Clint leaves it for two days, three days, a week, drowns himself in good vodka and bad calls, does his best not to think about it. He's watched Natasha play this game before, post-apocalypse patch jobs--because that's what this is, really, whether he'll say it out loud or not. The end of the world can land hard even if the world's still spinning; nothing quite like a good bout of mind control to remind you that you're not in control at all.
He leaves it for a week, seven aching days where he doesn't speak to anyone, doesn't read the news, hides his phone underneath the hotel mattress and doesn't go outside. He leaves it for a week, because it's supposed to be his turn, damn it; he leaves it for a week because he knows the truth, if he's honest, suspected it the moment he woke up and knew it for certain when she let him walk away. A week is as long as he can let himself live in limbo, can play at excuses and drown it in drink. On the eighth day, he picks up his phone.
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 8:45 PM EST
i want to talk about budapest
Subject: (No subject)
I want to talk about Budapest
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 9:51 PM EST
did you just email instead of texting for the sole purpose of bolding the word "i"
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 9:57 PM EST
you did, didn't you
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 10:03 PM EST
and from a secret scary yahoo account, like i don't know there are better ways to encrypt your comms, what the hell tasha
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 10:05 PM EST
eight years and the first time i get more than a few written syllables out of you is for a FONT OPTION
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 10:08 PM EST
honestly i'm almost charmed
Natasha Romanov to Clint Barton, 7:12 AM MSK
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 10:15 PM EST
no you're not
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 10:17 PM EST
or hell, maybe you are. whatever, here's the deal: what I'VE got re: budapest involves silk sheets and scandalized room service. that what you got?
Natasha Romanov to Clint Barton, 7:45 AM MSK
Clint Barton to Natasha Romanov, 10:46 PM EST
that's what i thought. see you there.
Natasha doesn't believe in leaving evidence, and Clint doesn't believe in doubting Natasha; they've been speaking in code for years, pieces of themselves they've reduced to indecipherable nonsense, numbers and letter that wouldn't mean anything to anyone else. 137 means Lisbon, neutral territory because it's the last major city left where neither one of them has spilled innocent blood; 137 means something else, too, something darker and harder to quantify, something that might be loss to people who trade on other people's losing. 137 means goddamn it, not again, means S.O.S., means I'm not sure if you've noticed, but our stories don't line up.
She's already there when Clint rolls through the doors of the Hotel do Chiado, twitching away from anyone who comes near him and all but hugging the wall; he knows it a hundred ways, confirms it when he finds a room key tucked behind a mirror in the guest bathroom on the first floor. He rides the elevator up, up, lets himself into room 731, and has half a second to appreciate the now-familiar view of the Tagus before she's got him pressed to the wall, her arm an iron bar against his throat.
"Hello you to too," he chokes out, and she releases him, eyes narrowed. "You want to tell me how much time you spent with Loki, Tash?"
"Less time than you did," she says, circling him. If Clint wasn't sure before, he's sure now--nobody knows enough about brainwashing, about memory wipes, about the myriad ways there are to do it and how impossibly simple it seems to be to make it stick. But Clint knows the aftermath, and Clint knows Natasha, and Clint knows the aftermath because he knows Natasha. It takes something from everyone, no matter how many times they've had it done. Natasha always (always, always) loses her grip on trust; Clint's not sure what he's missing yet, but he knows there's something gone. The hollow ache in his chest tells him that much.
"You think I'm gonna kill you?" he says lightly. "Really? After all these years?
"You think I'm going to risk it?" Natasha says, still circling. "When I'm not sure who's calling the shots?"
Clint narrows his eyes and gives up, bending his knees as he starts circling himself, matching her step for step. "Shots are all mine. I'm nobody's minion."
"You were last week." Natasha's eyes are hard; if he didn't know her so well, he'd call them unforgiving. "Don't tell me you've forgotten."
"Think you've cornered the market on forgetting, Tasha."
"Yeah, that's cute and everything," Natasha says, "but you forget--I know what I'm doing here. You don't. If Clint's in there somewhere--"
"Oh, fuck you, I'm not--"
"Please feel free to remind him I've done the comedown four times," Natasha continues over him. "And all he's done is watched."
Clint stares at her for a second. Then, exhausted by her and for her, he straightens, stops moving, and holds his hand out, palm-in. He wiggles each of his fingers in turn (one-two-three-four-five), and winces, eyebrows up. "It was supposed to be my turn, you know."
"It is your turn." She's still crouched, ready to spring, but she has, at least, stopped circling, abandoned the pretense of maintaining a perimeter. "Look, Clint, whatever you think happened between us in Budapest--"
"It wasn't just Budapest," Clint says, "Jesus, do you think I'd be bothering with any of this if it was just--Tasha! Are you honestly telling me you don't have any of it?"
"Any of what?"
The blood doesn't drain from Clint's face, because of course it doesn't. Because he's better trained than that; because he always knew this could happen; because he's a grown man in a line of work for which desensitization is a prerequisite; because, all things considered, this should be the least of his worries. Because there are worse things to lose, probably, even if Clint can't think of them right now. His mouth goes dry anyway, never cooperative even when he needs it to be--Budapest and Prague and that Super 8 in Michigan, smiles stolen over carnage and history traded like poker chips and god, what if all of it's gone? "If you're fucking with me, I swear to god--"
"Is that really what you think of me?" Natasha straightens up in indignation, crosses her arms over her chest, and Clint thinks it's a comfort that she at least remembers enough to be annoyed at him. Cold comfort, but comfort all the same. "You really think that I'd screw with your head after someone else did? Really?"
"I," Clint starts, and stops. He sits down heavily on the closest bed, and notices too late that this is a double suite; was it, last time? He could swear they've fucked in here, this room, this view, this pattern on the duvet--did they just pick one bed and use it? Did they push them together? Did Natasha call ahead this time and ask for…but that wouldn't make sense, would it? He's sure he knows the answers here, certain they're somewhere underneath the haze of doubt that's colored his vision since he came back to himself. He's sure, but not that sure.
"You?" Natasha prompts, clipped and curious at once.
"I need a minute," Clint admits, because even without the doubt…hell, even without the whole mess on his end of things (Loki and his bright-blue gaze, blood on his hands he didn't choose to spill, the constant tremor of uncertainty, who am I, who am I), he'd need a minute. Natasha was programmed when he met and failed to kill her, and he's watched her shake off someone else's thoughts twice since then--last time she remembered him, them, remembered everything, and it still took her months to answer his calls. This is going to need careful handling, and Clint's not sure he has careful handling in him; this is going to need kid gloves, and Clint's hands are as bare and raw as the rest of him, just now.
"I can give you a minute," Natasha says, and then, in the same breath, throws a vicious punch. It's not as fast as he knows it could be, but it's not pulled either; he throws up a hand, fingers spread, and catches her fist against his palm. It hurts, delicate bones creaking under the pressure, and Clint winces hard but doesn't so much as tighten his fingers to grip her fist, immobilize her. He just waits, the two of them cast in a tableau of every test they've ever passed, until Natasha steps away and smiles.
"That fucking hurt," Clint says, "in case you were wondering. Are you trying to kill me?"
"Just making sure you were in there somewhere," Natasha says. She shrugs when he raises his eyebrows. "You caught it, didn't hit back, didn't treat me as a threat--that's you. Stupid, but you."
"I could have told you that," Clint mutters, and Natasha's smile is horrible.
"Yes," she agrees, "but I couldn't have believed you. Take your minute."
Clint is pretty sure that normally he’d offer up a pithy comment, a quick retort, something; now he lays back against the bed, the cotton duvet cool against his arms, and says nothing at all. When he recognizes the pattern on the ceiling, he has to close his eyes and breathe through the jarring sense of unreality he’s been drinking himself out of for the last week. There are too many places he could start here, and not enough stopping points. What’s worse, he’s got no idea how far he can trust any of those starting places, those stopping points, all the things that once made up a life he could count on. "Right, okay. Supposing, for argument's sake, I told you we were in love and you forgot about it--how would you react?"
"Doubtfully to badly, depending on your presentation. When's the last time you slept?"
"With or without the aid of alcohol?"
"Thursday," Clint admits. He cracks one eye open and sees her staring, the less-than-casual assessment in her gaze, and yeah, sure, he knows what she's seeing. The circles under his eyes are worse than they were when he was Loki's, his hands are shaking, he hasn't washed, he hasn't eaten--he knows how to recognize unstable the same way she does, knows she's seeing in him what he's seen, a few times too many, in her. "Look, I know--"
"You don't," Natasha says. She sits down next to him soundlessly, eliciting not even one creak from the mattress, and Clint marvels, distantly, at the way she skirts the laws of physics like they're simply asinine suggestions. "If you did, you wouldn't even be talking about this. Love is for children, Clint. You know that."
Clint has to close his eyes again; when he speaks, his voice is a haggard whisper. He'd be embarrassed, but, well. "You haven't believed that in years."
"I've believed that all my life."
"And I proved you wrong," Clint says, because he has to. "I proved you wrong ages ago, Natasha, if you'd just--it must've been Loki. It has to have been, this is just the kind of thing he'd think was funny."
Natasha sighs, a soft, sad little sound. "And how do you know that?"
"Because I know him," Clint snaps. "It wasn't--I told you, he poured me out and poured something else in, okay? It wasn't…it didn't just go one way. He'd think this was hilarious, this is just the kind of thing he'd do, make sure my life was ripped up when I got back to it--"
"Clint," Natasha says, and that's a kind voice, which is terrible. Natasha is never kind; understanding, yes. Willing to listen, yes. Less than actively hostile, sure, but never kind. "What do you think is more likely here--that he modified my memory or added to yours? I'm not doubting that he'd get off on a little lasting psychological torture, but…Clint. Be rational. You were under his complete control for days; he never so much as touched me."
"Do you think he'd need to? For something as simple as a little memory wipe, you know people can do that remotely now, human people, so I don't really think it would be beyond him to--"
"You're being ridiculous."
"You just don't want to admit that this is a possibility!" Clint snaps. He regrets it the second it's out of his mouth, knows without looking that Natasha is furious. "Oh, Jesus, I'm sorry, don't kill me."
There's silence for a long moment, and then Clint feels Natasha spread across the bed next to him, her hair fanning out to tickle his shoulder. "Can't kill you for being right."
"So you do remember--"
"No," Natasha snaps. Then, softer, she adds, "But I can't deny that it's a possibility. Or that I wish it wasn't. But neither can you, which leaves us…"
"Fucked," Clint says bleakly, and Natasha sighs.
"More or less."
"You could just take a leap of faith and believe me," Clint tries after awhile. "I mean, would it really be so terrible? Being in love with me?"
"I don't know," Natasha says, sarcasm curdling her voice, cutting and overly harsh. Clint's wincing even before she says, "I'd say it would be about as terrible as knowing I was faking it, wouldn't you?"
"You do remember that we're friends, right?"
"Would I be here," Natasha says, "if I didn't?"
"I don't know what I'm doing," Clint admits, and hears the way it must sound to her--ragged and torn up, catching on the abuse he's been heaping on himself in the absence of another consciousness to do it for him. "I don't, I swear I'm not trying to jerk you around, I just…they warn you about being up shit creek without a paddle, but this is more like being up shit creek without a boat. But I know, I know you, I know us, or I think--I thought--if you'd just…oh, fuck."
Natasha's quiet for long enough that Clint's nervous by the time she says, "Alright, Barton. Let me make some educated guesses--you flew here commercial, used an alias, changed flights multiple times, made the marshall on every one and made sure he knew it, too. You spent your layovers obsessively tracking everyone who entered or exited your gate, and sitting with your back against the wall. You haven't downshifted from sniper position--mentally, I mean--since you woke up. There's at least one plastic knife on your person, that collapseable bow in your luggage, and you've been retracing your steps in your head every five minutes or so. Am I close?"
"Give the lady a prize," Clint says, too weary to be frightened by it, and Natasha sighs.
"I should've checked up on you sooner."
"That's how I knew you weren't right," Clint says. "I know you don't believe me, and I guess I don't blame you, but for the record? That's what really clinched it for me. I was pretty sure in that recovery room, but I thought maybe…I mean, I know how you are about risk, about keeping it quiet, so I let it go. And then I was pretty fucking sure when you compared that shitshow to Budapest, but when you just let me go…that's when I was sure. You'd never have done that if your head was on straight."
"My head is on fine," Natasha says, but she sounds unsure. "For the sake of full disclosure, you want to tell me what you think happened in Budapest? Because I've seen the footage, Clint. I think I would've noticed if we'd stopped in the middle of a firefight to do whatever it is you think we're doing."
"I said we were in love," Clint sighs, "I didn't say we were stupid. There was a firefight; we cleaned up. You had a hotel and I didn't. You invited me up for a drink and some first aid before the debrief. It turned into a couple drinks, and then…you really don't remember this?"
"I don't think it counts as not remembering if it didn't happen," Natasha says, but gently. It's a death knell anyway, ripping through what's left of Clint's certainty and leaving a wrecked, ribbon-cut white flag in its wake. "Go on, tell me the rest."
"We fucked," Clint says, with as much distance as he's capable of maintaining right now. "Okay? We fucked, and it was the first time, and then we blew off the debrief and stayed for….Jesus, I don't know. A few weeks, probably, all told. Ate too much, posed as all kinds of different people, did a little corporate espionage for kicks. Had a lot of sex. Saw an opera--well, you did, anyway. I took a nap."
"That does sound like you," Natasha admits after awhile. She sounds like she's reaching for amused and not quite managing it; Clint would open his eyes, check her expression to confirm, but it seems like more effort than he's got it in him to expend. "And then…what? What is it you think happened next?"
"Please don't make me do this," Clint says, trying and failing to avoid sounding bitter. "Please don't make me recount three years of being fucking crazy about you while you sit there and act like…Jesus, Tash. I don't have it in me right now, okay?"
"Because you don't remember the details?"
"Because you don't," Clint snarls. "You can guess about me screwing with the marshals for kicks and retracing my steps, but you can't figure out why I don't want to listen to you tell me the realest thing that I--that you--fuck."
"He really did a number on you," Natasha says, sounding badly shaken. "Didn't he?"
"On one of us, anyway."
Natasha doesn't say anything to that, and the silence blooms out between them until it's thick and heavy, clouding the room. There are too many things wrong here for Clint to pick just one to focus on, too many sharp edges and not enough relief. If things were normal, if things were real, he'd roll over and cup one of Natasha's agonizingly perfect breasts, spread his fingers out over the thin fabric of her black t-shirt until she pushed back against his hand, suck a bruise into the familiar hollow of her collarbone and abandon himself to white noise for awhile. She'd let him, the way she let him after that botched job in Singapore, the way he let her after that mistake in Halifax; they've always orbited each other, a binary system for all they're anything but stars. Clint hasn't ever had much to fall back on, a past he doesn't like to visit and a future that's uncertain at best, but he'd had Natasha, and Natasha'd had him. He can see, from this vantage point, what she'd meant when they first started out--it was always a recipe for disaster. He was always courting heartbreak. He wishes, without wishing it at all, that he could bring himself to be sorry.
"What now," Natasha says eventually. It's not a question, because Natasha doesn't ask questions she doesn't know the answer to; it's a capitulation, a baton pass. She means Call it, and Clint knows it for moment of generosity it is. He opens his eyes, fixes his gaze on the too-familiar stucco ceiling, takes two quick target breaths and rolls onto his side.
"What if," he says, "we tried it? No, I don't mean--look, either way we're friends, right? And you're right, you're the topic expert and I'm…a mess, honestly. I need your help, Tash."
Natasha's smile is uncertain, in the sense that it's clearly not sure whether it wants to be curious or warning. "If this is a line, Barton, you should know I'm not the kind of girl who'll offer up a pity fuck."
Clint snorts before he can help himself. It's an ugly sound, at odds with the glow of late-afternoon sunlight lancing through the window, and just for a second, he feels like himself. "Please. Like I don't know that. Hell, like I'd even want that, god. No, I mean--you've got that safe house, right? The one you're all nuts about keeping hush-hush, so what if we…I don't know. Spent a few weeks together, right?"
"You want to play spy vs. spy?" She raises a considering eyebrow at the ceiling, purses her lips. "You sure that's a good idea?"
"No," Clint admits, on a breath he has to punch out. "But it's the best idea I've got. We could start from zero; if I'm right, it stands to reason that we'd figure it out eventually, fall back into it."
At this, Natasha rolls over herself, facing him now on the bed. Like this they're closed parentheses, the space between them overfull with things Clint knows he can't say (Do you remember that time in Slovakia when you broke your wrist hauling me back in that car and you didn't even complain, didn't even mention it, kept shooting and didn't say a word while I sat there waiting to bleed out and kissed me when it was over, told me that if I died you'd haunt my afterlife, I know you love me, I know you love me). He lets himself look at her, and tries to remember the reality she seems to believe, tries to imagine a world where they're friends and only friends. It's impossible, and he realizes he doesn't know what he'll do if she leaves him here, in this familiar hotel room with its familiar view in the last city left where neither of them has harmed an innocent. He suspects it won't be pretty, however it turns out.
"And what if I'm not wrong," she says softly. "What happens then?"
Clint rolls his eyes. "Then I'll pine or something, Tasha, Jesus." It's not his worst cover ever, though admittedly it's not his best by a long shot. "I'm an adult, you're an adult. We're still friends either way. If I'm the one that's compromised, I'll accept it and we'll move on, end of story. Sound fair?"
"Not to you."
Clint stiffens before he can help it. "Fair or not, if you leave me here, I’m not sure if I can--"
"I'm not going to fucking leave you here, Barton, god." Natasha looks torn and firm at once, which should be impossible, but Natasha's never been much for following rules. "I'm gonna do it--you'll have to let me drug you for the trip, I'm not giving up my safe house even for you. But I need to know we'll be able to work together when--"
"When this doesn't go the way you're expecting it to," Natasha says, so firm Clint's teeth hurt. "Can you promise me that? I'd like to maintain our friendship, of course, but more than that, I want to know you've got my back. And I want to know we're going to be able to function together as well as we always have--if this is going to compromise that, you'd better tell me right now."
"It won't," Clint says, and knows, one way or another, that he's lying.
Clint wakes up slowly and against his will, which is how he knows he's been drugged. There's still enough of whatever it is in his system to render the panic distant and dull, a scream from miles and miles away; he blinks once, twice, yawns hugely, runs what checks he can. All limbs are answering for duty, if sluggishly, and he's not registering the muted echo of pain he's come to associate with hospital rooms. His vision hasn't cleared enough to offer him more than a haze of light, but he is at least pretty sure it's his vision--there's nothing in his head but him, no yawning blank spaces where he knows his own thoughts should be, no raw, barbed pressure bearing down on him.
"I'm going a little heavy on this," he remembers Natasha saying, a lifetime ago (or, just maybe, not). "You could use the rest."
Natasha, then. Natasha drugged him. He stops trying to push through the cloud and closes his eyes again, lets himself wait to drift up and out--she probably had permission, or, at very least, a good reason. Either way she wouldn't hurt him, and wherever he is, it's soft and warm; the air tastes clean, and no one's yelling. This, in Clint's experience, is more than enough to count as a good sign. He can afford to wait.
It comes back to him in pieces; Lisbon, a night spent in separate double beds, a run to a old contact to pick up new drugs, arrangements made, a syringe sinking into his arm. New Mexico, You've got heart, the ice-blue tendrils of someone else's thoughts, the sick-smooth release of someone else's killshots. New York, adrenaline like a gut punch, the roaring in his ears too loud for doubt; Poughkeepsie, a hotel room where nobody would know his name, empty bottles of the sort of vodka Natasha taught him to drink. Budapest and Moscow, Prague and Bratislava, a Super 8 in Michigan and a Ritz Carlton in Hong Kong and always, always her, smirking at him with hooded eyes, stripped naked and forever armed, borne on an ill wind she still turned her way--
--and she doesn't remember any of it. Clint opens his eyes.
The room he's in is spacious and airy, big windows and wood-paneled walls, the bed he's tucked into covered in simple white linens, a light duvet of the same color tangled betwixt his legs. Even if he hadn't remembered their agreement--her safe house for his sanity--he'd recognize this place as Natasha's. She has patterns and habits when she's allowed the luxury of indulging them, quirks of design he's marked down in every not-quite-home whose threshold she's allowed him to cross. Natasha likes things simple, likes tasteful prints on the walls and natural light, likes clear exits and doors she can lock. It occurs to Clint, too late and not without anguish, to wonder if this is the legacy of losing control--if Natasha's learned to store herself up in places, in things, so she'll have something to gauge herself against when her mind is no longer reliable.
He pushes himself out of the bed, opens a window and sticks his head outside; the air is chilled, but that could mean anything. Clint knows Natasha's got a house in Derbent, an apartment in Los Angeles, a flatshare in Milan she almost never uses. He knows there are others, too, hidey-holes she's scattered across the globe and held close to her chest, knows that this one in particular is her most prized and least mentioned--she's confessed a lot of things to him, but Clint knows better than to imagine he's heard all her secrets. From what he can see they're in a valley, forested hills giving way to mountain peaks in the distance. He could make an educated guess from that if he wanted to, or wait and narrow it down by hemisphere after a few days to watch the weather, but there's no point. She'll tell him if she wants him to know, and he's not stupid enough to push that particular envelope.
For a long time he stays there, shoving more than just his head out into the open air until his shoulders, his arms, are past the window frame, until he's balanced on his diaphragm two stories up from the ground. Briefly he's weightless, caught on the thin tendril of adrenaline at the chance that he could fall, buoyed by his certainty that his balance is better than that…and then he wonders if that's really true, chokes on the sudden rush of doubt, scrapes a splinter into his hand as he scrambles back inside. He's still biting at it when he makes his way downstairs in boxers and one of the undershirts he found in the wardrobe, his teeth gnawing rough against his palm and his free hand pulling at his hair to distract him. It shouldn't matter, a splinter, not to someone who's been met with shrapnel and stab wounds, but the idea of something under his skin, just now, grates.
"Sleeping Beauty awakens," Natasha says, dry, from nowhere. Clint would jump in surprise, but he's long since accepted that sharing any sort of space with Natasha is to live in eternal surprise. "How do you feel?"
He looks around for a minute--not in front, not behind, wall to the left, must be around the corner--and spots her. She's curled in an armchair in the next room, feet tucked up under her, wearing yoga leggings and a sweatshirt Clint knows, knows was his once. He doesn't remember where he got it, though, the insignia faded out to the point of being unrecognizable, and doubt stabs at him again, throbs at his palm in sympathy. Natasha has a newspaper folded in thirds on her lap, and he's seen her like this so many times, in so many places, that he's not sure he's ever seen her at all.
"I've felt worse," says Clint, which is the truth, if not the whole truth. "You got a needle around here somewhere?"
"I didn't think I'd need to state explicitly that the knock-out was for travel purposes only," Natasha says, severe. "It's not that I don't understand the impulse, but you can't just drug yourself out of this, Clint."
Clint stares her blankly for a moment, brain still operating on half-second lag. Then he works it out and laughs, a short, barked-loose sound, and holds up his palm. "No, sorry, I meant an actual needle. Sewing needle. I was poking around upstairs, gave myself a splinter."
"Oh," Natasha says, and smiles. She drops the newspaper onto the coffee table and leads him into the kitchen, opens a drawer and starts rummaging around. The sight of the sink reminds Clint that he's thirsty, and he moves to the third cabinet from the wall automatically, knowing without bothering to ask that Natasha will have set this kitchen up the way she's set up all her others. Sure enough, there's a row of glass tumblers waiting for him, and he snatches one and moves to the sink, throws, "Hey, is the tap water okay to drink?" over his shoulder as he goes.
She doesn't answer; when he turns around, she's staring at him, her expression guarded. "How did you know that's where the glasses were?"
"You…always set up house the same way," Clint says after a beat. "Especially the kitchens, for some reason. Never have worked out why."
"But you've never been here before."
"Right, I know, but I've been to--"
"No you haven't," Natasha snarls, and looks appalled at herself. "I mean, the memories you're working off of. They're…they're not accurate."
Clint stares at her, the fear in her eyes anyone else would miss, the way her hands have gone to fists, and shrugs. "Well, they were right about the glasses, anyway. Tap water?"
"Uh," Natasha says, "yeah. Yes, it's fine to drink."
"Great," Clint says, and busies himself with filling a glass. He knows it's not fair, the spike of annoyance at the distrust in her eyes; he knows that in normal circumstances, if his ground was steady, it wouldn't bother him at all. But his ground isn't steady, is shifting under his feet every time he takes a step, and he can't quite help resenting her for not being the bastion of safety he always expected she'd be, if the tables were ever turned on him like this.
When he's drank his fill of water, she hands over a sewing kit wordlessly, one of those tiny folding ones they give you sometimes in hotels. He feels his irritation fade when their fingers brush, and she quirks a slight smile at him, shakes her head. "Don't say it, Barton."
"Wasn't going to say anything," Clint says, too innocent. "Certainly not anything about sewing being a rather sedate pursuit for you, no ma'am, not me."
"For your information, I keep this on hand in case of home surgery needs," Natasha says, eyebrows up. "You never know when you're going to need to suture on the fly."
"That…actually doesn't even surprise me." Clint grins at her, and after a second she grins back, some of the fear no one else would be able to spot clearing away. "Right, then, Dr. Romanova. I'm going to fish this bastard out, unless you'd like to do it for me."
"Think I'll leave you to it," she says, and heads back to her armchair. "There's a lighter on the windowsill."
Clint nods his thanks and grabs it, sits himself down at the kitchen table and heaves out a deep sigh. If only the rest of this was as simple as pulling a splinter….ah, well. He sterilizes the needle, holding it to the flame for a few seconds before shaking it out, and then spreads his right hand out in front of him, palm-up. He's been ambidextrous since he was a child, since his handlers realized a trick shooting act was more interesting for a circus audience if their archer could switch grips in the middle of it; he shouldn't have a problem.
It's just that he's shaking, really. It would be easier, he imagines, if he wasn't.
"Motherfucker," he snaps, the third time he swings and misses, jabs farther left than he needs to and leaves a small, bleeding hole in his flesh. "You'd think this would be like riding a bike, wouldn't you? Goddamn."
"You're such a baby," Natasha says, and she's right behind him, because of course she is. Because she moves without making any sound and always has; because she's doing it now, walking around to sit across from him, holding out her hand for the needle. "Clearly you cannot be trusted to manage basic competence without whining; I'll do it."
"I can handle it," he says, not at all because the idea of her touch stripped of everything it's supposed to mean is terrifying. "You know how many splinters I've dealt with in my life? Loads, Tasha. Loads and loads. There is no circus short on rotting wood, and you can feel free to say you heard that straight from the carnie's mouth."
"Yeah, well, my house, my rules," Natasha says, unfazed. "Even for carnies. Hand."
"Ugh, fine," Clint mutters, and throws his arm across the table. She picks up his hand in both of her own, the needle set to the side, and pushes her thumb against the back of his palm to get a better angle. He doesn't shudder, but not because he doesn't want to.
"Poking around upstairs?" she says, smirking. "Did you go window-hanging or something, Barton? This sucker is too big to be an indoor cat."
It's easier to focus on her voice than it is to think about the fingers she's brushing against his palm, warm and so light it almost tickles; he smiles, and hopes it doesn't look too forced. "Gonna pretend that made sense out of the kindness of my heart--and yeah, I may have, uh. Stuck my head outside."
"Lunatic," she says, but it's fond. "Try not to cry or anything, okay?"
You think this is what I want to cry over? Clint doesn't say. He just nods, watches with the utter lack of squeamishness that his job demands of him as she works the sliver of wood from his skin. She's careful and quick and focused, forever effortlessly efficient, and it only hurts for a second. He doesn't wince, but he does tense up, looks away without even meaning to; when he looks back, Natasha is still staring at his hand. She runs her thumb over his lifeline, once, twice, and when her eyes meet his, the terror in them is so naked that even a casual observer would be able to identify it.
"Tasha," Clint says. He means to whisper it, to gentle it across the table, to make it soft and careful and non-threatening; instead, his fucking voice breaks on it. The moment shatters like he knew it would, like it was always going to, and when she drops his hand like it's burned her, he tries not to take it to heart.
"I have to go," she says, pushing away from the table so quickly the chair screeches across the floor. "There's a job."
"You didn't mention a job before."
"Well, you were fucking asleep, Clint, it wasn't like there was a lot of conversation going on," Natasha snaps. "If this is what it's going to be, the third degree every time I--"
"Jesus, calm down," Clint says, forcing himself not to snarl it, raising his hands in the air in supplication. "I was just saying: you didn't mention a job. So I didn't know. I don't even know where we are, I don't know what protocol to follow if I think you've been compromised, I don't know who knows we're here, I don't even know the layout of the house yet--"
"You seem to be finding your way around just fine." Natasha's voice is cold and clipped, a challenge, and Clint feels himself sliding, burn scalding white-hot across his heart as he reaches the end of his rope.
"It's not my fucking fault I remember things you don't think I should!" he yells, pushing back from the table and standing up. "And if you wanna run from that then you know what, fine, Natasha, that's fine, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let you run off into...into wherever the hell we are without any idea who to call if you don't come back!"
"You don't let me do anything," Natasha says, and Clint throws his hands in the air, frustration more than supplication this time.
"Of course I don't," he says. "I know I don't, it's a figure of fucking speech, you could kill me with your bare hands! You've always been better, I know it, you know it, but I've never known you to be stupid just because you're scared."
"I am not scared."
"Then you're doing a damn fine job of faking it," Clint snaps. She glares at him, not backing down, and he punches out a harsh breath and adds, "God. I don't want to do this with you, okay, I just. Please excuse me for wanting to know whose rulebook I should be whipping out if I think you've died. Pardon me so much for not wanting to report you missing to the wrong people; excuse me for thinking that in our line of work that could wind up being a nice addition to my latest fucking bloodbath!"
Natasha stares at him with narrowed eyes, her head cocked, an immoveable force to his unstoppable object. Only Clint's not an unstoppable object, not lately, not anymore; Clint's in the wind, no matter who (or what) has him on radar. He knows how to fight with Natasha, knows when to give and when to take, knows which buttons aren't meant to be pushed, knows that it's a waiting game more than it's not. What he should do, he's almost certain, is stare her down, meet her gaze until she gets tired of it, of him, of the energy she’s got to be burning to be angry like this when she spends so much time at neutral. But that's the thing: he's only almost certain. There's this new voice at the back of his head, and it's his voice, but it's Loki's too, a bitter echo. It's only got one thing to say: Are you running the show, Clint? Are you? Are you sure?
"Fuck," he says, dropping his gaze and scrubbing his face with the heels of his hands. "Fine. Whatever. Don't tell me. I'll call Ghostbusters if I have to call someone."
She's silent for a beat, two, and then, like it's being pried out of her, she smiles. "Really, Hawkeye? You're going for the who you gonna call joke? Is that the best you can do?"
"Would you prefer 'Of all the gin joints in the world, try not to walk into the one that isn't owned by the top-secret government agency I'm lately calling mine?'"
"You're really not as funny as you think you are," Natasha says, but she's still smiling when she sighs. "Right, okay. You're right, there's no reason to be stupid. I shouldn't be more than three days; if it's been a week, assume I've been compromised. And SHIELD's the call, Clint, Jesus, you know that."
"Well, I don't like to make assumptions when your life is on the line," Clint says, shrugging. "Sue me."
Natasha snorts. "As though you wouldn't be duty bound to tell Director Fury if I was taking outside missions."
"You might want to do some brush-up work on my allegiances, Tash," Clint says, as mildly as he can. "While you're out, I mean. As you may recall, I've disobeyed Nick Fury once or twice."
He doesn't have to look at her to know she's seeing it too; a burned out warehouse in Vladivostok and someone else looking out from Natasha's eyes, long red hair that spilled down her back and Clint with his arrow already nocked. He'd had his orders and she'd had hers, and in retrospect he can’t be sure what made him do it, why he'd lowered the bow, dropped it, raised his hands in the air. He only knows she didn't kill him, blood on her face and more in her eyes than just someone else; he only knows he'd said, "Anyone home in there?" and she'd shuddered, hadn't stopped shuddering for weeks.
She shudders now, a brief, aborted little thing, badly hidden by a faked stretch. "Yeah, well. You be good, or something. There's food in the fridge. I'm sure you'll find the landline if you need it, but I'd suggest that you--"
"Avoid outside contact, yeah," Clint says, and feels his smile go a little bitter. "This may be my first time in this rodeo, but I’ve been before, I know the basics. Don't overreach yourself, try not to talk to anybody you're not sure you trust, and do your utmost not to commit suicide." When she looks at him sharply he rolls his eyes. "Just listing the guidelines, don't get your panties in a twist. Nobody's offing themselves."
"Well, don't do anything stupid," Natasha says, a little doubt riding on the words. "The closest neighbor is ten miles away and doesn't know this house exists, so, you know. I'd like not to come back to any carnage."
"Yeah, I'd appreciate it if you didn't die either," Clint says lightly. "Call it a deal? Meet back here in no more than three days, all parties carrying a pulse?"
"You're on," Natasha says, and then she's gone, still barefoot, still wearing nothing but leggings and that sweatshirt that might be Clint's. Curious, he watches her from the window as she makes her away outside, grabs a leather pack from a rack next to the driveway and swings it up into the open-top black Wrangler sitting empty in the driveway. He figures that's that and turns away, and does, finally, jump when he looks toward the front door and sees her there, leaning against it, her expression hesitant in a way that's strangely unfamiliar. "Hey, Clint?"
"It's your confidence," Natasha says quietly. "The thing you're looking for? That you're missing? It's your confidence. It takes something from everybody; you're lucky. I still don't know what mine is. Everyone tells me it's trust."
"It is trust," Clint says, even as he realizes she's right about him. "What do you mean you don't know yours? Of course it's trust. It's always been trust."
"Yeah," Natasha says, and her smile is grim. "Only I can't be sure."
"Because that's what everyone always tells me," Natasha says. "See you in a few days, Barton."
The first thing Clint does after Natasha's gone is take a shower; he hasn't since Lisbon, and while he's not sure how long he was in transit, he knows he could smell better. The bathroom adjoining the guest bedroom he's going to go ahead and think of as his own is small, but the water pressure in the shower is solid enough, and there's a bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo waiting for him. Clint learned to take four minute showers when he was in the military and never saw the point in breaking the habit, after. Now, aware that he's got nothing better to do, he takes his time, standing under the spray with his head tipped back and waiting for the hot water to relax him.
Because that's what it should do, right? Relax him? Clint's not much for relaxation in general, is aware his ideas on the topic wouldn't necessarily line up with anyone else's, but he knows the basics of how it's supposed to work. Hot water should--logically, medically, scientifically--force some give into his muscles, unwind the knots of tension enough that they're workable.
Instead, Clint finds himself wondering if Loki ever let him shower while he was under, or if he spent the whole time reeking of explosion and last breaths, unclean in more ways than one. He doesn't remember, because that's not what's left for him; Clint recalls the way it felt, Loki looking out from his eyes, but he doesn't have any specifics, knows he shouldn't want them. It's not fair that he does anyway, not fair that he can feel the blood from each kill springing to life against his bare skin and have no idea whose it is. He scrubs himself until he's more than clean, until it hurts, washes his hair so many times that he pulls a little of it loose. When he gets out of the shower, he's panting.
"Goddamn it," he snaps, "goddamn it, goddamn it, goddamn it," and goes downstairs to find himself a fucking drink.
There's a liquor cabinet in the living room. Clint should explore the rest of house first, get a feel for the place, find the cache of weaponry Natasha's bound to have around here somewhere; instead, he picks the lock that's built into the cabinet doors, three minutes with the needle from earlier and a lifetime of ignoring keep out signs. He grabs for the bottle of Jack Daniels first, because for all Natasha's taught him of vodka, he can't help being a down home boy at heart. There are glasses, but he ignores them, wrenching the top off the bottle and relishing the first sip of--
--fucking apple juice, which he promptly spits out, staining the wall.
"Jesus Christ," he snarls, and that's when he sees it; yellow Post-It, red pen, waiting for him where the bottle of Jack just was. You can't drug yourself out of this, Clint, it says, familiar handwriting, familiar tone, and Clint can't help himself; he whips around and hurls the bottle toward the other side of the room, grinning in vicious satisfaction when it explodes on impact with the wall.
"Fuck you, Natasha," he yells, violent and crazed and too loud, and isn't sorry. He isn't sorry when he cleans up the glass, either, when he wipes up the apple juice that has dripped down and pooled on the hardwood floor. If it were a little darker in color, a few shades closer to the red Natasha's so obsessive about, the mark it left on the wall would be too familiar. It would look like the sort of bloodstain you get when you let a mark bleed out where they've fallen, the sort of legacy Phil Coulson left in a SHIELD helicarrier, the one Clint had sat and stared at until Tony Stark came around and kicked him out to brood. As thought Tony Stark has any idea what it is, to have someone's blood on his hands, to know that there's someone on the slab and a new mark in the ledgers--
--but then, of course he does. Of course he does, the same way Rogers does, the same way Banner does, the same way Natasha always has. Thor must too, but Clint feels himself recoil to think of Thor, with his immortality and his superiority and his brother, shouting even in silence, dangerous in or out of cages. He is sorry now, staring at the mess he's made, the shards of glass in his hands, anger ebbing away to leave him splayed, limbs akimbo, across the crime scene that seems to be all that remains of him. Was that him just now, whipping a bottle at the wall like a coked-up teenage fuckwit? Was that him in the shower, pulling at his hair like he could excise the doubt that way, like if he just applied enough pressure the whole mess of it would crumble in his wake? He'd be able to tell, be able to compare himself to the person he was before, if only he could remember what that guy was like. If only he could be sure Clint Barton was the man Clint Barton thinks he was.
Is it always like this, he wants to ask Natasha, whichever version of her, the one that's his or the one that isn't, he'll take what he can get. Does it stop feeling like this, like it's lingering just around the corner waiting to pounce, never coming in clear enough to get a reading, never holding still enough to sight? He's beginning to recognize that she left him here on purpose, that she was always planning to leave him here, and he hates her for it, hates Loki for everything else.
Clint puts the pile of glass in the garbage and, wary of himself, leaves the rest of the cabinet for another time. He pushes through the house instead, starting at the top and working his way down; there's an attic with a small window, a vantage point for the whole valley, and Clint climbs out of it and up onto the roof. He's heard the jokes, because they've been making them for years--the hawk in his nest, isn't it funny, but he's damn well earned the name. Clint's seen better from above since he was a child, sitting atop a caravan and watching the world stream by, safe in the knowledge that if he went unseen, he would, for a time, be forgotten about. He crouches, weaponless, on top of Natasha's safest house, lets himself fall away until there's nothing but the target. The fact that the target, just now, is everywhere, is all of it, doesn't matter; people never do understand about being a sniper. It's not just point and shoot, it's wait and point and shoot, and Clint separates from himself until there's nothing but the waiting, doesn't move for hours.
When it begins to grow dark, when the pain from his sunburn begins to run to chills, Clint climbs back inside and takes a second, colder shower. Then he explores, finding a small library and a locked door (Natasha's) on the second floor. The library he pokes around in, pulling books off the shelves at random and leaving them for such a time when he might feel the slightest motivation to read; Natasha's bedroom he leaves alone. Whatever's between them now, whether it's a history she's forgotten or one he's invented, the last thing he wants to be doing is breaching her trust without purpose. After a second's consideration he goes downstairs, finds the Post-It from the liquor cabinet, digs up a pen from one of the kitchen drawers and scrawls Bitch. You could have at least let me try, underneath her handwriting. Then he goes back upstairs, sticks it on her door, and smiles.
The first floor he mostly knows already--kitchen, living room, something that would be a mudroom in anyone else's home and is a decontamination chamber in Natasha's. The sight of the refrigerator reminds him that he hasn't eaten in…days, probably, and the realization that he hasn't noticed makes him feel sick to his empty stomach. Clint makes himself a sandwich anyway, one of those horrific overstuffed numbers you're only supposed to see in comic strips, every condiment he can find dripping out the sides. He eats all of it, not tasting even one bite, chewing and swallowing as though he's making a point--but to whom? To what?
When he's finished, he throws it all up, but it's not like that's a surprise.
There's a gym in the basement, one of Natasha's more specialized ones, with machines calibrated to her exact specifications and acrobatic equipment hanging from the ceiling. Clint knows better than to fuck with the machines, but he falls back on his roots and takes advantage of the fixed trapeze, twisting himself over and over and over it until his hands go numb and he pinwheels through the air. He lands on his back on the mat beneath him, an audible thud punctuated with the wind that's forced loose from his lungs, and he finds himself laughing, curled on his side and unable to stop, so hard and so long that he leaves himself hoarse.
The weapons cache he knew he'd find is in the basement too, locked with a keypad that Clint's SHIELD access code opens. He'd be grateful for that sign of trust if he felt capable of gratitude just now; he looks over the selection instead, snorting at the degree to which Russian weaponry dominates everything else. He selects a Baikal MCM pistol eventually, bypassing bigger, badder options for precision's sake as he tucks it into his jeans. He takes the crossbow off the wall, too, a Stryker assault weapon he has to turn over in his hands a few times. He wonders if Natasha, who would never risk a ligament strain from something like this, who would be more likely to fight hand to hand than pick up something she wasn't entirely comfortable using, bought this for him. Then he wonders if she remembers doing so, and has to forcibly stop himself from emptying a round into the wall.
He tries eating again when he he goes upstairs, less ambitious this time, just a bowl of soup and some of the thick, seeded bread he finds in a cupboard. He keeps it down, and the weight of food in his stomach calms him enough that he drifts into the living room, flips through Natasha's collection of DVDs. He tries to watch Fight Club, and almost loses his dinner after all. He tries to watch Goodfellas, and finds himself flinching at every gunshot. He tries to watch Love Actually, amused to find Natasha owns it and certain that there can't be anything there to set him off, and finds himself taking choked, shallow breaths, cycling through everything he's ever believed about a woman who's terrified to imagine she loves him.
Clint goes to bed, and doesn't sleep. He just lays beneath the sheets for hours, crisp white linens in a clean open room, staring up at the ceiling and counting his breaths. One, a diner in Portland and Natasha grinning at him through a split lip; two, a bunker in New Mexico and every last light shrieking blue and blowing out; three, a scar on his left bicep that Natasha put there in a training session years before she'd scrape her teeth across it in apology; four, that hotel room he left trashed in Poughkeepsie, filling himself to empty himself, relief in oblivion and nowhere else. He gets up eventually, pads downstairs, opens the liquor cabinet again and finds they're all emptied, refilled with approximations, taunting him. The rage he sinks into would impress even Banner, carrying the bottles one by one out into the empty night air and hurtling them against the ground, lining them up a half-mile away and picking them off with the crossbow, eyes closed, muscles tight.
He goes back up to the roof in the end, tries to center himself, to sink into the sniper, and can't. He lays back against the tile and charts the valley by sound instead, birdcalls he doesn't recognize and the thrum of insects massing for what passes for battle in their tiny, insignificant worlds. Is that what he was to Loki--an insect? It makes more sense than anything else, the image of a kid and a magnifying glass poised over an anthill, and Clint thinks it should probably add to the fear. He finds himself wanting to laugh instead, to think that this mess, this screaming cacophony of undoing, is nothing more than one problem amongst the masses, another scream into the void.
"Melodramatic, Barton," he says, and no one answers him. The silence is so comforting that it offers a moment of peace, then two, then three, the absence of anyone to hear him yawning out until it brushes against the ugly truth he's been trying to avoid. The sensation would be electric, would jerk him upright, even if the sky didn't choose that moment to open up, rain sheeting down from nowhere and soaking him in minutes.
He means to change into another pair of jeans when he crawls back inside, dripping and shaking and too close to everything, to all of it, to get a decent angle. Instead he finds himself shucking his wet clothes for running gear, tucking the pistol into a thigh holster and tugging into the lycra like it's old habit (and it is, really, he's almost positive). He's not sure where he's going when he shuts the front door behind him, just that he wants to get there; he picks a direction at random and starts running, full-tilt for as long as he can manage it, like something's right at his heels. He pushes up into the foothills as the sun rises from behind heavy cloud cover, and it's still raining, thick and unrelenting as Clint pants his way through the underbrush, stopping every few miles to catch his breath. Around noon he finds a stream and, throwing caution and training to the winds, he drinks from it--let it give him some wasting disease, really. Let it try.
Loki didn't feel like a wasting disease, and he didn't really feel like something poured into him either; Loki felt like a cage, leaving Clint nearly deaf and entirely dumb. Loki felt like Clint imagines marionettes would, if there was flesh and blood under all that wood; Loki felt like that time in Auckland, when Clint spent three days tied up and starving, begging for scraps, until Natasha showed up and saved his sorry ass. Loki felt like drowning and burning at once, coating every inch of Clint until nothing was left, nothing but the orders his body was following without his input and the kills someone else was making with his hands, his eyes, his shots and shots and shots--
He bursts out of the treeline like hell on wheels, like he'll never stop running, and comes half an inch from hurtling himself over a cliff by mistake. He sees it in time, doesn't even have to windmill his hands, just screeches to a halt and kneels down, breathing hard. The rain is coming heavier now, no treecover to shield him, and it beats a thousand broken strands of morse code against the back of his neck, save us, save us, save us. He turns his face up to it and tries to let it wash him clean, tries to let it rid him of the hellhound that ran him up here--Are you running the show, Clint? Are you? Are you? Are you sure?
"I'm alone," Clint says, a rough, torn up whisper. It's not enough, so he says it again, "I'm alone," louder this time, still not loud enough. "I'm alone," Clint screams, and it shrieks back to him on the wind, echos down through the valley, I'm alone alone alone alone alone like a siren call, like a hope he hasn't dare let himself express. He feels something shatter within him, the thin glass barrier he's been beating at since he woke up in a SHIELD recovery room, his wrists in shackles and Natasha watching him from too far away. He's alone. He's alone. He's alone, and he's never going to be the Clint Barton he was before, whoever that man might have been. He's alone, but he's always going to carry the fact that he wasn't. He's alone now, but for all he's spent his life building walls and trading secrets, he's been someone else's vessel. He's his own man, but that man is someone new, someone different, someone he's going to have to get to know. The truth is here, looking right back at him while he finally, finally stares it in the face: he's alone. There's nowhere to run. Whatever wreck he might be left in, he's going to have to fix it himself.
For the first hour, he's mostly numb, soaked through and stuck in a loop--I'm alone alone alone, an echo he'd fight to keep from forgetting, a truth he'll cling to come hell or high water. Eventually the steady pace of picking his way through the underbrush, the soothing, distant hiss of rain against the canopy, lulls him into a sense of security he's not even sure is false. He lets himself drift and lands, unsurprisingly, on Natasha, terror in her eyes with his palm in her hand, the sharp disbelief in Lisbon. "I can't deny that it's a possibility," she said, "or that I wish it wasn't," and at the time Clint thought that was a dig at him, a slight, revulsion at the idea that she could love him the way he was suggesting. Now he lets himself look at it honestly, not as the Clint Barton he once was but as the Clint Barton he might still be, and realizes the fear had nothing to do with him at all.
Natasha was programmed for the first time as a child, deprogrammed by SHIELD more than eight years ago now, Clint pacing around outside her recovery room without being certain why he cared so much. They agreed, afterward, to count all of that as one; Natasha has no way of knowing how many times she was set and reset before Clint decided not to put an arrow through her chest, just that it was too many to count, just that she doesn't want to know. The second time was during a mission they were both working, back when they were friends and nothing more--she was only taken over for fifteen minutes, a colorless, odorless airborne toxin at fault, and she still killed almost twenty men. The third time she never told Clint about, just sent him a text that said three and could never be pushed to explain; the fourth time was six months after Budapest, the time he couldn't even get her to answer his calls. It is, he knows, her worst fear--from what she's told him, it's always been her worst fear, from as far back as she can remember being in possession of her own thoughts.
"It's not fair," he said, once. "That it keeps happening, I mean."
She rolled over in bed, the dim glow of her tablet casting her face in shadows, and sighed. "I'm conditioned for it, Clint. It's in my history; even people who don't know me know where the Black Widow came from. Of course it's not fair. That doesn't mean it's going to stop."
He didn't push it then, and he didn't push it later that night, either, when Natasha woke him screaming with an abandon she'd never allow herself in wakefulness, when he pulled her into his arms and promised her she was her own. Clint knows there are things Natasha doesn't say, things she doesn't even let herself think, knows that half the reason she can proceed soundlessly through a room is that she's forever walking on eggshells. He knows why, too, knows it's more than just paranoia and old habit--until eight years ago, Natasha's whole life was waking up with new memories and no idea which were real, what she'd done, or what she'd have to do. Of all the villains in her life, the one she distrusts most is herself.
"I hope I'm wrong," Clint whispers, a mile or so left to go and an ache in his chest he can't ignore. And he does, is the worst part--it would kill him, would leave him in ribbons, would wreck him all over again, would leave him useless, but god, he hopes he's wrong. He hopes Loki left him with false memories, hopes Natasha was right to call him ridiculous, hopes none of it was real. It would ruin him, but that's alright. Better him that her.
It's nearly dark by the time he gets back to the house; the rain has slowed to a drizzle, and Clint should shower, should eat something, should at the very least drag himself upstairs and make use of his bed. He considers all of these options, and then strips down to his boxers and falls across the couch, two sleepless days, an empty stomach and an over-ambitious workout ganging up on him to knock him down. He's out before he can so much as find himself a blanket, before he can work himself up into the fear of letting go that's been keeping him up since New York, and dreams of Natasha whispering lies.
One glass of water, regrettably, turns out not to be enough. Clint drinks three and fills a fourth, stares blankly into the fridge for awhile and, eventually, decides to come back, on the theory that he can eat when chewing doesn't sound like too much brain function to be committing to. Then he wanders back to the living room, shrugs into the jeans and t-shirt that have been left for him, and goes to find Natasha.
It takes him longer than it should, but eventually he thinks to check outside; she's sitting on the front stoop, her hair knotted harshly at the nap of her neck and a cigarette in her hand. She's still wearing the bottom half of her jumpsuit, the top abandoned for nothing but the black spandex tank she always wears beneath it, and there's a box of Marlboro Reds and the lighter from the kitchen resting next to her. At her feet there's a bottle, tall and long-necked and made of the sort of glass that catches the light, and Clint doesn't want to know how much she paid for the vodka it must be housing.
"Rough hit?" he asks as he sits down next to her, his voice still gravely with sleep.
She shrugs. "Not really. The guy had a heart condition; fell over the moment he laid eyes on me. Guess somebody warned him. Either way, makes my job easier."
"So why the smokes?"
"Well, for one thing, I kinda thought you were down for the count," Natasha says, raising an eyebrow as she looks him over. "Although, you know what, I'd be willing to believe you're sleepwalking."
"Mmm," Clint says. He leans back against the front door, kicking his legs out in front of him. "Can I get back to you on that one?"
"I await your conclusions with bated breath," Natasha says, and takes another long drag from the cigarette. "Smoke?"
Clint considers this for a second, decides on, "Nah. You know I don't, really. I wouldn't say no to some of that vodka, though, unless it's secretly water. In which case, and for the record: I hate you."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Natasha says, laughing on it a little, not sounding sorry at all. She hands over the bottle and Clint takes a long, bracing swig as she adds, "I wasn't wrong, though, was I? You look better."
Clint gives her a baleful look. "Unless you did some sort of like, top secret cosmetic surgery on me while I was sleeping, I'm pretty sure I look like I ran twenty miles on no sleep and then passed out on a couch, Tash."
"Top-secret cosmetic surgery? Really?"
Clint opens his mouth to offer up a witty retort and yawns instead, huge and cracking. "Back off, I'm tired."
"Clearly," Natasha says. "And yet I stand by what I said: you look better."
"With the power vested in me by Nicholas Fury," Clint says, raising his eyebrows and passing the bottle back to her, "I hereby declare you, Natasha Alianovna Romanova, completely full of shit."
She snorts and shakes her head, taking a pull of the vodka before she says, "Alright, tough guy, you wanna play, we can play. You feel shitty, right?"
"Hurt all over the place, pushed your shit too hard, big ball of feelings sitting in the pit of your stomach waiting for you to vomit them out?"
"Uh," Clint says, nonplussed. "You--what?"
"Sorry, I'm a little drunk." She looks him up and down, sighs, and says, "Look, Clint--you still feel like there's not enough you to fill up your body? You still feel empty?"
"I…no," Clint says, surprised to find it's true. "Huh. No, I guess not."
Natasha nods her victory, a smug little inclination of her head. "Well, in this game, that's looking better. Have another drink."
Clint takes the bottle from her and does as he's told, the vodka burning its way down his throat, vicious and unyielding. He means to say something after he's swallowed, but instinct will be instinct, and he finds himself looking at Natasha instead, hoping his exhaustion will hide the scrutiny. She's…more than just a little drunk, holding it well because Natasha's always held her liquor well, but it's obvious now that he's looking for it. Her hands are shaking and her eyes are bloodshot, and he wonders how long she's been out here, riding the assumption that he was too deep asleep to come and catch her out.
"So," he says after a minute. "You wanna tell me why you're out here damaging your internal organs?"
"Not really," Natasha says, and steals the bottle back. "Wasn't planning on it."
"Now, see, I almost buy that," Clint says. "Like, 85%, 90% of me totally buys that--except the thing is, Nat, if you hadn't wanted me to ask, you would've told me it was a rough hit."
"That would have been a lie."
"Ah, yes, right, I had forgotten," Clint says. "You are the first and only honest spy in the history of spies, not sure how that one escaped me."
She gives him a baleful look. "You know, you're kind of an asshole."
"I am more than kind of an asshole, don't sell me short." When she doesn't say anything to that, just looks away and takes another pull from the bottle, he sighs and drops the cover. "Hey. Tasha. It's only me. For a ten mile radius, even. What's wrong?"
She shrugs, and for a second Clint thinks he's going to have play the long game, herd her towards whatever it is by guessing in overshots she'll be unable to resist correcting. Then, in a voice much smaller than she'll usually allow herself when she's not working someone's perceptions, she says, "There was a thing. While you were...out."
"What kind of thing?"
"Loki." Natasha spits the name, and Clint's not sure if the anger's on his behalf or her own. "We--I mean, me and Stark and Banner and Rogers and Fury and, uh, Thor--we were in a room with that spear, and it made us…irritable. Angry at each other. Loki was caged up across the ship, and it still worked. And I'm sure it was probably just the spear, he probably set it up before he got caged or something. Somehow. But I can't…I can't stop thinking about it."
"Ah," Clint says, and can't quite get a handle on the spike of panic is his gut, that he might be right and Natasha might have to-- "Well, it probably was just the spear. Maybe magic has side effects! Maybe on Asgard there are commercials like, 'The Glowing Blue Death Stick, for all your genocidal needs! May cause bloating, gas pains, increased blood pressure, and irritability in nearby humans.'"
He's hoping that, because she's drunk and trying not to touch it, she'll take the joke for what it is and let it go. But, of course, it's Natasha; she whips her head around and looks at him sharply, her eyes narrowed. "You've changed your tune."
"I've thought my tune through," he says, as gently as he thinks he can get away with. "Remember what I said earlier? About allegiances?"
She stares at him in the moonlight, narrowed eyes giving way to wide, frightened ones, before she puts the bottle to her lip and tips her head back, drinking in long, desperate gulps until he snaps, "Tasha, Jesus," and yanks it away. She doesn't even glare at him, just folds up small like the spider she was named for, crouched in wait for something to attack.
"I told you I'd been compromised," she says. "When you woke up, I mean."
"Yeah," Clint agrees, and has to take a drink himself. "You never did explain that one."
"That's because I thought," Natasha swears, and blows out a huge, weighted breath. "Look, the stuff that happened while you were out--it's not your fault, Clint. You didn't know what you were doing."
"I know that," Clint says. "Hell, last time it was me giving you that speech. And we're not talking about me."
"No, but we are," Natasha says. "That's why--look. Clint. Loki…I went in there to pull a bait and switch on him, to try to figure out what he was after and to see if I could get anything out of him about what he'd done with you--"
"You were alone with him?" Clint says before he can help himself, and Natasha stands up in one fluid motion and starts walking away. He throws himself to his feet and scrambles after her, feeling like an idiot. "No, god, sorry, don't--Tash, the guy scares the shit out of me, what do you want from me here? Gut reaction, I didn't mean that you couldn't handle him or anything. You went in to pull a bait and switch?"
Natasha keeps walking, but then sighs and turns, not looking at him as she says, "I got what I was looking for, but he…knew me. Had information about me that he shouldn't have had. He called me Drago's daughter."
"And you're afraid he read your mind," Clint says, and feels the bottom drop out of his stomach when she looks up, her eyes shining in the darkness.
"No, Clint," she says. "No. He…look, I know you wouldn't have meant to and I don't want you to torture yourself about it but he. Uh. You told him."
"No," Clint says, horrified, a roaring in his ears from nowhere, the sick, sharp rush of guilt nearly overwhelming. "No, I wouldn't have, I would never have--wait. Wait, he called you Drago's daughter?"
"Yeah," Natasha says quietly, and Clint feels something new, something worse wash over him, a certainty he wishes he could reject entirely. "Oh, god, look, this is why I wasn't sure I should tell you, don't--"
"Shut up a second." Clint's not sure why she does; maybe he looks worse than he thinks. It doesn't matter--he's too busy running through the options, trying to come up with a way out of this, trying to reveal a fault in his memory. No matter how he looks at it, it comes up the same way: the two of them in bed in Cabo, a nightmare fresh in their wake, one of Natasha's legs tucked between both of Clint's as she told him what she remembered of her childhood.
"Natasha," Clint says, "oh, Tasha, I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault," she insists, "that's not why I told you, I'm just trying to--"
"No," Clint says, and has to shove his hands in his pockets to keep from touching her. "No, god, not for what I did. For what I'm about to do, fuck, I wouldn't if I have to--"
"Clint," Natasha says, and looks genuinely frightened now. "What are you talking about?"
"You," Clint says, and sighs. "Tasha. Loki said I told him about Drago, right?"
"Yes, that's what I just--
"And do you remember telling me?" Clint says miserably.
Natasha opens her mouth, and Clint watches it hit her, watches the way her whole face collapses around the memory she's reaching for, the one that isn't there. He hates himself, and, impossibly, hates Loki even more; he takes a step towards her, stops when she backs away. "No," she says, and he knows she doesn't mean No, I don't remember, or No, I can't answer that, or even No, don't get any closer--Natasha means, No, this isn't happening again, and Clint wishes she were right, would gladly trade their entire history to wipe that look from her face.
"Tasha," he starts, and has no idea how he's supposed to follow that up, no map for the waters of, Hey, guess we can be pretty sure that evil alien god fucked with your head for shits and giggles, let alone the waters of Oh, and by the way, it's more or less my fault. It's almost a relief, really, when he sees her tense to spring a quarter of a second before she's flying through the air, feet kicked out in front of her, hurtling towards his chest.
Clint ducks and rolls, and the ground is still wet from the day's rainfall; he comes up muddy, in a crouch, watching from a distance as she lands on her feet and advances. "You don't want to do this, Nat."
"This is your fault," she yells back; in the distance, the storm from earlier casts lightning over the valley. "This is you, this is you, if you hadn't…hadn't done whatever you did to make me break my fucking rules this would never have happened!"
"Not arguing that," Clint says, still crouched and ready to dodge. "But you're drunk. You don't want to be playing this game right now."
"Oh, what," Natasha snaps, "are you afraid you're going to hurt me, Clint? Really?"
"No," Clint says, fighting to keep his voice level. "I'm afraid you're going to hurt me, and you won't be able to forgive yourself when you sober up. It's going to be okay, Natasha--"
"Fuck you, this is your fault, this is--"
"I know!" Clint yells, "I fucking know, I'm sorry, I'm trying not to make it any worse," and that's when she rushes at him.
Clint's training kicks in before his brain can; he dodges her once, twice, before he can think to watch for patterns. After her third try he really notices how wild her swings are, how shaky her balance is, and he stands when she comes at him the fourth time, catches the first swing, the second, pins her arms to her sides and holds her still. It would never work if she was sober, because he'd never in a million years be fast enough; even now he has to strain to keep her from breaking loose, fury twisting her mouth.
"Fight back, you asshole," she yells, right in his face, mud streaking her left cheek and her eyes shining with something that he knows she only wishes was anger. "What are you gonna do, just stand here all night with that look on your face, just let me scream at you until I tire myself out? Is that your fucking plan of action here?"
"If that's what it takes," Clint says. "It's not like I've got anything better to do."
For a long minute she just stares at him, fierce and unrelenting, every muscle in her body tensed to spring. He stares back because he has to, because one way or another, he owes it to her. Even if he didn't love her, he owes her his life a dozen times--their ledgers are both dripping with red, always have been, but his is scrawled over with her name, and he, at least, remembers it. The least he could do is bear witness here, for all it kills him to watch her break, to feel those muscles unclench, to listen to the laugh that chokes its way out of her mouth, high-pitched and crazed. He would recognize it even without how well he knows her, heard it coming from his own mouth last night in the gym, and he pulls her in and wraps his arms around her before he can think better of it.
There’s a second where he thinks he's made the worst mistake of his career, where he thinks she's going to rip herself away and punch his lights out. Then she takes a choked breath and twists closer, bunching her hands into fists around his shirt and burying her face in his neck. "Fuck," she spits out, "fuck, fuck, fuck," and he runs his palm up the familiar path of her spine, closes his eyes, doesn't cry.
"I've got your back, Tasha," he says, muffled against her hair. "And you've got mine, remember? Right from the beginning, you and me--that part never changed, and it's never going to, either. I've got you, and I still have it--everything he took, I've got it, it's still here. We can piece it back together, okay? The blank spots, they're not going to be blank forever. This isn't like the other times. Nothing's gone, it's just in…in temporary storage. This was just a robbery, alright? He didn't make you do anything. You'd know."
"You can't be sure of that."
"I really can," Clint says, and doesn't let any bitterness seep in at all. "I really, really can. You would know if he'd been running the show, believe me. Topic experts, right?"
She laughs weakly, shaking her head against his shoulder. "Yeah, right. Topic experts. Sure."
He expects her to pull away after that, to distance herself, to run from him. She doesn't, though, and god knows he doesn't want her to, is going to hold on for as long as she'll let him. After a few minutes her desperate grip on his shirt loosens, loosens a little more, until (except for the mud coating them both, the knives tucked into the pants of her jumpsuit and the pistol down the back of his jeans, all the ways they carry those ledgers with them when there's no one around to watch) they could be any other couple. The air is thick and damp, seeded still with the rain's leavings, and Clint takes deep, steadying breaths, thinks of a woman shuddering a few miles out of Vladivostok, the way she’d taken his hand just to have something to hold onto.
"We'll figure it out, okay?" Clint says, and tries, with all his heart, to believe it. Natasha doesn't step away, and Clint doesn't let go.
He settles into a sort of routine for the three days she's gone, feeling less like he's riding the raw edge of something and more like he's fighting an uphill battle. Falling back on training, he sets up timers to remind him to eat, takes the military showers he was right to make a habit, tries not to let himself cycle down into the howling chaos. He runs a few miles each day, forcing himself to stop and turn back when he feels the siren call of pressing on, when he finds himself wishing he could vanish into the middle distance. He lifts, giving in and screwing with her weights and machines, until he feels himself itching to push past his limit and let the inevitable overload crush him.
"You still feel empty?" Natasha said, and Clint told her no. It was the truth at the time, but sometimes, he finds, it isn't--the pit within him opens at random, displaced air hissing out of his mouth as all his certainty falls away again. He wonders if this is Natasha's life, if she’s always playing this game, or if by now she's figured out how to catch herself before she falls. If so, maybe she can teach him. If not, he'll just have to find someone to teach them both.
On the fourth day, the door to the gym creaks open, and Clint doesn't bother reaching for the pistol next to him when he fails to hear footfalls on the stairs. He's flat on his back, bench-pressing more weight that is advisable but less than he can handle, when she sits down on the seat of the machine to his left and smiles.
"Hi," she says.
"Hi," Clint says, and presses through another rep. "You feel better?"
"For a given definition of better," Natasha allows.
Her mouth twitches a little, and she looks him over, appraisal in her eyes. "You look like you didn't go any crazier when I was gone; that's a relief."
"But you weren't worried or anything," Clint says, winking, before he remembers that he's probably not supposed to, that it's probably a few shades too familiar for her to handle right now. He can't freeze up, because he's holding too much weight to risk locking any muscles, but he looks away from her at once, wincing. "Uh, sorry, I didn't--"
"If you're going to treat me like a fragile wilting flower, Barton, I will fly you to the desert and leave you there," Natasha says, more teasing than dangerous. "And of course I wasn't worried."
"She leaves terrifying, she comes back terrifying," Clint says, relieved despite himself. "Which desert, out of curiosity?"
Natasha rolls her eyes. "Like I'd tell you. That would make it too easy."
"Have I mentioned lately that you are my favorite murderous lunatic?"
"I'm everyone's favorite murderous lunatic, Clint," Natasha says. "I mean, usually only for the last four, five minutes of their lives, but still."
Clint snorts and looks back up at the ceiling, lets his focus drift back to lifting. After a few minutes, he recognizes that the silence hanging between them is not particularly comfortable; Natasha's got that look on her face when he glances over, the one that means, If I ever let myself shift around in discomfort, I'd be shifting around in discomfort right now. He could ask, but if she doesn't want to be treated like a fragile wilting flower, he doesn't intend to treat her like one. In normal circumstances, he thinks he'd wait her out, so that's what he does, the steady up-down-up-down of the lifting giving him something to focus on until--
"I'm sorry," Natasha says. "The other night…the things I said...that wasn't fair."
"Yeah, I know," Clint says.
Natasha does actually shift in her seat at that; will wonders never cease. "I was just…angry."
"I know that too," Clint says.
"But not at you," Natasha says, and Clint sighs and puts the bar up, swings himself out from under it to sit up straight and meet her eyes.
"Tasha," he says. "I know. Like, I really know. It's okay. I didn't take it to heart or anything."
"Liar," Natasha says, more sad than fond, and Clint quirks a sardonic little smile at her and shakes his head.
"Well, yeah, 'course, it's in the job description. But seriously--I get it this time, Tash. Don't feel guilty on my account."
Their eyes meet, and just for a second Clint can see the confusion in them, the fear underneath. Whatever's going on in there, his presence can't be helping; if anything, he's probably making things worse, bringing to light all the things she can't be sure she's really feeling.
"Hey," he says quietly. "If…look, if you don't want me here, I can…"
"Oh, please," Natasha says, standing up and brushing herself off. "First of all, did I say I didn't want you here? No, I did not. In fact, I told you I'd drop you in a desert if you kept up with that shit, so, you know, keep that in mind. And secondly, you wouldn't last two days out in the world right now, whether you'll admit it or not. No one's leaving."
"Okay," Clint says. "I was just…"
"Hedging your bets?"
"Something like that," Clint admits, and Natasha smiles at him. Then, almost hesitantly, she reaches out and ruffles his hair. He lets her, just barely stops himself closing his eyes and leaning into the touch; to cover this, he offers up a shit-eating grin, raises his eyebrows salaciously. "Tell me, Black Widow, would you kick my ass if I told you I'd hedge your bets?"
"Now, see, look at that," Natasha says, very dry as she steps away and makes for the stairs, "that's the worst joke I've heard in weeks. By comparison, I'm a regular comedian. What on earth would I do without you?"
"Regret the lack of wit in your life," Clint yells after her, but finds that he's still grinning ten minutes after she's gone, can't quite bring himself to stop.
"Do I?" It's not the arch retort he was expecting it to be, just an honest question, and he grins at her over the top of the fridge door.
"Yes, ma'am. Sometimes the Great and Terrible Yeti, but usually that's only if you haven't seen me in awhile."
"Should I be taking notes?" Natasha says, lifting an eyebrow. "I mean, I doubt I'll need any help remembering that particular moniker; I can see where I was going with that. Your hair really cinches it, I think."
Clint flips her the middle finger and then hits paydirt, ripping the top off the yogurt and licking it clean as he goes to sit across from her at the table. He pulls a chair out and turns it around, sitting on it backwards and cocking his head. "You can ask me, you know, Nat. About the stuff you're missing. You don't have to take notes--I meant it when I said I'd hold onto it for you. I'm not going to fall to shit because you have to ask. Hell, I want to tell you."
"Hmm," she says. "Well, then. Have you anything else for me, oh Great and Terrible Yeti?"
He grins at her and knows it's too much, blinding and overdone, his whole heart in his throat. But there's no fear in her eyes this time, just curiosity and, underneath it, maybe a little hope; Clint lets it buoy him up and out of his morning fog. "Well, for one thing, you hate the way I eat yogurt."
"What could you possibly do to yogurt," Natasha starts, and then Clint puts the container to his lips, tips his head back, squeezes until the entire cup has emptied into his mouth, and swallows. "…Wow, yes. Okay. I…really, really hate that, Clint, is it honestly too difficult for you to use a spoon--oh my god, did you eat it all?"
"A spoon ruins the nuance, and yes."
"I can't believe I’ve slept with you," Natasha mutters, and then stiffens like a deer in the headlights. "Or, um, I didn't--"
"Can we agree to mutual avoidance of wilting flower treatment?" Clint says, licking yogurt from the corners of his mouth. "Because, seriously, I remember that you don't remember. This doesn't have to be like pulling teeth unless you want it to be."
Natasha's face twitches, and then she pulls what Clint thinks of as her pretty pout, the one she tends to whip out right before she blindsides a mark. "But I'm so good at pulling teeth."
"You're good at everything," Clint says, and leaves her to her newspaper and her grapefruit to go on a run. When he comes back she's vanished, probably down in the gym, so he showers and finds himself at odds as to what to do next. He's been reading more since Natasha got back, has watched most of the DVDs available, could sketch a map of the valley with his eyes closed; getting away from wallowing in his own uncertainty is all well and good, but the truth is, he's getting bored. He pulls a paperweight off a shelf in the end, throws himself backwards across the couch in the living room and starts tossing and catching the thing. It's a thick, round piece of glass, heavy enough that it thwacks satisfyingly against his palms; the steady thud thud thud reminds Clint that he hasn't heard music in weeks, hasn't checked his email since before Loki took him over.
"That's a $30,000 piece of artwork you're playing catch with," Natasha says from the doorway. "In case you were wondering."
"I wasn't," Clint says, "but I will be extra careful not to drop in on my face now, thanks for that. The broken nose wasn't enough incentive."
"Put it down, Barton."
"Why don't you come over here and make me," Clint says, without even thinking about it, and is so surprised when Natasha flushes a furious red that he almost does drop it. "Joke! Only a joke. Here, I'm putting it down, putting it down and....oh my god. You're screwing with me, aren't you?"
"Maybe," Natasha says, grinning. Then, when he reaches for the paperweight again, she adds, "Not about that, though. It really is a $30,000 piece of artwork, and I really will make you put it down if you pick it up again. You won't enjoy it, either."
"Ugh," Clint says, and flops back against the couch in defeat. "Look, okay, no offense to your house of secrecy or whatever, but I'm bored out of my mind here. I know we're off the grid, but there's electricity and a phone line, so isn't there internet or something? Or, hell, there's bound to be coverage on my phone, whatever you did with it--"
"Oh, Barton," Natasha says, downshifting into seriousness, "you are not ready for the internet."
Clint's…not sure why that pisses him off, exactly. It's not that he doesn't trust her judgement--he does, he always has--and if he were thinking clearly, really thinking clearly, he'd push into his reasoning before he snapped, "Oh, honestly, fuck you. Why are you the one that gets to make that call?"
"Topic experts," Natasha says, emotionless, folding herself down on the coffee table in front of him. "You really want me to tell you why?"
"No, I want you to keep me trapped here without access to the outside world without telling me--"
"You know what," Natasha says, in that horrible almost-kind voice he keeps stumbling over, "I actually think it'll be better for you if you work it out yourself. Think about it, Clint. I'll just…wait."
Clint glares at her for a second, and then, because it's clear she's not going to budge, he thinks about it. The reality he didn't even realize he was avoiding crashes over him so hard he'd swear he could hear water breaking; two weeks ago, aliens invaded New York. It's not that Clint forgot about that, exactly--it's not that Clint could forget about that, no matter how much he wants to. It was just…dimmed, he guesses, the lights on it gone low and quiet. He lost the forest for the trees, got his sights lined up on the immediate, the right here, the act of putting one foot in front of the other. As though putting one foot in front of the other was all he'd ever have to do; as thought putting one foot in front of the other was some sort of accomplishment, instead of the very peak of a huge, vicious iceberg.
Forget the other perils the internet could provide, the lists of fallen agents his SHIELD access information could hand over, the photos and videos of Loki's face that Clint didn't let himself look at in Poughkeepsie, in Lisbon; the internet is a line to reality, and she's right, he's not ready yet. He's not ready for the footage, and he's not ready for the truth, and he's definitely not ready for what it all means, not even close. Clint makes his living blending in until the last second, hiding in plain sight when shadows aren't available, and what happened in New York is, now, part of the global consciousness. Hell, it's the end of fucking Independence Day out there, and Clint's going to have to learn to see it from the outside, going to have to learn to talk about it like he wasn't there, going to have to learn to hear people mention it and not fall to pieces.
It all felt so huge at first, Loki looming in his mind and edging his vision, that Clint let himself believe it when it started to feel small again. He let himself cling to the possibility when it looked like it might be manageable, and in the process he put blinders over his own eyes, fell prey to a sense of security that turns out to be false after all. He wasn't bored, he realizes; he makes his own fun and always has, hasn't been bored a day in his life. No, he was edgy, he was jumpy, he was restless: he was nervous, trying to shy away from the things he wasn't seeing. He would have recognized it in a mark without having to try, and didn't think to look for it himself.
"Oh," Clint says, feeling small and stupid and sick. "Oh."
"Hey," Natasha says, and then her hand is on his cheek, calloused and warm and so comforting that Clint's terrified she'll pull away. He sees her gaze flick down and notice what she's doing, sees her face twist in confusion for a second before she shrugs--actually, visibly shrugs--and rubs her thumb against his skin, a tiny, soothing circle. "I've got your back and you've got mine, right?"
"Right," Clint says, and hears himself hit hoarse and come out the other side. It's embarrassing enough that it spurs him right on along into mortifying, and he closes his eyes and turns into her palm before he can stop himself. "Is it always like this, Tasha? Am I just going to be…be tripping over it all the damn time?"
"No," she says. "No, you won't always be tripping over it. It'll always be there, but you'll figure out how to spot it coming. It's livable, eventually. It just takes time--you have to level out. I tried to tell you."
She had, too; on the helicarrier, she'd said exactly that, and he'd let it drift away like all the other things he was ignoring without meaning to at all. He huffs out a breath of exhausted, angry laughter, doesn't open his eyes. "Guess I'm a shitty listener, huh?"
"What?" Natasha says, sounding surprised. "Not at all. Is that what you--Clint, don't be willfully stupid. You're flying blind; this is nothing you were ever trained for. You have to learn how to do it--nobody expects you to know it already, or pick it up overnight."
"I don't like not knowing what I'm doing," Clint says, even though it's not really what he means.
"I know," Natasha says, "but I've got it. I'm not gonna let you drown, Barton."
There's nothing he can say to that, really. I'm drowning already would be melodramatic, unfair, maybe not even true; Thank you would be inadequate; Save me would be redundant. Clint takes a few deep breaths and tries to affix the sensation of her palm against his cheek to his memory, charting out the way it feels with an attention to detail he's never bothered with--never quite realized was necessary--before. When he opens his eyes, she's smiling.
"Okay?" she says. When he nods she pulls her hand away, tilts her head. "What'd you want the internet for, anyway?"
"Music," Clint says, and she laughs, shakes her head. Natasha has never quite…understood music, not the way Clint does. She likes opera and classical, but typically only when it's performed in front of her, and Clint likes country and classic rock--she always says she doesn't understand the point of it, as though that argument makes any sense at all. Clint's won her over once or twice, swinging her around to the tune of Little Big Town and trailing kisses down her neck with King of the Road blasting through the radio of a rental car; of course, she wouldn't remember that now.
"I've got an iArc around here somewhere," Natasha says. "Stark sent me off with a goody basket when I left that detail last year; at the time I thought he was trying to bribe me, but in retrospect I think he just wanted to show off. Good sound quality, though. Remind me tomorrow, I'll put some shit you'll like on it."
"Yes," Natasha says, and grins. It is not, Clint notes with apprehension, the kind of grin she means him to take lightly. "Today, we have plans."
"I don't kid," Natasha says, which Clint would point out as a lie if he was sure she knew it was one. "This is part of your rehabilitation."
"Okay, first of all, the word rehabilitation and I definitely don't get along," Clint says, trying to resist the urge to physically wince away from it. "And secondly, this looks like a picnic. A literal picnic. What?"
Natasha shrugs. "Well, we're going to spend the day out in the woods. It wouldn't make sense to starve ourselves while we're out there--that's not really the comfort zone I'm aiming for."
"Tasha," Clint says, "you know I've been out there already, yes? The terrors of the forest are not exactly crippling me here."
Natasha's smile is so serene it's nasty. "Oh, good. Then you won't mind at all that we're going unarmed."
Clint freezes, and then, very carefully, relaxes. Trying for casual, he says, "You know, I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"You're not fooling anyone, Barton," Natasha says. "I know you haven't left the house without that pistol on you; I've only let it go on this long because there's no one around here to get caught in the crossfire. You think I keep a remote house in the woods because I'm secretly a Thoreau nut?"
"I was entertaining the possibility," Clint says, and Natasha sighs.
"Clint, you know as well as I do that you don't need a gun to be armed."
"Not lately, I don't."
"But that's the problem," Natasha says. "I can't even ask if you want to go a few rounds--which you need to do, by the way, your tone is going to slip if you don't stop fixating on cardio--because you're too jumpy! And I get it, okay, I really do, but we both know dependence on a weapon is a death sentence. And even if it wasn't, Clint, you're going to end up compromising yourself if you don't get past this confidence thing. You can't always count on adrenaline to shut it off, I know you know this."
"Ugh," Clint mutters. "I just…I don't know, I figured I'd deal with it when it came up."
"Well, it's come up," Natasha says, "and lucky you, because if you'd waited until it came up on a mission, you'd probably have gotten yourself killed. Hand it over."
Clint scowls at her, and she rolls her eyes and reaches around behind him, too fast to even consider stopping her, pulling the pistol out of his pants and emptying the chamber before she tosses it onto the couch. The whole thing takes less than a second, and he blinks at her for a moment before he gives it up and smiles. "Right. Okay. Guess I should've seen that coming."
"Your reflexes are shot," she says calmly. "Probably because you've been focusing your mind on a weapon you don't even like for two weeks. Come on."
Clint trails after her, catches the backpack when she tosses it to him without warning. "My reflexes managed that!"
"That was a gimme," Natasha says, and leads him outside.
They walk in silence for a long time, which is just as well. Without the reassuring weight of the Baikal at his back, Clint finds himself jumping at every little noise, wheeling around when a branch drops behind them. He expects Natasha to make fun of him, but she doesn't say anything, doesn't even look at him, just keeps walking like she hasn't noticed at all. Clint thinks it's charity at first, and then--You think I keep a remote house in the woods because I'm secretly a Thoreau nut?--he works it out. Maybe that's what she was doing while she was gone those three days, walking the woods and reminding herself she could handle anything thrown at her. Maybe that's what she's doing now, isn't mentioning it because she's more used to it, because Clint's learning and she's long since learned, because she needs to prove to herself that she doesn't need anyone's help.
Clint stops waiting for doom to sneak up on him and starts watching for it instead, moving warily through the forest a few feet behind Natasha. It's a gorgeous day, the breeze cool without being cold and the sunlight filtering down through the canopy in a golden-green haze; he familiarizes himself with the sound of his footfalls and then makes a game of quieting them, watching the way Natasha walks and falling back on old training. He does, he remembers, know how to do this--not as Loki's vessel, not as an agent of chaos, but as himself. He knows how to scan an area for threats, how to keep half an eye on his surroundings while the rest of him focuses on something else. As they proceed up the gentle slope of the path Natasha's leading them down, the noise from around them ticks up in frequency and volume, and Clint realizes that they're moving quietly enough that the animals nearby don't sense a threat.
A strange sort of peace settles over him, at once alien and familiar; after a mile or two, he realizes it's comfort in his own skin. He grins to himself, shaking his head, and then catches up to Natasha and bumps their shoulders together. "Thanks."
"No problem," she says, slating him a sidelong glance. "Told you I wouldn't let you drown in it."
"Mmm," he says, and brushes against her again, just because. "So where are we going?"
Natasha shrugs. "Nowhere, really. There's a clearing about a mile that way, and a lake three miles or so west of here--figured we'd walk until you worked it out, and then stop when we felt like it."
"Ah," Clint says. "It's…a little weird to see you so unstructured, I'm not gonna lie."
"There aren't maps for some things," Natasha says. Her voice is far away, not quite strained but not quite anything else, and Clint reaches for her hand on instinct alone. She doesn't tense up until their fingers lace together, and even then, it's only for a second; then she shrugs, the same Well, alright, gesture she pulled when she touched his cheek this morning. Clint wonders if her body remembers his, if what she's doing here is trusting her instincts, and then decides not to push his luck.
They walk hand in hand for the whole mile to the clearing, fifteen glorious minutes where Clint doesn't let himself look forward or back, too intent on the right now to risk letting go. When the treeline opens up for them, yawning into a tiny patch of grass that can't be more than a hundred yards across in any direction, Natasha drops his hand and steps away like they were never touching at all.
"Race you?" she says, and Clint's still reeling a little, so it takes him a second to follow her gaze. Then he notices what she's looking at--a towering, wide-branched oak tree at the other side of the clearing--and snorts.
"Are you kidding? You'd kick my ass."
"Yes," she agrees, her smile going wicked, "that's the whole fun off it," and she's taken off running before he can stop her.
"I'm not racing you up a fucking tree, Tash," Clint yells after her, even as he wrestles out of the backpack and sets off in hot pursuit. "That's all of your skill sets and none of mine--"
"Scared of a little healthy competition, Barton?"
"There is nothing healthy about your idea of competition," Clint says, blinking up at her from the ground. She is somehow, miraculously, already on top of the closest branch--it's fifteen feet in the air, and he doesn't see any footholds. "You spiked the tree, didn’t you.”
"Wouldn't you like to know," she says, and then launches herself in the air, catching the next-highest branch between her thighs and waving at him upside down. "Better figure it out quick, though; it would be so embarrassing for you if I lapped you."
She's not wrong, so Clint stops talking and circles the tree, grinning when he finds what he's looking for. It's one of her throwing stars, wedged deep about six feet off the ground; it’s not much, it's enough to haul himself up on, and he tests his weight against it before he pushes off and up, catching the branch with his stomach and letting out a loud, "Oof."
"You are bad at this," Natasha says delightedly.
"You have…have…monkey DNA," Clint calls back, "I'm a normal human man, it's just not right."
"I'm actually more offended at the suggestion that you're normal than at the suggestion I have monkey DNA," Natasha says. "I mean, really, are you blind?"
Clint opens his mouth to shoot something back and finds himself laughing helplessly instead, choking on it as he grabs the next branch and hauls himself up. "Maybe getting my ass kicked diminishes my brain function."
"Then your brain must barely function at all," Natasha calls, from very far away indeed, "I've been kicking your ass for years."
This is entirely the truth, so Clint just shakes his head, still laughing, and focuses on the climb. There's absolutely no chance in hell that he'll even catch her, let alone beat her--Natasha’s every muscle was designed for racing up trees, while Clint’s are more suited for, say, slowing but efficiently hauling his body weight in gear to the top--but it's a satisfying enough workout. He hauls himself up and over a dozen times before he hears something rustle near his head, and he's just got the time to steady himself on a branch solid enough to stand on before she drops down right in front of him.
"Loser," she says, crows it, really, slightly out of breath and grinning like she's never going to stop. There are leaves in her hair, incongruent green against the red that's nearly glowing in the sunlight; she looks haloed and ethereal and, somehow, just like herself, nothing but smug satisfaction in her eyes. In the chaos, in the wreck they've both been stumbling through, he'd almost forgotten this--her psychotic competitive streak and how unabashed she is about it, the way she's just a few shades too harsh to be beautiful when she's really at home. Natasha is a dozen people at any given moment, but underneath all that, she's this, a little arrogant and a lot condescending, trusting not enough and far too much by turns, shining so bright that she's blinding and scalding at once. Clint stares at her, the light in her eyes and the twigs in her hair, and loves her so much he can hardly breathe, so much he can't imagine looking anywhere else.
There's a second where they're both just standing there, their eyes locked halfway up an ancient, towering oak, like something out of a storybook or, just maybe, a cautionary tale. And then, so fast and so unexpected that it's all Clint can do not to pitch to his death, she's kissing him, crowding him up against the tree trunk with expert, steadying hands. Clint's mouth falls open in surprise, but instinct takes over before that can spook her; he swallows her breath and matches her pace, lets his lips slide over hers, settles a hand at her hipbone and settles the other at her neck, his thumb brushing her jawline. She lets him, presses closer, and Clint feels the bottom drop out of his stomach, feels every last thing he's been denying himself scream back to life--
--before she steps away, her eyes wide and hungry, and says, "So…maybe we should climb down now."
"I," Clint says. He licks his lips without even meaning to, and her eyes follow the motion, tracking it with an intensity he recognizes intimately. It sends a sharp spike of heat down the back of his spine, and he swallows, says, "Yeah, climbing down is an idea I could really get behind."
She's faster than him, because she's always faster than him, disappearing in seconds and moving quick enough that the whole tree shakes with her haste. Clint follows as quickly as he's capable of, scraping one of his palms open against the rough bark and ignoring it; when he lands on his feet from that last drop she's waiting for him, hands at her sides, fingers twitching. Their eyes lock for a moment and then they're both moving at once, lips jockeying for position as Natasha twines herself around him, one of her hands sliding beneath the loose cotton of his t-shirt. He gets a hand on her cheek and draws her impossibly closer, kissing her in sharp, swift bursts, heady little sips of her that only get headier as she grinds into him, intent.
"Tasha," he gasps, and she says, "Shut up," against his mouth, her kiss going fierce, teeth catching his lower lip and scraping a bite into the soft flesh. He does as he's told, reaching up with his injured palm to cup a breast over her shirt, and he's probably leaving blood on the fabric, but it's not like it would be the first time. She backs him up again, fast and furious enough that he hits the tree trunk with an audible thwack, and he tightens his grip just a little, catches and swallows her moan.
It's so hot, so familiar, so utterly, incandescently perfect that Clint can't think straight, can't let his mind go anywhere but here. He arches up towards her and drops both hands to her waist for a better angle, means to modulate their pace, to slow them down; an instant later she's moved, caught both his wrists in her hands and pinned them to the trunk of the tree. She's still kissing him, and they've played at this so many times--spy vs. spy in more ways than one--that it takes Clint a second, two, three, to test the grip, to push back. When he does, he realizes that it's firm and without give, and even then it doesn't quite hit him, filters sluggishly through the haze until he turns his head, wrenching their mouths apart before he twists to look at her.
"Tasha," he says, and he's panting and rock-hard and terrified, suddenly, to realize that it took him this long. "Tasha, do you want to be doing this?"
She doesn't have to answer; her face flickers, six emotions at once, defiant-unsure-furious-doubtful-frightened-neutral, and it's not like he needs a fucking guidebook to know what that means. He swears and breaks away from her, taking a deep, ragged breath and running a hand through his hair.
"I," Natasha says, still standing right where he left her, stock-still. The expression on her face is puzzled, like she's not quite sure where she is, and Clint's whole heart lodges itself in his throat. "I'm…not sure."
"Okay, well, I need you to be sure," Clint yells, and closes his eyes, takes another breath, forces himself to lower his voice. "If this was some sort of, of test, I swear to god--"
"What the fuck," she snaps, and she's moved when he opens his eyes. "A test, what does that even mean--of course not! I just…I did want…and then I…wasn't sure, if it was me or if it was just my…but that doesn't make any sense, because I'm still…" Her expression flickers again, and he actually sees her choose anger as the best defense, watches the armor slide down, tensing her all over. "And what the hell does it matter to you, anyway? Sex is sex, right?"
"No, Natasha," Clint says, as calm as he can manage, which is, admittedly, not all that calm. "No, it isn't. Because, first of all? I have a life policy about fucking people who don't want to fuck me, and it's don't. I've got enough red in my ledger, thanks. And secondly, I told you, you need to take a really fucking careful look at where my allegiances lie!"
"You keep saying that," Natasha snarls, "like it's supposed to make any sense to me at all, Clint, what the hell does that even mean!"
"It means I love you," Clint yells before he can help himself. "But I got the distinct fucking impression that you didn't want to hear that right now!"
Natasha goes very still very quickly, even her face freezing for the long moment that hangs between them, charged thick with all the things they're not saying, before she whispers, "Oh."
"Yeah, oh," Clint says, and throws himself to the ground a few feet away from her, leaning back against another tree and dropping his head into his hands. "Jesus, Tasha."
"Well I didn't mean to--"
"Don't," Clint says, "just--just don't, I'm not angry, you don’t have to apologize, god. I don't want to fight with you. At all. I just, fuck, I just need a second, okay?"
"Fine," she says, clipped, and he hears her sit down across from him, enough distance between them that she'd have time to jump up and attack if he tried to rush at her. Clint hates that he knows that, but hates even more that she feels like it's necessary, and he breathes until the fear's dissipated enough that he can think through it.
"Right," Clint says eventually, lifting his head and offering her a half-assed, tired smile. She just watches him, wary, and he sighs and gives up the ghost. "Okay, look, Natasha--Tasha--I need you to listen to me, okay? Can you do that?"
"I'm not a child," Natasha says, and Clint knows that, at this particular moment, that isn't quite true. Because that's where she is, isn't it, a childhood spent faceless and ageless and without so much as a self to call her own, scrambling for something to think of as solid ground--that's where this puts her, puts them, and he feels sick to think of what could have happened here if neither of them had realized what was going on.
"I know that," he says. "I really do, but here's the thing--I do not want to hurt you, ever. Ever. Ever. On my list of worst nightmares, that's pretty much number one, okay? And obviously I want us to…to figure all this out, but I've got no interest at all in fucking you if that's not what you want."
"I did want it," Natasha snaps. "I wasn't just--Jesus, I'm capable of making my own fucking choices, okay, I just. I wanted it and then I didn't--I didn’t know which version of me I was anymore!"
"Then you stop me," Clint says. "Alright? From here on in, that's how this works: you make the first move, because the hell if I'm risking it, and you stop me the minute you're not sure anymore. I get it, okay?"
"No you don't."
"Yeah, Natasha, I do," Clint snaps. "Maybe not all of it--okay, definitely not all of it--but the part where you're not sure who's at the reins? We have been over this, hell, you've been dragging me through it, you know I get it. You're just trying so hard not to trust me that you--"
"Don't you dare assume that you know what I'm doing." Natasha's eyes flash with anger, and Clint lets his head drop back against the tree trunk, hard enough that it hurts.
"I am on your team," he says, and hits his head against the tree a few more times for good measure. "I get! That you don't trust me! Or can't or shouldn't or whatever it is, I get it, I get it, I am listening, but can we at least agree that I am not the threat here? That I am, in fact, doing everything I can not to be the threat here, and if you tell me that that's what the threat would say, Natasha, I am going to go find that lake you mentioned before and drown myself in it."
"Your flair for the melodramatic is commendable," Natasha says, and it's almost light, but only almost.
Clint rests his head against the tree--gently, this time--and eyes her cautiously. "Okay, what is it?"
"What is what?"
"The thing you're not saying," Clint says. Her face doesn't change at all, which is its own tell. "What, do you think I don't know you at all? Just tell me. I'm not going anywhere; you might as well."
"It's just a little hard to buy," Natasha bites out, brittle. "This whole noble, I'll-wait-for-you routine."
"It's not a routine," Clint snaps, "Jesus, you are so frustrating sometimes, of course it's not--Tasha! I've known you for eight years! You think I spent all that time missing the fact that you've got more trust issues than--look, there's nothing noble about any of this. I'm trained to read people same as you are, and I know better than to push you. And also, whether you believe this or not right now, there are things that matter a lot more to me than fucking you."
"Oh, like what?"
"Like you trusting me, for one thing," Clint says, and knows how bitter it must sound. "Like all the shit you don't remember, for another. And if you're really doubting my ability to wait, we can fix that real quick."
Natasha's mouth twists, and it's a bitter expression, but Clint doesn't miss the flash of hope underneath. "Oh yeah, genius? How's that?"
Clint is, suddenly, grateful to have been pushed here--there's nothing he wants more, just now, than to shut off, so that's what he does. He tips his head back and looks up, picks one leaf out of the masses above him and focuses on it entirely. The entire world falls away, Natasha and the rest of the clearing, the noises he was tracking obsessively earlier; Clint fixes on the leaf like he's sighting it and then goes a level deeper, deeper still, until there's nothing left of him at all. Everything but the leaf and those things that might threaten its position--an ill wind, a hungry insect, the leaf just above it, fluttering a shade too close--cease to exist. He is the leaf, and the leaf is him, and so it will remain until one of them is jarred from their position, until they're forced apart.
He's not sure how long he waits, because to be sure, he'd have to be tracking time. Time has no bearing on the life of the leaf, so it is, at the moment, irrelevant, just as all of Clint's human desires are irrelevant. Clint learned to do this in the desert, to distill himself down to his eyes and his target, to separate himself from his body--it's a skill he rarely needs anymore, called more often to maintain broader details or pull quick hits. And it's different, in its way, from being the hawk in his nest; Clint's not watching for everything. Clint's not watching at all.
An animal comes by eventually, a rodent Clint would identify if it mattered at all, kicking small feet off the branch and knocking the leaf at its stem. It dangles precariously for a moment, half-hinged, before gravity does its work and it falls; Clint tenses and moves, one fluid motion, and catches it before it hits the ground.
When he looks around, he notes that the sun's gone lower in the sky; at least two hours, maybe two and a half. Natasha has, in his absence, spread the blanket out across the ground and laid back against it, and there's a book open across her chest. She looks up at him through eyes that are clear and amused, all the anger and uncertainty drained from them, and smiles.
"You've made your point and then some," she says, rolling her eyes as he sits down next to her on the blanket and digs around in the backpack for a bottle of water. "Catching the leaf was a nice touch, by the way."
"Did I catch it?" Clint says, blinking, and then look down at his hand. He grins at the leaf, feeling oddly fond of it, and then presents it to her with a flourish. "Spoils of my victory, or whatever."
"You've got a strange idea of victory," Natasha says, but after a second she sticks the leaf between the pages of her book--something large and heavy with Russian on the cover--and closes it. "I forgot you could do that. That…no one at home thing you do."
Clint takes a long sip of the water, considering. "Uh, not to freak you out or anything, but do you remember learning that I could do that?"
She considers it for a second, and then, clear-eyed and much calmer than he expected her to be, shakes her head. "No, I don't."
"Huh," Clint says, laying back next to her. "So that's how it works. You still have what you know about me, and some of the emotion too, right? And your body remembers mine, or I think it does, anyway. So he just took the actual concrete memories--that makes sense, actually. That feels like about as much as he'd be able to do without the spear in his hand."
"Welcome to the advanced class," Natasha says. "Knew you'd catch up eventually."
That throws Clint for a second, and then he thinks, Of course. That's what Natasha was doing during her three absent days--she wasn't trying to regain her confidence, because of course she wasn't, because that isn't what she lost. Natasha loses trust, in others, in herself; wherever she was, she was sifting through her reactions, trying to find the baseline, testing the edges. She's probably been doing it since she got back, probably hasn't stopped even once. And that's probably what threw her before, too, kissing him and feeling her certainty flicker--it wasn't just the flickering. It was that she hit a boundary she hadn't found before, an untested edge. Natasha's always hated surprises.
"You could have told me, you know," he says lightly, instead of, I am an idiot for taking this long to work it out.
The look she gives him is strangely hesitant, almost embarrassed. When he raises his eyebrows, she actually flushes a little, looks away. "I, um. It's…helpful, actually? To watch you figure it out. The fact that you're putting in the effort is, um. Makes it easier to believe that you're…for real, I guess? Even though I know you are, logically, seeing it kind of sells it."
"Ah," Clint says. "Well, in that case sign me up for the advanced class."
He means it as a light comment, a joke, but when he looks at her her eyes are wide and startled. "You really love me, don't you?"
"I really, really do," Clint says, and is surprised to find it doesn't hurt at all. "Have for a long time, Tasha. A little alien fuckery isn't gonna scare me off."
"But I could," Natasha says, a teasing little probe, and Clint grins at her and props himself up on one arm.
"Yeah, 'course you could, you are way scarier than Loki. Loki dreams of growing up to be as scary as you," he says. Then, quieter, he adds, "You could also tell me to go, Natasha. I can't be scared off--like, at all, believe me--but if you decide this is quits for you, I'll deal with that. Okay?"
"Oh, god, I know, Barton," Natasha says. "I don't want you to go--I'm pretty sure I want the opposite of that, actually, if we're going to be honest. It's just…I'm just trying to level out. It might take awhile."
"Patience I've got," Clint says, and they smile at each other, warmth on Natasha's end and something that's hopefully not too hopeless on Clint's. The silence that yawns out between them is comfortable this time, and for awhile they just sit there, Clint propped up on an arm and Natasha flat on her back, enjoying the sensation of not having to say anything at all.
"We should head back," Natasha says, regretful, after awhile. "And you should eat something--here. Don't make a face, you big baby, don't think I haven't noticed that you forget without the timers."
Clint makes a face anyway, but he takes the sandwich she’s offering him, polishes half of it as she shoves the book and blanket back in the rucksack and swings it over her shoulder. The second half he eats as they pick their way back down the hill; when it's gone, he starts puzzling over what she's told him, what she hasn't, and decides to take a calculated risk.
"The first time you told me you loved me," he says, carefully casual, "you were wearing a cheesehead hat. In Wisconsin."
"No," Natasha says, sounding scandalized rather than frightened. "No, that does not sound like something I'd do at all, I refuse to accept that as truth."
Clint grins at her. "Hand to god. It's a good look on you, actually, a cheese hat. Really brings out your eyes."
"You are so full of shit," she says, and then laughs, sounding almost surprised by the sound. "Alright, oracle of the past, if you expect me to swallow that one you'd better at least explain."
"You remember that thing in Madison last year? Steel magnate running an unregistered lab on the side? Doing human testing, and Fury was afraid he was gonna end up spitting out Hulk 2: The Hulkening, so he--"
"Sent me to take him out, yeah, I've got that," Natasha says, frowning. "You were…working the detail for me, weren't you? God, that's so weird--I remember you being there, but it just…cuts off, after the hit. The next thing I've got is checking in at base."
Clint feels a slight pang at the thought that she's lost this, that she'll have to make due with the retelling, but he pushes it aside--it's not his grief to have, and anyway he owes her more than that. "Yes, well, I still have the rest of it. Which goes as follows: you decided you wanted to see a football game--"
"Oh, no I did not--"
"You did," Clint says, shaking his head. "You said that if you were going to kill someone whose last words were 'Tell my ex-wife I'll shiv her for those Packers tickets if I have to,' the least you could do is see what all the fuss was about."
Natasha's brow wrinkles. "God, yeah, that's right. He did say that--thought I was his secretary until he turned around. Really? We went to a Packers game?"
Clint sighs, fond. "We did. You spent the whole time complaining that there were more interesting ways to watch people hurt each other, but I did get you to put on the hat eventually. I think you kind of liked it, really."
"I did not like the cheese hat, Clint," Natasha says, stern, and Clint throws his head back and laughs.
"That's what you said then, too," he says, when he's got it down to a dull roar. "You were still wearing it on the drive back, and I asked if you were going to keep it, and that's just what you said. That same tone and everything, god. And then you tried to take it off, and I put my hand on top so you couldn't, and you said, 'Jesus, Barton, I don't know why I love you.' I almost drove us off the road."
Natasha puts a hand on his arm, stops him; when he turns, she's looking at him almost shyly, like she's not sure if she's allowed to take whatever liberty she's thinking of. When she kisses him this time, it's slow, close-lipped and careful, like she's trying to map him out. He eases his mouth over hers, lets his eyes flutter closed, and doesn't reach for her when she draws back, just opens his eyes and smiles.
"Can I do that," she says, like she's not sure she wants the answer. "Or is it, uh--"
"Tasha," Clint says, "please rest assured that there is pretty much nothing you can do in that department that's going to bum me out. Like. Believe me. Nothing."
"Fair enough," Natasha says, and starts walking again. "So. When did you tell me, then?"
"What, that I loved you?"
"What else?" Natasha says, and Clint winces, hoping she doesn't catch it.
"Oh, I don't know," he lies, because, as far as he's concerned, literally the only benefit of the fact that Natasha's memories of them are gone is the fact that she's forgotten this story. "You could have been wondering when I told you that I'm, uh, afraid of…clowns?"
"Wow, circus-boy, that's the shittiest lie in the history of time," Natasha says, sounding delighted. "You're stalling, this must be awful. Go on, tell me. When?"
"Budapest," Clint admits, and doesn’t bother trying to hide the wince this time.
"Budapest?" Natasha sounds, impossibly, even more scandalized than she was about the cheese hat. "As in, the-first-time-we-had-sex Budapest?"
"It was a couple weeks later!" Clint says, scrambling for his dignity and not finding any purchase. "And I'd kind of been holding some cards to my chest for awhile okay? And, anyway, that's not even the worst part."
Natasha looks torn between being thrilled at his embarrassment and horrified to know him. "Clint, how can that possibly not be the worst part?"
"Oh, god," Clint says. He runs a hand through his hand, and Natasha raises an impatient eyebrow at him. "Oh, fine, it was…we were on the street, right? Speaking English, don't remember why now, I think you were sick of people asking us for directions or something--anyway, this kid came up to us. American girl, backpacking across Europe sort of thing, just out of college, didn't speak the language, and she'd run out of money."
"Are you still stalling?"
"No, I swear this is relevant--because, thing is, she was selling off her stuff, trying to get enough money to hop a train back to her friend's place in France, and she had these DVDs of…oh, god, I don't know. Tae bo or kickboxing or something, god knows why she was carting them around Europe with her, but she was trying to get you to buy them, right? Gave you this whole song and dance about how it was so important for women to learn self-defense, how these things were totally revolutionary. And when she was done you looked at me, and completely deadpan--I mean, completely deadpan--said, 'You know, I think I could really use those.' With your lethal weapon hands and everything, I couldn't help myself, it just slipped out. I thought you were gonna clock me."
"You," Natasha says, stopping dead. "You--in front of a witness, Clint? Oh my god, tell me you've kept tabs on her."
Clint rolls his eyes. "Please, like I'd need to. Her name is Marianne, she lives in one of the Dakotas now, thinks your name is Cynthia van Dermott. You drop by and see her when you're in the States sometimes, just to check in. As far as she's concerned I was a clingy fling you ditched twenty minutes after you two met, and I think she got married last year, actually. She sends you a Christmas letter. Which, after reading, you burn."
"…Oh," Natasha says, and Clint winks at her.
"Never doubt your own paranoia, Tash."
She laughs, brief and light, and then, slowly, says, "So we…we make it work, then. Around our lives, I mean. It's not, I don't know…"
"White picket fence and a dog in the yard?" Clint says, rolling his eyes. "Christ, of course not. It's mostly the same way it's always been, except that we talk more, and, y'know, the sex thing. I was trying to sell you on buying a place together before all this happened--you said it was pointless, since it's not like either of us really know where we'll be at any given moment, and then you vanished in the dead of night to take a job. Left me a Russian tea biscuit as my clue."
"You tend to drop breadcrumbs when you take a mission, say it keeps me on my toes," Clint says, and shakes his head, laughs. "Although to be fair that was the first time it was literally, you know, a bread product. You're still completely nutty about what we can and can't say in writing, you're still bound and determined that no one ever find out, and you're still mean as hell half the time. You're still you, Natasha. You're just, I don't know, you plus some stuff."
"Me plus some stuff," Natasha repeats, contemplative. "Hmm. I guess I could see that."
The rest of the walk back to the house they pass in pleasant enough silence, and it's just dark by the time they get in. They make dinner, moving around each other with long-practiced ease, and if Clint notices Natasha fumbling a little over how naturally it comes, he doesn't point it out. After they've eaten they drift into the living room, Clint flat on his back on the couch and complaining about the inaccuracies in Saving Private Ryan while Natasha alternates between reading the book from earlier and mocking him. It's not easy, not the way it once was, but it's easier than it's been since before everything went wrong, and when Clint stands to go to bed, Natasha gets up too.
She kisses him once on the cheek and then moves left, brushes her lips ever-so-lightly against his, and Clint thinks dizzily that he'd settle for this, would happily live out his years doing nothing but this if it meant he wouldn't have to lose her. His whole life has been an exercise in rebuilding, in picking up the wreckage that’s always left by someone leaving--he’s spent so long thinking of Natasha as solid ground, as a bedrock, that he hasn’t been able to bear the thought of what he might be without her. The truth is, he could manage it if he had to, could trudge through reality with a grim determination he hasn’t forced himself to meet halfway in years; he could reach for the kind of training everyone always hopes to avoid, climb upwards and onwards. He could manage it, but he can’t help but think it would leave him less human, somehow, would raze the years of shoddy architecture that have become his scaffolding. There are so many pieces of Natasha, of him, that have nothing to do with the ways and places they’ve touched, everything to do with salves, with old wounds, with something to hold onto. Clint’s past is a warzone in its own right, his father’s reeking breath and unfettered hands laid over with the laundry list of people who have decided him unworthy of their time; Natasha is his constant, has been for so long that it’s staggering to think about. He could manage without her, but god, god, he doesn’t want to, would do anything to avoid that moment that, until she showed up, always came eventually: a turned back, a clipped apology, so many ways to boil a whole history down into the word goodbye.
He smiles and shoves his hands in his pockets when she steps away, awkward suddenly in a way he hasn't been since he was a teenager, and has absolutely no idea what to say to her, how much would be too much.
"Night, Tasha," he settles on eventually.
"Night, Clint," she says, and he feels her eyes on him as he walks upstairs, tracking his rise and fall.
In exchange--not that it's a fair exchange, really, since Clint is itching to do his part and Natasha's got to be grating against how patient she's being with him--Clint works to fill her in on what she's missing, sketching out their history the best he knows how. It's going to take years, probably, and it's patchwork at best, but she wants to hear it, and Clint figures that's more than enough to call a starting point. He tells her about Budapest and Moscow, Prague and Bratislava, a Super 8 in Michigan and a Ritz Carlton in Hong Kong; he tells her about his childhood and what he knows of hers; he tells her about the things no one else would think to notice, the codes and secrets they've always spoken in, and she listens, and listens, and listens.
They touch sometimes, kiss sometimes; Clint holds himself to his word, only moving in when she offers clear permission, stepping away the moment her doubt flairs back to life. For the first few days, it's fleeting little moments that he hoards jealously, replaying them when he's supposed to be sleeping and wishing there was somewhere more reliable to put them than his memory. By the sixth night, she's straddling him on the couch, her breath coming heavy and her hips grinding a sinful staccato beat into his crotch; they’ve been at it for nearly half an hour before she swears and pulls away.
"God fucking damn it," she snaps, falling off him and onto the cushions in a motion that would be graceless on anyone else. "Fuck, Clint, I swear to god, I am so fucking sick of--I just, fuck, I get so close to it and I'm so sure and then it's just there again. I don't even know why! I know you're for real, I know we're for real, I don't know why I can't just get past this!"
"You know I'm fine with whatever," Clint says, although admittedly in this particular case his continued being-fine is going to require taking some things in hand in the privacy of his own bedroom.
"Yes, I know you're fine with whatever, that's not the problem!"
"Then what's the problem?"
"I'm horny," Natasha snaps, "that is the fucking problem, Jesus Christ, I just want to ride the shit out of you, it's ridiculous. It's all the fucking time! But the second I go to do it, it's like something snaps in the back of my mind, like I'm not sure if it's me who wants it or….or me a month ago, which makes no sense, because that's still me."
"Ah," Clint says. He tries very hard to formulate an intelligent response, but in the process, he thinks over what she's said a second time and licks his lips instead. "I can see how that would, um. Frustrating. Yes."
Natasha stops and props herself up on her elbows, arching an eyebrow at him. "You're thinking about me riding the shit out of you, aren't you?"
"Yes," Clint admits. "I, uh, you know, respecting your things and stuff, right, totally doing that, can totally be helpful here but I. Uh. Might need a couple minutes first. Upstairs…minutes."
Natasha cocks her head and then moves, somersaulting over herself so she's sitting up next to him and spreading a hand over the bulge in his jeans. Clint groans and drops his head back against the couch, and she leans up into his line of vision, grinning. "Upstairs minutes, huh?"
"Could you be less hot," Clint says, "for like five, maybe ten minutes, that would be great, that would be so much healthier for my balls, Nat."
"Getting a little blue down there?"
"Oh, god," Clint says, and groans again when she leans down a little harder. "Tasha, Jesus, you can't just be all mean at me when I'm--when you're all--I do not want to come in my pants here, okay, but god help me, I will if you don't quit it. I won't be able to help myself."
"Hmm," she says. Then, to Clint's combined disappointment and relief, she moves away again and checks her watch. "Well, I guess it is late enough for bed. Go on, go…take care of yourself, heh. Wouldn't want to torture you."
Yes you would, Clint thinks, flashing back to the stuff he hasn't worked out how to tell her yet, cuffs and ropes and filthy, blood-streaked sex in the aftermath of chaos, shrapnel still fresh as they fucked the adrenaline out, throwing each other around the room. Instead of mentioning this, he stands, mustering as much dignity as possible with an erection visibly tenting his jeans, and says, "Right. Uh. Good night, then. I'll, er, try to keep it quiet."
"Don't silence yourself on my account, Clint," Natasha says, and Clint thinks it's just an idle comment until he actually looks at her, sees the challenge in her eyes. When she speaks again, her voice is a purr he hasn't heard in ages. "I'd just hate it if you did that."
For a moment, there's nothing in Clint's brain but a screaming, shrieking white noise, a cloud of want so thick that he has to fight his way up and out of it. When he's managed that, he offers her a slow, rakish sort of smile, doesn't miss the way her eyes widen. "You sure about that, Tasha? In the right circumstances, I'm known to be a screamer."
"Then I suppose I'll brace myself for some screaming, Barton," Natasha says. Her voice is flat, neutral, as bland as bland gets, but Clint's not a bad spy by any stretch of the imagination, for all he's not as good as her. He doesn't miss the sweat at her temples or the tensing at her throat when she swallows, the way her eyes are fixed on his mouth when she says, "I do hope I've made my position clear."
"Yes, ma'am," Clint says. He turns for the stairs and starts whistling under his breath, forcing himself to take slow, ambling steps, and swears he can hear her bristle with tension. "You wouldn't be planning to head upstairs yourself, would you?"
"I haven't the faintest idea what gave you that impression," Natasha says, perfectly calm, and Clint grins to himself, anticipation running hot in his veins as he makes his way to his bedroom and shuts the door.
It's not unlike being a kid at a candy store, really; at first Clint stands there so hot at the thought of her out in the house, sneaking up the stairs, subterfuge on subterfuge just to hear him get himself off, that his breath hitches without his even having to touch himself. His fingers flex against his thighs, and he can't remember having ever been turned on quite like this, so flush with it that every option looks enticing, that he can't decide what to do. Then he thinks of her inching through the hallway, waiting for him, and it's like a switch has been flipped--he can't move fast enough, shucking out of his jeans and boxers and leaning back against the door, an ear pressed to the wood.
"You out there yet, Tasha?" he calls, and wraps a hand around his cock, gives it one sharp pull and moans from the back of his throat. "You hearing this?" There's no response, so Clint closes his eyes and listens, really listens, until he hears the faint creak of a nearby floorboard. He wouldn't have caught that if she didn't want him to, and he bites down hard on his grin, arching back against the door and pulling at himself again. "Fine, don't tell me. Betcha I can make enough noise for the both of us."
In response to this, Clint is met with the unmistakable slithering sound of a pair of pants hitting the floor. He lets his head fall back against the door, hard, to keep himself from coming just from that; when he's got his breath back, he lets his voice go low and hoarse, because if he knows her at all, she'll want to fucking work for it. "Yeah, you're out there. This is some kinky shit, Tasha, you weren't kidding when you said you were horny, were you? Bet you're out there right now with--god--with your legs spread, that right? Bet you're wet already, bet you're dripping with it, god knows I am--ooh, but you don't know, do you?"
The door moves slightly behind him, against him, the kind of slight shift that means it's holding weight on both sides. Clint pushes back against it, hard enough that she'll feel it through the wood; his breath is coming hard, thickening his voice, when he says, "Yeah, that's right, it's like Mystery Science Theatre over there, isn't it? Just your imagination and that shit's not fair at all, so I'll tell you what, Tasha, I'm a big boy and all yours, too. You like that, don't you? Like me big and thick and so hard for you, Tasha, so fucking hard for you that it's a mess already, gonna come all over your nice clean wall in a minute here, that what you're listening for?"
"Stain my wall and die, Barton," Natasha says, breathy and three pitches higher than he knows she wants to be, a moan caught on the words. And he knows that's how she sounds when she's got a thumb over her clit and two fingers working inside her, because he's watched her do this, watched her make a show of herself because it gets her off to see him desperate for it. He groans and throws himself back against the door, flicks his own thumb over the head of his cock too hard, the way she'd do it with a wicked smile curling her lips.
"You, fuck," Clint says, gasping for breath, pulling himself as hard and fast as he thinks he can bear without tumbling over the edge, "you wouldn't kill me, Natasha, god no, not before you were done with me, isn't that right? And you're never gonna be done with me, are you, you're not, because I'm always gonna be this big and this thick and this hard for you, and not that sexy vixen shit you pull, either. No, I'm gonna be hard for you, all the shit you don't let anybody else see, because you can do vixen, yeah, fine, but not in here, not for me, for me you're a fucking avalanche, you're a goddamn warzone and it's the hottest thing I've ever seen, you and your dangerous fucking hands all over me, d'you know how many times you've got me off with just your hands--"
"You telling me," Natasha says, and he hears her choke on it, feels her slam a fist against the door to try to get a hold on herself, "you telling me you're easy?"
"For you? God, yeah, I'm easy." Clint's breathing so hard now that he's not even sure it's intelligible, but he keeps going anyway, pushing so hard against the door that it creaks with the strain. "For you I'm a fucking slut--" and he stops, has to take a slow, strangled breath, when he hears the throaty groan that little gem's won him. "You like that, don't you? Like to hear that I'm your slut, god, you really are so--fuck, Tasha, what else would I be, huh? What else could I be when you get all bossy the way you do, when you look at me like I'm, oh, fuck, Tasha, like I'd better fucking impress you. And y'know what I do, you better believe that I do, hell, I'll prove it to you if I gotta, proved it to you last time, let you get me on my hands and knees, let you fuck me up down and backwards, and you've got all that waiting for you because god knows I want you any way you'll take me."
"I want to take you," Natasha growls, sounding as close as he is, closer, even, "to pieces," and Clint does actually scream them, so hard that it hurts at the thought of her putting her money where her mouth is, at the thought of all the times she's done it before. He spreads his free hand out against the door, palm flat, and can't even speak for a minute, because this, right here, is all of it, is them--all her ruthless hunger backed up against all his bottomless need, nothing but a thin, creaking piece of wood between them.
"You better," he pants, desperate, "oh, god, you'd better be fucking coming out there, Natasha, I can't, I can't," and when she chokes out, "Come on already, goddamn it, want to fucking--hear you--" he loses it, comes like a shot, arching against the door and then crashing down into it, staining the wall after all.
"Jesus fuck," he hisses, barely standing on shaking legs, a hand against the doorframe to brace him. "Fuck, that's--how can you--how are you so, even when you're not, I don't--" and then he hears her high-pitched, wordless moan and knows she's unwinding out there, tightening around her own hand and pulsing with heat. It's so hot it makes him dizzy, so hot he has to rest his head against his hand and close his eyes and breathe through it, because he can't go again for all that he wants to, for all he'd do it in a second if only his body would allow.
He's not sure how long he stands there, only that it's long enough that he's past sticky and well into disgusting when he hears Natasha says, breathy and too fast, "You should…you should put some…some pants on or something. I'm going to, I want to--but I'm not sure if I can, if I'll be able to hold it together if you're--just. Pants, Barton."
"Pants," Clint repeats, not moving, and then, "Oh! Oh. Pants. Right, okay, I can…pants. Yup." He casts around for his boxers, half-blind with release and exhaustion, pulls them on and says, "Yeah, okay, decent now," a half-second before the door swings open.
The woman standing in front of him--red hair hanging loose, sweat pooling at her temples and tremors skittering across her hands, bottom lip torn bloody where she was biting it--is not the Black Widow, is not Agent Romanov, is not even Natasha. This is Tasha, his as much as he's hers, stripped down to the barest version of herself, the honest core under all those lies. She looks as wrecked as he feels, as wrecked as he knows he must be in her eyes, and the moment between them is ripe for the picking. Clint wants to tell her everything, every truth he ever whispered to her in the darkness and all the others, the ones he never got around to voicing out loud; Clint wants to open his mouth and spit his heart into her hands, because that's where it is anyway, one way or another. Clint has so many things to say he can't even find a starting place, so he stares at her, both of them trembling, an aching, endless, electric inch between them, the doorway a line of demarcation still.
When I met you, Clint wants to tell her, I was six months out of the desert and I saw the war in your eyes. You were going to be my first real hit, were going to be the jewel in my collection; you were already bleeding when I found you, and I couldn't kill you, Tasha, couldn't even try. Because I looked at you and I saw it, saw the fight in your eyes that wasn't for me, saw someone else trying to crawl up out of that mask your face was back then, and I didn't love you, didn’t even know you, but I couldn't let you die, either. I couldn't have blood on my hands that smelled of bravery, couldn't be the person to crush that cage when you were so close to climbing out of it, and that's why I dropped my bow. And you know what, Tasha, SHIELD likes to take credit for wiping that out of you but I know they're fucking liars, because it was you, it was all you, from the moment you didn't kill me while I stood there at point-blank range, from the second you decided you couldn't murder an unarmed man. You want to talk about heroes and I don't even have to look for mine--is that too much? Is that enough? Is there such a thing, with you?
When we were just starting out, Clint wants to explain, I didn't expect you, didn't know if there'd be a person under all that programming, didn't know what I was doing, why I cared so much that you be alright. I thought I had to save you, I think, which is so stupid, Tasha, since you went and turned around and got down to saving me. I didn't know who I was until you showed me who I wasn't, unfolding in layers and prying me open along with you, and I'd been the hawk in his nest for so long then it shocked me and it still shocks me, still lights me up inside, and you never stopped saving me, not once, not even now. You want to talk about debt and I'll open up my ledger, because every entry is you and every entry has always been you and every entry will always be you--is that enough? Is that too much? Is there such a thing, with you?
When I was a kid, Clint wants to say, I used to dream about growing up to a life like you see on TV, like in the movies, like the happy families that came to watch my act. It was all I had, a mouthy kid with a bow and arrow to his name, a life on the road and no one to call home--I wanted the dog and the white picket fence, the pretty wife and the smiling kids. I would lie in bed at night and imagine it, my perfect, normal life, with my perfect, normal wife, and I am so glad you are not that person, Natasha, I am so glad to have been wrong. Because there is nothing perfect about you, there has never been even one perfect thing about you; you are sharp and deadly and dangerous and fucked up, you are a murder weapon and a blast radius, you are the most honest liar I have ever met and thank god, because I don't want you to be perfect and I don't want this to be perfect and I don't want us to be perfect. I want you to be as you are and I want this to be as it is and I want us to be a murder weapon and a blast radius and the most honest lie I've ever told, because you are my best friend and my last straw and everything I could never have known I wanted, because I couldn't have dreamed you, Natasha, I couldn't have even come close. And if that's too much I mean it anyway, and if it's not enough then tell me what will be. Tell me where I have to go or what I have to do, because I don't want to be a better person or a worse one, Tasha, I just want to be your person, because you are enough for me and too much for me and I will never stop loving you, no matter what happens, no matter the price.
Clint stares at her, the bow of her lips and the sweat trickling down her cheek, and feels himself catch the edge of it, riding the wave of paragraphs he wants to speak in ancient tongues he never learned. He wants to chart her body in every way she'll let him, wants to have her crawl under his skin and stay awhile, wants to throw himself at her feet and confess every hard-won piece of it until there's nothing between them, no door and no history either, just this, and this, and this--
"I think you're really great," Clint blurts out, which is so not at all what he meant to say, which is so not even remotely what he meant to say that he freezes, blanches, thinks, "What?" and then realizes he's said it out loud.
Natasha blinks, once, twice, and then dissolves into howling, shuddering laughter, throwing her head back and grabbing his arm for support. Clint tries to be indignant, he really does, gets a solid scowl in place and everything, but the truth is it's so good to see her like this, overcome with an abandon he'd almost forgot about, that he can't quite bring himself to mind.
"I'm sorry," she gasps after a minute, still laughing, "oh, god, I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, I've just--you just choked, that was a total choke, I've never seen you seen you do that on one of those before, I didn't even think you could."
"One of what?" Clint doesn't bother arguing the choke comment--for one thing, he did choke, and for another she's stepped closer now, is laughing into his shoulder, has let him curve an arm around her waist. "What are you talking about?"
"Oh my god, you don't know," Natasha says, and sets off laughing too hard to talk again, tears streaming from her eyes by the time she looks back up. "You--oh, god, Barton, you do this whole thing when you're about to--to--with the feelings, you do it every time, it's this whole--" she stops and steps away from him, throwing back her shoulders and puffing up her chest, trying to school her face into a mock-serious expression and failing when she chokes on another burst of laughter and falls into him again. "With the man posture and the deep breathing, and it's your only tell and it's not like you do it with other people and I like it, you know, but you just! Choked!"
"I do not do the man posture," Clint protests. She laughs even harder and he just shrugs and pulls her in the rest of the way, lets her bury her face in his neck, and--oh. Oh, she hasn't asked what he was going to say--god, she's probably just as at sea as he is, if not more, is probably laughing out of relief as much as anything else. He closes his eyes and rests his chin on the top her head, waits until she quiets down before he says, "Alright. Maybe I do the man posture a little bit. And you're right, it was a total choke--what can I say? Post-performance performance anxiety, that's a thing, right?"
"Apparently," Natasha says, stepping away and wiping her eyes. There's still a little bit of mirth in her voice, but when she looks up at him her smiles goes softer, fonder. Quietly, she says, "It was quite a good performance, though. If that helps at all."
"With the woman I love laughing at me hysterically, you mean?" Clint says, and grins at her. "Nah. Don't need the help--I have practice."
"Yeah, I just bet you do," Natasha says, and shakes her head. Then she darts in and plants a kiss at the corner of his mouth, swift and easy, before she turns around like they didn't just basically fuck through a doorway, tossing, "Night, Clint," over her shoulder.
"It was I love you," Clint calls after her, unable to help himself. "That I choked on, I mean."
The smile she offers him when she gets to her door has nothing in it but warmth, no fear or distrust, no nerves. "Yeah, Barton. I know it was."
"This is a dream," Clint says. He drops to a crouch anyway; it pays, in his experience, to be careful. "Has to be."
Loki tips his head back in laughter, and there are scars around his mouth when he looks back down that Clint could swear weren't there a moment ago. "You humans are so arrogant," he spits, and there's a golden spear in his hand, a manic light in his eyes. "It is no wonder my brother is so fond of you."
"Not arrogant, just observant." Clint circles him until a knife materializes in his hand, and he holds it up, grim. "See? Smoky white background, shit popping up from nowhere, you--definitely a dream."
"Clint, Clint, Clint," Loki says, and he's wearing a suit now, deep green and well-pressed, a scarf hanging from his neck. Clint hates the sound of his own name on this tongue, curdled with hate, with disdain, with something that might be called intent. "Of course it is a dream. Do you imagine you know the full extent of my powers, tiny mortal? Do you suppose that, simply because it is a dream, you are not speaking to me?"
Clint feels his certainty shatter underneath him; he tightens his grip on the knife, still circling. "I'm not scared of you."
"Your people once called me the god of lies," Loki says, conversational, glancing down at his nails like he's bored, like this is boring. "Perhaps they still do--my first visit to Midgard was not so long ago, really, and yet it seems to have been centuries to you. Interesting, isn't it, Agent Barton? How time does change our perceptions. For all you know, I could live a thousand years, serve my penance, grow ancient, and still return to your precious planet in your relative youth. And I recognize lies, Clint; oh, how I know them. It is true that you are not scared of me, but only because the proper word is terrified."
"You know what, fine," Clint says, and straightens up, thinks about the knife in his hand until it morphs, twists, bends itself into a bow. He nocks an arrow from the quiver that wasn't on his back a minute ago, holds it between them, says, "That's a fair cop. You scare the shit out of me; so what? Nothing I can do about it, and the thing is, God of Lies, I don't think there's anything you can do about me. If you could come back here and fuck with me some more, I'm betting you wouldn't stick to dreams. Maybe it is you--again, hate to say it, so what? I'm still gonna wake up when this is over."
"You would do well to avoid making assumptions," Loki says. There's an edge to his voice, but then he smiles, and that's all edge. "How is your spider, Barton? Does she bar you from the web?"
"Yeah, I'll thank you not to talk about Natasha that way," Clint snaps. "Especially when she's not here to make you suffer for it."
Loki laughs again, a ragged, bitter sort of sound. "Are you so weak in my absence that you must let your woman fight for you? Tsk, tsk. And here I thought you had heart."
"You're no judge of heart, Loki. And my woman fights for herself--did you miss that when she tricked you into playing right into her hands? Or when she shut down your fucking portal, huh, buddy? Or when she knocked you out of my head, because I have the scar to prove it--way I see it, she beat you all around. Made you look like a jackass, too."
"Do not push me, human," Loki warns, and Clint feels something in him snap. He aims and looses the arrow, sends it right through Loki's left eye socket, and Loki staggers as Clint nocks another and steps forward.
"Don't push you," he says, his voice rising until he's screaming it, dropping the bow so he can grab the arrow in Loki’s eye and twist. "Don't push you--you come back here to scare me, to get back in my head, to fuck me around again like you fucked me around already, like you fucked around with Natasha, and you don't want me to push you? You filthy, sniveling son of a bitch, that's how you work, isn't it? You fight in dreams and lies, you twist things around so you can slip in without having to fight at all, you pathetic, desperate lunatic, you fucking coward."
Loki's hands flash blue, his mouth curling in fury, and it only takes a second before Clint's thrown up against a wall that wasn't there before. His arrow is gone from Loki's eye socket, and in its place there is a hideous, gaping hole, no blood, no gore, just this cavernous rounded gap there, a pinhead of color pulsing in the center. The arrow Loki splits in half, one end in each of his hands before he snarls and stabs forward, shoving them into the tender flesh just beneath either side of Clint's ribcage. It hurts like nothing has ever hurt in his life, dream or no, but he clenches his teeth and doesn't break Loki's gaze, digs his nails into his palms.
“It has been so long,” Loki says, a faint smile curling his mouth, “since I have heard a human scream.”
"I. Will. Not. Scream. For. You," Clint grits out, even as Loki twists the arrow shafts with a vicious delight in his remaining eye, even as Loki leans in close, breath blowing chilled over Clint's ear.
"Oh, but you will, little mortal," he croons, and then he pulls back, his nose an inch from Clint's, his right eye glowing that fragmented, ethereal blue that Clint remembers all too well as the hole where his left eye should be fills with the same color. "Would you like to know why, Agent Clint Barton of SHIELD, so much heart and so little sense? It is because I am what you fear most; it is because I am the nightmare you will never stop believing in; it is because I am the monster under your bed, and I always will be. It is because I have taken from you all those things you hold closest, and you will never get them back, never, never, never."
"Is that," Clint manages, through the deafening pain and the strangling, choking terror, that color so familiar, so dangerous, so hypnotizing, "the best you can do?"
"You will never be free of me!" Loki bellows, shrieks, spit flecking Clint's skin, and that terrible hole is dripping now, thick ice-blue globs that shatter like glass when they hit the ground. "You will never be safe, you will never be clean, it will never be over, you will never escape! Scream. Scream! Scream!"
And then Clint can hear it, the very edge of his awareness, the way his scream would sound if Loki did wring it from him, ragged and desperate and far too frightened. It only hardens his resolve, because the bastard can't be allowed the satisfaction, because he's taken enough and he's done enough and he's wrong, anyway, has to be. He has to be wrong, because if he's not Clint will lose his mind, will never recover, and he has a life to get back to even if he seems to have forgotten the details just now.
"Never," he breathes, and Loki screams for him, rage and fury and white-hot insanity, blue tendrils snaking out from his body, his face, sinking into Clint's flesh, closing his throat, and it's happening again, it's happening again, it's happening again--
--and he's bolt upright in bed, his throat aching and that distant sound still hanging in the air, closer now, Natasha ten feet away and saying his name over and over and over.
"I wasn't screaming," Clint says, snarls it really, even though he knows it's not true. "I wasn't screaming, I wasn't, I wasn't, that son of a bitch didn't make me scream, he didn't win, I wasn't!"
"Okay," Natasha says calmly, "you weren't."
"I wasn't," Clint snaps, and then actually processes what she's said. "I mean--I mean that's right! I wasn't!"
"You definitely weren't," Natasha agrees, and sits down on the edge of the bed. "You want me to check you, though? Make sure it's you in there? Since he didn't win, and you weren't screaming, it doesn't count as asking for help, does it? Just a victory spoil."
"I….I guess," Clint says, "yeah, that'd be…yeah."
Natasha nods, perfunctory and clinical, and takes his chin in her hand, tilts his face from one side to the other. "Well, let's see here. Eyes: definitely lacking in the creepy, otherworldly glow department." She drops his chin and picks up his hands in hers, first one and then the other, turning them over and peering at them as he tries to catch his breath. "Hands: not attempting to strangle, disembowel, or otherwise maim me. Hair," and here she reaches up and tugs lightly at it, frowning, "well, approaching Yeti stage, I'll grant you, but not in a possessed sort of way. I'm thinking you're clear, how about you?"
Clint stares at her and then shudders, an all-over tremor he can't seem to stop, dropping his head and closing his eyes. "Fuck."
"Yeah," she says. She puts a hand to the back of his neck and then sighs, drops it, laces their fingers together instead and tugs lightly. "C'mon, then. My bed's bigger, and there's a lot less sweat in the sheets right now. Up, Barton. I don't have all night."
Stripped of all the fight in his body--and aware, in a distant, detached sort of way, that he wouldn't fight this even if he could--he gets up and follows her down the hall, into the bedroom with the locked door at the end of the hall. It looks more or less exactly like his, except for the laptop and printer sitting on a desk in the corner and the fact that the bed is, indeed, bigger. Natasha shoves him at the haphazard mess of sheets and he falls onto them, stays stock-still when she climbs in on the other side, not sure even now what he's allowed to want.
"Oh, for god's sake, Clint," she says after a second, fond and exasperated both, and tugs at his arm until he rolls toward her and wraps himself around her. "You're fine. There's nobody in there but you. It's over."
"Not what he said," Clint mutters into her hair, taking deep, aching breaths. She smells like she always has, a far-off echo of gun oil and cinnamon, and he tries to ground himself in it, to believe that she's right. "He said--he said it would never be over. That I'd never be free. That he'd always be…that he could come back and I wouldn't, I didn't--"
"Yeah, well, he's an asshole," Natasha says firmly. She runs her nails lightly down Clint's spine over his t-shirt, a gentle, soothing scrape, and he's not sure if he's more grateful for that or the absence of the words It was only a dream. "And a liar. Like, the consummate liar, Clint. He's gone. You're done."
"Then we'll beat him," Natasha says, without even waiting for the rest of the question, and he can hear the smile in her voice when she adds, "I mean, we did last time, am I right?"
"You're always right," Clint says, and he's trying for a joke. It just comes out broken, cracking on everything he's holding back, and Natasha sighs again.
"Yeah, Clint, I am," she says, so soft that she might as well be someone else. "You're okay. You can let it go. You want to make a big thing of patience, well, I can wait, too. I don't scare off easy either. And I'm not going to let that asshole back in your head--I really don't relish the thought of having to evict him a second time."
Clint tries to laugh and chokes on it, keeps choking on it, doesn't stop choking on it until he's doing something worse than screaming, something he hasn't done in years. But Natasha doesn't pull away, doesn't shove him from her, doesn't kick him out of her bedroom; she just tightens her grip and waits him out, says it over and over--"He's gone, he's gone, he's gone"--until Clint finally feels the terror wind back down.
There's something he should say to her here, probably, something about gratitude or debt or love or trust or something, but he's exhausted and too empty to even consider it, and, anyway, she's probably figured it out. He lets himself loosen his grip on consciousness instead, an agonizingly slow process that still leaves him drowsy and half-sensate when Natasha, mostly asleep herself, groans and nudges him.
It's instinctive, automatic, so familiar that he doesn't notice they're doing it until it's already done; Clint rolls on his back and lets his arm sprawl over towards her, palm-up, and Natasha flattens out on her stomach on top of his hand, her fingers slipping up under the hem of his t-shirt. They've been sleeping like this for…for as long as they've been sleeping together, really, the happy medium between maintaining comfortable distance and a guarantee of mutual response if something should happen in the night. Clint couldn't possibly put a number on how many mornings he's woken in exactly this position, even on those nights when they've fallen into bed at different times, and he feels Natasha wake up a little next to him, startle at it.
"We're not actually married, right," she says after a moment, sleep-starved and exasperated, her voice a faint rasp in the darkness. "That's not a bomb you're waiting to drop or anything, is it?"
"There is no document, in any country, legally attaching us to one another in any traceable way," Clint says, grinning despite himself. "Remember what I said about doubting your paranoia?"
"Just checking," Natasha mumbles, and flexes her fingers against his stomach, once, twice, familiar as breathing. It's the last thing Clint notices for awhile.
"Here in this bed," Clint says, stretching out against the sheets with a pointed, satisfied grunt, "or here in this house? Because if it's just the bed, I gotta tell you, I am not objecting. How come I got cotton sheets and you have silk ones, Tash? You thought I wouldn't notice, but I did, I totally did, and I demand answers."
"Humbly request them?" Clint tries, raising his eyebrows. "Send away for them, just three easy payments of $19.99? Requisition them from the SHIELD holding facility?"
"The information you're seeking is classified," Natasha says, in a devastatingly good impression of SHIELD's automated response system. "Thank you for your interest."
"Goddamn," Clint says, impressed, "you ever want to give up spying, you've got a whole side career waiting for you in the talk-like-a-computer-industry."
"Is that an industry?"
Clint shrugs. "Might be. Call Stark, he'll tell you--see! Perfect side career, you've got an in there and everything. Plus, you'd have the most hilarious civilian resume of all time."
Natasha purses her lips like she's trying not to laugh, and then peels out of her shirt and starts digging around in the closet. "I'll put it on my bucket list."
Clint is…not sure if he's allowed to be looking or not; he lets his gaze skate down the line of her back just the once, a scar from Budapest peeking out at her hipbone, before he fixes his eyes on the ceiling. "So--going somewhere?"
"Yeah," she says. He hears the sound of her pants hitting the floor, and has to think about the frankly grotesque way Banner's body had twisted into the Hulk's in New York to keep himself from getting hard at the instant recall of last night. "Just for a day or two, I won't be long."
"No," Natasha says, and when he feels her weight settle on the bed, he lets his gaze drift back down. She gives him an approving little nod for his discretion, and then sighs, fingering the bedspread absently. "I'm…pretty sure I know what I want here, Clint. But I think it might be a good idea for me to spend a couple of days on my own, just to be certain. It's not that I think your being here is influencing me, exactly, but I'd hate to have to wonder about it."
"Oh," Clint says. "In that case, take as long as you like, take a year, go on a miraculous quest--can I sleep in this bed while you're gone, though? Because seriously, this bed kicks the shit out of my bed. My bed weeps in the night because it is not this bed. My bed, in summation, sucks."
Natasha rolls her eyes. "Yes, Barton, you may feel free to stay at my house in my absence, thank you for asking."
"You've left me here twice already, I figured that was implied," Clint points out. "I still don't even know where we are, so really it's just a question of thread count--hey, wait. The printer's in here, the internet's in here…Tasha. Is my luggage in here?"
"Where else would it be?" Natasha asks, grinning like she already knows where he's going with this, and Clint throws himself out of bed and starts looking around.
"My bow," he says, "my bow is in my luggage, and my luggage is in--oh my god, I can't believe it took me this long to--"
"Don't get weird about that, it's normal," Natasha says. When Clint stops and pulls a face at her, she shakes her head and laughs. "Fine, not normal, but--it's a confidence thing with you, yes? And your bow is a precision weapon; you just put it out of your mind until you felt prepared to handle it again."
"Yes, right, fascinating, bow," Clint says, dropping to his knees and peering under the bed, and Natasha laughs at him as she hits a knot of wood on the wall. A panel he’d never have guessed was there slides away, revealing-- "Really? You have a command center in here?"
"It's not a command center, it's a home security system," Natasha says, even though it’s the size of a walk-in closet and filled with enough equipment to outclass pretty much any home security system on earth. "And beggars can't be choosers."
"That expression makes no sense in this context," Clint starts, and then she's tossing him a familiar battered duffel bag, so he lets it go. His bow is folded up small, exactly as he left it, and he doesn't bother digging around in his haphazard collection of boxers and t-shirt for the quiver he knows is in there somewhere. He just picks up the bow and flicks it open, a practiced, familiar movement, and groans from the back of his throat at the feel of it in his hands. "Oh, baby, I missed you."
"Should I be jealous," Natasha says, very dry, and Clint grins.
"I met her first," he points out. "Also, she lets me call her baby."
"Please don't tell me that I have ever allowed you to--"
"Not even once," Clint says cheerfully, putting the bow down flat on the sheets and checking it over. "The second time we had sex, you stopped me in the middle and told me that if I ever called you anything but your name, in any arena, for any reason that wasn't strictly required for maintaining a cover, you would personally tattoo the word in question somewhere noticeable on my body."
"Aww," Natasha says. "That was almost sweet of me, really. There's a guy out in the world less the use of two fingers for calling me sugar, you know."
"Yeah," Clint says, "I do, actually," and they grin at each other for a second before Clint turns back to his bow.
"Right," Natasha says, a little uncomfortable, "so I'll just…go, then?" Clint can't help but laugh, because she is jealous, she is actually jealous, which is completely crazy and completely hilarious and just like her, actually, when it gets right down to it.
"You still haven't given me an answer about the bed," he says, dropping the bow and standing up, "and if it's on the approved activity list, I'd definitely enjoy the opportunity to offer you a kiss goodbye."
"Hmmm,” Natasha says, “well, on both counts, I suppose it couldn't hurt," so Clint steps in, settles his hand at the small of her back, and kisses her with as much feeling as he can muster.
"Don't worry, Tasha," he says, winking, when he steps back. "My undivided attention is all yours whenever you want it."
"You are freakishly romantic, it must be some kind of genetic defect," Natasha says. Her tone is derisive, but there are two barely-there spots of color on her cheeks, so Clint just shrugs and kisses her again, swift and sure this time, before stepping away. "Oh--before I go, I wanted to ask you. I'm going to check in with base, I think; unless you have any objections, I'm planning to tell Director Fury that you can go back on the roster starting next week. I think you're about ready."
"Uh," Clint says, badly wrong-footed. "Really? Do you really? After…the like…screaming nightmare? Really?"
She shrugs, and her eyes are sad when she says, "There are always going to be screaming nightmares, Clint. You didn't try to throw yourself off the roof or anything, you're carrying yourself like you used to, you've read the briefing information, you wanted your bow back. It's not about making it go away--it's about leveling out, finding the baseline, learning to deal with it. You're about there, I think. It's not crushing you anymore, you can function around it, and that's sort of the best you can hope for at first. You were faster than I expected you to be, really. And obviously I wouldn't suggest taking anything high-impact, not until you're back in the swing of things, but….well, you tell me. If SHIELD called with a mission, would you want it?"
"Yeah," Clint says, automatic, surprising himself. "I mean…huh, I mean yeah. I don't think I could really do this much longer, now that you mention it. The lack of adrenaline would get to me."
"Well, there you go, then," she says, and then she's kissing him one last time, waving over her shoulder and vanishing out into the hall, the sound of the Jeep starting up in the distance punctuating her departure.
Clint stands there for a few minutes, puzzling it over in his head--the last few weeks and the itch that's starting at the back of his neck, the siren call of the danger that's sure to crop up soon. Leveling out, she kept calling it, and he sees her point now. He doesn't feel better, necessarily; he's not over it; it's not gone. But his baseline is steady enough to hold weight, if not steady enough to hold it for long; Clint can work with that. God knows he's done it before.
"Right," he says, picking up his bow and digging the quiver out of his duffel bag, "let's you and I get reacquainted, shall we, sweetheart?" and heads outside to find himself some targets.
Clint's…not really used to getting along with people who aren't Natasha. He's long since accepted himself as a loner, but he figures there can't be any harm in at least attempting to foster some camaraderie with these people. For one thing, he might have to work with them again. For another, their willingness to let him fight with them after he'd been so hideously, spectacularly compromised merits a tentative alliance at worst, maybe even an entry in the ledger. Worth exploration either way.
He's up on the roof when he hears the Jeep coming up the hill, bow in hand, quiver on his back. It's not like there's really any point in playing guard dog--it's Natasha's safest house, after all, and anyway it’s not like he's encountered any physical threats since he got here--but it feels good, familiar, the hawk in his nest and all that. Clint Barton is not the man he used to be, but he's not an entirely new person, either. There's something to be said for old habits, and he grins when he hears the Jeep's door slam, calls out, "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes," and has the rare pleasure of seeing Natasha surprised.
"The hell are you doing up there, Barton?" she calls, shading her eyes with one hand and resting the other on her hip. She's wearing that leather jacket from New York, a black tank top and jeans beneath it, her hair a wild halo around her head, windblown from her drive. "You finally snap, is that it?"
"Think I did the opposite," he calls back, and catches the smile she flashes at that. "How 'bout you? You find what you were looking for?"
"Came back for it," Natasha says, and then holds up a hand. "Stay. I want to try something."
Came back for it, Clint repeats, cycling it over and over in his head, his smile wide and stupid in the mid-afternoon light. It's the third most romantic thing she's ever said to him, following "I don't know why I love you," and "If you die I'll haunt your afterlife," and Clint's last trembling knot of worry (What if she doesn't love me after all, what if she never did, what if we never fix it, what if Loki was right) comes loose in his hands. They've got all the time in the world, don't they, if she's decided she's sure about keeping him around; forget her memories. They can make new ones.
She comes out of the house a few minutes later, the jacket gone, an apple in her hand that she's tossing and catching, and Clint knows what she's going to do even before she stops a hundred yards away and places it on her head. "You know, Hawkeye, your old circus handlers would be appalled if you couldn't pull off a basic William Tell."
"You sure that's a good idea?" Clint says, already sighting the shot. There's a coil of nerves at the pit of his stomach, but he pushes them down, adds, "For all you know, I'm crap at this now."
Even from this distance, he can see her exasperated frown. "Please. You could make this with your eyes closed."
"Not, I'm guessing, that you'd want me to try."
Natasha shrugs without dislodging the apple on her head, which really shouldn’t be possible. Then she smiles, and it's as huge and brilliant as her voice is when she yells, "I trust you, Barton. Make the shot."
And suddenly it's the simplest thing in the world, this and now and her and them, loosing an arrow with his heart in his throat, she trusts me, she trusts me. It's a clean shot, the apple exploding on impact and the arrow careening on; Natasha doesn't even flinch, and she does trust him, has trusted him for years, didn't kill him in Vladivostok and didn't leave him in Lisbon. He's crawling back into the window before she can say anything, before he can think of anything to say, and when he gets to the doorway she's just inside it, smiling, smiling.
"I got apple in your hair," Clint says, which is the single least intelligent sentence he has ever uttered in his life, bar none. Somehow her smile goes wicked despite this, and she leans in, in, in, until their lips are an inch apart.
"Well, I figured out what I want here," she whispers, teasing, probing, sharp and soft at once, every fucking person she's ever been with mess in her hair and hunger in her eyes, "but if you want to talk about--"
"No, no, your thing sounds much more interesting," Clint says, and then she's got a hand on the back of his neck, is dragging him that last inch down and sealing their mouths together with no hesitation at all.
For the last few weeks, Clint has been hoarding her--every touch, every kiss, every jab and smile, every last moment that might be the last moment. He's been waiting for the other shoe to drop, doubting himself and his chances, skirting the edges and checking the boundaries. He's been desperate and defeated and dangerous, himself and someone else, a victim and a vessel and nobody's hero, another shout into the void. But today is a hard-won Wednesday, and he knows certainty when he tastes it; he kisses Natasha like he’s always wanted to kiss her, like he's kissed her so many times before, overdone and overdramatic, dirty and rough with things unsaid, his tongue trying old tactics behind enemy lines.
"God," she says, pulling back a little, her eyes light and laughing and so well-loved that Clint would drown in them happily, wouldn't have any fear at all, "you really are kind of a filthy bastard, aren't you?"
"With your permission, ma'am," Clint says, "I could be very filthy indeed," and then she's scaling him, her thighs wrapping around his chest and holding her entire weight, her hands framing his face and her tongue all but fucking into his mouth, furious and frantic and assessing all at once.
"Impress me, Agent Barton," she says, and Clint grins against the curve of her neck and slips both hands under her shirt, pulls up, up, up.
Clint knows Natasha, knows what she likes, is playing with the advantage here and intends to use it in full. Natasha will want to be naked first, and she'll want to come first and last; Natasha will want to work for it, and she'll want him to work overtime; Natasha will want victory, and oh, oh, how Clint can provide. He tosses her shirt across the room, puts a hand under her ass and carries her back into the house. When she braces her hands on his shoulders just inside the door, he anticipates her next move--she balances her weight at his collarbone, lets her legs swing free, and Clint strips her out of her jeans in seconds, catches a hand at each of her thighs when she swings them back up.
"You're sure," he says, because he's hard as shit but caution is caution, and she smiles as she leans down, bites a bruise just beneath his jawline. "Jesus, yeah, okay, that's--that's feeling pretty sure, can I get a hell yes for the record?"
"You can get a yes, Barton," Natasha says, "a hell yes, we'll have to see--aren't you supposed to be impressing me?"
"You know what I haven't done in awhile," Clint says, fighting the good fight to keep his voice even, "in a really long while," and he slips along her thigh, further up, under those black lace panties she shouldn't be able to make look dangerous. He sinks two fingers up into her, and she's so wet already that he chokes on his next breath, spreading her open in tiny, pulsing increments.
"Is this," Natasha says, the pant in her voice giving her away, "your idea of impressive?"
"Hell no," Clint says, and licks down the line of her neck as he slides a third finger in. "This is a warm-up routine, Tasha--one of these days, when you're a little less horny, I'll go down on you dry, but today is not that day. Way I figure it, you don't come quick you might actually eat me; don't think I don't know how you get when you're hungry."
She grinds down onto his fingers at that, tightening around him, and Clint grins into her neck and pulls all three of them out at once. Natasha groans at this, seeking out his mouth just to bite down, hard, on his lower lip; Clint doesn't stop grinning as he reaches both hands (one dry and one gloriously slick) to rip the black lace panties in half with no fuss at all.
"I liked those, asshole," she says into another bruising kiss.
"You'll like this more," Clint says, and takes one step, two, until they're standing underneath the doorframe. From there, all it takes is the start of a lift for her to get the idea, and she's climbing him again, settling a thigh on either side of his shoulders and curling her fingers into the crown molding for leverage. Clint's grin falls away in the face of the familiar curl of dark black hair, the only part of Natasha's body that she refuses to weaponize, and he's achingly hard even before he leans forward and tastes her for the first time in months.
Natasha swears above him, and Clint’s eyes roll back into his head before he closes them, flicks his tongue once against her clit and then goes lower, between and around the soft folds of skin fanning out there. He knows her, knows that even his breath is enough to set her shuddering if he's got the right angle, so he skates his tongue along the edges of her cunt, wet enough already that he's able to lick in smooth, easy swipes, circling and circling her until she snaps, "Barton, you fucking tease," and shoves herself forward. He opens his mouth and pushes into her, curving his tongue up and back and tightening his lips at the same time, sure without having to wait for it that the dual sensation will deliver a white hot shock; sure enough, she's wrapping her legs around his neck and fucking towards his face a moment later, his tongue working to match her speed, then set it, then double it before she can blink.
"Oh, fuck," she gasps, and she sounds miles away over the roaring in Clint's ears, the rush of blood that can't possibly still be going to his cock and seems to be doing so anyway, "this is--this is pretty fucking impressive, I'll grant you." Clint would have to pull away to say You ain't seen nothing yet, so he decides to demonstrate instead, lowering his head just enough to drive himself up and flick his tongue, hard, from side to side inside her as he goes. He feels the noise she makes, vibrating down through her and up into his mouth, and he pulls his lips apart just enough that the very edges of his teeth can make themselves known, pulling back as he does it to ensure it doesn't overwhelm. She tightens her whole body, her legs around his neck tensing so fast that for a second Clint think he's going to die right here, and he's got enough time to recognize that What a way to go is probably not the right response before she's impossibly wetter, shuddering all over, going lax enough that he steps back from the door and catches her as she slides down.
"You want a minute?" he says, smug, and she drops her feet to the floor and stares up at him, eyes wide. After a second she reaches up and rubs her thumb across his bottom lip, the expression she's wearing desperate and wrecked and curious, all at once.
"Clint," she starts, and Clint grins at her, bites down on her thumb before he spits it out.
"You're going to ask, 'Clint, do you know how much I like the taste of myself in your mouth or do I have to work into that one slowly,' and the answer is--"
"No," she says, "I was going to tell you to fuck me, actually, but that's in interesting theory you've got there." She presses their mouths together, hesitant for just a second before she takes a huge, stunned breath and all but shoves her tongue into his mouth, her grip on his arms going tight enough to bruise. Clint lets her tongue slide over his, under his, gets a hand on the small of her back and grinds their hips together, his dick strained and rubbing, nearly painful, against the inside of his jeans.
"Told you," he breathes when she pulls away, licking the taste of herself from her own lips. Her cheeks color but she holds his gaze, and somehow even that is staggeringly hot; the picture she paints, standing in front of him in nothing but her black lace bra, bare thighs shining with all the want that's still slipping down them, might as well have walked out of one his fantasies. The door is still open behind them, nothing between them and the world but the weapon she could be without batting an eyelash, and Clint isn't sure if he'll survive the slide inside of her intact, or if the raw hunger will strike him deaf, dumb, blind.
"Point to you," she murmurs, and then, looking almost apologetic about it, "Uh, look, I'm not sure where we were before, protection-wise, but--"
"Oh my god, are you kidding, of course we'll use a condom," Clint says, sinking his fingers into her hair to rub a soothing pattern into the side of her scalp. "Tasha. I wasn't planning on trying it without until I had test results in my hand; I know how you are. Give me two seconds, I'll run upstairs and--"
"I brought some back with me," Natasha says, her eyes narrowing. "Why do you have them? Awfully presumptuous of you to bring them along, wouldn’t you say?"
Clint can't help the snort of laughter that slips out despite his better judgement; he can't help that even this conversation is making him harder, either, because it's so her, down to the way she's tensing now like she's waiting for the other shoe to drop. "Hate to break it to you, but you like to show up without announcing yourself, and we both like to fuck covered in everything from shrapnel to blood that isn't ours. I haven't left home without a box of the damn things since that job in Maseru."
"Oh," Natasha says, and she's smiling slightly when she steps away from him, padding on silent feet over to where he flung her jeans across the floor. "You want to entertain me with what happened in Maseru, then? While I take care of this for you?"
"Well," Clint says, swallowing hard as she pulls a string of condoms from her back pocket, "there was a mission--"
"I remember the mission, Clint," Natasha purrs. She steps close and undoes his jeans, raising an eyebrow but not commenting when she notices that he was going commando underneath. "I'm looking for the extra-curricular explanation, if you will."
"Oh, I will," Clint says, stepping clear of his pants. Natasha grins and rips the condom open before she sinks to her knees, puts it between her lips and then looks up at him, amused and quizzical, a challenge. He just manages not to choke on his breath--she wants him to explain it while she rolls on a condom with her teeth, of course she does, what else would she want--and he grounds himself, swallows hard. "Right, so, there was--god, Tasha--there was this chopper, supposed to take us back to base, only I was--fuck--I was piloting, and you said you'd never fucked in a helicopter before--"
"That was a lie," Natasha says, stepping away and patting him once on the dick, because she is an evil, terrible person and he loves her so much, sometimes, that it hurts to even breathe. "In case you were wondering."
"I know it was a lie," he says, "the time before that was me. Time before that, also me."
"Well," Natasha says, "we have been busy," and then she's scaling him again, her legs wrapping around his hips this time, her cunt just brushing against his dick. "Go on, then--you're a big boy and all mine, right? Isn't that what you said the other night? So tell me the rest; I do hate to own something without knowing where it's been."
"Caveat emptor?" Clint says, and if it's a little breathier than he'd like it to be, he's going to go ahead and excuse himself. "At a time like this?"
Natasha pushes down just a little, so the very tip of his dick is enveloped in her, and he has to muffle a groan into her shoulder. "Sure it isn't caveat venditor, Barton? At a time like this, I'm thinking all the cards are mine--and hell, call it foreplay if you want. Tell me."
"We were filthy," Clint says, almost babbles it, because it's not like he's ever been able to ignore a direct command from Natasha. "Completely filthy, whole fucking building fell down practically on our heads after the explosion, and we didn't have anything on us. And you, fucking hell, Tasha, you said that if I couldn't figure out a way to get you off without one and pilot the damn chopper to a fucking store at the same time we were quits, so I reached across the seat and fucked you with my hand over that goddamn jumpsuit--"
"How'd you manage that?" Natasha asks, and she's trying so hard to sound casual that she's out the other side, strangled and almost inhuman, the cadence of her voice tripping in and out of focus. "That suit's pretty heavy duty."
"Yeah, well, my hand was numb for six fucking hours," Clint gasps, and Natasha lets out a noise that's half groan, half laugh and drops, sinks down onto him at last, driving herself lower until he's completely buried in her, that soft black hair brushing against his stomach.
"Oh my god," Natasha says, and Clint freezes, half-lidded eyes slamming open at the shock in her voice. "No, no, it's--you just--I, I remember this, I remember you…you feeling like this. Fuck, it's good, it's so good--don't look like that, if you pull out I will kill you, Clint, don't you dare."
"Kill me, huh?" Clint says, and braces his hands on her thighs to jerk himself forward, catches and keeps her moan. "Thought we put that one to bed."
"There are always second chances," Natasha says, and that is so true, that is so fucking true right now that Clint has to lean down and bury his face in her neck. He take a few steadying breaths as she tightens herself around him, as she runs a heel along his spine just to prove that she can, and he knows his eyes are saying things she might not want to hear as he pulls away, takes her face in his hands.
"Fuck," he says, "Natasha, fuck, fuck, fuck," and when their lips meet he knows she's got it too, this electric current of wanting and having, loss sloughing off of them in waves to make room for this new, glowing thing to take shape. Clint feels like his whole chest is expanding to make room, to allow for a world where this could happen, and then, miraculously, against the odds, happen again.
Clint would close his eyes, would ride the sensation of her tight around him to its inevitable fruition, but he can't. He can't, because he's been proven one too many times that control is a gift, not a guarantee; that safety is anything but permanent; that whatever is here now, caught between them on wings relearning to fly, could be gone again tomorrow. Clint would close his eyes, but there's a bead of sweat at the very edge of Natasha's collarbone, flecks of apple still threaded through her hair, and maybe this is all there is to love after all: eyes wide open on a Wednesday afternoon, the least perfect thing you've ever known warm under your palms. Natasha once believed love was for children, has been telling that lie as their cover for years, but Clint knows they both know better--love is about danger and risk and loss and leaving, about singing triumph and backbreaking despair, about standing back to back in a firefight and riding on nothing but hope. Love is a chessboard, a challenge, a shot at point-blank range, and Clint presses stuttering, staggered kisses into Natasha's shoulder and knows he won't ever be old enough to do it quite right.
"You want impressive?" Natasha says, barely, like each word is costing her, like speech is her last line of defense, and Clint knows what she'd do if he told her yes. God knows she's done it before, wild, acrobatic sex that leaves him reeling afterwards; she'd lean back, hold herself up with her thighs, catch the doorframe and fuck up into him, jackknifed against his body. It would be gorgeous and brilliant and excruciatingly hot, would be record-setting and unbelievable, but Clint can't bear the thought of coming without her pressed against him, not this time, not again.
"I want you," he says, and tucks an arm under the swell of her ass, palms her back with his free hand and holds her up. When he kisses her this time, it's slow and pointed and filthy for how chaste it is, his mouth dry from gasping and hers slick where she's been biting her bottom lip, their cadence matching time with his slowing thrusts. She tightens around him again, once, twice, three times, all their rhythm unraveling as the kiss goes hard and sloppy, and Clint comes because he can't help it, because he has no other choice, with her name inching up the back of his throat.
For a minute they stand there, Clint closing his eyes after all as Natasha twines even tighter around his body, lets his dick slip out of her and then shudders her release, grinding against his stomach and streaking his t-shirt. He holds her up until she stops shaking, fingers sliding up into her hair to keep her steady; when she mutters, "Couch," into his neck he walks them there, legs trembling, and then more or less drops them both across it. He must fall asleep then, though god knows how he could; when he blinks heavy eyes to half-mast she's sprawled across him, her knees hooked over his thighs, her eyes as soft as they ever get.
"So," she says, "we've got a mission."
"Oh yeah?" Clint says, yawning on it, too tired and well-sated to wonder if he's ready, distantly aware that he has to be, one way or another. "When?"
Natasha shrugs. "Two days," she says, and then rolls, tugging him over with her, an effortless slide of limbs that leaves them chest to chest, spread out length-wise across the couch. "Budapest."
"You're kidding," Clint says, blinking, and she laughs against his cheek.
"I told you, I don't kid."
"That is utter bullshit and you know it."
"Topic experts," Natasha says, her grin blinding before she leans close, closer, her lips brushing the shell of his ear as she whispers a string of numbers and letters there. It takes him a second to recognize them as coordinates, and a second longer to realize they don't line up to anywhere in Budapest; the truth of it hits him at once, and he pulls back from her to get a good look at her face, the location of this secret house burned white-hot into his memory. She looks…well, hell. She looks like herself, like Tasha and Natasha and Agent Romanov and the Black Widow, like everyone she's ever been and everyone she'll ever be. She looks like what home means to people who can't settle, and he rolls her over, pins her down, swallows her laughter in a kiss that he can't bear to make bruising, just this once.
"Well," he says, an inch above her, "I guess we've got a lot of time to make up for, then, don't we?"
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it," Natasha intones, and he's still grinning when she flips him, straddles him, loose-limbed and easy as she trusts him not to let her fall.
Here is something that's true: in Lisbon six months later, Clint sees a flash of blue reflecting off a mirrored window. It’s nothing, a trick of the light, but he hesitates on a crucial shot and an innocent dies. Natasha makes a face--the last major city, no longer clean of them--and Clint retches violently in the bathroom of a familiar hotel, shakes for six days, is certain it will never be over.
Here is something that's true: it will never be over.
Here is something that's true: it always was.
Here is something that's true: some lives are bound up in lies, and some lives are bound up in bloodshed, and no one is ever normal. Clint learns to be himself, and relearns, and learns it again; Natasha learns the whys and hows of loving him, and keeps learning, and is learning still. He has her back and she has his, and the house in the valley winds in and out of their lives, a job here and a stop there, a pair of shoes left behind, an extra crossbow in the armory. They fight, and it's as terrible as it ever was; they fuck, and it's brilliant as it's ever been; they save and save and save people, slide from assassins to superheroes against their will, and it's worse and better and exactly the same. A ledger's a ledger, however it's kept. A battle's a battle, whether you're a solider or not.
Here is something that's true: a nightmare once told Clint that in the end, he would always kneel; a dream once taught him not to. He grows around both of these realities until they're part of him, until he is better and worse for them, until who he is raises a glass to who he's been, who he will be, and who he never was. There is no way to measure the worth of a life, but for his sins, Clint knows he's earned himself.
Here is something that's true: two years later, Clint turns to Natasha in a firefight, bullets flying and lightning renting the air, opens his mouth, and says, "You love me."
Here is something that's true: Natasha says, "I know."