“Dammit, Barton, when I tell you I can handle myself, I mean it!” Natasha hissed out the moment the door shut behind them. She’d been seething the whole way back to the hotel, furious and silent as they slipped down side streets and alleys. The grayness of their journey back followed them into the room, and everything seemed bleached out and ashy, from the sheets to the taste in the back of his throat.
“I know that.” He was pissed too, angry at the risk she’d taken tonight. He was her partner; she was supposed to warn him before she did something stupid. “I know you can take care of yourself.” He dropped his quiver on one of the double beds in the tiny room.
“Then why don’t you trust me to do it?” She practically shouted as she chucked her shoes into a corner, only showing restraint because of the thinness of the hotel walls.
“I do trust you.” He stopped himself from adding the part about her doing something stupid. She probably wouldn’t take that too well.
“You have a real funny way of showing it, then,” she huffed, glaring daggers at him over crossed arms. “I can’t believe you swooped in and tried to rescue me!” She sat angrily down on the other bed and started to tug of the tattered remains of her tights. “I don’t need rescuing!”
He tried to gather back some of his self-control before he opened his mouth again. Fighting with Natasha got to him in a way that nothing else did; it broke through his calm, twisted up his insides and made him say things he didn’t really mean. He took a deep breath and undid the straps of his arm guard, took the time to remove it and his glove before he replied.
“There were ten guys in there, Nat.” She looked up at him at that, her ire flaring up, but he cut her off before she could say anything. “I know you could have taken them out.” She curved an eyebrow at that, but he powered on. “They knew what they were doing, and you would have ended up hurt.”
She scoffed, tossed the ruins of her tights into the trash can. “I was dealing with them fine when you crashed through the damn window.”
She had been, sure enough, but she couldn’t have held her own for much longer. On a good day, Natasha could take out twice that number with one hand tied behind her back. Today had not been a good day; it hadn’t even been a good week. They’d been running since their boots hit the pavement, barely stopping for food and sleep, and she’d been distracted. Shit, he’d been distracted, too, and it was his fucking fault that three of those guys made it into the room with her in the first place. Ten guys were about three too many on a day like today, and he liked to fix his mistakes.
He was sure she knew all of this in the back of her head. She was too good not to know. She just needed to get the adrenaline out of her system so she could think again.
“I was looking out for you, okay?” He peeled off his tactical vest, then his undershirt, balling the latter up and shoving it into his pack. “You’re my partner, and it’s on me when you get hurt.”
She deflated a little at that and dropped her head into her hands. She scrubbed her eyes, looked up at him, even started to speak a few times, but thought better of it. At last, she stood. “I get that.” She peeled off her dress, leaving her body exposed, clothed in nothing but her underwear and knives. “But I could have taken them.”
“I’m not arguing that.”
She fiddled with the fabric in her hands, obviously trying to find the right words, but none were forthcoming. So he walked over to her, reached out an arm to touch her lightly on the shoulder. “We don’t have to talk about it now.”
She appeared to think it over for a moment, even looked tempted by his suggestion, but then she shook her head. “No. We do.” Natasha didn’t like things to fester, didn’t like things left unfinished.
He pulled her down to sit beside him on the bed, only then noticing the slash of red on her thigh. “Jesus, Nat! Why didn’t you say something?” He shot up, grabbed the medkit from his pack, and knelt in front of her.
“It wasn’t mission critical,” she said without emotion.
He pulled a handful of gauze and the disinfectant from the pack. “Well, it is to me. You need to tell me when you’re hurt.”
She hissed when he poured some of the astringent onto her, then said, “It barely qualifies as a flesh wound.”
He busied himself by cleaning little bits of gravel out the wound, trying not to scream his frustration at her. “That shouldn’t matter. We’re partners. That means something.” He fished around in the bag for more gauze and the first-aid tape.
She stared at him, her eyes impossibly black in the dim light. “It does. But you don’t need to come barreling to my rescue just because we’re fucking.”
He blinked, genuinely shocked. “Is that was this is about?”
“Isn’t it?” She took the tape from him, helped him affix the gauze to her skin.
“It’s about you overestimating yourself and ending up injured,” he said with more force than he’d intended.
“Look me in the eye and tell me you’d do the same for someone else.”
“You’re my partner, not anybody else.” He threw the supplies back in the med kit, using the action as an excuse to look away from her, afraid of what he might see in her eyes. Worse still, he was afraid of what he might not see there.
“Tell me,” she said, and when he glanced up, she was still staring at him with that unfathomable gaze.
He exhaled, tried to deflect the question. “Nat, come on . . .”
“No. I want to hear you say it.”
He raked his gaze over her, taking in her disheveled hair, the angry redness on her skin where she’d been dragged across the dirty floor of the warehouse, and all he could see was the young woman with ancient eyes he’d met years ago in Russia. She was still the same, for all the change she’d undergone since he met her. Headstrong. Determined. Cocksure. And the hell of it all was that she was right.
“No, I wouldn’t have swung in to the rescue of another partner . . .” he started, but her face shut down entirely, and she stood abruptly, headed for the bathroom.
“Nat . . . ?” He called after her, but then he heard the rush of water as she started up the shower. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath, feeling like he’d won the battle, but lost the war. Because he wasn’t about to leave it like that, he followed her.
She was already in the shower, her underwear on the floor and most of her knives on the sink, but that wasn’t going to stop him. He’d seen her naked long before they started . . . whatever it was they were doing (he refused to call it fucking, hated the way it sounded), and he wasn’t going to let himself be intimidated by her.
“If you were hoping to surprise me, I can hear you breathing,” she said, turning to look at him through the frosted glass. “Close the door if you’re going to stay.”
He gave the door a nudge and it clicked close behind him, then stripped off the rest of his clothes and stepped in behind her. “You didn’t let me finish,” he said quietly.
Her head was tilted back to rinse the shampoo out of her hair when she cracked an eye open to look at him.
“What I started to say . . . what I wanted to say was that no, I wouldn’t have done that for anyone else. But you aren’t someone else. No one else I know is crazy enough to take on that many guys alone after the week we’ve had.”
“Take them on and win,” she added, reaching around him for the conditioner.
“And win,” he agreed. “But you pull that kind of shit all the time, and I’m okay with that.”
She rolled her eyes in disbelief and put her head back under the spray, staying silent, waiting for him to say his piece.
“It’s true, I am okay with it. I know you can handle yourself. Shit, you can kick my ass any day of the week.” She grinned a little at that, just a twitch at the corner of her mouth, but he knew a smile from her when he saw it. “But it was my fault that you were at a disadvantage, and I had to fix it.”
She finished rinsing, then motioned for them to trade places, letting him get under the water.
At last, she spoke. “So you came to my rescue because you were feeling guilty?”
Unable to find the washcloth, he scrubbed himself down with the bar of soap. “It’s been a hell of a week. I’m tired, and I missed them coming in. It was me, my fault, that they got into that room. I should have taken them out, but I didn’t even see them until they were right on top of you. If I didn’t go in and something had happened . . .”
She nodded grimly. “Okay. I get that. But you’ve got to promise me that . . . that this thing between us isn’t going to affect our work.” She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, then continued in a small voice. “Because I can’t accept that. I can’t do my job with you running in guns blazing at the drop of a hat. I need you to trust my judgment in the field. And if you can’t make that promise . . .”
“Stop right there,” he interrupted, reaching out to touch her face and gain her full attention. “I do trust your judgment, Nat. Implicitly. But I also need you to trust mine.”
He could see the moment she relented, the moment she realized that she wasn’t giving him the benefit of the doubt that she was requiring from him.
“I do,” she said at last. Then again, louder, firmer, “I trust you.”
He felt as if some great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, a weight that had been holding him down since he let those three men slip by him earlier.
“I’m sorry I screwed up,” he said at last.
“Thanks for pulling my ass out the fire,” she replied.
And that would be it, all they would ever say about it. There would be no hard feelings or regret or castigation from either one of them – they would move on from this, making sure that it strengthened their partnership rather than put cracks in it.
“We need to redress that,” he said, touching the waterlogged gauze with his free hand.
“Later, yeah?” She whispered back. “We’re kind of having a moment here.” She stepped forward then, leaned into him, pressing her forehead against the flat of his chest. Instinctively, he wrapped his arms around her shoulders, held her close, silently counting his blessings that he had a partner like her and not the other kind, the ones who couldn’t forgive, who couldn’t forget. He’d watched too many partnerships implode because of such stress. Natasha, though, she was made of sterner stuff, and he knew he was dam n lucky to have her.
He wasn’t sure how long they were in there, clinging to each other, but when the water finally grew cold, he reached behind him and turned off the spray. Natasha was limp against him, barely holding herself upright, even with him supporting most of her weight, so he picked her up without bothering to dry off and carried her into the bedroom.
He put her back to her feet by the closest bed, letting her pull the blanket and sheet back and get settled in. He turned, grabbed the medkit, and he tried not to notice the way she stared at him while he carefully redressed her wound. When he’d finished and packed up, he started to move away, intent on giving her some space by climbing into the other bed, but she reached up, gripped his wrist as he turned.
“Don’t go over there,” she murmured, then scooted back toward the wall and holding up the covers to make room for him. He slid into the bed beside her without resistance, secretly thrilled that she wanted him next to her after all that had happened today. She curled up against him, throwing a leg over his hips and an arm across his chest in her efforts to get close.
Long after he’d thought she was asleep, she spoke.
“I’d do the same for you.”