She can’t fucking sleep.
It’s been nearly a week now since they’d destroyed most of Manhattan, defeated an alien army and sent Loki back to some Asgardian prison on the other side of the galaxy. And while the paperwork’s been a bitch and the press coverage was nothing short of excruciating, life is slowly returning to normal—except for the fact that she can’t go to sleep.
On day two she figures it’s just leftover adrenaline; on day three she knows it’s not. That’s when the nightmares start. She tries to close her eyes, tries to get just the tiniest bit of rest, but it always happens and the dream is always the same. She’s in her room right after a mission, slipping out of her suit and checking her various cuts and bruises, souvenirs from whatever battle she’s just escaped, when she hears a sound in the doorway and turns.
It’s nothing new for Clint to be here afterward, checking to make sure she’s okay and offering a glib remark (or three) about how they probably shouldn't have blown up so much shit and joking that they should start demanding hazard pay. He’s standing there, leaning against the doorframe of her bedroom, just as bruised and bloodied up as she is, except this time is different. This time there are no glib remarks or idle chitchat. This time he doesn’t look away out of politeness when he sees her suit pushed down around her waist, leaving nothing but a long expanse of bare skin from shoulders to hips. This time he looks his fill, his gaze burning over her and suddenly it’s as if all the oxygen just got sucked out of the room. In slow motion, he reaches for her, closing the distance until his lips are on hers and his hands are all over her body. It’s rough and perfect and everything it should be—exactly the way she’s imagined it a thousand times before, and she begins to lose herself in the way he moves against her, the way he feels, the way he tastes.
He whispers her name and she gasps against him, pulling back to look into his eyes. Except they aren’t his eyes anymore. Now they’re empty, a dull flat blue, and the face looking back at her is someone she doesn’t know. Before she can react, he slams her against the wall, one hand squeezing tight around her throat and the other wielding a knife that he slides down the valley between her breasts and then lower still. He leans in to kiss her just as he presses the blade against the soft skin of her stomach.
She wakes up screaming right before he slices her open.
After that she avoids sleep like the plague. She won’t even go back to her room, can’t bear to go near her bed. And the worst part is Clint. She can’t stand to be around him, can’t look him in the eye. On day four, the whole gang is sitting around the conference table that morning while Stark is going into some self-obsessed diatribe about harnessing the thermodynamic properties of solar radiation and Banner joins in and it’s not long before they’re speaking a language that resembles anything but English. She hears a soft chuckle next to her, and looks over to see Clint cracking up out of the corner of her eye. He leans a shoulder against hers to share in the joke, the way he’s done countless times before, but today she freezes and keeps her eyes straight ahead. The reaction’s not lost on him, and he’s polite enough not to say anything in front of the others, but the questioning look remains on his face for the rest of the morning. She avoids him for the rest of the day.
On day five, she tries sparring it off, taking out all her frustration on an innocent punching bag, landing every blow as if it were Loki’s face in front of her instead of the blank canvas. It’s past midnight and the gym is abandoned but she hears footsteps nonetheless. She doesn’t have to turn around to know whose they are.
“You’re up late,” he says casually.
“Yep,” she replies, not taking her eyes off her imaginary target.
“Want a partner?”
Not for this, she thinks, but instead she just shakes her head. “I was done anyway,” she says, stepping back. She begins to unwind the tape on her hands, moves towards the door and gestures to the bag. “All yours.”
“Nat …” he begins in that voice, the hidden one reserved only for her, but she cuts him off.
“I need to go. I—” she falters for something, anything to sound normal. "I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
It takes all the effort she can muster not to run out the door.
But she doesn't see him tomorrow, and tomorrow melts into the next day which melts into the day after that, and she doesn’t see him at all. Studiously avoiding him would be a more accurate description. It goes on for nearly a week, and then one day he simply isn’t there, and she overhears Fury tell Hill that he’s gone to New Mexico to do some training for the new recruits. She should be grateful but all she can think is that a piece of her has gone missing, replaced only with ghosts.
The dreams get worse and another week goes by and she’s really not sure how managed to stay upright this long. It’s late on a Saturday night, and she’s running on about three hours of sleep cobbled together over two days, and if she could mainline caffeine at this point she would. As it is, she has to settle for the sludge they call coffee in the staff kitchen because it’s too late to go out and she doesn’t have the strength anyways.
Steve’s in there tonight; he stays at the base more often than his apartment these days, and it’s nice to have the company. He’s too busy fighting his own demons to try and pry into hers, so most of their interactions have settled into a comfortable kind of silence. He looks up briefly from the report he’s been reading to say 'hi,' then glances back down. She grabs the nearest newspaper and leans against the counter, wishing she had a strong cup of good tea and that her eyes could manage to make sense of the words in front of her.
The silence is broken by another person walking into the room. It’s Clint, and he looks like hell. She knew he'd be coming back soon, but she figured she’d have another day or two before having to face him again. The nightmares are still there but the plotlines have expanded, as the Clint in her dreams keeps getting ever more creative in finding new ways to both seduce her and kill her. She's strung out somewhere between desire and fear and repulsion and she would cry and beg for just an hour of dreamless sleep if she had the energy.
She studies her newspaper with an intensity more befitting a set of nuclear launch codes as he heads for the coffee machine. He’s standing next to her now but he doesn’t say anything, and for a moment she thinks/hopes/prays that he’s just going to leave it alone. He turns as if to walk back out the door but he stops, turning to face her instead.
“Nat,” he says in greeting.
She nods. “Clint. You just get back?”
“Yeah,” he mutters before adding under his breath, “didn’t think you’d mind me being gone for a few days.”
The words carry an edge, but she doesn’t take the bait. “So. Good trip?”
His restraint breaks in that moment and he leans closer, hands on either side of her on the counter. “It was fine,” he bites out, and it looks like he’s fighting the urge to say a whole lot more. Instead he settles for going on the offensive. “Are you ever going to tell me?” he asks bluntly.
She offers up a blank face. “Tell you what?”
“Whatever this is—what I’ve done.”
She shakes her head. “It’s not like that—”
“Like hell it isn’t,” he interjects. “Ever since the mission, you can’t stand to be in the same room with me.” His voice is far beyond a whisper now, and he knows Steve can hear them, but he’s clearly past the point of caring. The anger on his face shifts to concern in the space of a heartbeat, and the look on his face is almost one of hurt.
“Tasha,” his voice drops to something quiet and pleading, “what’s going on? Why won’t you talk to me?” In a gesture meant to be comforting he reaches out to place his hands on her shoulders, but it’s like a blade against her skin and she jumps back, fighting her way out of his grasp.
“It’s nothing,” she snaps, struggling to hold onto her composure as she practically runs out of the room.
That went well, Clint thinks as he watches her leave, angry and frustrated and kicking himself for going on the attack like that. He’s usually so much better at waiting for things to come to him, but it’s different with Natasha. Always has been.
He slams his mug of coffee on the counter, hard enough to crack the cup and spill the dark liquid across the countertop. Clint curses, raking debris into the sink as he rakes his other hand through his hair.
“You look like you could use something a lot stronger than coffee.”
He turns to see Rogers across the room. In the midst of the scene with Natasha, he’d forgotten he was there altogether. Clint shoots him a warning look. “Not really in the mood to talk right now, Cap.”
Rogers pushes out a chair at the table he’s sitting at with one leg. “So listen then.”
Scowling, Clint takes the offered chair. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what’s going on?”
“I know she’s not sleeping much.”
“So I gathered. Has she said anything,” he asks, and it pains him a bit to finish the question, “…to you?”
Cap shakes his head. “She’s not exactly the confiding type.”
Clint just crosses his arms and scowls some more, trying to figure out how everything got so fucked up.
“I’m not sure what’s going on,” Rogers continues, “but I have an idea.”
“When Loki was here, he got under a lot of people’s skin.”
“Tell me about it,” Clint mutters.
“I mean specifically when he was held aboard this ship.” Steve glances over to the empty doorway. “And it affected some of us more than others.”
“And you think that’s what going on? Something to do with Loki?”
“I think that’s a part of it,” Cap agrees, “but not all.”
Clint shrugs and lets out a humorless laugh. “So you’re saying I should back the hell off? Yeah, well, I already figured that part out. Got the message loud and clear, thanks.” He moves to stand up, but something in Rogers’ voice stops him.
“A long time ago,” the other man begins, “there was someone I—someone who was important to me.” Cap looks away, and for a moment, he seems transported somewhere else. “And I thought there was time. I always thought there would be time for something more. But that’s not always true. We don’t get guarantees, Barton, and we don’t get second chances.”
Clint studies him carefully. “Why are you telling me this?”
Cap gives him a sad smile. “I don’t know much about the world these days, Barton. Heck, most of the time I’m just playing one big game of catch-up. But some things don’t change.” Steve leans forward now and looks him squarely in the eye. “I’ve seen the way you look at her. There was someone I used to look at that way too, but I missed the chance to do anything about it. I’d give anything to have that chance back.”
Stunned, Clint rocks back in his seat, and before he can deny or protest or give into the urge to punch the guy for making such arrogant goddamned assumptions, Rogers rifles through the file in front of him, takes out a plastic case and slides it across the table.
“I think you should take a look at this.”
Clint looks down at the unmarked disc, then looks back up. “What is it?”
“Surveillance footage from the detention level, taken roughly two weeks ago. She went in to gather intel and there was a ... conversation that followed. I think whatever’s going on here has a lot more to do with you than you realize.”
He watches the surveillance footage. Watches it until he’s memorized every last detail, until Loki's words are burned into his brain. Before he knows what he’s doing his feet are moving and he’s pounding on her door in the middle of the night, not caring who might see or what they might think if they did.
She answers the door in a threadbare sweatshirt and not much else, dark circles under her eyes and looking just as wild and beautiful as the first day he met her.
Her jaw drops. “What are you—”
Clint doesn’t let her finish, just walks in. “We need to talk.”
She scrambles back, keeping a safe distance between them. This is as close to skittish as he’s ever seen her, and the look on her face—this woman who’d stare into hell itself without flinching—the look on her face is something akin to fear and suddenly he can’t stand it anymore. “Clint, this really isn’t a good time—”
“I saw it, okay?” he blurts out. “The surveillance footage. I saw.”
He watches the blood drain from her face. “Who told you?”
“Rogers. He felt like I should know.”
“That sonofabitch,” she mutters. “I’m going to kill—”
“It wasn’t his place, but he was right to do it,” Clint begins to pace back and forth. “For God’s sake, Tash, why didn’t you tell me?”
She stares him down before turning away and sitting down on the couch, wrapping an old military issue blanket around her in the process. “You had enough on your plate,” she says simply. “It wasn’t your burden to bear.”
“So Loki said those things and you figured you’d just ... get over it? How’s that working out?”
She bristles and sends him a sharp glance but remains silent.
Clint slumps down into a nearby chair. “If I had known what he’d said—before,” he pauses, “he never would have left this planet alive. I don’t care whose brother he is.”
She gives him a faint smile. “I know. One reason I kept it to myself.”
She looks away.
“And the not sleeping,” he begins. “Nightmares?”
She nods again.
She gives him a look that tells him everything he needs to know.
He leans forward. “But you know I’d never hurt you. You know that, right?”
“I know,” she says, “I know,” even as she inches away from him. On impulse he reaches out and catches her face between his hands. It’s a move that would get anyone else killed in a fraction of a second, and tonight he might not get away with it either, but miraculously, she stills for just a second before trying to pull away.
“Don’t. Tasha, please don’t,” he finds himself saying, marvelling at how steady his voice is when his heart is about to jump out of his chest. “This is me. No dream. Just me. Look.” Her eyes meet his and she goes still.
Cap’s words from before are still ringing in his ears, and in that moment, Clint decides that maybe he’s right, maybe five years of waiting is enough and he’s not doing either of them any favors by trying to be the stoic one. So in what has to be the most ill-advised decision of his life, he leans forward and presses his lips to her forehead.
She looks too dazed to pull away, so he throws what’s left of caution to the wind and leans down to kiss each cheek and then the bridge of her nose, lifting her chin until his mouth is hovering just above hers. He’s never been so scared.
“No dream,” he says again. “I’m real.”
She looks at him for the longest time before moving, and when she does move, he nearly falls through the floor. She brings her hands up on either side of his face, tracing the lines like she trying to memorize something, and Clint stops breathing. Then slowly, soft as a whisper and just a gentle, she leans in and kisses him. Ignoring the waves of shock and euphoria that hit him in rapid succession, he concentrates all his energy on holding still, fighting the urge to lean in and instead let her have her way, let her press her lips lightly against his, almost as if she’s testing the theory. She increases the pressure just the tiniest bit and his brain simply shuts down because this is her and she’s kissing him and five years of pining for this woman just came down to one moment. And while it should be the worst idea in the world and it should change everything in all the wrong ways, he can’t bring himself to care.
Because Natasha Romanoff is kissing him and right now nothing else matters.
Finally she pulls back, eyes fluttering open. “Real?” she asks.
He nods. “Real.”
She slumps forward against him and lets out something resembling a muffled sob except this is the Black Widow and everyone knows the Black Widow doesn’t cry. He catches her and buries his face in her hair.
“Tell me what to do,” he says, wishing he didn’t sound so goddamn helpless. “Anything. Just tell me.”
“Sleep,” she murmurs into his chest. “I just ... need ... sleep.”
He pulls her down with him onto the sofa until she’s tucked up against him and mostly on top of him, and it’s not the most comfortable position he’s ever been in but he wouldn’t trade places with anyone else in the world. He pulls the blanket over them both and listens to the sound of her breathing.
She falls asleep within five minutes. He stays up the rest of the night.
Chapter 2: Try for Sleep
If he's on base and so is she, there's not a night that goes by that Natasha doesn't end up in his bed. It's not what it sounds like though—in fact it's not about sex at all. Simply about sleep. And her falling asleep. And the fact that since battle with the Chitauri, she can't seem to sleep anywhere other than in his arms.
It's equal parts confusing and flattering, but Clint isn’t about to complain. This is after all the legendary Black Widow, beautiful and seductive and capable of bringing any man to his knees. So the fact that she wants to be in his bed ... not altogether a bad thing. The confusing part is that it's also simply Natasha—his partner, his friend, and a whole lot more than that if you want to get down to the nitty-gritty touchy-feely bullshit details part of the story. Also confusing is that the first time this happened, she kissed him. Kissed him like they were the last two people on earth and there might not be any tomorrows before proceeding to collapse from exhaustion precisely two and a half minutes later. There's been no more kissing since that night, and sometimes he thinks he must have dreamed it. Most of the time he doesn't have a chance to think at all before Tasha shows up at his door, strips off whatever clothes of his she deems unnecessary, pushes him down on the bed, wraps her arms around him and ... promptly falls asleep.
And it's not like he's complaining, and he knows that in the fallout from Loki the nightmares are still an issue, and that for some reason being near him is the only thing that keeps them at bay. And if she's been gone for a few days he'll see the telltale dark circles forming under her eyes again and know that she hasn't been sleeping and that it will only get worse until they're back in the same timezone.
So he tries to arrange it so they're on more missions together, or that if he’s gone it's not for any longer than it has to be, but it doesn't always work that way. There’s a lot of world that needs saving and only so many people who are qualified for the job. SHIELD’s two best agents are in high demand these days, and it’s not long before the nights apart become more frequent than nights together and he can tell it's taking it's toll from what little time he does get to spend with her. It's also taking up a whole lot of his energy worrying about it, so much so that he's two seconds away from walking on a mission in Johannesburg when he gets the call to come back to headquarters. The mark didn't show and the trail's gone cold and he's back to paperwork and babysitting on base for now, but it suits him fine because that means he'll see her.
Except she's not there. She's on extended assignment in Kiev, and she’s been gone three weeks already. A few more days of worrying and he's nearly tempted to break into Fury's office for her mission file just so he can check and make sure she's okay. His stupid-ass plan never has a chance to happen though, because when he comes back to his room that night there's a pristine white envelope waiting for him on the table. Inside is a ticket to Geneva, a map, and a very short note:
Three days leave. Fury signed off. Bring a pillow.
He grins like an idiot at the paper and counts the minutes until the flight's departure. Ten hours later he's trudging up the side of a mountain north of Verbier to a little cabin right at the very top. The cabin—a chalet he guesses they’d call it—is pretty nice, a small two story house with one hell of a view. There’s a key under the mat and, after checking the perimeter and doing a sweep of the nearby woods, he doesn’t hesitate to make himself at home. It’s cold inside so he lights a fire in the fireplace and sits down to wait. She’s there not thirty minutes later, walking through the door in a pair of industrial grade snowboots and a long mink coat, a duffle bag in one hand and a high-powered sniper rifle in the other.
“Hey,” she says, shaking the snow out of her hair.
“Hey,” he says back, getting an eyeful of what she is and isn’t wearing as she shrugs out of her coat to reveal the skimpiest red dress he’s ever seen.
She catches him looking and rolls her eyes. “Just got off work. No time to change.”
“Nice place,” Clint says, glancing around at the expensive furnishings and well-stocked bar. “You got some offshore accounts I don’t know about?”
Tasha cracks a smile. “I called in a favor from that Ukrainian mob boss we ran into last year. He was only too happy to lend us full use of his vacation home in exchange for you promising not to shoot him any time soon.”
He lets out a long suffering sigh. “The things I do for you.”
She grins and reaches for the zipper on the side of her dress. His pulse spikes for second in anticipation before he realizes she’s heading toward the bathroom. A few minutes later, dressed much warmer and much more comfortably, she pours a glass of vodka and gives the house a once over.
Clint watches her, not even attempting to hide how damn happy he is to see her. “So what’s the plan, Romanoff?” he asks. “Kidnap me? Besmirch my honor? Do all manner of unspeakable things now that you’ve got me alone?”
She tries to look annoyed but it doesn’t work, and if he didn't know better, he'd say she was blushing. “You came willingly enough,” she quips. “I thought we could get some sleep.”
He becomes serious for a moment, noting the faint smudges under her eyes now that she's taken off her makeup. "How's that going?" he asks.
“Better. I could still use about three full days of shuteye though.”
“Well,” Clint smirks, “as it so happens..." She throws a pillow at him to shut him up.
“First things first,” she says. “You settled in yet?”
He shakes his head. “Other than setting the perimeter and checking for sightlines, no.”
“All right then.” She opens her duffel bag and they go to work.
She rigs the windows so that anyone who tries to get in will get a 10,000 volt surprise, and he adds a bit of infared tracking to the perimeter he’s already set up outside so if a deer so much as strays within 500 yards, they’ll know it. When he gets back, Tasha’s almost finished with the redecorating. Clint argues that the spring gun at the front door is too much and she ignores him, but he flat-out vetoes a second one because he doesn’t want to have to remember to disarm two loaded shotguns if he happens to want to, you know, go outside.
“Who needs outside?” Tasha says as she glances up at the bed. It’s a big elaborate four-poster thing, placed up high in the loft presumably to enjoy the view. They climb up there together, take one look at it and then look at each other.
“Civilians,” Tasha mutters, shaking her head. They grab the mattress and toss it down to the first floor, pushing it halfway under the stairs and against the corner until Clint is certain there’s absolutely no line of sight from the outside that could reach it. Nat throws down a flurry of pillows and blankets before landing gracefully beside them; she never can resist showing off those famous gymnastic skills of hers. He just laughs.
He puts his bow on one side of the bed and she puts her pistols and knives on the other and there’s moment when they’re facing each other and it’s about two seconds away from getting awkward, so he says the first thing that comes to mind.
“Would now be a good time to tell you that I’m still a virgin?”
She laughs, a short bright sound, and pulls off her boots. “Shut up, Barton,” she says, grabs the front of his shirt, and drags him into bed. They collapse together, a comfortable tangle of limbs, and for the first time in weeks, Clint feels like he can finally breathe. Natasha winds her arms around him and presses her face against his neck. He can feel her body start to go lax as she drifts off. “Missed you,” she murmurs, her voice lazy and content. "Missed this.”
He looks up at the ceiling and waits until she’s fully asleep before placing a gentle kiss on the top of her head.
“Me too,” he whispers to no one, closing his eyes and holding her tight.
If she believed in God or angels with harps and fluffy white clouds or any of that superstitious bullshit, Natasha is pretty sure this is what heaven would feel like. A cashmere blanket, a warm fire, a bottle of exquisite vodka and ... Clint.
She stretches against him, opening her eyes to the early morning light, enjoying the warm expanse of muscle and the press of his skin against hers. She smiles at the luxury. No—she corrects herself, not luxury—extravagance. Luxury is Beluga, a bottle of Cristal and and a yacht in Majorca. Extravagance is being able to sleep without keeping one eye open, without listening for footsteps down the hall or reaching for your gun in the middle of the night.
She's not really sure how she got here—well she knows, obviously, she planned the whole thing, acting like a travel agent setting up someone’s goddamn honeymoon. The how is obvious, it's the why that's not so clear. The truth is, the nightmares are getting better, and she's starting to be able to sleep on her own again. Time doesn't heal anything, but it does make things more manageable, and she knows this better than most. It’s just that she doesn't want it to end. She doesn't want whatever this is to be over and go back to the way it was before. It’s taken her a while to figure it out, but over the past few months thoughts of him have started to take up more and more of her time, leaving her with a feeling some might call longing but she simply labels as distraction until she one night she’s sitting in some hellhole in Kandahar missing the feel of him against her and the rhythm of his breathing and suddenly she realizes that she doesn't actually like sleeping alone anymore.
It's an unnerving thought and she pushes it aside before it has a chance to grow, but it's there just the same, lurking around the corner when she least expects it, until she finds herself thinking about Clint way more than it's necessary to think about one's partner. Or friend.
She glances around at the bed, the house—at all of it and thinks that this is a bad idea. A really bad idea, dangerous and complicated and one that threatens to blur the lines of everything they’re arranged so carefully over the past five years. It’s bad, she knows that, but she can’t really bring herself to care as she feels a pair of arms tighten around her waist and a voice that sounds rough and perfect in her ear.
“Tell me you brought supplies, Romanoff,” he purrs, voice still heavy from sleep, “because there is no way I’m walking back down that mountain to get us breakfast.”
She leans back against him and laughs.
They make a game out of it; they make a game out of everything. First it’s her exploring the uses of all his various grappling hooks and arrows in an attempt to raid the fridge without having to leave the bed. Her shot goes a little wide and she nearly takes out the window by the sink, but eventually she manages to get the door open and pull out enough food and enough booze to constitute a meal. Clint nearly dislocates a shoulder trying to prove he can restock the fire without actually getting up, stretching across the floor and over to the hearth while keeping two toes on the edge of the mattress, and if Natasha gets a fantastic view of his ass in the process, well, she doesn’t complain because right now she’s pretty sure he’d take the same opportunity to look if the situation were reversed.
They lie on their backs like children, throwing knives into the heavy wooden beams that line the ceiling, making up an elaborate system of rules and points and nearly getting into a fistfight when Clint suddenly declares that he’s won due to a shot of hers from three rounds ago that’s he’s now decided is invalid. She she threatens to use the knives on him and he just grins.
Through of this though she can tell he’s watching her, tell that he’s observing her as if he were up in a nest somewhere waiting on a mark instead of lying right beside her. He knows her better than to ask questions, and seems content for now not to have the answers, but he remains watchful all the same, ready to understand when the time is right. It’s one of the things she enjoys about him most—all that reserve, that unrelenting patience. He doesn’t preen and he doesn’t press; just holds back and lets her be.
And then there’s the sleep. Oh God, the sleep. It’s better than drugs, better than a good kill—even, in this rare instance, better than sex. In some ways it feels more intimate too, which is an idea that simultaneously intrigues and repels her until she disregards thought altogether in favor of wrapping herself around him and dozing off again. This might be the most stupid and selfish thing she’s done in a long time, but she won’t let herself be sorry.
Speaking of sex, she can’t help but notice that they manage to shed more clothes as the days go by. It should be a problem but it’s not; she simply wants more contact and more warmth and more him, and skin on skin is the best way to achieve that. So she doesn’t bother to put her sweatpants back on after she takes a bath, and he pulls off his shirt sometime during the night, making a bullshit excuse about the fire being too warm, until eventually they’re down to the bare minimum of fabric covering their bodies. It makes for better sleep she thinks as she fits her ass snugly against his hips and he lays a possessive hand over her bare thigh. Better sleep, yes, but also quite distracting, to the point where she’d give anything if he’d move that hand just a little higher and a little to the left.
It all comes to a boiling point over a game of poker on the last night of their trip. In this, like all things, they’re evenly matched; of the two he’s better at bluffing but she can calculate the stats and the probabilities in her head and it’s not long before it becomes a heated tournament which leads to arguing and suddenly they’re rolling around on top of each other, using not enough force to bruise but just enough to assert dominance, enough to make it fun. He pins her face-down with one arm behind her back before she contorts into an almost superhuman position to escape, flipping him over with her on top. He counters, she parries, and before long he’s poised over her, his mouth just as close to hers as it was those few months ago and now all she can think of is that kiss and how she wants to do it again. Do it again, but mean it this time. Do it again and make it count.
He must sense the shift because he pulls back and when he looks at her, all the playfulness is gone. “What are we doing, Tasha?” he asks in a quiet voice, almost as if he’s afraid to say the words out loud.
She doesn’t answer, don’t give any comfort or reassurance or bother sweeping this under the rug. It’s pretty much too late for that anyway, as this thing between them has taken on a life of its own, to the point where trying to stop it would be like shouting at the ocean.
So she doesn’t stop it. Doesn’t do a goddamned thing except lean up and kiss him again. Affetuouso—with feeling this time. No holding back.
He doesn’t hold back either. Doesn’t hesitate for a second, and in the blink of an eye his lips are on hers and his body is pressing hers against the mattress and suddenly this trip seems like the best fucking idea ever. Screw tomorrow, she thinks, screw lines and boundaries and screw thought itself.
She holds on tight and doesn’t let go.
Chapter 3: It's of You I'd Dream
It’s starting to become a problem.
Well, not a problem in the strictest sense of the word, Natasha thinks. In many ways it’s damn near the most enjoyable thing she’s ever done, but it is becoming a distraction.
They’re never anything but professional, never anything but perfectly competent at what they do, never give away even a hint of what’s going on to the outside world, but ever since the trip to Switzerland, the lines are most definitely blurred. No, scratch that—not blurred. The lines no longer exist, there’s nothing hovering between them, nothing waiting to get out. None of that tension that used to be there—if anything, they’ve been hashing through it in record time, making up for five years’ worth of restraint in the course of just a few weeks.
It’s exhausting, Natasha decides, and also the most goddamn fun she’s ever had. Now when they’re both in the same place at the same time, lack of sleep is once again becoming a serious issue, but for a very different reason.
She thinks it might eventually get boring but it doesn’t. If anything it’s just the opposite, and she can’t seem to get enough of him—whether it’s hard and fast and borderline brutal and they’re wearing the bruises for a week or sweet and slow and lingering for what feels like days on end. She always knew Clint had a wealth of patience, knew that was part of what made him so damn good at what he did, but she didn’t expect just how much of a revelation it would be when all that patience and all that intensity was fixed on her.
And, as always, it turns into a game. They’re so well matched, so in synch, that a glance or a harmless gesture ends up becoming a kind of code, adding to their already expansive shorthand vocabulary. A quirk of her lips means Now, a restless tapping of his fingers makes it clear that they need to find the nearest empty closet or corner or room with a lock on the door because he’s not inclined to wait long enough to get back to one of their beds. Sitting across a crowded conference room one morning, she crosses and uncrosses her legs as if to say Would you—right here? On this table in front of God and everyone?, and he just sends her a warning look that promises retribution. Pretending to listen to Fury’s lecture on their latest mission she sits up straight and stretches, just the tiniest movement to arch her lower back and lean against her chair. She watches his nostrils flare and his pupils dilate and she has to suppress a smile. All of the sudden he grins, barely able to hide a laugh. He just shrugs and shakes his head a little.
I guess I would. Or at least, I’d seriously consider it.
He begins tapping his fingers.
“Something you’d like to share with us, Agent Barton?” Fury inquires.
“No sir,” Clint replies, stone-faced. “Just ready to get to work.” His fingers keep tapping right up until the end of the meeting. Six minutes later, she has him pinned on the floor of an old supply closet, hands covering each others’ mouths in an effort to keep quiet. Those efforts rarely work.
These days, there’s pretty much nothing off limits between them. Except discussion. What doesn’t ever happen is discussion. There’s not really time for it. She keeps meaning to—keeps meaning to set some ground rules or definitions or “Here’s a list of shit you can’t do and pet names you can’t call me” (which, incidentally, would be all of them), but all of that takes effort and time and requires thinking about what this is way too much. And when his mouth is on hers, when those wonderfully talented hands are working on getting her out of her clothes and onto the nearest available surface (horizontal, vertical, or other, she’s perfectly fine with them all), when he’s there with her—in that moment nothing else matters.
But eventually, it goes all to hell. Really it’s inevitable, and she curses herself for not seeing it coming sooner. It starts with a look. He does it when he thinks she’s not paying attention (you’d figure that after five years he’d learn that she’s never not paying attention)—the gazes, the stares, giving her that look like he’d move mountains for her. Do anything, say anything. Like she’s the only person on earth.
It’s fucking terrifying, and it makes her want to run far and fast and never stop.
Because her hands are covered in red, and that doesn’t wash out. She wasn’t designed for this, wasn’t designed for being tame and docile and playing at having a life. She can do a stunning imitation, she can fool the best when she needs to but it’s all an act. And it’s always temporary; she can’t keep it up forever.
And she keeps meaning to tell him that. Keeps meaning to talk about it. But then he’s gone to Buenos Aires on surveillance duty or she’s off tracking down arms dealers in the Sudan and when she sees him again there’s no time for talking, no time for anything but the feel of his lips on hers, her body moving in flawless time with his.
Talking is overrated anyway, she thinks.
It’s a scene just like that when everything falls spectacularly apart. She’s been gone for almost a month on a remote assignment in the Congo, taking out an excessive amount of anger on a warlord who’d kept her there a week longer than she should have been by changing his travel plans—that plus some light genocide and she wasn’t inclined to make things quick or easy.
And so finally she’s back, and she’s annoyed beyond belief that she can’t seem to keep her mind on anything else because of how sexually frustrated she is and she swears she’s going to kill someone who doesn’t deserve it this time if she doesn’t see him within the next 24 hours. So when she does see him she pulls him into the nearest empty room, slams the door, and goes straight to work.
“Missed you too,” he laughs before figuring out that small talk isn’t on the menu. She’s feeling energetic, he’s feeling playful, and she’s halfway hanging from the ceiling when somewhere in the distance, a door opens.
“Oh my God,” a familiar voice says.
“Amazing,” another familiar and overly formal voice ponders, “I didn’t realize that such a position could be achieved whilst remaining upright.”
“Agreed,” says yet another voice. The worst possible voice in the world. “Most impressive. Even the East German judge has to give that a ten—”
She and Clint both look over at the same time.
“Out,” Cap says, pushing Thor towards the door and physically dragging Stark away.
“But wait, I feel like I should take notes or something—”
“Go. NOW!” Steve yells. The door slams with a bang.
And there’s no time to talk, not even after that. The next day, Clint’s shipped off on a recon mission, and she’s dispatched to look into some homeland security issues and they don’t see each other again for a while. Mercifully, they don’t see any other members of the team either, but it’s still enough time to make her think.
It’s stupid and dangerous, she concludes, and they were bound to get caught. And Natasha realizes that there are too many expectations, too many emotions involved in all of this, and also that she’s been feeling way too fucking happy these last few weeks. It’s thrown her completely off balance, made her lose her edge. The red has begun to fade and the names in the ledger seem like fine print and she’s starting not to recognize herself. She doesn’t know what this is or how it happened, she’s only sure of one thing: that it has to end.
It’s a truth she’s been hiding from ever since she first kissed him—that she can’t do this. That she’s not made for this. She does death and destruction and carnage but not this. She’ll unravel anything that gets too close and she doesn’t want him be next.
So when she finally sees him again she drags him off to the nearest uninhabited space, but this time puts enough distance between them to where she won’t risk getting distracted. He speaks first.
“Look, Tasha, about what happened before—”
“It’s got to stop,” she says.
She points from him to her. “This, Clint. Us. Whatever this is. It’s got to stop.”
He looks for a moment like he’s still waiting to hear the punchline of the joke but it never comes. Then it dawns on him, and he quirks an eyebrow and looks nothing short of stunned. “Nat are you—wait, is this a ... breakup speech?”
The disbelief in his voice pushes her over the edge. “Breakup from what?” she explodes, pacing back and forth like a caged animal. “Are we fucking going steady? Are you going to carry my books and walk me to class between covert ops and toppling third-world dictatorships?”
“That’s not even what I—”
“This,” she whirled, turning to face him. “This is why I never did anything. Because I knew it would never work. Because I knew you’d get attached. Things were better as they were.”
She sees a wave of hurt register on his face before he quickly shuts it down. He just looks at her for a long time, so long in fact that she doesn’t think he’s going to say anything at all.
“And this is really how you feel?” he says at last, searching her eyes, daring her to take it back. “This is what you want?”
“It’s is the way it has to be,” she says simply, ignoring anything else, keeping only to the script.
“Do I even get a say?”
She crosses her arms, fingers digging into the skin of her biceps. “Say what you want, but it’s not going to change my mind.”
He just stares at her then, and she could see him calculating all the angles, all the various trajectories and scenarios and imagining every possible way this could play out. “No, I don’t suppose it will,” he says, face going hard. Any emotion that was there before is suddenly wiped clean, and the mask he uses for the world, for everyone else but her falls into place, and his expression becomes unreadable. “You done?”
“Then so am I.” He turns and walks away without a second glance.
She doesn’t realize until later that she’d been gripping her arms hard enough to bruise.
The next few days were pure hell. Ninth circle frozen in place lying next to Judas Iscariot kind of hell. They don’t speak, they don’t look at each other, they don’t acknowledge each other’s existence, and the effort of doing all that takes up so much of her energy that Natasha eventually ends up walking around in a haze of fatigue, ready to snap at the mere mention of his name.
She tries flat out avoiding him but it doesn’t exactly work, because to everyone else, they’re still partners and colleagues and shit needs doing and the world needs saving and nobody cares if that means you have to spend time with your pseudo-ex. The rest of the team is around a lot more now, but once she threatens Stark to within an inch of his life if he so much as looks at her the wrong way, the others actually provide a kind of welcome buffer.
And she’s fine, really. She’s not affected by it. This is the fucking Black Widow, and she doesn’t do emotion or sentiment. And she definitely doesn’t do love. Screw love. She’s completely unaffected. Fine.
So much so in fact that one morning she decides to prove it, giving Rogers her undivided attention over coffee while Clint sits on the other side of the room. She talks to Steve, leaning in close, and then she turns it on, inching into his space and giving him a practiced smile. He blinks once, twice—charmed and confused and more than a little off kilter.
Clint’s gone by the time she looks up.
He gets his revenge though, surrounded the next time she sees him by a flock of new recruits who could best be described as groupies. She can’t help but notice that more than half of them are female, and that most of those have come down with a clear case of Hawkeye worship. Hell, she’s surprised no one’s asked him to autograph their chest yet. And while he’s never paid the slightest attention before, never cared in the least or seen them as anything other than an annoyance today he stops and talks for a bit, being just as charming and as attractive as she knows he can be.
He catches her eye down the hall and pauses mid-sentence. She doesn’t stay for the rest of the show, just turns on her heel and starts moving in the opposite direction, not stopping until she’s on the research level and finds herself outside Banner’s lab. She pushes the door open and ducks inside. Bruce looks up, but she silences him with a wave of her hand.
“Not a word,” she warns. “Not one single word.”
He raises his hands in mock surrender. “Hey, you know I pride myself on laying low. But—”
“... but Stark’s got a big mouth?”
“That’s about the gist of it.”
“I forgot that you missed the show.”
“Caught some of the fallout though.” He looks at her with concern. “You okay?”
She doesn’t answer, just very ungracefully flops into the nearest chair and picks up the closest object, which happens to be some kind of molecular model. She turns it over and over in her hands and stares up at the ceiling.
“It’s such a stupid, fucked up mess of a situation,” she mutters.
Bruce doesn’t really say anything, just nods sympathetically. She glances over at him.
“And you’re thinking I’m an idiot?” she asks.
He looks down intently at the papers in front of him. “I’m thinking it’s a shame I won’t get the chance to ask you out.”
“I...uh—what?” she finds herself at a complete loss for words
“It’s okay,” he says with a shy smile and a laugh, “really. It was just a passing thought. And besides, I never stood a chance.”
“I just—I’m not the dating kind,” she stammers, still taken aback by the admission.
He studies her for a moment. “You know that’s not what I meant. From the moment I met you, there was only one person on your mind.” More under his breath than anything else Bruce adds, “he better know how lucky he is.”
She shakes her head. “There’s nothing going on—”
“Natasha,” Banner interrupts in that calm, quiet voice of his, “you can lie to me, to everybody, but don’t lie to yourself. I know a little bit about running,” he continues, his expression turning sad. “At least enough to know it never works. One way or the other, you’ve got to confront what’s going on.”
“Look, I’m not about to go and—”
“I’m not talking about Barton. What’s bugging you, the reason you’re sitting here—it’s not him. It's you. You’ve got to figure this out. You and no one else.” He stands up and walks over to the door.
“Do what you need to do,” Bruce says. “Just don’t run.”
He should have known better.
Clint takes a long drink from the nearest bottle and turns the music up a little louder.
It was a dumbass idea all those months ago, and it’s remains a dumbass idea now. Kissing her that night was the best and worst fucking decision he’d ever made. Then the sleeping together. Then Switzerland. Then whatever the hell they’d been doing since. He’s an idiot, Clint thinks, a bona fide gold medal winning asinine deluded sonofabitch and he should have seen this coming.
And the dumbest thing of all is that he let himself care. He let himself get all caught up in the moment, and made the mistake of thinking that this could be more.
So now it’s three o’clock in the morning, and he’s holed up in an abandoned arms locker trying to avoid every single person on earth, surrounded by a dozen empty beer bottles, a handful of arrows, and listening to more Hank, Sr. than any normal person would consider healthy.
It’s just par for the fucking course. He should have listened to his instincts. He’d fallen for her ages ago but he’d never intended to do anything about it—he knew it would be too complicated and messy and never work and she probably wasn’t even interested anyways and he never wanted her to feel like she owed him. If only he’d stuck to that plan, he thinks. At least he’d still have a friend out of the deal.
He’s still pondering those cheerful thoughts when the door to the hatch opens and none other than Tony Stark walks in. The other man doesn’t really pay him much attention, just a brief hello before rummaging through a few crates to find whatever it was that had brought him down here in the first place.
“Working late?” Clint asks.
“I always work late,” Stark says, rummaging through one crate and spilling most of the contents on the floor in the process. “What I don’t understand are people that work early. Who can possibly think at nine in the morning? I mean, who does that?”
Clint doesn’t answer, just leans back and closes his eyes, waiting for him to go away.
Spying what he was looking for, Tony grabs it and heads for the door. He stops though and turns around, like he just can’t help himself. “Okay, maybe I’m feeding the bears here, but I’ve got to say—that scene the other night? Stunning. I mean, really. If you two ever wanted to get out of the, you know, killing people business, I seriously think you could go pro.”
Clint just gives him a look that promises untold amounts of pain.
“Or ... not. Stay amateur. Good move. Like your style.” Clint glares some more, but Tony doesn’t take the hint. Instead he pulls up a crate and takes a seat. “So what’s up? I’m sensing angst.”
“Are you now?” Clint says dryly.
“Yep. I’m delicately perceptive that way. The alcohol, the weapons, the old-school country. Definitely a theme here. Girlfriend issues?”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Sure.” Tony starts cracking up. “You don’t actually believe that, right? I mean, not really.”
“Why the hell are you bothering me?” Clint asks irritably. “Wouldn’t you rather torture Romanoff about this?”
“Nah, this is way better. Besides, you and I haven’t spent much quality time together. Also—” he adds, “as she’s reminded me several times now, she can kill me twenty-six different ways with her little finger.”
Clint picks up an arrow lying beside him and studies it distractedly. “I only need one,” he says, looking back up at Stark. “That, and a clean line of sight.” He gives him a dangerous smile.
“Fine fine, stand down,” he says, getting up. “But for the record? She’s totally your girlfriend. You guys just haven’t figured that out yet.”
Clint leans forward and pinches the bridge of his nose. Nat was right, Stark was beyond exasperating sometimes. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not exactly on speaking terms right now. Not what I’d call amorous behavior.”
“Whatever,” Stark says. “It won’t last long.”
“Oh yeah?” Clint replies. “You know something I don’t?”
“I know how she is around you.” Tony sticks his hands in his pockets and begins to stroll idly around the room. “Let me tell you a story,” he says. “A couple of years ago I met this woman. This beautiful, intelligent, deadly, capable woman. Brilliant and gorgeous and ... cold as a block of ice. And she still is. She is still absolutely that person; it’s not an act, it’s just her. Except around you. You walk into a room and she lights up. You’re not around and she gets violent—well, more violent than usual,” he amended. “But when you were under Loki’s control? When it looked like you’d be pulling permanent bad guy duty? That woman moved heaven and earth to get you back—including pretty much single-handedly putting this team together to do it. So yeah,” he finished, “I think there’s something there. But what you do with that information is entirely up to you.”
He swipes a bottle of beer from what’s left of the case, and cracks it open. “Just don’t wait too long. These moments don’t stick around forever, you know.”
“And exactly what is it that you think I’m supposed to do?”
Stark shrugs. “You’ll know. When the time is right.” He starts to walk out the door, then stops himself again. “Oh—and until then? Time to downgrade to Cash or Haggard. Maybe even some early Elvis. You need to get off the hard stuff.”
Clint reaches for his bow, and Tony disappears through the hatch with a chuckle. “Good hunting, Barton,” he calls from down the hall.
Chapter 4: Deep Breath, Wide Awake
Most people think hell is fire and brimstone and endless suffering, but Natasha knows better. Hell is slow and silent and rips you apart from the inside out. It’s soft voices and bright surgical lights and the eerie strains of Beethoven’s 7th that haunt you for reasons you can’t name.
Hell is emptiness. It’s having something, then having it taken away and never being allowed to find it again.
She used to live that way. It used to be her life, no different than breathing. Wiped clean, made new—wash, rinse, repeat. Nothing left but the shell, and the nagging sensation that something had been there before.
But five years ago all that changed. Changed completely, because someone found her, had helped bring her back. Helped her get herself back. Someone had found her and stuck by her side and never let go.
Until now, of course. Until she’d walked away.
Weeks go by and things start to calm down, and the outright hostility fades until she can be around Clint without the irrational anger threatening to lash out or the idiotic twinge of jealousy setting in. There’s none of that now. Now it’s calm, cool efficiency and distance. Now it’s all distance.
And now she’s the one adrift, and he’s back in that place of watching, of never getting involved. He’s back up in his perch, back in the nest—high up and far away and simply taking it all in. They can be in the same room now, but they might as well be miles apart. It makes sense, she thinks, and if she wasn’t so strung out dealing with her own crap she would have seen it coming. It’s the way he is. He got too close, got burned, so now he pulls back. For clarity. For self-preservation, for time. Time to get the lay of the land, to call the shot. To figure out what to do next—and, she suspects, how to move on.
It’s a thought that eats her from the inside out, but there’s nothing left to do. Hell, she’s already done enough. Now she’s stuck inside her own head, wondering just how much she’s damaged and what’s been broken that can’t be fixed.
And eventually it’s all too much so she just shuts down. Doesn’t stop her from missing him though. Little stupid ridiculous things. The bad jokes he’d make to try and get her to smile or just to annoy her (or sometimes both), the way he can read her like no one else, somehow knowing when to speak and when to hold back. The old, twangy country songs he likes to listen to, the way he strums his guitar late at night when he can’t sleep. The way she can just sit with him in complete and total silence. Beautiful, perfect silence, with no useless bullshit chatter to fill the space or pass the time, no filler, no distraction—because he doesn’t need any of that stuff either.
She wants to close the distance, wants to make things right. She wants, she wants … she has no idea. It’s a thought she won’t let herself finish.
Lucky for her, work’s become a good distraction. In the aftermath of Chitauri, some of the Phase Two tech went missing, and as always, the scariest possible conclusion is usually right. Fury’s been working for weeks to figure who has it and exactly what it is they’ve got, and she and Barton haven’t been doing anything else for days, along with some other members of the team they’ve managed to pull in for this one.
It’s the wee hours of the morning when she finds him in the archives room, poring over old reports and searching and re-searching and trying to figure out what everyone else has missed; what’s been hidden in plain sight. He’s good at that. She catches him deep in concentration—a rare moment when he’s the one being observed and not the other way around and suddenly there’s a raw, gaping hole in her chest and she has to look away just to catch her breath. It hurts to see him, hurts because of all the things that have changed—all the things gone by the wayside, all that she can’t seem to say.
She looks back up and sees him take a sip of the coffee lying nearby, watches the familiar grimace, knowing that Clint’s almost as fond of the SHIELD house brew as she is. He’s too busy to be bothered at the moment though, and it’s too late to get something from outside anyway, so he just scrubs a tired hand through his hair and hunches back over those reports.
She continues down the hall again, into the kitchen and in need of some caffeine. There’s a pot on the boiler that’s been sitting there God knows how long but luckily she doesn’t have to find out. She takes out her hidden stash of tea—good tea—and makes some. For reasons unknown, she grabs a second cup and fills it. Before she’s entirely conscious of what she’s doing, she’s back in the archives room and placing the extra cup on the table in front of him.
Clint looks up with surprise but doesn’t say anything, and she just rolls her eyes and shrugs it off. “The house brew will kill you, you know.”
He gives a hint of a smile and shrugs. “Sometimes bad caffeine is better than none at all.” He looks down at the cup, then back at her, not sure if he should say more.
She takes a sip of her own tea, then redirects. “Going back over these?” she asks, looking at the intel they’d had for over a week now.
“Yeah,” he nods. “Something doesn’t sit right. We’re finding these clues too easy.”
She looks down at the papers scattered across the table and studies them. “So what do you think they’re trying to tell us?” she finally asks.
Clint pauses for a moment, then glances up and finds her eyes. “Wish I knew,” he says, giving her a look that nearly pins her to the wall.
The hole in her chest breaks wide open and she falters for something to say but instead ends up taking another sip of tea. She turns to walk back out the door but something in his voice stops her.
“Nat?” he says softly. “Thanks.”
She turns back and nods, makes the mistake of looking in his eyes and starts biting the hell out of her lower lip because something keeps trying to escape but she doesn’t know what. She loses the battle though.
“Clint, I—” she begins, not even sure what’s going to come out next.
But she never finds out, as each of their high-tech SHIELD issue comm link phone things begin to light up like Christmas, telling them that Fury is requesting their presence right fucking now. All other thoughts dismissed, they head to his office, and before they know it they’re on a plane to Belgrade with Stark and Cap. Apparently they got a drop on where the stolen Phase Two goods are going to be and now all that’s left is to get them back, get the bad guys and save the day. And seven hours later she’s checking comm systems and packing extra ammo and going back over the ops plan for the third time in a row and all she can think is that she wishes she’d gotten the chance to finish what she was going to say.
Whatever it was.
It’s a simple plan, really. The worst ones usually are.
Cap and Stark get all the fun ten miles north at a supposedly abandoned missile silo which is where the intel says this deal is going down. She and Clint are on backup duty, assigned to stand guard over a factory in the city’s old industrial section which they think is the headquarters of whoever’s trying to move the merchandise. Their job is simple—she goes in to recover any and all files she can find and Clint does what he always does—stays high up and out of sight, ready to strike if needed.
"Okay. Moving in on target. You see anything interesting?"
"All quiet up here. A little too quiet for my taste."
Natasha nods but doesn’t say anything, even though she feels the same way. It’s all going too well, too easy, and before she knows it, she’s managed to get in what looks like their records room without breaking a sweat.
But when she opens the nearest file cabinet, that’s when she knows that something is very, very wrong. In the first place, the cabinet isn't locked, and second, it’s filled to the brim ... with blank sheets of paper.
"It’s a setup," she says, retracing her steps and getting the hell out of there as fast as she can. "They knew we were coming—it’s a trap."
Before she can say anything else, gunfire explodes all around her, and it’s all she can do to get outside that damn building without taking a bullet in the head. She flips on the open comm switch.
"Cap, Stark—you there? We could use a little backup."
"Bit busy right now." It's Tony's voice on the line, and he sounds strained. "Walked into a smallish-to-medium ambush over here. They brought modified tanks, too. Good times."
Steve’s voice breaks through the comm. "Sitrep?"
"They were hiding in the lower levels,” Clint replies, “and now they've got this place surrounded. Hang on, shit—” his words are lost in a hail of gunfire.
“What’s going on?” she and Steve ask at the same time.
After a few agonizing seconds, Clint responds. “Not sure—but I think—I think I’ve been sitting on top of the hornet’s nest all along.” More gunfire.
Nat looks at the building across the street and tries not to think about just how crazy an idea this is. “Cap, can you guys back me up?”
“Not right now, but if you can give us five—”
“It’ll be too late by then. I’m going in.”
“Nat, don’t you dare,” Clint’s voice breaks in, "it’s suicide.”
“Too late,” she says, ducking enemy fire and charging into the goddamn hornet’s nest.
He can’t breathe he’s so mad. Can’t even see straight—well, for the most part. He can still manage to take out half a dozen bad guys with a few arrows and an AK-47 he’d wrestled off some unfortunate soul. Natasha swings in through the window, laying waste to most of the floor below them in the process, and takes cover behind a large concrete pillar several yards away.
“You’re an idiot,” he yells, torn between anger at the fact she came in after him and sheer joy at the fact she’s still alive. “A complete idiot, you know that? Foolhardy and crazy and you won’t listen to a damn lick of reason.”
“Whatever. You like it,” she says, peeking out long enough to get off another couple of rounds before retreating to a different spot in order to cover the front entrance to this level while he covers the back. She’s not wrong, but Clint’s not done being pissed yet either.
“I can’t believe you just did that—and why the hell didn’t you wait for backup?”
“I figured your ass needed saving sooner rather than later. You gonna spend all day being mad at me?”
“I’m going to—” then suddenly he stops, and the utter ridiculousness of the situation hits him in full force. “Funny, Romanoff. You’re a regular goddamn court jester, you know that?”
“But ... at least we’re talking.” He can hear the hint of a smile in her voice, and he's tempted to smile too.
"True,” he says, firing off a few more rounds. “So, do I need to walk into an ambush every time I want to get your attention?”
“You got something to say, Barton?” she asks, and he can’t tell whether it’s amusement or anxiety in her voice.
“Well now that you mention it…”
“I was kidding.”
“I’m actually not.” Things aren’t looking too good at the moment and he might not get another chance, so what the hell. “I’ve been thinking...”
“Not really the time, Clint.” He hears her fire a few more rounds, but her voice is closer now, about ten feet away and still out of sight.
“Oh, I dunno,” he drawls. “Impossible odds, hostile fire, almost certain death? Sounds like a pretty good time to me.” He lands a beautiful shot on the lower level, making a lovely explosion that gives them a momentary break in the action. “So…” he begins conversationally.
“So…?” Natasha responds, and he can tell she’s humoring him, just barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes right now.
“I don’t really like how we left things.”
She laughs in spite of herself. “You mean the whole hating each other not talking thing? Yeah, I guess that’s understandable. Not exactly the most fun thing in the world.”
“Not so much,” he agrees. “But since we’ve got a bit of time to kill…”
“That’s one way of putting it,” she mutters, emptying an entire clip down a nearby stairwell.
“Well, since we’re here—I think it’s time I had my say.”
“My say,” he continues, as if they were discussing the weather. “Three on your six, by the way.”
More gunfire. “Got ‘em. What do you mean ‘your say’?”
“Well that day you said it was over, I never did get to have my say on the matter. I think I should.”
“No time like the present,” he says with a sly grin.
“Oh my God, you’re serious. I don’t even—can I get a little help over here?”
He fires a few arrows in rapid succession, and the team of bad-guy thugs making their way up her flight of stairs is no more.
“Don’t mention it.”
Her voice is even closer now, just on the other side of the wall his back is pressed against, and Clint decides that, come hell or high water, it’s time to call the shot. “So,” he begins, “this may be about the only time I can do this because you’re too busy shooting other people to try and shoot me, but I need to say it. Just this once, then I can be done.”
“Say what?” she says, sounding a bit nervous.
She should be nervous. A part of him can’t believe he’s actually going to do this. He fires an explosive round down the stairwell, closes his eyes for a split second and takes a deep breath. “To say that I love you, Tasha. Always have. But if it won’t work, then it won’t work. We’re friends and partners first and I don’t want to lose that. So if you tell me no, then that will be the end of it. I won’t bring up again.” He fires another explosive arrow, and the last words escape despite himself.
“But for the record, I think it could.”
It takes her a long time to answer. Lots of gunfire, but no words. Then at last he hears her voice. Quiet and scared and just on the other side of that damn wall. “Could what?”
“Just what are you saying, Clint?” The words carry an edge.
“You know exactly what I’m saying.”
He hears movement on the other side, a whole lot of gunfire, and finally a response. “How can you even—” A pause, more shots fired. She always gets tongue-tied when she’s at her angriest, and he’d bet the farm that’s exactly what’s going on right now. “I mean, fuck Clint—I don’t know how to do this!” she finally yells, exasperated.
“You think I do?” He doesn’t mean to yell back, but it’s not like this is the most comfortable conversation he’s ever had. “Look,” he amends, voice softening, “I don’t need normal. I don’t want normal. I want you.”
Before she gets chance to respond he hears the telltale metal clank of a grenade being thrown up the stairs, and suddenly they’re both diving for cover and scrambling away from the explosion, crawling up a flight of stairs hidden in the back corner to what looks to be the top floor of the building. Taking a moment to check them both for injuries, he doesn’t even notice what else is up there.
Nat does, though. “Oh my God,” she breathes, walking over to inspect row after row of SHIELD-marked crates, “the Phase Two tech.” She flips the open channel of her comm link on.
“Cap, we found it. All the goods, they’ve been sitting right here this whole time. You close enough to intercept?”
Steve’s voice crackles over the line. “We’re still a little … busy over here at the moment. But that stuff can’t leave the premises. You understand?”
“Understood,” she says. “You and Stark want to come over and do the demo work?”
Starks voice breaks through. “Love to, but we’re still at least three minutes out.”
Caps voice breaks back in. “How long can you hold ‘em?”
“Not that long,” Clint answers. “The numbers aren’t in our favor.”
“Then take it out,” Cap says after a moment.
“Take it all out, the whole place. Those goods can’t leave the building. You copy?”
“Copy that,” Nat says, clicking off the comm link and looking up at Clint. All business now, she scans the room. “Can you get the door?”
He just nods and moves to the stairwell they just came from. Luckily it looks like the only way up here. He finds a couple of old filing cabinets and pushes them down the stairs, waits until he hears sounds of movement on the other side and drops the last grenade he has left. It won’t hold them off indefinitely but maybe it will buy her a little time.
She’s already ripping through the crates, trying to find whatever she can to reduce this place to a pile of rocks. Pulling apart what looks like a high-tech alien gun, she starts assembling the parts into something a lot more familiar.
“Molotov cocktail?” he says. “Seriously?”
“Best I can do on short notice. And this air vent should go all the way to the bottom floor. You drop it in with a few more of these,” she points to the strange-looking vials of yellow fluid that make up the ammo clips of the guns, “and that should do the trick.”
He frowns, realizing exactly what this means. “Doesn’t exactly lend itself to remote detonation.”
“No,” she agrees. “You got a better idea? Speak up.”
“Well, no it’s just that—”
“And while we’re at it, what the hell, Clint? I mean what—the—hell? I can’t believe you just—and in the middle of—and now—”
“I know,” he says, the humor fading from his voice. “I know. But Tasha, if we don’t make it—”
“No,” she cuts him off quickly. “No. Don’t even—just shut up, okay?”
She takes a few seconds to finish her work and then looks up at him.
“You really think it could?” she asks in a small voice, looking so lost all of the sudden, torn between hope and resignation.
“I know it could,” he says, voice steady. He’s never been so sure of anything in his life.
She holds his stare an endless beat longer before looking back down at the homemade bomb and then away. Suddenly, she stands up, lets out the longest and most profane streak of curses he’s ever heard—in English and in Russian—and closes the distance between them, pulling him in for a kiss that steals the breath from his body and robs him, momentarily, of any coherent thought. Then just as quickly she releases him and all but throws him against the farthest wall.
“Hang on,” she orders, turning her attention back to the explosives, “and on my mark—run like hell.”
She lights the fuse, tosses the bomb, grabs her gun, grabs him and heads for the nearest window. There’s a flurry of bullets coming at them from the outside and a burst of flame coming from the inside but they manage to get off a few shots anyways. Catching the corner of a rusted-out fire escape right before plunging off the edge, Clint manages to catch her at the same time, and then they both begin a not-so-carefully choreographed fall as the building comes down behind them. He doesn’t have time to fire off a grappling hook, but he does manage to leap across to the outside ledge of the building next door and they both end up doing a combo of climbing and falling down the brick facing while trying to dodge shrapnel before tumbling into a two-story drop.
The smoke and dust begins to clear and he finds himself lying flat on his back on a pile of rubble with Natasha next to him, sprawled out the exact same way. He turns his head just enough to see her chest moving up and down, still breathing. He closes his eyes in relief. That’s enough for now.
Even his eyelids hurt at the moment, and neither of them can spare enough energy to respond over the comms to Stark and Cap—who caught the tail-end of their fireworks show and are fretting like a bunch of mother hens—with anything other than a one word-affirmative when asked if they’re okay.
“...just secure the perimeter,” Clint manages to croak. “And bring some aspirin.”
His body is spent, but his brain’s still running at full speed. He’s not sure what just happened up there, what she was thinking and what that kiss meant, but if that’s all there ever is between them then he thinks that’ll be okay and that he’ll just make due. He’s so busy trying to talk himself into the idea of being just friends again that he almost doesn’t notice the brush of her fingers against his.
It’s tentative at first, and almost feels like it’s accidental until ... until her hand slips softly inside his, her fingers intertwining with his, holding on tight. It's wordless and unassuming and tells him everything he needs to know. Everything he’s ever wanted to hear her say. He feels a smile spread from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, and if he hadn’t just fallen two stories from an exploding building, he’d be wrapped around her six ways to Sunday. He grins so hard it hurts—and then he just can’t help himself.
“So,” he begins casually, “you want to go for coffee sometime?”
“Shut up, Barton,” she says and laughs, wincing at the pain of shifting what has to be at least three broken ribs. She grips his hand tighter though.
He laughs too, winces from a few broken ribs of his own—and grips right back.
Chapter 5: Epilogue
Six months later...
Stark Tower—well, Avengers Tower, if you can get past the goofy name—is back open, but the first tour isn’t a grand party or a formal gala. It’s just a group of friends hanging out on a Saturday night. The building they’re in is pretty much the same as before, except slightly redesigned with the idea of saving the world on a regular basis, and as such, he’s pretty damn proud of the result. Well, it wasn’t just him; Pepper had a lot to do with it too, and she insisted on 67% of the credit this time, even though he offered up to 72.
And it’s a good group and a good party, and it’s just damn fun to see what pretty much amounts to his closest friends in the same place at the same time enjoying each other and not having to dodge enemy fire in order to have a conversation. It’s a good thing, Tony thinks, and scans the room, taking a headcount as he goes. One demigod in a jovial mood, discovering the new and interesting delights of a tasty concoction called appletinis, one anger-management specialist pretending that he’s not the life of the party with that adorable shy professor act of his, one supersoldier slowly adjusting to the new world around him and the helluva deep-freeze curveball he’s been thrown, and the other two… well the other two. He stops for a moment and ponders.
It’s an admittedly strange group of people—obviously—but perhaps the strangest thing of all is that at the center of it are those two. Two loners, two killers—the spy and the sniper. But that was what brought them all together in the first place: because someone tried to take Clint Barton away from Natasha Romanoff and she moved heaven and earth to get him back. And really, looking back on it now, it could only have been attempted by some bag-o-cats megalomaniac not from this planet, because all it takes is one look at those two to see that Barton’s practically got “Property of the Black Widow” stamped on his ass. Not that he minds, of course—not that any man would.
But somebody tried to break up that partnership and well, here they all are. And he can’t help but notice the strange, pretty much silent way they draw everyone in. The way Steve can’t help but go over the details of last week’s mission with Clint one more time, asking him if he’d take another look at the intel to see if they’d missed anything and sharing some joke about how no one else really gets the whole chain of command thing as he clamps a friendly hand on Clint's shoulder. Or how Bruce brings out the … if he didn’t have a better word for it he’d say empathetic? side to Natasha. She’ll not only listen to what he has to say, but she actually talks back. It’s astonishing, and something Tony’s sure is a rare damn occurrence if your name doesn’t start with ‘C’ and end with Barton.
He so focused on observation mode that he almost doesn’t notice Cap coming to stand beside him.
“You’re quiet tonight, Stark,” Steve says, and follows his gaze over to where Clint and Natasha are listening to Thor describe the strange similarities between Asgardian hunting and courtship practices. Clint leans down to whisper something in her ear and she shocks the whole room by letting out a peal of childish laughter before leaning back against him with an enigmatic smile on her face.
“Pondering the course of true love?” Steve asks, looking back at Tony.
“I’m a scientist if nothing else, my friend. Just taking in the data. Poetry’s not my style.”
Steve laughs. “You’re all poetry, Stark. Covered up in bright flashing neon lights of misdirection. But underneath it, total marshmallow.”
Tony shrugs. “Whatever.” He nods toward the two people they’ve been watching. “So what do you think that is? Dating? Supersecret marriage? Some crazy fetishist S&M playground the likes of which we can’t even imagine?”
Steve’s brow wrinkles in confusion at the last bit, but he clearly doesn’t want to know. “Whatever it is, it’s just for them I’d say.”
Tony frowns. “Probably. Won’t stop me from taking bets though. You want in? I know the obvious choice is 24/7 permanent top for her, but I’m going with the dark horse and say switches on both counts. Ten bucks?”
Steve looks completely bewildered but refuses to take the bait. “No way. I prefer not being killed in my sleep by a highly trained ex-Russian operative.”
“I’d say smart.” He leans forward in a conspiratorial whisper. “But if I had to guess? No wedding bells yet. Although don’t think it hasn’t crossed Barton’s mind.”
“You think we’ll get an invite? I know a great place in Vegas.”
“I’ll think if it happens, when it happens, we’ll never know a thing. It’s not their style.”
Tony nods begrudgingly. “Probably right. Boring, but right. But I’m starting a pool just the same. So put you down for not-quite-engaged?”
“Stark—” Steve begins, exasperated.
“No problem, take your time, think about it. No rush.”
Tony looks back over in their direction; now Thor’s entertaining Pepper with a debate about lattes versus cappuccino, and the two assassins in question have moved back to the edges of the room, talking to each other quietly. Such a strange pair, Tony thinks, but also the most logical thing in the world. And Steve’s right—whatever they have, it’s just for them. It’s the reason why nobody ever calls her his girlfriend (aside from the obvious and potentially violent repercussions), why everyone pretends not to notice how they casually invade each other’s space, how a gaze will linger for a second too long or how he’ll place a hand on the small of her back when he thinks no one’s looking or how she’ll absently trail her fingers down his arm when she leans in to whisper some secret meant for him alone. Or how even though they maintain separate rooms on base and separate apartments off, he’d bet his (well mostly Pepper’s) collection of priceless modern art that they haven’t spent a night apart in months. Or how, if someone catches the occasional kiss or embrace in an empty hallway before one of them leaves on a mission, no one ever says anything. Feels too private and also too obvious. Like a left hand-right hand thing. Simple as breathing.
And even now, in the midst of this group they’ve helped create, how they are, as they have always been, a world unto themselves.
A nice bit of poetry, Tony thinks, and smiles. He does so hate it when Steve’s right.