Fandom: Marvel Cinematic Universe
Characters: Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton
Summary: Clint Barton trusts Natalia Romanova, even when he probably shouldn't.
Length: ~8500 words
Notes: beta'd and encouraged by the wonderful workerbee73. I never intended for this fic to get this long, but um, they had a lot to say. I almost titled this fic "Anywhere but Here", but I'm pretty sure I have a dark!fic in the Buffy fandom titled that, so... yeah that wasn't happening.
Under a moonless Scandinavian sky, he found her alone. Natalia Romanova - the Black Widow. Clint had been out in the field long enough to know the textbook never gave the full picture. Months of research, weeks of surveillance, never compared to the moment he set his arrow and took aim. He drew the string back, anchored by his jaw, and breathed into his stance.
The arrow flew through still, cool night air - death zeroed in on its target. Or it should have been.
Impossibly - improbably - as though she’d heard the twang of his bow, she turned. A single step, one-eighty degrees, moving six inches to the left. The arrow that should have pierced her skull whizzes past her head, doing little more than flicking a length of wild red curls back over her shoulder.
A smile and she was gone.
The next morning, in the cafe off of the Kungsgatan, a waiter brings a mug of coffee to his table. Clint’s Swedish was a bit rusty, but he could get ‘from that young woman over by the window.’ Only there was no young woman--just a note at the table where she’d sat.
‘You keep staring. Do you think I’m pretty?’
A breeze hit his face and he poured the clearly-poisoned coffee out the open window.
If that was the game she wanted to play, he was in.
Three days later, he found her in Berzelii Park, casing the luxury hotel across the street. Clint watched from the cover of the trees, drew his bow, and let an arrow fly. It barely nicked her arm -- he knew it would. Her guard was up, no point in trying to make the kill now. The arrow pierced the ground by her feet, and he watched as she tore off the note attached.
‘Actually, I prefer blondes.’
When he returned to his room at the Riddargatan, he was greeted by a click half a second before a detonation that threw him backwards down the hall. He was fine other than a few mild burns and a bruised tailbone. Among the debris in his room, he found a note.
‘You’re full of shit. But you’re good.”
Then, there was a well placed arrow through her window while she pretended to sleep.
‘Thanks. You could do a little better.’
It was a Saturday night when he checked himself in to a room on the top floor of the Nobis Hotel - ten hours before the political gala where he knew she would make her move. Taped to the glass door out to the balcony, there was one final note.
‘Are you sure about that?’
Clint tucked the note into the pocket of his tuxedo he’d brought just for the occasion. He buttoned up the crisp white shirt over a kevlar vest, secured the collapsible bow against his back, fastened his collar with a bowtie, and placed a flower in his lapel.
Red. Just like the dress she wore that night. The warning colors of a deadly spider. And Natalia was drawing several members of Riksdag into her web.
As the band’s strings started a new strain, Clint maneuvered himself between her and the parliamentarian she had her eye trained on. “Can I have this dance?”
Momentary irritation flickered through those poisonous green eyes, replaced quickly by something darker. “Of course.”
Out on the dance floor, she all but melted into his body and swayed in time to the music. “It’s a shame,” she whispered, her voice as sweet sounding as the quartet’s song. “That only one of us will leave here tonight.” She tilted her face towards his, lips curved into a devious smile. “Your room upstairs.”
He met her gaze, unflinching. “What about it?”
“We could go,” she said, sliding a thigh between his legs. “I could ride you into the bed and slit your throat when you come.”
“Tempting as that sounds,” Clint said. “I’m going to have to pass.”
For a moment, she almost looked disappointed. “Shame.”
A sharp pain flared in his side. He barely had time to register the feel of metal sinking through the kevlar and into his flesh. In the next moment, she was behind him, arm tucked in close to his as she took aim at the politician, fired, and ran.
Clint pushed the pain to the back of his mind, dipping into the bewildered throng before security could descend on him. A flash of red dipped out of the ballroom, intro the atrium and he pursued snatching the quiver he’d stored in a potted plant.
Her heels clicked as she ascended the spiral stairs, an even steady pace. From below, he drew and aimed and as before missed by mere inches. The arrow snagged the fabric of her dress, pinning it to the wall. She fired as he followed, her shots failing to hit her target. She pulled her dress loose, silk rending and ripping, and continued her flight again.
Clint knew exactly where he’d find her - out on the balcony, glass doors thrown open, rain pouring down, with her gun trained on him. “What’s the matter? Didn’t have a plan B?”
Her lips twisted into a feral grin. “You took me a couple of plans past it.”
He fired. The arrow struck her hand, sending the gun over the edge. Time seemed to move impossibly slow as he readied a second arrow, watching as she went for the knife strapped to her thigh. He was half a second quicker than her. The arrow flew, and as she moved to avoid it, her heel caught on the torn fabric hanging from her dress. It was just enough to throw off her center of gravity.
Natalia lurched backwards and over the railing. She managed to catch the wrought iron with one hand, dangling over the six-story drop onto hard concrete below. Clint caught himself cursing under his breath as he rushed out onto the balcony.
She looked down at the ground below and then back up towards him - the look in her eyes was enough to make his breath catch. She wasn’t afraid. She was relieved. The free-fall to certain death was her only escape and she welcomed it. With one last smile of triumph, she let go of the railing.
It couldn’t end like that.
He caught her wrist with both hands, and bracing his feet against the balcony, pulled her back over the edge. The momentum rolled them back into the room, leaving her sprawled beneath him against the white carpet.
Wide green eyes darted around the room, as she tried to take in what had just happened.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She swallowed hard. “Just fine.”
Her knee connected with his torso sending Clint rolling off to the side, but he held onto her wrist and used the momentum to roll them over again. He grabbed a zip tie off the dresser and bound her hands together. Clint took the few remaining knives from the holster on her thigh and tossed them across the room before helping her to sit up.
She drew her knees into her chest and kicked forward. The knife in her heel grazed his cheek before he grabbed a hold of her ankles. “Alright. I’m taking these.”
He pried loose the pumps and tossed them over with the knives, before straddling her knees to make sure she didn’t get any bright ideas about kicking him.
Natalia was all coiled energy on unsteady ground, and he spoke calmly and firmly. “Do you have anything else on you?”
She reared back and cracked him in the nose with her forehead.
“Ow.” Clint sat back on his heels and wiped the trickle of blood from his nose. “...Are we done now or are you going to try to bite me?”
“You’re supposed to kill me.” A bolt of lightning flashed outside, illuminating her eyes - giving them an almost supernatural glow. She studied him, her gaze uncertain. “Why didn’t you just let me die?”
There was something in the way she looked at him, something pained and something hopeful, that gutted him.
“Because, you’re good.” He looked down at the blood that was seeping onto his shirt from the wound beneath, then caught her gaze again. “Too good to go out like that.”
She never liked florescent lighting --preferred moonlight and candlelight and subtle dimness that tended to make others drop their guard-- liked it even less against white tiles and metal walls in a six-by-six cell with no less than two guards beyond the steel door at any given time.
She’d broken out from under heavier guard before, and she was sure that was in whatever documents they had on her must have shown that. Either they were idiots for failing to provide proper security, or they were idiots for hoping she wouldn’t try escape.
Why wasn’t she trying to escape?
Natalia turned the worn page of the book. She had not exactly read the words on the page, so much as stared at it, remembering when Barton had passed it into her hands. To help pass the time, he told her. It was one of three things he’d brought her since they’d arrived at his headquarters and locked her away. The first was a set of clean cotton sweats as an alternative to tattered evening-wear; second, the book; and lastly a brick pretending to be a brownie from the base’s cafeteria. He’d even taken a bite in front of her to prove it wasn’t poisoned.
Barton’s level of investment in her was nothing short of bizarre. For the man who would have been her assassin, he showed a strong interest in making sure she was ‘okay’.
She turned the page back.
Every swear she knew ran off her tongue as Natalia struggled with the plastic binding her wrists. “Bet you’ve been waiting to put these on a girl all night.”
“Not exactly my idea of a romantic evening.”
If this man wasn’t sitting on her knees, she would have a well-aimed knee ready for his groin. “Release me!” she hissed.
“So you can throw yourself back out the window?” he asked with something akin to frustration. He scrubbed a hand over his face, shaking his head.
“It would have made your job easier,” she replied, her voice biting.
The fool almost laughed. “They wouldn’t have sent me if they thought taking out Black Widow would be easy.”
He talked at her some more, most of it she simply tuned out--choosing to remember solid stone stretch out underneath her; with death waiting above and beckoning below, satisfaction bloomed as she released her grip on the banister. Death on her own terms.
She didn’t expect to be sitting here, didn’t expect to still be breathing, to still have a pulse. A part of her wanted to kill him just for that.
“--in the morning. Outside of town. Dueling pistols at dawn, whatever you want,” he said. “We’re finishing it somewhere where you’re not going to lose on a technicality.”
“You’re the one who is going to lose.”
He shrugged. “Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. Here’s the difference between you and me.” He sat back on his heels. “If I win, I complete my mission. Evac is waiting for me. I go back to my people, I have another mission. You win, you take out your mark, and you... keep following that death wish of yours and I’m sure one day, it’ll catch you.”
Aware of footsteps approaching her cell, Natalia closed the book and set it aside. She rose to her feet, arms crossing her chest as the door slid open to reveal an agent of Strategic Homeland Intervention Enforcement and Logistics Division. The woman looks at her through overly professional eyes. “The Director wants to see you.”
“It’s about time,” she replied with a bored tilt of her head.
Her escort to the office was exceedingly well-armed, but they handcuff her. Nor did they join her when she stepped into Director Fury’s office - with orders, of course, to listen for screaming or too much silence.
Fury gestured to a chair, waiting for her in the center of the room. She remained standing with her arms folded. He watched her, lone eye studying her like he couldn’t quite get a handle on her - something she quite liked, something he obviously did not.
“Ms. Romanova,” Fury said, like he didn’t quite enjoy the taste of it. “You have caused one hell of a situation with my crew.”
“Your sniper failed to take me out,” she reminded him.
“Thank you, I had almost forgotten that little detail.” Fury’s tone was dry, unamused. “It’s taken me some time to get my mind around the fact that Barton has apparently lost his.” Fury circled around a desk, tapped a folder lying on top. No doubt, she was the contents. “You see, I have a problem. And that problem is you. You somehow convinced my best sniper not to pull the trigger on you, and on top of that convinced him that you would be an asset to S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“I fail to see how this is my problem.”
"I'm making it your problem." His hand slammed against the table, apparently for emphasis. “You are a wild card, Ms. Romanova, and I don’t play well with wild cards in my deck. Why don’t we stop playing games, and you tell me why you are here?”
She had been trained in eloquence, to use speech as a mask and a tool, words were another weapon in her arsenal and one of the few she was still currently equipped with. And yet, her words failed her. She had asked herself the same question for three days while counting cracks in the ceiling of her cell.
Why was she here?
The hardness of the director’s gaze softened infinitesimally. “Barton seems to think that S.H.I.E.L.D. would benefit from your skill set, which is impressive to say the least. But I need to know if you’re going to be causing any more problems.”
“I work for whoever pays me,” she replied, voice cool.
“Not good enough. I can’t risk you taking out this entire facility just because someone hands over a bigger paycheck.” Fury circled around his desk, towered over her. She could have taken out that other eye if she really wanted to, but she wasn’t going to and they were interrupted by a knock on the door.
She turned around to see Agent Barton stepping through the doorway. His gaze flicked from Fury to her -- almost smiled -- and then back to the director. “You wanted to see me.”
Fury’s focus remained on Natalia. “I can’t have you as my problem. So from now on, you’re his. You screw up, it’s coming down on his head. And if I were you, I’d think twice before screwing him over. If it wasn’t for him, you better believe you wouldn’t be standing there now.”
Barton didn’t protest, or even show that much surprise. He just asked her if she was ready to go, and walked her to the apartments reserved for SHIELD agents. “503. Right down the hall if you need me.”
She didn’t sleep. All she could think was why in too many voices, and only a few of them were her own. The clock flickered on, numbers changing, for an hour before she crawled up out of her unmade bed.
If it wasn’t for him, you better believe you wouldn’t be standing there now.
She padded out into the hall, could hear water running as she approached 503. She knocked anyway. Barton answers the door, dripping, and in nothing more than a towel, and his eyes met hers with a question. And she met his looking for answers of her own.
Why do you want me here? but I don’t want to owe you anything.
She pushed into the apartment, and he let her. He could have stopped her if he wanted, which meant he didn’t want to. Barton is a man, and men only want one thing from her, and now she owed him a debt. He could protest as much as he wanted, but her hand brushed his groin and his body was male and revealed everything he desired--was he thinking about her in the shower?
She tugged the too-big sweatshirt he’d given her over her head. He was stammering before she could see him again.
“Whoa!” Barton pushed her hands back, skin flushed despite the protest--she knew the effect she had on men. “Look, you’ve got the wrong idea. I don’t know what--”
“Don’t make anything more out of this than it is,” she said, reaching back for the clasp on her bra. Her eyes dropped to his groin. “I pay my debts, and evidently there is something you want.”
“Jesus H. Christ.” He forced her hands still, fumbled with his own towel. It belated occurred to her that perhaps the flush in his skin was embarrassment. She tilted her head in curiosity as she met his eyes. “What I want? I-I am in hot water with Fury right now. The only thing I want is to know that I haven’t made a monumental mistake,” his voice ratcheting to a higher pitch as he pulled open the door. “Find another way to pay your debt or whatever you think you owe me. Card. Flowers. Candy’s nice, too. I gotta finish my shower.”
A second later, she was standing in the empty hallway with the rumpled sweatshirt in her hand, and a debt still on her soul.
Dignity was the last thing keeping Clint from collapsing all of his weight against Romanoff, as she all but pulled him along through dark alleyways. She seemed to know the back streets of Veracruz like the back of her hand. He stumbled over a dislodged brick--body lurching, skin tearing just a bit more where he was already bleeding. “God!” he hissed, jaw clenching. “Where the hell are you taking me?”
“Talking is a waste of energy.” She pulled his arm tighter around her shoulder; hers was a vice grip around his waist. She unlocked a rusted steel door with an electronic keypad and it slid open with a hydraulic hiss. Even dignity wasn’t enough to keep him upright anymore, as she hauled him down the stairs, through another set of password protected doors, and finally into a dark room.
“This better not have been an elaborate scheme to kill me,” he muttered.
She hit a switch and the entire room filled with a warm bright light. “Stay standing; don’t bleed on anything,” she said, propping him against a bookcase and left him face to face with sturdy mahogany. From his angle, he could make out several old books--all leather bound with gold edges and astonishingly lacking in dust. One shelf near his knee displayed several hand-blown glass sculptures.
As Clint reached for one, Romanoff promptly emerged with a displeased look--if someone could scowl with eyes alone, that’s what she was doing. “I told you not to bleed on anything.”
“Do you see any blood anywhere?”
“I better not.” She spread out a dark sheet over her leather couch and nodded for him to come over. It took a moment to get his balance, but Clint made every attempt not to hobble as he crossed the room and landed heavily on the couch. He looked down where she was pulling supplies out of a first aid kit. “Take your clothes off.”
“I didn’t hear a ‘please’,” he drawled.
“Then keep that window pane in your chest, if that’s what you want so badly.” She snapped her head up, snapped her mouth shut when she caught a glimpse of the pained smile on his face. Clint unzipped his vest without further protest, pulling several shards of glass out in the process. The once white undershirt was now stained red. “Stop there.”
She produced a pair of forceps from the kit and set to work pulling out the larger more visible glass jutting out from his skin, before demanding he lose the shirt. “God, this is like something out of a bad porno,” he muttered, peeling the blood-soaked shirt from his body. His comment was met with a forceful jab of implement into wound.
“Thought you preferred blondes,” she muttered, setting to work on the bits embedded deeper in his side.
It almost made him laugh, but he’d gotten enough wounds for one day. “Not bad for a first time out,” he said.
“It wasn’t my first mission,” she replied coolly.
“Maybe not the Widow’s, but it was S.H.I.E.L.D. consultant Natasha Romanoff’s.” He expected a jab for that one, braced himself, but never got it.
She pried one last piece of glass from him and rose to her feet. “You went through a window,” she said, matter-of-factly before disappearing once again.
“Your concern is touching!” he called after her, to no reply. Clint leaned back against the sheet, finally taking in the room around him. Hardwood floors, glass tables, leather furniture--statues on pretty much every flat surface and paintings on every wall--one of which he was almost certain was a Monet or a Manet or one of those guys. “You’re really slumming it with S.H.I.E.L.D., huh?” he called out as he heard footsteps approaching.
Natasha emerged once more with a bottle of vodka in each hand.
“Thank god.” He recognized the Smirnoff label immediately and reached for the bottle.
She swatted his hand away. “That one is for sterilization.” Natasha placed that liquor bottle next to the first aid kit, before walking over to a hand-carved bar in the corner. She pulled open the cabinet and withdrew two crystal shot-glasses and filled both with, apparently, the vodka worth drinking. “This one is for the pain. Here.”
Clint downed the shot as Natasha set about sterilizing a needle, first with a lighter, then with the Smirnoff. “Careful,” he said, watching her thread the needle. “I bruise easily.”
The corner of her mouth quirked in the tiniest hint of a smile, but she ducked her head quickly and set to work sewing up the larger gashes. He watched the way her hands worked, watched the needle punch through the skin, thread pulling the edges of the wound together. How many times had she done that? How many times had she done it for herself?
“Shit!” he hissed, when she pressed a vodka soaked rag to the shallower cuts. “That burns.”
She shrugged. “Which is why it’s not for drinking.”
“Wouldn’t rubbing alcohol be cheaper?” he wondered out loud. She didn’t answer, maybe because rubbing alcohol wasn’t Russian enough or something, and she wrapped the dressing on his chest just a bit too tight. For a moment, her hand lingered on the thin line of puckered skin just above his hip, put there by her own hand less than half a year before.
Finished with him, Natasha sat back on her heels. She dampened a fresh piece of gauze and set to cleaning the minor gash on her forehead. He thought, for a moment, about offering her help, but stopped himself, knowing she’d decline. “You were good out there,” he said, swinging his legs up onto the couch.
“Shoes off,” she said, closing up the kit. She stood and yanked the sheet out from under him. Clint shifted awkwardly until he could get it out from underneath him, and fell back against the couch. She grabbed the other shot glass and started from the room again, but paused in the doorway. “You could have done a little better.”
Clint huffed a small laugh as he draped his arm over his forehead and closed his eyes. He took a moment just to enjoy the feeling of the cool leather against his tired skin. At least, that had been his intention. When he opened his eyes, the lights were dimmed and a blanket was draped across his torso and legs. His muscles twinged in protect as he got to his feet, the healing wounds insisting on making their presence known.
He caught a glimpse of a light in the otherwise darkened hallway and followed it to the source. He knocked twice to make himself known before crossing the threshold into the kitchen. Natasha sat at a table in the corner, her hands curled around a white ceramic mug. “Coffee?” he asked, hopefully.
“Tea,” she said.
Clint grimaced. “I will never understand you.” He pulled out a chair and sank down with his back to the wall. He could see a delicate chain around her neck, one she had not been wearing before he passed out. Hanging from it, the USB drive containing the weapons information Fury had sent them for. “Did you contact S.H.I.E.L.D. for evac yet?”
“We have three hours before they’re expecting to hear from us.” Natasha raised the mug to her lips, steam rising in front of her face, green eyes holding his gaze. “I’ll call once we’re out of town.”
It didn’t take a genius to figure out she didn’t want S.H.I.E.L.D. knowing about this place. Once you’re on their radar, you never fall off. He gave a small nod, her secret was safe with him. “Three hours ahead of schedule, huh? Guess we make a good team.”
“Or security caught you and put you through a window and we had to make a quick escape.” She placed the mug on the table and folded her hands on the edge.
“But we escaped.” Clint picked up the mug, stealing a quick sip. His face twisted at the taste. “This is just wrong.”
There was a sort of smug satisfaction in her not-smile as she reclaimed her cup. “That’s what you get for taking my tea.”
Natasha didn’t even look up from her seat on the window sill. She just continued to peer out into the woods with her infrared-binoculars. She muttered a single noise that Clint knew by now meant what the hell are you talking about, Barton?
“That’s where I am.” He pulled the space blanket tighter around his body. “Malibu. Lounging on the beach, salt water in my hair, sun warm on my face. I’ve just came in from an epic set of waves, and I’m cooling off with a frozen daiquiri.”
“You don’t know how to surf.”
“In this world I do,” he replied, indignant.
Her eyes never left the frozen landscape beyond the cabin. “And we’re thirty miles outside of Katovik.”
“You really know how to kill a mood.”
“You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
Clint settled back into his cocoon in the corner, pulling his knees up to his chest. “Too damn cold to sleep,” he muttered. Thinking warm thoughts didn’t seem to be helping and neither was the damned space blanket. Nope. Nothing made the fact that they were sitting in an abandoned shack in the middle of the northernmost armpit of North America--waiting to intercept a drop of a stolen batch of a bio-engineered virus that had the potential to wipe out a small country---any more bearable.
“Come on, sunshine,” he said. “There’s gotta be someplace else you would rather be right now. You can’t tell me you actually like sitting in a shack where hell froze over.”
For the first time, she put the goggles aside; her head whipped around to face him. “This is a mission, Clint. That is where I keep my focus.”
“Really? Anything out there to focus on?”
She sat in a petulant silence for a solid ten-count. “I saw a deer an hour ago.”
“Fascinating.” A smirk curved his lip. “Well unless you’ve been wondering if it’s carrying biological weaponry for the last sixty minutes, there must have been something on your mind.”
The life of a sniper is ninety-nine percent killing time--Clint knew that better than anyone. There was always the clarity of focus in the moments before the kill, but the rest of the time was a waiting game.
Natasha reached for the thermos of tea by her hip, clasped it between her palms. “Fine. My apartment. And no, I will not tell you which one. Taking a bath and listening to Balakirev.”
“It’s where I want to be,” she said, staring too intently at the thermos. “Not all of us daydream about being served cocktails by a waitress in a bikini.”
“I said nothing about the waitress, but let it be said that you have a mind for detail.” He poked his head out from the blanket enough to flash her a grin. “Come on. Now I have solid proof that you can do better than that. Let’s hear a good one. If you could be anywhere but here, where would you be?”
After a beat, she spoke. “Portofino. The Italian Riviera. The terrace of the Ava Gardner Suite at the Splendido Mare.”
Clint smiled. “Not a bad start.”
Natasha swung her legs over the edge of the window sill and fixed him with fierce stare. Challenge accepted. Even in the dim light, her green eyes seemed to glow. “The sun is setting over the bay. We have a bottle of Monfortino.”
Clint arched an eyebrow. “We?”
“I’m leaning against the railing, wearing nothing but a robe.” Clint’s mouth went suddenly dry. “And you walk out onto the balcony and pull the sash away.” Her tongue darted out moistening her lips. “You lean in, and kiss me--hard, long, wanting.” She drew out every syllable, watching his eyes, searching for his reaction.
He’d never been so grateful for a fucking space blanket covering him before. “And?”
“I kick you in the groin and toss you over the edge and you fall fifty feet to your death.” Natasha shrugged. “This game is stupid.”
Clint swallowed hard, unwilling to tear his eyes away from her. “I don’t want to play with you anymore. God, I swear after this mission I am making Fury send me someplace warm.” Natasha gave him a disinterested look before picking up her thermos again. “Is that your secret? To not fucking freezing to death?”
“It helps,” she said, with a curious head tilt. “I don’t get cold.”
“Lucky,” he muttered, closing his eyes and trying to conjure up images of warm sand. Warm water. Warm sun. Warm... Natasha.
“Move over,” she murmured, crouching down beside him. She tugged at the corner of his blanket cocoon and slid in next to him. God, she practically radiated heat.
“Shouldn’t you be keeping watch?” he asked, thankful that his demise in her fantasy had killed any biological response that would have made this awkward.
She pulled the blanket around her shoulders, fitting herself as close to him as possible. “They’ll trigger a silent alarm as soon as they’re within the perimeter.”
Clint hesitated for a moment before sliding an arm around her waist. It seemed to make the most sense, fitting their bodies together to maximize heat shared. It seemed to make sense to her as well because she shifted closer, leaning her head into the space between his neck and his shoulder. She let out what could absolutely not have been a sigh.
“Better?” she asked.
“Yeah.” He swallowed. “This better not end with me getting kicked in the groin.”
She gave him a swat on the arm. “It was just a fantasy; none of it’s real.” Her voice sounded almost sullen. “You can’t surf.”
“I can take lessons.”
Natasha made a small noise, which he knew by now meant I’m done talking.
Clint wouldn’t have believed it if he saw it, but he could feel it. Natasha had always been pure, tightly coiled energy. She stalked the halls of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base like a caged tiger, on the prowl and ready to pounce. Her muscles were always primed and ready for the next move, but, with his body pressed so close to hers, he felt those muscles start to relax.
Outside the cabin, a lazy drift of snow began to fall.
When she spoke again, it was so softly that he almost missed it. “Veracruz.”
“I’m in Veracruz,” she said. “The apartment where I took you on our first mission. I’m in my bedroom, lying on my bed with a book. Something Tolstoy, maybe. It’s three in the afternoon and there’s warm sun coming in from the window. And I fall asleep.”
Clint craned his head, trying to get a good look at her face, but it was hidden--masked by a cascade of red curls. She didn’t flinch away from his hand when he brushed her hair back behind her ear. For a moment, her eyes skipped up to meet his in the dim light. They looked different--no longer holding that wild, frenzied blaze he’d seen that night in Stockholm, like a fire that was going to burn her to ash from the inside out.
Or maybe it was just the light.
“I thought that apartment was underground,” he said.
“You just never left the first floor.”
“You’re a terrible host.”
Natasha cracked a wry smile. “I didn’t want you bleeding on my bed.”
He probably was never going to see those other floors. Natasha had built so much space around her, built up so many walls. How could she not have? He’d read her files, what was known about her past. Her childhood had been destroyed, broken down, and the pieces of her rebuilt into a killing machine. And yet, he could tell, that somewhere in the labyrinth that was Natasha Romanoff, some impossibly small piece of herself had been shielded, protected.
Clint would probably never see it, he doubted anyone ever would; but he couldn’t help but feel that she had just opened to him one of a thousand doors.
Natasha didn’t slam doors. Slamming a door was an act of emotions overruling actions. Petulant children slammed doors. Agent Natasha Romanoff did not slam doors. And yet--she just had. Twice. First on the way out of Stark-- no, Pepper Potts’s office, and then again as she entered the apartment S.H.I.E.L.D. had set up for her for this assignment.
She fell heavily back against the door letting her eyes slide shut. The sooner Stark had a cure for himself, the sooner she didn’t have to deal with him anymore. Natasha had met her fair share of infuriating scum-of-the-earth, but few of them knew her intentions until it was too late and none of them lived to tell about it. Stark was another story entirely. No, she had to watch and wait and protect him, while he poked and prodded at her like she was yet another thing he could experiment on.
Is there anything real about you?
It took all of her strength to stop herself from putting her fist through the wall. Instead, she smoothed out the wrinkles of her dress, bolted the door, and made her way into the kitchenette. She grabbed a mug from the cupboard and filled it with water from the tap. She’d just started the microwave when her phone started buzzing in her purse.
“Hello?” she asked, voice clipped.
A too familiar voice greeted her on the other end. “What was with the Latin?”
“Clint?” Curiously, her heart seemed to skip a beat. She chalked it up to her frustrating day, mixed with the unexpected call.
“One of the fun things about being partially-deaf, you learn to read lips.”
Fury had better not find out about this. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in Pakistan.”
“I bargained for some time off so I could take surf lessons.” She could hear the smirk in his voice. “Really, Nat. What did Stark do?”
“It’s nothing,” she said, drumming her fingers along the edge of the counter. The microwave beeped and she removed her mug. “He’s just irritating me, that’s all. You shouldn’t have called.”
“You’re lying,” Clint said. “I’ve seen you put up with people worse than Stark. I’ve never seen you like this.”
Before she could answer, she heard a tapping at her window. She spun around to see Clint perched on the fire escape, with a smirk on his face. She slammed her phone forcefully down onto the table and stalked across the room. She opened the window the inch that she could before setting off her own trap. “What the hell are you doing out there!?” she demanded.
“I thought you could use some company.” Clint closed his phone and slid it into his pocket.
She stared, jaw slack, groping for words. “Are you trying to blow my cover?”
“Not a chance. If anyone sees, all they’ll be wondering is why Natalie Rushman from legal isn’t doing that delicious piece of man-candy who dropped by her apartment.”
Natasha shook her head, undid the trap and opened the window to let him in. “You’re unbelievable.”
“Thanks.” Clint slid almost gracefully into the apartment and slid his sunglasses off. “Now what did Stark do?”
She shut and latched the window, heading straight back for the kitchenette. “I told you, already, it’s nothing.” Natasha took a pouch from her box of herbal tea and dropped it into the rapidly cooling water in her mug.
Clint leaned against the wall, and even though she wasn’t facing him, she knew he was studying her intently. “Lemon and jam.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s what you’re going to get out of the fridge next. Lemon and jam. That’s how you make your tea, Tasha; the same way every single time. At first, I thought you drank it because you needed a caffeine fix, but then I realized you drink it when you need to calm your nerves.”
When did the oxygen leave the room, she wondered. Her chest ached and she felt unbearably lightheaded. She turned around slowly to find Clint watching her with what she’d come to realize was his concerned face. It wasn’t until some of the hot water splashed out of her mug and burned her that she realized her hands were shaking. She quickly placed the cup on the counter, hoping to cover, but he’d noticed--of course he’d noticed, he always noticed.
“Appearances are deceiving?” Clint asked, stepping towards her. “I mean my Latin's a little rusty but that’s more or less what you told Stark, right?”
Natasha didn’t trust her own voice right then, so she just nodded.
“Good. I just know that it didn’t actually translate to sending someone to collect him.”
Natasha laughed despite herself. “I’d have found someone to drive him off a cliff.” She let out a deep breath, the tightness in her chest easing for the first time. “He never knows when to stop pushing buttons.”
Clint scoffed. “Scientists.”
“I’m not one of his projects,” she said, turning away from him. She flung the refrigerator door open and reached for the lemon juice and raspberry jam. “I’m not an experiment. I’m not some machine. I’m not...” She froze with one hand on the cool glass jar. Her voice became so tight, so strangled, she barely recognized it as her own. “He said I’m not real.”
The moment seemed to stretch on, unchanging. She felt suspending, without steady footing, adrift in time and space. Her heartbeat thudded so loud in her own ears that she didn’t hear Clint approaching. His hands landed gently on her shoulders and she let him turn her around.
“Hey,” he said softly. “You are real.” The warm calloused skin of his hands slide up, cupping her cheeks and tilting her face up to look at him. His eyes were soft and sincere and she was still shaking. “You’re not empty, you’re not replaceable, you’re not anyone’s project.”
She swallowed hard, grasping for words. “Fury made me yours.”
“No,” he said with a mock long-suffering sigh. “He made you my problem, not my project. And even if he had, I don’t think I would have been able to make a dent. And you’re not my problem either, Tasha. You’re my partner, and I wouldn’t want anyone else.”
Her heart skipped another beat, fluttering in her chest like a butterfly stretching its wings. Again, she found, her words had suddenly escaped her. She just stood there disarmed and he kept looking at her like she was something. “Clint, I...” When had she gotten so close to him? His face was mere inches from hers, and his mouth was so close she could lean up and kiss him with just the slightest bit of effort if she chose.
And she realized that with a start that she wanted to. But before she could do anything, Clint pressed a single soft kiss against her forehead. The spell was broken and Natasha let her eyes slide closed and slipped her arms around his waist. His arms twined around her shoulders, pulled her in close, and just held her--firm and solid and real in his arms. His cheek pressed into her hair and she felt him smile. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Yes.” And she was going to be. “Thank you.”
Clint pulled back, flashed her a grin. “Any time. I didn’t want to leave without making sure.”
“Fury’s sending me out to New Mexico.” He slid his sunglasses back on. “I knew he’d send me someplace warm for once.”
Natasha picked up her mug once more, her hands had finally stopped shaking. “Have fun playing in the sand.”
The sunglasses had reflective lenses, but she was sure he rolled his eyes. “You have fun playing nice with Stark.” Clint walked over to the window, undoing the lock, and sliding out onto the fire escape. “Try not to kill him.”
She couldn’t stop smiling. “No promises.”
After New York, as the wreckage was cleared, he slipped away unnoticed in the chaos--dropped off the radar completely. Except as long as S.H.I.E.L.D. existed there was no such thing as off the radar, just a game of hide and seek where they let you pretend to win. He would resurface when he was ready.
Except he didn’t.
Clint didn’t look surprised when he came back to his hotel room and found her sitting on the edge of the bed. His face was red and chapped from the howling wind outside, his hair glistening with melted snowflakes, his eyes too dark for even the dim light. “What are you doing here?” he asked, unable to meet her eyes as he slid off his jacket.
“That’s what I should be asking you,” she replied, keeping her voice even and cool and calm. “I thought you hated the cold.”
He wouldn’t look at her. She remembered the ice blue of his eyes, bright and cold and she’d faced it down and now he wouldn’t face her. She rose to her feet. “This is your answer, Clint? To hide and freeze?”
“You’re wasting your time, Natasha.”
Irritation flickered in her chest, a spark of flint and steel. His body was stiff, tense, and holding a war within himself. She had seen the look of a fractured person in the mirror too many times not to recognize it in him. Her hands clenched into fists at her sides.
It was not going to end like this. She had fought too hard to get him back, too hard to let him slip away and fade into nothing like this. “Clint!”
He wouldn’t respond, just stared out the window into the whirling blizzard outside.
She grabbed him by the back of the shoulder and whirled him around, her fist connected solidly with his jaw.
His nostrils flaring was the only signal as to what was coming next. He telegraphed a wide right hook, and she ducked underneath the swing. His knee came up connected with her torso and sending her stumbling back three steps. She lunged for him again, watching his eyes light - a scorching, angry blaze but it was something. He wasn’t dead inside.
Clint caught her by the shoulders, pressing her up against the wall. “Back off!” he hissed. Beneath the anger, something else was burning. His voice dropped to a low growl. “You need to stay away from me, Natasha.”
His words landed harder than his fist had, Natasha found herself reeling from the blow. No, she thought. No, she had fought too damn hard to bring him back from under Loki’s spell, bring him back to her. Like hell she was going to stay away from him now. She knocked his hands off her shoulders and before he could move, she captured his face between her hands, kissing him fast and fierce, and sound. Clint wrenched away like her lips had scorched him.
“I don’t need your pity.” He turned his face away. “So, if that’s all you came here for--”
“You don’t have it,” she said, stalking closer. “This isn’t about pity.”
“Then what is it?” He spoke every word, clipped and measured and restrained and she couldn’t stand the tone in his voice. He fought himself. He didn’t trust himself.
“I trust you, Clint.” She circled around him, trying to catch his gaze. “You trusted me, even when you probably shouldn’t have. You put yourself on the line for me. I can’t-- I won’t lose you now.”
He turned to her with defeat etched into every weary line on his face. “We can’t. I can’t. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“You think he broke you, Clint? Then, fix it.” She caught his face in her hands and kissed him once again. At least, this time, he didn’t pull away. “If you don’t put the pieces back together, then Loki’s won. And I’m not going to let that bastard win.”
Clint watched her with the eyes of a wild animal, a bird of prey, and something almost like life.
“It’s your life, Clint. It’s your choice.”
She never felt the shift coming, but in an instant she was flat on her back pinned between him and the thin hotel mattress. “My choice?” he said, his voice scraping barely above a whisper. “Like this?”
And then his lips were on hers, rough and chapped and cold and god, she didn’t want him to pull away. She threaded her arms around his shoulders, pulling his body down flush against hers. It was as unstoppable as a firing pin against the primer of a bullet. His hands tore at her clothes, seeking the warmth of her skin and a reminder of who he was, and she pulled at him, needing to have him close to her, needing to have him back.
The flurry of hands and mouths and torn clothing lasted only for a minute--then suddenly, they were skin to skin with Clint buried deep inside her, and everything went still.
Clint dropped his forehead against her shoulder, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps. “Natasha,” he said and his voice meant I’m sorry. He ran his fingers through her hair, kissed bruises and marks that Loki had left on her using Clint as a weapon; every movement of his body against her, inside her felt like an apology she never thought he owed.
She ran her fingers along the short hairs on the back of his neck, murmured his name against his skin, reminding him who he was, reminding her who he was to her. She could not put the pieces back together for him, it was a job he could only do himself. But Natasha would gladly hold him together for a long as he needed her to.
“More,” she murmured, pressing her lips to his temple. She hitched her leg up higher on his hip, opening her body to him, pulling him deeper. “Just more.” He eagerly obliged, his body rocking against her hard and fast.
Climax hit her sharply and suddenly and blindingly, and he followed right after. Together, they sank into the mattress, a single, sweaty tangle. This part was new, she thought. Not lying next to him, no, she’d slept beside him many times before. But this, after sex, she had no secondary motive, no objective to accomplish, and she just couldn’t bring herself to move.
Clint sagged against her, his face pressed against her shoulder - every sign of the internal battle he’d been waging had faded, his muscles fully relaxing as he sighed against her skin. As far as solutions though, this one was only temporary. But, as he dropped off to sleep, for the first time since New York, he looked like he had some peace and she was content just to hold him close.
The blizzard has passed by morning. Clint slept well past sunrise, leaving Natasha time to dress and fetch supplies--tea for herself, and coffee for him. She was in the middle of packing his bag for him when he finally stirred.
He watched her with a small flicker of disappointment. “What does Fury have for us now?”
“He didn’t send me.” Natasha rolled her eyes, pushed the styrofoam cup into his hand. “Come on, get dressed.”
“Then where are we going?”
“I don’t know. Somewhere warm. Let’s see if those surfing lessons paid off.”
A small smile appeared on his lips, growing into a full-blown grin. “I like the sound of that.” He wrapped one arm around her waist, tugging her down to the bed. She landed with one knee straddling his hips. Clint leaned up and kissed her soundly, his hand splayed low on her back.
"Kauai," he murmured, kissing his way across her collarbone and over to the edge of her shoulder.
“That's where I am right now. You. Me. A long deserted stretch of shoreline. Ever had sex on the beach?”
“Actually, I have. It’s not as fun as you might think. Sand in uncomfortable places.”
“You’re killing the fantasy,” he drawled, but there was still a grin on his face. “I'm talking perfectly isolated. Where no one will see--or hear us.”
“You know I hate this game,” Natasha said, crawling up out of the bed, valiantly fighting a grin. She gathered Clint’s pants off the floor and dropped them into his lap. “Hurry up, so we can make it reality.”