Agent Cornish licked one finger and pointed to the rafters, like he was testing the wind – his variation of an all-clear signal – before swanning into the smoky dance floor of Club Melange.
“That guy is such a cowboy,” Agent Varella groaned.
Agent Barton crouched in the catwalk above the stage. From here, he saw the top of Cornish’s head, his shiny black hair picking up the red tinge of lighting. Cornish took up his place at the west edge of the dance floor, snagging a champagne flute from one of the turbanned waiters circulating among the patrons.
Barton touched a finger to his earpiece. “Sir, Sheriff’s in position,” he said, his tone crisp, businesslike.
“And the Deputy?” the Director asked.
“Why am I the Deputy?” Varella whined. “Can’t I be, like, the Ranger or something?”
“I’m the Ranger,” Barton answered.
“Thought you were the Hawk,” Varella said.
“Whatever,” Barton snapped. “We discussed this. Keep the com clear. Blacksmith, come in?”
“I'm in position,” Agent Scott answered. “And I agree. We gotta come up with better names. Next time we use Hollywood actors. I call Mae West.” She sounded nearby, and Barton scanned for her. Directly below, a 1940s swing band was taking the stage. He caught Agent Scott’s reflection in the brassy curve of a trumpet – backstage and well-concealed.
“Just so long as it’s not Hitchcock movies again,” Varella said, and both Cornish and Scott groaned in unison.
“Wh— Hey,” Barton stammered. “Just ’cause you guys don’t appreciate the classics—“
“It helps to have code names we can remember,” Scott said.
“And I don’t wanna have to be Agent Bates again,” Varella said. “Ever.”
Scott said, “But you were great at it. One might say a master...”
“Hey, all right, enough,” Barton snapped. He touched his earpiece. “Sir, the team’s in place.”
“Good,” the Director answered. “Now, be forewarned, the target has escaped custody three times in the last six months. Meaning we had her in our hot little hands and she beat us. Three times. This makes me less than happy. She is well-armed, well-trained, and will use deadly force. All we need from this transaction is Urbanov’s command drive. We don’t need her to get to Tovsky. We clear?”
Barton heard Varella’s snort when Cornish didn’t answer.
“Are we clear?” the Director asked again.
“Aye, Captain,” Cornish answered. “Kill if necessary.” He downed his champagne and eased into a conversation with a Texas oil tycoon and a Sudanese dignitary.
Barton cranked a tranq dart into a hand-held crossbow. Beneath him, the band began to tune, and the crowd lit up with excitement. This was his favorite part of a mission – the taut anticipation as weeks of preparation tightened into focus. He balanced on a two-inch strut above the stage, his feet poised to spring into the rigging at a second’s notice. From here, he could see every inch of Club Melange: the stage and the dance floor, the dining area and casino flanking it, the bar and entrances up front. The place smelled of dirt and kerosene, but it was classy enough to pack in a crowd.
He touched his earpiece again. “Any sign of the Widow’s mark?”
“Not yet,” came Varella’s response. Then, “Wait. Yep. There he is. Yaro Urbanov. Sheriff, he’s at your eight. Copy?
Barton saw Cornish’s head tilt and followed his gaze. There he was, a grim man in a grim suit – Yaro Urbanov, human trafficker, arms dealer, your basic scumlord. Urbanov cut across the dining room like a scythe, bound straight for Cornish’s group. Barton tensed, his hand going to the bow at his back.
Then Urbanov’s face split into a fierce smile as he shook the oil tycoon’s hand. The Texan introduced Urbanov to Cornish and the dignitary, and the three eased into a boisterous conversation.
Barton caught a familiar flicker from the corner of his eye. He checked the opposite side of the room and confirmed his suspicions.
“Visual confirmation of Urbanov’s comrades,” Barton said. “At least two: One south, one west, copy?”
“Noted,” Scott answered.
“Yep,” Varella agreed. “Pretty obvious. That guy in back looks like a Bond villain.”
Barton’s hackles rose. Urbanov’s “friend” did have a conspicuous air. “Something’s not right,” he muttered.
Scott said, “Like the love child of Lurch and a Bond villain.”
“Keep the com clear,” Barton growled. He shifted his weight forward to better scan the wide bar at the front. Varella covered the east entrance near the Black Jack table, and – there –
“Deputy, eyes on the bartender,” Barton said. “He’s looking squirrelly.”
“Yeah, I see him,” Varella said. “Gonna run a thumbnail search, see if we’ve met this guy before.”
Barton heard the familiar whine of bandwidth access over the com as Varella launched his retinal database.
“That was quick,” Varella said. “Gotta match, Captain. Bartender is none other than Perlo Metryvich, one of Urbanov’s henchbuddies. I could run a check of the wait staff, but I’m pretty sure Urbanov’s got this place seeded.”
“We knew this was a possibility,” the Director said. “A trap within a trap.”
Barton flexed his forearms and whispered. “So they want the Widow, too.”
“Yes, well, this makes things more complicated,” the Director said. “Not that it needs being said, but be careful.”
“Trapception,” Varella said.
“Actually, it’s not,” Agent Scott chimed in. “It’s two traps, side by side, not one within the other—”
“Will you please keep the com clear?” Barton bit out.
“Sorry, boss,” Varella said.
“Sorry,” Scott said.
Just then, the band leader swung onstage, and the crowd around the dance floor burst into applause.
“Good evening, Ladies and Gentleman,” he crooned in a cheerful Australian accent. “Have we got a show for you! Swing City is here...” The crowd answered with raucous cheering. As the band leader continued, static crisped over the com.
“I’ve got movement backstage,” Agent Scott intoned.
Barton pivoted on his heel and crept along the catwalk. The band launched into Beyond the Sea, and couples flooded the dance floor.
“Visual?” Barton hissed. No reply. Barton swung across the lighting ropes to just above where Scott was supposed to be.
“I got visual,” Varella blurted. “Sheriff, she’s right behind you.”
“No—” Barton dived to his original position in time to see a flash of light. Urbanov and the Sudanese man shared a grin as Cornish tottered sideways, but the smile was short-lived. Urbanov crumpled into Cornish just as the song burst into the horns’ solo. Both men sprawled onto the dance floor. Barton saw only a flash of white – the inside of Urbanov’s coat? – as Urbanov’s henchmen barreled into action.
It was happening so fast. None of the civilians understood what was going on. The band continued to play, ramping into the blaring chorus.
Barton shouted into the com, “Sheriff and Blacksmith are down! So is Urbanov. Varella, watch yourself.”
“That’s impossible. It’s too fast, nobody’s that fucking fast!” Varella babbled. “Is she working with a team? I don’t see her!”
“No one does,” Barton said. He swept the bow from his back, nocked his arrow, fired. Before the first henchman fell, Barton had taken down the bartender, and was aiming for the third when he saw a black-clad figure snap Varella’s neck.
“Dammit!” He popped the crossbow from his belt and as he took aim, she turned and stared straight up at him.
Then she blew him a kiss before disappearing into the crowd.
Barton released a trembling breath. “Captain, she’s gone,” he muttered. “It’s over.”
A wave of anger and disbelief swept through him. How had she known they were there? How had she seen him? And how had one woman taken out his entire team – one of the finest, best-trained ops teams in the world – in less than 90 seconds.
There was only one explanation. Someone must have betrayed them. And the one person with answers just blew him a kiss and breezed from the room like it was all part of the show.
“Agent Barton! Hawkeye! Do you copy?”
Barton touched his earpiece. “Captain.”
“Not yet, Sir,” he said. “I’m going after her.”
“That is not advisable. It is not sanctioned. Your team—”
“My team is dead, Sir,” Barton said. He ripped the com from his ear and let it drop. Beneath him, the crowd dissolved into chaos as they discovered the fallen bodies around them. He laced his hands in the rigging ropes and hauled himself into the rafters, slipping back through the open window, and into the dust-choked night.
He slots the key card into the lock and pushes the door open. After the last few days, even that seemed like a Herculean feat. But the air inside the suite feels cool and welcome and dark, and once that door shuts, they are cut off from the world, on their own. Finally alone.
They drop their bags behind the door. She grips his arms and they tumble backward. She presses him against the wall. Partly playfulness. Partly exhaustion. He goes with it, pulling her body to his. He buries his face in her hair, which somehow still smells like berry-banana-something despite the metric ton of city dust caking every exposed inch of their skin.
She’s cut her hair recently. He doesn’t remember when, but it’s shoulder length now. He wonders if he should know. They often go months without seeing one another. Maybe he hadn’t seen it yet? He tries to think back to when he last saw her – before – and winces.
“Hey,” she whispers into his neck. “It’s okay. It’s over.”
He runs his fingers through the fringe of her hair. “I know,” he says. “This remembering thing might take some time.”
He tries to think of some way to describe what he feels when he tries to remember. Not exactly pain, but a stretching unpleasantness, like skin snagging on razor wire that’s so sharp you don’t feel it until the damage is done.
“We have time,” she says, bringing her forehead to his. “We’ll figure it out.” She unclasps her belt and lets it slide to the floor. “Shower?
“Hmm.” He brings one hand to the zipper of her suit and slowly draws it down. Strange, he thinks, and not for the first time, that no matter how beaten and bruised they are after a mission, get them behind closed doors, and they’re randy as a pair of wild minks.
“Some things you never forget,” she says, dipping down to nip his neck.
The simultaneous buzz of their cell phones interrupts them.
He snaps it from his belt. “Turning that off,” he groans as he thumbs the off button, but she’s already reading the text on her screen.
“It’s Director Fury,” she says. “Medical screen. Oh-nine-hundred, tomorrow morning.”
“I’m thinking... no,” he says. He tugs the zipper down to her navel, then slips his hands under the suit’s shoulders and shoves, sliding the leather down to free her arms. Then his hands go to work on the laces of her secondary armor.
“Yeah,” she agrees, as he rips the lacing free and tosses the garment aside. “We’re gonna be busy.”
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
Port Sa’id, Egypt
One day after failed SHIELD Mission to bring in the Black Widow
Agent Barton lit along the rooftop of an abandoned dockside hotel. In the alley three stories below, a figure dressed in a blue salwar kameez wound between empty crates and bins, her footfalls completely silent in spite of the trash that littered the ground.
At the sound of a faint scraping noise, she whipped around, her hands raised in fists, but too high and too far apart to be effective in defense. From his perch, he could see her expression, the fear in her eyes, the way she turned her head from side to side to determine the direction of the sound. She baited the trap well. They would think her cornered, defenseless.
Barton knew better. He nocked an arrow. He waited.
After a moment, she began to inch backward along the alley, noisily knocking aside bottles and cartons as she went.
Then the men appeared in the open doorway of the hotel. Three of them, two with handguns trained upon her. The third stepped into the alley.
“Well, well, Lady Romanoff,” the man said. South African, Barton noted. “Seems you are trapped.”
Barton drew a steadying breath, took aim, watched.
She glanced wildly about. “No, you don’t understand,” she said. “Things went wrong in Cairo. There was another team. The Americans—”
“Yes, we heard,” the man said, stepping closer. “We also learned that you completed your objective. You have Urbanov’s command drive.”
“No, you’re mistaken,” she said. She took a faltering step backward, and the armed men flanking their leader each sighted their guns on her. “Urbanov was clean.” She raised her hands in surrender. “Please. He didn’t have it, he—”
“You lie!” the man shouted. “We saw the surveillance. You took the drive after killing the American. Now give it to us, and we’ll part friends.”
“Please,” she said again, her voice hoarse and imploring. “I’m unarmed. I don’t have the drive. I failed. I’m here to find passage to Amman, that’s all.”
“Amman?” the man said. He and one of his men exchanged a look. The armed men moved forward once more. This time, Romanoff held her ground. “Tell me, what’s in Amman?”
“M-my contact,” she said. “He knows something went wrong. He’ll be looking for me if I don’t arrive at the designated time, and I don’t need to tell you, he’s a very, very powerful man.”
“Tovsky,” Barton whispered. His fingers tightened on the bowstring.
“We wouldn’t want to anger Arnault Tovsky,” the man said, a bitter laugh lacing his words. “So you will arrive at the designated time. Not all in one piece...”
That’s when it happened. One of the flunkies stepped within range, and Romanoff whipped the beaded tail of her scarf around his neck. She yanked it hard, and as he stumbled, she turned his gun on his partner, fired twice, and then sprang back, pulling the stunned gunman to the ground. She twisted the scarf tight around his throat. He flailed, his shots firing wild, ricocheting off the bricks, sending the leader bolting for cover.
With a final twist of the scarf, she crushed the man’s larynx. She plucked the gun from his still twitching fingers and trained it on the leader.
“Who do you work for?” she ordered.
He got slowly to his feet, hands splayed in surrender. “Unarmed indeed,” he said, shaken, but visibly impressed.
She fired a shot off the rim of a crate, sending splinters into his face.
“Give me his name!”
The man gave her a sad smile. “To give his name would mean my long and tortured demise. You may have that honor now, save me the pain.”
She fired again, into his thigh. He crumpled, screaming. Romanoff stood over him, gun pointed at his other leg. “I’m not going to kill you,” she bit out. “Not til I get a name.”
The man wrenched his body upright and leaned against the crate to stare at her. After a moment, he regained some composure. This time, when he raised his hands, they were coated with blood.
“It’s Turgen,” he told her.
Turgen? Barton didn’t recognize the name, but by the way Romanoff’s head snapped up, he could tell that she knew it quite well.
“So you see,” the man said. “We each have our demons. Wouldn’t you agree, Lady Romanoff?”
And Lady Romanoff shot him in the face.
Barton loosed his arrow then. It struck where he intended, in a crate an inch above her shoulder. She spun and found him in less than a blink. She started for the doorway, and he let another arrow fly – this one an incendiary tip that sliced through the hem of her kameez as she dived inside. The tip exploded on contact with the jamb, rocking the building and, as Barton planned, sealing the doorway behind her.
He leapt from his rooftop onto the fire escape of the abandoned hotel. He gave half a moment’s consideration to the state of his sanity and the fact that he was leaping into a burning building, before he vaulted the banister, slid to the first floor landing, then dived into a gaping balcony overlooking the ballroom below.
From here, he had full view of the ballroom and plenty of cover in the balcony. Five similar balconies ringed the empty dance floor. She would guess he’d take the high ground, but which balcony?
Light lanced in dust-choked rays from the wrecked rooftop above. He smelled smoke and something like burning cloth. He dialed a specific arrow into his quiver, set it, and paused.
She walked straight into the ballroom, not like an agent in stealth mode, not like a fearful girl on the run, but with all the poise and purpose of a queen surveying her subjects.
In the center of the room, she stopped and lifted her head. She said, “I know you’re here.”
She still faced forward, into the balcony directly ahead. Barton was on her right, concealed, but for a moment, he was tempted to just throw up his hands and say, “Yep. You got me. Here I am!”
He didn’t, but he did hesitate. He stretched his bowstring tight. His heart pounded. He couldn’t move.
Smoke filtered in, stirring into the slanting sunlight. She looked small and vulnerable in the checkerboard of bright and dark beneath him. He’d seen her fake helpless with the men she’d just killed, but this time, she looked... afraid.
“Look, you win, all right,” she said. “Shoot me and get it over with.”
He watched her, then, as she turned a slow circle, taking the whole place in, gauging distances, noting details. Searching. At last, she raised her gun, aiming at a spot twenty feet from his hiding place.
“You’re CIA, right?” she said. “You’re the one from Club Melange. The Hawk.”
Barton tensed. Only a handful of SHIELD agents ever called him that. His mind reeled back to the nightclub in Cairo, to the conversation on the com, to the suspicion that they had been compromised. Varella had called him the Hawk. But if she knew their nicknames, she would know they weren’t CIA...
It was a trick. She was playing him. And he’d fallen into the snare. Absurd, he thought, that he’d set this trap, yet he was the one hiding.
“Enough,” he said, pulling to full height, leveling the arrow on her. She took aim as well, squeezed the trigger, and... nothing. She was empty.
She tossed the gun aside. “Do it,” she said. “Before the fire catches and burns us both down.”
The tension burned his arms as he held the shot, and she looked up at him, her blue eyes at once fierce and frightened.
“Too late for that,” he muttered and let the arrow fly.
It struck her full in the chest. The round head exploded in tensile cords that spun around her arms and legs and face, pinning her struggling body to the ground. He leaped the balcony rail, rolled, then darted to her side. Flames ribboned up the far wall and into the ceiling. The place was catching quicker than he’d bargained for. She was screaming at him through the cords around her mouth, her eyes bulging and wild. He bundled her over his shoulder and charged toward the furthest balcony.
“Now,” he said, setting her back against the wall. “There’s only one way outta here.” He dialed in another arrow shaft, fitting it with a specialized tip. “It’s up over that ledge. You wanna get out, you’re gonna have to help me.”
She glared at him. He grinned.
“Okay then.” He fired the arrow. A nylon cord looped from it, disappearing over the balcony’s edge. The arrowhead struck with a wooden thunk and Barton pulled the cord to test it. Then he pulled her to her feet, lashed the cord around their waists, and using carabiners from his belt, he made a friction knot.
They ascended the rope, but the fire spread faster, and by the time they hoisted over the balcony rail, the whole place was ablaze. Agent Barton cut the lash that bound them, then sliced through the cords around Romanoff’s legs.
Panic flickered in her eyes as she looked from him to the flames.
“It’s a straight shot,” he assured her. Behind them, one of the balconies sheered off and tumbled into the fire that engulfed the ballroom. “Stay close. I’ll get us out.”
She nodded. He ran down the dark corridor with her on his heels. As they reached the window that led out onto the fire escape, flames burst through the outer wall, scattering burning hunks of timber and plaster, knocking Romanoff to her knees. She rolled sideways and the floor crumbled beneath her, but Barton caught the beaded nape of her kameez.
There was a moment, then; one that would haunt his memory, a moment when he thought he couldn’t hold her, before he braced against the old brick of the hotel. She swung at his arm’s length, her torso bound, her mouth gagged, her eyes blazing up at him. He heard her breathing, heard his own heartbeat, felt the mortar of old bricks crumbling under his weight.
But he did hold on.
He managed to shift his weight and swing them onto the fire escape. Then they dropped to the street and became lost in the crowd as people ran toward the building with urns and casks and buckets of water.
This is one of their rituals. After every mission, since... well, he can’t remember.
But the shower part. It's hard to forget.
And this is a fine shower. In times past, they’ve had outdoor facilities with cold lake water and the very real danger of bacterial parasites. But their suite at the Carlyle has an enclosed tile shower that could comfortably house a pair of dolphins. It’s very SHIELD in its high-tech lighting, multi-directional jets, and temperature controls, but they both just want warm water and soap.
In times past, too, they’ve been injured and bone-weary, yet never quite on this scale.
They step naked into the spray and fold into each other. He closes his eyes and feels his memories bubbling close to the surface, but blurred like a damaged photograph, and he’s angry, because those are the ones he wants to keep. The memories of them together, the training, the fighting, the fucking-each-other-blind, all of them.
“Clint... here,” she says, tilting his chin up. “Lemme see.”
She takes his arm in her hands and runs her fingers all the way down, tracing rivulets in the shower spray. She does the same with the other, until she comes to the abraded spot where his armguard chafed him during battle.
“Not bad,” she says. “Your arms were pretty exposed, so you're lucky you got away nearly unscathed.”
It’s an ongoing argument they have, and he eases into it. “Armor restricts movement when you’re firing a bow.”
She grins. “Just sayin’ you’re lucky. My turn.”
He checks her arms next. Then he touches the raised welt on her neck, the one from his own bow string. It pains him, that purpling mark, but they say nothing. He moves instead to a minor cut on her collarbone, which he rinses clean. It’s not deep, but he remembers a time before, a mission in Mumbai, when a blade struck a centimeter from her carotid. He goes cold at the memory, at how close they come sometimes to losing...
But she’s moved on. She’s spread a gingery lather onto a mesh sponge, and she’s scrubbing masonry dust from his neck. She runs it down his back and he flinches at the pain in his kidney. She turns him around.
“Damn, Clint, that's a” she breathes. “Bad bruise.”
He grits his teeth. “Armor absorbed most of it. Fell through a window.”
“You may have broken ribs,” she says. “Maybe that med screen’s not such a bad idea.”
He catches her wrists and turns her to face him. “Not gonna happen, Nat. I’ve had broken ribs before, remember? This is a bruise. Besides, what we’re doing right now, this is far more comprehensive than any SHIELD med screen.”
She lifts a brow. “One might say therapeutic.”
He traces the edge of a cut in her hairline. “That could need stitches,” he says.
“Maybe five hours ago,” she counters.
He sucks air over his teeth. “Gotta check the scalp.”
“I don’t wanna,” she says.
“Nat, we have to. Remember Dubai?”
She rolls her eyes. He hadn’t, not until just then, when it swam back up at him. That battle had been similar to this one: Urban setting, skyscrapers exploding, loads of broken glass, lots of it caught in her hair. In Dubai, their attackers had been Taliban mujahadin. Here it had been an alien race, the Chitauri.
He thinks again about her haircut. He wants to ask but doesn’t. He’s afraid he’s supposed to know...
She turns around and tilts her head, letting the spray paint her hair dark. With deft fingers, he parts and re-parts her hair, looking for tiny slivers of glass. He doesn’t find any.
“All good,” he says.
“Your turn,” she says. She spins him around, tousles his hair. Then he feels her lips graze his neck and ghost along the top of his shoulder. Her hands slide to his hips and she presses against him.
“Hey, you’re skipping ahead,” he says. He turns and pulls her into his arms. The water courses over them, between their bodies, and tired as he is, he feels a familiar stirring.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Her lips curve into a grin.
He puts her against the smooth tile of the shower wall. She brings her legs around his waist, and he glides inside her.
It hurts. The bruises, the strained tendons, the thousand tiny nicks and cuts and scrapes. They’re both in pain and exhausted beyond human limitations. But he moves with slow, patient deliberation. This is their ritual. Their reconnection. Their reminder, that though their lives are extraordinary, they are human.
She comes suddenly, exquisitely, her whole body arching into it. He follows a moment later, releasing inside her, hot and blinding, and they’re both so spent, it’s all they can do to wrap themselves in towels and tumble into bed.
In this chapter, It gets a little sexy.
Port Sa’id, Egypt
Two days after failed SHIELD Mission
to bring in the Black Widow
“Here,” he said, drawing a short knife from his belt. “Turn around.”
She did as he asked without hesitation, and he sliced through the constricting threads that bound her. As he unwound the fabric, layer by layer, he felt her gaze on him, sullen and observant. Once he freed her arms, she kneaded the circulation back into them, and he was careful, in the way of lion tamers and bomb techs. But she remained surprisingly still. Not that it made him feel any safer.
He paused as he unwound the strip of cloth at her neck. “I'm gonna ungag you now. Don't scream, okay?”
She glanced at his knife, then arched her brow.
“Right.” He gave the fabric a little tug and it peeled from her lips.
“What is that?” she asked. “It's like, silk or something?”
“Spider silk,” he said. “Prototype.”
“Taken from Spiderman.”
He stared at her. “Borrowed. Yes. It's an organic compound five hundred times stronger than steel cable. Leaves a residue, though. Hope you aren’t too attached to that kameez.”
“I'm not,” she said. She raised her arms over her head, and Barton jumped back, ready for a fight. She paused mid-motion, her kameez bunched at her neck, exposing her midriff and the underside of a black bra. She smiled. “C'mon. Can't a girl get undressed without it being an act of aggression?”
His brow furrowed. “Just keep your hands where I can see them.”
She pulled the kameez over her head and tossed it aside. “You caught me fair and square,” she told him. She leaned against the wall and arched her back, making the most of her slender waist and ample breasts. “What do you intend to do with me?”
“Really?” he said. “Does that even work?”
She swiveled her hips. He found an interesting spot in the wall above her head.
“Always,” she said.
“On trained agents?”
“On men,” she returned. After a beat, she added, “Some women.”
He crouched beside her, his face dangerously close to hers. “You murdered my team. Took them and the Russians out in seconds.” He was shaking and had to remember to breathe. “Until yesterday, I thought you were working with a partner, but then the South Africans... You lured them in, slaughtered them. And you were unarmed.”
“Aw,” she said, pursing her lips. “You're a fanboy.”
He glowered. “We were supposed to bring you in,” he lied.
“Not the CIA,” he told her.
“Urbanov's men wanted me alive. And I know why--”
“--Because of Tovsky.”
Romanoff angled away from him. “Little dogs barking up a whole forest of wrong trees,” she muttered.
“You know where he is.”
“I don't,” she said. “No one does.”
“But you do have Urbanov's command drive,” Barton said.
She gave him her impassive face.
“I saw you take it. At Cafe Melange. I didn't know what I was seeing at first. But I saw you take it from Urbanov's coat right after you killed Agent Cornish.”
Romanoff licked her lips. “You don't know, do you? You're standing on the edge of a precipice, looking down into an abyss, and you don't know how far down it goes. All you know is that your agency sent you to find me, and you're a good agent. You do as you're told. You follow your mission. You carry out your orders, without question. So you don't know...”
He understood she was leading him. He took the bait. “What don't I know?”
“That Arnault Tovsky is the good guy.”
Now Barton did laugh. “A man who heads a terrorist organization capable of leveling New York City is not a good guy.”
“You think your president can't do the same thing? Hasn't done the same thing?”
“That's not... the point is, the President wouldn't do such a thing. He's bound by rules, by society...”
“I'm sure the citizens of Hiroshima feel very differently.”
Barton sat back on his heels.
“Tovsky's a visionary,” she said. “He'll change the way people view the rules of society.”
“And you’re a believer?” Barton asked.
He watched her carefully, measuring her response. Her lashes lowered, but she didn't answer.
“Something else, then?” he said. “What hold does he have on you, Lady Romanoff?”
She folded her arms over her chest, and for a long moment she said nothing. Then, “It's Natasha.”
He extended his hand. She stared at it, then up at him. He read the incredulity in her expression. He saw her calculating, considering his motives. It was exactly what he wanted.
She took his hand.
He said, “Clint Barton.”
Her mouth quirked in a half-smile. “What's a girl gotta do for food around here?”
They awake in each other's arms, their towels dried stiff to their bodies. The room is dark and chilled. Through the drapes he sees a sliver of the city, and from that one slice, it appears normal. He resists the desire to peek. It's been twenty-four hours since they defeated Loki. He wants to pretend the destruction isn't that bad.
“Doesn't look too bad from here,” she says, echoing his thoughts.
“New York is New York,” he says. “Takes more than a rogue Asgardian to take her down.”
“To be fair, I think the Hulk did the most damage,” she says. She sits up, stretches.
He glances at her, sidelong. He knows something went down with the Hulk on the carrier, something that scared her pretty bad.
“I'm starving,” she sidesteps. “You?”
They spread the menu between them.
“Breakfast,” she says. “One of everything.”
“Gotcha,” he says, picking up the room's phone. She slides from the bed and disappears into the bathroom.
“And ice cream,” she calls back. “Hot fudge!”
The operator picks up and he places their order. “Oh, and,” he whispers the next bit, “I'll quadruple your tip if you send up a can of whipped cream.”
She meets him in the hallway as he ends the call. She gives him a look. “What?” she says.
He feigns innocence. “Nothing.”
“How long til it gets here?” she asks.
“Half an hour.”
She drops her towel to the floor. “How much damage can we do in thirty minutes?”
He drags her down with him. “Lots,” he says.
He isn't quite sure how it happens, but he's not arguing with the turn she takes. She wraps her legs around his neck and inverts her body against his, and he groans as she takes his cock into her mouth, all the way in, all the way down.
Clint knows she enjoys this, being yin to his yang, because it's equal, it's fair, balanced. He parts her legs and lets his tongue glide into her. She shudders. He feels it in the way her mouth contracts around him. He breathes in her soft musky scent as his tongue nips at her, slow and shallow at first, then each stroke longer and deeper inside. He sets a rhythm and she matches motion for motion. Her hips buck against him, and she moans, a silky, throaty sound that he feels like a fire building in his nerves. Her fingers trail between his legs and she strokes the underside of his balls and it's suddenly very hard to concentrate, even harder to breath, and he feels his eyes roll back...
There's a knock on the door. “Room service.”
He raises his head. “They're early? It’s been ten minutes, tops.”
She raises her head, wipes her chin. “They can wait.”
He's not about to argue. Then he remembers. “The ice cream--”
She knots her hand in the sheets. “I just need, like, two minutes...”
He smirks. “Is that all?”
She narrows her eyes. He flips her onto her back, pulling her thighs to rest against his arms. He slides two fingers into her, and she's hot and wet, and he growls as he brings his mouth to her clit. He sucks at her, drinking her in, bathing her with the broad blade of his tongue, and she slams against him. He drives his fingers deeper, moving them in frenzied circles, and she cries out and comes hard this time. Her nails rake the backs of his arms and her hips rise as she rides out another wave. He grips her arm with his free hand and in seconds she sags against him.
The knock at the door again. A persistent, “Hello, room service?”
He withdraws, sits back on his haunches, surveys his work. She's smiling up at him.
“You're the devil,” she says.
“Your ice cream awaits,” he answers. He pulls the towel from the floor and wraps it around his waist.
“The devil!” she calls after him.
He answers the door. He quadruples the tip.
"Super spy's got connections."
Explicit sex. Some whipped cream.
Port Sa’id, Egypt
Wearing one of his plain black t-shirts and her flare-legged salwar pants, she looked the part of a tourist as they slid into the booth at Fashwar's Seaside Bar. The illusion was only slightly ruined by the frays in the fabric of her pants, and when she ordered in fluent Arabic.
“I feel less like your prisoner here,” she said, leaning on her elbows. She smiled then, like it's their private joke.
“You're...” he caught himself. He was going to say, Not my prisoner. But wasn't she? He hadn't carted his bow along; he'd learned from experience that people tended to openly gawk at a man wielding a five-foot recurve. But he did have the crossbow concealed on his belt... So he said nothing.
The waiter brought out kofta and falafel and a pot of mint tea, and Barton realized after three bites that he was starving. They tore into the meal, devouring it in silence, though they both seemed to realize halfway through how utterly ridiculous their situation was. Which made them laugh.
She was mopping the last dregs of curry from her plate with a strip of pita when he asked, “Who's Turgen?”
She recoiled like he'd kicked her, but then recovered, slowly, like she was re-assembling into the shell of herself.
“He's, um, Turgenev. My partner,” she said. “He was my partner.”
Barton scrutinized her. She didn't seem the type for falling apart. She had reasons for everything she did. Every word. Every gesture. Every glance. But just for a second there, he'd seen under that armor. Unless that was what she wanted him to think.
“So the South African--”
“Crizer,” she cut in.
“Sure. He was working for your former partner?”
“Yes.” Now her eyes leveled on his. “Tovsky's amassed a fair number of enemies,” she said.
“Stealing weapons of mass destruction tends to cause that,” Barton quipped.
“Why do you have to try and simplify it like that?” she said, her voice raised just enough to draw attention. Conversations lulled as everyone turned to look at them. In the silent moment that followed, the waiter scurried to the table to drop off their check.
Barton slid the battered receipt book across the table. A worn image of the Pyramids of Giza embossed the cover.
He laughed. “What are we doing?”
She sat back. “You tell me, I'm your prisoner.”
“You're not--” He clenched his fists on the table between them. “Look, I'm off the grid here,” he said. “Way, way off grid.”
“All they know is I'm hunting you.”
She sniffed. “You and half the country.”
“Heh.” He pushed the embossed receipt book to the center of the table. “All my life, I've wanted to see these,” he said, tracing the pyramids with his thumb.
Romanoff leaned forward, rested her chin in her hand. “They're only a hundred miles away, Agent Barton.”
He clung to the indecision of the moment, because in his life until now, he'd been sharp, decisive, loyal. Before, he'd seen things so clearly, and now they were wonderfully, frighteningly, dangerously muddled.
“It feels like we're pieces in this game. We're getting moved around from place to place. It's what I signed up for; I mean, I knew what I was getting into. Mostly. Sort of. It's just, what if we – move – off the board...”
“I want you to say it,” she said. “I want you to tell me what you're thinking, right now.”
“I’m thinking... You set aside the Widow. I set aside the Hawk and we’ll just be... Us. Natasha and Clint.”
She snapped up the receipt book and paid the check. He had a moment to wonder where she’d hidden the money before she asked, “What are we doing, Agent Barton?”
“Not sure,” he answered. “But it is definitely unsanctioned.”
“My kind of holiday,” she said. She slid from the booth and held out her hand.
She’s wearing her robe, her hair upswept, and they’re sitting at the little table, eating ice cream, watching the news. The TV bathes the room in shadow-pale glow. He’s mesmerized by the flickering images on her skin, and by the way she lifts each bite to her mouth and runs her tongue along the spoon.
He gets this way when he’s tired. He fixates on subtle detail. It’s about survival, about keeping things in focus. Something he’s been good at all his life.
They’re on the news. Hell, they are the news: The Avengers. The stories focus on Iron Man and Captain America, though there’s mention of Thor here and there. Almost nothing on The Hulk. Even less about them – Black Widow and Hawkeye.
They laugh when a reporter calls Loki the “criminal mastermind” responsible for mass panic at an opera performance in Germany three nights earlier.
This jars a memory in his mind and he has to clench his jaws against the pain.
She takes his hand. “Clint?”
“Germany,” he growls. It’s like an ice pick jab to his brain stem. He fights to catch his breath. “I was there.”
The pain recedes, replaced by what he can only describe as a grainy kind of burning, like he’s spent too much time staring at the sun.
“I hate what he’s done to you,” she says. Her hand tightens on his.
“No worse than what Tovsky did to you.”
“Doesn’t make it okay for either of us.” She curls his hand into hers. “Just another thing we’ll survive, right?”
Stark is on now, at a press conference with Pepper Potts. Actually, it’s Pepper doing all the talking. Tony’s throwing peace signs and blowing kisses to the crowd.
Clint nods at the screen. “You think he and Pepper managed to have even a second alone in all this?”
“Your concern for him is touching,” Natasha deadpans.
“Not for him. Her.”
She returns to her ice cream. It’s just the dregs left now, a swirl of vanilla and fudge.
“No, they never have time alone. Are you kidding me? Tony laps up the attention,” Natasha says. “It’ll be weeks before they get down time, and even then, he’ll live-stream their tropical getaway.”
“You're kidding,” Clint says.
“I'm not,” Natasha says. She gives him a sly look. “Best part about being a super spy... anonymity.”
“Is that the best part?”
“Well,” she says, climbing into her chair. “There’s the training—”
“—which gives us super quick reflexes—”
“—a certain... limberness—” She’s leaning across the table, her face an inch from his.
“—something I greatly appreciate—”
She presses her mouth to his and he sweeps her onto the bed. He melts into the kiss, into the lingering cool sweetness on her lips. Her hands skim under his robe, over his chest, around to the small of his back. Then he pins her with his knees and leers playfully down at her.
“Then there’s the gadgets,” he says. He shakes the can of whipped cream and sprays a long stream from her neck to her navel.
She gasps. “Where did you—?”
“Super spy’s got connections,” he says, and he dips down to lick a messy swath from between her breasts.
She shifts beneath him, throwing her arms over her head.
“Remember Geneva?” Her voice is barely more than a moan.
His focus wanes at the memory, but his cock goes suddenly very hard. “One of my favorites,” he whispers.
She brings her body to his, slathering the whipped cream between them. She whispers in his ear, “Do all that again, and I’ll make you come so hard you’ll think you’ve gone blind.”
Explicit sex in this chapter.
Three days after failed SHIELD Mission to bring in the Black Widow
Sunblind, they knelt together beneath the great pyramid. Sweat and dirt crusted their faces. Their hands chafed from reining their camels – they rode on camels! – and from spending the day scrambling over ruined hunks of limestone. The wind carried the scents of baked earth and river mud. Ancient scents that seem at once exotic and familiar.
She passed a bottle of water to him. “Would you look at that?” she said.
“There’s this whole world out there, full of stuff,” he said, passing the water back to her.
“I’ve seen a lot of it,” she said. Then she amended with, “Not like this.”
“No,” he agreed. “Not like this.”
She said, “I hear it’s only two hundred and fifty miles to Petra.”
He arched his brows. “Petra’s pretty close to Amman.”
“Another two hundred miles.” She swallowed. “Several days’ journey on horseback.”
The sunset drew long crimson shadows across the sand. She dangled her legs from a plinth of stone, and for a moment, he saw her as childlike, this tiny figure in the sheltering hulk of the pyramids. He supposed that description was accurate for both of them, so small and insignificant compared to something so massive and timeless.
And that’s why people keep coming to the pyramids, he thought. Keeps things in perspective. Like how he kept seeing how much he and she had in common rather than their differences.
He took up the spot beside her. They squinted into the sun as it pooled like molten copper on the horizon, great and red and glorious.
“You have family?” she asked.
He cleared his throat. “A brother,” he said. “We don’t speak.”
“I lost mine,” she said. She turned to gaze at him. “In a fire.”
“A fire?” Then, “Oh.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“And that’s why—”
“I was terrified,” she admitted.
“I didn’t know,” he began.
“If you had, you’d have used it against me. We're agents. We’re supposed to take every advantage,” she said. “That’s what we’re trained for.”
“We could’ve killed each other a dozen times over in the last two days, but we haven’t, so ye-haw to training,” he told her.
“I don’t want to kill you.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I don’t think you could.”
“I so could.”
“Hmm, and how would that go down?”
“Choke you out with my thighs.”
He chuckled. “Well then sign me up.”
They shared a laugh, then. In its wake, the sun melted into the sands, leaving a radiant tinge of gold in the air.
Barton found himself staring at her. Again. All the warning lights of his conscience flared, as they had done repeatedly over the last two days. But he fought them back down with the rationale that this was different, exceptional, something... beyond them.
She brought her eyes to his. It was electric, that searing almost tangible connection between them, but she dragged her attention away, like it was an unruly child she couldn’t quite control.
When she took a long sip from the water bottle, her hands were shaking. “Don’t,” she said, recapping the bottle. “Just don’t.”
“The agency I work for is powerful,” he said. “We can protect you.”
She hissed a derisive laugh. “How can they do that? I took out your entire team by myself.”
“You didn’t take me.”
She rolled her eyes to meet his. “Didn’t I?”
It stung him like a slap. His mind raced to the crossbow in the camel’s saddlebag.
She followed his line of thought and shook her head. “That’s not what I meant,” she said.
She got to her feet, dusting sand from her legs. As she turned to walk away, he caught her elbow and she wheeled on him with such suddenness and force it made his head spin. She’d pulled his arm into a lock between his shoulder blades. He dropped, pulling her with him and rolling backward, but she gauged his momentum and fell with it, still gripping his arm. They tumbled to the sand, and she was light and deft, managing to get astride him, caging him with lithe strength of her thighs.
Then she stood and left him there. He read the message, loud and clear: She didn’t need protecting.
They’re sticky all over. She has whipped cream in her hair. He’s got some on his wrist, and she sucks it off, noisily, then runs her tongue over the fat of his thumb and bites him. Hard. He clenches his teeth and savors it.
She’s sitting astride him with her feet on his shoulders, and he’s stroking the inside of her labia, running his fingers inside her, languid, teasing strokes, until she shoves him back into the pillows with her feet.
“In me,” she demands. “Now.”
He grips her hips and maneuvers her backward, his cock sliding inside her, and she’s like velvet, warm and ready. He nips her calf; she taps her toe to his forehead. She leans back on his thighs, holds tight to his shins, and swivels her hips, slow figure eights that pull him deeper, so fucking deep. It’s almost surreal now, the way their rhythms meld, the heavy dusk in the room, the shadows and their scent, like blood and baked earth.
He feels it building in him, and she’s right, it’s like blindness. All of the nerves in the base of his cock and the base of his spine spark into fire. Her thumbnails dig into the meat of his calves, but it’s a distant, muffled, indistinct, and—
“God!” He comes in a sudden violent wave and she shifts upright, slamming him further inside, and he’s rigid and breathless and gloriously aching as he empties into her.
He opens his eyes to her smug expression, the Cat who’s drunk all the cream.
He manages a strangled, “Fuck” and she gives him her full and satisfied smile. Then she smacks the curve of his ass and slides into bed beside him.
Clint begins to deal with what Loki did to him, forcing him to begin defining what's important to him.
Mild trigger for PTSD and some profanity.
Four days after failed SHIELD Mission to bring in the Black Widow
“My order was to kill you,” he said. “After we were sure you’d taken the command drive.” He found her reflection behind him in the cloudy hotel mirror. “I’m supposed to kill you.”
She nodded. “I know.”
He awakes in total darkness with a clawing panic in his throat. It swells up and ruptures and he’s shouting and thrashing and shoving. He hears her calling his name, but it feels distant. It’s like he’s trapped beneath an ice sheet and it’s razoring into his skin as he flails against it, trying to break through.
Then her hands on his. Her voice a breath in his ear. The ice is gone. The panic, gone. It’s just them.
He takes in the scene. She’s on her knees beside him. She’s got him in a hold.
“What happened?” he says.
She relaxes her grip. “You were dreaming.”
He sits up. Scrubs his eyes. Tastes blood on his tongue.
“What do you remember?” she asks.
Flashes. Dead men. Blood. Smoke. And then... her. In Vienna. She’s wearing a blue velvet evening gown and white elbow-length gloves and she reaches to take his hand. Then there’s a jostling of memories, all cut together like a movie made from the exploded fragments of his mind. They race through him, so bright they sting, and all of them of her. There’s a sense of someone else watching, too, someone leering over his shoulder, looking for the choicest moments to cull...
Clint shakes himself. “Think you might need to hit me in the head again.”
Natasha cups his face in her hands and kisses his forehead. “Maybe that instead?”
He breathes out. “That'll work.” Then he spies a bruise on her wrist. A bruise like a thumbprint. One that wasn’t there before. “Wait. What—?”
“I restrained you,” she says.
He blinks. His mouth is dry. “What did I do?”
“It’s classic PTSD, Clint. Nightmares, flashbacks, mood swings, irritability...”
He presses the heels of his hands to his forehead.
“We’ll get through this,” she says.
Clint clears his throat. “When Loki first arrived, when he—” He runs aground as the memory closes over him. There’s a buzz like static in his mind. He feels the ice-bright touch of the scepter and the separate tendril strikes that crawl into his skin and his face and his chest.
He feels the warmth of her hand on his shoulder. “Clint.”
“He said, ‘You have heart.’ That’s why he chose me. He... he killed most of the others, but I think... I mean, do you think...? Did he know?”
He drags his eyes to hers. “Yes.”
She frowns. “H-how could he? No one does.”
Clint blinks. “No, you’re right.” Then, “Maybe he sensed it. He must have. 'Cause that’s what he went after. Every memory of us.”
“Loki’s a master of manipulation,” she says. “He was looking for your strings, for the way to twist you, to play with you.”
“Yeah, he found ’em.” His jaw clenches against the rage that wells up. But there’s more than anger. Anger is simple. There’s guilt, too. That’s what knifes into him, flays him wide open. “I’m sorry, Nat,” he whispers, his voice hoarse and ragged.
Her eyes meet his in the half-light. They are wide and glistening.
“So we both have strings,” she admits. “He got mine, too. That’s what happens when people get tangled up in each other.”
“That’s what’s so dangerous. You and me, we don’t carry around the average, every day person’s secrets. It’s not like gambling debts and secret affairs; it’s hidden dead bodies and national security...”
“That’s the debt we owe. The blood.”
Now he’s agitated. He scrubs his palms on his knees. “And how can we repay it? We could feed every starving child from here to Kabul. It won’t be enough.”
She shrugs, a half-hearted gesture. “We saved the world. Maybe that’s a start.”
“What are we doing, Nat?”
“We’re doing our jobs.”
“I mean,” he sweeps a hand between them. “Us. And, this.” He gestures around the room. “It’s mission after mission, both of us soaked in blood by the end, and then we fuck each other senseless and repeat the whole god-damned business all over again. And we’re not, like, demigods or, or, billionaires, or pumped full of gamma radiation, we’re normal people under that armor, and we fling ourselves in front of creatures like... like Loki—”
“Is there something you’d rather be doing?”
“No.” It’s a reluctant answer and she hears his uncertainty.
“You got hurt, Clint.”
“Compromised,” he says. He can’t bring himself to look at her. “I was... I am compromised.”
She curls her fingers into his hand. “So am I,” she says, and she brings their linked hands to her heart. “Remember?”
His eyes sting. “Yeah,” he says. “Yes. I remember.” Then he does look at her. There’s concern in her eyes, completely unveiled, but she’s scared, too. Like she knows that things have changed between them, because Loki unearthed things that they’d left unspoken, and now they’re strewn over the ground, impossible to ignore.
Linking hands is another ritual. He completes his part, presses them to his heart, too, but he doesn’t let go. He says, “What did Loki say to you?”
“He told me the truth,” she says. “That I’m a child at prayer.”
She winds into his arms, fitting herself into the spoon of his body. Their joined hands rest at her center. He feels her tracing the outline of his nails.
“Nat,” he says.
“What do you pray for?”
She brings his fingers to her lips, and he knows the answer. It’s a pain like loss, that knowledge. It’s an all-body ache that staggers him. It’s not loss, but the fear of losing themselves. And each other. That’s the part that hurts.
So he holds her. He wills the clocks, the planets, the whole universe to stop spinning, so that they can keep this moment.
Every moment, he realizes. Good or bad. Up or down. If it’s them together, he wants it.
Five days after failed SHIELD Mission to bring in the Black Widow
The wind scoured the striped awnings of the sidewalk restaurants, flapping them like sails, and they ducked into a market stall to get out of the stinging sands. The place smelled richly of roasting meat and dirt and curry. People bustled around them, a late afternoon crowd heading home for prayers, and the place seemed made of noise.
They strolled through the market.
He asked, “When was the last time you strolled through anything?”
She answered, “I strolled through jiu jitsu.”
He shrugged like, It’s fair, and she looped his fingers in hers. They swung their linked hands back and forth between them, like children on a playground.
As they meandered through the market stalls, they sampled figs and dates and olives. He bought a packet of chai. She bought a saffron scarf and twirled it around her neck. The ends of it streamed behind her as they walked. Above them, colored sheets snapped on laundry lines, scattering motes that made it seem like the sunlight sifted down on them.
Without saying it out loud, they both knew it was their last day in Egypt. He didn’t know where they were going, but it was unwise to stay in one place. At least until they figured things out.
The sun slowly set behind the squat warehouses along the bay of Port Fa’ud as they made their way to their hotel, where they’d checked in as newlyweds under the names John and Francis Robie from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.
As they approached the whitewashed facade of their rundown hotel, Clint felt his hackles rise. Her hand flexed in his and they knew. Someone trailed them.
Only a shared glance, and he knew their play. It was instant, like reading each other’s thoughts, so that when the attackers descended on them, without hesitation, they reacted as one.
She slipped his knife from his belt, held it behind her back. He unhooked his crossbow. They positioned themselves in the center of the street, back to back, as seven hooded figures in gray combat fatigues drew in around them. He swept a cursory glance at the small windows that looked down on the street.
One of the figures signaled and the rest came to a halt.
“We just want her,” the leader said. Vaguely Russian accent, Barton noted.
“Well you can’t have her,” Clint answered. He glanced over his shoulder at her. There. Second story window. Flicker of movement. He tried to play casual. “Obviously, people want her. She’s a desirable woman.”
She touched his hand. “Aw, thank you. That’s really sweet.”
“No, it’s quantifiable fact, not just a compliment. You’re built like a bombshell. Everybody wants you...”
The leader snapped, “Shut up.” The other six raised their pistols.
“The point is,” Natasha said, gesturing to the leader. “You can’t have me. No one can.”
Clint scoffed. He said, “No one can? I thought... Well, I was gonna say, You can’t have her. She’s with me.”
“I’m standing beside you,” she said. “I’m not with you.”
“I’m staring down seven guys with guns, how can you say I’m not with you?”
The leader scratched his neck. Clint wondered why he hadn’t given the order to fire, but then it clicked home. It was Turgen: Natasha’s former partner. He was as well-trained as she was, if he’d been able to sneak up on them. It also explained the masks and why he hadn’t charged in, guns blazing. He wanted her alive, which offered a degree of relief.
However, Turgen did have a sniper in the window above. Only one reason for a sniper...
Clint wheeled to face her. She held his knife between them. The corner of her mouth quirked into a smile.
He dropped to his knees, simultaneously firing the crossbow into the window. As he rolled away, cranking in another dart, Natasha hurled the knife at the nearest gunman. She caught him in the throat, then dived in the opposite direction, taking a second gunman with a sweep of his legs. His gun clattered away; she swiped it and fired twice into the man’s chest.
The remaining fighters opened fire. Clint shot his bolt point blank into one man’s eye. He rounded on another who was just bringing his gun barrel up. Clint smashed the crossbow into the man’s wrist, sending the gun flying. The man twisted with Clint’s momentum, though, and slammed a neatly placed elbow into Clint’s ribs. A burst of white exploded behind his eyes, but he bit down on the pain enough to stagger out of the man’s range... and into Natasha.
She caught his arm to steady him. “It’s Turgen,” she bit out.
“I know,” Clint said.
Elbow guy charged in. Natasha shoved Clint behind her and round-housed the attacker squarely in his jaw. His head snapped sideways, spraying her with blood, but he wasn’t down.
“Damned Russians,” she hissed.
Clint got his bearings. Of the eight assailants, only Elbow the Mighty Henchman and Turgen remained. Only Turgen had a gun. And it was trained on Clint.
“It’s over, Natalia,” Turgen said. “Let this boy go. I only wish to talk.”
“Boy?” Clint said.
“I’m not going anywhere, Evgeny. We have nothing to say to each other.”
“If you knew what I know of Arnault Tovsky, you wouldn’t feel that way,” Turgen said. “Please, Natalia. Give up this foolish quest. You owe him nothing—”
Clint felt her stiffen. She said, “Only my life, Evgeny—”
A tremendous grating shriek drowned out the rest of her words. Suddenly, multiple shots thudded into walls behind them. Strafing rounds.
Clint leapt for Natasha. They crashed into the cover of a shallow concrete niche as the air filled with smoke and the deafening screech of a jet engine. He caught sight of it as it shrilled overhead. He recognized the insignia on the wing.
“That’s a SHIELD plane,” he said.
“SHIELD.” Understanding dawned in her eyes. “You work for SHIELD.”
“We have to get out of here.” He took her hands. “It’s a slash and burn, Natasha. They must think I’m dead. And if you’re here—”
She peered out into the street. Elbow was dead. Turgen was gone. “It’s coming back,” she said.
“You’ve escaped custody too many times. The Director wants you dead.” He laced their fingers and pulled their linked hands to his heart. “Natasha.” He swallowed. “Go.”
“I’ll signal them. You go.”
She stammered. The jet’s engines roared, nearer each second.
“You got away, all right? I was supposed to kill you, but you escaped. Someday when you’ve sorted things out...” He released her hands. “Come find me.”
He backed into the street. She stood, frozen, her mouth slightly ajar, her eyes alight.
“Go,” he said again. Clint plucked his knife from the throat of the fallen gunman and cut a swath of fabric from the man’s shirt. He raised it above his head and waved it wildly as the jet readied for its second strafing run.
He looked back. Natasha was gone.
Several hours and thousands of miles later, aboard the SHIELD Helicarrier, Agent Barton paced a narrow corridor outside Director Fury’s quarters. Agent Coulson, the poster child for the perfect agent, hovered at a decorous distance between Barton and the door. Director Fury was making them wait.
“He’ll be glad you’re alive,” Coulson said, his tone terse yet consoling. “Five days with the Black Widow—”
Coulson centered his briefing files between his hands and looked elsewhere. Then he said, “It was clever, though. Your signal.”
“To Catch a Thief,” Coulson said. He gave a thin smile. “All those Hitchcock films you made us watch. When the name John Robie came up on the hotel registry, I knew it was you.”
Barton released a trembling breath. “Right,” he said.
With months, perhaps years, of emotional distance, Barton would come to appreciate the irony that it had been him after all. He’d betrayed them. He’d led Coulson straight to Port Fa’ud; an inadvertent betrayal, but a betrayal nonetheless.
But it wasn’t only John Robie on the registry. They’d registered as newlyweds, which meant...
Barton’s head snapped up to find Coulson’s eyes leveled on his.
“It’s not in the report,” Coulson said. He pressed his lips together in that same astute smile.
The door opened. Coulson bowed slightly and passed him the file. Barton went in to face Director Fury.
A phone blasts Heavy Metal at full volume, and they scramble up from dead sleep, startled and disoriented. Clint snatches it from the bedside table and reads the caller ID.
“Stark,” he grumbles. “I thought I turned this off.”
Natasha’s shaking her head. “Stark’s got an override.”
Clint’s jaw tightens as he thumbs the answer button. “This is Barton.”
Natasha sits up, pulling the sheets to her throat.
Tony says, “’Mornin’ Locksley. Hey, so, we’re ready to move forward with the plan to re-locate Loki, thought you might want to come bid adieu with the rest of us. Not every day you get to mean that literally. You in?”
Clint glances at Natasha. “When and where?”
“Two p.m. Bethesda Fountain,” Tony says.
“And the plan?”
“Remanding him to the custody of his brother,” Stark says. “Thor’s taking him back to Asgard via the evening Tesseract. Also, logistics-wise: You’re in the same hotel as Dr. Banner. Mind if he rides hitches a ride? His bike got crushed – like soda can crushed. No way he’s ridin’ that thing. Be a pal, d’ya mind?”
“No, it’s fine,” Clint says.
“Great, so...” Stark pauses. “Agent Romanoff’s next on my list.” Another pause, this one weighty. “You wanna, or shall I?”
Clint answers through gritted teeth. “I got it.”
“Sure thing, big guy,” Stark says. Clint can hear the grin in his voice. “As you were.”
Clint skips the phone onto the table.
“Loki?” Natasha asks.
Clint’s eye twitches. “Yep.”
“What time is it now?”
“It’s after 9.”
“Oh dear,” she says in singsong. “Missed our med screen.”
“Coulson knows we don’t do med screens, right?” Then he remembers. Coulson. He brings a hand to his head. “Fuck.”
“No.” Clint shakes his head. “No. Loki does not just get to fly back to fucking Valhalla,” he shouts. “Not when –” He turns. He paces. “He should pay. He should pay, and we should get to do it. We should kill him.”
“How?” Natasha says. “He’s a demigod. He’s basically immortal.”
This reels him in. A little. “We could dismember him,” Clint suggests.
“Sweetie, that’s not how we work,” she says.
He knows. She knows he knows. He folds his arms. He’s struggling to keep himself together. It’s not working. He says, “Coulson was—” The words lodge in his throat.
Natasha crawls to the end of the bed and wraps her arms around him. “Coulson was a good man,” she says. “A first class agent.” She brushes Clint’s hair back from his forehead. “He was our friend.”
“I’m responsible,” Clint says. Again his throat seizes around the words.
“No,” she says. “Don’t do that—”
“I led Loki’s men to our ship, I nearly took it out of the sky—” his eyes widen “—with you in it.”
“Stop it. Clint. Stop. You were in it, too. That’s how Loki works.” Her voice is quiet. Soothing. She says, “Dr. Selvig said he thought he might have known what was going on. That’s how he built in the failsafe switch—”
She puts a finger to his lips. “—Director Fury says you shot him point blank back at the research facility.”
Clint arches his brows.
“You can hit a tree frog in the eye at three hundred yards, Clint. But you shot Fury square in the chest,” she says, splaying her hand over his heart. “Right in the Kevlar.”
He nods. Swallows. Tucks her head under his chin.
“There are limits to what people can be made to do,” she whispers.
“You believe that,” he says. It’s not a question.
“I believe you fought him in whatever ways you could. And if you’d tried to fight Loki directly, you’d be dead.” She brings her lips to his. She enfolds him in her arms, and there's this razor's edge of desperation beneath the surface. It surprises him, but he only has seconds to question it before she's pulling him down, crawling backward into the bed, her mouth hungry and feverish on his.
He dips to trail kisses from her neck to the delicate skin above her collarbone – one of her favorite spots – and chills spring out across her flesh. She scrapes her nails through his hair and over his shoulders. He takes her breast into his mouth, tracing a wide circle with his tongue. She curves into him, her breath quickening. He nips gently at the erect nipple; she brings her legs around him, her sharp heels digging into his thighs.
He's falling into the muzzy half-conscious state where the blood in his body absents his brain when he feels that wild insistence in her.
She crushes her mouth to his. Her hands knot into fists behind his neck. Her body tremors beneath his. He breaks their kiss and stares down into her eyes.
“Don't,” she says.
He brushes her nose with his. “Tasha.”
She swallows. Tears pool in her eyes, but she keeps them. “There are limits. Humans have limits.”
He kisses the corner of her eye. Tastes the salt on his tongue. Memories flood him, all of them jostling like winged things in his mind. Breakfasts and crosswords and secrets whispered across pillows. Their memories: All those small human moments.
“Nat, what did he say to you?”
She shifts and they lie facing each other. She draws the sheet around them. He encircles her in his arms, and he waits, a long time, he waits, because he knows her. She’s wounded and afraid. She’s vulnerable, and it's not an easy place for her to be.
She says, “He said he'd have you kill me, in every way you know I fear...” but the words fail her and she buries her head against his chest.
He goes cold at the idea; he knows what she fears.
Then she shakes her head. “No, but he's wrong,” she says. “He couldn't make you kill Fury. You wouldn't have killed me.”
Clint utters a soft laugh. “He underestimates us,” he says. “That's how he lost.”
“And 'cause of the Hulk,” Natasha says.
“Well, but the rest of us, too. We were a team of total bad-assery. That should be our logo. We should get shirts.”
And she's smiling again. Her hand strays to his neck, and for a moment, her expression leads him to think she's going to say something – possibly something profoundly important and long overdue about the state of their relationship. Instead, she kisses him, and though the recklessness has faded, he still feels the underpinning of need.
With his thumb, he traces her eyebrows and down the cusp of her jaw.
“He definitely underestimated us,” she says. Then she adds, “Maybe I did, too.”
Their lives are too chaotic for anything beyond what they can hold in their hands.
Mention of Justin Hammer in this chapter.
Aboard the SHIELD Helicarrier
15 miles offshore from Sao Paolo
“Here is the situation,” Director Fury said as the lumi-screen filled with 3D schematics of the Estadio do Morumbi. “Arnault Tovsky is making another grab for power. This time, he wants a spectacle.”
Barton perked up at the mention of Tovsky. On either side of him, Agents Hill and Coulson studied the rotating image of the stadium as Fury tapped the screen to enlarge the lower decks and the soccer pitch.
“Brazil versus Argentina,” Fury explained. “Seventy-two thousand futbol fanatics all wielding vuvuzelas. Game begins at fourteen-hundred, and our pal Arnault will be there.”
“That gives us four hours,” Agent Hill said. “What’s his play?”
Barton could guess. He’d been surreptitiously gathering intel on Tovsky since Cairo, enough to know that in addition to arms dealing and the testing of illegal chemical compounds, Tovsky was an expert in bio-mutative genetic enhancement.
Fury said, “We know that in the last two years, Tovsky’s power has inexplicably waned—”
Again, Barton could guess.
“—This makes him extremely dangerous,” Fury went on. “He wants to reassert his dominance. He wants to show the world he still has power. Holding seventy thousand people hostage is one way to do that.”
Fury waited for that to sink in before swiping the stadium image off screen. “Here is what we know,” the Director said. He placed his gloved fists on the table top. “Almost nothing. Our intel is from a trusted source who tells us that Tovsky has some type of weapon – bomb or biochemical, we’re not sure – but here’s the kicker...”
Fury tapped the menu at the bottom of the screen and a series of six small devices scrolled into view. “The weapon is not planted within the stadium,” he said.
Coulson frowned. “If it’s not in the stadium, then—?”
“These,” Fury said, jabbing a finger at the display, “Are Hammer Industries’ X1-D5 miniature deployment devices.”
Barton swore at the mention of Hammer. Hell, they all did. Hammer was a prick.
Fury continued with a nod of shared displeasure. “Each canister is smaller than three inches in length, made of non-conductive aluminum, is shock absorbent, and weighs less than thirty grams. In short, they are cheap, portable, and untraceable. We know that Tovsky purchased an undisclosed number of these devices one week ago, so we can assume they’ve been weaponized. Possibly a liquid or aerosol nerve toxin set to remotely detonate.”
“So he’ll bring them in at game time,” Barton said.
“Thirty grams,” Coulson said. “That’s the weight of, what, a dozen pennies?”
“They could be anywhere,” Hill pointed out. “Disguised as anything.”
“Which is why we have to get in there and stop Tovsky before he can make a great big mess,” Director Fury said.
Coulson raised his hand. “Sir, the file mentions that Tovsky will most likely be working with a team?”
“Correct. Our contact told us that Tovsky has eight highly trained members in his employ. We’ve compiled photos of possible marks in the file,” Fury said.
Barton’s fingers itched as he opened his folder and flipped through the photos. With each one, he had to steady himself, to keep from racing to the next to see if she would be among them. The Black Widow. Natasha.
Relief washed over him. He skimmed the rest of the file documents, in part to hide his nerves, but also to acquaint himself with what Fury had gathered on Tovsky, to see if it matched with what he’d discovered on his own.
The files detailed Tovsky’s early work in biogenetics. Barton already knew that part, and that Tovsky and a team of Austrian scientists attempted to do what the U. S. government had during World War II when they created Captain America, the world’s first super-soldier.
After various failures of super soldier projects, including Doctor Banner’s devastating tragedy with gamma radiation, Tovsky and his team re-focused their efforts to engineering an anti-aging, performance-augmenting serum. But Tovsky didn’t stop with bio-sciences; he dabbled in socio-political sciences as well. Using a list of explicit criteria, Tovsky selected a group of highly intelligent and especially talented children.
In many cases, he used hypnosis and various propaganda tools to erase or alter the memories of these children. Then Tovsky either trained them to become assassins or spies in specialized training programs, or he placed them in the homes of extremely powerful world leaders. This part, Barton had learned from Natasha. What he hadn’t known was that the children, now grown, occupied influential seats in the upper ranks of government around the world.
Some remained loyal to Tovsky, who maintained that his students’ placement in power was but the first step in his plan to “re-structure” the world. One student, Evgeny Turgenev, turned on Tovsky and spent two decades gathering information that would take Tovsky down.
Then the report leapt to the past two years, the time following the failed SHIELD mission to bring in the Black Widow. Since Tovsky’s power had slipped in recent years, he began to get sloppy. The report used words like “risky” and “egregious” to describe Tovsky’s successive grasps at dominance.
So the man was desperate. Desperate enough to hold seventy-two thousand innocent people hostage as a show of political strength.
But the absence of Natasha’s presence in the report was what really struck Barton. She was mentioned only twice: once as Natasha Romanoff, the orphan-turned-assassin who worked as Tovsky’s Hand of Death, and a second time as the Black Widow who slipped SHIELD custody four times in 2005, only to disappear completely afterward.
“...which leads us to you, Agent Barton,” Director Fury was saying.
Clint inclined his head. “Sir?”
“Your job is to take out Tovsky before he can give the deployment signal. We’re thinking it’ll happen at half time, because Tovsky will want to make a show of it. He wants to claim this act, publicly. That gives you a shot.”
“Yes sir,” Barton said. “That I can do.”
“Good. We’ll keep this quick and clean,” Fury said. “No one will ever know we were there. We know well what happens when futbol fans panic. Last thing we want is a riot.”
Fury shut down the computer display. “We disembark at eleven hundred. Agent Hill, I need you to brief the ground team. Agent Coulson, with me, please.”
Barton itched to ask who their contact was, because whoever could provide such detailed intel so late in the game had to be close to Tovsky. That left a very narrow playing field. The idea that she might be near burned in him, and he knew just how dangerous those feelings could be.
After Stark’s phone call, they shower again. They nibble at muffins left over from last night. They curl into bed, exhausted.
Natasha sleeps. He’s watching her in the dazy light trickling from the suite’s blackout curtains. Her head rests on his forearm. Her hair’s a blaze across the pillow. He’s memorized each scar and mole and freckle. They’re like points on the map of her life, he thinks. Then he thinks it’s never as simple as that.
Because physical scars fade with time. Sometimes they disappear altogether. You can see them growing smaller, vanishing, healing. There’s tangible closure, and it’s better. Mental pain, though. You can’t see the damage or the scars. You can’t check the bandages because there are none. You don’t know if they’ll ever go away.
He imagines himself telling her these things. He hears his own voice in his head, and it’s as good as speaking them aloud. She already knows what it’s like. She’s been here. That’s a comfort by itself.
Then he’s off on other thought paths, the ones that remind him of how their lives have crossed and re-crossed, each time like a course correction nudging them closer together.
Clint puts a stop to those thoughts. He doesn’t believe in destiny. Those thoughts belong in the domain of children, along with Santa Claus and fairy dust and wishes made on stars. They don’t believe in such things.
No. What they have is tangible. The training. Their missions. Their rituals. It’s real, it’s rational. It’s something they can trust. Like the ocean running up to the shore or the turning of the earth, it’s always there.
And it works because they don’t talk about it or fluff it into fantasy. Their lives are too chaotic for anything beyond what they can hold in their hands.
Only. Something has changed. Something was unearthed. Loki fucked with his brain, and when he left, it was like the receding tide. And something strange and unexpected was left behind on the beach.
Really explicit sexual content in this chapter.
“The noise could be a problem,” Barton said as he angled around an exterior concrete beam on the Estadio do Morumbi. Below him, seventy-two thousand futbol fans screamed with mind-numbing force as Brazil and Argentina took the pitch.
“That is partly the point,” the Director replied over the com. “Tovsky wants a spectacle. He’ll get a spectacle.”
“Seventy thousand,” Agent Coulson said.
“And you weren’t kidding about the vuvuzelas,” Agent Hill added. “Captain, the ground team is in place and awaits your order.”
“Hawkeye, what’s your ETA?” the Director asked.
Barton leapt up, caught a support strut, and swung into the maintenance cage beneath the stadium lights. His pulse raced as he scanned the distance between the metal mesh and the stands.
“I got the full panorama, Sir,” Barton said. “He makes a move, I’ll see it.”
“Good,” the Director said. “Hill, remind ground team that intel says look out for men in dark green or brown coveralls. They’re meant to appear like service uniforms. Coulson, you’re my eyes in the stands. Look for suspicious people with handheld gadgets. Could be anything from soda cans to cell phones. I realize that’s a broad order, but I also know that you are very good.”
Coulson brightened audibly when he replied, “Why thank you, sir.”
The Director went on without missing a beat. “Hawkeye: our mark is partial to custom Armani suits in light colors. He’s also fond of hats. Remember: Tovsky’s got three things working in his favor – one, a group of crazies loyal to his cause, and two, the chaos of Brazilian futbol. The third is that he has precious little left to lose, which makes him dangerous. Are there any questions?”
“No sir,” Hill snapped her reply.
“All clear sir,” Coulson confirmed.
Barton fitted an arrow into his bow. These arrows were light weight and designed to burn to ash once they struck their target. Quick and clean, just like the Director said. “All set,” Barton agreed.
“Great,” the Director said. “And now we wait.”
Using the high-powered sights of his bow, Barton swept the crowd repeatedly, searching out a man in a cream-colored suit. In previous missions, this was the part he lived for, that springy anticipation before spotting a mark, when everything slowed to heartbeats and breaths. This time, though, he felt a pinch of dread. He couldn't keep his mind from straying to certain questions. He couldn't afford to let it distract him, and yet it kept nudging him, pulling at him, driving him insane.
Time stretched through the first period with Argentina scoring one goal in the first ten minutes. The crowd continued to steadily ratchet up their enthusiasm. One section brought out colored boards which they flipped to create pictographs including the flag of Brazil. Throughout the crowd, children waved paper streamers and helium balloons sporting their team's logos.
And the noise. It was like a separate living thing writhing among the fans. He was grateful for his distance if only to escape that one thing.
“Captain, ground team has completed a check of the basement level and storage facilities,” Agent Hill said. “That area is secure. We've cordoned it off so that no--”
The communication ended with an abrupt sizzle of static. Barton's senses crackled to alert.
“Hill, I did not copy that last,” the Director said. “Please repeat.”
At that moment, Argentina scored another goal just as the first half wound down. The crowd burst into a mad frenzy. Barton stretched his bowstring and panned a slow circle, measuring out careful breaths.
“Hill!” the Director said again.
A tinselly whine shrieked over the com, followed by more static.
“Coulson, Hill is down,” the Director shouted. “Do you read and can you locate--”
“I'm here,” Agent Hill said. The com crisped static again, breaking her message into fragments. “– figure – some kind of Taser – not sure – she incapacitated – team – moving out – stands –” The transmission abruptly cut out.
Barton hissed, “What did she say?”
“Hill is incapacitated,” the Director yelled. “Attacker's heading into the stands. Hawkeye, it's all you.”
Barton growled, “Location?”
“Unknown,” the Director said.
“Sir, this is impossible,” Coulson muttered into the com. “The period's just ended. People are all over the place.”
“It's not impossible,” Barton breathed. His focus drew in around him, sharpening every detail. Suddenly the noise was a distant wave rolling into shore, and he saw every person in his scope as clear and crisp as a photograph.
But he almost tumbled from his tower when he saw her.
She stood in a stairwell directly opposite him, at the furthest possible trajectory from his bow. She wore a vibrant red suit, bright and deadly as a knife slash, and in her hand she held the string of a single silver balloon.
Several seconds cranked by before he could convince himself that she wasn't an apparition, or that he hadn't actually plummeted to his death, and this was the last image his brain could muster before his body gave up. What made it all the more surreal, though, was that she was staring straight at him. Just like in Cairo.
“’kay, maybe a little impossible,” he whispered. He swallowed. The part of his brain that knew she was probably acting as a diversion nagged at him. He told it to shut the hell up as he leveled his sights on her. She nodded once, an accentuated gesture, and then she released the balloon.
“What?” He followed its ascent, a tiny silver sphere lilting into the air.
“Hawkeye, report,” the Director snapped.
“Captain, I--” His heart thudded. The balloon continued to climb, past the upper stands and into the open air. In a flash, he understood. “The balloons,” he said in a rush. “The devices are in the balloons.”
A click, then, “Are you certain?” the Director asked.
Barton scanned the stadium. Natasha had vanished, but now he saw the genius behind Tovsky's plan. Thousands of balloons, each fitted with the X1-D5 device, completely inert until triggered by Tovsky.
“Thousands of them,” Barton said. “All in the hands of children.”
“And if they're released...” Coulson began.
“He'll detonate,” Barton finished. “It’s his M. O. Tovsky uses children—”
“Then we have to stop him before he gets a chance!” the Director shouted.
Barton gritted his teeth. “And the award for Understatement of the Year goes to--”
The Director sliced in. “Coulson, get your hands on one of those balloons, just to be sure. Hill, do you read me?”
“Sir,” she said. “I know where Tovsky is.”
“Where?” the Director yelled. “And how?”
“He's dressed as a referee,” Agent Hill said, her words slow and measured. “He's set to take the pitch from the East, section EE 16, right below the boxes.” She paused, and Barton knew. Natasha had Hill. He was moving before she came back online. “Clint,” Hill continued. “You'll have a clear shot... once the damned Russians are out of the way.”
“Got it,” Barton said. He leapt onto the rail of the maintenance cage and drew back his bow. His body went rigid as he sighted section EE 16. A throng of news casters, coaches, and managers clustered around the stairway into the boxes.
“What damned Russians?” the Director was shouting. “Are there now Russians working for Tovsky? Hawkeye? Report!”
“Be ready for extraction, Sir,” Barton said.
Tovsky emerged. Barton steadied himself. Breathed. Fired.
The arrow pierced Tovsky's left eye.
Barton vaulted from the metal cage. He slammed into the roof of the stands and bolted for the rendezvous point. Below, the crowd grew restless as the Brazilian team called for paramedics. As he ran, he touched his earpiece. “It's done, Sir,” he said. “He's down.”
Barton dropped into a designated service stairway and slipped silently from the stadium. As he descended, the Director came back online.
“This is good news. Agent Hill and the ground team are working out the logistics of getting those balloons out of the public's hands,” the Director said. “Meanwhile... it seems you have a visitor. And we need to have a conversation.”
Barton shoved through the service door and stepped into the corridor. She waited between Director Fury and Agent Coulson, hands cuffed behind her, red leather suit slightly creased, her mouth pursed in that enigmatic smile.
“Agent Barton,” she said.
“Lady Romanoff,” he said. And he actually bowed his head. A slight bow, but still...
“You said to come find you,” she said. “And so I did.”
“And so you did,” Barton said.
“What time is it?” she asks.
She stretches lavishly against him. Grins at his body’s reaction.
“When was the last time you slept til noon?” he asks.
Her hand trails to his neck. She traces the whorl of his ear with her fingers. “Never,” she says. She ruffles the hair at his temples.
“I don’t think he let us sleep,” Clint says. “Loki, I mean. He maybe didn’t let us eat.”
“You don’t feed something you’re gonna throw away.” She frowns. Then she says, “Fury says we have time off.”
They exchange a look that’s one part confusion, one part incredulity, like, What is this time off business? and they smile.
Clint says, “It’s been since before—”
“Monaco,” Natasha finishes.
“But that was—”
“Two years ago,” she says.
“Two?” He glances at her. She nods. “But, we had five hours together. Over the course of a weekend.”
“Hmm. Great five hours, though. Made up for that really, really bad assignment with Stark.”
His kisses her forehead. “Natalie Rushman.”
“Yep. And Fury had you watching Tony’s place back in California,” she remembers. “You had that tiny bungalow on Venice Beach. Do you still have it?”
The memories in that place... All those hasty, stolen, frenzied moments brought on by stress and their mismatched schedules. They joked that they couldn’t tell if they were coming or going, so mostly they were coming...
He feels the stir of arousal. She feels it, too, and slides her hand under his cock to give him an encouraging squeeze.
“Uhm. I sold it. The, uh, bungalow,” he says. She hooks a leg over his hip, draws him closer. “I don’t think we slept then, either.”
“For much better reasons,” she agrees. She slides her hand down his length and up again, and just like that, she’s got his full attention. Her voice is silky as she says, “Remember what we did in Monaco?”
“Those memories got me through many lonely nights on missions.”
She licks his lip. “You have lube?”
She runs her thumb over the tip of his penis. “Get it,” she says.
He rummages in his bag for all of twenty seconds before returning with it.
“Raspberry,” she says, turning the tube in her hands. “My favorite.”
“I know,” he says. They’re like giddy teenagers as she uncaps the tube and smears it across their fingers.
He stands beside the bed and she sits on the edge, her legs between his. She oils him up right and proper before taking him into her mouth. She twirls her tongue around the tip and then swallows his whole length. Then she slowly works her way back to the tip, grazing him lightly with her teeth before repeating the motion, again and again, until he thinks he might go mad.
Then he feels her fingers run along the underside of his balls, and as she runs one finger into his ass, he moans, “Monaco...”
Her laughter hums against his skin. She’s moving faster now, all tongue and teeth and lips and sneaking fingers. He’s hanging on, holding back, but it’s just so fucking hard, then it’s too much. His hands fall to her shoulders and he nudges her. She releases him and edges backward, grinning up at him, daring him.
“Let’s put a twist on this,” he says. “Shall we?”
One brow arches, intrigued.
He bends to nip at her breast. She shudders and bites into his neck. They scramble into the bed, all teeth and claws and wildness. He’s on his knees and grabs her hips. She slides one leg around his waist. The other she hooks over his shoulder. For a moment he’s dizzy at the sight of her splayed across him, the trim red hair of her sex, the supple curve of her upturned ass, all tight and pink. There’s something about flexibility, too, but she licks her lips, and rational thought packs up and leaves.
So he rubs the lube over his fingers.
“Go slow,” she says.
He grunts in response; that’s all he’s capable of.
Clint slides a finger into her ass, all the way to the knuckle. She bows up against him, her eyes closed. He moves it in slow circles before inserting the second. And now she groans, a deep, throaty sound.
“Yeah?” he asks.
“Mmm,” she answers.
He angles her body and enters her. It’s all cock and cunt and fingers in her ass and it’s fucking beautiful and delicious and vulgar. She tightens around him and it’s all he can do to just... go... slow. But he does. He cups her ass with his hand as his fingers move inside her. He matches the rhythm with his cock, sliding all the way to the tip with each stroke, then plunging down again and again, each time with more force, just to make her breathing catch.
She grips his elbow and he pulls her upright, deepening the angle of penetration. She folds her leg, bending it close to his arm, bringing them face to face.
“Not yet,” she whispers. She presses into him, matching him. She utters a sharp strangled noise, then, “Not yet. Clint—”
His pulse thrums through them with each deepening stroke. It aches in them. She throws her head back, suddenly, crushing her body to his. She rocks hard and cries out. He withdraws his fingers and she screams into his shoulder.
“Now, oh god, now,” she gasps, and he releases inside her. She comes again, this time riding down with him, and they collapse in a tangle onto the sheets.
When he’s capable of speech, he says, “Jesus, Nat—”
And she says, “I think... I might have... actually... lost consciousness... a minute there.”
He nuzzles into her neck. “Fuck yeah.”
They laugh. It hurts, but they laugh anyway.
The city is alive with light. Work crews bustle on sidewalks and in the streets, cleaning and rebuilding. Clint drives down to Central Park, Natasha in the passenger’s seat and Banner is awkwardly polite in the back. The trip takes them through several detours due to street closures, but once they arrive, Bruce meanders off on his own, looking at everything like it’s all brand new. They follow several paces behind, walking together through the blustery afternoon toward Bethesda Fountain.
She’s talking about a cafe on 7th and 56th, about how she hopes it’s still standing because it has great baklava. He senses she’s trying to distract him. He needs it, too. The thought of seeing Loki, of not putting that arrow through his eye, sickens him. Having left the cool cocoon of their hotel suite, he feels jittery and nauseated.
She touches his arm. “Clint.”
He nods. “So, this time off business,” he says, taking a stab at redirecting his thoughts. “What do you think it entails?”
Without pause, she answers, “Grocery shopping.”
He chuckles. “That’s what you’d do? Groceries?”
“Yeah.” She buries her hands in her pockets. “Normal stuff. You know, read a book that’s not a mission brief. Shop for actual food. See a movie, in a theater.”
He blows out a breath. “Haven’t seen a movie since—”
“—Barcelona,” she finishes.
“Conseguido un sentimiento malo, el doctor Jones,” he says.
She responds with, “Dónde está el cráneo de cristal, el doctor Jones!”
Smiling, they walk on in silence. The park is full of color. The light stings his eyes, even through his sunglasses. It’s crazy bright, like the buildings and trees and the air are all out to celebrate.
A flicker of red catches his eye – a cardinal feather caught in the ivy – and a memory grips him. He sees a lock of hair floating on water, and suddenly, with an intensity that almost knocks his knees out from under him, he remembers what happened to her hair.
Their last mission together. Six months ago. Budapest. They fought a group of militant Ukrainian separatists who had, thanks to Justin Hammer, high-voltage plasma weapons. He recalls the excruciating burns, their destroyed uniforms. And her hair... He remembers sitting behind her in a clawfoot tub of cold water, cutting out the scorched pieces with a shard of mirror glass. When it was all said and done, she had a jagged boy cut that hung to the length of her jaw.
He remembers she cried, not because of the hair, but because of the unending exhaustion, mission after mission. It hurts him all over again. Their sore and blistered bodies. The icy water bracing their skin. The blackened coils of her hair across the buckled floor.
“Budapest,” he whispers, brushing his fingers through the fringe of her curls.
They move to kiss, right out in the open. Just as Steve pulls up on his motorbike.
“Of course he does,” Clint mutters, half not-smiling.
If Steve saw anything, he doesn’t say so. Instead he gets off his bike and, all smiles, greets them with a chipper, “Hey team!”
Natasha leans in for a side-hug. “Steve,” she says.
“Captain,” Clint says, and they clasp hands.
Bruce wanders up, hands in pockets. “Cap,” he says.
“Looks like we’re the first ones here,” Steve says. He and Bruce strike up a conversation and lead the way down to the plaza near the fountain.
After several seconds, Natasha says, “I think they know about us.” Her voice is quiet, playfully conspiratorial.
He grimaces. “Stark does, too.”
She bumps his shoulder with hers. They follow the others.
This is new ground for them. Being in the open. Coulson knew, of course. Possibly Fury as well. It never came up. It was never questioned or scrutinized, and he’s nervous. Because it’s always been a secret, separate thing; something hidden, protected. Sacred...
That word sends him spinning. It’s too heavy a yoke for what they share. He doesn’t ascribe to religious memes, but he knows the power of rituals. Their rituals, anyway.
The others arrive without ceremony over the next half hour. Tony’s in his convertible, riding shotgun with the Tesseract. Thor’s last, driven by Dr. Selvig in a SHIELD van, with Loki shackled in back. They’re all relieved to see that Loki is both bound and gagged.
It’s hard for Clint to watch and not do... something. His fingers drift to the knife on his belt. It’d be an easy shot. He knows it won’t kill Loki, but damned if it wouldn’t feel awesome to lodge it hilt-deep in Loki’s suprasternal notch.
Then Clint notices how Natasha keeps putting herself between him and Loki. Like she’s protecting Clint. He realizes, she is protecting him.
Another ritual. They look out for each other.
Then as they watch Tony and Dr. Selvig load the Tesseract into the canister for transport, Natasha leans in and whispers, “Think Loki’s gonna need an Ass-guardian where he’s going?”
A smile tugs the corner of his mouth. Clint doesn’t know a thing about Asgardian justice, but he likes the idea of a burly frost giant making Loki into his personal fuck puppet.
Then Thor engages the Tesseract, the air fills with the scent of ozone and the pulse of an electric charge. He and Loki seize the opposite ends of the canister, and in a blinding blue flash, it’s all over. Thor and Loki are gone, and the others stand there, nodding, impressed, and relieved.
“So that’s that,” Tony says, turning to them. “Everyone good? Everyone okay? Nobody singed? Flashblind? Nauseous?”
Natasha tucks her hands in her pockets. “Nope, we’re all good.”
“Great, so Bruce,” Tony says, “Stark Tower’s seen better days, and by that I mean, day before yesterday, but R&D’s still open for business. What d’ya say to that tour? Shall we science?” He turns to Clint. “Can I take this guy off your hands?”
He shrugs. “Sure.”
Tony turns to Steve. “Cap?”
Steve’s not sure if it’s an invitation or asking permission. He says, “Yeah. Go on. We all have the phone things, right?”
“That is right,” Tony says, and then he’s waving at them like he’s a rock star. “We will definitely catch up. Soon. All right. Stay cool. Bye bye. Play nice. Don’t do drugs. Peace out.” Tony hooks an arm over Bruce’s shoulder. Bruce looks bewildered for a moment, but defers as Tony leads him to the car.
Dr. Selvig shakes his head as Tony and Bruce speed away. He turns to Clint. “So. Nightmares?” he asks.
Clint swallows. “Some,” he admits.
“And me as well,” he says. “My intent is to balance them with a healthy of dose of beer and clinical research. Perhaps some porn.” He winks at the Captain, whose smile falters. Selvig laughs and claps him on the shoulder. “Forgive me, I’m kidding,” he says. “Partly.” He takes Natasha’s hands in his. “Look after Barton. We’ve seen worse things than what he’s let on, I’d wager.”
“I will,” she says.
And with that, Selvig climbs into his van and drives away.
“Well.” Steve tips them a salute. “It’s been an honor. Now if you’ll excuse me—” he smiles “—I have a date.”
Natasha returns his salute. “Good luck, Captain.”
They watch as he gets onto his bike and heads off into the horizon.
Clint turns to her. “Date?”
“Long overdue,” Natasha says. “Seventy years.”
She loops her arms in his. They take their time on the path, because the air smells of plaster and spring and the sunlight feels warm on their shoulders. And because it’s just them: No labels, no secrets, no assignments. They’re like any other couple in Central Park on a Friday afternoon.
“So,” she says. “I, um, know this really great Italian place.”
“Hm, is it nearby?”
That half smile quirks her lips. “It’s in Italy.”
She nods. “Naples.”
“Pretty sure I can requisition a jet,” he says. Then he thinks, So maybe not like any other couple in Central Park...
They walk on a few more steps before she asks, “You ever seen Pompeii?”
“I have not.”
“Me neither,” she says. She stops and faces him. Tucks her hair behind her ears. “We should go. There’s all this stuff in Italy.”
“That’s what I hear.” They stare at each other, smiling til their cheeks hurt, and he feels almost bashful, like he’s a kid with his first crush all over again. His mind is awash with memories and blood, and he was compromised. It split him open, and it’s a big mess, like a sidewalk after a terrible storm. But he’s okay. It’s over and they survived, and it’s better than that.
That’s what was unearthed, he realizes. The reality of what they have. It’s more than debts owed or shared experiences. It’s more than ritual that gets them through. And it’s not something Loki or anyone else can break.
They walk on together. Natasha takes his arm in hers, pulls him close. She says, “Hey Clint.”
She kisses him. Then says, “Remember that time in New York?”
He kisses her right back, a long, deep, dizzying kiss that makes them both want to run back to the Carlyle to book another several days in the comforting cocoon of their suite. When they resurface, he laces their fingers and brings their joined hands to his heart.
“New York,” he says. “My favorite so far.”