When they drove out of New York, they didn’t have a destination in mind, but that didn’t matter. The road stretched out in front of them, for once no mission waiting at the other end of the tarmac.
Even before SHIELD, Natasha had associated extended travel with work. She was so used to slipping into someone else’s skin that it was strange not having to immerse herself in a different identity as the miles rolled by. She had to consciously remind herself that she wasn’t on the way to her next assignment, but at least Clint was feeling the lack of a target too. More than once she had seen him staring at the trunk of the car where his bow lay in its case, and she knew he was itching to pull it out for a little on-the-road target practice. He didn’t, and she knew it was because he wanted to honour the unspoken agreement that, for now, they were ordinary. No special skills, no unnecessary attention: they were trying to disappear.
Still, Natasha didn’t like to live under false pretences. She knew that they were running away, pretending that the wind in their hair could blow away the scent of battle and death. Imagining that SHIELD would never call them back. Kidding themselves that Fury wouldn’t be able to find them even if he wanted to.
It was easy to believe it, though, when it was just the two of them. Clint had a talent for finding out-of-the-way places where no one would think to look for them. The few people they met were mostly staff at motels and roadside diners, gas stations and convenience stores – people who wouldn’t remember them amongst the blur of faces; people who might ask where they came from or where they were going, but who wouldn’t remember the answer.
She barely dared to think it, but sitting in the car while Clint tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and sang along to the radio, she felt free.
They checked into a motel for the night: one room, two beds, as always. There was a diner in the forecourt, so they ate at the counter before heading to their room. It was late, and the only other people in the diner were the employees and truckers taking a break from the road. Clint flirted harmlessly with the waitresses, knowing he was going to get nothing more than rolled eyes for his trouble, until finally Natasha couldn’t hide her smile any longer.
“C’mon, Barton,” she said, laying enough money to cover their bill on the counter and standing up. She tugged on his jacket sleeve. “Time to go.”
He got up, grumbling, and she gave him a push towards the door. It was late anyway, and if the dark circles under his eyes were anything to go by, it would do him good to rest. They had been on the road since nine. Clint wanted to take her to the Blue Ridge Mountains, which meant interminable days of Interstate travel. They wanted to get there quickly. They were both starting to feel as if time was running out.
When they got back to their room, Natasha headed into the tiny bathroom for a shower. She stood under the spray until the warm water ran out, then changed into her nightwear and padded out into the main room.
The lamps and the radio had been turned on in her absence. The amber light and the music through the tinny speakers made the room feel cosy, but she still felt the chill after the steamy heat of the bathroom. Clint had changed into the clothes he slept in, and was lying sprawled on his bed with the covers shoved down by his feet. He had tucked one hand up under the pillow, and the other was holding his phone. He looked up as she stepped out, just in time to see her shiver. He pulled his arm out from behind his head and held it out to her. Natasha raised an eyebrow.
“Hey, you’re the one who’s losing out. You think I want you coming over here, taking up all my space?”
She crossed the room to stand at his bedside, a small smile unfolding across her face. “What’re you trying to say?”
“As if you don’t know,” Clint said. “‘Black Widow’?” He raised both his hands to put sarcastic little air-quotes around the words. “More like Starfish.”
“Don’t think I’m above killing you in your sleep, Barton,” she said, fighting against the upward curve of her lips.
Clint wasn’t looking at her. Instead he stared thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Then again, maybe ‘Black Widow’ is accurate. I mean, sometimes it seems like you have eight limbs when you’re thrashing around trying to get comfy.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“See, you can’t even deny it. I know. I’ve seen you sleep, Romanoff, and it ain’t pretty.”
She shook her head, biting hard on the inside of her cheek to abort the smile that was tugging at her mouth, and turned away from him. Before she could move more than a step, Clint’s hand reached out and closed around her wrist. She paused, looking down over her shoulder at his hand, then up his arm to his face.
“Come on,” he chuckled, and although his voice was laced with amusement, all the teasing had been replaced with affection. “Let me keep you warm.”
Danger, warned the small frightened part of her that hid behind her customary shell of cool indifference. It had been cracking, these last few days, because she temporarily wasn’t an agents or a spy or even an Avenger. She was just herself, which was a luxury she hadn’t allowed herself in a long time – but she had let herself feel safe around Clint. She trusted him – not just with her life, because that was a given. He had her back in the field, just as she could cover his. This ran deeper. Since they left New York, parts of her that hadn’t seen light since she lived in Russia had crept out. She’d felt a little like the person she had been before the world had broken her and she’d put herself back together as someone else.
“Natasha?” Clint murmured when she hesitated too long.
It would be easy if there were on a mission. In the past, she had shared his bed because there was no other option, or because they would freeze otherwise, or to keep up appearances. The lamplight and the smooth music filtering through the radio shouldn’t make any difference, but it did. Combined with the way Clint looked at her sometimes – the way he was looking at her now – it was too close to intimacy.
“You’re not that pissed off, are you?” Clint asked, genuine concern in his face, and it was then that she realised that her mask had automatically shuttered into place over his features. She shook herself and sat down on the edge of his bed.
“No,” she said. She could feel his warmth radiating out from his body. The temptation of it drew her down against his side, and she told herself that it was just sharing body-heat. She settled her head on his shoulder, because he was still on his back and there was no room on the pillow. He wrapped an arm around her.
“Who called?” she asked with a gesture towards Clint’s phone, which he had abandoned on his stomach in favour of teasing her.
“No one,” he replied as he moved it across to the night stand. “I got a text from Stark. He wanted to know your favourite colour.” With mock-seriousness he added, “I think you might have a stalker.”
She twisted to look up at him with a small smile. Stark was harmless enough. He’d actually asked her stranger things than that during her time as his PA, so there was hardly reason to worry. “What did you tell him?”
“That it’s classified,” Clint told her with a grin, “And he’d need at least level seven clearance to get access to that kind of information.”
“He’s probably hacking the SHIELD database as we speak,” she smiled as she settled back against his shoulder. “Fury’s going to have you terminated if he find out you gave him the idea.”
“Like Fury can afford to lose me,” Clint said with a derisive snort.
Natasha chuckled and let her eyes close. The radio was playing a love song Natasha didn’t recognise, and it was soothing background noise after a day of blasting along the highway. She would stay here with Clint for a little while, she told herself, just until she acclimatised to the room’s temperature. Then she would get up and go to her own bed for the night.
The song ended and the announcer read out the name. Natasha tuned out until she caught her name, and her brain involuntarily started paying attention.
“ … for Natasha from one of our anonymous texters.”
The song started to play, the soft strumming of a guitar leading into a woman’s voice.
The opening lyrics – lying here with you so close to me it’s hard to fight these feelings when it feels so hard to breathe – caught Natasha’s attention, and a shiver ran down her spine. She opened her eyes, daring to glance up at Clint, and found that he was watching her. His eyes were half-closed and he didn’t look away when she caught him. Instead, he tightened his arm around her for a second, offering her a smile as a male voice took the melody.
She dropped her gaze quickly, focusing hard on the wallpaper pattern as the song moved into the chorus. The duet continued, and she found herself listening to the lyrics despite herself. It’s never felt so real, no, it’s never felt so right, and she wanted to run. She wasn’t supposed to fit against Clint’s side like they were two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. He wasn’t supposed to be able to liberate her from the debts and ledgers she carried around with her – and yet he had, just by being himself.
That ought to have felt like another debt she owed him, but as the beat drove the song onwards towards the climax and Clint moved his hand from where it rested on her waist to stroke through her hair, she couldn’t think like that. Here and now, she didn’t owe him anything. If she’d left behind Agent Romanoff in New York, that meant she had no past to forget, no reason to flee from intimacy as she normally would. It was a liberating thought.
She closed her eyes and listened to the final chorus, wondering about the other Natasha and the person who had texted in and dedicated this song to her.
Then she remembered that Clint had been using his phone while she was in the shower. Curious, she pushed herself up onto her elbows and grabbed his phone before he could stop her. She unlocked it with a slide of her thumb and brought up his text messages, selecting the last message. It was to a number she didn’t recognise.
Please can you play Just
A Kiss (Boyce Avenue
feat. Megan Nicole
acoustic cover) for
Natasha? I heard it on
the radio the other day
and it made me think of
The song wound down to the end, and then the presenter was back, his voice too loud in the quiet left behind by the song, but Natasha didn’t hear what he was saying. She was too busy staring in surprise at the screen, reading the words again because she couldn’t quite believe that this meant.
“They must’ve been short on requests, huh?” Clint said.
She looked down at him. He was smiling at her, but his eyes weren’t happy. If anything, he looked resigned.
When she said nothing, he shrugged one shoulder and said, “Well, I figured it was worth a shot.”
The song’s lyrics ran through her head – just a kiss on the lips – no, I don’t want to mess this thing up – just a shot in the dark that you just might be the one I've been waiting for my whole life – just a kiss goodnight – and it was too much, when he was looking at her like that. Like she was some precious thing, like he couldn’t believe that she was real. Like he understood why she wouldn’t ever let him touch her.
She dropped the phone onto the bed beside him and leaned over before she could think too hard about what she was dong. She pressed a brief, shaky kiss against the corner of his mouth and pulled back just enough to be able to look into his eyes.
“Natasha,” he breathed, and he made her name sound like please. His constant, steady fingers shook as they brushed her cheek.
It terrified her that she could do that to him. She wanted to protest that no one should have that kind of power over another human being, but she could barely even breathe. He was barely touching her, as if he wasn’t sure if he was allowed, and the brush of his fingers set every nerve alight.
The pads of his fingers traced the edge of her jaw and she let out her breath in a rush, her eyes falling closed as he leaned up to meet her in another kiss. Maybe it was OK, she thought, if they could do this to one another.
Clint’s mouth was soft, and she had the impression that he was being deliberately gentle as he captured her lower lip between his. He pulled back just as her toes started to curl, and it was too soon. Even though she felt overwhelmed, she hadn’t wanted him to stop. She opened her eyes and found him smiling at her as if he couldn’t quite believe he was awake.
“Hey,” he murmured.
“Hey,” she said, returning his smile because it was infectious.
“Are you going to freak out on me if I ask you to stay?” he asked as he pushed the curtain of her hair back behind her ear.
Natasha laughed, brief and soft, because he knew her too well. That ought to scare her – familiarity still sparked her flight instinct – but it was Clint. She didn’t think she was capable of being afraid of him any more. She snuggled down against him and let that be her answer.
Clint shifted, scrabbling for the corner of the sheets and then pulling them up. He reached to switch off the radio and then the lamp, and once he had settled back in the dark she tucked herself into side. He put one arm loose around her, not trapping her in place, just bracketing her in his warmth.
“Night, ’Tasha,” Clint said and she let her eyes fall closed, wondering when she had started feeling safe just because he was around.