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1968

 

History will dub it the summer of love. Natasha neither knows nor cares about love, never has, expects she never will, but history's got one thing right: it's the summer when everything changes.

 

***

 

There are many things Natasha could mourn: the parents she doesn't remember, or the friends she could've made if not for fear of having to kill them with her own two hands might they not live up to their trainer's standard, never having experienced what it feels like to go to bed at night with the knowledge that she'd wake up safe and sound come morning. She has, however, long since decided that it's futile to yearn for an emotion or for any one person. What she really misses is home. It was cold and harsh and humid and she never saw much of it anyway, but it was what she knew.

California is hot and dry, and she hates it from the moment she sets foot on its soil. But that wasn't her choice; for nearly thirty years now, the likes of her are trained to do as they're told, not act on their own whim. She had a mission to fulfill, but she didn't. Her handler, Olga, was an elderly woman who used to be a Black Widow too, one of the rare ones who meet the misfortune of surviving beyond an alluring age. They don't become trainers; that's not a job for people who have had blind obedience drilled into their heads. Instead, they get to monitor other women, younger ones, watch them do the job they were once good at. Natasha took one look at her and decided she wouldn't want to grow old, not like that.

Opportunity strikes only a few days after her arrival, and suddenly, there's a way out. Natasha turns to look back at Olga's limb body, bleeding from a head wound she knows is fatal. She wasn't the one who inflicted it, but she also didn't try very hard to prevent that from happening. She is fourteen and just cut all the ties that bound her to where she came from, and the taste of freedom on her tongue makes her head spin.

 

***

 

Life as a trainee in the red room wasn't rich with luxuries by any means, but soon Natasha finds that it didn't prepare her for having to organize her own food and shelter. She can be everyone to anyone and she knows how to make a man tell her all his secrets, even though her body is not yet old enough to employ that skill. She can be pretty and she can be lethal. She doesn't know where money comes from or how to gain it other than stealing, so that's what she does. And she's good at it, but the problem is, in this tourist trap of a state, petty theft is a highly competitive market, and none of her competition likes to share.

Malnutrition and sleep deprivation conspire, and so when she sits on the dirty tiles of a fast food restaurant's bathroom – one arm cradling a rib that's at least bruised and the other wiping blood off her nose – and someone extends a hand, she knows she's got no other choice than to take it.

He's a few years older than her, dark blonde bangs falling into bright blue eyes, and he squints at her with compassion and curiosity. An easy mark, she can tell.

“You know,” he says as he pulls her up, “trying to go it at alone won't get you too far in this business.”

Natasha lets go of his hand and inclines her head, aims for clueless innocence. “I didn't know stealing was a business.”

“There's your first mistake.” He shakes his head in an exaggerated manner and grins, and suddenly Natasha isn't sure which of them is playing whom. “You're in luck, though. We're recruiting.”

 

***

 

We, it turns out, is Barton's Traveling Circus, and despite the name it makes more money from having their performers hit the streets and bars after hours than it does from ticket sales and candy vendors. They weren't recruiting, either, or at least not looking to hire scrawny teenage girls. She sits outside the main tent and listens while her savior is yelled at good and proper.

Natasha expects to be sent away when he comes out, crouches down by her side with a smile that tries its best but doesn't reach his eyes.

“You don't don't have to feel bad,” she says; better luck next time, there'll be another opportunity. “I'll go, it's okay – “

“No, no, don't worry.” He shakes his head, and the light from the tent hits his face just right, lets her see the kind of reddened skin around his eyes that will have turned into a shiner by the time he wakes up in the morning. “You're not going anywhere.”

Natasha doesn't want to know how he bought the permission to keep her around, as long as he's the only one who'll foot that bill. She smiles back, big and childlike. “Thank you.”

“That was the good news,” he says, and the smirk he pastes on while he rises to his feet and nods his head towards the trailers lined up behind the tents looks a little more honest. “Bad news is, we're roomies.”

 

***

 

Here's what she learns about the boy in her first couple of weeks with the circus: his name is Clint, he's twenty and he has never known another life than this. His father is the director and his brother runs the shadier parts of the business, his mother died when he was five, and the circus has been in the family for more generations than anyone bothers to count. He smiles a lot when he's happy, and he smiles even more when he isn't. He's a decent thief, but it's not his greatest skill, what he's really good at is shooting – with a bow, not so much with a gun, a true circus talent. He's got a girl, even though she's technically his ex: they got married young, divorced just a year older, and yet he still falls into her bed more often than his. Maybe someplace else, people would care. Here, they don't. Natasha too doesn't mind; it means she's got the trailer to herself most nights. She listens to the sounds of the circus outside – always busy, never quiet – until she falls asleep.

 

***

 

Natasha's been with the circus for three months when she steps out of the trailer to find his girl – Bobbi – leaning against the hot, dusty metal. She'll stain her dress, all lace and sequins, but she doesn't seem to care; it's seen better days anyway. During shows, she walks the tightrope, and sometimes she's Clint's assistant, hold up items for him to shot. Afterward she sits in a booth of her own and reads people their fortunes.

“You hungry?” she asks, and Natasha nods. Bobbi points towards the booths offering hot dogs and sweet things and fried everything. They're technically closed, but, Natasha has learned, Bobbi doesn't hear the word no very often. “Okay then, what do you want?”

She doesn't have a preference and tells Bobbi so, and they end up with candyfloss and ice cream, which is when it dawns on Natasha that she's being bribed, not about to be interrogated. Bobbi sits her down by the lion's cages, the animals pacing behind them, their stink mixing with the sweet smell of their candy treats.

“He's stupid about you,” she says, and it's an accusation, pregnant with both worry and disdain. “Has been from the start.”

“Not my fault,” replies Natasha, “nothing to be done about it.”

Bobbi flips the last of her ice cream cone to the ground in front of them, and they watch as one of the stray cats that always show only hours after they settled into a place makes a run for it, paws at it, eventually realizes it's only crumbs and loses interest. “There's one thing you could do.”

“I'm not going anywhere,” Natasha says with finality, and Bobbi frowns, but doesn't argue back. She hands Natasha her candyfloss and stands, walks away in her dirty dress.

 

***

 

Out in the real world, people go to war or march the streets. They say a new order is about to emerge, revolution wafting around every corner, but all that is of little concern in the circus. Pencil skirt and Sunday suit or batic shirt and jeans and leather jacket, they all come to be entertained, and they all have pockets to be picked.

Natasha earns her keep like everyone else; she makes more than Clint most days, regardless of whether they're out on the town with the others or she's roaming the tent during the show. She can draw attention if she needs to and fade into the background if it serves her purpose better to go unnoticed, and both of these abilities serve her well when it comes to sneaking money out of people's wallets.

Nevertheless, she listens when he thinks he's teaching her, never tells him he could probably learn a thing or two about playing people from her, because when he's done talking about theft he tells her stories about the people they share shelter with. He knows everyone: the other pickpockets, the performers from the show, the kids who can't do either but someone's got to feed the animals and clean their stalls and so they get to stick around. And because this is a traveling circus and that's not a career anyone chooses if they have other options, none of his stories are boring. How many of them are true, well, that's a different matter.

 

***

 

Small towns are dangerous. They mean tiny, old-fashioned bars with too many drunks and too few passersby, but they're a necessary evil. Cities are far and few between, and on the way from one to the next, money still has to be made so they don't collectively starve. Or that's what the older Bartons say anyway; Natasha is pretty sure they have enough money stashed away to feed the lot of them for months.

It's a slow night in a town so small they have all but one bar and a grocery store, and the former yielded next to nothing. Now they're here, Clint and here and a two others, and it's closing in on midnight and the only sober people populating the place aside from their little band of thieves are the bartender and the waitress.

Slight of hand is usually Clint's strong suit, but not tonight. Making his way through literally punch-drunk farmers, he stands out like a sore thumb; too young to be in here alone, not enough dirty under his nails, too pretty to truly feel like one of them. People pay attention to him. For another approach in another place, that would be a good thing. For right here and now, it's a disaster.

Natasha hears the commotion before she sees it, abandons the farm boy she was in the process of buttering up enough so her hands on his hips wouldn't be unexpected and he wouldn't notice if they'd wander. She watches as Clint is pushed against the bar, one of the shitfaced hillbillies waving his wallet at him: he's been caught. Her own hands ball into fist by her side as he gets the first hit, hard enough that his head flies back and he's licking blood off his lip afterward. Their two companions are nowhere to be seen – loyalty may be a thing in the circus, but so is saving your own skin above all else. And Natasha should follow their example and leave. This isn't her problem. He isn't her problem.

She doesn't. She slips into the small knot of onlookers that has gathered around the bar, ducks low and out of everyone's sight. The odds aren't in their favor, but this is the country, and despite the alcohol level of everyone around she's betting on the assumption that no one here would hit back a little girl without at least hesitating, and a moment's lag is all she'll need. She leaps out of the crowd when she's close enough, wraps herself around the farmer Clint tried to rob, arms around his neck, legs squeezing his torso just long enough so he's startled. She lets go and ducks back down, grabbing Clint's hand in the process, and together they make a run for it, out of the bar and into a nearby field. She pushes at his shoulders until he crouches down. A few patrons tumble out of the bar, but without their targets in sight they lose interest fast and trot back inside in order, returning to the task of getting even more drinks into their systems.

They hoof it back to the circus, because the others took the car for their escape. She feels his gaze on her all the way back, questions looming, but he doesn't give voice to a single one. In order to avoid further trouble, the circus leaves that same night, and the next day Natasha can swear there are more bruises on his face than the previous night's brawl would account for.

They don't talk about that either.

 

***

 

Summer turns to fall turns to winter. The circus turns in for the off season, settling near New York to keep their side-business alive, and more than once, Natasha thinks about leaving. The community within the circus offers safety in numbers, though it ails her to see them fail to protect their own against threats from within. Fear tumbles downwards, and they are all of them afraid of their leader's wrath, happy to let it catch anyone but themselves. Some catch it more often than others. One of them catches it the most.

But Natasha doesn't leave. She prepares for it, sets money aside, talks Bobbi into teaching her how to budget, cook and wash, the kind of basic live skills the Red Room did not deem necessary to impart on its daughters. She thinks the only reason why Bobbi agrees to help her is the hope that, once the lessons are over, Natasha would slip away into the night, quietly and – more importantly – alone.

And that's exactly the plan. It just never happens.

 

***

 

In the weeks before Christmas, things take a turn for the worse. Natasha learns through whispered rumors that Clint and Barney's mother lost her life on a snow-covered road all these years back, and somehow, in the mind of their father, that seems to translate into it being his youngest son's fault. Clint endures it like he endures everything else. Natasha spends the holidays being irrationally angry; on his behalf, at him, she can't figure out where the line is drawn or if there is one at all. He's not weak, she knows he can hold his own in a fight if he so chooses, and she doesn't understand.

The field outside the suburbs they call home for the winter grows more claustrophobic with every passing day. It's as if they all hold their collective breath for an anniversary that traditionally brings an explosion of violence everyone tries to anticipate and avoid. No one has to tell Natasha the date; she figures it has arrived when Bobbi knocks on the door of the trailer one late night, voice thin and frantic, and finds her carrying a Clint that can hardly stand, his face covered in red, the stink of alcohol on his soaked shirt but not his breath, trembling with the cold and maybe something else. Natasha hurries to help Bobbi take his weight, anger flaring in her gut when he hisses and flinches away from the touch to his torso.

Bobbi's eyes lock with hers in the dim light that falls out of the open trailer door, and there's an unspeakable sadness in them.

“From the moment I saw you, I knew you would take him away,” she says, holding up a hand when Natasha opens her mouth to protest. “Do it now. Take your things and his and go. Tonight. I fear for what will happen if you don't.”

There's a certainty to her words that shocks Natasha to the core; she doesn't predict or assume, she knows. It's a scary thought, leaving the circus, but as she stands there with her arms wrapped around his body to help him stay upright, looks at the slow trickle of blood that's still running down his chin and falling down to paint tiny red dots onto the snow, she knows why she didn't go earlier. What she has been waiting for. What she needs to do.

On Christmas morning just before dawn, the two of them leave the circus forever.

 

 

 

1971

 

Running away in America put Natasha out of Mother Russia's immediate grasp, made her harder to catch, less likely turn up on its radar. The bad thing is, it also put Russia out of her reach. Going home is not an option without an officially registered identity or the money to fake one, and so she's stuck in a country that aches with the hangover of dreaming too big and aiming too high. Funny enough, that actually seems somewhat fitting.

 

***

 

Going straight was a consequence, rather than a plan. It didn't take them long to discover Clint's father left him with a parting gift: partial hearing loss. Without health insurance, aids are a pipe dream, and without his hearing, gathering the money he'd need to get one on his own is all but impossible; neither of them realized just how dependent someone in their chosen profession would be on keeping an eye and an ear on their surroundings. It hasn't become a much better idea for her to steal their keep on her own, and the odd jobs he manages to catch despite the amount of illegal workers available in New York's dregs never last long. Finding a gig in another circus would alert his father to his whereabouts, and part from his sleight of hand and his aim, he doesn't have any marketable skills. She does.

Dancing in clubs isn't quite the same thing as dancing ballet for rich party officials, but it doesn't require papers and no one asks questions she wouldn't be able to answer. More than once, up there on the stage, she considers walking out of that club in the wee hours of the morning, never going back to him, trying to make her luck all by herself. But then she gathers her clothes and her scratchy feather boa after she's done, gets dressed, walks to the tiny apartment they now share. Every night she finds him still awake, unable to get any rest until he knows she's home safe, and the thought to abandon him seems unfathomable all over again.

 

***

 

Even making a living as she does, Natasha has rules. She can deal with people looking, as long as they don't touch. Technically, that is a rule in all the clubs she works for, but not all of them enforce it with vigilance. Some nights she endures a brief touch, strange hands where they have no business being. Other times she can't ignore it so easily, remind that the monster in her, the one who knew how to kill before it knew how to spell, can only put up with so much before it roars inside her.

The costumer who paws at her ass during a private dance isn't even particularly bold. He loses control of himself; men's inhibitions are harder to tame than any wild animal, she has learned. But something in her uncoils when he touches her skin, and she's got him off his seat and with his face pressed to the dirty floor before she can form a conscious thought. He wails, and orderlies run into the room, taking him away and her to see the boss.

This establishment is led by a woman that invokes thoughts of Olga. Like Natasha's unfortunate old handler, she has aged into seeing younger women perform the job that was once hers, and like Olga, she doesn't seem too pleased by that development. She runs a tight ship, twice as harsh as her male counterparts in other clubs, and when she sees the expression on her withered face, Natasha knows she crossed a line that will cost her.

The backhand isn't much of a surprise, and Natasha holds still for it. The words that accompany it are much worse.

“You're going to gather your things,” she says in a voice that brooks no argument, the voice of a woman that has fought hard to get to a spot where she's giving commands instead of receiving them. “And then I suggest you get out of the city. Because I will tell everyone I know that you're a liability, make sure you'll never work again.”

New York is too big for that threat to be all-compassing, but it isn't empty either. Finding work will not become impossible, although it sure will be harder. An apology might be go a long way to soothe the waters.

Natasha doesn't apologize. She nods. She gathers her things. She goes home. She makes a few calls and finds another club, a step below her usual standard, that will take her on as early as tomorrow night. By the next evening, she's sporting an impressive bruise on her collarbone, and as she sits in front of her mirror, about to get ready, try and hide it with the cheap makeup that's her armor these days, the bathroom door opens and closes.

Clint sits down on the edge of the bathtub, his face appearing next to hers in the reflection. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”

She shakes her head.

“Are you going to let me help?” She's about to shake her head no again when she sees him hold out a worn, unmarked can, the lid already taken off, so she can see its contents; concealer, the good stuff, used to hide tattoos and other permanent marks for the stage. Clint does not have any tattoos, nor does he have any big, marring scars that'd need to be covered up.

She stares at him.

“What?” he asks. “I've been in the circus. I've been a performer. And you've seen the bruises.”

“The bruises,” she parrots, because while they both know what he means, they never talked about it. As if pretending it never happened made it so, erased the shame.

He doesn't say anything else, may not even have heard her, just kneels down next to her and begins applying the concealer to her face with practiced hands. She closes her eyes and lets him work.

 

***

 

It's not long after the incident that she's approached on the street. She spots her tail just a few steps out of the club she worked in that night, changes direction away from the apartment and towards busier streets. Satisfied that she couldn't be put down without anyone noticing immediately, she stands and turns.

“Who are you?” she asks, voice so low it'll carry exactly as much as it needs to and not much further.

The man tailing her steps out of the shadows, his expression appreciative, genuinely impressed. “Well done. You haven't forgotten your training, then.”

Ice wraps around her heart, makes her breath stutter. They found her. She will go back to Russia, but she will do so a prisoner. Her hand wraps around the small butterfly knife she keeps under her clothes at all times, and the man shakes his head.

“I'm not here to take you prisoner, Miss Romanova,” he says, and she notices that his accent doesn't fit; he's no American, but he's not Russian either. His hands disappear underneath his coat too and she tenses, but all he takes out of are a lighter and a cigarette. He breathes out smoke, the tip of the cigarette gleaming in the dark. “I want to offer you employment. A freelance job, really. Like the dancing you're up to now, but you get to keep your clothes on.”

Natasha has many useful skills indeed, and she may have just found an unexpected new market for the more nebulous ones.

 

***

 

All she tells Clint is that she's quit dancing – which he seems relieved about – and found a different form of work. He doesn't pry for specifics; she didn't have to say anything at all, and they both understand the need to keep secrets even from the people closest to them. The only thing he asks is whether or not it's risky, if she'll be safe, and the answer she gives him isn't really a lie.

This is what she's been trained for almost all her life, and she slips back into effortlessly. She isn't afraid. She knows what she's doing. Natasha kills like it's her sole purpose, the reason she was put onto this earth, and that might not even be too far off from the truth.

The first few hits are milk runs, to test if she hasn't lost her teeth. Ridiculously easy and far below a Black Widow, even ones that aren't as good as Natasha. Her unnamed employer seems to realize that quickly, and soon she gets to spread her wings, get creative, run more elaborate cons on her targets. Clint still doesn't ask where she goes when she doesn't come home to him for days, but the way he looks at her changes. He's waiting for her to leave. He could not be more wrong.

It occurs to Natasha during a mission downtown. The high buildings rising all around her make her skin crawl, have her glance around nervously so often she almost loses sight of her target once or twice. A sniper at the right distance, the right height, and someone with opposing interests could get her out of the way with a single bullet. That could also be an advantage though; someone who has her back, covering her from up high as she does what she does best. Clint won't need his hearing for that, only his eyesight. She knows he still has his bow. She knows he's still practicing. She knows how good he is. She knows he would give his life to protect her.

The only thing standing between her and the best backup she could possibly wish for is a bag full of secrets.

 

***

 

In a way, their secrets are comfortable, always have been. Until now, she never had to worry how he'd react when he found out about the literal bodies in her closet. For all the hardships he endured, or maybe because of them, he's a gentle person – kind, caring, not capable of true malice. The things that set them apart might just be the things she loves most about him. He wouldn't disown her if he knew, she's rather sure. But she can't decide whether or not he'd understand.

There's only one way to find out.

She waits for another fitting mission, the kind that puts her out in the open and would benefit from another pair of eyes, sits him down and lays it out before him; no shortcuts or half-truths. She gives him a choice.

While he listens to her, his gaze never leaves hers. He doesn't flinch back. He doesn't avert his eyes. Every now and then, shock and disbelief flicker across his face – she expected as much – but he never backs down. At the end of it, he gets straight to the point.

“You're telling me all this for reason,” he says once she's fallen quiet, having said her piece, told her story. “What is it?”

Natasha takes a deep breath. She hasn't lost him yet, judging from his expression. Now comes the part where she asks him to kill, become like her, and either way, there will be no coming back from whichever answer he'll give.

“I want you to join me,” she replies. “Keep me safe. I want us to be a team.”

Guilt rises in her throat like bile as she watches him chew on her selling point, the focus of her request shifted to helping her, rather than killing others. He finally tears his gaze away from her, glancing at the worn old duffle bag that contains his bow and arrows, and she sees the way his face hardens as he realizes, probably for the first time, that his talent could be put to use for taking someone's life.

“I'm in,” he says after what feels like a lifetime, and she'll never forget how he looks at her when their eyes lock again and he accepts her suggestion with everything he's got: displaying determination, turmoil, and an eerie sense of purpose she has never seen him wear. The sight touches a hidden place deep inside of her and sets it aflame. She doesn't know it yet, but she'll spend years trying to smother that fire.

 

 

 

1974

 

In a world ravaged by recession and an energy crisis, a country rattled by Watergate and and the ongoing Cold War, Natasha finds herself fighting a battle of her own. Business is booming, no shortage of people wanting other people dead, and they've long since given up on acting in one party's interest only. Who'll find themselves at the end of her gun or his arrow heads isn't a question of allegiance, but dependent on the highest offer. Gone are the times when they shared a ratty apartment in the underbelly of New York; now they travel first class from one job to the next, anonymity a thing that can be bought when needed.

They work with unmatched, deadly precision, and every single body left in their wake helps building a legend. But they're also drifting further apart, and Natasha has to figure out whether the former is worth risking the latter.

 

***

 

They're in Los Angeles, killing a politician on his summer vacation. Quick business, that – locate, wait for the right moment, she distracts and he takes the shot. That's how it often goes by now, simply because it leaves less of a trace. She gets to gasp and wail and run away, and if she's caught, there's no evidence to be found on her person.

Natasha knows that's not what he signed up for. She used to think it doesn't make a difference why he kills.

He meets her in the lobby, bow and arrow inauspiciously stored away in a guitar case, which is cliché but effective. She looks at him and gives the slightest nod, kudos for a job well done. He walks by without acknowledging her presence. It's not the first time this has happened.

Back in their hotel room, she drops onto his unmade bed, kicks off her shoes and removes the hair slide that held her curls in place so that they fall onto her shoulders. Clint's packing up his gear, and he glances up at her with an expression that wants to be blank on the surface but barely manages to hide the disdain underneath.

“That went well,” she says, smiling at him through her lashes.

He raises his eyebrows at her, incredulous. “He's dead.”

Which is both the point of most their missions and sort of the problem. Natasha stands and starts towards the shower, unzipping her dress at the back as she goes. He glances after her for a short moment, eyes widening, before he directs his attention back to the bag sitting between his feet.

 

***

 

For as long as they've known each other, Natasha has never bothered to try and put words to what they are. Friends, one could call it. Family. Partners. They're a unit, and at this point Natasha isn't sure where she ends and he begins anymore. She does know, however, that trying to extract the parts of him that have become fused with the very core of who she is and vice versa might cripple them both. She realized this a while ago, and it makes the fact that she has spent the past three years falling madly in love with him, more and more with every passing day, so much more complicated. It's her belief he loves her back, but that doesn't really do much to disentangle things.

 

***

 

Early next morning, they board another plane. This one will take them overseas: Paris, and this job won't be quite so easy. She'll have slip into another woman's skin for a week or two, create a new identity and play pretend until the opportunity to strike arises. He will keep an eye on her, ready to rain death on everyone who might prove a danger to Natasha or her con. If everything goes according to plan, though, he won't have to kill anyone at all, and that will be worth every effort.

The woman Natasha becomes smiles pretty at their target in the bar of the Palais Royale. She bats her eyes, makeup and attitude masking the fact that she's barely twenty at this point. She laughs at his jokes and idly pats his arm. They leave together and kiss out on the street; she makes sure it's in Clint's direct line of sight. Then she feigns to be bashful, a lady with standards, hard to get, and excuses herself back to the apartment they're renting for the duration of the job.

The look Clint gives her as he opens the door is exactly what she was hoping for. As always, though, he doesn't do anything about it. She slips past him after checking the street for a tail one more time out of habit, and they spend the night pointedly ignoring each other.

 

***

 

What follows is an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse that Natasha could do in her sleep: running into their target on accident time and time again, being available enough so he doesn't lose interest, but not too obvious or he'll get suspicious. She knows this game, and she plays it well. She's got him eating from the palm of her hand within days. He thinks he's the hunter, buttering up his prey, when in fact the opposite is true.

Ahead of schedule, she rents a room in another expensive hotel and invites him to spend the night. He accepts; of course he does. The two armed guards he brings, babbling about safety measures while also pointing out just how important he is, are a spoke in the wheel, but nothing she won't be able to deal with. Her plan remains unchanged; poison dropped into his champagne, a heart attack, quick and clean, just as ordered. She calls an ambulance, screams and cries, crocodile tears on her cheeks not yet dry when she attempts to slip out amidst the commotion.

Halfway towards the door, and thereby safety, one of the guards stops her. He yanks her purse out of her hands and upends it, rummaging around in the content. He's not going to find anything there; the empty vial for the poison is strapped to her thigh. Frustrated, he backs her against the wall, forearm pressed to her larynx.

“What did you do,” he demands, “I know you did something.”

Natasha smiles an empty smile, blinks away a few more tears. “Nothing. Please let me go.”

He's unimpressed, increases the pressure on her throat. The vulnerability of the position occurs to her too late, her vision already blurring; had she put him down right away, she would've already been on her way. She struggles, knowing it's futile, and that's when the pressure stops, the guard stumbling back. She has to blink to get him into focus and see the blood stain collecting square in the middle of his chest. Her hand flails out to search for something to hold on to as her legs buckle underneath her, refusing to support her weight.

She falls straight into Clint's arms, identifies him by the sound of his voice as he mumbles soothing nonsense into her neck, and she gives in to the darkness swallowing her.

 

***

 

Natasha floats back to consciousness enveloped by his scent, his warmth, his breath puffing out against her temple. She turns in his arms, and he blinks, as if he's been drifting before she moved against him.

“You're awake,” he says, dumbly, his face lit up with relief in a way she hasn't seen on him in months, or possibly ever.

“I am.” Her voice is a little scratchy, and her throat throbs, but it's not so bad. She's had much worse. “You got me out of there.”

He grins. “What you keep me around for, isn't it?”

She doesn't quite know what makes her stomach feel so funny; the sight of him, open and happy at knowing she's fine, or the closeness, the fact that he wrapped himself around her while she was out and doesn't seem in too much of a hurry to draw back now that she's awake. Maybe it's all of that, and it makes her bold. She leans in, stopping a hair's breath from his face, glancing up, leaving the final decision to him.

For a few seconds she thinks he's going to turn her down – the grin disappears, and he pulls back just a fraction. But then he closes his eyes, and their lips meet. It's a brief kiss, testing the waters, trying it out, making sure the universe won't explode around them if they cross this line.

“You're twenty,” he points out when they part, licking his lips and scratching at the plastic that connects the aids to his ear, as he tends to do when he's nervous or uncomfortable. “I've known you since you were fourteen.”

“And I've known you since you were a boy who didn't know anything else than being someone's punching bag.” She studies him, wondering if that is what made him keep his distance all this time. “A lot has happened since then.”

His hand wraps around the back of her neck, carefully avoiding the bruises, and he leans down a bit more so their foreheads touch. “True.”

Nothing else happens that night, and they leave Paris in the morning. But she knows, when she wakes up still settled in his embrace, that things have irrevocably changed between them.

 

***

 

Their next job is the assassination of a mafiosi in Rome, and Clint books them a single like that's the way things have always been. He does the same in Prague, where they're hired to rid an arms dealer of his trophy wife; he sleeps in fits and spurts after that, but he does so in her arms. They have a huge fight in Argentina, after killing a wayward accountant and securing the money he stole. On the flight back across the pond they fuck for the first time, standing up against the door of the the tiny bathroom, still angry and that only makes it better. They don't stop for days on end, book into a random hotel in Madrid and postpone the next job until the initial frenzy is out of their systems.

 

***

 

Back in the US for a job that requires forethought and preparation, holed up in a basement to stay out of sight, he bursts the bubble.

They've seen little else than one another for three day – not in the fun way that involves orgasms and hickeys and the occasional bite mark, but working, waiting, setting things up – and they're snapping at each other at every turn. One word leads to another, and the accusation falls out almost in passing; in hindsight Natasha won't even be able to remember what exactly they were arguing about.

“You made me a killer,” he snarls, and the blood freezes in her veins.

She stares at him and doesn't know what to reply, because it's the truth and she's always known the life they lead wasn't something he'd chosen for himself. He hates it, probably as much as he loves her, and she knows that too. But she's selfish; she can't figure out a way to stop, get out, and she can't imagine a life without him.

After moments that feel like they span an eternity, he exhales and mutters an apology, wraps her in his arms, kisses the top of her head, and it at least assures her that he can't imagine to exist without her either.

She won't forget the words, though. They'll replay in her head whenever she sees him set up his gear for another hit, take a shot, or zip up a body bag for cleanup after. And then the way out finds them.

 

***

 

The plain business card begins to shows up after every other job they've completed – handed out with the invoice at the reception of their latest hotel, left on a pillow, tacked the to mirror. It contains nothing but a phone number, American, with an area code that isn't in any official record, and three words: Peggy Carter, S. H. I. E. L. D.

Figuring out what S. H. I. E. L. D. is proves easy enough. Making heads and tails of what an alphabet agency tasked with international security might want from them and why the fuck they don't just get it over with and issue a kill order, well, that's the actual riddle.

After the fifth card, curiosity wins out. They call the number together, huddled over the speaker in a phone box in Geneva mid-November. The woman who answers it has a thick British accent, her voice exuding the kind of seasoned authority that comes from a long time in a position of power. She politely introduces herself. She informs them her organization has collected enough evidence against them to make sure they'll never see the light of day again if they're ever captured.

She offers them a job.