A million thanks to keikei313, Jessibelle88, Loki'sdreamer, SymmetricGirl and Wishal for taking the time to review.
I know I promised only one more chapter, but there was just too much left to tell. So, I believe chapter 41 will be the last in this story.
Some of you might have noticed that my profile mentions Mischief Makers 2 - The Soul Eater. I do intend to write the sequel. I just don't know how quickly I will get to it.
Love to all! ~ Diezi
Mischief Makers – Chapter Forty:
When in trouble with your superiors, it is common sense to lay low, keep your nose clean, and make the effort to catch up on responsibilities that you have let slide for awhile. Clint knew this and had advised many a fellow agent of the same over the years, and yet, he'd done the exact opposite in the three days since they'd apprehended Bad Loki.
The skirmishes in the wastes of the Jotunheim finally ended and representatives of the realms were streaming into Asgard to meet, take stock of their losses and figure out some common ground.
Nick Fury escorted the World Council member who was taking lead chair for Earth to these discussions. Then the director chose to remain, readily taking over all S.H.I.E.L.D. operations within Asgard, a fact that seemed to irk Maria Hill.
Personally, Clint didn't give a damn what Commander Hill wanted these days. After delivering a detailed report of the events leading up to their final confrontation with Loki's double and sitting through hours of grueling, critical questions, Clint hadn't received a single shred of praise or thanks from her. As far as Hill was concerned, the Mischief Makers (the original four members, anyway) had disregarded orders and protocol while endangering numerous civilians in an unauthorized grudge match with a super villain. The phrase 'severe disciplinary action' had come up so often in her scathing rant that Clint finally flipped her a middle finger salute and walked out.
Natasha was smarter, keeping her mouth shut unless specifically addressed. When she did speak, her explanations were short and respectful. She was playing nice, not pointing fingers or allowing things to get too heated.
Loki and Cami had been hiding out in their suite. Between her constant nausea and the news of losing Brandon Shale and Marcus Rodriguez, Cami was a mess and refusing visitors. Since she technically wasn't an agent any longer, she could easily get away with such behavior, and having guards and servants to assist in keeping people away was frustratingly convenient.
Clint was wandering, seeking out distraction and purpose amid the hustle and bustle, but diverted his path from the main corridor when he spotted Tony, Steve and Thor up ahead. Most of the Avengers were pissed at him for one reason or another. Apparently, Stark and Thor took great offense that he hadn't evacuated their girlfriends from Asgard before luring in Bad Loki. Rogers and Banner were of the opinion that more lives could have been saved if they'd all downed the double together in the Jotunheim where his forces could have witnessed the defeat and possibly surrendered. Apparently, the concept of divide and conquer didn't impress them.
Clint needed to see a friendly face, but wasn't so lucky as Coulson suddenly stepped into Clint's path, forcing him to stop to avoid a collision in the busy corridor. He looked stern and contemplative, an unusual mix for most people, yet Phil pulled it off like only a man of his charisma, depth and complexity could.
"Sir?" Clint asked, crossing his arms and taking in a breath to bolster himself for whatever punch his old mentor was about to throw at him.
"You've got a big chip on your shoulder," Coulson said, "and I suggest you lose it quick."
Clint looked away, using a prolonged silence to contain the anger brewing inside.
"I know you've always been a wildcard, Clint, but this is serious, and it would go better for the team if you would acknowledge that you made some mistakes."
"Or what?" Clint asked, dropping his arms. "You're gonna fire me, throw me in jail, and cancel my wedding? We brought down the biggest threat to the nine realms in centuries and what do we get? Thanks? No! It's been nothing but criticism and threats." He felt his hands clenching into fists and forced himself to relax them. A physical confrontation was the last thing he needed right now. He took in a breath, shaking his head. "You know, maybe I'm not interested in being on the agency's leash anymore."
Coulson's expression had turned flat and unreadable. He shifted his gaze down as if attending to some important insight then looked back up at Clint. "Think through what you're saying before you commit to that. We value you," he said. "I value you… as an agent, Avenger and, more importantly, as my friend."
Clint chose his words and tone with great care, drawing off years of mutual respect and admiration. "Then back everyone off. Please, just give us some space? We need to process what's happened and recuperate a bit."
Coulson nodded, losing some of the tension from his frame. "Things are happening. So, I suggest you guys don't take too long."
Clint watched him walk away, feeling anger, sorrow and even a hint of guilt. That was a lot of emotion to deal with all at once and, after days of upheaval, his baggage was full to the point of bursting.
He weaved his way through the crowds, stepped out onto a wide, sunny balcony and eased onto a stone bench off to the side. He leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes. Though the sunlight warmed his face, a cool, constant breeze nipped at his skin as he inhaled the sweet scents of the nearby gardens. He tried to quiet his mind so he wouldn't remember, ponder or plan. He wanted to be silent and free, a hawk gliding on strong, supportive winds away from worry and pain. Over time, his body grew heavier, his burden lighter and his mind drifted away.
"You hurt your eye?" a very young girl's voice asked.
"I got in a fight," another voice, this time a boy's, responded in a low, regretful tone.
Clint opened his eyes to find he wasn't on the balcony. He sat on a wooden bench with a high counter across from him and big windows behind. To one side there was an open door leading out to a hallway with noisy teens streaming past, most wearing backpacks. On the other side was a closed door. The nameplate read Emel Harward, Principal.
Clint dropped his attention to the two figures beside him. The boy was dressed in jeans well worn at the knees, a dirty shirt and shoes with fraying seams and a big hole in the toe of the left. The boy held a small ice bag over his eye, but Clint still recognized himself at the awkward age of thirteen.
"Are you in trouble?" the pig-tailed and pink-clad girl inquired with big, blue-green eyes. She stood in front of the older boy, rubbing her lips together with worry.
Wow. Cami is so small, Clint thought, affectionately remembering that he'd called the two year-old Rae-Rae back in those days when she insisted on following him around like a devoted pup.
"Yeah," the younger Clint said, looking crestfallen.
Little Cami stepped forward, holding out her arms. Clint couldn't help smiling at the touching scene when the boy leaned into the offered hug and planted a kiss on her rosy cheek.
The principal's door opened and his parents shuffled out.
"Come sing with me in the car. Daddy needs to talk to your brother," Edith Barton said, grasping Cami's petite hand and leading her into the hall.
Harold Barton took the available spot on Young Clint's other side, resting his elbows on his knees and clutching his hands together. He looked wearier than, but not quite as angry, as Clint remembered.
"I didn't raise a bully."
Young Clint's head dipped lower. He swallowed hard before uttering, "No sir."
"People aren't always going to be nice. There's plenty about us for people to tease or make fun of, but we can't be like that. Hate only hurts, not helps."
Clint studied his dad's features, overwhelmed by the lovingly-stern lecture. Warm tears started in his eyes at the thought of being with his dad again and believing that those words were meant for him, not just the teen slouched between them.
"You're suspended for two weeks, and we're paying for the boy's stitches," Mr. Barton continued. "I'll have to pick up some extra shifts. So, we're not going fishing next weekend. Me and your mom will make a list of chores to keep you busy."
The boy nodded, sighing softly. "Sorry, Dad."
Mr. Barton reached over, resting a strong, yet gentle hand on his son's shoulder. "I can see that you are. Grab your things. Let's head home."
Clint almost wished he could go with them as they stood and walked out.
A form plopped down next to him, jolting Clint out of the vision.
Loki appeared sorry as he said, "I didn't realize you were asleep."
Clint sat up straighter, breathing deep to rejuvenate his senses and clear the fog from his mind. A low throb lingered behind his eyes, which were wet. "I was revisiting an old memory," he admitted, quickly wiping the tears and rubbing at the ache.
He glanced over, noticing that Loki's hands were full. He had two mugs and held one out to him.
Clint took the mug, but gestured to the sun still fairly high in the sky. "Isn't it a little early for alcohol?"
"Welcome to Asgard," Loki joked, "where it's never too early to start celebrating."
"I'd better not show up drunk to my own wedding."
"Drink it," Loki pressed. "It's mild, even by human standards. I think we both can use some mellowing."
Though Loki seemed to be in good humor, Clint could see through the playful mask to the darker mood buried underneath. They hadn't talked much in the last few days, and he honestly didn't know what his friend had been up to other than sticking close to Cami.
"She finally let you out for some air?"
Loki took a sip of his drink before answering, "It's more accurate to say that she threw me out."
"Uh oh. What did you do?"
Loki smirked. "I attempted to reason with a pregnant woman."
Clint figured it wasn't his place to pry. So, he gave Loki some time to tend to whatever thoughts he was having while staring off over the grounds. He tried his beverage before breaking the silence. "You do realize that I should be majorly pissed at you, right?"
At first Loki looked uncertain, but gradually relaxed into a conceding half-grin as Clint explained.
"I asked you to take it slow with Cami," Clint said. "Next thing I know, you're bed buddies and everyone thinks you're engaged. Also, you had the gall to buy Natasha condoms, but must have no clue how to use them, since you managed to impregnate your own girlfriend."
With a chuckle, Loki asked, "Are you done?"
"No," Clint said, trying to feign anger, but feeling too amused. "Give me a chance to think up something else."
"It was an accident," Loki insisted. "The condom broke."
"I didn't ask for details," Clint tossed back playfully. It wasn't going to take much to put the issue to rest. Clint didn't want more bad feelings floating around. Honestly, he couldn't push himself to real anger at him anyway. He offered, "I guess she was cursed with bad luck at the time."
"True," Loki agreed, "and we might have mistreated the condom a bit switching between hot and cold like that."
Clint thumped Loki on the arm, causing him to spill some of his drink. "What part of 'no details' do you not understand?"
"Alright. Alright." Loki switched his mug to the left hand, wiping his right on his uniform pants. "My apologies."
Their chuckles kept the silence and tension at bay for a bit.
Loki said finally, "Director Fury brought Cami's personal items from the helicarrier." All cheer left him and he slumped back against the wall. "Cami refused to speak with him. She's devastated that he took Hill's side, and I don't know what to do for her."
"What did Nick say exactly?"
"The Council considers Cami too dangerous to return to Earth. They requested that Odin take permanent custody of her."
Clint's chest tightened and his stomach soured as he contemplated the news. By banishing his sister from Earth, the Council put them in an awkward position.
Loki added, "And I have been relieved of duty until further notice."
That probably explained why he was wearing his leather jacket instead of his uniform one.
Clint understood the hurt in Loki's eyes. "Don't take it personally. It's a difficult situation. That doesn't mean they doubt anyone's intentions or loyalty."
"I can't truly believe that, Clint, because I can tell you don't believe it yourself."
Busted, Clint thought. "Yeah, I guess." He took another drink before asking, "When did it become us versus them?"
"I suspect it's been building over time, since before Cami or I even joined."
Clint nodded. It felt like Loki was gazing right into his soul, which wasn't the most comfortable idea for him. He couldn't deny that he'd been increasingly unhappy with decisions made by his superiors. Natasha rarely voiced dissatisfaction, but Clint knew and saw the signs in her, too. He'd often wondered if she would be happier just being an Avenger. He assumed she chose to stay with S.H.I.E.L.D. to show her appreciation of the second chance they'd given her and to support the other agents she held dear.
Loki tapped his communicator. "Murphy," he said, answering an incoming call.
Clint hadn't worn his own communicator all day. In fact, he made a point to leave it in his room that morning.
"I have him. We're on our way," Loki reported then closed the line.
"Natasha actually. You're late." Loki took another drink from his mug then put it down and climbed to his feet.
There was a brief moment before Clint remembered that he had made an appointment of sorts with the All-Father to have his magic suppressed. It seemed logical and appropriate to have it done before he married, but the reality of all he was giving up was more prevalent in his mind now.
"Nervous?" Loki asked suddenly, resting his hand on Clint's shoulder.
The reassuring touch dropped away as Clint rose from the bench. "I told myself I wasn't going to get attached to these abilities."
"They are powerful and useful gifts," Loki agreed. "If only you could keep them."
A debate was pointless. The magic would eventually blind him, stealing away the marksman talent that had set him apart from other agents all these years. Also, Clint gave his word to Natasha. So, he couldn't let anything or anyone dissuade him from following through.
"You're lucky Fury hasn't confiscated your communicator," Clint commented as they stepped into the corridor and the steady flow of traffic.
"In fact, he did," Loki said. "Then Natasha acquired another for me."
"Are you two planning more mischief?"
"Hardly. We've been coordinating peacekeeping efforts."
The door to the king and queen's suite opened as they approached and Cami rushed out. Natasha followed, attempting to catch her when Cami's form faded away behind a concealing shroud of magic. It was a new trick she'd picked up after absorbing an abundance of shadow energy from Loki's grimoire and the Bad Loki's shield.
"What's wrong with Cami?" Clint asked.
"She wants to return to Earth with us," Natasha said, "but Odin wasn't able to suppress her magic."
Clint gave a weary sigh, wondering why his sister couldn't catch a break. "I should go look for her."
Natasha grabbed his arm. "Odin is waiting. You know Cami will come around as soon as she wants some attention."
Odin and Frigga's conversation quieted as the trio entered their sitting room.
Clint apologized for being late then felt a rush of apprehension as the king stepped toward him. What if his own magic couldn't be suppressed? What if he was predestined to go blind?
King Odin studied Clint and his expression softened. "Have you changed your mind? We can wait if you need to think…"
"No," Clint interrupted. "Please try, your majesty?"
"You should feel some dizziness and temporary disorientation," Odin advised, settling his broad hand over Clint's face. His fingertips touched at the hairline with the rest of his hand arching over the nose and features.
Clint gradually drew in air, filling his lungs before directing it out again. Maybe if he focused on the simple task of breathing all his troubles could be kept at bay.
The first sensation Clint registered from the king's efforts was a low vibration just beneath the surface of his skin. It spread across and deeper into his forehead, tickling his sinuses and flaring the headache he'd been ignoring. The aforementioned dizziness came next with a vengeance. He would have hit the floor if Natasha and Loki hadn't been on guard. They held him upright as the effect worsened into a terrible pressure that pulsed inside his skull and subsequently caused him to blackout.
Natasha was dabbing his face with a cold, wet rag when Clint awoke.
"Hey handsome," she whispered.
He took a moment to admire the relief and love in her gaze. "Did it work?"
"We think so."
Glad to hear this, Clint pulled her down for an eager kiss.
"I think he's feeling better," Bruce's voice joked, drawing Clint and Natasha's attention to their fellow Avengers and Loki shuffling through the doorway.
Tony wandered past the room's child-sized beds to some toy chests against the far wall, snatching up a battered, wooden sword. He turned to look at Clint and tease, "They downgraded you to the kiddie suite."
Thor chuckled and gestured to Loki, who'd settled into the rocking chair between the beds. "This was our room as children. I'm certain it was just convenient to move him here to rest."
Tony continued to explore while the others collected around Clint and the little bed with a medium blue bedspread and curtains.
"What's up?" Clint asked, trying to read their expressions. Overall, everyone appeared calm, a definite improvement from the last time they'd been together.
Steve leaned casually against the bedpost. "We might not agree about how things were handled with Bad Loki, but we certainly don't want to keep fighting over it."
"That's right," Bruce added. "It's not every day that two good friends get married. Let's move on."
Clint could have insisted again that they'd done nothing wrong, but his dad's words came to mind, humbling his pride. These were his best friends, and though the team didn't always get along, they'd been through plenty together. Today was meant to be special, and he did want all of them at his side.
"Agreed," he said, exchanging a subtle smile with his bride.
Tony strolled over, tossing aside a few trinkets he'd been examining. "Well, the clock is ticking," he said. "Let's suit up."
The wedding was a private affair, held at dusk in the gardens. Torches along the path and small, glowing orbs dangling from the surrounding trees lit the area as the guests assembled in their finest attire. Clint stood with Phil Coulson, King Odin and Maria Hill, tugging his bowtie nervously when Natasha came into view on Nick Fury's arm. She wore an off-the-shoulder gown of white with a full, billowy skirt and subtly trimmed in dark purple accents. She was a breathtaking paragon of beauty, grace and sensuality, commanding the attention of all present.
The torches lit up Natasha's features, reflecting in her eyes and hair as she passed off her bouquet of wildflowers to Maria and joined Clint in front of Odin. He took her hand, thinking he could see a hint of anxiety in her features, but a quick smile reassured him that it was anticipation she felt.
Odin's gaze swept over the crowd before he spoke in a strong, joyous voice. "This is the first time I've officiated over the joining of a man and woman born of Midgard. I am both pleased and honored to be asked to serve in this capacity for two such deserving and commendable people."
Clint had to force himself to breathe. He was getting married to an amazing woman while his sister and friends looked on and one of the most powerful beings in the realms had just paid him an unexpected compliment.
Odin spoke for awhile about the sanctity of marriage and the unique bonds forged between a husband and wife. He insisted that the quality of a marriage should never be judged by the standards of others, but solely by those that built that union. "May your intentions be always to strengthen your connection to each other," Odin advised, "for it is your mate that will be your best comfort, support and inspiration."
A long pause followed this speech, which sent a waking stir through the previously transfixed guests. Coulson slipped them the wedding bands then the king turned to Clint. "Do you, Clinton Francis Barton, choose this woman to be your wife and treasured companion, to have and hold always in highest esteem until death do you part?"
Natasha's eyes were glistening with starting tears, which made it harder for Clint to control his own emotions. He took in a breath to bolster his courage and declared, "I do." He released her hand only long enough for her to slip the simple silver band onto his finger.
"Natalia Alianova Romanova," Odin continued, "do you choose this man to be your husband and treasured companion, to have and hold always in highest esteem until separated by death?"
Natasha gave an enthusiastic nod. "I do," she said, grinning and sniffling at once as Clint put the identical ring on her delicate finger.
"Then I, Odin Borson, King of Asgard and All-Father of the Nine Realms of Yggdrasil, do pronounce you husband and wife."
That was the last thing Clint heard before snatching Natasha up in his arms. Her feet weren't even touching the ground as they kissed and clung to each other with a rampant passion that carried on long enough to elicit whistles and excessive whooping from Clint's Hellhounds.
Eventually, they lost steam, relaxing in each other's embrace and breaking the lip lock. "Wow," Natasha uttered and rested her forehead on Clint's. "I think we needed that."
Clint agreed, chuckling as he tore his gaze away to acknowledge the still clapping guests. He set her down with care then took her hand again to move down the path and back to the palace.
The reception convened in an immense hall. Dozens of long, banquet tables laden with both Asgardian and Midgardian delicacies occupied more than half of the room. The other section had been cleared to allow space for the musicians, mingling and dancing. More of the luminescent spheres hung from the vaulted ceiling, which highlighted the purple and white centerpieces and draperies.
Most of the people in attendance were strangers to Clint and Natasha. It was obvious that their celebration was being used as an excuse by the realm representatives and Asgard's wealthy and influential to campaign their own causes in a relaxed atmosphere. At least the newlyweds were not expected to cater to these individuals other than to shake hands and accept any offered congratulations.
Keeping close to their own people gave the couple a natural buffer from the crowds. They happily ate and drank while regaled by epic tales of love, loss and triumph. Coulson's crew enthusiastically piloted drones around the guests to take pictures and capture footage of the event. Clint couldn't recall a merrier gathering of new and old friends. Even Cami and Loki seemed content, cuddled together and conspiring in whispers.
At one point, the orchestra started a new melody and Cami pushed to her feet, declaring the piece waltz-appropriate and headed for the dance floor with Loki and at least a third of their collective in tow.
"She's in good spirits," Clint mentioned to Natasha.
"Frigga gave her something to curb the nausea. She also had the royal treatment from the girls while we got ready."
"Kind of you to share the spotlight."
With a thoughtful shrug, Natasha said, "She needed it."
Clint was watching their people pass through the crowds to return to their table. So, he noticed when Loki's smile dissolved and he came to a sudden halt. Natasha's hand gripped Clint's arm and he turned her way noting that she was also staring down between the tables at an apprehensive Odin walking beside Rosner and a bulky, determined Dwarf. There was also a fourth man with them keeping mostly out of view behind the king's broader frame.
"Ogalfus," Natasha uttered.
Tony asked across the table, "That's the bozo you put in an armlock?"
"He looks smug as hell," Bruce added.
Natasha agreed. "I bet he's going to make a scene."
Clint cursed. "Rosner told me that Ogalfus wants a public apology from you and Odin."
Pepper was horrified. "He's pulling this at your wedding?"
"Whatever," Natasha said with a shrug. "I'll just suck it up and apologize."
I don't think so, Clint thought, standing to meet them. He forced a pleasant smile. "Good evening gentlemen."
The conversations nearest to them silenced and people shifted in their seats to watch. Loki and Cami drew up behind him, keeping quiet.
"This is Agent Clint Barton," Odin said to the Dwarf. Then to Clint he confirmed, "This is High Advisor Ogalfus."
A title and gaudy, bejeweled robes didn't impress Clint. He made the quick decision to play it cool and see if he could work the situation to downplay tension and avoid Natasha having to humiliate herself. He grabbed the Dwarf's pudgy hand, shaking it vigorously. "It's an honor to meet you, sir. Not many men come away from a disagreement with Natasha unscathed. You must have made quite an impression on her."
Yes, he was being sarcastic, but he delivered the words in a fashion that Ogalfus wasn't certain how to react.
"Impressive," Steve said, sounding sincere as he played along. "You do know she's a master assassin, right?"
Before Ogalfus could respond, Tony stood, opening up his shirt to reveal the scarring on his chest from the removal of his arc reactor. "She did this to me... and I'm considered one of the luckier guys. Hey Loki, give him a peek at what she did to you."
Clint was fighting to control his building mirth as Loki stepped around him. He pulled off his tuxedo coat and unbuttoned his shirt sleeve to allow a quick glimpse at the layers of thick, unsightly scars on his forearm.
Next Tony turned to Thor. "Show him yours," he prodded then pretended to change his mind when the God of Thunder looked quizzically back at him. "Never mind. People are trying to eat. We don't want anyone getting sick."
The high advisor's eyes went wide. His gaze tracked Natasha as she rose gracefully to her feet. Even without her heels, she would be taller than him. She donned her poker face. So, Clint had absolutely no idea what she planned to do.
Odin stiffened and Rosner fidgeted in the prolonged silence.
After some consideration, Natasha said with civility, "I apologize, High Advisor, for treating you in such a lowly manner. Next time you challenge my abilities, I will be respectful enough to leave a mark worthy of your position."
Ogalfus looked befuddled as pink flushed his plump features and sweat shown around the edges of his bushy beard.
"I also apologize," Odin said quickly. "Clearly you and Lady Natasha weren't properly introduced at your first meeting."
"Clearly," the Dwarf stammered. He offered forced congratulations and briskly hurried away through the gaping spectators.
The group settled back around the table, stifling laughter.
Loki and Cami did not sit. They froze as the other man stepped forward between Odin and Rosner. He was tall and lean with simplistic brown and red garments. Though his long hair wasn't quite as dark and he had a thin goatee and pale blue eyes, the resemblance to Loki was undeniable.
"What are you doing here?" Loki tentatively asked in a low, unnerved tone.
"I was summoned for the trial," the man answered flatly, his expression cold.
Odin rushed to explain. He looked regretful as he took in the group, which included some of his own people. "The realms have demanded the right to try Jahla and the double for war crimes. The proceedings will be closed, but we are all to testify at their behest."
"Then you're not presiding," Loki guessed.
"No. A panel of judges will be appointed by the Realms Assembly. Guilt and punishment will be decided by a majority vote."
Clint's attention shifted between the men. Finally, he asked Loki, "Who is this?"
Loki straightened, trying to collect himself. "He is my eldest son."
"Vali is an accomplished justicer in the courts of Vanaheim," Odin said. "He will make certain that all laws and court procedures are followed during the trial. Also, he has the unique gift to sense when someone is lying."
No one at the table spoke because they didn't know what to say in light of their theatrics with Ogalfus.
Vali commented, his tone biting, "You're very clever and protective of each other. I don't suggest using such deceitful tactics with the judges. I won't be amused or forgiving."
Vali and Rosner turned and strode off.
"Remind me not to invite that guy to poker night," Kotter said to Stott and Ward as he picked up the pitcher and began refilling their drinks.
Loki gave a loud sigh and his frame slouched. "My son hates me."
Cami gently pushed Loki onto his chair, sat on his lap and gifted kisses to the side of his face.
"Isn't Vali too biased to be involved?" Fandral asked.
"Vali will do his job with honor and fairness," Thor insisted.
Odin agreed. "He has worked hard to build up his reputation. His appointment is the most encouraging thing we've heard about this trial so far."
Clint tensed as Fury, Hill, Coulson and May joined their group. "I assume," the director said, "that you've all heard the news."
"Indeed, they have," the king confirmed.
"Looks like we're not going anywhere. By order of the Realms Assembly, we are to remain in Asgard until it is decided that we are no longer needed."
Bruce shook his head with annoyance. "Are they really planning to question every single one of us?"
"That is the right of the court," Odin explained. "The matter would be much simpler if there weren't so many worlds involved."
"It's going to be a circus," Steve guessed, looking troubled.
"And," Loki interjected, "Bad Loki is going to love every moment of it."
"Get some rest," Fury ordered. "I want all active personnel up early and ready to work. If we're stuck here for awhile, we might as well put some efforts into restoring the command center." He looked to Clint and Natasha. "I'm sorry, but Santorini is going to have to wait."
"I kinda figured," Clint said, seeking out Natasha's hand under the table to give it a squeeze because she was stiff and staring at her plate.
"Well, I guess the party's over," Mike Hopper said, rising from his chair. Kotter, Stott and Dr. Lloyd went with him to round up the other Hellhounds and pass along the orders.
Coulson signaled his own people, who rushed to collect their things and walk out with him and May.
Odin turned to Sif and the Warriors Three. "Queen Farbauti and her attendants arrive tomorrow," he told them. "I need you four to work with Frigga and Rosner to insure that the Jotun are comfortable and escorted at all times."
"Yes, your majesty," they answered in chorus and abandoned their seats. Volstagg grabbed an entire tray of barbecued prime rib then shuffled out with them and Odin.
Nick focused on Cami. "I want to talk to you," he said in a reasonably respectful tone.
Cami stood, her features instantly angry. "I don't want to hear it, Nick, and you can't order me to listen." Then in a blink, she was gone, though Clint felt her brush against his side as she moved away.
Looking both hurt and pissed, Nick wished a good night to those that remained at the table. He and Maria departed together, though Clint had noticed the judgmental glower from Maria at Cami's exit.
"Poor thing," Pepper said softly, nestling closer to Tony as the rest of the group shifted closer to fill the empty chairs. "Why won't they reinstate her?"
Jane spoke up. "We wouldn't have stabilized those systems in time without Cami."
"Or breached the double's shield," Loki added.
"This situation hurts because we all like Cami," Bruce said, "but the truth is, she hasn't learned to control her powers. She can only get so far on good luck spells."
"She needs time and training," Natasha said, "two things S.H.I.E.L.D. can't effectively give her."
"What about support?" Steve tossed out. "What happens when we all go back to Earth and leave her here alone?"
Thor took offense to the question. "She has friends here. She's family…" he said, his eyes shifting to Loki, "almost."
Everyone quieted, yet their stares drifted to settle on Clint as if they expected him to offer some new insight. What could he say? 'Shit happens.' 'Life sucks sometimes.' 'Bartons rarely had it easy.'
"I think I'm getting a headache," Clint complained, rubbing at his forehead with his free hand.
"Maybe you should go to bed," Steve suggested.
"Yeah," Tony jumped in. "Don't you two have some 'debriefing' to do?"
Low, guilty chuckles broke out along the table.
Pepper gave Tony a nudge, declaring, "You're indecent."
"Someone had to say it." Tony sipped his drink, watching the newlyweds over the rim of the glass. "Seriously; go. I'll expect a full report in the morning. Try not to hurt yourselves."
Clint was more amused than irritated as the soft laughter continued. He got up, pulling out Natasha's chair and helping her onto her feet.
"S.H.I.E.L.D. has probably bugged their room," Bruce added with a hint of exasperation before calming enough to wish them a good night, which prompted everyone to follow suit.
Loki walked out with them, stopping Clint in the corridor to push a pink and green, bell-shaped fruit into his hand.
"Rose apple," Loki said in a sly, guarded tone. "Consider it an aphrodisiac of sorts."
Natasha noticed his delay and turned back with a questioning gaze.
Clint discreetly teased, "Loki, I think you're too concerned with my sex life."
Loki backed up, his expression playful. "I'm not at all concerned, just meddling a bit." Then he blinked away, leaving Clint to explain the odd gift to Natasha when she approached.
"How thoughtful," she quipped.
"I'm sure he means well." She took the rose apple from him, gave it an experimental squeeze then held it to her nose. "It smells good."
Clint took a whiff when she held it under his nose. "Like a rose," he affirmed. It was a pleasing scent he had come to associate with being close to Natasha because those moments were when he could best smell her similar perfume.
They started out again, but a few paces later, Natasha halted with a groan, grabbed onto his arm for support and stepped out of her high heels. "I can't take another moment of these toe-pinchers."
Clint promptly swept her up into his arms, choosing to forsake her troublesome footwear as he carried her off.
Natasha wrapped her arms around his neck. "I can't decide if you're being chivalrous, romantic or impatient right now."
"Knowing me, it could be any or all of those options."
Several people in the halls acknowledged them, either offering well wishes or asking if the couple needed assistance. Each encounter escalated Clint's urgency to reach their destination and have Natasha all to himself. He was relieved when they ultimately reached the room and slipped inside.
He had a good grip on her and an enticing view down the bodice of her dress if he leaned in just right. With her perfume invading his nostrils and ensnaring his senses, Clint could have easily stood there for hours enjoying the closeness.
She touched his face, turning his head so he met her keen and penetrating gaze, which captivated and utterly disarmed him. He wanted to be submerged in those glistening pools of green, lose himself in the currents of her wit and charm.
Natasha broke the spell, suggesting with reassurance, "You can let me down."
Clint realized he'd unnerved her with his enthralled behavior. He blinked and gave his head a shake to kickstart his brain's processes. "Sorry," he muttered and instantly complied.
Rolling the rose apple from one hand to the other, Natasha went to her gear to pull out one of her daggers. She cut a wedge out of the fruit and sampled it before sauntering over to pop the rest into his mouth. It was crisp, yet sweeter than he'd expected.
Natasha pushed up on her toes to seductively lick the juice that dribbled down his chin. She cut another wedge and placed it between her teeth. The sparkle in her eyes told him to 'come and get it.'
Mindful of the knife, Clint gripped her wrists, wrapped her hands behind her back and held them there. He leaned down, first planting a kiss onto her forehead then moved lower, his lips gliding down the soft skin between her eyes and along the side of her nose. He opened his mouth, setting his teeth around the end of the fruit then bit through it as his lips came to rest against hers.
She held the kiss for a moment before pulling out of his grip and turning toward the bed. She set the dagger and remaining apple on the nightstand, freeing her hands to reach back and unzip her dress, which she pushed down off her hips to reveal her underwear.
Clint removed his tie and shrugged off his tuxedo jacket, letting both fall. He followed to the bedside, placing his hands at her shoulders and burying his face in her curls.
"I have our condoms," she whispered, "but I'd prefer not to use them."
He stooped to press his mouth to her neck, discovering a spot where she'd applied her perfume and inhaled deeply. The rose scent spiked his senses again and his mouth began to water with anticipation. "If you're sure," he said and laid a trail of wet kisses to her shoulder that caused her to tremble.
Natasha turned in his embrace to unbutton his shirt and attack his mouth. Her strong fingers slipped past the material to caress and gently scratch at his chest before invading his pants. He let out a low moan at her attentions, tensing with pleasure that overwhelmed his restraint.
She allowed him to scoop her up onto the bed and tug off her underthings. Casting away his own clothes, Clint joined her, admiring the intense longing in her eyes, the pink flush on her skin and the swell of her breasts before settling between her thighs, which parted willingly to receive him.
He took care, watching her features for any signs of discomfort as they sought out a comfortable, building rhythm.
Clint had wanted to be with her for so long that he felt drunk on memories, her immeasurable beauty and the mingling aromas of roses, sex and sweat. In his mind, he was claiming her as his forever love and soulmate.
Natasha's sudden, loud moan and violent trembling sent Clint tumbling over the edge. Then he felt instantly weak and laid on her, shifting down so he could rest his head on her chest and listen to the pounding of her heart. This caused his feet to dangle off the edge of the bed, but he didn't care.
Natasha's fingers skimmed sensually over his skin and up into his hair as they recovered. "Don't fall asleep, Papa Bear," she said, sounding playful, yet equally spent.
He was exhausted, but insisted, "I'm trying not to."
Clint heard and smelled it when she retrieved the dagger and sliced up more of the rose apple. Fighting sleep, he looked up and let her feed him a chunk of the juicy goodness, which took effort to chew.
She munched on apple and took in his weary state. "Any better?" she asked after a minute then offered an understanding smile and more caresses when Clint shamefully admitted that he was done for the night.
He moved off her to climb under the blankets and nuzzle the pillow. He barely registered her kiss on his temple as he drifted off to sleep.