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Whether Mice or Men Have Second Tries

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When Natasha was twenty-one, she was sent undercover at a nuclear research plant in Iran for six months. In the neighborhood where she rented an apartment, there was a cat who accepted food from a few different houses. Natasha left her window open for him every night, even though it was an unforgivable security breach and let out the air conditioning besides, and called him حضرت, which was Persian for Majesty.

Natasha tells herself that the memory of حضرت is why she grits her teeth and walks into Hawkeye’s Cat Café, and not that she has no other chance of escaping the people tailing her with her leg the way it is.

The café is warm and smells like cat and sounds like laughter and the hissing of a kettle. It is not a large place, but it is big enough for a few people to play with cats on some scattered rugs and in a fenced-off area with play structures and toys. There are tables and a few booths along the walls where people sit with coffee mugs and laptops, and to one side is a counter nearly overflowing with displays of cookies and treats.

Natasha moves to an empty booth out of the front door’s line of sight and leans her back against the wall. Her leg feels like lightning is coursing through it. She lets her head fall back, and, despite the adrenaline from her flight, she falls asleep in under a minute.

When she wakes, there is a warmth in her lap and a wetness on her fingers. Natasha opens her eyes and finds a deep orange tabby in her lap, purring up a storm. Under the table and licking at her fingers is a light brown dog, whose pitiful whining has attracted attention.

“Hey, sorry about Lucky. He’s a bit of a mother hen for a dog.” The man peering into her booth has dirty blond hair and a dirty brown apron, which says ‘Clint’ and ‘Hawkeye’s Cat Café’ in yellow letters. His arms are covered in bandages, probably from swipes of cat claws, if the visible scars are anything to go by. He pats his thigh, producing a sharp sound, and says, “Here boy!”

‘Lucky’ whines again and nudges Natasha’s leg. She gasps.

“Lucky, now,” Clint says, command in his voice, and Lucky retreats from the table. The tabby on Natasha’s lap, hearing Clint’s tone, also jumps away, jarring Natasha’s leg again.

“I came in here to get something to eat,” Natasha says breezily. “I guess I’m more jetlagged than I thought.” She smiles at Clint.

Clint smiles back absently, but his eyes are locked on her leg. “I’ll bring you something to drink.”

He heads to the counter, and Natasha curses. She checks the time, surreptitiously looks around the room for men covering the exits or the inside of the café. If Moreau’s men haven’t found her by now, she’s safe.

The orange tabby comes back before Clint. It squeezes between Natasha and the wall and its warmth radiates down to where her leg aches. After a minute’s hesitation, Natasha strokes its head.

Clint is behind the counter, mixing a drink with a few different machines. He’s chatting with a well-muscled blonde man, who- to Natasha’s trained eye- is tired, stressed, and ex-military. American Army, if she had to wager. Army guy smiles weakly at Clint while he serves pastries to a customer.

The tabby contorts, and Natasha finds her hand on its stomach. She continues petting.

Clint comes back a few minutes later with a purple mug and a plate full of sweets. He puts them on the table in front of Natasha and waves her off when she reaches for a pocket. “Eat, later we can- hey buddy, that’s not a good-” He rushes off to stop a young man with a strange cap as he tries to lift a fluffy white cat by its hindquarters.

The scene degenerates. Natasha watches with amusement as she nibbles on a lemon cookie and sips some very nice hot cocoa. When all is said and done, the mistaken customer is escorted off the premises by Army guy, with a neat pair of scratches to his face from the white cat, and Lucky the dog as a growling accompaniment. Clint is kneeling on the floor with the white cat in his arms, supposedly comforting it; the cat’s chilly blue eyes watch him, unblinking. In reality, Clint is surreptitiously cleaning away the blood from its claws, assuring the surrounding guests that ‘Winter’ is a 'good kitty’ and a ‘poor thing’ who ‘didn’t deserve that’ and ‘a real American hero, yes you are.’

Natasha is smiling when she drifts off again.

When she opens her eyes, the café is empty and darkness has fallen outside its windows. Clint is sitting opposite her in the booth, apron gone, rapping gently on the table to wake her. The tabby cat has disappeared.

This isn’t good. Natasha estimates that she has been asleep for two hours, despite the fairly busy surroundings, and her leg has stiffened up in the meantime. If she is this weak right now, she will be unable to defend herself against Moreau’s men for at least a day or two; time which she does not have.

To her surprise, Clint starts speaking her thoughts. “You slept through a dozen cats getting herded into a small room, not to mention about thirty unknowns walking by your table. You go out tonight, try and lay low like this, you’ll be a sitting duck.”

Underneath the table, Natasha fingers one of her hidden knives. Army guy and Lucky the dog are gone; there will be no witnesses if Clint crosses one line too many. “That’s none of your business,” she says icily.

“I wasn’t always a café owner, you know. I figured out the basics of what went down out there,” Clint says, nodding to the front of the shop. “Anybody who pisses off guys like that is welcome to stay for a while.” He sounds sincere; unless he’s better at lying than Natasha is at divining lies, he's telling the truth.

Still. “You’d invite that kind of trouble into your life for no reason?” she challenged.

Clint grimaced. “I’ve been where you are. I caught some breaks; otherwise, I’d be dead. Besides, this place is literally dedicated to taking in strays. What, am I supposed to throw you out on the street just ‘cause you don’t have fur? Lucky’d bite me!”

Although he sounds almost jovial by the end of the speech, Natasha can see he’s serious. The café seems safe enough; at the very least, Moreau would have no reason to expect her to stay among strangers, not with her reputation. And Natasha believes she could take out Clint even with her leg injured as it is. On the other hand, she would be hard-pressed to walk very far.  “What do you suggest?” she asks at last.

Clint grins like everything’s already decided. “I live above the café. I’ve got a spare room, a very trustworthy doctor friend, and I am dope at reheating pizza.”

Natasha’s leg throbs. “No doctor.”

Clint shrugs. “Need help getting upstairs? I’m Clint, by the way.” He flashes another smile.

“Natasha,” Natasha says. She grits her teeth. “Yeah, I could use some help.”

The trip upstairs is rough. She can barely put any weight on her right leg, and it screams with pain at every movement. By the time Clint guides her into his spare room and helps her sit on the bed, Natasha is sweating, exhausted, and just about ready to stab him solely from the unwanted contact of their bodies.

“I’ll get you the laid-up kit,” he says with an ironic grin, eyeing her leg.

“You have… a kit for this?” Natasha manages to say through the pain.

“I have a tendency to get injured.” Clint leaves. Natasha arranges herself under the covers, leg propped up on a blanket. A shower can wait. When he returns, the café owner is carrying a water bottle, a Gatorade, a box of Cheez-Its, and a wicker basket. The basket has an array of First-Aid supplies along with shampoo, concealer, and a teddy bear wearing a tracksuit.

Natasha raises an eyebrow. Clint rolls his eyes. “Long story.”

She cracks the caps of the water and Gatorade and guzzles some down, but feels too nauseated for more than a few Cheez-Its. Clint keeps up a friendly babble that Natasha processes in the back of her mind; once he’s been labelled Safe, she doesn’t need to watch him all the time. He’s rambling about someone named Bruce when she falls asleep.

~~~~~

Natasha peels up her eyelids to sunlight breaking over the horizon, soft cotton sheets, and sharp, thick pain in her leg. Luckily, bacon and coffee scents are in the air. She manages to hobble to the living room, fingers hovering near one of her blades.

There’s someone else in the living room. A middle-aged man with thick, curly hair and wire-rimmed glasses is sipping- Natasha sniffs- darjeeling tea on Clint’s couch. Proving that he does have self-preservation instincts after all, Clint looks over the stranger’s shoulder and spots Natasha, quickly getting up to help her to the armchair. Natasha allows the help, though she isn’t happy about it.

In the light of day, she takes a moment to inspect Clint’s apartment. It looks like a bolt-hole for someone with no decorating sense; the walls are uniformly white with only a bullseye target poster adorning them, and the furnishings all look scavenged from the side of the road. However, a flat screen with a snakepit of accompanying cords is set up across from the couch, and bow and a quiver of arrows rest in one corner, and they look anything but cheap.

“Natasha, this is the doctor I was telling you about last night. Bruce, meet Natasha, my new friend.”

Natasha glares. “I told you I didn’t want a doctor.” Her hand clenches around air; she could take Clint out from here.

Bruce the doctor looks flustered. “Clint, you didn’t tell me that.”

Clint shrugs again, smiling like a cat that got some cream. “You need to talk to people who speak in less than six-syllable words. And that leg needs to be looked at. Bruce, tell her you’re very discrete.”

Bruce, who is apparently shy, cringes when Natasha’s glare is turned on him. “I, uh. I am, discrete. I’ve been in a few situations where I’ve needed under-the-table care, myself. I’m not a licensed doctor, I’m actually a physicist, but I did go to med school and get my license to practice, I just never renewed it.”

Natasha’s leg aches deeply. Clint is giving her an I-told-you-so face. She plans to smack him at the next opportunity. “Fine,” she says tightly.

Natasha watches the doctor’s every move as he examines her. Clint leaves the living room for the kitchen, where he busies himself making more tea. When it’s finished, he returns and brings a mug for Natasha and one for Bruce. He makes eye contact with Natasha and takes a sip of hers, behind Bruce’s back. She nods slowly and he sets it down for her.

Bruce eventually sighs, tugs Natasha’s pant leg back down for her, and sits on the sofa again. “It’s a bumper fracture of the knee. They call it that because you normally see it in car accidents, when the patient is hit on a lateral vector,” he lectures, adjusting his glasses. “You’ve also got some associated ligament injury; stretching or tearing, but we’d need an x-ray or an MRI to find out which. It’s a few months of therapy. You shouldn’t walk on it at all at this point, especially without the support of a cast or a brace, at the very least.”

Months. Natasha considers what she knows of the medical miracle that is her body. She’ll be laid up for a few weeks, then. “I don’t think it’s all that bad,” she says thoughtfully. “I’ve had quite a few leg injuries.”

“What do you do?” Bruce asks, frowning. “I’m seeing a lot of evidence of wear and tear.”

He’s suspicious- not that he’s wrong to be, Natasha supposes. Still, that won’t do. “I dance,” she tells him with a smile. “Ballet, mostly, but also some modern and experimental lately. That’s how this happened. My partner did a tight sweep at the wrong time, took me down at the knee.”

Bruce’s suspicion is gone. “That makes sense,” he says, frown relaxing. “I used to see a lot of injuries like this from high-performance athletes.”

“Luckily, I’m not so used to getting them this badly,” Natasha jokes back.

Clint, reclined on the couch, raises an eyebrow at her performance.

~~~~~

Natasha sits in the café as it opens. Clint takes care of the cats (who knew cats required quite so much maintenance?) while another former Army guy sets up the coffee and brings sweets over from the bakery on the next block that provides them. When Clint introduces Army guy two as Bucky, Natasha smiles politely and says nothing. Bucky, who seems just as leery of her as she is of him, merely grunts.

Clint brings Natasha decaf coffee and a few sugar packets and creamers, and then, disappearing upstairs, a whole plate of eggs, toast, and ham. Rushing about the store manically, all he says is “Banner likes to cook,” which Natasha has to deduce refers to Bruce the doctor.

Customers start to stream in when Bucky opens the door at 7. Natasha eyes each one, petting the orange tabby which had jumped into her lap as soon as Clint let it out of the night room. She picks at her plate, unable to eat despite feeling weak as an overcooked noodle. Her body’s abnormally fast healing tends to sap her energy; she knows she’ll be ravenous enough to eat before long.

To Natasha’s surprise, nervous Bucky handles most of the customers. Just a few regulars make time to speak to Clint, who is doing paperwork in a corner and getting up every hour to refresh the coffees. As the café gets busier however, Bucky needs help with the line stretching to the door. Clint picks up his calculator and assortment of papers and comes over to plop them in front of Natasha. “See if you can make sense of that,” he says, before heading behind the counter and donning his apron.

Frowning, Natasha begins to look through the papers. Quickly she ascertains that Clint has given her the account book for Hawkeye’s Cat Café. It takes her a few more minutes to work out that the books are hopelessly confused. Values are placed in random sections when the writer apparently didn’t know what to do with them. Rate calculations are incorrect. Some of the formulas are plainly improperly calculated. The final numbers are naturally skewed.

Natasha ogles at the chicken scratch and wonders who’s trying to put the café out of business.

“Ugh, that’d be me,” Clint admits when he stops by her booth with lunch (a huge calzone from the pizza parlor down the block). “I’m kinda hopeless at math, so ever since Kate moved on to bigger and better things it’s gotten… like that.”

“Why don’t you have someone else do it?”

Clint slides into the booth opposite Natasha. “It’s just me. Steve and Bucky are the only real employees, since Kate left, the rest are just volunteers. And I can’t ask them for more time, they’ve got other shit on their plates.”

Natasha tilts her head at him. “What’s your game?” she asks, suppressing a smile.

Clint looks extremely innocent. “What are you talking about? No game here. I mean, I’ve got game, but-”

“Just ask me,” Natasha says dryly.

“You’re already doing better than me.” He points to the scratch paper Natasha’s been using to probe at some of his mistaken figures. “You need to stay out of sight, I have a spare room. I need someone to keep the books for me, you can do that. Seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement. Maybe even fate,” he says with significance, inclining his head and raising his eyebrows.

Natasha studies him. “You have a complex.”

“What?!”

“Homeless cats. Lucky was a stray or a rescue, I bet. And now me. You said you caught some breaks. Did someone take you in?” Clint quickly covers up a gobsmacked look, and Natasha rechecks her surroundings, suddenly nervous. Being upfront about her deductions isn’t really her M.O., but with Clint being so open and obvious about his manipulation… sometimes Natasha wishes she had someone she didn’t have to lie to.

“Uh… yeah.” Clint scratches his head. “It’s… it’s gotten me Phil, the café, my building, Steve and Bucky, even Bruce and Tony, kinda. Good Samaritanism has been a real good thing in my life.”

He’s blushing. Natasha swallows, ignoring the way it makes her feels warm inside. “I’m not likely to get any better offers out there,” she muses aloud, gazing out the windows.

“So… you’ll stay?” Clint asks. It’s entirely unsuitable, how hopeful he sounds. Natasha wonders how he hasn’t been taken advantage of and lost that openness already.

“Yeah,” she says quietly, giving him a small, honest smile. He smiles back, and it’s like Natasha made someone happy without playing them. An odd feeling.

Clint starts to say something, but Bucky calls him back to the counter, and with an apologetic look, he’s gone. Natasha watches him for a minute, feeling very ambiguous, then refocuses on the mess Clint has made of the accounts.

~~~~~

Bruce returns that evening with a brace, crutches, and a prescription of painkillers. “It’s only a few days worth,” he tells Natasha contritely. “I couldn’t get more on account of my license being limited, but it should help you get around until you can, uh, access more medication.”

She thanks him in a persona, feeling strangely unsettled by this earnest care with no strings attached- from Bruce, and from Clint, who had actually come up with work she could do to feel less vulnerable. Even now, while Bruce looks uncomfortable referring to the black market for drugs that Natasha knows like the back of her hand, Clint simply nods at her, like her extreme lifestyle is normal to him.

Drugged up, quickly learning how to maneuver on crutches, Natasha sits in Clint’s cramped kitchen and walks him through not burning pasta sauce. As a thank-you, he forces her to watch ‘the second-greatest show on Earth,’ Dog Cops, until she’s drowsy and ready to sleep.

It’s strange, deciding to trust Clint. Natasha isn’t sure when it happened, but it has, and it goes deep. She can fall asleep in his presence, not waking even when he moves around her. She eats the food he procures out of her sight, takes drugs his friend provided. Some deep instinct says that he won’t hurt her. It’s nothing she’s ever sensed from a person before.

Her leg is still too tender to do any sort of exercise. Natasha spends a few weeks in the booth of Hawkeye’s Café with a view of the door during the day, and Clint’s spare room at night. Clint manages to get her painkillers, and doesn’t ask for any payment. Under her tutelage, he expands his culinary repertoire, and for both of their sakes she introduces him to some TV shows where the main characters are humans.

Natasha also grows familiar with the café, its patterns, and its occupants. Taking over the account books and eventually the online side of the business, Natasha learns the ins and outs, including the fact that the café is actually losing money every month.

“How do you operate like this?” she asks Clint one evening over frozen ravioli and broccoli she’d taught him to steam. “You’re keeping the doors open because someone keeps giving you money to make up for the drain. Is it a charity?”

Clint gulps down his gigantic bite before answering. “Nah. A few churches wanted to help out, but Tony loves me, so he keeps the place going.”

“Tony,” Natasha recalls. “Another of your rescues.”

“Yeah, kinda. I found him drunk off his ass one night, in a rough part of town. Brought him here, sobered him up, and when he woke up he fell in love with one of my cats and decided to fund the whole thing.”

Natasha blinks. “He gives you thousands of dollars a month because he likes one of your cats.”

“Well he’s loaded, and also terrible at making friends.” Clint waves his fork around in a way that is apparently meant to be explicative. Natasha gives up.

She also gets to know the cats in residence at the café, and through them, their humans who Clint counts among his friends. The dark orange tabby who has colonized her lap, Natasha learns, is Lola, and doesn’t normally take to people this way.

“She’s nice enough, but she only ever purrs for Phil,” Steve explains one afternoon, sitting in her booth during a lull.

Steve is, as Natasha suspected, ex-Army. He tells her his rescue tale over coffees and pie on his break.

“When I came back Stateside, I was a mess,” Steve declares freely. “Not PTSD, strictly. My therapist called it adjustment disorder. But the only thing that made me happy was petting Clint’s cats, for hours at a time. Eventually Clint got me to open up, and then he insisted on hiring me. Gave me something I had to get up for, make myself presentable. He probably saved my life.”

Natasha watches Steve as he watches Bucky, who’s jiggling a piece of string for one of the newer rescues. She has been watching Steve barely take his eyes off Bucky all week. “Bucky wasn’t with you?”

Steve shakes his head. “No, he was… still over there.” He’s silent for a long time, and Natasha puts a few pieces together. “I named a cat for him. Winter. He was the one I focused in on, to distract me from…”

Natasha smiles to lighten the atmosphere. “I see. Clint told me all of his friends have a special cat of their own. Winter is yours?”

Steve smiles. His smile is very nice, Natasha decides, ery simple and sunny. Much better than the wet eyes he was veering towards. “Yeah. And then Bucky came back, and named one of Yinsen’s kits for me. Captain Americat, over there.” He points to one of the undersized cats Natasha had been introduced to, a scrawny hay-colored tom with a tendency to pounce.

“Yinsen?”

“One of Clint’s first cats, before this was actually a cat café. I never met her.”

“What was it before?” Natasha asks.

Steve leans back against the booth, sighing and rubbing his stomach. The slice of apple pie he’d brought over with him has been thoroughly demolished. “A normal coffee shop, with a bunch of stray cats hanging about,” he tells her with good humor. “Clint told me he and Kate took in the strays behind the café, got them in to the vet and everything, and eventually people wanted to adopt them. Tony funded the changeover.”

“I haven’t seen Tony around,” Natasha says casually, hiding the sudden tension in her gut.

Steve picks up on it, somehow, or maybe he just guesses. “Tony’s a good guy. Flighty, and eccentric, but he means well. He’s not backing the café for anything questionable.”

Natasha nods, relaxing, though she keeps a sharper eye out from then on.

Bruce shows up again and looks over Natasha’s leg, declaring it to be healing remarkably quickly. He warns her again of the need for rehabilitative therapy, and Natasha assures him she’ll look into her options. When he goes to meet his cat, Natasha watches him with a curious sort of wistfulness. Maybe, in a world where she really needed weeks of therapy, where she really was a dancer, they could have been friends.

It takes Bruce a few minutes to corner his cat. Hulk, a cloud-like blob of tan fluff and grouchiness, is great with children and women, but tends to dislike men. Clint told Natasha that Hulk was Bruce’s cat before he fell on hard times and had trouble feeding him, and asked Clint if Hulk could stay at Hawkeye’s. Bruce still came by the café several times a week to spend time with Hulk, and when he got back on his feet decided that Hawkeye’s was a better place for the cat. Now, Hulk is one of the permanent cats in the café who are not up for adoption, along with the four or five who are at any time.

The story just increased Natasha’s fascination with this strange place full of people who care about animals and each other, who trust and support each other without keeping score. Natasha has heard stories about families supposedly being that way, but she has never seen much to support the possibility.

While he’s there, Bruce checks over all of the cats; apparently, in addition to being a former human doctor, Bruce is well-read on veterinary medicine, enough to tell Clint which cats needs to see a proper vet. This is the first Natasha learns about the health problems of Yinsen’s litter.

“We thought she was a guy cat for ages,” Clint explains while Bruce looks over the three undersized cats with extra care. He glares when Natasha badly suppresses a snicker. “This was before me and Kate knew much about cats, obviously.”

“Obviously,” she agrees.

Anyway. Captain Americat’s got all sorts of health issues that we gotta keep an eye on. Tina has heart issues and Tiny… just gets injured a lot.”

“Is he your special cat?” Natasha asks with a straight face.

“Lucky is my special cat,” Clint replies, just as seriously. “Tina and Tiny are Tony’s, I named them for him.”

“I should have known,” Natasha says dryly.

“Yinsen was the cat that cuddled Tony for hours when he was hungover,” Clint tells her, gaze far off in memory. “I tried to get him to adopt her, but he didn’t think he’d be able to take care of a cat. I told him that was a load of shit, but…” He shrugs. “When we found out Yinsen was pregnant- and a she- Tony was ecstatic. Hung around here all the time. She died from pregnancy complications. It was pretty hard on him.”

Natasha can’t reply, unable to comprehend being so attached to an animal.

“Captain Americat didn’t like him at first, but Tina and Tiny imprinted on him. I named them for him basically so he wouldn’t disappear.”

Natasha watches Tina bat at Bruce’s glasses, Lucky watching attentively nearby, and tries to see something in the scraps of fur worth loving that much.

~~~~~

Natasha is gently stretching her legs in the fenced-in play area. She is accompanied by a few cats, since the café is slow right now, and not all the cats are being petted or played with. Winter sits nearby, tail flicking back and forth as he watches her with eyes that pick up every detail. Falcon, one of the newer kittens up for adoption, so named for his speckled white and brown coat and face, frolics for her edification. War Machine (Clint says he strongly regrets letting Tony name a cat), a dark brown cat with amber eyes, is lapping up some water nearby, until he’s shoved out of the way as Loki tears across the floor, yowling.

“I see my presence has been noted,” a big, amused voice intones behind Natasha.

She turns to see a large man with long blonde hair, smiling fondly at the corner where Loki is pacing and hissing. The brown and black patterned cat raises the hair of his back and waves a paw at the man threateningly.

“You must be Thor,” Natasha says, entertained.

Thor inclines his head. “And you must be Natasha,” he replies. “Clint told me he had made a new friend. He did not tell me you were so beautiful, or athletic.”

Natasha releases her stretch, strangely unconcerned with Thor’s compliments. They feel like commentary between athletes, which Natasha is used to, rather than flirtations, despite the notice of her beauty. Thor is already watching Loki again, and Natasha marvels at meeting yet another person who her instincts say doesn’t intend to hurt or use her.

“I have been abroad, or we would have met already,” Thor explains, letting himself into the fenced area and sitting beside Natasha. A few yards away, Loki coils and circles, tail lashing back and forth. Thor grins. “I shall have to convince him of my love anew.”

“Clint said the two of you have an odd relationship,” Natasha says.

“Aye,” Thor agrees. “I often left Loki behind when I travelled for my father’s company, and I believe he resented me for it. That is why I asked Clint to watch over him. Loki is very independent, but he has been happier here than in my apartment alone.”

“You can tell?” Natasha watches Loki bite viciously into one of Lucky’s chew toys.

Thor nods, smiling softly. Natasha returns to her booth and Thor approaches Loki. Over the next hour, Thor earns several scratches on his hands, arms, and one or two on his face. Slowly, through application of his favorite treats and some well-placed scratches and rubs, Thor wins back Loki’s affection, and eventually the cat is purring in his lap.

An hour later, the door to the café swings open wildly and a young woman rushes in, practically falling on her face atop a few cats. From her enthusiastic noises and the way Bucky smiles at her from behind the counter, Natasha surmises that the new arrival is Darcy, whom Natasha has been informed is Thor’s girlfriend’s platonic life partner.

Natasha looks on in amusement, abandoning the accounts completely, as Darcy makes rounds of the café, petting every cat for several minutes and engaging Clint, Thor, and eventually Bucky in conversation. Natasha hasn’t heard Bucky talk much, so she gives in to curiosity and she sits at Clint’s table closer to the counter to eavesdrop. Clint grins at her.

Natasha has already noticed Bucky’s reticence talking to anyone, even Steve. His PTSD was obvious from the first hour Natasha met him, and only Steve and Clint seem to be able to tease conversation out of him. For Darcy, Bucky smiles, laces three sentences together in a row, and even shows off some of the humor that Natasha suspected from the man who dreamed up 'Captain Americat'.

Shamelessly eavesdropping along with her, Clint appears almost blissful as he looks around his café at Darcy and Bucky chatting, Thor and Loki cuddling, Lucky laying at his feet, and Natasha watching him. “You idiot,” she says quietly, and he smiles.

The café closes at 6pm. Tony shows up at 6:15 to a chorus of yowls. Clint hurries to close the door behind Tony as all the cats attack the new arrival as one.

Natasha looks on with concern as Tony disappears under a mass of haunches and tails. “Should we do something?” she asks.

Clint shakes his head and crosses his arms, grinning. “Nah. He’s fine.”

Over the celebratory noises from the cats, Natasha can indeed hear happy moans and muffled affection coming from the human. “Why…”

“No idea. Cats just love Tony. Dogs don’t,” Clint admits, and in fact, Lucky is laid next to the counter, head on his paws, watching his pack with ill humor. “We take advantage of it.”

After a few minutes of communion, Tony inches toward the kennel room, where the cats are kept overnight. The mass of feline follows him, and the cats are corralled in about a third of the time that it usually takes. Clint closes Tony in the room, telling Natasha “We’ll just leave him there for awhile until everyone else gets here.”

“Everyone else?” She raises an eyebrow.

“You didn’t tell her?” Darcy says accusingly to Clint.

“Seems to be a habit,” Natasha murmurs.

Clint wilts under the twin sharp looks. “I forgot!” he defends. “I was trying to organize everyone.”

Darcy accompanies Natasha up to Clint’s apartment and picks out the most stylish items from Natasha’s emergency wardrobe. Natasha had scrounged it from the neighborhood shops on the second day of her residence above Hawkeye’s, so the choices are limited. When they return to the café, Bruce and Steve have arrived and Tony has emerged from the night room with Tina and Tiny each on a shoulder. Clint performs that introduction.

“Natasha, this is Tony. Tony, don’t hit on Natasha, she could probably kill you with her crutches.”

Tony tears his eyes away from Natasha’s curves to chuckle at Clint. He freezes when he sees Natasha’s carefully raised eyebrow and perfected intimidating smile. “Um… yeah. Nice to meet you,” he mutters, gravitating to Steve and putting the blond in between him and Natasha. Steve gently scratches Tina and Tiny on their scruffs, blushing when Tony starts to tease him.

Clint giggles and gives Natasha a thumbs-up.

They pile into Tony and Thor’s cars and drive to the restaurant and bar which, Natasha is told by Darcy, they always go to when everyone is available. When they pile inside, the group takes two short tables to push together. Darcy introduces Natasha to Jane while everyone is sitting down.

“She’s the reason why I can’t adopt thirty cats,” Darcy complains good-naturedly.

Jane shrugs. “I’ve told you, we can get a hairless cat, or reptiles.”

Darcy scowls. “Hairless cats defeat the purpose of cats, which is to snuggle them and pet them and rub your face on their fur.”

Jane rolls her eyes.

“Natasha, come meet Phil!” Clint calls. Natasha maneuvers toward him on her crutches, then freezes.

Agent Coulson stares back at her in mirrored shock. “Natasha,” he says eventually.

“...Phil,” she replies with the same inflection.

Clint looks between them, excitement fading. Agent Coulson shifts his weight. Natasha’s grip on her crutches tightens.

“Phil, she’s my friend, I told you,” Clint says desperately. He grabs Agent Coulson’s elbow and is shaken off.

“Clint, I told you this would happen someday if you kept adopting people,” Agent Coulson says, not taking his eyes off Natasha.

Natasha is very aware of the loose fit of Agent Coulson’s suit jacket and the position of the group of people behind her. Pretty Jane and gentle Thor. Darcy who makes broken Bucky smile. Steve who badly hides his crush on crazy Tony. Bruce, who saw through her lies but pretended not to and is kind to her anyway.

And standing partway between her and Agent Coulson, Clint, who saved her life in so many ways.

“I won’t run,” she murmurs.

Clint turns devastated eyes on her. “Tasha,” he whispers. His eyes flick to the front door; his foot turns closer to Agent Coulson.

She steps forward. “Clint, go sit down.” He protests. She shakes her head once, sharp. “Sit down. Phil and I need to talk.”

Jaw tight, Clint glares warningly at Agent Coulson and goes to sit beside Steve.

Agent Coulson studies her. “No one expected you to be hiding in plain sight,” he says quietly.

Natasha tilts her head. “That’s why I am.”

He nods slowly. “Maybe. That was you, with Moreau? Intel thought it was Ford’s gang.”

“They’re consolidating,” Natasha tells him. “I was just helping to set the stage.”

A wrinkle appears between the agent’s eyebrows. “I need to know if you’re going to bring trouble. The Red Room-”

“Is finished,” Natasha interrupts. “I’m alone. Trying- something new,” she stutters, cursing herself for the weakness.

Agent Coulson doesn’t miss it. “I see that,” he says quietly. “Well. I shouldn’t keep you on your feet.” He motions, politely, that she should proceed to the table in front of him.

Natasha sits beside Clint, dazed. Across the table, Tony summons his courage and smiles at her. A few seats down, Bucky smiles at the table while Darcy nudges his arm. Thor is recalling his business trip to Norway, and greets Agent Coulson loudly when he pulls out the chair between Thor and Bruce, who watches Natasha with concern. She fakes a smile for him, and he hesitates before nodding and going back to his quiet discussion with Jane.

Clint takes her hand under the table. Natasha flinches, relaxing slowly. “You okay?” he asks under his breath.

Behind him, Steve sets down his buttered bread slowly. Bucky picks up on the cue and his expression adopts a familiar calmness.

Natasha smiles. Clint looks right past it. “Do you need to get out of here?”

These people don’t make sense. “You’d help me over Phil?”

“What Agent pretends not to know can’t hurt him,” Tony says quietly, leaning forward over the table. His dark, serious eyes belie the convincingly nonchalant smirk.

Natasha drops the smile and sighs. “I think we’re alright.”

Clint squeezes her hand and lets go. Steve swallows the rest of his roll in one go. Bucky turns back to Darcy, who has been chattering obliviously, and Tony pulls out his cell phone and starts poking at the screen.

“Once we’ve adopted you, you can’t get rid of us,” Clint tells her with that crooked smile. “Look.” He turns to her in his seat, closing out the rest of the table. “I know, vaguely, what you do. And I know you’re looking for a way out.”

Natasha breathes shallowly, like she’s balanced high above the ground.

“Phil’s gone most of the time, working. Tony and Thor go all over the world. Steve occasionally disappears for a few weeks and we’re not supposed to ask why. I’m pretty sure Bruce isn’t actually just a physicist, but…” he digs the knuckles of his right hand into the table. “You’d probably love the story of how I got my building. You can go away, and do what you need to do. Just come back. I’ve got a spare room,” he says, and smiles, like it’s all simple.

In Natasha’s experience, it isn’t. But then, she’s never seen anything like these people. She reaches out to flick Clint’s hand on the table. “Do I get a special cat?”

~~~~~

A few months later, Clint and Natasha introduce a pitch-black female named Spider to Lucky. The dog sniffs at Spider, who sits with her nose in the air. Lucky huffs and licks Spider’s neck. The cat lands one well-placed smack on Lucky’s muzzle, causing the dog to whine a bit before laying down. Hierarchy established, Spider curls up beside Lucky, and they watch over Hawkeye’s Cat Café in companionable silence.