“Barton,” He said, suddenly, from where he’d been sitting quietly cross-legged as though meditating. “Come here.”
He went almost before He finished speaking, responding half to wish as much as words. As he drew close he realized that his master didn’t look well, that He looked pale and tired and perhaps slightly sick, something tight around His eyes. Clint tensed. “Something the matter, sir?”
“No, nothing.” He said it slightly too fiercely. Yes, Clint thought, but He doesn’t want me to know. That troubled him, but it was not his to think on. He would wait. Perhaps later. “Everything is ready, yes?”
“For your orders, sir.”
“Soon enough. I wish Selvig’s device to be a little further along, first.” His master tipped His head back and closed His eyes. “Tell me, hawkling. Do you sleep soundly?”
“Do I…” The question took him by surprise. It occurred to Clint that he couldn’t remember when he’d last slept. He blinked, and then pushed the thought away as unimportant. His master didn’t rest; neither would he. “I guess. I suppose so, sir.”
Clint cleared his throat, fidgeted slightly. “You don’t, sir,” he said, carefully but still blunt. His head snapped around and His eyes pinned Clint like knives. His eyes could see right through everything, it seemed like, look right through a person and know what they were, all the way through.
“Is that any business of yours?” His voice was tight, slightly clipped, and he could hear the hum of anger underneath. He tried not to let it agitate him, dropping his gaze, almost instinctively offering the back of his neck, a position of vulnerability.
“Maybe not, sir. But I…” Clint hesitated, trying to work out how best to say this. He was proud, He was stubborn and independent and
A thought flashed across his mind at lightning speed, too quick to catch. He didn’t reach for it. “Part of serving someone means making sure they take care of themselves. And I’m sorry, but you aren’t.”
Those eyes narrowed at him again. “Your forthrightness, while…refreshing, begins to look like impudence.” Clint dropped his gaze again, tensing, prepared to beg forgiveness if he needed to. But a moment later He exhaled, long and slow. “And yet…perhaps not wrong. Allow me one or two more days, my eyas. And then I will rest. Once we have victory.”
Clint’s heart beat a little faster at that. Victory. And in relief. He was not punished. Not disgraced or out of favor. “And eat?” he added, hopefully.
“Don’t become overbold, hawkling.” But there was a note almost like a laugh in His voice. “You are so very solicitous of me.”
“Part of my job, sir.” Selvig wouldn’t. Practically married to that cube.
“Were you so concerned over the welfare of your previous masters?”
Clint frowned, trying to think about that. It seemed a long time ago. Still clear in his mind, but severed from him, distant. “I just do what needs doing,” he said, finally.
“Mm. You undersell yourself. I wouldn’t favor you just for that.” His eyes drifted closed again. “Initiative. Intelligence. You have proven yourself to me many times over, these last days, and I…shall see you rewarded for it.”
He felt himself flush with pleasure, more for the praise than the promise. “Thank you, sir,” he said, trying not to sound like some new recruit. Trying to sound as worthy as He made him feel.
He could almost not believe there’d ever been anything else, or that he’d ever thought anyone else was worth following. It was like waking from a dream, the real world sharp and clear and somehow obvious. No doubt, just serve and He offered back so much.
His master had fallen quiet, hands resting on his thighs, apparently thinking. Thoughts cast somewhere far distant, and Clint watched him, half on guard, half simply…watching.
Some small part of him envying the target of those thoughts. Wishing he could do more, could…
“Patience,” He said, before Clint had even begun to complete the thought. “For a bit longer. Then you can go.”
“SHIELD will be watching surveillance footage,” Clint said. “They’ll send someone after you the minute you turn up. Captain America, probably.”
He looked faintly amused. “You want to be there to protect me, is that it?” His laugh was soft, but not unkind. “I have more need of you elsewhere, you know that.”
“Someone else could make a distraction.” Clint could come up with a few ideas easily enough. “Even retrieve the eye, probably.”
His eyes flashed. “I am no coward,” he said, voice suddenly sharp, “To leave all things to another.” Clint’s gaze dropped automatically.
“I know, sir, but you are our-” (my, some corner of his thoughts insisted) “-commander. Your taking too much of a risk could jeopardize your ultimate success.” And that thought, even the briefest hint of it, sent a faint shudder of panic through Clint’s chest, and he was half sure it wasn’t even his own, was the reflection of His.
When he glanced up, thought, it was something else that flashed through His eyes. A startled, pleased kind of expression, like Clint had said something unexpected. Then it was smoothed away.
“Rest assured that I will take all proper caution, hawkling. I will not fail.”
It seemed suddenly foolish that he had even thought He might. Of course he would not fail. He should not have allowed the thought to cross his mind. “Yes, sir.”
He fell silent again, eyes floating closed. His staff glowed softly and Clint took a step back in spite of himself; however safe it might be, it made him faintly nervous. And he never liked the way He looked after, paler than before and face tight with something like pain.
Orders, he’d gathered, or instructions, from somewhere else. He didn’t know where; it didn’t seem important. Though he wondered, if it caused Him pain, why He would…
But that was as far as Clint wanted to question. He didn’t need to know more. He would tell him, if he did.
For the moment, he kept an eye on the people milling about, at their business, getting ready. He might have found them, and persuaded them, but he didn’t make the mistake of trusting them. Of trusting anyone other than Him.
The trance or whatever didn’t last long this time before He jerked back with a slight hiss in of breath. His eyelids fluttered and then he turned and looked at Clint with very faint surprise. His mouth was a thin, tight line, lips slightly pale.
“You are still here.”
“Did you have orders for me, sir?” He asked, and wanted to say please. Let me help, I’m a good servant, aren’t I, your best, you’ve said so. Let me be closer to you. That’s all I want. I’d do anything.
“—no. Go. I have no need of you.” His voice was sharp and the words felt like a slap. Clint could read it in his body, though, almost feel it himself, the tension like a tripwire primed to an explosive. He hesitated, but – it was an order. He wanted to obey. There were matters, of course, that could use his attention.
It was just that he wanted to be here.
“Wait,” His master said then, just as he’d started to force himself to turn away. Clint stopped, and looked back. “Would you…” He trailed off, and on anyone else Clint would have said it was uncertain, the look on His face.
He didn’t finish the sentence, but it popped into his head, like it did sometimes, what He wanted, and Clint relaxed. That was easy. That he could do, and if it would help…
“Yes, sir,” he said. He padded back over to His side and sat down. He hesitated, almost feeling like he was overstepping some line even with the request, and then reached out to run his fingers into His hair. It slid through his fingers, the strands fine like silk but stiffened at the ends with some kind of oil. He tensed, shoulders bunching, and then they slid down. His head tilted back very slightly, and a soft sound like a sigh slipped from his lips.
“Yes,” He said, very softly. “Just so.”
He had not touched Him, Clint realized, before this. Had never so much as brushed against his arm, as though kept away by some fear of inadequacy. He felt a quiver of something like awe, almost chilling him. He kept himself calm, though, did not let it travel to his hands. Simply savored the feeling, the closeness, the aura of power he could feel and the smell of leather and metal. The privilege of being here, of being so trusted, and the slide of his fingers through His hair, combing out the slightest tangles, letting his fingertips just press against His scalp.
Not enough, though. It itched at him, that. He could still feel it there, all the tension coiled tight under His skin.
Slowly, carefully, he let his fingers slip out of His hair and ease down to his shoulders, shifting to sit more properly behind Him. The first light press of his fingers was a question, and he stopped the moment those muscles snapped taut again.
“Hawkling,” his voice a very slight warning, but Clint felt the brief thread of immediately suppressed longing, again like his own but not quite.
“Tasha always said I was good at massages,” he said, carefully and quietly. “She’d joke that my hands were my best feature.” It wasn’t strategically important, but Clint had noticed that He seemed to like hearing about Natasha, in a strange way. That once or twice he had asked for stories. Of no particular importance, he’d said. You are a fair storyteller, eyas mine.
“Is that so?” He said, after a moment. Clint relaxed just a fraction. He was never quite sure of the boundaries, with Him, never entirely certain where they stood.
“Yeah.” He tried again, tentatively pressed his fingers into bunched muscle and imagined pushing out the tension. He made a small noise, quiet and barely audible, and Clint froze.
“No,” He said, after a moment, “No…you may go on. Tell me more about your woman.”
Clint snorted. “No, sir, you’ve got that wrong. She’s not mine. She’s not anyone’s.” He tried again, this time a little more sure, fingertips seeking out a knot near the nape of His neck and beginning to work at it. He was all knots, though. Clint frowned, but decided not to comment. “She’s just…Tasha. Best there is at what she does.”
Again there was that faint trace of amusement in His voice. “You love her.”
Clint shrugged. “I did, maybe. That’s not important anymore, though.” That he was sure of. With near perfect clarity. He didn’t need to tell Him what was important; He already knew that. He dug his thumbs into an ugly snarl of tension near His spine and Clint heard a sound that was almost a moan, sounding squeezed from His throat.
That noise sent a little shiver down Clint’s spine. Prodded at the quiet yearning latent in his mind.
“Mmm. That is – good.” His voice fractured slightly, briefly, but a moment later it was smooth again. He was leaning into Clint’s hands, though, back arched a little and his head dropping forward. The way his head fell, the back of his neck was bare, the skin hardly flushed at all. Clint’s eyes were drawn there, lingered, even as his hands continued to move. “Undoubtedly – the best of them. Ah-”
Just relax, Clint almost wanted to say. Let me do this. Let me-
No one was looking at them, he realized. Everyone going about their business, not even glancing aside. His doing, he realized, closing them off from view, and felt a warm – almost hot – glow in his chest. His most trusted, most needed – His right hand.
The thought flushed him, filled him up. Made him almost dizzy. “This is better, though,” he said suddenly, on impulse. “Than it was before. Serving you is better.”
He realized, suddenly, that he could feel a minute shudder in His body, under his hands. The softest of sounds that could have meant anything. Clint stilled at once. “Sir?” he said, suddenly feeling a tangle of something rise up, tangle in his chest, a knot of rage-pain-fear-
Then peace, again, everything else pushed out. “I chose you well,” He murmured, and if there was something strange to his voice Clint could not have named it. “I am fortunate, that it was you, there. After my long journey, the fates brought a fine tool to my hand.”
“You will let me fight at your side, when the time comes,” Clint said, suddenly, impulsively, and He laughed, softly.
“Of course,” he said, and the affection in his voice warmed Clint to the very core. “Where else would you be?” He pulled away, then. “Come. It is time.”
And that was right. That was good. That was all he needed. He stood as well, the world sharpening into focus. He had a job to do.
He would see his master’s will done.