The jet was quiet, but that wasn’t unusual for post-mission. Natasha had discovered in her months with SHIELD that though agents could be boisterous and rowdy, post-mission was usually reserved for quiet reflection or catching up on sleep. If the mission hadn’t gone well, there might be drinking, fighting, anything to let off steam. But an op with no major hiccups generally meant that the trip back to base was almost sober. Once they were welcomed back into the ranks of their comrades, that would change, but at least the trip back was quiet.
Across from her, Agent Sanderson dozed, his head bobbing whenever the jet met turbulence. A brilliant starburst was already forming around his left eye. He’d be razzed about that for weeks when they got back to headquarters, of course. Agent Cho played Ninja Ropes on her phone, while Agent Miller watched in a sort of daze that told Natasha the man’s mind was somewhere else. Probably with his wife, she thought, who was about six weeks from giving birth.
There was a betting pool on base. Hawkeye had ragged on her so much that she’d joined in. If Miller’s kid was a little girl born five days early, she wouldn’t have to patrol for months.
Natasha hoped it was. Patrols didn’t bother her, but it was nice to get uninterrupted sleep.
Speaking of Barton, he was at the end of her bench, right next to the back doors. Best vantage point to watch all of them, she thought, and glanced across Agent Awalli to get a better look at him. Barton was bent forward, head down. On his lap was an open notebook, one of those cheap ones that went for ten cents at the department store whenever they were having their back to school sales.
Natasha’s eyebrows rose. She climbed to her feet—making Awalli and Miller look up—and used the bar bolted to the ceiling to navigate her way back to Barton.
He glanced at her when she sat. “Bored?”
“No. What are you writing?”
Barton’s smile was tired; he’d been up in the sniper’s nest for three days watching a bunch of wannabe terrorists try to blow themselves up. “Just some notes.”
“On the mission?”
“Sure,” Barton said, but she got the feeling it was a lie.
She didn’t press, nor did she try and get a peek at the pages. She considered it progress. Barton might have called her paranoid, but she’d only been at SHIELD for a year, and she still couldn’t quite believe this was her life. “Well,” she said, kicking back in the uncomfortable seat, “if I’m in your notes, only write good things.”
“Of course,” Barton said.
“Good. I don’t want to have to kick your ass. I’m going to take a nap.”
She might have feigned sleep in order to get a better look at the notebook, as she was curious. But Barton wasn’t the only one that was tired and the curiosity had been just an excuse to sit beside him. She wondered if he’d put it together.
He probably had. That should have bothered her, that he knew her so well, but since it was Barton, and since he was the only one she trusted enough to watch her back, she leaned her head back and fell asleep.
Time passed, marked by missions that were successes, failures, and in-betweens where agents had to hope they’d done more good than bad. Eventually, Natasha moved from part of a team to team leader, a sign that SHIELD was growing less wary of the potential time bomb ticking in their ranks. Team sizes began to shrink until it was only the Black Widow and Hawkeye sent out together. One for close-up, dirty fighting and interrogation, the other to watch from afar and keep an eye out for trouble.
Agents joked that it was the closest thing to a healthy marriage SHIELD agents would ever see.
They grew used to each other, both in the field and out of it. Sparring, of course, became a habit; Natasha could wipe the mat with Barton, but he was learning to hold his own. He challenged her to be a better marksman in more weapons than just her beloved Glocks. He knew when she wanted to be left alone and when she wanted company, but didn’t want to talk. She knew when a hit had gotten to him, and when to show up at his quarters with bourbon and a noir movie.
In Budapest, they became legend.
The next day, SHIELD reassigned them. Natasha would be working alone; Clint led a small team.
On the surface, Natasha could acknowledge that it was a wise move. She used the Black Widow’s perceived weaknesses regularly to gain information from arrogant men who thought her nothing but a woman with an inflated reputation. Enemies were deceived by her diminutive height and fulsome beauty, and those were things she had cultivated to look like flaws.
Barton, she could admit when there was nobody around to even catch so much as a glimpse at her thoughts, could be considered a weakness. It was smart to split up. It was safer for both of them to keep that ease of the partnership from getting out, and besides, she owed him a debt. She didn’t want to be his weakness any more than she wanted him to be hers.
When she pointed this out to him over bourbon in his quarters, though, he gave her a long look she didn’t understand. “Right,” he said, and that was that.
Years passed. They would go for months without seeing each other, but when they did, they fell back into the old habits. Sometimes it was only twenty minutes for a coffee in some rundown café in a back alley. Natasha looked forward to those cafés, but she never said so aloud. If SHIELD was at all disgruntled by their habit of meeting up whenever they were in the same country at the same time, Fury and Coulson never said. Natasha suspected that for operatives as successful as the Black Widow and Hawkeye, they’d look the other way for a lot more than that.
She never brought up her suspicions to Barton. It would be like acknowledging something she wasn’t sure she wanted to test.
And then aliens invaded New York.
It turned out SHIELD had no idea what to do with two operatives whose faces had been splashed on every magazine, newspaper, blog, and newscast in New York City and around the world. It didn’t bother Barton much. After all, he’d grown up in the circus; he remarked that, minus the big tent, the media frenzy following the Battle of Midtown felt like home.
Natasha, on the other hand, had grown up in secret, moved from one hidden room to the next. She’d had her identity wiped at least four times before she’d hit her teen years, had answered to a thousand names, but nobody had ever truly known her face. Well, nobody that walked away to tell the tale. And now, she was famous. She was in league with people like Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, people who hijacked press conferences and did USO tours. It was disquieting and unsettling, and only made worse by the fact that SHIELD stood absolutely silent on the matter.
“You chose to hijack that Quinjet,” Fury said. “That was your choice, flying into that battle.”
“So what you’re saying, sir,” Barton said, his face twisting up in a wry smile that had nothing to do with humor of any form, “is that we should’ve worn masks?”
“Would’ve helped,” Fury said. He gave them three months of leave.
It was like being laid off.
Barton vanished into the Midwest, and Natasha let him. She’d been reprogrammed a few times, knew what it was like to have somebody else knocking around in your head, picking apart the things that made you yourself and shredding them slowly, one by one. It wasn’t something that could be fixed in a day. Sometimes, it wasn’t something that could be fixed at all.
She spent a lot of those three months not sleeping, wondering which one of those Barton would be.
He found her in Monaco. She’d gone to see the Grand Prix, as she hadn’t actually been to one before Tony Stark, and she was curious to see what the race was like without grandstanding billionaires disrupting everything. When she returned from flirting with a Belgian count out of sheer boredom, Barton was sitting in the seat next to hers.
Her only outward reaction was a raised eyebrow. Inwardly, though, she felt a little like breaking apart with relief. “Took you long enough.”
“I was working on something.”
“SHIELD thinks you have been with me this whole time,” Natasha said.
It was Barton’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “They do?”
“Least I could do.” She did, after all, owe him a debt.
“Thanks.” He filched some of her popcorn. “Should I ask why you chose this place? Stark’s not going to show up and have a grudge match with a Russian again, is he?”
“Not unless he tries to steal some of my popcorn,” Natasha said, and Clint grinned. He took another handful. “Are you back or just dropping in?”
“Do you want me to be back?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Then, yes. I’m back.”
Natasha smiled at him and grabbed his hand, just holding on. She needed that contact, she realized, after months of wandering alone. That night, for the first time in three months, she slept without waking every half-hour, falling asleep to the gentle lull of Clint’s breathing from the next bed over.
She woke to find him sitting at the hotel room’s desk, bent over a notebook. It was green this time. He alternated between red and green; the other agents had always teased him about liking Christmas far too much.
She felt a quiet pang in her stomach when she thought about the other agents, but she ignored it.
“Good morning,” he said without looking up. “Sleep well?”
“Writing notes about me again?” Natasha asked as she rolled out of bed, already stretching.
He looked up to meet her eyes in the mirror over the desk, still sleepy-eyed but amused. “In your dreams, Romanoff.”
She cuffed him on the shoulder as she walked by. “Only good things, Barton.”
They breakfasted in one of their rundown cafés, just for old times’ sake. The coffee was just as terrible as Natasha remembered, but she didn’t care. For the first time since she’d gotten that call from Coulson—“Barton’s been compromised.”—she could feel herself relaxing.
“So I was thinking,” Clint said, grimacing at his coffee cup as he set it down on the table.
“Did that hurt?”
“A little.” Clint’s eyes smiled at the tease. “Our leave’s up next week.”
“And SHIELD, they don’t know what to do with a couple of celebrities for agents.”
Natasha looked around the seedy little café, where the patrons were more interested in their newspapers than in the two of them. But, she thought with some regret, it wouldn’t always be like that. The minute she set foot in New York, somebody was bound to recognize the crazy redhead that had jumped on a Chitauri sled and had helped save the day. “Not entirely, no,” she said, agreeing.
“So do we go back?”
“I go where you go, Nat.” Clint’s eyes were suddenly sober. “I’m not a soldier anymore, can’t be a spy now with everybody knowing my face. It’s likely SHIELD has nothing left for me now that Coulson’s…”
Natasha looked down. That was a thought neither of them wanted to finish.
“What would we do instead? I’ve done freelance, Barton. It sucked.”
“Well, there’s always Stark.”
Natasha looked up and gave him a narrow-eyed look. “Tony Stark?”
“He…got in touch. Said he tried to reach you, too.”
“What did he want?”
“He invited me to come stay at Stark Tower. He wanted to design new arrows for me.”
Natasha stared at him. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I think he just gets bored?” Clint shrugged. “He likes to show off.”
“Yes, narcissism, his number one trait.” The fact that Stark had tried to get in touch with her at all was surprising; they hadn’t parted on good terms the first time and the second had been marked by shawarma-fueled ambivalence. “What’s he want with the pair of us, Barton? We’re SHIELD, and he’s not exactly fond of SHIELD.”
“Can you blame him? They did try to blow up Manhattan.”
Natasha put her croissant down, appetite gone. Even if the nuke hadn’t been Fury’s call, even if Stark had saved the day, the council behind SHIELD had tried to blow up the largest city in the United States of America.
Natasha’s personal ledger might be dripping with red, but that put things in perspective.
“Maybe he’s lonely and wants some friends,” Clint said. “You spent more time with him than I did.”
She’d watched him level his Malibu house with one of his “friends.”
“I don’t see either of us working your regular nine to five,” she said.
“I don’t see Stark Industries as a company that does nine to five much.”
“He’ll lord it over us.”
“Use your Thighs of Instant Death on him once or twice, he’ll stop.”
She’d done so to Happy, Tony’s driver—well, Pepper’s driver, more often, as Tony liked to put himself behind the wheel—but that had never made it into any official reports. Happy had startled her. She’d reacted.
“Banner’s there.” Clint went on. “I know the two of you aren’t exactly friends, but there’d be somebody like us.”
Natasha, about to point out that Banner was nothing like either of them, paused. The Hulk had been on their side in the Battle of Midtown. The Hulk had saved Tony Stark’s life. There had to be some modicum of control in there, she thought: controlled rage. And wasn’t rage the very thing that had kept her going for years, when she was nothing but another perfect agent output by the Red Room? She’d always wondered what it would be like to simply snap, to let the anger she kept simmering under the surface overflow and overwhelm everything, damn the consequences.
She had more in common with Dr. Banner than she liked.
“Hm,” she said.
“Maybe I should put it this way: do you want to go back to SHIELD?” Clint asked.
Natasha thought about how close that nuke had come.
“Because if you want to, I’ll go with you.”
“You’re serious,” she said.
“Completely serious. I go where you go. We’re partners.”
They hadn’t really been partners since Budapest. It felt…nice to hear that. Natasha looked up, met his eyes. “SHIELD will split us up again,” she said. “I’d rather be partners.”
“I don’t trust the Council.”
Clint nodded, which told her he had been thinking along the exact same lines that she had. He reached over and picked up her coffee cup, as she wasn’t going to finish hers. “So we go to Stark?”
“We could try it out. It’s not like I’m doing anything else.”
“Ouch, Nat,” Clint said, laughing, and Natasha gave him a puzzled look. “I thought we were on vacation. Together.”
Natasha rolled her eyes. “I meant after the vacation.”
“Oh. Okay.” Clint relaxed back into his chair. “That’s good, then.”
“You are so strange sometimes,” Natasha felt the need to tell him, and his smile broadened.
That was the last time they brought up SHIELD or Stark; the next day, they headed north to Switzerland, where Clint had a friend that owed him a favor, and spent the rest of the last week of their vacation ignoring the rest of society in a chalet up in the Alps. It was one of the most peaceful times of Natasha’s life—especially since she won the coin toss and Clint had to be the one to tell Fury they were quitting.
In the end, though, they didn’t quit. It was Phil Coulson’s fault.
Phil Coulson, who was so very much not dead that Natasha nearly put a bullet through his eye socket when he showed up to welcome her back to headquarters. “Life decoy model,” Coulson said by way of explanation.
Natasha holstered her gun. “You’re an asshole,” she said.
He smiled. “Missed you too, Nat.”
“Give Clint some warning when you show up. He’s still twitchier than I am.” Natasha shook her head as she stepped around the senior agent. Clint had stayed outside to chat with a few of the flight deck crew; he’d been nervous about returning to the Helicarrier, given that the last time he’d come aboard, he’d blown two of the four turbines to pieces.
Nobody would hold it against him, but he wasn’t convinced.
“Will do,” Coulson said, and fell into step beside her. “Where you heading?”
“My quarters. I need to pack my things.”
“Quitting. Going to see if Stark’s hiring.”
“I’d hold off on that.”
Natasha stopped to give Coulson an unimpressed look. Stupid bastard, she thought. She’d mourned him.
“Stark’s going through some…things. He’s a little too preoccupied to take on a couple of ex-spies as employees. But…” Coulson reached into his jacket and pulled out a file. “I’ve been told to give you this. New employment offer, through SHIELD. It includes a generous raise and choice of missions going forward. Complete veto power in all missions, too. Something’s off in a mission, you can abort at any time.”
“What?” Natasha actually stopped walking. “Why?”
“SHIELD has an interest in keeping you and Barton around, seeing as you two are a full third of the team that saved the world.” Coulson’s deadpan look melted into a smile. “Besides, with you two gone, the cantina’s boring. Think about it, Agent Romanoff. We are still trying to save the world here even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.” He held the door open for her to head into the residence hall on the lower deck.
Natasha paused at the door. She had fully expected SHIELD would cut their losses or expect Barton and her to hop behind desks. But then, she’d also expected that Coulson would be long-cold in the grave by now, too.
“You couldn’t have called?” she asked.
“Just woke up yesterday.”
“Oh.” Natasha rolled that around in her head. It had Fury’s fingerprints all over it, of course, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it, so she let it go. “I’ll look over the offer. I’m glad you’re not dead, Phil.”
“Me too,” Coulson said.
She was still paging through the file when Clint stormed into her quarters without knocking twenty minutes later. He threw his bag down by the door and picked up his bow. “I need to shoot something.”
“Meet you in the cantina at four,” Natasha said, and Clint stomped out.
He stood her up; the fact that it bothered her at all was the thing that bothered her most about it. Natasha made up for it by sitting with Hill and shooting the breeze, catching up on the scuttlebutt around the station. Hill wasn’t a gossip, but she was on the same level as Natasha within SHIELD’s infrastructure, so it was nice to get the full stories without having to piece together things other agents might find classified. Rogers was somewhere in the Dakotas, Stark was having a nervous breakdown, Banner had headed to South America at the first opportunity, no word from Thor (though Dr. Foster was hard at work on that one). Sanderson had been promoted, Mizachi had gone M.I.A. Miller’s daughter (over whom she had lost the pool) was about to celebrate her ninth birthday.
Life at SHIELD, Natasha thought. Names changed, but nothing else did.
She pushed her door open and stopped in the doorway.
“They gave my quarters away,” Clint said from her desk. His latest notebook was purple, and the pages were filling up fast, Natasha noticed. “Phil said I could bunk with him, but I just…can’t. Not yet, anyway. You don’t mind, do you?”
“The rest of SHIELD already thinks we’re shacking up, so it’s no big deal to me.” Natasha stepped inside and closed the door. Her file was still sitting on her desk, but it was under an identical one: Clint’s. “Which side of the mattress do you want?”
She was not expecting Clint to throw his pencil down. “Nothing ever fazes you, does it?”
Natasha slowed. “Should it?”
“Nat, Coulson’s alive and they didn’t tell us.”
“Yes,” Natasha said.
“Don’t you think that might have been important to know?”
“I certainly would have felt better knowing.”
Clint ran a hand down his face. “And now they want to pay us a lot of money to stick around,” he said.
She really wished he would stop narrating the obvious. “Yes, and they gave us a loophole. Full veto power.”
Clint stared at her for a long time before he rubbed his face again. “Council missions,” he said. “They’re giving us an out on Council missions. I…would have totally realized that eventually.”
“It’s okay.” Natasha crossed the room to pat his cheek. When he grabbed her hand, she went still. That wasn’t in their script, but Clint didn’t look away from her face, his fingers wrapped around hers. His hand was warm, callused, and familiar.
She didn’t pull her hand back.
“You would have gotten there, and that’s all that matters,” she said. “So, which side of the mattress do you want?”
“I go where you go. It’s up to you.”
Clint held her stare for a full thirty seconds, his hand growing warmer with each passing second. Finally, he broke the gaze to look at the mattress behind them.
“I’ll take the left side,” Clint said. “But we can afford to live off of the Helicarrier. Comfortably. More than comfortably, even.”
“DC?” Natasha asked.
“I was thinking San Diego.”
“Works for me. Can I have my hand back now?”
Clint smiled. “As you wish,” he said, and let go of her hand.
They didn’t end up in San Diego. Instead, Fury sent them to New Mexico, which Natasha immediately and in no uncertain terms told him was a bullshit thing to do. Clint, however, surprised her by shrugging and saying, “I’m game if you are, partner.”
“You’re okay with this?” Natasha asked the minute they were out of Fury’s hearing. “How are you okay with this?”
“I like Selvig.” Clint headed to their shared quarters. “I think you’ll like him, too, if you give him a chance.”
Natasha bit her tongue over the comment that she didn’t really have a problem with the physicist. Besides, they were being asked to share a compound living area with not only Selvig, but Dr. Foster and her research assistant, all of whom had a connection to Thor. “The connection to Loki’s not going to be a problem, is it?”
“Never going to get over it if I don’t face it.”
“This doesn’t have to be penance,” Natasha said.
“Then what is it?”
“We’re not going to be at our new place much anyway, so what’s it matter?”
That was likely true, Natasha had to agree. After the Chitauri attack, there had been an onslaught of incidents across the globe that had required SHIELD intervention. She’d gotten the impression from Hill and Fury that the intelligence organization was straining a little at the seams trying to keep a stopper in the dam of international terrorism and crime. It was little wonder that SHIELD had been willing to pay through the nose to keep their top operatives around, even if those operatives came with a clause that said they would only work with each other.
So to New Mexico they went, where they became neighbors in a compound with Dr. Erik Selvig and with Dr. Jane Foster. Natasha gravitated toward Darcy Lewis on the sole principle that she didn’t speak science jargon at five thousand words a minute. Sure, that didn’t mean Natasha precisely understood what Darcy herself was talking about at any other point—she liked slang, Natasha admitted she still had some difficulties with English idioms that she tried very hard to hide from others—but it beat discussions of anything involving the word “quark.” And it helped that she was called away on missions often enough to give her a break.
It turned out that absence could make the heart grow fonder.
Natasha walked into the lab, still a little sore from a fight in Glasgow, and blinked at the carnage. “What happened?” she asked as she unslung Clint’s backup bow from her shoulder. She placed it on an unused lab table.
Darcy, who’d been painting her toenails at the edge of the chaos, grinned up at her. “Jane’s close to a break-through. I think. She hasn’t actually used the English language in four hours. I’m feeding her on a timer.” She pointed to a little pig-shaped kitchen timer, proudly. “See? I should get an ‘Assistant of the Year’ award.”
“Many brave assistants have died for you to receive this award,” Clint, who’d come in behind Natasha, said. He eyed the whirlpool of paperwork, test tubes, print-outs, and writing utensils on the ground. “Is any of that supposed to make sense?”
“Sure. If you’re a crazy mad genius. Selvig’s buried in his office, typing his little Swedish heart away. You could try deciphering it if you like.”
“Pass. Too much work.” Clint scratched his stomach and stretched, every vertebra in his spine popping in a way that made Natasha wince. “After taking out a not-insignificant HYDRA cell, I feel I’ve earned a beer. Ladies?”
“Don’t leave me,” Darcy begged Natasha. She pointed at where Jane was hunched over a computer screen, muttering incoherently to herself. “I’ve been stuck here with that for hours and my iPod’s out of juice.”
“Tell you what, I’ll bring the beer here,” Clint said before Natasha could come up with an excuse. He smirked, probably knowing exactly what Natasha had been about to say, and headed back toward the breezeway that connected the lab to their house.
“So I have a question,” Darcy said when Natasha took a seat at the same lab table.
“What the hell do you do for fun?”
Natasha blinked. “I…work out, I guess. I never gave it much thought.”
She had a feeling the fact that she found the sound of evil men’s skulls cracking together to be one of the more fun sounds on the planet was not going to be a suitable topic of conversation here. “Sometimes I dance?”
“Sweet, there’s a club in Los Rocas, we’ll have to go tomorrow if you’re not out karate-chopping a dictator in the throat.”
Natasha blinked again. “That sounds…fun.”
“We’ll go early, get dinner, see the town or something. I’m so bored here. Think Clint will watch the science kids?”
“I regularly have to remind them to eat, sleep, and brush their teeth. They’re my kids, Tasha. My older-than-me-more-mature-than-me kids.”
“They have your eyes,” Natasha said. “But sure, Los Rocas sounds fun.”
“Yes!” Darcy punched the air in victory. Jane looked over, blinked at the sight of Natasha, and with a shrug went back to her work. “Actually,” Darcy said, eyeing her boss, “we should take Jane, too. You’re authorized to use force, right?”
“I doubt she’d appreciate it.”
“We’ll get a couple of cocktails in her, it’ll be fine.”
“What are we doing?” Clint came back in, three beers dangling from between his fingers.
“Los Rocas, tomorrow, dancing, drinking, merriment. If we can’t convince Jane—well, if Tasha here can’t convince Jane—could you be the science babysitter? It’s not difficult. When the timer goes off, you nuke a Hormel’s meal and you put it near her right hand. She’s usually hungry by that point.”
“And if she comes along, you can, too,” Natasha said. She was surprised to hear an edge of desperation, barely detectable, in her voice.
Clint, however, started grinning. He had his battered cowboy hat on already, which he called his New Mexico look. It made him even more country music than usual. “I think,” he said in his best Midwestern drawl, which always came out when the hat went on, “I’ll sit this one out. Let you gals make it a girls’ night.”
Natasha vowed to put itching powder into the brim of his cap the next opportunity she could.
She didn’t get a chance, though, before Darcy showed up in the living room the next day, dressed for a night out. “What’s up with the two of you?” she asked Natasha as the redhead led the way to her Jeep. “Are you two roommates or roommates?”
“Funny, Romanoff. Not what I meant.” Darcy cracked her gum as she climbed into the passenger seat. “Guess that’s one of those off-limits topics.”
“We are not together in the way I suspect you’re trying to subtly imply we should be.” Natasha put the Jeep into gear, and Darcy scrambled immediately for the Oh Shit! handle. There was a reason Clint usually insisted on driving.
“Oh. Huh. I would have guessed…” Darcy trailed off as Natasha took a turn on two wheels, going the color of wax. “Never mind. I’ll guess later and focus on trying to stay alive right now. Right. Good talk.”
Natasha sighed at the guilt that arose and slowed to a decent speed. “Better?”
“Less ‘Oh God, oh God, did I really wear leggings until I was ten because my life’s flashing before my eyes,’ yes.”
“Glad to be of service.”
In Los Rocas, Darcy picked up her line of questioning as they wandered through the town’s tiny Main Street. “So how’s it work? Do you guys date other people, then? Do you have time?”
“Are you asking if Clint is available?”
“Oh, me, I don’t go for cowboys.”
“He’s not a cowboy,” Natasha said, laughing.
“Really? Because he’s got a cowboy hat, he drawls, and I saw him looking at the chewing tobacco at a gas station once.”
“Gross.” Natasha wrinkled her nose.
“Plus, he’s way old for me. But you, you’re a couple years older than me. You’ll be fine.”
Natasha wasn’t entirely sure of her real age, but she figured she had more than just a couple of years on her young friend. And Clint was not too old for either of them. He was barely forty. She shoved her hands in her pockets and wandered on. “Are you trying to encourage something here, Lewis? Because I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
“Oh, it’s the Lewis curse. I have to play matchmaker. You’ll get used to it.”
Natasha raised an eyebrow.
“My grandmother is a certified Yenta; you’ll see what I mean.”
“Your grandmother is coming to visit?”
“What? No, she lives in New Jersey, but she’s wicked smart at using Skype. Ooh, they’ve got a bookstore—perfect. I need to see if they’ve got the latest Half Toxic Wasteland book in. Mind?”
Natasha shrugged and followed her friend into the bookstore. It wasn’t one of the commercial chains, but it did seem to have new books mixed in among the used items. Darcy immediately arrowed in on the graphic novels, leaving Natasha to her own devices, so she wandered. Though she did occasionally read novels, they were usually ones other SHIELD agents left behind in the cantina. She’d of course read all of the Russian greats, and maybe she should pick up a Dostoyevsky or something in case she and Clint were called away on another boring op.
The display in the corner made her pause. Westerns weren’t normally her thing, so she had no idea why she stopped. Maybe it was the spy novels on the shelf. Clint liked LeCarré. Maybe she’d get him the newest one just because. She reached for the LeCarré, saw an author named Hawke, and picked that one up with a smile instead.
Clint would get a kick out of that.
It was a spy novel, one of those noir-ish stories that probably involved dames with gams and lots of ‘suddenly a shot rang out.’ The cover was red, luridly so, and featured a man in a trench coat and fedora glaring miserably against the rain. It was supposed to portray the pinnacle of human suffering, apparently, as the title was She Took My Left Shoe, which was displayed in embossed gold under the author’s name: T.C. Hawke.
Sounded just like it would be Clint’s thing. Interested now, Natasha flicked it open, thumbing to the first chapter.
She read a few paragraphs, shrugged to herself, and set it aside, along with the LeCarré. A few of the classics—she wasn’t overly fond of Nabokov, but it had been some time since she’d visited that—joined that pile. When she came up to the register, Darcy’s eyebrows shot into her hairline.
“Holy crap, I didn’t know you were a nerd.”
“I read,” Natasha said.
The clerk took the stack of books from Natasha, her eyes lighting up. “Oh, good choice,” she said, picking up She Took My Left Shoe.
“You’re a fan?”
“Gosh, yes.” The clerk, who had the strong bone structure of one of the local tribes of Native Americans, as well as shiny black hair, smiled at the book as she rang it up in the cash register. “Total Hawkehead.”
“Beg pardon?” Darcy asked.
“The fans of T.C. Hawke, we call ourselves Hawkeheads. It’s a whole big thing online, though I haven’t met too many other fans in person. But we’ve got his whole collection here, if you’re curious, my boss makes so much fun of me and I totally don’t care. He’s amazing.”
“Whoa, this guy must be good.” Darcy gave Natasha an exaggerated grin as she took the book from the clerk and gave it a once-over. “Hawkeheads. Huh.”
“Like I said, total Hawkehead. Hell, we even have his first novel in stock—most Hawkeheads don’t even like that one, though they all own it.”
The clerk winced and looked torn, as though she were about to have to defend a very close friend of hers rather than an author she had never met. Natasha found it a bit odd, but she said nothing. After all, she wasn’t a woman of many hobbies. “Some people think it’s too sentimental, I guess? It’s a little raw, but—well, you can tell the talent’s there, he’s so incredibly gifted even if it’s his first.” She dove behind the desk and came up with a battered paperback, which was spider-cracked with age. “This is my copy, obviously, but it’s so good.”
“Can I see?” Darcy took the book from her. “The Woman in the Crosshairs. Well, that’s...ominous.” She turned the book over to read the blurb. “‘A tale of love and betrayal.’ Always a good start to any relationship.”
“I know a good stab in the back makes my love life pep right up.” Natasha kept her voice bone-dry.
Darcy read the rest of the blurb in silence. “Seems like a good story. You said you have this one for sale?”
“Ooh, yes.” The clerk dashed away and returned with a copy—much less battered—of the book.
“Damn, it’s hardback.” Darcy’s face fell; being a research assistant clearly didn’t pay well.
Natasha grabbed the book and added it to her stack. “My treat.”
“Buy me a drink later, we’ll call it even.”
Natasha flipped open the book, letting the clerk’s chatter at Darcy wash over her while the woman swiped her credit card through the machine. She checked the publisher out of habit, noted that the copyright was from five years before, a reprint of the original published eight years before. The next page held the dedication, which was simple and short.
To my Russian, who told me to write only good things.
The temperature in the bookstore plummeted a full ten degrees. Natasha was aware that her knuckles were tightening so that they were striped red and white, but she kept her gaze down, focused on each individual word that floated on the page, a tiny, potent island.
She touched a finger to the words, which were slightly raised. Carefully, casually, she withdrew her hand and flipped the book over. There was no author picture, but that didn’t prove a thing.
She picked up the other book, flipped to the dedication.
For N. The Deadliest Woman I Know.
“Oh, N,” the clerk said with a little giggle. “There are so many conspiracy theories about her.”
Natasha’s head shot up. “Why is this author such a mystery?” she asked, keeping her voice calm. “Seems like to be a writer, you’d want your fans to know who you were.”
“Nobody even knows what he looks like. He signs books, though—not in public, but in secret. He does charity signings for orphanages and stuff, but also, sometimes you can find signed copies at airports and stuff like that.” The clerk let out a long sigh. “I’ve tried so hard to find a signed copy, but no money and I don’t really travel that much. There are message boards online trying to track signed books.”
“Wow,” Darcy said, but Natasha could hear the undercurrent in the other woman’s voice. She thanked the clerk for her time and hustled Darcy out of there.
The minute they were out of the shop, Darcy turned to her. “Wow,” she said again. “Fandom is crazy-town, Tasha.”
Natasha had no idea what “fandom” meant, nor did she particularly care at the moment. It couldn’t be a coincidence. Hawke. N. The secrecy. She knew coincidences existed—she’d had her life saved by coincidence a time or two—but this...this was far too specific.
Clint Barton was T.C. Hawke.
Her partner was a published novelist.
“She was really obsessed, huh?” Darcy pawed through the bag to look at the books, squinting at them as though they would spill the secrets of the world into her hands. “This guy must write pure gold. The last time I saw that level of dedication, it was about Twilight and let me tell you, that was scary.”
“Yeah, sounds like it.”
Suddenly the notebooks made more sense, Natasha thought. Suddenly it all made more sense. “Taking notes, my ass,” she said aloud before she could stop herself.
“Huh?” Darcy asked. “Tasha, are you okay?”
“What?” She forced herself to focus. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.”
To my Russian.
Why hadn’t the moron said something? Suddenly these books were burning a hole in the bag, and she wanted to go find somewhere to be alone, to pick apart every word for extra meanings, to just sit there and absorb that Clint had kept a major secret from her for years. Two major secrets. To my Russian.
“I could really use some food,” she said instead, and she let Darcy drag her away to dinner.
She kept the façade up through drinks, through dancing, through dinner, until they were back at the compound and Darcy had stumbled off to check on her science kids. Thankfully, Clint had gone to bed, so Natasha didn’t have to step up her game and fool him, too. She headed straight for her bedroom, down the hall from his, crawled under her duvet, and cracked open The Woman in the Crosshairs, which Darcy had forgotten to take with her. Natasha hadn’t reminded her.
Part of her was furious. The titular character had to be her, right? She’d been in his crosshairs until he’d made a different call, recruited her instead of killed her. If Clint had told the entire world how they had met, she was going to kick his ass to that alley in Volgograd and back. Anger had made it hard to see straight, much less play the fun-loving Natasha Romanoff that Darcy would expect all night, but she’d kept a steely grip on her emotions, shoving them behind the Black Widow mask.
She held onto the anger for three chapters. The titular woman wasn’t a redhead, she didn’t have a background of abuse, she wasn’t conditioned by shifty Russian officials. She wasn’t even Russian at all, but Argentinean, and a reporter, and absolutely nothing like Natasha Romanoff. The man holding the gun was also nothing like Clint Barton. If that man had been in that alley in Volgograd instead of Clint, Natasha would not have a debt to repay. She would be dead.
Five chapters in, Natasha set the book down in confusion. She’d always thought writers wrote what they knew. Sure, the espionage aspects of the story were (mostly) accurate, but they didn’t reflect any single mission Clint and Natasha had gone on together.
By the eighth chapter, she forgot about her anger and curled up to read.
The sun rose; Natasha read on.
A knock on her door made her jump nearly a foot in the air. She nearly growled—she was on the last twenty pages, dammit—but she remembered herself at the last possible second. She shoved the book under the covers. “Yeah, Barton?”
Clint stuck his head in, and for a split-second, she held her breath. He didn’t look different, save that he’d wrinkled his nose. “We’re back to Barton again?” he asked.
Natasha cast about for a suitable lie. “You interrupted my sleep.”
“Fair enough. I’m going for a run. Wanna come?”
“I was having a lovely dream, Clint.” Natasha deliberately made a sleepy grumble, stretching against the sheets. “Unless you’re going to crawl in here and contribute to that lovely dream, which will be difficult because my dream was taking place nowhere near New Mexico, you should go on your run.”
“Maybe next time, sweet-cheeks.”
Natasha flung a knife at the doorjamb, throwing it wide on purpose. Clint didn’t even flinch as he grinned at her and shut the door behind him.
The minute she heard the front door open, she picked up her book again and finished it. She allowed herself a moment of reflection before she rolled out of bed and headed into the kitchen to make tea.
There was no doubt in Natasha’s mind that Clint was T.C. Hawke. Should she tell him? Did she want to tell him? Why hadn’t he told her? That seemed like a monumental thing to tell a partner, a roommate, or a friend, and Natasha knew she qualified for all three of those.
But... My Russian.
Maybe the secret career as a bestselling novelist wasn’t the biggest thing he was keeping from her. He’d never said anything about that, either.
But then, neither had she. They had a good partnership. They worked well and they fought well together. They understood each other inside and out. So he’d always understood that there was a part of her that didn’t seem to regard love as all that great. Love was for fools, and it was simple, too simple for adults. What she felt about Clint was far more complicated than that.
She could let it pass, Natasha realized. If she didn’t acknowledge it, they could simply continue on as they had been, good friends, good partners. Nothing would change, and a part of her was fine with that. A bigger part, however, didn’t feel that was very fair. Clint might not have overtly put his feelings out there on the table, but she owed it to him to respond in some way, even if it changed things irrevocably.
She could leave the book on the table, put it entirely in Clint’s court.
But again, not fair, which frustrated her. Natasha Romanoff had never been one to believe in playing fair.
She could ask, bluntly, like ripping a Band-Aid off. That was probably the most honest approach but it might startle him into lying. She frowned, liking that thought even less than playing fair.
The idea hit after twenty minutes of deep thought. Win or lose, Natasha thought as she took her empty teacup to the sink, she was going to do it, and damn the consequences either way. It was too brilliant to pass up.
Three months passed while they watched Jane Foster’s theories become a whole hell of a lot less theoretical with every passing day and every machine calibrated. SHIELD, sensing that the bridge was almost completed, stopped sending them on missions. In the event that Jane was successful, they wanted at least one barrier of defense, though what Natasha and Clint could do against an entire legion of alien troops, Natasha had no idea. They were good, but neither of them was the Hulk.
She passed the time by getting her reading done. A lot of reading done.
When Clint went to the range to work with some of the new arrows, Natasha tagged along, though after a couple of rounds, she’d pick up whatever book she’d chosen that week. She read Tolstoy while Clint tested acid arrows, Bukovsky (while wearing earplugs) during the sonic arrow testing week, Pasternak during the new grappling heads testing session. After Dr. Zhivago, she started pulling in some American culture—Stephen King became a genuine favorite—but it mostly stayed Russian.
Clint rolled his eyes and told her she was going to give herself eye problems, squinting at the page like she did.
He didn’t give any sign that the feelings he wrote about in his dedications—Natasha read all seven of them—were at all present. With each passing day, the feeling of wanting him to grew just a little bit stronger. She began noticing things she’d taken for granted: the shape of his hands, for example, and the way he always glanced at her whenever he laughed like he wanted her to always share his joke. How his smile was just a little bit sleepy in the mornings whenever he asked her to go for a run with him.
Natasha read another book to spite him, chatting idly, as she did each time, about inconsistencies she found in plot and character, in story arc. She could practically hear his teeth beginning to grind together.
Clint, of course, disappeared for long stretches during the day. Before, she’d never wondered what he was up to—she valued her privacy, and his—but now she figured he had to be off somewhere, writing in one of those notebooks. Where did he keep those when he finished with them? Did he burn them? Sometimes he wrote in them in front of her, just the two of them relaxing after a day of waiting. She mulled it over while she thumbed through a Grisham work.
She looked up, grateful for the interruption. Grisham was far more boring than she’d anticipated. “Yeah?”
Clint tapped his pencil against his notebook. “What’s a good synonym for mysterious?”
Natasha thought about it, even while part of her categorized that Clint was asking for her help with one of his novels, something that never happened before. Was it a challenge? A dare? Did he suspect that she knew something? He didn’t write in the notebook in front of her very often, after all.
“Enigmatic,” she said.
“Thanks.” Clint went back to whatever scene he was writing. She was dying to creep over and get a peek, but then he really would know something was up.
She waited until she knew he was thoroughly bored with waiting for something to happen with Jane’s research, and then she brought out She Took My Left Shoe. Clint came back from a run to find her at the table with a cooling mug of tea and the book open to chapter three.
“Good run?” she asked.
“Yeah. Didn’t see anything inter—” Clint broke off mid-sentence.
Natasha looked up quickly, making a show of going for her gun. “Clint? Is something wrong?”
“N-nothing.” Clint went to the sink and poured a glass of water, which he drank without pausing for breath. “Nothing at all. Good book?”
“It’s okay.” She smiled absently. “Trying out a new author. You heard of him? I thought it was funny, Hawke, Hawkeye, that sort of thing.”
“Uh, no—nope, can’t say I have. But then, I don’t read much.”
“Yeah,” Clint said. He didn’t head off right away for his shower like he usually did after his run. Instead, he lurked in the doorway, eyeing her and shifting his feet.
“What’s up with you today?” Natasha asked, deliberately giving him an annoyed look.
“Nothing.” Clint vanished down the hall.
The minute she heard the shower running, Natasha allowed herself a small smile and read on. She’d read She Took My Left Shoe before, of course, but she enjoyed it. In fact, she enjoyed most of Clint’s work, which she’d surreptitiously cleaned out of the local bookstore in Los Rocas, always paying cash. The only one she hadn’t liked was Nightingale’s Charm, but then, the main character was kind of a bitch.
Clint came back in, hair dripping, when she was on chapter six. “I gotta ask, Nat,” he said, sticking his finger in his ear to get rid of some of the excess moisture, “what’s up with the reading lately?”
“I spent many years working non-stop missions for SHIELD. I have much to catch up on.”
“But don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?”
“Not particularly. Some authors are better than others.” Natasha picked up the book.
“Like that one?” Clint asked, his voice casual.
“His prose is perfectly fine. I find some of his spy-craft lacking.”
“Is that fair? Not everybody can be the perfect ex-KGB spy, Madam Black Widow.”
“Of course not. The world would be a much more dangerous place if that were true.” Natasha took a sip of tea. “I wonder if this author uses Wikipedia to search for spy terminology.”
“It doesn’t feel like a bit of a busman’s holiday, reading that?”
“I don’t know what that means.” Natasha smiled because she could practically hear Clint grinding his teeth. “Did you have something you wanted to do today?”
“I thought maybe you’d like to come to the gym and spar with me. That is, if you’re not too busy insulting hard-working authors who probably put a lot of thought into their novels.”
“Touchy, touchy,” Natasha said, but she put down the book. She followed him down to the gym in the basement. “Been awhile since we’ve sparred properly. You’re probably rusty.”
Clint gave her an annoyed look. She gave him an angelic smile in return.
“You know, I don’t understand why more authors can’t write like the Russians. They had weight, you know.”
“Yes, a bunch of fat old men.” Clint rolled his eyes. “Let’s all write like them.”
She wondered if he’d just caught his slip. Probably not.
“It can’t hurt. There’s a reason their stories persevere when so many of these, what do you call them, pop art writers? When so many of these pop art writers fade into obscurity.”
“You’d be surprised by what sticks,” Clint said between his teeth. “And I think the word you’re looking for is ‘pulp.’”
“As in, I will beat you to one? No, that doesn’t sound right.”
“Just get on the mat, Romanoff.”
Natasha ignored him and began her normal stretching regimen, propping her leg up against the wall so that she could stretch out her hamstring. “Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, Barton? Cranky or not, I’ll still kick your ass.”
She liked sparring the most of all of the things they did together. He’d learned to hold his own against her, which meant she had to step up her own game in reply, and it felt good. After a couple of moments, she felt Clint relax, some of the anger fading away.
Of course, she chose to go for the jugular.
She let Clint pin her, levered herself up on her elbow and used their weight to shift them so that she held him in a leg-hold. “So,” she said, while Clint struggled. “Are you ready to tell me now or do I have to keep insulting T.C. Hawke? Because I confess, I’m running out of insults.”
Clint froze. “Tell you what?”
Natasha clenched her legs together tighter.
“Ow! Uncle, uncle, dammit, Tash—”
She released him and they rolled apart, each crouching on opposite sides of the mat, regarding the other.
“You know,” Clint said, looking pale. “How long have you known?”
“How long were you going to wait to tell me?” Natasha wasn’t sure what she was talking about, the books or the feelings. They were so intertwined in her head, all part of that confusing side of Clint that she both understood completely and didn’t understand at all, that it didn’t matter.
Clint’s jaw went firm. “I asked first.”
That was fair. She shrugged. “Three months.”
“You’ve known for three—three months?”
“Yes. Answer my question.” Natasha dared him to look away, to back down from this game of chicken they had found themselves playing. “Or were you never going to tell me at all?”
“It crossed my mind.”
“Because I’d rather have what pieces of you in my life I can get without you knowing than you knowing and being gone because you can’t handle it.” Clint’s eyes were two bright pinpricks across the mat as he stared at her hard. There was a dare there, as well: he dared her to start running, to prove him right, Natasha realized. “That’s how this works. You make the first move here, not me.”
Her chest felt tight. “Why do I have to be the one to do all of the work?”
“Because I’ll take whatever I can get, and I think you’ve known that for years.” Clint pushed himself to his feet and turned to walk away.
Natasha glared at his back. In a heartbeat, she was on her feet, though she had no idea why, and running across the mat. She launched herself, driving both knees into his back. He went down hard, which she might find odd later because he never dropped his guard like that, not even around her. But he hit the floor, barely catching himself, and instinctively rolled, trying to take her out with a sweep of his arm. Natasha put her weight on her hands to avoid being rolled under Clint and dodged the blow. She plopped herself onto his stomach, pinning him to the floor with nothing more than a glower.
“What the hell?” he asked her.
“The conversation wasn’t over.”
He scowled. “I’ve said all I’m going to say about it.”
“Just let me figure it all out, huh? You never struck me as a coward, Clint.”
“Screw you.” Clint grabbed her hips to shove her off of him.
She grabbed his thumb and twisted, not hard enough to damage but hard enough to cause pain. She was annoyed, at him, at herself, at the fluttery feeling in her stomach she didn’t like. “Stop that.”
“Ow. Dammit, Tasha!”
“You are the most frustrating man I have ever met,” Natasha said. “And trust me, I’ve met many frustrating men, but you, you are the worst. Why did you not tell me about Hawke? Why let me think you were just writing notes for all of those years?”
“That many notes?” Clint rolled his eyes; Natasha twisted his thumb harder. “Tasha, I shoot with that hand!”
“You shoot with both hands. Tell me why.”
“You were supposed to snoop—ow, let go, will you? You were supposed to snoop and find out years ago, but you didn’t, and I thought you didn’t care, so I just…let it go.”
Natasha gave him a baffled look. “I was respecting your privacy,” she said, speaking to him as though he were a slow child. “Why would you ever think I don’t care?”
“You always snoop. You bugged Sanderson’s office when you thought he had a secret girlfriend at SHIELD.”
“Yes, but that’s Sanderson. That was for blackmail to get out of doing patrols. Sanderson is not you, Clint.” Natasha frowned at him. The fluttering hadn’t abated at all, but she let go of his hand. He let it rest on the mat, next to her knee, while she gave the matter some thought. “Let me get this straight: you wanted me to spy on you and find out you were Hawke the entire time? Is that what you’re saying?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know.” Clint hit the back of his head into the mat a few times, a frustrated look on his face. “This is a mess. I wanted you to know and I didn’t want you to know because I didn’t know how you’d take it. We can forget all about it, if you want. I’ll stop writing, and we can pretend this never happened.”
“Why would you do that?” Natasha almost wanted to cuff him upside the head. She settled instead for giving him yet another puzzled look. “Your writing is wonderful.”
Clint’s eyes shot open.
“Though your fans are scary. And possibly not right in the head.”
“Wait,” Clint said, grabbing her knee in shock. “You liked the book?”
“Books. And I already said so, didn’t I?”
For a long time, so long that she grew uncomfortable, Clint stared at her, his mouth slightly open, a stunned look on his face. Finally, he broke the gaze to lean his head back against the floor. Laughter shook his torso, reverberating up through her legs. His laughter spilled out until he was beating the floor with his fists and she was smiling, despite herself. She recognized the emotion: relief. He was relieved that she liked the books. It mattered that much to him. How long had he carried that around? She wondered while she waited for him to stop laughing.
Eventually, he did, dashing at the tears of laughter in his eyes. When he looked at her now, the anger was gone, but Natasha could sense it: the next move was hers.
This was where she would croon some meaningless nothing at her mark, if this were an op. But it wasn’t an op, it was her life, and it was important.
So she regarded him, somberly. “I was angry with you when I found about your books, especially The Woman in the Crosshairs.”
“You thought it was Volgograd,” Clint said.
Natasha nodded, once.
“It wasn’t. Mostly. I made sure of that.”
“True. And the parts of it that were, they don’t bother me.” Natasha tilted her head. She’d mused over this for so long and hard that it felt strange to say the words aloud. “I like…that you did not put our story into words.”
“Trust me,” Clint said, grinning. “I’m talented, but not that talented.”
“Your ego, it seems, made it through the transition unharmed.” Natasha rolled her eyes.
Clint propped himself up on his elbows. “Face it, Tash, nobody would believe our story. And that’s okay with me. It’s better that way.”
“Always,” Clint said, and leaned in to kiss her. Or possibly she leaned in to kiss him. She lingered in the feeling, sensing that somehow the missing piece of what made them partners had finally settled into place, while Clint kissed her slowly and almost hesitantly. His fingertips rested, so light she could barely feel them, on her knees, as if he really wasn’t sure he was allowed to touch.
She scooted closer, grabbing a handful of his shirt. And when he finally got the message, wrapping an arm around and pulling her down to him, she picked up his free hand and twisted his thumb.
He broke the kiss. “Ow! What the hell!”
“Your Russian?” Natasha met his eye. “I don’t like the ownership, Barton.”
“It wasn’t—geez, I just didn’t want to use your name. Ow. I’m going to have to southpaw it this week, Tash.”
“Don’t do it again.”
“From now on, you shall remain N. There, happy?”
“Ecstatic,” Natasha said, and let him pull her down to the mat.
If she was worried things might be weird with Clint by adding this new territory to their partnership, she quickly discovered she had nothing to fear. They knew each other’s rhythm well enough that it was almost a seamless transition. They were still friends and partners first, after all, but now there was a physical side to be explored. As a bonus, New Mexico became a lot less boring. Sure, there wasn’t much to do but to wait for Jane Foster to finish the breakthrough that seemed to come in fits and starts. She didn’t care, though she imagined there was probably a betting pool back at headquarters over which one of them would kill the other first just to get away from scientist babysitting duty. Coulson dropped by regularly to check on the progress. If he noticed a shift in the relationship, he never said.
It did, however, lead Natasha to a question she’d been dying to ask since the first time she’d picked up one of Clint’s books. “Does SHIELD know?” she asked, shifting to find a more comfortable position in the sheets. Or at least a warmer one. New Mexican nights were chilly and she might be Russian by birth, but that didn’t mean she precisely had to like freezing.
“About what?” Clint had a purple notebook this time. She’d picked it up on a trip to Los Rocas for him. He’d given the color a disdainful look, but Natasha noticed the notebook was almost full by now. It lay open on the desk in front of him.
“The books. Duh.”
“Oh. No, as far as I can tell, they don’t. I mean, Phil’s a fan.” Clint tapped the pencil eraser against the margin.
“He wrote me—or, well, he wrote T.C. Hawke, I guess you should say—a letter, a few years back, after Rearview Mirror came out. He wanted to know something about Ken Carlton.”
Carlton was one of Clint’s recurring characters. According to his website, which was run by a few rabid Hawkeheads, Carlton was going to star in Clint’s next novel as the titular character for the first time. Natasha was looking forward to that. Carlton made her laugh.
“Yeah, I wrote back, and we’ve exchanged a few letters every year. He gets an advance copy.” Clint smiled when she lifted her head, alarmed. “They never include the dedications.”
“Even so, he knows,” Natasha said.
“You have an entire group of people that speculate about the identity of N on public forums, easily found by Google. They know she is Russian and scary. Coulson knows.”
Clint frowned. “You think he has time to run internet searches on my fans?”
“Better hope not. But if he knows, Fury knows. SHIELD knows.”
“Oh, well.” Clint flipped the notebook closed and, resting his pencil on top of it, put it on the bedside table before he slid under the covers. “If he knows, he hasn’t said anything about it. I’m not going to worry about it. Much.”
“I could distract you,” Natasha said, nudging his calf with her toe.
He winced. “God, your feet are like ice. I should probably help you out with that before you kick me with them.”
“You have the strangest ideas for sweet talk, Barton.”
“As only befits the situation, Romanoff. But I could quote Shakespeare at you, if you like.”
“Why do you assume the only great writers are English?” She tugged once at the hem of his T-shirt; he obliged her by pulling the article of clothing off.
“Because you laugh at my accent whenever I use Russian.”
“Only a little,” Natasha said, and then they were too busy to talk.
Two days before Clint’s newest book hit shelves, Natasha started awake and looked around their bedroom. She didn’t see any immediate danger, but that didn’t mean anything. She touched Clint’s arm; he woke, eyes already roving. When he looked at her questioningly, she shook her head. She wasn’t sure either.
As one, they climbed out of bed. Clint picked up his bow, she grabbed her Glock from the panel she’d built into Clint’s headboard. She took point, peering out into the hallway. The hair on the back of her neck was standing up, a feeling she had never liked. What had happened?
There was nobody in the hallway or the kitchen. Natasha and Clint exchanged another look.
When they reached the living room, the door was flung open. Natasha spun, about to fire, and cursed instead.
Thor looked at the barrel of the gun and the nocked arrow pointed at him. “Hello, friends,” he said. “It is only I. Lady Darcy assured me I had no need to knock and …oh.”
He looked down quickly, and Natasha saw something very few people in the universe had ever had the pleasure of witnessing: the God of Thunder blushing scarlet like a schoolboy. She gave Clint a confused look, and he cleared his throat.
Only then did she realize that neither of them had stopped to pull on clothes.
“Ahem,” Clint said. “Thor. Good to see you.”
“Friend Barton,” Thor said, not looking at either of them. “Lady Natasha. I feel I must apologize. I had no idea.”
“I’m just going to…” Natasha gestured helplessly toward the hallway and hurried off. When she looked in the mirror as she pulled on clothing, she was annoyed to find that Thor wasn’t the only one flushed red. She scowled at Clint, who was pulling on pants. “We can keep every visiting SHIELD agent from catching us off guard for months, but then one god walks into our living room and it’s all out there in the open?”
Clint had the look on his face that was telling her he was trying not to laugh. “Be glad it’s the one person who doesn’t own a camera phone.”
“Yes, precisely what I need, naked pictures of me all over the Internet.” Natasha rolled her shoulders. “If Thor’s back and the bridge is open, it looks like our time in New Mexico is up.”
“I’ll miss it.”
“Me, too. We’d better call Coulson, let him know the bridge is open, and one of us needs to talk to Jane about things like ‘informing the secret agents nearby that a giant vortex between worlds has been opened’ in a timely manner. I need coffee.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll leave the nudity out of the report.”
“My hero,” Natasha said, and headed out to go have the most awkward cup of coffee she’d ever shared with an Asgardian in her life.
It took two hours for orders to come down the pipeline, telling them to grab the scientists, Darcy, and Thor and get back to headquarters ASAP. As it happened, ASAP turned out to be mid-morning. Jane needed time to double-check her calculations and was understandably wary about letting SHIELD techs anywhere near them, Darcy wanted to say good-bye to the guy Natasha had heard far too many personal and nauseating details about over the past few weeks, and Selvig had to be collected from Albuquerque. Natasha used the downtime wisely; she grabbed Clint and hauled him to the Jeep.
“Where are we going?”
“We have a mission.”
“I didn’t hear anything from SHIELD. You didn’t let me grab my backup. I feel naked.”
“It’s not that kind of mission. You won’t need your bow.”
Clint gave her a measuring look. “So it’s a lame mission?”
She pulled up to the little bookstore right after it opened. “I’m going to distract the clerk,” she said. “Under the counter, there’s a book. The clerk’s name is Daisy.”
“What? What the hell is going on?”
“Just follow my lead, Barton.”
The bell jangled overhead as she stepped in and Daisy—who had sold her T.C. Hawke’s entire collection—came over with a big grin. “We don’t have it yet,” she said. “Well, we do, but I’m not supposed to put it on the shelf until tomorrow.”
“What?” Clint asked.
“He’s not a Hawkehead, huh?” Daisy asked Natasha.
“No, I can safely say he’s not.”
Daisy sighed as though Clint had committed a cardinal sin. It was all Natasha could do not to smirk, especially because Clint was looking between the two of them as though everybody in the room with him had gone mad.
“I keep him around as arm candy,” Natasha said. “But I’m actually on my way out of town. I can’t talk you into selling me an early copy?”
“My boss would kill me.”
“Damn. Well, I don’t want to get you in trouble.” Natasha made a big show of sighing.
It worked. “But I could show you, if you wanted to see them,” Daisy said. “They’re in a box in the back. I mean, you have to promise you won’t steal one or anything, but…oh, you should see it, there’s a new mystery dedication, it’s so neat.”
“I’d love that,” Natasha said, not having to lie at all. Coulson might have gotten an advanced copy of Clint’s latest novel, but the idiot hadn’t said a single word about giving one to her. She felt it was a little unfair. “I won’t steal anything, I promise.”
“Then come with me.” Daisy practically scrambled for the back room in her excitement to show off the newest Hawke novel. Natasha gave Clint a significant look as she followed; he split off, heading for the cash register.
There was a small box of the books, all in hardcover, all glossy and waiting for their spines to be cracked for the first time. Daisy handed her a copy with a reverent look, and it took everything Natasha had, once more, to keep her smile contained. She studied the man in a suit and shades on the cover, done in black and white with a blue gradient background behind him. The title was in silver this time, over tiny white words that declared T.C. Hawke a “New York Times Bestselling Author!”
She flipped to the back, read the synopsis. The story was both familiar and foreign, but the elements of mind control and vigilantism made her blink. Of course, she thought. This must have been the thing he’d worked on during their three months apart after the Chitauri invasion. It all made sense, that this book and this subject would be his catharsis.
“It looks so good,” Daisy said. “Carlton’s one of the best characters ever.”
“Mm, he’s fantastic, yes.” Natasha wasn’t sure if she was talking about the fictional one or the live one, who’d probably already read his advanced copy. She grinned as she flipped open the cover of A G-Man Goes to War to read the dedication. She’d be lying if she said the dedications weren’t her favorite part. It was different this time, but it still made her heart flutter.
“Any idea who P is?” Natasha asked as she handed the book back to Daisy.
“None, but it’s exciting, isn’t it?”
Clint was waiting for her by the car, smirking. “Mission accomplished, Nat.”
“Good, now let’s get out of here before she discovers it and we actually do get caught out with a camera phone or she chases after my car like a Terminator.”
“I love it when you reference pop culture.” Clint swung into the passenger seat, all ease. Neither of them truly relaxed until they were free of Los Rocas.
They were given only two hours at headquarters for debriefing about the bridge opening before a situation erupted in Malaysia and the pair of them were kitted out and en route to save the world once again. They left Thor (who had finally stopped blushing when he looked at Natasha) and the others to Coulson and took off in the Quinjet with a team of agents, mostly newbies who had never had the honor of working with the famed Hawkeye and Black Widow.
Natasha spent the trip smirking until Clint looked up from his notebook and said, “Quit that. It’s scaring the plebes.”
“If you insist,” Natasha said.
Clint handed over a shopping bag. She gave her patented What have you been putting up your nose, Barton? look and opened it. The blue cover of the book inside made her laugh. “Cute.”
“I hope you like it. I hear the author signed it. Sort of.”
“Excuse me, sir, but what you writing?” Agent Wentworth, who was still so green that the Hulk might have competition, asked Clint, making both senior agents look over.
He grinned over at Natasha before he answered. “Oh, you know. Just some notes.”
Natasha rolled her eyes back at him before she flipped the book open to the dedication page. It hadn’t changed, of course. It still read “Dedicated to P (though you could have let me know you weren’t dead) and N, for being my partner.”
Clint, though, had written in more.
It simply said “Always.”