Written for the be_compromised Valentine's Day Promptathon – more specifically for franztastisch, and her prompt Clint and Natasha are drifters on the railroads.
The time is the winter of 1936-37. Because I said that I'd never write an A/U; because I just returned from a trip to a dust bowl of a country; and because Springsteen's Thunder Road came up on my playlist today and gave me a title that cried out for a story.
Like the characters in this story, I may marvel but I own nothing. The icon is by inkvoices.
Show a Little Faith
(There's Magic in the Night)
By Alpha Flyer
He can feel the train coming. Even with the hills obscuring the telltale smoke, the vibrations in the tracks sing the truth, right through what remains of the soles of his boots and his near-frozen feet.
Clint lets out a long, slow breath and wiggles his stiff finger tips, to loosen them up before they have to grip and hold. Two minutes, at best, and that train will come round the bend, slowing just enough to even the odds that he'll end up under its wheels. (He's seen it happen, more than once, and it's an ugly sight; the sounds are worse).
The last had been Charlie Magee, just this morning. He'd been something like friend, for a few hours anyway. Charlie had shared his fire and a tin of stew in exchange for Clint's story, a smoke and a demonstration of Clint's skills with the bow. Too old, too slow, too weak to really hang on, that'd been Charlie in the end. Maybe he'd gone all too willingly. The memory of the old man's scream cut short and the sound of his bones being crushed settles in Clint's gut like another chill.
But it doesn't stop him, doesn't paralyze him – no, quite the opposite. What it does instead, is to make everything around him sharper, more defined, like a frosty morning on the plains; it slows time for him, too. It's a familiar feeling, almost like a buzz. Danger, he's found, does that to him (for him), like a drug or a magic potion. He lets it wash over him and tingle through his veins, adjusts the tattered pack and the bow and quiver on his back so they're clear of his arms, and gets ready to jump.
There it comes, the train - clattering around the bend, the puff of smoke and the sharp whistle giving extra oomph to Clint's heartbeat as he starts running along the track. The train overtakes him, becomes like a fortress wall beside him as he runs and waits for the opening that he's sure will come. That has to come.
Four cars, eight, eleven… Clint loses count until finally, there it is: the crack he's been looking for, the door that will allow him to move on to the next place, wherever that is.
One long jump and he hangs from the handle at the side, thank God for those fingerless gloves. They'd been the last gift of Charlie Magee's, after Clint had pulled the old man's broken body away from the tracks that killed him. (He hadn't had the stomach to get on the killer train and Charlie needed looking after proper; wouldn't nobody else do for him out here, would they, nor know his story.) The leather of those gloves grips the frozen steel far better than Clint's hands could on their own.
Now his feet have found purchase, too, and he clings to the side of the train for a moment, to find his breath and look at the angles. Clint uses one foot to push at the door, again and again until it slides further open with a reluctant groan. He swings himself inside, rolling and cursing as the quiver digs into his back, twisting to avoid the bow being crushed.
"Fuck," he spits out, but already it's better in here than outside, no more of that sharp wind biting his face and the breathing is easier too.
A cattle car, he decides, empty right now but there's straw on the floor. Good – extra warmth for when he'll sit down; that counts. The smell reminds him of the farm, back before the bank came for it in the winter of '30 and his father drove the family truck into the Cedar River, right through the ice. He almost laughs at the thought of cow shit standing in for the one thing that was good in his life, before everything went to hell.
Clint gets himself upright – not so easy, what with nothing to hold onto and the train rattling on uneven tracks – and pulls the door completely shut against the bitter wind. No point letting anyone else in, or signaling to the railroad people in whatever town the train passes through that there's someone inside, hitching a ride.
It should be dark in the car but it isn't, not entirely. The slats aren't entirely tight, and the light shines in from the outside just enough. And then he sees it – movement in the corner, accompanied by the scrabble of hands, the sliding sound of a body moving further into the shadows.
His first instinct is to reach for his bow, but here on the rails, under the Dakotas' open skies, chances are that person in the cattle car isn't the law. More likely it's another drifter like himself or like Charlie Magee – just another life uprooted by the betrayals of the moneymen out East and the years of drought and dust in the heartland.
Of course, with people everywhere living hand to mouth it pays to be wary; desperation brings men to take what isn't theirs (and women to sell what no one should take). Clint knows that better than most, it's what drove him away from Carson's and the Swordsman, and Barney … because if there's something he won't stand for, it's people taking from those who have nothing.
In the darkness, Clint sees a glint of steel. So that's how it will be?
He's ready for strife, as ready as he was the day he put an end to his brother in that fight that almost killed him, too. He shrugs his shoulders a little to move the bow off it and pulls an arrow from his quiver in a single, fluid motion, ready to deal death.
But Charlie Magee had shared with him what little he'd had - his last supper on Earth - just last night, and so Clint decides to pay it forward, stupid as that may be. He nocks his arrow, but gives the shadow the benefit of the doubt.
"Hey," he says. "Friends, if you want. No need for violence."
Still, there's no sound but breathing from the corner, and he pulls the bowstring a bit tighter. His eyes are sharp, always have been, and are getting accustomed quickly to the relative dark. And so he sees what makes him blink: the person in the shadows is small, a child maybe.
No. Not a child.
A stray ray of light from the late afternoon sun catches hair that's long, and wavy, and as red as old Charlie Magee's blood on those cursed tracks.
"You're a girl," he says, but keeps his bow trained.
"A woman, last time I looked," comes the voice, warm and smoky, with a lilt that speaks of faraway places. "Don't make me kill you. I have a knife."
He almost laughs at her audacity.
"Fancy that," he says. "And here I thought it was me, about to be killin' you."
"With what?" she scoffs. "A piece of wood and a string?"
So she has sharp eyes too. Worth noting. But he won't let her insult his bow.
"Don't let looks fool you," he says. "I can hit a sparrow at five hundred feet with that." He's not sure what makes him add the next thing though. Pride? "In the eye."
"Oh dear," she says, and he can feel her move. "I'm so scared."
The knife flashes, and he lets go of the arrow, knocking it out of the air and into the straw. He's got a second arrow ready to fly before she can come closer, before she's finished cursing the effect of the first arrow in a language he doesn't understand.
"Don't make me kill you, lady," he says. "I already watched someone die today. I ain't got no appetite for any more death, but I'm ready for it if you are."
The woman spreads her fingers in what looks like surrender, although her eyes – he can just see the green glint – are anything but meek. She doesn't say anything else though, and so he adds, "I promise I won't ask nothin' of you that you're not willing to give. I'm not that sort."
She lets out a breath, and a little snort.
"You'd be the first."
"Well, it's up to you if I'm also the last," he says and lowers the bow a little. "Deal?"
She hesitates a little, takes his measure with those enormous green eyes. She's beautiful, he can tell now that his eyes are used to the dark. Younger than he is, but definitely no child.
"Deal," she finally nods, and he thinks he can tell that she means it.
"Name's Clint," he offers, the thing that costs nothing because it's worth nothing. "Clint Barton."
"Natasha Romanoff," she says and he likes her voice when she says it. There's a slightly exotic roll in the 'r'.
"That doesn't sound very American," he says, but he puts a smile in his voice when he does. Some of the best people he's met on the journey have been from far away, Chinese and German, Ukrainian and … "Sounds Russian, actually. Are you? Russian, I mean?"
She's crawled back into her corner, and he notices the blanket she's spread around herself. It's small, smaller than his own, and she's shaking with the cold it hasn't been able to take away.
"I was," she says. "Until the Bolsheviks took over my family's … home and killed them all. Except me. I was four. A relative took me to New York and I've been here ever since."
There's a story here, Clint can just smell it. Stories are currency, everyone can give or get one, and no debt owed; your story is what keeps you alive in a world that forgets those who don't matter, like an act of defiance. He'd told his to Charlie the night before, for a bowl of mystery stew and a place by a fire he didn't have the matches to set himself. A good deal it was, too, for both of them: he got warm and fed, and Charlie died knowing who was running beside him for that train. (Who'd take his body off the tracks if he didn't make it.)
Clint smiles now at Natasha, tilts his head, to see if this girl knows about the trade, knows how it works, here on the rails. Apparently she does.
"So what's the story with the bow?" she asks, and it's the opening to them not being strangers, to travelling side by side for a while, sharing the road when there's nothing else.
"Circus," he says.
And then he tells her about how his parents died, six years ago now, and him and Barney finding a place with Carson's Travelling Wonders. How funny it is, even in the times of the greatest want and need, people will always find a penny to see the latest marvel, or gawk at some skill – anything that'll make them forget about the hardships for a night. How his name had become Hawkeye, the World's Greatest Marksman, and how he had the crowds clapping and shouting his name.
How Barney had taken his fame badly, him being stuck with the work of a roustabout. How his brother had taken up with the Swordsman, stealing and lying to Carson, taking the pennies that belonged to them all and when Clint had called him on it …
He stops here and changes the topic, tells instead how he's been putting himself through doing solo tricks since, in towns where they'll still pay a penny to see The Amazing Hawkeye knock marbles off the heads of scarecrows, or put arrows into doors in the shape of hearts and diamonds.
Of course, Clint is hoping she'll give him her story in return, now that he's let her live. But she doesn't, not yet, anyway, and he doesn't push.
"You know where this one's going?" he asks after a while. No need to specify what he means – the train of course, that thing separating them from the world outside. He thinks he doesn't care but he knows he should, because who knows what's waiting at the end of the journey.
"North," she says, the word falling like a cloud from her lips into the cold air, hanging between them for the briefest of moments. "To Winnipeg. Canada."
Canada. Shit. That means customs, and inspections, and Lord knows what other things that can stop a man's movement as easy as a bullet to the chest. Clint files through the various run-ins he's had with the law, checks if any one of them might have put him on someone's arrest on sight list.
Not yet, he concludes. No way can anyone have pinned Barney's death on him – they're brothers, after all, and he didn't use his bow and arrows, thank God for that foresight, and Barney's hands will show he died in a fight. But even if they could, one dead carnie with a history of violence and grand larceny would likely be of no interest to the police. Hell, they'd probably cheer.
The woman watches him through veiled eyes, seemingly reading him like a book.
"I heard them talking in Sioux Falls," she says, as if she's discussing the weather. "With prohibition not being an issue anymore, trains go right through the border, non-stop. Customs won't come aboard till Winnipeg. You'll be just fine if you get off before they come on."
Huh. He looks at her again, her face a pale shadow in the dark, her eyes huge. Maybe she isn't as small and as fragile as he first thought. She's certainly smart.
"Thanks," he says, and means it.
"Me too," Natasha says then, "I'll be getting off too before they come on."
There's something in her tone that tells him she might be ready to tell her own story, now that she knows most of his and has probably guessed the rest. But first she hauls out a heel of bread and a wedge of cheese, soft not hard, both fresh. He looks at her questioningly, but she shakes her head.
"Don't ask," she says, and he doesn't. Those things are worth … Well.
They eat in silence – the best meal Clint has had in days, and that's counting Charlie Magee's stew, although it may be the company more than the quality of the food.
As it turns out she has matches and so he fills his Colman pot – the one he won in that shooting contest in Cedar Rapids - with what remains in his water flasks, drops the last of his roadside herbs in it and lets her light his little paraffin candle. Night has fallen outside, but the warmth from the light and the tea makes the rail car almost cozy as Natasha starts on her own story.
Uncle Ivan, it turns out, wasn't as selfless as he'd made out when he whisked little Natasha across the ocean. He gave her an education at first, to make her into something classy like she was born to. But as soon as she'd turned fifteen and pretty he'd started grooming her for his snazzy bar, the Red Room. Taught her to dance, how to throw knives to look dangerous and mysterious, and how to please the customers.
Clint knows where this is going and he doesn't ask questions, lets her tell him as much as she wants, not pushing when she stops. But somewhere in the telling they end up sitting side by side, and he covers them both with his blanket and hers and it feels good, the warmest he's been since … well, in a long time.
"I killed him and then I ran away," Clint hears her whisper and he puts his arms around her shoulder.
"It's okay," he says even though it isn't, not really, but sometimes you say things because they need to be heard, not because they're true. And then he tells her about Barney, and she nods her understanding.
"It's okay," she says, too, and puts her head on his shoulder.
They both doze off for a while, waking up when the train slows down for the border. There are voices outside but Natasha is right, there's no inspection and the train picks up speed again quickly enough.
They're in Canada now, and that's not a bad thing at all. They haven't seen the Amazing Hawkeye here, so maybe there's some prospects.
"Time to go soon?" he asks a couple of hours further into Manitoba, and Natasha nods. Somehow in the night - he's not sure when or how or by whom – it seems to have been decided that they're travelling together, and that means decisions are made jointly.
The train is slowing down now – must be getting close to the Winnipeg freight yard – and now's as good a time as any to get off. In the yard itself, some weisenheimer or other will likely check the cars for unwanted passengers and raise a stink they don't need.
Clint slides the door open, bracing himself for the ice-cold air that he knows will come blowing in. Fuck. Next time they hitch a ride across a border it'll be south, Mexico-way, for sure. Not that there's any better job prospects there, but at least you don't freeze your ass off while you starve.
They seem to be way outside of the city as yet – no sign of civilization, just endless flat land, hard and brown. Ass-of-freakin'-nowhere, and isn't Canada supposed to be covered with snow this time of year? (Fucking drought, it's everywhere, like that biblical plague. Next thing you know, there'll be four funky-looking guys on horses galloping alongside the train.) Anyway, it's too early to jump; no shelter anywhere in sight and the air is bitter.
"We better wait until there are at least some houses or farms." Natasha seems to have read his mind. But then she takes a good look outside and goes all quiet; Clint does too, and no need to tell each other why.
Outside, the big prairie sky is suddenly alive with … something marvelous and strange and beyond wonderful. Waves of light, pulsating like parade ribbons, controlled by unseen hands - greens and blues, and the occasional flash of reddish purple around the edges. It comes and goes but never stops, and the air feels electric.
"What the hell is that?"
Clint breathes, afraid that talking might upset whatever force is playing out there, and maybe attract its attention to him in an unpleasant way. Natasha remains silent for a moment, her eyes following the play of the light in the black velvet sky.
"Those are the Northern Lights," she finally says, her voice filled with awe. "Also known as the aurora borealis."
Clint hasn't had much chance at an education himself, growing up on the farm, but he knows an interesting word when he hears one and wants to know it. He likes to learn.
"Aurora what?" he asks, looking expectantly at Natasha and admiring her face, which looks downright magical now, bathed in the soft blue-green light. She's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen, and his heart clenches for a moment at the thought that she seems to have picked him to travel with, for a ways at least, after all that men have done to her.
"Aurora borealis," she says. "Aurora is the Roman Goddess of the Dawn. Not sure what borealis stands for, but I'd like to think that it's named after Bor, the first of the Norse gods. Father to Odin and grandfather of Thor, the God of Thunder."
Clint hasn't heard of any of these people, but he likes the sound of the latter.
"Thor," he says, rolling the name around in his mouth for a bit. "Could use a little thunder and lightning on the prairies. Stop all that goddamn dust and let people live properly again. Does the light mean that change might be coming?"
"I'm not sure," she says. "I don't think it has anything to do with the weather."
"Shame," Clint replies. But it sure is beautiful to look at, and suddenly he doesn't mind the cold blowing in from the open door so much anymore. "Even just snow would be good right about now."
"It'll come," she says, and the conviction in her voice makes his head turn. "It has to. Nothing lasts forever, not even the bad times and the dust."
Clint wishes she were right, that the drought they've all been living with and that he's been carrying inside him for what seems like years would end some day, someday soon. He wants to tell her that but she stops him with a look, and with a cool, soft finger on his lips.
"Show a little faith," she says. "We already know there are monsters out there. Why couldn't there be magic, too?"
Clint doesn't know how it happened, or which one of them made the first move, but next thing he knows she's in his arms and they're kissing, deep and urgent, tongues touching and clouds of hot breath mingling in the cold air. One of Natasha's hands reaches into his coat; she's tugging on his shirt and that's permission, surely, for him to start exploring her body with his own hands in turn.
The open railcar heats up despite the winter chill blowing in; the sounds of the tracks fade to nothing, drowned out by the drumming of his heart and the soft moans she makes into his mouth.
But the occasional man-made light is starting to flash past outside, and Clint knows that time – for now – is running short, that they will have to finish what they started some other time. (He has no doubt that they will and neither does Natasha; he can read the truth of it in her face.)
Puffs of smoke are coming from the chimneys of some of the houses; at least a few people here have things left to burn. They won't have much else; the hard times are strangling Canada as well, but the sight feels like a start of sorts to Clint. And now, those magical lights from earlier have begun to give way to clouds, and softly falling snow.
Somehow, all of this is starting to add up to something Clint hasn't felt in a long time, and it's almost like he's been given wings or something. He wants to put a name to it (hope?) but there's no time for that just now. The houses are getting ever closer together and the train is starting to slow down.
It's time to move on.
The rail yard must be coming close; somewhere up front the engineer gives one of those long whistles that can trigger nightmares or provide a measure of comfort, depending on how your life is going. All things considered, it sounds good to Clint right now.
"Ready?" he asks, and Natasha nods. He reaches for her hand and she gives it willingly; it's warm and small, but surprisingly strong.
They take the jump.