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Natasha wasn’t thrilled by her introduction to SHIELD. She had done them a favour and they were grateful, but they didn’t go so far as to trust her. The kind of organisation they were and the kind of person she had been, it was debatable if they would ever trust her. But Natasha was used to institutions and the small, white room in which she resided didn’t bother her nearly as much as it might other people. Like Clint.

Clint Barton, now there was an enigma. Aside from the terrible name, Natasha could tell very little about him. And that bothered her. Because Natasha had, until very recently, lived and died by her ability to read people, and now here he was, with that smile and the glib remarks and the thunderous intensity behind his eyes and she couldn’t work it out. If anyone else knew quite how much time Natasha spent thinking about the mysterious Clint Barton, they would have concluded that Natasha had a crush on him. But she knew better: after all, love was for children.

She had many visitors in the early weeks at SHIELD; psychologists sent to ‘figure her out’, counsellors trying to ‘help her through the adjustment period’, politicians and military types who were vaguely unnerved by her, and even one well-meaning young man whose supposed purpose was to teach her English. Natasha resented the implication that she couldn’t already speak it so she had simply sat and stared at him for a full hour, watching the blush rise on his cheeks as he tried each of the dozen or so Eastern European languages he knew to zero effect. Later Clint would teach her that it would have been funnier if Natasha had gone along with it and allowed him to try teaching her in that slow, loud way that Americans always had when they talked to foreigners. But these were early days and Natasha didn’t fully understand the concept of fun back then.

Agents came to visit her too, just to talk, they said, to alleviate the boredom. Natasha chose not to tell them that the boring times were the ones when these people sat in her room and attempted to make polite conversation. She had nothing in common with them, and they couldn’t possibly understand what her life had been like. But if the others stopped coming to see her then Clint might have stopped too.

Natasha didn’t like to admit it, but she actually enjoyed Clint’s visits, looked forward to them even. He was different from the other agents; bigger and more alive, but also more reserved. There was a guarded look that came into his eyes sometimes and Natasha suspected that he had a past of his own. Maybe not like hers, but painful in its own way.

The first time that he came after he brought her in he seemed tired. He pulled out one of the weird, see-through plastic chairs from her weird, see-through plastic table and slumped into it. He didn’t say anything, just sat there, staring at the floor between his feet, perfectly still. Natasha put down the book that she had been reading and stared at him, perplexed.

Most people found her stare disconcerting, some people couldn’t even look her in the eye, but he was unfazed. He just sat there, blinked once, and heaved a little sigh like all the weight of the world was on his shoulders.

“Do you need something?” Natasha asked after almost a minute of this.

Finally Clint raised his head and looked at her. “I’m supposed to come in here and talk to you, but I’m having a bad day and I was wondering if maybe we could just sit here in silence for a little while and pretend we talked about...” He trailed off here, casting about for a suitable topic. “Whatever it is we’re supposed to be talking about,” he finished limply.

Natasha’s eye fell on her book. “Classical Russian literature?” she offered.

Clint managed a smile, a shy, fleeting thing, and then the weight on his mind dragged it back down again. “Do you think?”

Natasha shrugged. “Sure.”

He sat there for maybe an hour, staring at the floor, and Natasha went back to her book. She had thought it might be awkward, this brooding presence impinging on her space, but for some reason it wasn’t. They were both so self-contained that they didn’t really take up too much space. And because he didn’t move he didn’t make a noise.

When he eventually got up to go Natasha glanced over to see him watching her. “Thanks,” he said softly.

Natasha dipped her head. “Any time.”

And then he was gone and she was alone once more and, for the first time in a long time, she felt something akin to loneliness.

-+-

He came back a couple of days later, carrying a laptop with him. There was a sheepish look on his face and he seemed almost shy as he stuck his head around the door.

“Can I come in?”

“Sure.” Natasha was working out this time, doing pull ups on a bar she had convinced them to install in the corner, and as she lowered herself back to the floor she felt her eyes on him. But it wasn’t unpleasant, the way it could be when she was with the targets sometimes, it wasn’t sleazy. It was more appreciative and Natasha thought it felt a little like the way Alexei used to look at her. She hadn’t thought of him in years.

“Look, I wanted to apologise for the way I behaved last time,” Clint started.

“Don’t.” Natasha’s voice was clipped and angrier than she intended. “Apologies are a waste of time.”

Clint was shaking his head. “The way I behaved, it was rude,” he insisted.

“You didn’t kill me, I can overlook the smaller things.”

“But I-,” Clint stopped midway through his sentence. Of all the times that she had seen him, all the situations, she had never seen him looking so flustered. “I wouldn’t want you to think less of me.”

“You imply that I think of you at all.”

His face fell. Not in such a way that anyone else would notice, but Natasha noticed. His shoulders slumped and he turned as though to leave. “Right, OK, well, I guess I’ll just-,”

“I was joking.”

Clint looked up at her, those blue eyes staring. He couldn’t read her the way that she could read him. That made her feel a little better. “That counts as a joke in Russia?”

Natasha, feeling that awkward, nervous feeling she always got when she was learning something new, crossed her arms over her chest. “Director Fury suggested I might try it, as a way of building interpersonal relationships.”

Clint stared for a moment longer, but then his face slowly melted into a smile. There was so much beauty in that smile, like sunlight on new-fallen snow. “Fury told you to try a joke?”

“I did attempt to warn him that my sense of humour might be somewhat underappreciated in this environment.”

“And what did he say?” There was still a hint of a smile quirking at the corner of Clint’s mouth, just waiting to reappear.

Natasha shook her head. “He laughed at me.”

Clint was smiling again, even wider this time. “I’ll bet he did.”

“So, what’s that for?” Natasha gestured to the laptop still held loosely in Clint’s hand. She was only too eager to move the conversation away from herself.

“Ah,” Clint lifted the laptop as though he had forgotten that he had it. “I just thought that since we had such a good time sitting in silence before that we could try it again, so I brought some movies.”

It had been years since Natasha had seen a movie. Since Alexei. They had never had much money so he couldn’t take her out to the ballet or anything fancy, but every couple of months the two of them would get all dressed up and he would take her out to the cinema, and then afterwards they would go home and he would cook her dinner and they would make love in their narrow, rickety bed. Those were some of the best memories that Natasha had.

“Natasha?” Clint’s voice was soft, calling her back, and she was grateful for it. It didn’t do to dwell on the past. “What’s wrong?”

She shook her head. “Nothing. It doesn’t matter.”

“You just, you looked so sad.”

Maybe he could read her better than she thought. “I’m fine.”

Clint shrugged. “If you’re sure.”

They decided to watch Star Wars episode IV, partly because it was Clint’s favourite movie and partly because Natasha hadn’t even heard of the other movies on his list. Except the Russian ones, and she couldn’t bear the thought of watching those. Natasha did wonder if Clint eventually settled on the first of a trilogy because then he would have to come back and watch the other two, but she dismissed the thought; if Clint wanted to see her again, he would just come back and see her, he wouldn’t need an excuse.

They sat on the bed, with their backs against the wall and the laptop in between them. Natasha sat cross-legged with straight back and hands folded in her lap, the way that she had been taught, first as a dancer and then as something else. Clint sprawled across the lower half of the bed, resting his elbow on a pillow and resting his cheek on his hand. Their arms were so close to touching that Natasha could feel the heat radiating from his skin. His head was at the level of her armpit and Natasha had only a moment to worry if she smelled after her workout, but it was too late now.

Natasha had forgotten how much she enjoyed movies. After all, it had been more than eight years since she had watched one just for fun and she had been... preoccupied in between then and now. There was a moment of sadness when she thought about Alexei, about how much he would have enjoyed this movie, if maybe he had seen it before they ever met. She wondered for a moment if he would have been old enough to see it in the cinema, but she shut that down immediately. No good could come from thinking about him.

By the time the movie had ended she had forgotten about Alexei. She had even forgotten about Clint and she started just a little, not so much that he would notice, when he broke eventually spoke.

“So, what did you think?” He was looking up at her from his semi-reclined position and Natasha suddenly wondered if he could see up her nose.

“It was good, I liked it,” she answered, surreptitiously raising a hand to her nose.

As Clint moved to sit up his arm, which had been hovering bare millimetres from her own, brushed against it. Natasha stiffened, feeling the heat of his skin like an electric current. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been touched unexpectedly. It felt strange, like he had somehow reached in and touched her very soul.

“Are you alright?” Clint asked, the expression on his face shifting from pleasure to concern in an instant. He reached out to stop the DVD and the silence that fell between them was startling in its loudness.

“I’m fine,” Natasha assured him. She rubbed her hands along her upper arms, wiping away the memory of his touch.

“I suppose,” Clint spoke slowly, like the words were weighing heavily on him. “Maybe we should talk about your life before. Sometime.”

Natasha looked into his eyes, and she wondered what he saw in hers. “Why spoil a good thing?” she asked.

Clint shrugged. “It’s your life. What would you rather-?” He was interrupted by the shrill ringing of a cell phone. He rolled his eyes as he pulled the phone out of his pocket, but then he saw the caller ID and his expression changed. “Do you mind?” he asked, glancing up at Natasha.

She could only shake her head in response. She’d never been asked that question before.

Clint turned away from her and Natasha deliberately didn’t look at him. She felt like she was eavesdropping and she wished that she could go somewhere else to give him some privacy.

“Hey Bobbi... No, you’re fine, what’s wrong?... Are you serious? How many times?... Yeah, no, I’ll go.” Clint’s eyes flicked up to Natasha during a pause in the conversation and he gave her an apologetic smile. She was watching him from behind her eyelashes, though she had picked up a book and was pretending to read it. “Nothing I can’t get out of,” Clint continued. “I’m leaving right now.”

As Clint hung up the phone Natasha put down her book and dropped any pretence that she hadn’t been listening. Clint’s demeanour had changed utterly, like another person had come in and taken his place. “Is something wrong?” Natasha asked.

“Hm?” Clint turned in her direction, but he was staring at his phone and it was clear that he was distracted. “Yeah, it’s my daughter, she’s sick. I have to go.”

“Daughter?” Natasha felt that word like a thunderclap and if she hadn’t been sitting down she would have reeled. She glanced down at his hand, but there was no wedding ring. She looked back up at his face; he seemed young to be divorced. But then, she was pretty young for a widow. “How bad is it?”

Natasha’s voice seemed to bring Clint back into the world and he made a move for the door. “I’ll talk to you later, alright?”

Then he was gone, leaving behind him a laptop and a swirl of displaced air. Natasha felt a little bit wobbly inside, in a way that she never had, and inexplicably hurt. She sat for a long time, thinking about that, but she had no words to describe what this feeling was, not in English and certainly not in Russian.

-+-

They repeated the pattern a few times; Clint came to visit and Natasha felt more normal around him than she could ever remember feeling. Not normal in the sense of feeling like her old self, but normal in the sense that maybe she could fit in to this world after all. Heaven knew, the last thing Natasha wanted was to feel like her old self ever again. They watched movies together, Clint taught her how to play cards, and he even tried to show her a couple of card tricks, but the experience soured when he told her that his daughter loved them, and Natasha quickly lost interest. That was also part of the pattern; everything would be fine and then Clint would get a call or a text, or one time Bobbi even came into the room to steal him away, and then he would be gone. That particular time Natasha had felt like Bobbi had stuck her nose into a private space and she had resented it the next time that Clint came to see her, to such a degree that he felt the need to ask her what he’d done wrong.

“Nothing.” Natasha shrugged. He had gotten better at reading her over the weeks and she had to be careful not to look him in the eye, in case he guessed what was going on.

“Come on, Tash, you think I can’t tell?” he asked. He reached out a hand across the table to touch her arm. Natasha withdrew from him, but at least that wasn’t anything unusual.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she asserted.

“Then look at my face and tell me that.”

The silence stretched between them for a long moment. Natasha could feel Clint’s eyes fixed on her face, his gaze so intense that she could almost feel her skin burning beneath it. She didn’t know what to say.

“Fine.” Clint got to his feet suddenly. He wasn’t angry; it took a lot to make Clint angry, but Natasha was gripped by a fear so powerful that it made her breath catch in her throat. If she let him walk out the door at that moment he might never walk back through it. She had to say something to make him stay.

“I never saw you as a family man.”

“Excuse me?” It certainly stopped him. Clint turned back to look at her, a strange expression crossing his face.

“Bobbi, and the kids. I sort of saw you as more of a loner. How long have you been married?” Natasha had to make a great effort to stop herself from talking. What was happening to her? She felt like she hadn’t since the early days in the Red Room; uncertain and jumpy and she was surprised to find herself sweating.

Clint shook his head. “Why are you asking about this?”

Natasha shrugged, once again unable to meet his eye. “I’m just curious. I’m supposed to show interest, aren’t I? It shows a ‘desire to strengthen interpersonal relationships’.”

“You never asked about Bobbi before.”

“I’m asking now.”

Clint sighed a deep, heavy sigh, and resumed his seat. “That’s what this is about? Look, I’m sorry she came in here last time. I told her not to do it again.”

Natasha had a strange reaction to that statement, feeling her throat tighten as though she was about to cry. She couldn’t remember the last time that she had cried. Maybe over Alexei. But she couldn’t think about that. Alexei had nothing to do with what was going on right now.

“Tash?” Such softness, such concern. When Clint reached out to her Natasha let him. The heat of his hand on her own was strangely comforting.

“This room is my home, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for people to just come in without my invitation. Even if she is your wife.” Natasha managed to get through it and with each word the threat of tears receded a little further.

“She’s not my wife,” Clint muttered after a moment.

“What?” Natasha glanced up, uncertain if she had heard him correctly. The look on his face was so sad, so lonely that, without thinking about it, she placed her second hand over his, still resting on her first.

“Bobbi, she’s not my wife. And I guess they’re not really my kids. We’ve been together about a year and a half, but they’re not my family, not really.”

Natasha knew there was something she should say, that this was one of those situations where there was a right thing to say and a wrong thing to say. Taking a deep breath, she hoped this was at least on the right track. “If you love them and you take care of them then they are your family, however you might have come together.”

Clint looked up at her, and Natasha saw the light in his eyes had been rekindled once more. “Her husband died about four years ago. I try to do my best, you know? Care for those kids like they really were mine, but sometimes I catch them looking at me and I know they think I’m not good enough, that I’m trying to replace their father.”

Natasha had never seen him like this, with his head hanging low and his shoulders slumped. He had always been an attractive man, but there was something about this vulnerability that made him beautiful, like a statue of ice. She wanted to reach out and touch those smooth cheeks, run a hand over his brow and take away all of that pain and sadness. There was so much suffering in that face that Natasha was incensed for a moment. He had already been through so much; he deserved better than what these children were doing to him. But she couldn’t hold on to rage like that. After all, these children had suffered too, and maybe they deserved better than to lose their father.

“How old are they?” she asked.

“Eleven and thirteen.”

“Then they’d probably resent you even if you were their biological father.”

Clint managed a small smile at that one. “I guess you’re right. It just makes things hard sometimes, I never expected-,” Clint was interrupted by the ringing of his phone.

Natasha withdrew her hands as though he had burned her. “You’d better get that."

Clint glanced down at the caller ID and a look of pain flashed across his face. “It’s her. Yeah Bobbi... Yes, I told you that... Alright, look, take it easy.” The voice on the other end of the phone rose so loud that Natasha could almost hear the words. She looked away, embarrassed. “Don’t yell at me, this isn’t my fault.” Clint got to his feet and glanced at Natasha, gesturing towards the door.

“Go, it sounds like she needs you.”

Clint nodded, distracted, while Bobbi continued to yell down the phone at him. “I’ll be there, just give me two minutes.” His hand was on the door when he stopped and turned back to Natasha. “Thank you,” he mouthed.

And then he was gone, pulling the door shut behind him with a gentle click. When Natasha’s psychologist arrived fifteen minutes later she was still sitting in her chair, so lost in thought that she didn’t even hear him come in.

-+-

She didn’t see Clint for a couple of weeks after that, and though she initially managed to resist the urge, finally she had to ask. One of the other agents who came to see her, a blonde by the name of Dana, was visiting. She had spent the last twenty minutes making pointed comments about Natasha’s lack of attention and had glanced at her watch maybe twelve times.

Natasha, who hadn’t been listening to a word, cut across her as she checked her watch for the thirteenth time. “Where’s Clint?”

Dana blinked a couple of times, the second half of her sentence dying on her open lips. “Excuse me?”

“Clint. Clint Barton? I’ve been reliably informed that the two of you work in the same building. He comes to visit me too, but I haven’t seen him in a while.” Natasha had to work to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. She would be the first to admit that she was only partially successful.

“Oh, Clint,” Dana shrugged. “He’s on a job in Pakistan, Tehran I think.” She waved a dismissive hand.

Natasha stared. “Tehran isn’t in Pakistan.”

“Oh whatever. Do you really want to sit here discussing geography, or would you rather talk about sexy men?”

“Only one of those conversations would actually be useful,” Natasha answered. “However, the other might be more fun.” She was slightly worried about this one, hoping that she had put ‘fun’ into an appropriate context. It was hard to tell sometimes.

But Dana seemed to agree and she grew visibly more engaged. It was probably close to a full minute since she had checked her watch. “I hear he and Bobbi are having trouble.” Dana leaned forward, her eyes got wide, and her voice lowered to a conspiratorial level.

Natasha played her part, sitting up and putting on her best listening face. “What kind of trouble?”

Dana looked at her the same way Natasha had looked at Dana when she had talked about geography. “Relationship trouble. I mean, they’ve always been tempestuous, the ‘break-up, make-up’ kind, if you know what I mean.”

Dana winked and Natasha could do nothing but nod. “Sure,” she answered.

“So anyway, lately Clint’s been pulling overtime, missions abroad, foreign deliveries, whatever, and he’s been cancelling dates when he is in the country. Like he’s avoiding her.”

Dana was looking at her and Natasha guessed that this was a moment where a response was required. This interpersonal stuff was so much easier with men; all you had to do was smile knowingly and let him take you to bed. She racked her brains for an appropriate reply. “It seems terribly fraught,” she tried.

Dana nodded. “You’re damn right. So the question is, how long do you think they’ll last? There’s an office pool going; I bet it’s within the month. What about you?”

“I don’t have any money.”

“Come on, you don’t have to bet, just take a guess,” Dana insisted.

There was something in that tone, a wheedling, whining note that Natasha understood instantly; Dana would bother her until she said something, so best to get it over with, even though it was roughly the last thing she wanted to do. “I guess two months,” she said eventually.

Dana raised her eyebrows, an ‘oh, really?’ expression on her face. “You’re optimistic.”

“I suppose we’ll find out,” Natasha answered, having long since lost all enthusiasm for this conversation.

“I tell you what though, the second she is out of the picture, I am swooping straight back in there,” Dana murmured, talking as much to herself as to Natasha.

“Back?” Natasha felt herself getting cold all over, as though she had just been struck by a blast of icy air.

“Oh yeah, Clint and I had a bit of a thing a couple of years ago, on a mission, close quarters, very intense, you know?” Dana was giving her those knowing eyes again and Natasha started to feel vaguely nauseous. “It all sort of petered out after the mission, but boy, do I miss it. Especially after the last couple of losers I’ve dated.”

“Has Clint been involved with many agents?” Natasha asked. She wasn’t looking at Dana, she was staring into the middle distance, with her feet drawn up onto her chair and her arms wrapped loosely around her knees.

“What?” This wasn’t the response that Dana wanted. “Not that I know of. Why does it matter?”

Natasha tossed her hair self-consciously. “I suppose it doesn’t.”

Dana was silent for a moment, watching her out of sharp, grey eyes. “You have a thing for him, don’t you?”

“Excuse me?” Natasha glanced up, a politely puzzled expression on her face.

“You like Clint. You have a little crush on him. Can’t say I blame you, I’d have gone crazy trapped in this little room. And Lord knows, he’s an attractive man.” Dana was grinning at her and it took a great deal for Natasha to keep her face neutral.

“You sound like a schoolgirl.”

“But you’re not denying it!” Dana crowed. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell him.”

“Seeing as how there’s nothing to tell, I can imagine that’s true,” Natasha responded, her voice clipped and direct.

“I swear to God, if you were a normal human being you’d be pink in the face right now.” Dana was still grinning at her, but she seemed to sense Natasha’s mood fouling as they sat there. “But never mind, let’s talk about something else, shall we?”

Natasha shrugged once more, trying to play it nonchalant. “If you like.”

-+-

Clint’s triumphant return was marked with the usual grin as he came bounding through the door. Natasha had just raised a cup of coffee to her lips and the suddenness was enough to startle her. The coffee inevitably spilled down her pale blue tank top. Just one of the many reasons she preferred black.

The smile on Clint’s face faltered as he rushed forward to help. “Hey, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He stopped suddenly, an amused expression on his face. “Actually, I didn’t know I could scare you.”

Natasha stood up, the hot coffee seeping through her t-shirt, hot and wet against her chest. “You didn’t scare me, you startled me. You really shouldn’t be so inexact with your language.”

Clint was nearly smiling again, though he was trying to hide it. “Whatever you say, grumpy.”

Natasha rolled her eyes and turned away from him. She pulled the top off over her head, balled it up and tossed it into a laundry basket against the wall.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Natasha didn’t even need to look at him to know that the smile on his face had been replaced with an expression of surprise.

She turned back to him with a careless look. “You didn’t expect me to keep that shirt on, did you?”

“No, but,” Clint is flustered, his eyes darting around the room, looking anywhere but directly at her. “You could have given me some warning. I could have turned around or something.”

Natasha shrugged, unconcerned. This was how she was used to dealing with men. “I had assumed that you had seen a woman without a t-shirt before. Maybe this is where your problems with Bobbi come from.”

Clint froze and those roaming eyes fixed on her face. “You talk about us?”

Natasha shrugged once more, snatching up a sweater from a nearby drawer. She was suddenly hyper-conscious of her body, in a way that she hadn’t been in years. “It was just something that Dana said.”

“Well don’t. Don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry.” Natasha thought that this might be another one of those moments where, if she had been normal, she would have blushed.

“I don’t talk about you.”

The joy was gone from his face and the buoyancy had faded from his step. Natasha was feeling wretched, something that she hadn’t felt in years, something that was all the worse for its having been forgotten for such a long time. “I won’t,” she assured him. “I promise.”

Clint shook his head just a little before he recovered himself. “Some things are personal, you know? Bobbi and I, Dana has no idea what she’s talking about. She just wants us to break up so she can try again.”

“She told me about that too.”

Clint gave a little huff of tired laughter. “That woman talks too much.”

“I hear that.”

Clint looked up at her with a perplexed expression, and then he suddenly burst out laughing, a real, loud laugh where he threw his head back and clapped his hands and suddenly looked ten years younger. “Where did you learn that?”

Natasha gestured to the corner of the room. “They gave me a television. I’ve been working on my colloquialisms.”

Clint was still laughing to himself. “Well, how would you like a chance to practice them out in the real world?”

“I’m cleared to leave?” Natasha perked up, forgetting any vague disgruntlement that she might have felt from having him laugh at her.

“Not exactly,” Clint answered. “You’re cleared provided you’re accompanied by at least two agents.”

“Oh.”

“So I thought you might like to come to dinner with Bobbi and I?” Clint seemed strangely nervous about this question, as though he was afraid she might refuse.

Natasha nodded. “If it gets me out of this room for a few hours.”

“Great.” Clint didn’t sound particularly thrilled. But then, Natasha reasoned, she had never heard him sound particularly thrilled about anything. “So, tomorrow night? We’ll come pick you up?”

Natasha raised her arms in a half-shrug. “I’ll be here.”

-+-

She hadn’t expected to be nervous, after all, an invitation to dinner was hardly the most difficult thing she had ever taken on in her life. But nonetheless, the next evening saw her in an uncharacteristically agitated state. She had a limited array of clothes, provided upon her arrival and all precisely her size. How SHIELD knew her bra size, Natasha didn’t really wish to know. But this evening, for the first time in the three months that she had been kept in this room, Natasha noticed that the clothing had been provided for comfort rather than style. Gone were the silk dresses and the plunging necklines of the old days and, for the first time, Natasha found herself missing a little piece of her former life. She had enjoyed getting ready for those missions, watching her own transformation in the mirror as she changed from Natalia Romanova into whoever she needed to be.

Not that Natasha necessarily wanted to look the way she had in those days. She was going to dinner with Clint and his girlfriend at her house, and Natasha had a sneaking suspicion that a backless crimson dress wouldn’t be quite appropriate, but she wanted to look nice, wanted to look like she had at least made some sort of effort. So, after trying on and discarding every piece of clothing in her wardrobe, something she had never done before, Natasha finally settled on a pair of black jeans and a red shirt, though she then had further trouble deciding how many buttons to leave open. She eventually went with two, reasoning that anything else would be a bit much. She then went around the room cleaning up all the clothes so that Clint and Bobbi wouldn’t realise quite how much thought she had put into things.

Clint knocked on the door at precisely six-thirty. Natasha started up from her seat as he opened the door slightly and stuck his head in. “You ready to go?”

“Sure.” Natasha crossed the room to follow him out. She felt as though they should make some kind of gesture of greeting. But what would be appropriate? Dana gave her a hug every time she came to visit, but Natasha couldn’t quite bring herself to hug Clint. What then? Surely a handshake was too formal. But then she was through the door and the moment had passed and she felt vaguely relieved.

“You look nice,” Clint noted as they stepped outside and Natasha smiled.

But her good mood was destroyed a moment later when she laid eyes on Bobbi. She was tall, taller than either Clint or Natasha, and she wore shiny, black heels that made her legs seem preposterously long and toned. She was thin too, a fact emphasised by her sheer, white blouse and grey pencil skirt. Her face was maybe a little severe, made up of sharp angles, but she reminded Natasha of an alabaster statue, with her perfect skin and her luscious, blonde hair. She was beautiful, stunning even, and Natasha felt shabby next to her.

“Natasha,” Bobbi’s whole face softened into a smile and she became more beautiful still as she reached out to shake Natasha’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you properly.”

“The pleasure’s all mine,” Natasha answered, taking the proffered hand.

“Oh,” Bobbi looked startled. “I didn’t expect you to have such an... American accent.”

“We were taught native accents whenever we were learning languages. It was important not to stand out.”

“I can’t imagine what that place must have been like for you,” Bobbi murmured, shuddering theatrically. “How many years were you there?”

“Tash doesn’t like to talk about it,” Clint jumped in, giving Bobbi a pointed glare.

“Oh, it’s ‘Tash’ now, is it?” Bobbi muttered. “Come on, otherwise we won’t get dinner until tomorrow morning.” She turned on her heel and stalked away down the corridor, her shoes clicking on the floor with each step.

Clint raced after, catching her hand and murmuring something in her ear. Natasha wondering if maybe this hadn’t been a mistake, trailed behind.

The ride to Bobbi’s house didn’t get any more comfortable. Bobbi drove and Clint say up next to her, leaving Natasha in the back seat by herself. Looking at the two of them up front, he in his suit and she in her business-woman’s skirt, Natasha couldn’t help but feel like the child in the back seat, like an orphan and these two grown-ups were doing her such a favour taking her out for the evening. She found that she didn’t like Clint in a suit, didn’t think it fit well on him, just like she didn’t like him with Bobbi. It was subtle, the kind of thing that most people wouldn’t notice, but he was different. The moment Bobbi entered the room his shoulders tightened just a little and the already-rare smile became rarer still. But the thing that really bothered her was his voice. When Clint spoke to Natasha he spoke with confidence, he oozed competence, but when he spoke to Bobbi the final syllable of any statement rose a shade higher than the rest of the sentence, like was asking a question and waiting to be corrected. It was so subtle that Clint probably didn’t even notice it, but Natasha did and within minutes it was grating on her ears.

“So, Natasha, have you ever been to the US before?” Bobbi asked after a particularly long stretch of silence.

Natasha debated the sarcastic answer, but she didn’t want Clint to be disappointed. “A couple of times, but only on missions.”

“Which we aren’t supposed to talk about.” Bobbi flashed a sideways glance at Clint. “So what can we talk about then?”

“Russian literature?” Natasha offered.

Bobbi looked as though she was about to laugh that one off as a joke, but then Clint jumped in.

“I’m reading Crime and Punishment right now.”

“What do you think of it?” Natasha asked curiously.

Clint hesitated and then he glanced back at her with a smile. “I think it’s the most boring book I’ve ever read in my life.”

Natasha couldn’t help but laugh then, though it was such an unfamiliar action that it took her a moment to realise that was what she was doing. “I used to reward myself every time I finished a chapter.”

“I was looking at my copy last night, and one of the reviews called it the most absorbing book ever written.”

“Self-absorbed, certainly,” Natasha quipped.

“Well, it is considered a classic, so there must be something worthwhile about it,” Bobbi noted from her position in front of Natasha.

“If there is, I can’t see it,” Clint answered. The glibness of his answer earned him a disgruntled look and Natasha felt the good humour fleeing from the air as quickly as it had appeared.

“As far as I understand it, the worth of the book lies in its gift to authors, as a way of writing about main characters, more than just the story itself,” Natasha offered, trying to dredge up whatever Alexei had told her when she had tried to read it.

Bobbi didn’t seem to appreciate the effort though because she simply sniffed and muttered in a voice barely loud enough to be heard, “Of course you would know that.”

“Bobbi!” Clint hissed, glancing between the two of them. Natasha glanced quickly out of the window, keeping a neutral expression on her face, as though she hadn’t heard a word. They rode the rest of the way in silence.

-+-

Bobbi’s house was on a quiet street, a sprawling bungalow with a wraparound porch and maybe an acre of land around it, backing onto thick woodland. Natasha had never seen a New England fall before, but in the light from the setting sun the red and gold of the leaves was breath-taking.

“It’s beautiful,” she murmured.

“It’s criminal them keeping you locked up in that white box for months on end,” Bobbi noted, gesturing for Natasha to come and walk alongside her.

“I’m used to it,” Natasha answered, struck by a sudden bout of shyness.

“And that’s even worse. Come on, I’ll show you around.”

The house was just as beautiful as its setting, with wide French windows looking out on three sides and warm, orange-toned wood floors. Everything was plush, from the gold velvet drapes to the overstuffed maroon couches, and everything was neat. There were reminders and photographs stuck up on the fridge and a strange, abstract sculpture in pride of place over the television, in the built-in wall unit in the living room.

“What’s this?” Natasha asked, moving over to get a closer look at it.

Bobbi smiled; the softest smile that Natasha had seen from her all evening. “My son made that. Apparently it’s a cat. Either way, he’s very proud.”

Natasha smiled back. “It’s wonderful,” she asserted.

“If you could tell him that.”

“I’m going to get changed, I’ll be two minutes.” Clint leaned in to kiss Bobbi’s cheek before making his way towards the back of the house. “You two play nice.”

“I’m always nice,” Bobbi called after him.

Natasha was surprised that he had clothes here, that he had keys, that this was as much his house as it was Bobbi’s. But then she shouldn’t have been surprised, really; they had been together for a year and a half. By this stage she had already been a widow for more than six months.

“Are you alright, you look like you’ve seen a ghost?” Bobbi’s voice cuts through her thoughts just in time.

“I was just thinking about my husband.”

Natasha was even more shocked than Bobbi. That was certainly not what she had meant to say.

“You’re married?” Bobbi asked after a beat.

“I was,” Natasha ran a finger over the spines of the books on the shelf, studiously not looking at Bobbi’s face. “He died. But it was a long time ago, it’s fine,” she rushed, eager to avoid the vague, sympathetic platitudes that most people offered when she told them.

But Bobbi wasn’t even looking at her. She was staring out one of the big, French windows, staring at something that Natasha couldn’t see. “I lost my husband too. I couldn’t have gotten through it without the kids.”

“Where are they tonight?” Natasha glanced around the room, hard pressed to find any proof that children occupied this house. Maybe the stack of board games on one of the shelves and a controller for a games console looking lonely on the coffee table among the art books.

“They spend one night a week with their grandparents. Partly for them and partly for me,” Bobbi answered.

At that moment Clint came back into the room wearing jeans and a fluffy, grey fleece. He looked so different to how he had been only moments before, so much less severe. Natasha preferred him like this.

“Well, the house is still standing, but where’s the food? Come on, two women in the house and no one’s in the kitchen?” Natasha was about to take offence but then she saw the smile on Bobbi’s face and realised this was another one of those moments when Clint was just ‘playing around’. Her introduction to this secondary meaning to the phrase was a memory amusing enough to make her smile to herself.

After that things started to go more smoothly. The earlier awkwardness was written off as nervousness and relegated to the past. Despite his earlier comment, Clint did the majority of the cooking, enlisting Natasha’s help only at her repeated insistence. Natasha was surprised by the admiring reaction to her perfectly even onion cubes, as though this was somehow a novelty. Bobbi oscillated at the edges, pouring the wine and choosing the music. She started off with some heavy jazz, but the snare drums were giving Natasha a headache, so she switched to Billy Joel instead. Natasha had never heard Billy Joel before, and she had never heard Clint sing either.

It was something that she noticed only slowly. Bobbi had gone into the other room to call her children and Natasha was alone with Clint in the kitchen. He was frying thin steaks, tossing in spices with the ease of one long-practiced, and he was singing along.

“You have a beautiful voice,” Natasha noted.

“Huh?” Clint stopping singing as he turned to look at her and Natasha almost regretted saying anything. “I didn’t even realise I was doing it.”

“It was nice. Sort of unexpected. But nice.”

Clint looked at her, one of those long, search looks that he gave her sometimes. He opened his mouth to say something but at that moment Bobbi’s heels clicked back into the doorway and the opportunity was lost.

“What’s nice?” she asked, glancing between the two of them.

“The smell in here. I didn’t know Clint could cook.” Natasha answered, suddenly determined to keep this moment just between them.

Bobbi smiled, coming up behind Clint to rest her hands on his hips. “He’s a man of many talents,” she agreed, leaning in the kiss him on the cheek. Natasha had always felt vaguely nauseous at the sight of such public displays of affection, but now was not the moment to announce her aversion, so she smiled blandly instead.

They sat down to a meal that felt oddly formal for such a small group. Bobbi had laid out two tall candles and Natasha felt vaguely cut off from her hosts, who sat on the other side of the table. She also felt self-conscious with the thick, creamy linen napkin in her hand. She would have felt guilty somehow if she had left a stain.

The first part of the meal served only to increase Natasha’s isolation. Bobbi looked only at Clint while she talked and she stuck to topics that Natasha knew nothing about. She tried to participate once or twice, but Bobbi clearly wasn’t seeking her input, so she gave up. Besides, it was more interesting to watch Bobbi than to talk to her. Natasha noticed the frequent, possessive little touches on Clint’s arm and his cheek and she noticed that under the table Bobbi’s legs were pointing in Clint’s direction and she was considerably contorting her lower body to keep in contact with his knees. Clint, for the most part, seemed to ignore these touches. He didn’t flinch away or try to avoid them, but he certainly didn’t encourage them either. It looked very much like a relationship where two people were drifting apart but one was working significantly harder than the other to keep it together. Natasha wondered if Dana’s bet hadn’t been more accurate than her own guess, even if Dana was just projecting because she wanted to get back together with Clint. Or, not exactly together, but whatever they had been on that mission. Natasha sighed, all these labels and definitions and things. She couldn’t help but think that this relationship stuff was all too complicated to be bothered with. Why couldn’t people just be?

“Tash?” Clint was looking at her curiously from across the table.

“I’m sorry, I got distracted.”

“You looked so sad. Are you feeling alright?”

“I’m fine,” Natasha assured him.

“Clint, honey, you interrupted me,” Bobbi said, reaching out to touch his arm once more.

“Hm?” Clint turned to her with a distracted look on his face. “Right, sure, go on.”

“So my mother-in-law rang me yesterday-,”

“Why are you still in touch with her?” Natasha asked suddenly.

“Excuse me?”

“Well, your mother-in-law would be your husband’s mother, right? If your husband died four years ago, I imagine it must be quite a painful reminder for you, and your children, to have to see her.”

“They’re still her grandchildren,” Bobbi answered shortly.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” Natasha said, sensing that something had gone wrong, but not entirely sure if she was bothered by that.

“I’m surprised you even noticed.”

“Bobbi, stop it!” Natasha had never heard Clint sound so angry before. He was glaring and Natasha was relieved that his anger wasn’t directed at her.

“Come on, Clint, I’m ‘developing her interpersonal skills’. I’m helping,” Bobbi answered in a mock drawl.

Clint leaned in close, those blue eyes burning. “I need to speak to you, outside.”

For a moment Bobbi looked like she might argue with him, but then she pushed her chair back, hard enough to make it squeal on the hardwood floor. She stalked into the kitchen and Clint followed her, throwing an apologetic glance back to Natasha. She ran a finger around the rim of her wine glass and stared down at her plate, suddenly not very hungry anymore.

The conversation started off in whispers too low for her to hear, but as the argument got more heated their voices rose until she couldn’t help but overhear.

“That’s quite a show you’re putting on.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, am I damaging your reputation?”

“This is important, I risked a lot to bring her in.”

“She’s an automaton, Clint, it’s not like she’s going to get offended.”

There was a long moment of silence then and Natasha could imagine the expression on Clint’s face. “Jesus Christ, there’s something wrong with you. If she really were like that, she never would have come in with me.”

Bobbi gave a derisive snort. “Oh yeah, well we all know how you got her to come in.”

“How many times? Nothing happened!”

“Whatever you say, Clint.”

“That’s it, I’m taking her home. Neither one of us needs to put up with this shit.”

Clint stormed back into the dining room, still glaring. “Come on, we’re leaving.”

Natasha followed him wordlessly while Bobbi yelled after them and it wasn’t until they got out to the driveway that Natasha wondered how they were going to get anywhere if they had driven here in Bobbi’s car. But Clint walked straight up that same car, keys in hand. He stopped when he saw Natasha staring, and the fire in his eyes dropped a couple of degrees. “It’s my car, but she insists she’s a better driver.”

Natasha nodded, finding herself still strangely unable to speak. She slipped into the passenger seat next to him, shutting the door on Bobbi with a feeling of relief. Clint’s anger was such a palpable force that she could feel it rolling off him in waves. If she had been a lesser woman Natasha would have quailed beneath the force of that fury, but Natasha was a master assassin and she was stronger than that. So she sat next to him, perfectly controlled, watching the streetlamps flashing by outside.

They had driven maybe halfway back in silence when Clint suddenly turned to look at her. “I want to apologise for Bobbi, it’s just that there’s a lot going on right now.”

Natasha placed a gentle hand on his arm. “You don’t have to explain,” she said.

“If I’d had any idea she’d act like this, I never would have suggested it.”

“You couldn’t have known.” Natasha had heard people say this phrase on daytime television with alarming frequency and now seemed like an appropriate moment to try it out for herself.

Clint managed a little smile and returned his gaze to the road ahead. “Did you hear us arguing?”

“Yes.”

“What she said,” Clint shook his head as though he still couldn’t believe it. “It was unforgiveable.”

“They raised us not to feel things. A year ago, maybe she would have been right,” Natasha reasoned.

“I don’t care what you were,” Clint insisted, turning those intense blue eyes on her once more. “No one has the right to treat you like that.”

Natasha couldn’t look at him so she turned to stare out the window instead. They rode in silence for the rest of the journey but all of the anger had dissipated, to be replaced by that same feeling of quiet comfort that Natasha had noticed the first time he had come to her room. Natasha wondering now if that first hour they had spent in silence had also been brought on by Bobbi. She wondered when the problems between Clint and Bobbi had started. And she wondered if maybe she was the cause of them.

Clint pulled into the underground parking lot beneath SHIELD headquarters and Natasha felt a moment of sadness at the thought that their time together had to end. They rode up in the elevator together, avoiding as many of the offices on nightshift as possible. Even though he wasn’t angry anymore, it was pretty clear that Clint didn’t want to talk to anyone else.

They reached her door and Clint unlocked it for her. Natasha made it halfway through but then she hesitated, turning back to look at him. “Thank you for tonight,” she murmured.

“For what? It was a mess.”

Natasha rested a hand on his arm. “For trusting me.”

What happened next Natasha could never explain. She was looking up into those big, blue eyes, and then suddenly he was leaning in. He kissed her, not like other men had kissed her, like they wanted something more from her, but gently, sweetly, like this was the only thing he had ever wanted. Natasha froze for an instant, but then her senses kicked back in and she pulled away. The expression on Clint’s face changed to one of acute embarrassment and he stumbled backwards.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.” Then he was gone, moving away down the corridor so fast that he was practically running.

Natasha stared after him, her fingers coming up unconsciously to touch her lips, where she could still taste him. There was a good deal of emotion swirling around inside her, things that she hadn’t felt in years, things that she didn’t have the energy to deal with just then, so she shut the door with a firm click and decided to put Clint Barton out of her mind for the time being.