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Burning Bridges

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The moment when he decides not to kill the Black Widow, Clint is crouched on a rooftop in St. Petersburg, trying not to freeze his ass off. He's been tracking her through the snowy streets since the silver predawn hours. She's dressed like a student, in a fluffy green jacket and boots with a bright knit hat. She's carrying a backpack and a tattered notebook, blending in by standing out. He watches her through his scope as she weaves in and out of shop fronts. It's cold enough that there aren't too many people out, most of them keeping their eyes downcast as they hurry from one sheltered destination to another. Hardly anyone pays attention to the girl with the red curls and secret little smile. She looks almost as if she's enjoying herself, Clint thinks, young and vibrant and completely unlike the empty-eyed child soldiers he's seen in S.H.I.E.L.D.'s file on Red Room.

By nine the backpack is almost full; he can tell from the way it hangs from her shoulders. Probably materials related to a job, he thinks with a surge of curiosity; she must be working, or she wouldn't risk being in such a public place for this long. He should make his move soon.

She reaches the end of the street and pauses again, pretending to read a sign as she scans her surroundings. She's barely a hundred feet from the base of the building where he's stationed, and it's the perfect opportunity. Clint draws in a practiced breath as he nocks the arrow, draws. The rest of the world falls away as he focuses, the noise from the street, the cold, the discomforts of his own body fading until there is nothing but the arrow and his target. His fingers are completely steady on release, his instincts strong as always, and he never misses. Only this time he does.

It's as if something changes in the air between him and his target; maybe it's the little bits of frost clinging to the arrow's fletching, or maybe he's allowed himself to watch for just a moment too long, enchanted by her. She turns in the instant between life and death, and the arrow splits the fabric of her bag instead.

The contents spill out onto the icy pavement: half a dozen apples, a loaf of bread, and a thick book with the image of a flame-winged bird on its cover. She's been stealing from the shops, he realizes, not for a job, but for herself. In the next breath she is gone, vanished into one of the shops as if she'd never been there at all.

He waits for another hour but she doesn't reappear.

It's the book that captures his attention; it's the book that begins to shift his world on its axis. By the time he descends from the rooftop to retrieve it, the cover is damp from the snow, painted flames absolutely frigid under his touch.

He spends three more days watching her, hiding on rooftops, the shadows of buildings, keeping his arrows in their quiver. He isn't the only one on her trail, he's quickly realizing, and that is what drives him to confront her.

She's been sleeping in a room on the second floor of an abandoned building. The adjoining windows are shattered, shards of glass clinging to the frames like deadly teeth in gaping mouths. On the evening of the third day, Clint waits until he sees her leave again, on the way to intercept her latest target, then scales the wall in the failing light, with the aid of the rusted out fire escape and a grappling hook arrow. There's the rustling of wings as he slides her window open, and he looks up to see a flock of pigeons huddled in the rafters, bread crumbs scattered on the sill. Clint pauses for a moment, struggling again to reconcile the soulless killer depicted by S.H.I.E.L.D.'s files with the woman who steals books from the marketplace and feeds birds in the midst of winter scarcity.

There's no power in the building, and it's nearly as cold inside as out. The room is empty, save for a pile of threadbare blankets in one corner and a few discarded articles of clothing. He leans against the wall in the gathering darkness, staving off memories of his own childhood, nights spent freezing under overpasses when he was homeless, sleeping under tarps in the rain when he was with the circus.

It's fully dark by the time the Widow returns, and Clint knows he's invisible with his back to the wall, knows that she is undoubtedly good enough to be aware of his presence anyway. He senses her pause just outside the door, wonders for a moment whether she will choose to turn around again, simply vaporize into the frosty night.

She doesn't.

"I was wondering when you'd get bored of watching," she says as she slides the door open.

Clint's hand goes to the knife at his hip; it's too dark for him to gauge a shot with his bow, and he's still expecting her to attack. Instead he hears her digging for something in the corner, the dry strike of a match before the weak flame of a candle brings the room back into view. She's standing no more than five feet away, but she makes no motion to close that distance.

Up close, Natasha Romanoff is a scared eighteen-year-old; there's a subtle fluttering to her breath that reminds him of the birds shivering in the twilight. In her eyes he sees a lifetime of desperation, of tenuous survival, of always falling just short of enough. In her eyes he sees himself, and the decision he's been edging toward since that morning on the rooftop.

"Somehow I don't think anyone gets bored watching you." Clint keeps his voice carefully measured.

"If you're going to kill me," says Natasha, "you'd better do it quickly. Before somebody else steals your thunder."

"I know you're a wanted woman," he answers, and she gives him a predatory grin.

"And you want me too." She catches his eye, and for an instant the subtle shift in her posture transforms her into a fantasy, the spectral temptress begging to be his undoing. His mouth goes dry, though he every fiber of his being knows better.

Clint says nothing; it isn't a question.

And then the moment ends, as though he's passed some sort of test. Natasha straightens, her eyes dark and vacant again in the candle light. He thinks of her file, of the fact that she could kill him without a second thought, could do it with her bare hands.

"You're S.H.I.E.L.D., right?" says Natasha, and it shouldn't be a surprise, yet he finds himself wondering how she's known, until he realizes that she's staring at the crest on his uniform. "They sent you to kill me from far away. That was smart. You should've stuck to the plan."

"I'm not going to kill you," says Clint. It's probably a mistake, but he's never been one to question his choices in the midst of making them.

"Then you're an idiot."

He gives her his most winning smile. "Been called worse. I'm going to offer you a job."

Natasha laughs. "Working for you? You can't afford me."

"Working for S.H.I.E.L.D." He straightens, taking his hand off of the knife and moving one step toward her. He can sense the tension in her body, every muscle ready for flight. "You're good. Better than good. But this?" Clint gestures around the room, to the thin blankets, the candle which is rapidly burning down. "This tells me you've got no idea how to do it on your own. The people that actually want you dead? They're going to catch up. Soon. If you don't freeze to death first."

The slightest hint of surprise plays across her face, and something deeper, softer, too. Anyone else would have missed it, but Clint sees everything: the girl without a childhood, without a home, without hope or a future.

"If you're as good as S.H.I.E.L.D. thinks you are, then you know threats won't convince me," Natasha answers in the same breath, mask so immaculate once again that for a moment he almost doubts himself. "So then why do you think I'll agree?"

"Because," says Clint, taking a breath and a gamble. "If you don't come with me, you'll have to kill me."

Natasha goes silent the moment they reach S.H.I.E.L.D. base. She said enough in the field to convince Coulson that she's at least minimally willing to give this recruitment thing a try, and he has sufficient sense not to ask whether it's only because death seems the likely alternative. Coulson seems vaguely satisfied with the whole thing, and that's all Clint needs to be certain that this was an outcome Fury anticipated, or possibly even intended. He'd feel manipulated if he wasn't so damn glad to be alive and out of the cold.

By the time he goes to visit her on base, Natasha's spent four days in the high security psych ward S.H.I.E.L.D. politely calls Behavioral Health. He's searched on the way in, stripped of any items that might be used against him as weapons.

The room itself is bright and sterile. It feels more like an operating theater than a cell: all clean white paint and tile under painfully bright fluorescent lights, empty except for the bed against the far wall, with sheets that practically blend into the colorless floor and ceiling.

Natasha is lying on her back in the center of the bed, her arms at her sides, like a corpse. She's wearing a standard issue hospital gown—no zippers, no ties, nothing that could be an asset in a fight, but Clint knows she could kill him with her bare hands. He's surprised they don't have her in a straitjacket for good measure, though it isn't like she's tried to hurt anyone here. He wonders if he ought to be afraid. Instead he feels nothing.

Clint thinks she must be asleep until he comes even with the side of the bed and she meets his gaze, her eyes sharp and deep and green like the ocean where the currents are rough. He feels it like a shock, like the heady rush of first breath after coming up for air.

"Uh—hi," he says gracelessly. "They—they told me you won't talk to anyone. Won't do the evaluation. Just thought I'd come make sure you were okay, since I brought you here and all."

Her stare shifts almost imperceptibly in his direction, but she says nothing, doesn't break the placid mask. Clint wonders what he was honestly expecting. It's uncanny, almost like she's hibernating, waiting for some cryptic sign.

"So. Are you?" he tries again, studying her face. "Okay? Because, you know, if you need anything..." In truth there is nothing he can do for her, at least not until she decides to cooperate with the psychologists, but it seems like the right thing to say.

Absolutely nothing about her face has changed, and yet somehow he detects a hint of amusement, or perhaps disdain. He decides to go all in.

"If you need anything, just let me know. A television in here, maybe? A string quartet? A pony? Something to read?"

Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, just a fraction of an inch, but it's enough.

"Come on, Romanoff," says Clint. "I know you're in there. I want to know who I brought back with me."

But apparently that's the wrong thing to say, because suddenly the air between them is shifting again, the hint of connection he'd felt gone just as quickly as it began.

"Okay," says Clint, seeing again the girl that she is, the child without a childhood, completely out of her element here. Her training has given her no protocol, absolutely no frame of reference for how to react to being saved. Neither has her life.

"I'm not going to force you to talk to me, you know. That's not why I'm here." It seems, somehow, that it needs to be said. He turns to leave.

"How did you know?" asks Natasha, just before he reaches the door.

Clint turns back, blood pounding in his ears in the stillness of the room. She's sitting up now, watching him intently, though he's heard absolutely no hint of movement from behind. "How did I know what?"

"That I wouldn't just kill you," she answers. "Sort of a foolish choice, wasn't it? Your life for my loyalty?"

"No," says Clint, though the rational part of his mind knows she's right, realizes he's got no idea what he would've done had his gamble backfired. "S.H.I.E.L.D. has a lot of intel on Red Room, you know. You're the only one who's ever escaped. Means you're great at survival. Which also means you're smart enough to know when you can't do it on your own anymore."

"You're awfully cocky," says Natasha.

Clint grins at her. "But not wrong."

The next time Clint visits, he brings the book with the fire bird on the cover, the one she'd tried to steal from the market. It's heavy enough that he doubts they'll let him bring it in the room—it could definitely give him a concussion—but this time he isn't even searched, and he doesn't ask.

Natasha is sitting on the far edge of the bed this time, her back against the wall and her knees drawn up to her chest. They've let her graduate from hospital gown to gym clothes, still nothing with strings or zippers, and Clint has to remind himself not to notice the way the thin black fabric clings to her body, the way her red curls stand out against the rest of the colorless room. When he meets her eyes, the amusement in them tells him she is aware of his thoughts, of her effect on him even now, and suddenly his throat feels uncomfortably dry.

"I was wondering when you'd be back," she says, almost like a challenge.

Clint watches her for a moment longer, wishing he could read her the way she seems to read everyone around her. He knows that she's cracked since his last visit, started talking to the psychologists, if only enough to convince them of what he's already seen, that there might still be a girl worth saving beneath all those layers of armor.

Deciding to move before he can change his mind, he crosses the room and sits on the bed beside her. Clint hears surprise in her intake of breath, but she doesn't move, doesn't give any other sign that this is out of the ordinary. Only now does he see that she has a notepad on her lap and a pen in her left hand, though the page in front of her is still blank.

He raises an eyebrow at her. "Homework?"

"I'm supposed to be keeping a record of my thoughts," she explains, and he thinks he detects a note of scorn in her voice.

"And the problem is…"

"The only thing I'm thinking is that I don't understand what I'm supposed to be thinking." Natasha sighs, and for a moment she is a mirage in front of his eyes, shifting between desperate child and the ageless legend he'd been sent to take out. "They keep asking me if I feel guilty. Am I supposed to feel guilty for being alive?"

Clint reaches over and takes the notepad out of her hands, replacing it with the book. "Sounds like you need something else to think about."

Natasha stiffens. "What's this for?"

He smiles, and suddenly it feels as though he's always grinning around her, as though she, with all of her darkness and danger, makes him feel somehow lighter. "A present. Tried to get you a pony, but it was a little out of budget."

"Why?" She frowns at him. "Agent Barton, what do you think I am?"

"I think you're a person," he answers, then reaches to offer her his hand. "And it's Clint. Unless you want to call me Hawkeye, like the rest of the new recruits."

Natasha takes his hand, shakes it, and her palm against his feels like an olive branch.

-

He doesn't see Natasha again until after she's finally released from Medical.

He hears things, though. It would be impossible not to, really. For employees of a covert organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel are absolutely awful at keeping secrets from each other. When Natasha is finally cleared to leave Medical and begin highly supervised training, it causes a stir. He overhears people gossiping about it in the hallways, in the gym, over soggy sandwiches and terrible coffee in the cafeteria. Nick Fury has finally lost his mind, is the consensus. Director Fury has lost his mind and let the Black Widow into their midst, and everyone knows she is liable to kill all of them in their sleep.

It makes him uncomfortable, listening to people talk. It makes him angry, although he shoves the feeling down, refusing to examine any further what that means. People are probably justified in feeling the way they do. Natasha is a master of torture and a professional killer, and she's the best at what she does. He knows that no amount of youth, no amount of the desperation that he's glimpsed underneath all the layers is enough to truly erase any of the things she's done. Yet he feels an inexplicably strong sense of attachment already. All along he's chafed against the thought of being a team player at S.H.I.E.L.D.. Now, suddenly, he wants to have Natasha's back.

And besides, he thinks the other agents are overreacting, is pretty sure they're overestimating her ability to do anything undetected within the organization. At least until he returns to his locked office one day and finds her seated casually in his chair.

"Uh," says Clint, which seems to be emerging as his customary greeting for her. "Hi."

He sweeps his eyes over her instinctively, his training kicking in even though his gut doesn't register any sense of danger. It never has with her, and he wonders yet again what he ought to make of that. She is dressed in a blue t-shirt and jeans, her hair spilling down her back, and he realizes that this is the first he's seen her wearing clothing of her choice. Not a disguise, not a constraint, just a simple decision.

She has an agenda, he can see it reflected in her eyes, but he doesn't think she's here to do him any harm. There's no sign of a weapon on her, though he has no doubt that she'd be able to keep one concealed from him if she wanted to.

"Hi," she answers, and she tips the chair back until it balances two legs, resting her feet on the edge of the desk. She's poised on the brink of disaster, but everything about her demeanor is relaxed, in control. The heels on her boots look dangerous, look like weapons in their own right, and Clint's throat goes dry with an urge that definitely isn't fear.

"What are you doing here?" he forces himself to ask.

The corner of her mouth lifts, just slightly, her entire expression turning feral. "I came here to fuck you. At least, I think I did. I could be wrong, in which case we'll go somewhere else. But I don't think I am. You're a workaholic, good at your job, but you're not in love with the rules. Flying under the radar, being just a little bit rebellious turns you on. Definitely the sex-on-a-desk kind of guy." She raises an eyebrow appraisingly, as if inviting him to critique her analysis, to deny everything she's just said.

Clint swallows hard, remembering the way she'd tried to play him in St. Petersburg, in the darkness and the cold. It had almost worked then, too. She isn't wrong; she's managed to read him like a giant flashing billboard, and the images she's conjured with just a few words are making it a struggle to concentrate. Bending her over a desk (and an assortment of other horizontal surfaces) is a fantasy he's had, of course. But that doesn't mean it's what he wants with her, when he takes the time to think it all the way through.

"I'm not going to fuck you," says Clint, trying to remember to keep his voice down. There's nobody else in the office suite right now—she's planned that perfectly too—but he doesn't know who else might show up at any moment.

Her lips twitch. "No? Why? Scared you won't come out the other side alive? I owe you, Barton. I understand honor."

"No," says Clint, trying very hard to make his brain form words. He knows what it's like to play an audience too, to read expectations and give everything he can afford in return for survival. He recognizes the look in her, underneath the coy quirk of her lips, the way that her posture is so carefully designed to radiate willingness, even desire. "Because that's not the way I operate."

Natasha makes a soft noise of disbelief, but says nothing.

Clint crosses the room to stand over her, and he registers the subtle shift in her balance. She's ready to react at the slightest sign, though he's still not sure what she's looking for. "Could I have my chair back, please? Hill will have my head if I don't get this report finished soon."

She gets to her feet stiffly, but doesn't move far enough to let him actually sit. There's irritation threatening to break through her usual façade, and he wonders for a moment what she will do if she actually loses her temper. "So, not sex. What do you want, then, Agent Barton? Money? Some kind of favor?"

"To finish my report," he answers evenly, leaning a little closer so that she'll be forced to step back if she wants to maintain any kind of hypothetical tactical advantage. She does, keeping her hand on the back of the chair to make it look casual as she shifts her weight.

"You were sent to kill me," says Natasha. "You didn't. Why? What do you want?"

"I want you to have a choice." Clint snatches the chair away from her and sits in it stubbornly, challenging her with his eyes.

"Why?" she asks, again, sharply. "You say you want to save me, but you pretend not to want anything in return."

"I don't want anything in return. Except for you to go back to the gym or wherever you're supposed to be, and not get either of us in trouble."

"I'm supposed to be having lunch," says Natasha, frowning at him outright now. "If you don't want anything from me, then what do you want me to be?"

"Happy," he answers, then realizes how cliché, how naïve that sounds. As if it's that simple. "Or—something. I want to know what you want to be."

"Why are you so convinced that I can be anything more than what I am?"

"Call it a hunch," says Clint.

Natasha rolls her eyes. "Hunches are foolish. They'll get you killed."

"Maybe." He picks up a file thinking that she'll leave now, that the conversation is over.

But she just stays there standing by his chair, looking utterly out of her element. Only now does he realize that she might have had a secondary motive in coming here and offering herself to him, that the act of repaying a debt would be familiar, would give her direction. He thinks, suddenly, what it must be like for her right now, ripped away from everything familiar and supplanted into the midst of an organization that treats her like a time bomb.

"Actually, I changed my mind," says Clint, getting to his feet again. "I do want something. Come have lunch with me."

-

Natasha spends most of the meal silently dissecting her overly dry chicken breast with a surgical precision that shouldn't be possible with plastic cutlery.

Clint wonders whether she's doing it on purpose, whether it's intended to be intimidating or suggestive, or her own patented combination of the two. Then he thinks that maybe it's simply another defense, another excuse to maintain distance, to avoid discussing anything verging on personal information.

"I've seen you here, you know," she says, when they've both finished eating. She folds a thin paper napkin into a triangle and drops it on top of the bones left on her plate.

Clint feels a fresh little thrill of adrenaline at this information, because he hasn't been aware of her presence at all, hasn't even realized he's been in the same room with her since she left Medical, until today.

"You have?" he asks dumbly.

"You always sit alone," she answers simply, and gets up with her tray, managing to vanish into the lunchtime crowd in a matter of moments.

-

Four days later, he's already at his usual table, trying to summon some amount of gusto for the turkey sandwich on his plate, when Natasha sits across from him without comment. He hasn't really expected that she'll come back without coaxing—she seems the kind of person who appreciates solitude in all the ways that he is tiring of it—but he can't deny the little shock of pleasure he feels at the fact that she has chosen to spend her time with him.

"Hi," she says, but offers nothing else, setting to work on her own food with incredible concentration.

Clint eats in silence for a few minutes, but eventually curiosity gets the better of him, pushes him to speak. "So," he says, for lack of a better opening. "What's in the book?" It seems innocuous enough, the safest of the things he's burning to ask her.

"What book?" asks Natasha, and he gets the sense that she knows exactly what he means, that this is some sort of a test.

"The one you stole," says Clint, because he's certain that she doesn't truly need more of a reminder. "What's so important about it?"

Natasha makes a soft sound of skepticism. "You don't know what it is? You mean you didn't look?"

"It's Russian."

"You caught your mark taking a risk to steal something, and you didn't even bother to find out what it is." She scoffs, quietly. "It could be code. It could be intel on how to outsmart the archer from S.H.I.E.L.D.."

Clint rolls his eyes. "It could be. But I'm gonna go with it's a book. That you, for some reason, really wanted to have. What's it about?"

"It's about a huntsman," says Natasha, "who encounters the most beautiful bird in the world and steals a feather from her tail. He shows it to his king, who asks him to capture and bring back the bird. The bird is both a blessing and a curse."

"So a fairytale, then?" asks Clint, surprised. "Really?"

"A folktale," she corrects, picking up her fork and stabbing a piece of meat on her plate with a little more force than strictly necessary.

He frowns. "You just don't strike me as the happily-ever-after type."

She swallows, and her eyes pin him with a look that says he comprehends nothing of value. "Folktales aren't about happy endings. They're about culture and history. They're about laying down roots."

"And what are your roots?" He searches her face.

"I didn't grow," she answers, darkly. "I was made."

Suddenly Clint thinks he understands. He knows what it's like to have no home. "Now you're looking for some to adopt."

"What would you do to win a princess?" asks Natasha, her eyebrows raised in an obvious challenge.

"Princesses are too conventional for me," says Clint, mostly to be contrary, but there's a shred of honesty here as well. "I'd want the bird."

-

The next time, Clint brings another book to the lunch table that he's quickly beginning to regard as theirs.

It's a big, bound anthology of folktales, complete with a thin red ribbon to mark pages. He's found it in the little second-hand store near his apartment, standing out on the shelf as though practically begging for another life, and he slides it across the table to Natasha as soon as she sits down with her tray.

"What's this for?" she asks, though she's already running her fingers over the binding in a way that's unquestionably possessive.

"More options," says Clint. "In case you haven't found what you're looking for yet."

-

"They're putting me in the field," says Natasha two weeks later, as she slides into the seat across

from him, her plate heaped with noodles slathered in anemic tomato sauce. She looks down at her tray and makes a face, and for a moment Clint isn't sure whether she's wrinkling her nose at the cafeteria fare or the assignment.

"Congratulations?" He's surprised at how disappointed he feels. He supposes he ought to be happy for her, but all he can think is that if she's successful in the field, she'll quickly become accustomed to spending all of her time with her new team. It's something he hasn't mastered, running through partners like used arrowheads before Coulson had finally given up on Making Clint Barton Play Well With Others.

Natasha shrugs. "It's about time. I was starting to wonder whether training would ever end."

"But you don't sound thrilled." He takes a sip of lukewarm coffee, wincing at the acidity as it slides down his throat.

She picks up her fork and carefully twirls some of the pasta around it before setting it back down again uneaten. "It's routine. Security, basically. They're sending me with Richards and Goodwin as my backup."

Clint understands immediately what she isn't saying. This is a test. She's being sent on a minor mission partnered with a pair of junior agents. They will likely be useless as backup should a situation truly arise that she can't handle. That isn't their job, except in name. Their real assignment is to monitor her, to shoot and kill without a second thought should she deviate from orders, should she choose to go rogue.

"I'd rather take my chances on my own," she says darkly, "than be kept on a choke collar forever."

-

Natasha makes it five weeks with Richards and Goodwin before her cover gets blown on what ought to have been a simple intel gathering mission. The junior agents are supposed to be monitoring her at all times, but when the shit hits the fan, their response is lagging, just a few seconds too slow to be of any use. The version Clint gets from Coulson is that she's managed to fight her way out against at least a dozen guys twice her size, but took an impressive blow to the head along the way. Clint isn't sure whether Coulson tells him out of some twisted sense of charity, or because he wants Natasha to have a babysitter while she's reluctantly forced to stay in Medical for twenty-four hour observation. He doesn't give it too much thought, though; visiting her there isn't a question.

This time her room is in the regular medical ward, not the secure area, and Clint wonders for a moment whether that will make her more or less pleased to be here. On the one hand it's a vote of confidence, but on the other, she wouldn't be here if her backup had been treating her like any other agent, had truly been there to support her rather than as a twisted failsafe with orders to shoot to kill should she decide belatedly to go rogue. He pushes the thoughts down as he reaches to slide open the glass door to her room; if nothing else, Natasha has proven her loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. with her own safety, risking her life to ensure successful completion of the mission.

She's curled up with her back to the door when he enters, but she turns over to look at him immediately, poised to be on the defensive in an instant if need be.

"Hey, Nat," he says carefully, pausing a few feet away from the bed. "It's me." It isn't that he thinks she'd harm him intentionally, but he knows they've got her cornered in here, and surprising her is the last thing he wants to do. He knows from his military days that memories of danger have a way of creeping in uninvited when physical weakness gives them an opening.

"Don't call me that." She turns over slowly to look at him, and it isn't exactly pleasure written across her face, but he doesn't miss the breath that she takes, forcing her body to drop its instinctive defenses, forcing herself to relax just a little. Natasha is a master of disguising her reactions, but Clint likes to think that if he had a super power, it would be his skills of observation.

"What should I call you, then? Widow?" Clint pulls the chair from the corner of the room to the side of her bed and sits in it. A bruise is blooming across her temple, a cut on her right cheek stitched carefully closed. Suddenly he has the urge to go and find the junior agents who were in the field with her, to challenge them to a sparring match just so he'll have an excuse to beat the crap out of them.

Natasha rolls her eyes. "What are you doing here?"

Clint shrugs. "Oh, you know. Bed was too comfortable. Thought I'd try sleeping in a chair for a change."

He's becoming accustomed to her ignoring his jokes, or reacting with something akin to irritation. What he doesn't expect is the way that she almost flinches now, the way her posture shifts again as all of her focus seems to withdraw inward. If he didn't know better, he might think the flash of emotion he's just seen in her eyes was disappointment.

"Who sent you?" she asks harshly.

"Nobody sent me," says Clint, confused by the sudden shift in her. "I sent me. I mean, I wanted to see you."

Natasha studies his face. "That doesn't make sense."

"You're in the hospital." He leans forward, feeling out of his element, at a loss for how to explain the things that he's feeling. It isn't rational. It never has been, not from the moment he first saw her turning heads in a snowy marketplace. It's been years since he's wanted the kind of connection he craves from her, since he's considered friendship a possibility. There's no reason why she ought to be special, why he should feel so compelled to fight for her trust the way he has been. There isn't even anyone else who wants to, and he thinks suddenly that this is why. "You're here because someone who was supposed to have your back didn't."

"I'm used to working alone," she answers, as if it's the most natural response in the world.

"Then why are you upset with me?" asks Clint, suddenly frustrated. "Why are you so convinced that I have an ulterior motive, or that someone must have sent me? Why can't it just be that I care?"

"Because," says Natasha. "That isn't how caring works. People form relationships on the basis of give and take. Caring is just—an illusion. We fulfill each other's needs, and if it happens repeatedly enough, then it creates a bond that's mutually advantageous. But I have nothing to offer you. You don't want sex. You claim not to want any kind of favor. I don't have money or any kind of possessions to give you. If you're looking for companionship, then you'd do far better to be out at a bar. So what possible motive would you have for being here, if it isn't an order?"

"Is that seriously what you think?" It shouldn't really be a surprise, he knows. He's read S.H.I.E.L.D.'s multitude of files on the Red Room, he knows the kind of program she grew up in, the sort of propaganda they must have put into her head. And yet the foolishly idealistic part of him feels that statement like a punch to the gut, that she is eighteen and has already written off so much of the world.

"Everyone acts like I'm about to stab them in the back," she admits, and this time lets him hear the edge of sadness in her voice. "Why don't you?"

Clint shrugs. "Because you aren't going to."

"You don't know that," Natasha snaps, stubbornly. For a moment she holds onto the tension like it's an anchor, the last of the distance she keeps armored around herself. Then, slowly, she meets his gaze again, and the façade cracks. He sees it in her eyes: the same fragile, genuine warmth he'd glimpsed that morning in the marketplace, the thing that had seemed to shake his aim like nothing else ever has. And then she's smiling at him, cautiously at first, then more broadly, like he's seeing a glimpse of the girl she might be now had she been allowed to grow into her own person.

"How are you feeling?" Clint asks after a moment, hoping she'll give him a real answer now, instead of more defenses.

"Like your people sent me with a bunch of junior clowns instead of backup," says Natasha, her voice harsh with accusation, and for the first time lets him see the pain and exhaustion in her eyes. It's a deliberate choice, he realizes, to let him know. But that doesn't make what she's feeling any less real. Suffering alone is still suffering, and Clint knows that better than most.

"It's late," he says, finally, when she doesn't volunteer anything further. "You should get some sleep."

"I'm fine," she says evasively, suddenly tense again.

"You're in pain," says Clint. "And I'm guessing you haven't really slept since you went undercover three days ago. Why not rest now?"

She looks down at the thin white sheet on the bed, thumb and forefinger playing with a loose thread in an uncharacteristically vulnerable gesture. "Where I come from, you fall asleep in a medical bed and you have a good chance of becoming the latest experiment."

"S.H.I.E.L.D. is different," he answers, but he knows it isn't going to satisfy her.

"Is it really?" asks Natasha. "Everyone seems to think I'm a threat. Now would be the logical time to neutralize it."

"Then I'll stay," says Clint, refusing to falter as her eyes search him, seem practically to strip away all his defenses.

When she doesn't say anything further, he moves deliberately to sit on the bed beside her, watching her reaction. He expects her to protest, or at the very least tense back into a defensive posture. He's grown accustomed to Natasha being all razor instinct and hair-trigger flight, ready to respond to the slightest shift in the atmosphere. But now she only looks at him, giving something like silent acceptance, he thinks. Clint settles against the pillows carefully, then finds her hand, holding it between both of his like it isn't one of the deadliest weapons he's touched all day. The surprise in her face makes him wonder whether anyone has ever touched her like this, whether anyone has simply cared without expectation.

"Thank you," she says quietly, and doesn't pull away.

-

Clint tries not to act blatantly ecstatic when he gets partnered with Natasha after Richards and Goodwin's rather spectacular failure.

"Think of this as a trial run," warns Coulson, after he gives them their new assignment. "On the basis of your performance reviews for the next few months, we'll determine whether the two of you will continue working together."

"Well," Natasha deadpans, turning to look at Clint as they leave the briefing room. "You're a step up from the Two Stooges."

"Careful, Romanoff," he shoots back. "I'm gonna start thinking you like me."

She says nothing, and Clint beams all the way out to the car waiting to take them to the airport.

It isn't exactly a routine mission that they're sent on as first-time partners, but it shouldn't be the hardest Clint's ever been sent on, either. At least, that's what he thinks the entirety of the ride to Oslo, where they're running surveillance on an orphanage suspected of experimenting on the children with prototype subdermal remote explosives. It's supposed to be strictly information gathering, posing as an overly naïve husband to let Natasha work her covert interrogation magic as his make-believe trophy wife.

He knows the instant they arrive that everything has already gone to hell. The building is big and white, more asylum on the inside than anything resembling a nurturing home. No one comes to the door when they arrive to inquire, and as soon as Clint picks the lock, he can smell the smoke which fills the snaking, maze-like hallways. It's eerily silent, and as soon as they enter the first set of dormitories, he sees why.

The children are all dead, laid out in their beds like dolls, throats slit and skin porcelain pale. Blood runs down the sides of mattresses, drawing patterns on the sheets and floor, equal parts mesmerizing and horrific. Someone has been expecting them, he thinks, and has left this as a monument, a giant fuck you to S.H.I.E.L.D.

There's nothing they can do, no action to be taken but to find the men responsible and make them pay. It takes four days, and they scarcely sleep in between.

They find their targets at last in a back room of the unmarked corporate office. For all their audacity they are woefully unprepared for a hand-to-hand fight, and Natasha has the four of them restrained in minutes. Clint watches in silence as she slits their throats, slowly, with pleasure, every movement smooth like silk. It's one of the most ruthless kills he's ever seen but he doesn't protest, can't exactly blame her.

She looks up at him as she stands over the last of her corpses, blood dripping from her knife and pooling at her feet, and the look in her eyes is so cold it burns him.

An hour later, they've scarcely made it through the door of their hotel room when Natasha takes hold of his collar, puts one hand around his throat, and shoves him down on the bed. He makes a noise of surprise but doesn't protest, almost relieved to see the anger in her now because anything is better than that blank emotionless void.

Her shirt is still spattered with red as she straddles him, and she pulls it over her head without pretense, discarding it on the floor. Her body is every bit as beautiful and lethal as he's always known it would be, and he stares unabashedly as she removes her bra as well before leaning over to whisper in his ear.

"Feel like a distraction?" Her voice is deep and full of breathy venom, and he recognizes this as the part of her that's taken more lives than he can count.

"Hell yes," he answers, because the danger in her feels like exactly what he needs right now, as though she might be able to fuck the cold helplessness of this mission away, might be able to burn the images out of his mind with her heat. He's already hard at the thought of it, adrenaline coursing through him as he thinks that this feels part fantasy and part nightmare.

"Good."

She crawls off of him just long enough to dispense with the rest of her clothes, and he doesn't even manage to move in that time. Natasha makes a noise of disapproval as she undoes his belt and shoves his pants down to his knees before trapping him between her thighs again. When he reaches up to palm her breast, she grabs his wrist and traps his hand against the bed, leaning up to graze his neck with her teeth.

She fucks him hard and fast into the flimsy mattress, so that he can feel the springs pressing into his back and it almost hurts. He doesn't try to touch her again, driving his hips upward instead, his breath coming ragged as he tries to keep pace. She is a blur of motion above him, all slick heat and cold fire as the ends of her hair tickle his chest, as he loses feeling in his hand from the bruising pressure of her fingers around his wrist. She goes completely still when she comes, silently, much sooner than he's expected, like it's been a race to finish, to dispatch with this act. Quick and clean, like one of her kills.

And then she's climbing off of him, off of the bed, leaving him paralyzed by confusion, still throbbing for release.

"Hey!" he calls out, scrambling to sit upright as she plucks clean clothes from her overnight bag and pulls them on with unreal speed. "Hey, what the hell is this?"

"Nice distraction," says Natasha, and her smile is downright cruel as she heads for the door and is gone.

He probably ought to call Coulson and report her AWOL, he thinks, as he stands in the shower, still achingly hard and humiliated besides. He's been a fool, he thinks, to delude himself into believing that he's been anything more than a mark to Natasha. She is a master of deception, and he's wanted that connection so badly that he's allowed himself to fall in blind.

And he can't bring himself to pick up the phone.

It's dark when Natasha finally returns, going on midnight, and Clint hasn't slept yet. She comes through the door almost silently, her face hidden by shadow and by her hair, which is hanging loose. She says nothing, goes straight into the bathroom, and he listens as the shower starts. When she comes out to retrieve clothes from her bag, he thinks that she looks unnaturally pale, defeated.

"You can't do that again," says Clint, when she's re-dressed, standing with her back to him as she brushes out her long wet curls.

"What, fuck you?" She laughs mirthlessly, turning to face him at last. "Most men would thank me. I even let you keep your head."

"Yeah," Clint snaps, hurt and anger flaring again. "Thank you for not murdering me, Nat. Because that's what you're used to, right? How do you do it, fuck them and then cut their throats while they come?" He realizes an instant too late what he's said, the words conjuring images of the orphanage back into his own mind.

She breaks then. She doesn't cry, doesn't even say anything, just closes her eyes and puts one hand over them, her knuckles white. Suddenly she looks very small, and Clint thinks of her life before this one, of the beatings and experiments and mind games that have filled her with cold hatred, burned out her core and left her a shell of a woman, all ash and anguish. Most of the time she is the flame-hewn weapon they've intended her to be, but tonight she is fragile, like tender new skin not yet hardened into a scar.

"Tasha," Clint whispers, and it rolls off his tongue so naturally that he doesn't give it another thought. "Look. Everything about this mission is fucked up. I get that. You can be upset. I'll be your partner. Hell, I'd like to be your friend. But I'm not your mark, I'm not your punching bag, and I'm not your play thing."

She is silent for a long moment, then bites her lip and simply nods. He lets out a long breath he hasn't realized he's been holding, shaken. She's still standing there in the middle of the room with the ends of her wet hair dripping onto the carpet, looking more lost than he's ever seen her. Clint takes her arm carefully and leads her over to the side of the bed, handing her a bottle of water. Natasha sits with her back pressed into the headboard and draws her knees up to her chest, her eyes full of ghosts when she meets his gaze again.

"That could have been me," she says quietly, and for a moment Clint thinks she's talking about the children in the orphanage. But then she continues. "I'm a murderer. It's why S.H.I.E.L.D. sent you to kill me."

"Yeah," says Clint, because there really isn't any way around it. "But you're here to catch the bad guys now." The reassurance sounds hollow, juvenile, even to him. He sits on the other side of the bed.

"They were never really people to me before," says Natasha.

"Your targets?" Clint asks, though he knows the answer.

She nods again.

"What were they?"

She's quiet for so long that he starts to think she might not answer at all. "They were—necessities." Natasha takes a breath and he hears the end of it catch in her throat. "I only ever had one choice: meet expectations or be killed. At first all I knew was that I didn't want to die, so I did what I was told. I was eight when I made my first kill. He was a man who liked little girls like me. They gave me this dress that made me feel like a princess. The man put me on his lap, and I opened his jugular. I never knew his name."

Clint tries very hard not to flinch at what she's saying. "Natasha-"

"I'm not finished," she interrupts, her voice hardening again. "I followed orders so that they wouldn't kill me. And I got good at it. I started to enjoy it. When I got tired of the constant threats, I put a bullet in my handler's skull and I left. And I kept killing, because it's what I do. It's the only valuable skill I have." She sounds bitter now, regretful in a way he's never heard from her before.

"That's not true," says Clint, because he can't stand the look of resignation she's giving him, hates to think that for all the confidence she exudes, this is how she truly views herself underneath. Suddenly he understands why the other agents' wariness of her has struck such a nerve in her from the beginning.

"That orphanage could have been my hit," says Natasha, and her voice sounds uncharacteristically small. "The men I took out today—I'm not any different. I've always thought that I took these jobs so I could live. But what makes my living worthwhile?"

"Tasha." There is nothing else he can say, he thinks, nothing that will make the reality of her life seem any better. Instead he offers the only thing he can. "My dad liked to drink. And he liked to run a strict household, was what he'd always say. Which meant I got very well acquainted with his belt."

"The scars on your shoulders," says Natasha, and he's surprised that she's noticed; surprised she was actually paying attention to anything besides herself, earlier.

"Yeah. That lasted until I was ten. Dad left my brother watching me, took Mom into town to go to the store. On the way back he drove the truck into the oncoming lane. Killed them both on impact, paralyzed the other driver. When the police told me, the first thing I thought was—what a mess. Truck full of groceries spins out. I kept picturing the milk spilled all over the road." Clint swallows, trying to ignore the way the blood is pounding in his head. It's been years since he's said any of this aloud, and never to anyone who's seemed quite so important.

Natasha says nothing, just lets him talk.

"I don't have any other family, so they put me in the system until I was thirteen, and then I ran away with the circus. The Swordsman made me his apprentice, which—was not that different from living with my dad aside from, you know, the learning to use a bow. That stint lasted until he got jealous and tried to kill me." He scrubs a hand over his eyes, willing these memories to stay at a safe distance. "After that I was on the street, doing whatever it took. I was sick and half-starved when S.H.I.E.L.D. found me."

"Why did you join?" she asks.

Clint shrugs. "I was tired of just scraping by on my own. Seemed like they could give me a bed to sleep in, guaranteed dinner every night. Thought maybe I might find some friends, too."

"And did you?"

"Yeah." He smiles, emboldened by everything he's just told her. "You."

Natasha snorts, but the humor fades quickly, replaced almost instantly by the sorrow that's been weighing on her all night. She says nothing, and he wonders if she still thinks he's being disingenuous.

"Look," he says gently. "I won't pretend to know what you've been through. But being alone? Having regrets? Doing bad things to survive? I get that."

"That's why you didn't kill me before," says Natasha, and he thinks once again that her intuition is truly uncanny. "The real reason."

"Do you want to live?" Clint asks finally, as gently as he can.

She doesn't hesitate. "Of course I do."

"Then live," says Clint simply. "If you regret what you've done, then make different choices. But you dying won't change any of what's already happened."

"I know." She shivers and he pulls an extra blanket from the foot of the bed, holding it out to her. She looks conflicted still, and he wonders whether it will ever be possible for her to find peace.

"Different kind of distraction?" he offers, grabbing the television remote from the bedside table and handing it to her. He knows sleep won't come easily tonight. "Find us something good to watch."

She takes the remote from him and simply looks at it, as though the simple action of allowing herself to find comfort in familiarity might actually signify something much larger. Finally, she switches the television on, flipping channels before settling on a movie with English subtitles. But she doesn't relax yet, keeping her knees drawn up to her chest, her shoulders shaking ever so slightly with every breath. After a moment, Clint shifts closer, slipping an arm around her very carefully. She starts at his touch, every muscle going taut as her eyes come up to search his face. And then, slowly, she makes the decision to relax, curling into his side. Clint winds his fingers into her damp hair, holding her head against his shoulder, her breath tickling his neck.

"I'm sorry," she whispers a few minutes later, barely audible over the sounds of a commercial.

"I know," says Clint, and leaves it at that.

They make it six months in the field together before everything goes terribly wrong again.

Clint is perched on a rooftop monitoring Natasha through a scope, and they've had just enough recent successes that he's beginning to get comfortable, beginning to get lax, beginning to get bored. He's too busy admiring his partner's performance to hear the approach of the man behind him until it's too late.

By the time he registers a vague sense of danger and spins around, the man is already less than five feet away, too close to draw and aim an arrow. Clint steels himself—he's decent enough hand to hand—but he doesn't anticipate the canister of gas his opponent throws at his feet.

At first he thinks it's tear gas, because it sure as hell stings his eyes. But then he realizes that his head is spinning, the view below fading away as his vision blurs. He swipes at his eyes with the back of one hand, the leather of his arm guard tearing at his skin, but the movement does nothing to clear his view. The objects around him are blurring into light and shadow, transforming into alien shapes that leave him lost in a world that was clear only moments before. It's all he can do to sink to his knees as he realizes that his vision is gone completely, the edge of the rooftop a few feet away waiting for him to take his own life in the confusion. He feels rough hands on his arms, dragging him into the unknown as consciousness fades.

-

Clint is alone in the darkness—at least he thinks it's dark, because he isn't sure he would be able to tell otherwise—with his back to the wall, arms spread with his wrists chained on either side of his head, the cold seeping mercilessly into his skin. Time becomes amorphous; he has no idea how long he's been here, save for the fact that his fingers are going numb, sensation fading except for the growing ache he knows means he's losing circulation fast. Without vision he can't identify any of the noises off in the distance, has no idea whether a decisive final blow might be coming at any moment.

It's been too long, he thinks, and he lost his comms what feels like an eternity ago. He tries to remember his training, to remain calm and believe in the fact that help is on the way. But it's been too long, the pragmatic part of his mind insists. Natasha is his partner, but she's also a master of survival. He wants desperately to think that she'll come for him, that she would risk for him everything he would for her. But doubt is one of the only constants in his life; he can't shake the expectation that he will always be abandoned, that he will always be the one who matters less. For all he knows, she's been compromised by now too, or took off as soon as she realized her cover was blown. Even if her cover is still intact, she'd be a fool to come after him on her own, especially when he'd be useless, even without the restraints. S.H.I.E.L.D. will probably have a recovery team come after him tomorrow, but the thought of that leaves him with a nauseating sense of hopelessness: by then he could be dead, or worse.

He thinks of a cluttered house in Iowa, of the way he'd sat at the table covered in a week's worth of dirty dishes and watched the sun set, waiting to hear the familiar sound of the rusted out pickup in the driveway. The night had passed in empty limbo, the sun rising to sick panic before the knock on the door had come. Clint doesn't think he's felt this lost since then.

His entire body goes rigid when a hand out of the darkness covers his mouth and nose with enough force to knock the breath out of him, and for a moment he's certain that this is it, the moment when he doesn't have to wonder anymore.

"Be quiet," Natasha hisses against his ear, and for a moment he's so relieved that he thinks he'd collapse if the cuffs weren't holding him in place. He does as he's told and she has his hands free a few moments later, grabbing his shoulder as he tries to find his equilibrium again. He feels strangely unsteady without vision to guide his feet, and for a moment he despairs of ever getting back to safety.

"I can't see," he whispers, because he isn't sure that she's aware, or that she's thought that far ahead.

"I noticed," she answers, and there's a rustling sound as she works with some kind of equipment he can't quite place. "We don't have much time. We're going to have to move quickly."

Clint realizes that she means literally move, and his apprehension flares again when he tries to fight the inertia of uncertainty keeping his feet rooted to the ground. "I can't see," he repeats.

"I'll lead you," says Natasha, taking his arm. The urgency in her voice tells him they really don't have time for discussion. "You're going to have to trust me."

And then she's moving, and he's moving with her, instinctively, without another thought.

-

He recognizes the safehouse by the sound of the bolts on the door unlocking as Natasha punches in her brand new S.H.I.E.L.D. ID code. She takes his shoulder again a moment later, leading him across the room before coming to a stop.

"Sit," she says, practically pushing him down onto the wide cushions of a couch when he hesitates.

Clint sinks into it, resting his head in his hands as the adrenaline fades. Natasha sits beside him and drapes a blanket around his shoulders. Clint doesn't move, still paralyzed by his thoughts, by fear for the future. A moment later, she pulls the cover away and slips her arm around him instead, firmly.

"What are you doing?" he asks, though he doesn't pull away. He means right now, and before too, and maybe even when she'd made her original decision to trust him. Her body is warm despite the chill in the room, and he feels the weight of her arm around his shoulders anchoring him to the world that he knows, reminding him that he is not truly as lost as he feels.

"You're shaking," says Natasha, as if that might explain everything somehow. It's the kind of reply he's coming to recognize as her hallmark, a simple statement that speaks multitudes.

"No," he insists. "I mean—Why come after me? You could have gotten yourself killed."

"You're my partner. What would you have done if I was in your place?"

"I would've come after you," Clint concedes. "But I'm—"

"What?" she asks sharply. "You're what, Barton? Different? Better?"

"Fuck," he mutters, realizing that's exactly how it's sounded, and he wouldn't exactly blame her if she picked now to kill him. "You know that's not how I meant it."

"Yes it is," Natasha answers, and there's an unexpected hint of amusement in her tone. "You work with people. You save them. I'm a trained killing machine." There's no sign of bitterness or self-reproach in her voice this time; she says it like she might as well be telling him her dinner preferences.

"I trust you," says Clint, because suddenly he needs to hear the words aloud, needs to make them real.

"I know," she says simply. "Now you do too."

He tries to think of whether he should apologize, how to tell her that he's still afraid he isn't saved, that he has no idea what he'll do if the effects of the drug can't be reversed, if he's forced to resign.

"Barton," says Natasha, when he's been silent a moment too long. "Clint. Just try to rest."

She tugs at his arm until he allows himself to relax against her, leaning his head on her shoulder and closing his eyes. He's surprised by the way her right hand circles gently over his back, the left curled into his hair, and then he remembers that she is also the girl who fed birds lost in the cold.

When he wakes later the world isn't exactly in focus but it's clearer, and he doesn't feel helpless anymore. Natasha smiles when he meets her eyes, and he nearly sobs with relief.

He spends three days in Medical while S.H.I.E.L.D.'s doctors work out exactly what chemical compound he's been poisoned with, and concoct a complicated therapy protocol which will retrain the muscles that dilate his pupils and focus his eyes. He needs every bit of the visual acuity that's made him the world's greatest marksman, and the doctors swear that he'll get it back in a few weeks if he just complies with the exercises that mostly involve staring through a virtual reality headset at various arrays of flashing dots and psychedelic colors.

On the evening of the second day, Natasha appears in the doorway of his room, and by then his vision is good enough to recognize her with no problem, but still not adequate for sinking an arrow into a target at a hundred yards up.

"Hey," he says, when she pauses with uncharacteristic uncertainty a few steps past the threshold. She must be here with a message, he thinks, or to talk about the debriefing Coulson's been conducting separately between the two of them. But then he sees what's in her hands.

"I brought you dinner," says Natasha, without further greeting. She hands him the bag, which contains a cheeseburger and fries from the diner on the corner.

"Edible food," says Clint grandly. "You've saved me."

She smiles at him—her real smile, small and cautious and absolutely genuine—and for a moment it feels like waking up in the safe house all over again, like the rush he still gets after every mission, realizing that he's somehow made it through.

"You hate Medical," says Clint, when the silence begins to grow uncomfortable. It's a stupid thing to say, but it's all he can think, all he can do to stop himself from actually asking whether he's somehow become important enough to her to bring her here without any sort of additional agenda.

"Yes," she answers, without emotion. "But my partner's in the hospital. Someone once suggested visiting might be appreciated."

It's her own way of thanking him, he realizes, for the night when he kept vigil nearly six months ago. His chest feels suddenly tight, and he can't think of a single thing to say, can't figure out how to tell her that he knows this is more than a burger and fries, that in the year since he met her he's begun to feel wanted for the first time in longer than he can remember.

"Move over," Natasha orders before he can respond at all.

He thinks that's maybe for the best as he complies, shifting to the other side of the bed and trying not to jump to conclusions. But she climbs gracefully onto the narrow mattress beside him, settling so close that their shoulders are touching and he can feel the warmth of her body against the chill of the sterile hospital air.

Clint offers her some of his fries and considers that possibly she already knows everything he can't seem to say, that possibly they don't need words.

Clint's vision is deemed fully healed three days after Natasha marks her first anniversary with S.H.I.E.L.D. She's finally been approved to live off-base, and has chosen a small studio apartment a few blocks away from his own. He gives her a week to settle in before going over unannounced, bearing a pizza and a bottle of champagne.

She raises an eyebrow at him as she opens the door. She's wearing jeans and a threadbare t-shirt, and there's a smudge of paint drying on her cheek. She looks uncharacteristically chaotic, and also the most relaxed he's ever seen her.

"Renovations?" Clint asks, balancing the pizza box on one hand to reach out and wipe the paint away with the pad of his thumb.

"The place needs work," she answers, stepping back to let him in. "But it'll do."

"Careful," he teases. "Don't want to get too enthusiastic."

The first thing he notices about the place is how empty it is still. There's a mattress on one side of the room with no bedframe or headboard, and a table with two chairs at the opposite end of the space. The only other piece of furniture is a bookshelf in the corner, and he realizes that's what she's been painting.

"It's a place to sleep," says Natasha. "The added privacy is admittedly nice, but I'm not sure what else ought to be remarkable about it."

Clint sighs. "It's a home. Your home. You have a home now, Nat. You should make it comfortable."

"I don't need a lot of things to be comfortable," she insists.

"But aren't there things you want? Like, maybe, a bedframe? A television?" He wonders whether it's more than simple pragmatism, knows that she's still struggling on some level with the boundaries of her new life, with the concept of allowing herself pleasure. "Next time we both get a day off, we're going furniture shopping."

"Was there a reason you're here?" she asks, although he notes that she hasn't refused. "I mean, other than judging my furniture?"

"Actually yes," says Clint, handing her the champagne. "Coulson gave me my performance review today when he cleared me to go back in the field. Looks like you're stuck with me for good, Romanoff."

He watches as the smile begins in her eyes, small and cautious and unaccustomed. "Damn," she says dryly. "Here I thought there was still a chance I might get put back with the junior buffoons."

And then she steps forward and hugs him without any hesitation.

They eat dinner on the rooftop, watching the sun set over the New York skyline.

"So I was wondering," says Clint, pulling the crust off his pizza because that's a childhood habit he can afford these days.

Natasha gives his food a sideways glance. "What?"

"The story about the huntsman and the bird," he says, thinking of the first time he ever saw her, how he'd been hidden on a rooftop not unlike this one. "How does it end?"

She makes a face. "The huntsman captures the bird, outsmarts the evil king, and wins the princess's hand in marriage."

"And I take it you're not satisfied?"

"Princesses aren't prizes," says Natasha, finishing her food and delicately wiping traces of red sauce on a napkin. "And I'm not sure true love exists."

"Then that one's not your story," says Clint. "Find something else you like better?"

A flock of pigeons lands along the far side of the roof, and suddenly she's distracted, watching them.

"No. But I'm still looking." She snatches the discarded pizza crust from his plate, and gets to her feet.

"Hey, what are you doing?"

Natasha puts a finger to her lips and cautiously approaches the birds. She moves like a dancer, her footfalls silent, her strides seeming practically to melt into the shadows. At first the birds scatter into the air, the wind from their wings whipping her hair. But she stands firm, perfectly still now, the crust in her outstretched fingers. A single bird returns, landing on the rooftop a few feet away from her. It regards her with impossibly bright orange eyes, neck craned as it debates the risk and the attractiveness of the food. Natasha stares right back at it, a pillar of calm in the night. At last the bird makes a decision, crouching with every muscle coiled before jumping into the air and landing gracefully on her forearm.

"Going to steal a tail feather for me?" asks Clint. He's joking, but the way the bird is perched on her, contentedly pecking mouthfuls of the crust from her hand, it almost looks like she could manage it.

Natasha looks back over her shoulder at him. "Not mine to take." She turns back to address the bird as it finishes the last of the crust. "Do you hear him? Ridiculous, right? Go on, have a good life." She raises her arm as the pigeon launches itself into flight.

Clint watches the wing beats fade until they vanish into the stars and the haze of the city lights. Natasha settles back on the rooftop beside him. She picks up the champagne and pours herself another glass, raising it to him in a silent toast.