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Fearful Passage

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A greater power than we can contradict Hath thwarted our intents  - ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ V.iii.

Natasha never wears perfume. All the soaps and lotions and deodorant she uses are unscented. She told him once that smell has the strongest link to memory. She never wants to compromise her situation because someone picks up on a scent she’s worn before. Clint’s convinced, however, that there’s something in her shampoo. When she’s laying in bed next to him, her head resting against his bare chest, he’s sure he catches a whiff of cinnamon.

Or maybe that’s just what he thinks her hair should smell like.

These are the things Clint thinks about, too early in the morning, when he is awake and Natasha sleeps on and he’d rather stop the world than wake her. He’s sure Tony and the others are convinced they’re sleeping together--as opposed to next to each other--not that Clint would be opposed to the former (at all). But right now, it’s just this--Tasha curling her body around him as she lingers in a peaceful sleep that doesn’t come often enough.

Clint’s started thinking of himself as her teddy bear.

Did she ever have one?  he wonders. His hand twitches as it lingers on her back. Did Natasha ever have a stuffed animal of her own--worn out from so many nights holding it close just to feel safe and secure, and smelling of every place she’d ever taken it. She probably didn’t, and the thought feels like a suckerpunch to the gut.

“Good morning.”

Her voice almost makes him jump. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” he says, knowing it really only takes the slightest touch for her to be alert and at the ready.

“No.” She props herself up on one arm with sunlight streaming in through the windows, light and shadow playing across her face. “I’ve been awake for a while.”

God, she’s amazing. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

She’s silent for a moment, then pulls away, stretching. The sheets slide away from her body, and he’s trying very hard not to stare, but she’s just wearing a pale pink camisole and white cotton panties and she’s so damn beautiful it almost hurts. “Your bed is very comfortable.”

“The finest money can buy,” he replies. “At least that’s what Stark says.”

“That’s what Stark  thinks .” Natasha rolls out of bed and pads across the room to where she left her pants.

Clint props himself up on one elbow, not even bothering to pretend he isn’t staring openly as she walks away. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”

“Your bed?”

“The tower,” he says. “Having a place to go back to when the mission is over.”

It’s a discussion she hasn’t let him win since the day she first visited the so called  Avengers Tower . From the look on her face, he was going to lose again. “I’ve got plenty of places to go, Clint.”

Veracruz. Paris. She has hiding spots all over the world, one empty apartment after the other. “Yeah, but people are waiting for you here.”

Natasha tugs the dark fabric up over her hips, twisting her body away from him so he cannot see her face. “I’m not like them. I’m not some superhero with a not-so-secret identity, Clint. You know that better than anyone.”

Clint almost traces back through his words, trying to identify the stupid thing he said to set her off but it’s a pointless exercise. “That doesn’t mean you can’t have a home, Nat.”

“People like us never can.”

Her tone is so firm and almost sad, Clint knows he’s never going to win this argument. Luckily, he doesn’t have to admit defeat, because his phone rings at the most opportune of moments. He feels around beside the bed and flicks the phone open on the third ring.

“Barton.”

It’s Fury. “I need you and Agent Romanoff in Ushuaia yesterday,” he says. “We’ve got word on a weapons ring moving some questionable material to questionable places, and we need eyes on them. Right fucking now. You’ll be briefed on arrival.”

“Yes, sir. We’ll be there in twelve hours.”

“Make it eleven and make sure you leave any  liabilities ,” Fury’s new favorite phrase for Stark and his crew, “behind for this one.”

The line disconnects abruptly and Clint flips his phone shut. He kicks the blankets aside and hauls himself out of bed.

“What’s the mission?” Natasha asked, eyes sharp and focused.

“Fury wasn’t big on the details. Weapons ring with dubious connections in South America.” He heads for his closet, pulls out his uniform. “More info when we rendezvous and he wants us on the move ASAP.”

Natasha nods. “I’ll be ready in ten.”

+

In Argentina, they are briefed by some fresh young face in a suit who is too eager about the job and his name is Carmichael or something like that, but Clint’s brain is too busy calling him not-Coulson to really retain it. He does retain the important parts, the information on the mission.

“We’ve picked up on unregistered electrical lines running underground through the mountains but haven’t been able to breach whatever facility is hidden there. We have, however been able to establish a link between the activity in the mountains and a supposedly-abandoned warehouse right on the harbor when three teenagers who’d last been seen sneaking in through a window washed up on the west edge of the bay looking like swiss cheese. Ballistics report said Russian military.”

Hell of a way to talk about dead children, Clint thinks, fighting a scowl.

“Your job is to find the connection,” not-Coulson tells them, right before he tells them he’s set them up with two rooms at a run-down inn at the edge of town. “It’s not like you’ll be spending much time there, anyways.”

Then he’s en route back to the helicarrier leaving Clint and Natasha to their work, and by the end of the day they’ve started their surveillance of the warehouse. He’s camped out on the roof of a market down the street, while Natasha’s set herself up in the remains of an old fisherman’s house that burnt half-way down years ago.

Movement in and out of the warehouse is minimal, mostly in the early hours of the morning before the sun peeks over the horizon. He’s never seen more than four individuals coming and going over the course of the first five days, but when Natasha’s finally got enough of a read on their patterns and an assessment of their security she breaches the perimeter and sets up three cameras. She’s forced to make a retreat before she can set up a fourth.

“They must go underground,” she tells him over her headset. “I’m seeing twenty in there. Minimum. And there have to be access tunnels underneath.”

“Do you think they’re connected to the facility in the mountains?”

“Doubtful,” she says. “That would be too easy to detect. No, chances are there’s an alternate entrance and possibly a bunker beneath.”

Clint remembers not-Coulson’s too-vivid imagery. “The west end of the bay, where the kids were found. I think that’s our best bet for an alternate access point.”

“We’ll move on it in the morning.”

For the first time, they use their rooms in the inn. Well, room. Natasha disregards the one booked for her entirely, and crawls into Clint’s bed like she belongs there. Not that he’ll ever complain. He threads his arms around her waist and she covers his hand with hers. If this wasn’t a mission, and the last thing he needed was putting his partner on edge, this would be the moment he tells her he loves her. He just presses his face against her hair and falls asleep.

They move their stakeout into the woods on the edge of the harbor. Sure enough, there’s a hatch hidden in the brush not too far from where the dead boys were found. Clint recognizes the faces that come and go from Natasha’s security footage.

Another three days, and they are preparing to make their move. Clint has Carmichael (or whatever the hell not-Coulson’s actual name is) standing by and ready to evacuate them if anything goes wrong; either way this is going to be their last day in Ushuaia.

Nat doesn’t sleep; she stays up most of the day. Long past the time he’s finished fitting his arrows with the tips he’ll need for this mission, she is checking and rechecking her weapons with a thoroughness that leads Clint to wonder if she’s worried.

“I don’t like the idea of you going in blind,” he says because it’s the only thing he can say. “We don’t have surveillance on that entrance.”

She turns to him, almost offers him a smile. “Just keep your eyes on the cameras we have and your ear piece in. You’ll know when I need you.”

“What’s your plan?” he asks, because maybe if he knows his stomach will feel less like lead.

There’s a hum of electricity as she charges some of her stun weapons. “Shock and awe.”

Maybe she knows him well enough now to see the worry on his face. She leaves her weapons ready for tonight and crawls into bed with him, settling herself into his arms. She doesn’t tell him it’s going to be fine, because there is no way of knowing. This is their line of work. There is always the risk that something will go catastrophically wrong--it’s why he shouldn’t care about her the way he does. But, there’s really no way of changing that.

Her lips almost brush his ear as she whispers, “Don’t worry so much.” She tucks her head under his chin and drifts off to sleep.

After the sun is down, they suit up and move out. Clint sets up in the same burnt house Natasha used for her post, along with her surveillance equipment, ready to move the second she needs him. All he has to do now is wait.

“I’m at the access point,” Natasha’s voice says in his ear. “I’m going in.”

“I’m on the other side,” he tells her.

Silence reigns on the line for several minutes, punctuated occasionally only by a short shout followed by a thud. Clint watches the monitors, the movement underground, the men inside scrambling, caught completely off-guard.

For a moment, it seems too easy; and then the monitors go down.

He snatches up his bow and edges through the darkness to the front of the warehouse. He presses his back to the stone wall. “I’ve lost visual,” he says over the comm.

“Cover me,” she says. “I need five minutes to copy these files.”

“I’ll buy you the time.”

There’s a lone guard on the empty first floor and Clint can get a fix on him from the outside. He nocks an arrow and puts it through the man’s skull, before vaulting through the window. Past the first room, he finds three more smugglers and drops them all. He’s on the stairs, making his way to the bunker beneath the harbor, when he hears Natasha over the comm. But she’s not talking to him at all.

You .”

One word, punctuated by a gunshot.

“Tasha?” No answer. “Shit!” He runs as fast as his legs can carry him.

When he finds her, there are five dead men around her and one live one standing over her. Clint puts an arrow through the man’s heart and rushes to where her body is crumpled on the floor. Clint places a hand over her chest, her uniform damp with blood and he can’t quite tell where it’s coming from. Her chest rises and falls in shallow, irregular starts.

“Carmichael,” he snaps over the radio. “I need a med team to meet us at the west side of the harbor.”

“The harbor? But the evac point isn’t--”

“Did I fucking stutter? Get it there.  Now .” And then he stops talking because he doesn’t trust his own damn voice anymore.

Clint gathers Natasha up into his arms, her head lolling back at an awkward angle. The halls are littered with her kills, reeking of fresh death, and he rushes past them for the exit. She’s bleeding, she’s still bleeding and he can’t carry her and try to stem the flow at the same time. She has to hold on. She has to.

All he can think is  Don’t die, Tasha. Just, please, don’t die.

+

Clint is a patient man--in his line of work it is a necessity. He knows how to sit and watch and find the perfect moment for his shot. He doesn’t know how to do this. He doesn’t know how to watch the second hand tick slowly around the clock, remembering Natasha’s pale lips and her blood on his hands.

His hands shake--the hands that hold his bow even and firm and steady actually shake--as he sits and stares down the clock, hoping any second will be the one where someone comes up to him and tells him  something .

“Clint!”

Not the voice he’s been hoping for. He looks up to see Stark practically tearing through the waiting room with his entire awkward entourage in tow. “What are you guys doing here?” he asked.

“We heard about Lady Natasha’s injuries,” Thor says. While he may, for once, be wearing clothes that make him fit in with the rest of humanity, his speech patterns never will. “And we’ve brought you a hot beverage, as I’m told is customary for those who are keeping vigil. How is she faring?”

“Thanks...” Clint wraps his hands around the styrofoam cup of convenience store coffee. “No one’s telling me a damned thing.” Banner stops wringing his hands for a moment to place a comforting hand on Clint’s shoulder. “The med team said she was stable enough to transport her to New York for recovery but...” He remembers how hard he’d wanted to punch Carmichael in the face when he told Clint they were moving her back to the States. They should have just stayed put at the hospital in Buenos Aires where they’d removed the bullet and stitched her up.

Steve takes up the seat next to him. “I’m sure they wouldn’t have moved her so far if they weren’t sure she would be alright.”

“And on top of that, we’re talking about Black Widow, here,” Tony insists with a dismissing wave of his hand. “She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’.”

“You said yourself they brought her here for recovery,” Pepper points out.

Clint looks down at his hands, expecting to see her blood still staining his fingers. “I know. But the doctors keep giving me the run-around. Everyone I’ve talked to ends up giving me some half-assed excuse for why they can’t tell me anything and walking away.”

“No offense,” Tony says, “But SHIELD isn’t exactly generous when it comes to sharing their information, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d let any doctor near Natasha if they weren’t deeply in SHIELD’s pocket.”

Clint takes a hesitant sip of the caffeinated sludge in the cup and grimaces. Tony isn’t wrong. Clint may not be on the innermost circle of the agency, but he knows when there is something he isn’t being told. Something about this entire situation just isn’t sitting right with him.

Bruce sits down in a chair across from him and tries to find another topic of conversation. The others try to keep Clint’s mind off of blood and secrets for a full four hours, before a doctor finally approaches him. “She’s awake.”

It takes every bit of self-control Clint has not to sprint down the hallway; and it’s a good thing he looks somewhat professional when Director Fury steps out into the hall. He acknowledges Clint with a sharp nod. “Barton.”

“Sir? What are you doing here?”

“Just checking in on Agent Romanoff,” he says which is strange because Fury doesn’t  just  do anything. “She wants to see you.”

And with that, he walks off.

From the doorway, Clint can see her propped up in the bed. She’s awake and alert and watching some birds perched on a ledge outside her window. He doesn’t bother to fight the grin taking over his face as he walks over and sits down on the edge of the bed.

He wants to tell her that she scared him half to death, wants to tell her never to do that to him again, but the first is obvious and the second is a promise she can never make. So, he just takes her hand in his and says, “How are you feeling?”

“Just fine,” she says, offering him a weak smile.

“Really?” He takes in the bandages he can see peeking out from beneath the hospital gown, the IV in her arm, the plastic tubing feeding her oxygen, and the steady pattern of beeps emitting from her heart monitor. He laughs, because he’ll cry if he doesn’t. “Because you look like hell.”

“I was shot in the chest; what’s your excuse?” she says, studying him intently. “When was the last time you slept?”

Clint lets out a long sigh. He brushes a lock of coppery hair back from her face with his free hand. “I don’t know. I think I caught a nap yesterday after you were settled in here.”

She grasps his hand, squeezes tight. “Clint...” her voice seems strange, oddly tight almost like she wants to cry, but Natasha doesn’t cry, so that certainly can’t be it. “You can’t do that. You can’t just wait up worrying for me.”

“What about you?” he asked. “If it was switched. If it was me lying in that hospital bed, would you have slept?”

Her grip tightens on his hand. “I... I don’t think I would. I don’t sleep well when you’re not around.”

“Oh yeah?” Clint slides off his boots and lays down along the edge of the bed. He slips one arm around Natasha’s shoulders and the other low around her waist, careful to avoid touching her injuries or jostling her too much. The last thing he wants is to cause her any more pain. “Why’s that?” he asks, giving her a grin.

“It’s ... comforting.” There’s a faint smile on her lips as she tucks her head against his chest, one hand splayed over his heart. “Knowing that I have someone watching my back.”

God, he just wants to stay like this forever. “I always will.” He leans down, drops a kiss against the top of her head. She smells like cinnamon.

Natasha pulls back, just enough to tilt her face toward his, and closes the gap between them. Her lips are soft and warm and unwavering and suddenly he’s sure he could die a happy man. Clint threads his fingers through her hair, arms instinctively pulling her close. He wants to lean in, wants to touch her everywhere--God he wants to devour her right now. But that's not what she needs. So instead he holds back, follows her lead and returns the kiss in kind. Later, he thinks with the small part of his brain that isn’t completely consumed by the fact that he’s  kissing Natasha Fucking Romanoff . Later, when she is better, he is going to do this properly.

When she finally breaks for air, she’s breathless. “Thank you.”

“For what? For kissing you? Because, believe me, darlin’-- that was no problem.”

She lets out a shaky breath, and instead of a flush on her skin, instead of the shy smile or the laugh he had been expecting, she looks strangely pale. And worried.

“For everything,” she says quietly, looking at him the way he’d always wanted her to-- the way he wished she might, someday, in a hidden corner of his mind, in the place that was still stupid enough to hope for impossible things-- like he was the only man on earth. It damn near knocks the breath right out of him.

But the look shifts before he can say anything and the worry comes back, along with something else. If he didn’t know better he’d say fear, but this is the Black Widow and everyone knows the Black Widow doesn’t get scared. Clint’s brow furrows. “Tasha, you don’t have to thank--”

“I just wanted--” The words are coming slower now, her eyes are half-lidded and distant, but she keeps them locked on his. Her hand drifts up, pressing gently against his cheek. “I wanted you to know, how much--”

“You’ve got plenty of time to tell me how grateful you are when we’re home!” he blurts out, louder than he intends because something is wrong. Something is seriously, irreparably wrong.

The moments between the blips on her heart monitor are lasting longer and longer. “Tasha?”

“It’s okay,” she whispers, eyes fluttering shut, hand falling away.

Clint’s heart rate spikes as hers flatlines. “Tasha! Natasha? Natasha, say something. Please!!” But she doesn’t respond, her entire body goes limp in his arms, everything about her silent and still. “No. No, no, no, no.” He chants it like a mantra, like if he says it enough it won’t be true. He shouts her name, praying to a God he isn’t sure exists  please--

Please don’t take her, not now. Not like this. 


Somewhere, nearby, there’s an alarm. A flood of doctors rush into the room, pulling him away from her, ripping her from his arms. He stands, watching the scene before him but not seeing -- not processing any of it. His body feels distant, like he isn’t a part of it; it’s just some  thing  with a racing heart and held breath and hot tears rolling down his cheeks, standing dumbly against the wall, unable to do anything.

The concept of time escapes him completely. He has no idea how long he stands there, listening to the chaos before it just stops.

“I’m so sorry. We did everything we could...” a faceless set of scrubs tells him and it all fades to silence.

Complete and utter silence. She is gone.

-To Be Continued-

Chapter Text

“Tempt not a desperate man.” - ‘Romeo and Juliet’ V. iii.

Clint’s first truly rational thought doesn’t come for a week. He isn’t exactly sure how he came to be sitting on a stool in the kitchen with a bowl of cereal in his hands that he’s not so much eating as poking. The past few days have passed in some sort of strange fog of distant voices and too-bright lights, sleepless nights and waking dreams of blood on his hands and her body in his arms. Somehow, as he watches the milk sloshing around, it occurs to him.

“She never had a funeral.”

Rogers looks up from where he’s scrambling eggs over on the stove.

“We didn’t--” he stops to take a breath. “She never had a funeral.” He sets his bowl down on the counter and scrubs a hand over his face. Nothing in Natasha’s life had remotely resembled normal, not that his did either. But she deserved this--she deserved something, he thinks. “We should do that,” he finally says.

“We should.” Rogers nods, looks at him with some mixture of pity and hope and a bunch of other all-American crap. “I think that’s a great idea, to have a real chance to say goodbye.”

Clint nods. “Right. Right. I’ll go talk to Fury about the arrangements.”

As he gets up from his seat, Rogers puts out a hand to stop him. “Finish your breakfast.”

“Are you serious?”

“You need to keep up your strength.”

“You’re not my mother.”

“I’m not letting you leave this kitchen until you’ve finished the entire bowl.”

He’s in no mood to tussle with Wonder Boy, knows he couldn’t take him in hand to hand. Hell, Rogers could probably just dangle him by the back of his own shirt if he wanted to. So, Clint shovels down the bland, soggy cereal and presents the empty bowl with a scowl on his face. Rogers looks stupidly pleased.

Clint retreats to his room and grabs the first remotely clean pair of jeans and a t-shirt he can find and then he’s gone--eager to get out of the tower where everyone’s watching him like he’s going to break into a million pieces at any given moment. Waiting for it, actually. He’s not ready to give them the satisfaction just yet.

Turns out, the base isn’t much better. He hasn’t set foot on S.H.I.E.L.D. property since... well, since. No one has said anything to him about it, and he more or less expected it, but when he comes back, they just stare. Too many people, some he doesn’t even know their names, come up to him and tell him how sorry they are and how they heard and is he okay? And he says thanks and yeah and fine because none of them really want to know the truth.

He sits outside the Director’s office for almost an hour before Fury calls him in.

“Barton,” he says, “it’s good to see you.” He sounds about as sincere as Clint’s ever heard him. “The loss of Agent Romanoff was a great shock for all of us, and I know you two were close. I’m sorry.”

Clint has been expecting platitudes, but he doesn’t quite expect the burning tightness in his chest when he hears them. Agent Romanoff, like she was a figure and not a person, an asset lost as opposed to a life. “Thank you, sir,” he manages, even though his throat is dry and tight and words are just too hard.

“She knew the risks of her job,” Fury continues in some kind of patronizing voice that Clint suspects is meant to be comforting but completely misses the mark. “As do you. No matter how good you are, whenever you go out into the field there’s always a chance you’re aren’t coming back.”

He knows that, always has--just always assumed that he was going to go long before she would. Ever since he couldn’t bring himself to kill her, some naive part of him has felt like nothing could. “Sir--” he cuts him off, “I want to discuss arrangements for services. For her.”

“Of course,” Fury says. “I was planning on holding a memorial service--”

No,” Clint says. It’s a simple enough word that he finally finds conviction in his voice and it gives Fury pause. “I want to make the arrangements. I want to request you release her body so that I can give her a proper burial.”

The Director’s eye narrows in a way that tells Clint he’s crossed a line. “I’m afraid I can’t authorize that.”

“Why not?”

Fury stands, circles his desk. “Agent Romanoff’s body is currently with our science division.”

At first, Clint honest-to-god thinks he heard wrong. “Excuse me?”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that Natasha was an extraordinary agent; her skills were beyond compare. But, she wasn’t born with those skills, Barton. They were a result of experimentation by an enemy force.”

His mind reels. “So,” he says slowly, “you’re just going to ... keep experimenting on her?”

“We need to understand how her body worked. Her reflexes, her capacity for healing, everything about her is unparalleled--”

Clint’s hands shake, the sound of Fury’s voice is drowned out by a howling din of rage. Natasha’s past had been hell--she had been used in every possible way, stripped of all humanity by people around her who wanted to turn her into a machine. They had taken everything from her, and now Fury was digging around in the remains for parts. Something inside him snaps, and before Clint can even consider the ramifications his fist lashes out, slamming hard into Fury’s jaw.

+

“You did what?” Stark balks.

“I punched Fury in the face,” Clint repeats, just as deadpan as the first time.

Tony lets the thought settle for a moment before he gives an approving nod. “You are my new hero.”

“Why?” Rogers asks, eyes wide, addressing the question to Clint and not to Stark.

“Because the son of a bitch wouldn’t let her have a funeral.”

Rogers looks at him carefully. “I’m surprised he let you walk out of there.”

“Believe me, he doesn’t want me anywhere near S.H.I.E.L.D. property,” Clint says. “I’m suspended until I can, in his words, ‘get my fucking head on straight’.”

“I suspect what he meant was ‘until you can curb the urge to tear the place apart with your bare hands’,” Tony says.

Clint gives him a grim smile.

“It’s probably not a bad idea to take some bereavement leave,” Banner says. “No one would blame you for wanting some time.”

“I don’t want fucking time.”

Time was the last goddamn thing he needed. He had a whole life full of it, just waiting to go on, stretch out over endless years of watching and waiting ... without her. An idea takes hold, and he springs up out of his chair.

He walks over to the other side of the room, to Stark’s bar, and begins tearing through the cabinets, tossing out whatever’s in the way until he finds six glass tumblers

“Uh, Barton...”

Clint ignores Banner, ignores all of them. Right now he’s on a mission. He attacks the rows of bottles on the shelves, sweeping one after another out of the way, searching. Glass breaks and a bottle smashes in the distance but he doesn’t really hear it.

“What the hell, Clint?” Tony asks.

“We need a toast,” he declares loudly. “No fucking funeral? She at least deserves a drink. We can do that much.”

The rest of the room is deadly quiet; they just watch. Clint goes through bottle after bottle, tossing each one aside because it’s not the one he’s looking for. He loses his temper and takes out an entire row, glass smashing against the tile floor and he just grips the edge of the bar, trying to find enough air to fill his lungs. Out of the edge of his vision he sees a small hand come up and reach out to cover his own.

“It’s this one,” Pepper says quietly, handing him an intricately crafted clear bottle with Cyrillic lettering. “Her favorite.”

Clint nods and takes it from her. “Thanks.”

He lines up the glasses on the bar and fills them, then looks around the round, silently daring anyone to object. “Well?”

The others approach slowly, each taking a glass in hand.

Clint takes his glass, staring at the clear liquid inside it. “To Natasha,” he says, and the smile on his face is brittle one, stretched too tightly.

“To Natasha,” the others echo.

Clint downs his drink in one hard swallow. If the others notice him pouring himself a second shot, no one says anything. He looks around, less in an invitation, more in a command.

Tony clears his throat. “The first time I met Natasha,” he says and the fact that his eyes are wet is probably just a trick of the light, “She nearly knocked out my driver with her thighs alone. It was the single scariest and sexiest thing I have ever seen in my life. And then I found out just how deadly she could be, being Black Widow and all that. She was something else; there’s never going to be another one like her.”

“Hear, hear!” Clint says and downs the second shot.

A faint smile plays on Bruce’s face. “She was something else. I think she was the first person to look me in the eye--knowing exactly who I was, what could happen--and not back away. She might have been scared to death of the Other Guy, but she didn’t back down. If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if I ever would have come out of hiding.”

“To Natasha--helluva brave woman,” Clint echoes, filling up the glasses around him but only really concentrating on his own. They rest stay quiet, just watching him.

“She was ... as fierce a warrior as I have ever known,” Thor says slowly, face noble and sad but also looking at Clint with something like wariness. “As great as any soldier of Asgard.”

“Yep,” Clint agrees too quickly. “That’s true. Kicked my ass more times than I could count.” He takes another shot.

Steve waits until things get quiet again. “She was one of the good guys. Despite her past, despite her training, Natasha had a clear sense of her own morality and she followed her heart. It was an honor to fight beside her.”

“To the good guys!” Clint shouts, and all he can see is Fury’s face and a army of white coats surrounding a cold metal lab table. He grips his glass so hard it nearly shatters and downs the rest of his drink before the thought has a chance to take hold. He pours another, bottle still in hand.

The rest of the room is dead quiet now--all eyes are fixed on him. He takes a swig from the bottle itself before beginning. “To Natasha,” he says, a little too loudly and way too brightly.

“To Natasha, the best mark I never killed--” he stops and shakes his head. Not even he can handle humor right now.

“To the best partner and goddamned friend I ever--” another pause; tries again.

“To the woman I--” he gasps for air and there is none. The smile breaks and so does he. He sets down his glass.

“It’s a waste,” he says, his voice no more than a whisper now. “Such a fucking waste. The way she died--”

“Don’t say that, Clint,” Steve says, “She died a hero, in the line of fire. For duty--”

“No!” Clint smashes the bottle of her beloved vodka into the floor and watches the liquid spread like a clear bloodstain across the tile. “She didn’t die in the line of duty,” he spits. “The bullet didn’t kill her. She was shot in the chest during a mission and she lived. She died because of a fucking compilation. A fucking blood clot! That is what killed her!”

“Clint,” Pepper starts, her hand reaching out to him but he wrenches away.

“No! I told them we shouldn’t have left Argentina! They shouldn’t have moved her!”

“We don’t know if that would have changed anything,” Bruce says. Clint’s amazed he can hear him over the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. “Sometimes these things just... happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

“It shouldn’t have happened!” Clint storms from the room, and no one is stupid enough to follow him.

The elevator doors open into darkness--his room empty and still. He manages to kick off one boot before the other is just too fucking difficult and he gives up, stumbling across the room before collapsing into the bed. He rolls onto his side, a familiar scent striking something deep and solid and burned into his memory. Cinnamon.

“Tasha...”

The word escapes like a curse, like a prayer. He clutches her pillow to his chest and waits for the world to fade.

+

Three months later

It’s late afternoon when Stark barges into Clint’s room like he owns the place. Well, he does but that’s beside the point.

“Sensors in my lab are indicating critical levels of soul-crushing depression. It could bring down the entire building.”

“Fuck off.”

Stark stands with his arms folded staring at the scene around him. Clint, leaning against the window with a guitar in his hand sitting among a veritable treasure trove of empty bottles, food wrappers, and unwashed clothes. “Really?” he says. “Could you be any more of a country song if you tried?”

Clint doesn’t answer, just resumes strumming where he left off at Stark’s intrusion.

“Okay, you’re going to have to stop that.” Tony wraps his hand around the neck of the guitar, stifling the sound. “Thor and his godlike hearing keeps asking me where the dying kittens are. It’s making him very distressed.”

“Go away,” Clint grits out, resisting the urge to do to Stark what he’s doing to the guitar. The only thing stopping him, more or less, is the fact that he’s pretty sure his feet won’t be able to hold him up.

“Tried that,” Tony says. It doesn’t take much effort to pry the guitar from Clint’s hands. “And this is what we ended up with. You can’t keep doing this, or at least you can’t keep drinking like this.”

Clint laughs like a fucking hyena. “‘t’s funny coming from an alcoholic.”

Tony pulls the guitar away, tucks an arm under Clint’s shoulders and hauls him to his feet. “Correction. I’m a functioning alcoholic. You might not be latter quite yet, but you definitely haven’t managed the former.” Stark suddenly pulls his arms away and Clint sways for a moment before he tumbles back to the floor, his head smacking against the window on the way down.

“That hurt, jackass!” Clint hisses.

Stark gives him a look that seems to say I’ve proved my point.

“God damn!” Clint rubs the back of his head and it’s just too fucking much for him right now. The pain in his head is throbbing and his chest hurts and he’s too drunk to deal with any of this. Clint leans his elbows on his knees and leans his head against his forearms.

“Look,” Tony says, “I didn’t know Natasha well. To be honest, she scared the crap out of me, and I didn’t want to risk getting my limbs torn off asking too many questions. But I’m pretty sure she’d want to kick your ass if she saw you like this.”

Clint doesn’t want to look up, half because the light is just way too much for him right now but also because the last thing he wants is for anyone to see him like this. The worst part is that Stark’s right. He pictures Natasha standing over him, her face twisting with disappointment; the image makes his gut churn. “Probably drunk enough that she could.”

“Hell, she could kick your ass sober, but right now she could do it with her pinky,” Tony says, leaning against the window. “At this point I don’t even want to know what your blood alcohol content is, mostly because there’s a slight chance you’ve broken my record.”

“Thanks for the concern.” It’s hard for Clint to sound sarcastic with his voice choked up, but he finally looks up to see Stark looking at him with what passes for sympathy in his world.

“I think I knew Natasha well enough to know that if it were reversed, if she was the survivor, she would single-handedly achieve world peace by taking out every evil dictator in existence,” Stark says. “Grief is a powerful motivator. Hell, it’s a cliche. Just look at every Christopher Nolan film. I’m not telling you to stop mourning her, just... do something more productive than being the poster child for every bad country song.”

Stark pushes away from the wall, gathers up the few bottles that still have some whiskey inside them. “Just so you know, I’m locking up the liquor cabinet and JARVIS knows not to let you in. Have fun sobering up.”

Stark flashes a smile and leaves with a sense of smug satisfaction because he’s right. It takes Clint almost an hour to finally haul himself to his feet and stumble down to the kitchen and make himself some coffee. Turns out, there’s a cup that’s been waiting for him on the counter so long it’s gone cold. He knows it’s for him because it has damn Tweety Bird on the mug. “Hilarious,” he mutters as he makes his way over to the microwave.

The coffee doesn’t make him any more sober, but it warms him up a bit--he hasn’t even realized how cold he was, that while he was making new calluses on his fingertips with his guitar strings, his nail beds had gone blue from cold. Bruce swings by the kitchen and makes small talk for a while as Clint fixes himself a second cup. For a few minutes, he almost feels okay.

When the room is no longer spinning, Clint makes a firm decision that he’s going to clean his room. It feels like a juvenile resolution but it’s something he can put his focus on, something to keep himself busy. But when he steps into the elevator, for some reason he can’t bring himself to push the button for his floor. Instead, he presses the button for Natasha’s.

The doors slide open and he steps out into the hall. He follows the familiar path to her bedroom and flicks the lights on. Everything is pristine, untouched, undisturbed, exactly the way Natasha left it. Except, somehow it feels like she was never here at all.

Over on her dresser, there is a line of various bottles of unscented lotion, so she would never compromise herself by triggering someone else’s sense memory. Her bed is immaculately made with plain white sheets—she rarely slept there anyways. He’s beginning to wonder if there really is anything here that ties her to this place.

Of course, that was the point. He’d often teased her that any space she occupied always managed to feel like a really nice hotel suite--and about as impersonal.

“No letters, no pictures, no stupid magnets on the fridge,” he snarked once as he walked around the spacious flat she kept in Veracruz. “I mean, how do you even know that you live here, Romanoff? Aren’t you afraid you might walk into the wrong place?”

She had just rolled her eyes. “I cover my tracks Barton. Rule number one--never expose a weakness.”

“I’m just saying that keeping something personal--something you care about--wouldn’t be completely out of line.”

“Maybe,” she shrugged. “But it wouldn’t be smart. We can’t afford to be sentimental,” she said, not quite meeting his eyes. “Sentiment gets you killed.”

“Or sometimes, Nat, it’s just dumb fucking luck,” he mutters to no one, focusing on the contents of her bookshelf.

It’s not much, but they’re her books, the ones she chose, the ones she read. Clint sits on his haunches as he studies the volumes in front of him. Most of them are old leather-bound editions in a foreign language—to Clint, it just looks like a recurring lit class nightmare. He reaches for the only one he recognizes, a collection of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and notices for the first time that there is something behind the row of books--a small, hand-carved wooden box. It’s plain and very simple, not really at all her taste, but the unvarnished wood has been worn smooth over time, and he can tell it’s been well-used.

Intrigued, he sits cross-legged on the floor in front of the bookcase and slides the box out. Inside is a strange collection--papers, ticket stubs, napkins, matchbooks, and other seemingly-random things. He takes out each one, examines it, and tries to make the connection. It’s not until he finds a small, strangely shaped rock with flecks of mica that he finally recognizes something. It was his--he found it on a solo mission in Sudan, bored out of his mind staring into the middle of the Bayuda Desert for 6 straight days. The sunlight had caught the stone and the glimmer caught his eye. He kept it and gave it to Natasha the next time he’d seen her.

He examines the items again, this time more carefully, and the pieces start to come together. The receipt from the restaurant they went to the week before Argentina. The first movie he took her to after she moved to New York. The matchbook from the hotel in Budapest. A grocery list she’d made when he’d taught her how to cook real, honest-to-god barbequed brisket. The ticket stubs from some ridiculous modern art exhibit she’d made him go to and ones from the Neil Young concert he’d dragged her to last year. The cleaning instructions for the Beretta PX4 Storm 9mm he’d given her for her birthday.

There were dozens like this, one after another. Everything they’d ever done together, everything he’d bought her or she’d bought him. Every scrap of a mission they’d gone on together or something he’d brought back for her when they’d been apart. Stupid inside jokes and mundane pieces of paper--memories of him. Of them.

And she’d kept them all. Every goddamn thing.

All at once it feels impossible to breathe. Everything he’d ever wanted her to say, to feel, all the things he’d ever wanted to hear--they’d been right here all along. Hidden, kept safe, and kept close. His heart is broken and mended all at the same time, and he’s not sure he’s got the ability to feel so much all at once. So instead he closes the box and wipes away the tear that’s sliding down his cheek.

“Love you too, Nat,” he says quietly, and he’s swears it feels like she can somehow still hear him. “I love you too.”

He just sits there, not sure how long, until the sun fades behind the shades and leaves the room in a dim orange-red light. Finally, Clint places the box back on the shelf, but one last thing catches his eye. It’s Natasha’s computer, just sitting there on her desk. He wonders if she had any photographs saved on it. S.H.IE.L.D. has never been awash with candid photos of their agents, and he’d bet every dime in his pockets they’ve already destroyed all the ones that haven’t already been locked up somewhere and codeword classified, but he’d give anything just to see her face one more time. It’s a longshot, but he lowers himself into her desk chair and opens the laptop all the same. When he boots it up, the only thing available is the S.H.I.E.L.D. remote login screen.

Of course, he thinks. And he really should go, just close the laptop and leave. But he can’t stop himself. He’s never learned Natasha’s password, but did memorize the movement of her fingers as she typed it in. It’s easy enough to replicate. He doesn’t expect to find much. S.H.I.E.L.D. is damn good at wiping out what it no longer needs anymore, so the fact that her account is still intact is... well, fucking strange.

Stranger still, the activity log shows that the last time someone accessed the files was three days after Natasha died, all downloaded to a drive he can’t access.

Without hesitation, Clint closes the computer, tucks it under his arm, and strides out into the hall. When he reaches Stark’s lab, he’s clearly interrupting something that he and Banner are working on. Tough shit, they’re just going to have to wait. He places the laptop on the computer in front of Stark and fixes him with nothing short of a death-glare, because Stark is the one who told him to do something with his grief, and now he has a mission.

“I need your help.”

“I work better with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’,” Stark gripes, but reaches for the computer anyways.

“Someone downloaded something from Natasha’s files after she died,” Clint says. “Can you find out what they took?”

“Sure, I can look for some digital fingerprints.”

It takes a hell of a lot longer than crime shows make it look, but Stark finally comes up with an answer. “Looks like they were after the data on something called Red Room... whatever that is.”

Clint’s circles around to look at the screen. Spread across it are various documents and pictures, various files on Natasha’s past, her training, other files on the weapons’ ring they’d busted that could only be the stolen information Nat managed to bring back from Argentina. Clint points to one of the smaller thumbnails on the screen. “Pull that up.”

With a click of the mousepad, a lone face fills the screen. It’s one Clint only saw for a split second, but if he lives to be a hundred he’ll never forget it. “He worked for Red Room?”

“Looks like it,” Stark says. “You know him?”

“Yeah.” Clint swallows hard, a slow rage starting to burn through in his veins. “That’s the man who killed Natasha.”

--To Be Continued--

Chapter Text

To make confession and to be absolved. - ‘Romeo and Juliet’ III. v.

 

Just after three in the morning, Tony kicks Clint out of the lab.

“Make me,” Clint snaps, despite the fact that it’s taking most of his focus just to keep his eyes open.

Tony all but pushes him out the door. “You’re hovering, you’re not helping, you’re stressing Bruce out, and you honestly reek. Out.” He threatens to drag Steve out of bed and have the super soldier remove him personally before Clint voluntarily removes himself.

It isn’t until Clint’s in the shower, warm water washing over his back, that he can actually admit to himself that he really doesn’t have any energy left. He slides down the tiled wall until he’s sitting underneath the spray. His head throbs and he’s sick to his stomach and he can’t tell if it’s the lack of alcohol or because he now knows the that people who’d spent Natasha’s life destroying her finally succeeded. It’s probably both.

Clint hauls himself back to his feet, washes quickly, and puts on a fresh pair of clothes. Stark’s lab is locked so he wanders over to Tony’s bar thinking a little hair of the dog might take care of his headache, but as promised JARVIS has him locked out and when Clint attempts to override the system, a pre-recorded message with Stark’s smug face pops up on the screen.

Cursing under his breath, Clint collapses on a couch and sleep hits him hard.

He’s awoken several hours later with daylight pouring in and Stark standing over him. “Merry Christmas,” he says, dropping his tablet onto Clint’s stomach. “That’s everything I could pull from S.H.I.E.L.D. and then some. The next time I have to look at that much Russian it better come with a year’s supply of vodka.”

“Russian?” Clint slings his legs over the edge of the couch, as Banner sits down beside him and Stark stares intently from over Clint’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” Tony says. “The person who was digging around in Natasha’s files was a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent named Yulia Kapustova. Except there is no such person as Yulia Kapustova. The alias was created three years ago, and there’s absolutely zero information on who she is. Everything’s been completely redacted. All I could pull up was information on something called the Red Room, and ... from the look on your face you seem to know exactly what that is.”

Clint scrubs a hand over his face, forces his breathing under control. “It’s the KGB special ops division who ... trained Natasha.” The words feel like bile in his mouth, but he makes himself continue. “They went underground after the fall of Soviet Russia and we thought they’d disbanded when she defected to S.H.I.E.L.D. After their best operative turned, the project was considered to be a failure.”

“Except they didn’t disband,” Stark says, reaching over Clint’s shoulder to pull up a new document, files upon files of Red Room operatives, page after page detailing the atrocities they been continuing over the past decade. “A few years ago, looks like some of the die-hard agents took their operation off-shore. S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to track them, tried to link them to a few missing persons cases, abductions of young girls, but they could never prove it was them.”

“And Natasha,” Clint says, looking back down at the screen, “she’d been keeping track of this?”

Banner nods. “From her files, it looks like she never stopped.”

“Makes sense. She never talked about it much, but when she did...” his voice trails off, it was like she was always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

“And with good reason,” Bruce says. “S.H.I.E.L.D. got it’s proof when...” he pauses for a moment, considers his words carefully. Clint nods for him to go on. “The weapons ring in Argentina proved to be the link they were looking for. Red Room is still in business, and since they can’t get government sanctioned weaponry for their operatives, they’ve turned to black market dealings.”

“And that is when Fury probably gave Kapustova access to Natasha’s files. And then, about six weeks ago,” Stark pulls up another screen, a list of coordinates. “She starts sending these to Fury.”

“For every one of those, we were able to find the existence of a mission report for that location, at that date and time,” Banner says. “Except these last two here. S.H.I.E.L.D. showed up at those locations at that time, but there was nothing.”

“It’s bait,” Clint murmurs. “They fed her false information and she bought it. That’s what those last two are.” Clint says. “It means they know someone is feeding their information to S.H.I.E.L.D. They’re going to be looking for her.”

“They already are,” Stark says. “I found a dubious IP address doing some hacking activity around Tierra del Fuego. No idea what they pulled just yet, but I’m willing to bet it’s Red Room looking for her, and I doubt it’s to invite her over for tea and cake.”

Clint studies the utterly empty personnel file on Yulia Kapustova. He has no idea she is, never heard of her, never seen her face. He doesn’t know a damn thing about her except she’s working to bring down the same people who killed Natasha and for that she already has his gratitude. Now she’s in danger and in need of assistance, and Clint can’t think of anything he’d rather do than get a piece of this action. “Maybe she could use a little help.” He glances from Tony to Bruce and then back again.

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; we don’t even know where this person is,” Banner says. “Even if we assume she’s in Ushuaia, it’s not like we can go knocking on doors asking for an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.”

As if on cue, Pepper Potts strides into the room, heels clicking briskly against the wood floor.

“Oh, good,” Stark says, beaming. “Did you get it?”

“Got it,” she says, holding out a stack of papers to him.

“You know I don’t like being handed things. Hand them to him.” Tony nods to Clint.

Pepper shakes her head, a tolerant smile on her face as she hands them to Clint.

“What’s that?” Banner asks.

“I outsourced,” Stark replies.

“There were pulled from a bank camera in Ushuaia. She does a good job of hiding her face, but our mysterious IP address trying to get ahold of these pictures,” Pepper explains. Clint studies the papers in front of him-- several blurry, enlarged photographs of a blonde woman. Pepper glances back at Tony. “Never refer to me as outsourcing again.”

“Yes, dear.” Stark rolls his eyes but grins.

Clint pushes himself to his feet. “This is a start. I’m catching the next flight down to Argentina, I’m going to find this Agent Kapustova. You guys keep looking and let me know what you find.”

If anyone has the key to taking out Red Room for good, it’s Kapustova, and if she does, he sure as hell isn’t going to miss this show.

It’s time to finish what Nat started.

+

Clint is in his element out here. Perched high in the tree, twilight settling over the forest. In the distance, a helicopter’s blades cut through the night air. Red Room. Witnesses in the town tell him that the choppers have been spotted over the woods for the past week, so he’s moved his search for the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent where Occam’s Razor dictates.

It isn’t long after sunset, when Clint spots something out of the ordinary. He sees a dark figure moving along the forest floor. By the length of hair, he guesses female and the coloring is too dark to be Kapustova; by the outfit and the way she moves, he knows she isn’t a villager. He tracks her for almost an hour as she cases the woods before doubling back on herself. The woman is looking for something, and Clint really wants to know what that is.

He slides down to a lower branch, only ten feet off the ground now, trying to get a better look at the woman. In an instant, she vanishes into the cover of the trees. Damn. He scans the woods below for any rustle of movement to give her away, but there is none. He only narrowly misses the dark figure leaping out at him. He’s forced to make a retreat to a branch even further down.

The high ground would be ideal, but at this point he doesn’t want to risk being seen from above. He draws an arrow from his quiver and quickly has to adjust his position again. The attacker is too close to make a good shot, he withdraws again, but every move he makes the figure is fast on his heels.

Clint is on the ground way before he feels comfortable. He turns quickly back, taking aim at the figure, now perched exactly where he was moments before. In the moonlight, he can see her face--dark eyes, narrow features, danger etched in every muscle in her body--but god, she is young. There is no chance that she’s much over seventeen.

He switches out his arrow for one with a chamber of knockout gas embedded within it. He knocks it and lets it fly and the arrow embeds itself in the branch at her feet. Before the gas releases, the woman is on the move again. She lunges for him, jumping down with absurd strength and grace. He’s only seen one other person move like this before. He has no choice to to switch to hand-to-hand, and he’s got a suspicion he just might know her next move.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says, putting his hands up to guard himself. But she either doesn’t understand English or she doesn’t particularly care. Her moves are good. Technically great, even. She’s been trained in the same fighting styles as Natasha, but she lacks the years of practice and experience to hone those skills. This girl moves like a textbook, which means that Clint is able to take her out with one unexpected sweep of the leg.

He has her pinned to the ground, the girl snarling and thrashing, and him about to try to make the ‘I’m the good guy’ speech when impossibly he hears a voice call his name.

“Clint!”

It can’t be. It just can’t.

Everything seems to happen in slow motion. Clint rises to his feet, turns, and there’s a woman standing not ten feet from him. A blur of blonde rushes towards him and some part of his brain realizes this is Yulia Kapustova, but it isn’t because it’s Natasha. Then she’s kissing him, her hands clasping his face. Her lips are warm and her skin is soft and her hair smells like...

Like cinnamon.

Natasha.

His body snaps into action, hands closing over her forearms, pulling her body flush against his. He tilts his head just so and his mouth fuses to hers. His senses are on fire, relief flooding his body like a dying man finding an oasis in the desert. She threads fingers through his hair, anchoring him to her, kissing him until she steals his very breath away, until he’s seeing stars.

Reality strikes like a lightning bolt. Clint wrenches away, his body suddenly gone rigid as he stares at the image in front of him.

Natasha Romanoff. Flushed and breathless and beautiful and alive.

Alive.

Natasha is alive.

From behind him, in heavily accented English, the teenage girl huffs, “What the hell is going on here?”

+

”Agent Romanoff.”

Natasha cracks open her eyes at the sound of Director Fury’s voice. The light in the hospital room is near-blinding and the ache in her chest radiates through her body, but she has declined all pain medication so far. The drugs will cloud her mind, and what she needs right now is focus.

“I got your message,” he says.

“Did you bring it?”

Fury draws a capped syringe filled with clear liquid from his pocket and holds it up to show her before putting it away again. “Are you absolutely sure that you’ve found them?”

“Positive.” She’s laying there with a hole in her chest, put there by one of the men who’d tried so long ago to make her a wind-up toy, a weapon, a plaything. “The facility hidden in the mountains is the Red Room training facility, all the contacts for the ring in Ushuaia are ex-KGB. The files I pulled showed that not only were they moving weapons to that facility but surgical supplies and strong psychotropic drugs as well. It’s them.”

Fury nods grimly. S.H.I.E.L.D. has known for years that the Red Room program never fully disbanded. The most radical of the leaders fled Russia for parts unknown, until now, continuing to ‘train’ young girls--crimes against humanity that can’t even be thinly veiled under the guise of government work anymore. But Red Room has yet to make a move, will not make a move--not as long as she is alive. Black Widow may have been the program’s greatest failure, but she is also their greatest success. They will not put their program into full operation so long as they believe she is alive and able to take them out.

“Everything is in place,” Fury tells her, taking the syringe out again. “You’re going to wake up in a safe-house just outside of the city with three other SHIELD agents. They’ve been told you’re an asset in the Red Room project and your alias is Yulia Kapustova. Once you’re back on your feet we’ll see about getting you back to Tierra del Fuego.”

“How long does it take?” she asks, watching out of the corner of her eye as Fury injects the solution into her IV line.

“With your metabolism? Maybe ten, fifteen minutes tops.”

Natasha nods firmly. This is her mission. She’s been waiting for this chance, been hoping for it. They can’t keep doing to others what they did to her, and she’s the best choice, the obvious choice, to end it. It’s a wish come true--a dark wish, covered in blood. And despite the relief, despite the determination and everything else, there is a dark pit sitting in her stomach. “Is Clint here?”

Fury is about to lie, she can see it on his face.

“I want to see him,” she says.

“I don’t think that’s the best idea.”

Natasha looks over at her IV line, then back to Fury. “There’s no going back now.”

Grudgingly, Fury calls for a doctor to bring in Clint. The Director leaves just moment before Clint appears in the doorway. He grins like an idiot, practically floating towards her before sitting down on the edge of her bed, hand clasping hers as he asks her how she’s feeling.

He looks so damn happy, and her heart aches a little bit. In a few minutes, he’s going to be shattered. She presses a smile onto her face and tells him she’s fine because what else can she say?

“Really?” His voice is thick, choked with more emotion than she’s seen from him. And he laughs beautifully despite the tears shining in his eyes. “Because you look like hell.”

He looks worse. Despite the brightness in his smile, his eyes are bloodshot and rimmed with dark circles. He clearly hasn’t been sleeping, possibly for days, possibly since she got shot. If just the waiting to know if she is all right has worn him this much, then what happens next will destroy him.

She can’t tell him what is going to happen. She can’t tell him that in a few hours time she will rise. She can’t compromise the mission. So she does the only thing she can do for him and tells him he can’t worry like this. But he’s Clint, so of course he protests.

“What about you? If it was switched. If it was me lying in that hospital bed, would you have slept?”

In the face of the greatest lie she’s ever told, all she can do is giving him some truth. He deserves that much. “I... I don’t think I would. I don’t sleep well when you’re not around.”

“Oh yeah?” He grins and he’s beautiful. “Why’s that?”

“It’s ... comforting,” she says, leaning her head on his chest, “knowing that I have someone watching my back.”

“I always will.”

She can’t bear the sound of promises, not now. She doesn’t want to hear him talk about a future because there very well might not be one. She burns the contours of his face into her memory, just in case. In case this is the last time, in case she doesn’t come back. And, so he can’t say anything else that might break her damn heart, she presses her lips to his and hopes that maybe someday he’ll be able to forgive her.

+

Clint sits with his hands clasped in front of him, paralyzed and afraid to move; because if he got near her he isn’t sure if he would hold her or hit her.

Natasha sits across from him in the cave she and the other girl have taken shelter in. Her hands are folded in her lap, a perfect study in calm patience; everything about her the complete opposite of him. “I had to it, Clint,” she says, her voice steady and even. “The Red Room needs to be destroyed.”

Clint nods slowly; it’s the only piece of this that makes sense. The mission is the only thing his mind can handle right now. “That’s why I’m here. Stark discovered what Agent Kapustova was working on. I came down here to offer the help of the Avengers.”

“It’s too big a risk,” Natasha says. “The facility has a self-destruct protocol in the face of brute force. There are still fifteen girls inside and they are not afraid to kill them.”

“Well, you need to make a choice!” Clint says, pushing himself to his feet. “They’ve got you on the run, hiding in the woods with a teenager for a body guard!” He gestures towards the dark haired girl--Faina, Natasha’s explained, a Red Room operative sent after Kapustova; she killed her own handler and has been hiding with Natasha ever since--sitting with her back against the cave wall meters away and watching the exchange with an unsettling, blank expression. “You don’t have to do everything on your own, Natasha. No, you can’t do everything on your own. I’m your partner, you’re supposed to count on me to be there for you and watch your back and keep your secrets--”

He quickly cuts himself off, Natasha watching him with wary, almost sad eyes. He’s tiptoeing too close to a line that they just don’t have time to deal with right now. He steels himself with a sharp breath.

Without moving, Faina calls out to Natasha, rattling off something in Russian. The two talk back and forth for a moment, and Natasha turns back to Clint. “There’s a way to disable the self-destruct. An alternate entrance. If the Avengers can provide a distraction, we can go in and eliminate the system.”

“I’ll call it in,” he says, turning his back to her.

As he starts to walk away--trying to find space--find anything that will clear his head, he hears Natasha rising to her feet. “Clint...”

He pauses but doesn’t look back. “Yeah?”

“I’m sorry.” She says it simply and honestly and those aren’t words Natasha ever says, and it catches him off guard.

Clint nods. “I know.”

They barely speak for the next twenty-four hours and when they do it’s only to make plans and confirm the location of the rest of the Avengers as they make their way towards the facility hidden in the mountains. Natasha spends the day cleaning her weapons, Clint gathers his arrows from the fight with Faina, who spends the day sparring with an invisible partner towards the back of the cave.

When the sun sets, and Stark confirms that they’re twenty minutes out, Faina leads them to the entrance hidden in the side of the mountains. She shows them the censors and cameras that need to be avoided, with Natasha translating for her. Clint nods in response, but doesn’t say anything because he knows if he starts to talk, he’s never going to stop. There’s too much to be said and there’s no time for it now.

Entry goes smooth enough, but things get complicated when Stark’s definition of twenty minutes is actually more like ten, and the Avenger’s quinjet sets off some sensors and suddenly the control room is flooded with Red Room’s security force. At the sight of the guards, Faina takes off like a bullet, leaping like a cat up and out of sight, leaving him and Natasha abandoned and he hopes like hell this hasn’t been a set up.

“Good to have back up?” he drawls, quickly dispatching two of the attackers with one draw. If he sounds a bit bitter, maybe it’s because he is. He’s also too distracted with another set of guards to really focus on his tone of voice. She fires off four bullets, each one followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground.

With the first wave dispatched, Natasha turns, opening her mouth to say--

Well, he never finds out. An alarm blares overhead and a computerized voice announces something in Russian, that Clint’s pretty damn sure means the self-destruct has been remotely triggered.

“Cover me,” Natasha says, her voice ticking higher at the end and it almost, almost sounds like a question.

She doesn’t wait for an answer, just heads for the computer and sets to work disabling the sequence. He gives her one anyway. “Always do.”

Clint takes up position readying himself for a second wave when a Hulk-sized shockwave rattles the ground. “Sounds like the cavalry’s arrived,” he says. “How’s it going over there?”

Three more guards enter, and he takes them out with a minor explosive.

“Ten more seconds,” she says sharply.

It takes him half a second to see the fourth guard appear at the other entrance, just enough of a delay for him to fire off a shot at Clint. He rolls out of the way, protecting his vitals, but the bullet grazes his left hand and it’s too hard to keep a grip on the bow. He abandons it in favor of the pistol in his ankle holster, and takes aim at the guard as the guard takes aim at Natasha.

Clint fires off six shots. The guard crumples to the ground.

The alarm goes silent.

The next moment, Natasha is beside him. She takes his hand in hers, running her finger tips just beneath the gash crossing his knuckles. She looks up meeting his gaze and never lets go of him. “I think you’ll live.” Her voice is wry and so is her smile and he can’t stop himself from smiling back.

Of course, that’s the moment Rogers and all his star-spangled suitedness appear in the doorway. “Ready to move?” he asks.

“Let’s go,” Natasha confirms.

When the dust finally clears, so to speak, they make their escape. Outside, Faina’s working with Carmichael--because apparently Stark had made a not-so-subtle exit from the States, dragging S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attention along with him--trying to convince the other Red Room operatives to board the helicopter that is waiting for them.

Operatives. Hell, they’re children. Faina appears to be one of the oldest, some of the others around her age listen to her with closed-off stances and suspicious glances. Some of them have even been subdued, unwilling to leave on their own. He remembers when he first met Natasha--Natalia, a few years older than them, but dangerous and reckless and without any hope for a future.

Some of these girls can’t be older than seven or eight; Clint’s heart breaks just a little bit, thinking about a young Natasha, eyes dark with anger, fear, and mistrust. Those girls are young enough still that maybe they can have what Natasha never could--a chance at a normal life.

But there is no such thing as a normal life, and Natasha is standing here beside him, and Clint fleetingly thinks that maybe there are such things as second chances.

+

Natasha leaves Fury’s office hours after she arrives; he’s insisted on dragging every single detail of the last four months in more detail than she believed to be necessary and giving a long-winded monologue about placing her trust in an operative sent to kill her.

It isn’t the first time.

As soon as she’s dismissed, she sets out determinedly towards Clint’s quarters. When she arrives, he’s sitting cross-legged on the bed, sterilizing the freshly-stitched gash in his hand with a bottle of whiskey. Natasha leans against the doorway, unable to just stride into his space like she belongs there. She gave up that privilege long ago.

“Clint?” she says softly.

He looks up at her and for a moment his face is hard and she’s sure he’s going to send her away. She won’t blame him if he does. The silence seems to stretch on forever before he nods, giving his tacit permission for her to enter.

“How is your hand?” she asks as she pads across the metal floor, coming to a stop at the foot of his bed.

Clint flexes his fingers. “Sore as fuck, but I’ve had worse.”

“Good.” She folds her arms across herself, feeling strangely uncomfortable in his presence. Clint’s been a challenge, a surprise, a rock, or he was... before. What he’s never been is a stranger. “Are you okay?”

Clint stares at her, weighing his choices and options and carefully calculating what he’s going to say. “I don’t know, Tasha.”

As small is it is, the nickname is a gift, an olive branch. Maybe there is a chance that she hasn’t ruined their partnership for good. Slowly, she lowers herself down onto the edge of the bed. She wants to lie next to him curl into his arms, but instead she tucks her knees into her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs to keep from being tempted to do anything else.

After a long moment, Clint finally speaks, his voice measured and even. “I wanted to have a funeral for you. I wanted... I wanted you to finally have some peace.”

“I know,” she says. “Fury told me. He also told me you hit him in the face.”

Clint let out a self-deprecating snort. “Yeah, well, he deserved it.”

“It was part of the plan.” Her gaze drops to the floor. “He didn’t want you poking around, finding out that I was still alive. It would have jeopardized the mission.” The words taste disgusting in her mouth--a bitter lie. He deserves so much better than that. She looked back up, her eyes locking onto his. “I wanted to tell you, Clint. So badly.”

“Why didn’t you?” he asks, accusation slipping into his voice.

“I didn’t know if I was going to come back; there was a very good chance I wouldn’t. I didn’t know--” she takes a deep breath, searching for the words “--didn’t think I was ever going to see you again,” Her eyes sting and she isn’t going to cry, she is absolutely not going to cry. She has no right to after the pain she’s inflicted on him. “I thought it would be ... easier for you. You could move on, forget me.”

He looks at her like she’s suddenly grown two extra heads. “Move on?” he echoes. “Are you serious?”

She doesn’t know how to respond, just looks at the floor instead.

“We could have done it together, you know,” he says, and now the anger has faded, replaced with sadness. “I thought we were partners, Tasha. I thought...” his voice trails off but he holds her gaze. “I don’t know what I thought.”

“We are,” says instinctively. It comes out sounding more desperate than she intended. She used to only operate solo, she was trained to operate solo. But this mission has left her worn to the bone, lying in bed alone at night, staring at the ceiling, unable to find rest or sleep or peace. “Or we were. I don’t know. I just know that when I saw you again, I felt like I could breathe for the first time, and I don’t want to lose you and I ... I know it’s stupid and I don’t have any right to say it but I just want-- I just want to ... go home. With you,” she finishes quietly, shocked that she’d actually said the words out loud.

It’s hard to surprise someone as observant as Hawkeye, but the way Clint’s looking at her, she seems to have thrown him something he wasn’t expecting. He opens his mouth to say something, shuts it, then tries again. Eventually he gives up and a slow smile spreads across his face.

“I thought people like us couldn’t have a home,” he says.

The corner of her lip twitches slightly, curving upward. “I think I might have been wrong.”

Clint reaches out, rests his hand on her knee. “Yeah, well I could have told you that,” he drawls and smiles and some knot in her chest finally breaks loose. She slides up the bed, settling against the pillows. Clint slips his arms around her waist and all at once she starts to feel the exhaustion weighing on her body and soul settle in as she relaxes against his body.

Clint is warm and solid and she didn’t know if she would ever be able to lie next to him like this again. Natasha tilts her head up, placing a poorly-aimed kiss against the corner of his mouth before tucking her head under his chin. It has been so long since she’s had a good night’s sleep; she doesn’t mean to doze off in his bed, but her body seems to have other ideas. With her head pillowed against his arm, she drops quickly off to sleep.

She sleeps for twelve straight hours and when she wakes, Clint is asleep with his arms holding her like she is something precious and irreplaceable. His eyes slowly flutter open with a look akin to wonder. “It’s not a dream...”

“No,” she says, barely above a whisper. She wonders how many times he’s dreamt of her only to wake to an empty bed. Her heart aches at the thought. “It’s not.”

Before she knows what’s happening, Clint swoops down over her, his lips sealing hard against hers as he presses her back into the thin mattress. Her fingers curl into the thin cotton of his t-shirt and she pulls his body flush against her own.

They break apart, panting and breathless, and he’s staring down at her with dark, half-lidded eyes. “Just making sure,” he murmurs before lowering his mouth to kiss her again. Her lips, her jaw, her neck. His mouth is hot against her, licking gently at her breasts, and then as suddenly as it started, it stops.

Clint presses a single open-mouthed kiss to the puckered scar where the bullet barely missed her heart. She knows he has a scar there too, hidden and internal and given by her hand, but hopefully his will heal in time, the same as hers.

Then his mouth is on her again, nipping and suckling at her skin. He leaves an almost-possessive trail of dark red marks along her abdomen, before he slides lower still. It is sudden and bright and oh...

Oh.

She swears in Russian, crying out and arching against him before sagging back into the mattress. “Nope,” he says, crawling back up her body and his grinning like the beautiful fool that he is. He brushes a lock of bleached hair back from her face. “Definitely not a dream. You’re never a blonde in my dreams.”

A week later, they are back in New York. Her roots are coming in red again, and she sees Stark grumpily hand a ten dollar bill over to Rogers. If she notices things in her room are not quite the same as how she left them, she decides it’s a subject that needs no discussion. Fury has Clint reinstated, but it’s Natasha who spends most of her time at the New York base.

She’s been told she’s the best one to help these girls, that she’s a model of what they could have someday.

Natasha’s no role model. There are times when Clint holds her too close, like he’s afraid he’ll wake up alone again, and there are nights when he cries her name in his sleep; and even though he says he forgives her, she’s not sure she’s forgiven herself. She curls her arms around him and strokes her fingers through his hair and reminds him that she’s not going anywhere -- she is home.

--End--