Written for I_llbedamned, for the 2014 be_compromised "Remix" exchange. Her story, "Innocence" (on AO3 at .../works/1471507 - alas FFN will not allow the complete link), has Natasha reflect on her blood-stained past and the role Clint plays in her present. It ends with her recalling, "… the times when they just met in his shitty apartment and ate dinner together. The pain would just melt away into warmth. Maybe this was what innocence felt like." I liked the idea of Clint's place providing Natasha with an emotional anchor – so that's what I grabbed and ran with.
This story is a companion piece to "Safe House" and "Recurve". I had wanted to explore how the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Natasha's 'self-exposure', might play out with the ordinary people our heroes meet on occasion – again, I_llbedamned's idea of the ordinary apartment was a great takeoff point. (Note this is not the Hawkguy place in Brooklyn, but rather the one from my story "The Skies Over Manhattan", which I started to write long before I ever picked up a comic.)
Thanks are due to inkvoices and CloudAtlas for early brainstorming and cheerleading, and to CloudAtlas for the beta. All things considered, I own even less of this story than usual.
By Alpha Flyer
She glances across at the non-descript red brick building, not certain anymore what drew her to this part of Manhattan in the first place - or why she started playing with the key in her pocket, as soon as the smell of Chinese food assaulted her nostrils.
Nostalgia? Hardly. The Black Widow has been called many things, but nostalgic isn't one of them. It's true, of course, what they say about olfactory triggers, but the fact that a familiar smell opens the door to certain memories doesn't mean that you were looking for them to begin with.
Natasha is not even sure whether this part of New York has a name – not even one of those artificial ones, like TriBeCa, created by real estate agents to drive up prices. And Clint's apartment building, a five-story walk-up above a 24-hour Chinese takeout joint and next door to a men's spa, is not exactly a dream destination. The closest point of interest is Kalustyan's Armenian deli, a block down . (Maybe that's why she came here? To stock up on zereshk?)
Her attempts to come up with an acceptable rationalization for why she is here are sidetracked by the sight of that spa. Early in their partnership, she had dared Clint to get a pedicure there, on the basis that knowing what price he would put on his masculinity would provide useful building block intel for undercover ops.
To her consternation, the Vietnamese owner had greeted him with a warm hug, and proceeded to gush about a new nail polish - "The most marvelous new shade of purple! Called 'The Mauve Marauder'!" It was when Hawkeye had insisted on wearing flip-flops back to the apartment lest he ruin his nails, that she had finally understood the true meaning of the word troll. (Building block intel indeed.)
Shaking her head at the memory, Natasha inhales the scents wafting across the street – peanut oil and fried duck, with an overlay of garlic from the kebab place two doors down. What kind of olfactory kick in the senses would it take to get Barnes to remember, were Steve ever to catch up with him? A whiff of pickling brine from Little Odessa? Twentieth-century airplane fuel? Roll-your-own tobacco?
A yellow taxi slows down beside her, and the driver lowers the window. Natasha resists the urge to put her hand on the gun under her jacket.
She waves him off, irritated at the reminder that she has been standing on this corner rather a long time. Time to move on.
Move where, exactly?
Maria and Coulson are busy rebuilding something resembling S.H.I.E.L.D. from inside Stark Industries. Natasha is all in favour of privatizing global security, but the administrative details Hill is dealing with for now aren't exactly her thing.
Options are limited though, for a former spy whose image is still all over Fox and CNN. (Whoever thought fame was a good thing never tried to buy tampons, after starring in a two-hour special on What Is Wrong With America Today.) Her employment history has been trending on twitter for weeks (#communistspy and #Snowden2.0), but so far no calls. Probably a good thing.
That leaves … what?
She envies Clint, who'd been out of the country during HYDRA's emergence and just melted into the lengthening shadows. He's probably staying away from her so as not to compromise either of them – a smart decision and the right one, but that doesn't make Natasha resent him any less. His relative anonymity allows him to be hunting HYDRA remnants (Carter has been flipping her the reports, about mysterious deaths by unknown projectile); she doesn't have even that option right now.
Damn you, Barton.
Natasha grits her teeth, and acts on the decision she'd probably made long before ever coming here. As Clint would point out, sometimes it takes her a while to admit things, especially to herself.
She checks for traffic and heads across the street, ahead of a phalanx of yellow cabs.
The street-level entrance looks like it always has: chipped black paint; scuff marks where people's boots kicked it open; old scratches from an attempted B&E. It had ended rather badly for the punks looking for a back way to Chang's cash register; by the time Clint was done scaring them nearly to death, they'd been grateful to see the police cruiser.
Natasha briefly considers stopping by the takeout, to say hello to Chang and check if he's noticed anything unusual in or around the building. But she doesn't really want to see the expression on his face, now that he will know her for what she really is, and shrugs off the idea.
The front door opens easily enough – keys are useful things. She heads up the stairs, stopping briefly at each apartment door to check for uncommon noises. There are none. Vikas has his usual sitar music going; there could be a gang of armed HYDRA thugs behind the door, you'd never know. Thy Anh's dog barks up a storm at the sound of Natasha's feather-light steps on the stairs - who needs a sophisticated alarm system, when you can pick up a free mutt at a shelter? Pablo and Michael's place is as quiet as you would expect; they are rarely there during the daytime.
She mentally ticks off the names, one by one, until she gets to the top. No sign of forced entry; all of the S.H.I.E.L.D.-installed security systems are seemingly undisturbed. Except …
There is no hair.
Clint Barton is an archer in the age of AIs and repulsor technology and while he is perfectly comfortable with the latest in Stark nano-tech, he has an undeniable soft spot for the old-fashioned. Among his many retro tics is one the oldest in the book: leaving a hair at the top of the door. He tends to use one of Natasha's, for length, especially since she has started keeping a brush in his bathroom.
The hair is gone, although the system remains armed.
Of course. Sitwell knew where Clint lived, as did people in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Personnel, Accommodations and Finance departments. Who knows how long ago the coding for these locks had been compromised.
Natasha runs the mini-sniffer across the door – nothing, no booby-trap – and looks at her crypto key. If entered wrongly, the security systems used by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in their homes will set off an alarm at headquarters (used to, anyway…) lead to an unpleasant death, or both.
A thought strikes her: Would the intruders have taken the time to reset the encryption sequence? They're centrally controlled and S.H.I.E.L.D. is gone, so chances are not. She pulls out her gun, in case of live enemies in the other side of the door, and takes a deep breath.
Phew. No booby traps then – at least that's something.
Clint's place is small; it takes a single glance to establish that whoever had been in here is long gone. What is still there, though, is the evidence of their passing. They were thorough.
For the first time since Nick Fury's not-death, since Alexander Pierce took aim at the world she had sworn to protect and a bunch of well-fed white men tried to tell her that it had all been for naught, Natasha feels like letting out a scream of rage.
Clint doesn't have much in the way of possessions and with those he has, he tends to be near-military neat. Within limitations, of course: he keeps his dishes in the dishwasher on a permanent basis ("Keeps them out of the way, plus clean!") and has a serious blind spot when it comes to fletching supplies and the New York Times. But right now, everything he does own, is on the floor.
They must have been here during the day, when the tenants one floor down weren't around to hear the sound of china hitting tile in the kitchenette. Every drawer, every cupboard has been emptied of its contents, and all the pillows ripped open. The upholstery on both couches has been slashed and a sea of CDs and books lies under toppled shelves. Even the few pictures Natasha had made Clint buy hang crooked, or have been torn off the walls entirely.
Arrowheads are strewn all over the coffee table, seemingly random to all but the untrained eye, but sorted in patterns visible only to Clint Barton and the woman who spent years watching him. The visitors did not bother with those – maybe they found them distasteful? The irony is not lost on Natasha. Whoever had done this, then, wasn't looking for evidence that these arrows had been used to kill; that they already knew.
The computer is gone, of course. The relentless search was probably carried out to locate a non-existent USB stick, or anything else that might contain Hawkeye's HYDRA hit list, or an indication of just how he locates his targets. Clint's personal little war against the rats that scattered when Pierce's helicarriers went down must be having an effect. Natasha may be the public face of the Organization Formerly Known As S.H.I.E.L.D., but Clint has his own way to attract enemies.
Way to win friends, Barton.
Her gaze sweeps over the little table beside the kitchenette, where Clint would often deposit takeout containers like hunting trophies, and comes to a halt on the couch.
It's hard to believe that this sad remnant, upholstery slashed in several places and oozing stuffing like alien blood, is the same piece of furniture on which she'd slept through countless movies.
She had almost bolted, the first time that had happened. The Red Room had made it very clear to its creations, that falling asleep in the presence of another was … a mistake, tantamount to death. Punishment was immediate, and severe.
Clint's own response, by comparison, had been anti-climactic: "Hey, wake up, Romanoff. Ghostbusters is a fucking classic!" Two missions later, it had happened again. And then, again and again …
Sometimes, those lapses in judgment would be triggered by a foot massage (the price she extracted from Clint for doing his paperwork); other times by pure, post-mission exhaustion. But eventually, it had all came down to a single, simple truth: safety.
Natasha can feel a twist in her gut now as she stares at the ruined couch, as if someone had laid her bare and twisted the knife. People in their line of work should expect this sort of thing, of course and frankly, between Clint's checkered past and his work for S.H.I.E.L.D., it's a bit of a miracle that no one had ever tried to blow his place up before now.
And yet …
Irrationally glad that she is wearing combat boots, Natasha strides across the room to the kitchenette. She picks up the shitty little Formica table Clint had 'rescued' from a curb in Harlem and sets it right side up, then uses her boots to sweep the shards around the dishwasher into one pile. (Did they really think he'd keep files on the HYDRA diaspora in the cutlery rack?)
Her feet are a lot less efficient than a broom might be, of course, but kicking the pieces around is oddly satisfying. It makes a lot of noise, too – so much that she almost doesn't hear the knock on the door. Almost.
Instantly on alert, Natasha pulls out her Glock and trains it on the entrance. The voice is wavering a little, but obviously trying to project a challenge.
"Clint? That you, man? Everything okay in there?"
One of the downstairs tenants. She recognizes the voice, through the overlay of bravado. Natasha heads for the door, gun still in hand, throws the deadbolt and steps back, ready to unleash hell.
The door swings open and a man in his mid-thirties steps through, slowly and carefully, carrying a well-used baseball bat. They've met before, in the hallway and a couple of times over Chinese takeout. Despite his supposed lone wolf tendencies, Clint can be surprisingly gregarious; the eclectic mix of people in his building has always been more his speed than the sort you would find in the S.H.I.E.L.D. cafeteria.
Michael Thompson reminds Natasha of a slightly squishier version of Sam Wilson - a former college athlete, softened by the temptations of middle-class life. The man's well-cut suit stands in stark contrast to the baseball bat in his hands.
Natasha relaxes and holsters her gun; her visitor lowers the bat in turn. He takes in the destruction over her shoulders and makes a hissing sound between his teeth.
"Holy shit, what happened here? And where's Clint?"
"Burglars," Natasha replies tersely, unwilling to go into the second question, and not entirely certain whether she should comment on the bat. It's the thought that counts - what is amazing, is that he has come upstairs at all.
"I assume you guys didn't hear anything when it happened?"
Michael shakes his head. "I was in Albany on a case all this week," he explains. "Just got back now. Pablo's still at work."
He seems determined to come in, and so Natasha steps aside and lets him pass.
"I hope Clint is okay," Michael says; interestingly, his tone suggests that he doesn't really expect an answer. "Haven't seen or heard anything of him for weeks. Not that that's unusual, but after the shit that went down in Washington..."
He lets the statement trail off and gives Natasha a questioning glance. "I assumed you were both caught up in that, especially after I saw you on TV."
Natasha gives a shrug so brief that it almost qualifies as a nod. No point denying it, is there? Michael strikes her as a man who can add one plus one, and arrive at two. Besides, all he has to do to answer his own question is to spend five minutes on Google. He probably already has.
"I haven't seen him for a while myself, but yes, I have reason to believe Clint is okay."
Her hand travels to the chain around her neck almost of its own volition. Michael's sharp eyes don't miss the gesture, but they don't linger on the arrow pendant, either. He looks around the apartment once more, taking in the torn-up couch, the mess in the kitchenette and the blankets half-hanging off the platform under the ceiling.
"I'll be back," he says resolutely. "You need help here."
Natasha is tempted to ward him off, to tell him that she doesn't need anything, but Michael has already turned on his heels and is heading downstairs, leaving the door ajar. True to his word, he shows up a few minutes later, now in jeans and an I HEART NYC t-shirt, and carrying a broom, a dustpan and a handful of black garbage bags.
"Clint doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who owns a broom," he explains. "And you, pardon me for saying so, don't look much like a maid. I, on the other hand, can use some exercise. So let's do this."
There really isn't much to say in response to that. Truth be told, Natasha finds that she actually welcomes the company, and cleaning up is probably more constructive than giving already damaged dishes the kung-fu treatment.
For a while they work silently, side by side – Michael sweeping and bagging, Natasha putting things that aren't broken vaguely back where they belong. Good thing Clint isn't one of those people who alphabetize their CDs.
She doesn't ask her helper the obvious question, mostly because she's not sure she would like the answer. But eventually, her curiosity gets the better of her.
"Why?" she says, just as Michael is briskly tying off a black garbage bag and carrying it to the front door. "Why are you here, helping me? After all that's been out there in the news..."
Michael's eyes narrow for a moment as he considers his answer.
"I'm a New Yorker," he says when he finally responds, as if that explains everything. It doesn't, though. Natasha understands debts better than many, but surely this one was wiped out by subsequent betrayals.
"Manhattan?" she says, "That was a long time ago, Mike. According to the laws of the United States, Clint and I are officially criminals."
Michael shakes his head, slowly and deliberately.
"Look. I'm a lawyer," he says. "I work for the DA's office. So I'm reasonably familiar with the law, but I also know a bit about truth and justice, and guilt and innocence. And believe me, sometimes there's a remarkable difference between those things, and an Act of Congress."
Natasha isn't entirely sure what he is getting at, and frowns her question. Michael forges on.
"Here. Let me give you an example."
He holds up his left hand, and points at the wide, matte-gold band that shimmers on his dark skin.
"Here in New York, Pablo and I are legally married. But we go down South, and the law tells us we're not. In Africa, there's places where we could be lawfully executed, just for being in a relationship. I don't need a law telling me who and what I am, and what I know to be right."
He points at the arrowheads on the coffee table.
"And I don't need the law to tell me who and what you are, either. You guys – you and Clint, Stark and those others? You saved this city. That's all the truth I need."
He drops the garbage bag on the landing, where it joins several others, closes the door and turns back to her.
"You guys can do things that people like me can't, but that need doing. I saw the way you looked at my baseball bat, and you're right. I'd be a joke, trying to help you do your job, so I hope you'll go right on doing it. But I can do this."
He looks around the little apartment; there's another couple of hours of work here, at least.
"Pablo will be home soon. I'm sure he'll lend a hand. In the meantime, do you have a sheet we could stick on the couch, so people can sit on it till you can get it fixed?"
Three hours later, Michael and his husband have disappeared downstairs. They left with the number for Pepper Potts' direct line. ("And if you notice anything, promise you call, don't go up for a look – they'll either be pros, or have a warrant.") It will make them feel useful, and that's a good thing.
Clint's place looks almost normal again now, including the array of takeout containers from Chang's downstairs on the table. The slashes in the couch are covered tightly with a dark blue sheet donated by Pablo, on the basis that Clint probably wouldn't appreciate white. And following a quick phone call to Maria Hill, the codes on the door have been changed, and re-routed into JARVIS' security system.
Natasha is done for the night.
She could go back to Stark … Avengers Tower, of course. There's a beautiful, clean apartment (no, floor) waiting for her, with a bed that doesn't require a rope ladder to get into it. The place also comes with round-the-clock security, and backup in the form of Ironman.
It has everything she needs.
But it doesn't have what she wants.
Maybe nothing does, anymore. Steve might have an answer to that, but he's off somewhere with Sam, chasing shadows of his own.
Tomorrow, she'll go back to the Tower. Maybe she'll take one of those framed photos, and have the broken glass replaced. Ansel Adams' Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico, perhaps? Clint might like to have something from his place, when he finally decides it is safe to join her; he'll certainly get the joke.
For now, though, there's something else.
The cushions are all in the dumpster in the alley behind Chang's, and so Natasha heads for Clint's closet. She pulls out one of his old hoodies, rolls it up and sticks it in the corner of the battered couch. It smells of him, a little, but she quickly suppresses that thought. No matter. With her Glock underneath, it makes a passable pillow.
And with any luck, she will sleep soundly tonight.