It rarely goes according to plan, but then the best things never do. At least, not for him. Mostly.
It’s become a running joke between them; he can’t remember for how long. This time they’re in Novgorod and she’s sewing up his arm with the absolute minimum of local anesthetic. He winces, looks over at the massive bruise forming on her shoulder, grabs an ice pack with his good hand and presses it against her skin. He feels the tug of the needle and lets out a hiss.
“You could be more careful.”
“You could learn not to get shot.”
“I just do it for the sympathy.”
The corner of her mouth quirks upward in response. There’s nothing much else to say tonight and he hasn’t said it in a while and no one could ever accuse him of forgetting to mark an occasion. “You really should get around to marrying me sometime, Romanoff.”
The quirk turns into a smile. “Shut up, Barton,” she says and that’s that. One – two, ritual complete. It’s as close as either of them comes to saying I love you because people like them don’t really say things like that. Besides, this is better anyway.
His first chance comes in Paris.
She’s walking down a path near the Seine, dark blue trench coat wrapped tightly around her, scarf tied around her neck, fluttering in the breeze. She’s tracking her mark, keeping a leisurely pace, holding back almost as patiently as he is.
Then the rain begins to fall, a soft autumn shower in the late afternoon. Instead of opening the umbrella she carries, she stops and turns her face up the sky. The rain continues to come down, faster and harder now, but she doesn’t seem the least bit fazed. She unwinds the scarf from around her neck and lets it fly away. She sits the umbrella down on a nearby bench, unopened, and keeps on walking, until her skin is soaked and her long red hair trails down her back. She never loses sight of the mark though, just trails aimlessly in the storm behind him.
Clint pulls the string of his bow taut and then pauses. Too windy. He’d have to go with an entirely different arrowhead and the excess weight is always a pain in the ass to recalibrate.
Might as well wait until tomorrow.
She stops him later that night on the walk through the village. It’s long after midnight, they’ve patched each other up enough to get out of town and back to the safe house until evac and debriefing in the morning, and he’s ready for about a week’s worth of sleep. The mark’s been neutralized, justice has been served, and the world can rest a little easier now that one more group of bad guys is history.
She stops dead in her tracks and waits until he does the same. “You serious?” she asks without preamble. “You sure?”
He doesn’t have to ask what about.
She stands there and looks at him for a moment longer. “Come with me.”
The second chance comes in Mamaia.
It’s a perfect day—bright and sunny and balmy, with a cool breeze coming off the Black Sea. He’s perched on the roof of an old hotel; not the fashionable one she’s staying at, but one with a great view of the beach on which she sits.
She’s been out there for the better part of the afternoon, pretending to read a book and very much not pretending to observe the man to her immediate left. Clint figures she’ll make her move tonight; strike quickly and be gone in the morning. Or she would, at least, if he didn’t have a clear shot.
He keeps her in his sights and waits for the right moment, synchronizing movement and breath until one disappears into the other. The mark leaves to go back to the hotel, the beach is deserted, and the timing couldn’t be better. But suddenly she stands up, stretches, and walks out toward the water. She crouches down and begins to run her fingers through the sand—aimlessly, without a pattern—and he becomes a little mesmerized. It’s playful and childish and… not at all like the machine he knows she is. (He knows it. He’s read all the files there are. Every mission, every bit of history. He’s memorized them all.)
He can’t see her face, but he’d bet every last dime in his pockets she’s smiling. After a few more minutes she turns to look over her shoulder, searching the rooftops. She’s good enough to suspect when she’s being watched, even if she can’t find the observer. He ducks behind the corner until she turns around and finally gets an open shot as she walks back to her chair. Doesn’t take it though. Damn glare off the water.
He opts to wait for better lighting.
Not wasting any time, she steers him inside the doors of the village church. There’s only one light on, a red lamp burning faintly over a table in the very back and entire place feels cold and quiet, but not as cold as the snowdrifts outside.
“Wait here,” she says and disappears into the darkness. After a few minutes he can hear her talking rapidly to someone else in Russian—a heated debate from the sound of it—but she gets her way in the end because Natasha always gets her way in the end; he knows this better than most. Better if you don’t try to hold back the storm in the first place. Plus it’s a beautiful damn storm.
She brings out a man who’s not a day younger than ninety, complete with a long white beard and a long black robe who he can only assume is the priest. He looks at Clint, says something to Natasha—which she answers with a definitive ‘yes’—and that is that. Next thing he knows the priest disappears again and begins lighting candles until the back of the church is framed with an eerie glow. She takes his hand and leads him forward.
He doesn’t get another chance until two months later, at a party in St. Petersburg. Gets it, then proceeds to blow it straight to hell.
Third time’s the fucking charm.
Turns out it's not hard to pass for a Hungarian thug so long as you wear a dark suit, look menacing, and clench your jaw tighter than the hero of a bad Western. She's been dancing with Braskov’s men all night in an attempt to get close to their boss, and it's not long before he’s next. The orchestra plays, they dance, and she lays it on thick. Months of tracking and research and Clint finds that the myth of the Black Widow is quite different from the reality. It’s the little things he notices as they move across the floor. Her eyes are greener than they appear in the pictures; deeper, more vivid. Her nose is slightly asymmetrical and there’s a fine indentation between her brows that undercuts the girlish fluttery act she’s putting on.
He knows her mission tonight, knows the mark and knows the stakes. He also knows she’s walking into a trap. And somewhere between waiting for the right weather and checking his goddamn lighting, it seemed like a good idea to tell her.
He holds her gaze for a second too long and her smile fades, fingers tensing where they rest on his shoulders.
“You're not one of Braskov’s.”
Too late to back out now. “Never said I was.”
He can see her making the calculations, trying to figure out if she should run or grab the knife hidden on her left thigh. He pulls her flush against him, immobilizing her arms in the process.
“They know,” he whispers. “The back alley is a kilbox—three upstairs and three down. You should rethink your strategy.”
She comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the dance floor. She couldn't have looked more surprised if he'd suddenly burst into song. Her eyes narrow.
“Why?” she says, disbelieving. “Why tell me?”
He doesn't answer.
She looks at him again, and something like recognition flickers across her face. “You.” The word is barely audible but she might as well have shouted it across the room.
Before she can do anything else, he lets go and slips into the crowd, leaving a highly trained, highly confused Russian assassin in his wake.
She still walks into that damn alley though.
After a long string of muttered curses—so does he. Never could leave well enough alone.
There are prayers being spoken, chanting, sing-song kind of prayers that almost feel like background noise. He doesn’t really pay attention to the words, his Russian was never that good to begin with, and even after seven years with Natasha—five as partners, the last two as a whole lot more than that-—he can only manage to eek out the most basic of conversations. So instead he focuses on the icons flickering in the candlelight, with their otherworldly faces and gold-leaf haloes. On the smell of the incense, sweet and thick as it wafts from the censor. On the concentration written all over her face even though he knows for a fact that she isn’t religious at all. He has a feeling this isn’t much about religion anyway.
Finished with his chanting, the priest turns and asks him a question that he only manages to catch the last few words of.
“Have you come of your own free will?” Natasha says in English. “That’s what he’s asking. Have you come here of your own free will?”
He answers yes.
“You make a much better hitman than a dancer,” she says, leaning against the door, blood still smeared across her face and down her neck, her accent nothing short of a purr, rolling over the r’s in a way that suggests a whole lot more than what she’s saying.
He keeps his back to the wall and at least eight feet between them. It’s the stupidest goddamn idea he’s ever had. They don’t even make words for this kind of stupid. Not only failing to take out a mark, but helping her escape certain death at the hands of a dozen trained operatives for good measure. Stupid’s not even in the same timezone with what he’s just done.
The hotel room feels claustrophobic. Every instinct he’s got is fighting the proximity; he keeps having to hold himself in check from sliding towards the window. A bow’s no good in this situation; here it’s all too close.
“You were good back there,” she purrs again. “Better than I expected.”
“Was that a test?” He’s not sure if he should be flattered or annoyed. He goes with annoyed.
“Mmmm,” is all she says, licking the blood off of her lower lip. Her skin is flushed from the exertion, heart rate elevated, adrenaline spiking. She gets off on this, on the excitement of it. He knows because he does too.
She stretches and examines a cut on her arm, admiring it. “So,” she begins conversationally, back still pressed against the door, “who do you work for?”
No point in beating around the bush. “Someone who wants you dead.”
The first knife slips from her hands with a speed approaching superhuman, but he’s ready.
The priest joins their hands and says a prayer. They stay that way, right hands joined, and in each of their left hands he places a candle. The icons move in and out of shadow, lifeless eyes somehow seeing and not seeing everything at once. He leans forward as the frail old man presses a thin metal band on top of his head and watches as he does the same for Nat.
None of it makes any sense, at least not the logical kind, but there’s something to the rhythm of it, the repetition (three times for everything, prays thrice repeated), that anchors the strange ritual in the present. He watches her face and finds the concentration still there, watches her mouth some of the words along with the priest and some back to him in a kind of call and response. He’s never seen this side of her before, but he learned a long time ago never to be surprised by Natasha Romanoff.
She’s out of knives (all three of them being lodged in the wall behind him—the last one missing his forehead by a fraction of an inch), and he’s got his 9mm trained right between her eyes.
“I appreciate the demonstration,” he says, “but if I’d wanted you dead, I wouldn’t have bothered following you into that goddamn alley.” Slowly lowering his weapon, he takes a seat. She remains standing.
“Unless you wanted something else,” she replies.
“Not exactly. I don’t care about Braskov,” he explains. “Not my mission, not my problem.”
“So what then? “ She looks down at the gun. “Something short of dead?”
“Not if it can be avoided.”
She gives him an appraising glance from head to toe, and her smile is almost triumphant. “I see.”
There’s a cup of wine and they drink from it. First her, then him. Three times.
He joins their hands and leads them around the altar. Side by side. Three times.
She remains against the door but her entire posture begins to change. It’s like watching a painting come to life. The movement, the breathing, the carriage—it’s all so perfectly controlled. He’d read that she was a dancer, or at least trained as one. He wonders if that’s how she thinks about this. As a dance.
Her fingers—deft, strong fingers—slide along her skin, tracing the smooth line of her throat before dipping to skim along a collarbone. She watches him the entire time, measuring his response against her movements, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t; how to break him, how to subdue. How to change the balance of power.
For the moment he lets her, and for a moment the storm is contained, simmering under the surface. It a beautiful damn storm, he thinks. Beautiful, but the gun remains in his hand just the same. So far it’s a hunch and so far he’s been right, but he’s still prepared to carry out this mission should she prove him wrong.
“So that’s it,” she says, moving toward him with the grace of a well-timed waltz. “That’s why we’re here.”
He doesn’t say a word, partially because he wants to see how far she’ll let this play out, partially because he’s honest to God distracted by the way she moves.
She’s standing in front of him now and her hands keep sliding across her skin, back and forth and back again until she slides her fingers underneath one of the straps of her dress and slips it off. Despite his best efforts, his breath catches. She does the same to the other strap, and remaining fabric covering her torso is in very real danger of tumbling down. She leans forward and runs her fingers across the length of his free hand until she captures it in hers. Her mouth is hovering just above his as she takes that hand and guides it up to cup one perfect breast. Running her hands down past the indent of her waist and the curve of her hip, she traces back up along the slit in her skirt, widening it, and props a well-formed leg up on his chair, just inches from the hand holding the gun, and quirks an eyebrow in invitation.
Answering, he puts the gun down on the table beside him and takes a moment to trace his hand up the length of that leg, all the way from ankle to thigh.
He pauses; she leans down until her mouth is hovering just above his, fixes those too-vivid eyes on him and waits.
He keeps waiting for the vows, for the words to be spoken. The stuff they’re supposed to say to each other—in sickness and in health, better or worse, death do us part—the whole deal. But they never come. There are no more words spoken, not by them at least. Just the priest and his continuous chanting and the incense burning and the icons watching, a wall of silent witnesses.
There are all these things but no words. Almost as if she can read his mind, Natasha looks at him and raises a brow as if to say See? Of course, he thinks. If she was ever going to do this, she’d do it right (right meaning Russian).
He just never imagined that it would also seem so very … them.
Her mouth is less than an inch from his, but he won’t take the bait. Not that it isn’t tempting. He shifts his weight forward so he can stand up. Slowly. In a way that telegraphs every move and doesn't set her off.
But he doesn’t move his hands. Not much fun in that. He keeps them exactly where they are, even increasing the pressure a little, and gets to his feet. He lets them linger for a moment before moving upwards—with slowness, with agonizing, thorough, mindfucking slowness that makes her pupils dilate just a bit—and coming to rest lightly on her shoulders.
He leans in close, until his lips nearly brush against hers. He opens his mouth, but not for the reason she thinks.
“Thanks for the offer, darlin’—but not tonight.”
He sees the bewildered expression, the flash of surprise right before she takes his feet out from under him.
It’s a wild goddamn fight for control. He’s stronger, but she’s quicker, and he can’t pin her down long before she’s slipping out of his grasp. He yanks her hands away from reaching for the knives in the wall, she kicks his gun across the room, and now it’s just them. He dodges a blow to the head, and she takes the opportunity to retreat a few steps. What’s left of her dress is now hanging around her hips, and the top half of her is covered by a scrap of lace that could charitably be described as a bra, but sex is the last thing on his mind. She’s wild and, he realizes with a bit of a shock, furious.
“Why didn’t you take the shot?” she snaps, circling him as he circles her.
He doesn’t answer. Doesn’t have an answer.
She moves impossibly fast, shoulder slamming into his chest and sending them both tumbling over the coffee table. “Why?”
He flips them over until he’s on top and until those hands around his neck aren’t locked in a chokehold. “I ... I don’t know,” he finally admits.
The lack of answer incites her even more and she surges upward, knocking him backwards and into the edge of the bedframe. She scrambles up the length of him until her thighs are on either side of his head and his vision starts going spotty. “Paris? Romania? Tonight?” she bites out, squeezing tighter. “Idiot. Stupid fucking idiot.”
He’d read about this move; he’s prepared. Just before he passes out, he rams his knees into her back and sends her flying head first into the wall.
She whirls back around, a flurry of curses raining down in Russian and in English. “Idiot,” she says again, wiping away the blood coming from a cut over her eye.
He can’t argue with that, but he’s not the one getting all worked up either. Doesn’t have much time to think before she’s coming at him again, clawing at him, using every possible pressure point to cause the maximum amount of pain. Hurt but not kill, some small corner of his mind realizes; the force she’s using is less than lethal so he responds in kind. Doesn’t mean he won’t get a few hits in for good measure; God knows he’s taking enough right now.
“You should have,” she hisses, one hand wrapping around his throat again and squeezing tight. “You or me—that’s how it works.” Her eyes are locked on his and she’s angry—she’s so goddamn angry—but there’s something else there too, and the instinct of what to do next hits him with the force of a tidal wave.
He pins the other hand behind her back and works to pry her fingers loose. “Maybe it doesn’t have to.”
She stills for a second and looks at him like he’s gone mad. Maybe he has. But he’s also found the target, and finally—finally—he knows how to call the shot.
So he kisses her.
It's gentle and soft and almost profane in how unsuggestive it is. It’s a question and an olive branch and something he can’t even explain. It’s also over in a second, but it’s enough to stop them both in their tracks. She looks bewildered—is bewildered; she’d been expecting violence or lust—counting on both he’s willing to bet—but this is neither and it throws her.
He steps back and removes his hands and holds them high, palms wide, a gesture of surrender.
She looks incredibly lost all the sudden and when she speaks, even her voice sounds different. “What is this?” she asks.
Hell if he knows.
The priest says a few more words over them then turns away. Now he’s busy chanting and praying and talking to the wall of icons behind him, and Clint guesses things are wrapping up. He doesn’t feel any different, he thinks, and he’s not even sure what happened; right now he’s just very aware of the fact he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in over a month and the Demerol for his arm is starting to wear off and—
And nothing. Her lips are on his and all other thought is wiped clean away. She pulls back to look at him; touches his face with her hands. “Thank you,” she says and kisses him again.
He’s back in the chair; she’s sitting crossed-legged on the bed wrapped in one of his shirts (under the guise that it’s cold but mostly because he has trouble concentrating when she’s half naked.) They’ve retreated to opposite sides of the room again, back to a safe distance, and Clint can’t help but think that this has turned into one of the strangest nights of his life.
“So...” he says, searching for something, anything remotely normal to say. He fails completely. It’s just too damn weird.
“So...” she replies, looking every bit as flummoxed as he is. “What happens now?”
Clint shrugs. “We talk, I guess.”
She crosses her arms over her chest. “You talk.”
He pauses; considers for a moment. “I think you’re tired. I think you want out.”
She looks thoroughly unimpressed with his assessment, but she doesn’t deny it, so he takes that as his cue to go on. “I think you’re sick of living the same old life year after year, doing the same damn thing—always adding to that list of names that keeps following you around.”
Her face gives away nothing, just stares back at him with those eyes of hers.
“That’s not what you want,” he finally says.
“So what do I want?”
“More?” She waves a hand in his direction. “Is that what you call this? Being kept on a leash? I’ve had plenty of that.”
“It is," he argues. "You were a puppet; now you've got something that looks like freedom and you want to burn down the whole world just because you can. But that’s not a life.”
“And that’s what you call this?” she counters. “A life?”
“Better than a ledger full of red.”
She stays quiet.
He sits up straight, moves to the edge of his chair. Not much else to say anyhow. “Look, I'm done here,” he begins. “I’m gone in the morning, but I won't be the last. If you want to stay alive, you're going to need a Plan B.” He takes out a card and writes down a time and a location before sliding it across the table.
She looks down at the card but doesn’t move to take it. “What’s that?”
Dawn begins to break and faint grey light floods the interior of the church as they sign the registry. They don't use their real names—can't really—but these are aliases known only to them; not even Fury could trace this. It's not perfect and it's not ideal but they don't need a formal record anywhere. They know they were here and the ancient priest knows it and if there is a God up there Clint's pretty sure he knows it too. And that's enough. He watches the ink dry and looks back up at Natash—at his wife. It's an idea that’s going to take a little getting used to, and it's not like she'd ever let him call her that in the first place, but the sheer fact that it's true is enough to make him grin from ear to ear.
"So," he begins casually. "Breakfast?"
She grins back.
The wind whips around the tarmac as the jet gets ready to leave. The cold grey dawn breaks, lighting up a clearing in a snow-covered wood outside Murmansk, just enough room for a plane to take off and land. He's going to catch hell when he gets back — has caught quite a bit already — but he could care less. If they wanted carnage they could have sent a goddamn cruise missile. But instead they sent him.
He pulls up the collar on his jacket and looks around again. Maybe he got it wrong. Wouldn't be the first time.
Then he hears footsteps behind him. He smiles before he even turns around.
She emerges from the woods looking impossibly younger than she did the night before — a strange combination of old and young and the hardness is still there in her eyes, in the strong set of her jaw, but she's not closed off.
"You serious?" she asks without preamble. "You sure?"
He nods once. "Yes."