Type Of Gift: fic
Title: the highest state of friendship
A Gift For: _samalander
Warnings: bounty hunters kidnapping and assassinating people, f-word level swearing, injury, and peril
Summary/Prompt Used: A futuristic space AU in which bounty hunters Natasha and Clint aren’t married. Actually they’re supposed to be hunting each other.
Author's Note: Title is from the quote “marriage is the highest state of friendship” attributed to Samuel Richardson.
This is what happens when a bunch of prompts merge together in my head. I hope the result is something that you like! Happy Holidays _samalander :)
banner by frea_o
He’s looking down the shaft of an arrow at the Black Widow and it would be so easy to shoot her right now in the confusion, and Barney’s yelling in his earpiece to take the shot, take it, take it! but it’s Natasha. And Clint wishes he could say that he doesn’t know how he’s gotten to this point, but the real problem here is that he does.
Clint runs his fingers around the inside of his collar, but it’s starched stiff and just won’t sit comfortably however much he messes with it. The silk cravat isn’t helping and the suit jacket was definitely made for someone with slimmer shoulders and arms. Luckily he won’t need to use a bow tonight, or maybe unluckily since then he’d have a reason to be wearing something else.
“Stop playing with your clothes,” his brother mutters in his ear, “and don’t put your hands in your pockets either,” he adds as Clint’s hands twitch in that direction. “Are you trying to get caught out, you uncultured shithead?”
Since Barney is speaking to him through his hearing aid that doubles a comm unit – which is both cheaper than having to buy a separate comm unit and a good way of disguising that he has one – unfortunately Clint can’t risk replying in the middle of the crowded function room and looking like he’s talking to himself. He settles for defiantly slipping one hand into a pocket, and then ends up quickly taking it out again for fear the seams of the too small hired suit will split.
“To your right,” says Barney. “Talking with the woman in the red dress.”
Clint turns casually, as if contemplating heading over to the buffet, and scans that side of the room. There are a lot of women in red, but he easily spots what must be The Woman In The Red Dress. She’s wearing a backless silk gown that clings in all the right places with hair just a shade darker cascading over her shoulders in artfully tousled waves.
Barney always was good at finding the best looking woman in a crowd.
There are three others with her: a tall man with a gold cummerbund, a woman hanging on his arm in a matching gold dress and elaborate jewellery, and their bounty, Emeual Jardaine, wanted by the 34th Gamma System’s Armed Forces for murdering two of his superiors and subsequently deserting.
Clint wanders in their direction.
“Director Mansfield,” Barney tells him in his ear, meaning the man in gold who Clint had already recognized as the guest of honour. “And his wife.”
“Good evening,” says Clint executing a neat little bow. “Director Mansfield, Lady Mansfield.”
The Lady appears charmed, the Director much less so. Clint supposes there are people who get used to being bowed to and the man taking charge of this newest space station at the edge of the Delta Quadrant is one of them.
It’s as he bends though that he spots the smaller figure in between the Director and their bounty – a young girl of ten or eleven in an age appropriate white floaty dress with a gold embroidered pattern, clutching Jardaine’s hand with both of hers. He has no idea who she is, but he can make a guess, and his brain whirls at how this is going to affect the plan. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth as his mouth goes dry and, not knowing what else to do right now, he bows again, this time to the girl in a more grandiose gesture courtesy of his travelling carnival days. That at least earns him a giggle.
“My daughter, Albia,” says the Director, “and her bodyguard, Emmett. Friend of the family for years.”
Jardaine looks Clint up and down and Clint knows that he’s been made.
The plan had been to attract the bounty’s attention by sticking out, just enough to arouse his suspicions, since there’s no way Clint and Barney have enough funds to fit in properly with these people anyway, and then lure him away from the upper decks to a less secure area where Barney is standing by with a tranq and checking the plan’s progress through the small camera in Clint’s aid.
The entire station is filled with monitoring systems, but the upper decks are the worst and they couldn’t sneak a tranq into this function. The security staff manning the entrance had even scanned Clint on the way in to make sure he actually is deaf and does need the device in his ear. Clint can’t say he minds the underestimation that comes with being classed as having a disability, but his fingers had still been itching to give a universal ‘up yours’ sign the whole time.
Now their bounty is holding the girl’s hand as tightly as she is his and it’s obvious there’s no way he’s going to be following Clint anywhere. What he’ll do is speak to security, and that’ll be that.
Clint can feel the sweat gathering under his armpits and making his collar damp as he scrambles for an exit plan and Barney curses uselessly in his ear.
Then the woman in the red dress slips her hand into the crook of Clint’s elbow, tucks her free hand on top in an intimate gesture, and smiles up at him winningly. She’s warm and smells nice and sends his adrenalin levels up a notch.
“Allow me to introduce my husband, Oliver,” she says.
“What the fuck?” says Barney.
“I was wondering where you’d gotten to this time. He does so have a terrible habit of disappearing on me,” she adds to Lady Mansfield, who looks suitably sympathetic.
“And they say marrying a man keeps him at your side,” Lady Mansfield replies.
Clint can see that she buys it, but the Director might not do and Jardaine definitely doesn’t. Before he can panic the woman – his fake wife – is tugging him away, saying, “I simply must introduce him to the Senguptas before he vanishes again. Do excuse us, your Ladyship. Director.”
“And do excuse me,” Clint says as they make their escape, leaning in close to whisper in her ear, with a smile in case anyone is watching, “but what the fuck?”
“I could say the same to you.” Her nails dig into his arm, just for a moment, and he feels her other hand run down the side of his suit jacket as she smoothes out the material. He’d already guessed, what with the lying about him being her husband, that she’s not here as a well-known guest, but she’s too good an actress to be a common gatecrasher and he wonders what she’s here for. “You obviously needed rescuing, husband of mine. Now, be a gentleman and escort me to the restroom. Conveniently located by the exit.”
They cross the room in a winding, nonchalant fashion, with the woman on his arm nodding and smiling warmly at various guests. At the restroom she leaves him with a kiss on the cheek, brushing up against his chest.
A moment later he picks up on a commotion brewing by the security checkpoint, something about missing jewellery and a poorly dressed man with a bulging suit pocket. Clint thinks about the woman’s roaming hands and has a bad feeling about staying at this party any longer. Thankfully he doesn’t need to rely on Barney for directions back to where they’ve left their transport as his brother is occupied cursing up a storm in his ear.
“The hell does she think she is? Interfering bitch. And for what? Jewellery!”
“There was a kid,” says Clint, once he’s made it to a less populated lower deck. “Did you know there was a kid?”
Barney doesn’t stop his cursing to answer.
Clint focuses on his priorities: getting off the station and into some comfier clothes.
After Clint has been so thoroughly vetted by the space station’s security agency and then the dispatches tying the robbery of an antique bracelet to those details, there’s no returning to that particular space station for him and the Jardaine job is a complete write off. As an added bonus his face ends up on the newsies for the 16th Delta Sector. It’s his pass photo from the function. In smart clothes and with neatly combed hair, along with how weird photos against white backgrounds not taken by professional photographers make people look, it’s not easily recognizable as him, but they clear out of that Sector anyway. Just in case.
The next job they take is a simple assassination two Sectors over and back in the Gamma Quadrant.
What they do for a living boils down to finding a criminal or fugitive and either assassinating them with proof of kill or delivering them to face the justice of the agency they’ve been hired by, whichever that agency requests. Only those agencies, their laws, and their idea of justice differs, not just in the different Quadrants, or even within the Sectors of Quadrants, but often right down to a solar system’s military agency, a planetary law enforcement agency, or even the security agency of an independent space station.
There are some agencies who cover broad areas of space like the 34th Gamma System’s Armed Forces, some that have joined forces, and some that are allied with others to extend their influence, but all of them, whatever their size, can only maintain their own laws in their own territory. Beyond that they don’t have the jurisdiction, or the resources, to go perusing criminals and fugitives across the galaxy.
Which is what a bounty hunter will do for them, for a fee.
Of course if a person breaks one agency’s laws but then leaves their territory for an area of space under a different agency’s jurisdiction they become subject to a whole new bunch of laws, according to which they may have now done nothing wrong. That second agency might then be less than pleased with a bounty hunter showing up to kidnap or kill said person, what with kidnapping and killing being frowned on as a general rule if you’re doing them to someone seen as innocent.
Being a bounty hunter isn’t always the most legal or risk-free of professions.
Clint has some familiarity with crossing agency territories thanks to their previous travelling carnival lifestyle, but he still leaves navigating all that mess to Barney. His brother tends to play it safe by signing them up for contracts where the hunting ground is in the more recently settled Quadrants – meaning Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon – because those areas of space tend to have smaller, less influential agencies. All the easier to escape from if needs be and, where there are fewer resources than in the first settled Quadrants, there’s plenty of work.
Like this job in 14th Gamma Sector: a drug tycoon who’s become a problem and needs eliminating, only she has the cheek to live outside of the Sector in which her business operates.
The 13th Sector’s Crime Bureau had been content to leave Esther Costa alone and just arrest her dealers when they came across them, but six standard months ago she’d gotten a new cook with a new recipe and the mortality rate of her customers skyrocketed. Now she’s a much bigger problem that they can’t ignore and one a politician jockeying for power in the area has thrown enough funds at for them to be able to hire a bounty hunter to take her out.
Clint and Barney place cameras at the entryways to her apartment and the office block she uses as a business front, which is much easier than trying to place bugs inside and gets them the information that they need. Namely the patterns of her comings and goings, which is how Barney’s about eighty percent sure she’ll be showing up at a specific transport hanger sometime today. She’s smart enough to vary her destination and the times that she travels, but she always uses the same transport company. Probably she has some kind of arrangement with them.
Clint finds himself a decent nest in the metal rafters of the hanger in the early hours of the morning. He settles in for a day of watching and waiting with three water bottles, a padded mat, and his bow.
“Costa’s here,” he informs Barney at fourteen hundred hours standard time. “Two people in suits with her and a couple of guys with guns. Three. Got their backs to me.”
Coasta speaks to one of the hanger staff and Clint lip-reads that they’ll be loading at bay six.
“Loading bay six,” he relays, getting into position. “Line of sight to there isn’t great. I’ll take the shot when she reaches the ramp.”
“Just tell me when you’ve got it done,” Barney replies.
Clint selects an arrow from his quiver, one of the Stark Tech ones. The heads are loaded with a biofeedback monitor, based on health care equipment, for proof of death and a DNA reader to confirm the dead person’s identity. Barney has a portable net tablet with a data feed so as soon as the hunt is done he can send it to their contact in the Crime Bureau.
“Draw,” says Clint doing so and adjusting his aim for the weight of the modified arrowhead.
Below Costa steps up onto the ramp that leads the passenger walkway for the row of loading bays.
Behind her one of her two suited colleagues turns on the first of the guards, disarms him, and launches a kick at him that appears to break the guy’s neck. If it didn’t the fall from the ramp definitely finishes him off. One of the other two manages to get his gun up before the woman kicks that out of the way, then they’re at it with fists until she angles him in the way of a shot from the third guy and he drops. She scoops up the second guard’s gun to face off with the third and is a faster shot, then casually takes out the other suit, who’d huddled against the ramp’s railing in fear, with a head shot.
It all happens in a matter of minutes and Clint is so caught up in watching, because damn he’s impressed, that he almost forgets Costa until the suited women turns on the drug tycoon as well.
Clint takes aim, because screw this, they only get paid if they’re the ones that take out Costa, but then he catches a clear view of the woman’s face and he freezes, just for a second, because it’s his fake wife, and that costs him because there’s a final gunshot and Esther Costa is dead.
“Taking your sweet time or something?” says Barney.
Another man, bald with glasses and wearing a smarter suit than someone in Costa’s employ would be able to afford, steps out of the flyer parked in bay two, nods at Costa’s killer as he passes her, and goes to have a word with the hanger staff. Clint suspects money will exchange hands. Meanwhile two women follow him out but stop by the bodies. They wear combat gear with a dark insignia and Clint quickly strips down his bow and makes to leave, because he recognizes that as an Alpha Quadrant agency logo and the last thing he needs is to be accused of interfering in the business of one of the big players.
“Oi, fuckwit, talk to me. Job done?”
“Costa’s dead, but I didn’t do it and an Alpha agency’s here.”
That’s how two hunts in a row end in failure and Barney cursing Clint’s ear off.
And that’s even before Clint gets a chance to explain the details.
By the time he’s back on their ship Barney’s already on the net searching for the identity of their jewellery-thieving, Costa-killing problem.
There’s always been an underground part to the net, since its earliest days. Clint doesn’t like using it, because he never knows what shit he might come across on there rather than because of any risk. Decent encryption software is available, but the main protection when using the shadow net is that there’s so many people using it and all of them on the move that it’s too much for the agencies to handle. Sure, some of the larger agencies most likely monitor what they can and use it in their favour, but it’s as secure as you can get for data storage and sharing.
Barney’s pulled up a few antiques auctions looking for the stolen bracelet, an image site for known drug traders and their associates, and a couple of forums.
He’s on their main screen in the cockpit, with the stupid tourist magnets stuck to the frame, so Clint goes looking for their portable net device, eventually finding it on the table under a dirty plate and a jacket. Their living space isn’t large enough for them to be messy – just two small bunkrooms and a bathroom, then the main area with the dining-living-kitchen area towards the cockpit and a bit of space at the back, empty except for a dart board and the weaponry racks on the walls – so the table usually ends up as their dumping ground.
He logs onto the cheap tablet and idly runs a search on the Mansfield family. Apparently the Director was previously a General in the 34th Gamma System. He scrolls past the serious looking links about the man’s military career and ancestry to the gossip sites and newsie links, and clicks on one that has ‘Jardaine’ in the key words.
General Alister Mansfield must have felt his family were safe in their luxurious quarters in the 34th System’s renowned high security military base, but their privileged living circumstances didn’t stop his nine-year-old daughter from being attacked in their home.
In fact, they most likely led to it.
The state of the armed forces in Gamma Quadrant has now reached the point where two Sergeants frustrated in being passed over for promotion attack the child of their commander without penalty whilst the reward for little Albia’s rescuer, Private Emeual Jardaine, is for him to be Court Martialled for turning on two higher ranking members.
Jardaine deserted before he could be sentenced, but in the last six months alone thirty-eight members of the 34th System’s armed forces have been Court Martialled for aggressive behaviour against their own, leading to the execution of thirty-two. None of them ranked higher than Corporal.
This reporter has to wonder who guards the guards in the 34th System and what kind of job they’re doing.
A recommended further reading page pops up with links to such fun articles as ‘Military Aggression: Drugs And The Super Soldier Programme’, ‘A Brief Guide To Authority In The Galaxy’, and ‘Gamma Quadrant Nurse: I Trained As A Soldier, It Was The Worst Decision Of My Life’.
“The Black Widow,” Barney reads out and Clint shuts the tablet down, abandoning it back on the table.
“She’s on the hunters’ listings?”
Most agencies will advertise contracts for bounty hunters publically. Hunters then contact them privately to accept, and negotiate terms if there’s flexibility available. There’s also a public bounty hunters’ listing, so that agencies have a way of reaching out to preferred hunters or someone they’ve worked with before, where hunters use codenames. They’re usually fairly obvious if you’re in the profession – Barney had listed them both as Trickshot and Hawkeye from their old carnival act.
“Yeah,” says Barney, maximizing another window. “And there’s a hit for that name on one of the forums; woman who used to be an independent contractor. Trained by the RR. Few people saying she’s signed on with SHIELD as an Agent.”
Clint whistles softly. SHIELD is an Alpha Quadrant agency, one of the biggest and most influential right up there with the United Systems and NICO. Only a few agencies that have a hell of a lot of resources hire Agents, who are agency employees who’re specifically deployed outside agency territory, essentially bounty hunters with a permanent contract.
“Specializes in infiltration. High kill count, but a lot unconfirmed, so either someone’s lying or she’s smart enough to cover her tracks. Doesn’t look like anyone’s been able to cross her, although says she got shot by the Winter Solider once.”
“What, the ghost?” Clint leans in to read over his shoulder. “And she’s still alive? An arrow probably wouldn’t have done any good then.”
“Shut your mouth,” says Barney. “There’s no one living that can’t be killed.”
Budapest is a small planet in the Delta Quadrant with a very elliptical orbit around its System’s sun. In the early days of Delta being settled Budapest had been at the point of its orbit where it was closest to the sun, with optimal living conditions. Construction companies had thrown infrastructure into place as fast as possible to take advantage of its popularity, selling new builds hand over fist, but did a lot of it on the cheap anticipating that it wouldn’t need to last as that popularity would die off once Budapest travelled on.
Now, just passing the aphelion point in its orbit, Budapest is colder, darker, and a lot of the population have long since moved elsewhere. There are neat grid patterns of streets and high-rise buildings, evenly placed shops, schools, and parks, and overhead rail lines connecting it all, but the manmade structures are decaying, it’s eerily quiet, and everywhere there are boarded up, abandoned buildings. Unemployment is high, energy is only available in certain areas where the power companies think it’s worth their efforts to keep things running, and gangs have more authority than governors.
Clint finds it depressing and Barney says the beer is shit, but with two failed hunts and shrinking funds they need a straightforward, decent paying contract as soon as possible and there’s a job for Budapest that fits.
There are a number of interested parties who want to start cleaning up the ‘undesirable elements’ on Budapest so they can rebuild and reinvest as the planet swings back towards the sun, including an agency on the neighbouring planet of Venice. Barney signs them up, parks himself in a bar by the short stay transport hanger, and sends Clint to catch a train to the headquarters of the jumpsuit gang.
Clint can’t remember what their actual gang name is and, whilst jumpsuits are cheap and practical wear for Budapest, a gang that wears matching outfits deserves mockery in Clint’s view. Their obviousness should make his job easier though: go to the headquarters that everyone is aware of, because these gangs seem to think that they’re invincible, and shoot as many people dressed in brown jumpsuits with yellow stripes down the sides as possible, preferably including their leader Matteo Capone.
There’s a part of Clint that wants to embrace the stupidity and walk in through the front door, but he tries for some measure of professional subtlety and uses the fire escape instead.
This works out fine, with him entering on the fifth floor and taking out three gang members, exiting on the sixth, shooting Capone through an open window on his way up to taking out more goons on the ninth… But by then they’re panicking and some genius decides explosives are an appropriate response to a one-man attack. Maybe they think there’s more than just him, but in that case they really need to learn to count.
As the building starts to tilt in Clint’s direction, some key part of the structure obviously having been blown to hell, he makes use of a grappling arrow and the collapsing fire escape to get to the roof. On the plus side he’s no longer in danger of the building falling on top of him. The downside is that he still has to get off the roof of the falling building.
The weird side is that the Black Widow is up here with him.
One of the building’s solar collector towers, maybe twice her height, trembles and Clint doesn’t think, just covers the distance between them, grabs her arm with his free hand, his bow still in the other, and drags her out of the way and to the edge of the roof. The tower crashes down behind them, a chunk of it going through the roof, and solar panel shards slice through the air.
Clint waits for it, waits for the moment, and then yells, “Jump!” pulling the Widow with him as the side of their building scrapes past the lower roof of the one next to it in its descent. He keeps hold of her as they make it across the next roof, across an unofficial plywood bridge shortcut to a rail platform, and onto the next train.
The trains are automated and their carriage is empty, so Clint drops onto one of the graffiti covered plastic benches whilst he catches his breath with the Black Widow standing in front of him the only person he has to worry about right now.
“If I didn’t know better I’d say you were following me,” he jokes, still feeling high on adrenalin.
“I am following you.”
Clint blinks and sits up straighter, wanting better access to his quiver.
“SHIELD has a contract out on you. It’s a capture, not a kill,” she says, as if that’ll make him feel any better about it. “At the space station I got you away from the security staff because you were my hunt, not theirs. The Mansfield jewellery was a bonus. Esther Costa was a SHIELD job passed to me because I was in the area. I knew you were as well, but I didn’t know you were on the same hunt.”
“We found your nest during clean-up.”
“Well there’s a contract out on you too,” says Clint, stung. “My brother wants to take it.”
She shrugs and says, “There’s almost always a contact out on me somewhere in the galaxy.”
Clint isn’t sure what to do with all this honesty, especially considering the last time they spoke she’d played him.
“What the hell does SHIELD want with me?”
He wants to say that he hasn’t done anything, that he’s never even been to Alpha Quadrant so he couldn’t have broken any agency laws in their territory, but then he doesn’t know who SHIELD might be allied with and since the Mansfield job he’s pretty sure Barney hasn’t been telling him everything, so who knows who he might have pissed off.
“What they want,” says the Black Widow, “is you, on their side. We’ve been looking into you. Your skill set is something SHIELD can use and when left to your own devices you try to do the right thing.”
“You’re trying to recruit me.” Behind her Clint spots movement through the grimy perspex window in the door to the next carriage. “Yeah, because that makes perfect sense.”
“I would work with you,” she tells him, and she sounds sincere.
The movement becomes a figure in a jumpsuit opening the connecting door followed by his friends. Clint draws his bow. The Widow steps out of his line of sight, turning to face the threat.
“Fine,” says Clint. “Let’s test that.”
It’s close quarters for archery, but Clint gets a good few shots before being forced to switch to striking out with his bow and fists. The Black Widow is even more impressive than he remembers her being against Costa’s guards, making full use of the grab rails and vertical poles throughout the carriage, and she has devices on her wrists this time which deliver electric shocks too. He wishes he had a recording that he could slow down and watch properly later, when he’s not busy himself, because how the hell, which is the point at which he remembers his hearing aid with its camera and realizes that he’s lost it somewhere in the melee.
Not that he needs to be able to hear for this kind of fight, but when things fall still he makes sure to thoroughly check there’s not a gang member he’s missed because they’re quietly playing dead.
Of course that means he doesn’t notice the Widow is trying to talk to him until he starts properly paying attention to her again and notices her mouth shaping his name.
“Sorry,” he says, coming closer to where she’s sat on the plastic bench furthest away from the unconscious and dead bodies, “but I didn’t catch any of that.”
“I lost my hearing aid,” he explains, “but it’s okay, I can lip-read. Just say it again and talk normally.”
Clint doesn’t like talking out loud when he can’t hear himself, because it feels strange, but he didn’t become deaf until his teens so he’s generally confident that the words are coming out right at least, even if he’s not always sure that he’s talking at an appropriate volume.
“Do you have a first aid kit?” she says, speaking just a little slower than she needs to but at least she doesn’t try exaggerating her lip movements, or raising her voice, or anything else stupidly counterproductive.
Clint is reaching for the small emergency kit he keeps clipped to the bottom of his quiver even as he asks, “What’s the problem?”
Rather than answer she uses a knife to slice the right leg of her combat suit from ankle to mid thigh and then cuts around the top of the slit until the whole leg part falls away. Clint sucks in air through his teeth at the amount of cuts revealed and the depth of the one just above her knee. He takes one of her hands, presses it to the worryingly deep one, and tells her to keep pressure on it whilst he skims his hands over the rest of her, finding myriad cuts in her suit that are so fine as not to be noticed and marks on her exposed face and hands that he’d thought were blood spatter.
“Fuck, the solar panels?”
He’d caught a few gashes himself, mainly on his arms, but nothing serious. He isn’t used to being with other people on a hunt who aren’t just a voice in his ear and hadn’t thought to ask if she’d been hurt.
“I’ve only done this on myself before, so tell me if I make it worse,” Clint says, kneeling in front of her and opening the first aid kit.
He swills the wound out with antiseptic wash as fast as he can, since as soon as she removes her hand the blood starts flowing again, and packs it with coagulant powder. Blood from his own hands and knuckles mingles with hers and he hopes that’s not going to cause a problem even as he knows now’s not the time to worry about anything other than stopping the bleeding.
Once the coagulant starts working he feels a lot less tense. He covers it with thin medplastic that clings to her skin and borrows her knife to cut the discarded material from her suit into strips to give the injury that bit more support and protection.
He’s checking his work when she touches his shoulder to get his attention. Clint looks up, stilling his hands in case he’s been hurting her, but she simply says, “Thank you.”
He realizes she probably just meant for him to hand over the kit and leave her to patch herself up, and now that he thinks about it he’s surprised she didn’t punch him in the face when he was putting his hands all over her.
“Well, you know, in sickness and in health,” says Clint and her lips quick upwards at the corners.
They leave the train, and its cargo of jumpsuits, at the next stop and the Widow uses her own comm device to call someone called Sitwell to come and pick her up. She seems to enjoy telling him that she’s nowhere near the gang’s headquarters anymore, hasn’t completed her hunt, is injured, and oh, by the way, there’s a carriage full of jumpsuits for SHIELD to take care of. She still seems confident that he’ll come and get her though.
Clint on the other hand has a return train journey to make.
“You could come with us,” she says. “You could come with me.”
“That’d be one easily won bounty,” Clint replies with a grin.
“I respect you too much for that,” she says, and Clint wonders when that happened. “If you change your mind find anyone with SHIELD and ask for Natasha Romanoff.”
“Is that your real name?”
“You want them to know I sent you, right?”
Clint just laughs, shaking his head because there’s no way an Alpha Quadrant agency really wants to hire him however serious Natasha thinks they are, and doubles back through the quiet cityscape to another station so he isn’t caught waiting on the opposite platform when SHIELD arrive.
When he gets back to the ship Barney’s well on his way to having had too much to drink, never mind how shit he thinks the beer on Budapest is.
“Heard SHIELD’s offered y’a job now,” he slurs and it’s only because Clint has a lot of practice reading his brother’s lips that he knows what Barney is saying. “Then didn’ hear nothin’a’tall did I?”
“Lost my aid. Sorry.”
“Better’ve killed Capone if y’wanna afford a new’un.”
Clint hangs his bow on the wall rack and takes in the printout of Natasha’s picture that Barney has stuck over the bullseye on their dartboard. It looks like Barney has been practicing, but he’s yet to pierce her eyes.
Two days later he gets a net message from a lawyer in 15th Alpha Sector who goes by the name of Isaiah Ross and writes that he’s contacting Mr Barton on behalf of Ms Romanoff. Mr Ross wants to know Mr Barton’s personal bank details or preferred alternative method of payment since his client has been unable to find an account for him separate to Barney Barton and would like to offer him remuneration for saving her life.
Clint thinks up a lot of replies, debating the merits of ‘for richer or poorer’ versus ‘Mr Barton would kindly like to remind Ms Romanoff that she did not hire his services’ or just ‘fuck that shit’.
In the end the easiest thing is to not reply at all.
“We need a break, that’s all,” says Barney, ruffling Clint’s hair like they’re kids again.
Clint doesn’t see how another job is a break, or how it’ll ease the tension that seems to have built up between them lately, but then again it’s a job where their hunting ground is a luxury cruise ship.
The HMS Queen Frigga emphasises exclusivity and quality over large scale excess, with only 800 suites, five restaurants, one ballroom, a pool and lounge area in an artificial tropical environment zone, casino, cinema, games room, zero gravity facility, bar, gym, and a brochure-full of other amenities. Guests can enjoy travelling past some of the most incredible space views in Gamma Quadrant as well as excursions to otherwise inaccessible tourist destinations on various planets and moons.
Clint and Barney board as she passes through 7th Sector with all expenses paid tickets courtesy of the Government of 2nd, who’re interested in one guest in particular: Johan Coetzee, a financier who’s been playing games with money, from tax evasion to investment fraud. When the 2nd Sector Government demanded he pay back what he owed, Coetzee, even though he could afford it, had instead gone on the run by joining the HMS Queen Frigga as she left his Sector. Now they want Coetzee returned to their jurisdiction, this time to pay up with interest including the cost of having to hunt him down.
The dress code for guests is ‘I’m rich and I’ll dress how I like’ so Clint spends a painful hour searching the net for a fashionable look that he can pull off with his own wardrobe and ends up in the cravat from the Jardaine hunt, a sleeveless shirt, and old-fashioned jeans. He sets off to get an idea of the ship’s layout before meeting back up with Barney, who is lingering by the roulette wheel and blending in better with the casino crowd in a smart jacket and thin tie.
“Carnival memories,” comments Barney as he watches the wheel spin.
“What, games that are never in the player’s favour?” Clint smirks. “Don’t tell me you’re tempted.”
“Why not?” says Barney, his expression turning sour. “Where’s the fucking harm?”
He walks over to the roulette table and as he opens his jacket to pull a few credit notes out of the inner pocket Clint sees he’s brought enough funds with him to last a while.
Clint suppresses a sigh and is debating whether to stay with Barney or to find their bounty when a flash of red hair catches his eye. It belongs to someone else in jeans, tight-fitting ones, who waves at him. A quick glance at Barney shows that his brother only has attention for the game, so Clint casually walks over to the Black Widow and puts a hand in the small of her back to lead her out of the casino and into the bar.
She drapes her arm around his waist in a half hug, which feels dangerously good and makes it hard to sound annoyed with her when he hisses, “What’re you doing here?”
“Can’t a wife join her husband on a fancy cruise?”
He gives her the best unimpressed look he can manage as she slides on to a tall stool and orders herself a drink.
“I’m on vacation.”
“Really,” says Clint flatly.
“Really, really.” Natasha turns to sit facing him, sipping her drink with a wicked look in her eyes. “And what I decided to do on my vacation is to – how did you put it? – ‘test it’. So. I hear you’re after Johan Coetzee.”
“Because you’re hunting me for SHIELD.”
Natasha waves that away airily. “I told you, I’m on vacation.”
“Fine,” says Clint, still suspicious. “Test what?”
She puts down her unfinished drink and draws him closer by tugging at the hem of his t-shirt until he gives in, coming to stand between her legs with her knees bracketing his hips, rather than cause a more memorable scene for any bystanders. Admittedly it does make their conversation more private.
“Us. Working together. I’ve read your file and I’ve watched you work. You’re good from a distance, but your close up work could use some help. I can make you better. For example, what’s your plan with Coetzee?”
Clint considers her and her proposal. He’s got a good idea of how much better she is at infiltration than him, which is reason enough to agree, but he’s also too curious and too fascinated to turn the invitation down.
He removes the aid in his right ear, switches it off, and stuffs it in his pocket. He’ll tell Barney that it wasn’t fitting right, or was malfunctioning, or something.
He’d managed to talk Barney into splashing out on two aids this time, by getting a great bargain on a retro pair in purple. Modifying an aid into a combined comm unit is the really expensive part, but Clint had been happy just to have the right aid modified again. He tries not to think too hard about why being able to hear, if only just with his left, without having his brother listening in feels freeing.
“The plan’s straightforward: get Coetzee alone, tranq him, and get him off the ship.”
“So not big on detail then.” Natasha rolls her eyes. “Compare this to the amount of detail you put into planning for when you use your bow: finding out about your hunt’s habits, the best place and time to make the shot, possible complications… I can see why the Jardaine job caused you problems.”
She tugs on his t-shirt again, hard, and Clint braces himself with one hand on top of her thigh.
“Take me to dinner,” she says abruptly.
“Take me to dinner.”
Natasha smiles at him and there’s a challenge in it, one Clint accepts by helping her down from the stool with his hands on her hips and then offering her his arm.
“Shall we, wife of mine?”
Clint follows her lead as she directs him to one of the smaller restaurants, where she gets them a table near to where Coetzee is dining by flirting with the wait staff. The menu is in a language local to a 7th Sector planet rather than Standard and Clint isn’t familiar with it, but Natasha doesn’t seem to have any trouble ordering and it certainly tastes okay when it arrives.
“So,” Natasha says, leaning in towards him and smiling brightly, “we’re newlyweds having a lovely, romantic meal together. We’re going to flirt and enjoy ourselves, and then Coetzee is going to make us an particular kind of offer, because young, flirting couples is something that he likes to spend his money on watching. Which is how we’re going to get him alone.”
Clint nods in agreement, but then he doesn’t know where to start. When hunting from a distance he always feels in control, but being this close to the bounty, being observed as he’s observing, makes his brain falter.
Natasha’s smile softens.
“I like these,” she says, taking the lead by reaching out to trace his new hearing aid and then the shell of his ear. “The colour suits you.”
Colourful hearing aids are far from popular, which is why Clint managed to buy these ones cheap. The vast majority of people have access to health care that can cure hearing difficulties, so needing aids is a sign of being too poor to have access, too stupid to get to it in time, or just too broken to be fixed. Most people who need them want small, skin-toned aids for the same reason contact lenses are more popular than glasses for people who can’t get vision correction surgery – because they’re discreet. Clint’s opinion on that is fuck discreet.
He studies Natasha’s face, wondering if she’s mocking him, then she makes the sign for ‘I like it’, pinching her middle finger and thumb together as if plucking something away from her chest.
For a moment Clint has a stomach-less sensation like he’s just entered zero gravity.
“Was that right?”
“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “Yes.”
Standard is the common spoken language of the galaxy, although dialects still vary, but there’s no common sign language as such. The sign Natasha uses is from the area of Epsilon where Clint had been with the carnival when he’d become deaf. There’s a part of him that’s nervous about the amount of information she seems to have on him, but he also can’t help that punched in the middle feeling over someone bothering to learn any kind of sign language apparently just for him.
“Can I ask…?” She touches her fingertips to his ear again before taking hold of his hand and resting their clasped hands on top of the table.
“One of the guys who trained me in the carnival. He was stealing from the main funds, skimming off the top. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he’d been taking from outsiders. Anyway, I called him on it. Which in hindsight was a really dumb thing to do.”
Clint rolls his eyes at the idiocy of his younger self.
“Him and his friends left me completely deaf in my right ear and I can only hear loud noises in my left, nothing useful like speech. Plus I got a busted nose and a huge fucking headache.”
“And then you ended up being a bounty hunter.”
“Eventually. Not much else a couple of carnies were qualified for. I was going to join a military agency, but, well, they wouldn’t take me with these,” he says, tapping one ear, “and anyway Barney had this friend of a friend, said there was money in being a bounty hunter.”
He rubs the back of his neck, uncomfortable with the focus of the conversation being on him, and awkwardly changes the subject by asking, “What about you?”
“I was trained by the RR,” says Natasha, looking away. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Clint gently squeezes the hand holding his, but can’t help being aware that the handholding is for their audience. Underneath the table and away from their bounty’s eyes he places his free hand just above Natasha’s knee, where their blood had mingled in Budapest. After a moment’s hesitation she places her hand on top of his as if to keep him there.
“I went independent for a while, then SHIELD recruited me,” she continues. “I have red in my ledger; I’d like to wipe it out. With SHIELD I’m confident that I’m handing people over to a kind of justice that I can agree with, and if I’m ever uncertain of that there’s no rule against asking questions.”
“You trust them?” he asks, disbelief leaking into his tone.
“No.” Natasha smiles sharply. “You can respect people, respect their abilities and how they use them, but don’t trust. Don’t close your eyes and live in faith. On that the Director of SHIELD and I agree. You,” she says, leaning in to press a soft kiss to his lips, “trust too easily.”
She indicates with her eyes to the right and Clint glances in that direction to see that they’ve caught Coetzee’s interest.
Making her actions obvious, Natasha moves Clint’s hand higher up her leg, catching her breath. Clint, not to be outdone, decides to get in on the act by kissing up the side of her neck and as he reaches her earlobe realizes that he’s absently stroking his thumb in circles on the inside of her thigh.
That’s when Coetzee comes over to their table and, as predicted, offers them money for the opportunity to watch the two of them together and maybe, but only if they’re comfortable with it of course, to also look with his hands.
Natasha plays it up, biting at her bottom lip and explaining that this is their honeymoon trip, but then it would be nice to have funds for a good start in their new life together, and Clint can see she has the bounty hooked. It’s as impressive to watch as her hand-to-hand fighting and it isn’t long before Natasha is manipulating Coetzee into an empty suite.
Unfortunately for their bounty it’s not long after that before he ends up unconscious and trussed up in the bathtub with plastic cable ties Natasha has been carrying around in her clutch bag.
“How long have we got to get him moved for delivery?” asks Clint as she closes the bathroom door and helps herself to one of the free chocolates on the nightstand. “Is this your room?”
“No,” she says, smirking, “it’s Coetzee’s.”
Clint is amused. He’s also still turned on from their dinner date and feeling kind of awkward about that when there’s an unconscious guy tied up in the bathroom. Natasha seems to share the first sentiment but not the second, stepping up to him, looping her arms around his neck, and kissing his mouth open.
His hands settle at her waist and he goes with it, letting her kiss him until the taste of chocolate is gone and then nipping at her lower lip. She pulls back a little, staying close enough that she’s still sharing his air.
“Why didn’t you take the money?” she whispers, scratching at the nape of his neck lightly with her nails.
“I had Isaiah contact you.”
“The lawyer?” Clint gives in to the urge to run his fingers through her hair, sweeping it back from her face. “Because. You don’t owe me for saving your life.”
“But you’ll take money for ending someone’s life,” she says without inflection.
“Wait.” Clint takes a deep breath and steps back out of her embrace. “Is this,” he asks, waving a hand between the two of them, “because I wouldn’t take the money?”
“I like to pay my debts.”
“Or it could be part of my recruitment pitch,” she says, keeping her voice toneless.
Clint is used to watching people’s faces for clues and he examines hers, wanting to be sure he understands exactly what she’s saying right now. As good as she is at keeping her emotions hidden he’s relieved to see, by her dilated pupils if nothing else, that at least she isn’t faking that she wants him, whatever her reasons.
“Does it have to be one thing?” Natasha crosses the space between them, places a hand on his chest, and injects a teasing note into her voice. “I’ll still respect you in the morning.”
Clint presses his thumb into the cleft of her chin to stop her lips from reaching his.
“No, this isn’t something you owe me, okay? Not for your life, and not as a bargaining chip. Helping me to kidnap the idiot in the bathroom; I can call that a returned favour if it means that much to you,” he says, trying to lighten the mood.
“I like to think saving my life rates higher than that.” She ducks her head to kiss his thumb. “Besides, I’m not sure paying a debt counts if I have fun doing it.”
“And you don’t think sex with me would be fun? Because I know that it would,” Clint says, winking at her.
“Oh really? Is that what you know?”
Natasha laughs and then moves away until her back is leaning against the bathroom door.
“Or,” he says, his head feeling clearer without her being so close, “is this part of you ‘testing it’?”
“Maybe it is,” Natasha says, her lips slowly curving upwards into a smile, “and maybe I just want to ride you until all the stars go out, but then, as I said, does it have to be one thing?”
A load groan echoes in the bathroom behind her signalling their bounty’s return to the land of consciousness.
“You should probably do something about that,” she says. “What’s your plan to get him back to your transport?”
“Um, laundry cart, rubbish cart, or luggage cart?”
Clint fishes in his pocket for his right hearing aid so he can check the plan with Barney and let him know that the hunt is done.
“Details,” says Natasha, poking him in the ribs as she walks past, leaving before he switches his aid back on.
A stolen laundry cart, three hours, and another dose of sedative later, Clint has Johan Coetzee stowed beneath the dartboard on their own, much smaller, ship. No thanks to Barney, who’s actually annoyed that the hunt is over so fast when he figures they could have strung it out and had at least another three days relaxing on the HMS Queen Frigga.
“Have you told the contact that the job’s done?” he asks over the comm.
“Then I’m staying,” says Barney. “And you – being so fucking grateful to your brother for organising a posh break like this that you want to get it over with as soon as possible – you can babysit.”
Clint’s sat opposite Coetzee and playing a tablet game to keep himself awake when an alert for a net message from Isaiah Ross pops up. He stabs a finger at the touchscreen, anger rising before he’s even viewed it, but it isn’t from the lawyer.
How’s sleeping beauty? N
Thankfully still asleep, Clint replies. He hates talking to kidnapped bounties and he really doesn’t want the guy mentioning his ‘wife’ around Barney either.
8 standard hours to sleep myself & then my vacation’s over. Back to work.
Thanks for the warning.
You’re welcome. So feel like meeting me in 8 hours?
The idea is actually tempting, but SHIELD is an unknown and Clint has his brother.
He looks at Natasha’s picture, still stuck to the dartboard.
Not making it that easy for you.
For the next three hunts Clint tries to steer Barney away from taking contracts that would require close up work, suggesting that they stick to what they’re best at. Barney doesn’t appreciate his new interest in the organisation side of their business though and becomes even more closemouthed when it comes to telling Clint what he’s walking into.
All he knows about the fourth job is that it’s in a back alley on a moon in 9th Sector Gamma Quadrant, that the bounty will arrive at a particular restaurant to deliver a message, and that it’s his job to shoot the messenger.
Clint makes his nest on the roof of a building opposite, appreciating the nice bit of drizzle keeping him cool on this warm summer evening and discouraging people from looking up. In his head he runs through his last few message exchanges with Natasha, thinking about his next reply. It’s becoming more difficult to talk without giving away information that could end in him being caught. From the hints that she drops he’s pretty sure she knows where he is most of the time anyway, even if however much he searches he can’t find any bugs, but somehow it still feels like slipping up would mean losing this game that they’re playing.
A skinny teenager in a grey jacket and a grubby apron emerges from the backdoor of the restaurant accompanied by a cloud of steam. He’s jittery, walking in aimless little circles and kicking at the wall, and Clint wonders if he’s on drugs.
Clint selects a Stark Tech arrow from his quiver.
Barely five minutes later a woman enters the alley from the right. She hands a thin envelope to the kid, which Clint guesses must be information someone doesn’t want to share digitally even on the shadow net, and he unzips his jacket enough to slide the envelope inside close to his chest.
Clint draws his bow and aims, says, “Bounty sighted,” because this is what he does, but even with long blond hair inadequately covered with a knit cap and a bulky jumper, even when she’s disguised and he’s looking at her from above, there’s no mistaking that it’s Natasha.
“Take the shot,” Barney says in his ear.
The kid ducks back into the restaurant, but Natasha’s still there, leaning back against the wall and shoving her hands in her pockets.
“Take the fucking shot.”
Clint doesn’t know who’s put the contract out on her, but he thinks at this point his brother’s doing it as much for himself as for any payment.
In the alley below Natasha just stands there, seemingly not even paying attention to her surroundings, which is unusual enough that Clint starts looking around himself. There are shadows on the roof of the restaurant that weren’t there when he’d made his nest, an open window by a fire escape that was closed before, and a delivery truck pulling up where Natasha had first appeared.
“I think SHIELD are here,” he tells Barney.
“Take the shot.”
Then people come pouring out of the restaurant shouting and waving guns around their heads. Natasha pulls her hands out of her pockets along with two handguns, SHIELD Agents emerge from their hiding places, and all hell breaks loose.
“Take it, take it!” Barney yells.
He’s looking down the shaft of an arrow at the Black Widow and it would be so easy to shoot her right now in the confusion.
Clint wishes he could say that he doesn’t know how he’s gotten to this point, but the real problem here is that he does and this a shot he’s never going to take.
“Sorry,” he says to his brother and removes his right hearing aid, tossing it over the edge of the roof.
Not only does Clint fail to shoot the Black Widow but he shoots a few of the people trying to kill her. It’s the worst hunt he’s ever done and when SHIELD come for him Clint just lets them knock him out.
He wakes up on the floor of a small flyer; just a basic ship with a cockpit and an open hold area, originally designed as military transport. He isn’t the only cargo: there are a pile of dead bodies stacked up to his left, some wearing aprons, and Clint looks away before he ends up searching for the teenager.
Barney isn’t here though, and Clint doesn’t know whether to feel abandoned or pleased that his brother hasn’t been captured as well.
Two people emerge from the cockpit and one of them, a middle-aged bald man in a suit who’s familiar to Clint from the Costa hunt, switches on a large vidscreen embedded in the wall.
The other person is Natasha.
She crouches down in front of him where he’s sat on the floor, so close he could reach out to strangle her, but he’s seen her fight and he knows as well as the people who haven’t bothered to tie him up that he isn’t a threat. Besides the fact that he could have put an end to her with an arrow and didn’t.
“That’s Agent Sitwell,” she says, gesturing at the bald guy, “and on the vidscreen is Director Fury.”
Clint had thought purple hearing aids were making a statement but the Director of SHIELD has an eye patch and this is definitely an example of what Natasha said about respecting someone even if you don’t trust them.
“You understand why you’re here, Mr Barton?” asks Sitwell.
“Um.” Clint looks at Natasha. “I think you want to hire me?”
“We want to make you an Agent, yes,” says Sitwell. “There would be training and a probationary period, at any point during which we may terminate your contract – ”
“Permanently?” Clint interrupts.
“No, Mr Barton.” Sitwell peers at him through his glasses. “We would find you a position in the Agency better suited to your abilities.”
The fact that he isn’t in the pile of dead people is also going some way towards convincing Clint that SHIELD doesn’t want him dead.
“He’s good,” says Natasha without turning around. “It’s not going to be a problem.”
“I hear you never miss,” says the Director, raising an eyebrow.
This is weirdest job interview Clint has ever had, and that’s including the time he auditioned for a carnival act.
“Esther Costa,” says Fury. “The Black Widow.”
“Not shooting isn’t missing, sir,” Clint replies and out of sight of the others Natasha smirks.
“For the record, I still think this is a bad idea,” says Sitwell. He takes his glasses off to clean them with a pristine pocket-handkerchief and Clint can understand why Natasha enjoys ruffling this Agent’s feathers.
“Noted. Clint Barton, I’m offering you a position as an Agent of SHIELD, conditional on meting our training standards and passing probation. Sitwell, handle the paperwork,” the Director orders before leaning forward and switching off the vid link at his end.
“I haven’t said yes,” Clint points out quietly, although the idea of working with Natasha has been tempting him for some time.
“You’re not in this profession for the money,” she says, her expression serious now, “and if you want a chance to use what you have to do some good you can do a whole lot worse than SHIELD.”
“Is that really your recruitment pitch?”
“You’ve had my recruitment pitch. This is me asking.”
“Well.” Clint takes a deep breath. “Since you ask so nicely, I do.”
Natasha laughs as she gets to her feet, offering him a hand up, and he grins in response.
“I don’t ask just anyone to marry me you know,” she says.
Behind her Sitwell closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.
“What do you mean you’re married?”