Budapest was cold. That was what Clint remembered most about it. Well, that and the other thing. The other thing was later, though.
He remembered his cramped perch atop the Mercure Korona and the way the brittle wind coming off the river sank into his bones. He’d crouched up there for hours, his legs cramping and his fingers numb, waiting for Natasha to show up with the target.
There were no comms on this job. No backup, either. It was just the two of them there, out in the wind. If the shit hit the fan S.H.I.E.L.D. would be quick to disavow all knowledge of this particular mission.
When Natasha finally showed up she was almost an hour late. Six more minutes and it would have triggered an automatic mission abort. Clint had already prepared himself for the worst and started planning his route to the rally point in his head (and all the places he’d have to search for Natasha if she wasn’t at the rally point) when a pearl gray limousine pulled up in front of the Hungarian National Museum across the street and a pair of very familiar legs emerged.
He watched her through his scope as she stepped into the plaza, a vision in four-inch stilettos and a silky red dress that hugged her figure in ways he wasn’t supposed to notice. There were some things that simply demanded to be noticed, though, and Natasha’s hips were one of them.
She flicked her eyes briefly in his direction before being enveloped by her escort’s meaty embrace and led into the gala. Clint allowed himself a brief exhalation of relief. In another couple of hours it’d be his turn at bat. In the meantime, though, there was more waiting and more cold.
The heat. That’s what Natasha remembered about Budapest. Everything that happened—everything important that happened—was inextricably tied to the heat, somehow.
The stifling heat in Iliaşenco’s hotel room, followed by the suffocating heat in the car on the ride to the gala. The way Iliaşenco’s fevered gaze fixed on her glistening cleavage and his sticky, hot hands pawed at her.
She was allowed a momentary but blessed respite when she stepped out into the chill evening air in front of the Hungarian National Museum. Tilting her her head upward, her eyes slid to the roof of the Mercure Korona to her left. She couldn’t see him, but she knew Barton was up there somewhere, watching her. Worrying, probably, because she was running late. Not her fault. Iliaşenco had fussed over his hair and clothing like a woman, his vanity nearly throwing the whole mission into jeopardy. She’d gotten him here in time, but only just, and it had taken most of her feminine wiles.
He wrapped a heavy arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, making sure that everyone who saw them would know she was his (the best that money could buy for the night), and guided her inside.
Of course, it was boiling inside the museum. Natasha accepted a flute of champagne and pressed the cool glass against the pressure point on the inside of her wrist, silently cursing the Hungarians and their weak, warm blood. Just another couple of hours, she reassured herself, and this would all be over. She and Barton could leave this god-forsaken country behind and move on to the next job. Preferably one where she got to kill someone, or at the very least cause a great deal of pain.
Iliaşenco had fallen deep into conversation with a fellow Moldovan of his acquaintance. Buoyed by their erroneous belief that Natasha spoke no Romanian, the two men proceeded to discuss her in the most repugnant and offensive manner possible. She had no choice but to stand there and listen dumbly as that festering boil Iliaşenco described in great detail the sex acts he planned to perpetrate upon her in the latter half of the evening. Even the knowledge that the night would not be unfolding as he expected was small comfort when he laughed and smacked her on the ass, and she could do nothing but smile insipidly and bat her eyelashes.
Natasha hated this fucking job.
Clint waited. And watched. That was most of what he did, when it came right down to it. The more interesting parts of his job—the parts that made his heart pound and left a bitter bite of adrenaline in the back of his throat—were sporadic and fleeting. The rest of it was mostly just waiting. He didn’t really mind, though, he was good at waiting. It was just the cold he could have done without.
He and Natasha had been partnered a lot in the years since she’d joined S.H.I.E.L.D. At first it was because he was one of the few agents who’d been willing to go out in the field with her—she hadn’t exactly come into the fold with an overabundance of trust—but after a while Coulson began pairing them up simply because they worked so well together.
She’d been standoffish at first, of course, and prickly as hell, but Clint wasn’t exactly a cuddly teddy bear himself. Despite all that they’d fallen into a kind of harmony pretty much from the start. For whatever reason, they seemed to understand each other intuitively, without a lot of need for words. Which was good, because Natasha wasn’t much of a talker. Neither was he, though, not really. They’d gradually learned to trust one another and even developed a friendly rapport. At this point, he was pretty sure he was actually the closest thing she had to a friend. There were still walls he’d yet to crack, though. Defenses he doubted she ever let down for anyone.
It was another two hours and thirty-eight minutes before he finally saw her emerge from the museum with Iliaşenco. She was walking at a clipped pace and looked openly annoyed. Clint smiled to himself. It must have been a tedious fucking night if she’d already abandoned all pretense of being nice to the guy.
They were here to scare Iliaşenco, not kill him. Make him believe his life was in danger so he’d cut his vacation short and go running back to Moldova before he could bump into a certain H.Y.D.R.A. agent who was in Budapest looking for an introduction. Iliaşenco was a monster who dabbled in human trafficking, but Director Fury had been emphatic that his death was not an acceptable outcome. The technology company he owned was critical to Moldova’s economic stability, and given the vibranium deposits that had recently been discovered in the country, further instability was extremely undesirable.
Clint already had an explosive arrow nocked and trained on Iliaşenco’s limousine. There was a narrow window of opportunity in order to avoid unnecessary casualties: he’d need to trigger the blast after the chauffeur/bodyguard had emerged from the vehicle, but before Iliaşenco had gotten into it. The charge he was using was a modest one; the resulting explosion would be showy enough to scare the shit out of the target, but confined enough that anyone standing at least a few feet from the vehicle should survive. In theory, anyway.
So he waited, watching, his breaths slow and meditative as Natasha and Iliaşenco made their way across the wide plaza. This was Clint’s favorite part of the job, when he could let everything else slip away and concentrate on the here and now. His sniper’s focus was narrow, his field of vision limited to the contents of his scope, but he’d learned to chart his surroundings by sound. While his gaze was fixed on the plaza below there was a part of his brain tracking every noise, no matter how seemingly insignificant, wary of anything out of the ordinary, anything that might signal danger.
It was the faint squealing of tires in the distance that alerted him. A heavy vehicle, some kind of SUV by the sound of it, taking a corner too fast for the neighborhood. He dragged his eye away from the scope and scanned the surrounding streets. It didn’t take him long to spot it: a shiny black Mercedes G-Class with custom reinforced side panels speeding towards the museum. A quarter-mile away he spied a second vehicle, twin to the first, approaching from the opposite direction.
The explosive-tipped arrow was quickly exchanged for another from his quiver. He settled on a new target and fired.
Natasha sensed the arrow before she saw it, a hair-thin whisper followed by a dull thunk as it embedded itself in the ground at her feet.
Too soon, she thought irritably, followed immediately by: this wasn’t the plan.
The arrow was a plain one, all black except for a single bright red band around the shaft. A message for her, one that meant trouble.
She hooked her leg around Iliaşenco’s knee and threw him to the ground, pinning him there with a half-hearted compression lock. He swore at her in Romanian and struggled futilely to extricate himself from the painful hold, but Natasha ignored his pathetic protestations as she scanned the area for the danger that had prompted Barton to scrub the mission. There. A black SUV, approaching at speed.
“Blya!” she hissed under her breath. Their current position was too exposed and she was regrettably unarmed, since she’d been unable to conceal any weapons on her person without blowing her cover. Yet another reason she hated this fucking job.
She grabbed Iliaşenco by the scruff of his jacket and dragged him to his feet. “Mutare, tu pizda prost!” she shouted, shoving him towards the cover of the limousine. “Grăbeşte-te!”
He stumbled ahead of her, too surprised to do anything but obey. She just managed to get them both to cover behind the limo before the first gunshots rang out, and if she happened to slam Iliaşenco’s head against the rear fender of the vehicle in the process, she wasn’t sorry. It rankled her to be put in the position of having to save this sorry pig’s life.
Carefully, she peered around the limo to assess the situation. Their assailants were dressed in black fatigues and kevlar vests. There were four of them by her count, of varying ethnicities. Mercenaries, most likely, hired by someone to either kill or abduct Iliaşenco. It was irrelevant which, because she couldn’t allow either to happen.
As she watched, one of the gunmen collapsed to ground, blood spurting from an arrow embedded in his throat. She smiled faintly. She might be a sitting duck out here, but at least she had Barton to back her up.
Iliaşenco’s bodyguard had finally made it to his boss’ side and was returning fire, but the man was an appallingly incompetent shot. He emptied the whole magazine without hitting anything useful, before taking a bullet to the chest. Natasha didn’t hesitate to grab the gun he dropped (a GSh-18, not her favorite) and rummage his pockets for ammo while blood filled up his lungs and bubbled out of his mouth.
She slammed in a fresh clip and fired off three shots, managing to hit one of the assailants between the eyes. The familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through her system, as it always did in the middle of a fight. Two down, two more to go. With any luck, it would all be over in a matter of minutes. And at least this was a job worthy of her considerable talents, she thought with some satisfaction.
Which was when she heard the second vehicle approaching from her rear and realized her position was about to be exposed to more enemy fire.
Clint saw Natasha drop and roll under the limo, dragging Iliaşenco with her as the second SUV screeched to a stop behind them. A spray of bullets peppered the vehicle where their heads had been only a moment before.
“Fuck this noise,” he muttered, reaching into his quiver for the explosive-tipped arrow he’d discarded earlier. He aimed at the first SUV and released, watching in satisfaction as it went up in a ball of flame, taking out the two gunmen still inside it.
Natasha popped up from the other side of the limousine, her hair streaming around her face in the blowback from the explosion, and fired off a round of shots at the newcomers. When she was forced to crouch and reload her magazine, Clint covered her, loosing a volley of arrows at the attackers below. Between the two of them, they dropped three of the remaining gunmen in a matter of minutes.
That left only one guy, all alone out there, facing down two highly-skilled assassins. The smart thing for him to do would have been to make a run for it, just jump in the SUV and drive away. Apparently, he wasn’t that smart. Or maybe he was a fanatic. Or his employer had simply impressed upon him that the price of failure was far worse than a clean death. It wouldn’t be the first time Clint had encountered something like that.
Whatever the reason, the guy chose to make a stand instead of cutting his losses. Clint felt a spike of alarm in his gut as he recognized the look of grim determination that crossed the gunman’s face. He’d already loosed his arrow by the time the guy started to reach for something on his vest, but it was still too late. The arrow hit its mark, embedding itself in the man’s eye just as something small and dark and round flew from his hand and rolled towards the limousine.
“Natasha!” Her name tore itself from Clint’s throat involuntarily as the limousine that shielded her blew apart in a fiery cataclysm.
Natasha saw the gunman start to reach for a grenade, saw Barton’s arrow screaming down at him, knew it would not be in time, and sprang into motion. She grabbed Iliaşenco, who was huddled beneath the limo whimpering like a child, and dragged him out from under the vehicle by his shoulders. “Activaţi!” she shouted, pushing him ahead of her. Run.
There was a deafening concussion of sound behind her, accompanied by a searing, white-hot blast of heat, and then everything went dark.
Smoke from the explosion filled up the plaza, screening the scene from Clint’s view. He couldn’t tell whether Natasha and Iliaşenco had made it clear of the blast or not. Cursing under his breath, he fired a grapple arrow down into the plaza. It embedded itself solidly in the side of building, not far from the ground. Working quickly, he pulled the cable tight as he fastened a makeshift sling around a nearby railing, then pulled a snap hook off his belt, clipped it to the cable, and launched himself down the crude zip line into the plaza, 100 meters below.
He landed with a jarring stutter-step, unclipped from the cable, and threw himself in the direction of the smoldering limousine husk. Natasha was sprawled facedown on the ground—not moving she’s not moving ohgodohgodohgod. Kneeling beside her, he fumbled at her throat, searching for a pulse with fingers that had become suddenly, inexplicably clumsy. When she moaned faintly he actually had to squash the urge pump his fist in the air and shout for joy.
He gave her a quick once-over, searching for evidence of life-threatening injuries or broken bones. There were a couple of shrapnel wounds on her legs, but the limo had actually acted as a shield to protect her from more serious lacerations. He couldn’t assess the extent of her head trauma or rule out internal injuries, but he’d have to deal with that problem after he’d evacuated her to a safer position.
Iliaşenco was lying on the ground a few feet away and Clint saw him stir slightly. Good, the asshole was still alive, then. Fury wouldn’t have to flip his lid. Not over that, anyway.
Some of the bystanders had begun to venture out from whatever inanimate objects they’d been hiding behind and Clint heard the sound of sirens approaching the scene. Iliaşenco would be taken care of, but it was high time he and Natasha made their exit. He gathered her limp body in his arms and carried her away from the plaza under cover of the smoke that was still billowing from the burned out remains of the limousine.
Natasha woke suddenly, full of fear and pain and the realization that she had no idea where she was. She bolted upright, only to to meet with a blinding pain in her head.
“Take it easy, hot sauce, I don’t think you’re ready to start doing jumping jacks yet.”
Clint’s voice. Calm and familiar and most of all safe. Some of the panic subsided, even if the pain didn’t. She felt his hands, cool and calloused, grasp her by the arms and guide her gently back to a prone position.
After a minute the pain in her head receded enough that she was able to open her eyes. Clint’s face swam into focus above her. His expression was purportedly neutral but she was too good at reading him not to see the worry etched in the lines around his eyes.
“Christ,” she said, grinding the heel of her hand into her forehead. “Fuck. Ow.”
“If you’re bellyaching you must not be too bad off.”
“Where are we?” she asked, squinting at her surroundings. “This isn’t the rally point.”
“Compromised,” he answered with a grimace. “Practically the whole fucking city’s compromised, thanks to that firefight at the museum. I had to improvise.”
It looked like some kind of office building. Whatever it had once been, it was long abandoned. And extremely grody. The space they were in was largish, a former conference room probably.
“It’s nice,” she said wryly. “Very rustic.”
“It ain’t the Ritz, that’s for sure.”
“It’s morning,” she observed, based on the hazy yellow light filtering in through the room’s one grimy window. “How long was I out?”
“A few hours. Long enough for me retrieve my pack, get in touch with command, and find this place for us.”
“What’d command say?”
He shook his head. “You’re not gonna like it.”
“They’re leaving us here, aren’t they?”
“Only for a few days, until the area cools off a little. Don’t want to risk an international incident or some shit. You know how it goes.”
Natasha sighed. She knew all too well. She supposed she should be grateful they were coming for them at all. There’d been jobs in the past where she’d been left to dig herself out of far unfriendlier territory than this with no aid whatsoever. And with no partner at her side. In the grand scheme of things, they really weren’t too bad off, even if they might have to challenge the rats for sleeping space once the sun went down.
There was a bandage wrapped around her right calf and another on her left leg just above the knee. The less her head hurt, the more conscious she became of pain from the wounds on her legs.
“Don’t pick at those,” Clint said when she tried to peek under one of the bandages. “I had to dig some shrapnel out.”
“You dig it out with a spatula?” she grumbled.
He frowned. “You were pretty close to the concussion from that grenade. Kinda surprised it didn’t turn your brains to jelly.”
“It’s fine,” she told him, forcing herself upright. It wasn’t fine, but it would be, in time. She felt weak and feverish, but that just meant her circulatory system had kicked into overdrive and was working to heal whatever damage had been done.
“Yeah, you look like you feel terrific,” he said dryly. “It’s colder than a witch’s tit in here and you’re sweating like a Fourth of July picnic.” He hesitated. “I wanted to take you to a hospital, but—”
She cut him off. “You know that’s not necessary.” She wished he’d stop looking at her like she might keel over at any moment, like she was something damaged or delicate.
“I didn’t know that, actually.” He sounded petulant, like a sullen child.
Anger flared within her, irrationally. “Don’t be stupid,” she snapped. “It’s not only unnecessary, it’s dangerous. Do you know what they’d do to me in a hospital?”
She couldn’t help but see the way her words made him wince before his usual stony expression settled back into place. “I didn’t do it, did I?” he said flatly.
It was a sign of how very much off her game she was that she’d allowed herself to lose her temper. Even though she’d tried to explain about her bio enhancements, she couldn’t really blame Barton for not fully understanding or trusting in them. She barely understood them herself. And she certainly didn’t trust them.
She sighed and rubbed her temples. “Thanks for getting me out of there. It couldn’t have been easy dragging my unconscious ass halfway across Budapest.”
He gave her a look. “That’s what teammates do, Natasha.”
She rolled her eyes in faux exasperation. “I’m trying to say thank you. Quit making it so hard.”
The corner of his mouth twitched and some of the lines on his forehead softened. Considering how rarely Barton smiled, she considered it a win.
“You’re welcome,” he said gruffly. “But it’s not something I wanna do again, so maybe next time try not to get yourself blown up.”
“Here’s an idea,” she suggested, “maybe next time you could put an arrow in the guy before he throws a grenade at me.”
Barton snorted in amusement and pulled himself to his feet. “I’m gonna go check the perimeter again. You be okay?”
“I think I’ll survive without you for a five minutes,” she replied wryly.
“Don’t wander downstairs,” he warned.
He nodded, pulling his quiver over his head and securing it on his back.
“As if I couldn’t evade your traps,” she sniffed.
“I just might surprise you,” he retorted smugly. “I am a man of many layers.”
She arched her eyebrows at him. “Is that a challenge?”
“No,” he said emphatically. “I do not want you going down there and undoing all my hard work just to prove a point.”
As soon as he was out of sight she sank back onto the floor weakly and closed her eyes.
Clint knew full well the perimeter check wasn’t really necessary. Whoever those gunmen were, they hadn’t been there for them, and none of them had lived to report their presence in the city. It wasn’t like anyone was actually after them except maybe the local police if Iliaşenco or one of the bystanders had managed to give them a description. All he and Natasha had to do was keep out of sight for a few days until S.H.I.E.L.D. decided it was safe to come in and clean up their mess without attracting too much attention. Which meant no hotels, no stores, no busy streets, nowhere they might end up on camera.
He’d chosen an empty office building in the middle of an abandoned industrial complex on the outskirts of the city, removed from any populated neighborhoods by several blocks. There were some gypsies and transients squatting in some of the buildings down the street, which told him the police didn’t much bother with this area. The building Clint had picked was the most secure in the complex, four stories high with iron bars on all the windows and thick chains secured by heavy padlocks on all the doors. If the broken windows, graffiti, and thriving population of vermin weren’t indication enough that no one was bothering to keep an eye on the site, the inch-thick layer of dust and debris he’d found on the floor inside was definitive proof that no human had set foot in the building for several years at least. All he’d had to do was pick the padlocks and it was easy enough to use the chains to re-secure all the doors from the inside. Between that and the booby traps he’d set, he felt pretty good about their security here.
No, the real reason he’d come downstairs was that he was fucking freezing. He’d been cooped up in that grimy conference room he’d identified as the least disgusting room in the place, with nothing to do but wait for Natasha to wake up. He’d been sitting and watching over her for so long that his hands and feet had gone numb with cold. He just needed to get up and walk around awhile to get his blood flowing again. And maybe see if he could find some more blankets or something lying around in this dump to help keep him warm. He’d managed to retrieve his pack from the place he’d stashed it near the museum, but as far as he knew Natasha’s gear was stashed near Iliaşenco’s hotel, out of reach to them now. Which meant they only had one sleeping bag between the two of them, which he’d of course given to Natasha since she’d been injured and unconscious.
And possibly mortally wounded as far he’d known at the time. The last couple hours, waiting and worrying and wondering if she was dying before his eyes of a brain hemorrhage or some kind of internal bleeding he couldn’t detect, had been pretty goddamn harrowing. Who could blame him if he just needed to get away to clear his head for a bit? It’s not like he could admit to Natasha how fucking terrified he’d been.
He’d seen her survive things that no ordinary person could have, but he never knew exactly what her limits were. She’d once survived a 50 meter drop with nothing more serious than a twisted ankle. But what if it had been 75 meters? Or 100? How much could her body really take? She was almost as ignorant of her own limits as he was, and she was constantly testing them, pushing herself further and further. His greatest fear, one that he could never voice to her, was that one day she’d finally go too far and he wouldn’t be able to stop her.
So, yeah, here he was, poking around in this rat-infested shithole, futilely hoping to find some scrap of cloth that wasn’t utterly revolting so that he could maybe not freeze to death when the sun went down tonight. Yeah, this mission was fucking awesome.
He’d just about talked himself into trying to make some kind of barter with the gypsies on the next block when he jerked open a drawer in the desk of one of the downstairs offices and discovered a long-forgotten bottle of pálinka. He held it up to the light streaming in one of the windows, admiring the only slightly cloudy fluid in the three-quarters-full bottle.
It wasn’t a warm blanket, but goddamn if it wasn’t the next best thing.
By the time he got back upstairs Natasha was up and around. She’d changed out of her red dress and into a pair of his sweatpants and his old Black Flag t-shirt.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, gesturing at the knapsack he’d suspended from the ceiling to keep the vermin out. “I felt a little overdressed.”
“No, of course not.” The t-shirt was had been worn so thin over time it was nearly see-through. He tried really hard not to notice. But he did.
If she was conscious of the way his eyes had skimmed over her and then quickly away, she did them both the favor of pretending not to care. “Not a hell of a lot of food in there for two people,” she observed casually.
“Two MREs and a half dozen protein bars,” he said, stripping off his bow and quiver. “It’s only gotta last until day after tomorrow, though, if all goes well.”
She shrugged. “I’ve survived longer on less. What’s that?” she asked, nodding at the bottle he’d set down.
Her eyebrows arched approvingly. “Now you’re talking.”
“Uh uh,” he said, snatching the bottle away as she started to reach for it. “That’s for people who haven’t suffered major a brain injury in the last 24 hours. Which, by my count, is me.”
“Barton, if you don’t give me some of that alcohol, and I mean right now, I will pull your balls off and feed them to you.”
He chuckled, not because he didn’t think she could do it—she definitely could—but because he knew she wouldn’t. The fact was, if he really insisted that he didn’t want her drinking he knew she’d concede, for his peace of mind if not her own. On the other hand, she was a grown-ass adult and if she really thought she was up to it who was he to say any different? He sure as fuck didn’t understand how that enhanced constitution of hers worked.
“Fine,” he conceded, passing the bottle over. “Just take it easy, okay?”
She wiped the mouth of the bottle on her (his) shirt and took a slug. “Ugh,” she said, making a face. “It’s so sweet. Never understood why the Hungarians liked this stuff.”
He sank down wearily onto the floor beside her. “I don’t fucking care if it’s Kool-Aid as long as it’s got an ABV. Hand it over.”
She passed him the bottle. The pálinka was awfully goddamn sweet, but it had a nice strong kick to it. It burned pleasantly in his gut, giving him at least a fleeting illusion of warmth.
“You should sleep,” she said, giving him a critical once-over. “You’re no good to either of us dead on your feet.”
“Yeah, okay,” he agreed reluctantly. He had been up for over 36 hours, a little shut eye would do him some good. He took another swig of the pálinka before crawling into the sleeping bag Natasha had abandoned. “Wake me in two hours.”
Barton slept like the dead. He never snored, never tossed and turned in his sleep. Natasha knew this from all the missions they’d been on together, all the nights they’d spent watching over one another. He had this knack for dropping off to sleep instantly, anywhere he chose, in any position. Like flipping a switch, he’d close his eyes and be fast asleep. She’d seen him fall asleep leaning against a wall, crouching in a tree, clinging to a narrow ledge, even standing in chest deep water.
She’d always envied him for that. Sleep only came to her reluctantly, and always fitfully. The fact that she’d learned to sleep in front of Barton at all was a minor miracle. A measure of the trust that had grown between them.
She knew if she spoke his name or if there was a suspicious noise, anything out of place, he’d instantly open his eyes, fully alert, without startling. But otherwise he could sleep through almost anything.
Her eyes followed the silent rise and fall of his chest as he dozed. He looked unreasonably peaceful, given their squalid circumstances. His face was relaxed and unlined and she could almost imagine what he must have been like as a boy. She had an urge to brush her fingers across his brow. She didn’t.
Instead, she borrowed a pair of his running shoes and went for a prowl around their temporary sanctuary. It wasn’t much to look at, or to smell. The air was thick with the odor of dust, mildew, and rodent excrement. A leak in the roof had left the entire south side of the building moldy and decaying and the ceiling had crumbled and collapsed in some places, leaving drifts of debris on the floor that were difficult to navigate.
Barton’s traps were good. Not as good as hers, but good enough that she nearly triggered one by the stairs, though that was due more to her own carelessness than his skill. Her head still ached fiercely and her limbs felt heavy and sluggish. She tried doing some light calisthenics but they only left her feeling lightheaded and even more exhausted. Cursing her weakened condition, she made her way back upstairs, startling a family of stoats who’d taken up residence in one of the walls.
When two hours had passed she chose not to wake Clint. He slept for nearly six hours before she heard the change in his breathing that meant he’d awakened on his own. She was sitting on the floor cross-legged with her back to him. Meditating. Or trying to. Her body temperature was still elevated and she still felt off-kilter. Edgy. She’d thought the meditation might help, but she couldn’t even seem to do that properly.
“You’re awake,” she said without looking him.
“I said two hours,” he complained hoarsely.
“You needed the sleep.”
Behind her, she heard him stand and stretch, his joints popping softly. “I don’t need to be coddled.”
She shot a pointed gaze over her shoulder. “Neither do I.”
His mouth twisted but he didn’t say anything. Running a hand through his disheveled hair, he wandered over to the knapsack and started digging through it. She saw his jaw clench and she looked away, bracing herself. “You didn’t eat anything,” he said.
“I wasn’t hungry.” She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice, but really, the mothering was too goddamn much.
She heard his quick exhale of disapproval. “Jesus, Natasha, what are you—”
“You’re doing it again,” she interrupted sharply, turning to glare at him.
He stared at her for a long moment, scowling. Then he turned his back and stripped off his jacket and undershirt. He dug around in the knapsack for a clean shirt and jerked it down over his head.
“I wasn’t coddling you,” he said finally, zipping his jacket back on. “You act like you’re invincible, but you’re not, and one day you’re gonna find that out the hard way. I don’t want to be the one who has to pick up the pieces, is all.” His back was still turned, but she could see the tension in the set of his shoulders as clearly as if it was written across his face.
She didn’t want to do this with him. She was too raw and her equilibrium was off; she wasn’t equipped to have this conversation. All she wanted was to be left alone. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone?
Even so, she rose and went to stand beside him. “I’m sorry,” she offered. “You’re right.” She pressed against him, her fingers sliding smoothly up his arm and over his shoulder.
His reaction was not what she expected. He jerked away from her—flinched, actually.
“Don’t,” he said, low and warning.
She frowned. “What?”
“That’s the way you acted with that asshole Iliaşenco. Don’t play me like I’m one of your goddamn marks.”
She pursed her lips and huffed out a breath. “I wasn’t.”
“Bullshit. You’re still doing it. You think I can’t tell the difference?”
The white-hot rage that bubbled up in her was so swift and so unanticipated that she lashed out before she could bite it back. “I know you can’t,” she spat. “You think this is the first time? A little pout here, a smile there, and I’ve had you twisting to my whims more times than I can count. You’re no different than the rest of them.”
He went very still.
She knew immediately she’d gone too far. She hated herself for it.
“Fuck you,” he said.
She watched wordlessly as he turned and walked away.
“Clint—” she finally managed. He didn’t stop.
Clint plunged into the cold afternoon air, hunching his shoulders against the wind. He needed to walk. Needed to be alone. Needed to not be confined indoors. Flipping up the collar of his jacket, he let his footsteps carry him away from the office park that suddenly felt too small.
He hated that Natasha could make him feel this way. But then, that was she’d been trained to do: ferret out your weaknesses and use them against you. It was her particular skill. That was the problem with a loaded weapon: sometimes you ended up in the line of fire just by being in proximity.
It wasn’t like he even blamed her, really. He knew what had been done to her. Or at least he knew what he’d read in her file, because it wasn’t like she’d ever talked to him about it. It made him sick to think about it, how they’d warped and twisted her into the person she was.
Most people believed Natasha was fearless. They were wrong. It was something that had taken Clint a while to figure out, but once he had, a lot of things about her started to make more sense. The truth Natasha tried so hard to keep hidden was that she felt fear more keenly than anyone else. She was never not afraid, no matter where she went or what she was doing. She’d just learned to live with it, to take the fear and use it make herself stronger.
It wasn’t the Black Widow’s strength that made her so deadly (although there was no denying she was crazy fucking strong). It was her fierceness. She simply needed to win more desperately than everyone she went up against, because she had so much fear driving her.
Ever since she’d awakened this morning she’d been even more afraid than usual. He knew her well enough by now that he’d seen it in the flare of her nostrils, the quickening of her breath, the cast of her skin. He assumed it was because of the head trauma. He’d seen her like this a couple of times before, always after some kind of injury that would have killed or incapacitated anyone else. However it was that her body managed to heal itself, it took a lot out of her. She was always off for a while afterwards. Unpredictable. Emotional. Weaker. Natasha hated being weak. It terrified her more than anything.
He’d sensed her fear today and let it infect him and then he’d thrown it back at her. Which was the absolute last thing she’d needed.
He wasn’t really surprised she’d gone into defensive mode, he was mostly just disappointed. He’d thought maybe they were past that. That he’d earned enough trust that she could let her guard down a little. Obviously, he was wrong.
Clint kept walking.
Natasha had screwed up. She knew this. She also knew Clint would come back after he’d cooled off. He was too good at what he did, too professional to do anything that would put either of them in danger just because he’d gotten his feelings hurt.
She had hurt him, though, and she was ashamed of herself for it.
He might act gruff and unfeeling on the surface, but she knew it was just an act to hide his soft underbelly. She’d recognized almost immediately that his greatest weakness was that he let himself care too much, no matter how hard he tried to keep people at a distance. It was the only reason she hadn’t died in an alley in Omsk with an arrow through her heart.
Clint Barton was a man who followed his heart rather than his head. He tried to see the good in everyone, let people get under his skin, was loyal almost to a fault. It made him vulnerable. But that empathy could also be an asset. It made him acutely observant. It was how he seemed to know what people needed before they knew they needed it, why he always came through when a job started to get messy, and why she’d actually allowed herself to trust him to certain degree. It made them a good team, too. His personality balanced hers in a kind of Taoist yin yang way that Natasha didn’t really believe in, except when she did.
But she had known for a while now that his feelings for her went far deeper than just a working partnership. He tried to hide it, but he wasn’t as good at concealing his feelings as she was. He wasn’t as good at not having feelings as she was.
Which was exactly why she’d instinctively tried to use those feelings to her advantage.
It had been an unforgivable miscalculation on her part. This wasn’t some unsuspecting target, easy prey, ripe for the picking. This was a man who’d spent countless hours observing her, who knew exactly how she lied and manipulated to get what she wanted. Arguably, he knew her better than anyone else alive, except possibly Coulson, who’d spent almost as much time studying her, and whose job it was to understand what made every member of his team tick.
If she’d been fully in control she never would have made such a mistake. But then Clint knew that. He knew her so well he must have guessed exactly what had driven her lash out. He’d probably even known that she sometimes manipulated him to get her way, and just chosen to forgive her for it. It was only when she’d tread too close to the truth about his feelings for her, the feelings he’d tried to keep secret, that he’d gotten upset. But she knew he’d even forgive her for that, given time.
It was one of the things that was so infuriating about him.
It was nearing sunset before Clint went back to Natasha. She looked up when he rolled in, but didn’t say anything. She’d been busy in his absence. Some of the debris had been cleared away and the floors swept relatively clean. The window had been covered with a piece of plywood and she’d spread out the sleeping bag and set out a candlelight picnic dinner for two by dividing up one of the MREs between them. He had no idea where she’d found the mismatched collection of candles lighting the room, but the effect was almost absurdly romantic.
“Still trying to seduce me into not being mad?” he remarked, only half jokingly.
“Trying to apologize,” she corrected. “I didn’t mean—”
“Accepted,” he said, cutting her off. “We don’t need to talk about it.” He didn’t want to hear what she was going to say because it would have been a lie. Because she had meant everything she’d said. She just hadn’t meant to say it out loud. He could learn to be okay with that, as long as he didn’t have to dwell on it.
She flashed him a smile that was bright and chipper and patently false. “Fine.”
He sank down on the floor and surveyed his share of the food she’d set out: beef ravioli, canned peaches, a couple of peanut butter crackers, and half of a petrified-looking fudge brownie. Not exactly a meal fit for a king, but better fare than he’d had on a lot of missions.
They ate in silence and when they were done they cleaned up in silence. Clint opened up the pálinka and they passed it back and forth wordlessly, staring at the candles instead of each other. The silence between them felt heavy, like it was bloated with all the things neither of them wanted to say or wanted to hear.
Clint didn’t know what to do to fix it, how to get past this part. He’d never been very good with people. Or talking. To people. There was a reason he largely worked alone, removed at a distance. Natasha was the people person. Or at least the one who was good at pretending to be a people person.
“Just say it,” she said finally. “Whatever it is you want to say to me, just say it.”
He stared at the floor, trying to choose his words carefully. Inhaled a long breath and said, “You’re the strongest person I know, Natasha.”
“But?” she prompted, her voice clipped and impatient.
He looked over at her. “But you have to let me see your weak spots so I know which flank to protect. That’s the only way this works.”
She pursed her lips and he braced himself, expecting her to lash out again. She didn’t. Instead she said, quietly, “It’s not easy for me.”
“I know that,” he said, as gently as he could. “You think it’s easy for me?”
“It’s not,” he told her. “It’s really not.”
She stared at him for a long moment, like she was letting that digest. Then she said, “My favorite flavor of ice cream is vanilla, I hate it when you pull out that fucking guitar of yours, and I once shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
Clint half-smiled. A couple of years ago Coulson had sent them to a series of counseling sessions supposedly designed to facilitate team building. Trust exercises, “if you were a tree what kind of tree would you be be,” all that bullshit. He and Natasha had bitched and moaned about it the whole time, but he supposed in a twisted way it had worked, because they’d ended up bonding over the stupidity of the entire enterprise. Which had probably been Coulson’s plan all along, the crafty son-of-a-bitch.
One of the exercises the shrink had made them do was two truths and lie, and they’d actually had some fun with that one, coming up with ridiculous, trivial shit just to stump one another. Every once in a while one of them would start it up again when things got boring on a mission. Something to pass the time between killing and trying not to be killed.
“What’s with the softballs?” he said, smirking. “Reno. Obviously.”
She smiled smugly. “Wrong.”
He eyed her skeptically. “You shot a man in Reno just to watch him die?”
She shrugged. “Also because he was trying to kill me. But I did shoot a man in Reno and then take pleasure in watching him die. It counts.”
“Okay, so the ice cream?”
“Wow, you suck at this. It was the guitar.”
“Seriously?” He’d never have pegged her for a music enthusiast, and as mercilessly as she mocked him whenever she saw him with his guitar he’d never even considered the possibility she might actually enjoy it.
He lowered his chin to his chest, leaned back on his elbows, and stretched his legs out in front of him. Then he said, “I can recite the entire Declaration of Independence, I’ve never known the love of a good woman, and I’ve only got half a spleen.”
“I’ve seen the kind of women you date,” she quipped, “so I’m going with the first one.”
“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary—”
She shook her head. “Everyone can do the beginning.”
“In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only—”
“Fine,” she said, scowling. “You win that one.”
“Can’t believe you fell for that spleen thing.”
“What’s that scar on your abdomen from, then?”
Even though he knew he ought to be desensitized to it by now, his mouth went dry. He reached for the bottle of pálinka, wishing they had something that burned a little more.
Natasha must have noticed (she always noticed) because she waved her hand apologetically and said, “Never mind, it’s my turn.”
“No, it’s okay.” He swiped the back of his hand across his mouth to wipe away the traces of sticky liquor. “It’s a souvenir from when my old man stabbed me with a kitchen knife.”
She pressed her lips together. Her eyes flashed dark and murderous in the flickering candlelight. “Is he still alive?” she asked.
Clint snorted. “Why? You gonna kill him for me?”
Natasha didn’t smile. “If you want me to.”
He had no doubt she meant it. No doubt at all. It was both chilling and oddly touching.
“It so happens he beat us both to the job a long time ago,” Clint said flatly. “But I appreciate the offer.”
Natasha nodded. They were both silent for a moment. When she finally spoke her tone was detached, almost casual, but there was nothing casual about the words that came out. “My earliest true memory is of the fire that killed my parents. The first time I took a human life I was fourteen.” She paused. “And I know all the words to ‘American Pie.’”
“Jesus,” Clint breathed.
“That one was probably too easy,” she added ruefully. “I mean, why the fuck would I know the words to ‘American Pie’?”
“Natasha—” He didn’t know what to say. She’d never spoken to him about her childhood before. This was gift she was giving him, and he was afraid to screw it up by saying or doing the wrong thing. She looked almost doll-like in the dim light, with her full red lips and her wide, uncharacteristically vulnerable eyes. He wanted to reach out to her, to pull her into a hug or even just touch her hand, but he knew she wouldn’t welcome it.
“I’m tired of this game,” she said abruptly. “In fact, I’m just tired.”
Clint nodded. Not for all the plastic toys in China would he push her to talk more after that. He took up a position by the door with his back against the wall and hugged his knees to his chest.
Natasha blew out half the candles and curled up in the sleeping bag with her back to him. Her hair spread out like a bell behind her, glowing copper where it reflected the candlelight. She didn’t move, but he knew she was awake. Would be awake for some time.
“Want me to sing you a lullaby?” he asked after a minute.
“You’re going to make me regret admitting that, aren’t you?” He couldn’t see her face, but he was pretty sure she was smiling.
He chuckled. “You bet your ass I am.”
Natasha lay on the floor, eyes wide open, listening for the sound of Clint’s breathing. He was too quiet, too far away, but she could hear the soft rustle of his clothing whenever he shifted position. There was something intensely comforting about it.
Gradually, inch by inch, she began to relax, for the first time that day.
The wind howled outside. A rat scrabbled around inside a wall nearby. She heard Clint rubbing his hands together for warmth, callouses rasping against callouses.
She closed her eyes.
Sleep now, my dear little child. Bayushki bayu.
Her mother’s voice called out to her, panicked. Russian soldiers marched past in long coats and tall black boots. A dark, damp space, the acrid stench of human waste. A little girl crying. The taste of blood, hot and coppery.
“Natasha,” a voice said gently. “Natasha, wake up.”
Her eyes flew open, heart pounding.
“You were having a bad dream,” Clint said. He bent over her, his forehead creased with concern.
She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. She’d thought the nightmares were finally over. It had been years since the last one. Since before Omsk. Before S.H.I.E.L.D. Before Clint.
This was why she never used to let herself fall asleep around anyone, because she never knew when the nightmares were going to come. But then they’d stopped and she’d let down her guard, let herself be lulled into a false sense of security, and now here she was, falling to pieces in front of Clint. She tried to get a hold of herself, because she couldn’t let him see her like this, but she felt paralyzed with terror, like there was a weight on her chest and she couldn’t breathe.
Something deep down inside her wanted to ask him to hold her, but she didn’t know how to ask for something like that. Didn’t dare let herself need something like that. Her hand twitched, almost as if it was trying to reach out for him on its own, and her fingers brushed against his leg. His hand found hers and clamped down, firm and reassuring.
“Move over,” he ordered. And then he was unzipping the sleeping bag and crawling in beside her. His arms encircled her, pulling her into his chest. “You’re freezing.”
She didn’t feel cold, she felt like she was burning up from the inside out. His touch was cool and soothing, like a balm on her fevered skin. She pressed her face against his chest and the sound of his heartbeat filled up her senses. Thump thump. Thump thump. Solid. Steady. Unbroken.
And just like that she could breathe again.
She inhaled a slow, tentative breath. He smelled like dust and sweat and burning metal. And something else that smelled like safety, something so familiar her brain wanted to label it home.
She pulled away slightly, enough that she could look up at him.
“Better?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.
She nodded stiffly, not trusting herself to speak yet. Her hands were tightly clenched in the front of his shirt and she didn’t even know when that had happened. She uncurled her fists and laid her hands flat against his chest. His heartbeat thrummed against her palm. Thump thump. Thump thump.
“Want me to let go now?” His tone was tentative, uncertain.
No, she thought, desperately. “Yes,” was what came out of her mouth.
He unwrapped his arms from around her and scooted back a few inches, but he didn’t get up. “That happen a lot?” he asked.
“Used to,” she said. “Not so much anymore. Not in a long time.”
He nodded. “My brother used to get them all the time. Night terrors. Woke up sweating and screaming, couldn’t catch his breath.” He sounded faraway, like he was lost in a memory long forgotten. Or long buried.
“You’re a good man in a storm,” she told him.
The corner of his mouth twitched in a way that was both cocky and endearing. “Honestly, I’ve been freezing to fucking death for the last two hours. I was just looking for an excuse to get in this sleeping bag with you.”
She laughed weakly. “Maybe you should stay here, then. I wouldn’t want your pitiful American blood to get too chilly.”
“I’ll have you know it gets seriously damn cold in Iowa.”
“Have you been to Siberia?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Then don’t talk to me about cold.”
“Fine,” he said. “You win. Your homeland’s the coldest, most miserable fucking place on the planet. You happy?”
She was, actually. So happy it scared her. She wasn’t supposed to be having these kind of feelings. And she certainly wasn’t supposed to be giving in to them. And yet …
He frowned. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” she said.
She pulled him towards her and kissed him. His lips were soft and cool, frozen against hers.
He jerked away as if he’d been burned. “What are you doing?” he demanded, anger and confusion warring on his face.
“Please, Clint.” She was prepared to beg if she had to, if that’s what it took. “I want this. I want you.”
“You don’t want me,” he said. “You’re not yourself … you’re not thinking clearly.” She honestly couldn’t tell which of them he was trying to convince more.
She reached for him again, curling her fingers in his shirt. “You’re wrong.”
The anger on his face began to bleed into something else. “Natasha—”
His eyes were wide and wary, but also sparking with desire. “You know I’d do anything for you.”
She kissed him again. His lips parted hesitantly, allowing her tongue to slide into his mouth. And then suddenly his hands were sliding through her hair and grasping at the back of her neck, pulling her towards him.
“Fuck, Tasha,” he breathed. “Thank god. Fuck.”
Making love to Natasha was like flying into the eye of a hurricane; it was simultaneously more and less terrifying than Clint had imagined. And he had spent a truly embarrassing amount of time imagining it over the last year or so.
She let him take the lead, only giving him an occasional nudge, whispering her desire into his chest, the skin at the base of his throat, the spot behind his ear that made him tingle all over. He wouldn’t have expected her to surrender control so easily, especially here, but he was gratified that she had. He didn’t want to be yet another man she had to work to please; he was happy to be the one to do all the pleasing for once.
It was a tremendous amount of pressure, though. He was keenly aware of how many and varied her experiences of men (and women, for that matter) had been over the years. And how many of those experiences must have been distasteful.
Fortunately, this happened to be an area in which he was not without some skill. Years of intense research had taught him a hundred ways to make a woman shiver and melt under his touch. Taking his time, savoring every second, he began working his way through the top twenty. He’d gotten all the way to fifteen when he sensed she was approaching the edge. He opened his eyes so he could watch her fall apart and then he fell right along with her.
After, they lay in a tangle of limbs beneath the sleeping bag, his face pressed against the back of her neck, her fingers intertwined with his. She exhaled contentedly, still a little out of breath. “That was ...”
“Unforgettable?” he supplied. “Mind-blowing? The best sex you’ve ever had?”
“Impressive,” she finished with a smile in her voice.
“Hey, don’t sound so surprised,” he said. “I can do stuff.”
Her laugh hummed through his chest and he nuzzled into her hair, inhaling deeply. He’d never seen her like this, so content, so open to him. He knew it wouldn’t last, so he tried to burn this image of her into his brain so that he could carry it forever. Her skin radiated warmth, as if she’d been soaking in the sun, and he dropped off to sleep to visions of sandy white beaches and crystal blue water.
Natasha woke in Clint’s arms shortly before dawn. He was still curled around her, his arm slung protectively across her body, and she felt a fleeting moment of absolute contentment before she tasted bile in the back of her throat and she knew she had to get away.
She slipped out of his arms, being careful not to wake him, and quietly pulled on her (his) clothes. A minute later she’d found a hiding place far enough away that she could have her breakdown in private. She sank to the floor, eyeballs pressed to her knees, and tried to breathe around the lump in her throat.
She’d slept with a truly staggering number of men in her life, but until last night there’d only been two who’d actually meant anything to her, and both of them were long dead. Now she’d done it a third time, and there was a very good chance she’d just made the biggest mistake of her life.
With any other man she could have enjoyed the attentions for a night and then politely sent him on his way. This wasn’t any other man, though, this was a man who loved her. Who had loved her for a long time, silently, faithfully, absolutely.
They could never go back to the way things were. They’d probably still be able to work together—he was a pro, he’d never consciously let something like this affect his performance—but it would never be the same. He would never look at her the same way again, never fully trust her. There would always be a sense of betrayal, a need to hold back, to protect himself. Because if she could hurt him once, she could do it again.
And it wasn’t just that it would disturb their professional dynamic, make their time together awkward and unpleasant. It was that the thought of hurting him like that, of accepting his love and then throwing it away, made her feel sick. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who could do that to him.
The problem, she realized, wasn’t that he loved her, it was that she’d allowed herself to love him back.
Clint woke the moment Natasha slipped away from him. He waited until the sound of her footsteps had faded away before he sat up and rubbed his eyes. He got up and brushed his teeth, washed his mouth out with water from the canteen. Waited five minutes, then ten. After twenty he got up and wandered downstairs to take a piss.
There was no sign of her, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t around somewhere, keeping out of sight. He tried not to let it bother him. She needed space sometimes, he got that. He wouldn’t go looking for her, he wasn’t that guy, but as he made his way back upstairs he couldn’t stop thinking about the way she’d felt in his arms. Couldn’t stop smelling her on his skin.
He laid out all his firearms from smallest to largest and unpacked his gun cleaning kit, because he needed to do something with his hands. She didn’t come back until over an hour later, when he was finishing up with his rifle.
As soon as he saw her face he knew everything was all wrong. Not that it was a surprise, really. He’d known there was a chance this would happen. Hell, a probability, even. He carried no illusions of a future filled with adorable rom-com misadventures for the two of them. He’d known the risks going in and he’d made his choice. He could live with that, if it came to it.
“Everything okay?” he asked, as neutrally as possible.
“Fine,” she said, turning away.
Natasha had at least dozen different fines—very few of which actually meant anything resembling fine—and he could translate each and every one of them. This one meant I’ve screwed up, meant I don’t know what to do, meant I don’t want to talk about it.
“Great,” he said, trying to keep the sourness out of his voice. “That’s just great.”
He must not have been very effective because he saw her spine go rigid. “Clint—” she began, not turning around.
Four descending electronic trills sounded from the phone in his knapsack, signaling a new text message. Instructions from command.
He rooted around in the bag until he came up with the burner phone he’d been given for this mission and flipped it open. A sequence of numbers and letters filled the screen, GPS coordinates and a time, coded so that only a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent could decipher them. He responded with a combination of letters that translated to message received, will comply.
“Well?” Natasha had come over to stand next to him.
He passed her the phone without comment and went back to cleaning his rifle.
“Tonight,” she said. “That’s good, that’s sooner than we thought.”
“Yep,” he agreed. “One less night in this shithole is definitely okay by me.”
“Clint—” she started again, then fell silent.
He looked at her. “So help me, if the next words out of your mouth are ‘We need to talk,’ I will put this rifle in my own mouth. At least do me the courtesy of not treating me like a cliché.”
She came over and sat down next to him on the floor. He turned his attention back to reassembling the rifle’s magazine. Anything to keep from looking at her, to see the pity etched on her face.
“That’s not—I wouldn’t do that to you,” she said. Then hesitated before adding, “But I guess maybe we do need to talk.”
He snorted bitterly. “What’s to talk about? You’re fine, remember.”
“Okay, so that was a lie,” she admitted.
“Natasha Romanoff told a lie? What are the odds?”
“Now you’re just being hurtful.”
“You’re right.” He set down the rifle. “I think we should just be honest with each other. Last night happened, and now you regret it. I get that. I don’t regret it, but I’m willing to go back to the way things were, if that’s what you want. You need reset button? You got it.”
“You’re an idiot,” she said.
He blinked. That was not even remotely what he’d expected her to say. “Um—” he said. “What?”
“First of all, if you think we can just pretend like nothing’s changed, you’re delusional. Second of all, who says that’s what I want to do?”
“You do?” he said uncertainly. “I mean, that’s sure how it seems from where I’m sitting.”
She shook her head. “Sometimes it’s like you can’t read me at all, Barton.”
“No shit, woman! You’ve got issues wrapped up in your issues. How the hell am I supposed to—”
Natasha pulled him into a long, deep kiss that left him light-headed and gasping for air, then followed up by shoving him to the floor and crawling on top of him.
“So, wait,” he said, because his head was spinning so fast he felt like he needed clarification. “This means you think last night was a good thing?”
The smile she gave him was sensual and intoxicating and sent a shiver running down his spine. She lowered her mouth onto his and he met it hungrily, his hands reaching up to cradle her face.
“That clear enough for you?” she asked, her mouth moving over to nip at his ear.
“Crystal,” he gasped.
Her hands trailed over his chest and then pushed up under his shirt, exposing the bare skin. “How long before we have to leave for the rendezvous?” she asked, pressing a line of kisses down his chest and abs.
He had to do the math three times because it was really fucking hard to concentrate with Natasha’s mouth working its way slowly down his torso. “Five hours,” he finally managed.
“Good,” she said as her hands found the button of his pants. “That gives us plenty of time.” And then she proceeded to do things with her tongue that were probably illegal in most of the red states back home.
Natasha lay on her stomach with her head resting on Clint’s chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart. Trying to convince herself she could make this work.
“So how was the second time?” Clint asked. “We hit mind-blowing yet?”
She laughed despite herself. “Your constant need for praise is not nearly as sexy as you think it is.”
“Come on, baby, how am I supposed to improve without feedback?”
“It was very nice,” she told him.
“Nice?” He groaned. “You’re killing me, Romanoff.”
“Nice is underrated,” she said, suddenly serious. “There hasn’t exactly been an abundance of nice in my life, so yes, it was nice.”
He pressed a kiss into the top of her head and his arms encircled her, pulling her tightly to his chest. “I guess that’s okay, then.”
She felt a momentary flash of doubt and wondered what the hell she was doing. Who did she think she was fooling, she didn’t get to have this. She closed her eyes and focused on the sound of his heartbeat … and it just … passed.
“I think we should go for Bosnian,” Clint was saying. “When we get back, I mean. I know this great place … you like cevapi, don’t you?”
“Sure,” she said. “They’re great.” Her fingers toyed with a tuft of his chest hair. “You know Coulson’s going to shit a brick when he finds out, right?”
Clint snorted. “That I’d like to see. On the other hand, since I don’t want to spend the rest of my life attending human resources seminars, I vote he doesn’t find out.”
Natasha smiled against his chest. “It’s cute how you think that’s even an option.”
Just after dark they stood side-by-side at the rendezvous point, armed to the teeth, waiting stiffly for their S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison to show. There was no way not to feel anxious and vulnerable at this part of the mission. This was where everything could either go suddenly, desperately wrong, or come to a swift end.
“Still good?” Clint asked, shooting Natasha a sideways glance. He’d decided he was going to check in with her as often as possible, short of actually driving her to murder him.
“Still good,” she echoed, only mildly annoyed.
A black Humvee turned onto the street and drove slowly towards them. Clint felt himself tense, ready to react if necessary. Beside him, he sensed Natasha do the same. The vehicle came to a smooth stop in front of them. The door opened and Agent Coulson stepped out.
Clint relaxed, nodding a greeting. “Wow, came to pick us up yourself. You worried about us, boss?”
“I was in the neighborhood,” Coulson said, dry as the Mohave. He took in Natasha’s makeshift wardrobe. “Enjoy your stay in Budapest?”
“Actually, yes,” Natasha said, smiling brightly as she climbed into the Humvee. “It was very nice.”
“Absolutely,” Clint agreed, smirking. “Lovely city.”
Coulson raised an eyebrow in a way that meant there were probably going to be a lot of human resources seminars in Clint’s future.
And yet somehow, Clint didn’t actually seem to care.