Well, here it is! The last bit! This story is something of a spiritual prequel to my series Taking the Edge Off (the details don't quite match up, for various reasons, least of which is that this is NaNo fic), but if you're looking for more after this, that's one way to go.

Many thanks to EuphoricSound and brbshittoavenge for all their patience with me as I worked through this beast. Thanks, darlings! I love you guys!

If you've got a moment, I'd love to hear what you think!

Thanks, as always to everyone who's reviewed and followed and favorited - you guys are the best!

The next few months weren't easy.

If they weren't being shipped out, they were being debriefed. If they weren't being debriefed, they were training new recruits. If they weren't training new recruits, well, then they were probably sleeping.

Most of the time, it wasn't together.

In between the missions and the training and the paperwork, though, they found ways to steal time, found ways to connect, to continue down the strange, tenuous path they'd started at the compound.

They managed to keep their relationship, if you could even call it that, secret, but Clint had a sneaking suspicion that they weren't as careful as they should have been, that they were more transparent than either would like to believe. More than once, he caught fellow agents side-eyeing him, as if they knew something was up, that they somehow could tell he'd spent the night wrapped up in Natasha just by looking at him.

She, of course, had snorted, called him paranoid ("They've always looked at us like that, Barton").

The illusion of secrecy was shattered entirely in Belarus, when Coulson had wandered back into the safe house unannounced and had found Clint's face buried between her thighs.

Coulson hadn't said anything, but neither had he been able to meet their eyes the next morning.

They were more careful about locking the doors after that.

But no matter how careful they were, no matter how much Coulson's silence led them to believe that they'd earned a little latitude through their competence, eventually their solo missions started to outnumber their partnered ones, and it wasn't long before Strike Team Delta wasn't a real team at all.

The real end came when Natasha was given a long term assignment, one that he had no part of.

"I'm being sent to LA to work for Tony Stark," she said, studiously avoiding his gaze as they sat across from one another a table in the mess hall. "My plane leaves in four hours."

They'd planned to meet later that day to spar, but that was out of the question now.

"How long?" he asked, already dreading the answer. This had been coming for a while, had been hanging over them since Belarus.

She swallowed audibly, and took a deep drink from her coffee mug, scowling at the contents. "Six months, minimum. Coulson got me an entry level job in legal."

Clint chuckled, but it was mirthless and harsh. "You really think it's going to take you six months to work your way up to Stark?"

She snorted, leaning forward onto her elbows. "Of course not, but you know Fury."

"Yeah. Always be prepared."

"That's the Boy Scouts, Barton," she said, smiling ruefully at him.

They were quiet, then, because there really wasn't much to say. It was her job to go just as much as it wasn't his, and she hardly had right of refusal. That wasn't in the cards for her.

Natasha was the one to break their silence, but then, she had always been the brave one.

"I hate leaving things like this."

He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "Like what?"

She looked at him then, frowning slightly in disapproval. "Don't try to bullshit a bullshitter, Barton. You know what I mean."

Yeah, he did. They hadn't had enough time to really explore what was going on between them, and he would struggle to label it if he had to try. They weren't dating (or whatever normal people called it when two people had semi-regular sex), but neither were they simply partners anymore. There was something there, but they needed to be together, needed to be around each other more often to figure out what that something was.

He wasn't sure they would ever get the time.

"Look," he started, pressing ahead once the idea was in his head because otherwise he would chicken out, ignore it, run away from her. The sinking feeling in his gut redoubled itself, and he had to get this part over with before he threw up.

"I'm not trying to drag this out," he said, trying not to choke on his tongue. "What we had together was fun, but I understand if you want to . . ."

She rolled her eyes and reached out across the table, touching her fingers to the back of his hand.

"Don't be an idiot," she said, but her voice was soft, full of reassurance and comfort and all the things he needed to hear from her right now. "I don't mean that we should break up or something."

He rolled his eyes, at himself as much as her word choice, but he couldn't help the surge of hope that rolled through him at her words.

"So you're still interested in . . ." he started, gesturing between the two of them.


He scratched the back of his head. "Oh."

They stared at each other for a few long seconds, and he was sure that his grin was just as goofy as hers.


"Yes, well," she said at last, clearing her throat. "That still doesn't mean that I'm happy with the way we're leaving things. I don't like regret."

He turned his hand over on the table, touched his fingertips to hers. "Not big on it myself." He swallowed the lump forming in his throat, tried to catch what little breath remaining to him before he continued on. "So what are you saying?"

She glanced around the deserted mess, looking for prying ears and eyes. Finding no one close by, she said, "Well, it's just . . . I know I'm going to be gone for a while, but maybe it doesn't . . ."

She sighed and rubbed her forehead in frustration.

God, he knew how she felt.

"Just because we're apart, it doesn't have to change," he said. "We don't have to change."

She looked at him, the corners of her mouth turning up, and it seemed like she was bracing herself for something. "I like what we have, and I don't want to let our jobs mess it up."

"It doesn't have to," he agreed. "Not if we don't let it."

If anyone could pull it off, it was them.

"Yeah," she agreed. "I don't want it to."

"I don't either."

"Good," she replied, making him feel awkward and warm all at once, making him feel like a teenager again, desperate and hopeful and short of breath.

Fuck, he wanted her.

Well, time was short, and rapidly diminishing, so he scanned the room, once more making sure that no one was in earshot.

"Hey, so, what do you say I head out of here and maybe walk back toward my quarters?" he asked nonchalantly. "Then, oh, I don't know, maybe three or four minutes later, you could, oh, follow me out of the room and somehow end up walking down the corridor that leads to my quarters."

She smiled when she realized where he was going with this. "Well, I bet I'll suddenly remember that I left a book back in your room. My favorite book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea . . ."

He scoffed. "No one will believe that, Romanoff. Anna Karenina, of course."

She rolled her eyes. "I might be Russian, but I'm not that Russian," she said. "So when I come back to get my Verne, you'll just have to invite me inside."

"It would only be polite," he replied.

"Of course. And then one thing would lead to another . . ."

"You'll discover that my shirt is inside out, of course, so you'll have to remove it to fix it," she said.

"And then I'll be forced to lose it," he said, really starting to get into the new turn of their conversation, ready for her already.

"I'll be mad, obviously, because it was one of my favorite shirts."

"Oh, obviously. But since you know I'm just keeping it to remind me of you when you're gone, you won't actually mind."

She blushed a little at that, a hint of pink coloring her cheeks, and she bit her bottom lip, unable to contain her delight.

Emboldened, he slipped his foot forward on the floor, touched the toe of his boot to hers. He felt her push back, returning the pressure.

"I'm going to miss you, Nat," he said, sobering suddenly and fully at the thought. He would miss her, more than he had anticipated. Maybe the months they've been spending mostly apart were supposed to prepare them for this eventuality, but he found that now that the precipice was upon them, he wasn't ready for it at all.

The slight grin she'd been wearing dropped from her eyes then. "Yeah. I'm going to miss you, too."

He stood abruptly, distancing himself from the emotion in her eyes because he was afraid that if he kept staring at her, he would be compelled to drag her across the table, right here, right now, audience be damned. It wasn't a pretty thought, but he rather got the impression that Natasha was thinking much the same thing.

"Well, I'll just be on my way then," he said, but she wasn't looking at him, didn't even appear to have acknowledged his words. Except he knew her, he knew the quirk of her eyebrow, the way that she blinked rapidly meant that she'd heard him, meant that she would be right on his heels, and if he had to wait to claim her until they were behind closed doors, well, he'd better get used to it.

Six months in LA, indeed.