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we thought (wrong)

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"Is there anything you wanted to talk about, today, before we go over exercises?" her counsellor Elle asked, after they'd finished their niceties.

Natasha rubs a hand over her arm, and she knows Elle can read that as a yes, but for a moment she doesn't want to say it, wants to prevaricate. Elle would accept it, and she wouldn't have to talk about it, and Clint's back in San Diego. She won't see him for another couple weeks, at the earliest, but – well. Feeling sick around someone who has your back isn't safe (distractions get you killed), and Natasha is long-used to sacrificing her feelings at the altar of efficiency. "Clint likes me," she says, words out of her mouth as fast as they can now that she's decided to commit to them.

Elle tilts her head, listening, and Natasha stalls for a moment. Earlier, she would've frozen at this manipulation to get her to fill the silence, but she's been working with Elle for three years now and she's safe enough to allow her the limited manipulation.

"I don't... like it," she settles on. "He's being very professional. It's just..."

Elle looks down at her records, to give her space as much as to review, before saying. "Are you worried he'll say something?"

"No? I mean... Clint doesn't really start things. He doesn't like change," she says, thoughtfully, staring down at her arm. "But he thinks them, even if – he doesn't think that I know?"

"But you do know," Elle offers, glancing back up at her, and Natasha nods swiftly. "Clint's one of your closest friends," she says. "It's okay to be worried about his feelings changing."

"But they shouldn't," Natasha says, on the heels of that. "Because –" the idea gets muddled up in words, for a long few moments, and Elle patiently outwaits her confusion. "Well, he's my friend, not - I didn't – it wasn't on purpose."

Elle's expression softens, a bit. "Clint's responsible for his own emotions."

Natasha frowns. "I guess." She breathes. "What did you want to work on today?"

The topic diverts, but it stays unsettled in her mind.

--

"But," Natasha says to herself, practicing. "If I hadn't had sex with him, he wouldn't be interested in me."

She could imagine Elle's response, the careful pause to cover surprise, the tilt of her head at new information. She'd say something like, would he have sex with you if he were uninterested?

"Yes," she says, certain of this, "he just wanted sex."

But she's uncertain of Elle's reply, can't attribute the what did you want? to her, as it's too confrontational, too painful.

Anyway, she still can't figure out how to reply without making the Elle in her head upset with her. That meant she certainly couldn't say it to her face.

--

Five days later, Elle asks her what she wants to talk about, and her brain is blank and stuttering over the wealth of possible answers. The one she chooses is the simplest, the harshest. The easy way out, maybe, but sometimes Natasha is a coward. "I had sex with Clint."

"When?" Elle asks, very smooth for the obvious surprise in her face. Natasha likes that about her.

"Three years ago, mid-March. Right after we finished debriefing about Tokyo." In Sao Paulo Clint had given her a way out to a civilian life, but it was Tokyo where he answered her call for help and against his better judgment gave her a shot at joining SHIELD.

Natasha doesn't think Elle realizes she bites the inside of her lip when something concerns her, but she does. She's quiet for a long few moments, and Natasha is trying to predict her questions, trying to figure out what answer will bring that uncoming flicker of disappointment. "Your relationship since hasn't been sexual?" she asks, to clarify the information she knows.

"No." She pauses, uncertain. "I've thought about it. But—I wouldn't want him to read into it. And now he likes me."

"Did he read into it last time?" Natasha's not expecting that, frowns at Elle. She clarifies, "What did you want him to read?"

"Well," Natasha glances to the side, pulling the pillow in her lap closer to her chest. "He flew to Japan to find me. And he didn't have any reason to help me out. And I felt... you know, like I owed him. Owed him more. But he didn't want me to feel like that, he said so, but I did." She stops, aware of the emotion in her voice, the self-disgust. "So I thought it'd – make me feel better. And, he liked it, so. It did."

Elle's watching her when she looks back up, hesitant and a touch concerned. "And he read that?"

"No," Natasha says, and suddenly she feels nauseous. "He thought—I think he thought," she clarifies, familiar with the not even you are a mindreader speech, "I wanted to have sex just, you know, because I wanted sex. Or – because I wanted sex with him. But I didn't, I did it for me, and now he thinks – he thinks he likes me."

"Is it bad for him to like you?" Elle asks, after a long moment of almost visibly trying to sort out what out of the story she's going to pursue right now. "Even if he doesn't do anything about it?"

"Yeah," Nat says, mulish. "I don't want him to."

They go back to talking about conflict resolution in the workplace, because Elle knows a stopping point when she sees one. That's another reason Nat likes her.

--

"He's Clint and I'm Natasha," Natasha explains to her mental Elle. "But if he likes me, that means he's not looking at me, he thinks I'm – I don't know. In Tokyo, I was Natalie."

Why wouldn't he like Natasha? Her Elle-approximation answers, and Natasha rolls over to scream into her pillow.

--

They work together again before she has another appointment. It's an information retrieval job in Prague, and he's consulting with her team because he's familiar with this company's security (and knows how to counter-sniper, in case said security notices them).

Everything goes smooth, and she crashes in his hotel room the night before their extraction hits, Koskinen's already gone to pack in the room she and Natasha are sharing and the others weren't really invited ("because I'm a jerk," Clint said, and Kos laughed).

Natasha fiddles with the half-empty beer bottle between her fingers, leaned against the wall opposite of Clint, who's sitting against the foot of his bed (and a few feet over). He takes a long drink of his beer, and she thinks you're not a mindreader.

She waits until he's swallowed. "Why do you think I asked you to have sex," she says, hoping that startling him will add an extra layer of honesty to Clint's already bad lying.

He does startle; looks at his beer, and back to her, like he might've been drinking something stronger than he'd thought. "Uh. What did I think then, or now?"

"Both," she decides, and takes a sip of her own drink.

He laughs, a bit, breathless and not completely amused, looking up. "I didn't really know you, and – well, it was kind of touch-and-go if you were going to be killed, for awhile. Some people like to have sex when they know they're going to live. So I thought that. But you don't, really? No offense, Nat, but you don't have sex like ever just for fun." She can't quite refute that, but she scowls at him all the same. He grins, sideways, before frowning. "So, uh. Now? I... try not to think about it. But it's kind of a jackass move to have sex with someone who thinks she owes you something, isn't it? I was stupid, if I'd been thinking –"

"I didn't want you to know," Natasha interrupts.

"Yeah," he agrees, easily. "But in retrospect it's kind of obvious." He finishes his beer, and gestures to her, she tosses him his second.

"Maybe," she says, still feeling strangely unnerved that he's noticed. When he looks back up, the look in his eyes is – careful, as much as anything.

"For what it's worth," he says, "I wouldn't've if I'd known that's what you meant."

Natasha thinks about this, for a long moment. "Okay. For what it's worth, if I suggest it in the future I won't mean that."

He tilts his bottle at her, in silent toast.

She takes a drink.

--

"We talked about it," Natasha says, once they sit down. Elle doesn't ask what happened, just tilts her head to see if she wants to say anything more. "He thinks that having sex with me was – 'a jackass move,'" she says. "Because I'd told him I owed him, earlier."

"What do you think?" Elle asks, quietly.

Natasha shrugs, still not very comfortable with saying I don't know. "But we're okay," she adds. "I think, for now."

"I'm glad to hear it," Elle says, and they change the subject to Kos's upcoming house party.