Natasha loved Venice. With its narrow, twisting, mostly unlabeled streets, the city was like a maze. It was a nightmare for tourists, but a dream for spies.
She didn't even feel a twinge of fear when Sokolov blew her cover. All she needed was a running start; a few abrupt turns, and his henchmen would never find her.
Left, right, right, left, right. She could hear half a dozen pairs of boots chasing her at first, then three, then two, then only one. She risked a glance over her shoulder. The man didn't look like he was slowing down. Time to get clever.
She took another sharp turn and quickly surveyed her surroundings. There was a good-sized tree growing right next to the nearest house. Perfect. While Sokolov's goon was still around the corner, she hoisted herself into the tree. From there, getting onto the roof was a piece of cake.
Watching the look of confusion spread across the goon's face when he finally came around the corner was supremely satisfying. Watching him bang on every door on the block, never thinking to look up, was even better. Half an hour passed before he gave up and left; Natasha had to give the guy credit for tenacity. Once he was gone, she slid down the other side of the roof and simply walked away.
She had chosen a hotel right by the Piazza San Marco, thinking it would be easy to blend in with the swarms of tourists there. Now she was grateful for her own foresight. She returned to the establishment confident that she wouldn't run into anyone familiar.
So it was quite a shock to enter the lobby and come face-to-face with Clint Barton.
"Hey, Tasha!" he said brightly.
She hadn't called for backup, nor had Fury told her to expect any. Even more confusing, Clint was in his civilian clothes, and the wheeled suitcase beside him didn't look like it was made for holding bows and arrows. None of this added up.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Taking a well-deserved vacation," said Clint. "You?"
Natasha didn't believe in coincidences, much less fate. Someone had planned this supposed chance encounter. The question was, who? And why?
Clint didn't seem nearly as surprised to see Natasha as she was to see him. That all but confirmed her suspicions regarding the first question. However, she knew better than to ask Clint what he was up to point-blank. If he wanted her to know, he would have already told her. She would have to be subtler than that. So, for the time being, she would simply play along.
"We got a tip that the Russian mob is hoping to get a foothold in Italy," she said under her breath.
"You're on a mission?"
"Tasha, we literally saved the world last week. Did you take any time off at all?"
She shrugged. "You know me. If I don't keep busy, I go crazy."
The truth was, she didn't know what she would do with time off. Natasha's career hadn't left much room for hobbies. Traveling held little appeal for her, as she did so much of it for work. She had no family she wished to see, nor any real friends aside from Clint. And she had just decided that seeing Clint outside of work was a bad idea—another reason to be suspicious of this "coincidence."
"Well, as long as you're here, you want to join me for dinner?" Clint asked casually. "I know of a couple of good restaurants."
It was a perfectly innocent request—they had shared meals on dozens of missions—but alarm bells went off in Natasha's head.
"Sorry, but I need to lie low for a while," she said. "My cover's been blown."
Clint's brow furrowed. "Do they know you're staying here?"
"Then let's get room service," he said. "I like eating in better, anyway."
She could have come up with another excuse. After all, telling convincing lies was half her job. But lying to Clint felt different from lying to the likes of Sokolov. Besides, if she was honest with herself, she didn't want to dine alone that night. And so it was that she soon found herself in Clint Barton's hotel room, eating shrimp Alfredo and reminiscing about past missions.
"Remember that time in Rio, when you got sucked into Carnival?" she asked.
Clint groaned. "You're never going to let me live that down, are you?"
"What do you mean, live it down? You should be proud. I wish I looked that good in magenta feathers!"
He threw a pillow at her. Natasha dodged it, laughing.
She had meant to leave as soon as she was finished eating, but Clint started telling an intriguing story just as she popped the last bite of linguine into her mouth. She had to hear how it ended. Then that story reminded her of one of her own adventures, which she had to share. And so it went, well into the night. Natasha realized she couldn't remember the last time she had felt so at ease.
A spy should never feel at ease.
"I should go," she said abruptly, getting to her feet.
"Already?" Clint didn't try to hide his disappointment. "What's the rush?"
"I need to call Fury and tell him my mission went south."
Anyone else would have accepted this excuse without question, but Clint knew her too well.
"If there was anything that couldn't wait until you saw Fury in person, you would have called him before ordering dinner," he said. "Tasha, what's going on?"
"I don't know, Clint," she snapped. "You tell me. Why are you in Venice?"
Deflection. The tactic was transparent, juvenile even, but it worked.
"I told you. I'm on vacation," Clint said, confused.
"So I'm supposed to believe that it's a complete coincidence, you choosing to vacation in Venice, out of all the cities in the world, when I just happen to be here, too?"
There was a long pause.
"All right," Clint sighed. "Fury told me you were on a mission in Venice."
Natasha had guessed as much, but she had no idea what her friend's motive might be. She stood before him, arms crossed, clearly waiting for an explanation.
"A lot has happened in the last couple of weeks," he said. "I thought maybe it would be good for both of us if we, you know, talked."
Natasha gaped at him. Clint Barton had never volunteered for a heart-to-heart in his life. He was a man of action, not of words. He must really be worried about something if he had traveled halfway across the world to talk.
"Talk about what?" she asked.
"On the Helicarrier, after I…woke up," he said slowly, "I asked you why you wanted to fight Loki, and you said that you'd been compromised. What did you mean by that?"
Of course. She should have seen that coming.
To buy herself a little time, Natasha crossed the room and peered out the window. The street below was empty, the windows of the building opposite dark. No sign of Sokolov or his men. A big part of her wished there was.
"I don't want to talk about that," she said, making a conscious effort to keep her voice flat.
She heard the bed squeak as Clint stood and approached her, but she didn't turn around. A hand came down on her shoulder, gentle and warm.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Sometimes talking helps."
She jerked out of his grasp. "You're not my therapist, Clint."
"No, I'm not," he said quietly. "But I was under the impression that I was your friend."
There was genuine concern in those famously sharp eyes. Natasha couldn't remember the last time anyone had looked at her that way.
"Okay," she said. "Fine."
She sank down onto the bed. Clint sat beside her.
"We had Loki in custody, but we didn't know what he was planning," she began. "Fury couldn't get him to talk. I thought maybe I could."
Before she knew it, the story was pouring out of her—every ugly detail, every sickening word. She couldn't bring herself to look Clint in the eye as she told him how she'd nearly let the monster see her cry. Instead, she focused on his hands, which were slowly clenching into fists. By the time she got to the part where Loki called her a "mewling quim," his knuckles were white.
When she finally ran out of words, Clint swore under his breath.
"That bastard," he said. "I should have killed him when I had the chance."
Natasha knew what was the "right" response to that. If she were the hero the public thought she was, someone like Steve Rogers, she would say that violence wasn't the answer, that killing Loki wouldn't erase what he'd put her through. But they would just be empty words, so she said nothing.
"I still don't understand why you said you were compromised," Clint added after a moment. "You played the helpless female card to get him to talk. You do that all the time."
Natasha shook her head.
"This was different," she said. "I wasn't acting when I broke down in front of Loki. When I snapped out of it and walked away, cool as a cucumber, that was the act. I let him get under my skin."
"Loki would get under anyone's skin," said Clint. "You said it yourself, Tasha. All of our training couldn't have prepared us for him."
"But he didn't do anything to me!" Natasha slammed her fist down on the nightstand. "He didn't need his magic or his alien tech. He got to me just by talking."
It was a long time before Clint spoke again.
Natasha finally looked at him. "Sorry for what?" she asked, baffled.
"For telling Loki your secrets." Clint looked as miserable as he had when he first woke up from the trickster's spell. "How do you think he knew about the hospital fire and everything else? I told him. He asked, and I gave him exactly what he needed to hurt you."
Natasha shook her head. "He messed around with your brain. You weren't in control."
"If I had fought harder—"
"Clint, I told you, don't do that to yourself."
"You don't have to coddle me!" he burst out. "I screwed up. I failed you. It's okay to be mad at me. I understand."
"But I'm not mad at you!" Natasha was starting to get frustrated now.
"Nat, come on," said Clint. "You've been ignoring my texts, and you tried to get out of eating with me tonight. Suddenly, you don't want to be around me, and it's obvious why."
"It's okay." He was calmer now, the anger replaced with a sort of resigned sadness. "I get it. And I'm sorry. If I'd realized before, I wouldn't have…" He gestured vaguely at the room. "Just go."
Suddenly, Natasha was furious. With Clint, with herself, with the situation in general, but most of all with Loki, for driving this wedge between them. After all they had gone through to defeat him, the psychopath was still screwing things up.
"No," she said. "No, I will not just go. I'm not going to leave you here, wallowing in self-pity. I'm not going to leave you thinking that I hate you when really—"
Her brain caught up with her mouth and cut her off, but it was already too late. Clint sat up a little straighter.
"When really, what?" he asked.
Natasha tried to play it cool. "I don't hate you," she said simply.
"That's not what you were going to say."
She tried to turn away, but he reached out and grabbed her by chin, gently but firmly moving her head until she was looking straight into those icy blue eyes.
"Natasha?" he whispered.
Natasha Romanoff was famous for her ability to stay calm amidst chaos. She had faced an alien invasion without losing her cool. So why did she find it so hard to think straight with Clint Barton looking at her that way?
"I have been keeping my distance, but not because I hate you," she said. She took a deep breath. "Quite the opposite."
It might have been funny in a different context, watching the gears turn in Clint's head. But Natasha knew how this had to end, and laughing was the last thing she felt like doing.
"I should go," she said.
She was nearly to the door when Clint caught up with her. It said volumes about her life that, when she felt his hands on her wrist and hip, her first thought was that she was being attacked. But the next moment he was spinning her around, and then their mouths collided, and all thoughts of combat flew from her mind, along with everything else.
The kiss was exactly what she had imagined in those weak moments when she let herself imagine anything at all: rough and passionate and full of emotion. It was like Clint was trying to show her all of the things he couldn't put into words. Then she realized that she was kissing him back with equal fervor.
It took every ounce of willpower she had to pull away.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I can't." And then she bolted out of the room.
Clint didn't try to follow her. Maybe he understood, or maybe he was simply too stunned to act. She would never know. In the morning, a jet would take her back to the Helicarrier, where she had a meeting with Director Fury. She would ask him not to put her on any missions with Agent Barton for a while.
She would not be compromised again.