((The conclusion of the Valentine’s Day piece, because I’m slow this month. Sorry, all, it’s only ten days late, right? 8)
The first part is here: http://scifigrl47.tumblr.com/post/43126849550/avengers-fic-hearts-and-flowers-pt-1
“Delivery,” Natasha said from the door way of the lab.
Bruce looked up from his microscope. “Hi,” he said, giving her a smile, and she returned it.
“Evening, Doc,” she said, setting a box on the counter. “Stark, don’t you have somewhere to be?”
Tony was staring down at a chemical breakdown, scribbling notes in the margins as his eyes flicked over the data. “Uh-huh,” he said, pushing a hand through his hair. “One… One sec, I gotta-”
“It’s six,” Natasha said.
“Fuck,” Tony said, jerking up right. “Okay, all right, just-” He stabbed a finger in Bruce’s direction. “Just leave that, I’ll get it recalibrated tomorrow, there’s no way we’re getting that kind of a result, there’s gotta be a mechanical issue here, I’ll-”
“Tick-tock,” Natasha said, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Harpy,” Tony said, making Natasha grin as she angled her head in his direction.
“Be glad it’s me and not Steve, looking sad.” She reached into the box. “Catch.” She flipped the package to Tony, who caught it one-handed. “From Clint.”
Tony glanced at the long underwear. “Barton isn’t nearly as funny as he thinks he is.”
“True.” She shook her head as Tony stomped out of the lab, still mumbling to himself. She leaned against the lab bench. “What’s that face for, Doc?” she asked Bruce with an arched eyebrow.
“It’s five,” Bruce pointed out.
Natasha’s teeth flashed. “Is it? My mistake.”
Bruce chuckled. “Looking out for Rogers?”
“Looking out for Stark,” she said. “Steve knows what he’s getting into, Tony sometimes loses track of time.” She nudged the box with her elbow. “Since I’m the only one without plans tonight, I come bearing gifts.”
“Really.” Bruce watched his readout, stirring slowly to keep the particulates in solution. “From who?”
“Clint sends you cupcakes, in honor of the day,” Natasha said, lifting out a white pastry box. “Chocolate with pink frosting, because he’s classy. Strawberry cream, not cherry, he made a point of telling me that. Also that I should say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day.’” She paused for a beat. “Happy Valentine’s Day, Bruce.”
“Thank you. And it’s strawberry because I don’t like cherry flavoring,” Bruce said, smiling.
“So you got your own cupcakes, because cherry is Phil’s favorite,” Natasha said. “And this is from SHIELD, by way of one Agent Coulson.” She held out a SHIELD file folder.
Bruce frowned. “What is it?” Wiping his hands, he reached for it.
“The report on Betty Ross.”
Bruce froze, and then he pulled his hand back. “Thanks,” he said, cursing his big mouth earlier. Of course, it wasn’t hard to fill out. How many ex-girlfriends did a guy like him have? Of course, it was easy enough to figure out. Even if no one asked. They’d all known. “But I shouldn’t-”
Natasha didn’t move. “There’s nothing classified or invasive here,” she said, her voice calm. “But because of her connection with you, for her own safety and security, SHIELD has been watching her since you first disappeared, Bruce.” She leaned over and set the file in front of him. “That’s what you were looking for, wasn’t it? Not personal information. Just that she was all right.” She tapped a finger against the folder. “She has been protected. And she will be protected. For your sake, as well as hers.”
Bruce didn’t want to, but he reached for the folder, sliding it out from under her hand. He didn’t open it though. For some reason, just having it in front of him was comforting. “Thank you,” he said. “Why today?”
“Because it was bothering you today,” she said, as if that was all that mattered. “Our boys might not appear to pay attention, but they can pick up on a cue.” She waved a hand in his direction. “And it was easy enough for Phil to get for you.”
He shook his head. “Pathetic,” he said, but he didn’t push the file away.
“Human,” she said. One shoulder rose and fell in a half-shrug. “We all worry about those who get left behind, Bruce. There’s no shame in it.”
Taking a deep breath, Bruce managed, “Yeah.” He glanced up. “You don’t have plans for today? You know, because, well, Valentine’s?”
“Nothing compared to Clint’s,” she said, with a smile. “No one’s seen Jane or Thor all day, so I believe we all know what their plans are. And we can only hope that Stark and Rogers don’t freeze to death.”
“Oh, they won’t,” Bruce said. He studied the file, his fingers stroking over the cover. “Steve won’t stay out there long.” Natasha was silent, and he glanced up to meet her eyes. “Obviously.”
“Obviously,” she said, eyes narrowed. “Why do you think-”
Bruce shook his head. “It’s just, you know Tony. He gets something in his head, he starts planning and if you don’t figure a way to distract him, or refocus his attention, he gets going on an idea and then the next thing you know, everything’s, well-” He waved a hand. “Stark Tower.”
Natasha grinned. “Stark Tower?”
“A little showy?” Bruce shrugged when she laughed. “So he started out with dinner reservations, and it just kept getting bigger and more ornate from there, because, you know, I think he is a romantic. He likes big gestures, he likes throwing his weight around, impressing people. But Steve was just getting more and more uncomfortable with it, I think he was, well, he wanted Tony. Not Tony and the paparazzi and seven waiters and a sommelier and a driver and the StarkIndustries Press Liaison and, well…” Bruce tapped the end of his pen against the file folder. “So I think he pulled a power play that Tony would hate, but couldn’t ‘improve.’”
Natasha shook her head as she crossed to his desk and took a seat. “So Steve is going to, what? Meet Tony outside and then escort him back into the living room, where the meal will be set up in front of the fireplace? Warm and toasty?”
“And Tony will be so desperately grateful that he’s not freezing his ass off outside that he’ll completely bypass the fact that he was outmaneuvered,” Bruce agreed. He reached for his coffee. It was cold, and sour, and he made a face, but he drank it. “Can I ask you something?”
“What’s the deal with Clint and Coulson and Valentine’s Day?”
“For that information,” she said, “I have a question of my own.”
“Okay,” Bruce said, a little cautious now.
Natasha leaned back in his chair. “Did you know about the two of them before either of them told you?”
Bruce glanced up. “Sorry?” He reached for the Bunsen burner, adjusting the flame. “Sorry, what?”
She smiled, her lips curling up. “You knew about Clint and Phil, long before they made the choice to tell everyone.”
Bruce’s hands stilled, just for a second, then he went back to his work. Shaking his head, he said, “Uh, no, I don’t-” He pushed a hand through his hair. “No.”
Natasha gave a faint laugh. “You’re a lousy liar, Doc.” She picked up a scientific journal, leafing through it idly. “Tony was oblivious, and Steve takes everything people tell him at face value, if he trusts them. Thor doesn’t draw the lines between friend and lover the same way we do.” Her eyes flicked up, her lips curling up with the sweep of her lashes. “But you. You watch. And you’re quiet, but you don’t miss much.”
He paused. “When you spend time on the run,” he said, and he knew she knew, “you watch people. You watch, because, well-”
“You need to decide if someone’s a threat or not,” Natasha filled in. “If someone’s going to be a problem.”
“Yes.” Bruce flexed his shoulders, trying to work the kinks from his muscles. “I got into the habit. A long time on my own; it was important to watch my own back, you know.” His back ached, and he straightened up. “And I’m pretty quiet, so-”
“You caught them,” Natasha said. There was an unfamiliar note in her voice, and Bruce glanced at her. She was smiling. “That’s impressive. They’re usually very discreet.”
“Not really. Just a suspicion.” Bruce tucked his hands in the pockets of his lab coat. “It was, well, the mission in Fargo. Where Coulson was on the West coast, and caught up with us after it was all over.”
Her eyes sparked in the lights. “Clint was clipped by broken glass, wasn’t he?”
“Yes. But Tony was knocked out, and I was dealing with that while we waited for evac. When he was awake, I thought I’d check on Clint. I assumed one of the medics had taken care of him, but I figured I could check. But it was Coulson, you know, that was helping him.”
Clint had been sitting on the edge of the bench, bent forward, bare to the waist. Coulson’s jacket was off, his sleeves rolled to the elbow, his gloved hands removing the shards of glass with tweezers and gloved fingers. The blue nitrile was marked with blood, but Coulson’s hands were steady, careful. In front of him, Clint was resting his elbows on his knees, his head hanging down. As Coulson’s fingers stroked over his skin, his shoulders had flexed, but his breathing was steady.
“I didn’t catch them at anything,” Bruce said. But there had been something, something about their posture, about the way Clint was silent, his lips parted and his eyes closed, the way that Coulson’s face was pinched, sharp lines beside his eyes, around his mouth. Something about the way he paused, after extracting a shard of glass, his fingers resting against Clint’s skin. Something about the way that Clint’s muscles tensed beneath his skin with each touch.
Something had told him that this was more than medical treatment. This was an act of comfort on a very personal level.
“I didn’t know. But I thought,” he said. His shoulders rose and fell in a quick shrug. “That maybe they were together. That way. But I didn’t know, not really. It wasn’t any of my business, anyway.”
“But you knew,” she said.
“I knew,” he admitted. He gave her a sideways look. “So? What happened with Valentine’s Day with those two?”
“I bet you can guess.”
Bruce thought about it. “Miscommunication?”
Natasha grinned, wide and easy. “Good call, Doc.”
Bruce laughed. “What happened?”
“Coulson was having a bad day, or a bad decade, depending on how you think about it. Since he was facing Valentine’s Day with an unrequited crush on an agent reporting to him, he spent February 13th getting, well, raging drunk, more so than I’ve ever seen him. So on the 14th, he was sitting in his office, nursing a headache and a hangover and a very bad cup of coffee, when Clint came in and, oblivious to the situation, gave him a sampler box of chocolates with Spongebob Squarepants on the lid.”
“Ouch,” Bruce said, trying not to smile, because it wasn’t funny, it really wasn’t, except it was.
“Ouch indeed,” Natasha agreed. “Considering it was one of those-” She made a little heart with her hands. “About this size, clearly intended for a child to give to a teacher or other adult.”
“How’d that go?” Bruce asked, reaching for a beaker.
“Coulson had a meltdown,” Natasha said, smiling about it. “It’s Coulson, so it was a controlled meltdown, but he had words. Really strong words. For the general concept of Valentine’s Day in general.”
“And Clint missed the point of this particular meltdown.”
“Went over his head by about a mile and a half, because Clint is very good at missing the fact that people might care about him,” Natasha said. Without being prompted, she handed Bruce a rack of pipettes. “Clint beat a hasty retreat, Phil nursed his headache, and no one brought it up again.”
Bruce gave her a look over the top of his glasses. “Until they started dating.”
“Dating is such a mild term for what they were doing,” Natasha said. “Which contributed to the problem.”
Bruce paused in the act of filling the tiny vials. “Let me guess. They weren’t really public about their relationship. And due to Coulson’s views on the matter, Barton made what seemed to be the correct choice to let Valentine’s day pass without acknowledging it.”
“It’s like you were there,” Natasha said.
“How’d that work for him?” Bruce asked.
Natasha paused. “Not well,” she said, her lips twitching. “Not very well at all.”
Bruce shook his head. “I need to stop gossiping about our teammates,” he said.
“If you do, who’ll I talk to?” Natasha said.
“He’s horrible at it, though,” Natasha said, making a face. “For an agent with a security clearance, he can’t keep a secret to save his life.” She shook her head, and gave Bruce a smile. “What are your plans for tonight?”
Bruce paused. Rubbed his thumb over the curve of his petri dish. “I have an experiment running,” he said, and he watched as her head tipped. “But it’s Thursday. Even if everyone else has, well, has plans, I was considering a movie.”
Natasha arched an eyebrow. “It is Thursday,” she agreed.
“Yeah, it is.”
“A classic might be nice.”
“It might.” He paused, rattled his fingers against the lab bench. “I don’t know why. But I feel like playing chess tonight.” He gave Natasha a faint smile. “Don’t suppose you’re up for a game?”
“I could be persuaded,” Natasha said, her eyes dancing. “Casablanca?”
“I could be persuaded,” he said. “Tea and some simple food?”
“I happen to know where I can get our hands on some fresh bread, cheese, that sort of thing,” she said. She pushed away from the counter. “I’ll get a tray, if you get the chess board.”
Bruce smiled, and it felt good on his face, it felt natural in a way that he couldn’t have dreamed a few years ago. He rested his hand on the file folder. “Natasha? Is she okay?”
Natasha paused. “She is safe. She is fine,” she said, smiling. “SHIELD has been watching over her. She’s safe, Bruce. We wouldn’t leave her unprotected.”
He nodded. “Thank you for that.” He removed his glasses, folded them and shrugged out of his lab coat. “Sure you don’t have anything better to do tonight?” he asked her.
“A night of chess and cinema with a friend sounds perfect to me.” She handed him the pastry box. “And we have dessert.”
“We do.” Grinning, relaxed, he followed her out of the lab. Everything would still be there tomorrow. Including him.
And Valentine’s Day was a night for friends and lovers.