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Observer Effect

Chapter Text

Tony opened his eyes when he heard the sound of the door opening. He rubbed at them with the heel of his hand yawning as he sat up to see who it was. He’d already had his morning conversation with his doctor -who hadn’t been very pleased about him making himself at home in Natasha’s room but had decided it was fine for him to stay- and Natasha had been wheeled out for some more scans and x-rays with Clint as her overprotective guard. That let him alone in a quiet room with nothing to do but snooze and so snooze he had.

Instead of hospital staff, however, Thor came into the room with his arms filled with several boxes and bags. Loki followed him in, a frown on his face and carrying only one package.

“Tony!” Thor said with delight, “It is good to see you, my friend. The healers have done well to treat you so finely, your color has returned and you look well having spent only one night in their company.” He strode across the room and up to the bed where Tony rested.

Tony smiled up at him, “I do feel better after a good night’s rest. But nevermind that, what’s all that? What are you wearing? What have you two been up to? Enjoying your stay on Earth?” He pulled his legs, bending them under the sheets of the bed so that Thor had somewhere to put his packages.

Thor unloaded the boxes and bags with utmost care, “Loki and I have had a most interesting time. The Lady Kletka has assisted us in procuring a talented enough tailor for my time here upon Midgard.” With Thor’s arms now empty, he was able to present the fine leather chest piece he wore, “As you can see, my tailor has great skill in leatherworking as well. This is all his fine handiwork.”

Tony arched one eyebrow. He looked up from the braided leather to Thor’s face, “You procured a tailor?”

“Indeed, for I know not how long I shall be here upon Midgard, I thought it best to take care of some of the essentials. While I am on my quest, I cannot forget that I am the crown prince of Asgard.” Thor gave a serious nod, hand smoothing over the braided leather, “That, and I find Midgard garments to be quite thin and uncomfortable. They are fine to be used sparingly, but certainly not fit for an Asgardian during the hours of the day.”

“Huh,” Tony blinked, wondering how much Thor promised the tailor in terms of payment. He’d have to ask Kletka about it later, make sure that the situation didn’t stay as muddied as it sounded. If this tailor was amenable to a contracted employment as Thor’s tailor- and if they had skill in more, ah, typical outfits, perhaps Tony could find use for them once Thor had left again. “That makes sense, I guess. But you couldn’t have spent your whole night at the tailor, come on, spill the details. I want to know everything.”

It was convenient that Thor was so eager to tell stories, it really was. With only a little prompting here and there or perhaps a question for an explanation, Tony got the full story.

It started with the tailor- Adir King, found and contacted by Kletka- and the fitting. There was coffee and chatter and the wine red cloak that Thor showed up with delight. Then, after the tailor, there was the feasting. Because of how late it had been, because Thor wanted to eat lots of ‘traditional Midgard food’ they’d ended up in some twenty-four hour, seven days a week diner that was half a gambling facility. They had ordered and eaten and ordered and eaten, joined by nearly every other patron who came wandering into the place after they did, until, as Thor gleefully explains it, they had pushed six small tables together to form one long one and were one great party of food and drink.

They were there for hours. Tony kept one hand over his mouth to cover how it had dropped open as he listened to Thor talk about this person and that person that he’d met, about the people who had served their food and cooked it, about the bartender who had mixed drinks and hadn’t been able to get Thor drunk though he’d tried his damnedest.

After such an evening, Tony wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Thor finding somewhere to crash and crash hard, and yet, the Asgardian seemed burdened with boundless energy. The morning hours, those before they’d come to the hospital, were spent collecting all the packages of things that Kletka had purchased. At first, Thor had no idea what they were fetching, only knowing that the “fair Lady Kletka” had asked them to run these errands.

It wasn’t until Thor walked into the woman’s clothing boutique for a pick up that it had at all clicked that they were getting things for Tony, Natasha, and Clint. Thor recounted a familiar experience to Tony, namely that of being approached and ultimately surrounded by a cluster of bright-eyed women, anxious to speak with him and admire him. Tony snickered as Thor explained that while his gathering of women had been plentiful, it was Loki who had gotten the more aggressive attentions from women “of the matronly type”.

Loki didn’t look amused from where he sat off to the side, except, of course for the way he interjected and sniped at Thor during the retelling, adding embellishments and details to things the way only a younger, more meddling brother would do.

“Sounds like a busy morning,” Tony said, “Did you guys get any sleep at all last night?”

Thor grinned, “My tailor supplied us with java, as did the feasting hall and several shops along our way. The java upon Asgard has a different quality to it than it does here on Midgard. It is more bitter and gives such energy to tired limbs!”

“...So you’re on a caffeine high,” Tony said, blinking a little. “How much coffee have you had?”

“Between Loki and myself?” Thor scratched at his beard, looking thoughtful. He looked at Loki who shrugged a shoulder.

“The two cups at King’s, there were several shared pots at the feast, then there was the frappe at dawn, the mochas by that shoe place and the espressos before we came here,” Loki said, ticking off things on his fingers, “Am I forgetting any?”

“That sounds about right,” Thor said.

“And you didn’t think to bring me some coffee?” Tony asked.

“We brought this instead,” Loki approached the bed. He held a package unlike the ones Thor had. At Tony’s bedside, he opened the box to reveal rows of warm buns. “These are kolaches,” Loki said, visibly pleased with himself, “They come with a variety of fillings. Lady Kletka says that the place we got these from is highly recommended.”

“Well shit,” Tony said looking over the kolaches, “You didn’t need to get me food too, but sure appreciate it.” He reached for one and pulled it out. The breading was soft and warm and the filling was eggs and sausage and cheese and entirely too delicious. He made a grateful noise and wolfed down the bun.

He didn’t miss the way that Loki glanced at Thor, who was poking among the bags now, as if finally curious about what it is that he hauled around at Kletka’s behest. Thor must have seemed suitably distracted for Loki looked back at Tony, his smile gone. Tony swallowed the hard lump his last bite became in the back of his throat.

“Thor mentions that the two of you picked up the Tesseract together before you were captured. Now that you’re free once more, do you have plans for the artifact’s recovery?” Loki asked, head tilting just a little to the side.

Tony scratched at his neck. He needed to shave, he really did, but it felt nice to scratch. He couldn’t start getting a real scruffy beard or Ivan was going to start getting ideas that Tony wanted to be like him. “I suppose I do,” he said, “I can’t exactly let the thing fall into the wrong hands, you know?”

Loki smiled, “You are right. It is best to have the Tesseract in competent hands. I would be happy to assist you in acquiring the Tesseract, Tony.”

He hadn’t called Tony ‘Lord Stark’ which was a good sign. But Thor was looking up at them now, not grinning and attentive in a way that Tony didn’t like. “I don’t know if I’ll need the help,” he said, “The capture was a surprise, but I should’ve figured something like that was going to happen. Everything else had been going far too right.”

“Must you often be wary of capture, Tony?” Thor asked, frowning slightly.

Tony laughed a little too bitterly and looked away. “I’m a bit too valuable to just kill, you know. The next best thing is capture and manipulation to get me to do whatever it is that they want done. Build this thing, design that thing, give them lots of money, there’s always something people want from me.”

“Well, I would like to assist you,” Loki said with a charming smile. Tony snorted in disbelief and Loki gave him a hurt expression, “It’s true, Tony. You understand the value of the Tesseract, that much is clear, and such an artifact should not be left in the hands of those who do not know its worth. If you would allow me to help you-”

“Your assistance will be unnecessary,” NOBODY spoke suddenly, her voice muffled as it came from Loki’s side. Loki froze the moment she spoke, his eyes widening slightly as she continued, “Father, the Tesseract has been recovered and is on route to the menagerie.”

Tony felt tense muscles in his back relax at that. He’d almost been worried enough to let Loki help, but he should’ve known better. There was no way that SPIKE and NOBODY would disappoint him, no way that they could, when they were working together. He held out his hand to Loki, “Would you mind?”

Loki blinked at his hand.

“The phone,” Tony said in amusement. “Would you mind returning it?”

Setting aside the box of kolaches, Loki pulled the phone from his pocket. He hesitated only a little before placing it in Tony’s hand. Then, casually as you please, he sat on the end of the bed near the bags Thor had deposited there.

“That did not sound like the Lady Kletka,” Thor said curiously. “Though she must be exhausted, having watched over us through the night. Is this another one of your servants, Tony?”

“I wouldn’t call her a servant,” Tony said, still amused. He tapped his thumb over the print scanner at the bottom of the phone and it immediately unlocked. The screen went immediately to a text conversation, one between SPIKE and NOBODY; he could tell because of her all caps and his overuse of capitalization. They were having quite the argument. “She’s more like my daughter, much like Kletka, but older and gifted in other ways.”

“The Lady Kletka is your daughter?” Thor sounded surprised and then a little ashamed, “Had I known, I would not have been so brash in our conversations.”

Tony looked up at that, brows rising, “Are you telling me you had inappropriate conversations with Kletka?”

“No, no, no,” Thor insisted, shaking his head, “But I did not treat her according to her station. Truly, I thought her one of your servants, not of your blood.”

Tony blinked. It took a moment for him to work out what Thor was bothered by and when he did figure it out, he felt a little bit like an idiot. And he felt a little floored, too. The Thor of his timeline hadn’t treated him this way at all. That Thor had never seen him as some sort of royalty of Earth or whatever it was that this Thor thought of him. “I should’ve been more clear about that, I guess. I did just kind of shove her into your hands and send you off. Honestly, I’m just glad you made it through the night.”

“As if a single night on Midgard could bring us trouble,” Loki said with a little sniff. He had his arms folded, looking a bit sourer than before. According to NOBODY, who had scolded SPIKE into silence in their chat, Loki had known already about the Tesseract’s retrieval. She wasn’t sure why he had played the game he’d tried, but she wasn’t a fan of his lying. Tony tapped out a quick response to her, that Loki was the god of lies and she shouldn’t take it personally because he didn’t, but NOBODY didn’t seem convinced.

“Well,” Tony said, “What I meant was that I probably should’ve told you who Kletka was. I sometimes forget that I deal with people who don’t spend every day around my AI.” He waved the phone a little in his hand, trying not to laugh at the twin looks of confusion he got from Thor and Loki, “Kletka is an Artificially Intelligent piece of technology. It’s called an AI for short. She’s just a very, very advanced computer program. She behaves in many human ways and she’s a person in her own right, so I call her my daughter.

“She’s also one of a few AI. The other one you just heard speak was her elder sister. Later on, you’ll probably meet their elder brother, Jarvis. He runs most of my personal tech while Kletka’s more of a, uh, satellite feature,” Tony grinned at his own joke, “She and Natasha get along well, which is why she’s installed on Natasha’s phone.”

Loki was staring at the phone in Tony’s hand with mostly disguised wonder. Thor was less disguised. He came over and peered at the phone, “You mean to say that the woman we spoke with last night, who found us all those things and made payments and connections for us is contained within this phone?”

“It’d be more accurate to say she was contained in the network, but yeah. Sounds like she did a good job.”

“She… has no body?” Loki asked, “She is made of your Midgardian technology?”

“Right,” Tony confirmed.

Loki turned his head away, tapping his chin thoughtfully, “I think I understand why your enemies are so eager to capture you and turn you to their sides if creating her is indicative of your skill with the technology of your planet.”

Tony laughed and shook his head, “Too bad for them I’m too stubborn to cave under pressure. They really ought to just leave me alone to my work.”

“And what is your work, exactly?” Loki asked, looking at Tony out of the corner of his eye.

“Brother, that is enough,” Thor said with a wave of his large hand. “Can you not see that Tony still requires his rest? Let it be for now.” He picked up the box of kolaches and offered it to Tony again, “Eat and rest, Tony. You are still wounded from your capture and need to mend your body. Loki will not leave before he gets what he wants, so you can be sure you can continue your conversation later.”

Tony grinned and scooped out another bun, “If you insist, Thor,” he said before biting into it. It wasn’t as warm, now that the box had sat open for a time, but it was still delicious.

Loki gave Thor a cross look that flitted away from his face soon enough. He began to fiddle with the bags, obviously bored, and Tony kept his mouth full of food so he wasn’t tempted to strike up a conversation just to ease that. Really, he had to get a handle on his urge to distract people from their own minds. Especially people he couldn’t exactly trust, like Loki.

They were all saved from awkward silence when the door opened. Tony sighed a little bit in gratitude as Clint pushed in the door, half turned to make sure Natasha got in without any problems. Natasha was being pushed in by not just one but two attendants. Not nurses, which Tony expected, but two interns. The first one is pushing Natasha in, the other is holding a clipboard and they’re both struggling to keep a straight face as their eyes light up at the sight of Thor and Loki.

Tony swallows his current mouthful and raises a hand in greeting, “Welcome back you two! Our princes have returned and they brought clothes and kolaches!”

“Kolaches?” Clint asked.

“Clothes?” Natasha asked. She looked pale and tired still, but she was conscious and as bandaged up as she could be. She sat up a little straighter and looked curiously at the bags on Tony’s bed.

Thor proffered the box for Clint, who eagerly picked out a kolache for each hand. Natasha had the intern wheel her over to Tony’s bed, instead of her own with a little frown and some quiet insistence.

“You really should be resting, Ms. Romanova,” the intern said.

“Uh huh,” Natasha ignored her. “Tony,” she asked, “Does this mean what I think it means?” She reached for one of the bags, pulling it off the bed and into her lap. One of her arms was of no help, but Natasha didn’t need two arms to pull the shirt out of the bag and give him a Look.

Tony couldn’t help but grin. She had a light in her eyes, a spark of something that looked pretty close to delight if he had to put a name to it. It made her look less tired, which was a plus. “Hey, doctors, can we get a couple of dismissal forms?”

The woman standing behind Natasha’s chair, she had light brown hair and one well-arched eyebrow, said, “You want dismissal forms? You’re not serious, are you?” She turned to her companion, who was more-or-less staring at Thor. “Yang-”

“I don’t care if it’s against medical recommendation,” Tony said, “We’ve stayed long enough and we’re quite ready to go, aren’t we, Nat?”

Natasha nodded. “Clint, can you hand me that box over there? I think that’s for me too.” She pointed to one of the dark red bags with white text. Loki, who was sitting on the bed, picked it up and handed it to her.

“M’lady,” he said with a smile.

Natasha rolled her eyes, “Cute.” She took the bag.

Meanwhile, the two doctors had a mostly silent argument with their eyes and expressions which ended with the first one closing her eyes and rubbing her temple, muttering, “Bailey isn’t going to like it.”

“She can take it up with Mr. Stark herself,” Yang said, “Go get the forms.” She ushered her companion away and then gave Natasha a bright smile, “Have you got what you needed from the bags, Ms. Romanova? I can wheel you over to your side of the room and draw the curtain for you.”

“Yes, thanks,” Natasha said and let Yang wheel her over. Clint watched her go and then looked to Tony, pointing to the bags.

“Any of that shit in there for me? Or what?”

Tony shrugged, “Kletka had them pick it up. I don’t know what all is in there.”

Loki quickly sorted out the packages. “If I recall correctly, these will be your clothes, Tony, and these belong to… I’m sorry, I never got your name.”

“Barton,” Clint said, “You can call me Barton.” He grabbed up the clothes for himself peered into the bags. “Huh, looks fine I guess.” He finished off the last bite of his kolache and took the packages. Without a moment’s hesitation, he walked to Natasha’s side of the room. Yang had pulled the curtain to separate them and gave a sharp noise when he appeared but Natasha told her it was fine.

“I guess I should change as well,” Tony said with a sigh. He felt rather stiff across the back because of his injuries, but he was looking forward to real clothing.

“That would be best,” Loki said, “So that we may leave here swiftly.”

Thor nodded in agreement.

Tony pulled out the new clothes from the bags. They looked pretty standard for him, dressy pants and a casual shirt and a jacket. The shirt was soft, too, which was good. He didn’t think he’d be able to stand anything too starchy right now. He hesitated in changing, though, feeling Thor and Loki watching him.

“Do you require assistance, Tony?” Thor asked helpfully. “Do your injuries limit your range of movement?”

“No, no, I’ve got it.” Tony said, “I’ve had worse, believe me.” He made a little shooing gesture with his hand, “But could you two give me a little privacy?”

“Oh of course, of course,” Loki said smoothly as if he’d honestly forgotten that Tony might need some space. He slid off the bed, landing on his feet easily and turning his back to the bed. “Come, brother, let us step into the hallway briefly.”

“Certainly,” Thor said and followed him out. Tony shook his head at their antics and pulled back the sheets on his bed.

Getting dressed wasn’t as difficult as he’d feared. His pain was still fairly well managed with medication and Kletka had taken his injuries into consideration when picking out his clothes. He normally didn’t wear pants with such a low waistband, but he appreciated it when they didn’t cut across any of the whip marks on his back. He managed his shoes and socks without too much trouble and from there all he had to do was put on his belt, shirt, and jacket.

His head had just popped free of the shirt when the door opened and in walked the now-familiar Doctor Bailey with that brown-haired intern from before. “What is this about you requesting to be dismissed? You still have a severe chance of infection, Mr. Stark, and your companion is barely well enough to get out of bed. Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Dr. Bailey,” Tony said with a smile, “You’ve done incredible work for me and Natasha in the last couple of days. Really, you and the rest of the staff should be proud to work at such a fine hospital. I’m so grateful, in fact, that I’m going to be donating five million dollars to this wonderful hospital in order to help it continue to give such quality treatment to those individuals who need it.” He reached out and took her hand in both of his, shaking it in congratulations while she stared at him dumbfounded, “I’ll name you specifically in my donations as being instrumental in my care. I do hope that such a donation will be useful to you here at the hospital.”

He let go of her hand and said, “Unfortunately, to be able to make that donation, I’ll have to sign some paperwork in person at my office in California. Which means I must insist on being dismissed from your wonderful care. And I must have Natasha with me, of course, I’ve already arranged for some long-term care for her in a more comfortable setting. So, if you could please provide me with the paperwork?”

“I-” Bailey blinked at him. She swallowed and then cleared her throat. “Five million you say?”

“Five million,” he confirmed.

She closed her eyes for a moment and Tony could see the internal struggle. She grimaced and then sighed and her expression smoothed out, “I really can’t recommend your dismissal from the hospital, Mr. Stark. But you are an adult and of a rational mind and you can remove yourself from our care if you decide to do so. Ms. Romanova is also of sound mind and we cannot compel her to stay if she is willing to leave against medical recommendation.” Bailey gave him a sharp look, “However, whatever you may or may not donate certainly has no bearing on whether or not I give you the paperwork necessary to leave the hospital against medical advice. And if you do donate to the hospital, we will be very grateful, Mr. Stark.”

“Of course, of course,” Tony said with that same broad smile, “I would simply be donating out a sense of gratitude. Now, those papers?”

Bailey half turned towards the door. “Meredith,” she said, holding out her hand. The first intern from before, Meredith, hurried over and handed her the papers. Bailey turned back around and gave one packet to Tony. “You’ll need to read over this and sign one. Ms. Romanova will need to do the same when she’s ready.”

The curtain pulled back on the other side of the room and Natasha appeared. She was dressed in a skirt and sleeveless top, both giving her bandaged arm and leg room to move. Clint was behind her, dressed as well in clothing similar to Tony’s but jeans instead of slacks. He pushed her wheelchair forward and Natasha held out her hand to Bailey. “I’ll take it now, thanks.”

Bailey handed it over and then gave them both a frown. “I really must recommend that at the very least Ms. Romanova stays here.”

“Sorry, I’ve got to keep her close,” Tony said as he skimmed over the current page he was on. There had been pens included with the packets and he used it to initial one spot and sign another. “I’m cursed to keep red-heads close to me at all times or else surely face my doom. Isn’t that right, Nat?”

“Unfortunately,” she said with a sigh, “But that’s what you get when you piss off the universe, Tony.” She was going through her own paperwork with a lot less care than Tony was. “Have you taken into consideration my wheelchair problem?” she asked him.

“All necessary arrangements have been made with great care to your current health status, Natasha,” Kletka said in her serious voice from the phone on Tony’s bed. He went over and picked it up, worried about leaving it behind by accident.

Natasha smiled but didn’t look up from her paperwork, clearly satisfied with Kletka’s assurance. Tony handed over his papers to Bailey, who took them with a sigh and a shake of her head. Yang and Meredith were by the door, though Yang was mostly out of it, since Thor and Loki were still in the hallway. Tony picked up the jacket that Kletka had gotten for him and put it on with a smile to hide the way moving his shoulders made them hurt.

Natasha handed over her bundle and nodded to Bailey, “Thanks for everything, Doctor. Sorry my boss is such a pain in the ass.”

Bailey nodded back, like she fully understood bosses who were nothing but trouble, “I’m sorry we couldn’t do more for you, Ms. Romanova. Please travel safely.” She then turned towards the door, “Come you two, let’s go.” She bustled Meredith and Yang away, leaving the rest of them alone to find their way out.

Thor stuck his head in the door, “We are leaving?”

“Yup,” Tony said. He stuffed all his empty clothing bags into the biggest bag and then picked up the box of kolaches. “Kletka has arranged a ride for us to get to the airport and once we’re there it’ll be just a few hours until the menagerie.”

“Do you really have to keep calling it that?” Natasha asked as Clint wheeled her out of the room. She asked it with an exasperated smile, though.

Tony shrugged, “Ivan is the one who started it, blame him.”

“Oh I will,” she said.

The lot of them left then in a strange parade of Asgardian princes, a wheelchair-bound Russian assassin, infamous billionaire and Clint. Tony didn’t miss the packed nurse’s station on their way to the elevator, or that most of the people there were curious interns clearly peering at Thor and Loki. Tony rolled his eyes and ushered everyone into the elevator. He’d feel a lot better once they were all safely tucked away in the menagerie, he really would.





Clint sat in the back of the jet in a seat that let him see everybody else on the plane in the span of one turn of the head. Natasha was in the row just ahead of him, occupying two chairs with her wounded leg and arm and propped up with pillows and blankets like some ancient old woman by a fireplace. She wasn’t quite asleep but she did doze off and on, stirring when there was turbulence or when someone walked past her seat.

Ahead of her by another row was Tony Stark, poking away at his phone in relative silence. He was the only one left awake of their group, besides Clint, so Clint spent the most time watching him. It was pretty fucking boring, though, because when Stark wasn’t tapping at his phone he was just sitting there, staring across the aisle in the plane with an abstract, thoughtful expression on his face.

The other two, Thor and Loki, the so-called princes and might-be aliens, were near the front of the jet, stretched out with their seats put back and pillows provided for them to rest with. Thor snored occasionally, his head turning in his sleep. Clint had wandered up there once to check and hadn’t been surprised to find Loki with his head on Thor’s shoulder. Apparently, they’d spent most of the night and morning awake and wandering around the city, which made their collapse into sleep make a lot more sense.

Clint’s attention slid back to Stark again and he sighed. With a muttered curse, Clint got up from his seat and eased into the walkway. He made his way past Natasha, sleeping in her nest of pillows and blankets, to where Stark sat. Stark looked up, blinking in surprise as Clint stopped by his chair. His eyes had that unnerving glow to them so Clint dropped his gaze to Stark’s chin instead so he wouldn’t have to look at his eyes. “You got a moment, Stark? We need to talk.”

Stark’s lips twitched into a frown but he nodded. He shifted his legs so Clint could step past him and sit in the chair next to him. Clint dropped into the chair and immediately stretched his legs out in front of himself, sighing deeply.

Stark sat with his hands in his lap, the phone (Natasha’s phone) curiously missing. Clint frowned at Stark’s hands and then shook his head. He couldn’t fully relax his shoulders as he sat there. He was sure that he was making the wrong choice here, that he was about to put himself at risk for a reward that wasn’t worth it, but…

Well his gut told him this was the right thing to do and the risk would be worth it.

Clint figured his instinct thought that only because he’d seen Natasha make that same risk and she hadn’t seemed to regret it.

But that didn’t mean it was going to be easy to do it.

“What did you want to talk about?” Stark asked in the most neutral tone Clint had heard him use yet. He glanced up at his face and saw Stark watching him with almost a perfect blank mask on his face. It wasn’t entirely perfect, though. Clint could see the tense corners of Stark’s eyes and the thinness of his lips as they pressed together.

“We got off on the wrong foot,” Clint began, taking his eyes off of Stark and looking at the back of the seats in front of them. “I was working for the secret spy agency that was spying on you and doing my job in minding things and whatever and you were doing a great job throwing wrenches into the plans of my former employers. I was just doing my job like I was supposed to be doing when you came in and swept my best friend off her feet and down into some insanity hole where I almost don’t recognize her.” Clint stopped, took in a deep breath, let it out again and shook his head as if he could clear the tangle of words that found their way through his thoughts, “I didn’t know you had such an influence on her during the time she watched you. She didn’t really talk about you much once she came back from that job and no one considered it a success because she got put on desk and training duty because of it.”

Stark didn’t say anything. Clint could feel the pressure of his gaze on the side of his face, though, so he resolutely kept staring straight ahead. There was a lot of shit to unpack and he knew that if he got spooked by Stark and clammed up, he’d not get another chance like this for a while.

“So I was a bit surprised when she was willing to go after you after you got captured. Not too surprised, I guess, because from the outside perspective, rescuing you from danger is a one-way ticket to a cushy retirement if all you want to do is pay us for the favor afterward. I would’ve been fine if that’s what she had in mind; if we’d saved you and you gave us a couple million dollars and sent us on our way. But that’s not what happened.” Clint leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. He folded his hands together to keep them from shaking.

“No, what happened was we uncovered a secret Hydra base being run by undercover Shield agents and she had to fight some mythical assassin in the hall, in the dark, and if I’d been a minute later in getting Thor down there, she would’ve had two bullets in the skull and-” Clint stopped and closed his eyes tightly. He held still and silent for a long time, fighting to keep his breath even and his voice quiet. He fought his emotions down and let out a shuddering breath.

“And now she tells me that she’s going to keep working with you, that she’s going to work for you. We’ve had barely five minutes alone together and the thing she finds most important to tell me is that she’s chosen your side and I need to choose mine.”

Clint finally looked up at Stark. He didn’t know what expression he wore, but Stark flinched when he saw it. Flinched and looked down before looking back up to meet Clint’s gaze. “How?” Clint asked, “How did you do it? How did you change everything I thought I knew so fucking fast?”

Stark’s mouth twisted into a small, bitter smile, “C’mon, Barton. I haven’t changed everything you knew-”

“Maybe I didn’t think Shield was the high and mighty world-saving secret organization it called itself, but I didn’t think that they were hiding Hydra agents inside of it. I heard the audio of your capture. And there’s no way that anyone else was on the Shield base when you got caught that could’ve done something like that and not also be Shield. I also don’t think Nat would lie about what she heard that woman say and, for fucks sake, Stark, I pulled you off of some fucking Cold War era brain scanner machine. Shield is Hydra.”

“Shield is just a cover for Hydra,” Stark shook his head, “It’s closer to a three to one ratio where the three are the good ones and the one isn’t. It's just that that ratio accounts for all the population of Shield and there will inevitably be concentrations of Hydra members or Shield members and-”

He stopped when Clint put up a hand and shook his head, “Look, I don’t need the stats on Hydra. I’m still trying to make myself believe they exist. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what you’ve done. Quit stalling and tell me.”

He saw Stark physically bite his lip, holding the words back behind a tightly clenched jaw.

Stark ran his hand over his face and Clint did his best to not let himself stare at the bandages he had. He could tolerate the thought of a lot of injuries, but there was something about pulled nails that made him queasy. If he thought about it too much, his brain would start trying to figure out how he’d draw his bow without fingernails and he couldn’t let that start. It would never stop.

Stark dropped his hand and heaved a sigh. “You’re basically asking me how I got her trust, right? Well, it’s not like I cast a magical spell on her or anything. I was just honest about myself. I was honest about who I used to be and what I’m doing to change that. I don’t just flounder around like a rich billionaire with too many ideas and not enough attention. I have a reason I do what I do, Barton, and she sees that reason and likes it, I guess.”

Clint bit his tongue because from his perspective, all Tony Stark had done was flounder around and get himself and others into trouble and then buy his way out of it like a rich fucking billionaire. “Really?” He asked sarcastically, “If you’re not just a floundering billionaire then what the hell was that five million dollars donation to the hospital so they’d let us go?”

Stark shook his head, “She would’ve let us go without it. Neither one of us had critical injuries anymore and we’re both sane so she couldn’t keep us there or appeal to anyone else to keep us there. The donation is- Look, I can’t solve all the world’s problems, all right? I made bombs for years and I’ll never be able to get those lives back or those homes or undo all the trauma and the PTSD that I’ve given people. But I can give my attention to specific people and specific places and help just a bit while I fix more world-ending problems, okay?

“Five million is almost nothing to me and, honestly, to a big enough hospital, it isn’t much either but five million is a good shock of cash to help a place like that. I gave the donation because I wanted to help them, but I used the way I told her about it to get her surprised enough that she’d not ask questions and would give us the paperwork and let us leave.”

“You just chucked five million dollars at them as a distraction? See-”

“No. I chucked five million dollars at them because they did an emergency surgery on Natasha’s leg in the middle of the night and they did their fucking best job. I am grateful for what they did and I know that while a card is nice to get from a customer, I know also who I am to people. If I just sent a thank you card and a nice set of flowers, it would seem almost like an affront. Who does Tony Stark think he is, spending money on these paltry things when he could send real gifts that mean something.”

“People don’t actually think that,” Clint said but the expression Stark gave him, the roll of his eyes and the dismissive snort, said otherwise. Clint sighed harshly and dragged his hand through his hair, pulling at it. It was already a mess so he didn’t care about adding to it.

“Okay. Fine. I see your point. Five million for you is like nothing but fuck it feels like something to someone like me, okay? It’s a lot of fucking money and it can change people’s lives,” he scowled, “And not always for the better.”

“I know that,” Stark said, looking away from him now. “That’s why I generally don’t give that kind of money to individuals but to groups or organizations, people who have to cut it up and divvy it out, people who have to keep track of it. I can give and give but it won’t fix anything if I just give it to people who misuse it. Money is as dangerous as a missile in that case.”

“And that’s really why you’re doing shit like this?” Clint asked, leaning in towards him, “Because of the bombs? Because you used to be a weapons dealer? That’s it? That’s the reason?”

Stark looks at him with his left hand pressed over the center of his own chest, fingers half curled around the circular disk that Clint’s seen there a couple of times. He thought it was some sort of weird augmentation of some kind, a bionic heart or something, but hasn’t pressed for answers on it yet. He figures Natasha will know exactly what it is and he’ll ask her when he gets the chance. It’s just that he hasn’t gotten the chance for a while.

“It’s more than that,” Stark said quietly, “But that’s a big part of it.”

Clint can tell that Stark’s not going to tell him any other reasons. There’s a tenseness in his shoulders and the line of his neck that means he’s going to hold onto those secrets no matter what the cost. Clint snorts and asks instead, “So Shield. Are you going to dismantle it, too? I heard your father was the one who helped found it, but you never got involved in it before now. What are you going to do to it?”

“I’ve got some plans,” Stark said still with that rigid posture. “Plans to get rid of Hydra. Plans to put some control on Shield. I’m working on things but it’s not my priority right now.”

“And what is your priority?” Clint pressed.

“Natasha is.”

Clint shook his head.

“She is,” Stark insisted. “She’s my top priority right now.”

“I don’t understand this,” Clint ground out between clenched teeth, “I don’t understand how this happened and I didn’t notice it. You trust her too, don’t you? You trust her as much as she trusts you. Don’t you know who she is? What she used to be? When I found her-”

“She was different then, I get it,” Stark interrupted, “But I do trust her and I don’t have to explain why I trust her to you. All you have to understand is that I do trust her and for as long as I trust her, I’ll do whatever I can to help her. Right now, she needs a lot more of my attention and help than she has before so that’s what she’ll get. Natasha is my priority.”

Clint sat back in his chair. He lifted one hand to rub at his face but it dropped down before he managed it. It was like Stark was totally different than everything Clint had read about the man. There wasn’t any bit of the playboy flirtiness or useless frivolity of the young genius billionaire that everyone thought Tony Stark to be. He’d read the file on the man when Natasha had gotten the job to watch him, both amused and disgusted by the opulence that he had and the wasteful way he used it. But that wasn’t true. None of it was true.

And now Natasha’s words ‘ Your digital file’ made a lot more sense because, fuck, Stark’s AI could get into Shield’s database and they could’ve changed the information and kept it from ever being altered like some sort of hypervigilant Wikipedia page editor. Stark controlled people’s perceptions on him the same way he controlled how much money he spent, and where, and who he gave his attention to and who he trusted and who he helped. Clint had mostly thought it a joke when he’d talked about Stark taking over the world like some sort of technological world king, but Stark could do it. He had the ability to control so much just through commanding his AI.

“Can you do it?” Clint asked at last. He looked at Stark, met his glowing eyes without fear.

Stark tilted his head, “Do what? Take care of Natasha?”

Clint nodded.

Stark smiled, “I can.”

“What do I need to do to help?” Clint asked.

Stark watched him in silence for a long moment and then something in his shoulders relaxed. “After we get to the menagerie and everyone gets settled, I’ll need to go down to Colorado to work on the solution. While I’m there, I need to make sure that people don’t get in each other’s way too much. I’ll have eyes on the place because of my AI, but if I need someone to step in, I’ll have to rely on an actual person. Jane and Erik will be busy working. Ivan should be working as well. Natasha needs to just rest. Darcy is an agent of chaos when not helping Jane and the princes are the ones I’m worried about getting underfoot. If you can help keep the peace, then you’ll be helping me help Natasha.” He gave Clint a quick smile, his eyes light with amusement, “I don’t expect you to get in the way if people fight, but I figure you can deflect plenty of bullshit before it ever gets to that point, can’t you?”

Clint shrugged one shoulder. It didn’t sound like a difficult assignment. Especially since he’d be able to sit back and bitch with Natasha whenever.

“Barton, you’re the one who asked if you could help.”

“I know that,” Clint said gruffly. “I just thought you’d come up with something more interesting than minding the aliens. I used to do that for Shield, you know.”

“Then I’m sure you’ll be very good at it,” Stark said with a smile, “And you can have more interesting stuff to do later, once Natasha’s better. After all, there’s never a dull moment with me.”

Clint laughed, “That’s for fucking sure.” He shook his head and then held out his hand, “Fine, I’ll play mediator while you’re away, but if I get my leg busted doing it, you’ll do me a solid too, won’t you?”

Stark took his hand, gripping it tight and shaking it. He met Clint’s gaze and said, “I take care of my own, Barton. If you count yourself among mine, I’ll always have your back.”

Clint’s smile dropped with the seriousness of Stark’s expression. He squeezed his hand back and then said, “Call me Clint.”

“Only if you call me Tony,” was the reply.

Clint let go of Tony’s hand with a nod, “Sure thing, boss.”

Tony snorted and sat back in his chair. Clint got to his feet, “I’ll let you rest, boss,” he said with a smirk, “Holler if you need anything.” Tony rolled his eyes at him and Clint stepped past him.

He glanced down at Natasha as he walked past her row, to check on her and make sure she was all right. She hadn’t moved and her eyes were closed, but there was a smile on her lips that hadn’t been there before. Clint shook his head and went back to his seat.

Legs stretched out and hands folded over his abdomen, Clint got comfortable and settled into his new life.