When he hears the word “Budapest,” Clint can only think of one thing: kneeling next to Natasha as she bleeds on the sidewalk, trying desperately to hold her guts in, yelling at her to try to stay awake, begging her not to die, as onlookers screamed and sirens wailed, as the asset they were assigned to protect stared at them without expression, a bullethole in the middle of his forehead.
Agents Barton and Romanov’s mission was to locate and protect two scientists, both believed to be hiding in Budapest, who were marked for assassination by enemies of SHIELD. They found the first one easily: Jakab Baranyi, a man, tall and dark-haired, with a prosthetic arm painted the color of his flesh. He wore glasses and a tweed jacket and spoke softly; he was clearly frightened by the entire situation.
He appeared very physically fit, with a solid sense of balance everywhere he walked, and Natasha wondered if he could be a specialist. But every inflection of his voice, his every microexpression and gesture, all indicated that he was a terrified scientist in need of their help.
There were people who were better than Natasha at hand-to-hand – not many, but a few. And there were certainly people who were better than her at weapons, her partner among them. But she had never met anyone better than her at deception, and she had certainly never met anyone too good to read, at least in terms of their fundamental nature: on very rare occasions she had been fooled about someone’s agenda, about which side they were really playing for, but she had never been tricked into believing a person’s nature was different than it was – there was a big distinction between a trained operative and a civilian in terms of awareness and movement, not to mention the difference between a remorseless killer and someone who seemed even kinder, more delicate, than the average person, as Jakab did. He had thanked them repeatedly for their help, and even apologized for needing protection. He kept asking if he could bring his books of poetry with him on the run, but was polite in his disappointment when they told him no. He even insisted on leaving some groceries for his elderly neighbor with no income before they left. And really, who could possibly be good enough, controlled enough, to fool both her and Clint for long?
Not to mention the fact that when Jakab pretended that night, with great effort, to like Clint’s cooking, it was clear that Jakab was a terrible liar.
Clint, of course, grinned at the compliment anyway. “See, Tash? He likes my food.”
Natasha just rolled her eyes, allowing them to see the tiniest smile.
Jakab is in the tiny bedroom of the safehouse, sitting on the bed, trembling.
“We should do something for him,” Clint observes.
“We weren’t trained to be baby-sitters,” Natasha says.
He gives her a look and she shrugs. She says, “You’re better at being normal.”
“You’re better at making people feel what you want them to,” he responds.
They wait, a stalemate, until Clint breaks their gaze and head into the bedroom, sitting next to Jakab slowly. He lays a gentle hand on Jakab’s shoulder.
Natasha turns away as Jakab starts to cry. She doesn’t know anyone who cries because they were shot at, because they narrowly missed being killed. She knows, objectively, that most people in the world are like this. She doesn’t understand.
Eventually, the noise stops and Clint comes out. He whispers to her, “He’s never seen anyone shot before.”
Natasha frowns. “But we shot the men trying to kill him.”
“It freaked him out. Stop rolling your eyes.”
“Our job is to keep him alive. Not to keep him smiling.”
“Just do your thing, okay?” he says. For some reason, this is important to him.
Natasha walks into the bedroom, shoving past Clint’s shoulder, and sits next to Jakab. He is looking down.
“I’m very… embarrassed to react in such a way in front of you,” Jakab tells her. He sniffs.
She can’t believe that a day ago she thought he might be like them.
“It’s going to be okay. It’s natural to feel what you’re feeling,” she says, all the clichés that usually help.
He nods. “Thank you for saving my life,” he says, looking her in the eye finally.
“Just doing our jobs.”
“The two of you… you excel at your jobs. I can see that. You are both very… skilled.”
Natasha stiffens. “You have nothing to fear from us. We’re only here to protect you.” She can’t really say that they’re not killers, but she can say this.
“I know that. I can see the kind of person you are, whatever your skills may be.” He smiles at her, sad, as if he wishes she could have a different life, and it’s so naïve she can barely stand it.
“Look, one of us will be with you at all times. We’re still looking for your colleague, but we’ll keep you in town and safe until we find him. I promise.”
“Thank you, Agent Romanov. It means a lot to me.” He looks down again, still shaken.
“You can call me Natasha.” She’s not sure why she says this.
“Thank you, Natasha.”
“You feel protective of him,” Clint says to her while Jakab is in the shower.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You checked on him last night.”
“That’s my job.”
“I like it.”
“You like what?” she asks, raised eyebrow.
“That you feel protective of him. I think it’s sweet.” He smirks at her.
“Shut up, Clint,” she says and goes into the kitchen. Somebody has to make breakfast, and her stomach hopes it’s not Clint.
“Still no progress,” she told Clint as she walked through the door. “Dr. Andras is nowhere to be found.”
“Our other charge is getting cabin fever,” Clint said, looking up briefly from the folding table where they were playing cards.
“My apologies,” Jakab said, “I’m afraid that I’ve been quite the nuisance. I complained about not leaving the house for two days, and your partner has been teaching me poker.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” Natasha said, pulling up a chair, “Because your teacher sucks at poker.”
Jakab looked afraid to smile until Clint laughed, and then he laughed too, low and hearty. Clint dealt Natasha in and they started to play.
Jakab held out a bowl of small, neatly crafted pastries that smelled delicious.
“I know Clint didn’t make those,” she said.
“I made them. Onion and cheese pastries,” Jakab said.
“We call them onion cheese puffs,” Clint reminded him, to which he nodded.
Natasha took one from the bottom of the bowl where they were still hot. “Mmmm,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Clint said with a smirk, “He’s good at science and good at cooking and irons his shirts and stuff. But how’s his skill as a sniper?”
Jakab smiled at the ribbing. “I’m afraid I must confess. I have only shot a gun once. It was at my uncle’s cabin, and he tried to get me to shoot at a duck.”
“Did you hit something?” Clint asked.
“Yes, I shot the roof. He never tried to make me shoot again.”
They laughed at the story, and then Clint told one about his own childhood, some story about a fight at school, one of the few childhood stories that wouldn’t horrify a normal person. Natasha was about to make up a childhood story when she decided to tell a tale from just a couple years ago, when twin infants both threw up on her on a train. She changed the location and purpose of the trip of course, but it was a true story, and since Clint was there, he added numerous details about how awful Natasha smelled for the entire day.
They played poker for several hours, none of them minding that Natasha won almost every hand, and then they headed to sleep, Jakab in the bed, Clint and Natasha on cots on either side of him, guns underneath their pillows.
Clint spends all day chasing down leads on the other scientist. He comes up with nothing.
He walks in the door and Natasha can sense his frustration. She pulls him into the bathroom and kisses him, forceful, rough, pressing into his mouth with urgency. She pulls her shirt off and kisses him again, wearing nothing but her bra. He’s leaning back against the sink and she runs a hand up his shirt as she bites on his lower lip.
The door opens and Jakab sees them, looks surprised. His eyes linger a little longer than he seems to intend, and then he looks mortified, apologetic, and closes the door.
Clint sighs. “We didn’t lock the door.”
“I thought you said he was taking a nap.”
“I figured he was. There’s nothing to do here but take naps anyway.”
“Go tell the asset that we’re not upset. Then come back to the shower with me, and I’ll remind you that there’s something to do here.”
Clint grins. “Deal,” he says, sneaking a quick kiss before going.
Later that night, Jakab continues to politely leave the two of them alone, not having realized before tonight that they are partners in more than just their mission. He sits in the bedroom as they talk in the tiny sitting room.
“He’s kind of sweet on you,” Clint tells her.
“Yeah, he’s sweet on you too, going by the way he looks at your arms,” she says, teasing him back.
“So he likes us both. That’s good.”
Natasha leans back, realizing what he’s saying. “That’s not a good idea, Clint.”
“We’ve done it before. It’s always been fun.”
“That was with other SHIELD agents. Or with one-night-stands we pick up.”
“We’ve slept with assets before. Remember that guy in Dusseldorf?”
“He had a thing for couples. And he was a mark we were taking down. Not someone we were supposed to protect.”
“Where is Jakab going to be safer than between you and me, literally? We’ll make sure he knows it’s totally optional, we won’t push him. Though the way he was looking at us, I don’t think we’d need to push anyway.”
He sits back, his brow furrowing in recognition. “You don’t want to invite him to join us because you feel something for him.”
“He’s a job,” she says, a bit of heat in her voice.
He hesitates. “I told you, you feel protective of him.”
“Protective. Nothing else.”
“Protective is still something.” He doesn’t look away, even as she gives him her most intimidating glare.
He adds, softer, “Just think about it? Decide if you want it, before we decide if it’s a good idea? Please?”
She sighs. “I’ll think about it.”
Clint keeps giving her inquiring looks, but she ignores him until she decides. It’s while Jakab is giggling like a schoolboy at an entirely stupid joke that Clint tells him, as they’re all sitting in the kitchen eating stale chips and drinking warm beers.
She nods at Clint just slightly, and he understands.
She makes an offer to Jakab: she always knows the exact words to make someone want to say yes, but she doesn’t use them. She tells him that it’s an option, and that they are professionals and nothing can affect how well they do their job. She watches him closely to discern his reaction, to detect any hesitation or duplicity.
He seems overwhelmed. Grateful.
They bring him into the bedroom, Natasha leading him by the hand, and they push aside the cots so all three of them can sit on the bed. It’s crowded, but that’s not a bad thing.
Jakab is nervous.
Clint leans over and kisses Natasha in front of him. It’s teasing, soft but playful, and clearly designed to make Jakab want to join in.
Natasha kisses Jakab next, leans close, a millimeter away, makes Jakab close the gap. She takes the lead, runs her hand up his side as she presses her tongue in hard circles around his mouth. He’s breathless when they part.
Clint kisses him next, gentler, Clint’s hands clinging to him as Natasha runs her fingers through his hair.
They begin to peel shirts off, then belts and socks and pants.
They hesitate when Jakab suddenly looks confused.
“What is it?” Natasha says, taking her hands off of him, making sure that he isn’t too distracted to answer; she’s good at making men lose their wits with her touch, but she doesn’t want to do that now.
He looks at them for a moment, and there’s a cold blankness to his eyes. Then he shakes his head and looks down. “This is going to sound strange,” Jakab says, quietly. “But … I don’t even remember the last time I did this.” Natasha can sense how lost he is -- it’s more than shyness, this man is lost -- and she can feel in her bones how deep his pain goes, despite the seeming normalcy of his life.
Natasha has read Jakab’s file, knows that his wife died when they were both 21, an industrial accident in the lab where she worked. Jakab would have gone too if he weren’t in another country receiving some award. She wonders for a moment if he’s been with anyone since.
If he’s ever in his life been with anyone but his one true love.
She reaches over to hold his hand softly, exchanges glances with Clint, then tells Jakab, “We would never try to replace anyone. But we can offer… comfort.”
Jakab stares at her, blank again, confused. “Comfort. In a world that’s….”
“Brutal,” Clint finishes. “Yeah.”
Understanding slides across Jakab’s eyes again, like a gear sliding back into place. He smiles gratefully at them, and then slowly leans forward to kiss Natasha again, then Clint.
It’s gentle, softer than Natasha and Clint usually prefer. They are careful not to jostle his arm, which he doesn’t use much, and they don’t make any sudden movements. It’s mouths and lips and hands, bodies entangled on a too-small bed, moans and whispers, and then it’s faster, stronger, fuller, into satisfaction, into bliss.
After, when Jakab lies sleeping, curled up like a child between the two of them, Natasha strokes his air and Clint keeps an arm slung around his waist. Clint smiles at Natasha. “Thank you,” he mouths silently.
“For what?” she whispers back.
“For thinking about it,” Clint answers.
He looks a little smug, so Natasha turns off the light and tells him to shut up and go to sleep.
It’s Clint’s turn to search for the Dr. Andras, and he gets an early start, so Natasha’s the one who’s there when Jakab wakes up screaming.
There’s a fraction of a second when he looks so much like a feral animal that Natasha has to suppress her defensive instincts, to remember who Jakab really is.
He apologizes then, looks horrified at himself for making such a scene, and runs into the bathroom and shuts the door behind him. Hiding from her, presumably.
Natasha would know what to do if it were Clint who woke up screaming. She would trick him into admitting what his dream was about, then talk about how they would cause excruciating deaths for the people who were wronging Clint in his dreams. Clint didn’t really need to imagine vengeance to feel better, Natasha knew: it was the talking that helped, it was the amusement at how elaborate Natasha’s tortures of Clint’s foes would be, whether the circus owner of his youth or a more recent enemy. It was that Natasha was making an effort to comfort him, her implicit promise that they would face all his enemies together, side by side, even the ones of his subconscious.
Speculating about how Jakab’s enemies would fare under Natasha’s knife would probably not go as well.
She kicks on the door, waits, then knocks again.
He opens it, eyes smeared with tears, and smiles. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been nothing but trouble for you.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” she answers, and she realizes that she means it.
“It was nothing. A silly dream.” He swallows thickly.
“Come back to bed.”
“It’s morning. I should be up.”
“Just a little longer,” she says, and he nods.
They lay there side by side, not touching.
Natasha thinks about what she would do. She tells herself to imagine that he’s a mark she’s playing, but she doesn’t want to.
She recalls something, a hint of an image. She was a child, alone in a tiny room, trying not to make a sound even though she wanted to sob. At the time, they had shown her tapes of historical events to train her eye to scan for threats, and she had seen, in rare shots of the crowds, that there were little girls out there with adults who took care of them. She had remembered a little girl crying after seeing an official assassinated, and a woman had held the girl close, rubbed her back. In that moment, as a child, Natasha wished there were someone who would do that for her.
It is painful, a knife through a blistering burn, to remember this moment, this weakness.
Still, it is useful. So she tolerates it.
She turns on her side and holds Jakab, rubs his back in slow circles. He buries his face in her neck and she feels almost like she knows what she’s doing.
Clint suggests that maybe she should take Jakab out of the country to ensure his safety. Clint can continue looking for the other scientist on his own. She thinks they’re better together, the three of them sticking close, and he gives her a strange look that she doesn’t like at all. They put off the discussion until arrangements can be made.
Later that evening, operatives find their safehouse. Clint and Natasha shoot their way out and drag Jakab to safety. As they go, Natasha gives Clint a raised eyebrow with a clear message: Tell me you don’t care more about the asset than usual.
They arrive at a backup location, all of them intact, mostly. “I told you so,” Natasha whispers to Clint, who responds, “I said it wouldn’t affect our job performance, not that it wouldn’t affect how we feel.”
“I don’t feel anything,” she says, pissed off at him. She goes to find Jakab to make sure he’s all right.
But this time, Jakab doesn’t break down staring at the floor. He thanks them for saving his life yet again and insists on helping them patch up their injuries, minor grazes and bruises. They decide to let him, and he gently removes their clothes and covers their wounds with iodine and bandages from the first aid kit at the backup safehouse.
They fall into bed, again, the three of them. It’s a little more playful this time, a little less careful, but every bit as good.
Clint doesn’t mention splitting up again.
Jakab wakes up in the middle of the night again. He is sweating, breathing hard, but this time doesn’t scream.
Natasha opens her eyes. “Tell me,” she says this time. It’s an offer but it’s somehow an order too.
He looks over at her like he’s trying to figure her out, like she is the one who has thrown his world out of order. “Do you ever wish you were something else?” He looks frustrated, confused.
She bristles. Did he wish she were someone else? Someone soft, like him? Or was he talking about himself?
“No,” she lies.
“I wish I were a racecar driver,” Clint mumbles from his side of the bed.
Jakab snorts half a laugh, and the kindly scientist visage returns again, masking whatever was drenching him with sweat as he slept.
“You’re a terrible driver,” Natasha points out.
“I could win a driving award I bet.”
“If they give out awards for most people vomiting from motion sickness,” she answers.
“I think maybe you two should be a comedy duo,” Jakab says, then adds, “You could combine it with shooting people and call it dark comedy.”
It’s so unexpected, that Jakab might be a smartass, that she and Clint both laugh, despite the weakness of the joke. It's strange, to think there might still be things about Jakab they don’t know, even if they’ve only had him a few days.
Clint leans forward and kisses Jakab on the cheek, and it’s so sweet that Natasha doesn’t know if the ache in her chest is disgust or something else.
Clint looks at the clock then and says, “You know, we totally have time to have sex again before morning.”
The two men look at her hopefully, and she pretends that she’s indulging them when she says yes.
Jakab cooks breakfast with the meager ingredients in the pantry.
She kisses both men and leaves for the day to search for the other scientist.
She finally manages to bust the right heads, and brings Dr. Andras back to the safehouse.
As she walks through the door, she sees Clint and Jakab playing cards again, this time some game that Jakab appears to be teaching him.
They look up and Clint grins to see that she’s found Andras.
Jakab shoves Clint aside, throwing him halfway across the room, and pulls a gun from under the sofa.
Natasha pulls Dr. Andras back out, as quickly as she can, drags him down an alley into a public square. A hundred thoughts flash across her mind: Save the asset at all costs, Clint is probably injured now, how could she have been so stupid. Jakab was using SHIELD to find his target the whole time, someone at SHIELD gave them Jakab's file, someone at SHIELD is working with the people who hired him. And, Jakab has to have some serious programming that makes him that good at playing a part, so whoever trained him is probably a bigger threat than anyone realizes.
She pulls Andras behind a dumpster and pushes him to the ground. She stands over him, gun drawn, and scans the area. She sees Clint take position across the street, bow in hand, so at least she knows he’s still walking.
She looks around, looks everywhere, and can’t see anyone.
Then the sound of a bullet, unmistakeable.
She looks down, sees red spreading across her shirt. She falls and sees Andras, sees that she has not completed her mission. Sees that Jakab is better than she is, that she has an enemy she never stood a chance against.
It’s a terrifying thought. More terrifying, even, than dying.
Years later, Natasha will remember this moment, lying powerless in her blood and failure, looking up at Clint’s desperate face and realizing that she was wrong to let someone else in. She was wrong to trust anyone but Clint. She will remember her eyes settling closed as she promises to herself, From now on, only Clint.
When he’s done with the mission, they ask him why he didn’t kill the two operatives as ordered. He stares at them, blank, and has no answer. They wipe his brain clear, extra clean, as his screams scrape against the wall. He forgets their faces, their names. He forgets laughing at the look on the woman’s face as she reluctantly eats the man’s terrible cooking. He forgets the scent of sweat and sex, lingering, sweet and heavy, in the cold, static air. He remembers, vaguely, lying in a bed, with people surrounding him, people who could hurt him but chose not to. He remembers the faintest hint that once, for just a moment, there were people who wanted to take care of him.
He doesn’t remember anything after that.