"You want me to what?"
I had to have heard Constance wrong. There is no way she could have said what I thought she'd just said to me.
"I didn't stutter," Constance said smoothly.
Her smart-ass comment made me clench my jaw so hard it was beginning to ache.
"I want you to be seen dating people," Constance repeated what I thought I'd misheard.
Out of everything happening at the moment, this had to be one of the most outrageous requests to come from Constance.
It turned out that the barista that Ellie worked with had leaked to the press what Ellie had confided with her that Steve was the actual Captain America. Carla used to be fun in my eyes. When Clint and Laura were still together, we always went to that coffee shop and had gotten to know the flirty barista very well. Now I despised her for making Steve and Ellie's lives a living hell.
The press was far worse than it ever had been for any of us. Everyone was clambering to get a shot of Captain America and find out how he was back. Constance had decided an interview with all of us, minus Thor would be beneficial. To let the world know that the Avengers were a strong group together, ready to protect to world from anything.
Even if that could be farther from the truth. No one knew if Thor was contactable. Dr Foster had been completely uncooperative from what I'd heard from Evans. I knew that Bruce was staying in Stark Tower in New York. Tony was flying back and forth between Malibu and New York. I'd been speaking to Pepper on and off. She sounded as busy as I was, so our conversations had been short.
Jared was day drinking. Clint had gone back to not sleeping. Even Natasha was starting to look frayed around the edges of trying to hold Jared together enough so no one would notice his drinking habits.
We'd been called the World's Mightiest Heroes..
World's mightiest messes were more like it.
And now Constance was throwing this bullshit at me.
"Why?" I knew I'd regret asking the question. I was too exhausted to try and piece together where she was going with this though.
We were going to New York today for the interview with all of us. Clint hadn't slept at all last night. Neither did I. Going back to New York while it was still a mess was going to re-live the horror of everything that had happened. Part of me wanted to take another mission as soon as we'd gotten back. It had been the only peace Clint and I both had since New York. But Steve needed us more than even when this blew up.
"Because you're an attractive young lady who needs to show the world she's also normal," Constance's icy tone made me inwardly groan.
Natasha and I had been snapped holding hands while we were walking around the park on the weekend. Of course, it had sent the media into a frenzy. For the first time, I'd actually gotten some not rather nice publicity.
And just our luck, it turned out Constance was a raging homophobic as well.
Nobody, not even Constance, dared to question Natasha's sexuality. Mine, however, was definitely up for Constance's conservative bullshit to come down on hard.
I wanted to push Constance's buttons. The lack of sleep from last night was making my brain lag worse than Windows 95. Instead, I just sat there trying to kick my exhausted brain into gear.
"Of course, it can't be Barton," Constance continued when I couldn't think of a suitable answer. "Weren't you seeing a nice fighter pilot?"
How Constance knew that, I would never know. It did shake my brain loose enough to be able to form a sentence.
"Gareth," I said carefully. "He moved to Hawaii."
Plus he was dating someone. I think. We still texted on and off. However, I did a bit of snooping when I found out he had an Instagram page. I don't know how Natasha found it, but I enjoyed liking some of the cool photos he had taken from the cockpit. It made me miss flying. I'd even dropped a few hints to Evans that I wouldn't mind doing a rotation on the F-35s from the Helicarrier if we weren't needed for anything else. Unfortunately, we were needed for this.
"I'm sure he wouldn't turn down an opportunity now you're an Avenger," Constance said with her usual cool disdain.
"Sure, I'll ask his girlfriend if she'd like a threesome." My brain had kicked into gear at last. "Maybe I'll leak that to the public too."
Most people would have the grace to at least be mildly ashamed. Constance, however, only looked more annoyed than she already was. Constance opened her mouth to say something that would undoubtedly land me in trouble. However, something chiming on her phone drew her attention away.
"This discussion isn't over," Constance said stiffly. "They're waiting for you in the hangar."
I stifled my sigh of relief. Saved by Evans once again. We were all flying to New York together for the week. Pepper had kindly given us all rooms in Stark Tower. Despite it being the most secure building in the world, Alpha team was still coming as guards. Evans was very unhappy about that part but had been slightly mollified when it was suggested he bring the family along. Pepper had been more than accommodating with fitting them in at my request. Abby had already let on a commercial flight in business class with the kids.
"Okay." I decided not to argue. "I'll see you there."
Constance and her team were going on another Quinjet. I was taking Alpha team with me. We'd all meet at Teterboro Airport. From there, it'd be at convoy heading to Manhattan. There had been more planning for this than some of the missions I'd been on. Having all of us together was a huge security risk. Especially now Steve was out there.
Thinking about Steve made me feel guilty. Ever since it had come up, it had been mostly Natasha and Jared helping him out with everything. With all of this happening, he'd been more or less forced into joining SHIELD. Which was going to be made public during the official SHIELD controlled interview.
All I had to do was go to the hangar. Clint was already waiting down there for me. He offered to do the pre-flight while I had the meeting with Constance. He'd taken my bags with him as well as Lucky. It was the first time Clint had bought him to work, giving us plenty of odd looks this morning.
Despite my exhaustion, I was feeling irritated. What other bullshit was Constance going to come up with next?
My irritation grew into anger with every passing step. Instead of going to the hangar, I diverted towards the STRIKE locker room instead. I needed a few moments to myself to calm down.
The locker room was thankfully empty as I pushed the doors open and stormed in.
I hated this. Why did I ever promise Fury that I could do this in the first place? It was such an easy thing to volunteer for. Yet, here I was, hating every single moment of it. The public attention was awful. I couldn't get my own coffee in peace this morning. Being tired had made me irritable with the papers for autographs being pushed at us while waiting in line. Even Clint was better about it than I was this morning. I'm sure it'd be another thing people would hold against me.
Not wanting to be disturbed, I went for the ladies' bathroom. In there, I sat down on the bench in front of our showers, letting my head drop into my hands.
There was another very good reason why the conversation pissed me off more than it should have. My feelings towards Clint are feeling very jumbled right now. Last night during one of my brief periods of sleep, I'd jolted awake from a nightmare I now couldn't remember. Being disorientated while Clint pulled me in closer, I'd nearly called him Riley while thanking him.
It had been enough to jar me awake fully. Laying there in silence while Clint drifted off, I cursed my moment of inattention. And myself. There'd been an ever increasing amount of times when I'd found those funny butteries appearing. Moments that had suspiciously felt like times with Riley. It was unsettling.
Clint was my best friend. I should not be letting myself even contemplate that kind of feelings. Us fucking was never meant to complicate things. Yet here I was, letting feelings start to complicate things.
Pressing the heels of my palm into my eyes, I tried to squash down all my jumbled emotions. Being angry was the easiest of them all. I needed to focus on that instead of all the other nonsense that kept coming up.
The sound of the outer door opening made me look up. Being so quiet in the locker room, it was too loud in the large space. I braced myself for Evans to come through the door and scold me for making everyone late.
It wasn't Evans who opened the door. Instead, it was Clint.
Despite myself, a smile started to pull on the corner of my lips.
"You're making everyone very late." Clint's smile echoed my own. "I came down here to tell you that because Natasha has to find Jared and tell him that as well."
Another thing that was making me feel guilty. Jared was struggling, just like Clint. Yet here I was, focusing all my attention on Clint. It was all such a mess.
"Constance made me angry," I explained with an annoyed huff. "That photo of me and Natasha from last week came back to bite me in the ass."
Leaning against the doorframe, Clint gave me an understanding look. He was wearing navy suit pants and a white shirt. His top buttons were undone, and his sleeves were pushed up. The shirt was almost too small for him, showing off his biceps. He looked sinfully good. Despite myself, I couldn't help but stare. It had never escaped my notice that Clint was very attractive. Even before we were fucking. Why did he look even more appealing than ever now? Nothing had changed beyond us in the bedroom. He should not be looking this good to me.
"What did the bitch do this time?" Clint asked, pushing himself off the doorframe.
I wanted to lie. Clint didn't need this. I wanted to shield him from as much of Constance's bullshit as possible. So far, she had left Clint and Jared alone. I had a feeling a lot of that was on Andrew's insistence. I knew it wouldn't last. Especially now Clint had gone on a mission. People would take it as Clint was doing better.
"She wants me to date other people." It fell out before I could stop it. "Men precisely. To prove I'm not a lesbian."
"Ew." Clint's wrinkled nose made me smile.
It took me a moment to realise his smile was forced. I knew I should have kept my mouth shut.
I remember back when Coulson took us all to the beach and Natasha had told me of Clint's insecurity about being with me. Sometimes I caught myself thinking that maybe the feelings that were starting to manifest weren't just on my side. A lot of that was wishful thinking. This was going to blow up in our faces eventually. I knew that. What I was doing for Fury would be the cause of that. That thought had come to me on the beach as well.
I just wanted to grasp what little happiness I could find now. As much as I wanted to deny it, my happiness was standing right before me.
"I don't want to date anyone," I admitted.
There was so much else I wanted to say. Everything was sticking in my throat. I was never good with words or grandiose actions when putting things into words.
"You don't have to pander to my emotions, Kari." Clint's carefully schooled words made my heart break. "We never promised to make this exclusive. If you don't want to date, you can sleep with other people."
Getting to my feet, I crossed the space between us. Before Clint could protest or ask what I was doing, I wrapped my arms around him and pulled him in for a kiss.
It was a kiss that we should not be doing at work. One full of all the passion I could pour into it. And longing. My longing for wanting more than what I could ever offer. Clint deserved so much better than what I could give him right now. Probably more than I could ever give him.
"Why would I want anything else?" I murmured against Clint's lips as I kissed him again. "I have everything I want right here."
This time it was Clint who closed the gap between us and kissed me. His hand came up to tangle in my hair to pull me in as close as we could.
"You're everything I need too," Clint said quietly.
We were fools. This was going to hurt a lot when it crashed and burned. I couldn't bring myself to care about any of that right now. I just wanted Clint and nothing else.
Breaking apart, I leant my forehead against his. The world felt a little better with nothing to disturb us for a few moments. I couldn't even bring myself to care about making everyone late.
"We should get going," Clint sounded as reluctant as I felt.
"Should," I murmured in agreement.
Neither of us moved despite the agreement. Even though I'd been wrapped up in Clint's arms for most of the night, I wanted to stay here. When we were like this, I felt like nothing could disturb the only happiness we seemed to find.
I knew if I stayed like this any longer, I would say something stupid. I'd let those fucking feelings take over my brain and let dumb shit spew from my mouth. Reluctantly, I dropped my arms from around Clint's neck.
"We really should get going," I said with great reluctance.
"Yes, you both should."
Jared's snarky voice made us both jump apart guiltily.
I hadn't heard or felt him teleport in. Yet, here he was, leaning against the doorframe. Not unlike Clint had been a few minutes ago.
"Clint." Jared waved his phone around excitedly. "Stop banging Kari and pay attention. They accepted."
I frowned as I took a step back from Clint to look at Jared better. I hadn't seen him look this genuinely happy since New York.
"Accepted what?" I asked, looking between the two.
It had taken a moment, but Clint's face had melded from annoyed back to looking as excited as Jared's. It only lasted for a second. Then a look of panic started to appear.
"Now you really have to ask." Jared ignored my question. "Come on, Barton."
Jared's tone had taken on what sounded like pleading. I knew that tone. Jared wanted something.
Clint's pleading look at Jared wasn't helping the situation either.
"What?" I asked again.
There was another pleading look from Clint being thrown in Jared's direction. Now my curiosity was really piqued. I didn't think Clint and Jared had enough time to plot anything together. With the pair of them, it could be anything. For all I knew, they could be planning a revelotuin to overthrow SHIELD. Knowing the pair of them, they could probably accompilsh it too. The way I felt right now, I'd happily join them.
"Come on." It was my turn to plead with Clint. "What the fuck have you two done?"
"We're buying a house," Jared said excitedly. "Clint needs to borrow his half of the down payment from you."
Clint looked like he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him whole. I knew this was a very touchy subject with Clint. He hated having to ask for anything from anyone. Money was always, especially a subject he tried to avoid. I knew when I bought his and Laura's old house it helped with a lot of debt. It was something Clint had been very quiet and reserved about. I never pried. His financial situation was his own business. I helped if he asked. Even when he didn't want to ask.
"Can we talk about this in private?" Clint turned to me. "Please."
There was something in his expression I couldn't quite place. I also hadn't seen Clint look this uncomfortable in a long time.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jared open his mouth to protest. He shut it just as quickly as he looked between us. For once in his life, Jared didn't argue. He simply teleported away without another word.
Clint looked at me, tapping his fingers against his leg. Part of me wanted to wait and let him speak. However, I was now dying of curiosity.
"Can I see it?" I asked carefully.
I really couldn't judge Clint's mood right now, and I had no idea what else to say.
Nodding, Clint reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. With a carefully schooled blank expression, he tapped on his phone a few times before handing it over to me.
It wasn't a website like I was expecting. Instead, it was a heap of pictures in a series of text messages from Jared. At a quick glance, the beautiful older stone front two-story house painted an impressive picture. As I went through the rest of the photos, they showed an old house needing some serious renovation.
"Andrew keeps saying I need something besides work," Clint said, his words rushed. "Jared and I thought getting something to renovate would keep us more than busy."
Both of them loved renovation shows. Laura always used to say Clint's home projects drove her mad. I knew he'd extensively renovated their old house before Lila was born. Even now, he'd tinker in their new place if they needed anything. Clint was very good with his hands at building stuff. He also had impeccible taste when it came to interior designing as well. Our apartment never looked better thanks to Clint's little touches everywhere. I joked that my bedroom looked Pinterest worthy thanks to his decorating.
Scrolling through the photos, I found myself falling a in love with the house. The spiral staircase all in wood would have sold me right away. Even in the horrible condition, everything was in. The massive backyard would make Lucky the happiest dog in the world. There was even enough room to build a pool if we wanted.
"Where is it?" I asked, handing the phone back to Clint.
"Forest Hills," Clint said carefully.
That was a nice neighbourhood. It was also close to where Rumlow lived. Rumlow said that the commute generally wasn't too bad from his place.
"Are we living there while we renovate?" I could feel the corners of my mouth turn up into a smile.
Clint's posture started to relax at my smile.
"You didn't ask how much?" Clint questioned. Despite his posture starting to relax, he still looked wary. "I hate asking, but I don't have enough for the down payment and money for…
I cut Clint off by stepping forward and kissing him. He stiffened for a moment before relaxing against me again. His hands came up to cup both sides of my face as he kissed me back.
If this was what would help Clint, I'd empty my bank account. I didn't care how much it cost. I wanted to help him in any way I could.
"Yes?" Clint asked against my lips.
I could feel him smiling. It was really good to be the reason he smiled. Especially when it was for something other than sex.
The only problem was it wasn't helping my jumbled feelings for Clint.
"Yes," I repeated. "And you can tell me the plans for everything on the flight."
We were going to be so late. Then again, Constance was already pissed off at me. Adding another thing to the long list of things she was pissed about wasn't going to be the end of the world.
Clint kissed me one more time before letting me go. Seeing the smile on his face made me smile even more. This had all been so much harder than I thought it would be. Putting that smile on his face meant the world to me.
Reluctantly, we both pulled away. Clint gave me a quick kiss on the nose before I got out of reach.
As much as I hated what was to come, there were always worse things that could be happening.
Clint and I got plenty of stink eye from Alpha team, who were already waiting in the back of the Quinjet. Even Rumlow looked annoyed, tapping his watch as we got closer. All I could do was shrug in an attempt at an apology.
Lucky was sitting in the cockpit, looking adorable with his work vest and boots. Evans had jokingly gotten him one of the dog team vests and put a STRIKE patch on it. I'm sure plenty of people were asking why on earth Clint suddenly had a service dog, but no one had voiced it to us.
I doubted they would either. If they did, I'd leave that to Evans. I had no doubt he'd be very happy to chew someone else out for being an asshole to us.
Natasha was on the other Quinjet with Steve. I had no doubts that Jared was with her. She hadn't mentioned any of this to me either. Then again, she was being far more helpful with helping Steve adjust than I was.
Pulling the cockpit door closed, I gave Lucky's ears a scratch and settled in for the easy flight. It would take us less than an hour.
Once we were in the air, Clint started showing me some of the ideas he and Jared had for the place. It was going to be a huge and expensive job. But for the money they would pay for a big house in a very nice neighbourhood, it would be worth the time and investment. Through it all, I was beginning to get excited about the project.
Plus, I had too much money again. I was happy to pay for whatever was needed.
"I also had this crazy idea," Clint said hesitantly. "You can shoot me down in flames about it if you want. I'll completely understand. It can be ripped out"
"I love everything else so far," I said easily. "As long as I can get the jacuzzi on the porch or a pool, I'll be happy. What is it?"
Clint's hesitation was very clear as he kept his phone close to him. He stared at the phone screen instead of me, taking in a deep breath. When he turned it around, I instantly knew why he was hesitating.
In the main ensuite, there was a large spa bath. Not unlike the one in the house that Riley had bought for us. This one was in much worse condition than Riley's house. But it looked so uncannily familiar I forgot to breath for a moment.
Tears started to prick at my eyes out of nowhere. My near mistake from last night came screaming to the front of my mind. There were sometimes I forgot how much Riley and Clint thought alike. They were great friends and it was easy to forget that when I got stuck in my own cloud of grief.
"Hey." Clint instantly lent over to put his arm around my shoulders. "I'm sorry. It was a dumb idea. I'll rip it out first before we move in."
Hastily wiping my eyes, I shook my head. I did love the idea of that huge spa bath. Sam had told me back on the Helicarrier before Clint tried to take it down that Riley wanted nothign more than to make me happy. I knew that Clint would do the same.
"I love it," my voice came out far shakier than I expected. "Riley was right. It would sell me on any house. It better be the first thing we fix."
Clint's face softened as he smiled. One of his rare genuine smiles that I loved to see these days.
I had already made my mind up that I wanted to live there. We had well and truly skirted around the subject. On top of my weird ass feelings with Clint today, I knew I had to jump into this before everything went to shit again.
"I've had enough of living in the city in a small apartment," I admitted. It had been on my mind for a while that if we were all going to keep living together, we needed something else. "And a fresh start, even with a shit ton of renovations, sounds like the best thing in the world."
A new start would do all of us a world of good. Andrew wasn't wrong that we needed things away from work to keep us happy. I still had no idea what I would do. I didn't have any hobbies besides being the laziest person alive on my days off. Maybe I could find something to do as well, which would help me get my mind off the constant work stress.
"I'd like that," Clint said, giving me another rare smile.
This was not helping my weird feelings for Clint at all.
We didn't get a chance to discuss it further. Our flight was far too short, and before I knew it, we already had to land.
It was like a switch flipped, and we were back to business. I always liked flying with Clint. We'd done so many hours together we worked like a well-oiled machine these days. He knew exactly what I needed and when. Landing at the strange airport was surprisingly straightforward. As we all knew, cars were already waiting.
What I didn't realise was we all had to take separate vehicles as part of the safety of the team. I mustn't have been listening to that part of the brief. Then again, I don't think I listened to much of it beyond the flight plan this morning. No one else complained as we came off the Quinjets. So I did the same, heading to the second limousine.
At least I had a fully equipped mini-bar.
I was less than impressed when Rumlow got into the back of the limousine with me. He did not look pleased either. I ignored him as I started to raid the minibar for snacks.
"These security details are high stress, and on tight windows, you know that," Rumlow started briskly. "Whatever it was that…."
"Constance was reaming me out for that photo of Nat and me," I cut in while I opened a packet of M&Ms. "I needed a minute to make sure I wasn't going to punch anyone. Apparently, I should be dating men and be seen doing it."
At least Rumlow had the grace to look digusted. For that, I offered him the M&M's instead of shoving the whole bag in my mouth.
"You should get Tom to go out to dinner with you a few times," Rumlow suggested, taking a handful of chocolate. "He's a big hockey fan, so you two would get along well. It's nearly hockey season which makes it a good cover."
Tom was Wilkerson's boyfriend. I'd met him briefly a few times. He was also the one who sent me the photo of Ben kissing another girl which got me into this mess with Clint. It was such a simple solution to my problem. It also had the advantage of probably pissing off Constance even more. I had no doubt she'd know exaclty what I was doing.
"I'll talk to Wilkerson about it," I said carefully. I didn't want to get my hopes up. I didn't know Wilkerson that well outside of work. He could hate the idea. "And yes, I do know these security details are a pain in the ass. I've done them with you before."
I shoved the mouthful of M&M's into my mouth before I could say anything else. I had to keep Rumlow on my side. I couldn't get annoyed at him. If he did that to me, I would have been pissed as well.
"So while I understand, don't be a pain in the ass," Rumlow said, the exasperation clear on his face. "Please."
"I won't," I said through a displeased huff. "I'm sorry."
Keeping Rumlow on my side wasn't that hard for things like this. I did know how much of a pain in the ass things like this were to put together. Let alone when anything went off schedule. My apology was sincere in that regard.
With a nod, that seemed to be at the end of our conversation. Rumlow was on his iPad, frowning over something. Bored in minutes, I started playing on my phone. Going straight to Pinterest, I started to spam Clint with bathroom ideas. It was an easy way to pass the slow crawl of a drive into Manhattan.
Clint did the same thing back. This house was going to be insane by the time we were done. Or at least our bathroom was going to be insane. Suddenly, our group text chat started to blow up with ideas.
The whole house was probably going to be insane.
Andrew wasn't wrong. Something else to focus on was going to be good for all of us. Along the line, Natasha added Steve to the group chat. Something we probably should have done weeks ago. Steve wasn't shy either. He was right there with the rest of us, throwing ideas around.
Arriving at Star Tower was a nightmare. The media circus was already well and truly in full swing. Our windows were tinted so no one could look in. However, it put Rumlow on edge.
In return, it put me on edge too. People were crowded right up against the car trying to look in. After someone banged on our window, Rumlow set his jaw and got out of the car.
I couldn't hear anything that was happening outside. Rumlow looked pissed with the person he was talking to. Looking ahead, I could see Evans pointing angrily at someone who was trying to block the car. While doing it, he uncannily looked like Coulson, causing me to snort with laughter.
It also made me miss Coulson. I knew Fury had his ways but assigning him to a new team when Clint needed him the most seemed unfair to me. Life would be so much better right now if we had Coulson. I knew Clint was keeping in touch by email. It wasn't the same. Maybe Coulson could be there when we got the keys to the house. Or at least somewhere along the line.
The slamming of the car door made me look back to Rumlow.
"Fucking scavengers," Rumlow growled under his breath. "I hate reporters."
At least it was reporters and not protesters. We'd been on the end of some nasty anti-mutant comments on social media lately. At least those were easy to ignore and in much smaller numbers than the current homophobes. SHIELD was good about getting on top of them and blocking them.
If only Constance focused on that instead of one very dull photo of me and Natasha.
It took nearly as long to get in the garage as the entire ride. As soon as my door was opened, I made a beeline for everyone else. Our little group chat together made me feel much better about maybe coming off as a team. It wasn't much, a simple half hour text conversation. Maybe it was the bonding we needed. Steve would come in handy for all the heavy lifting during these renovations. Even Clint looked relaxed as he scratched Lucky's ears while he and Steve were talking.
To my surprise, Pepper was there to greet us. She hadn't said anything about it when I spoke to her earlier in the week.
I couldn't stop myself. Seeing a friendly and utterly neutral person in all of this would be a godsend. I went straight to Pepper and hugged her. I'd missed her a lot.
She hugged me back just as hard.
"It's so good to see you," Pepper said, breaking our hug to take a step back. "Come in. We'll get the circus out of the way first, and then we're going to drink. We're going to drink a lot."
Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all.
HOLY SHIT BATMAN A CHAPTER!
Hi everyone! I missed you all. I'm sorry this one took a bit to get out. It's been a hectic last few months. There's so much I have to set up in this story that sometimes I know it seems boring. But everything is going to be there for a reason. Eventually, I'll probably be ready to retire by the time I've finished this story. But hey, at least I'm committed.
I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. I did want to get this out earlier, but I got a concussion last Friday. They aren't fun, and I'm still trying to get over the headache and fatigue from it. I'd already written the majority of my Mandalorian story chapter, so that one was the easier to get out.
There are no promises of chapters any time soon but goddamn we need some team bonding and happier times to happen before the nitty gritty coms back to haunt us in this story. Does everyone agree?
Thank you all so much for sticking with me. I know the last year it's been very quiet on updates. Not everyone loves the direction in where I've taken this. Most of this story had been plotted for many years now. I'm never going to please everyone. But I do appreciate every single one of you who stick around.
Have an amazing New Year everyone.
Until next time