Barney had let the house fall into… not ruin, but at least at the crossroads between the owner becoming a cat lady or a hoarder. Clint spent the evening getting it sorted. Just kick-the-tires stuff. Vacuumed the floors, got the water heater lit, the vents changed in the AC. Little things Barney was too lazy to bother with. Steve pitched in for the same reason Clint had: took his mind off things. Clint thought they were working in companionable silence, Steve chopping the wood and him getting out of the way when it went flying, when Steve opened up.
"I saw Peggy."
Clint hadn't asked. This was why he and Natasha worked well together. But Clint supposed there were worse people than him to have a come-to-Jesus with Captain America.
"Mixed blessing," he said gently. "My parents… I can't even remember what their voices sounded like."
Steve shook his head. "I've never forgotten. What I remembered—what she made me remember—was what I'd hoped for. The war being over. Going home."
"The war is over. And I kinda thought you were home."
Another shake. "Naïve of me, I guess. Going home again, after war… like stepping into the same river twice. And Peggy, I don't even know if it would've worked out. She seems happy with the life she led. Maybe she wouldn't have been with me." Clint stepped out of the way as another swing of Steve's axe exploded the log he'd hit. He thought he caught a glimpse of one half speeding toward the next county. "Hit it wrong," Steve said apologetically.
Clint picked up the one that had landed nearby, tossing it into the pile. "No point dwelling on the past, Steve. That's what the witch wants you to do."
"Not much past to dwell on." Clint set up another log. "Father who wasn't much good at it. Mother who wasn't much good at stopping him. You've met my brother." He stepped back, but Steve didn't swing. "Joining the military seemed easier than finding a circus to run away to. Never worried about coming home. Didn't have one to go back to."
"That's not your fault. It's mine."
Clint glanced at him. "Split the damn log, Cap."
"SHIELD was supposed to be my home and I ripped it apart. Why? Because it didn't measure up to the SSR?"
"Because it was full of HYDRA. You can't fix rotten meat."
"Maybe. That's what I did. Not sure it's why I did it."
Clint reached out for the axe, which Steve let him take. "Steve, you're literally agonizing over taking out a spy agency that was a good percentage Nazi. And you worry you're not a good guy?" He swung. Split the log. "Next you're gonna tell me you felt sorry for socking Adolf in the jaw."
"Never actually did that."
"Shit, Mythbusters should get on that."
"I'm owning it." Steve sat down, taking a bit of a break, just stacking up logs for Clint to hack at. Probably didn't need the break. Probably just thought Clint needed to hit something with an axe.
He was right.
"What about the Avengers?" Steve asked.
"I like it," Clint said. "It's brassy, it's sassy, it's a musical humdinger."
Steve ignored the humor; Clint reminded himself to leave the one-liners to Stark. "Kinda wonder if I'm pulling the team apart. Holding Tony's feet to the fire, now this thing with Bruce… I don't know how to hold us together. If I should."
"This a long-winded way of telling me you don't need a guy who shoots arrows to back up the God of Thunder?"
"No, you keep Nat from getting annoyed and killing us all. You're important."
"Oh, good." Another log bit the dust. Steve was able to catch the halves as they flew, which Clint hated that he was impressed by.
"Something Tony said to me earlier—that the reason we fight is to end the fight and go home. And that's not what I'm doing. I'm fighting just to fight. Like I don't know any better or something."
"That isn't reason enough?"
Steve busied himself setting the firewood on his lap, ready to put them on the stack when they were done. "Guy wears a flag all over himself, he should be fighting for it. Maybe I don't know this country anymore. Waking up after all this time—I might as well have taken a trip to Norway, started fighting for him."
"Ask me, this country doesn't know you anymore. That's the real problem. Helps, having you to remind people."
Steve smiled shyly. "Think we've got enough firewood."
"Yeah, we should stop while there's still a forest."
Steve got up, dumping and rearranging his armful of logs onto the stack. "All I'm saying is that maybe instead of whining that we don't have a home, we should be building a new one."
"The people in the Avengers."
Clint shrugged. "Worked for Bruce, I guess."
"Worked for you, too."
Clint gave him a look. "Have you seen my apartment? It has less décor than yours does, and I've lived there five years."
"Home doesn't have to be a place, Clint. Like I said, I lost mine a long time ago. But if I had to do it all over again, the only thing I'd change would be telling her what she was to me a whole hell of a lot sooner."
"Language," Clint said.
Clothes grimy, flesh sweaty, skin still glowing with the sun's heat, Clint went inside to the refreshing coolness, the comparative darkness, making a B-line for the bathroom. Bruce was there, waiting. Looking more himself with his glasses on and his hair combed.
"I unclogged the downstairs toilet if you're interested," Clint said.
"Waiting on the shower. Natasha's in there. Just like she was two hours ago."
"So use the one outside," Clint said, and opened the door to the bathroom.
Bruce averted his gaze and made a half-hearted grab for Clint, which he thought better of, before Clint had stepped inside and shut the door behind him. This wasn't the his-and-her bathroom of the master bedroom, but a simple cubicle of the size you might find in a motel. Half a shower/bath enclosed in pebble glass, half toilet facing sink and mirror. The water rattled and buzzed inside the enclosure, the sliding door partially open, too wide not to look.
Natasha stood leaning against the mold-encrusted linoleum, both hands pressed into the tiles to hold her up as the shower spray beat down on her. Her body a slyph's, neatly muscled, but you could fool yourself she was soft. Scars were measured in plains of smoothness where the plastic surgeons had been to work, tiny mismatches in her skin tone and spotting them was like looking at paint samples. The difference between floral white and seashell white.
In the time he'd known her, she'd taken more scars, had more operations, but her skin had already been a patchwork when he'd met her. He knew the story of some of those not-scars, but there were plenty more that he didn't know about, didn't ask about, and she didn't offer.
"I fixed the water heater good, but not that good."
Her head turned, slightly. Eyes shooting through the gap in the door like she'd left it open on purpose, which he doubted. Teasing him, challenging him—seeing if he'd buy the cover. "Want me to make it better? Because I leave that kinda gruntwork to Stark."
Clint locked the door, wondering if she'd notice. "I need a wash."
"Want to join me?"
"I would, but I was going to take a piss too."
"Toilet's right there. Or can't you go with me watching?"
"Do you wanna watch?"
"I don't know what we're bantering about anymore."
"I really do need to pee."
Natasha closed the door the rest of the way. Clint sat on the toilet. He didn't need to go that bad.
The water rattled and buzzed, no longer hitting Natasha's back full-on, but slapping at her form as she twisted around, deflecting off her as she picked up washcloth and soap, pitter-patting at her feet as she forced herself into constant movement. Clint guessed the cliché would be her trying to scrub herself clean: out damned spot. But she was way past believing she could get free of her dirt.
"I was thinking about someone I lied to," Natasha said. "Someone I played. Everyone I meet, I turn myself into someone for them. This one just got to me."
"Before my time?" Clint asked.
"There's a before your time, old man?" Her smirk quickly faded. "The girl in the mirror. I fooled her pretty good."
"Nat, you're the most self-aware person I know."
"We're not exactly in the most mature company." The water came off with a jerk, dial squelching as it twisted, then Natasha stepped out. Clint handed her a towel. Her wet hair plastered across her face like blood from a head wound. She let it paint her cheeks, cross her eyes as she wiped down her body. "I wanted to think I could be a hero, so I… carried around a bunch of gadgets and made my costume glow in the dark and let Stark put me on cereal boxes. I actually believed I should be standing next to Captain America, beating up Nazis like we were on the cover of a comic book. I've just gotten better at fooling people. I can fool the whole world, and it won't change what I am."
"No, it won't. You're the girl that saved me when anyone else would've put me on the list right next to Loki. Is something else supposed to matter to me more than that?"
Natasha pulled the towel tight around herself. Let her hair stay in her eyes. Clint had to knot his hands around his belt to keep from straightening it. The way she had to keep a man from looking her in the eye…
"Going into the Red Room was the last time I was me. And the last choice I made was that I didn't want to be who I am now."
Clint winced. He'd heard Natasha talk about the Red Room before. She did it when she drank, which was rare, and when things were so bad that she let her mind wander to something worse, in her Russian poet way. That was rarer. And there was always a glibness there, a sarcastic cheerfulness—blaspheming against the Red Room by pretending she didn't bear its scars.
She never let its memory dig its claws in so deep as to admit the scars on every inch of her.
Clint retaliated, angry with it, not her. "And I didn't want to be the guy who has to pop pills every six hours because he had a God in his head and he wants to remember as little of that as possible. But shit happens. You're you. Who else are you gonna be? Who else would you want to be?"
Natasha hung the towel up neatly. Clint didn't know what she wanted him to do. Look? Not look? Their usual clockwork suddenly had a broken gear. "Suzy Homemaker? White picket fences. Two point five kids."
"Don't do that to yourself."
He never had been able to do the cold, silent rage Nat did, look at sex slaves or broken children and just get harder, more silent. He thought of what'd been done to her—that little notation in her file about her reproductive organs that had been put in after her first physical and taken out as soon as Clint read it. It made him want to put ten or twenty arrows into something. The exploding kind.
Natasha actually wrung her hands, the old wounds she'd cemented over ripped open by the Maximoff girl, all the old hate spilling out. It had nowhere to go but herself. "You're saying I would never want that? What luck that I had the operation, because I could never possibly want—"
Clint took her hands by the wrists. She sunk her fingers into his forearms. Fuck it—he moved his hands up, brushing the hair out of her face. Her eyes were dark and unguarded: not weak, but resolved to something terrible. Something deserved. "Okay, you want to be someone else? I don't. I want you—like this."
A weak smile. A patronizing smile, as she turned away, fingers leaving his strong arms. "Ever since I've known you, Barton, you've never wanted me to be anything else."
He stayed right behind her, not making another move. He could see her wet hair part slightly where his breath hit it. "You were always good enough."
"I'm a monster." She said it with so little emotion, it could've been her horoscope.
Again she turned around, twisting at the hips like she was going to give him a right hook. "Do you know what I'm thinking now?"
"You know I don't."
"I'm thinking that since you so clearly want to, I should let you kiss me, and hold me, and tell me you love me. I'd like that. I'd really like that. But I'm thinking that I shouldn't let anything happen, because you could die. Because you're vulnerable and Ultron's a killer. I could be alone again. So I should wait."
Clint shook his head. "I've got nothing but time."
"I don't want to be the person that thinks like that," she said simply, and then she was kissing him. Not the Red Room person. Not the Black Widow. Her.
Then she stepped back. Looked at his reaction. Took his hand and opened the door with her other arm.
"I think Bruce might still be—"
She dragged him out of the bathroom, down the hall to his bedroom—Barney at the end of it. He took a gander at Clint being led by the hand by a naked, wet Natasha Romanoff.
"Rock and roll," he said, giving Clint a black power salute.
Natasha gave him one of her Looks that could kill small animals, pulled Clint into the bedroom, and shut the door behind him. She kissed him again. Didn't check his reaction, felt it in the way his heart raced, his hands clung to her. The bed was five feet away and they didn't made it.
Clint was so glad he'd vacuumed.
After, it was Budapest all over again, although Clint didn't flatter himself to think he'd taken as much out of her as a grenade going off seven feet away. Natasha let him pick her up and carry her to the bed, pulling him down with her when he tried to set her down, some kind of judo thing. She was on top of him, kissing him, and Clint felt like a young man. But Nat took mercy on him, settling down after a moment, sucking herself down against his chest and curling up there like a panther sunning itself on a rock.
In the distance, Clint heard the shower running. Bruce. "It was my turn…"
"You would've just needed another one. And I kinda like you all sweaty."
"I should chop wood more often."
Natasha raised her head suddenly. "You were chopping wood?"
"Not a euphemism."
"Yeah. Still not a euphemism."
"Did he mention me?"
"No, we were just talking about homes and how he missed Peggy and… I guess a lot of things I'd been thinking about kinda crystalized. And you, uh, seemed open to the idea."
Natasha looked off into the distance. "That муда́к yenta'd me."
Natasha shook her head. "Nothing. Forget it." She lowered herself back to his chest. "I suppose I should've thought about keeping this a secret before giving your brother a full frontal."
"You should probably think of a lot of things before giving my brother a full anything. And were you really going to have some kind of secret affair with me just so you wouldn't have to admit that Steve found you a date before you found him—"
Natasha leveled him with a look. "It was an option. And just until I found him love, which shouldn't be that hard."
"I know, right? The man's gorgeous."
Natasha looked him over. "You know…"
"You couldn't hook him and me up either."
"I was actually thinking of him and Tony. You do give yourself airs."
"Well, I did score with the hottest woman on the team."
"Who calls it scoring?" Natasha asked, slapping at his head.
Clint pushed her back as she continued to slap at him. "Abraham Lincoln, a close personal friend of mine—"
He finally got her switched around, pinned down underneath him, pretty sure she let him win. He kissed her, just because he could. She let him, just because she could.
"You don't want this, do you?" Natasha asked, reaching up to rattle the headboard against the wall. "The house. Groceries. Mowing. Two point five kids and a fire in the fireplace. Because I can't do that."
Natasha blew air through her teeth. "You could, though. You could get clear of everything. Snap your fingers and have a nice, normal life. With any woman smart enough to hang on to you."
"No. You, me, Steve—hell, Tony, Bruce, all of us. The tornado came through and ripped all our houses down. We never quite did rebuild. Just picked up what we could, piled in the car, and sped up to try and pass it, get other people out of the way."
"That doesn't mean they're going to be in the car forever. Tony's got one foot out the door. Bruce has Betty now. After Johannesburg, she's gonna ask him to come away with her. Put the Hulk to bed once and for all. Even Steve… all it takes is one person to get through that armor and…"
"That why you keep trying to set him up with someone? Can't count on him to stick around, so might as well kick him out the door on your own terms?"
"Maybe I just don't want him to be like us."
Clint closed his eyes. "So everyone else leaves. The Avengers are just us and that earthquake girl Fury's got on lockdown."
"Maybe Mockingbird. She's pretty good. Thor's sticking around…"
"You know, it's not that that I don't like Tony, but Rhodes… well… he has a better name."
"Falcon. Flies. Very cute."
"I was going to say that about Mockingbird, but thought it'd be inappropriate."
"It's totally inappropriate. She's off the team."
She kissed him. He let her. They were falling into a kind of lockstep. The old kind. The good kind. He valued it even more after almost losing it.
"Last chance to get out, Barton. Chasing tornadoes is a good way to get hit by one, you know."
"Yeah. But I know I can survive 'em. Just like my partner."