Killing isn't fun.
But knowing some people are dead… well…
You don't want me to lie, now do you?
Be honest here. You hear about a father catching some kiddie fiddler with his daughter and turning that guy's brains into airline food with his right hook, you don't think "Oh, that poor man! If only he had forty years in prison to write a children's book and win a Pulitzer!"
Clint didn't. He liked things simple. It's why he preferred a bow to a gun. Guns were, part for part, more complicated than computers. Bows were simple. You pulled the string, you aimed, you let go. Bad guy stopped being bad, stopped being a guy, stopped being altogether. Simple.
If it wasn't God's work, it was definitely nature's. Weeding out pests. Protecting the flock. Keeping the balance. That was the thing about wetwork that Clint preferred to the Marines. If SHIELD, and especially Nick Fury, wanted someone dead, you could bet it was because he had it coming. Not some goat herder who just wanted the Great Satan to stop bombing his son's soccer game. Actual, honest-injun Bad Men.
There were guys who did like killing—liked knives, liked shooting people in interesting places, kept tracks of how many hats were on the floor. Clint wasn't one of them. He might become one, just like he might become an alcoholic if he kept having six-pack dinners, but he didn't think it would come to that. More likely he'd die. Whatever killer instinct he had, it was a bit less than some of the people he'd had in his scope. Maybe that was a good thing. In this business, it was probably just a thing.
The adrenaline rush—the before and the after—that was the thing. Oh, sure, your first time killing someone (goat herder or Bad Man) you vomited, but that was just biology. Ever seen someone's insides? It's disgusting. And if you kill someone, you're going to see their insides. Those neat little red holes you see on TV, they wouldn't put down a dog. No, you gotta have the red mist, gotta have the blood splatter. And that's just the liquid component. Solids go too, all chopped up like a smoothie, dribbling out and running off the splatter and just getting everywhere. But once you're used to that—it gets very simple.
You're doing good and it feels good. Brother, if that ain't a line of work…
Simple. That's the key.
The thing is
The thing is, the thing is, the thing is.
Nothing stays simple. Entropy demands its tax. Stones gather moss, rolling stones get dirty, and things you thought were simple turn out to be the tip of the iceberg.
Clint had thought he was simple. Not in a bad way, a dumb way, but in an uncomplicated way. People knotted themselves up with neuroses, but Clint was so Zen he wasn't even Zen. He didn't meditate; his life was his meditation. He knew what he was good at and he did it, simple, straightforward, a bow and an arrow and him. But he wasn't simple. Now he was guilt and pain and regret and anger and denial and so many other things that they couldn't all fit.
They gave him two weeks to make it fit. But not really. It was two weeks to try being out and seeing if he liked it.
He sat in the park and drank and liked it as much as anything. From before, that is.
When Natasha showed up, he thought Here we go.
It was sunset—romantic if you were into that sort of thing. Clint was still in the SHIELD tee with the blood stain he couldn't get out from that guy at the bar he couldn't stand. The jacket covered what it could, let him huddle away when he felt that chill that had nothing to do with the wind.
Natasha, though. She was wearing a frock, something floral and demure. It suited her, just not his her, the Black Widow he was used to. He'd seen her in gowns it cost money to touch, and in jeans and leather (her preference when not on a mission; you could run in it). This was new. She looked less real, more like a painting.
"Did someone tell you it wasn't your fault?" she asked.
"Good. I won't have to."
He gestured at the six-pack. "Pull up a can."
She sat on the other side of it, her neutral expression, that thousand-yard stare, sitting ill at ease with the perky water colors of her dress and the innocence it gave her body. She looked kittenish and young, all her weapons holstered.
She grabbed a beer and looked it over like a Rubik's Cube, like she was going to solve it. "Whoever told you, they were right."
"People are still dead."
"Fuck 'em. More people would've died if you hadn't."
"You don't get it." Clint put his beer can aside. Natasha crossed her legs in a pleased sort of way. "We're all killers. The difference between us and them is they're willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. So if I start racking up collateral damage—"
"If it were my mission, back then, I would've left more funerals to conduct. I would've planned for it."
Clint wasn't sure what to say to that without hurting her. She never showed remorse—she acted like it was just like someone's grandmother dying. Sad, but what were you going to do? But he always felt like his knuckles stung after he brought up her past. Maybe it was just him.
He drank instead.
"You haven't asked about the dress," Natasha said coolly. She'd set her beer aside and now stared at the condensation on her palm, watching the drops explore the lines of her hand.
"It's nice," Clint said.
"They make me play American a lot. This is what an American woman would wear. I've been doing research. There's this woman in Des Moines. Mary-Kate Bianca."
"Jesus," Clint said at the name.
"Upper-middle class. Two kids. Husband used to play football. Average. Normal. She bought a dress like this on Etsy."
"You're tracking her credit card?"
Natasha rolled her eyes, as if insulted at the notion that her surveillance was that crude. "Her e-mails, her phone calls, a few bugs. She seems happy."
"Well, she doesn't know there's a Russian spy stalking her."
Natasha stood. Clint watched as she moved through practiced stances, relaxing out of her guardedness, becoming someone anonymous. Then she played at catching sight of him. Looked away, blushing. He was never sure how she got her body to do that, calling up an involuntary reaction on cue. She looked again, through a stray lock of hair, and brushed it away to give him the full smolder.
"Hey," she said, twirling her finger around that stubborn hair that just wouldn't get out of her face. She'd softened her accentless English with a bit of Wisconsin. Clint had a hometown around there. "I've noticed you around here before. How's about a cuddle?"
She held her arms out, fingers splayed, jazz hands. Clint looked at them, not sure what to do. Her fingernails were short and unpainted. They traipsed over his chest like they were sampling his blood-stained shirt. Finding out it wasn't his blood. Then she collapsed into his lap, not sexually—as much as Natasha couldn't be sexual—but working her legs over his lap and loading her head under his arm, a six-foot kitten making a roost for itself.
"You don't have to do this," Clint said, even though he wasn't sure what this was.
"Maybe I want to," she said, running her lips along a scar that the cotton of his shirt almost obscured. She rested her head against it, pressed against her cheek. "I've gotten pretty good at this Mary-Kate person," she said, her voice the only deviation from the act as she drank in his body heat. "I've gone for days without a slip." She shook her head up to meet his gaze, all wide-eyed and innocent. Asked in her Wisconsin voice: "So what are you doing out here? Feeding the ducks?"
"Knock it all you want. It honestly doesn't make me think."
"Spoken like a man who doesn't have anything good to think about."
"I don't," he said curtly.
"Would it be so hard to get something?"
He bit the inside of his mouth, listened to the sound it made. "This isn't funny, you know."
"Of course," she said, a little bit of an apology, rearing back and looking him in the eye. "I'm not that kind of actress. Not a comedian. But I am good at what I do. I could run away. Blend in. No one would find me this time."
"Nah. I'd miss you too much." He said it jokingly.
"What if you didn't?"
There were only two ways he wouldn't miss her, and they were long past the point where she could put a gun to his head.
"What, and give up show biz?"
"It might be worth a try. Somewhere the economy is still vaguely functioning. Hack you a nice, cushy job. I could stay home. Do my nails. Shop. Normal things."
"We'd be bored silly."
"But we'd know what it was like." Natasha sat her chin on his shoulder. "You don't wonder?"
"I stopped." He looked out the corner of his eye. He could see her profile. Beautiful. But not the cold stare of her real eyes, or the seductive allure of her lying ones. Just a bit of her, given to him. "I wondered what it'd be like with you."
"Different," Natasha said, summing it all up.
There'd been chances. Times when they'd both wanted it. And the way they worked together, moving as one, trusting each other in a game where trust was a handicap—sex was practically a moot point. But they refrained. A long time ago, she'd decided it was more important to survive than to keep being what, who, she was. She'd cauterized entire parts of herself to keep going, and if the feeling ever came back into those phantom limbs…
People were only so strong. And the harder they were, the more pieces there were when they broke.
They could quit the game, run away together, and he'd fall in love with her—how could he not?—but she wouldn't be whole. The old wounds she reopened would tear away chunks of her, catch infection and spread rot to her soul. And he wasn't the man to bring her back from that. Not enough black in his ledger to balance the red in hers.
She wrapped her arms around his neck in something like a hug. She was so much less assured doing that than she was snapping a spine. "Thinking of my immortal soul?"
"Something like that." He rested a hand on the small of her back like it would comfort her. "I think you need the ledger open. You're not ready to call it quits. You need this."
"And you don't."
"I hope not."
"Hoping doesn't make it so."
He didn't have to say anything to that. Nothing at all. But he rubbed his hand on her back and he thought it helped.
She tilted her head against his, spoke so he only heard it in his ear. "I made peace with my needs a long time ago. But it's nice of you to think of what's best for me before you ride off into the sunset. Something a good person would do."
"So I'm a good person now? That simple?"
She kissed his cheek. "I thought you liked to keep things simple. So let them be simple. And trust me."
The funny thing was, he did.