Clint has never had a place called home.
He leaves Iowa with a circus after Daddy drives the family truck against a tree with his mother in the passenger seat, probably drunk off his mind as usual. The circus takes him from one deadbeat town to another while he walks tightropes in New Orleans, pulls the best William Tell act Nashville has ever seen and at fifteen loses his virginity to snake charmer in Orlando who smokes menthol cigarettes and feeds him pineapple pieces soaked in rum. Four months later he shoots a man in Reno just like the song says, and finds he’s quite good at killing things. When Clint blows off the circus he enlists at a Washington recruiting office and does his time in Iraq before S.H.I.E.L.D offers him a job.
Years later and the Black Widow has put herself on Fury’s personal hit list after she kills two UN ambassadors right under S.H.I.E.L.D’s nose and made off with a briefcase full of state secrets, and Clint’s the lucky bastard who gets to take her out.
He first sees her from a rooftop in St Petersburg, in the light of an inferno. She’s at a distance, standing in dirty, melting snow and broken glass, crimson hair whipping in the boiling wind. He notices her beauty, of course, but that can be dealt with. In his line of work there’s no shortage of beautiful, deadly women, though he did always have a fondness for redheads. He gets a clear line of sight and draws back his bow, taking aim.
The Black Widow shifts and suddenly he spots a girl at her feet playing with the falling ash, and lowers the bow because he does not kill children when he can help it. He watches as his target lifts the girl into her arms and carries her away from the ruins, and Clint follows because he wants to see what she’ll do.
The Black Widow takes the girl to a foster home that has been on S.H.I.E.L.D’s radar for a while and it all falls into place. The Black Widow speaks to someone inside and leaves without the girl. The door closes and for a moment the Black Widow looks lost, less like the homicidal twenty year old she is and more like the child she never could have been, and it’s the perfect time to put an arrow through her skull but damn it, he just can’t do it.
He lies, radios Fury and tells him he’s still tracking her, and at night he rubs his hands across his face and thinks, Barton, you’re a fool.
Clint brings her in and even he didn’t really know why, other than an absurd idea that he could save her, that he could be some white knight protector, and it makes laugh now to remember how little knew her then, before the Black Widow became Agent Romanov, became Natasha, became Tasha and Nat and she stained his whole world red. She’s a hurricane, a live wire and an atom bomb and he can never be free from the bloody glory of her.
Natasha slips into a flawless American accent the moment their plane sets down at the S.H.I.E.L.D base in New York, and he’s not at all surprised. She can put on a new mask at a moment’s notice and even after years of knowing her he wouldn’t presume to have seen them all.
He teaches her how to make a proper hot dog and she teaches him how to drink vodka, both from a glass and straight from the bottle. She kisses him once as part of a cover and his lips feel scorched for days. He remembers Budapest, how she crawled all over him and messed with his self-control, but even though he was far from sober himself he knew that fucking a woman too drunk to make decisions was definitely in the Not Okay category. Clint had slept on the floor instead.
Natasha is not a patient woman. She wants to get the job done, not hang around waiting for the go ahead from their superiors, and the concept of filling time eludes her. Clint’s sniper training has patience down to a fine art, something that serves him well on periods when missions get boring. Today they’re stuck in a safe house in Latvia until they get the all clear and he can tell it’s driving Natasha insane by the way she drums her fingers against her knees, glaring at him like it’s all his fault the chopper can’t pick them up earlier.
Clint’s lying back against one of the phenomenally uncomfortable camp beds when he spots the dusty guitar in the corner of the small room, next to the stack of books no doubt left behind by some charitable agent who had been stuck there before. Standing up, Clint grabs the guitar and Natasha’s face across the room is priceless.
“Clint,” she begins, in a voice that has scared many a man, “if you start playing that thing, I swear to God…”
Clint flashes her his best obnoxious grin, the one that never fails to make Fury’s vein twitch. He settles on the edge of the camp bed and starts strumming a few chords. Natasha doesn’t know much about music, having lacked it in her childhood, and holed up in a safe house with nowhere to go seems as good a place as any for some education.
Natasha glowers at him from across the room, arms folded across her chest. “Seriously, Clint? What is this, some rock star mid-life crisis you’re heading into?”
Clint flips her the finger and keeps on playing. “Not a fan of Johnny Cash, Nat?”
“Cut it out.”
Clint starts humming the chorus to ‘Walk the Line’ and Natasha swallows. “Asshole,” she pronounces finally, and rolls over on the bed so her back faces him. He doesn’t need to see her face to know she’s scowling.
“I keep a close watch on this heart of mine,” Clint sings softly, keeping an eye on his grumpy partner. “I keep my eyes wide open all the time. I keep the ends out for the tie that binds…”
Natasha throws her book at him with deadly accuracy, all without turning around. Clint ducks, grabs the book from where it falls against the wall and throws it back, intentionally aiming short and it lands harmlessly by her shoulders. Natasha turns over and she still looks murderous, but he can spot the corner of her mouth twitch.
He keeps singing, throwing his head back and playing it up for good measure. “I find it very, very easy to be true. I find myself alone when each day’s through. Yes, I’ll admit I’m a fool for you,” he finishes with an exaggerated leer, and Natasha starts to laugh.
“You can take the boy out of Iowa, but you can’t take the Iowa out of the boy?” she asks as she swings herself up to a sitting position.
“You got it.”
She launches herself forward and tries to wrestle the guitar from his hands, laughing the whole time. Clint manages to place the guitar out of harm’s way before wrestling with her, not in a serious fashion but just hard enough to make him gasp. He manages to pin her to the bed for a split second before she flips him and holds his wrists to the pillow, the light from the bare bulb overhead causing her hair to glow like a halo.
She slaps him across the face and he laughs because it shouldn’t turn him on as much as it does.
They’re in Russia and it all goes to hell when Natasha recognises their target as one of her first employers after she won her freedom from the Red Room at sixteen. She doesn’t say anything else on the matter but when they capture the man she drags him to the basement and everything about her tells him that if he follows her she will fight him. Clint stands guard at the entrance instead. Natasha is normally a fast executioner, faster than can be believed, but this time it takes almost an hour before she reappears.
“It’s done,” she says simply, and he knows not to say anything in return.
He burns Natasha’s bloody clothes with what’s left of the body while she sits in the truck in a spare pair of jeans and his sweatshirt. When he slides into the driver’s seat he finds her shaking like a child, knees drawn up under her chin and biting her lips raw. She raises her head slightly to acknowledge his presence but keeps staring out the passenger window. Clint drives them to the pick up point in silence.
They never talk about that night, but Natasha doesn’t give his sweatshirt back.
Not many people can say they’ve seen the Black Widow in a vulnerable state. There are many people who think they have, but Natasha has the act down to an art form. Clint has seen her vulnerable, truly vulnerable, only twice, and the second time is when the biggest skeleton in her massive closet appears in a S.H.I.E.L.D cell.
She comes to his apartment again after speaking to Svetlana Drakova and this time he has vodka ready on the sideboard, but she waves it away while she curls into a ball on his couch.
Clint sits beside her but makes sure to leave enough distance for her to feel comfortable because she is not in a state to be touched. “You want to talk about it?” he asks, knowing the answer.
No one could ever accuse Natasha of having a small voice, but that’s how she sounds now. “No.” She folds herself up tighter and for a second she looks pathetically young in a way that makes his heart hurt. “But it’s too quiet on my own.”
So Clint tells her about the time his brother dared him to steal the lead clown’s wig right before the man was due on stage, that he burned his hands every time he tried fire fleshing, how he got his ass handed to him the first week of boot camp and he trained twice as hard just to prove he could. He tells her about the family of acrobats who nearly recruited him into their act in Tennessee, that time he hid Coulson’s trading cards and how he never managed to master contact juggling. He tells her any remotely interesting story he can think of but doesn’t include anything from the years after they met because she knows it all anyway. There hasn’t been a part of his life she hasn’t touched since she burnt down a hospital in St Petersburg.
When he runs out of things to say he brings his old guitar into his lap and starts playing the opening chords of ‘Hotel California’ to fill the silence, watching as Natasha shifts into a more comfortable position beside him. Her expression is carefully blank as she whispers, “Keep going.”
So Clint plays The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and The Doors, tries his hand at the riff to ‘Wish You Were Here’ and sings what he can remember of ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’ He stays away from Johnny Cash because the man is too damn honest and Natasha can always read his tells.
He’s concentrating on a particularly complicated set of chords when she slides across the couch towards him and rests her head against his shoulder, and he freezes mid-note because it feels like Budapest all over again but this time he’s pretty sure no alcohol has been consumed. He stays rooted in that exact position, Natasha’s curls tickling his neck and her breath lightly ghosting across his bicep, and time stops as she brings one hand up to push him back against the couch and takes the guitar from him with the other, setting it gently on the floor.
Clint gulps, completely shocked for the first time in years, arms uselessly by his sides as Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow herself, straddles his lap and runs her fingers through his hair. “Uh, Tasha,” he manages, finally finding his voice. “What is this?”
Natasha pulls back and she actually looks confused. “Isn’t it what you want?”
He wants it, good God does he want it, but he’ll lock himself in the bathroom with his hand for company if Natasha isn’t one hundred per cent with him. He places his hands firmly on her shoulders and holds her back so he can see her eyes. “Do you?”
“Yes.” Natasha kisses him hard and the world is on fire all over again. She stands up and pulls him in the direction of the bedroom and Clint never could deny her.
One day she will ask him, “How long?”
And he will answer, “Always.”