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[on what we're trying to do]

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In real life, things take a long time to get better. And sometimes, they just don't.

Natalia isn't sure which one this is. The truth is that if she could go back in time, she'd change their places, switch herself for Clint: she knows what having her mind overwritten does to her, and yes, it's fucking awful and yes, every time it happens or threatens to happen it's several months of stitching herself back together and shoving herself through the hard places through sheer force of will, but she knows how, and eventually there's just her. The "her" that she's made. That she's hammered out of what she wants, because frankly, she can't trust anything she remembers before the day she was sent out on that last mission before -

Before SHIELD. And everything associated.

Everything that makes up her self is safe, because she damn well made it on her own. It would have sucked. It would have been hell. But she'd know where it would all end, and she'd know, the way only someone who's been a certain kind of powerless over and over again knows, someone who's seen others powerless over and over again, that it wasn't her fault. That there are some things no one can fight. With her, it would have been survivable.

With Clint, she's . . . not sure. That feels like disloyalty, tastes of sour milk and rot in her mind, which is another thing she'll happily lay at that fucking would-be-god's door. Clint's not someone she should ever doubt.

Tonight, she finds him on the floor of the Manhattan apartment they're sharing, on SHIELD's dime. Natalia doesn't want to be here, and she doesn't think Clint does either, even if he's never done anything but shrugged. She wants to be four hundred miles from any more than a hundred people, up some mountain somewhere, with a good surveillance system, good weapons, and weeks worth of provisions. Clint would probably at least be with her on the "up a mountain" bit. So if SHIELD and the Council want them here, in easy reach, SHIELD and the Council can pay for it.

She finds him on the floor, his back against the supporting wall and face to the windows, knees bent, and his loaded P30 on the floor beside him. At least, she assumes it's loaded. His arms are propped on his knees and his head is bowed. He looks like he's been there for a while.

Natalia sighs, drops her bag and keys and jacket on the floor - fuck neatness for now, she'll get it later - and goes, sits down beside him. When she moves to pick up the gun, he twitches a hand towards it; she pauses, looks at him and says, "Don't make me fight you for the gun. That would be embarrassing."

His mouth twists, but he doesn't interfere as she picks up the gun and unloads it, gets rid of the round in the chamber, throws the magazine to the other side of the room and the loose bullet in the opposite direction, and then flicks the safety on. "What the fuck were you going to do with that?" she asks, quietly. As if she doesn't know.

Clint stares out the window and when he speaks, it isn't really an answer. "I don't know if I can do this," is what he says, in his flattest and most monotone - and most honest - voice. "I don't know if I'm equi - I don't know if I can handle this. I don't."

Hearing her own doubts out of his mouth sends ice and iron up her spine and makes her want to kill something; failing that, she says, in her own coldest and most definite voice, "Of course you can." When he looks at her - knowing that when she talks like that she's saying the words with everything she is, a prediction of the future more than anything else, she says, "If I have to drag you through this by the hair, I will do so."

She says it in Russian, too, just to drive home the point.

"He's gone," she adds, when Clint looks away. "Clint." She reaches over and makes him look at her, catching his jaw in one hand. "He's gone."

"And what if he isn't?" Clint demands. He jerks his head back; his eyes are guarded and his mouth is twisted. "What then, Tasha?"

Natalia takes a deep breath and doesn't call him any of the things she doesn't really mean, wouldn't want to say except that he's fucking with the foundations of her world and it isn't even him, it's Loki and what he left behind, the fucking bastard. "Then," she says calmly instead, "I will lock Dr Foster in a small room in fucking Azerbaijan until she makes me a new inter-world bridge and then I will start killing people until someone is Asgard tells me how to fucking fix this."

"You have bolt-holes in Azerbaijan?" Clint asks. Natasha glares at him until he looks down.

She says, "Don't try to change the subject."

Clint puts his face in his hands, and for six breaths - his breaths, she counts them, watches skin and bones move with them - he doesn't say anything. Then he sits back up and holds one forearm with the other hand, his own fingers tight enough to dig into his flesh. "Sorry," he says. "I'm sorry. I'm not - today isn't good."

"Barton, if you ever fucking apologize to me again," Natalia says, with feeling, "for something like this, I will kick your ass. And I won't kiss it better afterwards."

Clint makes a noise that might be a laugh or might just be the sound of someone being strangled and trying to breathe. But he manages, "Duly noted, Agent Romanov," before his head falls again.

Natalia waits. Then she reaches over and worms her hand into his free one, arm crossing over one of his and under the other. "Hey," she says. "It'll be fine. You're here. You're safe. It's over. This is just . . . ." she sighs. "The really fucking shitty aftermath."

Clint doesn't say anything, but he does let his fingers interlace with hers, and kisses the back of her hand.