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definitions of indefinable things

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 [Earth, April 2013]


 

“How many pirates?”

 

“Twenty-five, top mercs, led by this guy. George Batroc. Ex-DGSE, Action Division. He’s at the top of Interpol’s Red Notice. Before the French demobilized him, he had thirty-six kill missions. This guy’s got a rep for maximum casualties.”

 

Steve took another minute then glanced away from the monitor, readjusting his gloves. “Hostages?”

 

“Mostly techs. One officer, Jasper Sitwell. They’re in the gallery.”

 

“What’s Sitwell doing on a launch ship? …Alright, I’m going to sweep the desk and find Batroc. Nat, you’ll kill the engines and wait for instructions. Rumlow, you sweep aft, find the hostages, get them to the life-pods, get them out. Let’s move.”

 

Rumlow gave a quick nod before turning around, “STRIKE, you heard Cap. Gear up!”

 

Steve and Natasha headed towards the ramp, preparing for a dive.

 

“Secure channel seven.”

 

“Seven secure,” replied Natasha as she strapped on the parachute. “Did you do anything fun Saturday night?”

 

Captain glanced at her. “Well, all guys from my barbershop quartet are dead so… No, not really.”

 

“Coming up by the drop zone, Cap,” called out the pilot.

 

But Natasha went on in the same casual tone. “You know, if you ask Kristin out, from Statistics, She’d probably say yes.”

 

“That’s why I don’t ask.”

 

“Too busy or too scared?” then added before he can even reply. “Or too busy staring at Tony’s ass-“

 

Steve gave her an exasperated frown before jumping off. “TOO BUSY!”

 

............

 

“What about the nurse that lives across the hall from you? She seemed kind of nice.”

 

“Secure the engine room, then find me a date,” Steve said with a sigh.

 

“I’m multitasking,” she replied playfully, easily keeping up with his strides. “There is always Elena from legal. She likes you. If brunette is more of your thing.”

 

Steve comes to an abrupt stop, turning around to face her directly. “Okay I get the point!” he said raising his voice a little.

 

“What point?” Natasha gave him a blank stare.

 

He sighed, his hands falling to his hips. “You don’t want me around Tony… in that way. Isn’t that why you’re trying to set me up with every woman that even sets afoot in my life for a split second? …You were close to Stephen Strange, you were both of their close friend. I get it. …He’s gone but you feel uncomfortable with anyone getting in-between that or Tony dating anyone new-”

 

“I never said that.” For the most part, her expression remained carefully passive. If the SHIELD agent was being completely honest, she wasn’t even sure why she was so fixated on this matter. Especially when technically, she supposed if she was going to do anything at all, she should be trying to get Steve and Tony together not lead Steve away.

 

“Okay, well-“ The Captain gave an exasperated huff, throwing a hand up before letting it fall. “You don’t want me to be insensitive and bothering Tony when he’s grieving. Maybe you just don’t like me- I don’t know?! Regardless, yes I get it. It’s inappropriate. I’m trying not to bother Tony at all with my feelings the best I can. Plus you can relax Tony clearly is not even CLOSE to being over his ex and even if he moves on, I’m not his type because EVERYONE, literally EVERYONE seems to know I like him but it goes right over his head! Or maybe he WANTS to completely ignore it- or he’s trying to let me down easy- either way, I GET IT!”

 

Suddenly there was a sound of gunshots. Steve turned around sharply. Lunging forward at the stray pirate, twisting the man’s arm till the gun drops the ground. He screams in pain.

 

Natasha blinked. “Wow. This really has been bothering you.”

 

Steve throws a punch at the mercenary, knocking him out instantly. Admittedly, little harder than necessary. He shoots her a glare.

  


  

“A symbol to the nation. A hero to the world. The story of Captain America is one of honor, bravery, and sacrifice…”

 

Steve continued walking through the exhibition. Lowering his head a little as a crowd of students passed by, his face hidden under a baseball cap.

 

He came to the Smithsonian from time to time to reminiscent on the past, to see the familiar faces. Though thoroughly uncomfortable initially, he eventually got used to hearing the narration of his life. At times it sort of brought him comfort. He knew the story. He knew how it ended. It was predictable, constant, safe.

 

Today, however, it fell on deaf ears, his mind somewhere completely else.

 

“Battle-tested, Captain America and his Howling Commandos quickly earned their stripes. Their mission, taking down HYDRA, the Nazi rogue science division.”

 

How simpler the world had been back then. He knew his allies, he knew his enemies. He knew he could trust his team with his life. Knew their intentions. There weren’t so many secrets.

 

As he stood in front of a large photograph of Bucky, his mind strayed towards a certain redheaded teammate.

 

How Natasha carried out a secret mission for SHIELD, within their joint mission, right under his nose. How he would have been blind to it all if it wasn’t for his accidental intrusion when she was backing up the files. His teammates now were so much more… complicated than the Howling Commandos.

 

“You just can’t stop yourself from lying, can’t you?”

 

“I didn’t lie. Agent Romanoff had a different mission than yours.”

 

Soon the conversation with Fury was replaying in his head. There was a lot about that talk that made him think, reconsider, hit him over the head with the fact that the world was not like how he remembered it.

 

“Soldiers trust each other, that’s what makes it an army. Not a bunch of guys running around and shooting guns. …I can’t lead a mission when the people I’m leading have missions of their own.”

 

“It’s called compartmentalization. Nobody spills the secret because nobody knows them all.”

 

“Except you.”

 

“You’re wrong about me. I do share. I’m nice like that.”

 

It replayed in his mind over and over again the whole day. As he drove here, as he walked in circles at this large exhibition. But once again, it arrived at a specific end that he couldn’t stop…

 

“This is Project Insight. Three generation Helicarriers synced to a network of targeting satellites. Once we get them in the air they never need to come down. Continuous suborbital flight courtesy of our new repulsor engines.”

 

“Stark?”

 

“Well, he had a few suggestions once he got an up close look at our old turbines. But just suggestions and not personal involvement. We were initially hoping Stark will be leading the final check but as you know, he’s mostly out of commissions since his fallout with the doctor.”

 

“Why don’t you just call him. He’s… he doesn’t seem completely well obviously but he answers most of the time.”

 

“Cap, if he has been answering your calls, that’s the only call he has been answering for nearly three weeks. He’s been evading everyone else… quite well I might add.”

 

Steve pulled his cellphone from his pocket, looking through the call history, at the name “Tony Stark” clearly visible at the top.

 

He hesitated, his finger hovering over the send button as he paced a little on the same spot. Then, with a small sigh, he pressed.

 

Putting the device to his ears, he walked slowly towards a corner of the room away from the crowd.

 

One ring… then two…

 

Maybe he had been just simply lucky. Tony just happened to be in an answering mood or not busy when he called.

 

Three...

 

He thought about just hanging up. But then.

 

“Capsicle, please don’t tell me you broke your TV again-“

 

“I-…T-Tony. Hi-“ He stuttered, not really prepared for the other to actually answer.

 

“Yep, one and only.”

 

“I…uh…”

 

“…Did you really break the TV? Because it’s fine if you did. I’ll have JARVIS call someone-“

 

There was a soft laugher in that voice Steve distinctly hears. The usual playfulness that was lost for so long. It made him smile unconsciously. “No, I… I didn’t break anything actually. Not even at the tower.”

 

“Oh. Okay…” There was a short pause. “What did you need?”

 

Suddenly his mouth felt a little dry. A pang of guilt hitting him at the implication of Tony’s response. The billionaire assumed Steve called because he needed something… because that’s the only times he ever called.

 

To be fair, the Captain had tried to avoid bothering the genius unless a reason came up that he had to. Partly because he didn’t want his personal feelings being discovered, and another because it was re-iterated to him over and over again how busy Tony was.

 

But then again… he may have also been, as Natasha soon discovered, been creating excuses to talk get Tony’s attention by asking about random tech issues, purposely breaking some device around the tower… pretending to be lost around the city… But from Tony’s perspective, it probably seemed as if Steve only talked to him when he wanted something.

 

He grimaced slightly as he put a hand over his forehead. Damn… what was he even doing?

 

“Hey, Doritos, is everything okay?” Tony asked in response to the long silence.

 

Steve let out an exasperated laugh at the nickname. “It’s… alright.”

 

“…Are the kids okay?”

 

Steve can practically see the smirk in that tone. The frustratingly charming smirk that was practically ingrained into the Captain’s mind. He can feel the heat rising to this cheeks, very grateful the genius can’t see his reaction.

 

It was a joke. A running joke after it was implied by a SHIELD employee how the two co-leaders were practically playing father and mother, the rest of the Avengers being their kids. It probably didn’t help that Tony naturally fell into the mother-hen role since the very beginning. Always going out of his way to meet their every need, fussing about their well being, showering them with everything money can buy.

 

But, although relatively harmless, and perhaps very unlike “Tony Stark”, the billionaire didn’t make much comment in regards to that particular jest. Possibly, simply out of respect to his boyfriend… well… former boyfriend now. Following his lead, however, Steve didn’t mention it as well, just generally shifted the topic whenever it came up.

 

In fact, this was the first time the genius said anything to even acknowledge the existence of that particular joke. Steve didn’t want to read too much into it, he really didn’t… but…

 

“They are all fine. Bruce is away on a conference. Thor is taking care of some Asgardian matter… seems like he’ll be gone for a while. Clint seems to be doing his own thing… Nat and I are trying to hold down the fort…” He sighed, pacing again. “…I- I just… don’t understand her-“

 

There was another long silence before Tony next spoke. “That’s because you’re still trying to understand her from your perspective, Cap.”

 

He frowned, tried to say something but the other cut him off.

 

“Steve, you’re… you. Noble, honest, idealistic… We love you for it, Cap. You know we do. But… we’re not all like you. We can’t all be like you. Some of us don’t see the world as black and white… there is not always right or wrong answers… there are endless amount of variables, moral gray. Someone like Nat… she lived a life very different from yours…”

 

The corner of his lip twitches upward. “Like you.”

 

There was a short, soft laughter on the other end of the line. “Yeah… like me. She’s not all bad, Cap. But if you keep trying to understand her only from how you see the world… well… you’ll never really understand…”

 

He let out a sigh. “Yeah… yeah, I suppose you’re right.” He paced a little back and forth. “Wish you were here. You’re better with her-“

 

There was a huff of laughter. “Sorry.”

 

“No- it’s fine. Didn’t mean it that way…” Steve paused for a moment, swallowing. “…Tony… where are you?”

 

He never asked till now. Tony had disappeared from the tower a couple weeks back but knowing what had just happened to his long-term relationship, everyone simply understood and didn’t ask too much question.

 

Steve wondered if Tony would just hang up on him or give some roundabout answer. There was a sudden flash of dread that the genius perhaps will simply not take his call in the near future.

 

“…Hello?” he said with a bit of uncertainty.

 

“Georgia.”

 

“Georgia…?”

 

“A lakeside cabin in Fairburn, Georgia. It was my mother’s… I thought about selling it couple years back but… Stephen liked it so…”

 

That took a stab at his heart. A familiar tug of jealousy at how Tony always said that name. If Steve could see him, he would see the smile associated with that word, the subtle light that appeared in those doe eyes at the very thought of the precious doctor. …Though perhaps that may not be such a case anymore.

 

But he tried to brush the thought away. “Okay… Well… just… if you need anything-“

 

“I’ll be fine, Cap. Just need some time away. …Can you…”

 

“I won’t tell anyone,” he replied quickly.

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Tony,” he called out a bit too quickly, afraid the other would hang up on him. He silently berated himself how clingy that sounded. “I-… just… take your time… but just… be careful, okay? And if anything comes up… call us. It doesn’t have to be… me. Call Banner or Nat… at least….”

 

There was a soft chuckle. “Aww, I didn’t know you cared so much, Capsicle. You say that now but you want me to call you, right-“

 

“S-shut up, Tony!” Steve snapped, a little louder than he meant to. In a panic, he looks around to make sure he hadn’t drawn unwanted attention.

 

But his rattled tone only seemed to egg the billionaire on.

 

“Oh captain, my captain!”

 

“STOP!”

 


 

“Don’t… do this to me, Nick…”

 

“Stand back! Three, two, one. Clear!”

 

“No pulse.”

 

“Okay. 200, please. Stand back! Three, two, one. Clear! Give me epinephrine! Pulse?”

 

“Negative.”

 

“Don’t do this to me Nick… don’t do this to me…”

 

“Time of death, 1:03 AM.”

 

............

 

“I need to take him,” Maria said evenly.

 

Natasha didn’t respond, her eyes still locked on Fury’s lifeless body. Steve took a step closer about to reach out but she suddenly stood to her feet, heading for the door.

 

“Natasha!” He quickly followed her.

 

As they entered the hallway, she sharply turned to face him. “Why was Fury in your old Brooklyn apartment?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“You’re a terrible liar.”

 

Steve let out a sigh. “We… we should call for backup.”

 

Her stomach drops. “No.”

 

He gave her an exasperated look. “Nat. We can call Tony. At least-“

 

“No!” she snapped, a little louder.

 

The Captain frowned, getting increasingly frustrated how to deal with his redheaded teammate. Quite frankly this was the most emotion he had ever gotten out of Natasha, however, contrary to his expectation, it was not helping him be any less confused. He tried to remember what Tony had said to him about needing a different perspective, needing to sympathize…

 

“Natasha. This is serious! Fury is dead! We can’t just-“

 

“I’M NOT LOSING HIM TOO!”

 

That shocked him out of his senses, efficiently shutting him up. But the outburst seemed to have surprised the SHIELD agent herself as well.

 

Natasha blinked quickly, her expression becoming cold once more. Her voice was surprisingly calm the next time she spoke. “Stephen… is gone. Fury is gone… I’m not-“ She doesn’t elaborate, she couldn’t. Million of thoughts and what ifs were racing in her mind.

 

How right was Fury about the future? If… if this ended up with Steve in danger would Tony… She was not ready. Selfishly, she was not ready.

 

She swallowed, turning her gaze up to meet the clear blue. She had to make it reasonable, logical enough for the Captain to understand. “You love him. Don’t call him. Tony… he’s not okay. He’s still recovering… distracted… He’ll get himself killed.”

 

Steve simply stared back for another minute then, “Okay. Okay… we take care of this. You and me.”

 

She nodded.

 

“Cap,” a voice came behind him. They both turned to see Rumlow with the STRIKE team. “They want you back at SHIELD.”

 

“Yeah. Give me a second.”

 

“They want you now,” he snapped.

 

There was something in that tone. A feeling of sudden uneasiness swept through them. Steve glanced at Natasha once more, exchanging a look.

 


 

“Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?”

 

............

 

“Can I help you guys with anything?”

 

“Oh, no,” She wraps her arms around Steve easily, her voice suddenly becoming frighteningly sweet. “My fiancé was just helping me with some honeymoon destinations.”

 

Steve, on the other hand, visibly flinches, an awkward smile forming as he quickly stared back at the Apple employee. “Right! We’re getting married,” he added, trying to play along.

 

Natasha side-eyes him with a look that clearly spelled out you’re hopeless but turns back to the computer non-the-less, continuing to trace the signal from the flash drive.

 

“Congratulations. Where do you guys thinking about going?”

 

Steve chances a glance at the monitor. “New Jersey.”

 

The employee was leaning in with a small frown. Steve froze instantly, but then, “Oh- I have that exact same glasses.”

 

“Wow,” Natasha said with semi-suppressed sarcasm. “You guys are practically twins.”

 

“Yea I wish,” the employee said with a laugh, then vaguely motioned up and down Steve. “Specimen. Uh… if you guys need anything, I’ve been Aaron.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve replied politely. Though as soon as he walked away, his voice takes on a more urgent tone. “You said nine minutes, come on-“

 

“Shh, relax. I got this.” She didn’t even look up from the screen. “You’re really bad at this undercover thing, by the way. No wonder Tony and I were always married-“

 

The Captain’s attention snapped back to her “What?”

 

But she ignores him. “Got it, let’s go.” She pulled out the flash drive, pocketing it into her hoodie pocket before dashing out the store, Steve hot at her tails.

 

“What do you mean married to Tony-“

 

“During missions. We always played the couple because you are just so awkward. Even though technically you would have been way better for the role since you look so vanilla- blend right in.“ There was that usual sarcasm in her tone, one that always perplexed the Captain.

 

“Vanilla?” he almost sounded offended.

 

“Relax,” she said with a smirk. “Not saying you’re not pretty. Everyone knows you’re quite a looker- just… typical handsome.”

 

But before Steve can make another comment, he spots familiar faces and uniform. “Standard tac-team. Two behind, two across, two coming straight at us. If they make us, I’ll engage, you hit the south escalator to the metro-“

 

“Shut up and put your arm around me, laugh at something I said-“

 

“What?”

 

“Do it-“ She hissed.

 

Steve hastily did as he was told, arms around her shoulder, leaning in and laughing. The agents walk right past them.

 

So awkward-“ She repeated teasingly. Watching as the characteristic frown appeared on the blonde’s face.

 

They reach the escalator at a quick pace, eyes scanning left and right for any sign of further trouble. Then they see him, Rumlow on the opposite side, going up, they will run into each other very quick under close proximity.

 

Natasha turned around sharply. “Kiss me.”

 

Steve seemed scandalized. If the situation wasn’t so dire, she almost might have laughed. “What-“

 

“Public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable."

 

“Yes,” he retorted with great deal of exasperation and earnest. “Yes, they do-“

 

She let out a huff muttering, “God- even Stephen wasn’t this difficult." Then she pulls him in by the collar of the jacket, their lips locking.

 

Rumlow glances away, unconsciously as he passed the pair.

 

The redhead pulled back a little, “Still uncomfortable?”

 

“It’s not exactly the word I would use. …Wait- Stephen Strange? You brought civilian into your mission?!”

 

............

 

“Where did Captain America learn how to steal a car?” She asked nonchalantly in the passenger seat.

 

“Nazi Germany.”

 

“Hm…”

 

“And we’re borrowing. Take your feet off the dash.”

 

“Sure, dad.” Natasha obliged, removing her feet from the dashboard slowly with a small smirk.

 

He took a deep sigh, gave her an exasperated stare. “Not you too-“

 

“You love it,” She said, leaning her head back a little. “You get to pretend you’re parenting with Tony-“

 

There was a long silence that stretched. Steve couldn’t get a good read on her. Whether she didn’t want him around Tony or she did, it felt like some odd back and forth. Or perhaps it was neither, he couldn’t ever truly tell with the read-headed agent.

 

But something had been bothering him since their little incident at the mall. Or perhaps, even far before. “Did you… did you like Stephen Strange?”

 

To his surprise, there was no shock, no defensiveness, she remained completely calm, almost disinterested. Natasha turned her gaze towards him but her expression was impressively blank. “Like meaning how you like Tony?”

 

He chances a glance in her direction. “I-… yes I guess-“

 

“I liked him.”

 

Steve just blinked rapidly, trying not to show any emotions …or judgment. He supposed he couldn’t throw stones even if-

 

“I like Tony too.”

 

He chokes. “Wait- what?”

 

“Not sure it’s same definition as yours though. I don’t exactly have a clear define line between liking someone as friend or… more. The term friend itself is pretty vague. There are two types of people in head… people I like, people I don’t like. Why you ask?”

 

“You- you implied you kissed him back at the escalator.”

 

“No, I didn’t.“

 

“Yes, you did!“

 

“I could have easily meant he was being difficult. Like how you were.”

 

“Is that what you meant?”

 

“Question for you then. Which, you don’t have to answer,” A small smirk played on her lips. “I feel like if you don’t answer it though, you’re kind of answering it, you know?”

 

“What?” he snapped.

 

“Was that your first kiss since 1945?”

 

He scoffed. “That bad huh?”

 

“I didn’t say that-“

 

“Well, it kind of sounds like that’s what you’re saying.”

 

“No, I didn’t,” there was definite amusement in her tone now, playful. “I just wondered how much… practice you’ve had.”

 

“You don’t need practice.”

 

“Everyone needs practice.”

 

Steve turned to her sharply, before trying to fix his gaze back to the road.

 

“He’s a great kisser.“

 

“…Strange…?”

 

“Why do you assume by he, I mean Stephen. I could have meant Tony-“

 

He looked beyond exasperated now, gapping at her.

 

“Now you assume I kissed Tony. I could have simply heard from Stephen. You assume a lot, don’t you, Cap. One line of thinking-“

 

“Will you ever just give me a straight answer?”

 

“No. This is fun-“

 

Steve tried hard to not roll his eyes.

 

“I can see why Tony likes screwing with you. You give great reactions.”

 

“We’re not screwing!”

 

“Clearly. Or maybe you might not be this pent up stressed. Would have had more practice too.“

 

Steve let out a dramatic sigh, adjusting his grip on the wheel, trying to desperately focus on simply driving. “…It’s not my first kiss since 1945. I’m ninety-five. I’m not dead.”

 

There was a pause.

 

“Tony had a lot of practice.”

 

He nearly swerves. Natasha smirked.

 


 

Hearing the knock, Sam leisurely strode over, “Yeah coming-“ he called out.

 

But as he pulled the door open, his expression fell. At his doorstep were the Captain America and the redheaded woman he had seen a couple days ago, both looking worse for wear.

 

“Hey man,“ Sam started uncertainly.

 

“I’m sorry about this,” Steve said with his usual earnest. “We need a place to lay low.”

 

“There are lots of people trying to kill us-“

 

Sam gave a small nod. “Not everyone.” He opens the door a little wider and steps aside, letting them enter.

 

............

 

Natasha sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the opposite wall without really seeing it, her hands idly scrunching up her hair with a towel. Millions of thoughts were racing in her mind, memories flashing through.

 

“You okay?”

 

The agent looked up, eyes landing on the Captain and his ever-sincere gaze. He almost seemed sympathetic, compassionate… neither of which she particularly fancied right now. He doesn’t understand. Wouldn’t understand.

 

“Yeah,” she replied simply, her voice even.

 

He strode over closer, taking a seat next to her. “What’s going on?”

 

There was a short pause as her eyes meet his. There weren’t many that sat so close to her so casually without a second thought.

 

“Why are you here?”

 

“To pull the trigger.”

 

For a brief moment, those baby blue gaze turned glacial blue-green. One that held more intelligence and cunning, a sharp contrast to Captain’s honest stare. Natasha soon feels her stomach turn.

 

“I… I love him. I can’t. I can’t imagine a world without him, Natalia.

 

“…When I first joined SHIELD, I thought I was going straight. But I guess I just traded in KGB for HYDRA.”

 

“No one can know about this, Agent Romanoff. Not Barton, not the team… certainly not the Captain. We make the hard decisions, so other people don’t have to.”

 

She paused for a moment. “I thought I knew whose lies I was telling, but… I guess I can’t tell the difference anymore.”

 

Steve smiled. “There’s a chance you might be in the wrong business.”

 

For a moment, Natasha let’s those words sink in. Then lets out a huff of laughter. “…I owe you. You saved me.”

 

He shrugged. “It’s okay.”

 

“If it was the other way around, and it was down to me to save your life… and you be honest with me… Would you trust me to do it?”

 

The Captain meets her eyes straight, the smile not faltering. “I would now. And I’m always honest.”

 

She smirked, “Well, you seem pretty chipper for someone who just found out they died for nothing.”

 

He let out a sigh. “Well… I guess I just like knowing who I’m fighting.”

 

“I made breakfast.”

 

They both turned to see Sam by the doorway of the guest room. Steve frowned at the odd look on the other’s expression.

 

“…If you guys eat that sort of a thing.” Sam looked from Natasha then back to Steve. “…After you guys are done having a moment…“

 

Natasha scoffed, shaking her head. Steve gawked at him, mouth open but no words coming out.

 


 

The wood creaked as he climbed the short steps of the front porch. He glanced around, his sights briefly landing on the lake not too far down the hill as he reached the door.

 

He made a quick, firm knock, waited then, “STARK?”

 

There was no answer.

 

“Tony, come on! It’s been weeks!”

 

Clint let out a sigh before trying to peer into the inside through a window. But then he sees it…

 

He cursed under his breath before swiftly aiming a hard kick. There was a loud clunk as the door swung open, the latch completely broken off. The archer rushed in, towards the body that laid out in the living room. He reaches for the neck, checking for a pulse, letting out a sigh of relief when he feels a rhythm.

 

“Jesus-“ Clint muttered as he does one lookover of the room.

 

There were scatters of empty bottles of hard liquor, some shattered on the floor, and with it litters of newspaper articles, reports, files. He sees one large header, two words that stand out immediately: Stephen Strange. Clint definitely doesn’t need to a closer look at the rest to see what all of it was about.

 

“Tony!” He roughly shakes the limp body. There was a groan in reply. “Tony! Come on!”

 

“Legolas… Shut. Up.“ His voice sounded weak, disoriented.

 

Then his eyes land on it, the pills scattered nearby. Clint picked up the bottle, trying to read the label. “Stark, when did you take this?”

 

“Donno-“ the billionaire slurred. “C-couldn’t… sleep… just wanted to sleep-“

 

“God dammit-“ Clint nearly throws the brunette over his shoulders, dragging him into the nearby bathroom. He leans Tony over the toilet, admittedly, roughly holding him up. Then efficiently shoved two of his fingers down the other’s throat.

 

There was a harsh gagging sound as Tony hurls, doubling over. He can already feel the billionaire’s resentment.

 

“You need to get it out! You can’t mix those with alcohol!”

 

Tony simply groaned loudly, coughing at intervals.

 

Clint let out a sigh, patting the genius in the back. “You can make some joke about gag reflex later,” he said half-heartedly. “…just don’t tell Cap or he might get the wrong idea and kill me-“

 

............

 

It took grand total of six hours before Clint manages to get Tony coherent. Now, the billionaire sat slouched on the dining room chair, looking like death.

 

Clint threw a plate onto the table, sliding it over to in front of the other. Tony simply stared down at couple pieces of toast and scrambled eggs.

 

“Didn’t know you can cook,” he said evenly, though his voice still sounded rough.

 

The blonde shrugged as he pulled up the chair opposite, sitting down.

 

There was an unnerving silence as they both avoided each other’s gaze. Then, slowly, Tony picked up the toast, taking a bite. As soon as he tasted it, there was a sharp tug at his brain, his stomach, that told him it’s been too far since he last ate any real food.

 

“So… you’ve been tailing him-“

 

Tony looked up for a brief moment, eyeing the SHIELD agent who sat cross-legged now. He reached for the large cup of water he had been sipping. “Yeah well… you know me. Obsessive, volatile, unstable… Not that far-fetched I’ve became that crazy girlfriend who stalks their ex.”

 

Clint let his eyes fall close, running a hand over his face. God, Natasha should be here not him. He’s not good at this sort of thing. He would say all the wrong things and things will go spiraling. But then again, he supposed Natasha probably was not in the best mental state either.

 

He and Tony had talked quite often after Avengers had formed and they became relatively close, bound by the same dry humor and need for mayhem and pranks to relieve pent up stress. But that was just it, their interaction was heavily based on humor… this… this was something else.

 

Sensing the other’s displeasure, Tony threw the toast back onto the plate. “I get it. You’re disgusted-“

 

He let out a sigh. “No.”

 

“Pathetic?”

 

“I don’t care you’re tailing him, Stark,” he snapped without really meaning to, still not meeting the other’s gaze. “We don’t care that you’re stalking him. We care what it’s doing to you.”

 

The brunette quirked an eyebrow. “We?”

 

Clint turned his gaze up from his hand. “Me. Natasha. Cap... okay maybe Cap hasn’t really figured out all this yet-“ he gestured vaguely towards the living room. “Just knows you’re not okay. To be fair I didn’t know it got this far either… suspicion maybe but thought Rhodes and Pepper were monitoring you.“

 

Tony turned away with a sigh. “Well… that’s why I’m here. It’s the only place off the grid… Pepper and Rhodes don’t even know. For the record, I didn’t really intend for it to get this far-“ He picked up the toast and shoved it into his mouth. “I really did originally come here to get away… then got bored. Brilliant idea to set up JARVIS here. Thought it would kill time… then after… google…. It got out of control-“

 

The archer gives him a look then sighed. “…Okay- let’s hear it. What’s the doctor up to?”

 

Tony let out a small huff. “Experimental treatments. A lot of them. Every surgery, treatment, drugs his connection can get… and it went far. Depleted his bank account, used all his resources…” There was a pause before adding. “He’s going to get himself killed-“

 

Clint lowered his gaze for a moment before turning back towards the other. “He’s… desperate. Probably trying to find a way to get back to you-“

 

“You don’t know what he said,” came the sharp reply. The next time their eyes meet, there was coldness Clint had not seen before. “He’s… desperate to get his life back. Willing to die over it. If I were him, I probably would be doing the same. But it is NOT to get back to me. He made that very clear- that he was done with me.”

 

The blonde didn’t know what to say further, just ruffled his own hair with a sigh. What did people say in a time like this? “He was in pain. He probably just was lashing out- Men… ya know? We do that-“

 

“He said he was sick of me. Tired of me. Wasn’t happy for a long while even before the accident-“ It was coming back to him in a rush. The words of the conversation he didn’t even admit to himself. Didn’t repeat to anyone who asked.

 

Tony picked up the fork, stabbing at the eggs before harshly pushing them to his mouth. “He probably was feeling generous enough to try to work things out before the accident… stuck around… had the patience to tolerate me a little longer. Then after, clearly just couldn’t do it anymore.”

 

Clint simply stared, taking in the words. It all sounded a bit…out of character of the Stephen Strange described by Natasha. Perhaps, Tony was exaggerating fueled by his own insecurities and anger but some of the basis must be from somewhere real, the truth. It all can’t be all in the genius’s head.

 

“But on to my second point,” Tony waved the fork at him in a mock threat. “Even Pepper and Rhodey don’t know about this place. It’s completely off the map. So Cap ratted me out-“

 

Clint sighed. “It was an emergency. Plus seems like I came just in time.“

 

That made Tony raise an eyebrow. “What emergency?”

 

“…Just in case… things go south-“

 

His eyes narrowed. “Now I think about it, why are you here and not Nat?”

 

Clint was tapping his fingers on the table in a nervous habit. “Nat is busy… with Cap.” Then registering the look the other was giving him. “Not like that! Jesus, Stark, how dense are you?”

 

“Did you just call me stupid, bird brain?” he retorted easily. “I’m not the one who couldn’t get the toaster to work-“

 

“I thought it was voice activated! Everything else in your tower seems to be!”

 

Tony let out a scoff. Though soon they both had a small smile playing on their lips as they remembered the incident from a couple of weeks back.

 

“Okay, but really though what’s going on?”

 

Clint licked his lips. “There was an incident… Fury is dead. I don’t even know details, we have to get a rundown later about the whole thing. But Cap and Nat are on it. They are handling it. Trying to shut down Project Insight-“

 

“Project Insight?” his eyes widened a little. “They are going against SHIELD? Why are you not there? Who’s backup?”

 

“Calm down,” the blonde tried to reason, getting ready to grab Tony if necessary. “Look, it’s Cap and Nat. The best soldier in history and the best spy in the world. They will be fine. I worry for the other guy against them actually. Short version: Hydra infiltrated SHIELD. It seems that it’s been going on for a long time. Thor came back couple hours ago. We couldn’t reach Banner for some reason so Thor went directly. If possible they are going to try to get other people on the list to safety… in case Cap and Nat can’t shut it down.”

 

Gears were turning in his head, trying to put everything together. “Why are we not going then? Why are we not helping? Why didn’t they call me?!”

 

Clint quickly grabbed Tony’s arm, pulling him back down to the chair. Though it hardly took effort. As soon as the brunette stood, he nearly lost balance from fatigue.

 

“That’s why,” he muttered. “Look Stark, I’m here in case something goes wrong… if they can’t shut it down we’re both targets. Better to be in pairs if that happens and we have a rendezvous point. You can’t… you’re in no condition to fight.”

 

Tony gave him a very offended stare as if he was just about to put up a fight to prove him wrong.

 

The archer briefly wonders if Iron Man armor was hidden somewhere. “Do it for Nat,” he blurts out quickly. “Just… lay low for a little longer… for Nat.”

 

The billionaire gave him a questioning stare. “What does Nat have to do with-“

 

“Apparently she made a strong case to not have you be part of this right now… or so said Cap.”

 

“Oh for god’s sake-“

 

“She doesn’t want to risk losing you!”

 

That stops Tony dead in his track, freezing for a moment as a silence washed over them.

 

Clint let out a long sigh. “Hey- she just… I get it you lost a lot but she lost a friend too. She hasn't had many friends before. None of us did. Strange didn’t just walk out on you… She then lost Fury. You were… we suspected you were compromised. Apparently, she didn’t want you on the field. Cap thought she had a point so… We only leave here if it’s dire.”

 

And more silence.

 

“You… haven’t been talking to her either, huh?”

 

Guilt washed over him. In truth, Tony had been actively avoiding the redhead ever since Stephen’s accident. His mind associated the agent naturally with Stephen. He would lay eyes on her and his mind would automatically turn to the doctor. After the breakup, it had been worse. To the point, Tony hardly could even meet her eyes.

 

“I think… she thinks she already lost you too… Sure, maybe I don’t know what’s fully going on here but she’s acting up. Badly, recklessly. Maybe it’s guilt-“

 

“It’s not her fault,” Tony said quickly. “I should have been with him that night. I was supposed to have been going to that ceremony with him-“

 

“And her job was to watch him. Look Stark, to me, it seems like you both are just… on a path to self-blame in ridiculous proportion. I get it, I feel bad for what happened to the doctor too but… he left. He left you. In a cruel way from what you are telling me. You both need to move on.”

 

There was a pause in which Tony stared at the corner of the table.

 

Then there was beeping. Clint quickly fished out the phone from his pocket reading the screen. “They did it-“

 

Tony let out the breath he didn’t realize he was holding.

 

But the smile started to fade from the agent’s lips. “…Uh-… ok so… Cap is in the hospital-… and…shit-“

 

The billionaire shots him a glare.

 

Clint swallowed. “Okay yeah… You’re right… we should go-”

 


 

“Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

 

“I do,” Natasha replied evenly.

 

“Why isn’t Captain Rogers present?” asked the committee general.

 

“I don’t know what there is left for him to say. I think the wreck in the middle of the Potomac made his point fairly eloquently.”

 

“Well, he could explain how this country is expected to maintain its national security now that he and you have laid waste to our intelligence apparatus.”

 

Her expression remained completely blank. “Hydra was selling you lies, not intelligence.”

 

“Many of which you seem to have had a personal hand in telling,” retorted the general.

 

“Agent, you should know that there are some on this committee who feel, given your service record, both for this country and against it, that you belong in a penitentiary, not mouthing off on Capitol Hill.”

 

…………

 

The double doors opened, a crowd of people filing out into the hallway. In the mist, they spot the familiar redhead.

 

Steve quickly rushed over. “You alright?”

 

“Perfectly fine,” Natasha replied curtly, straightening up with her usual restrained smile.

 

The captain let out a sigh, “You should have let me go in-“

 

“Will you two get a room?” Sam called out.

 

Steve gave his usual exasperated stare back but Natasha simply rolled her eyes.

 

“Who is he?” said a familiar voice.

 

They all turned to see Rhodes and Banner heading towards them quickly. Natasha and Steve both smiled making quick greetings.

 

“Thor?”

 

“Back at the tower. Thought it may be best given… you know, earth politics not really his thing“ Then Bruce looked over Sam, “Is he an Avenger?” he asked Cap.

 

Rhodes let out a scoff, “Clearly not, if he thinks these two are a thing-“ He pointed back and forth between Natasha and Steve.

 

Steve frowned at him but Rhodes just simply smirked back.

 

Sam let out a short laugh, smirking. “Now you all are just trying to throw me off. They’ve been flirting this whole goddamn time-“

 

“Oh really now?” Rhodes said, faking a faux surprise as he gave the Captain a look.

 

Bruce let out a short chuckle. “You’re… off,” he said softly to Sam. “Way off…”

 

Sam stared at all of them in turn, a clear confusion forming in his expression as he crossed his arms. “What you all getting at?”

 

“Guys stop-“ Steve said sternly. Though most of them just grinned at him.

 

Natasha pats Sam on the back with a smirk. “When you figure it out, you’re an Avenger.”

 

“What is this?” Sam looked thoroughly perplexed, “Some initiation riddle?”

 

But before he can question them any further there was the sound of many footsteps. Soon, a crowd of tac team was heading their way down the hall, in front was secretary of defense himself.

 

“Avengers, Captain Rogers, you are all under arrest. Come quietly or we will be forced to take action.“

 

“You should have let me go in with you,” Steve repeats to Natasha quietly.

 

She doesn’t look at him, eyes fixed on the crowd forming. “You’re still injured. And this is not your wheelhouse-“

 

“You’re right, Red. It’s mine.”

 

They all turn abruptly. Eyes immediately landing on Tony who strode down the hall dressed to the nines in one of his impeccable suits. Clint closely following behind.

 

The brunette pulls off the sunglasses sharply as he stops in front of Natasha. “Missed me?”

 

She tried to smile, though it doesn’t fully reach her eyes. Tony thought he saw something there he couldn’t quite place but there wasn’t much time to dwell on it.

 

He put a hand to her shoulder before turning to rest of them, bluntly ignoring the secretary and his army of agents.

 

He points halfheartedly at Steve, fixing the rest of them with a stern look. “If something goes wrong because dad had a stupid idea, what do you do?” He paused for a moment before pointing at himself. “You call mom.”

 

Rhodes let out a snort; Bruce shook his head with a smile, while Clint and Natasha pursed their lips suppressing a laugh. Sam… looked around at all of them, still confused.

 

“I’ll fix this-” Tony steps in front of them and Steve make a quick grab at his arm.

 

“Tony, it’s dangerous-“

 

“Capsicle,” He fixes the other with a stern stare. “You’re in my world right now. The battlefield is yours, politics are mine.”

 

Steve stares for another second, then blinks before letting go.

 

A moment, then Tony took a half step closer. “What do you want?” It was barely above a whisper.

 

“What…?” The Captain frowned in question.

 

“What do you, Steve Rogers, want out of this? Do you just want this to go away? Do you want to rebuild SHIELD? Do you want to retire?” He looks at the other straight in the eyes. Their gaze locking in a heated stare. “I’m late to the party, I don’t fully know what is going on so I’m trusting your judgment here, Cap. So I ask again… What. Do. You. Want.”

 

Steve swallowed. Ironically, Sam had asked the very same question just before this whole thing started. Back then he didn’t know the answer… but it didn’t seem to be an option now.

 

“I…” He blinked slowly, taking a breath in and out. “I… I want Avengers. How it should have been from the start. Ours.”

 

Tony let out a huff, a soft smile playing on his lips. “Okay.”

 

Another look, then he fully turned to face the secretary of defense. His demeanor takes a 180 turn. “You’re not arresting them.”

 

The other frowned at him, thoroughly annoyed. “Is that a fact, Mr. Stark?”

 

Tony took a couple more leisure steps forward, hands falling into the pockets of his slacks. He stops right in front of the cabinet member.

 

Guns all turned towards the brunette in the seconds. Steve lunges forward but was held back by both Clint and Rhodes.

 

Tony simply smirked, the usual arrogance seeping in his tone. “You’re not taking them. I don’t like people taking my things. Even a god couldn’t do it, you certainly can’t.”

 

There was a cold silence as no one moved.

 

“Avengers has proven to be a threat to national security. You are a group of mercenaries with a dangerous amount of power with absolutely no oversight. SHIELD is gone. Thanks to two of the Avengers, I might add. How do you even expect this group to function without so much as a leader?”

 

“We have a leader,” Tony replied simply. Then his voice takes a more mocking tone. “Captain Steve Rogers. You know, America’s golden boy. Captain Handsome. Very popular with the media for almost…” he pulls a face as if he’s thinking hard “six decades…?”

 

“Seven,” came Natasha’s voice behind them.

 

Tony made a quick turn, “Thank you, sweetheart.” He let out a huff of laughter. “I bet it would be uproar if you try to make him do a perp walk. How long do you think it would take for there to be a riot on Capitol Hill after the public finds out that you arrested him? Maybe 24 hours… tops? I’ll tell you what, I’ll make it 6. You know, because I can. Do you even have enough intelligence agents to contain the situation? Oh right, they’re all busy trying to figure out which senator, congressman, governor, judge is HYDRA… OH and cabinet members, of course. Wait are you clean-? ”

 

“How dare you!” The secretary looked livid, barely able to contain his anger.

 

“Back in 2011, the government tried to take my suit. Failed but… you know. You remember that right? Senator Stern? Turns out he’s HYDRA. And everyone wonders why I have trust issues-“

 

“This is much bigger than one suit-“

 

“Exactly,” he cuts him off quickly. “We’re a team. We’re the Avengers. From now on this will be an independent team that the government can’t oversee, can’t corrupt.” He paused for a brief moment. “You’re not going to put us in prison. Want to know why?”

 

“Do enlighten us,” the other replied sourly, with great deal of sarcasm.

 

“Why is that, Red?” Tony called out.

 

Natasha doesn’t miss a beat. “Because you need us. Because the world is a fragile place and maybe we helped make it that way but we are also the ones best qualified to defend it.”

 

There was a pause as the cabinet member took a shaky breath as if trying to suppress the anger that was rising. “You think we’ll let you all just waltz out of here?”

 

"I do. I really do." Tony stepped closer, there were sounds of clicks as many raised their weapons, ready to fire. The billionaire doesn’t even flinch, but his smirk completely disappeared.

 

The next second, his expression became uncharacteristically serious, cold. “I have army of lawyers who will rain upon this place the moment I give word. I have buildings full of top PR specialist in the world who will spin this story in ways that will disgrace this administration to the point the next generations wouldn’t even want to mention your names. My people. My team. I don’t care who you are... the President, a King, or god, you lay off of what’s mine. You touch them, I swear to god I will flip your world upside down, make your life living hell. And just then… MAYBE, if I feel kind enough, I will end you. Don’t. Test. Me. I’ve been having a very, VERY shitty month.”

 

The two glared, neither backing down, but both already knew which party already lost.

 

“We’re leaving,” Tony said loudly.

 

The rest of them quickly walk forward, Natasha and Rhodes nudging everyone towards the exit. Sam looked visibly taken aback but Natasha grabbed him, pulling him with them. They simply walked straight through the crowd of tac-team.

 

Steve was the last to linger, his eyes still fixed on Tony, waiting.

 

The billionaire turned around one last time. “You want to arrest us? You know where to find us. 200 Park Avenue, the big tower that says Avengers.”

 

…………

 

“Holy shit…” Sam let out a laugh, the nerves finally getting to him. “That was cool-“

 

Many of them had a smile or smirk on their lips as they strode down the steps, enjoying the fresh air and warm sun that embraced them.

 

“Hey Platypus, you driving?” Tony asked from a good distance ahead of the group.

 

“Yeah, I can take most of them back. Tower?”

 

Tony just gives thumbs up before turning back around, taking quick strides towards a very eye-catching luxury car parked not far away. Soon, Steve sprints to join him. They all watched as the pair walked down the sidewalk. Moments later, the Captain switches sides so he’s walking the curb, a hand unconsciously hovering over the brunette’s waist.

 

Sam makes a dead stop, staring with a frown. The rest of the Avengers watched in amusement as the gears visibly turned in the newcomer.

 

“Is Cap... fucking walking curbside so… what? Nothing would splash Stark’s skirt?”

 

Clint burst out laughing, holding onto Natasha for support.

 

“Wha-“ But whatever next comment faltered as Sam watches Steve opening the car door for Tony.

 

They see the brunette letting out a chuckle as if amused by the act but seemingly still not fully getting the intention behind it. Probably just chalking it up to the Captain being old fashioned. He says something to Steve, obviously teasing, the usual Tony Stark smirk plastered on his face. Sam’s eyes narrowed as he sees a definite pink flush arising in the Captain’s cheeks.

 

The former air force turned to the rest of them suddenly, his eyes landing on Natasha. He pulls a face. “You and him… not really a thing…”

 

“Nope.”

 

“Because... he... and him-“ He grimaces, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Got it.”

 

Clint comes up, patting Sam on the shoulder. There was a very visible grin. “Welcome to the Avengers.”