"Do you think he actually has a cat?"
Clint gave Steve a sideways glance, not sure if he was grateful or annoyed that the man had chosen to break the uncomfortable not quite silence of the overly long elevator ride17. "Ten to one he was just fucking with us."
"Only ten to one?"
"I'm feeling really generous today." Only that wasn't it, at all. Clint knew it, and he knew that Steve knew it as well. If Loki had mentioned having a cat, there was a definite reason for it. And it could be something as simple as wanting to make certain Fluffy didn't starve, or as baroque and malicious as trying to get them to a location where they could be taken out with a stuffed toy that had been filled with explosives.
"But what if he does have a cat? An actual earthling feline that depends on him?"
Clint scrubbed at his face with one hand. He did not want to be having this conversation for more reasons than he could count and damnit why weren't the elevator doors opening yet? "Then maybe his neighbors will take care of it, right? Cats get noisy when no one's been feeding them. They're worse than kids."
Clint could feel Steve staring at him now, the man's gaze and disapproval a palpable red and white striped weight. "Worse than kids, huh?"
"Look, you only have to do it once and then no one ever asks you to babysit again." Clint inspected his fingernails. "Plus the bit where you teach them how to shoot."
Silence stretched like censure-flavored taffy.
"You're not kidding, are you," said Steve, his tone one of horrified wonder.
"I hate babysitting, man. There's snot everywhere. It's gross. I have a...thing." Clint cleared his throat. "Okay, maybe I was kidding about the not feeding them bit."
"But you weren't kidding about the teaching them how to shoot bit."
"I'm Clint Fucking Barton, what do you expect?" He grinned, the expression quickly vanishing under the weight of Steve's thorough and hefty disapproval. It was as if the super soldier serum had even increased the ferocity with which he could clutch at his non-existent pearls. "Look, it was just bow and arrow, all right? Except for the oldest. She was thirteen, about to go into high school, so I figured I'd show her some tricks on a nine mil and no one would fuck with her."
"Thirteen? Well, that makes it okay then."
"You know what, Clint? I'm going to pretend the last five minutes of conversation just... didn't happen. So do you think Loki actually has a cat?"
Clint inspect the toes of his combat boots, which were now suitably scuffed. "Yeah."
"Yeah? Then why didn't you say that the first time?"
"Hey, I thought we were pretending the last five minutes didn't happen. Stop breaking your own rules, Steve."
"Clint..." There was a quality Steve had to his voice, one that said he was not so much annoyed as severely disappointed, and that was exponentially worse. Because that was like disappointing Santa Claus, if Santa could punch holes through a brick wall and then unironically help little old ladies across the street.
Clint inspected his fingernails. Was the elevator even still moving? How could one ride possibly be this long? It had to be physically impossible. Stark Tower might be the size of Tony's ego, but it wasn't a freaking skyhook.
No, he knew what the problem was. The entire goddamn elevator was weighed down by a leaden wedge of guilt that had settled in the pit of his stomach like a fourth, poorly thought out slice of Chicago deep dish. Why should he feel guilty? He had no reason to feel guilty.
He thought about the look in Loki's eyes, in the coffee shop. Or Loki's eyes again, much longer ago when the guy had somehow grabbed him by the hair. And a half-remembered dream, the most absurd thing ever, Loki telling him to go back to sleep.
He felt guilty.
For that reason alone, Clint could gear himself back up to hating Loki. Clint Fucking Barton didn't feel guilty for any man, let alone any crackpot Norse God who thought tearing holes in space and time that caused all of a guy's underpants to scream when put on was the height of humor.
Fuck you, Loki. In the ear.
Clint cleared his throat. "How about you do a little thought experiment with me."
He didn't have to look up to know Steve's eyebrows had relocated to the vicinity of his hairline. "A thought experiment?"
"Let's pretend, for just a moment, that Loki has a guy's phone number." Clint tilted one foot to inspect the treads of his boot. Something appeared to be lodged in there, gum or quite possibly the remains of his own pride.
"And let's pretend that maybe one night Loki got really fucking wasted on mai tais at Dr. Doom's place."
"Just stay with me on this one." Clint stared at his boot with such ferocity he could almost see a new scuff developing in the leather. "And let's say, just for the sake of argument, Loki--drunk, remember--took pictures of his cat, and sent them to the aforementioned guy."
"And would this guy," Steve said dryly, "happen to have the initials 'CB'?"
Steve sighed. "'CFB?'"
"Yeah. Maybe. For the sake of argument."
"So what you're trying to tell me, Clint, is that Loki does have a cat. And you've seen pictures of it." Steve thumped his fist lightly against the wall of the elevator. It made a discomfiting hollow metallic boom. "Darn it, Clint. It's a black cat, isn't it."
"Nope," Clint said in a small voice. "Marmalade tabby."
"Darn it, Clint."
They didn't even have to do any investigation or hover in a vaguely threatening manner behind some uniformed peon in a room full of television monitors18. Instead, Steve had taken one step into the room--Clint hadn't even managed to squeak through the door behind him, since the sheer patriotism of Steve's shoulders just didn't leave room for anyone else--and someone in a dark blue jumpsuit had thrust a printout at him.
It was almost like they'd been expected. And almost like someone had sent out a memo about Clint and his hobby of aggressively breathing down jumpsuit collars because he thought being an asshole was hilarious. And almost like someone had suggested they get Clint and Steve out of there as quickly as humanly possible, before they19 could have any fun.
Clint made a mental note to find something really squashy and mildly poisonous to stick in Coulson's bed the next time he got sent out of the country.
But whatever impeccably tailored suit-wearing bastard bastard was to blame, Clint and Steve found themselves outside the door of a penthouse apartment in a disturbingly swanky building, the kind where there seemed to be people whose entire job it was to just open doors while deferentially touching their hats. It was the sort of thing Tony Stark probably wouldn't even blink at, which meant that it was a decidedly unnatural environment.
Steve hadn't been at all comfortable about it either. This had resulted in a minor--but squirm-inducingly polite--confrontation between him and a tiny woman who insisted that no one could push the buttons in the elevator but her. Sir.
"Should've expected this," Clint commented to the closed door. "This is a total asshole building."
"Pretty sure a building is just a building, Clint."
"That's just what they want you to think."
Steve rubbed his chin and frowned at the door. Somewhere, a bald eagle soared through a clear blue sky. "Think if we ask the superintendent nicely, they'll let us in?"
"Yeah, but who has the time for that?" Clint reached out and tried the knob.
...it was unlocked.
He and Steve stared at each other. Clint gave the door a little push open. It didn't creak or groan like it rightfully should have. "Well. That's not creepy at all."
"Cover my back." And Steve went in first. Because of course he would, being all Steve Rogers and such.
And of course Clint let him, because he was Clint Fucking Barton. He unzipped his jacket to make it that much easier to get to the holstered pistols he had at his sides, then followed Steve in.
The real insult was how fucking normal the apartment look, he decided almost immediately. He'd been expected something gold plated and decorated in Late Medieval Torture or maybe Crazy-Ass Viking Long House. Instead, the furniture was shockingly comfortable-looking, dark wood and pale leather. There were paintings on the walls, mostly abstract art prints. And bookshelves everywhere--well, at least they'd kind of expected that.
There was a vase on the coffee table for Chrissakes. With a bamboo in it. Real live actual bamboo. And it wasn't wearing a little helmet with horns or anything.
Steve gave the plant an uncertain look. "Are you sure this is the right place?"
Clint pulled the paper from his pocket and checked it. "Unless the wonks gave us the wrong address..."
"Not what I expected."
"You can say that again."
"Kind of creepy."
Clint picked up little wooden box off of one of the bookshelves. It didn't open. He shook it. Still didn't open. "Kind of creepy."
Steve took the box from him. "I've seen those before. It's a puzzle box. If you open it, who knows what might come out."
"The way this apartment looks, probably the soul of June Cleaver." But Clint set the box down very carefully, as if it might explode. Knowing Loki, it probably could.
Steve led to the next room, which turned out to be a dining room and kitchen. A half-empty cup of tea sat on the dining room table, next to an open book.
"Half-full," Steve commented, glancing at the book. "And I don't know what language that's in. Bet the boys in the lab would have a field day in here."
"Or open a portal to another dimension," Clint muttered. He poked at the espresso machine and jumped when it turned on. His hand made contact with a waffle iron, shoving it halfway across the counter. The little machine beeped too, in a way that sounded strangely... disgruntled. "What is with all this fancy shit?" Clint asked. He didn't really believe in having anything more advanced in the kitchen than a toaster and a drip coffee maker.
"Maybe he just likes his waffles."
"I don't want to live in a world where you can even say something like that about an asshole like Loki."
Steve opened his mouth to say something else, but was interrupted by a loud clatter from another room. Instantly, Clint had a pistol in each hand.
"Are you sure this is the right apartment?" Steve asked again.
"No, Steve, this is great. It's creepy. That's more like it. Get moving."
Steve shot him an unreadable look and moved back out into the apartment. "I don't know where that came from."
"Wasn't this room. Maybe the bedroom?"
"Sounds like a place I sure want to go," Steve said dryly.
There was another crash, and they both froze.
"Yeah, definitely the bedroom."
"Great." Steve eased down the hall, then stood to one side of the door as he turned the knob and pushed it open. Clint slid around him pistols at the ready.
Shining golden eyes in the dark. Clint almost squeezed the triggers at the sight, but it was also accompanied by a faint, plaintive Mew? And for all Loki was a giant space asshole, Clint didn't feel good about the thought of liquifying the guy's cat with a couple of hollow-point rounds.
Steve flipped the lights on. And to Clint's ever lasting relief, the eyes really did belong to the cat. A marmalade tabby, to be precise. He sagged against the door frame.
"Wow. I know you said he had one, but..." Steve peered around the other side of the frame. It definitely wasn't big enough for all four of their biceps at the same time, let alone the rest of them. "What's it sitting on?"
The cat was perched on a leather-bound journal. A slip of paper stuck out of it, drooping down enough that the writing on it was visible--and readable: Barton and Rogers.
"Shit," Clint muttered.
"You ever hear the thing about if you hear a noise and it's just the cat...?"
"No." Steve gave him another of those looks, the one that politely accused him of trying to have fun with the old man. "They didn't cover that in basic, back in my day."
Clint laughed. "Well, they fucking should've."
The cat, perhaps annoyed that they were ignoring it, let out a much firmer meow and tipped the journal onto the floor.
17 - Seriously, where had Tony Stark managed to find muzak versions of every AC/DC song? Clint couldn't help but wonder if it was a sign of genius, madness, or a sort of cheerful sadism knitting the two together.
18 - A real disappointment if you asked Clint. That was one of his favorite parts.
19 - "They" of course meaning Clint, while Steve stood there and looked distinctly uncomfortable or even tried ineffectually to apologize.