When the phone rang at just shy of four in the morning, it took Clint Barton approximately ten seconds to remember that he was in Bed-Stuy and not Bahrain. He immediately rolled over and groped for full consciousness. “Barton,” he said into the phone.
“Get some pants on. I’m not letting the Bugle scoop us again, dammit.”
Clint blinked away the afterimage of an IED from his nightmare. “What’s the address?”
“I’ve got one of the cars. I’ll be outside in four minutes.”
“Well, gee, Nat, that’s practically an eternity,” Clint said, though he was already digging through the laundry basket at the foot of the bed. “You’re going to waste all that time on little old me?”
“If one more person tells me ‘pictures or it didn’t happen,’ I am going to punch them in the face, so. Be waiting. Coulson already approved it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Clint said. He tossed the phone on the bed and dug into the basket of clean laundry on the dresser. The Shield Times expected its reporters to be pressed and professional, but being a lowly photog meant that as long as his jeans didn’t have holes and his shirt didn’t have profanity, he was fine. Any respectability he carried rested in his battered D3, which looked like it had been through a war.
It had actually been through two.
The Times had offered him new gear, but Clint wasn’t about to abandon a camera that had seen him through so much. He had gleefully treated himself to a couple of very fine primes and a decent 70-300mm, which his kit had been lacking. Given that he’d promptly used one of those new lenses to net himself an Atrium, the Times hadn’t complained.
Of course, an Atrium wasn’t all that much to brag about when Natasha had a Pulitzer, but Clint was still damned proud. The managing editor regularly had to remind them that their competition wasn’t healthy, though Clint suspected Coulson was actually fine with it, as really, the Times was the one that benefited. Competitive or not, however, Natasha was outside his apartment when she said she would be. He set his camera bag in the back seat and climbed in.
“Donut?” She held up a paper sack.
“You stopped to get me and donuts? I thought you were worried about the Bugle scooping us.”
“Stole them off of Sitwell’s desk.” Natasha’s smile held a decidedly evil glint.
Clint wasted no time stuffing half a donut in his mouth. “You were still at the office?”
She waved a hand, absently; she was still in the blouse and pencil skirt she’d been wearing when he’d dropped by her desk to antagonize her earlier.
“So what’s the story?”
Natasha tossed him her notebook. He thumbed to the last page, which was practically black, it was so full of words. It took him a few seconds to decipher it.
“Fuck me,” he said once the words finally hit home. “Are you serious?”
“As a storm full of sharks, yeah,” she said, making a turn hard enough to put the company car up on two wheels.
“You realize if you’re wrong, it could be career suicide.”
“Or it could be headline news forever.”
“And if you’re wrong?”
“I’m not wrong.” Natasha prided herself on the tiny number of times her articles appeared in the corrections columns. “I’m still gathering evidence, and I can’t get my source to name themselves yet, but when I do…”
Clint made a pfft noise. “Mayor Laufeyson can forget about campaign numbers.”
“The only number he’ll need to worry about is the number of people that like him in the high security prison they pick out for him.”
“And how many guards he can bribe,” Clint said. “Our fault for electing a guy named Loki.”
“Excuse me? I would have voted for the other guy. If I could vote.” Natasha wrinkled her nose. “They’ve been doing just a little too well, don’t you think? The budget’s too neat.”
“I don’t know, Nat,” Clint said. “You could just be paranoid.”
“Being paranoid makes me good at my job, jerk face. We’re almost there. Get ready.”
Clint made sure he was looking at her as he thumbed his camera on. She rolled her eyes, which was what he’d been aiming for, and he took a couple of seconds to grab his trustiest Speedlite. “What are you expecting?”
“Flowers, candy, and eight hours of sleep following very thorough and luxurious lovemaking, but I’ll probably have to settle with a pizza and a quickie,” she said without missing a beat. Clint snickered. “Which is to say, I don’t know. I caught something on the police scanner.”
“No, but it also wasn’t the dispatcher’s voice. It was the mayor. Fury stuck me covering his press conferences for six months after the Spain thing, so I’d recognize it anywhere.”
“Why would Laufeyson be calling on a police scanner?”
“He says there was a break-in in his neighborhood and for cops to get down there right away. Sounded pretty pissed, and I’ve never seen Laufeyson ruffled, have you?”
“I thought he was having a bad hair day once, but it was just a lens flare.”
Natasha muttered something affectionate in Russian. Or Clint hoped it was affectionate. He figured it had to be. Possibly. When she pulled over, Clint grabbed his bag and plodded after her. The houses in this part of the city were quiet, separated from the street by gates as if that would keep all of the criminals out. In Clint’s opinion, the greatest criminals weren’t on this side of the fence, which didn’t explain the police car parked halfway down the street, a block in the opposite direction of Laufeyson’s manor. He took a couple of test shots without the flash as he walked, zooming in until he could see what the police had caught.
“Kid,” he says. “Girl, about sixteen? She looks terrified. No shoes.”
Natasha frowned. “What’s she doing out all by herself?”
“Shirt’s ripped,” Clint said, and his stomach began to churn. “Police don’t look so accommodating.”
As they approached, Clint finally caught the voices. His ears weren’t as good as his eyes, thanks to proximity to a car bomb in Kuwait, but he did recognize a couple of words in the language that was coming out of the girl, rapid-fire. Even closer now, he could see tear tracks on her cheeks.
“Urdu,” he said, which wasn’t necessary. Natasha spoke more languages than he did—he’d scraped through junior college, but Natasha had majored in international studies at a fancy J-School. “You’re better at that. And you’re the reporter.”
But Natasha had her head tilted. “Let’s not lead with that.”
“What are you planning to—”
Natasha broke into a half-run, half-walk, speaking Urdu too fast for him to follow. Clint didn’t know if it was people appearing out of nowhere or the sudden use of her own language, but the girl jolted. “Give me a hug, you’re safe. We’ll protect you,” Clint heard Natasha say as he caught up.
Maybe it was hearing her own language or maybe she was too shocky not to obey, but the girl immediately clung to Natasha. Oh, crap. Clint stuffed his camera into the bag and tucked that behind him. What the hell was she doing?
“Oh, thank god,” Natasha was saying in English when he caught up to the group, and her voice was definitely not the cultured northeastern accent he’d heard every day since he’d started at the Times. “Thank you, Officers. You found our daughter. We were so worried, sajni. You can’t run away like that.”
The officer in charge stepped forward. “And who are you? You her parents?”
“Seems so,” Clint said. “Thank you for finding our little girl. She just—she just ran out of the house, you know? We’ve been looking for her all over the place.”
The cop looked from him to Natasha. “You two…are her parents.”
The girl babbled at Natasha, too fast for Clint to understand again. He wished his ears were better. “We adopted her last year. We wanted to give a child a chance, is that too much to ask? Look, I appreciate your help, Officers—”
“How come she doesn’t speak better English, then?”
“Hey!” Natasha had her arms around the girl still, but her glare made the cop take a step back. “Judge on your own time, not the city’s. We’re grateful that you found Priya, officer, but we need to take her home now. It’s a school night.”
“We didn’t get an amber alert on any missing kids.”
“Because we’ve been out looking for her. We would have called you if we hadn’t found her,” Clint said. He turned to Priya and said in the best Urdu he could manage, “Did the cops want to hurt you?”
“They wanted to take me away. Please, I only wanted to escape, but the cops, they will take me back to him—”
Natasha shushed her and glared at Clint briefly for upsetting her all over again. He gave her a What do you expect me to do? look before turning back to the now-very-skeptical officers.
“I’m going to need to see some form of ID, sir,” Cop One said.
“Sure,” Clint said. “But you could probably just ask her. She’s seventeen, she can speak for herself.”
Though the cop peered at him for a moment, eyes narrowed, something on Natasha’s face must tipped them off that trying to arrest either of the reporters would only lead to trouble. So instead, the cop turned to Priya, speaking slowly and insultingly. “Are these people your parents?”
Priya nodded, fresh tears slipping down her cheeks. Before Clint truly understood what was really happening—parents? Really? What?—Natasha was pulling out her phone and starting to dial her lawyer. From there, one dropped hint about her work at the justice department was all it took. Five minutes later, Clint followed behind Natasha and a stranger that he had apparently adopted. They’d had one drunken kiss four years ago that neither of them talked about, but now they had a kid together.
When they reached Natasha’s car, Natasha carefully loaded Priya into the passenger seat and pulled Clint aside.
“What the hell was that?” Clint asked.
“My evidence.” A dark look crossed Natasha’s eyes. “She broke out of one of these houses. Maybe even the mayor’s house.”
“Yeah, I got that from the no shoes thing.” But Clint folded his arms over his chest.
“It’s not the first time. The police caught her last time, too. She’s been here at least six months. Clint, she said there were others that came over with her. Others that ended up like her.”
“Others?” Clint’s belly soured. “Others as in this is a thing? Shit.”
“We need to get her somewhere safe.”
“What happened to not getting involved in the story?” Clint asked, though he knew it was a rhetorical question—and a hypocritical one. In her place, he would have done exactly the same thing. His mentors had always pointed out that his willingness to intervene in the story cut down his ability to be objective. He didn’t give a rat’s ass. “You know those cops are going to do a run on us and know we don’t have a kid. Considering we’re not even married at all and you pretty much look like a kid yourself.”
“Thanks,” Natasha said dryly. “But no, I just needed to buy time to get her somewhere safe. We’ll be fine.”
“And when we’re both behind bars?”
“Coulson will bail us out.” Natasha patted his arm, absently, before she ran both hands through her hair and blew out a long breath. It was the closest Clint had seen her to becoming unraveled since he’d woken up awash in terrible fluorescent light with his ears ringing. “What are we going to do with her? I used up the last of my petty cash. What have you got on you?”
“A roll of mints and nosebleed tickets to the Mets.”
“We can’t keep her at either of our places. The cops would find her that way, and too many people around to talk if we get her a hotel.” Natasha’s frown deepened. “I suppose I could drop her off with Maria while we get everything sorted out. I don’t want to ask her until she’s had some time to clean out whatever it is they gave her…”
“Maria eats small children for breakfast,” Clint said.
Natasha hit him in the shoulder, and not all that gently. “She does not. But she is rather formidable. I wish we had somebody closer to Priya’s age.”
Clint thought about it. “I’ve got an idea,” he said.
Kate Bishop met him on the stairs to her building, wearing purple sweatpants that were ripped at the knee and a tank top that had a picture of a camera with the words “Stay Focused!” underneath it. Her hair was piled messily on top of her head. “You do realize I’m not your intern anymore, right, Barton?”
“Why else do you think I cry myself to sleep every night? The new guy always screws up my coffee order. I need a favor.”
“You’re not getting your Nikon-grubbing paws on my Canon, I don’t care if your camera broke.”
“Not that kind of favor.” Clint stuck his hands in his pockets. “I need you to keep an eye on somebody for me. Can’t pay you for your time, but I can bump you up the stringers list.”
“You want me to stalk somebody?”
“Stal—stalk somebody? No. Geez, what are they teaching you at that fancy university? Crap, kid. I just need you to let a friend of mine stay with you.”
“Why can’t this friend stay with you?”
“Because…” Clint searched for a reason. “I’m getting my apartment redone.”
“No, you’re not. It’s not worth sinking money into that craphole. Tell me the truth, Barton.” Kate folded her arms across her chest, and he wanted to remind her that she was, like, twelve, and not a full, judgmental adult.
He sighed and scratched the back of his neck. This was why he was a photographer and not somebody who used words to persuade others. “It’s one of Nat’s sources. It’s big, Kate. It goes all the way up to the mayor, and we’ve got the cops breathing down our necks.”
Kate’s eyes went wide. “What the hell kind of trouble have you landed yourself in now?”
“Her name is Priya, and we think she was being kept…and used…by somebody in town, and there might be others. We got her away from the cops, but if they come looking—it’s just for a few days.”
“Wait—others? As in sex trafficking? Natasha’s writing about sex trafficking?” Kate outright gaped. “You two can’t ever get the boring pieces about the new transit plans, can you?”
“Hey, we only got shot at two times when you were tagging along with me.”
“Two, three times,” Clint amended. “Can you help? Please, Kate.”
Kate stared at him for so long that he felt sweat pricking up under his shirt collar. When the college senior finally sighed, relief spread like a wildfire. “Bring her in. It’s a good thing I was pulling an all-nighter anyway. What’s her name? Priya?”
“She doesn’t speak much English. How’s your Urdu?”
Because he wasn’t going to get much sleep anyway, Clint spent the rest of the night sitting in the hall outside of Kate’s apartment with his laptop, cropping photos and updating the Shield Times gallery since it didn’t look like he’d have much time for it during normal office hours. Inside the apartment, Kate and Natasha took care of Priya, or so he assumed, getting her a shower and a change of clothing and hopefully cataloguing evidence. They would have to turn her over the FBI, but knowing Natasha, she knew the grace period down to the minute.
She came out a few hours later, wearing borrowed clothes from Kate. Because Kate was so much taller, the jeans all but swallowed her feet. It made Natasha look younger.
“Hey,” she said, sitting down next to him in the hallway.
“How bad is it?” Clint asked.
“We’ve got a seven a.m. conference with Coulson, Fury, and Hill.”
“So it’s that bad. Huh. I got these shots of the cops,” Clint said, popping open the window he’d minimized. “I sent it to Jasper. He’ll look into them and get anything he can.”
“Thanks for doing that. You didn’t have to.”
“Least I could do.” Clint shrugged. “They know a couple of strangers took one of their girls, Nat. If they’re anything like that ring your exposé busted in Jersey, they’re going to be covering their asses pretty hard right now.”
She nodded. “We’ll have to move quickly.”
“What on earth possessed you to tell them we were her parents?”
“You looked old enough. And who knows? Maybe you’ve got a tribe of mini-Bartons running around from your ‘sowing your wild oats’ days.” Natasha only gave him a tired smile when he grimaced. “I could see they were on the take, and you saw how terrified she was. I had to act and that was the only thing I could think of.”
“This is a fine mess.”
“Is it?” Natasha had a look in her eyes that he’d seen countless times. There was anger, evident in the lines around her mouth, and exhaustion in the blurriness under her eyes, but the look on her face was the one of the wolf that had caught the scent. And Natasha would dig, Clint knew, until she had the full story, printed on the page for the world to see. It was a look that made the blood race a little faster in Clint’s veins. “Well, it’s time we clean it up, then.”
“Coffee, first. Definitely coffee.” He closed the laptop and slid it into his bag.
“I already gave you donuts.”
“And then you told the cops we were married. That means you owe me coffee.”
“Oh, don’t tell me you never thought about it, Barton,” Natasha said, heels clicking on the tile floor as she led the way out of Kate’s building.
She wasn’t the only one that could play that game. “I have,” Clint agreed, hyper-aware that she’d put just a little more sway in her hips to taunt him. “And in every single fantasy, you gave me coffee. So.”
Natasha’s rich chuckle accompanied them out of the building. “Deal.”
“Let me get this straight.” Maria Hill pinched the bridge of her nose, looking not tired but distinctly unhappy. She’d never had the reporter’s killer instincts, which was why her promotion to Managing Editor of the Shield Times had been celebrated with a party that was more obnoxious than it should have been. But she was a good editor, and even better, she was a good buffer between the section editors and Fury, who’d been Editor-in-Chief despite multiple attempts from the paper’s advertisers to have him removed.
Plus, she had a wicked way with a putdown that Clint couldn’t help but respect.
She removed her hand from her face and looked not at him—frankly, he was ballast in this conversation, and he knew it—but at Natasha. “You lied to the police, pretended to be married to Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton, and now the two of you are squirreling away your adopted teenager from India.”
“Who was used as a sex slave,” Natasha said. For somebody as good with words as she was, she sure didn’t mince them often.
“Have you interviewed her?”
“A little, but she might have something in her system, and I didn’t want to confuse her too much.”
Jen Walters, who’d also been called in for the meeting, made a strangled noise. “I have to point out that that’s evidence you’re letting get away,” she said, though there was a wry note in her voice.
“It’s hypothetical. And they can always test her hair.”
“The FBI is going to come down on our heads like a veritable ton of bricks,” Jen said, raising her hand to be heard. Most of the paper’s opponents had made the mistake of trusting Jen’s sweet, lilting voice and the boring pantsuits that made her almost fade into the wallpaper. They never made the same mistake twice.
“Are they?” Natasha asked.
Everybody turned to look at Jen, except Fury, who stared out of the window overlooking the office.
“I think you know the shield laws to the letter, Ms. Romanoff, as you’ve used that knowledge to your advantage before,” she said. “But they could subpoena you for whereabouts on the girl—no, I don’t even want to know her name—and frankly, if they’ve got even a shred of realistic-looking paperwork on her, they’re going to be within their rights.”
“Cops took her back to that place last time she escaped. I’m not telling them a damned thing.”
“I’m sorry, but I have to ask this: how sure are you that she’s telling the truth?” Maria asked.
Natasha’s look had once sent a rival journalist to the nearest bistro to buy an entire room full of reporters expensive coffee in apology. “I’m sure.”
“Do we know which cops or how deep this goes?” Coulson asked.
“Jasper’s looking into that,” Clint said, finally contributing something to the conversation. Natasha had laid out her research in a flat voice for the legal counsel, Hill, and Fury right after they’d arrived in Fury’s glassed-in office, but Clint hadn’t had much to say. “He’s got the number of the patrol car.”
“We can’t assume they’re involved, but we also can’t assume they’re not,” Natasha said. “My source couldn’t say if they were the same cops who’d dragged her back, but I’ve no doubt that if she’d ended up in central booking, she would have been slipped right back out to where she came from.”
“And you suspect she’s not the only one?” Coulson asked, scribbling away on his ever-present notebook.
“She said there were others.”
“This is a nightmare. I hope you all realize this,” Jen said.
Maria leaned back in her chair, folding her arms across her chest. Her career wouldn’t take as big of a hit over this as Fury’s or Natasha’s would, Clint knew, but one thing that made her a great editor was her ability to cover all of their asses at once. It let Fury be the splashy figurehead in the spotlight, while Maria got, as she put it, shit done. “How do you know this is connected to the mayor’s office?”
“I don’t think it’s just connected,” Natasha said. “I think it’s originating there.”
Maria stared. “You think the mayor is importing young girls for sex. And…what? Pawning them off on his political buddies? Where’s your proof?”
“Look, we know he’s getting kickbacks. I sent his budget to an accountant friend of mine, and she agrees, it just doesn’t work out, so something’s already off. Add in last night’s incident over the police scanner, our rescued witness, and some rumors I’ve been hearing…”
“Rumors?” Coulson asked.
Natasha flicked her fingers in a way that said she’d go to prison before giving up her sources.
“But it’s still quite the leap, Romanoff,” Maria said. “The guy gives me the creeps, I can’t deny that, but we’ve got to connect the dots.”
“And I’m doing that. This is our first big break, but I suspect—and I can’t verify this yet—that one of those dots is Helping Hands of Asgard. They’ve been under investigation before. They could be the source for getting the girls over here. Hundreds of scholarships every year, maybe a couple slip through the cracks? I don’t know. But if they’re getting the girls for high ranking officials like I suspect they might be, this is both greasing the wheels and blackmail at the same time, and that sounds about right for Laufeyson, don’t you think?”
Maria opened her mouth again, but Fury finally turned away from the windows. Appropriately, everybody in the room went quiet. He studied Natasha. “How sure are you about this?”
“Got a gut feeling, boss,” she said.
“And you, Barton?”
He grabbed the coffee pot and refilled his mug. Fury kept the good stuff in his office. “I trust her gut.”
“Good. Because you’re in this just as deep as she is.”
Clint glanced at Natasha. He really, he decided, wasn’t going to like what was about to happen. “Boss?”
“I don’t need to tell you this is big.” Fury put both hands on the table and leaned in. “This is front page for a—well, it used to be decade, but now it’s maybe a week, but either way, it’s big news, and fumbling this pass lands us all in hot water.”
“To say the least,” Jen said under her breath.
“And at some point, we’re going to have to make nice with the FBI, so I want everything on record. Romanoff, get that girl to a doctor, I want her checked out. I assume you can sniff around the mayor’s aides, discreetly?”
“Nobody’ll hear a peep, boss,” Natasha said.
“If we hand that girl over and she’s all we’ve got, the story’s not going to fill that many inches without being speculation.” Fury’s one good eye stopped on each of them in turn. “And I do not allow speculation in my paper.”
Maria and Fury shared a significant look; she left without a word. “Barton,” Fury said as the door swung closed behind the editor. “You shadow Romanoff.”
“What? Boss, why? She’s a big girl.”
“She is, and she can take care of herself, but it seems my dingbat reporter and photog decided to tell the police they were married, and you two aren’t going to be much help behind bars. So if she has to bolt, you bolt with her. We’ll give your assignments to stringers.”
Clint grimaced. He didn’t much like handing off assignments—a feeling leftover from his earliest, hungriest days of photojournalism when times were lean between gigs—but he wasn’t about to go up against Fury. “Got it,” he said.
Maria returned with red envelopes that made Clint raise his eyebrows. Usually petty cash meant turning in receipts and an expense form. “For a place to lay low, if you need it,” she said, pushing one to each of them. “Stay together, if you can, and keep it cheap if at all possible. We’re not exactly in a booming industry anymore.”
“You don’t say,” Clint said, and Maria glared him back into silence.
Coulson cleared his throat. “I’ve got some contacts over in the governor’s office I can tug on. I’ll get on that. Walters—”
“Stay available, but if anybody asks, I don’t know anything,” Jen said, her smile sardonic as she gathered up her briefcase.
“It’s like you’ve done this before. Romanoff, use Lewis if you need a dogs body,” Fury said, closing out the meeting and dismissing all of them with a wave of his hand.
Clint followed Natasha out of the office, the envelope heavy in his pocket. Coulson walked along with them, looking every inch the affable office worker. Clint, of course, knew better. “Trust the two of you to stumble onto a possible human trafficking ring story right as my softball team makes it to the playoffs,” he said.
“I’ll make it up to you by winning a Pulitzer,” Natasha said, grabbing the messenger bag hanging over the back of her chair. She didn’t bother with the computer, instead loading a notebook, extra pens, a back-up recorder and a removable battery for her phone into the bag. “Check in at noon?”
“I’ll have my notes to you by five. C’mon, Barton. Leave the coffee.”
“Spoilsport,” Clint said.
He was used to walking. Being a photographer meant going to wherever the shot was, and it wasn’t always easy to reach, so he’d adopted the journalism mantra of wearing comfortable shoes. Those shoes got a workout as he followed Natasha. She could have made half of the calls from her desk, but when she had a story on her mind, she preferred face to face. It made manipulating her sources so much easier. And to get to those sources, she walked, which meant so did he.
In the interim, he acted as a glorified chauffeur while she transcribed interviews. He held her bag when she went into City Hall. For two hours, he strained his eyes, peering at city records for Helping Hands of Asgard, which Loki Laufeyson had started with his brother nearly ten years before. On paper, it looked like any other charity organization, but he couldn’t help but agree with Natasha: something just seemed off. And whenever he thought about it, the raw and blatant terror he’d seen on Priya’s face just made him feel sick.
If Helping Hands of Asgard had hurt anybody like that, he was going to go to every site and photograph every grisly detail, anything it took to put them away.
He called Darcy Lewis on a payphone, to ask her to take Priya in to get checked over. In reality, Natasha should have done that, but there wasn’t a way she could break away, so Clint could only hope Priya wouldn’t fear having another stranger around. A more foolish thing to hope was that Kate and Darcy wouldn’t spend the entire visit sniping at each other.
It was nearly three o’clock by the time they made it back to the office. Clint ignored his office and instead planted himself on Carter’s desk, immediately digging into the bag of takeout he’d brought with him. Breakfast had become nothing but a fond, distant memory.
“My feet hurt,” he said. “How are yours not trying to commit suicide in those stilts?”
“They’re not stilts, they’re Louboutins,” Natasha said, eating her Reuben with one hand as she transcribed notes with the other. “And I guess I just have better podiatric support than you do.”
“Oh, is that what it is?”
“Or I whine less.”
“I do not whine.”
“Oh, you whine. And then you bitch about leaving your coffee behind, and after that, you spend ten minutes arguing about parking spots. Outside the mayor’s office, you had a full diatribe about tourists. And then it was something about f-stops or apertures or something.”
“Aha,” Clint said, pointing at her. “So you weren’t listening.”
“I am going to kill Fury for making us stick together,” Natasha said, turning back to the computer screen.
“I’m charming, and you know it.” Clint popped his back and stretched. “What can I do?”
Natasha tossed her recorder at him. “Transcribe. I want to get all of this saved to my Dropbox.”
“Organized people make my soul cry,” Clint said, logging on to his profile on Sharon’s computer. She wouldn’t be back in the office for another few days. That was probably enough time to set her desk back to the exacting standards she upheld. Maybe. No, he was just going to get yelled at. Oh, well. He nudged the paperweight of a double-decker bus out of the way with his elbow.
“Oh, my god, would you look at that? They actually exist.” Tony Stark, celebrity blogger and sometimes columnist, strode through the maze of cubicles to give Clint and Natasha a mock-aghast look. “And here I was beginning to think you two didn’t even work here anymore.”
“Some of us actually work for a living, Stark,” Natasha said, without looking up from her screen. She had her phone glued to her ear, but she’d been on hold for twenty minutes. Clint had given up the ghost of pretending to work. Sharon had a blue rubber ball in her desk drawer, and he was entertaining himself by seeing how many walls he could bounce it off of without moving.
His aim, just like his ability to know the proper shutter speed in an instant, was just that good.
“I would take offense to that, but I don’t actually care enough to banter with you. How come I never see one of you without the other? Do you stop existing if you’re not together?”
“It’s because I’m so gosh-darned pretty,” Clint said. “She can’t resist me, and who am I to deprive her of my glorious presence?”
Natasha rolled her eyes. Tony’s grin, however, widened. He scooted up onto Natasha’s filing cabinet, ignoring her dirty look. “Got a preposition for you, Hawkeye. My company’s unveiling some serious tech on Thursday—we’re talking changing the world here, and not just a little, either—and I could use a photog that gets my good side every time. Since not even God himself could do that, though, I’m wondering if you’re free.”
“Maybe.” Tony might be an asshole, but his gigs paid well, and they came with great food. “What time?”
Natasha shot him a significant look, and he remembered that he might not actually be free Thursday. Especially if they were still glued together.
Tony, of course, caught the look. “Wait, is something going on?” he asked. “Something big? What’s up with the two of you? You’re being more squirrelly than usual. Are you two finally together? Can I tell Pepper she owes me that dollar?”
“You bet a dollar on us?” Clint asked, as Natasha said, “No.”
“It’s a great dollar,” Tony said. “Some kid drew a happy face on it. Very avant-garde or Dadaist or whatever. Maybe even Warhol-ish. And what do you mean, no? You’re totally working on something. I can feel it.”
“Not telling,” Natasha said. “I’m not getting scooped by you, Stark.”
“Why not?” Tony pulled off his over-the-top sunglasses to leer. “Many women can attest to the prowess of my scooping abilities.”
“But, seriously, what’s going on? Ever since Rogers took the embedded post, I’m bored. There’s nobody around to bother anymore.”
“Sorry, Tony,” Clint said. “Orders.”
Tony made a pouting face at him. “You two are no—oh, hey, what’s the fuzz doing here?”
Clint nearly twisted his back, he turned so quickly. He needed only to spot a single blue uniform before he ducked down. “Holy hell,” he said, snatching up his camera bag. “Nat, four uniforms, by the front door.”
“They’re trying to arrest us already?” Natasha rolled her eyes, but she, too, had ducked down. Like him, she scurried through her cubicle, snatching up her laptop, the power cord, and a couple of odds and ends. A spare blouse came out of a desk drawer, followed by the little travel kit she kept on hand.
“Whoa,” Tony said, blinking at the two of them. “Are you two seriously doing what I think you’re doing?”
“Stall, Stark,” Natasha said.
“I knew you two were hoodlums, but actual wanted fugitives?”
“Stall them and I’ll tell you what we’re up to, which includes a fake marriage.”
“Fake? So no dollar?”
“Tomorrow, Dulche de Leche café, ten a.m.”
“Sold. I love causing trouble for the cops.” Tony Stark shot them a Won’t this be fun? grin before he strode off, rubbing his hands together. Clint led the way out of the office at a stooping run, keeping well below the line of cubicles so the cops wouldn’t spot them. He ducked into the photographers’ shared office to grab a couple of spare batteries and met Natasha at the east entrance.
“Looks like things just got more interesting,” Natasha said as they slipped outside.
“They were boring before this?” Clint asked.
They called Coulson and Kate and powered down their phones, removing the batteries to keep the phones from being turned on remotely. It felt a little strange to be off the grid, but also a little nice, too.
“Where to now?” Natasha asked. “I think I have a source in the Office of—”
“Sleep,” Clint said.
“We need to move quick—”
“You big baby.”
“You’ve been up for at least forty hours. Probably longer, knowing you. Six hours isn’t going to kill you.”
“Unless the police catch up and we’re thrown behind bars,” Natasha muttered.
Clint gave her a sarcastic grin. “Oh, god, I hope that doesn’t happen. We don’t know anybody in the press that could raise a stink.”
“Oh, shut it.”
They sniped good-naturedly at each other as they wandered, looking for a place that would take their cash and look the other way. Thanks to the fact that Clint knew the city like the back of his hand, it wasn’t difficult. “We must be close to something,” Natasha said, tossing her bag onto the room’s sole bed. “They’re panicking if they’re sending cops after us already.”
“Or Laufeyson is an asshole,” Clint said, but privately, he agreed. He sat on the edge of the bed to pry his boots off. “Right now, we’ve got fragments.”
“And Priya. I want to review my notes.”
“Sleep first.” Clint flopped backward onto the bed, determinedly not thinking about how often the sheets in these places weren’t washed. He was sleeping on top of the comforter tonight, he decided. “Then work. Work, work, work. I haven’t taken a picture of a warehouse fire or a crime scene all day.”
“Getting antsy?” Natasha stepped into the bathroom to perform her nighttime ablutions. “You took all those street photos when you got bored.”
And there had been some good shots in there, but Clint hated being on the reporter’s side of things. There was too much listening and double-talk and writing involved. Natasha lived for it, but he wanted to see things happen and experience new perspective by changing where he put his feet.
The first time he’d had an old, busted camera in his hands, and had seen what the little box could do to a piece of photo negative, it felt like his entire life had finally made sense. The camera hadn’t been anything special—an old Brownie Hawkeye camera—but the potential had been there. And he’d loved every inch of that cheap, plastic camera. He still had it, gathering dust on a shelf between an old Diana and a Holga with the perfect amount of light leaks.
“I want to see Priya in the morning,” Natasha said when he didn’t answer. “Can you meet with Stark? We could use his hacking expertise. It’s time to bring in the big guns, I think.”
“If we were going to bring in the big guns, we should call Steve back from Iraq and have him give Laufeyson that look he gives you. You know, the one that’s all patriotic and makes you want to be a better person and shit.”
“He’s never given me that look,” Natasha said. “I want to talk to Banner.”
“From the science desk?”
“You know more than one Banner?”
Clint thought about it as he sat up to pull off his flannel shirt. After a moment of debate, he levered his hips up to take off his jeans, too. It would be more comfortable sleeping in his boxers. “No.”
“I want to get his take on Helping Hands of Asgard. He’s volunteered in most of the places they’ve got a presence, so he might be able to give us a different take on the numbers.”
“Oh, that’s a good idea. Want me to do that?”
Natasha popped her head out of the bathroom, the white cream of her facial cleanser stark against her skin. “You don’t mind? I don’t want to treat you like a gopher more than I already am.”
“If Helping Hands is involved in sex trafficking, I’ll do a hell of a lot more than talk to Banner about it.”
“Yes,” Natasha said, disappearing back into the bathroom. “Also, he may want to look in on it himself. He does some social sciences stuff when Maria kicks it his way.”
“You’re willing to let people horn in on your byline, Nat?”
“I’ve already got a Pulitzer. What the hell do I have to prove?”
Clint rolled his eyes at the ceiling.
“You know, we haven’t looked into Laufeyson’s brother. Or step-brother, whatever they are. The one that started the charity with him. That’s probably what I’m missing,” she continued, though there was a note of amusement in her voice.
“Yeah, sure, probably,” Clint said, his eyes closing. His entire body felt a bit like half-melted lead that somebody had pounded with a hammer a few times.
“You’re normally better as a sounding board, Barton.”
“I’m trying to sleep.”
“How can you sleep? I’m so wired.” He heard her footsteps on the carpet, so he cracked one eye open, and nearly swallowed his tongue in surprise. She noticed—she never missed anything—for her smile curled up slowly. Admittedly, he wasn’t paying much attention to her face. She’d stripped out of the pencil skirt and blouse, but she hadn’t changed into pajamas. Her underwear was black, he thought dazedly, with little red triangles.
It took a herculean effort to wrench his eyes back to her face. Suddenly, he was a hell of a lot less sleepy.
“Nice boxers,” she told him. “Bullseyes? Really?”
“They were on sale.” He tugged his undershirt down so that it covered more of his boxers, which was rapidly becoming necessary. “Which side of the bed do you want?”
“I don’t think I can sleep yet.” Completely comfortable with just how much skin was showing—pretty much all of it, and it looked damned smooth and soft—she padded across the room and pawed through her bag. The last time they’d had to share a bed on an assignment, it had been in Vermont in the middle of a blizzard, and they’d been bundled in sweats the whole time. Clint decided he preferred this by longshot.
“If you’re not going to sleep, what are you planning to do?” he asked. “I hope it’s not some of that Bickram crap. I like the room to be cool when I sleep.”
“Well, I could get some more research done,” Natasha said, straightening up (he averted his gaze before she could catch him in the act when she turned). There was absolutely no mistaking the look in her eyes now, nor the way she approached him, slowly, like a predator. Clint felt his blood pressure begin to creep up. “Or I was thinking: you could provide some stress relief.”
“Stress relief,” he said, feeling kind of dumb. “Uh, yeah, sure. Like a massage? I’m good at that…good hands, or so I’ve been told.”
Natasha quirked a brow at that. He got the feeling she was suppressing a laugh.
“Wasn’t exactly talking about a massage.” Just out of his reach, she stopped. “You going to respect me in the morning, Clint?”
“I will respect the hell out of you in any way, shape, or form you want, Tash,” he said, completely serious. “You going to respect me?”
She looped her arms around his neck, two fingers idly playing with the hair at his nape as she slid into his lap. “I already know you’re ticklish,” she said, her breath warm on his ear. He figured she could tell that his hands weren’t entirely steady when he put them on her waist, one thumb absently tracing her hipbone. “And I still respect you in spite of it, so…”
“Good enough for me,” Clint said, laughing when she shoved him back onto the mattress with the heel of one hand.
They split up the next morning, Natasha heading to Williamsburg and Clint to Midtown. He was not surprised to see Pepper Potts seated at the table beside Tony when he walked into the Dulche de Leche café, though Bruce Banner quietly twiddling his thumbs threw him for a loop.
“Wow, you look like hell,” Tony said by way of greeting. “Lead the cops on a merry chase?”
“Something like that,” Clint said, as he didn’t really want to tell them that Natasha’s nervous energy hadn’t let him sleep much. He smiled at Pepper and shook Bruce’s hand before sitting down and ordering another coffee in what was probably going to be a long line of them.
“Natasha called and asked if I would be willing to put together some clothes for the two of you, for a few days,” Pepper said, patting the wheeled luggage sitting by her chair. “I was happy to. And I brought Bruce along, too.”
“Thank you,” Clint said, as his shirt was starting to smell a little ripe.
“Got me out of a conference call,” Bruce said, raising his cup in salute. “I’m intrigued. We don’t get much cloak and dagger over at the science desk.”
“Speaking of daggers, where is your Girl Friday?” Tony asked.
“She’d kick your ass if she heard you call her that,” Bruce said.
“But she’s not here, hence my question. I thought she was going to tell me all about why you two saw New York’s finest and promptly bolted.”
“She had an interview, but I’m here on her behalf,” Clint said.
“Oh, okay. But before you tell us what I’m sure is to be a fascinating tale that probably involves three bar fights and a city-wide scandal, I have to ask. It’s going to bother me otherwise. Did you sleep in a dumpster?” Tony asked. Clint gave him a baleful look.
Pepper spared them all by shoving a cookie in Tony’s mouth and turning back to Clint. “What’s going on? What can we do to help?”
Clint pulled out the notebook. It was another reason he hadn’t gotten much rest: after lying awake all night while Natasha slept beside him, her hand curled over his bicep, he’d finally fallen asleep, only to have Natasha poking at him two hours later, wanting his insight as she scribbled notes. Had it been a need for stress relief that had her pushing at him until he was sitting sleepily against the bed board and she was leaning back against his chest, notebook propped against her knees as she wrote? They’d always had an easygoing working relationship, but he had no idea what any of it any more. Maybe post-coital Natasha just liked cuddling.
Either way, he handed over the notebook now, with the mind maps of all of Natasha’s theories laid out on the second page. Tony tried to snatch it, but Pepper calmly put a hand in the center of his forehead to keep him back so that Bruce could open the notebook for the three of them.
Bruce was the first one to process it. “Human trafficking?” he asked, in exactly the same tone everybody else they’d told about it had used. “Laufeyson? You’re accusing the mayor of—just how widespread is this?”
Clint wordlessly turned the page for him. Natasha had written out a copy of the mayoral office budget, with a few entries starred that were from companies she expected to be profiting from Laufeyson’s actions.
Tony’s oath summed up the situation quite nicely.
“This needs to be given to the authorities,” Bruce said, fists clenching. Tendons began to pop out in his neck and forearms. “This is—this is disgusting. It’s inhumane, it’s…”
“What can we do?” Pepper asked, laying a hand on Bruce’s arm.
Clint shrugged. “We need proof. I mean, we have a witness. We got her away from the cops by telling them she was our foster kid. I’m still not entirely sure what happened, but we think some cops are involved.”
“You have one of the women?”
“Natasha’s with her now. We’re working as fast as we can to gather what facts we can, but we don’t have enough.” He looked at Tony as he said this.
“I can get you proof,” Tony said, his voice deathly quiet.
“Good enough for me. Banner, you’ve been to these places. Can you take apart Helping Hands of Asgard? See how they might be doing this?”
“Tony’s hacking may not be enough,” Pepper said, frowning at the notebook. “You need a whistleblower, somebody involved, and the higher up, the better.”
“Got any recommendations?” Clint kept his voice wry.
Pepper flipped to the dossier on Helping Hands of Asgard that Natasha had slipped into the pages of the notebook. “You’ve got Thor Odinson’s name circled in here. Have you approached him about this?”
“The CEO of Thunder Enterprises?” Tony asked. “He never talks to reporters. Hell, I can’t even get a meeting with him, and I’m only part-reporter. ‘Dropping in’ on him on the street won’t work, either. Tried that.”
“What were you even trying to do?” Clint asked.
Tony shrugged. “Thunder E designs power sources. I was going to suggest working together on one of my prototypes—which is an honor for him, I’ll have you know. He didn’t bite, I went with somebody else, it’s water under the bridge now. But maybe he’s so secretive because he’s involved.”
“Always seemed squeaky clean before,” Clint said. “But then, those are often the dirtiest ones.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” Bruce said.
“Here’s what confuses me,” Tony said, leaning back in his seat and snapping his fingers together. He’d always been a little manic, Clint knew, unless he was approaching a deadline, which was when the serious, focused Tony tended to appear. “Romanoff, I get doing all of this. But you’re a lens monkey. What’s your involvement here? Have you two finally started sleeping together and she’s got you by the balls here, or what?”
“Tony,” Pepper said, massaging her forehead.
“Maybe she told the cops we were married and now we’re trying to stay out of jail so we can break this story and expose a few crooked politicians.” Clint hid his smile behind his cup when Tony’s jaw dropped. Even Pepper and Bruce had to blink a couple of times at that one. “So, yeah, normal duties are out the window right now. If you find anything, leave it in Natasha’s Dropbox. We’ll be able to get it.”
“Will do,” Tony said, and Clint picked up his coffee and the clothes Pepper had packed, and headed on to his next meeting.
He spent most of his day with Darcy in a bookstore café, using free Wi-Fi to get some work done. Though she had gone from interning to taking over the paper’s agony aunt column, Coulson regularly assigned her out to aid reporters in his section, Natasha among them. So while Clint’s own reporting skills were a little rusty, Darcy more than made up for it.
“Oh, I’ve got something,” she said three hours after they’d set up shop. The baristas were only beginning to glare, which was why Clint liked this place better than others.
“Potentially,” Darcy said. She slid her laptop over to him. “Remember how Natasha said that she thinks they might have a defense attorney in their pocket? Bob—I can’t actually pronounce that last name, so we’ll call him Bob. This is Bob. Bob defended Carlos Jones last year, and would you look at where Carlos Jones works?”
Clint blinked a few times, sorting out the sheer amount of information on the laptop. “Customs?” he guessed.
“Bingo.” Darcy pulled out her phone and began tapping away.
“What are you doing?”
“Sending his picture to Kate’s phone so she can show it to Priya. Maybe she recognizes him.”
“Wait, you and Kate are getting along now?”
“Well, you and Nat have awarded us joint-custody of the teenager you’ve apparently adopted,” Darcy said, not looking up from the phone. “That means we have to get along. Though she’s still a snob with terrible taste in music, and she thinks I’m some uncouth hick because my iPhone takes pictures just as well as that fancy-ass camera of hers.”
“It hurts when you say that.”
“I’ve got a whole new set of Instagram filters and everything.”
“Ugh.” Clint eyed the bottom of his coffee mug and did a bit of algebra to determine how much stomach lining he had left. The result did nothing but depress him. He blinked rapidly a few times in hopes that it would clear the grit from his eyes. Again, no luck, so he copied all of the information about Carlos Jones into his own file with a resigned sigh, hoping that getting outside and moving would wake him up a little. He closed his laptop and put it back in his camera bag. “All right, I’m going to go do some gumshoe work. I won’t have my phone on, but text if you find out anything anyway. Or leave it in the Dropbox.”
“Will do, boss.” Darcy gave him a salute that was pure mockery as he left.
He fired off a text to Natasha, letting her know he was heading to the docks, and dropped off most of his equipment in a bus station locker, taking only his point and shoot.
Two hours later found him crouched behind a dumpster, waiting for the dock workers to take their afternoon break. An old source of Natasha’s had been willing to sneak him in with the understanding that if Clint got caught, Clint had never heard the name Ernesto Grimes. That was fine by him. His legs burning, he watched and waited. When the workers at Dock 23 filtered out to smoke, he finally stole out from his hiding spot. Carlos Jones regularly oversaw work on this dock, so Clint figured if there was anything to find, it would be there. The dock was mostly foreign imports, shipping crates stacked one atop the other.
He scooped up a discarded safety vest, yanking that on over his flannel shirt. Sure, he stood out a little in his jeans instead of rough workman’s trousers, but it would have to be good enough. He moved through the stacks, looking for any details that seemed out of place. Natasha might have been the investigative journalist, but he’d been a photographer since he could walk—and con Mr. Carson into letting him get prints developed—and he had a keen eye for these things.
Even with his observation skills, it took him nearly twelve minutes to spot the vents on the shipping crate two levels up. Clint stopped and squinted. According to the shipping manifest that Ernesto had let him poke through, Dock 23 wasn’t cleared for live cargo. Clint snapped off a couple of pictures from the ground level and tucked the camera in his back pocket, heading for the stairs. He cursed Natasha for keeping him up all night with her crusade and sex, and moved across the crate as quietly as he could.
A hatch had been built into the top, which made him suspect the placement on the top level wasn’t a coincidence.
He pulled open the hatch and stench hit him, bringing with it a flash of memory from his days as an embedded photographer with the 107th: human waste, old urine, the smell of confined humanity in heat. He gagged and buried his mouth and nose in the crook of his elbow to get a good look inside. The crate was empty of humanity, though the blankets, piles of waste, and stale food told more than enough of a story. Clint bit down hard on his sleeve to keep the bile back as he pulled out the camera again, snapping away.
“Shit,” Clint said. He slammed the hatch and shoved the camera in his pocket, hopefully before the three dockworkers coming at him saw it. All he could see was exactly the amount of muscle dock work had given each of them, though the crowbar in the leader’s hands seemed pretty damned relevant.
“Oh,” he said. “Hi, guys, I’m a little lost. I was looking for—”
“Lemme guess,” Crowbar said. “Trouble?”
“Well, no, not exactly, but—”
“Grab his arms,” Crowbar told his buddies. “You a cop? Stupid of you to come without backup.”
Clint backed up a couple of steps as Thug One and Thug Two approached. “I’m offended. You think a face this pretty belongs to a cop? Shit, I’m just new. I’m Jerry, they hired me yesterday.”
“You smell like a cop, Jerry.”
“Must be my cologne,” Clint said, cursing internally as his shoulder-blades hit the wall. He could hold his own in a fight against one, maybe two, but not against three burly guys and a crowbar. He was about to end up in the hospital again, he saw. Natasha would kill him for real this time. The last time he’d gone to Iraq, he’d come back on a stretcher. The only thing he remembered was a bright flash and then Natasha, who’d been the coworker he’d made out with at a work party before he left, cajoling him back to health and rolling her eyes at his feeble attempts at humor.
Four years later, he got the feeling she’d have to do it again, provided he survived.
Oh, well. He hadn’t gotten this far in life by running. So when Thug One reached for him, Clint threw caution to the wind and decked him with a right cross. Thug Two tackled him back into the wall, which knocked the wind out of Clint’s lungs. He bounced back and kneed Thug Two in the thigh, biting down hard when Thug Two shoved his arm across Clint’s face to silence him.
Thug Two fell back with a scream. Thug One, unfortunately, recovered enough to catch him in the side of the ribcage with a short punch. Clint hissed and dropped to one knee. He saw the kick coming soon enough to roll out of the way, but he wasn’t lucky enough to dodge the follow-up, which deflected off of his upper arm and set his entire left side on fire.
He was spared a third kick by a shouted, “Hey!” All three of the thugs and Clint looked up at once to see Natasha standing ten feet away from Crowbar, holding a taser.
“Where the hell did you come?” Crowbar asked. Clint, torso and upper arm ablaze with pain, didn’t wait for pleasantries. Grunting, he kicked Thug One’s legs out from under him. The man hit the ground at the same time as the electricity crackled through the air.
Crowbar dropped with taser prongs in his neck. Clint shoved himself to his feet using the wall, dodging around Thug Two as he took off running for Natasha. “Run! Go, go, go,” he shouted, though she was already sprinting for the other end of the crates and the catwalk. He heard footsteps pounding behind him, but he didn’t turn to look. He just ran, watching the flashes of red from the soles of Natasha’s heels as she sprinted. He had no idea how she didn’t break her ankles in those things, but somehow, she was just as sure-footed as he was.
God, she was like magic sometimes.
He was a little faster, so they reached the catwalk together. Breathing hard, they raced for the stairs, where Natasha finally stumbled a little.
When they burst out into the sunlight, Natasha grabbed his wrist and tugged, yanking him not toward the exit but toward a golf cart. She leapt into the driver’s seat and hit the pedal almost before he was actually in the cart.
It took a full minute for them to realize they’d truly lost the thugs.
Clint, cradling his hurt arm, finally leaned back against the seat and closed his eyes. He felt grimy and covered in sweat, and his side hurt like nothing else. “Thanks,” he said.
“I can’t let you go anywhere on your own without getting into trouble, can I?”
“I had ’em.”
“Sure you did.” Natasha hit the brakes and they climbed out of the golf cart, heading for the street together. “Ernie told me where you were. I thought I’d give you some back-up.”
“Appreciate it,” Clint said. “When did you start carrying a taser?”
“Last year. Didn’t think it would actually come in as handy as it has, though.” Natasha looked around carefully to see if anybody had noticed them coming out of the docks. Apparently satisfied, she grabbed his good arm, pulling him into an alley. “How bad is it?”
“Hurts, but I don’t think anything’s broken.” He flinched when she ran her hand over the spot. “Ow, Nat. I said it hurts. That doesn’t mean poke me.”
“Sorry. Are you okay?”
“Good.” She met his eye for a moment and leaned forward, kissing him gently. It was nothing at all like the energetic kisses from the night before, or even their one drunken kiss (which he was never going to forget). This one seemed uncertain, her lips barely brushing the corner of his before she leaned back.
He immediately went still, wariness making him eye her. “Stress relief again?”
Something flickered across her face. “If that’s how you want to play it.”
“Good enough for me,” Clint said, leaning in to kiss her back. Instead, he met air, for Natasha immediately took a step back. The hurt look came and went so fast that he wasn’t sure it wasn’t his pain-riddled imagination. “What? Was it something I—”
Natasha’s phone ringing made them both jump. She didn’t meet his eye as she fished her phone out. “It’s Coulson. He wants to meet. You can fill me in on why three goons were trying to jump your artistic ass on the way.”
“You’re not going to like it,” Clint warned her.
“Tonight, our feast is Chinese,” Natasha said, kicking the door closed with one heel. “I got you extra egg rolls.”
Clint cracked one eye open. The couch in Bucky Barnes’s studio was far more comfortable than it had any right to be, considering that it was rather offensive to anybody with a sense of taste. The clock told him he’d been down for two hours. “You weren’t supposed to go anywhere without me.”
“Of the two of us, which one pulled the damsel in distress deal today?”
“Point,” Clint said, wincing as he sat up. Upon arriving at Bucky’s place, he’d had time for a shower, and he had changed into the clothes Pepper had picked out for him. It felt weird to be in a shirt so well-fitted to his frame (and a little disturbing; how had Pepper known his shirt size so accurately?), but he wasn’t going to complain. Wearing the same clothes for nearly two days was much worse.
Natasha set the bags on the counter and rolled her shoulders. “God, this story. It’s so close to breaking, I can feel it. Maria’s chomping on the bit to publish. But we need that one link to tie it all together.”
Clint put his feet on the floor and scrubbed a hand through his hair. “No luck on getting through to Odinson, I guess.”
“None. I got as far as his assistant, but that’s it. Talk about a gatekeeper if I ever saw one. And they all have strange names. Ever met anybody named Heimdall?”
“No, but then I’d never heard of anybody named Romanoff until you, either.”
“That’s bunk, there’s a whole dynasty.” Natasha moved through the kitchen, gathering plates and cups and removing condiments from the fridge with the same grace she did everything. They were lucky Barnes was so accommodating as to let them stay there while he was over in Iraq, a reservist in the 107th. Steve, hearing that his buddy had been called to active duty, had wasted no time taking on the role of embedded journalist with the same unit. They could have stayed at Steve’s place—Maria, for some reason, had the keys—but they figured Bucky was a looser connection, as he only freelanced for the Times.
And frankly, if the cops knew enough to find them at Bucky’s place, Clint and Natasha had bigger problems.
He moved to the little kitchen table, yawning widely. When Natasha reached out and smoothed part of his hair down, he grinned. “How bad is it?”
“Well, the good news is that only half of it is sticking up.”
“Uh-huh. You got a lot of food. Don’t tell me you’re already to the point where you hole up and start writing this thing.”
Natasha shook her head. “I’ve got to speak to Thor Odinson. I don’t know if he knows we’re onto him and he’s stonewalling us or if he has no idea and it’s just that he hates reporters. I can’t get a read on him.”
“Okay, so all of the food…?”
The buzzer sounded before Natasha could answer, so she gave him a bright smile and smoothed his hair again. This time, though, her hand lingered on the back of his neck for a second longer than necessary before she was up again and moving to answer the intercom. “Come on up,” she said.
“We’re just letting everybody know where we are, huh?” Clint asked, getting up to help her set out plates.
“It’s just Darcy.”
It wasn’t Darcy, however, but Nick Fury that swept into the room, his overcoat trailing after him. Instead of getting up and standing at attention, as he’d actually seen one reporter do in Fury’s presence, Clint cracked open a Tsingtao beer and held up the six-pack. He loved Natasha’s attention to detail. “Beer, sir?”
“I’m not here to be sociable, Mr. Barton.”
“There’s more developments? I just spoke with Phil—he didn’t say anything,” Natasha said.
“The city has filed an injunction against the Shield Times.”
Clint frowned. “Can they do that?”
“Not really, but it’s still a pain in my ass.” Fury paused for a long time, looking from his lead photographer to his top investigative journalist. “And I must say…I’m a little proud. It means we’re onto something.”
“There’s a ‘but’ coming,” Clint told Natasha.
“That evidence you got at the docks, you can consider that long gone. Loki Laufeyson knows we’re onto him, and he’s going to be covering up every track he can. I can’t stall for any longer—we’re going to have to bring the FBI in.”
“Jen Walters agrees,” Fury said. “Which is why—” He held up a finger, probably knowing as well as Clint did that Natasha was about to protest. “—I’m giving you until ten a.m. tomorrow morning to gather all of the evidence you can before we bring the FBI in on it.”
“Sir, that’s not nearly enough time,” Natasha said.
“Take it or leave it. The Feds will be in my office at ten on the nose, and I expect the two of you there to report in. You’ll also need to give up your witness’s whereabouts.”
“How do I know we can trust these agents?”
“Ms. Romanoff, I’d stake my life on it. I’ll see you both tomorrow morning, in my office.” Fury swept out exactly the same way he’d entered, coat billowing. Natasha’s scowl immediately melted into a mutinous frown.
“Fifteen hours,” she said. “A story like this, normally you get weeks to blow it apart. I’ve had days.”
“But look how much you’ve gotten,” Clint said, gesturing at the two very full notebooks that sat on the table.
“I’ll never get enough in time,” Natasha said. “The FBI are going to mess it all up and who knows, they’ll probably block the story.”
“We’ve got tonight. I’ve seen you work miracles with less.”
Natasha’s frown softened, slowly, until she was almost smiling. And to Clint’s surprise, she reached across the table and laid her hand on his. Usually when she touched him, it was to fix his hair or push him somewhere, so Clint went still. “You’re right. We’ve got tonight. And—oh, that’s Darcy, Fury must have let her in on the way out.”
The advice columnist looked as tired and bedraggled as Clint felt as Natasha let her in. “I brought beer,” she said, holding up a six-pack of PBR before she spotted the Tsingtao. “And apparently you have superior beer.”
“Help yourself. I got a little of everything.”
“Ooh, dumplings. You’re officially my favorite ever, and don’t let anybody tell you differently. So what’s the sitch?” Darcy took a plate from Natasha and began loading it up, snatching a beer from the six-pack at Clint’s elbow as she did so. “And why’s the great and powerful Hawkeye flinching?”
“Probably the broken ribs.”
“They’re not broken,” Clint said as Darcy gave them both startled looks. “They’re probably not even bruised. Worrywart.”
“Cretin,” Natasha said affectionately.
Darcy held her hands up in a T position. “Okay, before the foreplay can go on for too long, how about you tell me what’s actually going on? Bruised ribs? You were just going to the docks to check on Carlos Jones!”
“He’s definitely in on it,” Clint assured her, and shoveled in beef and broccoli while Natasha explained her rather daring rescue of him, and all of the information she’d gathered that day while Darcy and Clint had been holed up in a coffee shop. She’d bribed an intern in the comptroller’s office for a look at the records, which were quite a bit different than the ones released publicly to the public (and gave Natasha reason to suspect that the treasurer for the city was somehow connected to Laufeyson’s vile plans). She had an intern at the Office of Management and Budget ready to go on record that something was, as she quoted, “hinky.” And one of the aides that was probably eyeing the mayoral seat was probably close to talking, provided Natasha could garner enough solid evidence to convince her to stick her neck out.
“So at the very least, I can get him on kickbacks, which is career suicide anyway, but…”
“This bastard’s been importing young women and turning them into sex slaves,” Darcy said.
Natasha’s look was absolutely grim as she said, “And I want to watch him burn. Bruce sent me everything he could find on Helping Hands—”
“When did he do that?” Clint asked.
Natasha stole a dumpling off of his plate. “On the way back from getting the food. It’s in the Dropbox if you want to pull it up.”
“On it,” Darcy said, grabbing her laptop with her free hand while she expertly scooped up a piece of sweet and sour chicken with chopsticks in the other. “God, this is sexy. Doesn’t this feel sexy to you? This is the kind of stuff I used to dream about, growing up. Taking down bad guys with the power of the press.”
“It’s been a pretty sexy week,” Clint said without looking up from his meal. “If you ignore the fact that I’m pretty sure this shirt I’m wearing costs more than I make in a week because Pepper picked it out, it’s an incredibly sexy week.”
“Aw, Mr. Hawkeye, don’t fret, the shirt makes the week even sexier.” Darcy stuck her tongue out at him. “Right, Nat?”
“I’m not complaining.”
Clint gave her a betrayed look.
“What?” Natasha managed an innocent look for maybe half of a second. “The shirt looks good on you. It’s nice to see you out of flannel every once in awhile.”
“Excuse me, I don’t wear flannel all summer.”
“Kids.” Darcy waved a piece of chicken at them. “Flanter on your own time. Thanks to the orders sent down by Editor Hill, I had to cancel a date over this case, and I don’t want to be reminded of all of the sex I’m not getting, okay?”
“Flanter?” Clint asked.
“Flirt, banter, whatever it is you two do. So who do you think knows more about this story and why haven’t you talked to him yet, Nat?”
“Ideally, I’d like to hold Laufeyson down and beat it out of him. I’ve got some brass knuckles and clothespins I could use,” Natasha said.
“She knows she’s terrifying, right?” Darcy asked Clint.
“Pretty sure,” Clint said.
“Getting Carlos Jones to roll over and expose the whole operation would be a real coup,” Natasha said, and began ticking people off on her fingers. “Obviously, somebody directly involved with giving Laufeyson kickbacks, an intern who can’t keep secrets, Odinson if I could get past his secretary, a dirty cop—”
“Wait, Odinson—do you mean Thor Odinson?” Darcy asked.
Natasha paused with a shrimp dumpling halfway to her mouth. “Yes,” she said slowly. “Why?”
“You should have said something earlier.” Darcy pulled out her phone and began tapping away. Clint gave Natasha a baffled look, and apparently Natasha agreed, for she shrugged, her eyes wide. They watched in mute confusion as Darcy put the phone up to her ear. “Hey, Jane? Yeah, hey! How’s it going? I know, been awhile, but hey, I’m kind of on assignment and it’s super important. Is Thor around? Oh, he is? Awesome!”
Two minutes later, having chatted with the mysterious Jane about a Modcloth sale that Darcy felt it was absolutely vital for Jane to check out, Darcy put the phone down to find both Clint and Natasha staring at her.
“Maybe I should have mentioned that I did an internship for Rainbow Science? You know that kid’s science blog?”
Clint scratched his head. He’d scraped up a C in biology and had put that on the refrigerator, he’d been so damned thrilled to survive that class.
“Anyway, my editor there was Dr. Foster—Jane. And she happens to be dating the rather delectable Mr. Odinson.” Darcy grinned. “I got you your interview. He’s expecting us at his office, and Jane didn’t even sound annoyed, which means there’s a fifty-fifty probability I didn’t interrupt sexing-time.”
“Darcy Lewis, you’re a genius,” Natasha said, giving her a smacking kiss on the side of the head as she rushed by to grab her bag.
Darcy, naturally, froze. “Is that a thing she does now?” she asked Clint.
“Apparently this is the week where she kisses everything,” Clint said.
Darcy gave him a wide-eyed look.
“And yes, I’m as freaked out by it as you are.”
The offices of Thunder Enterprises were located in the Mjolnir Building down on 42nd. Even though it was after hours, a receptionist waited to clear the three of them through security. Clint shifted his camera bag so that he could clip on the little visitor’s badge, which had an illustration of a hammer being hit by a bolt of lightning. In the elevator, the receptionist and Darcy chatted about some film festival in Astoria and caught up on office gossip (Darcy was evidently behind, as she had no idea that Cecil in the publicity department had gotten a new scientist boyfriend). Beside him, Clint could feel Natasha all but trembling, which made him think of a bloodhound who’d finally found the scent.
The elevator slowed as they approached the penthouse level. “I’ll leave you here; Mr. Odinson prefers to see to his own guests,” the receptionist said, and Clint got the feeling it was more for his and Natasha’s benefit. Darcy, it seemed, had spent quite a bit of time in the Mjolnir Building.
Indeed, she all but bounded out of the elevator when the doors opened. “Jane!” she said, throwing her arms around a startled brunette who stood on the other side with a glass of wine. “It’s been too long. Ooh, I like what you did with your hair. Very fancy.” She flicked a finger at the end of the woman’s—Jane’s—hair.
Jane laughed. “Darcy,” was all she said, but she did hug her friend back. Clint took the opportunity to glance around: the elevators opened into a foyer with two frosted-glass doors. The one on the left had “T. Odinson, CEO” stenciled across the center, but the one on the right was unmarked. One of those cubist pieces Clint had never understood took up most of the wall opposite the elevator.
“Jane, my coworkers,” Darcy said. “Natasha Romanoff, writer elite, and Clint Barton, her pet photographer.”
“Hey,” Clint felt the need to say.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both.” Jane shook both of their hands in turn. “Thor got held up on a call, so I said I’d come out and meet you. Can I get you something to drink? I think there’s coffee, uh, some wine, but I understand you’re here on a professional basis.”
“Does Thor still stock those fizzy waters?” Darcy asked as Jane led them through the unmarked door. Apparently Thor kept an apartment on the same floor as his office, for the four of them stepped into a minimally-decorated-yet-still-lived-in sitting room. There was a sports game on a flat screen monster of a TV on the wall, and a beer gathering condensation on the coffee table. A pair of women’s flats had been kicked off beside the couch.
The lines and use of the room’s light instantly made Clint want to pull out his camera, but he knew better. An entire wall was made up of windows, providing a breathtaking view of the skyline.
“Help yourself,” Jane told Darcy. “They’re where they always are.”
“Sweet. Clint, you like lemon, right?”
“Sure, but you don’t have to—” Clint trailed off, as Darcy had already ducked into what he assumed was a kitchen. He turned to give Natasha a look. “I notice she didn’t ask you if you wanted one.”
“Probably still freaked out by the fact that I kissed her.”
“Wow,” Jane said. “Uh, so what is it you’re here to see Thor about? Can I help?”
Natasha put on the company smile as she took the seat Jane gestured her toward. “It was on the side of the head, and it’s about Helping Hands of Asgard.”
Clint perched uneasily on the edge of the couch. He disliked visiting apartments like this. All he could see as he looked around was the quiet, tasteful amount of money spent on everything, and it made him feel like a grubby orphan. Sure, he’d worn a tuxedo a time or two in his life, especially for work functions that Natasha had dragged him to, but that young boy was never too far away, and places like this made that all too obvious.
“Helping Hands of…oh, the charity thing that his brother runs?” A furrow appeared between Jane’s eyebrows. “Thor’s not really involved with that at all. I hope there’s not a problem with it.”
Clint very specifically did not look at Natasha.
“We just have some questions,” she said smoothly. “Just for a story we’re working on for—”
Her phone buzzed, cutting her off. She stiffened when she looked at the screen. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but would you excuse me for a moment?”
And then Clint was left alone with Jane Foster. “Are you an advice columnist, too?” Jane asked, looking puzzled.
Clint reached into the bag at his feet and pulled his camera partially out. “Sorry, just a lowly photographer.”
“Lowly? I was always jealous of people with artistic ability like that, photographers especially. My brain’s been all math and science ever since I learned what math was.”
“Photography’s more math than you know,” Clint said, and Jane’s eyes lit up. By the time Darcy came back, lugging three cans of the proclaimed “fizzy drinks,” Clint was deep into an explanation of aperture and depth of field versus the shutter speed required, and to his disbelief, he’d actually held a debate with Jane about the mental math required.
“He gets upset when I say Instagram takes just as good a picture as that fancy camera of his,” Darcy said, putting a lemon drink in front of Clint.
He glowered at her. “Heathen.”
“That’s right.” Darcy lifted her chin in pride.
Two doors opened at once, putting a halt to that conversation before Darcy could extol the virtues of her so-called filters once more. Natasha stepped in from the front door with her phone in hand. The other door, which must have led to a private study, admitted a tall man, built and blond. He wore a suit like he had been born for it, with his hair tied back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. Clint was reminded of a lion, all tawny and light-eyed.
“Thor!” Darcy bounced forward on her toes to give him a hug.
He smiled and hugged her back, and Clint heard at least two vertebrae pop. “Darcy. It has been too long, of course. I trust you are well?”
“A little sleep deprived, and Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are keeping me from a date, but you know how it goes.” Darcy gave the giant man an affectionate punch on the arm and headed back to the couch, plopping down next to Clint.
“My apologies for keeping you waiting,” Thor said, looking to Clint and Natasha now. “I hope you weren’t inconvenienced.”
“Not at all,” Clint said, since Natasha seemed to actually be vibrating minutely next to him. Whatever the phone call had been about had been big, as far as he could determine.
“Thor, this is Natasha Romanoff, ace reporter,” Darcy said, gesturing with her drink, “and my good friend Clint Barton. He’s a camera whiz.”
“Ah, an artist of the lens. It is a pleasure to meet you both.” Thor’s handshake, when he shook Clint’s hand, was an experience in bone-crushing pain. “What is it you needed to speak to me about?”
“I have to warn you that it’s not good news,” Natasha said, stepping forward so that Thor’s attention was on her rather than on Clint or Darcy. “It involves your brother.”
“Loki? Last I heard, he was doing a fine job as the city’s mayor. If you’re seeking quotes about his occupation or politics, I’m afraid I don’t have much for you. It’s a sad truth, but we’re simply not close anymore.” Thor shrugged in a very These things happen sort of way, but Clint’s trained eye could see an undercurrent to his words, and a grimace that the others might have missed. Somebody had trained Thor in media relations—unsurprising, given that his father was rumored to own pretty much all of Norway—but Clint could see detect traces of displeasure and unease.
Perhaps Jane sensed it, too, for she put a hand on his arm. “They’re here about Helping Hands,” she said.
“The charity?” Thor looked puzzled now.
“How involved are you in the day to day operation of Helping Hands of Asgard, Mr. Odinson?” Natasha asked.
Thor shook his head. “My focus is primarily Thunder Enterprises. My brother and I co-founded the charity together, yes. That would have been…nine or ten years ago now, I think. But no, I haven’t had much to do with it recently. With my father’s health failing, my interests have lain elsewhere.”
“Mm-hmm,” Natasha said, flipping open her notebook and scribbling something down.
Pure discomfort shone on Thor’s face. “Of course, I stand for our charity’s objectives and mission statement, Miss Romanoff. I wouldn’t support it if I didn’t.”
Natasha eyed him like a wolf that had scented its prey at long last. “And what would you say if I told you I had uncovered evidence that Helping Hands of Asgard was complicit in the illegal trafficking of young, vulnerable women to be brought to the United States and sold as sex slaves?”
“I would say that’s impossible and you surely must be mistaken.” Thor blinked several times, slowly, like he wasn’t entirely certain he’d heard the question right. There wasn’t a single flash of guilt, Clint noted, but he did look as though Natasha had brained him with a two-by-four.
“I have proof that Helping Hands was used as a cover to transport young women across the US border. And I have evidence linking it to the mayor’s office—and to kickbacks that Loki Laufeyson has been regularly receiving since taking up the position last year.”
The confusion melted away from Thor’s face. His cheeks turned ruddy, and his eyes grew cold. “You dare—you dare accuse my brother and my—my company of such vile acts—”
“Not without proof, which I have,” Natasha said. She didn’t balk when Thor rose to his feet. All Clint could see was the massive amount of muscle on that godlike frame, tucked neatly into a well-tailored suit, but Natasha never blinked, nor did her gaze waver from Thor’s face. “Trust me, Mr. Odinson, I’ve got more than enough proof.”
“Lies! My brother would never—”
“I have a witness.”
“You can have no such thing.”
“She’s seventeen and she thought she was getting a scholarship to come here and study engineering.” Natasha stood up now, too. “Instead, they packed her in a crate with four others and they used her, and that’s no lie. Your brother is at the center of that.”
“You’re simply wrong. That’s all it is. You’re wrong. Loki would never—”
“You yourself said you’re not involved with the charity. How do you know that isn’t all just happening under your nose?”
“I’d like you to leave now.” Thor’s voice was deathly quiet.
Natasha reached into her bag and pulled out a file folder. The sound of it smacking the coffee table as she dropped it seemed to echo throughout the minimalistic furniture and art pieces. “You want proof? Here it is.”
“Take that filth with you. I have no desire to see it.”
“Thor,” Darcy said, looking a little pale.
“You.” Thor turned to glare at her, and Clint tensed further, ready to intervene if he needed to. “You brought these accusations into my home. You are not welcome here, any of you. This is why I do not associate with the media. You are all scum.”
Jane, who’d been gripping her wine glass so tightly that her knuckles were striped with red and white, looked odd for a second, like she wanted to interject, but she shook her head apologetically at Darcy.
“If you change your mind, my card’s in the file,” Natasha said, turning smartly on her heel and heading for the door. Clint gathered up his gear bag a little more slowly, as he was busy watching Thor warily.
“If you print a single falsehood about my brother, Miss Romanoff, my company will sue you for every penny you and your paper has, for libel. I assure you, we will win.”
“Good thing I’m telling the truth, then,” Natasha said, and sailed through the door, heels clicking. Darcy cast one stricken look over her shoulder at Jane as she followed behind the redhead; Clint brought up the rear, his stomach twisted into knots. Thor’s anger had been intense in a way that he rarely experienced, evening living in the city as he did. The man had seemed energized with fury, like it would grow into a tangible thing and strike those around him.
The second the elevator doors closed, Natasha sagged, leaning against Clint’s arm. Darcy shot Clint a confused look; Natasha simply wasn’t the type to lean against people, even Clint, but Natasha only massaged the back of her neck. “God, that was intense. Sorry if I burned that bridge for you, Darcy.”
“It’s fine,” Darcy said, though she still looked pale. “Jane and I are still cool, and that’s all that matters. She’s never liked Loki.”
“He didn’t look surprised,” Clint said, and the women turned to him in surprise. “Thor, I mean. He didn’t look surprised, and neither did Jane. Confused, yes, when you brought up the charity, but not surprised about anything to do with Loki.”
“Certainly seemed willing to defend the guy right away, though,” Darcy said.
“Well, they’re brothers. You think he suspected?” Natasha looked at Clint so intently that her eyes seemed almost shadowed in the light of the elevator.
“Maybe not something of this magnitude, but I think part of him knows something is off.” Clint jerked a shoulder. His own brother had abandoned him at the first opportunity, so he didn’t much understand brotherly affection, but he’d seen it before and he knew that sort of relationship was usually deeply textured. “Think he’ll come around?”
“If he doesn’t, I just gave Jen enough job security to last a lifetime.” Natasha straightened as the elevator approached the ground level.
The doors opened into the lobby, where four security guards waited, arms crossed over their chests.
“Seriously?” Darcy asked, goggling. She pointed. “The doors are right there.”
“And Mr. Odinson’s paying us quite a lot to make sure you get through them,” the first guard said. Clint, Natasha, and Darcy were frog-marched through the lobby, Clint held by two guards. They were tossed unceremoniously outside and welcomed to never return again, which Clint found more amusing than he probably should have.
“Well, that tells us,” Natasha said, brushing off her sleeves. She turned and started walking in the direction of the subway. “Bruce and Tony came through.”
“Your important call?” Clint asked.
Natasha nodded. “They found records in the Helping Hands database for women who’ve been granted ‘scholarships,’ but don’t seem to have any student visas in their name. Priya was among them. She was listed under a different name, but some idiot put her picture in the database.”
Clint let out a low whistle. “You give that to Thor?”
“No, but I gave him enough rope to hang himself, potentially. Or to convince him that we’re not crackpots.”
“He’s not involved,” Darcy said. “He’s a good guy.”
“Even if he is,” Natasha said as they rounded a corner, “this isn’t going to look good for—”
She broke off and whirled with preternatural grace a split-second before a blur exploded out of the shadow cast across the building. Clint saw movement and reacted, throwing himself forward. He collided with another body. The flash of dark blue in the corner of his eye told him, Cop. The nightstick racing for his head told him, We’re being jumped by cops. Three cops.
He ducked. The nightstick hit the building with a crack.
“Run!” he said, and ducked the cop’s wild follow-up swing. “I’ll hold ’em off—go!”
One of the cops lunged for Darcy, but Clint moved sideways in something that was more of a fall than a lunge. As the cop tangled one foot between Clint’s legs and went down, Natasha grabbed Darcy’s arm and yanked. She tried to pull Clint, too, but the second cop latched onto Clint’s forearm. He kissed his future good-bye and tackled that cop, knocking two of them and himself into a jumbled, messy pile. He took a hard, tear-inducing blow to the thigh and a kick to the ribs that made him scream.
On a second kick, he swallowed the scream so that it emerged as a whimper and tried to roll away, but one cop held him down and the other continued to pummel him, punches raining down like agony on Clint’s back and shoulder and sides until—
“Enough! Let’s get him in cuffs before somebody sees us and puts this on YouTube. This guy is not going to be a hero, got me?”
Clint lifted his head and managed to focus his thoughts long enough to count. Two cops, the third one nowhere to be seen, and not Natasha and Darcy either. They hauled him to his feet and he felt every muscle shout in abject misery. His hands were yanked behind him and—his bag? Where was his camera bag?—handcuffs snapped around his wrists.
“My bag,” he said.
One of the cops chuckled, darkly. “It’s lost, buddy. Good thing is, where you’re going, you’re not going to need it. Get a move on.”
They put him in the drunk tank, thankfully empty of anybody but him and a stench he didn’t wish to categorize. They took his shoelaces and belt and didn’t offer him water or painkillers. He asked for a phone call.
They laughed at him.
Truthfully, it wasn’t the first time he’d ended up in jail because of an assignment. Or a jail on American soil. But it was a first time where both of those applied, so it almost felt novel. He picked the cleanest bench in the room, stretched out, and tried to get comfortable. An hour later, he gave up, rolled to his feet, and entertained himself by pacing by the bars and glaring at the guard on duty. It accomplished nothing, but at least it made him feel better.
Nobody came to bail him out, but the second they had denied him his phone call, he had anticipated that. He hoped Natasha and Darcy had holed up some place where the police couldn’t find them. Natasha would have let Fury know, which boosted Clint’s spirits somewhat: he would hate to be the person who ever had to tell Fury no. After all, hadn’t he pointed out to Natasha that they were surrounded by the press, who would have no trouble raising a stink on their behalves? He wouldn’t be in the cell long. Any minute, Jen Walters would come barreling down that hallway, glaring the police into submission until they unlocked the cage and released him.
Another hour passed. When there was no sign of Jen or anybody from the Shield Times, a tiny seed of panic began to germinate.
At some point around midnight—they’d taken his watch, but he could see the guard’s clearly—Clint quietly contemplated his options, most of which involved impotently panicking. Why had they even bothered to put him in a cell? Wouldn’t it have been simply more efficient to give him a red smile and drop him in an alley somewhere to make it look like a mugging gone wrong? Of course, there were witnesses that could put him on the spot as being beaten by the police, so maybe not. And given that one of those witnesses had a Pulitzer, maybe it was best not to screw with them.
So what now? What did they want from him? Nobody had been in to question him about Priya or anything Natasha was doing. Nobody had asked him a damned thing, actually. They’d simply shoved him in the cell and had walked away. To do what? Leave him to rot? Sometime after two a.m., he gave in to exhaustion and fell into a doze, leaning his aching head back against the wall. He opened his eyes when he heard shuffling footsteps down the hall, and finally, the cops’ plan clicked into place: they were going to have him killed, but his body wouldn’t be left in any alley.
Icy sweat slid down the back of his neck and between his shoulder blades as he looked up at the big, smiling brute of a man a smirking cop was leading down the hallway.
“Hope you weren’t getting too comfortable, Barton,” the cop told him.
“What, in these five star digs?” Clint said even as he eyed the biceps of the man being escorted toward his cell. Why the hell hadn’t the Times bailed him out yet?
“Barton, this is Smiles. Smiles, Clint Barton.” The cop patted Smiles on the arm, affectionately, like he was a six-year-old with a drawing instead of a con with two hundred and fifty pounds of muscle. The sound of the cell door opening scraped down the back of Clint’s neck, making his hair stand on end. “I’m sure you’ll make sure his stay here is real enjoyable, won’t you, Smiles?”
Clint felt his eyebrows disappear into his hairline. “Smiles,” was all he said.
The owner of said unfortunate nickname—at least Clint hoped it was a nickname—gave him a big grin, showing four missing teeth. “Yes?” he asked in a surprisingly cultured accent.
Clint put a hand on his forehead. “There’s no dignity left,” he said.
“Hey, Jameson, what say you go get a coffee?” the cop asked the guard on duty.
Jameson looked conflicted for a split second, but evidently morality was in short supply, for he shrugged. “I could use a hit. Play nice, boys.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Smiles said, and the cop closed the door behind him.
Clint eyed the man, looking for weak spots—there weren’t any; Smiles was built like a Transformer and probably twice as strong—and debating if he should throw the first punch. Would that increase his odds of survival? It might give him thirty seconds longer to live, though with the way his head and ribcage ached, it might not be worth it.
“Hi,” he said instead.
Smiles smiled. “A pleasure to meet you. Clint Barton, he said?”
“That’s what they call me. I’m guessing your real name isn’t Smiles.”
“Sure is. Had it changed legally.”
“Oh. Uh, it’s nice.”
“Tell me something.”
“What’s the going rate for offing a two-bit photographer?” Clint asked. He wanted to hunch his shoulders and stick his hands in his pockets, but he had a feeling that dropping his guard around Smiles, no matter how genial the man seemed, would just make things worse.
Smiles shrugged. “About fifty.”
“Grand. I don’t work for cheap and somebody wants you very, very dead.”
“Fifty grand?” Clint boggled. “For little old me?”
“I don’t,” Smiles repeated, and some of the affability began to leak from his thuggish face, “work for cheap.”
“Got it,” Clint said, putting his hands up in what he hoped was appeasement and not surrender. “And if I were to, um, offer you fifty-one grand?”
“You got that much money lying around, Mr. Barton?”
A second drop of cold sweat joined the first sliding down Clint’s back. “No, but I know some great loan sharks. Awesome guys. You’d like them a lot. They actually smile when they break your legs. It’s comforting, in its way.”
“Though it does not surprise me that you would be acquainted with such folk, Mr. Barton,” a new voice behind Smiles said, “I don’t think that will be necessary in this juncture.”
Both men in the cell whirled. Standing where the guard had been a few minutes before was Thor Odinson, his face blank. He wore the same suit Clint had seen him in earlier, though it was considerably rumpled, and his hair was teased, like he’d been running his hands through it repeatedly. There were also sunken pits below both of his eyes.
A very large, bearded man stood to his left, but Clint sensed more danger from the unsmiling man to Thor’s right, who eyed Smiles rather like a wolf scenting fresh prey. This time when Clint went still, it had nothing to do with his impending murder by a guy named Smiles.
“Frankly, Mr. Smiles,” Thor said without moving, and Clint wondered how he could learn to exude that much power standing there as the CEO did because really, that was almost neat, “we all know what you’re here to do, and I wouldn’t recommend it. Not in front of witnesses. Also, I assure you, my bodyguards will tear you apart, should you attempt anything.”
“I wasn’t doing anything. Mr…”
“I didn’t offer my name,” Thor said. He looked past Smiles to Clint. “You all right?”
“Been better,” Clint said, eyeing the trio. “You here to throw me in jail? Because you’re too late for that. And if you’re here to beat me up, I’d rather take my chances with Smiles, thanks.”
“No. It is not you who are the criminal here.” Thor stepped close to the bars, making the men on either side of him tense up. He dropped his voice. “I would speak with her. You know how to reach her.”
Clint crossed his arms over his chest. The icy brush with death had made his hands shake a little, and he was definitely not letting Thor see that. “Last time you talked to her, you threatened to sue the paper and you had your security throw us out. Forgive me if I’m not inclined to be in a real accommodating mood.”
Thor grimaced. “I supposed that is fair. A gesture of good faith might be needed here. Hogun?”
“Sir,” the unsmiling bodyguard said, and disappeared down the hallway.
He returned on a few seconds later with Jameson in tow. The guard hurried back in, a coffee stain on the front of his uniform. “You have a man in custody that has done no wrong,” Thor said without any pause as Hogun took up his place by Thor’s side once more. “Release him immediately, or you shall be hearing from my legal team.”
“I’m not sure—”
“That’s Thor Odinson,” Clint told Jameson, and even Smiles looked wide-eyed at that one. “I’d listen to him. He owns half the city.”
Again, Thor grimaced, but apparently his fame was such that even Jameson the hapless, amoral guard had heard of him. It took less than a minute before Clint was on one side of the bars and Smiles was thankfully on the other.
“There is no paperwork to fill out, I assume,” Thor said, and it wasn’t remotely a question.
“No, Mr. Odinson. He wasn’t charged with anything.”
“Because I didn’t do anything,” Clint said under his breath, and though Jameson glared, the man wisely held his tongue. Clint’s effects were brought to him without needing to be signed for either, and before long, Clint walked out of the police station, very much alive, beside the CEO of Thunder Enterprises and two bodyguards. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d made a very daring leap from the frying pan straight into the infernos of hell, though.
He hunched his shoulders as they hit the bracing night air. “As far as gestures of good faith go, that one’s pretty good. Why do you want to talk to Nat?”
“Not here,” Thor said. “My driver is on hand to take us someplace more private.”
“No offense, but last time people tried to take me a place a little more private, I ended up in a cell with a guy named Smiles.”
“It is urgent that I speak with Ms. Romanoff,” Thor said, “and it is urgent that I do so privately.”
“Privately means with Tweedledum and Tweedledee along, I’m guessing?” Clint asked. Natasha would be salivating for this interview, and if she knew he was trying to push it off, there would likely be shin pain in his future.
“Hogun and Volstagg present no threat to either you or your reporter friend.”
Clint mouthed the names under his breath, disbelieving, before he took his time to study Thor, peering hard at the man and attempting to see beyond the dark circles and the lines of exhaustion fanning out from his eyes. This was not the self-confident, friendly CEO that had greeted them, before Natasha had dropped the bomb about Helping Hands of Asgard on him. This was a wearied man, a man who’d seen much in the world and wasn’t sure he wanted to go on seeing anymore. There wasn’t even anger in that façade anymore, but defeat.
Clint scrubbed his hands over his face. “Fine,” he said. “But I set the place.”
“I would expect nothing else.”
“Can I borrow your phone? I don’t trust mine since the police got their grubby little hands all over it.”
“Perhaps that is wise,” Thor said, looking troubled.
Volstagg handed over a phone with a cheerful bow that made Clint raise an eyebrow. With a shrug, he took the phone and dialed a number from memory. “Hey, Nat. You’re never going to guess who showed up to get me out of jail.”
The lights were already on inside the brownstone when Clint climbed out of the back of the SUV. “My editor’s place,” he said to Thor, who’d been riding in the backseat next to him, leaving the two bodyguards in the front seat. “Nat says she’s okay with us doing the interview here, and you won’t have to worry about being interrupted or overheard.”
“You realize that I am going out on a limb, trusting your colleague like this.”
“I’ll vouch for her. And you know that means twice as much as it would have otherwise, considering you got me out of jail and the indignity of being shanked by a guy named Smiles.”
Thor did not smile. “I know.”
“Well, time to face the music.”
With Thor’s oddly-named bodyguards waiting in the car, the two men climbed the steps to the brownstone. Darcy was the one to answer the door. “Oh-my-god-Clint!” was all Clint heard before the brunette tackled him, sending spears of agony up and down his body from all of the abuse it had undertaken. “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay!”
“Less okay if you keep doing that,” Clint said in a strangled voice, and Darcy bounced back, her eyes wide with apology. The look abruptly turned to consternation when she caught a glimpse of Thor behind him.
“Uh, hi,” she said.
Thor looked far more pained than even Clint felt. “Darcy,” he said. “I…I’m sorry. For what I said.”
“I’ll leave you two kids here to make up,” Clint said, deciding that he’d been privy to far too many awkward conversations already. “Where’s Nat?”
“Getting coffee because she says all Maria keeps is swill. She’ll be back in a minute.”
“Oh, okay.” He pushed his way past Darcy, heading through the foyer and into the dining room. Maria Hill kept her place minimalist and therefore empty of all personality, and while his photographer’s eye appreciated the clean lines, there was always an itch between his shoulder blades to fill the space somehow. Maria, he figured, would definitely not appreciate that.
“Hello?” he called.
“In here! There’s coffee on the counter if you need it,” Maria said from the other room.
“Did I ever mention you’re my favorite editor ever?” Clint called back, making a beeline for the coffee. Fortified with a cup, he ambled into Maria’s at-home office. He found her alone, dressed casually in jeans and a jersey tee, though the video window on the computer made him more cautious than the outfit did. “Oh. Uh, hey, Captain.”
Steve Rogers, looking sunburned in the grainy video, grinned at him. Clint recognized the cheaply-constructed building behind the man as one of the Army’s barracks. “You know I’m a civilian now,” Steve said. “Hey, Clint. Heard you were having some trouble.”
“Met a real nice guy in the hoosegow, but I’m better now,” Clint said. “I didn’t realize we were calling in the crew from Baghdad on this story.”
“Oh, uh.” Steve seemed to turn a distinct shade of umber. “I’m not actually—”
“Rogers was calling to say hi,” Maria said.
“At four in the morning?”
“It’s noon here,” Steve said. “And we’re going to be rolling out soon. I was just, uh, catching up with, uh, Editor Hill on some assignments and—”
“And you’ve been seeing each other since February, and are terrible liars,” Clint said. Though Steve sputtered, Maria covered her mouth with her hand, as though she were hiding a smile. “Doesn’t bother me at all, though Tony might sulk. He likes being right about who’s hooking up.”
“We’re not—” Steve ran a hand down his face. “It was never actually a secret, was it?”
“How’s Baghdad?” Clint asked, since it was kinder not to answer.
“Probably better than there at the moment. You look like hell.” A concerned frown overtook Steve’s face.
“Yeah, most of that is Natasha and her habit of not letting me get much sleep,” Clint said.
“Oh, so she finally made her move?” Steve asked.
Clint’s head shot up. “What do you mean by that?”
“I—” Steve’s eyes widened in panic, but before he could explain, the very subject of their conversation popped her head into the room. “Natasha! Hey. Uh, I have to go, the troops are about to leave, and I promised to go along.”
Though he desperately wanted to ask precisely what Steve had been talking about, Clint decided it was safer to put a smirk he didn’t feel on his face. “I’ll just give you two a moment,” he said, and headed for the doorway and Natasha. She looked fine, he saw right away. She wasn’t holding herself like she was injured, and she’d changed into a skirt and a pressed blouse. Everybody else looked like it was the dead of night, but not Natasha. She looked fresh and ready to take on the world.
She seemed to freeze, looking at him, so that silence stretched out, somehow impossible to break. Clint took a step toward her before he realized where they were and who they were surrounded by. Judging from the way Natasha’s hand twitched, she’d had a similar idea.
“Uh, hey,” he said, since he couldn’t come up with anything more intelligent. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
“Isn’t that my line? God, Clint, your face.” This time, Natasha did stretch a hand out toward him, her thumb brushing over his cheek. It sent sparks skittering across the edge of his vision; he winced, and Natasha dropped her hand as though she’d burned him. “Oh! Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Other guy looks worse,” Clint said, though that was a blatant lie. The cops hadn’t even had the decency to sport a solid bruise.
“I’m sorry,” Natasha said, blurting the word out.
Clint blinked. “What for?” he started to ask, but they were interrupted by the sound of a throat clearing. They turned to see Darcy, eyes downcast, standing at the entrance to the kitchen.
“Uh, sorry to interrupt this reunion and everything,” she said, flushing a little. “But Thor really wants to talk to you, Nat, and I think he’s getting impatient.”
“He’s the priority right now,” Clint said. “It’ll keep.”
Natasha looked as though she wanted to argue—which nearly made Clint rock back on his heels. Natasha Romanoff always put the story first. It was what made her a first-class journalist. He’d seen her slog through days sunburned, bruised, and exhausted, determined to get the absolute truth out of any story. She’d done interviews with a raging fever or a sprained ankle, never betraying a flicker of pain until the number thirty had been written and circled at the bottom of the page.
But she stepped back. “Right. We’ll talk later.”
“Go get ’em,” Clint said as Maria emerged from the office. Natasha exchanged a look with her editor and headed back to the little sitting room—it was more of an alcove, really—off of the foyer, leaving Maria, Darcy, and Clint in the kitchen.
Maria cleared her throat, giving both of her employees an assessing look. “Lewis, how are you feeling?”
“Up for anything, boss.”
“Good. Natasha’s going to need that information Stark and Banner sent her outlined. She won’t have much time to write if she does it herself. You’re officially on overtime.”
“Got it.” Darcy headed for the kitchen table and her laptop that had already been set up, apparently. Just how long had the two women been at Maria’s place?
“Barton,” Maria said.
“Yes?” Without meaning to, Clint swayed a little on his feet.
Maria nodded at the office. “There’s a cot in there. Get a couple hours of shuteye.”
The only thing keeping him awake was the steady ache from all of the bruises he’d endured in the past twenty-four hours, but Clint did his best to look wide awake. “You sure?”
“You’re going to have to talk to the FBI about the cops’ little stunt. I need you coherent more than Natasha needs your moral support right now. So go, get some sleep.”
As much as he wanted to argue, Clint found that he simply lacked the energy. The hours stuck in the jail cell, worrying about his fate and if anybody was coming to get him had leached away most of his reserves, and the constant pain wore on him. But before he stumbled off to sleep, he needed one question answered. “How sure are you that the FBI will believe me?” he asked.
“I got pictures,” Darcy said, and Clint turned to her in surprise. She held up her phone. “With this here awesome Starkphone, even. What was that you were saying about my Instagram filters?”
“Maybe I was wrong.” Clint broke off with a yawn so wide that his jaw cracked. “Never again,” he tried to say, and yawned again. “Never again will I doubt your cheap phone camera, Darcy Lewis.”
“Watch who you’re calling cheap, Mr.—”
“Okay,” Maria said, stepping between them. “Barton—sleep. Lewis—outline. Get to it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Clint said. He only tripped a little as he moved toward the office. Maria kept a cot shoved up against the wall, though Clint had to dump a couple of notebooks and a ball glove on the floor. He fell face-first onto the mattress and stayed that way, sleeping the sleep of the just and near-dead.
Three hours later, something shook his shoulder. He rolled over and blinked. “Phil? Where am I?”
“Maria’s. She sent me in here to get you. Breakfast.”
“Writing. Furiously, of course.” Coulson held out a travel mug of coffee and a couple of pills.
“Do I even want to know what these are?” Clint asked, sitting up slowly. He felt like he’d played chicken with a Mack truck and had lost. Was this how road kill typically felt?
“They’ll make you feel better, but you should probably eat something pretty quickly to mitigate any effects. There are donuts in the kitchen. I got your favorites, but you might want to hurry. Maria’s got quite the full house. A CEO, two bodyguards, two editors, two writers, and one lonely photographer.”
“One handsome photographer, you mean.” Clint tossed back the painkillers—Phil had never steered him wrong, after all—and washed down the chalky taste with the coffee. He took his time standing, moving like an old man. “Wait, Thor’s still here?”
“He’s going with us to speak with the FBI.”
“So he’s serious.”
“Given the severity of the crimes his charity was complicit in perpetrating, can’t say I blame the guy,” Phil said, leading Clint out of the room.
“Or he’s covering his own ass.” Clint drowned half the mug. The pain in his head and abdomen made the kitchen light feel like it was stabbing directly into his corneas. “Doesn’t seem like the type, yeah, yeah, I know. How’s your softball team?”
“Final game tonight.” Phil’s chest puffed up a tiny bit.
Clint toasted him with the coffee mug as he picked through the donuts, looking for the cream-filled. He found two, one of which was slightly smashed, and scarfed them down. “Go Bearcats,” he said around a mouthful of donut.
Phil just smiled and shook his head.
Thor, Darcy, and the bodyguards had holed up in the other room. Darcy was curled up in a ball, face squashed against the arm of the couch as she slept, wheezing a little. Thor, looking like his entire world had been yanked out from under him, sat on the other side of the couch, staring off into the distance at something. Volstagg dozed cheerfully while Hogun glared into his coffee, and Maria, sitting on the hearth, read the competition on her tablet, a scowl in place.
Natasha was nowhere to be found.
“I let her have the bedroom,” Maria said without looking up. “She won’t thank you for the interruption.”
“Trust me, I value my balls right where they are,” Clint said, drawing a snicker. Since there wasn’t much seating available and he wasn’t going to put his body through further abuse by trying to sit on the floor, he took the open space between Darcy and Thor on the couch. “How’s it going, Thor?”
“Tonight I found out that my brother, my very own flesh and blood, has not only been using my city’s money for his corruption, but is directly responsible for hurting hundreds of people, and he did so under my nose and using a company I founded to do good in this world.” Thor’s voice was hollow. For a long beat, he didn’t move, his hands bunched into fists on his knees, his gaze still affixed on something in the distance. Then he turned slowly to look at Clint, weariness etched into every line of his handsome face. “It is not going well.”
“Yeah,” Clint said. “Yeah, stupid question, I guess.”
Next to him, Darcy snorted in her sleep, as though she agreed.
The FBI agents appropriated the biggest conference room for their use. Clint knew they were in the building, but as Fury had ordered him to stay in the photographers’ shared office until they needed him, he hadn’t seen them yet. He just assumed that Jen Walters was in there with Natasha and Thor and in the meantime, he tooled around on his computer and tried to stay out of the way. The other photographers on staff weren’t all that happy to deal with Clint’s usual assignments on top of their own, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. He fiddled with his tie while random coworkers dropped in and gossiped, either about Natasha or the FBI. Depending on how much he liked the visitor, he either answered or evaded.
Darcy came in when the FBI had secluded most of the support staff for over an hour. “Seen ’em yet?” she asked, dropping down onto the saggy couch the photographers hoarded zealously.
“The agents, duh. The D-team.”
“D-team?” Clint raised an eyebrow.
“They’re both named D names. Special Agent Danvers, Special Agent Drew.”
Clint studied the advice columnist. “Don’t tell me you’ve been looking up how to join the FBI.”
Darcy struck a pose. “Agent Darcy would be an awesome addition to the D-team.”
“You’d be Agent Lewis.”
“Semantics. How come they haven’t talked to you yet? You’ve been front and center for most of it.” Darcy kicked back, lacing her fingers behind her head.
“I imagine they’ll get around to it.” Clint pulled too hard on his tie and came perilously close to seeing stars. He yanked the knot loose.
“Nervous?” Darcy asked.
“To talk to the FBI? Hell yes I am.”
“They’re not that scary, Barton,” said a new voice from the doorway, and Kate Bishop stepped in. Like Clint, she’d dressed up for the day, but unlike Clint, she didn’t look uncomfortable and sweaty in her business suit.
“Hey, Katie-Kate. What brings you by?”
“Natasha, of course. What happened to your tie?”
“He’s trying to strangle himself with it, if the noises he’s been making are anything to go by,” Darcy said. “And to think this paper lets him use a complicated piece of machinery worth several thousand dollars on a daily basis.”
“Just because you don’t know how to work anything bigger than your phone camera doesn’t mean it’s complicated,” Kate said.
Clint tiredly held his hands up in a “Time Out” motion that was only partially desperate. He adored his ex-intern and Darcy was one of the greatest people in his life, but putting them together was a scientifically-proven cause of migraines. “Where’s Priya?” he asked, looking at Kate. “I know I kind of did a dick move and dumped her on you and ran—”
“It’s okay, Dear Abby over here was keeping me updated. Priya’s fine. She’s talking to the FBI.” Kate nudged Darcy’s legs with one foot and the advice columnist begrudgingly moved to let her have room on the couch. “I asked her if she wanted to talk to you, too, but I think…”
“Yeah, maybe just a ladies only thing for awhile,” Clint said, though his stomach roiled a little at the thought. He didn’t much like that he lived in a world where nothing but the fact that he was a man posed a threat to some people. “She’s okay, though?”
“As much as she can be. She’s very quick, did you know that? Way smarter than all of us.” Kate rolled her shoulders. “I taught her how to develop her own prints. Google Translate is both a pain in my ass and the greatest thing ever invented.”
“You let her into your precious dark room?” Darcy asked, looking skeptical. “I thought that was where you stored, like, your hoarded gold and precious jewels like a scary, scaly dragon lady.”
Kate stuck her tongue out at Darcy and turned to Clint. “They seem like good people, though. The FBI agents. They’ll do right by Priya.”
“You talked to them already?” Clint asked.
Darcy came dangerously close to falling off the couch when she leaned over to pat Clint’s knee. “Looks like they’re talking to everybody but you, Shutterbug,” she said.
“I wouldn’t quite say that.” At yet another new voice, the three in the room swiveled to face the doorway. The woman leaning against the doorjamb was dressed in classic FBI duds: gray suit with sharp lines, a pale blue shirt, a badge at one hip. She certainly didn’t look like the typical FBI agents that ran the boring press conferences Clint was usually blackmailed into covering for the paper. She was, he saw immediately, way too hot for that. Her dark hair might have been pulled back into a serviceable bun, but it left her face—which was all sharp angles and high cheekbones—free for study.
She looked more like she belonged on the runway than chasing down unsubs or whatever the FBI called it. But then, Clint thought, he could very well say the same about Natasha. So he rose to his feet and offered a hand. “Are you Drew or Danvers?”
“My reputation precedes me. Special Agent Jessica Drew.” She shook his hand. “You’re the famous Clint Barton I’ve been hearing about all morning.”
“Only if it’s good things. If not, I’m Darcy Lewis,” Clint said.
“Is it a crime to lie to a federal agent?” Darcy asked, glaring at Clint. “I’m Darcy, he’s Clint.”
“Nice to meet you, too, Miss Lewis,” Agent Drew said, her lips twitching a little in a way that betrayed a sense of humor. “I actually have plans to talk to you, but I thought I’d talk to Mr. Barton first. Unless you’d like…”
“No, no, it’s okay. He’s all yours. C’mon, Bishop, let’s go check up on our seventeen-year-old joint custody case.”
“I assure you, Miss Hazarika is just fine,” Agent Drew said, though her lips quirked again when Darcy and Kate filed out of the room. “Mind if I sit down? This is just an informal interview, after all. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“Then you should’ve told my boss that ties are my lifelong enemies,” Clint said, nerves biting at the back of his throat. Even though Agent Drew laughed, he fidgeted and watched her take a seat on the couch that Darcy and Kate had just vacated. “I guess you’ve got the full story from Nat already.”
“Oh, yes. If it’s true, it’s—”
“Nat doesn’t lie,” Clint said.
Agent Drew tilted her head a little. “You two have known each other for a long time.”
“Few years, yeah,” Clint said. “I was already full-time here when they brought her in. It’s sexist as hell, but I think putting her profile shot on her articles is half the reason readership rose after Fury hired her.”
“And the other half?” Agent Drew asked.
“Her articles.” Clint shrugged. “I mean, I was already taking amazing pictures for the paper, so maybe some of that was due to me.”
“Good to see you don’t have confidence issues.” Agent Drew reached into her suit jacket and pulled out a well-beaten notepad with a yellow and red cover free. She must have noticed his look, for she smiled. “I’m a Mighty Mouse fan. Carol just rolls her eyes.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“I appreciate that. Given the seriousness of everything going on here, I’m just going to take notes. If at any point I need to actually record it, I’ll let you know. We may need to bring you into headquarters for further questioning.”
“I kind of figured that.” He was never, Clint saw, going to see the interior of his apartment ever again.
“Miss Romanoff said you’re injured?” Though it was posed as a question, Clint got the feeling it was anything but.
“Bruised ribs, various other bruises. I’ve had worse.”
“That’s…mildly unsettling.” Agent Drew frowned. “But I suppose, let’s start from the beginning. Tell me, in your own words, what happened the morning of October first?”
“Well, I was sleeping, which is the important part. But that didn’t last long because Natasha called me and said she needed me to go with her on a story,” Clint said.
“Is that the normal procedure?”
“Not exactly. The Times gives reporters point and shoot cameras to take along with them, but Natasha’s never liked hers. I think her exact words were, ‘If one more person tells me pictures or it didn’t happen, I’m going to punch them in the face,’ so it was smarter to let me go along.”
“I see,” Agent Drew said, and Clint launched into the rest of the story.
Clint talked himself hoarse. At some point, Agent Drew’s partner, who was just as much of a knockout as Agent Drew herself, let herself in, but the questions didn’t stop. Clint walked them through everything that had happened to him, to Natasha, even to Darcy and Thor, and his reasoning behind his actions, starting with the moment he’d answered Natasha’s call at four in the morning. He left out any salient details about his sex life—some things, he felt, you kept private, especially from the FBI—but the rest of it, he was happy spilling to two complete strangers.
When he’d finally reached the end, Agent Danvers calmly excused herself. “You waited quite a while to come to the authorities about this,” Agent Drew said, her voice neutral.
Clint sighed and untucked his shirt, pulling it up to reveal the rainbow bruising around his ribcage. “Can’t exactly blame me.”
“Those were inflicted by officers you named?”
“And a few guys with a crowbar.” Clint lowered his shirt.
Agent Drew gave him a droll look. “Tell me, Mr. Barton, do you have any vendettas we should know about?”
“I kind of think Sam Wilson’s a jerk because he’s a better photographer than I am, but I don’t have any vendettas against Loki Laufeyson or any of his staff, no. If that’s what you’re asking.”
Agent Danvers walked back in and placed a cup of water in front of Clint. He took it with a grateful nod. “Your partner,” the blonde agent said, “is sitting outside the room with her laptop. I think she’s almost done with the story. I have to admire that kind of dedication.”
Drew raised an eyebrow. “We’re not putting a stop to that, Carol?”
“As much as I’d appreciate to operate without the media storm, that’d be a bit hypocritical, given where we are at the moment. And besides.” Agent Danvers’s shrug was pure elegance in itself. “Seems like they’re doing a lot of our jobs for us. Who am I to complain?”
Clint looked from one agent to the next, completely confused. He’d never been involved in an active FBI investigation before, but he’d seen a lot of TV shows and this really did not seem to be how they operated regularly. He’d expected to meet with a great deal more resistance. Also, he’d expected bland men in boring suits, so maybe he should just stop expecting things. “You’re welcome?” he ventured cautiously.
Agent Danvers tilted her head in acknowledgment. “In fact, I’d say with all of the evidence presented, especially by Mr. Odinson himself, we have enough to take Mr. Laufeyson in for questioning. Wouldn’t you agree, Drew?”
“Seems like it, yep.”
“You two are taking this rather well,” Clint said, squinting at both of them.
Drew waved a hand at her face. “Don’t be fooled. We’re pissed off to high heaven, we’re just really, really good at deadpan. And between you and me, while I was talking to you, my partner was hypothetically contacting a judge to get a warrant to bring Laufeyson in so that we can get the investigation fully underway.”
“Hypothetically,” Danvers said with a straight face.
“And we’re headed over to his office in twenty minutes to pick him up. So any photographers that might want that shot might—”
“—want to be standing outside of the mayor’s office. But you didn’t hear it from me.” Drew stood up and brushed off her suit jacket.
“Or if I did, it was hypothetical?” Clint asked.
Danvers and Drew gave him pleased looks. “Afterward, it would make a much stronger case if you came to headquarters and had our techs look over those bruises. And we’ll need an official statement,” Danvers said. “But I can understand if you really want to be the one to get the picture of us taking this scumbag down first.”
“Hypothetically,” Drew added, but Clint nodded anyway.
The instant the two agents left his office, Clint scrambled for his prized camera and snatched up lenses, checking for dust and scratches before he loaded them, a few backup batteries, memory cards, release forms and other photography detritus into his bag. It hurt to sling the bag across his body. But it also felt right, like for the first time in a couple of days, he was doing exactly what he was supposed to do.
Determined, he strode out of the office and nearly tripped over Natasha.
“What the—” Only some flailing and the lucky placement of a wall kept him upright. Natasha, who’d been hunched over her laptop, typing furiously, let out a mild oath and curled up to avoid being stepped on. Agent Danvers’s words caught up with Clint. When she’d said Natasha was outside writing, he didn’t think she’d meant literally. “What are you doing here?”
“I needed a quieter place to write.” Natasha startled him by shutting her laptop and pushing up against the wall, climbing to her feet. Concern rose. When Natasha focused in on writing her story, she didn’t break for anything, not even him or Fury. “Also, I didn’t want you to leave before I had a chance to talk to you.”
Clint nearly backed up half a step. He was confused. “Don’t you have a deadline?”
“Yes, but we haven’t talked, and I needed to talk to you.” Natasha scrubbed both hands over her face and blinked rapidly, and Clint almost asked her how much coffee she’d had to drink. Nervous energy had been enough to push her through a couple of days, but now Clint could see the toll the deadline and the worrying had taken on her. Her skin was positively gray, her hair lank and shoved back into a ponytail. He’d seen her like this before, but it had involved the stomach flu and a financial crisis.
“Okay,” he said, cautious now. “What about?”
“How sorry I am. You were in jail, and I didn’t come to get you—”
“They were after you, too,” Clint said, frowning. He glanced around; the hallway that led to the photography office was secluded off of the main set of cubicles, so it was usually pretty deserted. But it was also the hallway that led to the staff bathrooms, so he made sure there wasn’t anybody lurking before he put his hands on her shoulders. “Thor got me out. It all turned out fine.”
To his surprise, she seemed to sag a little the moment he touched her. “And if he hadn’t?”
Clint elected right then that he’d cheerfully take the story of Smiles to his grave. “Then I’d be very bored right now. It’s okay. I’m just glad you and Darcy got away. That was all that mattered to me. That, and that they didn’t mess up this pretty face.” He pointed at himself.
As expected, it made her roll her eyes, though her smile seemed real. “You’re a piece of work,” she told him. She reached up and loosely wrapped her fingers around his wrist.
“Yes, but that’s why you keep me around. What happened in the meeting?”
“Thor rolled over on his brother, Tony Stark did some kind of stunt where he hijacked their phones until Agent Danvers put him in a headlock, and I think they believed me. How about you?”
“They’re letting me be there when they take him in.”
Natasha’s eyes widened. In an instant, life seemed to return to her face, and she dropped her hand from Clint’s wrist. “What? Right now? You have to go—we need that shot—that would be a coup for the article.”
“It’s what I do. But I’d better go.”
“Yes, yes, do that. I need to finish this. I’ll—I’ll see you later?” For a nanosecond, there was a flicker of uncertainty at the edges of her gaze.
Clint suddenly had a flash of memory from the same hallway, two years before. They’d sneaked away from a holiday party and had done things that only the couch in the office knew about. It had been in the hallway where he’d said, “You know, maybe we should get dinner sometime. When I get back. Like a date.”
“I’d like that,” Natasha had said, but he’d come back and there had never been a date.
Maybe it was time to fix that. “Yes,” he said now. “After all, I owe you dinner.”
“You owe me…” Natasha trailed off, looking puzzled. After a few seconds, he saw it click and then she tilted her head. “Finally getting around to that, huh?”
“Took my time, yes,” Clint said. “But then somebody started using me for stress relief and I realized, I’d really like that date now.”
“Seven o’clock good?”
“Then it’s a date. But go shoot the mayor first.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Clint gave her a tiny little salute, readjusted his camera bag, and walked away, feeling much lighter. In his peripheral vision, he saw Natasha dive for the laptop, likely forgetting him before he was even out of sight. Others might have been offended, but it actually made him feel better. For Natasha to ignore a story in progress to talk to him meant that something really had been bothering her, and Clint didn’t like that.
Determined now to make Loki pay for at least some of his sins, Clint sent a text to Coulson about his whereabouts and headed across town.
Thanks to traffic, he only just barely beat the FBI to the mayor’s office, so he took up a vantage point he’d always preferred for stories about the mayor, focused his camera, and prepared to wait. It wasn’t long before he felt a presence beside him and turned to see Bruce Banner standing there, quietly.
“Sorry,” the other man said. “I don’t mean to interrupt. I just—”
“Wanted to see?” Clint asked.
“Yes. And for the record, I hope his lawyers suck so that he burns in prison for the rest of his life,” Bruce said, crossing his arms over his chest.
They were joined two minutes later by Tony Stark, who had a steaming cup of something that smelled terrible to Clint. He jabbered at Bruce; Clint tuned him out. Once he had a camera in his hand, ignoring the extraneous parts of the world became the simplest thing in the universe. He did look over when Thor, looking grim and exhausted, joined them. The men exchanged nods.
“How long have they been inside?” Tony asked.
“They’re not questioning him there, are they?”
“They said they’re bringing him in for questioning, so probably not,” Bruce said. “We’ll get to see the bastard in cuffs. Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried. By the way, where’s your more terrifying better half?” Tony asked, squinting at Clint. “After all, she brought this about. Shouldn’t she be here to watch it in person?”
“She’s still writing the article.” Clint patted the barrel of his lens. “But she’s here in spirit.”
“Not good enough,” Tony said, and began to tap away at his phone.
“What are you doing, Mr. Stark?” Thor asked.
“Streaming this to her phone. This was all her doing, she deserves something better than a few snapshots of Loki being led to the car—no offense, Barton.”
“Very much offended, thanks,” Clint said, but he had to figure Natasha would appreciate the thought. “Oh, wait, something’s happening.”
Indeed, the front doors of the mayor’s office pushed open. Loki Laufeyson and his assistant were led out, handcuffs at their wrists winking in the sunlight as Agents Jessica Drew and Carol Danvers led them to an unmarked FBI vehicle. Loki, as pressed and presentable as ever, at least seemed to realize he had an audience, for he stopped and unerringly turned toward the group of men gathered on the opposite sidewalk. For one, humming moment, his rage-filled face filled Clint’s viewfinder, and Clint clicked away. Loki’s eyes shifted from the camera, to his brother, and the rage turned somehow deeper and uglier.
Carol Danvers shoved him into the backseat of the car.
“Whoa,” Tony said as a crowd of onlookers gathered to gawk and the cars pulled away. “That dude has issues.”
“You think?” Bruce asked.
Clint lowered the camera, but his attention wasn’t on Bruce or Tony, but on Thor. The other man had looked exhausted before, but now he seemed drained of all life and all energy, his skin waxy and dark circles under his eyes. He looked like a man lost to the sea.
“Hey,” Clint said.
Thor sighed. “Nothing you say will help, Mr. Barton, so I beg you not to try.”
“I was gonna say, if you wanna grab a beer sometime, you should give me a call.”
Thor blinked. For a moment, his face almost softened, but he just nodded. “I appreciate the offer. Good day, gentlemen.”
Tony sprang forward. “Wait, I wanted to talk to you about—”
In a move that he must have learned from Pepper Potts, Bruce grabbed Tony by the arm and hauled him back as Thor, his shoulders drooping, walked away. “Not the time,” the scientist said.
“C’mon, let’s go get a coffee. You in, Barton?”
“No, I have to go back to the office, drop these off, and then the FBI wants me to give my official statement.” Clint made the mistake of stretching before he remembered that most of his torso was in excruciating pain. “And then I’ve got a date.”
“Oh? Who with? And remember, if it’s Natasha, I get a dollar,” Tony said.
“Tony,” Bruce said.
“Not telling,” Clint said.
“Do you not want me to get this dollar, Barton? What have I ever done to you?”
“You’re rich enough, Tony. See you later, Bruce.”
“I will get that dollar eventually,” Tony called after him. “Just see if I won’t!”
“Keep dreaming, Stark,” he called back as he headed for the subway stop.
He was late. They’d said seven, but the FBI had kept him for hours longer than he’d thought they would, and then Maria had shown up and calmly and insistently dragged him to the hospital to get his injuries checked over. Every time he tried to slip away, she folded her arms over her chest and looked and him with such a bland look that he immediately sat back down again and tried not to sulk. He knew the allegations about Loki and his involvement in the human trafficking ring had gone live, as it was all over MSNBC and CNN, which were playing on the TVs in the emergency room, could talk about.
He read Natasha’s article on his phone and inwardly grumbled through his pride. She really was going to be a pain in the ass when she got another Pulitzer.
It was nearly nine o’clock before he got out of the hospital and the twenty-four hour pharmacy. Stopping at his apartment for real clothes and at the store for the things he needed meant that he was nearly three hours late for his first date with Natasha, and a little woozy from the drugs. This, he thought as she buzzed him up and he walked up the two flights of stairs to her loft, was really not a good sign. Oh well, he’d inadvertently delayed the date by two years by not reading the signs, so another three hours really couldn’t hurt things too badly, right? Right?
The entire doorframe seemed to sway when he knocked.
She answered the door barefoot and in a rumpled blouse. She finished yawning before giving him an embarrassed look.
“Well,” he said. “I feel a little less bad about being late. Did you forget?”
“I f—” She broke off to yawn again. “I fell asleep on the couch. I was only going to sit for a minute, I swear. I’m so sorry, I can go throw something on or—wait, are those for me? Did you really bring me flowers?”
Clint held the bouquet of gerbera daisies out. The bodega near his apartment hadn’t had a good selection. “I seem to recall that you were expecting flowers, candy, and eight hours of sleep following very thorough and luxurious lovemaking,” he said.
Natasha took the flowers, looking almost wary. “Is this your way of saying I’ll probably have to settle with pizza and a quickie?”
“Nope.” Clint pulled a little red bag out of his pocket. “Brought you Skittles. There, flowers and candy. I think you got a head-start on the eight hours of sleep, though.”
“Skittles.” Natasha took the bag with an indecipherable look on her face.
“I hope you don’t mind that I ate some. I was kind of hungry. And the doctor said I needed to eat something with the painkillers. I had a sandwich, too, but still, things look a little funny. I don’t like it.” Clint stepped into the apartment and immediately felt some of the tension in his shoulders and down his spine begin to bleed off. Natasha always kept her place as comfortable as possible, and he really liked her loft. Strong colors, not too much patterning, and the best part was that every piece of furniture she owned was completely comfortable to sleep on. He’d tested every single piece, for scientific purposes. “Agent Drew called and updated me about the cops they’re investigating, the ones who beat the crap out of me. You won’t believe—”
Natasha grabbed a fistful of his T-shirt and hauled him to her, kissing him so forcefully he almost felt his teeth rattle. He definitely, however, was not complaining, even though his head began to swim a little thanks to the very strong pain medications the ER doc had prescribed him.
He still managed a somewhat dopey smile when they surfaced for air.
“No FBI talk,” Natasha said, not stepping back. “No corruption in the mayor’s office talk, no work chatter, not even talk about f-stops or whatever it is you like to talk about. This is now officially a break.”
“But then what will we have to talk about?” Clint asked. As he expected, she rolled her eyes at him. “Though I do seem to recall a promise of very thorough and luxurious lovemaking and eight hours of sleep.”
“Easy, cowboy. Your pupils are bigger than half-dollars. What have they got you on?”
“Drugs. Good drugs. For once, it doesn’t feel like somebody set my chest on fire. Though I also can’t feel my tongue much. Like, it’s there, but I can’t really feel it. Which I think is actually kind of disappointing if we do get around to the very thorough and luxurious lovemaking. Maybe we should take a rain check on the—”
“Yeah,” Natasha said, kissing him again. “There’s no reason we can’t change the order around. I could be persuaded with Skittles or something.”
“I’m pretty sure I ate most of the bag.”
Natasha only grinned and tightened her grip on his T-shirt. She pulled him back toward the bedroom. “We’ve got all the time in the world,” she said, letting him go and heading for a vase on her dresser. She took her time setting the flowers inside it. “Well, all the time until there’s a breaking news story and it turns out the governor is secretly some kind of robot who shoots laser beams out of his eyeballs, and we have to go cover the story.”
“Can’t be any weirder than the last three days.” Clint kicked off his boots and his socks, lining them up by the door. He folded his jeans, too. He’d never slept in Natasha’s bed before, but it seemed like the thing to do. He was only a little clumsy as he crawled under the covers.
Natasha blinked at him. “You think the last three days were weirder than the governor being a robot and shooting laser beams out of his—you know what? I’ll give that one to you, stoned or not.”
“For the record, I am not complaining about some things in the last three days. Some of the best times of my life. I feel like it is very necessary that you know that. Also, I hope the governor is not secretly a robot.” Clint burrowed into the covers. “We’re awesome at breaking news, but I really, really need a break.”
“Amen,” Natasha said, nudging up against his back. It only took a few seconds for her breathing to even out. Riding high on the euphoria of having his picture on the homepage and a cocktail of painkillers, Clint followed close behind, and neither of them moved for a the promised eight hours. In the morning, they would wake up to a new world, one that had to adjust to the news they’d broken about the mayor, but for now, Clint slept on, perfectly content.
- 30 -