SUMMARY: Clint and Natasha remember Budapest very differently.
RATING: PG-13 for violence and swears (in English, Russian, and Romanian, ’cause that’s how Natasha and I roll) (my apologies to anyone who actually speaks Russian or Romanian, I did the best that I could with Google) (yes, I know Budapest is in Hungary, there's a reason they're speaking Romanian)
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Written for avengers_land's Deep Cover challenge and includes a matching photoset. This story follows on the backstory I set up my previous Clint/Natasha fic, "Clemency," but it's not strictly necessary to read that one first.
Budapest was cold. That was what Clint remembered most about it. Well, that and the other thing. The other thing was later, though.
He remembered his cramped perch atop the Mercure Korona and the way the brittle wind coming off the river sank into his bones. He’d crouched up there for hours, his legs cramping and his fingers numb, waiting for Natasha to show up with the target.
There were no comms on this job. No backup, either. It was just the two of them there, out in the wind. If the shit hit the fan S.H.I.E.L.D. would be quick to disavow all knowledge of this particular mission.
When Natasha finally showed up she was almost an hour late. Six more minutes and it would have triggered an automatic mission abort. Clint had already prepared himself for the worst and started planning his route to the rally point in his head (and all the places he’d have to search for Natasha if she wasn’t at the rally point) when a pearl gray limousine pulled up in front of the Hungarian National Museum across the street and a pair of very familiar legs emerged.
He watched her through his scope as she stepped into the plaza, a vision in four-inch stilettos and a silky red dress that hugged her figure in ways he wasn’t supposed to notice. There were some things that simply demanded to be noticed, though, and Natasha’s hips were one of them.
She flicked her eyes briefly in his direction before being enveloped by her escort’s meaty embrace and led into the gala. Clint allowed himself a brief exhalation of relief. In another couple of hours it’d be his turn at bat. In the meantime, though, there was more waiting and more cold.
The heat. That’s what Natasha remembered about Budapest. Everything that happened—everything important that happened—was inextricably tied to the heat, somehow.
The stifling heat in Iliaşenco’s hotel room, followed by the suffocating heat in the car on the ride to the gala. The way Iliaşenco’s fevered gaze fixed on her glistening cleavage and his sticky, hot hands pawed at her.
She was allowed a momentary but blessed respite when she stepped out into the chill evening air in front of the Hungarian National Museum. Tilting her her head upward, her eyes slid to the roof of the Mercure Korona to her left. She couldn’t see him, but she knew Barton was up there somewhere, watching her. Worrying, probably, because she was running late. Not her fault. Iliaşenco had fussed over his hair and clothing like a woman, his vanity nearly throwing the whole mission into jeopardy. She’d gotten him here in time, but only just, and it had taken most of her feminine wiles.
He wrapped a heavy arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, making sure that everyone who saw them would know she was his (the best that money could buy for the night), and guided her inside.
Of course, it was boiling inside the museum. Natasha accepted a flute of champagne and pressed the cool glass against the pressure point on the inside of her wrist, silently cursing the Hungarians and their weak, warm blood. Just another couple of hours, she reassured herself, and this would all be over. She and Barton could leave this god-forsaken country behind and move on to the next job. Preferably one where she got to kill someone, or at the very least cause a great deal of pain.
Iliaşenco had fallen deep into conversation with a fellow Moldovan of his acquaintance. Buoyed by their erroneous belief that Natasha spoke no Romanian, the two men proceeded to discuss her in the most repugnant and offensive manner possible. She had no choice but to stand there and listen dumbly as that festering boil Iliaşenco described in great detail the sex acts he planned to perpetrate upon her in the latter half of the evening. Even the knowledge that the night would not be unfolding as he expected was small comfort when he laughed and smacked her on the ass, and she could do nothing but smile insipidly and bat her eyelashes.
Natasha hated this fucking job.
Clint waited. And watched. That was most of what he did, when it came right down to it. The more interesting parts of his job—the parts that made his heart pound and left a bitter bite of adrenaline in the back of his throat—were sporadic and fleeting. The rest of it was mostly just waiting. He didn’t really mind, though, he was good at waiting. It was just the cold he could have done without.
He and Natasha had been partnered a lot in the years since she’d joined S.H.I.E.L.D. At first it was because he was one of the few agents who’d been willing to go out in the field with her—she hadn’t exactly come into the fold with an overabundance of trust—but after a while Coulson began pairing them up simply because they worked so well together.
She’d been standoffish at first, of course, and prickly as hell, but Clint wasn’t exactly a cuddly teddy bear himself. Despite all that they’d fallen into a kind of harmony pretty much from the start. For whatever reason, they seemed to understand each other intuitively, without a lot of need for words. Which was good, because Natasha wasn’t much of a talker. Neither was he, though, not really. They’d gradually learned to trust one another and even developed a friendly rapport. At this point, he was pretty sure he was actually the closest thing she had to a friend. There were still walls he’d yet to crack, though. Defenses he doubted she ever let down for anyone.
It was another two hours and thirty-eight minutes before he finally saw her emerge from the museum with Iliaşenco. She was walking at a clipped pace and looked openly annoyed. Clint smiled to himself. It must have been a tedious fucking night if she’d already abandoned all pretense of being nice to the guy.
They were here to scare Iliaşenco, not kill him. Make him believe his life was in danger so he’d cut his vacation short and go running back to Moldova before he could bump into a certain H.Y.D.R.A. agent who was in Budapest looking for an introduction. Iliaşenco was a monster who dabbled in human trafficking, but Director Fury had been emphatic that his death was not an acceptable outcome. The technology company he owned was critical to Moldova’s economic stability, and given the vibranium deposits that had recently been discovered in the country, further instability was extremely undesirable.
Clint already had an explosive arrow nocked and trained on Iliaşenco’s limousine. There was a narrow window of opportunity in order to avoid unnecessary casualties: he’d need to trigger the blast after the chauffeur/bodyguard had emerged from the vehicle, but before Iliaşenco had gotten into it. The charge he was using was a modest one; the resulting explosion would be showy enough to scare the shit out of the target, but confined enough that anyone standing at least a few feet from the vehicle should survive. In theory, anyway.
So he waited, watching, his breaths slow and meditative as Natasha and Iliaşenco made their way across the wide plaza. This was Clint’s favorite part of the job, when he could let everything else slip away and concentrate on the here and now. His sniper’s focus was narrow, his field of vision limited to the contents of his scope, but he’d learned to chart his surroundings by sound. While his gaze was fixed on the plaza below there was a part of his brain tracking every noise, no matter how seemingly insignificant, wary of anything out of the ordinary, anything that might signal danger.
It was the faint squealing of tires in the distance that alerted him. A heavy vehicle, some kind of SUV by the sound of it, taking a corner too fast for the neighborhood. He dragged his eye away from the scope and scanned the surrounding streets. It didn’t take him long to spot it: a shiny black Mercedes G-Class with custom reinforced side panels speeding towards the museum. A quarter-mile away he spied a second vehicle, twin to the first, approaching from the opposite direction.
The explosive-tipped arrow was quickly exchanged for another from his quiver. He settled on a new target and fired.
Natasha sensed the arrow before she saw it, a hair-thin whisper followed by a dull thunk as it embedded itself in the ground at her feet.
Too soon, she thought irritably, followed immediately by: this wasn’t the plan.
The arrow was a plain one, all black except for a single bright red band around the shaft. A message for her, one that meant trouble.
She hooked her leg around Iliaşenco’s knee and threw him to the ground, pinning him there with a half-hearted compression lock. He swore at her in Romanian and struggled futilely to extricate himself from the painful hold, but Natasha ignored his pathetic protestations as she scanned the area for the danger that had prompted Barton to scrub the mission. There. A black SUV, approaching at speed.
“Blya!” she hissed under her breath. Their current position was too exposed and she was regrettably unarmed, since she’d been unable to conceal any weapons on her person without blowing her cover. Yet another reason she hated this fucking job.
She grabbed Iliaşenco by the scruff of his jacket and dragged him to his feet. “Mutare, tu pizda prost!” she shouted, shoving him towards the cover of the limousine. “Grăbeşte-te!”
He stumbled ahead of her, too surprised to do anything but obey. She just managed to get them both to cover behind the limo before the first gunshots rang out, and if she happened to slam Iliaşenco’s head against the rear fender of the vehicle in the process, she wasn’t sorry. It rankled her to be put in the position of having to save this sorry pig’s life.
Carefully, she peered around the limo to assess the situation. Their assailants were dressed in black fatigues and kevlar vests. There were four of them by her count, of varying ethnicities. Mercenaries, most likely, hired by someone to either kill or abduct Iliaşenco. It was irrelevant which, because she couldn’t allow either to happen.
As she watched, one of the gunmen collapsed to ground, blood spurting from an arrow embedded in his throat. She smiled faintly. She might be a sitting duck out here, but at least she had Barton to back her up.
Iliaşenco’s bodyguard had finally made it to his boss’ side and was returning fire, but the man was an appallingly incompetent shot. He emptied the whole magazine without hitting anything useful, before taking a bullet to the chest. Natasha didn’t hesitate to grab the gun he dropped (a GSh-18, not her favorite) and rummage his pockets for ammo while blood filled up his lungs and bubbled out of his mouth.
She slammed in a fresh clip and fired off three shots, managing to hit one of the assailants between the eyes. The familiar rush of adrenaline coursed through her system, as it always did in the middle of a fight. Two down, two more to go. With any luck, it would all be over in a matter of minutes. And at least this was a job worthy of her considerable talents, she thought with some satisfaction.
Which was when she heard the second vehicle approaching from her rear and realized her position was about to be exposed to more enemy fire.
Clint saw Natasha drop and roll under the limo, dragging Iliaşenco with her as the second SUV screeched to a stop behind them. A spray of bullets peppered the vehicle where their heads had been only a moment before.
“Fuck this noise,” he muttered, reaching into his quiver for the explosive-tipped arrow he’d discarded earlier. He aimed at the first SUV and released, watching in satisfaction as it went up in a ball of flame, taking out the two gunmen still inside it.
Natasha popped up from the other side of the limousine, her hair streaming around her face in the blowback from the explosion, and fired off a round of shots at the newcomers. When she was forced to crouch and reload her magazine, Clint covered her, loosing a volley of arrows at the attackers below. Between the two of them, they dropped three of the remaining gunmen in a matter of minutes.
That left only one guy, all alone out there, facing down two highly-skilled assassins. The smart thing for him to do would have been to make a run for it, just jump in the SUV and drive away. Apparently, he wasn’t that smart. Or maybe he was a fanatic. Or his employer had simply impressed upon him that the price of failure was far worse than a clean death. It wouldn’t be the first time Clint had encountered something like that.
Whatever the reason, the guy chose to make a stand instead of cutting his losses. Clint felt a spike of alarm in his gut as he recognized the look of grim determination that crossed the gunman’s face. He’d already loosed his arrow by the time the guy started to reach for something on his vest, but it was still too late. The arrow hit its mark, embedding itself in the man’s eye just as something small and dark and round flew from his hand and rolled towards the limousine.
“Natasha!” Her name tore itself from Clint’s throat involuntarily as the limousine that shielded her blew apart in a fiery cataclysm.
Natasha saw the gunman start to reach for a grenade, saw Barton’s arrow screaming down at him, knew it would not be in time, and sprang into motion. She grabbed Iliaşenco, who was huddled beneath the limo whimpering like a child, and dragged him out from under the vehicle by his shoulders. “Activaţi!” she shouted, pushing him ahead of her. Run.
There was a deafening concussion of sound behind her, accompanied by a searing, white-hot blast of heat, and then everything went dark.
Smoke from the explosion filled up the plaza, screening the scene from Clint’s view. He couldn’t tell whether Natasha and Iliaşenco had made it clear of the blast or not. Cursing under his breath, he fired a grapple arrow down into the plaza. It embedded itself solidly in the side of building, not far from the ground. Working quickly, he pulled the cable tight as he fastened a makeshift sling around a nearby railing, then pulled a snap hook off his belt, clipped it to the cable, and launched himself down the crude zip line into the plaza, 100 meters below.
He landed with a jarring stutter-step, unclipped from the cable, and threw himself in the direction of the smoldering limousine husk. Natasha was sprawled facedown on the ground—not moving she’s not moving ohgodohgodohgod. Kneeling beside her, he fumbled at her throat, searching for a pulse with fingers that had become suddenly, inexplicably clumsy. When she moaned faintly he actually had to squash the urge pump his fist in the air and shout for joy.
He gave her a quick once-over, searching for evidence of life-threatening injuries or broken bones. There were a couple of shrapnel wounds on her legs, but the limo had actually acted as a shield to protect her from more serious lacerations. He couldn’t assess the extent of her head trauma or rule out internal injuries, but he’d have to deal with that problem after he’d evacuated her to a safer position.
Iliaşenco was lying on the ground a few feet away and Clint saw him stir slightly. Good, the asshole was still alive, then. Fury wouldn’t have to flip his lid. Not over that, anyway.
Some of the bystanders had begun to venture out from whatever inanimate objects they’d been hiding behind and Clint heard the sound of sirens approaching the scene. Iliaşenco would be taken care of, but it was high time he and Natasha made their exit. He gathered her limp body in his arms and carried her away from the plaza under cover of the smoke that was still billowing from the burned out remains of the limousine.
Natasha woke suddenly, full of fear and pain and the realization that she had no idea where she was. She bolted upright, only to to meet with a blinding pain in her head.
“Take it easy, hot sauce, I don’t think you’re ready to start doing jumping jacks yet.”
Clint’s voice. Calm and familiar and most of all safe. Some of the panic subsided, even if the pain didn’t. She felt his hands, cool and calloused, grasp her by the arms and guide her gently back to a prone position.
After a minute the pain in her head receded enough that she was able to open her eyes. Clint’s face swam into focus above her. His expression was purportedly neutral but she was too good at reading him not to see the worry etched in the lines around his eyes.
“Christ,” she said, grinding the heel of her hand into her forehead. “Fuck. Ow.”
“If you’re bellyaching you must not be too bad off.”
“Where are we?” she asked, squinting at her surroundings. “This isn’t the rally point.”
“Compromised,” he answered with a grimace. “Practically the whole fucking city’s compromised, thanks to that firefight at the museum. I had to improvise.”
It looked like some kind of office building. Whatever it had once been, it was long abandoned. And extremely grody. The space they were in was largish, a former conference room probably.
“It’s nice,” she said wryly. “Very rustic.”
“It ain’t the Ritz, that’s for sure.”
“It’s morning,” she observed, based on the hazy yellow light filtering in through the room’s one grimy window. “How long was I out?”
“A few hours. Long enough for me retrieve my pack, get in touch with command, and find this place for us.”
“What’d command say?”
He shook his head. “You’re not gonna like it.”
“They’re leaving us here, aren’t they?”
“Only for a few days, until the area cools off a little. Don’t want to risk an international incident or some shit. You know how it goes.”
Natasha sighed. She knew all too well. She supposed she should be grateful they were coming for them at all. There’d been jobs in the past where she’d been left to dig herself out of far unfriendlier territory than this with no aid whatsoever. And with no partner at her side. In the grand scheme of things, they really weren’t too bad off, even if they might have to challenge the rats for sleeping space once the sun went down.
There was a bandage wrapped around her right calf and another on her left leg just above the knee. The less her head hurt, the more conscious she became of pain from the wounds on her legs.
“Don’t pick at those,” Clint said when she tried to peek under one of the bandages. “I had to dig some shrapnel out.”
“You dig it out with a spatula?” she grumbled.
He frowned. “You were pretty close to the concussion from that grenade. Kinda surprised it didn’t turn your brains to jelly.”
“It’s fine,” she told him, forcing herself upright. It wasn’t fine, but it would be, in time. She felt weak and feverish, but that just meant her circulatory system had kicked into overdrive and was working to heal whatever damage had been done.
“Yeah, you look like you feel terrific,” he said dryly. “It’s colder than a witch’s tit in here and you’re sweating like a Fourth of July picnic.” He hesitated. “I wanted to take you to a hospital, but—”
She cut him off. “You know that’s not necessary.” She wished he’d stop looking at her like she might keel over at any moment, like she was something damaged or delicate.
“I didn’t know that, actually.” He sounded petulant, like a sullen child.
Anger flared within her, irrationally. “Don’t be stupid,” she snapped. “It’s not only unnecessary, it’s dangerous. Do you know what they’d do to me in a hospital?”
She couldn’t help but see the way her words made him wince before his usual stony expression settled back into place. “I didn’t do it, did I?” he said flatly.
It was a sign of how very much off her game she was that she’d allowed herself to lose her temper. Even though she’d tried to explain about her bio enhancements, she couldn’t really blame Barton for not fully understanding or trusting in them. She barely understood them herself. And she certainly didn’t trust them.
She sighed and rubbed her temples. “Thanks for getting me out of there. It couldn’t have been easy dragging my unconscious ass halfway across Budapest.”
He gave her a look. “That’s what teammates do, Natasha.”
She rolled her eyes in faux exasperation. “I’m trying to say thank you. Quit making it so hard.”
The corner of his mouth twitched and some of the lines on his forehead softened. Considering how rarely Barton smiled, she considered it a win.
“You’re welcome,” he said gruffly. “But it’s not something I wanna do again, so maybe next time try not to get yourself blown up.”
“Here’s an idea,” she suggested, “maybe next time you could put an arrow in the guy before he throws a grenade at me.”
Barton snorted in amusement and pulled himself to his feet. “I’m gonna go check the perimeter again. You be okay?”
“I think I’ll survive without you for a five minutes,” she replied wryly.
“Don’t wander downstairs,” he warned.
He nodded, pulling his quiver over his head and securing it on his back.
“As if I couldn’t evade your traps,” she sniffed.
“I just might surprise you,” he retorted smugly. “I am a man of many layers.”
She arched her eyebrows at him. “Is that a challenge?”
“No,” he said emphatically. “I do not want you going down there and undoing all my hard work just to prove a point.”
As soon as he was out of sight she sank back onto the floor weakly and closed her eyes.
Clint knew full well the perimeter check wasn’t really necessary. Whoever those gunmen were, they hadn’t been there for them, and none of them had lived to report their presence in the city. It wasn’t like anyone was actually after them except maybe the local police if Iliaşenco or one of the bystanders had managed to give them a description. All he and Natasha had to do was keep out of sight for a few days until S.H.I.E.L.D. decided it was safe to come in and clean up their mess without attracting too much attention. Which meant no hotels, no stores, no busy streets, nowhere they might end up on camera.
He’d chosen an empty office building in the middle of an abandoned industrial complex on the outskirts of the city, removed from any populated neighborhoods by several blocks. There were some gypsies and transients squatting in some of the buildings down the street, which told him the police didn’t much bother with this area. The building Clint had picked was the most secure in the complex, four stories high with iron bars on all the windows and thick chains secured by heavy padlocks on all the doors. If the broken windows, graffiti, and thriving population of vermin weren’t indication enough that no one was bothering to keep an eye on the site, the inch-thick layer of dust and debris he’d found on the floor inside was definitive proof that no human had set foot in the building for several years at least. All he’d had to do was pick the padlocks and it was easy enough to use the chains to re-secure all the doors from the inside. Between that and the booby traps he’d set, he felt pretty good about their security here.
No, the real reason he’d come downstairs was that he was fucking freezing. He’d been cooped up in that grimy conference room he’d identified as the least disgusting room in the place, with nothing to do but wait for Natasha to wake up. He’d been sitting and watching over her for so long that his hands and feet had gone numb with cold. He just needed to get up and walk around awhile to get his blood flowing again. And maybe see if he could find some more blankets or something lying around in this dump to help keep him warm. He’d managed to retrieve his pack from the place he’d stashed it near the museum, but as far as he knew Natasha’s gear was stashed near Iliaşenco’s hotel, out of reach to them now. Which meant they only had one sleeping bag between the two of them, which he’d of course given to Natasha since she’d been injured and unconscious.
And possibly mortally wounded as far he’d known at the time. The last couple hours, waiting and worrying and wondering if she was dying before his eyes of a brain hemorrhage or some kind of internal bleeding he couldn’t detect, had been pretty goddamn harrowing. Who could blame him if he just needed to get away to clear his head for a bit? It’s not like he could admit to Natasha how fucking terrified he’d been.
He’d seen her survive things that no ordinary person could have, but he never knew exactly what her limits were. She’d once survived a 50 meter drop with nothing more serious than a twisted ankle. But what if it had been 75 meters? Or 100? How much could her body really take? She was almost as ignorant of her own limits as he was, and she was constantly testing them, pushing herself further and further. His greatest fear, one that he could never voice to her, was that one day she’d finally go too far and he wouldn’t be able to stop her.
So, yeah, here he was, poking around in this rat-infested shithole, futilely hoping to find some scrap of cloth that wasn’t utterly revolting so that he could maybe not freeze to death when the sun went down tonight. Yeah, this mission was fucking awesome.
He’d just about talked himself into trying to make some kind of barter with the gypsies on the next block when he jerked open a drawer in the desk of one of the downstairs offices and discovered a long-forgotten bottle of pálinka. He held it up to the light streaming in one of the windows, admiring the only slightly cloudy fluid in the three-quarters-full bottle.
It wasn’t a warm blanket, but goddamn if it wasn’t the next best thing.
By the time he got back upstairs Natasha was up and around. She’d changed out of her red dress and into a pair of his sweatpants and his old Black Flag t-shirt.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she said, gesturing at the knapsack he’d suspended from the ceiling to keep the vermin out. “I felt a little overdressed.”
“No, of course not.” The t-shirt was had been worn so thin over time it was nearly see-through. He tried really hard not to notice. But he did.
If she was conscious of the way his eyes had skimmed over her and then quickly away, she did them both the favor of pretending not to care. “Not a hell of a lot of food in there for two people,” she observed casually.
“Two MREs and a half dozen protein bars,” he said, stripping off his bow and quiver. “It’s only gotta last until day after tomorrow, though, if all goes well.”
She shrugged. “I’ve survived longer on less. What’s that?” she asked, nodding at the bottle he’d set down.
Her eyebrows arched approvingly. “Now you’re talking.”
“Uh uh,” he said, snatching the bottle away as she started to reach for it. “That’s for people who haven’t suffered major a brain injury in the last 24 hours. Which, by my count, is me.”
“Barton, if you don’t give me some of that alcohol, and I mean right now, I will pull your balls off and feed them to you.”
He chuckled, not because he didn’t think she could do it—she definitely could—but because he knew she wouldn’t. The fact was, if he really insisted that he didn’t want her drinking he knew she’d concede, for his peace of mind if not her own. On the other hand, she was a grown-ass adult and if she really thought she was up to it who was he to say any different? He sure as fuck didn’t understand how that enhanced constitution of hers worked.
“Fine,” he conceded, passing the bottle over. “Just take it easy, okay?”
She wiped the mouth of the bottle on her (his) shirt and took a slug. “Ugh,” she said, making a face. “It’s so sweet. Never understood why the Hungarians liked this stuff.”
He sank down wearily onto the floor beside her. “I don’t fucking care if it’s Kool-Aid as long as it’s got an ABV. Hand it over.”
She passed him the bottle. The pálinka was awfully goddamn sweet, but it had a nice strong kick to it. It burned pleasantly in his gut, giving him at least a fleeting illusion of warmth.
“You should sleep,” she said, giving him a critical once-over. “You’re no good to either of us dead on your feet.”
“Yeah, okay,” he agreed reluctantly. He had been up for over 36 hours, a little shut eye would do him some good. He took another swig of the pálinka before crawling into the sleeping bag Natasha had abandoned. “Wake me in two hours.”
Barton slept like the dead. He never snored, never tossed and turned in his sleep. Natasha knew this from all the missions they’d been on together, all the nights they’d spent watching over one another. He had this knack for dropping off to sleep instantly, anywhere he chose, in any position. Like flipping a switch, he’d close his eyes and be fast asleep. She’d seen him fall asleep leaning against a wall, crouching in a tree, clinging to a narrow ledge, even standing in chest deep water.
She’d always envied him for that. Sleep only came to her reluctantly, and always fitfully. The fact that she’d learned to sleep in front of Barton at all was a minor miracle. A measure of the trust that had grown between them.
She knew if she spoke his name or if there was a suspicious noise, anything out of place, he’d instantly open his eyes, fully alert, without startling. But otherwise he could sleep through almost anything.
Her eyes followed the silent rise and fall of his chest as he dozed. He looked unreasonably peaceful, given their squalid circumstances. His face was relaxed and unlined and she could almost imagine what he must have been like as a boy. She had an urge to brush her fingers across his brow. She didn’t.
Instead, she borrowed a pair of his running shoes and went for a prowl around their temporary sanctuary. It wasn’t much to look at, or to smell. The air was thick with the odor of dust, mildew, and rodent excrement. A leak in the roof had left the entire south side of the building moldy and decaying and the ceiling had crumbled and collapsed in some places, leaving drifts of debris on the floor that were difficult to navigate.
Barton’s traps were good. Not as good as hers, but good enough that she nearly triggered one by the stairs, though that was due more to her own carelessness than his skill. Her head still ached fiercely and her limbs felt heavy and sluggish. She tried doing some light calisthenics but they only left her feeling lightheaded and even more exhausted. Cursing her weakened condition, she made her way back upstairs, startling a family of stoats who’d taken up residence in one of the walls.
When two hours had passed she chose not to wake Clint. He slept for nearly six hours before she heard the change in his breathing that meant he’d awakened on his own. She was sitting on the floor cross-legged with her back to him. Meditating. Or trying to. Her body temperature was still elevated and she still felt off-kilter. Edgy. She’d thought the meditation might help, but she couldn’t even seem to do that properly.
“You’re awake,” she said without looking him.
“I said two hours,” he complained hoarsely.
“You needed the sleep.”
Behind her, she heard him stand and stretch, his joints popping softly. “I don’t need to be coddled.”
She shot a pointed gaze over her shoulder. “Neither do I.”
His mouth twisted but he didn’t say anything. Running a hand through his disheveled hair, he wandered over to the knapsack and started digging through it. She saw his jaw clench and she looked away, bracing herself. “You didn’t eat anything,” he said.
“I wasn’t hungry.” She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice, but really, the mothering was too goddamn much.
She heard his quick exhale of disapproval. “Jesus, Natasha, what are you—”
“You’re doing it again,” she interrupted sharply, turning to glare at him.
He stared at her for a long moment, scowling. Then he turned his back and stripped off his jacket and undershirt. He dug around in the knapsack for a clean shirt and jerked it down over his head.
“I wasn’t coddling you,” he said finally, zipping his jacket back on. “You act like you’re invincible, but you’re not, and one day you’re gonna find that out the hard way. I don’t want to be the one who has to pick up the pieces, is all.” His back was still turned, but she could see the tension in the set of his shoulders as clearly as if it was written across his face.
She didn’t want to do this with him. She was too raw and her equilibrium was off; she wasn’t equipped to have this conversation. All she wanted was to be left alone. Why couldn’t he just leave her alone?
Even so, she rose and went to stand beside him. “I’m sorry,” she offered. “You’re right.” She pressed against him, her fingers sliding smoothly up his arm and over his shoulder.
His reaction was not what she expected. He jerked away from her—flinched, actually.
“Don’t,” he said, low and warning.
She frowned. “What?”
“That’s the way you acted with that asshole Iliaşenco. Don’t play me like I’m one of your goddamn marks.”
She pursed her lips and huffed out a breath. “I wasn’t.”
“Bullshit. You’re still doing it. You think I can’t tell the difference?”
The white-hot rage that bubbled up in her was so swift and so unanticipated that she lashed out before she could bite it back. “I know you can’t,” she spat. “You think this is the first time? A little pout here, a smile there, and I’ve had you twisting to my whims more times than I can count. You’re no different than the rest of them.”
He went very still.
She knew immediately she’d gone too far. She hated herself for it.
“Fuck you,” he said.
She watched wordlessly as he turned and walked away.
“Clint—” she finally managed. He didn’t stop.