It's Steve who asks them, before it occurs to anybody else, or before anybody else finds the nerve.
"You've worked together for a long time, haven't you?" he says. He sounds curious, not suspicious, but if there's anything Natasha has learned about Steve Rogers in the past few months, it's that there's always more going on in his head than he lets on. "How did that start?"
"Kashgar," says Natasha, and at the same moment Clint says, "Vilnius."
It's enough of a surprise that Natasha misses Steve's reaction. She looks at Clint, and he's already looking at her. He doesn't exactly smile, but there's a quirk to his lips and arch to his eyebrow, and she knows his expressions well enough to see the challenge there.
"Kashgar," she says.
"Vilnius," he says.
Natasha wakes tied to a bed in a small dark room, and she thinks:
Shoulder injured. Not bleeding. Possibly drugged.
Mediocre knots. Hands and feet both, not so tight she couldn't get out of it, even with the injured shoulder.
Natasha forces herself to stop struggling and lay still, breathes the panic out of her, blinks until her eyes adjust to the darkness. The air in the room is chill, a gentle bite on her nose and cheeks. One door, closed. One window, shuttered. No electric lights that she can see, and very little noise from outside. The bed and one chair are the only furniture.
She's still clothed. There is a heavy blanket laid over her body, a pillow beneath her head. They've taken her boots, but not her socks. Her hands are bound at her sides, to the frame of the bed, rather than over her head.
She turns her head to one side, scrapes her chin over her shoulder: they've dressed her wound as well. She starts to twist and flex the hand of her uninjured arm, to work it free from the rope.
She remembers running through the market, crashing into an old man's collection of musical instruments, racing away from his angry shouts. Uyghur, but she only knows the numbers, hello, thank you, goodbye. She's in Kashghar. It's November. No wonder the night is so cold. She remembers winding through the stalls, the blankets, the piles of colorful rugs, the crooked alleys, dodging bicycles and carts, sacrificing stealth for speed.
That was a mistake. There are a million places to hide in Kashgar. She should have hidden.
But she had thought there were only two of them, not three, right up until she had turned a corner and plowed into the third. Big man, black hair, broad shoulders, one of Kokori's hired guns. Kokori's other hired guns. He got in one lucky punch--her jaw ached but she had all of her teeth--and he had drawn back for another while she was regaining her balance, raised his fist and--
Footsteps creak on floorboards outside the door, and Natasha bites back on the laugh threatening to bubble out of her. It isn't funny. She has a bruise on her face and a hole in her shoulder that isn't from a bullet, and somewhere near the market there's a bloodstain on the pavement where Kokoris's henchman bled out thanks to an arrow in the neck. Nothing about this is funny.
There's an operative in South Africa who uses a polished ivory knife for every hit. An Irish freelancer who uses a plastic bag over the head every single time. Ex-CIA-turned-mercenary now based in Naples who never carries any weapon besides a Smith & Wesson Model 29. A Japanese woman everybody calls "the botanist" because she uses only obscure poisons derived from rare plants she presumably cultivates herself. Assassins are a peculiar group of people, fussy and particular. Everybody has their favorite tools.
But there's only one who uses a bow and arrow. Everybody in the business laughs about it until they learn how rarely he misses.
And now he's right outside the door. He isn't trying to be quiet. He says something, clumsy, American-accented; he doesn't know Uyghur any better than she does. A woman's voice answers, he thanks her. Footsteps retreat.
Natasha closes her eyes and steadies her breath. She can just barely slip her hand free--the rope scours her skin, stinging and burning--and she holds it still at her side, hidden beneath the blanket. She listens to the key rattle in the lock, the door creak open, click shut again.
"If you pretend to sleep through dinner, I'm not saving you any."
Faint light dances over her face, but she keeps her eyes closed.
"It's snowing," he goes on. "I hope you weren't planning on Pakistan as an escape route. It's true that you haven't really lived until you've been swept off the KKH by an avalanche, but there are better ways to get your kicks, if that's what you're looking for."
She had been counting on Pakistan as an escape route, before the weather turned. There's a documents forger in Gilgit who owes her a favor, and he's small-time enough he might not have heard about her ugly ongoing break-up with her most recent employer.
"The big hairy guy's big hairy friends are still looking for you," he says. "But I don't think they'll look here."
Natasha opens her eyes.
"Hi," he says. "Sleep well?"
She hasn't seen him in years, but she's still surprised by how much older he looks. Older and harder, but if he still carries the same barely-controlled manic tension beneath his skin, he has learned to hide it.
The only light in the room comes from a small electric lantern on the floor. He unscrews the lid of a thermos and pours hot tea into a metal cup, blows on it absently to cool it down. Natasha watches him carefully and counts the weapons he was hiding: knives in both boots, handgun beneath his jacket, something heavy in the backpack. No obvious bow or arrows. She's a little disappointed.
Natasha says, "You've been following me."
"I thought you would have noticed by now. Here." He passes the tea to her, within reach of the unbound hand she's still hiding beneath the blanket.
Natasha sits up crookedly and accepts the cup.
Then she throws it in his face.
They met in Vilnius.
She was Ivana from Gdansk, he was Tom from California. She was in it for the jewels, he only cared about the cash.
She told him she never meant for the men who got in their way to die. He told her he didn't care.
He told her he learned to shoot hunting deer in the woods. She told him she learned the same way.
She told him she wanted to go to Paris and find something more exciting to hunt. He told her there was nothing in the world he'd rather do.
Nothing they told each other in Vilnius was true.
He was young and angry and reckless, but she kept him around because he was useful. Because he never flinched and never hesitated. Because of how still he was when he drew his bow. Because of the way he breathed before he took a shot, the way he pulled her hair when they fucked, the ease with which he invented lies on a moment's notice. Because he reminded her, sometimes, of another angry, reckless American boy she had known in another place, another lifetime.
She kept him around because she could. There was no mission in which he was an asset or a target. There was no mission at all. The Soviet Union had fallen and the Red Room with it, and she had run, and she no longer answered to anybody.
Every morning for eight months she reminded herself that what she remembered of the day before had come from her own experiences--until she didn't. She woke beside him in a rented room in Amsterdam and realized she hadn't thought about it in days.
She lay on her back in the cool gray hours before dawn, staring at the cracks in the ceiling and listening to him breathe, and she counted back as many days as she could remember, through everything she could remember, every meal they had eaten, every conversation they had, every lie she had told.
Her shoulder hurt from a bad landing two days before and her thighs ached from riding him the night before, long and slow, silent except for the gasps they couldn't hold back. But it was different, the subtle pain she felt now beneath her ribs, tugging at every breath. It was a flutter and a pinch, a nervousness she hasn't felt in years, so much like the anticipation of lacing up her pointe shoes before going on stage, like the excitement of running her hand over the cool silk of her wedding dress--
And none of it was real.
The dancing was a lie, her marriage was a lie, all of it was a lie, the pride and the warmth of those memories strung out behind her, like the last remaining pearls on a broken necklace. None of it had ever happened except inside the carefully crafted memories they layered in place of whoever she might have been.
She sat up slowly, careful not to jostle the bed. He was lying face-down, pillow shoved aside, one arm dangling over the side. His back was streaked red with scratches from her fingernails. He didn't wake.
She grabbed her clothes and took them into the bathroom, dressed quickly and splashed some water over her face. She took only what she could grab without waking him. Four minutes and she was out of the room, shutting the door softly behind her, avoiding the creaky sides of the steps on the way down.
In Kashgar, the first time she gets away, she makes it to the street outside before he catches her.
There's still a drug in her system, pulling on her limbs, blurring her vision; her reactions are slow, and he knows exactly where she's injured. When he drags her back inside, she drinks tea and eats both her dinner and his while he clumsily apologizes to the old woman about the broken bed.
"If you're going to tie me up again," she says, "the least you could do is tell me your name. Or should I still think of you as Tom from California?"
"Barton. Clint Barton."
She tilts her head to the side. She doesn't think he's lying. "You don't look like a Clint."
"You don't look like a Natalia."
She doesn't let her surprise show. It's been a long time since anybody has used her real name. "My friends call me Natasha," she says.
Barton raises an eyebrow. "You don't have friends. You only have assets you haven't killed yet." His tone is mild, amused, and all the sharper for it.
"How long did you wait for me?" she asks. "In Amsterdam. You did wait."
He hesitates just a shade too long. "No," he says. "I didn't."
The second time she gets away, she throws the thermos rather than the tea cup and stuns him long enough to hog-tie his hands and feet behind his back. She waves goodbye to the old woman as she leaves.
She makes it twenty-four hours and halfway to Urumqi before he catches up with her again. Natasha sees a flicker of shadow at the corner of her vision, then something sharp bites at her neck, and she has just enough time to spit out a curse before she's losing consciousness.
This time when she wakes, she's upright and in a chair, hands behind her, feet tied to the legs. Clint Barton is nowhere to be seen.
The man sitting in front of her looks like a caricature of an American bureaucrat: gray suit, receding hairline, practiced bland expression of polite disinterest. Natasha rolls her head, takes in the room around them. They're in the front room of a small restaurant, surrounded by five small tables, each with bowls of peanuts and garlic set neatly against the walls. Murals of steep green hills reach from floor to ceiling, and the door to the kitchen is closed.
There are voices behind the door. One of them is Barton; he's speaking Mandarin, accented but clean, and the voice that answers is laughing and bright.
"Welcome back, Ms. Romanoff," the man says.
He seems perfectly relaxed, one leg crossed over the other, suit jacket open enough to reveal the holster and gun he's wearing. Natasha looks over his clothes, his shoes, his haircut, everything, but the only impression she gets is one of overwhelming American blandness. Government agent, most likely, but he doesn't have the smug air Natasha associates with the CIA.
"What do you want with me?" Natasha asks.
"Do you mean, why are you still alive?" the man asks. "That's a good question." He reaches into his suit jacket and draws out a neat white rectangle. Business card. He leans over to set it on the table nearest Natasha. "Phil Coulson. I'm with the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division."
Not CIA, then, but still intelligence. SHIELD isn't who she's used to, but there's something refreshingly ordinary about being interrogated by a spy in a boring gray suit. Natasha says, "You're a long way from your homeland, Agent Coulson."
Coulson sits back in his chair again. "To be fair, you were in Texas when we started following you, and that is very much part of the homeland."
Texas. Houston. Four months ago. Fuck. Natasha had known that was a bad job from the start. That had been the beginning of the end with Kokori. She should have seen it coming. She had seen it coming. She simply hadn't cared. Kokori is a madman with too much money and too much power, too much arrogance to see how much she despised him. But she had no reason to concern herself with the repercussions of his schemes. The work he gave her was difficult, almost impossible, and that was enough.
Or so she told herself that right up until the morning she finished in Houston and decided to run.
"What does SHIELD want with me?" Natasha asks. She left a lot of corpses on the ground in Texas, and most of them were powerful men. Americans don't like it when people kill their powerful men.
"SHIELD doesn't want anything from you," Coulson says. "We sent Agent Barton to kill you."
Natasha doesn't let herself react. Four months. He's been following her for four months, and she never knew. Two days ago he saved her life rather than taking it. She doesn't let herself feel anything.
"Your assassin isn't very good at following orders," she says.
"So I've been told," Coulson says. "We've tried everything in the handbook, but we can't housebreak him. He won't stop asking questions about missions he doesn't like."
She's still shaking off the effects of the tranquilizer and she's still uncertain as to why she's alive, so it takes her a moment to recognize that Phil Coulson of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division is making a joke.
"Agent Barton thinks we should offer you a job instead," Coulson says.
Natasha stops breathing and a chill settles over her. "How flattering," she says, putting a lazy drawl into her voice to hide how much it wants to shake. "Don't take this the wrong way, Agent Coulson, but you're not the first American who's tried to convince me to defect."
She pauses, watches his face as carefully as he's watching her. From the other room there's the sound of raised voices, and Barton laughs in response to something the other man says. It's been so long since she's heard him laugh.
"It didn't work out very well for any of the others," Natasha says.
Coulson says, "I'm not trying to convince you to defect, Ms. Romanoff. You would need to have loyalties beyond the highest bidder for it to count as a defection, and we both know that's not the case."
"So what is this? A job interview?"
"If you like."
"And if I say no?"
"I'll finish the mission Agent Barton failed to complete."
Natasha can't stop the short laugh that escapes.
Coulson's smile is thin and sharp, and she knows without a doubt that he isn't bluffing. "We never claimed our recruitment techniques were subtle, Ms. Romanoff."
She doesn't try to get away a third time, but she keeps an escape plan in reserve, just in case.
She holds it in the back of her mind when they take down Kokori--the mission is a test, and she's always been good at tests--and through the next mission, and the next. She refines and adjusts her plans with every new assignment, with every piece of information she gathers, assessing who she'll need to hurt and how far she'll have to run to leave SHIELD behind.
They're in Bulgaria in January and the wind is howling around the little house, rattling the shutters and whistling down the chimney. She's sitting on the bed cleaning guns while Clint yells at Coulson over the radio. Natasha always lets Clint do the shouting when it's necessary. She could write volumes about Clint Barton's problems with authority; it reassures him when he gets a chance to argue out his concerns.
And, if she's being honest, it reassures her as well, that an operative can argue so openly, so frequently, without fear of his doubts being overwritten by unearned certainty.
"I swear to god, if this intel is bad, I am quitting," Clint says, pacing the narrow width of the room in a few solid steps. "I am quitting tomorrow and I'm taking Nat with me and we're going to become bank robbers who wear Pokemon masks to knock over the First Farm Bank and Trust in Liberal, Kansas and you're going to read about it the news and you're going to feel so fucking ashamed of yourself that it all happened because you couldn't get us one fucking piece of reliable information in time."
Over the radio, Coulson says, "You've given your exit strategy a lot of thought."
"Pokemon masks, Phil."
There's a pause before Coulson answers. "Give me six hours. I'll verify the information about the security leak and get back to you."
Clint stops by the front window, pushes the red-checked curtain aside to look out at the storm. "Thanks," he says, his voice quiet now, and tired.
Phil replies, "When the two of you leave SHIELD, I hope it will be for something better than the First Farm Bank and Trust. Six hours. Be ready."
Then he's gone, and Clint tosses the radio on the table. He drops into one of the chairs, and a minute passes before he notices Natasha watching him. "What?"
"You're taking me with you? To become small-town bank robbers?"
Clint grins and puts his feet up on the table. "Of course not. You heard him. We're going for something bigger. We're going to become high-stakes art thieves, but it wouldn't be much of an escape plan if Phil didn't have at least a little bit of plausible deniability."
Natasha goes back to her guns and doesn't ask for any details. She tries to ignore the knot unraveling in her chest, old tension softening in a way she doesn't recognize. Years have passed since Amsterdam and they aren't like they used to be. They work together and they fight together and they're a good team, but in spite of what the SHIELD gossip mill and betting pool believes, they don't fuck anymore. They trust each other instead. It's a fair trade, Natasha thinks, even on those nights when the space and the cold force them to sleep side by side and the sound of his breathing is so familiar she can barely distinguish it from her own.
She doesn't need to know Clint's plan for getting out of SHIELD. It's enough that she's not the only one who has one.
A few years later and she's worked for SHIELD long enough the younger agents think she's always been there. Black Widow is a code name rather than a life sentence, Fury no longer looks at her like he's trying to figure out her double-cross, and the world is changing for all of them, faster than they can adapt.
It's midnight in New York City. Natasha has just flown across the country in one of Stark's corporate jets, and she lets herself into Natalie Rushman's hotel suite, kicks off Natalie Rushman's shoes and grabs a beer from Natalie Rushman's minibar. But it's her own phone that rings and she's the one who answers when Phil Coulson's name appears on the screen.
It's been a long week and it's only going to get longer. Tony Stark's spiraling self-destruction is splashed all over the gossip columns online and off, Colonel Rhodes has flown off with one of the suits and landed straight into the hands of the military, a couple of glaciologists have found a long-lost HYDRA plane buried in Arctic ice, General Ross is gearing up for a small-scale war on a college campus in Virginia, Fury is eating Tums like they're candy and has made three seasoned agents cry in the last twenty-four hours, and UFOs are falling out of the sky in New Mexico.
"Seriously?" Natasha says, after Phil has explained. She shifts the phone to her other ear and puts her feet up on Natalie Rushman's coffee table. "A UFO?"
Even without being able to see him, Natasha knows there are crinkles around Phil's eyes as he tries not to smile. "It's unidentified, it's an object, and it either flew or fell, depending on who you ask. It's an accurate name."
"I can't believe you're pulling out to go find a UFO." She lifts her beer to take a sip, then pauses, narrows her eyes. "You don't care about the UFO at all, do you? You're leaving because you're afraid that whatever Stark is building in his basement is going to turn all of southern California into a smoking crater."
"Don't be ridiculous, Agent Romanoff," Phil says, and now she knows he's smiling for real, not even trying to hide it. "I'm sure Mr. Stark only has humanity's best interests at heart."
Natasha snorts a laugh, but when Phil doesn't join her, she says, "What?"
He's quiet a moment before answering. "You know, I didn't before, but I might actually be starting to believe that."
Natasha opens her mouth, reconsiders, closes it again. She thinks about Stark asking her what she would do if she knew she would never have another birthday, and how, for just a second, she had seen what he was saying and how scared he was, and she had considered giving him an honest answer.
"No," she says. "I'm going with the smoking crater. All of southern California."
Phil says, "We can bet on it, if you want."
"You want to bet on the quality of Tony Stark's moral character?" Natasha asks. "That is the very definition of a sucker bet."
"I don't think so," Phil says. And when Natasha just makes a skeptical noise, he adds, "I'm an excellent judge of character. You're here, aren't you?"
She doesn't know how to respond to that, so she says, "If I'm stuck in Queens while you and Clint get to fight aliens, I'm going to be very upset."
"Your dissatisfaction is noted, Agent Romanoff. Have fun at the Stark Expo."
"Do I have permission to shoot Justin Hammer in the kneecaps when he hits on me again?"
"Natasha," Phil says, "you have permission to shoot Justin Hammer in any body part you choose for any reason whatsoever."
Natasha laughs, then she asks him about the progress of the ice-excavating crew working on the crashed HYDRA ship, and that gives her plenty of fodder for teasing until he hangs up to stop for gas.
She tries Clint next, but his number goes to voicemail, so she sends a text instead: save some aliens for me.
It turns out Phil was right about the UFO, and he was right about Tony Stark, and he was right about what it takes to get them to look beyond SHIELD and start fighting for something bigger.
Every time Natasha brings flowers to his grave, she tells the cold gray headstone and quiet cemetery that she'll never forgive him for not living to enjoy his well-earned I-told-you-so's.
A week after the Chitauri attack, after Thor has taken Loki and the Tesseract back to Asgard, Fury stops Natasha in a hallway at SHIELD's New York headquarters, hands her a tablet with a map on the display and says, "Find him and tell him to stop punching the doctors. We're running out of shrinks without broken noses."
On the map a small blue light is blinking. Clint has left base again, but he hasn't left his phone behind. He's not trying to hide.
Natasha says, "You want me to bring him in?"
Fury hesitates before answering, and in that moment, Natasha can see the weight of every decision he's had to make in the past week, every explanation, every truth and every lie, and he looks older and more tired than she has ever seen him. She looks away, down at the map. Midtown. Right in the middle of the battle zone. Of course.
"Not tonight," Fury says. "Not tomorrow either. Take him somewhere safe. Bring him back on Monday."
Natasha says, "Yes, sir," and leaves before he can change his mind.
Most of the roads are closed, the area empty and restricted as clean-up begins, but there are people working as night falls: crews working late under artificial lights, trucks hauling away endless loads of debris, cranes turning with slow precision to pick apart the massive metal creatures, a couple of tow trucks hauling away abandoned cars to clear the streets. The city is dark for blocks around except for the steady glow of Stark Tower.
The streets are quiet now, and calm, but it's still a war zone.
Natasha has spent her entire life in war zones. She puts her hands in her jacket pockets and she walks with purpose and nobody asks her where she's going.
She finds Clint sitting on the hood of a taxi on 42nd Street. He's got his feet on the front bumper, his elbows resting on his knees, and though he doesn't turn, Natasha knows he sees her coming. She sits beside him and mimics his position. He doesn't seem to be looking at much of anything, just the broken windows and dark lobby of the building across the street.
They sit in silence for some time, half an hour or longer, then Clint sighs, rubs his hand over his face, and looks up at the darkening sky.
"The worst part is," he says, and stops.
There's a faint tremor in his hand and dark circles under his eyes. Loki didn't let him or Selvig eat or sleep when he had them under his control, and Clint doesn't look much better now than he did after the adrenaline of battle wore off and he could no longer hold himself upright.
He goes on, "I can't stop thinking about how easy it was to just--not care. Not ask why. What we were doing or where it would lead or why those people had to... had to die." Clint clears his throat and looks down at the street. "I didn't care, so I didn't ask. Just followed orders. It was the easiest thing in the world."
There have never been more useless words than it's not your fault, so Natasha keeps them to herself. She drops her feet to the ground and stands up, holds her hand out to Clint.
"Come on," she says.
He lets her pull him off the car and to his feet. "Back to base?"
"You got somewhere else to go?"
"Sure," Natasha says. She glances up at Stark Tower. "Since we're in the neighborhood and all."
Clint lifts his eyebrows. "You're kidding."
But he goes along with her as she starts walking. She doesn't let go of his hand.
When Steve asks, "How did that start?" Natasha says, "Kashgar," and Clint says, "Vilnius," and the look he gives her is fond and unsurprised, like he knew what she was going to say before she said it. It wouldn't be the first time; Natasha doesn't mind as much now as she used to.
"All right," she says after a moment, because she knows what he's thinking, too. She knows Clint can probably count on one hand the people he's trusted in his life who have never betrayed that trust, and she isn't one of them, but the scars they gave each other are faded now. "Okay. Vilnius."
Steve is looking from one to the other, his lips quirked in the way that means he's trying not to laugh. "That sounds like a story."
Clint says, "We could tell you, Cap, but then we'd have to kill you."
Natasha rolls her eyes. "He's only saying that because he was the most incompetent jewel thief the world has ever seen."
Clint's smile is open, easy, and when he bumps her knee with his, she looks away to hide how her breath catches. She lets him tell the rest of the story. He's better at it than she is. He leaves out the worst parts, embellishes the best, and none of it sounds like a lie, just an old memory from which all the bitterness has long since bled away.