AUTHOR'S NOTE: Hawkeye and Widow, after they get into that car. This, to me, is the story that cried out to be written, and of course it has been. But I couldn't resist giving it my own spin, based on how I see these characters: adults; cool professionals capable of handling just about everything their line of work throws at them; but still fundamentally human.
This is my first foray into the Avengers fandom - I normally write elsewhere – constructive comments are most welcome. My characterizations are based on the movie 'verse; I have no direct knowledge of the comics. (What I read from secondary sources made my head spin, so I'm mostly ignoring it in the name of artistic license.)
I own nothing but the words herein, as well as a tremendous respect for Jeremy Renner's abilities as an actor. His eyes told much of what went into this story.
GOING TO GROUND
By Alpha Flyer
She knows the grin that ghosts across his face when she makes that crack about Loki's ball gag into his ear is genuine. Natasha rarely deploys wit without reason, but knowing this wouldn't have made the comment any less funny to him. She watches his shoulders relax a fraction, even as he observes the shackled god through eyes that remain shielded behind dark glasses.
They nod farewell to Thor – good guy, even if he might wish to consider a haircut - but neither of them bothers to look up for very long as he takes his not-quite brother off into the bright morning sky. Instead, they head for Clint's car. He gets in with his usual loose grace and she follows suit.
"So, where're we going?"
Natasha casts a sideways glance at her partner as he guns the engine, watches him shrug. Over his shoulder, she sees the Captain roar away on his bike; Stark squeals the tires on his pricy red import as he heads off with Banner, doubtless to show off the lab that he's been bragging about to the hapless Doctor.
Clint considers her question.
"I genuinely have no idea. Out of here."
He turns his head and she knows his sharp eyes are searching her face for a reaction to this rather unusual lack of precision, but all she can see in those glasses is her own reflection. Her lips quirk a little smile, and she looks out the side window at the still smoking ruins of the Global Life building. There's a Hulk-sized hole on the fourteenth floor where Banner must have gone Chitauri-smashing; shattered glass dusts the sidewalks, glinting in the morning sun.
It doesn't take her long to decide: Where doesn't really matter, as long as it's not here. After all, they've done this before, and location has always been secondary.
"Out of here is good enough," she says, and leans back in her seat. "Just don't drive into anything."
Clint snorts his response, and the next twenty minutes or so pass in near-silence as he maneuvers around burnt-out cars, downed Chitauri sleds (some corpses) and smoldering bits of mid-town Manhattan. The Hawk doesn't slow down for any of it, just dips and swoops around the rubble, sometimes right through it, finding openings where even the most ruthless Italian driver would throw in the towel.
For a while Natasha closes her eyes to all of it, content to let him do his thing and ride out the jolts and turns. She anticipates each instinctively, almost as if her body has become part of the car; perhaps it has, in these days of gods and monsters and men encased in iron? The thought evaporates at about the same time as last night's junk food extravaganza starts giving her grief.
"I don't think I'll ever eat shawarma again," she says conversationally, but through pinched lips.
"Beats that plov you made me eat in Tashkent," he replies. "Sat in my gut like a football, for like a month."
She snickers as she remembers the steady stream of complaints following the dinner at the State guesthouse, a place with extravagantly gilt ceilings and grim but ineffectual body guards, where bureaucrats, well-meaning foreign diplomats and diamond-encrusted oligarchs mix and mingle over Central Asian cuisine, vodka and third-rate wine. Taking down the corrupt and venal head of the Uzbek security service that night had left no lingering bad taste in either of their mouths, but after-action cleanup involved a gallon of Pepto-Bismol at Frankfurt airport.
"You ever stop whining about that?" she challenges him, smiling when she gets back the expected, "I don't whine. I just call 'em."
They've had this conversation before, more than once; it's part of their canon, like Budapest.
The more they head South-East through Manhattan, the more acrid the air becomes though, and Natasha can't turn off her sense of smell. Clint rolls up the windows but the stench remains; unbidden, the memories start flooding in, and the shawarma wants out. Her heart starts thrumming and pounding and suddenly she's back on that Chitauri scooter, screaming through the burning city canyons to the ack-ack-ack of gunfire. She opens her eyes just as Clint jackknifes the car, a motion that catapults her halfway out of her seat and into the door until the belt slams into her chest and pulls her back down; it's all she can do to hang on to the shawarma.
"Jesus, Barton, what the …?" she hisses out from between clenched teeth, the curse belying her residual gratitude for being pushed off of that scooter inside her head.
For a moment, they stare out the front window, analyzing the sight before them, each in their own way. One of those humpback whale monstrosities that fell out of the sky when Stark nuked the mother ship lies clear across the road, but it's down a fair ways, almost as if it had crashed through the road. How do these things even fly, she wonders now that she has time to look at it, and where would you go in to take one down?
"… fuck," Clint kind of finishes her sentence, then adds his own thoughts, rather more utilitarian than hers. "Guess the Holland tunnel is out."
He makes an illegal U-turn, then peels off the wrong way through a side street to head towards the Williamsburg Bridge. Luckily there's not much traffic and the New York police are busy with other things, and so he gets away with it. Not that he wouldn't have otherwise; the cop car that can catch Agent Barton when he's on the move hasn't been built yet.
"Long Island it is," he shrugs, not expecting a response and not getting one either. Natasha looks back at the black, skeletal mountain until it disappears from view.
Once they're over the bridge on clearer roads and the Manhattan smoke has thinned, Natasha rolls down the window a little. She yawns and slinks down in her seat a little bit, puts her feet on the dashboard. Her stomach has stopped heaving and she doesn't really want to think about anything, so she takes some time to study her partner as he drives in silence.
As always, he's totally focused, all coiled stillness except for the hands that spin the wheel and occasionally pump the gears (the archer always drives standard, for that old-fashioned element of control). His hands are strong and calloused in interesting places from his bow, and the lines around his mouth are taut. Still, with his short hair sticking up off his forehead, those shades and that grey hoody he's wearing, she can't help but think that he looks like a delinquent teenager out for a joy ride in Daddy's car.
"You're staring," he says. "Why?"
Even with his eyes forward and on the road, the Hawk misses nothing. Sometimes, she thinks, his peripheral vision is less of an asset than a pain in the ass; so is his penchant for hitting straight at the core of an issue with minimum fuss. The Widow, on the other hand, is all about dancing in the shadows, not showing cards, that sort of thing.
"Just thinking," she obfuscates. "How are they going to clean those things up?"
He probably knows she's being evasive, but they have this unspoken rule: no real arguing while they're still leveling out, except when it's on purpose and for a reason. Bickering is okay, of course – that's part of the deal.
"Invite every scrap dealer in the country for a free-for-all," he offers instead, as if he'd been giving this matter serious thought. Maybe he has.
"They're like vultures. Streets would be picked clean inside a month, at absolutely no cost to the taxpayers. Personally, I'm more worried about the corpses - who knows what kind of bugs these aliens brought with them. Hope the city has enough disinfectant."
That's Clint Barton all over again: Figuring out the angles, laying it out, here's the solution, thwack/boom. According to Selvig he'd told the Director, when they were looking at the tesseract, that Doors open from both sides - just moments before all hell broke loose. All those highly trained scientists working round the clock, and the guy with the bow puts his finger on the one detail they'd all missed.
She finds contemplating her partner oddly comforting, like pulling on one of his old sweatshirts that she pinched on a chilly stakeout and never gave back. Thinking about Clint Barton sure beats other topics.
In the meantime, he's taken the hint and seems ready to continue the banter - sort of.
"I trust you got a good detox? You got awfully close and personal with these … things."
"They were wearing armour," she shrugs. "I mostly just kicked them off the saucer. No need to bite, or touch. But yes, I washed my hands before dinner."
He flashes the expected grin, but then sobers up quickly and unexpectedly. His voice is kind of husky when he speaks.
"By the way, thanks."
"For what?" She's genuinely puzzled, tries to figure where he's coming from.
"For bringing me Loki."
Ah. That. Right – Widow on Chitauri saucer, Hawkeye on ledge, Loki in scope. Clint's mind works in a pretty linear fashion, like the flight of his arrows, even when he's free-associating.
"You're welcome. He needed to be brought down, and I knew you could do it."
They both know there's more than that, of course – you were the one who needed to do it - but she thinks it'll do for now.
It doesn't. He needs her to know that he knows, right now.
"Felt good, knocking him off. Really good. So – thanks."
After a moment's silence, he adds almost like an afterthought, "Especially seeing the tip blow up in his arrow-gant face."
Clint sometimes descends into lowbrow humour, but while Natasha speaks English like a native she's never taken to puns; it's just not her style. Making a comment now would only encourage him, and so she just groans.
But he grins anyway, having accomplished his short-term objective: message delivered, received, defused, erased. Cleaning the ledger is best done one bit at a time.
They're still not on the Long Island Expressway when the need for caffeine strikes him, forcefully. Thanks to an app that Coulson (Coulson…) put on Natasha's Smartphone at some point, they have no problem locating a Starbucks just off the #278. This one has a couple of tables outside and its good to get some fresh air - the first in days; she sips her usual chai latte while he knocks back a double espresso, then goes back for another. Over the years she's stopped wondering how he keeps his hands so still given the amount of caffeine in his veins at any given time; it's a good combination, though, being able to stay awake on a perch for hours and still being ready for that one don't-miss shot.
Since they're not on mission Natasha decides to let her hair down and shakes it out; there's a fair bit of wind though, and she sputters a little when it blows in her face. Clint leans across the small metal table with his free hand to tuck a strand behind her ear. It's a curious gesture, one he's made before, and she's never quite sure what he means by it. But there's something nice about it, too, and so she doesn't stop him - even though whatever effect he may think he's achieving is beyond futile at the moment.
When they head back to the car, Clint takes a sideways look at her, his eyes lingering on her face for the briefest of moments before he gets back in and turns on the ignition.
The drive is longer than Natasha expected but Clint is adamant: if they are doing this Long Island thing they're doing it properly, and that means the Hamptons, all the way at the far end.
"Isn't that where Stark has one of his Playboy mansions?" Natasha frowns, remembering something from her days as 'Nathalie-Rushman-From-Legal'. She's almost gotten used to Tony since then, but right now she needs to level out and that means she wants only her partner, no thousand-words-a-minute billionaires and their live-in PAs, however congenial.
"Don't worry about him. He's got a tower to fix and a suit to polish," is Clint's laconic answer.
The first Hampton they come to – South? – they pass a few nice places that could be B&Bs, but Clint rejects them all.
"Why?" Natasha is a bit non-plussed; he's slept in anything from a cave to the top of a hundred-foot pine tree, so why get picky now? He shrugs.
"No ocean view?" he offers, and she understands immediately; it isn't the same as being up high, but as open space goes, the sea will do for him.
The house they find almost by accident oozes gentility – pale yellow siding, white gingerbread under the many-gabled roof, a meticulously landscaped garden. Beyond it, through the grass-topped dunes, you can see the sea and there's a sign, a discrete but comforting nod to capitalism, that says Vacancy. They had Natasha at "spa facilities."
"Meets requirements," he shrugs diffidently.
Neither of them cares much what it will cost; after they helped save Manhattan (and possibly the planet) from an alien invasion, surely Fury will be good for this. A couple of nights in a B&B in New York state is bound to be cheaper than a month of PTSD counseling, which is what someone like Hill will need after major shit has gone down, not to mention more efficient. And even if S.H.I.E.L.D. decides to be cheap about it, Clint usually lives on what he gets for expenses on mission; he hasn't tapped into his paycheck for months.
"Hey, we just saved the world, Tasha. Let's live a little."
They introduce themselves to the middle-aged woman who runs the place as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, an inside joke that Natasha didn't initially get until Clint made her watch the movie during a lull between missions. (She remembers snorting popcorn up her nose at some of the stuff the producers considered normal in their line of work.)
Natasha drops the old-fashioned metal key on the credenza and looks around the bright, sunlit room. White walls, blue upholstered rattan furniture, blue-and-white curtains fluttering in the breeze – fresh seaside décor at its quaintest, not exactly her style but also not the place you'd come looking for people who ply their trade dressed in black leather. She gives Clint credit for taking it all in stride.
"It'll do," she decides, even as she takes note of the fact that there's only one bed. They could of course get separate quarters, but that would just look stupid, given how they'd arrived in the same car; besides it's much easier to have someone's back when it's in the same room.
He must have seen her eyes pause on the deficient infrastructure, because he gets to the point right away.
"I'll take the couch."
She gives him The Look - puh-lease. Like they haven't shared a bed before - even body heat, like that time in Bishkek, when a sudden storm swept down from the Alatau mountains and a city with spotty access to electrical power found itself covered overnight in a foot of unexpected snow. And before that, there was Astana, of course...
They have proven to themselves and each other, time and again, that they are partners, adults, and professionals.
And – something she'll only admit to herself, and only after a couple of shots of vodka – sometimes it can be nice to have a solid presence close by when you wake up in the middle of the night, staring at … nothing inside your head.
"No, seriously, it'll be fine, Tasha. I'll be fine."
And then she sees something flickering in his eyes, something that hasn't been there before, and she finds herself nodding.
"Sure. The couch is yours."
She'll have a couple of days to figure out what it is that he's hiding.
The spend what remains of the afternoon walking along the ocean. They're mostly silent, just breathing in the salty air, but then he mutters something about sand and takes off his shoes, which is actually not a bad idea so she follows suit. Neither of them tries the water – hell, it's only May, this is the Atlantic and they're not stupid – but Clint picks up a few flat rocks and skips them. As with anything involving projectiles he's rather good at it and the water is calm; Natasha loses count at twenty-seven, when the bounces get too close together to see. Funny thing is, she's counting in Russian; Clint pretends not to notice but it's clear that he does.
There are a few dinner options – go into the little town, where there are a couple of restaurants marked on that app of Coulson's, or stay in the guesthouse. As they learned during check-in, the place is more than a B&B, they serve dinner as well; boxed lunches, too, if you ask. As far as Clint is concerned, not having to operate an automated conveyance for a day or so is a Good Thing and besides, the menu for the night includes steak frites, which he figured out during that casino job in Nice is just a pretentious way of saying 'steak and potatoes'. So, all in all, Clint Barton is good with staying put.
Natasha rolls her eyes at her partner's lack of culinary imagination.
"It's amazing you're still alive, Barton, you can be so predictable sometimes."
But it's settled, they'll stay at the Inn; she doesn't much feel like going out either. The whole idea of leveling out is to go somewhere quiet and take a deep breath, isn't it?
Dinner, as it turns out, is actually pretty good, even if Clint makes a face at the mesclun salad they get as an unasked-for starter – but it comes with the meal, Mr. Smith! … He wants his steak and the sooner the better; he's gone through all the rolls already.
"Eat your vegetables, Clint Barton. You'd be a lot taller if you'd done that as a kid," Natasha scolds him as he pushes the leaves around on his plate with an air of utter distaste. But the truth of his trainwreck of a childhood doesn't really go with the good line, and so to pre-empt him from zeroing in on the obvious counter-argument she adds, "I bet Thor doesn't eat just red meat."
He readily seizes on the diversion.
"Thor is a god," he says, "I'm not. He quaffs mead, too. I don't do that, either. And I definitely don't nibble on leaves. Codename's Hawkeye, not Cottontail."
He spears the cherry tomato she'd been saving for last off her plate, pops it into his mouth and pulls a face at her.
All in all, they do the normal couple thing quite well – they do have prior experience – although Clint occasionally stares at the genteel paintings of English racehorses on the dining room wall as if he was looking at the towers of Asgard. (Maybe they should have gone back to the Zen Garden in Lijiang? Although Fury almost flipped at just how far they'd gone off the grid that time.)
There's a buzz in the room throughout dinner, and the snatches of conversation they pick up from the other patrons are full of words like "invasion," "Manhattan," and "those so-called Avengers." It's a good thing that Clint and Natasha's world is as alien to the people here as theirs is to them; certainly none of the Merlot or Riesling-sipping folks here would expect to see the Black Widow a few feet away, carefully picking the olives off her plate and passing them to "that sniper who uses a bow, of all things." And so they don't, and that, as far as Natasha Romanoff is concerned, is a Very Good Thing.
The proprietress wafts in during dessert to make sure everyone is happy and feels that touch of personal attention. Ever the animatrix, she breathlessly points out that since our two young newcomers here have just arrived from New York, maybe they could give everyone an idea of what it's like there right now, and did they see any of the monsters?
Natasha shakes her head, claiming an Upper West Side provenance ("folks living North of 39th were spared the worst" – true) but provides the curious with a short but dramatic exposé of smoking ruins, wrecked retail space and traffic snarl-ups, as seen on their way out of town. Sometimes it's just best to hide in plain sight.
"I hear the Holland Tunnel is out," Clint tosses in manfully. "Some alien space ship crashed right through the roof. Will take months to fix that."
This sensational piece of information launches a lively discussion of commuting woes, neglected infrastructure, and what are we paying property taxes for anyway? They manage to extricate themselves from it when Clint's second espresso arrives.
"Nice, Barton," Natasha concedes, and stifles a yawn. Actually, she tries to stifle it, but fails miserably. It really has been a shit few days, even though she wasn't in Colcata long enough to develop a proper jet lag. But before that it was Mother Russia and that was what, EDT plus seven hours? And oh yes, there was all the fighting, and those aliens, and … she's really suddenly … just … so …
Clint is really the only one who's ever been permitted to see her crash; it's one of the reasons they always go to ground in private. Reputation to uphold, and all that. Although Fury probably knows that she can't go on forever. He keeps tabs on his assets, but this way everyone can pretend. Coulson knew. Coulson …
But the fact that she knows what's coming doesn't mean she won't fight it. She sits up straight in her chair.
"Not tired. I'm okay."
She glares at him, but he just cuts her off.
"You made me eat a tomato. I can make you go to bed."
It's actually quite funny, she thinks as he half drags her up the stairs, how few people know that Mr. Brooding Intensity Himself can actually be quite funny.
Wait. That was kind of repetitive. Shit. Her brain is looping. This isn't good.
What if someone …
Hell with it. Her partner is here. He has her back.
She mutters a token protest as Clint lifts the utility black dress over her head, puts her on the bed and pulls off her slingbacks. She blacks out almost as soon as he covers her with the duvet, the remnants of her conscious brain thinking that he left on her bra and isn't it a good thing that she hardly ever dreams.
But hardly ever isn't now, and now is …
… the icy blue vacuum that is the eyes of the God of Lies, but his face turns into something else … someone else … and she hears herself scream and she turns to run, racing down an endless corridor and then there's a monster … and more monsters … and it's not really a dream, is it?
She feels the hand on her shoulders and hears, "Shh, Tasha, 's alright. Nightmare. Go back to sleep."
The Black Widow is having a bad dream? Dreams are for children …
But then there's that arm around her waist, warmth on her back, another heartbeat, slower than hers, and she stops fighting. Someone's mouth, his mouth, his lips in her hair, breathing softly, breathing calm into her, and did he ever even sleep himself?
In the morning, she wakes up to sunlight on her pillow, a breeze from the ocean through the open window, and an empty room.