There are stories about Natasha. She’s made quite a reputation for herself in the few years she’s been on the scene; she’s become something of a legend in certain circles.
There are fewer stories about Clint. He doesn’t mind. He knows what kind of a trouble a reputation can get you, and he knows that ‘legend’ is just a fancy word for ‘lie.’ Half the stories about Natasha aren’t true: they’re tales told in dark rooms by darker men, weaving the Black Widow into a boogeyman for bad guys.
The other half… well, they’re not true either, but they come closer to it.
There are stories. There are always stories. The trick is to leave them with a tale but not a face, or at least not a body.
There are no stories about the two of them.
“So, what do you think?”
The building schematic floats in the air above the table, shimmering when Stark reaches through the outline of the hanger bay to pass Clint a beer.
Politics makes strange bedfellows, the saying goes. International intrigue and alien invasion make peculiar drinking buddies.
Clint had claimed to be looking for Natasha, but in truth he knows exactly where to find her. He’s working up the courage to go there now, and Stark and his beer and his holograms make for a welcome distraction as any. “I guess I’m not quite sure why you’re involving me in this.”
Stark leans against the counter, takes a drink, raises an eyebrow. “You want out?”
“I didn’t say that.” He thinks of ten days spent AWOL, in motels and abandoned houses, ignoring out-of-service pay phones that rang when he walked by and coded missives rolled into his morning paper. If they haven’t classified him as rogue yet, they will soon. “Just trying to understand.”
A smile ghosts across Stark’s face; spangles of light cast by the rotating hologram deepen the shadows around his eyes. “What if I said that Romanoff insisted you two were a package deal?”
The label on the bottle is unfamiliar. Knowing Stark’s tastes, it’s expensive as hell. “She wouldn’t do that.” He still has a little pride, after all.
“Really.” The word is laden with unspoken meaning.
“Besides, I expect I’m not her favorite person right now.”
“No, but you’ve become very popular with certain other people. People who are, let’s say, a little peeved that Loki’s scepter’s mysteriously gone missing. People who see the value of being able to do what he did.” Stark smiles humorlessly. “Selvig’s too well-connected… his work is too important for them to go tinkering around in his brain. But what are you?” He shrugs. “One of their assets, right? Their property, really.”
“Thanks for the reminder.”
Ten days AWOL, waiting for the moment when the phones and messages would become the pounding of booted feet outside his door. Ten days anticipating the same treatment Natasha had gotten after she’d turned: tests and mind games and deprogramming, not in the interests of fixing him but simply to see what he could teach them. Ten days spent trying to fall off the grid before he realized it was useless.
Ten days before he realized that even if he could disappear, he couldn’t do it without seeing her one more time.
It’s been raining for hours. Power is out in some neighborhoods. Streets are flooded. He reminds himself of these things when Natasha doesn’t show up on time.
Half an hour later her car pulls up behind his, headlights stabbing twin beams through the rain-jeweled night. She gets out and hurries through the deluge; he pops the locks and she slides into the passenger’s seat, collar damp and hair dripping. “We only have a few minutes,” she says, unbuttoning her jacket. “Rosario’s having me followed.”
Clint feels a stab of apprehension. “Are you made?”
She rolls her eyes. “No, he’s just a paranoid son of a bitch.” The papers are tucked between jacket and blouse, to keep them dry, and she passes them over with a smirk. “That’s a copy of all his financials for the last quarter.”
He rifles through the ledgers, less interested in the information they contain than the risk she took to procure them. “If you’re being followed…”
Her lips thin. “I told you, he’s paranoid. He’s got something big about to go down and he’s keeping tabs on everyone. Listen, if you don’t trust me…”
“I trust you,” he blurts, surprised. “It’s the rest of the world I don’t trust.”
Her expression softens, or maybe it’s just a trick of the overhead light, because an instant later she’s the Widow again. “I guess that makes you paranoid, too.”
Rain drums on the sedan’s roof, thrashing against the windshield wipers as though engaging in a test of strength and endurance. Clint looks out the window and into a drowned world.
It’s not the first time he’s stayed on the sidelines while Natasha goes in close. Close is what she does. It’s what she excels at. The sidelines are his thing. He has the patience to wait. He has an eye for the big picture.
The picture he sees these days looks a lot like the darkest reaches of the ocean, a place that never sees the sun, where human survival is impossible. SHIELD kits his partner out in all the protective gear they can muster – a false identity, a digital fingerprint to pass any background check, a paper trail, a credit score, the minutiae of modern life – and then they send her down, down into that lightless pit of avarice and blood. And he… he just bobs on the surface, staring down into the water, watching for some glimpse of her return.
Mostly she passes in and out of her marks’ lives without them being any the wiser. It’s better that way, safer, more promising for the future of her career as an infiltrator and a spy. But sometimes things get dangerous. And he is never as close to her as he would like to be when that happens.
He knows how capable she is, but he has known other agents who were capable, and their names adorn a certain wall in a certain room in a certain building with no official address.
Light washes through the rain, spilling up against the side of the alley where they are parked. Traffic is so light as to be nonexistent on this far edge of town, and Clint knows it must be Rosario’s men, and Natasha must know it as well because she leans against the center console to grasp the lapel of his leather jacket. “Kiss me.”
His heartbeat stutters, he almost balks – more out of confusion and surprise than any gentlemanly inclinations – but he’s too well-trained to action and he does trust her, after all. So he gives the lady what she wants, lets her pull him close, closing his eyes through force of habit as their lips touch, warm and soft, as her hand slides up his shoulder and around to the back of his neck, cool and strong.
He’s watched her kiss other men in the course of her job, and he’s managed to never envy them. Now he knows what a mistake that was. If he was one of her marks, he’d be too full of lust and longing for any other emotion; he’d be only too happy for her to slide a knife between his ribs so long as she promised to keep kissing him like this until he faded away.
Beyond his closed lids the light brightens. Her grip on the back of his neck tightens and his hand slips beneath the open flaps of her coat, curling around her hip to find the pistol nestled against the small of her back, and its surprisingly difficult to manage all this as her teeth nip at his lower lip, followed swiftly by her tongue. He sucks in a startled breath and she deepens the kiss, and the low moan that echoes in his ears might belong to either one of them.
A sharp sound: crack-crack-crack against the glass, so close to Clint’s head that it’s not hard to look alarmed as he breaks the kiss. Natasha squeaks, pulling the edges of her coat together to hide her half-unbuttoned blouse – when the hell had that happened? – and the pistol that now rests alongside her thigh.
The cop peers in through the rain-sequined glass, his expression something between disapproval and interest as Clint rolls down the window. “Can I help you?”
“You two need to move along,” the officer says, eyes flickering more than once to Natasha as she pulls down the visor mirror and nervously checks her makeup. “You’re blocking the alley.”
There’s no legitimate reason for a cop to care about that – the businesses here are either bankrupt or closed down for the night – but then there’s no reason for him to be here at all, patrolling the industrial district for clinching couples.
Clint stammers an apology and the cop strolls away with one more long look at Natasha, no doubt wondering why he’s been tasked with trailing Rosario’s horny bookkeeper through this dark and stormy night.
Clint rolls up the window, glaring at his partner as she rebuttons her blouse. “Rosario’s got the police department?”
“Some of them,” she says placidly. “You would have known if you’d looked closer at those financials.” Her voice is calm, but even after her clothes are put to rights she can’t quite meet his eyes, and he wonders if he looks as haphazard and disarranged as he feels.
“I should go,” she says after a long minute, her voice safely laced with sarcasm. “We’re blocking the alley.”
And then she is gone, in a rustle of fabric and a slam of the door, and the gust of cool wind left in her passing feels good against his flushed skin.
The hologram spins. Returning Stark Tower to its former glory would be an expensive enough undertaking. The renovations – the upgrades – that Stark is proposing will run the costs up millions. Maybe more. “Two weeks ago, you’d never set eyes on me.”
“Same could be said about the rest of them. Except for your partner, of course.”
He ignores that jab. He hadn’t appreciated being sent out to New Mexico while Natasha played Natalie Rushman in Malibu. He trusts her, but he doesn’t trust the rest of the world, and he especially hadn’t trusted Tony Stark. He still isn’t sure if he does. “They’re still known quantities.”
Stark chuckles. “You think I don’t do my homework, Clinton?”
Clint shrugs. He suspects that Stark has had access to his SHIELD file – with or without permission, although probably the latter – but there are things about his life that even SHIELD doesn’t know.
He sets down his bottle of overpriced beer, untasted.
Natasha doesn’t break stride when she sees him behind the bar; the subtle quirk of one eyebrow is the extent of her reaction as she leans against the polished wood, flushed from the dance floor, and order two Manhattans.
He doesn’t do anything flashy with the bottles of whisky or vermouth, but it’s a simple recipe and he’s familiar enough that he can mix the drinks while giving Natasha an appreciative second look. Her dark red curls are pinned and piled high on her head, drawing the eye to the elegant line of her neck and shoulders. Or rather, the eye would be drawn there if it weren’t already occupied by the ample cleavage on display above her strapless, lime-green corseted top.
It’s a dangerous view, and not only because Kurtzweil, holding court on the other side of the club, has been known to snap necks in fits of jealousy.
When he slides the Manhattans across the bar, his hand lingers on the stem of the drink he’s roofied. It’s a custom blend cooked up in the safehouse only this morning, uniquely designed for Kurtzweil; it should render him completely docile in less than five minutes, although to the rest of his party he should appear only slightly intoxicated.
Nat takes the Manhattans with a knowing smile that has less to do with the spiked drink than the way his eyes moved across her body. Then she turns and walks back across the club, leather-clad ass swaying in time to the music.
Later, after the drink-addled Kurtzweil’s been removed to a mock-up of his hotel room, where he’ll meet with a SHIELD agent pretending to be his contact and, hopefully, spill everything he knows about his business partners, the two of them rendezvous in an unused VIP room. When she joins him on the red velvet-clad sofa he passes her a rum-and-Coke in a chilled tumbler, and she accepts it with a little half-smile. “There’s a story here, isn’t there?”
At first he thinks she’s referring to his straight Coke, that she’s actually as mystically intuitive as the legends make her out to be, but then he realizes that she’s gesturing at his barman’s vest. “Not a very interesting one,” he assures her, taking a drink.
She rests her elbow atop the sofa’s low back, resting her chin in her free hand. “Come on. We’ve got some time to kill.” They’re supposed to wait for Coulson’s signal before leaving, on the off-chance that Kurtzweil’s actual contact is still in the area. “No? Let me guess. You took a few odd jobs after the Army. One of them happened to be tending bar.”
Clint forces a smile. “You been talking to Coulson about me?”
She rolls her eyes, takes a drink, and one stray curl unravels enticingly against her slender neck. “Coulson talks about three things: work, reality television, and his trading card collection.”
Clint drinks his Coke. Even if Coulson had a more varied conversational repertoire, the truth might not have come up. He isn’t sure Coulson knows the truth, anyway. The fact is that after the Army he hadn’t done any jobs, odd or otherwise; he’s familiar with bartending techniques because he had ample opportunity to observe them from the other side of the counter. He’d spent a month pickling his liver and working an imprint of his ass into a bar stool, drinking and watching for want of anything else to do and drinking some more.
When he’d been approached by some unsavory characters who’d heard of him, pre-Army, and wanted him for a job, it had almost been a relief.
He hasn’t touched a drop since.
“Contact’s here,” says the voice in Clint’s ear. “Must figure Kurtzweil’s having too much fun to make their appointment. He looks pissed.”
“Excellent,” says Natasha, downing the last of her drink. They both get to their feet as the contact – bald, leather-clad, with a ring of stars tattooed on his neck – bursts into the room.
He gets in one good look at Natasha before she knocks him out.
The bottle captures light from the hologram in its dark brown glass and bends it, warps it.
“I understand the rest of them,” Clint says, watching the symbols as they pass in and out of view. “But the only reason I was even in New York was because…”
“Because why?” prompts Stark, with the irritating condescension of a teacher leading his pupil to a correct answer.
“Because,” Clint says shortly, “I wasn’t going to let Loki just… get away with it.”
Stark smiles triumphantly. “Exactly.”
“You know how many people, they go through what you went through, they curl up in a corner and start sucking their thumbs? Or maybe they just sit down and throw themselves a pity party? Most, I’d guess. Almost all. If Thor’s right, if using the Tesseract was basically a big old ‘screw you’ to the rest of the galaxy, you’re the kind of person this planet’s going to need.”
Clint raises his eyebrows. “You remember which one I am, right? The guy with the arrows?”
Stark grins. “The guy with perspective.”
“I’m so Goddamned cold.”
Clint turns from the window. Natasha is sitting on the ground, swaddled in a nest of every scrap of fabric the cabin had to offer, and his GoreTex jacket covers her bare legs. It’s a gusty mid-January night in rural France, and it is cold – a chill wind snuffles against the cracks around doors and windows, like a hungry dog searching for a way in – but not cold enough to warrant Natasha’s teeth-chattering shivers. He suspects it has a lot more to do with her blood loss, and he worries.
He checks her leg. His bandage holds, and the wrappings are still mostly white, but she continues to shake, cursing under her breath. In the light of their single LED lantern her cheeks are gray, her lips as purple as a bruise.
There’s no electricity in the abandoned cabin, nothing to burn but the blankets and the clothes they wear. If anyone lived here they did so long ago, and they did it simply.
He re-wraps her legs in his jacket – she hisses between her teeth but makes no complaint – and then scoots closer. He can feel the chill of the floor through the blankets, leeching away his warmth. No wonder she’s shivering, but it can’t be helped; there isn’t a stick of furniture in the place, no way to get her up off the cold.
As gently as he can, he pulls her into his lap.
She gasps, although whether from pain or surprise he doubts he’ll ever know; she’d never admit to either. “Clint…”
“Shut up,” he says casually. He positions her sideways, so that her right arm is pressed against his chest and her legs stretch out to his right. He scoops up some of their makeshift blankets and drapes them across their shoulders, determined to trap as much of their body heat as possible beneath. “No funny business, got it?”
In reply she snakes her hands up under the hems of his sweater and his thermal, against the skin of his abdomen, and he stifles a yelp. Her fingers are like ice. He ignores her wan smile and wraps his arms around her, chafing her roughly through the blankets.
He realizes that her teeth have stopped chattering.
“You’re too good to me, Barton,” she says a few minutes later, and he has no idea if she’s being sarcastic or not.
SHIELD picks up their transponder an hour before sunrise. Clint wants to check the bandage again, but Natasha refuses. “You’ll let all the cold back in,” she reproaches him, and in the pinkish-gray light he can see that the color has come back into her face, so he relents. And the extraction team finds them huddled together in a pile of old quilts, tablecloths and musty-smelling fleece blankets, not to mention his jacket. On the chopper they give her something for the pain and she promptly falls asleep, and he follows soon after, without the aid of morphine.
“So you want… what? Somebody to watch your back?”
Stark offers to put everyone up in a nice hotel outside the perimeter, but Clint and Natasha insist they have a place to stay. After lunch, they loiter around to make sure Loki hasn’t escaped his prison in the janitor’s closet – he hasn’t – and then they make an unobtrusive exit while Stark and Thor and Rogers and Banner are arguing about what to do next.
Despite the shawrma respite, he’s nearly shaking with exhaustion. Natasha doesn’t look much better.
Somehow they manage the eight-block walk down 40th, past Bryant Park to a motel where Natasha has an understanding with the manager. The man is watching the news on his smartphone, too distracted to pay their odd appearance any heed; he barely even looks up as he passes her a keycard.
In the room, they’re too tired to fight over the shower or discuss who’s taking the first watch. They don’t even take off their shoes. They just collapse on top of the cheap, coarse bed linens, and sleep, and trust the world to take care of itself for a few hours.
Clint wakes several hours later to light: not sunlight, but the harsher yellow glow of a streetlamp just outside their window. Natasha is still asleep, her leather-clad back against his chest, his bare arm draped loosely across her hip, and he doesn’t remember falling asleep in this position but he doesn’t really remember falling asleep at all… and of more pressing concern is the fact that certain regions of his anatomy are already wide awake.
He tries to moderate his breathing, considers the safest plan of retreat; before he can pull away, however, he senses Natasha stirring. She shifts against him and he bites the inside of his cheek hard.
Maybe the first time is a mistake.
The second time isn’t.
She presses back, more insistently this time, and his hand moves to her hip. He intends to push her away, to disentangle their legs and roll off the bed, but instead he holds her more tightly against him, and the sound that escapes her throat is what undoes him completely.
Then she’s under him and he’s kissing her, and strangely rather than garlic and cardamom she tastes subtly of ash and asphalt, of smoke and ozone, of dust and dried blood. His lips follow the path of her zipper between her breasts, down to her belly, and there is grit between his teeth as he unlaces her boots and then his own.
By the time he crawls back up her body she’s half-naked, shucking off the rest of her suit and tugging impatiently at his vest, panting her need against his neck.
“Condom?” he gasps, fumbling with the fastenings on his pants.
And that is as much as they ever say about the wisdom of this decision, if it can be called a decision. It feels more like momentum, like gravity, like magnetism. They smell of battle and of death, the coppery blood of humans and the briny ichor of the alien soldiers, but then they also smell of sweat and of sex, as she locks her ankles behind his back and her arms around his neck, as she arches her back to meet his thrusts, as she holds the flesh of his earlobe between her teeth.
She is over him, her body gorgeously limned in the harsh yellow light. He says, “Nat-” but is stopped from saying more by her hand over his mouth.
“Don’t,” she says, closing her eyes as her body trembles with approaching release. “Just don’t.”
He wakes alone to nightfall and the sound of running water. And he knows that he has to leave.
It’s not because of her. Not because of the sweat and the sex and the dirt under her nails when he sucked her fingers into his mouth.
Fury will be expecting them to phone in. When they don’t, he’ll come looking.
Not right away. The Helicarrier is damaged – he knows, he was there – and Manhattan is in shambles. The director will have his hands full. But eventually their absence will be noted.
Nobody gets to be mind-controlled by an alien demigod, conscripted into an army meant to take over the planet, and just walk away. Plus, he’s pretty sure he remembers shooting Fury in the chest.
The doctors will want to poke needles into him and scan him with machines. The headshrinkers will want to talk to him about his parents. Some of the higher-ups will be suspicious that maybe he wasn’t being controlled at all, maybe he turned of his own free will. The rest will be concerned that he’s still vulnerable to coercion. The men and women he’s worked with for the last decade won’t be able to look at him without seeing the faces of the dead.
He can’t go back.
Ten days on the run felt more like ten years. Not because he was afraid of being brought in. That would be bad, but this is worse: the idea of never seeing her again. The thought that no matter how far he goes, he’ll have to return.
So he’s here, listening to Stark, not drinking the beer because one beer always turns into two for him, and two into unremembered multitudes, a strange kind of alcoholic calculus.
“She hasn’t gone back, you know.”
Clint’s head snaps up. “What?”
Stark drinks, posture relaxed but eyes sharp, betraying his interest for anyone who cares to see. “To SHIELD. She hasn’t gone back. Thought they might use her to get to you.”
“She thought Fury would do that?”
“I think we’re all in the process of reevaluating exactly what Director Fury is capable of. Besides, he’s not the only ‘they’ in town.”
He reaches out lazily, spinning the diagram in place until Clint is almost dizzy.
“Should I take your silence as a ‘yes’?”
“You haven’t asked me a question.”
“If she doesn’t kill you. If she kills you, obviously it’s a moot point.”
He walks uptown, past Bryant Park. There is an unfamiliar attendant in the lobby but Clint strolls through to the elevator as though he belongs there.
When he knocks on the door she opens it immediately, as though she’s been standing there with her eye to the peephole, watching the corridor through the fisheye lens. Her hair is pushed back by an elastic headband and she’s wearing a shirt that barely skims her thighs; he realizes how late it is but he doesn’t seem to have woken her.
She sets her jaw and reaches out; he flinches, but she merely grabs him by the front of his jacket and hauls him over the threshold. The door slams, the locks engage.
Then she hits him.
His head snaps back as pain blooms along the side of his face.
She moves towards him and he takes an involuntary step away – the urge for self-preservation is strong – but his back hits the door as she throws herself into his arms. Then she punches him once more – in the stomach – for good measure. “Take off your clothes.”
He’s compelled to give the lady what she wants.
They don’t make it to the bed this time. She doesn’t even bother taking off her top. He shoves aside her panties and pushes her up against the door and she curses her approval as she wraps her legs around his hips and the door rattles on its hinges.
“Stark told me I have perspective.”
“Don’t talk to me about Stark when you’re naked.”
“I’m still wearing my socks.”
She kisses the corner of his mouth, traces the line of his jaw with her fingers. She hasn’t hit him in the past few minutes. He’s stopped flinching.
“What does that mean anyway? Perspective?” she asks.
“Different angles, I guess. The big picture.”
“Is that why you ran?”
“I wasn’t running from this.”
The hand on his jaw drops down to his neck; her fingers tighten warningly.
“I wasn’t running just from this,” he amends.
She’s in his lap, legs dangling over the side of the armchair.
“I was running from all of it. Running’s… it’s kind of my thing.”
He tells her stories. Stories of an orphan. A carnie. A recruit. A criminal. Every story earns him another kiss.
She guesses the stories that are lies. She guesses correctly. He stands, tossing her down on the bed, and she laughs in delight as he follows her.
There are stories. There are always stories. The trick is to leave them with a tale but not a face, or at least not a body.
The stories about the two of them belong only to the two of them.
The world's literature and folklore are full of stories that point out how futile it can be to seek happiness. Rather, happiness is a blessing that comes to you as you go along; a treasure that you incidentally find.
- Louis Binstock