They all crash at Stark Tower for the night. Thor agrees he’s in no rush to return to Asgard, and that there’s also a time lapse between when he signals he is ready to go and when they’ll be ready to receive him.
He tries to explain it with the vocabulary of a man used to letting his actions speak for him, and they all put it in the doesn’t need an explanation because it’s magic column.
They all sleep on couches in a lounge, but every couple of hours she wakes up to check on Clint. She realizes, the second time, that Rogers is waking up just as often, and he smiles wryly at her: the smile of a man who’s so used to a war and looking out for his men that he doesn’t know how to stop.
“What’re you doing?” Stark asks the next morning. She’s commandeering one of the company jets, and she’s letting the airport know to expect them. She knows he can see all of this and that the question stems entirely from his obsession with his own voice. “Are you abandoning us?”
Rogers hands Banner a stack of pancakes and bacon, and then he takes his own plate and goes to sit next to Clint on the couch. Stark steals a piece of bacon off of Banner’s plate as he walks by and grins at Banner as he does it.
She estimates it will take them about two weeks to sleep together, and only that long because of Banner’s ongoing wariness about fucking. It would be unfortunate to be mid-thrust only to find you’ve speared your partner through.
“So,” Stark says, eating obnoxiously, “you’re going to, what, fuck the life back into him?”
Natasha pulls out her phone.
“What’s--who’re you calling?” Stark asks, and at least he looks nervous, shifting his weight back and forth rapidly.
“Rhodes,” she says, looking at him. “I’m going to warn him that if he’s ever tortured, mind-raped, and kills some of his men, is kicked in the head until he snaps out of it and then makes the decision to come to you? You’re going to fuck him because you think your jizz has healing properties.”
She aims a look at his dick and then flicks her eyes back to his, tilting her head.
Stark blinks at her. “Understood.”
“I’m thrilled,” she tells him, and crosses the room to Rogers and Clint.
“I never liked you!” Stark shouts behind her, petulant.
“Ready?” she asks Clint.
He stands up, and he and Rogers shake. She lifts her eyebrows at him and he knocks his shoulder against hers as they walk out of Stark Tower. No comment. She always knew Clint was a patriot, and before he was an assassin he was an army man.
Usually Clint flies, but since this is a Stark plane the thing flies itself.
“This is not--” Fury says, and then exhales. “You think this will be good for him?”
Coulson, she thinks uncharitably, would have told her not to start an international incident. She exhales and cracks her neck: this grief isn’t hers. Or rather, her grief isn’t a priority.
Clint is sitting in his chair, completely checked out.
“We’ll come back on our own,” she says instead of answering him. “Barring another incident like the last, don’t call us in.”
“Bring him back in one piece,” he tells her. She can’t give him the scathing look she wants to, so instead she just hangs up on him.
She’s going to bring him back alive. She just isn’t sure how many pieces that will be in.
“That was just like Budapest,” she says instead, slouching into her chair.
Clint takes a few seconds to rouse, and when he does he stares at her incredulously. “It was not.”
“Budapest was a shit-show,” he says.
“We survived,” she points out. It had been a really bad moment where the KGB, a few Red Room operatives, and the drug trade all decided to pitch a fit in the middle of a slum. They had staked out a street corner and it had been a frenzied bloodbath.
She supposes there were more actors in the arena in Budapest.
“You were half-dead,” Clint says. “And I had a concussion, and they were trying to re-brainwash you and flip me. This had nothing to do with us.”
In Budapest there hadn’t been a team effort. SHIELD hadn’t been able to get to them and when they got out it was bloody and on them, and she had woken up in a hospital in Munich with Coulson reading Die Zeit casually.
She doesn’t look at the other two seats in the cabin, because Coulson won’t be there and there’s no point in looking.
He takes a couple of seconds to realize where they are, and when he does he grunts, “Russia, really?”
She throws a pair of gloves at his head and heads into Yakutsk’s late-April blizzard. He didn’t dress for the weather, but then again he fell asleep on the plane and she didn’t tell him where they were going. He should have asked if he wanted to know.
“Zatknis',” she says, snatching the bag out from under his fingers. He gives her a look.
She was trained here. It’s not home, the way that Rogers might say Brooklyn is home or Fury would say Chicago is, but it is solid ground. She knows the rules here intimately: you come to Russia, you’re fighting for your life.
She’s good at that: she’s excellent at that. The fact that the life she’s fighting for this time isn’t hers is irrelevant.
Sometimes, to cry, to scream, you need to stand in the middle of a thunderstorm and let the rain mix with your tears and the thunder mute your voice. And sometimes, to shake apart, you need to live in an apartment that stays only barely above freezing.
Here, in this small apartment, he can sit by the fire and shiver in the cold. He can shake apart and hold up his frostbitten fingers as proof that he’s not trembling.
She just packs extra layers and drinks a lot of coffee. When he wants to know why there’s never any coffee when he looks she tells him it will stunt his growth.
Bruce calls, and she stares at the phone for so long it almost goes to voicemail.
After an awkward exchange of pleasantries, he gets to the point of the call:
“Are we...okay?” he asks, and she rolls her eyes. “I mean. I know you said it, but we were having kind of a ‘rah rah go team yay!’ moment and I just...wanted to. Make sure you were okay. That we--that we’re okay.”
“I have more context, now,” she tells him, tracing a finger in the frost on the dining room window. Really, this apartment has far too many windows for its climate. Single-paned, all of them.
“Plus I can control him,” he says encouragingly. Someone, Stark, she thinks, says something in the background. “Well. Kinda,” Bruce amends.
“I wouldn’t complain if you firmed that up,” she admits.
“How is Barton?” he asks.
Natasha glances over at Clint. He shot a caribou and is now trying to hack it up in the small kitchen. It’s horrifying: at this rate there won’t be enough to eat. The smell is awful. She butchered mobsters with less mess.
“Too soon to say,” she says. “He’s pretty shit as a hunter, though.”
Clint flips her off over his shoulder.
She’s not going to tell him that he needs to hang that thing up for a month before trying to cut it up, because she doesn’t really think that eating it is the point.
The Clint-and-Coulson-Thing was always impossible to navigate. They were one unit before she even joined, before they even heard of her. She thinks they came in together, and that when Coulson moved from ‘handler’ to ‘liaison and field agent’, Clint refused to be transferred. Fury had accommodated them because Clint is a valuable asset, and no one looked into it further.
Which was good, because Clint probably would have shot their eyes out. She wanted to soak hers in bleach the first time she walked in on them, which they agreed made things even.
In any event, when she wakes up one night, early into their second week in Yakutsk, she doesn’t have to even look at the laptop to know Clint’s watching the surveillance footage from the helicarrier. She just slams the laptop shut on his fingertips and wrenches it out of his hands.
“Fuck, Natasha!” he yells, pressing his fists against his chest.
“You don’t need to see that,” she says. She needs the laptop to do research for their jobs. With a groan she sits up and starts working on the firewall.
Beside her, Clint grits his teeth. “I want to--”
“He dies,” she says, brutal. “Loki is two places at once and he stabs Coulson in the back with the spear. Coulson fires one of the Phase 2 weapons and it barely scratches Loki. Fury finds him about the time I finish kicking you in the head, and the medics call it.”
His throat works, and he pulls his knees up, resting his elbows on them and scrubbing his hands over his face. It’s all short, tightly controlled movements. “He should have wa--”
“Don’t do that,” she says, and it’s not her place to be furious. Coulson was a good man, with less blood on his hands than most of them, but he wasn’t anything special to her. She doesn’t have the right to want to protect his memory, but she thinks that’s overridden by her moral obligation to tell Clint when he’s being a fucking idiot. “Don’t spit on his grave like that.”
He looks at her, miserable, and she sighs and puts the laptop down. She scoots back against the headboard and tucks him against her shoulder and holds on the way he’s held her through a particularly bad spell.
“He died fighting. It could have worked, and he died trying to save the world,” she says. “He died and it sucks, but it got everyone together because everyone knew him and respected him and wanted to avenge him.”
“The Avengers,” Clint says, laughing a little hysterically as he pulls the blankets up to their chins.
“Classy variation on Phil’s Angels,” she agrees.
“Shit, Tasha,” he whispers, and shakes and shakes and shakes.
They don’t sleep that night.
People don’t understand why they don’t fuck. Explaining that they’re friends never seems to work; co-workers has less effect.
They end up saying that they’re like siblings, and people tend to let that go, but neither of them has any experience with family. Clint was given up for adoption and cycled through the foster system until he aged out of it and she was picked up by Red Room when she was four and trained to be an assassin.
She thinks if they are siblings, they’re shield siblings: brother and sister forged in battle.
It sounds like something Thor would say: she kind of wants to tell him.
She’s kind of surprised by that.
She’s surprised it takes as long as it does. He’s drunk, and he’s playing with one of her guns. The safety’s off.
“You’re Russian,” he says, and she tilts her head at him, uninterested in semantics. More interested in the gun. “We should play.”
“Wrong weapon to play with,” she points out. “Russian Roulette hinges on a chance: death is certain with that.”
“Yeah,” he agrees, nodding heavily. “Yeah, that’d be.”
“Bad,” she fills in. “That’d be bad, Clint.”
“I’m really tired,” he says, his face crumpling a little. “And I’m cold, and he’s dead. He’s--he’s dead.”
“You could eat it,” she says. “I’d tell Fury I was out, didn’t realize. Could bury you in Vermont with your family. ‘Here lies Clint, he was a dick and ate a bullet’.”
“You can’t put that on my--”
“I can, actually, because you’ll be dead, so you won’t have creative input,” she says.
He doesn’t give her the gun, but she doesn’t ask for it. Instead they sit in the dark apartment next to a dying fire, watching their breath.
“Did you ever get that low?” he asks her the next morning, when she’s making breakfast.
“No,” she says, because she hasn’t ever. It’s never been an option, and if she’s thought of it it’s always an afterthought. She thinks it’s because they got her so young, and her threshold of misery is so high. But it’s also because she doesn’t have someone like Clint had Phil.
“But,” she says, plating the eggs and handing him one, “I’ve never been there.”
She’s never lost someone she loved since she got into this life.
They have their ticks. Clint can’t stay on a ground level for more than six hours. He starts to get antsy and claustrophobic, and by hour 18 he starts acting like he’s going through detox unless he’s on a job (even if he’s on a job--the symptoms are just covered by the fact that he’s pissed).
Natasha gets overtaken some days by the need to give herself alcohol poisoning. Things get loud in her head and she remembers all of Red Room and all the things she can usually keep compartmentalized and tucked away. So she always goes out to the nearest liquor store, buys a bottle of vodka, and drinks it. She doesn’t pass out, and Clint always finds her and sits with her, makes sure she doesn’t crash and die in her own vomit.
Right now, Clint can’t deal with people, so Natasha does it.
“It’s been two months,” he tells her one night, shaking beside her. She rolls onto her side to look at him in the dim light.
“There has been extensive training--”
“Shut up,” she interrupts, because she doesn’t care. She doesn’t want to hear him justify the reasons why he thinks he’s coming up short. “How long did it take me, after you decided not to kill me?”
He doesn’t say anything, because the answer is: years. It took her a year to get on her feet, and two years to be any good as an agent again.
“I’m not saying it’ll take you that long,” she says. “You don’t have years of conditioning to overcome. And you have that really legitimate excuse of being mind-raped.”
“Jesus Christ,” he chokes, pressing his face into the pillow, but not before she sees the grin. She doesn’t really understand what’s funny about that, but if it makes him smile...
“Go the fuck to sleep,” she says.
“I wasn’t supposed to be the one who got left,” he says one night. They’re on their first non-sanctioned job in years, breaking into the safe of a businessman in Hong Kong. “We didn’t plan for this.”
She did, though she thinks that’s not something she’s supposed to say so she doesn’t say anything. Just listens to the click-click-click of the safe as she breaks into it.
She knows how to put him together because she’s thought about it: planned it out. She would be putting Coulson back together because she’d thought about that, too.
She has contingencies for every possible variation on the theme.
They sleep in the same bed out of habit. It’s simpler, there’s less of a chance anyone is going to sneak up on them, and frankly it makes it easier to fall asleep to know that there is twice the chance that you’ll make it out of an attack alive. Natasha hogs the covers and Clint windmills. She snores and he sometimes tries to smother her.
Coulson took a picture, once. Came in and found them on opposite sides of the bed and snapped the picture with the wind-up disposable camera he kept in his briefcase (security reasons, he’d said. No one can hack hardcopy).
She wonders where that picture is. She wonders where all of it went, is hidden, because Clint might not have seen this coming but she knows Coulson knew it was a possibility, and that he wouldn’t expect them to be able to beat SHIELD to his house and clean it out beforehand.
They go to a gym. It’s run down and vaguely disgusting, the smell of it its own kind of knockout punch.
She thinks Rogers would like it: it’s old, probably hasn’t changed since the 20s when it was built.
“You’ve been doing a lot of distance work,” she says, and Clint glares at her and hops into the ring with a man whose wife clearly isn’t letting him fuck her, judging by the way all his sexual aggression is manifesting in massive biceps.
Natasha leans against the pillar and watches. She’s right: Clint’s off his game.
That’s not to say he doesn’t decimate them all, but she refuses to go in the ring with him because she would probably kill him.
“You break like glass,” she says when he tries to get her to come in. The guys around them laugh, and Clint just smiles a tiny, tight little thing.
“Is it bad, that I don’t want to be better than you?” he asks one day when they’re sparring in Accra.
“Yes,” she says, feinting left and then kicking at his jaw. He blocks, but not quite fast enough. She uses the momentum and crashes them down together, her heel on his trachea. “So stop it.”
“You have to be able to break me,” she tells him, and he stops, dropping his hands and looking at her.
She won’t be his back-up plan. The last failsafe. She can’t be that, doesn’t know the language of it in her mouth. They’ve been unmade and remade and have faked it when they fell somewhere between, but she thinks that the only way that they work is if they’re even. She doesn’t want to be responsible for him, not like that.
The only way this works is if they’re equal.
It takes six months for him to be okay. To slide back into having her six as much as she’s on point.
Getting out of Yakutsk in December is a nightmare, though.
The grave is unremarkable. It’s in a cemetery in Coulson’s hometown, a suburb outside of Boston, and there’s a funeral being held just down the way.
They stand in front of it for a long time, shoulder to shoulder. They never saw the body: there was too much going on. Clint had said it a lot, in July: He might be alive. We never saw the body.
She doesn’t deal in what-ifs, though. It’s easier to accept that he’s dead and mourn, pick up the pieces and keep walking. If he is alive, she’ll deal with that, too. He might not walk away from it, but she’ll deal with it.
“Okay,” Clint exhales, and he threads his fingers with hers, holding on.
She looks at the headstone, and then at him.
“I hear Ten Rings is making inroads in Xinjiang,” she says.
“Stark will want in on that,” Clint says as they head back for the car.
“I didn’t think I’d tell him,” she admits, and he grins at her as he buckles into the passenger seat.
“We gonna get this sanctioned?” he asks, fiddling with the radio until he finds something twangy and filled with guitars. This is the wrong state for this music, she thinks.
“You can make the call,” she says graciously, and ignores his resentful grumbling and the tortuous conversation with Fury as she heads out onto Route 128 towards the airport.
Iron Man shows up on the scene 45 minutes after they get there. He has Captain America with him, which makes Clint pinch the bridge of his nose and mutter about how this is going to make the Chinese government go ballistic about the US terrorizing rural Chinese citizens.
“Jesus fuck,” he says, pulling Rogers aside and handing him one of the SHIELD jumpsuits out of the back of the plane.
The ground shakes and Natasha glances over at the Hulk, who beams at her for a second before thundering off.
“You realize there’s no immediate danger,” she says to Stark, who lifts up the face plate.
“Uh, yeah, no, there is, just that you and Hunger Games haven’t got the perspective yet,” Stark says. “The village is mostly an armory and a training ground.”
The sky clouds up and thunder rumbles in the distance and Natasha looks around, at Clint and Rogers talking and Hulk crashing somewhere in the distance.
“How is he?” Stark asks. “He didn’t eat a bullet, which is good.”
She braces herself as the wind picks up, scanning the cloud cover for Thor. “He’ll survive,” she says, and Stark nods, jerking the face plate down.
“Cap’s not a fan of Coulson’s Angels,” Clint says, snapping his bow out.
“I don’t get that reference,” Rogers tells her, and she shrugs.
“You’re not missing a lot,” she says, and then looks at Thor.
“My friends!” he says, arms spread wide and beaming at them. “‘Tis a small battle, but a worthy one.”
“Got a plan?” Natasha asks Rogers, and he looks at her, then down at the village.
He starts giving orders, and Natasha glances over at Clint.
Pay attention, he mouths when he catches her, grinning a little, and she flips him off.
“Got it?” Rogers asks, and Natasha looks over at him.
“Got it,” she says.