The buzzer woke John, and he groped for the alarm clock before waking enough to realize it was someone at the door.
Then he realized he was in his bed in his apartment. His head hurt and he had a bandage wrapped around his thigh and stitches on his shoulder, with no memory of the treatment. Or how he'd gotten home, at all, or wound up dressed only in boxers.
The buzzer went off again, impatient. He got out of bed, feeling his way to the hall and then limped to the door, as someone picked the lock and the door opened. He reflexively went to a ready stance, and clapped his hands together sharply.
He saw Natasha standing framed in his doorway, her head cocked a little in amusement. "Applause? Opening your door wasn't that challenging."
"Natasha. It's good to --"
But the humor dropped out of her voice as she interrupted, "You're hurt."
John shrugged. "Just a couple of scrapes."
In the sound of the door slamming shut behind her, he saw her drop her jacket on the floor and propel herself forward, and she slid her hands around his waist. "John. No one told me you were hurt; I would've come sooner."
He closed his arms around her and she rested her head against his shoulder. It felt so good, so warm, to have her against him. "Hey, I'm okay," he murmured into her hair. "I'm glad you're here."
"I'm glad it's over."
"We won." Then he added, more lightly, "We won, right? I think I fell off the building and I was saved by the Hulk, unless I hallucinated that part."
She snorted. "It happened. I heard you jumped."
"The roof was collapsing; I didn't have a lot of choice." Then he blinked, realizing there was really no way she should know that. Pelton had taken cover by then. "Who the hell told you? The Hulk talks?"
"Clint. He's … back, if not exactly okay. He saw you up on the roof --" she pulled back and framed his face with her hands, "fighting the aliens, too, you brave idiot. What were you thinking?" she demanded, shaking him a little.
"I couldn't sit here and do nothing," he protested. "And I took out some."
Her fingers drifted down his cheeks and neck and she leaned into him again, murmuring with a smile in her words, "You liked it."
"A little," he admitted with his own ghost of a smile.
"I can't believe you did that, but if you're going to, you need a work suit for more protection," she advised, fingers ghosting over the bandage on his shoulder and then his bare chest. "You could've been killed."
"So could you," he retorted. She drew breath as if to inform him that it was totally different because she was sighted and he was not, but she didn't say it, subsiding with a faint sigh of understanding. "Are you hurt?" he asked.
"No. Tired." He took that as an invitation to pull her close again. She put her head down again, her hands making idle passes up and down his back.
"It's over," she murmured. "But it made me think about something. Almost losing you, and Clint, and then Phil and... so much. Do you remember being a child before the facility?" she asked. "Your family?"
Puzzled about why she would ask that, he took a moment but answered truthfully, "A little. I tried to hold onto my memories, because Essex tried to take them away, but all I have left are feelings more than anything. My mother's voice…" His grip on Natasha tightened as he remembered how once there had been safety and comfort, and love, before it had all been ripped away…. He remembered strong hands holding him, soft lips kissing him goodnight… For so many years he'd dreamed they would come save him.
"Me, too," she agreed. "I put away those memories when they made me weak, but now… I remember. It was the last time I had so much to lose." He could barely hear her whisper, but he understood then why she'd asked about his memories of the past, because he felt it, too. Natasha had the strength to fight aliens and corral the Hulk, but she was fragile, too, re-experiencing those feelings she hadn't had since she was a child.
"We have more to lose, but more to fight for, too. Not governments, not bureaucrats who hold our leash-- people. For friends, for the innocent…" he paused and stroked her hair. "For the people we want safe."
The words hung between them unspoken: the people we love. He couldn't quite say them, and she didn't either, but they both knew.
"I don't know how to do this," she whispered. "Not for real."
"I don't think there's a map for people like us." Because it wasn't as if he had any great experience at this either. "But giving up is too easy."
"True. It feels like letting the bad guys win." She raised her head, her hands sliding down his flanks in an unsubtle indicator of her intent, as her mouth joined his deeply.
Stepping back carefully, he headed for the bedroom, needing a correction only once when his back hit the doorframe. Natasha yanked him the right way, and when she pushed him to fall backwards, he trusted her that all was where it should be.
* * *
"Hm, this is nice," Natasha murmured, with a leg and arm over him, her head pillowed on his arm. The room was getting a little chill, without even a sheet on them, but for the moment he liked the feel of her warmth against him. "I love the bed. It's so big and cozy."
His free hand found her fingers. "It's better than the infirmary cot."
"It's better when it's not a job," she said and stilled, as if to check his response.
But she wasn't the only one who'd seduced her way to information, and he was in no position to judge her, even if he hadn't. "Much better," he agreed. "Though admittedly I'd have been more prepared, if this was a job."
She chuckled and teased, purring, "Mm, you like to make preparations? Sounds kinky."
But before they could discuss exactly what preparations he had meant, the front door buzzed.
"If we wait long enough, they'll go away," he said, not moving and curling an arm around her when she made a move to get up.
"I, uh, might have told Clint we'd be here," she said. "And he needs his friends right now."
He let her go with a sigh, not as reluctant as it sounded. "All right. Could you find my shorts? You threw them somewhere."
They got thrown at his chest, and he heard her dress quickly and rush to the door, as the person buzzed again.
"Clint, come in," he heard her greet him, as John felt for the tag in his shirt to make sure the t-shirt was the right way around. Then at least moderately dressed he made his way into the hall, and slapped the wall to get an image of Barton standing there, carrying a small duffel.
"Yeah, come in." John beckoned him. "Living room's this way. Coffee?"
"Sure, thanks." His voice seemed subdued as he followed John to the other room.
"I'll start it," Natasha offered, heading into the small kitchen.
"You doing okay?" John asked, after he'd heard Clint sit down on the arm chair.
"Yeah, I guess," Clint answered. "Just got to figure it out."
"I know that feeling," John agreed and changed the subject. "Natasha tells me you saw me during the battle."
"Man, you are out of your god-damned mind!" Clint exclaimed, and John was glad to hear a bit more passion in his voice. "I've seen crazy stuff --- Romanoff - " that was directed at her and she chuckled, then Clint added, incredulous, "but fighting aliens blind on a roof takes the cake."
"It does sound kind of reckless when you put it that way," John allowed, and both Clint and Natasha snorted simultaneously.
"No more crazy ass, daredevil stunts when we'll miss you if you die stupidly," Barton reproved, and then the amusement faded. "We already lost enough in this war."
John nodded. "Make sure you tell me about Coulson's memorial. I want to come."
Natasha settled close to him on the couch. "Of course. Clint, what did you bring?"
"Ah, speaking of Phil, he had something made for you, John. Apparently he knew you weren't going to be content puttering around this apartment, even before the evil aliens showed up." Barton unzipped the case. "It's a full suit, more like Cap's than mine. Check it out: body armor in a dark red leather look."
John took it and ran his hands across the suit. It felt strong but surprisingly flexible, and his fingers found the headpiece. "It has a hood?"
"For protecting your identity," Natasha said softly. "If you're going to kick crime lord ass in the city, you need a secret identity."
"What? I'm not going to go around --" John protested, but he didn't even finish the sentence, before Natasha's hand laid over his.
"You're a protector and a fighter, and you'll never be content in analysis, unless you have something else to do. Phil knew that, and now that you've proven you can do it, you have the means."
"Fury can't possibly approve of creating the Mid-town Vigilante."
Barton chuckled wryly. "I'm sure he thinks of it as practice, so he can call you up for the Avengers next time there's something you can help with."
John frowned, uncertain whether he liked being at Fury's call. Going after Caparelli to protect the Lemas had been more satisfying than anything he'd done in years, including fighting space aliens. "I don't want to be a liability in the field, and I'd rather do what I can do here, I think. But this suit…" His fingers touched the supple, leather-like feel of it. "I don't know. It's going to look ridiculous."
Natasha leaned into his shoulder and whispered, but loudly enough for Barton to hear, "It's going to look hot. Especially taking it off…"
"God, no, stop it. I don't want to know!" Barton exclaimed in mock horror.
Natasha snickered at him, but seemed also pleased that they'd gotten him into a lighter mood.
The buzzer rang again and Natasha jumped up. "I'll get it."
John heard Rogers' voice as they greeted each other, and then Rogers' heavier tread on the wood. "I heard the noise, and thought I'd drop by."
"Of course, Steve, join us." John waved to the other chair.
But before Steve sat down, John felt a light weight pressing on his arm. "Thought you might want these back," Steve said. John wrapped his hand around it, discovering the pair of eskrima sticks. Running fingers lightly down the length, he proved to himself they were the same.
"How? Where did these come from?"
"Agent Peltson recovered them from the roof and gave them to me to hold for you," Steve pressed John's shoulder. "You're not getting out of practicing with me that easily."
Natasha sat down on the couch. "But not today. I think we all deserve a break after what happened."
"What did happen? I missed most of it," John asked. Natasha had told him a little, but he hadn't wanted to press when she'd been reticent. But Steve was able to carry the story, so John heard it all. John managed to draw out Clint into some roughly-spoken words about the mental compulsion, and it felt like a victory when Clint seemed to find a bit of peace after they'd listened.
Meanwhile Natasha curled up at John's side, leaning into him in a subtle connection, grounding him with her presence. The sound of their voices was an equally subtle glowing mist wrapping around their faces and bodies, giving him the ghostly impression of his friends.
Phil had made it possible, bringing these lost souls together. He'd given John a second chance, though it was more than he deserved.
John's hand slid on the soft, leathery feel of the suit still across his lap and nodded to himself. This rapidly decaying, violent world needed its protectors. He would take this gift and do good.
He couldn't do it as well as he could have before, but it was still his duty, and it was still what he wanted to do. And best of all, now he had friends who felt the same.
He wasn't alone.