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With Us (Or Without)

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The mid-day sun made little impression through the large, photochromic windows that stretched along the length of the Avengers Tower communications room.  Dimmed automatically by JARVIS, the glass allowed enough natural light into the room to easily see by, but not so much that it disrupted the holographic charts that were displayed vertically above the space’s central console.  A console that Tony Stark stood before, valiantly resisting the urge to rock back and forth on his feet as he waited with as much patience as he could muster.

"So?"  Tony managed an entire minute before he broke the silence.  Steve was standing beside him, close enough that their arms bumped when Tony gesticulated at the charts, and he cocked his head to the right.  He pursed his lips in contemplation, and tipped his head to the left side, before straightening into his Captain America posture.

"Yep," Steve agreed.  "Something’s up."

"Something’s up?” Tony repeated, and exhaled with heavy exasperation.  “Why yes, Captain, thank you for joining the party!  Something’s up," he muttered the last words and glared at the screen.  "Jarvis,” he demanded, “why didn't you tell me about this sooner."

"Because of reasons, Sir."

"Do not start that tone with me, Jarvis.  Not today," Tony growled, rubbing at his temple and leaving a tiny smear of green grease behind.  "Just because you miss them doesn't mean you get to be a dick.  You barely know them.”

"Pot," Steve started.

"Kettle," Bruce finished from where he stood on Tony's other side, enough space between them that Tony would have to really try if he wanted to bump him for attention.

"Jarvis?"  Tony ignored them both pointedly.

"On the surface the incidents represented as non-related entities.  Without proper, unhindered access to SHIELDs mainframe I lacked the information needed to make the connections.  Agent Coulson reached out to me a short while ago and sent fresh data that I used to compile these connections."

"Right, and now?" Tony reached out and flicked his fingers, scrolling through the information.

"Now, something is definitely up, Sir."  Jarvis confirmed and Steve's lips twitched, which, okay.  Nobody had been smiling much lately so Tony could let the AI’s snippiness slide.  For now.  "Without more definitive proof, I would surmise that SHIELD has been infiltrated by an organization, and that it began an unspecified but likely lengthy time ago."

"Hydra," Steve spat, all traces of humour evaporating with that word.

"Okay," Tony looked at Steve, standing there in a t-shirt and jeans and somehow looking more like Captain America than any of his patriotic propaganda films combined.  "Just to be clear, and I don't mean this insensitively, but there are more evil organizations intent on some kind of world domination out there than Hydra, and it concerns me that you'd jump directly to that conclusion with no real evidence.  That way lies obsession Steve, and trust me, I know that doesn't always lead somewhere good."  

"The lineage of several missing or recently deceased SHIELD agents can be linked historically to both prominent and minor associates of Hydra.  It is likely they are involved, Sir," Jarvis informed with near apologetic tone.  Tony just knew a major headache was in his near future; it had started with freshly minted teammates going AWOL after an apparent betrayal of the heart, and was going to be exacerbated by Nazis digging into the cracks of SHIELD’s foundation.  Fantastic.

“Okay.  So most likely Hydra has tentacles somewhere in this heavily financed, heavily armed, and apparently heavily oblivious, SHIELD pie.  It was Agent that gave you the heads up?”

“Yes sir.” JARVIS was quick to confirm.

“Did Coulson give an all-clear list?”  Tony wondered, because a little help would be good.  He could practically feel Steve vibrating with tension beside him.  Bruce was being very still.

“Yes Sir.  It consists of Director Fury, Deputy-director Hill, Miss Romanov and Mr. Barton.”  JARVIS pulled their images to stack vertically at the side screen.  Natasha looked flatly serene as she stared at the camera.  Barton looked like he was just about to say something, or walk away, or maybe give the photographer the finger.  

“Well…that’s comforting.” Bruce’s tone did not support his words.  “So, are we adding Coulson to this non-compromised list?  Because if not, we’ll need to start the investigation ground up.”

“I don’t think we’ll need to do too much,” Steve said and Tony contemplated the information again, eyes flicking rapidly from data, to personnel and base locations, to the list of missing locations.  He saw what Steve had noticed, and was a little ticked that the guy had made the connection before him.  Whatever, he hadn’t slept in a day, or was it two?

“Well,” Tony was a little hurt, “they could have at least told us what was going on before dropping off the map.”  Their relatively unfriendly-neighbourhood-assassins were definitely getting late invitations to his next birthday shebang.  See how they like being invited last minute.

“At least they told someone,” Bruce said, clearly not giving this snub from Romanov and Barton the level of concern it deserved.  In fact Bruce was rocking an air of unsurprised acceptance, like he expected to not be trusted with the secret agendas of teammates they’d saved the world with. Tony wasn’t actually sure Natasha and Clint had told anyone about their actions across the globe these last few weeks. He figured it had probably just taken this long for SHIELD to cotton on to the fact that all the small attacks and employee disappearances and deaths were connected and that these two had something to do with it. Tony didn’t know Clint all that well, and he wasn’t sure he’d say he knew Natasha any better, but after the show down with Coulson what felt like ages ago, he’d put money down on the two not giving a fuck about telling SHIELD that they were going after internal corruption. Tony wouldn’t.

They could have at least warned him though. They knew he didn’t completely trust SHIELD.

“Stop dragging the energy of the room down, Brucie,” Tony glared at the images of Natasha and Clint for good measure.  “We’ve got a SHIELD fixing-HYDRA wrecking party to join.”

“Jarvis, what’s their next likely target?”  Steve had squared his shoulders and donned his business face.  Tony began to bop slightly on his feet, energy ratcheting up. He was more than ready for a little action.  It was inherently unfair that his teammates were blowing things up and he’d been sidelined without even knowing it.

“SHIELD headquarters,” JARVIS smothered the information Coulson had sent over with one solid image of SHIELD’s head office in DC.  “The jet is ready.”

Right.  Good.  Tony went to the platform where JARVIS had his suit ready for donning. He would meet the jet in DC.

CCcCC

Iron Man arrived a few minutes late to the party due to a necessary detour that involved removing some ground to air missile platforms that were not a part of the Headquarters original blueprints.  Blueprints or not the launch pads existed and had been intent vaporizing the team’s Quinjet.  It only took a few minutes to destroy the weapons, ensure their launched missiles didn’t cause any kind of damage, and perform a quick scan of the building for more deadly surprises. Those few minutes, however, meant that Tony joined his teammates on the building’s top floor with more delay than he’d wanted.  He’d planned on being first on scene.

To make up for the tardiness he flew through the massive floor to ceiling window that, sadly, had already been reduced to crumbled, no-longer-bullet-resistant, puddles of glass.  It really messed with his dramatic entrance, but smashing in through the one remaining glass pane in the corner office just for the fun of it was not a sound safety choice. Or the mature option.  Tony was just landing with a crunch on the broken glass when Steve, with excellent timing, kicked in the thick metal office door that separated he and Bruce from the room. Of course, being Steve, he hit the door with enough force that it flew off it’s hinges without protest and slid a good fifteen feet across the tiled floor.  Captain America stormed into the considerable office with a scowl beneath the cowl and shield ready for action.  Fury and Hill flooded in right behind him, one leather jacket flapping fiercely and three guns between them aimed and steady.  Hill had a cut slowly leaking from her eyebrow and a very pissed off glint in her eye.

“Okay,” Tony retracted his faceplate the moment everyone seemed to still, and pointed accusingly at his no longer missing teammates.  “If you can’t invite me to your Fiercely-Fun-Fridays than you will be vetoed from Wishful-Weapon-Wednesdays.”

Natasha didn’t seem impressed, but Barton looked mildly put out, or at least that was what Tony interpreted his look to mean beneath the facial bruising, butterfly bandages, and dirt.  So much dirt.  Plus the obvious exhaustion that made his eyes look bruised, let’s not discount that.

“You son-of-a bitch” Rumlow growled from where he was trussed up with handcuffs and tape and spread belly-down across a massive glass desk.  He was making a nice cushion for Natasha as she sat primly on his Kevlar covered back but he was glaring with a special level of hate towards Clint.  The pockets on his cargo pants rattled and clinked as he struggled like a landed fish. “I’m going to-” she jabbed him in between his shoulder blades with a widows-bite and, after a brief spasm, he fell still and silent beneath her. She appeared utterly unaffected by everything that was happening, and unsurprised to see them. Her legs kicked back and forth slightly from where the dangled over Rumlow and the tables edge.

“Explain,” Fury demanded into the silence that filled the space after Rumlow’s grunts and shaking stopped. His dark glare coated the room with severity, taking in all the players and their positions.

“Explain?”  The incredulous question was repeated with a slightly higher toned voice.  “What are you waiting for?  Take these two into custody immediately!” Alexander Pierce, the head-honcho of SHIELD, ordered with slightly slurred words, though there was no mistaking the rage in his tone.   He had blood trailing from his mouth and down his chin, staining his crisp blue shirt, and was practically frothing with rage.  Fury looked to where Pierce was pinned to the office’s concrete wall with six arrows deeply embedded through key material points. His gaze then swept to the floor where a molar, bloody, white, and clearly half formed from some kind of glass capsule, rested near his feet.  

Tony then followed Fury’s gaze to Clint, who was moving away from where he’d secured two unconscious men with what looked like strips of a tie.  And a sock.  Nobody was missing their shoes as far as Tony could see, and now he was curious about the foot coverings history. 

“Nicholas!” Pierce snarled when nobody moved to comply with his orders immediately, and he spit on the floor to clear his mouth.  Fury’s eye twitched but he kept his stare on Barton as the man moved with a near predatory gait that Tony hadn’t seen on him before. “What is wrong with you?  They are traitors!  Take them down, now!”

Natasha pulled a slim Stark phone from her pocket and threw it across the room to Maria, who holstered one gun as it sailed through the air, caught the phone without looking, shoved it into a pocket, and put both hands back on her remaining gun.

“He’s HYDRA,” the Black Widow said with barely a head nod towards Pierce.  “They’ve infiltrated SHIELD.  Confession’s on the phone, along with a couple addresses where we’ve detained a few of their loyalists.  Might want to round them up sooner rather than later.  Sitwell’s water supply will have run out yesterday.”

“Well, fuck.” Fury said flatly, weapon still raised.  “Who the hell is that?” He nodded at the stranger that had somehow gone mostly unacknowledged to this point, standing off in the corner of the room: the corner furthest from Pierce, Rumlow, and the windows.  He was armed for bear, decked out in Kevlar and black clothing, empty hands clenched at his side and he was pointedly not reaching for his weapons.

“He’s the Winter Soldier,” Pierce snarled.  “You may recall he’s been on SHIELDs top five most wanted list for thirty years? He’s a murderer-” He shut up sharply when Clint slipped in front of him, an arrow knocked and drawn so smoothly it was difficult to trace the movement until he was already in place.  Clint moved with that same, unfamiliar, predatory grace, and closed the gap, step by step, until the tip of the gleaming silver arrowhead pressed into Pierce’s neck. Right over his jugular.  Clint’s face was completely flat, but his eyes, his eyes were gleaming with fury that Tony remembered from when he’d aimed his arrow at Loki with clear intent to use it.

Collectively the room stilled.  After a long moment where Pierce swallowed very carefully and kept his breathing very even, Clint took a deep breath of his own.

“Say the word,” he said softly into what felt like an airless room despite the wind that howled outside the missing window and swept everyone hair around artistically.

“Stand down, Agent,” Fury said.  Clint didn’t twitch, just kept staring into Pierce’s eyes; eyes that were beginning to look genuinely trapped. Clearly those weren’t the words Clint was looking for.

“Clint,” Steve tried after another tense moment passed.  Natasha kept her eyes on the room, clearly covering her partners back. It was very obvious that Clint was her priority here.

Clint didn’t blink.  Just waited, steady and strong, arms taut and hands relaxed, ready to loosen the fraction needed to let the arrow fly.

Slowly, the man in the corner moved forward, passing everyone with a shadows step.  He moved beside Clint, shoulder to shoulder, and stared at Pierce for a long time.  Then he rested a warm, metal, hand over Clint’s forearm, and gently pressed down.  Clint firmed his lips, seemingly unhappy with the decision.

The scene was eerily reminiscent of when Natasha had gently rested her hand on Clint’s shoulder, when his arms had been shaking from exhaustion and pain and pointing a similar arrow at a self-proclaimed god dressed in green and gold.  She wouldn’t have stopped him then, the decision had been his. Apparently the choice over whether or not Pierce lived, right here and now, wasn’t his.

Clint pulled the arrow tip from Pierce’s neck, leaving a tiny pinprick of blood, and released the tension on the bows string.  In one swift move the arrow was back in his near empty quiver and the bow was lowered to his side.  He stepped back and turned to face Fury, Hill, Steve, Tony, and Bruce, who had quietly slipped into the room after everyone else’s forceful entries.  Clint watched them all with keen, wary eyes.

Pierce wisely didn’t struggle to move or say anything further from where he was pinned to the wall.  One of the men on the floor groaned softly.

“He’s with us,” Clint stated flatly, a barely there head tilt towards the Winter Soldier, but obvious all the same. Fury didn’t seem keen on this idea.

“After we asses-”

“He’s.  With.  Us.” Clint’s tone changed, somehow promising severe retribution should anyone disagree.  Natasha slid from her perch on Rumlow and smoothly stepped to his other side.  The look on Clint’s face was a pretty convincing argument as far as Tony was concerned, but having the Black Widow and Winter Soldier flanking him put a pretty definite end to the argument they weren’t really having.

Fury looked pissed, but he holstered his gun and Hill followed suit.

“Is anyone else wondering how Barton got that filthy in a building made primarily from glass and steel?” Tony asked. “And what happened to your hair?” he took in the peach fuzz that was still short enough to show off his scalp.

A chirp piped up in answer from the only potted plant in the room.  Then another chirp joined it. Then three ridiculously tiny marmosets hopped across the room in two leaps to scamper up Clint’s pants, over a multitude of pockets, weapon holsters, buckles, and shirt, to end their journey perched on his shoulders.  They bopped up and down excitedly, but Clint didn’t react at all. He just kept on staring at Fury with his murder face.

“What the actual fuck,” Fury glared incredulously, “are monkey’s doing here?”

“They’re marmosets, Sir,” Hill corrected with absolutely no inflection.

“This is going into my greatest hits file,” Tony informed them all and tapped once near the camera built into his suit.

“They’re also with us,” Clint stated, not amused and clearly not giving two shits about anyone’s actual opinion of the matter. Two of the marmosets hopped from Clint’s stiff shoulders to his partners, clearly claiming the humans in return.  Natasha’s lips quirked.  The Winter Soldier continued to stare menacingly at them all, the marmoset lying flat on his head somehow not diminishing the general air of promised violence.

“Bucky?”  Steve’s voice cracked into the new silence, uncertain, confused, and breathtakingly hopeful.  The Soldier looked at him, blinked, and then his entire demeanour changed. It looked like he was taking his first breath of fresh air after being locked inside for years.

“Stevie?” he asked, his voice hushed, and just as hopeful as Steve’s.

And things slipped a little off track from there.

CCcCC

“So,” Tony kicked back in the Towers living room, feet up on the coffee table and a tall glass of iced tea in his hand.  Clint, lying flat on his back with a wet cloth over his eyes, knees hanging over the couches arm so his legs dangled down the side, and two marmosets draped over his throat, didn’t react.  “You had Steve’s long lost, world renowned, bestie fighting Hydra with you for weeks, and didn’t know it.” He was gleeful, because out of everything that had gone down since the fateful Coulson’s-not-dead reveal there had to be one funny thing in there. This was it.

It was pretty sad.

Standing over by the living room’s windows, staring out at buildings bathed in the early morning sun, Steve and Bucky Barnes were locked in soft conversation.  They stood close, but were clearly giving each other space, like an awkward first date that was still going well but you didn’t want to risk more than a light touch on the shoulder as you stepped away from the table.

“Nope.”  Clint replied, drowsy and unconcerned.

“The guys face is plastered all over the Smithsonian.  His picture is in every Captain America file out there.”

“Like I have time for museums,” Clint grumbled, Lia and Akira rocking slightly as he spoke.  “-n if I want to know something about Steve, I’ll ask Steve.  Don’t want an exhibit.”

Across the room Steve turned to look at Clint, an expression of uncertain pleasure in his eyes, like he couldn’t decide how it made him feel that at least one person would learn about him on his own merit.  Bucky Barnes followed his gaze, and his look was more difficult to read, but part of it seemed fond.  Natasha, enjoying a cup of tea from the cushioned bucket seat next to Clint’s couch, didn’t look up from her book.  Gob was partly hidden on her shoulder, tucked beneath her loose red hair and occasionally rubbing his face against her skin.

“Don’t you read SHIELD reports?”  Tony wondered.  “I thought the level seven agents were supposed to read reports. They even come with pictures.”

“Sleeping now,” Clint decided, and then clearly and deliberately slipped from consciousness.  His pants were soggy where a homemade ice pack had melted against his hip not long ago.  Tony looked at him with concerned amusement, before glancing at Natasha.

“How not okay is he?”  He asked softly.

“He’ll be fine,” she looked at her partner with the marmosets making like living scarves over his neck, and allowed her affection to shine bright a moment, masking any concern, and they left it at that.

CCcCC

“Ward escaped midway through transport to the Raft,” Hill announced as she marched into Fury’s office on the Helicarrier. “No casualties.”  Everyone seated around the conference table looked up at her, but Phil and Melinda didn’t seem surprised.  Just annoyed, and maybe slightly resigned. They had warned the transport guards to be extra vigilant, and if their reports on Ward’s initial take down were accurate Ward should have been transported unconcious.

“That makes thirty-three agents on the list we were supplied with missing from our radar,” Victoria Hand looked back to the paper report on the desk before her.  “Thirty-three known HYDRA-friendlies in the wind.”

“Twenty-nine dead from self-ingested hydrogen cyanide pills.  Nine field agents who couldn’t have the tooth implant without it being discovered in medical exams shot themselves when being approached, two instigated anaphylactic death.” Maria laid out the stats as she took her own seat.

“This is seriously messed up,” Eric Koeing decided from his seat where he was tapping away at a tablet.

“We have eighty-two in custody, and Pierce.”  Fury said.  “We’re getting more information on programs they were involved in and names for our watch list, but how far the organization has built beyond SHIELD is what I want to know.”

“If we hadn’t caught this now, who knows how far it could have gone.”  Victoria flipped a page in the status report.  “As it is, we’re scrapping entire programs because we can no longer trust the work.  Another three years and they would have been in a strong position for hostile takeover.”  In the literal sense.  They were all very aware.

“Why isn’t Agent Barton here?” Eric asked suddenly, looking over to Coulson who remained impassive in his seat next to Fury and May.

“Agent Barton is in stand down,” Fury said.

“Hawkeye has removed himself from SHIELD and will consent to contracts on my request only,” Natasha Romanov said from where she leaned against the far wall, a part of the meeting but not interested in joining them at the table; a silent statement none of them missed.

“I have not accepted his resignation,” Fury declared.

“He doesn’t care,” she said flatly and stepped away from the wall, eyes on Fury, “and that’s his choice.  Push it and we’ll continue our investigation into HYDRA without you.”

That had everyone’s interest immediately, and they watched silently as she took her leave without another word.  When the door slid shut behind her Fury looked at Coulson.

“He’ll be back,” he seemed unconcerned.

“Not the way we’d like, and not for a while” Phil said.  “We leave him and Barnes alone.”

“You’re not seriously suggesting we release Hawkeye, not now, after everything they stirred up,” Victoria frowned.

“If we don’t let him go on his terms, we’ll lose him completely.”  Melinda May said flatly.  “We lose him, we may lose Romanov and the potential future aid of the Winter Soldier.  I also wouldn’t bet on the continued easy support of any of the current Avengers.  They were not happy to learn Barton met Bucky because he was being tortured by HYDRA with the endgame of turning him into a brainwashed weapon and no one knew.”
She glanced briefly at Phil, but kept her gaze travelling to everyone at the table.  When Phil had learned about Barton’s capture he had disappeared himself.  Nobody had known where he’d gone for six hours, before he returned to the bus like it was business as usual. He hadn’t brought it up once.

“That wasn’t SHIELD’s fault,” Eric pointed out.

“No,” Hill agreed before May could say more.  “But other instances leading the Barton’s retreat are, and now they’re closing ranks. If we threaten any of them we risk alienating them.  It’s not worth it.  We work with Rogers and Stark, like they proposed, to deal with cleaning out SHIELD, and we move on.”

Phil and Fury’s eyes met, held, and they nodded to each other.

“Barton will be there if we need him, but he isn’t ours anymore,” Phil said, no room for argument, and no one was willing to challenge that particular tone.  “Now, what happened with Ward?”

They moved on.

cCcCc

“You got space in your building?” James asked, stepping next to Clint, who was firing arrow after arrow at spots on the distant wall that would be difficult to spot without ocular modifications.

“Apartment next to me is empty,” Clint said as the shot he’d just released split an arrow at the far end of Tony’s range. Then he did it again, to show off.  James seemed impressed, but was clearly trying to hide it with his bland staring face.  “One right above is as well.  Got a few on other floors.”  He split the arrow again, a small pile splintered carbonfiber detritus beginning to pile up on the floor, and he contemplated how many arrows he wanted to wreck this way.  He could easily destroy all but the last one in his quiver.

“Steve’ll front my first and last month until I get the bank thing sorted out.” James kept his gaze on the targets, and Clint appreciated the attention to his aim, but not the weird avoidance of eye contact. That wasn’t something the guy was known for.

“You got any references that’ll check out?”  He asked and James cut him a stink eye, which was better.  “Don’t like the tower?” He scratched absently at his two-day scruff, thinking he might shave soon.

“Wouldn’t mind some of my own space once in a while, and I hear you’ve got decent pest control,” James gave a little shrug.  Clint pulled three arrows, knocked them all, drew, and looked at James.

“The apartment above mine has a trap door into the living room.  Akira could have easy access,” he let them fly, the string scraping easily over his callused fingertips.  Across the room three more arrows were split down the middle simultaneously, and James cracked a smile.  Finally.  Three weeks confined in the Tower, while Natasha, Tony and Steve worked with SHIELD, had been a bit strenuous for both of them, but mostly for James.  It was easy to recognize a need to regroup after nearly two months of complete world re-arranging.

Clint just missed his own bed.

“James or Bucky?” He asked, because it had been bugging him these long weeks and he was tired of figuring out ways to address the guy without encroaching on potential identity minefields.  He’d been waiting for him to say something, but if he was planning on being a more permanent neighbour this wasn’t going to fly.

“Either,” James said gruffly, and walked the short distance to the range’s exit and disappeared through it..

Clint looked at all the arrows at the far end of the room.

“Dum-E?” He asked, and the robot, waiting eagerly at his side, zoomed ahead to fetch his still functioning ammunition.

Clint smiled.

CCccCC

“SHIELD will start asking again in about a month,” Nat announced as she shoved bag of pre-packaged salad into Clint’s hands as she appeared in his apartment like a ghost.

“Not my problem,” Clint decided as he looked at the limp mixed-greens inside the plastic and tossed it on the counter beside a bowl he’d already prepared for her offering.

“A little bit your problem,” she grinned and jumped up to sit on the kitchen island, propping her flip-flop covered feet on one of the three backless stools he owned.  Clint checked his watch and took a pull from his bottle of beer.  

“You’ll let me know if I’m really needed.”

“Works for me.” She filched his beverage and finished it.  He went and got another from the fridge, cracked it open and, leaning against the island, placed it between them.  He checked his watch again, and looked at the oven.  “He move in here yet?” She asked and Clint gave her a confused look.

“Buck moved in three weeks ago,” he reminded her. Clearly she was leading to something and he was contemplating questioning her after she raised her eyebrow at him in a pointed way, but the timer went off and recaptured his attention.  Clint leapt to action donning giant, never before used, oven mitts and yanking the stove door wide to drag out a piping hot lasagne.  He carefully put it on the stovetop, cheese broiled and bubbling over its surface, and then pulled out the second one.

“Yeah, he did,” Nat agreed, seemingly amused about something as she looked at the bubbling dishes.  Clint frowned and was about to demand she use full sentences to explain what she seemed to think he should already know, when a knock on the door interrupted.  Simone came in with a large salad bowl and warm smile, not bothering to wait to be greeted at the door.  Then James appeared where the trap door in the ceiling was usually propped open, and came sliding down the rope that recently seemed to become a permanent fixture in Clint’s living room.  His metal hand gripped it easily to bring him to a soft landing.

“Bucky!” Charlie, who had followed his mom into the apartment, ran over and wrapped himself around his jean-clad leg.  James froze, and after a moment he pet the boy’s dark curls awkwardly.

“Nad,” Simone’s other child wobbled over and Natasha grinned, slipping from her stool to swing the tiny body up in her arms for a hug.

“It smells delicious, James,” Simone said with a soft grin, watching with pure amusement as he tried to pry Charlie from his leg without being obvious about it.

“Hey,” Clint frowned in affront at the compliments direction, and ignored Natasha’s smirk as she put the toddler down and took a pull from their beer.

“Good job not burning dinner, Clint,” Simone offered and helped herself to a drink from his fridge.

“I can cook,” Clint grumbled, and poked at one lasagne with his only spatula.  Gob, Lia and Akira dropped to the floor from the tree and the kids immediately lost interest in their chosen adults and bolted for the marmosets.  Clint and Bucky both managed to not flinch at the excited shriek that burst from the youngest.

“Let’s hope Steve can too,” Tony said, marching through the door like he owned the place and had been apart of their entire conversation, “because he wouldn’t let me buy dessert.”

“It’s a potluck Tony, you don’t buy pre-made food for a potluck,” Steve sounded like he’d been saying this all afternoon and would more than willingly keep saying it until Tony either accepted it or shut up about it.  Clint looked pointedly at the pathetic bagged salad Natasha had brought, and Natasha looked pointedly at the lasagne Clint hadn’t made.  “Hey Buck,” Steve grinned, almost shyly, at his brother.  Bucky pulled him into a quick one-armed hug.  Bruce, who had snuck in behind them both and was already squeezed into the suddenly much smaller kitchen, handed over two large paper bags.

“Garlic bread,” he said.  “Ready for the oven.”

“There’s lemon water in the fridge,” Clint said, because if you were competent enough to save the world you were competent enough to manage to serve yourself a drink. Plus he was still trying to convince the guy he was welcome in this space.  Clint raised a pointed eyebrow at Natasha, because yes, he could prepare proper drinks for people.  He was a functioning adult.  So there.  

“Stark’s don’t do potlucks, and I’m embarrassed to be here,” Tony said, but he moved through the living room and plunked onto the couch happily enough.  “Tunes Jarvis,” he requested.

“Clint?” JARVIS checked, voice coming from the phone tucked into his pants pocket, and Clint grinned at the betrayed look Tony threw at him.

“DJ’s choice, J,” Clint said, and leaned around James, from where he’d parked it beside him, to grab the dishtowel from the drawer handle.  Neither really noticed the close contact from the action, having grown used to it the past few weeks.  Steve looked from them to Natasha and raised an eyebrow.  She raised an eyebrow of her own, and drank more of their beer.

“Clint?”  Bruce said from where he was now stroking Akira’s back with his index finger, awkward but determined as the kids crowded him to watch on the living room floor.  “You don’t have a dining table.”

Clint looked around his open plan apartment, like he hadn’t realized this before and was genuinely surprised.

“There’s tables and fold out chairs on the roof,” Simone said, and grinned when Clint looked thankfully at her.  “And Zeke,” she added.

“What’s a Zeke?” Tony asked, pushing to his feet with clear intent to scope out a new avenue of the building.  He marched to the door and out without waiting for an answer.

“Do not design a cloaking device for my roof while you’re up there, Tony,” Clint hollered after him.

“Nice,” Natasha approved as she slid from the table and went to wrangle Bruce into carrying the plates and cutlery up to the roof.

“Nice?” James asked, and Clint grinned at him, nudging his shoulder.

“Tell him you don’t want something that sounds complicated, and he decides it’s a challenge.”

“Nice,” James agreed.  He looked to Steve.  “You should suggest he couldn’t teach you to dance.”

“I could suggest he can’t throw you off the roof,” Steve pondered.

“I could teach you to dance,” Simone said, and grinned wickedly when Steve stumbled on his way to the door.  

“Uhh-” Captain America responded eloquently.

“Gangnam style!” Charlie announced enthusiastically, and started doing a dance that looked more like an arm shuffle from side to side. Clint didn’t think that was gangnam style, but what did he know? Lia and Gob started hopping up and down on the coffee table.

“Let’s get upstairs,” Simone suggested.  “I don’t want to miss Tony Stark meeting Zeke.” And Steve quickly followed her suggestion.  In the kitchen Natasha bumped her hip against Clint and knocked him into Bucky, who barely shifted from the impact and steadied him with a grin.

“Breads going to burn,” she sing-songed, and wandered to the door with their beer.  Akira dropped to her shoulder, digging into her hair happily.

James opened the oven and pulled the tray out with metal fingers.

“Handy,” Clint said as Lia and Gob bounced onto his own shoulders and began an odd mix of chittering and crooning as they poked at his ear.  James glared at him, and then snorted when Clint just grinned unrepentantly.

Sometimes life kicked your ass, and people broke your heart and you had to kick and crawl and claw your way through it; and sometimes it was exactly what it needed to be.  Lia licked his ear lobe, Natasha’s light laugh drifted from somewhere out of sight, and James prodded him to go find a bread knife with a hand still warm from holding the hot baking sheet.  

It wasn’t perfect, far from it between moments like these, but Clint took a deep breath and found that, for now, he was more than happy to roll with it.

End.