“Hawkeye.” She drawls the name out, Russian accent exaggerated, fair warning she’s dangerously bored. “Did you select your codename?”
“Why? You don’t like it?”
He has a three-year-olds habit of answering a question with a question. She shrugs. “I keep on expecting Trapper John to walk by.”
Barton stares at her, mouthing M*A*S*H disbelievingly. “I remind you of a madcap doctor?”
Natasha turns the next card over in the shuffle. “We had a lot of repeats in my country...endless, endless repeats. ‘Besides, I’m sure you and your namesake have both been elbow deep in entrails.” He laughs once, husky. It’s a nice laugh, Natasha thinks vaguely, even with the edge of drollness to it.
“You think Black Widow is a better codename?”
“It speaks to my skill-set.”
“Really? I thought it spoke of your hairy legs.”
“It’s been a cold winter,” she deadpans, and tosses an ace at his forehead.
He catches it neatly, clamped between middle and forefinger. She can see the refracted curve of his smile, the way his cheeks round at the edges, but his body remains motionless. Natasha sets aside her deck of cards and sits down on the end of his cot, pushing his feet aside to make room as she starts to strip and clean her gun. Barton shifts obligingly, dirty boots flat on the cot, knees upraised, the rest of his body remains supine, a straight arrow of half-naked skin. She braces her spine against his legs, straddling the cot with her weapon a puzzle piece around her. Outside, the desert smells of dry air and gun oil.
The wind blasts sand against the nylon tent until it resembles the slave-drum of a passing army - of creaking bones, rattling chainmail - shed blood, Natasha knows, evaporates quickly in Afghanistan. The desert devours everything. Scoured clean, recent memory is over-written as quickly as the sand shifts, sucking in another conflict for a thousand years of bloody warfare. Americans or Russians, Mongols and Infidels too, their bones cradled loosely in the bosom of the Registan.
She cleans her gun, economical and quick, and waits for the storm to pass.
They make a handsome pair. Barton is her shadow on nigh and the Black Widow is nothing but water held loosely, moulded to whatever conformity’s required. They’ve slept together, patched each other up. Barton’s wiped the blood from her lip, fingers tacky with it, and they’ve acted the well-to-do married couple. She was told once sex complicates everything – a dreamy sigh, insipid smile – and Natasha had stared at the child coldly because in her experience, sex allows for the cliché, for the expected to take root. It allows Natasha to kill with stinging precision, men and women alike. Sex complicates nothing.
To think otherwise is to be branded a simpering, romantic fool.
But her partnership with Barton is precious as a Kushan coin – the wavering lines of a dead language, half-understood. Clint’s played lover, friend, slut: he’s rutted against her in an alley, kissed a line of fire down Natasha’s throat, she would have slept with him in a heartbeat if desired. Sex doesn’t frighten her nor would Natasha have allowed it to alter their partnership, but Barton’s never been hard in her presence. Not once in the twelve years she’s known him. He’s knife-edged, and on Natasha’s radar, he pings as slightly off. Gay, she once suspected, and heard the rumours to accompany it; except the few times Barton’s been hit on, by men who stood too close, who’s touches lingered too long, the innuendo slid past. He looked toward her helplessly, and it wasn’t ignorance on his expression but bafflement. Barton fakes camaraderie with the Avenger’s as naturally as Natasha fakes an orgasm, and has been intimate with no one since the day they met.
His sexuality is mendaciously approachable - entirely hands-off. I see better from a distance, he once explained, dry.
“Natasha,” Tony whines. "How's Afghanistan?"
She looks up from the pieces of her scattered gun, examines the lines of their tent. Outside, the sand moans. “Has Stark shrunk?”
“New model, all the immediacy and none of the crackle,” Clint drawls, and tosses the radio, pitched over her head so it lands in Natasha’s lap. She eyes it dubiously; smaller than military grade, the radio resembles a mobile phone. The Stark logo glows like a miniature torch.
She flicks the switch and answers: “Are you supposed to know our location?”
“Cap demanded the info. He took exception to SHIELD stealing two members of his team without so much as a by-your-leave. He’s cutely possessive.”
“Did you call to chat?”
“I’m segueing, it’s a conversational tool. You should learn it.”
“Get to the point.”
“Rightio then,” he says, with a crisp British lilt. Stark changes accent’s as seamlessly as Natasha, does everything seamlessly. He’s the most annoying shit I’ve ever met, Rogers had moaned, and Natasha’s inclined to agree. “So I’m roaming around my massively unpopulated building, because hello, SHIELD hi-jacked two members, Rogers ran off in a huff, the HULK is skulking and I notice your equipment is still here. Including the cat-suit. Tell me, do you need to grease up to get into that thing? Because in the interests of team bonding, I solemnly volunteer to help in the future.”
From all of this, Natasha discerns: “Pepper’s in New Orleans, isn’t she?”
“I’m bored. Horribly bored.”
“And called to chat.”
“Your cat-suits still in the building, are you guys properly equipped? Tell me Hawkeye has his bow, at least.”
“Just two soldiers in army fatigues.”
“I don’t like that region. Something to do with hospitality…”
“I like the desert,” she returns. “It’s unpretentious.”
He hums the Ramones under his breath Just get me to the airport, put me on a plane, hurry, hurry, hurry, before I go insane. “I was thinking about buying a Bugatti Veyron 16.4, burnt sierra, you think the colour would clash with my eyes? If you hop a flight to France when you’re done, you could place the order, save me the time. By the way, I thought you two weren’t into wet-works anymore?”
She wipes the firing pin on the hem of her digital camos, and reorganises Stark's verbal diarrhoea into the most pertinent point. “You can tell Steve neither one of us is wearing anything that can tag us as Avengers. It won’t come back to him – we’re not starting world war three here.”
“Firstly, don’t think that line is going to soothe Capsicle much; secondly; so not the point. Thirdly, it’s kind of an oxymoron don’t you think, trying to present ourselves as do-gooders with Avengers in the title?” And he’s off again; changing topics. If Clint has a three year olds ability to answer a question with a question, then Stark has the concentration span to match. Zilch.
“I’m aware Steve has his PR work cut out for him in regards to this team. I’m also aware it was you who came up with the clubhouse title in the first place.”
She can hear the smile in his voice. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have been Steve’s first pick of name.”
Clint rolls off the cot. He picked up Tony’s tune easily, his voice sliding down Natasha’s spine like whiskey and honey. “I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brain, twenty-four hours to go…I wanna be sedated.”
“We should totally organise a karaoke night. It has to be better than the Shawarma event.” Clint, surprisingly, has a fantastic voice. Natasha rolls her shoulders and watches him pick up the bow and quiver. He ducks out of the tent and into the night. Stark continues, voice dropping a decibel. “Anyway, just wanted to give you a heads-up. Steve’s going to lean on you to make a decision when you come back. You’re either on his team or not, no batting for both.”
“I can tell you what Fury’s response will be by route: the Avengers are a SHIELD initiative.”
“Not interested in Fury’s response, and SHIELD sure as shit doesn’t own me. It doesn’t own you or Clint, either. You might want to tell Barton that. I wouldn’t be surprised if he needs to be his own man for a while.”
Outside the wind has stopped. There’s a charged scent to the air, the first hint of rain like a sneeze in the back of her throat. Their pick-up will arrive soon. Natasha’s ears are already attuned to chopper blades, she wants to poke her head out of the tent and scan the sky; look for the squat mass, low on the horizon like a mosquito. She thinks about the target so recently killed, how Barton stood on a ridge, the muscles in his shoulder, the stillness of his body, how he fired into that perfect moment of immobility, between the inhale and the exhale of the human body, killing at SHIELDS behest as easily as he had killed at Loki’s.
“Exchanging one clubhouse for another?” she says scoldingly, and doesn’t hide the blades in her voice. The weapon reassembles in her hand. Natasha’s changed sides so many times she’s lost count, boundaries and loyalties redrawn like the maps of a battlefield. It means nothing to her. But prior to Loki, Clint had only worked for one institution.
“We have cooler amenities.”
Loki’s theft chewed at the black corners of her manifesto - Natasha’s over-filled ledger - because in all the ways that matter (not sex or marriage. Not children or the set expectations of how a person’s life should be lived, not the fucking cliché), Clint’s hers and she’s not inclined to share. Asexual is not something Natasha’s had to work with before - but for all the shards of her fractured psyche - Clint’s the only one who looked at her and saw the whole. “I’ll tell him.”
“Right. Okay then. Look, if your ride doesn’t come in the next hour let me know. I’ll come fetch you.”
“I didn’t know you cared.”
“I don’t. But I don’t want to miss out on the spectacle of you singing karaoke.”
“I’d blow your mind while slithering on top of a baby grand,” Natasha teases and flips the radio off before Stark can reply.
She steps outside, holstering her weapon as she picks over the loose ground. The raindrops are fat, gathering momentum, drenching her in seconds. Steve, she thinks, is cleverer than originally perceived. The media was filled with Loki this, Loki that after the Chitauri. The shrinks and post enquiry panel dismissed Barton’s involvement as being under the god’s thrall, a pawn in the ensuing chaos quickly overlooked. Natasha knows better, as apparently does Steve and Tony. Loki had no knowledge of the Hulk; background information on Bruce Banner came from only one source, Barton, as did the weaknesses and tactical blind spots of the Helicarrier. While Loki was locked in his cage, prancing and snarling insults, it was Barton who infiltrated the air-ship, pitching ten men against a carrier of five thousand and four superheroes. Who single-handedly destroyed two engines, disabled security communications, and perpetrated Loki’s release: who was on his way back to the Quinjet when Natasha caught up with him. Loki’s sins consisted of arrogance and distraction, but every single tactical plan - from the Helicarrier to the theft of an eyeball - came from Barton. He’s a dangerous man to have on anyone’s side. More so maybe, because like Natasha, he does it on his own merits. Clint’s army fatigues are loose on his hips. His upper torso’s bare; his shirt was discarded the moment they made camp. He’s pale under the moonlight, muscles sleek, chest twisted, abdomen flat, his arm’s drawn back with the bow, face wet with the rain. He’s beautiful, a taut weapon, and Natasha thinks Stark is correct, Clint’s at the end of his tether for blindly following orders. She hates Loki, for touching something never touched before, for peeking under the covers, poking at secrets best left alone, and the only thing Natasha know for certain, is that he compromises her, more deftly than any lover or sexual partner.
If Clint walks, she’ll follow.