"This is an announcement for Dr Alan Theroux. Please come to the United information desk to pick up a message. Dr Alan Theroux, to the United information desk. Thank you."
Clint pauses with his hand gripping the strap of his duffel bag, and has to remind himself that he's allowed to appear surprised. While he's doing that, his bag moves another two feet down the conveyer belt.
"Shit. Sorry! Sorry," to the woman whose personal space he's invading as he lets himself be dragged along the baggage claim.
She glares back at him and looks as though she's a second away from covering her son's ears. Yeah, well done, Barton, swear more in the presence of the small child.
Clint hauls his bag off the belt, navigates into a clear zone of distractingly bizarre airport carpet, and sweeps the near distance for the United logo. Dr Alan Theroux is an alias from nearly three years ago. In the language he shares with Natasha it means: plans A through Z have just been thrown out the window, so break out the Greek alphabet and let's bullshit some new ones.
It also means trust me, but most of Natasha's codes mean that in one way or another. She does like to hide her insecurities in plain sight.
"How can I help you, sir?"
The woman staffing the United desk is wearing lipstick that's probably two shades darker than regulation red and a sly flick of eyeliner, personality peeping out from between her perfect hair and her uniform collar.
"Good--morning," Clint says, making a guess at it based on the angle of the sun through the high-up panes of glass, and also the way his jetlag is punching him in the kidneys. "I'm Alan Theroux, the announcement said there was a message left for me here?"
Fuck knows what he'll do if she asks for ID. What he's carrying at the moment is split between Clint Barton and a man by the name of Kasper Hański, a Polish journalist who ceased to exist the moment Clint left Kiev.
The woman tilts her head at him like she's measuring him for a coffin--Jesus, Clint needs a nap--and hands him an envelope.
"Your wife left this for you."
"Thanks," Clint says.
Alan Theroux's name is written on the envelope in what Clint recognises as Natasha's real handwriting, or at least the handwriting that she uses on her official paperwork. That sets him on edge more than anything else, up to and including the fact that he tried all the secure SHIELD lines on all of his burner phones while he was waiting for his bag, and every single one of them rang out or came up disconnected.
Inside the envelope is a letter which, when deciphered, says: SHIELD compromised. Keep radio silence. There's also a flash of Natasha-type humour, in the form of an uncoded addendum scrawled at the end of Georgia Theroux's rambling missive to her husband:
P.S. The media coverage is less than half right, as per usual. Welcome to unemployment.
Folded up inside the letter is a new passport, and a plane ticket. Clint has to blink blearily at the ticket before he accepts that it does say Boston and not Bogota or Berlin; in the past he's walked off one twenty-hour flight and straight onto another on Natasha's instructions, and he was half expecting to do the same now. Dulles to Boston is nothing. It's so much nothing that he's a bit freaked out.
He rips the baggage barcode off his bag and dumps it in the nearest bin, splashes some water on his face in a vain attempt to remove the creased and pessimistic appearance inflicted by commercial air travel, and then goes to join the check-in queue.
Natasha isn't at the gate. Clint keeps himself awake by walking past a few times, scanning the crowd of waiting passengers, before they call for boarding. He knows how to spot her, by now, even when she's changed her hair and her voice and the way she holds herself. His well-trained, far-seeing eyes will always find her in a room. They don't know how to do anything else.
It's fine; he knows better than to assume that just because she wants him to go some place, it means that she'll be going via the same route, or even going there at all. At a certain point trust edges into the ridiculous, and Clint passed that point years ago in a cold Hungarian city between one uncounted heartbeat and the next, a moment only recognised in retrospect.
And hey. It's not like Clint has any other demands on his time, right now. Even less than half of the media coverage, as supplied by the tiny muted TV at the gate lounge, is enough to make it very clear that he no longer has anything resembling a job.
So he's actually quite surprised when Natasha pushes her way politely down the aisle of the airplane, stows a bag in the overhead locker, and then slides into the vacant seat next to his just as Clint is perusing the diagram of people leaving their belongings inside the plane as they leave via the emergency slides, as if human beings have ever been that fucking selfless or sensible.
He looks up as she buckles her seatbelt. She's wearing one of her high-necked leather jackets and jeans, though has her hair pinned back in a style just a little too formal to be herself. He's got no clue how covertly she wants them to play this, but he's happy to improvise.
"Hey," she says.
There's a beat of hesitation that's unlike her, and then she leans over and presses her lips to his, lingering and sweet. Clint's eyes are startled closed for a moment and he has just enough time to smell her perfume before she pulls away, tangling the fingers of their hands together on the armrest as she does so.
He searches her face, quickly. Something pained and soft and as uncharacteristic as that hesitation flickers in the folds of skin beside her eyes. Then she pulls up one of her usual undercover smiles, banishing everything else.
It'll wait, whatever it is. It'll all have to wait. At least Clint can have that nap in the meantime.
He settles back into his seat and says, "What, you couldn't spring for business class?"
"I blew it all on the hotel room."
"There'd better be a jacuzzi."
"It's good to have you back," she says.
Her fingers are tight around his hand like it's the hilt of a knife.
The baggage claim in Boston is like being kneed in a sensitive spot by déjà vu, and of course the little screen announces that there will be a regrettable but unavoidable delay before their flight's bags are loaded onto the belt.
Natasha slides her arm through his. Clint looks inquiringly down at her, still half-playing Alan Theroux. She gives him a smile that's ambiguous enough for his skin to prickle.
"Don't tell me," he says. "Come with you if I want to live?"
Because Natasha is Natasha and spies are weird about airports, she locates a secluded space in less than a minute. Dusty racks on two walls, storage space for god knows what, but there's a light and there's a door with no handle, just a lock that Natasha picks, blind, in seven seconds flat; she does it leaning back against her own busy hands and humming like she's flirting with the world.
"Okay," Clint says, when they're inside and the door is closed behind them, "is this where you tell me what the fuck's been happening, Nat? Because I have a lot of questions, a lot, and my first one is--"
She kisses him with a force like the screech of brakes, like the first few seconds of a fall from a building. All Clint can do to begin with is keep his balance. Every time he somehow manages to forget that she's a fucking hurricane. She drags her mouth over his and Clint takes in a cave-diver's breath and kisses back, meets her bite for bite. She tastes like mint chocolate and the acerbic edge of apple juice, and she takes his face between her hands and holds him there like he might actually try to escape. Like if she gave him a chance to think about it, he'd come up with someplace he'd rather be than here.
You're smarter than that, Clint tries to say, with the brush of his thumbs on her collarbones through the leather, but Natasha might not hear him over the clamour of I need you to keep up that rings in the way she claims him, tastes him, learns him fast and dirty and anew like brushing up on Spanish, or Turkish, or Korean, tongues, Clint thinks, totally fucking distracted.
She started it and she's the one to pull away first, sucking in her breath in a startled, giddy rush. Her hands stay where they are. Clint's seen her break a man's neck from this pose.
"So, uh, I guess this is you working through some things," he says, dry as he can.
Natasha smiles at him and he's almost surprised not to see blood on her teeth. "You and your smart fucking mouth, Barton," she says, fond, and shoves her leg up against his crotch.
"Yeah, you know me," Clint says. He grabs at her waist and pulls her hard against him, gone from slow with sleep to breathless with need in almost no time at all. Natasha can do that, will do that.
It's his back against the door, Natasha's feet planted firmly and not giving an inch. If it ever came down to sheer muscular force against force, Clint would win, probably, but it never will, because she cheats. She twists. She'll always find leverage in the same way that Clint will always find a vantage point; it's who they are, in the cells and the sinew. But now Clint's got his claws into the image of it, of him holding her so she can't get away, and it's tangling itself together with the reality of her slippery, tensile tricks, and he can't decide which one is hotter but hey, the confused combination of the two is really working for him.
She pushes up against him and he groans against her mouth like a reflex, like he's been punched in the stomach, trying to get his dick up against her denim-wrapped hips. She slides out of the angle, infuriating, and stings a slap to his cheek before dropping her hands: uh-uh, no. Her mouth is sweet and vicious and playing with his lips, worrying at them, tortuous and thoughtful.
Clint gives up on the idea of getting off fast. He flattens one hand on her back with the tips of his fingers dipping below the waist of her jeans, low enough to brush lace elastic, and fucks his tongue deliberately into her mouth in a way he knows she'll pretend not to like.
Suddenly, the fact that her hair is still pinned up is deeply irritating.
He doesn't stop kissing her, but with his free hand he starts finding pins in the neat knot and working them free. She gives little hisses when strands of her hair catch and pull, but Clint keeps going because he loves, loves the way it feels to have the back of her head filling his palm, the curls of her hair tangled flat against her skull and falling down around his wrist.
He feels the necklace with the side of his little finger, which has slipped below the collar of her jacket, and gets that finger underneath it. To be honest he's not really thinking much past the idea of pulling and grinding the chain against her skin, because apparently her viciousness is catching, but there's not enough length for him to properly grasp. It's flush against her skin. And part of Clint's brain nudges him, it's hidden, and nudges him again, jewelry?, the pattern-seeing part that's always on the lookout for the thing that doesn't belong.
Natasha's breathing changes, slows, as Clint runs his finger around to the front of her neck, pulling the necklace up until the arrow is visible just above the worn-soft edge of the leather.
The thing is, he wouldn't put it past her for this to be--a nice gesture? A tease? Another damn code?
It's a gift he gave her a year ago and never expected her to wear; something fun between friends. Well, friends who'd slept together three times already and had decided, more or less, without ever actually talking about it, that it would happen again and that it wasn't allowed to change anything. Whatever their feelings were, they were their own damn business.
He can't immediately decipher what it means, that she's wearing it now.
Natasha tilts her head to the side and lets him roll the chain between his pinched finger and thumb. Her throat moves as she swallows, her lips pressed together, suddenly less sure and less smug.
"Like you said," she says. "I'm working through some things."
As he watches, she puts some of the parts of herself back into their boxes. Her shoulders settle. Her hands relax from weapons to simple, manicured tools. She blinks her danger away in the poor fluorescent light, and when she's done she opens the door and leads the way back outside.
So, she wasn't kidding about the hotel room.
Clint whistles as he drops his duffel, where it sits on the understated plushness of the carpet like a scruffy hobo who's accidentally wandered into a socialite ball. This is one of those rooms that's probably called a suite, and probably has a word like President's or Royal prefixing it. He wasn't listening as Natasha checked them in, he was torn between cataloguing the hundred easy sniper spots in the hotel atrium and trying not to yawn or fall into the fountain. Napping in the plane did take the edge off, but a larger sleep debt has its heavy hands on his shoulders like every bullnecked goon who's ever ushered him into a soundproofed room.
Natasha, tilting her head towards the windows. She's ducked in and out of half the suite already, making her usual businesslike sweep of available spaces, workable exits, and things that could plausibly be weaponised. Clint's role is to establish lines of sight, both in and out.
He starts with the main area--a corner space, two perpendicular walls of glass right up to the ceiling, sliding doors leading out to a balcony--and moves along to the bedroom, where he gets distracted by the size of the bathtub set into the black marble floor of the ensuite. It sings luxury in the same bold tones as the carpet and the crisp, matte white cotton sprawled snugly over the bed.
This is certainly better than anywhere he's been that didn't involve the name Stark. Wrangling money out of SHIELD for six-star hotel rooms is nearly impossible, though Natasha might not know this, because Robertson in Accounts is probably still sporting his terrified boner from that one time she stalked through the financial offices in a black evening gown and threatened him with evisceration in a bored, whip-tight voice, having mistaken him for the other Robertson, the one charge of munitions requisition. As a result, Natasha's undercover missions tend to have large budgets.
Natasha herself compartmentalises these things, doesn't make any choice without knowing exactly which part of herself is making it. She'll sleep on gravel without a qualm, will run a complex operation from the dirt floor of a room with a single flea-ridden mattress, but she's also impersonated a member of the Danish royal family for five straight weeks. Clint will never understand her entirely but he's made his peace with that.
He walks back out into the main room of the suite, buzzing, half in mission mode and half not. The lines of sight here go all the way down to the horizon, and his bow is folded neatly into a case in the duffel bag, and he can still feel the phantom press of Natasha's palms on his cheeks.
Natasha looks him up and down. "Do you want to sleep first?"
Oh, he wants to sleep. That bed is a siren trilling out his name. But enough sunlight has hammered down onto his face already that he's right on the verge of that sickly moment when fatigue trips over into the second wind, and besides. He has to know.
"I want you to tell me what happened."
She nods. She takes one end of the largest couch in front of the blank expanse of the television, tucks herself efficiently up with knees bent; settling. Clint takes the hint and seats himself on the other end, once he's shucked his shoes and socks. The space between them is silly--who needs furniture this large, anyway?--so he stretches his legs out into it.
"Hit me," he says.
Figure of speech.
But of all the soundproof rooms Clint's been led into by men with more muscle than wit, of all the blows he's taken--waiting, more often than not, for the woman with her ankles tucked together two inches from his toes on the achingly expensive suede of this couch--nothing's bruised him in quite the same way as what she tells him. He doesn't interrupt. He lets her report on the mission, he doesn't ask any questions, and at the end of it he's wide awake.
Natasha unfolds herself from the couch and walks over to the bar when she's done. She pours herself a glass of water and drinks half of it, standing there, looking at him. Her hair is mussed, a loop of her necklace still glinting where it's hooked over the jacket collar.
Clint clears his throat.
"Where does this leave the Avengers Initiative?"
She shrugs. "I guess we're not an Initiative anymore. We're just a group of people prone to expensive destruction of infrastructure, who have each other on speed-dial."
Clint calls up a smile for her, but he's still reeling, still sick with the whole idea of it, that while he was busy on the rooftops above Khreshchatyk a gun was in all likelihood being pointed, with vast and impersonal implacability, at his head. It's not like he can't see the symmetry there. Death from a distance is what he knows, after all.
Natasha finishes the water. Her stance is uneven, and it wasn't before; there's tension in the way she sets the empty glass down.
"Shot you in the shoulder, huh," Clint says.
She glimmers her own smile at him. "Expert medical care. Calm down."
Clint waves two fingers, show me.
Natasha sighs and unzips the leather jacket, slips out of it and lays it across the bar. Underneath she's wearing a blue T-shirt that clings and doesn't do anything to hide the lump of medical dressings.
It'd be hard to believe that he missed that, when an hour ago she had him shoved up against an airport door, except for the fact that he's seen her waltz smiling across a ballroom with a lung full of blood and an ankle broken in two places. When it comes to damage, Natasha keeps the whole world on a need-to-know basis.
She rolls her head on her neck and swings the arm back and forth in an experimental fashion, and comes back to the couch. This time she sits next to him, right on top of his legs, resting her uninjured arm along the back of it. He gets it: the distance was part of the debriefing.
"Go on," she says. "I know you've got more questions than that."
"Fury," he says.
"Dead," she says at once. "To the rest of the world. To anyone, as far as we're concerned. I'm trusting you with this."
"Did he tell you to?"
"If he didn't guess I would, then he should have."
"Good enough for me."
He shifts his legs so she can get comfortable, and is rewarded by the way she leans in and, after a considered moment, rests her head on his shoulder. He likes the deliberation in her intimacy, the way she owns every step of it, the way fierce gratitude sinks through his bones at the smell of her hair.
"Next question," she says.
There are a lot of them, obviously, but for a minute or so Clint's stuck thinking about HYDRA as the poisonous vine wrapped around SHIELD from the sapling stage onwards, infiltrating every branch of it. There will be a day soon when Clint will have to comb through a list of the dead, and he's already stupidly, selfishly glad that he probably won't know which half of the casualties represent traitors.
Then he thinks about Natasha--Natasha who's never been a sniper, who likes it when her enemies are close enough to touch and sentient enough to manipulate--fighting an impossible fight while all of her paranoia manifests itself at once.
He has to ask.
"Did you ever think that I might be --"
"No," she says. Danger flashes in the way her jaw clenches, the tendons of her wrist. She digs her nails into his leg. "Clint. No."
Come on, Barton. All in. The necklace; the way she kissed him in the plane. They are unmoored in the wake of crisis, the two of them, and Clint has the sniper's feel for invisible forces at work, and there's something large for the taking here if he only knew which way to reach.
Natasha doesn't answer right away. Her hand has been resting on his knee; now it lifts away and she rubs at the side of her neck.
Clint waits. She might think he's fishing for praise, for an admission, but he's prepared for the fact that he might not like the answer.
"Fury and I are similar in a lot of ways," she says finally. "Different in others. I thought that because I don't always see the bigger picture, I should put myself...at the disposal...of someone who does. But if Project Insight proved anything, it's that the picture can be too big. Too many variables and too many assumptions. Sooner or later you're so high in the heavens that you mistake yourself for God."
"Paved with good intentions, and all that."
"When I thought he was dead, it hurt," she says, careful and flat. "And when I found out he'd decided to keep me out of the loop, that hurt, too. That he didn't trust me." Her mouth twists. "It's never hurt before. Because I've never been surprised, before. I think--you can only be surprised by the absence of something when you have the capacity for it yourself," she says, even more carefully. There's a sense of layers to that statement, for all that the emotional honesty--from Natasha--is like a scald. He'll unpack it later. "At a certain point--"
"--trust edges into the ridiculous."
She lifts her head, pulls away a little. Her expression, canted away from him, is wry, acknowledging that for people in their profession, trust can be not only laughable but dangerous, as proven time and time again. As proven by where they are now, and by the pile of half-submerged rubble surrounding what used to be their place of employment. The one image that the media got right.
"Trusting SHIELD was a choice I made," she says. "I made it because of you, and because of Nick Fury."
Clint swallows and says nothing.
"It was a bad choice." Now her voice is light; edged with irony. "In hindsight."
"We've all made some of those," Clint says.
Natasha meets his eyes and there's something in her gaze that pins him without effort, that vast and invisible force rushing down towards them. Clint knows, without knowing how he knows, that she's about to answer his original question.
"But how I feel about you is not a choice. It's a solid thing. It exists and I didn't create it, and I can't destroy it."
Clint's brain is busy with useless retrospective fear and what's now well and truly an overtired alertness. He wants to respond, he wants to try and wrap up something of what he feels for her and put it in words that don't sound idiotic, but Natasha moves--one swift pivot on her knee, and she's sitting in his lap--and Clint puts his hands to the small of her back on reflex and couldn't recite his fucking two times table if he was asked to, because she's grinding down with sweet little sways of her hips.
The first time they slept together, they were drenched with river water and breathless with the knife's edge of escape, and Natasha was laughing as she took his hand and put it between her own legs, as she pressed her clammy-cold skin against his and hissed, I dare you.
The second time was the morning after the first. The third was two months later, midnight, up against the wall of a SHIELD combat training room, her hair like the ashy film over volcanic lava in the half-light and Clint's arms already aching from the workout as he got his hands under her thighs. The fourth. The fifth. He could, if he thought about it, count every occasion off on his fingers, recall what she was wearing and whose blood was staining it.
It's always been her to initiate things. Always been her call. The reason for that is probably an even split between Clint's desire not to fuck anything up through poor timing, and the fact that his skin sparks when she bites her lip, when she reaches out and drags him close, when the hurricane of what she needs includes him. That deliberation of choice is what gets to him, every time.
"Hmm," she says. "Little help here?"
She lifts up the hem of her T-shirt enough that he gets the point, and between them they manoeuvre the shirt up and off around her sore shoulder. The dressing's not that large, and the pad of it is pristine white with not a speck of blood or ooze, so Clint's going to ignore the damage until specifically told otherwise. If they played gentle for battle wounds they'd never get anything done.
Shirt gone, Clint runs his palms restlessly up and down her back, greedy for skin, skimming over familiar scars and the trim lines of her torso, the way the muscles beneath her shoulderblades bunch and smooth out between the straps of her bra.
Natasha shifts her hips back a few inches, tilts his chin up with one finger and bestows a quick, heady kiss on his lips. Then she rests that arm around his neck and reaches down with the other, works her hand straight into his pants and around his cock without so much as a raised eyebrow in warning.
Clint lets out half the air in his lungs in a barking gasp against the hollow of her neck, and tries to move.
"Easy, soldier," Natasha says, and backs it up with her fingers, digging into his shoulder. "Easy. Easy."
"Got it," Clint pants, because that was a command.
Seems like the thing in the airport was Natasha releasing the pressure valve, letting some of the urgency out, and now she wants to go slow. That's alright: Clint can do slow.
He uses the hand between her shoulderblades to get her close, licks a tightening spiral beneath the corner of her jaw and then sucks, gentle, a teasing pressure only. He's allowed to cheat if she is, and this is one of the few shortcuts available to him while her jeans are still firmly fastened. There's a hint of bitterness, citrus and smoke, the last notes of her perfume lingering here where it was dabbed.
When he increases the suction, Natasha makes a soft sound and jerks her head to let her hair fall aside, then melts forward against him. Her skin is so warm under his palm. In this mad palace of a hotel the air temperature is perfect, but she's always run hotter than anyone else.
She's not applying much pressure of her own, just holding him, and giving the head of his cock an occasional rub with her curled-under fingers, but Clint's swollen in her hand already.
"Ah," she sighs. Her carotid is a racing kiss, thrumming under his tongue. The fingers at his shoulder move down his arm, a caress that then glides up beneath the sleeve of his shirt and goosepimples the skin of his whole arm. "God, I needed this, I need…"
He gambled right: the sarcasm gets him a hard warning squeeze, and Clint's head thuds back against the couch, breaking contact. The place where his lips were latched on is slick and red, a bruise to mark her pulse.
"Yeah," she says, silken.
It's pretty dry, pretty rough, not slick enough for the kind of handjobs that Clint prefers, but it's Natasha and it's her weaponised hands, it's her body fevered and flush against his and her thighs pinning him to the couch. Slow or not, this isn't going to take long.
"Stop," he gasps, "stop, fuck it, stop."
Natasha stills her hand at once, though doesn't remove it. "Clint," she says. Checking in.
Clint leans in again and opens his mouth against her skin, just above her breast this time. "Not what I--fuck," he mutters. "Don't want to come like this."
Still, her hand doesn't move.
"Oh," she says. Her voice has dropped a register and Clint's fucked, he really is, but maybe he can still choose how. "Well, that's interesting, Agent Barton."
Clint groans and nips at her skin, vindictive. He hopes it leaves a mark.
She hisses and shifts against him, but she's still calm when she says, "What did you have in mind?"
"I want," Clint says, and shit, God, she needs to take her hand away or he's going to lose control and start rutting against it, "fuck, I want to come inside you, alright, I want you, Nat, want to spread you open and get my mouth on you, get you so wet I can just slide right on in, and I want to come when I'm so deep in you you're gonna feel me there for days."
It's a fucking miracle he managed to get all of that out in the right order, and hell, maybe he didn't, but Natasha shivers and looks down at him, eyes wild and blown dark.
"Right," she says, and there's a tiny waver in the word that Clint's going to claim as a victory. She pulls her hand out of his pants--Clint bites down on a noise at the friction--and kisses him, messy, clashing her teeth against his lip so hard it stings. "Bed, maybe."
"Bed," Clint agrees.
Natasha climbs off him and strips efficiently out of her jeans, no finesse or seduction, but Clint still has to swallow hard and tip his head back to stare at the frilly moulding around the ceiling light, because her bare legs are plenty distracting enough. And that's before he thinks about what his mouth was babbling before; thinks about the way Natasha's whole body arches when he's holding her knees down on the sheets, the way she swears and writhes when he licks slowly, slowly into her and refuses to speed up.
Natasha kicks her jeans aside and walks towards the bedroom.
"Your plan's solid," she calls, not turning around. "But you know me. If I get bored, I'm going to improvise."
"Fuck you," Clint says, kind of awed.
"Uh huh," she says. "So get a move on."
"Alright," Clint says, later. "Why Boston?"
The dishes from two separate room service orders are scattered on the bedroom's side tables and also the floor. Natasha's sitting up against some pillows, knees bent, sipping intently from a glass of white wine. She's still wearing her bra--a miracle of black and cream lace which Clint's going to maybe think about removing later, but which can definitely stick around for now--but nothing else. Well, nothing except the necklace, and the dressing taped over the wound in her shoulder.
Clint scrubs one more time at his damp hair with the towel, which is absurdly fluffy, and gives her a look.
"Come on, Nat."
She lifts her glass in the direction of the window. Evening is deepening into night outside, all negative space and city lights through the pale, filmy curtains.
"I wanted out of DC, and I don't feel like tripping over Tony Stark in the street, but we should stay in the area in case Steve needs my help. Our help," she amends, absent.
"Steve?" he says. It's more a comment than a question. Up until now the man's been Rogers in conversation and Cap to his face. Steve is new.
Natasha acknowledges his point with a shrug of one shoulder and an expression like pleased surprise that settles on her face.
Clint pulls back the too-white, too-soft bed cover, which is now thoroughly creased, and slides between the sheets.
"You reckon he'll just take off like that? On his own?"
"Sam's with him," she says, just as easy on that name as on Steve's. Good. She could do with more friends. "You didn't see him, Clint. Barnes is his priority. I can't imagine he'd be doing anything else."
Something in her voice makes him pause.
"Do you think he shouldn't be?" he asks.
Natasha turns her face in his direction until one cheek is pressed against her knees. Her hair falls down over the curve of her cheekbone and she's so beautiful that Clint is angry with it, burned by it. She looks tired, or young. She reaches with her near hand to touch the skin beside one of his eyes.
"That would be pretty hypocritical of me," she says, "now wouldn't it?"
This is one of their good, important silences. Clint lets it play itself out before he speaks.
"But why stay on the east coast? It sounds like that chase could lead him anywhere."
"It could," Natasha agrees, "and it probably will. But it's going to end in Brooklyn."
He doesn't ask her how she knows. As soon as she says it the truth of it flicks into focus, like the moment when an arrow leaves the string and Clint can look away because he already knows that it will strike its target. Gravity and torque and the breath of the wind; there are larger forces at work. In the end we all drift back to where we began.
Clint is used to struggling with the stupid largeness and smallness of what happened to him. With the fact that he still jolts awake in cold sweats wondering if he's waking from nightmare or faithful flashback; that sometimes he lets the anger and the violation and the nauseating passivity of those days wash over him until he wants to retch, and yet--it's unoriginal, what happened to him. What he did under Loki's influence. Face facts, Barton: who he slaughtered, ice-eyed and keen, without heed or hesitation or regret.
It was done to other people. It was done to Natasha, and other girls like her, years before the Asgardians and the Tesseract's chill blue heartfire were a whisper on this planet. And it was done to the man called James Buchanan Barnes.
No, there's nothing special about any of them. This club of killers, survivors, unmade and uneasily reshaped. It's just something to carry around with them, like a scar in the webbing between the trigger finger and the next.
And Natasha was right: neither of them can find anything surprising in the fact that Steve Rogers would throw himself headlong at the chance to chase down the machine that Barnes has become, crack him open and search him hungrily for the smallest scrap of his best friend. Clint's read the file. Fuck, he's been to the Smithsonian exhibit, which probably tells a more useful truth because there's emotion in it, narrative instead of fact.
Clint's also read what little there is on the Winter Soldier, the ghost behind the wreckage, and he suspects it'll take Rogers a lot more than a smart blow to the head or a stirring speech to work that particular miracle. But people would have said the same thing about the Black Widow, all those years ago.
Yeah, he gets what she means about hypocrisy.
"So we wait for the showdown, all right," he says. "You don't think Fury will have work for you, though?"
"He will. Cut off one head, et cetera." She looks fleetingly grim. "This is going to be a snake hunt. There'll be work enough, and then some. But we left a trail a mile wide getting here; Maria Hill knows where we are."
"Will you take his orders?"
Natasha goes distant, fighting a small war somewhere within herself. She drains the last mouthful of wine from her glass and sets it on the table by her side of the bed.
"I'll hear them," she says.
The pillows are like a dream of falling, and Clint's head has moved from buzz to soft ache. Natasha's restless as she settles, curled on her good side with her feet tucked under his leg and her hand trailing over his jaw, his throat, his chest, as though he's an illusion. As though she has to touch him to keep him solid.
He wakes in the deep amnesiac hours of the night and Natasha is sitting up in the bed, splashed with moonlight and city glow through those eggwhite curtains. Her eyes are open and fixed on the wall. For a moment he thinks she's trembling, but it's a trick of the light, because he touches her leg and she's perfectly still.
"Natasha," he says.
She looks terribly, terribly lost.
"Natasha," he says again.
"I just need a moment," she says. Her voice is throaty with sleep. "Maybe a few moments."
Clint rubs a worried hand over the corner of his jaw, which is getting scratchy with stubble. This is, he knows, about the information that she flung out onto the Internet for the world to see. The stupid fucking king-rat mess of SHIELD and HYDRA, secrets tangled all to hell, the good and the bad and the better left buried. He wonders if she hesitated for even a second, before surrendering the history that's been both her armour and her smouldering shame.
She probably doesn't know what kind of person that makes her. Leave your personal effects on board the plane, ladies and gentlemen. Step onto the slide with your tender feet bare and your hands emptied.
"Maybe a few months?" he suggests, lightly.
He's been wondering if this will turn out to be a farewell, of sorts. Touching base before she embarks solo on whatever odyssey of rediscovery she needs before the snakehunt begins. The thought is an ache in the base of his throat, fatiguing and heavy but manageable nonetheless. They're so very good at walking away from one another; so practiced at picking up where they left off.
"I've started my life from scratch before," she says. "I know how to do it. Pack one bag, essentials only, find a hotel room and regroup. Make plans."
"One bag?" Clint says. "Nat, I've travelled with your shoe collection."
She grins, small and sharp, but wary. She shrugs.
"So that's what I did this time, too."
Meaning falls into the silence. Clint's heart trips over a single one of its own beats.
"Natasha," he says, one last time.
Natasha runs the tip of her middle finger back and forth along the arrow where it sits in the hollow of her throat. She looks at him, steady, and says, "Everything I need is in this room."
He reaches for her, can't help it, tangles his hands in her hair and pulls her down, none too gently. She goes easily, hooks a leg over his hips and fits herself to him. Her eyes are like fire, pinprick arrows loosed burning into a starless sky, and Clint finds her mouth and kisses her with the violence that's theirs alone, kisses her and kisses her until he has to break for breath. She laughs very quietly and touches his lips with her fingertips and he kisses those as well, and he loves her. He loves her, it exists and he didn't create it, and with her lying above him like this with her deadly hands on his smart mouth he can't imagine anything that could destroy it. No, he's not walking away. He would go to the ends of known and unknown worlds with her, and never look back.
"Well," he says, against her fingers. "That's a start, at least."