Clint figured the one lucky break in his life was that his Words coiled around his upper thigh, which meant nobody would get even a casual glimpse under normal circumstances.
Because life at the Circus had suddenly gone downhill once his Words appeared and Clint, because he was young and stupid and stupidly proud that he now had Words scrawled across his skin which meant he was really and truly a grown up (at fourteen! Clint shook his head whenever he remembered his idiot younger self) had forgotten the basic rule of life: keep quiet and keep your head down.
He had watched for days as the thin smudged line of dark ink slowly formed scrawled letters and words. It was hard to read because it coiled around his leg and was designed to be read standing up, so Clint was left twisting and squinting to try and make out the scrappy script (it made him feel better that his soulmate couldn’t write too good either).
Eventually Clint gave up and went to Barney because, as had been said before, Clint was an idiot.
Barney yanked his pants down and shoved Clint around and around until he could read the whole thing. Then Barney started laughing.
“What,” Clint whined, “Barney, what’s it say?”
“It says,” Barney sputtered, still laughing, “it says, Oh shit, you gotta help me hide the body.”
“Oh.” Clint rubbed his hand over the words. That was kind of nice, being able to help his soulmate like that.
“Looks like my dumb little brother is going to meet someone who knows what he’s good for.”
“Barney,” Clint complained, because his soulmate was going to love him, that was what soulmate’s were for.
“Just wait til I tell Trickshot.”
But tangled up in his pants, Clint wasn’t in a position to stop him. He didn’t know who told the whole Circus but he liked to think it was Trickshot and not his brother. Even if Trickshot kept to himself while Barney prided himself on hanging out with everybody.
Not that Clint got what was so wrong with his Words. If his soulmate needed help, of course Clint would help them. Clint would do anything he could. Wouldn’t anybody?
Apparently they wouldn’t.
Mirielle, who was sweet and dainty, and somebody of importance as she was the only one who could launch herself to very top of the acrobat pyramid, was the nicest about it.
“I feel really sorry for Clint, can you imagine having a soulmate like that?” She shivered theatrically and Leon, her boyfriend and one of the acrobatic supports, put his arm around her shoulders,
“Just about suits Baby Barton. Little thug deserves somebody like that.”
“Oh Leon, you are awful,” Mirielle scolded as she snuggled closer.
“No seriously, he better be far away when he finds them. Somebody who’d grab a complete stranger to help them cover up a killing. We don’t want anyone like that around here.”
Tamas, the trapeze catcher, snorted. “You’re forgetting Baby Barton’s this psycho’s soulmate. We’ll be lucky if he doesn’t murder us all.”
Mirielle shrieked and the rest of the guys laughed.
“You afraid of Baby Barton, Tommy boy,” sneered Leon.
“He’s not going to be five foot nothing forever, Lenny, and he’s going to grow up into somebody who’s perfectly happy to hide a body.”
There was a round of snorts as if to dismiss the probability of Clint ever growing up, but from that day the looks that came Clint’s way were more wary than scornful. No longer was he at everyone’s beck and call to fetch and carry or risk a box on the ears, instead he was mostly blanked from existence.
He preferred a semi-regular box on the ears actually, not that anyone asked him, it was better than being ignored.
Trickshot was happy though, Clint had a lot more time to practice and his aim grew better and better, and as it turned out later Trickshot had a second reason for being happy. He figured that Clint’s Words meant Clint would be happy to join in on robbing the Circus blind.
As Trickshot broke Clint’s ribs with his boot he told him, “Better toughen up kid, or your soulmate’s going to leave your whiney ass in the dust.”
And as Clint lay abandoned in hospital – able to tell when the nurses had seen his Words by how the way they treated him changed, because suddenly he deserved having the shit kicked out of him – he decided no matter what it took he was going to find his soulmate and never be lonely again.
Obviously he wasn’t going to find his soulmate in respectable society (which was a bit of a relief really, because Clint didn’t exactly fit into respectable society) so Clint went looking for the unrespectable. His first dead body made him throw up, and nearly throw in the towel, but he thought of his soulmate out there somewhere needing his help, gritted his teeth, and kept going. He was not going to let his soulmate down.
Still, he couldn’t quite bring himself to sign up as a mercenary, that was a bit too much like signing back up to being ordered, shoved, and kicked around again. Fortunately his excellent aim was so prized by certain people they were more than willing to hire Clint on a case by case basis.
Clint didn’t choose his career to become rich, but somehow found it happening anyway. He carefully saved most of his funds because he now knew that running from a hidden dead body was likely to be expensive. He wished his soulmate had been slightly more explicit with his Words – whose body did he need Clint to hide, did his soulmate know them, or was it random, was it an accident. (Clint liked to think it was an accident but he was getting less and less bothered with that as the years went by. His soulmate was the one who mattered – if only the tricky bastard wasn’t so hard to find). But if Clint knew more of the details, he could really plan out how they should proceed and the emergency kit he schlepped everywhere could be pared down.
He took jobs on every continent (Antarctica was cold) and searched as best he could. As he got better and better at dealing with dead bodies (although he never quite lost the need to scour his hands clean after he touched one), he started to take on retrieval work too. Objects sometimes (people would pay crazy money for bits of metal or faded paintings that Clint wouldn’t give two bits for) and sometimes people.
He was always slightly nervous his soulmate would turn out to be a kidnapper he’d been sent after. Clint didn’t think he could not rescue the victim, not after taking the money and seeing the desperate friends and relatives. He liked the work though, seeing the victim reunited with their friends and relatives loosened the tight iron bands around his heart.
So when Tony Stark, of all people, disappeared he kept his eyes open. He was a little offended on a professional level that Stark’s people didn’t chose him for the retrieval, Clint was good at his job, damnit.
They hired the Rathbone boys instead, which Clint wouldn’t necessarily have recommended but they were ruthlessly efficient and Stark could no doubt afford their price gouging and was unlikely to end up owing a kidney or getting knee-capped. Clint had done three jobs where his mission was to rescue someone from Rathbone after they’d rescued the someone from their original kidnappers. The Rathbone boys played rough.
Clint kept paying attention though because Tony Stark.
And it rapidly became apparent that Rathbone were not actually looking for Stark but were doing their level best to make sure Stark was never found. That offended Clint’s professional ethics. You don’t take money to rescue a guy and then don’t rescue him.
So he asked some more questions (discretely, he liked his kneecaps in good working order, thank you very much) and found out the Rathbone boys business ethics were still in excellently vicious working order and they were in fact being paid in order not to find Stark.
Which gave Clint a whole new target to be pissed at. Obadiah Stane was planning to have Stark killed so he could take over the company. What the hell? At least Barney had only ever incidentally betrayed him. Mostly because Clint had never had anything he wanted to take. But whatever. His point still stood.
And it just wasn’t right to do it to Tony Stark. Who was straight up amazing. Brilliant and clever and sarcastic as hell. He was clearly a bit of a dick, but Clint was a bit of a dick himself, he could appreciate it other people.
So yeah, this was not on.
In the end Clint collected up all his evidence, double-bagged it, and dispatched it to Pepper Potts, who, judging by the exasperated faces Stark could get her to pull, was genuinely fond of the man. She was vulnerable though, so on consideration Clint activated a dead drop he hadn’t used in years and got a call through to Natasha.
“Why are you calling me, Barton?”
“Is that any way to talk to your friends, Natashen’ka?”
Her voice lost one sort of suspicion and gained another, “What exactly do you want?”
“Just wondered if you were busy at the moment?” he asked, shrug clear in his voice.
“I always have time for you, Birdie,” she purred back throatily and he smiled at her sex-kitten routine. He had missed Natasha.
“You able to call in on Miss Virginia Potts tomorrow? She might need a hand dealing with her post.”
Natasha owed him a favor or two, and if it turned out to be worth more than that, she’d help first and demand payment later. Natasha might be vicious but she was reliably vicious.
“Vir – Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s PA? What are you mixed up in now Clint?”
Clint clicked the phone off, considered it thoughtfully for a moment and decided it would be a waste to destroy the thing. Instead he simply left it on the café table as a novel form of tip and jogged quickly away.
It was a shame to cut Natasha off but he wasn’t in the mood for listening to her trying to talk him out of his plan. Admittedly it was a stupid plan – breaking someone out of Afghanistan without an island-sized payday was stupid, breaking someone out with no payday at all was too stupid to live – but Clint already knew that, he didn’t need Natasha to tell him.
And maybe Tony Stark would be grateful for being rescued and agree to look over Clint’s customized arrows and maybe offer ideas on how to upgrade one or two. An original piece of Stark tech, just for him. How totally awesome would that be?
Clint hugged the idea happily to himself as he flew to Afghanistan via Madripoor because it was easy to disappear there, and anyone watching him would guess the more obvious targets of India or Indochina. Switching passports, nationality and hair color twice as he snuck through to Pakistan and he finally landed in Afghanistan as Robert Meyer, South African Dutch, pretending to be German (No one with any sense or connections hit Afghanistan under their own name.)
Clint liked Afghanistan, it was easy to do business there. And he had excellent connections from smuggling out Afghan antiquities before the Taliban could destroy them.
(Sadly it wasn’t a well-paid job. He was supposed to be paid with a cut of the antiquities but watching the museum director come close to tears as he tried to decide which objects he could give up, Clint had decided he’d cope without being paid.
He made up the loss to his soulmate rescuing fund with a one-man drugs war down in Mexico. Turns out if you can get two sides paying two different aliases to take out the opposition tit for tat then you can make a largish fortune. Clint even got paid for a hit on himself, double money too because of the danger he presented.)
In Afghanistan a Colonel Rhodes was already storming through the place like an angry tornado but nobody was going to tell him anything. That was the disadvantage of being part of a big group, information leaked like a rusty sieve and no one wanted to be identified as helping the Americans. It was another reason Clint wouldn’t have chosen Rathbone for the extraction, if they were actually going to be doing any extracting.
He didn’t have that problem though and Clint slipped around easily, sipped tea, played backgammon, and talked himself hoarse. Things moved slowly but Clint was persistent and knew eventually, inshallah, he’d find someone, who knew someone, who knew someone. A long week later and he was able to start the – sell me the information I need or I will break all your fingers slowly – portion of the trip.
That passed smoothly (it was one of the things Clint liked about Afghanistan, everyone always picked the money) and three days after that he’d found a guide willing to take him to the Ten Rings hideout for the twenty thousand dollars he needed to escape Afghanistan with his male soulmate. (Two male soulmates were pretty much screwed out there lately. They used to settle down with their wives in a shared house, now getting lynched was one of the better options. Clint told them not to bother with the people smugglers and gave the name of a guy who’d get them to Madripoor, and a girl there who’d do them a decent set of papers.)
The hideout was a good one but secrets in Afghanistan only existed when it came to outsiders. His guide was a guy who helped haul in the supplies the Ten Rings needed, and belonged to a family who’d lived there since Alexander the Great came roaring through like an out of control Panzer division.
Which meant his guide knew about the back entrance to cave system. It was mostly for ventilation and also because nobody builds a hideout without a backdoor, unless they’re stupid. And Afghans were not stupid, no matter how hard the current idiots in the cave system tried to drag down the national IQ.
Since it had been built by sneaky Afghans, the backdoor was well hidden from the main entrance. Clint and his guide levered away the stone guarding the passage way through the rock and then collapsed panting onto the dusty ground.
Clint squinted at the skinny, rough-hewn tunnel and snorted,
“Couldn’t you guys build it any bigger?” He was going to scrape all his skin off his hands wriggling through there. He pulled his shooting gloves out his pack for a little protection.
Atash laughed at him, “It is a good job you’re so short.”
“I am not short. I’m just the right size.” Clint eyed the tunnel again, “I’m possibly a bit too tall.”
“Here,” Atash produced a battered, bright purple cycle helmet with all the flair of a magician.
“Where did that come from?”
“Somebody has to save your thick skull. It was my Uncle’s idea. It would be a waste if you banged your head and fell down dead.”
“And I’ll foul up the ventilation.”
“That would not be a problem. The cave system is not so popular these days.”
“Guess not.” It couldn’t be much fun having terrorists camped out on your doorstep.
Clint pulled himself to his feet, grabbing the helmet and strapping it on no matter how ridiculous he knew he’d look,
“You better clear off.” He smacked his hand against Atash’s shoulder in goodbye. “It’ll be at least a day before I make my move. You should have plenty of time to get clear.”
“You do not need help?”
“Nah, a quick in and out job. Your noisy feet would give us away.”
Atash didn’t laugh, “You are sure? I can wait here?”
“No.” Clint shook his head for emphasis. He wasn’t dragging the poor guy into this mess. They were in striking distance of two US Army encampments and Colonel Rhodes was still making a nuisance of himself. Once they were out, help wouldn’t be hard to come by. “We’ll be fine.”
“Very well. Taj and I will be leaving as soon as I return, but I will tell my cousins to watch out for you.”
“Nice working with you.”
Atash nodded once and walked away, slowly fading into the desert. Clint took a deep breath and started on the tunnel.
It took him an hour to wriggle his way through, and clearly his first priority was working out how mobile Stark was. Carrying him out through the tunnel would be a nightmare if he was badly injured. And if… well Clint knew you didn’t have to be physically injured to lose the will to move. He might have to change the plan and carry him out the front door.
The tunnel had emptied him out into a series small, low rooms that were designed for storage at the back of the cave complex. The Ten Rings were stationed at the front in the driest, highest-ceilinged, best-ventilated, part. Clint hung out in the damp cold shadows and watched carefully before he made his move.
They made it ridiculously easy for him by sticking together in a little coffee klatch right near the main entrance, leaving Stark to bang and clang down in a basement workshop. Clint didn’t blame them really; he could practically feel his lungs clogging up from the thick musty air and returned as often as he could the tunnel and the faint gasp of a breeze.
There was one guy who was constantly with Stark, but it was quickly obvious that he was a prisoner too. Clint refigured his plans, one or two rescuees didn’t make much odds with both of them sounding mobile.
He waited until he had the rhythm of the camp, then snuck into the prisoners’ quarters as the guards settled down to their late-evening meal. He cut the power cable to the workshop jail as an easy way to deal with any cameras they had up, forced the lock on the door, and aimed his torch into the gloom.
In the harsh white beam of light, Stark looked dreadful, worn down to nothing but skin and bone. They hadn’t beaten him the spirit out of him though, it still burned fierce and bright.
Clint grinned tightly. This was one he was going to win. He shifted so he was visible in the half-light of the corridor.
Stark’s dark eyes widened when they caught sight of him and his mouth opened. Clint pressed a finger to his lips. He didn’t want to risk a too loud exclamation reaching the Ten Rings. He was sure Stark could be plenty loud without even trying.
Tugging his jacket aside he showed off his AC/DC t-shirt and grinned when Stark’s eyes all but popped.
Jabbing his hand towards the corridor, he started to retreat. Stark’s face narrowed and he grabbed his fellow prisoner’s arm defiantly. Clint nodded his head impatiently – yes, yes, they were rescuing everybody, now could they get a move on, please.
The two prisoners exchanged glances. Not-Stark slowly nodded in solemn agreement and finally Stark started moving forward, drawing Not-Stark with him. Clint shut the workshop door neatly behind them on the off-chance it would buy some more time.
He hustled them along the corridors, trying to keep forward, and guard their backs at the same time. It didn’t help that Stark kept glancing around like a spooked cat and Not-Stark was heavy with suspicion. This would be a lot easier if there was only one of them, Clint could knock him out and carry him if nothing else.
He was just starting to believe they’d make it without incident when a guard came out of a crossway practically on top of them. Clint’s knife was out and had slashed his throat open before he had chance to do more than gurgle as he choked to death on his own blood.
Knife in hand, Clint span around searching for another enemy. The tunnel was empty as far as he could see but further on he could hear the shuffle of more people. Turning back to his rescuees he found Not-Stark standing stock still staring at the dead guard with a creepy little smile on his face. That wasn’t the worst reaction Clint had seen, so he skipped on to Stark, who had tried to catch the body was now grappling wildly with the floppy mess like it was a large wriggly fish.
Clint grabbed the body’s shirt collar and hauled it up to try and stabilize them. The tramp of approaching feet grew louder.
Stark cast a desperate glance in the direction of the oncoming guards, “Oh shit,” he gasped, bloody and wild-eyed, “you gotta help me hide the body.”
Part of Clint wanted to do what he would normally have done, look around the barren tunnel, raise his eyebrow and ask - where exactly? but the rest of him was stuck staring at Stark in stunned amazement.
“Oh fuck,” he whispered, “it can’t possibly be you.”
Then Stark was staring back at him like they’d both lost their minds. Stark blinked slowly and when he spoke it was almost cool and reflective, but there was a wobble in his voice that gave him away,
“You know that always sounded way more derogatory when I imagined it.”
And then Clint imagined what it must have been like to go through life with Words like that. Why was he such an idiot? Couldn’t he have thought of something better to say instead of leaving his soulmate feeling disparaged and unwanted.
Not-Stark’s attention was flicking rapidly between, “You are soulmates?” he demanded.
“It sure looks that way,” said Stark.
Clint just blinked stupidly unable to even process that his soulmate wasn’t a hired killer like he’d expected but Tony Stark, who crackled and fizzed with brilliance. There must have been a mistake somewhere. And what the hell must Stark be thinking with someone like Clint as a soulmate, who couldn’t even find anything nice to say. At least Clint had been expecting a hired killer. Then he realized that the dead body he’d spent years worrying about wasn’t killed by his soulmate but by Clint himself. A giggle popped and burst behind his nose.
Not-Stark smiled. It was not a nice smile and Clint’s hackles rose in automatic caution. He grabbed Stark, shifting him so Clint was safely between the two men, and hoisted the dead man up over his shoulders,
“Come on, we can stash him in one of the small caves.”
Not-Stark stepped closer, smile sharpening, “You are aware they have treated him very badly.”
Clint had sorted of noticed that, thank you all the same, and was trying very hard not to indulge himself in some extremely justified homicide.
“We need to get moving,” he encouraged, the oncoming guards were getting ever closer.
“They half-drowned him until his lungs clogged up with pneumonia. Shocked him until I feared for his heart.” Not-Stark kept speaking. Stark was waving his arms and saying, “Hey, hey,” but the world was fading out from around Clint.
“I am surprised he survived long enough for you to find him.”
Clint finally understood the expression a red mist. Everything felt very distant and the only thing that mattered was that his soulmate had nearly died here, lost and alone, before Clint even found him. Completely calm, Clint said,
“I’ll be back in one minute.”
Still calm, he turned around and deliberately hunted down every member of coffee klatch and left every single one of them to die messily. Then he returned to his rescuees.
Not-Stark was still smiling that malicious smile. Stark was speaking an absolute babble of words that Clint finally managed to tune into.
“ – How are even still standing? You are absolutely covered in blood.”
“’S not mine,” said Clint, although some of it was. It wasn’t serious though, or maybe it was. Clint was still so high on adrenaline he couldn’t tell. He had enough left in his tank to get Stark and his companion to safety. That was what mattered.
They might want to speed things up a bit though, so he gave them both little shoves to get them going. There was no reason not to take main entrance anymore and they were soon out in the open staring at the dark starlit sky.
“Alright,” said Clint, then stopped to catch his breath. He was fading faster than he planned. He needed to get this done. “We’re fifty miles from the nearest American guard post, or you could take your chances with a Colonel Rhodes – ”
Stark’s whole face lit up, “Rhodey? Honey Bear is here?”
“Yeah he is,” Clint agreed, enjoying Stark’s delight if nothing else. “Tearing up the country looking for you. Not doing as good a job as me,” because Clint had found Stark after all. “That’s not really his fault though,” he added cos fair was fair, “he’s kind of hampered by the whole US Air force thing.”
“But you found me.”
Clint did his best not to preen too obviously, it helped that his right side was really starting to hurt.
“Did Pepper hire you?”
“Um, not exactly,” Clint’s tongue was getting thick and clumsy. “If Colonel Rhodes is, uh, a friend of yours he’ll probably know more about it.” He felt a bit too dizzy to try and explain it all now. He undid the straps on his backpack, swinging it down to the ground and lurched drunkenly at the shift in weight. He sat down in a hurry.
“Are you alright?” demanded Stark, crouching down in the dirt beside him.
Clint smiled sleepily. “Everything is just fine.” All his words were slurring together. “R-radio’s in the top pocket.” He’d have liked to present the radio to his soulmate but his fingers were all fuzzy. He managed a ham-fisted grab at Stark’s shirt with one flailing hand.
“Under the circumstances I think you can call me Tony.”
“Tony,” Clint sighed happily. “I’m glad I got to find you, Tony.”
And then the dark pressed down harder and Clint folded beneath it.
Tony stared at the crumpled body of his rescuer unable to believe what he was seeing. He finally found his soulmate – although to be accurate his soulmate had found him and seemed pretty stoked about the idea, which Tony had not been expecting – and instead of swinging into his carefully thought out winning-my-soulmate-over plans, because he was Tony fucking Stark and he wasn’t going to be defeated by a shitty first opinion, he was watching his soulmate bleed out into the dirt.
Snapping out of his shock he grabbed the backpack his soulmate had dropped. As promised there was a radio in the top pocket. Stark tech, Tony was pleased to note, as he fired it up. Knowing Rhodey was somewhere about, he flicked automatically to the frequency he was given by his friend so he could contact Rhodey when he was off being all military (when Tony said he was given, strictly speaking he meant he’d hacked the Pentagon one time when he was drunk and lonely at three o’clock in the morning. And each time he called, Rhodey yelled at him for being an unmitigated pest – But Rhodey never changed the frequency, so that was as good as permission really)
“Are you there?” he demanded.
“Please hold,” said an unfamiliar voice. There was a fizz-pop and then over the crackly line Rhodey was demanding,
“Who the hell is this?”
“Who the hell do you think it is?”
“Oh thank god, I knew you could do it.”
Tony sighed with relief at hearing Rhodey’s voice even over the ridiculously bad line,
“And where the hell are you?” he demanded because if he didn’t complain he was going to cry, “I was told you were in Afghanistan but the way this line is playing up you’d think you were at the bottom of ocean.”
“Oh yeah, that has to be you. And I’m going to assume by the grumbling you’re mostly okay?”
That brought Tony to earth with a bump. “Just peachy. Now triangulate my position and get here with a medical crew right the fuck now, or I’m going to burn the world down starting with this dusty hellhole.”
Rhodey started to laugh, “If we’d ever picked ID phrases, those are the ones I’d have picked for you.”
“I am not joking around here.”
“You have injured?”
“Hence the need for medical aid,” Tony snapped, Rhodey wasn’t usually this stupid.
“We’ll be there Tony, don’t worry.”
Why did people always say such stupid shit. Tony tossed the radio aside and switched his glare to Yinsen, “And you, don’t even say anything, you’ve said enough.” He dropped to his knees curling over his soulmate protectively.
“They killed my family.”
“And when my soulmate’s not dying, I’ll probably be really understanding about that, but right now I’m too furious to speak to you.”
He patted down the ragged clothes, wincing over the cold sticky blood soaked into the cloth.
“First thing we’re doing is taking you to my tailors,” he told him. “We’ll have a great time. There will be absolutely no dust or blood or, ick, whatever that was. It will be – oh here we are.”
He’d found a messy gash in his soulmate’s thigh that was still oozing thick hot blood.
“Ohh, not good, not good.” He needed shiny white medical shit, or bandages, or at least a clean handkerchief. He could feel his panic spiraling and took a shuddery breath and tried to be sensible.
“I’m not even sure if I own a handkerchief.” He paused for a second trying to remember, “No, no handkerchiefs. That’s clearly an oversight As soon as I’m back Stateside, I’ll get Pepper onto it.” He hiccupped at the irrelevancy and smacked his face with his hands in disgust,
“Oh my God Tony. Fucking concentrate.”
In the absence of a handkerchief, or any remotely clean material, Tony stripped off his shirt (well, at least he knew where it had been) and wrapped it around the wound and pulled it tight.
His soulmate’s back arched and his mouth opened wide, he didn’t scream though, only made a horrible gurgling sound like water disappearing down a plug hole.
Tony shuddered but he didn’t dare let up the pressure. Instead he twisted the sleeves until he could keep it pinned with one hand, and continue to pat down his soulmate with the other.
“Sorry about all the feeling you up,” he apologized. “I’m usually a lot smoother. Or well not smoother exactly, but I am definitely in favor of more active participation. So, you know, you could get onto that any time now. Please.”
He found several scrapes and cuts but no more unauthorized leakages. His soulmate remained stubbornly silent though, so it didn’t feel like a win. With his free hand he groped for the radio he’d dropped and thumbed it on,
“Rhodey, where the hell are you?”
“On my way.” The connection was another sort of bad, the reassuring bad of a person shouting over a helicopter engine. “You should be able to hear us soon.”
Tony clicked the radio off and listened. For long moments he could hear nothing but the thump of his pulse in his ears, the slosh of blood under his hands and the cold drift of dust. Then, slowly, so slowly he originally thought he was imagining it, he began to hear the thwap-thwap-thwap of the approaching helicopter.
As it grew to a dull roar Yinsen pulled off his shirt and waved it like a flag to draw their attention, and then suddenly the noise was overwhelming, three helicopters had landed and people were swarming towards them.
Tony’d shoved the first two who tried to fuss over him away and tried to punch the third, when Rhodey corralled him.
“Calm down Tony.”
“Stop bothering with me and look after him.”
“Tony, let them make sure the billionaire they’ve been trying to find for the last six weeks doesn’t drop dead on them.”
“I’m fine. If they let him die because they’re hassling me I will ruin every single one of them, and the Air Force too.”
“Tony, you can’t ruin the Air Force.”
“Settle down and let the nice doctors take care of all of you. When we get back you’re going to need to hit the ground running.”
Tony blinked as he thought that one through. His soulmate needed the best medical care, needed not to be in trouble with the Afghan police or the US Military. If Tony passed out now he’d probably wake up to find his soulmate had been slung into an Afghan dungeon to bleed to death.
His soulmate need him to be on top of his game. Tony reluctantly slumped in Rhodey’s grip and didn’t fight when he beckoned over one of the doctors. He did keep one arm pressed against his chest to shield the arc reactor, but the medic was only interested in the basics and as Tony was fine, thank you all the same, he was quickly loaded into a chopper.
It was too loud to talk much but Tony made sure all of them were going to same place before he gave in and let the juddering noise overwhelm him.
When they finally landed in Camp Dry and Dusty Mark 112, Rhodey pulled him to one side.
“Tony, I need to talk to you.”
“I have to make sure he’s okay.”
“Barton is going to be fine, it was just a flesh wound.”
Tony mouthed Barton to himself, then realized what Rhodey had said.
“Flesh wound? He collapsed. I know I haven’t known him long but I don’t think that’s normal behavior for him.”
“If they’d hit anything important he’d already be dead. Tony!” Rhodey grabbed him as his knees gave way. “Shit I knew I was piling too much on you.”
“I’m fine,” Tony insisted through gritted teeth. “You said he was going to be fine?”
“Sure, they’ve pumped him full of plasma, he’ll live to face SHIELD’s interrogators.”
Tony went very still, “SHIELD?”
“Yeah. You know that covert agency your Dad set up. Apparently they’ve been after Barton for a long, long time.”
Tony hadn’t given a lot of thought to his soulmate’s past and wasn’t bothered now except for the fact, yes he knew about SHIELD, and yes they were extremely dangerous, and no they were not getting their hands on his soulmate. Everything else was irrelevant because,
“He rescued me Rhodey.” Tony took a deep breath because he needed some facts to work with. “He said Pepper didn’t hire him though, so who did?”
“That’s the problem. Nobody, and I mean nobody, knows who hired him. SHIELD have been turning over every rock they can find to try and identify the mystery player.”
“Well if they do find him, I’ll have to thank them, because whoever Pepper hired hasn’t done fuck all. Uh. Pepper did hire somebody, right?” Tony hated the sudden uncertainty skittering down his spine.
Rhodey pulled a complicated face, “This is where it gets messy. Stane hired somebody.”
“Oh, well good. Or not good because Obie doesn’t usually employ idiots.”
“The thing is Tony, they did exactly what they were hired to do.”
“Stane hired them to make sure you stayed lost. In fact it’s looking increasingly likely that he hired the Ten Rings to attack you in the first place.”
Tony’s world stalled and plummeted into freefall.
“Tony? Tony, oh goddamit, I knew I should have waited for Pepper.”
“Why are you saying that? How would you know what Obie was doing?”
“I didn’t know. Nobody knew anything except Stark Tech was ending up in the wrong hands but nobody believed SI was straight up selling them the stuff.”
“So what the fuck?” Tony knew it was going to start hurting like hell any minute but it was as if the pain couldn’t touch him until he understood what had happened.
“It was Barton,” Rhodey jerked his thumb towards the field hospital they had hauled his soulmate inside. “He sent Pepper a whole bunch of paper files, actual contracts, surveillance footage, a couple of USB drives. Everything basically. And he called a contact of his. Fortunately for us, the contact was, unknown to him, affiliated to SHIELD. SHIELD was already on red-alert because of your situation, so they sent two of their top operatives around to Pepper’s and found her crying over a video clip of Stane hiring people to make sure you were never found.
“The shit hit the fan in a big way but they didn’t want to make any definitive moves until you were safe. Now we have you, the balloon’s about to go up.”
Tony was still trying to put the concepts together into something that made sense, “What does that even mean?”
“Stane’s going to be arrested immediately, maybe even has been. They’ve had a warrant ready and waiting for days.”
“You can’t arrest Obie.”
“Tony, he tried to have you killed. If I had my way I’d just shoot him and save the cost of a trial.”
Tony had no idea what to do with that. He deliberately switched his focus,
“Alright, so you’ve talked a lot, but I’ve not heard anything that suggests Barton,” his voice shook for just a second as he said his soulmate’s name out loud for the first time, “deserves to be thrown to SHIELD’s interrogators.”
Rhodey sighed heavily, “Look, Barton pulled you out of a bad situation, you’re grateful, I get it. But Tony, this is not a good guy. He rescued you because somebody paid him a shit load of money. He’s a hired killer with blood up to his elbows.”
“Sounds perfect for an arms dealer in blood up to his eyeballs,” snapped Tony and stormed away.
One of the medics moved to come after him but Rhodey waved them off. Tony stalked around the side of the hospital tent so he was marginally out of sight. He badly wanted a drink but there was too much to do and he couldn’t even rely on Rhodey for help. Shivering,
he pulled the fleece he’d somehow put on without noticing more tightly around himself and stared up at the black night sky.
Slowly he pulled himself back together. His soulmate was counting on him. Tony was not going to let him down.
There was a rustle over the sand and a figure loomed out of the darkness.
“Mr Anthony Stark.”
The man spoke with an Afghan accent and Tony had to hide his flinch. He reminded himself firmly that Rhodey and a squad of US soldiers were fifty paces and one loud yell away, and that he needed to get his reactions under control before the press or anybody else picked up on them.
“Yes, I’m Stark.”
“Clint Jan rescued you.”
“No, uh, Barton. Rhodey said his name was Barton.”
“A man may use many names but his friends need only one. You should call him Clint for he has risked much to rescue you.”
Tony blinked and, remembering the Afghan habit of preferring to double up names with a filler (a million years ago Tony had joked, so at heart they’re all good Southern boys, and Pepper had groaned and smacked him over the head with the briefing papers. He missed Pepper) subtracted the Jan and put the names together. Clint Barton. That must be his soulmate’s real name, or as close as to a real name as a hired killer came. It suited him.
“Yes Clint rescued me.” Those were nice words to say, even if even if his soulmate had been paid a lot of money for the job. Besides, as much as Tony would rather he hadn’t, Clint had completely lost it when Yinsen goaded him about Tony’s injuries. That had nothing to do with money.
“Yep, he rescued me,” he repeated for the sheer pleasure of saying the words.
“He is chained to the bed and the Americans say he will be sent to jail and they will ‘throw away the key’.”
That was definitely an accusation.
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” Tony grinned sharply, although he wasn’t quite certain how he was going to manage that.
He had a lot of pull but right now he was squarely in army territory and his position was currently uncertain. Who knew what kind of mess Obie had left SI in, and what sort of money was left. Tony wasn’t worried he’d end up poor, but for real influence you needed a multi in front of billionaire. And Rhodey was clearly half a step from declaring him massively traumatized and having him sedated and possibly committed.
“I’ll think of something,” he insisted, because he would.
“Excellent. Clint Jan is a good man. Too good for American jail.”
Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to know what Clint had done for such support from a random Afghan. The man shook his head and continued,
“Too good to die in the gutter like a dog. He should not have come back to my country, there are many who want him dead. They will be faster than you Americans, you may be sure. We must get Clint Jan away from this place.”
“Uh huh. And how exactly are you going to achieve that? And why do you think I’m going to help you? That’s why you’re here, right, because you need my help?”
“You owe him a debt.”
“And helping you run off with him is going to repay that? How do I know you’re not one of the ones who want him dead and won’t just slit his throat as soon as you’re away?”
“My cousin is a hospital orderly. If my father wanted him dead, he would be dead, and nobody would be the wiser.”
Tony considered that for a moment and decided that was very likely true. You couldn’t really get more vulnerable than unconscious in a hospital bed. He shivered at the thought. Maybe it would be best to throw in with the random Afghan and get his soulmate out of here and figure the rest out later.
“So what’s in it for you?” Tony refused to believe anyone would pull this sort of thing for free, and if the man tried that line Tony was calling bullshit and calling Rhodey.
“Clint Jan always pays his debts.”
“I’m a billionaire, I am excellent at paying debts.”
“We will stick with the one we know.” The man nodded and Tony could tell he wasn’t going to be swayed from his position.
Pressing his clenched fist to his mouth, Tony forced his brain into gear. His eyes flicked rapidly from side to side as he considered the options. He probably could extract his soulmate from the clutches of the US Military and SHIELD but it would noisy, store up problems for later, probably draw more attention than was safe to Clint who clearly operated in the shadows, and worst of all leave Clint trapped and exposed until Tony had won his battles.
He wasn’t sure how much truth the other man was telling him, but there had to be people out there who wanted Clint dead. Hell, as soon as news got out that he was Tony’s soulmate he’d be in danger from that alone – Tony took a second to be thoroughly grateful his soulmate was well able to take care of himself, if he’d been a trust fund baby they’d have both been screwed.
So there wasn’t much choice. Trusting the random Afghan would give them a lot more wiggle room and whatever favor the man was angling for was bound to be cheaper than buying off SHIELD, and it would keep Clint under the radar until he’d had chance to recover.
“So what is it you want me to do?”
“We need a distraction.”
“The soldiers, the Colonel, they all pay attention to you. There are two of them watching you now.”
“Only two? Rhodey’s slacking.”
“So if you were to shout and yell and run away from the medical tent, all eyes will follow you. We will take care of the rest.”
“That’s awfully efficient of you.”
“We have been making preparations since Taj Zazai called us in case they were necessary. A chance like this should not be ignored.”
That actually made Tony feel better. Clint clearly had value, and value would not be cast aside lightly.
“I’m sure I could help you with whatever it is you want.”
The man shook his head, “There is no time. Already the crows are circling. We must move quickly or Clint Jan will be killed before you Americans can carry him away to your jails.”
“Hey, they’re not my jails. And seriously, if he needs help repaying his debts he can call me. He should call me anyway, because he has a month and if he doesn’t show up, I’m going to set off the world’s noisiest man hunt.” There was a lot more Tony wanted to say and he pressed his hand firmly across his mouth before he could babble himself stupid.
“Very well Stark Khan, give us to the count of twenty.” And the man slipped away into the darkness.
Tony counted to twenty slowly wondering if he’d lost his mind. He didn’t want to be doing any of this but his fiercest, strongest impulse was escape, escape and he could think of no other way of getting his soulmate out of there quickly enough. Tony would back himself in an argument against anyone but it would all take too damn long and he was getting breathless just thinking about it. Then, before he could spiral into hopeless panic, he hit twenty and it was time to move.
Never let it be said Howard Stark’s boy did not know how to make a scene. Rhodey was definitely going to have him committed, because he was about to make himself look as crazy as he felt.
One deep breath, then Tony screeched, and howled, and ran; feet skidding on the dusty gravel, heart pounding in his ears, breath whistling in his lungs. They chased him of course but just as the lead soldier was about to catch him the explosions started.
He did sort of lose it then for a bit, kicking and screaming against the restraining hands, before Rhodey got in his face,
“Tony, it’s okay. They’re not going to get you. I won’t let them get you.”
Eventually the all-consuming terror released its grip and he was able to take slow sobbing breaths and sit up.
“There, that’s good,” Rhodey soothed. “That’s the ticket.”
“Oh God, what was that?”
“Insurgents. I don’t think they were after you though.” Rhodey tapped his earpiece and his eyes dropped as he listened intently.
Tony just watched him, feeling weak and shaky. Without conscious thought he rubbed his wrist against his hip where his Words spiraled in a neat circle that made a target. Tony wanted his soulmate. It was ridiculous really, the guy had been conscious in his company for maybe ten minutes, there was no way he could miss him. His arms couldn’t be lonely to hold him. With a sigh, Tony pulled his knees up to his chest and looped his arms around them.
His friend waved him away and stood up to rattle out a string of orders. Normally Tony would have teased him about coming over all military, but right now he felt too exhausted to do more than blink tiredly.
Finally Rhodey turned back to him, “Come on Tony,” he offered him a hand up.
“They grabbed Barton. Coulson is going to shit a brick.”
This turned out to be correct. The soldiers, having not yet found the mess Clint made of the Ten Rings hideout, had not unreasonably assumed that the attack was an attempt to recapture Tony and concentrated their efforts on protecting him and securing the area which gave persons unknown the chance to grab Clint and vanish into the Afghan mountains.
Rhodey yelled a lot, and somehow Pepper became involved too all the way from New York (it was best not under-estimate Pepper) and suddenly Tony was being shipped back to the US almost before he had chance to put on a clean shirt.
He did manage to grab a shower and change at the base Rhodey had him evac'ed to by helicopter. His hair was still damp when his specially chartered transport plane flopped into land. As the refuelers swung into action, a man in a cheap suit clutching a briefcase hurried out the plane. This turned out to be Coulson.
Coulson was, well if it had been anybody else Tony would say they were mildly peeved, but he had feeling if Coulson was projecting mildly peeved then he was actually spitting feathers.
Coulson had a lot to say to Rhodey about the lost opportunity that was Barton’s escape, as if Clint was a fancy sort of gun he’d been looking forward to trying out. Tony deliberately stopped listening and wandered away from them before he gave into the impulse to throw a punch. He had enough sanity left to know the rage crawling under his skin was mostly nothing to do with Coulson but that didn’t mean he got to talk shit about Tony’s soulmate.
Finally, thankfully, they were in plane and in the air. Tony passed out somewhere over the Caspian Sea and didn’t wake up again until Rhodey nudged him.
“Hey Tony, we’re about half an hour out from McGuire. You ready to get your game face on?”
Tony cursed loudly and sat up. “Can we circle the block a couple of times?” he asked just to be a smart-ass.
“Sure thing, buddy,” Rhodey patted his shoulder and started to move towards the flight deck.
“Wait, what, am I dying and nobody told me? You never agree first time to abusing military resources.”
Rhodey sighed and collapsed back in his seat. “I don’t understand how you can still drive me nuts while you look like somebody ran you through a mangle. I kind of want to smack you and wrap you in blankets at the same time. It’s like when you got your first hangover turned up to eleven.”
“Oh fuck you, that was not my first hangover.”
Rhodey smirked, “Rhodey, my feet don’t like me anymore,” he whined in a bad imitation of Tony, “Rhodey my hands don’t work and my head has fallen off. Rho-o-dey.”
“Oh shut up, I was not that bad,” Tony complained cheerfully, feeling more like himself and too relaxed by the teasing to seriously object.
Rhodey snorted, “I’ll leave you your illusions. Now are you ready for this?”
“I was born ready.”
“I walked right into that one, didn’t I.”
Tony grinned and licked his finger to chalk one-up against an imaginary board. Rhodey groaned and covered his face with hands.
Operation ‘Convince Everyone I’m Sane’ was off to a great start.
It took more effort than Tony liked, but the whole Operation was pretty much a success. Pepper was waiting for the plane and cried all over him which was sort of nice and horrible at the same time. Then they got down to business.
Everything Rhodey said about Obie turned out to be a complete under-estimate of the truth. Tony had to restructure half his company from the ground up. The only advantage was he managed to quietly shut down most of SI’s weapon development and manufacturing programs at the same time. He’d have preferred to make a spectacle of it but the company could only take so many shocks at one time. Instead he’d give it the eighteen months it would take the Board to notice the lack of new advances for everything to calm down.
Then he’d make the biggest splash he could.
In between everything else he managed to retrieve Yinsen from Afghanistan. His fellow captive had kept his mouth shut about the whole soulmate deal and Tony mostly forgave him for using Clint as a weapon. It was easy enough to get Yinsen into America – he can build megaton bombs, you want him working for them, or working for us – and the man was now a researcher in the Solar Power Development Lab. Tony checked he was settling in okay but other than that they didn’t really talk. There was too much they didn’t want to talk about.
Rhodey had hung around for a while, veering wildly between treating him like bone china that would shatter if he breathed too heavily and a puppy that had just wrecked the best rug. Then the Air Force called with his marching orders and he fucked off again.
Really everything was going as well as it could, except that two weeks after Tony got back, Rhodey turned up on his doorstep at six in the morning.
“What the hell, sweetcheeks. Why are you waking me up at six in the morning? Consciousness at this hour should only be achieved if it’s the morning after the night before.”
“Yeah and if you were in bed then clearly you’re getting soft in your old age,” said Rhodey, obnoxiously cheerful
Tony relaxed, obviously it was a disobedient puppy day, so whatever had brought Rhodey to his door couldn’t be that bad.
“Come on in, I’ll put the coffee on.”
“Brought you that mocha caramel crap you like.” Rhodey pushed the cardboard cup into his hands. Tony bit his lip, okay, it had to be fairly bad if Rhodey brought coffee. He accepted the cup and waved his friend inside.
“So what’s the bad news?” he asked as they walked through to the kitchen.
“It’s not bad per se.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Tony leaned back against the kitchen counter and watched his friend hover in the doorway. “Just spill it.”
“They found Barton.”
Tony’s battered heart just about stopped, “What?”
“Rather they found his body.”
Tony’s hand, already in the process of putting down his coffee, shook violently. The cup missed the counter and coffee splattered across the floor.
“Hell Tony, you look sick as a dog.”
Long ingrained survival instincts kicked in, and without thought Tony took evasive action.
“Uh, bathroom,” he stammered, and ran for sanctuary. He managed to get the door shut and bolted before the shakes hit. Locking his knees to keep himself on his feet, he scrabbled for his belt. He’d checked his Words that morning and they were fine, the same deep ink black they always had been, no sign of a change, no hint of shattering curdled and grey. The same as they were when he checked carefully every morning and evening, and frantically when he thought he felt a twinge or itch, and gratefully when he wanted reassurance that they were there, that there was a reason to fight through the nightmares.
Yanking aside his clothes he found his bare skin and there, stark black and beautiful, were his Words.
“Oh fuck, thank you.” He collapsed back against the wall and slid slowly down to sit on the floor as his legs gave way.
“You can’t be dead, because your Words are still right here,” he cupped them gently and would swear he felt a trace of phantom warmth. “Don’t scare me like that you son of a bitch.”
He traced the Words with one finger. After years of preferring not to read them and only squinting to check they were still safely black, he’d decided that actually he liked his Words. A lot.
Now every time he looked at them he could hear his soulmate’s voice echoing in his ears, full of stunned amazement, and it would send a happy little shiver through him.
“Of course,” he groused, “it would be a lot better if you were actually here. Or even just let me know you were okay.”
Because that was a constant gnawing worry. That he’d chosen wrong and slammed his soulmate into a trap he couldn’t escape.
“You’re not dead though.” He stroked the circle of fierce, blocky Words affectionately. “And anything else can be dealt with.”
Clint jerked awake as something jabbed him in the face. His hand moved to stop the repeated movement, his fierce grip automatically gentling as he felt the small pudgy hand beneath his.
The toddler chortled happily at the attention as Clint slowly blinked his eyes open.
“Hey,” said Clint.
“Ba-ba-ba,” said the toddler, and poked Clint in the face with his other hand. Clint dodged to avoid a finger in his eye. He started to push himself upright and felt all his muscles groan in protest. He tried to force past it, shifted his leg, and squawked as pain lanced through him.
“Owww,” he bit back the swears in deference to young ears.
Panting, he dropped back on the bed. Something had gone wrong there. Carefully he ran his hand down his leg, stinging skittering lightly across his skin in its wake, and eventually reached the thick solidity of a bandage. That was peculiarly reassuring. He pressed down lightly, and – oh fuck that hurt – but it was a clean agony, no sense of pressure from a building infection. Also reassuring. But ow.
Blinking away his tears he focused on the little boy, who babbled happily at him and smacked him on the nose.
“You are a pest,” he told him solemnly and smiled at the gap-toothed grin he received in response. Moving with slow care, and feeling far too old, Clint gingerly shifted into a sitting position.
“Where’s your Mama, little man?” he asked, then mentally smacked himself and switched to Pashto.
“Mama,” the little boy repeated, and gurgled happily.
“You’re not a very good source of information, are you?”
The boy patted his hands together and against Clint’s arm in what looked like a complicated version of pat-a-cake. There didn’t seem anything more pressing to do, so Clint settled down to learn how to play Afghan pat-a-cake.
Somehow he had ended up among friends, which was nice if a tad confusing. The little boy’s mother came by and brought him a glass of cool water, blushing and shy beneath her headscarf, but she had no English and Clint’s Pashto was, uh, a little too rough and ready for talking to young wives. (He did okay with old wives though, the tough old ladies who had rougher tongues than he did.)
He had to wait for the young lady’s husband to arrive before he could get an explanation. The US Army he had expected, but SHIELD was bad news all around. He’d thought they’d given up on him. His heart fluttered in his chest to hear his soulmate had helped them extract him. That was pretty incredible, especially with everything Tony had been through and then Clint lousing it up and getting stabbed a couple of times. (He cringed with embarrassment, he’d have like to appear at least semi-competent in front of his soulmate.) Even more incredibly Tony Stark was apparently his soulmate (were the words ever wrong?)
Clint needed to get out of Afghanistan before he drove himself mad thinking about it. He needed to get back to the States where Tony was, and maybe even see Tony.
So he collected himself together, and listened carefully to what his newfound friends wanted in return for their help. He wasn’t surprised to find they wanted his assistance in getting their young people with foreign Words to the countries their soulmates presumably came from. Clint had a bit of a reputation for helping soulmates out. (He just had to think of his soulmate trapped in a hostile territory, needing help… and yeah, Clint was kind of a sucker for soulmate sob stories.)
His best raid to date was thirty-seven people out of North Korea. He felt almost bad for the college party whose identities they borrowed, but hey, they’d gone to see the real North Korea after all, and the US State Department got them out eventually.
Having Words in a foreign language was difficult, had presumably always been difficult, but now having Words that indicated your soulmate came from the West was deadly in far too many countries curdled with jealousy and suspicion.
In general soulmates were viewed as somewhere between a destabilizing force on the established order and a way of gaining access to opportunities you’d never otherwise have a chance at – usually depending on how attached you were to the established order. Strict sects would burn or otherwise scar the Words off their teenagers’ bodies. More cheerful ones simply made sure the two parties met on their wedding day day and ritually spoke their Words to each other before their vows. Which led to some fascinatingly disjointed conversations.
Clint could never make up his mind if it tricked the magic behind soulmates or not. It certainly led to a special legally defined not-crime, in sixteen countries you were legally allowed to kill a man who says your wife’s Words to her. In seven countries you could also kill any boy who says your daughter’s Words. Clint didn’t know in how many countries you were allowed to kill a boy who says your son’s Words because he’d been too depressed to keep counting.
It did encourage him to help out soulmates whenever he could so it was no real hardship to run his clutch of kids out of Afghanistan and into Madripoor. He couldn’t just leave them there though to get sucked into the drug trade, so he fixed them up some papers and flew them into Los Angeles where some of them had family. Unfortunately it turned out the family weren’t doing so good despite what they’d been writing home, so Clint had to break a couple of money-lender’s arms and threaten worse before he could haul them cross country to Miami where there were a couple of cousins who actually were doing okay (although they looked a bit alarmed at the idea of trying to fit so many people into their broken-down apartment).
They found three soulmates along the way which was pretty cool. The couples’ dazed happiness convinced Clint that he had to try and speak to Tony Stark again, even if he ended up telling Clint to take a long walk off a short pier.
Besides Stark Industries had obviously been undergoing a serious power struggle (Clint had his broker invest his soulmate rescuing fund in SI shares when they nose-dived even further than their - Tony Stark’s gone missing - point) and although Tony’s situation appeared to be positive judging by what was being reported, that didn’t mean all that much. Stane had set Tony up to be killed, he could still be in danger. Very likely there was an inconvenient person or two who desperately needed killing. Clint wasn’t good at much but he was a first rate killer. If his soulmate needed people dead, Clint would make it happen.
SHIELD were still hanging around though, so he was going to need to be sneaky. That was okay, Clint could do sneaky when he had to.
Tony wasn’t sure if it was finding his soulmate, or just getting old, but resisting temptation was easier than expected. There hardly seemed any temptation around to be resisted.
He had Natalie Rushman, who was delectable and clearly had more on her mind than a large sexual-harassment settlement (Pepper had a nasty suspicious mind) or a notch on her bed-post which meant he needed to handle with extreme care (Pepper had a very acute nasty suspicious mind).
And now he was at a Manhattan Benefit Ball (Pepper told him he needed to go and publicly demonstrate he wasn’t crazy before his stock price fell any further) being hit on with vigor and determination by a seventeen year old. Tony didn’t have many standards but that was one of them. He wasn’t even getting vibes that suggested she was actually attracted to him. Derek Bishop’s daughter was going to have find some other way to have her teenage rebellion.
Then the girl - what was her name anyway - leaned forward and put her hands on his arm, “Believe me Mr Stark, you’ll want to see who I have to show you.” She winked slyly.
Tony still wasn’t picking up any intent, and the who had caught his interest, so he figured what the hell, he could always scream like a little girl, Natalie was certainly keeping a close enough eye on him.
“Lead on then.” He let her guide him out the room like a lamb to the slaughter. Something was definitely up in the way she skipped along at his side.
“So what is going on, sorry, what was your name again?”
She laughed, “Why Tony Stark, and I’d heard you were charming. My name is Katherine, but since we’re going to be friends, you can call me Kate.”
“Oh, we’re going to be friends?”
“I hope so. Because if not I’m going to end you.”
“Oookay. Usually I’ve actually done something before people threaten me.”
Tony allowed her to direct him through a doorway into what looked like a library and shut the door carefully behind them.
“Alright,” she said, “I got him for you, you can come out now.”
“That doesn’t sound ominous at all,” said Tony, watching carefully as a man appeared from around a bookcase and crossed the floor, head ducked low.
“Thanks Katie-Kate,” said the stranger, and all the hair stood up on the back of Tony’s neck, because he knew that voice. “Be careful now,” the stranger continued, “Natasha’s still out there.”
“I’m always careful.”
“If you say so.” He walked her to the door and gave her a kiss on the forehead in goodbye. Then he shut the door, the quiet click loud in the silence.
Tony stared, eyes fixed on the man, because he looked like, he really did look like Clint Barton. Except before he had been a shadowed, ragged mercenary, and now he was cleaned up in a tux.
Tony licked his lips nervously.
Clint, because it was definitely him Tony could feel the knowledge singing across his skin, Clint ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Hey,” he said softly, not quite meeting Tony’s eye, then, “oh fuck, it can’t possibly be you.”
Tony curled his hand around his thigh. He would swear his Words were burning.
“It really is you,” he said stupidly.
“Fraid so,” Clint’s shoulders hunched sheepishly. “There’s all those guys in tuxes and then there’s me..”
“You’re really here.” Tony leapt forwards to grab two fistfulls of suit jacket before his soulmate could disappear again.
“That’s good, right?”
“Of course it’s good.” The uncertainty hit, “Do you not want to be my soulmate?” It was what Tony had been expecting after all, but he had hoped… He was a pretty good deal all in all, he thought. But he knew a lot of people didn’t think so (distressingly that included those who knew him best, Rhodey, Pepper, and he wasn’t even going there with Obie).
Clint rapped his knuckles impatiently against his leg, “What does it matter what I want. You’re the one stuck with me.”
Tony twitched as he tried to process that paradigm shift. His soulmate thought Tony might not want him. How did that even work?
Then Tony realized this was his soulmate, who presumably had the same unwanted stack of teetering baggage that Tony was only too familiar with. This was awful. Tony was mostly okay with nagging feeling of inadequacy but the idea that his soulmate knew the same howling misery was intolerable.
“You are exactly who I want,” said Tony firmly.
“You know precisely zero about me.”
“I know you rescued me.” He didn’t care about the mysterious player SHIELD were still trying to trace who had hired his savior. All Tony cared about was that his soulmate had saved him.
Shifting his hands to grab Clint’s shoulders, he surged up against him, mashing their mouths together. Tony did some of his best persuading via sex. There was a momentary stall and then his soulmate got with the program, hauling Tony against him and softening his mouth so the frantic clash of teeth smoothed into something like a kiss.
The clunk of the door opening had Tony peering over his soulmate’s (his soulmate!) shoulder and glaring fire at his assistant.
“Natalie, get the hell out of here.”
“Just checking you won’t be arrested for statutory rape, Mr Stark. He looks well able to take care of himself.”
Clint had stiffened up into an unhappy poker. Tony growled, “Out.”
With a soft delicate laugh Natalie finally left.
“What the hell?” demanded Clint, pushing Tony away from him and fending him off when he tried to kiss him again. Turning sharply on his heel he marched to the door, made sure it was shut, and then shoved a chair in front of it.
“Mmmm,” Tony whined as he tried to shift gears from kissing to whatever crisis had put a halt to the kissing.
“Why is Natasha here, sounding like that?”
Tony blinked. Suddenly the mercenary was back. Clint looked dangerous. The suit which had fit so well before suddenly looked too tight to constrain the thick muscle of his arms and shoulders. Tony maybe swooned a bit.
“Who’s Natasha?” he asked, trying to make himself care about whoever she was. She was obviously important to his soulmate, and Tony would be totally supportive of that – if she wasn’t currently cock-blocking him.
“Natasha, Natalie, whatever the hell she’s calling herself these days. Why is she pretending to work for you?”
“You mean my Natalie, Natalie Rushman? She does work for me.”
“No, Natasha works only for herself. Damn, I sent her to Miss Potts thinking she’d help her, not run a game on her.”
“No, you sent a couple of SHIELD agents to Pepper. Wait Rhodey said you didn’t know they were SHIELD.”
Tony’s heart broke because Clint looked absolutely stricken.
“I have got to get out of here.”
“No.” Tony lurched across the room and grabbed on tight before Clint could pull any Ninja spy moves and vanish in front of him. “No, you are not going anywhere without me.”
“No. N. O. No. I have more money than God and SHIELD owes me favors like you wouldn’t believe, and they want more of them. They are not taking you from me.”
“I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”
“You disappearing would cause me trouble. I get the impression you’d be hard as hell to find.”
“Impossible,” said Clint with a weak smile.
Tony grinned back, “I don’t believe in impossible.”
Clint smiled helplessly at his soulmate. He hadn’t expected to feel so fond. Forget sex for moment (just for the moment though, sex was definitely on the menu) what he really wanted to do was curl himself around Tony and coo at him. Clearly he was losing his mind.
His panic at discovering Natasha was working with SHIELD had receded enough for him to think again and realize he couldn’t just leave because if this soulmate stuff had hit Tony even a tenth as hard as it had hit Clint, Tony would never stop looking for him. And who knew what sort of hornet’s nest he’d stir up, or how badly he’d get stung.
Clint had to stick around long enough to explain how bad an idea he was, and wasn’t that going to suck.
He took a deep breath and ran his hands through his hair,
“Okay, so you’ve met a hook up at a party. What would you do? Hotel room? Quickie in the car? Please say you’d do more than fuck them up against the wall.”
“This only bothers you because of how hard its going to be to sneak off?” Tony sounded like he couldn’t believe his ears.
“Obviously,” snapped Clint. “We need to make this look natural.”
“Alright then.” Tony scratched his chin and Clint could see his eyes flickering as his tricksy brain ran through the options. It was possibly the hottest thing he’d ever seen.
“Okay,” said Tony finally, “I admit fucking up against the wall would be more common but it won’t raise any eyebrows if I call Happy, we sneak out the back, and make a break for my apartment. Pepper will probably show up in the morning to make catty comments but she was the one who wanted me to act normal.”
“Is SHIELD or whoever likely to have a good picture of you?”
His grin disintegrated because Natashen’ka. He shut down the yawning sense of loss and scowled, “Natasha’s working with them and she can describe me down to my dick.”
“Huh,” Tony blinked twice. “Right. Better avoid Pepper then.”
“I’ll leave after we’ve talked.”
Tony grabbed hold of his wrist. He had an achingly strong grip. Must be from all mechanics he did.
“Let’s hold that thought and review after our talk.”
Clint waved his free hand through the air in exasperation. “Let’s just get going.” It didn’t help that he basically wanted to agree with everything Tony said ever.
Getting into Tony’s apartment was a smooth, obviously well-practiced maneuver. The driver barely spared a glance for Clint just rolled his eyes at Tony and said he was glad to see him getting back in the saddle.
Tony warned him about the cameras as they walked through to the elevators.
“I control the camera feed in my apartment, but out here the Security is getatable.”
“You are the best soulmate ever,” Clint breathed into Tony’s neck as he hid his face in Tony’s shoulder.
“Uh thanks. It’s not going to be a problem in the new Tower me and Pep are planning. Guess I better get a move on with that. You’re, uh, not upset at the inconvertible evidence that I have slept with a whole bunch of other people?”
Clint shrugged his shoulders, “Why I would I be. It’s not like I haven’t slept with a whole bunch of other people too. And the best way to get good at something is to practice.”
“Best soulmate ever.”
“Just practical. It’s not like you’re going to run off and sleep with lots of other people now. Are you?” Cold ran down Clint’s back at the thought. His soulmate was his. He wasn’t sure how he’d cope if he wanted to keep seeing other people.
“Of course not. Why would I want anybody else when I have you.”
“Though I do reserve the right to change that if you run off and abandon me.”
Clint flinched. That was only fair, but he absolutely hated the idea. He was still struggling for a response when Tony opened the door to his own apartment. He let go of his protective hold on Clint with a sigh, kicked off his shoes and strolled across the room to what was a pretty swish looking bar.
Clint heeled off his shoes and hovered a few feet from the door feeling nervous and out of place. Who the hell had a bar in their front hall?
Glass chinked as Tony poured himself a drink. “Want one?” he offered.
Clint mutely shook his head then realized Tony couldn’t see the gesture, so he licked his lips and replied, “No, thank you,” so meek and polite he wondered if it was actually him speaking.
With another sigh Tony turned to face him, leaning back against the bar and taking a meditative sip of his drink.
“So,” he said, swirling his drink gently in the glass and watching the play of the liquid, “I don’t need your full history right this second, or ever, although I’m desperately curious - but what I do need is a quick precis of stuff likely to cause problems.”
Clint guessed the meaning of precis from context. He fidgeted in place. “There’s kind of a lot.”
Tony took another sip of his whiskey and thought about his own history. It would be hard to Cliff notes the thing, it shouldn’t surprise him his soulmate had the same problem. They could start with outstanding warrants. Tony had a couple of them himself (never going back to Belize, which was a shame, great country; and nobody paid any attention to the Mongolians anyway).
Or wait, actually what Tony wanted to know right this second was, “How the hell do you know Derek Bishop’s daughter well enough to get her to decoy guys into private rooms for you?”
Clint laughed, “You mean organize an entire damn ball and make sure you come.”
“Now I’m even more intrigued.” And possibly disturbed.
“I, ah, helped her out a couple of times, and she likes me to pick her up on my bike in my rattiest leather jacket to freak out her father.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Nah, he’s the most obnoxious stuffed shirt I’ve ever met. He should be freaked out on a regular basis.”
“And you’re not worried about being had up for statutory rape.”
“No he’d never do that. He hates my guts but I’m not going to marry her, so he doesn’t much care.”
“Isn’t that the wrong way round? Don’t fathers want men who are going to marry their little princesses.”
“Not Bishop. Poor Katie-Kate is going to marry a well-connected jerkwad and as long as I don’t disrupt that he’ll put up with me over Kate eloping with someone who doesn’t meet his standards for dickishness.”
“And you’re not actually sleeping with her?”
Clint looked reassuringly horrified, “Katie-Kate? Never. She’s a baby. Anyone tries anything, they lose their kneecaps.”
The solid promise of violence abruptly reminded Tony that his soulmate was in fact a dangerous man. He didn’t disapprove. After all if someone messed with Pepper, Tony would make sure they regretted it for a long, long time.
“She has any trouble speak to me. Being a billionaire gives you a whole lot of leverage, sometimes even more than being able to stick arrows through kneecaps, because rich people can be very, very stupid.”
“You’d do that for Katie?”
“Sure.” She seemed appropriately sneaky and devious, and she was important to Clint, he had no trouble adding her to his list of VIPs.
Clint’s face lit up with the most beautiful beamng smile, it was almost blinding, Tony had to grab hold of the bar top in order to stop himself staggering under the force of it.
“Thank you.” Crossing the room Clint gifted Tony with a quick, tight hug.
Tony forced himself to take a couple of shaky breaths. He didn’t care what it took he was going to find a way to give his soulmate the world.
“So,” he said when he had regained control of himself, “exactly how many people want to kill you?”
His soulmate ducked his head, looking equal parts shifty and sheepish. Tony wanted to squish him.
“Not that many people want to actually kill me. There’s a price on my head in Myanmar; the Telligrano cartel want me dead as messily as possible; Iraq, all four sides want me dead along with the US army, though that one wasn’t really my fault; technically North Korea, though they never got my prints, and I think the sentence was jail for the rest of my life, which would probably be very short - I’m not sure if that counts as wanting to kill me or not; oh and - ”
“Stop, stop, stop,” Tony waved both arms in negation, utterly appalled. “This is clearly a long term project. I’ll get my lawyers on it later. For now let’s regroup and focus on people who will cause problems if they catch your picture in the press in connection with me. How many people know you're you?”
Clint wrinkled his nose. Tony wondered despairingly if he had any expressions that weren’t endearing.
“There’s quite a few in the business,” Clint explained, “but they’ll just think I’m running a game on you, even if we go public on the soulmate gig. They definitely won’t want to piss me off for no reason.”
He nodded, he knew a lot of people in his business like that, nice to know his soulmate was equally dangerous in his own sphere.
Clint laughed and shook his head, “I don’t know how you got me talking like I’m going to stay. I can’t no matter how much I want to, it’s too dangerous for you.”
Tony preened a little on the inside (and probably on the outside too, what, smug was a good look on him) at this confirmation his soulmate wanted to stay with him,
“I’m dangerous myself. I’m already in danger. We met, if you remember, because somebody kidnapped me. With you around I’ll probably be safer.”
“Huh,” his soulmate considered that and started to look a little happier.. “I could review your security? Because I have to tell you it’s pretty crappy. Which meant I could dig up all that dirt on Stane so that was good, but on the other hand, not so good.”
“Anything you want.”
Tony could see the plotting light in Clint’s eyes, and thought, gotcha. If his soulmate was anything like him, which he sorta was by definition, there was no way he could walk away from a problem he’d started to figure out,
“So anyone legit likely to cause us problems if you start hanging around?”
“My face isn’t known, so if we can make sure no one gets my DNA or prints - “
“That’s what computer hacking is for.”
“- then we should be fine except for SHIELD. They’re a problem because Natasha can ID me.”
“And you’re not going to, I don’t know, fix that problem.”
Clint stared at him for a second, then scowled ferociously, “I’m not going to kill Natasha. Are you crazy?”
“Why not?” Tony sulked. He didn’t really want Natalie dead but at the same time she was very pretty and his soulmate had slept with her - and Tony kinda wanted to claw her eyes out.
“She’s family. You don’t kill family. Which was what that mess in Iraq was all about. Barney.” Clint shook his head sadly.
Tony wondered if that applied to everybody in Clint’s business, decided it probably didn’t and decided he like that, even if it was a bit inconvenient at the moment.
“So SHIELD is the problem?”
“Yeah. And if they make it obvious there’s an issue…” Clint made a circling gesture with one hand, “everyone else will pick up on the weakness and pile in.”
Tony nodded. He had totally got this. This was just like business except the blood in the water was probably slightly less metaphorical,
“Alright. Show of force. We’ll move you in and dare SHIELD to call us on it.”
“I really think they’ll take that dare.”
“You’re underestimating the latitude given to billionaires. You rescued me. You’re my hero.” That came out sounding more earnest than intended. Tony risked a quick glance at Clint. He’d colored right up to his ears but he didn’t say anything.
He moved on. Now that he had a plan, it was time to get to work.
“Give me your jacket,” he demanded. Clint silently handed it over. Tony threw it onto the middle of the floor.
“Hey, Katie paid good money for that.”
“She can’t have, it didn’t fit well enough to be truly bespoke.” He caught the stunned slug look in his soulmate’s eyes. “Oh right. I’m rich. Normal rules do not apply.”
“No, I’m rich. You’re something else.”
“I’m something else alright.” Tony stripped off his shirt and tossed it at the light fitting. It missed.
Clint bent down, scooped it up into a ball, threw it at the light fitting with unerring accuracy and it hung there in silent testament to debauchery they hadn’t quite got around to yet. Then Clint decided to get into the spirit of things, and they mingled socks and ties around the room and up the stairs with gleeful enjoyment. He followed Tony into his bedroom and they tore through that too, scattering around undershirts, pants and boxers with reckless abandon,
“Jesus,” said Tony when he looked at the mess they’d made, “I haven’t had such athletic sex since my twenties.”
“There’s still time. I’m very bendy,” Clint informed him solemnly.
Tony’s eyes crossed, “Don’t say stuff like that or I won't be able to keep up this gentleman impression.”
“I don’t need gentlemanly shit.”
“I think maybe you do.” In truth Tony was looking forward to trying out some gentlemanly shit. He’d never had the opportunity before. He guessed that was more helpful soulmate stuff.
“Can we still sleep together? Sleep-sleep,” Clint asked plaintively.
“God yes, I don’t trust you not to disappear if I don’t keep hold of you.”
So they curled up together in the trashed bed. Tony wrapped himself tightly around his soulmate and tucked his face down against the crook of his neck. He didn’t know if it was more soulmate voodoo, or if Clint just smelled really, really good but he could feel himself relaxing right down to his bones as all the knots since Afghanistan unwound and he fell asleep with a smile on his face.
He woke up alone.
Tony closed his eyes and thought about just not getting up that day. But he had a face and a name and a soulmate to track down. So, promising himself a large coffee just as soon as possible, he staggered out of bed and into the bathroom.
And then he smiled.
There on mirror, written in toothpaste, was a smiley face and the words see you soon.
Buzzing with energy Tony charged through his morning routine before rushing down to his workshop - he had plans to finalize.
Happily enmeshed in his wires and welding, he winced when he heard the ticky-tack of Pepper’s heels on the stairs. Privately he was convinced the only reason Pepper wore sharply-spiked stilettos was because of the cringingly irritating nails on chalkboard effect.
So Tony ignored her.
Pepper coughed her - why are you ignoring me - cough.
Hopeful, Tony waited a few moments longer but she didn’t go away. He patted one final wire into place and looked up,
“Pepper, light of my life.”
Pepper rolled her eyes at him, “I’m pleased to see you so cheerful. He must have done you good.” She snickered to herself over the obviously intentional double entendre.
Tony did his best to swallow down his scowl. This was his soulmate. He didn’t want Pepper smirking at him like she did Tony’s other dates.
“So what requires such urgent attention you have to drag me away from my being a genius?” he demanded.
“The stock price.”
Tony groaned out loud, “I don’t care about the stock price.”
“It’s going up.”
“Huh,” Tony looked at her sharply. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Usually you here complaining that it’s going down. If you’re going to complain whether it goes up or down, I – ”
“Tony,” she snapped, cutting him off, “It’s bad because people are talking takeovers. You’d probably already be in trouble if it wasn’t for the fact your biggest stock holder’s representative has a massive crush on you -”
“No, no, wait. Are you talking about Jessica Drew with the CFB Hedge Fund? She hates me. She looks like she wants to stab herself in the head every time she agrees with me.”
“She always votes with you, even when you’re being an idiot.”
“Well yeah, but it’s not cos she likes me.” Tony actually found that reassuring. People stopped liking him all the time and it was wearing on the nerves waiting for it to finally happen. People who hated him, on the other hand, were easy.
He shrugged his shoulders, “And let them talk takeovers. It means the stock price will go up, which you’ve been assuring me is a good thing for years. Miss Potts, have you been telling me fibs? Nothing’s going to come of it because I retain a controlling interest.”
“Tony, you don’t have a controlling interest.”
“O- Stane split the stock down twice to raise capital but you never increased your holdings. There’s more stock in the market than you control.”
“How did that happen?”
Pepper lifted her hands helplessly. Tony shook his head sharply,
“Don’t answer that.” He already knew how it happened Obie had, no, no damnit the man’s name was Stane, Stane had told him something convincing and Tony had gone along with because Obie knew best. “What happened to Obie - Stane’s holdings.”
“Didn’t have any.”
“That’s ridiculous. He’s been raking in stock bonuses every year.”
“Still didn’t have any. The investigating team has been very through. Phil thought it was unusual too.”
A slight flush rose on Pepper’s cheeks, “Agent Coulson.”
“Oh, Ph-hil,” Tony grinned obnoxiously. He wasn’t quite sure how he felt about it, so he filed possibility of Pepper and Agent Coulson away to analyze later.
“Anyway, Stane had no stock, so we presume he was working with someone else, who does have the stock. Which could be a problem. And we still don’t know who hired Barton to pull you out of Afghanistan.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Tony demanded, snappy and snarly in defense of his soulmate.
“I want you.” Pepper reached out and plucked the pillars he was still holding from his hands, “to put on a suit and go be visible.”
“Be visible? Usually you’re telling me to keep myself out of the papers.”
“Be visible,” said Pepper firmly, then quickly temporized it with, “Be visible doing something respectable.”
“But P-e-p,” Tony whined, “I don’t know how to be respectable.”
“Well try. Go eat lunch somewhere.”
“Remember, respectable. We’re trying to encourage other people to buy stock. So for heaven’s sake, change into a suit first, and while you’re at it, pick up after last night. It looks like an orgy took place, and we do not need the cleaning staff telling tales.”
“I had a great time, thank you,” said Tony, inwardly hugging himself over the knowledge that he had his soulmate.
Pepper stopped and looked at him, “You do seem to have,” she studied him for a second, and Tony tried to look as smugly pleased as he would normally. Eventually Pepper shook her head, “Anyway, I’m glad you’re feeling better. Now change, because those clothes are about to disintegrate around you.”
Tony tugged what even he had to admit was a decrepit hoodie, but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t his fault Clint had run off with his favorite hoodie and sweats. And the idea of Clint sneaking off in his clothes made Tony want to puff out his chest and beam with pride.
He didn’t want Pepper to see any of that though, because it was too new and precious for other people to dig their fingers into. So he just nodded his head and grumbled,
“Okay, okay, going now.”
“Good,” said Pepper.
She left then and it occurred to Tony that he had got away far too lightly. Pepper had in no way asked as many questions as she normally would. Which meant Tony was going to have to come to some conclusions on the Pepper-Coulson issue sooner rather than later.
Actually he wanted to scrub the entire conversation and all the unfortunate implications and keep working on his project, which was now even more important than ever, but experience had taught him ignoring Pepper’s instructions was a bad plan long-term. Pepper was subtle but vicious.
Reluctantly he straightened his work bench, patted his robots goodbye, and returned to his room. After grabbing one his suits at random, he stopped and rewound. Soon might be today.
Going back, he picked out one of his better suits, then changed his mind because that wouldn’t work with a purple tie and he wanted to wear the one Clint had left behind. So he picked another suit, but that really needed a colored shirt and he was planning on wearing white. So he picked another...
Tony found himself turning in an agitated circle and growled out loud, utterly disgusted with himself. He was never this indecisive, not even for stupidly brave, adorably cute soulmates with really pretty eyes. Firmly he put on the suit he was currently holding, along with a random white shirt. He still couldn’t resist the purple tie though. Rescuing it from where it dangled from the top of book case, he tied it smartly in place.
Then he walked himself quickly out the room before he could decide the grey suit would have been the better option after all.
It took Clint more will power to wrench himself away from his soulmate than that time he had to crawl three blocks with a broken leg. He was determined though because he was not going to take advantage of his soulmate. Now that he’d explained to his soulmate how much he did not need Clint messing up his life, he wanted to give the man a chance to reconsider. It seemed wrong to allow the soulmate effect to swamp Tony’s ability to choose.
Also Clint wanted to track down a couple of contacts, and try to calculate exactly how dangerous settling down in New York would be. It would have been too much like tempting fate to ask before, but now it seemed that his soulmate might want him to stick around.
As it turned out he didn’t even have to try and be subtle (which was probably just as well). The underground was buzzing with news of Tony Stark.
It wasn’t good news.
When Pepper had instructed him to go to lunch, Tony knew she had intended he invite one of the available ladies in his rolodex to join him. However Tony didn’t feel so inclined. He was respectably soul-mated, he didn’t need to be making nice with other people.
Instead, he called Natalie. As she was the person Clint was most concerned about, it would make sense to feel her out and see if he could woo her away from SHIELD. Natalie was, unsurprisingly, free for lunch.
Tony called Happy and they went to pick her up in the Bentley.
He’d always believed there was more to Natalie Rushman than a pretty face and willingness to trade on it - she got on too well with Pepper for there not to be - but hadn’t suspected she was a SHIELD agent.
Now he wondered how he could have missed the carefully calculated movements and the controlled way she surveyed the room. He’d seen all the same quirks in the army guys he’d met while they were on duty. He wondered if Natalie partied as hard as they did, remembered she was Russian, and figured it would be better not to enquire too closely. All the Russians he knew could knock back scary amounts of vodka.
Natalie was smiling at him all dark lashes and lush lips - that was familiar too. Instead of being able to enjoy the effect, Tony had to struggle not to shudder from the full-on roaring jealousy at the knowledge this woman had caught the attention of his soulmate.
He managed a weak smile.
“Mr Stark?” Natalie leaned forward to press her hand over his, all fluttering concern. At the same time her eyes were scanning the room. Tony really was an idiot.
“Ignore me,” he said, “I’m out of sorts since Pepper dragged me out of my lab because of these ridiculous takeover rumors.”
“They are actually very concerning,” Natalie snapped back into work mode. “Stark Industries would be a prime target for hostile powers.”
And that was obviously why SHIELD was interested.
Natalie poked the knife she was holding at the table - she had ordered the steak, which would have been another clue something was up, because women never did that - “I just wish I understood...”
She trailed off.
“What?” said Tony, “You’ve got me all curious now. Ask me. I’m great at explaining stuff.”
“No, you wouldn’t k-,” her eyes sharpened and focused. She wasn’t staring at him, but at his chest. “Or maybe you would.”
“That sounds ever so slightly ominous.”
In the car he had tried to sound her out in order to discover if she was amenable to leaving SHIELD. He refused to believe Fury paid his people in black better than Tony paid his people. His pension plan was probably better too, not to mention the chances of actually living long enough to draw it. But all he’d got out of her was the standard corporate speak designed to be bland and reveal nothing.
He’d been impressed, it was wearing to keep that up, and Natalie managed it while smiling sweetly. She should go into politics.
She was smiling now, but there was nothing sweet in it, “Tell me, when did you know Barton was back in New York?”
“Clint isn’t in New York,” Tony denied without thought, only wanting to protect.
Natalie grinned like a shark scenting blood, “I see you’re not surprised at him being alive.”
Oh. She was evilly devious. No wonder she got on with Pepper. “He’s a sneaky ninja,” Tony blustered, “of course I’m not surprised he’s alive.”
Natalie didn’t look convinced by his stuttering’s. “I am. Surprised that is. Visiting Afghanistan for him was only slightly less stupid than visiting Iraq.”
“I thought everybody wanted to kill him in Iraq,” Tony asked, giving up on pretending he didn’t know what she was getting at when it was obvious Natalie wasn’t going to believe him whatever he said.
“Pretty much. Afghanistan? I think they mostly wanted to chop bits off him and listen to him scream.”
Tony wobbled in his seat.
“Why Mr Stark, you’ve gone as white as a sheet.”
She was enjoying taunting him, Tony gritted his teeth, “You have anything to say worth hearing, Natasha.”
“Damn,” she shook her head, “Coulson’s head is going explode. Please let me be there when he finds out.”
“Exactly,” she nodded her head. “How the hell did you keep that quiet? You’re both - ” she stopped abruptly, shooting to her feet, knife still in her hand.
“What are you doing?” Tony yelped.
The knife flew through the air just to the right of Tony’s head. Spinning around in his seat, Tony saw a large man in a suit collapse as the knife embedded itself in the shoulder.
The man cursed violently, and something fell from his hand, skittering across the floor until hit a wall. Tony flinched as if he’d actually been shot when he realized it was a gun. The man’s friends jumped to their feet. They were also wearing suits, the cheap sort of suits that did nothing to disguise the bulges of guns holstered under their arms.
Natasha had one hand pressed to her ear, “Come in, SHIELD please respond.”
The door crashed open in a shower of glass and a squad of men in tac gear roared inside.
“Widow,” yelled the lead as he directed his team with quick finger jabs.
“Rumlow,” Natasha nodded but was still tapping at her earpiece.
“We’ve come to take Stark into SHIELD protective custody.”
Tony flinched away from the malice in the man’s smile at words protective custody. Rumlow took two quick steps forward and seized his shoulder. Tony could feel each finger and the thumb of his hand as separate points of painful contact as they dug in around the joint.
Squawking with shock, Tony tried to pull away. He knew being shoved around by Security more worried about bullets than bruises - and this wasn’t it.
Rumlow’s smile widened and his grip tightened. Then, abruptly, the smile shattered and Tony staggered as the grip on his shoulder was released. Rumlow’s hands were both clutching at the arrow sticking out of his tac vest.
Tony ducked his head his head in the pathetic hope he would help him dodge any further arrows and was hunting with his eyes for the nearest door when he heard,
Instinctively spinning towards the sound of his name, he realized everyone else, assassin squad, SHIELD team, and even Natasha had all turned their heads towards the new player.
“Tony!” Clint called again.
Tony stared. His soulmate was standing towards the back of restaurant, smiling at him as he drew an arrow from a quiver at his back to notch in his bow.
After the frozen moment of shocked recognition, time resumed normal speed. Suddenly arrows were sprouting from tac vests and suits alike and Tony was running without thought towards his soulmate. The barrage of arrows stopped as Clint reached out to him.
“Go! Go!” Natasha yelled, “Go, I’ll cover you.”
Clint grabbed Tony’s arm with his free hand, pulling him around so Clint was between him and the room.
“Go,” Clint shoved him gently, pausing only to sheathe his bow across his back. “Quick, go through the kitchens.” And then they were running as the room behind them exploded with gunfire.
“What about - ” Tony gasped as Clint pushed him through a crowded kitchen.
“Natasha?” said Clint between a string of ‘sorry’s’ and ‘watch that plate’s’ “She told us to go. You think I’m sticking around for a lecture on misplaced gallantry? She’s twice as dangerous as I am anyway. If we stuck around she probably put a bullet in me to make a point.”
They’d finally reached the back door, and Tony was being hauled back so Clint could go first.
“You’re fine,” shouted a man in cooking whites holding a really big knife. “I sent one of the porters to watch your bike and the CCTV is clear. Now get out of here and stop disrupting my kitchen.”
“Yes Chef,” shouted Clint as they vanished out the door.
There was a porter watching the bike. His eyes went very big when he saw Tony,
“Mr Stark! Can I get your autograph? Please sir.”
Tony was panting too hard to say anything, which was probably just as well because it wouldn’t have been polite. Clint, handing Tony a spare pair of sunglasses, said,
“Uh maybe later, kid, I owe your boss a favor anyway.”
Tony climbed on the bike and then Clint swung on behind.
“I am not a kid,” sulked the porter.
“Whatever you say, kid.” Clint leaned around Tony to grab the handlebars, revving the engine. The engine’s growl and the squeal of rubber obliterated the kid’s annoyed shout back as they took off.
“Why are you driving from behind?” Tony shouted to be heard over the wind whipping past them as Clint skidded them around a corner. The awkward driving style had them both off-balance.
“You’re too vulnerable to getting shot in the back.”
“And you’re not?”
“I’m wearing body armor.” Clint curled himself around Tony as the bullets started to rattle.
Tony snorted, he wasn’t fooled, Clint was always going to be on the back of the bike, body armor or no.
“I meant why aren’t I driving? I might not be much good in a firefight but I can make a motorbike goddam fly, and I’ve got the tickets to prove it.”
He was prepared for an argument, but Clint just said, “Cool,” and Tony had to shake off his surprise and grab the handle bars before they slammed off the road as Clint dropped them to draw his bow.
With his passenger twisting around to fire his bow, the balance was still slightly off but Tony leant forward and drove as explosions roared behind them.
Finally Clint tapped him on the shoulder, “Okay, we can stop now.”
Tony slowed to a more decorous pace, took another two corners and then let the bike idle to a stop in a side street.
“We good?” he asked.
“For now, we need to go to ground and figure out who’s trying to grab you so I can go shoot them very dead.”
Tony nodded his head. He preferred non-violent methods but he had no objections to violence when required. “Okay good.”
“Great,” Clint beamed and wrapped his arm around Tony’s shoulders.
“What are you so happy about?” grumped Tony.
“Well, one, you clearly need me to stick around and keep you out of trouble - ”
Tony huffed, he wanted Clint to stick around but he didn’t agree that he needed help. He’d have figured something out on his own. But on the other hand, it had been nice having his soulmate backing him up.
“- And two, you riding the hell out of a bike is really, really hot.”
“Oh. Oh okay.” Tony could feel himself blushing. He hadn’t blushed since he was fifteen. It was so embarrassing it made him blush harder.
Clint smacked an extravagant kiss to his red cheek, “C’mon, let’s go back to my hotel.”
Taking a taxi was too big a risk, according to Clint. Tony reluctantly agreed his soulmate probably had more knowledge of this type of situation than he did and agreed to walk. Clint stole a baseball cap and presented it to him so proudly Tony didn’t have the heart to whinge about the indignity of being expected to wear a baseball cap even if it was for a disguise.
When they finally arrived at the hotel, all Tony could do was stare. He’d been expecting some sort of fleapit no-tell motel. This was the Plaza in all its splendor.
“You’re staying here?” he demanded blankly
“What? I’m not going to take my guy somewhere scuzzy. Besides it’s good camouflage. Everyone else is going to be thinking along the same lines as you. I’m booked into another two much crummier places to keep them confused.”
“I’m your guy?” asked Tony, focusing on the important bit of that.
“Sure.” Clint kissed him again, then thrust a folded newspaper in front of his face. “Look down and pretend you’re concentrating on reading that. SHIELD love to scan camera-feeds.”
“So,” said Tony as they ambled casually into the lift. “This fancy room of yours got a bed?”
“Yeah, it’s huge. You could fit five people in it.”
“How about two very energetic people?”
“I dunno.” Clint grinned at him waggling his eyebrows. “Have to test it out.”
“I am all over the experimental method.”
“We should get right on that.”
They were kissing as they fell through the door, Clint’s tongue hot and slick against his. Tony was just working his hands under Clint’s shirt when there was a loud cough.
Tony whined as Clint broke away from the kiss and said,
“Fuck’s sake Natasha, couldn’t you have pretended not to find us for an hour or two?”
“I have just been shot at by my own side because of you.”
“And I promise, I’ll be really, really appreciative - in an hour or two.”
“How appreciative?” snapped Tony as he took in with displeasure the sight of Natasha lounging in an armchair, feet up on the coffee table.
Natasha blinked at him and then shook her head, “Not that appreciative Stark, get your mind out of the gutter, if that’s even possible.”
Tony glared, “How’d you get here so fast anyway? We only just got here and Clint knew where he was going.”
“After somebody helpfully drew all the enemy from my location - ”
“Our pleasure,” interjected Clint.
“I worked down a list of hotels and found you at the third one I tried. I knew Clint wasn’t going to take his guy anywhere scuzzy.”
Tony looked from one to the other, “That’s almost exactly what Clint said, almost word for word.”
“Well sure. Clint’s hopelessly romantic. I don’t know how all the profiles miss that little fact. The idiot still uses a bow and arrow for heaven’s sake.”
“There’s nothing wrong with a bow and arrow,” Clint sulked.
“Of course not,” said Tony, “and yours are incredibly sophisticated. I’ve never seen arrows used to blow cars up before. Maybe later I could take a look at them?” he asked as casually as he could given he’d been desperate for a look-see since the first car had gone boom.
“Really,” Clint smiled so widely he was glowing. It made Tony feel a bit dizzy. “I’d love to show off my arrows. I designed them all myself,” he admitted, his cheeks were flushed and his eyes shaded by their long lashes. Tony squeezed his arm, completely enamored by the shy pride.
“You designed them all yourself?” That was seriously impressive. Tony couldn’t wait to get him into a lab. Maybe Clint would want to help him with his project, that was a new but happy thought. “That’s amazing.”
“Maybe you could suggest some improvements?”
Natasha said something in Russian, loudly. It didn’t sound very polite.
“Who rattled your cage?” asked Clint.
“Could you please concentrate on the matter at hand for at least a couple of minutes, Birdbrain. I don’t need to watch you two flirting.”
“We’re not flirting,” said Tony, confused. Clint nodded in agreement.
Natasha stared at the ceiling and said more presumably impolite things in Russian.
“So what is going on?” asked Clint.
“That is what I would like to know Agent Romanov,” said a new voice.
Clint pushed Tony behind him and backed them away from the door. Tony stared as Agent Coulson strolled in.
“So I’m still an Agent then, Coulson,” said Natasha.
“At present. I would like to know why you took down half a Strike team.”
“My orders were to protect Tony Stark. I judged him to be safer with Barton than with a Strike Team that wanted to take him into protective custody. I have experienced SHIELD protective custody.”
“Hmm, yes,” said Coulson.
Clint edged towards Natasha. Tony didn’t object. He wasn’t going to let her be threatened because she’d helped them out.
“Agent Rumlow has been cautioned for his over-enthusiastic approach. Incidentally, thank you for not killing him Barton.”
“Total accident I assure you,” said Clint - although Tony supposed it couldn’t be.
Coulson looked either amused or dyspeptic, it was hard to tell, and continued,
“However, I would like to know why you felt Barton to be an appropriate individual to take charge of Stark’s security..”
Natasha shrugged her shoulders elegantly. “Barton’s a sap, sir.”
“Hey!” Clint protested.
“You are, little bird. You’re a sap. You’ve never done a honey trap job in your life.”
“I have so.”
“Clint you sweet-talked a nurse into treating you without notifying the cops, and you sent him roses as a thank you. That does not count as a honey trap.”
“Umph.” Clint folded his arms sulkily.
“So if you’re in a relationship with Stark, it’s not because you’re setting him up.”
“Relationship?” snapped Coulson.
“Yes,” Natasha did a casual little yawn and stretch. “Why else would Clint have retrieved him from Afghanistan?”
“What!” Coulson’s head didn’t actually explode but he blinked three times in quick succession, his gaze switching from Clint to Tony and back again.
“Damn,” said Natasha, “I think you two have broken Coulson’s programming.
Coulson blinked back into himself, “Romanov,” he sighed.
“Hey, I could have taken pictures.”
“You could also be assigned to the Antarctic monitoring station.”
“I didn’t say I’d taken pictures.”
“So explain why you didn’t mention Stark was in a relationship with Barton.”
“I didn’t know, not until today when I figured out who Stark’s pickup at the party was and then Stark confirmed it.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Tony hastily whispered to Clint.
“Oh hush, it’s Natasha, she’s the best interrogator there is.”
“Thank you, Birdie.”
Coulson looked suspicious. “Barton retrieved Stark because they’re in a relationship?”
Clint gave Tony’s arm a quick squeeze of warning as he said, “Yes. And?”
Tony nodded his head against Clint’s arm, keeping quiet about being soulmates for the moment wasn’t a bad idea. They didn’t need all the fuss about Clint being an obvious con artist right now. They could that song and dance later, when Tony’s project (possibly Tony and Clint’s project) and the new tower were complete. Nobody’d give them any trouble then - not for long anyway.
“There was no mysterious employer who hired you?” asked Coulson, addressing Clint for the first time.
“God no, are you crazy? There isn’t enough money in the world to get me to go back to Afghanistan, which is a shame because it’s a great place.”
Tony smiled into Clint’s back. His soulmate had liked him enough, before he even knew he was his soulmate, to risk his life for him.
“So who is trying to buyout Stark Industries?” demanded Coulson.
Clint growled with grumpy frustration, “I don’t know. I keep on buying more stock, but the rumors just keep getting worse.”
“Wait,” said Natasha. “You’re buying Stark Industries stock?”
“Sure. You know I always buy SI stock. It’s great, buy it low after a Stark scandal and watch it bounce back. Hey,” he turned back to look at Tony. “Can we still have Stark scandals even if you’re with me? Because they’re great for profits.”
“I think you’re going to be the next Stark scandal.”
“Are you seriously suggesting Barton has enough SI stock to spark takeover rumors?” asked Coulson.
“Absolutely,” said Natasha. “He already has representation at the Stockholder’s meeting.”
Tony stared. That couldn’t possibly be true, because he’d remember if he’d seen Clint before, and yet, “Oh my God, you’re behind the CFB Hedge Fund.”
“Yeah, did I not mention that?”
“No. No you did not. How does that even work?”
Natasha sighed, “Clint’s been saving for his soulmate since he was marked.”
“Natasha!” Clint flushed up fiery red.
Seeing his soulmate squirm with discomfort, Tony scowled at Natasha,
“I have a soulmate fund too.”
Sort of anyway, mostly he bought things his soulmate might like. There was a warehouse of stuff that Pepper cleaned out every other year, a safe of jewelry, the boat, two airplanes, a helicopter, half-a-dozen houses, actually maybe nearer a dozen by now, and a couple of islands. He felt a bit foolish now because it was quite obvious Clint had no real interest in any of that.
Clint rubbed his nose sheepishly. “Obviously you do.”
Oh, and Tony had got it. Clint thought that Tony had too much money to appreciate everything he’d carefully saved for him. His soulmate was an idiot.
“You’re an idiot.”
“I know,” said Clint, resigned.
“And now you’re being even more of an idiot. Anybody would be lucky to have you as a soulmate.” Then he reached out and grabbed tight hold of Clint’s arm, because nobody else was going to be that lucky.
Natasha and Coulson both looked vaguely sympathetic for second; the way people always did when dealing with partners who were trying to be committed despite not being soulmates.
Both expressions vanished almost immediately. Natasha’s concern was rapidly replaced by speculation but she stayed silent under Clint’s glare. Coulson just looked uncomfortable at all the messy emotions, he straightened his shoulders,
“I’m still stuck on Barton working for a Hedge Fund. My broker recommended CFB to me as one of the star funds. Are you telling me all that’s based on betting Stark will come good?”
“Tony is a genius,” boasted Clint.
Tony beamed at the recognition.
“I think I need to call my broker,” said Coulson, he turned on Natasha, “How do you know all this?”
Natasha looked put upon, “Barton invests my emergency fund for me,” she admitted.
“Yes but - ” said Coulson, as Tony said,
“Don’t you keep your emergency caches in secret Swiss deposit boxes?”
“You know the thing about Swiss deposit boxes,” said Clint, “they’re impossible to get access to in emergencies on account of having to fly to Switzerland. And let’s not even talk about diamonds. Do you know how hard it is to sell a diamond in the middle of nowhere, hell even in the middle of New York you’re more likely to get arrested?”
“Yep, stock. And you get dividends too, which - ”
“Do not start,” said Natasha, “I do not need the finance lecture again.”
“Bad?” asked Tony.
“You wouldn’t believe how much I signed over just to shut him up.”
“Hey,” said Clint, “this is your financial future we’re talking about here.” He turned to Tony and explained, “I started saving money for a few of us and then I found out how easy it is to move money across borders if you call it a Hedge Fund. A year later and suddenly all sorts of people were signing up and it kinda exploded,” he waved his hands helplessly, face scrunched up in puzzlement.
Tony jabbed him with his elbow. “So you’re the one trying to take over my company.”
Clint shook his head violently,
“I haven’t nearly enough money for that. Although - maybe a leveraged buyout,” there was a disturbingly thoughtful cast to face, then he shook his head again, “Anyway I always buy your stock when it crashes, and, well, I had some liquid funds set aside for a particular emergency,” he stroked his thumb over Tony’s hip where the soulmate mark rested, “but as I didn’t need it anymore, and with the rumors getting worse, it made sense to throw it all into SI stock.”
Abruptly Tony giggled.
“Pepper is going to kill you. She is, if I know her at all, currently organizing half a dozen crisis meetings to head off a takeover that isn’t even coming. She is going to massacre you.”
Coulson whipped out his phone and was - calling Pepper.
“Hey no fair,” Tony whined. How was he going to be able to wind Pepper up if Coulson was just going to let the cat out the bag? He could hear Pepper making lots of aggravated sounds over the phone though, so that was some compensation.
Finally Coulson wound up with, “I will see you later,” he paused and then added, “Malaya.”
Clint and Natasha both sniggered, Coulson very slowly turned a brilliant red.
“What?” Tony whined, “What’d he say?”
Clint squeezed his arm and, when Natasha started to talk to Coulson about pulling SHIELD surveillance from Stark Industries, quickly whispered,
“Coulson’s a World War II buff, right? So think acronyms.”
“Oh, oh. Do I want to know?”
Clint shook his head. Tony raised one eyebrow. Clint grinned at him,
“My Ardent Lips Await Your Arrival.”
Tony scrunched up his face at the idea of saying that unironically, “Okay yeah, that’s pretty bad.”
“Stop whispering you two,” snapped Coulson, he was still a dull shade of red which suggested he had a good idea of what they were whispering about.
“Pay attention,” said Natasha. “There’s probably going to be a test.”
Tony sighed but paying attention for a moment seemed the fastest way to get his visitors to leave since they had quite outstayed their welcome. He put on his best listening face.
“Here is how we will proceed,” said Coulson.
“How you suggest we proceed,” Clint corrected.
Coulson stared at him, “You are clearly going to be more trouble in from the cold than you were out there causing chaos.”
“Thank you,” Clint preened.
“That was not a compliment, Barton.” Coulson turned away from him and started to pace the room, “Now as there is apparently only Barton and not in fact a great conspiracy against Stark’s life and company - although I make no promises for his sanity,”
“Hey,” Tony protested, almost simultaneously with Clint. They stopped and grinned at each other.
Natasha wolf-whistled. Coulson groaned but continued determinedly,
“Since we can stop jumping at shadows and concentrate on heading off the usual threats such as the opportunistic kidnapping attempt today, I see no issue with Stark returning to his apartment immediately.”
“Oh but we have plans,” Tony argued, eyeing the hotel room bed, which was indeed big enough for five, or possibly two if they were very energetic.
“Let me rephrase that,” said Coulson. “Stark will be returning to his apartment immediately where he will stay under the protection of his full security detail.”
Clint clasped his hand, “Come on. Once we’re back at your place, we’ll be able to properly lock the door.”
That would definitely be an advantage. He knew his soulmate was a genius. “I like the way you think. Let’s go.”
Unfortunately by the time they got back to his place, Pepper had also got back to his place. And she had plans. Since Tony’s nice normal restaurant lunch had been slightly ruined by the invasion of thugs and SHIELD, she was planning a press conference.
“You can announce one of your inventions we keep back for these sorts of emergencies,” she grinned the manic grin of a woman mainlining coffee, “At the same time we can close down questions about the takeover on the basis of investment in said invention. It will be perfect.”
“You have unannounced inventions? Can I see them?” begged Clint with big puppy eyes.
“Yes,” said Pepper, “excellent idea. You show him round your workshop, Tony, keep yourselves occupied for half an hour while I get everything set up.”
“We can keep ourselves occupied elsewhere,” leered Tony, angling towards his bedroom.
“Oh no, I said half an hour Tony, and I meant it.”
Tony sulked, partially at being denied access to his bedroom, but mostly at the idea he could show off his workshop in only half hour. It would take more than half an hour to show off just his new micro spot welder.
But Clint nudged his arm, “C’mon, let’s at least get away from the crowd.”
“Okay fine.” And Tony dragged him down to his workshop. He opened the door, flicked the light, and then stood back to watch his soulmate scoped the place out, eyes alighting on all the best points.
“So,” Clint propped one hip against the lab bench and folded his arms, “impress me.”
Tony stared at him, his body lighting up at the challenge in those changeable eyes. He went straight for his special project - because if that didn’t blow his socks off, nothing would.
“It’s brilliant,” he enthused, then paused as the unexpected and unwanted desire for honesty made him add, “I mean, it’s not really past the testing stage yet, make that definitely not past the testing stage actually. The last one was a bit of a mess. But it is going to be brilliant.”
“Of course it will be,” Clint agreed with such total confidence it made a Tony a bit dizzy. He was used to having to believe in himself with enough force to carry everyone else with him.
Swept away by the encouragement, he was off, explaining how it would work, what’d done so far, how he was going to do better. How it was brilliant. One of the best things he would ever do. And look if he did this then -
Tony came up for air abruptly, realizing he’d been babbling away without any thought for his audience too caught up in the delight of being to explain his invention. God he was so stupid. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t do that with his soulmate. He peeked out the corner of his eye at Clint, expecting scowls and angry words - but at least his soulmate was still with him, there had been no yelling, hasty footsteps and slammed doors.
Except Clint didn’t look angry or even annoyed (and everybody found Tony annoying, even himself). Instead Clint was staring at him starry-eyed and breathless.
“You are so hot.”
“Uh,” Tony stumbled as they went completely off-script.
“Watching you do your thing. So hot. Can I… I have to… Please.” He made grabby hands.
Tony stepped back nervously gesturing for him to go ahead. “Uh sure, whatever you want.”
“Thank you,” breathed Clint and he was gliding forward, dropping to his knees, and Tony was still confused until Clint was undoing his pants and easing out his cock. Then there were a few seconds of amazed disbelief before Clint ducked his head forward and took him in his mouth, his hot, wet mouth, and oh god.
Tony staggered and Clint grabbed his hips to steady him, shoving him up against the lab bench and sucking him down. Tony had no idea what he was babbling but he could hear his voice high-pitched and squeaky in his ears.
His hands flailed helplessly until Clint pulled back enough to say, “I like hands in my hair, but I don’t like yanking. So if you can’t manage that please stick to my shoulders.”
Tony was too caught up staring at the soft lips, red and slick with spit, to really parse the words they were speaking. Clint reached up and snagged one of his wavering hands and drew it down to rest lightly against his head. Tony ran a trembling hand over his hair, and smiled when Clint’s eyes fluttered shut with pleasure.
Surer now, Tony reached out with both hands and threaded his fingers through the short strands, scraping his nails lightly against Clint’s scalp. That earned him a pleased hum and Clint bent his head to stroke the point of his tongue along Tony’s cock in a delicate tease.
With desperate effort Tony managed to uncurl his clawing fingers and press then flat against the back of Clint’s head. That seemed to be far enough from the prohibited yanking, Clint purred and pushed back against his hands like an affectionate cat.
“Schedule,” sighed Clint.
“What?” asked Tony, his brain too scattered to keep up. Clint was already swallowing his cock down, sucking in earnest and leaving Tony gasping as a quick and dirty orgasm slammed over him.
“Gah,” said Tony.
“Sorry,” Clint scrambled to his feet and pressed a quick kiss to Tony’s cheek. “But we’re on a schedule, and your assistant doesn’t look like somebody I want to piss off.” His fingers quickly started to return Tony’s pants to respectability.
Tony wanted to say how much he admired his soulmate’s perspicacity, but all that he managed was, “Mmph.” He let his head drop forward so he could nuzzle against Clint’s shoulder.
The door to the lab squeaked open and Pepper’s heels tick-tacked inside. He managed to lift his head to glare at her.
“Oh my God,” said Pepper, “do you have to look quite so much like the cat that got in the cream.”
Tony still wasn’t firing on all cylinders, he was aware there was probably a really good speech full of self-justification and the need for Pepper to go bother someone else, but all he managed was an insouciant shrug.
“Oops,” said Clint, not sounding at all sorry that he was sending Tony out to do battle with the press when his mind was all blown. Tony was totally going to get him back for that – once his mind had stopped being blown.
“Later,” he threatened.
“I’ll be here,” Clint promised, hopping up to sit on the lab bench. Tony blinked a couple of times. He had never let somebody stay in his lab when he wasn’t there before.
Pepper clicked her heels impatiently. Clint stayed perched solidly on the lab bench, as if he could stay right there forever.
Clint leaned forward and grabbed his arm, pulling him until he could kiss him soft and sweet.
“For luck,” he explained.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Tony promised.
“I’ll be here.”
Much later, when they were sweaty and sticky and need of a shower but too pleasantly tired to be bothered no matter how much they’d regret it in the morning, Tony lifted his head,
“So, uh, you think my project has potential?”
“It’s going to be amazing. You might have to change the name though.”
“What? Why?” Tony jerked up. He liked that name damnit.
“Iron Man does sound pretty cool, but if there’s two of them, there’s going to be two of them right?”
“Of course.” Tony trailed one finger along Clint’s arm. Even if his soulmate had no taste when it came to names, he was getting a suit.
“So two of them would be the Iron Men, which just sounds like a really bad porn movie.”
“Huh. You may have a point,” Tony let himself flop back on Clint’s broad chest. “So what do you suggest?”
And that was how, to Phil Coulson’s everlasting chagrin, the World ended up being saved from Hydra by Rock’em and Sock’em.