gun fire in the street
where we used to meet
- the good soldier, NIN
It's just an ordinary job that does it.
It's not high-risk or high-priority – barely a level 3, actually – supposed to be an easy in and out, two day job, three, at most. Not even a proper mission; technically they're just a clean up crew, sent in to fix a job botched by another agent two weeks ago.
"Taking it easy," Fury calls it.
"Fucking bush-league, is what it is," Clint corrects through his teeth, but kicks his feet onto the table and begins flipping through the dossier marked with a large B with no other complaints, because he can tell Fury's still not entirely done punishing them for their colossal fuck-up in Lisbon two weeks ago. Apparently it's still got S.H.I.E.L.D paying out the ass to the Portuguese government in damages. Turns out its kind of pricy to rebuild an entire navy base, oops, who knew?
But what do they expect, really, sticking him with a new recruit? Granted, he vouched for her and everything, and okay, so they are kind of scarily alike in the calls they make, and yeah, only a year into their partnership, they're already a pretty seamless team, but still. He might've exhausted all of his get out of jail free cards (not to mention Fury's patience) with the shit he's pulled over the years, but so far she's got a pretty spotless record and as far as Clint's concerned, she's more than earned a couple of free passes.
That was the excuse he had spouted anyway, when Fury came knocking on (knocking down) his door. Strictly off the record, though, Clint knows they're too good to screw up twice.
In a row.
Speaking of the new recruit, his relationship with her has been somewhat of a mystery lately. So much so, in fact, that he's kind of been waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since they got back from Lisbon. Well – not waiting per se – more like acknowledging a vague awareness for the high likelihood of its potential occurrence.
God, he's starting to sound like Coulson. Who, by the way, has got an office-wide pool running on this entire thing. Apparently the going theory is that she's trying to kill him. Clint doesn't blame them, though, because things really have changed. Say whatever you want about his pitiful grasp of the female psyche, he's still noticed that much, at least.
He hasn't considered the specifics yet, the how the when and the all-consuming why, but he's seen it coming from miles away, seen it written in the lines of her face, seen it in the way she's begun to grow a little softer around the edges, her eyes not so feral, her posture not so defensive, not so much anymore. In the way the time he spends with his face pressed against the training mat with thighs straddling his neck has increased, and in the way all he noted about the situation was Wow, what a way to go. In the way she's kindly stopped flipping him over her back and threatening to break his neck (like she'd done quite publicly the first few times he'd tried) every time he slings an arm around her shoulders on the way out of the ring. In the way she just makes a face and only punches him once when he makes the mistake of calling her 'darlin,'' and the way she doesn't punch him at all when he calls her "Nat." More so than anything else, in the way after running into each other tiptoeing into the staff kitchen in the dead of night for the eighteenth time, they've stopped drawing knives on each other, and have instead created somewhat of a standing nightcap date to combat their insomnia with, accompanied by a bottle of whatever's on ice in the fridge whenever their paths cross. Usually it's vodka (for a super secret spy agency, S.H.I.E.L.D's got a pretty bland selection of liquor), and usually Clint makes a soon-to-be-forgotten mental note to never threaten to drink a Russian under the table.
More to the point, last week, she'd only threatened to disembowel him once. An all time record, definitely.
With regular, normal, well-adjusted, non-homicidal people, everything could be chalked up to her hating Clint just a little less. Or maybe forced camaraderie brought on by living in such close quarters. But he's had enough drunken, half-forgotten conversations with her to know that this is definitely something else. Barring murder, hopefully.
Funnily enough, the 'bush-league' clean up job gets more than a little out of hand, and three hours in, it becomes pretty clear that Budapest is no piece of cake. And by the five hour mark, the ever elusive other shoe does indeed drop, and Coulon's office wide pool has a definitive answer.
Following two days of intense recon after they touch down, they trade in a run-down, no-star shack to hole up in an absurdly decorated, over-the-top, even-the-fucking-elevator-is-made-of-gold kind of resort. Disguised as Mr. and Mrs. Russian Millionaire amongst hundreds of others, all smiles and American Express, they are conveniently 'just in time' for the charity dinner thrown for something-or-the-other-children's-fund, attended by government leaders and celebrities alike. They brush shoulders with the elite and charmingly grin at everything around them, arm in arm, Clint now "Veniamin, but please call me Ven," sharply dressed, wearing glasses and showing off the flawless Russian-American accent that he spent three weeks perfecting (more like three weeks of Nat thwacking him on the arm and making fun of the way he pronounced do svidanya), and Natasha, "Danya, pleasure to meet you," in a stunning black number, sporting long streaks of dirty blonde hair, politely twittering in laughter every time a drunken president pays her a compliment in hilariously broken English.
They're pleasant enough to be pleasant, forgettable enough to be forgettable, and blend with practiced and somewhat frightening ease.
As the commencement party goes on, the attendees kick back more and more champagne and whiskey sours than the human body can filter and thus progressively become more and more charitable. In the ensuing madness of donations, no one notes Ven and Danya's sudden disappearance.
Or two minutes later, Ven's just as abrupt, solitary, reappearance.
Just as no one notes the absence of the now bound and gagged (and heavily tranq'd) Hungarian VP, locked up and ready for collection in the eighth floor supply closet, door dead-bolted and blocked by the heaviest housekeeping carriage and prettiest (re: deadliest) maid Budapest's ever known.
Everything's going according to plan, and the constant stream of adrenaline thrumming through Clint's veins dissipates a little. His head starts bobbing to the music against his will, a mellow rendition of some Sinatra song Natasha likes, and he even begins to vaguely consider actually drinking his prop gin and tonic and not dumping it into the nearest plant like he's supposed to, with the full knowledge that she'd rip off his head (and possibly other, more delicate body parts) if she ever found out he took one sip on the job. Never one to chicken-out (or miss a chance to be on the receiving end of one of her thigh-chokes) he's a breath away from raising the glass to his lips when it all goes to shit.
All it takes is a "127" in his ear, and the gin and tonic is toppled over in the mini-fern by the bar, and he's weaving his way through the crowd, out of sight, crashing shoulder-first into the emergency staircase that vines around the side of the building. Taking four steps at a time, he's up two flights before gunshots are heard six floors above.
It means S.O.S, it means we've been made, it means our cover's blown, it means I need fucking back up, Barton, get your shit together now.
He picks up the extra ammo and the collapsible bow he left in the fourth floor maintenance closet and a second later Fury's in his ear, back up's on the way – seven minutes out – hold them off – just hold them off – don't do too much damage – don't lose the target – don't fuck this up – like the constantly-disappointed dad Clint never had.
The eighth floor door has been blown off its hinges and propped up sidelong, Natasha's crouched in cover, still wearing that absurd maid's cap, her torn skirt revealing the arsenal she's carrying strapped to her legs, while the target is facedown in a puddle of his own drool two feet away, bound and gagged and thankfully still unconscious. Clint slides into cover just as a bullet whizzes over his head and embeds itself into the concrete behind him. She barely spares a glance to make sure he's still alive.
"Took you long enough, what'd you do, moonwalk here?"
"Got stopped by Princess Caroline on the way, couldn't refuse a dance. Nice getup, by the way," he adds, tossing her the extra ammo and slipping out of his dinner jacket, "I dig the whole 'Russian Maid' look on you. Kind of stereotypical, but an old favourite for sure."
"Oh, please," she barely ducks in time to avoid a bullet that tracks through her hair, and sits, back to door, to reload, "At least this still has some dignity – I'm not the one who walks around in that slinky purple jumpsuit –"
" – hey, that's my uniform! Screw you, I'm going back downstairs, at least Caroline didn't insult my fashion sense –"
That's also a thing now. She finds Clint funny.
No, she doesn't smile – of course not – Black Widow only smiles when she doesn't mean it, only ever does to show teeth. But they are under fire, literally surrounded by hundreds of armed thugs, and she doesn't turn around and give him that blank, ice-queen stare for every inappropriate (not to mention lame) attempt at humour like she used to.
There's definitely something wrong with this picture. Fuck, Clint hopes Coulson's wrong about the murder thing.
He pulls out his bow, unfolding it with the familiar snap of his arm and taking down four guards in rapid succession, injuring three behind cover at the end of the hallway. She drops six with back to back headshots, and a seventh with a knife flying out of nowhere and into his abdomen, while more and more keep turning the corner and showing up, wave after wave like they're rolling off a fucking assembly line, shouting orders in violent Hungarian.
They can't go on this way forever, Clint knows, hotel security is bound to show up and attack from behind where they are most vulnerable, plus the thousands of bodyguards at hand of the entire self-important population of the charity ball downstairs would have been tipped off by now, and two against a million really isn't a fair fight. Then again, he supposes, during his entire history at S.H.I.E.L.D, he's probably only ever been a part of one fair fight and even that was thirty to one odds and there was a tank involved at one point.
"We gotta head – "
" – for the roof, I know – "
" – got your two o'clock – " and she stoops low as he hangs over her to take out a smartass guard trying to use a room-service cart as a walking shield, while she champagne-cheer-curls around him to catch a sucker poking out from behind the wall right between the eyes.
"We need a distraction – "
" – 'm on it – " and he's already let loose a green spiked arrow that gouges itself into the end of the hallway, beeping twice before blowing the whole damn wall to the ground. By then she's hauled the target over her shoulder, retreating into the staircase, he follows close behind, picking off survivors that are fighting their way through the debris and dust to get a better shot at them.
This is also a thing now.
This thing where they finish each other's sentences. This thing where they read each other's minds. This thing where they anticipate each other's moves without hesitation and act on them before they even come to pass. It makes for a perfect team – sure – but it's also kind of unnerving, having someone else – a stranger (one that tried very hard to kill him a year ago) – in your head like that.
Three flights later they switch, Clint's carrying the deadweight of the VP now, and Natasha's clearing a path for them through the new wave of thugs who've finally caught on that they can attack from above instead of running after them. She grabs a guy by the lapel and pistol whips him across his face, using the momentum to leap off the wall and onto his shoulders, smashing his jaw against the railing, promptly using his head as a trampoline to jump up a flight. Clint finds himself distantly awed by how she manages to avoid the laws of physics like they're simply dumbass suggestions.
Barely a second later, she's kicking another guy's legs out from beneath him and smashing a third unsuspecting nose with the heel of her hand, kinking her leg around the man's neck and flipping him over like a very unfortunate pancake. One by one they all fall like flies, limp and boneless, down the center of the stairwell; garroted by a tie, flipped around and thrown, tripped and pushed and headbutted and bit, slit throats and headshots and broken necks, all simple, clean deaths.
Clint almost feels bad for them. She's not called Black Widow for nothing.
Fury pipes up in his ear again, the chopper's two minutes out – you better be there when it arrives – and Widow picks up the pace, twirling around and up faster and faster, and a second later she's kicking down the roof access door, sending it splintering to the ground. There's a wordless exchange as he passes through the doorway and she hangs back, blockades the door while he half-drags the target towards the hovering helicopter.
The door wheels open and agents shout something that he can't quite make out over the roaring of the propellers, but he assumes they're telling him they're not landing, hands extended to help him up after the target's been safely secured into a harness. He turns, expecting to see her running so they can get the hell out of dodge without blowing up a building for a change, but finds emptiness instead, door still ajar, nothing standing in it.
Fury's bellowing in his ear to get the fuck in the chopper, get in, get in right now or you're on your own, Barton, I'm not jeopardizing the target, you hear m – he rips off the earpiece and takes off running down the stairs, four, five steps at a time, the chopper starting its ascent behind him.
Panic is a foreign sensation. That's the first thing he realizes, in a strange, detached sort of way.
It's the first time in years, he knows, that he's felt anything close to it, to anything this brain-numbing, this paralyzing. But of course it is; he's spent his whole life learning to keep his emotions in check, learning to keep his heart rate steady, learning to clear his mind and focus, because it's the difference between making a shot and missing it, between success and failure, between life and death. He's a grown man in a line of work where desensitization is the key to survival.
But that's definitely his heart beating in his throat, that's the unmistakable buzz of fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck in his head, that's blood thundering in his ears, so loud he can't hear.
And years – years – of training goes out the window. Just like that.
Turns out, fear's just like riding a bike.
His hands screech and slide down the railings, feet skidding across at the turn of every landing, and he's three flights down before he finds her, back to the door, gun in hand, facing down more than fifty and counting. Relief hits him so hard it sends him reeling to the ground, which also saves his life because a second later a bullet soars right through where his head sort of used to be. Crouched, he commando-drags himself on his elbows until he's got his back to the wall on the other side of the doorway. "Nat, what the f– "
Back to him, she yells something into the cacophony of bullets and explosions that he can't make out. "What?"
She turns around and he finally gets a full view of the damage she's sustained; blood tracking down the side of her face, faint bruises blooming on her cheekbones, the heel of her free hand pressed into the hollow of her shoulder, keeping pressure on a wound that won't stop bleeding. And the panic comes back, just as fast as it left.
"The target, Barton –" she shouts, her breath coming out in short, laboured bursts, her back arching off the wall in pain, "Secured?"
"He's fine – secured – mission accomplished and everything – what the fuck happened to you? I turned around and you'd – "
"Things got too hairy down here," she empties the rest of the clip in a blind aim over her shoulder and still brings two guys down, "Had to interfere." Clint sits there and watches dumbly as she empties the chamber and reloads, clips lined up around her like sentries so she can do it one-handed. The sight springs him into action and he snaps open his bow, dropping two or three more from the batch of new arrivals.
"Your shoulder," he starts, stops, ducks under cover.
She lets out an involuntary groan of pain that would have been drowned out had he not been listening for it, "It's fine."
"Yeah?" there's a laugh in his voice, something horrible that comes out of nowhere, unamused and vicious, angry, "Looks totally fine, the blood spewing out of it is also totally fine, sure – great –"
"I can handl –"
" – right, no biggie, just a bullet wound – you know, lodged near my goddamn heart – that pesky thing keeping me alive – but no it's cool 'cause I'm the Black Widow and I have special secret soviet superpowers that keep me from dying – "
The words are tumbling out and he's barely listening to himself; a guy gets too close to shoot and Clint throws his bow around his head and twists, punctuating the words with a neck snap, but barely feels it, barely sees any of it, his voice rising, curling with fury.
"–I can just run off by myself without telling my partner where I'm going 'cause he won't have a fucking panic attack looking for me, no definitely not–"
"–you had a what–"
"–no, no, it's cool, sweetheart, at least now I know how you operate, y'know? I get it, teamwork's obviously not a part of your skillset – must have skipped over that chapter in your training or somethi–"
"Hey," she says. There's so much force behind it, it snaps his mouth shut against his will, and he sits there for a second like a petulant child. When he looks over, her eyes have gone hard, black, like the softness they'd built up over the months had been a figment of his imagination. "You could have gotten on that chopper if you wanted to," she says, and her voice is barely controlled, words spat through her clenched teeth, "Nobody forced you to come back."
His mouth drops open and this time the laugh that escapes his throat, four octaves too high, is genuine. "Are you kidding? You expected me to just leave you here?"
She doesn't say anything, just stares, all hard edges and lines; like she's not a day out of the shit-storm in Croatia he'd met her in a year ago. And in the silence, it clicks.
She wasn't trained. She was built.
Programmed by a system, one that'd ripped her apart, piece-by-piece, and slopped her back together like a makeshift puzzle, took the girl she probably barely even remembers and made an instrument, a machine. One that made all the sacrifices and took all the hits and expected none to be made or taken in her place. For years, she'd owed nothing to no one, left bodies behind her where others left footsteps, lived and died by her own mistakes. No matter, because if she fell, (when she fell; widows never had a very long life expectancy, he reminds himself) ten copies would take her place, lined up and fresh, ready to be made into perfect – lethal – clones, ready to turn into beautiful corpses, just dead girls, one after the other, just dead girls in the snow.
The regime was gone, but in the dust of it, she'd remained the same. She'd remained replaceable.
Of course she had expected to be left behind.
"Oh," he says, and bites down on the irrational want that flares up in his chest to completely annihilate an empire that's already in ruins. He makes a quick decision – light over dark, bullets are still flying around them like flies, after all.
"Well, I couldn't. Who'd make fun of me if you were gone?"
She's silent for a moment, but then, slowly, like it's being pried out of her against her will, the corner of her mouth quirks up, barely. It's funny, that not-even-an-actual-smile is ten times more blinding than any grin he's ever seen. "Keep wearing that purple thing and you'll get a few jabs just fine," she says, going for lofty and failing when her voice breaks on a hiss of pain, "You don't need me."
"Yeah, I really do."
It's out his mouth before he realizes he means every word. She turns around, and for a second he thinks he can see the remnants of the girl she used to be, the girl he'll never know. The ghost of a dead girl in the snow.
"Anyway," he says, clearing his throat and impaling another few guys on a few more arrows just to have something to do with his hands, "I don't know if you were planning to die here or anything, but I've got a plan."
He can hear the smile in her voice this time. "Something quiet and discreet, I trust?"
Turns out Clint's 'plan' involves blowing up a huge chunk of the south face of the building, leaping out with Natasha gripping his arm, and grappling onto the chopper, all in full view of the completely hammered and evacuated charity-attendees outside who clap and cheer and scream and hide and throw up onto other guests to various degrees.
"YOU SAID DISCREET!"
"Well, I lied. Discreet's not really in my skillset."
He's sure she shouldn't be able to punch that hard with a bullet hole through her shoulder, but somehow she manages just fine.
"I call 'not-it' to explain this entire clusterfuck to Coulson, by the way," he points out, as he's being pulled into the helicopter.
"Fine," she grins over the shoulder of the medic hovering above her, and this is a thing now, this thing where she smiles at him, and Clint thinks he could get used to this. "You get to debrief Fury."
"Shit. Tell Coulson I love him, will you?"
He turns to buckle himself into the seat and swears he can hear her chuckle under her breath.
"Go, I've got your back," she says, ten missions later, twenty missions later, ten years in the future, when New York's crumbling down around them and all they trust is each other, standing back to back in the middle of a group of people (plus one giant green rage monster and a demi-god) they barely even know.
On paper, Budapest is just an ordinary job, an almost botched ordinary job at that. One that cost S.H.I.E.L.D something in the fuck-load-of-millions to clean up, one that had Fury bellowing at them until the vein in his temple (Natasha christened it The Hitler five debriefings later and made Clint choke on his sandwich) looked ready to abandon his body and start a new, less stressful life. One that had them punished with mind-numbing recon and surveillance jobs for weeks, had them buried under mounds and mounds paperwork that threatened to atrophy their brains.
But off paper;
"Got yours first, darlin'," he says.
And every syllable is rooted in Budapest.