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Other People - Chapter 1

 

She lets herself into his dark apartment with the spare key. He’s not expected back for another two hours, but the quiet in here in much preferable to the quiet of her place tonight. She had woken up early to a feeling of unease that grew into irritation over the course of the day. It hadn’t improved by spending the day doing paperwork and unraveling SHIELD red tape to get her requisitions through the system. God, she misses Coulson. By the time afternoon came around the irritation had grown into something darker that made plays for freedom through harsh, scathing words that she hadn't bothered holding back. She’s not sorry for most of it. The majority of administrators are idiots with no connection to or understanding of the world Natasha moves in. But Clarice didn’t deserve what she got, and Natasha will bring coffee tomorrow as a peace offering. Clarice is girly and bubbly, and there’s no reason in the world Natasha would feel a connection with her. But she kind of does. She likes Clarice.

She hangs up her coat and walks into the small apartment. She knows the layout of Clint’s apartment well enough that she doesn't have to turn on the lights. It’s a crash pad more or less, for him to use when he’s in D.C. It's got a small living room open to a kitchenette, a small bedroom and an even smaller bathroom. Nothing fancy. But homey.

She heads for the kitchen counter. The apartment smells like stale coffee, and she bets he left some in the pot. She’s just reaching for the light switch when all of her instincts rear up, red warning flashing in her head. She doesn't hesitate, just slides fluidly to the side and reaches for her knife. But even as her hand wraps around the hilt, she’s spun and shoved up against the wall. She grunts as her back impacts the wall. A forearm presses up against her throat, another locks the hand that’s now gripping her knife.

“Gotcha.”

She sees the glint of Clint's teeth in the darkness, and most of the tension bleeds out of her body. She twists her hand out of his grip and grabs the short hair at his neck and pulls his head back at a sharp angle. "You realize you were two tenths of a second from bleeding out on your own kitchen floor, Barton?"

"Life on the edge, baby," he grins, throat exposed as her grip keeps his head tilted back.

"Remember what happened the last time you called me baby?"

"Sorry." He doesn’t sound it.

She lets go of his hair. "Thought you weren’t due back until later."

"Managed to catch an earlier flight." He hasn’t moved, is still pressing into her, warm and steady. There’s nothing really restrictive about the grip he holds on her now. If she wanted to she could easily break free.

She hasn’t yet decided if she wants to

"You’re awfully chipper for someone who spent two days in a sewer,” she says.

He shrugs against her. "What can I say? A shower, dry socks, and some chow is all it takes to make me happy. I’m not a complicated man."

"Uh-huh."  

"What’s that supposed to mean?" he says with a mock-hurt look on his face.

"Please. You may fool everyone else, but I know you like they don't." She reaches up and directs his mouth to the junction between her neck and her shoulder. She's made up her mind. She wants him tonight.

Clint makes a sound deep in his throat at the all-green signal, and the easy energy around him tilts sideways, morphs into something more primal. He pushes his hands under her skirt and shoves it up until it bunches around her waist. He grabs her thighs and hikes her up with a grunt. 

"Happy birthday to me,"he growls against her neck as he presses her hard against the wall. One of his hands slip into her panties. "You have any special attachment to these?" he asks, his teeth scraping across her skin.   

"No." 

She tightens her legs around his hips as he uses both hands to tear the fabric.

"Bed," she tells him.

"Bed," he agrees and hikes her higher up.

He walks them through the dark apartment to the bedroom. She holds on as he lowers her onto the bed, until her back is resting against the mattress and he’s on his hands and knees over her. He gives her a shark's smile, dark and full of teeth, before rolling off her. A small bedside light comes to life. He likes to see what they do.

She sits up and starts pulling her half unbuttoned blouse over her head. 

"No. Leave it."

She lifts an eyebrow.

"It's my birthday, humor me here.” The bed dips and he straddles her again. His jeans are warm against the sides of her thighs. He pushes her back down, grips her wrists and brings them up over her head. His grip isn't gentle. 

She shifts under him, evaluates his position against her, his balance. "What's all this about your birthday?" She pulls a little, more to feel his fingers tighten than actually trying to get away. "You've never cared before."

"Do something new every day." He presses her wrists into the mattress over her head. "Keep them there."

"I promise nothing."

He lets go of her wrists and slides his hands along her stretched arms, down her sides and up under her blouse. He pushes it up until it’s bunched under her arm pits. She breaks out in goose bumps from the sensation of his reality-rough hands against her skin. His fingers find their way in under her bra, push it up and cup her breasts. He leans in close, so close, and licks one nipple before sucking it into his mouth. He abandons it after a few seconds and moves up until he's looking down at her. They're no more than an inch apart. Without breaking eye contact he pushes one hand down between their bodies. The fingers are confident, familiar with her body, and she tilts her hips up when they slide in between her legs.

"Someone’s in a hurry," she mumbles.   

He leans closer, breathes warmth over her lips. "You want slow?"  

"No."

"Good," he says, and pushes two fingers into her.

She strains up against him as he starts fingering her. 

"I want to—" She looks up and sees his eyes slant up to her wrists, still resting over her head. "Can I?"

He wants to tie her up. He likes that. A lot.

She reaches down and presses her palm against the hardness in his jeans. He sucks in a sharp breath and the fingers stop moving.

"You sure you wouldn’t rather I have my hands free?" she asks with a smirk.

"Uh. Maybe later?" 

She considers it and decides she's okay with him tying her up tonight. She’s not always interested in doing it, but tonight, yes, tonight she is.

It’s always a thrill with a complicated edge. The restraints will be the real deal. Not painful or overly restrictive, but she won’t be getting out of them until he lets her out. She doesn’t worry he'll do things to her that she doesn’t want, she knows him too well for that. She also knows he would never tie her up and walk away, leave her defenseless. Exposed. On display. She knows he wouldn’t, but whispered memories of humiliation and helplessness mean there's always an undercurrent of relief when the restraints finally come off.

"Okay," she says and gives him a wicked little squeeze before pulling her hand away. 

"Yeah?"

"Yeah," she confirms. 

He’s off the bed and back in seconds with the black nylon rope hanging in loose loops around his hand. She holds out her arms and lets him wrap it first around the right, then the left. She watches him work, looping the rope and tying it off in ways she's very familiar with. He goes about it silently and with all the focus he brings to the game when he’s looking down the length of an arrow. Crimson heat unfurls in her stomach and starts sliding downwards.

When he’s satisfied with his handiwork he directs her hands back over her head and secures them to the bed frame. The rope is snug, but not painfully so, and if she doesn't pull too hard, there will be no marks tomorrow. She tugs lightly at the restraints, testing. He snorts. The bed is sturdy. The knots tied to perfection. They both know it's futile. 

He slides down the bed and climbs between her legs, his hand stroking up her thigh and hip.  It slides in under the skirt that's still bunched around her waist. Natasha inhales deep, lets her lungs fill completely with air when he leans down without a word and runs his tongue, warm and flat, against the skin of her abdomen. He does it again, going lower. And lower.  She lets her head fall back. He pushes her knees further apart, scoots back a little, and holds her open as he puts his tongue against her. She tenses from the sensation, strains up against his mouth.

When his fingers push in again she raises her head and looks down at him. He looks back and keeps eye contact as he puts his head down again and swirls his tongue against her clit. She squeezes her eyes tightly shut. He’s good, so very, very good, and he knows exactly how to work her, how hard, how fast. She curls her hands into fists, uncurls them, and the only thing important in the world at this moment is what he’s doing to her. He adds another finger.

She told him she didn’t want slow, and he’s delivering. He’s working her towards the edge with skill and swiftness. Good. Fast is good. Fast is what she wants. Right now. Now. More. Now. He presses down with his tongue, moves it just right, and Natasha lets go of the last of the habitual resistance that lingers within. She pulls at her cuffs and feels everything go tighter, her surroundings narrowing down to Clint’s tongue and the pressure of his three fingers working into her. She breathes with it, mouth half-open, and time goes vague and inconsequential for a while.

The build-up is steep, unrelenting, and it's just a matter of minutes before she comes with a sharp inhalation. His hand comes up to rest between her breasts, steady and warm, anchoring her as the sensation wraps around her and pushes everything but her body's reaction away.

He looks up at her as she relaxes against the mattress with a sigh. He licks his lips. "God, Nat, you look—" For a moment his smile loses the predatory edge and she sees something soft in it. That smile never fails to make her uncomfortable, because with it he exposes his throat, his soft underbelly to her. She knees him in the side. Hard.

"You going to fuck me anytime this century?"

He grunts in pain and the smile slides back into a grin. "I think I need to do something about these legs of yours."   

"If you need it to feel safe, Barton, then by all means, go ahead."

She knows he sees her barb for what it is, the go-ahead to continue with her ankles. They rarely plan things out beforehand, but whether she’s the one in charge or he is, they both know that being tied up is something that has to be approached with care. 

He laughs. "Tough talk for someone who’s –"

She shifts sharply and wraps her thighs around his neck. Not hard enough to choke, and she doesn't twist her body, but she knows it’s definitely uncomfortable. "You were saying?" but without her hands, flat on her back, there’s preciously little she can do when he applies his extensive knowledge of getting out of holds of various kinds. She’s flipped over onto her stomach and his whole weight presses her into the mattress.

"Excuse me, you were saying?" His feet push her legs apart and he rubs down against her, his erection hard inside his jeans. Her scalp stings sharply as he pulls her head up by her hair and puts his mouth close to her ear. "Don’t go anywhere," he whispers.   

The bed dips when he gets up. A few seconds later a small bottle of lube lands in front of her face. Not strictly necessary, but they both like the feel of it. She turns her head and watches him pull his black Shield issue t-shirt off. The jeans and boxer briefs follow.

Oh, yes. Natasha approves.

He straddles her hips again. She grinds her ass up against him, rolls her hips and he makes a sound in his throat. "Fuck, Nat."  

"I think that’s the point here," she says.  

His mouth is warm against the skin between her shoulder blades. "With or without?"

He doesn’t have to specify further, she knows he’s asking about a condom. She hasn’t had that kind of mission for almost a year, and the tests are all green. And it’s not like she has to worry about getting pregnant. He's clean, too. If he was unsure about his status, he wouldn't have asked, just gotten one from the drawer next to the bed.

"Without."

Restraining her legs has apparently gone out the window, because he grabs the lube from in front of her face. She hears the wet sound of him slicking himself up and buries her face in the sheets as the mental images roll by. She wants him now. Now.

Cool lube runs down her crack and she pushes up on her knees a little and spreads her legs to give him better access. His finger teases briefly at her hole, then moves on. He starts working the lube between her folds and inside, and she has to concentrate on breathing. Slow in. Slow out. Then his thumbs spread her open and she feels him line up. Two seconds of stillness tick by, and she can't help holding her breath. Then he pushes forward.

He’s not exactly shoving in, but it’s definitely not slow and gentle. She squeezes her eyes shut at the wave of heat that spreads out in concentric rings from the epicenter. Clint sighs as he bottoms out, but he doesn’t pause, he just pulls out and goes deep again. "You look so good like this. So fucking good." He places both hands flat against the small of her back and leans forward, transferring some of his weight and pressing her down into the mattress as he fucks into her. Another kind of restraint.

He says nothing else, and the sounds of sex take over the room; his skin slapping against hers, his breathing, and the huffs that are pushed out of her with every thrust. She closes her eyes and just feels. It’s intense, him against her and inside her.

"You like it like this, don’t you?" He lowers himself down against her back without breaking his pace, his hands sliding up along her stretched out arms, coming to rest just above the ropes that hold her. It’s close and restrictive and exhilarating. His fingers dig into her skin. "Don't you?"

"Yes." Tonight she does. 

She twitches when he bites down on her shoulder. His warm tongue soothes the sting for a moment before the teeth return. His mouth, god, the things he can do. Lips, tongue, teeth, doesn’t matter. There’s something so very intimate about how he uses it on her, no matter where on her body, and when he bites down again, harder, she exhales long and loud.

He releases her arms and pushes up. She immediately misses the weight and warmth against her back, but he’s not moving far. She feels his hands on her ass, kneading, spreading, and she knows he’s pulled his knees under himself and is looking down at his cock moving in and out of her. Slowly the pace picks up a little, the force behind the thrusts increases but the movements, as forceful as they are, are still measured and controlled. He’s not completely unaffected, though. The deeper breaths and the way he exhales a fraction faster than he inhales tell her that.

"Fuck," he grins out. "Love the way you’re just taking it."

She groans when a slick finger presses in next to his cock, stretching. Glorious intense pressure. He pulls out, but leaves the finger.

"How much can you take? Hmm?"

Another finger joins the first one and she exhales with a huff when he pushes his cock in and starts to move again. She’s not there yet, but she's getting closer to the line where pleasure turns into the first hints of pain. But that’s fine. It’s more than fine. With Clint it's fine. Exciting.

"I bet you can take everything I give you," he tells her roughly. He works the two fingers and his cock in and out. "Gorgeous," he mumbles. "Just gorgeous." He pulls out and puts his hands on her hips, squeezes. "I wanna see you."

He gets up on his knees and assists her as she wriggles around to her back. Without effort he pulls her into the position he wants her. He settles between her legs, and very deliberately gives her a good look at his hard cock, glistening with lube. He wraps his hand around it, and gives it two slow strokes before leaning forward and lining up, teasing but not pushing in. She wraps her legs around his hips and pulls at the restraints. She wants so badly to get her hands on him, wants to touch. She exhales on a moan as he presses in again. He pulls out slow and then pushes in again. Hard.

"This is what you want." She nods as he hikes one of her legs higher against his side. He leans down and licks at her breast, applying teeth to her nipple. She arches up. He keeps working into her relentlessly. "God, you're good at this, taking it." 

For a split-second, a whisper of discord slithers up Natasha’s spine, and she blinks in surprise, but it drains away when Clint reaches down for a kiss. She tightens her legs around his hips and returns it, hard and deep. She smirks against his lips when he hisses and tries to pull back. He’s not the only one who enjoys using teeth.

"Oh, Jesus fuck," he groans when she lets go of his lower lip. She watches his tongue flick out, running over the sting she knows she put there. His breathing has gone a little more ragged around the edges. "You have no idea what you do to me, do you?"

"I think I have some inkling," she grinds up against him.

He grabs her and lifts her hips from the mattress, pushes in again with brutal, wonderful strokes. She already came once, and he’s not going to make her come again by just fucking her, but god, if he puts his mouth or fingers on her now, she’s pretty sure she wouldn’t last even a minute. She puts her feet down flat on the mattress and arches her back. His hands slide up her waist and calloused fingers pay her nipples some more attention. He rubs them until the sensation borders on pain. She clenches down on him, hard, and he buries his face against her neck. He’s panting now. She can feel his heart pounding as he fucks her, hard. It’s heaven. All she didn’t know she needed today. To just lie here and let him take what he wants. He braces himself on his elbows and buries both hands in the hair behind her head, grabs on and uses it as a counter point to thrust up against. The ache is glorious.

"So good, so fucking good," he growls, and she clenches around him again. "God, yeah," he groans. "Just so. Fuck, I love you like this. On your back, legs spread, working it like the fucking pro you are."

Natasha's stomach tightens with something that's got nothing to do with pleasure, and the feeling is so unexpected she doesn't know quite what to do with it. She waits for it to pass, but it doesn't. She tries to breathe past the thing that's suddenly expanding in her chest. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. It’s nothing. Just words. Words they've played around with before, in previous scenes like this, and they never bothered her then. Not like this.

Breathe.

Breathe.

They mean nothing. 

Clint moves against her, keeps spilling those words onto her skin, and the feeling inside grows and grows, and it’s cold and hard, the pressure of it nothing like Clint’s warm, solid weight. She closes her eyes. They’re just words, part of the game. They mean nothing

"Look at you, just look, all wide open and—"

"Pan-pan," she says.

Clint freezes for a moment, just for a moment, then slides her legs down and gets to the head of the bed and starts on the knots, the ones she knows are tied so they will unravel in a matter of seconds. He looks down at her, his fingers working by feel.

"You okay? Nat?"

Then she's free. She pulls her hands away and sits up.

"Fine." The black rope falls to the bed between them. She twists and swings her legs over the edge of the bed. She sits there with her back to him. “I’m fine.”

The bed settles behind her. "You don’t look fine. Did I hurt you?"

"I'm fine.“ Her chest aches with something that wants to break out, something scary and big and… She gets to her feet and pulls her skirt down over her thighs.

"Natasha…  

She adjusts her bra and arranges the blouse. Her inside is churning but her hands are steady as she starts to work on the buttons that have come undone. She keeps her back to him. "I’m going to go."

"Natasha, wait.”

"Don't," she says, and it comes out cold and hard. She smoothes her blouse down with her hands and heads out of the bedroom. She hears him get off the bed and follow her, but he doesn't come closer than the bedroom doorway. 

"Do you-- Do you want me to call someone?"

She pulls her coat on. No. She doesn’t want him to call someone.

He’s her someone.

His eyes are a tangible pressure between her shoulder blades, but he doesn’t speak again, doesn’t get up to touch or comfort, and she’s so grateful because her skin is tight with cheap and wrong, unfamiliar and terrifying, and she doesn’t want him to touch that. He doesn’t move when she walks out the door. She knows it’s killing him, but that’s the rule she put down the first time.

If she walks, he doesn’t follow.

Chapter Text

Other People - chapter 2

Natasha drives. It’s late enough that traffic is light and she’s in Bethesda before she pulls over and stops at the edge of an unmanned gas station. It’s deserted and she digs out a few wet wipes from the glove compartment, cleans herself up as best she can. She still feels sticky. 

There are two messages on her phone. Sent just minutes after she left.

Call me

Please

She tosses the phone on the passenger seat and leans against the cool driver side window. The thing in her chest is still there, hungry and restless. It was just a game. A stupid, goddamn game. Words. Get a grip, Romanoff, it's just words. No worse than the ones she sometimes hears in the field, the ones that slide off her as easily as her clothes. She rubs at her eyes. Her reputation, or a whisper-game version of it, had preceded her to Shield, and there had been ugly whispers and glances and outright staring, but those things hadn't bothered her either. She knows Clint beat a few of them to the ground for saying the wrong thing around him, and it hadn't taken long before it stopped. She had told him, irritated, that if she cared she would have taken care of them herself, she didn't need a protector. She honestly doesn’t care what other people say.

Only Clint isn’t other people. She's not sure he's has ever been that. At first he'd been someone who disobeyed orders and brought her in to SHIELD like a stray instead of taking her out. It had taken quite some time for her to decide if she was grateful or resented him for it. Then he'd become someone who was sent out with her on jobs. Eventually that 'someone' had turned into a team mate, had turned into her Strike Team Delta partner, had turned into someone she trusted with her life. She's sure it says profound things about her psyche that it had taken years longer to get to the point where she started trusting him with other things. 

They started having sporadic sex long before that, and she'd been the one to initiate it. She has never been one of those women who needs an emotional, romantic connection. It's how she prefers it, and she knows she can trust Clint not to complicate it with expectations outside of this. This. Physical enjoyment. Sometimes lazy and unhurried, but more often rough and hard, borderline brutal. The particular flavor that Clint had picked tonight is a familiar thing they have played at several times before, Clint's monologue included, and she has never reacted like this before. She's above that. What was the difference tonight? She just doesn’t know, and that feels like a dangerous thing.

She closes her eyes. How much damage did she leave behind? She’d taken off without a word of explanation, leaving him sexed up and confused, no doubt thinking the worst, thinking he had broken her somehow, done something bad. She pulls her coat closer around her, crosses her arms tightly over her chest. The thought of being seen as breakable by anyone when she isn't actively trying to project that impression doesn't sit well with her.

She sits there as the steady stream of insomniac big rigs rumble by on the interstate. She doesn't want to move. The blinking light of an airplane crawls across the sky. A car drives up to one of the pumps, fills up and drives away. When the silence in the car starts grating at her skin, she reaches over and turns the radio on. It comes to life just as the headlights of a car sweep slowly over her. She looks up. A police cruiser rolls by, and she knows she has to move unless she wants to attract unwanted attention. In her line of work, pretty much all police attention is unwanted, even if you’re just sitting at gas station doing nothing at all.

The cruiser disappears around a corner and she turns the ignition, wraps her hands around the steering wheel. She suddenly wants to cry so badly she’s aching with it, and she doesn't recognize this, doesn't recognize herself in the downdraft of emotion that's pulling her in unfamiliar and frightening directions. 

*  *  *  *  *

She goes back. Of course she goes back, she doesn't avoid her problems. But she sits in the dark stairwell leading up to his floor for half an hour before standing up and climbing the last few steps. By then she's mostly back to herself.

She stops in front of his door. The key is warm in her pocket. She doesn't use it, instead she lifts her hand and knocks. When he opens the door he’s got a towel in his hand. His hair is damp, crazy.

"Can I come in?" She doesn't meet his eyes straight on, looks past him into the room behind him.  

"Of course." He steps aside and opens the door wide. 

She remembers the girl he’d roused at three in the morning and hustled into a taxi before she was even fully awake, because Natasha had showed up on his doorstep, with a brand new row of stitches. She remembers showing up drunk. Showing up sick. Mean. Messed up. He hasn’t always been happy about her state, but she’s always been welcome. Every time. So, yes, she knows he won't turn her away. It just feels like… like maybe this is the time he really should. He deserves better than this. 

She stands awkwardly by the door for a moment, doesn’t know where to start. Normally Clint would say something like: what, you waiting for a red carpet or something? This time he just waits. She steps in and closes the door behind her.

With a sigh she walks to the kitchen area, and he follows. While he gets juice from the fridge and pours two glasses, she debates whether she should stand or sit for this. He puts one down on the breakfast bar for her, then returns to the counter and leans his hip against it. His presence in the kitchen is carefully neutral, but she can feel the undercurrent of worry in the air. 

"I’m-" She stops and clears her throat. 

"Natasha-"

She holds up her hand. "No, let me say this."

"You don't have to."

"I know." 

Clint looks at her like he wants to say something. Then he nods. "Okay."

"I’m sorry for taking off like that. It wasn’t fair."

He shakes his head. "Don’t worry about it. Are you okay?"

She looks down at the glass she's cradling in her hands. "I don’t know. Probably not."

"Anything I can do?" 

She sighs. "I don’t know," she says again. 

"Okay."

The silence stretches between them. She feels empty and colorless.

"Natasha."

She doesn’t answer.

"Did I miss something? Did you try to tell me?"

She lifts her eyes and looks at him, really looks at him for the first time since she used her safeword. He’s scared. It’s there in the way he holds his shoulders now, the way he doesn’t want to meet her eyes, but does anyway.

She glances over her shoulder towards the open bedroom door. The darkness in there is deep and safe in a way that the brightly lit kitchen isn’t.

She gets up. "Come."  

"Natasha…"

She knows what he’s thinking, that she means for them to start where they left off. She knows equally well that he’s not going to do that. Not after this.

She shakes her head. "Not that."

She turns off the light in the living room as she passes and the small apartment falls deeper into shadow. His footsteps are soft against the floor as he follows her to the bedroom. It’s dark, but she can see in the reflected light from the street lamps below that he has thrown the covers back over the bed. She sits down on the far side. When she looks over her shoulder, he’s still standing by the door, a dark shadow against an even darker backdrop.

"Come lie down."

He hesitates, but finally moves to the bed. She lies down on her side. The mattress dips as he lies down, too. The room goes very silent.

There’s a good foot and a half of empty space between them. His face is hidden in shadows, all she sees is a glint of light reflected in his eyes. She hears a lone car pass by on the street below and wishes for the briefest of moments that she was in it, because she’s not good at this.

But this is Clint, whom she trusts more than anyone in the world, both with her life and her secrets, and she owes him. She owes him so much more, but... it's hard. 

"You didn’t hurt me," she finally says. "And you didn’t miss anything."

He waits.

"I didn’t— It was fine. I liked it. A lot."

"But?" He prompts when she doesn’t continue.   

She closes her eyes. "Then... I didn’t like it when you said… certain things."

"Okay." She can hear from his voice that he’s thinking back to their earlier activity. "Can you be a little more specific?" It's a genuine question, he'll accept a no. 

She doesn't want to be more specific, it goes against everything she's ever been taught to show this kind of weakness, but she tries.

"I know who I am out there. Who I become when I... " She swallows around the tightness that grows in her throat. "But it’s work." Her voice betrays her and starts to wobble under the heavy ache that presses down on her. "I don’t want you to look at me and see… that.”

Clint lies dead still for a moment, "I don’t—" He rolls over on his back and presses the heels of his palms against his eyes. "Jesus, Nat," he breathes. "I don’t. I swear." She hears him blow out a very measured breath before turning back to her. "It was just a stupid— I don’t. You know I don’t."

She concentrates on her own breathing. 

"You know I don’t, right?"

She nods.

She does. Every hour of every day she knows that he doesn’t hold that part of her past and present against her. Doesn’t think less of her. But for the briefest of moments that knowledge had drowned in the words he’d spilled over her skin.

He nods. "Okay. New rule. None of that."

She feels the need to explain. "It has never bothered me before. I don’t know why this time was different.”

“Doesn’t matter. It was different and that’s fine.

Her throat feels tight again. It doesn’t feel fine. It feels like she failed something. It’s not logical, but that’s what it feels like. Like she failed. He reaches over in the darkness and his hand comes to rest against her cheek, light, ready to withdraw should it not be welcome. But it is welcome, so welcome.

“Natasha. It’s fine.”

She lift her hands and presses his warm palm hard against her cheek. Hot tears start running. 

"Oh, sweetie,” he sighs and pulls her close.

She knows the surprising endearment should annoy her, it's not what they do, who they are, but it doesn't, it just makes it easier to give in to the crushing need for comfort.

He doesn’t say anything about the way she clings to his hand and cries silent wetness into his shirt, and she loves him fiercely for it. He’s just there, as always. A safe, solid presence, his arm around her until she’s cried out. Even after she runs out of tears, it takes time before the painful tension in her chest finally eases into something manageable. Something less devastating.

She lies there and hears the steady beat of his heart under her ear. Numbness seeps in. It's a welcome thing after the onslaught of foreign, unexpected emotions. 

"I think I should eat something," she mumbles when Clint's phone chirps quietly from somewhere in the dark bedroom and her little bubble of disconnect pops.

She feels Clint nod against her hair. "I think so, too.”

He gets up, brings one of his hoodies over and helps her thread her arms through the sleeves.

“I’m not a child,” she tells him quietly. 

“I know.” He zips it up and pulls the hood up over her head. It’s warm and soft and smells of fabric softener. He holds up a pair of sweatpants. “Wanna trade the skirt for these?”

Yes. She does. She’s cold. She gets to her feet, unzips the skirt and shimmies out of it. Clint helps her on with the sweatpants. They’re way too big for her, but they have a draw string waist so they won’t fall down. She holds on to him as he kneels and pulls socks on her feet. 

She trails him to the kitchen and sits down as he digs around in his fridge for something to eat. She feels heavy. She's crashing. Hard. 

"Um." He looks back at her over his shoulder. "Milk and cereal, or Hellmann’s mayo?"

"Tough one." Her smile feels pale, but real. "I think I’ll go with option number one.”

"Excellent choice, Mademoiselle." He pulls out the milk and cereal, gets bowls and spoons. He brings the glass of juice he’d poured her, the one she’d hardly touched.

They eat in silence. She’s almost finished when she looks up to see him studying the soggy remains of his Cheerios very intently.

"Clint?"

He doesn't look up. He's tense again. "You didn’t agree to something you didn’t feel like doing, did you? Just 'cause…" He shrugs. "I don’t know, 'cause it’s my birthday?" He sounds almost embarrassed for suggesting that his birthday might be important enough to her to do something outside of her comfort zone.

"I wanted it."

His shoulders slump a little with relief. "Okay. Okay, that’s good."

She gets to her feet and collects both their bowls to rinse them out, but he intercepts her and picks them from her hands. 

"I’ll take care of that. You look like you’re about to drop."

"Feel like it, too," she admits.

"My bed is closer," he says as he rinses the bowls and loads them into the dishwasher. "But I'll drive you home if you want to." 

She shakes her head. No, she doesn’t want to go back to her apartment.

"Okay. I can take the couch," he offers.

She almost rolls her eyes. "I’m not kicking you out of your own bed, Clint." 

He dries his hands on his jeans and shrugs. "It’s comfortable."

"I've slept in the same bed as you I don't know how many times. I'm sure I’ll survive one more." A sudden shiver runs through her and she pulls the overly large hoodie closer around her. She knows it's the fatigue. "Do I still have a toothbrush here?" 

"I think so. Check the cabinet under the sink. You know where everything is if you want to take a shower."

The bathroom is next to the bedroom and she snags a towel from the closet outside. He has exactly two. She showers quickly and finds the toothbrush right where he said it would be. When she comes out again, Clint is sitting on the bed, one leg pulled up under himself, checking his phone.

"Work?" she asks.

He looks up. "What? Oh. No, just checking my mail and stuff." He points to the other side of the bed. Her side when she stays the night. A t-shirt lies folded there. And a pair of gym shorts. Draw-stringed. "You can sleep in those if you want."

"Thanks."

He nods in the general direction of the bathroom. "Done in there?"

"All yours." 

He tucks the phone in his back pocket and heads to the bathroom. Natasha changes into the t-shirt and shorts, turns out all the lights but a small one next to Clint’s side of the bed, then curls up under the covers. She's so tired her head feels like it's buzzing. A few minutes later the bathroom door open and she expects him to return and get into bed. But he passes the bedroom door and a moment later she sees the light from the TV flicker on the wall. The volume goes down until it's barely audible.

He appears in the doorway, leans against the frame. “You gonna be alright?” 

"Yes. You’re not sleeping?" 

"Nah. Brain is still on Honolulu time. I’ll watch some TV and maybe get started on my report."

"Okay." She pulls the sheet up around her and he turns to leave. "Clint?"

"Yeah?" 

"This wasn’t a very good end to your birthday. I’m sorry."  

"Nothing to apologize for." The look in his eyes is very serious and very sincere, and she nods. Maybe she can believe him just a little.

He watches her for a few seconds, then the side of his mouth starts twitching minutely. He comes into the bedroom and flops down on his side next to her, props his chin up on his hand.

"Actually, now that you mention it, maybe I’m feeling a little upset."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah. Maybe I’m experiencing a little top drop."  

"Mm-hmm."

"Know what might help me get over it?"

"Do tell."

"Chocolate."

"Chocolate?"

He shrugs one shoulder. "I’m not a complicated man, I told you."

Natasha laughs under her breath and pats his cheek. "Keep telling yourself that." She pushes him away. "I think I have a Snickers bar in my purse. Feel free to go get it." She strongly suspects he already knew it was there.

He bounces to his feet. "Yesss!" He’s out the door and halfway across the living room floor when he stops and abruptly turns back. By the time he’s back his grin has segued into something low-key and terribly fond.  

"Night, Nat."

"Night, Clint."

He pulls the door closed, but leaves it open an inch. She hears him hum Happy Birthday under his breath on his way to her purse.

 

~ The End ~