Natasha rents a house in the south of France, through Kijiji, using her Natalie Rushman identity: an unassuming civil servant in dire need of a warm-weather holiday. The owners are sympathetic, patient with her broken French, and trusting enough not to ask too many questions.
Three floors, five bedrooms, two full baths. It's a lot of house for two people, but there's a rooftop terrace with a hammock, and that's what seals the deal. She knows he likes being outside, the higher the better.
Natasha gets there before he does, and examines the entire place to ensure everything is legit.
(This is her life: sleeping in strangers' beds, digging into their hiding places, baring their secrets, wiping away the traces of her presence.)
Everything is legit.
She buys groceries. It's a running joke between them: the way he eats, or doesn't. He avoids processed food, rarely drinks anything other than water. He is not the kind of man who would use the term straight-edge, but that's the basic philosophy.
Natasha, on the other hand, sees no point in denying herself anything. Each time she eats chocolate might be the last.
The sea air scours her lungs and softens her skin. It's not Chornoye more, but it's something, and anyhow, this isn't for her.
Clint arrives the next day.
He doesn't talk much. He wears mirrored sunglasses all the time, even at night, and she suspects he isn't sleeping. He seems very calm, and then one morning, in the middle of brushing his teeth, he hauls off and punches a hole in the third floor bathroom wall. She's annoyed enough by this that she almost does the same thing to him.
Instead, though, she jabs him in the thigh with a needle, dropping him where he stands. After rolling him into the recovery position and wiping toothpaste from his cheek, she goes to the hardware store and gets everything she needs to patch and paint. She comes back to find him sleeping in the bathtub, swaddled in the brightly-coloured shower curtain. She leaves him there while she does the repairs.
She breaks his sunglasses.
She finds him sitting in the hammock, turning a satsuma over and over in his long fingers. His eyes are the colour of the sea in the early morning light.
He splits the fragrant skin of the orange and pulls it away in a single perfect spiral. It's satisfying to watch, like peeling a scab. He tears the flesh into neat sections and offers her one, which she waves away.
"I'm going to the beach," she tells him. It's a calculated risk; she could come back to find he's torched the house or hanged himself in one of the children's closets. "Can you entertain yourself for a couple of hours without making more work for me?"
He nods, and licks his bruised knuckles in a way that makes her abdominal muscles tighten.
It's late afternoon when she comes back, and Clint is still on the roof. He's conjured up a guitar from somewhere—one of the children's rooms, if the butterfly stickers are any indication. She's never seen him play before, but it isn't surprising that he can; it's all just curved wood and taut string and clever hands. Unlike her, not all of Clint's talents are exclusively destructive.
It's a warm, mellow sound. She sits quietly and inhabits it for a while.
"We could go out for a drink," he suggests, and she can tell by the set of his jaw that what he means to say is we could go to a bar and I could pick a fight. She knows through experience that the easiest way to beat yourself up is to encourage someone else to do it.
"There's wine in the cellar," she tells him. "Let's stay in."
Too much cabernet later, he crowds her against the door of the fridge, his thumbs digging into her hip bones. He kisses her hard, biting at her mouth; she doesn't object when he peels her jeans down over her hips. The truth is, she has been waiting for this for days. She needs it as much as he does.
He brings her to the ragged edge and holds her there for as long as she can stand, and longer, until she's shouting obscenities in Russian and yanking on fistfuls of his hair. It's been a long time, and she's forgotten how painstakingly meticulous he can be.
He never comes, never makes a sound, and he shoves her hands away whenever she reaches for him.
She understands this: it isn't release that he craves, it's control. He is the only living person in the world that she is willing to surrender it to.
Later, they lie in a tangle of faded cotton sheets, almost touching but not quite, and talk over the events of the past week. He's reticent at first, glossing over the more unpleasant details, but she picks at the dropped threads until he starts to unravel.
Like every other man she's known, Clint is most honest when they're in bed together.
"He put things in my head that never happened. Made me think that you'd… done things to me, to people I cared about."
"I had a plan for how I was going to kill you."
"Torture and kill me," she corrects.
He's facing away from her, but she can see his head nodding.
"I'm sure it was good. You were very efficient. The Helicarrier was some of your best—"
"Don't." He's breathing hard, like he's been running.
She touches the back of his neck.
"It's fine," she lies, and fits herself into the space between his shoulder blades. "Go to sleep." Dorogoi moy. She doesn't dare say it out loud; his Russian is better than it was when they met.
It isn't fine. But it will be.