"What do normal people do on vacation?" Natasha asks.
Clint barely looks up from his bow. "I don't know. Probably they don't kill things."
"I think they don't kill things on a beach."
"Boring," he says. The arrow flies to the target, neatly bisecting the one that was already in the center.
"Phil said we had to go on vacation," Natasha reminds him. Phil had left them a letter. Do not read unless I'm dead. "Why would he do that?"
Clint shrugs and looses another arrow. "I guess you get to make all manner of perverse requests when you're dead."
Natasha narrows her eyes. "Should I be worried about the contents of your letter?"
He gives her a look that says, well, you'll find out when I'm dead. Natasha sighs. Her letter only says, burn my body, refrain from weeping, drink vodka.
"Look, just pick a place that's not boring," Clint says.
"Go for a middle ground." He looks away from the target for a split second. "Not Somalia, okay?"
"Budapest?" she asks hopefully. It's been ages since she had good goulash.
"No," Clint says, punctuating his answer with the twang of an arrow.
Natasha picks Tokyo because she wants good ramen. Flying twelve hours for a bowl of noodles would sound indulgent to most people, but then, most people had not been ordered by a dead best friend and a team of SHIELD psychiatrists to take a vacation.
They eat ramen for two days straight, hitting up hole-in-the-wall noodle shops and the Ramen Museum in Yokohama before Natasha decides she's sick of Tokyo. The packed subways and crowded streets make her feel anonymous, which she likes, but the fast pace doesn't suit her mood right now.
In the morning, she makes Clint get up early so they can take the train to Kamakura. He wants to see the Big Buddha, but Natasha snorts "tourist trap" and leads them past it, following a small path up into the hills. When the path enters the mountain, they have to bend over almost double for a few hundred meters before it opens to a tiny cave illuminated only by flickering candles. Beside her, Clint's eyes are wide; he hasn't traveled as much as she has, and his missions haven't left much time for sightseeing. Together, they watch a steady stream of supplicants place tiny white carvings on the outcroppings that line the walls.
"Kanon," she whispers, flicking her eyes toward the gray stone goddess that dominates the far side of the cave.
"The goddess of mercy," he says, reading off a little plaque on the wall. "You've been here before."
"Yeah." She doesn't bother asking how he knows. He can see things about her without her knowing, and he doesn't abuse them. That's why they are...well, whatever they are.
Natasha fumbles in her pocket for change, and when she doesn't find any, she takes two hundred yen from Clint's. Whatever is his is hers anyway. The coins clatter in the donation box and she selects one of the white carvings from a low table near the mouth of the cave. There's a marker on the table, and she almost writes Phil's name on the smooth back of the carving, but she changes her mind and writes her own name instead. Phil's not the one who needs mercy.
They ride back to the hotel in silence.
"So we're done," Natasha says. She folds up two t-shirts and puts them in her suitcase. "We've been on vacation."
"Wait." Clint is holding an alarmingly creased piece of paper. His copy of Phil's letter, she guesses. "It says here that being broody and Russian is expressly forbidden."
"I haven't been broody and Russian." She tucks her underwear into the mesh pouch in the suitcase lid. "Going to a shrine is not broody and Russian."
"It is when you do it," Clint says. "We'll have to try again."
An argument comes to mind, something about how Phil shouldn't limit her cultural expression, but she realizes she doesn't really want to go home. She likes this aimless wandering with Clint, and she can't be sure that SHIELD will assign them to a mission together when they come back to New York.
"Fine," she says, not bothering to feign annoyance very well. "You pick the next place."
Clint guesses her iPad password with infuriating accuracy and traces his finger around a map of Asia.
"Lanzhou has a nice ring to it," he says. "It's kind of in the middle of China."
"Do you want to look it up?" she asks.
Clint makes a derisive sound, which Natasha takes to mean she's lucky he hadn't just thrown a dart at a map. Actually, he probably would have, if you could do such a thing to an iPad screen. It will be easy enough to reach from Tokyo though, so Natasha figures she may as well acquiesce.
Two plane rides later, she regrets that decision.
"My snot is black," she says. "Does that damn letter say anything about getting lung cancer on vacation?"
"To be fair, Lanzhou was not an excellent choice. If I had known it was the most polluted city in China, I probably would not have picked it. And that's as close to an apology as you're getting."
Natasha opens the Lonely Planet guide she'd bought at Narita Airport. Every reference to Tianamen Square has been blacked out by a government censor, and she smiles faintly. Censorship reminds her of the old country.
"You bought a guidebook?" Clint's disgust radiates all the way across their hotel room.
"Because you made such good selections without one." She flips through the pages till she finds the right region. "Xiahe sounds nice. Trekking opportunities, Tibetan monasteries. Not such a long bus ride."
"Sounds vacation-y," Clint says. "Let's go."
The guidebook neglected to mention that some of the monks have an arms smuggling operation, and they react violently when discovered by nosy foreign tourists.
They dump the bodies in the woods behind the temple.
"How do monks become weapons dealers?" Clint asks.
Natasha shakes her head. "How does anyone? Do I have blood on my face?"
"Nat, look around. You have blood everywhere."
"Right." They'd only had knives to start with, and the operation had gotten messy. "Why did we travel without guns again?"
"I think it was something about not killing people on vacation."
"Hey, I wasn't the one who just had to find out why a disused corner of the monastery smelled like gunpowder." Not that she can judge. She and Clint didn't stop being agents when they took off their uniforms. Phil hadn't either. That's why the three of them had worked together so well.
She huffs under the weight of the last monk, who had obviously not been living a life of material depravation. "Let's just lure the fat ones into the woods before we kill them next time, okay?"
"Deal," Clint pants. They drop the body onto the pile, and he inclines his head toward the bottom of the hill, where they can rinse their clothes in a stream. They'll have to call SHIELD for a real clean-up, hopefully before anyone discovers the bodies stashed in the woods. The Chinese government doesn't take kindly to foreign agents on their soil.
They jog down the dirt path, prayer flags snapping in the breeze behind them.
"Race you," she calls, but neither one of them tries to get ahead of the other. There's no finish line, and if there were, they would cross it together.
SHIELD whisks them away to Bangkok the next morning, then back to New York for a debriefing that doesn't take very long.
"We suck at vacation," Clint says. He's back on the shooting range, of course. Natasha thinks the debriefing agents are lucky he didn't tie them up and drag them down here to ask their questions.
"Third try's the charm?" she asks.
"I think we owe Phil at least that much."
"Remind me of the criteria for selecting a destination?"
Clint actually puts down the bow and begins ticking off prohibited locations on his fingers. He must be really worried, but to be fair, he should be. She'd wanted to go back to Budapest, after all.
"Not Somalia. Not Ethiopia or Eriteria, South Sudan, Libya... That's just Africa. If you'd like to me to continue with Asia and Latin America, I can."
Natasha shakes her head. She hadn't really planned to take them to an active conflict zone.
"Not Chechnya!" Clint calls as she walks out the door.
So Natasha buys them tickets to La Paz. The fare is a decent value -- Clint can't stop worrying about money, even though SHIELD gives them plenty of it -- and neither of them have killed anyone there. Well, Natasha doesn't think she killed anyone there, but her Red Room memories are pretty shaky. A reasonable certainty is the best she can do.
The city's pretty interesting, all winding alleyways with street carts selling everything from homemade tortillas to dried chicken fetuses. She and Clint split the $50 price tag for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in one of the country's only English language bookstores, and they trade off reading chapters at a coffee shop populated by disturbingly normal American backpackers. Every night, Natasha makes them go to a diner downtown called Dumbo, which Clint hates because of the Disney pictures on the menu and the pseudo-American food. Natasha insists that the Sprite and cinnamon ice cream float outweighs the bizarre decor and lets Clint read two chapters of Harry Potter at once so that she can enjoy her ice cream in peace. She doesn't tell him that the whole trying-hard-to-be-American reminds her of Moscow after perestroika turned out to be real, and she misses the air of possibility that permeated the streets in those days. He'll figure it out, here or in another city.
Neither one of them is made to stand still, so as much as they like La Paz, four days there is all they can stand.
"What's the farthest we can go?" Natasha asks the hotel clerk, who believes that her name is Maria and she is from Valladolid, Spain.
"Uyuni," the girl says with a shrug of her shoulders.
Clint had thrown out her guidebook in the airport, so they don't bother to look it up; they just go.
The highway cuts through the mountains, barely two lanes wide with no streetlights and no guardrails. Natasha wakes up at three in the morning, when the back of the bus starts to slip off a cliff. Her fingers tighten around Clint's wrist, and she can see his eyes darting around in the darkness, looking for an escape. It's the first time in a long time she can remember feeling afraid.
The engine screams and the breaks squeal, and the bus rights itself almost as quickly as it had slipped off the road.
"Day busses for the rest of the trip," she says to Clint, and he nods infinitesimally. A bus crash would be a stupid way to die.
Uyuni is dusty roads and low white buildings, punctuated by tiny shops where blanket-wrapped women gather around around space heaters. At 10,000 feet, it's always cold. There are tourists here though, all fixated on one thing: the salar. Natasha spends more than an hour trying to place the word; the -ar ending makes her think it's a verb. Finally Clint looks it up in a Spanish-English dictionary, and she pretends (badly) that she doesn't mind he has it.
"What if I needed to know a Spanish word and you weren't there?" Clint says. It's reasonable, even if she's not prepared to admit it yet. "Also, salar means salt plain."
Salar, salar, salar, Natasha repeats in her mind, savoring the unfamiliar word. It's been a long time since she's learned a new one.
A tour guide jabs a finger at a dusty map, tracing the path their Jeep will take through the wilderness. "Frigido," he says, "Muy basico."
Natasha glares and Clint shrugs his shoulders. "I don't need to look up those words to understand them," he says. She would throw away his dictionary in the middle of the night, but their hotel room is unheated, and it's too cold to get out of bed. It's stupid, she thinks. All those printed words get in the way of listening. How does he expect to learn?
They leave at four the next morning, the two of them and a driver in a bright white Jeep that says Colque Tours on the side. The salt plains are bright white, fractured up close but so smooth in the distance that they reflect the sunrise. Islands of cacti rise from the nothingness, and Natasha decides that she likes them: they're prickly and forbidding, but alive against all odds.
At night they camp with a Quechua family on the edge of a lake whose waters are brown and purple and red. It seems impossible that such a thing exists, but it does. The women here wear bowler hats and petticoats and keep their hair in two long braids down their back. To Natasha, they speak easy Spanish; between themselves, they murmur in a language she's never heard before. She thinks about their lives, distant and remote and incomprehensible to others, yet perfectly ordinary from their own perspective. Somehow it makes her feel less alone.
Clint nudges her with an elbow: what are you thinking?
She stares out at the impossible multi-colored lake. It's good to know that this kind of beauty exists. Maybe that's what Phil had wanted them to see. She doesn't tell Clint that; her memorial is private, and words don't belong here. There's another little white carving in her jacket pocket; she'd taken it from the Kanon shrine when Clint wasn't looking, and she takes it out and places it among the rocks at the shore.
"Phil," she says, maybe too quiet for Clint to hear and maybe not. He won't mind either way. Her fingers close around his, and they watch the sun set together.