Natasha spent another five weeks in that little room, and in all that time she didn’t see Clint once. She found out from Dana that he and Bobbi had broken up, that apparently there had been some kind of scene in the office, and that the Director had reprimanded Clint by sending him off to Calcutta to keep an eye on ‘the big guy’. Natasha would have liked it if he could have come to say goodbye, but she wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t.
So she was released from her room and put under the command of a man named Phil Coulson, who ran the office in New York. Agent Coulson was something of an enigma; he was non-descript and cultivated an air of such blandness that he was almost instantly forgettable. He reminded Natasha of a guy in a book she had read, a guy who no one could describe once they looked away, because they had already forgotten what he looked like. But Coulson was an understanding man, in his way, and Natasha respected him.
She moved into an apartment on 79th Street, looking over the river. She liked to get up with the rising sun and go running in the park before work. She liked being able to cook her own food, and eat yoghurts at two in the morning when she couldn’t sleep. She liked her work, and her colleagues, who didn’t seem to know where she had come from, or if they did then they knew better than to talk about it. And she liked being able to choose what she did in her free time; whether to go out to the pub with her new friends or stay in and read any one of the books that she bought from the second-hand bookseller down the street. She liked being able to choose how far she went, whether she took that colleague with the sad brown eyes home to bed, or whether she kissed him on the cheek and sent him away. And she liked that when she said no, he accepted it, that he apologised for being presumptuous. But most of all, her first couple of months in New York, Natasha learned to like herself.
She discovered that she liked French films more than American ones, and that she would rather give money to the WWF than to any of the human charities. She discovered that she actually liked giving money to charity. And sometimes, when she was home alone, she would find herself putting on a Billy Joel album and wondering if Clint had managed to patch things up with Bobbi. But she didn’t dwell on those thoughts, just like she didn’t dwell on thoughts of Alexei when they struck her either. She was as close to happy as she had ever been.
But, as is the way with all these things, no state lasts forever. And so there came a day when Natasha walked into the office, and almost crashed into Clint. She stopped, blinked, and looked up at him.
Clint turned, and an expression flickered across his face. She hadn’t seen him in a few months, but she could still read him, the surprise, the embarrassment, and under that, the smile that said he was pleased to see her. “Tash.”
Though she was loathe to admit it, she had missed that voice. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I know.” Clint ran his hand through his hair in a rarely-seen expression of awkwardness. “About that-,”
But Natasha raised a hand to silence him and shook her head. “Save the excuses. You don’t owe me.” She moved to walk around him, but Clint reached out and grabbed her arm. Natasha’s whole body tensed, but she managed to resist the urge to break his fingers.
“I’m stationed here now,” Clint said. “So are we OK?”
Natasha looked down at his hand on her arm, not angrily, but with an expression of polite confusion. “We’re fine,” she answered. Then she turned and walked away, pleased with how certain she had managed to sound. At least her experience in the Red Room hadn’t been entirely wasted.
She didn’t see much of him the first couple of weeks. Clint usually worked solo operations, assassinations and the like, while Natasha preferred ground work, and Clint didn’t socialise much either. But then came Agent May’s birthday, a surprise party that didn’t surprise her in the least. But then, Natasha suspected that nothing really surprised Melinda May. So someone rented out the upstairs of an Irish pub in Greenwich Village, and most of the office turned up, including Clint. And he sat at the bar with a pint of beer and listened while the bartender told him bad jokes. And only once did Natasha see him smile.
He finished his beer around ten o’clock, and stood up to leave. Natasha caught him just before he reached the door.
“Leaving already?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Clint shrugged. “I’m no good at parties these days.”
“You could have at least come and said hello,” Natasha pointed out.
But Clint shrugged and Natasha wondered if he couldn’t, or if he wouldn’t meet her eye. “I thought I’d let you decide that one.”
“Are you afraid of rejection?” Natasha asked.
Clint’s eyes widened, just a little, and he cleared his throat. “I was afraid you’d be angry with me,” he answered.
“Don’t you think you should let me decide that one?”
Clint managed a smile then. “I wouldn’t blame you if you were.”
Natasha shrugged. “Maybe I was. But anger isn’t a particularly useful emotion.”
“So you’re not mad?” His eyebrows went up and his expression brightened.
“What are you doing this weekend?” Natasha asked.
Clint thrust his hands into his pockets and looked at her for a moment. He really did have quite startling blue eyes. “Hanging out with you?”
“I’m going to a talk by the biographer of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on Saturday evening, if you want to come.”
The light in his eyes dimmed just a little. “Sounds great,” he said.
Natasha had to smile then. “Great. I’ll text you the address.” And then one of her friends arrived and the conversation was over and the next time Clint spoke it was to say his goodbyes.
But, true to his word, he showed up on Saturday and looked interested during the talk and clapped politely at the end. And afterwards he took her out for proper New York pie, and though Natasha would never admit it, that was the best part of the evening. And then he offered to walk her home and Natasha told him to stop being so stupid, and then she went home alone and when she slept her dreams were golden.
This created a blueprint for the next few weeks. They saw each other every couple of days, and in the beginning Clint let Natasha pick the activities. Initially, she punished him by taking him to the most obscure, artistic things that she could find. But she gave up after she proposed an event at which Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle was being performed and he said yes. So the events changed; they went rock climbing and they went to French movies and they sat in and played two-person board games and they went to the Bronx Zoo, and though Natasha didn’t say anything, she had always wanted to go to the zoo when she was a child. And even though she didn’t say anything, she guessed that Clint had guessed how much this meant to her, but he didn’t say anything either, and for that Natasha was extremely grateful.
But people at work started to catch on. They started to gossip about the fact that Clint wasn’t sleeping with people after missions and Natasha wasn’t sleeping with anyone, and the logical assumption was that they were sleeping with each other. After all, he had given her that necklace, hadn’t he? What kind of guy gives a girl a necklace if he’s not sleeping with her? So the women in the office whispered with Natasha while the men in the office guffawed with Clint and they both shook their heads softly. And then Natasha went out with Phil Coulson and his friend, Pierre, and Coulson asked her outright and he showed Pierre a picture of Clint, and they both agreed that he and Natasha would make a very attractive couple. And Natasha had to agree.
After all, she wasn’t blind. Clint was an attractive man, and the more she got to know him, the more she liked him. She liked it when he imitated actors with foreign accents in movies, and she liked it when he turned out to be truly terrible at chess, and she liked it when he taught her archery, even though she already knew how.
And then there was the night when he called her. It was three in the morning, but Natasha was having a bad one. She was sitting in the reindeer-patterned onesie that Maria had bought for her as a joke but actually turned out to be phenomenally comfortable, and translating some Arabic transcripts when the phone rang.
“Agent Romanov,” she said.
“Hi, it’s me.” He sounded strange, but she couldn’t quite explain why. Maybe that was just how he sounded on the phone.
“Is something wrong?”
“No. No, nothing’s wrong,” Clint stuttered. “Why would you think something was wrong?”
Even though he couldn’t see her, Natasha felt her face twist into a puzzled expression. “Because it’s three in the morning,” she said slowly.
“Yeah, of course it is. God, what am I doing? I should let you go back to sleep.” He moved, sounding like he was about to hang up the phone.
“No, it’s OK, I wasn’t asleep,” Natasha rushed in.
“Why not? It’s three in the morning.”
Natasha cast her eyes around the room for a reason more sensible than the real one. “I just got back from a job in-,” she looked down at the stack of files on her coffee table. “In Bogota.”
There was a moment of silence on the other end of the phone and Natasha realised what she had just done. She dropped her head into her hand and shook it slowly.
“How was that?” Clint asked.
Natasha breathed a sigh of relief. “You know I can’t talk about it.”
Clint shifted on the other end of the phone. “Well, talk to me about something,” he said softly.
“I’m hungry,” Natasha said suddenly.
“I’m pretty sure you have a kitchen, Tash.”
“No, I know, but I want pancakes.”
“I can make you pancakes.”
“But I want them now.”
“So come over now.”
“Why not? You’re awake, I’m awake, it’s Saturday tomorrow, and I make a mean blueberry stack.”
Natasha smiled and shook her head in light disbelief. “You’re sure? I’m not going to get over there and find you snoring and then have to feel all guilty and shit because I woke you up?”
“Come over and find out.”
So she did. She replaced her onesie with a pair of jeans and a sweater, and she went round to Clint’s apartment. She had been there a couple of times before, but never this late. She had to admit that there was something special about New York at three in the morning, with the dew hanging in the orange pools of the streetlamps. And she was grateful all over again for her second chance.
And he was awake when she knocked. When she got up to the apartment all the lights were on and there was a bowl of pancake batter on the counter.
“Where on earth did you get blueberries?” Natasha asked, nodding to the pallet sitting next to the batter.
Clint shrugged. “There’s a 24-hour mart thing a couple of streets over.”
“You didn’t need to do that,” Natasha said.
“It wasn’t a big deal.” Clint gestured to the dining table. “Anyway, take a seat, my lady, and your meal shall be ready post haste.”
He seemed light, considering the time of day, so light that she almost didn’t notice how tired he looked. So Natasha decided not to say anything, and moved over to the dining table.
None of the chairs at Clint’s table matched. In fact, nothing in Clint’s apartment matched. But this was a new addition. It was a white wicker chair, though it was so old that the wicker was turning yellow and the cushion on the seat was turning grey.
“What is that?” Natasha asked, waving a hand at the offending chair.
“Oh, that?” Clint asked distractedly. “Yeah, I rescued it the other day.”
“From where? A skip?” Natasha turned to him and planted her hands firmly on her hips. “You can’t keep bringing home any old trash you find.”
“It’s not trash,” Clint glanced up from the frying pan, and he looked genuinely hurt. “Some college kids were moving out in the next building over, they were getting rid of a bunch of stuff. It’s perfectly fine.”
“Whatever,” Natasha rolled her eyes. “I’m not sitting in it.”
Clint smiled at that one. “Good, because it’s super comfy and I want it.”
Natasha laughed and sat on the stool that had once been a chair and watched him for a while. She watched him making the pancakes, his quiet, serious face, and she found herself wondering if Bobbi missed him. She decided not to wonder if he missed Bobbi, and she decided not to think about why she was deciding not to wonder.
This thought process must have taken longer than she realised, because the next thing she knew, Clint was putting a plate of pancakes down and looking at her with a funny expression on his face.
“You alright?” he asked softly.
Natasha shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Clint sat down opposite her and proceeded to drown his pancakes in maple syrup. “Because you’re awake at stupid o’clock, craving weird food,” he said. “Are you sure you’re not pregnant?”
Natasha coughed a little laugh at that. “You have to be having sex to get pregnant.”
“And you?” Clint managed. “You’re not?”
“No, Clint, not right now.”
“No, me neither,” Clint muttered.
And after that the conversation turned to other things, to lighter things, and they ate pancakes and watched the sun rise and laughed at stupid things. And when they finally fell asleep side by side on Clint’s bed, they were both fully clothed and neither one of them would have had it any other way.
They woke up around three in the afternoon and Clint made breakfast and then Natasha went home. And a couple of weeks later she was on a mission in Mombasa and she nearly died and when it was over she called Clint, and even though it was five in the morning, he talked to her until he had to get up for work. And Natasha got in trouble because of the phone bill, but Coulson liked her, so it wasn’t that much trouble. And then Clint called her from Panama a week later, and she called him from France after that. And he did his impression of Julie Delpy impersonating Nina Simone and Natasha laughed and everything was a bit less bad after that.
Then there came a day when Clint showed up at her apartment. It was eight in the evening and she was just about to head out to meet Maria at a cocktail bar, but she cancelled the minute she saw his face and Clint was so distraught by whatever it was that had happened that it took him an hour to even notice that she was dressed up.
He downed his whiskey and shook his head. “Hey, you look really good, were you going somewhere?”
Natasha glanced down at her dress and back up at him with a wry expression. “No, this is just what I wear around the house.”
Clint finally managed a smile. “I’m sorry I ruined your night.”
“There’ll be other Saturdays.”
“You know, Tash, I don’t know what I’d do without you,” he was looking up at her and those blue eyes were so full of suffering that Natasha just wanted to kiss them until the pain had stopped. She decided that she had probably had enough whiskey for one night.
“You’d find someone else,” she said softly.
“No,” Clint was shaking his head, moving closer to her on the couch. “There’s no one else like you.”
And he kissed her, and Natasha let him because she thought it was what he needed, then she kissed him back because she wanted to, and then she kept kissing him because she couldn’t think of anything else that she wanted to do more.
But they didn’t have sex that night, partly because she didn’t want to, and partly because he didn’t want to admit that he probably couldn’t with whatever it was still weighing on his mind. Through a weird series of events, it would be another three months before they had sex, but Natasha didn’t mind the waiting.
She came over one evening and Clint cooked dinner and they listened to Billy Joel and Natasha was about to say something, but then Clint told her that he wanted to reclaim Billy Joel for the happier times in his life, so they decided not to talk about Bobbi after that. So they had dinner and they drank the wine that Natasha had brought, and when they made love it was slow and sweet and even though Clint wasn’t the best that Natasha had ever been with, he was the first man that she had ever chosen for herself, and that was better.
Natasha woke up and it took her a second to figure out where she was. There was light, sunlight streaming through the muslin curtains around the bed, streaming through the wall of windows, bright and light and comforting. And lying next to her, with the scars across his bare back, the scars that he still hadn’t told her about, was Clint. He was lying on his stomach, his hair sticking out like he had been electrocuted. But the frown, the wrinkle between his eyes, all of that was gone. He looked younger when he slept.
But now that Natasha was awake, she couldn’t get back to sleep. She kept telling him to buy proper curtains, but the light didn’t bother him. Mostly because Clint could have slept through a rave if he decided to. So Natasha let him sleep. She got out of bed and headed for the shower.
Twenty minutes later she heard, over the running water, a knock at the door. It was seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. But the knock was strange, both insistent and hesitant at the same time. Natasha shut off the water, looking around for something to wear. She found a tattered dressing gown that looked like it was at least a decade old, but it was better than nothing. Outside, Clint groaned incoherently and his footsteps sounded, padding disapprovingly across the apartment floor. Natasha opened the bathroom door, staying just out of sight of the front door.
Clint disappeared from her view, then there was the sound of the door opening and Clint grunting in what Natasha now knew was surprise.
“Can I come in?” A female voice, a voice that was normally more forceful than this. A voice that belonged to Bobbi Morse. Ah.
“I don’t think-,” Clint began, but Bobbi ignored him and walked into the room anyway. She came into Natasha’s sightline and she looked just like Natasha remembered; tall and blonde and beautiful, dressed impeccably in a pale grey suit.
“So this is the new place then?” Bobbi asked, glancing around the open-plan apartment and smiling uncertainly.
“Yeah,” Clint came into view behind her and shrugged, shoving his hands into the pockets of his tracksuit trousers. “What do you think?” he asked.
Bobbi threw him an unimpressed glance. “Not much privacy in a place like this.”
There was a flicker on Clint’s face, the barest expression, and Natasha guessed that she and Bobbi were the only two people in the whole world who knew what that expression meant.
“Don’t really need privacy anymore,” Clint stated. “But seriously, what are you doing here?”
Bobbi sighed and turned to face him, so Natasha couldn’t see her expression anymore. “I just wanted to see you.”
Clint shrugged. “I was under the impression that you never wanted to see me again.”
“I wanted to apologise,” Bobbi said. “About what happened before.”
The furrow was back between Clint’s eyebrows. “And if I’m not interested in your apology?”
Natasha wondered, not for the first time, what that break-up had been like. It was one of the many things that Clint didn’t talk about, but she knew that she had a picture of Bobbi’s kids hidden in his desk drawer.
“Clint, please,” Bobbi stepped forward and touched Clint’s arm, but he turned away, just fast enough to make his feelings apparent.
“It’s a little late for all this, Bobbi,” he stated. His voice was flat, but it was the kind of flat that his voice got when he was trying to pretend that he wasn’t angry.
“If you’d just let me explain-,” Bobbi tried.
But Clint had turned fully away from her, and was staring out the window. “I’ve moved on with my life,” he said quietly. “You don’t have any special claim to my time.” He turned back to look at her now and Natasha could see his face once more. He had stopped pretending that he wasn’t angry, but probably only because otherwise he would have to be sad.
“This is my house, Bobbi. You can’t just show up here.” Clint looked up and he caught sight of Natasha lingering in the bathroom door. Bobbi must have seen his face, because she turned around to see what he was looking at. There was a split second of a whole bunch of things; shock and hurt and some sadness in there too, but then it was gone and her face was a mask once more.
“Oh,” she said softly. “Hello.”
“Hi.” Natasha waved and then felt stupid, and also terribly conscious of the fact that she was wearing nothing but a very old dressing gown, and she crossed her arms over her chest, feeling that instant of envy that she got whenever she stood next to a tall woman in high heels.
Bobbi turned back to Clint, who shrugged, and there was no more apology on his face. “Yes, I suppose I should have figured that one out myself,” Bobbi muttered.
“I told you, it’s none of your business,” Clint answered.
Bobbi hesitated, but looking between the two of them, she finally heaved a small sigh and headed for the door. But she stopped halfway across the room and turned back to Natasha. “You want to be careful with this one,” she stated. “He doesn’t know what he wants.” Then she turned back to Clint and raked him up and down with a scathing stare. “He doesn’t really know what he’s doing.”
“Thanks for that, Bobbi, you can go now.”
Bobbi’s high heels clicked in the silence as she made her way across the wooden floor, and she was almost out the door before she spoke again. “Goodbye, Clint.” And now her voice was soft.
The door shut behind her and they listened to the sound of the elevator arriving in the hallway outside. That soft ping seemed to release them from whatever spell Bobbi had wrought, because Clint was finally able to turn away from the door, and instead he resumed looking out the window. “Jesus,” he muttered, shaking his head slowly.
Natasha came around to the dining table, avoiding the battered wicker chair that Clint had ‘rescued’ from the curb down the street, and settled herself in the one with the wobbly leg. She was watching him carefully, and wondering if he was deliberately not looking at her.
“She has a point, Clint.”
He sighed and his head dropped a little lower. “I was worried you might think that.”
Natasha waited, but he still didn’t turn around. “What are we doing?” she asked.
“You want a name for it?”
Natasha shrugged. “Maybe.”
Clint did turn to face her now, the furrow between his brows deeper than ever. “You think we need a name for what we’re doing?”
“That would be the adult thing to have,” Natasha answered, meeting his icy gaze. “A name for it, an understanding of what it is.”
Cling moved across the room towards her, grabbing the back of the wicker chair and shaking his head. His eyes were strangely bright and his expression intense. “No, that’s just it, we don’t have to give it a name, we don’t have to define it, we don’t have to tell other people about it. That’s why we’re grown-ups, we can do anything we want.”
Natasha stood up, shaking her head slowly. “Grown-ups have relationships, Clint. Boyfriends and girlfriends. Husbands and wives.” Natasha thought of Alexei then, just a ghost of a thought, and she turned away so Clint couldn’t see her face. There were things that she didn’t want to talk about either.
Behind her Clint stood up, tapping a finger thoughtfully on the table for a moment. Then the finger stopped tapping. “What is this really about?” he asked.
Natasha found that her hand had risen up to worry the necklace at her throat. The ‘now I live in New York too and I feel like celebrating’ necklace that he had given her, that she wore and that made her feel just a little bit less afraid. She deliberately pulled her hand away from the necklace and crossed her arms once more.
“Is it that you don’t want to call me your girlfriend?” she asked.
Clint snorted, loud enough that she had to turn and look at him, and she saw the disbelief in his expression. “I don’t want to call anyone my girlfriend right now,” he answered, throwing out his arms in an expression of frustration. “It’s not like there’s privileges that come with the rank. It’s just a word, Tash, a label.”
“So why aren’t I good enough for it?” Natasha asked. Are you ashamed of me? Because I’m not as good as her?” Her voice got smaller and smaller as she spoke, until she wasn’t even sure that he could hear her anymore.
But he wasn’t really listening anyway. Clint had wrapped his arms tight around himself and he had that expression on his face, the one he got when someone mentioned any of the things that he didn’t want to talk about. “I don’t need another girlfriend,” he said quietly, more like he was talking to himself.
He was silent for a moment, staring at something that she couldn’t see, and Natasha wished that he would look at her, that just once it could be the two of them in this apartment, without all the ghosts they each brought with them. And the longer he didn’t look at her, the angrier she became.
“Do you think we’re special, Clint?” she demanded. “That’s why we don’t need to define it? Because we’re special? We have two very specific skill sets that have come out of uniquely tragic pasts, we’re not special, Clint, we’re damaged.” She had grabbed the back of hte chair with the wobbly leg and her knuckles had turned white and she had stopped noticing that she was wearing nothing but an old dressing gown.
Clint turned to look at her, and the ghosts were still there, just behind his eyes, and that just made Natasha even angrier. “Yeah,” Clint snapped. “But I’m damaged by my more recent past too. And in my recent past I had a girlfriend and I had a family, and she took that away, so forgive me if I don’t want another one.” Clint had yelled all of this, but the yelling had worn him out because he slumped down into the wicker chair and heaved a heavy sigh. Natasha noticed a couple of grey hairs at his temple and she wondered when they had appeared. She hadn’t really thought of him as old enough for grey hair.
“I just want to be,” he said softly. “Just for a while. And if that’s not good enough for you, then maybe you should just go.”
“Fine,” Natasha shrugged and turned deliberately away from him. “Maybe I should.”
He didn’t move while she was getting dressed, he just sat there, propping up his head with his hand, staring at something that she couldn’t see. Natasha gathered up her things, hesitating for a moment over whether to take her book from the nightstand, and electing finally to leave it. Then she stalked across the apartment, determined not to look back.
But just as she pulled the door open she heard a sound behind her. A tiny hiccup of a sound. She glanced back to see that Clint had moved, that he had covered his face with his hands. And she watched him, and he made the sound again and Natasha realised that he was crying. And the woman who was no longer an agent of the Red Room couldn’t walk away from the man who had once been sent to kill her. So she shut the door and came back to his side and she put her arms around him. And she realised that this was the first time that she had seen him cry.