When they had left the cabin behind, locking the doors and shuttering the windows against the elements, it had felt like the end of an era. He had known as they climbed into the truck that they would return but the place had always had a significance to him and now it held an even bigger place in his heart. The small wooden house in which he had passed childhood weekends had been the place where he and Natasha truly found one another and in his mind it would always belong to them both. He knew from the expression on her face that she felt the same way as she looked the place over one last time.
"We'll come back right?" she asked, standing ankle-deep in the snow, wrapped up against the Iowa winter in layers of black. Her eyes were fixed on the building, tracing the lines of the cabin and cataloguing the memories that she associated with the place. He could read the longing in her gaze, knew that she had come to love the place as much as he did.
Clint moved around the front of the truck until he could pull her against him, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead. "We'll come back," he told her, "whenever we can."
"The drive out to the private airfield was quiet, Natasha leaning into his shoulder as they threaded between the trees and into more urban areas. Though she was sad to be leaving the cabin and the quiet solitude it offered them, he could sense her instincts sharpening as they got closer to the pick up point. Four months in the country had softened her but the return to SHIELD and their chosen profession demanded that the colder, more calculating side of her nature rise closer to the surface. By the time they reached the airstrip, nobody would have known that the Black Widow was anything but the embodiment of her namesake.
"They knew that the investigation had concluded, that the board had officially dropped any charges that they might have been inclined to bring against the pair of them. Carter had been more than helpful, providing all of the information that Hill had given her when they had contacted her after they were summoned back to duty. It transpired that there hadn't been enough evidence to prove that they had acted in retaliation for Natasha's kidnapping, something that they owed thanks to Director Fury, Hill and Carter herself for, so they had been forced to abandon their investigation and authorise their return to duty. Everyone knew, though nobody said it aloud, that they needed himself and Natasha back at work, assignments were piling up and some of them were beyond the skill of any but the best.
They were all there to greet them when they stepped out of the helicopter, the directors waiting for something that had long been on their wish list. Both Fury and Hill had wanted them in the field as soon as Natasha had recuperated from the wounds she sustained in New Mexico but fate had other plans in store for them all. Now that they were back, it felt strangely like they were a family reunited after a period of estrangement.
"Think they've been wearing those expressions the whole time we were gone?" he asked, leaning in close to his partner as he collected his bag from the landing pad.
Her smile was nothing more than a slight twitch of her lips, only visible at the corners if you knew where to look for it, but it was there. "They always look that way when we're about to get a talking to," she replied.
"Welcome back Agent Barton, Agent Romanoff," Fury nodded to each of them in turn. Nothing about the man in front of them had changed while they had been gone, he still radiated the authority of a man who had found himself in charge of some of the worlds most highly skilled and dangerous people. Clint respected the man immensely but that was about more than his command of his agents and lay in the way that the showed them enough respect to let them follow their instincts. Within reason, he was prepared to give them free rein.
"Good to be back Sir," Clint replied, returning the nod. It wasn't exactly a lie but it wasn't the whole truth either. If either of their superiors caught the lie, they didn't call them on it.
As they all turned and headed inside together, he allowed his fingertips to brush against the back of Natasha's elbow, offering her whatever comfort he could without making it obvious. "Your first stop is medical," the director explained, "you've been away for months so we need to make sure that you're both fit for active duty and then we can discuss your return to the field."
"We have several assignments that require your attention," Hill continued, "including one that was botched by another agent and needs to be handled as swiftly and quietly as possible."
"Just like old times," Natasha muttered under her breath, casting a quick glance in his direction. He didn't miss the gleam of excitement in her eye, it seemed that he wasn't the only one who was enjoying the thought of utilising his skills again.
"Exactly like old times," Hill confirmed, "as soon as you're cleared you'll be briefed on your first job so I wouldn't get too comfortable, you won't be here long before you ship out."
"We've also made the decision not to assign the two of you with a handler," Fury explained as they passed through several security doorways controlled by security access panels, "you've proved that you can handle yourselves when you're in the field together and you certainly don't need someone to tell you how to get the job done. We will however, make sure that you have a direct line of contact to either Hill or myself so that you can check in and keep us apprised of your movements."
"The board are okay with that?" Clint asked, unable to stop the words from leaving his mouth. Given that the shadowy figures who controlled the organisation had been trying to put an end to their careers just weeks ago, the decision surprised him.
"The board don't run the day-to-day operations of this organisation," Fury said grimly. "It's my call and I'll stand by it, but the two of you need to play by the book for a while, no going off script."
They both nodded, understanding that was what was expected of them. "Your quarters are just as you left them," Hill reassured them as they moved along the hallway. "Carter's waiting for you both so just head on down once you drop your bags. We'll reconvene in the morning to discuss options."
After two hours in medical, during which Carter took particular care to assess the healing of the wound in his side and Natasha's abdominal stab wound, they were cut loose to occupy themselves until their meeting with the bosses. Noticing the glances that were cast their way as they moved along the hallways, he tracked the emotional nuances in the expressions that he saw, reading the response of others to see how people really felt about the return of the Hawk and the Widow. He saw surprise, resentment, curiosity and respect and he knew that the sooner they were off base and in the field the better it would be for everyone.
It seemed that their weren't many agents on the roster who hadn't heard something about what had happened in the summer and whatever they had heard had obviously coloured their opinions.
"You see they way they're looking at us?" Natasha muttered from the side of her mouth. She kept her head high and challenged anyone who was brave enough to meet her gaze to give voice to their thoughts. None of them did.
He stayed close to her side, not touching her but close enough that he could feel the warmth of her on the air against his skin. "They've heard rumours," he told her, "but they don't know what to believe. It was bound to happen sooner or later."
She accepted his assessment without comment, simply inclining her head in an almost imperceptible nod as they moved along the hallways toward the cafeteria. They had made this journey before, back when she had been in the grips of her worst identity crisis and he'd had to almost force her to enter the cafeteria and eat, but Natasha was better now and she walked with all that delicious strength that told the world that her reputation was steeped in fact and not merely the fabrication of a handler who had wanted her to do well. In that moment, watching her walking at his side, strong and whole and recovered from something that could easily have broken her, he was more proud of her than he had ever been.
They ate alone but that was nothing new, even before the rumours had started other agents had been wary of them. After the Avengers and the events of the last year, it would have taken a brave junior agent to approach them and after the investigation into their conduct the more experienced and career conscious agents avoided them like the plague. The solitude suited them, they had never needed anyone but each other.
It came as no surprise to him when he found himself outside the door to her quarters in the small hours of the morning, just as it came as no surprise to him when she opened the door at his first knock, wide awake and dressed in only a slouchy oversized shirt that she had stolen from him some time earlier. Stepping inside, he let his gaze take in the sight that greeted him, inch after inch of porcelain pale skin giving way to the hem of his grey shirt, that fiery hair that he adored falling past her bare shoulder and curling at the ends. The smile she offered him was more comforting than any words.
"It's late," she told him. Moving over to the cot in the corner and tucking her feet up beneath her. He could tell by the covers that she hadn't slept, that she hadn't even attempted to sleep.
"Couldn't sleep," he admitted, sitting beside her, "too much noise compared with being out in the country."
"And here I thought you could sleep anywhere," she remarked, no doubt thinking of all the times that he had been able to snatch sleep between bombing raids and in the midst of gunfire that raged wherever they had been posted. She was right, he had always been able to sleep wherever he laid his head, Natasha had always envied him that skill, but that had been before he had grown used to sleeping with her at his side.
Barton chuckled, leaning his shoulder against hers. "Feels like we were never away doesn't it?" he asked her, thinking that their return was a lot like every time they had come back to base from a lengthy job except this time their quarters here didn't feel like home. This time he felt for the first time that he had left home behind and returned to work.
"At least it sounds like we'll be out of here in no time at all," she replied, resting her head against his shoulder.
They passed the rest of the night side by side, awake and waiting, before he slipped back to his own quarters to shower and change for their meeting and allowed her to do the same. Two hours later they were on a jet headed to Europe and the assassination of an arms dealer with links to several organisations on SHIELD's radar. The plan was simple enough, Natasha would infiltrate the target's organisation and he would provide backup should she need it. After they had extracted the required intel, they would quietly dispose of the threat and be back on a plane to headquarters to collect their next assignment.
Suited up and ready to go, he glanced at his partner who was cleaning her handguns at his side. He had once seen her strip and reassemble those guns in under a minute while blindfolded so he didn't doubt that she knew her way around them. "Just like old times huh Nat?"
She turned, mouth curling up at the corners with the beginnings of a smile. "Just like old times," she repeated. He caught the current of her excitement and knew without asking why she was so juiced about the job ahead. It had nothing to do with the target and nothing to do with the plan, it was all about the location. "Do you think they know," she asked, " that they gave us this assignment because of where it is?"
He considered the question, the knowing glint that he was sure that he had seen in Hill's eye as she handed them the file. They were heading back where it had all began for them, back to the city in which they had become partners not just two agents assigned to work together under Coulson's watchful eye. It was in this particular city where he had first looked at her as more than a spy and realised that their partnership had way more potential than he had ever considered. They were going back to where he had started to look at her as a friend and accept that perhaps his feelings toward her were changing. "Maybe," he admitted finally, "but I hear that Budapest is beautiful at this time of year."