In all the world, there is no heart for me like yours. In all the world, there is no love for you like mine.
— Maya Angelou
After Pepper had broken things off with Tony, or possibly he with her (Tony had said mutual decision reached between two adults, but since that had come from the man who'd just blown up the toaster, Clint had felt that it couldn't be taken at face value), Tony had been even more erratic than usual. The Avengers had found themselves collectively entered—most definitely against their will—for a pottery class that they were subsequently kicked out of after Tony had set fire to the work shop. They'd suffered through missions where Tony had insisted on replying to every question or command in rhyme. One memorable morning they had even woken up to find the kitchen suddenly inhabited by a wolf, because Tony had watched some new fantasy show and got ideas. (That last one hadn't been too much of a problem, at least. Thor had adopted it.)
So when Tony announced that he was taking up a new hobby and asked to be taught archery, Clint felt he had to do the decent thing and take the worst blast of Tony's weirdness upon himself. For the sake of the team.
Natasha sneered at him. "Only Rogers can actually get away with saying things like that," she told him.
"You could be supportive," Clint said. The two of them were drinking in his quarters, because those were slightly more uplifting than Natasha's. You could see that there was an actual person living in them, for a start. Natasha had never been good at putting down roots. "He's being a pain in the ass right now, and you realise I'm going to be stuck with him for most of my free time until he gets bored?"
"You mean for two days, then," Natasha said, unperturbed. "He just needs to wind down a bit."
Clint snorted. "But he's so reckless right now. If I manage to stop him from accidentally impaling himself, I'll count that as a success. The same goes if I manage to stop myself from not so accidentally doing it."
"Stop whining," Natasha said, opening a new beer. "You always get along with him."
That was true, at least. Clint could usually understand where Tony was coming from, even when he was being weird, and they communicated well. There was something about Tony's unapologetic honesty and aversion to subterfuge that attracted Clint, possibly because it was so very opposite to how Clint had lived his life.
Then again, Clint thought he got along with most of the other Avengers. He liked to think of himself as an easy-going guy. And compared to the rest of the Avengers, he felt, he was positively normal.
(He did not share this last observation with Natasha.)
"Besides," Natasha continued, "if he gets really annoying and you feel you really have to get rid of him, you can just treat him like you do the SHIELD trainees. You usually manage to have those crying within the week."
"I thought that was you," Clint said, nudging her. She shrugged, lifting one corner of her mouth in a smile.
"Let's just say we make a good team." Then her smile widened a little, and she added, "Teaching Stark to shoot probably won't be an entire waste of time for you, either. Whenever I see him in the gym, he's wearing sleeveless shirts."
Clint gave her a look he hoped was incredulously amused. "We're on the same team as Steve and Thor and yeah, even Bruce, and you think of Tony as the eye candy?"
Natasha swallowed another mouthful of beer. "No," she said. "You do."
Natasha was an excellent spy, with a talent for reading a person in less time than it took most people to introduce themselves, and a fucking awful best friend.
Tony showed up to their first archery session on time, which rather surprised Clint, who'd been counting on an hour to himself at the very least. He was also—thank you, Natasha, for ensuring that Clint wouldn't not notice—in a sleeveless shirt and training slacks.
"Let's get cracking, Legolas," he said, clapping his hands together. "How soon can you have me a worthy member of the ranks of Lothlorien?"
"Legolas was from Mirkwood," Clint said. "You ignorant."
Tony grinned, tipping him a wink. "Just testing you," he said. "So, teach me everything you know."
"And lose my place in the team?" Clint said lightly. "Let's start with getting you kitted out, before we do anything else. Here. Finger tabs, those go on your drawing hand—the one you pull the string with—and this is a bracer for your bow arm. For you, that would be your left. You should take that off, it'll be in the way." He nodded to the wide, fluffy sweatband Tony was wearing around his left wrist.
Tony shook his head. "No," he said.
Clint raised his eyebrows.
"It's my security blanket," Tony said, in his spinning a yarn-voice. "It was suggested when I was entering college that it would be embarrassing to carry it around with me as was, so I had someone fashion it into something more practical for me. Haven't taken it off since and I'm not going to now."
Clint rolled his eyes. Whenever Tony was difficult like this, it was best to just roll with it. Whatever reason he had for not wanting to take the thing off didn't matter now—it could be the simple fact that he'd been asked to—he'd only keep making up stories until you gave up.
"Fine," Clint said. "Just thought it might chafe under the bracer. But that's your call."
He helped Tony on with the gear, then took him through the basics of firing a bow.
"So when do we get to the exploding arrows?" Tony said. "I like those."
"Let's see if you can get them to go in more or less the right direction first," Clint suggested.
He watched Tony miss targets for a while, then stopped him.
"Draw with the body, not just with the arm," he said, gently pulling Tony's shoulders back, and then stepped up close behind him, shadowing Tony's arms with his own.
"Really, Barton, you could at least buy me dinner first," Tony said, and Clint snorted. Tony was sometimes refreshing in his utter disrespect for political correctness. Several of the others on the team tiptoed around the issue of Clint's sexuality—or of course, in the case of Thor, considered all human labels of sexuality equal—but Tony pushed the limits of jokes and pressed people's buttons, always. And in a weird way, Clint was glad that he or his attraction to men didn't get any special treatment.
"Follow my movement," he said, guiding Tony's arm through the draw. "Relax your shoulders. Steady in the bow hand. Breathe. Now release."
The shot went wide of the mark this time, too. Tony huffed out a laugh.
"Well, at least I got a cuddle," he said. "Are you sure you know how to do this?"
"Archery? Yeah," Clint said. "Teaching, though, I haven't got a clue."
Tony laughed again. "OK, I'll just try again, then."
They gave it another hour and a half, at the end of which Clint was tired and Tony's fingers were sore, but at the least some of the targets had been subdued.
"I sure showed them," Tony said, fumbling with the buckles of his bracer. "If we're ever attacked by something big, circular and striped that can be persuaded to stand still, then I'll sure make it, um, slightly wary. Fuck!"
One of the buckles had caught in the fabric of his sweatband, and when Tony removed the bracer it had half pulled off the sweatband at the same time. Clint was just about to say something waspish on the lines of told you so when Tony dropped the bracer and put his hand over his arm, as if shielding it.
Clint paused, confused. Tony stared back at him, and then looked away.
"Sorry—" he began, and Clint put up both hands in a placating gesture.
"Not my business," he said.
"No, look, it's—" Tony looked torn for a moment, then sighed and pulled the sweatband off his arm. "It's just instinct, for me, by now. I'm supposed to keep it hidden. But, well, we're a team, after all."
He held out his arm. Curving around the inside of his wrist was a number.
Clint froze. The number was several digits long, but he knew it instantly. His right leg twitched, as if the mark there was calling out for its twin.
"Ever since I was a kid," Tony said, "I've had to hide that. Like all people in the public eye do, I guess. If someone found my soul mate or whatever you want to call it, the person with the matching number, they could be used against me as kidnapping and extortion material—and we couldn't risk that, either for us or for them. For the same reason any relationships were always supposed to be vetoed by Obediah after extensive detective work."
"Relationships?" Clint said, raising his eyebrows, because engaging in some normal banter might overshadow the enormity of what he'd just learned.
Tony grinned. "Yeah, fine, you're right. I didn't need to veto a lot of people. That's another way to avoid having people who can be hurt because of you, of course."
And that was another thing about Tony. He tended to say darkly honest things without the slightest hint of discomfort. It was a way of keeping yourself safe, Clint thought, putting all your issues out there for the world to see, instead of shutting them away. But it did make it difficult to tell the difference between when Tony was at peace about something, and when he was just pretending to be.
"Please don't tell anyone," Tony said, his tone careless but his shoulders tight. "Pepper would murder me. Since Obie died, she's been more or less the only one who knows, and we work hard to keep it that way. The more people who know, the larger the risk of it getting out." He stopped, and looked startled. "Not that I don't trust you! It's just—routine."
"Of course," Clint said, shrugging. "I get it. Won't tell a soul."
Tony nodded. He didn't look relieved exactly, because he was wearing his usual Tony grimace of nothing ever really touches me, but he might have looked relieved if he'd been a normal human being.
"Right," he said, pulling the sweatband back over his arm and then shrugging on his sweatshirt. "Well, I'm going to hit the shower and then make myself a smoothie. What about you? Should I make enough for two? Sensei," he added, mock respectful.
Clint rolled his eyes at him. "There is never going to be a time when you need to make smoothie for two, Tony, because there's never going to be another person who thinks that smoothies should taste like watercress, pickled herring and copper. I don't even want to know what you put into those things."
"Vitamins and protein," Tony said, not insulted in the least. "Taste is irrelevant."
Clint laughed. "Thanks, but no. I'm going to stay and shoot for a bit on my own."
"Enjoy that, then," Tony said. "See you at dinner."
As soon as he had left and closed the door behind him, Clint sat down heavily and put his head in his hands. The initial, dizzying panic was fading, and he drew several deep breaths to calm his nerves. He shouldn't be getting worked up like this. This didn't actually have to change anything.
He rubbed his face vigorously with both hands, then pulled up his trouser leg and inspected the burn scar on his right calf. It was just possible, if you knew it was there, to make out the one and the four at the start of the number, but everything else had been obliterated.
Only Clint knew that it was a perfect match to Tony's.
Since he'd been showing and explaining technique to Tony all afternoon he'd thought more closely about his own form than usual, and he'd noticed that he seemed to be losing some of the strength in his fingers. Before dinner, then, he took a detour to one of the gyms to see if it was all in his mind or if he could see the effects there, too.
When he arrived, he found Natasha and Steve circling each other, as if sizing up before a fight.
"Hey, Natasha," he said. "Hi, Cap. What are you doing?"
Natasha nodded a greeting vaguely in his direction without taking her eyes off the Captain. She was twirling a practise knife in one hand. "Hand to hand combat," she said. "This one still refuses to use anything with an edge. Today we're going to work on that."
"Knives tend to mean slow, cruel deaths," Steve said mildly, gripping his own knife entirely wrong and too tightly. Natasha was going to shred him. (Figuratively. Clint hoped, at least.) "I don't want to learn how to kill someone like that. I just want to protect people."
"He says that every time," Natasha said. "He doesn't seem to understand the potential of a hamstring slash."
Steve winced, and Clint shared a look with Natasha. Cap had enough difficulty adjusting to a lot of things in this modern world. It really wasn't fair to him that he'd ended up on a team with a couple of desensitised former assassins and a wildly alien demi-god—not to mention Tony, who was a walking, talking, overly sharing poster child for the cheerfully lowered moral standards of the twenty-first century.
He left them to their knife play and headed to one of the climbing walls, swinging himself upwards with the help of hands only. The way he had to strain confirmed his worry. He'd been slacking off lately.
It wasn't that surprising. He had his first mission in two weeks tonight—no wonder he'd been getting sloppy. It was time start putting in some work.
He finally called a halt, flexing his fingers and feeling the muscles in his arms strain fit to burst out of his skin. It had clearly been much too long since he did that.
Natasha and Steve had finished, too, he noticed, and he headed over to join them.
"You're still alive, I see," he said. Steve winced.
"Just about. I'm terrible at this."
"Not for long," Natasha said. "I'll have you passable within a week or two. You have good reflexes. The rest is just learning moves."
Clint raised his eyebrows. That was praise indeed, coming from Natasha.
"You'll be here for a while, then?" he asked her.
"I'm heading to Denmark in two weeks," she replied. "I've got nothing to do until then but prepare the role and teach this one to use weapons."
"I know how to use weapons," Steve protested, laughing.
"A shield is not a weapon," Natasha pointed out. He grinned at her.
"I was shooting rifles before you were born," he said. "Literally."
Natasha pulled an inward sort of smile at that. "I'll keep that in mind the next time we get into a fight with antiquated, obsolete weapons. Your expertise will come in handy."
Clint grinned and picked up his water bottle and towel. He hesitated, then decided that he had to ask.
"So I heard something the other day that got me thinking," he said, trying to make it sound casual. "Do either of you believe in the whole soul mates thing?"
"No," Natasha answered immediately. "Of course not."
Steve turned and looked at her, startled. "How can you not believe in soul mates? It's a fact! You have a number, don't you?"
"I do," Natasha agreed, "but I don't think that a thing like that can be allowed to run your life."
She sighed. "I have a number, and by some freak chance of nature someone else has the same one. So what? You can't draw conclusions from that. The idea of soul mates actually meaning something is just the tired old fairy tale of the perfect love of a life time, with a quirk of biology thrown in. It's bullshit. I mean," she added, "what are even the chances of meeting that soul mate? In the world we live in? Not a chance. And there are millions of people who live out their lives together perfectly happy, even though they're not connected by the same birthmark."
Clint had kind of anticipated that answer from Natasha. Judging by Steve's shocked expression, he had not.
"It doesn't only have to be about love," he protested weakly. "Sometimes soul mates can be about being partners, friends. One of the soldiers in my old company actually found his soul mate in a man who worked in the war office with Peggy. The two of them kept in touch more than most men did with their fiancées, when we were over in Europe."
Clint shared another look with Natasha.
"What?" Steve said, noticing this time, and when Natasha only raised an eyebrow at him, "Oh. Wait."
"It's a whole new world for him," Natasha told Clint seriously.
"No, I know about—" Steve began hotly, then hesitated, glancing at Clint quickly.
"Gays," Clint suggested mildly. "It's fine to use the word. Actually, with me you say whatever you like. As a general rule you might want to avoid using the word faggots, though."
Steve blushed. He did that quite often—in some part because the rest of the team found it adorable, and tried to make him do it as often as possible.
"I know, anyway," he said awkwardly. "I just never thought that those two—but anyway, that doesn't disprove what I said. I still believe that soul mates can sometimes be about friendship, rather than something, well, romantic. It's about a connection, deeper than anything you can make in a lifetime. What that connection then means is up to the people involved."
"And there we have the bullshit," Natasha said coolly. "Some mystical connection my fucking body has with another one can't be worth more than the actual, real relationships I build with people."
"Well, I take it that you at least believe that soul mates are real, then, Steve," Clint interjected, before Natasha started ranting again and before Steve strained his facial muscles wincing at her language.
"My parents were soul mates," Steve said, his expression going soft. "I knew most of my friends' parents weren't, and I never thought that their marriages were less real for it, but still. I always hoped I'd find that, too, what my parents had." He laughed. "I used to think that in the future, everyone would be with their soul mate. That there would be registers and things—that technology could have advanced that far."
Clint shrugged. "There are sites that find the person with your number for you. They boast about the same success rate as any other dating site. Not more or less. And not everyone is interested in finding their soul mate, either."
Steve looked crestfallen. Natasha looked blank, because she usually looked blank, but it looked like it could be a smug blank.
"What was all this about, anyway?" she asked then, turning back to Clint.
The panic flared up again, sudden and startling.
"Something I overheard in the coffee shop," he said, fighting down the urge to tell her everything. That wouldn't help at all, right now. "About that site, youroppositenumber.com. Just got me thinking."
"So what do you believe?" Steve asked. Clint grinned casually.
"Don't know. That's why I asked." He shrugged and put his towel around his shoulders. "I'm doing recon for Fury tonight at that place on 39th he talked about last meeting. Either of you coming with me for that?"
They shook their heads, and he shrugged. "OK, see you at dinner, then."
"How about Thor, then?" he heard Natasha say behind him as he left them. "In his world, there are no soul mates, no numbers. But he and his girlfriend seem happy."
"I'm not saying that romantic relationships between two people who are not soul mates can't be happy," Steve told her, sounding exasperated. "I'm just saying that the connection between two soul mates, that's something special. Or between more people, of course," he added conscientiously. "I understand that there are those who have found their matching number in more than one person."
"Oh, you are just learning new things all the time, aren't you, Rogers," Natasha said sweetly, and that was the last thing Clint heard before the door closed behind him.
The thing about the circus was: you were expected to give a helping hand wherever needed. During his time at the Carson Carnival of Travelling Wonders, Clint had taken a part in most acts in some small way, filling in for people who were sick or injured. Always in untrained roles, of course—but as it turned out, those could be hazardous as well.
It had been the tiger act that had done it. Viktor had been drinking before the performance, Clint learned later, and when he'd lost control of the tiger Kali, she had knocked over the flaming ring she was supposed to jump through. Clint, who'd been on hand simply to close the cages after the tigers had done the show, had been trapped underneath it.
It hadn't been too bad, all things considered. He'd been up and working again before long, and he'd felt no long-term effects from the injury. But the burn on his trapped leg had been pretty bad, even so, and it had been right over Clint's number.
With the way his life had been up until that point, there were no previous records of his number for him to rely on. There were no birth records or doctor's visits, and any photographs he had from before the accident were few and blurry and in any case did not show his bare leg. All he had was his own memory. His chance of meeting the person meant for him was gone, destroyed by a man with a drinking habit and a vengeful tiger.
But despite that, and despite what he'd told Steve, he'd never stopped believing. He'd always known that there was someone special out there for him. He'd just accepted that the chance of ever finding them was slim enough as it was, and even if he did, he'd have no way to prove to them that they matched.
When he first met Natasha, something about the easy way they fell into companionship made him believe it was her for a moment—but then he caught sight of the number curling delicately around one of her ears and knew that no, he still had not found his soul mate.
It didn't take him long to realise that he'd found his best friend, however.
And now he finally had found his matching number, and it belonged to someone who had been brought up to be instantly suspicious and on guard about people claiming to be his soul mate. All celebrities, at least those who weren't as good as Tony at hiding their number, suffered the kind of nut job stalkers who claimed a soul mate connection. There were people who'd go so far as to tattoo a false number onto their skin in order to match the person they were obsessing about (something that made Clint deeply uncomfortable). Tony, who'd grown up with that kind of crazy, was never going to take Clint's word for it.
It was fine, though. Nothing had changed, not really. Tony was still his friend and team mate, and Clint was still fine with knowing that a life together with his soul mate was not for him.
It was all fine.
In the week that followed, Clint wondered how he hadn't noticed before. Tony wore wide bracelets and chunky watches, always covering his numbered wrist, and when he went to meet reporters, he taped or bandaged his arm.
"Just to be sure," he muttered, when he caught Clint looking.
"In case someone tries to pull your clothes off?" Clint said.
"You'd be surprised at how often that happens," Tony replied quickly, and Clint grinned.
"No," he said. "I really wouldn't."
He'd read the files, after all. Tony before his relationship with Pepper had been notorious. (Strangely so, Natasha had said at the time. According to her, he didn't have any game whatsoever.)
Clint started noticing, too, the numbers of people around him in a way he hadn't before. He'd never really thought about them before—well, you wouldn't, of course, in the same way that you wouldn't think about people having noses—but now he was suddenly seeing numbers everywhere.
Nick Fury's ran along his jaw line on the left side of his face, finishing just below his eye patch, and his second-in-command Hill's number was stamped across the knuckles of her right hand. Pepper's was on her ankle, visible when she wore sheer stockings. Bruce's digits curved along his collarbone, the first ones just visible under the edge of his shirt. And that made Clint realise—he'd never noticed if they were still visible against the Hulk's green skin. If they were, he wondered now if it was the same number as Bruce's, or if it was another one.
He hadn't spotted Steve's number yet.
Steve's story about his parents had made Clint wonder something, too. He'd gone over all the old files on the Avengers Initiative, reading up especially on the British woman who'd been part of the original recruiting team for the super soldier. He hadn't been able to stop thinking about it since then.
So the next time he found himself in the gym with Steve, both of them limbering up in preparation for training, Clint broached the question again.
"I've been thinking about what you said about soul mates," he said. He hesitated briefly but plunged on, "Did you ever know about that girl, Peggy Carter, if she—if you and her were soul mates?"
Steve looked startled by the question for a moment, and then he looked away and shrugged unhappily.
"I never found out," he said. "My number is here," he ran a thumb over his chest, tracing the curve of a rib, "so she would never really have had an opportunity to see mine. I never saw hers. But I'd like to think—I mean, I felt that she was someone who—" He trailed off into silence.
Clint nodded. He'd suspected as much. "If she was military," he said, knowing that she was, "there'd be records. You could find out."
Steve shrugged again. "I know. I've thought about it. But, well, I'm not sure I want to know."
Clint frowned at him, and Steve waved his hands vaguely, as if trying to encompass a lifetime of worries and thoughts into a gesture. "She's over ninety now. She has grandchildren. Lives in England." He shrugged expansively. "I'd like to see her again. I think. But—if it was supposed to be her, and we missed that chance—I think I might be better off not knowing."
He smiled sadly at Clint, then sat down and leant forward with his face to his knees, stretching his legs. Clint took the hint. Steve was always gentle about letting you know when he wanted you to change the subject.
The doors to the gym opened and Natasha entered. "Ready to get pummelled, Rogers?" she called out, waving to them. Her hair—newly dyed blonde for her Danish mission—was scraped back from her face and she was in her form-fitting mission suit. They'd be wrestling or something today, then.
Steve looked up and smiled brightly. Clint looked from him to Natasha and was mildly surprised to find her grinning back at Steve—a real smile, with actual teeth showing.
"Unarmed combat?" he said, and when Steve nodded, "OK, wow. Good luck. Ask her to show you that thing she does with her thighs."
Steve blushed, looking away, and Natasha shot Clint an annoyed glance. He winked at her and went to attack a set of parallel bars, smiling to himself.
It had been two weeks since Clint found out about Tony's number, and he and Tony had just had their fourth archery session cut short when Fury called and told Tony to once again head up a press conference, this time with Thor. The Avengers were supposed to take turns for those public appearances that weren't headed by Fury himself, but Tony tended to end up as their public face disproportionally often—because even though it was always kind of a gamble to let Tony loose in front of a camera, he was at least more used to that kind of attention than any of the others. Thor was too alien to handle the press by himself, Steve too formal and nervous and Bruce was a mumbler with a potential side of angry green monster.
Clint and Natasha were excused from camera duty entirely.
(Having your face plastered over every known media outlet was usually a bad career move for any spy, after all. Clint didn't know what kind of magic SHIELD had to resort to in order to remove any close footage of the two of them those times they went on an official Avengers mission, but it had to be good. Just in case, though, both he and Natasha now wore shades on public outings and dyed their hair more often than was probably good for them.)
"Let's hope this conference is better than the last," Tony said, struggling into his suit jacket as they walked out to the elevators together. "The last time they just went on about what I wear under my armour."
"You did pee in your suit that one time. In public," Clint pointed out, and when Tony looked surprised added, "Natasha shares her mission reports with me. The unusually hilarious ones, anyway."
"That is a breach of confidentiality or clearance protocol or something and I'm telling Fury," Tony said loftily. "Hey, Thor!"
Thor, already waiting by the elevators, raised a hand in greeting. His other hand rested on the head of his wolf.
"Ready to meet the raging horde?" Tony asked. "Please try not to threaten anyone this time."
"A challenge to holmgång is a great honour," Thor said grandly. "That man should have been flattered."
"Yes, and I'm sure he was, once his knees had stopped knocking together," Tony said, then hesitated and nodded at the wolf. "Are you bringing him?"
"He would be most upset if he were to be left here without me," Thor said, patting the wolf's ears. "Wheresoever I go, he goes."
Clint felt suddenly sorry for anyone who had chosen journalism as their profession.
"OK, right then, I think we have another front page in the bag," Tony said brightly. "See you, Clint."
"A good day to you," Thor added, and he and Tony stepped into the elevator. "Chewbacca, to me."
Tony did his surprised grimace. "Chewbacca?" he said, as the wolf padded to Thor's side.
"Mixing up your references again," Clint muttered and grinned at the look on Tony's face, visible just before the elevator doors closed.
He was back in the kitchen, having just sat down in one of the sofas with a fresh cup of coffee, when Pepper walked in, gave him a look and then looked around the rest of the room.
"Looking for someone?" Clint said, then gesticulated towards the coffee pot on the table. "Also, there's fresh coffee if you want."
Pepper smiled at him, stepping out of her high-heeled shoes in two consecutive strides and dropping heavily into the sofa next to him. "I've been waiting to do that all day," she said, flexing her toes with a pained wince. "These shoes are gorgeous, but I should probably have tried them out for half an hour first before I decided to wear them for a full day."
Clint patted his lap. "Put them here," he said, nodding at her feet, and when she did so, put down his coffee cup and started massaging one foot. Pepper sighed deeply. "So who were you expecting to find?"
"Well, you," Pepper said, leaning back with closed eyes, "which, right now, seems like the most important thing. But I was expecting Tony to be with you. Ow!"
"Sorry," Clint said quickly and guiltily, loosening his grip again. "Tony and I had archery until just now. He headed out for a sudden press conference."
Pepper's eyes opened in alarm. "Stark or Avengers?"
She leaned back again, although her brow was still furrowed. "OK, fine, I don't have to worry too much, then. I wish Fury would consult JARVIS when he sends Tony out to be social, though. I can't organise Tony's life for him if I only have half the necessary information."
Clint hesitated. It was odd for him, discussing Tony with Pepper. She didn't know anything—not, of course, that there was anything to know—but it still made him vaguely uncomfortable.
"Isn't it strange for you to—I don't know, to just—" he began, trailing away when he realised he didn't really know what he actually wanted to ask.
Pepper opened her eyes again and smiled at him. "To go back to working with him, as if nothing happened?" When Clint nodded, she just shrugged. "Tony and I have shared so much over the past decade. We've become very close. To go from working for him to being his girlfriend was no great step. Going back the other way was even easier." She leaned her head to one side and looked at him. "It wasn't dramatic, because it didn't have to be. There was nothing very new to learn about each other, so our relationship hasn't really changed. And we still work well together." She smiled again. "Especially now that I get to write my own signature on the running of the company, instead of faking his."
"You used to fake his signature?" Clint asked, amused. She raised her eyebrows.
"Clint, I write his signature better than he does."
Clint laughed, then hesitated. "So you and Tony—you're fine, then."
"Finer than we've ever been, I think," Pepper said softly. "Yes, things were awkward for a bit. They were bound to be. But we shared everything before. It doesn't have to be any different now. I think he's starting to see that, too."
She put one hand on top of his. "But I know he's been a pain lately. Sorry."
Clint shook his head. "I think he just needed to get it out of his system," he said. Pepper smiled.
"I think you're right. I also think that he knew that you were all cutting him some slack, and that he was pushing the boundaries, seeing how far he could go before you snapped."
Clint blinked at her, surprised, then ran a hand over his eyes. "Oh, of course," he said. "The bastard."
Pepper laughed. "Like you said, I think he's got some things out of his system now, though. He really seems to like his archery lessons, by the way. How is he doing?"
"Honestly?" Clint said, raising his eyebrows. "For someone who can manipulate those laser things he has in his armour with such accuracy, he's unbelievably awful."
Pepper laughed again, her face scrunching up with laugh lines, and Clint laughed with her.
Archery with Tony became part of the routine. They tried to keep to a schedule of twice a week, and Tony was slowly getting less and less terrible.
For Clint, it was a mixed blessing. He liked hanging out with Tony, always had, and now they were doing that more regularly than ever before. Talking archery led to talking books or concerts or shows, and more than once they finished an evening of practice with a movie in the TV room or a drink at some new place Tony was enthusing about at the time.
It was fun, but Clint found it harder and harder to ignore the thought of Tony's number, still covered up even when the two of them were alone—because Tony was paranoid like that—but always in the back of Clint's mind. Because the more time he spent with him, the more Clint became aware of how very well he and Tony worked together. They had the same cynical sense of humour, and Clint was self-aware enough to know that the reason he could usually pick up on when Tony's eccentricities veered into the territory of self-destructive was that he himself had a similar way of dealing with difficult issues.
It didn't hurt that Tony had a great ass and a fine new haircut, either. Clint had been aware of his attraction to Tony for a long time—quite a while before the Avengers Initiative kicked off, if he was perfectly honest—but it had been in a distant sort of way, the same way he could appreciate a topless Tom Hardy. Working together with Tony and spending an increasing amount of time with him, that attraction was getting harder and harder to play off as something light-hearted and unimportant.
The archery sessions had to be put on hold when Clint and Natasha were ordered on a covert op. It was a local job, investigating an anti-mutant hate group for threats of terrorism, but it would still take up too much of their waking hours for them to have a lot of free time.
For the job, Clint grew his beard out and bleached his hair almost white. Tony laughed for days, but he also spent those same days rehearsing Clint's back story with him and quizzing him on propaganda.
Some part of Clint had been wondering what would happen, now that Tony and he were no longer brought together by a regular schedule. But then the operation started, and he had enough to think about without worrying about his increasingly stupid infatuation. Natasha had already been in place for half a week, and she greeted his inclusion into the anti-mutant group with the kind of suspicious disdain they had decided suited her role best.
The first time Clint came back to the Avengers Tower for debriefing and rest, he found Tony hanging around looking bored.
"Thank god you're back," he said. "Do you know that Bruce doesn't even like AC/DC?" Then his eyes flickered up to Clint's hair, and he laughed, one of those short bursts of Tony-giggles that Clint could listen to all day long. It was impossible not to smile back.
"There's a new Chinese place nearby," Tony continued then. "Want to go?"
Clint grimaced. "Would love to," he said. "But I'm only here for the day, and I have debriefing to do."
Tony shrugged. "Then I'll get take-away and meet you in the kitchen after you're done with Fury," he said. "That's actually good, I'll have time to repair the sound system."
Clint felt inexplicably charmed. His cynical side insisted that he was making rather much of an invitation to eat take-away in their own kitchen, but it was overwhelmed by the realisation that on some level at least, he'd been missed.
"What's wrong with the sound system?" he asked.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Like I said, Bruce doesn't like AC/DC, because obviously he has awful taste. There's been a bit of guerrilla warfare here while you've been gone. So what do you say? Chinese and music, sound like a good plan?"
Clint laughed. "You're on," he said. "You can help me pick out tattoos. That's the cover for my absence today—I'm supposed to be getting some new ink."
So when his debriefing was over, he sat in the kitchen, eating Chinese and watching Tony grumble over whatever Bruce had done to disable the speakers. It was perfect. For over a week he'd spent all of his waking hours surrounded by hatred, forced to listen constantly to all kinds of bile and respond with the same in turn. To come back here, get to listen to Tony's normal banter and laugh for real for the first time in days was exactly what he had needed.
He found, though, that asking Tony to pick out tattoos for him had been a much too optimistic idea.
"You know I read Greek, right?" he asked, looking over some of the suggestions Tony had left him. "It may just be temporary tattoos for the job, but I'm not wearing this on my skin."
Tony grinned at him over one shoulder. "I thought it would help with your cover as an ignorant ass hole," he said. "Hand me that soldering gun."
He repositioned a few wires, then stood back with his hands on his hips. "All right, JARVIS, try it now."
Highway to Hell blared suddenly into life, and Tony grinned triumphantly.
"I'm surprised that you're not accelerating this thing with Bruce," Clint said, leaning back in his chair and smiling at him. Tony looked smug.
"Well," he said, "I may have rerouted the system to play this in his lab, too. But slightly louder."
By the time the operation was over and Clint and Natasha returned full-time to the Tower, Tony's and Bruce's battle had accelerated to the point where every shower in the building would turn ice cold if it detected the presence of the element powering the arc reactor, and Tony had rigged the elevators to sound like Nazgûl. It took a week to get all the wiring back to normal.
Bruce and Tony would later refer to this as the First Great Tower War, and would tell stories of their different pranks for months. Steve just sighed deeply whenever the subject came up and muttered darkly about a lingering fear of visiting the bathrooms.
There had been an official Avengers mission in Chicago. Clint showed up to his and Tony's scheduled archery practice the morning after aching all over and hoping Tony wouldn't need too much coaching.
When he arrived, however, he found a welcome surprise guest in Pepper. With the amount of time he'd been spending with Tony lately, it was natural that he would end up hanging out with Pepper, too (since she basically ran Tony's life for him). The awkward feelings he'd had around her after finding out about Tony's number had gradually faded away, and he now only looked forward to seeing her. He'd always liked Pepper's company.
It was even more enjoyable now, when they could swap stories of Tony's latest exploits.
"—just need you to sign these, too," she was saying as Clint entered the firing range, but she broke off to smile brightly at him. "Clint! Good morning. This is for you."
She gestured to a tall mug of coffee standing nearby with steam curling up from it.
"That new blend we talked about," she added.
Tony looked scandalised. "Why are you bringing him coffee and not me?" he asked. "I like coffee."
"You've had at least four cups already this morning and I thought Clint deserved something for putting up with you this early," Pepper said calmly, jabbing a finger at the papers in Tony's hands. "Sign. Now."
"Can't you just fake his signature?" Clint asked, smiling at her over the rim of his mug. The coffee was, as hoped, amazing.
"Fingerprints required for these ones, I'm afraid," Pepper said, smiling back at him. "But otherwise, yes, of course. He recently approved my raise, in fact."
"Nice of him," Clint agreed.
Tony shook a finger between them. "What is this? I never gave you two permission to become friends. You'll just gang up on me."
"Ooh," Pepper said. "Would you, Clint? I've always wanted someone to gang up on him with. JARVIS has never cooperated."
"No," Tony said before Clint could reply, dumping the papers back onto Pepper. "No, I'm not going to let this happen. Pepper, from now on you are not allowed to talk to Clint."
Pepper smiled at him, then turned back to Clint and put a hand on his shoulder. "So, still on today to visit that café we talked about?" she said, and Clint grinned at her.
"Meet you at five. I'm looking forward to see if they have anything to match this," he said, toasting her with his mug.
He watched her out of the firing range, then turned back to find Tony looking at him.
"I do not like where this is going at all," Tony said.
Clint laughed. "Come on," he said. "Pick up that bow and impress me."
Tony rolled his eyes, then swept a mocking bow. "As you command," he said, then hesitated and added, "Cupid?"
Clint pulled a disappointed face. "You've used that twice this week already," he said, and Tony winced.
"Princess Merida?" he suggested.
Clint nodded, trying to suppress a grin. "That one's actually new," he said. "Well done."
He nursed his coffee for a while after that, watching Tony focus on the targets and only occasionally giving a snippet of advice. Tony was getting rather good, actually.
"You still raise your elbow too high," he said at last. He put down his now sadly empty coffee cup and walked over, adjusting Tony's position.
"It's your shoulders," he said, gently pushing Tony's shoulders lower. "You're too tense."
"Well, if you're offering a backrub," Tony said, and turned his head to grin at Clint. Then he focused on Clint's bandaged right wrist, resting on his shoulder, and his smile morphed quickly into a frown. "What's that? What's happened to you?"
Clint stepped back, puzzled. "You're joking, right?" he said. "We just came back from Chicago yesterday."
Tony lowered the bow and turned to face him completely. "So what happened there?" he asked.
Clint blinked at him. "I thought you were there," he said pointedly. "I had to jump out of a fifth floor window."
"But you shot some kind of grappling arrow thing," Tony said, still looking puzzled.
"Yes, but I still have to hit the wall again at some point," Clint said. Tony's expression turned weird at that, so he added quickly, "It's just bruised. Possibly sprained, but not badly. It'll be fine."
Now Tony looked horrified. "Why didn't you cancel today?" he asked.
Clint laughed shortly. "If I started cancelling things every time I had bruises, I'd be out of a job by now."
Tony stared at him. "What kind of painkillers are you on right now?" he asked quietly.
"Um," Clint said, lifting his shoulder in a half shrug. "My normal ones."
Tony kept staring at him, then laid down the bow and pulled his archery gear off.
"Sit down," he ordered, and Clint obeyed, mostly to stop Tony from fretting. Tony carefully unwrapped the bandages and gazed for a long time at Clint's wrist, covered in purple bruises.
"You can't do this to yourself," he said finally.
Clint felt a flash of annoyance. "What did you think it was like, Tony?" he asked, pulling his hand back. "You have a suit of armour. The Cap and Bruce are super-powered, and Thor is a god. Natasha and I are just people. What did you think we had to do to keep up?"
Tony looked closely at him, frowning.
"Did you want to come here today?" he asked finally. Clint shrugged, and he pressed, "Did you or didn't you?"
"We have a schedule," Clint said. Tony punched his shoulder.
"I don't want you here if you don't want to be here, idiot," he snapped. "When you're in pain, the last thing on the list is humouring me. Don't be stupid."
Clint opened his mouth and closed it again. "I don't do this to humour you," he said finally. "I do it because I like doing this."
Tony shot him an unreadable look, then looked down pointedly at Clint's wrist.
"Fine," Clint admitted. "Today I was feeling a bit under the weather. A bit."
Tony ran a hand over his face. "We're taking the day off," he announced. "I'm making pancakes. You like my pancakes, right? The French ones. I'm making those for us, and we're going to get someone from the medical lab up here. Today, you rest. JARVIS will come up with excuses for us."
Clint thought of protesting, but the prospect actually didn't sound too bad.
"Fine," he said. "But just to be clear, now I am humouring you."
When Pepper came by to pick him up that afternoon, she found him and Tony still in the kitchen. Pancakes had turned into lunch, which in turn had become an impromptu bake-off (bake-off in this case meant Tony swearing over recipes for cookies and Clint tasting, with extreme caution, his different attempts).
Pepper watched them in silence for a while, then smiled when Clint finally caught her eye.
"Ready to go?" she said, and Tony raised flour-covered hands in a hurt and betrayed gesture.
"You're abandoning me?" he said.
Clint shrugged into his jacket. "Get Bruce as a tester; his stomach can probably handle it. Like I said, I'm only human. These dangers are too much for me."
"Go and never come back," Tony retorted, and returned to his cookies.
Pepper was quiet all the way down in the elevator.
"Something on your mind?" Clint asked finally, as they stepped out into the street.
Pepper shook her head. "I just realised something today," she said. "And I think I ought to have seen it before. I'm feeling a bit slow."
Then she smiled up at him, took his arm in hers and gave it a squeeze. "But never mind about that now. Let's find that café."
Things went on like that. Tony practised his archery. Clint coached him. In fact, Tony was getting good enough that Clint would often just let him shoot in peace and practice his own marksmanship at the same time.
They watched movies, and went out for dinner or drinks, and met up for breakfast on the top deck of the tower, watching the sunrise together—the last accompanied, because this was Tony, by a lecture on what air pollution did to the colour of the sky and why Tony was the most awesome guy ever for coming up with sustainable energy sources. Tony had heard of modesty and decided it was something that happened to other people.
Clint considered himself a champion at suppression, but this was starting to wear even him down. He found himself at the punching bags in the gym a lot more often than had ever previously been the case.
When Natasha arrived back from a three-week op in Sydney and found him moodily destroying targets in the firing range with a number of his more unreliable trick arrows, she took one look at him and then dragged him back to her quarters, declaring that they were hitting her supply of homeland vodka.
Her hair was short and black, her eyes an oddly pale blue. It was not a good look for her—she looked washed-out and somehow unhealthy, which he supposed was the idea.
"What is your problem right now?" she asked, pouring a generous glass for herself and then a slightly less lethal amount for him. "You were grumpy when I left three weeks ago, and you're still in a snit."
"I'm not in a snit. This is just what my face looks like," Clint said shortly. She gave him an unimpressed look, and he shrugged irritably. "I can't be down sometimes?"
"Not for weeks on end. What is up with you?"
"What's up with you?" he shot back, giving her an obviously dismissive once-over. "You look like a failed goth poet."
She slapped him, but rather gently. "We're not doing that now," she said. "You can't deflect on me, Clint. Tell me."
Clint snapped. "Fine!" he said, and hurled his vodka glass away from him as hard as he could. It shattered against the far wall, spraying shards of glass and vodka over the floor. Natasha didn't even blink.
"You want to know what my problem is?" Clint asked, jerking upright and pulling his trouser leg up to his knee. He had to struggle to roll the tight-fitting fabric up far enough, which took some sting out of the dramatic gesture and just made him angrier. "This," he snapped, pointing to the burn scar, "this is my problem. What's up with me is that I had a chance at finding the person meant for me, and now that chance is gone. That's my problem, Natasha! Now can you give it a fucking rest?"
He sat back down abruptly and bent forward, leaning his head in his hands.
Natasha sat silently beside him for what felt like several minutes. He could hear her taking the occasional sip of her vodka. They knew all of each others' scars, and she knew what this one meant to him.
Finally he felt her hand flutter gently over his back. He felt like slapping it away, but restrained himself. She had earned more respect than that from him.
"Of course," she said. "Stark."
He kind of both loved and hated her for that, for the way she just knew. But then, she knew his tells, as he did hers.
"When did you find out?" she asked.
Clint sighed. "When we started the archery lessons," he said, giving in. "Saw his number by accident."
Natasha's hand tightened on his shoulder. "Clint, that was months ago. You never told me."
"There wasn't anything to tell," Clint snapped. "His number matches mine. There's no way I can prove that to him. And if I can't prove that to him, what's the point of telling him?" He shrugged, then added, "Also, he's straight. We're obviously just meant to be friends, and we are that already. Telling Tony about our numbers wouldn't serve any purpose."
Natasha made a non-committal noise and patted his shoulder. It was a patronising gesture, but when Clint raised his head to glare at her, she was staring off into the distance thoughtfully.
"I haven't told you about my number," she said.
Clint snorted. "I know you believe it's not real, Natasha, I don't need another—"
"I met him," Natasha interrupted. "My—well, my soul mate."
Clint stopped himself, frowning. He hadn't heard this story before.
"It was on a mission some years ago," Natasha said quietly. "A deep cover job, six months in a cartel in Valle del Cauca. He was part of it."
Clint hesitated. "Did he—did you—"
"I always wore my hair down then," she said, tapping her ear. "My number was hardly visible." She leant back, taking another sip of her vodka and then, as an afterthought, offering him the glass. He shook his head, glancing guiltily at the shards of glass pooled at the bottom of the wall opposite.
"So you never told him?" Clint asked. "Not afterwards, either?"
He could have kicked himself as soon as he said it. Chances were that Natasha's soul mate was no longer even alive.
Natasha just shook her head. "You know how I feel about soul mates. Meeting him—it was scary. Like being betrayed by your body. I felt I liked him, but I couldn't say why. Then I saw the number on his palm and thought, that's it." She shrugged. "But I never saw him after the mission was finished. If we'd met differently, somewhere else—I don't know. As it was... It just wasn't an option."
Clint looked at her, thought for a moment about reaching out to her, but decided against it.
Natasha threw her head back and drained her glass. "I haven't talked about that before," she said. "But I wanted you to know—just because I don't believe in it, that doesn't mean I don't understand it."
This time he did reach out to her, and she squeezed his hand gently.
Telling Natasha helped, in a way. Just having someone else know made the whole situation a little less godawful.
Because saying the words out loud to her had forced him to face facts. He was quite good at lying to himself, to use words like attraction and infatuation and downplay the feelings he had, every time he saw Tony. But he couldn't lie to Natasha, and speaking to her forced Clint to finally admit what he'd been trying to ignore: that he was unequivocally and irreparably in love with Tony Stark.
"No, I'm not telling him," he told Natasha. It had been several days since he first told her, but she was just not letting up. "That's creepy."
She looked extremely unimpressed.
"He knows I'm gay," Clint explained. "If I go and tell him about my number, it's going to be like wishful thinking. Especially when I can't show him."
"You're doing some heavy-duty self-oppression there, Clint," Natasha murmured, but she gave it a rest after that.
They were in the firing range for this conversation, and the doors were thrown open suddenly. Tony entered, trailed by a resigned-looking Pepper.
"Clint!" Tony shouted gleefully. "You'd better be free tonight, because I got us tickets—oh, hey, Natasha."
Natasha nodded at him. "Tickets?" she said. "This sounds interesting."
"Sorry, no can do, tickets for me and Clint only," Tony replied quickly. "Also, people might remember you as my part-time assistant, and they might think I was on a date with you. It would be a terrible faux pas for me to be seen dating one of my assistants. You understand."
Behind him, Pepper rolled her eyes.
"I can see you've thought this out," Natasha said dryly. "I'll let you date Clint instead, then."
Clint calculated quickly if he could get away with hitting her without it being completely obvious, and decided that he couldn't.
"Besides," Natasha added, "I had something to talk to Pepper about. If you have time now?"
A look passed between the two of them.
"Sure," Pepper said, after a moment. "Tony, I really am going to need those decisions tomorrow, so if you're heading out, you should take a minute to look over the material first." Tony waved a hand at her, dismissive, and she cleared her throat meaningfully. "One of those decisions regards the Iron Man art exhibition. If I don't have a response from you, I'll make up my own. I'd like you to reflect on that. Natasha, let's see if that mixologist Tony hired last month can be found so we can talk over cocktails."
At that, Tony turned back to her, frowning. "I didn't hire any mixologist."
"Didn't you?" Pepper asked innocently. "No, you must have. I'm sure I saw your signature on his employment papers."
She smiled sweetly at him, then made an inviting gesture at Natasha. "Agent Romanov?"
The two of them left, with Tony looking after them thoughtfully. "Is it just me or is it always slightly worrying when clever women start bonding?" he said.
Clint, who'd been thinking something along the same lines—or more specifically, thinking that Natasha often worried him, and that something about how she had been looking at him these last days made him uneasy—shook his head and grinned, raising his bow to his shoulder again.
"If Natasha caught you saying things like that, she would thwack you for being a misogynistic ass, Tony; be careful." He fired off his net arrow and sighed when it detonated too late. He knew it—he had to look over this gear soon. "What were you going to tell me?"
"Huh? Oh, you know when we were supposed to go out for drinks a few weeks ago, and then there were monsters..."
Clint turned his head to grin at Tony. "It bothers me that you're going to have to specify that."
"The ones from the tunnels. You know, the ones that smelled."
Clint winced. He'd burned the mission suit he'd been wearing that day.
"Anyway, I decided we needed something fun to make up for it, so I got us preview tickets for this ninja film that's coming out next month. There's archery in it. You can bitch about their form and I can pretend to understand what you're saying." Tony raised his eyebrows. "If you're not free I will be very upset and bring Thor instead, and you know what he's like in movie theatres. Actually, hold on, that sounds hilarious. I've changed my mind. Hope you have other plans."
Clint laughed. "Sorry to disappoint," he said. "I'm free. Are you sure you are, though? It sounded like Pepper gave you a lot of homework."
"Meet you out front in forty-five minutes, then," Tony said, waving away this last part. "We should have time for dinner before the preview starts at seven. Bet you it's going to be awful."
It was. Tony giggled loudly the whole way through, that infectious laugh that had Clint joining in until half the audience were glaring at them, and Clint couldn't care less.
He found Natasha in the gym doing yoga the next day.
"I didn't know you and Pepper were close," he said, wondering if there was any way he could ask what they were plotting without sounding nosy. Probably not.
"We worked together before, Clint," Natasha pointed out. "Well, she worked with Natalie Rushman. But close enough."
Clint shot her a quick look, but Natasha could have played poker for Russia (and, in fact, probably had). There was no way of knowing if the thought of her many faces made her sad or not.
"So you had a good time last night?" he said.
"Sure," Natasha said casually. "How about you? The movie seemed like a hit. Tony's been telling everyone that your new name is Ronin."
Clint rolled his eyes. "I think I even prefer Robin Hood over that."
Three days after that, Clint couldn't find Natasha anywhere. She returned forty-eight hours later, tight-lipped about her doings.
"I didn't know you had any mission now," Clint said, fishing. "Fury never mentioned."
"Private contractor," Natasha said shortly. "Old contact, couldn't really say no. I'm free enough at the moment, anyway."
"You'll tell me if you need back-up," Clint said. She smiled.
"Not that kind of mission."
She was gone again the next day, and returned only sporadically over the next week and a half. It was kind of typical for Clint's life, he felt, that when he finally felt that he could start talking about the situation with Tony, the only person he could talk to was unavailable.
"How long are you here for this time?" he asked her the next time she was back at the Tower for more than three hours at a stretch. "Fury is going to start asking questions soon."
Natasha waved a hand vaguely at him. She looked drowsy and unfocused. If no one was there to remind her, she sometimes forgot about sleep when she was on mission time.
"Done," she said. "Finally."
"Tough one?" Clint asked, but she only smiled at him.
"How are things with Tony?" she asked.
Clint gave her a wry smile. "Things are fine," he said. "They're always fine."
She touched a hand to his cheek.
"You can't keep punishing yourself like this," she said.
Clint's phone rang the next evening, displaying Tony's picture on the screen—the one that Clint had taken himself during an evening out. Tony was caught off guard, and it wasn't his smiling-for-the-cameras grin, that graced most of his official pictures, but a real, wide smile. He looked kind of ridiculous.
"You could have just come and knocked," Clint answered the call.
"Tied up here," Tony said shortly. "Could you come down to my workshop? I can't really leave right now and I had something I wanted to talk to you about."
Clint frowned, confused. "Sure," he said. "I'll be right down."
The first thing he noticed, entering the workshop, was that Tony was wearing short sleeves, and with nothing covering up his left wrist. The second thing was that Tony did not in fact appear to be tied up with anything in particular. He was leaning back against a workbench, flipping through a few cards of some sort.
"You look very busy," Clint said sardonically, sweeping an arm to encompass the still and silent workshop. Even Tony's helper bots were in sleep mode. There was actually something slightly creepy about the absolute calm.
"Apparently Stark Enterprises just hired Natasha for a job," Tony said which, as non sequiteurs went, was not among his most clever. Still confusing, though.
"OK?" Clint said, then recalled Pepper and Natasha, sharing significant looks, and wondered what on earth they were planning now.
"Natasha's job was to root out and find photographs of something Pepper has been looking for, for a while now. They came to me with these this morning." There was an unreadable look on Tony's face when he held out a photo for Clint to look at.
Clint came closer to see, and recognised himself.
The photo was from the early days at the circus, from a set-up day. Duquesne was in the foreground, leaning against a wagon with a cigarette in his mouth and that ever-present expression of good-humoured disdain. Behind him the twins were visible, and Angela, and The Baroness. And there were Barney and, yes, Clint himself, unloading a wagon. It was a hot day, and they were both in singlets and shorts...
Clint looked from the photo to Tony, speechless.
"There are some more were the number is more clearly visible," Tony said. He was still looking very weird.
"I didn't think there were any pictures from back then," Clint said, for lack of anything better.
"They weren't easy to find," Tony said, his voice oddly casual. "Nothing digital at all, apparently. Natasha finally found these in an evidence locker with the Des Moines Police Department. Someone back then had a bit of a creepy obsession with one of your colleagues."
He frowned at Clint. "You must have noticed we match, when you first saw my number. Why didn't you tell me? Didn't you want me to know?"
"That's not it at all," Clint protested.
"Then what? Why wouldn't you tell me about this?"
Clint opened his mouth, and shut it again. "Because of this," he started again, then bent down to pull his trouser leg up, showing Tony the scar. "This happened when I was just a kid, must have been soon after those pictures were taken. I didn't think there was any record of my number from before that. I had no proof."
"What would you need proof for?" Tony asked, looking honestly perplexed. "Didn't you think that I might just believe you?"
Clint looked at him helplessly. He hadn't really wanted to go into this. "I didn't want to ambush you with that information. I thought you might find it creepy."
Tony stared at him, then put the pictures down on the workbench behind him and ran his hands over his face. "Clint Katniss Barton," he said, "how can you have perfect vision and still be this blind?"
Clint frowned. There were times when he didn't find Tony's constant quips appropriate.
"I'm glad you find this so funny," he muttered, starting to turn away.
Tony took hold of his shoulders and turned him back, and when Clint opened his mouth to protest, kissed him.
He was going for drama rather than precision, so Clint winced momentarily as his lip hit against Tony's teeth. But then Tony trailed his fingers up and took Clint's face in his hands, fingers fluttering nervously against his skin, and kissed him again, sweeter this time and less hurried. Clint closed his eyes, tipping his head slightly to allow Tony to lean into him, and Tony huffed out a laugh against his lips, the sound both delighted and relieved. Clint's own hands came up to rest lightly at Tony's hips, one finger finding skin between shirt and jeans. Tony shuddered and crowded closer at that, so Clint let his grip tighten, smiling when Tony sighed into his mouth.
"I thought you liked women," he said breathlessly, pulling back at last with reluctance.
Tony snorted. "As if that automatically excludes men," he said dismissively, then smiled and planted a quick kiss on Clint's lips. "I've been trying to flirt with you for ages. I was starting to consider getting Natasha to explain things to you." Then he shrugged, looking slightly embarrassed.
"I wasn't sure how you felt, though," he added awkwardly. "I've never tried to hit on a man before. It was much harder than I thought it would be."
"You—" Clint began, shocked, then laughed. "You've wanted to—even before you knew about this?" He took one hand from Tony's side and trailed it softly along the inside of Tony's numbered wrist.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Perfect vision," he repeated sardonically. "Right. I've asked you to do that thing where you shadow me to correct my archery pose like, I don't know, a hundred times."
"Well, of course. Your pose is terrible."
"I made you pancakes."
"And that was... nice of you?" Clint said, laughing again.
Tony looked exasperated. "I've paid for your drinks every time we've been out. Are you really telling me none of this made it through to you?"
"You pay for everyone's drinks all the time," Clint pointed out. "Because you have all those billions."
Tony gave him a tired look. "I give up," he said. "You're clearly unflirtable. Honestly, I was beginning to think you didn't like me at all. Especially after you ignored the blatant hint that was our ninja movie date."
"Blatant? Tony, you suck at this," Clint said. Tony didn't grin this time.
"I'm serious, though," he said quietly. "I know I joke a lot. I do that even more about things I think are difficult. But I mean this. I've been unhappy for weeks."
He smiled, then, and ran one hand down to curl around Clint's bicep. "I heard something this morning that gave me a bit of hope at last, though," he said, and when Clint just looked at him, added, "Natasha was very forthcoming."
Clint pulled back, frowning.
"Apparently, when she came to Stark Enterprises as Natalie Rushman," Tony said, with relish and not a small amount of glee, "you offered to switch places with her. Something about how it wasn't fair she was sent on the job with the hot genius billionaire."
Clint raised his eyes heavenward. "I will murder her. I will go and kill her right now."
Tony laughed, then bent forward and kissed his jaw, his neck, his mouth. He gently turned them and backed Clint up against the workbench, then worked an arm around his waist, splaying his hand against the small of Clint's back.
"Right now?" he asked.
"Yeah, OK, maybe tomorrow," Clint agreed, tightening his grip and pulling Tony towards him.
Their job being to stave off the end of the world, which nowadays seemed to be threatening every other weekend, it was not often that they had time for lazy Sunday mornings in bed. Today was one of those rare times.
"You're not covering up your number any longer," Clint said, gently stroking along the inside of Tony's wrist. Tony raised his eyebrows.
"I'm not covering up anything at all, right now," he said. "Which, just to be clear, I had the distinct impression you were enjoying."
Clint rolled his eyes. "I mean normally. In public, when you do interviews and things. You haven't bandaged your arm for weeks."
Tony raised a shoulder in a half shrug. "It doesn't seem as important any longer. Your number can't be seen, so the chance of anyone finding out and using you against me is small."
Clint nodded. That made sense, he supposed.
"Besides," Tony added, "if anyone did find out, you're more than capable of defending yourself against any attack."
Clint grinned. "I don't know if I should be happy or upset about this cavalier approach to my possible abduction," he said.
"You shoot well," Tony said. "Well enough, anyway. I understand you've been training someone who will soon take your place as the Greatest Marksman in the World, however."
"Not until you learn how to lower your elbow."
"But you had a good run before that," Tony continued, breezing over him. "And in unarmed combat badassery, you come second only to Natasha. Although I would watch out for Steve in that area, too."
"Stop it, I'll blush," Clint said dryly.
"Anyway, if things should ever get really bad," Tony finished, turning onto his side and trailing his fingers down Clint's face, "your boyfriend will charge in with his suit of armour and save you."
There was something vaguely chauvinistic about that idea, Clint felt, but decided to let that one go. Kissing Tony seemed more important.