Rating: Mature (light R?)
Summary: Debt is only beautiful when it has been repaid
“I still can’t believe she didn’t shoot you,” says Coulson, leaning back in his chair as he pages through the Macau report.
“Why does everyone assume I deserved to get shot?” wonders Clint. “She kissed me.”
Coulson smirks. “Well, it wasn’t an unqualified success,” he says obliquely, signing off on the bottom of the document. “But at least we know more than we did about the kind of people AIM is dealing with. I’ve got to tell you, Barton, I’m still a little mystified.”
Sometimes Coulson’s mind works on a different wavelength than other peoples’. It can be a challenge to keep up. “By AIM?”
“By you. And her.”
Coulson shrugs. “I told the director it was the thrill of the chase, the challenge, but I’m not sure I believe that any more.”
Clint sighs. If he’s honest with himself, it was the challenge… at least at first. He’d watched Ellis come back with a broken collarbone, and then Judson with his concussion, and finally Sims with that knife wound perilously close to his groin. Each time Clint had grilled the men in their hospital beds, adding their half-bitter, half-admiring observations to what he knew about Natalia Alianova Romanova from the official file, initially with the respect one professional holds for another, and then with… something more.
When Fury had announced that he was ‘suspending efforts to recruit’ her, it had been hard not to take it personally.
“I told you,” he reminds Coulson. “I was just paying it forward.”
Clint had rebuffed his recruiters, too, mostly because he hadn’t trusted that they were for real. He was an orphaned ex-carny with just enough military training to be dangerous and a predilection for archaic weaponry. Why would a global intelligence agency have any interest in him?
The first cold approach had been by a tall, rangy guy named Yoshiaki Doi; a trick arrow tipped with a smoke grenade had provided the distraction Clint needed to get away. The second man, a week later, hadn’t identified himself, but he’d been big and burly – elephantine, Clint had thought at the time – and considerably more persistent. Clint had put an arrow in his right leg, just above the knee.
The next person to approach him had been Coulson. He hadn’t been what Clint was expecting, dressed in a suit and wingtips instead of fatigues and combat boots. “I know you’re not happy, living this way,” he had told Clint, voice bland, expression neutral, and Clint had put down the bow because it was true, as true as it had been when he’d used almost those exact words to appeal to Natasha.
Coulson sighs, filing the Macau report into a desk drawer. “You know, she’s either going to break your neck or your heart. Possibly both, although not necessarily in that order.”
Clint considers this for a moment. “Yeah, maybe,” he says at last. He raises his eyebrows. “Do you think we should turn her loose?”
Coulson smiles. “Not on your life.”
It’s just after midnight when they finally come to fetch her: two SHIELD agents dressed in black. One cuffs her hands behind her back while the other watches from what he figures is a safe distance, weapon drawn.
They bring her up out of the prison, put her in the back of a truck, and drive her to a lonely, moonlit airfield. One of their jets is waiting on the tarmac. The two agents follow her inside, pushing her down onto a bench that runs the length of the craft. The hatch closes, the interior lights flicker on, and she can see Dr. Fisher sitting across from her. She’s dressed in the same bright blue jumpsuit, but her hands are cuffed in front, clasped in her lap.
One agent joins the pilot in the front of the craft. The other remains in the back, watching them warily.
“I haven’t told them anything,” insists Kamala, testing her cuffs. The agent takes half a step forward; she meets his gaze boldly, unintimidated, and settles back on the bench as best as she can manage.
Dr. Fisher smiles, swaying slightly as the jet launches into the air. Her hair is pulled back into an unkempt braid, and the interior lights give her complexion a grayish cast. “I know,” she says, smiling thinly. “The injunction wouldn’t have let you.”
Kamala frowns. “What are you…?”
A shot goes off in the cockpit. Kamala jumps up without conscious thought, although the jet is still rising and the deck beneath her feet still tilted towards the sky. The agent by the hatch pulls his gun and starts forward; Kamala plants her feet, lowers her shoulder, and shoves it into his back.
The man doesn’t fall, but he’s momentarily thrown off balance, and sufficiently distracted that the pilot has time to take three steps down the aisle and shoot him twice in the chest.
The SHIELD agents are dead in a matter of seconds.
Dr. Fisher and the pilot regard each other. He’s small and wiry, with a long face terminating in a patchy beard. “You’re not one of ours,” the doctor says, slipping off her unlocked handcuffs.
“No,” says the pilot flatly, not looking at the body in the center of the aisle. “But we work for the same people.”
Fisher nods. “That’s good enough for me,” she says evenly.
The man returns to the cockpit. A few seconds later the autopilot is disengaged and the jet banks hard to the right. Fisher stands carefully, stepping over the dead man on the ground.
Kamala stares at her. “What injunction?”
Fisher sighs. “We tried something different with you, Kamala. Replacing, rather than simply erasing. Not just with skills… with history. With parents and a childhood and a past. Imagine the possibilities, if an agent didn’t have to worry about remembering her cover story… if she actually believed that it was true.”
Kamala shakes her head. “It would never work,” she says stubbornly. “The ideas are too complex.”
The doctor nods, taking a key from her jumpsuit pocket. “That’s true. All you can do is paint with broad strokes, seed a few notions and hope they take root. You can’t control where they go after that. That was the problem with you. We… overlooked the fact that the human brain is hungry for information. For patterns, details. The generalities weren’t enough for your mind, so you invented specifics. Some may have a basis in truth… I don’t know. I was never told exactly who you were, before.”
“I’m not one of your operatives,” Kamala insists, as Fisher circles around behind her. She has memories, dammit, memories that are too clear and vivid to ever have been planted in her head. She remembers the way her father’s belt stung where it landed on her flesh, and the smell of ashes after the fire. She remembers squalid Bangalore and the long voyage from Dhaka to Brasilia.
Dr. Fisher unlocks Kamala’s handcuffs, tossing them onto the bench as she steps away. “Bruno believed that India made their own attempt at a Red Room program years ago, after certain particulars came to light following the fall of the Soviet Union. They scrapped it last year, however, claiming that the training rendered the subjects too unstable, and you were sent to us.” Her eyes are full of pity. “You were a mess. We did what we could, but I’m worried that some of the old you has started to leak back in. I don’t know…”
“Don’t know what?” asks Kamala. Her legs are trembling, as though she has carried a heavy weight over a long distance. She tries to picture the streets of Bangalore, and she cannot. She tries to remember the name of the man in Brasilia, the man who molded her into what she is, the man she had killed, but there is only a damning blankness where that information should be.
Recollections that she has repressed, because they are so painful? Or details that her mind simply never had a reason to invent?
“I don’t know if I should give you the code phrase,” says Fisher sadly, crouching to retrieve the dead agent’s gun. “You’re on a five-day schedule, meaning you have a couple of hours left.”
A mortal chill steals through Kamala’s bones. She knows about the code phrase, which is tied to the trigger that can wipe a patient’s mind. She’s seen what happens to an operative from whom it is withheld. Fisher could murder her through simple silence; she doesn’t even need the gun in her hands. “I’m not insane.”
“You’re close,” says Fisher matter-of-factly. “Even fresh out of the chair, your evaluations were worrying. Bruno told me you had ‘a fatalistic worldview, plus manipulative and sadistic tendencies.’ He didn’t think we should take you on.”
Kamala thinks of her close relationship with fate, her instinctive understanding of the fabric of the universe, the workings of the clock, the way things are supposed to be.
Is that insanity? If so, maybe dying would be a kindness. She doesn’t want to live in a world where that certainty doesn’t exist… or, worse, where it does exist, but only as evidence of her own frailty, of the chaos rampant in the human brain.
“On the other hand,” says Fisher slowly, “you did take the initiative. Romanoff was a failure, but you saw the mission through.”
Kamala lifts her chin, trying to bury her terror behind a mask of pride. “Of course I did,” she says stiffly. “And… and I think you’ll need me. In what’s to come.”
She glances towards the cockpit. The pilot is openly following their conversation, his eyes narrowed.
Fisher hesitates, and then she gives a grudging nod. Kamala knows that the doctor has little to lose from acquiescing. Five days from now, Kamala will be at her mercy again.
Fisher speaks, but Kamala does not hear the words. Her skull seems to fill with a white noise, echoes ricocheting between the folds of her brain and then swiftly fading. Soon, she knows, she will forget even this bit of strangeness. After all, Fisher has been saying this unknown phrase to her every five days for the past year.
Still, it seems unfair that she is not even permitted to hear the words that rule her life.
Escape is not impossible, and standing there in the jet’s hold Kamala – or whoever she is – decides that she is fated to slip from Sloane Fisher’s grasp.
Not tonight. Not any time soon. But the Institute’s work is not infallible, and she can only trust in the understanding she has possessed since childhood… even if that childhood only exists in her mind.
Kamala Manesh believes in fate.
Three days after arriving in Frankfurt she feels his eyes on her. His gaze has solidity, weight, as obvious and familiar as the touch of a hand.
Natasha finishes her drink, pays the tab, and walks outside. The other patrons are engrossed in the soccer game. No one follows her, or even seems to register her departure.
The day is mild, although weather reports have been warning of rain. Clouds are just beginning to coalesce, but at this stage they are only a bit of meteorological decoration with no real harm in them.
Natasha strolls through Nizza Park, following the banks of the River Main, and then east along the Museumsufer, a stately street lined with museums and government buildings. Most of these structures are only two and three stories tall, with roofs flat enough for a sure-footed man to negotiate now in the hours before sunset.
The fifteen-minute walk to her apartment feels like much longer. She resists the urge to check over her shoulder or scan rooftops or peer into likely alleys every few seconds. Eventually it becomes a challenge to see how slowly she can walk, how nonchalant she can appear. There is something about feeling his eyes on her but betraying no outward sign that makes her blood run faster, that lights a steady torch of anticipation in her belly.
The apartment is modest. She’s squirreled away plenty of money over the years, preparing for the day when she might be on her own again, but Frankfurt is an expensive city and there’s no point in being wasteful.
Five hundred square feet gives her all the space she needs (and compared to some places she’s lived is almost palatial) with a bedroom and bathroom, and a serviceable kitchenette separated from the sitting room by a half-wall. The décor is mostly done in creams and blue-grays with cheerful pops of red and orange – the lampshades, the patterned tiles behind the oven – and the windows are large and plentiful, admitting torrents of silvery light as premature dusk falls, ushered in with the thickening clouds. Perhaps she should feel nervous about all that glass, but she’s on the fifth floor while neighboring buildings only reach three stories at the most.
Besides, there is a sense of freedom when she releases the latch and slides the window frame up, letting in the cooling air and the smell of the approaching storm.
Natasha puts on some music and heads into the kitchen, where the bag from the drugstore is right where she left it last night. She’d picked up a few cosmetics, some other toiletries, but her main goal had been the carton of hair dye. She’s never used this particular brand before, but after reading over the ingredients and instructions on the side of the box she decides it’s not likely to make all of her hair fall out.
In the bedroom she steps out of her jeans and blouse and into an inexpensive tank top and cotton shorts, which won’t be a great loss if they’re ruined by errant dye. She moves by rote, every sense straining throughout the five hundred square feet and beyond, waiting for a knock at the door or stealthy feet along a windowsill, but the only sound is that of a new song playing in the other room.
Just after true sunset, the rain begins to fall.
She mixes the dye, applies it there in the kitchen with a practiced hand, and passes the time while the color sets by paging through a magazine, washing her breakfast dishes, and opening a bottle of wine. She pours herself a glass, considers pouring a second, but abstains.
The apartment has a shower, of course, but she decides to rinse out the dye in the kitchen sink, using the little spray attachment mounted beside the faucet, telling herself that she prefers to remain where she can hear the sound of rain rather than retreating to the windowless bathroom. She turns on the water, adjusts the temperature, pulls out the attachment on its springy coil of hose, and flips her hair forward into the basin. Even through her closed eyelids she can see the red-stained water streaming down over her scalp, swirling down the drain… as vivid as blood, except it’s not morbid at all. It’s her color, part of who she is.
She senses his presence an instant before his hand slides over hers; she lets him pull the spray attachment from her grasp and braces her arms on either side of the sink instead.
He is close behind her, hips brushing against her bottom as she’s bent at the waist, as he leans forward and runs the fingers of his free hand up the nape of her neck, through her hair, washing away what’s left of the dye. He works without words, guiding her with the gentle pressure of his fingers when he needs her to tilt or turn her head. Stray rivulets of warm water trickle down over her face and back between her shoulder blades, tracing a liquid path down her vertebrae.
The silence and his rough, steady hands are more intoxicating than the wine.
When he reaches forward and turns off the tap, his body briefly presses against hers in a way that wrings a small gasp from her lips. Natasha lifts her dripping head from the basin, groping for and locating the towel she’d left on the countertop, wiping her face and squeezing the moisture from her hair even as she turns.
Natasha only gets the barest glimpse of Clint’s face – cheeks flushed, eyes dark – before his arms go around her waist and hers wind around his neck, pulling his lips down to hers with almost bruising force. The kiss is hard and hungry, laced with the desperation of the last week and a half and the anticipation of the last hour, his tongue tracing the seam of her lips and then moving between them.
She clutches at his shoulders, pressing her curves to his planes as her hair drips over her shoulders; his t-shirt is dampened from the rain, sticking to his skin in places (skin she’s desperate to see, to feel against her own) and she wonders how long he lingerd in the gathering storm.
His hands slide up her body – palms rucking up the hem of her tank top, thumbs teasing her breasts through the fabric – as his body presses hers more firmly against the kitchen counter. And oh God this is familiar, familiar but better, because she’s not worried about his state of mind or her own, and neither of them is bloody and bruised (or at least no more than usual) and she knows he’s not going to give her any well-meaning bullshit excuses.
After everything that’s happened, he wouldn’t dare.
He does break the kiss at last; she lets out a moan of dismay before realizing that maybe he has the right idea, because she’s breathless to the point of lightheadedness, her heart racing, thudding against her breastbone in equal parts eagerness and feverish anxiety. He kisses her neck, the shell of her ear; she slides her hands into his hair, writhes against him, enjoying the way his body reacts, predictable biology that is also as unique as a fingerprint.
As a girl, sex was something that was done to her; when she was older, it was something she did to other people: a tactic, an infliction, always a verb, never a noun, and always wrapped up in pain and violence and death. Years later, on her own at last, it wasn’t a tactic she actively sought to employ, but it was another weapon in her arsenal; every part of her body was a tool, and every tool had its time and place. The promise of her body could make even the most suspicious bastard a compliant fool, and in the heat of the moment an armed man became as vulnerable as a child.
SHIELD had changed that. There’s always another way, Phil Coulson had told her firmly, and she had resented him for it, for the implication that she was doing something wrong all these years, something immoral and worthy of pity, for the assertion that some tools are better than others.
She’s found partners since then, of course… one night stands, men with no connection to either enemies – because she’s nothing if not careful – or her allies – because it’s surprisingly hard to be intimate with someone who knows you can snap their neck with your thighs – but it has never been an easy, organic process.
She started going to bars and clubs during her off-time, and scanning the room the moment she entered, identifying likely marks, her gaze inevitably drawn to the figures who radiated trouble. Natasha doesn’t particularly like trouble, but she knows how to deal with it, with the sly remarks that are often veiled insults from men – boys – too insecure in their own bodies to approach women with honesty, with the amateurish attempts to get her drunk or, now and then, to spike her drink.
She loathed these boys, didn’t enjoy their company any more than she’d enjoyed the company of drug lords and crime bosses, but they’d been a kind of tool themselves. At least with them, her wariness, her habitual inclinations towards violence, had been well-deserved.
Clint is trouble of a different kind. He’s not always a nice man but he is a good one, she’s known that from the night they met, when he smiled wryly and her and insisted you don’t owe me anything. And maybe she’s been a little fascinated by him ever since then because a weaker man, a smaller man, would never have relinquished a debt like that.
By now she understands that most of the men she’s known, for all their wealth and power, have been weak and small indeed.
“Tasha,” he whispers, the first word either of them have spoken, and she kisses him again, kisses him hard until neither of them have any breath left for speaking. His fingers seem to be everywhere at once: buried in her wet hair, trailing across her jaw, tracing the low, lace-edged neckline of her tank and teasing the flesh beneath.
When those hands skim down her ribs to her waist, her hips, she covers them with her own, flatting them against the exposed skin, urging his fingertips beneath the elastic waistband of her cotton shorts and the stretchy fabric of her panties, and he groans a wordless appeal into her mouth.
“Yes,” she gasps.
He sinks to his knees as she peels off her shirt; he kisses a path between her breasts, down her stomach as he tugs both remaining items of clothing to the floor. She steps out of them and he catches her left ankle, guides it up to his right shoulder. His stubble-roughened cheek brushes her inner thigh, followed closely by his lips; she gasps again, this time as much in surprise as arousal.
She knows this position, of course; she just hasn’t known it from this side, because even if someone in her old life had offered – and they hadn’t, too devoted to their own pleasure to concern themselves with hers – she would have demurred, because… because. Even with Clint she finds it a little frightening, being so vulnerable, so exposed.
He hears the gasp, feels her tense, and looks up at her with concerns and questions in his eyes. He doesn’t ask aloud; she simply nods, because physical vulnerability is nothing compared to what they’ve already been through.
She trusts him. She trusts him with everything.
As he moves his tongue and lips against her, into her, she grips the counter at her back, grips it so hard she half expects the tile to crumble, her knees trembling with the strain of remaining upright. She leans back, surprised at the sounds that escape her lips; her head thumps against the upper cabinets, and her eyes are squeezed tight as she’s taken over by the clever pressure, the gliding warmth, the gentleness and intensity of his touch.
Yes, she whispers, and there and Clint and once even please, like a prayer, like a hymn, fighting to remain standing, her voice just audible over the music and the rainfall and the eager keening coming from his own throat. She wants to tell him that it’s too much, that he should stop, but of course she doesn’t want him to stop, not now, not ever, and because she could never have too much of this feeling, not just the physical pleasure but everything that comes with it.
When she comes it’s with a strangled cry and a rush of heat that briefly overwhelms her senses. Her back arches, her knees tremble; she almost loses her footing, catches herself a second before he does, and decides to lose it after all, folding in on him as her vision clears and the tempo of her heart slows.
He holds her. He will hold her as long as she needs him to; she doesn’t even have to ask.
When she finds her feet and raises her head, he kisses her again, more slowly than before but also somehow more deeply, his hands framing her face as they lean into one another. Arousal flares up again, more insistently than seems possible. Every stitch and seam and button of Clint’s clothing that scrapes against her sensitized flesh is a reminder that he is frustratingly well-covered, something that seems to occur to him as well, because he yanks his shirt over his head while Natasha makes quick work of his belt buckle and fly.
She thinks that the tiled kitchen floor couldn’t have been kind to his knees, and that if they’re not careful they’re going both going to end up down there again, so as he steps out of his jeans she pulls him towards the bedroom. He grins briefly and follows her.
Rain splatters against the window above the bed like a hundred drumming fingers. Real dusk has settled now and the room is lit only in grey, storm-washed light.
Natasha slides back over the sheets, towards the tufted headboard, and Clint is little more than a silhouette against the open doorway as he follows her. His boxers are gone in a flash of fabric, his lips find hers and their bodies orient themselves accordingly.
He’s just moving to settle between her thighs when he suddenly pulls back, and even in the bad light she can see his brow crease with frustration. “Shit, condom… in my bag,” he mutters, pushing himself off of her, but she catches his arm.
“You’re not going to get me pregnant.” She wonders if he already knew that, or guessed, wonders if he can hear the acid in her voice. (She’s never much liked children, not even when she was one – they tell her she was one, once – and she’d never given much thought to having any of her own. Even now, if she could, she probably wouldn’t. The world is too scary. Losing hurts too much. But… it’s the fact she has no choice in the matter that makes her bitter.)
He hesitates, comprehension flickering across his face – damn him for understanding – and carefully sinks back down on her. He doesn’t ask about anything else and she doesn’t need to offer; they both got full check-ups in Paris and she trusts him to tell her if there was further need for protection. At least, thanks to Aten, she hasn’t been with anybody since.
“You brought condoms?” she asks, trying to lighten the mood as he shifts against her, sliding a hand between their bodies, as if he doesn’t know that she’s ready – ridiculously ready. “Little presumptuous… aren’t you?”
“You know me,” he grunts, “Always prepared.”
“Yeah, you’re a goddamn Boy Scout,” she gasps, writhing against the intimate touch. His fingers are amazing, almost as good as his mouth, but right now they’re just not enough. “Barton, dammit, what are you waiting for?”
He chuckles as he grips her hips and finally, inch by delicious inch, sinks into her, so agonizingly slow that she’s pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose, trying to drive her insane; her head falls back against the dampened pillows and she eases her legs up, knees hooked above his waist—
Panic strikes her, sudden and inexplicable; her breath catches and Clint goes very still, maybe afraid that he’s hurt her, but it’s not that at all. Natasha clutches the sheets beneath her sweaty palms, wondering if somehow the trigger has only lain dormant until now, if the code phrase requirement hadn’t been eradicated with the rest of the injunction, if this is the moment when she loses everything…
But then the moment passes, counted down in hummingbird-quick heartbeats, and she realizes that it’s only an artifact from the old days. When her body was a tool, when this tool was pressed into use, this was when she would force her mind away from the present and instead catalog improved weapons within reach, and easily accessible pressure points, and nearby exits. When she would mentally review next steps and contingency plans and mission objectives. She has reached for these things out of habit and has, naturally, come up empty.
No orders. No weapons. No escape.
No need to escape. She’s safe, maybe safer in this moment than she’s ever been, despite everything that’s happened, despite the uncertainty of the future hanging over them. “It’s okay,” she whispers, speaking to herself as much as Clint. “I’m okay.”
He still seems worried, so Natasha dries her palms and brings her hands to his face, kissing him fiercely – with her lips and tongue and teeth – and moving, maneuvering her body so that his can find a closer, deeper fit. She bites at his bottom lip, murmurs a few choice words in Russian, and he seems to like that; at least his thrusts go from considerate and controlled to downright enthusiastic without any further urging on her part. She grasps the edge of the headboard with one hand, uses the other to guide his hips to the right angle, the perfect rhythm, unabashedly moaning her approval when his mouth drops to her breasts.
There are other things she could do, things he would enjoy – things he would curse her for and enjoy anyway – but now isn’t the time.
Despite the moment of panic, despite having the edge taken off in the kitchen, so to speak, she knows that she is close; the torch has been burning bright and hot for too long to draw this out much longer. She tells him as much, panting the words into his ear, and hears a relieved sigh pass between his lips, as though she’s taken off some of the pressure. Or maybe it’s because she puts it like this: I’ll let you off easy this time. This time – implying, of course, that there will be a next time.
Of course there will be a next time. She can’t imagine there not being a next time. Screw Fury and his schemes and his plans, forget playing it safe. She needs this. She didn’t even realize how much until now.
Clint’s callused fingers move blindly between them, reading her body like Braille, and even his slightly clumsy touch is enough to tip her over the edge. His arms slip beneath her waist and up her back, holding her close as she shudders in release, unalloyed pleasure coursing through every nerve and synapse, and then without warning he is there as well, burying his face against her neck as he climaxes, his voice rough with raw pleasure.
The morning dawns clear, and aggressively bright. Natasha wakes when Clint reaches up to twitch the curtains across the windows, then wriggles back beneath the blankets.
Feigning sleep, she rolls towards him; he shifts accommodatingly and she ends up sprawled across his chest, one bent leg sliding up and over his knees, just in case he gets any bright ideas about slipping out early again. And if he decides that, despite whatever assumptions he might have made, that she’s a cuddler… well, she can live with that.
Until he pulls her hair.
“Ow,” she says distinctly, not opening her eyes.
He laughs softly, his chest rumbling beneath her ear, an undertone to the timpani beat of his heart. “Sorry,” he says, in an easy tone that rather indicates he isn’t sorry at all. She realizes that he must have been trying to run his fingers through her hair which, left to dry of its own accord, has done so in a wild snarl of curls and tangles.
She lifts her head from his chest, a vivid red halo just visible on the edge of her vision. His eyes are heavy-lidded from lack of (or, more accurately, interrupted) sleep, a half-contented, half-smug smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. “If I’d known you’d be that happy to see me, I would have driven a lot faster,” he confides.
Natasha frowns, closing her eyes as she tries to force her own muddled mind to function. “Drive? Didn’t you get my message?” She didn’t know Agent Santiago all that well, but she’d known her other escort even less. Fury had hustled her off the Carrier too quickly to arrange anything else.
“Sure, but I didn’t want to telegraph where you were. Where I thought you were.” He pushes a few curls out of her face and she winces in anticipation, but he’s more careful this time. “I told them to put me down in Brussels.”
It hurts, holding her neck at this angle, so she props her head up on one hand. “That’s only a four hour drive.”
“Six. I changed cars in Karlsruhe and came in from the south,” he says, not looking at her, which raises her hackles. “Plus, you know, there’s always traffic… and you did have a twelve-hour head start on me…”
He shuts up immediately, as though expecting the reproof, but he continues to pretend fascination with the intricate whorls of her pillow-dried hair.
“What aren’t you telling me?”
He finally meets her eyes. “I talked to Fury.”
She waits, her only response a cocked eyebrow.
“Turns out you were wrong,” he says vaguely.
Natasha knows he’s goading her – to his great peril, considering where her knee is right now – but she sighs and prompts him with, “Wrong about what?”
“You told me in Paris… you said Fury wasn’t stupid enough to throw away two of his best assets.”
It takes her a moment to absorb what he means. He waits it out in resigned silence, as though expecting her to push him out of bed or at least insult his intelligence in several different languages.
In truth she doesn’t know how to react, because she’s known from the first that Fury’s plan would mean not only the end of her association with SHIELD but also the end of her partnership with Clint. She had understood that they would need to communicate in secret to avoid tainting him with her supposed treason, to keep him from being a target for Lycaon’s minions, that publicly he would be expected to scorn and distrust her as he never had, not even in the days when they were still strangers.
And she’d hated it. Hated the idea of losing him so soon after finding him again – finding herself again, finding the part of her strong enough to admit what he is to her. Mourned at the thought of this new distance between them.
But she never could have come out and asked him to leave SHIELD. He found a home there more surely than she had; he made friends, became comfortable in the role he was assigned. Now he’s tainted, too.
But it doesn’t matter. ‘Relief’ is a poor word to describe what she’s feeling, for the fact that she won’t have to let him go and the knowledge of what he’s done for her. For them.
No words are enough, so she shows him instead.
For Clint, the next few days are a blur, a miasma of spycraft, sex and something else he has no proper word for, something tissue-paper thin and papier-mâché fragile that might be called happiness or wholeness if they were two different people. As it is… he doesn’t need a name to know what it means.
He feels increasingly foolish for the lingering doubts that had landed with him in Brussels, tailed him to Karlsruhe, loitered in the passenger’s seat on the way into Frankfurt. At the time, of course, he’d only had his guess, his memory of the first time Natasha shared her opinion on debt, the recollection of that night when he didn’t shoot her and she didn’t shoot him, the night everything changed. But he still hadn’t been sure that she wanted to see him.
The first sight of her – sitting in a pub, watching the people around her with a vague half-smile hovering on her lips – had stripped those concerns away, evicting the doubt from his heart.
Now he knows for sure. She wants him. She wants him.
It’s going to take some getting used to.
At first Natasha is wary of being seen in public together. For all his assurances that he wasn’t tailed – that Fury, despite having the capability of finding them, has no real interest in doing so – she is who she is. The intentions and resources of Fisher’s patron on the Council are still a mystery, and even though Clint’s defection must be known by now, there’s no way of knowing how big of a target he’s made of himself.
Besides, if their position has been compromised, it’s better to know now, before they’re tempted to become complacent.
So the next few days are spent largely apart, as Natasha wanders through Frankfurt in full view of God and everyone, and he watches. He watches her, of course, but mainly he watches to see if she’s being followed. He watches the other rooftops for snipers. He watches the cops to see if they show any undue interest in a certain redheaded woman, because Lycaon’s influence may extend to suborning the local authorities. But he sees nothing suspicious, nothing that triggers his instincts; by the end of the day Natasha is all he can see, all he cares about, and she must also get something out of being the object of his focus because by the time they return – separately – to the apartment each night, they can’t keep their hands off each other.
Every part of her is endlessly fascinating to him, a combination of lithe youthfulness, hard-earned experience and athletic grace, and she knows how to use her body but she’s still learning what it means not to be used.
She hovers in a grey area between absolute carnal self-confidence and self-conscious uncertainty, and at first Clint really feels like the pressure is on, especially since he doubts his performance their first time together was anything to write home about. The next few times aren’t perfect either, but they’re still good, and eventually as he becomes more attuned to her body and her moods he’s able to tell when she wants to make love… and when she just wants him.
Which, frankly, does amazing things for his ego.
It’s not all roses, of course. He’s more content now than he’s been in a long time, and contentedness has a way of making him realize how much he has to lose. There are nights when, even physically exhausted, with Natasha pressed against his side, warm and sated, he has a hard time finding his way to sleep. The darkness is full of traps and pits and cruel laughter.
She struggles, as well. Clint’s never known her to suffer from nightmares or anxiety – which is truly remarkable when he considers the trauma she’s experienced in her short life – but now and then she’ll wake in the night, clammy and shivering, silent tears drying on her cheeks. He learns quickly that at times like this she doesn’t want to be touched, but she does want to know that he’s there, so he talks to her.
He talks about what he saw from his vantage above the city that day: the tourists, the traffic, the species of birds that shared his perch. He talks, sometimes without even listening to himself, because he knows the sound of his voice is more important than the words.
Eventually her breathing slows and her skin warms; sometimes she rolls over and goes back to sleep, and sometimes she pulls him against her and they bury the pain beneath the thrill of flesh and the rush of endorphins.
On the third day he thinks to check the dropbox and is dismayed but not surprised to learn of Fisher and Manesh’s escape. Two agents, Keve and Wright, and the pilot, Jeffers, are missing as well.
Natasha’s face goes very still and stern when he tells her; there is anger at SHIELD’s incompetence (or Lycaon’s influence) and frustration at justice delayed and denied, but also a glimpse of fear that scares the hell out of him.
That night she takes a long bath, returning to the bedroom only after he’s finished a chapter of L’Amour’s The Walking Drum and turned off the light. She pulls back the sheets and climbs in next to him, turned away and not quite touching. When he settles against her, back to front, hand resting chastely below the crook of her elbow, she doesn’t relax into his arms… but she doesn’t push him away, either.
When they begin to talk about the future, at first it’s only in the most general of terms. Their combined savings, stashed away over the years, won’t last forever. They’re both reluctant to leave Frankfurt, which has become a sort of haven from their many worldly concerns, but their options here are limited. There are few job openings relevant to their experience, after all, and any return to their old ways will make them an immediate focus of attention.
Clint knows he has an open invitation to set up shop in Nairobi, even without the mizingi suit, but Natasha’s expression clouds at his suggestion. This is not an indictment of Kenya; he knows she is still thinking of Fisher and Manesh, out there somewhere, rebuilding the Institute from the ashes with the help of their patron.
Certain names remain unspoken. Clint’s still not sure if Stark actually ‘vouched for’ Natasha, or if that was just an invention of Fury’s, to give him a reason for not arresting her. Even if he did there’s no guarantee that he meant it. As for the others, Clint is willing to take Steve Rogers at his word (how could he do otherwise, after everything that’s happened?) but he hardly knows Banner at all.
He hates the idea of showing up on Stark’s doorstep after going to such great lengths to avoid being collected, metaphoric hat in hand, asking if the Avengers have any use for an outed spy-assassin and an ex-SHIELD archer, slightly used.
On the fifth night they lie together on the sofa, ostensibly watching a bad German dub of The French Connection, although he’s had his hand up her shirt since Hackman’s first scene and she’s been toying with the fly of his jeans for about as long. It’s become an unspoken game to see what ends first: the movie or their self-control.
Clint’s not sure if it’s the repeated shots of New York or just the endless cycling of their unspoken thoughts that finally breaks the stalemate, but halfway through the car chase sequence she sits up, throwing one leg over his hips, pushing him down into the cushions as she straddles him. “I can’t…” she begins, brow furrowed as she pulls her t-shirt over her head, grinding down on his lap until his eyes are practically rolling back into his skull. “I can’t,” she says again, and he’s not exactly sure what she means, only what she doesn’t mean, because over the next half-hour she proves herself very capable of a multitude of things, all of which meet with his approval.
It’s only afterwards, when she’s collapsed against his chest, damp tendrils of hair hanging into her eyes, that she’s able to complete the thought. “I can’t walk away.” She says it with obvious reluctance, as though sharing with him some bleak prognosis, anticipating his objections, the way he reminded her that day in the Helicarrier: you’re a spy, not a soldier. Now you want to wade into a war.
His arms are around her, fingers mapping a path down her vertebrae, stroking the sweat-slick skin. They’ve been partners for more than five years; they’ve been together for only five days. He should have reservations about the next words to come out of his mouth, uncertainty of their suitability or her reception. But there’s no other way to say what he’s feeling, which is ‘I trust you’ and ‘you can walk anywhere as long as I can come too’ and ‘I’d never ask you to be anyone but who you are.’ He shrugs one shoulder. “Natasha… I love you.”
She looks down at him, not aghast at this admission, not dismissive or even discomfited, just… melancholy. Almost sorrowful. “I don’t expect you to…” he begins, and then changes his mind. “I understand. If you can’t say it right now.”
She lays one hand on his chest, fingers splayed across the muscle. “What if it takes me a long time?” she asks softly, lowering her eyes. “What if I can’t ever say it?”
He can’t say you will, because he doesn’t know that for sure. He can’t say you already have because that’s not quite true either, even if those words still echo in the chambers of his heart.
“You don’t have to say anything,” he tells her instead, covering her hand with his own, and that much is the truth… or at least as much truth as he can find words for right now.
On the seventh day, their last day in Frankfurt, they throw caution to the wind and decide to go out to dinner.
Together. In public.
It’s a little weird.
They’re armed, of course. Handguns, mostly, but also an assortment of knives, tasers and other sundry items that seem warranted for a night on the town when someone could, at any given moment, take a shot at them. (His bow is back at the apartment; it may be unparalleled in terms of control, finesse, and adaptability, but in close quarters it has its drawbacks.)
With no particular destination in mind, they spend some time simply wandering the streets in one of the posh neighborhoods north of the Main. There are businessmen and tourists and gangs of disaffected teenagers, but mostly there are couples. The sight of so many pairs walking, hands clasped and with such obvious affection for each other, makes Clint feel as though he’s been initiated into some exclusive club. He and Natasha may be less demonstrative in public, but he sees in the faces of the men around him the same bewildered cheerfulness that he encountered in the mirror this morning.
An hour or so after sunset they pass by one bustling establishment, obviously one of the hottest tickets in town. Fantastic aromas waft into the avenue, along with the buzz of conversation and the gentle plinking of piano keys; feeling spontaneous, Clint grabs Natasha’s hand and pulls her through the door.
She rolls her eyes at him, leaning close to be heard above the din of chatter and the rattle of silver on china as they step inside. “I bet this place has been booked for months. You should have brought the bow,” she says dryly, leaving the rest unsaid: if you want special treatment, be prepared to be Hawkeye.
He shrugs and grins as they approach the maître d's table. It’s manned by a young brunette woman who looks up with a studiously bland expression, taking in their clothes (even his slacks and her silk blouse mean they’re underdressed for a place like this) with a tiny wince.
When she registers their faces, however, everything changes. Her lipsticked mouth makes a crimson ‘o’ of surprise and she glances down at her ledger with a nervous flutter. “Good evening! We’ve prepared a private room… just this way…” she says, first in German and then, blushing, again in English, motioning for them to follow her across the parquet floor. A handful of exquisitely-garbed patrons, who probably had the good sense to make reservations weeks ago, watch them through slitted eyes.
Natasha looks at Clint suspiciously as they walk in the young woman’s wake, but he shakes his head in honest confusion and she grimly snaps open the fastenings of her purse. It seems unlikely that, not only has Lycaon discovered them, he intends to take them out in the middle of a crowded restaurant… but he still feels better knowing that she has one of her weapons within easy reach.
The hostess leads them to a set of engraved panel doors, opens them, and steps back. Clint sucks in a quick breath, prepared to drop to the ground at the first sight of danger (he’s never been too proud to scramble when his life’s on the line, and anyway, Natasha’s the better shot with a handgun) but the only figure to jump out at them is familiar, enthusiastic and, as far as Clint knows, impervious to bullets.
Thor scoops Clint into a one-armed hug, actually lifting him several inches off the floor – which is humiliating – and then does the same to Natasha before she can retreat out of his range. Back on her feet she stares openmouthed, first at the Asgardian and then at the other men who rise from their table in the center of the room as the hostess closes the doors behind her.
Rogers extends his hand; after a brief hesitation Clint accepts it, shakes it, finds himself returning the other man’s smile. Then he’s looking at Banner and shaking his hand, too, and saying something – he’s not even sure what, exactly – that Bruce shrugs off with a vaguely embarrassed, “Don’t mention it.”
And finally there’s Tony Stark. While the others, even Thor, are dressed respectably enough in button-down shirts and sports coats – although Banner’s looks just slightly rumpled – Stark wears dark jeans and a t-shirt thin enough to allow the light from his arc reactor to shine through. Definitely not on the restaurant’s dress code, Clint thinks… but then again, when you’re Tony Stark, maybe nobody really cares what you wear.
They look at each other for a moment – two strange cats sizing each other up – and then Stark grins aggressively. “Glad you made it. We just ordered appetizers.”
Thor, who’s already in conversation with Natasha – he’s gesticulating wildly and saying the words Jane and amazing a lot – looks up long enough to voice his unvarnished approval of appetizers.
Questions cycle through Clint’s mind with dizzying speed; he finally decides on the most pertinent: “How did you find us?”
Stark raises his eyebrows. “You have a cell phone.”
“Not your phone,” says Clint stubbornly. He’d left that thing in Rogers’ custody.
“So? It’s a phone,” says Stark slowly, as though he’s talking to a kindergartener. Clint must look worried – Natasha walks over, her brow furrowed – and Stark rolls his eyes. “Calm down. As far as anyone else is concerned, you two are off the grid.”
Natasha looks as doubtful as Clint feels, but at that moment a trio of servers arrives through a back door, weighed down with trays of silver platters and crystal goblets, and they take their seats.
The others were already settled at a rectangular table for six – three on each side – and when they reclaim their places there are only two empty chairs remaining. Clint ends up sitting on the end of one side, next to Banner, with Natasha across from him, to Rogers’ left.
Drinks are distributed, and the plates of appetizers – little pastries with spinach and cream cheese, shrimp dipped in something spicy and yellow, crispy crackers topped with mozzarella and basil – are almost empty before the startled servers can reach the door. “Just keep it coming, boys,” Stark tells them with a grandiose gesture.
Natasha curls her fingers around the stem of a wine glass but does not drink. “You couldn’t have known we would come here,” she insists.
“No,” agrees Banner, examining a cracker.
“We were going to call you…” Rogers begins.
Thor laughs around a mouthful of pastry. “Tony was unsure whether you would even care to leave the apartment,” he says, with a look in Clint’s direction that must be the Asgardian equivalent of a wink and a thumbs-up.
Clint glances at Natasha, surprised at the flush on her cheeks. Well, they have been spending a lot of time indoors the past couple of days, he allows, once they decided they hadn’t been followed. Of course, they had been followed, just not by whom they had expected, and he decides not to ask how long the others have been in town. Somehow the idea of Stark and the others tracking their movements, albeit remotely, while they’ve been… enjoying each other’s company… is a little off-putting.
Or maybe not. Maybe the color on Natasha’s face is less embarrassment and more the echo of desire. Their eyes meet and her smile is hidden behind the curve of her wineglass as she takes her first sip, and for a moment he’s captured by the memory of her mouth, fixated by the idea of tasting the wine on her lips…
“Hey!” Stark slaps his palm down on the tabletop, rattling dinnerware, making everyone jump and lean instinctively away from Banner. “No eye sex at the dinner table,” he admonishes them, and Rogers sputters into his water glass.
“Lets just say,” Stark continues, with a brief glower at Thor, who sits across from him, “that great minds think alike, and we’re all here, and we all more or less know who we are.” He raises his glass in an ironic toast. “Huzzah.”
Natasha tilts her head speculatively. “You helped us,” she says, her eyes flickering towards Clint and Rogers before returning to Stark.
“Yes…” acknowledges Stark, snagging the last shrimp with his fork, almost skewering Thor’s fingers in the process. Despite his studied nonchalance, he sounds slightly wary.
“Why?” Natasha asks, as brash as ever, and Clint suppresses a grin. God, I love her.
Now the others are looking at Stark too, as though as they’re as curious to hear the answer as Clint is. The man just shrugs, obviously uncomfortable, as though he’s not used to having his largess questioned – and he probably isn’t – and certainly not in that quiet, penetrating way Natasha has perfected.
The easiest, most acceptable answer, of course, would be ‘it was the right thing to do.’ That’s the answer Rogers and Banner would give, if Clint cared to press them, and he knows that Thor, had he been on Earth a week ago, would have been at their side as well, motivated by nothing more complicated than basic decency, or honor, or whatever they call it where he’s from.
But Tony Stark is a different animal altogether. He shrugs again, scowls as he realizes they’re still waiting for him to answer, and says in an offhand way, “I just figured us Avengers have to stick together.”
And suddenly he reminds Clint less of an avid collector and more of a pampered but unpopular schoolboy, eager to buy the friends he can’t seem to make, bribing his peers with Twinkies and baseball cards or whatever the hell schoolboys use as social currency these days.
Natasha nods, but she does not break eye contact with Stark. Her foot bumps against Clint’s beneath the table.
The look on her face at this moment is one he can’t quite identify. Maybe he’s never seen it before. It reminds him a little of how she looks when she’s asleep, after that veil has come down and subtlety changed her expression. He’s had ample opportunities this past week to watch her sleeping, but he still hasn’t come to any hard and fast conclusions.
Maybe he’s seeing the face of the woman she might have been, if her life had gone differently. Or maybe he’s getting a glimpse of who she’s becoming, instead.
“The Avengers,” says Stark again, and he is the first to look away, to look around the table at the rest of them. “All six of us.”
Banner smiles faintly. Thor beams.
Steve lifts his wineglass in a far less ironic toast. “To knowing who we are,” he says. “More or less.”
So, a few acknowledgements.
First off all, another huge thanks to Jamie, my awesome beta. Any errors that sneaked through into the final product are obviously my bad.
I have a little bit of a kink for stories about memory and personality and how they're all tied together. I'm not a comic book reader, but through fandom I've been able to learn just enough about the basics of Natasha's past to be dangerous. And of course, since we're talking about the movieverse, I'm sure I've taken some creative license.
Finally, a good bit of the plot was inspired by Emily Devenport's 1998 novel, Godheads, which was also the source of the name Aten.