I nearly broke cover today.
Clint smiled as he read the text, the first bright spot in a relatively boring day. It was Tasha’s first day on the job at Stark Industries, a job he hadn’t been too thrilled about her taking. It wasn’t sexist because there was no way he could possibly be worried about a woman who could kill ninety percent of the world’s population with her bare hands and the other ten percent with the weapons she carried with her. He just wasn’t sure if Tony Stark was ready for the likes of the Black Widow. From all the reading Clint had been doing on the man (and it was considerable because there was nothing else to do right now), he got the impression that the womanizing bastard might very well find himself on the receiving end of those weapons sooner versus later.
Your first day? Who’d you kill? Please say it wasn’t the tinman
No. Just a trusty sidekick.
Putting an arm under his head, Clint got comfortable on the narrow bunk. He didn’t often stay at SHIELD headquarters but he didn’t have a place in New York at the moment and he felt the need to be close by if Tasha needed him for anything. Since she would know if he decided to spy on her from the rooftops and wouldn’t be happy about it, he stayed put and tried to find ways to fill his time. Since there was only so much time he could spend on the shooting range (not his restrictions because he would spend twenty-four hours a day there if it was up to him), he’d started in on some of the Sudoku books that Natasha was always leaving lying around.
Don’t get any ideas about a sidekick of your own. We’re partners.
There was a long pause before the next text pinged in. Enough time that he worried about his use of the word partners. Tasha had enough issues that they’d had to discuss terms and usages of those same terms. Not that she was the only one with issues. He had plenty of his own. Using the term partners usually worked for both of them. It was safe. Sometimes they both needed safe.
Maybe not this time. Maybe Stark had gotten to her in only a few hours. Maybe... maybe....
The best of partners. I don’t want a sidekick if they all come like this. He keeps trying to hit on me.
He breathed a sigh of relief. This was something he could handle. And had, many times.
Want me to come take care of him?
Thanks but I’m all over it.
You coming home tonight?
Wish I could. Gotta keep my head in the game.
With a frustrated sigh, Clint flipped the phone up into the air a couple of times. Coulson would scowl at him for treating SHIELD technology so flippantly but it’s not like he was going to miss any time soon. He never has and wasn’t going to start now.
It was hard having a
girlfriend partner who was never in the same city as he was. If they were, someone was usually trying to kill them. Hell on any private time they might have eeked out. That wasn’t what their relationship was all about. It was about knowing someone was always at his back and who he would always do the same for. They’re everything to each other. Family, lover, next of kin, confidant... and always, partner.
Knowing she was this close, after he missed her by mere minutes because the quinjet left Miami a few minutes later than scheduled, bothered him. He wanted to see her, just to know for sure that she was okay. It seemed that their text conversations would have to be enough for the foreseeable future.
Before he could figure out a good retort, his phone vibrated.
Where are you at tonight?
Trying to getter a better visual for your daydreams?
You knew that when you met me.
He could close his eyes and see the smile she had to be wearing at the moment. God, he loved to flirt with her. They never did it when other people were around. Well, all except Coulson, but that was only once and the man had blended into the background so well that they’d simply forgotten he was in the room with them. That and it had been nine months since they’d seen each other. They might have flirted in front of Fury (heaven forbid!) if he’d been any slower to get out of the room.
It was the first thing I knew about you, yes.
Since you asked so nicely, I’ll tell you I’m on my bunk at Mama’s house.
Was she happy to see you?
I’ve really got to go now. Can we pick this up later?
Whenever you can. Be safe. I’d say be nice to sidekicks but...
Don’t make me laugh. It’ll break my cover.
He typed out Love you. and erased it. Typed it again. Erased it one last time. There was no way she’d ever let him get away with something like that. What they had wasn’t love, after all. Love, as Natasha is so fond of saying, is for children. Both of them had seen what love did when there wasn’t any one else around. It could be cruel and horrible and nothing like anyone ever heard about in fairy tales. They both agreed at the very beginning that they didn’t want the fairy tale. They wanted real.
So he wrote back: Stop smiling, pretty girl. Go play your games.
Don’t get too much sleep. A few seconds later he also recieved: And quit messing up my Sudoku!
It was enough to put a smile on his face until he finally dropped off into a fitful sleep in the wee hours of the morning, a well-inked sudoku book balanced on his chest and the chewed-up pen inking the side of his mouth.
The phone call was short, merely an explanation of what he’d already heard, in part, from Fury. “He’s gone. Going to have quite a hangover. I need some eyes in the sky.” He didn’t even bother to say anything because she was gone before his brain even acknowledged he’d heard her voice. Constant training meant his body was moving before he gave it the order, strapping on body armor and weapon with only the barest minimum of thought.
His first sight of her, struggling into her leather jumpsuit, was more than enough to send his heart pounding. Because he was nothing if not a gentleman, he reached forward to tug the collar into place as she smiled at him over her shoulder.
“You got here fast.”
“It was one of the reasons why I stayed nearby.”
She finished dressing, pushing her unnaturally long, brown hair out of the way. When he tangled a hand in the curls, she let him tug her backwards so that she was against his chest. “Missed you,” she whispered, her face tilted upward for the kiss she knew was coming.
As always, he was nothing if not compliant to her wishes. Because of time constraints, and the fact that they were in a room at Stark Tower where cameras were sure to be tracking their movements, he barely touched his lips to hers. “Missed you more. Where do you want me?”
“Am I interrupting anything?”
Clint stiffened but didn’t move, keeping his body between the intruder and Tasha. “Someone you know?” He keeps his voice low.
“That would be my boss. She doesn’t know I’m SHIELD.”
“I think the catsuit’s going to give it away. How do you want to play this? Should I flirt?”
“You mean, flirt with her? No, thank you. But thanks for asking. Let me do the talking. Maybe I can salvage this.” The narrowing of her eyes was the only indication of her jealousy. He shouldn’t have liked seeing the bit of emotion but he did. To some people it might not have looked like much but to him it was better than the kiss.
Instead of pushing him away, Tasha turned in his arms and wrapped hers around him. “Guess we didn’t close the door as well as we thought we did.” She peeked over his shoulder, one of her hands curled in the hair at the nape of his neck. “Sorry about this. It’s my day off. Or it was-”
“No, no. My fault. I’m sorry. I should have-”
“Did you need me for anything?”
“No. No, no, no.”
Clint tried not to laugh into Tasha’s hair, reminding himself that he was playing a part and finding this amusing probably wasn’t a character trait. He did take the time to run his hands up her sides to cup the undersides of her breasts. Even covered in warm leather, they were magnificent.
“I want this over,” he breathed into her ear. Not just the incredibly uncomfortable situation they were in right now but this whole thing. He wanted Tony Stark to be taking care of himself. He wanted Tasha out of her suit, preferably stretched across a bed big enough for the two of them, and in a room where they weren’t in danger of being walked in on every few minutes.
Most of all, he wanted Natasha Romanova writhing for hours under his very specific attention. All in good time, he supposed. Pepper was finally walking out of the room, the door shutting firmly, but that was only half the problem.
“We need to go find Stark.” He wanted to hear apology in her voice but there was only determined command. If he hadn’t been looking in her eyes, he might have missed the shiver of regret. “It’s the job.”
It was always the job. Times like this, Clint wished they could toss it all away and go sell macrame planters in Hoboken. The only problem with that dream was neither he nor Tasha knew how to macrame and they’d be so busy trying to make money that they wouldn’t be having sex then, either. And then there was the whole idea of living in Hoboken.
This job was still better than the alternative. He nodded. “Then let’s go do it.”
How’s Mama’s cousin? Same cookies in the cookie jar?
Clint wiped the sweat from his forehead. He’d once complained about the Sahara desert but this New Mexican landscape had absolutely none of the ambience of that area of the world. It had heat. That was about it.
As he flipped his phone on, he tried to calm the irritation that was rising up inside him at the moment. He still wasn’t sure why he’d been picked for this babysitting mission. Everyone else here was a suit or a white coat. The contingent of soldiers was sparse, yet handpicked for the area. They were expecting trouble from the local yokels and got it in spades. None of them had fallen for the Don’t Touch the Radiated Artifact speech. It took a few good punches from the larger operatives and they’d stopped getting so many visitors.
There was no one that needed to be shot at, either with arrows or guns. He would have felt more useful if they’d left him home... or he’d brought one of the Sudoku books with him.
Tasha’s silence was every bit as unnerving as Coulson’s reassurances that he was here for a reason. The only reason he let himself be talked into coming across country was that Coulson was still getting news on the Stark situation. He knew where Tasha was even if Tasha wasn’t keeping him updated.
Same ol’, same ol’. I haven’t tried the cookies. Trying to keep my girlish figure.
Haven’t tried or not being allowed near the cookie jar?
Damn, she knew him so well. Normally, that thought made him smile but he was more irritated than anything else. Not answering wasn’t an option, no matter how much he wanted to stuff his phone in his pocket and forget that he’d ever seen her text.
As well as she could read him, even if they weren’t in close proximity, she had to know that he was holding on with his last nerve. There hadn’t been enough real missions lately. Not enough excuses to work off the nerves except on the shooting range. He was going crazy here and she was most likely smirking at her phone.
Just don’t see why they need me. Not many high spots.
As if reading his mind, Coulson’s voice came over the radio. “Barton, we need you. Get in the truck. We’re going into town.”
“Are we getting bored of the locals coming to us? Have to go roust them up a bit so your boys have something to do?”
His phone vibrated as Coulson’s placid voice answered, “We need to close up some gaps. We just received intell that someone’s been investigating weather patterns. Wouldn’t want that information getting into the wrong hands.”
“Of course we wouldn’t,” he drawled as he thumbed his phone on.
You were invited to be the voice of reason. White coats and G-men. Not much reason in those groups.
His frustration level at an all new high, he stuffed the phone in his pocket. If he responded immediately, he was bound to say something stupid. At least he could use work as an excuse when she called because she would be calling. This way he had a few hours to cool down. Or have a melt-down at someone else because it never worked out in his favor when it happened at Tasha. Right now, he desperately needed something to work in his favor.
“You never answered back.”
Clint wiped the rain out of his eyes. The weather in New Mexico, he’d discovered, could turn on a dime. From extreme heat to monsoon in less than half an hour. Maybe there had been a good reason for ripping the research out of the clutches of the scientist this afternoon. It had seemed pretty dubious to him today as he’d watched from his perch as the agents packed up all of Dr. Foster’s belongings. He hadn’t questioned Coulson. None of them had. Clint knew there was a reason for the order, even if it did look like they were just regular government thugs, out to make someone miserable because they could.
He’d stuck around after the van left, not bothering to move from his vantage point. It was the first time since arriving in New Mexico that he felt comfortable. He hadn’t bothered reporting anything to Coulson when he got back to base, mostly because he was interested to see how the conversation he’d overheard would all play out. Besides, anyone who felt the need to get closer to the sky when they were feeling low was alright in his book.
And now he hadn’t gotten to shoot at the big guy who’d broken in. It had been glorious watching him make mince meat of the agents that were pumped up from beating up locals and taking papers away from harmless scientists. It would have been interesting to see if he could have brought down the intruder with a few arrows. This was just a standard issue bow. Not the new model that was currently in production back at HQ. With the new modifications they’d promised him, Clint was pretty sure he could have taken on any of the mythical creatures that decided to come after the artifact. Too bad none of them were showing up, though.
When he didn’t answer, his mind still on the job and not on the gorgeous woman on the other end of the line who had finally called to try to pull him out of his doldrums, she tried again. “Earth to Clint. Are you giving me the silent treatment or should I really be worried?”
“Sorry, Tasha. I was... thinking.”
“You in the middle of something?”
He shook his head trying to clear out the cobwebs of inactivity so he could concentrate on her and not on his own attitude. “Sorry. I’m... it’s complicated.”
“So you can’t talk?”
“No, I can talk.” A gust of wind sent raindrops into the ear that wasn’t covered by the phone. He flinched but it got his attention away from his crappy attitude and on to the warmth of the voice in his ear. “Look, I’m sorry for not calling you back today. I heard you had some excitement there.”
“Just a little.”
There was a smile in her voice as she answered, “It felt good, Clint. I hate it when I have to act civilized for long stretches of time. It felt good to stretch out again.”
“Was that ten guards that you took down all by yourself?”
“The number isn’t important. What is important is that I took care of more than Happy.”
“His name is Happy? Why was I jealous again?”
“I’m not sure why either.”
She was giving him the perfect opening. While he figured he’d get this all out in the open next time they sat down across from each other, this was as good a time as any. Better, really. Neither one of them were good at discussing feelings when they were in each other’s eye line and he usually bungled things or let her distract him with sex. Not that he minded. Maybe this time he could get all the way through what he wanted to say.
“I’ve been angry with a lot of people lately. Coulson for talking me into coming to New Mexico because I had nothing better going on. That wasn’t true but I let him convince me. Fury for being an insufferable jerk.”
“Isn’t he always an insufferable jerk?” Her voice was soft and he could imagine the tilt of her head as if the phone was his shoulder. It was the romantic streak in him, true, but he liked to imagine that she was missing him as much as he was missing her.
“Well, yes. But more so lately. He kept restricting my access to the range. Said I was scaring away the rest of the agents who needed to be there more than I did.”
“I did figure I’d see you on a few more rooftops than I did. You could have gotten your practice in there.”
“And see Stark? No, thank you. He was already being mutilated enough in my dreams. I was afraid of what I might do to him if I saw him up close.”
“He was never around. Pepper is pretty much the boss in charge, these days.”
“Then I’m jealous of her, too. She got to see you all the times I didn’t.”
There was a long pause, long enough that Clint began to wonder if Tasha hadn’t set the phone down and walked away from the conversation. “This isn’t out of the ordinary. We’re seldom in the same place at the same time. It’s just the way things are with us, Clint.”
“Maybe we should change that.”
“Like how?” It was an accusation but there was a vein of hope there, as well. “It’s the job. Isn’t that what you said to me after our first mission? It’s the job, Clint. If it wasn’t the job, we’d be getting paid a lot to hang out on dark buildings for no apparent reason.”
“Right now, I’m getting wet in a monsoon in the desert and you’re playing secretary. This isn’t what I signed on for.”
“I think you’re just having a hard-”
“Something is hard, yeah.”
“Wonder’d when you would give me an update.”
They were done talking about feelings but that was okay. He’d said his piece. The idea was out there and if something came up that would get them more time together, she would know he was in favor.
Clint was out of the quinjet before the engines were even shut off. The squawking from the pilots was just an irritation in the ear piece that he was pulling out. He’d worked on the write up of the mission on the trip back to New York, his intention to throw the papers into the appropriate folder and let someone deliver them instead of presenting them in person. There would be hell to pay for not following protocol but he figured the disciplinary action would be worth the extra fifteen minutes that he’d have with Tasha before all hell broke loose.
Heard the jet. Where are you?
Almost there. Clint was slipping his phone into his pocket when he realized that there was no way to hear the landing pad from living quarters. That meant that she wasn’t waiting for him like they’d agreed when he’d gotten his release from the New Mexico mission this morning. He’d called in more favors that he was owed, something that would come back to haunt him in the near future, he was sure, but he’d gotten on board the first ride back to the East Coast.
Come to Strip Three.
That didn’t sound good. He reversed and was back in a flat-out run before he let himself think through the implications of Tasha being on Strip Three. No joy rides were ever taken out of Strip Three. Only transatlantic flights that needed to be taken in secrecy.
The gangplank of one of the supersonic jets was lowered. Since no one else was around to tell him otherwise, he didn’t hesitate but kept moving right up onto the ramp. “Tasha, I-”
Only to come to a dead stop when a very naked red-haired assassin blocked his path. Not surprisingly, the only thing he could think to say was, “It’s short again. And much redder.”
“I was getting tired of the brown tint. This is much more my style.”
“I like it.” Not thinking, only reacting, he twisted his hand through her hair and pulled her lips toward his. When he could find the strength to pull back, they were both panting for air. “I take it the lack of clothing is a good sign?”
“Only just long enough for hello and goodbye again. They need me back in the Mother Country.”
Clint leaned his forehead against hers, his stomach twisting with dread. Of all the places she could be sent, he really hated when it was Russia. His cover was so blown there, he knew there would be no way he could convince Fury to let him follow her.
But more importantly, she knew that he wouldn’t be able to follow. This wasn’t just glad to see you sex. This was sorry but I need my space sex. If he was any other man, he might have pushed her away and demanded an explanation but he wasn’t any other man. He was Clint Barton and he was so god-damned hot for Natasha Romanova that he would have walked through fire to get to her when she was standing there without a stitch of clothing.
This was her way of making it up to him. Next time, he would be the one offering his body as a means of smoothing over something he said or did. Probably the former, knowing his track record. It was what they did, how they made it work.
He nipped at the spot on her jaw that he knew made her hum with anticipation. She pushed off his jacket, running her hands up under his shirt to the defined muscles of his abdomen.
“How long?” he asked as he worked at his zipper.
“Fifteen minutes. They’ll blare the siren before coming onboard so we’ll have enough time to get decent.”
“Smart. Just how I like my women.”
She bit his bottom lip hard enough to draw blood. “And sexy. Don’t forget the sexy part.”
Fury has me on babysitting duty. I may never get out of it.
It was his third text of the day. None of them had been answered. Tasha was so deep undercover, he didn’t figure she had her phone with her. He figured she’d get done with the job at some point in the near future and his rundown of his mission would be there for her to scroll through at her leisure.
He looked down at the room below, awash in the blue glow of the Tesseract. Everyone was talking about the discovery of Captain Steve Rogers in the ice, including Coulson. With his pinked cheeks and shining eyes, he could have been any one of the numerous fangirls suddenly crowding around the monitors as they waited for any news of the man.
But not Clint. He kept his ears open for any news of Tasha’s mission. There’d been nothing so far and he doubted he would hear much but he knew better than to give up.
Love you. Miss you. This time he let the text go through. She could think what she wanted to think. When they saw each other again, he was going to make her hear the words from his mouth. It was about time they started calling this what it was. It wasn’t just a partnership. It was a relationship.
Maybe New Mexico had been good for him, after all.