know yet, but I thought you would by the time I got here. I'm sorry."

"Sorry for what, Bruce?" Claire's voice was sharply cutting. Bruce hesitated down at the cup of coffee Steve was putting in front of him.

"Barton."

Claire scowled. "Rogers. Fuck you."

"Claire," Steve tried again, his voice softer this time. He pulled a chair beside her, putting a hand over her own. Claire pulled away. She hated being managed, being gentled like a horse. "No, fuck this shit, Cap. If you guys are kicking me off the team or whatever, then just say so."

Steve frowned. The tiny wrinkle that was forming between his eyebrows was the same one that appeared when he thought the twenty-first century wasn't making any sense. "Why would we be kicking you off the team?"

"Why, indeed." Thor was sipping his coffee enthusiastically, but he was frowning as well. "You are a worthy teammate, Claire. I would not be party to such a decision."

"Yeah? How do I know?"

"Let's just calm down," Bruce interrupted, breaking through the gathering storm. He didn't particularly look as if he needed the calm for himself, but Bruce was a championship poker player whose anger didn't always show until the last, dramatic moment. The room quieted, as it always would when Bruce invoked the specter of his emotions. "Claire, Thor and I are in town for the anniversary. They'll be unveiling the memorial."

Claire glanced from face to face as understanding dawned. Thor nodded somberly.

"Aye. I understand that it will be a grand monument, worthy of the dead who inspired it."

"The dead," she repeated, hands tightening into fists. "Loki's dead?" My dead? she didn't say, but it was clear from the crack of silence that everyone had heard it.

"No one blames you," Thor reminded her, but Claire didn't respond. She had learned not to argue. She'd had long conversations with Bruce about guilt, and responsibility, and the sad way he was looking at her now suggested that he remembered them all.

"We wanted to go to the unveiling as a team," Steve told her. "As Avengers."

A laugh bubbled up unexpectedly. "Avengers, huh? All of us? Tony agreed to this?" Because her issues might be raw and public, but she wasn't the only one who had them.

"We haven't talked to Stark," he admitted. "We will."

"He's probably on the engineering levels," she pointed out, but Bruce cut in before Steve could respond.

"Claire, it's fine. You don't have to do anything you're not ready to do. Neither you or Tony do." He paused, glancing at Steve warily as if he expected to be contradicted. "We want to be there, and we'll support you if you'd like to come. That's all."

Claire scowled. "Yeah? That's why the secrecy? And this..." she gestured around the table at all of them, "...intervention? Because it's totally up to me?"

"Yes." Bruce's voice was firm, betraying both the gentle scientist and the guy who kept the Hulk inside through sheer force of will. "It's completely up to you."

"We just didn't want you to be upset," Steve told her softly. Claire choked out a laugh, because that was fucking hilarious. Upset didn't have anything to do with this. This was pure guilt, guilt and sorrow that evidently were never going away.

"Okay. Sure. It's my choice." She curled her fingers around her coffee mug, savouring the sensation of heat that was nearly painful. She let go, abruptly, and the legs of her chair scraped against the marble tile as she stood. "I choose not to have this fucking conversation. Enjoy the unveiling."

*

Right now, her rooms just weren't far enough away. She took the elevator down to street level, and strode outside into the summer heat.

cap is looking for you. feel free to punch him for me.

Not that Stark would actually do it, or that it was a fight that he could win if he did.

Natasha, next. fuck all of you and your meddling "team" shit.

Can't imagine why we thought you would get upset.

Then, Sorry I wasn't there. Pulled into briefing.

Claire frowned worriedly at that one despite her still-warm anger. going somewhere? mission?

I'm an Avenger, Natasha responded, and she probably thought that was a complete answer. Shit, maybe that was her current assignment, making sure the team didn't fall apart. Making sure that Claire didn't fall apart.

There was a beat of a minute before Natasha added, So are you. Try not to kill Steve before I get there.

*

She'd spent the first anniversary of the Battle of New York in Egypt, pretending to be the kind of crazy bitch who liked the kind of assholes that hung out in war zones at the request of the highest bidder and talked about their rifles a lot. She wouldn't ever have expected to be thankful for a mission like that, but it had kept her out of New York, out of the range of reporters writing articles with titles like, Invasion: One Year Later. Then she'd come home and gotten drunk to the point of being numb, and called up an ex-squad-mate for no strings sex. By the time she'd resurfaced, news coverage had moved on to another tragedy.

Now it was almost two years later, a date that had snuck up on her somehow. New buildings had been built where the old ones had crumbled, as New York grew into the title of the city that had fought off a god. Nobody represented that more than the Avengers, and some days Claire was proud of that. Other days she felt raw, as if Loki's wounds were still fresh and barely scabbed over.

* Stark called her back two hours later, and she could tell by the reverberation of his voice through her phone that he was speaking to her through JARVIS' microphones. "Legs. Whiskey, my suite, ASAP." She exhaled, then looked up, finding that the street signs indicated that she'd already walked more than twenty blocks. "Fuck, yeah."

*

Claire kicked off her shoes and curled into the couch, savouring the smooth bite of her first drink. It was just the two of them in Stark's penthouse, with no sign of his girlfriend. Claire didn't understand their whole emotionally co-dependent thing, but she understood that not locking himself inside the lab and building bulletproof armour was a sign of growth on Tony's part. Tony simply functioned better when Pepper was around. Even Steve had been known to funnel scheduling requests through Pepper, and Claire wondered idly why Pepper hadn't gotten involved today.

"She's in Beijing," Tony told Claire when she asked. "I fucking hate Beijing."

Claire nodded sympathetically. They were both drinking bourbon in Tony's living room, watching the moon rise over Manhattan. Stark was dressed as if he'd come straight up out of the labs, in jeans and a t-shirt he'd probably owned since the 80s. "Did you get the 'It's totally your choice' speech?"

Tony shook his head. "Nope. Cap promised to hold my hand, though."

Claire giggled through the alcohol buzz that hung over her head like a warm, dizzy halo. "Really?"

"Or something about the team supporting each other. Whatever. I may have suggested that I had something else for him to hold."

She lifted her cup in salutation. "I should have thought of that. But Cap doesn't like when I say things like that."

"So?" Stark eyed her over the rim of his glass. "I thought you didn't care what he thought."

Claire hesitated. There wasn't any one response to that. She didn't, except for the days when she did. Stark wasn't in the mood to press her, though, and they let the subject lapse.

"So?" Claire asked, finally. "Will you be there?"

Stark shrugged. "Depends on how you define 'there', I guess."

"In the, Steve didn't say you had to be sober, sense? I like that plan."

"In the sense that Steve didn't say I couldn't be shot full of Valium. It's how I got through the anniversary," he added, with a slight frown on his lips that told her he wasn't joking. "My doctor made a housecall, the morning of. Barely even knew where I was. Definitely the way to go."

"I didn't know that." Claire felt guilty, suddenly, for being absent through the whole thing.

Stark shrugged. "Nobody knew. But Pepper said people would notice if I didn't show up, and constantly answering questions about why I hadn't been there would be worse. And she was probably right."

"Yeah." Claire considered the depths of her half-empty drink. "This fame thing is pretty shit, Stark."

"I know," Tony agreed, lapsing into silence for a long moment before finishing his thought. "It's a trade-off, though. Some of it is pretty shit, but you also get the power to do amazing things. Good things."

"I don't know if it's worth it," Claire admitted. Nobody had warned her about TMZ when she'd signed on to be an Avenger.

*

Natasha hauled her off Stark's expensive leather couch hours later. Natasha was stronger than her size would suggest, pulling Claire to her feet without visibly straining. Stark watched silently. He'd never quite gotten used to Natasha. Natasha had confessed that she wasn't sure if it was a symptom of how they'd met, or simply how Stark was around women that he couldn't properly charm.

"I thought I was over this," Claire murmured, draping herself sleepily over Natasha's shoulder.

Natasha didn't say anything to that. Claire hadn't expected her to say anything, about the too-real kind of nightmare that you never quite got over. Natasha was a realist, one who didn't fret over the things she couldn't change.

"I don't know why anyone would want me there." She mustered the last of her concentration to shrug out of her jeans and into her sleeping clothes. "I opened that gate. I let the Chitauri in. None of those names would even be on that stupid memorial if it wasn't for me."

Natasha's gaze was sharp. "You let them in?" she asked, patiently, like an elementary school teacher who was certain that her student had the tools to arrive at the right answer.

"Loki let them in." Claire flopped into her bed and inched over to the farthest side. The shrinks made her say the same thing, often enough that the words no longer held any meaning. The last psychiatrist had asked Claire if guilt was simply her ego talking.

But it didn't make her feel better, to imagine that any SHIELD agent could have done what she'd done, to think that the barrier between order and invasion was that thin. The idea scared her more than anything else.

"Stay, Natachenka?" She yawned, curling around herself and listening to the rustling sounds Natasha made as she shedded a layer of clothing.

Claire didn't expect to sleep, but she did, whiskey-warm with her best friend wrapped around her, breathing softly and steadily against her ear.

*The next day she shook off the hangover with two workouts, with a grueling hour spent on the range in between. She ended up on the rowing machine, driving her body as hard as she could, grunting on each forward stroke. Her body was covered in a faint sheen of sweat, clothes sticking to her skin, as she got lost in the rhythm of the exercise.

She came to an abrupt stop mid-stroke, as a recognisable shadow fell into her line of vision.

"Banner."

For a man who occasionally turned into a massive green ball of rage, Bruce moved quietly, almost apologetically, when he was in his own body. "Hi, Claire. I was looking for you.

"You found me." She took up the rowing movements again, more slowly this time than before. "Don't take this the wrong way, okay? But if you try to talk to me about feelings, I'll punch you in the face. Then me and the other guy can talk about feelings."

Bruce had pulled his glasses off, balancing the frames gently on his fingers. He squinted at her, a soft smile on his face. "I was just looking for a yoga partner, actually."

Despite her frustration, Claire couldn't help a smile. Bruce was much better at yoga than she was, but he didn't seem to mind and was a patient teacher. "That I could probably handle."

"Unless you'd rather spend time with the Other Guy."

"I thought he didn't like yoga."

"No, it bores him." Bruce shrugged. "That's pretty much why I do it. Meet me in the yoga studio in thirty minutes?"

*

"I'm sorry about yesterday."

Claire glanced up from her contortions on her yoga mat. "I thought we weren't going to talk about my feelings."

"Your feelings," Bruce answered, with the small, shy smile that was sometimes so rare. "These are my feelings. I'm sorry. I thought that Steve or Natasha would have talked to you by the time I got here, but that's not an excuse. And I meant what I said. No one's going to make you do anything you don't want to." Bruce's voice was just loud enough to remind Claire of his confession in the first few moments that she'd met him. I'm always angry.

"You don't have to be sorry. I'm not mad at you."

Bruce cocked his head to one side. "Sure. That was convincing."

"I'm not. I just hadn't thought about it. I lost track of the date, I guess." She sighed. "I was moving on."

Raised dark eyebrows indicated he still didn't believe her. Bruce stepped closer, and his hands reached out, settling against her hips and pushing slightly. "It'll be easier if you...like that."

It was easier. Claire breathed out, settling into the new balance. "Thanks."

They were silent for a while, as Bruce guided her through the last, difficult poses. "Feeling better?"

"A little, yeah." She rolled her shoulders, testing for remaining tension in her body, then smiled. "How did you know?"

"I do have some experience with unwanted emotions," Bruce pointed out.

"Guess you do. What do you usually do after the yoga?"

"Shower, then dinner?" Bruce suggested.

Claire grinned. "You're on."

*

He's moping.

Claire's phone vibrated against the desk she wss seated at, silently signalling an incoming message. She entered her password and squinted down at the screen, where the unexpected text from Natasha had appeared.

don't give a fuck, Claire replied, followed by, thought you were on assignment what are you doing in the tower?

Watching Steve mope.

Claire sighed out loud, startling the agent at the next terminal. forget I asked.

Somehow, in the past eight years, Strike Team Delta had reached nearly mythic status amongst SHIELD personnel. Their declassified missions were regularly dissected at the academy, equal doses inspiration and caution. One thing they never told the trainees about legendary missions, though, was how much paperwork came afterwards.

She'd come down to SHIELD headquarters in her street clothes, blue jeans and a shirt rolled up to the elbows, in order to finish the reports due from her latest ops. She'd located an unoccupied space among the shared computer stations on the eighteenth floor, and logged into the servers, but the open files were still mostly incomplete. Today she was feverish with restlessness, too distracted to make any significant progress.

I'm pretty sure making Captain America sad is considered treason. Punishable by hanging.

will that get me out of writing this report?

"Specialist Barton." Agent Sitwell stepped silently towards her desk, neat as always in his monochrome suit and tie. "I'm headed down to the coffee cart. Can I get you anything?"

Sitwell slid his hands into his trouser pockets, eyeing her sceptically. His gaze moved from her face to the phone in her hands, then over to the lit computer screen. "Do you need any help? I promised Maria that mission wrap-up would be on her desk by tomorrow morning."

"It'll be done," Claire promised. Jasper had shut the door behind him before the phone buzzed again, vibrating against her palm.

He looks like a kicked puppy. It's so depressing.

u don't even live there just go home, Claire sent in return, and then turned back to the computer screen.

*

By the time she returned to the tower that night it was after dark. The hallway was dark and quiet. The nearest lights switched on in response to her arrival, as she got off the elevator.

"Thanks, JARVIS. Anyone else home? Is Natasha still here?"

"No one besides yourself is present at this time." More lights lit up further down the hallways, as JARVIS anticipated Claire's path towards her rooms. "Would you like me to order dinner for you, Agent Barton?"

Claire grinned. She'd never been fussed over quite so much before moving in, but she found that she didn't mind. "Sounds great. Surprise me, okay?"

*

Claire had barely had time to change into sweats and hunt for her wallet at the bottom of her purse when a light chime notified her that the elevator was arriving. Instead of a harried delivery person, though, the doors slid open to reveal Pepper Potts. Even at the end of the day she was still immaculate in a pale blue suit and matching heels, struggling under the weight of a large cardboard box.

"Hey." Claire moved quickly, vaulting over a coffee table to rush to Pepper's side. "Let me help you."

Pepper released the box to Claire's grip with a grateful smile. "Thank you. I always forget how strong you are."

She shrugged. "It comes with the heavy bow and arrow, I guess. Is this for us? I keep telling Tony we don't need any more stuff in here."

Pepper made a face, prettily wry. "Tony will buy you whatever he wants to buy you. Just say thank you and hope that he forgets about it. No, this is a gift from Stark Industries."

"For the team?" Claire asked. It was a rhetorical question, as she had already put the box down and peeled open the flap. Inside were arm guards, stacked to the brim in a variety of smaller sizes. Black, printed with the purple arrow that had somehow become the symbol often attached to her name in the media.

"They're for you," Pepper explained. "For you to give away, I mean. Tony and I thought the Flatbush Girls' Archery Club might like them."

Pepper watched as Claire slipped one out of the protective plastic to inspect it more closely. "Is the quality okay? I didn't really know what to look for."

"They're perfect," Claire assured her. "The girls will love them."

Pepper nodded in satisfaction. "Good. I'm glad. If you let his assistant know the details, she and I can make sure he shows up there with you one day. If you think the girls would like that."

"Meeting Iron Man?" Claire rolled her eyes. "Right, no teenage girl wants that."

"I'm sure getting to meet you is exciting too," Pepper assured her, in the faux tones of sympathy she often used with her boyfriend. Claire laughed.

"Maybe. But Iron Man can fly." Claire smiled down at the armguard still in her hand. "I can't believe he actually remembered the archery club."

"He didn't, not entirely. JARVIS looked it up for him. And I placed the order. But," Pepper added, with the patience borne of long years spent spinning Tony's actions for an audience, "Tony said to remind you it's worth it. That you get the power to do amazing things."

*

After she and her sister had simply slipped out of the Iowa foster care system, Claire had been a teenaged carnival kid. She'd drifted the back highways of America with a motley crew that each had their own reasons for being there. Being good with a bow and arrow, good enough to get a part in the show, had been better than mucking out the animal cages. She'd even loved it, at a time when the one thing Claire knew for certain was that it was dangerous to love anything. But then she'd grown up, watched the last of her family betray her and the carnival go up in smoke.

She'd had to put the bow away for a long time after that. But after the military there'd been SHIELD, and an alien invasion that was broadcasted worldwide. Suddenly archery was cool again. Enough that Claire regularly got requests to come by and give demonstrations, or to talk to young girls who had her pictures on their wall.

Claire didn't understand it. She was an aging soldier with a foul vocabulary and a trashy wardrobe, and she'd never been anybody's hero. Maybe Tony was right, though, and it was simply a trade-off. She didn't get to show up in person at the archery club often, but she went when she could. Watching girls, as angry and awkward as the homeless teen that Claire had been, learn to love the skill as she had was satisfying and tangible in a way that she hadn't expected.

*

Tony Stark could get away with almost anything in public, with being flashy and messy and never quite real. Very few other people could. Claire arrived to the memorial unveiling stone sober. She stood as still as a corpse for the moment of silence, lined up on a podium with her team, in the black dress and low heels that she only ever wore to SHIELD funerals. She focused on breathing evenly, counting off the ticking seconds to keep her eyes from wandering back to the memorial and tracing that list of names.

When they sat again, Steve's hand reached out to hold hers where it shook by her side. His touch was gentle, and his palm was warm through the red gloves of his uniform.

On her left a slender, freckled hand wrapped around hers. Fingers tipped with dark nail polish squeezed a little too tightly, Natasha's only concession to the grief that hung over the event like a cloud. Next to her, the fine mist of rain clung to Thor's armour. Each drop caught and reflected. Bruce had barely moved since the service began. His gaze caught hers and he smiled, a bittersweet expression with no trace of green. The day was wet and grey, smelling of spring in the city. Claire blinked back the moisture on her face.

*

When the service was done, Claire didn't waste any time in leaving. She moved swiftly through the somber crowd that still milled in clusters around the new monument, snaking through Central Park as if she was shaking off an enemy pursuit. She escaped to one of the Towncars, slamming the door shut with enough force that the vehicle shook. The solitude was brief. The door opened again barely five minutes later, and Steve ducked inside and slid into the seat opposite her.

"No more hands to shake?" Claire's voice came out harsher than she meant it to, wrecked and mean.

"No," Steve answered, simply. He wore his cowl pushed back today, his naked face etched with vulnerability. "I guess I met some of them, that day. Saved them during the battle. I don't remember most of them, but I guess that's not really the point."

Steve's eyes met hers, before glancing downwards. He was having as much trouble with this day as any of them, Claire thought. Suddenly she found she was juggling too many other emotions to hold onto weeks-old anger. "It's important to them. Meeting you."

Steve's gloved fingers slid back and forth against the edge of his shield. It was a nervous tick that he'd probably never noticed, and the friction made a dull, scraping sound in the small space. "Yeah. Thank you for coming."

Claire thought of the freshly christened stone monument, of the inscription of names that today seemed infinite. She thought of the photos of them all that would cover of tomorrow's papers. "I'm not here for you."

"I know."

The right-hand car door opened again. There you are, Natasha didn't say out loud as her slender form appeared, legs entering first. but Claire could read the note of relief in the way her mouth curved.

"Couldn't face the..." Claire waved her hand vaguely to indicate the scene that spilled in waves throughout the park, the politicians and newscasters and brave-faced first responders. "You know. Is this shitshow finally over?"

Natasha shrugged. "I think that depends on where you want to go next."

*

"I was looking for you."

Claire stretched her legs against the cool, wet concrete. She'd changed out of the camera-appropriate skirt and heels, into frayed jeans and unlaced Converse. She glanced up at the sound of Bruce's voice, and her mouth stretched into a small, tight smile. "You found me."

"I guess I did. What is it with you and heights?"

She glanced sideways as Bruce maneuvered himself to sit down beside her. "Habit, I guess. Does it make you nervous?"

"Apparently, yes." Bruce answered, grimacing. "Though I don't know why. It's not like the fall can hurt him."

"Maybe he doesn't like having to catch me."

"Um." Bruce frowned, visibly turning over her suggestion before he spoke again. "Does that happen a lot?"

"Depends on your definition of a lot, I guess." Claire shrugged. The wind was picking up, tossing her hair into her face as she spoke.

"Okay, well, now I definitely am nervous."

"It's not a thing. Psych keeps trying to make it into one, but. I'm not trying to hurt myself. You have to go where the best shot is, and sometimes you have to leave that spot in a hurry. That's all." Claire cocked an eyebrow towards him. "That for me?"

"Oh. Yes." He pushed the mug in his left hand towards her. She could smell both the coffee and the alcohol as she took it from, scent wafting up in waves as her hands curled around the warm porcelain. "Thought you could use something hot out here."

"Thanks. But you don't have to stay out here and babysit me, Doc."

Bruce lifted his own matching mug, full of a clear, hot tea, and took a sip. "Do you want me to leave?"

"Didn't say that."

He nodded, but didn't move from his seat. "It's weird, isn't it?"

Claire glanced at him, before turning back towards the swirl of grey clouds and fog that hung low over Manhattan. "Weird?"

"You'd think it would still show." Bruce nodded towards the dark sky, where Claire was watching the horizon. "Making a hole in the fabric of the universe like that, you'd think it would leave some kind of permanent mark."

*

It had been Stark's brainstorm for the team to gather in the wake of the Battle of Manhattan. Claire had thought the idea was a little ridiculous, although she hadn't said so. They were an experiment, one that could never last for long. And she had been a traitor, one who would certainly be arrested before the end of the week.

But no arrest had come, no trial and no court martial. Even more miraculously, the team had come together again, and held. Claire hadn't had a steady team in years. The schwarma eaten quietly together wasn't their last team meal, after all.

The overflowing trays and expensive bottles crowding the kitchen counters of the team floors had all the earmarks of a Stark party, but Stark himself was nowhere to be seen. Claire couldn't blame him. The whole place had turned into a sort of wake, where heroes mixed with SHIELD agents and New York City council members. The mayor, in one corner, talking with a blonde who was being followed by a trail of cameras. Probably a reality star. Claire took a breath to steel herself against the waves of noise, then turned and pushed back through the throng to the elevators.

From a corner Thor's laugh echoed, deep and confident as it always was. Claire glanced involuntarily towards the sound. Natasha was with him, and Steve as well, caught up in whatever story Thor was telling his gathering audience. Stark himself was nowhere to be seen.

*

She'd been out on missions for most of the last month, meaning that the next three weeks were part of her policy-mandated stand-down. Vacation, more or less. Claire threw her bag over her shoulder, then checked for her weapon, wallet, and keys. She used her phone to send a brusque text to Natasha, then stepped back into the elevator.

"JARVIS? Parking level."

"Yes, ma'am."

*

Being a carnival kid hadn't left room in her life for collecting much stuff. Neither had her time in the military, and SHIELD wasn't much better. Coulson always told her that she would simply have to make room, but Claire had never figured out how.

From that perspective, the sheer amount of stuff that Stark had amassed in his lifetime was overwhelming. The private parking garage held 14 of Tony's vehicles, each worth more than her yearly paycheque.

Her own car was a beat-up Ford, one she'd owned for years. It hardly left the garage, but Claire kept up the insurance payments anyway. She liked the comfort of knowing she could leave when she needed to.

Quickly, with no fuss. Sometimes a girl just needed to level out.

*

Small towns were all the same, after a while. This one was close enough to the highway, northbound to Buffalo and Montreal, that it held a cheap and clean motel. Two doors down was the locar bar, with still an hour left until closing time.

In her baggy denim jacket and jeans, with her hair falling into her face, no one seemed to recognise her. In New York City she would have been spotted, and ostentatiously given her space. Here, in this dark dive bar, she was just another traveler. She sat at the bar, dragging her elbows across the counter. In the time it took her to finish two beers, no one approached her or attempted to strike up a conversation. Natasha would have something to say about that, if she were here. Always control the signals you're putting out. It was something that she told every trainee that she met. Claire had never really mastered it. Right now she guessed that her foul mood was hanging over her like a visible sign, one that said 'keep away'.

She took a deep breath, then another. She fixed her gaze on the dartboard across the bar, settling her eyes on the center target. Her fists closed around an invisible target, and she slowed her breathing until she knew that her frame was perfectly relaxed and still.

The bartender frowned at her as he wiped down the bartop. "You comin' up from the city?"

"Yeah."

"I was watching some of the memorial coverage on tv. Were you there when the invasion happened?"

Claire's hands went rigid, then slack, loosening her grip on the imaginary bow. She schooled her face into a half-smile. "Nope. Missed the whole thing."

*

Being under Loki's control had been just like sleepwalking. Or like dreaming. Everything made sense, but nothing quite seemed real. Falling in line with the team in the dazed aftermath, that had been as easy as breathing. Claire didn't know how to do a lot of things, but she knew how to shoot. How to fight.

The only thing she'd wanted to do afterwards was pay for her crimes. But that had never happened. Everyone kept insisting that she'd be fine, that things at SHIELD were getting back to normal.

As if anyone still knew what normal even was.

*

She entered the elevator at Stark Tower just after midnight, three days later. Claire slouched tiredly against the back wall and bit back a yawn. "JARVIS? Any land mines that you want to warn me about?"

She had never figured out if the AI needed the pauses to compute and process, or if it was a programmed concession to human speech. A fraction of a moment passed before JARVIS replied, "If I understand the inquiry, only Doctor Banner and Captain Rogers are in residence at the moment. Doctor Banner appears to be asleep, however-"

The elevator came to a stop, the doors sliding open. Steve stood suddenly in front of her, his arms folded over his chest.

"JARVIS." Claire sighed. "I said warn me, not tell on me."

"I did no such thing. I believe that Captain Rogers has been," there was that pause once more, "waiting up."

"Damn right, I have. Where the hell have you been?"

"None of your business." Claire moved out of the elevator into the entranceway, dropping her backpack on the granite floor with a loud clatter. Steve's broad shoulders blocked any easy escape, and his gaze was sharp and narrow, focused only on her. Claire tried not to squirm in guilt, like a schoolgirl caught sneaking out of her bedroom window.

"None of my business? You've been out of contact for seventy-two hours, Hawkeye. Anything could have happened to you."

Claire rolled her eyes. "You sound like my dad. Except my father drove himself and my mom headfirst into a telephone pole in 1983, so I'm pretty sure you're not him. Look, I don't answer to you."

Steve's expression darkened, blue eyes flashing. "I'm your team leader."

"Fuck you. Fuck the team." She hadn't meant to yell. Didn't even know how angry she was, until the words were already out of her mouth.

"Is that how you feel?" His voice cooled, heavy with disapproval.

"Come off it, Rogers. You only drag that team card out when you think you're losing control. I know I'm the difficult kid in the back of the class that you think you have to keep an eye on, but you know what? I've been managing fine without you for forty-one years."

"Claire, excuse me for saying so, but you don't get a goddamn thing. You have no idea what I care about, or why I-" Steve cut himself off, shaking his head. "You have no idea."

"What, then? You've got an opinion on every fucking thing I do. In the field and everywhere else. You made this whole big scene about the memorial, why?"

"I..." Steve began, but her emotions were finally bursting out into the open, and Claire charged ahead.

"You know why? You thought I couldn't handle it. You don't trust me to make decisions in the field, and you don't trust me to hold myself together. And now, I'm not even allowed to take a break from all the bullshit? I can't make a move without you saying something, and every time I turn around you're right there. Staring at me, giving me the Captain America disappointed face. I've had enough."

His expression hadn't changed during her breathless rant, but something in her last words seemed to stand apart from the rest. Steve's blue eyes lit in confusion. And then suddenly, improbably, he was laughing. Uncontrollably, his face crumpled with mirth.

Claire's left hand curled into a fist of frustration. "Fuck you. Don't laugh at me."

Steve sobered abruptly, shaking his head like he was shaking loose the joke. "It's not you, Claire, I promise. It's just...uh. I didn't realise that I was staring."

"Yeah? Well, you do it all the fucking time," she spat out.

"And it never occurred to you that maybe I just like looking at you?"

Claire reared back in surprise. Her hands raised involuntarily to frame her face, as if defending from an attack, then dropped to rest on her hips. "What?"

"I like looking at you, Claire." Steve sounded calmer, all of sudden, and mostly sad. "I think you're gorgeous, and amazing, and it's just me that's looking at you. If there's a Captain America face...well, I don't really know what that means, to be honest. Sometimes it's just me here. I'm sorry that I made you uncomfortable. I'm not very good at this. Terrible, actually. " Steve shrugged, finally glancing away. "But I think you're beautiful."

Claire opened her mouth, and found she didn't know what to say. "Okay. I wasn't expecting that."

"Really?" Steve sounded genuinely surprised. "I guess...I guess I thought it must be obvious."

"Really." This was the truth. Steve's motherly concern for his teammates and Pepper Potts gossipy fantasies simply didn't add up to whatever upside down conversation they were having now. He was young, too young, and now she was the one shaking her head at an unintended joke. "Steve, be serious. I'm twice your age."

Steve shrugged, fighting a small smile. "I think if you do the math, you'll figure it's the other way around."

Claire smiled back at him, a helplessly automatic response as she blinked through eyes that were unexpectedly wet and blurry. "Yeah, but you look great for ninety. For any age, you know that, and you're a sweet guy. There's lots of pretty young things out there that will appreciate that."

"You're pretty. And I don't want anybody else." Small furrowed lines were appearing between Steve's eyebrows, and God help her but she recognised the expression. It was the face Steve got when he was coming up with a tactical plan, a look of thoughtfulness that had never ended well for Nazis or supervillains.

Claire had the ridiculous, persistent thought that perhaps it was time to begin evasive maneuvers. "What?"

"Nothing. It's just that you have a lot of reasons why I shouldn't, but, well, you haven't said that you don't actually want to."

"I don't." The words tumbled out quickly, and probably too loudly, hanging for a moment in the air between them.

Steve's pensive expression grew deeper, his mouth knotted to a frown. "I see. That's okay. I mean, if it's true. But you could think about it some more, and let me know if you change your mind."

"I'm not going to change my mind."

"Of course not. But if you did, then you could let me know. Whenever that might be." Steve was studying her carefully. He seemed to be looking right through her, but Claire still couldn't tell what it was that he saw. He smiled at her. "I'll be around. Goodnight, Claire."

Before she'd formed a useful response, any response, Steve had gone.

*

steve just told me he has a crush on me.

Even at this late hour, Natasha's response was swift. Thanks for waking me up for that breaking news.

you're a smart-ass.

Better than being a dumb-ass.

okay, thanks for the great advice then.

Claire put her phone on her nightstand as she got under the bedcovers. Face down, as if covering the screen would keep the overwhelming outside world hidden away.

*

The next day the sun rose into a clear blue sky, welcome warmth at the end of a too-long spring. Steve was gone, headed back to Washington. Claire wasn't sure if he really had something scheduled in DC, or if getting out of her way had simply been the next stage in his tactical plan.

If it was, then it was a smart one. Steve had asked her to think about it, and now Claire couldn't seem to stop thinking about it. Not just the silly, curious teasing she texted to Natasha, but think about it for real. What it would be like to have all that strength beside her. What it would be like to have Steve looking at her the way he did, all the time.

"Fuck."

Bruce looked up from his book, a paperback with torn and curling pages that he'd probably picked up in the last hostel or boarding house he'd stayed at. He frowned, one hand curling around his half-full mug. "Has the microwave offended you?"

"Yes." Claire pulled her leftover takeout from the microwave and slammed the door shut. The bowl was too hot to the touch, and she dropped it onto the counter to blow on her scalded hands. "I mean, no. I mean, Steve is an asshole."

Bruce raised his eyebrows. "Really? You've never mentioned that before."

"You're all assholes," Claire amended, with a wry shake of her head. "Sarcastic assholes. But Steve is the biggest one. Do you know what he told me last night? He likes me. He wants to date me or some shit."

Bruce pulled his reading glasses off his face and squinted carefully at her, but there was no verbal response. Claire glared at him.

"And if you tell me that's not surprising, I'll punch you in the face."

"I didn't say anything," he pointed out evenly.

"Well, then, tell me it's ridiculous."

"Why is it ridiculous?" Bruce asked her. His tone was mild, not quite matching the careful, studied neutrality on his expressive face.

"Oh my God, now you sound like the psych department. Don't you keep telling Stark that you're not that kind of doctor?"

"I'm not, Claire. Why is it ridiculous? Give me one reason."

"Just one?" she asked, the pitch of her voice rising in frustraion. "I'm fifteen years older than him. I'm not the type of person he should be with. He'll figure that out. And when it ends, it'll make a mess. We're on the same team, Bruce. Team hookups are a terrible idea. They fuck everything up."

Bruce tilted his head, pausing to consider that answer. "Aren't you and Natasha on the same team?"

"Technically." Claire shrugged. "We haven't even done that in forever."

"And aren't you and I on the same team?"

"Only when you're actually here," Claire answered, and then winced. Bruce's face wasn't registering any hurt, but with Bruce's iron-fisted control, sometimes that didn't mean much. "Jesus. Sorry. Forget I said that. It's just different, Bruce."

"How is it different?" Bruce asked her, still ruthlessly prodding. "Because you knew I'd be leaving?"

She was silent. Bruce's voice dropped into gentle, even cadences. "Claire. If he likes you, and you like him, then that's okay. Every once in a while, it's okay for life to not suck."

Claire pulled away from his too-knowing gaze, glancing uninterestedly down at her lunch. "Is that one of your Buddhist things?"

"Nope."

"Taoism?"

"Stop changing the subject, Claire."

She relented with a sigh, studying Bruce in a long stretch of silence before she asked her next question. "The Other Guy wouldn't be offended or anything?"

"Nope." Now Bruce just looked amused. "Sex is about the only thing he finds more boring than yoga."

She laughed, despite herself. "I was actually asking..."

"I understood what you were just asking. Claire, I'm not five years old. And neither are you, so stop acting like a scaredy-cat."

"I am not a scaredy-cat, Banner. I have medals of bravery to prove it. Director Fury gave them to me himself."

"Yeah?" Bruce smiled his lopsided smile at her, creasing the edges of his mouth and eyes. "Show me how brave you are, then."

*

It didn't occur to her to ask until days later. She hesitated, searching for the right phrasing. She breathed carefully before she spoke, holding her body tightly in her current yoga pose. The sun had risen high and warm today, throwing beams of light through the wide windows of the room.

"You've been here for a couple of weeks," she said, breaking the comfortable silence they'd been in for the last forty minutes. Her tone was casual, very carefully so. "And down in the labs a lot. Are you working on something interesting?"

Bruce glanced curiously at her over the rim of his glasses. "It's interesting to me. It probably wouldn't be that interesting to you."

Claire nodded, but didn't press for a more precise explanation. Unless it was directly related to hitting a target, geek talk wasn't her thing and almost always went over her head. "Is it going to take a lot longer?"

"Well, yes. But I don't have to be there for all of it." Bruce stretched and shifted, his muscles trembling as he pressed his weight forward and flattened his palms against the floor. Even with his face half-hidden by his new position, she caught the fleeting, knowing smile on his face. He took a deep breath before he spoke again, his tone matter-of-fact. "You can just ask, Claire. You want to know when I'll be leaving?"

"Yeah. Don't get me wrong, Banner. I don't want you to go. But it's been a few weeks. Usually you'd be halfway across the planet by now."

"I might stay," Bruce admitted quietly. As if it was old news, as if he hadn't spent the last two years flatly refusing to do so.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Claire began, "but how come?"

"I don't know if there's one, clear answer to that." Bruce moved again, settling into a cross-legged seated position and frowning down at the floor. "But I guess I realised that right now I don't want to be anywhere else. So the other guy and I, we're going to give living here a try."

"Every once in a while, it's okay for life to not suck," Claire quoted.

Bruce smiled a little, not quite meeting her eyes as if he were ashamed. "Yes."

"That easy, huh?"

"No. I, uh, definitely wouldn't say that. But I'm working on it."

Claire nodded in understanding, but didn't tell him that she was glad. Even Stark knew that pushing Bruce to stay would only bring his nerves back to the surface. "At least we won't have to fly halfway around the world to find you, the next time there's a crisis."

"Well," Bruce began, his expression stretching into a grimace, "I'm kinda hoping there won't be any crises for a while, to be honest with you."

*

Her first years with SHIELD, Claire had always hated being on mandatory stand-down status. The forced inactivity felt like a punishment, like a reprimand of some kind. Since then she'd learned better, and found things to fill the long stretches of time after the mundane details of life had been dealt with. "Get a hobby, Barton," Coulson had said to her, that first year.

He'd told her that archery didn't count as a hobby, but Claire didn't care. The rhythm and the familiarity were soothing, perfect for when she needed to think things through.

But that was the problem with stand-down, sometimes. Too much time to think. On the Stark Tower shooting range Claire's arrows sang as they flew from her bow, and hit their targets one by one.

*

you know I slept with bruce, right?

Steve's response was slow in coming. I wasn't trying to get between you and Dr Banner. Please let's forget I said anything.

Claire frowned down at the screen, biting her lip at the word 'please'. no - I just meant some guys would be upset.

I'm not upset.

It was hours later before she texted Steve again, pausing in front of the counter of her favourite deli to fish her phone out of her purse. I slept with natasha too? but not recently. if it makes a difference.

The subsequent reply was faster this time, and more certain. Actually I knew that. Natasha told me a long time ago. I think she was testing me?

Natasha probably had been. Seeing if Captain America could handle working with a couple of queers. But Claire had never heard about it, so Steve must have passed. ok.

I'm still not upset.

ok, she repeated.

Do you want me to be upset?

I want you to be more predictable, Claire thought to herself. Quickly she typed back, no. just letting you know.

Now I know.

Claire hesitated over the virtual keyboard. Another customer pushed past her impatiently to yell out their order, but she didn't look up, determined to finish her part of the conversation. and there's a few people at HQ.

Still not upset. Then a long pause, as if he'd been distracted, or it had taken him a while to find the right words. I guess it's my turn to be honest. I haven't had sex with anyone. I don't really know what I'm doing, here.

Jesus Christ. Claire hadn't been anyone's first in a very long time. don't worry, she sent back, and meant it. you're doing fine.

*

Communication trailed off on both sides after that. She picked up the thread of the discussion early one morning, as she checked her personal email over strong, sweet coffee. I'm probably still going to be shit at following orders.

There was a delay of almost a day before Steve responded. I'm probably still going to yell at you when that happens.

Claire was laughing as a second text came through. New mission. HYDRA intel. Don't worry if you don't hear from me for a few days.

Not worrying was easier said than done, Claire thought, but didn't pass on her apprehension. She bit down the urge to ask for details, for the names of the agents who would be involved in ex-fil. She knew that Steve took the modern resurgence of Hydra personally, and wouldn't want anyone else to go in his place. But there were few people as untouchable in the field as he was, and no reason to be concerned.

Steve would be fine.

*

Steve had dated some, since thawing out of the ice. She knew that because it was impossible not to, sharing a living space on-and-off as they did. Only a few young agents at SHIELD were bold enough to try to catch Steve's attention, and with each Stark would encourage him to "just go for it". Pepper would visit their floor beforehand and help Steve pick out a flattering shirt, or calm his unsteady nerves.

As far as Claire knew, Steve had never seen any of those women more than a handful of times. Beyond the vague idea that perhaps he was still in love with ex-Director Carter, it had never occurred to her to wonder why.

*

Besides trips to HQ to catch up on neglected paperwork and re-certifications, and casual meetups with Natasha, she spent most of her downtime inside the comfortable palace that was Stark Tower.

When Stark returned from four days in LA on SI business, he was clearly pleased to find Bruce still in residence. He stopped on their floor more than he ever had before, traveling up from the lab floors or down from the penthouse. "Bruce, buddy. Wanted to run an idea by you." The kitchen table became littered in scraps of ideas and obscure math. Bruce's tiny square letters were scratched out by a stolen hotel pen, next to Stark's enthusiastic but nearly illegible handwriting. Claire would gather up the left-behind bits of paper as she found them. She made a neat pile of the ripped out Moleskine pages and crumpled take out napkins, and left them all on the counter, using an empty New York souvenir mug as a makeshift paperweight.

Three days later, Steve was still away and Claire was still catching up with the contents of her DVR. Mostly, missed episodes of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. This morning she had things to take care of at headquarters, which was probably just as well. The text she'd sent to Steve last night had gone unanswered, and Claire was trying not to worry that it meant that Steve had barreled into some sort of HYDRA trap.

Or that he'd finally thought better of his midnight confession.

*

"Legs! Where'd you get to?" Tony's voice through her cell phone speaker reverberated slightly with the tell-tale echo that meant he was inside the Iron Man suit. "I was going to come get you from the landing pad, but JARVIS says you're not at home."

"Nope." She'd signed off on some forms at headquarters, then had a tough and sweaty sparring session with Agent 19. Morse was a gentler opponent that Natasha, but only slightly. Right now Claire was pleasantly sore, and in the mood for a cheeseburger. "Went to headquarters and stopped off for some lunch. What's going on?"

"Bruce has been running through the synthetic earthquake data. Thinks he found a source."

Claire pushed away the restaurant menu with a sigh, waving off the approaching server. "I thought you and he handed that one back to Research."

"Would have, but then we got more data. There were a few more incidents last week. One in a strip mall. Employee got injured under falling inventory."

"Hmmn." Claire frowned, considering. "They're getting bolder? Or more in control of their powers?"

"Except Banner doesn't think it's a mutant. Or any type of biological catalyst."

"That leaves what, exactly?" Claire clenched a fist, pushing down a small, unwanted shiver. "Please don't tell me it's magic."

"Fuck magic. This is way better," Stark answered, and he sounded genuinely gleeful. "It's engineering. And if Bruce has calibrated his sensors correctly, which he usually has, then someone's working on the biggest shake, rattle, and roll yet."

Claire was already moving, pulling her wallet out of her denim jacket and throwing down a ten dollar bill to cover the cost of her untouched cherry Coke. "I'm closest to SHIELD headquarters. I can suit up there, and sign out an air-capable..."

She could barely hear the end of her own sentence over the roar of thrusters, as Iron Man descended from the sky in front of her.

"No need. Thor said you were complaining that you don't get enough air lifts."

Claire rolled her eyes. As always, Tony simply didn't know how to do covert. Already the cell phones were emerging, as up and down the busy sidewalk passers-by stopped to take a picture. "I thought you didn't know where I was."

"I didn't. But then you answered your phone, and JARVIS tracked it pretty quick." The face plate came up, leaving Tony grinning at her. He held out one armoured hand.

"Stark," she protested, "I'm not even supposed to be on the mission-ready list for another two days."

"That's just SHIELD rules. This is Avengers stuff." Metal fingers beckoned. "Come on. Hop on, gorgeous."

A flash went off behind her. Claire got in close enough for him to hold, and Stark levitated them both off the sidewalk, just a couple of feet. He grinned out at the gathering of spectators, and lifted his free hand in his signature v-sign.

"Yeah, Avengers!" someone shouted from the crowd.

"Iron Man!" yelled another voice.

"Smile," Tony suggested easily, before his face plate lowered again. Tony hovered for another moment, like a model holding a perfect pose, and then the repulsors fired, lifting them both up towards the sky.

*

Less than a half-hour later, Stark brought them both gently to the ground in the middle of a dead-end street. They were surrounded by concrete warehouses and half-empty parking lots. Just another industrial neighbourhood in Jersey.

At the speed of the suit, it had taken only a few minutes to get to the tower. Claire had suited up and strapped her quiver to her back, hesitating when only Tony was present on the rooftop landing area. "Banner not coming with us? I thought this was his breakthrough."

"He's staying in the labs. Says he'll be more useful from there." The grimace twisting Tony's mouth made it clear what he thought of that idea.

"If that's what he wants." The Hulk was learning that there were different ways to be helpful in the field, but Bruce still avoided the change as much as was practical. "What about Thor?"

"He took off yesterday. Dr. Foster." Tony spun the bracelets on his wrists, eager and ready to call the suit back to him. "What's the matter, Legs? You think the two of us can't handle one domestic terrorist?"

*

At least she wasn't the first woman to fall victim to Tony Stark's bright ideas and invitational smile, Claire thought as she climbed freehand to a grimy window ledge, twenty feet up. Or even the hundredth, probably.

It was the work of moments to jimmy the window open, talking quietly to Stark on her comm as she did so. "What's the word from Banner?"

"Still lighting up his sensor map, he says. Drawing enough power for one big shake." There was a pause, as Stark absorbed information from either JARVIS or Bruce. "Or lots of little quakes, I guess. How's it coming, Hawkeye?"

Claire balanced on the open window sill, weight on her hands and knees as she took stock of the warehouse. Iron Man had found no heat signatures that would indicate that people were in the building, and so far her eyes agreed. In the face of unknown and destructive technology, they'd chosen a cautious approach. The need for stealth, however, wasn't stopping Iron Man from babbling in her ear as he hovered a short distance away.

"Well?" Tony demanded.

Claire paused long enough to do a second visual sweep. The warehouse was empty. "Nothing's here, Tony."

"What? That can't be right. The place is drawing a shitload of power off the city grid. Our missing mad genius is running some kind of tech from here."

"Well, I can't see it. You think he's developed his own invisibility shielding?" It was a mild joke, but Tony seemed to seriously consider the question.

"That might explain the power draw, at least. You see a fuse box? It's not out here."

"Yep."

"That should be the easiest way to shut everything down. Whether invisible or miniaturised. Give me a ten-second count."

The suit had decent EMP shielding, but Tony disliked testing it when he didn't have to. Claire couldn't really blame him. She counted down, long enough to get clear of the EMP arrow's blast radius, and then exhaled as she released her draw.

The arrow attached itself to its mark. The small ready light turned blue, indicating a successful discharge of its payload.

"Hawkeye, what's going on in there?"

Tony was starting to sound characteristically impatient, and Claire grinned. "All clear, Iron Man. You're up."

Whatever Tony's answer was, she never heard it. There was a loud crack, like the world splitting, and then she was falling.

*

"Barton! Claire! Fucking, fucking hell. Claire!"

She came back to consciousness to the sound of her name being repeated, over and over. It took her long, confused moments for her brain to focus so that she could interpret the sound. "Tony. I'm okay."

"Finally, Barton." Across the comm, Tony's words were loud with relief. "JARVIS swore he had vital signs, but..." The thought went unfinished. "You okay? Looks like we tripped some hardcore security. Sort of a dead-man's switch. The EMP set it off."

"No kidding." Claire pulled herself into a sitting position, grunting as she did so. Self-evaluation was a necessary skill in the field, one that she'd unfortunately had a lot of practice at. She was bruised and in pain, her head throbbing with what was probably a concussion. But she was moving, and she couldn't identify any major bleeding.

She still had her comm, and she still had her bow. Claire's fingers closed gratefully around the familiar shape, although it wasn't going to do her any good at the moment. "Tony? There's no fucking light in here. Did the entire building come down?"

Stark hesitated. "Not the entire building, no. But it seems as if you found our wannabe supervillain's underground lair. Good work, Legs."

It wasn't much of a joke, but she found herself choking back a half-hearted laugh, and then wincing in pain. "Well, that explains how I hit my head, I guess. How far down did I fall?"

"Not that far," Tony answered, vaguely, which she was pretty sure meant that she didn't want to know.

"Fine." Claire took a deep breath. Her right arm was throbbing and she hadn't yet tried to stand, but she had crawled out of more dangerous places in worse shape. "Just tell me which direction to start climbing in.

"About that. You might have to sit tight for a little while. You're not claustrophobic, are you?"

"Stark." She was in enough pain that the sound was a half-bitten growl. "Explain."

"Legs, don't panic. It's just that quite a lot of the building came down when the quake happened. Or quakes. Plural."

Claire struggled to keep up with the conversation over the pulsing drumbeat of her worsening headache. "You're telling me I'm buried in here?"

"A little bit. Not a lot. We'll have you out of there in no time. A jiff. A flash. Two shakes of a lamb's tail."

"Bruce coming to dig me out?"

"Definitely not. We're, ah, pretty sure the quake device is under there with you. And still active. Another one might rock the whole neighbourhood. The Hulk coming through and smashing everything in sight would be a bad idea."

He sounded genuinely apologetic, worried and frustrated. Tony's voice faded on the comms, a moment of distant, murmured words, and then he returned, bright and clear. "Hill says there's a local emergency crew on the way. Twenty minutes. SHIELD will be right behind them. And Banner wants me to ask you a bunch of medical questions."

Twenty minutes. She could do that. Claire gripped tightly to her bow as another wave of pain crashed through her. Stark's voice faded in and out again.

"Yes, Bruce, she sounds coherent. You know who's president, Barton? And what state we're in?"

"You dragged me to Jersey," Claire answered. "Guessing Deputy-Director Hill is a little pissed about that."

"Yeah, I'm getting a little lecture about it right now. Something about haring off on our own, blah blah et cetera."

She chuckled, an awkward sound in the small and dark space. "That's just how Hill is. Yelling means she's worried."

"She's pretty fucking worried, then." Stark hesitated. "Which there's no reason to be, because you'll be out of there soon."

"Yeah? That why you're keeping me talking instead of working on neutralising the earthquake thingie?"

"What makes you think I can't do both? You're lucky you're here with me, by the way. Everyone else on the team sucks at small talk."

"Not going to argue that." She took deep breaths, searching for a new topic. "Has anyone heard from Steve?"

"No?" Tony answered, questioningly. "Should we have? I thought he was in DC."

"He was, for a couple days. Then he went to infiltrate a HYDRA base."

"By himself?"

She wasn't sure if it was a good or bad sign, that Tony sounded as worried as she'd been. "As far as I know. He's probably fine, I just..."

"Sure. JARVIS is going to check the SHIELD database for you. I'll let you know what they know."

"Hack it remotely?" Claire asked. "That's supposed to be impossible."

"For other people who don't have a SHIELD security pass, sure. But once I've been inside a system, it's pretty hard to get rid of me. At least, that's what my girlfriend says."

She huffed out a laugh, painful and strangled. "Really glad you're not a supervillain, Tony."

"That's what my girlfriend says."

Claire giggled. She was feeling halfway drugged, drifting in a haze of pain and adrenaline. She pulled her standard issue flashlight from the quiver, and shivered as the pale yellow light bounced off the crumbling drywall and exposed rebar. The space she'd landed in was small, barely bigger than a prison cell. Claire kept still, focusing on her breathing. In sniper time, twenty minutes was hardly anything.

Stark seemed to realise that she was barely present. He kept up his side of the conversation without stopping, an impromptu display of the verbal tapdancing he was famous for. Claire couldn't have repeated any of it if she'd been asked to, but the cheerful rush of words was enough to help dull her discomfort.

He told her when the first emergency crew arrived, keeping up the detailed play by play with a cheerful smile in his voice. "Firemen, Hawkeye. And they're all here just for you."

"Yeah?" She was struggling to breathe deeply through the pain, keeping her voice as light as she could manage. "Are they hot?"

"Not really my area of expertise, Legs. I'll ask Agent Romanov when she gets here."

"Not really her area of expertise either, Stark."

"Huh, that's true. Well...wait, hold on. What are you doing?" It took Claire a moment that Tony was no longer talking to her, or Bruce or SHIELD, but to someone else, outside the suit. Whatever the answer was, he didn't seem to like it. "Are you an idiot? You'll bring the whole building down. If not the entire block."

"Tony? What's happening?"

"My fucking tax dollars at work, is what's going on. I pay a lot of taxes, by the way. Hey, buddy, don't you think if brute force were the answer we wouldn't have needed you?"

"Tony," Claire repeated, her voice sharp with frustration. She hated not being able to see what was going on.

"Deputy-Director Hill is here," Stark told her. It wasn't an answer. "Barton, I'm switching to silent for a second. Hang tight."

"Wait, don't..."

The comm went quiet, leaving Claire in complete silence except for the pattern of her breaths, the whoosh of each exhale and the rustle of her uniform.

In her sniper's nests time didn't mean much. Waiting was the one thing that she was good at. She was drifting into a rhythm, counting off the minutes as they passed.

Another bang, this one louder than the last, and then the world went dark again.

*

"Stark?"

"Barton, thank fucking god. These geniuses managed to trigger another seismic event. Seems like you got buried a little deeper this time."

"No shit." Claire reached for her flashlight, stretching her fingers and touching only concrete. She reached out carefully, evaluating, swearing when her palm scraped something metal and came away bloody. "Fuck. Lost my light. I can't see anything. And I think that I hit my head again."

"Bruce is going to make me ask you who's president one more time."

"Maybe you shouldn't tell him. Is he," Claire tripped over her words as she lost track of the sentence, and started again. "Is he okay? The big guy hates not being able to help."

"He says he's got it under control. Claire?" The last was said sharply, with an edge of concern.

"What? I'm here."

"Good. You weren't answering there for a moment."

"Oh, sorry. Just getting a bit sleepy, I guess." She sighed, and then winced against the pain. "You going to get me out of here anytime soon?"

"Soon as we can, Hawkeye." That was the deputy-director's voice, and when had she come onto the comms? "Just working on a plan that won't make things worse."

"Okay, ma'am. Are you on site already?"

Maria paused. "I got here almost an hour ago. We've been talking for the last ten minutes."

"Oh." Hill sounded worried. That was rare, and Claire couldn't help the small bubble of laughter that she let out. "Well, I'm pretty sure I've got a concussion."

"Sounds like you do, yeah. Hang in there, okay?"

*

She spent the next stretch of time floating in and out of awareness. Both Stark and Hill stayed on comms with her, but refused to tell her what was going on beyond, "We're working on it." If Claire asked Hill more than once when she'd arrived on scene, Hill didn't mention it. But the fog of confusion was at least a distraction from the pain pulsing through her whole body.

"Hawkeye? Hawkeye, come in. Someone get me another headset, this one isn't working. Barton, are you still there?"

*

The next thing she knew was the sound of concrete scraping against concrete, and a light shining into her face. Claire squinted against the glare. "Stark?"

"It's me."

Claire blinked in surprise. "Cap?"

Steve had pushed away enough debris to make a hole big enough for him to pass through, and was standing in the entranceway that he'd just created. He wore his uniform, but a fireman's hard hat sat on his head, over the cowl. That was where the light was coming from, bobbing as he moved towards her.

"I thought..." She struggled to pull up the memory. "I thought you were in Bolivia?"

"Now I'm here. Can you walk?"

"I think so."

But Steve wouldn't let her try right away, restraining her weak attempts to rise with one hand. The other he waved the over her body, upturned palm hovering a half foot from her skin. The electronic object he held whirred and beeped. Steve frowned at it, then repeated the motion, pausing for a few more seconds over her neck and hips.

"What is that?" she asked, as Steve squinted at the computerised display.

"One of Stark's prototypes. It says you're safe to move. That's some luck, at least." He put the gadget away, then extended his forearm towards her less injured side. "Upsy-daisy, then."

It took time, but she rose with Steve's help, to a chorus of gently murmured encouragements - attagirl - and leaned heavily on his side. Claire clutched her bow in her free hand as they moved forward, through the makeshift entrance he'd created.

"Tony? Is it fine to go back the way I came?"

Steve's voice echoed in her earpiece, just before she heard Stark's answer in her ear.

"It's fine, Cap. There shouldn't be any more shaking, and the path you took is still open. Looks stable."

Claire's head listed to one side, her vision swimming blurrily in front of her. She didn't see a path ahead of them, just an impenetrable barrier of debris.

Before she could ask, Steve tightened one hand around her waist. The other grabbed onto a thick climbing rope, muscles flexing as he leveraged them both off the ground. With each jarring motion, Claire grunted at the pain that shot through her entire body. "Sorry," he whispered. "God, sorry. Almost there, I promise."

Claire braced herself, and held on tighter. "It's okay, Steve. Just get us out of here."

*

The cool, fresh air hit her exposed skin a moment before they emerged from the darkness. Outside, night had already fallen, but the lights from the cluster of SHIELD and emergency vehicles lit up the sky almost as bright as day. Dimmer lights were shimmering further away, and it took her a moment to understand that they were the flashes of smartphone cameras.

She squinted against the glare, at the dull, grey shape of a crowd standing beyond the yellow tape. "Are...are they cheering?"

"You were in there a while. People were worried about you," Steve answered softly. Claire pulled away from him, determined to balance under her own power. Steve didn't resist, but his hand hovered cautiously against her back, ready to offer protection if she stumbled.

They made their way only a few steps before the medics reached her, maneuvering her onto the white-covered gurney. Warm hands touched her, searching for a vein to start an IV line and Claire's fingers tightened involuntarily around her bow as a force she couldn't see tried to move it away from her grasp.

"Whoa. Hey." Natasha's voice came from behind her, gentle and soothing. "It's just me. I'll hang onto it for you.

Claire's thanks were drowned out by another raucous round of applause. Steve was still hovering, but none of the EMTsseemed willing to tell Captain America to step back.

"You'll be fine," he promised her, with warm, certain confidence.

From within the crowd of spectators, someone shouted her name. The world faded in and out, spinning dizzily back and forth, and strong hands reached out, supporting her slow slide into a horizontal position. Claire closed her eyes.

*

She was examined at a hospital in Jersey City, by a young, female doctor who appeared quietly awed by the famous heroes that had turned a mundane overnight shift into something of a circus. Tony, thrumming with nervous energy, had flown off in his suit without warning. He returned with coffee, still hot, for everyone at the nurses' station, before falling into the task of signing autographs in the waiting room. Natasha was the opposite, sitting still and quietly watchful as she sipped her French Vanilla.

Claire's head injuries would be fine, the doctor promised, but the broken arm would need surgery. In the morning, Tony and Natasha had finally gone home, and Claire was transferred by ambulance to Manhattan. Maria Hill had wasted no time in getting Claire admitted to the large, state-of-the-art medical centre that stood a few blocks from headquarters, whose staff was well-accustomed to the lengthy and partially classified medical histories that SHIELD agents often brought with them.

Natasha was the first to visit her after that, bringing with her an overnight bag that she'd packed from Claire's rooms at Stark Tower. Stark came the next day with his girlfriend at his side, bearing doughnuts and an apology.

"Wasn't your fault, Stark. Part of the job."

Tony shrugged, his face half-hidden by designer sunglasses. "Yeah, well, can you tell Steve that? I got a really long lecture about dragging you into situations without proper intel."

"Hmmn." Claire picked out a fat, sugary doughnut from the box of a dozen, and took a bite "Wasn't it technically Bruce's intel?"

"Yes, exactly. That's an excellent point, Legs. How come Banner never gets yelled at?"

Pepper had retreated to a comfortable chair in a corner of the room. Now she huffed out a small laugh at Tony's question without looking up from her smartphone.

"Okay," he admitted, "I know why. But it's still not fair."

Pepper's smile was fond and easy. "Life isn't fair, Mr. Stark."

*

Bruce came later with Thor, and the XBox One he'd borrowed from Avengers Tower. The nurses eyed them both uncertainly, but both men pretended not to notice the scrutiny.

Thor strode into her room, moving as always with regal confidence as Bruce lagged behind him. "Claire! My Lady Jane sends her best wishes. I have already begun to compose a ballad dedicated to your bravery. Do you wish to hear it?"

Claire grinned. She wasn't entirely clear on whether this was really an Asgardian tradition, or just something that Thor himself had invented. The results were lilting, rhyming epics that made every injury incurred sound far more dramatic than they really had been. Thor sometimes recorded his compositions, with JARVIS' help, and posted them to YouTube.

Thor was a big fan of YouTube.

"You weren't even there," Bruce pointed out. "How are you going to write an accurate account of something you didn't actually see?"

Thor's smile was unconcerned, brilliant and wide. "Accuracy is overrated, my friend."

It was hours later, when Bruce was swearing in multiple languages at the video game and Thor was detailing her valiant escape from a dungeon maze guarded by a fierce fanged wolf, that the nurses finally kicked them out.

*

There was a steady trickle of SHIELD personnel, ones she'd worked closely with and others that she'd only met once or twice. They stopped by at lunchtime or before and after shifts, to bring her get well cards crowded with signatures or to tell her they'd seen her daring rescue on the news. Melinda May came the next morning. She stayed just long enough to have an argument about the time she'd been Claire's secondary exfiltration plan out of Singapore.

"That head injury was much worse," May told her, bluntly. "I thought you were going to die on me."

Claire frowned. She hadn't realised that at the time. "That would have been a waste of all the work you did to get me out of that prison."

"That," May agreed, "and it would have screwed up my successful completion stats."

"At least you don't have to worry about that anymore," Claire began, and then stopped. They were skirting too close to a topic she hadn't planned to talk about.

If May noticed Claire's flinch, she ignored it. "Coulson would have come, but he's waist-deep in paperwork."

Coulson had been her favourite handler for a long time. She was grateful that he'd lived, that he'd survived her attack on the helicarrier. But interacting was still eerie and uncomfortable, something like talking to the ghosts of her own past. Perhaps it was the same way for him, but she would never ask.

"He said to say hello. He's very jealous that you got saved by Captain America." May paused, staring at her curiously. "Are you blushing?"

Claire put a hand to her face, as if to still the gathering heat. "No, I'm not."

"You're blushing, and you're lying about it." Melinda May hardly ever smiled with her mouth, but her eyes were lit with warmth. "Now you have to tell me. You know Phil loves good gossip."

"There's nothing to tell," Claire insisted, because there wasn't.

*

She dozed after that, and woke in mid-afternoon to the sight of Steve in khakis and striped button-down shirt. His head was bent over his sketchbook, the pencil making a scratching sound as it moved over the page.

She watched him for a while, before he finally looked up.

"Hey." He smiled. "You're awake."

"I didn't want to break your concentration. What are you drawing?"

"Just doodling," Steve answered, quickly putting the sketchbook away and out of sight. "I didn't get much done, though. You get a lot of visitors."

"Yeah, it happens if folks at headquarters know you're in here. I guess you wouldn't know that, since you're never injured badly enough to get trapped here." Claire hesitated. "You didn't come by yesterday."

Now Steve looked flustered, his mouth folding into a tight smile as if he'd been caught at something. "Yeah," he admitted. "I had to get back to DC and finish my debriefing."

"Wait. You left the city after the HYDRA mission without debriefing? No one ever lets me get away with that."

"Didn't really ask for permission," Steve admitted. "Just flew the jet straight here."

Claire threw back her head, laughing. "Okay, it's official. You are way more of a troublemaker than I am."

"Yeah, well." Steve smiled crookedly at her. "It seemed like I might be needed in New Jersey at the time."

"You blew off a debriefing to come rescue me. You didn't have to do that. The emergency workers would have handled it."

He shook his head stubbornly. "Tony wasn't sure how much time we had before the tremors got triggered again. You couldn't wait."

"Oh." Tony definitely hadn't told her that. "So someone had to come in and get me?"

"Someone strong enough to move some of the debris, yeah. Thor wasn't in town."

"Neither were you," she pointed out. "Jeez. I can't believe you commandeered a quinjet to come to my rescue. Most guys send flowers."

"You don't seem like a flowers type of gal." Steve smiled shyly. "But it wasn't...I mean, I would have done it for anyone on the team."

"I know you would have." It wasn't something she'd have been as sure of, this time last year. "I guess that means you haven't seen the Post?"

Prince Charming to the rescue, the paper had announced. Claire didn't actually remember a lot of the rescue efforts, or much of anything prior to waking up in her current hospital bed. The blogs and newspapers had filled her in, though, in careful detail.

Steve flushed. "Yeah. The papers exaggerate."

"Not about everything," Claire pointed out, before ceding to Steve's obvious desire to change the subject. "So come on, let's hear it. Where's the lecture?"

He shook his head. "No lecture."

"Right. Not even the next-time-wait-for-backup speech? Or the we-have-protocols-for-a-reason speech?"

"No lecture," Steve repeated, stubbornly. "I'm just glad you're okay."

"Wow." Claire stared at him, her expression falling slack in genuine disbelief. "If I'd known injuries got me out of scoldings, I'd hit my head every time we were in the field."

"Please don't," Steve answered, with a trace of genuine alarm in his voice. Impulsively, Claire reached out a hand.

"Okay. I won't. Come here."

Steve stepped forward, his large hand closing around hers as he looked at her with concern. "Do you need help with something? Do you need me to get a nurse? Or a doctor? I can..."

Steve was too big to be moved anywhere with just a tug, but Claire had the element of surprise on her side. She exerted just enough force to pull Steve forward into her personal space. She had to lean forward to kiss him, stretching up to be tall enough for their mouths to meet. Her lips parted slightly, tasting his for the brief beat of time.

Steve's expression when she pulled away was warm and open. His smile was laced with confusion. "Claire?" Her name, a plea and a question.

She grinned, trying not to stare at the way his mouth crinkled at the corners that made her want to kiss him again. "Nothing. Just the standard Prince Charming reward package."

"Ah. So if the firemen had gotten you out, they'd be getting the same deal?"

"Or firewomen. Sure." Claire nodded cheerfully. "Gotta show appreciation for a job well done, right?"

"Sure," Steve said. He sat carefully on the edge of her medical bed, balancing himself easily despite his size. His hand was still caught in hers, but he didn't seem in a hurry to let go.

*

The hospital kept her under observation for another few days, before the neurology department finally gave the okay for her to undergo general anaesthesia. The orthopedic surgery that was needed on her broken arm was performed on a Friday evening. The doctor had smiled at her in the morning as he looked over her chart. He was confident, but didn't waste his breath with blind reassurances, which Claire was glad for. She'd been under the knife a few times before.

"Any preference for cast colour, Ms. Barton?"

Claire considered the question briefly. "Can we do purple?"

The doctor nodded, before placing the clipboard back in its place at the foot of her bed. "Purple it is."

*

The medical staff finally sent her home the next day, with a prescription for pain medication and detailed instructions for follow-up care. Maria Hill sent neither flowers nor a card, but arrived in person to tell Claire that until she was cleared for regular duty she could expect to find herself slotted into the SHIELD training roster.

Claire had sighed. "Really, ma'am?"

"Someone's got to train up the promising young minds of our next generation, Barton," Hill had answered. If Claire hadn't known better, she might have thought that the deputy director was amused. "Might as well be you."

Right now, though, it felt like the prospect of being certified fit for duty was very, very far away. Claire's arm was still in its cast, and her balance and memory were still slightly unreliable. In the rooms of Stark Tower, Natasha had to catch her more than once before she fell.

"I don't need help," she grumbled, as Natasha's lightning-quick reflexes prevented her from tripping over nothing and landing on the floor. Claire leaned heavily on a kitchen stool to right herself, scowling into the depths of the lukewarm coffee that she'd almost spilled.

Natasha let go of Claire's good arm, but didn't move too far away.

"You're half my size, anyway. I'd just take us both down."

At that Natasha simply raised her eyebrows in eloquent defense. Claire sighed. She'd sparred with the Black Widow enough to know that Natasha was stronger than she looked. In a fight she was nearly impossible to knock over, an expert in bending gravity to her will.

"Sorry." Claire sighed, her frustration quickly deflating. The room was still tilting slightly, and her broken arm was hurting more than the painkillers could mask. "I'm sorry I'm such a grump. I just suck at being injured."

"Not anymore than I do," Natasha admitted, shrugging. "I was going to order some lunch. You want anything?"

*

If there was one glaring difference from past injuries on black ops maneuvers, it was definitely the public attention that she was receiving. Get-well wishes arrived daily, in staggering volume.

Not long after the Battle of New York, SHIELD had assigned a junior agent from the Intelligence division to go through the truckload of mail that each Avenger received, separating out the gifts and fan letters that might be of interest to each. The job served a dual purpose. Not every letter or package was innocent. More than one super-powered criminal had made their intentions known in advance, by writing out their plans in careful detail and mailing the resulting manifesto to Stark Tower.

It was necessary, but it was tedious grunt work, and no junior agent ever got stuck with the responsibility for more than a few months. She wasn't familiar with the male agent who held the position now, a young man in glasses and a cheerfully tacky tie, who arrived in the early afternoon. He exited the private elevator pulling a shipping dolly stacked high with cards and letters.

"This all for me again?" Claire asked.

"Most of it, yeah." Agent Goldberg nodded at her. "You've been getting some get-well gifts, stuffed animals and things like that. I sent them on to Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital. The rest was just the usual."

"Vague threats from angry teenagers?" Claire asked.

"And dirty letters for Mr. Odinson and Mr. Stark."

"Huh." Claire frowned. "None for Steve?"

Goldberg looked slightly flustered at the question, the way that many younger agents did at the mention of Steve Rogers. "Some. Not as many. I don't know, I'd feel weird sending my dirty fantasies to Captain America."

"Like jerking off into the Liberty Bell?"

Claire grinned as Goldberg chuckled in response, deep and loud. "Something like that, yeah." He gestured asked to the dolly. "Where do you want these?"

*

She was still sitting on the floor of the living room examining Goldberg's delivery when Steve found her, two hours later. Goldberg had arranged the mail roughly by content, and now she was reading through homemade cards hand-drawn in colourful Crayola. DEAR HAWKEYE. I HOP THAT YOU FEEL BETER SOON.

Claire looked up, distracted from her reading by the sound of barefoot steps on the shiny hardwood floor. "Was it raining out?"

Steve treaded softly closer to sit down beside her. His hair curled damply over his ears. "Nope. Went for a run, then took a shower."

"Because you worked up such a sweat?" Claire answered, teasingly. "Was the run to Nebraska?"

"It's just a routine," he answered, smiling over at her. "What are you looking at?"

Wordlessly Claire passed him the bright, glittery greeting card that she'd been holding. Steve turned it over, then opened it, reading the message inside.

"This is nice." He gestured to the pile. "Looks like you got a lot of 'em."

She shook her head. "It's weird. I know I joked about it before, but it used to be that all the stupid ways I got hurt were classified. And there weren't many people to care, even if I could have told them. Now there's...this. It's weird. And a lot to live up to." She broke off, sighing in frustration. "Ugh, and now I'm whining to Captain America about the pressure of public perception. Ignore me."

"It's okay. I think we all feel some of that. Except maybe Stark."

"No, he does too, I think." It was hard to tell what Steve really thought of Tony, sometimes. She knew he had trouble reconciling Tony's bad reputation with his good intentions. Claire couldn't help defending him. "It's just that public perception in his case is a little screwy."

Steve nodded, hesitating as he collected his next words. "When I went into the ice, I wasn't a symbol. Not the way that I am now."

Claire raised her eyebrows questioningly. "You were wearing the flag. That's kind of a symbol."

"I know," Steve agreed. "But it was just supposed to stand for that one war, you know? Of that one fight. We weren't supposed to need it afterwards."

"So, what? You'd just go back to Brooklyn after V-Day? Hang the shield on the wall and go to art school?"

"I was hoping," Steve admitted. His smile was small and wistful, tangled in thoughts of the past. "I really was hoping."

Claire couldn't say that she ever really thought about retiring, but it was a subject that SHIELD veterans liked to talk about a lot. What they'd do, after. She tried to picture it, Steve living quietly through the decades after the war. Getting a regular job. Getting married to a regular girl. But that past had long faded, and Claire was anything but regular.

Steve seemed to read through the thoughts flashing across her face. He moved slightly closer, touching her hand as if in apology. "I probably wouldn't have been very good at it. But it's what I thought about."

Claire didn't ask if he still thought about it. She wasn't sure that she wanted to know.

He helped her go through the rest of her get well messages, sorting the few that she wanted to answer personally into a small pile. She gathered them all together with a binder clip, and left the rest stacked on the floor. Agent Goldberg would take them away when he came back.

"I didn't know there were so many archery fans out there," Steve said.

Claire chuckled. "There aren't. Or, there weren't. I made it cooler, I guess." She shrugged, looking down at the collection of letters in her hand. "I'm not exactly a great role model. I just don't want them to give up on it."

*

"Has everyone at SHIELD signed your cast?"

Claire glanced down at the purple plaster that was covered with signatures. Natasha had been first, inscribing two neat lines of Cyrillic and refusing to tell her what they meant. Stark's was a cheerfully dirty limerick. May's signature said simply: Barton, stop hitting your head. "You haven't."

She'd expected him to write a short, simple message. She hadn't expected him to carefully take her injured hand in his, studying the cast with a furrowed brow before finally uncapping the blue Sharpie he'd found under a pile of Banner and Stark's latest notes. The marker tip made a squeaking sound as Steve dragged it back and forth across the plaster. The cluster of lines and squiggles didn't appear to be words.

Claire twisted slightly, trying to look at it from his point of view. "What are you putting on there?"

Steve shook his head, refusing to answer. "Stay still."

"Are you drawing something?"

"Stay still," he repeated, gently, without looking up. "I know you can."

"Sir, yes sir."

Steve rolled his eyes. He was silent after that, working quietly. "I never answered your last question."

"What question?"

Steve glanced up at that response, frowning. "You texted me. The last day I was in Bolivia."

"Oh." Claire shrugged. The memories of the day she'd been injured were still largely a blur, something that the doctors had said wasn't unusual. "Concussion, I guess. What did I want to know?"

"If I was sure." She expected him to answer the question, but instead Steve cocked his head, his expression thoughtful. "Now I have a question for you."

"Fire away." Claire was starting to get antsy in her chair, but Steve was right. She didn't have a problem keeping her body in one position. What was making her nervous was this, the weight of Steve's steady attention.

"What happens if I am sure?"

She should have been expecting that, she thought, and carefully kept her smile casual. "I'm still thinking about it."

Steve raised a sceptical eyebrow, then leaned back, releasing her arm. "Done."

Claire tilted her arm towards herself so she could squint at the dark ink. It was a simplified figure drawing, with just enough lines to indicate long hair and a bow and arrow. "Is that me?"

"Yeah."

"You're really good."

Steve shrugged, shaking off the compliment. "It's the serum. I don't sleep much, so I get lots of practice in. You're still thinking about it, huh?"

"That's what I said."

"And is that why you kissed me, yesterday?" he asked.

Claire couldn't help a smile. The swagger in Steve's tone would have been much more effective without the embarrassed flutter of his eyelashes, as he glanced at her and then away. "Sometimes a kiss is just a kiss," she began, but barely got the chance to finish.

She was pretty sure that Steve kissed her first, this time. She wasn't aware that she was opening her mouth in response until she was tasting him, earthy and warm against her tongue.

"Just a kiss?" he asked. "Like that one?" And he pressed forward again. His mouth caught hers, lips falling open. They both held on longer this time, for a moment that seemed to catch and stall, and the contact was wetter and more intimate than it had been before.

When Claire finally pulled away, she was hungry for air for more than one reason. Her uninjured hand held him close to her as laughter bubbled up out of her. "Jesus, Steve. Why does the Biography Channel think that you were shy?"

Steve was watching her carefully, as if being reminded of his shyness had brought the character trait back to the surface. "Probably 'cause I was. Still am. Pretty ladies make me nervous. You make me nervous," he added. "But I'm also not very good at being patient when I know what I want."

She smiled at that, and kissed him again to chase the hesitant look off his face. "They might have mentioned something about that."

After that, languid kisses turned into something else. Something messier, and more demanding. Steve pulled her into his lap, and wrapped am arm around her waist. Steve was always a couple of degrees warmer than everbody else, and now she was surrounded by that heat, by the scent and the strength of him.

She was still pretty sure that this was a bad idea.

Steve broke off the kiss to look at her, rumpled and apologetic and not quite letting her go. He stuttered, as if he were out of breath, though she knew that was impossible. "Claire. Maybe we shouldn't...do this here?"

He was right, she knew. The kitchen was a shared space, and any member of the team could walk in at any time. Still, Claire couldn't help flashing him a wicked grin. "Could do this any place you like, Cap," she said. Then watched, fascinated, as Steve flushed a deep red. "Sorry," she added. "You were right. I do like embarrassing you."

"No kidding," Steve answered. He rolled his eyes, and then softened the sarcasm with a smile. "It's okay. I mean, I don't mind.

And there was a whole world in that admission that Claire wanted to unravel and learn the rules to. But first, she wanted to know something else. She remembered the confession that he'd sent her by phone. "Are you sure? I mean, are we moving too fast for you?"

"Oh. No?" Steve paused. "Is that the wrong answer? I already told you. I know exactly what I want."

Now she was the one blushing, and Steve grinned back at her in pleased satisfaction.

"Do you want to ask me if I'm sure about anything else? Because the answer's still gonna be yes. I am sure."

Claire shifted, pressing herself close enough to Steve's broad body to feel the slow, inexorable rhythm of his heart. She felt intoxicated. Giddy, as if she were about to take a flying leap with an uncertain grappling hook and no one to catch her. "Is that so?"

"Yeah," he murmured against her cheek, voice low and warm.

"Well, I guess you better prove it, huh?"

The sentence was barely out of her mouth before Steve stood up in one smooth movement, without letting her go. Claire let out an indignant squeal at the sudden movement, but Steve's arms around her waist held her carefully and securely off the ground.

"You have a thing about this? Carrying me around?" They made a pretty undignified picture, Claire supposed, but right now she was too punch-drunk to complain. She leaned her head against his shoulder.

Steve thought about it for a moment, his mouth brushing the curve of her neck with the ghost of a kiss. "I think I just like knowing where you are."

*

Inside her bedroom he turned shy again, and cautious, laying her down on her unmade sheets as if she might break. Steve's clear eyes followed each movement as she undressed, tossing her shirt and jeans casually to the floor. She couldn't help preening slightly under the covetous stare. Her bra went next, and she shimmied slightly in place before executing an acrobatic tumble that landed her on top of him, straddling his wide thighs.

He laughed and placed his hands on her torso, tucking his fingers beneath the waistband of her panties. His cupped palms cradled her hips. She could feel him flex powerful limbs underneath her, his whole body straining towards her.

"Claire." His voice was threaded through with emotions coiled together too tightly to name.

She kissed him then, her mouth capturing his with unabashed want. "Steve."

"I don't..." He hesitated. "Show me?"

Steve was a mindful, quick student, paying careful attention as she guided him with words across her sensitive bare skin. He'd admitted to liking her dirty mouth, and now she couldn't seem to stop talking. Words flew endlessly off her tongue and hung in the space between them. Instructions jumbled together with nonsensical pleas, with demands and questions and filthily worded approval. When she came for the first time Steve held her through the tremors, his fingers laced into her hair when it fell onto her shoulder.

After that Claire rolled onto her back and spread her thighs, to expose herself to him where she was sticky, wet and open. She watched Steve with her head tilted back, her hair a messy halo against the sheets, as he reached for the condom package that had gotten lost in tangled sheets.

Her mouth was running again, words falling out one after the other and her voice becoming hoarse. "Yeah. Want it. Want it hard, want you. Come on."

Steve groaned softly. He angled forward to embrace her, covering Claire's body with his and holding her tightly against the mattress. He bent his head to press a kiss to her throat, then slid into her with one ruthless thrust. Claire brought her hips up to meet him, punctuating the flow of speech that was rapidly devolving into meaningless babble with greedy, wanton sighs. "Yeah, like that. Fuck, you're so big. I can take it. Show me."

"Claire," he whispered. She realised he was shaking against her, trembling with an uncontrollable intensity that she wouldn't have thought his body capable of. "I'm here, it's okay. Give me all of it." Then she gasped, at the pleasure that shot through her whole body like electricity. Now there was no sound but the two of them, moans and shallow breaths, damp skin against skin and the steady, rocking motion of her bed.

*

Afterwards she curled onto her uninjured side and leaned against his chest. Steve's hand traced the marks on her cast and traveled down her torso before his fingers tangled with hers and came to rest on her thigh.

"Is your arm okay?" he asked her, interrupting the stillness that had settled over the room. "Did I hurt you?"

"I'm fine," she promised him. "Not so easy to break, Steve."

Steve didn't respond, but this silence was heavier than the last. Claire shifted slightly in his arms, craning her neck for a moment to turn her face towards his.

"Hey. Is that something you worry about a lot?" she asked, and the look of discomfort that flitted across his face answered her question long before he spoke.

"It's just, sometimes I break things when I'm not paying attention.

"Hmmn." She'd seen the spilled weight bags in the workout room, but never really thought about what it was like to live in a world that wasn't designed for your strength. "I guess I don't know too much about that."

"That scares me too." He spoke the words in a soft rush, a low, awestruck whisper. "It scares the hell out of me that you go out there without any powers or armour. You're so brave, Claire."

"You too," she reminded him. "You didn't have any powers when you tried to sign up for the Army. I might not have super strength, but at least I'm not..."

Her voice trailed off. Dying, she'd been about to say. He'd been slowly dying before the super soldier serum, something that she only knew from late-night Biography marathons. It wasn't something that Steve had ever mentioned, and she wasn't sure that he wanted to talk about it now.

Steve nodded, responding as if he hadn't noticed the awkward break in her speech. "Yeah, I know. But at the time I didn't really understand what everyone was so worried about. It was my body, asthma and all. If I wanted to risk it to help fight a war then I should have been able to." He smiled ruefully at the memory. "It made Bucky real nervous, every time I would try to enlist again. Guess I understand that better now."

"It feels sometimes like you don't trust me," she admitted, and then winced, uncertain if she was ready for such raw honesty.

Steve didn't seem to have the same concerns, as he wrapped his arms around her and pressed a kiss against the back of her neck. In the late afternoon light that fell in strips across their bodies, on top of messy sheets, the words he spoke next were unmistakeably an oath. "I trust you, Claire."

*

It was late in the next day when she made herself a second cup of coffee, struggling awkwardly to add sugar and check her phone with only one working hand. The first message she sent was to Natasha. I deflowered a national icon last night.

"That's what I heard," came Bruce's soft voice behind her, and she spun in surprise. Engrossed in her phone screen,she hadn't noticed his approach.

"Banner! I didn't know you were back from Maryland. And how did you..." She paused, torn between reaching forward to greet him with a hug, and hiding her face. "Steve told you that?"

Bruce grimaced. "No. That would have been weird. But he told Tony, who told me, because he has no sense of personal boundaries."

Claire laughed. "He really doesn't. Steve told Tony?"

"At great emotional length, apparently. Pepper thought it was sweet."

"Pepper thinks everything Steve does is sweet." Claire stepped forward, wrapping her arms around him, a friendly hug that was returned with Bruce's solid grip. "She's like the editors of Buzzfeed that way. How's the children's hospital?"

"Still standing," was Bruce's succinct, too-casual answer. "Here, I brought you something."

He reached into his bag, the same dirt-streaked backpack that he'd had when Natasha had picked him up in South Asia, and pulled something out. Claire frowned as she reached for it, running her fingers mindlessly over the soft synthetic fur and the purple vest. "Where exactly did you get a Hawkeye teddy bear?"

Bruce shrugged. "I handed some out on the ward. They were popular, but not as popular as the green bear."

She laughed. "There's a Hulk stuffed animal?"

"Yep." Bruce's face scrunched briefly into a tangled combination of confusion and disapproval. "It comes with a removable lab coat. The kids were very excited to get them. But this one's for you."

"Okay." The bear's soft bow detached from its paw, making a ripping sound as the velcro pieces separated. Someone had paid a lot of attention to detail, and the bear was a lefty, like she was. "Why?"

"The kids seemed to think that if they got stuffed animals when they weren't feeling well, that you should too."

"And you agreed to be bear messenger."

"Five year olds can be very persuasive," Bruce answered, with a small smile that suggested that the five-year-old patients might not have come up with the idea on their own. Claire didn't challenge the pretense, as Bruce turned his sharp focus to her cast. "How's the arm?"

"Still broken," she answered, but that didn't stop Bruce from gently taking hold of her arm and gently running his fingers over the injured area.

His careful medic's gaze lightened as he examined her, his eyes settling on the new marks on the surface of her cast. Bruce's mouth quirked upwards in a small, unexpected grin. "Is that Steve's handiwork?"

She didn't pull away, instead returning the smile. "So what if it is?"

"Nothing. Just, you're really going for it, huh?"

She studied him for a moment, but couldn't find a trace of jealousy on his face, only open curiousity. "Yeah, well. Some asshole told me to stop worrying so much."

"That's not really what I said, Claire," Bruce answered, but he was smiling again. She thought that she had never before seen him smile so often, or so readily. "But if I had, it would have been good advice."

*

"You should probably know that anything you tell Tony right now, he's going to tell Bruce, in epic detail."

Natasha and Steve both looked up as Claire entered the kitchen. She pulled herself onto a clear spot on the kitchen counter, glancing down at the mess flour and sugar and eggs that they were making.

Natasha and Steve still didn't live in the tower, technically speaking. But lately they weren't likely to be found anywhere else.

Steve's reasons were obvious, Claire guessed. She found that she didn't mind as much as she thought she should.

"Okay," Steve answered, slowly. "Uh. Why?"

"Classic Stark maneuver," Natasha answered for her, and she would know. She had literally written the book on Stark's charm and bad habits. "Though I doubt he realises he's doing it. But I think he subconsciously believes if Banner hears enough about our messy personal lives, he'll decide we're too hopeless to be left alone."

Steve mulled that over, the whisk in his hand momentarily stalled in motion. "That's a terrible plan. Even for Stark."

"Worked on Pepper Potts," Natasha pointed out with a small smile.

Steve considered that again, before appearing to decide to let that particular subject rest. "I didn't know Doctor Banner was still thinking of leaving."

"He's always thinking of leaving. A least a little bit." Claire kept her face blank and her tone carefully even as she spoke. Judging by the looks that Steve and Natasha were giving her, the charade hadn't fooled anybody. But the moment passed, and neither of them called her on it.

Claire leaned over the ingredients that covered the counter, identifying the contents of one bowl as white chocolate chips and frowning over the other. "What are you making?"

Natasha slapped her hand away, beating Claire's attempt to dodge the contact. "Brownies. If you're not shooting, Barton, then get off the range."

Claire backed carelessly out of the kitchen area with a lazy salute. "Yes, ma'am."

She watched for a minute from just outside the doorway as the pair got back to work. Steve and Natasha moved around each other comfortably in the kitchen, almost an extension of their dance in the field. It was nice, she thought, that they were making another effort to get to know each other. And it was nice, if unexpected, that the effort was for her.

*

Claire texted Stark with the hand on her injured side, eating her stolen chocolate chips with the other. this whole Avengers thing is still weird.

For once, Tony's response came back right away. Yep.

but not bad, necessarily.

Nope. Testing out some new stuff. You want to come watch?

She swallowed down the last of the candy, and pressed the elevator call button in front of her. In your workshop?

No, it's a flight test. I'm in Central Park.

Claire threw back her head and laughed out loud, before sending her response. sure, okay. let's make a scene.

*fin.

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