She’d never say it, couldn’t imagine a universe where she’d ever say it, but recently his low-key cool is making her crazy. He pulled a box of cereal off a high shelf this morning and the gap between the bottom of his worn out t-shirt and the top of his low slung jeans made her turn away so she wouldn’t be caught gawking. She finds herself looking at his throat, the inside of his wrists, the nape of his neck. They’ve been together in tight circumstances before - sharing a sleeping bag in the backwoods of Colorado, that tiny hotel room in Prague - but recently it’s like she’s been sensitized to his presence. She could always tell when he walked into a room, whether or not she could see him - they’d been working together long enough for that - but there’s a little extra prickle along her skin now, a little extra frisson. She was so close to losing him, so close to losing his steady presence at her back. So close to finding herself dying at his hands, while his eyes were frosted with blue. So close to losing it all. And instead of a distance growing between them, she finds herself wanting to close the gap. To reach out and just...
She’s surrounded by supersoldiers and Norse deities, but the line of his shoulders makes her weak in the knees.
Pepper notices, damn her. But then, there’s little that she misses. Despite being extra-busy running Stark Industries, despite riding herd on Tony, despite the fact that Natasha’s noticed that Bruce seems to have developed a remarkably close...and extremely interesting...relationship with the two of them - it apparently isn’t enough to keep Pepper from seeing a lot more than Natasha is comfortable with.
“I guess most of us would have assumed you two were already...you know,” Pepper said, her hands sketching an expressive gesture. “It just seemed like you two were already a thing.”
Natasha shook her head. “He was too busy helping me learn how to be human again. And then it was intimate, but not that way. I just always knew where he was. In the dark, on the street while he watched from a rooftop, I could tell where he was and that he was looking out for me. It’s only recently that...I’ve had these feelings.”
That last word is gritted out as if it were an offensive expletive, and Pepper can’t quite hide a smile under her hand. Natasha chooses not to notice it.
“It might be all the heat that Thor and Jane are giving off. What did Darcy call them? ‘An interdimensional thermonuclear sex bomb?’ Maybe there are,” she waves her hand again, managing to convey things zipping around in the air, “pheromones.”
Natasha glares. “Or it could be the rise in temperature generated by you and Tony and Bruce. What, was one genius in your bed just not enough?”
Pepper manages to blush and look unapologetic at the same time. Aha, confirmation of a theory. Clint owes her twenty bucks and a foot-rub. Oh, blast.
“Tony likes to share. And he and Bruce are so cute together...” Pepper is actually sheepish, embarrassed, but strangely...pleased? Natasha holds up her hands.
“No details. I’m a novice on the girltalk front. You’re going to overload my fragile coping skills.”
“Well. Okay, no details. But they are terribly, terribly adorable.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
There’s a long silence, then Pepper clears her throat and broaches the topic again.
“You know, I don’t know Clint all that well. But I can tell he’s not the type to get affronted if you threw yourself at him. You could probably just walk up and grab him by the collar and lead him off to be ravaged.” She taps Natasha on the wrist consolingly. “Get it out of your system?”
Natasha puts her head in her hands. She says something, probably very rude, and also probably in Russian, but it’s unintelligible and anyway, Pepper doesn’t speak Russian and doesn’t intend to ask Jarvis to translate. She stands up and pats Natasha on the shoulder.
“He does have quite the cute ass.” As she walks off, she is oblivious to the betrayed expression Natasha sends after her.
“He’s a jerk, but he’s the kind of jerk that you don’t really mind because mostly it’s harmless guy's guy jerkishness and not, like, fratboy dickbag jerkishness. I mean, sometimes it’s dickbag jerkishness, but it’s not bone deep Wall-Street-In-Training malice, it’s an honest kind that doesn’t really bug. But then I guess growing up in the circus wouldn’t give you that kind of bad dickishness. Good abs, though. Guess you get those in the circus. Maybe I should join the circus. Except I hate clowns. Anyway, he’s hot and you should tap it.”
Darcy is sideways on the sofa, legs hooked over the arm, hair in a tangle around her head. She’s picking absently at her cuticles and talking a mile a minute and Natasha is about to scream, because she’s not supposed to be this obvious but clearly hiding signs of sexual infatuation is difficult in a skyscraper full of women with some sort of fucking radar for it. If you could package this kind of sensitivity in an electronic device, the world’s armies would be lined up to purchase it. It would make actual human spies obsolete in a heartbeat.
“I mean, it’s hard to concentrate around here sometimes, with all the chiseled manflesh walking around, and god knows it’s weird knowing you’re gawking at Captain-Fucking-America’s ass and that should totally be off limits, and he’s really sweet and I don’t just want to be a total perv...”
Darcy trails off, lost in some clearly lascivious speculation about Steve, and Natasha makes her escape.
Thank God, Jane is either so wrapped up in her research or so busy pushing the limits of an extraterrestrial deity (between the sheets), that she never says anything to Natasha. Although the air of ineffable pleased-with-the-universe thing gets a little old.
Exercise is a time-honored solution for an overworked libido (Natasha has no desire whatsoever to subject herself to cold showers) so the workout dummies in the gym get a little more working out. The familiar rhythms center her, and she relishes the ache in her wrist and shoulder as she pivots, bang bang bang, sending knives spinning into various targets placed around the gym. The next day brings a bout with Steve, one of her favorite sparring partners. He somehow has figured out how not to break her, but without giving the impression that he’s holding back. Since she has pride, but no super-strength, the delicate balance is appreciated.
He has, however, finally figured out why Darcy keeps following him around, and Natasha has to endure a few questions about how to date nice girls in this century. Since she is not and never has been a nice girl (neither is Darcy, for that matter), and since American dating practices have never been a part of her universe, she’s not able to help much. Steve seems happy just to have somebody listening.
Later, some target shooting with Maria, who is blissfully professional. No worries about being interrogated about romance, just some soothing gunplay, some pleasant interdepartmental gossip, and a wave goodbye at the end of it. FInish the day off with a nice long stint in the sauna, and Natasha feels like she’s finally starting to clear the cobwebs. Every muscle in her body hurts in that good way and her post-workout shower is bliss.
Her good mood lasts as long as it takes to walk into the common room and see Clint there, alone, lazily stretched out in front of the tv like a half-domesticated cat, wearing a pair of jeans that have slid down much too far because he refuses to wear a belt when he’s on Clint Relaxing Time (he explained the rules about Clint Relaxing Time one long night when they couldn’t leave the sewer drain they had huddled inside). He's also in a grey t-shirt that makes him look like he’s about to pose for the cover of Biceps Monthly. He wears it with unconscious flair, because he’s Clint, and he doesn’t know from flair.
“Hey, ‘Tasha,” he says drowsily. “Watching The Crimson Bat. You in?” Samurai movies have been one of their things for the past year now, since a scandalized Clint learned that Natasha had never seen one. He raises his arms over his head and stretches. The t-shirt lifts and Natasha gets a good look at the abs that have entranced Darcy.
The reptile part of her brain says, “Gimme” but she stomps down on it and walks over to the small bar fridge, grabbing one of Bruce’s Italian orange sodas. She joins Clint on the sofa, where he obliging scooches over to make room for her. She sits, then leans back and tucks her feet up, determined to bring things back to normal. Maybe avoiding him the way she has for the past few days has been feeding this weird lust thing. Some nice platonic movie time could be the trick to getting her brain back where it belongs.
He smells really good. Really, really good.
Natasha jumps up off the couch and stomps off in aggravation. Clint stares after her, baffled.
They’re sent off on a small mission to Croatia, nothing fancy, a little job involving a group of drug smugglers who seem to be branching out into human trafficking. Whatever part of her brain that’s been so...enthusiastic...about throwing caution to the wind, grabbing him and fucking him into the ground seems to switch off the second they get marching orders, and they return to their usual smooth partnering, two gears meshing in perfect harmony. She is aware of him as she is aware of her hands, her feet, and knows it’s the same for him - a crazily accurate shot in low light that wings past her ear to spear an assailant behind her is just proof of how much they trust each other.
Their way out of the country involves a ferry to Bari, and a car ride up the boot of Italy, posing as a honeymooning German couple. Natasha wears a blonde wig, but draws the line at socks and sandals, which Clint tries to argue are necessary for cultural accuracy. Ugly footwear aside, this is a cakewalk. The job was so tidy that there is not even a whisper of pursuit. Somewhere around Ravenna, the itch is back. She studies his profile, the snub nose, the chin, the strong forehead. She said he looked like a plumber once, and he agreed (“Good Midwestern stock”) but truthfully he’s whatever the male version of jolie laide might be. Plain at first glance, potent thereafter.
By the time they get to Venice, she’s made a decision.
The apartment is on the edge of a backwater canal, sure to be smelly if it were the middle of summer, but inoffensive in the fall chill. The tourists have dwindled down to a trickle, and you can spot actual Venetians on the street again. The sky is a clear grey, and the light that falls over the buildings of the city is incredibly pure.
Clint raised an eyebrow when she radioed Fury and told him they were taking a few days vacation, but went along with her without question, even arranged the apartment.
“Friend of a friend owes me a favor,” he explains. Might as well cash it in, there’s not much that happens in Venice these days anyway.”
She takes him to dinner and they eat baked sardines, squid on a bed of risotto made with its black ink, tiramisu for dessert and black black coffee. Their hands brush against each other as they walk through the nightlit city, and impulsively she takes his hand. Almost absently, he brings her hand up to his lips and drops a brief kiss on her knuckles, and it tingles through her.
They perch on the edge of a well in a small square surrounded by buildings that lean inwards. The pigeons and tourists and Venetians are all in bed, and it feels like the city belongs to them alone. She leans into him and he puts his arm around her shoulders.
“Far be it from me to complain, Tasha. But this is all a little unlike you.”
“I know,” she says, and snuggles closer. “Do you like it? Don’t get used to it, I abhor kittenish behavior. I’m sure it’ll pass.”
“I like the cuddling. I don’t know if I like you staring at me for seven hours while I fend off Italian drivers. Actually, it creeped me out. Usually you’re planning to kill people when you watch them that way.”
“I’m not planning on killing you. Just the opposite.” She almost claps a hand over her mouth when she realizes what she’s said. And it’s not lost on Clint, either. He sits up a little straighter.
“Listen. I’m only going to say this once, because it’s humiliating. But ever since I almost lost you...I’ve been...I’ve wanted to...damnit, I can’t say it!”
Clint’s starting to put two and two together, though. His face, as he turns to Natasha in the dimness of the piazza, is amazed. “Tash, don’t hit me if I’m wrong, but are you...”
His words are cut off as she kisses him fiercely, arms around his neck, straining upwards, her lips hot on his. He’s a quick learner. His hands go around her waist, pulling her snugly against him, his fingertips crooking in the band of her jeans. They come up for air, and he shakes his head like a man waking up out of a dream. She smiles up at him. “Race you home.”
They stop to kiss in every doorway. A few people smile at them in passing, two lovers in a city that’s built for romance, but they’re oblivious to everything but each other. His strong fingers strum up her spine, tangle in her hair, press into the corners of her mouth. She drags him through the door of their apartment and they stagger up the two flights to their bedroom. Along the way, shirts are discarded and Natasha’s bra ends up on the arm of a hideous smirking marble Venus. The trail of clothing continues to the bedroom, a cavernous, drafty room with threadbare red damask on the walls. Clint winds up staring up at the canopy of the bed, eyes glazed over in ecstasy as Natasha blazes new trails with her lips and tongue. Later, it’s her turn to lie back, while Clint explores her from head to toe, handling her as delicately as a china doll until she sits up and kisses him with a little more teeth, after which things take a turn for the more rough and tumble. The bed creaks alarmingly, but a century of good craftsmanship holds, even when two particularly flexible people are exploring new limits of creativity.
They watch the sun rise together over the water, before returning to bed to sleep, arms and legs intertwined. As he fades away, he hears Natasha say ruefully,
“I’m going to have to tell Pepper she was right.”
She doesn’t, actually. The second they walk through the doors they see Pepper, texting furiously on a little Stark-gadget. One long glance, one delicately arched eyebrow, one ever-so-mild I-told-you-so that goes unspoken because it doesn’t have to be said, and Pepper resumes her texting, her stilettos clicking as she heads off into the next room.
Clint watches her go, then turns to Natasha. “Care to explain that?”
Natasha smiles and pats him on the arm. “Nope.”